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Open Boxes – Part Twenty-Two – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21

Into the dark. The fading purple light from the surface was lost immediately. The path that Julia had found through the wreckage was barely suited to her frame, let alone ours. At least I had two arms to feel the way with, but I soon found myself trying to crawl backwards while dragging Charlotte, who managed the occasional feeble thrust with her leg, each time I thought it had become lodged behind something and torn loose. I took a lot more blows to the head as we burrowed deeper. Anything to escape the menace of those rocks arcing out of the ground. If I’ve learned one thing in my time in the dark it’s that you need to focus, and to focus on something – anything, that isn’t the dark. At this point I had not fully internalised that lesson, so, while the immediate threat of the spikes was left behind I couldn’t help but think that they must come from below ground in the first place, so in a way we were digging down towards them… The dark around me was constantly punctured by imaginary spikes, and the entirely real shards of metal and junk sticking out of the ruins. It was a harrowing decent, distance lost by the crawling pace, where the only and infrequent interruption to the darkness was the lights on our abdomens. As a literal sign of life it had some reassurance value. I only knew we were going the right way was from Julia’s frequent feather-light touch on my shoulder.
Finally, the roof opened out above my head and I pulled Charlotte into an open space. We stayed there for a moment. Listening. Letting the dark and our stillness filter through the place. Without the sound of us scraping against every conceivable obstacle we became aware of the silence again, only those shifting and settling items of debris which could pass a vibration to us could be felt. And behind it, always the low rumble of the earth beneath us. No tendrils of rock had tried to spear us or had yet torn up between our feet. I’d rather have believed their lengthening and sharpening was just a trick of the light curling their Shadows to the ground… But those in the spherical chamber had done more than that, and faster. These were more of the bad thoughts to have in the dark. A few more minutes of inaction gave me an arbitrarily greater sense of security and I began to explore the space we had been led to more thoroughly.
Every surface had a fine coating of soil from the exploded garden. Our roof curved faintly upwards so we were somewhere under the garden itself. When I fell through an invisible hole I realised we were back inside my dome. It had been quite a mess to begin with, but was surely much worse now. I wondered if Charlotte and the children knew I was gone – my yelp of fright was swallowed by the thin air – I stifled another thinking that the children might well already be down here, sitting silently in the dark around me. But that was fine – since they had attacked us in the garden they’d shown no signs of aggression, meekly following me around, and even helping us. It was a perplexing reversal which I put down to us having made some connection over the pencil case and the artwork. It was a thin basis for trust but it was enough, and I had no better options. Blindly I fumbled around, trying to figure out where in the dome I have found myself. The previously treacherous surface had been tossed around and every step had to be carefully tested. I literally fell into my old pod. Its lid had been smashed and was in itself useless, but since it was hooked up not just to the garden’s power network, but also the local battery arrays we had scavenged from outside, all I had to do was follow the cables (if I could) and hope.
Hope is not a thing I have much experience of. Our days had been filled with routine and tasks, but we had never had a fixed objective to aim for. It was make do and mend, but not with a plan of wearing our fabulous outfit to a party. For all we knew, there were no survivors – we filled our time doing what we thought we ought to and had no provision for afterwards. It was a feeling that grew in me as I tripped and stumbled, following the wires into awkward and narrow nooks until at last it blossomed in my chest as I recognised the shape of a battery. Glorious. Now all I needed were some lights…
A cool yellow glow spread from my fingertips to fill our little cranny. The children were nestled in around Charlotte. Judging from her reaction, she hadn’t realised. They were even creepier in the silent dark. The light scattered them to the edges of our cave. I hung the lights off the many spars of jagged metal that made up our ceiling. It was a dismal space but at least we could see. I clambered over to where Charlotte lay, now free of the children. By resting my head on hers we would be able to hear each other.
“Hey, Charlotte, how are you doing?”
The drooling string of vowels vibrating through my head weren’t promising, but they slowly stretched out into words with the addition of hard-won consonants.
“Christopher… the garden… where’s my leg..?”
“Yes. Destroyed. Missing,” I summarised, “in fact, we’re underneath the garden now. I’m sorry, I couldn’t find your other leg.”
“How did you find me?”
“Oh, funny story. Well, not really – the dead – um, Julia found you. I’m not sure why, but it’s only one of many questions I don’t have answers to.”
“I can’t feel my legs.”
“One of them is missing… Let’s take a look at the other one.”
With the benefit of light I could see that it was much worse than I’d hoped. Where Charlotte’s hip had been crushed, the socket was pinched and was now the only thing holding her leg on. There was no way I could get that to fit again. I pondered how to tell Charlotte, but she took my hand and pulled me back up so we could touch our heads together again.
“It’s not going to work, is it Christopher?” We knelt together, our heads pressed together, “it’s alright. You should take it.”
With Charlotte’s help – mostly in directing light as required – we took her leg apart and fitted it into my hip. Unsurprisingly, it fit perfectly, so similarly were we constructed. I’d thought it was dehumanising when I removed my own leg, taking someone else’s unneeded limb and plugging it into myself was a much more disturbing step. It felt… wrong. Charlotte had walked a different path to me, worn her joints differently and I could feel the difference – familiar sensations in my right leg, and in my other right leg it felt like the sensations were slower, subtly dreamlike. My feet looked weird. Instead of toes we have a flexible plastic pad that fringes the front of each foot, it made our feet look like we were always wearing socks. I couldn’t reverse that, so I appeared to have two right feet. There wasn’t enough ceiling room for me to try walking around, but I imagined that would provide its own challenges.
The damage to her arm was beyond my meagre toolkit, so we agreed to remove that as well. Charlie’s face looked up at me from the tool bag whenever I reached for another instrument. At least Charlotte wasn’t reduced to that extent, yet.
“We’re going to have to leave here,” I said.
“And go where? The habitat is gone. I saw that much before you dragged me down here.”
“I wasn’t sure if you would remember – you weren’t in great shape when I found you.”
“I feel much better now,” she quipped.
“Funny. Do you think we found things funny before all this?”
“Maybe there’s more to laugh about when there’s nothing left.”
“So what’s the plan Christopher?”
“At the top of the cliff – it looked like the rest of the structure was still there. The garden ripped free. That means there’s somewhere for us to go.”
The look on her face told me what she thought of that plan, and yet…
“Alright. But you’ll have to leave me here. You can’t carry me up that cliff.”
“I’m not leaving you behind.”
I had a plan.
We stayed in the cave all night, not that I could tell from the isolation of our hiding place. The children were our clock. As one they rose and disappeared back up the black tunnel, all except Julia, who stood by the exit, apparently waiting for us. Getting back out was nearly as bad as getting inside, though there were two fewer limbs and I could crawl properly. Outside the light was the pale mauve of early morning. I carefully peered out of the burrow. All clear – the black spikes had retreated into the ground. I certainly couldn’t pretend they didn’t move around of their volition any more. We stepped fully into the open, myself and Charlotte. The only solution to her mobility I could think of was to lend her mine. With no legs and one arm I’d been able to remove significant portions of her torso without doing her any damage, reducing her further to upper torso, arm and head. Then I had taped her to my back, with a generous spray of epoxy for safety. I’d positioned her slightly to one side, so she looked out over my shoulder. I would walk for both of us. Well, I’d try anyway.
The children followed us around the edge of the wreck. I was curious about whether they would stay with us as we attempted to climb around the cliff. I planned to follow the same route Chelsea and I had originally – it skirted the sheer cliff itself but would still present a significant challenge with my new leg and top-heavy weight. I didn’t see an alternative though.
“You’re thinking about Chelsea,” Charlotte said, directly into the back of my head.
“I am.”
The children had shown no inclination to dive back into the rubble and locate Chelsea. While I hadn’t expected anything of them in particular, that would have been a nice gesture. I could scrape through the remains for days and not find her, even if the wreckage didn’t shift and bury us all. For now – for now, I promised myself, it was only for now – we needed somewhere secure, somewhere safe. And some answers to questions we had been avoiding since we were activated. While it was Chelsea who had wanted to know the truth, it would be Charlotte and I who would get them. And then, when it was done, when we were safe, we would come back and find Chelsea, and the rest of Charlie and put our little family back together. But first, we had a cliff to climb.
The new leg was really weird. It made me veer to the left constantly. I’d never given much thought to my locomotion before, hadn’t needed to, it just worked. Now I had to consciously move in a straight line, my feet feeling fat and heavy. Chelsea’s weight was easier to adjust to, although catching sight of her arm moving around in the corner of my vision gave me a few scares as we climbed. The children followed us after all, easily scampering up the slopes and eventually they waited for us to join them at the top. While I had no way of being out of breath, the climb had taken it out of me. Charlotte had suggested I rig our power together, which had proven a little worrying, but now I had two panels of lights on my stomach, still hovering in green. My concern had been that the extra strain would wipe us both out, but unless I’d screwed up the wiring we were going to be alright. Not that I had a way for us to refresh, but that was very much a problem I couldn’t solve from out here.
From the top of the cliff the plain stretched away, the installation lying whitely against the ubiquitous grey dust. It was much larger than I’d realised before – what Chelsea and I had seen from the outside, in the growing dusk was just the broken end of a complex that stretched out for at least a mile. Various containers, torn open corridors and hab modules had shifted closer to the cliff edge during the quake that took our home away. The nexus of pressure doors we had used before now hung partway over the cliff, the still sealed door to the garden looking quite dangerous. And, while the black spikes at the bottom of the cliff had vanished overnight, the plain up here was still studded with them. They looked relatively benign in the daylight, more or less vertical, their shadows dispersed. I still didn’t want them anywhere near me.
The door we had used to get in last time was still there, still worked. I stepped into the airlock and turned to seal us in and let it do its pressure change, but Julia stood in the doorway, her little clan clustered behind her. I didn’t want to just leave them outside – they were plainly afraid of the night and whatever it was that haunted the darkness. I supposed that they were also going home, though I had no idea why they had left in the first place, unless it was to seek us out. Maybe that hadn’t gone as well as anyone would have hoped. I moved to one side, and the seven of them squeezed their frail little bodies in around us.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” asked Charlotte.
“No. No I’m not.”
We cycled the airlock and it opened into the pressurised hub. Again, I wished I could breathe so I could take a really deep breath, and enjoy an equally deep sigh. The return to air was enervating. Even the children seemed brighter for it, considering they were dead and all.
“That feels better,” I said, “and now you don’t need to head butt me to talk.”
“I was beginning to enjoy that,” replied Charlotte, “good climbing. Now what?”
I could only be honest: “I have absolutely no idea.”

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