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