Berjarmirjarin, colloquially known as Brrr, pulled his shivering leg out onto the dock. Even as a native, the ice winds still nipped at his skin; burning, then numbing him. He didn’t like to admit it, no native did, but he preferred the burrows– they were easy to adapt to. The increase in temperature below gave his skin a sepia glow that didn’t last long on the surface. Still, he had been called to perform his duties so out he came into the familiar cold that more and more by the day was becoming foreign.
At the field, he saw the aliens huddled over equipment they used to collect the ice blocks. He marveled how they ever made it so far with their delicate biology. Even behind their frost helmets the veins peeked through their skin. Yet here they were, alive and in the burrows– thriving.
Brrr climbed into his flying jewel, so named because of the purples and yellows illuminated by their nearest star. He set a course for twenty-five kilometers from First Contact. The jewel spurted and spit out old fuel slush–like built up phlegm–then glistening among the clear ice, took flight. The domed city shrunk and disappeared from view, becoming one with the white landscape.
As he neared the site, Brrr could see the rising steam from the air, as if the ice itself gasped for breath. He lowered his jewel, surprised by the soft thud instead of skidding another kilometer down.
Zhighzzhena, Zhzh for short, was shaking her head. Her face looked an unnatural tan for their kind.
“Check out your wheels.”
The wheels were hugged on all sides, the landing gear kissed by the surface ice.
“What’s going on? Your face?”
Zhzh walked ahead, gesturing Brrr to follow her. “From being here. Even you’re shivering less.”
It was true. It almost felt as warm as the burrows out here.
Zhzh unwrapped a layer of her skin and hung it out to cool. She passed him data charts from the recent ice checks in the area. The peaks and dips suggested fluctuations that should take millennia but had only happened in the past two-star cycles. The only difference the past two-star cycles had from before, was contact with the aliens. He folded the charts into his inner skin layer.
“What do we do?”
Zhzh gave him the same look as when he first– and last–asked for her partnership. Her eyes dilated, the dark pupil covering all the white. Like night on ice. “What we have to.”
“Are there other ecological niches affected?”
Zhzh dropped her head. “It would be easier to say what’s unaffected.” She paused. “The young buried here hatched too early.”
A knot caught in Brrr’s throat. Hatching too early meant underdevelopment. It meant undernourishment. It meant death. “How many?”
“All of them.”
Brrr thought of all the grieving partners. The mothers. Zhzh. The urgency in her message made more sense now, this wasn’t just work.
“I’m so sorry.” Brrr stretched his hand out to her shoulder, a gesture he learned from the aliens. She felt warm, heated from the grief. “We’ll figure this out.”
To figure it out, Brrr would have to ingratiate himself with the aliens. Their meager allotment of ice would not account for these changes on the planet but if they used their machines to do something with the ice…
“What do they use it for, the ice?”
Zhzh shrugged. “Your guess as good as mine, that’s government business.”
Before Brrr left for a meeting with officials he visited the hatchling graves. Zhzh told him where to go but refused to go with him.
“Just follow the trail of frozen tears.” She wasn’t exaggerating.
Brrr was glad she stayed behind. He needed one more piece of data before the meeting, tests from a hatchling. He worked fast to tunnel to the deepest layer, the hatchlings were buried where they would have been laid. Afterward he packed and flattened the ice to cover his tracks, hoping those young he collected were not Zhzh’s, though that just meant stealing from another grieving parent.
Brrr placed all the key pieces of data on the table for the council to see for themselves. His hands shook, the cold here as bitter and chilling as it was supposed to be. The charts showed an increase in temperatures. The dried beds of the hatchlings. Their empty entrails. The crack readings that showed it would get worse.
“All this leads me to believe the aliens are taking more than their share and the changes they’re doing need to stop.”
The council members passed the data to each other. “The aliens have shared their comfort technology with us,” one said.
“We signed ice treaties.”
“What will become of the treaty when the ice melts?”
All three laughed at him, stamping their thick-skinned legs on the floor. “Ice here does not melt.”
Brrr pointed at the charts. “Data does not lie.”
“Maybe we’ve been using ice here wrong all along,” a newer member spoke up, “I’ve heard reports the aliens melt it for shipment back to their world, for fuel. We never thought to do that.”
Brrr thrust the vials of hatchlings onto the desk. “We never had to. What do we need liquid fuel for?”
He took a step back, his teeth chattering. Every member looked more thick-skinned around the face. He understood they had sold more than the ice in their agreements with the aliens. They had gotten more in return than galactic peace too, their bones well-padded with new skins. He saw then that their hatchlings would never know a premature birth. Souls, that was what those humans called them. They had sold their souls, only as the natives were beginning to learn about them.
This story previously appeared in Yelena Crane from Flame Tree Newsletter.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Yelena Crane is a Ukrainian/Soviet born and USA-based writer, and incorporates influences from both her motherland and adopted home soil into her work. With an advanced degree in the sciences, she has followed her passions from mad scientist to science fiction writer. Her stories appear in Nature Futures, DSF, Third Flatiron, Flame Tree, and elsewhere. Follow her on twitter @Aelintari and Yelena Crane.