8 - Storm System

The temperature dropped overnight, falling past negative ten. Chris awoke to find the straits frozen. He checked the observation drone. Grey patches of algae splotched the ice; the frosted pines stood in absolute stillness.

He walked to his studio. An auditorium of eyes stared through the window: Cravens. Dazed, some visibly wounded, they huddled around the pine trunks, wedged between the rock face and the window. Some were dead, others dying.

“Carmen?”  He kept his eyes fixed on the Cravens, listening for her footsteps, “Carmen?”

One of the Cravens looked up. Its beady eyes fixed on his. Carmen opened the office door behind him and its eyes flickered past him, then back to his.

“Chris, when you sprayed Repellant yesterday you sprayed around the side, right?” Carmen asked, quietly.

“Yes, of course I did. I can’t believe you’re trying to assign blame right now. What are we going to do?

“I’m not trying to assign blame. It’s just good to know that the Repellant doesn’t work. Roderick ripped—”  Tap tap tap.

They turned back to the window. Several Cravens had hopped onto the windowsill. The birds peered into the room, faces pressed against the glass. One tapped on the window. Tap tap tap. A small knick appeared in the glass. Carmen inched towards the door.

“Chris we should...”

“Same page,” Chris took a few, long steps backwards.

Tap tap tap, a different bird chipped at  the glass. Amongst the huddle, Cravens turned to watch those at the window. Tap tap tap. More birds hopped onto the window sill. Tap tap tap tap tap. Wings flapped, birds jostled on the ledge. TAP TAP TAP. Webs of cracks spread across the window. Carmen scrambled at the door handle. TAP TAP TAP TAP. The door swung open. Carmen spilled into the hallway. Chris followed.

“Shit.” Chris turned, and slipped back into the room, “Hold the door open for me.”

“Chris!”

Back in the room, Chris ran towards the stack of cases.  The window bowed inward, a mess of shards but held, for now. He could no longer see beyond. The tapping continued.

Chris!

“Just a second—” he fumbled through the cases.

“We don’t have time—”

There was a faint tinkle. Chris froze. He felt a slight gust of cold air.

“CHRIS!”

Then he saw it, the case containing the sobriety aid. It had somehow slipped down the middle of the stack, out of sight. The window shattered, shards cascading to the floor. He skidded out of the door.

****

They sat across the hallway from the studio for a good half hour. Carmen had expected the Cravens to try and get through the door, but they hadn’t. It seemed the Cravens were done.

“All that for the sobriety aid?”

Chris shook his head and, opening the case, pulled up a layer of foam from the bottom. Beneath were ten half smoked joints.

“Roderick just kept on lighting them, so eventually I just started putting them out, and waiting for him to light more.”

“Seriously Chris, Seriously?”

“Oh Come on Carmen. You realize we might die, right. Like have you been paying attention, because I count three close calls for me. If I don’t have something to calm me down I might just lose it like you did before—”

lose it? I am so sorry you had to deal with that. It must be such a pain to be around someone as crazy as I am. ”

Carmen walked to her office. Chris did not follow.

She felt the sting of welling tears, but pushed them down. Instead, she directed the observation drone over the island towards the Cravens roost. The sight of the roost banished any thoughts of Chris’ insensitivity and stupidity.

A gaping hole scarred the nest’s walls. Chunks of flesh and bone spattered the rocks beneath, blood frozen where it dropped. The clearing behind the roost was a chaos of blood, dead beetles, and shredded nest.

“Chris? Chris?” Carmen called out.

He scrambled into the room. Neither of them said anything as she panned over the carnage. Three Cravens, butchered as before, lay spreadeagled in front of their shuttle.

What the fuck?”  

“The Cravens may be the least of our problems. I’m going to pull the other observation drone from mining.”

“Why?”

“The other one doesn’t have enough fuel left to weld the door shut—their tanks only last a week—we need to seal that door, otherwise we will freeze to death.”  

****

As the hours passed, the apartment grew colder, falling below zero by midafternoon. Between the heated floors, and the computers’ heat, her office was the warmest room in the house. They spent that night holed-up next to her computers, bags packed, coats on hand. Neither of them took sleeping pills.

The gas cloud was close, filling the sky and turned the night into a perpetual crimson twilight. Its glow flooded through the window, creeping into every corner. Even facing away from the window, wrapped in Chris’s arms, the light forced its way between her eyelids.

Of course, Chris had no issues falling asleep.

Carmen listened for any sound from the studio. In brief interludes of sleep, she dreamt of hands, peeling away the walls and the frozen air beyond. Each time she jerked awake nothing had changed: no knocking, no scraping, no mysterious weight.

The next morning, the second observation drone arrived. Glad to have something to pass the time, Carmen set about maneuvering the machine into the studio. Chris watched silently, eyes narrowly open. He hadn’t said a full sentence since the previous day but she could not tell whether he was sulking or just scared.

First she tried to come in from above, descending towards the window. But, between the frosted pines and the roof’s slight overhang, there was no space.

Next, she hovered in front of the house and tried to swing around the window frame into the studio. The space was smaller than she realized. What she’d envisioned as a fluid movement turned into a jerking grind.

Jammed between the window and the rock face she juddered back and forth moving an inch each time. A haze settled over the screen, thickening with each passing second, as the drone’s exhaust filled the space. More of the studio lurched into view, illuminated by the searchlight. The rumbling engines had woken a few Cravens but most remained asleep. The flock huddled under Chris’ desk, sandwiched between crates and the computer. Beneath them was the beginnings of a new nest.

Finally, the feed shook, and she could no longer move. A red exclamation mark appeared on the screen. The drone was wedged between the rock and the sill. She sat back, and considered the problem.

I could try and brute force this, and risk damaging the drone, Carmen thought. Or... She cut the engines. The drone dropped. The front end slipped across the window sill, the back slid down the rock. Carmen gunned the engines. The drone skipped over the windowsill into the room.

The Cravens sat, their eyes glimmering in the drone’s light. She kept the camera on them as she edged towards the door. An audience of eyes followed. Taking a photo of the door, she briskly outlined the door frame and directed the observation drone to begin welding. Her view filled with a flickering light. The Cravens squished away from the drone, pressing together, a mess of flapping wings. A grey cloud settled over the feed as the craft’s exhaust filled the room.

“You’re killing them,” Chris said, quietly, then again louder. “You’re killing them!”

“What, no I’m sure they’ll be fine—It’s already halfway done.” She hadn’t considered the effect of the fumes on the Cravens; the only thing she’d worried about was them attacking. The birds scrambled over each other, trying to get away from the drone. They clawed and squawked a jumble of wings, beaks, and bird shit. She felt sick. She switched to forward view, “Just a minute or so more…”

Get it out of there,” Chris yelled, shrilly, grabbing for the keyboard, but Carmen leant her full weight on it, keeping it in place. “Get it out of there,” he continued, “now!”

“Chris we need—”  Chris ripped the keyboard from under her, she slipped forwards, her head colliding with the monitor. “Ow, that fucking hurt Chris.”

“Tell me how to turn it off,” Chris’ eyes were unfocused, his breathing shallow and rapid.

“No.”

Tell me.

“Chris, the temperature is set to drop by 40 degrees in the next three days. We’re losing heat out of that door. We will die. So yeah. If I have to choose between our lives and theirs, I choose ours.”

“There has got to be—”

“Another way? What other way?” Carmen took the keyboard back; Chris didn’t resist. “Do you have another way in mind?”

Chris shook his head, “I’m not sure...”

“Well, while you’re working out this ‘other way’ I’m going to stick with what we have.”

It only took a few minutes to finish the welding but that time felt like aeons. Over the dull rumble of the drone’s motor they could hear the faint sound of the Cravens squawking. Chris breathed raggedly, sucking air through his teeth at each squawk.

As soon as it was done, she slid the drone out of the window. In her last glimpse of the studio, among the fumes she thought she saw the flurry of wings. They survived, she told herself, well, at least some of them did.

She swiveled to face Chris. He sat rigid in his chair, his jaws clenched, his eyes glazed, hyperventilating. For a moment, she wanted to talk things through. Then her head throbbed—sore from its altercation with  the monitor—and that instinct evaporated. She turned back to the computer.  

“I’m sorry,” Chris said eventually,  “I’m so sorry. I don’t know—I’ sorry.”

“I forgive you,” she replied, not knowing what else to say.

In truth she wasn’t sure. Anxiety stalked her, threatening to turn every thought into an avalanche. While she knew he was scared, more scared than he’d ever been, it felt as though he’d checked out. I need his support as well, she thought, I can’t be the person who has to carry all of this, not here, not now.

A faint ding emanated from the computer. Turning away from Chris, Carmen saw a new e-mail from Roderick.

Ms. Villa

I received your message and will be in orbit within sixteen hours. I am sorry to see you have opted to terminate your contract with FrontEx. I have the relevant paperwork for you to sign on my arrival.

Please note that due to an unprecedented winter storm system due to pass over your location, while I will be in orbit by evening, I will not be able to land until midmorning. Additionally, please have your work product ready with all relevant explanations so that I may maintain project-continuity.

Sincerely,

Roderick Foster-Chase

Senior Vice President of Planetary Development and Special Projects

“What does it say,” Chris asked.

“We’re going home tomorrow.”

****

Chris sat in his office chair, swaddled in blankets staring out of the window. Beneath the layers, he pressed on the bruises on his hand, feeling the blossoming pain. It kept him present, grounded. When he played back his last few days events seemed distant, as though he was watching someone else. But he supposed that was easy to say.

His father used to say ‘events never change people, just reveal them,’ and he’d believed him—he still did. But, at the same time he couldn’t believe that this feeling, that crouched on his chest and ate at him, had always lurked beneath the surface.

I hurt her, he thought, how could I hurt her?  It was an accident, came another voice, she understands. He looked over, Carmen was busy loading incriminating files onto a USB and the tablet. She chewed at her lip. Intensely focused on the screen, she didn’t seem to notice his attention; she hadn’t said a word since Roderick’s e-mail.

“I’m sorry,” said Chris, “I hurt you, I shouldn’t—It was—I’m sorry.”

“Chris?” She didn’t look around.

“Yeah.”

“Shut up, and let me work.”

“But—”

“Are your apologies about you or me?”

“What?”

“I already forgave you.”

Chris turned away. Outside fat snowflakes had begun to fall. The sky was blank; the ridgeline across the straits were barely visible behind falling sheets of snow. And still it came, unravelling from above foot by foot, turning the world white. It did not slow as darkness fell, and Chris struggled to sleep.

****

Chris slept in his chair, snoring quietly. In the quiet, Carmen pulled the observation drones from their patrol route and sent them up into the upper atmosphere. There one would strike out for the factory unit and the other would wait for the storm to pass. The planet shrunk away, revealing the full extent of the storm system. Even as she approached the mesosphere—dozens of kilometres above—the vast swirl of cloud barely fit on a single screen. Its eye was easily one hundred kilometers across.

Just like a hurricane, Carmen thought, and glancing out at the dense swirls of snow beyond the window, she felt a pang of fear. As a child, Carmen had heard stories of hurricanes, of the hurricane seasons that had crashed through her parents’ childhoods, forcing them north from the islands as refugees. Most seasons, they’d run out of names for the storms.  

Hurricanes had been the monsters of her childhood, even as the seasons subsided to what people called normality. In that respect her parents had been no help. Her father still got nervous during bad summer rains, and for days afterwards would avoid trees and powerlines in the neighborhood. Her mother would become tight lipped, irritable, and forgetful, chewing her lips bloody. They both told stories of the hurricane seasons of their youth in a compulsive way, as if to say, at least it’s not that bad this time.

With a faint shiver, Carmen clicked off the screen and pulled the blanket tighter around her. This storm is unprecedented, she thought, just like the first of those seasons. The hurricanes emptied the islands. By the time the climate stabilized, a generation and a half had passed, and few had the funds, or will, to return. In the end, many of the islands were bought in whole for resorts and corporate retreats.