The Vaunted weren’t just arrogant bastards, they were liars. They’d murdered half their species in the quest for immortality in the mental plane, yet not content with just killing their brethren, they’d sought out a way to kill even the idea of them. When they tore open crypt-space, and it began to absorb physical matter, all those dead minds got a little taste of existence again. A sort of hope flowered in that tomb of the soul, and it grew into revenge. It’s things like this that make it really hard to trust people. We were now fighting a war on every front: our dreamers in their petal-ships were deployed across the stars, pressing crypt-space intrusions back inside their rifts. When we’d sought out our own dead we’d brought crypt-space to Earth too, where we fought its newly incarnated Vaunted in the streets. We even now faced them in the ownworld. It looked a lot like we were utterly fucked.
Existing consciously in the real world and the ownworld is taxing – two sets of sensations layered on top of each other. In one moment I manifested a steel-jawed shark lunging up out of the concrete to snap its teeth shut around a Vaunted that was attacking Scoro, in the next moment I witnessed a fight between the Vaunted in my mind. It was confusing. Both situations really did require all of my attention, so I was flipping between them, half-second at a time. My existence in both realms flickered like strobe lights. The newly reborn Vaunted were clawing their way out of the rift in Elevator City. Buildings collapsed as the rift siphoned up all available matter: concrete, steel, people and turned them into whatever was pressing most keenly against the real world from within crypt-space. There was a lot more human stuff than we’d seen created out in space. We’d suspected that when crypt-space bulged with matter and split, it did so where minds existed, and perhaps whatever passed for awareness in crypt-space still kept tabs on where their homes had been. The flow of Vaunted was almost matched by the ridiculous piles of human artefacts that heaped up. The battle was a distraction from the junkshop magpie that awakened in me for a second, as I recognised Roman columns, toys half familiar from entertainment shows, an implausible gyrocopter smashed into the street, hats, half a chemistry lab, and at last… people. Whenever we’d fought crypt-space before, living beings had been spat out as part of the overflowing stuff, but they’d all died almost immediately in the vacuum of space. Here, like the Vaunted who were forcing their way in, they lived once more. As long as they weren’t immediately crushed by the rest of the junk that was suddenly given physical form once more, or the collapsing city around them. They were pushed out of the rift in the same way you might shove a sofa out of a window, to topple helpless to the ground, on new and uncertain legs, shocked at suddenly being more than disembodied and silenced thought. The Vaunted didn’t take kindly to these humans taking up physical space that could have been theirs. We leapt to their defence, erecting diamond shields around them, their outer layer dagger-sharp (I mean, why not – the oneirocytes allowed our unravelling imaginations to create whatever we felt was needed at that moment), and mashed the Vaunted against them with rearing mastodons formed out of the city’s structure. Colonel Lindsmane and his men had ignored much of our entreaties to get the fuck out of there. Fighting’s what soldiers do, but even more importantly they defend. While they had mostly kept a sensible distance from us, as they saw that we were as intent on ripping the city apart as crypt-space, but the sight of the returned humans spurred them into real action. Some wild piloting brought a series of zerocopters swooping in under the arcs of dissolving matter that were being funnelled through the air towards crypt-space, and hovered while the men on board hauled the revenants onboard. We diverted as much resource as we could to protecting their mission, but there was no end to the flood of Vaunted stomping onto our planet. This wasn’t even the only rift on Earth, and we were getting no closer to stopping them.
Back in the ownworld, the Vaunted bubble-man and its murdered kin were still bickering while the fighting raged on outside. This wasn’t the realm that the dead Vaunted had ever wanted to occupy, but their disembodied cousins had forced them into the land of the dead, and there they’d learned much about how to function in the mental plane. This wasn’t their mind though – we’d inadvertently invited them in when we created a door into crypt-space for Vasselt to return through – this was Vasselt’s world, and she began to assert herself. When she’d clawed her way back into reality, she’s appeared to be glitching, a black cloud diffused her form, but it was fading fast as the ownworld remembered her, relinking to the memory of her existence. And we were there to help, reinforcing her with our own memories of her, from the first time we’d met on Qoth, watching an implausible winged fat-bird slam into the transparent outer wall of the compound. Even that memory of her laughing seemed to strengthen her, and she took on colour as the distortions faded. With a snarl, and a wave of her fist, a shard of her porcelain ownworld curled up out of the ground, flinging the Vaunted bubble-man up and out of the ownworld entirely. She could have just told him to leave, but she was regaining her anger along with her presence. Vasselt faced the returned Vaunted, with its waving arms and gaping mouth, and – with a cry – vanished. She’s just slipped out of the ownworld, and was gone. I didn’t know if it was something the Vaunted had done, but I mustered my will to respond on her behalf. The living Vaunted had betrayed us, the dead Vaunted wanted revenge on their brothers, and we were in the way. Two wrongs don’t make a right and all that. As far as I was concerned, both lots were the bad guys now. Before I could take a stand, we received more bad news. From Qothima and the Li, reports that rifts had opened up on their homeworlds too – likely the entire chain was under attack. Our petal-ships in deep space had abandoned their missions and were racing for home. But there were nothing like enough dreamers here to repel the invaders. Even on Li, the rifts were consuming great chunks of that being’s living matter, and all the weaponry the Li had could only be made of itself in an auto-cannibalistic orgy of war. It looked even more like we were fucked.
No matter how bad things seem, they can always get worse. Even as Elevator City dissolved under the combined onslaught of crypt-space and our weapons, a hundred other places on our worlds suffered similar invasions. Though they were without the benefit of much defence, save on Li, the Tel space fleet, and Qoth. Even when we could fight, we began to lose. Hessex died first, crushed underneath a collapsing building as crypt-space hungrily undermined its foundations, soon followed by three of our human dreamers. We felt them all blink out of existence, their avatars vanishing from the ownworld, transcending into the crypt-space realm we were fighting against. It surely couldn’t get much worse, but it did. The Tel dreamers in the space stations orbiting Earth reported it first: a vast intrusion into our solar system. The Beast had arrived, and we could see it for ourselves. Where once our Moon had hung in the sky, visible in the day as a peaceful white disc, now the form of the Beast filled the sky, striding through space towards us. Our fleet might have been far away, but we had one petal-ship in orbit. The Tel dreamers piled on board and used the pod systems to launch their attack. But if we had been unable to stop it, or even prevent it from creating itself with our whole fleet, a single petal-ship had little chance. But what else can you but fight? It seemed we were doomed to fail.
Across the vast distance of space our dreaming warriors were present in ourworld, crying out at the assaults on their homeworlds, but too far away to physically intervene. The Vaunted, sensing our distraction (I and the other dreamers on Earth were doubly, or perhaps trebly distracted with the fighting in Elevator City) turned back to the open door into crypt-space and reached inside, arms distending improbably as it hauled another of its kin into the ownworld. We needed to shut that door, and end these motherfuckers. Like Vasselt, they only existed in the mental realm, foisting themselves on our network. G, our Qoth dreamer leapt forward, enraged by what he felt from his Qoth kin on their homeworld, summoning the force of his faith. The god-star, always present in the ownworld from the sheer certainty of Qoth belief, glowed darkly in the sky, pulsing with the Qoth rage. The door to crypt-space slammed shut, disintegrating under the black heat of the god-star. The dead Vaunted who had been reaching into the doorway recoiled, its mental grasp of itself shaken as it looked at its amputated arms where the doorway had shut.
“They’ll kill you too,” it hissed as G slammed the force of the god-star down onto the Vaunted, shattering it into a million flecks of black dust.
“Well that was interesting,” Gex commented, as the black dust faded away.
In space around the Earth the Beast tore our only petal-ship apart, even while its creations smashed its weird-elbowed arms to pieces. Without the minds behind them, the nano matter objects drifted off, or into the maw of the gigantic creature. Now we knew that the Beast had taken on the shape of the Vaunted’s physical form, it made sense that they’d seized control of crypt-space from within – natural tyrants perhaps, twisting even the realm of the dead into a weapon of revenge. Those fucking Vaunted: they’d started all of this, dragged us into it, and now apparently fucked off to let us take the damage that resulted. Perhaps they’d already fled, correctly ascertaining the capacity of the mortal worlds for revenge ourselves. Revenge, justice, or punishment? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes they’re all the same thing. Even as we died in the street, the rainbow membranes of the Vaunted returned. They arced through space and onto our worlds, appearing as twisted curtains of force that sank through buildings and deep into the Earth, anchoring themselves as a web of glittering vanes speared through space, slicing into the Beast as it ripped away at the orbital platforms. If it was possible to roar in space, I was sure we’d have heard it. The bubble-men’s lances of light cut cleanly through the Beast’s arms and the strange blend of inside-out crypt-space that they were made of uncoiled out of existence. It didn’t stop though, and the Vaunted clawing over the wreckage of Elevator City didn’t slow down either. Between us we’d burrowed down into the bedrock in our race to consume matter to power either our weapons or our very existence, in the case of crypt-space. We fought now in a ragged crater, filled with wreckage, the dead, and the newly reborn. There were only four of us left now, Gex, Scoro, myself and G. The flowing shield of blades and violence we’d built around us was being assailed by the sheer weight of Vaunted undead, exercising their return to flesh with ardour. We were out of time.
It was the Qoth who saved us all. Inspired by the effect of the god-star in the ownworld and G’s example of using it to crush the Vaunted and the doorway into the land of the dead, Qothima itself joined us in ourworld. The programme that the Geiliiish had been working on, to create enough oneirocytes that ultimately all of the Qoth could have direct, personal access to the god-star, had been underway for a few years, equipping millions of Qoth with the tools to enter their ownworld, which for them was a pure spiritual experience of communing with their god. They took everything we’d done a step further, borrowing power from everyone in the ownworld network. On Earth, our shield faltered as the Qoth seized our oneirocytes, on Li, every cell in every organism on the planet froze, and every mind in the network appeared in the ourworld, eyes fixed on the god-star hanging above us. Its black glow intensified, and it swelled with the focused attention of our minds. And then the Qoth pushed it into the real world.
The star at the heart of the Qoth’s home solar system had been destroyed by crypt-space, consumed to feed the murdered Vaunted’s desire for revenge. But the Qoth, once they’d stolen our nano parasites (and once we’d dug in and rescued them), had discovered that their beloved god-star lived on inside every one of them. Its existence reinforced and their beliefs justified by their faith in it. And now it emerged into the physical universe like a dandelion clock being blown back together. A new star blazed into existence in the sky, its dark shroud in the ownworld evaporating as it took on its natural brilliance. They – we – summoned it into life beyond the circuit that our chain of planets followed, millions of miles away so as not to instantly incinerate all life on Earth. As it flared into solidity, it consumed the Beast, ripping its imaginary matter into the fuel the god-star’s atomic heart ran on. Across Elevator City, the many-armed Vaunted burst into flames and their smoke and ashes wound up into the sky, drawn inexorably into the god-star. The same occurred on all the planets under Vaunted assault – our enemies burned away by the light of the Qoth’s faith as the god-star returned to its physical existence. As an idea, when the god-star was originally consumed by crypt-space, the concept of it had transcended the mental realm into crypt-space as a mere shell of itself. Now, the Qoth had brought it back and it was using crypt-space to rebuild itself.
In the crater of Elevator City, our minds returned to us with a shocking hangover. Our shield had evaporated while our attention was elsewhere, but our battleground was empty of the enemy – just wisps of smoke rising high into the sky. The crypt-space rift was visibly shrinking, having stopped stealing matter and pouring nonsense ideas back out into the world. Just before it finally closed, G said, “watch now.” And we did. The rift convulsed one last time, coughing out a gaggle of ragged-looking figures. Then we ran towards them. They were all holding hands, right along the chain of human, Tel and Qoth staggering in their newly re-created bodies. Some of them had only been dead for minutes, but dying is pretty disorienting, or so they tell me. In the lead was Vasselt, fully alive once more.
“I went back to save the dreamers,” she said. And she had – those in our network who had fallen in this battle, and the petal-ship we’d lost when we encountered the Beast. “I found everyone I could. When you opened the doorway to crypt-space it woke up the ghosts of the oneirocyte network. The Qoth gave us just enough time to escape.”
G was just standing there, staring at the god-star in the sky. As they recovered from their ordeal, so did the other Qoth dreamers.
“G… I can’t feel you in the ownworld any more,” I said, realising I could no longer sense my friend’s mind, “I can’t feel any of you.”
“We don’t need it any more,” G replied, raising one furry arm to the heavens, “that’s the only ownworld we ever wanted.”
With the effort of resurrecting the alien star the Qoth had burned out their oneirocytes. Their beliefs told them that the god-star was the place they went when they died, and now their souls had a destination again.
“They’re all there now – all of the dead,” G continued. “The god-star has taken them all.”
Crypt-space’s intrusions into reality were gone, all the rifts closed and at last sealed once more. We’d undone what the Vaunted had attempted. Their rainbow shapes still hung in the sky, and their anchors still penetrated the Earth, great glimmering membranes that reached down into the ground nearby. Still hanging around. One of their bubble-men materialised in our midst. In marked contrast to their usual demeanour, this one was furious.
“What have you done? Crypt-space is empty!” it cried, shaking its little bubble fists. I looked at G, our main Qoth representative.
“Crypt-space is empty because the god-star has claimed all the souls that were lost there. Now they are found,” G declared, looming over the bubble-man, his fur puffed up and claws twitching angrily. “Now they are safe, and you can never reach them again.”
“How dare you. We saved you, and your pathetic mortal worlds–“
“–after putting us in danger and fucking up the galaxy, you absolute prick.” Gex finished for it.
The sense of power flexed – the mental affecting the physical – and the rainbow spears into the Earth began to move, burrowing deeper into our planet.
A small voice called out from inside the ownworld: “I don’t think so.” It was Doctor C, or the Unity, or whatever they wanted to call themselves, re-entering the network. They stood in the centre of my ownworld, my peaceful trees twisting endlessly upward around them. She held one of the bubble-men by the centre of its chest, or rather she’d impaled it with her arm. She turned to me, as the Vaunted she’d caught jerked and spasmed against the contact. “We’re leaving you now Evanith. Hest and I, and the others.” She smiled, “We’re taking what the Vaunted had, and they’ll never bother you again.” She clenched her fist and the bubbles that made up the little man began to pop, its substance frothing onto her skin which she absorbed. As the Vaunted deliquesced out of existence, her grin only intensified and her skin took on an oily rainbow sheen.
“The hell you are,” I declared, and speared her to the ground – right through the foot I’d dropped the shears onto, all those years before. Her scream, of pain and outrage shook the ownworld. Whatever part of the Vaunted mental space she’d just hijacked, she wasn’t in control of it yet. I summoned assistance; Gex and Scoro appeared and slammed further spikes through her, pinning her into the ownworld.
“How many of you are there really? How many did you murder to form the Unity?” I demanded.
“You’ll never know,” she snarled, and then began to scream.
The Li had arrived, in the form of a drifting jellyfish made of cutlery, and Hessex returned to the ownworld, freshly reincorporated into the real world with them.
“The Unity cannot be permitted to take the powers of the Vaunted,” Hessex said. “We offer you a choice: either reincorporate, or cease to exist.”
Of course, the Tel knew exactly where the Unity’s tangle of brain wool was. After the Vaunted stole them from Project Tutu’s frozen facilities on Earth, they’d refused to tell us what they’d done with the Unity. They’d been in the ownworld network, but that hadn’t given us a clue about where they were physically, and since they were just a mass of neural string it was hard to remember they hadn’t transcended to the purely mental. Just like the Vaunted, they were still anchored, however faintly to the real world. They were the last people I’d trust to have the kind of power the Vaunted wielded. Hell, I certainly didn’t trust the Vaunted to wield those powers either.
Doctor C, or the avatar of the Unity or whatever she was now, rippled, testing the mental bonds we’d applied. She wasn’t going anywhere. The rest of the Unity’s avatars turned up. All two of them: Hest, and the other one whose name I’d never bothered to learn. They attacked us immediately, sending arcing chains of blades towards me and Gex. But the Unity lacked our experience of exerting ourselves in both the real and mental realms. Those chains shattered before they even got close. The Li immobilised them. It looked like the three of them really were all the real entities inside the Unity. Appalling. They’d murdered hundreds to build their bullshit chalet-world. They really were just like the Vaunted, who it seemed like they had just murdered too.
“Well, I guess you’ve made your choice,” I said.
In the real world, the Tel incinerated the physical mess of nanowires that supported the Unity, burning it to ash. In the ownworld they screamed and cracked, and crumbled and were gone.
We’d won. Crypt-space was gone, and the Vaunted had disappeared – possibly forever. Their legacy had changed the destiny of the human race and a dozen other species. The arm of the galaxy we used to hang out in was a stranger to us, our solar system ground into dust by crypt-space. But our worlds were now locked into an unnatural but stable orbit around the trinary stars the Vaunted had created for us..2 A new star created by the sheer power of our united minds hung out beyond our orbital ring, the god-star, patiently waiting to be a home for the Qoth souls when they died. And maybe a home for all of us. All of our billions of dead lived on inside it, and one day perhaps we’d join them. But for now, we had a real world to repair, and a universe to explore together. With twelve species working together, we’d build a better galaxy than the Vaunted ever managed. Unless we massively screwed it up of course. And that was always an option, even the smartest people fucked up sometimes, and the more powerful they were, the worse the mistake. But for now…
“Right, I think we all deserve to get absolutely wankered,” Gex declared, and we off we went in search of the nearest bar that was still standing.