Open Boxes – Part One – NaNoWriMo 2016

Open Boxes – Part One

open-boxes_coverA spray of crimson across glass, a gory rainbow splattered across the world. That’s a great way to wake up – with a start, leaping halfway to wakefulness still seeing the nightmare sloshed across reality. It’s worse when bouncing upright results in a sharp smack against the lid, and you lying down once more, unsure if it was the bloody rain or banging your head that was the dream which jerked you out of the best part of life: sleeping through it.
As I say – a hell of a way to start the day. Seems to be what we’re stuck with though – a life so thoroughly mundane that it’s only night terrors give it colour. That doesn’t mean red is the only colour in my mental palate, oh no. There’s a whole spectrum of red, from scarlet slashes on through to the rustier browns, still clinging to their rosy memories of freshness. Then there’s white (which is all of the colours, of course) to be despoiled… and on. I blame the environment; doesn’t everyone? It makes us who we are, on top of whatever bred-in gifts or curses our forebears ejaculated into the future. My environment –  our environment – is limited.
My wake up smack in the head left a mark I think, maybe a thin dent. That’s waking up for you. I think about the gap between sleep and waking a lot, perhaps too much. Maybe that’s why the dreams are so vivid and the waking time so transient. You have a chance at setting up the day the right way, but it’s so heavily informed by what came before that unless you’ve set all the conditions for success up correctly you’re likely still doomed to failure. Fail to prepare… it’s one of a number of laminated posters that mar the otherwise creamy smoothness of the walls. Like all good platitudes it carries a tiny amount of obvious truth packaged so that only idiots could feel the benefit of them. Any right-minded soul should be irritated and dismissive by such self-evident tautology. This is exactly what I mean about waking up properly.
There’s only so long one can delay getting up, once you’ve gone through the violent awakening I’d suffered. My cranial impact had prompted the semi-opaque ovoid lid to gently hinge open above me. The webwork of cracks in the lid are dreadfully familiar, speaking of its past trauma and hinting at a future of slow decay and system failure. Just like the rest of us. Still lying in my bed I could see the gleaming ceiling above me, which slants across the room at half a right angle. Almost randomly, chairs, cables, the ragged bases of cabinets and desks project from the ceiling like an ill-conceived child’s mobile. Occasionally the chairs squeak round, having reached some threshold of their fittings and sometimes plummet. I’ve charted their descent so far – we average a chair fall every thirty-two days.  Windows are set into the walls, thick diamond shaped portals into the outside, each four feet from the ceiling. The ring of them is disturbed on one side by vanishing into a mountain of junk and on the other by a wide door, its two doors jammed open with by tortured metal spokes forced into its corners. Leading down from the door towards me is a gentle incline of yet more junk, forming an unreliable carpet of metals and plastics. Home. A long black hose is drawn taut from the ceiling to just behind my head. Its casing is slowly shredding, bleeding multi-coloured wires. That should probably get onto my to do list, but to do list management comes later in the day – never start the day with planning, it gives you a set of unrealistic expectations to fail at later on.  I have learned.
I’ve also learned to not just stay in bed, even if that’s all I really want to do, or if there’s nothing else I want to do more. Those aren’t the same things, but they do look the same from the outside. I haul myself out of the pod, its formerly shiny edges worn down by days of my gentle caresses, scratched and dented by the motion of a thousand impacts, and slapped it shut. No matter how hard I try to slam it closed, it will only take that initial force so far before internal gears kick in and it softly hisses itself into sealed bliss. It’s a minor frustration, but a recurring one, which makes it all the more vexing. It’s insouciant disregard for my annoyance only makes me more determined to slam it, which will probably turn out badly for both of us, and most certainly for the frame which holds that crazed web in place. The underfoot junk here is packed quite tightly, dense enough to support my weight without sucking me into some sharp edged quicksand pit. I have a small table next to the pod, on which I’ve stored all of the vital night and daytime things: sunglasses, my small makeup compact and Spongebob Squarepants pencil case, a chain of rings, a neat over the shoulder bag (for toting about assorted screwdrivers, plugs, levers, heavy duty tape, sticky-backed Velcro), media tablet, the all-important to do list, the manual, and some private things it doesn’t feel right to simply leave among the wastes. All of that gets bundled up into the bag, over the shoulder and on into the day.
After that it was off up the sloped heap of boxes, piping, crates, foam packaging, rubble and detritus to the door. It’s not exactly a princess’ bedroom, but it is mine. By the door I’ve stacked, or ‘heaped’, if you consider ‘stack’ to be precise a term unsuited to my systems, items that might be of interest to my companions. We operate a kind of swap shop; frankly there’s little for us to do, so all we really have left is what we can create for ourselves. There are countless shattered, brutalised objects and items of potential interest mired in the slag heap, some of them will prove useful, vital and possibly fun. All we have to do is unearth them, without avalanching the whole mess. It’s somewhat tricky, but we have all the time in the world. For that day, which I’ll call a Tuesday for the sake of sanity – applying order to the universe is essential – without at least a crude calendar one’s sense of time, self and place swiftly erode. Tuesday. Tuesday was a partial file day. While that may not sound exciting, partial files are a lot more interesting than blank, empty, missing, corrupt or non-existent files. If you rank anything right, something is better than another thing. Categories, rankings, basic set theory – it’s all good fun. It also contributes to that sense of existence and place in the universe.
With my stack of semi-fried hard disk drives shoved firmly into my bag, I was ready to move into the rest of our home. Home is where the heart is after all, and if our hearts weren’t here then I guess that would mean that either we didn’t have any, or this wasn’t our home. In quite important ways it was the only place any of us had ever known, so this had to be home, otherwise we were more lost than we thought. I’m sorry, that’s a bit more cryptic than I’d intended – we’ll get to it, I promise. The key thing is, it was Tuesday, and that dictated a set of activities which produce normality. Having climbed up to the doorway I then faced a crumpled corridor of accordion folding, snagged and twisted, so that walking was replaced with crawling, climbing and stumbling while leaning at extravagant degrees from what gravity determined as down. The fluted walls were heavily patched with crudely sprayed epoxy and primly applied strips of seriously heavy duty tape. The next chamber along from mine was the other way up, the corridor having flipped entirely so that I entered on the actual floor.
Charlie’s dome was pretty much intact, structurally. The furniture was the right way up, which was a good start. Unlike the wide open space of mine, Charlie’s was subdivided into a series of pods, separated by the kind of waffly baffle boards beloved of open plan offices, creating the impression of privacy while spoiling everyone’s day with everyone else’s. Each section had had a desk, or a long flat table, a charming assortment of stainless steel drawers, cabinets, shelves. It was all very fancy. Evidently there used to be a set of large, complex devices which had been bolted to the floor or ceiling. Since their original placement they had pinballed about the room, demolishing anything fragile, leaving only the steely corporate maze behind. The machines themselves, probably official science things had ended up in a compacted mass of shattered glass and crippled curves on one side of the space. They possibly extended through one of the windows. It was hard to be sure – the windows were a different shape to those in my room, their outsides were occluded by what might be mud, or sand. In case of puncture, the whole mass of twisted metal had been liberally sprayed with epoxy as in the corridor, as well as what looked like very poor quality welding, and hope. You could tell it was hope, and Charlie’s room, because paper butterflies had been painstakingly taped over all the most serious fissures. If a butterfly can’t fix it, well, there’s probably little hope for it. Those repairs would have been done on a Thursday – structure.
Charlie had made a nest for himself, as I had, though he (and the others) had to drag his pod out of my room and plug it back in here. That was a lot easier as all of the sockets were at shin level instead of fifteen feet above your head. The selection of our spaces left a lot to be desired. The pod was dead centre in the room, in the middle of the open plan labyrinth. I’d woken early, so I figured Charlie was likely to still be enviously deep in slumber. I was wrong. His pod was empty, closed and charging. The lid was nowhere near as scratched up as mine, but then mine had probably taken the most beating. Another reason why it’s remained where it began. Our pods are unique; they are our bedrooms; our places of privacy; attuned to us both physically and, in Charlie’s case, artistically. He had decorated, which was a step farther than I’d felt the need to. Perhaps in his otherwise soulless environment he had felt the desire to make it more individual, more personal. My giant pit of carnage had quite enough personality for me. Charlie had wreathed his pod with ribbons of every colour you could strip off inessential cabling. It resembled either an egg being devoured by tiny squid or a satanic nest of wickerwork, depending on your outlook. He liked it, that’s the important thing.
Anyway, he wasn’t there, so I didn’t hang about, other than to scan for potentially handy scraps. He was a lot tidier than me, and had salvaged many of the metal bins and drawers from the science stations that surrounded his nest. They were full of what had once been precise delicate instruments, mounds of broken glass, bits of rubber and tubing and a small tub full of name badges. We ritually ignored those, but my eyes never failed to alight on them. All I could see of them was the Velcro backing, but those little white rectangles just scream to be noticed – “read me!” they shriek, “know me!”. “Be me”. I shoved that tub to the back of the shelf and hovered for a moment over the box of enamel chips, the residue of ruined tiles or heat-proofing. It’s good to get a heads up on what someone might have for trading, and Charlie’s habit of sifting his junk made it a lot easier.  I had some ideas.
After Charlie’s room, through another corrugated corridor that takes a rather sudden upward bend, which necessitates a belly crawl, I reached the first of our communal space. Another dome, this tipped onto one end, forced up against Charlie’s. The entrance had been painstakingly excavated by all of us – it took weeks – as we had to completely empty it into Charlie’s (a nightmare) in order to safely pass through it. Once we’d cleared it of course, we could refill it. It’s probably the oddest space we’ve got, ringed with shelves and lockers which in their new configuration became nooks to sit in, staring across the central space. Once it contained a kitchen and galley fittings, but again, empty it was a broad dish that we could sit in the bottom of. I’d hoped to find the others here, but again – there was no one. That was annoying for a couple of reasons. One, routine, dammit. This is a Tuesday – we meet, we exchange, and this was the place. Two, going further meant a much more arduous climb up the vertical floor of the chamber. All I could see through half of the windows were the outside of Charlie’s room, pressed together as they were. My favoured route was to go halfway up one of the window sides, and use the nooks to climb up. That only works to the mid point obviously, and then I switched to the dish and used the ladder we had painstakingly drilled and nailed into the floor. I ascended into darkness.
The accordionated hallway that took me up has no lights. We’ve tried to re-establish connection with the network, but it just won’t have it. There’s a persistent sense of wetness which makes the blackness gleam in ways it shouldn’t without light to reflected off its curves. It was like the inside of a perfectly black skull. Or a spine perhaps. It was not a journey I enjoyed and I took it quickly, that horrid crawling sense creeping up the back of my neck and massaging my head with its clammy toes. I found that I exited it faster than I intended, bowling out onto the floor of our only truly whole space: the garden.
Faintly blue light cast animal shadows across the ground and walls, the greenery adding its shadow puppetry of softly waving fronds and leaves, animating the penumbral beasts. It was captivating. There is something about the eruption of green in a place devoted to metallic greys and inoffensive beige. It subverts, perverts the otherwise functional sense of a space and makes it feel like you’re in a flower pot, the roots extending far below and the sky an imaginary construction to frame the foliage. It’s how I felt anyway. An oasis of shaded peace, miraculously perfect. Except for that day, that Tuesday. Flames danced up the boughs, annihilating the delicate leaves, smoke billowing upwards while being sucked away into overworked extractor fans and fitful rain spat out of the ceiling. And in the middle of the smouldering bushes, in a patch of scorched earth, sat Charlie’s head.

Open Boxes – Part Two – NaNoWriMo 2016

Open Boxes – Part Two

Read Part One first (it may make slightly more sense)
open-boxes_coverPrioritisation is a serious business. It’s another ranking system – which thing is more important than the other. I had a pair of pressing issues – one, my buddy’s head was on the floor, cradled in the semi-natural filth of the garden, his body nowhere in sight. Two – said garden was on fire. Now, although there are very many things that are not functional in our environment, that we have declined to repair or investigate. The garden however, is not one of them. It’s the only living thing we have. It’s a place you can walk into and be surrounded by aliveness. It’s a clear link to a real complex world where the sky isn’t dented metal and the walls aren’t covered with beige foam. That matters, at a deep level. The room was naturally well-endowed with sprinkler systems and massive extraction fans in the case of such fires as I was then witnessing. It’s likely it could take care of itself. Already the twisters of smoke vanishing into the ceiling were evidence that it was under control at a high level. But the plants were still getting fried at my level. Charlie on the other hand, well. He wasn’t on fire, put it that way.
I scrabbled for the near empty extinguishers which studded the sides of the door. I guessed by weight which would be most likely to help and sprayed the flaming foliage with gusto, extinguishing the fire and painting Charlie’s head a smoky white. With the flames gone the extraction system wound itself back down and only a reluctant dripping pattered down on me and the garden. The damage wasn’t as severe as I’d feared. We had lost a big chunk of the thorny red and orange rose that wound around the frames inserted into the garden to enable a more efficient distribution of the plants over the three dimensional space. That made me sad. I was very fond of a plant which appeared pretty and delightful until you reach out to grab it. It’s a living demonstration of look with your eyes, not your hands. So is acid. Roses are safer, and apparently they smell nice. I like their petals: thick, meaty things like the inside of an elbow or an eyelid. They remind me of material things. The spread of pea blossoms that had run away with themselves seemed to have taken the fire higher and paid the price. I cared less about that, pretty but insubstantial flowers. I know that might seem a little judgmental, but in limited space you’ve got to be picky. Charlie liked the pea blossoms.
Charlie. I stood over his head as it sank slightly into a muddy puddle of emergency water, ash and extinguisher slime. Fuck. What are you supposed to do when you find someone’s head? It wasn’t in the manual. I checked. That’s the first rule: check the damn manual. It’s the first thing, always check. It’s unreal what gets put in manuals, from a careful listing of things to not do with a toaster (apparently unusable once fish have been toasted, never mind yoghurt, or wood), where not to place it (underneath, on top of, behind, next to – what pattern of adjacency can be achieved where a toaster cannot destroy the world?), never, ever to leave it in operation alone. Toasters are lethal. Or they would be if people didn’t follow the manual to the letter. So I checked. Heads are supposed to be attached to torsos, that’s their thing, it’s where they belong. A head without a body is presumably surplus to requirements, which leads to either disposal, recycling or, and much more interestingly, investigation.
There were a number of steps I could undertake, now that I had a grasp on the situation. Inappropriately detached head. The two final outcomes were a bit premature, so I had a lot more leeway with investigation. That’s a huge section of the manual. Lots of steps. We’ve done a lot of investigation: that thing’s hanging open and fire is jetting out of it. Step one – what is it? Step two – if you can’t tell what it is, stop it being on fire, so you can tell what it is. After that you get to work out what it’s for, and then fix it. That’s where the epoxy spray, tape and my satchel of salvaged tools comes in. If you can’t hammer it closed, glue it closed. If glue won’t take, tape it up. If tape can’t hack it, lean something heavy against it. If that doesn’t work, are you and your companions struggling to function? If yes, leave, seal the place up and hope. If no, it’ll do.
I applied the same procedure to Charlie. I plucked his head from its rapidly drying puddle (we took good care of the garden’s systems) and wiped off the ash and gunk with a cloth from my bag. The buttons on the cloth made a gentle clattering sound. Now I could be certain that it was Charlie. He had tiny stars and hearts stencilled around his eyes, and a spray of something (possibly ivy, or bad wiring) emerging from below his ears, wrapping around his jaw and then around the back of his. The ivy was clearly done by another hand than his own as it went round the back – I’d have to cop to that. My artistic skills never were up to Charlie’s standards, but since he never could see it, I supposed that it didn’t matter. I liked Charlie, we were neighbours and he was a good sort. It seemed strange to have his head in my hands without a neck and torso dangling off the bottom. I flipped his head over. Ah, that was much worse. I’d hoped for a neat separation, but Charlie’s head had sheared off his neck at a bad angle, ugly tubes and dark liquids welling up from the angry torn skin. That ruled out a whole range of activities – recycling is a lot harder when you’ve got to fix and recondition things first. I was reluctant to just pop his head into one of the many bins marked ‘disposal / irretrievably broken’. I think that’s because I’m naturally optimistic about the value of things. You really never know when something will come in handy, and it’s only once you’ve consigned it to outside that you realise you needed it and now can’t get it back. That goes some way to explaining the state of my room… My contemplative moment was broken by a loud cry from behind the domestic jungle.
“What the hell happened in here?”
I recognised the voice immediately. There are only four of us, so it wasn’t anything to boast about. Charlotte. She appeared a moment later, brandishing an extinguisher of her own.
“There was fire,” I confirmed, “but that’s all sorted now. We’ve taken a hit to the rose and climbing plants, but the blackness will fade and be replaced with fresh growth in time.”
Charlotte stared at me. She does that, sometimes. I don’t know whether it’s because I naturally provide her with all the necessary information and she then needs to process it, and the staring is a kind of ponderous gaze, or if it’s something less positive. If I had to choose one of the two, I’d say it’s the dense information, because that makes me feel better. A further disturbance in the foliage behind Charlotte heralded the arrival of Chelsea, or less likely, Charlie’s body. I waited patiently for Charlotte to rejoin our conversation or for the approaching individual to be confirmed. It was Chelsea. She started out much the same way.
“What’s all this?”
“There’s been a fire, but it’s out now.” I recapped.
“I can see that. Why are you holding Charlie’s head?”
“Ah, yes. Um. I found it.”
“You found his head?”
“It’s definitely his,” I confirmed, “look, you can see the little hearts he did with that pink marker pen.”
Chelsea and Charlotte shared a look. I’ve seen it before. Again, I’m not sure if there’s a difference in our perception of information. To me, it was quite straightforward, but they always made me feel that I was missing something.
“I’ve checked,” I held up the manual, “basically, if it’s not attached to someone then it’s not a lot of use. I’m probably going to give it a rinse and stick it in my room in case we need it again.”
Chelsea lunged forward and snatched Charlie’s head out of the crook of my elbow.
“What the hell, Chelsea?” I spluttered, “I’m on this.”
“Christopher!“ she exclaimed. I stepped back, retracted my suddenly outraged arms.
“Fine. If you want to follow the manual for yourself, that’s fine,” I said, “but I’ve done it right. I looked it up – go on – look up head.”
Chelsea was doing much what I’d done before, rotating Charlie’s head in her palms. I was confident she would reach the same conclusion and hand it back to me.
“Christopher, come on – it’s Charlie’s head,” Charlotte said.
What was I supposed to say to that? I’d already identified him. It was my turn to stare for a while. I rather admired Chelsea’s features, she had chosen a bold alternating colour pattern of diamonds dissolving into cubes as they came over the crown of her head and grew increasingly tiny towards her eyes and mouth. Far neater than I could have done it; it had, of course, been Charlie’s work. Charlotte and I had painted each other’s faces that same night. It was, I guess, because it’s a while ago now and before I instituted my calendar system that gave some shape to my life. But it was what we called night, as most of the lights routinely failed. At the time we assumed that was because of some power leak – as it turned out it was a lot more simple than that, but at the time we were reduced to using wind up lanterns and glow sticks to get around until the generators started up again. I remember that it was the four of us, lost, rather frightened and both together and alone at the same time. It was a time of fragility, stress, panic. We didn’t really know each other, and certainly didn’t know ourselves. We did what everyone does – we drew each other’s faces so we could have something to hold onto. A shared identity, a bonding of souls with Sharpies, masking tape and box cutters. It was the first thing we all did together. It was when I felt we started to feel less alone, and more a family. It made me feel real, and made following the manual worthwhile. If there’s no one to do things for, then why bother? Those were the kinds of thoughts that afflicted me on waking, ideas I shook off by getting up and doing Tuesday, or Wednesday, or even Sunday.
I dimly realised Charlotte and Chelsea were talking again.
“He doesn’t get it,” Chelsea said.
“He will, give him time.”
There are layers to problems and discoveries. On the surface this was a straightforward case: identify relevant section of the manual, enact the steps to achieve a resolution. A resolution that would benefit us all, and in carrying those actions out continue to establish that happy sense of community we had so carefully fostered. Ah.
“Charlie needs his head, doesn’t he?” I asked
Charlotte did that thing where you rub the heel of your hand into your eye, and it looks like you’re tired, but really it’s to stop you making a fist and seeming aggressive. But if you recognise that’s what it is, then it still looks aggressive.
“You – you don’t think I – that I did this to Charlie, do you?”
Their faces were masks to me.

Open Boxes – Part Three – NaNoWriMo 2016

Open Boxes – Part Three

Read Part One and maybe Part Two first.
A skein of scarlet splayed across the sky, it drips, incandescently glowing, a ghostly shadow of failure hovering behind it, heightening the brightness, the force of expulsion, its slowly diminishing spout into the void. And then nothing, other than the fading ghost, a memory of loss, of pain, fading away. All that is left is the darkness. And then a haze of grey that infects the pitch, drawing fresh veins of monotony, life, endlessly repeating, tossed against the universe, never to stick, to always fall back into dissolution and chaos. What life thrives always dies. Its resurgence in subsequent generations of strife and struggle all fall, sequentially. That it persists in rising again and again does nothing for those that have fallen. The future means nothing to the fallen. How could it when its very existence is evidence of their mortality and failure? The survivors are at best usurpers, at worst murderers, or parasites, sucking at the dry and tortured breast of their predecessors. And so the universe goes on. Rising, twisting, suffering and falling, replaced by those neither better, nor worse, simply the next. What possible value could such existence have, rising, falling, crashing and smashing against the rocks of futility, their spume and foam tossed back and lost in the vast unknowable mass that overwhelms the triviality of their flickered lives… Life hovers pathetically against the vast austerity of nothingness, a mote crushed by the enormity of the nothing which dispassionately overwhelms the something, the anything. It looms.
Screaming, I awoke.
The world was black and filled with a sucking scream; all of life run backwards and dragged pitifully out of an airlock. All I could do was scream and strive for movement. Nothing happened. Locked in, lacking extension. I existed solely in an empty space filled with panic and fear. Everything was wrong – everything. The sense of emergency was implanted deep in my psyche. Action was demanded. Dimly a sense of my arms and legs – of a me – and of the other – emerged, and I seized it will all that I had, which was little enough. The first sensation I recall is that of my knuckles straining as I tried to feel my palm with my fingertips. Strange that the first feeling is of overuse, of stretching too far, as if the effort to feel life is extraordinary and beyond what should be expected of me. If this is too much, then what hope is there for more? Surely existence is more natural than this striving? Perhaps life is struggle, only by fighting can sensation be achieved, carved out of the bleak void that predates and succeeds us. Once I could touch my palms, full sensation arrived. A scream through all of me, touched off in the palm and streaking through arms, back, legs, head and finally tortuously, raggedly describing my face and digging deep within. The screaming did not end quickly.
With my newfound senses of touch, sound and sight I had my first touch of the world I had screamed my way into. A pounding from all sides, hammered over and over, my bright new senses relentlessly battered by cruel revolutions, jolts, sliding, falling, twisting, slamming and then the slow heavy slide of mass, driving me deeper and deeper beneath the pelting sensations. And then, finally, blissfully, nothing. As if suddenly my brief extension into the void was revoked. The barrage of sound replaced by silence, the juddering movement by a stillness which hung, breathless, for a beat – and another – and another. I persisted. Feeling had not left me, but the violent exterior had, for a moment or two, deigned to leave me in peace. A peace without hope, or understanding. My world was still nothing but empty blackness, my hands pressed against a boundary mere inches around me. Was this the universe? A narrow pocket of sensation, subject to unknown brutality? I hoped not.
I don’t know how long I waited in that space between life and death. Eventually there was a further heart-shaking thunder and I was smashed up and then down in my tiny pocket of the world. Light falteringly blossomed around me, too bright against my void-tempered eyes. With light came a certain calm. My world was a chrysalis of metal, glass and plastic. Horribly cracked and dented, for sure, but still there. And beyond, a confused broken jumble of shaded shapes pressed against the glass. There was motion, a tumbling of shapes, and then a shape I knew, a hand like my own swept a palmful of debris aside and I could see a streak of outside. The outside had a face.
For some hours I waited, torn between patience, impatience and fear as the patches of darkness above me were replaced by light. I watched the hands and arms, so like mine, scrabble, lift and toss away those things that weighed down upon my portion of the world. Finally, it was done. I looked up and above me was a mirror of myself, as best as I could tell from my limited vantage and what little I could infer from the dark reflection I’d seen while I was unearthed. Outstretched palms above my face, gently motioning downwards. I was calmed, not really understanding that I had needed to be calmed. I brought back my fists from their pounding on the glass above my face, pressed them together, felt once more the tautness of my knuckles; my proof of existence. The hatch above me released its aching hold, hissing and sliding up and over me, jerking a little as it caught its distressed arms against the rubble it nested in. Hands reached in, taking mine, pulling me up.
The touch of another was electric, galvanised my sense of self and of the real. I launched myself forth, up and out of my casket before I knew what I was doing, before I knew that my legs, back and arms could do that. It felt like something I had forgotten, holding another’s hands, being outside that box. We stood for what felt like forever, me standing in my bed, clasping forearms with my liberator, my life-bringer. The idea of tears cascaded through my mind, bringing a shuddering burr to my chest and a rattle to my arms and legs. Fingers lay gentle on my arms. A tender pressure, affirming our shared existence; we made each other real. Finally, their hand fell into mine, we tensed arms and I was pulled out of my hole into the world.
The world I found myself in was a twisted wreckage. Upside down, torn and battered. My rescuer had dug a pit to excavate me. I saw another box, just like mine, popped open, standing almost upright as if it had been stabbed into the mess around us. We were the same; separated only by the discrete shapes of our bodies. Two units of reality drawn snapping together across the emptiness. We didn’t speak – it seems absurd now – we turned immediately to practical matters. I recognised the space we were in, though I felt certain I’d never seen it before – a flat, wrongly angled surface above our heads, dangling tangles of cabling, panels and furniture. It was familiar, if terribly wrong. That sense of wrongness translated into an alertness I’d not previously felt.  I found myself dimly aware of a hollow screeching, tugging the lightest and most ephemeral of materials into the air in a subtle funnel, vanishing through cracks in the ceiling/floor and walls. Instinct took me over, I stepped across the shifting ground, sought out lockers and cabinets I’d never previously considered, or even recognised when I looked around me – but I knew what they were and what they ought to contain.
We sealed the whistling holes, jammed closed the gaping doors. The rushing sounds reduced to a bare whisper, and we took stock. For all that I felt myself, I felt possessed of actions I had not planned. But I felt safer. The diamond shaped ports in the walls showed us a violent swirl of activity, a fog rushing past that vanished into the darkness as quickly as it became apparent. Some deeper growl of motion reverberated through the ground and the air – a settling, shifting into compliance of our space. In the quiet that followed, every subtle slide of debris was audible and felt through our feet. We had reached some kind of equilibrium.
From the ceiling, or floor as it clearly was, depended thick black hoses. One was ripped in half, teasingly close to its other half which sprouted sadly from my rescuer’s box across the room. Another joined to my case, stretched tight but somehow unbroken. Further ribbed spars stabbed into the rubble beneath us – two unbroken but snarled in clusters of broken machinery – another bent double on itself, its pod still clinging to our (now) roof, broken open. From it dangled arms, a body, a head. A shaft of dull steel had passed through both the box and the body, posing it in an expression of surprise. It looked like me. Like us. It didn’t move, didn’t even tremble. A thick fluid leaked from its chest, a solid thread joining it to the ground and vanishing into the gaps. We paid it no further attention.
We dug with intent, purpose and intensity. Somewhere below the mass of shattered instruments, foam padding, unrecognisable components, beams and endless tangled netting lay our fellows. Tirelessly we hauled out junk, propped and protected our lines of egress. Preserved those thick lines drawn tightly down from above. My companion’s pod must have snapped open as its tether tore, ejecting them rudely into the world. I could hardly complain or lament their entry to awareness as without them I would presumably have remained lost in my tiny night. But these two, like me, were unbroken, if buried in a slipshod landslide of sharp, hard-edged violence. We prevailed. Two more severely cracked but intact containers, holding selves just like us, alert, frightened, but there. We were four. We were together. It was all that we had.

Open Boxes – Part Four – NaNoWriMo 2016

Open Boxes – Part Four

Read Part OnePart Two and Part Three first.

Part Four

We spent the first day that we were together in that cracked and tossed dome. An upside down world suitable for four beings with shaken existences. With the various hole and leaks sealed it was like a terrarium that had been mistaken for a snow globe. We didn’t talk much – what was there to say? The world we’d been born into so recently was already half destroyed – our lives were to be limited by the span of this frail, inverted prison. Having never been born before I didn’t know what I should, or should not know. All I remembered was the darkness, screaming and then being trapped in my box. Hardly an auspicious beginning. Lights flickered on and off, illuminating the room from below, and through the wreckage. Odd consoles and dials flashed above us, signalling some failure or other. We retreated, and huddled into the space we’d made with our boxes, their umbilicals hanging from above, except for our first’s which remained severed.
Without thinking or planning, we reached out instinctively for each other. Hand in hand we waited for something – anything to happen. We needed a sign for what was expected of us, what we were expected to do – who we were expected to be. We sank into a resting quiet, on the verge of falling back into that deathless silent blackness which had preceded our sudden emergence. Dim phrases and dreams haunted me in that semi-sleep. A sense of purpose, drilled in, sealed and salted away, waiting for a day like this. The sight of arches and a scattered spray of stars, overlaid with the reflection of dials and gears. A vast white door swinging closed on huge hinges; a wheel in its heart spinning till it locked with a clang so loud that it thrust me out of sleep and gasping, back into wakefulness.
We woke each other, or all woke together, a reflexive clenching pulling at each other’s arms. We snapped to like a cluster of dandelions ruffled by a breeze.
“What’s a dandelion?”
“A flower.”
“Their seeds are flung out and carried on the wind.”
“Children blow on them.”
We slumped back, and into memories that might be ours. A wall so high the crenellations scored the edge of the sun; the frothing roil at the base of a waterfall; a ladybird hunting for aphids on the leaf of a rosebush. A cube, spinning and expanding into a wireframe diagram, focus drawn along its edges in a rush of acceleration and chest-crushing changes of direction.
“We are so very far from home.”
“This is our home.”
“We have never had another.”
“We were never meant to have this one.”
Grass thrusting up out of dismal grey earth, the strobe of day and night as it twists and punches out of itself into the air. Smoke, in a vortex, whirling and billowing over a torus held immobile as the strands of smoke weave past it. An ancient rock, standing alone in a field of bright red poppies; it shakes, falls in scarcely perceptible degrees, gently crushing the flowers and passing through the ground, rotating on its base until it rises once more, stained with petals.
“I am-“
“I am-“
“I am-“
“I am-“
The Moon, grey and imperfect, and beyond an incomprehensible emptiness; faint, old lights hinting at an unreachable past. The Moon cracks, splits opening between craters in a cascade of shapes. From the spreading cloud unfurls a figure, two arms and legs, painfully attenuated, hands and feet mere slivers of white, thousands of miles long. It arches itself, the Moon’s detritus fallen out behind it like a cloak of dust. It reaches for the glowing blue and green sphere suddenly revealed – its impossibly long fingers rake against the planet, tearing through the green and blue, spilling it into space.
We wake, and do not go back to sleep.
After a time it feels like we have slept, that it is time for there to be light and motion again. We tug our hands free of each other, regretfully, apologetically. We share a need to free ourselves of our shared dreams, whatever it is we have seen inside ourselves. As if agreeing with our timing, the lighting that comes from one side of the dome suddenly brightens, twitches briefly and comes on properly.

Open Boxes – Part Five – NaNoWriMo 2016

Open Boxes – Part Five

Parts OneTwoThree, Four.
Not knowing anything makes it hard to connect with the world. I misspoke, perhaps. It became clear in the hours and days after we unearthed each other and half-slept huddled sharing dreams, nightmares, senses of another place, that we knew nothing about ourselves, but plenty about the world around us. Clearly we had not merely sprung forth, like the seeds tossed carelessly into the wind by the dandelion, not so lost on chance, maybe. We were where we were planted. Or close enough to it as to make no difference. It was not the most likely of birthplaces, the upside down, smashed and shaken bowl that we emerged from, but who were we to judge, or question it? At first we did not question our existence. That restless sleep and its shared wakings were enough to frighten me back inside myself. I fell onto the shared tasks that we found together. I think we were all hiding, in the same way.
I remember the incredible sense of gratitude that flushed through me when I reached for a door, opened it, and the very thing I was looking for was tucked away inside, waiting for me. That reel of tape, and so many more like it. All the same, measured, cut, packaged, stored as efficiently as possible. All just waiting for that one day that they would be needed, and then stretched out, torn short and long, pressed into service till just a husk of tape – stuck back on itself in the stub of its core – too small to be of use, its only purpose thwarted and then discarded. Failing its own purpose. Purpose… hard to find, in such extreme circumstances. There was relatively little need to talk. I think we all talked to ourselves, inside. We took to our tasks, determining that the structure we dwelled in wouldn’t immediately collapse. There’s a calm in accepting how the world directs us. We moved from vital to essential, important to urgent, advantageous to cosmetic. Through that dance of priorities, we moved silently, our partners each other and the tools we found, salvaged and bent together from the fragments of our space.
We made safe the dome where our pods lay, open, waiting for us to fall back into them and be sustained. We did; as we needed to. From that dome we sealed and repaired the connective ducts and moved on. From one dome to the next, we sealed breaches, sparking wounds, amputated and removed forever those most dangerous parts that hissed in the cold night, whispered to us down the staticky speakers embedded in the walls. They were voices, but they said things we didn’t understand. We shut them down, one at a time in each new zone we moved into.
And then we found the garden.
I pulled my toolkit up the bent passageway behind me. It caught and scraped on each broken rib. I’d barely been able to fit myself through, and it looked likely that I’d be leaving the toolkit behind and carrying one tool at a time. The toolkit saw its own fate approaching and sprang open, heaving its guts back down the chute. All I had left was one handle and the plate dangling from it by a still worthy screw. Waste not want not. I put the handle before and shoved through the next crumple. It spread open into that most rare of things – a sealed door. To that point we had sealed three domes, re-pressurised them against the elements, made them habitable once more, restored some measure of power and better than intermittent lighting. In the process we had stumbled through shattered rooms, buckled beyond repair, venting their contents into space. Others we had fallen into through weakened floors and ceilings. We assessed their value, reckoning structural integrity against utility. We cut them loose, left them to go their own way in the dark. I tried not to think about them, those empty spaces with no one to fill them – surely something would, like a hermit crab making its home in tin rather than its usual shell. I felt that in some way, we had let them down. But we made the best of it, and our domes were proof of that, a bright barrier against nothingness and lack of purpose.
A closed door! A vast inconvenience! The pressure dials by its edges assured me that the insides were safe. I felt a sudden desire to fling the doors open and leap inside, to see what was so special that it was whole. Of course, that wasn’t an option. Opening it, even if I could, would mean it and its contents suddenly joining me in my little broken hallway. It had to wait until we had resolved the pressure differentials and taped up a million tiny holes that threatened its integrity. Finally, we did, anchoring the broken umbilical I’d clambered through to the third of our domes, tilted on its side. Then it was time to go through once more, but it was a shabbier, more battered me that came to the door for a second time. This time my tools were in a bag over my shoulder, and I had company.
Between three of us we jammed wrenches and bolts into the edges of the door and forced it to open for us. Staggering a little from the exertion we gingerly held our arms out and eyed where we’d jammed the doors. They heaved, their hydraulics making an effort to squeeze it closed again. But we’d inflicted too much harm for that, and they wouldn’t be closing again. Before us was a jungle, lit by strobes of blue light. Water was pooled on the ground and a tear shaped rivulet ran almost up to our feet. We hadn’t encountered a single living thing in our survey and reclamation work. Not one trace of anything that breathed or drank, or needed us. It was the beginning of change for us.
Somehow this fragile dome filled with greenery had survived intact the violence done to the rest of the installation. It seemed absurd, and beautiful. That contradiction, this the most vulnerable and frail of things had lived while nothing else had. As far as we knew. We had yet to venture through the garden and whatever was attached to it. For all we knew there were survivors beyond. I don’t think we had actually entertained that possibility before. We’d waded through half vacuum and irradiated chambers for too long. All we could do was fix what we’d found, do our best to make it whole again. Until I saw the garden it hadn’t occurred to me why were doing it. It was just the thing we did; a purpose we’d seized on and adopted after that awful night holding hands. It had carried us this far, but somehow finding the garden broke that purpose.
We walked beneath the broad green leaves and light blossom which fell constantly as we explored. The plants had been trained into rows and columns, a dense interlocking space now weirdly studded with the organic irregularity of life, distorting those shapes in a way completely unnatural for the plants. It fitted our world perfectly. The garden had its own air supply, was indeed replenishing it with oxygen, processing and recycling its own limited water. It had heat, a thing we’d barely encountered. And for all of those things, it must have power. Miraculously the cores remained intact, and were still cheerfully powering the dome. That became our real saviour. The other domes had limited power, drawn from the battery arrays we’d torn out of the rest of the installation. The garden would change all of that. I saw many, many miles of cabling in my future.
In the middle of the garden we found a circle of seats, set underneath an arch that flowers and branches erupted from. The whole space had a shifting light made up of a thousand shadows as the leaves and petals moved about in a faint breeze. We took our seats and, for the first time, stopped to appraise ourselves, and our situation.
“This is different.”
Someone had to breach the peace, to help us all make a leap into a different mode. We had been working quietly and patiently for too long, but now we had found a place of some respite and our labours could be set aside for a time. I found that it was me.
“I- I’ve never thought of myself. I don’t know where to begin.”
Around me were the three faces that I knew, the only faces I knew. We looked on each other. Save for the scuffs and scrapes I could have been looking into a series of mirrors.
“We’re all the same.”
It was like having an argument with yourself – disagreeing is still agreement when you’re disputing whether you exist. It’s all confirmation. I looked to my hands. Delicate, detailed engineering allowing me to flex, grip, twist, all of those many useful things that hands could be applied to. They were the tools we’d established our world with. And then I turned to my companions. The oval faces, the indented eyes. Why would we have such precise dexterity in our hands but not our faces? Staring at each other, receiving absolutely no hint of reciprocity in the eyes, or mouth. Our faces were like masks. So what was behind them? I wanted to talk about all things that had gone unsaid while worked – the purposes behind our activities – why we could do all this, but not know who we were. Were we just tools, or did we have a deeper relationship to the world than this? I hadn’t realised that I was talking out loud, my thoughts had blended easily into my speech and I had spun out my thoughts, fears and hopes to the others.
“What do you remember,” I asked, “from the dream we had together?”
“I remember lights, flaring lights, red washing across black and gleaming reflections gliding up the walls as the light sped up then seemed to run backwards. A little revolving wheel of red and glass.”
“I remember an explosion. A sound so deep it was felt in the floor, not the air. And then everything being sideways.”
“I remember liquid running up a wall, and the hammering in the walls.”
“I remember the hiss and cold, falling through steam.”
Between us we patched together a memory of disaster. As we’d always known, we must have, since beginning work, that everything had gone wrong. As it turned out, our very existence was predicated upon it.
That’s when I showed them the manual. It was something I had found early on, in a locker in room we had since severed from our little habitat. A neat, thick square of plasticky pages, with a picture of my face on the front. I had thought very little of it at the time, but I’d noted it as intact while my companions cut batteries out of the walls, looped cables over shoulders and headed back through our makeshift airlock. I just tucked it into my toolkit. It was one of the things I’d had to find again when it fell apart on me, and I’d placed it in the bottom of the tool bag that replaced it. This seemed the time, now that we had time and space, to open it and share it.
We read it together, in that steady light brushed by leaves, and learned about ourselves. It was no wonder my face was on the cover; it was all of our faces. The first thing we learned was the most devastating: that we weren’t real. It seemed ridiculous, and that might even have been our turning point as a group, as individuals. How could we not be real? We had done so much, had worked and strived. But we weren’t. Technically, as the manual told us, we were emergency back-up. The intention was that in the event of catastrophe, which our environment certainly agreed had occurred, that we be activated, the memories and experiences of a person downloaded so we could hit the ground running. With all of that knowledge and experience we could complete the mission. But we didn’t have that. We never received those downloads.
We were kicked into life by the systematic collapse, thrust into wakeful alert, trapped inside those boxes until we were rescued. And if our first hadn’t been catapulted out, violently freed – we might well have remained within them – the very idea of those screaming nightmares that we woke through going on forever… So we had come to life, but without the feelings and personality that should have flowed from some – presumably dead – progenitor. We were supposed to be the continuation of someone else’s life, not lives or persons in our own right. That explained the aching hollow behind our interactions and that we so rarely exchanged words. We were missing that vital something that would have given us true purpose, understanding and would have made us different from each other. But we just looked the same, with the same priming set of information and references that had enabled us to complete our tasks and dream about things we had never seen.
It was a lot to think about. I’m not ashamed to say that I went a bit loopy after that – we all did.

Open Boxes – Part Six – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts OneTwoThree, Four, Five.
We picked our names while we sat cross-legged in the middle of the garden, the benches forming a protective cocoon while we changed into something new. The greatest problem we faced after discovering we were back-ups was identity. We hadn’t been given the personalities of those who we were created to carry on. We were blank slates. A blank slate needs to be filled, to have words scratched onto it. At the very least someone should be carving a name into it, for posterity’s sake. I’ll grant that we weren’t very imaginative about it, but how often does someone choose their own name? I guess it speaks to how similar we were to begin with that we all chose almost the same name. Christopher felt like a name I could grow into; Charlie, Charlotte and Chelsea spoke to their new owners too. Once settled we had some way to talk about, and to each other.
We shared so many things: the same off-white, back of a spoon shaped faces, the long arms and legs, the triangular torso. Just close enough to the shape of a person that the downloaded intelligence would have the body parts they previously possessed; enough to not immediately go insane at least. But the faces – so clearly and carefully inhuman, just a stab at mouth, eyes and nose, but with no flexibility or differentiation. Maybe with a mind inside, we would have looked different to ourselves. Our faces were identical. We had names, so we should also have our own faces. This was when we discovered that Charlie had a talent for drawing, and alongside our new names, we all got new faces. Drawn, etched; lines cut into the rubbery expanse of our faces and heads. It couldn’t give us facial expressions, but we could tell each other apart, and I knew that when the others looked at me, they knew who I was.
With our fresh selves selected we just needed time to figure out who we were going to be. That was when we separated the pods. Up until then we had left them in the dome where we all woke up. It’s where they were supposed to be plugged in, and it was the first place we’d made safe. It was still a terrible mess, with the units placed on top of the heap. We had unplugged them – their hanging taut from the ceiling, or rather floor where they had originally lain – was an accident waiting to happen, like that which had originally triggered Charlotte’s waking. Now that we had three domes, including the garden, which were secure, joined together by eccentrically weaving connecting corridors, we could spread ourselves out a bit. We still returned to the pods now and again, allowing our bodies to refresh themselves and enter that strange sleeping state where we shared our dreams.
I felt uncomfortable about the separation, but I couldn’t think of a good reason to deny the others their desire to live apart. I just liked it when we were all together – it was familiar, comfortable – literally the only way of living that I had known. We all did it together of course. Getting Charlotte and Chelsea’s pods out of the upside down room was sheer hell, getting it through the science suite and into the garden was a nightmare of a much higher order. We had been unable to open up the corridor further, and since we had to crawl through it ourselves, there was no way we could get an unbending box through it. That meant we had to go back outside. To get this far we had become used to building air locks which allowed us to preserve our atmosphere as best we could. Since we’d hammered open the garden’s doors, it was even more important that we maintain it. We were perfectly capable of operating with no atmosphere for a while, but it would take an awful toll on our skin and joints if we were without it for too long.
The scientific suite had several doors that led out of it. All but two we’d had to seal up because of catastrophic damage further along. One of the remaining doorways led, tortuously to the garden. That left the round door. It was a tight fit, but allowed Chelsea and I to lug one of the boxes into a neat oval chamber. We closed and sealed the hatch behind us. By peering through a tiny viewing port on the opposite end of the room we could just see the ragged ends of a corridor beyond, torn open to the stars. Perfect. All we had to do was go outside, find the other side of the garden module, find a way in that wasn’t depressurised, make it safe, make sure we could get into the garden, then come back and drag the pods all the way around again. It was exactly the sort of thing we had been doing for weeks.
Chelsea spun the wheel set into the door until the clasps relaxed their hold. With a glance back at me, she shrugged and pulled the door open. Air howled out around us and with it sucked the door back into its place. That had been enough though, and when Chelsea pulled the door open again it hung where she left it. We left the pod and stepped outside. Outside again. It felt different this time. We’d been outside lots of times as we worked on the domes. Then it had been simply necessary, a routine part of our work. Now though – I was suddenly aware of the space above us. A deep, endless darkness looking down on the plain where we stood, surrounded by devastated habitation modules, scattered wreckage and sad, empty accordions that used to link them.
I found I cringed under the weight of that darkness, unwilling to venture too far. Out here there was no air, so we could only talk through our bodies. Our faces remained expressionless, but I must have conveyed something because Chelsea reached for my hand, and drew me towards her. We stood out there for a little while, contemplating the void. I couldn’t shake the sensation of being watched – a thousand tiny creeping things climbing the back of my neck and head. It was better if we attended to our mission. It was easy enough to follow the outline of our safe domes – the windows glowed, lighting up the edges of the nearest heaps of junk and lightening the crusted ground under our feet.

Open Boxes – Part Seven – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts OneTwoThree, Four, Five, Six.

open-boxes-2From the outside the installation looked even worse. On the inside you got used to the higgledy piggledy floors and bent walls. It’s easy to ignore your surroundings when you see them every day – it’s probably necessary; if you were continually noticing and re-noticing every little thing you would go insane, unable to move on to the next thing. The kind of obsessive perfectionism that would ensue would just be unhelpful. Beyond patching up and moving on there wasn’t a lot we could do. We weren’t specialists. The information that we were prepped with was practical and detailed, but certainly didn’t turn us into rocket scientists or nuclear engineers. According to the manual it was a base level of knowledge to be supplemented by the incoming mind. Of course, that was the part we were missing. We had a good chunk of cultural and general data which we could apply, but none of the personal memories that made it meaningful, or gave us the personalities of those we were replacing. That was one of the reasons we were treading the near-vacuum outside – to give us all some space to find ourselves, without having to constantly be aware of each other. That might not make a lot of sense to someone else, in truth it barely made sense to us, and least of all to me. I had no intention of unplugging my pod. It wasn’t that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get it working again; I was at least half certain I could do that, but that heap of rubble of a room was where I woke up – where I was born. I guess I felt I was too young to move out on my own.
We trudged around, wisps of vapour in the light atmosphere coiling past our legs and hiding the ground from us. It was some kind of ammonia, venting from somewhere underground. Too heavy to escape the surface, but with nowhere else to go. The installation looked like a giant had kicked it down a hill. That would certainly explain why some of the habitats were tumbled up on top of each other, and others smashed beyond hope. It was all uphill for us. I tapped Chelsea on the shoulder and pointed to the yellow diamond lights of our active domes; Charlotte waved from within. We waved back. We traced the outside of our domes, climbing up and around the cliff that the vertical dome lay flat against. We finally reached the top, as a deep vibration hummed through the ground beneath our feet. We exchanged meaningful looks of alarm. My first thought was that the installation was on the move, sliding further down the series of jutting hills and cliffs. If that happened, there was every likelihood that the domes we’d saved so far would be torn apart and their hard-won contents spilled across the emptiness.
Nothing seemed to be moving, but the mist around us was being shaken into new patterns, tight coils which spiralled in on themselves, forming tiny vortices. There shouldn’t be enough atmosphere for that to happen. I reckoned we were more than halfway to the other side of the garden dome. From the top of the cliff we could observe the gases whirling, picking up fragments of dust and glass from the ground. I certainly didn’t want to go back through that. Chelsea seemed to be fine with that. We rounded the garden module – clearly the best preserved of our domes so far. It rested on top of the cliff, only slightly overhanging it, with its neighbouring dome hanging directly beneath it, wedged between the foot of the cliff and the crazily zigzagged corridor that joined them. No lights shone from within; it was a more secure and sealed dome, with significantly more cladding and armour on the outside. A good find, but it still wouldn’t have survived if it had gone over the cliff with the others – most of those had made it because other chunks of the installation cushioned their fall.
Until this trip I had given relatively little thought to the overall scope and scale of our home. Focused and intent on our tasks, we’d existed in a curious solipsism. Now that we had begun to explore ourselves, our world was also expanding. Chunky oblong container units had been tossed across the plain we found at the top of the cliff. Whatever order they had originally been laid in was gone. Between them, the series of domes continued, skewed and twisted out of line as they’d been dragged (or kicked, I just couldn’t get that idea out of my head) towards the cliff. We got a better view of the land surrounding our home. It wasn’t good.  We’d experienced the fractional atmosphere plenty of times while sealing up and salvaging what we could, but we hadn’t really explored much for the sake of exploring. The ground was a pulverised grey, shot through with the debris of explosive decompression. Here and there though, spikes of rock jutted suddenly upwards, arcing to many time our height. Containers and domes were occasionally impaled on these odd features, but otherwise they formed a rough perimeter for the layout of the domes.
On this side of the cliff the installation was, with notable and violent exceptions, more intact. The garden dome fed into a small nexus of chambers that spread out into further units. Facing us was a joyfully intact airlock. I found myself walking faster as we approached it. The weird whirls of gas, the spiky rocks, the oppressive black sky above; I didn’t want to be out in any of it anymore. If I had a heart it would have been beating faster. The closest I could approximate was a terrible need to look over my shoulder constantly. Chelsea had put her hand on my shoulder and seemed as uneasy as I was. Despite our desire to be inside, we had to make sure the airlock and the chambers attached to it were all holding pressure. Otherwise we could find ourselves tossed across the plain and back down the cliff, or worse, blast the contents of the garden through some wrecked service duct.
We needed to split up. I went left; Chelsea took the right. It looked good. Even when I wasn’t really looking at it, it looked good. I needed it to be okay. I spent as much time looking behind me as I did at the seals and windows. That vibration had started up again, something from deep underground, thrumming and making the dust dance. There was less of the coiling gas up here. Presumably it slid downhill across the plain and over the cliff edge. AlI I saw were traces drifting past. As I ran my fingers down the edges of seals I noticed a tremor had developed in my forefingers and they rapped out a frantic beat on the metal. Everything was fine though. All the doors and windows I checked were clean – dials showing a pressurised interior, and an airlock with no cracks and all blue lights.
I waited for a moment, for Chelsea to come around the corner. Sure, my check had been a little quick, but I though she would be feeling much the same as me. I fidgeted out there for a moment, my eyes darting left and right. I couldn’t just wait. I kept going around the building, assuming I would bump into Chelsea within moments. Nothing. I kept going a little further, then turned back. Maybe she had reached a problem and headed back the way she’d come to find me. I didn’t know what the state of her side was – until I found her, or checking it for myself, I still couldn’t go inside. I needed a better view. The nexus interchange was a squat octagonal building, with corridors thrusting out from alternate sides. I’d gone under a couple of them, and the other two had been torn free, leaving an intact pressure door behind them. I’d not yet had cause to go up, but maintenance ladders grew up the sides of most of these modules. I went up. This only put me a few more metres higher, but it should be enough to find Chelsea. I cautiously walked the perimeter of the building, unwilling to stand up fully, easier to crouch a little and keep a small profile.
A hand grabbed at my ankle and I came down hard, shouting inaudibly in the thin air, legs thrashing in panic. The hand let go and slapped on the roof between my feet. I’d recognise those hands anywhere – they were the same as mine. Another sudden thunder through the ground came up as a roar through my body from where I was in touch with the metal roof. It shook my joints. I half scrambled and half fell off the roof into Chelsea’s arms. We held each other, pressed together into the nook behind one of the outspreading corridors. The vibration continued, slowing down and attaining a deep, heavy rhythmic thump which rocked our bodies.
“We need to get inside,” I shouted, with my head pressed up against Chelsea’s. If we could hear the thrumming, then we should be able to hear each other if we were in contact. “Did you find any breaches?”
“No – no, it’s secure.”
“I found a good airlock.”
We huddled against each other and quickly stepped around the side of the module until we reached the airlock I was most confident of. Chelsea knelt down in front of the override panel – most of the safeguards on the airlocks had been triggered by whatever happened to the installation – even if they were still pressurised, manual opening procedures had to be followed. They are noticeably slower than just pressing a couple of buttons. I stood over her as she jabbed and manipulated the levers that would release the door. I refrained from tapping out an anxious refrain on her shoulder, and instead stared anxiously left and right, holding out a cutting tool from my kit.
It was getting darker. Inside we’d had electric lighting since the first generator we fixed and wind-up lanterns we used. I hadn’t taken much notice of the changing light outside. It was always quite dark, though the changes indicated that we were on something that enjoyed time in sunlight (or some other radiant body) and now we were turning away from it. Impossibly deep shadows stalked across the junk field towards us. Somehow they were coming from all directions. The spikes of rock that thrust into the air cast the worst of them, like witches’ fingers sneaking up on us. I was having trouble thinking, and unconsciously pressed back against Chelsea. She shot upright. I heard a clang and she yanked me backwards.
We landed in the airlock, which snapped shut behind us, sealing us off from the outside, and those shadows. We wasted no time in cycling the other end of the airlock, and dived through even as it slid aside. The room we found ourselves in was flooded with red lighting.

Open Boxes – Part Eight – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts OneTwoThree, Four, Five, Six, Seven

open-boxes-2With two doors between us and the great dark stalking shadows I felt a little better.
“That was close,” muttered Chelsea, “I’m so glad I found you.”
“Found me?” I exclaimed, “I was trying to find you.”
“I went all the way around but I couldn’t see you. I thought – I don’t know what I thought.”
“You thought I’d left you?”
“No. No, of course not. It’s silly.”
“I don’t think there’s anything silly out there. It’s like a graveyard.”
“I know. But when I couldn’t see you and there were just broken shapes and it felt like everything was getting closer. Maybe I panicked.”
“I certainly did, waiting for you to open the airlock.”
“Let’s just hope we can get into the garden.”
“I wish you hadn’t said that,” neither of us had any desire to work our way back round and down to the other domes from outside. We knew that we would be doing that soon enough – assuming we could get in – we’d be back with the pods.
“On, then.”
The little chamber we’d clambered into was still octagonal on the inside, with the working airlock behind us, a few we could see smashed up beyond the internal airlock door, and entranceway to the garden, and the other intact corridor leading in the opposite direction. Except for the broken tubes outside, it all looked a whole lot neater and nicer than our end of the installation. We seemed to have had something of a raw deal. Maybe that was just luck – our dome with our recovery bodies tucked out of the way of the day to day activities; just bad luck it fell off a cliff. We had little information to speculate with. All the computer systems we had encountered were trashed. Beyond basic electrical and mechanical circuits we had no data. No logs of the installation, its purpose, schematics, history, or occupancy. We hadn’t found anything else alive until the garden, and we had, perhaps intentionally, kept the idea of survivors way away at the back of our minds. We were the survivors, as far as we knew.
Even though the others were only a dome away, our trip outside made them feel much much further from us. That trek through the dusty dark had left a chill in the back of my mind.
“Christopher,” Chelsea began, “do you think we’re going to find anybody, anybody at all?”
“I was just thinking about that. If there is anyone alive, they wouldn’t have been in our end of the installation.”
“We didn’t find any bodies either.”
“Maybe they were all elsewhere when it happened,” it was a poor explanation, but we had nothing else. For someone to have gone through our area after the accident, removed all the bodies but left us behind was something I didn’t want to articulate, for fear that in saying it I would make it so; some quantum states you don’t want to collapse.
“Or the alarms sounded and they all got out in time.”
“Or they just disappeared.”
“Thanks for that Chelsea.”
We stood there looking at each other, still threatened by the darkness outside, spooked by being away from the others, and now on the brink of invoking horror stories for a handful of survivors trapped in the remains of a deep space installation.
“I think we should see if we can get into the garden,” I said, vibrating slightly with the idea that we might just continue our conversation. For a moment I thought Chelsea would carry on with her train of thought, but she turned herself, and her tools to the garden’s airlock.
“Wait – Christopher, we can see that going back will be alright – this door is untouched, and we’re already certain of the other side. Let’s go that way,” she pointed to the door opposite, which pointed away from our domes, between spurs of broken corridor.
“Why?” There was nothing I wanted more than to get into the garden and rejoin our companions.
“Because this might be our only chance.”
“To explore? We’ll do what we’ve always done. Find, fix, continue.”
“Not now that we’ve found the garden – it’s what we were looking for: stable generators, uncracked dome, self-sufficient. Why risk going on?” Chelsea had a desperate look about her.
She had clearly given this a lot more thought than I had. And she had a point. I knew Charlie would be content to stay put, he had already begun his sorting efforts in the old research lab. Charlotte like the garden. I was, well, oddly secure our original dome, despite its many, many drawbacks. We were safe enough. Now that Chelsea had made me aware of it, I realised I had enough unanswered, and even unthought of, questions which would never be put to rest if we stopped at the garden.
“We should let them know that we’re going on,” I said, “we wouldn’t want them to worry.”
I had little idea if they would be worrying or not. We are supremely practical; it’s how we were intended to be. The manual is clear on that. As backups, we had to be able to cope with the outcome of whatever had occurred, and that meant we needed the capacity to focus on an issue and not be too distracted by other circumstances. It had enabled our somewhat limited view of our situation to persist, until now. While I rather wanted for Charlotte to be on the other side of that door waiting for us to open it, and for Charlie to be back at our original exit point, just in case something went wrong, I rather suspected that they would be tinkering with a seal or testing the environmental controls in the garden. It didn’t seem right to go off mission entirely. We tried knocking and banging on the door into the garden, but with the thickness of the glass, and the density of the miniature jungle within no one could hear us. I wasn’t happy with leaving no explanation – while they had no way of knowing how long it was going to take us to get up the cliff and round this side – if something happened to us, I’d want them to know where to start looking. Or, more likely, whether to simply write us off or not. We settled with writing them a note. It seemed quite ridiculous, and in the end we just wrote “Gone exploring. This side is safe. Back soon.”
We turned away from the garden and popped open the opposite door. It hissed a greeting at us and we helped to force the doors open. Once inside, with now two doors between us and familiarity, I suddenly felt much further away than we had outside. The red lighting continued into the corridor. This was the first corridor we had used that wasn’t bent in half or pressed into a zig zag. The slow red strobe chased our shadows in all directions.
“Christopher,” began Chelsea, “have you ever thought about what the people we were supposed to be were like?”
“Well, like us I suppose.”
“But they would have memories of their life, their family and friends, hobbies. Pets. The books they had read. We don’t have any of that.”
“No, but we know what those things are.”
“It’s not the same. You know what a computer is, but you’ve never used one, since they’re all broken. You know what a dog is, what it looks like, but you don’t know what it’s like to call one and have it run to you. With a stick, or a bone.”
“Chelsea, are you alright?” She had stopped walking and we stood under one of the lights, the sides of her face alternating between black and red.
“We weren’t meant to be us. Someone else was supposed to wake up in our bodies, look out through our eyes and know what to do. We’re on autopilot – none of the things we’ve done are purposeful. We’re just doing what we think we ought to do, knowing nothing of the situation. What if they’ve all just left? What if all this happened after whatever mission they were on just finished, and they all went home? And left us here, to be woken up by accident. And there’s no point to us being here at all?”
Chelsea’s words hit me, and I could feel my mind and the insides of my body sway under their weight. If everyone had just gone, then our being awake was a mistake. We weren’t fixing anything for anyone, we weren’t waiting for anything, there was… no point.
“And what if they did come back, and found us here, fixing holes in domes? What happens to us then – what was supposed to happen when we were activated and a person was dropped into my body? When they finished whatever they were supposed to finish – do we just die?”
“Chelsea – I don’t know. I’m just– “
“I know. Don’t you see – if they come back, they’ll just turn us off. We weren’t supposed to be active, weren’t supposed to be alive. And if they don’t come back, ever, then what are we supposed to do?”
“The manual doesn’t tell us. It’s just got information about our capacities, when to be activated, how to effect repairs. I– “
I pulled the manual out of my bag. Even back then I’d taken to carrying it around, it’s utility less than the comfort it gave me. A description of our functions, a hint as why we were here; our only guidance on how to live our lives. And it did have a section on shut down procedures, but I hadn’t read it. I hadn’t wanted to read it. As long as we had use there was no need to read it. Why would I need to know? Its edges had become soft as it was squashed and abraded by the tools I also carried. Its bright yellow cover with our face on it.
“Look – Chelsea – look at the picture on the front,” I pushed it in front of her face. Her eyes flickered around desperately, the flashing light making it even more dramatic, “that’s not us. Not anymore. We’ve changed. I don’t mean the patterns and drawings, but we’re not the same as the things in the manual. We’ve got names, yes – we’ve got our own faces too – I think we’ve already been active longer than the manual ever anticipated. And we don’t have those downloaded personalities. We’re not them either. We’re – we’re – us.”
I put the manual back in my bag and placed my hands on Chelsea’s shoulders. She was vibrating with tension. I didn’t really know what else to do. I felt that maybe she was wrong, that there was a point to us, independent of what had happened here. And even if there really wasn’t – that we were just spare parts, accessories to be thrown away, well – we were here, and the originals weren’t. That had to mean something. I gently pulled Chelsea towards me, and I folded by arms around her.

Open Boxes – Part Nine – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

We must have stood like that for a while, Chelsea pressed to my chest, my head resting on hers. Apart from that first night we had never been so intimate. Even our ritual gifting of uniqueness through paint and scalpel lacked quite this degree of closeness. Maybe it was because it was just the two of us, more alone, yet more secure in that moment than when we were with the others. A minute of privacy in the absolute silence of that new place. The lights still washed their rosy waves over us; I had closed my eyes against them, content in this intimacy, but they still painted the inside of my eyelids. When they stopped, I was immediately aware. Cautiously I reopened my eyes – there is something about having your eyes closed in a strange dark place, primed with the beginnings of horror stories by your friends – that makes you reluctant to just pop them open and widely stare down the future. Obviously, half opening them makes the future half as likely to be bad. Well, I stuck with the idea.
The red lights had gone out completely, and a pale white light came from somewhere down the corridor. It barely touched the ceiling, seeming to cling to the lower half of the walls and the floor. Chelsea had noticed too, but we hadn’t let go of each other. It was hardly the time for that.
“I suppose we should see what that is,” I murmured, keeping quiet on the same principle as only peeking between my eyelids.
Chelsea was keener than me, still: “Come on – it’s something different!”
I couldn’t deny that, and a part of me was caught up in her enthusiasm, despite my misgivings. It still wasn’t time for us to separate and our hands found each other’s as we paced steadily into the light.
The weird trick of the light avoiding the ceiling continued, illuminating only our legs and clasped hands. The corridor was much longer than I had anticipated – most of our experience with them was of rent and torn tubes projecting into the spaces between habitable zones. This one took us much further. It was soon clear that the corridor seamlessly blended into some larger building, without any closed doors hampering us. We passed a set of pressure doors, but they were open. And not in the way we tended to open them, by prying them apart and jamming their mechanisms – these were fully retracted into the walls. In retrospect it was inevitable that they should spring into life and ease closed as soon as we passed them. It was probably the smooth hiss of their action that made it all the creepier. That and the section of corridor we’d just passed through snapping to blackness. I had no desire to peer through the pressure door’s window into that dark.
We were unnerved, but felt that we had passed the point of going back. This was an adventure that we were on, together. When I think of the moment now, I picture us facing each other, our hands clasped by our chests, faces inches apart, that diamond of blackness framing our faces and the milky glow gently underlighting our smooth features. We kept on our way. With that door out of the way, more doors appeared on either side of us. All were firmly closed, with basic geometric shapes stencilled onto them at head-height. Triangle, circle, square, hexagon, repeated singly, rotated, and in varying combinations. I had no idea what to make of them. Presumably they related either to the order or purpose of the rooms beyond, but we could discern no pattern that offered an answer. That didn’t stop us staring at them, as if meaning would suddenly pop into existence.
Finally, one of them slid open as we peered at its octagon-triangle-square. We both jumped back, and once again I found reassurance as Chelsea’s hands rested gently on my shoulders. We didn’t really have a choice. You can’t go exploring and not, well – explore. The doorway was pitch black against the milky glow around our legs. We went for it, legs sprung to hop backwards if we had to, braced in the doorway lest the earlier trick played out again and trapped us inside. As soon as my foot went past the doorway, banks of lights began to flicker, making sections of the room briefly visible. We caught shapes, while the lights warmed back up. Banks of rectangular units split the room into alleys. The lights shone through the shapes, revealing them to be tanks of some kind. The walls were a soft blue, unlike the rest of the station that we’d seen, which was a more utilitarian light grey hard surfaces or cream padding. In the tanks, heaps of fabric mounded over shapes beneath.
We slowly stepped away from the door; it showed no sign of slamming shut on us, and we took it at its word. The room, as the lights straightened themselves out was larger than I’d thought. There were eight rows of the tanks, each of which was perhaps six feet long and three feet wide. To my waist height they were moulded plastic and metal, with consoles and readouts set into them. They all blinked a dull read, the familiar patterns of shapes we had seen on the doors dancing under the red lights. Above those units were thick plastic tanks, sealed at the top by an exotic arrangement of cables and a thick roof. Inside… Chelsea shifted, trying to see what was inside. The huddle of fabric was blankets, rucked up around a small shape. We had to go all the way round to see what was under it. Poking out from the blanket – a tiny arm, stretched out over a similarly tiny head, and body. A child. Each tank held a child. I found their ages difficult to discern – we knew what children were, but of course we had no personal experience of them – but they were all small, perhaps half our size. They were all dead, dried and crisp under their soft folded covers.
When we had talked about finding survivors, it had been a binary thing – either we’d find them or we wouldn’t. Somehow the notion of finding the station’s inhabitants in any state other than alive hadn’t properly occurred to me. Their tiny faces looked so… peaceful. As if this were their natural state – something sculpted and encased in this display of rest. Some weird museum of childhood. The sight of them provoked sensations that were unfamiliar. In part, I think, disappointment: we were unable to save them. In part, a tentative easing of tension, knowing – or believing – that we would be surplus to requirements should we find living crew, this seemed to weigh more on the side of our remaining alive. It was complicated. Mixed in was something I tentatively identified as horror, reading Chelsea’s face and body and assuming that reflected in my own gestures.
We had stopped, crouched down by the first tank we’d come to. Our hands, pressed to the glass, our faces as close as we could get to the little face within, trying to read some idea of what had happened to them. What had caused them to be in these cases, and then to end up like this. The dull blinking drew us from one tank to the next. We noted the variation in limb length, the different coloured hair and skin. Those subtle differences in features, which while largely homogenous, had enough variance in facial planes, angles and decoration to make them distinct individuals. Even though they were severely dehydrated, their skin sucked in towards the bones, fine and papery, their features were far subtler than the shapes we had etched into our own skin; these were details we couldn’t replicate with our standard sizes, shapes and formerly smooth, even surfaces. These were true originals, any one of which, could presumably, if grown sufficiently and needed, have ended up with their personalities downloaded into one of our bodies, supplanting the individuals we had come to be. In a way their fate made possible our own existences. It was conflicting. Towards the back of the room, as we went up and down the rows we found first one child with a missing arm, and then another with no legs, one with no ears, another so tightly wrapped we couldn’t tell whether they had limbs at all. They were far more unsettling.
After surveying all the tanks, and communing for a moment with each sad little body we were back by the door, and that first child we had found. They still looked so calm, with their long brown hair spilling over the crown of their head and across the mattress base of the tank. I wondered if this had been their whole life, lived in these tanks. Or if they were placed in them before whatever catastrophe had befallen the base, intending to preserve them. Chelsea frowned at the pulsing red panel, her head tilted, her fingers tracing the shapes still transforming regularly on the screen.
“Interesting,” she murmured, her index finger following as the rectangle folded into a hexagon and flipped over into a circle. Almost of their own accord, her fingers tapped the screen, intercepting the shape as it turned back into a triangle.
The room’s main lights, so recently restored snapped off.
“What did you press – “ I began, and stopped speaking immediately, brought down to simply “ – Chelsea – “.
Each and every panel switched from its dull red flash to a solid, painful red that stabbed at our eyes. Then, with a deep hum and a whine that quickly rose to a scream, the rows of tanks were suddenly illuminated from within by a harsh strobing white light. The figures within, the children, jerked up from their rest. Their movements were spasmodic in the pulsing lights, they twitched out from under their blankets, rising to kneeling, hands and faces against the glass. We found ourselves frozen in the doorway, having skipped back at the startling changes. I took a step forwards, towards the eerie, fitful attempts to stand in those small tanks. Chelsea caught my arm, restraining me. The children’s attention snapped towards us. Tiny haggard shapes seeming to expand under the relentless throbbing lights. As one they threw themselves at the glass, thrashing and flailing at it. Their hammering matched the pulsating light.
I felt again that vast sense of terror that had reached for me when we were outside, something awful had us in its sight. We backed out of the doorway, fearful that those tiny arms would break the glass, or shatter themselves in their efforts. As we blundered backwards, Chelsea pulling me away, we stepped over the doorway and it slammed shut in front of us, sealing away the light, the sound and the dead, enraged children.

Open Boxes – Part Ten – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

We fled.
Have you ever been so spooked that the only thing you can do is run? After we woke I dreamed often; our dreams were all shared – we wouldn’t necessarily remember them individually, but as soon as one of us began to describe what they had dreamed, our memories of those same weird and sleep-distorted events would be brought back to life in our memories. Resuscitated by those prompts, little jabs that plucked at memories and returned them to the surface. So I knew the others had also had this dream, we hadn’t discussed it, back then it was before our schedule, before I instituted my calendar to keep track of the days, to maintain purpose and consistency – anything to stop us drifting out of reality in this strange place. The station was a timeless place – who knew how long those children had desiccated there, before Chelsea pressed that button, and they moved? True fear strips the mind and body of thought and decision. We respond immediately at a level far below or beyond conscious thought, our skin feels tight and loose at the same time, inflamed with cold, a tremor through everything and nothing but bleeding light behind our eyes. It was not my first time. That crawling sensation I’d had of being watched was distant kin to the driving impulse to run that we felt after the door slid shut, hiding away the shivered pounding of those tiny, dried fists.
My dream; our dream: it is night. Of itself, this is no concern. Day fades, night arrives. The street lights are bright, bathing the pavement in warm orange light. There is no sound but my footsteps and the scrunch of my feet on the damp tarmac is a consistent rhythm that is as much part of my environment as It is a product of my striding through those streets. There are cars parked close by the curb. They are empty, dark. But in the corner of my eye as I pass them, the seats seem to hold people, sealed into the seats, their mouths open, in an appeal and smothered scream. Whenever I notice this I turn to see, and there is nothing – the open mouth is the hole in the headrest and the plastic-wrapped limbs just the contouring of the seat. There is nothing, but it persists. The sound of my walking is faster, the damp scrape of feet louder, so loud that it could conceal the noise of the sealed in people writhing in the seats, hiding the squeal of the plastic tearing as they bite their way free. I walk faster, so fast it should be a run, but I can’t reach that degree of motion – no matter how quickly I walk I can’t persuade both feet to leave the ground at the same time. The street turns at regular right angles, folding around so that I walk the same road endlessly. The lights are dimmer with each circuit, until the orange light just blushes the shapes in the cars, ever more suggestive, my footsteps ever louder, the motion in the corner of my eye more overt. The road ends, the tarmac fades into grass and brambles. There is a path, a path without the cars. I leave them behind. It is very, very dark. Ahead I can make out the vast darker shape of a hill, and see that the path I’m following winds around it. Way ahead are more streetlights, their amber a beacon drawing me on. It is so dark that I can only see the path by what little light from the moon it reflects. I can’t help but look around me because I can see nothing around me. Grey masses are conjured as my mind finds patterns in the crawling blackness: figures that slip between black patches in my vision. My legs cannot move me any faster, but the darkness is endless and the hill looms larger the closer I get to it. The path is my only reassurance. The silence is so absolute that the hiss of blood rushing through my ears is wildly distorted into panting lungs and the slick slide of something moving across the grass. Every part of me is horripilated, skin and hair erect in a freezing warning of imminent threat. I can see nothing that I know is real. My foot slides onto grass – I have stepped off the path. I spin around, bringing my hands and face down to the ground, desperately seeking the hard clutter of the wet tarmac. All I can feel is the wet grass, curling over-familiarly around my fingers. I recoil, its wetness still on me. It won’t come off even as I rub them on my legs. A deep sigh comes from behind me. Now I can run, electrified, hair raised from my scalp, blind in the darkness, just running away. I run into the night, pursued by the soft, slow exhalations. They catch up with me, surround me, leaving but one avenue where I can’t quite hear sound. I have no choice but to run towards it, slipping and sliding across the sodden turf. I lose my footing and smack into the wetness. It coats me, slows me as I struggle upwards. The moon left me long ago. I regain my footing. I freeze as a soft breath blows over my face.
We ran in the same way we had in the dream. With the same panic, all of the dream’s feelings rushing back. All sense of direction failed me. I didn’t know which direction we’d come from, where we’d been or where we were going. We just sprang out into that creamy light, caroming off the walls in our blindness, frantic to not touch the doors for fear that they might open and we would stumble into some worse nightmare than the dead children slamming against their too-fragile seeming prisons. We ran out of corridor, and fell, sliding through the only door open to us.
Cool blue light filled the chamber. I hammered at the door controls until the doors slid across, meeting in the centre of the doorway. Chelsea stood with her back pressed against mine, ensuring that we had sight of everything. The sense of being chased was intense. We stepped away from the door, half expecting something to thud against it and subject it to a battery of tiny fists. Nothing happened. Slowly we came back to ourselves and we pressed ourselves against the wall, arms wrapped tightly around each other. We slid to the ground and lay there huddled.
I knew that we must have run away from the others. That corridor, if followed the way we had come would have led back to the garden, and the safety of community and green life within. I had lost all track of time and distance. There had been turns, and running and corners. Wherever we were, we had to be somewhere inside the rest of the station. A more continuous and whole region than we had been in before. We had passed through no airlocks or been exposed to the outside. It was unlike any part of the station we had been in before. It was possible that we hadn’t run so far; I was aware of my mind being full of holes, some of them time, some of them feeling, some just a horrible gap in thinking.
Nothing moved in the room. It was laid out as a classroom. Desks and chairs neatly divided the floor. The walls held a range of wide screens which presumably once displayed lessons, tests and pictures. Around the edge of the room were lockers and cupboards, some had swung open, displaying their contents: stationery, books, trays with children’s names written in bright colours. A globe stood lonely on a table. A series of small rectangular glass tanks were filled with thick blooms of algae and furry fungal growths; the remnants of some classroom pets or experiments. The desks and chairs were too small for us, but would have perfectly seated the children we had discovered.
“Do you think – “ I began.
“Yes, this must be where they learned, before being in those… containers,” said Chelsea, pushing herself to her feet, back braced against the wall, “these were their things.”
She hesitantly pulled out a drawer with the name ‘Oliver’ scrawled on it. The drawer came all the way out, a grey plastic rectangle that rattled with pencils. She brought it back over to me and sat back down on the floor, the tray between us. We pored over the contents. Pencils, chewed and snapped in half, their bright coloured leads splintered and filling the corners of the drawer; measuring tools, ruler and protractor; creased sheets of paper with crude drawings of trees, a stylised sun, human stick figures with outlandish heads and exaggerated features; a spinning top that turned its alternating blue and red panels into a purple blur when Chelsea set it spinning. It scuttled across the tray, snarled on the paper and disconsolately ground to a halt.
I got up and pulled out another drawer.  This one had pencils in a better state, recently sharpened. The drawings were also more carefully laid, their corners barely scuffed by the sides of the drawer. I lifted them out and leafed through them. There were more pictures of the sun, and of people with too few or too many fingers, eyes over-large and sad. Beneath those a thickly painted landscape – a heavily black brushed sky, bright crosses of stars stabbed into it, the ground a rusty grey scraped across the paper. Between the sky and the ground a mounding of blue and red circles, mashed partly into a dark burned purple. Under that another painting of the black sky, and over it a looming figure in dark blue, casting a vast shadow over the sketchily dabbed white and yellow squares and rectangles stuck to the ground. I sought out the next picture – another landscape, this looking up at the night. Two moons and the same scattering of crosses for stars dotted across two thirds of the sheet. The black had been awkwardly brushed around the focus of that painting, the two dark red eyes hanging in the night sky. A chill ran through me, and a tremor that passed through my arm and hand into Chelsea’s.
We emptied all of the drawers and spread their pictures across the floor.

Open Boxes – Part Eleven – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

open-boxes-3The room was in disarray. We had ended up shoving the tables and chairs into a jumbled heap at one end, while we laid out the children’s pictures. Most of them were what you would presumably expect from the creative efforts of young humans – anthropomorphised heavenly bodies, improbably shaped plants, figures with oddly numbered limbs, coloured with dizzying expressionism. Here and there though were paintings and chalk drawings that stood out. The strange and disturbing picture of the eyes in the black sky was a motif replicated in a dozen emerging styles. The chalk pastel sketch where the blacks had been ground so heavily into the paper that it was powdery to the touch, barely concealing those baleful eyes behind it, as if the artist had tried to erase them. It evidently was not just us who felt we were being viewed with malevolent regard. Of course, these were the same children who at some point were confined to those boxes and allowed to die of dehydration, or some other invisible killer. I was trying hard not to think of them upright and straining against their cages. It was so much easier, and better to think of them as simply dead, and to consign our flight through the station and its cause to some horrible dream.
“Here’s another one,” Chelsea remarked, separating a sheet of pink sugar paper from a stack of papers stuck together with paint, “no, this one’s different.”
I shuffled over to her, stepping around the scattered art. The painting she held was somewhat superior to the others. It showed a clear drawing of the stations grey and white bubbles, outlined with heavy black that bled like a shadow into the landscape. The terrain was subtly picked out with some kind of marbled effect, so the station popped out as if it wasn’t properly rooted in the painting. The terrain reached up towards a range of hills, outlined against a dark blue sky. Between the hills was a dreadfully elongated figure, caught as it stepped from a deep valley onto the plain where the station lay. The artist – Julia, from the pencilled scrawl on the back – had given the figure long, white vertical oval-shaped eyes which filled most of its head.
“Well, that’s creepy,” it was hard to know what to say. We didn’t know what we were looking for, we didn’t even really know why were looking. Neither of us especially wanted to talk about how we had come to be in this old classroom, poring through the discarded achievements and ephemera of lives now lost, but its weight hung terribly over us.
“Do you think… this was something she saw?”
“I truly hope not,” just as the adults with smiling faces and three fingers on one hand and eight on the other were presumably the result of a combination of naivety and incompetence, this creature large enough to step past a mountain was surely no more than the imagination of a young girl gone wild.
“Of course, if it was something she saw, that might hint at some explanation for how we come to be here.”
“It doesn’t explain how they came to be in the tanks, or how they’re the only trace of humanity on this station that we’ve found so far.” I pointed out.
“Or what happened afterwards,” Chelsea began pulling out the stranger images and stacking them together. Head cocked, she put aside a few more that I hadn’t noticed.
“Look at these,” she said, fanning out half a dozen smudged pencil drawings.
The first one showed a person in what could charitably be called a spacesuit, standing next to a curved shard of rock curled so far over that it almost touched their head. The second showed a group of figures, two adults and a child standing in front of a pair of curving horns. The rest showed similar spikes and mix of people standing around of under them. The last picture Chelsea had picked out showed just a field of grey, the artist’s frustration in filling a sheet of paper with grey pencil stood out in the changes of scribbling angle. They had taken a different approach to the spikes – the paper had been stabbed from underneath, leaving ripped tufts of paper projecting out of its surface. The violence in the piece was disturbing. I couldn’t help thinking of the rock formations outside and how their shadows had seemed to creep towards us.
In lieu of anything else to do I collated the remaining pictures and tidied them away into a more or less empty cupboard. It was the cupboard underneath the small tanks filled with what I assumed to be some kind of algae. They must have been keeping fish or other aquatic specimens. The little sign next to the tank filled me in nicely: “Golden Snails”. Clearly time had overwhelmed them, the algae blooming wildly, without human intervention and strangled everything in there. It was full to bursting. Curious, I lifted the lid off. The mass of green and brown deflated abruptly, shrinking and shrivelling away until it was a thin wiry film clinging the sides and bottom of the tank. Odd lumps protruded from the web of fibres, which I guessed were the shells of the unfortunate snails.
“How long do you think it would take a tank of water to fill with algae, to the point of choking itself and using up every drop of water?” I asked.
“I’ve no idea, but it can’t be quick.”
“How long do you think this place has been waiting for us to wake up?” I wondered, replacing the lid. The box next to it looked a lot less… dead. The fungal growths had strangled everything inside. Its label said “North African Gerbils”. I doubted there was much left of them inside.
“Anything else you want to check on?” asked Chelsea.
“No not really. I’m just – “
“Avoiding leaving?”
“I’m not very keen to go back out there,” I admitted, “I can’t believe you want to go back out there.”
“We can hardly stay here. We don’t even know where we are.”
“A bit more of an adventure than we had in mind.”
“Yes.” Chelsea stood by the door, the sheaf of strange pictures folded under her arm.
“We can’t go back and tell the others we found a roomful of insane dead children.”
“We’ve got to find the others first,” she said, “come on.”
I lingered, and toyed with the idea of putting all the desks and chairs back in their places. I was still feeling the wash of fear that had led us here, though suppose it’s impossible to fully recall the sensation of panic and fear in full; to some extent they diminish, otherwise I’d be flung into that same desperate flight at the very thought of it. Chelsea looked quite determined, but I could detect a tension in her overtly relaxed stance. She gave me a look, tucked the pages into her satchel and pressed the door release button. The door slid open. Nothing leaped through the gap.
“Alright then,” I glanced around for anything we might have missed. My eye alighted on a bright yellow pencil case lying in the cupboard where I’d put all the children’s art. I tucked it into my bag and joined Chelsea.
The light in the corridor had changed. That weird milky glow was gone, replaced by a greyer light that came from the ceiling – some kind of low power mode that illuminated just enough for safety but didn’t put any strain on the system. We looked both ways.
“Any idea which way we came?” I asked.
“Not really. We definitely came round some corners though.”
The door slid shut behind us, making me jump. Without the glowing lights the corridor looked far more normal, and lacking in terror. That was nice.
“I hope you’re not going to suggest splitting up,” I said, entirely not joking.
“Hell no.”
We went right. It seemed to me that we had come across the door when it was on our left, though I had no way to be sure. The hallway looked completely different to before. We paced along slowly, noting the closed doors all the way along. None of them abruptly opened. We both kept looking behind us though. I knew we had taken a wrong turn when we walked through an open pressure door and narrow hall space opened out into an antechamber for a wide set of steps that descended into darkness.
“This is new.”
“Yeah, we didn’t come this way. We should retrace our steps,” I said
“Really? You still want to go back?”
“Have you already forgotten those kids and their drawings?”
“No, but we don’t know anything about them – only what we saw, which doesn’t answer any of our many, many questions. This might,” she said, pointing at the well of darkness before us, “who knows if that door we just walked through will be open again?”
“If it isn’t we can just force it like we did all those others. Can you not see how wandering into a dark pit might not be our strongest plan?”
“I’m going down there. You don’t have to. Wait here, or go back for the others.”
“What? What is wrong with you?” I guess Chelsea wanted answers a lot more than I did. But I didn’t want to go back on my own, and I certainly didn’t want to wait there.
“Okay, fine. Just – let’s at least find the lights first, please.”
“I’ve got a torch, so have you.”
“While that may be true, I want to see an unknown room in fragmented spots of light even less than in total darkness.”
I cautiously approached the top step and tripped motion recognition strips in the ceiling – lights flickered into an audible hum, showing us the first twenty steps or so before the view was occluded by the ceiling.
“See – nothing to worry about,” Chelsea remarked.
“Let’s not stand still for too long then.”
Down we went. Once the ceiling blocked our view of where we had been the steps kept going. Their surface was slick with moisture, gleaming in the lights that came to life as we approached. The walls were beaded with sweat that trickled slowly under our feet making the steps slippery. After perhaps a hundred steps they ended and we found ourselves on a flat surface again, but this time it was stone, not metal or plastic that we walked on.
“That’s interesting,” I said, “the steps are drilled into the rock.”
“More interesting,” Chelsea replied, “how are the maintaining pressure down here? Why dig a tunnel and not line it? They must have been incredibly confident that this place is sealed.”
The rock was perfectly smooth, polished and reflective. The stairs were flush to its flawless surface. A string of lanterns had been stuck to the walls and they brightened all down the left, rushing out ahead of us. They broke off for a moment and then, a way ahead, saw them swoop past and loop back towards us on the right.
“An odd circuit,” said Chelsea, “let’s go.”
Somehow the rock was more reassuring than the generic corridors behind and above us. The walls had beautiful swirls of trace elements and its own crystalline structure revealed in further whorls and bloody rushes of red and veins of green and blue. I trailed one hand along it, below the chain of lights. It was cool, but not cold. Not cold enough to explain the dripping condensation on the stairs. The moisture was still here, in a series of grooves that ran along the base of each wall which bubbled with liquid, running away from us. We were still going down, though at a very slight gradient. We soon saw why the lights in their automated sequence had appeared to stop for a moment. The corridor let into a truly enormous basin, and the lighting was spread all the way around it.
The corridor left us standing on the edge, which fell away before us. It was like looking into a hollow stone sphere. The walls of the huge chamber also perfectly smooth, glassily wet except for a point in the roof and base in the exact centre of the space. I assume exact centre, because any deviation from perfection in this carved room would be an affront to the skill surely required to make it. At the sphere’s apex a thick cluster of black, rocky spikes lunged outwards, met by a similar cluster driving up from the floor. Sharp, with razor edges that caught the light and threw it back glittering. They were like stalactites and stalagmites from hell. Savage spikes that felt infused with violence – violence against the precision of this sphere. They seemed deeply wrong, like the globe had been attacked and penetrated by these spears which sought to tear it in half. They did not meet in the middle however – the spikes of rock bent away from each other, as if possessed of the same polarity and unable to meet. Their tips folded out like the petals of a disturbing orchid.
“Do they look to you like the outcrops on the surface?” asked Chelsea.
“Very much so,” I replied, “makes you wonder what those spikes look like underground. I’d assumed they were some eruption from the earth – strange plate tectonics, but that wouldn’t do this.”
“No, not it wouldn’t. There’s no way this is natural.”
I took Chelsea’s hand. She braced herself and I leaned out into the open space.
“It’s weirder than that,” I said as Chelsea pulled me back in, “water is flowing all around the sphere – there’s water running up to the top as well as to the bottom.”
When we looked more closely, using our torches to illuminate the thick spikes the water was running down the stalactites and up the stalagmites and dripping off each. Where they met, a three dimensional puddle of water roiled in the air between them. As it reached some critical point it burst, the water spraying outwards, hard enough to strike the walls and rejoin the trickling flow around the inside of the sphere.
“That looks impossible,” I muttered.
“But really cool,” said Chelsea.
“That has to be a gravity effect, or some extreme form of magnetism – look at how the spikes bend away from each other. The water is caught between them – a field of forces allowing just so much mass to build up before overwhelming the effect. Kind of makes you wonder…”
Chelsea stepped off the edge of the corridor, into the open space. She vanished from my sight. I let out a cry and sprang forward, hoping not to see her shattered body below. Instead, as I leaned over the edge I found her sprawled, just a few feet shy of the opening, apparently stuck to the side of the globe.
“Chelsea!” I yelled, “are you alright?”
She giggled, actually giggled. Then she stood up, standing perpendicular to the curve of the sphere. My sense of perspective shifted abruptly and I felt ill. She was standing up and I was crouched, peering out a hole at her feet.
“It’s gravity,” she said, walking along the edge of our entranceway, “this looks incredible, come on.”
She grabbed my hand and yanked me vertiginously out of my plane of alignment. I stood next to her. The ceiling was now the dead centre of the sphere, and the corridor a large hole at my feet.
“That’s…” I began, then rummaged in my bag for a moment and extracted a pencil. With a glance at Chelsea, and her nodding, I tossed it towards the corridor. It fell towards the hole until the pencil passed its threshold and fell suddenly flat against its side – the floor of the corridor.
“Crazy…” I finished.

Open Boxes – Part Twelve – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

We walked around the inside of the globe. No matter how far from our apparent flat ground we strayed, we always remained upright, with our heads pointing to the centre, that odd point where the water gathered. We mostly followed the train of lights, occasionally stepping over them where they had been crudely epoxied to the slick walls, or the floor depending on how you looked at it. The smoothness of the surface was unvaried, though the patterns and twisting shapes of minerals sprawled around. It was a little like walking underneath the outer skin of a gas-giant. When we reached the point directly opposite our entrance we walked towards where the spikes erupted from the base of the globe (or it was when we entered the chamber).
“I’m not sure how close I want to get to those things Chelsea,” I said, the memory of their shadows closing outside a tiny trickle of anxiety inside me.
“They’re just rocks, unusual formations to be sure, but still stone.”
I felt, not for the first time, that Chelsea was less tuned in to this sensation of fear than I was. I was a little envious; these pangs of anxiety as we found new things was doing me no good at all. I wondered where it came from. As far as we could tell from the manual, we were virtually identical in our ‘natural’, original state. Emotions and the depth of feeling should have arrived with a person’s full set of memories, attitudes and habits. Where had Chelsea’s adventurous nature come from? When had I begun exhibiting anxiety? What other emotional states were affecting our judgment, and those of our now-distant companion, Charlie and Charlotte. Once again I worried what they might be thinking with us missing for so long. There was no way they would have expected us to be outside working our way round to the other side of the garden for this long. I wondered if they had seen our note, hastily stuck to the viewing port in the pressure door. What would they think? Were they aware that we were experiencing intense emotional pressures that had formerly been absent? And why was the garden such a trigger for them? I’d postulated (in my head) that encountering greenery reacted with an archaic memory buried deep inside our basic design – inescapable, for all of our artificiality, in order to be loaded with a human’s mind we had to have a similar structure in place to receive it. Preparing such a structure might involve priming it with certain default traits, atavistic routines for the new minds to lie in, that had to be there in order for our intended possessors to be able to experience them properly. The manual was clear that we were only supposed to be activated following that download, never intended to amble forth without the control of a possessing intelligence. Who knew what we might end up doing? They probably didn’t anticipate we would be walking downhill as if it were completely flat in the heart of a mysterious sphere made of rock.
The place itself seemed like a lightning rod for emotion – Chelsea was visibly excited as we walked to the centre, and for myself the anxiety and sense of foreboding only increased with every step. The whole room provided a disorienting illusion: it felt like the globe was revolving under our feet, smooth and slick and that we remained in the same place. The base of the spikes drew nearer. I grabbed Chelsea’s arm as she reached a point I had arbitrarily judged “close enough”. She twisted in my grip and shrugged it off. I was unwilling to let her go alone, and the ground slid under us, and before I knew it the spikes were mere feet in front of us.
They had been more distant outside, and brimming with shadow, but here in the even illumination from the equator, those shadows were blurred and overlapped, Venn diagrams of the absence of light. Chelsea reached back and took my hand. I suppose my anxiety was as clear to her as her vibrating excitement was to me. Her hand twitched in mine, squeezing my fingers alternately. Unlike the rest of the stone, these were very far from smooth – a much more raw ejection from the earth, ragged at the edges, creased with blade-like ridges and folded to leave black creases giving no sense of their depth. The stone hadn’t sheared as it pierced the sphere, and had left no torn edges around its entrance, it had grown through without disturbance.
“Maybe they are just stalactites and stalagmites, born of the moisture and bent by the gravity,” I suggested.
“But they’ve moved opposite to the direction of gravity, which is away from the centre.”
“Perhaps that’s their crooking at the top?”
“Makes no sense,” murmured Chelsea, “it’s too rough to have formed from the dripping water…”
Chelsea whipped her hand out of mine and laid both her hands on the rocky outcropping.
“Don’t touch it,” I exclaimed as her hands touched the surface, “just – use your eyes. Look but don’t touch.”
“Just wait – it’s alright,” she said, “it’s – it’s vibrating. I think it’s growing, ever so slowly, but – give me your hand.”
She grabbed me by the wrist and slapped my palm against the stone. I yelped at the rough contact. But she was right, there was a distinct tremor in the rock. I could swear I saw it growing now that idea was in my mind, slowly twisting up and towards the centre of the globe where some strange pressure forced the spurs of rock to curve outwards, back on itself, reaching out above us like a nightmare claw.
It wasn’t my imagination. In the short time we’d been touching the surface the rock had come alive. I recoiled, hauling Chelsea back. We both fell as the rock writhed, surging up from the ground at a speed that mocked our innocent concepts of millennial crystallisation. The fingers of stone rotated up out of the ground like a corkscrew and their tips twisted towards us. I was reminded again of the creepy petals of an orchid, like a spider stretching itself out to welcome its prey, a hand reaching out to flatten us against the ground. A giant killing a fly. Already the limbs of rock had bent wholly over us, almost touching the slippery surface of the globe. The folded over us like a cage – we were nearly imprisoned.
And then a cry from behind us and strong hands wrapped around my shoulder and Chelsea’s leg and tore us away from the giant’s grip. Charlotte dragged Chelsea out from under a finger that threatened to impale her, and Charlie tugged me between another two of the approaching digits hard enough that I bounced off both and fell on him. Charlotte kept dragging Chelsea half up the side of the globe before she let go and pulled her to her feet and kept running. Charlie and I helped each other up and followed in hot pursuit. I glanced over my shoulder as we ran up toward the lamps strung around its circumference. The pillars had folded over entirely, forming a cage around the pole of the sphere. Instead of boring through the surface, the rock folded and writhed like worms, or snakes seeking what they had just missed capturing. Charlie pulled me on, and we all ran to the hole in the floor.
We all misjudged it and jumped for it at the wrong angle. We found ourselves arriving in the corridor from high up a wall, and crashed down to floor, sprawling over each other. Chelsea lunged back to the entrance, lying fully along the floor.
“Chelsea!” I went to grab her by the foot and repeat Charlotte’s trick of just dragging her away, but she kicked free and hissed at me.
“Just wait – right, come on, all of you. It’s stopped.”
It had, we all crept up to the edge and gazed out at a now imbalanced view. Where before the tendrils of rock from above and below had looked roughly the same, now the cluster coming through the top looked orderly and sharp, compared with the bottom. There it looked like an explosion had occurred. It had lost most of its height, but made that up with mass. It was like so many things – a plant that had overgrown its pot and now grew outwards from the base, still stretching up towards the light. A hand with its fingers broken and bent backwards. But it was still. The grooves and rough edges still gave an impression of steady movement, but from this distance that was shown to be either an illusion or so incredibly subtle as to be almost non-existent.
“Time to go,” Charlotte declared.
“How did you find us?” I exclaimed, my body and mind rushing with the nearness of danger and our sudden rescue.
“Well, you did leave a note,” said Charlie, “and it’s pretty much a straight walk down the same corridor to get here. It wasn’t difficult.”
“Or smart,” Charlotte chided, “what were you thinking? You’ve been gone for days.”
“What? That’s ridiculous,” Chelsea retorted, “hours, yes, no longer.”
“I’m not going to argue about it, but if it’s been so short a time, why are your indicators turning red?”
I looked down to my waist. The tiny plaque embedded in my abdomen was changing between cautious amber and warning red. She was right.
“That’s impossible,” I blustered, “we can’t have been gone that long.”
“We can discuss this while we walk,” said Charlie, heaving himself to his feet and extending a hand to Charlotte, who after a long moment, took it and allowed herself to be pulled up. I didn’t need much encouragement. We began our walk back, frequently turning back, in case… something was following us.
“It’s… good to see you,” I said, “we got lost.”
“It’s almost a straight passageway, all of the doors are locked – how could you get lost?” Charlotte asked.
“Well,” I began, “some things happened.”
“We could tell that. Charlie and I had just found the stairs you had obviously gone down when the ground started shaking. We thought it was an earthquake – much worse than those tremors we’ve felt occasionally while outside. That’s when we started running, and found you two idiots gaping at that stone fountain back there. Have you no sense of self-preservation?”
“I’m not sure we’re supposed to Charlotte, it’s not like we’re people,” Chelsea snapped.”
“We’re people if we behave like people,” Charlotte replied, “what if we hadn’t come for you – what if you had been in there alone and we hadn’t saved you?”
“You don’t know that you were rescuing us. We don’t know what was happening in there! We don’t know what happened here at all. That room – that massive perfectly smooth sphere, hidden beneath this station – what’s that all about? You don’t know whether that was built by the station, carved out by people we haven’t found with machines we’ve never seen. Or was it here already, the base built on top of it? We don’t know anything – anything – about how we came to be the only living things here. And you don’t want to know why? What’s wrong with you – what’s wrong with all of you?”
“Charlotte – calm down,” said Charlie, “what’s wrong with you?”
“Hey – there’s nothing wrong with Chelsea, you don’t think those are legitimate questions?”
“I do – of course they are, but what difference does it make?” said Charlie.
“All the difference,” shouted Chelsea, “it makes all the difference! Don’t you want to know if we’ve been abandoned or if everyone just died and we’re here by accident? I want to know if there’s something we’re supposed to do – something to finish – something that couldn’t be finished by the people who were supposed to climb into our bodies through our minds and be here instead of us.”
“This isn’t helping,” declared Charlotte, “we have to get you two back before you collapse, and I have no intention of carrying either of you. Let’s just get back.”
I reached out for Chelsea but she shrugged my hand off her shoulder and marched out in front of us. I turned to Charlie and Charlotte.
“You just don’t understand. Something happened here. Something bad.”
“We know,” said Charlotte, “we’ve been living in ruins for weeks. But look at this place – it’s powered up, it’s secure-“
“Apart from whatever that rock thing is,” I exclaimed.
“It wouldn’t have been half as dangerous if you had just moved instead of standing there staring at it.”
“It was fine until we touched it…”
“Why would you touch it? You can’t fix it, you have no idea what it is. We should have been here together – checking it out, together. And now you’re on the verge of collapse and you’ve done something to it, and now we’re going to have to do something about it. Why couldn’t you have just opened the door to the garden and come back?”
I didn’t have a good answer to that. It was what I’d wanted to do. Chelsea had persuaded me otherwise, even though I’d been frightened – no, not frightened, not then – but afterwards – after those children, and the spherical room… that was frightened. I knew anxiety and I knew fear. These were the emotions my body had gifted me with. Maybe this was who I was going to be – someone consumed by anxiety and fear. It’s not like I’d had a choice, this was how I had responded to my environment. Something built deep into my psyche, into my design and was always going to emerge. I wondered if it would have been better to have only experienced the world through the personality who should have awakened in me. Would I even be aware of it, when someone else was me?
Chelsea was way ahead down the hall, and I could see her drifting back and forth as she walked, peering at the doors. She was looking for the doors that had been open earlier.
“I can’t tell which one is which,” she said, frustration raising the pitch of her voice.
“Can’t tell what?” asked Charlie.
“We found something,” I said, “we found several things. There was a door that opened for us, and inside – “
“Children,” said Chelsea, “there were children inside.”
“You found survivors?” demanded Charlotte.
“No – they were all… dead,” I said.
“You need to show us,” said Charlie, “we all need to see.”
“We can’t,” said Chelsea, “I don’t know which door it was.”
She looked imploringly at me.
“I don’t know either – I can’t tell if all these symbols have changed. There’s no pattern. I don’t know, I just don’t know.”
“But we found these,” Chelsea tugged the stack of drawings out of her bag and thrust them at Charlotte, “in a classroom, after – after we saw the children.”
She didn’t mention what happened after she touched that panel, so neither did I. Charlotte and Charlie had me doubting myself. If we’d been away so long, so close to collapse, could we be sure what we had seen? We had definitely been in the classroom – we had proof, but I didn’t feel they would be as accepting of more stories we couldn’t prove.
“Drawings? So there were people here, maybe even children. That’s no surprise, that’s not even news. We know there must have been someone here,” Charlie spat, “we know they’re not here now – so what have you found, besides triggering that thing in the rocks?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. I felt very tired all of a sudden, “can we just get back to the pods.”
“Of course,” Charlie propped himself under my arm and took half of my weight.
The conversation apparently forgotten, or at least relegated to another time, Charlotte caught up with Chelsea, and with a last look back down the corridor – we had turned several corners and all anyone could see was more grey-lit hallway – she hoisted Chelsea’s arm over her shoulder too.

Meta NaNoWriMo 2016 – Day 13

nanowrimo2016_day13statsI’d totally planned to babble alongside my NaNoWriMo writing again this year, but weirdly, having a full time job again and a stupidly busy week has made that difficult. With part 13 (which will be up tomorrow morning) I’ve just tripped over 25 thousand  words. That’s halfway! Well, I hope it is anyway… god knows where the story will actually end. I’m very much enjoying it again, though I’ve felt rather out of control this last week. I think that’s because I had an even vaguer idea than last year and was on the verge of not committing to participate at all. I’m glad I ignored my warning instincts again! Last year had no plan either, but it also had a narrower focus, being neat and linear and only really having one character – control was easier to achieve, and it was easier to manage the things that happen. If I’m talking about this as if I’m not in control of it, well that’s exactly how it feels.
So what is it about? Well, I guess 25,500 words in and I should now be able to take a stab at it… In an empty and wrecked space station, four emergency back ups are activated and have to fend for themselves in a broken environment, knowing neither how they came to be there or who they are supposed to be. Yeah, sure – that’s definitely a bit like it. I’m still writing from the perspective of just one of the characters, Christopher as that felt more practical than doing four characters right off the bat. I’m finding Christopher’s character along with the others as we go. That’s probably why after a couple of chapters (and a quite good cliffhanger I think) I’ve jumped back several weeks (possibly months, maybe longer), so I can deal with the characters finding themselves, at the same convenient pace as I am.
Bad stuff happens to them while they explore their wrecked habitat, and they need to learn about themselves, and presumably figure out what happened that caused them to be activated. And then… do something about it? I don’t know. I’m greatly cheered that a few friends, including my Mum are reading it as I toss it into the ether each day. It’s a good incentive for sitting down and clawing an hour or so out of each day. I’ve got a fairly clear Monday and Tuesday evening this week, so I’m planning to sit down and alternate writing with taking our beastie out for a walk. His GPS tracker hasn’t arrived yet, and I’m damned if he’s going out solo without me knowing exactly where he is.
If you’d like to catch up with the story – here are some links: Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 (tomorrow)
I’ve managed to do at least some writing every day, although that’s often been very late at night, when I’m feeling kind of fucked up and dopey after taking my sleeping tablets. That plus the various catastrophic chunks of news from America, and a couple of shows in the Nottingham Comedy Festival has left me pretty knackered and in a state that isn’t ideal for me to do story telling. Apologies to anyone who is reading along. I’m finding inspiration in putting all my music on shuffle and vanishing inside a headphones bubble (it makes the train and Costa tolerable), and when my brain is flagging a bit I’m using my tarot cards! For example, today I’ve had these two propped up on either side of my Word document: The Passageway and The Balance. For Part 13 that may have been a little on the nose… The cards are from a deck I backed on Kickstarter. I’ve used them to do real (you can add your own inverted commas) tarot readings and I’m finding them evocative for story directions. There are a couple I might not have taken otherwise – The Trap and The Law were fairly key in the previous chapter.

Open Boxes – Part Thirteen – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

The garden was peaceful. The green leaves were like renewed life and hope. I felt the tension leaching out of me. Into the soil? Who knows. If plants can take anxiety and turn it into leaves I can spend time here. Wherever it went, it wasn’t in me and that’s all that mattered. Our adventure had been too much for both of us. Maybe it was just my body beginning to shut down, pushing out inessential functions like anxiety and fear, leaving just my basic ambulatory powers and a quieter, default mental setting. I was too tired to speak, and Charlie was more carrying me than I was walking. Good old Charlie, I thought, as he and Charlotte briefly shrugged off their loads. They poured us onto the benches in the middle of the garden. Chelsea and I lolled against each other, the lights at our waists fluttering red; the amber all gone and green just a dim LED memory. The garden wasn’t far enough of course – the pods were still three domes and a hellish crawl through passages away. I was conscious of the irony that we had gone outside originally to find a way that we could separate the pods, distribute them through our safe zone. Had we just done our job, it was likely that at least one of the pods would be here now, ready to revive us. Instead we had gone badly off plan, for far longer than either of us had realised. And now, we barely had the strength to slump upright against each other’s shoulder.
“They’re in a bad way,” said Charlie.”
“I can see that,” said Charlotte, “I just can’t think of a way to get them back to the pods. There’s no way they can crawl through just the next tunnel, let alone climb down the hub. If we could get them that far we could carry them to the upside down.”
“We’ll have to drag them through the tubes.”
Through my barely closed eyes and ears I listened to Charlotte and Charlie figure out what was best for us. My mind drifted, and I dreamed.
A train hammers along its determined route. The wheels scream as it bounces against its confinement, desperate to slip its rails and go exploring. Or is it just trying to escape? We are pursued. I stand in the driver’s cab, leaning out of the window to catch a glimpse of what we are running from. Half trucks race along in the fields that the railway runs through, smashing through fences and lurching over rises and bushes. Their inhabitants scream and howl. It is unlikely that we will succeed. A pair of cars overtake us, the passengers leaning out of the windows, waving knives and firing guns at the train. They don’t appear to be aiming for anyone specifically, though a few bullets strike the frame of my window. They mount the track ahead of us, bobbing along the uneven surface. The driver has no choice but to brake in case they cause the whole train to veer away and devastate itself on the countryside. I never see the driver’s face, it’s lost in a frozen mask of shadow under his peaked cap. We grind to a shrieking halt which throws everyone out of their seats and slams me into the window. There is not much time. I climb out of the cab window and drop to the ground beside the track. I run up the stumpy bank we have stopped next to and shove myself under the wire fence that stands bedraggled alongside the railway. Perhaps I will be safe. The cars and trucks have emptied of people now. They stand with their knives and guns for a moment, and then they rush the train, forcing open doors on both sides. There is fighting, and our attackers are merciless. Limbs spill from the doorways, followed by bleeding bodies who either cry or lie still where they fall, faces into the heavy gravel. I feel the vast wash of failure. It is eclipsed only by the absolute terror that grips me as fiercely as the man who seizes my leg and tears me under the wire. It grates a layer of skin off my back and shoulders but I barely feel it. He half drags, half throws me back down the slope and I roll into a heap of bodies. This is when they will kill us. It is what we were fleeing from. But my absolute certainty is proven wrong. The half trucks pull up alongside the carriages while the men level weapons at those of us who have not yet fallen. We are directed to heave the dead onto the trucks, and then stand back. Men with huge gleaming cleavers go to work, jointing and hacking at the carcasses, lopping out steaks and organs which they slop into buckets and boxes. We can do nothing but watch this happen to our friends and families. An ancient bus, wracked by time and lack of care rattles down the side of the train, miraculously remaining upright. We are bullied aboard. The driver is insulated from our cries and horror by a plastic and metal shield around his seat. The little dish for sorting change sticks out incongruously and I wonder deliriously if we are expected to pay for this trip. It seems not. We drive for hours, until it is quite dark. We arrive in what feels like an old fishing village, except that it is well lit with orange and red paper lanterns hanging from every building, pole and post. It is a market. Women and men carry buckets and chests of raw human flesh down the road. Our bus rolls into a warehouse; doors slam shut behind us. We are quiet now, all cried out, our tears a poor substitute for the blood that has been spilled. Next comes a test. We are ordered out of the bus, and we notice for the first time that it had felt like a kind of sanctuary, protecting us like the driver was protected from us. We’re just in a larger cage now, already becoming used to the idea of being captive. But first there is the test. I think we all must know it is coming. A door opens, orange light falls through, followed by a huge man carrying a proportionately huge pot. The orange light goes away, replaced by the sound of bolts slamming home. We are shivering in a scared arc, guns loosely pointed at us. They know we have no heart for a fight. The pot is placed before us. In it, lumps of meat bob in a bloody stew. We have no doubt what the meat it. This is what these people have turned to – what the world has turned to, and what we have resisted – is this what we will turn to? But what does it mean to sacrifice your own life for a principle while locked in a warehouse? When push comes to shove… we all accept the ladle when it’s offered. It tastes like biting your own lip, a nose bleed running down the back of your throat, and cheap stewing steak. We pass the test, and are released, under watch, into the street. There is nowhere for us to go now. We have accepted the rules of this society; we are part of it. If we leave we will be rejected by whoever we meet – the reek of cannibalism clings to our hair and the blood of our fellows is black under our nails. We must work to live. I blunder around the roads. Everywhere there is a body being dismembered, blood draining into bottles, closed up in jars, poured steaming through the cold air into saucepans. I am wearied by the constant horror, until it dulls, or I grow dulled. The blood is not so bright, or so red anymore, it’s just a muddy black running through the gutters. A woman grabs me and bundles me off the street, hustles me through a door with black bars across it. I am so pathetic as to hope that I am being rescued, to be saved from this awful place – by whom? By the families of those I fled from at the train, whose thigh, arm, face I have since chewed and swallowed? Of course I am not being saved. I’m drawn through to another warehouse space where meat is being packed into bags and then crates. I’m slapped down on a stool and a tray of offal slung before me. “Separate the brains and organs – they go here. The bone goes here. Skin and hair…” I have no gloves, no tools, just my blood-smeared hands shoving gobbets of what was once in a person into plastic bags, squeezing out the air – a breath of iron-rancid breath – and mashing them into boxes. This is my life now. Orange lit murder.
When I came back to myself it was dark, except for a slash of white light that illuminated my leg and the ceiling tight above me. This wasn’t the garden anymore. I almost began to panic, fearing that I was back in the clutches of that stone claw, but the roof was buckled metal. The light fell to one side and I recognised Charlie, fumbling, trying to turn around.
“Charlotte,” he called, “we’re stuck – I can’t get him through.”
I couldn’t understand Charlotte’s reply, it bounced around too many angles, and I was still so tired.
“I’ll think of something else. Keep going – get Chelsea to her pod.”
I think Charlie must have seen my eyes half-open, and I wanted to say something, but I was fading away and didn’t have the strength to help, or even to reassure him.
“Just hang on Christopher,” he whispered, “this is probably going to hurt. Well, it’s definitely going to help”
I was still just aware enough to register those words before Charlie disappeared from my view and excruciating pain jerked me into a moment of total consciousness. Blissfully, it faded almost as quickly and everything was dark again. My last thought was that I must be dying.
Light blurred into vision again. All I could see was Charlie, half sitting on top of me, his weight crushing my back into the torn and broken corridor. We were still in the passage between the garden and the hab dome. There was a liquid feeling in my abdomen, like water was trickling over me, leaving greasy tracks. I reached out for the torch, fingers scrabbling for it. Charlie opened his eyes too as I swung the light around.
“Charlie, what did you do?”
“What I had to,” he said – he looked tired too.
I reached down to where the flickering red light had been earlier. It was just back into amber, the deathly red showing through like a hand held up to the light. But we were obviously still in the broken hall. I reached down to where I felt wet. I had been torn open. Thick tubes had spilled out of my belly. Horrified, but desperate to understand I played the torch over what felt like a gaping wound. Those sticky wet tubes came out, and were entwined with tubes tugged out of Charlie’s body. He’d spliced them together, let me refresh directly from him. No wonder he looked tired. I reached forward and pulled him into a hug. We fell back with a sigh into the dark.
Much, much later a light shone into my eyes. It was Charlotte, upside down for me, tapping Charlie on the shoulder. Where her torchlight didn’t shine I saw the reassuring glimmer of amber light on my stomach. Charlie’s was amber too, with flashes of red disturbing its otherwise even tone. I unwrapped my arms from Charlie and he pulled away.
“Are you both alright?”
“Someone seems to have made a bit of a mess,” said Charlie, “give us a bit more light.”
Charlotte turned on another torch. Charlie carefully separated our umbilical cables, dabbing at the overflow with a cloth. He screwed first mine back inside the hole he’d torn in my torso, then patched me up with duct tape. His own he neatly recoiled into himself and snapped his abdominal covers back into place.
“I’m sorry Charlie,” I said, “you shouldn’t have had to do that.”
“I was going to say the same thing – I couldn’t figure out how to open you up properly, so I’m afraid I’ve made a bit of a mess.”
My thighs were slick with greasy fluids, and I felt exactly like someone had cut me open and pulled my guts out. Funny that.
“Alright then,” said Charlotte, “let’s get you both back.”
Without having to drag me, Charlie and I were much more able to get through the tightly bent passageway, though it hurt like hell, and I was still bleeding. With Charlotte leading the way we climbed out into the better lit hab dome, dizzyingly atilt below us.
“This might take a while,” I warned.
And it did. The climb down the vertical floor, from stub of pedestal to the desk stubbornly clinging to its old place, and then to the cabinets and drawers that ringed the dome. From there it was an easier hop down the gentler gradient. And certainly preferable to scrambling down the cliff outside – I doubted I’d have been able to make that. Just one more dome to go. The floor of the science dome was disconcertingly even, and I found myself drunkenly staggering. That might just have been the internal bleeding. Charlotte steered us both around the wreckage of the lab equipment. The sight of the broken open door into our upside down hab was incredibly welcome. Even the inversion of space was familiar and relaxing, and the sight of our pods – Chelsea already fast asleep in hers, its rainbow of symbols brightening and fading over her feet – mine was open, just waiting for me to fall into it. Charlie made me sit on the edge rather than just falling face-first in, as was my clear intention.
“Hang on, just got to make sure you’ll be able to finish in the pod.”
He made me stretch my arms up and he peeled away the tape, wincing almost as much as me. He reached into his little toolkit and popped my ab wall back out again with a thin blade. I shivered as he reached inside and snapped something back into place. It clicked and I felt it in my throat.
“Okay, give me your hands,” he said, and taking them, lowered me backwards into the pod, “sleep tight – we’ll sort you out when you’re fresh.”
He pushed my feet in too and stared down at me as the pod closed, its crazed surface scattering him like a kaleidoscope. I half waved and then was gone, again.

Open Boxes – Part Fourteen – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

How much of my life have I spent unconscious? The days were so similar for so long that they lost all sense of reality. The only thing that separated them from sleep is that they were less suffused with fear. That changed, but it was hard to tell. How is my sleeping life, the dreams that we share, so different from life? Charlie has confided that he thinks the dreams are the leakage from our basic neural template which must have been ripped from a real human mind, and who’s to say they managed to scrub those meninges free of data and left only structure? Chelsea thinks they’re the fragments of an aborted personality download – all we got were tiny bits and at night our essentially human brain structure tries to put them back together. Me, I’m inclined to say that’s all bollocks.
We’ve got big chunks of data pre-programmed into us – lots of conceptual and referential information which was supposed to help the downloading personality re-relate to the world around them without having to worry about private language paradoxes and concept vagueness. They would just land, with their memories and emotional states intact, but in a slightly better organised database. It was what they added that would have made it meaningful, turned us from ambulatory databases with hands into actual people. But without those injections of self, what we got was our baseline, plus an initiation command from a system without directions – the direst of emergency states, or possibly worse, a panicked demand for our activation. And now our minds team up disaster with everything flagged in the database for ‘dangerous’, ‘bad’, ‘threatening’. And then we wake up. No wonder the sleep states seem more real – those ideas and scraps of information are all we’ve got of the culture that bred us and abandoned us. The waking real is a mangled mass of glass, plastic and metal. Our days are spent patching and rooting through the wreckage for anything usable. Even though it’s terrifying, the night has more going for it. I guess that was a pretty sad state of affairs.
As I woke up again, to that same cracked shield over me, I remembered that waking and dreaming had begun to run together – that’s if what I thought I remembered wasn’t just a dream. It was complicated. Sitting up to activate the pod’s opening was a special kind of pain across my torso. That told me I hadn’t dreamed all of it at least. I felt like I’d been snapped in half. It looked like Charlie had popped the pod open while it was still in operation – which is a bit risky – as the panel he’s torn off me was epoxied shut. Well, if it kept the pressure in the domes it would probably hold my guts in. I’m not sure if that really reassured me a great deal. It certainly still hurt. I sat on the edge of my pod, taking a moment to let the pain ebb away.
I got the manual out. Many times I’ve found it to be a source of comfort. It’s an explanation for much of who we are, or at least why we are. The who was still a troubling matter which we were far from resolving. The manual didn’t even list our names of course, since we had picked those ourselves. The manual does cover repair and recovery which was presumably what Charlie had referred to when gluing me shut. The pain was a result of over-stressed pseudo-nerves. Not actual, real nerves like a real person would have. No, these were pseudo-nerves. They did the exact same thing human nerves did, but didn’t merit the same name. That had never bothered me before; I’d been relatively content with my synthetic makeup, but now, having been out into the rest of the station, and experienced what I felt were some proper human attributes – like being terrified and running – I thought we deserved some more sympathetic treatment. The manual wasn’t going to give me that. Since the pseudo-nerves had been “stressed” by Charlie’s life-saving intervention they would take some time to repair themselves (or “heal”, if I were real). That was reassuring, since I couldn’t imagine continuing to function in a useful way feeling like this.
I knew that what Charlie had done had been exceptionally dangerous for both of us. I didn’t remember collapsing, but I obviously hadn’t even gotten out of the garden before getting stuck. I hoped Charlie was okay. The manual didn’t cover ripping each other open and sharing cables. That fell into wear and tear, and then recycling and disposal. I was glad Charlie had spared me that at least. Would that even have been death? Was deactivation the same as death? Another subject the manual was silent on. The idea was that once the emergency work was done, a couple of options presented themselves. The ideal situation was one in which the personalities were outloaded again once the job ended, so the memories and information could be accessed by the parent organisation, and the backup wiped and shut down. That sounded a lot like death to me. The less optimal outcome (from the manual’s perspective) was immediate scrub and deactivation. That was even more like death. No consideration was offered for the continued operation of the units (us) – explicitly, the backups were not the person’s continued existence, but an in extremis absolute last option. The person was presumed dead, or the next best thing, and since they were already dead, the new entity was not them, and there would be no obligation to support its continuity, and that such action was legally problematic and therefore doubly undesirable. It was chilling to consider that even if I was possessed by an individual’s personality, it would be only a brief postscript to their lives, to be shortly terminated, returning them to their grave. Cheery thoughts.
The pain seemed to be easing, but I was in no hurry to go running around. These pseudo-nerves might even be a step up from human nerves, if this recovery could be considered representative. For the first time I took a good look at my surroundings. At least, I took a non-practical look at my environment. Sure, the dome is upside down so I can mainly see what used to be the floor, and a view of dusty grey outside through the windows that aren’t submerged in broken junk. We had already established that this was a storage container – that explained the large number of crates and smashed boxes which constituted our floor, plus innumerable lengths of pipe, hose, foam panelling and all the things you could hope for in order to effect general repairs on an installation like this. It was simply unfortunate that it was the dome with all the useful stuff in it that had gone over the edge of a cliff. Certainly if any survivors from the rest of the base had wanted these things they would have been virtually impossible to get at. We’d returned pressure, sealed and smashed holes in all sorts of things that more fragile bodies would have been unable to handle. I guess that’s why they put us here, already in the right place to get started. Or were we just in storage too? Judging from the rest of the installation that I’d seen this wasn’t exactly central to the operation. Maybe it was just a warehouse dumping ground for things they weren’t using.
I noticed a picture that I hadn’t seen before, stuck to the wall. It depicted a kitten plummeting towards the ground. It was upside down of course, labelled “hang in there”. That wasn’t an especially auspicious discovery. It did make the space somewhat more homely though. This was where we had been living for weeks, and we hadn’t even decorated. I rummaged in my tool bag and found the bright yellow pencil case I had retrieved from the classroom. It was a sharp contrast to the greys and beige of the room, far more in keeping with the inverted kitten picture. I had no reference points for the grinning anthropomorphised sponge, but it was by far the friendliest thing we had encountered. I resolved to make more of the life that we had here. Even if we were built for redundancy at the earliest opportunity, we didn’t have to live like we were. There was a lot more to this installation than these crushed domes. Chelsea had helped me see that; had made me see that, even though I wasn’t particularly keen on returning to the parts we had explored. There was no need to think about that though – we had plenty to be getting on with.
With that in mind, I stood up and pressed the lid of my pod until it closed itself. There was plenty of work to be done. That’s when I noticed there were only three pods. There ought to be four: me, Chelsea, Charlie and Charlotte. I knew I was still here. It was obvious which one was missing – Charlotte’s. We had never fully separated hers from the ceiling – or floor – depending on how you looked at it, and it had been supported at its odd angle by a slope of stacked boxes lashed together. They still stood, but her pod was gone. A hose dripped a thin fluid onto the floor, where it disappeared into the maze of junk. Charlie’s pod was empty, which made sense to me – he only had a refresh to do, even if he was black-lining towards the end; I assumed I had been out for a little longer. Chelsea was in her pod still, the rainbow of icons told me she was fully refreshed and ought to have woken up. I rested a hand on her pod and peered inside. She looked fine, apparently she had slipped more easily through the passageways than I had. But she ought to be up and about. I was about to trigger her wake up sequence, my finger right over the slider when a blow caught me about the head.
I was thrown to the floor, slipping and stumbling. My sight reeled, and as I turned around I saw half a dozen Charlotte’s, her cross-hatched head unmistakable. She was holding a length of tubing – the sort we normally wedged into door hydraulics to keep them open – very calmly, considering she had just hit me with it.
“What the hell, Charlotte?” I didn’t have a better phrased question available to me, and it captured all the things I wanted to know.
“Stay away from her,” Charlotte said.
“Um… no,” I replied, shaking my head to realign my vision, “what are you doing?”
“Leave her in the pod. She’s dangerous,” Charlotte raised the pole again as I got back to my feet.
“You know I’ve recently had a massive hole in my stomach,” I reminded her, “she’s refreshed. It’s time to get up.”
I lunged for Chelsea’s pod again and narrowly avoided the pole, which clanged down behind me. I was fairly sure Charlotte wouldn’t risk breaking the pods – they had taken enough damage before we woke up. Mind you, hers wasn’t there anymore.
“She stays asleep,” Charlotte shouted.
I don’t recall our having raised our voices before. Chelsea and I had definitely done some yelling when we were running away from those children, but raised our voices for any reason other than distance? Never. This was not a promising development.
“I told you – she’s dangerous. She could have got you both killed, or lost – and then we would have come to find you for no reason, risking resources and ourselves. We couldn’t be sure you had secured the chamber beyond the garden – “
“We left a note!”
“ – a note? That could have been anyone.”
“Well, there was no need to sign it – there isn’t anyone else,” I pointed out, “well, there might be, but we don’t know that.”
“Exactly – reckless, thoughtless. Vanishing into a new part of the station, no consideration for the team. What if we hadn’t come? What then?”
I couldn’t fault her case. We had been reckless, we had put ourselves in a situation we couldn’t control – and that was only what Charlotte knew about. We hadn’t told her and Charlie about the awful cases with the dead children in. I wasn’t sure that this was the time to bring that up.
“So why am I awake, and not Chelsea?”
“Was it your idea to go exploring?”
“Not exactly.”
“Exactly,” Charlotte declared, “you know what the job is – you know what we’re supposed to be doing – fixing this place, not going exploring. We’ll get to those corridors when we need to, when everything else is sorted – we don’t need to go there now.”
Was Charlotte afraid? It’s hard to read emotions. There are a couple of reasons for that: one, emotions were very new to us, until a few wakings ago I wouldn’t have said I was feeling much in particular; two, our faces aren’t built for emotional cues. We’ve got a mouth and eyes, but very little of the plasticity that we’d seen in the children and that we knew humans had. All of ours is in body language and blinking. It was not an art we had mastered. The metal pole suggested anger, which is easily linked with fear. I had to take a punt.
“Charlotte, I know you’re frightened – “
“I’m not frightened,” (guess I was wrong), “I’m concerned about operational functionality – we can’t do our job if half of us are vanishing on wild goose chases.”
That took me a moment to parse, and it seemed to take Charlotte by surprise. It was just enough of a distraction to swipe my finger across the wake sequence on Chelsea’s pod. It swung open as Charlotte took another swing at me. The impact was taken fully by the lid, shattering the already fractured glass. A shower of glass fragments fell on Chelsea as she opened her eyes.
“What the hell – “
We all had much the same questions about what Charlotte was doing.
“Stop – Charlotte – just stop for a minute,” I yelled, “let’s talk about this.”
Chelsea clocked the tube in Charlotte’s hands and rose no further than seated from her pod.
“You endangered us all, do you even realise that?” Charlotte demanded.
“Alright – yes – wow, what happened to you Christopher?” Chelsea asked, noting the patched up hole in my side, and immediately eyeing Charlotte.
“Couldn’t fit back through the tunnels. It’s probably a story for another time.”
“Right. Do you even know what we found out there? We found – well I’m not sure what we found, but you saw that room – that cave – you saw the claws. Don’t you want to know what that is?”
“No. None of it. We don’t need to know – we’ve got our lives here. We’ve made the domes habitable – we’re doing fine. Going out there is just… unnecessary.”
“Really? ‘Inessential to the mission’, is that what you think?” Chelsea was demonstrating behaviour I associated with anger. It confirmed for me that Charlotte was also angry: their body language was almost identical, except Chelsea was sitting down and not holding a long bit of metal.
“There’s more to this place than just patching up holes, Charlotte. When we went outside there was… well… I don’t know what, but it was frightening out there.” Chelsea lamely concluded, turning to me for support.
“Yes – definitely. It was creepy.”
“I’ve been outside too, remember. It’s just dark, and airless and silent,” Charlotte retorted.
We nodded our agreement.
“Yes – all of those things, and a hideous sense of being watched,” I added.
“Ridiculous,” if we had the ability to snort, I’m sure Charlotte would have used it.
“And beyond that – before we even got to that room with the perfect sides and the rock spikes – they’re outside too. And, and there were these children we found –“
“The ones you can’t find again?”
“That doesn’t change anything – we think they saw something. Look – something happened here, and we don’t know what it is. We don’t know what we’re clearing up after, we don’t know who we’re doing it for, we don’t know if it’s dangerous or safe, or abandoned. We don’t know anything. We need to know something. We found these drawings – we think they were drawn by the children. I’ve got them here somewhere.”
Chelsea opened her bag and rifled through it, then tipped the contents out into her pod.
“They’re not here,” she said, “where are the pictures we found – the ones I tried to show you in the garden.”
“They aren’t important Chelsea,” Charlotte said, “they aren’t what we’re here for.”
“I thought it was Christopher who was obsessed with that stupid manual. It’s not all we are. Now where are my pictures?”
“They’re gone,” Charlotte said, “we don’t need them.”
“They were all we had,” Chelsea’s voice rose to a shout and she climbed out of the pod, bent and snatched up a jagged spike of metal, “now where are my pictures?”
“We destroyed them,” Charlotte admitted, her grip on her pole shifting.
With a frustrated yell, Chelsea hurled the spike at Charlotte. It caught her in the shoulder and knocked her back.
“This is futile, Chelsea. You’ve got no evidence, you’ve got nothing – the two of you got scared and ran into something we don’t understand. There are millions of things we don’t understand – what’s so special about these things?”
“They might tell us what happened here, why we’re here!” Chelsea’s tone.
“Enough,” Charlotte declared, “no more.”
Charlie came into the dome at a run.
“I heard shouting,” he said, “oh – they’re awake. But we haven’t moved the other pod yet.”
“That’s a point – where is your pod Charlotte?” I asked.
“It’s in the garden. We carried it around while you two were refreshing.”
“You went back out there?” Chelsea exclaimed.
“We can’t get them through the corridor – we proved that trying to get you back here.”
“And once we’ve sealed the doors, no one else will be either. It’s not safe, and you can’t be trusted not to endanger us all.”
That last line was aimed at Chelsea.
“You have no right – “ began Chelsea.
“No one does. None of us have rights – haven’t you read the manual? They turn us on, they turn us off. Even if we do find survivors, they’re just going to kill us once we’ve made a little house for them to live in. We stay here, we stay safe.”
I was shocked by her conclusion. It made perfect sense, and I knew it was at least partly true.
“We’ll stay here – this is where our life is now. Get used to it.”
With that Charlotte tossed the pole on the floor and marched out of the upside down dome.
“And you agree with her?” I asked Charlie, who was standing there awkwardly, torn between watching Charlotte heading for the door, and Chelsea and I. I thought Charlotte actually slowed briefly waiting for Charlie’s answer.
“Yeah – I do. What we found in that cave… We should just leave that alone. I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” I said, “but… thanks for saving my life.”
He nodded, “that’s alright – it’s what we do. Fix things.”
With that he turned and followed Charlotte out.
“We didn’t even get a chance to tell them about the children,” I said.
“I don’t think they would want to know, and Charlotte wouldn’t believe us if we told her. Dammit – those pictures.”
Chelsea sat back down on the edge of her broken pod.
“Where am I going to sleep now?”
“You’re welcome to use my pod,” I said, “we can alternate.”
Unable to think of anything further to say that could help, I just pointed at the poster of the kitten.

Open Boxes – Part Fifteen – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

Nothing much happened. Charlotte and Charlie finished sealing the doors that led out of our little community. We were confined to the three domes plus the garden. That was to be the extent of our roaming, the bounds of our exploration. I didn’t know how to feel about that – Charlotte’s arguments had swayed Charlie and I couldn’t say that I disagreed with their fears. If we found survivors then it was their lives that we would prioritise and serve; we were disposable and dispensable when the original, real humans were available. But if we didn’t find survivors, we were needlessly confining ourselves to a fragment of the installation – from what Chelsea and I had seen, the most degraded and ramshackle part of it. But we knew it, we had reclaimed it from partial vacuum and fatigue, made it as whole as it could be. The other places were also, frankly, quite terrifying. I wasn’t as adventurous as Chelsea, would never have strayed from our path if not from her. I would never have experienced the dread and fear that our adventure had stamped deep into me. If I caught sight of the night through the diamond windows I still recoiled internally, a shudder that ran through my bones and dissipated through my feet. Not going out there wasn’t exactly a terrible plan either. It chafed against Chelsea more than it did me. I was relatively content to restrict my imagination and reality to these four domes and their awkward halls, but I found Chelsea again and again staring at the over-glued doors and hatches. I’m sure she was wondering how much effort it would take to carve through those additional seals and get back to that strange spherical chamber and the rooms we couldn’t access. But that faded. Knowing the limits of our bodies, thanks to the manual, it was easier to accept the limitations we placed on ourselves. We were already reaching beyond what we had been built for – we were way past the recommended activation period, but there was no one to shut us down (and we weren’t going to do that ourselves, not yet anyway) – how much further does a being need to strive? So we got on with our lives, whatever they were.
We began to make the place home. And with home, comes personal space. Since there were four of us, and we had four rooms, there was potentially a certain logic to spreading ourselves out – maybe a room each. Charlotte had effectively claimed the garden by shifting her pod up there. That wasn’t a process that could be repeated now that all the exits were sealed, so we let her have that. Charlie wanted a little space as well. Since one of our domes lies at 90 degrees from the horizontal, that was out, and as I expressed some contentment in the upside down dome, the only place we could move his pod was to the adjacent one – the old research station. Our two domes were joined by a twisted, but essentially intact corrugated hallway so it was easy enough to lug it up there and replumb it in, surrounded by the wreckage of the science equipment. That left me and Chelsea. Chelsea’s pod had been broken by Charlotte, and we had no replacement covers. We shared a pod, meaning that we had a kind of timeshare agreement and so the schedule came to be born. At first it was just so we could keep track of each other’s refresh cycles. It gave some structure to the time we all spent in our four domes. It grew into the structure of our community.
Now that we had circumscribed our domain, had sealed and shuttered it against the outside world and its mysteries, there was work to be done. Scaling up a space from ‘survivable’ to ‘livable’ is quite a task. We all approached it in different ways. Charlotte, since she lived up there already, managed the garden. I wasn’t ever entirely clear on what needed to be done since the plants sorted themselves out. I was more concerned with the power feeds which all ran from that part of the installation, and provided light and heat for the rest of us. After a while Chelsea began to spend more time up there than down here in the smashed up domes. That brought… complicated feelings with it. I was surprised, since it was the disagreement between those two which had determined how we now lived, but I assumed Chelsea had resolved that for herself and moved on. Learning to be forgiving and repentant in a community of four is important. There are too few of us for grudges, for secrets. Nevertheless, the more time we all spent apart the more secrets we had. We no longer dreamed together. Proximity was somehow necessary for us to dream as one, and that was impossible, not just because we only had three pods to four of us, but the physical distances, and sleeping at different times threw our previous cohesion out of whack.
There’s a big difference between waking up screaming together, and waking up screaming on your own. The first time it happened to me, I came to, hammering at my pod’s cover, reaching out, expecting to see the same startled faces on either side. But there was no one. I had never felt so alone, not even when I thought I had lost Chelsea out in the dark. It even felt darker in the dome – some of the lights had failed. I was the furthest from the power source and some of the cobbled together cables were stretched beyond endurance when the domes shifted slightly in the dust. They would be easy enough to fix. The starlight, faint as it was, painted the shadows a different shade of grey all along one side of the dome. I felt exposed, with my pod there in the middle of the room, surrounded by a jumble of broken open boxes and cartons. That’s when I began my project – making myself (and Chelsea) some kind of nook in the chaos, a place that was less lonely to wake up in. I partly solved that for Chelsea by trying to be there when she was due to wake up – just nearby, nothing intrusive like standing over her pod as she woke – just close enough to be making a noise and be recognised as close by. It’s what you do for your friends.
Clearing through the detritus of a storage unit flipped over, smashed open and stamped into a thick mat is exactly as tedious and difficult as it sounds. Add to that the idea that the floor is the ceiling, so the mass you’re dealing with is lying in a dish and you have no flat surfaces to stand on… Whatever I dug out had to be bolstered so that the whole lot didn’t just fill itself in. I also needed somewhere to put the junk that I didn’t want. We had no way of entirely being rid of it, so it all had to stay somewhere within our habitat. That was what tripped Charlie onto a project of his own. Since the beginning he had been both the most creative of us, hence our charmingly individual faces, and also the most organised. His toolkit made a mockery of my toolbag. He could actually find the things he was looking for. It didn’t take much hinting before he expanded his organisation in a much bigger way. Charlie’s science dome was, as it turned out, about a quarter just broken glass. To move it and hide it away we started by extracting some of the larger and more intact boxes and cartons from the storage dome. Each box I could dig out could then be filled with more broken or useless stuff from Charlie’s dome. Since Charlie’s dome had a flat floor, we could stack containers around the edges, building sub-rooms and mezzanines. It became quite a serious endeavour.
Eventually I started finding things that might be useful. We stored away beams, hosing, pipes, welding patches, tools into the remaining cabinets and cupboards in the science dome. We had huge boxes just full of broken glass, plastics, sheared metal, torn fabrics and foam padding. They would become the new floor for my dome, the gaps to be filled with yet more of the junk. When we were digging around we also found supplies like food – endless tinned and freeze-dried provisions for people who could consume such things. They were completely useless to us. We also found clothes – hard wearing overalls, boots which couldn’t possibly fit on our bulkier feet, suits for external use, shirts, underwear. Again, not required for our survival. So what to do with these vital accoutrements of a society we feared lost, when we thought of it at all? They were a reminder of what we were supposed to be doing, and of the people who would need them, should they have survived. We took them to the others.
We had grown in to a habit of meeting every day in the sideways dome. It was a bit of relief from the lifting, carrying and sorting that Charlie and I had become involved in, and a chance for Chelsea and Charlotte to leave their greenery and generators and come together. It was clear that we missed the constant intimacy of our early days, but too much had happened for us to go back to it, and frustratingly we had not talked about it for too long – and now it was too late. Further, we had taken steps that prevented us from bringing our pods together again. And talking about that would only lead to more disharmony, which we had all worked hard, in silence, to recover from. So this was a special part of the day I suppose. A chance for four kindred, and at first identical, individuals to be together again.
“We found stores of clothing,” Charlie said, hauling over a crate filled with a sample of the clothes we had found.
“Was there much?” asked Chelsea.
“I don’t know how to assess how many humans it would have clothed, but there are several hundred kilogrammes that we’ve excavated so far.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“That’s why we brought it here.”
“Because you want to be rid of it?”
“We have no way to dispose of it,” I said, “but I did think we might use some of it.”
“For what?”
“Some of the fabric could be used to replace water and air filters in the garden,” suggested Charlotte.
“Why don’t we wear it?” I asked.
The others looked at me. It was the still look, the one where everyone is quiet and looks at you and you’re not sure if it’s because you’ve said or done something strange, or if you just missed their reply and they’re waiting for you to say something. It might even be both of those things.”
“Wear it,” I repeated, “the fabrics are durable and would mitigate the wear and scuffing we’re all getting.”
That was certainly true. All of our panels were scratched and scuffed. The wear and tear to our hands and feet was predictably heavy. We had outlived the manual’s longest estimates of functionality, and it was no wonder we were wearing through some of our padding.
“For example,” I pulled out a set of heavy work overalls.
They had Velcro along the calves, otherwise I would never have been able to get my feet through them. Having seen the shoes and boots we had also found it made me wonder how humans managed to balance on such small appendages. I added a pair of gloves that I’d taken from an exo-suit. They fit quite well and barely diminished my freedom of movement. I stood before my companions, in my overalls and gloves, waiting for their assessment. I was greeted by silence. Even Charlie seemed surprised. I’m not sure he realised what I was going to propose.
“Well, otherwise we’ll just be wasting them, and we could do with the protection,” I added.
Chelsea reached into the crate and pulled out a thick crimson jacket. She unfolded it to get a good look and then tugged it on over her shoulders. The arms were a good length, but when she crossed them there came a tearing sound. She turned around and we saw that it was ripped, right down her back.
“I can fix that,” said Charlie, producing a reel of duct tape from his kit.
That opened the floodgates, and we all dove into the crate, pulling out items of clothing, trying them on, taking them off and throwing them at each other, for them to be tested again. It was… fun. We tried some combinations that didn’t work at all. Charlotte managed to get her feet into a pair of heavy boots, but couldn’t get them all the way in – her attempts to walk on tip toe in them was marvellous. We soon ditched all the smaller sizes – we were built for work, and broad despite being fairly slender. Judicious application of duct tape, and occasionally sealant or staples enabled most of the clothes to fit.
It was strangely liberating. We were all dressed, to some extent, in items that had been fabricated for those that had preceded us. In some sense it was oddly funereal, as if we were taking clothes from a dead person’s wardrobe and trying them on. I don’t know how that thought existed within us, but it did feel like an inheritance of some kind. We were taking on the literal mantle of the humans who had lived here, becoming more human in own way. We would never have the memories and lives, personalities of those who had fallen away, but we could find ways to enhance our similarities to them – and use those habits and modes of dress to further distinguish ourselves. Each choice we had made was our own. These last weeks of work and growth had taken us far beyond the mechanistic fixing that we had laboured under to begin with. Something about the change that Chelsea and I had made by breaking off on our own had triggered a change in all of us. Were we becoming people in our right? Outgrowing and overcoming the limitations that the manual insisted were there? We had no way of knowing, but right then, dressed in a patchwork of workwear and (what we assumed were) leisurewear, we felt more like ourselves than we had done before.

Open Boxes – Part Sixteen – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15

open-boxes-4Shaking off the dreams is how we begin every day. If you can’t, if you let them mire your mind, there’s no way to go forward. Since we had been activated – woken – whatever – every night was a hideous cascade of nightmares. Maybe the others got used to it, maybe they didn’t always wake up screaming. I know Chelsea did, worse than me, because I was always there when she woke up. Our shared adventure, and now shared bed had brought us close in ways I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand why she felt a similar bond with Chelsea. Maybe I was still resentful for the crack across the head – a literal crack, which Chelsea filled with the same epoxy that was slathered across the hole Charlie had put in me. I suppose I felt like I was coming apart. The dreams hardly helped. Charlotte was hidden away in the green; her yells of waking lost in the in the fat leaves and branches. Perhaps that soothed her. Perhaps it would have soothed all of us – I never got the chance to find out. It’s hard to bear grudges when the four of you hang in an unreal void of information and history, probably unhealthy too. You can’t have divisions between just four, despite the embarrassment of options: three against one, everyone for themselves, two against two. They’re all bad and unaffordable in such a tiny environment. But what we were supposed to do when Charlotte decided to curtail our freedoms and limit us? Well, as pragmatic and endlessly practical beings, we just got on with it. So we adapted to waking up alone, we adapted to think only within these four crudely conjoined domes, we forgot about the world around us because we weren’t in it. In an important sense, it was not in us either.
In all the junk that had buried my pod I found old media drives, tablets and screens. All broken, if not mechanically then at some deep level. The best I could tease out of them was a few seconds of lavish colour, spilling in waves across the screens. They were more than we had before and they took pride of place when we all met up. They were so limited that speculation could only be wild. We had screes of green fields and blue skies shambling up zigzagging steps of static, cars and planes that collapsed into jittering fragments of grey, brief glimpses of people as they warped and oscillated off the page. But that was it. No text files, no communications, no scraps of navigational data – nothing to tell us where we were or what this place was for. It was frustrating, but we had to give it up. We had to stop worrying and thinking about that. We settled into our routines and the schedule, and fell back on what the manual told us about themselves and tried not to want more than we had. We had our health, as I believe they say, although the clothes we wore only hid the cracks and wear we had gained.
If only the dreams would stop – they were the only thing left (barring the confinement, restricted company, fear of the outside and what lay beyond the garden…) to disturb our existence. They gave us a blood-smeared view of the world that was beyond, or behind us, filled with places, people and things, horrible events that we had no way of corroborating as fact, or dismissing as imagination. What imagination could we have? Our lives so far hardly seemed to merit such frightful dreams – we had done none of those things, or even thought of them – except when we were asleep. I wondered if that meant there was something deeply wrong with our programming. The manual only specified that a personality would be downloaded, the idea of us being without a driver, without being possessed was unmentioned. Was there some latent psychopathy in the framework we had been given which is always there, only overridden by the personality dropped on top? If so, then these dreams were urges at a base level, below the level of awareness. I feared what it might drive us to. Chelsea comforted me with the idea that if I was concerned about such things then I didn’t seem like the sort of person who would go on and commit those acts. Again, the manual was silent. The others listened to my worries, we talked about them and ultimately dismissed them. They didn’t fit into the quiet life we had, so I let them float back below the surface until waking brought them back.
I learned to dread waking up. I avoided going to sleep. Only the routine Chelsea and I had ensured that I did go and refresh regularly, but I’d draw it out as long as possible. That warning flicker of red in the amber could only be ignored so far, as I’d learned. At least we didn’t have to lie awake in the pods waiting for sleep to find us. You just have to wait for the lid to close. Sometimes that can feel like forever.
I pulled open the lid of my pod. It had begun to seize, and maintaining the hinges had fallen off my to do list for several days now – I only really remembered about it when I was getting into the pod. By the time I woke up it felt much less important. I’d gotten into the habit of dimming the dome’s lights a little, so a wash of light poured across my wasteland from the corridor and Charlie’s eternally lit maze of boxes and buckets. The pod lay just outside that beam, close enough for reassurance, so close I could reach out my arm from the pod and have it bathed in light, yet far enough the pod itself seemed a cool, quietly dark place to lie down. I don’t know why that was calming, or why I should need to be calmed when the second the lid closed I would be out, like a light or other than the device you can just turn on or off. Maybe I thought it would keep the nightmares away. Of course it didn’t. That night – we always thought of it as night when we went to sleep, which meant that Chelsea and I had slightly different ideas about the time of day – I dimmed the lights, helped the lid open itself and climbed in. With the lid shuddering and wheezing to itself I sat up and coaxed it down. As it finally slid down I caught a shape in that yellow light that flowed into my dome. I couldn’t see it clearly – an arm raised, a fluid shape that vanished almost immediately – merely impressions, and then of course, I was asleep.
Ten men stand on the cliff’s edge. Five of them face the ocean, the other five face inland. The sky is richly black, a near-blue velvet that seems more texture than void, pitted with glittering eyes of the stars looking down at the cliff, judging. The moon is missing. Its absence is keenly felt by the ten men, and they look for it, in whichever direction they face. Their ankles are bound, a spike of black iron driven diagonally from the outside of the ankle, down and into the hard, rough rock below. For all that they are in constant pain, they attend to their task: to watch. Below them the ocean idly grinds away at the rockface, content to brutalise it over aeons. I approach the cliff from below, across the wet sand, stepping over the boulders that mar its sleek surface. The gentle spray from the waves stings like acid and I hop onto the treacherous rocks. The brine has burned holes in my calves, black orifices that leak – thick liquid drooling down my legs. Pools form about my feet, and though I try to hop further up the rocks, the substance pouring out of my legs is treacle thick and spilling over the rocks, filling up the hollows and nooks of the beach. Where it touches the seawater, the sea becomes inert, its waves abruptly halted and the black ichor rolls out across its surface. Up and down the stilling waves it goes, still trickling out of the burned holes. The volume of sludge oozing out of me is so vast that I am buoyed up by it. It has filled and covered the seas, a black tide that rises up the cliff face – no longer interested in slow annihilation, the sea’s new coating surges upward, engulfing the rock until I’m brought to a level with the cliff top. The ten men stand there still. The five who have faced the obliteration of the ocean, their heads turn to watch me as I rise. The black blood trickles over the cliff, follows the black iron spikes into the ankles of those five. They jerk, spastically wrenching their limbs back and forth, beating their unseeing colleagues, black liquid gushes from their fingertips, mouth, nose, ears and eyes. It joins the obsidian sea around us. I step forward, between their collapsing bodies, my hands on the shoulders of two of the remaining five. I use their strength to pull my feet forward, though they remain swathed in darkness. I step over the collapsed and emptying bodies and onto the grass of the cliff. I leave burning black footprints. Behind me the five men erupt in screaming as the moon finally rises, from out of the earth before us. It is a violent yellow, sick with disease, its substance fractured and swollen. It looms over us and the screaming intensifies. I join them as my flesh begins to boil, tatters of skin and muscle pattering down into the oily murk is spreading out to coat everything in death.
Predictably, I woke up screaming – both at the dream and the dimly remembered sense of something wrong as I sank into sleep. My head hurt – it seemed I had banged it again, so keen to escape from sleep as the pod began to open. A bad start to what turned out to be a much worse day.

Open Boxes – Part Seventeen – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16

open-boxes-4Charlie’s head was nestled into my elbow, the tubes sticking out of his neck making my jacket wet. I began to realise that the others were not okay with this situation. I was just being practical – what do you do with someone’s head? It’s not like there’s a drawer specifically for them. We hadn’t found anyone else’s heads – we hadn’t even found any spares for ourselves. The most we’d managed were glue and tape. And to do that for Charlie I’d need his body, which wasn’t around. It still seemed to me that the best plan was to put his head in a safe place. If his body showed up we could try to cobble him back together (though the manual was not very encouraging on this point). If we just left it where it was then we’d never find it again – it would get buried by the plants, or roll off under a counter. I certainly didn’t want that to happen. I made some time for myself by wiping the fire suppressant foam off his eyes with my sleeve. They were still staring at me. Oh yes, I was expected to defend myself…
“I’ve only just woken up – this is the first I’ve seen of any of you today,” I pointed out, raising my jacket to show my freshly gleaming greens across the board, “I’m barely out of the pod.”
“That doesn’t mean your first action wasn’t decapitating Charlie!” said Charlotte.
“Well, that’s true – but why would you think it was me?”
“There are only four of us, and we were together. That leaves you.”
“Hardly – it might just as easily have been the pair of you, now trying to blame me.”
“But we know it wasn’t us.”
“How am I supposed to know that? Especially when you start by accusing me!”
“This is a pointless argument,” Chelsea interrupted.
“Um, it feels like it probably matters,” I mumbled, “why would you even think I had done something like this?”
“It’s not so much you, as it is that the only likely culprit is you,” replied Charlotte.
“You don’t… think there’s anything strange about your behaviour?” asked Chelsea.
I adjusted Charlie’s head – it seemed my hand span was large enough to grip the back of his head in my fingers, which freed my arm up for gesticulation.
“No… why would you ask that?”
Chelsea and Charlotte did that looking at each other thing again. It was beginning to annoy me. I felt that there were ideas being exchanged without the plain and honest use of verbal language. It’s all we’ve really got – these moulded faces don’t do a lot of flexing, but it seemed Charlotte and Chelsea were managing it. I felt a little left out.
“Christopher,” began Chelsea, “could I – take that from you.”
She reached out, tentatively, for Charlie’s head. I snatched it back out of reach.
“Hey – no. Look, I’ve got a plan for this. I’ve been through the steps – I’m not going to throw it out. Couple of reasons: one – we might find his body, and I’d kick myself if we couldn’t find all the parts, two – there is no way to dispose of anything is there Charlotte,“ (I addressed this directly to her), “because we don’t have an outside that we can put anything in anymore, do we? It’s all inside, so even if I put Charlie’s head in one of his containers for disposal, it’s just going to stay there, stacked up and labelled like everything else in his dome. So they’re effectively the same thing – fine. If that’s what you want to hear, I’m going to throw his head away, and not throw his head away. Is that what you want?”
“What? No – what the hell are you talking about Christopher?” I’d apparently stunned Charlotte with my reasoning.
“Christopher. Shall we just sit down for a minute,” suggested Chelsea, stepping past the scorched ground and onto the narrow path that wound through the miniature jungle.
I had no problem with that, though I still thought my companions were behaving very strangely towards me, to say the least. I rolled Charlie’s head back up under arm again and followed Chelsea through the foliage. Charlotte waited a moment, and then followed. Walking through the garden is a wonderful experience. I gather that plants don’t normally grow like this, but in the dome the flowers and trees have been trained to follow three dimensional frames so that they fill the space far more densely than they could otherwise. The frames themselves bled blue light constantly, to help the plants photosynthesise. It gave the place a magical quality, full of overlaid shadows which drifted about with the light breeze. I reached out to stroke the rose petals as we passed them. Charlotte must have been devoting considerable effort to keeping the plants trimmed. When we first discovered the garden it was a wondrous tangled jungle, but now it was relatively neat – for a sprawling organic system. There is something calming about being surrounded by green. Maybe the insides of our pods should have been green, or a tint to the lid. Charlie probably had something we could use for that, tucked away in his tidily sorted archives. Thankfully he was conscientious about labelling the many crates, boxes and drawers – since he wouldn’t be talking to us any time soon – I should still be able to find what I wanted. Of course, there would be no need to exchange anything either. I didn’t feel great about just having the things I wanted – I was used to some conversation, a swap of relatively worthless things for the routine and familiarity of it. Without Charlie… a great many things would be different.
It was dawning on me, slowly, yet surely that something was awry. A feature of consciousness, I think I had decided, is the ability to recognise and self-correct when you’re going wrong. It’s a hard won property, requiring more than we had been endowed with when we emerged into this broken world. I’ve said before that routine soothes, that planning out the schedule provides a framework for bodies to operate in, but it also cages the mind. In determining our limits, in proscribing the outside, I’d turned inward and pushed away what we’d learned, what we – Chelsea and I – had felt and seen. I’d begun rewriting my mind and my feelings, denying what we’d discovered in favour of this simpler sliver of life. We had all colluded in it, but I perhaps had taken in furthest. I had to – so much changed so suddenly, and perhaps that seems an exaggeration, but we’re not as well rounded as possible we’d like. For all of our fixing and carrying on as if we had a job to do, a purpose, it was only what we had assumed we should do – we had assumed our very identities, spun then out of a functional manual, terrible dreams and those traces of what we guessed must be instinct that caused us to take names, find a self for each of us. Hardly a surprise then when our hollow shells crack, revealing nothing underneath. When you’ve no understanding of the world how can you face it? Maybe we were meant to crumble, maybe I was just the first of us to do so, unless poor Charlie had crumbled all to literally before me. And that was what I had lost – Charlie. I’d lost myself so much that I could carry my companion’s – my friend’s – head under my arm and be concerned only with its fit disposition for storage.
The realisation spread through me like the sensation of an egg cracked open on your stomach. A cold trickle of awareness returning, slickly dragging my mind back into its former place.
We all sat together, Charlotte and Chelsea on either side of me. Hanging one’s head appears to be the appropriate symbol for contrition, and my friends recognised it.
“Yep, he’s caught up,” said Chelsea, leaning back on the bench, and staring up into the branches.
“It wasn’t Christopher then?” Charlotte replied.
“I never thought it was.”
“Well, that’s a different problem altogether then.”
I rolled Charlie’s head around so I could look him in the face.
“Yes, I see the problem now. I’m sorry. I was lost, somewhere inside,” I said, “Charlie should still have his head, but I didn’t do this, I couldn’t do this, not to Charlie, not to any of you – and neither did you…”
The garden felt less safe and comforting than it had a few moments before.
“But we’re all sealed up – there’s no one else in here,” I protested.
Charlotte shuffled awkwardly, unwilling to meet my gaze. She wouldn’t look at Chelsea either.
“But that’s not true, is it Charlotte?” said Chelsea, “you locked us out of the mysteries and away from all the questions and everything outside of this, didn’t you? You and Charlie. You didn’t want us to find out the truth – what happened here, what happened to all the people. What was it between you and Charlie – did you leave a way out? Something only Charlie knew about…”
Charlotte was quiet for a long time. The leaves and flowers bobbed around us, casting shadows like tears across her face.
“I – I was afraid. Afraid that we would find people, survivors and everything we had would be suddenly be a lie, would be taken from us and replaced with another reality, one that we hadn’t chosen and built for ourselves. That we would be taken from each other – we don’t know anyone else – we don’t know what they’re like. You know this – you know we’re not supposed to be like this – “
“We’re beyond the manual, Charlotte,” said Chelsea, “we let you make decisions because we were afraid too. I knew we had gone too far, me and Christopher, and that was my fault – it was what I wanted. And Christopher got hurt, and I thought you were right to let us hide. But there’s something out there that we can’t hide from.”
“Chelsea – Christopher – I’m sorry. Charlie…”
Charlotte reached over and took Charlie’s head out of my lap. I let her take him.
“We – Charlie and I – I thought we’d sealed us off. Maybe we had. I just wanted us to stay together, but Charlie thought… he wondered if Chelsea was right. He didn’t tell me what he was going to do. He decided to re-open the airlock in the sideways dome. He fixed it so it looked like it was still sealed. Why would anyone check. He did it while you were sleeping,” she touched my arm, “and while Chelsea was repairing a heating system he’d disabled earlier. He was only out for a short time – “
“Where we you?”
“I was asleep too.”
“When I woke up, it was because Charlie was waking up, he’d released the lid and half pulled me out before I knew it was him. He was terrified. He kept saying ‘they’re all still out there’, and then he ran off into the garden. By the time I found Chelsea the fire alarm systems had been triggered, and then we found you. And Charlie.”
We all sat there on the benches, huddled together under the leaves. Every slight sound was louder than ever before. Every shadow hid another shape within it. Our world felt both smaller and larger than it had before, and much emptier.

Open Boxes – Part Eighteen – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17

The crackle of flames reached us before the thick smoke struggled through the mass of plants. Another fire in the garden. We leaped into action. I stuffed Charlie’s head unceremoniously into my toolbag – I didn’t want to leave him lying around, I thought he’d be safer with us. Chelsea and Charlotte ran for the fire extinguishers; the suppression systems were already kicking in, sucking air out of the dome while that precious supply of water sprayed over the burning wood and leaves. Very quickly I was alone, in a smoke-clad jungle. I couldn’t hear the others, though I knew they could hardly be far away. A flicker in the corner of my vision; I whipped around to follow the motion, but it was lost in the constant motion of the garden. Another flicker, and then another, all around me. This was no time for staying still. With the air being removed, the smoke was rising upwards like a tangle of snakes climbing for the sky. I ducked low, and followed the path back to where we had found Charlie, my eyes constantly drawn away by movement. The fire was already out, ended almost as soon as it had begun – another blackened patch of earth and naked frame right by the original fire.
“Is there anything up there,” asked Charlotte, “that might be loose, discharging sparks?”
“Shouldn’t think so. This isn’t accidental – we’re beyond that Charlotte,” said Chelsea, “we’re not alone.”
“On that,” I added, “I’m pretty sure we’re being watched. I keep seeing things in the garden.“
As if to prove my point, Charlotte and Chelsea both spun in opposite directions, their eyes caught as mine had been by anomalous twitching behind the branches.
“We should go…” I said, conscious that we had almost zero visibility.
“Alright, all together – we head back to the sideways dome,” directed Charlotte, ever in charge, hefting the extinguisher which she’d barely had to use on the fire.
We automatically lined up so we could see in as many directions as possible and started walking. Every patch of darkness in the green seemed alive with activity, and it felt like ghosts were crawling up my back. Charlotte jerked to a halt and hurled her extinguisher into the jungle. A flurry of motion exploded out of the point of impact, so fast I could barely make sense of what I was seeing. Three tiny figures, almost vibrating they were moving so quickly, bounded out between the bushes and pounced on Charlotte, knocking her immediately to the floor. Chelsea and I were both frozen for a beat, staring aghast at the creatures swarming over Charlotte. Thin, wan little people, they were – impossibly – the children we had left in that room, hammering at their cages. And now they were scrabbling with sharp, vicious fingers at her clothing and the joins at her neck and shoulders, flailing with that awful shivering, their papery skin cracking where Charlotte thrust back against them. Her screaming shocked us out of our own horror and we threw ourselves at her attackers. I grabbed one by its shoulders and found it unexpectedly light – when I spun to throw it, I stumbled after it. The child struck a tree and recovered immediately, bounding off it and back at my throat.
Chelsea had taken a more violent tack, following Charlotte’s lead, and swung her extinguisher at the children clawing at Charlotte. The red cylinder passed through the first child’s skull with no hesitation, and it exploded in a cloud of dust and shards of bone that fell instantly over Charlotte’s face. It took the second child in the shoulder, tearing its body almost in half. That didn’t stop it – even with one arm dangling at its waist, the desiccated child spun back to assault Chelsea. They moved so fast, like they were moving between thoughts that they were on us before we could react. And horrible – their wicked hands scraping against my skin, those dead dry eyes above a mouth open as if to scream, but making my sound, just every vibration of theirs shedding more dusty skin and wrinkled hair over me. I felt unclean and tainted, I wanted it off me. I took the expedient route of throwing myself on the ground, and crushing the little monster between us. Its bones broke with appalling ease, sticking jagged through its skin until I smashed its head back into the ground and it finally collapsed. Chelsea had simply torn it in half and stamped on its skull.
We hauled Charlotte back up but she was shaking uncontrollably, her hands fluttering as we tried to grab hold of them. I was worried that they had jabbed their bony digits into something vital, but she muttered that she was alright. That had to be enough for us – there was further thrashing through the branches, leaves and twigs shaken loose – the rest of them were coming for us. We had no time to think about where we were going. If we had stopped for a moment we would have realised that for all the horror these dried up children brought, they were far more fragile than us, and surely presented less threat than the panic they had instigated. We fell over each other in the scramble out of the jungle, heading for the twisted corridor that would take us away from the children and back into the rest of our habitat.
Chelsea slid into the crumpled opening first, while Charlotte banged her fists against the doorway with impatience and fear. I certainly didn’t want to stand with my back to the jungle, not with those things in it, but I didn’t have any great desire to watch them running at us. Fear is hard to manage – stand your ground or run – close your eyes, or peel them wide open? I chose barely open slits – cringing at the prospect of being attacked. A loud clang, and a scream came from inside the crushed corridor and Chelsea thrashed her way back up and out.
“They’re in the corridor – crawling up from the dome.”
Behind her I could see pale, scrawny shapes clutching at her back and legs. Charlotte hauled her out, Chelsea lashing away with her feet, smashing one of the ghouls against the steel of the doorway.
“We’re trapped – they have to be coming in through the airlock Charlie reopened,” whispered Charlotte.
I don’t know when we’d switched to whispers, as if they didn’t already know we were here, and we could hide from them by lowering our voices. Our unintentional shouts and yells hardly helped when we saw them climbing up the hall and insinuating themselves from out between the trees and dangling flowers. We found ourselves back to back again as the nightmarish little figures climbed down out of the garden’s framework and out of the doorway. They assembled themselves in a twitching oval around us, the shaking in their limbs making their hands clench and jaws rattle. Except for their involuntary convulsions they seemed still – we were surrounded. Although there were only around twenty of them, their presence was incredibly threatening.
“So, these are the survivors then?” asked Charlotte.
“Not really,” said Chelsea, “when we last saw them they were in cases that said they were definitely dead. They’re so light they can’t possibly be alive – they fall apart as soon as you hit them.”
“Do you think it’s all of them,” I said, “all the children from that room?”
“I didn’t count,” replied Chelsea, “but they certainly look like creepy dead kids to me.”
We couldn’t just stay there, and apart from pulling us apart I couldn’t imagine what the children wanted. If they did want to talk we might have spoiled that by smashing several of them to pieces. I could probably find time to feel bad about that later. For now it felt like we were in a stand-off, waiting for some shift in the balance to spring us back into fighting. I began to calm down in the momentary peace, able to assess our relative strengths a little. Although they outnumbered us, they wouldn’t stand a chance if we started using weapons like those extinguishers, or the tools I still had slung over my shoulder. Were these the things that tore Charlie’s head off? Their behaviour made that seem likely, but it gave us no answers to important questions like, why, and why now? Had the monsters broken out of their cages? It seemed unlikely given how frail they were, which meant they had been released – released to go after us? It was weeks ago that we found them. Perhaps they couldn’t get at us until Charlie opened the way. I tried to imagine them making their way across the dusty ground outside, the thin atmosphere barely moving their clothes as they climbed like spiders down the cliff, surrounding Charlie and chasing him back inside. Poor Charlie.
They were just staring at us, with those dry, cracked eyes, staring through us – at each other? – although they looked at us I didn’t think they were really seeing us. How could they – how could they be moving anyway? That was an important philosophical question, since they didn’t seem like survivors to me and I was getting no sense that we should be prioritising their existence. The manual had done little to prepare us for this kind of situation. But we did know something about the children – we knew they had lived here, were educated here, and finally closed up in those boxes. Maybe it was to keep them safe, it could have been that they were experiments, monsters who had to be kept imprisoned to protect the rest of the population. That didn’t fit with children who drew pictures of their families and painted forests and castles. It came a little closer to children who drew pictures of things we had only seen in nightmares. That gave me some ideas at least. Slowly, very slowly, I lifted my tool bag off my shoulder and bent terribly slowly to the ground. I didn’t take my eyes off the children.
“What are you doing Christopher?” demanded Charlotte, in a hissed whisper.
“I’m not entirely sure, but I think I’ve got something that belongs to one of them.”
I unzipped my bag, pushed Charlie’s head to one side and pulled out the bright yellow pencil case with “Spongebob Squarepants” in a bold font across the top.
“What is that?” Charlotte continued.
“Something we found in the classroom, with all those pictures you destroyed,” hissed Chelsea.
Conflict begets conflict, being under stress brings other matters to the surface that we had thought forgotten, forgiven or buried. It was those paintings I was thinking of, and I only remembered one name from them: Julia. I laid the pencil case on the ground as far away as I could reach without moving my feet – I was happier next to the others than next to them. Then I raised myself into a crouch, feet ready to bounce away if they attacked.
“I –“ it wasn’t a promising start, but as I began to speak I realised I didn’t know what I was going to say. I tried again: “I, I borrowed this. I hope you don’t mind.”
No reaction from the children. It was hard to be sure, since they never stopped quivering and shaking, but none of their attention was brightly lit on the pencil case. It had been a faint hope that they would recognise it. I don’t know what I even hoped for – that somehow a trace of their personality had survived death and radical dehydration and was looking for their missing stationery. The ideas that come to us in times of stress are often ridiculous. I couldn’t help a snarl of laughter from escaping me. Once it was out, it was hard to stop. I don’t know what I was laughing at – whether it was at my own absurd expectations, or some aspect of my self, snapping under the pressure.
“Christopher!” I received admonishment from both of my friends.
“I’m sorry – it’s just – I thought they wanted the pencil case back,” I dissolved into giggles again.
The children shifted awkwardly around us, a movement more human that ghoulish corpse. I got my nervous laughter under control, and tried again.
“Julia. Is one of you Julia?” I asked.
Absolute stillness from the children. Not even a shiver.
“Julia. I saw one of your pictures. It was very good,” I was babbling, but it felt like I had their attention, and didn’t want to break the spell – who knew what would follow, “do you remember what you drew? You drew the station, from the outside, and some hills. And – if you do remember, and you want to let me know, just – I don’t know – raise your hand or something,” I felt increasingly like an idiot, and was quite sure Chelsea and Charlotte would agree, “you drew a man – a very tall man, stepping through those hills. He had the biggest eyes…”

Open Boxes – Part Nineteen – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18

We were surrounded by a ring of dead children, their mouths open on crackling worn skin, breathless – them and us – we waited for their response. They swayed faintly in the soft breeze. I wondered if I might have made a mistake, thinking that I’d be able to pluck a sentient thought out of those crinkled and inert brains. The picture that a girl called Julia had made, showing an impossibly tall figure stepping through nightmares towards the installation, that was the only thing we had that connected us to the children. If we couldn’t find a way to communicate, to form some bond between us, we’d have no choice but to shatter them into dust. Despite how frightening they were, and what we thought they had probably done to Charlie, once they had been just children. It seemed unlikely that they had chosen this horrific extended existence. They didn’t deserve our smashing fists and pounding feet; those were not extensions of myself that I recognised or celebrated. We had built, fixed and persevered: not destroyed. And, in many ways I felt they were more like us than that. We had been prepared, settled into rest and been awoken in a world we had no understanding of and no preparation. We had treated them as we ourselves feared that we would be treated by proper humans. Our apparent enemies were smaller, weaker, more desperate than us. Were they too trying to find out who and what they were without the animating intelligence that was supposed to be there? Or were they truly husks, acting automatically, blundering through their new post-death lives as we had done? How would I have wished to be approached on emergence from my pod, from those nightmares that felt like they were all I had ever known? I imagined that they had less of a welcome than I had, when Charlotte dug me out of the rubble, clearing scraping metal and plastic from the lid of my pod – a lid I had thought utterly black until she appeared through scraped bands of transparency. If Chelsea and I had been their welcome, standing, horrified as they twitched to life in those cages… I would be angry too.
They surrounded us still. Newly bolstered by the sense of kinship I had plucked from nowhere, and heartened by the idea I stepped forwards, scooping up the pencil case and offering it to the child standing before me. Looking into her withered eyes, I searched for some glimmer of awareness, something other than raw automata inhabiting her thin, creased flesh.
Once more I asked, “Julia?”
The child I approached had long hair on one side of its head – it hung at broken angles like a fistful of wiring. The other side was bare down to the bone, scraped off either in our skirmish, finding its way through the broken halls or in some unimaginable accident in life? I imagined she could be a Julia, or had been once, perhaps she could be again. Why shouldn’t these pitiful creatures have a chance at existence, just like us. Since they had actually been human before maybe they rated better odds than we did, crafted in the style of humanity but with none of its freewheeling genetic variety. Charlotte hissed a warning at me, but I shrugged it off. I saw unreasonably confident that these creatures bore no threat, or at least not intentionally. But then I hadn’t had a pile of them scratching at my face and neck; such experiences can change a person’s viewpoint. I knelt down in front of the child, my face no more than a foot away from hers, and tried again.
“Julia, do you remember the pictures? A man in the sky, giant eyes in the stars – “
A piercing wail emerged from the child’s mouth, it rose up from some deep place hardly plausible in its frail broken form. Startled, I fell back, landing on my elbows. Julia’s wail was picked up by the other children, and it rushed around us like a curtain of grief, a sharp outpouring of some emotion I had not experienced, but recognised intuitively, somewhere down in that neural structure we’d been provided with. Chelsea and Charlotte’s hands tucked under my arms, hauling me upright between them. That touch as ever, reassuring. I certainly needed that because the intensity of the children’s wailing only increased, becoming deafening, even to those synthetic ears we bore.
“I might,” I shouted to the others, who stood only inches away, “have made a bad decision…”
The wail ended as it had begun, fading first from the child most distant to Julia as if she was sucking the sound back into herself. She rocked on her feet as the sound slapped into her. There followed a moment of absolute silence and then they shuddered into life again, almost bouncing into the air on suddenly nimble feet. They kept making us jump, an odd sensation, like a hiccup in thoughts that leaves you hyper alert, ready for action, of any kind. And again, as they bolted away, down the half crumpled shut walkway, in a cloud of dust.
“Well, that was strange,” said Chelsea.
I was about to respond with a meaningless agreement, no idea what happened either. But we were interrupted again. This time by a deep rumble that vibrated through our feet and made our heads rattle on their fittings.
“That… Doesn’t feel promising,” muttered Charlotte.
And yet, it did. To me it murmured “change” in a voice I heard in my heart, or whatever it was that the manual said was in my chest. Batteries, probably. Change is something that we had denied ourselves for these past weeks. Content to indulge in our limited facsimile of life within these small walls, we had ignored what was around us, physically and temporally. Our lack of curiosity struck me again, and I wondered where it had gone. Why had only Chelsea retained that sense of adventure? Even then, it had been quashed when our safety was threatened. Was it a sense native to our structure, to our being to retreat, to settle – even when answers were knocking on our door? I could see in Chelsea a desire to travel, to explore that our experience in the spherical cavern had somehow quashed. Perhaps that was just Charlotte, who stood by, pragmatic and serious. Too harsh – she had tried to keep us safe. Charlie’s head, digging into my back from its resting place in my tool bag told me all I needed to know about how well that had worked out. I felt a shard of excitement piercing me, up through the fear and the everyday mundanity of what we lived. Was that rumble the sound of the future?
Absurd thoughts – whatever it was, it rattled around before adding a threatening growl which grew, as the floor beneath us began to visibly vibrate, leaves shaken into an impromptu autumn around us. The flooring buckled under our feet, and then we felt the ground move under us, lurching hard, lifting us off our feet. It jolted hard, shifting the floor several feet sideways. It was easy to forget that our garden dome sat right on the edge of a cliff, the twisted tunnel that joined it to the next dome twisted over its edge and linking to the dome that had landed sideways, its base flat to the cliff face. Much more jolting might well take us over that edge, and the thunderous grumbling was far from diminishing. The whole floor bucked up while we prevarication, crumbling as it tilted.
“Not to just state the obvious, but we really need to go!” yelled Chelsea.
A dilemma then: we could follow the children, which I was minded towards, with some conception that they knew where they were going – at the least they knew they had to flee. Whether they were fleeing from us, or from the earthquake now shaking the dome, who knew. I made to dive down the hallway after them, but once more, Charlotte pulled me back.
“If the dome goes over, we’ll be crushed.”
“If we don’t we get to be smashed on top of the science dome. We’re trapped.”
Since Charlotte had sealed off the garden, there was no way for us escape into the larger complex. Not that I was especially keen to – that way held unknown horrors. But the unknown would be better than almost certain destruction if we fell. A frustrating immobility held us – neither forward nor backwards offered hope. We are practical creatures and acting is our natural state. Just standing there was a kind of suffering. Indecision leading to our fate was not something I had reckoned with – we had acted, done something for all of our time awake, even when we retreated into our four simple domes, we had continued to create a kind of life for ourselves. The notion that it could be torn away from us so effortlessly was appalling. It was even more awful that we had paid so little notice to the precariousness of our existence – literally living on the edge of cliff should have given us pause for thought many weeks ago. And yet, it was simply the nature of the world we had found ourselves in – upside down, twisted around, broken. That anything worked at all was a kind of miracle, so perhaps it was no surprise that we had accepted the fragile balance we lived in. If we had not been so insular and focused on ourselves, maybe we would have spent some time investigating the geological stability of our new home. On the other hand, this didn’t feel like what I expected a tectonic catastrophe to feel like. No, this felt like we were more than just random victims of some shift in the earth. Coupled with the children’s reaction, and the deep sensation of wrongness that rang in my chest with every rumble of the earth, I felt this was something else – something beyond mere gravity and the sliding plates of a world (if this was even a planet with more than the faintest resemblance to the Earth we held reference data for) – there was a spiteful hand at work, poking us towards dissolution and oblivion. And the cliff.
We tarried too long. Choice was taken away from us: another violent impact from below twisted the garden dome, shearing the tunnel away and twisting its entrance around so we could see the edge of the cliff top. I had the uncomfortable image of a giant kicking us over the brink, treating us like a leaden football which refused to take to the air, preferring to slink into a hole. With the breach of atmosphere, air howled out around us, ripping plants from their lodgings – a hail of leaves and branches battered us, flinging Chelsea to the floor as the vast framework that supported the garden creaked at the change in pressure. Under assault from a thousand kinds of foliage we were battered and dragged towards the crippled pressure door. A tree uprooted caught me and flung me towards the ragged exit, but a strike by another tree smacked me hard into dark glass, which cracked under the impact but held. Safe from the escaping air I was free to fall to the ground, as breathless as a thing without breath can be from the impact. I could see Charlotte clinging to the base of the frame as flowers, bushes and streamers of ivy funnelled through the air and into the grey airlessness beyond. It doesn’t take long for a dome that gave shelter to a myriad of organisms to be gutted and left airless and dead. As the last of the air was torn from our haven, and we began to pick ourselves up, the devastated garden dome was grinding over the edge.
The grey dust of outside was almost within reach – just feet away from me – but how could I abandon my companions in such dire straits? The sensation of the ground giving way – a hollowness inside as the balance of the garden slid over the edge, every foot a squealing of metal felt through the ground and even heard in the thin atmosphere that remained – nauseating, a visceral sense of tipping both inside and out. With a final shudder the dome twisted again, and tumbled over the edge. I fell upwards, tossed into the framework of jungle that still held strong in the heart of the now ravaged jungle. It was far from a comfortable bed, as those formidable frames twisted and bent, facing a new angle of gravity from that they were used to. It folded around me, a giant spider’s web, clogged with asphyxiated flowers, and together we plummeted.

Open Boxes – Part Twenty – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19

I fly towards a face, at incredible speeds, the fabric of space vibrating around me. Its vast maw opens –
metal tubes bend over, crushing dead bark into my arms and hands –
– flames rush up to meet me, ready to swallow me whole –
dark flips into light as the framework that I‘ve become tangled in is torn from its roots, like the trees that tumble around me –
– the pressure of a wound in space dragging me towards it. An array of endless spiny teeth unfold from nowhere, all around me, ready to close –
an awful tearing sound, as the roof of the dome peels open, ready to dump its contents onto the rising ground and battered domes below –
– an eye blinks and I’m speared by its eyelashes which burn like acid –
I realise that I’m blacking out, and wonder if it’s all the knocks and blows to the head I’ve taken, or if my systems, worn thin are finally giving up –
– a concentrated stream of images pummels my eyes, sprays of blood, an endless parade of dead open mouths that want to snap shut and hide me away forever, a knife spinning in the middle of a room, its tip ever pointed at me –
I do at least see the barest moment before impact as the garden dome fully flips, hurling me and the savaged garden framework out into open space…

Waking is ever the worst part of the day. This time I woke without being alerted by my pod, and no crazed cover lifted away to reveal my familiar home. Instead I found myself face down in a deep furrow of grey dust and surprisingly sharp tiny pebbles. Everything hurt. I was curled up, with my hands protecting my head, which was a surprisingly smart move, considering the speed at which I had been tossed of the ruined dome. I tried to unroll myself from my crouch, which was a fascinating experiment in agony. Then I attempted just turning over. I was able to twist my body so I lay on my back, but couldn’t move my left leg at all, leaving my right awkwardly bent over it. If I breathed I was sure this would be the time for a deep sigh. System checks first. The impact had shredded my lovely gloves – gauntlets I’d taken from an old spacesuit. In ripping the fabric my fall had taken three fingers off my left hand and bent backwards my right thumb and forefinger. At least the missing ones didn’t hurt. I gingerly inspected my head with my remaining fingers, wincing as the result of a hard impact on my elbows and shoulders made themselves known – I appeared to have full articulation at least – as expected, the old cracks to my head seemed to have popped open again and my fingertips came away sticky. Well, as I said – that was hardly surprising. Similarly, the patch over my stomach had torn away and I’d dragged a thick mess of bloody dust with it as I turned over. Being able to sigh would, I felt, be an enormous relief about now. I was pretty sure there was something very wrong with my left leg and wasn’t very keen to see how bad it was, but there was only so much longer I could put it off. In the thin atmosphere my internal fluids were quickly evaporating, and I needed to put a stop to that before my innards steamed away before my eyes.
With yet more complaining I raised myself on my elbows. My leg wasn’t what arrested my attention. I had been thrown out far beyond the cliff and I could see the utter ruin that the fall had made of our home. When the garden had tipped over it had sheared the top off the sideways dome and then smashed end on onto Charlie’s science dome. Not content with annihilating three quarters of our painstakingly repaired home, it had fallen forwards, its newly jagged top slicing through my dome before coming to rest upside down on top of it. Perfect. An avalanche of rock had accompanied it, burying and crushing anything fragile we had left outside, like the stubs of corridors and the field of rectangular units we had cut away or ignored. Fuck.
At the top of the cliff I half expected to see the spindly giant figure from Julia’s painting, staring down at its handiwork. There was nothing up there, no gloating form, just the gleaming white pressure door that had joined the garden to the rest of the installation. It looked like Charlotte and Charlie had sealed it so tightly that the dome had just sheared off around it. That was fairly promising – if the garden had dragged the rest of the base with it there was no chance I’d have survived the wreckage that would have cascaded over me. I couldn’t see anything of Charlotte and Chelsea, but I couldn’t do anything about that, not while I was still unable to move. Ah, now I could see what was wrong with my left leg: the framework that had snarled me up as we fell over the cliff had twisted and torn as gravity ripped it free from its anchors. The savagely sharp remains had stabbed me straight through the thigh, but I appeared to have been tossed forward into this furrow by the impact, and the thin girders had not, and my leg had been torn open down to the knee. Trailing away from me was the spangled wreckage of that framework, a chain of bent metal and ragged plants leading all the way back to the garden dome, pancaked upside down. A faint shower of dust and pebbles continued to rain on the shattered domes.
So that was all quite bad. I lay back for a moment, gazing into the maroon sky and its distant points of light. I felt lost. Even when we had first woken up things were better than this – we were in a slowly leaking dome full of junk, but we had scraps of power, and each other. Now I had no idea if the other two had even survived the impact – I feared not since I had already been incredibly lucky in being flung forward, and I had immediately lost sight of Charlotte and Chelsea when the dome heaved over the cliff. I didn’t want to die out there. Actual death hadn’t been a concrete concern before. While we had feared the idea of deactivation at the hands of survivors, or running out of power, or even being crushed by those strange stone talons, I had never thought that I might truly die, alone in the dust. But with my blood ablating away, trapped by a strangle of metal spikes I thought for the first time what it might really mean for all of me to just go away. It wouldn’t be like sleep, where despite the nightmares I knew that I was still there, it was still me to whom those images were being presented, still me who was scared. But if I just ran down here, or bled out I would fade away into something else… nothing?
A puff of dust by my face, sprinkling me with yet more deathly grey. But as the dust settled I was greeted by the incongruous grinning face of a yellow anthropomorphic sponge. I looked up. Standing over me, head tilted at a ghastly angle was the child I’d named Julia. One arm dangled at the end of a shredded clump of fibres at her shoulder, and she had even less hair than I’d seen before. Over her other arm was my tool bag, which, with an economical shrug, she dropped into the dust by my side. I nodded in acknowledgment. What else could I do – the exchange was conducted in the silence that the outside demanded – I mouthed “thank you Julia”. Without a further gesture she folded to the ground; what I’d thought a collapse arranged her into a cross legged seat a few feet away from me.
The first thing I checked in my bag was Charlie. He had a few more dents than before, had flattened one side of his face and swollen the other, but he looked no worse than before – he was still detached from his body of course. The bag had everything in it – an excellent piece of luggage – even its zips had held tight, though crusted with dust. Why Julia had thought to bring it to me I didn’t know, but I felt only gratitude. With so many injuries it was difficult to know where to begin, but I had the manual to help me out. It had taken quite a beating, half the pages were torn from its ring-bound spine, but it was mostly in the right order.
Time to prioritise: first, power. I smeared away the viscous scum my internal fluids had formed with the dust and saw the glowing green lights underneath: still pretty much fully refreshed, though I didn’t feel it. This certainly wasn’t the time to think about all of our pods, hopelessly crushed under rock. There wasn’t much I could do about my missing fingers, unless I happened across them later, but I could certainly straighten the fingers on my right hand. I braced them against the ground and considered my options. I only had a thumb and ring finger on the left, but I just needed to use my palm as a hammer… My thumb and forefinger cracked back into place, more or less. A little nauseating wiggling put them back in their knuckle sockets properly. Second priority: dexterity – achieved. I used one of the rags from my bag to wipe as much of the black gunk off my head as possible and then liberally smeared the back of my head with epoxy and squeezed with my hands over my ears. After a moment I let go and experimentally rotated my head. It felt… well, it didn’t feel like it was leaking, so that was good. Then I patched up my stomach, gluing a fresh plastic sheet over the hole. So far so good.
I didn’t think there was any way I could pull my leg off the spike. I couldn’t move it below the knee, but that might just be because the spike was pressed hard against the tendons. The manual had some horrible suggestions for me. I couldn’t see any way to avoid them, so I dug in. I cut away the trouser leg, leaving my right leg still clothed. Then I stabbed a screwdriver into the join between my hip and the top of my leg. By working it back and forth I found, with a thick internal click that almost made me black out again, the bone socket. I wedged it open, and with my ruined left hand shoved a thin spanner as far in as I could. A sucking clunk rang through my hips and my left leg popped free. The disengagement procedure had worked. I pulled myself into a crouch on my right knee and twisted my disembodied leg, working it free of the metal spike. It didn’t look good. The spike had done considerable damage, tearing both tendons in the thigh and cracking the knee joint itself. I sat with my leg in my arms, thinking about how weird it felt. From my bag I plucked the longest spanners I’d found, a coil of wire and a reel of that endlessly useful duct tape. I splinted the leg, wrapped it liberally with the wire and tape to hold it together and reattached it, with much sickening internal scraping.
I could stand, unsteadily, but I was up. I had been very focused on my repairs and hadn’t noticed that Julia was no longer alone. Fanned around her were half a dozen of the other battered waifs, sitting as best they could in the grey dust. It was much the same colour as their skin and hair. I picked up the Spongebob pencil case and put it back in my tool bag. The light was quite even; we were out in whatever passed for day in this place, which was good because I didn’t know what I was going to do when the shadows started to creep in. But first, I needed to find my friends.

Open Boxes – Part Twenty-One – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20

Walking is difficult. According to the manual it’s an especially complicated mechanism, for real humans and weirdly, even more difficult to engineer for us. The trick of remaining balanced while moving on two legs is not easily learned. I was discovering that doing it with only one working leg was even harder. The repairs I’d effected had immobilised my knee, but the ankle was still doing its own thing and my hip joint barely paid me any attention. It made for ungainly progress, and left stranger tracks behind me. The left leg seemed to want to go in circles, with the hip and ankle dealing with a dead straight pole between them. It was the sort of movement you wanted to see rotoscoped, to get a proper view of it. That thought distracted me from the awkwardness of blundering across the plain. And the pain of course. Having removed my leg I’d managed to break the nervous connections, which explained why my ankle was on its own, but the constant jarring was doing the rest of my battered body no good. At least I wasn’t bleeding any more. A small prize from falling off a cliff. I kept casting about for a handy length of anything I could use as a crutch, but the mangled junk before me was unhelpful. I felt slow and vulnerable.
The debris field spread out before me, the contents of the garden thrown over the plain, rocks that had bounced, denting down the cliff, smashing glass, plastics and twisted metal in plumes that radiated out from the sandwiched mess of the domes. A depressing sight. Not as depressing as having to remove my own leg though. I’d always been aware that I wasn’t human – we all were – but we’re set up to behave like we are. We had plenty of scrapes and bangs that we’d patched up just like people would – with glue and tape – but being able to remove a limb and then click it back in… That made me feel different. I was no longer entirely convinced that it was my leg. If I could just take it on and off what made this one special? Charlie’s head nudging me in the back where my tool bag rested gave me a similar feeling – as if I floated above my body, this cloud of consciousness that only lightly rests in these physical chunks of moulded plastic. I’d kept his head for a number of reasons, not all of which reasons that I had thought through. Earlier I’d planned to put it in storage somewhere safe, in case his body turned up. That was now even less likely. I had nowhere to put him, so I carried him. But if should find his legs, I could swap mine for his. That was assuming he had no further use for them… The manual wasn’t big on reattaching heads – it was more of the view that they shouldn’t be detached in the first place, to which I was of course sympathetic. It was a deeply wrong way to think about my friends. I was certain that humans did not think of each other’s bodies this way. Their body parts were far less easily exchanged. That made me wonder about his head, whether if I removed mine and put his on my body the resulting chimera would be him, or still partly me. I strongly associated his existence and life with his head – it was the part of him that was different from me. We had given each other faces to elevate ourselves from the homogenous design we were provided with, and that had enabled further self-creation and self-deception. My identity, and sense of self as a ‘thing in a body’, nascent as it was, was under some assault from my recent experiences: I felt more fragile than I had before, which seemed odd, since I had survived a fall that I was certain would have killed an organic being. Surely that should have empowered me, but our structural connection to humans made me feel more an alien in my body; an alien masquerading as human. Maybe not even doing a very good job of it. Every broken body part and just standing out here in the pitiful local atmosphere confirmed my lack of humanity. The nearness of my escape made me feel vulnerable too – so close to destruction and the death I’d given little proper thought to before. Add to that the loss of our home, loss of replenishment, probably my friends and the prospect of further earthquakes (I was trying, very hard, to not permit other, more terrifying causes into my mind), we’ll, perhaps I was right to feel both strong and weak at the same time.
Overall, I wasn’t enjoying my stagger across the dusty plain. Another matter was causing me some concern as well. The six dead children that had appeared after Julia brought me my tool bag had watched me get to my feet and fall over several times without moving from their cross-legged pose in the dust. As soon as I’d gained most of my balance and begun swinging wildly forward, they had begun following me. I knew this not because I could hear them – the atmosphere is so thin that sound is a joke – but because I kept turning round to check on them. They were all neatly strung out, single file behind me, headed up by Julia. There wasn’t a lot I could do about that, and frankly, they were the closest things I had to friends right now. Allies, perhaps. I wondered if they had also survived (not the right word) the fall or if they had managed to slide down and through the corridors to Charlie’s airlock. Made me wonder if any more of them had remained intact. Would they all be my friends?
I kept on trying not to fall over.
I finally grew near enough to the domes to separate the heavily grey-dusted rocks from the heavily grey-dusted ruins of the habitat. What had looked like a mess from a distance was worse up close. All four domes were clearly torn open, either through friction or being crushed. No lights flickered in their interiors. No surprise, given how much of our power had been routed from the garden, which had naturally taken the biggest hit. While I’ve never seen a real egg, there was a three-second clip I retrieved from a media tablet which showed them falling to the floor. I have no idea why, whether it was educational or for entertainment, but the image of them cracking and their contents oozing out replayed in my mind as I surveyed the damage. The gentle rain of dust from the cliff continued, making the surfaces blur. The dome of the garden lay flipped over on top of my old familiar upside down dome – had crushed it flat as far as I could see – its base torn open revealing the snarls of framework and foliage within. If my friends could be found anywhere it would be there.
The children had stopped with me, fanning out behind Julia into a V. They watched me with eyes that were dull and listless, but their heads tracked me as I rooted through the debris for a walking stick. A minor victory, but a victory nonetheless, as I located a pole which I suspected had been the one that put a dent in my head. There certainly seemed to be a corresponding dent. With my prop in hand I climbed through the gashed open wall of the garden. Inside grey dust competed with brown earth, green leaves and the sad remains of flowers. It was possibly the most disheartening thing I had seen. The frames which the trees and vines had been trained to grow through and around had been torn out of shape, now filling the space like a three dimensional maze of razor sharp black twigs, vomited out of the breaches in the walls – the furthest reaches of course scattered all the way out to where I landed. Turning back I realised it wasn’t terribly far, I had just been very slow. I was reliant on what passed for daylight, and the shadowed reaches of the now impassable jungle were utterly black. All I could do was edge around the wall of the dome, peering into the crosshatched shadows for a glimmer of anything. Nothing moved.
Utterly silent, the only sounds I heard were of an internal trickling I’d mostly tuned out and the vibrations of my feet and stick scraping against the once-roof, now floor. I jumped, and almost fell as the children appeared by my side, their hideous lightness hiding their approach. Without a glance at me they disappeared into the jungle, their smaller bodies able to dodge most of the sharp edges and dart under precariously balanced wreckage. Perplexed, I continued my slow circumnavigation of the garden. At best things were just broken, at worse, the crash had smashed them beyond recognition. Junk from the sideways dome had tumbled into the mess of the jungle and it was hard to tell anything apart – I could see a table, or a cupboard, panels, but anything small was presumably lost, filtered through the mesh of rubble into its dark guts. Julia reappeared – more considerately this time, but no less abruptly – looming out of the dark before me. Her dangling right arm was gone now, I guessed it had been torn free by her exploration. The spray of tendons and muscle fibres made her look as if she was falling to the left; I knew how that felt. She paused for a moment, until she had my full attention and then vanished into the dark again. Odd. She turned up again a few moments later, turned back to the dark and waited. Ah. Very, very cautiously I followed her into the darkness.
I was operating blind – fractured light passed through the porous surface of the ruins but faded away within a foot – I couldn’t see an obstacle until I had hit it. There were a lot of them. Julia either didn’t realise I couldn’t see, didn’t care or was unable to process either concept, but she did go slowly and I tapped tentatively before my feet with the stick and oh so carefully with my free hand in front of my body. The mangled structures seemed to have jammed themselves into what felt relatively secure, though not so much that I sped up. Finally, Julia stopped, and I felt her brush by me. I still couldn’t see anything. My mental equivalent of a heart leaped when Julia took my hand and pulled me down to the ground. Kneeling clumsily, I felt about, still half expecting some toothed nightmare to seize my arm, or just for the whole place to fall on me. My fears were very active. Perhaps it was being led into the dark by a dead child that did it. My fingers touched something – many things – scraps of bark, pebbles, unknowable objects and finally… fingers. An absurd hope that it might be my missing fingers and I would be able to reattach them… A hand, and an arm, a shoulder, head. I tapped on the head. Nothing. That would, I suppose, have been too easy by half. I had no way of knowing if it was Chelsea or Charlotte, or even Charlie’s body, since his had to be somewhere, and why not here, lost in the dark? With agonising slowness, exacerbated by having one working leg, a walking stick and just two fingers on one hand, and a terrible fear of causing a collapse, I dragged the body out into the light.
Time changes in the dark. I’d noticed it before – the time we spent outside the domes foraging went faster – the night was so much quicker to come when we were closer to it. Protected by the electric lights our time was slow, bound only by the regularity of our refresh cycles. Hunched over beneath tonnes of rubble waiting to fall on me felt like it took forever, but I was unsurprised to find the light was already fading as we emerged from the tangle. Julia and her friends were waiting for me – I hadn’t even realised she had gone, I was so focused on the task. It was Charlotte. I’d found someone. A leap of joy inside me, sudden reminder that I was not alone (I still wasn’t counting the children) and that maybe, maybe everything would be alright. She showed no sign of awareness. When I pulled up her now ragged jacket the lights on her abdomen showed mostly green, but that only told me that I hadn’t been unconscious for long myself – we had all been at a similar state of refresh before the crash – and hers was undiminished. It told me little about her physical condition. My eyes could do that. She had been thrown around during the fall – her right shoulder was crushed, along with her upper arm and hip. Her left leg had been lost somewhere in there as well. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but I guessed that no matter what, I wasn’t getting a new leg anytime soon. But her head and most of her abdomen were intact – dented – but whole.
I opened the manual again.  It was a dehumanising process, both for me, and for Charlotte as I levered open panels in her ribcage and neck, prodding with my most delicate tools for internal responses. Was this what death looked like, for us? How much would I have to do, to try and test, before I reached that conclusion? And if I couldn’t fix her now, would she, like Charlie might, have some future chance of coming back? I wondered what news they would bring, or if it was the total void that I imagined. Would being reactivated bring a flood of sensation and data that filled the gap between wakefulness, sudden ending and the return? Visibility was dropping further so I dragged Charlotte out of the garden entirely where no shadows could be cast over us by the ragged walls. Nothing was working. Charlotte was draped across me as we sprawled in the dust, and I held her in my arms. That spark of hope I’d had when I pulled her into the light was fading away. A very slow, distant vibration had begun in the ground beneath me. I hoped it was just aftershocks, but not strong enough aftershocks to bring more of the cliff face down on us. We were still well within range of an avalanche.
The manual showed me diagrams of our bodies splayed open, overlaid with grids and endless arrows identifying components, switches, all of the things that made us work. I had a screwdriver delicately balanced between my left thumb and ring finger, probing into the thin gap between Charlotte’s eye socket and ear, trying to feel what the manual insisted was there. A shadow fell over my shoulder, blacking out Charlotte’s face. I thought it must be one of the children.  They had returned from their survey of the dark underside of the ruins and then settled in the dust cross-legged again, patient as I worked. Perhaps they had grown impatient or curious. I shook my head and turned around, wondering which of them it was, or if Julia was still the only one who would deal with me directly.
There were no children behind me. The shadow was cast by a spike of black rock which thrust up out of the ground some twenty feet behind me. In fright, my hand slipped – the blade of the screwdriver carved a groove out of Charlotte’s cheekbone before finding purchase and digging in under her eye. As I wrestled to get myself out from under her, and get a better look at the black spur of rock that I would have sworn wasn’t there earlier, she jerked awake, frightening me even more. Her first words were lost to me, though I could see her mouth opening and closing. I placed my chin directly on the back of her head, hoping that the contact would allow her to hear me.
“Charlotte – Charlotte – it’s me, Christopher,” I said, “you’re alright – you’re safe – “ I reconsidered, “okay – you’re a bit banged up, um, and I know this is rather sudden, but we really need to go.”
Charlotte’s head lolled horribly on her neck as she first took in in the sight of our devastated habitat, then her missing leg and ruined arm.
“I know,” I said, “mine are a bit like that too.”
The shadow was creeping further across our bodies as we lay there. Those shadows had scared me before, when Chelsea and I had had somewhere to go, but now we had no refuge. I leaned back to get a better view and saw that it was not the only rocky claw that had appeared – the crash site was ringed by them – whether they were growing, or it was the light dimming further that made them seem to grow I didn’t know.
“We’re going to stand up – I know it’s going to be difficult, but we can do it,” I said, hoping that panic wasn’t filtering into my voice, as with every moment that shadow grew longer. Charlotte produced a series of clicks and a whine that became a strangled scramble of scream and consonants rapping harshly against each other.
“Christopher,” I deciphered, before we lost contact as I got my feet back under me and pulled her up too.
The children had disappeared. They didn’t like the shadows either I guessed. I noticed that the dust had begun to swirl in tiny vortices again. This was all far too familiar and I had to fight the rising sense of panic as it crawled up from every point of my body, even the broken ones. Charlotte was almost standing, her one leg loose in its socket, propped up by me and my walking stick, and with one arm tight around her waist, I forced us into a grim march. The only shelter we had was the ruin of our home. Our awkward advance stalled when Julia showed herself again. I had to hold Charlotte tight to stop her from pulling us over, and I doubted she could hear the reassurance I tried to shout at her that were lost in the inches of dead air between us. When Julia ducked back down to a dark hole leading under the garden dome I didn’t even hesitate – I just propelled Charlotte and myself down it.

Open Boxes – Part Twenty-Two – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21

Into the dark. The fading purple light from the surface was lost immediately. The path that Julia had found through the wreckage was barely suited to her frame, let alone ours. At least I had two arms to feel the way with, but I soon found myself trying to crawl backwards while dragging Charlotte, who managed the occasional feeble thrust with her leg, each time I thought it had become lodged behind something and torn loose. I took a lot more blows to the head as we burrowed deeper. Anything to escape the menace of those rocks arcing out of the ground. If I’ve learned one thing in my time in the dark it’s that you need to focus, and to focus on something – anything, that isn’t the dark. At this point I had not fully internalised that lesson, so, while the immediate threat of the spikes was left behind I couldn’t help but think that they must come from below ground in the first place, so in a way we were digging down towards them… The dark around me was constantly punctured by imaginary spikes, and the entirely real shards of metal and junk sticking out of the ruins. It was a harrowing decent, distance lost by the crawling pace, where the only and infrequent interruption to the darkness was the lights on our abdomens. As a literal sign of life it had some reassurance value. I only knew we were going the right way was from Julia’s frequent feather-light touch on my shoulder.
Finally, the roof opened out above my head and I pulled Charlotte into an open space. We stayed there for a moment. Listening. Letting the dark and our stillness filter through the place. Without the sound of us scraping against every conceivable obstacle we became aware of the silence again, only those shifting and settling items of debris which could pass a vibration to us could be felt. And behind it, always the low rumble of the earth beneath us. No tendrils of rock had tried to spear us or had yet torn up between our feet. I’d rather have believed their lengthening and sharpening was just a trick of the light curling their Shadows to the ground… But those in the spherical chamber had done more than that, and faster. These were more of the bad thoughts to have in the dark. A few more minutes of inaction gave me an arbitrarily greater sense of security and I began to explore the space we had been led to more thoroughly.
Every surface had a fine coating of soil from the exploded garden. Our roof curved faintly upwards so we were somewhere under the garden itself. When I fell through an invisible hole I realised we were back inside my dome. It had been quite a mess to begin with, but was surely much worse now. I wondered if Charlotte and the children knew I was gone – my yelp of fright was swallowed by the thin air – I stifled another thinking that the children might well already be down here, sitting silently in the dark around me. But that was fine – since they had attacked us in the garden they’d shown no signs of aggression, meekly following me around, and even helping us. It was a perplexing reversal which I put down to us having made some connection over the pencil case and the artwork. It was a thin basis for trust but it was enough, and I had no better options. Blindly I fumbled around, trying to figure out where in the dome I have found myself. The previously treacherous surface had been tossed around and every step had to be carefully tested. I literally fell into my old pod. Its lid had been smashed and was in itself useless, but since it was hooked up not just to the garden’s power network, but also the local battery arrays we had scavenged from outside, all I had to do was follow the cables (if I could) and hope.
Hope is not a thing I have much experience of. Our days had been filled with routine and tasks, but we had never had a fixed objective to aim for. It was make do and mend, but not with a plan of wearing our fabulous outfit to a party. For all we knew, there were no survivors – we filled our time doing what we thought we ought to and had no provision for afterwards. It was a feeling that grew in me as I tripped and stumbled, following the wires into awkward and narrow nooks until at last it blossomed in my chest as I recognised the shape of a battery. Glorious. Now all I needed were some lights…
A cool yellow glow spread from my fingertips to fill our little cranny. The children were nestled in around Charlotte. Judging from her reaction, she hadn’t realised. They were even creepier in the silent dark. The light scattered them to the edges of our cave. I hung the lights off the many spars of jagged metal that made up our ceiling. It was a dismal space but at least we could see. I clambered over to where Charlotte lay, now free of the children. By resting my head on hers we would be able to hear each other.
“Hey, Charlotte, how are you doing?”
The drooling string of vowels vibrating through my head weren’t promising, but they slowly stretched out into words with the addition of hard-won consonants.
“Christopher… the garden… where’s my leg..?”
“Yes. Destroyed. Missing,” I summarised, “in fact, we’re underneath the garden now. I’m sorry, I couldn’t find your other leg.”
“How did you find me?”
“Oh, funny story. Well, not really – the dead – um, Julia found you. I’m not sure why, but it’s only one of many questions I don’t have answers to.”
“I can’t feel my legs.”
“One of them is missing… Let’s take a look at the other one.”
With the benefit of light I could see that it was much worse than I’d hoped. Where Charlotte’s hip had been crushed, the socket was pinched and was now the only thing holding her leg on. There was no way I could get that to fit again. I pondered how to tell Charlotte, but she took my hand and pulled me back up so we could touch our heads together again.
“It’s not going to work, is it Christopher?” We knelt together, our heads pressed together, “it’s alright. You should take it.”
With Charlotte’s help – mostly in directing light as required – we took her leg apart and fitted it into my hip. Unsurprisingly, it fit perfectly, so similarly were we constructed. I’d thought it was dehumanising when I removed my own leg, taking someone else’s unneeded limb and plugging it into myself was a much more disturbing step. It felt… wrong. Charlotte had walked a different path to me, worn her joints differently and I could feel the difference – familiar sensations in my right leg, and in my other right leg it felt like the sensations were slower, subtly dreamlike. My feet looked weird. Instead of toes we have a flexible plastic pad that fringes the front of each foot, it made our feet look like we were always wearing socks. I couldn’t reverse that, so I appeared to have two right feet. There wasn’t enough ceiling room for me to try walking around, but I imagined that would provide its own challenges.
The damage to her arm was beyond my meagre toolkit, so we agreed to remove that as well. Charlie’s face looked up at me from the tool bag whenever I reached for another instrument. At least Charlotte wasn’t reduced to that extent, yet.
“We’re going to have to leave here,” I said.
“And go where? The habitat is gone. I saw that much before you dragged me down here.”
“I wasn’t sure if you would remember – you weren’t in great shape when I found you.”
“I feel much better now,” she quipped.
“Funny. Do you think we found things funny before all this?”
“Maybe there’s more to laugh about when there’s nothing left.”
“So what’s the plan Christopher?”
“At the top of the cliff – it looked like the rest of the structure was still there. The garden ripped free. That means there’s somewhere for us to go.”
The look on her face told me what she thought of that plan, and yet…
“Alright. But you’ll have to leave me here. You can’t carry me up that cliff.”
“I’m not leaving you behind.”
I had a plan.
We stayed in the cave all night, not that I could tell from the isolation of our hiding place. The children were our clock. As one they rose and disappeared back up the black tunnel, all except Julia, who stood by the exit, apparently waiting for us. Getting back out was nearly as bad as getting inside, though there were two fewer limbs and I could crawl properly. Outside the light was the pale mauve of early morning. I carefully peered out of the burrow. All clear – the black spikes had retreated into the ground. I certainly couldn’t pretend they didn’t move around of their volition any more. We stepped fully into the open, myself and Charlotte. The only solution to her mobility I could think of was to lend her mine. With no legs and one arm I’d been able to remove significant portions of her torso without doing her any damage, reducing her further to upper torso, arm and head. Then I had taped her to my back, with a generous spray of epoxy for safety. I’d positioned her slightly to one side, so she looked out over my shoulder. I would walk for both of us. Well, I’d try anyway.
The children followed us around the edge of the wreck. I was curious about whether they would stay with us as we attempted to climb around the cliff. I planned to follow the same route Chelsea and I had originally – it skirted the sheer cliff itself but would still present a significant challenge with my new leg and top-heavy weight. I didn’t see an alternative though.
“You’re thinking about Chelsea,” Charlotte said, directly into the back of my head.
“I am.”
The children had shown no inclination to dive back into the rubble and locate Chelsea. While I hadn’t expected anything of them in particular, that would have been a nice gesture. I could scrape through the remains for days and not find her, even if the wreckage didn’t shift and bury us all. For now – for now, I promised myself, it was only for now – we needed somewhere secure, somewhere safe. And some answers to questions we had been avoiding since we were activated. While it was Chelsea who had wanted to know the truth, it would be Charlotte and I who would get them. And then, when it was done, when we were safe, we would come back and find Chelsea, and the rest of Charlie and put our little family back together. But first, we had a cliff to climb.
The new leg was really weird. It made me veer to the left constantly. I’d never given much thought to my locomotion before, hadn’t needed to, it just worked. Now I had to consciously move in a straight line, my feet feeling fat and heavy. Chelsea’s weight was easier to adjust to, although catching sight of her arm moving around in the corner of my vision gave me a few scares as we climbed. The children followed us after all, easily scampering up the slopes and eventually they waited for us to join them at the top. While I had no way of being out of breath, the climb had taken it out of me. Charlotte had suggested I rig our power together, which had proven a little worrying, but now I had two panels of lights on my stomach, still hovering in green. My concern had been that the extra strain would wipe us both out, but unless I’d screwed up the wiring we were going to be alright. Not that I had a way for us to refresh, but that was very much a problem I couldn’t solve from out here.
From the top of the cliff the plain stretched away, the installation lying whitely against the ubiquitous grey dust. It was much larger than I’d realised before – what Chelsea and I had seen from the outside, in the growing dusk was just the broken end of a complex that stretched out for at least a mile. Various containers, torn open corridors and hab modules had shifted closer to the cliff edge during the quake that took our home away. The nexus of pressure doors we had used before now hung partway over the cliff, the still sealed door to the garden looking quite dangerous. And, while the black spikes at the bottom of the cliff had vanished overnight, the plain up here was still studded with them. They looked relatively benign in the daylight, more or less vertical, their shadows dispersed. I still didn’t want them anywhere near me.
The door we had used to get in last time was still there, still worked. I stepped into the airlock and turned to seal us in and let it do its pressure change, but Julia stood in the doorway, her little clan clustered behind her. I didn’t want to just leave them outside – they were plainly afraid of the night and whatever it was that haunted the darkness. I supposed that they were also going home, though I had no idea why they had left in the first place, unless it was to seek us out. Maybe that hadn’t gone as well as anyone would have hoped. I moved to one side, and the seven of them squeezed their frail little bodies in around us.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” asked Charlotte.
“No. No I’m not.”
We cycled the airlock and it opened into the pressurised hub. Again, I wished I could breathe so I could take a really deep breath, and enjoy an equally deep sigh. The return to air was enervating. Even the children seemed brighter for it, considering they were dead and all.
“That feels better,” I said, “and now you don’t need to head butt me to talk.”
“I was beginning to enjoy that,” replied Charlotte, “good climbing. Now what?”
I could only be honest: “I have absolutely no idea.”

Open Boxes – Part Twenty-Three – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22

We shared an anxious pause. Behind the door was the corridor that had led Chelsea and I to the children, their classroom and a wondrous but frightening chamber. We had no choice but to go through it – every other path led to slow running down of our systems and lolling into stillness and eventually death. Yet still, we waited. For what? Chelsea to come knocking at the airlock, our domes to miraculously reappear on top of the cliff. For the dead children to seem less excited… since we passed through the airlock they had been much more animated than down on the plain. There they had been sombre and listless, swiftly disappearing when danger came but otherwise content to sit motionless for hours. Here they gave a much better simulation of life: lips cracked in attempted smiles, battered limbs raised to clap – leathery slapping together – feet never still. Julia remained close, face turned up to ours, dead muscles tautening her face into a pleased grimace. Without really thinking about it I patted her gently on the head and she wrapped her remaining arm around my legs and hugged. Charlotte’s hand and mine rested on her shoulder and drew her in close. We needed the reassurance, and would accept it from any source. Thus bolstered there was nothing but ourselves to hold us back.
The white door slid aside. Lights flickered on into the distance down the corridor. I was getting used to the feel of Charlotte’s left hand loosely resting on my hip and her fingers tightened as the length of corridor illuminated, apparently endless, but I knew that was a subtle trick of perspective – there were hidden twists and turns to come.  I resisted saying “what’s the worst that could happen?” – I figured there was only so much luck available and we’d used up a lot of it in surviving the crash.
The children raced off, their bare and raw feet pottering away, all except Julia, who stuck close like any timid child would. It was uncanny to observe her apparently regaining her humanity. It felt very familiar. The wall panelling was regularly interrupted by closed doors, marked with strings of geometric shapes. As before, the mysterious configurations teased my mind as we passed them.
“What do they say?” asked Charlotte, tracking the shapes as I was.
“I didn’t know before,” I said, pausing, “but now…”
There was a pattern to the shapes, or at least I was tricking myself into thinking that there was: square became triangle, turned hexagon then circle. There was something in the division of sides, some clue in the change of shape? I slowed, thinking inhibiting my speed, until we stopped by one door that seemed the same as all the others. It too had a panel of shapes. I traced the symbols with my left hand, thumb and ring finger sliding up and down the shapes.
“And now?” Charlotte prompted, fingers raised to match mine.
“Don’t they seem suggestive? Like there’s supposed to be a pattern?”
“Depends what they are. If they’re just door numbers the pattern would be obvious – assuming they were numbered. Otherwise, if they’re signs in a different language or code, we might never figure it out.”
“No, they seem familiar – “
The sound of tiny feet running captured our attention. The little tribe of undead children had returned, and with accessories. They each held plastic tubs filled with coloured objects. There was some door down there that opened to them, perhaps the classroom. They gathered around us and the door we were puzzling over. One of the children – I think it might have been a boy, but young children appear to look the same, and in their degraded state it was hard to tell – offered up his tub to Julia, his shredded arms almost just bone held together by a fine web of muscle. Julia having only one arm of course, was in no position to take the container. Instead she rooted about in the box – sorting among heavy plastic shapes. She drew the first out – a red rectangular prism, and touched it to the corresponding shape by the door. She repeated with a yellow triangular prism and a blue hexagonal block. I stopped her before she placed the final shape, and took the green cylinder from her. She didn’t resist, just stood back slightly to let me finish it.
“You alright with this?” I asked Charlotte.
“Looks like we have one answer already. I think I can handle another.”
With that I pressed the cylinder to the circle. All the shapes lit up in the colours of the blocks we had used and the door cracked open. It juddered – struggling with something – before an appalling shriek from its hinges which startled the children, making them hop to the other side of the hallway. With its caterwaul out of the way, it wrenched itself wide. We soon saw what had delayed it. The spreading doors now held the stretched web-work of human form, gummily crusted down its inner edges. The head was mashed into the gap between the inner and outer door panels and strands of fibrous muscle and wasted bone hung across the doorway to meet what might have once been its chest and pelvis. A leg and arms lay on the ground immediately inside, presumably scraped free as the door opened. A grisly welcome. With one hand I tugged down the web of flesh and tatters of clothing so we could pass through. An eye stared at me, somehow preserved in the sandwich of the door. I tried not to meet its gaze.
The room was of similar dimensions to the classroom we had been in, but instead of desks and chairs, the room was hung with bank after bank of wide screens, uncomfortable looking swivel chairs in front of them and panels of controls. Instead of the shape-codes we had seen in the children’s cage room, this had normal keyboards, slides, switches and dials.  If they worked, they would be the first complete electronics we had seen since we awoke. Already, we were playing catch up to a group of deceased children – maybe they held even more answers than we had suspected. I made a circuit of the room, stabbing at buttons, spinning dials and pushing switches. Nothing happened. It was both a disappointment and a relief – who knew what we were in the middle of? The surprises we had received so far hardly inspired confidence in a positive outcome, and being greeted by a man who appeared to have died trying to leave this room had been a dispiriting beginning. The children fanned out into the room, settling onto the swivelling chairs. I paced back to the middle of the space, where I could see them all.
“They seem to know what they’re doing,” said Charlotte, “it looks like they’ve been here before.”
The children were coordinated in their actions, each tapping at a combination of keys and switches with whatever limbs and digits they had available. One of them jabbing with the remains of its wrist bones was uncomfortably familiar. Their task complete, the children sat back in the chairs, which rotated slightly with the motion. All the screens came to life – a zigzag of storm clouds whipping across them. The pictures slowly cleared, static eating away into the corners. Slashes of scarlet raked across the monitors, followed by a series of dim, foggy images. Faces loomed, corners burgeoned with darkness, skeletal figures reached out and vanished in bubbling explosions. Over and over, spheres crumbled, alleyways were filled with menacing shadows, mouths stretched wide with teeth splayed like fingers, chewing the viewer into their maws. It was a ghastly display, all the more disturbing for the images flickering onto the shrunken faces, animating them with colours of nightmares.
“Don’t they – don’t they seem…”
“…like our dreams?” I finished.
“Exactly like them.”
The cascade of imagery slowed, gradually synchronising across the monitors until they all showed an external view of the installation we were in, the hills prominent and purpled by the sky behind it. The sky was a dark bruise, stars bleeding through it and a sickly yellow moon sagging in the black. A long hand with sharp fingers curls around the top of the hill, followed by a longer arm until an enormously tall and hideously attenuated form steps daintily through the valley. Its face is long and filled with huge vertical lozenges of eyes, the same shade as the bleeding stars. It reaches up with one spindly arm and penetrates the moon with its spiny fingers. A sudden lunge brings the giant over the installation, its arm tearing the moon out of the sky and its face fills every one of the screens. A spatter of fresh blood wipes the image clean and the monitors return to the striped static.
“That’s what was on the painting Julia did,” I said, “these are what – the dreams that inspired them?”
“And what inspired the dreams?”
“But they’re our dreams,” even though Charlotte was now behind me I gestured at the surrounding screens, “our dreams – recorded here. Recorded from us or from them? Why do we have their dreams?”
“Why would we have our own?” Charlotte snapped, “we didn’t get the personalities we were supposed to – perhaps you should have been that man behind us, crushed in the door. Maybe we were meant to be the children, but we only got their dreams. They obviously aren’t our memories – thanks to them we’ve been waking up screaming every day of our lives.”
“I don’t think it was the children’s fault, do you?” I said, twisting my head around to catch even the Charlotte’s face in profile, “they’re children – they wouldn’t choose this. Someone did this to them – gave them these ideas, scared the hell out of them enough to have nightmares, and then finally they locked them in boxes until they died. We’re not the only victims of this situation. We’re not looking much less banged up than they are. Look at yourself – look at me. That decay, the wear they’ve had – we’re all in the same situation.”
“They tore Charlie’s head off!”
“We don’t know that – not for sure. Wouldn’t you be frightened too?”
It had been easy enough for me to forget how Charlotte and Charlie had met the children, in my mind they had warned us and helped me rescue Charlotte.
“They’re dead – you look at them. Whatever is keeping them upright is not the same thing as keeps us alive. Who’s to say they aren’t just doing what they did before – just reflex actions, thinking they’re still alive.”
That sounded a lot like us, stumbling around in our simulation of human life, doing what we were programmed to do, within the bounds described in the manual. That we had to strive for individuality and identity just underlined that we were blanks, waiting to be filled with personality and purpose. These children had once had those things and were perhaps grasping for them again. These recorded nightmares were a guide they might use to find themselves once more. They had stared impassively at the monitors, undisturbed by the horrible scenes. Perhaps death had given them some distance from their past. But they still feared the spikes, and the night, and I assumed it was with good reason.
“Let’s see what else we can find out,” I said to Charlotte, “the screens are switching themselves off anyway.”
As I spoke the monitors returned to their smooth black, each one now holding a reflection of a wasted face.
“Fine, we should just try all the doors, now that we have the key.”
I bent to pick up one of the containers the children had discarded by the door when they went to sit down.
“Um… are you coming?” I wasn’t sure how to address the children. They seemed attentive, but we hadn’t succeeded so far with verbal communication. I rattled the box of plastic bricks. That got their attention. They climbed down off the chairs, retrieved their boxes and followed as I stepped out of the room with Chelsea, back into the corridor, past the crushed man.
A low, creaking groan echoed down the hall, as if the whole structure was being firmly twisted. The lights guttered and went out. With no windows to give us even the vague daylight it was as dark as the cave we had huddled in. The door snapped shut with a crunch, a fine spray of dry material spattering onto me.
“Stay calm,” said Charlotte, as my left hand found hers, tightly squeezing her fingers.
The children drew closer than ever, circling us, their little hands pressed against my legs and our bodies. Light returned like a slow wave, washing over us from further down the corridor, leaving darkness behind. We turned to watch it go past – as long as we could see it we still had some illumination. Another deep groan as the lights grew further away, and then the ceiling began caving in, collapsing flat to the floor as if someone was walking along the roof, each footstep crushing another five metres of hallway into darkness. The steps hammered towards us and we ran again, the cluster of children unwilling to lose contact entirely, just their fingertips brushing my skin and clothes. A final stomp, right behind us and then nothing. We skidded to a halt as well. The entire corridor we had travelled down was crumpled almost flat to floor, the walls buckled and squeezed, so tightly done that not even air was escaping.
Light came back. Not the reassuring incandescence from above that I had wanted, but a creamy light that spread like mist up from the floor to past my waist, enveloping the children. It softened their ragged features, disguised the gaping wounds and shredded skin.
“I have to warn you Charlotte, this light wasn’t a good sign before…”
“If you see a good sign, be sure to tell me about it.”
“So we go forwards?” I asked.
“Do we have a choice?” Charlotte replied.
“Not anymore.”