12 - Blame

Chris relocated Carmen’s shoulder before they tried to move Roderick. He wrenched at her arm twice before it popped back in the socket. Still, after the resounding click of the bone moving back into place, her arm was far too painful to support any real weight.

With one and a half functioning arms between them, it took thirty minutes to carry Roderick up the house. Roderick’s slack form seemed to grow heavier as they pushed, and pulled him across the ice and up the stairs.

Chris remained largely silent, a grim, drawn expression on his face tightening with the pain of each exertion. While she tried to avoid staring at his hand, Carmen found her eyes drawn to the bloody stumps where his fingers had been.

He’d put his fingers in the thermos, emptying crumpled paper from within and packing in snow. If he was lucky, a surgeon might be able to reconnect his fingers. In that respect the cold was a godsend.

He walked ahead, right hand gripping the stretcher’s straps.

They had to put Roderick down between the outer and inner doors and Carmen had to summon every dreg of energy she had to pick the man up again. She forced herself to lift, and to keep the man level while they maneuvered him into her office. They put him down by the window, and both stood, staring wordlessly out of the window.

“What happened to you,” Chris asked eventually.

“I fell down that crevasse,” Carmen replied, she paused, thinking of how to explain what she had seen.

“A crevasse at the other end of the island?” asked Chris, frowning.

“No, that crevasse,” she pointed, “I couldn’t climb out, so I had to walk through.”

Through?”

“Yes, through,” Carmen replied flatly, “there are caves down there and a city of sorts. Those insects built a city out of ice and we melted it all.”

“Carmen, slow down—”

“Don’t tell me to slow down Chris. I just had to walk and climb through a massacre to get up here. Jesus this could be happening all over this planet.” Rage flared through her and she kicked the wall in front of her. Chris flinched; he had a worried but cautious look on his face, the kind he wore whenever he thought she was breaking down. The anger passed, and Carmen fell into a deep undertow of exhaustion. She no longer wanted to explain or talk at all, just sleep. She turned towards the rank of computers, “watch the footage yourself. I’m going to have a half hour shower and go to sleep.”

“Where the hell am I?”

They both jumped. Roderick had sat up in the stretcher. The man looked around, confused, then he let out a piercing shriek, and collapsed backwards onto the stretcher, jaw clenched, clutching at his legs. Chris ran to him and, grabbing his hand, knelt beside the man.

“Roderick,” he said in a calm, soft voice. “It’s okay, you’re safe. You were in a shuttle crash. Don’t move your legs,” he glanced over his shoulder. “We’re going to need to splint his legs. We can use the stretcher,” he said to Carmen. “Before you go to sleep, you mind getting the medical case from the bathroom downstairs, there might be some pain medications in there.”

Carmen looked down at Roderick.

“I am not going to help him.”

“Carmen, what are you talking about? He’s in pain.”

“Good.” She walked to the door, and with a final glance behind her, headed for the bedroom. Chris’ calls echoed after her, but she ignored them. She no longer wanted a shower, only sleep. As she stumbled down the stairs, images of the piles of rotting corpses, and the frozen deluge flashed through her mind. She wanted sleep, but didn’t trust that her dreams would let her rest. I should take a pill, she thought, get some proper rest.

Carmen went to the bathroom first, peeled off her clothes, and examined herself in the mirror. Constellations of bruises and scratches covered her body. Some, like the scratches on her face and the deepening bruise on her shoulder, could be accounted for, others, on her calves, thighs, and side, could not. Carmen stared at her reflection. The woman staring back was unrecognizable but it wasn’t the bruises or the scratches that made her so but a hard, flinty look in her eyes.

She sighed, and turned away. Then, walking to the bed, she took a pill, and crawled between the covers. She was asleep within a minute of her head hitting the pillow.

****

Chris watched Carmen go in disbelief. How can she just walk away—he‘s in real pain.

“Carmen,” he called after her, “Carmen.”

She’ll come back, he told himself, she’ll bring the pain killers. He turned back to Roderick. The man was whimpering, quietly. Chris tried to lift him, but Roderick yelped in pain. Taking a deep breath, Chris lifted him again.

“Sorry, sorry,” he whispered as he slid the stretcher from under the man. “I am so sorry.”

That done, he waited for Carmen. He’d need her help to turn the stretcher into splints. But as the minutes wore on, he realized she wasn’t coming back. Leaving Roderick squirming on the ground, he went downstairs.

Carmen was asleep in the bedroom. For a second he just stood there watching her, speechless. How could she just leave him.

Roderick screamed, the noise echoing through the house, breaking Chris’s reverie. He rushed to the bathroom, and pulled out the medical case from under the sink. Without looking through it, he rushed back upstairs. Roderick was convulsing on the floor, a rivulet of blood running down the edge of his lips. Each breath shallow, rasping.  

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” said Chris, rummaging through the case. “It will pass.”

Finding a bottle of pills, he skimmed the label. It was some kind of designer opioid. He flicked the cap off, and poured two pills into his hand. He held Roderick’s mouth open and dropped them in. He sat with Roderick as his writhing subside, and his breathing return to normal.

With Roderick snoring gently beside him, Chris slipped the two metal cylinders from the stretcher, and detached the straps. He felt the man’s legs. Roderick’s right leg was broken in two places, his left in three. Trying to straighten the sections of bone, he tied a metal pole to each leg and used the fabric of the stretcher to hold the splint tight. That done, he sank into Carmen’s office chair, hands covered in blood.

Her explanation of what had happened had been garbled—the details coming too quickly, her voice too mired in anger. Chris had understood the word city, and her reference to the footage, but he’d felt as if there was a whole lot of context missing.

Let’s start with the footage. Turning on the computer, it took him a few minutes to find the drone control panel in the labyrinth of icons. From there it took him almost twenty minutes to find the right drone. He did not remember the calculations needed to work out a time to skip to, so he just rewound. He watched his struggle with the creature play out in reverse, the two of them disentangling, entangling, then parting ways, each dragging their own companion. The ice swallowed the machine, and a path zigzagged down a rockface. And then he was watching Carmen stagger along a ledge of ice.

A brickwork pattern cut the cliff faces above and below her. The drone plunged, descending along a rocky slope. The screen filled with pile after pile of corpses. Is this what she meant by massacre? Chris asked himself as more and more bodies flicked by. The rock disappeared into dark waters, but floating on the surface were still more bodies.

The machine rose and Carmen slipped into view, standing on the ledge. Blocks of ice—massive buttressed gantries—thrust from the cliffside above and below her, striping the surface with shadows. At first, Chris was struck by the order, a staggered grid marshalled across the face of ice but the more he looked the more he saw signs of disruption and chaos. Many of the blocks ended in jagged holes revealing them hollow. In places smooth ice scarred the grid, cutting across the fretwork. A ruined city, he thought, it looks like it has been through a flood. With a flash of horror he realized where the bodies below had come from.  

Chris watched the footage eight times, forwards, and backwards. He watched Carmen struggle, fall, walk and stagger. He rewound through the columns—these are farms—and saw the signs of thaw writ over every inch of ice. He remembered Roderick standing in the sun and smiling at the melting ice, saying sounds like a bonus.

Roderick awoke midway through Chris’s eighth viewing.

“What are you watching,” Roderick’s voice was weak, but lucid.

“Footage from inside the ice.” Chris tried to keep his voice flat. He glanced over at the man. Pale, sallow-faced, Roderick had propped himself up on his elbows, and was peering up at the monitors.

“Ah. Anything interesting?”

“Depends on what you consider interesting,” Chris replied coldly, “Did you know?”

“Know what?” Roderick replied, innocently.

“About everything: the algae, the creatures, the ice.”

“I have no idea—”

“cut the crap.”

“I’m sorry Mr. Beckford, I don’t know.”

Chris knelt next to Roderick, “I will lean on your leg,” he said, and to his surprise he found that he was being honest. “Tell me the truth.”

“You seem to have made up your mind already,” Roderick replied, “I was one of nearly a eighty people working on this project.”

“You are the senior vice president in charge of this planet.” He shifted his hand to Roderick’s leg, “Answer the fucking question.”

“Okay, Okay. I knew about the algae and that it was possible that more complex organisms existed, but I didn’t know for sure. We didn’t check.”

“You didn’t check?”

“We invested way too much in this planet to see it turned into some nature reserve. We had a fiduciary responsibility not to check.”

“But the government will take the planet.”

“No, we’ll pay a fine. It costs too much to sue us; they always settle,” replied Roderick, “Besides, coming after us will damage the economy. Try getting reelected during a recession.”

“But now, you’re going to stop the project, you have to stop!”

Roderick propped himself up, wincing, and gave Chris a long look.

“No,” he said eventually, “We need this, we all need this. There are 11 billion of us on Earth. There’s not enough land, not enough places at university, not enough jobs. Our population, our society, our economy, is stagnant. Everything is too expensive and we’re growing too slowly. Planets like this offer us space to grow again, to keep going and escape collapse, extinction. What are a few insects in the face of that?”    

“You are disgusting,” Chris spat.

“Get off your high horse Mr. Trust Fund. Where do you think your money come from. I bet you have at least a hundred million invested with us or one of our competitors. You think this planet is unique.” Roderick chuckled, “I’ll bet every one of the firms has a dirty secret just like this one, if not worse. I am not unique, not some exceptionally evil person. I am replaceable and would be replaced if I refused to do my work out of some sort of moral timidity. This,” he waved towards the window, “is what progress has always looked like from the moment our species ate and fucked the neanderthals out of existence.”

“If people knew—when I tell them.”

“Some people will be outraged, other will deny it. Most will do nothing. You bleeding-heart types always believe that humanity is fundamentally good, that if people know enough they will make the ‘right’ decision,” he let out a harsh laugh, “In reality most people just want to be safe, warm, and well fed.” Chris tried to pull away, disgusted, but Roderick caught his arm, “you will be met by apathy.”  

Chris tried to pull away. Roderick’s nails raked across his hand, leaving deep, bloody scratches. He lashed out, catching Roderick in the nose.

A look of surprise passed over the other’s man’s face. His head snapped back, crunching wetly against the floor. He began to convulse, fingers scraping across the floor, grasping, scratching, leaving bloody trails. Then, gradually, his shaking lessened and he went limp.