5 - Flight

They stood in the hallway, waiting. But nothing came, no assault, no scratching, no creaks. Just a deep, smothering silence.

“I think it’s gone,” Chris said, eventually.

“For now,” Carmen sank down the hallway wall, sitting beside the door to her office.

“Do you think you could get the shuttle up and running?” asked Chris, sitting across from her. She didn’t answer for a while, and with her face cast into shadow, he wasn’t sure she had really heard him. “Carmen?”

“I heard. Yeah, I could fix the shuttle. But we have no idea when FrontEx is going to turn up. Once its fixed, we’d either have to come back here, or risk hanging in orbit for days. I think it’s safest to stay here until someone comes to get us. Nothing has gotten in here yet.”

Crack. Both of them jumped as an ear splitting report echoed from her office. They stared at each other in horror.
Crack, it was louder this time, and closer. Chris leant over, peering around the doorframe. The room was bathed in light. There was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. Cautiously, he inched into the room.
Crack. It appeared to be coming from beyond the window, from the straits, or the ridgeline. He walked to the window.
Out on the frozen straits, the thaw had continued. Small pools had merged to form a lake that stretched from the crevasse out of sight. A thin ice dam held the lake back from the edge of the canyon.
Crack, this time the noise was followed by a faint rumble. The dam broke; the lake became a flood.

“Carmen, you’ve gotta see this.”

Carmen poked her head into her office. Chris beckoned and turned back to the window, transfixed. The water swept rafts of algae down into the ice. He expected the gap in the ice to fill, for the flow to stop, but it didn’t. Every drop drained away, leaving the walls smothered with algal tapestries.  

“Where did it all go?”

“Probably into subglacial pockets,” Carmen turned to her computers and turned on a screen, “I’ve seen caves, at the mining site, no reason to think the ice over here is any different.”

The screen displayed a black square framed by white. Chris did not understand what he was looking at. It was only when a wispy cloud drifted across the screen that he realized it was a hole in the ice. Carmen tapped the keyboard and darkness swallowed the screen. Water glinted in the depths.

“This has gone a lot faster than I expected, the hole is meant to be a tenth of this size.”

With a few additional taps, Carmen directed them towards the far wall. An assortment of drones toiled on the far side of the hole. Some were lifting blocks, others moving in square motions over the ice, plumes of steam rising in their wake. Their work surface was a series of titanic staircases. A few machines, hung above the cliff face, unmoving. Beneath them, buttresses of ice protruded from the cliff face.

Red, flashing text scrolled down the side of the screen. Carmen tutted, frowning.  

“What’s wrong?”

“A few of my miners are damaged,” Carmen muttered, “looks like they were hit by falling ice.” She tapped in a few commands before turning to Chris, “I’m going to bring this observation drone over to us, we need to be able to see what’s going on outside. But I should send the damaged drones to be fixed. ”

“How long is that going to take?”

“The fix, a few hours. The flight, about a day or so.”

“Cool,” Chris cast around the room for a place to sit and found none, “I guess while you do that I’ll look to see if there are any references to this in the library. Though I wouldn’t tell you to hold your breath. But first I think we should eat something.”

****

Chris returned with the food just as the observation drone reached the western edge of the mining zone. There, a range of steep mountains rose to flat peaks a kilometre above the ice. On the tops of the bluffs and sheltered by taller peaks clung sparse copses of stunted trees, barely ten feet tall.

“Have you noticed,” began Chris, as he slid two steaming trays onto the desk in front of her, “that this whole world is upside down?”

“How do you mean?”

“On earth, the trees are at the bottom of most mountains, ” Chris stepped out of the room but continued talking, his voice echoing back to her. “Then you have the tree line, then rock, then ice,” he returned lugging a worn office chair. “Here, it’s the exact opposite.”  

“I never thought of it like that,”

Carmen couldn’t really see the use of thinking about it like that, but it certainly was curious. As the observation drone cleared the mountains, windswept trees flicking past, Carmen turned to her food.

“What happened to all the algae?”

Carmen looked up. The landscape on the screen was a labyrinth of rock and ice, the former capped with the occasional pine, the latter spattered with clear pools. There was no trace of algae, or any other vegetation, on the ice.

“Weird. There are pines, so FrontEx seeded this area.”

“Huh,” Chris stood and left the room briefly, returning with the tablet, “it says that the algae is a proprietary organism but there are no development reports…. Ah, here, from the encyclopedia,” Chris began reading from the tablet,“...it requires a basic environment to survive, with pHs no lower than 9, and is typically found around lithium deposits.” He took a breath, “So it’s a kind of tool for testing for lithium?”

“That could be it. Though, it is weird there aren’t any development reports. Does it mention who developed it?”

Chris scrolled down the screen, stopping occasionally to read a passage. He frowned, “no, no mention at all. “

“Hmmm. FrontEx usually slaps its name on everything.”

Chris put the tablet on her desk and sat back down. Carmen silently altered course.

*****

 Chris flicked through page after page of the encyclopedia, scanning for anything that could give him a hint at what had chased them. He focused on the ecosystem and reread the entry about the algae. It was eight pages of terse prose. He frowned. All of the other entries in the section were at least 500 pages long.

Chris’ father had taught him that effective liars hid lies in the truth. They used truth to bend perception around untruth, like light around a black hole. Reading the algae’s entry for a third time, he remembered those words. What if they didn’t develop it, he asked himself, what if they stole it? Or… or it was already here? It was a short leap, but still a leap. I’ll wait for more evidence before I tell Carmen.  

Carmen had switched feeds. The monitor showed a large, dark red tower cut near in half by a gaping hangar. A harsh, electric-blue light flooded from within. She edged the drone closer. Spindly, robotic arms working away on an aquiline drone, welding long gashes on its side raising bursts of sparks.

With a few staccato keystrokes, Carmen withdrew the drone, and panned back away from the tower. A little way off, two bulbous vehicles floated over the ice—stormclouds depositing layers of black dust, creating shadows in soot.

Carmen alt-tabbed. The view changed to an expanse of ice, grey under a roof of dark cloud. Splotches of algae mildewed the ice.

“I took a slight detour to the ExoGenetics facility,” said Carmen turning to him, “Looks like you were right about the algae needing lithium, the ice around here is full of both.”

“Facility?”

“Just up on the plateau.” She pointed to a series of spherical scaffolds jutting above a tuft of trees, “Those are the aviaries, the actual installation is beneath. They might have some additional information kicking around their servers but I haven’t picked up any signal yet.”

“Huh, I read about that place...” Chris leant over her shoulder to take a closer look, “Apparently some prototype Cravens escaped from there during beta testing.”

“And you’re just mentioning this now?”

“With everything that happened today I’d forgotten,” Chris shrugged, “besides it said they killed all the escapees. Though… I guess that could be a lie.”

“So,” Carmen shot him a mischievous smile, “What you’re saying is it could be the Cravens after all… which means I’m… come on, you can say it...”

Chris shot her a sour look; Carmen smiled back.

“You were right.”

“Awww, that wasn’t so hard was it?” She turned back to the screen, “Still no signal. Looks like I’m going to have to get closer to the facility,” she paused, chewing her lip through the unwinding silence, “I think we can afford an extra half hour detour.” She sounded uncertain.

****

She darted for the plateau, pushing the engines as far as they could go. Broad beaches of gravel and shale, then a dense canopy blanketed by purple flowers flicked under. She soared up sheer cliffs to a higher plateau. Atop this slab of rock, like the skeletons of colossal sea urchins, sat the aviaries. Clouds flowed between them, half shrouding the massive shells.

“Say what you will about FrontEx,” breathed Chris, leaning over her shoulder, “but they sure do have massive balls.”

“I will kick you out of my office,” replied Carmen.

As they flew deeper into the plateau, weaving between the aviaries, buildings loomed from amongst pins and mist. Though hazy, the buildings seemed intact, walls undented,  windows uncracked. Slim, enclosed walkways connected each building to the next, sealing them from the outside world.

A few kilometres into the plateau, at the base of one of the aviaries, an expanse of foggy grass broke the trees. Packed pines pressed on three sides but on the fourth, in the shadow of the aviary, sat a squat building encrusted with innumerable antennas and satellite dishes.

“Landing ground?” asked Chris.

Carmen nodded. She began to scan for connections, for computers for the drone to interlink with.  

“So the drone can just grab the data from the servers?”

“If the servers are there and the power is still running, yes. But those are big ‘ifs.’ ”

“I think they will be,” Chris leant back, his chair emitting a loud creak, “otherwise some other firm could claim that FrontEx wasn’t using the planet. The eminent domain suits could hold up work on this planet for a decade.”

“I wouldn’t know.” Carmen responded flatly. Chris had a habit of talking about legal matters, though his opinions were invariably things he’d overheard his father say, or at least garbled versions of them.

The computer beeped.

“What did it find?”

“The servers are down. But there is a signal coming from inside, though it’s pretty weak,” Carmen, skimmed the details of the scan’s results, “looks like an observation drone. Its memory might have something useful on it.”

“Can you access it from out here?”

“No, the signal’s too weak. I’ll either have to get inside the building,” Carmen swooped low over the damp grass towards the mist-blurred structure, “or hope I can get close enough from the outs...” the mists thinned; the doors stood, ajar, “...inside it is.”

It took some maneuvering to ease the drone through the crack in the door. If the doors had opened inwards, rather than outwards, Carmen could have just pushed them open, but she had to wedge the drone in the crack, and pry it wide enough for the machine to pass.

Inside the space opened into a two-story, hexagonal atrium. Ahead of her, a hallway disappeared off into darkness. All doors leading off the first and second floors were closed. I hope the drone is accessible from the hallway. She sped down the corridor.

“How are you going to find the drone?” Asked Chris.

“The closer I am, the stronger the signal.”

Doors led off the hallway at regular intervals, some closed, some rusted off their hinge. A sweep of the space beyond showed cages, laboratory equipment, and the occasional bank of computers. They were all rusted, drowning in floods of dust and decay. Passing these rooms, Carmen followed the gradual build of the signal strength down the hallway.

A few minutes later, the signal peaked as she passed an open doorway. Carmen swung the light left, and then right across the floor. Fallen doors lay over a jumble of desks and smashed computers. It looked as though the room had suffered an earthquake.

Carmen flew over the mess towards the back of the room, the signal inched fractionally higher. She found the drone in the back corner. It was rusted, an old model—older than even her drones own. At some point something had hit it head-on, smashing the camera, and leaving wiring exposed. Something glimmered in the light. Zooming in, she found herself looking at a screw.

“Weird,” said Chris. He leaned over her shoulder but she nudged him back to his seat.

She swept her light across the ground again, slower this time, and was greeted by a  constellation of glimmers. Something had arrayed screws, nuts, and bolts in neat rows and columns. Carmen frowned. Metal panels, removed from the hull, leant against the wall behind the machine, halos of scratches surrounded holes where screws and bolts had been.

“Someone took this drone apart,” said Carmen.

“The ExoGenetics team?”

“No, everything else is covered in dust, but those piles of parts aren’t. Plus those scratches are recent.”

Carmen swept the light across the floor again, looking for footsteps in the dust. A long track cut through the carpet of dirt, as though something had been dragged through the room. She filled the screen with the track. Its edges were threaded like the fringe of a rug. This just keeps getting weirder, she thought.

Her view jerked. Red warning notifications cascaded down the edge of the screen. The drone was caught in something. Carmen increased thrust, and again, and again, rising to full throttle. Though the engines gave a rising whine, the drone did not move.

Shit shit shit shit shit.”

She was vaguely aware of Chris’ yelling, but her world had become the screen. Think, think, the warnings continued to drip down the screen. Then she had it. With a keystroke, she pushed the drone into full reverse. Her view jerked. She heard a dull crash and the sound of slinging debris. She pushed her drone through the door. In the hallway, she flicked the camera back to the room behind.

A pile of shattered desks, and computers, shifted as they settled. Something moved, just out of the beam of light skittering away as she moved the light. It came again, above. Is it flying?

She backed into, then down the hallway, flicking between the view ahead, and the door. She barged back down the hallway and out of the doors. Then, rising up through mist and cloud, she set a course for their island. We didn't even get the data, she thought, what was that?

The observation drone arrived mid-morning the next day, lurching over the final ridgeline. Through its camera the island was a tiny rock engulfed in algae-spattered slush.  Carmen surveyed the damage. The outer door, was dented and hanging open. The damage to the inner door did not seem serious. Somewhat mollified, Carmen told the drone to loop above the island. Its camera fixed on the sparse trees below.