“What’s that word again?”
“That word. The one you use when you’re feeling good about things for a change.”
“I wouldn’t know. We’ve been here for days. I can’t feel my toes. Your face has turned blue. The snow is hammering on the door, there’s a penguin in my goddamned frozen coffee and if we don’t get this lode shield fixed by sundown there’ll be a fleet of ships circling this planet with more goddamned firepower than you could fit in that cavernous space you call a brain.”
Gesturing wildly with a stubby pencil held between cold, cracked fingers, the man in the red snowsuit slammed the clipboard he’d been using to note test results onto the steel work surface.
“And let me reassure you, Thomas” – here jabbing his pencil ineffectually against the other man’s snowsuit, making a sound like a duck wearing corduroy trousers – “-that that is a very considerable amount of space indeed!”
Thomas paused, gloved fingers pressed to chapped lips.
“No…no, none of those were the word I was thinking of.”
Grimacing, the pencil-wielding technician readjusted his thermal hood, snatched up his clipboard from the surface - which was beginning to ice over again with the moisture from their breath - and waddled awkwardly back down the service tube, towards the main power source of the machinery.
Thomas shrugged into his overcloak and risked a glance at the camera over his shoulder. Things had been strained since they arrived. Supplies were running low and the service station’s heating systems were almost offline. He reached up to compress a pale blue symbol floating above the lode shield’s core info generator. It whirred into life, and a dozen or so similar symbols flickered sickly into his field of vision, hovering over the various cables, pipes and tubes which shuttled information about the shield’s power supply to the connection points dotted strategically around the planet’s surface.
“How are you feeling, boy?”
“Better, thank you, Thomas,” came the response from the shield’s AI voice generator. “I hope I haven’t been causing too much trouble. I really haven’t been very well.”
Thomas patted a gently glowing tube affectionately.
“It’s no trouble at all. That’s why we’re here.”
“It’s nice to have visitors.”
He crouched down to open a low tool box and pulled out a sheaf of papers. He’d been making notes on their results.
“Well, the score so far is fourteen to you, twelve to me, so I suppose we’d better make it best of twenty, hadn’t we.”
“I know what you are both doing. This is a distraction technique. I have noticed you rummaging in my pipes. Do not think I have not noticed the rummaging.”
“Have you, now. Well, would you rather we stopped playing?”
There was pause, a gentle whirring as the air reconditioning units stepped up in response to the pre-programmed emergency feed. The wind howled past the airlock door.
“…No. I have enjoyed the company.”
There was a faint clicking noise as a visi-panel appeared on a floor tile and rose gently into the air. It was covered in neat little squares. Some, strategically placed, were decorated with twinkling coloured stars. A small tray of letters on pale yellow tiles appeared in front of Thomas.
A further clicking noise as the shutter on the camera behind him closed tightly.
“C. I go first. Aitch-Ay-Pee-Pee-Why. Happy. I am happy.”
The tiles appeared on the board, one by one, radiating out from the centre.
“I am happy to have company. Happy.”
The service tube began to warm. Slowly, slowly at first, then increasing, ice running from frozen surfaces to pool in the grating spaced around the tiles, gentle heat permeating the air, driving the bitter chill from hands and feet. In the distance, the main power source hummed contentedly. Thomas risked a glance at the overhead panel. All systems functioning normally. The symbols over the pipes and cables flashed rhythmically, indicating the pulses of information flowing out across the network. He realised he’d been holding his breath. His comrade was stomping back up the corridor and beginning to unzip his snow suit. He stopped to unlace a boot and nodded, almost imperceptibly, at Thomas, who nodded back.
“I’m glad to hear it, old chap. I’m sorry you were alone for so long. For a while, there wasn’t anyone left to visit.”
Thomas unscrewed the lid of his thermal flask and took a sip of lukewarm coffee. He thoughtfully selected three tiles with a fingertip and swiped them over to the board, locking them in place with a gesture.
“But we’re back now. We won’t be going anywhere. Aitch-Oh-Emm-Ee. Home.”