An alert chimed from the security monitor, diverting Charley’s attention from punching her discourse into the main computer. She pinched her brows as she shifted her head around to observe the video feed. A blip of a vehicle could just be seen plowing slowly through the walls of snow, flinging a spray of white off its all-weather treads. She had no idea who could be approaching; there were only so many inhabitants on the frozen planet as it were, and the base personnel never visited her without warning.
Glancing at the wall beside her entryway which held an emergency weapon behind a locked panel, she decided against it and opened the mechanical blinds on the outside viewing window of the Decontamination Room. Crossing her arms, she waited for the vehicle to come to a halt. As she watched, she saw enormous storm clouds billowing on the horizon behind it, and she shook her head, knowing things were about to become very inconvenient.
When the unknown vehicle came closer, she realized it was a van. It looked rented; there was no official base insignia or even a company’s logo, and most inhabitants drove official vehicles rather than private ones. They were perks used to draw competent workers to a remote location in the universe that wasn’t exactly a popular choice. Only those who were new arrivals or visiting on official business rented, so Charley knew whoever was driving the little blue van was not a local.
When it finally came to a crawl only meters from her building, Charley opened the large exterior garage door, hoping the occupants would get the clue. Leaving a little van like that parked outside in the pending weather would not be a good idea. Fortunately, the vehicle carefully rolled inside, sidling up next to Charley’s company Humvee.
As she moved toward the garage side of the Decontamination Room, opening its window blinds as well, a suited figure with a round helmet hopped down from the van’s step rail. The planet’s unforgiving temperatures and atmosphere required insulated suits that made the visitor look uncannily like an astronaut. Everyone on the planet looked like an astronaut when venturing out into the open, though some were more stylish than others. The figure’s suit looked as rented as the van; in fact, it was probably part of a package deal.
He could be anyone, she thought, Or anything. Might not even be human—possibly an AI, or a hybrid. Perhaps not even a man, but a woman, or neither. Its helmet was shaded with a reflective silver lining, and all Charley could see was the glare of the overhead lighting and a distorted image of her interior garage door. The suited humanoid figure approached the interior garage door, but its gloved hand discovered it was locked. The helmet turned and the knees bent slightly as if looking for something.
Charley smiled, knowing she could see the figure, but it couldn’t see her through the window. She could’ve turned on the video feed to greet the stranger but opted not to. Only her voice crackled through the audio system.
“I don’t believe you have an appointment,” she said.
The astronaut turned the silver helmet toward the sound of her voice and didn’t move or respond. It became clear to Charley that whoever was inside the suit didn’t know how to connect the audio feed to their suit’s communication link. She sighed.
Charley punched a button on her wall to unlock the heavy metal door’s bolt and activated the automatic open. The astronaut waved cheerfully at her as it entered the Decontamination Room: the interior window was completely clear. She kept her arms crossed, though her eyebrows remained high on her mildly amused and curious face. The mysterious visitor certainly broke up the icy monotony of her daily life.
Pressing another audio button, she said, “You’ll have to wait to remove your suit, so make yourself comfortable.”
If her words couldn’t be heard, she hoped whoever was inside the suit could read the English signs inside the room that reminded herself and anyone else entering from outside of their safety obligations before accessing the rest of the building. She gestured toward the easy-clean but comfortable seating along the wall. Food and beverages weren’t allowed, but there were games and television to pass the time. The gloved hand gave her a thumbs up, and then pressed a padded finger to the side of the helmet, flipping its silver mirrored lining upward. Charley had to catch her jaw before it fell to the floor.
He—and he was definitely a man, though the possibility of being a hybrid still remained—had a gorgeous face behind the helmet’s clear front shield. Thick, dark eyebrows and an angular jawline framed the dimples that poked into his naturally tanned cheeks as he grinned at her, waving again. Charley was suddenly overcome with the feeling that this stranger in a spacesuit had traveled across the stars, light years from Earth, just to warm her soul. She sucked in a breath and tried to dismiss the thought, reminding herself he was just arriving for an assignment.
The suited man’s hair was covered inside the protective cap over his head. For all she knew, he could be bald underneath, but decided it didn’t matter because his face was beautiful. Charley self-consciously pulled a hand through her own hair, and she could feel the greasiness from the failure to wash it the previous night. Who am I trying to impress? she remembered musing to herself, not wanting to leave the comfort of her bed. Never had she regretted her laziness before.
Charley tried not to get ahead of herself with dreamy notions as she went to the kitchen, leaving the stranger to wait out the decontamination requirement. She set out mugs and filled the kettle so she could offer him coffee once he was cleared to venture inside. She had to remind herself she didn’t know anything about this unexpected visitor, nor what the purpose of his visit was. But it was hard to suppress her hopes. Charley was a single woman on Chionia, an ice planet, surrounded by married and otherwise unappealing or unavailable colleagues. Six years felt like a lifetime in solitude, and work, however much she enjoyed it or buried herself in it, wasn’t a fulfilling substitution for the comfort of companionship.
When she returned to check on him, he had already removed his spacesuit and now stood in a pair of jeans. He was in the process of pulling a cream sweater over his black thermal top when she approached the window. Though he was clearly not a body builder, as there were no muscles bulging against the taut insulated fabric, his average frame was not by any means disagreeable. She also noticed that he had thick, almost black hair which he smoothed out after tugging his sweater down. As he turned around, she quickly averted her eyes.
Hitting the comms button, she said, “Sorry to be a nuisance, but can I see some identification?”
He tried to talk, but there was no sound, and she pointed her finger toward the communication box on the inside of the room. It took him a second, but he found the button on his side. He gave her a sheepish grimace as he pressed on it.
“Of course, hang on just a second.” He lifted his forefinger up to the window and hurried over to a bag he’d brought in with him.
He pressed a badge with his photo against the glass. Charley noted the hologram security seal for the same Astral Defense and Exploration organization she was employed by. Although her division was on the Exploration side, she worked with people from both. She noted the name printed underneath his photograph: Captain Seung-Hyeon Park. He was most certainly not part of her division…and she was also certain that he had mistaken her building for the Defense outpost, which was a considerable distance further and down a completely different road. She smiled at him.
“You’re in the wrong place, Captain.”
His face paled as he blinked at her and pulled his badge away from the window absent-mindedly. Charley smiled again and unlocked the interior door. As she leaned against the door, holding it open, the captain rubbed the back of his neck as he stared at her, not knowing what to say, and she laughed.
“Look,” she said. “You’d better just come in and get comfortable. We’re about to get pummeled by a snowstorm and you’ll never make it to your post in that little van. I’d be surprised if the Humvee could manage, either.”