Content Warning: blood & gore
Someone says his name. They’ve said it several times already. Heron becomes aware of this slowly, like he’s walking out of a fog bank. The world brightens into focus, the conversation with his father dissipates into mist. It doesn’t matter anyway. Heron’s father never says anything worth remembering, because Heron’s father is dead. Everything Heron’s father says to Heron is just crap Heron makes up for his father to say to him; all the things Heron wishes his father had said to him while he was alive.
Rosette stands in the doorway of the makeshift morgue, like she expected to find Heron someplace else. It’s not even a morgue. It’s a storage bay. Stacks of metal crates crowd around the stasis vessel that’s supposed to keep Linwood Ocama’s corpse fresh. There are two empty vessels in the storage bay. They’re empty for now. Only two more people can die before the Lazarus Swift reaches Alizarin City. It’s a six month trip. That’s just asking for trouble, in Heron’s opinion. But nobody ever asks Heron what he thinks.
The stasis vessel holding Heron’s father is doing a shitty job. A lacework of frost covers the heavy glass top, but Heron can still see his father’s face. It’s gray and withered, the eyes sinking in their sockets. The lips have pulled back from the teeth, giving the corpse a small, horrible smile.
“Heron,” Rosette says. “This isn’t healthy.”
Heron likes Rosette. She’s nice. He shrugs.
Rosette walks up to him and squints into his face. “Are you high?”
“Not high enough,” Heron replies.
“Look,” she says. “I know… “
“You don’t know.” Heron is frustrated, but mostly because the flake of Frost that melted on his tongue an hour ago, is wearing off already. Each bump seems to wear off faster than the last one. “You don’t know anything. I can pass for eighteen. Maybe even nineteen. Nobody would even ask, and you wouldn’t have to say anything. In a year, I’m going to be eighteen anyway. You’re the only one who knows any different.”
Rosette shakes her head, like she always does when Heron brings up the subject.
“You belong with your mother,” she says.
“Don’t you like me?”
He hates how he always asks this question, and he hates how whiny he always sounds, and most of all, he hates how Rosette never answers him. Or, maybe Heron and Rosette have never had this conversation before. Maybe it’s just the Frost making him think it happened. Maybe none of this is real. He can hope.
“I’m taking you back to your quarters.” Rosette grasps Heron by the arm. Firmly, but not tight enough to hurt him. “Come on.”
Heron doesn’t argue. He doesn’t want to be in the storage bay anyhow. It’s fucking freezing. Heron never intends to come here. He never wants to come here. He ends up here somehow, and stands here, having make-believe conversations with his dad, until somebody finds him. Usually, it’s Rosette. No wonder she doesn’t want him.
Once they leave the storage bay, Rosette lets go of Heron’s arm. Heron wishes she hadn’t, because he feels like he might come unstuck from the floor and float away. It’s a strange thing to feel for somebody who’s half a mile underground, and a mile and a half under an ocean. But, he can’t feel the pressure of the rock and the water above him. Instead, he feels like a balloon that could come untied at any moment, and drift away.
“Your lips are blue,” Rosette says.
He’s cold to his bones. He follows Rosette along the corridor. The walls are hospital green, and the ceiling is pale blue. The noise of the digging machine is everywhere: a low, steady grinding grumbling rumble. It’s not a bad sound. Within hours of boarding the Lazarus Swift, Heron had gotten used to it, and now it’s white noise, like the steady rush of a tide.
Rosette takes him back to the quarters he used to share with his father. Two of them in one room plus a toilet cubical had been so cramped, it made him crazy. Now the place is too big.
Rosette’s eyes are a startling pale blue-hazel in her dark face, creased and weathered and careworn. “I know there’s not much for you to do.”
“That’s not my fault,” Heron points out. “I can work. I could do my part, if you’d just ask Captain Zhao.”
“You know Company regulations won’t allow it. You’re a passenger. And a minor.”
“Who’s going to know?”
“Me,” answers Rosette. “I’ll know.”
She gives him a gentle push, away from the open doorway. Heron takes a step back, keeping his hand on the edge of the doorway, so the door won’t slide shut between him and Rosette.
“I won’t tell the captain about the drugs, either.” Rosette says, like she’s doing him a big favor.
“Tell him,” says Heron. “What’s he going to do? Make me get out and walk?”
Cohallan Outpost is nearly on the other side of the planet, and they are still so very far from Alizarin City, far across Gilgamesh VI, where it is always night, where the vegetation is black, where the ground and the sky are the dark red of drying blood, and the oceans are ammonia. Underground is the only place humans can live, and where they have lived for decades. Never, until now, have they dug so deeply.
“Why don’t you try and get some studying done?” Rosette says. “There’s less than a week until the next check-in. I know you must have lots of catching up to do.”
She says this with the teasing, pretend sternness of one friend talking to another friend.
“Rosette,” Heron says, “Do you have kids?”
“No.” She looks startled by the question. “Never got around to it. Why?”
“No reason.” Heron steps back from the door, letting his hand drop. “See you later.”
“Okay.” Rosette’s frown reappears, but the door hisses shut between her and Heron.
Heron never bothers to fold up his bunk against the wall. There’s no point anymore. He lies down on the rumpled sheets and the cheap velour blanket with the Cohallan Drilling Corp logo printed in dark blue on a dirty yellow-brown. It’s supposed to be gold. It looks like vomit.
He reaches over to the narrow shelf next to the bed, and pick up the plastic box that holds his supply of Frost. He never bothered hiding it, since his father died. Rosette caught him weeks ago, and never said anything to Captain Zhao, and nobody else cares.
More than half his stash of Frost is gone. He’d thought there would be more than enough of the drug to last him through the trip to Alizarin City, and well beyond. Things never seem to work out the way he expects. For example, there are very few ways to die onboard the Lazarus Swift, yet his father found one anyway. He fell down a staircase. One floor down a tight metal spiral, he landed badly, and he broke his neck. Heron wasn’t there, but he sees it happen, in his dreams.
With his thumbnail, Heron pops open one of the little plastic bags of Frost. He shakes out a single shimmery flake into his palm. It’s melting into his skin, spreading an icy burn. He sticks out his tongue and licks up the Frost. It dissolves quickly, the same sensation of heat encircled by cold blossoming inside his mouth, followed by numbness, and a taste both metallic and sweet. The back of his mouth fills with saliva, and the hinge of his jaw throbs with low pain, before the Frost takes that away, too. Heron sets the box of carefully on the narrow metal shelf and waits.
At first, he doesn’t feel any different. He just doesn’t care that he feels the same. His emotions fall away, floating outside of him. Close, but separated, in their own little bubbles. Anger. Grief. Fear. Drifting further and further away.
When he wakes up, he can’t figure out what’s wrong. There are no windows in his quarters. There are no windows anywhere on the Lazarus Swift. The light never changes unless Heron turns it off.
He lies on his back, blinking, scared to move anything else but his eyelids, because something is different. He can’t figure out what.
It’s the same room with the same low metal ceiling. The furniture is still cheap plastic and particle board. Under him, the cheap velour blanket is scratchy. Everything is exactly the same.
And then he knows. It bursts over him. The engines have stopped. The room rings with silence. The low vibration that quivered coffee in Styrofoam cups and rustled papers on his father’s desk, the sense of slow but inexorable grinding forward — it’s stopped. The Lazarus Swift isn’t scheduled to stop until the next fueling checkpoint, and that’s more than a week away.
Heron jumps to his feet. A wave of dizziness and nausea washes over him. He stumbles against the table. Dirty dishes rattle and clack. The table edge bites into his thigh, a sharp hard line of pain. He pushes himself away and staggers to the door, slapping his hand over the sensor.
He runs down the central corridor, toward the bridge of the Lazarus Swift. He’s still Frosting: everything looks dreamlike and too real at the same time, as if he’s burning up with fever, or caught in a dream. The contours of the hallway slither and slide around him, and he tells himself over and over to focus. Focus, Heron. He’s walking straight now, and trying to ignore how things in the edges of his vision ooze and drip away into infinity, and nobody notices he’s high. Nobody sees he’s Frosting, because their eyes slide away from his eyes and nobody will look straight at him.
When he reaches the bridge he’s about to go clattering down the short flight of metal steps, when he stops himself, grabbing hold of the railings at the top of the staircase. His arrival hasn’t gone unnoticed. The bridge is more crowded than usual. Several people turn to look. Heron feels his cheeks and ears burning. He straightens up, ready to defend himself and his right to be there, which he doesn’t have. He’s ready to argue, make a scene, he can feel the words forming in the back of his mouth, but nobody tells him to leave. Captain Zhao gives him a quick frown, then turns away.
“Can you see anything?” the Captain says. “Any obstruction?”
“There’s nothing,” comes the reply over the radio.
The voice is crackly and distorted, as if over a great distance, though the team outside can’t be more than a few meters away from the Lazarus Swift. The cables of the exosuits don’t stretch much farther than that. Even if they did, there isn’t much space in front of the digging machine. Just the end of the tunnel.
Heron doesn’t recognize the voice, can’t even tell if it’s male or female.
“Nothing but the tunnel wall.” Could be another person. Could be the same person. The voice over the radio adds, “We’re coming back in.”
“Acknowledged.” Captain Zhao turns to look at Farr, one of the engineers. “Diagnostic results?”
One of Farr’s shoulders lifts like he’s about to shrug, and then he obviously thinks better of it, because he lets the shoulder fall again, like he was just shifting his weight.
Farr says, “Green across the board.” He hesitates, then adds, “It’s possible… that is, I mean… we may have just stalled.”
Captain Zhao pins Farr with a death glare. “Stalled,” he repeats.
This time, Farr does shrug. “Begging your pardon, sir, but there’s never been a machine like this one. There’s no way to be one hundred percent sure the engineers didn’t work all the bugs out.”
The captain’s frown gets deeper.
“I can try a restart,” Farr offers. “That might do it.”
The captain stares at him for a moment longer, then nods curtly. “Do it. After the team is back inside.”
“Aye, sir,” Farr answers briskly.
Heron slinks back against the wall, where he hopes he’ll be less noticeable.
The sound of the airlocks cycling and the massive metal portals opening, is thunderous. The Lazarus Swift is a long metal tube, and everything echoes. He’s still Frosting pretty hard, and he can see the grinding sound. It ripples and vibrates the air, and sends out shimmering dark echoes: a shadowy aurora flickering across the walls and the ceiling.
Captain Zhao walks past Heron to meet the team at the airlock. The captain doesn’t look at him, but Vardanyan, the first officer, gives Heron a stern, narrow-eyed glance, as if to remind Heron belongs back in his quarters. Farr stays on the bridge, scowling at his display monitors.
Heron follows the captain and Vardanyan to the airlock. By the time he gets there, the airlock has cycled open. The noise and vibration have stopped, and the shivering dissipates. Heron feels okay again. He’s feeling Frosty.
The team emerges from the airlock, their ungainly fluorescent orange exosuits shimmering with strange rainbows, like oil slicks. Heron blinks hard, but the rainbows are still there. Rosette is the first to remove her helmet, and Heron is oddly relieved and happy to see her, though it’s only been a few hours since he saw her last.
“Report?” Captain Zhao doesn’t sound hopeful.
Rosette shakes her head. “Nothing out there.” Her eyes find Heron. Pass by him, like he is nothing. Like he is part of the wall: a protruding bolt, or a scrape in the paint. Her gaze returns to Captain Zhao. “No reason for the digger to stop.”
Heron hates her. Suddenly and powerfully. Hates her for ignoring him. Hates her for being kind to him, when it was just the two of them alone and no one to see. Why can’t she be dead? Why can’t all of them be dead, and his father be alive? It’s the Frost making him feel this way, but it still feels true.
A wing of translucent rainbow peels from the back of Rosette’s pressure suit, rises over her head. Vardanyan is talking about technical specs and weighing possible scenarios. Rosette and the captain are nodding earnestly. No one sees the rainbow wing. It’s a hallucination, probably, but it’s pretty. Heron watches the wing fall across Rosette’s face. Rosette’s face is visible through it, wobbly and distorted as if Heron is seeing her underwater.
Then Rosette begins to scream.
She clutches her face, claws at it, and suddenly everyone is screaming. Rushing to her, yelling for the medic, the medic, the medic — the medic is Heron’s father, and the medic is not coming, the medic is unavoidably detained due to being dead.
Blood pours between Rosette’s fingers, down her arms. She drops to her knees. Heron glimpses one terrified, blue-hazel eye, then it is swallowed in blood. Her hands fall to her sides, spasming, gloved fingers twitching, jittering. She isn’t screaming any more.
The rainbow wing takes flight, and Rosette sags sideways, held upright by the thick fabric and the metal fittings of her exosuit. Above the neck ring of the suit, her fleshless skull grins at Heron. Now Heron is screaming, as Rosette’s body sinks gracefully to the metal floor like a lady fainting in a movie. The exosuit tips over and blood dribbles out of the hole at the top.
The rainbow wing hovers in the air, pulsating gently, tinted pink.
No one notices. They are clustered around Rosette’s body. Heron points, thrusts his finger, his arm out at the thing, but he can’t make himself speak. The only noise he can make is a throat-shredding animal howl.
He wished her dead. He wished them all dead.
The rainbow wing is not alone. It brought friends. More of the things rise from Rosette’s sprawled body; detach themselves from the pressure suits of the two other team members, from backs, from legs, from heavy helmets. They are beautiful. No one else sees them. Only Heron.
Vardanyan walks to where Heron has squeezed himself down between the wall and the floor, the closest thing to a corner he can find. One of the rainbow things rises from behind Vardanyan.
“Get — get away!” Heron gasps
“Hey, calm down.” Vardanyan extends a hand, like he’s calming a skittish animal. “Hey…”
Vardanyan eyes widen. First in surprise, then in horror. The thing envelopes Vardanyan’s head from behind. Vardanyan’s eyes roll back. He utters a wet grunt and a bubble of bloody spit bursts between his lips. Heron shoves Vardanyan backward. Vardanyan’s face crumples, eroding to naked bone.
Heron stumbles to his feet and runs. The screams of the crew chase him, each sound echoing again and again along the corridor. He ends up back at his cabin. He slaps his hand over the privacy lock and darts inside as the door swishes open. He picks up the box of Frost from the bedside table, and opens it. The remains of his stash sit in the bottom, glimmering in the low lights of the cabin. Heron licks the tip of his index finger, and hesitates.
There’s nowhere he can run to. He can’t leave the Lazarus Swift. Even with an exosuit, he can’t be outside for longer than fifteen minutes, and outside is where the things came from. He doesn’t know what to do. He can’t die. He’s only seventeen.
Send a message to Alizarin City. That’s what he needs to do.
No one else can see the things, but he can. Because of the Frost. He picks up another flake, and puts it in his mouth. It dissolves on his tongue, lets the icy-warm numbness spread all throughout his body. He stuffs the box of Frost deep into the pocket of his trousers. Now that he has a purpose, he feels better. He takes a deep breath, and then slaps his hand over the palm lock for the door. The door hisses open. None of the shimmering things are waiting for him in the corridor. Heron retraces his steps to the bridge. He tries to walk softly, but the whispery echo of his steps sounds very loud.
With the engines silent, other noises creep in. Hisses and sighs of the fans circulating the air. Creaks of setting metal. Other noises he can’t identify. A soft, regular thumping, like another set of footsteps.
As this newest flake of Frost blossoms, Heron is no longer afraid. His brain is drifts in random directions, telling him in Rosette’s voice that he ought to go back to his cabin and work on his schoolwork. Randomly remembering what it felt like to slip his hands underneath Billie Steinberg’s top after school; how much the chicken parmesan from Lazarus Swift’s automat tastes like packing foam with a faint suggestion of cheese.
The slow thumping grows louder.
At the airlock, he stops walking. He starts to tremble. It begins in his fingers, rushes up his arms, and holds him prisoner. The corpses still lie on the metal deck. More of them than before. What is left of Rosette lies closest to where Heron stands. Arms and legs splayed, her skull staring at him with the jaw gaping, like she’s shocked. He knows it is Rosette, because the things didn’t eat her hair. One gloved hand is flung out, and it looks wrinkled and deflated, as does the exosuit. The other corpses look the same. Sucked dry. Picked clean.
Farr lies in the doorway between the bridge and the corridor, blocking the safety doors. The automatic servos keep trying to close it. Thump. Thump. Thump.
One of the things floats gently up from Farr’s body. Heron’s trembling takes hold of his legs, as the thing hovers in the air, flapping like a sheet in the wind. It is deep, blushing pink, shading to reddish-black in its center. It continues to rise, toward the ceiling. Heron follows its path. There are more, clinging to the round ceiling, each one pink and full of blood.
This is his best chance. Probably his only chance. He starts to walk toward the safety doors leading to the bridge. It’s like swimming through through concrete. The air is thick. At any moment, he expects to feel a feathery touch on the back of his neck. Distance and time have gone all stretchy and strange.
At the doors to the bridge, he steps over Farr. The step feels huge, as if his legs are kilometers long. He turns back to grab Farr by the ankles. His fingers sink far, too far, into the heavy cloth of Farr’s uniform coverall. Heron is holding onto bone, not flesh and muscle. He forces himself to grip, and pull. He is thinking of Farr as Farr used to be. Very heavy. He pulls too hard. Farr’s corpse weighs nearly nothing. It shoots across the floor, bumping over the raised lip of the safety door. Heron pitches backward, tumbles down the steps to the bridge. Farr’s gray coverall comes rattling and thumping down the stairs after him, and lands across his legs.
Heron scrambles out from under it, panting harshly, his feet kicking it away, back to the base of the stairs, and then he stands up. He knows where the radio is. He knows how it works. His father showed him. In case of emergency, he’d said. You never know. Heron had rolled his eyes and sighed.
“You never know!” Heron’s voice is a cracked rasp. His throat burns from screaming. “That’s right, dad. You never know, do you?” His laugh is a squeaky whisper giggle. It echoes around the empty bridge. He sounds like he’s crazy, and that is frightening in a whole new way.
He activates the radio, punches in zero-zero-two, for emergeny control in Alizarin City.
“Hello?” he says.
The radio crackles. “This is an emergency channel,” says an annoyed female voice.
“I’m a passenger on the Lazarus Swift,” Heron says. He is not crazy. His voice sounds calm and collected and grown up. “I need help. Please.”
“You have reached emergency control at Alizarin City. Clear this channel immediately.”
“I need help,” Heron repeats. “There’s something in the tunnel. It killed the crew. It killed Captain Zhao –“
He breaks off, as he hears a scraping noise behind him. He looks wildly around, but he’s alone on the bridge. Farr’s corpse lies in a twisted jumble on the floor. Nothing moves except for Heron, his breath stirring the dead air.
“Who is this?” demands the woman on the radio. “It is illegal to use this channel.”
Then it comes again. A soft scrape. A thump. Heron’s heart starts beating hard and fast.
“Who is this?Answer me immediately!”
Heron turns quickly and says into the speaker. “The construction crew at Cohallan Outpost — tell them to stop working on the tunnel! Tell them to get out — blow it up! There’s something down here — monsters — they killed everybody!”
The woman on the radio is silent for a moment. Then she says in a very different tone, “Did you say you’re on the Lazarus Swift?”
The safety doors to the bridge whisper open. A dark form stands in the doorway. At first, it’s only a silhouette, or maybe it’s the Frost making impossible for Heron to understand what he’s seeing. The shape fumbles at nothing with one hand, fingers writhing in the air until they find the railing of the stairs. The sweetish stink of decay reaches Heron, as his father takes a trembling, wobbling step, placing one foot on the first stair riser.
“Hello?” says the woman on the radio. “Hello? Please repeat! Did you say the Lazarus Swift?”
Heron’s bladder releases a hot rush of piss down his legs. Maybe it’s the sudden, sharp stench of urine in the air that makes his father lift his head to look at Heron. His eye sockets swim with shimmering iridescence. Of course. The things had to get to Heron somehow. They’ve already eaten everybody else. They couldn’t open the heavy doors to the bridge, but they’re thin as sheets of paper; that stasis vessel with its shitty seal was no problem.
“Hello?” the woman says again. “Can you hear me? Hello!”
His father’s mouth falls open. One of the things unfurls from the corpse’s throat. Sweeps through the air toward Heron. More follow, and more, until the bridge dances with their rainbow light. Empty at last, Heron’s father falls, knees buckling, and tumbles down the steps to lie motionless at the bottom, his dull dead eyes staring at Heron.
There won’t be enough of Heron to make a meal for all of them. They will eat him down to his bones, suck out the marrow, and they will still be hungry.
“Please,” Heron whispers to the woman on the radio. “Please tell them to stop digging.”