We shared an anxious pause. Behind the door was the corridor that had led Chelsea and I to the children, their classroom and a wondrous but frightening chamber. We had no choice but to go through it – every other path led to slow running down of our systems and lolling into stillness and eventually death. Yet still, we waited. For what? Chelsea to come knocking at the airlock, our domes to miraculously reappear on top of the cliff. For the dead children to seem less excited… since we passed through the airlock they had been much more animated than down on the plain. There they had been sombre and listless, swiftly disappearing when danger came but otherwise content to sit motionless for hours. Here they gave a much better simulation of life: lips cracked in attempted smiles, battered limbs raised to clap – leathery slapping together – feet never still. Julia remained close, face turned up to ours, dead muscles tautening her face into a pleased grimace. Without really thinking about it I patted her gently on the head and she wrapped her remaining arm around my legs and hugged. Charlotte’s hand and mine rested on her shoulder and drew her in close. We needed the reassurance, and would accept it from any source. Thus bolstered there was nothing but ourselves to hold us back.
The white door slid aside. Lights flickered on into the distance down the corridor. I was getting used to the feel of Charlotte’s left hand loosely resting on my hip and her fingers tightened as the length of corridor illuminated, apparently endless, but I knew that was a subtle trick of perspective – there were hidden twists and turns to come. I resisted saying “what’s the worst that could happen?” – I figured there was only so much luck available and we’d used up a lot of it in surviving the crash.
The children raced off, their bare and raw feet pottering away, all except Julia, who stuck close like any timid child would. It was uncanny to observe her apparently regaining her humanity. It felt very familiar. The wall panelling was regularly interrupted by closed doors, marked with strings of geometric shapes. As before, the mysterious configurations teased my mind as we passed them.
“What do they say?” asked Charlotte, tracking the shapes as I was.
“I didn’t know before,” I said, pausing, “but now…”
There was a pattern to the shapes, or at least I was tricking myself into thinking that there was: square became triangle, turned hexagon then circle. There was something in the division of sides, some clue in the change of shape? I slowed, thinking inhibiting my speed, until we stopped by one door that seemed the same as all the others. It too had a panel of shapes. I traced the symbols with my left hand, thumb and ring finger sliding up and down the shapes.
“And now?” Charlotte prompted, fingers raised to match mine.
“Don’t they seem suggestive? Like there’s supposed to be a pattern?”
“Depends what they are. If they’re just door numbers the pattern would be obvious – assuming they were numbered. Otherwise, if they’re signs in a different language or code, we might never figure it out.”
“No, they seem familiar – “
The sound of tiny feet running captured our attention. The little tribe of undead children had returned, and with accessories. They each held plastic tubs filled with coloured objects. There was some door down there that opened to them, perhaps the classroom. They gathered around us and the door we were puzzling over. One of the children – I think it might have been a boy, but young children appear to look the same, and in their degraded state it was hard to tell – offered up his tub to Julia, his shredded arms almost just bone held together by a fine web of muscle. Julia having only one arm of course, was in no position to take the container. Instead she rooted about in the box – sorting among heavy plastic shapes. She drew the first out – a red rectangular prism, and touched it to the corresponding shape by the door. She repeated with a yellow triangular prism and a blue hexagonal block. I stopped her before she placed the final shape, and took the green cylinder from her. She didn’t resist, just stood back slightly to let me finish it.
“You alright with this?” I asked Charlotte.
“Looks like we have one answer already. I think I can handle another.”
With that I pressed the cylinder to the circle. All the shapes lit up in the colours of the blocks we had used and the door cracked open. It juddered – struggling with something – before an appalling shriek from its hinges which startled the children, making them hop to the other side of the hallway. With its caterwaul out of the way, it wrenched itself wide. We soon saw what had delayed it. The spreading doors now held the stretched web-work of human form, gummily crusted down its inner edges. The head was mashed into the gap between the inner and outer door panels and strands of fibrous muscle and wasted bone hung across the doorway to meet what might have once been its chest and pelvis. A leg and arms lay on the ground immediately inside, presumably scraped free as the door opened. A grisly welcome. With one hand I tugged down the web of flesh and tatters of clothing so we could pass through. An eye stared at me, somehow preserved in the sandwich of the door. I tried not to meet its gaze.
The room was of similar dimensions to the classroom we had been in, but instead of desks and chairs, the room was hung with bank after bank of wide screens, uncomfortable looking swivel chairs in front of them and panels of controls. Instead of the shape-codes we had seen in the children’s cage room, this had normal keyboards, slides, switches and dials. If they worked, they would be the first complete electronics we had seen since we awoke. Already, we were playing catch up to a group of deceased children – maybe they held even more answers than we had suspected. I made a circuit of the room, stabbing at buttons, spinning dials and pushing switches. Nothing happened. It was both a disappointment and a relief – who knew what we were in the middle of? The surprises we had received so far hardly inspired confidence in a positive outcome, and being greeted by a man who appeared to have died trying to leave this room had been a dispiriting beginning. The children fanned out into the room, settling onto the swivelling chairs. I paced back to the middle of the space, where I could see them all.
“They seem to know what they’re doing,” said Charlotte, “it looks like they’ve been here before.”
The children were coordinated in their actions, each tapping at a combination of keys and switches with whatever limbs and digits they had available. One of them jabbing with the remains of its wrist bones was uncomfortably familiar. Their task complete, the children sat back in the chairs, which rotated slightly with the motion. All the screens came to life – a zigzag of storm clouds whipping across them. The pictures slowly cleared, static eating away into the corners. Slashes of scarlet raked across the monitors, followed by a series of dim, foggy images. Faces loomed, corners burgeoned with darkness, skeletal figures reached out and vanished in bubbling explosions. Over and over, spheres crumbled, alleyways were filled with menacing shadows, mouths stretched wide with teeth splayed like fingers, chewing the viewer into their maws. It was a ghastly display, all the more disturbing for the images flickering onto the shrunken faces, animating them with colours of nightmares.
“Don’t they – don’t they seem…”
“…like our dreams?” I finished.
“Exactly like them.”
The cascade of imagery slowed, gradually synchronising across the monitors until they all showed an external view of the installation we were in, the hills prominent and purpled by the sky behind it. The sky was a dark bruise, stars bleeding through it and a sickly yellow moon sagging in the black. A long hand with sharp fingers curls around the top of the hill, followed by a longer arm until an enormously tall and hideously attenuated form steps daintily through the valley. Its face is long and filled with huge vertical lozenges of eyes, the same shade as the bleeding stars. It reaches up with one spindly arm and penetrates the moon with its spiny fingers. A sudden lunge brings the giant over the installation, its arm tearing the moon out of the sky and its face fills every one of the screens. A spatter of fresh blood wipes the image clean and the monitors return to the striped static.
“That’s what was on the painting Julia did,” I said, “these are what – the dreams that inspired them?”
“And what inspired the dreams?”
“But they’re our dreams,” even though Charlotte was now behind me I gestured at the surrounding screens, “our dreams – recorded here. Recorded from us or from them? Why do we have their dreams?”
“Why would we have our own?” Charlotte snapped, “we didn’t get the personalities we were supposed to – perhaps you should have been that man behind us, crushed in the door. Maybe we were meant to be the children, but we only got their dreams. They obviously aren’t our memories – thanks to them we’ve been waking up screaming every day of our lives.”
“I don’t think it was the children’s fault, do you?” I said, twisting my head around to catch even the Charlotte’s face in profile, “they’re children – they wouldn’t choose this. Someone did this to them – gave them these ideas, scared the hell out of them enough to have nightmares, and then finally they locked them in boxes until they died. We’re not the only victims of this situation. We’re not looking much less banged up than they are. Look at yourself – look at me. That decay, the wear they’ve had – we’re all in the same situation.”
“They tore Charlie’s head off!”
“We don’t know that – not for sure. Wouldn’t you be frightened too?”
It had been easy enough for me to forget how Charlotte and Charlie had met the children, in my mind they had warned us and helped me rescue Charlotte.
“They’re dead – you look at them. Whatever is keeping them upright is not the same thing as keeps us alive. Who’s to say they aren’t just doing what they did before – just reflex actions, thinking they’re still alive.”
That sounded a lot like us, stumbling around in our simulation of human life, doing what we were programmed to do, within the bounds described in the manual. That we had to strive for individuality and identity just underlined that we were blanks, waiting to be filled with personality and purpose. These children had once had those things and were perhaps grasping for them again. These recorded nightmares were a guide they might use to find themselves once more. They had stared impassively at the monitors, undisturbed by the horrible scenes. Perhaps death had given them some distance from their past. But they still feared the spikes, and the night, and I assumed it was with good reason.
“Let’s see what else we can find out,” I said to Charlotte, “the screens are switching themselves off anyway.”
As I spoke the monitors returned to their smooth black, each one now holding a reflection of a wasted face.
“Fine, we should just try all the doors, now that we have the key.”
I bent to pick up one of the containers the children had discarded by the door when they went to sit down.
“Um… are you coming?” I wasn’t sure how to address the children. They seemed attentive, but we hadn’t succeeded so far with verbal communication. I rattled the box of plastic bricks. That got their attention. They climbed down off the chairs, retrieved their boxes and followed as I stepped out of the room with Chelsea, back into the corridor, past the crushed man.
A low, creaking groan echoed down the hall, as if the whole structure was being firmly twisted. The lights guttered and went out. With no windows to give us even the vague daylight it was as dark as the cave we had huddled in. The door snapped shut with a crunch, a fine spray of dry material spattering onto me.
“Stay calm,” said Charlotte, as my left hand found hers, tightly squeezing her fingers.
The children drew closer than ever, circling us, their little hands pressed against my legs and our bodies. Light returned like a slow wave, washing over us from further down the corridor, leaving darkness behind. We turned to watch it go past – as long as we could see it we still had some illumination. Another deep groan as the lights grew further away, and then the ceiling began caving in, collapsing flat to the floor as if someone was walking along the roof, each footstep crushing another five metres of hallway into darkness. The steps hammered towards us and we ran again, the cluster of children unwilling to lose contact entirely, just their fingertips brushing my skin and clothes. A final stomp, right behind us and then nothing. We skidded to a halt as well. The entire corridor we had travelled down was crumpled almost flat to floor, the walls buckled and squeezed, so tightly done that not even air was escaping.
Light came back. Not the reassuring incandescence from above that I had wanted, but a creamy light that spread like mist up from the floor to past my waist, enveloping the children. It softened their ragged features, disguised the gaping wounds and shredded skin.
“I have to warn you Charlotte, this light wasn’t a good sign before…”
“If you see a good sign, be sure to tell me about it.”
“So we go forwards?” I asked.
“Do we have a choice?” Charlotte replied.