Charlie’s head was nestled into my elbow, the tubes sticking out of his neck making my jacket wet. I began to realise that the others were not okay with this situation. I was just being practical – what do you do with someone’s head? It’s not like there’s a drawer specifically for them. We hadn’t found anyone else’s heads – we hadn’t even found any spares for ourselves. The most we’d managed were glue and tape. And to do that for Charlie I’d need his body, which wasn’t around. It still seemed to me that the best plan was to put his head in a safe place. If his body showed up we could try to cobble him back together (though the manual was not very encouraging on this point). If we just left it where it was then we’d never find it again – it would get buried by the plants, or roll off under a counter. I certainly didn’t want that to happen. I made some time for myself by wiping the fire suppressant foam off his eyes with my sleeve. They were still staring at me. Oh yes, I was expected to defend myself…
“I’ve only just woken up – this is the first I’ve seen of any of you today,” I pointed out, raising my jacket to show my freshly gleaming greens across the board, “I’m barely out of the pod.”
“That doesn’t mean your first action wasn’t decapitating Charlie!” said Charlotte.
“Well, that’s true – but why would you think it was me?”
“There are only four of us, and we were together. That leaves you.”
“Hardly – it might just as easily have been the pair of you, now trying to blame me.”
“But we know it wasn’t us.”
“How am I supposed to know that? Especially when you start by accusing me!”
“This is a pointless argument,” Chelsea interrupted.
“Um, it feels like it probably matters,” I mumbled, “why would you even think I had done something like this?”
“It’s not so much you, as it is that the only likely culprit is you,” replied Charlotte.
“You don’t… think there’s anything strange about your behaviour?” asked Chelsea.
I adjusted Charlie’s head – it seemed my hand span was large enough to grip the back of his head in my fingers, which freed my arm up for gesticulation.
“No… why would you ask that?”
Chelsea and Charlotte did that looking at each other thing again. It was beginning to annoy me. I felt that there were ideas being exchanged without the plain and honest use of verbal language. It’s all we’ve really got – these moulded faces don’t do a lot of flexing, but it seemed Charlotte and Chelsea were managing it. I felt a little left out.
“Christopher,” began Chelsea, “could I – take that from you.”
She reached out, tentatively, for Charlie’s head. I snatched it back out of reach.
“Hey – no. Look, I’ve got a plan for this. I’ve been through the steps – I’m not going to throw it out. Couple of reasons: one – we might find his body, and I’d kick myself if we couldn’t find all the parts, two – there is no way to dispose of anything is there Charlotte,“ (I addressed this directly to her), “because we don’t have an outside that we can put anything in anymore, do we? It’s all inside, so even if I put Charlie’s head in one of his containers for disposal, it’s just going to stay there, stacked up and labelled like everything else in his dome. So they’re effectively the same thing – fine. If that’s what you want to hear, I’m going to throw his head away, and not throw his head away. Is that what you want?”
“What? No – what the hell are you talking about Christopher?” I’d apparently stunned Charlotte with my reasoning.
“Christopher. Shall we just sit down for a minute,” suggested Chelsea, stepping past the scorched ground and onto the narrow path that wound through the miniature jungle.
I had no problem with that, though I still thought my companions were behaving very strangely towards me, to say the least. I rolled Charlie’s head back up under arm again and followed Chelsea through the foliage. Charlotte waited a moment, and then followed. Walking through the garden is a wonderful experience. I gather that plants don’t normally grow like this, but in the dome the flowers and trees have been trained to follow three dimensional frames so that they fill the space far more densely than they could otherwise. The frames themselves bled blue light constantly, to help the plants photosynthesise. It gave the place a magical quality, full of overlaid shadows which drifted about with the light breeze. I reached out to stroke the rose petals as we passed them. Charlotte must have been devoting considerable effort to keeping the plants trimmed. When we first discovered the garden it was a wondrous tangled jungle, but now it was relatively neat – for a sprawling organic system. There is something calming about being surrounded by green. Maybe the insides of our pods should have been green, or a tint to the lid. Charlie probably had something we could use for that, tucked away in his tidily sorted archives. Thankfully he was conscientious about labelling the many crates, boxes and drawers – since he wouldn’t be talking to us any time soon – I should still be able to find what I wanted. Of course, there would be no need to exchange anything either. I didn’t feel great about just having the things I wanted – I was used to some conversation, a swap of relatively worthless things for the routine and familiarity of it. Without Charlie… a great many things would be different.
It was dawning on me, slowly, yet surely that something was awry. A feature of consciousness, I think I had decided, is the ability to recognise and self-correct when you’re going wrong. It’s a hard won property, requiring more than we had been endowed with when we emerged into this broken world. I’ve said before that routine soothes, that planning out the schedule provides a framework for bodies to operate in, but it also cages the mind. In determining our limits, in proscribing the outside, I’d turned inward and pushed away what we’d learned, what we – Chelsea and I – had felt and seen. I’d begun rewriting my mind and my feelings, denying what we’d discovered in favour of this simpler sliver of life. We had all colluded in it, but I perhaps had taken in furthest. I had to – so much changed so suddenly, and perhaps that seems an exaggeration, but we’re not as well rounded as possible we’d like. For all of our fixing and carrying on as if we had a job to do, a purpose, it was only what we had assumed we should do – we had assumed our very identities, spun then out of a functional manual, terrible dreams and those traces of what we guessed must be instinct that caused us to take names, find a self for each of us. Hardly a surprise then when our hollow shells crack, revealing nothing underneath. When you’ve no understanding of the world how can you face it? Maybe we were meant to crumble, maybe I was just the first of us to do so, unless poor Charlie had crumbled all to literally before me. And that was what I had lost – Charlie. I’d lost myself so much that I could carry my companion’s – my friend’s – head under my arm and be concerned only with its fit disposition for storage.
The realisation spread through me like the sensation of an egg cracked open on your stomach. A cold trickle of awareness returning, slickly dragging my mind back into its former place.
We all sat together, Charlotte and Chelsea on either side of me. Hanging one’s head appears to be the appropriate symbol for contrition, and my friends recognised it.
“Yep, he’s caught up,” said Chelsea, leaning back on the bench, and staring up into the branches.
“It wasn’t Christopher then?” Charlotte replied.
“I never thought it was.”
“Well, that’s a different problem altogether then.”
I rolled Charlie’s head around so I could look him in the face.
“Yes, I see the problem now. I’m sorry. I was lost, somewhere inside,” I said, “Charlie should still have his head, but I didn’t do this, I couldn’t do this, not to Charlie, not to any of you – and neither did you…”
The garden felt less safe and comforting than it had a few moments before.
“But we’re all sealed up – there’s no one else in here,” I protested.
Charlotte shuffled awkwardly, unwilling to meet my gaze. She wouldn’t look at Chelsea either.
“But that’s not true, is it Charlotte?” said Chelsea, “you locked us out of the mysteries and away from all the questions and everything outside of this, didn’t you? You and Charlie. You didn’t want us to find out the truth – what happened here, what happened to all the people. What was it between you and Charlie – did you leave a way out? Something only Charlie knew about…”
Charlotte was quiet for a long time. The leaves and flowers bobbed around us, casting shadows like tears across her face.
“I – I was afraid. Afraid that we would find people, survivors and everything we had would be suddenly be a lie, would be taken from us and replaced with another reality, one that we hadn’t chosen and built for ourselves. That we would be taken from each other – we don’t know anyone else – we don’t know what they’re like. You know this – you know we’re not supposed to be like this – “
“We’re beyond the manual, Charlotte,” said Chelsea, “we let you make decisions because we were afraid too. I knew we had gone too far, me and Christopher, and that was my fault – it was what I wanted. And Christopher got hurt, and I thought you were right to let us hide. But there’s something out there that we can’t hide from.”
“Chelsea – Christopher – I’m sorry. Charlie…”
Charlotte reached over and took Charlie’s head out of my lap. I let her take him.
“We – Charlie and I – I thought we’d sealed us off. Maybe we had. I just wanted us to stay together, but Charlie thought… he wondered if Chelsea was right. He didn’t tell me what he was going to do. He decided to re-open the airlock in the sideways dome. He fixed it so it looked like it was still sealed. Why would anyone check. He did it while you were sleeping,” she touched my arm, “and while Chelsea was repairing a heating system he’d disabled earlier. He was only out for a short time – “
“Where we you?”
“I was asleep too.”
“When I woke up, it was because Charlie was waking up, he’d released the lid and half pulled me out before I knew it was him. He was terrified. He kept saying ‘they’re all still out there’, and then he ran off into the garden. By the time I found Chelsea the fire alarm systems had been triggered, and then we found you. And Charlie.”
We all sat there on the benches, huddled together under the leaves. Every slight sound was louder than ever before. Every shadow hid another shape within it. Our world felt both smaller and larger than it had before, and much emptier.
All content copyright Captain Pigheart 2023