It was the hubris of the Vaunted that had wrecked the boundary between the living world and the dead realm of thoughts divorced from flesh. Their continued quest for a way to end their slight dependence on physical form – even if that form was by then just a whisper of rainbow light hanging in the space between stars – had led them to tear space apart looking for those ideas that no longer had form. In doing so they’d spilled crypt-space back into the real world. A seemingly infinite dimension of the universe where every idea, mind and disembodied thought ended up when their incarnate bodies slipped away and were recycled back into the rest of the physical universe. They were the authors of all our misfortunes, from the decimation of Earth’s population while they whisked our world out of its home solar system away from the emergence of crypt-space between our outer planets, to the present dismantling of whole star systems to fuel our war against what they unleashed.
Not that I resented our new friends in the solar daisy chain they’d inserted us into. But you’re allowed to have a good holiday while still being pissed off that you were grabbed from the street, stuffed into a car boot where you spent weeks in darkness before emerging, blinking, into the sunny sight of a tropical beach. Aren’t metaphors great. We spent most of our time in the war juggling metaphors, translating the basic idea of “I want to smash that thing” into fantastical beasts that were sometimes larger than whole moons. It was working, even if it wasn’t sealing shut the rifts, and we didn’t yet have an idea about how to go after the Beast – the crypt-space rift that had inverted itself and become the maw of a space-striding monster. A monster that was slowly but surely making its way to our little trinary solar system. For now though, we were technically on a break from battling wild space dreams. The mortal losses we’d suffered against crypt-space were light, as long as you discounted the original annihilation of our home solar systems. In the case of humans that was really just a bunch of planets we hadn’t found a way to live on, and our Moon. For the Hellevance they’d lost contact with the rest of their civilisation, spread out across its neighbouring systems. In the case of our twelfth, dead planet, they’d lost everything. And yet we’d only lost ten dreamers to the void in space. Quite a lot more of us were struggling with the constant psychological wear, even if our bodies were protected and supported by their cocoons. Those nano baths were as perfect a creation as anything, and yet I still swear they made me itch. War grinds you down, even if you’re winning.
Once I’d discovered that Vasselt – one of our dreamers lost in the first battle against crypt-space –was still able, if tenuously, to access the ownworld that she and her oneirocyte had created, I could think of nothing else but trying to get her back. When we shared my memory of her with the Council of Twelve, opinions were divided. No one had heard of the dead genuinely returning to the world of the living. Even though all the species had various myths and legends of resurrection, they weren’t really taken seriously. Even on Earth, twenty years of darkness had given our salvation myths a kicking, especially when our saviours turned out to be the Vaunted, who were no one’s idea of Jesus. Most declared it impossible – it was probable that the shadow of Vasselt I’d seen was an artefact of our oneirocyte network’s facility for expressing the imagination and unconscious desires of its contributors and hosts. The Vaunted had a stronger reaction. They expressly forbade us to attempt to make contact with the shadow, and proposed excising the dead ownworlds from our shared experience entirely. That really hacked off the dreamers who were our frontline in this war. Words were had, led largely by Gex as usual who remained our preferred blunt diplomat for dealing with the Vaunted.
“One, get fucked. And two, get the fuck out of our ownworld,” Gex summed up our feelings adroitly.
Thus banished, we dreamers were left with the rest of the oneirocyte network. Qoth, Tel, and the latest inclusions to the ownworlds: the Li. We’d been unable to offer much aid to the Li in their adoption of nano parasites until they figured out a way to integrate the technology in their disparate and widespread physical network. Since they already existed as a mental network, generated through the electrical fields that united every cell of living matter on their planet, it had been unclear what the oneirocytes could really do for them. When they finally did find a solution, it wasn’t much less horrifying than the Unity: the nano parasites had to be embedded in something, and although they might have been nanoscale in size, just putting a drop of them in each Li cell was both impractical and too little to achieve the desired result. Instead they’d created something new to house the nano parasites, a huge conglomeration of flesh on their homeworld, drifting in the oceans where a vast proportion of the Li-bearing organic life dwelled. Made sense, I guess. They’d manipulated their powers over the life of their world and basically started gluing it all together. I wasn’t very comfortable with the idea, but isn’t that just the joy of technology: you make a thing and someone else finds a terrifying thing to do with it. Oh, and also the Unity, since we’d allowed them into the greater ourworld after their work with the Tel and Calus to develop the petal-ships and matter converters we used in the war. These last two parties, the Li and the Unity were already projects that sought to never die, and never enter crypt-space to begin with. They had little interest in pulling anything else back from there. In the case of the Unity, I still strongly suspected that it only contained a handful of individuals who had murdered hundreds of others to use their partially nano infected brains as spare parts. Of course they didn’t want to go looking in crypt-space: they might find all the poor bastards they killed. The Li were harder to get a read on. They were a vast mind. They felt a bit like the Vaunted, although still solidly rooted in the physical world. Every plant, animal and single-celled organism on their planet was part of the Li. Despite their technically being comprising trillions of Li cells on their world, they only appeared here as the single mind they produced. Their sprawling avatar shrugged and vanished out of the ourworld. The Unity, in the shape of Doctor Hest, fucked off shortly afterwards, claiming they had better things to do that indulge our morbid curiosity.
Of all the pods of dreamers, ours was the only one at home. All the rest were engaged with crypt-space from their petal-ships. They faded away to fight their battles. Leaving the ten of us. Physically, we were still on Earth, hanging out in the quarters assigned to us during rest leave. We didn’t need to argue any further and we went off in search of Vasselt. Her shade was still flickering back and forth in her porcelain ownworld like a dark candle. She reminded me of our very first experiences in the ownworld, when Gex, Scoro and I were trying to link our dreamworlds together. All we had to do then was imagine a door that someone else could walk through. Could it be so straightforward? We weren’t entirely cavalier about this. There was a risk that this wouldn’t work, that it wasn’t really possible to have Vasselt returned to us. Maybe her shade was just a creation of the combined minds in the oneirocyte network, but maybe it wasn’t, and we wanted her – and the rest of her pod of dreamers – back. Crypt-space and the Vaunted had cost us too much. So we created a door, infused it with a welcome message for Vasselt, and invited her back into our minds.
It took a while, long enough for us to get bored and then excited again several times as the door’s edges appeared to shimmer, but nothing happened while we watched. Vasselt’s shade flickered in and out of existence before vanishing between one blink and the next. As with uniting our ownworlds, some things only happen in the corner of your eye. The door cracked open, a thin slice of blackness revealed beyond, possibly our first sight directly into crypt-space. It was the total absence of light, no mere darkness, this was a place where the possibility of light had never existed except in the minds of those who had ended up there. The crack opened wider, revealing still more blackness, and then Vasselt stumbled through. She was not quite herself – the scratchy distortions of her shade continued to assault her, and though she had a reassuring solidity, her mental image jerked back and forth, as if she were a beaded curtain assailed by the wind. She scanned us frantically, bursting into tears at the sight of her ownworld again. I knelt down to help raise her to her feet as she sobbed, “I’m sorry – I didn’t want to, but they made us.”
The door was still open behind her, and in the darkness another shadow uncoiled itself, reaching for the doorframe. With a shout, Hessex slammed it closed, sealing us off from crypt-space.
“It’s too late,” Vasselt said. “They’re already here.”
Alarms went off in the real world, a dizzying peal of sirens that half-jerked us out of the ownworld. Crypt-space had found us – by opening the door we’d shown them where we were, and how to find us. Had Vasselt betrayed us? Was this even really Vasselt? She seemed to anticipate such questions, and desperately choked back her tears to explain.
“It’s not what you think – we’re all still in there, the whole pod. Everything that’s ever been, but it’s not dead – it’s not random. They’re in control there as much as they are here. It’s the Vaunted, Evanith, crypt-space is full of Vaunted, and they’re trying to come back.”
We reeled in shock, but there was no time to hang around in the ownworld. We had no choice but to leave Vasselt there, dwelling in the spaces between our minds since she no longer had a body in the real world. It was a weird sensation, like going to sleep knowing that there’s someone living in your attic.
Crypt-space was here, and most of our dreamers were far, far away. Re-entering the physical world with its comfortable armchairs, soothing wallpaper and the angry scream of the alarms. All ten of us were together as someone burst into the room – Brigadier Lindsmane, yelling at us: “The rifts have opened here, right here on Earth.”
Fuck it, we’d only gone and pulled a Vaunted. We hurried out of the room after Lindsmane and the small army of soldiers who were now filling the halls. There was no doubt that we were headed into trouble – that’s the direction folks carrying guns run in. The corridor wall suddenly tore open, its matter dissolving into dust which was sucked out of the gap, along with half the soldiers nearest to it. Through the hole we could see another one of the migrainous fractures in reality, hoovering up physical stuff. It wasn’t a large rift like those we’d seen and fought in space, this was merely the size of a car, yet already shapes were beginning to pour out – a small flood of absurdly Earth-centric objects: a grandfather clock, a shower of flowers and more mundane human memories, heaping up next to the rift. And then something larger muscled its way through, materialising as it stepped over the threshold: many-armed, red eyes with a hungry looking hole in the middle of its body. The Beast?
I screamed at Lindsmane and his men to get as far away from us as possible. We were going to have to fight the thing here and now, without our petal-ship and its reserve of nano matter. Anything we built we’d have to rip out of the world around us. Dipping half into my ownworld I channelled my imagination and will into a hulking suit of armour around me and an enormous mace in my hands which came into existence just as it made contact with the crypt-space form. I tried not to pay attention to the building dissolving around us as my companions constructed their own weapons. The mace shattered the body of the crypt-space entity, but it wasn’t the only Beast here or even the only rift. And they were on our home planet – horrifyingly made of physical matter which they could subsume as fast as we could. More crypt-space monsters emerged onto Earth as the ground beneath all of our feet shuddered with the energies tearing the city apart. Hessex manifested a giant spike studded beast from its homeworld which stamped on the growing army of reincarnated dead. Because we weren’t in space any more where the resurrected dead immediately choked and died in vacuum. Here they were coming back for real.
A tremor in my mind distracted me from the desperate fight. Even as my physical body continued to lay about with weapons that sprouted from my hands as I needed them, I stepped half into the ownworld. That goddamn door was open again. Vasselt was watching it with horror as one of the many-armed creatures stepped through.
“That’s them,” she hissed, “they’re the Vaunted – it’s what they were before.”
Well, that made a horrifying kind of sense. With another effort of will I reached out and found one of our Vaunted – the faint smell of rainbow in my mind’s eye, and yanked it into Vasselt’s ownworld. It appeared in its usual form of a rainbow-hued bubble-man, and it was all blame.
“You fools,” it said, more animated than I’d ever seen it before, “you can’t be here.”
“The fuck is going on?” Gex spat, appearing next to me.
“They’re all Vaunted – we’re fighting the Vaunted’s dead.”
“Not just the dead,” the many-armed version of the Vaunted hissed, in a voice that sounded like broken glass falling from the sky. “The betrayed.” And it shared in an instant its own memories: the Vaunted, all in these many-armed bodies arguing, and then fighting, and then a civil war all of their own. It wasn’t clear at first what the war was about, but as we watched some of the Vaunted discarded their bodies, forming glimmering shapes in the sky that slashed through cities, leaving thousands dead. The newly de-fleshed Vaunted pressed the attack, mercilessly hunting down their physical brethren, exterminating them. Planets drifted, lifeless in space, rainbow membranes spearing away from them through the darkness.
“You absolute wankers. You killed your people so you could ascend to the mental realm, because what – they didn’t want to join you?”
“We could not be complete while tethered to the material species,” the Vaunted bubble-man muttered.
“And then they pursued us into crypt-space, hoping to kill even the remnants of our minds.”
Great. The Vaunted weren’t just arrogant bastards, they were arrogant genocidal bastards.
“But we’re back now, thanks to these humans, and we’ll hunt you all down in turn.” The dead Vaunted said in its shard-edged voice.
For fuck’s sake, I genuinely hadn’t thought that things could get worse. Optimism is for suckers.