The garden was peaceful. The green leaves were like renewed life and hope. I felt the tension leaching out of me. Into the soil? Who knows. If plants can take anxiety and turn it into leaves I can spend time here. Wherever it went, it wasn’t in me and that’s all that mattered. Our adventure had been too much for both of us. Maybe it was just my body beginning to shut down, pushing out inessential functions like anxiety and fear, leaving just my basic ambulatory powers and a quieter, default mental setting. I was too tired to speak, and Charlie was more carrying me than I was walking. Good old Charlie, I thought, as he and Charlotte briefly shrugged off their loads. They poured us onto the benches in the middle of the garden. Chelsea and I lolled against each other, the lights at our waists fluttering red; the amber all gone and green just a dim LED memory. The garden wasn’t far enough of course – the pods were still three domes and a hellish crawl through passages away. I was conscious of the irony that we had gone outside originally to find a way that we could separate the pods, distribute them through our safe zone. Had we just done our job, it was likely that at least one of the pods would be here now, ready to revive us. Instead we had gone badly off plan, for far longer than either of us had realised. And now, we barely had the strength to slump upright against each other’s shoulder.
“They’re in a bad way,” said Charlie.”
“I can see that,” said Charlotte, “I just can’t think of a way to get them back to the pods. There’s no way they can crawl through just the next tunnel, let alone climb down the hub. If we could get them that far we could carry them to the upside down.”
“We’ll have to drag them through the tubes.”
Through my barely closed eyes and ears I listened to Charlotte and Charlie figure out what was best for us. My mind drifted, and I dreamed.
A train hammers along its determined route. The wheels scream as it bounces against its confinement, desperate to slip its rails and go exploring. Or is it just trying to escape? We are pursued. I stand in the driver’s cab, leaning out of the window to catch a glimpse of what we are running from. Half trucks race along in the fields that the railway runs through, smashing through fences and lurching over rises and bushes. Their inhabitants scream and howl. It is unlikely that we will succeed. A pair of cars overtake us, the passengers leaning out of the windows, waving knives and firing guns at the train. They don’t appear to be aiming for anyone specifically, though a few bullets strike the frame of my window. They mount the track ahead of us, bobbing along the uneven surface. The driver has no choice but to brake in case they cause the whole train to veer away and devastate itself on the countryside. I never see the driver’s face, it’s lost in a frozen mask of shadow under his peaked cap. We grind to a shrieking halt which throws everyone out of their seats and slams me into the window. There is not much time. I climb out of the cab window and drop to the ground beside the track. I run up the stumpy bank we have stopped next to and shove myself under the wire fence that stands bedraggled alongside the railway. Perhaps I will be safe. The cars and trucks have emptied of people now. They stand with their knives and guns for a moment, and then they rush the train, forcing open doors on both sides. There is fighting, and our attackers are merciless. Limbs spill from the doorways, followed by bleeding bodies who either cry or lie still where they fall, faces into the heavy gravel. I feel the vast wash of failure. It is eclipsed only by the absolute terror that grips me as fiercely as the man who seizes my leg and tears me under the wire. It grates a layer of skin off my back and shoulders but I barely feel it. He half drags, half throws me back down the slope and I roll into a heap of bodies. This is when they will kill us. It is what we were fleeing from. But my absolute certainty is proven wrong. The half trucks pull up alongside the carriages while the men level weapons at those of us who have not yet fallen. We are directed to heave the dead onto the trucks, and then stand back. Men with huge gleaming cleavers go to work, jointing and hacking at the carcasses, lopping out steaks and organs which they slop into buckets and boxes. We can do nothing but watch this happen to our friends and families. An ancient bus, wracked by time and lack of care rattles down the side of the train, miraculously remaining upright. We are bullied aboard. The driver is insulated from our cries and horror by a plastic and metal shield around his seat. The little dish for sorting change sticks out incongruously and I wonder deliriously if we are expected to pay for this trip. It seems not. We drive for hours, until it is quite dark. We arrive in what feels like an old fishing village, except that it is well lit with orange and red paper lanterns hanging from every building, pole and post. It is a market. Women and men carry buckets and chests of raw human flesh down the road. Our bus rolls into a warehouse; doors slam shut behind us. We are quiet now, all cried out, our tears a poor substitute for the blood that has been spilled. Next comes a test. We are ordered out of the bus, and we notice for the first time that it had felt like a kind of sanctuary, protecting us like the driver was protected from us. We’re just in a larger cage now, already becoming used to the idea of being captive. But first there is the test. I think we all must know it is coming. A door opens, orange light falls through, followed by a huge man carrying a proportionately huge pot. The orange light goes away, replaced by the sound of bolts slamming home. We are shivering in a scared arc, guns loosely pointed at us. They know we have no heart for a fight. The pot is placed before us. In it, lumps of meat bob in a bloody stew. We have no doubt what the meat it. This is what these people have turned to – what the world has turned to, and what we have resisted – is this what we will turn to? But what does it mean to sacrifice your own life for a principle while locked in a warehouse? When push comes to shove… we all accept the ladle when it’s offered. It tastes like biting your own lip, a nose bleed running down the back of your throat, and cheap stewing steak. We pass the test, and are released, under watch, into the street. There is nowhere for us to go now. We have accepted the rules of this society; we are part of it. If we leave we will be rejected by whoever we meet – the reek of cannibalism clings to our hair and the blood of our fellows is black under our nails. We must work to live. I blunder around the roads. Everywhere there is a body being dismembered, blood draining into bottles, closed up in jars, poured steaming through the cold air into saucepans. I am wearied by the constant horror, until it dulls, or I grow dulled. The blood is not so bright, or so red anymore, it’s just a muddy black running through the gutters. A woman grabs me and bundles me off the street, hustles me through a door with black bars across it. I am so pathetic as to hope that I am being rescued, to be saved from this awful place – by whom? By the families of those I fled from at the train, whose thigh, arm, face I have since chewed and swallowed? Of course I am not being saved. I’m drawn through to another warehouse space where meat is being packed into bags and then crates. I’m slapped down on a stool and a tray of offal slung before me. “Separate the brains and organs – they go here. The bone goes here. Skin and hair…” I have no gloves, no tools, just my blood-smeared hands shoving gobbets of what was once in a person into plastic bags, squeezing out the air – a breath of iron-rancid breath – and mashing them into boxes. This is my life now. Orange lit murder.
When I came back to myself it was dark, except for a slash of white light that illuminated my leg and the ceiling tight above me. This wasn’t the garden anymore. I almost began to panic, fearing that I was back in the clutches of that stone claw, but the roof was buckled metal. The light fell to one side and I recognised Charlie, fumbling, trying to turn around.
“Charlotte,” he called, “we’re stuck – I can’t get him through.”
I couldn’t understand Charlotte’s reply, it bounced around too many angles, and I was still so tired.
“I’ll think of something else. Keep going – get Chelsea to her pod.”
I think Charlie must have seen my eyes half-open, and I wanted to say something, but I was fading away and didn’t have the strength to help, or even to reassure him.
“Just hang on Christopher,” he whispered, “this is probably going to hurt. Well, it’s definitely going to help”
I was still just aware enough to register those words before Charlie disappeared from my view and excruciating pain jerked me into a moment of total consciousness. Blissfully, it faded almost as quickly and everything was dark again. My last thought was that I must be dying.
Light blurred into vision again. All I could see was Charlie, half sitting on top of me, his weight crushing my back into the torn and broken corridor. We were still in the passage between the garden and the hab dome. There was a liquid feeling in my abdomen, like water was trickling over me, leaving greasy tracks. I reached out for the torch, fingers scrabbling for it. Charlie opened his eyes too as I swung the light around.
“Charlie, what did you do?”
“What I had to,” he said – he looked tired too.
I reached down to where the flickering red light had been earlier. It was just back into amber, the deathly red showing through like a hand held up to the light. But we were obviously still in the broken hall. I reached down to where I felt wet. I had been torn open. Thick tubes had spilled out of my belly. Horrified, but desperate to understand I played the torch over what felt like a gaping wound. Those sticky wet tubes came out, and were entwined with tubes tugged out of Charlie’s body. He’d spliced them together, let me refresh directly from him. No wonder he looked tired. I reached forward and pulled him into a hug. We fell back with a sigh into the dark.
Much, much later a light shone into my eyes. It was Charlotte, upside down for me, tapping Charlie on the shoulder. Where her torchlight didn’t shine I saw the reassuring glimmer of amber light on my stomach. Charlie’s was amber too, with flashes of red disturbing its otherwise even tone. I unwrapped my arms from Charlie and he pulled away.
“Are you both alright?”
“Someone seems to have made a bit of a mess,” said Charlie, “give us a bit more light.”
Charlotte turned on another torch. Charlie carefully separated our umbilical cables, dabbing at the overflow with a cloth. He screwed first mine back inside the hole he’d torn in my torso, then patched me up with duct tape. His own he neatly recoiled into himself and snapped his abdominal covers back into place.
“I’m sorry Charlie,” I said, “you shouldn’t have had to do that.”
“I was going to say the same thing – I couldn’t figure out how to open you up properly, so I’m afraid I’ve made a bit of a mess.”
My thighs were slick with greasy fluids, and I felt exactly like someone had cut me open and pulled my guts out. Funny that.
“Alright then,” said Charlotte, “let’s get you both back.”
Without having to drag me, Charlie and I were much more able to get through the tightly bent passageway, though it hurt like hell, and I was still bleeding. With Charlotte leading the way we climbed out into the better lit hab dome, dizzyingly atilt below us.
“This might take a while,” I warned.
And it did. The climb down the vertical floor, from stub of pedestal to the desk stubbornly clinging to its old place, and then to the cabinets and drawers that ringed the dome. From there it was an easier hop down the gentler gradient. And certainly preferable to scrambling down the cliff outside – I doubted I’d have been able to make that. Just one more dome to go. The floor of the science dome was disconcertingly even, and I found myself drunkenly staggering. That might just have been the internal bleeding. Charlotte steered us both around the wreckage of the lab equipment. The sight of the broken open door into our upside down hab was incredibly welcome. Even the inversion of space was familiar and relaxing, and the sight of our pods – Chelsea already fast asleep in hers, its rainbow of symbols brightening and fading over her feet – mine was open, just waiting for me to fall into it. Charlie made me sit on the edge rather than just falling face-first in, as was my clear intention.
“Hang on, just got to make sure you’ll be able to finish in the pod.”
He made me stretch my arms up and he peeled away the tape, wincing almost as much as me. He reached into his little toolkit and popped my ab wall back out again with a thin blade. I shivered as he reached inside and snapped something back into place. It clicked and I felt it in my throat.
“Okay, give me your hands,” he said, and taking them, lowered me backwards into the pod, “sleep tight – we’ll sort you out when you’re fresh.”
He pushed my feet in too and stared down at me as the pod closed, its crazed surface scattering him like a kaleidoscope. I half waved and then was gone, again.
It took the allforest hours to wind its way all the way inside the strangers’ last colony ship. The huge forested vessel squatted on top