I’d hoped for answers, but expected that our lives would be taken away. They nearly had been, grinding us through the mill of alien spheres. There seemed little doubt about that, though I’d never thought to give voice to it before. The control of gravity and whatever technology lay behind those tentacles of rock was utterly unlike anything else in the installation we had inherited. Of the elements we had – a destroyed base, vanished crew, recorded nightmares, our being driven here – only one thing appeared to unite them: the alien artifacts that surrounded us now. It had presented us with two things we had thought lost: Charlie’s headless body, and a real live human. Admittedly that human had been dead just moments before, rejuvenated by the same mysterious process that returned the little gang of children briefly to life. There was much to discuss, if we had the time. She was evidently distressed, and not without reason, but she could at least talk – an ability that had eluded the children.
“Hello,” I tried again, “my name is Christopher – and this is Charlotte,” we both waved together, “what’s your name?”
I felt the gentle approach was more likely to produce results than grabbing and shaking he. We were rather on edge after our journey here, and the walls constantly glimmering as water rolled around them was unsettling, making my eyes jump from side to side, expecting to catch an ominous shape creeping up on me. I only felt slightly less naked having Charlotte behind me. We knelt down and I reached into the creamy glow that encompassed the woman in her rags. Gently, I took her hand in mine, noting again that I was down to just two fingers and a thumb on my right hand – a fantastic total of five digits across the pair – and squeezed her palm.
“You – you have names? Who did you download from? There was no time!”
“Oh!” we at least were recognised for what we were, “we didn’t receive personality downloads. We were activated – well, some time after the installation suffered damage,” Chelsea confirmed.
“You’re blanks?” she asked, her voice pitched higher than it had been before. She tried to pull her hand free, “you shouldn’t be online. You’re only supposed to activate when you receive a download.”
“Yes, we know,” I couldn’t help the surge of irritation that rose up in me – we had survived, found ourselves and even now were being told just what the manual had given us – that our life wasn’t our own, “but we’ve gotten past that, thank you.”
“Besides, we think we did get some part of a download,” Charlotte added, “we’ve been having nightmares since we first woke up.”
That snapped the woman into alertness. She whipped her hand free of mine (easier than it should have been with all those missing fingers) and shuffled herself into a crouch.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I warned, as she slowly rose to her feet, still standing on the black rock flower.
Her arm waved out of the top of the luminous cloud that hung over the rock, and immediately began to decay. Skin sluiced off her hand and wrist before she snatched it back within the light’s protective screen.
“About that,” I began, as she clutched her arm, “there’s something about that light – it brings you back, but you won’t stay that way if you leave it.”
Slowly the flesh regrew around her wrist bones, far slower now than in had when she was first illuminated.
“What is happening to me?” she cried.
“Like you said: you’re dead. But that light sustains you, for a while, restores you. If you don’t mind… we have a lot of questions.”
She seemed to pull herself together a little, settled back down into a cross-legged seat. It was a pose I’d never found comfortable, something to do with not having real knees and ankles I supposed. She scraped her hair out of her face, back over the top of her head and behind her ears. Fascinating to watch. We had settled for drawings and etched shapes on our heads. Perhaps we looked more barbaric than she had expected, with our similarly ragged clothing and decorated faces.
“Alright. Alright,” she began, “my name is Doctor Alison Atherton, and I – I worked here for twenty-three years, until the resurgence.”
At last – information!
“The resurgence? What did you do here?”
Dr Alison was about to reply when, with a cry, she noticed her elbows fraying away, returning to their former decayed state. The band of light was condensing, drawing down towards the stone. She crouched to retain its influence.
“We don’t have time – you have to trigger a download – I’ll be gone again and then you’ll have nothing.”
“You can’t – no – we’re already us – you can’t come inside us.”
“What about that one,” she asked, pointing at Charlie’s body, “where’s its head?”
That we had, tucked away safely. With his body here I could probably reattach it, assuming the damage in severing his neck wasn’t too severe. But giving him up? I wasn’t sure that was something we could do. I took his head out of the bag slung round our backs, looked at his face thoughtfully.
“His name is Charlie,” I said, “and you can’t have him.”
“What? Are you mad? It’s what you’re for. I need to continue our work.”
“Tell us what your work is – we’ll finish it for you.”
“Without my memories you couldn’t hope to.”
I decided to guess: “the children?”
“Yes – you might have their dreams, but they must be kept safe. Have you found them? Are they alright?”
Charlotte and I exchanged a glance.
“The children are all dead,” Charlotte said.
“You killed them?” she shouted, incredulous, horrified.
“What? No, of course not. Why would we kill them? They attacked us.”
“Impossible – they were safe, secure away from the resurgence, their dreams blocked.”
“Dr Alison, they died in those tanks you sealed them into. When we found them they were almost mummified.”
“No… could it be so long?”
The cloud of light continued to contract, Dr Alison’s edges dissolving before us. She crouched lower on the rock, wound in on herself, futilely against the encroaching entropy.
“Dr Alison – we think it may have quite a long time between the installation being abandoned and us waking up – “
“The base wasn’t abandoned. There was nowhere to go. This base was it. When the resurgence unfolded throughout space it destroyed Earth and the Moon – just tore them out of their orbits and ripped them apart. Only our colony mission survived – we were halfway to Triton when the Earth died. Children had been having nightmares for weeks on Earth, a global pandemic – and they were true, prescient dreams. We had all the reports, but our children had been sedated for most of the journey and we had just read the reports in horror. We made it to the Triton base and settled in as best we could. We were all that was left of humanity – of everything on Earth – five hundred men, women and children. We arrived shocked, and broken. Then it followed us. It tore Neptune out of the night, flung the other moons across the sky and disappeared.
“For weeks we saw nothing of it. We watched the skies – hoped it had moved on, while we spun away from Neptune’s orbit, our new home unleashed to wander through what was left of our solar system. Years passed, and we thought we had been forgotten, overlooked, ignored – any of those would have been just fine… We lost so many to suicide. We had lost everything. All we could do was try to make a life here. It worked, for a while.
“And then the children began to dream again. We saw it first in their stories and drawings, before they started to wake up in tears, screaming themselves hoarse. We recorded what we could from the imagers. They saw what was coming, and we knew it was returning for us, that we were no longer safe. We tried to keep them quiet. Drugged them into comas, for their own sake as much as for the theory that they were receivers of the resurgence’s intent, or future, and in replaying them they were broadcasting them back to it, drawing it like a beacon.
“Maybe it didn’t matter what we did. Finally, we began to feel the deep seismic tremors as it made itself known. Then we found it had wormed its way under the base, carving out these chambers, manipulating gravity, doing whatever it did… After that it was too late. It came for us, claws rising out of the earth, piercing the installation, pinning people to the floor and then pulling them through it. I thought it was – perhaps – exploring, taking samples, not realising we were being hurt. A useless optimism. It was so powerful you couldn’t believe anything moved it but anger.
“We were almost gone.”
She was almost gone now, the bubble of glowing light had contracted to only leave her head and chest intact on a heap of rotten limbs.
“I turned on the dream recordings. There was nothing else to do – and it went wild, finally emerged from the ground – “
“A giant spindly figure with needle thin fingers?” I interrupted.
“Yes, ah yes, you’ve had the dreams. That’s why it’s back – when it came for the last of us I shut it all down and we came down here, thinking that maybe, if we could interact with it, we could save something – the children. Anything. I suppose that didn’t work either.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say as the cloud faded to a mask that slid down her face; she crumbled to nothing as it fell away. The stone claws that had held her twisted back together and disappeared through the ground, leaving the hemisphere of stone perfect and unmarred. The remaining furled rock unwrapped itself, spreading into a plinth on which lay the still form of Chelsea. We were reunited, sort of. The tendrils slid away from beneath Chelsea and Charlie, leaving them lying on the wet stone.
We went to them – what else could we do? Chelsea was apparently uninjured, but unconscious. From the fall or from being brought here I couldn’t tell. I tried the same trick I had with Charlotte.
“Just – don’t stab her in the eye like you did me,” Charlotte chided from my back.
“I know what I’m doing,” I said, gently inserting the screwdriver under Chelsea’s cheekbone. A click, and Chelsea’s eyes sprang open. She lunged forwards, seizing my shoulders, completely unbalancing Charlotte and I, we sprawled back with Chelsea on top of us.
“Oh! What happened to you – oh…” Chelsea rolled me over and took a look at Charlotte, “…oh, clever.”
“Are you alright?” Charlotte asked.
“Yes – I seem to be, don’t I? This is new,” she looked around, taking in the flat ceiling and bowl we were resting in. “You found Charlie. I’m so glad. What’s that?”
Chelsea indicated the small heap of dust and fragments of bone that Dr Alison had collapsed into, sifting through with a finger.
“I think it was probably the last human.”