Preamble: When science-fiction authors such as myself aren't bathing in caviar and turning away desperate offers for oral sex from supermodels we're being ferried around in limousines to attend important science-fiction events, like book clubs and the testing of new space technologies and/or particle weapons systems.
Sometimes I go to events like these, especially if they are hosted in one of those very advanced major cities you see in movies but probably haven't heard of because they're in Canada, like New Yorkshire or Huffer Bay. (And you know what they say -- what happens in Huffer Bay stays in Huffer Bay.)
Recently I was a high-paying guest at the world famous science-fiction authorial institute in downtown Eskimopolis. It's a wondrous place.
In the museum wing they have housed a single authentic sideburn of Isaac Asimov in a glass case. I tried to take a picture with my phone and a security guard wrenched my arm behind my back. I reminded him that he was obliged by the three laws to obey orders given to him by a human being but he wouldn't listen. My wife was so embarrassed.
They also had some very educational science-fiction author seminars, like chrono-neutrino-gravitastic technobabble workshops and hands-on how-to sessions on wearing important-looking sweaters for book jacket photographs.
We passed a small table set up in a disused corridor where three strange, sober people with papery voices lectured on the importance of the adverb grimly. "Grimly has been a staple of the genre since the days of scientifiction," said one of them in a somber, serious tone. "But today's uppity editors want to turn their backs on decades of heritage, eschewing the usage as hackneyed."
"Are you telling me there are editors, living and working today, with the balls-out temerity to eschew hackneyed usages? That's an outrage, that is. What is this genre -- the Ritz?"
I gave their proud society five dollars, which they accepted with grave dignity.
When I got home I found out that Footprints magazine won't be printing any more of my stories. Or anything else either, actually. It turns out full-colour glossy magazines made of paper with a purely local focus are expensive propositions to prop up when readers can just get fresher content from the Internet for free anyway. Why pay for a magazine? So at least that's a deadline I won't have to worry about anymore. I was always a day late with my submissions, but from now on I won't be. That's progress.
RIP, Footprints magazine. Meanwhile, let's get on with the next installment of the current serial...
(The story unfolds beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
It was an alien world up there on the other side of the clouds.
Chirping and croaking rainforests, bird-choked river deltas, endlessly undulating prairies of green and golden grasses -- all the things you think of when you think of Mars -- there were none. Instead: barren copper rock gullies of dead pebbles connected by runs of orange sand, presided over by sullen winds. A cold landscape indifferent to living things.
The very air refused to be breathed. I had oxygen lines up my nose.
Ascending the gentle, almost imperceptible slope was a descent into desolation. While no two steps seemed to make any difference at all each score of steps conspired to drain the habitability out of the world around me. Each hundred of steps incrementally darkened the apex of the sky until I could see Sirius at noon.
It had been four days since I had seen Scotia, Svetlana or Suzumi.
The trail up the mountain was sparsely but regularly peopled. If I wasn't walking along with a party it would be rare that I couldn't see one on the rounded horizon ahead of me, or others coming out of the vapour and haze far behind me. I seldom felt alone and when I did it wasn't for long.
When I did run into people there was a sense of common understanding. We were on similar missions. Language barriers weren't a problem because we didn't need to speak a lot. I even came across a chimpanzee once, loping along all by herself. I don't really sign so there wasn't much we could say to one another. We just sat on a rock and ate lunch, trading bits of goodies when something caught my eye or hers.
I didn't know if she belonged to a human being or belonged to herself. I couldn't ask. I couldn't even know her name. But still I felt like we were friends when we bowed to one another and proceeded up different forks of the trail, me studying my map and she studying the landscape.
I met a robot, too, limping unaccompanied. He was one of those simple but exceedingly polite household models, expensive but unsophisticated, so he couldn't help but waste resources in greeting me. "Madam, is there anything this unit can get for you?"
I couldn't help but giggle. I knew his words didn't mean anything but I engaged him anyway because it had been a while since I'd seen anyone. "Whad do you hab?" I asked.
"Madam, if you would deign to repeat?"
I adjusted the oxygen lines in my nostrils. "What do you have?" I asked again.
"Madam, regretfully this unit has access to few amenities at this time, but is possessed of strength and locomotion at your service. Madam, would you care to have your baggage ported at this time?"
"No I'm fine thank you," I said, walking along beside him. "Why are you limping? What happened to your leg?"
"Madam, this unit is sufficiently operational to provide a wide range of services. Madam, this unit was damaged when failing to maintain adequate pedal purchase while porting a heavy load."
"It doesn't hurt you, does it?"
"Madam, naturally not. Madam, your concern is gracious."
"What were your carrying?"
"Madam, a gentlemen had graciously elected to avail himself of this unit's service."
"You carried somebody's backpack?"
"Madam, it was the gentleman himself who was carried."
"Oh my goodness. What happened when you fell?"
"Madam, the gentleman graciously shot this unit in the leg."
"Oh my God!"
"Madam, this unit is sufficiently operational to provide a wide range of services."
"Yeah, but still. That's crazy. So you ran away from your master?"
"Madam, the gentlemen was a hiker such as your genteel self, madam. Madam, this unit's master resides in the kingly city of Nirgal. Madam, this unit's master has graced this unit with a brave and singular mission to retrieve a stone from the summit of this mountain."
I frowned. "Only pilgrims are allowed to take any stones, I thought."
"Madam, this unit is pilgrim on behalf of this unit's master."
I cocked my head. "Can it work that way?"
The robot turned to face me and lifted a corroded hand to tap on his head beside his optic sensors. "Madam, this unit's master sees everything this unit sees and follows every step of this unit's progress with diligence and piety."
I looked into the robot's glassy optics as he looked at me. I raised a cat mitten and waved. "Hello in there! My name's Claire! How do you do!"
I smiled. The robot smiled, too. But then again robots like that are always smiling.
It didn't take long to draw ahead. Soon the robot was limping in the distance behind me, visible only when the sun caught a clean part of him and made it glint. I focused on controlling my breathing and keeping my steps steady. My thighs startled to prickle and burn as I rounded a lobe of hard bronze rock. I paused at the top to gather myself.
The flank of mountain beyond was dominated by a many-fingered glacial blanket of whiteness. And though a few flakes twisted lazily in the air I knew what I was seeing ahead was not snow. The map unfolded itself into my hands and I double-checked to be sure. Yes. This was it. The very southern edge of it, at any rate.
The Blumenfeld Growth -- the world's largest fungal forest. Square kilometre after square kilometre of unfettered mycological life.
Heeding the warnings from the brochure I mumbled to my backpack as I lowered myself to my haunches. It dismounted me and disgorged a medical pack. The medical pack unfurled and presented a tiny canister of differently coloured pills: micafungin, butenafine, polygodial, isoconazole, miconazole, ravuconazole, amorolfin, tolnaftate and crystal violet.
They looked like candies. Life-saving candies.
I yanked back my sleeve and waved my wristwatch through the air. It chirped. The atmospheric taster recommended a dose of two reds, one green, a pink and a yellow-green striped. I took off my mittens and carefully picked the right combination out of the medical pack.
My message bead was blinking. I ignored it. I really couldn't imagine anything to say to Scotia, Suzumi or Svetlana. Were they calling to taunt me or to apologize? To me it didn't matter.
If a limping domestic could climb as proxy for some rich man in Nirgal then surely I could climb as proxy for Madeleine.
So I really wasn't going ahead alone, in a way.
Never the less when I looked up again and saw that spread of weird, inscrutable whitish-grey material in folds and whorls of impossible scale it took a bit of extra effort to pick up my boots and make them step ahead of one another again.
It was hard to bring the fungal forest closer. But turning back would have been harder.
There was a boardwalk through the Blumenfeld Growth. Its sides were dotted with signs which repeated in half a dozen languages and scripts that varying from the trail promised lethal consequences.
The fluffy fibres and silky tendrils of the surrounding mycological Eden all thinned and browned at the borders of the boardwalk. I wondered what terrible stuff the boards secreted to keep themselves bare. Life here was stubborn and creative. It would take a lot to hold it back.
A gossamer pattern of orange strands was already visible on the surface of my parka. Green and grey motes hung heavily in the air, parting in slow-motion whorls as I stepped through. Exotic dusts settled on my shoulders and took hold there, accumulating into networks of thickening flakes and glistening lobes. The brochure had told me to expect this, and to resist the urge to taste any of it no matter how sweet the smell.
It was true. The stuff growing on my shoulders smelled like maple flossed sugar. I started to salivate. But I didn't lose my head. I knew the one thing the fungal forest wanted more than anything was a fresh source of food -- and it wasn't above resorting to tricks.
I stopped in my tracks after rounding a curve where the boardwalk dodged the towering bone-white stalk of a massive mushroom looming overhead. Here, in its shadow, lay someone's backpack abandoned in the middle of the path.
Instinctively I cowered and covered my head, then risked a longer look at the giant mushroom cap blocking the sunlight from me. Its underside was a dizzying convolution of radial ridges. I couldn't see anything threatening. I peered around the forest at my level and saw only the same fractal mash of mycological free-for-all I'd been seeing for an hour. It was quieter than any plant and animal forest could ever be -- even the small sounds were pristine in their muffled isolation.
I called out, "Henno?"
I adjusted my oxygen lines and tried again, louder this time. "Hello?"
I came closer to the abandoned pack. There were no footprints on the immaculate boards of the toxic boardwalk, no scuffs or lines or debris. No blood. The backpack was not torn, nor stained or weathered. Only a small amount of orange webbing was clinging to its upper surface.
I stiffened. That meant whatever had happened to the hiker had happened recently.
My breath caught in my throat. I swallowed it and spun, trying to look everywhere at once. Motion caught my eye and I froze. "Oh my God..."
In a shaft of sunlight crawling with motes stood a doe.
It made no sense! How could it be? I blinked, tilting my head at the thing.
The doe blinked its bottomless brown eyes. It stirred but did not run away. The mote-filled air glittered around it as it stood, long legs fixed in place just beyond the gloom of the mushroom's shadow. The doe's ears twitched nervously.
"Don't be afraid," I whispered, keeping as still as I could. "How did you get here, little girl? Where did you come from?"
The doe licked her nose. I couldn't help but smile.
Her presence was unexplainable but my heart was engaged. I hunkered slightly lower.
A shout: "Behind you! Behind you! It's about to strike -- behind you!"
Automatically I turned. A long, conical tendril had extended from the underside of the overhead mushroom cap all the way down to my level, its mouth a wet aperture only inches away from my face.
Let me just admit this right up front: I peed a little.
I dropped. The tendril was pierced by an arrow. Where the shaft of the arrow touched the fungal flesh a rapidly expanding discolouration grew. The thing wilted as it turned brown, sagging lower out of its root in the whorls above until it collapsed under its own weight and settled into a pile of shifting ooze that exhaled a foul yellow steam.
From where I crouched on the boardwalk I turned my head left. Standing deep in fungus was a wide-hipped woman in a full-body coverall with a transparent helmet and an arm-mounted crossbow. She took a few steps forward, eyes pinned to the rotten tendril, then let her armed arm dip. Her eyes met mine.
I said, "Thank you!"
She nodded curtly then climbed over the side of the boardwalk and knelt next to her pack. Her outfit looked like a space-suit. She dusted the orange webbing off with her gloves and fed a series of sample vials into the pack's aperture. She took a reading on her watch then cracked the seal on her helmet and opened it up. A small pale face peered at me out of a mass of dark, sweaty hair. "Glad I could help. You okay?"
"I'm pretty okay," I assessed as I got to my feet. I risked a look up at the looming mushroom cap. "My name's Claire. Are anymore of those things going to come down?"
"Frantiska Ludmilo. No, she'll take hours to recover from loosing that tooth. See? Bait's already deflating."
I looked where she pointed. The doe in the shaft of sunlight was shrivelling down into the grass-like undergrowth. I turned back. "That's incredible. It was...a trap. You're a botanist?"
"Mycologist. U of N. You're a pilgrim?"
"I'm a hiker."
"Shouldn't hike alone in carnivorous forests. Didn't you read the sign?"
I flushed. "Sure, I just didn't think that -- I mean, the speed of it -- well, the pamphlet didn't say anything about fungus deer decoys."
She nodded. "I know. Brand new stratagem. I'll get to name it."
Frantiska artfully pressed an impressive fraction of her wild hair into a woolen toque and fed a pair of oxygen lines into her nostrils. She grimaced, swallowed, then shook her head and tucked her hands into gloves. "It's freezing out here on the boardwalk. But I have to get to my next checkpoint in short order. Lingered a bit at that last site. Want to talk together?" She knelt before her pack and it climbed onto her. She looked up at me, one eye visible through her hair.
"Sure," I said, offering her a hand. She took it and got to her feet. We both took a moment to catch our breath, then set off along the boardwalk.
As we walked Frantiska pointed out some of the more amazing specimens around us peppered now and again with a warning about potential dangers. "Within Blumenfeld you must be suspicious of everything amazing you see, because the function of that amazement is to distract you from the function of something else." She was planning to recommend the parks department erect antibiotic roofing over particularly indefensible sections of the trail but had mixed feelings because of the way it would spoil the view. "What's the point of visiting the growth if you can't see the amazing stuff?" she asked. "Amazement isn't free. There's always risk in it. That's why pilgrims come through her."
"Our group leader chose the route for speed, not for the attractions."
Frantiska raised a brow. "Say, Claire, who's the leader in group of one?"
I kept my eyes straight ahead. "There were four of us. I mean, originally. And I guess there's still the three of them but I'm walking alone now."
"Couldn't keep up with you?"
I sort of chuckled. "That's not it. I'm sure they're way ahead of me by now. They probably rerouted to save us all the awkwardness of running into one another. We had differences, you know, so."
"Are you an irrational, unfair, hateful person, Claire?"
"Um, no," I giggled. "I hope not!"
"Oh, well," reasoned Frantiska with a small smirk, "it must be them, then."
She talked about the Blumenfeld Growth a lot. She loved it. She spent nine months of the year up to her armpits in it. She always called it "her." I asked her why and she explained that the growth was not a literal forest -- an ecozone defined by competing kinds of plants and trees and bugs and birds and mosses -- but instead a single individual super-organism filling every available niche with a micro-evolved surface feature. "Miss Blumenfeld is at least a kilometer deep according to the seismics. She's the fattest thing on Mars."
"How did -- um, she -- get here?"
"Oh! Well! That's very interesting, actually. We brought her. That is, the pioneers did. But not to this mountain. She'd certainly have been seeded in one of the basins. That's where everything that grows took hold first. She would've been cultured to disseminate minerals -- that's what a lot of the early myco-complexes were for. That way when the ants came in to start aeration there was a heterogenous soil to work with rather than just stripes of different weights of silica sands."
"They were engineered? To help the terraforming?"
"Exactly. And designed to die off once their bit was done. But evolution makes mud-pies of any aspiring godling's plans. The Blumenfeld found a way to keep going, to dodge every bullet, to adapt as fast as we could. If she feels threatened she jams an appendage full of mutagens and lets cry the dogs of war! You know? It's amazing." Frantiska grinned wistfully. "At any rate, civilization chased her off Mars and up the mountain. And here she clings, catching as catch can. A spiderweb for flies."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but couldn't she be -- you know -- exterminated? Because of the danger?"
"We don't dare. Because the beauty of it is that she wants what we want. She likes the atmospheric mix just the way it is, and anytime it wanders she nudges it back. She's the globe's most sensitive atmospheric sensor and its most skilled operator."
I looked sideways at her. "How does she operate it?"
"She makes it rain. Or she doesn't. She's got her western edge on the fringe of the trans-oceanic stream and her south-eastern edge touches the Tharsis gyre -- basically, she sits at the crossroads of two of the planet's most influential weather systems. She can seed clouds along either current or along neither. We could never in our wildest dreams have designed such a perfect caretaker."
"So I guess it's okay that she picks off the occasional pilgrim."
"Sacrifices to the rain goddess? Maybe so, Claire. An authentic Olympian titan. A beautiful monster."
I nodded. "My sister's a bit like that."
We crested a small rise. Ahead of us was a dense glen of varicoloured mycological glee, a stone-still storm of clashing spirals wreathed in iridescent hair. An emergency flare lifted lazily from behind the glen, the smoke of its tail deforming in the breeze. The head of the flare flashed urgently pink. A few seconds later a soft and echoing pop! made its way to us.
Frantiska stiffened. "Flares! She must be hunting again."
"That means someone's in trouble over there, right?"
She nodded. "Let's go!"
Running wasn't an option. Not with air so thin. We loped as best we could, our boots beating the boards in painfully slow rhythm. It took us ten minutes to round the glen.
We passed through a field of white grass-like fuzz that grew higher than our heads, the breeze causing it to curtsy in undulating waves. If you looked close you could see that the fuzz was sticky and fringed with insects struggling to free themselves. Between panting breaths Frantiska advised, "Keep to the middle of the boardwalk, in case the wind bends the teeth close enough to touch you."
I did as I was told. We followed a hairpin turn in the boardwalk and found ourselves suddenly outside of the Blumenfeld Growth. I stopped short. So did Frantiska. "What the hell...?" she whispered, gaping.
The boardwalk continued along through a short, narrow valley -- a valley of nude bronze rock streaked with runs of loose grey pebbles and sand. The fungal forest had come to an abrupt end behind us. The steep valley walls ahead were lifeless and dusty and cold.
I looked down at my watch. The map showed us still within the bounds of the growth. "What happened here? What could kill everything off? Some kind of pollution -- a poison?"
Frantiska shook her head. "I don't know, Claire. I've never seen a die-off like this. It's...like some kind of myco holocaust."
We were both startled when a second flair erupted upward from behind a collection of onearby boulders. The report of its firing was surprisingly close, the echoes overlapping. The sound was chased by a high-pitched scream, as if it had been a firework.
We loped over. We pushed hard. The edges of my vision turned grey and started to sparkle.
In the lee of a clutch of big broken rocks were visible only the upper thirds of two high-altitude dome tents, both pink. I recognized them from the manifest images: I had an identical tent in my own pack. The tents seemed to be somehow sinking into the rocks themselves. "Excreta, excreta," I said to myself. I tried to breathe right so I wouldn't throw up. I couldn't stop adjusting my oxygen lines.
Frantiska had already vaulted over the boardwalk's railing. She bent her knees to hit the stone in a squat, but there was no recoil when she came to the ground. Her feet penetrated the rock as if it were papier-mâché. She went right through, stopping hip-deep.
The first thought to occur to me made no sense. I cried, "Is it lava?"
"No," reported Frantiska, frowning as she waved away a cloud of dust. "It's mycological. We're still inside Miss Blumenfeld after all."
I looked around wildly. "So why can't we see fungus?"
"Because she has camouflaged herself."
A chill trickled down my spine. Cautiously I approached the edge of the boardwalk and stuck my boot through the railing, toeing at the copper rocks. The closest turned to dust when I touched it, the dust carried away on the breeze. It was fake. It was all fake. I reeled back. "How can I get to you?"
Frantiska yanked on one leg and then the other. "I don't think you can. It's alright. My suit can release bursts of anti-mycological toxins. Hang in there. Need to put my helmet back on."
"Do you need a hair binder? I have extra hair binders."
"No, I've been fitting this bramble into helmets for years. I just do a twist like this and it turns into a bun -- well, a loaf of bread."
She sealed the helmet, her little pale face almost lost in the sphere of mashed hair. She opened a wrist control and tapped at its surface. A thick and churning umber steam roiled up from where her legs touched the rock-like mushrooms.
I coughed sympathetically. She pulled free. But instead of coming back toward me she waded deeper off-trail, slogging her way toward the tops of the sunken pink tents. Every few minutes she dispensed anti-mycological toxins, the drips from her boots yawning open depressions to step down into. The closest tent was the most exposed. Frantiska fought her way to it.
She sprayed bursts of aerosolized anti-mycos from her fingertips to help peel slabs of crumbling wet clay-like growth away from the front flap of the tent. I bit my lip. "Can you see anything?" I called.
A hand reached out from the tent and seized her by the shoulder.
Frantiska went down on one knee and used both arms to haul backward. Bit by bit a body wrapped in long underwear emerged. It was Svetlana. When I saw her flail and grab I knew she was still alive. Her face was drawn and terrified, and she wasn't wearing a stitch of makeup. She was breathing hard. She attached herself to Frantiska as if Frantiska were her mother. Frantiska straightened with effort. "It's going to be fine," she said, grimacing as she lifted one leg and started to lurch back toward me and the boardwalk with a grown woman clinging to her.
"Svetlana! Can you hear me?" I cried.
"You know her?" grunted Frantiska as she slowly advanced.
"This is my group," I said.
Frantiska leaned into the railing. I helped to catch Svetlana. That is to say Svetlana piled upon me and we both fell backward onto the boardwalk. She was shaking. "The ground tried to swallow me," she stammered between gasps. "I woke up being squeezed into rock. What would have happened if my flare hadn't been seen? You saved my life, you saved my life."
Gently I turned her face to face me. "Who's in the other tent? Is it Scotia?"
"My God, my God," she gibbered, closing her eyes and gasping harder. "You saved my life, you saved my life, God."
I yanked the emergency oxygen pack out of my bag and pressed the mask over Svetlana's face. She opened her eyes wide with surprise and then let them fall until closed. I pulled my sleeping bag over her and squeezed her shoulders. "There, there," I said, just like when Madeleine babbled. "You're okay now."
I turned. Frantiska had arrived at the second, more far-gone, tent. Her expression was grim. "Getting this one out's going to be more of a challenge. She's deeper. The process has gone further."
I swallowed the taste of bile back. "What can I do?"
"Break up the boardwalk. Make a path. I need another set of hands."
My own pink tent had unfolded itself on the boardwalk. I tried to coax Svetlana inside but she freaked out when she saw the thing and started trying to climb on top of me again, so I rolled her up inside the sleeping bag and turned her so she could face the sky. I had to pause before moving again because my vision was starting to swim. I grabbed my camping saw and showed it how to cut the boards out of the boardwalk by making an example cut. Its eye blinked green and the camping saw got to work.
Frantiska waded back to me to take the first freed boards. Her helmet was fogged with condensation, her face running with sweat. Wordlessly she took the boards and laid them end to end on the false ground, creating a kind of balance beam to walk on along the bottom of a trough of blackening dead mushroom flesh.
When the beam was long enough I joined Frantiska beside the far tent. Frantiska peeled back the flap. Inside the tent Suzumi was visible from the torso upward. Her lower half was engulfed in mycological growth that shimmered with a fuzz of cilia. Suzumi was breathing. Her eyes were open and darting, but she did not look at us or respond to anything we said. Foam drooled from one corner of her mouth. "She's been poisoned," explained Frantiska, "to minimize struggle."
Frantiska snapped her fingers around Suzumi's head. Suzumi did not react.
"We need help."
"Summoned," said Frantiska, nodding at her wrist-mounted controls. "Paramedics with life gear and full toxin kits. On their way. The wait won't be short. I'll stay with her, of course."
"If someone waits with her it should probably be me."
"What? No, Claire. It's me that has the anti-mycos. You've got to get the other one out of here."
"She's in shock. She can't stay in Blumenfeld. You've got to get her clear."
"She doesn't want to climb anymore. I don't think she can."
"Going back through the growth won't be an option for her. We're less than a kilometre from the northern bounds. Carry her if you have to. There's a parks department emergency shelter where the trails converge. They can do a rescue there. I'll set it up. Are her premiums paid?"
I nodded. Also I was crying. "Is Suzumi going to die?"
"Probably," said Frantiska, "but not for sure; and not alone."
"You don't even know us. You don't have to do this."
"Familiarity doesn't change morality," said Frantiska. "Now get the hell out of here, Claire. It was nice to have met you."
The real border of the Blumenfeld Growth was marked by a wall. Nothing grew very near to it, but the last fringe of fungal life standing undulated in orange and black bands mimicking the wall's caution stripes. Svetlana and I slowly limped closer, her weight a constant drag on my right side. Whenever I paused for breath she tugged on me urgently and pleaded, "We've got to get out of here. Keep moving, keep moving."
The wall swallowed the boardwalk. We stumbled under an arch. Suddenly we were standing on gravel and the temperature had dropped ten degrees. The boardwalk had ended and Blumenfeld was behind us.
Svetlana straightened, pushing against me peevishly. "Where are we?" She hugged her own shoulders and stared at me, shivering. "Where have you taken us?"
I dropped to one knee and breathed, my eyes squeezed shut against the sparkles. "You still. Haven't told me. Where. Scotia is."
I managed to look up at her. "Scotia. Is she dead?"
"How should I know? She abandoned us. And now Suzumi's swallowed up by fungus." Svetlana sagged into the side of a boulder and covered her face. "It could have been me!"
My backpack dismounted me, then in turn Svetlana's backpack dismounted my backpack. It chuckled and hummed as it sorted itself in search of her parka and mittens and scarf, disgorging them finally with a squeal of pressurized air. Svetlana waved the mist aside and yanked at her cold weather gear. While she got dressed I crawled over to where she'd cast aside my sleeping bag. I pet it a little and then invited it to curl up for stowing.
"How far to the emergency shelter?" said Svetlana, sealing her parka. She knelt down next to her pack and gestured at it to climb aboard.
I got to my feet and shuffled over, bending down to show her the big map unfolding in the palm of my cat mitten. "Here at the fork, you take the low road. You should make it by sunset. You sort of have to, because you don't have a tent anymore."
Her arched eyebrows angled sharply. "What's all this you, you, you, you?"
"I'll take the high road. I should be able to make this camping spot by nightfall."
"You're leaving me?"
I shrugged as nicely as I could but couldn't work up the muster to actually say much. "I'm really sorry," I finally said. "But Scotia's out there alone, so."
Svetlana stood. She looked as if she had the taste of something awful in her mouth. "You don't owe Scotia anything. Scotia's a whore. Suzumi and I hate Scotia now. All of this is her fault. You can see that, can't you?"
"Do you think Scotia deserves to die alone on the side of this mountain?"
"No, I don't."
"You're a fool to forgive her. Are you so desperate for a friend that you'll even cling to ones that betray you?"
I looked down and watched my mittens mauling each other. "I'm not sure why I have to go but I have to. Um, go. So I am. So I guess this is goodbye."
I looked up. Svetlana was already walking away.