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.
Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Seven (Nanowrimo 2022)
After a week being treated for inhaling the death seeds of an Alometh in the larger hospital of Elevator Town, I was finally allowed to leave. It had been quite