From 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.