11 - Monsters Too

The buildings grew, monoliths towering above and beneath. Carmen ignored them. Instead, as she hurried along the ledge, she checked the tablet to ensure the path was clear. In the depths, water had given way to rock—a surface that rose, steadily and was soon visible even as the drone hung level with her. While the water was gone, bodies still covered the rocks, more than she could count.

The buildings peaked, and—abruptly—ended. The stumps of shattered buildings lining the path ahead reminded her of pictures of bombed out towns, leveled by conflict. What have I been used for, Carmen asked herself, is this what my father would have wanted?

Forcing her mind away from the question, she sent the drone out ahead of her. Just as it disappeared into the mist, a wall of rock loomed ahead of it. The sight set Carmen’s heart racing. I’m almost there.

Carmen searched for some exit, zooming in on splotches of lichen and banks of moss. Her ledge did not end at the rock face but disappeared through into a cave. She began to jog. The cavern’s ceiling began to curve downwards. The breeze grew stronger, a current of cold air.

She reached the cliff face and hesitated. The cave entrance towering over her was a perfect circle, its edges unnaturally smooth. Inside, a single shaft of life fell from above, illuminating an enormous space beyond. A steady stream of cold, fresh air flowed from within. As her ledge entered the rock face, it broadened.

She glanced back at the city, half shrouded by the mists. I cannot believe I found a way out, Carmen thought, I still need to be careful—there’s at least one creature out there, and this cave does not look natural.

Sending the drone ahead of her, she watched the machine lift past, towards the light. Beyond the rockface lay a huge circular room. A raised walkway ran along its walls, enclosing a courtyard of snow and ice. The drone ascended and she saw the cavern was shaped like a diagonal teardrop—as though caught by a gust of wind. A path zig-zagged up the steep face across the room, narrowing at each switchback until it disappeared through a hole. The drone slipped into the light and hung above in open air. Snow stretched into the distance to its right but to its left were short cliffs capped with snow laden pines.

Finally. She stepped from ice to rock, squinting in the relative darkness. Her footsteps echoed, breaking an absolute tranquility. Rather than taking the path around the edge of the room, she strode across the center of the room, letting the faint white light wash over her.  

Halfway across, she tripped. The tablet skittered across the floor. She looked back, and saw something jutting slightly from the otherwise smooth surface. Brushing snow off it, she found herself looking at the top of a thermos. The dented, scratched thing rattled. She pulled. It slid out of the ground, which she realized was nothing more than a patch of ice. Slipping the thermos into her pocket, she shrugged, picked up the tablet, and began up the path towards the light.    

Ten minutes later, Carmen took her first breath of freezing air. She almost cried. The snow stretched out behind her, and to her right was the island: a small spar of land spattered with pines, diminished by the surrounding snow. To her left was a small cliff, topped by three tall pines, festooned with a brown, papery material flapping in the wind. The Cravens’ nest.

Taking a step forward, Carmen felt the reassuring crunch of rock beneath the ice. The beach; I’m ten minutes walk from the house. She pulled out the tablet, and checked the drone feed. A dark shape was dragging something across the snow, but it didn’t look like one of the creatures. She zoomed in and found herself looking at Chris.

He survived. Tears welled in Carmen’s eyes. She wanted to sprint to him, to wrap herself around him, but all her body could manage was a slow jog. As she crunched along the snow-covered beach she kept her eyes on the tablet, watching him. Chris had seen the drone, and was waving, his feet kicking up snow. He stepped aside, revealing a form on a stretcher behind him.

The drone shifted slightly in a gust of wind, throwing the frame across the ice. She zoomed out, trying to find him again, but even as she did she saw something else. Another shape, dark against the snow and lurching toward the island. She zoomed in. One of the city’s inhabitants was dragging the body of another across the snow towards Chris. Hugging the coastline, she pushed herself to run.

****

Chris dragged Roderick across the snow; the other man had long since gone quiet, asleep or unconscious. The snow had stopped, but the sky remained overcast, its pale grey melting into the white ground. The island with its promise of warmth, and maybe even a shower, hunched a few hundred metres ahead of him. He felt tired, more tired than he had ever felt. His vision blurred and he felt as if he was drifting in and out of consciousness. Yet still he managed to put one step in front of the other.  

The sound of drone engines cut through his reverie. He scoured the skies and saw it. A drone hung above the Cravens’ nests, unmoving. Carmen, thank God—I hope that’s you and not just a machine. He fumbled with the clasps across his chest, dropping the stretcher.He ran towards the drone, waving his arms.

Carmen!” He shouted,“Carmen.”

The drone lurched toward him. It’s her, elation overwhelmed him. His eyes stung. And, for a moment, he just smiled up at the approaching drone, beckoning it in. Then he remembered Roderick.   

“Carmen, I need help,” Stepping aside, he motioned at the stretcher. ”He needs help.”

The machine roared over him. Chris turned. A megapede stood a few metres across the ice, its back to him.

He almost tripped as he recoiled but It didn’t seem to notice either of them. Its gaze tracked the drone. Chris held his breath.

The creature scuttled backwards, and jerked forwards; it seemed to be pulling something, something that glinted just as it did. The body of the other one. It clicked quietly, watching the drone bank around, circling their position. Then it noticed them.

The megapede shrieked, dropped the body, coiled, and rose up, towering over him.

Chris scrambled back. It swayed in place. He stared into its eyes. It glared back.

He saw a glimmer of something, as though the creature was evaluating him. He had the urge to say something, to tell it that he meant it no harm.

The spell broke. It lunged. Chris threw himself out of the way, trying to draw it away from Roderick. He gasped in pain as his left hand struck ice beneath the snow. He forced himself to roll as the creature’s tail slammed into the snow nearby.

He clambered to his feet but the creature was already upon him, grabbing at his leg with its mandibles. The snow cushioned his fall. The creature clung to his left leg, pinning it down. He kicked at it with his right, glancing off one of its eyes. It shrieked and twisted away, leaving his left leg searing in pain.

****

Carmen stumbled, tumbling forwards, plunging into the snow. She threw both arms out in front of her and caught herself, gloves digging into the pebbles. She could see Chris in the distance. He had seen the creature and was stumbling away.

I’m not going to get to him in time, Carmen thought, I have to help him—he doesn’t stand a chance. Her eyes flicked up to the drone hanging above him. She remembered the crushed bodies piled in the depths of the cavern. If Chris can just stay away long enough, I can drop the drone on it. She pulled out the tablet. I have to void the tank otherwise it will explode and kill Roderick if he isn’t already dead.

On the feed, Chris hurled himself away from the creature. He scrambled to his feet, limping away towards the island. Perfect, go, go, go, Carmen thought, maneuvering the drone over the creature. But Chris barely made it three steps before the creature was upon him, seizing him by the leg. Chris fell forwards, and the creature dragged him back. He kicked at its face but it deflected each blow with its mandibles. Shit shit shit, Carmen stumbled toward him. Taking a deep breath she began to cry out.

“Chris, Chris get away from it, the drone—”

****

Chris’s hands scrabbled across snow and ice. The creature had pinned both his legs, and was inching up his body, pinning down each part of him with its innumerable limbs.

Chris,” he heard faint shouting in the distance, “Chris, rrrrr”

Suddenly, the pressure lifted. He sprang to his feet ready to fight, or run. The creature hunched over Roderick. Gently, it ran its forelegs over the man’s shattered legs. It turned to Chris and spat a few clicks and a high whistle.

“Get away from him,” Chris shouted.

The creature looked from Chris, to Roderick, and then to the slumped form of its companion. It brushed some snow from itself, and scuttled a little way off between Roderick and the other’s body. It sat, eyes fixed on Chris, seemingly waiting.

Why did it let me go? He asked himself, edging towards Roderick, It had me, had both of us. Without taking his eyes off the creature, he grabbed Roderick’s stretcher and began to pull. It watched him inch away, clicking quietly.    

“Chris, get away from it—the drone—” Carmen’s voice reached him.

“Carmen,” He turned, “No—”

There was a rising whistle followed by a crunching thud. A hair-raising shriek resounded, echoing across the straits. The creature writhed, propellers blades, and smouldering metal embedded in its shattered shell. It burned, legs scratching its body.

The falling drone had crushed it, almost cutting it in half. Large chunks of wreckage weighed upon it, pinning it in place. Each flailing movement was a circular lurch. Chris watched with rising guilt, it was letting me go.  

The sound of approaching footfalls broke his train of thought. He looked to see Carmen approaching. Her face was bruised, scratched, and her right arm hung, limp, but she seemed otherwise unharmed.

“Carmen thank god,” he said, pulling her into a tight hug. “What happened to you.”

“Later,” she said, shaking her head, “it’s a long story,” she looked over to the prone form of Roderick. “Is he dead?”

“No, just unconscious.”

“That’s a shame,” she replied flatly. Carmen looked over at the still twitching form of the creature.  

Should I tell her it was letting me go, Chris asked himself, no, that won’t help anything. It was, after all, only an animal. Still, they stood with it as it died, writhing at the edge of the straits. It clicked and shrieked, then slumped, still.

10 - Necropolis

A fetid stench—rotting vegetables with a hint of cat piss—woke Carmen. She’d broken her fall on the snow before slipping down the crevasse. Her hands had raked at the algae. Chris is probably... a new kind of pain, deeper, more overwhelming. Not now; she focused on her surroundings.

Inches from her face, the ground fell away. A few feet beyond the cliff, the canyon ended in a wall of white ice covered with strings of vegetation. Something cold and solid lay behind her—another cliff. She was lying on a thin ledge. Another ledge, wider than her own, ran along the opposite wall. Ragged strands of algae lay over her, torn from the bare ice wall behind. Twenty metres above her, sandwiched between ice walls, was a strip of blue sky blemished by wafting black smoke.

Carmen tried to sit up. Feeling the ice beneath her through the torn fingers of her gloves. Pain shot through her left arm. She gingerly touched her shoulder; it was slack, distended. Dislocated. Well that’s just amazing.  

She settled back on the ledge and felt her body for other injuries. Something flat and hard occupied her front pocket—the tablet. Miraculously, the device seemed undamaged. Powering it on, she turned the camera on herself.

Her face was a collage of scratches and bruises. Strips of algae had lodged in her broken fingernails. Otherwise, she seemed fine. I was lucky. She opened the drone control panel and selected one of the observation drones and, lying back, told it to fly to her.

 As the drone flitted over the island she caught sight of the wreckage of Roderick’s shuttle—a gutted hulk smoldering at the end of a black smear. Charred pieces of twisted metal and half burned clothes were strewn on the ice around it. No survivors, she thought, but she knew better than to stare into the sun. Not now, she turned towards the crevasse.  

Her initial plan was to wedge herself between the drone and the wall, and walk out. That plan was a nonstarter; the drone wouldn’t hold steady.

Her dislocated arm ruled out climbing.

She briefly toyed with the idea of hoisting herself out with both drones, but she had no rope, and she doubted anything made from algae would hold. She sat, legs dangling into the chasm.

Something moved in her field of vision. Carmen flattened against the wall, heart thumping. But it was only an algal mat across from her flapping stiffly into the cliff-side, pulled by some internal breeze. She smiled. That breeze has to go somewhere. A tunnel—or cavern—probably leading to the surface. 

She tried to gauge the gap between the two ledges, considering a jump. The space was only three feet wide, the crevasse disappearing down into thick fog. It’s a risk, Carmen thought, but I’m dead either way.

Taking a deep breath, Carmen stood, fixed her eyes on the wall ahead of her, and jumped. Air rushed past her. For a second, she thought she’d missed, that she would relive her fall. Then she crashed through a curtain of algae into darkness.

****

He looked up. Everything above him was grey, fading to indigo at his peripheries. That’s not normal, he thought. He began to wonder what was normal. Have I woken up like this before, he asked, shifting his arm. He was met with a sharp pain; he tried his other arm, pain again. Is this normal for me, he wondered, am I just a person whose arms hurt?  His legs felt numb—not my legs as well—but then again, he realized, everything was numb. Where am I?

Ignoring the pain, he forced himself to sit. He was sitting in an expanse of ice and snow—a frozen lake? The shores were covered in snow-laden pines. It all looked so familiar. Memories flooded back a name—Chris—and a place—Planet 8192.

Above him a trail of smoke cut a sky that was filling with heavy clouds. Something’s burning, he thought, as a breeze filled his nose with an acrid stench. He looked towards the source of the smoke. A smear of wreckage cut across the ice, ending in a smouldering pile of metal. I was in a crash, he realized.

That notion filled him with a panic. Roderick! He scrambled to his feet. Almost immediately an overwhelming onrush of pain brought him back down to his knees. The snow in front of him was blotched with pink spray. Steeling himself, he tried to clench his left hand. The pain became unbearable. He tried to scream, but the hoarse moan that escaped his lips disappeared, swallowed amongst the snow and pines.  

His left glove ended in four bloody stumps—torn fabric matted with frozen blood half covered bones peeking white from within. Chris stared at it, fascinated. It was as if someone had chopped them off with a carving knife.

Though his right hand also hurt, it was intact. Moving each finger raised a dull ache and its stiffness told of an older injury.

Chris looked to the smoke and thought again of Roderick. He may have survived, he thought. He stepped forward. His foot plunged into the snow in front of him and he pitched forward. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to take another step, and another. Gradually, the snow got shallower.

The expanse of ice was unfamiliar, I must be a little bit away from the house. He furrowed his brows and studied the smear of wreckage. It ran southwest so, barring any twists and turns, the house was somewhere north west of where he was. I’ll check the wreckage, and walk back to the house.

A few feet later, he found the first finger. It was lying in a little crater of pink snow. He picked it up. Good thing it’s cold, a part of him thought. Holding the finger, he realized he had nothing to put it in. I need to keep it cold, he thought. He slipped the finger into an empty pocket and scooped up a handful of snow, packing it into the pocket with the finger. Then he continued toward the smoke.  

*****

Carmen fell on her good arm but the impact still hurt. Brushing shreds of algae from her face, she appraised her surroundings. Light filtered through the entrance, revealing finely chiseled walls arcing around her. The tunnel was over four metres wide but her head grazed the ceiling. Its floor sloped downwards, disappearing into the depths. A breeze flowed over her, originating from somewhere deep in the darkness.  

Taking a few paces into the tunnel, she called the drone in after her. Its searchlight pushed her horizon out hundreds of meters ahead of her. The distances became a glistening spiral. 

Carmen coughed—the exhaust had already began to choke the air. She would have to keep moving. Otherwise she would suffocate then freeze. She began to walk.

All natural light faded. Carmen trudged through the tunnel, pushed on by the searchlight and smog of the drone that tailed her.  

Gradually the tunnel flattened out. Heartened, Carmen strained her eyes, searching for a sign that the passage curved upwards. But an ascent failed to materialized and, as she walked on, she began to worry that it led nowhere. She scoured the darkness ahead for some glimmer of hope. Pushed on by the rising stench of the drone’s exhaust, she stumbled deeper into the bowels of the glacier.  

After what seemed to be an age, a faint glimmer of light winked in the distant. Carmen picked up her pace, forcing herself to jog, wincing at each jolt to her shoulder. The ice rushed past as she broke into a sprint, the light expanded to embrace her and...

She slid to a halt.

Ahead of her the tunnel ended but it wasn’t the exit she’d hoped for. Rather, the tunnel ended in a small ledge, and beyond that, a cavern. An enormous space stretched out beyond sight on either side and hundreds of meters down to a floor. Columns festooned with algae— resembling enormous, square trees—thrust from the floor, stopping just short of the ceiling. More columns loomed in the half-light, evenly spaced, a grid across the space. Shafts of light illuminated the distances, steaming from patches of translucent ice above. Where they caught on the mist the rays flowed in the breeze.

To her left, the mist and the perfect grid were broken by a jumble of jagged blocks of ice. As she looked, Carmen saw more and more evidence of breaks in the order: toppled columns, chunks of wall and ceiling interrupting the pattern like burns on a text-filled page.

To her right and left, slim paths cut into the sheer walls, disappearing down to the cavern’s floor.

Carmen pulled out the tablet and stepped aside. The drone roared into the gulf, leaving a tangle of turbulence in the mist. A full thirty seconds later its echoes returned as a whisper. By the wind speed and vector readings of the machine’s instruments, the breeze seemed to be coming from ahead, and to the right.

She took the rightward path.

The first section of the cavern floor she came upon was a maze of ice boulders, strewn with lank, algal mats. She clambered over the jumbles of rounded ice—the remnants of shattered columns, melted together, fusing into a frozen waterfall. In the cramped, switchback alleys, the stench of algae drifted over everything, the matts tangled in the melted rubble.

The debris petered out. In the open cavern, boulevards flanked by columns stretched out on either side and ahead. From below, the scale of the columns was clear, each reaching hundreds of meters into the heavens. She listened, other than the whisper of the drone the cavern was silent—a familiar silence. It’s like a library, she thought, the quiet and orderthis is far too neat to be natural. Each column was almost the same height and width. Each had the same fur of algae.

Frowning, she pulled up the left cuff of her coat and the sweaters beneath, and rubbed her skin against the ice. Within seconds, she began to itch. A smattering of small red blisters spread across her wrist. Alkaline burns, she thought, that’s why there’s so much algae. A warm breeze caressed her face, filling her nose with the heavy stench of rotting eggs —Sulfur dioxide? No that would react with the lithium hydroxide, something else. The air was too warm to have come from outside. It was negative twenty on the surface, if the temperature had not dropped further. However, this wind was barely below zero. What if that breeze wasn’t from outside, but from somewhere else?

She examined the drone feed. It was flitting over a continuous grid of columns. Here and there, fallen icebergs marred the formation, columns tumbled around the gigantic chunks of ice like toppled bowling pins. Ahead, the cavern’s roof and floor curved toward each other, ending several feet apart. Beyond, the cavern opened into another space hidden from view. Is the exit that way, she asked herself.   

As the machine approached the brink, Carmen began to notice irregularities in the cliff face beyond. Rather than a gently undulating but basically flat cliff face, the outside edge of both the floor and ceiling dipped in and out at right angles like the spines of books on a packed bookcase.

What is this place? She shivered, and slipped her tablet into her pocket. She dug her hands deep into her pockets, trying to regain some warmth. Her adrenaline was waning and she was more aware each second that if she did not get somewhere above zero within an hour she would most probably experience hypothermia.

As she crept from column to column, she glanced left and right down the lanes for any hint of movement. But the place felt empty. Her thoughts turned back to the creatures. What were those things? FrontEx creations? The creatures ripped a hole in the shuttle, but they couldn’t get in through our door? Then they kill dozens of Cravens, but when the birds break into the house, the creatures just sit back and wait for us to be rescued? If they wanted to kill us, they had plenty of opportunities.

In the distance, the mist had become faintly yellow, the scent of rotting eggs building on the growing breeze. Carmen picked up her pace, jogging between columns, winding around those that had fallen. Her footsteps resounded through the silence.  

When she was only a few dozen metres from the cliff, she checked on the drone. It was hanging where she had left it, a few hundred metres to her left. She eased it beyond the lip. For a moment, glare overwhelmed the feed so she watched the wind speed and direction readings instead. The wind appeared to be coming from below, and to her right. A gust of warm wind raced by her and a stench washed over her. Then it died down. The readings now told her that the wind was coming from above and to the right. The exit is above and to the right, but there was also something below.

Just then the feed resolved itself, and she found herself looking through a thin, yellow mist at a wall of ice. A sheen of water covered the cliff, growing as it disappeared down into darkness below. That’s the far wall, but what about the cavern? She turned the cameras to face back, towards her, and gasped. She stared at the feed, bewildered.

The wall was broken by a kilometer-long gash. The columns beyond this laceration made it look like a mouth filled with needle-thin teeth. A fretwork of ruler straight indents and square, rectangular, and triangular blocks of ice, sprawled on either side of the gap, as though carved by some titanic hand. Here and there the pattern collapsed, overwhelmed by waves of smooth ice, crumbled and crushed by falling chunks of cliff face.

Carmen slid the tablet back into her pocket, and took a step forwards. Crack, Carmen felt the ice beneath her buckle. She ran. Crack, this time it was louder. She felt the ground behind her crumple, giving way as she thrust herself towards the cliff.

Then she was sliding down a chute, her back against ice walls, air whipping past as she careened downwards. She tumbled onto a ledge, fell backwards and found herself looking down into six glittering eyes and a pair of barbed mandibles.  

****

Chris found a second finger at the edge of an expanse of blue ice, lying just a few feet in. Stooping to retrieve it, he followed a vague intuition and skirted the edge of the blue ice, sticking to the shallow snow of its edge. 

He found his third finger at the end of a smear of pink snow at the shore of the blue ice. Now he was only missing his pinky, which wasn’t the worst case all things considered. He tried to list the things he couldn’t do without his pinky but came up short.  

His hands did not hurt. His cheeks and nose prickled, as though brushed by pine needles. He tried to blow into his hands to warm them up but felt nothing apart from the sticky smear of cooling blood. Still he trudged on towards the smoke.

The fire was dying. Each moment, dark puffs of smoke grew lighter, dissipating into a sky now crowded with black clouds. As Chris reached the end of the runway of the wreckage, the first snowflakes began to fall.

“Roderick?” he shouted, “Roderick?!”

He began to run, kicking up splatters of snow as he forced his way towards the rising smoke.  A smouldering hulk loomed out of the falling snow. Fire smoldered within, wisps of dark smoke disappearing into the sky. He veered to the edge of the slush-trail.

He felt as though he was sobering up from a heavy night; his head ached, and the pain in his hand returned in force. Nausea overwhelmed him, he puked. My hand, oh my god my hand, his heart stuttered in his chest, and for a moment he spun. I need to find Carmen, either she needs my help or she can help me.

As he came around the side of the gutted cabin, he saw the creature. It was dead, crushed beneath the wreckage. Only a third of its body emerged from beneath the vessel, its head slumped in a pool of blue liquid, its mandibles slack, all six eyes closed.

Something moved. He narrowed his eyes, scouring the creature, the cabin, and the snow. A grey wormlike thing, a foot long, but almost invisible in the blue-gray snow beneath the creature’s face. It seemed to be waving up at the creature as though it were expecting something. As he watched the little thing sway back and forth, Chris remembered the grey bumps on the creature's back. I don’t have time for this, he turned towards the cockpit.

****

Carmen clamped her hands over her mouth and swallowed her scream. The creature did not react. She shimmied sideways; neither its eyes nor its head tracked her. She squinted.

The space between them looked off, as though she was looking at a screen. Cautiously, she extended her hand down towards the creature. She felt a cold, hard surface which continued to her left, and her right. The creature is dead, she realized, or at least trapped.

She examined her surroundings. A path, sandwiched between grubby walls of white ice, struck out for several metres before ending abruptly in a cliff and, beyond, a space filled with yellow mist. Ruler-straight shadows cut the mist. 

The surface beneath her was clear—though enclosed by the same walls that hemmed her in—a corridor of clear ice dropping into darkness. Frozen in place, the creature legs still clung to the cliff. Beyond it, half-hidden, several more of its kind were suspended in disarray.

Carmen pulled the tablet from her pocket. The drone hovered where she left it. She had it scan for the tablet and walked towards the open cavern. The drone located her as she reached the corners of the white walls. She’d fallen a good fifty metres. But, as she flew the drone towards her, she realized she was on what seemed to be a clear, straight path across the wall.

Carmen stepped out onto a ledge. She blinked in the light and looked around. The ledge she was on ran off into the distance, disappearing into the mists. Chutes led down to lower ledges, cutting halfway into its width every ten meters. Cliffs overhung the ledge turning it into a walkway just tall enough for her to stand. Halfway between each chute downward, chutes leading from above cut the overhanging cliffs. The path ahead, however, was nothing compared to the cliff faces sandwiching it.

Great crystals of ice encrusted the cliff face. Struts of ice jutting into the gulf, arrayed like brickwork. The nearest, extending easily twenty metres into the gulf, was dwarfed by those more distant. Dim in the yellow mist, massive limbs of ice, propped up by gigantic buttresses, stretched halfway across the cavern. What light fell through the mists hit every surface and the whole construction sparkled. It reminded Carmen of an enormous gothic cathedral.

Carmen tilted her head, rotating the view 90 degrees. Suddenly, she knew what she was looking at. The ledge was a road, the ice extruding from the cliff face were buildings. This was a city.

She followed the ledge, peering gingerly down each chute she passed and eyeing the gaps in the overhanging ice. As she passed each jutting mass, she found dark doorways, maws leading inside. But all was empty, all silent. In places, as though struck from above, the builds ended in jagged, shards of ice. Some had clearly broken in the thaw, others seemed to have been swept away. Everywhere there were signs of flood; dead algae clung to the walls and floors and rivulets of ice disrupted every pattern.

Carmen walked for what felt like an age, her shuffling footsteps sowing whispers in the silence. She shivered, digging her hands deeper into her pockets and kept her eyes fixed on her path.  Around her, the buildings swelled and along with them the frozen signs of chaos grew. Here were shattered chunks of building, there were doorways sealed by stalactites of ice. The stench of algae suffused everything, and warm gusts from below brought a swelling stench of decay.  

Pausing by the ruins of what might have been a tower, Carmen sent the drone down towards the cavern floor. The machine descended for a full five minutes before the mists parted beneath and she saw the cavern floor: a lake of dark water, bubbling slightly as though heated from below. Volcanic vent, she thought, probably the same system that heats the house.

As the drone continued to close in, she began to see shapes in the water. Clicking on the drone light she swung it across the surface of the lake. She stared at the screen in horror. A sea of rotting flesh filled the screen. Rafts of bodies, shattered carapaces, and broken mandibles gleamed in the harsh light. Some had clearly suffered blows from great chunks of ice. Others, it seemed had drowned, still more probably just killed by the fall.

Carmen looked from the pile of dead bodies to the city and back. Could they have built this, she wondered, if not them, what? What happened here? But Carmen knew the answer. She had seen the thaw and the lakes on the surface draining into the bowels of the ice. She had seen them die; she just hadn’t known.

****

The cockpit had broken from the craft during the crash. Its remnants sat a few dozen metres distant down a trail of compacted snow. Reaching it, Chris tried to work out the best way in. There was little fire damage but the force of impact had warped the metal beyond recognition. He ran his right hand over the remnants of the door. Thunk, something moved inside.

“Roderick?” Chris called.

“Mr. Beckford!” came Roderick’s muffled reply. “I am so glad you came to my aid. I believe my legs are broken.”

“Okay sit tight, I’m going to try and get you out.”

“Fantastic,” while muffled, Roderick’s voice lacked any strain indicating pain. “I’ll just unlock the door.”

There was the sound of a grating mechanism and a section of dented metal popped open an inch. Through the crack, Roderick’s eyes glimmered.

“Great,” continued Roderick, “I was scared you were one of those creepy-crawlies.”

“Megapede,” Chris said instinctively, he reached into the gap with his right hand and tried to slide the door open, gritting his teeth.  “And I called your name, they can’t speak.”

“Megapede—that’s a great name. You should be a writer or something.” Roderick giggled to himself. “A bright future in advertising, market… marketing.”

The door jerked sideways. The gap opened to a foot, releasing a puff of warm air laced with the acrid smell of burnt electronics. Roderick smiled at Chris, drool dripping down his cheek; his eyes were glassy, unfocused.

He’s either in shock or high on something, Chris thought. Ignoring Roderick’s babbling, he examined the gap where the door slid into the wall. The door’s metal was folded, crumpled. Its width was far larger than the hole it was supposed to slide into. There was no way the door was opening any further.  He turned back to Roderick, who was humming the Repellant jingle.

“Roderick, can you move?”

“I’m afraid not, Becky-boy.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“I’m sorry Beck—oops I did...”

“Shut up, and listen,” Chris peered into the cabin. “I’m going to need to lift you out of the cabin, this may hurt quite a bit.” 

“Oh don’t worry about me, I’m comfortably numbed,” replied Roderick amiably. “Pull me up Beck—ah... I’m really sorry.”

Ignoring Roderick’s earnest apologies, Chris reached down and grabbed Roderick by the armpits, gasping at the ensuing flood of pain. Roderick giggled, and squirmed away from him. Clenching his jaw, Chris tried again, this time gripping the other man firmly.  He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath as another wave of pain hit. Then, propping Roderick on his side, he slid the man out of the cockpit.

It was only when Roderick was fully out of the confines of the cockpit that Chris realized just how badly the other man had been injured. Both his legs hung limply, clearly broken in multiple places. His blood-soaked trousers left a smear of pink across the snow.  There is no way he’s going to be able to walk, Chris realized, and I doubt I’ll be able to carry him.

Roderick gurgled, and chuckled at some private joke, his head lolling back. He’s definitely on something, thought Chris, so there has got to be some kind of medical pack in the cockpit. He turned back and leaned through the door, its metal pressing tightly against his chest. A large case lay open on the co-pilot seat, its contents in disarray. Closing the case, Chris pulled it out.

He rummaged through pill bottles, vacuum packed syringes, alcohols, a series of unidentified liquids, sobriety aid, and spray-on plasters. Come on, there has to be something. He dug deeper. His hand hit metal, a cylinder. He pulled, upending the contents, and found himself looking at two short cylinders of metal wrapped in a thick, synthetic material. A stretcher, thank god.  

The handles extended with a series of satisfying clicks; the material unfurled revealing a rank of straps. He moved the medical case out of the way, and laid the stretcher next to Roderick. Then, taking a deep breath, he pushed the other man onto it. Roderick giggled to himself. He did not help, but he did not try and hinder Chris either.  

Roderick safely secured on the stretcher, Chris picked up two straps and pulled out as much slack as possible. Clasping the straps together, he pulled them over his head and  turned away from Roderick so that they pulled tight across his chest. Then, staring out into the blizzard, he tried to find some trace of land. In the distance, he got the faint impression of pines. He stepped forward, dragging Roderick across the snow behind him.

8 - Storm System

The temperature dropped overnight, falling past negative ten. Chris awoke to find the straits frozen. He checked the observation drone. Grey patches of algae splotched the ice; the frosted pines stood in absolute stillness.

He walked to his studio. An auditorium of eyes stared through the window: Cravens. Dazed, some visibly wounded, they huddled around the pine trunks, wedged between the rock face and the window. Some were dead, others dying.

“Carmen?”  He kept his eyes fixed on the Cravens, listening for her footsteps, “Carmen?”

One of the Cravens looked up. Its beady eyes fixed on his. Carmen opened the office door behind him and its eyes flickered past him, then back to his.

“Chris, when you sprayed Repellant yesterday you sprayed around the side, right?” Carmen asked, quietly.

“Yes, of course I did. I can’t believe you’re trying to assign blame right now. What are we going to do?

“I’m not trying to assign blame. It’s just good to know that the Repellant doesn’t work. Roderick ripped—”  Tap tap tap.

They turned back to the window. Several Cravens had hopped onto the windowsill. The birds peered into the room, faces pressed against the glass. One tapped on the window. Tap tap tap. A small knick appeared in the glass. Carmen inched towards the door.

“Chris we should...”

“Same page,” Chris took a few, long steps backwards.

Tap tap tap, a different bird chipped at  the glass. Amongst the huddle, Cravens turned to watch those at the window. Tap tap tap. More birds hopped onto the window sill. Tap tap tap tap tap. Wings flapped, birds jostled on the ledge. TAP TAP TAP. Webs of cracks spread across the window. Carmen scrambled at the door handle. TAP TAP TAP TAP. The door swung open. Carmen spilled into the hallway. Chris followed.

“Shit.” Chris turned, and slipped back into the room, “Hold the door open for me.”

“Chris!”

Back in the room, Chris ran towards the stack of cases.  The window bowed inward, a mess of shards but held, for now. He could no longer see beyond. The tapping continued.

Chris!

“Just a second—” he fumbled through the cases.

“We don’t have time—”

There was a faint tinkle. Chris froze. He felt a slight gust of cold air.

“CHRIS!”

Then he saw it, the case containing the sobriety aid. It had somehow slipped down the middle of the stack, out of sight. The window shattered, shards cascading to the floor. He skidded out of the door.

****

They sat across the hallway from the studio for a good half hour. Carmen had expected the Cravens to try and get through the door, but they hadn’t. It seemed the Cravens were done.

“All that for the sobriety aid?”

Chris shook his head and, opening the case, pulled up a layer of foam from the bottom. Beneath were ten half smoked joints.

“Roderick just kept on lighting them, so eventually I just started putting them out, and waiting for him to light more.”

“Seriously Chris, Seriously?”

“Oh Come on Carmen. You realize we might die, right. Like have you been paying attention, because I count three close calls for me. If I don’t have something to calm me down I might just lose it like you did before—”

lose it? I am so sorry you had to deal with that. It must be such a pain to be around someone as crazy as I am. ”

Carmen walked to her office. Chris did not follow.

She felt the sting of welling tears, but pushed them down. Instead, she directed the observation drone over the island towards the Cravens roost. The sight of the roost banished any thoughts of Chris’ insensitivity and stupidity.

A gaping hole scarred the nest’s walls. Chunks of flesh and bone spattered the rocks beneath, blood frozen where it dropped. The clearing behind the roost was a chaos of blood, dead beetles, and shredded nest.

“Chris? Chris?” Carmen called out.

He scrambled into the room. Neither of them said anything as she panned over the carnage. Three Cravens, butchered as before, lay spreadeagled in front of their shuttle.

What the fuck?”  

“The Cravens may be the least of our problems. I’m going to pull the other observation drone from mining.”

“Why?”

“The other one doesn’t have enough fuel left to weld the door shut—their tanks only last a week—we need to seal that door, otherwise we will freeze to death.”  

****

As the hours passed, the apartment grew colder, falling below zero by midafternoon. Between the heated floors, and the computers’ heat, her office was the warmest room in the house. They spent that night holed-up next to her computers, bags packed, coats on hand. Neither of them took sleeping pills.

The gas cloud was close, filling the sky and turned the night into a perpetual crimson twilight. Its glow flooded through the window, creeping into every corner. Even facing away from the window, wrapped in Chris’s arms, the light forced its way between her eyelids.

Of course, Chris had no issues falling asleep.

Carmen listened for any sound from the studio. In brief interludes of sleep, she dreamt of hands, peeling away the walls and the frozen air beyond. Each time she jerked awake nothing had changed: no knocking, no scraping, no mysterious weight.

The next morning, the second observation drone arrived. Glad to have something to pass the time, Carmen set about maneuvering the machine into the studio. Chris watched silently, eyes narrowly open. He hadn’t said a full sentence since the previous day but she could not tell whether he was sulking or just scared.

First she tried to come in from above, descending towards the window. But, between the frosted pines and the roof’s slight overhang, there was no space.

Next, she hovered in front of the house and tried to swing around the window frame into the studio. The space was smaller than she realized. What she’d envisioned as a fluid movement turned into a jerking grind.

Jammed between the window and the rock face she juddered back and forth moving an inch each time. A haze settled over the screen, thickening with each passing second, as the drone’s exhaust filled the space. More of the studio lurched into view, illuminated by the searchlight. The rumbling engines had woken a few Cravens but most remained asleep. The flock huddled under Chris’ desk, sandwiched between crates and the computer. Beneath them was the beginnings of a new nest.

Finally, the feed shook, and she could no longer move. A red exclamation mark appeared on the screen. The drone was wedged between the rock and the sill. She sat back, and considered the problem.

I could try and brute force this, and risk damaging the drone, Carmen thought. Or... She cut the engines. The drone dropped. The front end slipped across the window sill, the back slid down the rock. Carmen gunned the engines. The drone skipped over the windowsill into the room.

The Cravens sat, their eyes glimmering in the drone’s light. She kept the camera on them as she edged towards the door. An audience of eyes followed. Taking a photo of the door, she briskly outlined the door frame and directed the observation drone to begin welding. Her view filled with a flickering light. The Cravens squished away from the drone, pressing together, a mess of flapping wings. A grey cloud settled over the feed as the craft’s exhaust filled the room.

“You’re killing them,” Chris said, quietly, then again louder. “You’re killing them!”

“What, no I’m sure they’ll be fine—It’s already halfway done.” She hadn’t considered the effect of the fumes on the Cravens; the only thing she’d worried about was them attacking. The birds scrambled over each other, trying to get away from the drone. They clawed and squawked a jumble of wings, beaks, and bird shit. She felt sick. She switched to forward view, “Just a minute or so more…”

Get it out of there,” Chris yelled, shrilly, grabbing for the keyboard, but Carmen leant her full weight on it, keeping it in place. “Get it out of there,” he continued, “now!”

“Chris we need—”  Chris ripped the keyboard from under her, she slipped forwards, her head colliding with the monitor. “Ow, that fucking hurt Chris.”

“Tell me how to turn it off,” Chris’ eyes were unfocused, his breathing shallow and rapid.

“No.”

Tell me.

“Chris, the temperature is set to drop by 40 degrees in the next three days. We’re losing heat out of that door. We will die. So yeah. If I have to choose between our lives and theirs, I choose ours.”

“There has got to be—”

“Another way? What other way?” Carmen took the keyboard back; Chris didn’t resist. “Do you have another way in mind?”

Chris shook his head, “I’m not sure...”

“Well, while you’re working out this ‘other way’ I’m going to stick with what we have.”

It only took a few minutes to finish the welding but that time felt like aeons. Over the dull rumble of the drone’s motor they could hear the faint sound of the Cravens squawking. Chris breathed raggedly, sucking air through his teeth at each squawk.

As soon as it was done, she slid the drone out of the window. In her last glimpse of the studio, among the fumes she thought she saw the flurry of wings. They survived, she told herself, well, at least some of them did.

She swiveled to face Chris. He sat rigid in his chair, his jaws clenched, his eyes glazed, hyperventilating. For a moment, she wanted to talk things through. Then her head throbbed—sore from its altercation with  the monitor—and that instinct evaporated. She turned back to the computer.  

“I’m sorry,” Chris said eventually,  “I’m so sorry. I don’t know—I’ sorry.”

“I forgive you,” she replied, not knowing what else to say.

In truth she wasn’t sure. Anxiety stalked her, threatening to turn every thought into an avalanche. While she knew he was scared, more scared than he’d ever been, it felt as though he’d checked out. I need his support as well, she thought, I can’t be the person who has to carry all of this, not here, not now.

A faint ding emanated from the computer. Turning away from Chris, Carmen saw a new e-mail from Roderick.

Ms. Villa

I received your message and will be in orbit within sixteen hours. I am sorry to see you have opted to terminate your contract with FrontEx. I have the relevant paperwork for you to sign on my arrival.

Please note that due to an unprecedented winter storm system due to pass over your location, while I will be in orbit by evening, I will not be able to land until midmorning. Additionally, please have your work product ready with all relevant explanations so that I may maintain project-continuity.

Sincerely,

Roderick Foster-Chase

Senior Vice President of Planetary Development and Special Projects

“What does it say,” Chris asked.

“We’re going home tomorrow.”

****

Chris sat in his office chair, swaddled in blankets staring out of the window. Beneath the layers, he pressed on the bruises on his hand, feeling the blossoming pain. It kept him present, grounded. When he played back his last few days events seemed distant, as though he was watching someone else. But he supposed that was easy to say.

His father used to say ‘events never change people, just reveal them,’ and he’d believed him—he still did. But, at the same time he couldn’t believe that this feeling, that crouched on his chest and ate at him, had always lurked beneath the surface.

I hurt her, he thought, how could I hurt her?  It was an accident, came another voice, she understands. He looked over, Carmen was busy loading incriminating files onto a USB and the tablet. She chewed at her lip. Intensely focused on the screen, she didn’t seem to notice his attention; she hadn’t said a word since Roderick’s e-mail.

“I’m sorry,” said Chris, “I hurt you, I shouldn’t—It was—I’m sorry.”

“Chris?” She didn’t look around.

“Yeah.”

“Shut up, and let me work.”

“But—”

“Are your apologies about you or me?”

“What?”

“I already forgave you.”

Chris turned away. Outside fat snowflakes had begun to fall. The sky was blank; the ridgeline across the straits were barely visible behind falling sheets of snow. And still it came, unravelling from above foot by foot, turning the world white. It did not slow as darkness fell, and Chris struggled to sleep.

****

Chris slept in his chair, snoring quietly. In the quiet, Carmen pulled the observation drones from their patrol route and sent them up into the upper atmosphere. There one would strike out for the factory unit and the other would wait for the storm to pass. The planet shrunk away, revealing the full extent of the storm system. Even as she approached the mesosphere—dozens of kilometres above—the vast swirl of cloud barely fit on a single screen. Its eye was easily one hundred kilometers across.

Just like a hurricane, Carmen thought, and glancing out at the dense swirls of snow beyond the window, she felt a pang of fear. As a child, Carmen had heard stories of hurricanes, of the hurricane seasons that had crashed through her parents’ childhoods, forcing them north from the islands as refugees. Most seasons, they’d run out of names for the storms.  

Hurricanes had been the monsters of her childhood, even as the seasons subsided to what people called normality. In that respect her parents had been no help. Her father still got nervous during bad summer rains, and for days afterwards would avoid trees and powerlines in the neighborhood. Her mother would become tight lipped, irritable, and forgetful, chewing her lips bloody. They both told stories of the hurricane seasons of their youth in a compulsive way, as if to say, at least it’s not that bad this time.

With a faint shiver, Carmen clicked off the screen and pulled the blanket tighter around her. This storm is unprecedented, she thought, just like the first of those seasons. The hurricanes emptied the islands. By the time the climate stabilized, a generation and a half had passed, and few had the funds, or will, to return. In the end, many of the islands were bought in whole for resorts and corporate retreats.

7 - Investigation

They had dinner about an hour after Roderick left. By then the retrofit was complete, and her drones had long since resumed mining. While he heated up their food, Chris regaled her with what seemed to be a blow-by-blow account of his conversation with Roderick. She zoned out, staring at the wall above his head and, when he handed her a meal pack, ate briskly as he talked. She finished her food before he was half done.

“Carmen?” Chris tapped her shoulder, bringing her into focus, “Are you okay? You seem tired.”

“I’m not tired. But can we talk about something else? You’re kind of talking at me, not to me.” Chris gave her his wounded puppy look, “Sorry… look I’m glad you had a productive conversation, but...” 

“No, I get it… how did the retrofit go?”

“It’s done.”

“Awesome,” he fiddled with his food “glad that’s sorted.”

“Yeah, the analysis of the documents is still running, it should be done by the morning.” 

“Good, good. What I was trying to get to earlier. I mean, Did I tell—” he paused, and frowned. “Roderick told me that the climate changing is eventually going to kill the Cravens.”

“Seems a little unfair to create a species and then make it go extinct.”

“Right? When I said that, Roderick just replied, ‘All species are doomed to die out.’”

“I suppose that’s true,” Carmen replied, she looked down at her empty tray, pushing little droplets of sauce across its bottom with her fork.

“Oh!” Chris sounded excited, “I asked about the algae. Apparently the firm owns the patent, but has no idea where it comes from.” 

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know, Roderick had a load of different theories including ecosystem contamination, but he also joked about it being like from the planet, which was weird.”

“That is weird,” Carmen frowned, “though, there was algae here before. That’s where the oil comes from. Maybe some of that survived.”

“Isn’t it illegal to seed a planet with an existing ecosystem?”

“I don’t know, maybe?” 

The question nagged at her. She had gotten the opportunity to come to the planet by working connections though, unwittingly. Even so, she had still believed merit had played a part. Now, she wondered whether her debt made her attractive. Maybe FrontEx was just looking for someone they could control.

That night Carmen didn’t take a sleeping pill. She planned to get an early start the next day, however as she lay in bed listening to Chris’s faint snoring, sleep remained elusive. Initially she was beset by a hubbub of competing thoughts, but it all gave way to intense homesickness.

She remembered the reawakening city after a long winter. Schedules came back to her, the rhythm of a day, a week. She remembered how the people flickered in and out her mother’s building like air through lungs. She even missed the sirens, the pungent whiff of warm garbage and piss, guttering streetlights, and drunken arguments that played out beneath her window.

****

Chris woke early the next morning. Leaving Carmen sleeping, he pulled on a coat, picked up a can of Repellant, and took the stairs. He first went to her office and pulled up the feed from the observation drone. The aircraft was above the far end of the island, overlooking the Cravens’ nests. Birds flitted from branch to branch.

In his absence the structures had grown, the birds pushing the drifts of their faeces and feathers to the outside, creating walls for the staircase. By the growing mound of shit, feathers and needles at the base of the trees they’d dug holes in the floor and cleared out the leftover shit and feathers. Watching the birds build, Chris felt a pang of sadness. How can such an ingenious animal be disposable? he thought, is that even a good way to measure whether a species deserves to survive?

The drone passed over the nests. Small, dark forms spattered the clearing behind the pines. Chri tried to make out shapes in the blur. Then he understood. Scattered across the ground, wings spread beneath their bony frames, were the bodies of the male Cravens.

Chris looked away, waiting until he was certain that the drone had cleared the Craven’s roost before looking back. The view swung over the clearing in front of the house, revealing it empty. The trees around the house were still.

Wrapped in thought, Chris went outside.

Overnight the temperature had dropped; it was barely two degrees and each breath left a drifting cloud. Keeping his eyes on the trees around him, Chris pointed the cannister ahead of himself, and began to spray.

Almost immediately, he felt a slight itch in the back of his throat. The Pink clouds ripened the air with a full-bodied, warming smell, somewhere between pumpkin pie and mulled wine. He smiled, thinking of fall back home and stepped into the space between his office and the rock face. Stooped under the pines, he continued to spray.

Pink mist blew back into his face. His eyes and tongue swelled. He could barely see. His throat tightened.  

Chris reeled back, head colliding with low hanging branches. He stumbled to the inner door, fumbled with the touchpad, and, somehow, managed to get inside. Lurching to his studio, toward the cases, he almost fell. Through a thinning gap between his eyelids, he saw the sobriety aid case. He tripped. Cases bounced away across the floor.   

“Chris? Shit, Chris what happened?”

Chris felt a handle of a case and pulled it towards him. He fumbled with the clasp, managed to open the case, and turned toward Carmen’s voice.

Oiye Nyed Du Wrink,” he yelled.

“What?” he felt her hands on his back. 

He jabbed his finger at what he hoped were the vials. Her hands left his back. She took the case from him.

“Tilt your head back,” she said, “open your mouth.”

He forced his mouth as wide as it could go. A thick liquid, peppermint with a metallic aftertaste, poured into his mouth. Almost immediately, his symptoms stopped worsening but it took several minutes sitting, propped up against Carmen for the swelling to dissipate.

****

When Chris felt up to sitting, Carmen left and made tea. Her heart thumped. She’d been woken by the sound of him stumbling through the hallway. Assuming the worst, she’d grabbed the slim, black axe from its draw, and had charged upstairs—a plan that now seemed foolish. What if something had broken in, she thought as the kettle boiled, what could I fight with this tiny axe?

Back in his studio, she found him sitting, inspecting a cannister of Repellant. Chris looked up and smiled, but his face was gaunt, drawn, his eyes set in dark circles.

“Thanks,” Chris said, “If you hadn’t been there, I’m not sure where I’d be.”

“What happened?”

“I went outside—”

Chris—”

“I checked the drone-feed first, and I only went to the clearing outside the house. Someone needed to spray this stuff,” Carmen swallowed her objections. “Turns out I’m allergic to this stuff, trying to work out why.”

“Okay,” Carmen said flatly. This kind of shit is exactly why I wanted him to go, she thought. “Well let’s say no-one goes out without the other person being up. You could have died.” 

“Sounds like a good rule,” Chris sat up. “That sobriety aid was a real help.”

Carmen picked up one of the vials, and tilted it, watching a bubble move through the liquid inside.

“You know what this stuff is, right?” she asked, glancing up at Chris. He shook his head, took a gulp of tea, and winced. “It’s repurposed nanotechnology, old tech, from the last of the Oil Wars. A few drops in a depot could eat enough oil to ground an airforce.”

Chris chuckled, “and now it’s being used so that people can avoid hangovers.”

“Yeah,” Carmen looked down at the vials. “By now it has probably saved more lives preventing DUIs than it ever did as a weapon.”

Chris seemingly recovered, Carmen walked over to her office. Chris followed, lagging behind her, clearly trying not to crowd her. He’d left her computers running and the monitors on which she found profoundly irritating.

Chris sat a little behind her, tapping on the tablet. As he swivelled this way and that on his office chair it squeaked.

“Chris,” the squeaking stopped but the weighty silence told her he was preparing a question  “Just ask.”

“Does the drone store its video?”

“Yes,” replied Carmen. “Well, about a week’s worth.” 

“Can I access it from this tablet? I just think we should review the footage from the ExoGenetics facility, see if there’s anything we missed.”

Carmen hesitated; there was no way of giving him access to the video without also giving him the ability to control the drones. Something within her rebelled against that notion.

“I’d have to load the program onto the tablet…”

“Well… one of us should review the footage.”

“You’re right.” After a moment’s hesitation, she took the tablet and turned back to the computer, “Give me a few minutes.”

She copied the program onto the data drive, and loaded it onto the tablet. But, before handing the tablet back to him, she loaded the program and hid all the controls for the drone. He could still do it, if he tried, but she doubted he’d know to look for it.

“Just click here to rewind,” she jabbed at the screen, “here to pause, here to skip forwards. There’s a search function for date, and time, if you want to skip around.” 

“Got it. Can I zoom in?”

“Yes, but it will get blurry.” 

“Cool.”

Chris began to jab at the screen. Feeling somewhat guilty, Carmen turned back to her computer. Overnight, her program had finished identifying differences between Roderick’s files and their own. She pulled up the results of the analysis on the leftmost monitor, opening their library and Roderick’s on the center and rightmost monitors respectively. There were over 11,000 points of difference. She sighed, it was going to be a long day.  

*****

It took Chris about half an hour to find the footage from ExoGenetics—the date and time search function worked on Earth dates, and it took near ten minutes for him to do the math. He could, of course, have asked Carmen, but her sullen silence and glares at each squeak of his chair, told him she was best left alone. Eventually, though, he pinpointed the moment and the drone began moving down the ExoGenetics hallway.

For the next few hours, Chris was glued to his screen. He played the footage in thirty second chunks, playing each section back again and again in slow motion and real speed. Each time he thought he saw something, he froze the frame and zoomed in on it, crisp footage transforming into a blur of fat pixels.

The first thing he discovered was that the tracks cutting through the dust started at the front door. They cut to-and-fro down the hallway, dipping in and out of each open door. Chris tried to study them but, between the darkness and the pixelation, he couldn’t make out any details.

Halfway down the hallway, as the drone’s light swung into an open room something moved in the darkness. It was the barest shift in the shadows. He skipped back and pressed play, eyes straining against the gloom. There was no denying it; something was moving. A shape, a large shape, jerking or scuttling away from the drone’s light. A cold feeling that seemed to eat all others overtook him.

“Carmen?” He tried to keep his voice calm, but her name came out tight and anxious. She turned, away from her screens, “Take a look at this.”

He showed her the clip, and when it was finished, she asked him to play it again. Her expression grave, she kept her eyes fixed over the shadows. She watched the clip a third time before saying anything.

“I’m not sure what that is, but it doesn’t look like a Craven.” 

“Does it look like what you saw in the trees?”

“Show me the clip again… I don’t know… maybe, it’s hard to see.” 

“I haven’t gotten to the room yet, so maybe there’re some better images.” Chris glanced at her screens. Blocks of text with some passages highlighted filled two of the screens, the third was filled with code and numbers. “Have you found anything?” He asked, willing his mind away from the clip.

“Yeah, but nothing about what’s out there: Roderick has been fiddling with the books. It looks like embezzlement.”

“How so?”

“In most of our files, the surveys ran for days on end with surveyors moving to and from survey vessels. In his files, none lasted more than 12 hours including automated scans.”

“Ah, so he may have charged FrontEx for the amount of time he reported and pocketed the difference?”

“Exactly,” Carmen smiled, but her fatigue was written all over her face. “I think it might give us the leverage to leave without penalty but I’m going to collect all the information I can before confronting him.”

“I guess that means there really is a corporate spy on this planet.”

“It appears you were right all along. Though, really, there are two.” Carmen replied, grinning “the hacker” she pointed at herself, “and the distraction.”

“I was not just a distraction; I was the mastermind.”

*****

Carmen stared at the screen, trying to read. But the words were incomprehensible. Normally when they worked in the same room, Chris would distract her but he had been oddly quiet since he showed her the clip. She forced herself to focus on the document that occupied the screen—a letter that was tacked onto the Algae folder in Roderick’s files but missing in theirs.

Dear Rod,

Please stop linking the Algae to environmental contamination. You are well aware of mom’s plans to spin off ExoGenetic, and allegations of environmental contamination can only harm the future stock price. As you are well aware, ExoGenetics is the gold standard of organism containment and ecosystem purity. You also know that at no point in time was any algal biomatter transferred into the facility from off-world.

As per your directions, which I have not recorded in official logs, we transferred algae samples from the ice into the 8192 ExoGenetic facilities. However, we retained samples for our portfolio of proprietary genomes. If you do not cease and desist, you will force me to involve our legal team and they will demand royalties from the 8192 project after the separation of our two firms, which will undoubtedly affect your profit and bonus.  

Love,

Patricia

P.S. Thank you for the almond cakes, they’re Claire’s favourite!

P.P.S. I’m using this back channel because neither of us wants a trail on this.  delete this message and encrypt your drive once you’re done reading this. I know you get lazy with your computer hygiene.  

Carmen reread the letter. The algae definitely isn’t ExoGenetics’.  She stared at the black, metallic axe on her desk, which she’d forgotten to put away earlier. The sight of it on her desk was somewhat comforting. She fiddled with it, deep in thought. This is enough evidence to sink Roderick. I should email him.

“Woah,” said Chris, breaking her concentration. “What are you doing with that?”

She stared blankly at the axe. Then placed it back on her desk, shrugging.

“Read this letter, and tell me what you think.”

Chris skimmed the letter, then read it again more slowly. His brow furrowed.

“I think she’s telling the truth.”

“I’m going to call Roderick back.” Carmen said, reassured. She wrote a quick e-mail, stating that she was ready to sign the breach of contract papers, and sent it up to the satellite. That done, she turned back to Chris, “found anything else?”

“I think so,” He turned the tablet to her and played a clip. The drone was looking at the tracks on the floor and then the camera jerked, he rewound and played it again.

“That’s when it got grabbed right? What am I looking for?”

“The movement,” Chris played the clip again, “see the drone moves backwards, and towards the ground an—”

“and if whatever grabbed it was flying, it should move either forwards and towards the ground, or backwards.”

“Right,” Chris sounded slightly disappointed, “I think whatever grabbed the drone was on the ground, behind it.”

“But the drone had just been looking over there. How could something get on the ground behind the drone without us seeing it?”

“I don’t know, but I can’t find anything in the rest of the footage,” he stood. “Are you hungry? I’m hungry. I’m going to make some food,” his tone was clipped, peremptory.

“We’re going to be okay, you know,” replied Carmen.

Chris gave no sign he’d heard her. He left.

Alone in her office, Carmen checked on the mining program. A titanic hole in the ice filled the screen. Watching water glint in the depths, she began to think about her involvement in the mining project. If I continue mining, she realized, I may be an accessory to ecocide—a capital crime; if I stop I’ll be imprisoned by debt for the rest of my life.

She played out the scenarios. Her courses of action broke down into two camps: stop mining and risk being forced to begin the project anew or keep going and risk conviction. If I let this happen, if I become an accessory,  FrontEx could leverage my vulnerability to make me do something worse—then I’ll face the same choice, but with worse consequences.
She stopped mining, leaving the drones hanging in the air.

****

Chris lay staring at the ceiling, Carmen sleeping beside him. As time slithered past, sleep seemed to slip farther from grasp. Snippets of the footage replayed in his mind, shadows skittered in every corner, and more than once he jerked upright convinced he had seen something move on the wall, beside the bed, in the hallway. But there was nothing, just the faint buzz of the generators and the red light seeping in.  

6 - Representative

The sound began a few hours after the observation drone arrived. First a dull rumble barely audible above the computer fans, it grew to a roar that made every surface in the house vibrate. By then, Carmen had identified the source: a shuttle headed for the island.

They packed, shoving clothes hand-over-fist into their bags. But, despite their eagerness, they waited for the last possible moment to go to the clearing, loitering in her office, nervously watching the feed for signs of movement in the trees. They waited until  the roaring static peaked and died.

Outside it was warm, at least 15 degrees. The cracks and burbling of the thaw engulfed the world. Creeks fractured the straits, running over the ice, spilling into crevasses, and pooling clear and turquoise.

By the time they got to the clearing, the shuttle—a sleek wedge of platinum—had landed, squashing itself between their craft and the trees. A slender, robotic arm swiveled in and out of its open door, building a stack of matte, metal boxes in the grass. The craft had landed on top of the Craven’s carcass.

A man stood beside the growing stack of cases holding a tablet in his left hand, and a red canister in his right. With his back turned to the path, the visitor sprayed the boxes, the shuttle, and the grass with clouds of fine, pink mist. He didn’t notice them until they were a few feet away.

“Hi,” Carmen called. The visitor turned to them, watching them approach with a look of mild concern. His hair was neat but scruffy stubble grizzled his square jaw, his skin was a pale, sickly shade in the gloom. Carmen was sure they’d met before.

“There’s no point unloading; we’re leaving,” Carmen said.  

“I’m sorry?” The man seemed to understand where they were headed. He moved to block their passage to the shuttle, frantically waving his arms, “Ms. Daley, I’m sorry but I cannot let you aboard this shuttle.”

“Ms. Daley?” Carmen took a step back, frowning, “My name’s not Ms. Daley. But that’s besides the point—our shuttle is damaged. We have to take yours.”

“I know, I know it’s a pain Ms. Daley but I didn’t write the bylaws.” The visitor interrupted, “I’m sure you understand—every ship must adhere to the schedule.”

The visitor collected himself, donning an apologetic, yet smug smile. Carmen recognized him as the man from the orientation video.

Motioning towards the growing pile of  cases, he slipped the cannister into his pocket, and began to walk towards the pile. It took a few paces for him to notice that they were not following. He scowled, jabbing at his tablet. His shuttle responded with a quiet beep, the robotic arm swung inside, and the door slid closed. I’m going to have to negotiate, realized Carmen.
When they caught up, the visitor proffered a hand for Chris to shake before turning to Carmen.

“So, Elodie Daley, I have your delivery as requested.”

“I’m not Elodie Daley,” responded Carmen through gritted teeth.

“Really?” the man looked at her incredulously, “Well I’m going to need you to sign for the delivery either way.” He smiled, and handed her his tablet along with a stylus. Carmen brushed it aside, “Look, this will all be easier for everyone if we get the admin out of the way as quickly as possible.”  

Carmen reluctantly took the tablet and stylus. The screen had three, unlabelled, boxes on it. She signed, entered her name in block capitals and then noted the date before handing the tablet back. The man gave her a friendly smile.

“Fantastic. Welcome to 8192,  Ms…” he squinted at the tablet, “Vill-ah, my name is Roderick.” he mispronounced her surname with overwhelming confidence.

“I’m sorry, didn’t you get our messages?” Ignoring the fact that he hadn’t offered her a handshake was easy; it took a lot more effort to ignore his mangling of her name, “we’ve been attacked, our shuttle was damaged. We want to leave.”

“Ah yes, well, I’m just the Senior Vice President in charge of Planet Development, I cannot let you leave without authorization from the President,” he paused, typing something into his tablet. “As to your messages,” he turned and suddenly his tone was brusque, clipped, “You are welcome to leave the post at any time—” Carmen moved towards the shuttle, but his arm shot out between her and the door, “but you will be liable for all costs incurred by FrontEx vis-a-vis your transportation here, food, housing, and your return trip. Further, you will receive no payment. There is also the matter of the penalty for breaking contract.”

“There’s no way I’m doing that.”

“The contract is clear about this, you signed it,” Roderick pulled something up on his tablet. “I’m sorry,” he didn’t look up, “But legal takes care of the contracts, and they’re known for being pretty aggressive.”

He scrolled through a document, “Just be advised that I’ll need you to sign this document stating that you understand that leaving constitutes a breach of contract. From then it will take an estimated ten days to arrange for a representative from outflow to pick you up.”

He handed her the tablet, “here are the charges.” He pointed to a number followed by a train of zeroes, “Sign below, if you’d still like to leave.”

Carmen stared blankly at the tablet and remembered her life before. Signing this contract would be submitting herself to a return to the panic attacks, the interest notices. But worse, their charges would close to double her debt. That was not life. At best she would just be rolling the dice and hoping the next job was better, at worst the daily grinding anxiety would never end. She looked over at Chris.

“Can I discuss this with my boyfriend?”

“Take all the time you need Ms Vill-ah,” he nodded at Chris, “Mr. Beckford”

Roderick walked a little way off, and resumed his spraying. When Carmen was sure he was out of earshot, she turned to Chris.   

“I want you to leave.” she said.

“What,” Chris stared at her incredulously, “Why?”

“I’m not signing. There’s no way. I can’t go back with nothing to show for all of this. But I can’t ask you to stay, not with everything that has happened.”

“I am not leaving you here,” he was adamant, “your debt isn’t worth dying for. You saw what happened to the shuttle.”

“Look, whatever is out there, it hasn’t been able to get into the house. It’s barely been able to leave a scratch. I’m fine spending the rest of my time here indoors, but I need you to be safe.”

“You don’t have to worry about me.”

“While you’re here, I don’t have a choice.”

They stood, silently. Chris stared over her head at the shuttle, arms crossed, his expression was unreadable. Eventually he looked at her again.

“You can be done in what, a few dozen days? And it’s going to take at least ten to get off this rock.” She nodded, “So how about this—I’ll leave if anything else happens—but you have to promise me that you will too.”

Carmen considered arguing this point. But she had seen the expression he was wearing before, and knew there was nothing she could do to change his mind.

A few minutes later, Roderick returned. He’d lost the cannister, but not his smugness.

“I took a look at the damage on your shuttle” he said, jovially. “From your messages I imaged it ripped in half,” he chuckled, “Anyhow, I think you’ll be pleased to know I’ve identified the culprit, and I have a solution.” Roderick paused, and as the pause unspooled, Carmen struggled to work out what he was waiting for.

“So what do you think happened?” She snapped, eventually.    

“A lifeform known as corvus stercoris, they look a little like flying penguins—you know what a penguin was right?”

Carmen opened her mouth to retort. But before she could get a word out, she felt Chris squeeze her hand.

“So what’s your solution?” Chris asked.

“I’m glad you asked!” Roderick smiled brightly, walked over to the pile of cases and began to rifle through them, “just...give me a second here,” he mumbled. After a few minutes’ search, he presented them with an open case. Inside, snug in a single foam niche, was a long, red canister.

“What is that?” Chris asked, skeptically.

“Repellant.” Roderick replied

“Like, corvis whateveritis repellent?”

“No…. Just ‘Repellant,’ with an ‘a,’ the brand… don’t you know, hrrrem” Roderick cleared his throat. “For whenever you need some deterrent, for bugs, rats, birds, use Repellant,” he warbled, raising a faint sense of deja vu in Carmen. “Oh come on, my Dad said they blew half the budget on viral marketing for that one—remember the spray away the strays campaign?” They both shook their heads, and his expression darkened.

“Well it’s our in-house brand. It’ll keep pretty much anything away for two weeks. Guaranteed to solve your problem, or your money back—”

“Hold up. Our money back?”  Carmen interjected.

“Terms—”

“You cannot seriously be demanding we pay you for this stuff.”

“Terms—TERMS AND CONDITIONS APPLY,” Roderick shouted over their protests, “I didn’t write the bylaws, but I am subject to them just like you,” He continued, irately. “If I give you this stuff for free, they’ll just charge me for it. How is it fair for me to pay when I’m not the person with the problem? If you’d just gotten the premium package, there’d have been Repellant included. Again I didn’t—”

“Write the bylaws, you mentioned,” Chris sounded defeated. “Okay, whatever, how much?”  

Roderick turned his tablet to Chris, who angled the screen away from Carmen. Chris knew that his buying stuff for her—even for them both—made her uncomfortable. So he had gotten into the habit of hiding the prices from her. In this case, while Carmen initially wanted to know, the flicker of surprise and dismay that crossed Chris’ face dissuaded her.

“How many do you think we need?” Chris asked Roderick.

“Just get two.” Carmen said before Roderick had a chance to swindle them further. “We can always get more if we need it.”

She smiled innocently at Roderick before continuing, “Do you have schematics for me, or did you deliver them to Elodie Daley?”

“Yes, of course,” he responded icily. He pulled a small briefcase off the top of the pile. “This should have everything you need for your upgrades. There are instructions inside.”    

Roderick offered her the briefcase and as she stepped towards him she was seized by the urge to punch him in the face. Instead, she nodded stiffly and took the briefcase. Roderick was the only other person she’d seen in days but there was nothing she wanted more than his departure.

She watched Chris impatiently. He was fiddling with the zipper of his coat, staring intently at the tablet. Occasionally he would type something into it, the sound of his finger on the keyboard drowned out by the continuous gurgle and crack of the thawing ice.

Finally, Chris raised the camera to his eyes and handed the tablet back. They each grabbed a case and walked up the path. Halfway up, Chris caught her arm.

“Listen, that dude, Roderick?”

“Don’t even get me started.”

“I know, I know,” Chris glanced back down the path before continuing, “I know his type, I went to school with a ton of them; lots of money, think they’re the smartest person in the room, especially if that room contains women, and just competent and rich enough to succeed at whatever they’re doing. Thing is, they always underestimate people and that’s—”

“Chris,” Carmen said. “Stop stating the obvious, and get to the point.”

“Alright, alright,” Chris looked a little disappointed, “If I get him to stick around talking, do you think you could hack into his shuttle, and see if he has any more information than we do.”

“It might be password protected; I doubt I can break FrontEx’s encryption.”

“Cross that bridge when you come to it,” Chris paused, “If I’m right about this guy, there’s a good bet he’ll pretty much tell me his password in the first hour of us talking, it’ll be something inane like his first pet’s name, or the name of his high school sports team plus his graduating year.”

“You think you can keep him talking long enough?”

“I know I can.”

“Okay, let’s do this.”

****

As Carmen disappeared up the path, Chris paused trying to gather his thoughts but he couldn’t focus on anything but money. That one order of Repellant had wiped out half his yearly dividends. He didn’t know what he’d do if they needed more. Shit, he thought, shit shit shit shit. If we need two orders every twenty or so days... he tried to do the math but the numbers got too large, too unwieldy. He lost track at over half—or maybe five times—his fund. Suddenly, it was as though the wind had sucked the air from his lungs.

Chris’s fund was older than him; the money in it was older than his father. His great grandmother had put aside an equal amount for all of his generation in a blind trust. She, herself had inherited the money from her mother who’d made the family fortune in solar power, building a small utility on a few hectares of southern Ontario into a global firm, before selling to a competitor for a cool 100 billion.

They’d actually studied his great great grandmother in middle school as an example of entrepreneurship, and the vision of the Greatest Generation. His history teacher, Ms. Szydlo, had been particularly emphatic about the Greatest part. That generation had saved us all, she said, often, before pausing to glare around the mostly sleeping class. Chris always felt as though she expected them to try and compete. Who can compete with saving everyone?

Discovering his heritage, his teacher had insisted he deliver a presentation on his great great grandmother to the school. He’d complied, which had done very little to make him popular. At his school nearly everyone had a similar story—most had more than one notable ancestor. What’s more, both of the people he knew who’d actually met his great great grandmother—his great grandmother and grandmother—had hated her and refused to discuss her. In the end, he’d fabricated everything he couldn’t find on the net. He hadn’t really understood how she was relevant until he’d met Carmen; she was the first person he’d met who didn’t have a trust fund.

Something grabbed his arm, and Chris started back to the present. He flailed wildly. His feet slipped on a patch of ice. He tumbled forwards. A slope of rock and needles rushed towards him. Then he felt a steadying tug and was upright on the path, looking down at Roderick.

“Careful,” Roderick smiled, sympathetically, “you didn’t buy insurance, and a medivac from out here will cost you, though I do sell insurance…” he trailed off studying Chris’ face intently and continued. “Anyway, I was wondering whether you could give me a hand—there’s a lot to carry up to the house.”

Chris looked up the path after Carmen, before turning back to Roderick, “Sure, I guess I have nothing else to do.”

“Fantastic,” Roderick beamed.

It took two trips to carry the cases up to the clearing in front of the house. Before carrying them inside, they took a breather—more for Chris’s benefit than Roderick’s. The other man leant against one of two large stacks, smiling. Chris hunched, hands on his knees, breathing hard.

“Do you hear that?” Roderick asked.

“What?”

“The ice, what else? ...Do you know what it means?”

“That it’s thawing?”

“No, that I’m getting a bonus,” Roderick beamed. “It’s literally never been this hot on this planet! We’re way ahead of schedule.”

“You’re the climate engineer for this planet?”

“No, but I manage them.”

Moving briskly—barely a sheen of sweat on his forehead—Roderick dragged his stack through the exterior door. Chris lagged behind, moving in spurts.

The exterior hallway was empty. Roderick knows the code? He thought, then of course Roderick knows the code. The company knew the code. It was probably in the premium package. Irritation, it seemed, was a highly effective marketing tool. Chris punched in the code and shuffled through.

Inside, a faint clicking emerged from the open door of his studio. Roderick’s stack of cases sat in front of the canvas. The man stood a few feet away, staring intently at a wall. He took several photographs with his tablet, tapped at the device, and then walked to another spot on the wall and took another photograph.

“This is unacceptable,” Roderick said to himself, “ simply unacceptable.”

Chris slid his stack in next to Roderick’s and caught his breath, “what’s the matter?”

“It appears that someone has committed fraud!” Roderick motioned around at the room, “this room is definitely not up to the specifications.”

“Yeah, I was going to ask you about that,” Chris walked over to his studio door, and closed it. Then, lowering his voice, he continued, “I paid quite a lot to have this studio added and it’s, well, kind of a piece of shit. Definitely not what I was sold so—”

“Say no more,” Roderick smiled, reassuringly, “ I know exactly how you feel—same boat.”

“Same boat?”

“Yes, well the subcontractor screwed us both over—screwed everyone at FrontEx really.”

“How do you mean?” Chris was getting a headache. He sat on one of the stacks.

“The subcontractor responsible for this room clearly didn’t meet specifications. They broke contract,” Roderick followed Chris. Levering himself up onto his own stack, he continued, “So really we’re just as wronged as you. If they did this more than once, we’re more wronged.” Roderick shook his head in disbelief, vaguely patting Chris’ arm,  “Some people just have no respect for contract.”

“So,” said Chris. “Can I have my money back?”

As the question hung in the air between them, Chris realized he couldn’t remember asking that before. He’d definitely seen it done—just not done it himself. That was not to say that he was never dissatisfied with a purchase, just that it wasn’t a thing anyone in his family did. His mother,  grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins were all the kinds of people who would buy another rather than return what they had.

“But of course,” Roderick said emphatically. “As soon as the subcontractor pays us back, we’ll pay you.”

 

No, pay me now, Chris tried to say, but instead he said “Can’t you pay me back now?” Roderick shot Chris the now all-too familiar apologetic smile. Before he could invoke the bylaws, Chris gave up, “Let me know when the subcontractor pays FrontEx back.”

“You’ll be one of the first to know.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes. While Roderick tapped aimlessly into his tablet, Chris eyed him, wondering how to start a conversation. He had been so confident pitching his plan to Carmen, but now had no idea where to begin. Then Roderick placed his thumb on his tablet.

“Final-fucking-ly.” He smiled, broadly at Chris, “I’m clocked out, can finally relax for...” he checked his tablet, “a little while.”

Dropping the device, he rifled through his coat and pulled out a tin box speckled by the remnants of a painted label. Opening it, Roderick pulled out a long, thin joint.

“Any interest,” he waved the joint towards Chris. “It’s artisanal.”

Roderick pulled a lighter from his box, and lit the joint taking several long drags. Then he held it out to Chris, who hesitated—eyeing it warily. It seemed so out of the blue, so unprofessional, that he half suspected it was some kind of trap.  

“It’s just pot… organic pot.” Roderick continued.

“What does it cost?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Roderick looked offended, “This is free. I’m no drug dealer.”

“Right, what was I thinking,” Chris responded dryly. “Sure why not.”

As he took the joint, Roderick launched into an anecdote about trying to find good weed on Europa. He didn’t name anyone involved, referring to each as ‘my friend,’ or ‘my other friend’, or ‘the dude,’ and Chris quickly lost any sense of who was doing what. From there the conversation meandered, tumbling from one half finished anecdote to another.

It turned out that their fathers worked at different offices of the FrontEx legal team, though Roderick's father was more senior. Chris began to tell the story of his father’s first case—one that ended years later with the realization that FrontEx was suing itself—but was interrupted. Roderick knew the story, his mother—then senior vice president for FrontEx subsidiary, ExoGenetics—was one of the litigants.  

Chris smiled, even with the haze that had descended on his mind, he could tell a good opportunity when it smacked him in the face.

As the conversation continued, Chris made sure that the points of commonality stacked up, though in truth Chris barely had to lie. They had, in fact, both attended different branches of the same private school chain; he lied about competing on the lacrosse team. They had both spent the summers at cottages near Attawapiskat; Roderick’s family rented so Chris failed to mention that his owned. He went on to lie about attending university in Calgary, agreeing enthusiastically, that it was weird they hadn’t bumped into each other. It was as though, for Roderick’s whole life, Chris had been just out of sight, like an animal skirting the edge of a campfire’s light.

By the time they finished their second joint, it seemed that Roderick was a completely different person. He relaxed, lounging on his stack. Chris stopped smoking the joints, but quickly realized that, if he held onto one long enough, Roderick would just light another. Chris began to collect them.

“I gotta go to the washroom,” claimed Chris, as Roderick finished a particular circuitous story about his father renting a helicopter.

Roderick, lighting his third joint, waved him off, “sure thing Beck, I’ll be here.”

In the hallway, Chris knocked quietly on Carmen’s door. Before she answered, he slipped in, closing the door quietly behind him. She was sitting at her desk, face bathed in the monitor-light. The burgundy tower was on her screens again, this time working on a long vessel that looked a little like a leech.

“I have some leads on passwords,” he whispered, but she shook her head.

“He didn’t password protect anything. I’ve copied everything he has,” she hissed. “It looks like his information is pretty similar to ours, can’t tell yet if there are differences, but I’m running a program that will highlight them if they exist.’

“Great,” he turned back to the door. “I’m going to see if he can tell me anything else.”

Slipping back into the hallway, Chris paused outside his office. A slight haze of smoke was leaking out from around the door...  Chris took a deep breath.

“So Exogenetics, they did the entire ecosystem, huh? Are they like the in-house genetic engineers?”

“Not just the entire ecosystem, every ecosystem that FrontEx has ever seeded,” Roderick withdrew another joint from his box. “Crazy what they can do these days, everything down to the grass here was dreamed up in an Exogenetics lab.”

“So like the Cravens?”

“The what?”  

“The birds here—I thought they were ravens, or crows to begin with so… well that was the name I... uh, landed on.”

Giggling, Roderick lit the joint and after taking a deep drag, handed it to Chris.

“I call them shit birds,” said Roderick. “Because they only exist to shit—well— for their shit, but that’s not much difference.”

“I know that’s their role in the whole system,” Chris added the joint to his pile, “but that seems a little harsh.”

“Nah it’s just objectively true. The original ecosystem design kept on running into problems with nitrogen and phosphate depletion. So they added the birds for their shit. Meant they had to add the beetles as well. It was a real headache. You should have seen the reject pile. They mixed… they mixed... ” Roderick descended into giggles. After taking a minute to collect himself, he continued, “they mixed goats and spiders, and I’m not talking those goats with the tough hair. I’m talking eight eyes, eight legs, makes webs but with the face, fur, horns and sounds a goat makes. ”

Chris laughed along, “Why’d they do that?”

“Not sure, but whatever they were trying to do, it didn’t work. That one didn’t make it off the orbital lab,” Roderick took another hit, and after a few minutes added, “by the time they got to field testing, they’d settled on some kind of bird. They tested the later stages on-planet, you know. It’s the best way of testing an ecosystem, but it made clean-up a real mess.”

“How’s that?”

“Well the intern on my sister’s team—”

“Your sister?”

“Lab administrator, at Exogenetics. Her team was working on a prototype version of the shit bird. So, one night their intern leaves the door to the cages open. The birds escape, total chaos. These prototypes were large, at least ten times the size of the end-model.” Roderick took a hit, and coughed, “Modelled on an extinct species of eagle native in New Zealand… Anyways, the birds escape, and eventually go into the ice. They send a couple of drones after them into the caves, but somehow they lost the drones. By this time everyone was freaking out. This is ecosystem contamination, a massive fuckup. Enter my sister. She hits on the idea of making napalm out on the oil fields, pouring it into the ice, and just lighting it all up. The explosion was epic. It left a two mile deep crater.”

“That’s brutal,” Chris observed. With each breath of the smoke-bound air, his thoughts slowed and time dilated, “so how can you be sure they killed the prototypes?”

“They recovered the bodies. Couldn’t leave that kind of stuff just lying around,” Roderick shook his head, and handed over the joint. “Not that it matters, the Cravens will be dead in a decade anyway.”

“Why’s that?” For some reason Chris was a little offended at the nonchalant way this news was delivered. Despite the scare the birds had given him that night, his initial, sympathetic impression seemed to hold sway. The idea that some day, in his lifetime, there would be no Cravens filled him with sadness.  

“The whole warming process. Shit birds don’t do well in temperatures above 25 degrees.”

“Seems unfair to create a species doomed to go extinct.”

“All species are doomed to go extinct,” Roderick parried.

“So I’m guessing ExoGenetics didn’t have the same problems with the beetles,  the trees, the grass, the algae?” said Chris, changing the subject.

“Nah all of the other organisms went through development without a hitch,” Roderick paused, and took a long drag. Then he sidled closer to Chris, “But... can you keep a secret?”

“Yes,” Chris gave what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “Of course.”

“Well, the algae is somewhat of a personal coup,” Roderick whispered excitedly. “We don’t know where it came from—could have been here before us—but most likely it’s just ecosystem contamination. I managed to secure a patent on it.” He sat back, and gave Chris a broad smile, his eyes glazed pink. “You can’t tell anyone though.”

The tablet made a faint, buzzing sound, drawing Roderick’s attention. He scrambled to his feet, then began to inspect the stack he was sitting on. “Shit, I need to head out but first…”

“Need help looking for something?”

“Yeah, a small case, the smallest one we brought up here—Aha!” Roderick lifted a small silver case about the shape and size of a textbook from the stack. “I have to leave in fifteen minutes to stay on schedule,” Roderick continued, opening the case and extracting a long, slim silver cylinder. “But I need to be sober to fly.”

“Those shuttles fly themselves.”

“Not the shuttle, the ship—my ship. I didn’t fly all the way here in a shuttle,” he unscrewed the cylinder. “After a few minor incidents, my father insisted I have a breathalyzer attached to the flight controls. A total fascist move if you ask me.”

Chris gave him a sympathetic nod. Throwing his head back, Roderick downed the contents of the tube. The silver disappeared in a few glugs, leaving the tube clear. Chris recognized it as a sobriety aid, one of the more expensive ones. He’d never really understood how they worked, but knew that the silver liquid made you sober. Remembering his experience with the pils, it occurred to him he might need a few vials.

“Could I have a vial, or two of that? I can pay if you...”

“Oh no, don’t worry” Roderick interjected, “That stuff’s yours already.”

“But you...”

“Traded some of it for my weed. it was pretty good shit, huh?”

“I...”

“It was really great talking to you Chris,” He proffered his hand, “I look forward to future conversations. Tell Carmen that I wish her all the best!”

Roderick left. Chris listened as the shuttle’s engines roared to life, then faded into the distance. Then, pulling the nearest case towards him, he opened it, intending to unpack. The first three cases contained hazmat and heat protective gear, spanners and two inflatable dinghies. He gave up; the delivery clearly wasn’t for them.

****

Carmen took the briefcase straight to her office. Resolving to stay in her office until she heard Roderick’s shuttle take off, she closed the door. Outside, sheaths of light rose from the ice, dulled by the tint of the window. Every part of her was tense, she leant against the door for a second focusing on her breathing.

Collecting herself, she sat down and tried to switch on the computers. The boxes sputtered to life on her third attempt. As they booted, Carmen turned to the cases. They were identical: same size, same aluminum sheen, matching ridges, matching clasps. However, one was lighter than the other. She choose the lighter one and slid it onto the desk.

Inside, ensconced in black memory foam packing, was a slim data drive. She plugged it in, and flipped through the schematics contained therein, each for different models of drones. It seemed that FrontEx had delivered what she needed to make her fleet run on gasoline. She relayed the schematics to the factory and turned to Chris’ plan.

Carmen pulled up the drone control panel, and switched to the feed of the island. Breaking the observation drone’s patrol route, she directed it towards the clearing, let it hang above Roderick’s shuttle, and scanned for connections. Almost immediately, with a faint beep, she found one. The name of the network was the Entrepreneurial Spirit. She rolled her eyes.

The network wasn’t password protected and his files weren’t encrypted. Am I lucky, she thought, copying Roderick’s files, or did I just overestimate him?

With the transfer underway, all she could do was wait and hope Chris was able to keep Roderick talking. She wasn’t worried; Chris could have a conversation with anyone about anything and would often have prolonged conversations with strangers—a habit that left him with innumerable acquaintances but few friends.

5 - Flight

They stood in the hallway, waiting. But nothing came, no assault, no scratching, no creaks. Just a deep, smothering silence.

“I think it’s gone,” Chris said, eventually.

“For now,” Carmen sank down the hallway wall, sitting beside the door to her office.

“Do you think you could get the shuttle up and running?” asked Chris, sitting across from her. She didn’t answer for a while, and with her face cast into shadow, he wasn’t sure she had really heard him. “Carmen?”

“I heard. Yeah, I could fix the shuttle. But we have no idea when FrontEx is going to turn up. Once its fixed, we’d either have to come back here, or risk hanging in orbit for days. I think it’s safest to stay here until someone comes to get us. Nothing has gotten in here yet.”

Crack. Both of them jumped as an ear splitting report echoed from her office. They stared at each other in horror.
Crack, it was louder this time, and closer. Chris leant over, peering around the doorframe. The room was bathed in light. There was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. Cautiously, he inched into the room.
Crack. It appeared to be coming from beyond the window, from the straits, or the ridgeline. He walked to the window.
Out on the frozen straits, the thaw had continued. Small pools had merged to form a lake that stretched from the crevasse out of sight. A thin ice dam held the lake back from the edge of the canyon.
Crack, this time the noise was followed by a faint rumble. The dam broke; the lake became a flood.

“Carmen, you’ve gotta see this.”

Carmen poked her head into her office. Chris beckoned and turned back to the window, transfixed. The water swept rafts of algae down into the ice. He expected the gap in the ice to fill, for the flow to stop, but it didn’t. Every drop drained away, leaving the walls smothered with algal tapestries.  

“Where did it all go?”

“Probably into subglacial pockets,” Carmen turned to her computers and turned on a screen, “I’ve seen caves, at the mining site, no reason to think the ice over here is any different.”

The screen displayed a black square framed by white. Chris did not understand what he was looking at. It was only when a wispy cloud drifted across the screen that he realized it was a hole in the ice. Carmen tapped the keyboard and darkness swallowed the screen. Water glinted in the depths.

“This has gone a lot faster than I expected, the hole is meant to be a tenth of this size.”

With a few additional taps, Carmen directed them towards the far wall. An assortment of drones toiled on the far side of the hole. Some were lifting blocks, others moving in square motions over the ice, plumes of steam rising in their wake. Their work surface was a series of titanic staircases. A few machines, hung above the cliff face, unmoving. Beneath them, buttresses of ice protruded from the cliff face.

Red, flashing text scrolled down the side of the screen. Carmen tutted, frowning.  

“What’s wrong?”

“A few of my miners are damaged,” Carmen muttered, “looks like they were hit by falling ice.” She tapped in a few commands before turning to Chris, “I’m going to bring this observation drone over to us, we need to be able to see what’s going on outside. But I should send the damaged drones to be fixed. ”

“How long is that going to take?”

“The fix, a few hours. The flight, about a day or so.”

“Cool,” Chris cast around the room for a place to sit and found none, “I guess while you do that I’ll look to see if there are any references to this in the library. Though I wouldn’t tell you to hold your breath. But first I think we should eat something.”

****

Chris returned with the food just as the observation drone reached the western edge of the mining zone. There, a range of steep mountains rose to flat peaks a kilometre above the ice. On the tops of the bluffs and sheltered by taller peaks clung sparse copses of stunted trees, barely ten feet tall.

“Have you noticed,” began Chris, as he slid two steaming trays onto the desk in front of her, “that this whole world is upside down?”

“How do you mean?”

“On earth, the trees are at the bottom of most mountains, ” Chris stepped out of the room but continued talking, his voice echoing back to her. “Then you have the tree line, then rock, then ice,” he returned lugging a worn office chair. “Here, it’s the exact opposite.”  

“I never thought of it like that,”

Carmen couldn’t really see the use of thinking about it like that, but it certainly was curious. As the observation drone cleared the mountains, windswept trees flicking past, Carmen turned to her food.

“What happened to all the algae?”

Carmen looked up. The landscape on the screen was a labyrinth of rock and ice, the former capped with the occasional pine, the latter spattered with clear pools. There was no trace of algae, or any other vegetation, on the ice.

“Weird. There are pines, so FrontEx seeded this area.”

“Huh,” Chris stood and left the room briefly, returning with the tablet, “it says that the algae is a proprietary organism but there are no development reports…. Ah, here, from the encyclopedia,” Chris began reading from the tablet,“...it requires a basic environment to survive, with pHs no lower than 9, and is typically found around lithium deposits.” He took a breath, “So it’s a kind of tool for testing for lithium?”

“That could be it. Though, it is weird there aren’t any development reports. Does it mention who developed it?”

Chris scrolled down the screen, stopping occasionally to read a passage. He frowned, “no, no mention at all. “

“Hmmm. FrontEx usually slaps its name on everything.”

Chris put the tablet on her desk and sat back down. Carmen silently altered course.

*****

 Chris flicked through page after page of the encyclopedia, scanning for anything that could give him a hint at what had chased them. He focused on the ecosystem and reread the entry about the algae. It was eight pages of terse prose. He frowned. All of the other entries in the section were at least 500 pages long.

Chris’ father had taught him that effective liars hid lies in the truth. They used truth to bend perception around untruth, like light around a black hole. Reading the algae’s entry for a third time, he remembered those words. What if they didn’t develop it, he asked himself, what if they stole it? Or… or it was already here? It was a short leap, but still a leap. I’ll wait for more evidence before I tell Carmen.  

Carmen had switched feeds. The monitor showed a large, dark red tower cut near in half by a gaping hangar. A harsh, electric-blue light flooded from within. She edged the drone closer. Spindly, robotic arms working away on an aquiline drone, welding long gashes on its side raising bursts of sparks.

With a few staccato keystrokes, Carmen withdrew the drone, and panned back away from the tower. A little way off, two bulbous vehicles floated over the ice—stormclouds depositing layers of black dust, creating shadows in soot.

Carmen alt-tabbed. The view changed to an expanse of ice, grey under a roof of dark cloud. Splotches of algae mildewed the ice.

“I took a slight detour to the ExoGenetics facility,” said Carmen turning to him, “Looks like you were right about the algae needing lithium, the ice around here is full of both.”

“Facility?”

“Just up on the plateau.” She pointed to a series of spherical scaffolds jutting above a tuft of trees, “Those are the aviaries, the actual installation is beneath. They might have some additional information kicking around their servers but I haven’t picked up any signal yet.”

“Huh, I read about that place...” Chris leant over her shoulder to take a closer look, “Apparently some prototype Cravens escaped from there during beta testing.”

“And you’re just mentioning this now?”

“With everything that happened today I’d forgotten,” Chris shrugged, “besides it said they killed all the escapees. Though… I guess that could be a lie.”

“So,” Carmen shot him a mischievous smile, “What you’re saying is it could be the Cravens after all… which means I’m… come on, you can say it...”

Chris shot her a sour look; Carmen smiled back.

“You were right.”

“Awww, that wasn’t so hard was it?” She turned back to the screen, “Still no signal. Looks like I’m going to have to get closer to the facility,” she paused, chewing her lip through the unwinding silence, “I think we can afford an extra half hour detour.” She sounded uncertain.

****

She darted for the plateau, pushing the engines as far as they could go. Broad beaches of gravel and shale, then a dense canopy blanketed by purple flowers flicked under. She soared up sheer cliffs to a higher plateau. Atop this slab of rock, like the skeletons of colossal sea urchins, sat the aviaries. Clouds flowed between them, half shrouding the massive shells.

“Say what you will about FrontEx,” breathed Chris, leaning over her shoulder, “but they sure do have massive balls.”

“I will kick you out of my office,” replied Carmen.

As they flew deeper into the plateau, weaving between the aviaries, buildings loomed from amongst pins and mist. Though hazy, the buildings seemed intact, walls undented,  windows uncracked. Slim, enclosed walkways connected each building to the next, sealing them from the outside world.

A few kilometres into the plateau, at the base of one of the aviaries, an expanse of foggy grass broke the trees. Packed pines pressed on three sides but on the fourth, in the shadow of the aviary, sat a squat building encrusted with innumerable antennas and satellite dishes.

“Landing ground?” asked Chris.

Carmen nodded. She began to scan for connections, for computers for the drone to interlink with.  

“So the drone can just grab the data from the servers?”

“If the servers are there and the power is still running, yes. But those are big ‘ifs.’ ”

“I think they will be,” Chris leant back, his chair emitting a loud creak, “otherwise some other firm could claim that FrontEx wasn’t using the planet. The eminent domain suits could hold up work on this planet for a decade.”

“I wouldn’t know.” Carmen responded flatly. Chris had a habit of talking about legal matters, though his opinions were invariably things he’d overheard his father say, or at least garbled versions of them.

The computer beeped.

“What did it find?”

“The servers are down. But there is a signal coming from inside, though it’s pretty weak,” Carmen, skimmed the details of the scan’s results, “looks like an observation drone. Its memory might have something useful on it.”

“Can you access it from out here?”

“No, the signal’s too weak. I’ll either have to get inside the building,” Carmen swooped low over the damp grass towards the mist-blurred structure, “or hope I can get close enough from the outs...” the mists thinned; the doors stood, ajar, “...inside it is.”

It took some maneuvering to ease the drone through the crack in the door. If the doors had opened inwards, rather than outwards, Carmen could have just pushed them open, but she had to wedge the drone in the crack, and pry it wide enough for the machine to pass.

Inside the space opened into a two-story, hexagonal atrium. Ahead of her, a hallway disappeared off into darkness. All doors leading off the first and second floors were closed. I hope the drone is accessible from the hallway. She sped down the corridor.

“How are you going to find the drone?” Asked Chris.

“The closer I am, the stronger the signal.”

Doors led off the hallway at regular intervals, some closed, some rusted off their hinge. A sweep of the space beyond showed cages, laboratory equipment, and the occasional bank of computers. They were all rusted, drowning in floods of dust and decay. Passing these rooms, Carmen followed the gradual build of the signal strength down the hallway.

A few minutes later, the signal peaked as she passed an open doorway. Carmen swung the light left, and then right across the floor. Fallen doors lay over a jumble of desks and smashed computers. It looked as though the room had suffered an earthquake.

Carmen flew over the mess towards the back of the room, the signal inched fractionally higher. She found the drone in the back corner. It was rusted, an old model—older than even her drones own. At some point something had hit it head-on, smashing the camera, and leaving wiring exposed. Something glimmered in the light. Zooming in, she found herself looking at a screw.

“Weird,” said Chris. He leaned over her shoulder but she nudged him back to his seat.

She swept her light across the ground again, slower this time, and was greeted by a  constellation of glimmers. Something had arrayed screws, nuts, and bolts in neat rows and columns. Carmen frowned. Metal panels, removed from the hull, leant against the wall behind the machine, halos of scratches surrounded holes where screws and bolts had been.

“Someone took this drone apart,” said Carmen.

“The ExoGenetics team?”

“No, everything else is covered in dust, but those piles of parts aren’t. Plus those scratches are recent.”

Carmen swept the light across the floor again, looking for footsteps in the dust. A long track cut through the carpet of dirt, as though something had been dragged through the room. She filled the screen with the track. Its edges were threaded like the fringe of a rug. This just keeps getting weirder, she thought.

Her view jerked. Red warning notifications cascaded down the edge of the screen. The drone was caught in something. Carmen increased thrust, and again, and again, rising to full throttle. Though the engines gave a rising whine, the drone did not move.

Shit shit shit shit shit.”

She was vaguely aware of Chris’ yelling, but her world had become the screen. Think, think, the warnings continued to drip down the screen. Then she had it. With a keystroke, she pushed the drone into full reverse. Her view jerked. She heard a dull crash and the sound of slinging debris. She pushed her drone through the door. In the hallway, she flicked the camera back to the room behind.

A pile of shattered desks, and computers, shifted as they settled. Something moved, just out of the beam of light skittering away as she moved the light. It came again, above. Is it flying?

She backed into, then down the hallway, flicking between the view ahead, and the door. She barged back down the hallway and out of the doors. Then, rising up through mist and cloud, she set a course for their island. We didn't even get the data, she thought, what was that?

The observation drone arrived mid-morning the next day, lurching over the final ridgeline. Through its camera the island was a tiny rock engulfed in algae-spattered slush.  Carmen surveyed the damage. The outer door, was dented and hanging open. The damage to the inner door did not seem serious. Somewhat mollified, Carmen told the drone to loop above the island. Its camera fixed on the sparse trees below.

 

4 - Thaw

Chris awoke abruptly. Carmen was shaking him, fingernails digging into his arms. A thick fog hung in his mind.

Thin, gray light filtered in from the kitchen. Early morning, he looked up at Carmen and tried to formulate a question but, seeing her expression, abandoned his efforts. Her eyes sat in purple pools; she hadn’t slept, or at least not much.

Dim memories of her leaving in the night returned to him, though they were estranged, snippets of a half-remembered dream. She was talking rapidly but his mind was still encumbered by the pill and her words rebounded.

He sat up, gathered what faculties he could and tried to focus... something about FrontEx?  

“Someone from FrontEx got back to you?” He ventured.

She frowned, shook her head and then paused, gathering herself, “the shuttle has been damaged. Something tore it up.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to shake the haze from his head. He had expected her to say more but she sat, silently, waiting for his response. “Wait, what happened?” He asked, eventually.

“I don’t know—I spent most of the night reading the encyclopedia and surveys trying to work that out. I have to take a second look to be sure and don’t want to go out alone.”

“Give me five minutes. I’ll throw on some clothes.”

Outside it was a crisp negative one. Carmen tore down the path ahead of him. Every few feet, she glanced nervously up into the canopy. Chris walked at a gentler pace but kept up with her. He too looked out on either side, but at the ice, and the ridgelines beyond, not at his immediate surroundings.

The damage looked worse than Chris had imagined. Something had cut through the door, ripping off three parallel strips of metal. He didn’t know how it could have happened. Chris examined the ship, inspecting the edges of the rips and acting as though a closer look added to his understanding of the problem. In truth, he had no idea how bad the damage was let alone how to fix it. When he eventually turned back to Carmen, he found her looking around the clearing, frowning.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“The ground’s clear; last night there were dozens of pieces of shuttle on the ground”

This all seems overly neat, he thought,  “So remind me, again, what you saw.”

This time she gave a more detailed account, talking about the rustling trees and the red light above. Within a few seconds Chris had questions and he listened more for a gap to ask, than for the content.

“So what do you think happened?”

“I think it was the Cravens.”

“That’s ridiculous,” he replied, surprised. “We’ve been here for days, and the Cravens haven’t bothered it, why now? We’ve both sat with them—did they seem aggressive to you? ”  

“So what’s your theory.”

“I’m not sure, maybe corporate espionage?”

 

****

 

Carmen laughed, catching herself late as she realized it wasn’t a joke. But Chris already looked hurt. Ah crap, Carmen thought, we’re going to have one of these arguments.

“We’d have heard this saboteur arrive in a shuttle—” she began.

“Not if they landed a while away, and travelled here by another method—”

“I’m not even going to touch that. The Cravens are building a nest, right?” He nodded reluctantly, “Maybe they thought the shuttle would be good nesting. Their beaks are hard enough to dig through the pines. That makes mean, motive, and opportunity.”

“So the Cravens, jumped or hovered,” he motioned at the scars in the hull, “about six feet in the air and peeled off strips of metal designed to withstand the impact of meteorites?”

Between her exhaustion and his fragility, Carmen had had enough, “It isn’t a perfect theory,” she said, jaw clenched, “but it assumes far less than your’s; it’s based in facts not the plot from a bad drama.”

“Sabotage happens. Remember my cousin Constance? She spent eight months tracking down a glitch in a water-mining program on Mimas. Only there was no glitch, just a rogue drone programmed to disrupt the project. I’m not an idiot and this isn’t mining; you know as much as I do.”

 

****

 

The argument got away from him, and before he knew it they were standing, hands clenched staring at each other across the path.

“God-fucking-damn it Chris,” Carmen spat,  “you talk a lot about how much you like that I’m smart. But it seems like every time I disagree with you, you find a way to make it about your own insecurities.”

“Oh fuck you, Carmen. For someone who’s so sensitive you can be a real insensitive b—” he caught himself, though it was too late; her expression was already one of pure fury.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted, but she was already turning away, “Carmen, wait!” he caught her arm; she recoiled breaking his grasp, “I’m sorry. Carmen? Carmen—”

“No. Fuck you Chris. You don’t get immediate forgiveness.”

She disappeared up the path. Standing where she left him, Chris listened to the wind rushing through the firs. I could have avoided that argument, he realized, I was insensitive, too wrapped-up in feeling insulted to recognize how tired and scared she must be.

Still, he fiddled with the zip of his coat and stared absently over the straits, I think she’s wrong about the Cravens. I may not be able to prove my theory but I can disprove her’s. Whenever FrontEx’s representative arrives, he thought, I can raise the possibility of sabotage.

The ice before him glistened slightly covered by a sheen that had appeared overnight, It had grown palpably warmer in the twenty minutes he’d been outside. Has it broken 0, Chris asked himself, I thought it barely got above freezing during summer and it’s barely mid spring.

The door slammed, jerking Chris back to the present. He shrugged and walked up to the house.

 

****

    

As she closed the inner door, Carmen felt her exhaustion assert itself. She welcomed it with open arms and headed straight to the bedroom. Within minutes of lying down, she was asleep.

She woke in the afternoon and went upstairs. Pausing in the hallway outside Chris’ door, she hesitated, hand resting on cool metal, and listened to the sound of typing within. I wonder what the studio looks like, she thought and realized that a quarter of the space they shared had been cut off from her without discussion. She considered knocking out of curiosity and a little spite. But instead, she walked to her office. I shouldn’t have laughed at his idea, Carmen thought, but he needs to apologize first.

She switched on the screens. They each displayed the same ecosystem development report—500 pages of dense, scientific jargon interspaced with cost analyses. At most she had a vague idea of what any given sentence meant. Carmen took one last cursory look at the text once more before she closed it. She was sure about the Cravens, but—now rested—doubted she’d find proof in FrontEx-provided information.

She stared at the empty screens, tapping her fingers beside the keyboard. I wonder whether my message has been picked up… probably not, she thought, chances are the original message is still sitting on the satellite’s servers. A FrontEx schedule confirmed her suspicions: no vessel would be near enough to pick up their message until the next day. Barring some fluke, the firm would receive any additional message with the first.

She penned a quick e-mail that detailed the damage to the shuttle before turning back to her work. Opening a mining control program, Carmen inputted the most recent version of her system. When that was done, Carmen powered up an observation drone and did a quick flyover of the fleet, before leaving it hovering at the lip of the crater. The fleet lay undisturbed, each craft sat where she’d left it.

With a few keystrokes, she activated the fleet. As one, they came to life. Stark light erased the shadows, filling every inch of the crater floor. They took off, kicking pools of water into a rising mist.

Above the crater, every vessel except the tankers turned north. They hung in the air for a moment, a ragtag shoal. Then, with a faint sonic boom, they were off, ice and land flicking away under them, alternating blurs of black and white. She directed one observation drone to follow the miners, refineries, haulers, and lifter. The other she sent with the tankers which lumbered towards the oil fields.

45 minutes later, she got her first view of the lithium deposit. It was a vista of frozen waves unmarred by summits, ridgelines, or crevasses. In the gathering light of early morning—it was early on this side of the planet—the ice was slate grey, each wave tip like the rough form of some ancient rock tool. The temperature had just begun to build, yet water was already gathering in the troughs between the waves.

The different types of craft that made the fleet had a range of maximum speeds. The fastest, the mining drones, reached their destinations about five minutes ahead of the observation drone. Angular, powerful machines of dully-gleaming bronze with swept-back solar panels, frontal mining laser, and claw-like lifting mechanisms, with the scratches, sutures and patches across their surfaces, they resembled haggard eagles.

The mining drones were spreading across the ice in a line hundreds of kilometres wide and widening. Carmen flew down this line, marshalling her troops. They had already gone to work, each focused on its own hundred-metre stretch. Their lasers, invisible to the naked eye, were focused on the ice and, where the heat hit it vaporized, raising plumes of vapour. The frozen sea cracked and groaned under the assault, the noises echoing across her office as a tinny representation of the true deafening sound. As the miners moved across the ice they sawed a thousand-kilometre line into the depths.

Carmen told the observation drone to ascend, bringing the full line of miners into her view. The machines shrunk to toy models, then black dots. They wove back and forth, appearing and disappearing into drifting chimneys of gas vapour as the wind swelled and died. From amongst the wispy clouds, the choreography became clear. The miners swayed left, then right across the ice cutting a continuous line. For the next hour the line deepened, turning into a groove a kilometer deep and a hundred metres wide. According to the plan, the machines would stop cutting once they reached five times that depth. Then they would begin to cut 100 metre cubes from the ice sheet, disassembling it cube by cube.   

An hour after the miners arrived, the haulers thundered in, sweeping over the miners and dwarfing them. Utilitarian, blunt nosed, clumsy machines, the haulers were little more than open topped containers with engines. They reminded Carmen of origami models of buffalo. They fell into formation, arraying themselves in two adjacent squares, lying across the ice sheet, parallel but a few hundred meters distant from the cutting line.

They hung there, waiting for the mobile refineries, which arrived minutes later. Easily two hundred meters long, the refineries rivaled the tankers in length. Bodies blistered by tanks, pipes, and exhaust chimneys, and book-ended by an input funnel and an output chute they resembled leeches. They eased themselves between the miners and the haulers and their input funnels expanded, folding out revealing bands of saws within.

The last to arrive was the imposing form of the lifter. Though most of its frame consisted of four gargantuan engines—each dwarfing the other drones—these engines were fixed facing downwards and weren’t useful for going anywhere but up. Its other engines allowed it to lumber at a few hundred miles an hour. At the centre of the machine was kilometer-square open-top box. This would hold lithium oxide dumped by the haulers. Every week or so, the lifter would throw itself into orbit, dumping its load at the staging ground before returning.

Carmen switched feed.

Two bulbous hulks flicked over an immaculate infinity of ice. Other than the occasional cloud, the sky was clear. The mirror-smooth surface held its perfect reflection and only a faint smudge at the horizon betrayed where the sky ended and the ice began. She knew the tankers were flying at several hundred kilometres an hour but the unchanging image made them seem stationary.

The sky changed first. Clouds gathered, dirty, grey, and laden. A murky yellow haze grew between the clouds and the horizon. Then, as though the horizon was approaching, a dark line moved towards her, accelerating into a headlong rush.

It wasn’t until it was a few meters away that Carmen realized what it was: soot. It covered the ice. Beneath the soot, the surface was a bog of hardened slush, frozen, thawed, and refrozen. The roiling clouds spewed fat flakes of ash.

  In the distance, Carmen saw a flash of light. As it swelled again on her screens, she recognized the searchlight of one of the burning stations. A fortress of metal and pipes, wrapped around a monolithic chimney that belched smoke, the burning station was a mechanical volcano.

The searchlight sliced through the darkness, illuminating veils of ash. Why did they even add a light, Carmen wondered. Not that the energy consumption mattered; the burning stations used about a tenth of the energy they produced, mostly to superheat water for reinjection beneath the ice. The rest they expelled into the atmosphere as heat creating lakes of black slush. The surface of this station’s lake swirled viscously. Occasionally, a bubble swelled from beneath, popping to release puffs of yellow gas.

As the tankers found berths and filled their tanks, Carmen looked back, out her window. Even through tinted windows, the straits seemed impossibly white. The sea of soot awoke an unsettled feeling in her, not unlike her feeling on the night the shuttle was damaged. She was relieved that she wouldn’t have to watch the trip more than once; outside of extraordinary circumstances the tankers could take care of themselves.

On the return leg, she angled the cameras back for a while, watching the storm and the soot sea slip beyond the horizon. During the brief time by the burning station, the tankers had picked up a thick layer of soot and ash. As they reached clean ice this layer began to peel off, staining the surface with their wake.   

Carmen switched feed.

The screen displayed a now unfamiliar view. In her absence, the miners had excised a canyon a hundred kilometres long, and almost a kilometer wide from the ice sheet. The back wall was a straight sheer cliff disappearing into the depths, the front bustled with miners each cutting, grasping, and pulling chunks of ice.

Carmen frowned, the miner’s progress seemed fast, very fast. In hours they had seemingly cleared five hundred million cubic meters of ice, cut into 100-metre cubes. That meant fifty thousand trips per miner. Even if the miners could do that, there was no way that the refineries could have handled that volume of ice. She was good at her job, but there was no way to expect a hundred odd miners to clear that in a matter of hours. No, there must have been some sort of collapse, some space beneath the ice.

She directed the drone to search the cutting face for any irregularity. It wove between the miners. While smooth from a distance, closer the surface was pockmarked, lacerated. Fissures disappeared into the interior. Many were shallow scars, dents no more than a few meters deep, she could not tell with many other—the drone’s light couldn’t find a back wall.  

About twenty minutes in, she found a cave mouth taller than the observation drone and twice as wide. The cave, a slightly undulating tunnel, extended for hundreds of metres before disappearing into darkness. Carmen edged into the tunnel. Her light advanced ahead but found no end. She paused and took a closer look at the tunnel’s wall—something bothered her about the chipped surface.

She stifled a yawn and glanced out of her office window. It was later than she’d expected. In the dusk, the crevasse was a purple scar across the channel. She eased the observation drone out of the cave and bid it to return high above the ice. Then she stood up, turned off the monitors, and went downstairs.

Glancing into the bedroom, she saw Chris wrapped in blankets, asleep. She wondered how long he’d been there. Was I really so caught up in work that I didn’t hear him go downstairs, she asked herself, he should have knocked. But she knew why he didn’t. Chris had a tendency of avoiding her after arguments until he judged she was no longer annoyed. Then he would return, with flowers, or some other small gift as well as with one of his overly-specific apologies. She knew this avoidance was his way of giving her space, but sometimes it felt like he was just waiting for her to get tired of being angry. We never really have arguments, she thought as she waited for the microwave to finish, just the starts of them.

 

Carmen woke alone the next morning. Chris was gone. Light streamed through the gaping bathroom door. It was midmorning. The house was silent. She got up and dressed, expecting to find him in the kitchen. He wasn’t there. Based on the cold half-eaten meal pack on the counter, he hadn’t been down in a while.

She looked down at the food; it was a simulated meat curries—a thick sludge, crusted like drying mud—she could not tell whether it was the one that tasted like brown crayons, or the one that tasted like pepper spray. Slipping the cardboard sleeve over the tray, Carmen chuckled dryly at the glossy image of perfectly browned meat, corralled by glistening slices of bell pepper, ah, the crayola curry.  

She dropped the pack onto the counter, went upstairs, and pressed her ear against Chris’s studio door. No sounds emerged from inside.

“Chris,” she called, “Chris?”

She knocked and then, after waiting a minute, knocked again. There was no response. She shook the door handle. It didn’t move; the door was locked. She knocked one final time, and, as she waited, found her eyes drawn to the front door.    

 

****

 

Chris walked up the path. Normally after an argument Chris would spend a day or so hiding in a coffee shop, writing, or at his grandmother’s studio, smoking weed and painting. This wasn’t just because Carmen needed space but also because they shared a tendency to overthink things. The distractions that went with some space helped him put everything into perspective, and art was an excellent outlet. A few days later he would be back home. They would talk. One of them—or both of them—would apologize.  

Inside, he found the door to her office was ajar spilling a triangle of light across the hallway. She wasn’t inside. The row of screens, the view of the ice, the glossy surfaces, and the unstained ceiling filled him with resentment and jealousy. He went into his studio and locked the door behind him.

Chris spent the rest of that day in his office, sitting in front of his computer. At first he told himself he would just try and write a little. But the more he thought, the less sorry he felt about snapping. This time she was clearly at fault. Just because he couldn’t explain every detail didn’t mean he was wrong. Furthermore, Carmen had demonstrated that she knew less about this planet than he did. She always treated him like an idiot, as though she automatically knew more than him. He’d had to explain the deep winter to her—a fact that had solved a problem she’d been working on for days.

By midday he was furious. After a hasty lunch, he returned to his office intent on proving the Cravens’ innocence. His first step was to search through the encyclopaedia.

His father had taught him that narrative was the most important part of building a case. The exact truth is impossible to know, he claimed, but its essence can be constructed from the scraps of evidence. Just because a few shards of a shattered bowl are missing, he thought, doesn’t mean you can claim it wasn’t a bowl. The essence of persuasion, according to his father, was getting enough proof and arranging it so the majority of people saw what you needed them to.

He pulled up every document relating to Craven behavior and searched through each using every relevant keyword he could come up with. He tried: aggressive, metal, shuttle, drone, attack, and then lacerate, tear, rend, gash, hurt, harm, injury. He scanned each result, looking for something that might be relevant, straining to decipher scientific jargon.

According to the encyclopedia, the planet had been dead a long time before they’d discovered it. No, not dead: sterilized. Some burst of radiation a few millions years before humanity had turned the whole system into a microwave oven and had given 8192 a good long cook. What was left was glacier, rock and seas of oil and gas—bruises under the ice.

That was until FrontEx came along and built an ecosystem like a parking lot over a cemetery. They owned the rights to every living thing on the planet, with the obvious two exceptions. All the animals, including the Cravens, were purpose-built. FrontEx had already sold huge tracts of the planet to multinationals, ‘individuals-of-high-net-worth,’ resort companies, and speculators. Plenty of people made careers out of buying and selling slices of planets like 8192 and FrontEx was the biggest beneficiary. It was unlikely that they would introduce some malicious animal and endanger their plans.

What’s more, throughout the ecosystem’s reports, there were no mentions of the Cravens exhibiting any aggressive behavior. During the field tests, ExoGenetics had kept the creatures in metal aviaries in the planet’s southwest. The birds had made little effort to escape. The one time a few had slipped through had been due to an intern leaving the door to their cage open. I doubt the aviaries were made of stronger metal than the shuttle, he thought, and there hasn’t been enough time for Craven’s beaks to get stronger—the Cravens outside are barely seven generations removed from ExoGenetic’s test tubes.

Emboldened by this evidence, Chris switched tracks. He searched for unexplained, anomalous, anomaly, damage, sabotage, espionage, competitor. A trickle of results came in, a few dozen, no more. The vast majority of these entries detailed ‘unexplained’ minor damage to machinery: scratches, dents, and a few engine failures. The longest entry described ExoGenetics losing drones while chasing two escaped prototype Cravens through an ice cave. But the documents explained every aspect of the story thoroughly, leaving no room for foul play. This evidence was disappointing; he deflated a little. His day of reading had torn down some of her arguments but it had done little to back his.

He glanced out of the window. The light had dimmed outside. If I’m going to prove her wrong, he thought, I am going to have to be proactive. If I skip my pill and try and sleep now I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, he stood, then I can go see the Cravens. He left his studio.

 

****

 

Outside, the world was blinding; the thaw had made the glacial glare brighter. Looking at the ice without sunglasses was like staring at the sun. Even through their tint the glow was uncomfortably bright. There was no wind, not even enough to raise a whisper in the trees. It was a balmy five degrees above zero.

At first, Carmen tried to look for new prints in the snow but their tracks had melted, leaving only the oldest and deepest treads as foot-shaped pucks. She reached the outcrop and, cautiously, peered down, hoping Chris was there. An empty patch of damp stone lay, bathed in sunlight. A bright green film clung to its surface. That wasn’t there a few days ago, thought Carmen, she frowned and looked around, taking in her surroundings.

The planet had changed overnight, springing to life. A delicate purple haze covered the pines on the ridgelines across the straits. Fat purple buds festooned the trees above her, nestled among thickets of needles; some had already begun to bloom. Something buzzed past her face. She recoiled. A buzz louder than a thousand cicadas rose among the trees. Beetles took flight, too many to count. The swarm hovered in the canopy, and then settled on branches high on the pines. 

A green-blue fuzz of vegetation: algae, or maybe moss hung over everything. Chris probably saw all this and got over excited and went out without leaving a note, she felt a twinge of annoyance, he probably went all the way out to the Cravens. Remembering the ledge, her progress slowed, maybe I should just wait for him inside.

Something snapped underfoot, giving way. Carmen stumbled forward, caught herself on a trunk, crushing a few beetles. She looked back. A white spar poked out of the needles, port of a delicate fretwork—a ribcage, barely bigger than her fist, bleached bones shattered where she’d stepped. A Craven, she thought and frowned; the head was missing and, while her weight had left rough fractures across the ribcage, the spine ended in a clean cut.     

Carmen shook her head. Oh-kay, let’s get this over with, she turned back to the path and picked up her pace, I’ll look for Chris on the beach and then, if he’s not there, then I’ll head to the roost—a shriek split the silence, then another. Dark blurs swooped through the trees. Carmen ducked, shielding her face but she was not the target. Instead each blur dove at the beetles which awoke in a rising buzz, fleeing the trees. Like dolphins cutting a shoal, the blurs corralled the cloud of beetles, slicing off manageable chunks.

Cravens, thought Carmen. She began to back down the path. The trees around her resounded with thumps, filling with birds. But they didn’t seem interested in her. One at a time, they crashed into the swarm, beaks agape.

Carmen continued her retreat.

The birds returned to the trees and, seconds later, each was joined by two smaller birds. Half of these newcomers looked like miniature Cravens. The other half looked like an entirely different species; bug-eyed, and bony, with bright, red patches on their throats, every few seconds they emitted piercing shrieks. The male Craven, thought Carmen, Christ they’re ugly.

Carmen felt the ground flatten behind her as reached the clearing. She turned and froze—heart thumping. Something had ransacked the clearing, uprooting the grass, and spreading matted needles in a rough spiral before the shuttle door. At the center of the spiral was a quivering mound of flesh and blood. She screamed, recoiled back up the path, and collided with something behind her.  

 

****

 

Awaking just past midnight, Chris dressed, and went out. It was warm, warmer than any day so far. Carried by the barest breath of wind, snow whirled over the straits, melting wherever it landed. The strip of light across the heavens—today, a hypnotic swirl of red, yellow, and orange—was cut by banks of purple clouds. As he scuffed down the path a cloudbank drifted across the strip. Night asserted itself. He fumbled for a flashlight.

The cloud broke as he reached the cliffside path, which was lucky because he needed both hands. He kept his eyes on the sky as he shimmied along the ledge. The sky was still crowded with flotillas of bulbous, dark, masses. He prayed the darkness would not return, not while his feet slid at every step, and his hands found nothing to grasp. Chris held his breath as he inched along the edge and then found the path again.

The Cravens were asleep. Their nests had grown, spilling over boughs, webbing each branch together. Gripping the branch above his, he leant in to take a closer look. He caught a whiff and halted. In the relative warmth, the long-repressed odour of their refuse was overpowering.  

He zipped his coat over his face, that will have to do. Leaning against the trunk, he steadied himself on the branch and pulled out the flashlight. He hesitated before turning it on. Will the light wake them? While he’d been sure that the Cravens were not aggressive, in the darkness he wasn’t so confident. What if Carmen is right?

Something glimmered in his sight. He focused on it—It was in the nests, woven into the floor. He leant closer, but the red glow was insufficient. Sighing, he crossed his fingers, pulled out his flashlight, set it to the lowest brightness and shone it at the nests. Shit, here and there among the needles and guano were fragments of metal from the shuttle.

It was the Cravens, he thought, what am I doing out here, this is crazy. He tried to turn off the flashlight. But, as he tried to find the right button, he flicked the beam over a huddle of Cravens. Mounds of eggshell studded the nest’s floor. A Craven shifted. The flashlight slipped from his grasp, tumbling. He snatched at it with his other hand, sliding forwards on his perch and teetering over the brink, and caught it and a dim view of the rocks below. Steadying himself, he shut off the light. It was too late. Glimmering, red in the night, a set of eyes stared up at him.

In the darkness, they were not so cute. Caw, softly, Caw Caw, louder now, and there were responses, faint at first but rising into a cacophony that told him he was surrounded. A coliseum of eyes stared down at him. More stared up at him. Before he had time to tell his body anything, he was scrambling down the tree.

Behind him, the Cravens shrieked. He felt the pressure of flapping wings. Something hit his back and he fell the last four feet to the ground. As he ran across the clearing, he was dimly aware of impacts in the ground behind him.

Chris was halfway along the ledge when the cloud dropped him into darkness. Gripping an outcropping root, he turned on his light, intending to hold it in his mouth. But, as he was bringing it to his mouth, the root gave, swinging him over the drop. The light fell, illuminating first cliffside then ice, then rock, then cliff, before smashing on the jagged rocks below. His feet slipped on the ledge. He yelped, scrambling for a steady footing, and pressed himself against the rock face. Cascades of soil and rocks trickled over his shoulders, his face.  

He had never experienced such complete night. Even at his great grandmother’s cottage there were the stars and the cities raising their own borealis on the southern horizon. For an age, he stood, his world shrunk to raw panic, shallow breaths, and ragged heartbeat. Then the cloud passed and the red light renewed the world though it was fainter, washed-out from the east by pre-dawn glow. He inched along the ledge, flinching at each shower of shale.

As he strode down the path to the shuttle, his fear and embarrassment began to sour.  Why did I come here, he asked himself, I could have stayed home and she’d have been back in a few months. All his rationales of art and adventure crumbled like dried flowers in careless hands.

His father had told him not to go, he recalled, bitterly. ‘If you are that scared that she is going to break up with you, you guys need to talk, his father had said, and if you can’t talk, then there is no ‘romantic getaway’ that will fix your relationship. Let her go.’

Of course Chris had responded, defensively, that Carmen was not the reason but his father had just smiled, condescendingly. After that, he raised the matter every time he saw Chris which was at least three times a week. Each time, Chris refined his reasoning, talking at length about his desire to make art, write, and explore. It was to no avail. His father tore the arguments apart with brutal efficiency, leaving Chris simmering.

In truth, since her father’s death, Carmen’s patience seemed to have waned. Their arguments had worsened; the silences had gotten longer. Chris still loved her but sometimes she seemed unreachable, indifferent. Of course it was not all bad. Every now and then, they would slip back into the easy, liberating companionship of their beginning. While those times were too infrequent to be satisfying, they gave him hope that there was a path back to what they were. And, after the first few days on the planet, he’d felt they were beginning to  reconnect.   

He stopped by the door to her office to catch his breath. Red light seeped out and he could hear the faint whoosh of computer cooling fans. An insensible, frustrated rage crept up through him, he felt his shoulders clench. He punched the wall. And then again, and again. The clanging impacts ricocheted down the hallway.

He caught his breath, cradling his right hand in his left. Dark bruises were already starting to rise around the knuckles, black in the dim light. He swore under his breath. I probably woke Carmen, he thought and listened for a hint of stirrings. He heard nothing.

Chris crept downstairs, stopped at the base of the stairs, and peered into the bedroom. Carmen was asleep, sprawled across the bed, half under the sheet, her arms reaching over the space he’d left. For a little while, he stood in the doorway, watching her. The little shifts, a slight wrinkling of her nose. His anger had waned as suddenly as it had arrived. Instead, he felt disappointed and lonely. He did not want to wake her but wished she was awake.  

He pulled the sheets over her, and turned to leave but hesitated, noticing an open bottle of sleeping pills on her bedside table. Palming one pill, he walked to the kitchen to get a glass of water. As he walked across the red-lit tiles, he felt a pang of hunger.

Placing the pill on the counter, he heated himself up a meal pack, poured a glass of water, and sat facing the doorway. As Chris ate, it occurred to him that his day/night cycle was out of sync. With each bite he felt himself waking up but he should have been deep asleep. He glanced down at the pill. A whole one would lay him out for twelve hours, well into the next afternoon. Maybe if I break it in half, he thought, six hours sleep would get me on track.

He eased the two halves of the pill apart, poured the powder within onto the counter, and swept half of it into his cup. He gulped down the water. An overwhelming acrid taste spilled across his tongue. Chris almost retched. Down in the emptied cup, a raft of crystals clung to its bottom. Sighing, he refilled the glass, swirling the water as it filled. He drained the glass once more. A chemical taste, different, but as unpleasant as the previous one invaded his mouth.

Chris tried to consider the implications but his thoughts began to loop. The wall across from him was very interesting. He felt the intense desire to touch it. But, as he walked across the room, he noticed that the doorframe into the kitchen was not a rectangle but an irregular trapezoid. It was unbearable. He tried to look away, but he could feel it there like it was looking at him. Thoughts declared themselves, as though carved in stone by some prophet: they were law.

He left the kitchen, heading to the bedroom but reaching the room, the sight of Carmen reminded him of their argument. He felt an upsurge of guilt and shame. HOW COULD I BE SO MEAN, declared the prophet in his brain, I SHOULD DO SOMETHING TO SHOW HOW SORRY I AM. The latter thought set his brain alight. Turning on his heels, he climbed the stairs, heading for his studio.

I AM GOING TO MAKE ART, declared his brain. He slid into his chair, picked up his notebook, and placed it in front of him, taking care to place it square against the edge of the desk. He then pulled out the pastels. They were out of order, which forced him to rearrange them into the correct order but he eventually turned back to the notebook. Finally ready to start, he picked up the black pastel and placed it parallel to the notebook. Chris smiled and then passed out, head bouncing on the empty page.

 

Maybe it was the knocking that actually woke him up, but he was certainly not truly conscious until he heard her leave the house. He felt as though he were submerged in thick mud. He lay for a timeless period with his eyes closed, trying to force himself to wake. It took half his strength to will his eyelids apart. He’d drooled in the night, and the smell of stale saliva and sweat began to fill his nose. He strained and was rewarded by a slight twitch of his finger.

Over the next five minutes, Chris maneuvered himself into a sitting position. His right hand ached, swollen puffy, reddish-purple. The weight of his exhaustion pulled at him like concrete on a drowning man.

Standing, he found his limbs leaden. Chris, the voice came, Chris, Chris, each call farther away. He fumbled at the door lock, his hands slipping off the door handle as he tried to gain purchase. Then, after what seemed to be an age, he was out.

She’s gone outside, thought Chris. Then, more panicked, she’s gone outside! She doesn’t know how aggressive the Craven’s have become. He grabbed sunglasses, put on his coat, and went out.

It was warm, the scent of pines thick in the air. Across the ice, water filled the labyrinth of crags and crevasses, and the surface was pockmarked with pools. Across this water was a growing mat of turquoise and green algae. A dense swarm of beetles buzzed overhead.

“Carmen?” He rasped.

Chris kicked up showers of needles as he made for the path. A rising shriek echoed from ahead. Carmen, he thought, then, no, not Carmen, as another shriek answered the first. It was the sound he’d heard the night before: the Cravens. He tore down the path. Just as he reached the end of it, he collided with something which fell back, screaming, landing on the path with a dull thud before she recognized him.

“Chris? Thank fucking god.”

Her embrace winded him.

“Where were you? I’ve been looking for...” her eyes swept over the bruises on his hand, the dirt under his broken fingernails.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“It’s a long story...” He sighed, and seeing her worried expression added, “I was asleep in my studio. I didn’t realize you were looking for me until you were already outside. I went outside last night. I thought I could prove the Cravens innocent. But they attacked me, and I think you were right.” Carmen let out a harsh, taut cackle that echoed through the trees, “Hey, that’s not fair—don’t laugh at me. Look I was wrong, I was way off base...”

“It’s not that. I... just—we have bigger problems, go look in the clearing.”

Carmen turned and walked the short distance down the path towards the clearing. Confused, Chris followed. She stopped short of the clearing, waving Chris on. He stepped past her and paused, staring at the chaotic scene before him.

In front of the shuttle, in a swirl of needles, lay the body of a Craven. Its wings were spread out and its head pushed back so that its beak pointed to the damaged shuttle door. A patch of light purple covered its chest. Chris narrowed his eyes, and took a few steps towards the body.

His foot caught something which rolled away. A line of twigs, broken at his feet, curved off in each direction, making a perfect circle around the body. He knelt and picked one up. The stick was about the length of his palm, and slender, neatly clipped on each end. It had no bark on it. He stood, steadying his ascent with his left hand; he felt dampness in the bed of needles, grass and mud. His hand came away red.

“Is that blood?” He grimaced.

“I didn’t get a good look,” she called from the edge of the clearing, “did you see the flowers?”

“On the pines? Yeah—”

“No, in the Craven.”

Chris stepped towards the body. Closer, it was clear that the patch of purple was a bunch of flowers. Something had cut away the bird’s ribs, pushed them apart, and inserted a bouquet in the cavity. A beetle crawled up from within the bunch, its carapace coated in a thick, red film. He caught a rancid stench. I need to get away.

Chris stumbled to the edge of the clearing. He fell to his knees, retching. Nothing came up but a foul smelling dribble of acid mixed with saliva. For a while, Chris sat with his back facing the shuttle trying to collect himself. Carmen joined beside him, hand lightly on his back.

“I think something got it yesterday,” Carmen said eventually, “But I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean.”

“No, not, yesterday,” Chris watched a beetle flit between the pines, and tried to bottle his nausea, “I was here early this morning, and all this wasn’t here.”

 

****

 

Carmen stood, and, after a few seconds, Chris joined her. Trapped in the stillness, neither of them made a move back to the house.

Quite suddenly, with a rising series of shrieks, the Craven flock tore over the clearing, disappearing in the direction of their nest. Carmen watched as the birds zipped over the patch of empty sky in greater and greater numbers. The wind died again, and even the faint buzz of the beetles seemed to have faded to nothing.

She took another look at the clearing. It all seemed staged, almost melodramatic.

 “So… corporate espionage?”

Chris shook his head, “that was just my best guess yesterday. I think that FrontEx would have told us if they thought that was a possibility. Plus, that,” he motioned towards the shuttle, “seems like a lot of effort to go through. Each of those twigs has been stripped of bark, cut, and placed in a circle. Plus, climbing the tree for the flowers, catching the Craven. A lot of effort to, what, scare us off?”

“What does that leave?”

“I’m not sure… I have no idea what’s going on here.”

Chris’ expression flickered. For a moment he looked terrified. He pulled her close, holding her tight. Carmen buried her face in his chest, eyes closed.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said, her voice muffled by his coat.

Looking across, through the pines, out over the algae-splotched ice, Carmen listened to the trees rhythmically rustling in the wind. Something about the scene bothered her. A cloud clipped the sun, dimming the glare and giving her a glimpse of the fractured ice.

The pools that pockmarked the ice lay unruffled, tranquil. There wasn’t the slightest breath of wind. The Cravens departed, the beetles offered nothing but white noise. Still, the trees rustled above. Carmen frowned.

The trees rustled above; there was no wind.

She froze, fighting the urge to look upwards. She squeezed Chris’ hand.

“Hey—” her expression silenced him.

“There’s no wind,” she whispered, and pointed upwards.

“Hmmm?”

“The trees,” his eyes widened, “don't look up: run. “

They ran. Careening up the path. Chris pulling her behind him. The rustling turned to a thrashing, cacophony. Her feet slipped but she caught herself. Pushing forwards off a trunk, aware only of the rain of pine needles falling behind her, and the sound of shaking trees.  

Despite their headlong rush, Chris’ hand tight on her wrist, the rustling gained on them. A rain of needles engulfed her. Over the rustling she heard a guttural clicking. She glimpsed long, dark shapes in the trees above.

Then they were out of the trees, dashing across the clearing before the house. They barreled down the hallway, jabbed in the code, and tumbled through the inner door, Chris slamming it behind them.  

With a bone-shivering crash, something struck the door. The metal bowed inwards, white stretch marks spreading from the edges. Before the echoes of the first strike had died, something struck the door again. The metal gave a creaking groan but held.

Carmen stood, holding her breath, waiting for the next strike. But it did not come, just a tapping like fingers against metal, the raging tempo of her heart, and their winded breathing fading to silence.   

3 - Awakening

“Carmen,” her world shook, “Carmen,” she struggled to open her eyes but sleep clung to her like thick mud, “Carmen.”

She opened her eyes a crack. Chris’ face came into view; he looked worried.  

“Ah, good,” Chris sat down the bed from her, “Sorry for the rude awakening but It’s pretty late.”

Past Chris, Carmen saw bright light streaming in from the bathroom and hallway.

Shit!” Carmen jerked upright, “You should have woken me earlier.”

“I tried,” He said as Carmen swung out of bed, and began to get dressed,  “I’ve been trying on-and-off for two hours; that pill really did a number of you.”

He was right. As Carmen fumbled with her socks, she could feel an insistent tug, a clumsiness. Her brain was foggy, each thought crawling by.

Chris looked fine. He watched her, a bemused look on his face, and scratched a splotch of sauce on his sweater which crumbled away onto the floor.

Carmen sniffed her armpits. She smelled fine so she pulled on a sweater over her t-shirt and walked to the kitchen. Chris followed.

“I put your breakfast in the microwave. You might need to add more water; I cooked it once already,” He sat down at the counter, “The tea should be good though,” she poured a little water over the tray in the microwave, “I added sweetener already,” he added as she reached for the cabinet.

“Thanks.” She sipped her tea, it was perfection.

“You’re welcome,”  he paused. She could tell he was trying to word a question—a sure sign he was going to ask for something he thought she’d say no to, “I was thinking…”

“Baby, just ask the question.”

“Okay well… let’s go for a walk before you get into work. It might be nice for you to clear your head. Sitting inside all day every day is not good for you. And you know I worry...”

“Okay.”

“...that,” he caught up, “Okay? Great! If we head out after breakfast, we’ll catch a great view of the light!

“Sounds good.”

 

*****

 

Outdoors, it was far warmer than she remembered, barely -5. The wind swept over the ice, blowing faint trails of snow over the dim surface and tousling the trees. She unzipped her jacket and crunched after Chris down the path to the shuttle. Their footfalls punctuated the rustling of the trees. Halfway to the shuttle, Chris veered from the path, clambering down a steep bank.

“Chris?”

“Don’t follow me. I forgot a few things out here yesterday.”

Catching up, she saw he was standing on a flat, rocky outcrop about five feet below the path. He was, looking about, frowning.

“I left them here,” He stepped towards the edge; a bubble of anxiety rose within her, “I guess they fell.”

For an eternity, she watched as he leaned over the edge, peering down. She was beset by images of him falling, of him shattered on the rocks and ice below or alive but injured, waiting on help that was days distant. She wanted to grab him and pull him back. Her mouth dried out. Her heart pounded. Then, he was clambering back up, empty handed.

“I didn’t see anything,” he sighed, “I’m sure they’re down there, though.”

“What did you leave out here?”

“Two thermoses, I’m sure they were blown down onto the ice, which kind of sucks.” he sighed, peering down at the outcrop, “the papers I left there are also gone which is no surprise.”

Shrugging to himself, Chris walked on. Carmen lingered momentarily, staring down at the outcrop. Chris had a cavalier attitude to belongings, throwing things about until they invariably broke, or wore out. Before they lived together his floors had been strewn with archipelagos of discarded clothes, charging cords, and papers. She’d made it clear before they found their apartment that that wasn’t going to fly. But, seeing it again, the ease with which he let the lost be lost ate at her; those thermoses had been for the both of them.  

They passed the shuttle and followed a second, undulating path up through the trees towards the other end of the island. After a few minutes, the path straightened. This new avenue of pines appeared to end at an eight-foot rock face crowned by weedy trees. Carmen saw no sign of a path up. A foot from the rockface, Chris veered to the right.

She followed but drew to a halt when she saw what the path became.

“Seriously, Chris, you thought I’d be down for this?”

Chris gave her a sheepish grin, “But—

“No, I’m not even discussing this, that cliff is clearly unstable.”

“I’ve managed it twice so far, and you’re smaller than I am. If you don’t look down,” Chris continued in a reassuring tone, “you’ll be fine.”

But Carmen had already looked down, she’d seen the fall and that image had wormed deep into her. She took a few deep breaths, closed her eyes and, creating a mental image of a trash can, forced every worst-case-scenario into it.

“I’ll go first.” Chris turned towards the path.

“No!” She pulled him back, “I’ll go first.”

Five minutes later, they were up on a branch overlooking a vista of ice.  Carmen sat in front of Chris, leaning back onto his chest. His arms were wrapped around her. The Cravens kept their distance, bustling in the trees on either side. She hadn’t trusted his descriptions of the birds; Chris had a penchant for exaggeration and “flying pillow” wasn’t a convincing description of any living thing. Seeing them herself, she couldn’t think of a better description.

Some sat on clutches of speckled eggs. More darted up and down, bouncing from branch to branch, with their beaks full of needles, depositing each load on a different nest to be glued in place by the rain of guano. Up in the spiral of pine limbs, the nests had begun to merge, mashed needles, feathers, and shit turning the trees into staircases. Carmen remembered the brown, papery material draped over the pines throughout the planet and wondered whether the materials were one and the same.

“The nests were much smaller yesterday,”  Chris said. She felt him shift, craning to get a better look at the birds, “I guess the sisterhood is already preparing for the deep winter, a year and a half ahead of time.”

“Sisterhood? there must be some males.”

“The males don’t survive the winter, and especially not the ‘deep winter.’”

“Deep winter?”

“You know the system is binary right?”

“Yes, of course. I don’t need a lecture, just tell me what ‘deep winter is.’”

“Well at the peri.. peria—”

“Periastron?”

“Yeah, that—it increases the planet’s orbital eccentricity, so that the planet enters that giant cloud of gas during winter, and stays there for about 20 days. It gets super cold.”

Carmen frowned, her mind drawn back to her project. She had adjusted the calendar to show only 30 days. Back then, it had seemed clear that one of the planet’s years was enough. She’d never thought to look beyond that; there’d been no indication of huge swings in the climate from one year to the next. But what if, she thought as Chris talked on, what if 30 days was not enough? Could my mistake be that simple? Resolving to check her work after lunch, Carmen tuned back in. He was still talking about the birds.

“...It just seems so unfair, they help to build the larders for the winter, then they just die—all that work for nothing...”

She looked out over the ice and tried to stitch together what he’d been talking about. The light of a million mirrors catching the sun shimmered on the horizon. Ah yes, she thought to herself, the male Cravens… something bothered her about how he talked about the birds—it was as though he was talking about old friends.

“... I don’t know, it just seems to me that they deserve to survive the winter as much as the females—”

“There’s a reason, right?”

“A reason?”

“I assume the people who designed the Cravens weren’t just being cruel—there’s a reason that the males don’t survive.”

“Not enough food but they could have made more food available. They made everything—”

“What do Craven’s eat?”

“Beetles, mostly.”

“So you’re okay if a lot more beetles died? That would be more fair?”

“Beetles aren’t the same as birds,” he sounded hurt.

“All I’m saying, Chris, is that these birds were designed to be part of an ecosystem, you can’t just change a part of an ecosystem based on your perception of fairness.”

At that he was silent, a sullen silence that continued as the frozen sea turned into an expanse of light and the Cravens’ cawing rose into the heavens. Initially, Carmen felt guilty; maybe she shouldn’t have snapped. He’d been in such a good mood before. But, as he stalked ahead of her, barely glancing back, guilt turned to irritation.

Chris had often told her that he loved her intelligence, yet she had been struck on many occasions at how he reacted poorly to her disagreeing with him. Now, alone on the frigid planet, she wondered whether that was something he said to people who agreed with him—a sort of self-compliment. While his emotional openness was part of the reason she fell for him, it had its downsides. She watched him disappear into the trees ahead of her. For all his emotional intelligence, he was still a man, a man that had been taught he had the right to offload his emotions onto others. The sunrise was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen and yet his bad mood ate at her good mood, like acid on metal.

Back at the house, she took her lunch to her office. He did not follow.

She hadn’t turned off the computers the day before. In her absence, they’d crashed. The sad mole’s silhouette was an acrid fluorescent smear across the screen. As the machines restarted, she looked out over the ice, tracing the shadows of the cracks—stark black and white in the sunlight. Somehow her time with him had left her feeling lonelier.  

It took her an hour to identify the problem. She increased the window to show 90 days again. After that she just rewrote her last program, hoping that in her last few hours of work, her system hadn’t gotten less efficient. As she suspected, beyond the 30 days, the model broke down. A twenty day period was highlighted in red—deep winter.

As she had feared the problem was systemic. During deep winter, it was too cold and the little sunlight that reached the surface was too diffuse; there was no way her drones would function on solar power. She had to find a different power source.

This itself was a whole other problem. The planet had no real fissionable resources and most of its geothermal potential was under at least 6 kilometer of ice. She lacked the resources to build a wind plant. This left the oil. However, while the factory unit could retrofit the drones with combustion engines, it would take her months to design engines with enough energy output and efficient enough to avoid having to refuel every few hours; she would need schematics.

It took her a minute to find the computer’s email application. She sent an e-mail detailing their issues and requesting schematics. The message would sit in the satellite until anything came close enough to pick it up. By her estimates, the quickest FrontEx could get back to them was 6 days. In the meantime, her original program would work. Tomorrow, she decided, I’ll put the fleet to work. Her insides untwisted a little.

 

****

 

Later that night, Carmen awoke with a start. Confused, she sat up. Something had woken her but the dim room was perfectly still. A faint red light spilled from the bathroom and the corridor, throwing long shadows across the room. Chris’s sleeping form slumped beside her. He’d taken a pill. Still unnerved by her difficulties that morning, Carmen had eschewed the pill but now—every shadow creeping towards her—she wished she hadn’t.

Her mouth was dry. She padded to the kitchen to get a glass of water.The light flooding through the kitchen windows transformed the room into a patchwork of red and black. Curious, she dragged a stool to the wall and, standing on it, peered out the window.

A red strip vaulted the sky, an arc across the night that bathed the world in a glow brighter than moonlight. Since they’d landed, she hadn’t given much thought to the gas cloud. There was no doubt that this flowing and eddying, liquid but static, band of intertwined hues was the cloud—Jupiter’s writhing exterior rolled across the night.

She tore her eyes away, glancing out over the channel to the eastern ridgeline. The ice was pink, falling in and out of black crags; the ridgeline a silhouette, except for patches of snow, pink blotches cut by the shadows and bulk of pines. Puffs of snow tumbled across the surface, borne by an inaudible wind. Otherwise, all was still.

A shriek sheared through the silence, startling her back onto her heels. She almost toppled off the chair. Before its echo faded, it came again. Then, a few beats later, again. Then nothing.

Clambering off the chair, Carmen stood silently in the kitchen, listening tensely. It’s probably just the Cravens, maybe they fell from a tree, she thought, and though it was not a convincing hypothesis it calmed her enough to think of others. Maybe the ice is breaking, she thought, maybe there was a landslide, maybe there’s a problem with the shuttle… That last one got her, she imagined the shuttle tipped over, blown across the ground. But the wind isn’t that strong.

Images of the shuttle—compromised, cracked, and torn open—crowded her mind. Carmen tried to squash them, to throw them out, but more just took their place. She considered the trees—they were reinforced but she assumed they could lose limbs. In the wake of an ice storm in her third year of university—the second in centuries—falling branches of shattered trees had crushed cars and buses.

Five minutes crawled past. Silence reasserted itself. A familiar tightness grew in her chest. I need to wake Chris and go out there, she thought, that shuttle is our only way off this planet right now. During her brief time in the kitchen, Chris had sprawled across the bed. She shook him. He grumbled and turned over, wrapping the sheets around him.

“Chris,” Carmen said, softly; he grumbled something unintelligible. “Chris,” louder now, his snoring resumed.

She gave up. She pulled on a sweater, a coat, shoved some gloves in her pockets, and grabbed a flashlight from the kitchen.

Outside, it was darker than she expected. Though red flooded over everything, she still needed a flashlight. It was warm, hovering around zero—she barely needed her coat. Carmen stood just beyond the door, peering down the path to the shuttle.

She swept the flashlight across the pines, pouring momentary light into every corner. It revealed nothing. She swung her the beam up into the canopy. Still nothing. Carmen inched forward, swinging her cone of light left, then right, casting the pines on either side into harsh relief and turning their shadows pitch black.

Halfway down the path, the shriek came again. She clenched her teeth, as it reverberated through her. An onrushing dread stopped her in her tracks. She was painfully aware that this might prove a foolish excursion. Sure, she had learned a lot about the planet in the past three days but it was a planet—that was barely scratching the surface. She had no idea what could be lurking in the night. Above her, the sky was a great red narrowed eye; the darkness crept in. Breathlessly, she waited for the shriek to come again. But only echoes swilling across the straits competed with the silence.

She looked back up the path, then down, throwing light around her. There was nothing but the pines and needles, rock and ice. Nothing moved. You're being paranoid. This is typical scared of the dark bullshit, she told herself. She forced herself forwards.

Carmen found the first piece of the shuttle a few feet from the clearing. Its edges caught her light, shimmering. Without taking her eyes off the trees around her, she stooped to pick it up, patting at the blanket of pine needles until she felt hard metal

She wedged the flashlight between her head and shoulder and examined the piece—an unidentifiable ribbon that appeared to have been half ripped, half cut away. Dropping the metal, she flicked the beam ahead of her. Dozens more fragments gleamed along the path.

The clearing was a field of debris, sheared strips scattered across the frozen grass. She picked her way through the wreckage and, stopping a few paces from the shuttle, ran the light over its surface. Long gashes scarred the vessel’s door. Something had torn through every layer of the hull.

While dramatic, the damage wasn’t serious—nothing a trip to the factory couldn’t repair—though that seemed to be more luck than anything else; anything that could rip through the hull could have destroyed the engines. She ran her gloved hand over the tears. It was probably best to keep it as it was until a FrontEx representative could take a look.

The trees rustled. Carmen jumped and swept her light over the forest. An expanse of needles and the fretwork of tree bark sat still in the harsh spotlight. She backed towards the path to the house. The rustling resumed. It was coming from her left from the path to the Craven’s nests. Flicking her beam towards the trees, she caught the branches swaying, as though a weight had been lifted off them.

With a departing glance at the shuttle, Carmen ran back to the house.

 

2 - Spring

The next morning, Carmen awoke early. Chris had fallen asleep spooning her. His warmth, fermented beneath the comforter, trapped her between sleep and wakefulness. For a while she was content to just lie there, drifting in and out of consciousness. However, in her most wakeful moments, she couldn’t help but martial a list of tasks for the day.

Pulled reluctantly into wakefulness, Carmen noticed a slick of sweat where her bare lower back met Chris’ stomach, the pressure of him against her arse, and the slight caress of his breath on her neck. At first arousing, these soon became unbearable.

She extracted Chris’ arm from inside the baggy t-shirt she’d slept in. He thudded onto his back, with a soft grunt, and began to snore quietly. For a moment, she lay there, trying to prioritise but she defaulted: food first.

Stretching out the last of her drowsiness, she dropped onto her feet, wincing as the cold floor bit her soles. Then, taking one last look at Chris, she left the room.

The kitchen was significantly brighter than their bedroom, though not by much. Faint light filtered through a rank of tiny windows set high on the room’s rightward wall. Banks of cabinets ringed the walls, overhanging a microwave, kettle, and sink on the far wall. A raised counter divided the room, cutting from the window side and ending two feet short of the opposite wall. Two backless bar stools sat in front of the counter.

Carmen padded around to the microwave and opened the cabinet above. As she’d expected, plastic trays in cardboard sleeves—pre-made meals—packed every shelf. Standing on the tip of her toes, she pulled one from the top of the nearest stack. She studied its cover. Breakfast Meal-pack, it declared, Egg and Simulated Ham Scramble with Potato Hash. These words were emblazoned over an image of impossibly fluffy eggs flecked with chunks of ham, over a raft of perfectly browned potatoes.

She rotated the box five or six times before she found the instructions: add half a cup of water, then microwave with plastic cover on for three minutes.

She slipped off the cardboard sleeve and a plastic fork clattered onto the counter. Beneath the tray’s transparent, vacuum-sealed cover lay mounds of off-white squares—looking suspiciously like styrofoam packing—on beds of yellow powder and pea-sized chunks the color of dried blood. 

Carmen wasn’t surprised to find that—hydrated and heated—the food betrayed the cover’s promise. The ‘egg’ and ‘potato’ merged into a beige mass that tasted like salt and stale air. The ham, now swollen bright pink blocks, tasted like watery bacon fat. It smelled of nothing, which was a relief. Still, she sat at the counter and shovelled forkful after forkful into her mouth, swallowing before the taste could sink in.

Slowing midway through her meal, Carmen cast about for a screen—in the absence of Chris, she could work. She tapped on the counter and waited for a screen to appear. Nothing happened. No screen projectors, she thought. Carmen cleared her throat.

“Screen?” no response, “activate?” nothing, “Computer?”

She opened the nearest cabinet, hoping it would contain something useful. Inside were two flashlights, and an antiquated tablet. Score.

Carmen laid the device in front of her, and, after a few seconds’ struggle, managed to turn it on. A touch-screen, she thought, maybe I’ll finally find a use for Chris’ history of technology minor. The screen lit up, displaying a grid of icons overlaying a FrontEx logo. She looked from icon to icon, trying to identify each shortcut. Then, ignoring the e-mail, the Internet, and messaging apps, she clicked on an image of an open book—the library app.

An animated rack of books filled the screen. In the top left was a book named ‘the Encyclopaedia of Planet 8192.’ The rest of the books appeared to be technical manuals and survey reports. So much for a fully stocked library, thought Carmen, unsurprised. She opened the encyclopaedia and skimmed through the first pages. It began with a brief description of how they found the planet and went on to summarized the various visits since.

In a few hours, she learned a lot about the planet. For instance: Carmen and Chris were not the first people to set foot on the planet but were within the first dozen. While they would not hold the peculiar, indelible honour of being first, they might—for a time—hold the title of the longest time spent on the planet—a title doomed to be superseded.

The geological and environmental surveys had barely run the length of the planet’s 30 day year. The surveyors—climate engineers, geologists, exobiologists and so forth—had spent less than 8 days on the surface total, spending most of  their time analyzing data uploaded to them by their instruments and drones up on their ship. Those instruments were still out there somewhere: frozen, busted, or simply not worth the expenditure required to pick them up. FrontEx had been littering the planet with garbage from the moment they reached it like people claiming seats in busy cafes with their jackets. Marking their territory, she thought as she read through excerpts of initial reports, or at least avoiding eminent domain.

Before FrontEx there were no pines, only rock, ice and, miraculously, a breathable atmosphere. The current consensus was that, while now barren, millions of years ago the planet had been home to algae. This theory accounted for the atmosphere, and the oceans of oil found beneath the ice.

Carmen had never been particularly good at biology. It had never held her interest past the answers for the next exam. As far as she was concerned, the long and the short of whatever sludge had lived on the planet was that it had lived, died, and festered, turning to seas of oil and gas. FrontEx planned to burn it to warm up the planet. This tried and true process was projected to take 40-years—quick compared to the aborted first test run on Earth. That was not why she had been hired. Her job was simply to make them money in the meantime. That meant stripping the planet of all other resources, mostly lithium.

Chris found her in the kitchen just as she was getting to the astrometric data of the 819 system. Bleary-eyed, and a little disheveled, he smiled sleepily at her and executed a shambling dance, spinning over to the right, before sashaying back to the left. Reaching her, Chris bowed and proffered his hand with an elaborate flourish, “might I have this dance?”

 He gave her a gentle kiss on her cheek, then tugged at her arm. Carmen giggled, and allowed herself to be pulled up. Then off they went, swaying rhythmless across the room. They ‘danced’ for a good five minutes, before breaking apart. Chris looked over at the counter, to her half-finished meal-pack and the tablet next to it.

“Already started working,” he smiled, “no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to make a slacker out of you.”

“Funny, I was saying the opposite about you to my mother the other day.”

Chris grinned, “So what’s your plan for today?”  

Carmen groaned internally. She’d implied she would explore the island with him but, in the course of her reading, it’d become clear she should start work immediately. Further, the bare minimum requirements of the contract was for her mining program to endure for 60 days without issue and, the food and the island being what they were, she was eager to get on track.

“I don’t think I can do any exploring.”

“I figured... Want tea?” she nodded and Chris pulled mugs and teabags from the cupboard above the sink,  “My cousin Constance—the systems administrator on Europa—always says the first fews days are the worst part of a project. Once you’re done setting up you’ll have practically nothing to do, right?”

“In an ideal world, yes.”

“So how about I do some exploring of my own and, when you’re done, I’ll show you the highlights.”

Carmen did not want him to explore without her; it seemed like something they should do together. But, she could think of no argument to support her desire for him to wait. She settled for a compromise, “Okay, but let’s have lunch together.”

“I’ll bring it to your office.”

 

*****

 

Chris made the tea, placed both mugs on the breakfast counter, and microwaved a meal pack. While it cooked, he pulled a stool around the counter.

Carmen was silent, clutching her mug with a familiar distant look in her eyes—a glazed, unfocused, yet unrelenting gaze that overtook her when she was silently tackling a problem. Early in their relationship, Chris had done his best to interpret those gazes, to get Carmen to talk but, while Carmen had no issue talking at length about engineering problems, he found the dense thickets mathematics and engineering they relied upon impenetrable.

The microwave beeped. He pulled out the steaming tray and tried not to look too hard at its contents.

“If you need to get on with your work...” he began.

“No, It’s okay, I’ll sit with you.” she said earnestly. He could see her trying to pull herself back from the problem, to be present, but even as she finished speaking she was clearly gone again.  

“It’s no big deal. Really.”

“Thanks,” Carmen leant over the counter, and gave him a kiss, “I’ll see you at lunch?”

“Sure.”

Chris watched Carmen as she took the stairs, holding her mug carefully in front of her. If he was being honest, he was disappointed, but telling Carmen would just make her feel bad about things she couldn’t change. She had a job to do and the quicker she gets it done the quicker this becomes an adventure for the both of us, he thought but those facts did little to blunt his disappointment.  

He pulled the tablet across the breakfast counter to him and, wiping his left hand on his shirt, powered it on. The screen lit up, displaying a page of text broken up by equations. The first one he vaguely recognized as having something to do with gravity. The rest were mysteries.

Exiting the document, he opened the e-library and flicked down the ranks of technical manuals therein; there was no sign of the books he’d requested.

Chris picked at his food. It had congealed into a single, beige puck. He decided he was done. Downing the last of his tea in one, scalding gulp, he went to take a shower.

The biggest disappointment of the day came half an hour later, when he walked through the door of his studio. The pictures in the FrontEx catalogue had been stunning. Light streaming through windows that overlooked thickly-forested valleys. A couch facing the view and a muscular man standing in front of an easel, painting the landscape, a stack of canvases by his side. Chris had paid for the studio out of his trust fund. It had been expensive even by his standards—a quarter of his dividends. Maybe that was why the reality blindsided him—purchase was, to him, a sacred trust.

The first thing Chris noticed was the view. The window that dominated the far wall looked out past the trunks of two pines to a dark grey rockface a few feet beyond. Inside, there was no couch, and the titled seat on the single, beat-up office chair looked as if it would deposit him on the floor just as soon as he sat. The ceiling was a patchwork of damp-stained tiles. An easel slouched at the centre of the room. Someone had thoughtfully installed a canvas which leant forwards and to the side, giving the impression that the whole thing was falling over.

Chris hadn’t told Carmen that he’d paid for the studio, though on some level he’d expected her to work it out. To his surprise, Carmen accepted the idea that the company was giving them something for free and, not long after she’d heard, it seemed to have slipped her mind. Back then, he’d considered himself lucky but now he felt he could not complain without revealing the omission—which she would call a lie.

Much to his relief, three aspects of the studio were almost as promised. All were in the corner closest to the door. First, a computer, which, was shiny, new and—though it took a few tries to turn on—worked. Beside that lay the second non-disappointment, a stack of sketchbooks with the third item, a set of coloured pastels, sitting on top of them. Putting the last two items aside for the time being, he dragged the office chair to the computer, sat gingerly against the sloping seat, and fired-up the machine.

Intending to write a journal entry, he looked for a word processor. There was no word processor. Changing tacks, he tried the internet and searched for wifi networks. He refreshed the list several times before realizing there was no connection. There would never be any connection.

Feeling a little stupid, he stared at the screen and listened to the whoosh of the cooling fan. He pinched the bridge of his nose, and took a few, deep breaths. He needed to clear his head, to get away from the house and lose himself in something.

Chris stood, left his studio, and went back down to the bedroom. He rummaged through cupboards and closets, throwing anything that looked useful onto the bed: a coat, a pair of gloves, a soft, black ushanka and a pair of sunglasses.

He pulled on the coat, checking its fit, and shoved the gloves in its pockets. The hat was too small. He left it on the bed, pocketed the sunglasses, and climbed the stairs.In the hallway, Chris lingered beside the closed door to Carmen’s office, listening for sounds from within. He heard nothing.

Outside, it was warmer than it had been the day before, though still firmly below zero. The sun clipped the top of the pines and was caught in the slight mist, turning into faint rays. Below, the world was dim in the shadow of the surrounding ridgelines. Across the ice, on the western shore the shadows of the trees striped the rockface, disappearing into the forests.

Chris took a deep breath of freezing air, and felt the day's disappointment fade. Surging into the space it left was exhilaration. This was it—the big adventure, the one he would tell his children about. He gazed over the frozen straits to the ridge and pines beyond and wondered how common it was to recognize a life defining experience as it began.

He gazed over the frozen expanse, admiring the jumble of shapes. Great mirror-smooth plates, jagged bergs, brutal shards, plunging crevasses: they all flowed together, a geometric collage of blue. It’s like a picasso painting, he thought and chuckled to himself.

As he crossed the clearing, a crevasse lurched into view. Bigger than all other cracks in the surface, it stretched almost the entire distance to the far shore—a few kilometres by Chris’s estimation—a tear that disappeared into indigo darkness.

Wind laced through the trees, Chris shivered; he needed to get moving. He headed for the path and, as he picked his way down, kicking drifts of needles and snow from the gravel, a sense of familiarity settled over him. The pines, snow, and gravel reminded him of his great grandmother’s place in Northern Ontario. He’d spent every Christmas there.

A late 21st century classic big enough for all four generations of his family, the house was set a kilometer or so from a small lake, which could be reached via a winding track through a stand of pines. The path ended on a pebble beach and in a small jetty jutting into the water. It was there he saw his first frozen body of water.

Of course, he’d seen ice before: on ice rinks, in drinks, in films about the past. Some Januaries, in his neighborhood, he’d stomped on puddles crusted with ice. But the rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans remained resolutely liquid. Then, when he was eight, the lake froze.

It had been getting colder for a while—they’d seen the first snows in a century—but most projections predicted no extended periods below negative five for at least a few decades. The year of the freeze, the temperature dropped in the first week of December. No one thought the cold would last. It did. This was why, on Christmas Eve, his grandmother woke him early and led him through the pines.

Chris remembered cold air drenched in the smell of pines and the shock of his first glimpse of the lake. They sat on the edge of the dock, Chris on his grandmother’s lap, and she told stories of their family as the sun rose. His friends at school hadn’t believed him, even when shown pictures. But he knew. He’d seen the cracks in the surface, panes of ice strewn across the shore, and the delicate formations that shattered at the slightest touch.

By the time Chris reached the shuttle he had decided that he wanted to get as close to the straits as he could.

Behind the shuttle he found a flight of stairs cut into the rock. Yellow and orange lichen splotched the black steps. Mats of frozen moss and algae clung to the walls, engulfing Chris hands as he steadied himself.

At the base of the stairs, he found a beach of large pebbles, a mosaic of grey and black. A few metres to his left, the beach disappeared under a sheath of ice. To his right it, the beach was a ribbon of dark snakeskin, stretching until it slipped out of sight beyond the curve of the island. The stones clacked as he crossed the beach, the faint noise deepening the silence around him.

With a final crunch he stepped out onto the ice. Chris paused, shifting his weight from foot to foot. The surface seemed sturdy. If Carmen were here she would be on the beach begging me to be careful, he thought as he stepped further out onto the expanse. He felt a flash of happiness that she wasn’t there and then a deep guilt. But he knew she wouldn’t defer to his confidence that it was safe. In the winters after that first freeze, it got cold enough to skate on the lake. His Grandmother, armed with a series of online sources, had learned how to tell if it was safe to skate. Chris didn’t have her tools but remembered her rule of thumb: white good, blue bad. He was sure he’d be fine—the planet had clearly been below 0 for a long time.

About ten feet out, he reached a patch of perfectly smooth, dark blue ice. Cautiously, he knelt to take a closer look, brushing a dusting of snow from the surface and feeling his gloves slip effortlessly across it. Clear in the dim light, it reflected a dark image of the sky and a vague image of him.

Closer, his reflection was more defined. His usual stubble had grown into scraggly corkscrews over the past week of travel; he’d forgotten razors and clippers. He sighed, nothing I can do about it. Forcing himself to look past his own reflection, he peered deeper, trying to see if the ice was thin and, therefore, hiding something beyond, or just transparent and blue in the shadow. No evidence either way presented itself. He gave up.

He stood, looking towards the opposite shore. The blue patch ended a few hundred meters ahead of him, disappearing into a crowded field of shards which jutted dozens of feet into the air. The pine-topped ridgeline beyond towered over them. It looks like an inverted mountain.

He caught a slight movement in his peripheries. A chill overtook him. He looked ahead, up and down the ice straits, and back towards the beach behind. The world around him was still, the rising wind raising a murmur among the pines.

Chris looked down at the surface and caught an impression of movement. He leant over the surface. His reflection in indigo stared back. He tilted his head. His reflection moved but the movement seemed wrong—more substantial than it should be, as though there was a layer beneath. He leant closer. His reflection darkened, hardened into a clear image but only his face stared back. A glare seeped into his peripheries. He narrowed his eyes against it but it grew.

Sunlight had finally reached the straits, a yolk-yellow light that spilled across the surface turning the blue-purple to a warm yellow. Where the sunlight hit smooth ice, the surface threw pillars of light into the sky, projecting a shifting aurora. The edge of the shadow swept towards him, long talon-shadows of firs retracting into the island. Then he was inside the light, within a pillar. The glare blinded him, momentarily, as he felt for the sunglasses. He pulled them on. The ice in front of him was as a sea of fire, overwhelming even in sunglasses.

He shrugged, turned, and walked back to the beach; he had a lunch date to keep.

 

****

 

Carmen looked about her office, gingerly holding the hot mug. Tiled flooring warmed her feet, heated from below. Red skirting boards framed featureless walls. A window filled the wall across from her, looking out over glacier to a ridgeline beyond. A crevasse cut the ice sheet in half.

Across from the window, three archaic monitors hung over a desk, keyboard, and several large computers. An office chair sat in front of the desk, slightly askew. Carmen sighed; it all looked decidedly mid-21st century. It was one thing to cut corners in the rest of the house but equipping her office with near-obsolete technology could compromise the mining operation.

Carmen sank into the chair which, she noted, was quite comfortable—a little solace in a day of disappointments. The computers whirred to life, I hope they aren’t password protected.

But the monitors flickered on and she briefly glimpsed a desktop crowded with icons. Then the screens flashed and upbeat music began to play over clips of ice, rock, pines, and several spherical structures.

The images faded to reveal a square-jawed man in a blue suit, standing in an empty hallway. His clothes and hair were impeccable but his eyes seemed oddly glazed, unfocused. He smiled and began to talk, oozing smugness.

“Hello, FrontEx contractor, my name is Roderick Stevens and I am the senior vice president in charge of planet development and special projects. On behalf of myself and the FrontEx team, welcome!”

Carmen leant over and tapped the nearest screen, trying to pause the video. Unaffected, the man continued to talk. Carmen tried to block out his voice.

“...on planet 8192 I will be your liaison with the firm...”

She tapped the monitor to her right, a cursor moved in the edge of the screen. A pause, forward, and back buttons appeared at the bottom of the screen along with a timer counting down the remaining two hours of video. She tapped the forward button; Roderick continued to talk.

“...The production of profitable, habitable planets and the acquisition of extra-solar resources are an integral part of the economy...”

Beside the keyboard, she found what she recognized as a computer mouse. Jesus, she thought, how old is this stuff? She clicked; the man froze, mouth open and eyes closed. Somehow, he still looked smug.

The computer wouldn’t let her close the video but it did allow her to skip forwards 30 seconds at a time. After about five minutes clicking the forward button, Roderick moved quite suddenly from the hallway to an office. He was sitting behind a desk and pointing at a rendition of a drone projected in the air in front of him. Carmen pressed play. The camera zoomed in on the models.

“A complete mining suite including cutting edge observation mining, hauler, refinery, tanker drones as well as a heavy lifter.”

Carmen skipped through Roderick’s exhaustive descriptions of each of the drones. On its own, Roderick’s enthusiastic and condescending tone grated on her nerves but hearing him talk about machines she’d studied for years made it worse. According to him every one of the machines was either cutting-edge or state-of-the-art; in reality, not one of the solar-powered drones was less than fifteen years old.

“Additionally, we have provided a factory unit for any repairs.” a tower, crowned with the FrontEx logo rotated in front of him, “The unit is fully stocked and should be able to produce any tool you need. Now,” Roderick waved his hands, replacing the tower with a rendering of the planet, “let’s look at mining locations…”

She watched less than twenty minutes of the rest of the video; most of what she skipped seemed to be a catalogue of bylaws and products available for workers on premium contracts. Roderick’s condescending, peppy tone did not waver, though there was the occasional slurred word and once or twice a sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead, disappearing seconds later. Then, to her relief upbeat music played, the credits flashed down the screen—listing Roderick in every role—and the video closed.

Carmen stared at a crowded desktop, considering her options. It would be best, she decided, to check on the fleet herself rather than to blindly trust the word of this Roderick person. She opened the drone control panel and booted-up one of the observation drones.

The screen filled with blurs that twisted into focus as the feed adjusted to dim light. Another observation drone sat a few feet distant, its four rotors barely visible. A snowdrift grazed the black dome on its underside, burying its legs.

Carmen rotated the camera. To the left there was a steep, black cliff. To her right, a plain of pockmarked metal. She took off. The metal shrunk to become a mining drone, itself dwarfed by the hulk of a hauler drone. Still she rose, stopping when she could see the whole drone field beneath her, the fleet in a perfect grid below. She let the drone hover.  

Carmen panned left and then right, taking in the surrounding rim of jagged rock. She looked up. A few wispy clouds trailed across the sky. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed flying drones, missed the feeling of complete freedom. But now, alone in her office, she felt more relaxed than she had felt since their arrival.

In the summer before her final year of school, Chris took Carmen’s shifts at the bookshop so she could intern at a commodities firm. The internship came with a stipend from the university, though the firm distributed the money. According to the internship posting, her job was to supervise freighters transporting minerals. They’d implied that she would be working with a team overseeing thirty routes. It turned out only the last part of that was true.

On her first day, she arrived early at the offices—a six story building in a suburban office park. A bored-looking receptionist directed her to an office containing a balding man who seemed very busy. He gave her an orientation over his shoulder as he led her to the elevator, down to a sub-basement and along several switchback hallways to a small room covered with screens.

The ‘team’ was composed of the person she took over from at the start of her eight-hour shift and whoever relieved her at its end. At first it wasn’t too bad; the freighters pretty much flew themselves. The feeds she had to watch were empty fields backed by the stars. Occasionally a misshapen rock would swell in the screens before flipping past. Most days she only made an occasional, minor adjustment. Otherwise she could read, take calls, play games, or apply to jobs.

After the first month they gave her more routes and installed a camera in the office. The extra work wasn’t a problem—she was little more than a glorified lifeguard—and she continued to work as usual. Two weeks later, they docked her pay for every second she’d spent on her phone or online. She complained. In response, the firm’s attorney e-mailed her stating that, according to the contract, the firm had bought her time and could dictate what was permitted within that time. He also pointed out they had cause for termination. She asked Chris’ father for advice. He said her employers were right on the law. He also said her contract sucked.

The job didn’t pay enough to cover both rent and the interest on her debt but it was the best she’d had so far. She couldn’t just quit. She got off her phone and the net and, instead, listened to audiobooks and podcasts; they added another thirty routes to her load and docked her pay for listening to ‘unauthorized audio feeds.’  From then on, she worked in silence, staring out at the monotony of space and listening to the slight static of the feed. She worked there eleven months. By the time the internship was over, she hated drones.

She was glad that feeling had passed.  

Carmen let the observation drone drop back into the crater. Halting about twenty feet up, she homed in on the sleek, predatory form of a mining drone, and began to inspect the fleet. Her drone hovered a few feet above each vessel and moved back and forth over their surface. FrontEx had provided a catalogue of every ding, scratch, dent and scrape on each vessel. As she picked through litany of scuffs and scratches she compared them to the catalogue. Every one proved to be accounted for.

The process took hours but time sped past. Just as she finished, Chris came in balancing two steaming trays of food. He slid the trays onto the desk and gazed out of the windows.

“You can barely see it from in here.”

“See what?” Carmen turned to look out the window, the straits glimmered under the sun.

“The sun on the ice, it’s incredible—like the aurora borealis, you know?” He walked back over, gave her a peck on the lips, and then carried his food over to the window, “I went out for a walk earlier today” he set down the meal pack and sat cross legged, “I was out there when the light hit the surface, it was wild.”

She joined him on the floor with her own tray. As she sat, she notice how the window-tinted light fell red on his jet skin, accentuating his grizzled jaw.

“The drone field is in a crater,”

“Pfffftt,” Chris almost choked. Swallowing carefully he chuckled, “So you’re the villain of this story then—Secret base in a volcano? Robot minions?”

“The crater may not be a volcano...”

“If that’s your only defence, you’re definitely the villain,” he shot her a charming smile, “Don’t worry, it’s kinda hot. Just do me a favour, and avoid devising elaborate ways of killing your enemies.”

She laughed, and leant forwards to kiss him. Sitting back, she looked at him, seeing the crinkle at the edge of his eyes and the dimple on his cheek.

“I love you.”

“Love you too.”

They looked out the window and tried to describe the images they saw in the jumble of shapes. Then they moved on to examining the pine-crowned ridge of the opposite shore. With the faint frosting of snow it reminded her of an old man’s balding head. Chris said it looked more like an albino porcupine. She saw what he meant and couldn’t stop seeing it.  

After lunch, Carmen sent an observation drone to the factory unit. Glaciers, straits, crevasses and ice fields and pine-crested ridges, peaks, and plateaus whipped past. Here and there brown, papery flaps covered the trees. At first she pinned each location on the map, but she soon lost count of the places of interest.

Carmen got her first glimpse of the factory fifteen minutes into the flight. Easily a kilometer tall and several hundred meters wide, it loomed over its surroundings. The FrontEx logo shone neon yellow against its burgundy walls.

A crack opened midway up the structure, widening into a maw that stretched a full quarter of the cylinder. Harsh, electric blue light spilled from within, illuminating a hangar. Dozens of insectile robotic arms hung from the ceiling their paired rows.

It took an hour to inspect the factory. As far as she could tell, it was in perfect working order though a pattern of scratches—shallow but several metres long—scarred its base, and were absent from the catalogue. They were months—maybe years—old, and had probably occurred during installation. She noted them and ordered the observation drone to return to the drone field on autopilot. Carmen sat back, and glanced back out of the window. The shadow of their island had already begun to creep across the straits—the outline of pines splayed like fingers on an outstretched hand. A few more hours, she thought, then I’ll stop.

Carmen spent those hours trying to decide which lithium deposits to start mining. This meant wading through a series of FrontEx databases, reading geological reports, and developing a slight, but persistent headache. Every five minutes she would find her concentration wavering, her mind wandering to Chris, the brown papery substance on the trees, and—with rising anxiety—debt.

Pressing forward despite the slight tightness in her chest, she compiled a list of the most promising sites, three of which were close enough to the drone field for work to begin the next day. She moved the cursor between deposits; each seemed a good choice.

Carmen yawned. Outside, the frozen channel was a fracture of deep blues. She shrugged and chose the northmost location. Then, stretching the stiffness from her limbs, she took one last look at the darkening view and left her office.

 

****    

 

After lunch, Chris returned to his studio in high spirits: so far the day had been close to perfect, and he wanted to create something with the energy. Reaching his office, he sat in the office chair and grabbed the box of pastels, and a notebook. Flipping open the notebook, he stared down at the off-white expanse of the first page. He put the notebook aside and opened the pastels. Out of the rainbow of two-inch sticks, he picked out the light blue, thinking of ice. No, he put it back and picked the white, then indigo, then brown, then green: each pastel felt wrong. He looked back at the notebook, frowning.

Turning to the computer, he decided to explore what was available offline. Almost immediately he saw an icon he could swear had been absent before—a book with a cartoon worm coming out of it. He clicked. The screen flickered and displayed a book cover. The Encyclopedia of 8192 it said, above a collage of photos: squat birds, rock, pines, ice.

Chris spent the rest of the afternoon engrossed in the encyclopedia. Mostly, he read about the planet’s star system. Chris had loved space since he was a snot-nosed, weedy, four-year-old, and had learned the word Chicxulub in conjunction with the extinction of his then favorite thing: dinosaurs. Unfortunately, Chris had never excelled in academics—his teachers tended to disagree as to whether he lacked the mind for STEM courses, or just the concentration. Still, he papered his walls with stellar maps and photos of nebulae, stars and gas giants. He cut up images and stuck them together, splicing Earth and space—replacing the bark of trees with the atmosphere of gas giants and switching the sand of beaches with the surface of the sun.

What he liked more than anything was the history of celestial bodies that humanity had tripped over in the darkness: planets covered in seas of mercury, or looping between two stars and sketching an infinity on the cosmos, planets where years were minutes long but the days dragged on for an eternity, moons of semi-molten silicate and salt that were perfect mirrors. Space filled his imagination with stories. More often than not, these stories would be straight out of the book he’d most recently read—characters amputated from context in a new, strange setting.

In the case of the 819 system, Chris was drawn in by the star’s age. At 12 billion years old it was almost as old as the Galaxy, and the encyclopedia informed him, it was expected to keep its steady burn for at least another 9 trillion years. It was thought that the planet was just under 12 billion years old, far older than Earth. Those scales were beyond comprehension, but filled him with wonder. How old is the ice, Chris thought, did I stand on ice older than humans?

He read on, quicker now, searching for an answer, but none was forthcoming. Instead the text began to discuss the gas cloud. The cloud was somewhat of a mystery, and while there were several, competing theories regarding its origin, none could fully account for it. It was made primarily of gas, though there was a significant number of asteroids and rocky dwarf planets within it. One thing that was absolutely known was that the cloud would have collapsed into several planets had it not been for star 818.  

819 was really 818b—the second part of a binary system. For some unstated reason FrontEx had logged each star as a separate system. Not that it mattered much. 818 was a medium sized star bereft of planets; the fleet of asteroids it swung through space were shards of carbon, ice, and low-grade iron. The only impact 818 seemed to have was on the 819 system. The star's gravitational pull rifled through the gas cloud, keeping planets from forming.

Planet 8192, while far enough away to form as a planet, was not immune to the vagaries of 818. The star’s gravity tugged at the planet, regularly pulling it into the cloud and triggering regular ‘deep winters—’twenty-day stretches of frigid darkness.

Chris held those two words in his mind— deep winter. He tried to imagine what it must be like, the wind blowing over the ice beneath a dark sky—or would the sky be red? No wonder no life survived on this planet, he thought, what could survive such apocalyptic winters. Quite suddenly, an immense wave of fatigue washed over him. He glanced at the clock in the corner of the screen, which informed him that it was 12:30 AM on December 31st 2086—a date and time that was laughably inaccurate. Outside, the trunks and rock faces gave no indication of the hour.

Standing, he sighed. His mother had always told him ‘tired is tired.’ She had encouraged him to get as much sleep as he needed. This policy had lasted until his school had threatened to expel him if he missed another morning. His father sat him down and explained the concept of a reasonable person and how it applied to his mother’s rules. What does a reasonable person do when tired on an alien planet, Chris thought, didn’t think of that one, eh dad?

 

****

 

 The next morning, Carmen awoke to find herself alone in bed. For a while she lay there, trying to listen for sounds of Chris moving about. Other than the faint buzz of generators, the house was silent. She was more than a little disappointed at Chris’ absence, though she knew it was not his fault. He had no way of knowing that, crawling into bed with him the night before, she had tried to wake him enough for them to fool around. Her shaking had only changed the pitch of his snoring. As she had drifted off beside him, she’d consoled herself with the promise of sex in the morning.

She got dressed and went to find him in the kitchen which was empty, though the faint haze of steam curling from the kettle told her he wasn’t long gone.

A shadow flickered over the room, lasting for less than a second. Carmen looked to the windows. Pulling a barstool towards the wall, she stood on it and, balancing on the tips of her toes, peered out.

Beyond the glass, the frozen expanse lay in shadow. The pines on the far shore were a haze of dark green. A single cloud hung in the sky. It could have just been me blinking, Carmen thought, climbing down from the stool, or some snow falling from above. She shrugged and made herself breakfast.

Chris had left her a note on the tablet, which popped up on the lock-screen.

Was inspired to do some still life drawing outside, I’ll catch you at lunch!

The note was somewhat reassuring. She’d lost count of the nights she’d awoken to find Chris outlined by a harsh corona of screen-light or a note telling her he’d gone to his studio. He was ruled by random bursts of ‘inspiration,’ often to the detriment of their relationship and his few friendships.

She’d attended every one of his shows, readings, and performances and generally liked his stuff, though she recognized none of it was groundbreaking. The few critics in attendance were unimpressed. Chris read and reread their reviews. He complained endlessly, ranting about magazines, critics, academia, the art world, his words sliding together, preventing any input. A little over two years before she signed the contract, after a particularly bad review, Chris punched a hole in the kitchen wall. It was decidedly out of character. They agreed he should fix the wall and—silently—not to discuss it again. He hadn’t had a show since.   

After breakfast she returned to her office, powered up the computers, and searched for a program she could use to calibrate the drones. She already had a vision of how her system would work. It was nothing fancy: the mining drones would cut 100-metre cubes of ice and drop them into the refineries; the refineries would spit out lithium compounds into the haulers and waste water onto the ice; the haulers would deposit their loads onto the lifter; and the lifter would carry its load into space. Brutally simple, but effective. She didn’t need the tankers, which irked her; FrontEx rarely gave more than needed.

Near the bottom of the screen, she found the shortcut to software she recognized: OverMine™, an outdated but useable mine management program. She clicked. The OverMine™ logo—a smiling cartoon mole wearing a hardhat and holding a spade—grinned from every screen, an undulating loading sign undulated beneath it.

As she waited, for the first time since arriving on the planet, she checked the date and time on Earth. It was Wednesday, 7 PM. Back home, her mother would be making dinner, peeling potatoes, cassava, yams and breadfruit for ground provision, and slicing lady fingers and amaranth for callaloo soup. She could almost smell it, almost see her mother’s petite form hunched over the sink, greying hair held back under her usual red bandana.

After her father passed, Wednesday dinners had become something of a tradition. It hadn’t seemed like some critical duty—her mother had friends, she even dated occasionally as the years passed—but by 7:30 every Wednesday Carmen had been there. Chris never came, which was how she wanted it.

Carmen smiled sadly, and sat back in her chair. She’d told her mother about the FrontEx contract at the end of one of their Wednesday dinners. Her intent had been to broach the subject early but she found herself anxiously swallowing her words. As her mother talked, updating her on apartment-building gossip, the discovery of a rare signed Borges first edition, and problems with her refrigerator, Carmen marshalled arguments supporting the decision. She found her words as they loaded the dishwasher. Her mother interrupted a few seconds into her spiel.

“How long are you leaving for?” she asked, calmly.

“Maximum 6 months.” Carmen studied her face, but saw neither sadness, nor panic.

“And that gets you?”

“A clean slate, everything wiped clean. The shop...” Her mother frowned, “I know it sounds too good to be true but it’s real. We’re—”

“We’re? Chris is going?”  

“Yes, he’s coming with me.”

“Why?” asked her mother, bluntly.

“Well...”

“No,” her mother stopped her, “you shouldn’t feel like you have to justify yourself to me. You’re an adult; I trust your judgement. I just assumed you were leaving to get away from Chris. I don’t know why, I guess... It’s a big move, you know.”

“No, we’re fine,” Carmen was confused, “I’m doing this for the shop, to end all this.”

“That’s not your responsibility,”  her mother smiled sadly, “Look, if we lose the shop, we lose the shop. I can get another job, I’ve been doing the accounting for the shop for decades, and I used to do some programming on the side. Don’t do this for me or the shop; do something for yourself, that’s all your father and I ever wanted. ”

Carmen had looked at her mother. For the first time, she noticed the deep lines burrowed between her mother’s eyebrows and framing her eyes and mouth; her mother was not an old woman but she was getting older.  

The screen in front of her flashed, pulling Carmen from her memories. All three monitors displayed a mess of tables, graphs, boxes, and spreadsheets. The biggest box by far displayed 90 days of—currently empty—mining information. With a few, swift clicks, she reduced the number of days displayed to 30; there was no need to show more than a year.

She activated the OverMine™ ‘auto import’ function and the program began to extract information from the technical manuals, papers, and reports FrontEx had provided. One by one the boxes, tables, and graphs filled themselves with information. She examined each one—here was a graph of the planet’s average surface temperature over time, there a table listing average wind speeds and directions by longitude and latitude, beneath that another graph listing average solar energy per square metre. She basked in the deluge of information.

Opening another page—a black box with a white cursor blinking in it—she cracked her knuckles and began to code, weaving each drone in her fleet together into a single, unified mining operation. Carmen felt invigorated—this was her first real chance to apply everything she’d learned in seven long years of study. Calibration was the pinnacle of drone systems, and while firmly rooted in science and mathematics, in practice each engineer did things slightly differently. Efficiency was prized but every system was a web of tradeoffs and there were eight or nine ‘best’ ways of doing things.

Within two hours, her excitement gave way to stinging frustration. Her first program failed, which was to be expected, but the following three did too. With each failure, the screen displayed the OverMine™ mole with its hardhat in its paws looking sad. The software crashed twice, forcing her to restart the program, re-import the information and try again. She persisted. The fourth time it crashed, every screen flashed a deep blue.

“Fuck!” Carmen shouted. The echoes rebounded at her mockingly.

Due to its habit of crashing, she had to babysit the software as it ran. If it crashed before giving her results, she had to reconstruct each algorithm, trying to remember her exact coding. Then, praying the program wouldn’t crash again, she would run it again.

When her algorithms failed, and every single one did, the software spat out an error code and a vague explanation. This forced her to read through the OverMine™ manual to identify the specifics of the problem—an annoying, boring task due to the lack of internet and the fact that the manual lacked both a search function, and an organizing principle. Eventually, after finding out what the error meant, she’d fix the mistake, grit her teeth, and try again. Sad Mole, different error. OverMine™ never gave you more than one error code at a time, leaving her wondering whether the new problem was caused by her changes, or despite them.

Other than the codes, the only other clue to the problem was the day-by-day illustration at the top of the screen. The days on which the model predicted failure were highlighted in red whereas successful days were green. From that, she could guess what the problem might be—too much wind, or too much water on the ice. For the first few hours, the number of red days decreased, giving her some sense of progress. However, by the fourth hour every day was green and she was still getting errors. Carmen began to fear that there were systemic faults with her plan. Worse, while computer models could absolutely tell if something would fail, they weren’t so good at accurately predicting success. Failure meant her choosing between losing her payment and restarting the term of her contract.

 

  ****

 

Chris sat, leaning against an outcrop of rock that jutted just below the path to the shuttle. He’d been up for several hours drawing landscapes in pastel but had nothing to show for it. Every shape, every choice of colour seemed wrong. He’d started with the ridgeline of the opposite shore as the first rays of sunlight grazed the tips of the firs. Then he’d tried a series of studies of the pines, trying to capture the metallic sheen of their bark. The products of those hours lay balled up, torn up, around his feet.   

He decided to focus on the straits that spread before him like a fractured windshield on asphalt. Purple and blue filled the page of his open notebook. Feeling across the ground beside him, he found a mauve pastel and added a little to the shadow of the crevasse.

He frowned—the piece had already gone awry. He tore out the page, scrunched it up, and threw it as hard as he could. For a split second the ball of paper caught the wind, sailing high in a drifting arc, before dropping out of sight where the island slipped under the ice.

It was far warmer than it had been the day before, flirting with negative 10 and still climbing. Between the extra layers he’d put on, and the two thermoses he’d found and filled with tea, he barely felt cold. Grabbing the indigo pastel he sketched, measuring each berg, crack, plateau, and crevasse against the tiny stick of blue. This time his work went wrong before he’d even begun to shade it. Another ball of paper joined the herd.

Chris wished he’d stayed in bed. He’d fallen asleep waiting for Carmen the night before, intending to spend some time with her. Waking early that morning, he’d dozed for about an hour before he got the itch to go out and draw.

His grandmother had taught him that an artist’s duty was to obey inspiration and her word on the subject was law. A sculptress, she pulled recyclables from old landfills and used it to construct landscapes. She was famous until she found her true passion—making other people into artists—and drifted into obscurity. Her point of view was infectious; it made people see beauty in unlikely places, and made it stick. So when he had felt the urge to draw, he’d followed it.

Chris stood; the feeling had passed. Instead, he had an urge to explore. He unzipped his outer coat and slid the box of pastels, and notebooks inside. He hesitated over the thermoses. Then, resolving to pick them up on his way back, he zipped up his coat and clambered up to rejoin the path.

Past the shuttle he found a dirt track cutting up through the pines towards the other end of the island. It started as a gentle walk but, ten minutes in, veered to the right around a granite outcrop. From there, it was no more than a ledge, just over a foot wide, sandwiched between walls of stones, roots and earth, and a cliff that fell away into ice and jagged rocks. Through the hanging branches of stunted trees he could see where the ledge widened and turned out of sight.

He shimmied along the ledge. One step at a time, he thought, breathe. His eyes flicked between his next step and his goal. Hands grabbed at the roots and low hanging branches. A trickle of soil rained over him. As he steadied himself on a root, it unwound from the earth, jerking him forwards. His feet slipped. He glimpsed the gulf below. Leaning out. He threw his weight back, to the wall. Then he was through, stumbling into a small clearing dominated by three massive pines.

As Chris caught his breath, he looked about. The path seemed to go no further, the trees before him blocking the view of and off the end of the island. A sheer rock face rose to his left. White, grey and black flecks speckled the bed of spines, growing to blobs as he approached the trees. Whatever it was, the substance was gooey, like half-dried oil paint—it stuck to his shoes and matted the dirt and needles together.

Beside the trees, he couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of him, his view blocked by a canopy of pines. Chris began to lose hope of finding a decent view. By now the shadows of the pines would have crept down the opposing bank and it wouldn’t be long before the sun hit the ice. If I head to the beach, I might have just enough time to find a route to the end of the island before the sun hits, he thought.

Chris turned to leave and knocked into a low hanging branch. He looked up. A staircase of branches stretched up into the canopy. He smiled; it had been a long time since he climbed a tree.

As he clambered from branch to branch, cobwebs of unease settled over him, building as he rose. It felt as though someone was watching him, but he knew that couldn’t be right; her drones were nowhere near the island. He scanned the sky anyway, out of instinct—the machines were everywhere back home, even out at his great grandmother’s place, though they were more interested in trailing celebrities than his family. The faintly blue sky was empty. Still the presence remained. He almost felt as though he should address it, or demand it show itself. Just as he was about to speak, the frozen ocean beyond the island lurched into sight, quieting his thoughts.

A shimmer rose on the horizon. Seeing it from the outside this time, he was struck by how much It was like the auroras of his youth but rising, like the light from a city beyond the horizon. To his left, the glare crept towards the island. Chris pulled on his sunglasses, and sat back to watch.

Suddenly, there was a fluttering in his peripheries. Something whirred across his vision. He flinched. Off balance, he caught a stomach-churning glimpse of the ground. It passed again, a large black blur, then two, then three. The trees around him creaked, rustling as though shaken from below.

Looking to his right, he saw the first of them. It was a raven—or crow—of sorts bigger than any he’d seen. The bird perched on a branch a little above him in the tree next to his. It glared at him in a way that might have been menacing, if the bird hadn’t been quite so fluffy. It tracked him as he peered at it, and its neck disappeared into folds of fat and down. It looked like someone had stuck a beak and eyes onto a particularly plump pillow.

Another set of beady eyes peered down from a few branches above the first. Unlike the nearest, this bird sat atop a nest. A second nest, complete with a bird, occupied a branch below. The more he looked, the more birds he saw—three more to the right, eight to his left. The trees on either side of his were full of them, perched or nested all facing out, towards the ice. He felt unsettled and the feeling grew with the count. His audience rustled, snapping their beaks and flapping their wings. Every eye was fixed on him. Sitting quite still on his branch, Chris contemplated his choices.

FrontEx had required them to sign waivers that covered all liability including death. The firm told them it was standard and that death and injury were unlikely. Then again, FrontEx had told them a lot of half-truths. Back then, Chris hadn’t thought much of it but Carmen had. So much so that he’d made her promise to stop googling ways they could die. She agreed on the condition they both took first aid classes. He tried to recall what he’d learned.

He eyed the nearest bird and tried to gauge whether it was a threat. It was looking away, its head turned to look out onto the ice. The other birds seemed similarly disinterested, most turning to look out over the frozen sea. His anxiety waned; the birds seemed content to leave him in peace.  

It was fortunate that he had the tree to himself as the birds ejected a seemingly endless stream of guano which, spattering as it fell, made a sound like light rain. A centimetre-thick crust clung to the tree to his right—the same white gunk he’d found below. He wondered what the birds could be eating out on the frigid ridgelines.

Like patrons in a crowded movie theatre, at first the birds gradually fell into an attentive silence. Ahead of him, a slight breeze swept away the mist and rolled ice and snow across the frozen sea. The shadow of the island was shrinking, creeping towards the eastern shore. As the last of the shadow disappeared, and the glacial glare enveloped him, he heard a soft caw. Then came another, caw, call, response, rising around him.

His grandmother had always risen before dawn. She’d told him she liked to watch the sunrise, and suggested he do the same but He’d been a teenager then and his nights belonged to the flare of joints, the flicker of TV, and fumbling advances. He’d heard but hadn’t listened. But now, inside the aurora, he heard her words and, embracing them, saw what sunrise was before humanity seized control of light. He sat there for hours, just looking. He did not pull out the notebook and pastels.

Some time later, he climbed a little higher in his tree to take a closer look at the nests. The birds eyed him suspiciously. In the nests, he caught sight of large eggs. The speckled brown, grey and black of the shells were almost invisible against the trees.

His stomach gurgled; he needed to eat. Resolving to return and draw the birds, he lowered himself down the tree and picked his way back to the house to heat up lunch. On his way back, he briefly wondered why the eggs needed to be so camouflaged. But, by the time he reached the house, the thought had slipped his mind.

 

****

 

“So there are birds?”

“Alien birds. I call them Cravens”

“What makes them alien?” Carmen replied. Ignoring Chris’ expectant smile, she took another bite of food.

“They’re here aren’t they?”

“Mm-mm,”  Carmen shook her head, washing down the food with a gulp of tea, she continued, “FrontEx designed this planet’s ecosystem, so chances are that they’re proprietary organisms.”

“Does that stop them being aliens though? They were born on planet 8192.”

“So? They were made on a laboratory on Earth—we wouldn’t call people born off Earth aliens.”

“So you’re from Montserrat then—that’s where your mother was born, right?” He gave her a sly smile.

“Oh please,” Carmen laughed.

“Alien pretty much just means something that is foreign. So I guess either the Cravens are aliens to us or to this world. So either way I’m right.”

“Congratulations baby, I am so proud of you.”

Carmen looked down at the meal pack in front of her. Beef Bourguignon with Mashed Potatoes, and Haricot Verts the cover declared. The dry, stringy, pieces of meat replacement within sat atop a slurry of salty brown goo, and a paste that tasted like flour. She took a deep swig of tea and pushed her meal aside.

Chris sat across from her, leaning against her office window. He had been talking about his experiences outside for the entirety of their lunch together. And, while she had initially been happy to hear his stories, as he talked a sadness crept over her. She felt distant, disconnected. Towards the end of the meal, Chris got around to asking about her work. She tried to explain. He nodded along, but his eyes were glazed, and she had the sneaking suspicion that he had no idea what she was talking about.

As he backed out of the door, carrying their trays and mugs, Chris smiled at her.

“I’m sure you’ll work it out in no time.” he said, and left.

That, at least, was somewhat reassuring. Carmen tried to internalize the sentiment as she turned back to her work. But, as the afternoon wore on, her work only seemed to get farther from being done.

 

****

 

After lunch, Chris returned to his studio, booted up the computer, and opened the encyclopedia. There were ten thousand pages in the book, but it was easily navigable by subject. Skimming the index for mention of the birds, he found a single, seven hundred page chapter, and a smattering of other references. He pulled up the chapter, and began to read.

The encyclopedia called the Cravens, Corvus Stercoris. The birds were proprietary organisms, developed by ExoGenetics, a FrontEx division. The same firm had made the larval and adult pine beetles the birds ate, as well as the pines, the lichens, the mosses, and the grasses. The Cravens’ guano was a vital source of nitrogen for the trees and plants. Their excretions made them a vital part of FrontEx’s ‘climate amelioration process.’

The Cravens, the text declared, were designed to be social creatures because of the irregular progress of 8192’s seasons.  

Due to the eccentricity of the planet’s orbit—or how different the orbit is from a perfect circle—in a regular year summer lasts about three days while winter lasts about fifteen, with six days of brief autumn and spring periods. While temperatures are consistently between negative eight and one degrees centigrade during the summers, the winters drop to negative fifty degrees celsius—a temperature that may been maintained for up to seven days. However, as star 818 and 819 approach their periastron—or closest point—seasons on 8192 may be shortened. Typically the five seasons prior to a ‘deep winter,’ are shortened by half, providing less time for growth and development. Further, the depth and severity of ‘deep winter’ with temperatures ranging from negative 40 and negative 90 degrees posed a unique challenge for the survival of organisms.

As previously mentioned, we developed the corvus stercoris lifeform using data, DNA and accounts of the extinct Aptenodytes Forsteri, or ‘emperor penguin.’ However, the length and severity of deep winter made maintaining a breeding population somewhat problematic—models and field tests resulted in extinction due to starvation. Our scientists came up with a range of solutions to this problem and, in cooperation with a team of accountants, determined the lowest cost solution to the problem.

In the process of experimentation, it was determined that the male Corvus Stercoris need not survive the winter should there be a method of preserving its sperm, to solve this problem our scientists turned to the Anglerfish and sexual parasitism. The male Corvus Stercoris live from mid spring to the early winter and, grow to be about half the size of the female. After mating (see Corvus Stercoris mating) the males of the species die and the female keep the sperm until spring. In the year before a deep winter year, only half the females in a Corvus Stercoris flock conceive, the remainder focus on building larders for the deep winter.

Chris stopped reading. He needed to think of something else, or at least talk about what he’d read. He went to find Carmen. As he stepped into her office, he saw that Carmen was very much in the same boat. Hands cradling her face, she was hunched forwards at her desk, swearing into her hands. She looked up at him.

“I’ve tried everything and it. Just. Won't. Work.” she sighed, “at least when the error code was changing it felt like I was making some. Sort. Of. Progress.”

She pushed the keyboard away from her, and stood, looking despondently at the monitors. He knew he had seen her just a few hours before, but it felt longer. Did she look so tired beforehand?, he asked himself, I was talking a lot during lunch, I didn’t ask. Wrapping his arms around her, he squeezed in what he hoped was a reassuring way. He felt her arms slide up his back. For several minutes, neither of them spoke nor moved.

“I’m sorry,” she said eventually,  “I shouldn’t be so dramatic.”

“It’s okay” they disentangled and he searched her eyes, but she was there—no distant look, “give yourself time to work it out, and you will… But you know, if you need to talk, or bounce ideas off me—I’m here.”

Carmen’s eyes skittered over the view and then back to him. She smiled.

“You’re right…” she thought for a minute, and Chris could tell she was trying to find a simple way of communicating what her problem was, “...I’m trying to set up this mining system, they’ve given me a load of solar powered mining drones, a few hauling barges and a factory unit—” he squinted at her, “a really big 3D printer—they all slot together so they can all run on their own once it’s set up, working together—like an assembly line—but it needs to be able to deal with the conditions here.”

“On the whole planet, or just our quarter?”

“Ideally both”

“How would you even do that?”

“I have a program, a shit program, but it basically works, then I can just send the model to the machines and they’ll run my plan—it’s just an algorithm.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“No matter what model I run—no matter how I tweak it—it ends in failure.”

“Does it tell you what went wrong?”

“It gives you an error code and you have to look it up, it’s irritating as shit and the codes are super vague. They’ll say something like ‘high probability of weather related failure’ and you’ll have to dig through your model and guess what went wrong, and eventually you work out that the wind is 2 kilometres per hour above acceptable speeds. For a while it felt like I was making progress—the errors were changing—but now it just gives me the same one: Error 211.”

“And that means…?”

“Issues with Power”

“So your machines have authority issues?”

She gave him a pity chuckle, “No, I think it has something to do with energy usage, but I’ve tried everything I could think of. I’ve been stuck on this error for the whole afternoon; the one before it only took an hour to fix.”

“And there’s nothing in the library that can help you?”

“Not that I’ve seen,” she looked back out the window, kneading one hand with another, “Past the basic textbooks, this kind of stuff is all IP; they don’t publish books about it. Not that I blame them. If FrontEx didn’t own all my work product, this would probably be my meal ticket for the next thirty years.” She glanced back at the monitors and he looked with her. Taking up a full quarter of every screen was a cartoon animal—a rodent of some kind—holding a hard hat in hand. When she looked back, her expression had changed, her eyes lingered, “To be honest I need to just think of something else—or nothing for a while.”

“What did you have in mind?” Chris asked, coyly.

She kissed him, softly at first, but then assertively, hungrily. Feeling her warm, soft lips on his. He felt her hands slip up his t-shirt, her fingers lightly brushing his chest, his side. Seizing her waist he squeezed her to him. He lifted her, feeling her firm, round arse shift under his hands as she wrapped her legs around him. He wanted to consume her, to be consumed. To feel every inch of her body and disappear into her, drown in her smell. And, feeling her warmth, know that he was all she was thinking about.

 

****

 

Half undressed, they fumbled their way downstairs. She wanted him, now, but not here. Not in the dim stairwell with the metal walls a casket around them. Standing, she pulled off her shirt, dropping it in a pile on the floor. Then, with one last lingering look over her shoulder, she turned and walked to their bedroom.  

The sex felt like greeting an old friend, or the last thaw of spring. Carmen hadn’t realized how tense she had been, and while lack of sex hadn’t been the majority of it, it had been more than she realized. She unknotted, let go. They tussled, entangled, disentangled. She looked up and down at him, and saw and tasted his rising sweat. They lost themselves in the rhythm. She came twice, the second time when he did. For an hour it was like they had never left home.

Afterwards they spooned for a while, taking turns as little spoon—he always insisted she hold him, though she always felt a little ridiculous. After a while he asked if she was hungry. She wasn’t but she knew she needed to eat. So he got up, telling her to wait there.

She watched his naked arse recede, and sat back feeling warm, contented. I should get up and try to pee, she thought, I don’t want to be the first person to get a UTI on this planet. Reluctantly, she levered herself from the bed, and padded towards the bathroom.

As she sat on the toilet, waiting for her body to comply with its own needs, she gazed around the room. The toilet was sandwiched between a walk-in shower on one side and a sink and two banks of cabinets on the other. From where she was sitting she could reach most of the way across the room. The single window, set high in the wall behind the toilet filled the room with murky light.

Without a phone, or a book, Carmen felt an unfamiliar boredom. What did people do in the old days while waiting to pee, she asked herself, looking over the tiled walls. Her eyes settled on the nearest cabinet. She opened it. A heavy black case—edges reinforced with steel—occupied most of the interior; she pulled it out, opened it, and examined the chaotic jumble of medical equipment, gauze, and drugs within. She recognized pain medication, aspirin, antibiotics and spray-on bandage, but the rest was a mystery.

The case contained no menstrual products and she hadn’t been allowed to bring her own. Carmen frowned, did they seriously forget to include something that basic? Pushing the case aside, she peered deeper in the cabinet. She had already begun formulating backup plans, when she pushed aside a case of Frontiersman brand one-size-fits-all prophylactics to find several boxes of tampons stacked right at the back of the cabinet.

With a sigh she recognized the brand—they had filled the dispensers of her middle school and high school bathrooms. The brand billed itself as ‘renewable and green,’ but most of her memories of actually using them involved the applicator either jamming, or breaking.  

She counted the number of boxes in her head. Unless there were more in the cabinet above the sink—currently out of reach—FrontEx had provided her a grand total of 60 tampons. I might need more than that, she thought, but at least I have these for now.

By the time she returned from trying to pee, Chris was already waiting in bed. A steaming tray of food and a mug lay on her bedside table.

They ate in bed. Afterwards, she gulped down a pill with her tea. As she waited for the pills to kick in, Chris regaled her with stories from before they’d met. She’d heard most of them before but the familiarity was comforting rather than irritating. A haze descended. She felt as though she was looking at the world from the bottom of a deep ocean. Sleep pulled her in.

 

1 - Arrival

Carmen sat strapped into her seat with her eyes jammed closed, willing herself to sleep. The cabin juddered around her, jolted by external turbulence. Its motion pulled the straps left, then right across her chest. With every jolt, the bumps and recesses of the seat—ergonomic for someone larger—jabbed at her back. She squirmed against the unyielding plastic, trying to find a comfortable angle. The straps tightened with her retreat.

Without opening her eyes she unclasped her seatbelt and let it whirr back into the seat. Gently unspooling it again, she gave herself a handspan of slack, and let herself float in place. It would be perhaps twenty minutes before the straps began to chafe again.  

Away from the jabbing plastic and no longer girdled by straps and clasps, Carmen turned again to sleep. She focused on her breathing, holding each breath for a count of seven. Imagining a trash can, she envisioned every thought as writing on paper, scrunched them up, and tossed them away. Her mind emptied, yet sleep didn’t come. Instead, she became aware of a faint rattling—like the drumline of a fading song. She clenched her jaw and tried to out-wait the noise.

Seconds crawled past. The rattling persisted.

Carmen sighed and opened her eyes, squinting as light assailed her. She placed her palm flat on the matte-silver wall to her left and felt for the tapping rhythm. The cold metal juddered but its movements reflected turbulence, rounded in contrast with the staccato rattle.

Her eyes slid over the wall. About a foot from the cabin’s roof, in a simple black font was a single word: FrontEx, the logo of her employers. It hung above the cabin as a title on an empty page.

Two chairs filled the wall across from her. An inch-thick half-wall separated the seats, blocking half the farthest chair from view. However, Carmen had a clear view of three out of four buckles—the only moveable part of the seat. They stuck out at odd angles, restrained by fully retracted straps. The rattling persisted.

Carmen looked over at the seat beside her’s. The sleeping form of her partner, Chris, spilled from its confines. His neck was bent; his face pressed against the wall between them. The lip of the seat across from his cut into his shins. He wriggled his nose a little and nuzzled up against the dividing wall.

She grinned. Chris was cute but not the source of the rattling. She leant forward to the limit of her straps. Past Chris, the cabin ended in another wall, dominated by a sliding door. The rattling persisted.

Carmen glanced at the seats across from them. Aha, she thought. Across the cabin, the clasp of the left strap on the chair across from Chris hung flaccidly, wobbling as the cabin shook. It tapped against the seat.

She undid her straps, braced herself against the partition wall and floated in place. As if it were responding to her attention, the rattling grew louder. She pushed herself across the cabin. Grasping the seat opposite her’s, she steadied herself. Slowly, carefully, she unspooled a little of the strap and then let it go. The clasp thwacked back against the black plastic, stilled.

Pulling herself back into her seat, Carmen strapped in, and focused again on sleep. It was futile.

She tried to summon her trash can but instead her mind filled with visions of their shuttle crashing, of it exploding, of them being stranded, disappearing into space. She recited FrontEx-provided crash statistics. Told herself how unlikely each scenario was. The rising pressure in her chest didn’t listen, could not comprehend. It did not help that while the companies that operated off earth did their best to control information, people disappeared. It was hardly an epidemic, but it happened and, after hasty funerals, their suddenly wealthy relatives evaded questions, unintentionally spawning gossiped speculation about elaborate deaths. It won’t happened to us, she told herself.

The straps began to chafe again. She clenched her jaw.

This was the fifth day of their trip but their first on the shuttle. They’d spent the first four and a half days aboard a company carrier, a much larger and comparatively luxurious vessel. There were eight other passengers on board that ship. Six were company men, on their fourth or fifth trips—grim, sinewy people whose faces were labyrinths of wrinkles. They did not talk to either her or Chris, and seemed to view them with something between contempt and pity.

The remaining two passengers were a young couple, about Chris and Carmen’s age. Initially, the presence of another couple buoyed Carmen’s spirits; her mother had advised her against letting Chris come along. Eager for reassurance, she asked how they met. The reply was a disappointment: the two men had met in the waiting room before the final round of interviews. They’d both arrived early, got to talking, and had promised to request the same post: neither had been sure the other had done so until they boarded the vessel. Carmen found their story cute the first three times and insufferable thereafter. Their relationship was very much in its honeymoon period, and their giggling and lingering gazes drove both Chris and her away. Now, with 12 hours of jolting flight ahead of her, she missed them.  

Carmen gave up on sleep. She tapped twice on the wall and a screen appeared beneath her fingers.

There was no in-flight entertainment but the ship did offer various camera angles of the outside and an animated representation of their progress. A haze of reddish dust and gas made the exterior views into fields of red static. Switching between the feeds was almost as monotonous as watching the little animated shuttle inch along a curving line towards the dot representing their destination.  

Much to her parents’ surprise, Carmen demonstrated a knack for mathematics from a young age. Her father often joked her mother must have cheated because God knows she didn’t get it from either of them. He laughed at that joke long after anyone else found it funny.

Neither of her parents were interested in mathematics or sciences but they all shared a love of knowledge. Her father’s passion was Caribbean history, her mother’s Argentinian Literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. They ran a bookstore together—actual books not e-books. Mostly trading in collectors items, the store made just enough to pay their rents, keep the lights on, and fill the fridge.

The shop was somewhere between Carmen’s third parent and an older sibling. She spent every evening and the better part of each weekend holed up in the back room, reading. Aromas of ageing paper and leather and the whisper of turning pages suffused her memories.

Every present she received from her parents was a book. Novels, encyclopedias, poetry anthologies, photography, books of old art exhibition, textbooks: each one came seemingly randomly, though generally age appropriately. Around her fifth birthday her father accidentally bought a crate of textbooks, mistaking their lot number for that of a first edition copy of 100 Years of Solitude. Among the books was a complete set of math textbooks, from basic algebra, up through multivariable calculus. She was fascinated by the covers, a fact her mother found amusing enough to give her the books as a gift.

It was doubtful that her mother thought she would actually read them, much less learn what they contained. But, a few years later, Carmen picked them up, and the exercises contained therein became a mainstay of her middle and high school years. Her mother sat with Carmen as she did the exercises. It often took her mother longer to check her work than it took Carmen to do the problems.

Over time, Carmen developed a fluency with mathematics, which turned out to be a great way of alienating people. So she spent more time alone, reading and learning, and that was part of the reason she had the opportunity to be the first in her family to get what her father referred to as a ‘real’ degree. She was pretty sure he hadn’t expected it to be quite so expensive.

Carmen was smart and worked hard, but never quite did well enough to get full-ride scholarships. What assistance she qualified for barely made a dent in tuition. Still, at her father’s insistence, she’d gone to study what she imagined was her passion. And, after one or two false starts, found herself in a field that was ‘in-demand.’

The news was full of something someone had done with a drone system, the internet full of dramas with them at their center. As a child, each night she’d imagined herself as the next great, like the people in the interviews, with their bright toothy smiles, startups, and IPOs. Those immaculately dressed supra-people who wrote e-books on offworld project management, and oversaw projects on Titan, Ganymede, Europa or a thousand other places.

It had not gone according to plan. Between the time she took off caring for her father during his illness and minding the store after his death, her degree took seven years rather than five. Sales at the store declined with her father’s health and, while her mother was every bit her father's equal, she was unable to pull the store out of its nosedive. Then the banks jacked up their interest rates and the debt began to compound quicker than she could pay it.

At the time Chris, then her boyfriend of a year, offered to use his trust fund to pay her debts. A futile, but somewhat romantic gesture—which was a habit of Chris’. His trust fund was big enough pay for his life in perpetuity but too small to erase her debt. Besides, the offer felt like entrapment—as if she was trading the hold the bank had over her for a whole different kind of bond. Chris’ ‘great romantic gestures’ always felt like proposals.

Though they’d attended the same university, Carmen met Chris through the shop. He was a regular on the weekends, and spent hours picking through their stock looking for out-of-print science fiction novels from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He believed that to be the golden age of science fiction; Carmen didn’t have an opinion. Each visit they’d talk for hours, but it wasn’t until months later, when they bumped into each other at a party, that he asked her out. When she asked why he hadn’t asked earlier, he told her that he hadn’t wanted to make her uncomfortable at work. That answer got him a second date.

Chris told her he was going to be a famous novelist someday, one that could compete with all the bot-written pulp-fiction and computer-generated dramas. He had a quixotic belief in destiny and human craftsmanship, which Carmen found cute; she was a sucker for the tragic-artist bullshit. His head was full of dreams, more dreams than anyone could live, and those presented an escape from the reality of her life without any sense of commitment.  

His romanticism might have been insufferable, had he not been able to laugh at himself. His playful self-deprecation was a refreshing contrast of the brittle arrogance of so many of the men in her program. They didn’t talk about her work, or her studies. However, he had read about history and literature—the subjects she’d grown up with. They moved in together six months after they met.  

Chris used to print out her debt notices and fold them up, making origami animals out of them. The scant surfaces of their apartment filled with delicate figures, changing with the weekly waves of interest. His speciality was extinct mammals: dolphins, bison, moose, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami. The herds migrated across their computers, over the bedside tables, along the windowsills, and—if she’d had a bad month—over the floor.

Despite his romanticism and habitual spaciness, Chris grounded her when she had her first panic attack. It happened about a week after she realized that the payments  garnished from her wages left her short for rent. They were watching TV, but she couldn’t focus, her mind occupied by bills. The characters blurred. The dialogue seemed distant. A vice closed over her chest. She shuddered, seized, ground her teeth.

Chris sat with her, holding her hand, talking softly. Close your eyes, he told her, his voice soft, calm,  breathe in... out... in... out.

The next day she started looking for a way to sell her debt.

The shuttle juddered on. Carmen moved from worrying they were going to die to worrying that signing the contract had been a mistake. She’d gone over her decision so many times, and come to the same conclusions. Yet still, she could not escape the feeling that something had gone terribly wrong. Her mother—a petite, angular woman whose tight black curls smelled of coconut oil and always appeared wet—had taught her to never trust a bargain. While her father had cautioned her never to look a gift-horse in the mouth, both her parents had been clear that the best option can still be a bad option. They said that when they used the shop as collateral for her loans…  

Carmen felt a familiar tide of pressure creeping up her chest. She closed her eyes, and began her breathing exercises. Summoning the trash can, she cleared her mind of every thought of her parents, and the shop. Then, before visions of catastrophe could fill the space, she focused on their destination: The 2nd planet around the 9th star in the 81st FrontEx Concession, ‘Planet 8192.’

Her briefing package had contained few concrete facts about the planet but there had been several hundred photos. In these pictures the sun was shining. Moss spilled over granite ridges, and where the damp rocks caught the sun they gleamed like obsidian. The forests were great crowds of pines, a flood of needles at their feet and their depths a dark green haze.

Chris said that the forest reminded him of his great grandmother's place. He was excited and his mood had pulled her’s along.

There were, of course, a few photos of glaciers, faintly green cliffs of the other shore. But they’d skipped those, flicking through the slideshow until the photos turned to forest or rock again.

They’d lingered on one series in particular, seven shots of a clearing with a  picnic bench; a dappled square of neat grass surrounded by a copse of pines. The company had made sure to include several people in each image, immaculately dressed, beautiful, appropriately diverse people all white-teeth frozen laughs, eating lunch around a picnic table, playing football, going on a stroll. Cheesy and obvious, but reassuring.

They had no choice but to accept what FrontEx showed them; the post was deep inside proprietary space and not a datum escaped that the firm didn’t want seen. Any experiences therein were covered by the most comprehensive non-disclosure agreements in existence. There were virtual tours, but—unless one bought a premium package—they were limited to residences. Still, Carmen did her best to get assurances. Following the advice of Chris’ father, a lawyer, she asked for affidavits that the photos weren’t edited. FrontEx obliged. A week later she signed the contract.

    

****

 

Chris woke, slowly. Unmoving, he stared groggily at the wall and the seat in front of him. It took a few seconds to remember where he was, and where he was going, but as those facts dawned they vaporized any loitering drowsiness. He sat up.

“How far out are we?”

His left arm, previously trapped under his sleeping weight, was a mass of pins and needles. He had a crick in his neck. Gingerly, he stretched out his arms and shook out the numbness. His fingertips brushed the seat across from him.

“About half an hour.” Carmen replied after a moment.

“How’s the view?”

“Monotonous”

He felt a few sharp taps, and a screen flickered into existence on the wall to his right. It took a few seconds to buffer.

“How did you sleep?” she asked.

“To be honest I have no idea, those pills I took...”  

He trailed off: the feed had begun to change. What had been a haze of crimson resolved into more coherent shapes. However, just as quickly as a shape appeared, it revealed itself to be part of a larger, more complex pattern. Plunging depths of burgundy, flecked with purple became the edges of great, fraying ropes of orange gas snaking around skeins of red that themselves became the centre of massive vortexes.

“What the hell?” Chris glanced back, Carmen was leaning forwards in her seat, gazing up at the screen. Her face gleamed, bathed in the screen’s glow turning her brown skin a deep red.

“That’s the view behind us. We’re through the cloud,” Carmen murmured. She reached out and held his hand. As they pulled away and the roiling surface of gas continued to fill the screen from edge to edge, he got the sense that the word ‘cloud,’ while accurate, was inappropriate. The wall of gas behind them was to a cloud as a mountain is to a rock.

With a quick tap, Carmen switched to a side view. The wall of gas became the interior wall of a titanic hurricane. It crested, arcing away, and made and broke infinite new horizons.

Carmen switched to the forward view, and they caught their first glimpse of the star—a dull orange orb. A faint, reddish band extended out on either side of it.

“Is that lens flare?”

“No,” Carmen replied, “The cloud’s a ring. It orbits the sun. Some day it’ll be gas giants, or a star.”

“Between the star and the cloud, it kind of looks like we’re riding off into the sunset.”

She didn’t laugh, but squeezed his hand again. Chris could tell that she was nervous; her sentences were always shorter, less descriptive. In the early days of their relationship he’d insisted she talk about what was bothering her. It was what his family did. His mother had taught him that you could only understand and control an emotion if you articulated it. She was a child psychiatrist with a wildly successful private practice. She often joked that her job was to put together all the humpty dumpties who’d been left on the wall by their parents.

Chris had quickly discovered that Carmen did not want to talk. She had no problem telling him she loved him, laughing, and pulling him up to dance. They never ran out of stuff to talk about. They spent hours lazing in bed reading books to each other, or simply meandering between subjects. There were intense conversations that engulfed them, snatching away evenings, and banter that bounced between them. However, when she was unhappy or anxious, Carmen withdrew, shutdown.  

He stared into the perpetual sunset and squeezed her hand back. A slight indent had appeared at the edge of the star, a rounded dark patch intruding from its edge. The shuttle banked slightly. The patch became a silhouette hovering in front of the star. A halo of light spilled around it; it was a planet, 8192.

 

****

 

Carmen watched the planet swell into permanent eclipse. A tiny glint beside it betrayed a satellite, the only proof that people had been here before, their link to FrontEx, and, in the future, a staging area for minerals. The planet beneath was inscrutable, its features the dimmest traces, shadows within shadows. At its starward edge, the planet’s atmosphere caught the light of the red dwarf, and turned into a blue haze. She half-looked for signs of what to expect on the ground below, knowing that they were headed for the light side. FrontEx had been clear that they were to arrive in the early evening. As she watched, they overtook the night. The sunrise—or sunset reversed, she supposed—revealed the terrain below.    

The surface was a snowcapped peak viewed through a fisheye lens. The parts not occluded by reefs of cloud were bluish white, run through with thin stripes of dark rock. Chris said that it reminded him of cookies and cream ice cream, and that it wasn’t helping his nausea. Carmen laughed.

The feed cut off and a red light flashed across the screen.

Preparing for atmospheric entry, said an automated voice, please ensure seatbelts are fastened, and all luggage is safely stowed. Please note: exterior feeds will be disabled.

The voice cut out and then returned, this time speaking Mandarin. It moved through Spanish, French, Arabic, and then four other languages that Carmen didn’t understand. Just as the final message ended, the cabin began to shake more violently. The straps tightened, pulling her back. She gripped Chris’ hand and gritted her teeth.

Then the cabin stilled and the feed came back online. Carmen’s heart sank. The ridgelines slipping past them were thinner than she’d imagined, the glaciers wider. The forests were wind-ruffled toupees clinging to the ridges. The sun rose ahead of them engulfing them in glacial glare and paring the trees down to skeletal silhouettes.  

Chris smiled, reassuringly, and told her not to worry. He reminded her they had a while to go before their post and reminisced about the photographs. Carmen half-listened, trying to remember whether any documents in the briefing package mentioned the acreage of the post. There had been no mention of it in the Executive Summary—a page-long, ten-point-font printout spattered with numbers without units of measurement. The hours spent decrypting the summary had stained her mind with all the information contained therein. None of the other documents contained numbers. No doubt, the premium package presented all the information clearly.

 

****

 

After her panic attack, Carmen began applying to jobs. In the first three months, the only responses were polite rejections. She continued to apply, refining her resume and cover letter. She emailed friends, family friends, old classmates and their parents. Offers began to trickle in. But, as though the companies could sense her desperation, they were ten to fifteen year contracts. None would cover all of her debt, though some offered to suspend the interest for the length of the contract. All of them required her to leave Earth.

That fact gave her pause. Everyone knew that it would be decades before anywhere promised a better life than Earth. The climate was fixing itself, the rainforests regenerating. Even life squashed into a shoebox apartment was better than life in a metal cylinder in the endless darkness, or out on some asphyxiated rock. Space travel was expensive; off-world was grim, claustrophobic, and lonely. The only people out there were those chosen by the firms, and desperate or crazy enough to say yes.

After months of trawling the nets for offers, penning cover letters and writing and rewriting her resume. After months of rejection letters, offers that barely covered the interest, or demanded she spend her late twenties and thirties on one distant wasteland or another. One morning, she woke to find an offer waiting in her email. It was from a verified account, a company named FrontEx. Which was strange; she hadn’t applied to FrontEx. The offer covered the entirety of her debt. It was a three hundred day drone mining contract, an unbelievably short term. Despite the verified account, her initial instinct was that it was a scam.

She told Chris; he blindsided her with a confession. A week before, he’d passed a copy of her resume to his father. In turn, his father passed it to an old school friend, an intellectual property lawyer for FrontEx. Carmen was incensed. Maybe it was Chris’ going behind her back, or maybe it was the sting of how easily he’d solved her problem. Either way or both she was apoplectic.

They fought. Carmen pointed out that he was not sensitive to his privilege and ‘helping’ without asking undermined her autonomy. Chris responded, with infuriating smugness, that his skin was darker. It was a point he was fond of; it made her want to punch him in the nose. He informed her that love was helping people without them having to ask. They went around again. He didn’t really hear her; she wished she didn’t hear him. Afterwards, they didn’t talk for a week.

The FrontEX offer was by far the best so she suppressed her pride, ignored the feeling that she was displacing a better candidate, and took it.

As for Chris, being mad at him was kind of like being mad at a puppy. She’d yell; he’d look sad and confused and then leave, give her space, and come back when he was sure they could talk. She’d given up accusing him of being emotionally manipulative; if she was being honest, he was too air headed for it to be intentional. Either way he was the reason that her life collided with FrontEx.

FrontEx simply existed, and had existed for as long as anyone remembered, though it was unclear what existence meant in its terms: in just the past fifty years it had been bought, sold, spun-off, broken up, reunited, named, and re-named. Some said it was a vast conglomerate of public enterprises, others claimed that it was a privately-owned affair run by a shadowy council. Few checked.

Carmen believed that FrontEx was far too big to be controlled in any way that a conspiracy theorist would recognize. The hierarchy disappeared upwards not like a mountain but like the other side of the earth for those standing on it. Its structure was byzantine, and they’d bought and sold so many companies that it was unclear what FrontEx did and didn't own. So much so that different branches would often sue each other, the cases dragging on for years before someone worked out that they were suing themselves. What was clear was that FrontEx was now in the business of planets.

 

****

 

Her first glimpse of their island did nothing to allay her fears. It was a meager shard of rock surrounded first by glacier, and then again by ridgelines that cast it into shadow. A little over halfway along the island, a crevasse cut out across the ice. Even out of the glare, the island’s forest was little more than a runway of trees. The ice—a blue expanse of crags—was a series of toppled stacks of paper.

She tried to catch Chris’ eyes but he was looking away, down at his feet. He fidgeted with the button on the neck of his sweater, pulling at fraying strings.

A pebble beach slipped under them and then a short cliff. Then, with a slight jolt, they landed.

"You have arrived at your destination. Please remain seated, and keep luggage stowed, until the exterior door—"

But they were both already up, grabbing their bags and coats from overhead compartments. Then they waited. Carmen shifted from foot to foot, chewing her cheek, her eyes fixed on Chris’ back. Chris tapped his feet. His head tilted to avoid the ceiling. They stood silently, quieted by overwhelming anticipation. With a puff, the door slid open.

Chris looked back at her, and grinned mischievously, “This is one small—”

“Don’t—”

“Step for a man—” Chris continued, arcing away from her attempts to muffle him, and taking a step towards the lip of the shuttle door.

“You promised you wouldn’t do this!”

“I believe what I said was I wouldn’t make Star Trek or other literary references, the phrase I’m using—”

“I know what it’s from. But the spirit of the agreement...”

“My father always says ‘one should always exorcise agreements.’” He stepped outside, disappearing into the glare.

“Ha ha,” she said, sarcastically, but smiled as she followed him.

Outside, the freezing air made her lungs feel as though they were closing. It smelled of nothing, though her sense of smell had always been somewhat unreliable. Each breath left a translucent cloud that lingered, drifting lazily in their wake. Frozen grass crunched underfoot.  

They’d landed on a rectangle of frosted grass barely big enough for two shuttles. Chain gangs of haggard pines surrounded them on three sides. On the fourth, behind the shuttle was the ice.

Carmen frowned—it all seemed too unfamiliar. Though, considering where they were,  it probably should seem unfamiliar. Maybe we’re at the wrong island, she thought. There were three other posts on the planet, all presently unstaffed. Yes, that’s it, she thought, we’ll just let the shuttle recharge, then head right on over to our post—Chris tripped, falling forwards, and landing heavily on his bag.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine” He chuckled, and picked himself up, brushing  “Just do me a favour, and never mention that to anyone.”

“I’m sure the non-disclosure agreement covers it,” Carmen eyed the ground as she picked her way towards him. A few feet from him, she found deep rectangular indents in the grass. Something heavy had been there for some time. A tripod? She thought, but no, there were four indents, and they were far too large. A picnic bench, she realized, we’re in the right place. She stared at the holes, glumly.  

“I think I found a path,” Chris stood in a small space in the trees peering up a ridge curving away through the pines, “follow me.”

“Hang on, what makes you so sure?”

“Listen,” Chris stamped his feet on the ground in front of him, raising wafts of snow and needles. The ground crunched, “that’s gravel.” He began to pick his way up the ridge, “don’t worry. I’m sure, come summer, this will be a beautiful lunch spot.”

His wide stride soon left her alone on the ridge hemmed in by pines. Beyond the trees, the ground fell away—a steep slope mangy with stunted firs. The ice blurred the colour of  clear pre-dawn sky. Above, the wind waxed and waned.

The cold cut through everything. Even in gloves with layers of sweaters and a thick coat, Carmen shivered. She pushed them deep into her pockets, hunched her shoulders, and hurried on. Chris would be waiting outside the house; while otherwise optimistic, he tended to assume closed doors were locked and rarely tried them to confirm.

The house was nestled in a thicket of squat pines. As she crossed the clearing in front of it, Carmen looked at the trees and wondered whether the winds could topple them. Her mind filled with images of shattered wood, mangled walls, and the frost’s snaking in.

Their new home was a modular prefabricated house composed of four boxes the size and shape of shipping containers. It was twice the size of their old apartment, though the difference in size was mostly his studio and her office which occupied the surface modules, lying at right angles to one another. The remaining modules—their living spaces—were underground and connected to the surface by a spiral staircase. The front door jutted diagonally into the clearing. In all, the structure resembled a crashing pigeon.   

Carmen opened the door. Beyond it was a cramped hallway, ending in another door. Lights sputtered on as she approached. Carmen clenched her hands in her pockets, trying to restore feeling.

The inner door was locked. She stared at a keypad beside the door and tried to remember whether her employers had provided a code. The hallway lights buzzed and flickered above. She came up empty. It was more exasperating than surprising; while FrontEx was always announcing new projects, or moving into new sectors or industries, it farmed out day-to-day operations to a swarm of subcontractors. The modules, the staircase, and the front door had probably been constructed by one contractor, shipped to the planet by another, and assembled by a third; minor details such as door codes were the first casualties of divided responsibility.  

Carmen slipped off her gloves, flexed her fingers, and, leaning over the touchpad, inputted her birthdate, then her birth year, then the first four digits of her employee number, then the last. After her fourth attempt, the touchpad flashed red and emitted an angry buzz at any further combinations. It was two long minutes before the touchpad flashed green.  

“Try your birth year,” Chris said.

“That was the second thing I tried,” the keypad flashed red again. She stepped away and slipped her gloves on,  “Why do they even have a lock?”

“Looks like it was built into the door,” he tried a few codes at random, “I think this is the same kind as my third-year apartment—the place with all those stock photos of forests in the lobby—at that place the code was just the first two digits of the street number, then your apartment number.”

The touchpad flashed red again. For a while Carmen just stood, listening to the rhythm, as she scoured her brain for numbers mentioned by FrontEx’s representatives. Eventually, she peered over his shoulders. He was trying possible combinations in order. She watched him for a few iterations, doing the math of how long it would take in her head.

“Chris, ” Carmen hugged him around the waist, trying to pull him away, “there are 10,000 possible four digit combinations. Going through them all will take at least forty eight hours, and doesn’t even account for the possibility of a five or six digit code.”

He shrugged and continued. The patter of his fingers on the keypad was barely audible over the wind outside. Five minutes later, he was still going—0018, 0019, 0020, 0021—he was slower now, wheezing as he blew on his hands.

Numbness spread over her hands. Her mind turned to what would happen if they did not get in. It would be getting dark soon. The temperature would drop. If they remained outside, they would freeze to death before morning. It could be weeks before someone checked on them.

0030, 0031, 0032, 0033. The touchpad flashed red. Chris cursed. He scrabbled at the door, trying to push it open. She slipped off her gloves and placed her hands on her neck, inhaling sharply at her frigid touch. When they felt warmer, she stepped to the touchpad; she couldn’t think of a better way and doing something would help her think. 0038, 0039, 0040...

Forty eight hours, she thought, can we last forty eight hours? What if it’s not a four digit? Five digits will take about 480 hours. By the numbness of her fingers, she would probably have frostbite within six hours, if not sooner. Maybe, if they took shifts, they would last a little longer, but how long? Definitely not one and a half of this planet’s days. 0047, 0048, 0049...

“I can take over again.”

“I was at 50”

Carmen leant against the wall and a crust of frost slipped off it, thawed by her heat. As Chris resumed his tapping she tried to think of ways around the keypad. Maybe I could pry off the covering and short it, she thought, no: best case we get in; worse case the door never opens… Is there anything in the shuttle that could help? Nothing came to mind. It might provide shelter but they’d left the door to close itself, which, most likely, had not happened yet. By now, the shuttle would be no warmer than it was outside and it probably wouldn't have enough charge to warm them through the night.

Carmen took over again at 76. Her hands had warmed a little in her pockets which initially helped her confidence. But, as she broke 90, she began to despair. Chris slid down against the wall, legs bent across the hallway, staring into space, their bags on either side. 0100, 0101, 0102, 0103… Patterns of hoarfrost crept up the walls, a product of their breaths. 0110, 0111…

She wondered what it would be like to freeze to death. She’d once read a biography of a mountaineer, and learned the stages of hypothermia. She tried to remember them but could only recall images of the results—half nude bodies littering mountainsides, blue lips, eyes clouded by frost. 0113… 0115...

Chris’s teeth chattered behind her; she could tell he was trying to be quiet, which made it worse. 0125, 0126, 0127... Maybe if they went back to the shuttle they could at least have a chance to sit down and sleep. A tide of fatigue overtook her. Maybe they could try again in the morning. He took over again.

Something he’d said was eating at her. Street number, apartment number: it can’t apply here; there are no streets, no apartments on this place. Only four posts and the planet number...

“Chris—” she pulled gently at his arm.

“No! I’ll lose count—”

“Chris, let me try something.”

Chris stepped back, allowing just enough space for her to shimmy past. 819201, 819202,  819203, 819204, click. The door slid open.

Beyond the door was another short hallway. Lights turned on above, brightening from a faint glow to a warm, yellow light. Familiar sounds arose: the hum of generators and the rush of water coursing through pipes. Three doors led off the hallway. Two faced each other midway along the passage. The third, a heavy, iron thing that belonged in a submarine hung ajar at the end of the passage, providing a view of a staircase leading downwards.

“I don’t know about you,” said Chris, closing the door behind her, “But I could do with some tea. How about we unpack, and make something hot to drink, before exploring?”  

“That sounds fantastic...” Carmen walked towards the stairs, yawning. Now away from the shuttle and the cold, a deep fatigue was overtaking her, “But maybe we should hold off exploring until tomorrow; I’m pretty tired.”

“Sure,” Chris sounded disappointed, “I guess we have plenty of time.”

 

****

 

Chris left the unpacking to her, dropping his bag at the door of their bedroom and disappearing back, past the foot of the stairs, to the kitchen. As Carmen watched him go, she felt an upsurge of resentment; he hadn’t offered to help. Not that she wanted his help. Chris often made tasks harder, particularly when it came to organizing space. He had a habit of chucking stuff into drawers at random producing chaos and arguments.

When they fought, Carmen snapped, and lectured while Chris refused to concede any point, arguing down to bare-bone semantics and turning each issue into a philosophical or ideological debate. Eventually Chris would give one of his apologies. Chris’s apologies had a way of pissing her off. He was too on-the-nose, too specific; he sounded sarcastic. And, while she told herself he wasn’t, it was a hard sell. Don’t make too much of this, she told herself as she put away the last of his stuff, it’s not as if they allowed us to bring that much, not as if this will take hours.

It didn’t: she was done after twenty minutes. Most of that time was due to her opening drawers that were already full. Alongside a bed, and two bedside tables, the bedroom had a wall of drawers and little doors. All were spring-loaded to open when pressed—a mechanism that took her a few seconds to work out.

After that, it was just a matter of focusing on panels that seemed the right size. Almost all of those were full. In two shallow closets, she found six winter coats; a narrow drawer contained two sleek black axes. Shrinkwrapped sweaters and socks filled a number of other drawers. Finally, she pressed two large panels and found empty space.    

FrontEx was particular about what it let into its proprietary space; it didn’t want its biospheres contaminated, or any data leaks. Accordingly they’d submitted everything they wanted to bring for tests months ahead of time. FrontEx had only returned their belongings once they boarded the shuttle.

Of course, FrontEx had provided them with guidelines, pages of them. Alongside real books, and ebook readers, most of Carmen’s hair products were on the ‘no’ list, especially the homemade stuff. FrontEx had promised them a free stocked library of ebooks. They had generously provided a list of hair products available for a modest charge. But, as she had scrolled through their catalogue, the white faces and straight hair on the advertisements informed her they had nothing for her.

To give herself a month or so of low maintenance and as a silent protest, she decided to cut her hair short, leaving barely half a centimeter of dense black curls. Chris had pushed her to complain, to demand diversity, but Carmen refused. In her opinion, it was a battle that would only be won at the expense of her job. Besides, she looked good with short hair.  

Just as Carmen finished unpacking, Chris returned. He was carrying two steaming mugs, and a small bottle wedged in the crook of his arm.

“Hey beautiful, sorry it took so long—I got held up exploring the cupboards.” Chris smiled, warmly,  “I found these while searching for tea,” he motioned sloppily with his elbow, splashing drops of amber liquid across the floor,  “there are whole cupboards of them—you’d think they’d keep the sleeping pills in the bathroom.”

“Let me see,” Carmen took the bottle in one hand and a mug in another, transfered the mug to the bedside table and examined the pill bottle. Its label was crammed with tiny type. The biggest block of text were the ingredients—all several syllables long, and effectively meaningless without an internet connection—the second largest chunk of type contained instructions.

“Why would we ever need so many pills?” Chris soaked up spots of tea with his sock.

She grimaced at his cleaning method, “This planet has a thirty hour day-night cycle, which can throw off our biorhythms. These pills will help us sleep through the night and keep us awake through the day.” she began on the list of possible side effects, “You should read the directions.” she handed the bottle back.

“It’s just pills, herbal tea, and meal packs back there,” Chris squinted at the bottle, “there’s no booze, no weed, but they’ve managed to combine sleeping pills and adderall. Typical corporate bullshit”

Carmen raised her mug and sipped her tea. It was the perfect temperature, sweet the way she liked it. They shared a smile. Despite a day of unpleasant surprises, they were still them.