An Occasional Entry in a Dream Diary: Change, Maps and Attack

I don’t often recall my dreams these days, blessed be the drugs. When I do, I haven’t slept well, and they’ve been exhausting. Since last night was unusually intact, even hours later, I guess I should release it, or what I can remember, in the order it seemed to be in…


Waking up, finding that I’m not quite person I thought I was. There is now a small chest of drawers between me and my other half’s beds. She looks disappointed that I am awake. I shamble, barely capable of walking, to the shower. I can hear her telephone conversation as I slump and drag myself across the floor tiles.

“He’s not what he used to be,” she says. I haul myself up to where I can see myself in the mirror, and I am a half-formed, or half-deformed version of myself, features spreading out, as if being averaged across my face.

We attempt breakfast, and take our plates to sit in the narrow corridor where everyone else has found a space to hunch and eat in near-silence. Inevitably, the plateful of gravy spills (despite my best efforts) and spatters my t-shirt and trousers. We head off back to the room, via the delivery warehouse. I complain that my section of ‘exclusives’ has been taken away, so we take some extra time to traipse up and down the endless aisles until we discover that it is in exactly the same place it always was, but the sign with my name on has fallen behind a shelf. There is a stack of new t-shirts with cute designs, a range of bookmarks and unopened boxes. I take a shirt.

Paris is exhausting. The roads slope steeply up and down. We’re trying to find a place to eat, but the maps app on my phone is constantly steering us off course. With a lurch the app takes hold of my mind and I’m compelled to follow its directions, while traveling at high speed. The world takes a sepia tone and is stretched taut in all dimensions; the world is almost spherical, balanced atop a pinnacle of rock. A whirlwind of motion is coming, drawing me up into it, smashing my body into other forms and shapes. I do not want this, and in a vast stormy cloud we disperse; below me the ruined shape of Thundercracker (yup, from Transformers) crashes to earth, and the immense warping shape of Devastator (yup, also Transformers) screams like a wave across a mirror, while I remain on the very edge of the curb.

I fight off the map’s influence and find myself in a backstreet, lined with ancient bricks and half-boarded windows. There is no exit to the alley, so I open the door at the top of a fire escape. Inside are tables in cabaret layout occupied by women in something very like beekeeper’s hats and veils. They are all knitting or crocheting tiny figures. They speak constantly in a hushed whisper so it sounds like the sea.

The map reasserts control, dragging me though a fancy restaurant pavilion where a man is threatening the crowd with a gun. The speed I’m moving at when I strike him hurls him through the brass and glass walls and into the adjoining train station. A blur of glass.

I climb out of the overturned double-decker bus which I’d commandeered and rammed through the streets. I descend into the cellar where my compatriots are carefully arranging their windows, each a different shape with complex frames, all giving different views of the bright and cheerful street outside.

“It’s time.”

We all sit before our windows and they slice away from the reality around them, and we fly outwards, this thin screen before us and nothing behind. We circle up into the sky and join thousands of others whose screens are slotting into the vast battle grid we’ll be using to assault the enemy.

Lego Blog: Illustrating Flash Pulp episode FP0022

If you go down to the woods today…

I’ve had the pictures for this build for a while now, but failed to find the time to crop and select them. My shaky hands demand editing! I’ve been keenly anticipating another Thomas Blackhall tale – he’s one of my favourite Flash Pulp characters – the forest settings and era are very appealing to me.


Read and Listen To The Story

You have to do this now:

Here’s the full story: The Charivari


Illustrating The Story

Hedge wizard Thomas Blackhall emerges from the deep forests and finds himself at the edge of the village of Bigelow. He is welcomed into The Loyalist inn by its proprietor and freshens up before being dragged into local scandal and mob unrulery. It’s a three-part story and there is much more to it! I’d love to come back to the setting of the final part of the yarn – maybe one day…

Strictly speaking I’ve illustrated a single exchange from the story: the greeting of Blackhall by the moustachioed Morton Van Rijn. Of course he has an axe – he’s Canadian.

What’s In A Road?

I was carried off by the notion of an inn by the water on a neatly paved road. Naturally the details of the road occupied a startling amount of time. I’d seen a cool way to curve Lego plates in Blocks magazine but hadn’t had a moment to play with the idea. What better time? The road is made up of long strips of 2×2 plates overlaid with 2×2 tiles – once laid on edge you can bend them quite a long way. Pinning them in place with other bricks resulted in much brick spaffing across the room… The results are pretty! I’m looking forwards to refining the technique further.

The water is several plates deep, allowing for much dotting of transparent blue and white circular plates which has produced a nice illusion of depth. Then I had fun building up the shore too. Finally I got to the pesky business of the inn itself.

Running Out of Space

I’d figured a 32×32 base plate would be adequate for my purposes, but I’d clearly used up waaaay too much space on the road and shoreline. Plus I wanted to offset the inn, and well, there was no room left. So I ‘neatly’ added a chunky corner at the back. Looks great, right? It gave me the extra space I needed!

It took several abortive efforts to get the size of The Loyalist right – walls are always thicker than I think, and since I’m a terrible planner I need to leave more space than I think I’ll need. There’s not a great deal in there, but you can safely assume there’s an outhouse somewhere, and a washroom, and a kitchen… and everything else. But it looks nice.

   

The door is massive. I’m very happy with how the slightly patchy, made out of local materials look I’ve given it. The careful patchiness is something I really admire in Lego’s official sets – there’s an aesthetic balance which they absolutely nail. I can only aim for it. I also really dig the shutters: the windows are too small to put proper glass windows in and this was surprisingly effective.

I made a roof that fits! Well, more or less. I felt obliged to put a chimney on it, but as you’ll note from the interior shots, there is no space for a fireplace. It’s a decorative chimney. Like they that back in the olden days.

It’s What’s On The Inside That Matters

Since I had limited floorspace, I focussed on the important aspects of an inn: the bar, and the bedroom. I have once more made something that is almost impossible to see inside of, let alone photograph. The bunk beds are actually quite neat, but you’ll have to take my word for it…

 

Final Reflections

Super observant fans of Flash Pulp will notice that although this is a rather jolly little inn, it is wrong in almost all possible details. The Loyalist is a mostly white painted building, considerably larger than this one and should really be surrounded with other buildings and more of a crossroads than a wiggly road. Ho hum. It’s the spirit of the story, alright?!

There are a load more pictures of the details here, on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eric_the_bewildered_weasel/sets/72157668298142972

 

Open Boxes – Part Twenty-Six (The End) – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25


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I did not feel afraid; perhaps I should have. We had answers to questions we hadn’t even formulated – and the news was so much worse than we had imagined. Earth was gone, along with every human who had ever lived. Every part of the civilisation and species that had produced us – save the crippled and deeply strange installation on this lifeless rock – had been consigned to the harsh vacuum of space, destroyed. Extinct. We had spent so long understanding ourselves as an adjunct, an accessory to humanity. Our purpose was to be inhabited by them, a last resort. One that had failed – we had failed them. I had refused to allow the last human, Dr Alison, to download her memories and self into Charlie. I had not been prepared for his own growing individuality to be displaced by the people who had left us alone, unwanted, unloved – without explanation or hope – in the ruins of their world. Maybe that sounds tainted by bitterness, but that’s not how it felt. I felt that we had been freed – what the manual had told us about being vessels for the spirit of another, that was gone and dead. There was no one to possess us. These bodies, these minds: they were ours now.

We considered our future as we worked on Charlie. With five arms and more fingers than I could bring to bear we worked quickly, smoothly as a team. We paid little attention to the manual. I’d already disregarded most of its dire warnings when I was trimming down Charlotte. The manual had been especially clear about the “catastrophic risk” of tampering with our batteries, our hearts if you will. The operation I had performed linking mine and Charlotte’s would have had the manual’s author running for the hills. Its limits were those of its creators, not its subjects: us. With our more casual approach we cracked Charlie open, and tracked back those dark and sticky tubes that had recoiled into his body when he was decapitated. It may not have been a pretty job, but it would do. If you can’t fix it with duct tape, it probably can’t be fixed. Our options were limited, and we didn’t know how much time we had. Kneeling on the warm slick floor of an alien structure, somewhere under the surface impels some haste. I’d become a dab hand at triggering the activation sequence with a screwdriver and slap of a palm: Charlie gurgled his way to animation once more, hands naturally rising to his throat, fingering the bulges and seals we’d added to him. Each glued plate was another contribution to his difference from our collective similarities. Every action and experience pushed us all further down the line to being ourselves, while never quite severing the common bond and origin we shared. We couldn’t escape our past, but we could acknowledge that it had no further power over our future. No one would be coming to shut us down. Not a human anyway.

We brought Charlie and Chelsea up to date, with what we thought the situation was: trapped, in a perfect hemisphere of rock, by whatever entity saw fit to annihilate half of the solar system. Charlie paced around the perimeter, examining the perfect edges of the chamber.

“Seamless, utterly smooth. I have no idea where the water is coming from,” he said, trailing finger tips along the wall as he walked.

I sat in the base of the bowl, Chelsea sitting back to back with Charlotte (and so, with me too – sort of). I felt content to wait, for whatever was going to happen next. We were in a prison, but for now we were comfortable as well as together.

“No pods. What happens when we run down?” demanded Charlie.

“Then we stop,” I replied, “unless there are resources in the rest of the base – we’ve barely explored. We never even reached the other side of it. There’s plenty for us to do.”

“If we survive. If we get out of here. If there’s anything there for us.”

Charlie was… not as he was. His pacing took him round and round, an agitation that only grew with each circuit.

“Charlie, what’s wrong?” Chelsea asked, moving to join him.

“Why did you bring me back?” his head bowed, and not just because of our swift repairs, “why would you bring me back to this – when we know there’s nothing left, that there’s nowhere for us to go? There is no life left for us to rejoin. Why put me back together just to tell me it’s all over?”

“Charlie… I’m sorry,” I said, “when we found your head, all I wanted to do was store it for when you needed it again. We couldn’t leave you in pieces, not if you could be whole again.”

“Whole? We’ll never be whole. We’re just the waste that’s been left behind of a civilisation scrubbed from the universe. Even before that – we had nothing – it was all, always for nothing. Everything we tried to do was worthless – it was always going to end like this – with nothing,” Charlie was shouting – a sound I had never heard, “why do you think – didn’t you realise? – It was me. I didn’t want to be here any more. I hated that we had sealed ourselves into those broken domes, that it was the best we could hope for. That’s why I went back outside – to see what you had seen. And it followed me, and I knew it was all over. I just wanted it all to end, so I – I – I just wanted to end it all. Yet you brought me back.“

“Charlie – “ Charlotte began, but was cut off by a vibration that came from all around.

Charlie slid back down the side to join us in the middle, still estranged, still disturbed. The bowl tilted under us, somehow the cavity in the rock was changing its orientation without even disturbing the rest of the stone. We slid upwards to the edge of the dish as a portal in the slick surface opened before us – which made it feel like it was down of a sudden – the peculiar mastery of gravity pulling us into the hole. We slid into yet more darkness. Until that point I hadn’t even noticed that the sealed hemisphere we previously occupied was filled with light – it just was. But this darkness had none of the tiny crystalline lights that we had noted in the first sphere we came across.

Light rose like the sun across the horizon, revealing our new place to be yet another sphere, this one rotating subtly towards the light. As we came fully into its luminance we caught a glimpse of the vast space we had come into. This was just one of many vast stone shapes slowly rotating, grinding against and over each other. That same glossy smoothness of water running over everything – an immense cavern which we slowly traversed, scooped from the first sphere by a prism whose edge slid up the sphere like a razor. In turn it rotated through an opposite axis, gravity remaining always beneath our feet as it presented us to a cube which spun again, dropping us further onto another sphere which rolled upwards, almost bouncing from side to side, never quite losing touch with the other shapes.

“Is this a machine?” asked Chelsea.

“Maybe – or art, or a home…” I said, “a way to grind down the innards of this moon?”

We had no clue. All we could do was try to enjoy our voyage through this puzzled space. It was a baffling undertaking, but I had accepted my powerlessness in this. The past didn’t threaten us any more, and we could do nothing about the future. We were at the mercy of the entity Dr Alison had called the resurgence.

“That name makes no sense,” complained Charlotte, “for it to resurge, it must have appeared before – surged – to begin with.”

“You may get a chance to ask it,” I warned, for above us the light was being replaced by darkness as we were rolled upwards once more.

The sky was as dark as ever, shot through with the purple taint that the limited atmosphere granted it. Now that we knew what we were looking for we could identify the distant sun, and the fragments of Neptune that we had previously thought might be moons. The way the stars were different every night and day was because Triton was spinning through space, wholly out of the orbit that had held it in its grip for a millions of years. Freed, like us, to travel into the unknown. The ground above us was unfolding to allow the sphere that slid beneath us to have a thin slice of itself presented to the outside. It softly deposited us on the lunar surface.

It was reassuring to have its dull dust under our feet once more, to be on ground that was less obviously revolving. We had been placed outside the main installation, some half mile or so from where we had entered the airlock nexus. From a distance it had looked clean, white, intact. Now we could see the damage that had been done, that Dr Alison had recounted, when the last of humanity was wiped off the moon. Holes had been bored through the walls, shattered windows, ruptured roofs, buckled floors. I doubted there was much air left inside. Maybe in the central units, but this place had been punctured over and over. Perhaps one black curl of rock for each person inside. I could only imagine how that must have felt – the corridor being crushed behind us had been frightening enough – the prospect of a living spear of the earth hunting down everyone I knew, well. It certainly justified how we had felt about their shadows creeping towards us. We stood, uncertainly shuffling, returned to the thin air we could no longer speak to each other freely. Instead we clustered together again, even Charlie, drawn back into the fold. I could do nothing to ease his pain, the pain that I had only drawn out. Was my desire to have us all back together a selfish one? Did it supersede what Charlie wanted – to no longer be in this with us? I found it hard to regret my decision to either carry his head, or to rejoin it to his body. Perhaps we would find the time for him to forgive me, or for me to learn to live with having failed him.

The crack in the earth sealed up, the sphere that brought us to the surface vanishing with no trace but the faint sensation of massive rolling shapes beneath our feet. Familiar vibrations pulsed through the dust, inspiring it into dancing vortices that capered around us, whipping soft sprays of grey over us. I felt less worried than I had before – having been swallowed by the machinations below, mere whirling dust seemed quite normal. The black claws that dug their way through the surface still held their former alarm though. They arced upwards, far above our heads, receded, thrust forward again, like the breath of the whole moon exercised through these coiling tendrils of its flesh.

Our hands found each other, that simple assurance and affirmation of each other’s presence immensely comforting. Even Charlie’s reluctant fingers grew tighter, held my hand and squeezed. The claws twisted to a halt, poised like thorns around us. If that made us a flower, so much the better, but I was immediately reminded by my helpful mind that flowers often get plucked. Chelsea, Charlotte and I looked to the hills which had featured so prominently in the dreams we had viewed, and in Julia’s painting. Whatever was going to happen, and I felt we knew what to expect, would come from there. We were not to be disappointed.

In a shaking cascade, the hills that walled off the base shook off their coating of earth, revealing bare mountainous prisms which rose up from the ground high into the air. They slowly spun, in no discernible pattern, their points barely missing each other as they rolled. They were followed by other vast shapes, the spheres and cubes we had seen below, enmeshed in curious gear arrangements. The sky became crowded with spinning mountains of stone. Then they were joined by something new. A hand that could encompass the entire installation reached up out the gash in the earth vacated by the hills. Its fingers splayed across the plain. Huge, white, tapering to points. Another hand followed it, and then the creature, the resurgence as Dr Alison had called it, the entity pulled itself up out of its nest inside Triton. Its scale was hard to perceive – terribly thin in comparison to its height, yet its arms and legs must still have been miles around. It crouched over its ravaged landscape, its stone baubles spinning over its head. A head I hadn’t wanted to see – long and thin like the rest of it, with no mouth, just two enormous vertical ellipses that took in everything in a single glance. I felt… awe. At its titanic size, its sheer presence – it dominated the landscape. And it crawled towards us, stalking on hands and pointed knees.

It was above us in a moment, those pitiless eyes tilted down at us. It had brought us here, had reunited us having destroyed our home, and was now content to merely stare at us? We could do little but crane our heads back and bask in its vastness. It regarded us for long minutes, the spin of the shapes behind it slowing until they were almost as motionless as we were. We had no way to communicate, to at least ask what was to come, to let it know that we were – what? – sentient? Independent? Friends? For all that it had done to humanity I, personally felt no especial ill will towards it. Our prison had been the trappings of the people who had made us and left us here.

I stepped forwards, squeezing and releasing Charlie’s hand. Charlotte let go of Chelsea. I had no choice but to commit Charlotte to my actions. The shapes above were completely still, the white titan who crouched above us equally still, except for its eyes, which roiled with a deep blue smoke in the black ovals that gouged its face. I raised my right hand towards it, palm extended, my paltry digits splayed. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Charlotte hesitantly do the same. The blue smoke intensified, claws of rock writhed out of the ground again, the monoliths in the sky returned to their rapid rotation. I think the creature’s head dipped minutely and then an enormous hand was rushing towards us, waves of grey dust in its wake as it broke through the ground under our feet. We were torn into the air, the dust a waterfall around us as we fell to our knees. We rushed up into the sky as our bearer stood – we were held miles above the surface. Its head turned away from us. I followed its gaze, and the arm it extended, the miles long finger pointed out into space – at some distant star? We could not know. That other hand flew towards us, clapping down over the one that bore us with a thunder of bones.

We fell together, clutching one another in fear, laden with savage apprehension. We were trapped again, in a mesh of endless fingers folded about us. We felt the giant turning with us between its palms and then – a sensation of tremendous acceleration in all directions at once – we were being ripped apart, down to our very atoms, the worn matter of our selves exploding, over and again.

Until it stopped, leaving us shuddering together – hands clutching at each other for the assurance of life. We stood as one, prepared to meet our fate, whatever it might be. Gently, the cage of spidery bones peeled away revealing a new view. The wasted land of Triton was gone, and in its place… A bright orb of silver and blue emerged into view from between its uncurling fingers, orbited by two smaller satellites, rich with the reflected light of a warm white star which shone bright against the velvet night.

The giant’s hand thrust forwards, and the new world raced up to meet us.

nanowrimo2016-winner-cert

Did you like it? I hope so. Did it make sense? I have no idea. Thanks for reading – let me know how it went for you.

Open Boxes – Part Twenty-Five – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24


open-boxes-5

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.”

Open Boxes – Part Twenty-Four – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23


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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.”

“Don’t we?”

“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.”

Open Boxes – Part Twenty-Three – NaNoWriMo 2016

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22


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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.

“Not anymore.”