Archive

Stolen Skies – Part Thirty (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

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 off 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 – at most 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 trillions of Li cells on their world, they only appeared here as the single mind they represented. 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.

We waited.

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 small shower of flower 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.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Nine (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

“The great thing about war is how it really drives technological progress forward.” The Lesved had flipped into lecturing mode when we returned from our abject failure against crypt-space. We’d lost an entire petal ship containing its pod of ten dreamers – we’d felt their shock and horror through the ownworld network as they were consumed by the rift in space and converted into their base atoms, turned into some dead life that fell back into the real world. We hadn’t even been close to the rift, we’d thought we were safe, that we could prosecute this war at a distance. That this might be the first war ever where there were no casualties. We were wrong about that, and I wondered if we were wrong about everything. But the Lesved were still banging about something from their tanks filled with red liquid (it’s not for nothing that less kind humans had dubbed them “vamps”), their weird spatulate hands and feet waving for emphasis.

“But that progress cannot be controlled or limited. We developed these tools for manipulating matter, and crypt-space has responded. The escalation from this point cannot be predicted. Either we permit both sides to continue escalating their military technology in the hopes that we’ll be slightly faster than crypt-space, or we grind forward at the existing level. The nano resources we’re deploying are inherently adaptable, so the war cannot help but radically escalate . We must be prepared for greater losses, and greater aggression in our tactics.”

Greater losses sounds OK until you realise we lost twelve and a half percent of our dreamers in our very first encounter. I thought the problem was one of imagination: we’d attacked what we thought was like a flood, so we erected metaphorical barricades and tried to beat the sea into retreat. We’ve got a long history of fucking that idea up right here on Earth. Crypt-space had responded imaginatively to our fairly mundane creations, which suggested a couple of things to me. One, it had access to imagination – even if it was responding instinctively, it was doing so in a creative way. So, I was inclined to discount raw instinct, it felt a lot more like the sort of thing you might do in a dream. Two, it opened up a new arena for the battle. If we didn’t just have to imagine hammers to whack space nails, we could use our pooled minds to pitch the battle between any objects or entities. Humans might be tool-users, but our dreams aren’t exactly filled with the thrill of measuring things and making wheels. Alright, some of our best and brightest innovators and scientists must have dreamed mostly numbers and right-angles, but it sure wasn’t my forte, all right?

“I think they’re dreaming,” I interrupted, internally smirking at the Lesved in the tank’s expression at being cut off part way through its lecture. “I think crypt-space is unconscious and acting like it’s in a dream when it enters our physical world. If we’re going to fight this thing we need to treat it like it’s thinking, not just as a jumble of mad stuff falling through space.”

We argued a lot. It’s what happens when you get a dozen species together and present them with failure. While we were planning for this it was all fine and lovely, but no one likes to lose, and no one enjoys being told that their weapons, plans or ideas worked out terribly. There was a lot of sulking and bitterness. The Vaunted seemed impossibly bored, and only wanted us to decide where we would attack crypt-space again. I remained very conscious of that 12.5% we’d lost in battle. The ownworlds of those we’d lost were still accessible in the shared ourworld. Our network of oneirocytes still held the memory of their private worlds, even if their dreamers were gone. It was eerie to see them at the periphery of ourworld. They even seemed darker, greyer than they had when their dreamers were still alive. Presumably their worlds would remain until the rest of us consciously allowed the network to remove them. They just sat there empty, bereft and waiting for the dreamers to return.

We did return to the war. The Hellevance had to begin dismantling another pair of star systems to generate the volume of nano materials we thought we might need. We went for smaller rifts, avoiding the terrifying figure that had defeated us previously. The Vaunted kept an eye on that thing as it devoured the rest of the solar system that had birthed it. We left it the fuck alone. But we did attempt to apply what we’d learned from the first rift we fought. We deprived them of resources, the Vaunted whisking whole worlds away from them as we arrived in-system. The rifts responded to us like the first one had, but lacking the resources that the Beast had (not a great name, but it was the only one that seemed to exist in every species’ vocabulary) it could manage less radical and dangerous transformations. Where the crypt-space emergents twisted into horned and tentacled creatures that lunged for us, we manifested space-striding dragons and burned them to ash. Unleashing our imaginations felt… right. The awkwardness of imagining a machine that would chop up the dead faded as the dead conjured more familiar dangers: every claw, feather, tooth and wing that existed in their collective dead unconsciousness was brought to vivid life, composed of the broken wreckage of thoughts formed in the void. We felt like dragon hunters now, lancing through their creations with kilometre-long weapons, battering them with the giant claws of our rampaging lions, or the monstrous bird-spider things that the Kel threw into the mix. Most effective were the shapes of creatures the Qoth had glimpsed way down on the forest floor of Qothima: sharp, worm-like hydras that pierced the crypt-space creations and tore them apart.

This was a battle we could win – while the resources of both sides were finite, ours limited by what the Hellevance could equip us with, and crypt-space limited by the matter it could consume before we slammed into it with maximum aggression – I was increasingly certain that it was a fight between an unconscious mind and a conscious one. The latter was us, of course. The skillset that the oneirocytes had given us was that we could use our conscious and unconscious minds simultaneously and in synthesis. There should be no contest between those two states. And in the lesser battles, there wasn’t. We’d rip the crypt-space reinstantiations to dust and suck all matter out of the rift in space until it hung there, inert, nothing falling into the real world. Even the foaming crystallisation around its edges faded away. It looked like it was dead, but it was still open. Those we’d pushed back so far we had the Vaunted continue to monitor, in case we were wrong.

Each tour comprised weeks of travel, followed by a truly exhausting and intense battle which in some cases lasted weeks of continuous existence in the ourworld, creating and responding to our opponent. The Hellevant had adapted their pyramids of matter to process physical materials we encountered in transit and convert that into new nano matter. In the more violent clashes the pyramids would even seize the wreckage of crypt-space that we loosed from its conglomerate bodies, rendering it into more nano matter that we could stab it with. Our arms race had inadvertently given us the same basic requirement for physical stuff, and a very similar method for taking it.

After a successful battle with crypt-space, in which we’d beaten a rift back from its hungry onslaught against a binary star system, our petal-ship and its pods got some shore leave. That’s when we went down the elevator for a pint or two of homebrew gin. That’s when I ended up in hospital after inhaling an Alometh. While I was hanging around, getting my blood and lungs cleaned out, I spent most of my time in my ownworld. I caught up on the rest of my pod – Gex and Scoro had led the others on a fairly epic series of pub crawls which I was annoyed to have missed out on. Hessex, our Tel, had stayed up in orbit to hang out with the rest of the Tel who were up there tinkering with the devices that controlled the nano matter. G, our Qoth, had wandered off into some of the great human libraries, exploring the history of a species which had once lived in trees. Funny bunch all round. We’d become very close, living cooped up in each other’s minds for months at a time. I avoided the ourworld we’d created to conduct our battles, and instead wandered off through my own pale forests, seeking a measure of peace. With our new tactics we hadn’t lost anyone else. We’d burned through a shocking amount of physical stuff though, and I’d begun to wonder if we’d end up using more matter to fight crypt-space than it had stolen so far. The difference was that we could both run out of stars to convert into matter, but even if crypt-space consumed the whole physical universe, there would still be more of it in its own dead mental realm. Without really thinking about it, I’d wandered out of my domain and found myself in silent shadows. I’d crossed ourworld and walked a few feet into one of the dead ownworlds. I couldn’t tell if it was really darker than the rest of the worlds, or if that was just my imagination making it feel darker, which was the same thing, really. I hadn’t been inside since before its creator, Vasselt, had died in that first battle. Vasselt had been one of the first cohort of students we’d helped integrate the oneirocytes on Qothima. Her ownworld was a series of graceful curves and twisted planes of glazed porcelain. It was like someone had taken a china shop, turned it into spaghetti and flung it into the air, where it hung, twisting gently in abstract patterns. It was lovely, but strange to see it all still moving.

In a constantly shifting world, you’d think it was hard to detect motion, but the cycle of the porcelain elements was regular, if strange. I caught a flash of irregular movement out of the corner of my eye. Like a bird flitting between branches, caught against a full moon. None of the animal creations from the other ownworlds entered these dead realms. We didn’t really know why, most likely they inherited their creators’ preferences and feelings about the dead ownworlds, but still, it could have been a crow or something more exotic. That motion again, ahead of me this time, flickering between the rotating ceramic vanes. I pursued it, curious and since I was technically on some kind of sick leave, I really did have nothing better to do, since Scoro refused to let me seek out any booze. Something to do with having had all my internal organs recently scrubbed left them rather vulnerable to recreations that were technically poison. I followed the flickering snub of darkness through the twisting shapes. It stopped at last, and let me catch up. I approached cautiously. There wasn’t much in the ownworld that could surprise me, not the human parts anyway. The Tel areas were… odd, but that reflected their entirely different physical and mental make-up, so was surprisingly different, but it all felt like it belonged. This was different. Huddled between two half-shells of ceramic lace, a dark shape flickered in and out of existence. It was like looking at some high speed film of a person’s life, terribly scratched and distorted, hanging in the air. I stared for a long while before I realised what I was seeing – a human figure – turning towards me again and again, hands reaching out for me. The flickering slowed enough that her face came clear as it faced me over and over: Vasselt. Blackened and riven with static, but it was her. Abruptly the vision froze in place, and a thin sound croaked out of it: “help us.”

I fell backwards in shock, Vasselt’s what – ghost? – stood fixed before me, arm outstretched in supplication. And then it all dissolved, leaving me alone in her porcelain realm. I summoned Gex, Scoro and the other members of my pod immediately – couched as a polite invitation rather than a pull, I didn’t want to stun them too badly. They all materialised in Vasselt’s ownworld, and recognised it immediately.

“The fuck are you doing, Evanith, aren’t you supposed to be wringing out your kidneys or something?” asked Gex, eyeing her surroundings. “Well, this is morbid.”

“Kinda,” I started, “but I I’ve found something. Vasselt’s still here. Or she was.”

The inevitable uproar ensued, but I got them all to shut up by showing them my memories of the last five minutes. The ownworld is great: no need for an argument when you can just show them what you saw and felt, or so I thought.

“Are you sure you didn’t create her?” asked Hessex, long fingers probing the ground between the lace shells.

“Did I create a ghost so I could scare the shit out of myself? No, no I didn’t. It was her, it was Vasselt.”

“This changes everything,” said Scoro, “if she’s trying to access her ownworld, then she’s sort of still alive.”

“No, she’s definitely dead, but the idea of her and her connection to the network have transitioned to crypt-space,” Hessex replied. “It’s possible that there has never been a networked mind lost to crypt-space before, at least not so violently.”

“What if we could get Vasselt and her pod back – through the ownworld?” I suggested.

“Pull their minds out of crypt-space directly? They would return to the mental plane, but with no body to orient them or root them in the physical universe.” Hessex said.

“They’d need to download into something physical at the same time they came out of crypt-space, otherwise they’d just bounce between dead and alive,” Gex pulled a face. “That sounds worse.”

But someone else had down something like this. Someone I really didn’t like at all. The Unity had transferred entirely from their meat bodies into the nano parasites, into a ghastly tangled mess of grey brain wool. If they could do it, couldn’t we do it the other way around, and copy the dead pod back from the ownworld into oneirocytes? Well, we had nothing else to do with our shore leave, so we got to work.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Eight (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

We’d been planning to take it easy for a little while between battling crypt-space – it’s why were were on Earth at all, for a few drinks. My encounter with the Alometh drew that out a bit further. Having a couple of weeks off from the front-lines. It meant the rest of my battle-pod were also on leave, by default. After we’d returned to Earth and seen the approaching storm of crypt-space rifts opening in nearby solar systems, the prospect of the fight was all too real. While we and the Qoth had been expanding our use of the nano parasites, the Vaunted and their new pals, the fucking Unity, had been developing the technological aspects of our armed forces. No tanks, no guns, no bombs. Not unless we wanted them… Crypt-space couldn’t just be bombed into oblivion like a rogue state. The Vaunted had tried many different tactics as the enormity of their error in tearing open space to find the place where ideas went when we died. Crypt-space is the recreation of ideas from the mental realm back into physical form. It uses up huge amounts of matter to reinstantiate a thinking being – a soul – into the universe again. But it also gives new life to raw concepts and ideas. It was all too abstract for humans to deal with – ultimately we had to meet it face to face before we could really wrap our heads around it. But shooting holes in space was exactly as successful as it sounded – crypt-space cheerfully welcomed the extra matter and energy and turned it into more dead things. Squeezing the rifts between gravities didn’t work either, as the Vaunted ran through their whole toolbox of celestial mechanics. When they focused on creating matter directly through thought they had the first glimmers of success, but as a species so nearly free of physical presence, they were closer to what crypt-space was made of than the physical universe itself. You go and open a tomb and the zombies that stumble out basically think you’re one of them. Awkward. The inhabitants of the twelve worlds (presumably, if we include the one that’s just cinders) were all still resolutely physical beings, but with the added existence of minds and thoughts that granted us access to the mental realm, further enhanced by the nano parasites that humans had developed.

My battle-pod was one of just fifteen. We’d divvied up the eighty human oneirocyte hosts, added a Qoth, and a Tel, both with parasites of their own. The oneirocytes had proved to be terrifyingly adaptable, with the training that we (or the Unity, in the case of the Tel) had provided, the little grey strings had wormed their way into both the furry tripedal turtles of the Qoth as well as found some purchase in the Tel. The latter were spindly figures, not unlike daddy longlegs that seemed to be made entirely of varnished bone. They spoke unnervingly through a complex of fluted vanes low down on its body which came across as a someone talking through a whistle. Somehow, the nano parasites had found some way to get through that apparently bone structure. However they had managed it, Doctor C and Project Tutu had created something quite remarkable. We were teamed up with the aliens for a good reason – the ownworld runs on imagination, intention and will. Humans were the only true dreamers in the species here assembled. It’s not that the others lacked imagination – their technological and cultural development clearly showed imagination – but the way they thought didn’t have the same freewheeling unconscious component. They didn’t dream wild worlds full of incredible tedium like we did every night. And with the oneirocytes we could trigger that chaotic, intuitive search for ideas whenever we wanted to. Qoth provided the sheer will of absolute belief. Their ownworld was intimate, direct contact with their god-star – real by as an article of the innate belief that defined their mental existence. The Tel were our focal point, combining the syntheses of imagination and belief, and providing the link to the weapons that had been built by the Calus, Hellevant and Geiliish. Fifteen pods structured in this way, acting independently but able to coordinate through the shared access to the ownworld. But for the pods to function we had to construct smaller, more intimate networks between each ten entities. These we called “ourworlds”, a shared creation from which we could work. The ourworld that Gex, Scoro and the others built was redolent with possibility: we sliced the top off a mountain, perfectly smooth and level. We were surrounded by a thick mass of clouds, concealing the unknown space below – imaginary potential for anything to be underneath that cumulus layer. It was to be our war-room, our play area, both of these and something else altogether.

The first time we set out for crypt-space proved to be a gruelling test of our combined resources and a shocking introduction to what we were going to be fighting. The great petal-shaped ships in orbit around Earth were our homes for this war. They were paired with the enormous pyramidal shapes we’d seen drifting near the up-top space station. The latter were our supply train. Three of the petal-ships took the fifteen pods out into space. Even though the Vaunted had shown us where crypt-space rifts had opened “relatively” nearby, the universe is so fucking stupidly big that the described distances make no sense to me. It was in travelling there, using the clever engines that the Hellevance used for their planet-hopping, that I got some sense that crypt-space was not far away at all. It had taken a week to get from Earth to Qoth, and that was within our little system (and we hadn’t been in a frantic rush), and it took just two weeks to reach the solar system currently being torn apart by crypt-space. We weren’t travelling at anything like the same speed, but my dumb human brain was starting to get the sheer imminence of the threat. To smart species who do maths as a by-product of just being alive, our Tel colleague was hugely amused at my failure to grasp measurements or dimensionality. Twat. I liked him though, Hessex. Within our petal ship, the ten of us were held in cocoons, each filled with a nutrient gel comprised of yet more nano particles that felt slippery because they were so fine. They protected us from acceleration (we were going quite quickly), fed us, did whatever our bodies needed support doing so that we could live entirely in the ourworld for the duration of the mission. It also meant the Hellevance didn’t have to waste time with gravity or any such nonsense – the cocoons were physically joined to each other, hanging in spherical chambers like a sprawling metal bush with ten huge gooseberries hanging off it. There was no particular order or rank to our positions, but it had ended up with Hessex at the very top – his spindly limbs folding down into the open pod had given me an atavistic shudder, but he was funny, in a very Tel way. My cocoon was right underneath, and my friends Gex and Scoro slotted in around us. The other five human hosts and our Qoth, whose name was so much too long to pronounce that we called it “G” in protest at its excessive length, all lay unconscious in their cocoons. We waved faintly in the space, the movement related to whatever involuntary movements we made while our bodies slept. Our minds were busy.

A new solar system, a humble orange star with fifteen planets of varying sizes and compositions – rocky close to the star, huger and larger gaseous masses further out. Not a lot different to home really, which was of course gone by now. The petal ships split as we roared into the system, each petal home to one pod of dreamers, and accompanied by its own pyramid, spinning ahead of us. I’d never seen the hole in space near Saturn, just the images that distant probes captured of it. It had looked strange, like the fractured sight some people get with a migraine, that halo erasing parts of the perceptible world and doing strange things to shapes that move between the new panes we see the world through. Up close it like that but worse. The rift glowed, illuminated by the atomic processes of dissolving a planet and converting its matter into new, dead life. The plan was that we would never get physically close enough to it for it to reach us. There was no point giving it both more matter to play with, or worse, a bunch of living minds to kill. Our minds would translate instantly upward through the mental realm as soon as we were separated from our bodies, and then into crypt-space, presumably to be promptly spat back out into the real world and become an even greater part of the problem. We’d trained with our new technology, which focused the power of the ownworld to generate objects in the real world. Rather than being as haphazard as we’d achieved with our “hello tower”, the Calus had designed these pyramids as concentrations of nano matter. It was as smart as technology got, and in combination with the Tels in our pods focusing our ideas, the nano matter would form into whatever we imagined and we’d effectively teleoperate it into action. It seemed like a good plan.

“Contact,” Scoro declared, as our petal ship and its pyramid fell into the defined orbital distance from the rift. Other petals were taking up similar positions, all ready to either attack or swap with an exhausted pod. We anticipated some degree of mental exhaustion, or ship damage and had enough backup, we thought, to press this first encounter before retreating and assessing our effectiveness.

Crypt-space yawned open before us, glittering frames of converting matter. Falling out of crypt-space were the dead. An amalgamation of structures were being given life, seemingly at random: an immense spire extended out of nowhere, spearing towards our petal. From its rocky walls sprang a greater array of smaller objects. Zooming in, we could see they were bodies and twisting shapes that might have been the concepts of useful devices or hope and shame made suddenly incarnate once more. We’d discussed this in advance, and from our mountain top ourworld, we started to dream. Out in space the nano matter began to unravel from the pyramid and formed planes of slashing blades that fanned out like a flower, and began shredding the approaching spire and its offshoots. The newly animated matter fractured and disintegrated under the blades, pulverised back into ordinary matter which fell toward the nearest gravity well: crypt-space. Whatever we smashed it was sucked back towards its source and reborn as something new. We imagined alternative tactics, a new formation of massive cutting arms with something like a giant vortex at its heart. As we struck the crypt-space emergents they shattered and were sucked through our weapon, accelerated and flung further off into the solar system, well away from crypt-space itself. Once it entered the real world, those dead things were real again and we could break them. It felt like an achievement, and between us our petals were battering the new creations back down to their component molecules and clearing space between us and crypt-space. The problem ultimately was that the rift could continue to suck up the planet that was supplying it with most of its matter. Each petal-ship had a Vaunted presence available through the ourworld, and we summoned the little bubble-man to our mountain top. Through the clouds around us rose up the original imaginations of the tens-of-miles wide bladed tools that hacked into real space.

The Vaunted looked characteristically politely interested in our activities, as if there wasn’t a cosmic struggle that they’d dragged us into going on outside. The humans and Qoth were making shapes out of the air in front of them, refining the tools we’d built to more speedily despatch the emergence from crypt-space. We were almost keeping pace with its creations, but as long as the planet was there, we couldn’t make any more headway. Either we waited while it destroyed the planet, and risked wearing out our own supply of nano materials, or we got the Vaunted to move the planet. With a shrug the Vaunted consented.

It was weird to see from the outside. Last time we’d seen the Vaunted enclose a planet we’d been inside. But now we saw those massive segments materialise and fold in around the planet like a flower closing. In doing so, they would cut crypt-space off from its source and matter, and the Vaunted would tug it away from the battle. Whatever crypt-space had left we should be able to handle, based on what we’d seen so far. Hessex was fairly confident that we had enough nano matter left to annihilate its remaining intrusions.

Of course, that’s where it all went wrong. In lieu of a proper technical explanation, which the Hellevance and Vaunted would later supply when they reviewed the battle, let me just say that crypt-space went fucking mental. As the planet closed up and began to move away the rift convulsed, almost turning itself inside out. Where before the shapes that emerged had seemed random, now a continuous flow of objects emerged, printed into real matter as they made contact with the vacuum. An enormous claw of shattered dreams, made up of screaming bodies dying as they entered the cold unbreathable space, tore at the Vaunted shell, peeling off one of the enclosing segments like it was ripping apart an orange. The bubble-man looked, for the first time, perturbed. The claw reached all the way inside the shell, spilling shapes and condensing matter the whole time and ripped out the heart of the planet, hauling it back towards the rift itself. We had planned for the slow and steady annihilation of the planet, not for crypt-space to suddenly have access to hundreds of billions of tonnes of matter in one go. The whole of local space shuddered, shaking us in our cocoons and even making the ground quake in the ourworld. More claws lashed out of crypt-space, given a faster route to life, and they were reaching for the petal ships. One claw, looking like the contents of a child’s toy box haphazardly glued together and mashed into to the shape of a hand lunged across the void, smashing through the depleted nano matter pyramid, and daggering straight down through the petal ship behind as it desperately tried to twist away. We twisted away from yet another claw, and intervened, spinning up a dozen more of the machines that had been so successful at hacking the things apart before. Even as they made contact and began slicing away at the claws, space rippled again and a more massive shape emerged. Because you don’t get a claw on its own, do you? You get an arm for each claw, and for the arms you get a torso. And that’s what was now dragging its way out of crypt-space, coming into existence as it crossed the threshold into normal space. It was a many-armed figure, each arm joined to its body at an unsettling angle with too many elbows. Between those horrid shoulders, a rounded, headless body. It didn’t need  a head, because an array of red eyes blinked open in what might have been its chest if it was from Earth, and a trembling black hole underneath. It’s important to emphasise just how fucking enormous this thing was. Not only did it have hands large enough to grab an appreciable chunk of a planet, it was more like the size of a star, hanging in space. As we attacked it with all that we had, the crypt-space thing reached out, seized the whole planet – Vaunted shell and all – and thrust it into the hole that opened up beneath its eyes. The claw that had pierced the petal ship casually shredded it, dragging half of it into that awful mouth, which we saw was the rift. The cosmic tear had turned itself inside out, and now the maw of this… thing… was the rift itself, literally feeding on reality.

We heard the screams and felt the panic of our colleagues as the petal ship with its pod of dreamers vanished into crypt-space, and then their nerve-shredding horror stopped abruptly. Then the crypt-space monster turned towards the other petal ships, and we fled. What had once seemed to be random outpourings of dead minds into the real world had become something else, something worse. A gestalt entity, its body made up of the materialised forms of the dead ideas it comprised. It was hungry, it knew we were there, and it was coming for us.

The Hellevant got us out of the star system far faster than humanly possible, our petals sliding back into their combined forms, the heavily eroded pyramids towed along in our wake. From the sensors looking backwards, the crypt-space form was following us. We’d wondered what our enemy truly was, and how we might fight it. We thought we knew what we were dealing with, but we’d threatened an entire dimension of the universe and it seemed really pissed off. It had seemed weird that the Vaunted had characterised this as a war to begin with. I’d thought of it more as a war against a disease, or maybe a natural feature like a volcano. They did their thing, destructive simply as an aspect of their nature. But it wasn’t personal, there was no animosity in a lava flow entombing a city. It was just regrettable, but only from our perspective. Crypt-space had seemed like that. Perhaps it was just that the way the realm had torn open, its reborn minds had died in vacuum, being returned into an environment that wasn’t for them at all, that made them seem like so much random junk. But if we could combine our minds and create a reality in the ownworld and ourworld, couldn’t a bunch of disembodied dead minds do the same thing? It looked like it, and right then they seemed to have the advantage of desperate imagination over our alliance. We headed home to lick our wounds, panic a whole lot more, regroup and go back out to fight again. Whatever crypt-space had become, whatever the Vaunted thought they’d broken into, we’d succeeded into catalysing it from cosmic threat to something personal.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Seven (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

After a week being treated for inhaling the death seeds of an Alometh in the larger hospital of Elevator Town, I was finally allowed to leave. It had been quite a pleasant stay, all things considered. Certainly once I got moved away from the other fucking guy who wanted to bitch and complain about everything Vaunted. I mean, I get it. I do. The rainbow gods had fucked up space, fucked up the Earth and perhaps even worse, turned out to be colossal pricks. Being virtually immortal and omnipotent doesn’t necessarily make you a good dude. If anything, having that amount of power separates you physically and mentally from all the miserable mortals working in the grubby material world beneath you. I was a bit worried that we had become a little like them, gallivanting off into space and stuff. But we hadn’t kidnapped a bunch of planets and forced them into a war either. I say “forced”, but we weren’t forced to fight, or to deal with the other planets. Sure, that was partly a result of being so utterly screwed when the shell came down that we had very few options – accept help, or continue to die. It was a good call. Doesn’t mean a lot of people liked it. Human exceptionalism had taken a real hard kicking during the twenty years in the shell, and a lot of folks (my former roommate included) had some heavy-duty resentment for no longer being the big kid in class who could smash everyone else’s pencil cases. It’s not like a lot of these spiteful twats had done anything genuinely useful other than claim their spot in the hierarchy. And now, their rung on the ladder had been broken by their own weight, and the whole ladder was being supported by creatures whose existence they’d never even suspected. Even worse, their lives had improved immeasurably, certainly compared to five years previously. But there’s a problem in humans: if we don’t do it ourselves, can’t do it ourselves, we don’t seem to think it’s real or important. For Gex, Scoro and I, we’d seen the Vaunted’s own memories of crypt-space, and their whole heroic idiocy laid bare. Got to give them that – as far as we could tell, they hadn’t held back. That might just have been a further expression of their extraordinary arrogance. They probably hadn’t expected us to notice how dumb they’d been. They were so embedded in their view of reality that they probably hadn’t thought about how other species might view their memories – they didn’t really have bodies any more. We’d only had a few years experimenting in our ownworlds, but none of our cadre had been trained to think the ownworld was everything, even it was alluring. We’d been very clear about how the oneirocytes can fuck you up if you consider them the endgame, and they seemed to find the notion of becoming only a ball of brain wool as disturbing as we did. We’d shared our memories of the Unity with them, of course. Part of the training regime we’d developed, learning as we went, was that it was much harder to lie and skip over details in the ownworld. It was possible to edit the memories you shared, or render it free of emotion – what was the point of having mastery of our conscious and unconscious minds if we couldn’t actually control them – but that wasn’t helpful, because everyone knows there are emotions attached to memories. It was one reason why the Vaunted had shared theirs. Emotion is like colour, or sound. For thinking creatures they’re all parts of everything. And if you want someone to understand you, you have to give them everything. Radical honesty, sort of. But it’s not like we just spilled all our feelings into the ownworld and had a big sad-sack cry every day. You shared what you wanted to, if you needed to, but you did it completely. So we believed in crypt-space and the coming challenges implicitly. Persuading other people that it was real had been harder. The world government may never have truly believed us, and it wasn’t until the arrival of the aliens that it all started to make sense. Our planet having been moved was inarguable, and proof of something having happened. The idea that shit was going to get real somewhere further down the line stayed much further down that line.

Gex and Scoro turned up to get me out of the hospital, though of course we’d been in constant communication the whole time I’d been having my lungs and blood cleaned of the Alometh death particles. Gex had not stopped laughing about me having alien jizz in me since she’d learned that I’d been in the wrong waiting room. Good friends do that. The fortnight of recovery had been a good break, for my mind, if not my bruised and scrubbed body. That night we’d come down the elevator for a quiet and serious bingeing on booze had been our first break in the war for weeks. We’d been spending days at a time in our ownworlds, supported by baths of nano nutrients in which we were cocooned. It was a bit like lying in a tub of very fine and very dry rice. So fine that it was slippery and made you think it was wet, but the particles were just too small to feel properly. Exhausting work, but necessary. No wonder we wanted to get wasted – even fighting a war from inside your own head takes its toll on you. It’s weird to wake up and find that you’re wholly intact as if nothing has happened. It’s disorienting and I reckon really damaging in the long term. But that’s jumping ahead again.

When we returned to Earth after a year on Qothima, shipping down-orbit to home, we found it much changed. The seas looked bluer, the sky had lost most of its dirty look, and only a few of those massive hexagonal engines still hung in the sky. The sight of them really fucked some people off. It’s hard not to dwell on them I guess. We’d seen such cool things, and received so much assistance that it was still incredible to me that people hated the aliens for it – not just the Vaunted (fair play on that one), but the Hellevance, and even the Geiliiish who by now lived on Earth to get their work done and to train and work with the next generations of human engineers. The further you were from direct contact with and benefit from our new friends, the easier it was to label them the enemy. What’s worse is that this was a pissed off minority who screamed and shouted the loudest. Most people were fine. Maybe that’s always the way, this disproportionality making them seem important. That said, I had been glassed and then yelled at in hospital recently, so maybe I’m the bitter one. Fuck em, I guess. Earth was on its way back to a place we could live, have kids, grow old and die properly – not choked by the world, just dying in normal ordinary ways like traffic accidents. The Vaunted had notified all the worlds simultaneously, so we didn’t have to bring ill tidings home with us. I still had no clue what we were actually going to do to fight crypt-space either. The sight of those people materialising in the vacuum stayed with me. They’d just been re-born – surely we couldn’t simply go and kill them again?

The Geiliish and our engineers had been busy, constructing a new facility especially for those of us with the oneirocytes who we’d trained up on Qothima. Some folks had stayed behind, having grown used to that forest world and its people, but we were now an eighty-strong group with a sprawling ownworld network comprising eighty very different dreamworlds, but each with a dark star in its sky – our Qoth pals. Even across the vast distance between Earth and Qothima, we were all still in each other’s minds when we wanted to be. It was the best demonstration we’d had that the mental plane described by the Vaunted was real, and even though it sat side by side with the physical world, physical distance meant nothing to the proximity between minds. Which made me wond95er why the Vaunted had bothered to show up in a rainbow ship. Good for those without access to the ownworld I guess, and a nice reminder of their power and all-round importance. There was another one still waiting on Earth, suggesting they were at last getting involved properly now that we’d done all that tedious making our homes habitable stuff: boring physical shit. There were also new spaceships in orbit. Some were ours – part of the redevelopment of Earth was establishing our place and asserting that humans weren’t just losers looking for a handout. We had our own spaceships now. Trade and the beginnings of immigration and emigration were being tentatively established with the other worlds. We weren’t the only humans to be meeting and working with aliens – or new friends, as we preferred to call them. The human spaceships were fine, leaning heavily on new toys from the Geiliiish and the Hellevance, but they were ours now. It was a good demonstration that we were back on our feet, and getting involved. But there were spaceships of a style I hadn’t seen before: petal-shaped arcs of gleaming white, things that looked like pomander balls (the oranges studded with cloves like a weird bondage fruit that you see at Christmas sometimes), a good solid pyramid that had its middle knocked out. All these and more were hanging around in Earth orbit. It was beginning to look like a fleet was being assembled.

Once we’d debarked into the up-top space station we were immediately redirected to a new annex. All gleaming white and cool, it had the fresh smell of Geiliiish fabrication. There we started to get filled in on the plan, as well as getting an almighty shock. Like all good briefings those days, we met up in both the ownworld, for those of us capable of it, as well as in a huge circular room with big screens so everyone could see the same stuff at the same time. We just saw it all a bit more directly. While we’d been on Qothima, crypt-space had continued to swell, sucking in the solar systems that it had emerged into previously. Our home systems, in other words. It’s not like we didn’t know that was what was happening, but it was still a shock to hear that there was never going to be a home to go back to. I’m not sure when I’d started thinking of Earth and its whole solar system as our home, but I suppose it was in-built, like having the Moon and the Sun. They’d been there forever, and even though we’d been taken away from them, I guess I’d vaguely imagined that we’d be going back there one day, returned to our spot in orbit. But of course we weren’t. The gravitic distortions of crypt-space sucking up matter, like our neighbouring planets, and spouting the reinstantiated dead ideas back into space had continued, spilling into the physical world until they ran out of matter to convert. Those holes in space were now inert, apparently, or almost. Having consumed everything – planets, sun, asteroid belts and the dust that hangs between worlds, the emergence had slowed to a trickle of ideas popping into existence. The problem was that there was more stuff in crypt-space than in the universe. While matter gets broken back down and reused when suns go nova, or when someone dies and they turn into fancy compost, the matter and energy is mostly reused as something else. When ideas die, and the minds of those now pushing up the flowers drift upward into crypt-space, they just stay there. And there have been an awful lot of sentient species who had lived and died in the cosmos. All their ideas and minds were up there, all stacked up or whatever. There was more in there than there was matter in the universe, and if crypt-space broke out entirely, they’d hoover up everything there was, and there would be no room for the living. The Vaunted were rather concerned that those “inert” rifts in space continued to consume something, possibly cosmic rays and light, which was why stuff was still emerging, even if they were now doing so very slowly. And there were more holes. Of course there were. And since crypt-space seemed to hug closest to the material realm where minds existed, there had been an excellent chance of crypt-space finding us here.

The idea that we were being hunted by the dead did nothing for my nerves. Even if wasn’t really intentional, I’d seen far too many zombie and mummy horror movies when I was a kid to not shudder at the thought. It really was zombie space, and all it wanted was miiiinds. The Vaunted had been unable to close the hole in space that they created when dicking around with the fabric of reality. Even though they were basically gods, they were too deeply embedded in the mental strata of existence, and lacked sufficient presence in the duality of material and mental space. That was where we came in – humans, specifically. Horribly rooted in the dirty life and death of the physical universe, but through the nano parasites we’d attained a control over the mental realm too, without losing our bodies. More importantly, using the oneirocytes correctly meant that we could do more than just build our own imaginary worlds. We’d had a taste of what it’s like when you use the mental to deliberately affect the physical, creating form using just the power we had access to fro69m the ownworlds. It was the same manipulation of reality that the Vaunted had used to tear open space, and to form shells around our worlds and move them here. We’d done it first when we created the “hello tower”, a structure that even now speared up through Earth’s atmosphere. The Geiliiish told us that it was made of ordinary matter, that we’d converted the atoms in the atmosphere into the fabric of the object. Doing in seconds what stars did over eons, converting matter into new elements by reorganising protons and neutrons and all that atomic scale business. The advantage of doing it from the ownworld was that you didn’t really need to understand how we did it. Since we were just petty mortals, though, we’d need some help.

The new spaceships in orbit belonged to aliens we hadn’t met before: the Calus and the Tel. As they were introduced, we felt the weight of their awareness inside the ownworld. They were saying hello and asking to join the network. It was a council of war, after all, so we let them in. They sent only a small delegation, two of each. They appeared in the ownworld in presumably the same forms that they had in the real world – I wouldn’t know, I’ve never met them off their ships. Their atmosphere is quite incompatible with ours, and with most of the other worlds. The Calus essentially breathe acid – their whole world is a bubble of toxic death, so they stay on their ships, and the Tel are similarly unsociable. Although they’re two distinct species, they’re not originally from the same planet. The Tel escaped some planetary catastrophe of their own and shacked up on the Calus’ world. They don’t breathe acid. They just stay on their spaceships because that’s where they’d been living the whole time they were on the Calus homeworld, because it was toxic to them too. Since we’d been moved to our new solar system the Tel had been eyeing that dead world at the end of the chain, but as yet had made no overt claims to take it over. For now they just lived in the space between the worlds, free at last of Calus’ atmosphere. What we realised immediately was that they had nano parasites. There’s a familial resemblance to how the mental realms feel – even the Qoth felt identifiably linked by the same underlying technology, even in a non-physical space. And the Calus and Tel representatives had that same vibe. I had many questions, since as far as I knew, we’d managed to keep hold of all the nano parasites that we’d retrieved from Project Tutu. Sure, we’d given a bunch to the Qoth and the Geiliiish to manufacture more, but we’d never even heard of these new guys.

That’s when Doctor C showed up. With a fucking smile and a wave. She emerged into the shared ownworld space next to the little bubble-man, invited in by the Vaunted. Now we knew where the Unity had gone – the Vaunted had liberated them and utterly failed to mention it.

“What the actual fuck is she doing here?” Gex demanded, always keen to take the lead in diplomacy.

“A valued resource,” said the Vaunted.

“So kind,” added Doctor C, looking incomparably smug, “we’ve been very busy preparing for your arrival. With the Calus and Tel,” a polite nod in their direction, “we’ve been assembling tools that will amplify the latent abilities of the nano parasites to manipulate matter in the physical realm.”

“If you’ve got the fucking Unity, what do you need us for?”

“Alas, the Unity network, having pre-emptively abandoned their physical bodies, have the same limitation as we, the Vaunted do. They lack the capacity to interact dualistically like the humans.”

Yeah, that was a nice slap in the face for the murderous doctor. She at least looked a bit embarrassed about that. Just a little too hasty to kill people and escape the real world. I wondered where all their oneirocytes were. Probably stuffed in a box somewhere. I found that I rather did want to know exactly where they were, just so we could definitively avoid them.

“Still got no bodies, eh?” Gex tactfully enquired.

“The Unity has no need for physical presence,” declared Doctor C haughtily.

She was about to continue when the Talus helpfully chipped in, “Given the nature of their ascension, we determined it was better for the rest of humanity that their request for clone bodies was denied.”

Most definitely another one in the face for the Unity. We didn’t need that pack of killers in the real world. I was alarmed by the idea that they’d been trying to get new bodies. Maybe Doctor C had realised they were mistaken in leaving their bodies behind. But none of us had really known whether the shell was coming down again and it had seemed like a somewhat sensible plan, minus the killing everyone part. I wondered how all the people who had been sacrificed for the project felt, knowing that if they’d just waiting a few more months or days, we’d have been released from the shell and found ourselves a whole new life. Pretty fucking bitter, I’d imagine. That’s if all of them even were separated from the meat bodies and preserved as whole minds, or if they were just spare parts like we’d been intended to be. Fuck – maybe it was just Doctor C, Hest and few trusted cronies wandering in their winter wonderland. We never did meet any of the project’s “subjects” down in those tunnels. And now we were working with the motherfuckers again. I’d be having words with the Vaunted about that, and Earth government were going to be really annoyed about the Vaunted just nicking the Unity without telling anyone. But all that was for another day. Right now we were going to see the tools we’d use to end crypt-space, before it ate us all.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Six (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Qothima was a hell-world of constantly screaming animals. Bird-things, mostly. They apparently spent every waking moment (and nothing on Qothima dreams like a human does) from dawn to dusk screaming, and then spend half the night making a noise like someone hammering on a door. We were told that it’s a constant assertion of their territorial ownership of whatever branch or nest they’ve constructed out of spit and leaves. It’s ghastly. What possibly made it even worse is that the indigenous species can’t even really hear it. They just hear the subsonic rumbles that humans can’t even perceive. The sounds in our hearing spectrum weren’t the main event, though one of the Qoth confessed that they sometimes chose to hear the racket as a kind of aural aphrodisiac. Fascinating people. The noise proved to be the main challenge in setting up the lab and little community for all those who had travelled from Earth with us. Really good sound proofing would be essential, lest we all went insane. Once that was established, Qothima became a truly gorgeous and almost silent world. Everything lives in the canopy there – the ground is strictly for suckers and eaters of the dead, we never even saw it. The trees grow close together, with branches creating interlocking strata from something like fifty feet above the ground to their final height, nearly a kilometre up in the air. We were regularly reminded not to go outside on our own, and definitely not to descend to any of the lower levels.

The Qoth population were mostly spread around the top half-kilometre or so of the world-spanning forest. There they’d taken advantage of the natural shapes of the trees and branches to build their cities into the greenery. Wood’s always been a critically important building material back home, but here it’s almost all they’ve got. They do have a lot more kinds of wood, mind. While we did fun things like extract the cellulose from trees to enhance steel and other materials, the Qoth had forests growing on top of the forests which they tuned and tweaked to produce wood spanning virtually the whole range of materials we use, from glass and plastic analogues, to incredibly hard woods that would make the hardiest lumberjack cry.

Our little compound was built from a mix of these, and it felt like the Qoth were showing off just a bit. They’d been little specific use to the rest of the planets in the chain, having only wood-related technology and their weird spiritual beliefs to offer. The Vaunted didn’t seem to care: the Qoth still got invited to things, and received whatever support they might need from the Geiliiish and everyone else. They’d more or less given up pestering the other worlds about their missing god-star in the face of baffled and apologetic responses. The unshelling of Earth had perhaps offered them some hope. The compound was a great arching shape, enormous spears of hard wood sprouting from each corner, some half a mile square. Between those ribs they’d put in fully transparent walls all around the outside, so we could see (but blessedly not hear) those fucking bird things. “Bird” is a bit of a stretch of course. Evolutionary drives appear similar on lots of planets, and something evolves to fill ecological niches. Lots of space between the branches – and you know, air – meant this was a good place if you could fly, or hop and glide. Just as in the rainforests on Earth the variety was bewildering. From tiny thumb-sized pterodactyl-looking things to balloons with weird organic propellers where their bum should be, all flew around (often into the transparent fence), eating, attacking each other, and, of course – screaming. Beautiful though, once we were soundproofed. I’d never been on another world, never seen or really imagined what might live on a similar-ish planet to Earth. The Qoth had presumably been one of the ground-crawling things they were so keen that we avoided going to see, and had a degree of embarrassment about it. At least, that’s my interpretation of their immediately going off on a tangent whenever I pried. They certainly couldn’t fly. Inside the see-through walls, they built a series of buildings which looked more like wooden pumpkins than house. They certainly knew their woodcraft. Plenty of space to work, live and relax.

It was no small endeavour what the Qoth built, and it suited us very well. The three immobile, nano parasite infected Qoth were kept in a lab where equipment and technicians kept an eye on them. Once we were all settled, we got to work. For us, that work looked a lot like three people having a nap in the lab. The static interference had been reducing all through the journey to Qoth and the building phase. We hoped that meant the oneirocytes were chilling out, or at least not actively shredding the nervous system of the Qoth. Yep – that was a genuine concern of Doctor Hellesmann, which we’d not previously been aware of. The kit that should have allowed the doctors to connect to the parasites wasn’t making a connection, but that was an interface tuned to the human network, and our suspicions were that the parasites were more adaptable than anyone had expected, with typically unexpected results. I sank back into the ownworld, my spiralling white trees feeling like an extension of the real world around us. In time I’d be making some adjustments, but we’d been so busy rushing hither and thither that I hadn’t put any time into further refining my ownworld. All dreams change, and I wanted to keep growing my dream rather than becoming trapped in it. The Unity had shown us that you could build a replica of reality and just stick to it. Seriously though, if you could dream anything, why would you keep what you’ve already got in the real world. Hardly worth the effort when you can just wake up. Though the Unity couldn’t do that anymore, wherever the fuck they were. Time to find the Qoth. Since the Qoth don’t dream, the parasites wouldn’t be helping them to establish a connection between their conscious and unconscious selves or processes. We vaguely expected to find them just trapped in their “thinking” time that they used sleeping for, but first we needed to find a way in.

Gex and Scoro met me at the interchange station we’d built to unite our ownworlds, which had since evolved to allow us to wander through each other’s ownworlds at will. One thing about building imaginary stuff is that when it works as a metaphor it can be hard to tell if it’s the object or the metaphor that’s doing the work. We’d need to pull the interchange apart at some point to see if we’d now adapted the ability to inhabit the wider ownworld network between the three of us, and it was actual consent instead of an implied consent that enabled it. Fun. Anyway, it didn’t really matter which of our ownworlds we started from, and there was some degree of reassurance, and the sense of combined power when we were together in our minds.

“They don’t know how to reach us, if they’re even aware at all at the moment,” I said, “so we can’t ask them to imagine a door.”

“We’ll just make our own door, I guess.” Gex was, as ever, in favour of a direct solution.

“Let’s just see if we can feel them first,” Scoro suggested, “we’re still getting occasional waves of static – let’s follow them.”

We didn’t need the omniscient state that we’d achieved when we created the spire that contacted the Vaunted, we needed to relax and listen. Thank god we couldn’t hear those fucking alien birds, and yet… There was something. A deep booming, well below our usual register, like a quasar ticking away across the cosmos. It felt as if it was from somewhere underneath us. So we went looking. Gex peeled back layer after layer of the cogs and engines that filled her world, the ground spiralling upward into ever more convoluted chains of revolving shapes. And underneath it all, a glow that sounded like someone crying. Creepy as fuck. We laid our hands on it – cold and crisp, like sticking your fist into snow at minus thirty. It was a solid barrier, so what else could we do but knock? Nothing happened immediately, but then the crying sound stopped and the deep boom skipped a beat. We’d made contact with something. We knocked again. We waited for a bit. Someone else trying to get into your mind is a freaky thing, and if the Qoth were trapped in a realm or state they didn’t understand, someone trying to kick in a door you don’t even know is there, to a room you don’t know you’re in… well, it’s a bit disturbing. Now that we’d found this glossy glowing layer we could do something with it. Gex continued her excavations, while Scoro and I pulled it up out of the ground. A perfect sphere drifted upwards, softly glowing. In our ownworlds it wasn’t much larger than a house. Small, limited. What you might hide in or create if you don’t have any imagination. The sound of crying and the deep rumble had resumed, so I pressed my hand against the side of the sphere and pushed.

My hand entered the sphere, and my mind followed. Abruptly I was inside the glowing sphere. Internally it was the opposite – dark, pitch dark like I’ve never known before. And bigger, but probably not much larger than it seemed from the outside. And there was a presence, the feeling of light but without being in the visible spectrum. Very peculiar. I started walking around, heading for the source of the booming which filled the dark space. It’s hard to resist putting your hands out in front of you when you walk into the darkness, and I didn’t even try. That’s how I knew I’d found the Qoth. In a patch of darkness even darker than the absolute blackness of the sphere, I touched a furry shell. Nearly gave myself a goddamn heart attack. It was one of the Qoth, and now I knew it was there I could sort of see it, like a reversed shadow, pale against the dark. It wasn’t alone. The other two were here too, having automatically been joined in a network by the oneirocytes. But this wasn’t a dream, the Qoth were still asleep, or unconscious, or whatever it was that they were doing. They were huddled close together, their shells almost touching. I stood on tip-toes to see if there was anything between them, and then I saw it. The source of that feeling of light I’d been experiencing. The Qoth’s three fingered hands were outstretched, and nestling in the cradle they made, a star glowed fiercely, pulsing the blackness into the room. As if noticing my attention, it suddenly flared into bright light, almost blinding me despite this being all in the Qoths’ minds. I stumbled backwards in surprise, and with a pop, I was pushed back out of their minds and into Gex’s ownworld.

“Well that was fucking weird,” I said, and explained to the others what had just happened.

“Best talk to the fur-turtles, I reckon.” Scoro was almost certainly right. The glowing sphere still hung in the air. We’d managed to pull whatever their ownworld was into ours, we’d almost brought them into the network, but it didn’t feel as if it was the Qoth that we’d made contact with, it felt like their ownworld itself.

All this was quite hard to describe to the waiting crowd of scientists and Qoth, but the latter got really excited when I described the sun the three Qoth had been holding. Because Qoth don’t have dreams, they don’t imagine things in the same way we do. They believe. Oneirocytes link up different parts of the mind: for us that’s waking and asleep. For the Qoth, it might well be that it connects their waking mind to their believing mind. The nano parasites had put the three Qoth in direct communion with their beliefs – it had helped them create the god-star in their minds. As we had established, what’s in our heads is as real as the stuff outside it. Or it can be, sort of. The Qoth were taking that as a definite though: if they had the god-star in their heads, then there was a very real sense in which that really was the god-star, no matter that crypt-space had likely devoured the physical sun. We’d come to play with the nano parasites, not get mixed up in the Qoth’s religious worldview. But there was no escaping it. They’d found their god-star again, and they wanted us to help them get it back.

We stayed on Qothima for nearly a year. The initial attempts to make contact with the three Qoth inside their god-star network all failed, despite us being able to perceive its existence inside our ownworld, which suggested we were partly connected. The Qoth reckoned that eerie crying sound was the sheer state of bliss that the immobilised Qoth were experiencing. Bliss has very rarely made me cry, but then I’m not a furry turtle living in the canopy of an alien forest, so my expectations were worth precisely fuck all. It took a lot of perseverance, and ultimately a volunteer from the Qoth scientific delegation for us to get in. The first three Qoth had taken the nano parasites into the own hands and just banged them into their systems any old way, with no preparation and the worst possible environment. We could do better. At the very least, we now had some idea what the nano parasites were doing inside their alien hosts and might be able to guide it and its host into a more stable and predictable course. It sort of worked. We woke the nano parasite up before injecting it into the Qoth, using the interface machines to have a chat with it. That’s a bit glib, but by opening a door between my oneirocyte and it, I could feel its progress when we did inject it into the Qoth. This time, the scientists placed it carefully, not just shoving it into their whole-body spine. As the parasite encountered the seemingly endless brain stuff I slowed it down. This time the Qoth woke up a little while after initial insertion, and hadn’t lost its mind. Positive. We went back in together, and we opened a doorway far earlier in the process of assimilation and learning than I’d managed with Gex and Scoro. The Qoth hadn’t even started constructing an ownworld out of its beliefs yet, so we did it together. The darkness was, once again complete. Whatever in-built sense of faith the Qoth had, it really was consistent, and this place felt exactly the same as the Qoth ownworld I’d entered previously. This time the Qoth and I explored it together, awake in its beliefs. When we came across the trio of Qoth, I realised that this wasn’t just like the other god-star ownworld, it was the same one. The Qoth automatically inhabited the same belief space. Fuck, maybe it really was the god-star. I had no way to know for sure. I let the Qoth bask in the glow of that sun for a while, then pulled it back out into the waking world. It was overwhelmed by the experience, tears running down its face as it babbled that we had found the god-star, it was still alive, and it was inside all of them. Like I said, I didn’t want to get mixed up in their spiritual business, but when I tentatively suggested that it was, you know, sort of just in their minds, they looked so offended that we backed off from that point entirely.

We’d successfully brought the three original Qoth back into the waking world, which immediately elevated them to the rank of spiritual saviours. That was nice. It definitely made them into less miserable fucks. It did give us a proper logistical problem though. The Qoth wanted – demanded – enough nano parasites to infect their whole population. Billions of them. It was orders of magnitude more than we had available – it was enough of a challenge to dissuade them from nicking the few thousand that we did have. For a bit I was worried that we might have a full on mutiny on our hands, since they all wanted to be able to commune with their god-star, and really, by not giving them that we were really just furthering the persecution and indignities already heaped upon them by the Vaunted. The Vaunted were dicks, and I didn’t want to be lumped into that same category thank you very much. We did have the Geiliiish though, and so far there had been nothing that they couldn’t fabricate. We gave them a batch of the nano parasites to take a look at, and the technical specifications we’d retrieved from Project Tutu. Thankfully we’d only brought a couple of Earth government representatives with us, who were keen to leverage Earth technology for more substantial gains from the other worlds. When we pointed out that we’d already had quite a lot of bang for our buck – and how was reintroducing cloned pandas going – that they backed down and let us do science stuff and make friends properly. The Geiliiish were typically delighted by the project and happy to embark on some mass-manufacturing, even though it was going to take years to cultivate enough oneriocytes for the whole population. We let the Qoth figure out the logistics of how they’d dole them out to their people. Our role was simpler: train the Qoth to train each other in how to use the oneirocytes. I’ll give them this: they were highly motivated. Meeting your own god is quite the tool for learning. And all the while we maintained our connection to their growing god-star ownworld. We’d had to relocate it within our own ownworld network – each mind added to the god-star increased its size. We flung it into our sky, where it could orbit our ownworlds. Our mental realm was growing larger and more complex – we could visit aliens in our heads now!

That year on Qothima flashed past, and I grew used to the lush greens of that alien forest. We’d been training the Qoth, but also inducting a new cadre of humans into using the oneirocytes. I wondered if the Unity had been able to do this the way we learned to: once you’re in someone’s ownworld, you can do what the Vaunted did to us, and immerse them in your memories and almost instantly teach them how to manage the ownworld and the nano parasite the way we had learned. It bootstrapped a new generation of oneirocyte hosts into their ownworlds. Our network grew further, and each new addition created their own mental spaces, many of them influenced by what we’d been surrounded by on Qothima. The practice of teaching others gave us time to think about our ownworlds too, and they all grew both more complex and more personal. I finally made myself a home inside my mind; Scoro created little flying mammals halfway between a sugarglider and a cat, and released them into the ownworld network; Gex shrank all her cogs and engines down until they worked away almost imperceptibly while she grew a city made of houses like those we lived inside in our Qothima compound. It all felt so beautiful, and right. It was all going so well. We’d been away from Earth for a year, receiving occasional snippets of news about how well it was recovering and it seemed like we were finally turning a corner from the disasters of the shell. Of course I did, I was hanging out in an alien treehouse, millions of miles away from my home. It did wonders for reducing the constant stress and worry that living there had generated.

And then the Vaunted showed up again. One of their bubble-formed spaceships slid gracefully through Qothima’s atmosphere and down into the forest, silkily sliding over the tree trunks, branches, leaves and perplexed screaming birds were caught briefly in its rainbow shape and had a new reason to scream even louder. We received a polite invitation to join them in our ownworld. Clearly, our last encounter had taught them some manners. We could be haughty little bastards too when we wanted to be. The little bubble-man appeared again, standing by one of my lagoons which I’d recently begun populating with little fish. It looked vaguely pleased that the ownworld had developed, even it wasn’t all rainbow vanes and angles like theirs was. I wasn’t alone either. Scoro and Gex were there too, as were the hundred other humans we’d shared the oneirocyte with, and a delegation of the Qoth. Good on them actually: since Qoth don’t dream, they’d found our ownworld environment challenging to understand, but once we explained that we sort of believed them into existence they mostly grasped it, even if the nature of our environments disturbed them profoundly. Believing, imagining – it’s all thinking –  that’s what we had in common.

This time, instead of trying to wrench us into the Vaunted mental space, they conjured it up inside our ownworld, bringing it with them like they brought themselves. Which I guess was technically the same thing for a species that was almost entirely mental. Before us, we saw our new solar system, the pearls of our planetary necklace gleaming in the light of the three suns. Then we zoomed out, and out – our stars were still visible, the Vaunted clearly using them as a reference point. What they wanted to show us was this: a hole in space, horribly familiar from what we’d seen twenty years ago in our original solar system. Using Vaunted technology we could see it more clearly. It had opened up in a presumably uninhabited system, near a planet and we finally got to see what crypt-space looked like, and what it did. The hole was like the halo effect – the visual distortions some people get when a migraine is coming on – the fabric of vacuum fracturing, some parts occluded entirely, others moving like shattered chunks of glass, scraping past each other. I could almost feel it. The planet that it had appeared near was visibly dissolving, its matter being hoovered up into the space between it and the hole. And that was where crypt-space was emerging into the real world. From the distance we were at it looked a bit like frost flourishing across a pane of glass, except that there was no glass and the shapes lacked that curious fractal flowering of snowflakes. The Vaunted zoomed in, or got nearer, or whatever it is the Vaunted do when they’re wandering around in space. For all I knew it was a Vaunted bubble-man standing on nothing holding a telescope. The closer we got, the clearer it was that the frosting in space was massive – every bit of the planet that dissolved was being used to materialise the dead realm. A lot of it was unrecognisable shapes, towering forms – hints of architecture and organic forms flowering out of the darkness. But here and there was some human artifact, or the memory of that artifact, an idea that had died which the Vaunted was choosing to find for us: some was ridiculous, like a microwave extruding out of nothing, or a herd of horses that burst into existence, but then we started to see people. Jumbled up with everything else that was being given form again, pressed together in that mass were human faces and bodies, mouths open in screams as they suddenly regained material existence and promptly died again in the vacuum of space. We saw a thousand examples of this – thinking beings returned and snuffed out again immediately, all mashed together with the ideas of buildings, animals, whole cities tumbling in the void.

The Vaunted zoomed back out, returning our view to our little solar system. Finally it deigned to speak with us. “Crypt-space has found us. Now we must fight.”

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Five (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

It seemed like everyone went rogue these days. I wondered when it would be our turn, but I suppose we’d been rogue from the beginning when we pretended to be scientists, then pretended to be ambassadors to chat with the Vaunted, and then continued to pretend we had a clue about the vast effort to restore planet Earth to non-shit hole status again. Maybe everyone just pretends, all the time. The Qoth had pretended to be cooperating, but had taken things into their own three-fingered hands the moment the opportunity arose.

We’d had to wait for a couple more hours in the freezing cold while the secondary objective squad woke up the primary objective squad and made sure they were OK. Thankfully, they were all fine, just very cold indeed and more embarrassed than injured. If you’re not allowed to properly fuck up your opponents, who happen to have total diplomatic immunity and an unknown array of skills, then I’d argue that it wasn’t really the soldiers’ fault that they couldn’t intimidate a bunch of alien fur-turtles. A perhaps stronger case could be made that they shouldn’t have let the case out of their eyes’ sight at all… But since Gex had stolen it in the first place, I wasn’t pointing any fingers. Instead we mostly just watched the Qoth, apparently fast asleep on the cold floor, while Gex, Scoro and I popped in and out of our ownworlds, trying to figure out what was going on with the occasional static effect we were getting. Obviously it was something to do with the Qoth and the nano parasites being stuffed in a non-human body, but right then we lacked a lot of useful information about the Qoth. Like, for example, them not having proper brains at all. Still, after a rather chilly wait there were a series of massive clangs that rang out through the underground facility and the lights came back on. After a minute all our torches and lanterns went off. While we’d been waiting, the soldiers had found the door controls, and the little network of military tunnels which we’d missed when we came through last time, as well as gone back down into the facility to retrieve all the machines that had been hooked up in the blood-spattered surgical suite. Watching that massive concrete door grind open was the best. It symbolised everything I wanted about the next hour: not walking up flights of stairs. I know it sounds rather petty, but I earnestly never wanted to climb a single stair again in my life. Some brilliant pilot had navigated a zerocopter right down into the mountain and it settled onto the concrete pad where we’d first arrived. They’d brought a medical team with them, some impressive gurneys for the Qoth (arguably they were pallets and a forklift truck), and an armload of blankets, which were gratefully received by one and all. No more Qoth though, which underscored them being in a new degree of trouble with either our government or theirs.

It was a bit of a squeeze in the back of the zerocopter with the Qoth strapped down to their pallets in the middle of the main bay. I was utterly knackered and crashed out as soon as we were strapped into the seats that ringed it. I didn’t need a window seat this time. I dreamed, rather than wandering back into my ownworld. It didn’t go well – I woke up yelling about something. Incredibly rarely, I’d had a nightmare, which wasn’t a huge surprise given what we’d been doing and what we’d seen all day, but we don’t have nightmares any more. Not unless we want to. The interference that had felt like static was getting worse, affecting not just communications in the ownworlds, but my own ability and the oneirocyte’s to keep a handle on my conscious unconscious. Fucking Qoth.

When we got back to Elevator Town (yes, I know, but if we’d built it back in the viking age it would have ended up as Elevator Town Town or something even more redundant. It was what it was…) we were whisked off up the elevator, leaving our soldiery escort in Colonel Lindsmane’s ungentle hands. He didn’t look impressed, though whether that was with his soldiers’ incompetence or ours, I couldn’t say. I was happy to get on that lift though. Up top we were met by a very concerned Qoth delegation and a handful of banana-form Li. They’d wanted to play with the oneirocytes, and now they were. The trio of bad boys were conveyed into a much less threatening medical suite than those I had experience of, and a metric fucktonne of machines were plugged into them. That’s where we learned that the Qoth don’t have brains like we do, contained in a neat little box at the top. They’re more like octopuses, with the neural network strung out all through their bodies. Along with the case of nano parasites we’d retrieved from Project Tutu, we’d also taken a bunch of their imaging gear which Doctor C and company had used to track the progress of the oneirocytes, and hopefully interface with them. That had all been duly installed by a cool mixture of human technicians, doctors and a handful of Geshiiil. The latter had built this place and installed what they thought would be useful things, like their equivalent of real-time MRI/x-ray devices. Very, very cool. Between them all they resolved trivial things like making Earth plugs and voltage work with whatever the Geshiiil used. Thankfully we weren’t involved at all in such things. We were busy getting a bollocking from the Earth government representatives. It did involve some shouting. They were highly concerned that we’d let a bunch of Qoth maybe kill themselves on our watch, and equally that we’d allowed them to straight up steal vital Earth technologies. Their choice of verbs was very accusative. It was the sort of meeting you just have to sit through quietly, nod a lot and look regretful. We’d become really bad at all of those things, and it was a considerable relief when someone came for us – it was time to take a proper look at the Qoth.

The kit had all been set up, and in an unpleasant echo of our earlier time in a surgical suite, we were ushered into an observation room with a big window where a new face, Doctor Hullesmann, talked us through what they knew already.

“When the nano parasites were injected into their hosts, they were faced with two problems. One, the host isn’t human; and two, the nearest analogue of human neural material they could find in the Qoth was immediately present, and spreads throughout the body. It looks like the nano parasites, smart things that they are recognised the neural material and made a game attempt to do what it’s supposed to: hijack the brain and start learning about it. That intervention immediately paralysed the Qoth hosts, as the parasite locked down the area it was injected. Not that the Qoth have bloodstreams either, this was more like injecting the nano parasites directly into your spine. Not a great idea. Since then, the parasites have been rapidly expanding, since they keep finding more ‘brain’ wherever they look. They’re working very hard, but it’s entirely possible they’re very lost and working off book.”

Cool. As I’d vaguely suspected, it’s not a brilliant plan to shove an oneirocyte into something that isn’t a human. I had questions.

“Do the Qoth dream?”

We had a Qoth in the room with us, who seemed quite relaxed about three of his colleagues being out cold with alien wires in their brains. “We look forward to being reunited with the god-star,” it said.

“Sure, I’m sure you do. But do you dream?” human language is drenched in metaphor and synonyms which are related and interchangeable but mean completely different things. This isn’t the case for all species – some of them actually say what they mean, and really do mean the things they say. “Dream – not hope, not remember. When humans sleep, we lose awareness of the world and create, imagine, new events and ideas. Partly those are remixed memories, but they’re not literal and they don’t relate to the real world. It’s an unconscious process.”

That baffled them. Qoth do sleep, in the sense that they’re not always up and running around doing Qothi things. But they don’t have an analogous state to dreaming. They use their sleep to solve actual problems, without the distraction of wandering about. When the Qoth say they’re going to think on something, they mean sleep on it, and by sleep on it, they mean they’re going to sit immobile and think about it until either someone wakes them up, or they’ve finished thinking about it. They don’t have an unconscious.

“Right, well. That’s going to be interesting for the oneirocyte,” I said, in deep frown, “sorry – the nan parasite. It’s job is to integrate the conscious and unconscious experiences of humans and give us control over both.” The Qoth and Geshiiil were plainly baffled that we didn’t already have command of ourselves. It had seemed so natural and normal right up until we met people who didn’t do it like that. They looked at us like we were mad. Maybe they’re right, it would explain a lot about humans.

“But they’re definitely doing something inside the Qoth. If they’ve triggered this ‘thinking’ state, then the parasites will be trying to connect up with that. And if they’re doing that throughout the body, that might explain why we–“ I indicated myself and my companions “–are experiencing a kind of interference with our nano parasites.”

“Yes, that makes sense,” our doctor buddy chipped in, “the human brain, consciousness itself rides on an electrical field generated throughout the brain. From the data I’ve seen – and thank you for bringing so much back from your expedition, by the way, it makes fascinating reading – the nano parasites intensify that field even further, which is partly how you’re able to communicate across the network. Since the nano parasites inside the Qoth are finding so much more neural material to work with, they’ve spread out much more than they need to in a human, and very possibly are trying to network and figure out what’s happening to them.”

“We must insist that we remove our people to Qothima,” the Qoth ambassador interjected.

That wrong-footed everyone. “We have the best facilities and equipment right here,” said Hellesmann, “we can monitor them properly and advise on the best course of action.”

“But you don’t know what’s happening,” retorted the Qoth, “and we do understand our own people. Perhaps your nano parasite experts could come with us.”

More wrong-footing. We didn’t actually have much to do, now that the Earth government had been coaxed into productive action by the Lesveds. The Vaunted had left us in peace while we fixed up the planet, in no apparent rush to go and tackle crypt-space. I guess it had already been at least twenty years while they dragged us all across the galaxy – the last year didn’t mean much to the immortal rainbow people. Our human ambassadors were getting all ready to huff and puff, but I got in there first.

“Sure, why not,” Scoro looked a little freaked out, but I gave him a reassuring smile, “as long as we can breathe on Qothima, we can work.”

There was a lot of arguing, complaining and doing all the things that ambassadors from the Council of Twelve (not a real thing, despite the Vaunted claiming it was a real thing – it would be in time, once the real war-planning began, but at this stage it was more like a society of friends who argued quite a lot) were supposed to do. In the end the Qoth, and us, won the debate. Obviously we’d be accompanied by a security detail, Doctor Hellesmann and whoever else Earth wanted to send. The Li were keen to be involved too, and basically a whole circus of whoever wanted to play. The Qoth looked pleased. I was excited: we were going to a different planet!

It took a while to sort out all the details and packing. We spent it in our ownworlds, a good distance away from the infected Qoth, who still showed no signs of waking up. We were wandering around in Scoro’s cathedral world, observing the static pulses that we were still getting, even half a mile away on the other edge of the top side space station.

“You think this is a good idea?” asked Gex.

“I do. Well, probably. The Vaunted said that the most interesting thing humans have for the coming war is the fact that we dream. That, and our work with the oneirocytes in controlling dreams.”

“Four and a half billion years of history, and only the last twenty years matters,” muttered Scoro.”

“Yeah, but without the billions of years in front, we wouldn’t have the last twenty years.”

“Plus, technically it’s not just twenty years. The project didn’t kick off with the shell, it just recruited Doctor C and got really serious about what they were doing. From the papers Hellesmann’s been rooting around in, the project goes back decades. The nano bit was the new thing, but they’ve been dicking around with human consciousness for a long time.” The others looked unimpressed by my pedantry.

Another wave of static passed through the ownworld, making the vaulted ceiling twitch. For just a moment it was like looking at a picture where one of the colours has been removed. Weird.

“Are we really going to an alien planet,” asked Gex a little wistfully.

“Unless we’re actually still trapped in the Unity and they’ve invented something cooler than a frozen lake, then yeah, I guess we are.”

“That’s not even funny,” she pouted. “We can breathe there, right?”

“Hellesmann thinks so – the Qoth basically exhale oxygen and nitrogen, so as long as we’re around them we should be fine. Plus he thinks their atmosphere isn’t wholly incompatible anyway. Honestly, who knows – we’ve never done this before.”

I was sneakily delighted that we were going to be among the first humans to ever step foot on an alien world. We didn’t get there by our own skill and ingenuity, not really. Right place, right time. Plus, we didn’t have any spaceships of our own. The terrestrial space programme had been pretty much fucked by the shell. Apart from launching satellites and sending probes to stare uselessly at the shell, all that effort had fallen by the wayside. But we had the Hellevance, and they had spaceships in abundance. As a culture that habitually planet-hopped and expanded, they were more than happy to lend us a spaceship, as long as they could come along. No one argued with that – who the fuck knows how to pilot a Hellevant spaceship?

Qoth was five planets up-orbit from Earth – “up-orbit” being how we described planets ahead of us in the direction the chain of worlds circuited the trinary star cluster – or seven planets down-orbit, if you’re a half-empty glass person. I wish I could say that the trip was a tremendous adventure, but it was nothing like the hair-raising exploits of our failed attempts to reach Mars, in advanced but hopelessly fragile tin cans with untested technology, little or zero gravity and the constant risk of death at any second. Nope, the Hellevance were long-time pros. Gravity, comfort, reassuring humming technology and proper food made it the opposite of those fart-filled human canisters. Obviously we did spent quite a lot of time in the observation lounges, watching Earth dwindle with the Hellevant environment engines as visible as the cloud systems. It was already looking a lot better than it had when the Geshiiil first installed the space elevator. We were at least getting our atmosphere back on track. There were exciting plans in the works to un-fuck the seas, with similar engines to filter all the crap out. After that – and the idea that there could be another “after that” after such astonishing endeavours was almost overwhelming – would come species reintroduction, making use of the vast DNA banks that had been populated early in the days of being in the shell, before so much went extinct. Our cloning technology was good, and the Li had some cool ideas about introducing variety into the cloning cycles so you didn’t just end up with a hundred identical tigers fucking each other. For example. It was all so good and positive that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: crypt-space. We knew the Vaunted would be calling on us at some point, which was partly why I was keen to get some off-world time with the Qoth or whoever. The implication had been that we three, or at least the things in our heads, were going to be important. We’d spent far too little time exploring what else they could do, and the Qoth had provided us with an opportunity to play with something unimaginable – networking the oneirocytes in a species that didn’t have an unconscious. And poke around an alien planet, obviously.

Qothima emerged along the chain – a bright green bubble against the velvet blackness of space. The trip hadn’t taken long, just eight days of smooth travel through our unnatural solar system. We’d pressed our faces to the screens as we’d passed other worlds too, but this was the one we were getting off on. As it drew closer, we saw that Qothima was mostly greenery with far less ocean area than we had on Earth. It was mostly one huge continent pocketed by seas. Looked nice. As we hove into orbit, the familiar shape of a Geshiiil space station and elevator grew larger. That was ridiculously reassuring. I was excited, but more than a little nervous about this (despite my claims to the contrary with Gex and Scoro), and the homely sight of the space station took the edge off. I was amazed by how quickly we’d embraced such new additions to our world. But look what we had before, I guess. If only everyone back home felt the same way…

We were unloaded into the space station, which proved to be almost identical to Earth’s. Clearly the Geshiiil had gone for compatibility and a proven design choice. The three unconscious Qoth were shipped out ahead of us, to be installed in a custom-built laboratory environment knocked up by the Qoth while we were in transit. We got on the elevator and descended into a continent-wide forest.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Four (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I felt like the ground had dropped away beneath me, but instead of hitting the floor in some Victorian swoon, I’d just panic hopped into the ownworld. Rather than the frosty yet empty racks of the Unity nest, I was under my own tranquil sky, and Gex and Scoro were with me.

“They’re gone – all of them,” I stammered out. I received the anticipated eruption of “what?!” and entirely unsurprising wave of panic that travelled through the ground beneath our feet. We had been upfront in the debriefing we’d received from our military and government representatives about the Unity. Doctor Charbroly and her team had definitely done something impressive, but we had been at pains to emphasise both how unnecessary butchering half a thousand people had been to achieving the project goals (ably demonstrated by just the three of us managing to say “howdy” to the Vaunted while being very much still in our meat sack bodies), as well as how fucking insane and murderous they’d been, in a proper nightmare mad scientist way. Ev9eryone had appeared to agree with us, with varying degrees of shock, horror and – now that I thought about it – a little too many mentions of “how unfortunate” that Doctor C and co weren’t still around. I can’t pretend that a fair amount of my feelings weren’t driven by simple fear. It’s OK to be scared of someone who wants to cut you open. And the project had failed: they weren’t there when the Vaunted rocked up, we were. The Unity was a heap of string in the basement, wanking away about their lovely new chalets by the lake. It’s easy to dismiss what scares us, it’s part of how we walk away from our fears and gain power over them. I really thought we’d had enough to worry about with rebuilding the Earth, dealing with our new alien pals, and, not forgetting – fighting crypt-space and killing the dead once and for all. A few hundred strung-together artificial brains should have been left in the past. But class, what do we know about the past? It always comes back to fuck you up.

“They can’t have been let out by the government – there’s no reason for them to send us back now to investigate. Better for them to have scooped the bastards out and never mentioned it. Pointless to let us discover they’re missing and freak about it.” Pointed out Scoro.

“Bluff, double-bluff, counter-bluff… Agreed. Overly complicated,” Gex muttered.

“Do we even have a problem here? They’re a bunch of networked brains – it’s  not as if they’re actually coming after us, is it,” I looked to the others for reassurance.

“Murdery robot brains on the loose. No, no problem at all,” Gex spat out.

Well, there was nothing we could do from that end. I dropped out of my ownworld and paid attention to the frosty mess in front of us. The soldiers insisted that we take a good look through the whole space. If I’d thought the lights flashing over human corpses upstairs was alarming, this former repository was even more stressful. The edges of shelves, lines of ice, spattered gel, shadows cast by other torches, all brought the brain tomb to heart-punching life. I was sweating despite the cold5 by the time we concluded that the place was indeed empty, and that there were no holes in the wall or anything where they might have burrowed rat-like through and into the mountain itself. I shuddered at the thought. The sight of the fuckers crawling down the corridor in all that blood, and writhing across the aisles of the archive were still shadows that tried to reach me in my dreams. That was another reason to be grateful for having my own oneirocyte – I didn’t dream about anything I didn’t want to.

Then I got a panicked squawk through the ownworld. It is odd maintaining both worlds at the same time. Being able to see a deep-frozen store room while also hearing the sound of the rain falling in my inner world for example – quite confusing. What I heard was Gex trying to say something9, but there was an additional layer of interference, like static that I’d never heard before in our ownworlds.

“Gex?” I said, out loud and in my mind.

“Sir?” The sergeant was by my side immediately.

“Are you still in contact with the rest of your team, sergeant?”

“There’s the best part of a kilometre of steel and concrete between us – no chance of contact at all.”

“Fuck. Something’s wrong – I can’t reach Gex, or Scoro. That ought to be impossible.” I mean – obviously. If we could reach out and talk to someone in space from our ownworlds, less than a mile should be a joke. “I think we should get out here sergeant, and fast.” The Unity might be gone, but right then there was one massive upside to it… “Since they’re all gone we can just turn the power back on and use the elevators, right?” My knees were virtually cheering, and despite my concern for the others I hadn’t felt this chipper since the flight on the zerocopter.

“Sorry sir, the power’s been physically cut from outside and we don’t have a team set up to bring it back online.”

“You’re fucking joking.” No point phrasing that as a question. This lot weren’t the comedy type. They’d been substantially spooked by the bloody mess upstairs, even if a lot of that tension had been expelled when we found the Unity were missing. Bit of a mission fail, but also something of a relief for everyone. And now something else had gone wrong, somewhere. We did indeed have to take the stairs. And despite my protests, we had to take them a bit quicker than we had coming down. It was all too much like escaping from this fucking bunker all over again. There’s a peculiar thing about running. You can either run towards, or run away. Technically we were running towards the others, but I challenge anyone to run out of a cold cellar where you know there was a monster, and not feel like you’re running away. That horrid cold clutch in the gut, the hairs on the back of your neck rising so that they’ll be the first things brushed when the thing catches up with you. Terrific motivator though. I was not a cross-country specialist or anything – no one was anymore, except maybe the military – but I’m sort of proud of how quickly I got up those stairs, and all without my lungs ending up on the outside, bouncing off my coat.

When we finally reached the formerly blue corridor and clean-room lobby where we’d left the other soldiers, Gex, Scoro and the Qoth, I still hadn’t succeeded in making contact, even though I’d spent half the trip mentally yelling for them in the ownworld. But Gex’s flaming engine realm was empty, gears grinding away on their own, so I knew she was at least still alive. Or the oneirocyte was, a thought I stamped on hard. Her and Scoro’s ownworlds were up and running, but they couldn’t get to them. I figured it wasn’t wise to try and rip them out of the real. If they could be here, they already would be. And the memory of doing it to those scientists, and the results were both geographically and emotionally too close. Besides which, we were almost there. Even the soldiers had to take a moment to catch their breath. Running up a hill with a fridge on your back (or whatever military training entails) is nothing compared to a hundred staircases in sub-zero temperatures. I wanted to die, and everything in my body passionately desired to be outside my body. But we only got a minute before Gex was suddenly back in my mind.

“Where the fuck have you lot been?” she demanded.

Even in the ownworld, I was still out of breath, as ridiculous as that sounds: “It’s fucking miles!”

“Get in here now.”

I swallowed all my organs and bile again, and the soldiers booted the doors open, rifles held at the ready. We found everyone intact, which was great. The squad who’d stayed with Gex and Scoro were all lying flat on the floor, as were the Qoth. Gex and Scoro were sitting on a table, as far from them all as possible, with the Project Tutu case resting between them.

“Hi guys,” Gex started, but the soldiers gave her no time to continue. They saw their downed comrades and despite our little jaunt down and up the stairs, were as alert as I’d seen them, rifles most definitely directed at my friends and the Qoth, while someone else checked on their prone colleagues.

“All alive sarge,” they reported.

“Good. Now,” from behind a rifle, “what the hell is going on here?”

Scoro took over. “Everything was fine until the Qoth got their hands on the case,” he tapped the box between him and Gex, “up till then we were all just having a nice chat and a cup of tea.” Soldiers apparently go nowhere without tea, and since it was freezing cold and there was nothing to do other than watch each other and wait for us to come back, they’d basically had a tea party with the Qoth. Sounded nice. Sounded a lot better than the secondary objective of this bloody mission. “Bremis over there–“ Scoro pointed at one of the downed soldiers “–was just digging out the sugar when I heard 6the snap of the case opening. One of the Qoth had popped it open. I tried to get it back off them but they did that puffing up their fur thing, and um, it was a bit more intimidating than that sounds. Next thing I knew they were muttering about the god-star and had pulled out a handful of the nano parasite injectors.”

The case had thousands of nano parasites, held inert in their injectable capsules. They only needed to be injected into the bloodstream – that was the main improvement on the early project work when they’d had to take the skullcap off to install the things. From the state of the room, it was pretty clear what had happened next, and I guess that showed on my face.

“You got it,” said Gex, “the soldiers went for the case, it being primary objective and all, but these tripod guys are really a lot, lot faster than I thought. They knocked em all out in quick order. I guess our boys had orders not to shoot the Qoth – smart, obviously. We’ve not had an interplanetary diplomatic incident before, but I bet we’ve got one now. Once the lads were down, the Qoth didn’t fuck about – nothing we said slowed them down – they just banged the nano parasites straight into themselves. Then they fell over.”

Well, they would. Nano parasite introduction was supposed to be done when you were at least lying down, if not in a nice stable lab, rather than a freezing cold hole in a mountain. For fuck’s sake. Now we had three aliens with a nano parasite built specifically for humans wandering around in whatever passed for their bloodstreams.

“I’m going to get someone to turn the power back on,” said the sergeant, “I’m damned if we’re dragging this lot back up the stairs.”

Praise be, no more stairs.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Three (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

A lot of things had happened to the Earth very fast. The unshelling, the shocking appearance of new suns, a whole chain of new and friendly alien worlds that all popped into existence one afternoon. We were so heavily in the mix right from the start that we didn’t really stop to think about how other people might feel about it. I was wildly excited by the whole shebang – the dramatic explosion of hope where before there was only gloom and a bleak future – for the first time since I was twenty it looked like everything might work out OK. I’d never had a clue what I wanted back then, and while I’d spent most of that twenty years of meat-grey darkness engaged in helpful community projects and ultimately dicking around with the oneirocytes, that was all happy accident. It hadn’t left me with any profound glimpses of a future where I had a job (if those sorts of things even existed now), was in a relationship or hoped to bring a family into the world. That last was a particular shock to the system: our population had bombed, not just because our environment choked us to death, but because barring accidents and outrageous optimism, our reproduction rate had crashed through the floor too. For a very long time it felt as if there had been a tacit assumption that we were the final generation, more or less, and when we finally went that would be it. The Earth would keep going, eventually scrubbing its eco-system clean and starting again. In a way, that had been my greatest hope for the planet. Wipe it off and begin clean. From the sounds of it, talking to the other worlds, that was pretty much the deal everywhere. I don’t know how many ninety-percent extinction events we’ve had on Earth before the apes got smart, but there have been quite a few. Life finds a way, as they say. And it had found a way all over the galaxy.

Once again, there was hope for a new life even here on Earth. Our remaining population were reeling from that new discovery. We were sufficiently scattered that it took weeks to reach all the known cities and smaller settlements who weren’t connected to the smartnet anymore. All communications had taken a kicking, and we’d lost track of the isolated communities all over the world who had been eking out an existence off the net. They’d all seen the sky open again, had rediscovered the utter joy of day and night. For weeks, hell – months – we cried at sunset and sunrise, some atavistic delight returning to our lives. They were astonishing sunsets too. We’d pumped so much junk into the atmosphere that they produced the best sunsets ever. It’s almost a shame the Hellevance cleared all that up… But no one had told a lot of these people what was happening. The government had got its shit together and found most of these folks to clue them in a bit to the vast cosmic crisis we’d been saved from, who the Vaunted were, and what all those frighteningly close planets were in the night sky. Looking at Hellevance wasn’t like getting a glimpse of Mars through a telescope or a lucky squint – their encrusted world glowed and you could see it with the naked eye. There was an awful lot to explain, break down and reassure people about. But still, the Geshiiil started installing the space elevator before a lot of folks had heard that there were even aliens, so the whole planet was still in a state of psychic shock. And those shocks kept coming. The massive Hellevant engines in the sky, the world starting to become habitable again. But it was an awful lot. It’s easier to deal with when you’re close to it, but if you’re living in a tented community that a week ago was struggling to breathe but now has sunrises and occasionally sees a zerocopter speeding by overhead, it’s harder to feel involved. There was a lot of resentment, and wholly justified anger. Anger towards the Vaunted, classic human fear of the unknown, fear of new things – of change to even a totally fucked up life. It’s still your life, even if it’s awful, and now everything was changing, whether you wanted it to or not, and no one was asking if it was OK. Consultations were approximately zero, and a lot of that was our fault – me, Gex and Scoro. When the Geshiiil wanted to put the space elevator in, we were like “yeah, cool, do it”, and had similar feelings about scrubbing the atmosphere. But being placed in charge by alien gods isn’t the same as being put in charge by your own people, and I was incredibly grateful when the world government took over a lot of that stuff. Unfortunately, by then the three of us were famous. Both for being the first to talk to the aliens and also for being the ones who invited the other aliens in. Initially the government tried to make out that although we were representing Earth’s interests, actually we were doing what the government said. But after a while it became convenient to have some scapegoats for when people were unhappy about the aliens. That was nice of them. Gave us a certain notoriety, described in some quarters as collaboration. Of course we fucking collaborated – they fixed the damn world! Also, they were mostly kind of ace.

The range of alien life we were now meeting was genuinely intoxicating (and not just if you breathe them in when they die). It was like being in a toy shop where every toy was cooler and more interesting than the last, and they could all talk to you and show you amazing new things. The ones we met early on were the most sociable, but there were other worlds farther round the chain circling the trinary suns who we didn’t meet until much later on. Next on the list for us was the Qoth (their actual name was much, much, much longer but no one could be bothered to use it in full except the Geshiiil who seemed to delight in trilling the full forty seconds it took to pronounce). Generously, I’d call them miserable fucks. It wasn’t their fault, of course. None of us wanted to be here, we’d all been unceremoniously uprooted and jacked halfway across the galaxy, with no regard whatsoever for what we had been doing, what our planetary ambitions were, or even how we were dispersed across a solar system. Like the Hellevance, for example. Just one of their many worlds had been filched by the Vaunted. I wondered what the rest of the Hellevance thought about that, one of their planets just vanishing one day. Which reminded me of our Moon of course. I hoped they’d made it, somehow. At least they had no organic environment to die off around them – the Hellevance had come through the shell irritated, but with their already high-technology and artificially expanded world had been easy enough to seal up and continue as they were.

The Qoth’s problem was spiritual: the first of the truly religious alien species I’d met. The Li had expanded into every inch of their ecosystem and there was nothing but Li there, no room for gods. The Geshiiil and Hellevance liked the idea of gods, but they were so busy doing half the things that humans would have expected gods to do that there was no point in them. The Qoth were more like us, especially a few hundred years ago. It was an article of faith that their world had been birthed by their god-star, which would ultimately reclaim their souls when they died, and one day the sun would consume its child planet once more and all the Qothi souls would be reborn in their god-star’s heart. They took that very seriously. The Vaunted had paid no more care to their concerns than to anyone else’s. Sure, they’d saved the Qoth from certain doom since crypt-space had erupted very close to their god-star, which meant the dead realm had a lot of matter to suck up and convert itself back into physical stuff. The Qoth world would have been next, but they could not give a flying fuck. They wanted their god-star back, because otherwise their souls would be lost here in the void. Unlike a lot of Earth religions, they didn’t wrap this in apologetics to paper over the appalling cracks in their theology. We’d spun our myths over thousands of years, made up by illiterates, carried orally and finally written down, and then reinterpreted, rewritten, stolen wholesale, called something else and then spent centuries trying to explain how all the obvious errors and nonsense were totally true, and really, if you thought about it, were what made all of it make sense. Not my thing. The Qoth didn’t have any of that. Their spiritual story was dead straight, and they seemed to be born knowing it as a solid fact. In the same way that we’re born knowing absolutely fuck all, but have a bunch of structure that early experiences will bootstrap into self-awareness and knowledge, the Qoth are born with inbuilt knowledge about their god-star, and learning about everything else comes second. They’re not monks or anything like that though. They’re quite beautiful furry tripedal tortoise things. Apologies if that’s a little hard to envision, but we were still hampered by all our reference points for alien things being based on our domestic environment which lacks such bizarre hybrids (except in really old children’s entertainment). No, the Qoth have a lovely world – it was actually the first alien planet in our new solar system that I visited – it’s a little like how I remember Earth being before the shell, and how I hoped it would end up again.

The reason I bring up the Qoth is that they were just as interested as the Li in our nano parasites. If the Vaunted wouldn’t return them to their god-star, and they probably couldn’t, because crypt-space would have eaten it, their god and the souls of everyone who had ever died on Qothima (I’m abbreviating again, no way am I spelling out a four hundred and twenty-two character transliteration of their subsonic language), they needed some way to remember the god-star properly, and if they could find it in their collective memory, maybe it would be real enough to offer them salvation. I mean, why the hell not, right? The Vaunted had shown that if you do it right, you can create a mental realm – a spiritual realm (I really hoped there wasn’t a third dimension of existence for soul on top of body and mind – there’s only so much complexity a little human mind wants to handle) – and it’s exactly as real as the physical world we’re used to. From what we’d seen of Project Tutu’s plans, you could shuck off your body and live in it full time too. If living in a tank of grey brain wool is what you want to call living.

The Qoth wanted in, the Li wanted in. We really needed some more oneirocytes. They’d bought our explanation that the creators of the nano parasites were all dead (true), since they’d seen the state of our planet that was certainly credible. But, I explained, the project headquarters still contained some samples which we could extract and no doubt we, or the Geshiiil at any rate, would be able to figure them out and reproduce the technology. We’d talked ourselves into a little roadtrip, and despite our apprehensions, the Qoth were keen to accompany us. We had already established that the Li weren’t coming down to our planet. Their help was staying in orbit. When we’d mentioned them to the nascent world government and explained how they had reproduced by taking over cells of every lifeform on their planet, but were very keen to help get our animal populations back to normal, we were met with a “fuck no”. I was fairly sure the Li could resist hijacking our ecosystem, but we humans are a suspicious bunch and we had enough to be dealing with without swallowing yet another spider to eat a fly. So it was us, a trio of Qoth (they never, ever turn up in anything other than multiples of three. Don’t know if it’s a sex thing or what, never found a polite way to ask), and a human military escort.

After waking up in the ruins of the observatory, Colonel Lindsmane had somehow gotten a promotion. Presumably it was an awkward combination of his failure to attack the Vaunted’s rainbow ship, and of simply being there when they showed up. It’s not quite failing upwards, I guess. Now he was Brigadier Lindsmane, which still meant very little to me, but was apparently equivalent to a director or something. Either way, he met us at the bottom of the space elevator: me, Gex, Scoro, and three Qoth. He took it pretty well considering how our first meeting had gone. No guns in our faces this time, so that was nice. He also took the Qoth well – military briefings emphasise being very professional, and not freaking out when you meet anything, including five-foot tall shelled tripeds. He ushered us all into a broad briefing room. Again, the military love briefings. It was a measure of our dwindling authority as representatives of Earth that we weren’t allowed to just ask the Geshiiil to give us a lift, and instead had to go through the new proper channels. It did make fewer things our fault.

“The site we’ll be visiting was the epicentre of the Vaunted’s incursion into our atmosphere, which penetrated a highly secure research facility,” he paused, catching my eye, “in the subterranean facility we’ll be on our guard against any rogue elements of the project which might still be present.”

It wasn’t just the three of us who weren’t happy about how Project Tutu had wrapped up. From what I’d heard, partly from Lindsmane himself, Tutu’s official purpose had been a new form of communication and organisation. Shucking five hundred plus brains out of their skulls had not been part of that plan. Doctor C and her cadre had indeed gone rogue, very rogue.

He went on. “The facility has been entirely powered down since the Vaunted arrived. We don’t expect any activity given the lack of power, but we’ll be going in armed. Respectfully,” he addressed the Qoth representatives with their insanely long names, “we’ll ask you to stay within our security cordon at all times and allow our field experts–“ us “–to locate the assets.”

Everyone seemed OK with that, even if I wasn’t entirely sure the Qoth knew what a security cordon was. We got to ride in a zerocopter next, which was a first for me. It would have been unthinkable just six months earlier, with greasy winds roaring around about and visibility often just upward of nil. Plus, they were a new toy that the Geshiiil had knocked up for us. They’d seen our mothballed helicopters and the variety of winged and hovering aeronautic kit, tutted thoughtfully, and made something a million times better. The zerocopters just gave no fucks about what they were flying through, and instead of having wings or rotating blades, they just hummed and moved slickly through whatever was around them. Apparently you could chuck them in the sea and they were fine there too. We sliced through the billowing winds and additional clouds and currents generated by the now-functional environmental engines hanging in the sky.

The observatory had been sealed over, to protect or at least preserve the equipment inside from the ravages of the weather. We landed in between some of the dishes and towers that had failed to make contact with the Vaunted, and headed inside. The soldiers kept their rifles at the ready, leaving us free to look around anxiously, while the Qoth ambled about quite happily. I suppose this was a sort of day out for them, away from fretting about the god-star. A section of canvas came away to permit us access and we entered the facility. The lift was still out of action – no way were we going to power the place up. I profoundly hoped that killing the electric had frozen those creepy fuckers in the basement. At least those blue lights wouldn’t be on everywhere. However, with the lift out, we’d have to use the stairs again. They’d almost killed us last time. But there was nothing else for it. Down we all went, the Qoth with surprising dexterity – maybe three legs are better than two for staircases.

Down and down. Colder and colder. We reached the main corridor that led in from the garage where we’d left the caterpillar. I plaintively gestured at the massive concrete doors that led outside via a long dark tunnel, but apparently there was no way to open them at all from the outside, not without power or a kick-ass bomb. I’d have taken the explosion for the sake of my knees in a heartbeat. The plumes of our breath flowed outwards, misting up the air. The Qoth seemed fine with it all. Their fur was a decent match for our heavy-duty arctic gear. The more we breathed, the more they liked it. They’re fans of a carbon-dioxide environment, so they liked Earth in general. They breathe backwards from us or something – taking in C02 and extracting what they need, exhaling a different gas mix which was thankfully not toxic to humans. Aliens, eh. All of this wondering served to distract me from what we were doing. I walked along, torch in hand behind the soldiers who swept every door we approached, rubbing shoulders with Scoro and Gex.

We found the case with the sphinx on the lid absurdly easily. On our way out we’d been through lots of the rooms trying to find a way out, but we hadn’t searched the clean rooms we’d entered the facility through, due to all those annoying auto-closing doors. Sure enough, the neat secure case with the sphinx logo on the top was in a storage locker where Hest must have stashed it for dealing with later. After all, Project Tutu had run out of humans to infect with the nano parasites.

“All right, cool. That was easy,” Scoro said. We all breathed easier for that. “Hardly worth you lot getting all tooled up, eh?”

At that, the demeanour of our armed guard changed. Their sergeant, whose name I forget, spoke ominously. “Primary objective achieved then. Secondary objective – check the nest.”

Now, those were not the words I wanted to hear.

“We need you to come with us,” the sergeant pointed at me. “One squad stays here with the primary objective and the Qoth, second squad and Evanith comes with me.”

“Ah fuck,” I muttered.

Gex put a hand on my arm, “we’re not splitting up. Have you not seen a single horror movie?”

“Orders ma’am,” the sergeant replied firmly, continuing to split the squad up.

“It’s OK,” I said (it wasn’t), “we can keep in touch through the ownworld.” Walking in both worlds simultaneously was something that we’d all been practising. At first it was hard, because you fell over and bumped into things a lot, but there are infinite degrees of immersion, and going in shallow meant you could feel each other but see the real world. Much safer.

With a profound sense of terror, I allowed the second squad to nudge me through into the main facility. It was the same as it had been before, except even colder. This deep in the mountain there’s no heat at all, and even the floor was slippery. We went down and down again. When we came to the corridor where the surgical suites were, I spoke again, shivering but definitely from cold not fear, “We need to check out a room down here.”

Bloody streaks ran the length of the corridor, looking just how you might expect if a ball of string soaked in blood had dragged itself along, and vanished down the stairs we’d yet to traverse. We followed the blood trail. I wasn’t sure how much the soldiers had been clued in, but they didn’t seem perturbed by the presence of blood. The room full of corpses with holes grated out of their scalps, blood soaked and frozen onto every surface… Only one of them quietly vomited in a corner. I hadn’t come this far into the room before, and I wished I hadn’t now. The sight of the bodies welded together by the frozen blood was awful. The shadows jumped alarmingly as we played our torches over them. A dead body always looks as if it’s about to leap back to life and grab you – under moving lights it’s even worse. When we – I’d – yanked their consciousnesses into my ownworld I’d just been trying to save us from their grisly plans, but I hadn’t intended for them to die. Or be left like this. I couldn’t unsee Doctor C’s frozen open eyes staring at me from the floor. I hurried back outside.

The soldiers looked a little pale, but it might have been the cold.

“That wasn’t the nest, was it sir?” asked the sergeant, who had clearly been well briefed on the debrief we’d received months earlier, after Lindsmane’s men had woken back up and we’d all been whisked off for lots of meetings.

“No. We need to go quite a long way down. Hope your knees are up to it.”

More down. If possible it was even colder as we reached the basement and the antechamber with its airlock. The inner window that should have given us a good view of the blue-lit room was frozen opaque from whatever moisture had been inside. We’d need to go in. The kit we’d all been supplied with contained breathing apparatus in case we needed it deep in the facility. I wasn’t remotely concerned about taking bacteria or anything into the garden of deadly mind string. Hell, if it offered a chance to fuck the little bastards up some more that was all good. But it did seem to reassure the soldiers. I suppose to them this was a major threat of contamination, but I didn’t think the nano parasites were a risk unless they were inside your head. Without power we couldn’t operate the airlock so easily, but soldiers are brilliant at this stuff. They popped open a range of hatches and brute forced it open.

We lit up the interior of the big open room with our torches. I hoped to find all the nano parasites frozen solid, their little tanks of jelly iced up, locking them in place. But instead it was much worse. All the racks that filled the chamber were empty. A few tanks lay on the shelves, scattering their frozen goop across the floor. But that was it. The Unity was gone.

Meta-Nanowrimo 2022, 2

Nanowrimo target achieved, and yet…

I smashed through the nominal Nanowrimo 50,000 word target on Saturday, with Stolen Skies, Part Twenty-One – one short novel completed! I’d been agonising about this for a couple of days, since I knew I wouldn’t have finished off the story I’ve been telling in 50k, and I wasn’t sure quite what I felt about that. On the one hand, absolutely hurray: I haven’t written like this for ages, and you know what kids, I can still bash out an unedited heap of words in rapid succession that, if you squint, definitely looks like a fun unpolished story. Many thanks to my four dedicated readers for making me feel like I’m a proper writer and everything. On the other hand: what’s the point in just ending a story when I haven’t reached the end…? Nightmare scenario basically.

I’ve been able to get up and write a few thousand words each day far more easily than I can get up to go and do exercise, so plainly this is really very good for something deep inside, the artist locked up in my bony garret is having a fine old time. I figured maybe I needed another ten or fifteen thousand words to round the tale off properly. And then the possibility of just starting a sequel winked at me lasciviously from the back of my mind. God damn it.

In the end, part twenty-one does wrap up the story, in that it brings us all the way (pretty much) from the future point that the story begins with (Evanith getting glassed in a pub), and then has a 50,000 word flashback to see what’s led him to that point. Which I can argue to myself is at least part one of a story complete. Spoilers, we finally meet the Vaunted by the end of 21, we see what’s going on with him in the present, but I was u5nable to resist putting a bit of a cliffhanger in.

Stolen Skies

And, as I knew it probably would, that cliffhanger was for me, not the reader, teasing and tempting me to get up reasonably early on a Sunday morning and write more tasty words. Which I duly did. Part Twenty-Two is really the start of the next phase of the story as I see it. This phase probably won’t turn out to be as long as the first section, but it’s got lots more aliens and hopefully will explain what happens both in between the Vaunted showing up and Evanith getting glassed, and I’d like to get into the ensuing war against (spoilers) afterwards. I’ll just have to see how I get on. Rather than portentously name the next bit a whole new book Dead Skies, for example, I’m just gonna keep going. Partly it’s because the prospect of starting with a blank page is appalling, whereas this Word doc now has 54,865 words in it, and that proves an enormous esteem and encouragement boost first thing in the morning. Still, worth knocking out a new bit of AI cover art for.

So, onwards into the coming tide of destruction. Enjoy! If you’ve been reading it, I’d love to hear (mostly positive, this is just for fun) feedback and what you’ve thought so far.

Stories are just fun to tell

I’ve been realising a lot during this writing month. It’s making me happy, and making my brain feel awake in a specific way it hasn’t for a while. I love improvised comedy, and that’s 100% storytelling and playing with friends. Occasionally I get to tell stories on my own, on stage. If you can tolerate such stupidity, you’re welcome to view my storytelling contribution to MissImp’s Monsters of Improv show from earlier this month at Malt Cross. It’s a science fiction story, I guess. Apologies to Frank Herbert, and the Catholic church I guess (but generally, fuck em, they owe us more than we could ever owe them).

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Two (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I woke up a couple of days later in a much nicer medical ward. This one had windows, and I could see whichever of the trinary suns was closest. The sky was blue, a shade it hadn’t been for decades, and had taken a few years to sort out. I still remembered the sight of the Hellevance assembling their terraforming machines in the sky, like a massive honeycomb larger than the clouds. It appeared to work a lot like a vacuum cleaner. Seemed funny, because as someone who didn’t have an intimate grasp of atmospheric mechanics and the delicate balances of gases and moisture and so on, it was exactly the sort of solution I would have suggested (if anyone had asked, and really – why would they?) Anyway, it worked a treat, even if it took a full two years to run, sucking the crap out of the air. The honeycomb structures turned dark as they absorbed the poisons and filth we’d dumped into the atmosphere, and then the Hellevance did something clever with local space and the full hexagons folded themselves up and vanished, reappearing in orbit. What you and I might call toxins when we’re trying to breathe them invariably turn out to be incredibly useful elsewhere. In our new community of twelve planets in their artificial orbit, resources were to be hoarded and used. Nice vindication of the old “reuse, recycle, don’t kill your fucking world” ideas. Human civilisation had crashed through chaos in the final decade of the shell, and we were a shadow of our former selves. So many of the ideals that we’d hoped would see us through had fallen by the wayside of plain survival. But under-resourced efforts at survival lead to horrible short-term measures, all of which make the world even worse and harder to live in. The re-opening of the shell was great, but we needed a lot of help to put Humpty back together again.

Oh hey there. Sorry – didn’t spot you at first. Even now I’m not quite used to seeing a blue sky and fluffy white clouds again. And I never thought I’d see birds like this again. I don’t usually get a lot of time to stare out of windows, not down here on Earth anyway. Oh, right. I’m Evanith. I’m here because I spent a few hours inhaling dead Alometh. Apparently that’s a truly awful idea. Nah, I wandered into the wrong waiting room – with a concussion second left and third right sound all too similar – and like the fuckwit I am I didn’t click until they turned up with hazmat suits. Hell, I’d never met an Alometh before. Guess I still haven’t. Basically, when they die, all their inner goop dissolves into airborne particles – pollen, essentially – and they go and pollinate a new body. Seems half their species is kinda like a load of crops, so when the smart half dies, they go and fertilise a load more. I’m not sure whether it’s technically cloning, or if they’re all new people. So it was trying to fertilise me, going straight through my airways into the circulatory system, into the nervous system and up into my brain. Given a bit longer it might have worked, or more likely I’d have just corked it. But I’ve got an oneirocyte in my skull that rather jealously guards its domain. Lucky me. Also, it might crawl out of my skull one day, so there’s that… Ah, mechanical accident? Bad luck. I agree, having two arms is definitely better. “Pulled off by a machine?” Well, you don’t hear that sentence every day, that sucks. I’m sure they’ll sort you a new one easily enough. Ah – yeah, that Evanith. I know. I’m not really cool with the weird fame we’ve ended up with. Someone had to say hello first though, right, and that was me and the others. It’s true – I am not especially tall, particularly when lying down. Woah! No, I’d stay in bed right there if I were you. I flailed for the “nurse” button, and was quite relieved when a pair of impressively burly nurses, one with a whole extra set of manipulator augmentations hanging over his shoulders, pinned the one-armed guy back to the bed. Fame has not been what I’d thought it might be.

Those first few weeks after the shell came down and the bubble-ship entered our atmosphere, when we stopped Project Petbe from making an epic mistake, they were wild. Some of it was down to expectations, and how brutally they can be foiled. I guess I, and others, had felt that our main problem was the shell, that everything which its emergence had triggered – all the climate hell, social breakdown, species extinctions and the annihilation of our own species – would all be somehow solved by the shell just fucking off. Of course it didn’t, and the cold new light of day just laid bare how badly we’d fucked ourselves over in twenty years. It’s a special gift of humanity, trying to blame someone else for our fuck-ups. We’re like the Vaunted in more ways than one, though they didn’t quite blame someone else, they blamed the universe itself for being more complicated than they thought. A lesser species would just give up at that point, but not the Vaunted… Who, by the way, we rarely spoke to again after that rather fraught first meeting on the mountain-top. Clearly they thought we were going to be useful, but we’d impressed on them just how unimpressed we were by their fancy rainbow lights and immaterial existence. I figured they were just giving us space, but it turned out that very few of their rescued planets had regular contact with the Vaunted directly. Maybe they had realised they were a bit shit at it. Given their essentially immaterial nature, and preference for contact on the mental plane, humans were actually one of the few species they could communicate with directly and conveniently – with the three of us at least, at first anyway. For dealing with the Geshiiil and others they’d had to do more with bringing their rainbow membranes into the real and making a proper effort to chat. Maybe we were just too easy to talk to… Whatever, they’re kinda dicks anyway. We spoke with the other species much more, and that was probably the Vaunted’s intention – let a bunch of material races sort themselves out and then we could all do something about crypt-space. But that was to be several years off.

Given the state of our planet, other species came to us at first. The Geshiiil are great. They came from a solar system with about forty planets in it, all of which they’d had a fun time taking apart so they could use their raw materials to make their own world larger and cooler. In appearance they’re sort of like insects, or what lobsters would look like if their mum was an owl – clawed, feathery, tonnes of fingers and awesome eyes that worked like microscopes. If you thought having an arsehole in your eyes like we do was cool, this lot could focus down to almost the nanoscale. Like I said before, all our brilliant ideas about how other intelligences and life would behave were way off the mark. The Geshiiil were engineers – they loved it. Prefab, nano-extrusions, shit – you name it, they got it. They’re the ones who built a space station in Earth orbit and grew (if you watched it being constructed, “grew” is the only word you’d think to use) the space elevator that linked it with the planet below. Its base (where we found our drinking dens) spread out from a then-dead chunk of equatorial archipelago, which turned into the largest new city we had. When it was all up and running, that elevator never stopped, continuously used to ship materials to the surface – all the stuff we needed to bring our people back from the brink.

Once the space station was in place, the Geshiiil shipped the three of us up. I’d never been to space before, and I expected it to be all cool and floaty, but the Geshiiil were far too good for that sort of nonsense. There was certainly an unsettling shift in gravity as we reached the midway point, and stopped feeling like down was behind us and was instead pulling upwards, but you got used to that quickly. Unless, like Gex you’d always hated rollercoasters back in the old days. Similar sensation, but we got her fixed up with pills that helped, or we just spent the trip in our ownworlds and chose not to worry about the space around us. We stayed with it the first time, and personally, it never stopped being amazing. Rising up in the air and watching the landscape splay out around us. Depressing and amazing at first, of course because we could see just how dead much of the world looked. The sea was a grimy-looking thing. Of all the environments on Earth that had suffered by far the most. The Vaunted seemed to have enough empathy, or received enough of a bollocking from us and the other worlds to realise we would be doing precisely fuck all to aid their crypt-space problem until we had liveable environments again. Clearing the clouds and then the atmosphere felt extraordinary, white turning blue, turning black as the big ol’ blue and green marble (alright, dark grey and worryingly brown at first) came into view. And then the elevator vanished into the depths of the space station and the sights fell away.

For that first meeting, representatives of five worlds had been assembled to meet and greet us. Even now, there are a couple of planets like the Alometh whose people I’ve never met. From what the Geshiiil later told me, we weren’t the only civilisation that had taken a beating in the process of being rescued by the Vaunted. One planet, none of the other worlds even knew what its people had called it, had emerged from the shell burnt to the bedrock. No one knew for sure what had happened to it, and everyone just left it the fuck alone. A dead bead on our planetary necklace. Humans like for there to be someone worse off than them, because it means we haven’t hit rock bottom, but in this case it reminded me of how bad it could have been. At least ten percent of our species had survived… We’d already met the Geshiiil of course, as they crawled and flapped about setting up the space elevator, doing an excellent imitation of human language, albeit with a tendency for their tone to drop alarmingly between deep enough to make your bones vibrate and high enough to make your ears hurt. Bird-lobsters. What are you gonna do? They introduced us to a couple of people from Hellevance. That was a big shiny world three planets ahead of us in the ring. It was very hard not to feel totally overwhelmed by meeting people apparently made of gold who were nine feet tall with no apparent bones. Their planet wasn’t even their first, or the only planet they’d settled. Avid terraformers, they’d been planet-hopping from the homeworld for tens of thousands of years, practicing their art of making barren rocks into sweet second homes. They were hugely pissed off to have been taken out of a solar system that they’d only just begun to populate, and had been trying and failing to contact the rest of their star-spanning civilisation to no avail – apparently wherever the Vaunted had taken us, it was a long way from where crypt-space was making inroads on reality. Very nice though, and rather endearingly concerned about the state of Earth. They really, really liked getting their hands dirty and were eager to start fixing our fucked up atmosphere and poisoned oceans.

We spent quite a lot of time explaining that we were just three random folk with extra junk in our heads, and were absolutely not the government, or kings, or anyone with a clue. That didn’t especially faze them. The Geshiiil had already met some of the representatives of Earth’s surviving governments and didn’t seem very impressed. There had been a lot of “you can’t just” which might have been fair enough in the context of a planet struggling with its identity after twenty years of hell and now there were a load of aliens to batter our fragile little egos, but it really conflicted with the Geshiiil work ethic. The other worlds, like the Hellevance and Geshiiil, were very keen to get stuck in, but we had to slam the brakes on eventually, and get some more people up here who properly understood what the Hellevance meant when the said they wanted to re-oxygenate our oceans. Maybe we’d finally demonstrated our incompetence plainly enough, because the Geshiiil suggested we should assemble some kind of Earth council of our own. We were happy to make random decisions, but it did seem likely we’d fuck it up at some point, and there just had to be some people better able to do it back down on Earth.

At that stage, it felt like we had little to offer, beyond a broken planet. But that’s when the Li piped up, enquiring about our oneirocytes. Whatever function the Vaunted played in getting the worlds to cooperate, part of it had clearly been by tipping the others off that we did indeed have something special to take a peek at. We were the last planet to have been slotted into place in the chain of worlds – it wasn’t clear whether that was because we’d been dragged the furthest, or if there was a sensible order to how the worlds had been unshelled. The Geshiiil had been one of the first to emerge, that was for sure. It made a sort of sense – uber-practical, gregarious and intensely sociable – they were great ambassadors for the Vaunted to send off to check out the other planets. Very happy to share their technology and deeply enthused by seeing others take their engines and explore the tech in different ways. The corps of human engineers and mechanics they eventually recruited virtually worshipped them. However it had all been done, the Vaunted had made it known that of all the assembled worlds, only the humans on Earth had come closest to what the Vaunted themselves had done in shifting their existence into the mental plane, the one nearest to the hell of crypt-space. So we found ourselves useful, at last. While Earth put together a functional world government, very much assisted by the Lesveds who looked reassuringly similar to humans, even if they could only live on other worlds immersed in tanks of blood-red liquid and had no toes or fingers… Basically, if you squinted and ignored all the weird shit, and were willing to put on headphones that shut out the outside world, letting you hear them whisper to you, they were lovely, solicitous and turned out to be into governance structures and representation. From what I heard later, their watery world had been through a series of truly brutal and apocalyptic wars from which they’d emerged with very clear views about how to not eradicate yourselves.

Oh yeah, the Li. They were the first to get into the oneirocyte technologies. Again, fascinating bunch, or whatever the word is for a bunch, singular. Over millions of years, the Li had taken over everything on their homeworld. Everything organic on the planet was Li. The planet was called Li, the fish-equivalents were called Li. So were the trees and the grass. Every living cell had Li in it, and they were all connected, constantly chattering to themselves, or itself rather. It was all one big mind, but that didn’t stop it from talking to itself and behaving more like a massively-cooperative ecosystem. They’d apparently thought it would be fun to come to this meeting in the form of one of their native species which was close enough to a walking banana to make me feel vaguely hungry. They’d leveraged the tendency of bacteria-like organisms to invade other cells and had just done that, a lot. They could have come as a potted plant I supposed, but the banana-form also had senses and the features I’d expect from a radio, so it could talk to us too. They were very interested in the oneirocytes because they didn’t seem that different to how the Li themselves had evolved and spread – initially parasitic, but eventually becoming the thing it had once parasitised. The parts of it that lived in the oceans still lived how the fish-things had done, but talked like Li. Their internal communication was a little like talking to yourself as a result, but they firmly inhabited their world. They were most curious about the idea of living in another world of their own creation.

But there were only three of us, and if we were going to try and teach the Li, and other species about the oneirocytes, we’d need some help – a lot more oneirocyte users for one thing, and the technology to make more of them. We didn’t want to mention the sprawling mess of parasites deep down in the mountain, where the experts slash murderers were. We didn’t want them to have any part of this, but we did need more oneirocytes to play with. We knew there was a case down there somewhere, the one that Gex had nicked originally. Fuck. We were going to have to go back into that goddamn bunker and try not to get killed.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-One (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

If you’ve ever wondered if you can have a migraine in your dreams, I can assure you that it’s entirely possible when some alien fucker has made you review their top ten worst ideas imaginable, from their perspective. I really hoped the feeling wouldn’t continue back in the real world, but I had the impression that it was partly my flexible little mind adapting to the new sensations that had been fed back into it – I was fairly sure I could still smell x-rays – and partly the oneirocyte nesting in my brain going into overdrive. That in itself was a thing that had been troubling me more in the scant free moments between chaos and drama since we’d woken up with scalpels and bonesaws hovering over our faces. Which hell, must have been about three hours ago. Sometimes days are so long, plus we’d spent a subjective decade or so reviewing the epic fuckupery of the Vaunted. I guess that was enough time for my fears about the oneirocyte to be running in the background, waving its hand politely for attention with increasing impatience. Since we’d dropped out of the Vaunted’s surreal projection of their experiential memories, the bubble-man had apparently lost interest in us and was wandering around, peering into the deep clear lagoons, observing the neat little model of evaporation and cloud-formation I’d vaguely recalled from school. Perhaps it was giving us a moment to gather our thoughts, recognising that we might be a tad overwhelmed, or maybe it didn’t really give a fuck and was genuinely interested in the fabric of someone else’s ownworld. Who knows. Either way, from the glazed and stunned expressions on my companion’s faces and the migraine that had kicked into full gear, fracturing both my immediate perception into shards of glass, and carving up my internal attention (along with the drill-like headache bearing outward on all of this), I had a little time to do some extra fretting.

The oneirocytes – the nano parasites had been developed to ultimately enable us to ditch these meat bodies and live on with our awareness fully intact and, in theory at least, live on forever in a little bundle of steel wool, cavorting endlessly in our imaginary realms. That’s all fine, we’ve all seen enough entertainment about virtual realities and the unlikely possibility of uploading our minds into a big computer on the moon, or something. A lot of that was about jacking into the nervous system and replicating all the sensory inputs so the subject would experience all of the virtual reality directly in their body. Or, some intensive brain scanning that copied every neuron and position of every little electric spark in the hunk of head-jelly you used for being yourself. Both were complicated and high-intensity to say the least, and had been dismissed as science fiction nonsense by anyone serious. The oneirocytes were different: once implanted, the parasite got to work breaking down the barrier between unconscious and conscious, gaining access to the whole functioning mind, and granting that access to its host. After that it just kept going, burrowing into every facet of the brain, each fold, wrapping itself into every cortex and lobe in the skull. There it slowly replaced the physical fabric of the brain, swapping itself for each cell and taking over its function. Eventually there would be nothing left inside the host’s skull but a densely-wound ball of grey nanofibers which precisely replicated the brain’s function. And it would have been done so slowly that the subject’s total consciousness, memory and everything would be preserved, simply running off a different lump of matter in the noggin. Very cool. Very scary.

It wasn’t exactly what Gex, Scoro and I had thought we’d signed up for when we nicked a bunch of the parasites. Always read the fine print, I guess. Except the fine print had only been available from the very top tier of Project Tutu. I found it hard to believe that everyone else whose new grey brains had been scooped out and stored in the brain garden inside the mountain had done so with complete knowledge of what was coming. But maybe they did – people are weird, the cult was pretty persuasive and the world did appear to be coming to an end. But we were only after the ownworld, the big cool dreaming experiment where you could build your own world and live in it when you wanted, when you were sick of the real world and just wanted to escape for a bit. But we’d come back for snacks and stuff. The real world might suck (thanks, Vaunted), but we hadn’t been looking for immortality and freedom from the tyranny of the flesh and the prison of the material world. All lovely concepts I’d picked up from our dalliance inside the mind of the Vaunted. Yet, here we were, with the oneirocytes busy swapping fibres for neurons. But not done yet… that much I was sure of – not even close. The self-awareness that the parasite gifted us, the grasp of our inner selves also gave me a measure of how much of myself was still meat and how much a weird carbon plastic. Not like a percentage or volume measurement, but I knew we hadn’t been accelerating on the trajectory that the project would have required. We hadn’t been there, hadn’t been following the programme, so the parasites hadn’t received the right input and training to enact the takeover. The only real difference had been the zygoptics and sheer fervour of Project Tutu. What we vaped encouraged that sense of Unity, but the stuff Hest had given us had been way more intense, made me feel I was lagging behind reality until I went into the ownworld. Just as well we didn’t have any more of that then… But they’d been willing to cut our heads open anyway, shake off the gross brain bits, and then what? Just take whatever bits the parasites had replaced, just the neural shell itself without the personality and memories? We were just spare parts, a gobbet of readymade artificial brainstuff that could be plugged into the network and used. Those total wankers.

Well, I was super glad that I’d taken a little time to worry about that. It wasn’t very reassuring, except that I felt a lot better about killing the twat-scientists who were going to cut us up. But it did leave me thinking that we needed to figure out how to negotiate with the parasites, who were actually just ourselves, but who could become ourselves. Was it any different to having a real brain? As long as there wasn’t a natural point where the oneirocyte replaced my whole brain, drilled holes in my skull and crawled out, then no… I really didn’t want that to happen. The Unity had drawn those bloody hunks of brain-wool out of their now useless bodies, and I liked the idea of that self-preservation, even if it was utter nightmare fuel, especially since I’d also got one of those. I didn’t think I was close to resolving this, but the screaming panic was subsiding.

My headache was fading too. The bubble-man had wandered further off, examining the trees and hopping oddly from foot to foot, dust falling from its toes. Their mental reality had none of this physical stuff in it, so perhaps it was enjoying the experience.

My friends seemed to have returned to themselves too.

“Those absolute fucks,” hissed Gex, “what did they think would happen when they ripped a planet out of its orbit, shoved in a box and kicked it halfway across the galaxy?”

“It’s their fault that everybody died, that our world is so utterly fucked,” Scoro added, seething.

We fully understood what the Vaunted had been saving us from, but they’d profoundly screwed up their rescue effort. Apparently noticing us re-engaging after the trauma of the Vaunted ownworld, the bubble-man was casually strolling back towards us. You might think that in chatting with a representative of a god-like alien species who had the power to toss planets hither and thither, and open a portal into a realm that only enlightenment lunatics had even postulated, that we might be a little cowed, respectful, god-fearing, and all that. It’s actually more like meeting a hero and discovering that they’re an utter prick. By showing us everything that had happened, and seeing it from the perspective of their quite-well-justified-but-actually-maybe-not arrogance, we’d come to know them in an intimate way, erasing all that bowing and genuflection. This god was an arsehole, and we knew it. Sure, they had power, but humans aren’t especially rational when they’re pissed off – as seen in countless wars, relationship breakups, and pub brawls.

Gex went straight for the fucker’s throat. Plainly not rational, since it was made of magic bubbles, and Gex’s closing fist popped its head clean off. We all froze in a moment of proper horrified panic that we hadn’t felt for, gosh – at least a couple of hours – as the bubble head bounced off Gex’s forearm and drifted down to lie in the dust. In our eyes was plainly written: “we’ve just killed a god”. Not cool, even if you are angry. But we were being idiots, humans still bound by the idea that the body matters at all. The bubble-body swayed a bit, straightened and another head bubbled up out of the top of its torso. I looked down. The decapitated head – I swear – raised an eyebrow and popped. A sensation of weight came from all directions and I recognised that the Vaunted was about to whisk us back into its mental plane, possibly for another insight into how you can be incredibly powerful and still a right bell-end, or to give us a psychic bollocking (if such a thing existed). I wasn’t up for that, and neither were the others. We stood our ground, in fact, rotated the ground, shifting us seamlessly from my ownworld into Scoro’s realm of soaring architecture. The bubble-man looked rather surprised, and more than a little put-out.

“No, we’re not fucking going fucking anywhere, until you explain what the fuck you want,” Gex continued, apparently having recovered both her nerves and vocabulary since nipping of its first head. “You lot and your cosmic fuckery have left our planet fucked beyond all recognition. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Fuck it, take a look.”

The Vaunted had gifted us their experiential memories, and the great thing about doing something like that inside the ownworld is that the oneirocyte remembers it for you, which means you remember it too. Now we could share our experiential memories with the little rainbow bastard. I should note that it was really handy that the Vaunted had appeared in this form. If it had appeared as a mountain-sized dragon we might have treated it with a bit more respect, but in choosing to look a bit like us, it had dragged itself down to our scale, and we don’t like bullies. I’ve still got chunks of glass in my face to prove it.

We took the Vaunted on a whistle-stop tour of everything that had happened to the Earth since the hole in space opened between Saturn and Uranus. The panic when that inexplicable cosmic event had been discovered, the even greater panic when the Sun and Moon disappeared. Twenty years of crops failing, climate disaster (some of it self-inflicted – Project Petbe or fuckwit dictator with their attempts to nuke our way out the shell), mass species extinction, the dwindling birth rate, the billions dying across the globe, our retreat into domed cities – all the things we’d been avoiding thinking too hard about for twenty years, but now that we did, and now that we had someone to blame, we were livid – the desperation that drove us into self-destruction, empathy and sympathy eroded by years of our world failing around us, the death of hope. That was a lot too. A lot of stuff I hadn’t properly remembered, but we’d seen on the news, felt, or heard from our neighbours – the long march that had taken Scoro cross-country with all the dead he left behind before he wound up with us, the skin-crawling horror of what Project Tutu had tried to do to us… The latter was rather a let-down emotionally compared to everything else, but we’re human, and the grand sweep of history is less directly important than the last thing that scared the shit out of us.

We finally let the Vaunted’s avatar go. It might have been my imagination, but I thought the rainbow swirls in its shape had lost some of their colour and glow. Either way, it seemed we had impressed on it quite how shit a time we’d had, that material experience did matter actually (if you weren’t an immortal cloud of bubbles floating in space), and our absolute conviction that it was their fault. It took it quite well, but couldn’t help being itself. None of us can.

“Mistakes were made–“ Gex almost went for the little bastard again at that, and it hastened along “–but now safe. Repairs are available–“ loving the difference between reparation and repair “–there are friends here. A council of twelve, to aid, rebuild. And wage war.”

“The fuck did you just say?” I was entirely content for Gex to take the lead here in our negotiations with this immensely-powerful alien entity. She had exactly the tone that I’d have wanted to use. “Council of twelve – the other planets?”

“More saved worlds. Brought here for safety, and to defeat crypt-space.”

“Right. So let’s be clear: you ‘saved’ us, and eleven more planets of luckless bastards you scooped up and shat out here. And now you want us all to fight for you? Against dead things from a tomb of ideas?”

Great, we’d finally been freed from the shell and were going to be launched into a war against physics. How do you fight a hole? I didn’t understand then, of course, none of us did. The Vaunted, in saving these twelve planets had assembled a spectrum of intelligent life, from our ape-descended five-fingered idiots to minds that covered their whole world. And with that variety came a cornucopia of skills, technologies, ideas and modes of thought that the Vaunted believed could be leveraged into a defence against crypt-space, and ultimately a way to seal off that dimension entirely. Until they had another crack at accessing “safely”, naturally. While Earth was the only planet with life, intelligent or otherwise that we’d ever known, we’d had the vague idea that other intelligences and technologies would probably be somewhat similar – physics and chemistry being supposedly universal properties – but we were as wrong about that as we’d been about the world being flat. Life, and intelligence were common throughout the universe, but they didn’t last long. The galaxy is full of scary shit like life-giving suns being made out of atomic furnaces that go boom, black holes, cosmic rays that regularly fry entire worlds and sterilise them back to the bedrock. We’d been up and running as a proper civilisation for just a few thousand years. Other worlds, even of the eleven others daisy-chained around the trinary stars assembled by Vaunted, had their shit together for hundreds of thousands of years, maybe even longer, but most were young because we tended to get wiped out or annihilate ourselves (I had little doubt that we’d been in the second group, given a few more years). So the twelve here had been lucky to survive so long anyway, and doubly-luck that the Vaunted had saved us from their failed vanity project. We were all special, beyond our limited guesses of how the universe worked, and the Vaunted were going to link us all together so we could become something even greater: a tool for them to fix the holes in space.

With a total absence of contrition, the bubble-man assured us that we’d soon meet representatives from the other worlds and that a “great project” would be undertaken to restore our world to its near-former state of supporting life quite well. Yeah, “we” would soon meet more aliens. “Us? Just us three?” we’d asked, not having twigged that we were about to be inter-planetary ambassadors, purely because we’d been able to say “howdy” to the Vaunted. Yup, that was to be the case, though obviously we could bring in whoever we liked to do the actual work. Thank fuck for that. My grasp of how to cleanse an atmosphere of poison amounts to not farting in an elevator. The Vaunted left us after that, just popped out of our ownworld. We left Scoro’s architecture behind and went back into the real world. All around us, wind howled through the shattered open dome and it was freezing cold. The Vaunted’s bubble ship was still there, hovering over the mountain. Thankfully, they hadn’t actually killed all those nice soldiers who’d tried to kill us, and as they woke up we filled the colonel and his little team in on what was going on, what was going to happen, and that they needed to deal with the idea that we were sort of in charge. It wasn’t a short conversation.

So yeah – that’s what happened until the Vaunted finally rocked up and explained what the fuck was going on. So now we’re kind of a big deal – humans I mean. Some of us anyway. Turns out most things don’t dream – they’re either awake or they’re not – and don’t have that free-roaming imagination fucking up their day to day activities. It’s useful, and somewhat similar to how the Vaunted ended up the way they are – not just absolute pricks (I mean, I can totally see that direction for us if we ever really get it together as a culture), but inhabiting their bubble-space and dreaming of what their future might become. Me and my mates came down the space elevator that the Geshiiil helped us build while the Vaunted taught us how to dream things into reality, and the Li and Hellevance brought their vast environmental engines into the atmosphere and did stuff to the fabric of the air that we’d never have imagined possible. And now we’re on the frontline of the war against crypt-space. Jesus fuck, is that ever a goddamn nightmare. I guess you’ve been mixed up in that too – it doesn’t look like you just happened to bang your head on the doorframe, right?

At that moment the door to the ward slammed open, as they tend to do in hospitals when someone’s wheeling a gurney around and banging it through doors in dramatic television action. The doors smacked back against the walls and a trio of humans in serious hazmat gear burst in behind the gurney. It was a fancy one, with a containment field built into it and was plainly not human-shaped.

“Looks like they’ve come for you at last,” I said to the Alometh slumped in the chair, “hope they can sort you out – good luck.”

At that, one of the medical team spun round, apparently not having realised there was anyone else in here. Man, they’d forgotten about me completely, no wonder no one had come in with tweezers and antiseptic yet.

“What the hell are you doing in here?” the guy inside the really rather thick deadly environment suit demanded, sweeping around the gurney towards me.

“I got glassed in a pub, I’ve been waiting here since I arrived,” I explained, “pretty sure I’ve still got some glass in here–“ I gingerly probed the side of my head, “–be great to get that out.”

A look of repressed panic flushed across the man’s face. “And you’ve been here – next to that–“ he indicated the Alometh that his colleagues were levering awkwardly onto the gurney, chair and all “–for how long?”

“Dunno, couple of hours. Do you have something for headaches? I’ve got a corker coming on, and my face feels kinda numb.”

If he’d looked a bit worried before, now he was as pale as his suit. He snatched up the radio hanging off his belt, “Emergency in haz-ward two. Several hours of exposure to Alomethi death particles,” Well that sounded bad, “no, I’ve no idea why they’re in here.”

A flurry of activity erupted around me as more hazard-clad doctor types charged into the room, slapping breathing gear over my face and stuffing me into a wheelchair which they spun around and we headed off for those barely-closed doors.

“Ah man,” I called back to the guys with the Alometh, “is he not going to make it? We’ve been chatting for hours…”

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

It had been a rather dramatic day: someone tried to open my skull, we’d killed a bunch of people, discovered a horrorshow nursery for extracted brains who could basically walk around, walked up far too many stairs – I swear I can feel them in my knees to this day – to find the shell splitting open at last, nearly got shot by soldiers, and finally we made contact with the godlike aliens who’d started it all. I reckon all the people in charge at Project Tutu and Project Nut, and probably everyone who’s ever been in charge anywhere, would have been horrified at the idea that it would have been the three of us absolute nobodies who made first contact with the aliens. Ha, well fuck them. Say, are you sure you don’t want me to find a doctor? Well, I guess you’d know best. I’d love to know how this all happened for your lot, the Alometh. For us, we first spoke with the Vaunted after an absolute clusterfuck of a day – hell, a clusterfuck of a couple of decades. It sure wasn’t the smooth and urbane diplomatic meeting that anyone had envisaged. I certainly hadn’t expected it to take place inside our heads. But, as it turned out later, the Vaunted don’t really have a proper physical form. Not any more, anyway. Although it’s unclear quite how that came about. The giant soap bubble spaceship that had entered Earth’s atmosphere was just a thin weaving of membranes that they claimed was a side-effect of their mental culture intruding on the real universe. Wild stuff, man. You know, it would be really great to get these bits of glass out of my face some time. I stood up and looked through the little square window set into each of the double doors that had led into the ward, or waiting room or whatever this was. Nothing. Very quiet outside, or very busy somewhere else I supposed. With a sigh, I slumped back down in my chair, wriggling a bit to regain the comfortable slouch I’d achieved before.

The stuff that had been oozing out of the Alometh’s sort-of-face had slowed which was probably a good sign – not bleeding is usually a positive – and had pooled stickily under their chair. Someone’s clean up job was going to suck. God knows what solvents you need for dissolving the product of a species whose body chemistry is only barely analogous to Earth’s. Still, vinegar and baking soda might well do the trick. It was funny how some things like that seemed to have universal application. It was the same in making contact with the Vaunted. All those radio waves and stuff just didn’t interest them – they weren’t looking for them, didn’t hear them, might not even have a “thing” that let them sense them. No ears, no radar dishes, just those mad barely-existing space shapes. What we had in common was minds. It made a sort of sense: there are a load of insane sounding quantum effects that relate to change apparently caused by observation. The presence of an observer appears to make things happen, and the most observant you can be is to be self-aware, observing both the universe and yourself. We’d been sentient, conscious and aware for thousands – hundreds of thousands, more? – of years, and as a species (speaking on behalf, ahem, of Project Tutu) we’d been attaining mastery of our consciousness in a much more purposeful way, properly exploiting the curious duality of human experience: our waking and dreaming worlds. Maybe the people who set up Project Tutu had suspected all along that the mental “plane” was going to be the only way to interact with aliens, that language would fail us, as would trying to construct a shared reality based on maths or music. Or maybe they were just an end-times cult who killed all their cultists to escape this world forever – just on a much bigger budget than most cults.

Either way, as we slid back into the ownworld, standing at the foot of our “hello tower” (calling it a communications spire or something just sounded so much like pretentious bollocks I couldn’t bring myself to do so. It’s not like we knew how it worked, not yet anyway), the diamond spaceship appeared in the sky above us – we had invited it in, after all. It slid down over the spire (dammit) we had constructed, like it was just the right shape to dock with. Maybe it was a coincidence and they would have landed anywhere, maybe it we’d stumbled on the perfect interface. Who knew. That sort of issue remained mysterious, still does – imagination fused with intention takes the idea of intuition to the next level, and even though we can control these mental realms, the synthesis of these powers creates something much greater than the individual parts. Presumably the Vaunted in their bubble ships had figured this stuff out. Watching the tower slip smoothly inside the ship, or the ship bending around the tower really did look like bubbles sliding down the outside of a bottle. It looked exactly the same as it had in the real world, but smaller, resized to match us perhaps. It didn’t stop its progress down the tower, but kept going until it almost disappeared into the ground, its weird-shaped bubbles fading out of existence until the remaining structure of its shape visibly popped, inverting and revolving, transforming itself into a shape we could recognise and interact with. A weird little soapy human, one you could see right through and who was made up of those swirling rainbow shapes, but nonetheless – very definitely a human form.

It was an awkward first meeting. Obviously we were super-impressed with bumping into an alien, especially one that seemed comfortable in the special place that we’d only just learned about ourselves, but it had been quite an overwhelming day. For a little while we just stared at it, while the Vaunted bubble-man took their time, having a good old look around them at my ownworld. I gave the trees a little extra spin and tried hard not feel like I should be tidying up, or making it more impressive. It felt exactly like having your mother visit the absolute shithole you’ve been living in and kicking stuff under the sofa while she’s looking in another direction. Eventually its attention returned to us. How do you start a conversation? It was like we’d never been in one before. All the questions were drowned under the weight of figuring out how to say “hello”. In the end, of course, that’s exactly what I said, once it was looking at us again, cobbling sentences together from movies I’d once seen.

“Er, hello… there. Welcome to Earth. We’re not – uh – in charge, I mean we’re not the government or anything, but you know, it’s nice to meet you.”

Honestly, the look Gex gave me should have made me shrivel up into a husk of a man. Still, it was enough the energise the alien into conversation.

“Your presence is sufficient. Greetings and welcome. Minds are rare and worthy of preservation. We sense others here, beneath your space.”

Ah, the parasite farm down under. “Yeah, they’re a bit weird. You might want to talk to them later.”

“Very well. There have been intrusions. The fracturing of space. Crypt-space must be repelled. Hence your salvation. Soon you will join the fight.”

Well that was a lot all in one go. All the words were fine, mostly, though “crypt-space” didn’t sound remotely good.

“Right – um. Sorry, what does that mean, like, any of it? And who are you?”

It’s funny, we’ve known them as the Vaunted for long enough now that it feels like their name has fallen back through time and we’ve been calling them this for all eternity. It should be obvious that it isn’t really their name – minds don’t have names, they just have selves. No one calls themself by their name inside their own head, unless we’re really trying to gee ourselves up for that job interview, date, or just to get out of bed. The Vaunted don’t have names because they don’t have physical form that needs labelling. They just are who they are, but fuck me do they like to brag when they get a chance. And we gave them that opportunity. It wasn’t that their English wasn’t great – they were literally visiting us in our ownworlds, inside our minds and sharing that reality was constructing the structures of shared language as a simple by-product of existence. They just didn’t really like using words. The Vaunted like pictures, they like memories and they like to show, not tell.

The bubble-man nodded sagely, like he was really thinking hard about my questions. Then he looked directly at each of us in turn – as much as you can look at someone with eyes that are just more bubbles – and the ownworld folded up around us like an origami flower, except it wasn’t a flower, it was space. Or… not space, it had taken us into its own ownworld. We never found out if that’s what they call their mental realm. I guess it’s just “home” to them. The world was made of glittering light, shapes barely sketched in and visible only as gleaming membranes where the light struck them, or rather where light was produced, since there was no sun, no lights here. Light was intrinsic to the shapes and forms the Vaunted created. Pretty cool place. We stood an angles to each other, hanging in space. I suppose up and down are things for petty mortals like us. The bubble-man was still with us, and with a gesture something that was like a three dimensional film began to play in the space between and around us. That’s a deep understatement: it was as much like a 3D film as seeing a bird in the sky is like seeing the world from that bird’s point of view. That’s a terrible metaphor, but we weren’t just seeing the film, we were getting the original viewer’s perspective. And with their view came their thoughts, feelings and beliefs both about what we were seeing and everything that had led them to that point. In the same way that when I see a flower I can recognise what it is, I’ve also got a tonne of conceptual understanding: I know what flowers are, I know what this specific flower is called, where it is, how it got there – a decent grasp of the reproductive cycle of a flower, that bees like it and so on. Plus, I’ve got all my memories of other flower-related incidents, and all the feelings I’ve got when I see this flower, both from the flower and from whatever I’ve been doing that’s leading me to the point where I’m staring at this fucking flower. What I had for breakfast, fretting about not knowing enough about flowers, a vague sense of shame for something I did twenty years ago – basically everything that’s in my head up to the point of looking at a goddamn daffodil. It’s a lot. And we got all of that from the Vaunted, every bit.

I could feel my brain reeling, the oneirocyte racing to keep up with the apparent conversion of our minds from human to Vaunted – new senses, new modes of thought, emotions we didn’t have. We saw the universe as they saw it (fucking massive), felt how they did (incomparably arrogant, to be honest), knew what they did (not quite as much as they wanted, or needed to, not for what they were up to, but an hilariously greater grasp of the cosmos than we had). I felt like I was cartwheeling through time, unfamiliar dimensions and perception of past and future bleeding upward into each other, infusing my present with their past. It wasn’t entirely pleasant: if I’d been doing this in my body I’d have been vomiting constantly, and I was a little concerned that my poor body might well be bleeding from its eyes and ears, with a little pop-up box of a skull that my oneirocyte had leaped out of. But we saw it all. In retrospect, maybe we should have told the Vaunted to deal with Project Tutu, because there were loads of them and they were connected not just to each other, but to governments and all sorts of very important people, and had some proper science training – I’m just a gardener who got into admin. But the Vaunted only ever spoke directly to the three of us. Yay, isn’t it great to be special. As our heads turned inside out, we saw what they wanted us to see.

The Vaunted had been living in an immaterial reality for eons. I don’t think they even remembered having physical forms, though they still played with these rainbow membranes, stretched across star systems, chattering, thinking, playing in their mental realities, and, most importantly, tinkering with the fabric of space. Is this the problem with transcending physical reality? You start to not worry about it so much. The Vaunted seemed to think that since their version of ownworlds existed beyond the physical universe they might even survive the heat death of the universe, billions of years in the future. Because imagination, being a sort of real thing, in that it’s generated by physical objects, can clearly die along with the body. Although ideas can survive death, passed on to other minds, or just as books, it’s not the same as that idea being held by its originator. If the mind can truly escape the real world then it should be able to persist forever. And the Vaunted weren’t quite there. They had mostly forgotten about their bubble forms which still supplied the essential physical structure that they were projected out of, but it might eventually hold them back. Clearly, that wasn’t good enough.

Their big ownworld style innovation was a much more advanced version of what we’d stumbled on: make a thing in your mind and have it directly affect the real world. We all do this constantly, by speaking and acting, but if you could think a thing and make it real just by sheer force of will or desire, that skipped past the meat body and the need to figure out a way to build it with your monkey hands and proper physical materials. Like our hello tower. That had indeed entered the real world, as we discovered later. So the Vaunted went for it. If imagination and the mind were real things, then there must be some plane, or dimension of existence where they persisted. Cartesian dualism, the idea that body and mind are separate things that only happen to look like they directly affect each other, was the sort of problem that the Vaunted never gave up on like we did. You’ve probably guessed where this is going – I had my suspicions, largely because along with the images, insights and memories there was an undercurrent of shame, the kind where you know you’ve fucked up, but double-down and try to bluff through it: “Someone would have fucked up space, eventually, and you know – if they had done – then we’d have been cool with it, because it’s a brilliant idea that just went slightly awry. It’s definitely worth trying again (and we’re going to, so there, fuck you, you just don’t get it, man), and you totally would have done the same if you were half as good as we are,” was very much the vibe I got. Intergalactic super-minds who horribly, horribly fucked up, but were still by far the most powerful things in the galaxy.

The Vaunted had ripped open a hole in space. They’d been looking for the place where ideas go when the body that held them dies. Well, they found it. It turns out that consciousness is separate from the physical realm. Most of the time they do run side by side (Descartes would have been thrilled!), at least until an idea fades away or the body that had it stops (dies, usually). Those ideas and thoughts that have been orphaned rise “upwards”, I guess, in the Vaunted model, and slip out of that parallel thought-realm, into another dimension of space. It’s a realm filled with ideas and minds that have been divorced from reality. But it’s not just ideas – it’s a meta-universe – where ideas exist, and ideas of ideas exist. Everything that’s ever died – not just every idea and forgotten memory – but the dead self and everything it thought it was is there. They’re not doing anything, it’s just a repository for them, a library tomb for reality. We all go somewhere, right? If your body dies it gets recycled into compost or whatever, individual atoms and protons that have existed since the Big Bang, endlessly reused. Ideation doesn’t get recycled, it just gets dumped in another aspect of the universe. And the Vaunted found it, fucking idiots that they are. They found it by making a hole that they couldn’t close. The only thing the dead ideas are missing is matter. Matter is the physical component that lets them move, gives them a thing to be linked to, from which they can continue to exist in the universe. Basically, the Vaunted gave the dead a way to come back. Not zombies or anything like that. Maybe worse. As soon as they opened this rift and went for a look inside, dead ideas started to drift back into the real world. Given the chance, they instantly materialised, and in so doing sucked matter into that dead universe and more dead ideas and memories and things began to become real again. The Vaunted call it “crypt-space” – a realm of dead things that you should leave well alone, either through basic respect for the dead or out of a primal fear that if you break in and try to nick the corpse’s gold teeth it might well wake up and eat you (I don’t like graveyards). Well, now that the Vaunted had broken it open, everything that had died was coming to get us. Matter was never supposed to be in that realm, and as this mental space started to fill with physical stuff, it got lumpy and started making more holes in the universe. Those holes popped up in all sorts of places, but usually in places where minds existed, or had once existed – the places where the contents of this dead realm had likely come from. Maybe they were attracted to such planets where thinking minds existed. Maybe it was like a magnet from our side, dragging ideas back to life.

One of those holes opened in our solar system, twenty years previously. They’re not good – they’re spots where there’s too much matter in the dead world, and as soon as they’re open and pouring into space, they start sucking more matter in. Space gets fucked up. So the Vaunted, recognising that they had fucked up to a staggering, universal degree and couldn’t close the rift, did the only thing they could: rescue the planets of sentient life who were about to be consumed by this over-ambitious cosmic tinkering. Superb celestial mechanics that they are, they moulded space around the threatened worlds and moved them all – just reached out and seized them. Moved them here, into this unnatural orbit around an impossible trinary star cluster.

They definitely expected us to be grateful that they’d saved us from a hole in space that would have wrecked our solar system. In fact, by now our solar system was likely gone, consumed by the emergence from crypt-space of dead things given physical form once more, by the Vaunted, if somewhat indirectly. And yeah, it’s nice to be saved from a genuine existential threat to our survival, but the Vaunted didn’t once think to warn us, or check if we were OK. They just swooped in and grabbed us, and unwrapped us here – we were the opposite of an unwanted gift, a gift that didn’t want what it had been given to. They certainly didn’t expect us to be angry.

Stolen Skies – Part Nineteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

It was like a new dawn, a new heat and light that blasted through the clouds casting shadows on the ground below. It had been so long since clouds had shadows. Colour erupted across the hills and countryside around us – our vantage point let us see our grim grey world turning Technicolor. It felt like being punched in the chest and tears ran down my cheeks as the dirty sky’s blue tint returned.

“We’re out,” gasped Scoro.

“Is that the sun…” I half-moaned. It was something I’d never really thought we would ever see again, but that flicker of hope had been down there somewhere, despite all the efforts of the last two decades to smother it forever. The light was so bright that it hurt, even though the glass dome adjusted its polarisation to protect our mere human eyes.

“Contact sir,” reported one of the soldiers at a terminal, interrupting our ecstasy of illumination, “major gravity wells detected, and the sun – the star – well, it’s not just one sun, sir.”

A screen unfolded in the centre of the room above a round conference table, showing in live time what the arrays could now detect of the space around the Earth. The Earth lay in the middle of the image and new details were sketching in as the equipment translated the signals they received from the instruments outside and beyond. Seeing a model of our home planet without its moon was strangely shocking given how long it had been since we’d known its presence. Something ingrained I guess, “our planet has a moon” is locked in tight to my sense of what this planet is, or was supposed to be. That clearly wasn’t our sun, and the sketch made that much clearer than just by looking upward. Now that the screen had polarised enough you could just make out that instead of a single bright orb in the sky, there was another fainter one – I could almost have mistaken it for a moon if I wasn’t surrounded by people determined to layer in as much detail as possible.

“A full picture will take longer sir, but we’re getting immediate hits from all ground-based astronomy and it looks like some satellites that we’d lost contact with are coming back online.”

“Tactical systems active?”

“Yes sir. Project Petbe fully online, including orbital systems.”

“Project Petbe?” asked Scoro. We’d been pretty much ignored since the sky opened like a flower, but it was clear that significant action was about to occur, and we’d had enough of being bystanders. Plus, our newly assumed ranks of scientist people surely gave us some kind of voice.

“Petbe, ‘god of revenge’. Whatever comes at us now, we’ve got a good chance of taking out,” Stallford said absently, his attention entirely on the display before us, now coming to life and filling in with more and more detail. Fuck me, another Egyptian god-named project. Whoever started this off had a real fixation with the ancient civilisation – it had lasted for thousands of years after all, and we could barely claim a few hundred, so maybe it was something to aim for. And now, encountering something cosmic and beyond humanity for the first time, we’d made a plan to fuck it right up if we didn’t like it. Honestly, it makes me want to scream sometimes.

Three stars, that’s what the machines were seeing anyway. A trinary system, with three stars orbiting each other in a tight pyramidic loop. It was genuinely hard to even think while looking at this stuff – we’d been locked away for twenty years of death, disaster and failure and now the universe looked completely different. This obviously wasn’t our solar system, I mean: duh. More details flickered into life, tentatively marking out gravity wells and more impossible cosmic features came into focus: eleven other planets, varying widely in mass, plus ours – all strung out in a single ring encircling the stars. Which was nuts. In a solar system like our old one we’d all had separate orbits, but here we all followed the same track. To say it was beyond my comprehension really added nothing to the conversation, so I just watched the soldiers do their stuff.

“Sir, we think the Earth has begun to rotate again,” called out a really sweaty and excited guy down at the front, “the other gravity wells have started us turning – we’ll have day and night again.”

Every shock seemed greater than the last, but the idea that we might have day and night once more was overwhelming. I hadn’t even realised that I’d taken Gex by the hand, or that Scoro’s hand was clamped tight on my shoulder.

“Begin communication protocols,” ordered Stallford. A brand new array of lights and displays burst into life as the Earth beamed out greetings to the new heavens. I was still reeling from being in daylight again. Granted it wasn’t the Earth’s gentle-seeming Sun, but a whiter, brighter light presumably resulting from the trio of stars freshly irradiating us. I wondered where we might get sun tan lotion from. Or sunglasses for that matter.

“No incoming transmissions received sir,” reported back half a dozen of the soldier-technicians, “no contact that we can detect.”

Why bring us to this bizarre artificial place if they weren’t going to talk to us?

“All right then, over to you Doctor Quince,” said Stallford expectantly. He and Lindsmane turned to us. Fuck… What had Project Tutu been doing here? Sure, they were building a safe future in case we never came out of the shell and the rest of the Earth died, probably tapping the geothermal depths of the world to keep their Unity going until the Earth cooled – millions of years to wait and figure something out. But they’d also been able to reach out to us as we drove around, lost. That had been Doctor C plus the entire parasite community downstairs. There were just three of us, and no fucking way was I going back into the Unity again.

“Well, yes. Obviously we’re ready to make an attempt,” Scoro stepped up, with a greater sense of self-preservation than me. “We’ll need a few moments to prepare. You have somewhere for us to sit.” Plainly that was a question, but it sounded like an order. My friends were slipping into their newfound roles nicely.

“Of course, we have a dedicated workstation for you right here.”

Bang in the centre of the room. Four neat little couches slid out from under the conference table over which the visualisation of our new solar system sprawled. At least they definitely expected us to be doing this using the parasites. It was all going so well, right up until this point where we had no fucking clue what we were doing. In fairness to Corporal Lindsmane, he’d held his peace for us up to now, and I can see how the current situation – making contact with an unknown alien presence on behalf of the whole planet – might make him a bit leery of letting three people he’d basically scraped off the street and who he knew were impersonating official science types take the lead here.

He did the soldier thing and drew his sidearm on us. “Just hold it right there.”

“Corporal, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Demanded his superior, suddenly alert to a new threat in the room.

“Excuse me, Colonel, but there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding. These people aren’t who they’re claiming to be. They’re the three refugees we brought in with us – those aren’t their ID badges.”

The air felt electric with tension, and everything moved in slow motion as the soldiers around us reacted to this new danger that was in the room with them. Who knows what they’d been told about Project Tutu and what its subjects might be capable of. Very possibly more than we had. I sensed that this would be a difficult situation to talk ourselves out of, especially now that the soldiers had spotted the blood spattered over Gex’s coat and taken proper account of our rather scruffy demeanour and unscientific looks of fear on our faces. There were a lot more guns pointed at us than I was comfortable with. More than none made me very uncomfortable.

“Where is Doctor Charbroly?” asked Stallford, leaving his own weapon holstered. He didn’t need it, one more bullet hole would make little difference to how dead we got. Although, a thought whispered in the back of my mind, as long as they weren’t head shots, we actually might not die… I felt we had a couple of options, neither of them good: keep lying, or tell the truth. I made a choice, with a thought of apology at me friends.

“Doctor Charbroly is dead. They’re all dead.” Well, that got the exact reaction I expected as the sound of safety catches coming off clicked in the quiet. “They went too far, and the parasites got out of control. It’s just parasites down there now – they’ve taken over. We’re the only ones left.” All true, except the parasites were them, but I reckoned that was a subtlety that only made sense if you’d just killed a bunch of people and found out they were still alive. “If you want Project Tutu to make contact, we’re the only ones who can do it.” Which gave me another question – how would the parasite garden below be able to talk to anyone else – how did you talk to them if you weren’t one of them. I guess you could plug a phone into the network, or something. Give them new bodies? I shuddered, none of that would help us right now.

Stallford looked radically unimpressed.

“We can do this,” I assured him. “We’re networked and trained in exactly the same way as the rest of the project. We just had to get out of there–“ I gestured at Gex’s splash of blood and indicated our general bedragglement, “–down there they’ve been physically integrating the parasites outside the human body. They’ve been killing the subjects to advance the project timetable. We’re more use to you outside the project than killed by it.”

That was almost certainly true, and it seemed to have some weight. Clearly Stallford had met some of the sociopaths running Project Tutu and this didn’t seem wholly unlikely.

“I never did trust in nanotech solutions,” muttered Stallford, “you get one attempt. But if you sabotage this, we’ll know, and we’re fully authorised to use deadly force to defend this planet.”

We edged warily around the still-raised weapons and eased ourselves into the couches. I didn’t feel fantastic about closing my eyes while surrounded by paranoid, gun-toting soldiers. Still, we had run out of options. I lay back and slid into the interchange between our ownworlds. Gex and Scoro emerged from their ownworlds, fading into reality like shadows filled by a can of spray-paint.

“Shit man, what the actual fuck?” Scoro had the right questions, but we didn’t have time to mess about.

“Look, we’re about to get killed for real if we don’t come up with something. This lot, Project Nut,” (for fuck’s sake, couldn’t they have found some cooler god names for these projects?), “are going to be as happy to shoot the shit out of us as they are to launch a missile or whatever into the nearest planet. Our best chance is to try something.”

“You want to do what Doctor C did when they reached out to you before?” Gex asked.

“Yep. We don’t have five hundred or so oneirocytes in train that we can use to boost the signal, but we’re better at this than they are. Look what we’ve already been able to do – they built wank little wooden chalets, we built worlds – all on our own. It took the whole weight of their Unity to yank us out of the real world, but we did it with just the three of us.”

“All it takes is a little imagination…” suggested Scoro.

“Exactly that. If we can imagine it here, make it real, we can replicate what they did, and more.” I was increasingly convinced of it. Whether I really believed it, or was just desperate enough to think I did wasn’t really important. We were in an imagined space, and whatever we imagined was real here became true. If there was something out there that could hear us, even while they ignored radio signals and whatever other crap the Nut people were banging out there, then we should – we could – reach them.

Even as I was talking, Gex’s world was rising up through the white dust of my ownworld, man-sized cogs and engines revolving. Scoro’s architecture grew up around it, like frost crystallising on a window pane. I added to it, tree trunks spiralling around the tower as it twisted up into the sky. We infused it with our sense of selves, laying hands on the structure and feeling some vital matter of ourselves extend throughout its structure, laced with a desire, an overwhelming wish to communicate. Together we receded from the world, attaining that gods’ eye view I’d experienced when Project Tutu combined their resources to reach just a few hundred miles to a mind like theirs. We perceived the bubble of ownworld existence – a complete universe with no limits, no outside, only the world itself – and pierced it. The tower, a twisting spire of our three combined worlds – part stone, machine, and imaginary organic life all deeply interwoven and suffused with our sense of selves. I could almost feel the oneirocyte moving inside my real world skull. It was a nauseating sensation, but one that told me our actions here did have a direct impact outside. As the spire pierced the fabric of the ownworld’s reality it slid into the real world, invisibly punching through the Earth’s atmosphere and crying out into space.

For a seeming eternity we poured our attention and hope into that spire and out into the universe beyond ourselves. It was cold, and dark out there. Were we feeling the actual touch of vacuum inside our minds? And then, at last, something heard us. It was like walking in the woods and catching a glimpse of something, squinting to make it out and then suddenly realising it was a thing with eyes which opened and looked back at you. A feeling of immensity washed over us, making the spire shudder and shaking us back into our ownworld bodies at the foot of the tower. We stepped back, no longer needing to touch the structure since we had created it and the oneirocytes had locked it into existence. Way up where it penetrated the boundary of our ownworld space, there was a distant whistling, as if the atmosphere was being sucked out through the hole way up in the sky. Well, we’d done something all right.

Perhaps not the right something as I woke back into the real as the shock of a slap across my face smacked my head back in the headrest. Lovely, another fucking gun in my face, and Stallford shouting, “what did you do?” while frantically leaning over his underlings’ consoles. Whatever we’d done had made the observatory break out with noise – shouting from one desk to another, running back and forth. It was Lindsmane who had his gun in my face this time, and two more soldiers were aiming at Gex’s and Scoro’s faces as they too lurched back into reality.

“Woah! We did what you asked – we said ‘hello’,” I cried, hands up as is traditional in these situations. It failed to have the impact I’d hoped for, which was to see the gun move away.

From across the room: “We have definite contact, there’s a… shape… a spaceship,” (you could hear the extreme reluctance to commit to that in the soldier’s voice), “it appeared on radar out of nowhere, and it’s headed our way.”

The display screen that we were seated around was still updating with detail and this new object appeared on the board. Diamond-shaped, or like a long tear drop with all curves rendered into brutal sharp lines. From the display it looked like it was about half the size our moon used to be.

“It’s just smashed through the satellite grid,” another soldier reported, “satellite field epsilon is gone – just gone. It’s coming in fast.”

“Launch countermeasures,” snapped Colonel Stallford, “Project Petbe approved, authorisation Alpha-Zero, commit on my mark.”

I almost suppressed a snort at the ridiculous military procedural stuff they came out with, but it sounded a lot like…

“Wait,” I shouted, “Are you seriously planning to attack that thing? Are you a fucking idiot?”

This was unwelcome feedback from an untrusted source. I might have pushed it a bit too far, but I was terrified that we were about to start a war with something so far outside our experience it was a joke. Stallford wheeled round and drew his own sidearm, adding it to Lindsmane’s. Cool, I’d be double-dead.

“We’ve been uprooted from our solar system, most of Earth’s population is dead, they’ve killed our planet, and now they’re wiping out our satellite imagery and weaponry. That–” he pointed at the angular spacecraft grinding its way into our atmosphere, “–that is an immediate threat, and we will deal with it.”

We couldn’t let this happen. I submerged once more into the ownworld, this time maintaining my presence in the real. The overlaid worlds were confusing to say the least. In the real world I heard someone, probably Stallford say, “Mark, open fire, all Petbe assets.”

As he spoke I saw Gex and Scoro lunging out of their couches, pistols raised to track them, opening fire. In the ownworld I laid a hand on our spire and whispered, “Help,” as I too threw myself forwards, aiming to tackle Stallford. These were terrible plans: three idiots against a trained military unit, but sometimes you just have to do something, because doing nothing is unthinkable. This time we got a clear response. The observatory rang like a bell that had been struck. In one fell swoop all the soldiers collapsed where they stood or sat, their shots going happily awry as Gex, Scoro and I fell through where our intended targets had been and stumbled against the floor.

“Fuck, that was close,” hissed Gex. I didn’t reply: I was looking up. The needle point of the spacecraft was directly overhead, pointing down at the exact centre of the dome. It didn’t even leave a shadow – the suns’ light passed right through it. It was like looking at a rock made of soap bubbles. It was awesome. The dome rang again, and the glass crazed instantly and collapsed into powder that rained down on us harmlessly.

We’d made contact with someone, something greater than us, and it was waiting for us – just hanging there in the air. Gingerly we sat back in our couches. I was painfully aware of the bullethole right where I rested my head. We sank back into the ownworlds, and that’s where we finally met the Vaunted.

Stolen Skies – Part Eighteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

More goddamn stairs. Why was everything stairs these days? We’d pretty much run out of puff, and with the blue corridor and quite a lot of doors and stairs between us and the cat’s cradle psychic hell deep inside the mountain, I felt like we were able to relax a tiny bit. Our hearts were racing, legs aching with build-up of lactic acid, we wheezed like the forty year-olds we were, who’d spent their adult lives in a scum-filled atmosphere, chugging zygoptics for most of that time. We more pulled ourselves up the staircase by the banister than climbed. A cold sweat clung to me. Those bastard fibres were still crawling across the floor towards us, leaving lacework patterns of blood behind. I was really glad that I hadn’t tried to go the whole way into the surgical suite. The coils I’d seen worming their way out of that man’s skull wasn’t going to go away without therapy and a fuck-tonne of drugs, but it would have been a million times worse to have seen a whole room of dead bodies with that wiry shit sprouting out of their ruined heads. Ah, you know what – maybe I didn’t need to see it, my imagination was doing just fine all on its own. One of the benefits of the oneirocytes, of course, was having a much greater control over such useful mental functions as imagination and perception – specifically the shaping of a perpetual reality that could be perceived the same way again and again. I really hoped our powers with the oneirocytes were good enough to excise these images from my dreams, and keep them out of our ownworlds.

Speaking of the ownworlds, and our oneirocytes… As yet I hadn’t fully wrapped my head around what I’d seen and the knowledge that I had exactly the same thing cradling my own brain, and those of Scoro and Gex who wheezed beside me, trudging upwards. That should have been a lot more alarming, that I had a similar ball of steel wool busy replacing my brain with a synthetic, lasting version of itself. A parasite which could escape my skull after my death and… I don’t know, fuck off and live in a tree or something. Presumably the skull-wool I’d seen leaving their hosts was actually heading off down to the huge room where all its pals were, rather than specifically chasing us – because that would be stupid as fuck. Filaments aren’t going to catch running people, after all, and even if they did, what were they going to do, crawl in through our ears and eyes to get at our oneirocytes? Cool, yet another mental image I did not need. The prospect of ever sleeping again receded further. Shared ownworlds were consensual, that was the whole point and key to making them work. We could never be consciously abducted and installed in the freaky garden downstairs – that was why they tried to trick us into thinking the Unity was reality. So, no. We were safe from integration, but not necessarily safe from murder. Would our parasites fight for us? I mean, my oneirocyte had shown no inclination to get in on the act of forming some super-organism writhing in a basement greenhouse. I was still labelling “it” as “it”, rather than what it really was, which was “me plus”. In time, the oneirocyte would replace my brain entirely and whatever distinction had once existed would become moot, only for worrying about by philosophers and other twats excited by whether an axe that you’ve replaced the handle and head of is still the same axe. Which meant that since “I” had shown no interest in their bland paradise, neither had “it” or “me plus”. I was still me, which was reassuring, probably. Ah, fuck. It felt like everything had gotten seriously out of hand, and fretting about it while my lungs laboured for breath was not the best time. For one, I was plainly short of oxygen, hence the wheezing, and therefore not thinking at my best. A spot of paranoia when people have tried to kill you and keep you alive in their tedious infinite simulation is very appropriate, but I wasn’t likely to answer any of my deep and meaningful questions until we were far from here, in a hermetically sealed room while we watched each other get some sleep.

Even at our agonisingly slow pace, the staircases passed, our knees creaked alarmingly and we turned a final corner into another fucking lobby area with more fucking doors. I had grown profoundly weary of both stairs and doors, never mind corridors. No wonder my ownworld was devoid of all three – I must have cultivated some deep loathing of them well before entering the home of Project Tutu, or I just liked open spaces and no surprises. We paused to catch our breath properly, hanging off the railing as we returned to a more natural colour. We’d seen no soldiers, so maybe they really weren’t allowed inside the complex at all, and lived in a shack on the outside of the mountain, herding goats or whatever. And these stairs – Jesus, I couldn’t bear to imagine how many steps there had been. I leaned back over the banister and looked straight down the middle. Yep, basically infinite.

I turned to the others. “All OK?”

Many eyerolls, but the ghost of a smile on Gex’s face, and a proper nod from Scoro. Belatedly I realised that we’d failed to find any weapons on the way out, but had at least retained the crappy soft-soled shoes that we’d pulled on for the airlock and cleansuits. They weren’t comfortable, but our feet weren’t bleeding from pounding up the stairs I didn’t think – we hadn’t checked and all the dampness everywhere else was sweat. Planning is not my forte, but then neither is escaping from a scientific facility and meat-killing a bunch of people. Ah, how times change. We made some effort to look ready for anything and gently pushed open the doors.

We’d found the soldiers. They were standing facing away from us, eyes on the monitors and read-outs that ringed the consoles all around the room. What dominated the big wide room was the clear dome that covered it. You could just about see the structures that ringed this observatory, some of those huge dishes and spiky towers that you found at astronomical observatories, plus a whole load of weird fin shapes, curling pillars and things I had no idea about at all. In the centre of the room stood another guy wearing a beret, and with him was our Corporal Lindsmane. Both spun at the sound of the door opening, and they took in the sight of three somewhat damp white-coated individuals gaping at them.

“You took the stairs?” was the first thing out of Lindsmane’s mouth. Motherfucker. Somewhere there was a lift.

“Yes… didn’t want to risk getting trapped. If… something happened,” I replied, aiming for ultra vague with a hint of competence.

“Well you made excellent time, considering, Doctor…” commented the other fellow, presumably a higher rank because of the fancier beret and additional decoration on his play suit.

I glanced down surreptitiously at the lanyard hanging round my neck and cautiously ventured: “Quince.” Gex and Scoro did the same, figuring out who they were supposed to be, Gex subtly covering the vivid splatter of blood from the scientist whose throat she’d cut. Lindsmane was giving me a very odd look, since “Quince” was very obviously not my real name, and soldiers are rather security-focused. I gave him a thumbs up and strained grin, as his superior turned his attention back to the massive window. Hopefully our few days together would buy us just a little grace.

“Quince. Excellent,” the other soldier said, hands clasped behind his back as he stared at the sky through the glass dome. “Thank you for coming so quickly. As you can see – something is happening at last.”

Cool, we’d wandered into yet another situation where we had no idea what was going on. I was incredibly grateful when Lindsmane chose to throw us a bone.

“Colonel Stallford–” a name I was probably supposed to know “–perhaps we should fill our science colleagues in. Not all of Project Tutu is as well-versed in Project Nut.”

“Quite right Lindsmane. I’d rather expected to see the senior executive team up here, considering.”

“Ah yes, Doctor Charbroly is um, indisposed,” all true… “The project is at a critical point. So she sent us,” I ended with limply.

But apparently satisfactorily, though Lindsmane boggled at us. I gave him a secret headshake, and tried to convey that everything was both utterly fucked and that we weren’t any kind of a problem he needed to worry about. I can only guess that every project here was so weird that he’d been feeling a bit unsure about everything since arriving.

“So – Project Nut,” the colonel continued.

I hadn’t heard it properly the first time, and couldn’t help but blurt out, “Project Nut?”

Either Stallford was expecting the question or I’d managed to disguise my incredulity because he proceeded smoothly with his mini briefing. “Project Nut, named for the Egyptian goddess of the stars. While Project Tutu looked inward to find a solution for humanity here inside the englobement, Project Nut looked outward, seeking the stars beyond. Since the englobement twenty years ago, Project Nut has been at work across the world, probing the barrier, testing it and attempting to breach it with traditional and non-traditional communication tools.”

Phenomenal, these were likely the pricks that tried firing nukes into near-Earth space, which fucked up half the world. I chose not to interrupt.

“While some tests were more successful than others, we’ve had no success whatsoever in penetrating the barrier. Similarly none of our instruments have been successful in detecting a single particle passing through the barrier. We’ve been protected from all cosmic rays; not even the most super-energetic particle has struck the Earth, to the best of our detection. Utterly cut off from the known universe. Since losing trace of the moon’s gravity, we’ve detected no other sources of gravity strong enough to affect us.”

A striking success of a project, I thought. Some real quality work being done here, with god knows what resources.

“Until three days ago,” he added, since we looked so radically unimpressed with his little speech. “Three days ago we detected gravity from outside the shell – multiple sources, and big. Equivalent to, or greater than our own planet.”

“You mean… there’s something outside?”

“More specifically, we think we’ve arrived somewhere.”

“And what happens next?”

“We stand ready to extend our communication efforts. If, as we suspect, we’ve been taken somewhere for a reason – since plainly the englobement of our world is no simple cosmic event, this a purposeful action – which we must assume is hostile, though possibly in an alien sense that we may struggle to interpret, we must be ready to communicate with whatever reveals itself. And, if necessary, respond in kind.”

That was great, for twenty years these guys had been waiting to have a chat with something, but if in doubt they were going to shoot it. Humans, right?

Gex chipped in, “A very thorough summary colonel,” honestly, praise works so well on these guys – I’d have sworn he was standing taller, “and what is happening right now, that caused you to summon Project Tutu from our important work?” She was laying on a little thick, but it felt like the right kind of arrogance from those we’d encountered below.

“We believe the projects are about to intersect.”

Even as he spoke, it began. Total silence enveloped the room and we all stared straight up through the dome. Fine lines had appeared in the meat-grey sky, glowing edges of light that steadily grew as, in a high-speed reverse of how the shell had appeared in the darkness of space, the vast segments of the shell receded, sinking back into the deep. In their place: light. Light, unbelievable light washed through the spaces between the shells until their shapes were overwhelmed, like a figure walking away through a brightly lit doorway, their outlines blurring and warping in the bright, bright light that flooded across our darkened world. While we stared, hands were tapping away at their instruments, dishes were mechanically grinding on tracks outside, button catches were flipped open and the nervous chatter of detection equipment sent needles and pens scrawling across rolls of paper. But there was nothing I could do but gaze into the glowing light.

Stolen Skies – Part Seventeen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Fuck. We stood there, breathing heavily. That had taken a bit of a turn. We were surrounded by bodies, limbs flung out and tumbled to the ground wherever they’d fallen when I tore their conscious minds away. It was the opposite of a peaceful-looking death for them. Still, the moment of peace and quiet gave us a chance to look around and figure out what the fuck was going on. It was certainly possible that we’d over-reacted, though I was a little torn on that: if we had over-reacted, then we were definitely murderers, stupidly working through a situation with violence that could have been fixed with five minutes of honest conversation – and I didn’t want to think I was that kind of person. Even as I thought that, I could hear the corollary: “I’m not a violent person” in quiet italics in my head. Ah fuck. We might have just killed the last best hope for humanity, though that didn’t really ring true either. No one who’s doing the right thing tricks you into believing in their world and then tries to do surgery on you. That’s not normal. That’s not OK. High-stepping over the white-clad bodies nearest to the bed I’d been resting on I saw that the tools of their trade were scattered across the floor: scalpels, clamps, worrying salad tong-type things. Ah, neat little electric saws. Nah. It looked a lot like they had been aiming to cut our skulls open. A lot of the guilt that was excitedly building up in my chest dissipated when I realised that. Behind each of the three beds in the suite were complicated-looking boxes, more like miniature terrariums, half-filled with a gelatinous fluid and with weird fibrous grey structures that looked a bit like plants, if you were especially committed to the terrarium metaphor.

“Looks quite a lot like they were gonna cut our oneirocytes out and stick em in these tanks, doesn’t it?” murmured Scoro.

My companions looked equally freaked out – we’d come here looking for some kind of safety and hope, and all that had been comprehensively fucked.

“Someone was a bit too keen to get us into the Unity,” agreed Gex. “Makes me wonder… I mean, do you think we were special somehow?”

“Doctor C–“ who was lying right there in the doorway, lying peacefully bent over the body of some happily anonymous surgeon-type, quite dead, “–thought we’d done some unusual stuff with our ownworlds, but it seemed to be the opposite of what they were aiming for.” I shook my head, poking the gel stuff in the tank with my finger. It had the texture of what I imagined it would be like to poke your own brain.

“I guess we all wonder what’s in each other’s heads sometimes,” Scoro said. He seemed fractionally more upbeat than I felt, and added, “I really didn’t like being in the Unity.”

Hard to argue with that, unless you really did think it was the future of our species. Which we might have just fucked up, even if we did it in self-defense.

“Have we just killed the human race?” I asked.

“Feels like a lot to lay on our shoulders. Lots of blame to go around,” said Gex, stepping over the bodies towards the exit. “These fuckers for a start.”

I was still staring at Doctor C – Edithine – imagining her in her younger incarnation inside the Unity, a newer brighter version of this human body. Fuck it. I followed Gex, and Scoro in making way through the wreckage of the room.

“We really need to find some way out of here. Someone’s bound to be along in a bit when they fail to rock up with our brains in boxes.”

“Yeah… Quiet though, isn’t it?” Scoro noted. He was right. Apart from the low hum and occasional gentle beeps from the machinery we’d largely knocked on the ground, it was deadly silent. We hadn’t spent a lot of time awake here yet, but in the tour that Hest had given us (now lying slumped against the wall, head with the fine looking bruise spreading over his forehead, chin resting on his round chest, eyes open, staring, no one home…) we’d seen lots of neat, clean facilities, but hadn’t met anyone. Even our quarters were quiet. I’d paid it no mind. It was such a fantastic contrast to being penned up in the caterpillar that the relative silence of gently buzzing lights was a real treat.

“Weird. There’s got to be another way out of a complex like this – no one builds just one door. Plus, that would be super-useful since the only door we’ve seen so far is loaded up with soldiers. Can’t imagine they’d be cool with us swanning after wiping out the projects executive committee.” It wasn’t a great situation to be in, even if it was better than having our brains cut out. I’m not even sure how we’d get back to that big entrance – there were a lot of locking doors the way we came.”

“Cool. Makes you wonder if the soldiers are only outside. None of them came in here – our lot with Lindsmane went off through another door. Bet they’ve got billets, or whatever they call them tucked into the mountain too, but their job is to cover that entrance and exit, not fuck about with what the scientists are up to. Need to know, and all that.”

Gex was probably right. Hopefully. While we could play tricks on individuals (and even groups, now) with parasites, we’d be in serious trouble against anyone with a weapon, or training, or even just two people with a brick and a glass bottle who lacked oneirocytes. Exploring time, then. We looted the bodies first – not like proper looting, we weren’t after gold teeth or anything – but I don’t know what else you call it when you start rooting through corpse’s pockets for keys and security passes. We came up with a fistful each of keys and cards.

The room adjoining the surgical suite that we’d been able to see through the glass wall was another couple of walls filled with equipment: computers, monitors, baffling displays labelled “interior”, “engagement”, “independence” and more besides. There wasn’t much for us in there, just knocked over chairs and the one guy who hadn’t made it through the crush into the suite when they went for us. He was dead too. I’d just grabbed everyone nearby who wasn’t Gex or Scoro. I had lots of questions about the oneirocytes and these newfound extensions of its functions, but unfortunately we’d just killed everybody who might have been able to answer them. Another door happily opened onto a familiar looking cream corridor. Familiar, but not actually one we knew since they all looked the damn same. It wasn’t even like a hospital where they try to overcome its terrifying maze-like qualities by painting stripes on the floors and walls to guide you. Nope, like everything here the corridor went on for ages and had plenty of unmarked doors leading off it. It remained eerily quiet.

We started trying doors, all of them. It felt very strange leaving a roomful of bodies to go and systematically root through their house. I didn’t like feeling as if we’d broken into someone’s home, murdered them and then sought out all the valuable electronics and first day cover collections. We could at least be quick. Many of the doors opened onto similar pairs of rooms as those we’d left, or storage rooms half-filled with cartons and crates. Some of them were less than half full, which made us wonder just how long the project had been running, and what stage it had been in when we arrived. Doctor C said she’d been seconded to the project right at the beginning, just after the shell came up. It had been a live project since at least then, and there was no reason to think it hadn’t been underway since long before that. We’d only joined as assistants a few years ago, just before they packed in the testing phase. There were more rooms. Always more fucking rooms. Someone had fun burrowing into the mountain and making this weird hive. Finally, at the end of that corridor there was another door that led to stairs, and an elevator. Now, call me paranoid, but the fuck was I getting into an elevator. That must have been how we got up here – the room we woke up in definitely wasn’t the one we went to sleep in, so they must have wheeled us out and up to the “surgery hall” or “butcher suites” or whatever they called this place. We had the choice of up or down. It seemed to make sense that up was where we’d likely come from – who builds a secret lair in a mountain and builds upwards? No, you put the door at the top and the cool shit as deep down, safe and secure as you can. Did Smaug make a nest on top of the mountain for all his gold? Exactly. So down we went, anxiously eyeing the stairs above in case anyone did appear. But it was still quiet, and grew unnervingly so the more time we spent here. Going down felt darker, even though the lighting was exactly the same. I imagined that extra weight of the mountain above us and could see where people got claustrophobia from – it wasn’t grabbing me by the throat or anything, but it was there – an anxious little squeeze on my lungs and heart. Well, the sooner we found a way out the better.

The next floor was similar to the one above, but with additional meeting and conference rooms, more storage, more lack of people. Down again then…

Bingo. Of a sort. We had to flip through the cards until we found one that would work: Doctor C’s. Even Hest’s only got a polite beep out of the door, but together both of them swiped across the sensor made the door swing open. And into another fucking nightmare we went. This wasn’t a hall of doorways this time. The door opened onto a cleanroom antechamber, loaded up with closets containing white clean suits, sprays, gloves and all that useful stuff. There was neat little airlock that led into a much darker space beyond. We couldn’t quite make out what was in there. I eyed the suits speculatively.

“You must be joking,” Scoro said.

“Kinda,” I said, “But I feel like I want to know what was going on. There’s no one else here. So what’s behind that door?”

We all grumbled a bit. Even I didn’t really want to go in, but the curiosity was overwhelming. We’d put these oneirocytes in our heads to experience what Project Tutu had told us it was for – create your own virtual world to hang out in and escape this grey world for a while – but now it was clear that they’d had other ideas, and they’d just made us kill to stay free of them. “Made us kill”. Yeah, I know. Already rationalising our actions, but how does anyone live with what they’ve done otherwise. We suited up, somewhat ineptly, helping each other with zips, Velcro and what I guess were flanges. Suitably helmeted we all went into the airlock and waited while it shone that blue light over us, hissed some vapour from all sides, waited for it to dissipate and then finally the other door opened.

Onto a single enormous room. Compared to where we’d explored so far this was a vast space – think of every school hall you’ve been in and treble it in size. The blue lights were a primary feature here, lighting up the floor and ceiling. In between were racks, almost like a series of supermarket aisles, or a server farm, if you’re more technically minded. We tentatively edged down the first aisle. It was lined on both sides with shelves which were half electronic equipment and wires plugged into a seemingly endless array of glass tanks, very much the same as the weird terraria they’d been planning to dump our brains into. Or rather, Scoro had been right, it was just oneirocytes. At the end we began on the tanks held thick grey masses of the parasite, a really badly twisted ball of thread that a cat must have had a fine time playing with, tangled into the support structures, or plants that were in there with them. The further down the rack we got, the larger, denser and more sprawling those parasite webs became, until they were fully enmeshed with the trees and filled the tanks entirely, the networks so large that they pressed up against the sides.

It was all rather sobering. It actually took a while to grasp what we were looking at – not just that these were all advanced oneirocytes that had grown big and fat, but they didn’t have human brains attached. Now, it’s possible that they’d always been like this – that they had been grown independently of a host – but there were hundreds here, possibly a lot more than that. And that tallied pretty well with the absence of anyone in the facility except those we’d met. They were all down here, and what had almost been done to us had already been done to them. If all Doctor C had said was true, then they all lived on down here in the Unity. The parasites had copied their minds completely as they spread through their brains until they had replaced all the brain flesh that mattered. Once that growth process was complete, they could be harvested from the body and these individuals might never know it had even happened. Unless they tried to wake up. And that was the part that got me – the Unity ran off compelling you to forget about the real world – the “outer world” as Hest had kept calling it. Well, fuck that.

We were still shambling along the blue lit aisle when we reached a new section – presumably an older section where the parasites weren’t confined to their boxes any more. They overflowed, plunging threads into the tanks around them, making it look like the whole shelving rack was covered in a massive black web, tendrils stretching onto the floor, reaching out and touching the tendrils coming from the other side.

“I reckon we’ve seen enough…” Gex whispered. We’d begun whispering almost the second we’d entered this place. A mausoleum of living minds.

“Yeah, let’s get the fuck out of here,” I said. The quiet hum of the equipment had become deafening – a rising whine that filled a space beyond my ears. We started to back up the way we’d come, careful steps turning to a deliberate stride.

“Is it just me or–“ Scoro was not alone. The black threads of the parasites were moving, very faintly writhing, the tips crawling across the floor and out of the tanks beside us. Reaching out. Reaching for us. We were halfway back up the aisle, the soft glow of the airlock dead ahead when they started reaching out in other ways. My vision split again: the blue-dark of the parasite tomb overlaid with a gently snowing landscape. Gex and Scoro flickered in and out of the snow. I looked around and the glimpse of the Unity that Doctor C had given me was revealed to have been only a sliver. Behind me was the village of wooden chalets which Edithine had shown me, but when I turned I saw a whole city rising out of the snow – a wide frozen lake between us. This was all the people who had been butchered by the project and given this new place to live. A massive weight of pressure somewhere in my mind forced me to my knees, the gravity of the Unity pulling me down, freezing out my vision of the real world. The blue lights and dark racks faded, covered up by snow. I could feel the attention of all the minds in the Unity. A pair of legs stepped into view – I was crouching, trying to resist the weight that had driven me down. I craned my neck up and saw that it was, impossibly, Doctor C.

“Hi…” I managed.

She knelt down to look at me. I couldn’t tell whether she was angry or not. I’d have been fucking livid if someone killed my body, but there was no violence in her gaze. (I guess at heart, violence is not so far from my nature as I’d like to believe.) She took me by the chin.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said, “I’d hoped you and your friends would accept this, that you’d become part of the Unity, and live forever here with us. But I don’t think you really want that, do you?”

“Did anyone really want this, or did you just hack their heads open anyway?”

“Everyone here knew what the project was leading to,” she said.

“Cool, that’s just a tiny bit fucking evasive. I bet most of them didn’t, and now they don’t even have a clue that there ever was a real world.”

“It’s all a matter of perception,” Doctor C half-conceded. “But we can’t have you loose in the facility like this, not while we’re all in here. So I’m afraid it’s time to say goodbye. I did enjoy gardening together, once.”

She stepped away and invisible fingers began to pull at my mind. It felt like the oneirocyte was being drawn out of my head like you might wind a Guinea worm out of your leg. I began to scream and didn’t think I’d ever stop. I’d lost all sight of Gex and Scoro, blinded by the snow and the pain, the interference as my mind was pulled apart. I really thought it was all over, that I’d die, lying there cold in the fake snow, but then I heard a voice – Scoro’s: “we’re coming.” The snow shuddered and split as arching walls of intricate stone and ironwork erupted from the ground, wrapping me in a spike of gothic cathedral. As the snowy sky was blotted out, the pain in my head faded. The architecture snapped shut and hauled me out of the Unity.

My eyes flickered back open in the real world, the snow gone, replaced by the soft blue light. I was being dragged and began to struggle until Gex put her face right in front of mine. I nodded understanding and tried to stand, but I didn’t yet have full control of my legs and it just made it harder for my friends to drag me. While they piled us into the airlock, the cavernous room full of dead people’s brains slowly reached out for us. It was like being underwater. And then the airlock snapped shut, gassed us again, and we fell back out into the antechamber.

“We really, really need to get the fuck out of this mountain,” I gasped as Scoro pulled my helmet off.

“Too true.”

We tore off the cleansuits and stumbled back out. Down had proven to be an utter nightmare, so that left up.

“Are you OK?” Gex’s voice in my ear as we shambled up the stairs. I was getting my legs back, as if I’d spent weeks on a rough sea, and my skull ached.

“Yeah, yeah. They’re still alive – all of them, Doctor C, all those people we killed.”

It felt unreal – we hadn’t really accepted what Doctor C and Hest had been telling us. Project Tutu worked, really worked, and when we’d yanked them out of the real world and thrown them in a pit. That metaphorical murder of Gex’s had actually cut them off from their bodies. Their bodies died, but the parasites lived on. Which perfectly explained what we saw when we reached the floor where they’d tried to take our brains. We were just aiming for the next flight of stairs upward, but a movement far down the hall caught my eye. I stopped, and stared. Blood was pooling out of a doorway, and in it I could see what looked like black string, sopping with blood writhing forwards.

“I’m sorry – I just need to see this,” I said, to Scoro’s audible horror. I slowly approached the surgical suite where the blood was coming from. I didn’t need to go inside. The blood covered the floor, redly slick and the man who’d never made it out of the observation chamber still lay there, clothes soaking up the blood. But his head… his skull looked like someone had gone at it with a cheese grater – from the inside. Black threads unwound through the holes in his scalp, lashing about in the blood, pulling more of itself out of him and writhing through the blood towards the door. Beyond him, the surgical suite showed more of the same, black masses, greasy with chunks of brain matter oozing towards us.

“OK, I actually didn’t need to see that,” I hissed as I rejoined Gex and Scoro who were just staring as the pool of blood continued to seep into the corridor. “Yep, didn’t need that at all. Might never sleep again. Let’s go.”

We ran up the stairs from then on. Two flights. Three, then four. Hearts racing we got to the top of the stairs which opened into a bluely lit corridor. We burst through it, noting the door on the right that we’d been brought through initially for cleaning, and the big double doors at the very end which opened back out into the concrete garage space where we’d left the caterpillar. The door we came out of must have been the one the scientists went through while we got scrubbed. They weren’t the only doors though – there was another pair opposite the cleaning rooms. There was an excellent chance that these led straight to the soldiers, but just then that didn’t seem so bad.

Meta-Nanowrimo 2022, 1

Metananowrimo Stolen Skies

36,144 Words

That’s so far! I’ve been thinking about doing a metananowrimo post since I started writing this month, but it’s been a busy time, and… I haven’t. I find it useful to reflect on the creative process though, so here we go…

I’ve written almost nothing for the last three years, since falling out of my Nanowrimo story in 2019 after just four chapters of Waiting for Silence, about 9000 words in. Although one reason was the busy November making this really, really hard to fit in, I’d also begun a story that I didn’t want to keep writing. I think it has the beginning and promise of a good story (by the standards of a novelette written with no planning or editing in a single month, y’know…), but I was painfully aware that I’d set myself up to tell a story that was about a younger character trapped in a spaceship with an older character who had abused them (and was now dying in the room next door). It’s a story and a subject that I do want to tackle at some point. But it’s really fucking hard to bring myself do it because it’s just too close, and however well the counselling and years have taken in my brain, it’s always gonna be a sore subject, especially when I’m projecting it into a trapped character who has to deal with it, and that I have to think and write about every damn day for a month. Too much, at the time at least. I’ve done better thinking about this stuff more recently – for our mental health podcast We Are What We Overcome, we talked about a number of diary entries from when I was in counselling that are about just such things. It’s very weird to listen back to, and the preparation for that was a little scary. Maybe I’ll be able to finish that story after this one!

November is always frantically busy for me, with Nottingham Comedy Festival putting the kibosh on establishing a regular writing routine in the evening (too many fun things!) and the approaching end of the year always seems very demanding. Basically, not my fault… I’ve been telling myself that my desire to write has faded now that I have a much more creative and fulfilling job in publishing, and that sates my need to write. Plus, improv is all making up stories and being creative, so I’m quite well stacked with stuff that makes me happy. As I’ve gotten further and further away from that last story I’ve found it weighing on me more heavily that I haven’t been writing, plus I have a couple of friends who regularly pester me about it. I very much appreciate their support and daily reading of my Nanowrimo stories as I publish them each day. I’d almost fallen into the idea that I had no more stories to tell, that I’d forgotten how to do it (that last one might be true). But that’s nuts – I have notebooks full of story ideas and scraps of pages that I’ve written. I’d just gotten out of the habit of doing the thing.

I need an idea goddammit

I knew I needed a seed idea, something to get me started. Swimming is my quiet time and is a useful space for reordering the old brain, compiling a to-do list and promptly forgetting it as I get out of the pool. But I did have an idea, which will come up in Stolen Skies eventually, honest. It felt like a cool idea, but it also didn’t feel like enough, so I spent a few hours anxiously flicking through those old notebooks to spark my imagination. I found an old story idea – just a couple of sentences – about the Earth being englobed and moved to another part of the galaxy. Not a detailed idea by any means, but combined with the other, secret idea it felt like just enough. 

I’ve been making a conscious effort not to take this too seriously or try to go all hardcore as I’ve done before, hitting 5k a day and finishing the story by mid-month. I just don’t have the space, and as it turned out I didn’t even get to start the story for a few days, and have skipped a couple of days when I needed to. I feel quite chill about it, and only got round to updating my Nanowrimo profile a week or so ago. I’ve found that writing in the morning is the best time, which seems to be like the best way to get exercise over and done with before the rest of the day kicks in and obliterates that happy blank state. An hour of scribbling before work has me climbing out of bed far more readily than usual. I’m back to caning out about a thousand words in thirty minutes, which feels good.

Cover images

Oh yeah – the important business of getting a title and cover together! It’s a useful focusing tool as I’ve found in previous years. This year I started with The New Stars, but realised that I’d half-inched that from Tim Pratt’s fun Axiom series. That mutated when I started thinking about cover design. This year I’ve used the full version of Dall-E Mini’s AI illustration tool. We messed about with a lot in the run-up to our last Improvised Star Wars Show at Nottingham Playhouse last October. It’s fun to play with, and I gave it junk like “exploding moon and lurid stars”. The results are not terrible, and it gave me the better title of Stolen Skies. 

Sounds like writing

I like a good writing soundtrack, and this time I wanted a particular mood to get into the character and story with. I’m listening to a random shuffle of the three incredible trip-hop albums by Portishead, Palm Skin Productions’ Remilixir, and Venetian Snares’s stunning album Rossz Csillag Alatt Sz​ü​letett. All mashed up together it’s distinctly dark and beautiful, with a hint of menace and lasting trauma. Perfect!

Keep up with Stolen Skies right here.

Stolen Skies – Part Sixteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Project Tutu had created a shared ownworld, in which people had their own individual spaces contained within in. They’d been working on almost the direct opposite of what we had made for ourselves. We’d built dream environments, places to wander and find peace – there would be more to come, but we’d been focusing on the connection between dreams and reality. Why build a direct version of reality when it sucked so damn hard? Edithine’s team had a very different approach, one that had been coordinated from the top down, with none of our “wild” creation away from the project confines. They’d been building a cosy idealised version of a real world that no longer existed. I didn’t know whether it was always snowing there or if the seasons changed… surely they’d change. Snow is gorgeous and great, even though I barely remember a version of it that wasn’t grey and mildly radioactive (snowball fights and snowmen had been a really bad idea for such a long time that it sounded more like a punishment than a bit of childhood fun), no one wanted it all the time – who wants a cold nose and to be unable to leave the house without wearing gloves? It’s a high bar for acceptable weather, I know. Still. I stood there in the snow, in my light white clothing and I could feel the cold. Plus I had bare feet and they were now standing in an inch of so of crisp crystallised water – they hadn’t gone numb yet, but plainly it would be on the cards if we stayed long. Whatever ownworld synthesis I was in now, it felt really real. I was sure that if I’d been here long enough, that nagging awareness that only recently I’d been somewhere else would fade away and the certainty of this realm would be embedded in my mind. I’m not certain why that gave me such a visceral sense of alarm. This was the whole point of the project, the reason that the oneirocyte in my brain existed at all, and even I hadn’t realised it when we’d implanted them, this was the plan for the future of our entire species. Acceptance is a long road, and our minds like consistency and to able to make predictions about reality that we can later verify and confirm that we are indeed living in a rational world that won’t suddenly fuck you up by surprise. I wasn’t as far down that road as I’d casually thought – once more the divide between conscious and unconscious. We can immediately accept a fact, but it might take much longer for us to believe it, if we ever do.

So I stood there in the snow, my toes going pleasantly numb as I soaked in the feel of this united ownworld, this renovated slice of Earth. There was something inherently magical about the redux of the world we hadn’t seen since before the shell, and yet I missed those more fantastical aspects that Scoro, Gex and I had each developed in our dreamworlds. When I mentioned this to Doctor C, she wasn’t exactly dismissive, but plainly felt I was being shortsighted.

“To imagine that the unconscious is just a kind of dreaming is understandable, but wholly inaccurate. Dreaming is the process by which the conscious becomes embedded in the unconscious, and where the unconscious – ideas and instincts that sit behind our awareness yet drive it in ways we can’t quite realise when we’re awake – gets to test those concepts, and if found usable and relevant, are passed on into the conscious awareness. It’s not dragons and fairy castles – that’s just a dream, singular. Dreaming is an enterprise that the whole mind is involved in. The nano parasites let us put that process in harness, using it to access the fundamental memory structures of the brain and replicate them in a stable environment that we can return to again and again. Further, because the parasites are, in a sense, one single sprawling web through our physical brains, everyone infected with the parasite can travel within that environment, create within it and add to it. Fantastical elements are inherently destabilising, because we recognise that they don’t fit. Placing an elven ice palace in this place shatters the illusion and undermines the establishment of a new consensual reality.”

“So how do you decide to add new stuff? Like–“ I struggled to think what you could add to a place you were just living in, “–I don’t know, a new tree or something?”

To her credit, Doctor C didn’t actually laugh at me, but I did feel like I was asking impossibly childish things – I felt truly lost in this ownworld in a way I hadn’t ever felt in mine. “Consensually – we treat this as the real world, so town planning is a real thing here. The only thing that differs is how we actually create those new elements. No one’s imagining a seed bank, going to get those seeds, planting them and watering them to make them grow. While that would be realistic, it also wastes the advantages of being in a mental realm. We can agree where, in your example, a new tree might go, have a group who decides what it’s going to be, who then dream it into being. Design teams, if you like. Some people are especially good at moulding with imagination. You three have created highly specific and precisely realised ownworld environments, they’re plainly rooted in the physical world, they’re just not very consistent with it. Nothing in your realms could be added here without challenging the sense of reality here, but on their own terms they appear to match themselves. It’s that consistency that keeps the mind going. In the real world we can turn a corner we’ve never walked down and find a whole new street, new trees, new people. It doesn’t usually send any tremor of incongruity through us, because it fits, it all makes sense with what we already know. Human senses are malleable and easily deceived – it’s why people are powerfully disturbed when they encounter phenomena they can’t explain, even if it’s entirely the result of their senses being tricked. Ghosts, for instance. No reason whatsoever to think they’re real, but combine the eternal worries of humanity about just ending at death with sadness, regret, poor lighting, tiredness and the peculiar effects of light and shadow, and boom: ghosts. And with that, the real world crumbles a little, or becomes deeper if you’re prone to fantastical notions, but either way it makes less sense, because the idea that some people might live on to haunt individuals and places is profoundly out of kilter with literally everything else in the world. And that sense of detachment spreads, creating subgroups convinced that the world isn’t all there is, fracturing unity and consensual reality. So we can add a tree, or change the season, sometimes instantly if we wish, because it is an understood law of this reality that such changes can occur, and we all understand how that is done, so the fabric of our world is maintained and enhanced by adding elements according to consensual processes. We call this combined ownworld the Unity. It’s where we can all be together once more.”

“But adding a dragon would really fuck that up, even if people decided they wanted a dragon?”

“If everyone,” heavy emphasis on ‘everyone’, which made me begin to suspect that ‘everyone’ wasn’t precisely each individual’s choice, “consented to the addition of dragons, then yes, we could add dragons.” I admired how Doctor C managed to make ‘yes’ sound exactly like ‘no’. She continued, “but you can’t just ‘have’ dragons. Where do they live? Where did they come from? What do they eat? What other animals are they related to? Are they dangerous? If we have dragons, do we also have to have unicorns, goblins and elves? An entire hidden sideworld of the fae, a fantasy we cultivate and maintain just so that we can occasionally have a vast scaled beast flying across the sky?”

Clearly I looked a little put out.

“There’s room for fantasy in a personal way, of course. In the real world, our experience is tuned and mediated through our senses, which all vary somewhat. You’ll be familiar with the idea that many of us perceive colours slightly differently – ‘red’ isn’t necessarily ‘red’ for everyone – and the same is true of what we attend to, those things that we’re primed by our minds and experience to pay attention to. Some never notice clothes, or the sky, but invest their interest and attention in minutiae – spot birds to the exception of all else. We can do that here. We all have our personal spaces, and as long as those features of our spaces don’t intrude on everyone else’s shared reality then it doesn’t present an issue. Come, let’s return to the outer world.”

She did that thing again, and the world folded back around and we were standing in her cosy wood-panelled study, the snow continuing to fall outside. My feet were dry, but still cold. Consistency wasn’t all that, I thought. We stepped back into the real world.

I opened my eyes to a calm quiet room, all cream walls and ceiling. I was lying on a comfortable bed, a couple of rungs up the ladder from a hospital bed, with added comfort and reassurance. Next to me Scoro and Gex were also waking up. We’d been left together for now, which I was immensely grateful for, because to be honest, the more time I spent with Doctor C talking about this shared universe, the more anxious it was making me.

“So,” I began, “how was that?”

Scoro looked uncomfortable. “They don’t seem to like our ownworlds. We don’t have cosy little chalets.”

“Hest said my engines wouldn’t fit in the Unity,” Gex said. She seemed on the verge of tears. “said they wouldn’t make sense, would upset the reality that had been established.”

This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I’d hoped that the others would have had more… positive experiences than mine. Not that it had been awful – we’ve all had mad ideas that have been rejected, that’s all part of life. Wild fantasies that get killed off when they meet reality head on. But that was the real world – why should we encounter the same resistance, the same flat “no” in our dreamworlds? That might be their point, but it didn’t have to be ours.

They didn’t give us long to chat, or fret or whatever. Hest and Doctor C, plus the other aide who’d been with Scoro and whose name I don’t think I ever managed to learn, entered our suite together and took seats while we remained sitting, half-reclining on the beds. It wasn’t especially comfortable.

“I know you’re all finding this strange,” Doctor C started, “and that’s no surprise – you’ve been lost all on your own, struggling to make sense of the nano parasites – sorry, you prefer ‘oneirocytes’, don’t you – the oneirocytes embedding themselves in your brains. By lacking the structure here, you’ve gone in an uncontrolled direction. As you probably recall from the pre-relocation of Project Tutu, this is where many of the failures occurred, severe reality dysfunction as an interior world became so wildly at variance with the real world that the subjects were unable to remember which was which or to be able to make conscious choices anymore. The lack of executive direction is a genuine risk, and one we’re keen to keep from occurring to the three of you. Together, you’ve achieved a remarkable degree of stability, despite the quasi-fantastical nature of your ownworlds. Now that you’re safe with us, we’d like to integrate you properly into the Unity. But that’s for tomorrow and beyond. For the rest of today, we encourage you to meet other members of Project Tutu, chat about the Unity and who the people in it are, relax and get some rest. The work we’re doing here can be demanding, physically and mentally – but you’re plainly strong enough for that!”

I didn’t feel unstable. Or I hadn’t until we started exploring the Unity and the people in it. As Doctor C had suggested, we spent the remainder of that day wandering through the various common rooms. The facility seemed endless, but the people were nice. Everyone was interested to meet us and seemed genuinely pleased to have found us wandering about in the real world. At some point we’d wandered out of white walls and carpeted floors into a more comfortable area that had nice leather chairs and more thoughtfully decorated, as if folks might actually want to spend time in it.

“Well this isn’t so bad, is it?” Scoro suggested. The people were nice, even if the world they’d built together was… not so much dull, but ordinary. The entire experience we’d had with oneirocytes felt extraordinary; gaining power over our dreams was thrilling and intense. It wasn’t knocking about in a version of the real world. We’d asked lots of questions: did they eat, sleep, use toilets in the Unity? Eat: yes, if they wanted to, sleep: not really – that was still being worked on, it might just kick you back out into the real world, use toilets: why…? For all that Doctor C described the Unity as this consensual reality, there was a lot of reality missing. I guessed they could always work on that, make it bigger as time went on. I couldn’t help but think of my ownworld, which I’d imagined from the start as infinite – trees that went on forever, with an unlimited amount of space for me to eventually populate with dreamstuff and aspects of that life which would make me happy.

I noticed a shimmering in the corner of my eye, like I’d gotten an eyelash caught under my eyelid, splitting the light oddly. I blinked hard to get rid of it, and it switched to the other side – a shadow made of light, just out of view. “Gex, I think there’s something in my eye,” I said, shaking my head a little. She leant over, peering into my eye as I held it open. The light shadow was in her eye, a glowing rectangle drifting in her iris. A door…

“Motherfuckers,” I exclaimed, “we’re still in the fucking Unity.”

Now that I’d thought it, I could see it. Real, but dull. Gex and Scoro could see it too. We’d been drawn out of our ownworlds into the Unity, stepped through doors that we’d invited into our realms. Absolutely fuck that. With an effort of thought, the glowing door materialised properly, half over the doorway that had led into this room – my reality supervening on this one. But getting back into our ownworlds would just give us our own environments. We needed to be back in the real world, because who knew why we’d been tricked into thinking that we’d woken out of the Unity. Previously we’d only ever woken into reality from our personal ownworlds, but that was partly why we’d built our interchange – a mini-Unity of our own I supposed. And if we had managed that, we knew how it felt to leap back to the real. Let’s just brute force it from here.

“Give me your hands,” I told the others, and we held hands in a triangle while I thought about doing the opposite of what I’d managed when I yanked Gex and Scoro out of their waking bodies into the ownworld while we were slogging over the wastelands in the caterpillar. At least this time no one would be banging their head. I ignored the door, and instead imagined tearing a hole in the air of the room we stood it. With a sound that vibrated through our imaginary bones I ripped a chunk out of the Unity and we spilled back into our meat bodies. Which were lying down on very similar beds to those we’d thought we’d woken up in before, except these were completely horizontal, and we were surrounded by beeping machines and half a dozen white-coated people stood over us, scalpels in hand, reaching out for us.

Our waking up was clearly not expected. Hands lunged for us. Behind the surgical masks over their faces I recognised Hest’s eyes and treated him to a solid kick in the face. We surged up out of the beds, surgical gowns falling away from our otherwise naked bodies as we grappled with our deceivers. There was a wide glass wall at the end of the room that our feet pointed towards, and even as we wrestled, kicked and punched (with gratifying results), I saw the figures in there included Doctor C and a number of other serious-looking individuals, heading for the adjoining door. We were about to be overwhelmed, even though Gex had gotten her hands on one of the scalpels and was viciously lashing out at her attackers. She got one, and a gout of shocking red blood sprayed across the room – she’d nipped an artery in the guy’s throat. That froze everyone for a second, and then they surged forward again, bolstered by the numbers from outside. It didn’t look good – they’d almost pinned Scoro down as one of them frantically prepared a syringe of what could only be very bad news. I’d grabbed hold of some monitor or other and was wildly smashing it on anyone who came close, but there were too many of them. Angry, frightened, I reached out instinctively with my oneirocyte, seizing the other tool I had at my disposal.

I saw through two sets of eyes: in the real world we fought against these white-coated bastards, blood spattered, cries and screams as Gex freed Scoro by stabbing another fucker in the back; in my ownworld the trees twisted fast around me, dust danced and hovered in a bouncing pattern off the ground. Scoro cast a look at me, feeling the presence of my ownworld around us all. Then I twisted again, doing what I’d done to Scoro and Gex, and wrenched every one of our assailants out of the real world. And into my ownworld. Their bodies fell immediately, lots of nasty head injuries for them to deal with another time, and we were suddenly the only people awake. I returned my gaze to the ownworld where they’d all arrived simultaneously. They gaped at their new surroundings – all of them, from Doctor C to the guy with blood pumping out of his throat, all in their white coats. I’d given them no time to reconcile themselves to their usual ownworld appearances. They were in my ownworld now, not their Unity. And I was well fucked off. Gex and Scoro were beside me, all comfortable in our mastery of this realm. Futilely, the scientists and surgeons decided to attack, ignoring their environment in favour of retaining their own unified, consensual reality, as if this was still a surgical suite where they could finish whatever they’d started. But they had no power there. With a thought I set the ground shaking, knocking them off their feet, the trees bending toward them with sharp lashing branches. A pit opened in the ground beneath them, like a mouth leading into the abyssal deeps under my ownworld and they began to tumble in.

“Fuck this,” Gex exclaimed, and with a mental twist of her own the dark engines of her ownworld reared up through the hole I’d made, razor sharp cogs and steam, the glowing red between them hot and issuing a scorching hiss. They spread out, like someone had splayed open a huge clockwork maw, and snapped shut around the sprawling intruders. The engines and the Unity scientists vanished into the hole.

The three of us snapped back into the real world, chests heaving, eyes wide and gazed down at the bodies around us. Not one of them appeared to be breathing.

Stolen Skies – Part Fifteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Our peaceful little ownworlds were the first step towards ditching the human body and becoming digital intelligences uploaded into a weird net of black nanofibers stored in a bath of nutrient gel for all eternity. Well. It wasn’t quite what we had expected, but I also hadn’t expected such a gloomy prediction of the future of the human race and our sad little englobed Earth. Edithine left us and gave us some time for it to sink in. I think the thing that got me most was how damn cheerful she and Hest were about it. I guess if you’ve been working towards this goal for a while it suggests you’re on board with the hole ditching the meat suit thing, but it was a bit of a shock to run into for the first time. It’s not like I’m especially in love with the corporeal me – one knee is pretty dodgy and I’ve not been delighted by the general process of ageing, or the wear and tear from nearly twenty years of living in the gloom – but I do like being able to walk around and do stuff. Of course, the argument was that we could do that equally well in our ownworlds, where we need never grow old, ill or die. I mean, I got the idea, but I knew there was a difference between those two states of reality and ownworld. How far did you have to go before that barrier broke down entirely? We’d lost track and nearly forgotten to wake up, but I didn’t feel that was because we thought we were already awake, we were just really into dreaming… And maybe that is the same thing. Half of human experience is being involved in things, focused on some aspect of our lives, whether it’s work or gaming or lying comatose on a bed. If they feel inescapable, perhaps they are. But surely knowing you’ve got an option to get out changes things. I like options, even if I don’t use them. If the option of being alive in the real world was going to become unavailable, and from Edithine’s – Doctor C’s – account, it sure sounded like Earth was just a few years from being uninhabitable, then sure, oneirocyte upload and transfer might be the best future available.

Fuck, what would you do? I guess the Alometh got through this whole damn shell business better off than we did. I heard you guys just dropped into some kind of hibernation state when your planet got scooped up by. Sounds cool. Hard to imagine: did you all just freeze as the sky went dark, or was there a census and collective decision to sack it all off? And how long could you have lasted? I guess you can, like, stick your roots in the ground and suck out nutrients really slowly and keep yourselves ticking away super-slowly in the background. Would your lot choose to abandon the real world? Would I? If it came right down to it… maybe. As a last resort. Back then I wasn’t ready for the idea that it was last resort for humanity time. Hope is a weird fucking beast. Even when you think it’s fucked off at last, ground down till you haven’t even considered hope for a decade or more, when someone tells you that it’s all over, I found it was still flickering inside somewhere. Unloved, untended, just waiting for a reason to illuminate my insides with that strange tingly fire. Does it do anything on its own, hope? I feel it flicker, but what can I do to tend that flame when I’m a powerless meat suit user? Perversely, I could give it life in the ownworld. Unexpectedly, something inside said “yes” to the oneirocyte endgame, even while the conscious me was struggling to wrap its head around the lack of a human future. Man, I hope you Alometh aren’t like us. We’re a pain in the fucking arse. It seemed like there was still a way to go before I’d fully integrated my conscious and unconscious worlds.

The next days brought testing, meeting a lot of new people and many we remembered being on the project before. That felt like a lifetime ago, though it could only have been a year or so. Doctor C was most interested in our experience in integrating the oneirocytes “in the wild” as she put it, lacking the proper laboratory environment. They’d kept trying that, but subjects tended to grow mad, lost in the space inside their heads, unable to rationalise the experience, or trapped outside their heads, unable to sleep or dream. Neither was conducive to continued existence, and were regrettably unavoidable. We’d had a good idea of what we were getting into, which had doubtless aided our progress, and even though we had certainly had a few dodgy months where we were on the verge of snapping, something about working together as a trio had been effective at balancing us out. The fact that we weren’t trained in how to integrate our ownworlds or travel between them absolutely fascinated Hest. I got the impression that he’d love to crack our heads open and see what was inside. Thankfully they had deep visualisation engines and scanners that could analyse the oneirocyte’s progress at winding themselves deeply around the folds of our brain, and even better, they could read the oneirocytes directly. The whole gameplan was to be able to link and network the oneirocytes together, so they weren’t black boxes with unreadable and incomprehensible processes. Hest argued that it should be possible for us to mentally map the vast unspooled web of the oneirocyte within the ownworld itself and visualise the exact current state of our own minds. Sounded a bit too fucking meta for me, but I could see how that would be vital for the massive transition to another kind of life that they were talking about.

The bond between the three of us was strong, and Doctor C wanted to see the interchange we’d built. Other subjects, Doctor C and Hest included had found ways to travel into each others’ dreamworlds, but the connection between minds was difficult, if not impossible to force. Consent of some kind was required for us to enter each other’s personal spaces and the oneirocytes appeared to be working a little beyond their specification in enforcing that. I figured that this was actually a very good thing – I couldn’t imagine wanting any old fucker to be able to just rock up inside my head. So we embarked on experiments of course. The new zygoptics felt different to those we’d been sucking down back in the city – a period that was receding fast in my head – these were clearly more powerful, and I felt the tug and time lag of it gripping my mind, trailing slightly behind my body until I lay down and re-entered my ownworld.

It had been a few days since I’d been into the ownworld. Previously we’d been inside several times every day, often for whole days at a time. I was enormously relieved to find it still ticking away all by itself. I’d nursed a terrible fear that the trees would have tumbled, the pools dried up and I’d find myself in a bleak wasteland, lighter but equally grim as the outside world was to become. But it wasn’t. My trees still spiralled upwards and a warm comforting glow enveloped me. I wandered about, wondering what I should think about making my ownworld into if it was a place I’d be living in forever. We’d developed our ownworlds as places to visit and explore, knowing that we had a real world to live in – these were our safe dream spaces, not homes – not exactly anyway. I guess I’d need a house… and a bed for my mental body. Would I want to sleep while I was in here, already sort of asleep? There was a lot to think about, but potentially an infinite amount of time to do it in. God damn this was going to be strange. I was idly sketching shapes in the air that a house could look like, a treehouse perhaps that hung between the massive boughs overhead. I couldn’t imagine being in an ownworld forever on my own – at the least I needed to start thinking about sharing the space, which I could do through the interchange, but it wasn’t like living next door to each other. Man!

Then I remembered why I was here, right now, and what I was supposed to be doing. The ownworld has its own allure, and I wondered if the new zygoptics were doing something different to my perception of inner and outer space, making this the one that was easier to think about. A slightly paranoid thought to linger on later… For now, the plan was finding a way to make contact with Doctor C’s oneirocyte (I wasn’t going back to calling them parasites like the doctor did – we’d be parasitically living inside them if all went to plan, and no one likes being called a parasite). Last time she’d managed to use the population of dreamers here to boost her voice and send a message to my oneirocyte, who interpreted it as an angelic voice and scribed the coordinates for this facility in the fabric of my ownworld. She hadn’t actually entered it though, and the experience had rather fucked me up for a while. So while it looked like it might be possible to brute force an entry into someone’s ownworld, it probably wasn’t a good idea. Taking inspiration from the interchanges between Scoro’s Gex’s and my ownworlds, I started to imagine a way of extending a hand beyond the boundaries of my mind. Visual metaphors are good: we’re very visually oriented creatures, and language is hard-coded into our brains, so we can juggle oblique concepts that slyly refer to real things through very shady and suggestive images and ideas. I decided to build a telephone. We hadn’t had such things in the real world for longer than my parents had been alive, but I’d seen pictures and the concept was solid. I added a tall, round table made of dark wood, glossily polished, rising out of the ground like it was another tree. On top I laid a neat little brass handset and receiver, with an old-fashioned dial. I couldn’t quite remember how the dialling thing worked, but in my ownworld I gave it the possibility of reaching outwards and imagined the path the oneirocyte might take, imagined its black spools of nanofibers extending outwards from my skull into a vast web that all the other oneirocytes might have access to. Then I dialled for Doctor C.

I let it ring for a while, a soft ringing buzz that almost sounded like a bee. Somewhere inside my head the oneirocyte was making a connection, somehow triggering those inbuilt networking features that I didn’t fully understand. Then there was a click, and I heard Doctor C on the other end. “Did you just make a telephone?” she asked, somewhat incredulously.

“Sure,” it had seemed like the right idea at the time.

“Alright. I guess it works. Can I come in?”

We’d come this far, and although I was a touch anxious about bringing Edithine into my ownworld, that was what we were here for and the whole purpose of this exercise. It felt OK. Now I had to do what Gex, Scoro and I had done semi-instinctively and give Doctor C a way in. I could feel that hearing her voice was on an oneirocyte level and she wasn’t actually here yet, couldn’t perceive any aspect of my world just as I couldn’t perceive hers. Safe, non-intrusive contact. A useful thing, in my opinion. Now I need to give her a door. Christ, how many doors would there be in the end? Hundreds, thousands? Where would I keep them all? I faintly imagined a city made of nothing but doors, which of course is sort of what the real world is exactly like… That was a thing for later. For now I sketched the outline of a door, put Edithine’s name on my side and carved my name on hers. Then I pushed. Now that I was aware of what I and the oneirocyte together were doing, I could feel the door making contact in a way that I hadn’t before. The appearance of Scoro’s and Gex’s doors had been a surprise, something we had to find a way to make real in our ownworlds. Doctor C evidently already knew how this part worked, because the door solidified, the colours filling in a way that gave it four dimensions instead of three, and it opened. Doctor C stepped through.

Only it wasn’t Doctor C as I’d seen her minutes before in the lab, this was a younger version of herself – still clearly Edithine, but thirty or forty years younger, but with her grey hair replaced by dark brown, her slight limp caused by my inattention also gone. She fairly sparkled.

“Thank you Evanith,” she paused, taking in my appearance and taking time to turn around and take in what she could see of my ownworld, “this is fascinating. You’ve found entirely new ways to communicate between ownworlds.”

“You don’t use doors…?”

“Why would we? These are mental constructs, they can be anything, even just a desire to travel. And I’ve never seen a world like this.”

I gave her a little tour. Her attitude perplexed me. Was this so different to what the project had been working on? We’d built dreamworlds for ourselves, but it sounded like they had been doing something else.

“It’s a bit… austere,” Edithine said as we skirted one of the lagoons, while she ran her hand along the constantly twisting bark of a tree, “why don’t we pop into my ownworld for a minute, then we can have a chat back in the outer world.”

So saying she led me back to her door and we went through. I was beginning to realise that I didn’t know Edithine in anything like the way I knew Gex and Scoro. I didn’t fundamentally trust her in the same way, but it was going to be OK, right? Right?

Edithine’s door opened into a perfectly ordinary room. For a second I thought we’d returned to the real, or “outer” world as the people here called it. But we hadn’t – Doctor C was still young, and I was still in my usual light clothes and bare feet. My toes sank into the carpet. Doctor C took a seat in the comfortable leather armchair next to a window and I gazed around. It was a study, or library or cosy office. Desk, bookshelves, pictures on the tastefully decorated walls. It was just like being in a real room. I went over toward Doctor C and looked out of the window. Outside it was snowing, and the sun filtered through the snowflakes, lighting up fields and countryside.

“Want to go out?” Edithine asked.

I thought she meant return to the real world, but instead she stood up and did something. I could feel her doing something to the fabric of her ownworld, and the room twisted, inverting until suddenly we were standing in the snow just outside the window of her study. I gaped, turned back to the office wall which was just one of hundreds of buildings scattered in an arc before me.

“Welcome to the ownworld Evanith. This is where we all live now.”

Stolen Skies – Part Fourteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’d much rather have a getting to know you conversation outside in the open air somewhere nice. My last choice would have been driving into the dark heart of a mountain. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers. As the last hint of what passed for daylight inside the shell faded away, I felt the sheer weight of mountain above us, like someone was leaning hard on my shoulder, breath harsh against my neck. It felt like forever before the caterpillar slowed, ground to a crunching halt. All I could hear were our own held breaths and creak of the vehicle. Someone was being needlessly dramatic, but of course this seemingly endless moment was just an instant. And then the lamps switched on and we were bathed in the happy warm glow of electric light.

Now we were inside a building within the mountain proper – concrete floor, walls and ceiling. An inner man-made cave. Corporal Lindsmane said, “Right, this is your stop sir.” And we all hauled our bags onto shoulders and trooped out to meet our saviours. Lindsmane was crisply greeted a superior of some kind – more chest, shoulder or collar arrows no doubt – and with a nod, he and his people vanished through a set of doors. They looked very chipper, no doubt eagerly anticipating a proper military-style bunk somewhere in their near future. I took a moment to catch my bearings. This was a huge room, the caterpillar was parked neatly in the centre of a grid of yellow stripes that fanned out to be framed in a series of squares and rectangles. Damned if I know what that was about other than someone who was a tad over-enthusiastic with their painting set. Inset into the walls were a series of huge double doors and some smaller ones like those Lindsmane had gone off through. There wasn’t anything helpful in the way of signage – if you got this far you either knew where you were headed or you weren’t going any further. The last was backed up when I raised my eyes to the gallery that ran around the room some fifteen feet or more above. That was quite well populated with gun-toting soldiers and what seemed to be a few casual onlookers. Those rifles weren’t exactly trained on us, but they gave the powerful impression that we could be their target in a split-second. Cheery. We waited a moment in those rather austere surroundings before a set of the big double doors separated and cool blue light flowed into the room.

Out of the blue came a small deputation, and the words, “My foot still hurts you know.”

“Jesus fucking Christ. Edithine?” I  stammered, nerves making me a little swearier than I’d usually be when I thought I was meeting new people. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Hello Evanith, it’s been a little while since we did some gardening isn’t it.” Edithine looked great, especially considering it had been at least thirteen years since I’d last seen her.

“Nearly twenty, actually. You’re not the only one to lose track,” she said. The slight limp (yes, I still felt bad about it, even though I probably hadn’t thought of her name in a decade) was smoothly disguised under the cleanest suit I’d ever seen and really sharp hair styling. It certainly made the three of us look like an absolute state, dust and black-stained, unwashed and bedraggled.

“Well, you all look like shit,” she continued, “but we can see that sorted. Come along, we’ll get the three of you settled and cleaned up, and then we can get on with the work.”

Scoro piped up, with some of the questions  we all had: “Um, great. Couple of thoughts… who are you, what is this place and generally what the fuck is going on?”

Edithine smiled broadly, utterly ignoring her aides who seemed keen to get us all off to a shower. “I’m Edithine Charbroly. Before your friend Evanith knew me, and stabbed me in the foot with garden shears I was head of biotech at Charbio. I’d retired, but the world fell apart and they re-recruited me to lead Project Tutu. That’s how I know you’ve used the parasites, and that you were never on a list to receive them.” A wry eyebrow at our mix of surprised and guilty expressions, “So that’s interesting for starters. We think you’ve managed some leaps in the tech that are worth studying.”

“That was your voice in my ownworld?” I asked.

“Sort of. Mine was the voice you heard, projected by all the others.”

“Others?” (It was that sort of conversation.)

“Oh yes, we have almost all the parasite users here with us. You’ll meet them later. But first, I really must insist that we get you decontaminated. We operate a clean environment in here and honestly I can see the filth sticking to you all. Come along.”

Question time was over. Edithine set back off into the bluely-lit corridor. We followed, tailed by the rest of her team. The light was the same as in the case, UV sterilising us and the air we walked through. Edithine disappeared through a door at the end of the hall, and we were ushered into a different room coming off the side.

“I’m Velrent Hest, Edithine’s chief aide,” declared the round little man who accompanied us. He directed us to dump our gear on a series of benches. “Honestly, we’re probably going to burn all of your clothes and bags, but if there’s anything you need you should extract it now and we’ll send it off for cleansing.”

I couldn’t really justify keeping anything in my bags – ratty clothes, food packets and a couple of books. Hest spotted me wavering over the bag of zygoptics: “No need to worry about those, the project will give you all you need.” I dumped them on the bench with the bag. Scoro had made a small pile of keepsakes and a tablet which Hest indicated he place in a tray, ready for processing. As an afterthought I tossed the books in with them. Gex was being a little more circumspect and reluctantly pulled the big Project Tutu case out of her rucksack. Hest was all over that.

“We thought there might be a missing case, but project relocation wasn’t as clean and neat as we’d hoped. In the modern chaos there were things lost,” he rested heavily on the word “lost”, “how fortunate that you found this.”

Yes. Gex somehow avoided her ears turning red and Scoro subtly covered the awkwardness with a coughing fit. I was fairly sure we’d be expanding on this conversation later, but it seemed like we weren’t getting shot for treason yet, and that was a good enough outcome.

“Showers, scrubbers, decontamination, then clothing await,” Hest said, directing us towards the cubicles at the back of the room. “Please place all of your current clothing in the bins provided.”

We obviously weren’t the first guests to rock up, I assumed everyone went through this if they left and returned to the facility. We each took a cubicle and closed the door. They audibly locked behind us, which sent a wave of alarm down my spine, but they probably didn’t want to go to the bother of washing us if we could just go straight back out. The bin was a slot in the wall which I fed my coat, boots, now ripped trousers, shirt and underclothes into. I vaguely hoped for some acknowledgment, or maybe a hint of flames, but it just snapped shut. Next, the showers. This was a kind of bliss I hadn’t even considered. The water felt slightly acidic, accompanied by more of the familiar blue light, but it was hot and plentiful. The only cleaning agent appeared to be a lurid pink slime which smelled exactly how something you described as “chemical-scented” should. Skin tingling and soaking wet, I pushed open the next door after the shower turned itself off. This part was less good. The scrubber was much what I’d hoped it wouldn’t be – instead of a friendly loofah it was a room seemingly made up of nobbly rubber human-sized vaginas. With a bit of an inner sigh I squeezed through, and Christ it was a tight fit. The “scrubber” felt like being compressed through wet sandpaper. If I thought my skin tingled after the shower, this was more like feeling abraded as the rubber scraped all the moisture off my skin and had a good go at removing my hair. Decontamination followed, which was the blue lights but very intense so I had to keep my eyes tightly closed. When the light went off and I could open them again I felt incredible gratitude at seeing a nozzle marked “moisturiser, use all over” in the wall. Gloopy goodness took much of the recently-skinned feeling away and the next door opened to a changing room with an array of near-identical clothing hanging on hooks. Not a lot of opportunity for personal expression here, with maybe three variations on dark grey trousers, t-shirts and shoes. With a size for everybody, I got dressed again and went through the final door. There Hest waited with a handful of lanyards holding ID cards which he distributed as we emerged, sore but clean – cleaner than I think I’d ever been – into the next phase of our lives.

“Onwards,” Hest guided us out of the “welcome centre” as he called it and into the project headquarters properly. Bedrooms first, purely for orientation purposes, then the canteen where he left us for twenty minutes. This did feel like the Project Tutu we’d remembered, with its long racks of benches and tables and carousels of food and snacks (I always think there’s an important distinction between those two somehow), drinks and cutlery. We dug in. I don’t think we’d eaten much more than noodles and other dehydrated foods in the months that we’d been training our oneirocytes (or they’d been training us – symbiosis I guess), so this was a real treat. Some of this was definitely actual chicken for one thing, and I’d never tasted pasta without a tang of ash since the shell came up. Oh, and tea. Something the soldiers had bafflingly little of although I could have sworn the army ran on the stuff. It felt a bit like being on holiday. The cream-coloured walls, tastefully decorated with commercial landscape art and the food all lulled us into a sense of relaxation that had been absent for so long.

“Do you think they’re going to fuck us over about that case?” asked Gex, as we clutched our precious cups of tea.

“Only if they’ve really missed it. I mean, it wasn’t the only case, was it?” Scoro replied.

“Um.”

“OK. Cool. Well – the important thing is we brought it back, and only used like three of the oneirocytes, so there’s tonnes left over,” I said, “and Edithine was never vengeful, not even when I dropped those shears point-down in her foot.”

“You used to garden together?”

“Yup. Back in the olden days before the shell. Municipal landscaping. I thought she was dead – there was a fire, and I never found out if she was OK or not. There’s something kinda nice about meeting someone I used to sort of know way out here.”

“If it means she doesn’t have us all killed, then I am thrilled you have a pal here.”

Hest turned up shortly after, so we downed our teas and followed him onto the next part of the tour. This involved innumerable corridors, glass walls showing us more people dressed like us lying on beds and tapping computer screens with vague frowns on their faces.

“Ongoing testing and work with the parasites,” Hest commented, “I expect you’ll find what we’ve been doing quite interesting. I’m very interested to hear about your experiences with the parasites, too.”

“Do you mind if I ask,” Gex piped up, “But do you have an oneirocyte too?”

“Oneirocyte? Cute. Yes, everyone here except the soldiers have undergone nano implantation.”

“How many is everyone?”

“There are just under five hundred parasite subjects here, including myself and Doctor C – Edithine.”

“And what are you doing here?”

“Why, saving the world of course,” he said with slight surprise, “what did you think the parasites were for?”

Well, that shut us up for a bit. At last we turned yet another corner and Hest led us into a small lecture theatre where Edithine waited by a small tray containing a jug of water and some glasses.

“Thank you, Velrent,” Edithine said, dismissing our tour guide. “Please, take a seat–“ she gestured at the front row of well-worn plastic fold-down seats “–glass of water?” We all vaguely nodded and duly received a little glass of achingly cold water.

“I want to be clear from the start about what we’re doing here, and why you’re here too.” Her bright eyes bounced over each of us in turn, enveloping us in some social contract we’d not previously been party to. “When the nano-parasite project began, we were exploring the potential of unlocking the human unconscious and making it subject to the same discipline and rationality of the conscious mind. As you know, since you were supporting the project, that had a certain failure rate, which reduced as we improved the parasites and their interface. What do you think the project goals were?”

We hadn’t expected a question and answer session. I’d settled in for a good set of explainings, but I was happy enough to venture a guess. “Establish a deeper and more experiential virtual reality environment for education and entertainment.”

“Not bad,” smiled Edithene, “that’s almost exactly what we told the subjects we were doing.”

Seriously, fucking scientists.

“In fact, we’re aiming for an interface that can unite human psyches, enabling us to create environments that can be shared, cohabited and ultimately used as vessels to escape our corporeal forms. In short, this planet is dying, we can’t survive the continued environmental damage. The human population has declined by nearly ninety per cent in the last twenty years of darkness. That’s an estimate of course, but global surveys show near-total loss of habitat and life in the southern hemisphere and most of the northern. We don’t have very long left, and if we want humanity to survive at all, it’s not going be in these meat suits we’re wearing. Our future lies in the networks of nano fibres that have infested our brains. We’ll be able to extract the totality of human conscious and unconscious experience from the flesh of the brain into the parasite, then transfer the parasites into a nourishing support environment where we will persist indefinitely, with no break in awareness or identity.” She gave us a few moments of stunned silence to take that in before adding, “cool, right?”

Stolen Skies – Part Thirteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I’ve never been much of a country boy. I appreciate it in the abstract, obviously. I’m glad it’s there, in the same way I’m glad there’s a bottom to the ocean, but my presence in it has never been very important to me. I guess we’d been stuck in the dome cities for too long. The caterpillar truck ground its way along the road network towards the mountains in the north-west, and I have to admit, things didn’t look quite as totally fucked as I’d expected. My last exposure to the great outdoors had been five or so years ago, though it’s honestly hard to tell, what with days having fucked off a while back. I wasn’t the only one who had lost track of time – most of us managed to divide our lives into roughly twenty-four hour slices. That was so hard-coded into every social practice and industry that we were kept on that track even if we lurched through them with irregular sleeping patterns and a constant sleep hangover. But actually counting the days? Why bother? I’d definitely had a feel for it in the early days. Weirdly, whether we were occupied or not didn’t seem to improve or  damage my sense of time passing more. For years I’d been heavily involved in various programmes (thank you municipal gardening team), and that had saved my life and others by giving us focus, and in that focus distracting us from the world going to hell around us. In between those projects, there were breaks of course – a few days here or there mostly – notably the lengthy-feeling (I think) gap before we got moved to Freshwater (the optimistically named city where Project Tutu was underway). All those periods of mostly free time are like elastic in my mind – they could have lasted days or months, with nothing to separate the hours from turning into weeks. I remember the sense of relief that came whenever the next assignment came. Relief that there was purpose. Not hope, that hadn’t felt part of the equation since the nukes, when I’d finally realised that even if our situation was overwhelming and possibly hopeless, we sure as shit were going to do everything we could to make it worse. Purpose, routine, structure. I wonder how many people completely fell apart without those in the shell years. Anyway, this is exactly why structure’s good – you’re busy and even if it doesn’t keep you from circling the abyss it gives you a little nudge away from the edge every day. What I was trying to tell you about was the last time I’d been outside, before Project Tutu.

Back then we’d been using the train network, which worked pretty well still and was heavily used for industrial transport, smashing clean through the grey outer world. We’d been pressed up against the windows to see the sad-looking trees and fields. They were still going, reluctantly. The crappy light emitted by the shell kept them alive, but it didn’t look as if they liked it. There was still some agriculture, despite most of it having been moved inside, and there were large communities living out there too, in the non-domed towns. Caravans and trucks arrayed together, roofed over with patchworks of tarpaulin for added protection from the weather, tents looking like they were barely clinging on. The weather had become confused. Climate change had been underway for decades, but fucking up the seas by taking away the tides had knackered the gulf stream and that wonderfully mild nuclear winter had between them rearranged the clouds and weather patterns. Clouds of sometimes murderous rain swept around the world, randomly poisoning the earth, periods of heat and miserable damp cold erratically tortured the poor bastards living out there. We saw animals – the hardiest of sheep, occasional horses and colonies of haggard-looking crows and magpies.

We even saw children sometimes, playing in the camps. That was a rare sight anywhere. Despite our make-work and projects, something inside our species had said “fuck it” and the birth rate had declined spectacularly since the shell enveloped us. All the usual fears about the future being a worse place for our children had previously been kicked down the road – have a kid, it’ll probably be fine… Now? It really didn’t feel like that. Seeing those kids wasn’t just rare, it was soul-searingly depressing. Well, accidents happen I guess. They were still a highlight of any community, but no one wanted to the be the one that actually had them. What I remember most about being outside previously was the rain that started coming down after we’d been on the tracks for a couple of hours – it was a long trip – grey rain on a grey sky. Like the world had turned black and white, we’d been somehow knocked back in time a few hundred years and this was the best approximation of the real world that humanity could manage any more. The sense that we were travelling into the past gripped me, and didn’t let go until we debarked in Freshwater. I’d stopped looking out of the window before then. We all had. No one even glanced at the glass, or looked backwards as we trooped off the train. No wonder we were ready for Project Tutu and a brighter future of turning inward and forgetting about the grey, poisoned world outside.

This journey was different. For one, the caterpillar truck was a real beast. If the roads went where Corporal Lindsmane thought we should go then we used them. We ground down those roads, the neotarmac crumbling after a decade of acid rain and hard wear. Not much in the budget for road gangs these days. With a relentless eye on our direction, if a road veered away then fuck it, the caterpillar just ploughed ahead through open countryside, up hills and straight through a small river. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable ride. Lindsmane and his little mob of soldiers were back on mission. They’d properly perked up since we’d had our little tiff. I wasn’t certain whether it was having had a chance to work out a little military paranoia, or if having an actual mission had sorted them out. But they were focused and the vague air of unease around them had faded. And we’d given them this purpose. I wasn’t entirely comfortable about that. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to commandeer a squad of soldiers and this ridiculous monster truck just because someone sends you a message in a dream. I was very glad we hadn’t tried to explain that part to Lindsmane and his men. They seemed so genuinely happy that I didn’t want to spoil it for them. Or get us all shot in the head and dumped on the roadside. If I’m honest, the latter was certainly the greater motivator for me.

We bounced around in the webbing bunks, feeling rather travel sick. There was a distinct lack of windows, and although the soldiers would tolerate us hanging about near the cab and the rear of the vehicle, they got a little tetchy when we stuck around for too long. So we lingered there as long as they’d let us, soaking up the best anti-travel sickness medicine there is: looking straight out in the direction of travel and never once looking at anything that has words on it. I always got travel sick in vehicles with wheels, or worse, anything on water. Vile business. Begrudgingly, Cheshblum confessed that he sometimes suffered and had some kick-ass motion sickness tablets he was prepared to share, just so long as we all fucked off and left him alone to do the driving. Considering that these might be the very last tablets he’d ever have, we were appropriately grateful and promptly fucked off as requested. He wasn’t wrong, they were quite impressive. Gex, Scoro and I had tentatively agreed to stay in the real world until we got to wherever it was that we were going. The soldiers had been badly spooked, and again, we didn’t want to get shot by freaking them out. Plus we’d lied to them at least a couple of times, and keeping that to a bare minimum would in theory reduce any awkwardness when we reached our destination. So instead I endured reality as the tablets kicked in and that awful dry-mouthed, teeth loose in my skull sensation diminished. Eventually we fell asleep, the motion of the caterpillar finally proving to be a physical lullaby.

It had been weeks since I’d dreamed normally, wandering through the random association of my mind catching up on the last few days of trauma and unwanted excitement. I saw the door in my dream that would allow me into my ownworld, hanging over me at a peculiar angle before it was carried off by a massive owl. Dreams, you have love them. I was woken up by a buzzing sound followed by Lindsmane’s voice: “ETA approximately thirty minutes.” I’d missed the caterpillar beginning the ascent, though now that I was awake the gradient was apparent. I hustled forward, using the regularly spaced handholds to pull myself up to the cab. We were following some rough track, which seemed like a good indication that we were indeed going somewhere.

“No checkpoints, no signs of life so far,” Lindsmane commented as I grabbed onto a ceiling bar. “But we’re getting close.” He pointed to the map spread out around him, the hologram making it look as if he was a god rising up from beneath the crust. I didn’t have much to say to that, just nodded and kept looking out the windscreen. There was something coming. Even though I wasn’t in the ownworld, I could sense a pressure behind my head – some weird effect of the oneirocyte and ownworld that my brain clearly new couldn’t fit inside my skull, so it was projected somewhere behind me, like listening to music that’s been recorded so it sounds like it’s moving around behind you. I was very tempted to pop in and check, but we’d know soon enough.

That thirty minutes could have been a million years. The track wound around the sides of the mountain (mountain by our standards – in most countries this would be a big hill), spiralling us ever higher. Finally we were there, and received the reception that Corporal Lindsmane had been looking for: more soldiers. I guess it’s like being in a family: our squad had been lost in the woods, but they’d blundered back out, straight into mum and dad’s back garden. Even though there were guns pointed at us, our soldiers looked delighted, in that focused and professional way they had. There were twelve of them that I could see, both in front and flanking our sides. We’d rolled up into a much better maintained area. I’d have called it a forecourt if it was a garage, but this was a little compound of fences and razor wire, big fuck-off towers with lights on the top and more soldiers. Behind it all, a huge dark hole into the mountain. In the gloom I peered up through the top of the windscreen. Further up the mountain were more shapes, something like big radar dishes, perhaps an observatory.

“Stay here,” Lindsmane said, adjusting his hat (probably a cap or something with a proper name – beret?) and clambered out of the cab to say hello. But the new soldiers weren’t very interested in him. I mean, they were friendly enough in that military way. Lots of nods and salutes, but no big hugs. They were intent on who else was in the caterpillar. I gave them a tentative wave through the window. That appeared to have been the right thing to do: more nods. Lindsmane was back in a couple of minutes, declaring that we were in the right place,

“They’re right keen to see you lot,” he said, with an appraising look that felt like I was being measured up against some notional ideal. Perhaps against whatever mental model he had of a scientist (something I’d avoided calling us, because we really didn’t give that vibe at present). The soldiers in front stepped aside and signalled something unseen. The caterpillar lurched back into life and we drove into the mountain.

Stolen Skies – Part Twelve (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I hate how much I keep waking up, you know? Waking up’s supposed to be a good thing – we wake from a nightmare, become enlightened with an inner waking, but in my experience it’s shit. You wake up and it’s just another fucking day to get through. Falling asleep is the part I want, that wonderful sliding moment as your brain switches off the real world, and all the darkness and doom fades away, just for a few hours. But it’s something, right. I’ve always felt like I could sleep for a million years and consider it time well spent. Because the true horror is the waking up part, as reality comes crashing back into place. It doesn’t even have to be a bad reality, though if you’ve been paying attention of course, you’ll know what a ghastly fucking mess the Earth was. No moon, no stars, basically no night time. Or day time, not really. Just that gloomy grey meat-soaked glow instead. Environment: fucked. Society: fucked. Population: fucked. And that last hadn’t finished declining at this point either. So, the future: fucked. Yeah, lots of good stuff worth being wide awake for. No wonder we were so into the oneirocyte idea, and as it turned out, we weren’t the only ones. I gotta say pal, you do not look well at all. We’ve been here hours, and I mean, I don’t know what that stuff coming out of your face is – I hope it’s OK to call it your face, don’t want to offend you or anything, I’m just vaguely kinda excited to meet an Alometh is all. And my face isn’t getting any better. I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of glass that went right into my skull. Feels all itchy up above my ear. And numb, yeah, I guess that’s the shock right? No one takes a pint glass to the face without their body getting a bit upset and struggling to reframe the whole thing as all cool. Maybe I should go and find us a medical professional… No? Well, if you’re sure. I mean that was definitely a nod you just gave me. Yeah. Alright, well I guess I’ll just keep going then.

So where was I? Yup: so waking up is an absolute fucker and I resented it every single time I opened my eyes. This time though, this was going to be different – I’d received a message, inside my head, telling us where to go. We were lost and hopeless, and this was definitely the best thing to have happened since… Well. It had been a while. I shouldn’t have been so keen. Waking up will fuck you every time. A new day is always going to be a lot like the other days and we’d had thirteen years of days just getting worse, so really what the hell was I expecting? What I wasn’t expecting was that this day would begin with a gun in my face.

My face was a locus of pain, exactly how I imagined it would feel if someone smacked me in the face with a rifle butt. And there it was, or rather the other end of the gun looking straight at me, or me at it. Its single super-long eye reminded me of the early arguments about the Hole in Space and whether a hole had two ends or just one, or was just one really long end. Of course, this was actually the second time I’d woken up with a gun in my face, except this time it seemed like I might have a concussion. Plainly I should be paying some proper attention here, but my mind kept slipping back to the Hole in Space. How long had it been since that had popped into my head? It seemed like a thousand years ago, so far from being the present threat that everyone had feared it was. Maybe it was still a huge threat, but we had no clue, wrapped up as we were and being hauled (maybe) god only knows where. Made sense that it had rather dimmed as the prime motivating factor for freaking out on planet Earth, but I couldn’t help wondering if forgetting about it was that good a plan. What if we were just being dragged towards it, and the shell would split open, spilling us straight into the hole? I repeat myself, but it bears repeating: waking up is a fucking nightmare.

Thankfully I was distracted from my concussive ruminations by another soldier pushing the barrel of the rifle to one side and kneeling down to shine a bright light in my eye.

“Yeah, nice. Now he’s got a fucking concussion,” in apparent remonstrance to his fellow soldier.

I discovered that I was sitting on one of the bunk racks that lined the central portion of the caterpillar vehicle.

“Um, can we not do that again please,” I managed, gratefully taking the offered bottle of water. My hands shook as I twisted off the cap and poured the cold, sweet liquid into my mouth. So good.

“Got questions for you. You’re going to answer them, or we’re going to start shooting your mates,” the formerly nice man who’d given me the water indicated my friends on the other side of the cabin, their hands tied together in front of them with a third soldier standing over them holding an all too ready rifle aimed right at them.

“OK. Can I– can I just ask one question first?” I stammered, “what just happened?”

That seemed to throw him off his stride a little, Corporal Lindsmane – his name snapped back into place, aided no doubt by his handy little name badge and a vague collection of rank – seemed as if he were about to reject my question out of hand, but recovered and continued with a new mix of interrogation and information.

“One: who the fuck are you people? One minute you’re asleep and the next so are your two mates. Looked like they just blacked out – you see that black eye?” He indicated Scoro. I nodded appropriately, “that’s from bouncing his head off a cupboard as he went down.” I winced, it was exactly what I’d hoped hadn’t happened when I’d managed to summon them into my ownworld. “Then you have some massive seizure and all the fucking lights in the caterpillar started flickering and turned off. Then you woke up and started yelling. That stopped when Markels knocked you out, somewhat hastily,” he turned a frosty look on Markels who was pointing the rifle at my friends rather than me. “So, we’re wondering now just who the fuck we let onto our caterpillar. Who are you? What are you? Who do you work for? And what the fuck just happened?”

Four questions: a slight challenge to organise for my rattled state, but even concussed I recognised the high stakes we’d somehow reached and had no desire for us all to die.

“We’re government medical researchers,” (basically true, but all three are decent buzzwords to use with a military oriented towards supporting a nice stable authority structure, and killed at least two of the questions), “but we got trapped, separated and left behind when the city fell.” I really didn’t want to mention the oneirocytes, that would just sound crazy to someone not in the project. “But we’ve got a message – I know where we should go next.”

He looked less than convinced. “A message? Something you could have mentioned when we set out?”

“Ah, no. Just got it – before your man over there hit me in the head.”

Gex chipped in helpfully: “We’ve all got comms implants,” before Lindsmane successfully glared her back into silence.

“Yes,” I added, “comms implants. They’ve been offline, the conditions out here are bad for signals.” This was certainly true. We knew the soldiers had been continuously trying to make contact with anyone after we’d passed the wreckage of the evacuation train. No joy. The state of the atmosphere and drifting clouds of oddly irradiated fog played merry hell with radio transmissions. “But headquarters,” (probably), “finally got through – very violently. They must have been blazing out the signal and that’s what happened to us – overload. One of the risks of having tech implanted in your skull.”

This was all pretty plausible and I managed to shut myself up and let Lindsmane chew it over. I could feel a real desire to keep chattering, anything to fill the space between us and the guns with anything other than bullets.

“All right,” Lindsmane ground out. “What’s the message?”

I gave him the coordinates, one of the other soldiers – Cheshblum? – gave him a map which unfolded from a little tablet out into a lit-up plastic sheet six feet across. Between them they matched up the numbers with the reference grids.

“Two hundred miles, north-north-west. What’s there?”

I didn’t have a good answer for that, partly because I had no idea where that was, or who was calling us. Honesty, then. “We don’t know. Only a handful of people have access to this technology, so they’re on our side and they have the resources to reach out for us.” Hopefully I was making us sound fairly important, though not so important that we couldn’t possibly get left behind.

“Yeah, we’re going to need a bit more proof than that before we go haring off into fucking nowhere halfway up a mountain.”

That was fair. I had nothing for him. Gex did though. She looked at Scoro and me, then spoke. “Corporal,” she started politely, “if you can get my bag – the big one with the red straps – we’ve got what headquarters are looking for. There’s a case in there, it’s got a sphinx on it.”

Linsdmane jerked his head and a Cheshblum headed off to the rear of the transport. I fell under Lindsmane’s gaze once more.

“Sir, there’s a case here alright,” Cheshblum returned holding the case of oneirocytes that Gex had nicked from the lab, passed it to his corporal. Lindsmane looked at the stylised sphinx on the front: “the fuck is that supposed to be?”

“It’s a sphinx: human head, lion body with wings, snake tail.”

He grunted and flipped the catches on the case. It was one of those cases with cool lights inside that come on when you open them, so it bathed his face in a gentle blue glare (not purely aesthetic, but anyone who’s worked in medical technology knows the value of making the artifacts look impressive, the light was actually a UV barrier, killing any microbes that drifted into the case. You don’t fuck about with brain-implanting nanotechnology, unless you steal them and implant them illegally, obviously).

Abruptly his sceptical attitude changed, and all the rifles came down. “Project Tutu,” he said out loud, “even I recognise that. Apologies for the bang to the head, sir, we’ll get you where you need to go.” He snapped the case shut and pressed it into my hands. “Get those cuffs off them. We’re moving out in five minutes.”

With that, the soldiers filed out of the cabin with typical military efficiency and an apologetic nod to me from Markels. I let out a deep breath and gingerly pressed my hands to my aching face.

“What the actual fuck?” exclaimed Scoro in a hissed whisper. I flipped the case round, shining blue light into his face. We’d stopped noticing it, but of course “Project Tutu” was stamped on every item inside. Tutu: ancient Egyptian god who protected dreamers from demons and other nightmarish things in their sleep. It hadn’t occurred to me that the project name would be recognisable, but of course it was a military programme. After the various collapses that had shaken our society, everything had military involvement strung through it. And we had worked on the project, that was certainly true. And maybe whoever it was that had sent us the coordinates would remember that. With a bit of luck they might not even be annoyed that we’d stolen a case of invaluable brain tech and tried it out ourselves.

With a roar, the caterpillar burst into life once more. For the first time in a long while, things were looking up, or at least not quite so down.

Stolen Skies – Part Eleven (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

The voice came from everywhere, with a devastating clarity that rang through the trunks of my marble trees, sent waves across the tranquil pools and it struck me like a hammer. It’s one word “come” vibrated through me. This must have been what it felt like when angels spoke directly to man – contact with an unknowable force. As the word slowly faded – not a thing that a single word ought to be able to do – I picked myself up off the ground, brushed dust from my hands and legs, then remembered where I was and simply wished myself clean. This I did absently, because all of my other senses were focused intently on detecting the source of that Voice. It had come from all around, seemingly from all points in my ownworld simultaneously. I’d have been tempted to say it came from outside, but that’s a meaningless statement. There’s no “outside” to a dream, it doesn’t take up space in the universe, doesn’t extend into the real in any meaningful way. My dreams only exist inside my mind, or rather inside the field generated by my brain. A dream takes up the space that a memory does. Except, that wasn’t entirely true anymore. The oneirocyte had spread by now through almost all my brain, wrapping it in an artificial layer that supported my dreams and ownworld – perhaps they did have more physical reality than they used to…

“I need you,” I called, lost in my own thoughts. If I’d been thinking clearly, less overwhelmed by my recent experience that my mind was simply labelling angelic in spite of all my profoundly sensible and atheist tendencies. I certainly hadn’t thought to do what I just did.

Scoro and Gex sprouted into existence before my eyes, twisting up out of nothing into their full-fledged ownworld selves. They both looked shocked.

“What the hell Evanith?” demanded Gex. “Did you just summon us into the ownworld?”

“What…” I failed to begin, “…I needed you…”

I’d called and they’d come. I’d ripped them straight out of reality into the ownworld – not even their ownworld, they were in mine, standing in the white dust. Gex in her usual shifting coat of gears and red light, Scoro in his long, vaguely ecclesiastical get-up. We wore what fitted with our created environments. I’d gone simple: basically white and a little light grey.

“You shouldn’t be able to pull us in like that,” said Scoro, “what did you do?”

“I just called…” I tried again.

“I heard thunder, your voice. Blinked, and I was here with you,” Scoro replied.

Well, more new things. Great. Again, if I’d been thinking properly I would have been more concerned about what was happening in the real world – it had only been a few seconds (the many benefits of having time newly installed in our imaginary domain), but in that time both of my companions had presumably just collapsed in the caterpillar. Hopefully they’d been sitting down… and that the soldiers weren’t going to freak out too badly. I filled them in on the Voice. Yeah, I’m going to have to capitalise it. You’d understand if you’d heard it, be grateful I’m not fully capitalising it. It wasn’t a voice like any you’ve ever heard. Probably, that’s assuming it was truly unique to me, and not a universal experience of the numinous, in which case maybe you have heard and felt like this. Cool.

“Well what the fuck does it want,” Gex was pacing anxiously, kicking up little puffs of dust, “you can’t just bust into someone’s ownworld, especially not uninvited. You seems to have the ‘inviting’ part down though Evanith. Are you sure it wasn’t part of you?”

A cheery thought. It made sense: given a lack of personal experience of the matter, I’d always have been happy to write off this kind of deep semi-religious experience as something internal, some facet of the mind tricking us into communion with a deeper part of ourselves, or a separate part we’d never spoken with. It also hinted at fracture, a rift in the mind between conscious and unconscious parts. The opposite of what the oneirocytes did. They pulled those aspects of human experience together so we could apply the conscious to the unconscious and vice versa. If there was a hidden part of my mind, then it would be here, in some form. The form of a massive Voice saying “come”? The fuck was I supposed to go in that case – deeper inward, lose myself in the ownworld? I was beginning to freak out a bit. I’d signed up for mental unity, a community of minds with Gex and Scoro, freedom from the fuck-awful world outside. Instead the city I lived in, had worked in, was gone. We were in the back of a truck with a bunch of terrified trigger-happy soldiers (or so they’d claimed, who knows how easy it is to wear combat fatigues and grab a rifle? Oh, paranoia is so not a good look on me!) Everything I’d hoped to escape from was rather contingent on it still being there to escape from. And now I might be reaching that point where oneirocyte subjects totally lost the plot, psychosis emerging from the broken barrier between wakefulness and dreams, unable to separate an imaginary voice from myself or worse – recognise myself as the author of my dreams. Fuck.

I’d evidently been letting at least some of this train of thought ripple across my face – my imaginary face in the ownworld. I blinked. It wasn’t just my face. My marble trees had sped up, their upward writhing accelerating, branches and twigs flickering above in the light of the three moons who were pulsing alarmingly. This was my mental health directly affecting my dreamed world – mood into structural artifacts. Rain lashed down on the lagoons from their clouds… I saw, rather than felt Gex’s arms go around me. For a heart-stopping moment my viewpoint was god-like – I saw everything simultaneously in my ownworld, saw Gex wrap herself around me, Scoro reaching for my hand. I was so high up, above the trees, above the moons, looking down on my little domain. I perceived its shape: a dome and I lurked high in the firmament, the angelic viewpoint – a newfound sense of omniscience, awful in its utter completeness. It felt like my mind was rushing outwards, every fold in my brain unravelling as it occupied every inch of imagined space in the ownworld, my mind pinkly wrapped around its shape. The ownworld became a literal snowglobe inside my brain, and it shook. Dust and the tiny figures below danced as my mind rattled the dream. The trio stumbled, fell, clawed themselves back to kneeling, clutching at each other. I could see myself, eyes rolled back in my head, limbs trembling spastically as Gex dragged me onto her lap and Scoro tried to stop my fists from battering at the ground. It looked like I was having a seizure. A seizure – in a dream? Unimportant, my presence in the dream was just one aspect of the dream. My view was that of the oneirocyte, that’s what allowed me to look down – every element in this ownworld was equally me, just as much as the walking avatar that I’d assumed, felt, believed was me in the dream. But of course, we dream all of the dream, and all of it is produced by us, not just the tiny facet that looks like us. I slowed the convulsions of my homunculus below, and regarded Scoro and Gex. I wasn’t dreaming them, they had intruded from their own minds via the oneirocytes which we’d been working so hard to integrate. Not all of this was “my” dream. And then I saw it…

I gasped, sat bolt upright, jerking out of Gex’s surprised arms.

“I saw it all – I saw everything,” ah good, the sounding like a lunatic continued as I woke up, kind of, if you could call switching from an omniscient view in the world I had created into the viewpoint of a tiny mote in that dream. My friends evidently agreed – neither looked at me in a way I’d call reassuring.

Gently: “Are you alright Evanith?”

Soothing: “You gave us a bit of a scare there.”

Calming: “Just breathe for a minute.”

All the things that we still weren’t getting about the ownworld and our interactions with the oneirocyte. We didn’t need to breathe here, we didn’t need to limit ourselves to wandering around in these replicas of human form.

“We’re all of the dream,” I said, as my role of idiot prophet rolled on without any conscious effort on my part, “I’m the trees and the air.” For fuck’s sake. And yet I felt – what’s the opposite of tongue-tied – raving, mysteriously loquacious, incapable of just coming out with the words without wrapping them in mystical bollocks. My friends are good friends, and a good friend tries not to let their friends go fucking nuts, especially inside their own dream.

“Cool, cool,” murmured Scoro. The trees had slowed their frantic growth, rain fell normally on water. I was calm now.

“So… you alright?” That “so” drawn out seemingly endlessly, laced with both kindness, care and sarcasm. Thank you Gex, clearly it’s what I needed.

I tried again. “The dreamer is the dream.” Nuts. Again. “I saw everything in the ownworld – all of it, all at the same time – from above! I felt the oneirocytes.”

That got their attention, a proper word, not just quasi-religious muttering.

“You want to expand on that?” Scoro asked, clearly more comfortable dropping into a research role.

“We’ve underestimated what we can do here, and what the oneirocytes are letting our minds do. We’re more than simply ourselves here.”

So saying, I let my human body dissolve, flashed upwards into the sky like a rainbow being fired out of a cannon, and then I saw it, written in the patterns of the tree branches. I could only read it from above. With a sharp intake of breath, from somewhere – the memory of breath I guess, since I’d just abandoned the part of me that might be able to breathe – I re-instantiated my dream body between Scoro and Gex.

“Ignore all that – well, some of it anyway, we’ll figure it out,” wide-eyed, but calm now. I wasn’t going mad: “it was a message, someone’s given us directions. It’s written in the forest.” And so it was, what I’d seen from above was literal map coordinates formed in the shape of the twisting branches. “We’re not alone in here.”

It was someone else, someone who also had an oneirocyte parasite in their brain. The connections that we’d made with each other, possibly even the interchange between the trio that we’d been building had let a door open to someone else. We hadn’t even considered that we might be able to reach the ownworlds of others who had experimented with the dreaming technology. But we knew they were out there, somewhere. When the programme had shut down, most of the subjects and researchers had been removed, redeployed, gone. It was only us and a handful of others that had been left behind in the massive logistical reshuffle that followed. Someone else was out there, had found us. They were calling for us, and they’d given us directions.

“What should we do?” asked Scoro.

“Go to the coordinates, obviously,” Gex retorted, “one: it’s people with oneirocytes, which is bound to be interesting, two: it’s somewhere to go. In case you’d forgotten, we’re currently stuck in a caterpillar in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go.”

All good points. Ah, fuck. The caterpillar. The real world. We’d been gone for a little while… We opened the door in our heads that leads back to the grim, grimy, dark real world, and opened our eyes. The first thing I saw was the barrel of a rifle in my face, then it reversed and everything went dark.

Stolen Skies – Part Ten (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

The inevitable had happened, as it always fucking does. The oppressed, the ignored – those left to fend for themselves in the toxic ruins of our world – had finally had enough. The fall of compassionate pragmatism and the vain rays of hope that had coloured the early years of the shell had been torn apart by mankind’s extraordinary capacity for cutting off our own nose to spite our face. Not being able to smell any more was the least of it. The environmental instability had put an impossible weight on the surviving nations of the world, and the powerful alliances that had emerged in the wake of the nuclear attacks on the shell had been overwhelmed. Good works were still being done, but they were too little to save the hundreds of millions who drowned, starved and fell prey to the maladies that spawned most readily in the womb of disaster. We’d been lucky, so unbelievably lucky to have been far inland, at an appreciable height and in a well-resourced country. For a long time – years – that had been enough to insulate us from the catastrophes beyond, and of course, for the last months we had  been purposely hiding away from the grim reality that bound all of us. And now it had come for us. The waves of migration across the globe, fleeing the collapsed southern hemisphere had at last reached us in the far north. No matter that eighty per cent or more of them were thought to have perished enroute, that remaining twenty per cent or so was a body of humanity greater than the population of our countries. The borders and barriers, and ultimately the domes that we’d ensconced ourselves in, simply collapsed. Collapsed under the weight of desire, of hope, trauma, loss and despair. Sheer desperation had moved these people to travel thousands of miles, watch their loved ones die, see their homes vanish beneath the waves or the choking smog. What was there left but to keep going? I couldn’t fault their drive, or their desire for revenge. And now our remaining military were busy killing them.

I stood in the ruined cube block, swaying on the edge where the corridor floor fell away into fire. Watching as the army moved through the streets, mowing down our fellow humans, then being overwhelmed in turn, vanishing in glaring explosions and distant screams.

“Well that’s all fucked then, isn’t it,” Scoro spat, “what could possibly come after this?”

It was hard not to agree. However, by a simple check of the clock we discovered that we’d been out of the real world for nearly three days. We’d almost become lost in the ownworld, like those poor bastards who never did wake up until they finally died. At the least we needed some food before we considered our next steps. The building had clearly been evacuated before the explosions and fire gutted it. Even now the inky rain through the dome was putting most of it out. It didn’t look like we’d be any less safe than we already were in the next hour or so. Gex checked her messages, and indeed there had been a general emergency alert and evacuation order two days previously. We’d slept through perhaps two days of civil war without even noticing. It was a rather chilling reminder of the privilege we’d had in escaping the world, and its incredible dangers. The whole building could have collapsed, or we might have been burned alive and never even noticed till we just snuffed out of existence in our ownworlds. The evacuation had been from the near side of the dome, a full day ago. There was an excellent chance that we’d been left behind in a warzone. Brilliant.

We ate, packed what we figured was worthwhile: heavy clothing, spare boots, respirator masks, more food, water, as many vapes as we could cram into our bags and a pitiful handful of mementoes. Seeing that we couldn’t afford to take most of our personal articles with us, we each stood guard while the other two took a few minutes to take their memories of their beloved things – photographs of friends and family from before the End, favourite books, soft toys and childhood junk – and recreate them in their ownworlds, where once remembered, our oneirocytes could preserve forever. So we left home surprisingly complete, all things considered. The physical artifacts would burn to ash and acidic paste, but it would live on more perfectly in our minds. We were about to seek out a safe exit from our crumbling dwelling when Gex darted back into her cube. She returned a moment later with a super-secure case, armoured and marked with the logo of the Oneiric Institute where we’d worked and received our parasites.

“Wait, is that–“ I began.

“Oh yeah,” Gex confirmed, “I nicked a full case of oneirocytes and their base matrices when the institute shut down.”

I was agog. Inside that case – if it was indeed full – ten thousand oneirocyte initiators, and the means for them to self-replicate.

“Good job the city’s fucked. They’d kill you for stealing that lot.”

Properly unlicensed medical nanotech which had been sitting in a wardrobe or wherever for six months. Definitely a hanging offence, and yet… the thought of it stirred something in my heart. A hint of hope? Perhaps. It was swiftly knocked out of me as we made we our way down through our cube block, climbing through broken ceilings and stairways that twisted and swung out over gaping holes in the dark. Our best bet was to head for the evacuation rally point. We didn’t expect there to be anyone left, except perhaps a skeleton crew of military personnel (who may, or may not be fascinated to see the case that Gex had squirreled away in her rucksack), but we might be able to catch up, or perhaps scavenge further supplies.

It took us most of another day to cross the city. We spent as much time in hiding as we did running, crouched against the gunfire and the elements. It’s depressing that no matter how much food and water we ran out of, we always seemed to find more bullets. The evacuation site was deserted except for half a dozen soldiers who almost shot us, despite our shouting that we were residents and to please not shoot us. They seemed incredibly stressed and like the last people in the world who should be holding guns. Apparently the defence of the city had gone massively tits up when the outsiders (their words) rocked up with a bunch of tanks and the military wreckage of a half a dozen countries between here and the south coast. They had little hope for their colleagues who had ventured back into the city to check for other residents – it had been three full days after all. When they declared that they were pulling out, they offered to take us with them. We’re not complete idiots, so we gratefully accepted and together we all headed off out into the real, undomed, world in a massive articulated military transport that felt as much like a tank as an anti-luxury caravan. Six of them, three of us. No remaining chain of command, and they’d lost communications with the evacuating forces a day earlier.

We soon drove through the mess that was left of the evacuation. Looks like another group of outsiders had been approaching from the opposite direction, and the convoy had been caught out by them. It didn’t look good. Gex, Scoro and I took it in turns to go under and spend time in our ownworlds, continuing to shore up the interface between our worlds that we’d developed. While that could seem like a massive waste of our time, it was a welcome break from being bounced back and forth in the webbing seats of the caterpillar (as the soldiers charmingly named it). There was absolutely nothing for us to do. The soldiers were arguing amongst themselves about what to do, and who was in charge. They did not solicit our opinions. They were also giving us some looks that I didn’t feel great about. They were on the run, and we could easily be construed as unwanted baggage. Only one of us would go under at a time, and the other two would keep an even closer eye on our possible saviours.

To drop back into my ivory-toned world was an extraordinary relief. The rocking and shaking of the caterpillar fell away and I just lay on the ground for a while, watching the trees weave their complex branch patterns. After our three day exploration of the doorways, what we needed more than anything was a more solid link to the real world. It was all good and well fucking about in here, but if we died out there because we’d failed to wake up then it was all just a little bit pointless. What we required was a trait unique to the real world, but was an absurd ever-morphing property in dreams: time. Our oneirocytes and brains were rooted in the real world though – our dreams and the ownworld were features that emerged from those physical connections, even if they themselves weren’t truly physical. Supervening boundary effects if you will, between the real and the imaginary. My brain anchored me here and my brain was well acquainted with time, or certainly it was used to reading clocks. I just needed to pick something that my body was temporally acquainted with, since time might be real, but it’s a subjective property most easily measured with an external object or source, like a neat atomic clock, counting off half-lives. I needed one of those. And found it, in the oneirocyte, which was a bit like having a computer in my head, albeit one made mostly of my brain. I could get it to detect the speed of electrons moving in my brain, powering my thoughts and the connections that generated my sense of self and existence. All I needed was a construct in my ownworld to represent it. I considered all the classic clock options – a massive sundial, a grandfather clock. Perhaps a cuckoo clock… nothing I’d want to smash into pieces.

Eventually I settled on a simple carriage clock which I embedded in the interchange, with its spiralling metal coils and doorways that symbolised the union between our worlds. Each hallway that led to a door was connected, and into that soft metal tissue I placed the simple wooden carriage clock, with its old-fashioned clock face. With a flick of my finger it began ticking. Inside the time ring I inset another ring showing the date, just in case we really got carried away. Not that we’d need to consult the clock directly. By embedding it in the physical reality of all of our ownworlds we’d be conscious of time, whether we were intentionally speeding it up or slowing it down. It shouldn’t be possible to become lost in time as we had been before. The others would understand what I’d done as soon as they returned to their ownworlds. Instant learning and information sharing were just some of the advantages we had by accessing each other’s mental landscapes.

I was just preparing myself to wake up and leave my tranquil trees and lagoons when I felt a disturbance. In the distance, between my trees I could just barely perceive a ripple through the dusty white earth, a ripple that became a wave, that turned into sound as it reached my trees, a deep fluting noise that drowned out the gentle susurrus of the twisting trees and the low clouds dripping into the pools. So loud that it made the ground vibrate, so deep that the trees shook and my vision split, like a migraine, except instead of simply fracturing my vision it was more like someone had smashed a hundred stained glass windows and randomly reassembled them. Rather than a single whole picture, I had a glimpse into a hundred – a thousand facets of reality. Reality, or dreams? I couldn’t tell. Each glimpse was impossibly tiny, like peering through the weave of a curtain into a darkened room, or out of the stone in somebody’s ring, swinging as they moved. And through it all continued that deep fluting sound, disorienting yet somehow familiar. I knelt on the ground, where the sound had knocked me down, shuddering with the overwhelming volume of images to process. As I knelt there, with my head in my hands the – I hesitate to call it music – the “note” changed, downshifted and changed, filtering through a thousand voices until it became one clear voice. It said, “Come.”

 

Stolen Skies – Part Nine (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Sometimes there’s a door. I can see it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn to face it, it skitters out of the way, vanishes in a blink of my mind’s eye. Its presence somehow relates to the state of my mental readiness to acknowledge a clear cut between dreamworld and reality. I’d been living in a confused combination of the two for months by this point, the process exacerbated by the lack of medical care and non-clinical setting. Maybe, just maybe, going rogue on an experimental nano-parasite hadn’t been the best plan. It had all been going so well when the three of us were living together. Those days after we started exploring our ownworlds in each other’s physical presence were intense and powerful. Being together enhanced the unifying effects of the zygoptics and encouraged the implanted oneirocytes to communicate with each other.

My white world of towering marble trees had taken on colour at last – eddies of breakthrough reality spinning in the space between the trees’ roots, new objects rising out of them as they spun. I decorated my forest with furniture, finding comfort and beauty in form and function. Half furniture warehouse, half dream woods I guess. Colour pooled more densely and sank into the ground to reveal deep lagoons of crystal clear water which the trees daintily stepped over, forming vast smooth bridges of white, living stone webbing across the newly formed spaces. As the trees continued to twist and rise ever higher, they sprouted branches which webbed together, filling the empty white sky with intricate patterns which surged and twisted as I watched. I was directing all of this, further breaking the mould of my dreams with conscious choices. I realised it was a cold world, and added warmth – a trio of hot moons that slowly drifted across the sky, casting an orange light through the ceaselessly shifting, interweaving patterns of the branches above. It felt calm, and restful. All except that doorway which eluded me through the trunks. Once I saw it at the bottom of one of the pools, and dove in. But it was gone when I broke through the surface of the water. Bloody thing. I’d catch it eventually, or it would be ready for me to catch it. In the meantime I continued to add detail to the world – texture, scent, and tentatively – sound. Even as a kid I’d found white noise restful: the distant hum of machinery, the hammering of rain and approaching thunder. The problem I encountered is that in a dreamstate things have to make some kind of relational sense. In the real world, I can just have a machine playing sounds, but in a dream a sound with an unidentified source became a point of anxiety – an unseen presence generating its own distortion through the space. I didn’t want it to be raining all the time, and I didn’t want to stick a massive washing machine in the distance for its soothing churn and rattle. I stuck with the water noises, and added a thin layer of cloud that only rained on the lagoons, leaving the paths and branches dry and easy to walk around. It misted into a kind of low fog that clung to the ground, fading the distance and creating a weird sense of claustrophobia. No good. I couldn’t leave it silent though. I’d just start imagining noises, and their origins. Better to provide definition and clarity in the ownworld. Unanswered questions and answers without questions made it feel fragile and tenuous, as if it was just a thin veil that something else could find its way through. For a place defined by the imagination, it really didn’t help to let your imagination run wild. I had managed to make it stable though, and could reenter it at will when I fell asleep, visualising a short corridor that I and my friends walked down, each choosing and opening our own door which reliably led to the dreamworlds we’d created.

Finally, I caught that damned door. I’d been walking along the endlessly winding branches high up above the clear lagoons, their rich texture and feel beneath my bare feet creating a deep meditative state of peace and relaxation. I happened to look up as a dark shadow intruded on my peripheral vision. Right next to me, hovering over empty space hung the doorframe. Dark, with a plain wooden door in the centre. I reached out, felt its warmth and its own sense of rightness, even though it was hanging above nothing in my ownworld. I reached out, pushed it open and walked through. A moment’s dizziness as space whirled around me, my delicate pale world vanishing, and I found myself walking out into the heart of an ornate, gold-spattered cathedral space, The door was behind me still, exactly as I’d seen it my ownworld, except here it half-covered a stained-glass window, just jutting out of the panes. This wasn’t the real world – I’d travelled into another ownworld, but whose?

A dull roar echoed around the vast vaulted ceilings, announcing the presence of something. It was hard to focus on at first – I’d wandered into someone else’s dream and I felt my brain stutter, as if it were trying to keep up with this alternative interpretation of this other’s mental playground. Then, with what felt alarmingly like a damp snap inside my head, it all came into focus. A huge wooden and brass lion was striding down the nave. Wood creaked, metal joints clanged and pistons hissed as it approached. The head of the lion was stunningly beautiful, immaculately hammered into a haughty expression. And riding on its back… Scoro, wearing a long golden dress whose train tailed off alongside the massive lion’s. With a grin, he hailed me and slid gracefully off the beast’s back.

“Welcome to my ownworld, Evanith. I see you found the door.”

I turned and vaguely waved at the door – it was still there, clear and fixed. Which suggested this portal between our ownworlds – our very minds – was established now.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” I said, eyeing the spectacular golden interior of the cathedral, “more religious than I’d expected.”

“Nah, never believed in that stuff, but I love the architecture. Come on, let me show you around.”

He hooked his arm in mine and we walked off out of the church into his ownworld. Outside the cathedral, arches and arabesques sprang from the ground, leading the eye into yet more church-like structures that arced up into the sky. It was beautiful, and I started as suddenly a flock of tiny silver bird-things erupted out of one of the cavernous buildings, soared into the sky and began a complex shape-shifting with their combined bodies, a murmuration that filled the blue sky above. I hadn’t seen a blue sky in so long, hadn’t even conceived of putting one in my own dreamworld, that tears sparkled immediately in my eyes.

“I know,” said Scoro, squeezing my arm, “I think it’s the right blue – at any rate, it’s the blue I dreamt most often. It feels right.”

“I went for white…”

“Of course you did. Now, I found another door as well as the one in the cathedral. Come on.”

We ambled through a tunnel made of twisted golden columns. Halfway down it, another door stuck awkwardly through the side of the tunnel at an odd angle.

“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to move these doors, but this one’s really fucking up the symmetry,” I noted.

Scoro leaned up and pulled the door open. We stepped through into darkness.

It seemed like we were underground. The darkness was split by red light that bled through cracks in the walls around us. It took a little while before our eyes became attuned to the imaginary darkness, and again, that damp snapping sensation in my mind before the walls around us took proper shape. An infinitely regressing array of cogs, pistons and wheels within wheels – like we inside an enormous automated puzzle box. The walls clicked and whirred, vibrating with the impression of leviathan mechanisms grinding away all around us. Abruptly the walls unfolded around us, shapes flipping in and out of existence as they creased away behind and inside each other, the dark underground space revealed to be more like a box that we were standing inside. And beyond the box, a red heat filled everything, steam rising gently from the ground that appeared to be composed of circular slabs of onyx, near concentric rings of white and black stone, all of which were rotating at subtly different rates. And between the larger slabs, yet more, smaller stones, all also revolving. It stretched out before us for what seemed like miles. The grinding and whirring continued, presumably driving this endless field of motion, producing the steam that rose out from between the cracks. Strangely, when we walked forwards, the motion of the stones switched to match our direction of travel, though it made looking down a weirdly vertiginous experience.

“Well, this is nice–“ Scoro began.

“Boys!” Gex interrupted, rising up out of the spinning shapes on a column of pure black, motionless at the top as it corkscrewed out of the ground.

“What the actual fuck, Gex?” I asked, gesturing at the realm of perpetual motion she’d created.

“I dunno, I guess I find it relaxing. Couldn’t find a way to get the nice white noise background without some actual machinery to make it.”

She’d solved my problem, but it wasn’t a solution I fancied implementing in my ownworld.

“The doors work – we’re in,” said Scoro as the column supporting Gex shortened itself until she was deposited neatly on the onyx floor before us. “Pretty cool, right?”

We could hardly stop grinning. The months of work while the oneirocytes integrated themselves into our brains, and into each others’ had worked. We spent some hours playing in the new worlds, seeing if we could affect each other’s worlds – we could, but only with explicit permission, and those revisions could be removed in a heartbeat. What we could do though, was change what our friends were wearing when they entered our ownworld. A rapid switching of jeans, togas, nothing, swimsuits and absurdly fancy dresses had us in stitches. We quite lost track of time, trying to build a space where our ownworlds intersected, but it was proving tricky to establish a common visual vocabulary for the interface. It was as I added a series of gothic lampposts to the path leading up to the intersection from Gex’s world that it occurred to me to wonder how long we’d been in here. Usually we interacted with the oneirocytes as part of the normal cycle of sleep and waking, but of late we’d been able to step instantly into sleep without being tired, and set alarms that would disturb our sleep enough to either jolt us into wakefulness, or could be translated into the dreamspace as a warning – an eruption of black swans, the dimming of the moons, something. But we’d had nothing, no warning, no trigger. Time in the ownworld can be a lot like dream time, both endless and tightly compressed so that an entire adventure can take place in a few seconds that felt like hours.

“I think we need to try and wake up,” I said, “did we remember to set an alarm?”

Gex paused in her erection of a huge clockwork tower. Scoro put down his shovel.

“What made you think of that?“ Gex asked.

“Um,” I’d felt something, a shudder that ran through me, “I got hungry?” I wasn’t sure, but now that I was looking for it, there was a sensation there – a continuous shudder, something shaking.

“Yeah,” said Scoro. “I feel it too, it’s like a deep pulse, I feel it here–” he pointed to his chest, ran hands down his torso and thighs, “it’s all through me. I didn’t notice before.”

“We need another door,” Gex said. “One that exits the ownworlds.”

The ownworlds are strange – we can create simply by thinking, but as humans we’re so used to interacting by touch that we tended to reach out as if wielding tools, or casting a spell. Gex raised both her arms as if conjuring, and a whirlpool of blackness emerged from the ground beneath our feet, flowed up and into a semi-circular black shape hanging vertically in the air. Scoro leaned in, touched it with a finger and gold coruscated out from where he placed his fingertip, like frost crystallising on a window. With a sweep of my hand I bound it in white marble, and the black centre melted away to reveal another plain wooden door. I reached out and pushed it open.

We emerged into chaos. Half the roof of Gex’s cube was gone, black wetness had poured through the hole, soaking the mattresses we lay on with filth. The air tasted of ash and a chemical burn. I jerked upright as I realised the corridor which was visible through the shattered door was on fire. High above us, we could see the sky through a huge crack which ran down the whole cube complex. The dome was broken, and a swirl of toxic clouds was seeping in. We pulled each other upright, adjusting to the shock of emergence into the real world. Despite the obvious distraction, my stomach was a tangle of hunger. I snatched up a jacket from the sofa, which had so far avoided the crap staining the floor.

“What the fucking fuck…” I managed, kicking down the broken door. The cubes on the opposite side were gone, and the fire was lapping up from the floors below us, and we just looked out over a city in ruins. The eastern side of the dome had been shattered, cracks running up right along its arc. The city was half on fire, filled with noise. There were figures moving in the ruins, marching maybe. Military vehicles ground through the wreckage and the gloom erupted in sprays of livid tracer rounds that pounded into the figures advancing through the ruins.

“Great,” said Gex, “another fucking war.”