An indigenous futurist story in which a freezing woman must harness the power of the aurora to return home.
Thomas Kent West is an American writer of speculative fiction. He is the winner of the Rue Morgue “Artifacts of Horror” Contest, the Content Flash Fiction Contest, and the Black Hole Entertainment Short Fiction Prize. His work has been featured in The Other Stories, MetaStellar, and elsewhere. You can read more of his work by visiting him on Twitter @ThomasKentWest or at ThomasKentWest.com.
Silla stood beneath a river of light: purple, blue, green, pink, white. Beneath her, endless sheets of ice stretched soundlessly ever onward, towards low forests of bent-backed taiga, towards wolf-packed tundra snow, towards shields of black-stone mountains. But her eyes were on the sky, where threads of green-purple-blue whipped through the atmosphere like an undersea current, weaving through the stars. Her only chance at life waited in those lights.
Silla stepped out from the LYNX. The batteries in the hulking vehicle were nearly dead; everything but basic life support was shut off, and even that would fade soon. When that happened, there would be nothing to keep the cold out. Nothing to keep her alive.
She’d sent a distress signal before the LYNX had shut down, but her research facility at ᑕᓗᕐᔪᐊᖅ (Taloyoak) was three day’s ride south, through the pitch darkness of polar night. Even if the distress signal had gone through, Igaluk and Ivan and the others wouldn’t find her — if they ever did — until she was long dead from exposure. No, the only way home was up there, in the sky, with the aurora. Aksarnirq, her mother would call it. When she was a girl, her mother would have told her that the aurora was the souls of the dead, dancing across the sky. All the Inuit that came before them. When she was older, her mother would tell her that the lights were strings of protons and electrons, disruptions in the earth’s magnetic field caused by solar winds.
That took some of the magic out of it, she supposed. But looking up at that string of lights, how could there not be magic in the world?
But her mother was dead now. Silla wondered what part of her mother had won out in the end. The Native woman who believed in glowing rivers of the dead, or the scientist who saw only photons, solar currents, iridescent particles?
Her cryosuit beeped. She lifted the interface panel on her wrist and saw a stream of syllabics. She estimated that she had just enough energy to make this happen. If not, she was dead. She climbed to the top of the LYNX, just to get a little bit more height. Not that it would make much of a difference. Still, on top of the hulking ice-tank, she could see the stretch of the mountain beneath her, the endless plains of winter. Somewhere in the distance, the Six Jewels of the Arctic glowed, the six cities where most of Earth’s population now sheltered from climate change. Inuvik was her home, with its glass-covered streets, soaring skyscrapers, and thriving indigenous culture. She hoped she’d see it again one day.
Gently, she reached to her chest. There, a black hexagon waited, shining like obsidian in the dark. It formed the core of her cryosuit, but also of the LYNX itself. In fact, one could say that the small black panel was the core of human society. It was a quantum solar panel — the technology that allowed mankind to harness even the faintest of light and turn it into energy. The quantum solar panels in Inuvik powered everything, taking in the meager light and storing it for use later. The panels were so efficient that one as small as a pinecone could power a whole house. But even with the technology, they still needed light. And the aurora was light.
She raised her interface and selected the controls for her quantum solar panel, then increased the sensitivity as far as it would go. The black panel hummed and began to glow a faint violet color. She angled it upwards, trying to catch as much of the faint light of the aurora as she could muster.
It wasn’t enough. A bit of power came through the suit, using whatever alchemy the black panel did to create energy from meager light.
If she was going to get home, she’d need more. She’d need enough to power the LYNX.
She had to get closer.
• • •
The weather balloon attached to the LYNX wasn’t strictly for human use; maybe a daring research student had taken it up once or twice, but certainly never higher than a few hundred feet. Still, as Silla strapped herself in, she couldn’t help but feel a little wonder at it. The huge black balloon lifted away from the LYNX, and she drifted up, up, over the frozen horizon. The wind struck her as she rose, cutting through even the synthetic skin of her cryosuit. She shivered, using her interface to turn up the heat. It was almost maxed out, and the heating mechanism was notoriously fickle.
The air grew thinner and colder. Beneath her, the skyline dropped away. She could see the great swaths of pine trees like a quilt, patched with fields of ice, with moving herds of reindeer that thundered across the plains.
Above her, the stars grew stronger; the Milky Way was a swath of starlight, like a glass filled with galaxies had tipped over and spilled across the sky. Her breath caught in her chest, swelling, and she wondered if it was from awe or the thinning atmosphere.
The interface beeped. The syllabics read: Oxygen levels depleting. Body temperature nearing dangerous levels. Suit capacity failing.
Still, the balloon marched upward. She gritted her teeth through the cold. This was her only chance.
Silla looked upward and caught sight of the nearing aurora. It waved like curtains of light, twisting and bending in an unseen wind. The curvature of the Earth made itself known below her, the horizon releasing a faint glow. Somewhere, on the other side of the Earth, the sun still shone, feeding the aurora its light. If she could catch just a fragment of that light…
She tried to angle the quantum solar panel upwards, and saw the slow trickle of energy from the aurora’s light grow stronger, but soon her glass face-mask was fogging up, then freezing over, and she could hardly see the controls.
Her suit beeped. An alarm sounded from the interior speaker. Maximum altitude reached. Cryosuit beginning shut down process. Oxygen low. Temperature nearing fatal levels. Seek lower altitude.
The weather balloon stalled; it wouldn’t go any further. The aurora dangled just above her, still out of reach, maybe by miles. She wished she could reach up and grab the bottom threads of light, pull it down like she was tugging on her mother’s dress.
But she couldn’t.
The ice continued to creep over her face mask. Her breathing grew more labored, quicker. She felt like she was suffocating in the suit, that all the air she’d had was gone, replaced only with the cold vacuum of space.
She tapped the weather balloon’s controls, urging it upwards.
Maximum altitude reached. Life support failing. Seek shelter.
Her vision began fading at the edges. The aurora blinked out for a moment as she lost consciousness. Just… a little… further… she thought.
Then she saw it. A flicker. Up above, in the aurora, a shape began to take form.
At first, she thought she was hallucinating. She was looking at an arctic fox, sitting in the sky, playing in the aurora’s light. And the fox itself was made of light; its fur was green and blue and purple, each hair a different thread of light.
The fox swam through the star-filled sky, bounced around her, playing. She had to laugh, even through the delirium and the cold.
Then other creatures joined it: a polar bear made of light swam through an ocean of color; a herd of multi-colored reindeer ran circles around her. The entire aurora broke into creatures of the north, seals and seabirds, lynx and wolves and thousands more that had long gone extinct.
Then she saw the people: she recognized their clothes. They were Sami and Inuit, Alaskan and Russian, Siberian and Scandinavian. She saw their ancestral clothes stitched from the winter’s light. She watched them dance their dances and sing their songs to keep the winter at bay.
The river of the dead.
Her vision faded. She knew she was dying. But would that be so bad? She was with her people.
Then, out of the streaming mass of animals and peoples, she saw a familiar face: worn and lined, but filled with kindness and wit. She wore her traditional dress, surrounded by a cloak of aurora.
Silla blinked. She stared at her dead mother, floating in the inky black. Her mother floated towards her, then extended a withered hand. She touched the black solar panel at the heart of Silla’s suit.
Then her mother vanished; she slid forward, all the light of her sucked into the solar panel.
And the river of light began to circle Silla, all the herds of spirits swirling, until it rushed at her like a torrent, flowing into her chest.
She gasped as the life support systems came back online.
Oxygen levels increasing. Temperature at safe levels. Battery fully charged. Sending excess to LYNX engine.
A light seemed to explode from her as the cryosuit tried to contain the energy. Silla breathed, the fog lifting from her mind, and stared out at the black. There was nothing; the aurora still twinkled above her, but her mother was nowhere to be seen.
Then her interface beeped, and a message appeared. She rubbed the ice from her face mask and read the syllabics.
I love you.
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This was truly magical—each description so evocative, I felt like I could see it. Really really lovely work!