Light Collectors
R. S. Pyne

Born many years after the Great Freeze turned the world into an endless ice field, Tyrell Quinn was used to the cold. She stopped at the Frost Giant and stared into the eyes of an ancient corpse standing upright as if in mid-rant, one icicle hung arm forever raised in an obscene gesture. Ice glittered and sparkled like so many jewels in the Lore Master’s pictures of the Time Before, making the scene of an old tragedy almost beautiful.

“He looks like Uncle Tarsyl on a really bad day,” she observed, watching her own breath form crystals in the breeze. If their least favourite relative ever froze solid, the family would be out to visit every day instead of leaving him to stand alone and gawped at by strangers. Her brother did not bother to answer, wrestling the last bulky collecting device out of the frozen snow before he laid its replacement. Each solar panel was disc shaped for maximum capacity and mounted on a permanent spike, the cells sturdy enough to withstand night time temperatures of forty below. They still had work to do, no time for idle chatter but Tyrell found it difficult to let the silence escape unfilled.

A flash of movement caught her attention. A snow bunting darted from cover with a high rippling per-r-r-rit whistle-warble, white plumage making it almost invisible. This bird’s ancestors had not been pushed south with all the rest; they survived and thrived when even the last refuges to the south froze over. Once they had been a harbinger of spring; spring now a distant memory long since passed into fairytale – a story to soothe small children and get them to sleep. Buntings were real, a reliable indication of stable ground. They did not nest near fractured ice likely to open at a heartbeat’s notice and swallow anyone stupid enough to walk on it. The Frost Giant had been a landmark for generations and would stand here long after she passed to a warmer place.

Counting slowly to ten to see if he/she moved, she forced herself to concentrate on replacing the charged solar pods with empty ones. Collectors earned their high status and the respect of the colony by going out every day to retrieve cells; a dangerous job with the ever-present risk of ice bears, crevasses, and freelance light-thieves but someone had to do it. Tyrell volunteered as soon as a space opened up on the team, filling a dead man’s studded boots while they were still warm. She watched her brother make it look so easy, effortlessly carrying twelve pods when she struggled with five. Tyr said that she would learn and grow stronger, taking the time to reassure her when he did not have time to waste.

They were losing the light, sector six no place to linger when the weak sun went down. Bears had been seen in the area only yesterday, huge paw prints left as a warning in the snow. She saw a few strands of pale fur caught on an ice shattered rock, clear signs of an ursine scratching post. The faint odor of musk hung in the breeze, at least a day old and easily discounted.

“We’ve got company, Squirt,” Tyr said, his voice barely above a whisper as one hand rested on the sheathed needle gun at his waist.

“Is it a bear?” She tried hard to keep the tremor out of her voice. No colony born child would ever show such outward signs of weakness but, for a heartbeat, nerves betrayed her. “I can’t smell anything fresh.”

“No,” Tyr said, with perfect certainty and eased the weapon out of its holster, loping a few more strides. Dusk made the scars on his face look worse, raking claw marks that served as permanent reminders of a top predator that almost sent him to the ancestors under the Ice. The Ones Below called out to those still warm, an invitation to join them but also a promise – if not now, soon. ‘As we are now, so shall you be; as you are now, once were we’. He turned and took another stride, before stopping, his words a ringing, shard edged challenge.

“You’re not welcome here.” His voice turned cold as the icicle dagger on the Frost Giant’s nose; soft, deadly as Hell, and in no mood for excuses. Tyr had been a Collector for three years, second-in-command to the militia unit that kept the colony safe. He saw her hesitate and winked, remembering that his duty as a big brother came before everything else. Their mother would never forgive him if anything happened.

“Relax,” he said. “Remember your Basic.”

Easy for him to say when she had only just started it. She took a deep breath, watching the white clouds form in bitter, knife-edged air. Without the proper gear, there were a hundred ways to die. The cautionary tales for children provided examples: what happened when you forgot your training or made one mistake too many. No second chances out here; the unlucky or terminally stupid died quickly, their names never added to the Book of Those Gone Before.

“By the Thaw,” a voice came from the snow swirling off the Frost Giant. “I found you.”

Very few freelance light thieves were ever pleased to see Tyr but he never made the first move. Intruders got one opportunity to explain themselves, according to tradition. Thieves did not bother with excuses, their guilt clear.

Tyrell drew her knife, forcing the nerves into submission. They defended clan territory now and it went against the Code to stand idle. The ancestors – those beneath the ice who saw all – would watch her disgrace, an insult to their memory. Instead, she took a deep breath, watching the white smoke of her own breath spiral into the air, taking the panic with it. She stepped forward, hoping the ancestors did not notice the slight wobble in her legs before she controlled the flight instinct. She saw her brother’s barely-there smile and drew strength from it, facing the challenge when all she wanted to do was run for home. A stranger staggered into view, woefully equipped and more than half-frozen. His narrow face mottled a purplish-gray, fingers already turning black; he struggled to stay upright, muscles already beginning to fail. He slipped on a treacherous ice slick, lost his footing and collapsed into a drift like a deflating gas bladder, the last of his strength gone.

The bunting reappeared to attend to its noisy brood, beak stuffed with wriggling colorless ice-worms more like animated icicles than invertebrates. The young gaped wide, their yellow maws stretched wide to take the food offering, sheltered and warm in a melt-hole nest lined with stolen insulation. Colony shelters were meant as an emergency overnight refuge for collector teams caught out in the open but the birds just took what they needed. Tyr turned and started to walk away as the pathetic wreck raised one arm, a last appeal.

“Please. If you leave me out here, I will die. You have to take me to your healers.” The weak voice still begged for rescue, unaware of how things worked here. He spoke with a strange accent, the voice of someone who had grown up in a haven town where temperatures were ten degrees warmer.

“Why?” Tyrell had not meant to say the question aloud. “Why should we?” Outsiders could only ask for sanctuary if they came from an allied or blood-linked clan but this dying man had no such claim, no right to ask for anything.

“I have something to trade,” the stranger managed to stand, an urgency in the cracked ruins of his voice. “All I ask is a few nights of shelter and medical attention, until I’m fit to travel.”

“Tyr. We can’t just let him die.” Tyrell felt a strange sense of disquiet as a voice whispered unwanted advice. The man was important. She had no idea why but knew that he had to be saved.

“Go back now,” Tyr said. “The bears will be here soon.”

She watched hardness settle across her brother’s face and had to run to keep up as his stride lengthened into the standard militia lope. He had a killer’s reputation, fighting to keep his position. Anyone in the colony had the right to challenge. That single combat always ended the same way: with the loser dead or banished forever – a possibly terminal sentence in all but name. She understood the dark tides that sometimes drove him into the wastes just to be alone, the ones that made him watch over her for the first few nights of Isolation – the final test that led to acceptance or death – and disappear again when she showed no sign of needing protection.

He went away again and never spoke of it again – the greatest compliment he could ever give her. It was their secret, a way to remember that he was human despite what his enemies said. The colony had no idea that he shared his rations with two stray dogs that haunted the territory like ghosts and snarled at any human who got too close, anyone except Tyr. To everyone else, he had ice in his blood but he genuinely cared about the dogs, warning her not to try to make friends. As a recent birthday gift, he brought back a puppy, still young enough to forget feral ways – ‘Silver trusts you’ the only explanation her brother would give and Tyrell did not press the matter. He taught her how to survive in his world and accepted that she would never stop day dreaming, taught her to channel it in ways that ensured periodic lapses did not get her killed. They made a good team, each able to anticipate what the other would do before they did it, and now she was about to spoil it all by disobeying a direct order.

Stopping at the top, she looked down on the Frost Giant and the slumped figure sprawled at its feet. The bunting resumed its search for food, returning with more ice worms. It did not care that in a few days there might be a second frozen corpse to serve as a marker in its territory.

“Please…” Tyrell had never before tried to change his mind, seeing the dangerous flicker in eyes that had never looked so cold. What did the man have to trade for his life? Even the lowest two-legged scavenger would have ignored him – not worth the bother. From first appearances, he carried nothing of value, not even a heat pack or water bottle, but seemed so sure of the thing’s value. He had fallen over again, stretching out the ruin of a hand to plead for rescue. The certainty that he had to be saved grew stronger and more insistent; voices whispered that she should turn back and follow her instincts. The stranger had strangely colored eyes – one blue and the other brown, both wild with desperation – a man with a mission about to fail if he did not convince them to help.

“We should take him back with us,” Tyrell said.

“He’s nothing to you.” Her brother was a realist, a truth speaker in a harsh world with no place for weakness or sentiment. “Why should you care?”

She paused, finding the courage to answer. “I think that he might be important.”

He looked her straight in the eye and did not allow her to look away, holding the gaze as if to gauge what she really thought.”Think or know?” Three words that made all the difference – life or death; she took another deep breath, important that he believed her.

“I KNOW that he is important.” She hardly dared exhale, in case that simple action broke the charm, fingers mentally crossed, knowing better than to rush a decision. Nobody else would have dared try but he nodded and said that was a good enough reason.

“Wait for me”, Tyr turned back, winding the coil of light cells around his waist. He handled the awkward load easily, making it look so easy when all she could think about was chill leaching into her bones and the dull ache of exhaustion. After a hard day out on the snowfields, all she wanted to do was go home for a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again.

Tyr never seemed to sleep, feel the cold or even get tired; she felt the all too familiar pangs of jealousy overriding the fatigue and used them as fuel. To his credit, he never made her feel weak, the pace slowed by the merest fraction to allow her to catch up, missed by most casual observers. Even a trained eye could not prove he ever made allowances for blood kin when he should be impartial. In that moment, he had never looked more like their lost father, taken too soon by a freak accident on the ice fields that should have claimed another – should have claimed you, the voice whispered through her mind in tones that stopped just short of mockery.

Tyrell wiped a tear away before it froze, the remorse she had to bear for the rest of her life crystallizing for all to see. Nobody in the colony knew, not even her mother, and no-one blamed her; they did not need to when she blamed herself every day but could not confess. Confession brought punishment but also release and she did not deserve forgiveness – not yet, perhaps not ever. Saving a stranger might take some of the guilt away – if only Tyr would listen. She trudged a little way down the trail and then stopped, turned, and looked back to watch her brother make a decision. She saw him bend over the slumped figure to open the small wooden box clutched in one ruined hand. Too far away to see what was inside but something impossible, from the stunned look that flashed across her brother’s face. Usually, Tyr kept his thoughts shielded, impossible to read or interpret; the surprise vanished in an instant. Back at the top of the slope, he still refused to tell her what the mystery object was. His long fluid strides lengthened until she had to run to keep up. He carried the stranger and light cells, the extra weight making no difference.

“A reason to take him back to the Council,” he said when she asked again, “and that’s all you need to know, all I will tell you.”

“Why?” she persisted, desperate to find out what had been in the box.

“Just start walking.” He shook his head and refused to argue, pointing to the trail. “Now, squirt, you should know the way by now.”

“Or you’ll tell mom?”

“No,” Tyr did not negotiate or discuss things; it was for the Council of Elders to decide if the stranger stayed the night or went straight back onto the ice. “She will find out soon enough.” Something in his voice had changed; an imperceptible shift back to full alertness warned her to be ready. They were no longer alone, two dark shapes looming out of the drifting snow to pollute the air with sweat and unwashed feet. Colony men on their last warning before banishment: Brake and Jenna had nothing left to lose. They lost their self respect years ago, reduced to half-rations because they did not earn a full share; usually, they haunted the edges of the territory for whatever they could steal. Brake waved an old model needle gun and showed all three of his teeth, bleeding gums angry. One side of his face had turned purple-black as bruises flowered just under the skin, the skin itself flaking and scaly. Clumps of bone dry hair broke at the scalp to leave bald patches. Jenna looked no better, both debauched barely-human specimens, more like a walking disease in need of their next fix. They needed something to sell – a string of charged solar pods worth the risk.

“Hand them over,” Jenna did the talking as usual; the heavy accent made it sound as if he chewed on broken glass and gravel. His eyes bulged with a vicious promise, red rimmed and blood-shot.”Don’t try anything, ice-wolf. I will not tell you again.”

He took a step back as Tyr eased the light cells to the ground with a single fluid movement, propping the barely conscious stranger against a snowdrift before drawing the fighting axe. The slow dangerous smile was a clear warning, a final chance to avoid a one-sided fight that would be laughably short. A razor edged tongue of steel spoke for him; the handle with fifteen notches carved onto it always had room for two more.

“This can go easy or it can go hard. Make no sudden moves … or your sister will be sorry.” Jenna had never been good at threats. He glared when Tyrell said it might be the other way round. She watched Tyr stand loose and ready, the smile still there, a deadly killing coldness in his eyes, an invitation to death. Inevitable; they would die if they made the first move. Brake shuffled his feet, clearly unsettled by what he saw. His few remaining brain cells sparked on a last-ditch rescue mission. He met Tyr’s eye with an unspoken question, answered with a barely perceptible nod.

“We can find something else,” the big man rumbled, proving himself more intelligent than anyone gave him credit for. “Something far away from here…”

“Shut your mouth, idiot.” Jenna spat blood tinged spittle into the snow and another of his teeth went with it. “Do I have to do everything for you?”

“You never did.” Brake made his choice. He held out the needle gun and let it drop into the snow – no longer needed. Three words severed all ties to a man who only ever used him for dirty work. “One of the Elders made me an offer – one last chance to start again and see if it works out.” He shrugged. “It would be the cess pits, just for a little while to prove I can change, but,” he glanced at the other outcast with an undisguised contempt, “I’m used to shit.”

“How dare you,” Jenna could not believe his sidekick had abandoned him. “I was always there when the rest of the Colony turned their backs on you.”

“I had a wife and family once,” Brake said. “You took that and gave them a hundred reasons to forget me. That makes us about even.” He smiled and recaptured his old self, the man he had once been before drink took him down a darker path. Hope shone in his eyes for the first time in years, determined to make a fresh start away, already moving before Jenna could say another word. The bad influence stared at his departing unpaid muscle and swore, still too stupid to back down. He picked up the needle gun, struggling with the unfamiliar weight. One finger curled around the worn trigger, filth engrained into the skin so deep it would never come out.

“Ice-wolf – you have a ten count before I shoot your sister in the face.”

Tyr read the mood perfectly, sensing the shift in her way of thinking – the way she stood a little straighter. He did not stir but a slow burning rage built in his eyes.

Be ready, the clear message, but he gave her the right to make the first move.

“She won’t like that,” he said – a simple understated observation of fact.

“Jenna,” she said, knowing that she had always despised the scuttling, squint-eyed little man but never had the courage to say it out loud before. “You’re not going to shoot me.”

“Why is that, little girl?” Jenna sneered, deliberately talking to her like a small child he didn’t much like. He still had the safety on but she had no intention of telling him that.

“You are in my way,” she said, wondering if the nervous energy just under the surface showed as she claimed the right of combat.

Concealed behind an imperfect mask, she had not yet mastered the art of creative threat but that could be learned. The calm center settled until she felt ready, all fear vanished like spent breath in the wind. The Ancestors had nothing to complain about this time; she would honor them with fresh blood in the snow if the day turned to fighting. Jenna cursed, throwing the weapon away as useless when it could have made a serviceable club. He lunged forward; Tyrell stood her ground and punched him as hard as she could in the face. Falling heavily onto his backside, knocked over by a girl half his size; she could almost hear the silvery voices of those gone before laughing at his expense. All the self-doubt vanished, the nagging doubt she would never be good enough gone for ever, never to return. A shout of pure joy skirled high, reverberating off frigid surfaces that had never looked more beautiful. The air smelt of victory.

Jenna got to his feet, snarling and almost incoherent with rage; he realized that Tyr would not interfere – saw a chance and took it. He knocked her back with a wild swing; she broke his nose. Jenna meant to kill her if he could, but he was slow and showed every movement before he made it, murderous intention clear in his eyes. Then, he looked stupidly at the red plumed dart sprouting from his neck before he slumped into the snow and did not move again.

The stranger had managed to prop himself up on one elbow, holding a metal tube that looked more like a child’s toy than a weapon. His voice barely above a whisper as he struggled to stay conscious, he shook his head when Tyrell asked what poison.

“Sleep juice,” he explained. “He will wake in ten to twenty with a bad headache – nothing more than that. Take me to your Elders. I carry a sign – something they have to see, something you all have to see. It is…”

Tyr nodded. The man had already passed out again, exhausting the last of his strength – pulse weak but he would recover. They left Jenna to sleep it off. An improvised pack-snow shelter kept out the bitter wind so he did not freeze to death, more than he deserved but there were too many unquiet ghosts already, his bad luck if the bears found him first. Tyrell watched her brother coil the light cells with a practised swiftness, helping him to check they were intact. As they worked, a sudden thought entered her mind, decisive and unshakable; she knew what she had to do next.

Easing herself down, she found a comfortable spot to rest and stayed there, watching the flash of anger in his eyes turn to well-hidden amusement. He was not surprised, as if he knew her curious nature would always override the usual way of doing things. The wild streak that still drove their grandmother to explore caves under the Dragon Tooth glacier whenever the fancy struck passed to her.

“What are you doing?” Tyr did not raise his voice or try to reason with her; they both knew from experience that it would be a waste of breath even to try. He looked down as she crossed her arms and glared at him, determined to get her way in this at least. “You will see it tonight, after the Council.” He paused, as if he had already realized that would not be enough.

“I want to see it now,” she said, still emboldened by an after-combat adrenaline rush. “Open the box and show me, or I will sit here all night.”

He nodded, accepting her word because had always been stubborn. Shielding the contents so they would not blow away in the wind, he turned a key in the ornate lock and shared the magic.

The box contained a wonder not seen in five generations of her clan, a memory almost lost forever except in old picture books: a flower caught in full bloom, delicate petals whiter than snow contrasting with the vivid green leaves. It heralded the coming of The Thaw, a promise of better days to come when the icicles on the Frost Giant’s nose finally melted. The next brood of Snow Buntings would bear witness to the change and adapt once again, bringing spring back to the world. It had been away too long.