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In the Frozen, Ancient City

The breather device was warm over Nerys’ mouth, her breath unable to escape far before being caught by the biotech. The air around her was thin and freezing cold, even through the thick protective layers of her scavenging gear, and she kept her hands tucked deep into her pockets as she sat huddled against the remnants of a wall, her headlight illuminating only a narrow patch of ground in the pitch darkness.

Nerys didn’t know where the rest of her party had gone. When she’d left to scout only a couple hours ago, the others had been right here. They were supposed to wait for her, but now that she was back—had been, for a while—they were gone, and she didn’t know where or how or why. They’d just all of them vanished, her worst fears playing out like a bad dream brought to life.

She could have used her powers and found out what happened. If she could get some sense of which direction they’d headed in, she would be able to read the past events from the rocks and abandoned structures that surrounded her. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. If they were all right, they would come back to get her. If they weren’t, she wasn’t interested in experiencing for herself whatever brutal demise had befallen them.

They group’s eyes had been set on a collection of ancient mechanical computers in one of the tallest buildings to the north. Nerys only briefly considered looking for it alone; she wasn’t sure she could find it if she tried. She thought she’d stay in this area instead, at least for the next few hours, and wait. Sleep, if she could.

The knowledge that she was alone weighed in on her as she sat there. The abandoned city stood silent and black as night around her, as it only could; the one place left alive on the planet was her shining home city, and that was a long journey from here.

A sound in the distance caught Nerys’ attention, footsteps crunching across the icy ground, coming slowly closer. She dared to hope, for a heartbeat, that it was her party returning.

She got to her feet. “Hello?”

The breather muffled her voice. The technology was vital to her survival out here, though, its electronic systems tied into the plantlike organism that produced oxygen for her to breathe.

The sound of movement halted.

“Who is that?” the other person said. She stepped into view of Nerys’ headlamp. Her face was obscured by the breather and goggles, the same as Nerys’, but where she had cut her hair short to leave room for these, the stranger had hers tied back into a blonde ponytail.

It was not anyone from Nerys’ crew.

She watched her with uncertainty. The girl was still a good distance away and didn’t seem to have noticed her yet. Nerys could still run if she wanted to. This woman didn’t look dangerous, but you never knew what kind of person you might meet out here in these icy wastes. Other scavengers were a nuisance, but colonist-wannabes were downright dangerous; they had too many big ideas, too much confidence that their new world order would be best for everyone.

But the woman must have spotted her because she moved towards Nerys with considerable speed now. The chance to run was gone.

It was not anyone from her own crew, but there was something familiar about her nonetheless.

“Hello?” the girl said. “My name is Seika.”

That was where she knew her from. Nerys forced herself to relax; Seika wasn’t a threat.

“It’s Nerys,” she said. “We went to school together?” They hadn’t been friends, but the near-surface school district had been small, and she remembered Seika.

Seika stared at her a moment and then said, “Oh! The postcog!”

Nerys was uneasy with how casually Seika reduced her to her ability. Seika’s own power was pretty low-level, she knew, and it was probably only jealousy. But it made her uncomfortable nevertheless.

“That’s me,” she said aloud.

“Can you read me?“ Seika said, with far too much eagerness.

“I’m not going to read your past in the middle of the wastes.” She couldn’t believe she would even ask.

“Oh,” Seika said. “Okay.”

Silence. The two of them watched one another. Around them, things were motionless, with no real atmosphere to blow wind through the rotting skyscrapers.

The ever-present cold seemed to bite into Nerys, to encompass her entire being, and every moment she stood there it refused to go away. She’d been out longer than usual—her party had had the overnight gear with them—and she was aware of a stiffness in her legs, a sort of frozen numbness that had become all-too-familiar.

Nerys wanted desperately to ask what Seika was doing here, but that would only invite questioning of her own purpose, and that wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have. The last thing she needed was Seika, of all people, taking an interest in her scavenging prospects.

“So,” she said, to break the silence.

Seika, thankfully, began to explain her own travels unprompted. She’d been moving away from the city for three days now, she said, wanting to see how far she could get. And now she was here.

“When you say ‘I,’” Nerys interrupted, “you mean, your crew, right?” They had to be around here somewhere. Perhaps they would let Nerys tag along with them for their trip; that would be a very neat solution to everything that had happened.

“I mean ‘I,’” Seika said.

“You went out alone?” Nerys had been terrified at the thought of being alone here for a handful of hours. The thought of days, wandering the abandoned territory…

“Yes?” Seika said. She at least had the decency to sound uncertain about it, now. “I bought all the gear and stuff, and headed out.”

Nerys didn’t know how to even begin explaining how terrible an idea that was. She’d had to spend weeks having proper procedure drilled into her head; rote memorization of information followed by physical training followed by finally, finally heading out on her first expedition just last month. In school, she’d always hated things that required her to be specific places or with specific people; she preferred her freedom. But even she could see the sense in the idea of staying together out here, of staying cautious.

“Does anyone even know you’re here?” Nerys said. Seika could be in serious danger.

“Of course,” she said. “Besides, I don’t know why you’re acting all superior”—because she was the one with the superiority complex, right, that made sense; it wasn’t as if Seika had spent hours in the common rooms loudly bragging about her priestess-to-be status—“when you clearly did the same thing.”

“I didn’t! I—“ Nerys broke off. As much as she disliked the insinuation that she’d struck out on her own, she didn’t want to have to explain what had happened to the others. Especially when she didn’t know what had happened.

She scowled beneath her breather.

“Is it really that dangerous to go out alone?” Seika said, a newfound nervousness in her voice.

“Yes.” Was it really that hard to understand?

“Do you mind if I stick with you, then?”

“What?” She hadn’t been expecting this response. Nerys hesitated. The idea of spending the rest of this trip with Seika was not an enjoyable one. But she didn’t want to have to be the one to report her death to the authorities, either. She didn’t want that blood on her conscience. “Fine.”

Seika said nothing but nodded.

“Come on,” Nerys said. “Let’s find somewhere to set up camp. Did you at least bring night gear?”

***

Seika did, in fact, have enough sense to pack a tent, and Nerys helped her to set it up on the ground floor of a dusty old building nearby. They spent the night there together, but when they both awoke to the night-black morning, they still had plenty of time to kill, and no good weapons to kill it with.

One of the older scavengers in Nerys’ crew had had a set of game cards, but that was gone along with him. And Seika had packed no books or games to speak of, which seemed poor planning to Nerys. But when she asked, Seika just said, “Well, I’m out here, aren’t I? I wasn’t exactly expecting downtime.”

Which meant that every now and then she would make some sort of request to go outside. Nerys, wanting to stay near the place she’d lost her party, always made some vague excuse, and they continued sitting there, making awkward conversation as the day wore on and on and on. She was rather surprised Seika hadn’t just made a break for it at this point.

Five insufferable word games later, Nerys asked if she could do a reading on Seika’s bag to kill time. Seika was eager to agree, and she regretted it almost instantly, but it was done. Seika handed over the pack, and Nerys touched it carefully, running her finger along the buckles and straps and zippers, focusing her mind on it. Her present-moment vision fogged over with the glow of her powers, and then the images came, one on top of the other.

Seika holding the bag as they set up the tent, as she met Nerys, as she walked the long way from their home city of Lumnis. Seika taking the bag off to set up the tent her previous nights; rifling through its contents for the bread and fruit she’d tucked into a smaller container. Backwards, backwards, backwards. Seika preparing to leave, her shape now fuzzy with distance from Nerys’ present. Then weeks speeding by as the bag sat unused, other hands on it, then blurriness and vague shapes she couldn’t quite read and then—

Nerys blinked. The tent, now warmer, came back into focus around her. Seika sat staring at her with wide eyes.

“What did you see?”

“Nothing you haven’t already seen,” Nerys said.

“But what’s it like?”

Nerys didn’t answer. She was done putting on a show for Seika to entertain herself with.

***

They spent an entire day like this. Then two. Then three. Seika got more restless each day, and by the time they went to sleep on the third, Nerys was starting to feel sympathetic.

Eventually, she relented. “Let’s go out,” she said, the next morning, and Seika was all too willing to agree. They spent a little while exploring the ruins nearby, Nerys yelling at Seika whenever she wandered too far from her line of sight.

Another day passed.

Nerys’ party was not coming back, and the two of them were running low on supplies.

“We have to go home.”

“What?” Seika said. “No. I came all the way out here. I can’t go back yet.”

“We have to,” Nerys said. “It’s not like I wanted this to happen, either, but it isn’t safe to stay here much longer.”

“I know, but—“

She felt like she was trying to explain something to a child. “Seika.”

“You can go home on your own, but I’m staying here.”

“My entire party is probably dead!” Nerys said. She couldn’t keep it in any longer.

Seika stared at her, shocked for a moment into silence. Then: “What happened?”

“I lost them the day before I met you,” Nerys said. “They sent me out to scout just around the next bend, and I come back to find them gone.”

“Maybe they just went on without you?” Her voice was high-pitched with uncertainty. Yet the very idea stung.

“They wouldn’t,” Nerys said, then amended, “They couldn’t.”

But couldn’t they? What if they really had just abandoned her? She was still new to this work, compared to them. Maybe they thought they could move faster without her.

“Didn’t you do a reading?” Seika asked.

“No,” Nerys said. She’d made the decision not to. She hadn’t wanted to know what sort of horrible fate had befallen them.

“Then let’s go do that!” She sounded way more excited than she should have.

Nerys hesitated. It was probably selfish of her, to avoid it like this. If her party had died, someone should know. She was uncomfortable with how quickly Seika had turned this into an adventure, a mystery to be solved rather than a tragedy that required no explanation, but she was also right. Waiting around wouldn’t get them anywhere. Nerys just had to bear through it, whatever it was.

And she got the sense that Seika would go chase after the missing party, with or without her there to read the past for her. If she was going to go rushing into this, Nerys couldn’t bring herself to leave her behind.

***

The two of them headed—through the dark, through the cold—to the last place Nerys had seen her party, the same place where Seika had first found her. It wasn’t at all far from where they’d camped the last few days, but every step there seemed an impossible task, drawing her closer and closer to a dreadful something.

The courtyard-like space was desolate, dotted with vague stone and metal shapes that must once have meant something to someone. A pile of rocky rubble to her left seemed a good target for her powers; it would have a wide view of the area.

She tried to brace herself for whatever worst-case scenario she might see, and then she set her hand lightly on the stone, and she saw.

Her and Seika arriving, talking. The stone sitting unmoving for a day, and then two, and then as a third day flew by in reverse the images began to get hazy.

Had they lost their window to Nerys’ squeamishness?

The very thought sent a bolt of fear and guilt running through her, and she forced herself to focus harder to make out the details. She and Seika there again, meeting up for the first time. Nerys, alone, curled against a nearby wall.

Then the scene played out, albeit in the backwards, time-bending logic of post-cognition, mixing with her own memories to form something coherent:

Luned, the leader of the party, turned her and said, “Nerys, can you go scout ahead?”

Nerys nodded, and stood, and headed off in the direction she was pointing.

The other three stood around a while, made idle small talk while they waited. It seemed, for a moment, like nothing unusual was going to happen. It was all as normal as ever. But the view was already hazy, and she couldn’t be entirely sure.

Then: one of them started coughing. Luned gave him a concerned look, but no one otherwise commented. No one noticed.

But the coughing didn’t stop.

“His breather,” said Wyn. “Something’s wrong with his breather. Malïk, are you okay?”

He didn’t respond. The other two were all over him, concerned, but he was coughing and suddenly Nerys had a good idea what was going to happen, what had happened to all of them, and she did not want to see this.

But she did. Malïk was dying. And then, all three of them were running, shouting to one another they had had to go, had to get back to the city, and all of them were coughing and coughing and coughing and—

She stepped back from the pillar.

***

They began the walk back to their camp in silence, nothing but the darkness to keep them company. Finally, though, Nerys forced herself to explain what she’d seen.

They were halfway back when Seika stopped her, pointing to something on the ground, not far off.

“Nerys,” she said. “Look.”

It was a breather, identical to Nerys’ in every way. She stepped over to pick it up, her feet crunching on the ice.

The fact that it wasn’t in use meant its owner was almost certainly dead. She thought of the others, of her vision. Whose had it been?

She turned it over in her hands and tucked it into her bag. She was suddenly conscious of her own steady breathing, a rasping in and out through her breather. “We’re going home now,” she said and meant it this time. Seika had to understand.

“Why? If your breather was going to short circuit like that, wouldn’t it have done it by now?”

“I’d rather not take that risk,” Nerys said. “Of course, you’re welcome to stay here and get yourself killed, instead.” Though, to be fair, Seika’s breather could be a different matter entirely; it wasn’t part of the same set as the others. But she hoped after this, Seika would have a better sense of the dangers of wandering out here alone.

***

They stayed the night nearby. The entire time, Nerys worried over her breather. Several times, she found herself on the edge of sleep, when the thought came, unbidden, that the breather had broken, and she was taking her last gasp of air. Nerys took measured, careful breaths for several minutes before she felt safe trying to sleep again.

She was so close to death. The idea of her—of the abstract sentience that was her—just not existing was terrifying in a way she could never have expressed aloud. Nerys had known when she’d signed on that this was a possibility. But now that it was here and close, and her companions—her friends—were dead, she didn’t know that she could take it.

Seika was asleep, lying beside her in her separate sleeping bag. Nerys didn’t know what time it was; they were too far from Lumnis for the brilliant electric lights to shine in, and so here, there was no night and no day. Just dark and cold and black.

What she did know was that she was tired. She slept, eventually, but not well.

***

“What were your power lessons like, as a postcog?” Seika asked. Her footsteps echoed through the empty city streets as they walked.

“Incredibly boring,” Nerys said.

They passed the time as best they could while heading home. Nerys found herself talking more and more as they continued. They dredged up shared memories of days past, and then commiserated or laughed over these things that now felt so insignificant.

Every now and then Nerys would stop and pull out her map, and then they would continue on their way. It was printed on plant-fiber paper, and its edges were white and blank, distant areas yet to be explored. But the path back to Lumnis was clear, and that was what mattered.

As Nerys went to put it away, this time, she noticed something off about the dead breather she’d picked up from that site where she’d lost her expedition. Small green plant buds seemed to have sprouted from it, as if out of nowhere.

She understood.

Back in the old days of ice-wastes exploration, breather technology was often not as reliable as it was now. The life form that powered it had not yet been refined into what it was today, and there were records of early expeditions who never came back. There were records, too, of early expeditions who came back with small white flowers sprouting from their breathers, the device’s planetoid organism forgetting all its careful training and growing too fast, too big for its space. They returned coughing and wheezing as the devices malfunctioned.

It had stuck in her mind since she’d first learned about it. But this hadn’t happened for a long time—centuries if she remembered correctly. People still went missing, but that was how it went. Yet everyone was so sure the glitch had been fixed. What Nerys had seen, what Nerys was looking at now, seemed to suggest otherwise.

Would that happen to her and Seika? Would some future scavenger stumble upon her flower-covered corpse, wondering what had happened?

***

It was a three-day trip back to Lumnis, and Nerys awoke on the morning of that third day to the sound of Seika coughing. It was too close to the sound of Malïk in her vision to be comfortable. Nerys sat up and looked at her, worry pulling at her mind like a fraying thread.

There were small green buds poking out of the metal edges of Seika’s breather, so small Nerys wouldn’t have noticed had she not known what to look for.

“Are you okay?” she asked after Seika had realized she was awake.

“I think so,” she said, but her voice trembled, and Nerys wasn’t sure whether this was due to the malfunction or fear.

“Let’s get moving,” she said, and they did.

They walked for a long while. Seika coughed occasionally but seemed otherwise fine.

Nerys started coughing, too. It was like getting grass stuffed into her mouth; little prickles of organic matter all over the inside of the device, and an unidentified something—petals, maybe, or pollen?—scratching at her throat and nose. It might have been no more than a nuisance if she hadn’t known already what it meant.

Hours later, Seika stumbled, and Nerys grabbed at her to stop her from falling. “Nerys,” Seika said, urgent, only it was so hard to make out the syllables through the plant matter that it barely sounded like her name at all. “I’m…” She didn’t finish the sentence. She was looking at Nerys as if she had all of the solutions. She didn’t.

“Can you breathe?” she said. Seika nodded. “All right, then. Keep walking forwards. I don’t think it’s far now.” If she was right about anything this whole trip, let her be right about this.

Lumnis was visible, getting closer with each step, but it was hard to judge just how far that distance was, or how long it might take them to cross it. Or, for that matter, how long either of them had left.

Nerys put an arm around Seika to steady her, and she leaned most of her weight onto Nerys. She stumbled, every few steps, and Nerys pulled her back onto her feet, and then they kept going, two dying women making their last stand as best they could.

They could make it back. They had to. Her party had died, but that was because they hadn’t been prepared. This would be different. They had time.

“Nerys?” Seika said.

“Yes?”

“What were you doing out here?” It was an unexpected question, but somehow it made sense.

“Scavenging,” she said. “It was a job, Seika, that’s all.”

“Oh.” She was quiet, grasping Nerys’ arm for support. Nerys wondered if it was a good idea for her to be talking when she was having such difficulty keeping up her breathing. But she didn’t say this aloud.”I just wanted to see what it was like,” Seika said. “I’m going to make priestess next month, and I just… I just wanted to do something, before I had all those responsibilities, you know?”

Nerys turned her head to look her in the face. “You were serious about that, back in the day? The priestess thing?”

“Yeah,” Seika said. Nerys expected her to elaborate, but she didn’t.

Nerys coughed. Seika, it seemed, was past coughing. Whether this was good or bad was unclear. Nerys was inclined to believe it was the latter.

The plant shoots’ growth was slow and invisible, but it was happening. They were just going to keep getting larger and larger, pushing through the mechanics until the breathers were just useless, deadly chunks of metal strapped to their faces.

Nerys shuffled forward through the stone and ice and glass that blanketed the earth, practically carrying Seika along with her. She kept moving forward. For a long while, this was all she knew, just the onward motion of it.

She wondered, in the back of her head, if Luned and the others had made it this far. If they’d made it home. Or maybe they were just out there, still wandering. More likely not. Nerys had their best map, and the three of them could only have had so long before it was all over.

She and Seika could only have so long before it was all over, too.

At a certain point, Nerys realized she couldn’t quite recall where they were going or why. She knew they were headed home, but she couldn’t quite figure out how that made sense. She was freezing, and light-headed, and nauseous, but Seika was next to her, and her home city glowed brightly ahead of them. She kept moving. Forwards, forwards, forwards.

Then Seika did something unexpected: she stopped moving.

She whispered something that Nerys couldn’t understand.

“We have to keep going,” Nerys said. She didn’t know if Seika could understand her, either. Did it matter? She could see Lumnis just ahead, shining with light. They were so close, they were so close. They couldn’t stop now.

Seika collapsed.

Nerys caught her, but she looked—unconscious? She was still warm, at least, still breathing. Or Nerys thought she was still breathing. She wasn’t quite sure.

“Come on.” Her voice cracked.

Seika didn’t respond. She didn’t move.

Nerys looked at the distance left between them and the first small door to her home city, outlined in dark gray against the city lights

Nerys grabbed hold of Seika’s unconscious body and began to drag her, her mind singing an endless refrain of her name.

She saw it play out all over again in reverse, through Seika’s eyes.

The plants growing. The breathers malfunctioning. Her and Seika, both of them full of fear. Their long treks back and forth across Eloton, wandering and uncertain and in danger. Their meeting.

There was a spark of excitement in Seika at encountering Nerys, and then a low bitterness, and then the fear. Always, the fear. Things blurred and faded. Seika making her exit from Lumnis for the first time, Seika saying her goodbyes and promising she’d return.

Nerys saw all of this as she held tight to Seika, kept moving forward, closer and closer to home. She thought about Seika again and delved further back.

The days and weeks and years flew by, the reading made all the stronger by their shared history, and she saw herself, she saw the schoolroom, she saw the teacher marking the dividing line between different types of powers. Seika making a complaint, muttering something about even having to go to a tunnel school when they knew her family lived on the surface. Meeting Nerys, for the first time, all those years ago.

They met eyes. They avoided one another as best as they could.

***

Nerys took a breath of warm, fresh air as she stumbled past the airlock that led into the covered city. She dropped Seika to the floor not far beyond, and the door slid shut behind them, beginning the room’s pressurization.

There was no one there waiting for them. She had opened the door herself, even as she’d hovered on that precipice of consciousness her visions took her to.

Nerys’ breather, non-operational and bursting with flower buds, lay on the floor next to Seika’s unmoving form. Hers had come off at some point during this last rush, tossed to the ground useless and covered in delicate blossoms.

Nerys leaned against the wall for a moment, catching her breath. She was on the border between home and the deadly place beyond, but it was so warm, here, compared to outside. Even now she was aware of the feeling returning to her thawing limbs. Her fingers seemed to be burning up, and her knowing this to be inaccurate did nothing to relieve the sensation of cold heat.

Nerys slid down to sit next to Seika on the floor. She shook her weakly. Seika didn’t wake up.

“Seika,” Nerys said. Seika made a soft, wordless sound, and opened her eyes. Nerys felt a tension within herself release. “Wake up,” she said. “We made it.”

A bit about the author:

Sarah E. Donnelly is a science fiction writer, college student, cat lover, and space enthusiast. Her geographical position seems to be in flux a lot these days, but odds are that she’s currently in Massachusetts. Visit author page