They had dinner about an hour after Roderick left. By then the retrofit was complete, and her drones had long since resumed mining. While he heated up their food, Chris regaled her with what seemed to be a blow-by-blow account of his conversation with Roderick. She zoned out, staring at the wall above his head and, when he handed her a meal pack, ate briskly as he talked. She finished her food before he was half done.
“Carmen?” Chris tapped her shoulder, bringing her into focus, “Are you okay? You seem tired.”
“I’m not tired. But can we talk about something else? You’re kind of talking at me, not to me.” Chris gave her his wounded puppy look, “Sorry… look I’m glad you had a productive conversation, but...”
“No, I get it… how did the retrofit go?”
“Awesome,” he fiddled with his food “glad that’s sorted.”
“Yeah, the analysis of the documents is still running, it should be done by the morning.”
“Good, good. What I was trying to get to earlier. I mean, Did I tell—” he paused, and frowned. “Roderick told me that the climate changing is eventually going to kill the Cravens.”
“Seems a little unfair to create a species and then make it go extinct.”
“Right? When I said that, Roderick just replied, ‘All species are doomed to die out.’”
“I suppose that’s true,” Carmen replied, she looked down at her empty tray, pushing little droplets of sauce across its bottom with her fork.
“Oh!” Chris sounded excited, “I asked about the algae. Apparently the firm owns the patent, but has no idea where it comes from.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, Roderick had a load of different theories including ecosystem contamination, but he also joked about it being like from the planet, which was weird.”
“That is weird,” Carmen frowned, “though, there was algae here before. That’s where the oil comes from. Maybe some of that survived.”
“Isn’t it illegal to seed a planet with an existing ecosystem?”
“I don’t know, maybe?”
The question nagged at her. She had gotten the opportunity to come to the planet by working connections though, unwittingly. Even so, she had still believed merit had played a part. Now, she wondered whether her debt made her attractive. Maybe FrontEx was just looking for someone they could control.
That night Carmen didn’t take a sleeping pill. She planned to get an early start the next day, however as she lay in bed listening to Chris’s faint snoring, sleep remained elusive. Initially she was beset by a hubbub of competing thoughts, but it all gave way to intense homesickness.
She remembered the reawakening city after a long winter. Schedules came back to her, the rhythm of a day, a week. She remembered how the people flickered in and out her mother’s building like air through lungs. She even missed the sirens, the pungent whiff of warm garbage and piss, guttering streetlights, and drunken arguments that played out beneath her window.
Chris woke early the next morning. Leaving Carmen sleeping, he pulled on a coat, picked up a can of Repellant, and took the stairs. He first went to her office and pulled up the feed from the observation drone. The aircraft was above the far end of the island, overlooking the Cravens’ nests. Birds flitted from branch to branch.
In his absence the structures had grown, the birds pushing the drifts of their faeces and feathers to the outside, creating walls for the staircase. By the growing mound of shit, feathers and needles at the base of the trees they’d dug holes in the floor and cleared out the leftover shit and feathers. Watching the birds build, Chris felt a pang of sadness. How can such an ingenious animal be disposable? he thought, is that even a good way to measure whether a species deserves to survive?
The drone passed over the nests. Small, dark forms spattered the clearing behind the pines. Chri tried to make out shapes in the blur. Then he understood. Scattered across the ground, wings spread beneath their bony frames, were the bodies of the male Cravens.
Chris looked away, waiting until he was certain that the drone had cleared the Craven’s roost before looking back. The view swung over the clearing in front of the house, revealing it empty. The trees around the house were still.
Wrapped in thought, Chris went outside.
Overnight the temperature had dropped; it was barely two degrees and each breath left a drifting cloud. Keeping his eyes on the trees around him, Chris pointed the cannister ahead of himself, and began to spray.
Almost immediately, he felt a slight itch in the back of his throat. The Pink clouds ripened the air with a full-bodied, warming smell, somewhere between pumpkin pie and mulled wine. He smiled, thinking of fall back home and stepped into the space between his office and the rock face. Stooped under the pines, he continued to spray.
Pink mist blew back into his face. His eyes and tongue swelled. He could barely see. His throat tightened.
Chris reeled back, head colliding with low hanging branches. He stumbled to the inner door, fumbled with the touchpad, and, somehow, managed to get inside. Lurching to his studio, toward the cases, he almost fell. Through a thinning gap between his eyelids, he saw the sobriety aid case. He tripped. Cases bounced away across the floor.
“Chris? Shit, Chris what happened?”
Chris felt a handle of a case and pulled it towards him. He fumbled with the clasp, managed to open the case, and turned toward Carmen’s voice.
“Oiye Nyed Du Wrink,” he yelled.
“What?” he felt her hands on his back.
He jabbed his finger at what he hoped were the vials. Her hands left his back. She took the case from him.
“Tilt your head back,” she said, “open your mouth.”
He forced his mouth as wide as it could go. A thick liquid, peppermint with a metallic aftertaste, poured into his mouth. Almost immediately, his symptoms stopped worsening but it took several minutes sitting, propped up against Carmen for the swelling to dissipate.
When Chris felt up to sitting, Carmen left and made tea. Her heart thumped. She’d been woken by the sound of him stumbling through the hallway. Assuming the worst, she’d grabbed the slim, black axe from its draw, and had charged upstairs—a plan that now seemed foolish. What if something had broken in, she thought as the kettle boiled, what could I fight with this tiny axe?
Back in his studio, she found him sitting, inspecting a cannister of Repellant. Chris looked up and smiled, but his face was gaunt, drawn, his eyes set in dark circles.
“Thanks,” Chris said, “If you hadn’t been there, I’m not sure where I’d be.”
“I went outside—”
“I checked the drone-feed first, and I only went to the clearing outside the house. Someone needed to spray this stuff,” Carmen swallowed her objections. “Turns out I’m allergic to this stuff, trying to work out why.”
“Okay,” Carmen said flatly. This kind of shit is exactly why I wanted him to go, she thought. “Well let’s say no-one goes out without the other person being up. You could have died.”
“Sounds like a good rule,” Chris sat up. “That sobriety aid was a real help.”
Carmen picked up one of the vials, and tilted it, watching a bubble move through the liquid inside.
“You know what this stuff is, right?” she asked, glancing up at Chris. He shook his head, took a gulp of tea, and winced. “It’s repurposed nanotechnology, old tech, from the last of the Oil Wars. A few drops in a depot could eat enough oil to ground an airforce.”
Chris chuckled, “and now it’s being used so that people can avoid hangovers.”
“Yeah,” Carmen looked down at the vials. “By now it has probably saved more lives preventing DUIs than it ever did as a weapon.”
Chris seemingly recovered, Carmen walked over to her office. Chris followed, lagging behind her, clearly trying not to crowd her. He’d left her computers running and the monitors on which she found profoundly irritating.
Chris sat a little behind her, tapping on the tablet. As he swivelled this way and that on his office chair it squeaked.
“Chris,” the squeaking stopped but the weighty silence told her he was preparing a question “Just ask.”
“Does the drone store its video?”
“Yes,” replied Carmen. “Well, about a week’s worth.”
“Can I access it from this tablet? I just think we should review the footage from the ExoGenetics facility, see if there’s anything we missed.”
Carmen hesitated; there was no way of giving him access to the video without also giving him the ability to control the drones. Something within her rebelled against that notion.
“I’d have to load the program onto the tablet…”
“Well… one of us should review the footage.”
“You’re right.” After a moment’s hesitation, she took the tablet and turned back to the computer, “Give me a few minutes.”
She copied the program onto the data drive, and loaded it onto the tablet. But, before handing the tablet back to him, she loaded the program and hid all the controls for the drone. He could still do it, if he tried, but she doubted he’d know to look for it.
“Just click here to rewind,” she jabbed at the screen, “here to pause, here to skip forwards. There’s a search function for date, and time, if you want to skip around.”
“Got it. Can I zoom in?”
“Yes, but it will get blurry.”
Chris began to jab at the screen. Feeling somewhat guilty, Carmen turned back to her computer. Overnight, her program had finished identifying differences between Roderick’s files and their own. She pulled up the results of the analysis on the leftmost monitor, opening their library and Roderick’s on the center and rightmost monitors respectively. There were over 11,000 points of difference. She sighed, it was going to be a long day.
It took Chris about half an hour to find the footage from ExoGenetics—the date and time search function worked on Earth dates, and it took near ten minutes for him to do the math. He could, of course, have asked Carmen, but her sullen silence and glares at each squeak of his chair, told him she was best left alone. Eventually, though, he pinpointed the moment and the drone began moving down the ExoGenetics hallway.
For the next few hours, Chris was glued to his screen. He played the footage in thirty second chunks, playing each section back again and again in slow motion and real speed. Each time he thought he saw something, he froze the frame and zoomed in on it, crisp footage transforming into a blur of fat pixels.
The first thing he discovered was that the tracks cutting through the dust started at the front door. They cut to-and-fro down the hallway, dipping in and out of each open door. Chris tried to study them but, between the darkness and the pixelation, he couldn’t make out any details.
Halfway down the hallway, as the drone’s light swung into an open room something moved in the darkness. It was the barest shift in the shadows. He skipped back and pressed play, eyes straining against the gloom. There was no denying it; something was moving. A shape, a large shape, jerking or scuttling away from the drone’s light. A cold feeling that seemed to eat all others overtook him.
“Carmen?” He tried to keep his voice calm, but her name came out tight and anxious. She turned, away from her screens, “Take a look at this.”
He showed her the clip, and when it was finished, she asked him to play it again. Her expression grave, she kept her eyes fixed over the shadows. She watched the clip a third time before saying anything.
“I’m not sure what that is, but it doesn’t look like a Craven.”
“Does it look like what you saw in the trees?”
“Show me the clip again… I don’t know… maybe, it’s hard to see.”
“I haven’t gotten to the room yet, so maybe there’re some better images.” Chris glanced at her screens. Blocks of text with some passages highlighted filled two of the screens, the third was filled with code and numbers. “Have you found anything?” He asked, willing his mind away from the clip.
“Yeah, but nothing about what’s out there: Roderick has been fiddling with the books. It looks like embezzlement.”
“In most of our files, the surveys ran for days on end with surveyors moving to and from survey vessels. In his files, none lasted more than 12 hours including automated scans.”
“Ah, so he may have charged FrontEx for the amount of time he reported and pocketed the difference?”
“Exactly,” Carmen smiled, but her fatigue was written all over her face. “I think it might give us the leverage to leave without penalty but I’m going to collect all the information I can before confronting him.”
“I guess that means there really is a corporate spy on this planet.”
“It appears you were right all along. Though, really, there are two.” Carmen replied, grinning “the hacker” she pointed at herself, “and the distraction.”
“I was not just a distraction; I was the mastermind.”
Carmen stared at the screen, trying to read. But the words were incomprehensible. Normally when they worked in the same room, Chris would distract her but he had been oddly quiet since he showed her the clip. She forced herself to focus on the document that occupied the screen—a letter that was tacked onto the Algae folder in Roderick’s files but missing in theirs.
Please stop linking the Algae to environmental contamination. You are well aware of mom’s plans to spin off ExoGenetic, and allegations of environmental contamination can only harm the future stock price. As you are well aware, ExoGenetics is the gold standard of organism containment and ecosystem purity. You also know that at no point in time was any algal biomatter transferred into the facility from off-world.
As per your directions, which I have not recorded in official logs, we transferred algae samples from the ice into the 8192 ExoGenetic facilities. However, we retained samples for our portfolio of proprietary genomes. If you do not cease and desist, you will force me to involve our legal team and they will demand royalties from the 8192 project after the separation of our two firms, which will undoubtedly affect your profit and bonus.
P.S. Thank you for the almond cakes, they’re Claire’s favourite!
P.P.S. I’m using this back channel because neither of us wants a trail on this. delete this message and encrypt your drive once you’re done reading this. I know you get lazy with your computer hygiene.
Carmen reread the letter. The algae definitely isn’t ExoGenetics’. She stared at the black, metallic axe on her desk, which she’d forgotten to put away earlier. The sight of it on her desk was somewhat comforting. She fiddled with it, deep in thought. This is enough evidence to sink Roderick. I should email him.
“Woah,” said Chris, breaking her concentration. “What are you doing with that?”
She stared blankly at the axe. Then placed it back on her desk, shrugging.
“Read this letter, and tell me what you think.”
Chris skimmed the letter, then read it again more slowly. His brow furrowed.
“I think she’s telling the truth.”
“I’m going to call Roderick back.” Carmen said, reassured. She wrote a quick e-mail, stating that she was ready to sign the breach of contract papers, and sent it up to the satellite. That done, she turned back to Chris, “found anything else?”
“I think so,” He turned the tablet to her and played a clip. The drone was looking at the tracks on the floor and then the camera jerked, he rewound and played it again.
“That’s when it got grabbed right? What am I looking for?”
“The movement,” Chris played the clip again, “see the drone moves backwards, and towards the ground an—”
“and if whatever grabbed it was flying, it should move either forwards and towards the ground, or backwards.”
“Right,” Chris sounded slightly disappointed, “I think whatever grabbed the drone was on the ground, behind it.”
“But the drone had just been looking over there. How could something get on the ground behind the drone without us seeing it?”
“I don’t know, but I can’t find anything in the rest of the footage,” he stood. “Are you hungry? I’m hungry. I’m going to make some food,” his tone was clipped, peremptory.
“We’re going to be okay, you know,” replied Carmen.
Chris gave no sign he’d heard her. He left.
Alone in her office, Carmen checked on the mining program. A titanic hole in the ice filled the screen. Watching water glint in the depths, she began to think about her involvement in the mining project. If I continue mining, she realized, I may be an accessory to ecocide—a capital crime; if I stop I’ll be imprisoned by debt for the rest of my life.
She played out the scenarios. Her courses of action broke down into two camps: stop mining and risk being forced to begin the project anew or keep going and risk conviction. If I let this happen, if I become an accessory, FrontEx could leverage my vulnerability to make me do something worse—then I’ll face the same choice, but with worse consequences.
She stopped mining, leaving the drones hanging in the air.
Chris lay staring at the ceiling, Carmen sleeping beside him. As time slithered past, sleep seemed to slip farther from grasp. Snippets of the footage replayed in his mind, shadows skittered in every corner, and more than once he jerked upright convinced he had seen something move on the wall, beside the bed, in the hallway. But there was nothing, just the faint buzz of the generators and the red light seeping in.