With 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.
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.
The gloom in the supermarket was broken only by light of the emergency exit signs. The soft green glow reflected off the shards of glass and shells that writhed in