Read an Excerpt
Song of the Sigue
They touched the sigue coast at dusk,
just as the ice was cracking. Standing on the slippery top deck as the massive ice- drilling submarine churned toward shore, Sorykah Minuit inhaled, taking the cold ocean air deep into her lungs. It felt so good to be outside after weeks below sea, working cheek by jowl with sixty filthy, sweat- stained miners and their collective, tactile reek. The air sang down her throat and pierced her lungs, but she welcomed the discomfort. It helped to clear her head of melancholy and milk- fog. For a moment it seemed that the cold would solidify around her and crack apart her carefully wrought shell, releasing her from the prison of her secrecy–but it did not.
The helmsman sounded the docking horn. A long, low peal vibrated the metal deck beneath her feet. Frigid brine sluiced over the Nimbus’s hull as it rose, its imposing bulk breasting the waves like the body of a sleek black orca. Afternoon light the color of apricots glistened atop the water; heat splayed against an icy sky. Soon, the color would fade and night emerge, liquid indigo turning the snow to charcoal. Southern sunsets lingered for hours. Siguelanders said the sun bled to death each night; this dazzling show repeated the story of Sun’s grisly murder by his lover Moon, who stabbed him while he slept, jealous of his affection for a mortal woman.
The noise of the ocean penned in by the icy harbor was terrific. Ice groaned, squeaked, and bellowed. Water droplets froze in midair and fell toward the wooden pier, bouncing upon its snowy crust like scattered, shining stones. Nearer the surface, one long sheet of ice groaned deep within its white skin, a sound like a woman birthing, or so it seemed to Sorykah, still sentimental from the memory of her own children’s birth but a lunar skein behind. The Sigue was the Land of Ice Song, a surreal pole formed from ice that sang, juddered, and moaned. Ice plates ground against one another with subarctic cricket legs, keening shards and frosts that played the most primitive and abstract melodies yet had shaped the culture of this tiny nation. Musicians and singers attempted to capture the eerie, haunting songs but could not repeat the melancholic strains. Sound technicians embedded microphones deep within the ice plates in an effort to record the music, chart the notes, pitch, and timing of the songs, but the recordings replayed a mishmash of disconnected sounds, discordant and chaotic. The melody was lost in translation and the mocking ice refused capture by human whim. Hearing it now– angry, plaintive, sorrowful–Sorykah remembered why she had volunteered for this frigid, outlandish post, for the Sigue song replicated her own bitter tune. Perhaps the ice could sing to drive out the ghosts within her, banish the image of that deceitful Trader as he climbed from her bed, the smug, careless grin he’d offered as he wiped himself clean and slid into his trousers.
Sorykah licked the salt from her lips as she watched the harbormaster signal from the dock, his bright orange flags lost among the colorful clouds. She would live on the Sigue for the next two years, drilling the ice to extract iridescent tubes of microbe- rich frozen seawater. Northern processing stations would melt, distill, and bottle the fossil water for sale in nightclubs and restaurants, to be guzzled by sensation- seeking holidaymakers. The Company claimed that fossil water was the first nonaddictive substance to create recreational altered states. Touted as a panacea, the burgeoning fossil water trade rapidly had become the fastest- growing market segment of free- trade capital. Water had finally replaced gold and oil as the world’s most valuable commodity.
Even with modern conveniences, ice mining was rough work; Sorykah eagerly anticipated a reprieve before the sub’ s giant bits and rigs were pressed into service on the morrow. To maintain a competitive edge, the Company drove them in recycling, fourteen- hour shifts. They pushed hard; the rig cut ice nonstop to harvest as much as possible during spring thaws, when the polar ice sheets thinned enough to blast through without crumpling their ships in the process. Furloughs were meant to be savored; a vacation day was an oasis promising warm hotel rooms, a soak in the famed Sigue sulfur springs, and perhaps a willing companion, bought for a few hours from one of the dockside bars–a brief respite of heat and haze in the midst of a cold black ocean.
The ice was no more of a challenge for Sorykah than bedrock and granite. She was a miner by trade, an engineer and a doctor of ecology. However, she lived as a woman most of the time and the controlling, misogynist Company culture did not allow women to do anything more mentally taxing than the most rudimentary work aboard the Nimbus. Tucked among the books and data of her dry profession in the progressive city of Dirinda, she could have played the university professor were she brave enough to weather the few prickly questions and stares that sometimes accompanied her public outings. Aboard the Nimbus, she was just a grunt–another core- drilling drone servicing the hive. She should have been navigating the sub from the engine room instead of being buried in one of the tiny miner’s cells, but she had deferred to the omnipotent Company, happy to have a job that paid enough to support her two children and their nanny, Nels. A burning sensation flared in Sorykah’s heavy breasts and milk dampened her cotton bra. She had a sudden image of her twins curled like commas in her lap, their chubby hands roving over each other’s hair and Sorykah’s gown the morning before she departed to join the mining crew. Drowsy and warm, the three lay in Sorykah’s small bed, cozy within a nest of protective arms and fluffy down duvet. She had fed them one last time, stroked their heads, memorized the whorls of their soft, waving curls and the texture of their skin. She had inhaled their scent; no matter what they ate, they smelled of apples, amaranth flour, and sticky- sweet mother’s milk. Ayeda’s forehead was as smooth as a polished egg while short, almost invisible hairs furred Leander’s. They were small ships seeking the safety of a familiar and welcoming harbor. How was it possible to find such satisfaction, such pleasure in their care?
The pregnancy had destroyed Sorykah’s life but the birth of her children had restored it, breaking open her detachment’s careful façade and sending her reeling into sensation and wakefulness. At the very beginning, adrift and alone, she had wished them away, or rather wished the experience away, back to less encumbered days. The thought was but a flickering spark, and guttered out as it should.
She missed them very much.
Her breasts ached. She was surprised to find tears welling as she emerged from her reverie. She hated how fragile the babies made her feel, like a teacup balanced atop a precarious, swaying block tower.
That such a rash act had brought her those two! The babies had split her open, leaving her raw and bared to experiences both sensual and deeply emotional, and bullied her into feeling with their incessant demands for acknowledgment and nourishment.With the funds from her governmental maternity grant, Sorykah had hired a nursemaid. Generous and superficially stern as all good nannies should be, Nels was a plump, blond devotee of the Blessed Jerusha, matron saint of mothers, children, and outcasts. Religious devotion was foreign to secular, math- minded Sorykah, but even as she marveled at Nels’s rigid and unyielding faith, she admired her constancy.
Nels had remained in Dirinda with the children while Sorykah completed her assignment. Now Nels was en route to the Sigue, bringing both children and luggage via the overland train to Ostara. Once established in their new Company- built home, Nels would keep the twins during Sorykah’s tours, teaching them their letters and numbers, how to gauge the thickness of pack ice for walking or skating, or how to tease the occasional egg from the warm underbelly of an island bird.
The sub plowed inland through the frozen, slushy sea. Solid ground loomed behind crackling ribbons of ice churned up by the sub’s advancing nose. Her back firm against the Nimbus’s conning tower, Sorykah clutched the railing in excitement as she strained toward shore, attempting to view the town through obfuscating swirls of blowing snow and vapor. Ramshackle tin sheds and concrete block storefronts lined Ostara’s harbor, their weather- ravaged façades slumping against each other like tired old men huddled together against the cold.
Ostara was a dirty little place thrown together by a steady surge of transient workers on get- rich- quick missions. Hunters, poachers, and pirates on the lam populated its rough fringes. Bars, brothels, and hotels of questionable virtue crowded the harbor, jostling for space and patrons. Crude wood- framed houses, their walls stuffed with insulating hay and dung, and aluminum Quonset huts spread inland away from the sea, forming concentric rings of increasing squalor. A few small families from the decimated indigenous population clung tenaciously to their ancestral homes, the last stragglers of the ice- dwelling tribe that had ruled the Sigue for a thousand years. Their igloos dotted Ostara’s perimeter, small snowy mounds lost against the vastness of the frozen wastes. The town offered few comforts but it was land, steady and beloved after the rigors of drilling far below on the ocean floor.
The quay tightened into view. Sailors, miners, and soldiers appeared as dark clumps moving through sparkling clouds of airborne snow, a city populated by shadows and ghosts. A few lights glowed in the frost- etched windows. Locals slogged over wooden walkways slippery with packed snow and crenellations of ice. Walking upright in their bundles of fur and padding, they resembled well- fed bears lumbering along on some private errand, a stark contrast to the sleekly outfitted Company men in their expensive long- coats and insulated blue thermosuits. The sub shuddered, engines throbbing as it inched into port. Icy seawater foamed and crackled around the ship and Sorykah’s anticipation peaked. She could taste freedom, hers to savor if just for a few hours.
She didn’t want to leave the children for so long at this early age, but Sorykah had to accept this assignment if she meant to keep her job. The Company was ruthless in its firing tactics; it was all policies, percentages, and rules with no deviation from the hard line; productivity and profit was its sole concern. Mining was all she had. Sealing herself in a floating metal coffin with a load of gruff, self- absorbed laborers was flimsy insurance against discovery. It was a matter of containing the danger of exposure. Controlling the circle around her minimized the chance of a surprise encounter with some psychotic hunter or Trader fetishist.
She’d repelled plenty of their advances over the years, learning how to protect and cloak herself from those with eyes trained to see the little details that distinguished her kind. Working with the same crew for months on the sub, she learned who to trust and who to avoid; keeping her secret meant keeping away from those who might reveal her. She was always careful, yet a steady under- current of fear pulsed behind everything she did; a cool and constant stream of caution tempered her every word and deed, leaving her numbed and exhausted.
Cold stabbed her sinuses and she pulled her scarf up over her nose and mouth. Her heart was as light as a little bird, restless inside the cage of her ribs. Somewhere on shore, her two babies waited. They wouldn’t have forgotten their mother after a single month’s absence from their lives, would they?
Her babies. A girl and boy when last she saw them, Ayeda the light and Leander the dark. Her coin, her treasure. Ayeda got her coloring from her father; rich olive skin, wispy honey- colored hair and eyes like polished nickels or threatening rain clouds. Leander took after somber Sorykah, seal dark and slender with eyes like inky black wells. Two average Trader babies, one of each and each in one, it was said. So it was with her twins, little shifters they were, inconstant and fluid, taking the change with an astonishing ease that impressed her. She couldn’t remember ever having been that way. For her the change was always slow and arduous, an intensely painful and deliberate event that left her breathless upon awakening. Sometimes she envied them; if she could have weathered her own change with more ease, she might not have had such knotted feelings about being a Trader, might even take pride and pleasure in her ability the way some did. A few brave (or foolish) Traders made their living with their bodies, charging by the poke, but it was a perilous road to walk. Sorykah shunned admiration, preferring instead to curl head- down in dark corners. Safe, she hoped–unseen and unnoticed.
The Nimbus eased itself into a deep slip ringed with waiting Company men, stamping their boots against the ice and puffing great frozen blasts of impatience into the air. Sorykah stood alone, clutching her duffel bag. None of the other miners was eager or foolhardy enough to brave the slippery deck. They sensibly waited below, playing a final round of cards to earn a little more drinking money before storming Ostara’s bars. As soon as a red- nosed docker extended the gangway, she was off the sub, her boots soon thumping solid ground. She was glad she had covered her face. Between her black wool hat, the thick scarf over her mouth, and the bulky black long- coat, thermosuit and magnet boots she wore, she was almost indistinguishable from the tide of miners that would soon surge from the ship, similarly dressed in regulation gear. Few would pay much attention to her. Pushing through crowds of Company men, she kept her head down as if watching her footing. New people made her antsy; never could tell who was who, who might want what. Better to mind her own. Miners’ rusty but cheerful voices began to fill the air behind her as the sub disgorged its crew.
Sorykah walked along Port Street, skirting roguish clumps of uniformed men, fur- swaddled locals with narrowed, crinkleskinned eyes, and a pair of dirty- faced women in patchwork parkas towing a two- handled sledge over the ice. Frozen ropes clattered against their flapping tarp and seeping, red- splattered slabs of thick white animal fat dripped as the women dragged the sledge away. Flickering streetlights cast tepid blotches of waxy yellow light on the wooden walkway, lonely pools of optimism that bobbed over the hard ground in a fruitless attempt to drive away the cold and gloom.
The train station was a half mile from the end of Port, a lonesome walk across tamped- down snow. A battered Quonset crouched beside frost- laced tracks, outlined in gathering flurries. A few caged bulbs dangled from wooden poles and capered wildly overhead, pinning white shards of snow in their glare. The tracks ran parallel to Sorykah’s path. Then, steaming up out of the grayness in a cloud of charcoal exhaust, came the train. Hissing and squealing, its brakes bore down with the ear splitting shriek of metal on metal and Sorykah began to run, crunching over the snow, subarctic air stinging her eyes as the train, at last, arrived.