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Open Boxes – Part Fourteen – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

How much of my life have I spent unconscious? The days were so similar for so long that they lost all sense of reality. The only thing that separated them from sleep is that they were less suffused with fear. That changed, but it was hard to tell. How is my sleeping life, the dreams that we share, so different from life? Charlie has confided that he thinks the dreams are the leakage from our basic neural template which must have been ripped from a real human mind, and who’s to say they managed to scrub those meninges free of data and left only structure? Chelsea thinks they’re the fragments of an aborted personality download – all we got were tiny bits and at night our essentially human brain structure tries to put them back together. Me, I’m inclined to say that’s all bollocks.
We’ve got big chunks of data pre-programmed into us – lots of conceptual and referential information which was supposed to help the downloading personality re-relate to the world around them without having to worry about private language paradoxes and concept vagueness. They would just land, with their memories and emotional states intact, but in a slightly better organised database. It was what they added that would have made it meaningful, turned us from ambulatory databases with hands into actual people. But without those injections of self, what we got was our baseline, plus an initiation command from a system without directions – the direst of emergency states, or possibly worse, a panicked demand for our activation. And now our minds team up disaster with everything flagged in the database for ‘dangerous’, ‘bad’, ‘threatening’. And then we wake up. No wonder the sleep states seem more real – those ideas and scraps of information are all we’ve got of the culture that bred us and abandoned us. The waking real is a mangled mass of glass, plastic and metal. Our days are spent patching and rooting through the wreckage for anything usable. Even though it’s terrifying, the night has more going for it. I guess that was a pretty sad state of affairs.
As I woke up again, to that same cracked shield over me, I remembered that waking and dreaming had begun to run together – that’s if what I thought I remembered wasn’t just a dream. It was complicated. Sitting up to activate the pod’s opening was a special kind of pain across my torso. That told me I hadn’t dreamed all of it at least. I felt like I’d been snapped in half. It looked like Charlie had popped the pod open while it was still in operation – which is a bit risky – as the panel he’s torn off me was epoxied shut. Well, if it kept the pressure in the domes it would probably hold my guts in. I’m not sure if that really reassured me a great deal. It certainly still hurt. I sat on the edge of my pod, taking a moment to let the pain ebb away.
I got the manual out. Many times I’ve found it to be a source of comfort. It’s an explanation for much of who we are, or at least why we are. The who was still a troubling matter which we were far from resolving. The manual didn’t even list our names of course, since we had picked those ourselves. The manual does cover repair and recovery which was presumably what Charlie had referred to when gluing me shut. The pain was a result of over-stressed pseudo-nerves. Not actual, real nerves like a real person would have. No, these were pseudo-nerves. They did the exact same thing human nerves did, but didn’t merit the same name. That had never bothered me before; I’d been relatively content with my synthetic makeup, but now, having been out into the rest of the station, and experienced what I felt were some proper human attributes – like being terrified and running – I thought we deserved some more sympathetic treatment. The manual wasn’t going to give me that. Since the pseudo-nerves had been “stressed” by Charlie’s life-saving intervention they would take some time to repair themselves (or “heal”, if I were real). That was reassuring, since I couldn’t imagine continuing to function in a useful way feeling like this.
I knew that what Charlie had done had been exceptionally dangerous for both of us. I didn’t remember collapsing, but I obviously hadn’t even gotten out of the garden before getting stuck. I hoped Charlie was okay. The manual didn’t cover ripping each other open and sharing cables. That fell into wear and tear, and then recycling and disposal. I was glad Charlie had spared me that at least. Would that even have been death? Was deactivation the same as death? Another subject the manual was silent on. The idea was that once the emergency work was done, a couple of options presented themselves. The ideal situation was one in which the personalities were outloaded again once the job ended, so the memories and information could be accessed by the parent organisation, and the backup wiped and shut down. That sounded a lot like death to me. The less optimal outcome (from the manual’s perspective) was immediate scrub and deactivation. That was even more like death. No consideration was offered for the continued operation of the units (us) – explicitly, the backups were not the person’s continued existence, but an in extremis absolute last option. The person was presumed dead, or the next best thing, and since they were already dead, the new entity was not them, and there would be no obligation to support its continuity, and that such action was legally problematic and therefore doubly undesirable. It was chilling to consider that even if I was possessed by an individual’s personality, it would be only a brief postscript to their lives, to be shortly terminated, returning them to their grave. Cheery thoughts.
The pain seemed to be easing, but I was in no hurry to go running around. These pseudo-nerves might even be a step up from human nerves, if this recovery could be considered representative. For the first time I took a good look at my surroundings. At least, I took a non-practical look at my environment. Sure, the dome is upside down so I can mainly see what used to be the floor, and a view of dusty grey outside through the windows that aren’t submerged in broken junk. We had already established that this was a storage container – that explained the large number of crates and smashed boxes which constituted our floor, plus innumerable lengths of pipe, hose, foam panelling and all the things you could hope for in order to effect general repairs on an installation like this. It was simply unfortunate that it was the dome with all the useful stuff in it that had gone over the edge of a cliff. Certainly if any survivors from the rest of the base had wanted these things they would have been virtually impossible to get at. We’d returned pressure, sealed and smashed holes in all sorts of things that more fragile bodies would have been unable to handle. I guess that’s why they put us here, already in the right place to get started. Or were we just in storage too? Judging from the rest of the installation that I’d seen this wasn’t exactly central to the operation. Maybe it was just a warehouse dumping ground for things they weren’t using.
I noticed a picture that I hadn’t seen before, stuck to the wall. It depicted a kitten plummeting towards the ground. It was upside down of course, labelled “hang in there”. That wasn’t an especially auspicious discovery. It did make the space somewhat more homely though. This was where we had been living for weeks, and we hadn’t even decorated. I rummaged in my tool bag and found the bright yellow pencil case I had retrieved from the classroom. It was a sharp contrast to the greys and beige of the room, far more in keeping with the inverted kitten picture. I had no reference points for the grinning anthropomorphised sponge, but it was by far the friendliest thing we had encountered. I resolved to make more of the life that we had here. Even if we were built for redundancy at the earliest opportunity, we didn’t have to live like we were. There was a lot more to this installation than these crushed domes. Chelsea had helped me see that; had made me see that, even though I wasn’t particularly keen on returning to the parts we had explored. There was no need to think about that though – we had plenty to be getting on with.
With that in mind, I stood up and pressed the lid of my pod until it closed itself. There was plenty of work to be done. That’s when I noticed there were only three pods. There ought to be four: me, Chelsea, Charlie and Charlotte. I knew I was still here. It was obvious which one was missing – Charlotte’s. We had never fully separated hers from the ceiling – or floor – depending on how you looked at it, and it had been supported at its odd angle by a slope of stacked boxes lashed together. They still stood, but her pod was gone. A hose dripped a thin fluid onto the floor, where it disappeared into the maze of junk. Charlie’s pod was empty, which made sense to me – he only had a refresh to do, even if he was black-lining towards the end; I assumed I had been out for a little longer. Chelsea was in her pod still, the rainbow of icons told me she was fully refreshed and ought to have woken up. I rested a hand on her pod and peered inside. She looked fine, apparently she had slipped more easily through the passageways than I had. But she ought to be up and about. I was about to trigger her wake up sequence, my finger right over the slider when a blow caught me about the head.
I was thrown to the floor, slipping and stumbling. My sight reeled, and as I turned around I saw half a dozen Charlotte’s, her cross-hatched head unmistakable. She was holding a length of tubing – the sort we normally wedged into door hydraulics to keep them open – very calmly, considering she had just hit me with it.
“What the hell, Charlotte?” I didn’t have a better phrased question available to me, and it captured all the things I wanted to know.
“Stay away from her,” Charlotte said.
“Um… no,” I replied, shaking my head to realign my vision, “what are you doing?”
“Leave her in the pod. She’s dangerous,” Charlotte raised the pole again as I got back to my feet.
“You know I’ve recently had a massive hole in my stomach,” I reminded her, “she’s refreshed. It’s time to get up.”
I lunged for Chelsea’s pod again and narrowly avoided the pole, which clanged down behind me. I was fairly sure Charlotte wouldn’t risk breaking the pods – they had taken enough damage before we woke up. Mind you, hers wasn’t there anymore.
“She stays asleep,” Charlotte shouted.
I don’t recall our having raised our voices before. Chelsea and I had definitely done some yelling when we were running away from those children, but raised our voices for any reason other than distance? Never. This was not a promising development.
“I told you – she’s dangerous. She could have got you both killed, or lost – and then we would have come to find you for no reason, risking resources and ourselves. We couldn’t be sure you had secured the chamber beyond the garden – “
“We left a note!”
“ – a note? That could have been anyone.”
“Well, there was no need to sign it – there isn’t anyone else,” I pointed out, “well, there might be, but we don’t know that.”
“Exactly – reckless, thoughtless. Vanishing into a new part of the station, no consideration for the team. What if we hadn’t come? What then?”
I couldn’t fault her case. We had been reckless, we had put ourselves in a situation we couldn’t control – and that was only what Charlotte knew about. We hadn’t told her and Charlie about the awful cases with the dead children in. I wasn’t sure that this was the time to bring that up.
“So why am I awake, and not Chelsea?”
“Was it your idea to go exploring?”
“Not exactly.”
“Exactly,” Charlotte declared, “you know what the job is – you know what we’re supposed to be doing – fixing this place, not going exploring. We’ll get to those corridors when we need to, when everything else is sorted – we don’t need to go there now.”
Was Charlotte afraid? It’s hard to read emotions. There are a couple of reasons for that: one, emotions were very new to us, until a few wakings ago I wouldn’t have said I was feeling much in particular; two, our faces aren’t built for emotional cues. We’ve got a mouth and eyes, but very little of the plasticity that we’d seen in the children and that we knew humans had. All of ours is in body language and blinking. It was not an art we had mastered. The metal pole suggested anger, which is easily linked with fear. I had to take a punt.
“Charlotte, I know you’re frightened – “
“I’m not frightened,” (guess I was wrong), “I’m concerned about operational functionality – we can’t do our job if half of us are vanishing on wild goose chases.”
That took me a moment to parse, and it seemed to take Charlotte by surprise. It was just enough of a distraction to swipe my finger across the wake sequence on Chelsea’s pod. It swung open as Charlotte took another swing at me. The impact was taken fully by the lid, shattering the already fractured glass. A shower of glass fragments fell on Chelsea as she opened her eyes.
“What the hell – “
We all had much the same questions about what Charlotte was doing.
“Stop – Charlotte – just stop for a minute,” I yelled, “let’s talk about this.”
Chelsea clocked the tube in Charlotte’s hands and rose no further than seated from her pod.
“You endangered us all, do you even realise that?” Charlotte demanded.
“Alright – yes – wow, what happened to you Christopher?” Chelsea asked, noting the patched up hole in my side, and immediately eyeing Charlotte.
“Couldn’t fit back through the tunnels. It’s probably a story for another time.”
“Right. Do you even know what we found out there? We found – well I’m not sure what we found, but you saw that room – that cave – you saw the claws. Don’t you want to know what that is?”
“No. None of it. We don’t need to know – we’ve got our lives here. We’ve made the domes habitable – we’re doing fine. Going out there is just… unnecessary.”
“Really? ‘Inessential to the mission’, is that what you think?” Chelsea was demonstrating behaviour I associated with anger. It confirmed for me that Charlotte was also angry: their body language was almost identical, except Chelsea was sitting down and not holding a long bit of metal.
“There’s more to this place than just patching up holes, Charlotte. When we went outside there was… well… I don’t know what, but it was frightening out there.” Chelsea lamely concluded, turning to me for support.
“Yes – definitely. It was creepy.”
“I’ve been outside too, remember. It’s just dark, and airless and silent,” Charlotte retorted.
We nodded our agreement.
“Yes – all of those things, and a hideous sense of being watched,” I added.
“Ridiculous,” if we had the ability to snort, I’m sure Charlotte would have used it.
“And beyond that – before we even got to that room with the perfect sides and the rock spikes – they’re outside too. And, and there were these children we found –“
“The ones you can’t find again?”
“That doesn’t change anything – we think they saw something. Look – something happened here, and we don’t know what it is. We don’t know what we’re clearing up after, we don’t know who we’re doing it for, we don’t know if it’s dangerous or safe, or abandoned. We don’t know anything. We need to know something. We found these drawings – we think they were drawn by the children. I’ve got them here somewhere.”
Chelsea opened her bag and rifled through it, then tipped the contents out into her pod.
“They’re not here,” she said, “where are the pictures we found – the ones I tried to show you in the garden.”
“They aren’t important Chelsea,” Charlotte said, “they aren’t what we’re here for.”
“I thought it was Christopher who was obsessed with that stupid manual. It’s not all we are. Now where are my pictures?”
“They’re gone,” Charlotte said, “we don’t need them.”
“They were all we had,” Chelsea’s voice rose to a shout and she climbed out of the pod, bent and snatched up a jagged spike of metal, “now where are my pictures?”
“We destroyed them,” Charlotte admitted, her grip on her pole shifting.
With a frustrated yell, Chelsea hurled the spike at Charlotte. It caught her in the shoulder and knocked her back.
“This is futile, Chelsea. You’ve got no evidence, you’ve got nothing – the two of you got scared and ran into something we don’t understand. There are millions of things we don’t understand – what’s so special about these things?”
“They might tell us what happened here, why we’re here!” Chelsea’s tone.
“Enough,” Charlotte declared, “no more.”
Charlie came into the dome at a run.
“I heard shouting,” he said, “oh – they’re awake. But we haven’t moved the other pod yet.”
“That’s a point – where is your pod Charlotte?” I asked.
“It’s in the garden. We carried it around while you two were refreshing.”
“You went back out there?” Chelsea exclaimed.
“We can’t get them through the corridor – we proved that trying to get you back here.”
“And once we’ve sealed the doors, no one else will be either. It’s not safe, and you can’t be trusted not to endanger us all.”
That last line was aimed at Chelsea.
“You have no right – “ began Chelsea.
“No one does. None of us have rights – haven’t you read the manual? They turn us on, they turn us off. Even if we do find survivors, they’re just going to kill us once we’ve made a little house for them to live in. We stay here, we stay safe.”
I was shocked by her conclusion. It made perfect sense, and I knew it was at least partly true.
“We’ll stay here – this is where our life is now. Get used to it.”
With that Charlotte tossed the pole on the floor and marched out of the upside down dome.
“And you agree with her?” I asked Charlie, who was standing there awkwardly, torn between watching Charlotte heading for the door, and Chelsea and I. I thought Charlotte actually slowed briefly waiting for Charlie’s answer.
“Yeah – I do. What we found in that cave… We should just leave that alone. I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” I said, “but… thanks for saving my life.”
He nodded, “that’s alright – it’s what we do. Fix things.”
With that he turned and followed Charlotte out.
“We didn’t even get a chance to tell them about the children,” I said.
“I don’t think they would want to know, and Charlotte wouldn’t believe us if we told her. Dammit – those pictures.”
Chelsea sat back down on the edge of her broken pod.
“Where am I going to sleep now?”
“You’re welcome to use my pod,” I said, “we can alternate.”
Unable to think of anything further to say that could help, I just pointed at the poster of the kitten.

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