Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
The room was in disarray. We had ended up shoving the tables and chairs into a jumbled heap at one end, while we laid out the children’s pictures. Most of them were what you would presumably expect from the creative efforts of young humans – anthropomorphised heavenly bodies, improbably shaped plants, figures with oddly numbered limbs, coloured with dizzying expressionism. Here and there though were paintings and chalk drawings that stood out. The strange and disturbing picture of the eyes in the black sky was a motif replicated in a dozen emerging styles. The chalk pastel sketch where the blacks had been ground so heavily into the paper that it was powdery to the touch, barely concealing those baleful eyes behind it, as if the artist had tried to erase them. It evidently was not just us who felt we were being viewed with malevolent regard. Of course, these were the same children who at some point were confined to those boxes and allowed to die of dehydration, or some other invisible killer. I was trying hard not to think of them upright and straining against their cages. It was so much easier, and better to think of them as simply dead, and to consign our flight through the station and its cause to some horrible dream.
“Here’s another one,” Chelsea remarked, separating a sheet of pink sugar paper from a stack of papers stuck together with paint, “no, this one’s different.”
I shuffled over to her, stepping around the scattered art. The painting she held was somewhat superior to the others. It showed a clear drawing of the stations grey and white bubbles, outlined with heavy black that bled like a shadow into the landscape. The terrain was subtly picked out with some kind of marbled effect, so the station popped out as if it wasn’t properly rooted in the painting. The terrain reached up towards a range of hills, outlined against a dark blue sky. Between the hills was a dreadfully elongated figure, caught as it stepped from a deep valley onto the plain where the station lay. The artist – Julia, from the pencilled scrawl on the back – had given the figure long, white vertical oval-shaped eyes which filled most of its head.
“Well, that’s creepy,” it was hard to know what to say. We didn’t know what we were looking for, we didn’t even really know why were looking. Neither of us especially wanted to talk about how we had come to be in this old classroom, poring through the discarded achievements and ephemera of lives now lost, but its weight hung terribly over us.
“Do you think… this was something she saw?”
“I truly hope not,” just as the adults with smiling faces and three fingers on one hand and eight on the other were presumably the result of a combination of naivety and incompetence, this creature large enough to step past a mountain was surely no more than the imagination of a young girl gone wild.
“Of course, if it was something she saw, that might hint at some explanation for how we come to be here.”
“It doesn’t explain how they came to be in the tanks, or how they’re the only trace of humanity on this station that we’ve found so far.” I pointed out.
“Or what happened afterwards,” Chelsea began pulling out the stranger images and stacking them together. Head cocked, she put aside a few more that I hadn’t noticed.
“Look at these,” she said, fanning out half a dozen smudged pencil drawings.
The first one showed a person in what could charitably be called a spacesuit, standing next to a curved shard of rock curled so far over that it almost touched their head. The second showed a group of figures, two adults and a child standing in front of a pair of curving horns. The rest showed similar spikes and mix of people standing around of under them. The last picture Chelsea had picked out showed just a field of grey, the artist’s frustration in filling a sheet of paper with grey pencil stood out in the changes of scribbling angle. They had taken a different approach to the spikes – the paper had been stabbed from underneath, leaving ripped tufts of paper projecting out of its surface. The violence in the piece was disturbing. I couldn’t help thinking of the rock formations outside and how their shadows had seemed to creep towards us.
In lieu of anything else to do I collated the remaining pictures and tidied them away into a more or less empty cupboard. It was the cupboard underneath the small tanks filled with what I assumed to be some kind of algae. They must have been keeping fish or other aquatic specimens. The little sign next to the tank filled me in nicely: “Golden Snails”. Clearly time had overwhelmed them, the algae blooming wildly, without human intervention and strangled everything in there. It was full to bursting. Curious, I lifted the lid off. The mass of green and brown deflated abruptly, shrinking and shrivelling away until it was a thin wiry film clinging the sides and bottom of the tank. Odd lumps protruded from the web of fibres, which I guessed were the shells of the unfortunate snails.
“How long do you think it would take a tank of water to fill with algae, to the point of choking itself and using up every drop of water?” I asked.
“I’ve no idea, but it can’t be quick.”
“How long do you think this place has been waiting for us to wake up?” I wondered, replacing the lid. The box next to it looked a lot less… dead. The fungal growths had strangled everything inside. Its label said “North African Gerbils”. I doubted there was much left of them inside.
“Anything else you want to check on?” asked Chelsea.
“No not really. I’m just – “
“I’m not very keen to go back out there,” I admitted, “I can’t believe you want to go back out there.”
“We can hardly stay here. We don’t even know where we are.”
“A bit more of an adventure than we had in mind.”
“Yes.” Chelsea stood by the door, the sheaf of strange pictures folded under her arm.
“We can’t go back and tell the others we found a roomful of insane dead children.”
“We’ve got to find the others first,” she said, “come on.”
I lingered, and toyed with the idea of putting all the desks and chairs back in their places. I was still feeling the wash of fear that had led us here, though suppose it’s impossible to fully recall the sensation of panic and fear in full; to some extent they diminish, otherwise I’d be flung into that same desperate flight at the very thought of it. Chelsea looked quite determined, but I could detect a tension in her overtly relaxed stance. She gave me a look, tucked the pages into her satchel and pressed the door release button. The door slid open. Nothing leaped through the gap.
“Alright then,” I glanced around for anything we might have missed. My eye alighted on a bright yellow pencil case lying in the cupboard where I’d put all the children’s art. I tucked it into my bag and joined Chelsea.
The light in the corridor had changed. That weird milky glow was gone, replaced by a greyer light that came from the ceiling – some kind of low power mode that illuminated just enough for safety but didn’t put any strain on the system. We looked both ways.
“Any idea which way we came?” I asked.
“Not really. We definitely came round some corners though.”
The door slid shut behind us, making me jump. Without the glowing lights the corridor looked far more normal, and lacking in terror. That was nice.
“I hope you’re not going to suggest splitting up,” I said, entirely not joking.
We went right. It seemed to me that we had come across the door when it was on our left, though I had no way to be sure. The hallway looked completely different to before. We paced along slowly, noting the closed doors all the way along. None of them abruptly opened. We both kept looking behind us though. I knew we had taken a wrong turn when we walked through an open pressure door and narrow hall space opened out into an antechamber for a wide set of steps that descended into darkness.
“This is new.”
“Yeah, we didn’t come this way. We should retrace our steps,” I said
“Really? You still want to go back?”
“Have you already forgotten those kids and their drawings?”
“No, but we don’t know anything about them – only what we saw, which doesn’t answer any of our many, many questions. This might,” she said, pointing at the well of darkness before us, “who knows if that door we just walked through will be open again?”
“If it isn’t we can just force it like we did all those others. Can you not see how wandering into a dark pit might not be our strongest plan?”
“I’m going down there. You don’t have to. Wait here, or go back for the others.”
“What? What is wrong with you?” I guess Chelsea wanted answers a lot more than I did. But I didn’t want to go back on my own, and I certainly didn’t want to wait there.
“Okay, fine. Just – let’s at least find the lights first, please.”
“I’ve got a torch, so have you.”
“While that may be true, I want to see an unknown room in fragmented spots of light even less than in total darkness.”
I cautiously approached the top step and tripped motion recognition strips in the ceiling – lights flickered into an audible hum, showing us the first twenty steps or so before the view was occluded by the ceiling.
“See – nothing to worry about,” Chelsea remarked.
“Let’s not stand still for too long then.”
Down we went. Once the ceiling blocked our view of where we had been the steps kept going. Their surface was slick with moisture, gleaming in the lights that came to life as we approached. The walls were beaded with sweat that trickled slowly under our feet making the steps slippery. After perhaps a hundred steps they ended and we found ourselves on a flat surface again, but this time it was stone, not metal or plastic that we walked on.
“That’s interesting,” I said, “the steps are drilled into the rock.”
“More interesting,” Chelsea replied, “how are the maintaining pressure down here? Why dig a tunnel and not line it? They must have been incredibly confident that this place is sealed.”
The rock was perfectly smooth, polished and reflective. The stairs were flush to its flawless surface. A string of lanterns had been stuck to the walls and they brightened all down the left, rushing out ahead of us. They broke off for a moment and then, a way ahead, saw them swoop past and loop back towards us on the right.
“An odd circuit,” said Chelsea, “let’s go.”
Somehow the rock was more reassuring than the generic corridors behind and above us. The walls had beautiful swirls of trace elements and its own crystalline structure revealed in further whorls and bloody rushes of red and veins of green and blue. I trailed one hand along it, below the chain of lights. It was cool, but not cold. Not cold enough to explain the dripping condensation on the stairs. The moisture was still here, in a series of grooves that ran along the base of each wall which bubbled with liquid, running away from us. We were still going down, though at a very slight gradient. We soon saw why the lights in their automated sequence had appeared to stop for a moment. The corridor let into a truly enormous basin, and the lighting was spread all the way around it.
The corridor left us standing on the edge, which fell away before us. It was like looking into a hollow stone sphere. The walls of the huge chamber also perfectly smooth, glassily wet except for a point in the roof and base in the exact centre of the space. I assume exact centre, because any deviation from perfection in this carved room would be an affront to the skill surely required to make it. At the sphere’s apex a thick cluster of black, rocky spikes lunged outwards, met by a similar cluster driving up from the floor. Sharp, with razor edges that caught the light and threw it back glittering. They were like stalactites and stalagmites from hell. Savage spikes that felt infused with violence – violence against the precision of this sphere. They seemed deeply wrong, like the globe had been attacked and penetrated by these spears which sought to tear it in half. They did not meet in the middle however – the spikes of rock bent away from each other, as if possessed of the same polarity and unable to meet. Their tips folded out like the petals of a disturbing orchid.
“Do they look to you like the outcrops on the surface?” asked Chelsea.
“Very much so,” I replied, “makes you wonder what those spikes look like underground. I’d assumed they were some eruption from the earth – strange plate tectonics, but that wouldn’t do this.”
“No, not it wouldn’t. There’s no way this is natural.”
I took Chelsea’s hand. She braced herself and I leaned out into the open space.
“It’s weirder than that,” I said as Chelsea pulled me back in, “water is flowing all around the sphere – there’s water running up to the top as well as to the bottom.”
When we looked more closely, using our torches to illuminate the thick spikes the water was running down the stalactites and up the stalagmites and dripping off each. Where they met, a three dimensional puddle of water roiled in the air between them. As it reached some critical point it burst, the water spraying outwards, hard enough to strike the walls and rejoin the trickling flow around the inside of the sphere.
“That looks impossible,” I muttered.
“But really cool,” said Chelsea.
“That has to be a gravity effect, or some extreme form of magnetism – look at how the spikes bend away from each other. The water is caught between them – a field of forces allowing just so much mass to build up before overwhelming the effect. Kind of makes you wonder…”
Chelsea stepped off the edge of the corridor, into the open space. She vanished from my sight. I let out a cry and sprang forward, hoping not to see her shattered body below. Instead, as I leaned over the edge I found her sprawled, just a few feet shy of the opening, apparently stuck to the side of the globe.
“Chelsea!” I yelled, “are you alright?”
She giggled, actually giggled. Then she stood up, standing perpendicular to the curve of the sphere. My sense of perspective shifted abruptly and I felt ill. She was standing up and I was crouched, peering out a hole at her feet.
“It’s gravity,” she said, walking along the edge of our entranceway, “this looks incredible, come on.”
She grabbed my hand and yanked me vertiginously out of my plane of alignment. I stood next to her. The ceiling was now the dead centre of the sphere, and the corridor a large hole at my feet.
“That’s…” I began, then rummaged in my bag for a moment and extracted a pencil. With a glance at Chelsea, and her nodding, I tossed it towards the corridor. It fell towards the hole until the pencil passed its threshold and fell suddenly flat against its side – the floor of the corridor.
“Crazy…” I finished.