Bourbon Penn 30

Polar Shift

by Mir Seidel

Lev was outside, emptying the piss-pot in the snow, when the glow descended on him. He hurled the liquid in a high arc with the wind, away from the hut. The droplets crystallized into snow, fanning out in mid-air, just visible in the perpetual twilight.

The glow started before he’d lowered the pot—the cascade of snow shimmered as it fell, while the air around it stayed bright, then got even brighter, surrounding him with what looked like luminous bits of sand that made the thick flakes sparkle. It was everywhere. Lev breathed it in, felt it burrowing through his coat, sweaters, and long johns, through the pores of his skin. He couldn’t catch his breath—he stumbled and fell, his body felt compressed like the snow under his knees. He couldn’t help looking up into the veils of light rippling above him, gold with striations of blue and white, as the sound of pouring sand jingled all around.

Lev forced himself to his feet and shuffled in toward the hut, which was just a darker blur in the glow-cloud. He pulled the outer door open, then the inner one, without taking off his boots. He stood there stunned. Peering through tiny luminous whirlwinds, he saw Volya still at the table, making repairs to his headlamp.

“It’s the glow,” Lev said. “Do you feel it?”

Volya grunted. “Yeah. Made me drop a screw.” The pieces laid out in neat rows around him.

Lev sat down on his bunk, his coat still on, feeling the glow as it swept through his body. He wanted to ask Volya if he’d ever been outside in a glow-storm, but forming words was too much effort. The waves of gold, crested with white and blue, buffeted through the room, more color than he’d seen in a year. More beautiful than anything he’d ever seen. As he slowly warmed up, the room returned to its usual gray-and-white, hard outlines. He stood and hung his coat over the heater. They were on their last main battery, running the heat just an hour at a time. The snow-treader was due soon—Efe would come, bringing them new batteries and food supplies.

What time was it? Lev had trouble considering this question, as if sand had blown into the gears of his internal clock, too. The calendar-clock told him it was almost 18 hours, the 21st of the month, and 87 days into the supply cycle. He slid the shutter back to look out the window. Watching the dim blue-gray still rippling with waves of glittering sand that lit up the snow, his heart entered his throat.

Volya pulled a frozen shad up from the food-hole for supper and split it down the belly. Lev went to the keyboard and unlocked the data safe.

“When did it start?” he asked. Volya looked at the clock. “Fourteen point four?” Lev typed in the time and other data. He’d lost several hours.

“I don’t feel right,” he said. He wasn’t even hungry. “We can go out tomorrow.”

• • •

He woke up and knew the storm had passed. But he felt on edge, not ready to trust the calm. The lamp was already on, and Volya had just come back inside with a pot of snow for coffee and washing. He shrugged off his coat and pulled off his snow-hood. His hair sprang out with static, the black mixed with gray. Looking at his deep-set frown and heavy eyebrows, Lev was hit with that strong sense of double familiarity, like déjà-vu but different: that he’d known Volya before. This could not be true. They had grown up in different cities, Lev in Shungdu in Novy Siberia, and Volya in Samara, from the Ural Group. Lev had been posted with the settlement forces for the Treaty Union, serving in Amazonia, while Volya had served in the border wars of Greater Thailand. They hadn’t met before they were accepted for this assignment, with its extra pay and promise of a fat full-tour bonus.

He’d had this feeling before, and it gripped him tight, like always. Volya looked back at him, eyes wary in his stolid face.

“I knew you before this, didn’t I?” Lev’s throat was dry.

The other man closed his eyes, thinking, then shook his head. “I don’t know.”

The uncertainty of his answer added to Lev’s edginess. They ate—he wolfed down the cold shad from last night, and Volya heated a chunk of cooked rice. Then they gathered up the magnetometer and other equipment and went out. Whenever a glow-storm receded, they had to go and check for a shift in the location of the magnetic pole. This was their job: recording the glow-storms’ frequency and duration and marking the spot where the pole had traveled after the storm.

Lev had heard stories that the glow had been caused by some unknown material dropped from air-machines long ago, by ancient people trying to keep the ice from melting. If it was true, he guessed it must have succeeded. Or maybe they meant to melt the ice; either one sounded far-fetched to him. But the glow-storms never went away—at least up here, far from the hot zone and the nearest habitable zones.

The snow had drifted overnight, then hardened. No wind. They crunched forward in the half-dark without talking, pulling the sledge with the equipment. Under the black starry sky, Lev felt the particles stirring inside him, goading him. He glanced down at himself, feeling he might be glowing under his outdoor gear.

Finally, the Treaty Union flag showed in their headlamps. Bright red against white, frozen in place, twisted around its metal staff. The magnetometer stayed silent—that meant the Pole had moved somewhere else. This almost always happened in the storm’s aftermath.

They leaned in to pull up the flagpole. Volya’s snow-hood, lit by Lev’s headlamp, quivered with golden sprays of light. Dodging through streets he doesn’t recognize, three or four boys around him. His foot slides on the wet pavement, he rights himself and keeps running. Panic, exhilaration. They had already wrenched the staff out. Lev must have backed away. A soldier behind, ordering them to stop. Heavy low clouds. A shot. Volya, holding the flagstaff straight, stared at Lev.

“Did we run with the same gang?” Lev blurted.

“No,” Volya said after a moment, shaking his head. Lev struggled to catch his breath, caught between running and standing still. Then he hefted the magnetometer and clomped a careful circle around Volya, still holding the flagpole, till they picked up a faint beeping in the still air. They trudged in that direction for twenty paces, then stopped so Lev could check the signal and adjust their direction. As they worked, glow-particles fell around them, making thin flurries in the still air. They repeated the process till the beeps turned into a continuous line of sound: they’d reached the new Pole.

They each bore down on the two-handled electric awl to drill the new hole. Together they set the flagpole in its new spot. The storm had moved the pole about a mile this time—a big jump. It might not make any difference. Or it might. The habitable-zone regions had agreed to abide by the longitudes set by the Treaty Union for legal disputes, fishing rights, that kind of thing. Up here, they wouldn’t know whether the latest change mattered at all, at least not till the snow-treader came again with its months-old news.

Back at the hut, Lev sat at the keyboard to transcribe the readings from the magnetometer tracing the direction and distance to the new pole. He printed it out and sealed it in the rubber packing tube, along with a photograph of the calendar-clock.

The particles still moved inside him. They corkscrewed through his organs and bones, making their own spiraling arteries. Lev could barely sit through supper. Only watching Volya helped to anchor him: the long face, the close-spaced eyes with the vertical furrow between them. His frown as he chewed on the shad. The big hands handling the fork and knife with the same gentle firmness as when Volya was putting the headlamp back together.

After supper, they pulled out the baduk board and set up for a game. As they played, Lev had to squint to make out the pattern of his stones through sandy drifts.

Entering the interrogation room. Speaking to the prisoner—he’s already confessed, can hardly hold his head up. Barking out the list of the prisoner’s betrayals of the territorial government.

Volya stared at the stones on the board, not noticing as Lev struggled to breathe. Lev couldn’t choose what came to him. He had to know.

“Did I … shoot you?” He didn’t say kill.

Volya looked up at Lev, his eyes unfocused. He turned his gaze back to the board. “I don’t think so.” He moved a piece.

Lev finally let out a long breath. He shook his head, willing away what he had seen, coming back into his body and the room lit by the cool white glow of the single lamp.

• • •

Volya opened the battery cabinet and checked the meter—it was down to its last tenth of ampere-hours. They had to cut back the stove to two hours a day, one in the morning and one at night. And they switched to candles, leaving the headlamps in reserve for going outside. Volya bent close to the candlelight to darn the socks, and Lev leaned in to fill in the daily log, and to re-check the med kit.

When he woke in the morning, Lev again felt the dryness of the sandy glow-particles wearing through him. He went out to empty the piss-pot and gather snow to melt on the stove. Stars winked above him; the lifting of polar night was still months away. Inside, he set the bucket on the stove. With only an hour of heat, the snow would melt and warm up, but not to boiling.

Breakfast was lukewarm instant coffee and oatmeal. Volya sipped and chewed. The sandy stuff whirled inside Lev, pushing him off balance.

Gray light coming through the kitchen window. A man sitting at the table, the newspaper open. A robe of shiny material spreads over the bulk of his well-fed body. Walking over, setting down two platters—a casserole, a mix of vegetables and meat he doesn’t recognize, and another with rice. The scent of oil and unfamiliar spices warms him deep in his chest.

Volya was looking at him.

“Were you … were we married?” Lev couldn’t hold the words back. Being married was no more impossible than knowing each other some other way. Volya stopped chewing and his look went from wondering to thoughtful.

“No,” he said finally. “That’s not it.” Lev sagged back in his chair, staring at the tepid oatmeal. Volya hadn’t ridiculed him and hadn’t taken offense. He’d considered the question seriously, as if trying it on. Which was good, because Lev had to know, and he needed Volya to tell him if the memory, or whatever, was right or wrong.

Volya went out after breakfast and didn’t come back for a while. Lev knew he was looking for signs of the snow-treader. He returned hours later. Lips drawn tight, puffing out white nose-breaths, he hung his coat and snow pants over the stove to dry.

That night they started sleeping in Lev’s bunk, arms around each other in their long johns. As the room grew colder and then went below freezing, Lev welcomed Volya’s breath on his face, even with its smell of shad and coffee. The warmth of their bodies seemed to calm the sandiness inside him, at least while they lay there together.

They began sleeping longer each day, then not waking till afternoon. As the cold pressed in, it got harder to move, to get dressed, to go out and shovel snow and lift it into the bucket. After they ate, Lev would make a one-sentence entry in the daily log, then burrow back under the fur covers. Volya wiped off the dishes and utensils, examining each one before putting it away. One day, Lev couldn’t get up for the second snow run. Volya went by himself and stayed out longer than he needed to again. When he came back, he sat down at the table, his coat and snow-hood still on, and didn’t move.

“He’s late,” Lev said, meaning Efe. “But he’ll get here.” Volya didn’t answer.

Lev made supper but Volya didn’t eat, just sat staring at the calendar-clock.

The next day it was Volya who didn’t get up. Outside, the wind shrieked.

Maybe Efe wasn’t going to come. But if he did make it, they both had to be alive and working. Otherwise Volya would be replaced, and then he wouldn’t get the full-tour bonus. Volya was sending all his pay to his sister in Nova Lisbon, to help her buy the unit she lived in. Then he would move in with her at the end of his tour. Lev had no plan like that—his pay just went right into his army account.

The guy Lev had replaced, Tran, hadn’t finished his tour. Volya never talked about him, but Efe had said Tran had gone off the deep end. Could that be what was happening to Lev? The glow-storm had entered him, confusing him with these other lives that felt more real than this place? Maybe he and Volya were both losing it.

His skin prickling cold with fear, he shouted at Volya that he had to get up. Finally, he pulled Volya upright. He set his feet on the floor and worked his arms into his sweater. Too late for breakfast now, and they’d save the battery if they just had one meal. Lev pulled his coat down from where it hung over the stove. It was flecked with streaks of ice—the stove’s heat had failed to dry it, and then it froze. He struggled into it, ice shards cracking away.

When he came back inside with the bucket of snow, Volya hadn’t moved. Lev pulled the fur blanket up around Volya’s shoulders. He made an early supper—barely defrosted shad and cubes of cold teff—and dragged the table over to the cot, but Volya didn’t eat. He didn’t look at the baduk board when Lev set it up. Lev played for both of them, commenting on each move. He ended the game, shivering, then climbed into bed and burrowed into the cave of fur blankets with Volya.

He woke up, sweating under the furs. His closed eyelids showed a field of dancing gold. The sand whipped through him with that high jingling sound.

Walking a dirt path through bushes. Bright sun, heat heavy in the air. Following someone: a woman, dressed in a kind of wrap, a cloth with many colors overlapping. He is small, she much bigger than him. The heat is like he’s never known, brightness all around.

Lev forced his eyes open, weeping from the brightness. They’re at a market, setting out vegetables on the cloth she carried them in. He places them carefully, following the woman’s movements. Is he a girl? The woman, his mother, sits down slowly—she is very pregnant. She banters and argues with people who stand over them. Everyone dressed in bright colors, shirts with no sleeves over shorts, or robes or wraps. Many people carrying small boxes in their hands that give out sounds of music and voices. Warm all around him, part from the heat, part from the enveloping feeling of knowing he belongs with these people, and this woman.

Volya was talking in his sleep, half-formed words Lev couldn’t follow, as if dreaming. Lev pulled him closer, tried to soothe him.

He lay there for a while, then hiked himself up on one arm, and looked until he could make out the calendar-clock in the receding glow. What day was it? How long since they’d gotten up from the bed?

Volya opened his eyes.

“We were someplace really hot,” Lev whispered, sure now. “In the same family.” He didn’t say, You were my mother.

Volya took in a long breath, exhaled. “Yes.”

Lev’s head rolled back in relief. He lay on his back for a long time, taking in the feeling. When he curled back into Volya’s arms, the man was already asleep and muttering more half-words. They’re sitting inside a small house made of earth. It feels like an oven, but not as hot as outside under the sun. His mother is slim again, and his baby brother squats nearby, drooling. The woman is arguing with a man who looms over them—his father? They’re fighting about whether to stay or leave their home.

They’re walking on a dirt road, packed with people all moving in the same direction. Heat, bright-patterned clothes covered with brown dust. He is tired, so tired, asleep but still walking, then falling down. Mother holding him by the shoulders: Get up. You have to walk. She’s carrying the baby and all the things they took, a pot, some clothes. They walk on and on. He thinks of just one thing—keeping her in his sight.

A loud banging. A voice yelling, cursing, calling their names. Lev scrabbled across the floor on all fours, lunging to open the inner door, then the outer one.

Efe stood there, his eyes wide. “What the hell—you look terrible, man.” Lev’s hand on the door looked grayish-brown, taut and bony. He started shaking and fell to his knees. Efe helped him over to the table, where he sat down heavy in the chair.

“What day is it?” His voice came out a hoarse whisper.

“Sorry I’m late, man. Paperwork’s got worse, they wouldn’t let me go.” Efe moved easily into the room. With the snow-hood off, his face looked shiny and well-fed. Lev checked the calendar clock. It was day 113 of the supply cycle—Efe was almost three weeks late. Lev couldn’t figure out how long they had been lying in bed. The sand inside him had receded, he realized, leaving empty channels behind.

“How’s he doing?” Efe asked, nodding toward the bed.

“He’ll be fine,” Lev managed. “Just needs some hot coffee.”

“It’s fucking freezing in here. Help me get the stuff inside.”

Efe had to do the hard work of lifting and carrying, since Lev could barely walk. Together they worked the new main battery into place. As the room rose above freezing, Efe made coffee, and Lev got Volya out of bed and walked him around. At the table, Lev washed Volya’s arms and bare chest with warm water, marveling at his skin and the shiny scars on it, the whorl of hair just above his sternum. He was alive. They were both still here.

Seeing the shape they were in, Efe agreed to stay overnight. He went out to feed the two yaks that had followed behind the treader. At supper, he broke out a bottle that he’d brought as a peace offering.

“You guys are demented, staying up here like this,” he teased. Volya gave a little half-smile that made Lev’s heart jump. Efe was so loud and cheerful. He didn’t know what happened here—no one else knew. Whoever was in charge thought that just the cold and the silence made it hard to stay up here. But Lev didn’t want to leave. He wished Efe would go away, leaving just the two of them again, surrounded by darkness, finding their way in the world that kept growing between them. Even before they finished the bottle, Lev felt sick to his stomach and went to lie down. Efe took Volya’s bunk.

His mother lies on the side of the road. She’s weak with hunger, they all are. He sits beside her, fanning her with a big leaf. She has to be able to get up and keep walking. The baby stands between the mother’s legs, fussing softly.

The next day, they packed up the hut. Lev felt—what? Tired and weak, strangely empty, and a kind of rightness to things as they put their blankets and smaller things in baskets and stuffed them in the vehicle’s storage compartment. The sky was dead black, no hint of stars. Their headlamps lit the drifts of snow half-covering the yaks and the sledges. They moved the heater and the new battery out onto the sledges along with the furniture. Finally, they unscrewed the stakes at the hut’s corners and hooked the structure to the tractor-harness.

Lev and Volya climbed into the cab with Efe. They started up the snow-treader and the yaks followed. The vehicle’s heavy treads crushed the snow-dunes flat. Around them, steep walls of snow sparkled in its headlights. Every few minutes they stopped and Lev got out with the magnetometer to make sure they were on course to the pole.

The little flag still curled frozen around its staff. Efe got out, hooked the yaks up to the harness, and got the animals to maneuver the hut to a flat spot. The next time the Pole moved, at least they wouldn’t have to go far to retrieve the flag and its staff. They staked the hut and then moved everything back inside.

Before Efe left, they all lined up under the calendar clock for a picture—proof that the two of them were still alive and able to carry out their duties. Volya was able to stand on his own. Efe elbowed them both and made a joke before the camera mechanism tripped—he wanted them to be smiling. The flash blinded him, but the pinpricks of light, so much like the sandy storm-particles, faded quickly. Efe added the picture to the rubber packing tube. They hugged him goodbye, even though he’d been late and they could have died.

• • •

Lev woke up, feeling unsettled. For a moment he didn’t know where he was. Inside him, the sandiness stirred. A glow-storm must have happened in the night—he’d slept through it.

He sat up and slipped his feet into his indoor boots. The room was deliciously warm.

Volya stood there, looking at him, puzzled.

“We knew each other before, I think.”

Lev was going to say No, that couldn’t be. They’d grown up in two different cities and worked on different continents before they came here. But he felt an itch, an insistent sense of familiarity, like a halo of leftover glow particles binding them together.

Lev closed his eyes and nodded.

“I think so.”

Mir Seidel’s novel, The Speed of Clouds (New Door Books, as Miriam Seidel), explores the intersection of fandom and fantasy. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Into the Ruins, the anthology Breathe, the New York Review of Science Fiction, and Calyx (forthcoming). She wrote the libretto for Violet Fire, about Nikola Tesla, which was performed in Belgrade, Serbia, and New York. She’s also written about the arts for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Art in America, and other publications. She blogs at and tweets as Mir_QueenofMars.