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Open Boxes – Part Twenty-One – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20

Walking is difficult. According to the manual it’s an especially complicated mechanism, for real humans and weirdly, even more difficult to engineer for us. The trick of remaining balanced while moving on two legs is not easily learned. I was discovering that doing it with only one working leg was even harder. The repairs I’d effected had immobilised my knee, but the ankle was still doing its own thing and my hip joint barely paid me any attention. It made for ungainly progress, and left stranger tracks behind me. The left leg seemed to want to go in circles, with the hip and ankle dealing with a dead straight pole between them. It was the sort of movement you wanted to see rotoscoped, to get a proper view of it. That thought distracted me from the awkwardness of blundering across the plain. And the pain of course. Having removed my leg I’d managed to break the nervous connections, which explained why my ankle was on its own, but the constant jarring was doing the rest of my battered body no good. At least I wasn’t bleeding any more. A small prize from falling off a cliff. I kept casting about for a handy length of anything I could use as a crutch, but the mangled junk before me was unhelpful. I felt slow and vulnerable.
The debris field spread out before me, the contents of the garden thrown over the plain, rocks that had bounced, denting down the cliff, smashing glass, plastics and twisted metal in plumes that radiated out from the sandwiched mess of the domes. A depressing sight. Not as depressing as having to remove my own leg though. I’d always been aware that I wasn’t human – we all were – but we’re set up to behave like we are. We had plenty of scrapes and bangs that we’d patched up just like people would – with glue and tape – but being able to remove a limb and then click it back in… That made me feel different. I was no longer entirely convinced that it was my leg. If I could just take it on and off what made this one special? Charlie’s head nudging me in the back where my tool bag rested gave me a similar feeling – as if I floated above my body, this cloud of consciousness that only lightly rests in these physical chunks of moulded plastic. I’d kept his head for a number of reasons, not all of which reasons that I had thought through. Earlier I’d planned to put it in storage somewhere safe, in case his body turned up. That was now even less likely. I had nowhere to put him, so I carried him. But if should find his legs, I could swap mine for his. That was assuming he had no further use for them… The manual wasn’t big on reattaching heads – it was more of the view that they shouldn’t be detached in the first place, to which I was of course sympathetic. It was a deeply wrong way to think about my friends. I was certain that humans did not think of each other’s bodies this way. Their body parts were far less easily exchanged. That made me wonder about his head, whether if I removed mine and put his on my body the resulting chimera would be him, or still partly me. I strongly associated his existence and life with his head – it was the part of him that was different from me. We had given each other faces to elevate ourselves from the homogenous design we were provided with, and that had enabled further self-creation and self-deception. My identity, and sense of self as a ‘thing in a body’, nascent as it was, was under some assault from my recent experiences: I felt more fragile than I had before, which seemed odd, since I had survived a fall that I was certain would have killed an organic being. Surely that should have empowered me, but our structural connection to humans made me feel more an alien in my body; an alien masquerading as human. Maybe not even doing a very good job of it. Every broken body part and just standing out here in the pitiful local atmosphere confirmed my lack of humanity. The nearness of my escape made me feel vulnerable too – so close to destruction and the death I’d given little proper thought to before. Add to that the loss of our home, loss of replenishment, probably my friends and the prospect of further earthquakes (I was trying, very hard, to not permit other, more terrifying causes into my mind), we’ll, perhaps I was right to feel both strong and weak at the same time.
Overall, I wasn’t enjoying my stagger across the dusty plain. Another matter was causing me some concern as well. The six dead children that had appeared after Julia brought me my tool bag had watched me get to my feet and fall over several times without moving from their cross-legged pose in the dust. As soon as I’d gained most of my balance and begun swinging wildly forward, they had begun following me. I knew this not because I could hear them – the atmosphere is so thin that sound is a joke – but because I kept turning round to check on them. They were all neatly strung out, single file behind me, headed up by Julia. There wasn’t a lot I could do about that, and frankly, they were the closest things I had to friends right now. Allies, perhaps. I wondered if they had also survived (not the right word) the fall or if they had managed to slide down and through the corridors to Charlie’s airlock. Made me wonder if any more of them had remained intact. Would they all be my friends?
I kept on trying not to fall over.
I finally grew near enough to the domes to separate the heavily grey-dusted rocks from the heavily grey-dusted ruins of the habitat. What had looked like a mess from a distance was worse up close. All four domes were clearly torn open, either through friction or being crushed. No lights flickered in their interiors. No surprise, given how much of our power had been routed from the garden, which had naturally taken the biggest hit. While I’ve never seen a real egg, there was a three-second clip I retrieved from a media tablet which showed them falling to the floor. I have no idea why, whether it was educational or for entertainment, but the image of them cracking and their contents oozing out replayed in my mind as I surveyed the damage. The gentle rain of dust from the cliff continued, making the surfaces blur. The dome of the garden lay flipped over on top of my old familiar upside down dome – had crushed it flat as far as I could see – its base torn open revealing the snarls of framework and foliage within. If my friends could be found anywhere it would be there.
The children had stopped with me, fanning out behind Julia into a V. They watched me with eyes that were dull and listless, but their heads tracked me as I rooted through the debris for a walking stick. A minor victory, but a victory nonetheless, as I located a pole which I suspected had been the one that put a dent in my head. There certainly seemed to be a corresponding dent. With my prop in hand I climbed through the gashed open wall of the garden. Inside grey dust competed with brown earth, green leaves and the sad remains of flowers. It was possibly the most disheartening thing I had seen. The frames which the trees and vines had been trained to grow through and around had been torn out of shape, now filling the space like a three dimensional maze of razor sharp black twigs, vomited out of the breaches in the walls – the furthest reaches of course scattered all the way out to where I landed. Turning back I realised it wasn’t terribly far, I had just been very slow. I was reliant on what passed for daylight, and the shadowed reaches of the now impassable jungle were utterly black. All I could do was edge around the wall of the dome, peering into the crosshatched shadows for a glimmer of anything. Nothing moved.
Utterly silent, the only sounds I heard were of an internal trickling I’d mostly tuned out and the vibrations of my feet and stick scraping against the once-roof, now floor. I jumped, and almost fell as the children appeared by my side, their hideous lightness hiding their approach. Without a glance at me they disappeared into the jungle, their smaller bodies able to dodge most of the sharp edges and dart under precariously balanced wreckage. Perplexed, I continued my slow circumnavigation of the garden. At best things were just broken, at worse, the crash had smashed them beyond recognition. Junk from the sideways dome had tumbled into the mess of the jungle and it was hard to tell anything apart – I could see a table, or a cupboard, panels, but anything small was presumably lost, filtered through the mesh of rubble into its dark guts. Julia reappeared – more considerately this time, but no less abruptly – looming out of the dark before me. Her dangling right arm was gone now, I guessed it had been torn free by her exploration. The spray of tendons and muscle fibres made her look as if she was falling to the left; I knew how that felt. She paused for a moment, until she had my full attention and then vanished into the dark again. Odd. She turned up again a few moments later, turned back to the dark and waited. Ah. Very, very cautiously I followed her into the darkness.
I was operating blind – fractured light passed through the porous surface of the ruins but faded away within a foot – I couldn’t see an obstacle until I had hit it. There were a lot of them. Julia either didn’t realise I couldn’t see, didn’t care or was unable to process either concept, but she did go slowly and I tapped tentatively before my feet with the stick and oh so carefully with my free hand in front of my body. The mangled structures seemed to have jammed themselves into what felt relatively secure, though not so much that I sped up. Finally, Julia stopped, and I felt her brush by me. I still couldn’t see anything. My mental equivalent of a heart leaped when Julia took my hand and pulled me down to the ground. Kneeling clumsily, I felt about, still half expecting some toothed nightmare to seize my arm, or just for the whole place to fall on me. My fears were very active. Perhaps it was being led into the dark by a dead child that did it. My fingers touched something – many things – scraps of bark, pebbles, unknowable objects and finally… fingers. An absurd hope that it might be my missing fingers and I would be able to reattach them… A hand, and an arm, a shoulder, head. I tapped on the head. Nothing. That would, I suppose, have been too easy by half. I had no way of knowing if it was Chelsea or Charlotte, or even Charlie’s body, since his had to be somewhere, and why not here, lost in the dark? With agonising slowness, exacerbated by having one working leg, a walking stick and just two fingers on one hand, and a terrible fear of causing a collapse, I dragged the body out into the light.
Time changes in the dark. I’d noticed it before – the time we spent outside the domes foraging went faster – the night was so much quicker to come when we were closer to it. Protected by the electric lights our time was slow, bound only by the regularity of our refresh cycles. Hunched over beneath tonnes of rubble waiting to fall on me felt like it took forever, but I was unsurprised to find the light was already fading as we emerged from the tangle. Julia and her friends were waiting for me – I hadn’t even realised she had gone, I was so focused on the task. It was Charlotte. I’d found someone. A leap of joy inside me, sudden reminder that I was not alone (I still wasn’t counting the children) and that maybe, maybe everything would be alright. She showed no sign of awareness. When I pulled up her now ragged jacket the lights on her abdomen showed mostly green, but that only told me that I hadn’t been unconscious for long myself – we had all been at a similar state of refresh before the crash – and hers was undiminished. It told me little about her physical condition. My eyes could do that. She had been thrown around during the fall – her right shoulder was crushed, along with her upper arm and hip. Her left leg had been lost somewhere in there as well. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but I guessed that no matter what, I wasn’t getting a new leg anytime soon. But her head and most of her abdomen were intact – dented – but whole.
I opened the manual again.  It was a dehumanising process, both for me, and for Charlotte as I levered open panels in her ribcage and neck, prodding with my most delicate tools for internal responses. Was this what death looked like, for us? How much would I have to do, to try and test, before I reached that conclusion? And if I couldn’t fix her now, would she, like Charlie might, have some future chance of coming back? I wondered what news they would bring, or if it was the total void that I imagined. Would being reactivated bring a flood of sensation and data that filled the gap between wakefulness, sudden ending and the return? Visibility was dropping further so I dragged Charlotte out of the garden entirely where no shadows could be cast over us by the ragged walls. Nothing was working. Charlotte was draped across me as we sprawled in the dust, and I held her in my arms. That spark of hope I’d had when I pulled her into the light was fading away. A very slow, distant vibration had begun in the ground beneath me. I hoped it was just aftershocks, but not strong enough aftershocks to bring more of the cliff face down on us. We were still well within range of an avalanche.
The manual showed me diagrams of our bodies splayed open, overlaid with grids and endless arrows identifying components, switches, all of the things that made us work. I had a screwdriver delicately balanced between my left thumb and ring finger, probing into the thin gap between Charlotte’s eye socket and ear, trying to feel what the manual insisted was there. A shadow fell over my shoulder, blacking out Charlotte’s face. I thought it must be one of the children.  They had returned from their survey of the dark underside of the ruins and then settled in the dust cross-legged again, patient as I worked. Perhaps they had grown impatient or curious. I shook my head and turned around, wondering which of them it was, or if Julia was still the only one who would deal with me directly.
There were no children behind me. The shadow was cast by a spike of black rock which thrust up out of the ground some twenty feet behind me. In fright, my hand slipped – the blade of the screwdriver carved a groove out of Charlotte’s cheekbone before finding purchase and digging in under her eye. As I wrestled to get myself out from under her, and get a better look at the black spur of rock that I would have sworn wasn’t there earlier, she jerked awake, frightening me even more. Her first words were lost to me, though I could see her mouth opening and closing. I placed my chin directly on the back of her head, hoping that the contact would allow her to hear me.
“Charlotte – Charlotte – it’s me, Christopher,” I said, “you’re alright – you’re safe – “ I reconsidered, “okay – you’re a bit banged up, um, and I know this is rather sudden, but we really need to go.”
Charlotte’s head lolled horribly on her neck as she first took in in the sight of our devastated habitat, then her missing leg and ruined arm.
“I know,” I said, “mine are a bit like that too.”
The shadow was creeping further across our bodies as we lay there. Those shadows had scared me before, when Chelsea and I had had somewhere to go, but now we had no refuge. I leaned back to get a better view and saw that it was not the only rocky claw that had appeared – the crash site was ringed by them – whether they were growing, or it was the light dimming further that made them seem to grow I didn’t know.
“We’re going to stand up – I know it’s going to be difficult, but we can do it,” I said, hoping that panic wasn’t filtering into my voice, as with every moment that shadow grew longer. Charlotte produced a series of clicks and a whine that became a strangled scramble of scream and consonants rapping harshly against each other.
“Christopher,” I deciphered, before we lost contact as I got my feet back under me and pulled her up too.
The children had disappeared. They didn’t like the shadows either I guessed. I noticed that the dust had begun to swirl in tiny vortices again. This was all far too familiar and I had to fight the rising sense of panic as it crawled up from every point of my body, even the broken ones. Charlotte was almost standing, her one leg loose in its socket, propped up by me and my walking stick, and with one arm tight around her waist, I forced us into a grim march. The only shelter we had was the ruin of our home. Our awkward advance stalled when Julia showed herself again. I had to hold Charlotte tight to stop her from pulling us over, and I doubted she could hear the reassurance I tried to shout at her that were lost in the inches of dead air between us. When Julia ducked back down to a dark hole leading under the garden dome I didn’t even hesitate – I just propelled Charlotte and myself down it.

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