The fine red sand of Archae Stoddard sparkled in the setting of the crimson sun, Brahma Nova. As the ground temperatures cooled, the storms rolled in like a smothering purple curtain. Tumbling supercells thundered high in the stratosphere dropping rope tornadoes from their bruised and swollen underbellies. The swirling vortices slashed up and down the visible horizon, pulverizing rock and shifting dunes, rewriting the face of the planet’s monochromatic topography, inscribing geographic glyphs read only by satellites and gods.
It was winter; there were storms. No one bothered to notice the expected things. The incidental meteorological status panels on the wall of the observation deck were all green, five by five, and the assortment of technicians and engineers responsible for such things pretended to ignore them. Outside, the wind rose in a tormented shriek, gnawing at the sharp corners of the pressurized Quonset storage sheds, daring to be ignored as well. And it was. Nothing but wind, an incidental byproduct of the real work.
Behind the round portholes of triple sealed plastisheen and half-meter thick military grade radiation shielding, the men who made the storms sat around a portable card table beneath a swaying naked bulb and dealt the deck of Tarot cards around. The bulb swayed not because of shoddy maintenance, atmospheric seepage or blown seals, but because Sievers, tall and blond with his wide smile and milk-fat cheeks, had knocked it with his head on his way to the toilet. No one had bothered to stop it.
It was a peculiar game these men played, the five of them scrummed around a decrepit relic of backyard barbecues and screened porch afternoon teas. It was not poker, not since the last of the legitimate Bicycle cards had been worn to illegibility by countless strokings and dealings and sweaty-palmed handling. Now their money stayed in their pockets, or rather, in their automated deposit accounts back home, each man’s bits and bytes and proper digits sitting idle, except for the once a month addition and subtraction of paycheck and mortgage. For more than one of those men, those digits had grown quite large over the years.
There might have been no cards at all if not for convenient timing. If Icky Freeden hadn’t suffered the misfortune of a faulty valve on his last full tank of breathable air. He’d choked like a fish for a full ten minutes beyond the reach of help. The crew on the worksite had been low enough themselves that they couldn’t spare a piggy back. Those watching from the command deck by live feed hadn’t been able to reach him in time with a spare. That had been a critical instance of poor mission planning, the type of incident that could get a military man in charge of logistics busted out of his sergeant’s stripes.
Except it was Icky’s gig. Icky would have been the equivalent of that sergeant if this was a military operation. Which it wasn’t. Instead he had merely been on the duty roster as the lead technical engineer for the lambda phase on 21 October. He had pulled his turn, more or less fairly just like everyone else, and no one was surprised when his own inattention to the necessary details struck him down. Who alone of the external teams, after all, didn’t think to do regular and steady maintenance on his environmental suit? Who among them, it was asked, didn’t have the foresight to expect any number of catastrophic eventualities and supplement his environmental suit with at least one emergency bulb in his kit–enough goddamned air to make it back to … Read more