4 - Thaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

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

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

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

“So what do you think happened?”

“I think it was the Cravens.”

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

“So what’s your theory.”

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

 

****

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

****

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

****

    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen switched feed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen switched feed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Chris,” she called, “Chris?”

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

 

****

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

****

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen continued her retreat.

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

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

 

****

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Carmen?” He rasped.

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

“Chris? Thank fucking god.”

Her embrace winded him.

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

“What happened to you?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that blood?” He grimaced.

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

“On the pines? Yeah—”

“No, in the Craven.”

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

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

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

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

 

****

 

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

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

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

 “So… corporate espionage?”

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

“What does that leave?”

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

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

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

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

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

The trees rustled above; there was no wind.

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

“Hey—” her expression silenced him.

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

“Hmmm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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