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.

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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


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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


open-boxes-5

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.”

Open Boxes – Part Twenty-Two – NaNoWriMo 2016

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


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Into the dark. The fading purple light from the surface was lost immediately. The path that Julia had found through the wreckage was barely suited to her frame, let alone ours. At least I had two arms to feel the way with, but I soon found myself trying to crawl backwards while dragging Charlotte, who managed the occasional feeble thrust with her leg, each time I thought it had become lodged behind something and torn loose. I took a lot more blows to the head as we burrowed deeper. Anything to escape the menace of those rocks arcing out of the ground. If I’ve learned one thing in my time in the dark it’s that you need to focus, and to focus on something – anything, that isn’t the dark. At this point I had not fully internalised that lesson, so, while the immediate threat of the spikes was left behind I couldn’t help but think that they must come from below ground in the first place, so in a way we were digging down towards them… The dark around me was constantly punctured by imaginary spikes, and the entirely real shards of metal and junk sticking out of the ruins. It was a harrowing decent, distance lost by the crawling pace, where the only and infrequent interruption to the darkness was the lights on our abdomens. As a literal sign of life it had some reassurance value. I only knew we were going the right way was from Julia’s frequent feather-light touch on my shoulder.

Finally, the roof opened out above my head and I pulled Charlotte into an open space. We stayed there for a moment. Listening. Letting the dark and our stillness filter through the place. Without the sound of us scraping against every conceivable obstacle we became aware of the silence again, only those shifting and settling items of debris which could pass a vibration to us could be felt. And behind it, always the low rumble of the earth beneath us. No tendrils of rock had tried to spear us or had yet torn up between our feet. I’d rather have believed their lengthening and sharpening was just a trick of the light curling their Shadows to the ground… But those in the spherical chamber had done more than that, and faster. These were more of the bad thoughts to have in the dark. A few more minutes of inaction gave me an arbitrarily greater sense of security and I began to explore the space we had been led to more thoroughly.

Every surface had a fine coating of soil from the exploded garden. Our roof curved faintly upwards so we were somewhere under the garden itself. When I fell through an invisible hole I realised we were back inside my dome. It had been quite a mess to begin with, but was surely much worse now. I wondered if Charlotte and the children knew I was gone – my yelp of fright was swallowed by the thin air – I stifled another thinking that the children might well already be down here, sitting silently in the dark around me. But that was fine – since they had attacked us in the garden they’d shown no signs of aggression, meekly following me around, and even helping us. It was a perplexing reversal which I put down to us having made some connection over the pencil case and the artwork. It was a thin basis for trust but it was enough, and I had no better options. Blindly I fumbled around, trying to figure out where in the dome I have found myself. The previously treacherous surface had been tossed around and every step had to be carefully tested. I literally fell into my old pod. Its lid had been smashed and was in itself useless, but since it was hooked up not just to the garden’s power network, but also the local battery arrays we had scavenged from outside, all I had to do was follow the cables (if I could) and hope.

Hope is not a thing I have much experience of. Our days had been filled with routine and tasks, but we had never had a fixed objective to aim for. It was make do and mend, but not with a plan of wearing our fabulous outfit to a party. For all we knew, there were no survivors – we filled our time doing what we thought we ought to and had no provision for afterwards. It was a feeling that grew in me as I tripped and stumbled, following the wires into awkward and narrow nooks until at last it blossomed in my chest as I recognised the shape of a battery. Glorious. Now all I needed were some lights…

A cool yellow glow spread from my fingertips to fill our little cranny. The children were nestled in around Charlotte. Judging from her reaction, she hadn’t realised. They were even creepier in the silent dark. The light scattered them to the edges of our cave. I hung the lights off the many spars of jagged metal that made up our ceiling. It was a dismal space but at least we could see. I clambered over to where Charlotte lay, now free of the children. By resting my head on hers we would be able to hear each other.

“Hey, Charlotte, how are you doing?”

The drooling string of vowels vibrating through my head weren’t promising, but they slowly stretched out into words with the addition of hard-won consonants.

“Christopher… the garden… where’s my leg..?”

“Yes. Destroyed. Missing,” I summarised, “in fact, we’re underneath the garden now. I’m sorry, I couldn’t find your other leg.”

“How did you find me?”

“Oh, funny story. Well, not really – the dead – um, Julia found you. I’m not sure why, but it’s only one of many questions I don’t have answers to.”

“I can’t feel my legs.”

“One of them is missing… Let’s take a look at the other one.”

With the benefit of light I could see that it was much worse than I’d hoped. Where Charlotte’s hip had been crushed, the socket was pinched and was now the only thing holding her leg on. There was no way I could get that to fit again. I pondered how to tell Charlotte, but she took my hand and pulled me back up so we could touch our heads together again.

“It’s not going to work, is it Christopher?” We knelt together, our heads pressed together, “it’s alright. You should take it.”

With Charlotte’s help – mostly in directing light as required – we took her leg apart and fitted it into my hip. Unsurprisingly, it fit perfectly, so similarly were we constructed. I’d thought it was dehumanising when I removed my own leg, taking someone else’s unneeded limb and plugging it into myself was a much more disturbing step. It felt… wrong. Charlotte had walked a different path to me, worn her joints differently and I could feel the difference – familiar sensations in my right leg, and in my other right leg it felt like the sensations were slower, subtly dreamlike. My feet looked weird. Instead of toes we have a flexible plastic pad that fringes the front of each foot, it made our feet look like we were always wearing socks. I couldn’t reverse that, so I appeared to have two right feet. There wasn’t enough ceiling room for me to try walking around, but I imagined that would provide its own challenges.

The damage to her arm was beyond my meagre toolkit, so we agreed to remove that as well. Charlie’s face looked up at me from the tool bag whenever I reached for another instrument. At least Charlotte wasn’t reduced to that extent, yet.

“We’re going to have to leave here,” I said.

“And go where? The habitat is gone. I saw that much before you dragged me down here.”

“I wasn’t sure if you would remember – you weren’t in great shape when I found you.”

“I feel much better now,” she quipped.

“Funny. Do you think we found things funny before all this?”

“Maybe there’s more to laugh about when there’s nothing left.”

“Maybe.”

“So what’s the plan Christopher?”

“At the top of the cliff – it looked like the rest of the structure was still there. The garden ripped free. That means there’s somewhere for us to go.”

The look on her face told me what she thought of that plan, and yet…

“Alright. But you’ll have to leave me here. You can’t carry me up that cliff.”

“I’m not leaving you behind.”

I had a plan.

 

We stayed in the cave all night, not that I could tell from the isolation of our hiding place. The children were our clock. As one they rose and disappeared back up the black tunnel, all except Julia, who stood by the exit, apparently waiting for us. Getting back out was nearly as bad as getting inside, though there were two fewer limbs and I could crawl properly. Outside the light was the pale mauve of early morning. I carefully peered out of the burrow. All clear – the black spikes had retreated into the ground. I certainly couldn’t pretend they didn’t move around of their volition any more. We stepped fully into the open, myself and Charlotte. The only solution to her mobility I could think of was to lend her mine. With no legs and one arm I’d been able to remove significant portions of her torso without doing her any damage, reducing her further to upper torso, arm and head. Then I had taped her to my back, with a generous spray of epoxy for safety. I’d positioned her slightly to one side, so she looked out over my shoulder. I would walk for both of us. Well, I’d try anyway.

The children followed us around the edge of the wreck. I was curious about whether they would stay with us as we attempted to climb around the cliff. I planned to follow the same route Chelsea and I had originally – it skirted the sheer cliff itself but would still present a significant challenge with my new leg and top-heavy weight. I didn’t see an alternative though.

“You’re thinking about Chelsea,” Charlotte said, directly into the back of my head.

“I am.”

The children had shown no inclination to dive back into the rubble and locate Chelsea. While I hadn’t expected anything of them in particular, that would have been a nice gesture. I could scrape through the remains for days and not find her, even if the wreckage didn’t shift and bury us all. For now – for now, I promised myself, it was only for now – we needed somewhere secure, somewhere safe. And some answers to questions we had been avoiding since we were activated. While it was Chelsea who had wanted to know the truth, it would be Charlotte and I who would get them. And then, when it was done, when we were safe, we would come back and find Chelsea, and the rest of Charlie and put our little family back together. But first, we had a cliff to climb.

The new leg was really weird. It made me veer to the left constantly. I’d never given much thought to my locomotion before, hadn’t needed to, it just worked. Now I had to consciously move in a straight line, my feet feeling fat and heavy. Chelsea’s weight was easier to adjust to, although catching sight of her arm moving around in the corner of my vision gave me a few scares as we climbed. The children followed us after all, easily scampering up the slopes and eventually they waited for us to join them at the top. While I had no way of being out of breath, the climb had taken it out of me. Charlotte had suggested I rig our power together, which had proven a little worrying, but now I had two panels of lights on my stomach, still hovering in green. My concern had been that the extra strain would wipe us both out, but unless I’d screwed up the wiring we were going to be alright. Not that I had a way for us to refresh, but that was very much a problem I couldn’t solve from out here.

From the top of the cliff the plain stretched away, the installation lying whitely against the ubiquitous grey dust. It was much larger than I’d realised before – what Chelsea and I had seen from the outside, in the growing dusk was just the broken end of a complex that stretched out for at least a mile. Various containers, torn open corridors and hab modules had shifted closer to the cliff edge during the quake that took our home away. The nexus of pressure doors we had used before now hung partway over the cliff, the still sealed door to the garden looking quite dangerous. And, while the black spikes at the bottom of the cliff had vanished overnight, the plain up here was still studded with them. They looked relatively benign in the daylight, more or less vertical, their shadows dispersed. I still didn’t want them anywhere near me.

The door we had used to get in last time was still there, still worked. I stepped into the airlock and turned to seal us in and let it do its pressure change, but Julia stood in the doorway, her little clan clustered behind her. I didn’t want to just leave them outside – they were plainly afraid of the night and whatever it was that haunted the darkness. I supposed that they were also going home, though I had no idea why they had left in the first place, unless it was to seek us out. Maybe that hadn’t gone as well as anyone would have hoped. I moved to one side, and the seven of them squeezed their frail little bodies in around us.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” asked Charlotte.

“No. No I’m not.”

We cycled the airlock and it opened into the pressurised hub. Again, I wished I could breathe so I could take a really deep breath, and enjoy an equally deep sigh. The return to air was enervating. Even the children seemed brighter for it, considering they were dead and all.

“That feels better,” I said, “and now you don’t need to head butt me to talk.”

“I was beginning to enjoy that,” replied Charlotte, “good climbing. Now what?”

I could only be honest: “I have absolutely no idea.”

Open Boxes – Part Twenty-One – NaNoWriMo 2016

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


open-boxes-5

Walking is difficult. According to the manual it’s an especially complicated mechanism, for real humans and weirdly, even more difficult to engineer for us. The trick of remaining balanced while moving on two legs is not easily learned. I was discovering that doing it with only one working leg was even harder. The repairs I’d effected had immobilised my knee, but the ankle was still doing its own thing and my hip joint barely paid me any attention. It made for ungainly progress, and left stranger tracks behind me. The left leg seemed to want to go in circles, with the hip and ankle dealing with a dead straight pole between them. It was the sort of movement you wanted to see rotoscoped, to get a proper view of it. That thought distracted me from the awkwardness of blundering across the plain. And the pain of course. Having removed my leg I’d managed to break the nervous connections, which explained why my ankle was on its own, but the constant jarring was doing the rest of my battered body no good. At least I wasn’t bleeding any more. A small prize from falling off a cliff. I kept casting about for a handy length of anything I could use as a crutch, but the mangled junk before me was unhelpful. I felt slow and vulnerable.

The debris field spread out before me, the contents of the garden thrown over the plain, rocks that had bounced, denting down the cliff, smashing glass, plastics and twisted metal in plumes that radiated out from the sandwiched mess of the domes. A depressing sight. Not as depressing as having to remove my own leg though. I’d always been aware that I wasn’t human – we all were – but we’re set up to behave like we are. We had plenty of scrapes and bangs that we’d patched up just like people would – with glue and tape – but being able to remove a limb and then click it back in… That made me feel different. I was no longer entirely convinced that it was my leg. If I could just take it on and off what made this one special? Charlie’s head nudging me in the back where my tool bag rested gave me a similar feeling – as if I floated above my body, this cloud of consciousness that only lightly rests in these physical chunks of moulded plastic. I’d kept his head for a number of reasons, not all of which reasons that I had thought through. Earlier I’d planned to put it in storage somewhere safe, in case his body turned up. That was now even less likely. I had nowhere to put him, so I carried him. But if should find his legs, I could swap mine for his. That was assuming he had no further use for them… The manual wasn’t big on reattaching heads – it was more of the view that they shouldn’t be detached in the first place, to which I was of course sympathetic. It was a deeply wrong way to think about my friends. I was certain that humans did not think of each other’s bodies this way. Their body parts were far less easily exchanged. That made me wonder about his head, whether if I removed mine and put his on my body the resulting chimera would be him, or still partly me. I strongly associated his existence and life with his head – it was the part of him that was different from me. We had given each other faces to elevate ourselves from the homogenous design we were provided with, and that had enabled further self-creation and self-deception. My identity, and sense of self as a ‘thing in a body’, nascent as it was, was under some assault from my recent experiences: I felt more fragile than I had before, which seemed odd, since I had survived a fall that I was certain would have killed an organic being. Surely that should have empowered me, but our structural connection to humans made me feel more an alien in my body; an alien masquerading as human. Maybe not even doing a very good job of it. Every broken body part and just standing out here in the pitiful local atmosphere confirmed my lack of humanity. The nearness of my escape made me feel vulnerable too – so close to destruction and the death I’d given little proper thought to before. Add to that the loss of our home, loss of replenishment, probably my friends and the prospect of further earthquakes (I was trying, very hard, to not permit other, more terrifying causes into my mind), we’ll, perhaps I was right to feel both strong and weak at the same time.

Overall, I wasn’t enjoying my stagger across the dusty plain. Another matter was causing me some concern as well. The six dead children that had appeared after Julia brought me my tool bag had watched me get to my feet and fall over several times without moving from their cross-legged pose in the dust. As soon as I’d gained most of my balance and begun swinging wildly forward, they had begun following me. I knew this not because I could hear them – the atmosphere is so thin that sound is a joke – but because I kept turning round to check on them. They were all neatly strung out, single file behind me, headed up by Julia. There wasn’t a lot I could do about that, and frankly, they were the closest things I had to friends right now. Allies, perhaps. I wondered if they had also survived (not the right word) the fall or if they had managed to slide down and through the corridors to Charlie’s airlock. Made me wonder if any more of them had remained intact. Would they all be my friends?

I kept on trying not to fall over.

I finally grew near enough to the domes to separate the heavily grey-dusted rocks from the heavily grey-dusted ruins of the habitat. What had looked like a mess from a distance was worse up close. All four domes were clearly torn open, either through friction or being crushed. No lights flickered in their interiors. No surprise, given how much of our power had been routed from the garden, which had naturally taken the biggest hit. While I’ve never seen a real egg, there was a three-second clip I retrieved from a media tablet which showed them falling to the floor. I have no idea why, whether it was educational or for entertainment, but the image of them cracking and their contents oozing out replayed in my mind as I surveyed the damage. The gentle rain of dust from the cliff continued, making the surfaces blur. The dome of the garden lay flipped over on top of my old familiar upside down dome – had crushed it flat as far as I could see – its base torn open revealing the snarls of framework and foliage within. If my friends could be found anywhere it would be there.

The children had stopped with me, fanning out behind Julia into a V. They watched me with eyes that were dull and listless, but their heads tracked me as I rooted through the debris for a walking stick. A minor victory, but a victory nonetheless, as I located a pole which I suspected had been the one that put a dent in my head. There certainly seemed to be a corresponding dent. With my prop in hand I climbed through the gashed open wall of the garden. Inside grey dust competed with brown earth, green leaves and the sad remains of flowers. It was possibly the most disheartening thing I had seen. The frames which the trees and vines had been trained to grow through and around had been torn out of shape, now filling the space like a three dimensional maze of razor sharp black twigs, vomited out of the breaches in the walls – the furthest reaches of course scattered all the way out to where I landed. Turning back I realised it wasn’t terribly far, I had just been very slow. I was reliant on what passed for daylight, and the shadowed reaches of the now impassable jungle were utterly black. All I could do was edge around the wall of the dome, peering into the crosshatched shadows for a glimmer of anything. Nothing moved.

Utterly silent, the only sounds I heard were of an internal trickling I’d mostly tuned out and the vibrations of my feet and stick scraping against the once-roof, now floor. I jumped, and almost fell as the children appeared by my side, their hideous lightness hiding their approach. Without a glance at me they disappeared into the jungle, their smaller bodies able to dodge most of the sharp edges and dart under precariously balanced wreckage. Perplexed, I continued my slow circumnavigation of the garden. At best things were just broken, at worse, the crash had smashed them beyond recognition. Junk from the sideways dome had tumbled into the mess of the jungle and it was hard to tell anything apart – I could see a table, or a cupboard, panels, but anything small was presumably lost, filtered through the mesh of rubble into its dark guts. Julia reappeared – more considerately this time, but no less abruptly – looming out of the dark before me. Her dangling right arm was gone now, I guessed it had been torn free by her exploration. The spray of tendons and muscle fibres made her look as if she was falling to the left; I knew how that felt. She paused for a moment, until she had my full attention and then vanished into the dark again. Odd. She turned up again a few moments later, turned back to the dark and waited. Ah. Very, very cautiously I followed her into the darkness.

I was operating blind – fractured light passed through the porous surface of the ruins but faded away within a foot – I couldn’t see an obstacle until I had hit it. There were a lot of them. Julia either didn’t realise I couldn’t see, didn’t care or was unable to process either concept, but she did go slowly and I tapped tentatively before my feet with the stick and oh so carefully with my free hand in front of my body. The mangled structures seemed to have jammed themselves into what felt relatively secure, though not so much that I sped up. Finally, Julia stopped, and I felt her brush by me. I still couldn’t see anything. My mental equivalent of a heart leaped when Julia took my hand and pulled me down to the ground. Kneeling clumsily, I felt about, still half expecting some toothed nightmare to seize my arm, or just for the whole place to fall on me. My fears were very active. Perhaps it was being led into the dark by a dead child that did it. My fingers touched something – many things – scraps of bark, pebbles, unknowable objects and finally… fingers. An absurd hope that it might be my missing fingers and I would be able to reattach them… A hand, and an arm, a shoulder, head. I tapped on the head. Nothing. That would, I suppose, have been too easy by half. I had no way of knowing if it was Chelsea or Charlotte, or even Charlie’s body, since his had to be somewhere, and why not here, lost in the dark? With agonising slowness, exacerbated by having one working leg, a walking stick and just two fingers on one hand, and a terrible fear of causing a collapse, I dragged the body out into the light.

Time changes in the dark. I’d noticed it before – the time we spent outside the domes foraging went faster – the night was so much quicker to come when we were closer to it. Protected by the electric lights our time was slow, bound only by the regularity of our refresh cycles. Hunched over beneath tonnes of rubble waiting to fall on me felt like it took forever, but I was unsurprised to find the light was already fading as we emerged from the tangle. Julia and her friends were waiting for me – I hadn’t even realised she had gone, I was so focused on the task. It was Charlotte. I’d found someone. A leap of joy inside me, sudden reminder that I was not alone (I still wasn’t counting the children) and that maybe, maybe everything would be alright. She showed no sign of awareness. When I pulled up her now ragged jacket the lights on her abdomen showed mostly green, but that only told me that I hadn’t been unconscious for long myself – we had all been at a similar state of refresh before the crash – and hers was undiminished. It told me little about her physical condition. My eyes could do that. She had been thrown around during the fall – her right shoulder was crushed, along with her upper arm and hip. Her left leg had been lost somewhere in there as well. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but I guessed that no matter what, I wasn’t getting a new leg anytime soon. But her head and most of her abdomen were intact – dented – but whole.

I opened the manual again.  It was a dehumanising process, both for me, and for Charlotte as I levered open panels in her ribcage and neck, prodding with my most delicate tools for internal responses. Was this what death looked like, for us? How much would I have to do, to try and test, before I reached that conclusion? And if I couldn’t fix her now, would she, like Charlie might, have some future chance of coming back? I wondered what news they would bring, or if it was the total void that I imagined. Would being reactivated bring a flood of sensation and data that filled the gap between wakefulness, sudden ending and the return? Visibility was dropping further so I dragged Charlotte out of the garden entirely where no shadows could be cast over us by the ragged walls. Nothing was working. Charlotte was draped across me as we sprawled in the dust, and I held her in my arms. That spark of hope I’d had when I pulled her into the light was fading away. A very slow, distant vibration had begun in the ground beneath me. I hoped it was just aftershocks, but not strong enough aftershocks to bring more of the cliff face down on us. We were still well within range of an avalanche.

The manual showed me diagrams of our bodies splayed open, overlaid with grids and endless arrows identifying components, switches, all of the things that made us work. I had a screwdriver delicately balanced between my left thumb and ring finger, probing into the thin gap between Charlotte’s eye socket and ear, trying to feel what the manual insisted was there. A shadow fell over my shoulder, blacking out Charlotte’s face. I thought it must be one of the children.  They had returned from their survey of the dark underside of the ruins and then settled in the dust cross-legged again, patient as I worked. Perhaps they had grown impatient or curious. I shook my head and turned around, wondering which of them it was, or if Julia was still the only one who would deal with me directly.

There were no children behind me. The shadow was cast by a spike of black rock which thrust up out of the ground some twenty feet behind me. In fright, my hand slipped – the blade of the screwdriver carved a groove out of Charlotte’s cheekbone before finding purchase and digging in under her eye. As I wrestled to get myself out from under her, and get a better look at the black spur of rock that I would have sworn wasn’t there earlier, she jerked awake, frightening me even more. Her first words were lost to me, though I could see her mouth opening and closing. I placed my chin directly on the back of her head, hoping that the contact would allow her to hear me.

“Charlotte – Charlotte – it’s me, Christopher,” I said, “you’re alright – you’re safe – “ I reconsidered, “okay – you’re a bit banged up, um, and I know this is rather sudden, but we really need to go.”

Charlotte’s head lolled horribly on her neck as she first took in in the sight of our devastated habitat, then her missing leg and ruined arm.

“I know,” I said, “mine are a bit like that too.”

The shadow was creeping further across our bodies as we lay there. Those shadows had scared me before, when Chelsea and I had had somewhere to go, but now we had no refuge. I leaned back to get a better view and saw that it was not the only rocky claw that had appeared – the crash site was ringed by them – whether they were growing, or it was the light dimming further that made them seem to grow I didn’t know.

“We’re going to stand up – I know it’s going to be difficult, but we can do it,” I said, hoping that panic wasn’t filtering into my voice, as with every moment that shadow grew longer. Charlotte produced a series of clicks and a whine that became a strangled scramble of scream and consonants rapping harshly against each other.

“Christopher,” I deciphered, before we lost contact as I got my feet back under me and pulled her up too.

The children had disappeared. They didn’t like the shadows either I guessed. I noticed that the dust had begun to swirl in tiny vortices again. This was all far too familiar and I had to fight the rising sense of panic as it crawled up from every point of my body, even the broken ones. Charlotte was almost standing, her one leg loose in its socket, propped up by me and my walking stick, and with one arm tight around her waist, I forced us into a grim march. The only shelter we had was the ruin of our home. Our awkward advance stalled when Julia showed herself again. I had to hold Charlotte tight to stop her from pulling us over, and I doubted she could hear the reassurance I tried to shout at her that were lost in the inches of dead air between us. When Julia ducked back down to a dark hole leading under the garden dome I didn’t even hesitate – I just propelled Charlotte and myself down it.