Our first night out on the ice, we traded war stories. Reyes, Viader, Kellet, Martinez, Ramone, McMann, and me. We were all career military, all career grunts, none of us with aspirations for command. Captain Adams hand-picked us, brought us to the top of the world—a blue place all ice and snow and screaming wind—with only the vaguest idea of our mission. And none of us had cared. We’d signed on the dotted line, and had ourselves ready at 0500 on the tarmac, as expected.
The plane had dropped us at a base camp that used to be an Artic research station. We were all too restless for sleep yet, so we sat around the table and the remains of our meal, and talked.
“Why do you think Adams chose us for the mission? Why us in particular?” Reyes asked.
“To hell with that,” Viader said. “What is the mission? Does anyone know?” She looked around the table.
“Extraction?” Martinez shrugged, underlining it as a guess. “We’re here to get something top secret the military wants very badly.”
“Okay,” Reyes said. “So my questions again. Why us? None of us are anything special.”
He looked around for confirmation; our silence agreed.
“My guess?” Kellet leaned back as she spoke, balancing her chair on two legs. “Because we’re all fucked up.”
When she leaned forward, her chair thumped down hard. The table would have jumped if Martinez and McMann hadn’t been leaning on it. Kellet pointed at me first.
“You. What’s your story? Syria? Iraq?”
“I was in Al-Raqqah.” My stomach dropped, but I kept my voice calm.
“And?” Kellet’s eyes were a challenge, bristling like a guard dog in front of her own pain.
“I was working an aid station on the edge of a refugee camp, distributing food, medicine, the basics.” Under the table, my palms sweated.
Kellet leaned forward; Ramone fidgeted. Six pairs of eyes gave me their attention, some hungry, and some looking away in mirrored shame.
“I was handing a package of diapers to a young mother with a little boy on her hip, and another by the hand. Then the world turned black and red and everything went upside down.”
I paused; instead of the room, the world flickered briefly, black and red.
“I was blown off my feet and ended up across the street, but I saw the second supply truck go up in a ball of flame. The first thing that came back was the smell.”
“Burning hair,” Viader said.
“Burning skin.” This from Ramone.
I looked down. Snow ticked against the windows. Wind—cold and sharp as a knife—sighed around the corners of the research station. It sounded like teeth and nails, trying to get in. But I felt heat, the blooming fireball pushing me back, death breathing out and flattening me to the ground.
“The woman’s legs were gone,” I said. Silence, but for the snow. “But she kept crawling toward her baby, even though there was no way it was still alive. The other kid, her little boy, was vaporized on impact.”
“You thought about killing her.” Martinez’s voice was soft, the intonation not quite a question. I raised my head, the muscles at the back of my neck aching and putting dull pain into my skull. “Putting her out of her misery?”
“Yes.” The word left my throat raw. I’d never admitted it out loud; I’d barely admitted it to myself. Until now.
McMann produced a bottle. I didn’t even look to see what it was before shooting back the measure he poured me and letting him refill my glass. My hands shook; they didn’t stop as I swallowed again and again. The bottle went around, and so did the stories, variations on a theme. An IED tearing apart a market square, a hospital blown to smithereens instead of a military base; a landmine taking out three humanitarian aid workers.
We lapsed into silence, the answer to Reyes’ question sitting heavy in our stomachs. Adams wanted us because we were broken. Because none of us had anyone at home who would miss us. We were expendable.
“Is that about right?” Kellet asked, looking over my shoulder.
I twisted around to see Adams watching us with her arms crossed. Her posture put a physical shape to something I’d been feeling as the stories and bottle went around. The seven of us had fallen into thinking of ourselves as a unit. Adams was outside of that—us against her. We’d follow her, but we didn’t trust her. She’d drawn our pain to the surface; that made her our enemy.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Adams said, instead of answering.
There was one chair left against the wall. She dragged it over, turning it backward and sitting with her arms draped over the back, another barrier between us and her.
“There was a map,” she said. “A soldier in Kandahar sold it to me. He claimed it would lead us to bin Laden, back when we thought he was hiding out in a cave like some desert rat.”
Adams snorted. Without asking, she reached for the bottle, and drank straight from the neck, killing what remained before setting it down with a heavy thunk. The wind chose that moment to pick up. The walls of the station were solidly-built, but the wind still rattled the door
“The map was hand-drawn, and we were idiots to follow it. I think my commander only humored me to teach me a lesson.”
Adams twirled the empty bottle. The noise of the glass rolling against the wood made my skin crawl.
“A few clicks out from where the cave was supposed to be, our equipment went haywire. Our radios burst out with static, mixed with echoes of conversations from hours and days ago. Our compasses spun, never settling on north.
“We should have turned back. But there was a cave, right where the map said it would be, and if there was even a chance . . . ” Adams grimaced.
“Ten of us went in. I was the only one who came out.”
Adams pulled a small bottle out of her pocket, thick glass, stoppered with a cork. The air around it shivered, humming with the faint sound of wings. I sat forward, and saw the others all around the table do the same thing, a magnetic pull drawing us towards the glass.
“This is why we’re here,” Adams said.
I stared at the bottle, filled with honey, viscous and bright. It glowed. Martinez reached out, but Adams’ look stopped him. He dropped his hand into his lap. Adams held the bottle up, turning it so we could watch the honey roll.
“They found me two days later, half a click from the cave entrance, or where it should have been, except it was gone. I was severely dehydrated, puncture wounds all over my body, half-dead from some kind of venom they couldn’t identify. They got a med-evac copter to pull me out.”
There was more she wasn’t telling us, knowledge stored up behind her eyes. She honestly didn’t seem to care whether we knew, even if it meant walking blind into the mission she still hadn’t explained. The bottle disappeared, neat as a magic trick. The humming stopped, its absence so sudden my ears popped.
Adams reached into her pocket again, and I couldn’t help flinching, mirrored by Reyes and Ramone. Instead of a bottle, Adams set her smart phone on the table, a video cued up.
“I had the honey with me when I came out of the cave. It saved my life.” She didn’t explain. Doubt flickered from Martinez to McMann to me, a spark jumping between us.
“If I’d been in my right mind, I wouldn’t have told them about it. But.” Adams shrugged, let the word stand. She tapped play.
The video had been shot on another camera phone, one struggling to decide between focusing on a glass cage or the rat inside it. Thin wires ran from multiple points on the rat’s body.
“Lowest voltage,” a voice off camera said.
“This is what happened when the doctors at the military hospital fed a rat the honey.” Adams tone was non-committal, unconcerned. Only the set of her shoulders said different.
Following the voice was a distinct click like a dial being turned. I imagined the snap of electricity, the scent of ozone popping blue-white in the air. The rat showed no reaction.
“Next level,” the voice on the phone said. “Sustain it longer this time.”
Again the thunk of the dial, the ghost of electricity. I felt it shoot up my spine, wrapping around my bones. The rat cleaned its whiskers with its paws.
“What’s the point of this?” Kellet said. “Why the hell would they feed a rat honey, then electro-shock it?”
“Because apparently I told them to,” Adams said. She wasn’t looking at the screen. “I told them it was the only way they’d understand.”
“Maximum voltage.” The camera lost focus briefly, coming back as the dial clicked again.
The scent of singed fur had to be my imagination.
“Jesus Christ.” McMann breathed out.
Adams retrieved the phone as the video ended. She swiped from video to a photo and turned the screen so we could all see. Reyes covered his mouth before the screen angled my way. The rat lay on its side, one of its front limbs missing, the lining of its cage sodden and red.
“After they unhooked the wires, the rat gnawed its own leg off. It did it so quietly, they didn’t notice until it was already dead.”
Adams slipped the phone into her pocket.
“The cave is out there on the ice now. I can see it.” Adams tapped the side of her head. There was no air left in the room; none of us could have questioned her even if we’d dared. “I’m sure it’s obvious why the military has a hard-on for this honey. It’s our job to bring it to them.”
We set out at dawn. Thermal gear blanked our faces so we might have been the same person repeated eight times, not separate individuals. Spikes on our boots crunched against the ice, a raw sound with crystalline edges. The ice itself groaned, like bones breaking, the vast sound of massive trees cracking deep in a forest.
Trapped between the padded mask and my skin, my breath rasped. The holes to let it escape clotted with frost, leaving my face clammy. I kept my eyes on Viader ahead of me, and put one foot in front of the other. I was the tail of the party, Adams, the head.
The sky lightened, a blue so searing my eyes watered even behind the reflective goggles protecting them. Then just as suddenly, clouds rolled in, dark and heavy. Adams led us between two walls of ice, high enough to slice the sky into a thin ribbon and erase everything else. Sheltered from the wind, she called a halt, told us to eat protein bars to keep our strength up. I unwrapped mine, clumsy with my bulky gloves, lifting my mask just high enough to get the food into my mouth. Even so, the cold stung.
As I swallowed the last bite, my radio burst out in static. I jumped at the squawk so close to my ear. It was the snow made auditory, a grey-white flurry of noise. Then, in its wake, my grandmother’s voice. And simultaneous with my grandmother’s voice, the storm broke, howling down on us in our trench. Kellet caught my arm, and tugged me into a crouch. The others were doing their best to wedge themselves against angles in the ice.
I made myself as small as I could, pulling extremities close to the center, conserving heat while my grandmother chattered in my ear. Seven years dead, but her voice was clearer than Kellet’s shouting over the storm. She sang, the way she used to while cooking Sunday dinner. I caught snatches of Slavic fairy tales, the rhythms she’d used to lull me to sleep as a child. As the storm’s fury rose, she called my grandfather’s name in the same high, panicked tone she used in her last days, not seeing the hospital room, but a long-ago village torn apart by war.
Martinez tapped my shoulder and I almost hit him.
“Adams says move.”
My grandmother fell silent. The wind died a little, and I forced my legs from their awkward crouch. We edged forward. The fresh layer of tiny ice pellets skittering over the hard-packed ground made the going even rougher. Despite the spikes in our boots, we slid. The wind pushed at us, and the cold crawled under our clothes. Behind my mask, my teeth chattered.
“Hold here.” Adams’ voice cut over the storm.
Instinct made us gather around her in a half circle. The honey appeared in her hand, last night’s magic trick in reverse. Everything else wavered in the dying storm, but it was bright and clear.
“It’s the only way we’re getting out of here alive,” Adams said.
I didn’t understand what she meant, but my body folded nonetheless, knees hitting the hard-packed snow. In my peripheral vision I saw Viader, Ramone, and the others do the same. Had Adams ordered us? The air hummed. I couldn’t hear it over the wind, but I could feel it in my bones.
Adams didn’t lower her mask, and goggles still blanked her eyes as she moved down the line. Despite the bulky gloves, her pour was deft. One by one Viader, Kellet, Martinez, Reyes, McMann, and Ramone lowered their masks and received Adams’ honey on their tongues.
I should have felt frost burn immediately, but the proximity of the honey was enough to unleash the effect. I felt it sliding down my throat before it ever touched my tongue. Time bent, and the world went sideways. I had swallowed the honey, would swallow the honey, was always swallowing it. Then Adams tilted the bottle and let a drop touch my tongue.
Her limbs bent strangely, and there were too many of them. I saw myself reflected a dozen-dozen-dozen times in multi-faceted eyes. The honey was liquid fire. It was like holding a burning coal in my mouth, all heat and no taste. It was like swallowing stars. But as soon as I did it, I felt no pain.
The storm raged, but I couldn’t feel it anymore. The wind became a hush, a lullaby. I thought of my grandmother, but it was someone else singing now. The words weren’t Russian; they weren’t even human.
Adams lowered her scarf. Her lips were cracked and bloody, but light clung to her. She was holy, we all were, and I watched in wonder as she used her teeth to pull her glove free, ran her finger around the inside of the bottle, and rubbed the last of the honey on her gums.
It should have been crystallized with the cold, rough against her skin, but it was as liquid as it had been when she’d poured it down my throat.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Everything was sharp and bright after the honey. Adams walked on gravel and broken glass, fallen leaves. Each pellet of ice under her boots cracked inside my bones so I felt it as much as heard it. My blood thumped; eight of us breathed. I heard the crystals growing where my breath froze on my scarf – fractal ice patterns, branching and branching. Forming hexagons. Forming a structure like a hive. Rewriting my cells; instead of bones and blood, guts and liver, there were only endless chambers, dripping honey.
And under it all, the song. A lullaby, a nursery tale. Limbs like needles tucked me in, sealed me in wax and left me to dream. A girl with wild, tangled hair stood under a tree, its trunk lightning-struck and smelling of scorched woods. Bees swarmed the air around her, a steady hum, and liquid gold dripped down the seared bark.
Only she wasn’t a girl, she was much older. Ancient. Her bones were already buried beneath the roots, her skin peeled from her ribs, her insides hollowed to make room for a hive. Raised welts dotted her skin, a secret language I could almost read. History a billion, billion, billion years old. A map. Bees hummed while her bones fed the tree and she stood in its shadow, buried and not buried, dead and alive.
All of it echoed through the song, inhuman concepts crammed into human form. The girl wasn’t a girl, but a god, a seed, a splinter of history forced under my skin. I wanted to scream. Instead, I hummed, my whole body vibrating to the frequency of wings beating. I didn’t feel the cold. None of us did. And together we walked, a segmented body with too many limbs, and Adams as our head.
Night fell, the sky darkening from plum twilight to deep blue-black. I didn’t care where Adams was leading us. I could have walked forever. Ahead of me, Ramone stripped back his protective gear, exposing his arm to the elbow. Kellet pulled a folding knife from her pocket and cut open her palm. I listened to the blood plink-plink-plink on the snow.
The eight of us were joined, bound by an invisible cord. Reyes and McMann, Martinez and Viader, they were my skin and bone.
As we walked, something walked with us. Vast and impossible, just on the other side of a sky that was a blue-dark curtain, painted with stars. Long, thin limbs. Taller than the Empire State Building. Moving slowly. Singing. The song wanted something from me. It wanted me to change.
I wanted to.
I wanted to let the honey stitch my veins with threads of liquid gold. I needed it, more than I’d ever needed anything in my life. I wanted it to subsume me.
Al-Raqqah had been folded into my skin. The world torn apart, gone black and red; the flash-point explosion vaporizing a child. Those things lived between my bones, branched through my lungs. The honey was bigger than that. It could eat my pain whole.
Because it wasn’t just honey, it was a civilization too old and terrible to comprehend. More had been lost than I could fathom. That was in the song. That was in the honey. It was too big to hold, and that gave me permission to let go.
Tears ran on my cheeks. They should have frozen, but the honey left my skin fever hot. It kept the moon from setting and the sun from coming up. I couldn’t tell how far we’d gone, but it was still dark when Adams called a halt. We pitched tents from the packs we carried—packs whose weight we no longer felt—and built wind-blocks out of snow.
I watched the street in Al-Raqqah torn apart, an endless film reel flickering and superimposed on the night. I watched the mother crawl towards the burned remains of her child. I saw her other child caught in a loop of instant incineration, his mouth open in a wail. And none of it mattered.
In the here and now, I watched Reyes kneel to clear space for a fire. There was an old hunting trap buried under the snow. I saw it an instant before it happened. He put his hand into the drift, and metal jaws closed around his arm with a wet snap. Reyes saw it, too. The scene hung inverted in his eyes, playing out like the film reel of Al-Raqqah’s destruction. And Reyes stuck his hand into the snow anyway.
He didn’t scream. I thought of the rat in the cage, cleaning its whiskers as electricity sang through its body. I imagined teeth sunk into flesh and the rat tearing its leg off, bleeding out and at peace with the world. Reyes held his arm out, staring at torn cloth, red nerve, and splintered bone. He smiled.
Kellet and Viader moved to either side of me and together we pried the trap loose. Ramone sat by, watching his flesh redden, then go dead-white with the cold. McMann broke out the first aid kit, cleaning and bandaging the wound as best he could. Adams watched us, arms crossed, her expression saying we were wasting our time. Then Reyes sat down, still smiling, staring in wonder at the flames as Martinez built up the fire.
I don’t remember sleeping. Light crept over the horizon, staining the snow pale gold and carving deep shadows in the hollows. We found Reyes’ clothing, shed like skin and frozen into the ground. There were footprints, spaced farther and farther apart until they simply stopped. But no Reyes, not even his remains.
“It’s like the story of the wendigo.” Ramone’s voice made me jump. His gazed was fixed on the last footprint, dragged long and impossibly sharp into the snow.
“It comes in the wind to snatch people into the sky, making them run faster and faster until their feet burn to ash. Sometimes, you can hear their voices in the sky, still screaming.”
I didn’t know the story they were talking about, but I tilted my head, listening for Reyes. I didn’t hear anything except the low vibration of wings.
I don’t remember sleeping, but before we woke to find Reyes gone, I woke with Adams’ hand over my mouth. Or maybe it was after, or during. Time was funny on the ice.
“It’s here,” Adams said. “Come on.”
She led me out of the tent and into the dark. I didn’t ask where we were going. I could feel it—a vast system of caves under our feet, the earth gone hollow and strange. Juts of ice stabbed at the sky. I followed Adams through a maze of crystal spikes like crazed, broken teeth. There were steps cut into the frozen earth. We descended into an amphitheater for giants. One bowl below us, the other above us, the sky spattered with stars. Then we were underground.
I crawled behind Adams. Shadows moved on the other side of us. Echoes. Memories. Cracks in the real. The groove worn into the earth was a record. Adams and I were the needle, playing the sound. Occasionally, the record skipped, and we caught flickers of ancient things, impossibly out of time. Somehow, I knew: we were in the blind servants’ tunnels, crawling out of sight of the masters. Wingless. Broken at birth so we couldn’t flee.
There were bones in the ice around us. Australopithecus. Neanderthal. Hives hung in their ribcages, hexagons in place of hearts, dripping with honey.
“Here.” Adams’ voice jolted me into the present.
The ice wasn’t ice anymore, but rock, a slick purplish-grey, like a thin layer of mica spread over slate, but the wrong color—night instead of gold. Or it was both. Ice and stone and rock the color of desert sand. Here and now and on a planet billions of years ago.
“Dig,” Adams said.
My hands moved. I knew the patterns, written into my bones with the gathering song. I was born for this, scraping honey from the walls until my skin tore. Adams kept handing me bottles, which I filled before they disappeared into her coat, more than the folds of fabric should have been able to hold.
The cave buzzed. And all the while, the song echoed. The song like the one my grandmother used to sing while cooking Sunday dinner, calling ingredients and flavors together and compelling them to be a meal. A making song. It mellified my bones. It mummified me, rewriting me in a different language. I was the god-child beneath the tree, curled at its roots. The beginning and the end, the seed of the world. Bees thrummed the air and wrote maps onto my skin. Words. Commands, compelling me to be ancient, to be terrible, to change.
A harvest song. A blinding song. A binding song.
A day later, or a million years later, we climbed out of the dark. The stars turned in dizzying motion overhead. If I kept going, I could climb right out of the world into the night. Like Reyes, pulled screaming into the sky. Adams caught me by the ankle and hauled me back down. I hit the ice, scrabbled and fought her, weeping and babbling incoherently.
She dragged me back over the snow, tucked me into my tent like a worker bee sealing up a little queen in a cell of wax. She whispered in my ear, a continuation of the song, that humming buzz, and this one said sleep, sleep.
We packed our gear and left without Reyes. I thought about what we’d tell his family. We didn’t have a body to bring home, no explanation to offer. He disappeared and we didn’t look for him, because we knew he was gone.
The honey still sang in my veins. Had we accomplished our mission? Adams hadn’t said a word about the tunnels. Only the abraded skin on my hands suggested I’d been under the earth, under some earth, gathering.
I had no sense of where we were in relation to the base camp. Like Adams’ story, our compasses spun, and our GPS was useless. We’d given up on the radios long ago.
That night, we pitched our tents next to a wicked-blue crevasse, a scar in the ice so deep we couldn’t see past a few feet even with our lights.
“Do you know where we are?” I asked Martinez, keeping my voice low.
He shrugged, unconcerned, and I moved to help him with the tents. I wanted to ask if he’d heard anything during the storm, or what the honey felt on his tongue. Maybe Adams had taken him under the earth, too. Maybe she’d taken us all one by one. Maybe what Reyes had seen was too much. Enough to make him stick his hand in a trap. Enough to send him screaming into the sky.
Behind us, Viader and McMann built a fire. In the back of my mind, Reyes played on a loop, the trap closing on his arm. Each strike driving the tent peg into the ice became the snap of bone.
I smelled Viader’s burning flesh an instant before it began to burn. And in my mind, the street in Al-Raqqah went red-black, and the woman crawled. I turned just in time to watch Viader walk into the flames. She made no sound. Her clothes went up in an instant. Then she stood there, eyes closed, humming. I recognized the song, felt the echo in my bones. Sparks kissed her cheek, ate away the skin and heat-cracked her jaw.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. Or maybe she said, “I’m beautiful.”
Heat seared my cheeks, leaving salt-tracks dried to crystal. When had I started crying? I agreed with Viader; she was beautiful.
She was necessary.
Patterns had to be repeated. Viader burning wasn’t really Viader, she was cities turned to ash, wax melting and the sound of wings, all the queens burning in their cells, keening, and the low, sad song as the tall creatures behind the sky moved from the beginning to the end of time.
None of us tried to stop Viader when she went to the crevasse. None of us tried to catch her as she dropped, plunging into the blue. She was a meteor, streaking into the abyss, never hitting the ground.
I woke to the sound of propeller blades, and the spray of ice and snow they whipped up as the tiny plane landed. Panic slammed through me. I couldn’t hear the song over the engine, then the shouting as the team sent to pull us out hit the ground, boots too loud on the snow. Hands on me; I thrashed against them, all fists and elbows. A curse, muffled, as I landed an unintentional blow.
Three sets of arms now, restraining me. A needle snapped in my arm as they tried to give me a sedative. The ice fell away beneath me. I’d been wrestled into the plane and we were leaving. I looked around for Adams in a panic. I couldn’t see her, then someone pushed my head back, strapped me down with more restraints.
A high, wild keening, like the sound of the queens in their cells as the city burned. I didn’t realize until much later the sound was coming from me.
It’s been almost a year since the ice.
A year of therapy, of convincing myself I couldn’t possibly have seen what I thought I saw. Enough time for one honorable discharge, zero contact from Adams, and three hundred and sixty-five, give or take a few, nights of dreams—cities burning, honey dripping from bones, vast shadows crossing the sky. And all that time, the song, just on the edge of hearing. Last week, it started getting louder. Yesterday, I could feel it reverberating inside my skull.
Today, I got an email from Kellet. No subject line, all lowercase: martinez is dead. funeral at st. john redeemer, des moines, iowa. saturday 1100.
Light slanted over the church steps, leaving Kellet and Ramone in shadow as they stood in the doorway. Ramone had his empty sleeve pinned up against the wind snatching at our clothing and hair, blowing a storm of petals around our feet. I’d either forgotten or never known that he’d lost his arm after they pulled us off the ice. What had the past year been like for him, for Kellet? Had the edges of their hearing been haunted by inhuman voices, did they dream?
“What about McMann?” I asked.
“I tried to contact him, no response.” A frown touched Kellet’s lips, and I felt a twinge, a certainty that McMann was gone, and none of us had been there to witness it.
I didn’t bother to ask about Adams.
Our footsteps echoed as we entered the church. A trio of women—Martinez’s sisters? Cousins?—occupied the front-most pew on the left-hand side. A few others were scattered through the rest of the church, but the room was emptier than it should be.
“He shot himself.” Kellet nodded toward Martinez’s casket as we slid into a pew in the back.
A framed picture of Martinez, younger than when we’d known him, sat where his head would be. Draped over the middle of the casket, a spray of purple flowers gave off a sweet scent on the edge of rot.
I thought about Martinez in his tiny bathroom, knees bumping the edge of the tub as he sat on the toilet lid, lips puckered around the barrel of a gun. I’d never seen Martinez’s apartment, or his bathroom. Certainly I hadn’t been there when he died. Except I was there, now, bound as we had been on the ice. A unit. A hive.
Martinez’s shoulders twitched, even as he fought to steady the gun. His cheeks were wet, the tears leaving glistening tracks in a face already carved by pain.
Shoot up. Shoot up, not in.
For a moment, I thought I’d spoken aloud. But the priest behind the lectern didn’t pause, and neither Kellet nor Ramone looked at me. Were they seeing the coffin, or were they seeing Martinez’s bathroom, too?
Martinez jerked, like he at least heard me. Like I was there and then, not here and now. He jerked, but he still fired and the bullet did its job, spraying blood and bone and brain onto the wall.
“I’m going to look for her,” I said, as we stepped out of the church into the too-bright sunlight.
“We’re with you,” Ramone said; neither he nor Kellet had to asked who I meant, and of course they were coming with me. It was never a question.
“Why now?” Ramone leaned forward to be heard over the plane’s engine. We’d tracked Adams to a small fishing village in the Yukon. Through the tiny windows, a network of rivers gleamed below us, the patchwork slowly resolving into detail as we descended. “Why did we wait almost a year?”
“We were scared.” The engine drone swallowed my voice, but it was still just loud enough to be heard.
Kellet shot me a look, but didn’t object. The look on Ramone’s face was one of relief, like he was grateful someone had finally said it aloud. It was easier to breathe when I leaned back. The plane circled lower. After a year of sweat-soaked sheets and night terrors, we were going home.
We found Adams drinking in a bar converted from an old canning plant – corrugated metal walls, plain wooden furniture, the whole thing crouched on a pier jutting out over the water. It still smelled of fish, the odor laden over with sweat and beer. Peanut shells cracked underfoot. I thought of the ice cracking and tiny bones.
Adams kept her back turned, her shoulders hunched until we were close enough to touch her. Heavy cable-knit sweater, thick rubber waders, her hair cropped jagged-short. She didn’t even look up when she spoke.
“I have a small plane,” she said. “I can fly us out anytime.”
She’d been waiting for us. Waiting while we gathered our courage. Waiting until Martinez died, the breaking point to push us into action. She finally turned, and I heard Kellet catch her breath, the smallest of sounds. Adams’ eyes were gold, the color of honey, the color of fire and the stars we’d swallowed on the ice. All this time with the dreams, and she hadn’t fought them. The blind things in the tunnels, the girl under the tree, the shadows, vast and slow moving behind the sky—they’d gotten inside her, and she’d changed.
The base camp Adams flew us to was smaller than the one we’d left from a year ago. Curtains divided cots set along the walls for the illusion of privacy. There was a stove, and stores, but none of us were hungry. Unlike the first base camp, the wind didn’t howl outside. Only silence, the vast stretch of snow waiting beyond the walls, and the stars pricking the darkness. The ghosts were already in the room with us, the spaces of absence carved in the shadows for Reyes, Viader, Martinez, and McMann.
Kellet and Ramone retreated to their cots soon after we arrived. I was too jittery for sleep. As for Adams, I couldn’t tell. I’d always found her hard to read. With her golden eyes and the new angles of her bones, it was even harder. Her impatience, her anger, seemed to have burned away. Instead, she was literally worn thin, almost flickering, like it took all her effort to stay in this world.
A fat candle sat on the table; its light sharpened the planes and hollows of Adams’ face and spread the illusion of wings behind her. She retrieved a bottle of whiskey, tilted it toward me in a silent question. I nodded and watched her fill two glasses. She’d been waiting for us for a year, the strain evident in her movements. I still didn’t understand why.
“What happened a year ago?” The question came out more plaintive, more broken than I intended.
Adams swallowed from her glass, lips peeling back in a grimace.
“You’ll have to be more specific.” Her honey-gold eyes pinned me, testing.
I didn’t know how to ask about the tunnels and the gathering song. I came at it sideways.
“The mission. Did we succeed?”
“You kidding?” Adams knocked back half of her remaining drink; this time when she showed her teeth, it was wholly feral. “Soldiers who feel no pain, who keep fighting even with massive wounds, or missing limbs, soldiers who can go days without eating or sleeping? The honey was never for them. I thought you understood that.”
So, she had run, when the plane came for us, and she’d never turned over the honey.
“Then why?” Why bring us on the mission at all? The map was in her head. She never needed us.
The look Adams returned was pitying. She surprised me further, covering my hands with her own. Her palms were rough, calloused, like she’d spent a year hauling nets in the cold.
“They need us to remember.” Her words sparked something, a twinge of recognition. “We need them to forget.”
Them. Where her hands covered mine, her skin hummed. Those things from beyond the stars, they’d fought and died and torn themselves apart. When the tall things from beyond the sky had come, signaling the end of their time, with the last dying breath of their civilization, they’d made a song. They’d flung their ghosts across the stars, casting their tattered remains into the void, hoping to find something for those echoes to hold onto, someone to remember. And like Adams said, we, the eight of us, had needed them in order to forget.
Those tall, attenuated creatures. Their footsteps extinguished stars, put out of the light of worlds. What did it mean that I’d seen them in the sky? Were they an echo of the past, or a glimpse at our future? Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe all that mattered was letting go.
I thought of Viader, falling, Reyes, vanishing into the night. Cities burning, a child buried under a tree. The seeds of a civilization that required blood and sacrifice to grow.
Adams reached into her pocket, and set a bottle on the table. Honey, the same color as her eyes. It sang, and my blood sang back. The harvest song, the lullaby. We’ll seal you up, but you’ll dream, and all your years of darkness will be worthwhile.
Gold dripped from my bones, written with history. I could taste it, curling my tongue with its sweetness so sharp it drowned everything else.
Adams touched the bottle with one finger. I shivered.
She unfolded a knife from her belt, and used the blade to nick the meat of her palm. Honey oozed to the surface. She didn’t need the cave anymore. She licked the wound, glancing at me. I pressed a hand against my chest. Under my breastbone, a hollow space waited for a hive.
Adams stood, skinning her shirt over her head. Her dog tags gleamed as she turned around. Her back was covered in raised welts, smooth and white, old scars.
“The map,” she said.
I stood, palm outstretched. The heat of her skin beat against me like a flame. Her scars met my touch, pearls stitched into her skin, the puncture wounds she’d received in Afghanistan. I traced my hands over the pattern. Stars, arranged in configurations eons old.
“It was never meant to show where we were going,” Adams said. “But where they had been.”
History, written on her skin. She guided me to one of the two remaining cots and pushed me down gently. The light from her eyes cast shadows on her cheeks. The bottle of honey appeared in her hand. Straddling me, Adams pulled the cork from the honey with her teeth. Liquid the color of a full harvest moon – ripe to bursting.
Adams dipped a finger in the honey and held it out to me. I pictured light leaking from her eyes like tears, seeping from her pores. The harvest song howled in the dark. Shadows bent over us, long fingers needle-sharp and venom-tipped, ready to stitch through skin and bone.
I sucked her finger clean.
It wasn’t sex, it was more like farewell. Adams flickered, her translucence overwhelming her solidity. My hands closed on empty air, but the memories kept flowing through me, hers and theirs.
I was in the cave in Afghanistan. Thousands of hexagonal cells covered the walls. Needle-thin legs brushed my skin, then the first stinger entered me. My body arched, my flesh trying to escape my bones. I was being torn apart, threaded back together. Adams’ map wrote itself onto me, stars burnt into my being in a pattern from before the world. But there was no pain. Bones dripped honey, skeletons embedded in the walls, but still living. They remembered. Everything. Wings beat inside the remains of their papered skin, a steady hum. A whole lost world, resurrected inside the dead, calling them—calling me—to sing.
There’s a certain quality of cold where temperature becomes color. Ramone, Kellet, and I walked into a solid wash of it, thick enough to feel. I’d shown them the map on my skin, and they’d agreed, we had to finish it out on the ice where it began.
We didn’t go far, just enough to be alone with the wind. Out here, we would hear Reyes when he screamed. We’d see Viader when she rose like a meteor out of the dark.
“I dream about Viader sometimes,” Kellet said as we huddled around a Coleman lantern in our tent. “Her flesh is still burning. She’s only got one eye. There are holes in her skin and she’s holding embers in her jaws.”
“Reyes came to see me,” Ramone said. His right sleeve hung by his side, his left hand held a mug filled with vodka. I’d never noticed the paler band of skin on the fourth finger before.
“He came to my bedroom window. His breath fogged the glass, so I knew he was really there. His hair was all matted. His teeth were broken, and his eyes were the color of dried blood. He tapped on my window.”
Kellet put her hand on Ramone’s knee. I could feel myself spreading in the wind. Still here, already gone.
“I didn’t know what else to do, so I let him in. He crawled under the covers with me. I thought he’d be cold from being out on the ice for so long, but he was warm. He smelled like red meat and wet dog.
“He put his head on my chest.” Ramone touched his knuckles to the spot. “And then he just lay there, listening to my heart.”
Ramone swallowed the rest of his drink, squeezing his eyes closed.
“The next morning, he was gone. That was the first time I tried to kill myself. I took pills, but then I chickened out and called 911.”
I put my hand on his other knee. Outside, the ice sang.
“I watched Martinez kill himself,” I said, my own unburdening. I’d already given the honey Al-Raqqah, everything else I had to give. This was the last thing.
“I wish we knew what happened to McMann,” Ramone said.
“He’s probably waiting for us,” I gestured at the tent flap.
Kellet reached for my hand across Ramone’s knees. She tangled her fingers with mine, and our joined hands covered Ramone’s one good hand. My lips brushed the corner of Ramone’s mouth. He closed his eyes again. We went soft, slow, all three of us together. It still wasn’t sex. It was a map, a shared history, a surrendering of our pain.
When they left in the dark, I didn’t hear them go.
I cut a bottle of honey from my veins, bled it into the glass, then drank it whole. Burning like Viader, I walked out into the cold.
My body is going up in flames, bits of me flaking away to ash. Martinez is here. I can see the stars through the hole in his skull. Reyes lopes beside me. Viader is an angel. Adams’ footsteps crunch through the snow, getting farther and farther apart. Ramone and Kellet, even McMann, they’re all here. We’re separate, but together, strung across vast distances, never alone.
There are tall, vast shapes moving across the sky. They have no faces. Their skin blushes like the aurora borealis, studded with stars. They are the beginning and the end. They harvest the honey; they sing the song. The wind dies down, and it’s the only thing I can hear. History, writing itself onto my bones. The dead being reborn.
Harvest. Gather. Change.
Open your bones, they sing. Make space inside your skin.
Let us in.
Originally published in For Mortal Things Unsung, edited by Alex Hofelich.