We were being herded. The corridor had crumpled like a tube of toothpaste, squeezing us out – into what – a giant mouth? It was too close to our dreams, or rather the dreams of these unfortunate children. I’d grown sceptical of how rooted in imagination those dreams might have been. We had been haunted by something since our activation, with creeping shadows and tremors whenever we ventured outside, or went beyond our narrow borders. Seemed like we had pushed back against our little bubble of reality and popped into a larger and more worrying world. This felt very far from determining our own futures, making a world for ourselves out of the wreckage we had been left. The more we found out about the past the less freedom we had for our future. Is this how it has always been – new life crushed by the old? Initially I had worried that our lives were a mistake – a failure to be provided with an identity, but then we discovered that we could create our own, find differences in the exact sameness of our bodies, voices and minds. We drifted, came to ourselves in quiet moments of expansion, noticed them when compared to each other – formerly mere reflections, now subtly inflected individuals. Barring the facial decoration of course – I’d have to admit that was a more lurid splash of personality – our first attempt to establish separateness. Since then we’d grown further, and been brutally pruned back. We had lost Charlie, save for his head, which was still in my tool bag, we had not known where to start looking for Chelsea, and now Charlotte and I were closer than we had ever been – sharing most of the same body, if not mind. The weight was easy to get used to – I’d lugged heavier junk around the dome, but I still struggled to adjust my balance to account for her pulling me back and to the left, exacerbated by my two right feet. Good job the hall was no wider or I’d be wandering in circles.
We had no choice but to carry on. The only exit we knew about was crushed flat, denying us retreat as well as access to the rooms we had passed. It struck me that perhaps that was the objective – to deny us further information or resources. To what aim…? Who knew. We waded through the milky light, the children still close by, the curious quality of the light seeming to lacquer them with fresh skin, obscuring their decay and thinness. Each step rejuvenated them by another layer of sinew, hypnotically returning them to the pinkish liveliness they must once have had. To say it was spooky would be to wildly understate matters. Doors became more infrequent, and honestly I felt less desire to open them and see what might be behind them. After the confusing horrors of realising we had been receiving the children’s dreams rather than being human enough to spark our own nocturnal adventures, I feared what else we might learn to undermine our imagined status. I also felt that whatever was directing our progress would let us know if there was some room we could investigate. Having seen the immediate compacting of our exit I was less willing to push our chances.
Was it only my imagination that our steps grew lighter the further we progressed? Our combined power display stayed in the green, which I wanted to attribute to our shared resource, but even with Charlotte’s vastly reduced needs, the time since our last refresh should have taken a greater toll. There was something in this creamy light that made each step easier to take, as if it were charging us from the feet upwards. With that in mind I could no longer tell whether the children’s apparent repair was illusory or a genuine artefact of this place. The corridor led, as I knew it must, ultimately to where it widened, offering branching arteries at either side, and head on, that descent into the sphere. It felt like an atrium where there ought to be bank of elevators and potted plants between them, a man coming past with a trolley of bags and marble floors. The translucent light clung to my shins as I waded out of it, it hung in tatters in the air before falling to the ground and dissipating against the hard metal floor.
“Christopher – the children,” Charlotte whispered in my ear.
I turned us both round, though she had already been craning as far as she could. The children stood in a cloud of the thick illuminated vapour at the threshold. The light boiled up around the doorway, unwilling to pass through except where my determined feet had forced it. In it the seven children stood framed by light, making their hair brilliant and golden, their faces full and skin restored. It could do nothing for those missing limbs, but then no illusion is perfect. They stood as if seeing us off on some steam powered trip into the future. Or the past. Who can judge direction from a still image. Julia raised her hand – in farewell? I stepped forward, suddenly at a loss for words, some emotion I didn’t recognise cracking open in my chest, making my skin shiver and slackening my jaw. I knelt down before her. Charlotte reached out a hand and Julia took it. Her whole frame relaxed and she stepped out of the bright vapour into the atrium. As she did so her hand and arm reverted to its previous condition – the pink skin boiled away in an instant, muscle cracked and withered and as she passed through the cloud’s effect its vitality fell away from her, leaving her ragged and worn once more. Only, this time it went further, stripping away not just the new flesh it had granted, but ageing, wearing down her remaining skin and bone further. She collapsed, her fingers exploding into splinters in Charlotte’s hand. She fell away into dust. We staggered back in shock, tatters of Julia’s flesh falling from Charlotte’s outstretched hand. Still wreathed in the life-endowing light the remaining six looked on calmly, sparing a gentle smile for us. Before we could leap forwards to keep them back, they walked on. The children followed Julia in a cascade of ruined anatomy, keen and warm eyes crisping in a moment receding into skulls that shivered with their hastened decomposition.
“What. The. Fuck.”
I’m not sure which of us spoke, maybe it was both of us, our identical systems reaching the same conclusion from the same data. It occurred to me that we never were as different as we thought. What could we do? Our little gang was gone. I had never felt so alone. For all that our interactions had been pointing and hiding, they were the only link we had to the history of this place – our only memories were inherited from them – we were more them than we were ourselves. And we had just watched our former selves fade away to nothing. Could there be a more brutal demonstration of mortality? I’d considered the mental aspects of death – fading in and out of consciousness was a normalised process for us, and thinking of it simply becoming frozen in one state or the other wasn’t a terrific stretch – I’d worried about our cumulative wear, accelerated through our most recent activities, like being thrown from a cliff and dismantling each other, but seeing it played out in a few seconds… Well, it took me aback. It took us both away from ourselves for a while.
It seemed that once again, there was little for us in standing still. Maybe we had stood still in this world for too long, denying our connection to what had come before. These seven children, though they and their fellows had attacked us, they had suffered too in the crash, and from what we had seen since, had suffered in their true life. In such a short time we had expanded our family to encompass them. Their absence was a greater shock than Chelsea’s. Perhaps because Chelsea was still out there – somewhere, and given enough chances, we’d find her again. So why not go on – what else was there for us?
There was so little left of our young – old? – friends. I felt obliged to take something of them with me. They had been alone for so long – whether weeks or decades we had no way of knowing, though I was increasingly contemplating the latter. I wondered how many years it would take for a body to so fully dehydrate that became mummified in the stable climate of this place. Even in those strange chambers we found them in – surely their purpose could not have been desiccation. I could not conceive of a reason to do that to children. Which suggested a vain attempt to protect them. But we had still seen nothing of adult humans beyond the one made paste by that door. On then, on. Each step was confounded by a new spate of ideas and considerations. Charlotte muttered about prevarication, but faded away in thoughts of her own. We felt on the cusp of… something. Something greater than us, though that could be anything. We were just the emergency back up when it all went wrong, never activated when needed, and only now trudging through the mystery of our forebears. I suppose we had a lot on our minds.
Finally, we stood at the steps that led down. When I turned my head to the left, I could see the side of Charlotte’s face: an eye and that pattern of cubes that dominated her whole head. We had run out of words; we had only action left. The steps were as slick as I remembered, the walls sweating water. A deep thrumming heart beat started up as we descended, felt through the rock and my feet, vibrating to my core with a rhythm that spoke of beginnings and endings and all the fear in between.
“When we were here last – “ Charlotte began.
“ – I know,” I finished, “but this time we have nothing to lose.”
“No. It’s all gone – Charlie, Chelsea, our pods, the children. The life we had, our home. It’s all destroyed. We have nothing left. Nothing.” I found I was angry. It surged in me like fire, a heat that made my eyes hurt.
“We have each other Christopher. I have you.”
Was it enough? How far can you be reduced and still have something left? I was ashamed by the thought, but I would have felt better if it had been Chelsea I was with again. Chelsea with her adventurous spirit, that sprang from a place inside her – that same place had fostered such different responses in each of us. In me, a desire for the status quo, in Charlotte – fear, in Charlie a drive to create, in whatever sphere he found himself in. I doubted that the combination of fear and desire for stability would be the ones to find resolution, to drive discovery and survival. I missed them both terribly. Last time we were here it was all four of us, and together that had saved us. I naturally chose to discount the fact that Chelsea had led us here to begin with, in so doing had triggered some part of what we had subsequently endured and now faced again. There is only so much about our loved ones that we can admit to ourselves and still be able to love them.
The chamber arched open before us. Its smooth, perfect walls gleaming with moisture, swelling upwards and downwards, chasing its opposing forces of gravity towards those black sheathed sentinels piercing the sphere from top and bottom. I was filled with the same sense of wonder and fear as I stepped over the edge and gravity rotated by ninety degrees, my foot landing inside the sphere. The rock quivered where it punctured the sphere, slowly twisting into motion. Our end seemed inevitable. I walked down the slope of the orb, my footing sliding in the damp, with a decided bias to traversing it anti-clockwise. We spiralled down towards those dark claws which twisted towards us, scented us and reared in waiting. Only the fingers of rock protruding through the base of the sphere (as it seemed to us from our entrance) attended to our approach. Those from the ceiling writhed in space as if underwater, blown by some current invisible to us.
It was important that we acted as one in this. Although I had the legs, we were still all that existed in each other’s worlds and I could never sacrifice Charlotte unwilling in this. But Charlotte’s hand rested in mine, her fingers folded over the knuckles of my absent digits. Just a few feet from the claws of stone we stopped. They writhed above us like tentacles of some ossified beast, spread wide and pounced upon us.
So cold. Swallowed, squeezed in a gulping convulsion of boulders. Each pulse ground us between sheaves of gritted stone. I felt my skin and structure rasped away, angles worn to curves, casing thinned, the squeal of metal tortured. Until. Until we I thought we’d be milled to powder, and then, on the brink of fragmentation we were falling. Fell onto another slippery stone surface, curved beneath my hands and feet. We were pressed tight between two layers of stone, that beneath us grinding slowly around, grating Charlotte against the roof with tender violence. It dawned on me that we were in the reverse of the first chamber – a vast stone sphere rotating in a chamber scarcely larger, gravity and friction keeping us on the ball. Charlotte cried out as she was squeezed by the oblivious rock. Once again I found myself praising the epoxy and tape that had been left for us. Without it she would have been shorn away, shredding our conjoined energy supply, strewing our bleeding bodies around this rotating sphere.
Finally, after it seemed our skin had grown too thin to bind us we reached a hole in the outer cave and fell through the darkness. Only to be caught up by yet more tentacles of rock, unexpectedly gentle, curving under us to take our weight and almost kindly depositing us on yet another sliding surface. This space was once more lit, light pulsing out of cubic crystals in the grain of the rock itself. A demi-sphere this time, with a sharply flat roof. We easily slid down into the bowl from an entrance that vanished even as I cast about for it. At the heart of the bowl, another flowering of the stone tendrils, this time swollen in three budding shapes, the fingers rasping over each other as if purposely withholding their contents. We slid to a halt, pseudo-nerves on fire from the abrasion, barely able to speak.
“Are you – alright?” I managed.
“Never better,” replied Charlotte, her voice ragged, “I’m glad I only had one limb to get sanded down.”
“I seem to have lost some more fingers,” I said, disappointed in the fist I’d made with my right hand. There were gaps I didn’t use to have.
“Well, you’ve still got me,” she said.
I regretted my earlier doubts about her. Who else could be here with me now, and endure it so amicably? We always underestimate those closest to us, how else could we shamelessly stand by their brilliance?
The outer pair of bundles of stony tentacles splayed outwards, revealing their contents to us like flowers offering their stamens. In one lay a shape I recognised immediately – Charlie’s body. It was cupped as if seated, waiting for visitors. Only his missing head cast ambiguity on his pose. When the other twist of rock unwound a cloud of the milky vapour condensed within its petals, and in them a human, torn and battered. The vapour illuminated from within, and the shape of the human became clearer, resolving as the children had done. Each moment laid a further waxen layer over its ghastly injuries, papering over shattered limbs and punctured skin. At last a shock of hair erupted over its head and it convulsed, abruptly alive.
The woman rolled back in her cradle of stone, eyes stuttering into wakefulness. Her first action was to gasp in horror – at her renewed life, or her surrounding? – and draw her limbs about herself. Her clothes were a ragged bandaging around her, barely functioning as clothing. Our journey to this new region had reduced our fear of the rocky tendrils and we came closer. She was the closest we had seen to our progenitors, save for the children, and I thoughtlessly inspected her for our similarities. She had all of her fingers, so she was superior in that respect, but at least superficially we seemed the same, even if she was a good deal softer looking.
“Hello,” Charlotte said.
We had given no thought to what a shock a two headed robot might be and hastened to reassure the revived human.
“It’s alright – we’re the emergency back ups,” I said.
She looked horrified, could hardly stop staring at her hands, let alone our chimerical appearance.
“I’m dead,” she said, “we’re all dead.”