If winter hadn’t been about to burst, if it hadn’t been her last flight, if she hadn’t been scheduled to go home in two days. If the icy desert beneath her hadn’t looked so deeply flawless that morning (hard white rock whipped by a layer of fresh snow like Pashmak). If she hadn’t turned north instead of south she might never have seen it.
If she’d kept quiet they might never have found out.
“Muir, say again?” A voice from Base cut across the other conversations in her helmet, sinking them to a soft burr.
She hadn’t meant to give herself away. But her breath had caught at the sight, and her sigh had triggered the radio. Otherwise, she might’ve gotten away with it.
The radio buzzed constantly across Muir’s skull like a low-grade migraine. She could hear the glacionauts hundreds of metres beneath the ice surface talking to the researchers in the labs back at Base. She heard the occasional driver and pilot checking coordinates. She’d gotten so used to the noise she couldn’t sleep without it.
She’d been filling in time, following random scars in the skin of permafrost beneath her, watching the ice floes the way she used to watch clouds as a kid. Looking for a shape. She was less claustrophobic in her twin-seater Otter than back at Base.
“Nothing, Base,” she replied. “I didn’t say anything.”
Base Station wasn’t deterred. “Muir? Why are you so far north?”
Base Station’s voice sounded clipped and hollow in the helmet, wasp-buzzing and flat. But she could still spot the annoyance in—his? she thought it was his—tone. He was tired, probably. Bored, like they all were. Otherwise he wouldn’t have checked her coordinates. You’re not off course if nobody knows you’re off course.
“The hell, Muir?” A different voice in the helmet. Partholon, riding meltwater somewhere beneath an ice shelf. “Tell me you found some kind of mythical wreck so we can ride it out of this mess of a place.”
Static that was probably laughter. It was his favourite joke, the one about escaping. But like all of them, Partholon had nowhere else to go.
“Muir,” Base again, “you’ve travelled well outside your grid. Return immediately. And,” one last imperative added in a soft growl, “stop wasting our goddamn fuel.”
Base Station clicked to silence. There was no need to say more, nobody expected Muir to ignore a command. But she spun in a slow circle, angling the wings of her Otter at 45 degrees to the ground so she could look out through the hexagon of windows that pressed in on her.
In the ice, long tendrils of blue-white something showed like veins, like seaweed. No, like hair. Miles of hair that lazily curled around a giant face carved into the ice. A woman’s face, pointed chin and wide lips and sloping eyes. The figure’s left lobe caught a flash of light as Muir passed. It shone like a pearl.
“Wait,” Muir said, buying time. She cleared her throat. “It looks like a . . .”
She was cold, but she was used to cold. She’d been made numb by it months ago. Staring at the figure beneath her was like the most painful thawing she could imagine.
“Holy, Mary, Mother,” Muir whispered. She couldn’t help it.
“There’s one for the daily broadsheet,” Partholon shouted. “Muir’s found religion.”
She coasted alongside a giant shoulder in the ice, nosing the outline of a bare arm and the swoop of a sterile breast, the curve of an elbow where it cupped a smooth, white belly.
Muir pulled the rover up higher until it skimmed six then eight metres above the ground. She discovered where the pale white scales began beneath the icy figure’s wrist, just above a swell like a hip. She followed the three metres it took to reach the frozen fan of a tail, six metres across at its edge and delicately curled. Almost beckoning.
“Jesus, it’s a mermaid,” she whispered.
A hoot of laughter from Partholon. “I knew it, I knew Muir was losing her mind!”
“Vipond, go check on Muir.” Base must have grown tired of waiting.
“Already on my way, Base.”
Muir skimmed the other side of the mermaid and found a jagged edge at the end of her arm. Her hand had been taken off at the wrist.
A fierce possessiveness flooded through her. It clogged her throat and put a tremble in her hands. She circled back to the brow.
The almond curve of icy eyes watched her as she approached, early morning light dancing along blue-white irises. Muir wanted to curl up in the blank pupils. She could sleep for a thousand years in those eyes. She could slip along those pastel lashes and lie on those crystalline cheeks.
They couldn’t take the mermaid from her.
She tried to sound casual. “I made a mistake. Must be the glare. Vipond, return to Base—”
“Too late, I’m already here.”
Vipond’s Otter swung into view over her tail, black wings on a red-bellied twin-seater. He headed right for her, too fast and too close. He must have been looking at the ground; he must have found the mermaid.
“Look out!” Muir banked sharply to avoid colliding with the distracted Vipond.
His countermove brought him close to the ground. The beetleblack wing of his plane sent up a wing of shaved ice.
“Sweet Jesus, Muir,” Vipond muttered. He was Buddhist, but they’d all been together too long. “Sweet freaking Jesus!”
“Do you see it?” Muir asked, her voice timid. A swell of something like pride rose through her. She was thrilled to be sharing it, the mermaid. Even not wanting to, even wanting to hoard it for herself.
“I see something,” Vipond confirmed. “I sure as hell don’t know what it is. Base, I’m landing.”
“Oh, great,” Base said. “Don’t land if you don’t know what it is. Those are expensive planes you’re flying.”
“Muir, Mother of God, tell us. Are we going home or aren’t we?” Partholon was milking it for all he had.
“Negative, Partholon. There is no pirate ship here.”
The buzz of laughter followed Muir down.