Story Excerpt


by Suzanne Palmer



Lena stuck her head through the open door of his office. She was wearing her neon green parka, the cowl pulled tight around the oval of her face. Her cheeks were turning a bright, angry red, and he could almost feel cold still radiating off her; she must have come straight here from outside. “Something’s coming up!” she said. He paused his tablet, midway through yet another grant form, and frowned at her. He hadn’t even gotten to requisitions, security logs, or his post-lunch pot of coffee yet, much less feeling ready for guessing games. “What’s come up?” he asked.

“No, coming up,” she said. She stepped in and dumped his weather gear on the extra chair in one corner of the small room. “I couldn’t find your boots.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked. It was a balmy -10C out, not counting wind chill, and as much as she seemed immune to the weather, he had no intention of leaving the station for anything short of an emergency until it was at least single-digits positive.

“A walker,” she said.

“What? It’s too early for them to be moving south. Where is it going?”

“It’s about three kilometers out and heading right toward Jettyrock.”

“Shit,” Ray said, barely managing to keep his coffee from hitting the floor as he scrambled out of his chair and around his desk to grab his gear.

Lena raised an eyebrow. “Why are you wearing your boots indoors?” she asked.

“In the six standard years, one hundred forty-eight and a half days since I was assigned this post, my toes haven’t been warm even once,” he said. “It’s the only thing I envy the damned Yetis.”

He took the boots off long enough to pull on his thick, heated snowpants. Lena helped him get his coat on, then he followed her, feeling ten kilos heavier, into the hall and down toward Icebreak Station’s nearest surface door.

Lena had been on Erax ten years longer than him, and she’d probably be here another ten after he was gone. She should’ve been made the surface administrator instead of some middle-aged button-pusher whose career had permanently stalled one promotion (he liked to think) short of incompetence, but she’d flatly refused. She’d said she didn’t want to have to get along with people, which made her ideally suited to be his security chief, not to mention a friend.

“Who spotted it?” he asked.

“Kenna,” she answered. “They’re out doing soundings on the ice sheet and she picked it up.”

Kenna was one of their small crew of xenobiologists, trying to catalog what tiny percentage of Eraxian life was within their reach. “Good,” he said. “She’s discreet.”

“That’s why I didn’t call you over the station comms: too many eavesdroppers,” she said. “But . . .”


“Hudson was working tech on her detail.”

Well, shit, he thought. “So half the southern pole is heading out onto the damned ice already?”

“Anyone that’s awake and sober and can find their pants, yeah,” she said. “We still have a head start on most of them, if you can get your ass moving.”

“Get Firo and Firn and meet me at the rock. Put word out on the comms for everyone to stay the hell back or I’ll set the dogs on them.”

“Delighted to,” Lena said, and took off at a run. He stepped through the inner door, grabbed goggles off the rack, then braced himself before opening the outer door and stepping into the wind. Tiny, high-velocity particles of ice stung at him, like bees of an angry winter god. This, as he reminded himself every morning in the mirror, is why he kept his beard.

He crunched along the packed snow path to the charging shed where he undocked a skiff and headed due north toward the edge of the ice sheet. It had only just begun its spring recession, and if it were any later he’d have had to worry about cracks and crevasses where the edge was starting to calve, but for now all the scans showed it solid up to where the hulking outcropping they’d named Jettyrock jutted into the bright blue water. At the height of summer, when the land briefly emerged from its smothering white cover, the rock stood freestanding off the shore, breaking the waves into a deafening spray. Right now, it barely touched the ocean. There had been winters where it had entirely vanished beneath the ice, to emerge again from the churning summer melt unscathed.

If there were ships, it would have been the perfect place for a lighthouse, but both the surface and the depths of the planet-circling sea were strictly off-limits by treaty with the alien Oceanics. They don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to them, he’d been told by the local SystemOps Liaison and at least a half-dozen others while they were transporting him down on a drop ship for the very first time. They stay out of our way, and we stay way the hell out of theirs. The ocean is theirs and theirs alone. You need to cross? You take a fucking plane or an orbital hop. You wanna dip your toes in? Too bad. Just stick to the agreement, and everything will go smooth as ice.

Ray blamed the cold for freezing what little curiosity he might once have had about the Oceanics right out of him. As it was, the three to five hundred humans on the planet’s surface that he was responsible for made enough trouble on their own.

He was halfway to the waterline when Lena came up behind him; two gigantic gen-engineered balls of white fur were racing alongside her, leaving low contrails of kicked-up powder behind them as they easily kept pace with her skiff. There were a few other vehicles out, most behind them, a few ahead, but as everyone noticed the icedogs they fell back and let Ray and Lena go on alone. No one wanted to mess with a dog the size of a small bear and with the speed of a horse, especially when its circle of respect toward humans was very, very small.

He slowed as his skiff bumped over cracks and jumbled ice blocks, until it finally gave way up onto smooth stone. Lena pulled up and stopped behind him, and the dogs settled into the snow beside her, chests heaving and tongues hanging out, looking pleased with themselves. “Now what?” she asked.

“We should call SystemOps for instructions,” a voice broke in on the channel. It was one of the many burdens of this place—because there were so few other mechanisms of oversight available to the surveillance-happy EarthGov, and no one, not even Ray, was trusted in their eyes—that their only comm system was public access.

It didn’t make him feel charitable with information toward them, in return. Which, he knew, was probably the attitude that got him stuck here to start with.

“I’m the surface admin,” Ray said. “When one of them leaves the surface for orbit, sure, I’ll call ’em. Until then, this is my responsibility.”

“But we’re not supposed to initiate contact—”

“I’m not initiating a damned thing,” Ray growled. “But I’m not going to run away and hide if they’ve suddenly decided they want to talk to us. Until we know how the hell this is going to go, everybody should stay off the comms unless you’ve got an emergency. That especially means you, Hudson.”

The dome-shaped head of the walker was cresting out of the water, mottled blue and purple with a living fuzz of tiny, thread-like ocean creatures Kenna’s team had dubbed aquamoss. Two bright lights were mounted on the front, the intensity enough to make Ray throw a gloved hand up to shield his eyes. Whether by coincidence, or because it noticed the gesture, the lights dimmed to a bearable glow.

He’d seen plenty of walkers before, but never up close. They came out onto the southern lands, outside the areas allotted to humans, when the ice melted enough to reveal the planet’s meager tundra. Sometimes traveling solo, sometimes in groups of up to a dozen, the walkers were a little over fifteen meters tall and vaguely humanoid in shape with spindly arms and legs and a thick oval torso, like leftover invader robots from some old Earth comic wandering a frozen wasteland. Scans suggested they were made of a composite ceramic polymer. Three wide fins were evenly spaced along their backs, some sort of propulsion units mounted at their bases, but beyond that basic configuration none looked quite the same as any other, and the more detail-oriented walker-watchers kept notes trying to track their appearances individually.

In addition to the aquamoss, greenish-blue star-shapes of various sizes dotted the robots’ larger surfaces, usually in clusters, with the occasional lone red that had been Kenna’s never-ending topic of excited conversation when she spotted her first one late the previous fall.

Typically the walkers moved upright, but a few would move horizontally with all four limbs on the ground. The admin before him had been a previously undiagnosed arachnophobe, and despite the number of legs being categorically wrong, eventually had to be transferred out on an emergency medical pass.

Aside from wild imaginations run amok, it was a peaceful, carefully separated coexistence.

Except a walker had just decided otherwise.

Ray let out a deep breath and watched the brief puff of warm air dissipate into the cold around his face. “What do you think?” he asked Lena.

“I think it’s bad news,” she answered. “But it also probably won’t be boring, so that’s something.”

“Anything like this ever happen before?”

“Not that I know of. At least not while I’ve been here. I mean, someone must’ve talked to them, somewhere along the line, because we have the treaty and all the damned rules about surveillance and surface traffic, but it must’ve been a long time ago.”

“You think I should have called SystemOps?”

“Naw. Fuck them,” she said. “Here it comes.”

The walker was rising out of the water as it climbed, until it stood on dry stone above the reach of the breakers. In its arms it carried a pod-shaped container. It set this down on the rock in front of it, and stood there unmoving, waiting. The icedogs crouched, growling low, but didn’t either rush or give ground. “Good dogs. Now stay,” he said, and patted each of them on the head in turn.

“If it steps on me, or crams me into a giant toothy maw, you’re in charge,” he told Lena.

“What if I refuse?”

“Then give the job to anyone except Hudson,” Ray said, and, squaring his shoulders, he went out to meet the walker.

He wished he’d paid more attention to various first-contact news items and docos, over the years. Should’ve at least left me a damned manual, he thought, but when had he even looked at whatever they’d left him that wasn’t immediate survival material?

When he was about a third of the way toward it, the walker crouched lower on its legs. If that was preparatory to a leap or some other hostile action, Ray figured he already didn’t stand a chance—even if he dodged, the frigid waters would only buy him a very slightly less quick end—but he appreciated that it no longer towered quite so high over him.

He stopped about six meters from the walker. Slowly, it flexed one arm, and set a fist-sized sphere down atop the pod. There was a blue optical iris on the front of the sphere that blinked on, and the sphere uncurled six small legs of its own. Okay, Ray thought, I’m starting to see the validity of the spider thing now.

“You are Ray Landham in self, the surface administrator?” the sphere asked, almost as much statement as question, the strangely accented and lilting words still perfectly understandable anglero. Not the Greetings, Human! he’d expected at all, and that was as far as his expectations had gotten.

Ray cleared his throat against the cold, his lips dry. “I am,” he answered.

“We are Ajr en Logo,” the remote said. “There is a matter we must discuss. It is a breach of many protocols between our peoples that we are here, and while we have undertaken this action by our own choice, you have not so consented. Do you wish us to leave now?”

“What’s in the pod?” Ray asked.

“The matter that brought us to you,” the spider answered.

Well, Ray thought, I’m in charge, so to hell with anyone who doesn’t like my choices. “Then I suppose we should discuss it,” he said.

Behind the remote, the walker stood up and stepped backward with a fluid, almost noiseless grace, moving down and away until it disappeared again beneath the roiling waves.

“We will require privacy,” the remote said, when the walker was gone. “And you will need to summon your physician, or someone who has a knowledgeable practice with your dead.”

Ray glanced at the pod, which was, now that he thought about it, very much coffin-sized, and barely kept himself from taking a step back. Instead, he tapped his comms, knowing everyone within the hemisphere was listening. “Lena, can you go get a skitter with a lift arm?”

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“No, probably not,” Ray answered, his eyes on the robot spider, as it single-eyed him back.

*   *   *

There wasn’t an official morgue on-planet, but after a rash of closely spaced suicides-by-weather several winters previously, Dr. Noyes had insisted on a small one being set up; Ray had requisitioned a small food storage shed and had it dropped just behind Icebreak Station. Originally designed to keep perishable food frozen through the summer, it had worked well for keeping their occasional corpse on ice until either someone claimed it them and paid the transport fee or, far more often, they got permission to incinerate the remains and forget they ever existed.

 Lena had the pod moved there, and two of the more reliably untalkative station maintenance workers, Pine and Fairbanks, helped her and Ray wrestle it through the door. For its size, it wasn’t too heavy. Heavy enough for a body, though.

 It took less than an hour, which was more than enough time for rumors to fly through the admin station and nearby Snowtown. Ray’s favorite was that the Oceanics had gifted him a pod filled with gold and diamonds as part of some nefarious smuggling scheme that was being embellished with further imaginative details by the minute, and none of which seemed to take into account how much more cleverness and motivation it would require than he had ever in his life demonstrated. His least favorite was the rumor that the pod contained a body, because of course it did.

Dr. Noyes was already at the morgue, breathing in his hands to warm them up. His hair was disheveled, and his thick lab coat was on inside-out. “What do we got?” he asked.

The remote, which had ridden the pod quietly in, stood up on its multiple legs and turned its eye to him. Dr. Noyes jumped backward, crashing into the cart of instruments behind him. “Holy fucking hell!” he shouted.

“We’ve got a body we need you to examine,” Ray said, reaching out to steady him, and catching the faint, stale odor of alcohol on the man’s breath.

“Three bodies,” the remote corrected.

“. . . Three?” Ray asked.

“Two are very small.”

“Children?!” Noyes exclaimed.

“I apologize,” the remote said. “I do not mean children. I mean incomplete bodies, only small portions thereof.”

“Uh . . .” Noyes said, pointing at the remote. “What is that, and why is it talking?”

Lena crossed her arms across her chest and leaned back against a wall. “We woke you up, didn’t we?”

“Yes,” he said. “You know I get a lot of late-night calls. I came right over when you summoned me. Now someone please tell me what the fuck is that thing? Something new sent down from orbit to torment us?”

“This is Azure um, ah, Logi . . .” Ray said.

“I am a remote unit of Ajr en Logo,” the remote said. “We dwell in the ocean.”

“No shit?” Noyes perked up. “I thought we weren’t allowed to talk to you. Who’s in trouble, you or us?”

“The only people in trouble at the moment are the bodies in the pod,” Ray said. “As far as I know we’re not missing anybody.”

“No reports of missing workers from any of the mining camps, or unsolved disappearances from the permanent settlements here in the south for at least eight years,” Lena said. “Have to double-check with the north, but they haven’t reported anyone gone on a one-way hike either. Wrong season up there.”

“A one-way hike?” the remote asked.

“We get people who walk off into the snow to suicide, particularly during the sunless weeks at mid-winter, but eventually we find their bodies when the ice thaws,” Ray explained. “I suppose that must seem odd.”

“Darkness is also a problem for some of our people,” the remote answered. “It is a constant oppression year round in the depths, and affects some more than others. We adapt as best we can, but we did not evolve for the darkness.”

Noyes blinked. “But you’re robots,” he said.

“This is a remote extension to facilitate this conversation,” the remote explained. “We are both a biological and artificial people. My bio self is Ajr, and my constructed self is Logo. We are together Ajr en Logo. We remain not far from this location, below the water surface so that we are not conspicuously present.”

“Huh,” Ray said.

“Some kind of techno-symbiote life? Did we know this?” Dr. Noyes asked.

“I figured they had to be biological, anyway. Who else would build the robots to start with? But can we focus here, folks? Bodies, remember?” Lena looked to the remote. “What can you tell us, before we open it?”

“The bodies are individually sealed in sterile vacuum bags, and have been kept at well below freezing for the sake of what preservation was possible. The first two spent some time in the water before we discovered them. We assumed the cause of death to be drowning, and for obvious reasons—and the extremely degraded condition of the bodies—we looked no further. We estimate they had been in the water for ten to fifteen days each,” the remote said. “The first was found about four of your standard months ago, the second two. The third was only in the water for a day when we found it, and this was two days ago. It has changed our perception of the nature of the deaths.”

“How so?”

“You should observe for yourselves,” the remote said.

“Now that’s the first thing that’s made sense,” Noyes said. He pulled some nitrile gloves off the cart behind him, and snapped them on as he looked back and forth between Ray and Lena. “Anyone want out before I crack the pod open?”

“Uh, yeah, me,” Ray said. “Lena, you staying?”

“Yep,” she said. “Could be interesting.”

“Take this thing with you,” Noyes said, and pointed at the remote.

“I may be of use in answering questions,” the remote said.

“No. You creep me the fuck out, so you go,” he said. “If I have questions, I’ll ask when I’m done.”

“I’d rather this situation stay off the comms,” Ray said. “Call me when you’re done, and we’ll talk details face to face.”

“Okay,” Noyes said. He glanced toward Lena. “I don’t suppose someone could bring me some coffee?”

Lena snorted and didn’t budge from where she was.

“. . . Okay then, fine,” Noyes said. He grabbed a scalpel from the cart behind him and brandished it in one fist. “Things you can’t unsee in five, four, three—”

Ray bailed out quickly, the remote on his heels. “Uh,” he said, looking down at the remote, “I guess we should go to my office?” He didn’t add: so I can get out from under his hundreds of kilos of snowgear, except his boots.

Further thoughts about what he should do next were interrupted by Dutton racing around the corner, weaving erratically. “Ray. RAY!” he shouted, coming up so close to Ray he was afraid the man might knock him over. “What the hell is going on? Woodside says we’re being invaded!”

“Not that I know of,” Ray said.

Dutton’s pupils were tiny pinpricks. “Ray, be careful, there’s a giant spider behind you,” he whispered, loud enough that he might as well have yelled it.

Ray looked around, then shrugged. “You’re hallucinating it, Dutch,” he said. “There’s nothing here. Maybe you should go back to Snowtown and sleep off whatever you’re on. Unless you want me to call Dr. Noyes and have you officially, on-the-record chem-scanned?”

“. . . Okay, no, I’m good, Ray. I’m good,” Dutton said, and backed away down the hall, his eyes roving between the spider and Ray’s face. When he reached a corner, he turned and fled.

“That was a strange and incomprehensible exchange,” the remote said.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Ray said.

“We do not know the any of it,” the remote said.

“Dutton is an addict,” Ray said. “His family has enough money that instead of him ending up in a labor camp for it, they had him posted here, hoping a year or two in the deep-freeze would clear up any desire for drugs. Instead, while utterly useless at nearly every job we assign him—at the moment he’s laundry coordinator, which I used to think no one could fail at—he seems talented at finding ways to brew up new chemicals to feed his high. It’s only a matter of time before he hits on something sufficiently fatal that we can’t save his ass in time, but if we’re lucky he won’t take half the settlement with him when he does.”

There was silence for a while as the remote followed him through the short corridor to the administrative wing. Ray noted the faint peek of dim light from the top of the arched ceiling; the snow must have finally melted enough for hints of sunlight to leak through. Spring indeed. Soon he’d be busy with the inevitable leaks.

At last the remote spoke up. “There have been incidences of substance need, as you describe it, among our people, but we have found that it is at least as much driven by our life code as habit and circumstance, and correcting that component often, if not always, resolves the matter. Is that not an option among your people?”

Ray reached the end of the tube and paused to listen. He could hear people ahead, outside his office. “We don’t modify ourselves that way,” he answered, trying to think how to reach the safety of his desk without having to engage a small mob. “I mean, you start tinkering with your fundamental genetic code, where does it end? Not being yourself, maybe not even being human anymore.”

“There are your people you call Yeti,” the remote said. “They are very modified.”

“Naw, but they’re not human,” Ray said. “Humanoid, yeah, and there’s probably a fair bit of our code that’s been added in there to make them useful, but it’s not the same thing. They’re not very smart—they can’t even talk—but they’re sturdy and useful as hell. Look, I don’t want to be rude, but do you mind if I put you in my pocket? There’s a crowd of people ahead and it’d be a lot easier if I don’t have to explain you.”

“I am uncertain of the concept ‘pocket’ in this context,” the remote said.

“I’ll show you,” Ray said, and picked up the remote. He’d expected it to be cold, but it was slightly warm to the touch. Its legs retracted into its body as soon as he lifted it off the floor, and he slipped it into an outer pocket of his parka, already thinking how that would look in the history records: worst diplomatic faux pas ever.

And he’d respond, see, should’ve left me a manual.

Taking a deep breath, he turned the corner and found seven people waiting for him, all very carefully on the far side of the lobby from where his office was. Lying on the floor directly in front of his door, head on his paws but eyes intent on the crowd, was Firo.

I owe you one, Lena, he thought with gratitude.

The icedog raised his head as Ray walked around the corner, and he went straight up to the dog and used both hands to scratch his head between his ears. “Good dog,” he said.

“Ray!” Hudson—of course Hudson would be first—separated himself from the crowd and dared a few steps toward him until the low rumble of a warning growl from Firo stopped him in his tracks. “What the hell is going on? What did the Oceanics give you?”

“It brought us back our dead,” Ray said. That much was gonna get out regardless. “I don’t know who, but not anybody from the south. I don’t have any answers yet.”

“What did it say to you?” Ella Peakham called out from behind Hudson. She was one of the southern mining safety inspectors, and not someone he’d ever seen smile. Now was no exception. “What did it tell you?”

“It said, ‘Here, take your dead back, stop dropping them on our heads,’” Ray answered.


“No,” he said. “But it might as well have. I’ll make an announcement over the comms when we know more, or if we get an identification. In the meantime, I have work to do, and none of you need to be here in Admin. Go home.”

Without thinking, he wrapped his hand around the sphere in his pocket, almost taking it out and rolling it toward the crowd for Firo. At the last second he remembered that it wasn’t, after all, one of the icedog’s toy balls. Okay, now that would be the worst faux pas, he thought.

“Stay,” he told the dog instead, smiled brightly at the group who unanimously scowled back at him, and slipped into his office and shut the door.

Inside, he pulled the sphere out of his pocket and set it on his desk, then hauled himself out of his parka and snow pants. On those rare occasions he had official visitors from offworld, he’d wondered what sort of impression they’d take from his office. His desk was a battered, decrepit thing that looked like it had fallen through the atmosphere and barely survived; that he kept it—had, in fact, moved it up here from the bowels of one of the storage bunkers—he thought made people uncertain about his own stability, and he liked it for just that reason. His chair, on the other hand, was a top-model executive smartchair that mostly understood exactly what he needed to be comfortable from one moment to the next, and it said: I am the authority here. He liked that too.

Most revealing, visitors must think, would be the wall-sized panoramic screen of the surface of Earth’s Moon, clearly shot from atop the dome of one of the lunar cities, that slid slowly in repetitive circles with a half-ghost Earth, not far from the horizon, the only definitive thing to mark that the image was repeating. It spoke volumes of love for a left-behind home, a stark nostalgia that must, stuck here on this icy world far away, hit like a blow. Ray expected it made his visitors sympathetic, slightly pitying, slightly smug at feeling they knew a corner of his heart.

The truth was the panorama had been left behind by his arachnophobic predecessor, and he had never been to Earth’s Moon, nor taken the disaster tour of Earth itself.

What, though, would an ocean-dwelling alien make (or mis-make) of any of it? It was beyond Ray to even attempt a guess, knowing as little as he did about his guest. That the remote seemed to know a lot more about him was discomfiting. “You speak anglero very well,” he said, as the remote rose up on its extruded legs and did a perfect, slow, three-sixty spin around before the optical iris settled on him again.

“We speak many of the diasporic human dialects,” the remote said, “as well as a few of the Earth-remaining, and a number of alien languages.”

Ray raised an eyebrow. “All that, while living under an ocean?”

“There is always much to do in the manner of work, but collectively little in the way of entertainment,” the remote said. “We regret this awkward fact, but it is a truth that your open channel programming is far, far more interesting than any of our own. Especially popular among the dwellers is ‘Starlost!’”

Ray laughed, and dumped himself into his chair. “An alien culture, learning everything there is to know about humanity by watching our vid operas. That seems . . . fitting, I guess. You call yourself dwellers?”

 “Some of us,” the remote answered. “Some drift the world ocean, some dwell in the deep cities, some do both. It is a matter of lifestyle: solitude and exploration, or gregariousness and stability. Neither is a perfect life.”

“I take it you’re a drifter, by that description,” Ray said.

“Yes. One advantage of independence is the ability to make poor or unpopular decisions that you are willing to own the outcomes for, such as approaching you.”

“Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission?” Ray said.

“That is a wise summation,” it said.

“So, you—the you I’m speaking to—you’re Ajr? And your robot is Logo?”

“We are both,” the remote said. “Mostly, it is Ajr who speaks directly, but when Ajr is occupied, Logo will speak. You have spoken to both, but we speak with one voice. That is plain, yes?”

No, Ray thought. It was confusing as hell. But hey, aliens, right? At least we’re not stuck trying to communicate through interpretive dance.

“So okay, I guess I get that,” Ray said. “While we’re waiting on Dr. Noyes to come give us the bad news, anything you want to talk about? I feel like I should offer to get you something to eat, but obviously that’s pointless, since you’re not actually here. And I don’t even know what your people eat.”

“We have aquatic gardens, which are frames that float below the water’s surface, where the turbulence is reduced and the temperature more stable but sunlight is still able to penetrate. There is a full engineered ecosystem in those frames, and we sustainably harvest what we need from them. It is one of the many tasks of the drifters.”

“Are these frames enormous rectangles, couple of kilometers long, maybe a third as wide?” Ray asked.


“We’ve detected them as geometric areas of unusual biological density, usually clustered near the equator, but spreading out when the waters are warmer. No one knew what they were.”

“Our farms,” the remote said, “It is—”

Whatever the alien was going to tell him, it was lost to the sound of a loud bark. Then Lena and Noyes crowded into Ray’s office. Firo tried to follow, but there was no room, so he sat down again mournfully on the floor. The lobby behind him was deserted.

Both Lena and Noyes looked drained. Noyes rubbed at his chin for a moment, then fixed his gaze directly on the remote. “Okay, I have a couple of questions. First, did your people do anything to the bodies before you brought them to us?” he asked.

“No,” the remote said. “Other than a cursory examination before sealing them in bags, everything you have observed is how we found them.”

“Where were they found?” Noyes asked.

“Here, hang on,” Ray said. He tapped at the moonscape, and it switched over to a map of Erax.

One of the remote’s legs stretched out impossibly long and tapped the map. “Approximately here, I believe,” it said. “Our maps are three-dimensional representations of the ocean, and do not tend to concern the land above except to mark the ebb and flow of the ice.”

The spot was along the south coastline, west of Icebreak Station and Snowtown, about two hundred kilometers east of Dunfroze. There was no one living anywhere on that long stretch in between, nor any current or recent mining camps or permit grants.

“And how did you find them?” Noyes asked.

“The first was an unlikely coincidence. We have some . . . equipment, the nature of which is irrelevant and not of your concern, in a zone not far from the southern water-edge. It had been underperforming, so a drifter went to examine it. They encountered the remains not too far from there, caught up under the ice shelf. They called in to our local group for advice, and we suggested bagging it until we could determine the proper thing to do. This was done. The drifter effected a temporary repair on the equipment and determined we should return every twenty days or so to check on it until a more permanent repair could be undertaken in a warmer season. This is how the second body was discovered two of your month-units later, in the same location, and in much the same condition as the first.”

“And the third?”

“We—Ajr en Logo in selves, not the collective of drifters—discovered it, when the temporary fix failed sooner than anticipated and we went out to repair it.”

“So you decided to bring all three bodies here,” Ray said.

“Yes. There had been ample, unproductive discussion prior to finding the third body, with no resolution. The third body altered the considerations.”

“I wouldn’t have found anything odd with the first two bodies if you hadn’t brought us the third,” Dr. Noyes said. “But I saw what you saw, and why you brought them here, though I don’t understand what I saw at all. Damn but I need a drink.”

Noyes got up, started rummaging through the cabinets along Ray’s office wall. “You must have something in here,” he said. “Everyone has a secret stash.”

“Well, I don’t,” Ray said.

“Bullshit. It’s the only way any of us stay sane.” Noyes studied the room, looking for hiding places, then turned suddenly and pointed at the remote. “One last question: why did you trust us, and come here?”

“We do not trust you, Dr. Noyes. We do not know you,” the remote said. “But we have spent lifetimes listening to the humans here on our surface, and the last six years listening to Ray Landham in self, and it was our call to trust him with this, to what extent we can afford the risk of trusting any of your people.”

“Trust me with what?” Ray asked.

Lena let out her breath, and leaned forward in her chair, putting her chin in her hands on the desk. “Murder,” she said. “Something calculated, something complicated.”

Ray pointed to a lower shelf. “Bottle’s behind the five-year service award plaque,” he said to Noyes. “Explain, and pass it around.”

*   *   *

Noyes, after taking a good two-thirds of what was left in the bottle for himself, walked Ray through his findings in gloriously gory detail, with photos, holographic imagery, and other scans, then handed Ray a datachip. “DNA sigs,” he said. “Obviously we couldn’t get a visual identification. Lots of little nibbly critters in the water, even this cold. The sigs didn’t match anyone in my files, but you have access to planet-wide and historical records.”

With that, he slunk off somewhere else, probably back to his room by way of a visit to Dutton for a hit of something stronger than Ray’s now-empty bottle. Lena watched the door close, then studied Ray with the chip lying in his open palm like he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t sting him.

“It’s my job to be the paranoid one,” she said, “so if you haven’t thought of this already, I’m thinking it for you: whoever killed those men—and it could be anyone here, even you or me for as much as the other of us knows—went to some trouble, and they might be looking for hits on their victims in the datasphere. Consider how you want to play that before you just plug that chip in for a search.”

“Yeah,” he said. He had thought of it, and it was making him deeply unhappy.

“Also, everyone on the planet knows by now a walker visited us. So you’ll need a good explanation of why.”

“Yeah,” he said again.

Lena stood with a groan and stretched with her hands against the small of her back. “I gotta get Firo back to the kennels and get both the icedogs fed,” she said. “I dunno how much of an appetite I’ve got after that—gotta say I never actually wanted to know what someone looks like once all their skin has been chewed away—but I’m going to shower and then head over to Snowtown and try to get something down, or I won’t sleep tonight. You should do the same.”

When she didn’t move, he slipped the datachip into his pocket. “I will,” he said, “but I’m gonna give you a head start because the moment I walk in the door everyone in Snowtown is gonna be there shouting at me for answers, and I don’t think they’ll be happy with the few I have.”

Lena nodded and left, closing his door behind her. Ray leaned back in his chair, rubbing at his beard, and considering. All of this was way outside the bounds of the very boring stability he prized in his job.

“I am sorry to have been the carrier of this news,” the remote spoke up, and Ray startled in his chair; he’d forgotten it was there, it had not spoken or moved in so long.

“It wasn’t you who dumped the bodies in the ocean,” Ray said. “Noyes said the holes were something that cut their way out of the bodies from the inside, something mechanically sharp that must have been implanted while the victim was still alive. I don’t suppose you’ve found anything else floating around there?”

“No,” the remote said. “A friend drifter, Eas en Ka, is following the underwater currents from the place of origin, but so far has not found anything that does not belong. Given the small estimated size of the cutters versus the volume of the ocean, it is a task with very long odds of success.”

“If any at all,” Ray said. “All right. I think I have a plan.”

He stuck the datachip reader into his office system, sorted through the files Noyes had given him—carefully not opening any of the graphics from the autopsies—and found the profile for Dead Body Number Two. He dragged it through the data filter to remove its tagging to the other results, so that all he had was a basic DNA/blood chem analysis. Then he compressed it and opened a channel to the orbital satellite to relay to SystemOps. “Request identification for unknown drowning victim,” he said. “Send usual data, log, next of kin, etc. Medium priority only.”

Gritting his teeth, he committed the message and hit send.

The remote had watched him. “You chose the second body only.”

“Because the third body is recent enough that someone might fear we found the evidence we found, and the first body, if you hadn’t bagged it, should have been long gone by now,” Ray said. “If we get data back on one, it might tell us something about the other two without raising suspicions. So from now on, as far as everyone is concerned, your people brought us back one body and immediately left again. No one other than Lena and Dr. Noyes needs to know you’re even here.”

“I am, to all intents and purposes, not ‘here,’” the remote said. “And in fact, Ajr in self is in need of sleep, and Logo in self has some tasks to do, so unless you wish us to withdraw our presence entirely, we will disconnect this remote until further communication between us is necessary. Is there a place we can safely store this remote while it is unminded?”

Ray looked around, then sighed and kicked open the deep, long-vacant file drawer built into his desk. “In here?” he asked.

“That will be amply sufficient, thank you,” the remote said, and leapt nimbly down into the empty drawer. “If you have a need for us, please shake this unit gently and we will re-engage.”

“Okay, thanks,” Ray said.

It retracted its legs and, a moment later, the optical iris dimmed and then closed.

“Nighty night,” Ray said, and closed the drawer, thumbing the security tab so that it could only be unlocked with his bioprint. He didn’t know if it could be opened from the inside, or if anyone had ever had reason to ask that question. It’s because I locked an alien in my desk, he could imagine himself saying, and I didn’t want it to feel trapped. I explain it all in my book, “A Beginner’s Guide to Being the Worst To Other Sentient Species.”

Feeling he had his future claim to expertise well in hand, he left his office and trekked through the half-kilometer-long connecting corridor between Icebreak Station and Snowtown proper.

Snowtown was the largest permanent settlement on Erax, with a current population of ninety-one people, counting himself. One hundred forty kilometers due east was Chilltown, with its forty-three people, and Dunfroze was nearly six hundred kilometers west across a wide bay with nineteen. Most of the rest of the resident population—a hundred and two of it—was up in the northern hemisphere. Also on the surface at the moment there were three mining landers in the South and two in the North, which had registered work crews of eighteen people each, not counting however many Yeti they’d also hauled along to work.

When he walked into the dining hall, his first impression was that absolutely everyone on the planet had crowded in to wait for him. But when he pushed his way to the front of the room and all those faces with their many expressions turned toward him and stilled, he guessed it was probably closer to around sixty. There were five people he recognized from Chilltown and two Northies. Never before had people much cared when he entered a room, and the effect of a loud crowd suddenly becoming deadly silent was unnerving.

He had remembered to grab a comm-clip from his office before coming in, and he double-tapped it where it sat on his shirt near his collarbone to turn it on. It would carry his words to the other settlements all over the planet. And apparently under the ocean, he reminded himself. Did he need to think harder about what he said from now on?

“Okay, everyone, hello,” he started. “I’m certain you’re not here for the meatloaf, so I’ll get right to it: as you know, one of the Oceanics’ walkers made a brief contact with us earlier today. It brought us a pod that contained a set of human remains. We spoke briefly, and then it returned to the ocean.”

He could almost feel the exhalation move through the crowd at that confirmation.

“Dr. Noyes conducted what autopsy was possible given the highly degraded condition of the body and determined it was most likely that the victim drowned. We’re still working on identification. If any of you here discover you are not here, please personally report to me immediately that you are missing.”

Everyone stared at him. Okay, either not funny or over their heads, he decided, and sighed. “Any questions?”

In the end, other than a demand from the kitchen staff that he retract his meatloaf crack, none of the questions were unexpected. It was clear that most of the people were far more interested in what he could tell them about the walker than anything to do with the body.

“It spoke anglero very well,” he answered for the umpteenth time. “It brought the body back because it assumed our customs for our dead were different than their own, and it was a matter of respect. The conversation was very brief, and no, they did not divulge anything about themselves, their planet of origin, their underwater civilization, nor”—he eyed Sal Lancaster particularly as he repeated this—“anything about underwater robot sex. If there are no new questions, I would like to express my sincere regret for my earlier flippancy toward the hard work of our kitchen staff, and sit down and enjoy some of the very tasty meatloaf.”

At that, his stomach growled so loudly he was sure it was audible across all of Erax. It was enough for the crowd to mostly relent, some leaving and others forming up into clumps to discuss things, and he was able to walk to the table at the back where Lena was sitting with an extra tray of food already out, an overturned bowl over his plate keeping it warm. Only two people stuck with him, and managed to squeeze in to either side of him on the bench.

“I’m going to eat,” Ray declared. “You two wanna talk, that’s fine, but if you keep me from my food, you’re getting booted out into the snow in your birthday suits. Got it?”

“Got it,” Hollie Goodman said. She put her chin in one hand and stared at him as he stuffed a large forkful of synthetic meat into his mouth. “So, yes/no question: did you get the sense you were talking to a machine, or to something alive?”

“That’s not a yes/no question,” Lena said, pushing the last of her own food around on her plate with the tip of her knife.

Goodman glared at her. “Okay, fine, did it sound like a machine talking?”

Ray shrugged.

“Did it sound like something alive?” she persisted.

Ray shrugged again, then swallowed. “It sounded like an alien. How do I know what an alien machine sounds like versus an alien non-machine?”

“Did it tell you its name?”

Ray stabbed another chunk of meatloaf and dredged it through sauce. “Bob,” he said, and ate it.

“Fuck you, Ray Landham,” the other man said, a Northie named Ron Hill. “This is why you are absolutely unsuited for this job—you don’t take anything at all seriously.”

“That’s not true,” Lena said. “Pretty sure he takes everything seriously. Except maybe you.”

Ray managed to keep a straight face. “Look,” he said, “this place? Is the ass end of nowhere with 83 percent of its population either starting, at the height of, or unsuccessfully trying to quit some addiction, and if you discount those few scrambleheads who actually love the solitude and cold and the science, the rest are either here because they embarrassed their rich-ass families, pissed off the wrong people and needed a place to hide, or are fleeing justice for a crime. And you’d be surprised just how precisely I can account for where nearly every single person on this planet fits into those numbers and why.”

Hollie glared. “And you, Ray? Which of those categories do you fit into?”

“I’m a career civil servant,” he answered, “so it’s probably safest to assume all of the above. Was I the most qualified person to handle the first contact in generations with the Oceanics? Hell no, but then no one ever expected this to happen. My job is seeing that the mining corps stay in their quotas and don’t try to gut the entire planet when no one’s looking, not too many of you freeze yourselves to death in a drunken stupor, and everyone has crunchy biscuits and toilet paper when they need them. And I’m damned good at that, for all the appreciation I don’t get. You know how many times there were catastrophic environmental failures that took out whole towns here, during the last five administrators? Nine. Two were far enough out that no one got to them in time. Go look it up. While you do, consider cutting me a fucking break. Some poor bastard drowned out there, and I wish people cared about that.”

The moral superiority card seemed to be the right move, because Hollie stood up and stalked away, her face red. Ron watched her go, his expression inscrutable, then got up and followed without a word.

“He didn’t come down here just for this?” Ray asked Lena when they were out of earshot. The few authorized airskip pilots weren’t inclined to take people for unauthorized joyrides off the twice-daily pole-hop schedule.

“Naw, he and Hol have a thing going,” Lena said. “Hill and Hol. Hah! They’re walker-watchers, and they were occupied when this morning’s visit went down, so they’re both pissed at missing it.”

There were a number of people on Erax besides Sal Lancaster with an unhealthy obsession for the Oceanics’ robots, though he hadn’t known Hollie was one of them. It was mid-autumn in the north, and walker activity would have begun to diminish there; he wondered how many relationships were founded among the watchers by one or both parties looking for seasonal bunk space in the opposite hemisphere.

“Got it,” he said. “Nothing left but to see if there’s still ice cream, and get my sorry self off to bed before something else goes to shit today.”

“This huge crowd? Ice cream’s long gone,” Lena said.

His heart sunk. “Ah, damn,” he said.

“. . . But I saved you some,” she said, and picked a bowl up from somewhere out of sight on the bench beside her and set it in front of him.

“You’re a genuine angel, Lena Lincoln,” he said, and slid the bowl closer.

*   *   *

Morning brought dawn light from the small porthole-shaped skylight in the center of the sloped ceiling of Ray’s quarters; he still wasn’t used to it, after a long winter of snowcover and sunless weeks, and he sat up in bed and stretched and considered that his toes were warm, and if he just laid back down and went back to sleep they’d stay that way.

There was an orange light blinking on his link panel, which meant something urgent but not critical, which meant toes be damned he needed to get out of bed, but he had time for coffee first. He got dressed with regret, putting on a clean pair of thick socks and slipping his feet back into his boots, before carrying his half-full mug of coffee with him back to his office to see what was up.

Nothing new from SystemOps on identifying the body profile he’d sent up, and there seemed no point in rousing the remote just to tell them no news yet. The orange warning alert was a maintenance problem out at one of the coastal surface-to-satellite relays. There was a message from Ames, the mechanic in Chilltown. “It’s the relay east of here, on Bone Point,” Ames said. “Easy fix. One of the power cells blew, happens all the damned time, but I’m not getting signal from the relay itself, which probably means it took some of the charge and also needs swapping out. Which is also an easy fix, and I’ve got the parts, but it needs your admin code and a bioscan to bring the new one up and link it into the network, and since you can’t reach it remotely until it’s up, being a bit of a catch-twenty-two there, that means either you give me your code and mail me one of your fingers, and I am one step closer to my plan for world domination, or you haul your sad ass out there with me to reset it in person. It’s a beautiful -28C with windchills out on the point today, if that helps you decide. Call me.”

He expected it would still be at least a day or two before he got an acknowledgement, much less an answer, to his query to SystemOps. The official government manned station was on the very outskirts of Erax’s solar system, just inside its heliopause, which was as close as the Erax treaty allowed a human military base, and they were busy caring more about the asteroid mining going full-swing out in their neighborhood than about some backwater in-system ice planet of limited strategic or economic value. Meanwhile, he counted it lucky that he’d made it to his office without having to wade through people demanding those same answers. A few more hours of the sun up, and they would come knocking.

The solution was obvious: get out and do something before he got trapped here. He put a call through to Ames in Chilltown.

Ames was the epitome of the cranky old antisocial mechanic—in other words, someone he’d felt an instant bond of brotherhood with—and when he’d finally met him in person, he’d expected some old gnomish shuffler with a gray beard and braid down to his kneecaps, but truth was Ames was a rotund kid young enough to be Ray’s, if he’d ever bothered or been able to have any. The cognitive dissonance had been almost a physical blow, and even now, talking to him over the comms, he still was picturing that old man.

“Already got the parts in my skitter. It’ll take me an hour and a half, maybe two to fix,” Ames told him. “Take you two and a half just to get there, even if you leave right now, so I’m going to have some coffee, you’re gonna have some coffee, and we’ll meet there in three. That cake for you?”

“Yeah. That’s cake for me,” Ray said. That was okay.

“Then it’s it,” Ames said, and hung up.

Chilltown was two-thirds of the way to Bone Point, and a smooth but long ride for Ray. For a half-second he considered commandeering an airskip, but a quick glance at the weather reports suggested the winds were shifting and strengthening, probably in preparation for sucking up some moisture off the top of the ocean and dumping it back on land as ice pellets, and Ray wasn’t too proud to admit that he only tolerated flying under very favorable circumstances. Anyway, he liked the idea of some time alone with his thoughts. Or alone, anyway.

He left a message queued for Lena for when she woke up. “Going out to Bone to meet Ames and reset a busted relay,” he said. “Back in about six-seven hours. Call me if we get any actual news from out-system.”

His parka and snowpants were still where he’d dumped them the afternoon before, so he scooped them up and left his office, locking the door behind him just in case anyone decided to go snooping. As he pulled his thumb off the lock plate, he thought he heard a faint but insistent tapping from inside. “There’s no news!” he shouted through the door, in case it was the remote, then trundled himself, his clothes, and a giant thermal mug off to the charging shed and his bright blue official Icebreak Station Surface Administration skitter.

A skiff would have been faster, but they were like riding in an open speedboat, not in the slightest bit proof against the weather. The tiny cabin of the truck-like skitter warmed up fast and would keep him dry, and it wasn’t like he was in much of a hurry anyhow.

Out on the icepack, he could see the beauty that Lena loved Erax for: vast plains of smooth white that slowly crackled and frayed along the northern horizon where it met the thin, dark blue line of the ocean. In a few months, the ice shelf would have calved off a solid twenty kilometer chunk and retreated even further toward the pole, leaving a rock-strewn, scoured land that couldn’t possibly sustain any living thing by logic, but which would nevertheless fill with a profusion of color as things took their brief moment of glory to flower before the feeble summer abandoned them again to the cold.

With the treaty injunction against the omnipresent surveillance that measured every tedious millisecond of human life everywhere else in the cosmos, Erax was one of the only wild places left where a person could be free. In summer it felt miraculous just to be alive, but Ray could never hold onto that raw joy, instead sinking with the land back into morose surrender. It wasn’t that he felt alone here, but that he felt just as alone here as everywhere else he’d ever been.

But was that true? Ray wondered, as he headed uphill toward what would eventually turn into the shifting foothills of another massive rock jutting from the ice today, looming out of the water tomorrow. The ocean wasn’t just a dark mirror reflecting back his own emptiness, but a curtain to another world full of giant robots, and the giant robots were full of alien people, and while they had always seemed like some distant, fantastical accessory of the landscape, they’d talked to him.

To me! he thought.

It was no less amazing than if the flowers had suddenly chosen to address him.

He was musing on this, zipping over one snowdune and down into the valley before the next, when he spotted something red in the snow. Slowing the skitter, he turned toward it, approaching it at a crawl. At last he stopped, pulled back on the parka he’d chucked over the seatback a solid hour earlier, and got out to investigate.

It was a red stuffed bear, sitting atop the snow. “What the hell?” he muttered out loud, and bent to pick it up just as the snow all around him exploded upward into movement.

He was thrown to the ground as something heavy slammed into him from behind, pressing his face down into the hard-packed snow. Desperate for breath, he tried to get his arms under himself, to push himself up and away, but whatever was on top of him weighed more than he did. Relief, such as it was, came in the form of a sudden, sharp sting, and his body went utterly limp.

Hands rolled him over, and he tried to focus on his attackers. Six men . . . no, he realized. Two men in white parkas and masks, four Yeti with their white fur and grayish faces looming over him. One of the men was holding a short pole with a hypodermic needle affixed to the end.

“I’m sorry about this, Mr. Landham,” the man with the stick said. “You’ve been a solidly mediocre and unambitious surface administrator up until now, made no trouble for us, but you shouldn’t have talked to the waterfreaks, and if you were going to give out misinformation about how many bodies there were, you should probably have kept your doctor from diving so deep in Dutton’s brews he forgot how to keep his mouth shut. I’m afraid you’re being retired.”

Ray worked his lips, but couldn’t speak. The voice sounded faintly familiar, but he couldn’t place it, couldn’t get any hints from what little of the man’s face he could see between mask and hood.

The man snapped his fingers and gestured to the Yeti. “Bring him,” he said, and walked up and over the dune. Two Yeti approached him and each grabbed an arm, and they pulled him, not ungently, after.

Over the dune there was a low skiff, painted white with a shifting-pattern camouflage canopy over the bed. The Yeti dropped him on the floor at the back, as his attacker turned to his companion. “Deal with his truck,” he said, “then meet me out on the ice.”

Both disappeared from his line of sight. Moments later he heard the low rumble of his skitter as it pulled away, and the skiff he was lying on also began to move. The two Yeti jumped on and sat beside him, dangling their thick furry legs off the back. One bent down and stared at him with its deep, black-pupil eyes that were, to his surprise, remarkably human. It put a thick furry hand on his chest as the skiff jostled up and over the rough snow near the edge of the ice sheet.

Some while later another camouflaged skiff fell in behind them, catching up as they reached the ice sheet and slowed.

When they stopped, his Yeti jumped off and joined the others between the skiffs. “You four, get out the boremaker,” his driver said, and the four Yeti lumbered through the snow to the rear skiff and together pulled off a large, metal device shaped like a giant drum.

“Is it charged?” his man asked.

The other man nodded, and they disappeared out of sight. Ray squirmed, trying to get his body to cooperate, and managed to loll his head slightly to one side. “Hey,” he tried to say, and he could hear the word even though his lips felt like they’d been left behind somewhere in the snow. “Hey!” he shouted louder.

One of the Yeti returned and slung him over its back like a sack of potatoes, carrying him across the ice until one of the men gestured for it to put him down. Ray slumped over on his side as soon as the Yeti let go. From where he lay he could see the drum set up on the ice about fifty meters ahead, a thin curl of steam rising from it. The men and the other three Yeti all moved back from it, standing around Ray, as one activated a handheld remote and the rest threw their hands over their ears.

The noise was deafening, sonic boom and explosion all in one. The drum disappeared in a giant cloud of steam vented out one side, the vapor almost immediately freezing into snow and falling back to the ice pack. In a few minutes it had cleared, and three of the Yeti moved in and hauled the drum back toward the skiffs.

His Yeti picked him up again and walked toward where the drum had been, and Ray could now see the crisp edges of a perfect hole. How deep does it go? he wondered, but he was afraid he knew the answer to that. Three bodies found up under the ice sheet, he thought. Now at least he knew how they got there.

The Yeti set him down about four meters from the hole, and stood there as the men came forward. “Yeti won’t throw you in themselves,” one explained to him, his voice still just naggingly out of reach of his memory. “They don’t understand killing. Makes no sense to them, wasting a living body.”

“Why me?” he managed to ask.

“You want us to explain it to you?” the second man asked, then grabbed Ray under his armpits and dragged him toward the hole. “Well, the real world doesn’t work that way. Eventually they’ll find your skitter in a crevasse, figured you crashed it and your body will turn up or it won’t. No one will really care. In a month, no one will even remember you were ever here. That’s all the explanation you get.”

The man dropped him at the edges of the hole, and Ray could see down to where it vanished into darkness, probably long before it reached the water. He tried to remember how thick the ice sheet was here, but he’d never really paid much attention to those kinds of details. Kenna would know, he thought.

Then both men put their hands on him and shoved.

Falling was terrible, and terribly brief before he hit the water like stone, and it folded over him and pressed him down into the dark. If he could get back up to the hole somehow, back to air to breathe, he’d only have a few minutes before the cold did its work anyway. And even that was beyond him, even if he suddenly got command of his muscles back; his parka had soaked up all the water it could hold and pulled him faster and faster down as if he was wearing an anvil around his neck. I’m going to die, he realized. And I’m going to die incredibly pissed off.

At least it would be over quickly.

The cold was like fire, and it crushed him, as if the water had wrapped him in a giant fist to squeeze out what little precious air his lungs had left. Dimly he realized he was being pulled sideways, and whatever was holding him was solid and unyielding against his weak, pitiful attempts to struggle.

And then there was dim light, and the water was falling past him, down and out and away, leaving him lying on a hard floor in shock, in his ten-million kilos of ice-cold wet clothing. I’m imagining all of this, he thought, closing his eyes, and gave up and took a breath, expecting the water to return and fill him and finish its job, but instead there was only the ragged sound of his own gasping.

Then there were hands on him, gently pulling off his sodden parka and clothes until he was lying there on the floor wearing nothing at all, and someone wrapped a warm blanket around him and he decided whoever it was he would love them forever, but he still wouldn’t open his eyes because then the illusion would break, and he would be dead.

“This will return heat to you,” a voice said. “Are you able to drink?”

He felt something against his lips and recognized it as some sort of straw. The liquid that came through it was warm, a little bitter, vaguely tasting of salt and the sea. After two sips, he began shivering violently, his body throwing off whatever chemical submission it had been held under to exert its own mindless chaos. Utterly spent, he sank into the comfort of a mindless place.



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Copyright © 2019. Waterlines by Suzanne Palmer

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