It was too early in the season for a plague, but plague never waited on the turn of the seasons. Sarnai knew that as well as anyone.
From inside the tram, Sarnai saw wan winter light trickle across the northern horizon like whisky from the bottom of a glass. A flat-faced white fox made its way across the tundra, shaking its mane of feathers. It left a trail of purplish blood across the snow; its rear paw had been mangled by some predator, or perhaps a trap left out by an illegal feather dealer. There were larger predators out there, ones suited to hunting down that little fox with ease. The fox raised its head and met her look, then began digging into a pillowy hillside, shaking its mane of feathers once again. Only the very smartest and very persistent survived out here.
As the tram picked up speed, the landscape bled into a single smear of flickering white, and Sarnai had to look away to keep her headache at bay. Bright light triggered migraines. She passed her hand over the tram window, but the dimmer was broken. No relief, there.
The tram slowed as they reached the research station.
While the others got their things and stood, Sarnai waited impatiently for the full stop. The flickering sign outside the station came into focus as the train came to a halt. The sign swung in the heavy wind, buffeted by a slurry of snow made from frozen water and mercury. Sarnai clipped her respirator back on, sealing her environmental suit once again, and used the bar next to the window to heft herself up onto her blocky mechanical leg braces. She didn’t like the braces. They were for the comfort of others. She could stand upright and shift the weight of her torso to control the movement of her legs. It made it easier for people to forget her difference. In a little settlement like this, other people’s discomfort could be deadly. So she wore the fucking braces, though they were a lie. She preferred being in her chair at home where she could haul herself around using her upper body. She took great pride in her massive shoulders and forearms.
Sarnai slung her emergency bag over her shoulder and picked up her cane. She didn’t need the cane to walk, but it was good to have in case of a stumble. It had saved her from a lot of embarrassing falls. She followed the others onto the platform, clacking onto the platform in her custom ice shoes, which left little pinpricks in the snow and ice as she walked.
Sarnai went through the airlock, which cycled through with a hissing whoosh. Little particles of frozen mercury were pulled away from the skin of her environmental suit by powerful magnets, re-distributing the mercury into containers beneath the station that would later be traded off-world. The doors in front of her opened. Sarnai peeled off her respirator and slung it over her shoulder. She pushed back her hood and entered the station.
Sarnai made her way straight ahead to the moving escalator that went up to the health labs. The research station was the only one on Narantu, and it clung stubbornly to the outer ring of settlements huddled around the equator. The population had swung rapidly over the last seventy years, brought low by plague, famine, and extreme weather that threatened settlements that crept too far north or south from the core. Trams connected a few of the population centers to the community-owned resource centers, mining facilities, and public harvesting hubs, but most travel was still done by sled. The thick air, paired with strong gravity and a preponderance of dust made of volcanic grit, and toxic mercury, made flight cost prohibitive. Every form of travel was dangerous, here, but flight most of all.
Enkh, Sarnai’s boss, waited for her at the top of the escalator. Enkh’s doughy face was pained. Enkh was over fifty, one of the first generation to grow up on Narantu, and she wore her thick black hair braided back into double bows on the side of her head. She closed her fist when she saw Sarnai, extinguishing the pop-up display projected from the tattoo on her forearm.
“I heard,” Sarnai said as Enkh opened her mouth. Sarnai would not have come into work this early unless she had heard.
“It was Erdene,” Enkh said. “I don’t know what she encountered out there, but she had taken off half her suit. Came in sunburned and emaciated, half an arm gone, crawling with the spinal plague. We’re meeting in the conference room to discuss how to get the antibodies sent out to Batbayer. It’s a full-blown epidemic.”
“Batbayer is three thousand kilometers out,” Sarnai said. “Making a run like that this time of year is impossible.”
“Let’s see what Khulan has to say,” Enkh said.
Enkh and Sarnai made their way to the conference room where the rest of the team was already gathered. The head of the research facility, Otryad, was a lean, birdish woman with a long nose that nearly touched her upper lip. Batu and Temujin, the heads of the health and disease control labs, respectively, sat with heads bowed over their pop-up displays. Old Khulan was muttering to himself in front of the projection wall.
Sarnai limped over to him and pressed the patterned sequence on his display to synch up the dual projected screen and his personal one. A grin split Khulan’s bearded face, and he thumped her arm firmly. She was glad for the grip of her shoes. Sarnai sat in the seat closest to the projector and caught her breath as the others settled down.
“You’ve all heard about Batbayer,” Otryad said.
“We’ve lost settlements to tumbledown before,” Sarnai said, using the colloquial name for the spinal plague. She wanted to be the first to say it out loud because everyone was pointedly not looking at her. “Those in Batbayer chose to live on the edge, just as my own parents did. That far out, they know the risks.”
“We owe it to Erdene to listen to what she has to say,” Khulan said. He fiddled with his display and projected a frozen recording onto the screen.
Sarnai did not want to watch any recording from out there. She had already lived that. Sarnai turned to the screen to avoid others’ stares but lowered her gaze so all she saw was the bottom of the image and Erdene’s red-striped environmental suit. Unfortunately, Sarnai did not cover her ears.
Erdene was coughing, a hack-hack-hoop sound that made Sarnai shiver. The hissing of the sled over the snow and the jingle of the dogs’ tack sounded dully behind her.
“Confirmed the first incidence of spinafalia,” Erdene rasped. Sarnai watched the creases in Erdene’s environmental suit rise and fall and ripple like some fabulous mountain range. “Zero patient was a trader. Says he came through Tetseggai twenty days ago, and Asharaanti thirty days before that. They may already be gone. No time to get lorphor there. All falling down.” She paused to hack again.
Sarnai’s gaze dipped below the projection into the dark crease between the wall and the floor. There had been no lorphor, no cure when tumbledown came to her home settlement in Ganzor. Her mother hadn’t survived it. Nor had either of her fathers. Eighteen of the twenty-six people in their township had died. It had all started the same way, with the cough. At night, still, Sarnai would lie awake and press her ear to the wall and listen hard for it, determined that it was real and the plague had come to the station and was going to kill every last person she knew or break them into pieces.
Eight people from her settlement had lived, including Sarnai. But living came with a cost. One little girl had lost all feeling from the left side of her cheek down through her left arm. Another felt nothing from the thighs down. Three were quadriplegics. Her cousin could move the right side of his body, but not the left, and he had not survived when they worked together to board a sled and head toward the core settlements sixty days after the last person died of the plague. She had watched her cousin freeze to death when their sled tipped over.
She was lucky, they all told her. Lucky because though she would never walk with her own legs again, she could still make herself useful. Technology had come so far, they all reassured her. She would walk, walk walk walk. That’s all they ever talked about, her walking. It would be some time before they broke the news about the catheter, and installed the holes in her guts so she could relieve herself on her own. And nobody mentioned sex to a seven-year-old. Walking was all anyone talked about, but getting around was the least of her everyday concerns.
Erdene’s coughing brought her back to the present.
Sarnai made herself look at Erdene’s broad, shiny face this time. Erdene wore her respirator and hood, but Sarnai could see her eyes behind the dim film, and she recognized the fear in them.
“We have to catch it here,” Erdene said. “If we don’t catch it here, it will spread.” One of the dogs yowled. A chorus of others took up the yelping and squawking, and there was a hiss and thump and a barely audible, “Oh shit!” from Erdene, and then the recording stopped.
Khulan waved his hand to brighten the lights and regarded them all. “I volunteer to go,” he said. “We’ve taken huge population losses to the south. Having this come down from the north will be … Well.”
“Catastrophic,” Otryad said.
“Khulan can’t go alone,” Enke said. “It’s perilous even for an experienced runner.”
“The lorphor serum won’t last that trip,” Sarnai said. She could not keep the irritation from her voice. “I’ve tested the stability of the serum in thousands of different conditions. Three thousand kilometers is too far. It will take too long and it’ll be bad when it gets there. Even if you survive, Khulan, you’ll get the plague and die up there.”
Otryad peered at Sarnai, head slightly tilted. “That’s right. You and … that intern last year, you made sixteen sled runs up to the coast and back.”
Sarnai said, “And that was three hundred kilometers, not three thousand.” And her leg braces had frozen and the intern had nearly died from mercury poisoning, but she didn’t want to remind anyone of that because she would need funding for the next round of testing. “Visibility out there is near zero. That and the level of mercury in the air this time of year, makes flight impossible. It has to be the sleds, and that means we need more time to make the serum stable to make it that distance. Wait the extra days and send in someone for the survivors.”
“Are you volunteering?” Otryad said. “I thought you would be the first, after what happened to your family.”
“Fuck you,” Sarnai said. Everyone went very still. It wasn’t just an inappropriate outburst; it was a serious breach of etiquette, to speak that way to a superior. “You want to send me because I’m expendable. An old man and a cripple. We’ll die out there, and the serum will go bad, but you’ll be able to tell the community you did all you could against the plague, against tumbledown, then you’ll quarantine them and cut off supplies and horde it here in the core.”
“There is hope in us going,” Khulan said, firmly. “Think of those children who survived, like you. Even if the serum doesn’t survive, they should know we care for them. That’s the covenant we all made here, to care for one another. We can’t abandon them, even if—”
“Even if they end up like me,” Sarnai said, “but you know, except for all of you, my life isn’t that bad. It’s not a horror story. You all just keep making it one with your fear and your pity, holding me up like some kind of totem against what’s happening out there. It will come for you, too. It’s coming now. You can throw me at it, but—”
“No one will make you do anything,” Otryad said. “I’m sorry you feel this way about the mission, but we are not making you do anything. Batu, Temujin, stay here. As Sarnai pointed out, we’ll need to discuss quarantine procedures. There will be survivors making their way here, whether Khulan is successful or not. That’s all, thank you.”
Enkh shot Sarnai a long look as she hustled from the room. Sarnai pushed herself up, using the table for leverage, and grabbed her cane. When she limped out into the hall, Khulan was waiting for her by the oxygen bar.
Khulan fell into step beside her. “There is no shame in being afraid,” he said, “but you did not have to be rude.”
“I’m not fit to go on that journey,” Sarnai said, “and neither are you. And you know it.”
“What does that mean, fit?” Khulan said, spreading open his palms. “You think it means you have a perfect body, one that makes sense? We would be more effective creatures with bigger eyes, more hands, tougher skins. But we are what we are because that’s what was best suited to the place and time where we evolved. Out here, we need different things. Smarts, guts, tenacity, certainly.” He patted his belly. “Fat, absolutely. But most of all, yes, we need hope instead of despair. The first to go are those who despair. They cannot stand all this darkness, this madness.” He pressed her sternum with his finger. “But you are still here.” He tapped his chest. “I am still here.” Huffed a breath that smelled of tobacco and peppermint. “We are best suited to the task ahead.”
“I’m not as fat as you,” Sarnai said.
“We’re not all perfect,” he said, patting her tummy. She could not feel it.
“If the serum goes bad,” she said, “and it will, then …”
Khulan sighed. “If it goes bad, then there is only you, but I prefer hope over despair.”
Sarnai closed her eyes. She heard the coughing again. The death of ghosts. “We’re all going to die out there,” she said.
“If that plague reaches the core communities, we’re all going to die in here, too,” Khulan said.
Sarnai opened her eyes. “Shit,” she said.
“That’s my lead dog’s name,” Khulan said.
The sled was a smooth, rocket-shaped slab of metal, one of many parts of the old colonial ships that had been refitted for a more useful purpose. The dogs had been bred from various strains that had arrived in embryonic form on the ships and mixed with local creatures to create a hybrid capable of breathing the atmosphere unaided and scrabbling through ice laced with sharp volcanic rock and pools of frozen mercury. They had dual coats: fur and feathers, and giant beaks with forked tongues. Their ears were large and pointed; they could hear even the tiniest sound miles away, and it made them excellent for detecting approaching predators, of which there were many on the open tundra.
Sarnai rode in the right side of the sled’s tube with Khulan on the left. The tube was snug and warm inside and could be sealed against cold for the night, but not pressurized. Their environmental suits had to stay on. They were insulated by their supplies and the six cases of serum at their feet. Why Khulan insisted on them when Sarnai knew they would go bad was beyond her.
Sarnai didn’t look back until they were already fifty kilometers from the research station, the dogs squawking out a warning to passersby to clear the sled way for their passage. The core settlements were densely populated. The houses had all been made from pre-fabricated parts printed out by one of the many structural printers. On the horizon to the north, Sarnai saw the unfinished peak of the colony’s first major air purifier, still two years away from completion. It would effectively remove the mercury from the air and add oxygen, then remix that with the existing air to make it more palatable for humans. The mercury it collected was stored in great vats beneath it, ready for transport and sale off world.
The wind was already bitter cold. Sarnai ducked back into the tube of the sled and out of the gale. She pushed her personal pack into her lap. She could feel nothing from her sternum down, so she had learned to check all of her movements by sight to ensure she didn’t injure herself.
Sarnai and Khulan did not speak until they broke for their first rest of the day after one hundred kilometers. The dogs could do about two hundred kilometers a day if pushed, which meant it would take fifteen days, at the very least, to get to Batbayer. If Sarnai didn’t die on the way there, she imagined dying of some infection on the way back from having to reuse her catheters.
They camped against a massive snow drift hulked up behind a hill, circling the dogs for protection against the wind. Khulan volunteered to clean the dogs’ taloned feet of snow and ice. Sarnai clunked around in her leg braces, keeping her balance with a ski pole as she kicked out a place to set up the heat source. She and Khulan hunched over the heat-emitting blue orb and warmed their tea pouches. She sucked hers down without ceremony through a straw that clipped through her respirator.
Khulan reached into his environmental suit and handed her a bottle of whisky.
“Those best prepared survive out here,” he said and chuckled.
A cawing sound came from the west, and the dogs’ ears perked up.
“Sounds like stinging lilies,” Sarnai said.
“Too close to the core settlements,” Khulan said, but he peered to the west.
“How long do you give us?” Sarnai said. “Two hundred kilometers?”
“A thousand, at least,” he said and held out his hand to get the whisky back. “If you won’t drink that, I will.”
She snorted and handed it over. “I prefer red wine,” she said. In truth, she didn’t want to drink any alcohol on this trip because the more she drank, the more she’d have to cath out through the stoma in her abdomen. But then, if she was going to die anyway, who cared if she had to cath out every three or four hours instead of every six? She very nearly snatched the whisky back.
The cawing sound crackled across the sky again. It was already dusk; days were about six hours long on Narantu during the long winter season. In the summer, the small red eye of the second sun would appear and give them a little more light for an additional six hours while they danced through one another’s orbits, but not much more heat. Already Sarnai could see the brightest stars peering down at them through the darkening sky.
After they ate, Khulan went off to urinate, and Sarnai changed her colonoscopy bag, then they were lining up the dogs again and mushing out across the tundra. Sarnai looked back, again, wondering if she would see the stinging lilies, but she saw only the low, round mounds of the last of the core settlements fading fast behind them, their glowing house markers sprinkled across the tundra like tough little diamonds.
They traveled like that for two days until they came to the end of the core settlements and reached the truly wild tundra. Sarnai already longed for a shower and cursed her greasy hair. Living inside of a suit for as long as she intended to was going to get itchy and uncomfortable. What a fool she’d been to come out here. She could have survived tumbledown if it hit the core settlements. What did she care about the people on the edges? They had been dumb like her parents, to live out there all alone. But did their children deserve to die for it? That’s what kept her up at night. That’s what she dreamed about under the brilliant stars. She dreamed of her dead parents, and her brother screaming that he had seen a man with a dog’s face while he tried to cut off his own hand.
The third day, they packed up the sled and Sarnai must have nodded off, because when the sled jerked to a halt, it woke her. The dogs were squawking and barking. Sarnai leaned over and saw the whole front end of the sled tangled in creeping black tendrils. As she hauled herself up out of the sled she saw Khulan forty paces away on the other side, taking great swings at the creepers with a machete.
Sarnai grabbed a flame pistol from the gear box in the back and sprayed at the black creepers. The creepers hissed at her, untangling their little hooked claws and swarming toward her. She jerked the pistol again, spraying more fire. This time the tendrils retreated.
Khulan yelled. Sarnai turned just in time to see him fall down, clutching at his arm.
Sarnai went around the sled, picking her way over to him as quickly as she could. Khulan lay in the snow. He convulsed. Sarnai tried to bend over. She didn’t want to sit because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to get back up. Her braces were already getting clotted with ice here outside the sled.
“Khulan!” she said. “Khulan!”
He was motionless.
She gave in and shifted her weight, signaling to her braces that she wanted to kneel. They complied, plopping her onto the snowy ground beside Khulan. Sarnai ripped off her glove and checked for a pulse. Nothing. She removed his respirator and put her ear to his mouth. No breath. Not a sound. She knew this. She had seen this before, in older people in the settlement. Their hearts gave out, especially in the winter season when they picked up a shovel or a carcass as if they were fifteen again.
“Khulan!” she yelled again. Sarnai knew basic first aid, but it had been years since she had cause to use it. She checked to make sure his airway was clear and kept her respirator clear so she could breathe into his mouth. He was warm but so, so still, and with both their suits unsealed, that heat would not last long. Sarnai pumped his chest, counting off out loud as the dogs yowled behind her. Her fingers went numb, and she had to put her glove back on. Soon she was light-headed, winded. It was full dark now, and as she worked she took little breaks to shoot her fire pistol at the tangled creepers and seal herself and Khulan back into their suits. The temperature was dropping now, tumbling from forty to fifty below, and she knew there were bits of frozen mercury that had flitted into her suit. They couldn’t go on like this much longer.
How long she kept breathing and pumping, she didn’t know. But Khulan’s body was cooling, and she was breathless. Finally, Sarnai let herself fall beside him. Tears stung her eyes but froze before they could fall. She put on her respirator and re-sealed her suit. She listened to the rustling of the creepers. Her lips tasted of whisky; the last tipple Khulan had taken. Sarnai grit her teeth. She took up the fire pistol again and used the ski pole to help herself up. She waded through the snow, spraying long lines of fire at the creepers until they retreated back into their burrows.
Sarnai pulled out a blanket from the gear box and rolled Khulan over it, then wrapped him up and secured him using chemical tape. She grabbed his body and pulled and pulled until sweat rolled down her face and her arms ached, but she managed to get him to the sled.
“I have to go back,” she said to Khulan’s body. “We are both going to die for nothing. The plague will come here and rip through all of them. And what do I care? I’ll live! I’m immune!” She yelled and swore until her voice was hoarse, then collapsed against the side of the sled.
She heaved in a breath. One breath, another, as she had done with Khulan. She let out a long, deep sob and pressed her gloved hands to her face. She could turn around. She was only three days out. She could go back. Sarnai stared long at Khulan’s body. If she went back then Khulan had died out here for nothing. Khulan who had been born on the ships and first set down his feet here when he was five years old, the last link they had to some other time, some other place. He believed in their survival here.
Did she? Sarnai struggled to her feet again. She rolled Khulan off to the side of the sled and tucked him into a snow bank. He wasn’t going to go anywhere, though a predator might take him—that was a possibility. She took a shovel out of the gear box and covered him as best she could then planted a long red pole into the snow beside him, one of the emergency markers they kept. If any patrols ran out here, and they were few, they may find him. She left a recorded note on his pop-up display explaining who he was and where she was and where she was headed, then clunked her way into the sled.
Sarnai whistled to the dogs, and off they went, clucking and snarling toward the north, ever north.
“We are the chosen people,” Sarnai’s mother had told her while they huddled in the warmth of the blue globe that was the center of their home. “No other people have a world like ours, one so rich in resources. When the air is cleared we will trade with others, and we will sleep on piles of soft furs, and we will never be cold.”
But her fathers had told her a different story. They were both lean men, but what she remembered most was the rumble of their voices and the roughness of their hands. “We will survive here because we care for each other,” her older father had said, the one with the thick white beard. She had called him Baba, and the other, with the soft black beard, Papa. “We are all here for each other.”
Her Baba patted her head and squeezed her arm, and it was now, in this memory, this dream, that Sarnai realized why she had not minded Khulan patting her arm. “No matter how terrible,” her Baba said, and he smelled of lavender soap and sunshine in that moment, “we have one another. This world is harsh, but we have each other. You understand?”
She didn’t, then.
Sarnai woke with a start. She felt cold and stiff. She lay in the bed of the sled, tucked neatly in its comforting embrace. A little sunlight peeked through the seams of the door to the tube, which she had closed the night before. She opened it, releasing six inches of snow into her lap. The world outside was brilliant white, and she closed her eyes and pressed her hand to her face, reflexively. Her head throbbed. She sucked in a deep breath and started to work her arms and shift her braces. She chanced another look out across the creamy white expanse and there, over the heaped forms of the dogs curled up together, she saw a dark shape moving at the base of a sea of mountains in the distance.
She crawled out of the sled and fed the dogs the protein pellets from the gear box, all the while keeping her eyes on the figure. It wasn’t human, and it was lumbering out in the far distance, but still looked huge. That meant it was likely one of the massive predators that stalked the settlements between the core and the rim.
Sarnai secured the fire pistol on her right leg brace and slipped back into the sled. She called to the dogs and off they went. In some ways, this journey was easier with one. There was no one to haggle with. No one to say when to stop or go. She and the dogs kept the pace. But it also meant that every hundred kilometers, she was the only one who could stop and feed the dogs and clean their feet—twelve dogs, forty-eight feet—all by herself. She was exhausted at the end of every day. The days began to blur and shift together. The migraines hit her hard on the sunny days, and she could barely raise her head to call to the dogs during those hours. She was exhausted, and she stank, and after six days on her own, she became convinced that she was lost.
Worse, she was lost and something was following her.
Sarnai fed the dogs and sighted her route using her spotty GPS. There were still a few satellites aloft that had been released by the first settlers, but there was often weather-related interference. She snarled up at the sky and tucked the GPS back into the gear box. How terrible must that other world have been, for her people to travel across the yawning maw of space to settle here? Sarnai settled back into the sled and yelled at the dogs to embark. The sled lurched forward, then jerked to a halt. She yelled again, but the dogs were yipping and cawing.
She struggled up in her seat and saw what they had caught a whiff of—the big, hulking thing that she had seen days before, on the horizon. It was a five-ton bear, and the long line of spikes along its spine were rippling. It snarled at the dogs from its perch twenty feet up on a low rise.
Sarnai yelled, “Go on! Get!” like it was some domestic animal. Instead, it trundled forward, toward the dogs. She had a terrible memory of Erdene arriving in the hub of settlements with just half her dogs and one arm missing, and it invigorated her. Sarnai called for the dogs to race forward, and they did, despite the bear. Sarnai raised her fire pistol at the bear as it plowed toward them, and pulled the trigger.
The bear’s coat caught fire. It was so close she could smell the scent of burning hair and the stink of rotten meat that clung to its matted fur. The bear roared and broke off.
Sarnai called to the dogs, spurring them onward, ever onward, and they obeyed, kicking snow and dust behind them at the fastest pace she had seen them make on the wintry white terrain that made up the world between the core settlements and people on the edge, people like her.
How many kilometers had she crossed, now, since Khulan’s death? Five hundred? A thousand, easily. Sarnai hooted up at the sky as the lazy yellow sun crested the horizon. Whisky in a glass. A yellow-brown smear. She went to sleep that night exhausted and euphoric. She emptied out her waste and screamed at the sky because there was only her and the dogs to hear.
She had made it a thousand kilometers, easily. More than Khulan. More than many would have, she knew. And when the stink of the bear wafted in, she snorted and spat in its direction and waved her gun in the air, firing off plumes of flames.
“You can’t hurt me!” she yelled. “You can’t have me!”
It came for her at dawn.
Sarnai was sleeping fitfully. She dreamed of running. Running and running from something terrible. When she would look back, in her dream, it was only her Baba and Papa, but in that moment they were terrible beasts, frightening. She had never felt so terrified.
She woke violently to the stink of rotten meat. The bear’s face was just inches from hers, and it bawled when she opened her eyes, and she screamed and gripped the pistol and let off a snarl of flame into its face. The flames singed its fur and feathers, sending a heady stink into the air.
The dogs were barking and squawking, and she didn’t know how she had not heard them sooner, but the bear had crept upon her from the north, and the wind was coming from the south. The dogs had not noticed it. In that moment, she wanted to shoot them too, until the bear roared and snapped up one of the dogs into its great jaws. The bear was a massive thing, matted and shaggy, with a gory hooked beak and feet as big as Sarnai’s head.
The dogs let up a great howl and cry. Sarnai shot her pistol again, singeing the bloody dog’s hide instead of the bear’s. The bear swiped a paw at her and caught her on the arm, slicing clean through her environmental suit and carving into her skin. Sarnai shot again, and again until the bear retreated.
She screamed at it and called the dogs, but they were not lined up. She had to scrabble out of the sled and get their tack in order. Once she was back in the sled, she watched the bear standing on the next rise as it snacked on its doggy treat, its great beaked face smeared with blood and offal.
“Fuck you!” Sarnai screamed, and then, to the dogs, “Go, get!” and then the sled was moving again, following the sled track on and on again, further and further from the bloody snow and the promise of death.
The halfway point between the core settlements and Batbayer came upon Sarnai suddenly. She had completely lost track of time, and she wasn’t sure what she was seeing, even with the aid of the glitchy GPS.
The halfway house was little more than a humped shack in the snow, some old thing printed back when the first ships landed, and not upgraded since.
Sarnai was barely conscious when they arrived. She was aware of an old woman standing over her, tapping at her leg braces.
“When was the last time you emptied your bowels, girl?” the old woman said, and she put her gnarly hand to Sarnai’s forehead and sighed. “You’ve got an infection, girl. Come now. Let’s put your dogs to rest and get you tended.”
Sarnai bumbled out of the sled and into the hut, only half-aware of where she was and what was happening. The woman was much stronger than she looked; she helped haul Sarnai inside, and it must have been the old woman who tended the dogs, because when Sarnai next became aware of her surroundings, she was in a warm bed, and the old woman was prodding at her belly. “You’ve got a urinary infection,” the woman said. She had a face like a rotten apple, all puffy and pockmarked. Sarnai recognized a ruddiness to her complexion that indicated mercury poisoning.
“Not a big deal,” Sarnai slurred, and she wondered if the woman had given her something for the pain, not realizing Sarnai couldn’t feel anything.
“You could die from it,” the old woman said. “It’s serious enough. Hate to say this to a woman like you, all buff and beat up, but simple things kill.”
“A bear got one of the dogs,” Sarnai said.
“I thought so,” the old woman said. “I can smell the fear on the dogs. That bear is tracking you. You won’t shake it. You’ll have to kill it.”
“I have to make it Batbayer. They are dying. Tumbledown.”
The woman tapped her leg braces. “You had it, the plague. Tumbledown.”
“A long time ago.”
“You know why they called it tumbledown?”
“For the village,” Sarnai said. “The first village it killed. Called Tumbledown.”
“No,” the old woman said, and as she took a cup into her hands, Sarnai saw a rash that spread up both her arms, turning her skin flaky. “It was a dark joke, from those who came to rescue them. They said they all fell down. Tumbled down.”
“That’s a bad joke.”
“We are not all good people,” the old woman said, proffering a cup. “But girls like you, they want to save everyone. They don’t want to just fall down, eh? They want to get up.”
“I can’t make it the rest of the way.”
“Of course you can. Batbayer is only sixteen hundred or so kilometers from here. Your dog team is nearly intact. It’s possible. The only thing that could get in your way is you.”
“And the bear,” Sarnai said. “You said, the bear.”
“The bear is just a bear,” the old woman said. “You’re a woman.”
“Exactly,” the old woman said.
Sarnai blanked out then, from exhaustion or infection, she didn’t know. When she came to, she was able to sit up. The old woman had taken off her leg braces, and when she saw that Sarnai was up, she brought her a bowl of soup.
“You’ll need to cross the mercury sea, seven days out from here,” the old woman said, raising a spoonful of broth to Sarnai’s lips. Sarnai could feed herself, but she accepted the help because the world still felt so hazy. “That will be the worst of it, I think. That and the lonesomeness of it all. It is the lonesomeness that kills quickly. You have to beat your own head. That’s what will kill the bear and the despair.”
Sarnai crawled out of bed the next day. She dragged herself across the icy floor to where the old woman had placed her environmental suit. She pulled on the suit and then tackled the leg braces. She painstakingly snapped them onto her disproportionately skinny legs. The old woman was lounging on a low couch near the warm blue glow of the heat source. She raised herself up on one elbow.
“You’re going on?” the old woman said.
“No choice,” Sarnai said.
“There is always a choice,” the old woman said. “I chose to stay out here.” She pointed to a long scar on her head where the hair no longer grew. “See that? A bear once attacked me out there by the frozen lake. Wanted my fish. I said, fuck him. I tried to fight, but you know how that goes. I had to go still, very still, and it lost interest, but it did a good job fucking me up. I crawled in here and I sewed up my own head.” She tapped her scalp. “We are stronger than we can imagine, you know that?”
Sarnai grimaced. “I have lived in the core settlements most of my life.”
“Not all, though,” the old woman said. “And what does it matter? I was raised there. We all came from the sky. We all make our lives. Our own futures. Who will you be, when you die? I will be the woman who sewed up her own head.” She cackled.
Sarnai managed to walk out to the dogs and the sled. The old woman had unharnessed the dogs, and she did not come out to help Sarnai hook them back up. Sarnai brought them all back to the sled and laced them up. Her braces were moving more slowly. Her gait was herky-jerky, like a marionette on a string. But she didn’t want to take the time to rub the braces down and clean them, not when she was so close.
She clunked into the sled and called the dogs, and off they raced. It was not until she looked back that she realized one of the dogs must be injured. She saw little spots of purple blood in their wake.
The bear was going to come snuffling for them. The bear, the bear, the bear … When she gazed back next, she thought she saw its hulking outline on the horizon, following the trail of blood. Faster, faster, they needed to ride faster.
The dogs raced up through low foothills and into a sparkling forest of jade and black stone. The dogs barely paid any mind to it, but Sarnai gaped. She had never seen such a thing. They raced and raced. She rode them hard, so hard that she lost one of the dogs, and she stared at its body the way she had stared at Khulan’s, but she could not weep because she was out of tears. When they bedded down that night, she swore she heard the bear chomping on its prize, sated for a day, just a day.
Sarnai arrived at the mercury sea in just six days, not seven, the bear always just over the last rise. She did not hesitate in ordering the dogs across the sea, though they balked. Their hesitation lost them their lead, and now when she gazed behind her, she could see, clearly, the hulking shadow of the bear. She yelled at the dogs to “Get, get!” and they did.
The sled slipped across the sea, the dogs barking and yapping as they went. She consulted her GPS, pleased to see that despite her delay, she was making excellent time. She was only five days from Batbayer, maybe six. Her supplies would last that long, and most of the dogs would, too. Sarnai called again to the dogs. The mercury sea was vast. They had been out on it for an hour. She squinted, and her head throbbed. Her headache was coming, soon. She slumped back into the sled.
That’s when the lead dog yelped.
The lead dog, Khulan’s dog, the dog whose name was, appropriately, “Oh shit.” Or perhaps just “Shit.”
The dog yelped, then squawked. The others tried to bolt, and in their panic, they were able to haul the lead dog out of the mercurial lake. But as Sarnai sat in the sled she felt the ground beneath her slip, then crack. She managed to get herself half out of the sled before the ice snapped and the sled began to sink.
“Fuck!” Sarnai breathed, clawing the side of the sled. She huffed herself onto the mercury ice, but her legs dragged her down. Her leg braces. Goddamn, those braces. Sarnai began unbuckling the braces from her legs as she scrambled for purchase on the ice behind her. The braces slipped free of her legs and plunged into the metallic sea, sinking faster than the sled. Sarnai clawed her way up the ice, making little hiccupping sounds of distress until she was well clear of the hole.
When she raised her head, she found herself gazing directly into the face of the bear, a dozen paces distant. It inhaled deeply and then started toward her. She grimaced. “Life,” she murmured, “is cruel and gross and awful.”
The bear did not hear, did not care. She reached for the fire pistol, but it had been attached to her leg braces, which were now likely floating beneath the surface of the sea. She sucked in a long, slow breath. The bear advanced.
Sarnai cast about for a weapon. The sled was half submerged in the slushy mercury sea. It was then that she saw the machete that Khulan had been using to cut at the creepers. She had stashed it back in the sled, and it glimmered at her now in the smeared yellowish light of the rising sun. Sarnai scrambled for the machete just as the bear broke into a run.
She grabbed the machete by the hilt and swung it full force into the face of the bear as it bore down upon her. Her swing caught the bear’s massive beak. It reared back, yanking her arms with it, but she hung on and pulled the machete free. The bear’s bulk had yanked her out of the sled and up onto the ice.
The bear came at her again. She held the machete close to her chest. The bear impaled itself on the blade, but with such force that it knocked the air from Sarnai’s lungs. She rolled to the side, trying to pull the machete with her, but it was lodged in the rolling fat of the bear’s chest. The bear stank of death; its own or hers?
Sarnai screamed at it and lunged for the hilt of the machete. She yanked hard, using all the strength in her upper body that she had honed for years while others used their legs, and she pulled the machete free. She swung again, more powerfully this time, and the blade sank again into the bear’s flesh. The bear roared and grabbed her by the shoulder. It shook her, hard, and the machete tore free once again. She slammed the machete into its shoulder, again and again, screaming as she did it. The bear broke away from her and trundled away, snuffling as it did.
She tried to catch her breath. How was she going to make it another five or six days across the tundra without the sled? Behind her, the sled remained half-submerged in the sea. The dogs were barking and yelping while half of their number paddled in the mercury sea, rolling along its surface, spinning and turning as they floated along. Is this what had happened to Erdene and her dogs? Was Sarnai going to die out here the way they had?
Sarnai lay the snow, watching the angry bear snuffle and snort. She empathized with it, but out here it was her or the bear, and she knew which she chose. She gripped the machete. Her legs were soaked in freezing mercury. How much longer until her suit gave out? But what did that matter? Whole settlements were dying. Human life on this planet might die out altogether. What did it matter how many limbs she had left? They were only for show, anyway. It was time she became what she was, instead of what made people comfortable.
Sarnai snarled at the bear.
It raised its head and roared at her.
She raised her machete.
Batbayer was a coastal city clinging to the edge of the sea. From four or five kilometers distant, it looked like a dead place, its longhouses layered in snow, its fires snuffed out.
But as the silvery sled came barreling down the low rise, there seemed to be signs of life, still. A long curl of smoke to the north. Snowy paths that had been clomped flat and dirtied by the patter of many footsteps.
Sarnai reined in the bear she had hitched to the front of her sled. “Ho now! Ho!” she called, and the bear responded, if not to her command then to the bit in its mangled beak.
Behind the sled, the six dogs that remained of her team took up the rear, squawking and barking as they caught the scent of Batbayer. Sarnai urged the bear forward, and together they careened down into the village, so fast and furiously that she had to throw out the sled’s jagged anchor because she feared the bear would not come to a halt.
The bear reared up at the stony gate, roaring and snarling. Sarnai sat in the belly of her sled, soaking in her own urine. She had not dared stop to cath. Now she found herself without her leg braces, stuck here at the gates of the city she had come to save.
Sarnai pulled herself out of the sled. She rolled out onto the icy ground and crawled on her elbows to the gate. The bear snorted at her. She waved her machete at him, urging him back. Then she raised her fist to the gate and knocked.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the gate opened. Sarnai gazed up from the snowy ground and set her gaze on those who greeted her. They were just children, not much older than she had been when the plague claimed her family.
The oldest, a girl, started when she saw Sarnai and said, “Oh no! Do you need help? The plague is here. You’re in danger here.”
And Sarnai laughed. “I don’t need help,” she said, and she laughed again, so hard and long that she could not catch her breath. “I don’t need help. I’m here to help you.”
As Sarnai had predicted, the serum was ruined by the time she reached Batbayer.
But she was not.
There were still some elders alive, and they knew how to synthesize her antibodies at the little medical bay they had set up with the expansive view of the frozen sea. Sarnai spent longer there than she intended, but it was worth it. She got to watch the spring roll in and soften the seas. The little heads of spring flowers pushed their way up through the snow. While there would never be a true thaw on Narantu, there was a spring, and it was beautiful. The light was warmer, brighter, and those who remained in Batbayer came alive with the light and the green growing things.
While they could not print leg braces for her, they were able to give Sarnai a rolling chair and a new environmental suit, and she cried when she got them, though she could not articulate why. She rolled herself out in the chair along the heated and treaded paths, which made her way easier, though not easy. She wheeled herself up onto a concrete slab that overlooked the sea, and she could not help but think of all those creatures that would no longer thrive in the spring. They were the foxes and bears, so well-suited for the worst this world could offer. But in their place, other creatures were uncurling from their long slumbers. Creatures better suited to this softer weather.
Sarnai inhaled deeply and wheeled herself back down the path, toward the infirmary. On the way, she passed the cemetery where the ashes of those who had perished were spread or buried, and their grave markers left for future generations. Who was to say, who must go and who must stay? The world decided. There was a bitter anger in that, that something as pitiless and uncaring as the world decided one’s fate. But it was not for the core settlements to decide, or the village elders, or anyone else. Just the world. Only the world.
She used the handrail next to the path up to the infirmary to help herself up the shallow rise. The world might decide her life or death, but the settlements still played their part in making her feel welcome or not.
Once inside the airlock, she removed her respirator and pulled back her hood. She wheeled herself over to the bed on the other side of the infirmary where the last of those who had contracted tumbledown lay in recovery. The little girl was just eight years old. She sat up and gazed out the window, hands in her lap. Her expression was familiar to Sarnai.
“You look like you are in need of hope,” Sarnai said.
The girl turned her gaze to Sarnai, and her lips trembled, and Sarnai noted that the girl’s left arm was still in her lap. The girl would not be able to move that arm any more than her own legs in the months and years to come. Sarnai wondered if she should tell her about the sex, or the cath, or the bag, and she decided not to. Those were already things the girl was learning to live with. The rest would come in time. For now, it was enough to live.
Sarnai wheeled herself up to the girl’s bedside.
“Atasha,” Sarnai said. “Would you like to hear a story?”
“Yes,” Atasha said. The lip trembled again, and Sarnai reached out her hand and took the girl’s right one, and squeezed it hard, the way that Khulan would have.
“Good, then,” Sarnai said. “Let’s tell a story about the world we’ll make together.”