Fiction – “Cold” by Melissa S. Green
“What does cold feel like?” Lys asked.
It wasn’t Masozi who’d been asked, but it was Masozi who answered. “If you want to know that,” he said, “you go stand under the shower and turn off all the hot. It makes your skin stand up in bumps.”
Everyone stared at him, eyes wide with the unconsidered adventure of it.
“What?” he demanded. “You’ve never tried it?” Bai had, but she wasn’t going to say so. “None of you? If you stand under the shower long enough, it gives you a bad headache.”
“Must’ve had a big stiffie, to stay under that long, Masozi,” Gavril said. “Ana turn you down for a date, yeah?”
Everyone laughed. Even Boleyn laughed, who didn’t know Masozi, his family having come down planetside only a year ago. For a moment Bai could imagine they were really here just to share tea and a few laughs to welcome Boleyn back. But she knew Lys. All her life she knew Lys. Boleyn was wrong if she thought that was the end of the question.
“So is that what it’s like, Boleyn?” Lys demanded when the laughter died down. “Is it like Masozi said?”
“It can be,” Boleyn admitted slowly. “But most often, you’re clothed and dry, and still it’s cold.”
It would’ve been better had she simply said yes, Bai thought.
“Well, but what if you had on all your clothes and went into the meat freezer right here at Commons?” Walker asked. He aimed his thumb behind him, toward the walk-ins. “That would be like the Cold, yeah?”
Lys nodded. “Yeah, yeah, that would be.” She looked at Boleyn. “Wouldn’t it, then?”
Of course not, Bai thought, how stupid. But just say yes. She’s baiting you, can’t you see?
Boleyn said, “Somewhat.”
“Somewhat?” Lys said. “Somewhat? What’s different, then?”
Boleyn’s face had become very still. Wary, it seemed to Bai. Good. Hadn’t she described what Lys was like now, at least once? Be wary. Boleyn said, “There’s nothing in there you can burn.”
“Huh?” Walker grunted. “What’s that count?”
They really didn’t know much about cold, did they? Hadn’t any of them even talked with someone on coldcrew?
“You can’t make a fire with frozen meat,” Boleyn explained. “So you’d become frozen meat yourself.”
“Frozen meat,” Gavril repeated with a coarse chuckle.
“Well, of course,” Lys said scornfully, “that’s why they don’t put a lock on the meat freezer, so no one gets caught in there. You walk out before you freeze.”
Bai laughed. She didn’t laugh loudly, but it was enough that Lys turned her way, eyebrow raised in question and reproach. Except for Masozi, they’d all known each other from childhood, and it took no thought for Bai to understand that Lys was perfectly capable of directing her scorn next at her. Fleetingly Bai wondered why she’d ever cared. She found now that she did still care, but not much. Mostly only to consider the folly of having bent to the wind all this time.
Bent to the wind — that was an expression. She’d never actually felt a wind. Now Boleyn was back, who had felt the wind. That changed things.
“Well, that’s her point, isn’t it?” she told Lys. “If you went in the meat locker, you could walk right back out here into Commons the moment you got uncomfortable. But out there, you need the means to make your own comfort. Or else you die. Yeah?”
“Yeah, sure,” leered Gavril, whose mind always went to the lewd side of things, “make your own comfort.” His arm was moving, no doubt to propel an obscene gesture just under the table.
Now, if she’d wanted to please Lys, Bai should have phrased her observation in one of the many mocking ways — but directed at Boleyn — that had been implicit from Lys’ very first question. What does cold feel like? from Lys meant, What is the Cold like? — meant, What is it like to be Exiled, and Do you think you’re really welcome back? Not that Boleyn had herself been assigned to Test Forest 3, but her parents had, and she’d gone with them, she and her brothers. Now they were back: her parents had done what they were supposed to do, made amends to the community for their crime, stuck out their hard duty in a hard, cold place, and were officially returned to respectability, if not quite popular favor.
But that was Court and Consensus among the generations of their parents and grandparents. They were the next generation, with their own politics. They all had yet to Examine into the full Consensus, with its adult politics and Constitutional ways of assigning authority. What does cold feel like? from Lys meant, You’re not welcome here, not until I say so, meant, Not until I’ve humiliated you and you’ve acknowledged me as leader. But by way of the respect Bai had offered for whatever skills had carried Boleyn and her family through their years in the Cold, Bai had offered premature welcome. She’d crossed a line. Lys, who thought consensus was built out of manipulation and bullying, would not soon forgive her.
Which also meant she was in trouble with the lot of them. Bai had only to look at Boleyn across the table from her to remind herself that she’d stuck her neck out for someone everyone else regarded as a stranger and an outsider. Boleyn was even dressed differently. All the rest of the youngers, or for that matter everyone else in Commons this morning, were in standard greens; but there Boleyn sat in orange insulated cuvs with the lower sleeves zipped off, like some coldcrew member fresh out of the Empty.
But so what? What else would Bai ever have done? Boleyn was no stranger to her. Hadn’t Bai cried, when they’d been all of twelve years old and the Exile of the Maheshwaris had taken Boleyn away with the rest of her family? All the stories they’d ever heard about the Cold told her there was every possibility they’d never see one another again. Five years. In all that time, all they’d had of each other was their letters, written on the rough paper turned out by the Experimental Manufactory. In all that time, she’d never even heard Boleyn’s voice: the coldcrews hadn’t strung wire that far yet, and the wireless transmitter at Test Forest 3 was on restricted use.
Well, Bai was just as informed as everyone else in Turnbull of Consensus reasoning, affirmed and formalized by Court. The sanction pronounced upon Akash and Elizabeth Maheshwari was just by anyone’s estimation, even the Maheshwaris themselves. But it was no fairness to their children, innocent, who to evade Exile would be cut away from their parents, but to join it would be cut from their friends and community.
But they went.
Bai hadn’t even known what Boleyn looked like anymore, not after five years. One changed a lot in the years from age twelve to age seventeen. Taller now by a few inches, Boleyn was, and not so skinny anymore — she now had a good solid leanness to her. And her hair was… shorter?… yes. Still that shiny black, but it extended now only to her nape, whereas she used to wear it down her shoulders. Her face’s shape had changed, too: like the rest of her body. Lean, not skinny and sharp as before. Her eyes were still brown, but there was now a reserve to them, an unease, where Bai remembered them as being lit up with laughter and mischief. Or maybe it was just the circumstance she was in now, a returned exile being prodded at by those who had never been cast away.
Wonder how I’ve changed to her, Bai thought. They’d been best friends. Then…nothing except what they could fit in letters two or three times a year. Somehow they still knew each other so well, or at least that’s what she had wanted to believe. But they’d been shy and awkward since first meeting again this morning. And their awkwardness hadn’t had time to rub off before Lys and everyone had barged in to their Kitchen to interrupt. What if it never rubbed off?
Lys stretched theatrically and got up. Offended, no doubt, but having learned that it wasn’t dignified to go off in a temper. “C’mon,” she said languidly, and Gavril and Walker obediently got up, taking their mugs with them. Masozi was slower to rise, and then he lingered. “I’m Masozi,” he introduced himself, offering his hand to Boleyn. “We just came down from Station a few months ago. But… well… welcome back. Good to meet you.”
“Thanks,” Boleyn said, taking his hand. “Well met.”
Well, that was one take on it. But no, Masozi was all right. He wasn’t lockstep with everything Lys wanted. He was more like Bai, just bending with the wind, but going his own way when he wanted. Beyond him, Lys betrayed an impatient scowl at his back and stalked off. By the time Masozi turned to follow, she, Gavril, and Walker had disappeared from Commons towards Library tube. Masozi threw a grin at Bai, shrugging, and went another direction.
Then it was just Bai with Boleyn again in their little corner of Green Commons, and again the awkward, shy silence.
“I didn’t remember Lys was like that,” Boleyn ventured.
“Oh. Well. I think she was. Didn’t I write you about her? She wants us back in the days of kings and queens and presidents, with her as World Emperor. Ma thinks she’s got a big shock coming to her when we join adult Consensus, and turns out she’ll be just another younger like us.”
“Oh.” Boleyn stared down at her mug, swirling her tea around in it. “Isn’t she already just another younger like us?”
That made Bai laugh, and Boleyn look up at her. “She is at that. I’m not real sure how we got to letting her lord it over us.”
Boleyn smiled, then. It wasn’t an easy relaxed smile, but in it Bai began to see a hint of the girl she’d known five years ago, when they were seldom out of each other’s company. “I guess she won’t like me very well, then. Not much good at being lorded over. It’s not the Consensus way,” she quoted in a ironic tone. She put her mug down. “It’s so strange to be back here. It’s… very strange. So many people….”
So many people. So many she’d missed, when she’d first left. Boleyn’s earliest letters had been suffused with loneliness. All she’d had at Test Forest 3 were her brothers and parents and the few who lived and worked there by way of normal assignment: none of her friends. By comparison, Bai’s life hadn’t changed much at all: same Kitchen, same Commons, same family and peer group and friends.
Except that Boleyn was far away, and she was the friend who counted most. And so Bai had been full of loneliness too. The only times the loneliness went away was when a letter from Boleyn arrived, written in that painstaking cursive they’d both taught themselves out of Library when they were ten, like a code so no one else could read it. When a letter came, something would take the place of the loneliness inside her, some kind of peculiar joy, forming up inside her like a bubble or a balloon, growing larger and larger until it exploded out of her in a vast and almost hysterical happiness. It was a crazy enough feeling that she instinctively hid it from everyone, pulling it instead close to herself, husbanding and nourishing it in privacy to try to make it last as long as possible.
It worked, somewhat. But the loneliness always sifted in again, until she grew accustomed to it, a little hollow inside herself as she went through her days.
Boleyn must have done much the same. After the first year, her letters stopped speaking of loneliness or missing people. They filled up instead with accounts of the things she was experiencing and learning, written out in slow, thoughtful, deeply considered sentences that made Bai feel, in reading them, as if she was seeing into Boleyn’s very mind and heart, more so even than when they were children running wild and mischievous through the length and breadth of Turnbull’s habitats, sleeping over at each other’s places almost as often as at their own, talking and giggling until they fell asleep.
Now, some two hundred kilometers away, Boleyn tried to describe, so that Bai could see it, what the remote station was like, and the people in it. Metsi, they called the test station, which meant woods in some old Earth language someone had dug up in Library. Boleyn would describe, so that Bai could almost feel it, what it was like to go outside in winter. At Turnbull, kids and youngers only ever went out during the brief summers, and only on infrequent, closely-supervised field trips. But Boleyn and her brothers routinely went out even without olders, even in the deepest winter, bundled up in under-layers with coldcuvs and boots and breather. Even then, Boleyn wrote, she’d feel the cold seep in through the outer and inner layers of her clothes to chill her skin, and then burrow under her skin to make her fingers stiff and her toes and cheeks numb. She wrote about what the great Empty was like when she went with her parents or Pina Chomko or Alberto Talvi or other olders out into the sparseness of the decades-old tundra or into the mix of shrubs and scrubby trees that passed for a forest on this briefly inhabited planet, and told Bai about what they taught her: that the Empty was not so empty. That the Cold was warming with life.
And words — words that hadn’t been spoken for generations, not since their ancestors left the Planets to settle the Belt and the Six Moons. Words that hadn’t been spoken on the ships that came through the Long Dark from Sol System, nor on the stations as the Project slowly progressed to engineer this world, nor even in the permanent habitats that had been now a full two decades on the planet’s surface. They were words that appeared only in Library databases, in old books and movies that had come with them all the many years from Earth, describing phenomena that no one of the Project in centuries had any direct experience of. But some of these words were now in Boleyn’s parlance: frostbite, pingo, frost heave, sundog, fog. She might have looked some of them up, but most she’d been told by olders at Metsi, the first to be reborn to the experiences that gave those words meaning. Three-hundred year words, Bai called them: Boleyn taught them to her in her letters, and Bai would look them up to understand them even better, in order to know what Boleyn was experiencing and feeling and thinking.
She did her very best to give back to Boleyn in kind. But she had so few new words to teach her. She was living the same life Boleyn had already known at Turnbull, different only in that Bai was getting older in it, with the maturing perspective of a fourteen and fifteen and sixteen-year-old. It seemed so dull in comparison to what Boleyn was living. Somehow, though, it became more interesting by the very act of writing it out for Boleyn, because Bai wanted to give back to Boleyn what Boleyn was giving to her. She wanted Boleyn to know her mind and heart, too.
It eased her loneliness, she found: her days took on a fascination as she evaluated them for what was worth telling her friend. She’d script out the things she thought to tell about in her System account and then pick out the best bits, the most interesting, and copied them out in careful longhand on the pages of brown Manufactory paper, and collect the pages she wrote over weeks and sometimes months until the next time a coldcrew was sent out on a supply run to the test station. Her pages would go out, and Boleyn’s would come back.
So she knew something of what cold felt like, and what life was like for the few humans who lived in it. She supplemented what Boleyn taught her by talking with Nikos, her coldcrew friend, and by reading the reports filed on-System by Pina Chomko and Alberto Talvi and monitoring their conversations on the eco-wiki. So she knew more than most youngers about what they did and the signs they saw that the Project was succeeding. In her own lifetime, they said, they’d be able to walk outside without breathers, something no one had done since Esti Gustev departed Earth to join the Project so many lifetimes ago.
Boleyn, in turn, knew something of what life was at Turnbull, and how it grew and changed in her absence, larger by three Commons and now one not of six but of eight permanent base settlements on the planetary surface. But Turnbull was still strange to her now, perhaps even as strange as the Cold would be to Bai when she went out into it.
It was with that thought that Bai greeted a dream that must’ve lain hidden in her for months, perhaps even years. She wanted to go out into the Cold. She wanted to see Metsi. And she wanted to do it with Boleyn.
“It’s so much bigger, too,” Boleyn was saying. “Of course, you told me it was, in your letters… but…” She trailed off, stared down into her mug. “Need more tea,” she muttered. She pushed her mug away and looked up. “Bai… I never thought I would, but I got to liking it there, at Metsi. Then one day I realized…the only thing I missed about Turnbull anymore was you.” She looked away, hesitant. “And now I’m back… well… I think….” She looked back at Bai. “I want talking to you, face to face, to be like our letters. I don’t want it to be like… I don’t know. Like that crap with Lys.”
Had she thought Boleyn looked different from when they were twelve-year-olds? Taller, more filled-out but still lean, shorter hair… but not, really, that much different. Not with that in her eyes. Not in how the bubble grew inside of Bai and grew until it burst out into that expanse of joy that she had always hugged to herself, private and close.
Time to let it free, just a little. “So we won’t be like that crap with Lys,” Bai said. “It’s not even possible for us to be like that.” She reached her hand across the table, taking Boleyn’s. “Yeah?”
About the Author
Melissa S. Green describes herself as “a workaday workadyke of the north” – working by day as a publication specialist, by night (and lunchtimes) as a writer, poet, and blogger. Mel is the recent recipient of a True Diversity Award for Excellence in Online Media for coverage on her website Henkimaa.com of the (ultimately unsuccessful) fight to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the nondiscrimination code in Anchorage, Alaska. She’s now endeavoring to make good on the term “occasional political blogger” by returning the main focus of her website, and her life, to writing science fiction, fantasy, and poetry.
“Cold” is the first chapter of a novel-in-progress.