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?”
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—”
“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.