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.