13, Final Chapter - Burning

Carmen awoke in a sea of pain. Every inch of her body ached. It took her nearly an hour to get sit up, and another thirty minutes to persuade herself to get out of bed. By the faint light coming from the bathroom it was early morning, or maybe, she supposed, late afternoon. Chris was nowhere to be seen, but the ruffled sheets beside her showed he’d come to bed at some point the night before.

She showered without turning on the light, cranking the water to the hottest setting she could tolerate. Standing under jets of water, she watched the grime of the past days wash down the drain and let the memories of the past day flicker past.

She closed her eyes and swayed in the water, letting the white noise engulf her and her aching muscles relax. There in her own solitude she allowed herself to cry, sobs drowned out by the constant patter and gurgle.

I can’t be a part of this, not with what I know, she thought, but they’ll just find someone else to do my part if I leave. Even if I destroy every drone and installation on the planet, they could just rebuild. I need to find a way to end their plans permanently...

Without the constant emissions, she realized, the pines will absorb all the carbon dioxide. So, if I find a way to permanently stop the burning stations, no more warming, no more thaws. No oil, no burning stations... no oil.

A possible solution dawned on her.   

Carmen found Chris in the kitchen. He was sitting at the counter, a long cold meal pack congealing in front of him, nursing a cup of tea. He barely glanced up as she walked into the room, his eyes set deep in purple smears.

“Hey, baby, quick question,” Carmen began, “Is the sobriety aid case still around.”

Chris looked up, confused, “Yeah…I, uh… I forgot it, it’s in your office.”

“Perfect,” Carmen smiled broadly, “I think I might have a way of stopping FrontEx. I’m going to need you to distract Roderick while I work.”

Chris gave her a strange, almost startled look. He seemed to gather his thoughts, and then, taking a deep breath he said, “He died last night.”

“What? His legs were broken, he wasn’t bleeding that bad—how can he be dead.” Guilt dragged at her. I should have helped him...maybe he wouldn’t have died.  

“He must have been hurt worse than I thought,” Chris shrugged, staring down at his meal pack, “he probably had internal bleeding… I tried to help him, but…”

Carmen sank down into the chair across from him, “I’m sorry, I should have helped.”

“There’s nothing you could’ve done. I splinted the legs, got him painkillers.”

“Still, I was awful—”

“No,” said Chris, fiercely, “that asshole deserves none of your guilt… he had internal bleeding there was nothing you could have done.”

A new feeling rose with her guilt, the feeling that she was missing something, some key part of the story, “He’s still in my office, right?”

“No,” Chris shook his head, “I took him outside—I didn’t know how long we’d be here, didn’t want to have a rotting body around.”

“Good thinking,” Carmen studied Chris’s face. He’s lying about something, she thought, but I’m not sure what. She glanced down to his hands, they were swaddled in spray on bandages. Brown, congealed blood caked the bandages on his left hand, crimson stained the right.

  “I watched the footage,” Chris said, “but I didn’t catch everything that happened to you, just what the drone recorded. You disappear at one point, and reappear lower in the city.”

“I fell,” Carmen responded, shaking off her unease, “I was lucky...” Carmen took a breath, and decided it was best just to tell the whole story. He listened, stopping her now and then to ask questions. When she was done, he sat back, his face sunk in fatigue. He didn’t look surprised.

“So what’s your plan?” Chris asked.

“We take away their oil.”

Chris sat back in his chair, and stared at her for a moment, “how exactly do you plan to do that? Why do you need the sobriety aid?”

“I just need to reprogram it.”

“But we only have one case—there are seas of oil.”

“I have a factory. Look, Chris I know what I am doing.” Suddenly Carmen wanted to be anywhere but with Chris, “look I really should get started.”

She stood and turned towards the door.

“Wait,” called Chris, “how can I help?”

“You can’t,” replied Carmen.

****

As Chris watched Carmen leave, he wondered what had gone wrong. The conversation had started off well. The lie he’d spent the previous night crafting remained largely unquestioned. Still the conversation had left him feeling lonelier. She didn’t need him; she’d solved their problem—her problem—on her own.

He took one last gulp of tepid tea and went out for a walk. The world outside was comfortably silent, the pines huddled in a world smothered by snow. He crunched down the path without a real destination, lost in his thoughts. Killing Roderick had been easy—a discovery that was equal parts terrifying and revelatory. He’d killed someone and the world was the same, well, almost. His fury had not departed with Roderick, but simmered somewhere deep down. Maybe that was always there, he thought, as he trudged through the snow.

As he took the steps down to the shore, he felt something hard in the pocket—a flashlight. At this his thoughts turned to Carmen’s odyssey through the ice. I could go there, he realized, see it for myself. He hesitated at the bottom of the stairs looking out over the charred remains of the creature and wreckage scattered over the ice. What about that cave where she found the thermos, he thought, that’s a lot closer.

He followed Carmen’s footprints to a fissure, and, clicking on the flashlight, stepped from ice to rock.

****

Carmen leant against the closed door of her office and tried to reorder her thoughts. She would need to scan the sobriety aid and transmit the schematics to the factory unit, and then work out how to distribute the silver liquid to each and every burning station on the planet. It’s a good plan, she told herself, trying to squash a rising sense of unease.

While the computers booted, she looked around the room for the sobriety aid case, rummaging through piles of blankets, and opening empty case after empty case. Stepping over the eviscerated remains of the stretcher to check the medical case she noticed two red smears on the floor—hand prints. The fingers were clearly visible at the top of both smears. Beneath the dried blood she saw the glimmer of scratched metals. Fragments of fingernail speckled the smear. Roderick, Carmen realized, too many fingers to be Chris. Carmen shivered, the quicker she could get her work done, the better.

Turning back towards the door, Carmen caught sight of a small silver case under the desk, tucked between two computers. Of course, she thought sarcastically, where else would it be. She swung into the chair, picked up the case, and pulled herself to the desk. Opening the drone control panel, she directed the remaining observation drone towards the house.

As she waited for the machine, her thoughts turned to Chris. He was acting weird this morning; it didn’t look like he slept. She remembered the bright crimson stains spreading on his right hand’s bandages. I don’t remember him getting scratched there, she thought, but maybe he did, or old cuts opened up again.

The drone arrived, hovering outside her window, looking into her office rotors a-blur. Her screen displayed her office and screens displaying her office that plunged into recursion, a tunnel of herself undulating as the drone swayed in the wind. It made her feel seasick. She cut the feed and went to work.

****

Chris kicked a small hole in the ground. He swung his flashlight left and right illuminating black rock walls encircling him. Echoes of the scuffed impacts of his feet slushed around him.

He brushed a layer of snow off the floor and saw something dark in the depths. Kneeling, he focused his flashlight on the form trapped in the ice. It was a Craven, its ribs splayed apart, the cavity stuffed with purple flowers, its wings askew. Dissected, just like the one we found in front of our shuttle. He swept the snow from a larger patch, revealing dozens more butchered Cravens beneath the surface, purple flowers scattered amongst them.

Chris flicked the light back to the walls around him. What is this place, he thought, some sort of temple?

There was something odd about the walls, he stepped up onto the bank at the edge of the room. A sprawling design covered every inch of the walls, chiseled in minuscule detail into the stone. Here were shapes: triangles, squares, circles, loops, and spirals. Then, like signals emerging from static, the shapes resolved into images—a pine, a bird, a shuttle, the sinuous form of a millipede. He stepped closer.

The designed showed a bird in front of a vessel, clusters of tight spirals— flowers—spilled from it.  A sacrifice, he thought, or a summoning.   

He stepped back. The image were just a small portion of a landscape—an island capped with pines. Birds lined the pine limbs and floated above the canopy caught in mid flap. The sky itself was a geometric maze—circles with lines radiating from them, squares with triangles overlaying them. As he scanned the wall he began to see the shapes repeat—the same circle with the same lines, the same square with the same triangles. He swung the light downwards.

Cut deep into the rock in minute detail was a city. Each buttress and spar of ice recreated in stone, uncracked. Etched amongst the carvings were the long forms of innumerable megapedes. They stood along the boulevards, and sat in squares together. They were entering, and exiting holes in buildings. They were carrying shallow baskets. In a deep gash in the wall, they climbed columns, and stood by piles of something.

My God, these ones are all dead, realized Chris, and he recoiled. If they’re as diverse as we are… an entire culture… each one with their own complicated life. He remembered Roderick, convulsing. The man’s stories about his life, the boring circuitous anecdotes. He sank back onto the ground. Sitting there before the mural he began to sob, his crying echoing up through the shaft into the air.

****

It took Carmen less than an hour to reprogram the sobriety aid, transmit the schematics to the factory unit, and direct her fleet to converge on the tower. She was aided by the fact that whoever had reprogrammed the tiny machines to work as a sobriety aid had been lazy. Rather than writing a new program, they had just added extra lines of code in the original program to stop the machine from consuming the human body. All she had to do to reprogram the machines was delete those parts of the code.

As soon as she was done, she stood, picked up the medical case and left the room. Heading to the bathroom she added several boxes of tampons to the medical case as well as both their toothbrushes. She then went to the kitchen to pack the food they’d need. I hope Roderick’s ship has a microwave.

“Hey.”

Carmen jumped, she had been so focused on her piles of trays, that she had not heard Chris come in. He was leaning in the doorway, his face cast into shadow.

“Hi,” said Carmen, flustered, “I’m just packing.”

“You’re already done?” Chris moved into the light and she saw his eyes were puffy, he was haggard, shrunken, “that was quick.”

“I guess,” Carmen picked up a stack of meal packs, and walked past Chris, “You want to help pack?”

“Sure,” replied Chris unenthusiastically, “What do we need?”

“Chris...” Carmen caught herself before she snapped, “Something to carry enough water for today, look through the bedroom—I’ve already gone through my office, the bathroom, and the kitchen.” Jesus, she thought, do I have to hold your hand?

“Okay,” Chris brushed past her, disappearing into the bedroom, “I’ll see what I can find.”

Alone again in the kitchen, Carmen leant against the counter, and took a breather. Was he always this way, she asked herself, or did this place make him like this. It doesn’t matter, she realized, it’s who he is now. She sighed, I hope I never see this place again

After rifling through the cupboards and cabinets one final time, they carried the cases up to the hallway, and out to the shuttle. They packed their shuttle in silence, each struggling with their own stack of cases. However, the silence did little to comfort Carmen; his presence was sandpaper across her exposed nerves.

Having packed the shuttle, they sat down diagonally across from one another. Tapping on the wall to her right, Carmen created a screen and, using the tablet as a reference, keyed in the coordinates for the factory unit. With a shudder, the shuttle engines roared to life. Carmen watched the clearing recede through the tears in the door.

Switching to an exterior view, she moved the screen to hang in the air between them. The crevasse faded to nothing, the wreckage became burnt out pixels on a screen, and soon their island was nothing but a comma of snow-laden pines trapped in an expanse of snow. Then they slipped over the ridgeline and it was all gone.

For a while Carmen watched the pines, rock, and snow flick past, but soon her thoughts turned to the bloody handprints on the floor of the study.

“Chris,” she began, eventually, “was Roderick in a lot of pain when he died?”

“No,” Chris had an inscrutable look on his face, “he died in his sleep, after I gave him painkillers.”

“You were there?”

Chris took a while to answer, “yes, it must have happened just after I came back with the medical case. I gave him pain meds, and sat down to watch the footage. The next time I looked over he wasn’t breathing.”

“He didn’t struggle or anything?” Carmen asked, innocently.

“Nope, just drifted off I guess.”

Carmen looked at Chris, trying to find his eyes, but he was looking away. Fidgeting with the zip on his coat, he was flicking rapidly through views of the blurred landscape. He’s lying, but why is he lying, she shivered. Now with nothing else to do, her mind would not let go of the sense of unease. Layers of frost spread over the walls. She picked at the delicate plates of ice. Either he wasn’t there, or he has a reason to lie about what happened. She remembered the fresh blood on his right hand. He got rid of the body pretty immediately, he could have injured his hand doing that—no those injuries were days old, he hadn’t needed a bandage then. Fuck it, Carmen thought, better to stop beating around the bush.  

“Chris,” she said, calmly, “why are you lying to me?”

“What? I—” for an instant Chris looked startled, then a mask of calm settled over his face, “I am not lying, I have no idea why you’d think that.”


“Look, I don’t know what happened. But I do know that Roderick left smears of blood all over the floor.” Carmen looked over at him, Chris stared back, but his eyes flickered.

“Carmen, both my hands were fucked up, I leant over him, tried to give CPR, I probably leant on the ground with my hands.”

“Leaned hard enough to leave scratch marks in the floor, and fragments of fingernail?”

“Maybe, Jesus Carmen, He’d just died, I had to give CPR, I was pretty frantic. I don’t know why you’re trying to blame me, I’m not the one who peaced as soon as he woke up.”

“I never blamed you Chris, but there were two sets of scratch marks, and last I checked you have about one hand’s worth of fingers.”

This statement was rewarded with a heavy silence. Chris did not move, he seemed paralyzed, opened mouthed in his seat.

“Maybe the scratching happened while I was getting the case, I don’t know.”

“You didn’t notice them when you fed him the pain medication?”

“Why are you interrogating me?”

“This isn’t an interrogation, I’m just trying to work out what happened.”

“I told you what happened. He probably had internal injuries, he died in his sleep.”

“How did you hurt your hand?”

“I told you, the Megapede bit off my fingers. What now I’m lying about that too?”

“No, the other one.”

“When I went out alone at night.”

“It wasn’t bleeding before, certainly not enough to soak through a bandage.” Carmen had had enough. “Fuck Chris what could possibly be so bad that you can’t tell me the truth,” Carmen shouted, but before she’d even finished the sentence, she realized she knew. She stared at him, speechless. He met her eyes, stubbornly staring right back at her. Then his gaze flickered and suddenly he just looked tired.

“I… he...” he inhaled, breath audibly hitching, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lied. I killed him, it was an accident. We argued, he grabbed me,” he paused for a moment, and when he continued his voice was even, monotonous like he was reciting a mantra,  “I killed him, but he was a bad person.”

“He is now. He’s never going to have the chance to be anything different.”

“He was responsible for thousands of deaths that we know of. You don’t come back from that.” Chris said fervently, “he was a bad person.”

“That may be. But you don’t get to decide that. You are not justice.”

“There are no laws out here. People just do what they want and justice takes what it can get. That was why I had to do it.”

“You didn’t have to do anything.” Carmen replied, “and quite frankly it was that frontier bullshit that got us into this mess in the first place.”

“And how about your plan, hmmm?” Chris sneered, “you’re breaking more laws than I did.”

Except, my plan won’t hurt anyone. Chris if you think I’m upset about the legal implications of what you did then you don’t understand anything.”

Carmen was done, she realized. Done with Chris, done with trying to unravel him. He was too caught up with the legend of himself to ever really be himself when it counted. Looking away from him, she brought up views of the outside. With each sliver of land that whipped by she imagined what might have been. Resorts, condos, golf clubs, labyrinthine assisted living complexes, mega hospitals, spaceports, clubs, bars: she thought of the clutter, the bustle of people.

My plan will hurt people, she realized, FrontEx, their shareholders, the economy, that’s people. But what’s money in the face of extinction? How much is not going extinct worth? FrontEx was going to take this extraordinary place and make it ordinary, make it a place people went to vacation or retire. I’m right. The last of her doubt flickered, and died.  

****

Chris skipped through the views of outside, watching a burgundy tower swelled in the distance. He’d seen it before on Carmen’s monitors, but that had hardly done the building justice. It was gigantic, sticking out of the pines like a golf tee out of the green.

Across the cabin, Carmen continued to studiously ignoring him. Her brow furrowed, her face screen-lit by the tablet. We’re done, he realized, I failed. This realization did not upset him nearly as much as he expected, instead he felt a sense of relief. It was as though he had just articulated a truth he had known for a while, but had been afraid to admit.

They cleared the final ridge he saw a fleet of drones. Regimented, they hovered above the ice awaiting orders, their shadows a grid on the snow beneath. Their shuttle soared over them, presenting Chris with a close up view of a swathe of machines. While from a distance and through a low-definition screen they had appeared new and gleaming, now he saw the scars crisscrossing the metal, each drone slightly different from the next.

The hulls of two bulbous, soot-cake blimps slid past, their forms spreading past the screen. He switched views, and saw a crack had opened in the building. Electric blue light spilled from it as it widened into a maw. They closed in on the tower, and it grew to occupy a screen, and the electric blue light faded to reveal a hangar beyond. A tank lined with robotic arms stretched across half the space, the arms were spraying a silvery substance into it.

“How long are we going to be here,” he asked, expecting her to either ignore him, or snap.

“Should take about an hour to fix the shuttle,” Carmen replied, her tone clipped, and businesslike, but not hurt, “we’re going to have to wait outside while the shuttle gets fixed.”

“Okay,” Chris hesitated, “I’m sorry, you know,” he ventured as the shuttle slowed, “I shouldn’t have lied.”

“But you did,” Carmen looked him in the eye, “I don’t know whether I’d have told the truth in your position, but… I don’t know... It’s unfair, maybe.”

“Just say it,” Chris said, “Whatever it is.”

“I’m—We’re—done,” Carmen replied.

Out loud, the fact seemed smaller than the monster he’d imagine. She’d said it and suddenly it had been true for a while. Their arguments were scenes in a story that led to an inevitable conclusion. Outside the walls of the hangar swallowed the shuttle, erasing his view.

“Okay,” he said, blinking back the tears welling in his eyes. It will be.

They landed, and Carmen bustled away with the tablet and the remaining vials of sobriety aid. She left the case with Chris and, taking out the insert, he pulled out the joints. Now’s as good a time as any, he thought. Walking towards the lip of the Hangar, he sat, letting his legs dangle over the edge. He pulled out one of the half-burned joints, sticking it between his lips before checking his pockets for a lighter. Fuck, he thought.

“Here,” came Carmen’s voice from behind him, she handed him a slim, silver lighter, “I realized you didn’t have one earlier,” She said, sitting down along the hangar lip from him, “so I had the factory unit make it.”  

“Thanks,” He lit the joint, and took a drag, “would you like some?”

Carmen hesitated for a moment, but then took it. She took a deep drag, and descended in shallow coughing. Chris took it back, chuckling.

“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Carmen said, eventually.

“Thank you,” Chris said, “I do regret it,” he added after a long pause.

“I know you do. I know you.”

“Do you think we can be friends.”

“Eventually. We’re going to have to back each other up—I doubt FrontEx is just going to take this all lying down. But I uploaded the footage from the ExoGenetics facility, and the city to the tablet, and backed up everything on the tablet and the USB. We have a good chance.”

They sat together in silence, both looking out across the ice, and pines. Chris listened as the sound of the wind wove its way through the noises of machines working. Soaking up his last glimpses of the planet’s stark beauty. What’s going to happen to the Cravens and the Megapedes. All species are doomed to extinction, he thought, but only they have the right to cause it.

****

Stepping into the newly fixed shuttle, and hearing the door slide shut behind her, Carmen luxuriated in the growing warmth. Stripping off her gloves, and hat as the temperature rose she looked over at Chris. He was lost in thought, staring intently at a screen in front of him.  

The engines came to life, and she felt the cabin judder slightly as they lifted off. They rose, the tower shrinking beneath them. The engines cranked up and they punched up, out through the atmosphere into orbit. At that moment she saw the first of her drones dip towards the tower. A mining drone—its sleek shape disappeared into the hangar and then it powered off out the other side, a blur leaving a faint puff of a sonic boom behind it.

The machine was headed to a burning station on the other side of the planet. There it would empty a few pints of the silver liquid into the station’s water reservoirs. Injected deep into the ice, the substance would unzip any hydrocarbon it encountered, transforming it into water and graphene. If it didn’t hit hydrocarbon for more than six months it would unzip itself. A simple, elegant solution.

Carmen smiled. I’ve got this, she thought. Cutting the feed, she set a course towards Roderick’s ship. Then, closing her eyes, she drifted off to sleep.