|Everywhere shines white. The surface glistens painfully bright and fractured under the cold sun and the hard black sky, punctured by diamond stars. Snow dunes undulating to the horizon, spearing ice twists looming stalagmites in the cavernous emptiness. They clump or stand alone, casting stark shadows as the light rebounds and filters through their transparent, cloudy depths. The ice trees pock the whiteness, harder than steel and burning cold heat. The landscape is composed of shades of white and crystal, deep drifts of powder snow that sink and swallow, slick expanses of sheet ice, rutted rivers frozen into wavelets and the constant blanket icing, smothering.
The freeze erodes flesh and burnishes skin dull red. The people here are all angles, jutting cheekbones and collarbones and pelvises, elbows like blades. Their eyes are wide with dazzle and in the dull light of their homes their pupils stretch huge and dark. They live enclosed in snowskin, body-regulated and breathing filtered air. Bubble houses pale humps, based on Eskimo principles and tunneled deep beneath the surface, white warrens burrowing through the impacted weight of ice. There is a constant background thrum of systems working ceaselessly, cleaning air, melting water, generating rough heat. Drops slide down the smooth walls, soaked up by furs and throws, slipping into collection filters, pumped back into the systems. Underground, they grow vegetables under UV, vast allotments of manufactured dirt and hopeful, fragile shoots. They keep small grazing animals in great halls that open into the cold arenas, where the beasts can see the sky. Sometimes they venture out to hunt strange new prey, camouflaged in shifting iridescent skins.
The meat is tough. Small furred creatures that scamper and lap at the snow, grubbing down to find meltspots and hints of green. Ivory birds with flat, beating feathers and granite beaks, stabbing deep through the frost crust and sweeping up, triumphant. Pallid amphibians that creep slowly and swim in the drifts, blood so sluggish it coagulates before it can bleed. Larger predators that hollow lairs in the high cliffs and stalk, indistinct against their background. Here, everything is blurred. There is no night, only the constant starscape and the distant bluewhite sun. When one of the large beasts is captured, there is celebration, whooping parties as the skin is pinned out and scraped and the head paraded as a trophy, long needle teeth with the tongue cut out, pointed ears, flat, tough fur close against bone. They light fires in the open spaces and impale the gutted body on thick metal skewers, roasting it over the guttering flames. The meat cooks quickly, a dark purple red full of sinews and gristle. There are fights over the fat bubbling yellow and rich. Later, they will play music, haunting melodies that shrill in the skull, fluting harmonies lifting harsh, cracked voices.
She went out one night, sick of the crush and the stale breath and the stink that pervaded the warrens, despite the best purifying systems they could manufacture. Heady with cheap liquor she stumbled slightly, out into the animal pens, where the creatures shuffled and huddled together, out into the air. Her snowskin covered her completely, moulded to her body, snaked with tubes running busily between nose and mouth and crotch. Microphoned ears and a slim processing pack at the small of her back. Goggles made her eyes enormous, her lashes bleached white beneath the heavy lenses. She was slight, swelling slightly at bust and hips, the last of her fat reserves. She swayed slightly in her light boots, an affected walk designed to attract attention. In the warrens, where the hoods could be pulled back and fine white hair shaken out, she was pretty, but in the anonymous outside they all looked the same, ghosts in the glare.
When he touched her lightly on the back of her neck, she didn�t recoil. She�d seen him following, heard the nervous shift of the herd as they brushed aside for his passage. Turning, she sank into his arms and they rubbed each other, feather stroking along limbs and torsos and faces. Her lips parted under the film of her suit exposing her small white teeth and she hissed softly, gesturing silence. He came after her as she moved out of the habitat and into the dunes, bodies near touching as they moved together, panting mild exertion. They followed the slipways up and over, plunging deep into the drifts as they slalomed down the slopes, sinking into the silence of the snow as it swallowed the shouts and songs of the colony. Their goggles darkened as the light prismed and sparked from a fierce ice spar, stabbing at the sky.
She stopped hard and he stumbled against her, clumsy at the unexpected motion. Unslinging her pack she swung it in her hands like a pendulum and watched him, head tilted to the side. She turned abruptly, spilling the contents over the snow crust. They had left no tracks: the ground was harder than rock after the long frost. When the melt and the new fall came, the area would be marked unsafe, wallowing pits of slush and ice boulders. On this day, the tools jangled as they struck the floor, steel shining dully against the bright crystals. An ice-pick, crampons, climbing gear. Lengths of silky rope. Wordless she watched him and he stood mute, watching her hands, her shadowed eyes, the heave of her chest. And he followed her as she struck up and out and into the ice, jarring it with the slam of metal, the crack as it bit. He watched the tremble in her calves as she strained for balance, the long arc of her spine as she stretched and pulled. He moved behind her, using her discarded grips. She looked back, over her chiseled shoulder and laughed down at him, the sound tinny in broadcast and wild. She reached down with her hand, perilous, and brushed the crown of his head with her fingertips. Then she swung up and away with a crazed energy, trusting him to match her.
The summit was flattened and smooth, rounded into miniature hillocks and dips and scoured by sun and wind. They pressed together and looked out across the waste, across to the horizon where the black sky and the white earth hazed into grey mist and nothingness. Everything in monochrome. Slowly, she pulled back the hood of her suit, snapped the goggles out of position so they hung from her neck, hacked off bottle bottoms. She looked at him with clear eyes, face raw from windbite. Her hair span out behind her in cotton strands, fragile and whispering. It rattled together like pins at it began to freeze. Her breath puffed hot clouds of steam as she mouthed words at him, eaten by the cold before they passed her teeth. He reached out to her, cupped her chin in his rough palms, the textured gloves abrading her skin as he tried to warm her. She shook his fingers away as he fumbled with her hood. She kissed the smooth cheek of his suit, the bulge of his ventilator, the curve of his lenses, fogging them.
In minutes, the cold had robbed her. Her eyes had crystallized and her mouth burned hot and red. She saw through fractured vision, kaleidoscopic. Each breath seared and froze. The tendons in her neck stood out as the ice took hold and she lay with her head in his lap, blinking diamond tears that caught on her lashes and snapped against her cheeks. She smiled up through cracked lips and felt the pulse of blood through the deep arteries buried in his groin. She tried to open her mouth, to speak, but her throat had frozen shut and she could only whistle killing air.
He could only follow her so far and so he sat stroking her breaking hair, too fine to feel through the pads of his gloves. Her eyes wouldn�t close and they both gazed out across the still bitter snowscape, arced by dead stars.