Everything is out of place

Chess games over the slow satellite network were one of the few things that kept Leti distracted when she had nothing to do during the perpetual polar day. Despite her busy work as a lab technician, she managed to find free time to go online and transmit her next move. Despite being somewhat distracted and not having as much patience or practice as her opponents, they knew that a woman with nothing else to do in the middle of the north pole had more than enough free time to think. Still, she was biting her nails as she debated whether to trade her knight or sacrifice her rook for an almost insignificant advantage fifteen moves later. She wasn’t sure if her opponent saw the same moves as her, or if their ability to analyze the board was on a plane that Leti was unable to comprehend, and that overwhelmed her to the point of nauseating her. She took time to breathe and relax, telling herself over and over again that she could do it, that she had already done it several times, that she was making herself known on the network and that she didn’t have to worry about anything.

That frigid morning when Alex knocked on the door, Leti was pacing around her cramped room, wiping her sweaty hands on her shirt. She was lucky not to share a room with anyone, because that way she could have her clothes and other belongings, her notebooks, the scribbled chess opening repertoires and food wrappers scattered everywhere. When she played chess online, the last thing she worried about was cleaning the four walls that confined her for over a year. She had woken up that morning because she dreamed that she had lost the game she had started thirteen days ago, becoming the joke of the club she had joined with such enthusiasm. Once she woke up, she began to tell herself over and over again that if she wasn’t nervous, she wouldn’t have nightmares like that one. What she needed was to clear up her head a bit, breathe an air that wasn’t filled with the smell of her unwashed clothes or her own sweat. She leaned in front of the window, seeking solace in that white and desolate landscape that seemed enchanting to her in the first few days, when she was just settling into the routine of the scientific base, naive and full of energy. Now in those days all that white evoked in her doom and madness.

The truth is that everyone was starting to go crazy, each in their own way. Leti got involved in the eternal games of chess, looking for any excuse to avoid the already few social gatherings, and instead began to review strategies that, more than preparing her for her next games, convinced her that she was doing something productive with her leisure time. She never believed that she was that kind of person, because once the fact of being in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet ceased to be a novelty, and the routine that she shared with the best minds dedicated to the study of the planet’s ice caps became overwhelming, she decided that chess would keep her same. One day Jim, one of her colleagues, after not having slept two nights in order to finish his report in time, left the base complaining about the heating system, saying that it was too hot. Half an hour later they found him in the middle of the snow, naked, with purple feet. It was a miracle they didn’t have to amputate his fingers.

She checked her small shelf full of books and notes. There was nothing new there. There was nothing in her room that made her think of anything other than chess. She remembered how excited she was when she first arrived at the base. That smile slowly withered, neglecting the cleanliness of her room and her own hygiene once she got used to living with the rest of the researchers. Now they were like a family that hated and loved each other at the same time, yearning for togetherness and privacy simultaneously. She turned to look at the computer. The amber cursor was blinking, waiting for her next move. No, she was not going to be able to forget about her game locked in there. She needed to get out, but not like that! She hadn’t bathed or dressed and was worried about what the others would think when they saw her coming out of the room looking like that. She was worried about what Alex would think.

Why was Alex in her thoughts? She remembered what had happened two nights ago. She covered her face with her hands and screamed to herself. “Why did I do it?” She lamented. The cold, the boredom, the loneliness that surrounded her made her accept the beer that Alex offered her that night, when almost everyone was asleep, except those two poor souls that wandered through the base without knowing what to do. They sat on the sofa to drink and talk, complaining about their workload, their own loneliness and the madness that surrounded them. They continued to drink, ignoring the passage of time, and soon found themselves huddled in the couch, surrounded by empty bottles. Leti let herself go until she felt the warmth of Alex’s hands running across her body, making her come to her senses. She ran away without saying goodbye and locked herself in her room, and she hadn’t come out of there since then. “Now what are you going to do?” she wondered. How she was going to confront Alex after what happened that night was another of the many things that tormented her. Her head was a whirlpool of thought longing to see something more than those four walls that oppressed her.

The truth was that deep down, Leti craved Alex’s hugs and kisses, although she didn’t want admit it. Love was the last thing she imagined finding so far from home. Sharing such reduced space was bound to cause episodes like that. So to forget all that and pretend it never happened, she went back to her desk and scanned the chessboard one more time, hoping to find the perfect move so that she could finally relax and wait for her opponent’s response for the rest of the day. She was about to type in her next move when she heard someone knock on the door.

Silence. She didn’t move, waiting for someone to speak on the other side of the door. A million imaginary scenarios came to her mind. Was Alex looking for her? Anyone worried about her confinement? Or did she just imagine that noise to have an excuse to go outside?

“Leti, are you awake?”

What had he come for? Had he finally decided to talk about what she had been avoiding during those days? Her room was such a mess, she was not going to be able to let him in. And she also couldn’t go outside and let him see her like that.

“I need to talk with you. It’s urgent.”

A chill ran through her body. Yeah, he wanted to talk about that. Alex knocking on the door, the computer waiting for her next move. She didn’t know what to do. She decided to lie down on her bed and make as little noise as possible. Pretending to be asleep was the best solution to her problems. She didn’t know when she had started behaving like that. As she had already said many times, it was the confinement what was driving everyone insane.

“Please, I know you’re awake, and maybe you don’t want to talk right now but… I need to talk.”

Leti screamed and got up from the bed, ran to the door and opened it.

“I’m sorry for what happened that night. I didn’t mean to do it.” She said with the blandest tone possible.

She closed the door and hid under the blankets again. She didn’t hear an answer. He was probably gone. She sighed and relaxed.

“Can we talk about that later? There’s something more pressing. I can’t find Rigel anywhere.”

She cursed herself over and over again. All because she hadn’t asked what he wanted first.

“Did you already look for him in the lab? Search well, sometimes he falls asleep in the warehouse.” She told him as she got dressed.

“I already looked for him all over the base. I think he went out again.”

“Again? How many ice cores does he need? We have so many!”

“According to him they are not enough.”

Leti opened the door and looked at Alex. He was just as unkempt has she was. Well, at least he wasn’t going to judge her on her looks, and she wouldn’t either.

“Do you want me to go look for him?” Leti asked. “He doesn’t listen to me, and you know him better than me. Can’t you go instead?”

“I went out last time.”

She didn’t want to leave the base that day, and couldn’t understand how Rigel could just go outside like nothing to drill through the ice. Maybe it was his way of dealing with confinement. Everyone went crazy in their own way.

“Okay,” she grumbled.

She pushed aside all those thoughts that were plaguing here as she put on her bright orange suit and opened the door. It was not windy. Still, she could already feel the polar air cool her face. It was the best way to wake up, after a hot cup of coffee that she didn’t bother to sweeten. She turned on the radio and went down the metal stairs to the garage. Inside she started the snowmobile, and she put on her goggles and gloves.

Driving across the polar plain was a way to distract herself. But that morning was different. The white horizon had turned into a huge board on which the chess pieces moved along with her. She visualized moves in her mind as she drove. It was hard to pay attention to the map when she had giant chess pieces in front of her. Her subconscious analyzed the arrangement of the pieces while Leti’s busy conscious mind drove in a straight line. She found an orange blur in the distance, and began to slow down.

Rigel was fixated on his job in the middle of nowhere. If it weren’t for the coordinates he had written down on the map he hung on his messy cubicle they wouldn’t have been able to find him. The base could barely be seen from there.

“Rigel! What are you doing!”

“Huh? I told you people I was going outside to get more samples.”

The drill rotated slowly, penetrating the layers of ice that had accumulated over who knows how many years.

“But we have more than enough in the warehouse. Enough samples to test for an entire season.”

Rigel shook his head.

“Not enough. I need more. Each sample is different. You can’t tell the story of the entire north pole with a dozen samples.”

Leti remembered the first words she heard from Rigel when she met him. She struck him as a likable and very professional person when she found him in the lab, studying one of the first ice samples he had collected. “You know, each ice sheet contained in this core represents one year. One hundred of eighty days and one hundred and eighty nights. The deeper you drill, the further you will go back in time. The history of the entire planet in my hands. Fascinating, isn’t it?”

“Hey, don’t you think it’s very hot today?” He said.

That Rigel was long gone. Now he almost didn’t talk to anyone anymore, and his laboratory was in such bad shape that no one went in. And every time they complained about that, he became aggressive and unpredictable. Leti, Alex, and the rest of the team came to the conclusion that leaving him alone with his work was the option that brought less problems.

“How long have you been there?”

“I already lost count. But when I got here the sun hadn’t risen yet.”

“Rigel, it’s summer. The sun hasn’t set in twenty days.”

“Oh, it’s true. But when I got here it was dark.”

He went on preparing the ice cores as if what he had just said made perfect sense. Leti couldn’t believe it. She took off one of her gloves and touched Rigel’s face.

“You’re burning.”

“I know, that’s why I’m telling you that I want to take off my coat.”

“No! Don’t you get it?! You have a fever!”

He collected the freshly excavated ice cores and loaded them on the sled, then he bent down to disconnect the drilling equipment.

“Oh yeah? And how are you so sure?” He said when he got up. “Because I feel perfect…”

And fell to the ground.

Leti tried to reanimate him, without much success. He still had a pulse and was breathing. With some effort she moved him and laid him down on the sled where Rigel had carried all his drilling equipment. She hooked the sled to the snowmobile and went back the way she came. She would occasionally keep an eye on him to make sure he was still tied up. She ordered through the radio to prepare a bed to treat his fever.

Leti was biting her nails again. But chess was no longer a concern. She kept an eye on Rigel, who kept turning in his bed, shaking and sweating, muttering about ice cores and dating techniques. It was a feverish obsession that consumed him even in his dreams.

“He looks pretty bad.” Alex said, leaning against the wall. “We can only wait for this fever to drop.”

It wasn’t just any fever. Leti was sure it wasn’t some ancient virus or bacteria that had been released from the ice. Rigel joked a lot about the remote possibility of accidentally releasing a terrible disease that would wipe out humanity. But that didn’t happen. His fever was the product of madness and confinement. It was the work of his own mind. Alex didn’t believe in her theory, instead trying to find a more rational explanation. But not even the base doctor could find any evidence of this.

“We’re going crazy.” The doctor concluded as he placed ice packs on Rigel’s forehead.

Later, after taking a bath and resuming the work she had ignored for two days, Leti returned to her room. The computer was still there, waiting for her next move. She spent three more hours with her sight fixed on the screen, thinking, calculating, without daring typing in her move. She was tired of worrying about a stupid game that was the cause of all her problems and worries, a stupid game that made her bite her nails and imagine giant pieces sliding across the ice. She saw them in dreams, in her books, in the coffee, on the walls and even on the roof, when she spent hours lying on the bed unable to sleep. She disconnected the computer and threw it on the floor, tore up her notes and books with training exercises while cursing the day she decided to join the chess club.

After hearing all that noise, Alex ran to her bedroom.

“I want to get out of here.” She said with a trembling voice. “I can’t take this anymore.”

He took her hands and tried to calm her down. He looked around the room and didn’t take long to understand that like Rigel and most people in the base, the confinement’s effects were getting more extreme.

“We have a few days left. This is almost over.”

“I don’t think I will play chess again in my life. It will only bring me bad memories of this place.”

“And what good memories are you going to keep?”

They looked at each other and smiled.