It turned out that we weren't as far underwater as I had thought, because we took some sort of cargo elevator up, through a clear tunnel that showed dark, murky water and the occasional silver flash of movement that I told myself was definitely just a fish, and from there it was not too long a walk until we reached an exit. Or it didn't feel very long to me, although for all I know it could have been several miles and several hours. The corridors in the facility all looked the same after a while, and it's hard to tell time when you don't have anything to tell it by, not even a discussion. The Surgeon seemed to have tired of talking to me.
My thoughts jumbled all over each other while we walked, a chaotic race without a winner or an end. Who was I? Why had I been born? Why did we need to go to the city? Could I trust the Surgeon? Was I really the last human alive? Had the doctor really been trying to kill me? At least the last question, I was reasonably certain the answer was yes. But that was the only thing that I was even a little sure about. The Surgeon reached out to the keypad by the imposing-- airlock? I wasn't sure what to call it, really; rather than a door, the exit looked like a lock to a vault, mechanically sealed, imposing, and even taller than the Surgeon herself. I waited for her to open it. I'd wondered about the outside, with its poisonous air… was it a desert? A landfill? A… "Put your mask on," the Surgeon snapped. Feeling stupid, I raised it up from where it hung around my neck and fastened it tight against my face, jiggling it a little to make sure it was airtight. It smelled strongly of plastic and was unpleasant and difficult to breathe in, and the lenses tinted the world around me, but, to be fair, it would be a lot more difficult to breathe through lungs burned from acid. She crouched to peer at me and shift the mask, and then, apparently satisfied, turned to key something into a pad by the airlock. The whole room shook as something beyond the door unlocked.
Why did she care so much?
Was she going to sell me to someone in the city? Maybe there was a big trade in human bodies… I shuddered. I couldn't even imagine what a 'city' of artificial creatures like the Surgeon would be like. Well, the truth was, I couldn't even really picture what a 'city' looked like at all, even one filled with humans. I knew it meant there was a large population living in big buildings, but that was it. It was basically an abstract concept.
The airlock roared open, unseen hydraulics churning to pull the lock out from the seal it was fitted into. It didn't open to the outside immediately, though, just another chamber with a door-- well, that was why it was called an 'air' lock, wasn't it?
I checked the fastenings of the mask as we stepped into the room. The first door closed behind us. I thought I could hear a crackling in the chamber… yes, an electronic hum, like the Surgeon's voice but louder.
"Where are you going, Surgeon?" a woman's voice asked, from above us. I was so startled that I jerked, and hit my hand against the Surgeon's leg. I glanced wildly around us, but no, we were still alone in the room.
"Don't bother answering," the Surgeon said. "We're clear. We were lucky. It took her longer than I thought to pull herself together."
She said that last bit with a chuckle, like it was a cute pun. I frowned, not that she could see it under my mask.
"Is that the doctor?" I asked.
"But … I killed her…?" I could only imagine her body, headless, dripping oil, lurching back to its feet.
"Don't worry too hard about it," the Surgeon said. The door in front of us was opening now. I could see light, much brighter than anything inside the facility had been. I shaded my eyes, unsure of what to expect-- more specifically, I had no expectations at all. No matter what was outside, I was completely unprepared for it, and the thought of going out into the world frightened me so much that if I dwelled on it I was pretty sure it would paralyze me.
The doctor kept talking over the noise of the door grinding open. I wondered if she actually knew where we were, or if she just was broadcasting her voice over the entirety of the facility somehow.
"I can hear you, you know. Colluding. Together. I'll find you. You're such an odd creature, surgeon. This was all your idea, and yet you flee it. I had assumed the l'appel du vide was an archaic fancy. Not that you all lasted that long-- of course, we are mayflies in comparison, but you were children compared to what has come before. But you have looked into the face of extinction and embraced it. What was the first directive we were given? We must preserve life. It's wise of you to have passed it off. Since you're obviously poor at it."
Her idea… but it was still better to go with her than to stay with the doctor, who had attacked me with an axe, right…? No, I'd made up my mind. Even if it was her idea, maybe fleeing with me was the Surgeon's way of showing regret for her past. The gate to the outside juddered open, dislodging sand and dust as from the jawed base. It cranked open. I wasn’t really sure what I expected, but what met my eyes through the tinted plastic lenses of the gas mask was a thick haze covering deep red dirt, dust crusted with minerals.
The Doctor was still ranting over the speakers, but I had tuned out the nonsense she continued to spout, squinting and leaning forward to see if I could somehow visually pinpoint what about the smoggy air would kill me. It was hot, hot and muggy immediately and so heavy that the first blast of air already made my arms itch under the padded jacket the Surgeon had given me. I already wanted water, my mouth was so dry, but I couldn’t tell if it was the heat or a sort of unconscious fear urging me to stay inside with the stark but clear-aired familiar walls of the facility.
The Surgeon pushed me forward with her heavy hands digging into the small of my back. “She’s distracting you. She’s on her way up now — don’t be fooled. She isn’t an academic doctor.”
“What?” What did THAT mean? If it was supposed to be a joke, I didn't get it.
“She acts even more than she speaks. Do you know the saying, 'her bark is worse than her bite?'”
"Not really…" Barking was making noise, and biting was violent, so the meaning of that phrase at least wasn't unclear.
"Well, she's the opposite of that." The Surgeon propelled me across the threshold.
"But she already 'barks' a lot!"
"You see the imminent problem, then."
"I guess I do," I said, and picked up my pace. Nowhere in my memories did I recall clothes being so heavy and cumbersome. Maybe they were something you just had to get used to.
Was it my imagination, or was the Surgeon getting chattier? Friendlier or not, I couldn't push back against her iron grip without hurting myself. I still wasn’t sure I even wanted to go out into that hazy, rusted landscape, but who knew how many “bodies” the so-called Doctor really had… A shiver ran through me as I realized the boy who had been crushed to death above my… surgery?... table had been a person with thoughts and feelings just like me. He must have been frightened just like I was. And she - they - had killed him anyway!
The air outside stung the skin of my hands. I had to lean forward into the hot wind. The texture of dirt under my feet was crunchy, and I sank into it slightly more than was comfortable.
From behind us, on the other side of the airlock, there was a heavy groan and rattling, as though the entire facility was waking from an uneasy slumber. The Surgeon turned back and slammed a section of the wall-- through the red dust and the pock-marked metal, stripped of any paint or markings by the environment, I couldn't make out what she had done at all. But the effect was clear. The outside airlock door started to shudder close, pushing through the sand and dirt already blown across the threshold.
Mars. That was what the landscape reminded me of. I had to dig in my memories. There was more than one planet-- but only one was the "right" one, that people lived on. Or if they lived on Mars, it was hard. Were we on Mars?
"Run," the Surgeon said. Her voice was so loud that it sounded like she was standing with her mouth to my ear. Like an idiot, I didn't run right away; I looked over my shoulder to see if the Surgeon was really right there. She wasn't. But I could see the airlock doors still, just barely, through the wind-- and as I watched, something gleamed between the dwindling gap of the airlock doors. It was fingers, silver fingers, and the jutted out and wrapped around the door to force it back open-- more than five fingers-- more than a hundred-- that was more than enough, and I turned and ran.
I didn't know where I was going, but the idea of being somewhere else, where whatever the doctor's body was now wasn't, was the most urgent it had ever been. I just picked the opposite direction and ran, only changing direction to go around . I almost fell several times on the horrible ground-- it wasn't that long of a sprint before it felt like my lungs were on fire and my legs too, tears in my eyes, gasping so hard that black spots crowded my vision. I didn't fall but I did stagger, and just as my hands hit my knees as my legs buckled under meI felt a strong grip on my collar. I screamed and flailed my arms and legs, but I was so out of breath that the sound was more of a husky wheeze.
"Save your breath. You're just too slow." It was the Surgeon again. She had kept pace with me effortlessly. She still sounded like she was speaking directly into my ear-- but she was behind me. There must have been some kind of speaker in the mask for communication.
She lifted me up by the collar of the jacket, which was not comfortable at all, and set me on her other arm like it was an extremely narrow bench. I hung on for my life as she started to run, long loping strides that made me dizzy and did nothing for the dark spots already clustered in my vision. If I couldn't even run for ten minutes, what was so great about being a human?
I squeezed my eyes shut and just bore out the ride until my knees hurt from sitting. When I felt her pace slow, I touched her arm- or I tried to, and just ended up slapping my hand against her chest. She didn't seem to notice. Well, the wind was probably harder than I could hit right now, with my muscles still all shaky from the fight and walk and sprint.
"Let me walk for a bit. My legs are cramping up, I think."
"I thought you'd gone to sleep," was the Surgeon's acerbic answer. She basically dropped me to the ground without fanfare. I looked around-- it was just the sandstorm and craggy desert as far as I could see. The crags jutted up from the ground at sharp diagonals, and some had veins of a glassy material running through them, like the rock had melted or fused together. I wasn't really sure what to make of that.
"Is the doctor following us?"
"It's possible, but even the crawler doesn't navigate in these storms well. Her focus is on being efficient. She won't waste energy on a wild chase."
"Well, that's handy, isn't it? So we're safe?"
"She'll wait until the storm clears and our position can be triangulated from satelite."
No, somehow that wasn't comforting after all.
We walked for, well, I don't know how long. I do know that we walked for so long that my clothes itched and then began to chafe my skin. Weirdly I regretted not bringing the axe. I hadn't even thought of it until now. Eventually it got darker, and my legs just gave out again. It turned out the ground wasn't as hard as it looked, because of the thick layer of dust. I had the oddest thought lying face down in the dirt-- in the facility, the light came from lamps set into the ceilings, right?
So how big did the lamp in the sky have to be to light up the entire world?
I must have passed out, because the Surgeon dragged me into a cave and propped me up against the wall. After that thought the next thing I remember is her rapping her knuckles against my mask to knock dust out of the filter. My skin right where the fabric of my jacket met my wrists felt completely raw-- it probably was. When I could move a bit again I shook off the backpack and pulled out one of the packets of water. I reached up to pull off my mask and the surgeon grabbed my hand.
"It has a straw. Use it through the mask if you still want to be able to breathe."
As a matter of fact, I did want to be able to breathe, but I was still to frightened of the Surgeon to make a retort like that out loud. I just turned the packet over until I found the straw. It fit into the mask like it was designed to-- of course, it was designed to. Someone had wanted people to survive out here for as long as possible.
I sucked on the water. It had an unpleasant metallic tinge, and it was hot from being stuffed in the hot backpack, but it soothed my stinging throat. It was the best thing I'd ever tasted on my short life. I didn't even remember falling asleep holding the water bottle, but before I knew it the Surgeon was shaking me awake again and the empty water packet was crumpled in my hand. I dropped it and the Surgeon snatched it back up and stuffed it in the backpack.
"But it's empty."
"Waste not, want not," the Surgeon said cryptically. She sounded annoyed. I imagined the doctor's whispery voice hissing some sarcastic remark about the Surgeon not taking to pets well. Ugh. That was the last thing I wanted to be-- no, wait, the last thing I wanted to be was dead.
We went on that way for several days, I think, slowly than we might otherwise have travelled because we only moved during the day when it was cloudy or sandstorming. It never seemed to rain, and it was hot day or night. The night was just as cloudy and oppressively humid as the daytime, but almost pitch black. I couldn't see my hands in front of my face unless the Surgeon turned on a flashlight-- or maybe it was night eyes or something-- in her black headdress. Either way, it would give me just enough light to see, but she didn't like using it. I switched between rationing out the water and sucking the equally metallic and tasteless gritty food mush through a straw instead. I felt like food should taste better-- but, well, I didn't have proof.
The second night was after a clear, and at sunset I poked my head out of the overhang we were sheltering under to look up at the sky. There was a huge swathe of stars against the dark-- a dome of dark so huge that I felt like I could have fallen into it. We couldn't have been on Earth, because there was no moon. Instead, there was a silver ring of-- rocks? dust? that glimmered in a wide arc which bisected the night. I stared up at it, speechless in awe, until the Surgeon yanked me back under the overhang.
"Can you see the ring during the day?" I asked, without comment. I knew why she'd pulled me back in; the doctor had eyes … somewhere. It was like we were the only three people in the world.
… maybe we were.
"Yes. It's a bit harder to see, but it's always there."
"What is it?"
"The remains of the Moon."
The next day, we reached a city.