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Bianca walks toward me, under too much sky. The white-hot twilight makes a halo out of loose strands of her fine black hair. She looks down and fidgets, as though she’s trying to settle an argument with herself, but then she looks up and sees me and a smile starts in her eyes, then spreads to her mouth. This moment of recognition, the alchemy of being seen, feels so vivid that everything else is an afterimage. By the time she reaches the Boulevard, where I’m standing, Bianca is laughing at some joke that she’s about to share with me.
As the two of us walk back toward campus, a brace of dark quince leaves, hung on doorways in some recent celebration, wafts past our feet. Their nine dried stems scuttle like tiny legs.
I lie awake in our dark dorm room, listening to Bianca breathe on the shelf across from mine. And then I hear her voice.
I’m so startled, hearing her speak after curfew, I tip over and land in a bundle on the floor.
Bianca giggles from her bunk as I massage my sore tailbone. I keep expecting some authority figure, like one of the Proctors, to burst in and glare at us for disturbing the quiet time. If you can’t sleep when everyone else does, you’re not even human.
“Sophie! It’s okay,” Bianca says. “I just wanted to ask you a question. I don’t even remember what it was now.” Then she stops laughing, because she understands this isn’t funny to me. “You’re not going to get in trouble. I promise. You know, we can’t even learn anything here unless we think for ourselves occasionally, right? Some rule we learned as little kids doesn’t have to keep us in a chokehold forever.”
When Bianca first showed up as my roommate, I hid from her as much as I could. I crawled into the tiny space above the slatted hamper in the side washroom, next to the wide sluicing cisterns that people use as toilets here. Bianca was this whirl of hand gestures and laughter who filled every room with color. When she started trying to talk to me, I assumed she was only taking pity on this painfully shy girl from the dark side of town and I’d just have to ignore her until she gave up.
She didn’t give up.
Now I look up at Bianca’s shape as I pull myself out of my huddle on the floor. “But you follow the rules too,” I say. “Like, you would never actually go outdoors right now. You probably could. You could sneak out of here, wander onto the streets, and the Curfew Patrols might not ever catch you. But you don’t do that, because you do care about rules.”
“Yeah, I’m not running down the street naked during the Span of Reflection, either,” Bianca laughs. “But a little talking after curfew has to be okay, right?”
Bianca makes me feel as though she and I just stepped off the first shuttle from the Mothership, and this world is brand new for us to make into whatever we want.
Since I was little, I couldn’t sleep at the right time, along with everyone else. I tried whispering to my brother Thom sometimes, if I thought he was awake. Or else I busied myself trying to do tiny good deeds for my sleeping family, fixing a broken eyepiece or putting my brother’s slippers where his feet would find them most easily on waking. Except my father’s hand would come out of the darkness and seize my arm, tight enough to cut off the blood to my hand, until I whined through my teeth. Later, after the shutters came down and the dull almost-light filled our home once more, my father would roar at me, his bright red face blocking out the entire world.
Everything is a different shape in the dark. Sharp edges are sharper, walls farther away, fragile items more prone to topple. I used to wake next to my family, all of us in a heap on the same bedpile, and imagine that maybe in the darkness, I could change shape too.
Bianca has found another book, way at the back of the school library, on one of those musty shelves that you have to excavate from a layer of broken settler tech and shreds of ancient clothing. This particular book is a spyhole into the past, the real past, when the Founding Settlers arrived on a planet where one side always faces the sun and had no clue how to cope. “That’s what history is, really,” Bianca says, “the process for turning idiots into visionaries.”
The two of us stroll together into the heart of the city’s temperate zone, past the blunt golden buttresses of the Palace, breathing the scents of the fancy market where she always tries to buy me better shoes.
Bianca reads all the time, and she tears through each book, as though she’s scared her eyes will just fall out of her head before she finishes them all. But she never does the assigned reading for any of our classes. “I’m here to learn, not study.” Her mouth pinches, in a way that only makes her narrow, angular face look more classically perfect.
Even after being her roommate for a while, this kind of talk makes me nervous. I’m still desperate to prove that I deserve to be here, though I’ve passed all the tests and gotten the scholarship. I sit and read every single assigned text three times, until the crystalline surface blurs in front of me. But everyone can tell I’m an interloper just by glancing—at my clothes, my hair, my face—if they even notice me.
“You’re the only one of us who had to work so hard for it,” Bianca tells me. “Nobody belongs here half as much as you.” Then she goes back to telling me that the Founders were bumblers, right as we pass by the giant bronze statue of Jonas, posing in his environment suit, one arm raised in triumph. Jonas’s shoulder pads catch the dawn rays, as though still aglow from the righteous furnace of decontamination.
Every so often, Bianca puts on a dress made of iridescent petals, or violet satin, and disappears, along with a few others from our dorm. There’s always some party, or banquet, that she needs to go to, to nurture her status among the city’s elite. She stands in the doorway, the silhouette of an upward-pointing knife, and smiles back at me. “I’ll be back before you know.” Until one time, when the shutters close and the curfew bells ring but I’m still alone in our room. I crouch in the gloom, unable to think about sleeping, and wonder if Bianca’s okay.
After the shutters open again, Bianca comes into our dorm room and sits on her own bed-shelf. “The party went too late for me to make it back before curfew,” she says. “I had to stay with one of the hosts.”
“I’m so glad you’re okay, I was so worried—” I start to say, but then I realize Bianca’s slumped forward, hands clasped in front of her face. Her latest dress, made of silver filaments that ripple in waves of light, bunches around her hips.
“I’m just … all I ever do is play the part that’s expected of me. I’m just a fake.” She ratchets her shoulders. “Sometimes I’m afraid everybody can see through me, but maybe it’s worse if they can’t.”
Seeing Bianca depressed makes me feel soft inside, like my bones are chalk. I sit down next to her, careful not to mess up her dress. Her curved neck looks so slender.
Neither of us talks. I’m not good at breaking silences.
“I don’t even know why you would want to be friends with me,” she says.
I get up and fetch the teapot from down the hall, and a few moments later I’m pouring hot tea into a mug, which I press into Bianca’s hands. “Warm yourself up,” I say in a soft voice. Bianca nods and takes a big swallow of the acrid brew, then lets out a long sigh, as though she realizes she’s back where she belongs. We keep stealing the teapot for our own dorm room, because hardly anyone else uses it, but some busybody always sneaks into our room when we’re out and reclaims the flowery globe for the common room, where it technically belongs. “Warm yourself up,” I say a second time.
By the time the tea is gone, Bianca’s bouncing up and down and cracking jokes again, and I’ve almost forgotten that I never answered her question about why I want to be her friend.
The two of us sit in the Zone House, in our usual spot in the gloomy nook under the stairs, which smells of fermented mushrooms. Upstairs, a ragtime band draws long, discordant notes out of a zither and a bugle, and people discuss the latest football match at that new pitch in the Northern Ranges. Bianca asks what made me want to be the first person in my family—my neighborhood, even—to go to the Gymnasium. Why didn’t I just finish grammar school, settle down, and get an apprenticeship, like everyone else?
Her wide brown eyes gaze at me, as though there’s more than one Sophie in front of her, and she’s having fun trying to reconcile them.
I’ve always dreaded when people ask me personal questions, but when Bianca asks, I feel a flush of pleasure that goes from my skin all the way inside. She’s not asking just to be polite, or using her question as a slender knife to cut me down.
“I always thought I would just go find a trade, like my classmates,” I say at last. “But then they wanted me to marry. There was this boy I was friends with at grammar school, named Mark. He and I just stood around, watching everybody, not even speaking except for a word here and there. People saw us together, and they all decided Mark would be my husband. They made jokes, or winked at us, or sang this gross song. The thought of his hands just owning me made me sick to my stomach. After that, I ran away whenever I saw Mark, but I was told I had to go to matchmaking sessions, to find a different husband. They said, ‘There’s a time to marry and have children, just like there’s a time to sleep, and a time to work.’”
Bianca pours more dark water into a tin goblet. “Yeah, they always say things like that. Or like, ‘Heed the chimes, know your way.’ This town! Everybody has to do everything at the exact same time as everybody else.” She laughs.
“I wasn’t ready.” My voice is a sore growl. “I’d gotten my visitor less than two dozen times when they started with all this marriage talk.”
“Your ‘visitor,’” Bianca says. “You mean your period?”
I feel myself blush so hard my scalp itches.
“Yes. Okay. My period. But I found out that if I could get accepted to one of the top colleges, like the Gymnasium, I could get a deferral on the marriage requirement. So I became the best student ever. I memorized all the textbooks. I found this place to hide, with a tiny light, so I could just keep studying right up until curfew.”
Bianca’s staring at me now, a notch between her eyes and an uptick around her thin lips. I shrink into my chair, bracing for her to say something sarcastic. Instead, she shakes her head. “You took control over your life. You outsmarted the system. That’s just amazing.”
I take a swig from my goblet and search for the slightest sign of condescension or mockery. “You really think so?”
“Everyone else at the Gymnasium is like me,” Bianca says, meaning a child of the temperate zone—or really, of comfort. Her parents died when she was very young, and she went to live at a high-powered crèche that groomed her for a leadership role. “We all came to the Gymnasium because we were expected to. So we could graduate and claim our places in government or industry, and help keep this bloody stasis machine whirring. But you? You are something special.”
I don’t think of myself as special. I think of myself as invisible.
Bianca orders some of the salty, crispy steamed cakes that you have to eat with a special hook, left side first. The first time I tried to eat one, I made a sprawling, wet mess on my table at the Gymnasium canteen, in front of a dozen other students, and then Bianca slid next to me on the bench and coached me in a hushed voice. I still can’t look at one of these without reliving my humiliation.
As we eat, Bianca asks what it was like to grow up on the dark side of town, on that steep cobbled street that climbs into deeper shadow, with the acrid fumes from the tannery and the chill wind coming in from the night. Where you woke up as the shutters lowered to let in the same gray light as before, and you lost a heartbeat, remembering all over again that you’d be working or studying under that pall of gray. But I don’t talk about any of that stuff. Instead, I offer her comforting stories about my tight-knit neighborhood: all our street parties, all the people who offered a hand when you were in need.
She looks at me in the weakly dappled half light, under the stairs. “I wish I could be more like you. I want to demolish everyone’s expectations. I want to keep surprising them all, until they die of surprise.” She’s not laughing, but her eyes have the same brightness as when she makes a joke. There’s more light in her eyes than in the whole wide sky that I grew up underneath.
The Progressive Students Union meets under basements and behind larders. Usually between five and fifteen of us, talking about systems of oppression. Bianca’s long black hair hides her face as she leans forward to listen, but her hand brushes mine. A mop-headed boy named Matthew is talking about the ordinary people whose every waking moment is spent at the farmwheels, the factories, the sewage plant, or the power station, until they die.
Then Bianca stands up and her voice rings out, like we’re all inside her heart and we can hear it beat. She wears streaks of purple and silver paint, to frame her eyes, and I never want to look away.
“If you control our sleep, then you own our dreams,” she says. “And from there, it’s easy to master our whole lives.”
Everything in Xiosphant is designed to make us aware of the passage of time, from the calendars, to the rising and falling of the shutters, to the bells that ring all over town. Everyone always talks about Timefulness, which could be simple—like, making it home for dinner before they ring the final chime before shutters-up, and the end of another cycle. Or it could be profound: like, you come across a mirror and realize your face has changed shape, and all at once you look like a woman instead of a child.
But nothing in this city is ever supposed to change.
Time should make you angry, not complacent, Bianca says. Back on Earth, our ancestors could follow the progress of the sun from horizon to horizon. They saw change roll right over their heads. Enough of these journeys and even the weather would change, from colder to warmer to colder. This awareness made them fight with all their strength. They were always using violent metaphors, like “Seize the day,” or “Strike while the iron is hot.”
“Time isn’t our prison,” Bianca says, “but our liberator.” We cheer and snap our fingers, until we all remember the reason we’re meeting in a stuffy basement behind barrels of cake batter: we’re committing deadly sedition down here.
After the meeting, Bianca gossips to me in our room about Matthew, the guy who spoke before she did. “He took forever just to say that we should have solidarity with other activist groups. He’s one of those people who likes to hear his own voice. Nice legs, though.”
“Matthew’s just nervous,” I say. “I’ve seen how he fidgets right before he’s going to try and speak. I think he’s in awe of you. And you don’t know how scary talking to people can be.”
Bianca leans over and touches my wrist. “You’d be a great leader, if you just got out of your shell.” She takes a stiff drink, and then says, “You always try to see the worth of everyone. Maybe you’re right about Matthew. I’ll try to put him at ease next time.”
How long have Bianca and I been roommates? Sometimes it feels like forever, sometimes just an interlude. Long enough that I know her habits, what each look or gesture probably signifies, but recent enough that she still surprises me all the time. According to the calendar, it’s 7 Marian after Red, which means the first term is half over. When I’m not talking to Bianca in person, I’m thinking of what I’ll say to her the next time we’re together and imagining what she’ll say back.
Lately, when Bianca talks to me illegally after curfew, I crawl onto her shelf so I can hear her whisper. Her breath warms my cheek as she murmurs about school and art and what would it even mean to be free. Our skins, hers cloud-pale and mine the same shade as wild strawflowers, almost touch. I almost forget not to tremble.
Everybody says it’s normal for girls my age to have intense friendships with other girls, which might even feel like something else. Some childish echo of real adult love and courtship. But you’ll know when it’s time to abandon this foolishness, the same way you know when to eat and sleep. I close my eyes and imagine that when I open them again I will have outgrown all of my feelings. Sometimes I clasp my eyelids until I almost see sparks.
I still haven’t gotten used to those times when Bianca has to go to some fancy ball or dinner near the Palace. She’ll break out some shimmering dress, made of vinesilk, hanging at the back of her closet, which sways with her body. And she’ll hug me and promise to think of me while she’s doing her duty at the Citadel. Sometimes lately, I don’t even see her for a couple of shutter-cycles, but she always comes back in a strange mood, with sagging shoulders.
One time, I don’t see Bianca for a while. Then, I come back to our dorm room, and she’s sitting on her bed next to Matthew, the Progressive Student organizer with the nice legs. They’re holding hands, a couple buttons of her tunic are unbuttoned, her ankle-skirt is undone, and her lipstick smeared. His hand has a thatch of hair across the knuckles.
Bianca doesn’t startle when I walk in on them, she just laughs and gestures for me to sit on my own bed. “Matthew’s leaving soon anyway. We’ve been talking about solidarity, and how to make it more, uh, solid.” She laughs, and so does Matthew. I try not to stare, but there’s no place to put my eyes.
After Matthew leaves, Bianca flops backward onto her bunk and says, “You were right about him. He’s a sweet guy. And he cares about making a difference. I think he could be fun.” I feel like my tongue has dissolved in my mouth, and I’m swallowing the remains. I slump onto my own bunk.
Bianca notices my face. “He’s not that bad. I promise! And it’s been too long since I had someone. It’s not good to be single too long. I feel like you helped set the two of us up, so maybe we can help you find a boyfriend next.”
I shake my head. “No boyfriend.”
“Right.” She raises her hands. “You told me about Mark. That sounded ghastly. But I’m sure you’ll get over it, once you meet the right guy. You’ll see.”
Bianca’s eyes are the most awake I’ve ever seen them, her cheeks suffused with color. She’s so transported that she’s wriggling on her bunk and humming to herself. I wonder if that’s how I looked when I finally let Bianca take an interest in me. I’ve been so stupid.
Every time I think I know what’s wrong with me, I find something else.
The five leaders of the Progressive Students Union sit in the cellar of the Zone House, emptying a jug of gin-and-milk and swapping personal stories. The jug and cups wobble on a low table with unlevel legs. This isn’t an official meeting, so we’re not hiding deeper underground, and people only mutter about politics in oblique half references. You can still tell from all the olive-green pipe-worker jackets and rough-spun scarves that we’re a group of freethinkers. Upstairs, the ragtime band thumps out a slow, dirgelike rendition of “The Man Who Climbed into the Day.”
Bianca is holding hands with Matthew, right in front of the group, and the two of them exchange little glances. I’m convinced everyone can sense my jealousy, hanging like a cloud in this moldy basement. She throws me a quick smile that packs a million snarky in-jokes into its contours.
I look away and see one shaft of light, coming through a tiny window over our heads and striking the wall opposite. They don’t cover that window, even when all the shutters close, so this faint sunbeam never lets up, and over time it’s stripped away the paint and torn off the plaster, just in that one spot. Even the exposed bricks have deep ugly fissures that meet in the middle like the impact site from an ancient meteor. I wonder how long before the entire wall comes down.
Maybe if I can speak in front of the group for once, Bianca will pay attention to me again. She’ll realize Matthew has nothing interesting to say, and she was right about him the first time.
I open my mouth to make some joke that I know won’t be funny, and I ignore the hot prickle that I always get under my skin when I try to talk to strangers, or to more than one person at a time. This shouldn’t be so hard, I tell myself. You can tell one joke.
Just as I say the first syllable, the police cascade down the rickety stairs in a blur of dark padded suits, corrugated sleeves, and shining faceplates. They’re carrying guns—high-powered fast-repeaters, which I’ve never seen up close before—and they stand over our little group.
Their leader, a short man with a sergeant’s insignia and no helmet on his square head, comes in last and addresses our tiny gang, using the polite verb forms but with a rough edge to them. “Sorry to disturb you. We’ve had some information that one of you student radicals stole some food dollars from the Gymnasium. Those notes are marked. Whoever took them ought to speak up now.”
He keeps talking, but I can barely hear what he’s saying.
A memory comes to me: on our way here, I saw Bianca slip inside the Bursary, on the ground floor of our dorm building, and emerge a moment later stuffing something in her pocket. She made some joke about being able to buy a round of drinks for the leaders of the revolution.
“You people. You ‘revolutionaries,’” the sergeant is saying in a growl. “You always act as though the rules don’t apply to you, same as everyone else.”
I look at Bianca, next to me, and she’s frozen, hands gripping the sides of her chair. Her face closes in on itself, nostrils flared and mouth pinched. If they find the food dollars in her pocket, this could be the end of her bright future. She could do so much for this city, for all the struggling people. This could crush out the light in her eyes forever.
And me? I’m invisible.
I slip my hand into Bianca’s pocket and close my fingers around three cool strips. I pull back and slide them into my own jeans, just as the cops start searching everyone.
“We’re not any kind of ‘group,’” Bianca is hectoring the cops. “We’re just a few friends having a drink. You are invading our privacy with this unwarranted—” She chokes in mid-sentence as they start patting her down, her whole body rigid as she stands, swaying, over her chair.
When they don’t find the stolen cash, Bianca goes limp. She almost topples into her chair, and then she recovers. Her eyes dart around the room. Husky rasping sounds come out of her mouth.
Then the police come to me, and I have just enough time to brace my hips before one of them finds the pocket where I stashed the money. “What did I say?” He laughs. In the cop’s gleaming visor, I see a distorted reflection of a girl with a wide-eyed expression.
Bianca looks at me, and her face changes shape, her mouth slackening, as she realizes what I’ve done. She tries to speak, and nothing comes. Tears cluster around the inner rims of her eyes as they turn red. Matthew reaches for her and tries to offer comfort, and she shakes him off.
She tries to step forward, to put her body between the police and me, but she hesitates a moment too long, and two of them are already grabbing me. I’m aware of nothing now but my own loud breathing and the tightness of their grip on my arms.
When I can hear the world around me again, Bianca has gotten her composure back and is talking to the sergeant in her best talking-to-stupid-authority-figures voice. “Fine. You found the money. Congratulations. I’m sure none of us have any idea how it got there, including Sophie. But this is an internal Gymnasium matter, in any case. You can take us to the Provost, and we’ll just sort this—”
“Not this time,” the sergeant says. “Time you ‘student radicals’ learned a lesson. You want to just sit down here and natter about how you’re going to ruin everything we’ve built, to take the bread out of my mouth. Out of everyone’s mouths, with your anarchist nonsense. You don’t get to do whatever you want just because you’re clever.”
The cops grab me by the armpits, two of them, and drag me to the rickety staircase that Bianca and I normally sit under. My legs scrape the floor as I try to plant my feet.
“It’s just a few stupid food dollars!” Bianca is screaming now, her voice already hoarse. The other Progressive Students are still frozen in their seats. “Bring her back! This is wrong. She’s done nothing, she’s a good person, maybe the only good person, and I … Stop! Please!” Bianca’s face turns crimson, shiny with tears, and she’s grabbing the sergeant’s sleeve in her fists until he throws her away.
The men with opaque faceplates pull me up the stairs, still gripping my armpits so hard I get friction burns. All my kicking and squirming just leaves me bruised.
“You can’t take her!” Bianca’s shriek comes from her whole body. My last glimpse of her is a crying, shaking, furious blur of black hair and clenched fists. “She doesn’t belong with you, she belongs with me. She’s done nothing. Bring her back!”
Then I’m yanked up the rest of the stairs and into the street.
The cops keep pulling me by my arms instead of letting me just walk between them, so my feet scuffle to gain purchase on the slate street. They make a lot of noise on purpose, so that even though I try not to cry out, a crowd still gathers. Workers, teachers, some of my fellow students from the Gymnasium. Daniel, who’s in my Chemistry class, throws a dirty food wrapper at me and misses.
Bent over backward by the hands on my armpits, I can only see the sky, which is the same milky color and consistency as always. Like a wide dome made of mother-of-pearl, always pressing down. The cops’ helmets keep swimming into view, and each time, I see a half image of my own teeth, biting air. I hear the hoots as we reach the Boulevard, and get my head up enough to see the streaky lines of the mob reflected in the giant plate-glass windows of the shopping center.
My ears fill with noise, but I can still hear my own breath: tiny wheezing sounds.
We reach a small police lorry and they throw me in the back, with a cage around me. They drive slowly, like a parade, and I watch as we pass the side of the Palace and the Founders’ Square. The high-garretted houses and sleek sandstone buildings loom over us as the sky puts on its shroud, layer by layer.
People in the main market look up from peering at vegetables, and stare as we drive past. More hooting, and now some shouting. This whole scene feels like something happening to someone else a long way off, as if my amygdala has transformed into a special distorting lens.
I keep bracing for us to swerve onto a side street, so they can deliver me to the police station and bombard me with questions about subversive groups. I picture the look on my father’s and brother’s faces when they find out. I haven’t spoken to either of them in so long.
But then we drive past the station, and the jail, and the cops just laugh at my confused face. There’s one more magistrate office, just up ahead, but then I realize we’re not slowing down for that, either. The sergeant, in the front passenger seat, sees me staring out the window, and chuckles. “Eh. Not wasting anyone’s time with you.”
Then we pass the farmwheels, which fill my entire view: towering stone structures, each the size of the Palace, they push up out of the ground. A thousand spokes revolve in slow motion, rotating crops from shadow to indirect sunlight and back. Every few moments one of their tracts blots out half the sky.
After that, the Grand Arches, and their recessed carvings of crocodiles embracing tigers, with the Golden Sphere nestled between them. I used to love those carvings.
Everywhere we go, people point at the ungrateful child who challenged the system that provides for all of us. I might as well have tried to pull the farmwheels down with my bare hands. I still feel as though I’m somewhere else, watching this scene from high above.
The Boulevard splits into five kinked streets that form one wedge of a maze, and we take the middle path, plunging into the dark side of town. Everything takes on the same gray cast that I remember from childhood, and the crosshatched view through my caged window fills with factory towers and apartment blocks. Pipe-workers and builders wander past, wearing coveralls, and most of them just shake their heads and look away. One or two spit at the car, but I don’t know if they’re spitting at me or the police.
I know where we’re going now, and all of the terror that I’ve kept at a distance rushes in. I start breathing harder, and making more noise, and beating my arms and legs against the wire cage inside the lorry. The fear drenches my insides, suffocating me, and I can’t bear it, I need to break free, I keep kicking the mesh. The sergeant laughs and looks at his timepiece, as if he has a wager for how long I would take to start freaking out.
I can’t bear this crashing inside me.
I need to escape, I can’t escape.
The cage was built for much stronger legs than mine, and I can’t catch enough breath to scream, even if I wanted to. I can already see the outer wall of Xiosphant, along with the slope of the Old Mother, the mountain that protects the city against the night. Out here, the sky is the color of damp soil. Down at the far end of the Warrens, the slate-roofed houses, factories, and warehouses seem to huddle against the cold.
Maybe they’ll relent at the last moment. Put the lasting fear into me. They could shove me out of this lorry right on the edge of town and let me go with a warning.
But when we reach the big reinforced stone wall, one of the helmeted officers fumbles for a big key and unlocks a thick metal gate, which opens with a weary hiss. They pull me out of the backseat cage by my wrist, and I overbalance, falling onto one knee. The sergeant shoves me through the doorway between dusk and full night, then gestures for the two nearest officers to accompany me. Two large men each take an elbow and steer me the rest of the way through the door, into the coldest air I’ve ever felt.
The Old Mother rises over us, a great dark tooth silhouetted against the black sky.
I’m still wearing my casual flirty café-wear. Jeans made of a thin hemp-and-wool blend, a loose chemise coming down past my waist, and a little skirt pinned around my ankles. And light woven sandals. The cold rips into me, coming off the mountainside. The police wear thick padded suits, heavy gloves, boots, and protective headgear.
But still, the two officers shove me and gesture with their guns, until I climb the sheer surface the best I can, with my frozen hands and feet. I can’t see where I’m going, and every meter or so I stumble and fall onto my palms. I almost lose my purchase on the stone and tumble backward a few times. They kick my leg until I keep going.
A thought forces its way past my firebreak of panic: Bianca will never even know what happened to me.
I claw at the rock, kick it with my bare toes, find handholds and footholds, relying on sheer wretched desperation.
A slow keening comes from the night, as though the crocodiles are baying in anticipation of fresh meat. Maybe they can already smell me coming somehow.
By the time I climb about halfway, I want to quit. What’s the point of even reaching the top? Nobody ever comes home from the night, except for the occasional survivor of a hunting party. But when I stop and sit on a tiny ledge, trying to aim a defiant look behind me, the cops raise their guns.
I take a deep breath and turn back toward the rock face, because I’d rather keep scratching at the mountainside, even lose all the skin on my fingers and the heels of my hands, than just give up and accept the death they’ve chosen for me.
The only warm hope in all this frozen nothing is that Bianca is okay. She’ll have the life she deserves, and maybe she’ll end up in a position to change this city. She’ll forget about me, after a while, but maybe some tiny pocket of her heart will preserve my memory, and it’ll inspire her to do something for others. I can die out here, knowing that she’s going to be amazing. I try to tell myself that’s enough, that it’s as good as a whole life by her side.
The wind stings my face, washes out my sight, and forces me to shed more tears than I can spare.
But some mechanical part takes over and I keep groping for handholds and pulling myself up, meter by meter. I lose all awareness, almost like sleepwalking, and my hands and feet are already numb.
I’m startled when I pull myself up one more time and reach the summit. I find a tiny plateau, where I can stop and drag some frosty air into my lungs. A dozen meters away, a sliver of direct sunlight hits a raised crag, hot enough to sear your skin off with a single touch. Even that one bright spot is too painful to look at.
Behind me, the city is splayed out, already asleep behind thick shutters. And beyond that, the Young Father slices the bright horizon—the smaller, smoother mountain that shields us from daylight.
I stand there on this wide ledge, panting, and try to regain some feeling by putting my hands under my bruised armpits, when the cops grunt at me. They’re eager to get back to the city, to drink their own pitcher of gin-and-milk, next to a fireplace. They nudge me with their guns, and I turn back toward the other side of the mountain.
Ahead, I see … nothing. The night stretches endlessly, a place where light and warmth never come. Out there, glaciers carve through the tundra and storms tear through everything. Storms and megafauna kill anyone who ventures past this mountain, if the cold and disorientation don’t take them first.
The police officers step forward in unison and shove me with one gloved hand each, until I fall face-over-legs into a cold so intense I feel as if my heart will stop.
The night side of the Old Mother bludgeons me, landing blows on my torso and legs, as I careen. I try to find a handhold, get my feet under me, but I overbalance again and again, until I stumble into a sheer drop, a smooth wall coated with ice that burns the remaining skin off my hands as I grope at it. I can’t see how far I’ve fallen, or what’s below me, or how to avoid getting dashed to pieces on the rocks.
I try to push myself away from the rock face with both elbows, twisting and groping at nothing but icy wind, and then I just fall through space.
I land on a layer of snow, hard enough to drive all the breath out of me, and gag on the frozen air that replaces it. My whole back and sides flare with agony, and for a moment I think I’ve broken something. But I force myself to rise onto one knee, spasming, and the worst of the pain seeps away.
I can’t even see the mountain that I just fell down. My fingers and toes go numb, and so does my face, and my lungs are bursting, and my stomach turns. The wind gets angrier, and its scream steals all other sound. All I can feel is a dark vortex inside me as I rise to my feet. I’ve only been in the night for a few eyeblinks, but it’s already killing me.
Everybody says that if you stare into this unseeable waste for too long, you’ll be struck with delirium. If you even survive. But I make myself face it. I stand, hugging myself, and walk into the churn of ice on the high winds, trying to grope my way forward without any sense of direction.
My body collides with something. I feel dense fur, over an even thicker carapace. A single warm tentacle brushes my face, and I realize I’m standing a few centimeters away from a full-sized crocodile.
Her giant front pincer is close enough to crush my head in one lazy motion. I hear a low sound under the wind’s endless chorus, and I’m sure this crocodile is opening her wide, round mouth full of sharp teeth to devour me, bones and all.
Copyright © 2019 by Charlie Jane Anders