We walked around the inside of the globe. No matter how far from our apparent flat ground we strayed, we always remained upright, with our heads pointing to the centre, that odd point where the water gathered. We mostly followed the train of lights, occasionally stepping over them where they had been crudely epoxied to the slick walls, or the floor depending on how you looked at it. The smoothness of the surface was unvaried, though the patterns and twisting shapes of minerals sprawled around. It was a little like walking underneath the outer skin of a gas-giant. When we reached the point directly opposite our entrance we walked towards where the spikes erupted from the base of the globe (or it was when we entered the chamber).
“I’m not sure how close I want to get to those things Chelsea,” I said, the memory of their shadows closing outside a tiny trickle of anxiety inside me.
“They’re just rocks, unusual formations to be sure, but still stone.”
I felt, not for the first time, that Chelsea was less tuned in to this sensation of fear than I was. I was a little envious; these pangs of anxiety as we found new things was doing me no good at all. I wondered where it came from. As far as we could tell from the manual, we were virtually identical in our ‘natural’, original state. Emotions and the depth of feeling should have arrived with a person’s full set of memories, attitudes and habits. Where had Chelsea’s adventurous nature come from? When had I begun exhibiting anxiety? What other emotional states were affecting our judgment, and those of our now-distant companion, Charlie and Charlotte. Once again I worried what they might be thinking with us missing for so long. There was no way they would have expected us to be outside working our way round to the other side of the garden for this long. I wondered if they had seen our note, hastily stuck to the viewing port in the pressure door. What would they think? Were they aware that we were experiencing intense emotional pressures that had formerly been absent? And why was the garden such a trigger for them? I’d postulated (in my head) that encountering greenery reacted with an archaic memory buried deep inside our basic design – inescapable, for all of our artificiality, in order to be loaded with a human’s mind we had to have a similar structure in place to receive it. Preparing such a structure might involve priming it with certain default traits, atavistic routines for the new minds to lie in, that had to be there in order for our intended possessors to be able to experience them properly. The manual was clear that we were only supposed to be activated following that download, never intended to amble forth without the control of a possessing intelligence. Who knew what we might end up doing? They probably didn’t anticipate we would be walking downhill as if it were completely flat in the heart of a mysterious sphere made of rock.
The place itself seemed like a lightning rod for emotion – Chelsea was visibly excited as we walked to the centre, and for myself the anxiety and sense of foreboding only increased with every step. The whole room provided a disorienting illusion: it felt like the globe was revolving under our feet, smooth and slick and that we remained in the same place. The base of the spikes drew nearer. I grabbed Chelsea’s arm as she reached a point I had arbitrarily judged “close enough”. She twisted in my grip and shrugged it off. I was unwilling to let her go alone, and the ground slid under us, and before I knew it the spikes were mere feet in front of us.
They had been more distant outside, and brimming with shadow, but here in the even illumination from the equator, those shadows were blurred and overlapped, Venn diagrams of the absence of light. Chelsea reached back and took my hand. I suppose my anxiety was as clear to her as her vibrating excitement was to me. Her hand twitched in mine, squeezing my fingers alternately. Unlike the rest of the stone, these were very far from smooth – a much more raw ejection from the earth, ragged at the edges, creased with blade-like ridges and folded to leave black creases giving no sense of their depth. The stone hadn’t sheared as it pierced the sphere, and had left no torn edges around its entrance, it had grown through without disturbance.
“Maybe they are just stalactites and stalagmites, born of the moisture and bent by the gravity,” I suggested.
“But they’ve moved opposite to the direction of gravity, which is away from the centre.”
“Perhaps that’s their crooking at the top?”
“Makes no sense,” murmured Chelsea, “it’s too rough to have formed from the dripping water…”
Chelsea whipped her hand out of mine and laid both her hands on the rocky outcropping.
“Don’t touch it,” I exclaimed as her hands touched the surface, “just – use your eyes. Look but don’t touch.”
“Just wait – it’s alright,” she said, “it’s – it’s vibrating. I think it’s growing, ever so slowly, but – give me your hand.”
She grabbed me by the wrist and slapped my palm against the stone. I yelped at the rough contact. But she was right, there was a distinct tremor in the rock. I could swear I saw it growing now that idea was in my mind, slowly twisting up and towards the centre of the globe where some strange pressure forced the spurs of rock to curve outwards, back on itself, reaching out above us like a nightmare claw.
It wasn’t my imagination. In the short time we’d been touching the surface the rock had come alive. I recoiled, hauling Chelsea back. We both fell as the rock writhed, surging up from the ground at a speed that mocked our innocent concepts of millennial crystallisation. The fingers of stone rotated up out of the ground like a corkscrew and their tips twisted towards us. I was reminded again of the creepy petals of an orchid, like a spider stretching itself out to welcome its prey, a hand reaching out to flatten us against the ground. A giant killing a fly. Already the limbs of rock had bent wholly over us, almost touching the slippery surface of the globe. The folded over us like a cage – we were nearly imprisoned.
And then a cry from behind us and strong hands wrapped around my shoulder and Chelsea’s leg and tore us away from the giant’s grip. Charlotte dragged Chelsea out from under a finger that threatened to impale her, and Charlie tugged me between another two of the approaching digits hard enough that I bounced off both and fell on him. Charlotte kept dragging Chelsea half up the side of the globe before she let go and pulled her to her feet and kept running. Charlie and I helped each other up and followed in hot pursuit. I glanced over my shoulder as we ran up toward the lamps strung around its circumference. The pillars had folded over entirely, forming a cage around the pole of the sphere. Instead of boring through the surface, the rock folded and writhed like worms, or snakes seeking what they had just missed capturing. Charlie pulled me on, and we all ran to the hole in the floor.
We all misjudged it and jumped for it at the wrong angle. We found ourselves arriving in the corridor from high up a wall, and crashed down to floor, sprawling over each other. Chelsea lunged back to the entrance, lying fully along the floor.
“Chelsea!” I went to grab her by the foot and repeat Charlotte’s trick of just dragging her away, but she kicked free and hissed at me.
“Just wait – right, come on, all of you. It’s stopped.”
It had, we all crept up to the edge and gazed out at a now imbalanced view. Where before the tendrils of rock from above and below had looked roughly the same, now the cluster coming through the top looked orderly and sharp, compared with the bottom. There it looked like an explosion had occurred. It had lost most of its height, but made that up with mass. It was like so many things – a plant that had overgrown its pot and now grew outwards from the base, still stretching up towards the light. A hand with its fingers broken and bent backwards. But it was still. The grooves and rough edges still gave an impression of steady movement, but from this distance that was shown to be either an illusion or so incredibly subtle as to be almost non-existent.
“Time to go,” Charlotte declared.
“How did you find us?” I exclaimed, my body and mind rushing with the nearness of danger and our sudden rescue.
“Well, you did leave a note,” said Charlie, “and it’s pretty much a straight walk down the same corridor to get here. It wasn’t difficult.”
“Or smart,” Charlotte chided, “what were you thinking? You’ve been gone for days.”
“What? That’s ridiculous,” Chelsea retorted, “hours, yes, no longer.”
“I’m not going to argue about it, but if it’s been so short a time, why are your indicators turning red?”
I looked down to my waist. The tiny plaque embedded in my abdomen was changing between cautious amber and warning red. She was right.
“That’s impossible,” I blustered, “we can’t have been gone that long.”
“We can discuss this while we walk,” said Charlie, heaving himself to his feet and extending a hand to Charlotte, who after a long moment, took it and allowed herself to be pulled up. I didn’t need much encouragement. We began our walk back, frequently turning back, in case… something was following us.
“It’s… good to see you,” I said, “we got lost.”
“It’s almost a straight passageway, all of the doors are locked – how could you get lost?” Charlotte asked.
“Well,” I began, “some things happened.”
“We could tell that. Charlie and I had just found the stairs you had obviously gone down when the ground started shaking. We thought it was an earthquake – much worse than those tremors we’ve felt occasionally while outside. That’s when we started running, and found you two idiots gaping at that stone fountain back there. Have you no sense of self-preservation?”
“I’m not sure we’re supposed to Charlotte, it’s not like we’re people,” Chelsea snapped.”
“We’re people if we behave like people,” Charlotte replied, “what if we hadn’t come for you – what if you had been in there alone and we hadn’t saved you?”
“You don’t know that you were rescuing us. We don’t know what was happening in there! We don’t know what happened here at all. That room – that massive perfectly smooth sphere, hidden beneath this station – what’s that all about? You don’t know whether that was built by the station, carved out by people we haven’t found with machines we’ve never seen. Or was it here already, the base built on top of it? We don’t know anything – anything – about how we came to be the only living things here. And you don’t want to know why? What’s wrong with you – what’s wrong with all of you?”
“Charlotte – calm down,” said Charlie, “what’s wrong with you?”
“Hey – there’s nothing wrong with Chelsea, you don’t think those are legitimate questions?”
“I do – of course they are, but what difference does it make?” said Charlie.
“All the difference,” shouted Chelsea, “it makes all the difference! Don’t you want to know if we’ve been abandoned or if everyone just died and we’re here by accident? I want to know if there’s something we’re supposed to do – something to finish – something that couldn’t be finished by the people who were supposed to climb into our bodies through our minds and be here instead of us.”
“This isn’t helping,” declared Charlotte, “we have to get you two back before you collapse, and I have no intention of carrying either of you. Let’s just get back.”
I reached out for Chelsea but she shrugged my hand off her shoulder and marched out in front of us. I turned to Charlie and Charlotte.
“You just don’t understand. Something happened here. Something bad.”
“We know,” said Charlotte, “we’ve been living in ruins for weeks. But look at this place – it’s powered up, it’s secure-“
“Apart from whatever that rock thing is,” I exclaimed.
“It wouldn’t have been half as dangerous if you had just moved instead of standing there staring at it.”
“It was fine until we touched it…”
“Why would you touch it? You can’t fix it, you have no idea what it is. We should have been here together – checking it out, together. And now you’re on the verge of collapse and you’ve done something to it, and now we’re going to have to do something about it. Why couldn’t you have just opened the door to the garden and come back?”
I didn’t have a good answer to that. It was what I’d wanted to do. Chelsea had persuaded me otherwise, even though I’d been frightened – no, not frightened, not then – but afterwards – after those children, and the spherical room… that was frightened. I knew anxiety and I knew fear. These were the emotions my body had gifted me with. Maybe this was who I was going to be – someone consumed by anxiety and fear. It’s not like I’d had a choice, this was how I had responded to my environment. Something built deep into my psyche, into my design and was always going to emerge. I wondered if it would have been better to have only experienced the world through the personality who should have awakened in me. Would I even be aware of it, when someone else was me?
Chelsea was way ahead down the hall, and I could see her drifting back and forth as she walked, peering at the doors. She was looking for the doors that had been open earlier.
“I can’t tell which one is which,” she said, frustration raising the pitch of her voice.
“Can’t tell what?” asked Charlie.
“We found something,” I said, “we found several things. There was a door that opened for us, and inside – “
“Children,” said Chelsea, “there were children inside.”
“You found survivors?” demanded Charlotte.
“No – they were all… dead,” I said.
“You need to show us,” said Charlie, “we all need to see.”
“We can’t,” said Chelsea, “I don’t know which door it was.”
She looked imploringly at me.
“I don’t know either – I can’t tell if all these symbols have changed. There’s no pattern. I don’t know, I just don’t know.”
“But we found these,” Chelsea tugged the stack of drawings out of her bag and thrust them at Charlotte, “in a classroom, after – after we saw the children.”
She didn’t mention what happened after she touched that panel, so neither did I. Charlotte and Charlie had me doubting myself. If we’d been away so long, so close to collapse, could we be sure what we had seen? We had definitely been in the classroom – we had proof, but I didn’t feel they would be as accepting of more stories we couldn’t prove.
“Drawings? So there were people here, maybe even children. That’s no surprise, that’s not even news. We know there must have been someone here,” Charlie spat, “we know they’re not here now – so what have you found, besides triggering that thing in the rocks?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. I felt very tired all of a sudden, “can we just get back to the pods.”
“Of course,” Charlie propped himself under my arm and took half of my weight.
The conversation apparently forgotten, or at least relegated to another time, Charlotte caught up with Chelsea, and with a last look back down the corridor – we had turned several corners and all anyone could see was more grey-lit hallway – she hoisted Chelsea’s arm over her shoulder too.
Alex was right; a pleasant novelty. Just as he’d wildly guessed, none of the previous crime scenes had any mention of gas cylinders. Not even