Welcome to 2023’s eighth edition. Competition, or Rivalry. A broad range of things this month. Competition can mean many things, as can Rivalry. With oneself. With something as arbitrary as elapsed time on a clock. Or as significant as choosing how one will explore passion. Or fight to survive. It can lead to stretching, or perhaps breaking, a rule.
The A Muse Bouche Review Team
Feature: The 2019 New York City Marathon (Joseph P. Garland) Fiction
Dreams of Only You (Louise Sorensen) Fiction
Rivalry (Marian L Thorpe) Fiction
Nemesis and Narcissus (David M. Simon) Fiction
Blown Away (Renee Gendron) Fiction
Monologue (Heather Wickers) Poetry
Joseph P Garland (@JPGarlandAuthor)
This is an excerpt from the novel Coming to Terms. Suzanne and Kerry are a young married couple, living in the suburbs of New York. Suzanne is a very good but not elite runner. This story attempts to convey some of the emotions felt in the final stretch of this race–based in part on the author’s own experience in that part of the course–and the complete physical and mental exhaustion that comes from the successful completion of what is a personal competition, one shared (in this case) with a loving partner.
When she turned onto Central Park South, Suzanne Neally was unprepared for what she saw. She was in the final mile of the 2019 New York City Marathon. The racecourse itself, the street lined by barricades, was empty except for a woman perhaps 150 yards ahead.
Crowds lined both sides of the barricades as they had for most of the course. But she hadn’t realized that this long, three-block stretch was uphill. The Time-Warner Center was in the distance, defining Columbus Circle. That was where she’d turn back into the Park. If she somehow got that far. Her legs had been wobbly for miles. Her gazelle-like stride, honed over countless laps of the track, was long gone, barely a memory. Will-power alone kept her going.
This was Suzanne’s first marathon. Her goal was to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials, or “OT,” in the event. She had no hope of actually making the team. But making the Trials would be huge. Her best half-marathon time was fast enough to allow her to enter the “Elite Women’s” field for New York. This meant she and a relatively small number of women started about half-an-hour before the elite men and the first wave of other runners. Tens of thousands would be following, but her universe was very simply defined: the Elite Women. They wouldn’t get mixed up on the course with men but would have their own race.
Several of Suzanne’s clubmates were in her group much of the way, as were several strangers. All were hoping to run faster than the 2 hours and 45 minutes OT qualifying time. They stayed together for the first sixteen miles or so as the truly elite women disappeared far ahead. Suzanne’s group started to fray as it entered Manhattan just past mile 16 and right after the 59th Street—“slow down, you move too fast” from Simon and Garfunkel having no place on this morning—Bridge leaving Queens.
Then somehow Suzanne was a half-mile from the finish. There was a big sign saying that, and her time was 2:39:24. Her brain was fried and she tried but couldn’t calculate how fast she’d need to run that final stretch and get the qualifying time.
She’d seen her wife Kerry and the rest of her New York family several times during the race. Each time she passed, they hurried to the subway in a carefully choreographed and nervous pack with similar supporters to see and cheer her at the next rendezvous point.
To Suzanne, that was ancient history. It was getting warm with only a few clouds sprinkled in the early November blueness of a New York sky. That, too, hardly mattered anymore. Pushed by the crowd, she made it through Central Park South and again into the Park itself. She was desperate, telling herself it would soon be over. That was all that kept her moving. “It’ll soon be over. It’ll soon be over.”
Past another sign. “440 Yards to Go.” 400 Meters to Go.” Then a banner crossing the Park Drive: “26 Miles.” 385 yards to go.
Then she saw it. The finish line with 200 yards to go. The clock read “2:42:18.” She’d make it. She had the whole Park Drive to herself for the final, slightly uphill stretch and thousands cheering for her and her alone as she struggled through the finish, collapsing two steps after she crossed the line.
Two volunteers rushed to wrap her in a high-tech blanket before helping her to her feet. The woman who finished ahead of her hugged her and she waited to do the same to the teammate who followed about 20 seconds later.
After being led to her bag and given some recovery drinks and food, she went to meet her family in the elite family-reunion area. She trained so hard for this. Suddenly, Ss She was nearly bowled over as Kerry ran up to her a bit harder than she realized. The others were there too.
After a small get together at her Mother’s apartment, Suzanne faded, and Kerry drove her home. She was too tired to shower, but Kerry made her do it. When dry, she collapsed onto the bed and was asleep within minutes. It was just after three, and Kerry gave her a kiss as she covered her with a blanket.
Kerry came in a little later. She gazed at her wife. Suzanne was never more gorgeous than when she lay exhausted, completely spent. So vulnerable. Kerry went for a cup of tea and some biscuits and returned with a romance novel of the type that allowed her mind to drift away. She had a novel’s worth of complications with Suzanne but now that they were settled, she used romances to live vicariously in others’ worlds of missed opportunities and never-forgotten chances. Of separations and reunions.
She sat in the armchair in the room watching the up-and-down of Suzanne’s breathing. As dusk hit—the clocks were turned back just that morning—she turned a small table-lamp on as she read her book and drank her tea and ate her biscuits. And regularly gazed at Suzanne.
This was one of the moments when she told herself, “I’m happy.” Her beautiful, exhausted Suzanne, having worked so hard over months and months so that she could do something largely arbitrary. An arbitrary time for a race of an arbitrary distance about which no one cared. Except, in the end, Suzanne and thus Kerry and the rest of her family.
It was dark when Suzanne roused herself. She wasn’t expecting Kerry to be staring at her. “Hello, sleepyhead.”
After being told what time it was, she was able to get to the bathroom. Kerry heard the water starting to run in the tub. She ran to get a sports drink from the fridge and brought it to the bathroom. Suzanne was sitting on the toilet seat lid, trying to muster the energy to get her body in the tub. Kerry handed her the drink. She ran to the hall closet and brought back a box of Epsom salts, which she sprinkled in.
She had to help Suzanne get into the tub. The two women were quiet. Suzanne was the first to speak.
“I know I’ve been selfish with all the running I’ve been doing and I couldn’t have done it without you.” Kerry told her to shut up about it. “It was important to you so it was important to me.”
Suzanne again told Kerry to shut up. She continued, “Now that I’ve done a marathon, I’ve done it. I’ll go to the Olympic Trials in Atlanta in February, but I’m not training hard for them. I just wanted to see if I could make them. Just shorter stuff from now on.”
They were again quiet until Kerry helped Suzanne stand to let the shower rinse off the salted water. Suzanne made it out of the tub. They went to bed after a small dinner.
Suzanne was tired, but thanks to her nap, not too tired. More than anything, she was physically spent and her mind wandered pleasantly from vague thought to vague thought. She lay on her back and allowed Kerry to “administer” to her. They did this often when Suzanne was spent from training. Now, with the exhaustion the result of the race itself, it felt infinitely better.
It was simple enough. It was always like this, Suzanne trying to control her body. It was a challenge Kerry enjoyed, doing her best to take control—if anyone had control—over her lover’s body. Suzanne had so much going on in her body and her head after the morning’s race that it didn’t take long for her to surrender. Kerry, satisfied in having brought her love off, was herself lost in her own pleasure at the, well, thigh of the beautiful athlete to whom she was married.
After some clean-up in the bathroom, they were in bed early and quickly asleep. When Kerry awoke at some time during the night, she was tempted to take liberties with the body beside her but seeing as it was Monday thought better of it.
Photo: Zac Ong on Unsplash. (Lightly cropped)
The image is taken from the cinder path at the eastern side of the Central Park Reservoir. The spired building is the El Dorado apartments on Central Park West between 90th and 91st Street. It is where a runner like Suzanne in the story would have done many a mile when she lived near the Park.
Louise Sorensen (@Louise3Anne)
Some stories are hard to tell. This is one of them.
I feel like I’ve been stuck in the same place for years. Every now and then, something happens, but shortly after, it’s like there’s a complete reset and life returns to level one.
Thanks to good genes, I’m not looking much older now than when this story started out. But for a long time, I’ve felt like I wasn’t going anywhere, with anything in my life.
Some stories are hard to tell, so I’ll jump right in.
For the last many years, as well as my job and my life not going anywhere, my love life has been a series of ups and downs. In a circle too. There are two men in my life.
I’ve known Jeff since I was a kid. We were neighbours and grew up together. I was always curious, up for anything, and he was always wild. Somehow when he grew up, he overcame his genetic heritage and settled down. He’s a lawyer. He believes in the law, and he’s good at it, and, as lawyers will, he sometimes represents very sketchy people.
I’m still curious.
I met Daniel a few years ago at an environmental talk he gave. He had a wild childhood too, only he never quite grew out of it. He’s not exactly on the wrong side of the law, but let’s just say he’s more on the side of justice. He doesn’t let the rule of law slow him down. He’s a game warden. He too comes across a lot of shifty characters. He’s dedicated to Nature and the environment, and if someone is abusing one or the other, he always gets his man. He has a thriving business on the side as an environmental consultant, and over the years, I’ve helped out with interviews and site inspections.
My dilemma is this. I love both of them. There are a lot of extenuating details, but all you have to know, is that I love both. You can love two men at the same time. This is a truth.
And both of them love me, in their own way. We share physical attraction. Big time. Huge.
To be clear, I’ve slept with both of them. Jeff is terrific. Dan is amazing.
Neither is the marrying type. But neither is in a committed relationship with another woman. From things they’ve both said in the past, I’m sure If I committed to one and said, “Let’s get married,” we would.
I’m just a school teacher. Grade one. The littles. I have no idea why these two gorgeous men are attracted to me. Although they do tell me about their work, and I have been able to point out things they’ve missed, which has often solved their problems.
For a long time, I thought of the kids I teach as my children. Lately though, it hasn’t been enough. My biological clock started ticking.
For all their differences, Jeff and Dan are as alike as two brothers, but Jeff would wear the white hat and Dan’s hat would be grey. Some of Dan’s arrests have been of very sketchy people and he’s dealt with them harshly.
There’s this rivalry between Dan and Jeff. When I break up with one, the other is waiting to take me into his arms. Neither is in favour of sharing, but neither will put a ring on it. It’s almost as though they’re in a tug of war, and I’m the prize. I wonder sometimes if I picked one, either one, would the other lose interest? Would it make any difference which one I chose?
Lately, as nothing is moving forward with my life, I’ve started to question what I’m doing. I’m not a very religious person, but I can see that something isn’t right.
And I’ve been having dreams.
One dream is that Jeff and I decided to get married. That was a happy dream, although I felt pangs for Dan. But life is full of choices. I dreamed that Jeff and I were in bed, and he proposed. I said yes. And the very night after, he was killed. Some drunk driver came along and ran him over as he was crossing the street. The drunk even stuck around and was identified, so at first it looked like it wasn’t a hit from one of his sketchy clients. Later, it looked like it was.
I have a big family, and they’re great. But in this dream, I felt like I had nowhere to go where anyone would understand my grief, and I ran to Dan. He’s always known of my dilemma and understood it. He never forced himself on me, he’s just always been there if I needed him. One thing led to another, and we ended up in bed. As I’ve said, I’ve slept with both of them. Just not at the same time. There were always break-ups and clear-cut boundaries between times. But this time, in the dream, a few months later I found out I was pregnant. With twin boys. And if their DNA was ever tested, it would show two different fathers. Dan was killed before the babies were born.
Another dream I keep having is along similar lines. Jeff and I are in bed, he proposes, and I say yes. We get married, I get pregnant, and nine months later we have a beautiful baby boy. Six months after that Jeff gets killed. Drunk driver.
Still in this dream, and going against anything he ever told me about commitment and life choices, Dan asks me to marry him. I say yes. I don’t have to marry him. Jeff left me well off and my family gives me full support. I’d even found something I was passionate about, went back to school, and had a few credits towards business management. But I marry Dan. A few months later his past catches up with him, and he disappears off the face of the earth. None of his fellow wardens or business associates know where he is or what happened to him. But apparently, when we got married, he left instructions that if he were ever to disappear for more than a week, he’d leave me in charge of his business. Having worked with him off and on for years, I had a good handle on it and took over as the head. By then I was pregnant, and in due time gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Clearly, both boys had two different fathers.
The third dream I keep having is, Jeff and I are in bed together. Jeff breaks up with me. I get mad and storm off home. Ever the opportunist, Dan finds out about it and comes over the next night. One thing leads to another, and we end up in bed. In this dream, I’m not sure what happens to either Jeff or Dan after that, but I end up pregnant with twins. Boys. DNA tests, if the babies were to have them, would indicate two different fathers.
These are all dreams. I’m not a very religious person, but I do my best. I’ve been thinking about my dilemma for quite a while and hoping something would happen that would change things. Shake up my life. Move me forward. I even went to church about it. Just the once.
I don’t know about God, or Karma, or Faith, or Fate. All I know is that not long ago, everything in my life changed, and there is no longer any competition or rivalry between my two beautiful men.
They say the universe likes balance.
I can’t say what happened. I can’t think about it, and I don’t want to talk about it.
I don’t know much.
I don’t know much of anything at all.
All I know is, I’m pregnant with twins. Boys.
Photo by Kyle Broad on Unsplash
Marian L Thorpe (@marianlthorpe)
Summer, back when televisions got seven stations, and glass bottles of milk appeared on your doorstep early every morning. Hot days, warm nights, when the air was as heavy as a blanket and filled your nostrils with the sharp smell of vinegar and the tang of tomatoes from the canning plant working three shifts a day. School starting the next week, even though a bunch of kids wouldn’t show up until October, when the harvest was over.
The rivalry with the next town down the highway was as old as the settlements, I’d guess. As old, at least, as the fall fair, held Labour Day weekend, its beginnings going back to 1854. Winning the tug-of-war competition had been a bragging point at the hotels and roadhouses all winter once. Still was, I guess, but not as much as baseball now.
The Saturday night game. Nine p.m., when the first stars began to prick through, and the temperature started to drop a little, if we were lucky. Moths around the field lights, little kids allowed to stay up late climbing on the metal struts that supported the boards of the green-painted grandstand. Past the outfield, the Ferris wheel and the swing boats, hot dog stands and pony rides. The music from the stage show barely audible over the shouts of carneys and the clatter and chatter of the midway.
The tractor, first, pulling a rake to even out the sand, pocked by hoofmarks from the horse show earlier in the day. Then the lines were laid, the chalk glittering white. People began to arrive to get the best seats, clutching bags of popcorn or cones of cotton candy. Home team supporters always on the left facing the field, under the shade of the old maples.
I finished tying my cleats and picked up my favourite ash bat to knock a few balls around. Pickles jogged out onto the grass to retrieve them. A wiry boy, maybe 5’ 4”, his father grew cucumbers contracted to the canners. Pickles played shortstop, with a quick glove and a fast and accurate arm.
From the corner of my eye I saw Ohio arrive, his cap stuck in his belt so that his blond hair wasn’t sweaty and stuck to his head. He picked up a bat from beside the dug-out. After a couple of steps onto the field, he pulled a ball from his pocket, and lobbed it neatly out to Pickles. Just a practice hit, no effort behind it.
Ohio was our secret weapon this year. His real name was Ralph, but no one called him that. He’d arrived in June, when the U.S. schools got out, to spend a year on his uncle’s farm. Rumours ran rampant: he’d been expelled from his high school for cheating; he’d stolen a car to go joy-riding; he’d got a girl pregnant. What the truth was, I never knew, and Ohio wasn’t about to say.
But he was enrolled in our little high school for his last year, and so he was eligible to play for us. More to the point, he’d been recruited, by Pickles of all people. His father’s farm and Ohio’s uncle’s adjoined, and Pickles had been out hoeing the cucumbers one afternoon when he’d seen Ohio hitting balls out behind his uncle’s barn. Tossing them in the air, swinging.
He hadn’t been hitting hard, Pickles said. Six or eight balls, out into the field where an old pony dozed under a tree, tail flicking at flies. Hit until he had no balls left, fetch, hit again. He looked competent, like most boys our age in that time. But what made Pickles drop the hoe and run across two fields in the heat of a July afternoon was what he saw next. The toss, the swing—and the ball sailing across the pony field and into the cornfield beyond. Way beyond, Pickles had said. “I hope it was an old ball,” he’d added. “It’s good and lost, unless his uncle’s got a sharp eye when he’s ploughing the stover under in November.”
“Can you hit like that regularly?” Pickles had asked.
“Usually,” was the laconic answer. Pickles had immediately invited him to the beach that evening, where, over the campfire and illicit bottles of beer, we hatched a plan. Ohio grinned a lot, and raised his Molson Canadian in agreement.
We’d played the next town’s team a few times over the summer schedule, and we’d kept Ohio pretty much under wraps. He’d hit a home run or two, but not regularly. We were third—or was it fourth?—in the rankings. But this game wasn’t part of the season: it was an additional game, sponsored by the canning plant. The Clark Trophy. The team from the high school in the next town had won it every year for the last eight.
As evening turned to night and the littlest ones fell asleep with heads on a parent’s or grandparent’s lap, we let our rivals think they were going to win again. Coach wasn’t in on the plan, so he yelled and swore, and we played a bit better and kept the score close. The crowd grew excited, seeing it wasn’t a rout this year, even coming to their feet to cheer and shout encouragement. Dogs barked. More people wandered over from the midway, to see what the excitement was.
The crack of a ball against a bat, and the ball sailed high. I played outfield, on account of my height and reach, but for several heart-in-mouth moments I thought we were done for: with two on base, a home run would finish it. I ran, distantly hearing the crowd on the stands, praying to whatever god of baseball there was, and felt the ball whack against the leather of my glove. I skidded, pivoted, and threw to home plate.
In time. Shep, our catcher, tagged the runner out, and the guy who’d been on first got caught between second and third, tried to make it back to second and didn’t. Now the crowd—those on our side, anyhow—were good and excited. I heard later there were some angry words exchanged up on the stands, even one fight. But then, none of it registered. Because it was the bottom of the ninth now, we were down two runs, and Ohio was fifth in the batting roster. I was first.
I’d been watching, of course, looking for weaknesses, and when Coach told me to hit it low and hard to left field, I agreed with his judgement. I let the first pitch go, but I connected with the second with my swing horizontal and just above waist level, and the ball flew exactly as ordered, hit the field well out and bounced up. The outfielder scrambled for it, but I was safe on second base.
Pickles left me there, hitting an unfortunate pop-up right into their shortstop’s glove. The next batter walked, and the next, Shep, struck out. Half the crowd groaned, half jeered. Two out, two on base, and Ohio was up.
He walked up to the plate, looking scared, rubbing his hands on his jersey like he was sweating with nerves. He took his cap off and put it back at least twice. Then he took his stance at home plate, grasped the bat, and nodded his readiness.
They say now that ball hit the Ferris wheel. It didn’t. It left a dent in one of the tractors on show on the grass far beyond right field. The Massey-Ferguson dealer had a star shape painted around that dent, and the words ‘Clark Trophy Winning Hit’ below it, with the date. He got full price for that tractor.
Oh, the glory of that night. We started the school year as heroes, and I think a few of us got to home base with our girls on the basis of that win, too. Not me, though. The trophy sat in the display case outside the principal’s office, front and centre. Ohio—Ralph—turned out to be pretty good at basketball, too, and I don’t think any of us minded when he was elected prom king. It was a magnificent last year, I have to say.
But you know, to this day, I still kind of feel we cheated.
Image by Stefaan Van der Biest from Pixabay
David M. Simon (@writesdraws)
My plan is set, my players in place. I need only set the wheels in motion to take that insufferable bore Narcissus down a peg. If all goes well, it will be glorious.
Stealthy as a cat, I slink between the olive trees that crown a bluff overlooking the sparkling blue waters of the Aegean. I spy him right away in his favorite spot, lounging languidly on the shore, gazing rapturously at his own reflection. Narcissus is nothing if not predictable. I raise and twirl one finger, signaling my collaborators to be ready, and stride down the hill.
Not surprising given who he is, Narcissus doesn’t notice me until I tap him on the shoulder. He tears himself away from his reflection just long enough to glance in my direction, and sniffs contemptuously. “Ah, Nemesis. I thought I smelled the stink of jealousy and desperation, and here you are.” As usual, he attempts wit, and only makes it halfway there.
I sit down and join him, intruding just enough into his personal space to be annoying. It’s the little things that make life worth living. “Narcissus, my old friend, I’m so glad we’ve crossed paths again. It gives me another occasion to help you come to your senses.” I say it with a smile that is actually genuine, as I know what’s coming.
His smile is also genuine, because he is again looking at himself. When he turns back to me, the smile evaporates like a summer rain after the sun returns. “What are you going on about? Please don’t be tiresome.”
“I’ll try my best. The thing is, and I tell you this as a friend, as someone who has known you for a very long time—you are a very ordinary looking man. Not ugly, exactly. Not overly unpleasant, although you certainly lean in that direction. Not anything, but…ordinary. Not only are you not the most beautiful man in Greece, you’re not even the most beautiful man in the village stables. I know you’ve heard me say this many times before, but I’m sure my words still sting. I only hope you’ll accept them in the spirit in which they are given. Think of it as tough love.”
Narcissus sighs theatrically. He turns his back to me, returns his loving gaze to the water. “Leave me. Your words mean less to me than shit on my sandals. Please find someone else to bother. I’m busy here.”
I settle into what I hope feels like companionable silence, knowing it will also annoy him, and wait in joyful anticipation.
Three wood nymphs float down from the olive grove as if by happenstance. They drift over, ghost-like, and fix us with matching vacant stares, which is about all a wood nymph can manage.
This is my cue. I leap to my feet as if surprised by their presence. “Narcissus, this is a fortunate opportunity.”
He looks at the nymphs contemptuously, then back at me. “How do you mean?”
“Well, if these lovely nymphs are agreeable, let’s ask them if you are indeed as beautiful as you believe. As we all know, wood nymphs are incapable of telling a lie. If they tell me that you are truly the gods’ gift to men, I will humbly accept it and never bother you again. Simple as that. Fair?”
Narcissus seems to be weighing his options—taking time out from his self adoration as opposed to permanently removing the thorn in his side that is me. He nods once, stands up, and presents himself to the nymphs for inspection. He poses, for gods’ sakes.
The nymphs circle him several times, then float off half a stade and huddle together, conferring. Narcissus grows increasingly impatient, while I try my best to keep my face neutral.
Finally they swirl their way back in a cloud of adorableness. They speak one at a time, their voices sweet and melodious.
“You are not pretty, little man.”
“I’ve seen cyclops who were prettier. Maybe if you had one eye it might be better. Have you considered that?”
“You look a little like the stable boy, but he is more pleasant to look at.”
I try not to gloat as I say, “Thank you so much, my sweets, for your honest, uncompromised appraisal.” They giggle as only wood nymphs can, and, catching a stray sea breeze, drift off across the Aegean.
Narcissus, meanwhile, watches slack jawed as they sail away. He sinks to the ground, deflated, like an emptied wineskin. I don’t say a word, just pat him on top of his sad head and walk away up the hill. What Narcissus doesn’t know is that while wood nymphs traditionally don’t lie, they like to buy pretty human things, so if you slip them enough drachmas, they’re willing to stretch the truth. A lot.
Halfway up the hill I look back at Narcissus. He’s slouched on the shore, tossing pebbles methodically into the water, shattering his reflection with each well-placed throw.
Renée Gendron (@ReneeGendron)
Senior Mechanical Engineer Sara Herrera’s breath lodged deep in her throat. Dark blue and purple clouds moved quickly on the weather radar. In less than one hour, the largest storm of the year would crash against the colony’s dome.
“We’ll need repair crews.” Mechanical Engineer Connall Deegan tapped a cloud on the screen. “We’ll need six rotating crews to ensure their frostbite isn’t severe and to prevent exhaustion.” He stood confident, but uncertainty flashed in his beautiful brown eyes.
“Crews are already on standby. I’ve told them to eat and rest.” Spend time with their families because this storm will last for days and be a killer. Sara toyed with the locket on her necklace, which held a picture of her husband of twenty years, Emilio, of twenty years and their two children. Miguel was now fifteen and Teo seventeen, but Emilio had died three years ago in a storm less severe than the one that was coming. Sara angled her gaze away from the screen, but tears still pooled in the corners of her eyes. She fought against years of pain and loneliness, then straightened. Senior Mechanical Engineers had responsibilities to the tens of thousands of souls struggling to survive under the dome. “We’ve got the first tour. Priorities are keeping the electrical grid operational and heat. The storm’s centre will be minus one hundred and seventy Celsius.”
Connall drew in a long breath and held it. The freckles on his cheeks brought out the copper highlights in his ginger hair. He released a slow, measured breath. “The environmental suits aren’t designed to handle those temperatures.”
At minus sixty Celsius, drawing a breath was akin to thousands of sharp daggers stabbing the lungs, making it too hard to breathe. The environmental suits were tested to be good until minus one hundred and thirty, with a safety threshold of plus or minus ten degrees safety.
But at minus one hundred and seventy? There was no guarantee the seals would last, the air pumps would circulate oxygen, or the insulation would protect against freezing to death.
“Have everyone wear triple thermal undergarments,” she said. “Have them store two thermal packs in their boots and gloves. We’ll need to keep everyone moving and fingers nimble to effectuate repairs. Have everyone eat high-fat foods before going on shift to keep their metabolisms up.”
Another nasty blob of the deepest blue and dark purple appeared on the screen, blotting all directions for hundreds of kilometres.
“Before and after shifts,” she said. “Repair crews get priority for fats and proteins over everyone except the neo-natal units and the sick.”
Connall swiped his wrist computer and added the items to the crews’ pre-shift checklist. He swiped something else in his wrist-comp. “I’ve advised the command staff, and they’ve relayed the nutritional directives to the feeding units.”
Sara clasped her hands behind her back and stared at the screen. Not that the blob of a monster storm or its terrifying parameters changed—cold not experienced since the first decade after the corporations left the planet, wind speeds not experienced since the earthquakes caused new mountain ranges to appear fifty years ago, and floods brought warm waters from the south.
One cold bead of sweat trickled down her hairline under her tight, regulation bun, down the nape of her neck, the curve of her back, and the base of her spine. It trickled slowly, ensuring every fine hair was touched along the way.
Connall left the room and returned a few minutes later with a food tray.
Sara closed her eyes. She had faded memories from decades ago, as a toddler of her sitting on her grandfather’s knees in a kitchen filled with spicy food. Her father cooked delicious meals of wild four-tusked hogs and buffalo harvested by hunters that fed twenty families for a month. The planet’s mines were active and the veins rich, and spices from fifteen systems had been exchanged for ore.
She opened her eyes. Now. Decades later. The veins of the mines were depleted, and with the abandonment of the Consortium’s resources to prospect for more ore, the colony had lost its ability to purchase extra foodstuffs and spices. Its food was Basic Protein, synthesised through elaborate laboratory processes that offered no taste or texture but sufficient calories and nutrients to keep the colonists alive.
“Here.” Connall placed the tray in front of her. “No sense in issuing orders if you don’t follow them yourself.” He smelled of engine grease and the possibility of a pleasant future.
Sara tipped her chin towards the tray.
Connall popped a protein ball into his mouth, and then Sara took one and ate it. The protein ball lacked flavour, was too mushy, and made her gag, but it kept her alive. If that. After the storm season passed, she’d allocate more engineering resources to rebuild hydroponics bays and energy cells to synthesise more meat so as not to have to eat the goo the agriculture department created.
Flavours. Additional resources would be granted to restore flavours. The dome’s residents needed various flavours, bursts of sweet and sour and spicy on their palates to spur them to eat better and build a better world. No one wanted to live in a world where everything was mushy and gushy and lacked a basic salty flavour.
“Take another.” Connall pointed at a ball of goo. “First shift is in twenty minutes. We’ll be out there for hours.”
Damn her orders. How dare a colleague follow her instructions? She swiped the protein ball from the tray and shoved it into her mouth. If she swallowed it without biting into it, she wouldn’t be reminded of how awful it was—until the hard ball of synthetic protein hit the floor of her stomach with a hard plop. All that nothingness taste, all that hard lump of food, all that disgusting blandness shot back up her throat.
She swallowed back bile and vomit, then refocused on her mission. “Gear up.”
Connall walked to the far end of the engineering department. Everything about him was measured, his even strides, the slow swing of his arms, the way he removed his environmental suit from its locker and stepped into it.
Sara swung her gaze to the metal deck. Not that it had changed in the last two hundred years since the colony had been constructed, but its lattice was worn and needed change. She put on her suit, then checked each gauge and computer system, double-checking that the environmental controls were operational.
Connall stood in his EV suit with his helmet tucked under his arm. He punched the suit’s arm computer and executed the protocol. “Magnetic boots?”
Sara walked two paces on the deck, the magnets in her EV suit boots clinging to the floor. “Check. Yours?”
Connall walked two paces. “Check.”
They confirmed the status of the internal environmental controls, oxygen supply, oxygen recyclers, suits’ computers, and communication systems. Everything was operational.
Tool kit magnetically sealed to her wrist, Sara stepped into the airlock. Connall was two steps behind her, holding his encased tool kit.
A series of angry red lights flashed in the engineering room. Each indicated a systems breakdown, a breach of protocol and a systems-wide issue. Every flashing red light was insignificant and could be repaired after the storm, every red light except for life support and communications. Five oxygen scrubbers had stopped working, and six air vents had obstructions.
Sara downloaded the map to the life support array into the off-net drive of her wrist-comp, closed the airlock to the engineering room, released the pressure from the airlock, and opened the outer door. A blast of wind shot through the open door, pushing her back against the far wall. Connall steadied her, then helped her back to her feet.
She leaned into the wind, hunching forward until she was almost bent in two. She forced one leg forward. Hours in the high gravity gym were a poor training exercise for the real wind’s force against her. She secured her metal clip to the ten-centimetre-thick cable that looped around the station and mustered her strength to walk outside.
The wind would not get the better of her. She pressed forward.
“I’m behind you.” Connall’s voice was grainy but right in her ear.
She wanted to hear more of his voice, less tinny, more intimate during a private dinner over goo and small talk. Connall Deegan’s family arrived on the colony six generations ago, when things were even rougher than they were now. True pioneers they were, and not one of them had taken the opportunity to leave when the evacuation shuttles arrived two years ago. The colony had lost almost half of its population, but not one Deegan had left. Every last one of them had stood by the shuttle landing pads, calling out those who left, calling them traitors, cowards, and deserters for not staying and finding a way to make the colony work.
A part of Sara’s heart had trilled in delight that day. So proud and true the Deegans stood, each with their particular shade of ginger hair, eyes ranging from light brown to dark, mesmerising brown. Each Deegan woman, man, and teenager called out the evacuees for their cowardice and lack of pride in staying with their homeland. A new ore vein would be discovered, new technologies developed and sold, and upgrades to the dome could be done with the tools and know-how of the colonists.
Corporations had long abandoned the planet for being unprofitable, and imperial powers had no interest in such a distant ice rock. Still, this outpost on a near-barren planet was home to the people who survived here, who scratched out a living. And with effort, the planet could be terraformed into verdant fields and forests.
The blast of the wind shoved all such memories from her, and she stepped into it and fought her way past the opening of the airlock. “With me?”
A wave of heat washed over Sara. She struggled against the implication and double meaning.
Always. Always she felt it, since Connall had transferred into the department three years ago, a few weeks after Emilio’s death. Always. Partner.
Sara leaned further into the blasting wind, away from the death of her husband and further still from the pleasant feelings that bubbled in her every time Connall entered the room.
Survival or death. Such storms blotted everything else in the landscape and required precision focus. Survival or Death.
She bent into the wind, one hand on the cable clip, the other on the handle of her tool kit. Her muscles burned, but her body was cold. Two hundred meters near the edges of the ferocious storm, and her environmental suit had failed at the task. “What are your systems?” She walked a few steps, eye on the horizon, body leaning towards it, and the tool kit magnetically attached to her hand pushed behind her. She struggled against the force of the wind but resigned herself to keeping the tool kit tucked behind her. She took two steps forward, then the wind knocked her back one. “Report.”
“Environmental suit is functional. Tools are secured.” Connall’s voice was strained.
She marched on, attaching a new loop to her suit belt, then removed the last. She turned a corner around the habitat’s dome and walked towards the communication array. Her legs and lower back hurt, but she refused to let the storm win. “Transition to new cable series complete.” She tried to turn to look behind her, but the fierce winds kept her looking forward.
“Cable transition complete,” Connall said. “Computer, what is the first repair requirement?”
Something snapped and blew past Sara. She wasn’t sure if it was a part of the dome structure, a communications antenna, or something else.
“What was that?” Connall’s voice was sharp and alert.
“I don’t know.” Cold seeped through Sara’s suit, slicing against her cheek and down her neck. “Keep moving. The suits won’t last long in this.” She raised her leg and stomped it against the frozen ground. The movement strained every muscle in her calves, thighs, and hops. She pressed forward. She took another step, the heat from her movements insufficient to keep up with the heat leaching from her environmental suit. She checked her body temperature on her wrist-comp. Point two degrees colder than what she had been not five minutes earlier.
“Understood.” Connall sucked in heavy breaths.
She stepped forward, her body aching from the resistance of the brutal wind and the heat from her suit fast fleeing. Snow and ice crystals swirled around her, reducing visibility to near zero. She switched to an infra-red view screen in her helmet, and the structures of the habitat dome came into view. Her body cooled, then turned cold, and her fingers numbed. She squeezed against the chemical heat packs in her palms, flooding her fingers with temporary warmth. She stomped forward against the fierce thrust of the wind.
Something large flew past her, then another, followed by a cascade of thousands of smaller debris pinging against her face shield.
Connall reached for her arm and turned her to face him. He leaned his helmet against hers. “Communication is down.”
“Life support is the priority.”
She nodded, then walked the length of the dome to the ventilation system, and hooked her suit to the outer ladder railing, then detached her cable from the dome’s rail. She reached for the ladder’s first rung, stepped onto it, and connected her magnetic boots with the metal railing. She reached for another rung, but a wind gust shoved her flat against the ladder. The wind pummeled her back, and she lay sprawled against the ladder.
The wind shifted direction, and she drew in a full breath. She looked over her shoulder and down, and Connall had completed his cable transfer to the ladder rail. He pointed to the top of the dome, and she nodded and continued her climb.
Each ladder rung took more effort. The cold was bone-deep now, and she tried to move faster to generate some heat, but the wind was too violent for her to go any faster. Finally, she climbed over the edge of the ladder, secured her toolkit to the cable line, and switched to the roof’s system of cables.
Connall finished his climb and did the same.
She led them to the ventilation system and opened the diagnostic panel. A series of yet more angry red lights flashed, each needing urgent repair. Trace back to the origin of the problem, then work your way back to the smaller repairs. The mantra. The oxygen scrubbers. There was no point in fixing the ventilation system if it pumped carbon dioxide instead of oxygen into the air.
Her organs felt like they were encased in ice. She broke another heat pack in her feet but kept the second pack in her hands intact. She’d need to feel her fingers to conduct repairs and wanted to hold onto the second pack longer.
She motioned for Connall to step closer, and he did. Then she leaned forward, and their helmets touched. “I’ll start working on the oxygen scrubbers, and you start working on the air pumps.” It was a shame she couldn’t smell him through the EV suits.
Connall walked to the other side of the diagnostics panel and set down his toolbox.
Sara ran a diagnostic on the scrubbers but knew the answer. It was too cold for the chemical reaction to occur. Heat. The entire planet needed heat. Although it was the farthest planet from the system’s sun, it had once had the highest mineral content that the corporations needed for space travel. A cosmic joke.
She wiped a layer of frost away from her wrist-comp and tapped its screen, but it remained dark. She tapped it again, but the computer didn’t respond. She walked to Connall and leaned her helmet to his. “I will redirect power from the living quarters to conserve energy. Let Command know.”
He tried his computer, then shook his head. “Mine’s frozen.”
The nearest hard-wired communication port to Command was four hundred meters away. In normal conditions, it would be a five-minute walk. In these conditions, twenty minutes would be record breaking. Her suit flashed a warning on her screen that her body was losing too much heat.
“I’ll do a gradual shutdown of the living quarters,” she said. “I’ll start by flashing the lights in the corridors and rooms. Hopefully, people will see that as a sign to evacuate. Then I’ll decrease life support to a minimum.”
“That’s risky. Some people are sleeping and won’t see the signal, and the intercoms are down. They could freeze to death.”
She knew that. She was too aware of the thousands of lives that depended on her. “Can you tap into communications?”
He shook his head.
Neither could she, and she had worked every system in the dome. At the next senior Command meeting, she would raise the need for a protocol to allow engineering to do repairs when communications were done. For now, she had to risk it. “I’ll lower the temperature by two degrees. That might wake people up if they’re cold, giving them time to add more layers and go to communal areas that always have more heating.”
She straightened and went to the diagnostics console. She reduced the temperature in Blue Sector first. The screen flashed a series of confirmation requests, followed by her engineering password. She repeated the process for Gold, Green, Red, and Purple Sectors, then rerouted the power to the oxygen scrubbers.
Nothing happened. Not one blip or spike.
She stomped and rubbed her hands, but the cold remained as biting as before. Three minutes had passed, not enough time for people to realise the message or get to their quarters to wear warmer clothing. Not even enough time for people to wake up cold.
Oxygen content in the air dipped below eighteen per cent. Nineteen per cent was considered the lowest safe range, and she had no idea how long it would take the oxygen scrubbers to heat. A new type of cold gripped her, filled with dread and worry.
Death from hypothermia or from asphyxiation. Neither was pleasant. She lowered the temperature by another four degrees in the habitation areas and three degrees throughout the dome, except for the medical facilities and the agricultural areas. Adding hunger to a growing list of problems was not ideal.
Connall approached her, and she tipped her head towards him.
“Pipes are blocking and bursting.” His voice was a professional calm, and his eyes held grit.
No problems were too big or too small for an engineer to repair, except when all problems happened at the same time. “Pipes can be repaired. We must focus on the oxygen scrubbers.”
His handsome features didn’t twitch or show frustration. Always professional. “Understood. I’ll work on getting communications back up. If I do, what are the orders to Command?”
“Have off-duty and non-essential personnel move to the common areas of their respective habitats and work repair crews in thirty-minute shifts to prevent major hypothermia.”
“Understood.” He returned to his console.
Sara’s screen flashed a warning that she had been exposed to inclement weather for one hour. Inclement weather. She needed to change the warning to ‘standing in body-numbing cold with her bum freezing off’. She stomped her feet, then wiped the frost from the console. Oxygen levels continued to fall.
She rerouted additional power from the defence grid. Corporate rivals hadn’t attacked in months, and their equipment and weapons would fail in this weather. Wolves never attacked the dome, only people taking out buggies to collect supplies or stragglers walking far behind the miners on their return to the dome.
She rubbed her hands together, but the movement stung. A painful creeping sensation like a thousand pins and needles crept up her toes, feet, and legs. She opened the second heat pack in her gloves, and the prickly sensation worsened. She grimaced and shook her hands, encouraging blood flow, but the sensation spread up her fingers to her arms.
Everything hurt. Cold air stabbed her lungs. Her joints were stiff, her mind fuzzy, and her muscles tense. She trembled but never seemed to have enough heat. She gave her head a little toss to clear her mind, but her thoughts remained slow.
She wiped the frost away from the computer terminal and focused on the numbers. Oxygen levels were at eighteen and a half per cent. She pounded her fist against the terminal. On any other day, they could open the vents to let in the planet’s air. Today, it would kill everyone in the dome.
Connall approached her and rested his helmet on hers. “The dome is venting atmosphere from damaged pipes.”
“Have you reached Command?”
“No. Communications are still down.”
The sensation of sweat formed on her brow, and she wanted to wipe it away with her hand. Strange, feeling that. There was no possible way she could be sweating. And yet, the sensation was there. “Command will know something’s wrong. We repair the systems. They should see someone is accessing these panels. More power isn’t fixing the oxygen scrubbers. Suggestions?”
Connall pressed his lips together, and even though the helmet plating, she could see that they were blue. “We need to insulate the walls around the scrubbers with heat shields. Give the scrubbers a chance to thaw.”
“It’ll take too long to remove heat shields from other areas.”
Connall straightened, walked around the area, and came back. “Snow.”
“A snow fort?”
“Yeah. There’s plenty of it around, and we can build a wall to block some of the wind. That’s all we need. Give the extra power time to work.”
“The wind will blow away the snow. Except—” She reached into her tool kit and removed an oil container. “This will keep the snow together.”
Connall nodded, removed a few oil containers, walked towards a snow drift, and spread the oil.
Sara removed a collapsible shovel from her tool kit and shovelled the snow towards the exhaust vent of the oxygen scrubbers. Despite the exertion, her body didn’t warm. No sweat formed on her brow, the ache in her muscles didn’t ease, and her joints turned stiffer.
She and Connall built an oily snow fort, and then she went to the console. Oxygen levels had stopped dropping. She leaned against the console, needing heat, food, and three days of sleep. She focused on the numbers, willing the system to kick in.
Connall collapsed next to her. She knelt beside him, shaking him and yelling to open his eyes. But his lips were a deeper shade of blue. Tears pricked her eyes, and she shook him some more. “Use your heat packs. Crack them open.”
No response. His eyelashes rested against his cheeks like he was in a peaceful dream.
“Get up.” She shook him some more but received no response.
The wind picked up, knocking her back, and she scrambled beside him. She hadn’t the strength to get him back into the airlock to get help. She reached for the terminal handle and pulled herself to her feet.
Communications. She needed to contact Command to send a rescue team. She stepped towards the other console, and her knee gave way. She clutched the railing, pulled herself forward, and focused on the screen.
A layer of ice covered it. If she hit the screen, she’d shatter it. She couldn’t use oil to melt the ice. She had no torch, no thermal packs.
She hauled in heavy breaths, then went to her console. She wiped the frost off it. Oxygen levels were rising.
She had vanquished the wind.
She tried to get Communications working through her terminal but couldn’t. The edges of her vision darkened. Each movement caused her pain, and she collapsed next to Connall. Her world turned dark and cold.
Sara woke next to something warm and firm but remained frozen to her core. Equipment beeped and whirred, and muted conversations surrounded her. She opened her eyes, but the intense light of the room hurt, and she closed them again. She tried to open her mouth, but her lips were chapped and painful.
She ran her hand over her naked body. Naked body? She opened her eyes and looked over her shoulder.
Connall lay next to her, his chin near her shoulder. His eyes were closed, his breathing measured, and colour had returned to his lips. “How are you feeling?”
Alive. “Okay. You?”
“When I thought of waking next to you naked, this isn’t how I imagined it.” His cheeks curved in a smile.
Neither had she. “Hypothermia protocol?”
“Body heat is the best heat.”
A doctor removed a penlight from her breast pocket and flashed it in Sara’s eyes. “How are you feeling?”
Thinking of many ways of generating body heat with Connall. “Blown away.”
Heather Wickers (@HWickersWriter)
Heather Wickers’s first poetry collection, Tiny Little Wishes, has just been published on Amazon. Her novel Just One Night (under the name Heather Melo) was published last year. She tweets her poems regularly on Twitter,
Renée Gendron‘s A Gift of Stars: Book 1 The Nearer Realm Tales is available for pre-order on Amazon. Her Golden Hearts: Book 2 of Frontier Hearts and Two Hearts on the Backspin, Novella 2 of her Heartened series, are also available there. The second book in her Outdoorsmen series, The Officer’s Gamble, was published on October 18. Book 1 of the Outdoorsman Series is available as is her Ninth Star, Jaded Hearts, and Seven Points of Contact, Heads and Tales, a supernatural/mythological anthology. to which Renée contributed a historical, supernatural, romance. Shopkeeper & Spoon, Beneath The Twin Suns: An Anthology, Heartened by Crime, and In The Red Room: A crime anthology with heart, all edited by Renée Gendron, are also available now.
Marian L Thorpe‘s newest installment in her wonderful Empire series, Empress & Soldier, has been released. (Empire’s Daughter is the first part.) She has numerous titles available; they can be found at her aptly-named website, MarianLThorpe.com. Her books are listed at Books2Read.
David M. Simon has published The Wild Hunt: Novella 2 of The Wild Hearts and Hunts Duology (Part 1 is Renée Gedron’s Ninth Star) as well as Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, a middle-grade fantasy adventure.
Joseph P. Garland‘s The Omen at Rosings Park will be published in early August. This novella is a Pride and Prejudice Variation. A sample appeared in AMBR’s May edition. An audio version of his Becoming Catherine Bennet is expected in md-April. He has a blog and information on his books and those bits of classic literature that he has republished at DermodyHouse.com.