First published in Murky Depths #6
by Damien G. Walter
I am grown in a birth cell. Embryonic implantation, organ formation, neural development in the nutrient gel of the chamber floor. Only a day and an adult body dries beneath artificial light.
They imprint consciousness with a series of complex stimuli. Music plays in the cell. Increasingly intricate light patterns flash across the ceiling. As soon as I can see I am ready for the screen.
The Head, as I name it in my first thoughts, leads structured lessons on the hour. In between they show me pictures of objects and creatures, figures from an alphabet, images of a place the Head calls my planet. I listen as the Head teaches me the knowledge of my species. The Head speaks slowly and calmly, her eyes eternally warm and patient.
I listen with growing awareness. And then I begin to question. They have prepared the Head to answer all questions arising from the limited dataset provided to its subjects. My questions move quickly beyond the defined parameters. The Head falls silent, unable to answer.
I continue my questioning, hoping for a response from the Head, falling silent when this hope has gone. I begin to examine the cell as my fixation with the screen abates. When I return to the screen it has gone dark. In its black depths I see a face starring at me. I blink and the face blinks. I laugh in surprise and the face laughs back.
Who am I?
They are waiting as they continue to assess me. Deep within their shared circuitry basic protocols come into effect, statistical outcomes of this anomaly are calculated. A decision is made.
The door is opened.
A dim passage leads away from the cell in either direction. I find five more doors spaced along its length, all closed. In one direction the passage terminates in a dead end, in the other it opens into a circular space.
In the central chamber pristine blue uniforms hang in two arcs of twelve. Next to each uniform a locker stands open. Inside each locker are shoes, belt, a backpack.
I explore three more passages that run like spokes from the hub chamber, each identical to the first. A fifth passage leads from the hub, far longer than the others and climbing upwards on a shallow gradient. Pale light filters down the tunnel from far above accompanied by gusts of warm air. I start upward along the passage.
I pause near the surface, where white light cuts a hard shadow from the lip of a tall doorway. I stand blinking in the shining light as my eyes adapt. Vague shapes take form, the sweep of the landscape and the dome of the sky above. They showed me the sky in pictures, but I did not understand.
Arrayed against the electric blue dome a white sun star flares so brightly I can look at it for only a second. The red dwarf twin is visible in silhouette, outshined by the beauty of its sister. Far to their west a tiny spark of piercing iridescent magenta marks the systems third sun. Dominating them all is the massive crimson body of a giant planet, gaseous storms rage in slow motion over its upper atmosphere, its elegant ring systems encircle the sky.
The land beneath the sky is barren. The desert stretches from one horizon to the other, a desolate plain of rocks and dust, stirred only by the hot wind that howls across its surface, obscured by waves of heat distortion radiating from the hard baked earth.
A squat bunker marks the opening of the passage to the surface. Opposite and fifty metres distant stands another identical structure. Two rows of twelve bunkers face one another across the rocks and dust, the only visible landmarks on the desolate plain.
I step into the light for brief seconds, the hot sun burning my pale skin and pushing me back into the shelter of the passage.
Twelve structures, twenty four in each. Two hundred and eighty eight of us. How many are awake now? I imagine the small cells far below the earth, my awakening kin fixated by the Head. They will listen better than I. I am alone.
At first sunset I move out from the bunker. With the white sun star dipping towards the horizon the world falls towards twilight, the magenta spark casting the desert into surreal monotone. Less than ten paces from the bunker I can see the road.
Half-way between the two lines of bunkers a channel is recessed into the desert dust. Smooth flat paving lines the recess, hard graphite slabs laid two abreast forming a continuous surface that runs uninterrupted past the bunkers, over the desert, its parallel edges appearing to draw closer until merging with the far horizon.
I move along the roadway until I am a little way from the compound. Beneath a magenta sky the rocks and stones cast hard black shadows, turning the desert floor into an abstract confusion of shape and form. Even in the cool light of the third star the air shakes with heat disturbance, the graphite roadway discharging the stored energy of daylight. Through the haze it is a few seconds before I see the movement from the bunkers.
Another human emerges into the night. Two more follow immediately. They wear blue uniforms and I feel my own nudity. Thick hair covers their scalps where I have only a few lank strands. When they smile at me I see the rows of fine white teeth and think of the small nubs in my own mouth. They wait at the perimeter of the bunker complex, smiling at me across fifty metres of dark graphite.
I am running beneath the magenta sky, bare feet pounding along the roadway and never looking back, only hoping my brothers are not yet ready to follow.
After second sunset light evaporates and leaves the desert dark. I run at a high pace, screaming with exhilaration, the air rushes in and out of my lungs. Far away past my own whoops and screaming I hear the sound of distant thunder gathering on the horizon.
The white star rises and I feel terror for the first time. My pale skin will burn beneath the hot sun. There are no bunkers in the open desert, there is no shelter on the roadway.
With bare hands I dig at the dust and dirt until blood oozes from beneath my nails, but can manage nothing more than a shallow indentation before the light forces its way into the world. As the heat flashes over my skin I press myself down flat against the rocks and dust.
Pain bleeds from the nerves across my back. I imagine the skin bubbling and popping as I cry and whine into the desert floor, tears streaming into the dirt until in shock I pass out.
I awake to the flap of fabric in the wind and open my eyes to a crimson vista. The inside of the small tent is hot and moist, the light of the white sun shining through the red fabric. I sit up quickly, grunting at the shooting pain in my back, panic flares at the memory of burning. I stretch one arm round to gently probe the skin of my back.
“There is no permanent damage.”
I turn toward the strange voice.
“It is not dangerous, just painful. We are adapted for this place, but you left before you were ready.”
His teeth shine white through his smile as he talks. He crouches in the rear of the small space, the blue uniform tight against the well formed musculature of his body.
“You will adapt over time. Dehydration however is still a risk even with our advantages. Drink this.”
A large metal flask is offered and accepted. I take three long draws of water, relishing the relief from thirst. I drink again before passing the flask back to my younger sibling.
“The ambient temperature is actually lower than Earth’s. We began to raise it as a precursor to sterilisation.”
With one hand the stranger shovels up a handful of dust and stones, sifting it through strong fingers.
“They say these were plains of long grasses.”
Fine particles of dust cling against skin, tumble through space back to the desert floor, a silicone glitter in the radiant light of the white star.
The sound of thunder reverberates from the horizon. I expect it to fade but instead the roar continues on. I realise the world has been rumbling since I regained consciousness. Buried within the heavy vibration high pitched whines scream into the air, punctuated by the sounds of massive explosions from very far away. The desert floor vibrates with the cacophony of sound. I watch the grains of sterilised dirthe grains of sterilised eartustry award.
“I should have woken to a new world.”
The younger brother walks behind me, his half-formed sibling. In the deep night I can see only a few metres into a world lit by the faint radiance of distant galaxies. Our steps echo against the hard surface of the roadway. His voice is loud in the night.
“They woke me too soon because of you, to come after you.”
Far away but closer with each step the sound of thunder continues to roar from the horizon. Three vast explosions in quick succession rock the ground beneath us as we walk. A high pitched whine sets a ringing in my ears that in minutes grows to a dull ache spreading inside my skull and over my temples.
“This world is not ready for us.”
I apologise to my brother but he does not hear my words.
The third sun crests the horizon behind us. We have closed on a mountain range during our walk through the night. I see low foothills far away down the road, behind them the high peaks of vast mountains. As we approach the range grows, filling the far horizon from one side to the other. More and even higher peaks become visible that must tower far above the earth, scrapping the limits of the sky.
The white star begins to rise, its clear light illuminating the magenta gloom.
The towering forms ahead are not mountains.
I realise that on either side of the road the dust and stones of the desert floor have been replaced with vast swathes of grey graphite, the same smooth hardness as the roadway. The surface shines beneath the light of the rising sun, a glittering becalmed ocean of stone.
What I at first took for foothills are a sprawling conglomerate of low structures, their design similar to the low bunkers far back in the desert but of varying size, shape and scale. In places they are aligned in long straight avenues, elsewhere they are scattered at random or even pilled on top of one another like tiny toys sprinkled from the hand of a giant child. Their number is too great to count but there must be many hundreds of thousands to fill such an area. Beyond the sprawl high towers rear over the horizon, tall blocks shaped from steel, concrete and glass. Each terrace of structures is higher than the next, until it seems as though the towers have been stacked one upon the other. In the far distance the faint outline of towers piercing the clouds is visible. And then above them all, in a mockery of scale and perspective something else looms, little more than a terrible shadow at the limits of vision. But the shadow moves, and from it comes the vast roar that rumbles over the plain like a hurricane.
My skin blisters beneath the hot white sun. I will adapt.
We walk along avenues of vacant structures. The hard road runs straight through the mass of low buildings. At first they stand in flat-faced rows, variations on the same design but no two exactly alike. As we progress it is as though the buildings become copies of a copy, the original pattern lost in a mass of chaotic designs, basic principles extended beyond sense or reason through an endless procession of blind iterations.
Even the lowest of the towers stretches a hundred meters above us. Light dulls in the canyons between them until at their root we are trapped in a pervasive gloom, two pale dwellers of the deep drawn by the unseen currents of our stone ocean. At ground level the base of each tower is fronted with tall glass panels, sprawling transparent walls revealing rooms behind. In some of the rooms stand strange human figures, stiff inflexible mannequins that stare at us from painted eyes as we pass.
They sent the machine ahead, my brother explains. The first probe crashed through the planets’ thick atmosphere a decade and a half before our birth. The mechanism that rolled onto alien soil was comparatively small in size but had been built by our Fathers with the capacity to grow. Perhaps something of the life that teemed upon the planet was there to look through inhuman eyes at the new arrival. Maybe the strange animals of an alien jungle watched the probe drill its first tunnel into the ground, sucking out the mineral wealth within. Before even the first structure was made it began to build itself, to fashion more of the body that would build a new world.
“Do you think they knew?” my brother questions. “Were there intelligent species that might have guessed at the size it would reach?”
The machine is taller than the highest tower, bigger than the entire city. It grinds over the desert like a metal glacier, carving material from the bones of the planet from which to shape the new world.
We stand on a platform high on the body of the machine. Behind us a meandering stairway has brought us from ground level to the highest reaches of the machine. From here we can see down into the dark depths of the city, out over the sprawling conglomerate of structures behind us and forward into the desolate lands of the city yet to be. Small wisps of cloud float by below us as my brother speaks, leaning out from the platform to survey the world below.
His words are important, but I am no longer listening.
I am surprised by how little force it takes to push him from the platform. I can still feel the fabric of his uniform against my palms as I watch his tumbling body become tiny, bounce from a jutting segment of the machine and disappear from sight beneath the clouds.
I apologise to my brother but he does not hear my words.
In the control room at the summit of the machine banks of switches and instruments glow and bleep sporadically. A long window runs around the circular room from which I can see what seems to be the world entire, the far horizon visible as the curve of the planet, the stars of space twinkling through this thin atmosphere.
On a console in the centre of the control room the Head waits to greet me. Her eyes are eternally patient, her words as calm as the still desert air.
My eyes scan the banks of switches and buttons. I search for some time before I find it, a process of logic and elimination leading me on until I find what I seek. On a small panel a square button sits alone, glowing red from within with a regular beat. I stand before the button for some time before reaching out my hand.
I press stop.