Open Boxes – Part Five
Parts One, Two, Three, 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.