We were surrounded by a ring of dead children, their mouths open on crackling worn skin, breathless – them and us – we waited for their response. They swayed faintly in the soft breeze. I wondered if I might have made a mistake, thinking that I’d be able to pluck a sentient thought out of those crinkled and inert brains. The picture that a girl called Julia had made, showing an impossibly tall figure stepping through nightmares towards the installation, that was the only thing we had that connected us to the children. If we couldn’t find a way to communicate, to form some bond between us, we’d have no choice but to shatter them into dust. Despite how frightening they were, and what we thought they had probably done to Charlie, once they had been just children. It seemed unlikely that they had chosen this horrific extended existence. They didn’t deserve our smashing fists and pounding feet; those were not extensions of myself that I recognised or celebrated. We had built, fixed and persevered: not destroyed. And, in many ways I felt they were more like us than that. We had been prepared, settled into rest and been awoken in a world we had no understanding of and no preparation. We had treated them as we ourselves feared that we would be treated by proper humans. Our apparent enemies were smaller, weaker, more desperate than us. Were they too trying to find out who and what they were without the animating intelligence that was supposed to be there? Or were they truly husks, acting automatically, blundering through their new post-death lives as we had done? How would I have wished to be approached on emergence from my pod, from those nightmares that felt like they were all I had ever known? I imagined that they had less of a welcome than I had, when Charlotte dug me out of the rubble, clearing scraping metal and plastic from the lid of my pod – a lid I had thought utterly black until she appeared through scraped bands of transparency. If Chelsea and I had been their welcome, standing, horrified as they twitched to life in those cages… I would be angry too.
They surrounded us still. Newly bolstered by the sense of kinship I had plucked from nowhere, and heartened by the idea I stepped forwards, scooping up the pencil case and offering it to the child standing before me. Looking into her withered eyes, I searched for some glimmer of awareness, something other than raw automata inhabiting her thin, creased flesh.
Once more I asked, “Julia?”
The child I approached had long hair on one side of its head – it hung at broken angles like a fistful of wiring. The other side was bare down to the bone, scraped off either in our skirmish, finding its way through the broken halls or in some unimaginable accident in life? I imagined she could be a Julia, or had been once, perhaps she could be again. Why shouldn’t these pitiful creatures have a chance at existence, just like us. Since they had actually been human before maybe they rated better odds than we did, crafted in the style of humanity but with none of its freewheeling genetic variety. Charlotte hissed a warning at me, but I shrugged it off. I saw unreasonably confident that these creatures bore no threat, or at least not intentionally. But then I hadn’t had a pile of them scratching at my face and neck; such experiences can change a person’s viewpoint. I knelt down in front of the child, my face no more than a foot away from hers, and tried again.
“Julia, do you remember the pictures? A man in the sky, giant eyes in the stars – “
A piercing wail emerged from the child’s mouth, it rose up from some deep place hardly plausible in its frail broken form. Startled, I fell back, landing on my elbows. Julia’s wail was picked up by the other children, and it rushed around us like a curtain of grief, a sharp outpouring of some emotion I had not experienced, but recognised intuitively, somewhere down in that neural structure we’d been provided with. Chelsea and Charlotte’s hands tucked under my arms, hauling me upright between them. That touch as ever, reassuring. I certainly needed that because the intensity of the children’s wailing only increased, becoming deafening, even to those synthetic ears we bore.
“I might,” I shouted to the others, who stood only inches away, “have made a bad decision…”
The wail ended as it had begun, fading first from the child most distant to Julia as if she was sucking the sound back into herself. She rocked on her feet as the sound slapped into her. There followed a moment of absolute silence and then they shuddered into life again, almost bouncing into the air on suddenly nimble feet. They kept making us jump, an odd sensation, like a hiccup in thoughts that leaves you hyper alert, ready for action, of any kind. And again, as they bolted away, down the half crumpled shut walkway, in a cloud of dust.
“Well, that was strange,” said Chelsea.
I was about to respond with a meaningless agreement, no idea what happened either. But we were interrupted again. This time by a deep rumble that vibrated through our feet and made our heads rattle on their fittings.
“That… Doesn’t feel promising,” muttered Charlotte.
And yet, it did. To me it murmured “change” in a voice I heard in my heart, or whatever it was that the manual said was in my chest. Batteries, probably. Change is something that we had denied ourselves for these past weeks. Content to indulge in our limited facsimile of life within these small walls, we had ignored what was around us, physically and temporally. Our lack of curiosity struck me again, and I wondered where it had gone. Why had only Chelsea retained that sense of adventure? Even then, it had been quashed when our safety was threatened. Was it a sense native to our structure, to our being to retreat, to settle – even when answers were knocking on our door? I could see in Chelsea a desire to travel, to explore that our experience in the spherical cavern had somehow quashed. Perhaps that was just Charlotte, who stood by, pragmatic and serious. Too harsh – she had tried to keep us safe. Charlie’s head, digging into my back from its resting place in my tool bag told me all I needed to know about how well that had worked out. I felt a shard of excitement piercing me, up through the fear and the everyday mundanity of what we lived. Was that rumble the sound of the future?
Absurd thoughts – whatever it was, it rattled around before adding a threatening growl which grew, as the floor beneath us began to visibly vibrate, leaves shaken into an impromptu autumn around us. The flooring buckled under our feet, and then we felt the ground move under us, lurching hard, lifting us off our feet. It jolted hard, shifting the floor several feet sideways. It was easy to forget that our garden dome sat right on the edge of a cliff, the twisted tunnel that joined it to the next dome twisted over its edge and linking to the dome that had landed sideways, its base flat to the cliff face. Much more jolting might well take us over that edge, and the thunderous grumbling was far from diminishing. The whole floor bucked up while we prevarication, crumbling as it tilted.
“Not to just state the obvious, but we really need to go!” yelled Chelsea.
A dilemma then: we could follow the children, which I was minded towards, with some conception that they knew where they were going – at the least they knew they had to flee. Whether they were fleeing from us, or from the earthquake now shaking the dome, who knew. I made to dive down the hallway after them, but once more, Charlotte pulled me back.
“If the dome goes over, we’ll be crushed.”
“If we don’t we get to be smashed on top of the science dome. We’re trapped.”
Since Charlotte had sealed off the garden, there was no way for us escape into the larger complex. Not that I was especially keen to – that way held unknown horrors. But the unknown would be better than almost certain destruction if we fell. A frustrating immobility held us – neither forward nor backwards offered hope. We are practical creatures and acting is our natural state. Just standing there was a kind of suffering. Indecision leading to our fate was not something I had reckoned with – we had acted, done something for all of our time awake, even when we retreated into our four simple domes, we had continued to create a kind of life for ourselves. The notion that it could be torn away from us so effortlessly was appalling. It was even more awful that we had paid so little notice to the precariousness of our existence – literally living on the edge of cliff should have given us pause for thought many weeks ago. And yet, it was simply the nature of the world we had found ourselves in – upside down, twisted around, broken. That anything worked at all was a kind of miracle, so perhaps it was no surprise that we had accepted the fragile balance we lived in. If we had not been so insular and focused on ourselves, maybe we would have spent some time investigating the geological stability of our new home. On the other hand, this didn’t feel like what I expected a tectonic catastrophe to feel like. No, this felt like we were more than just random victims of some shift in the earth. Coupled with the children’s reaction, and the deep sensation of wrongness that rang in my chest with every rumble of the earth, I felt this was something else – something beyond mere gravity and the sliding plates of a world (if this was even a planet with more than the faintest resemblance to the Earth we held reference data for) – there was a spiteful hand at work, poking us towards dissolution and oblivion. And the cliff.
We tarried too long. Choice was taken away from us: another violent impact from below twisted the garden dome, shearing the tunnel away and twisting its entrance around so we could see the edge of the cliff top. I had the uncomfortable image of a giant kicking us over the brink, treating us like a leaden football which refused to take to the air, preferring to slink into a hole. With the breach of atmosphere, air howled out around us, ripping plants from their lodgings – a hail of leaves and branches battered us, flinging Chelsea to the floor as the vast framework that supported the garden creaked at the change in pressure. Under assault from a thousand kinds of foliage we were battered and dragged towards the crippled pressure door. A tree uprooted caught me and flung me towards the ragged exit, but a strike by another tree smacked me hard into dark glass, which cracked under the impact but held. Safe from the escaping air I was free to fall to the ground, as breathless as a thing without breath can be from the impact. I could see Charlotte clinging to the base of the frame as flowers, bushes and streamers of ivy funnelled through the air and into the grey airlessness beyond. It doesn’t take long for a dome that gave shelter to a myriad of organisms to be gutted and left airless and dead. As the last of the air was torn from our haven, and we began to pick ourselves up, the devastated garden dome was grinding over the edge.
The grey dust of outside was almost within reach – just feet away from me – but how could I abandon my companions in such dire straits? The sensation of the ground giving way – a hollowness inside as the balance of the garden slid over the edge, every foot a squealing of metal felt through the ground and even heard in the thin atmosphere that remained – nauseating, a visceral sense of tipping both inside and out. With a final shudder the dome twisted again, and tumbled over the edge. I fell upwards, tossed into the framework of jungle that still held strong in the heart of the now ravaged jungle. It was far from a comfortable bed, as those formidable frames twisted and bent, facing a new angle of gravity from that they were used to. It folded around me, a giant spider’s web, clogged with asphyxiated flowers, and together we plummeted.