Loren’s brother-in-law fell sick six weeks after the last rack-and-pinion train departed for the base of the mountain and three weeks after winter closed over the mine like a frozen diamond pane. A layer of cloud hid the world far below, gray and silver in the winter-long night. Thunderheads drifted past, stately as tall ships under starshine, and you could watch them rise and collide and throb with lightning until your eyes froze over. Which took about eight seconds.
And in the stone hollow of a second-shift barracks within the mountain’s peak, Loren tried to do what he’d seen the old witch do. Start with the pulse, he thought. That’s simple enough.
But when he took hold of Clyde Greer’s wrist, the arm shifted with a crackling autumn leaf sound, and Clyde, his brother-in-law, flinched, eliciting a round of soft grinding noises. “It’s spreading,” Clyde muttered, trying to speak without moving his mouth. “It’s growing out from the bones into the muscle tissue. Left leg is the worst.”
“Don’t talk,” Loren said, because that’s what the old witch would have said. He peeled back Clyde’s eyelids and shined his helmet’s gas lamp into each eye, wincing a little when he saw the shatter of light behind the pupil and the slow response of the brown iris. Crystals were forming in the eye jelly. The old witch had had a fancy name for that jelly: vitreous humor. She’d also had a fancy name for the crystallization that was killing Clyde: fatal cascade precipitation. Loren called it crack-up. All the miners did. A name you could say was less frightening.
“Bad luck,” Clyde said through stiff lips. He sounded like a novice ventriloquist. “They say it’s a one in a thousand chance as long as you take your shots. Just bad luck, Loren. Bad luck.”
He’d been saying that for three days, sometimes to his sister, Loren’s wife, who was five hundred miles south. A mantra of bad luck; all the worse for being half true. Getting crack-up couldn’t be anything but chance. Dying of it was another matter.
The old witch—the old old witch—would have fixed him up in a day. It would have taken a massive injection of red, and it would have been expensive, but she’d always been the one to give the Company the rough side of her tongue, usually with a hint that she could give the coin-counters worse if she put her mind to it. “You want to mine Q,” she’d say, “you need workers. And you want to keep signing your paperwork, you need your thumbs.”
She was the genuine article, the old old witch, all the lifers said—the men who’d spent forty years working this mountaintop and still insisted she’d been an old crone from the day she arrived until the morning two months ago when she was transferred away, and never mind the decades in between.
Loren slouched back into the bedside chair. “We can fix this,” he said. “You’re going to be all right.”
Clyde made a scraping noise deep in this throat. A rivulet of blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth to mat his beard. His next breath had a hard, musical tone. A crystal had broken through his throat and made a whistle of his voice box.
There were no choices left. There’d been no choices since the first hints of pain in Clyde’s bones.
“Stay put,” Loren said, then flinched back as Clyde’s attempt at laughter ejected a fine red mist.
For the third time in as many days, Loren went to see the new old witch, and it was only with the utmost of self-restraint that he didn’t bring a pickaxe.
The atlases called this peak Highfall, likely because cartographers have perverse senses of humor. It rose like a shoddy brick thirty-five thousand feet above sea level and more than twenty thousand above the surrounding plateau. Its sisters marching away to north and south were lesser peaks, the tallest half a mile shorter than Highfall. The support camp at Highfall’s base serviced all six mountaintop quintessence mines in the chain, its trio of specialized locomotives dropping cogwheels when the tracks grew too steep for mere friction to hold the engines to the rails. But even the cog-driven trains couldn’t run in winter, which at this latitude was three months of freezing night.
It was more than the mundane cold, which could kill you in minutes if the thin air didn’t asphyxiate you first, and it was more than the wind, which screamed through the night like God’s own wolf out to howl down the moon. It was the aether. This high, the aether that flooded the world’s nightside from the far depths of space was a hungry, invasive thing. It tore the warmth from anything it touched, anything not shielded by several feet of solid rock or panels of quintessence-treated insulation. There were rumors that even these precautions weren’t always enough; that if the aether got your scent, it would bore through anything to find the heat of your blood. There was no surety against it but the light of day or a few thousand feet of good air over your head. Winter at Highfall offered neither.
Which was why there was no climbing or descending Highfall in winter, which was why the rack railway always loaded the mine to the rafters with supplies during the last weeks of autumn, which was why there were crates of medicine that could save Clyde’s life in the new old witch’s keeping—medicine she was refusing to dispense. Which was why Loren was stalking through the upper reaches of the mine with a slow-growing desire to break her already crooked nose.
The witch lived at the far end of the vault everyone called Main Street, in a tidy series of chambers adjacent to the oldest shafts. Main Street was lit up with gaslights but poorly; a lamp post or artificial stalagmite stood every thirty paces and cast a circle of weak, chilly light. Lamps cost oxygen. Fuel cost train space and coal. In some regions of the mine, they posed a fire hazard.
But without them, everyone went insane, so the Company groused and grumbled and ate the expense.
Perhaps in a gesture of twisted corporate solidarity, the new old witch kept her chambers even dimmer than Main Street. Her name was Gristle, which suggested either a cartographer’s wit or parents who had lost a bet. Then again, the old old witch’s name had been Lurga, so perhaps it was just a witchy tradition. She looked, when she opened the door at Loren’s knock, like ninety years of old leather topped off with a wig stolen from a tallow maker. Only her eyes were lively: a hard, piercing green.
“Mistress Gristle,” Loren said, and he said it respectfully. He liked having two legs, and an irate witch was apt to change that situation.
“Loren McCully,” she ground out. Her voice was like broken glass. “Here begging for red again, are you?”
“He’s dying,” Loren said. “Clyde’s dying. He needs the shot. Look, it’s what, twenty days’ ration? That’s inside the margin. We can spare it.”
Gristle’s jaw worked, warts and all. “How do you know we can spare it?”
“We can always spare it.” Desperation was slipping into his tone. Clyde handled the manifests for the supply shipments, and he’d not been shy about sharing that knowledge with Loren, rules be damned. “I can pay. Cut it out of my share, for all I care.”
Gristle studied him, and there was something brittle in her eyes that he couldn’t read. Frustration? Fear, even? “Go home, Loren,” she said. “You’re young. Patience takes time to learn. I’m finding alternatives. Trust me. He has a little time yet. In the worst case, I can put him in stasis and buy another few days. People wake up from that almost half the time.”
He hesitated, looking for an angle. “I could skip a few doses—a bunch of us would, for Clyde. If twenty of us skip a day—”
“No,” she said sharply. “Nobody skips. Red’s a better prophylactic than a cure. If people start skipping the injections, we’ll have twenty Clydes, and maybe you’ll tell me what to do then, too.” Her eyes bored into him. “If I hear you’ve been balking your medicine, Loren McCully, I’ll have you tied down and inject you myself.” A watch appeared in one liver-spotted hand. “You’re a second-shift man? Then you’re running late. Go on, now.”
For a moment, he wanted to dart past her, seize what he needed, and run. But the impulse faded. Gristle and old Lurga one quality in common: power. They hummed with it, the same reedy whine you got from standing too close to a Q outcrop. He’d felt it when Lurga sang a man’s broken bones back together, and when she’d cleared a rockfall with a snarl of something that wasn’t quite sound. And that power wasn’t all benign. There’d been a murder in the mine ten years back, in Loren’s first days here as a miner, and when they’d caught the killer, the old witch hadn’t waited for the noose. She’d mumbled something, and the man’s head had burst.
“The hell with you,” he said to Gristle, but he said it quietly, and he left to start his shift.
The preparations were second nature. Helmet, light, treated gloves, surveyors’ gear. An injection of red to stave off crack-up, a Locksley pill for extra oxygen, a swallow of Norton’s Patent Winterizer for the cold. The last was the worst. It kept you warm, but it made you crave fats. Midway through his shift, Loren would eat a cup of vegetable shortening or lard, and he’d like it. Then, after his shift, he’d remember the feel of it coating his mouth and throat, and he’d like it a hell of a lot less.
Nielsen, the senior engineer and second shift supervisor, moved down the line of miners, checking gear. He was a stern-looking man with severe features and a manner far older than his forty years. “How is Clyde?” he asked quietly when he came to Loren.
“The same. Gristle won’t treat him.”
Nielsen’s mouth tightened, and he nodded. “There are four other cases,” he said. An edge crept into his voice. “We will figure this out. Everything will be all right.”
Loren could almost believe him. There were stories about what Nielsen had been before he studied engineering: a sailor, a politician, a lawman, a thief. They changed every year. The men loved him, and they loved inventing lies about him even more.
But what Nielsen was now was worried. He kept tossing uneasy glances at the cloud chamber set against one wall, a man-high glass case filled with alcohol vapor and meant to measure the threat of crack-up. Tiny trails of condensation flickered through it every few seconds, marking the paths of objects too small for even a microscope to reveal: aethersleet, particles of condensed aether shed by violent events in remote reaches of space, streaming down in a constant barrage throughout the months-long winter night. Now and then, they struck ordinary rock just so and triggered the crystallization reaction that produced quintessence in great jagged seams within the peaks of high mountains. Now and then, they struck human flesh and left a brother-in-law breathing raggedly and trying not to move as his flesh went glass-brittle and lifeless.
As Loren advanced down the newest shaft to set survey reflectors and ensure the shaft was running true, he imagined he could feel that sleet slashing through him. Invisible bullets. Invisible, slow-killing bullets.
There were two firearms in the mine. One was locked in a case in the administrative offices. The other was locked in Nielsen’s desk. But that wasn’t what would make Nielsen dangerous. The man was smart. He wouldn’t brook with theft—not of coin, tools, provisions, or red. Anyone who posed a threat to the well-being of his men would find himself bleeding out or hanged from a handy cross-brace.
Dimly, Loren realized that he was already seeing Nielsen as an adversary.
He spent his shift like a clockwork man, thoughtless of his tasks, hardly even noticing the tooth-rattling buzz of the Q formations as he inspected the survey markers meant to guide the next shaft extension. The shafts were perilously near the surface here. A degree off, and the shaft might break through the mountainside into near-vacuum. He ate his lard in silence and cleaned his gloves with detergent. All through those ten hours, he could think only of the blood on Clyde’s chin and, in feverish conflation, drops of blood welling in Deirdre’s eyes and drawing pink tracks down her cheeks. Spring would come, and he would descend the mountain with death in his mouth. It tasted like rancid fat.
Only one event broke through his anxiety. In the last hour of his shift, an outer seal blew, exposing the mine to the outside world. The overpressure sent a howl of wind down the shaft. There was cold, and there was cold, and the sudden pressure drop could freeze your bits off; or so the lifers said, usually with a few crude gestures and an invitation to see for yourself.
Then the gaslights, starved of oxygen, went out.
Nielsen reacted immediately, shouting for everyone to stop and hold still, dammit.
Against every instinct, against the force of panic, Loren did. He couldn’t breathe. His face was going numb. The blackness was absolute, and noises had a strange, thin quality. Muffled curses as someone blundered into a wall. He stood there listening in the dark, and a strange sound drifted down from the outside world, cutting deep.
Then came the ratcheting snarl of freed clockworks, and a spring-run arclight blazed to life. Nielsen held it up and pointed down the tunnel, then raised four fingers. There was no fear in his face, merely irritation. Of course: there was an emergency cache of lights and oxygen four cross-tunnels away. They’d all trained for this. It just took a second or two—sometimes a fatal second or two—for the training to kick in. They withdrew up the shaft in single file, Nielsen at the tail of the line, his free hand on Loren’s back, light held high to send their shadows on ahead.
They cleared the first airlock just as darkness began to play around the edges of Loren’s vision. At Nielsen’s signal, he put his shoulder to the door and shoved, then spun the wheel to lock it. The wind stopped. Safety crews were already coming to meet them, bearing more Locksley pills and Winterizer and emergency oxygen tanks—none of which worked because the cheap rubber masks and hoses had degraded after years of disuse.
So the last hour of the shift was spent in grumbling and swearing that the Company was out to kill them all and sell their contracts off at cheaper rates. Loren hardly heard any of it, even when Nielsen threatened bloody revolt against any pencil-pusher who’d never set foot above twenty thousand feet. Loren fixated instead on the sound he’d heard the moment the pressure dropped. For a bare second, he’d heard the wind flowing over the breached seal and sounding a perfect musical tone. It touched his memory, harmonizing with the whistle in Clyde’s throat.
There was no logic to what came next. He realized that the tone had made up his mind. Powers and Nielsen be damned, he was going to take what he needed from Gristle’s cache. The Company might not care, but he still did. He’d lost enough—Deirdre had lost enough.
So he went home to the chambers he shared with Clyde and a dozen other second-shift men, and he made sure Clyde was as comfortable as possible, and then he lay awake, waiting and listening as the lamps went out.
Three hours slid by. Adrenaline sang in his blood and honed his hearing. He imagined he could count the distinct snores. He might even know which ones went with which men; he’d shared quarters with them for long enough, with only occasional breaks to descend the mountain and spend a week or two with his wife Deirdre. The difference made him ache inside. When he was with her, he slept in silence and warmth, her body soft and smooth against him, her breathing a regular sigh over his chest. He always slept well, either because they’d made love or because she’d read to him. He could read but not like she could—not with feeling, like she could get at the life under the words.
Here, it was a ragged chorus of men snoring and farting and reeking of sweat—if it was a good night, only of sweat,.
A thin, high sound. Clyde’s breathing whistling past the crystals growing in his throat. He had even more formal education than his sister. Hell, he’d landed Loren this job, back when Loren had been a free-climbing prospector with minimal qualifications and a bare handful of years left in his life expectancy. He’d introduced him to Deirdre with an odd, knowing look.
I owe him, Loren thought. I owe him everything.
When he counted thirteen distinct snores, he rose, dressed, and slipped out, carrying his boots and trying not to cringe at the cold eating up through his thick socks into his feet. He brought a few tools tucked into his belt: a lamp, a ghostlight, a probe for locks, a chisel for bigger locks, a crowbar, a rag to deaden the sound of his work. He could not imagine that Gristle slept any way but lightly. Maybe with one of those hard green eyes wide open.
Nobody was on Main Street. Third shift was the worst, the agreed-upon night shift, and the living areas of the mine were deserted. He picked the lock on the old witch’s door easily, which was frightening in itself. The simple lock was a sign of perfect confidence. Or that the Company was as cheap about locks as it was about everything else.
He left his boots inside the door and passed through into darkness, feeling his way, reaching carefully with feet and hands. Soft carpeting muffled his footfalls. Gristle’s predecessor had let him all the way into the inventory room a few times, even made him a cup of tea there. Lurga had been kindly. Chatty, even, when the mood took her. He remembered the way, but remembering it in fear and the dark was another matter. Every time his foot tapped something, he thought his heart might blow a gasket.
But there were other sounds: the rumble and hiss of the steam engines that ran pumps to kept parts of the mine pressurized. The almost subsonic crunch of the Q grinders that processed the crystal for loading into train cars when spring came. The plink plink plink of a distant graywater trickle raising fantastic ice sculptures no one would ever see. The night was not altogether silent. He had a chance.
He slipped through an inner room and immediately kicked something unyielding. At this rate, he’d kick his toes black before he reached the inner room, never mind the noise he’d make. He forced himself to crack the ghostlight, tapping one end to break the glass vial inside and fill the tube with faint blue-white luminescence. It was just enough to keep him from stumbling—and just enough to reveal the silhouette of a head and shoulders less than a yard away. The cry of alarm died in his throat when he saw it was a dummy, like the ones he’d seen in dressmakers’ shops down in the warmer world. This one, though, had a reproduction of the witch’s face on it, lifelike but lifeless, blank eyeholes mocking him for his panic. A fetish, he supposed, though why she’d want one in her own likeness was beyond him.
“Dammit, Gristle,” he breathed. “Just when I thought I couldn’t like you less.”
He held tight to the ghostlight and made his way to the inventory room. There, he risked lighting his lamp, hooding it to a narrow beam. Crates were stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves, arranged and labeled with librarian precision. There were cabinets with drawers of fine powders and metal flasks of other chemicals—precursors to various witchy brews, he supposed. The previous Company witch had been open about what she could and couldn’t cure, and she’d even shared a few of her methods. Most of them hadn’t sounded like magic at all. Then again, she’d once mumbled a man’s head into blowing up. She could afford a bit of demystification.
He pried up the top from a crate of red with his crowbar. The nails squeaked, and he went still. No sound followed—no footsteps, no crone’s shriek of alarm, no thunderclap inside his own head that left his brains all over the walls. He finished prying, plucked out two glass vials, and tucked them into his pockets. They’d be missed when Gristle opened the crate herself in a month or two, but what could she prove? They might have been omitted from the shipment. And when Clyde recovered, Loren would just claim he’d prayed extra hard. It would be thin, but it would fly. It had to. He couldn’t contemplate the alternative.
Now came the hard part: resealing the crate. He lowered the lid, positioned the first nail under his rag, and set to tapping with the flat side of the crowbar. It was slow work, and it sounded like thunder in his ears. Only when he was halfway done did he realize he just might be all right. Gristle didn’t sleep with one eye open. She was an old woman. She probably slept like the dead, being halfway there already. He began to relax.
A sharp intake of breath and flood of light from behind snapped his head around. There was Gristle, a small, stooped silhouette in the door, backlit by the lamps in the room beyond. She was drawing breath, preparing a spell—
Panic overrode thought. She’d caught him, she’d caught him, and he’d die now or by the noose, and Clyde was dead too, would go all brittle and die when his lungs couldn’t draw breath or when his heart shredded itself on a thousand crystal needles.
He lunged and swung the crowbar overhand. It was a clumsy blow, but the points punched into Gristle’s collarbone, and his weight bore her backward through the door, driving her to the ground. Her head cracked hard against the stone. He pulled the crowbar free in a spray of blood that flashed red in the sudden brilliance of the gaslights, blinding after his hour’s work in the dark. He raised the crowbar again even though it weighed a thousand pounds and his muscles had gone all liquid, like in those dreams where you had to fight but all the strength had drained out of you, and he had to squint through watering eyes to see—to see—
He stopped. Bright green eyes stared up at him from a young woman’s face. She was pretty in a girlish sort of way, with delicate features and long black hair fanned out on the stone floor. Her mouth worked soundlessly, and her eyes darted, frightened. Blood still leapt in spurts from the wound in her neck. She was trying to inhale but couldn’t. He’d crushed the wind from her with his tackle. One small, long-fingered hand groped toward his face. He pushed it aside. He had to explain himself. If he could just tell her why—if he could make her understand—
The fear in her face was giving way to something else. Hairs on his neck rose as power gathered.
“I’m sorry,” he tried to say.
Sudden pain bit into his chest and rocketed up into his head, but he kept his grip on the crowbar and brought it down one last time, and Gristle lay dead beneath him.
The next hour passed in a strange calm, as though he’d decided the entire affair was a persistent dream. He found rags with which to clean up the blood. He wrapped Gristle in the one ruined carpet, trying not to touch her, flinching every time his hands brushed the thick flannel of her nightgown. Fully lit, the room’s function was obvious. Half was a simple laboratory. Half was a dressing room. The mannequin wearing Gristle’s false face stood before a three-panel mirror. Stacked cases held cosmetics of all sorts: powders, pastes, fake warts, little clusters of bristles. Pads and brushes and mixing trays. Three pairs of brushy, winglike eyebrows stared accusingly at him from their compartment. When he opened her closet, he found that her coats all had a wood and whalebone apparatus to raise a hump across her shoulders. Gristle hadn’t been old and bent; she’d just been short.
He also found a single case of red in her closet, half-empty. The seal on every vial was broken. He didn’t know what that meant, but it broke his dreamy calm and set his hands shaking. He couldn’t administer the stolen drug now. If Clyde recovered just after Gristle was robbed and murdered, well, there was no story that would convince people to turn a blind eye. And when they found her body, saw what she’d really been....
Would he have felt better about killing an old woman? Yes, he would have, and the thought twisted his guts.
But he had a little hope left. With Gristle gone, the senior-most shift supervisor would take over what parts of her job he could. And that meant Nielsen would be in charge. He’d treat Clyde. He had to, didn’t he? He cared.
Just not enough to intercede sooner.
Loren replaced the stolen vials, tacked the crate closed, and stood for a long time in Gristle’s dressing room, considering the shapeless roll of carpet.
Nothing but dumb luck preserved him from discovery when he bore the wrapped body down to the inactive shafts. He carried her—it, he told himself, it— to the deepest of the old shafts, the one that ran straight down almost half a mile before corkscrewing off, and tipped the body over the edge. It fell and fell. If it raised a sound when it struck bottom, it was too far away for him to hear. He wanted to say something, one more apology, but he didn’t know her name. The realization raised a bark of rotten laughter. Of course Gristle had been an alias. Nobody would name their child Gristle. Just another part of a disguise for a young woman who had to spend years alone in a company of sexually frustrated men and command their respect and obedience.
He ran his gloved hands over his face and jerked them away, suddenly sure that he’d smeared blood all over himself. But when he unhooded his lamp, he saw that his gloves were clean. It didn’t matter. Anyone who saw him would know what he’d done. They’d see it in his eyes, in the crook of his hands. He had to leave. Escape. There were handcars in the little roundhouse outside the main mine entrance—there might even be one or two inside the airlock. It was easier to keep them inside than to break the ice off in spring, wasn’t it? If he kitted himself out, took a few extra Locksleys, brought an oxygen bottle—
—he’d freeze to death in an hour. It was that three-month winter night, that three-month rush of aetherfall, and it was more than mere cold. The aether fed. It would reach through whatever he wore and suck the life from him. Assuming that the winds didn’t blow the handcart from the tracks, his brittle corpse would arrive in the support village, where the skeleton crew would have a morbid conversation piece.
There was no escape. Just this cave—the one in the mountain and the darker one behind his eyes. When he crept back to his barracks, stripped, and slid into his cot an arm’s length from Clyde, he fought to keep the crunch of that second blow from his mind, along with the vision, just before the stroke fell, of the terror and rage that had twisted the girl’s face. An impulse to confess blossomed and died inside him.
“I have to live,” he murmured to the unconscious Clyde. Then, soundlessly: if only so I can go down the mountain in spring and tell my wife I let her brother die.
He could already see Deirdre’s tears, taste the salt on her cheeks. She was twenty-six, four years younger than he, but she’d already seen more loss than he cared to think about. Dead parents, dead sister, a string of miscarriages that had burned into her in ways he knew he couldn’t understand. Grief had twisted inside him at each one. He’d seen that same grief inside her, but also guilt, shame, and maybe feelings that didn’t have names. And now her brother was dying. She would forgive him—that was the worst part—and sink a little deeper into the silence that had punctuated their visits more and more over the last few years.
When he went home, he would have his own silence, a dead space around Gristle’s final expression and the feel of a crowbar striking bone. The sensation clung to him as consciousness faded, and she was waiting in his dreams, smiling coldly and whispering, her breath hot and close in his ear.
“I hadn’t expected this,” Nielsen said. He stood in Gristle’s dressing room with the lamps turned all the way up. He frowned at Loren. “Though I see the rationale. Do you think all the Company witches do likewise?” He prodded at the false face and gave a low whistle. “What do you suppose she really looked like?”
Loren kept his face neutral. The rumors had reached him with the morning’s injection: Gristle was missing, Gristle was dead, Gristle had been found staked up in an old tunnel. The summons had come soon after, and he’d been transfixed with anxiety, sure that he’d left some obvious clue, like a glove with his name sewn into it or a somnambulist’s confession painted on a wall in blood. But Nielsen had merely waved him into the witch’s quarters where another shift supervisor—Jackson, his name was—and a miner Loren didn’t know were peering in perplexity at the trappings of Gristle’s hidden life. “No way to know, I guess,” Loren said.
Jackson held up a roll of clean white rags. “If these are what I think they are,” he said, “she was a lot younger than she made out.”
Nielsen averted his eyes.
“Oh, be a man,” Jackson said. “Don’t you have sisters?”
“Do you think she just... left?” Loren asked.
Nielsen shook his head. “All her cold-weather gear is still here. From the dust on the floor, there’s a carpet missing. It’s roughly the right size for wrapping a body. So either she liked that carpet far too much and thought she could climb down Highfall in winter without so much as a coat, or she’s dead.” He caught Loren’s questioning stare and added, “I did a stint as sheriff in a copper mining town about ten years ago. I knew a little law, I could read and was sober, and that made me the best-qualified soul in a hundred miles. In the matter at hand, I’m given to understand I’m the best we have. So now we have a hundred and forty men who were not in the active mines last night, and the question of who would want our only witch dead.”
“She was doing a shit job,” Jackson said. “So there’s that. Five men down with crack-up, and her sitting on the red. Fair enough, she did good work on the ones that got their hands mangled when that steam drill gutted itself, but who’s going to say no when a man’s bleeding out right there? I’ll say it if nobody else will: this was one frosty bitch, and nobody liked her. The old witch left big shoes.” He pointed to where Gristle’s boots stood beside the door. “This one had tiny feet.”
Loren rubbed at his eyes, trying to find a pattern that would point away from himself. “Is anything missing?” he asked. “If it was about how she was handling the crack-up, somebody might’ve robbed her for a heavy dose of red.” He hesitated, then added, “I was tempted myself. With Clyde and all.”
Nielsen gave him a long look. “I’d wondered,” he said. “But breaking into a witch’s quarters would have been suicide. Correction, breaking into Lurga’s quarters would have been suicide. This was done in either folly or desperation. No one here is either of those—not yet. Right. Time to take inventory.”
So they did, Loren contriving to inspect the crate he’d already opened. Four hours later, with nothing missing, Nielsen sent them away with instructions to share what they knew and quash any rumors that followed. “We don’t know what happened,” he said, “but we have all her supplies and some halfway decent medics. We should be fine.”
The miner Loren didn’t know, a squat, scraggly looking man named Wilson, held up a slim book from the shelf in Gristle’s bedroom. “Who gets her stuff?” he asked. “Spare me the righteous looks. You’re all thinking it too.”
“That’s evidence,” Nielsen said. Then, without heat: “And you are unseemly.”
Wilson snorted. “You picked me.”
“I did. Because your supervisor is Shoemaker, who has three men down with crack-up and is growing desperate about meeting his quota. Your task is to watch him.”
Wilson sobered. “All right. So. We going to get the red and treat our men, or what?”
Nielsen hesitated. Loren fought the weightless feeling in his stomach, the painful mingling of hope and doubt. “I don’t know,” Nielsen said at last. “It’s possible that our Gristle was callous or outright evil, but I don’t see that. It is more likely that she lacked social skills. What if she had a reason for not treating those cases?”
“What if she didn’t know what she was doing?” Loren countered.
Nielsen gestured at the storage room around them, his precise, mechanical movements highlighting its organization. “Does this look like it belongs to an incompetent? Now spread the word, go back to work, and for the love of God, keep your eyes open.” He drew a deep breath and let it out in a hiss. “I have thinking to do.”
Clyde’s condition continued to deteriorate. His pulse came faster and weaker. He couldn’t speak. The whites of his eyes had gone bloody. Whenever he moved, he gasped, and his face tightened in pain.
And Loren could do nothing but tip water and broth down his throat. Soon he’d have to worry about bedsores, and he hadn’t a clue about how to handle those. Rolling Clyde over would tear him up inside, wouldn’t it? Moving him enough to get at the bedpans was torture enough.
He lost himself in the immediate practical questions. With Clyde in front of him, he could almost forget what he’d done in trying to save him. Trying, and probably failing, unless Nielsen had a change of heart damn quick.
But after his shift in the mine, when the lamps went out and sleep closed around him like a cyst, there was nothing between him and the memory. He dreamed her face, her weak struggle, her reaching hand. Then pain in his chest and head, and now, in the strange drift of dream country, a brightness that passed between them, joining them in a luminous braid.
He jerked awake to a flash of pain and found himself sitting on cold stone and gripping a utility knife. When he groped at the burning in his left arm, he discovered three parallel cuts like claw marks down his bicep and blood sheeting his arm to the wrist. Then he realized that while his right hand was exploring the cuts, his left had picked the knife back up. He made himself drop it. It clinked on the floor beside a portable gas lamp.
Nobody can see this, he thought. Nobody. I can’t explain it.
He looked around for witnesses, suddenly frantic, but he was no longer in his barracks. He sat in a disused shaft beside an airlock. Someone had broken the welds and opened the lock. A narrow exploratory tunnel opened beyond, one just broad enough for a slim man’s shoulders. When he raised the lamp, he could make out the clutter of an imperfectly cleared passage—and there, at the far edge, the eerie glint of Q. His teeth ached, and nausea pooled in his guts. The far end of the tunnel had to be fifty feet away. For the Q to feel like this, it had to be a massive seam.
He dropped back behind the shelter of the half-open airlock and waited for the nausea to subside. He was woozy from either blood loss or half-remembered pain. And he was starting to shiver. He’d shed his jacket to get at his arm, and now he was breaking out in goosebumps. If he hadn’t woken up, he might have died. Blood loss or hypothermia: dealer’s choice.
He groped his way to the infirmary, found it unmanned. Unsurprising. There had been a lot of accidents this winter, mostly problems with the machines. The medics were always out. He stole a roll of bandages and doused the arm in alcohol, gasping at the new shock of pain.
You deserve this. The thought came sudden and sharp-edged.
He did. He deserved worse.
He grabbed enough rags to—he hoped—clean up the blood before he returned to his barracks. A few of the men were awake, whispering together in the dark. “Bad dream,” he mumbled.
“Small bladder,” somebody replied.
A single weak laugh answered. And no wonder. Their witch was dead. The medics were good, but they weren’t Gristle, and everyone knew it.
He fell into his cot and tried to claim a few more hours sleep, first making sure his footlocker was shut and locked. If his guilt wanted to cut him in his sleep, it would have to find his keys first. His arm throbbed with his pulse, the pain somehow soothing, and he slid toward sleep.
It won’t matter. The thought was clear against the fog of fading consciousness. It was all for nothing, Loren McCully. You still don’t understand what you’ve done.
Funny, he thought as the next dream took him; it sounded like a woman’s voice.
Nielsen decided to treat the crack-up cases. Two were worse off even than Clyde. Which made no sense. “We shouldn’t have five cases of fatal cascade at all,” he said to his impromptu investigators in Gristle’s receiving room. “I’ve been monitoring the cloud chamber. The aethersleet rates are holding at normal levels. With the red regimen, I would expect a single case every two years. That’s what we’ve seen in the past. That’s what we’ve always seen. Five cases in a week means that something has gone wrong.”
“Six,” Jackson said grimly. “I’ve got another man down. Can we up the daily dosage?”
Nielsen spread his hands in helplessness. “I’m unsure what side effects that could cause. That’s what Gristle was for. I don’t even know how red works. We’ll have to administer horse-sized shots to save the sick ones. If they pull through without, say, growing an extra head, we can start taking more ourselves. That said, there’s only so much margin. We could run out before the trains start running again. If that happens, we die up here.” His gaze slid around the room. “Something’s wrong,” he said again. “Too many crack-ups, and our witch is gone. Dead, in all likelihood.”
“Too many equipment failures,” Wilson cut in. “You know we had one of the pump engines throw a rod? Haven’t seen that in years. Damn near took a man’s head off.”
This is good, Loren thought. This is what I need. They’re looking everywhere else.
You selfish, clueless son of a bitch.
“I heard about that,” Nielsen said. He wore a faraway look. “Was it a new rod?”
“Eh, no. New fix, though. New bolts, maybe?”
Nielsen nodded. “Trace the shipment of spare bolts. I want to know when it arrived.”
“You thinking something, boss?”
Nielsen knocked the top off a crate and pulled out a vial of red. “I might be. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.”
Unsure why, Loren went with Wilson to check the lot and shipping numbers for the replacement bolts. This used to be Clyde’s job, he thought. He used to have his own little room off the office, not a spare cot in a barracks full of second-shifters.
“Here we go,” Wilson said, holding up a typewritten page defaced with a scrawl of notes. “Came up on the last train. Why’d you suppose the boss cares?”
“Don’t know,” Loren said. Then his mouth added, “Check what else came up on the last train.”
“Sure. We’ve got rations, a hell of a lot of veggie fat—God, I hate that stuff—the winter stock of red, spare hoses for the oxygen tanks, all the usual shit. Why?”
“The winter stock of red,” Loren’s mouth said. It seemed to have gotten ahead of his brain.
“Yeah. Want to dose Clyde yourself? You’re buddies, yeah?”
He did, even though he couldn’t stop thinking about the separate stock of red that Gristle had kept in her closet. He kept on thinking about it even as Nielsen signed out the prodigal injections and as the medic guided him through the first dose. “Two more in the next six hours,” the medic said. “It’ll work fast. It’s supposed to, anyways. I’ve never seen a case go this far.”
Still panicking, still not thinking. It’s all right in front of you.
He sat by Clyde’s cot that night, waiting for the whistle in his breathing to subside. He kept his boots on and knotted the laces together. There’d be no sleepwalking tonight. He drifted off that way, head drooping down to his chest, fully dressed and wrapped in a blanket on the cold floor. Everything might still be all right. All he had to do was spend his life never telling anyone, never telling Deirdre, what he’d done to buy Clyde’s life.
He woke in the middle of the night. He was sitting in an equipment closet, his boots neatly re-laced. A cracked ghostlight lay beside him, and a notepad of coarse paper was open on his knee. He trousers had been pushed down to his knees, and his right hand held a knife under his crotch.
A faint sense of exasperation fluttered in his mind before fear took over and shriveled his testicles back from the immediate danger.
His hand dropped the knife, took up a fountain pen, and wrote in a neat, looping script on the notepad:
Do I have your attention?
It wasn’t his handwriting, but he recognized it from row after row of neat labels. “Gristle?” he whispered.
The written answer seemed to take forever:
Obviously. I should have killed you.
The full-stop was a spreading blot where the pen had stabbed the page. “I’m sorry,” he said. He tried to move his right hand, found that he could. “I—”
His hand jerked, resumed writing:
I still could. Stop fighting me. No matter what, you have to sleep sometime. Remember that, Loren McCully.
“What did you do?”
What I had to. I was dying. You were there. I crossed over. It’s not a smooth process. I wasn’t even sure why they taught us that spell.
More ghost sensations crossed his mind: regret, pain, nostalgia, gratitude. A vague impression of quiet halls and rooms full of books. Stern but not unkind voices.
“You can’t kill me,” he whispered. “You’d die, too, wouldn’t you?”
His hand hesitated over the paper. Then:
I could make you wish you were dead. There are parts of you you’d miss.
He tried, with some success, to pull his pants up left-handed. “I might bleed out.”
There are other parts of you I could take away. You expect to see your wife when spring comes. I’ll still be here. Think on your sins, Loren.
His breath caught. “You wouldn’t.”
You killed me.
This time, the words echoed in his head like a fading scream. A flood of fear and anger burst through him—not his, he realized now. Gristle’s.
Carefully, and of his own volition, he added an exclamation mark to her last sentence. “Clyde was dying,” he said.
He could hear her voice more clearly now, as though the notepad were merely a synchronizing gear between the two minds caught in his head. She sounded sick and frightened and tired—like a young woman trapped alone in a strange place, not like a witch threatening to castrate him or murder his wife. Guilt blossomed in his mind, followed by pity.
Keep your pity.
He took a deep breath. “I know you’re desperate,” he said. “But if you threaten Deirdre again, I’ll kill myself.”
Well, look who’s decided there’s something he’ll die for after all.
Then somehow he was up and striding out of the closet, one hand awkwardly holding his trousers up. He recognized the tunnel at once: two sets of rails ran down its length, and its far end flared into a loading bay. This was the outer edge of the mine, just below the western side of the peak. There was an airlock less than fifty yards away. And Gristle was marching them towards it. He could already imagine the aethersleet flashing invisibly, imperceptibly through him. This near the surface, he had to be getting a higher dosage. And the aether itself would be pouring down outside the airlock doors in a silent roar.
He tried to stop walking, managed to make himself stumble. Gristle released control at once.
I thought so. I’m in here, too, remember? I know you. You don’t have the courage.
She was right—almost right. “I’d turn myself in, though. They’d either hang me or lock me up. They’d never let you near Deirdre. Never.”
He held up the notepad, waiting. The pen didn’t move. A suggestion of doubt from Gristle.
“What’s your real name?”
The pen remained motionless, but he heard the name anyway: Rose.
Then: Damn, I didn’t mean to say that.
“Rose. What are you going to do? What do you want from me?”
No answer. Her presence faded. His right hand was his own again and shaking like mad. He tore the used page from the notebook and shredded it. Then he went to check Clyde’s condition. It was still worsening.
Morning came, and he took the most awkward piss of his life.
I’ve already seen it all.
“Not helping,” he muttered, keeping his voice low and hoping no one else at the urinal trough would notice. “Why isn’t Clyde getting better?”
Because the red you injected is saline and dye. The whole winter shipment is. I’d been diluting the regular doses to make the real supply last as long as possible, but a higher incidence of crack-up was inevitable.
“You have the real stuff? Oh. The crate in your closet.” He buttoned his fly. “There’s enough for—”
There’s enough to keep some of you alive all winter. Possibly. Or you can use it all to temporarily cure six men, who will then sicken again and die without daily prophylactic injections. Just like the rest of you. There’s a reason I showed you that abandoned exploratory shaft two nights ago. Think about it. A promising vein, abandoned. An increase in illness and accidents, compromising your quotas. I think John has almost figured it out, by the way.
John? he thought. Ah, yes: John Nielsen.
A few faint thoughts that were most assuredly not his own floated to the surface of his mind, all to do with Nielsen, who had strong hands sometimes a bit of shyness in his face, a depth under that stern exterior, and clear blue-gray eyes—
“Stop it,” he muttered, louder than he’d meant to. A couple of heads turned toward him, in clear violation of urinary etiquette.
I’m circumstantially celibate, she said, not dead. Well, now I’m dead. A girl can look.
An upwelling of frustration, of lost possibilities. An anger already fading into deep, deep grief. He wanted to scream, or Rose did. Or maybe the difference between them was starting to break down. That was a disturbing thought, and a true one. He remembered, now, that the spell which had jammed Rose into his head did nothing to preserve the integrity of either mind.
“We don’t have much time,” he murmured, imagining both the crystallization of his body and the muddling of his mind with Rose’s.
No. Not much time at all. It’s about time you troubled to read your contract carefully and maybe had a look at the records room. Recall our first excursion together?
A rich vein of Q that someone had hidden and left untouched even as the rest of the mine began to peter out.
“Aw, hell,” he said.
The administrative offices were five hundred feet below the barracks and accessible only via an open-cage elevator. They were also deliciously warm. A gas fire burned in a grate, and bear skin rugs covered the floor. Loren wanted nothing more than to strip, don a soft robe, and stretch out on one of those rugs with a stack of those medical journals Rose had been meaning to read for weeks.
He caught himself. Stop it, he thought again.
Mocking, feminine laughter in his head. I don’t see how you’re the victim here.
Nielsen was already sitting in the records room. The administrator, a mousy man named Kurtz, had been displaced from his chair and was slumped against the wall, wearing a broken nose and a stunned expression. “McCully,” Nielsen said quietly. “Please shut the door behind you.”
“It’s the Company,” Rose said through Loren’s mouth. “If the mine falls short enough of its target yields this year, they have the option to cut all our contracts and renegotiate or hire new crews.”
I already knew that, Loren wanted to say, and Nielsen had to know it too. Get on with the rest, he thought.
“If we’re all dead or sick, or enough equipment breaks, we’ll miss those targets. The question is, why now? I had a look around last night at what are supposed to be dead ends.” She paused expectantly.
“We’re being lied to,” Loren said, taking up the thread. “There’s a tunnel, one marked as an exploratory dig that came up dry. Airlock was sealed up. But it didn’t come up dry. There’s Q there. A lot of it, I’d guess. But someone must have known....”
Nielsen nodded, then prodded Kurtz with a foot. “Tell him,” he said.
Kurtz cringed, and a fresh drop of blood wobbled from the tip of his nose. “It was just two or three records,” he said. “Just the Q concentrations in the new northeast shaft. I only... adjusted some of the numbers. It happens all the time. Can’t saturate the market, you know? It’s standard practice. Then in a short year, prices would jump, and I’d just ‘discover’ the mistake, and we’d all be better off. See? It’s good for everyone.”
“And your bosses knew about this?” Loren said.
“Of course. It’s standard.”
“How much Q?” Loren asked. When Kurtz hesitated, he kicked him under the ribs. “How much?”
Kurtz pulled himself upright. “It’s—it might be the largest vein ever discovered. There’s no way to be sure. And we were so sure this mine was close to played out, so....”
So they gave you all a higher percentage of the revenues than they normally would have. Now that this will be the most lucrative mine in the hemisphere, they have to take it away. They arranged for bad luck with your replacement parts and supplies, including the red. The Company will have already arranged for one of its suppliers to take the blame for the counterfeit treatments. It will be tragic and highlight the unprofitability of the mine. The contract with your replacements will feature much higher flat rates to balance the risk and virtually nil points on revenues—the typical hedge to keep the mine open while they hold out for a price spike. The Company will make a fortune once they re-open that vein. Such a shame we’ll all be dead.
Loren realized that he was spilling this analysis in his own words, stumbling whenever Rose added an aside. “And you didn’t see this coming,” he finished, rounding on Kurtz. “You’re up here too, you know. I wonder how many days until you start showing symptoms. The cascade runs faster in rats, I’m told.”
“I didn’t know,” Kurtz said, his eyes wide. “I swear to God, I didn’t know.”
“I believe you,” Nielsen said. His voice was gentle. “But you knew something. So did several others, starting with at least one of the miners who drilled the shaft. Who else saw the original concentration studies?”
Kurtz spilled the names. Loren recognized only two, but Rose knew them all. Seven of the ten had been rotated to other mines before the trains shut down for the winter. Two had suffered accidents. One—a logistician named Clyde Greer—was dying of crack-up five hundred feet above their heads.
It had to be a mistake. Or Kurtz was lying. Or Loren was hallucinating. He’d been hearing voices, after all. “He couldn’t have known it would go this far,” Loren said. “He couldn’t have. He never—” But there was no making an argument based on Clyde’s character. Not anymore. And of course they’d have needed someone in the supply office to sign off on suspect parts, someone to make sure no one opened crates and inspected the contents too soon. It was obvious in hindsight. He rubbed at the heat in his eyes.
Still not thinking, I see. Why would Clyde have wanted a handsome payment now, of all times? The memories are here, Loren McCully. Noticed anything different about your Deirdre these last few months?
Loren shut her out. “He wouldn’t have stayed if he’d known. Or let me stay. Sabotaged equipment to force a slowdown, all right, maybe, but the counterfeit red—”
All it means is that he’s dying in denial.
“Interesting you should mention that again,” Nielsen said. “I finished testing a vial an hour ago. You’re correct. It’s basically salt water. How did you find out?”
Ooh, he’s smart. Smarter than you, anyway. I see why Lurga liked him.
“I—figured it out. Clyde’s not getting better. None of them are, I’ll bet.”
Nielsen sighed. “You’re right about that, too. Come on. We need to convene the other shift supervisors and the senior men. We have another problem now, too.”
“Isn’t it obvious? Gristle. The Company has a plant here. He killed her before she could realize what was wrong with the red. Perhaps she could have made more, or found a way to keep us alive through the winter.” His voice hardened. “That means he knows about the red, and so unless he was on a suicide mission, he has his own supply. After the speech you gave, I’m surprised you didn’t figure it out.”
Loren wasn’t. He felt numb, foggy, caught at the threshold where a good drunk starts to go bad. “I’m... not a detective.”
No shit. You’re on the other side of the law, aren’t you? What would happen if we confessed now? Do you think it’d be a clean drop or a slow rope? There’s a daguerrotype of me hidden away in my rooms. I could make you tell Nielsen about it, show him who you really killed. Maybe I should. Otherwise some poor scapegoat will take the blame, won’t he?
Loren bit his tongue, felt Rose twitch away from the pain. “What about Kurtz?” he asked.
“Leave him. We’ll find a solution, or we won’t. If we don’t, he dies too.” Nielsen’s eyes slid to Kurtz. “I trust you consider yourself well-incentivized to help?”
But here was a scapegoat, and not an innocent one, not by half. “He could have killed Gristle,” Loren said. “He could have a locker full of red down in the old shafts and we’d never find it—”
Kurtz sat up straighter. “Now, wait—”
“Look in his eyes,” Nielsen said.
Loren looked. Then Rose extended his hand, took Kurtz by the chin, and tilted his face towards the light. Tiny points of light shimmered in his pupils. Crystallization.
Kurtz must have read their expression, because he began to cry.
Nielsen said nothing during the elevator ride back to the living areas. But he did lean against the cage and fold his arms, and his coat shifted to show that he was wearing a revolver.
Sheriff indeed, Rose said. Hold it together, McCully. I still need your body.
Loren didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing at all.
The conference went poorly. There was shouting. There was a fistfight. There was no clear decision, just a circle of accusations and compounding doubts. Loren held his peace throughout, though he had to endure Rose’s running commentary in his head. She could be funny in a snide, pitch-black sort of way, and her mental voice had taken on an edge of giddy desperation. She was funny when she borrowed his voice to pitch in to the argument, too, and people were starting to give him odd looks.
The worst problem was the inferred cache of red—not enough to save everyone, but maybe enough to save someone. Rose argued Loren’s throat hoarse insisting that it probably didn’t exist, and even if it did, they’d never find it. Nielsen reinforced her point with absurd reasoning framed in irrefutable gravitas.
But it does exist, Loren thought. The real stuff is crated up in your closet, and you know it. So does Nielsen.
Not enough to matter, and he knows that, too. Imagine three men in a lifeboat, a thousand miles from shore, with no hope of rescue. They have a single ladle of water among them. What is humane?
Find someone to give it to, he answered. Draw lots, or pick the man with a family, or—I don’t know.
Tip it over the side. There’s a time when letting go of hope together is the best thing you can do.
The thought echoed through his head—their head, he supposed—all through the rest of the debate. I want, he thought, to say you’re wrong. I just can’t see why.
When the fight broke out, he backed Nielsen by pure reflex. So did Rose. He hadn’t known how to dislocate a pair of shoulders with a touch and whispered word, but she did, and she took him through the motions in a single violent blur that left Nielsen’s attacker screaming on the ground.
I’m getting good at wearing you, she said, and then there was blessed, blessed silence in his head.
I’m lucky I got in that first lick with the crowbar, he thought. Then: No, no I’m not.
Cooler heads eventually prevailed, aided by a dozen or so concussions. Night found Loren by Clyde’s cot. Clyde’s breathing was uneven, ragged, undercut by dissonant chords. When he tried to call Rose in his mind, she didn’t answer.
He bent as though speaking to Clyde. “Rose,” he murmured.
What do you want?
“I could ask you the same thing,” he muttered. “We’ll all be dead in a month. You knew it. Why didn’t you tell us? And why are you riding me around like—like—”
A sedan chair. An ugly sedan chair that ought to shave and wipe itself down and that hasn’t heard of soap.
I didn’t know what to do. I tested the red, but I was still assessing options.
“You could have told somebody.”
And then we’d have had two hundred panicked souls underground. We have that now. How is it working out for you? You’ll all kill each other trying to survive. I had to find a source of hope before I told you a word.
“And you didn’t, I guess.”
Not so much. There should be supplies staged in the support village, but we can’t descend the mountain in winter, and even if someone reached the village, there’s no way the Company would send a train back. The trains are insulated against aether, insofar as that’s possible, but the wind or ice are still likely to derail it.
Despite himself, he smiled. “You’re still trying to save us.”
Don’t ask me why.
But he could feel why. The miners were her responsibility. That had been drilled into her again and again, and she believed it with the certainty of axiomatic faith. It was the same conviction he’d sensed in the old witch, just rougher, rawer, like new wine.
The realization broke over both of them at once.
I was part of their plan. They installed a novice witch because they knew I couldn’t handle this crisis. Those motherfuckers.
He had to stifle a laugh. With slow horror, he realized that he rather liked Rose. And why not? She was lively, driven, and she wasn’t really dead.
You’re still a murderer. I haven’t forgotten. You want to know what that crowbar felt like?
Remembered agony ripped into his shoulder, and he gasped.
I still haven’t decided what to do with you.
“A moot point,” he hissed through the pain. “We’ll just die together, won’t we?”
Probably. The pain faded. Probably, we will. I’m scared. I shouldn’t be. The worst has happened, but I’m still scared.
Deirdre would have known what to say. Hell, Clyde would have known what to say. Loren just sat there, feeling stupid, then awkwardly wrapped his arms around himself.
Nothing happened. Then Rose’s laughter rang through his head, no longer mocking, and he joined in: great, shuddering gales of laughter at the absurdity of the situation and his weak attempt at comfort. Low conversations subsided all around him as men turned to stare at him as though he’d gone mad. Perhaps he had.
The laughter subsided, and when Rose spoke again, she sounded breathless:
I didn’t tell anyone because I was scared and didn’t know what to do. That was it. I just didn’t know what to do.
“I know,” he murmured. “Hell, I might even understand.”
They sat together in silence. Then Clyde jerked with a sharp crackling noise, like footfalls on snowcrust, and went slack. Blood began to leak from a thousand lacerations where the crystals inside him had punctured his skin in that final convulsion, but it was only a slow ooze. Clyde’s heart was no longer beating.
I suppose you never really know someone.
He flinched as though slapped. When he found the words, they spilled out in a torrent: “He wasn’t worth what I did to you. He risked us all. He had to know. Dammit, Rose, he wasn’t worth it.”
You still don’t see it—how very like you he was. But it’s better not to use terms like worth, I think. Because soon you apply them to everyone, and eventually you examine yourself, and what will you do then?
By the next day, there were seven new cases of crack-up and three of the first round had died. Jackson was among the newly afflicted and didn’t stop screaming until the medics doped him.
“We can narrow down our suspect pool,” Nielsen said over lunch. Not a slab of fat, thankfully; no one was digging anymore, and that meant no Winterizer. “Third shift was all accounted for on the night Gristle disappeared. That’s seventy-one men. We can eliminate anyone showing crack-up symptoms. Much of first shift was awake. If we discount everyone who had at least two steady witnesses to their whereabouts, we can reduce the list of suspects to ninety-two.” He pushed a list across the table, then sat back and rubbed at the dark circles under his eyes. “And no, I didn’t sleep much last night. I’ll need your help with more interviews today.”
Loren glanced down the list. “I’m still on here. Why are you trusting me?”
I’m not on the list, Rose said smugly.
“I’ve met Deirdre,” Nielsen said. “You have too much to lose to risk something like this. I could almost see you doing something foolish for Clyde, but for money... I don’t see it, no.”
Rose reached out and put a hand on Nielsen’s arm. “For what it’s worth, you’re doing a fine job with the information you have.” A moment too late, Loren turned the gesture into a manly slap. “But we need to know more. Shouldn’t we concentrate on the crack-up situation?”
Nielsen gave his own arm a puzzled look, then shook himself. “I... don’t know how to fix that. If our killer has a supply of red, and we find it, it might buy us time.”
Time to do what? Rose said bitterly. I couldn’t do anything. It’s why they put me here.
“My God, that’s it,” Loren said.
“They got rid of the old witch—transferred her—and gave us Rose. It was part of the plan. So Lurga must have been able to do something Rose couldn’t, something that would have let us survive.”
“Gristle,” Loren said hastily. “Gristle. She let her real name slip once. A different name, anyway. You didn’t think her parents named her Gristle, did you?”
“I don’t know. It did seem to fit.”
Jackass. Why are the pretty ones always rude?
“But you’re correct,” Nielsen went on. “I admit, it’s hard to picture her as anything but old and worn down. Those eyes, though... her eyes make me wish I’d seen her without the mask.”
All right. He gets to live.
“So,” Loren said, a bit louder than necessary, “what’s the key differentiator between Lurga and Gristle?”
I met Lurga a few times. She was brilliant at the quick-and-dirty physical magics. Give her enough Q and mundane chemicals, and she probably could have blasted a tunnel down to a livable altitude. It might have set off a chain reaction and leveled the mountain, but she might have tried anyway. She always was determined. Ah, here’s a memory of her exploding a head. Yes, she had a well-developed sense of justice. Better than mine, seeing as you’re still breathing. But there’s no point to asking the question. By definition, I can’t do whatever she could have done.
“I don’t know,” Nielsen said. “We don’t know as much about Gristle—Rose—as we’d thought. Perhaps we don’t know as much about Lurga, either. She must have started out the same way: wearing a mask and a wig, almost never coming out, keeping the lights dim. No wonder the lifers claim she was an old lady for forty years. She must have been lonely. It does make me feel better about always imposing on her for coffee or tea. She had real coffee....”
“I remember,” Loren said, but it was Rose’s memory: coffee and cookies with bits of candied ginger, taken in leisure and the bright, stately quiet of the monastery library with its tall windows and warm papery smell. Lurga’s voice, rough but kind. A little unpolished but intensely practical advice about how to stay sane when spending a year in crowded isolation. Find one you don’t like, she’d said, it’ll be a stupid one, and you just tell him that when the air hits forty below, it makes railroad track taste like whiskey. Just have warm water ready to get his tongue off the rail. There’s good fun, and there’s maiming, and they’re the same thing less than half the time.
He wanted to weep and could not. Rose was holding herself together, and him too. That library was the living world, and it was so far, far away from both of them.
“Are you feeling all right?” Nielsen asked, a little unease creeping into his voice. “Need the medic? You’re looking white as the dead.”
Anger. He had Rose’s anger to back his own. That was easier than sorrow. He’d killed her, and the Company had killed Clyde and put them all in this situation. “Fine. Forget the question.”
Nielsen took a wild guess and guessed wrong: “Clyde couldn’t have known it would go this far,” he said.
“Forget it.” Loren turned inward. Can you still work magic? he asked. You popped that man’s shoulders right out with it, didn’t you?
I can do some. This is kind of new to me, you might have noticed.
“They still killed Rose,” Nielsen said, visibly groping for safer ground. “She was still a threat to them. We should pull her rooms apart and see if there’s anything we can use.”
Don’t you dare.
“It’s better than doing nothing,” Loren said. He had to fight Rose for control of his legs to follow Nielsen back to Main Street, but he won in the end, and with a minimum of stumbling. She still fired a parting shot before sliding into the back of his mind:
Did you notice he’s stopped talking about interviews to narrow down the suspect pool?
Loren cursed violently, cursed again under Nielsen’s questioning look, and said, “Stepped funny. Bad ankle.”
They had to pass through a milling crowd that wasn’t quite a mob, not yet, to reach Rose’s rooms. The lamps on Main Street were burning brighter. Someone had decided that dead men didn’t need light, so why not enjoy a little more illumination? A few of the miners shouted questions at Nielsen, who fielded or evaded them. “There’s a solution,” he said with easy confidence. “We haven’t died yet. It’s what we have in common. We’re survivors.”
This front crumpled inside the witch’s receiving room. “Search,” he said shortly. “Find out what she could do and whether there’s a way to copy it.”
Thus began one of the stranger hours of Loren’s life. Rose explained the uses of her various chemical and alchemical compounds, her simple laboratory equipment, her Q-fed instruments and tools. Loren managed to keep any of her monologue from reaching his mouth. Now and then she snarled at him not to touch something, and she lapsed into irate, sullen silence when Nielsen found a leather-bound journal under her bed and read the first few pages. He frowned, flipped to the middle, reddened, and put it away. “Not relevant,” he said.
Loren, who had ghostly memories of writing in that journal, didn’t press the point. Besides, Rose might have cut his throat or spontaneously combusted with mortification.
“It’s almost all medical.” Nielsen was holding up a typewritten page. “These spells are strictly biological, even the ones with temporal effects. None of her magics concerned fire, force, telepathy, or transport.”
He was almost right. Loren reached out and tapped a line of characters. “This one’s different. It’s entropic. Think of it as the genus that includes fire magics.”
“Correct,” Nielsen said. He sounded impressed. “Lurga used to talk my ear off about how laymen always misunderstood the categories.”
Then Loren was flat on his back, head ringing, and Nielsen had a knee on his chest. The barrel of the revolver was a black cave blotting out half the world. “What—” he began.
“I know that,” Nielsen snapped, “because I spent hours keeping Lurga company. But Loren doesn’t know that, on account of him being, and I mean this kindly, not burdened with an overabundance of formal education. ‘Entropic?’ You might have slipped that one past me, Rose, but you used ‘differentiator’ earlier, and I’d lay odds Loren would think that’s a piece of a steam engine.”
“Dammit,” Loren said. At least, he was pretty sure he was the one who said it.
“There is another possibility we didn’t discuss,” Nielsen said. The eye behind the revolver’s sights was flat, expressionless. “That our witch was in on this from the beginning. What was the plan, Rose? You would switch bodies repeatedly, keep a healthy one all the way to the end? Play the odds that a few of us would survive the aethersleet unprotected? Not much of a plan.”
“I concur,” Rose said. “Which is why I didn’t make it. This oaf murdered me, trying to save Clyde. Ask him.”
Slowly, Nielsen swung the revolver aside and lowered the hammer. “That was my second theory,” he said. He settled back on his haunches. “Goddammit, McCully—you’re still in there?”
“Yes. You knew?”
“I suspected. Clyde was the only sick man with anything like kin. Usually, it’s friends and family who lose perspective in a crisis and do idiot things. Why do you think I involved you in the investigation? I had to keep you close. Either you’d murdered Rose, or someone was going to accuse you of it. Or both. I’m told that sometimes happens. Wilson, too. The man sees himself as the zeitgeist of the mining world. I thought he might have killed Gristle—sorry, Rose—just because of the feeling in the air.” He squinted at Loren, fingering the revolver. “But you’re not shilling for the Company. That’s clear enough.”
“No,” Rose said, sitting up, “the Company would have picked someone competent.”
Nielsen gave them a helpless look.
“It’s Rose speaking,” she added. “I could do a falsetto if you’d like.”
“No. God no. This is strange enough.” He laid aside the revolver and put his face in his hands. “McCully, how could you do this?”
“It was an accident.”
“Some accident,” Rose added, taking their voice up a third. “He just tripped and put his crowbar through my brachial artery, and then, oops, he tripped again and cracked my skull.”
Gaping, empty silence. “I’m sorry,” Loren said. The words didn’t feel real anymore, perhaps because they’d never meant much to begin with.
“Never mind that,” Nielsen said. “No one is allowed to collapse. Not now. Vexing as it is, the truth changes little, except that now I know the only genuine red is the few hundred doses in Rose’s closet. We still need to decide what to do.”
“Simple,” Rose said. “We see if Lurga told you anything I don’t know. Then we find a way to keep our people alive. That’s our job, isn’t it?”
Six hours later, they had nothing, and word came that two more men were nearing the terminal stage. “I can try putting them under a stasis spell,” Rose said. “It might kill them, or it might preserve them for a few hours.”
“Why not just leave them in stasis until spring?” Loren asked.
“Because if the crystallization doesn’t kill them, the spell will, in about three days,” she snapped. “The human body isn’t meant to be suspended out of time like that. The ones that survive more than three days tend to come back insane. If I can do the spell at all. The meat I’m wearing isn’t tingling with magical potential.”
“Try it anyway,” Nielsen said. “Even if it accomplishes nothing else, it will feed more material into the rumor mill. As long as the men are asking questions, they won’t be attempting to kill each other for a pittance of red.”
“Or,” Loren said, “we could tell the truth. There’s no Company spy. There was just... me. What I did and why. They’ll believe it. You know they’ll believe it.”
Nielsen stared at him for a long moment. Then he gripped Loren’s arm and nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, we will. But not yet.”
“Because we can’t know what they’ll do, and I still need Rose. And we might need you, too.”
“But we’ll tell them?” Suddenly, that seemed important.
“Yes, if we can’t save them. Better to go knowing the truth.”
Loren let out a long sigh. A pressure in his chest he hadn’t noticed eased. “We’ll write it all down, then, too. We can leave the whole truth behind. Maybe the right people will find it. It wouldn’t feel right, dying without, I don’t know, a testimony.”
It’s a shame you killed me. I’m beginning to think we might have been friends.
We might have to be if we get through this, he thought, trying to keep the idea quiet. Seeing as we’re stuck together. Then, absurdly: How the devil do we explain this to Deirdre?
Both men went into stasis, and Rose pronounced them stable.
“How stable?” Nielsen asked.
She waggled a hand. “Not particularly. A blow from, for example, a crowbar would still kill them, but they won’t die of disease, anoxia, hypothermia, old age... anything that degrades the body on a small scale, if you will. But no, before you ask, you can’t put a man in stasis on a handcar and roll it down the mountain. Someone would have to recover him at the other end, and the Company obviously isn’t worried about us trying to send messages. Either the support village is deserted, or the only people there are complicit.” She bit their lip. “The former, I think. It’s simpler. And cheaper.”
“You’re likely right,” Nielsen said slowly. “You can’t put yourself in stasis and wake yourself up?”
“Have you ever tried to lick your elbow?”
He paused in mock consideration. “My own elbow?”
He’s flirting with her, Loren thought, and it’s working. Fascinating.
Are you taking notes? You should be. Ten years of marriage, and you still don’t know what you’re doing.
He felt their cheeks burning.
“What?” Nielsen asked.
“You don’t want to know,” he said. “Is there a point?”
“There might be. Tell me more about your body-switching spell, Rose.”
So she did: “I was dying. The spell carried my mind into Loren’s, preserving my memories and personality alongside his. In wounding me, he’d opened a conduit, and there’s power in death, or more precisely, in sacrifice—”
“What I need to know,” Nielsen said, “is whether you could make the leap several times in a row?”
A pause, a fleeting image as Rose pictured bodies arranged like the rungs of a descending ladder. And Loren felt her comprehension—a sweet, sad thing—spreading like sunrise through them both.
“That can’t be the only way,” he said. “It can’t.”
You said were willing to die to protect Deirdre from me. Will you not die to protect two hundred men from a slow and painful death?
“They’re not mine.”
No. But they are mine. If I still had my body, this would have been my sacrifice to make. Now it’s yours, too. This is your doing. Accept it.
Their right hand cupped his cheek. Their other reached out and gripped Nielsen’s hand, interlacing their fingers. “It’s the best we can do,” she said aloud, half to Loren, half in answer to Nielsen’s puzzled look.
“What happened to giving up hope together?” Loren asked.
We both know that was bullshit.
He let out a strangled laugh and squeezed Nielsen’s hand. Or maybe Rose did. It mattered less, now.
They found eight volunteers, most of them in the earliest stages of crack-up. The last was Kurtz, the little administrator, who had not been initially enthusiastic.
“Would you like a chance at redemption?” Rose had asked him.
He’d answered with a look like a frightened deer.
“It’s a rare thing,” she went on. Their voice took on a strange harmonic, almost musical. “So many need it, so few find it. Your name will be written somewhere, Kurtz. The question is where, and how people will read it.”
He’d jerked a nod then. “I’ll die?”
“Mostly,” Rose said. Then, in a blatant lie: “It doesn’t hurt.”
Nielsen’s insistence on coming was the hardest to accept. He had to do it, he maintained. Otherwise how could he expect it of anyone else? The conversation left a twisting coil of pain in their chest. It was love. Loren recognized it: a younger, sharper iteration of what he felt for Deirdre now that he had to leave her behind.
Iteration, he thought. I’m starting to sound like Rose even on the inside.
Let’s get this over with.
But he still stopped halfway to the mine entrance and wrapped his arms around himself; around them. There was no laughter this time. Just quiet.
“I’m so sorry,” he murmured.
I know. I feel it. I don’t know whether I can forgive you yet.
“You should have given Nielsen your picture.”
It would only make things worse.
Nine men, Nielsen included, were bundled tight and stacked like cordwood on the handcar and the small flatbed car trailing behind. Bottles of oxygen and gas heaters were racked within reach of the operator’s perch, right next to the handbrake that was the only control they’d need on the descent. The airlock door was still shut, but it shivered and hummed with the force of the wind outside.
Nielsen and Loren had drawn up designs for a crude enclosure to protect the handcar and flatbed from the wind, and they’d covered the finished product in panels of aether insulation. It wouldn’t help much, but it was all they had. The trade-off was a higher profile. A strong enough wind would rip the car from the tracks and send it tumbling down the mountain.
One by one, Rose put the men into stasis, then buttoned and tied their masks closed. They wouldn’t suffocate, not while their metabolisms were suspended. She was almost as sure that the aether and mundane cold wouldn’t affect them. “They’re not altogether in the world,” she said as Loren buttoned their outermost coat closed and pulled on a final pair of gloves. “They should be fine.”
The last word came out muffled as he fixed their own mask in place and then tied a scarf around it.
That was rude.
She was whistling in the dark. Hell, after that episode with the knife at his groin, she’d spent the last couple of days whistling in the dark. She’d whistled right through her own funeral. Graveyard whistling.
That was almost funny. Time to go.
He threw the bolts and starting turning the crank to open the outer airlock door. Air fled with a thinning scream, and their ears popped. A chill began to eat at his bones—not air, but aether. The ordinary cold would start in on him later.
He kept cranking, then climbed aboard the handcar, shut the crude hatch, and set it rolling with a single, laborious cycle of the lever. It rolled onto the tunnel downgrade and began to pick up speed. He clung tight to the handrail and brake, peering out through the eyeslit. Too slow, and they’d run out of bodies before they reached a habitable altitude. Too fast, and they’d fly off the tracks on a switchback.
Then the car broke from the tunnel, and the night winds were upon them.
Screaming eternity followed. There was no room for thought, scarcely room for fear. Time and pain were far away. The car ground to a halt against ice after the first mile, and they had to leave the sheltered cabin to chip the rails clear. Outside, the wind and aetherfall tore into them, flooding their body with a cold mindlessness that persisted even when they resumed the descent. Only Rose’s constant, snarling force of will kept Loren anchored, kept him aware of their body, and of when it began to fail. Now, she said. It has to be now. We’ve made it almost two thousand feet down, I think.
I’m afraid, he thought back.
I was too.
He pulled the handbrake, and the handcar ground to a stop. He hauled Kurtz from the pile and started oxygen flowing to his mask. He relaxed his mind, and Rose summoned a final burst of will to drag Kurtz up from stasis.
Kurtz sat up, thrashing, grabbing at his face. Loren gripped his wrists until he calmed. Kurtz was trying to shout over the wind outside, but he might as well have been a thousand miles away. So Loren ignored him and pressed the revolver into his hands, hoping the cold hadn’t damaged it. Then Rose tapped their chest.
Kurtz’s eyes were wide behind his goggles, but he nodded, aimed, and fired.
Pain. Then a rushing sensation, like flying down a tunnel of lights. Rose was taking him along with her, he realized. Had she meant to? Then the weight of unfamiliar flesh closed around him.
They—Kurtz/Rose/Loren—descended another two thousand feet before the false warmth that signaled the final stages of hypothermia began to set in. So they woke the next man in line and gave him the revolver, and again there was a moment of pain, of flight, and it was almost a relief to have that fleeting moment out of the wind, to feel like they were flying and not being torn away.
Seven more times they changed bodies, a growing committee of ghosts. They took Nielsen’s last. The outpost was still three thousand feet below, but the wind was weaker here and the aether less deadly. Through the fading wind, they could hear themselves all too clearly, a cacophony of desperation and pride and fear and sadness.
We’ll make it, we have to make it—
Can we tell Jane what happened to me and what I did—
At least these knees don’t ache, God what a morbid thought—
If that bitch had just asked for help in the first place—
I think I could have loved her—you—in time or another life—
There’s a picture I wish I’d shown you—
If I could take so many things back—
The handcar drifted to the end of the line and stopped. They piloted Nielsen’s body out and into one of the outbuildings. It was empty. They opened gas valves until they found the right ones and lit the heaters. The cellars, Loren thought through the noise. If there’s red, they’ll have stowed it down where it stays warmer.
And we’ll need coal and heating oil and a hundred other things. That sounded like Kurtz. They fill the pipes in the locomotives with oil for the winter so nothing freezes. We’ll have to flush it out.
I can show us how, someone else said. I used to service those engines. Anybody operated one? No? Well, we’ll figure it out.
They did. It took two days, but they did. And when the train began to climb—slowly, slowly, with the wind ripping and clawing at it—they had four crates of red, all the vials headspaced to allow for freezing. They left their spent bodies outside. The cold would preserve them, for what little it was worth. After two days, even perfectly preserved in the cold, none of them looked like home anymore.
I won’t get to go home to Deirdre this spring, what remained of Loren said. His memories persisted. They just didn’t feel like his. He was one of eleven drifting minds, all beginning to blur together.
I can tell her what you did, another part of them said. It felt different than the others—feminine, wry, quiet, a little weary. Rose. Most of it. I might leave one part out.
She was pregnant when you last left her, you know, she went on. Clyde must have known. He thought he was buying you all a new life. He was a fool, but an understandable fool. Also, you are remarkably unobservant.
She’s had five miscarriages.
That doesn’t mean she’ll have six. Life always has a chance. Sometimes it’s a strange chance.
Another ghost cut in. Nielsen. The strangest. This isn’t over. If we bring the red to the mine and see the men through the winter, we’ll still have to prove what the Company did. The winners in all this will be the lawyers. As is tradition.
If and if, the wry part said. Her tone was sour, but they could feel their face trying to smile under the mask. That happened whenever these two ghosts spoke to each other. It was the damnedest thing, but there was a warmth to it. They all held to that warmth.
We’ll make it, he (Loren?) said. It’ll be cold, that’s all.
I’d give us one chance in three, the feminine voice said, but it sounded untroubled.
Together, they rose into the howling wind. But the sky above was clear, and the moon hung vast and warm against the night, and they were unafraid.