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.