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Open Boxes – Part Fifteen – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

Nothing much happened. Charlotte and Charlie finished sealing the doors that led out of our little community. We were confined to the three domes plus the garden. That was to be the extent of our roaming, the bounds of our exploration. I didn’t know how to feel about that – Charlotte’s arguments had swayed Charlie and I couldn’t say that I disagreed with their fears. If we found survivors then it was their lives that we would prioritise and serve; we were disposable and dispensable when the original, real humans were available. But if we didn’t find survivors, we were needlessly confining ourselves to a fragment of the installation – from what Chelsea and I had seen, the most degraded and ramshackle part of it. But we knew it, we had reclaimed it from partial vacuum and fatigue, made it as whole as it could be. The other places were also, frankly, quite terrifying. I wasn’t as adventurous as Chelsea, would never have strayed from our path if not from her. I would never have experienced the dread and fear that our adventure had stamped deep into me. If I caught sight of the night through the diamond windows I still recoiled internally, a shudder that ran through my bones and dissipated through my feet. Not going out there wasn’t exactly a terrible plan either. It chafed against Chelsea more than it did me. I was relatively content to restrict my imagination and reality to these four domes and their awkward halls, but I found Chelsea again and again staring at the over-glued doors and hatches. I’m sure she was wondering how much effort it would take to carve through those additional seals and get back to that strange spherical chamber and the rooms we couldn’t access. But that faded. Knowing the limits of our bodies, thanks to the manual, it was easier to accept the limitations we placed on ourselves. We were already reaching beyond what we had been built for – we were way past the recommended activation period, but there was no one to shut us down (and we weren’t going to do that ourselves, not yet anyway) – how much further does a being need to strive? So we got on with our lives, whatever they were.
We began to make the place home. And with home, comes personal space. Since there were four of us, and we had four rooms, there was potentially a certain logic to spreading ourselves out – maybe a room each. Charlotte had effectively claimed the garden by shifting her pod up there. That wasn’t a process that could be repeated now that all the exits were sealed, so we let her have that. Charlie wanted a little space as well. Since one of our domes lies at 90 degrees from the horizontal, that was out, and as I expressed some contentment in the upside down dome, the only place we could move his pod was to the adjacent one – the old research station. Our two domes were joined by a twisted, but essentially intact corrugated hallway so it was easy enough to lug it up there and replumb it in, surrounded by the wreckage of the science equipment. That left me and Chelsea. Chelsea’s pod had been broken by Charlotte, and we had no replacement covers. We shared a pod, meaning that we had a kind of timeshare agreement and so the schedule came to be born. At first it was just so we could keep track of each other’s refresh cycles. It gave some structure to the time we all spent in our four domes. It grew into the structure of our community.
Now that we had circumscribed our domain, had sealed and shuttered it against the outside world and its mysteries, there was work to be done. Scaling up a space from ‘survivable’ to ‘livable’ is quite a task. We all approached it in different ways. Charlotte, since she lived up there already, managed the garden. I wasn’t ever entirely clear on what needed to be done since the plants sorted themselves out. I was more concerned with the power feeds which all ran from that part of the installation, and provided light and heat for the rest of us. After a while Chelsea began to spend more time up there than down here in the smashed up domes. That brought… complicated feelings with it. I was surprised, since it was the disagreement between those two which had determined how we now lived, but I assumed Chelsea had resolved that for herself and moved on. Learning to be forgiving and repentant in a community of four is important. There are too few of us for grudges, for secrets. Nevertheless, the more time we all spent apart the more secrets we had. We no longer dreamed together. Proximity was somehow necessary for us to dream as one, and that was impossible, not just because we only had three pods to four of us, but the physical distances, and sleeping at different times threw our previous cohesion out of whack.
There’s a big difference between waking up screaming together, and waking up screaming on your own. The first time it happened to me, I came to, hammering at my pod’s cover, reaching out, expecting to see the same startled faces on either side. But there was no one. I had never felt so alone, not even when I thought I had lost Chelsea out in the dark. It even felt darker in the dome – some of the lights had failed. I was the furthest from the power source and some of the cobbled together cables were stretched beyond endurance when the domes shifted slightly in the dust. They would be easy enough to fix. The starlight, faint as it was, painted the shadows a different shade of grey all along one side of the dome. I felt exposed, with my pod there in the middle of the room, surrounded by a jumble of broken open boxes and cartons. That’s when I began my project – making myself (and Chelsea) some kind of nook in the chaos, a place that was less lonely to wake up in. I partly solved that for Chelsea by trying to be there when she was due to wake up – just nearby, nothing intrusive like standing over her pod as she woke – just close enough to be making a noise and be recognised as close by. It’s what you do for your friends.
Clearing through the detritus of a storage unit flipped over, smashed open and stamped into a thick mat is exactly as tedious and difficult as it sounds. Add to that the idea that the floor is the ceiling, so the mass you’re dealing with is lying in a dish and you have no flat surfaces to stand on… Whatever I dug out had to be bolstered so that the whole lot didn’t just fill itself in. I also needed somewhere to put the junk that I didn’t want. We had no way of entirely being rid of it, so it all had to stay somewhere within our habitat. That was what tripped Charlie onto a project of his own. Since the beginning he had been both the most creative of us, hence our charmingly individual faces, and also the most organised. His toolkit made a mockery of my toolbag. He could actually find the things he was looking for. It didn’t take much hinting before he expanded his organisation in a much bigger way. Charlie’s science dome was, as it turned out, about a quarter just broken glass. To move it and hide it away we started by extracting some of the larger and more intact boxes and cartons from the storage dome. Each box I could dig out could then be filled with more broken or useless stuff from Charlie’s dome. Since Charlie’s dome had a flat floor, we could stack containers around the edges, building sub-rooms and mezzanines. It became quite a serious endeavour.
Eventually I started finding things that might be useful. We stored away beams, hosing, pipes, welding patches, tools into the remaining cabinets and cupboards in the science dome. We had huge boxes just full of broken glass, plastics, sheared metal, torn fabrics and foam padding. They would become the new floor for my dome, the gaps to be filled with yet more of the junk. When we were digging around we also found supplies like food – endless tinned and freeze-dried provisions for people who could consume such things. They were completely useless to us. We also found clothes – hard wearing overalls, boots which couldn’t possibly fit on our bulkier feet, suits for external use, shirts, underwear. Again, not required for our survival. So what to do with these vital accoutrements of a society we feared lost, when we thought of it at all? They were a reminder of what we were supposed to be doing, and of the people who would need them, should they have survived. We took them to the others.
We had grown in to a habit of meeting every day in the sideways dome. It was a bit of relief from the lifting, carrying and sorting that Charlie and I had become involved in, and a chance for Chelsea and Charlotte to leave their greenery and generators and come together. It was clear that we missed the constant intimacy of our early days, but too much had happened for us to go back to it, and frustratingly we had not talked about it for too long – and now it was too late. Further, we had taken steps that prevented us from bringing our pods together again. And talking about that would only lead to more disharmony, which we had all worked hard, in silence, to recover from. So this was a special part of the day I suppose. A chance for four kindred, and at first identical, individuals to be together again.
“We found stores of clothing,” Charlie said, hauling over a crate filled with a sample of the clothes we had found.
“Was there much?” asked Chelsea.
“I don’t know how to assess how many humans it would have clothed, but there are several hundred kilogrammes that we’ve excavated so far.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“That’s why we brought it here.”
“Because you want to be rid of it?”
“We have no way to dispose of it,” I said, “but I did think we might use some of it.”
“For what?”
“Some of the fabric could be used to replace water and air filters in the garden,” suggested Charlotte.
“Why don’t we wear it?” I asked.
The others looked at me. It was the still look, the one where everyone is quiet and looks at you and you’re not sure if it’s because you’ve said or done something strange, or if you just missed their reply and they’re waiting for you to say something. It might even be both of those things.”
“Wear it,” I repeated, “the fabrics are durable and would mitigate the wear and scuffing we’re all getting.”
That was certainly true. All of our panels were scratched and scuffed. The wear and tear to our hands and feet was predictably heavy. We had outlived the manual’s longest estimates of functionality, and it was no wonder we were wearing through some of our padding.
“For example,” I pulled out a set of heavy work overalls.
They had Velcro along the calves, otherwise I would never have been able to get my feet through them. Having seen the shoes and boots we had also found it made me wonder how humans managed to balance on such small appendages. I added a pair of gloves that I’d taken from an exo-suit. They fit quite well and barely diminished my freedom of movement. I stood before my companions, in my overalls and gloves, waiting for their assessment. I was greeted by silence. Even Charlie seemed surprised. I’m not sure he realised what I was going to propose.
“Well, otherwise we’ll just be wasting them, and we could do with the protection,” I added.
Chelsea reached into the crate and pulled out a thick crimson jacket. She unfolded it to get a good look and then tugged it on over her shoulders. The arms were a good length, but when she crossed them there came a tearing sound. She turned around and we saw that it was ripped, right down her back.
“I can fix that,” said Charlie, producing a reel of duct tape from his kit.
That opened the floodgates, and we all dove into the crate, pulling out items of clothing, trying them on, taking them off and throwing them at each other, for them to be tested again. It was… fun. We tried some combinations that didn’t work at all. Charlotte managed to get her feet into a pair of heavy boots, but couldn’t get them all the way in – her attempts to walk on tip toe in them was marvellous. We soon ditched all the smaller sizes – we were built for work, and broad despite being fairly slender. Judicious application of duct tape, and occasionally sealant or staples enabled most of the clothes to fit.
It was strangely liberating. We were all dressed, to some extent, in items that had been fabricated for those that had preceded us. In some sense it was oddly funereal, as if we were taking clothes from a dead person’s wardrobe and trying them on. I don’t know how that thought existed within us, but it did feel like an inheritance of some kind. We were taking on the literal mantle of the humans who had lived here, becoming more human in own way. We would never have the memories and lives, personalities of those who had fallen away, but we could find ways to enhance our similarities to them – and use those habits and modes of dress to further distinguish ourselves. Each choice we had made was our own. These last weeks of work and growth had taken us far beyond the mechanistic fixing that we had laboured under to begin with. Something about the change that Chelsea and I had made by breaking off on our own had triggered a change in all of us. Were we becoming people in our right? Outgrowing and overcoming the limitations that the manual insisted were there? We had no way of knowing, but right then, dressed in a patchwork of workwear and (what we assumed were) leisurewear, we felt more like ourselves than we had done before.

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