The crackle of flames reached us before the thick smoke struggled through the mass of plants. Another fire in the garden. We leaped into action. I stuffed Charlie’s head unceremoniously into my toolbag – I didn’t want to leave him lying around, I thought he’d be safer with us. Chelsea and Charlotte ran for the fire extinguishers; the suppression systems were already kicking in, sucking air out of the dome while that precious supply of water sprayed over the burning wood and leaves. Very quickly I was alone, in a smoke-clad jungle. I couldn’t hear the others, though I knew they could hardly be far away. A flicker in the corner of my vision; I whipped around to follow the motion, but it was lost in the constant motion of the garden. Another flicker, and then another, all around me. This was no time for staying still. With the air being removed, the smoke was rising upwards like a tangle of snakes climbing for the sky. I ducked low, and followed the path back to where we had found Charlie, my eyes constantly drawn away by movement. The fire was already out, ended almost as soon as it had begun – another blackened patch of earth and naked frame right by the original fire.
“Is there anything up there,” asked Charlotte, “that might be loose, discharging sparks?”
“Shouldn’t think so. This isn’t accidental – we’re beyond that Charlotte,” said Chelsea, “we’re not alone.”
“On that,” I added, “I’m pretty sure we’re being watched. I keep seeing things in the garden.“
As if to prove my point, Charlotte and Chelsea both spun in opposite directions, their eyes caught as mine had been by anomalous twitching behind the branches.
“We should go…” I said, conscious that we had almost zero visibility.
“Alright, all together – we head back to the sideways dome,” directed Charlotte, ever in charge, hefting the extinguisher which she’d barely had to use on the fire.
We automatically lined up so we could see in as many directions as possible and started walking. Every patch of darkness in the green seemed alive with activity, and it felt like ghosts were crawling up my back. Charlotte jerked to a halt and hurled her extinguisher into the jungle. A flurry of motion exploded out of the point of impact, so fast I could barely make sense of what I was seeing. Three tiny figures, almost vibrating they were moving so quickly, bounded out between the bushes and pounced on Charlotte, knocking her immediately to the floor. Chelsea and I were both frozen for a beat, staring aghast at the creatures swarming over Charlotte. Thin, wan little people, they were – impossibly – the children we had left in that room, hammering at their cages. And now they were scrabbling with sharp, vicious fingers at her clothing and the joins at her neck and shoulders, flailing with that awful shivering, their papery skin cracking where Charlotte thrust back against them. Her screaming shocked us out of our own horror and we threw ourselves at her attackers. I grabbed one by its shoulders and found it unexpectedly light – when I spun to throw it, I stumbled after it. The child struck a tree and recovered immediately, bounding off it and back at my throat.
Chelsea had taken a more violent tack, following Charlotte’s lead, and swung her extinguisher at the children clawing at Charlotte. The red cylinder passed through the first child’s skull with no hesitation, and it exploded in a cloud of dust and shards of bone that fell instantly over Charlotte’s face. It took the second child in the shoulder, tearing its body almost in half. That didn’t stop it – even with one arm dangling at its waist, the desiccated child spun back to assault Chelsea. They moved so fast, like they were moving between thoughts that they were on us before we could react. And horrible – their wicked hands scraping against my skin, those dead dry eyes above a mouth open as if to scream, but making my sound, just every vibration of theirs shedding more dusty skin and wrinkled hair over me. I felt unclean and tainted, I wanted it off me. I took the expedient route of throwing myself on the ground, and crushing the little monster between us. Its bones broke with appalling ease, sticking jagged through its skin until I smashed its head back into the ground and it finally collapsed. Chelsea had simply torn it in half and stamped on its skull.
We hauled Charlotte back up but she was shaking uncontrollably, her hands fluttering as we tried to grab hold of them. I was worried that they had jabbed their bony digits into something vital, but she muttered that she was alright. That had to be enough for us – there was further thrashing through the branches, leaves and twigs shaken loose – the rest of them were coming for us. We had no time to think about where we were going. If we had stopped for a moment we would have realised that for all the horror these dried up children brought, they were far more fragile than us, and surely presented less threat than the panic they had instigated. We fell over each other in the scramble out of the jungle, heading for the twisted corridor that would take us away from the children and back into the rest of our habitat.
Chelsea slid into the crumpled opening first, while Charlotte banged her fists against the doorway with impatience and fear. I certainly didn’t want to stand with my back to the jungle, not with those things in it, but I didn’t have any great desire to watch them running at us. Fear is hard to manage – stand your ground or run – close your eyes, or peel them wide open? I chose barely open slits – cringing at the prospect of being attacked. A loud clang, and a scream came from inside the crushed corridor and Chelsea thrashed her way back up and out.
“They’re in the corridor – crawling up from the dome.”
Behind her I could see pale, scrawny shapes clutching at her back and legs. Charlotte hauled her out, Chelsea lashing away with her feet, smashing one of the ghouls against the steel of the doorway.
“We’re trapped – they have to be coming in through the airlock Charlie reopened,” whispered Charlotte.
I don’t know when we’d switched to whispers, as if they didn’t already know we were here, and we could hide from them by lowering our voices. Our unintentional shouts and yells hardly helped when we saw them climbing up the hall and insinuating themselves from out between the trees and dangling flowers. We found ourselves back to back again as the nightmarish little figures climbed down out of the garden’s framework and out of the doorway. They assembled themselves in a twitching oval around us, the shaking in their limbs making their hands clench and jaws rattle. Except for their involuntary convulsions they seemed still – we were surrounded. Although there were only around twenty of them, their presence was incredibly threatening.
“So, these are the survivors then?” asked Charlotte.
“Not really,” said Chelsea, “when we last saw them they were in cases that said they were definitely dead. They’re so light they can’t possibly be alive – they fall apart as soon as you hit them.”
“Do you think it’s all of them,” I said, “all the children from that room?”
“I didn’t count,” replied Chelsea, “but they certainly look like creepy dead kids to me.”
We couldn’t just stay there, and apart from pulling us apart I couldn’t imagine what the children wanted. If they did want to talk we might have spoiled that by smashing several of them to pieces. I could probably find time to feel bad about that later. For now it felt like we were in a stand-off, waiting for some shift in the balance to spring us back into fighting. I began to calm down in the momentary peace, able to assess our relative strengths a little. Although they outnumbered us, they wouldn’t stand a chance if we started using weapons like those extinguishers, or the tools I still had slung over my shoulder. Were these the things that tore Charlie’s head off? Their behaviour made that seem likely, but it gave us no answers to important questions like, why, and why now? Had the monsters broken out of their cages? It seemed unlikely given how frail they were, which meant they had been released – released to go after us? It was weeks ago that we found them. Perhaps they couldn’t get at us until Charlie opened the way. I tried to imagine them making their way across the dusty ground outside, the thin atmosphere barely moving their clothes as they climbed like spiders down the cliff, surrounding Charlie and chasing him back inside. Poor Charlie.
They were just staring at us, with those dry, cracked eyes, staring through us – at each other? – although they looked at us I didn’t think they were really seeing us. How could they – how could they be moving anyway? That was an important philosophical question, since they didn’t seem like survivors to me and I was getting no sense that we should be prioritising their existence. The manual had done little to prepare us for this kind of situation. But we did know something about the children – we knew they had lived here, were educated here, and finally closed up in those boxes. Maybe it was to keep them safe, it could have been that they were experiments, monsters who had to be kept imprisoned to protect the rest of the population. That didn’t fit with children who drew pictures of their families and painted forests and castles. It came a little closer to children who drew pictures of things we had only seen in nightmares. That gave me some ideas at least. Slowly, very slowly, I lifted my tool bag off my shoulder and bent terribly slowly to the ground. I didn’t take my eyes off the children.
“What are you doing Christopher?” demanded Charlotte, in a hissed whisper.
“I’m not entirely sure, but I think I’ve got something that belongs to one of them.”
I unzipped my bag, pushed Charlie’s head to one side and pulled out the bright yellow pencil case with “Spongebob Squarepants” in a bold font across the top.
“What is that?” Charlotte continued.
“Something we found in the classroom, with all those pictures you destroyed,” hissed Chelsea.
Conflict begets conflict, being under stress brings other matters to the surface that we had thought forgotten, forgiven or buried. It was those paintings I was thinking of, and I only remembered one name from them: Julia. I laid the pencil case on the ground as far away as I could reach without moving my feet – I was happier next to the others than next to them. Then I raised myself into a crouch, feet ready to bounce away if they attacked.
“I –“ it wasn’t a promising start, but as I began to speak I realised I didn’t know what I was going to say. I tried again: “I, I borrowed this. I hope you don’t mind.”
No reaction from the children. It was hard to be sure, since they never stopped quivering and shaking, but none of their attention was brightly lit on the pencil case. It had been a faint hope that they would recognise it. I don’t know what I even hoped for – that somehow a trace of their personality had survived death and radical dehydration and was looking for their missing stationery. The ideas that come to us in times of stress are often ridiculous. I couldn’t help a snarl of laughter from escaping me. Once it was out, it was hard to stop. I don’t know what I was laughing at – whether it was at my own absurd expectations, or some aspect of my self, snapping under the pressure.
“Christopher!” I received admonishment from both of my friends.
“I’m sorry – it’s just – I thought they wanted the pencil case back,” I dissolved into giggles again.
The children shifted awkwardly around us, a movement more human that ghoulish corpse. I got my nervous laughter under control, and tried again.
“Julia. Is one of you Julia?” I asked.
Absolute stillness from the children. Not even a shiver.
“Julia. I saw one of your pictures. It was very good,” I was babbling, but it felt like I had their attention, and didn’t want to break the spell – who knew what would follow, “do you remember what you drew? You drew the station, from the outside, and some hills. And – if you do remember, and you want to let me know, just – I don’t know – raise your hand or something,” I felt increasingly like an idiot, and was quite sure Chelsea and Charlotte would agree, “you drew a man – a very tall man, stepping through those hills. He had the biggest eyes…”