It’s so cold. Why did he bring me down here? The light’s going out, mind and his. So cold, the light in me is gone. All on fire, but now—
Sam tore the piece of paper from her hands. “This isn’t your usual letter to Grandmam, is it?” she asked, already sure of the answer.
He clenched his fists, wrinkling the paper like an ancient parchment. “I tried making it a story. You know, a dramatic first-person thing?”
She couldn’t help grinning. “Well, it sounds like an angsty teen novel from the 2000s, maybe the 2010s. I’d stick with the letters to Grandmam.”
He frowned. “Leave stories to the linguists, right?”
Sliding the bio scanner from the pocket of her lab coat, she ran a contact temperature check on her cousin. “No, not always,” she admitted. “It’s just not like you to be dramatic.”
The bio scanner signaled completion, and Sam settled back into his seat. “Fair observation,” he said, adjusting the harnesses that held them securely in their automated lifeboat. “If I could borrow your pen, I’ll attempt something else.”
She reached into her pocket. “Well, since you already borrowed that page from my notebook, and as long as this is the only page, you can.”
“It was from the back, I promise,” he said, commencing a new round of scribbling.
While he scribbled, she logged his temperature readings. The red line on the instant chart inched up a fraction just as the lifeboat grounded, but Sam only glanced up when the dome of the lifeboat lifted. Together, they untangled their harnesses and stepped out.
“Exit complete,” she announced to the empty lifeboat. “Initiate automated return.”
The dome snapped back into place, and they braced themselves against the engine draft as the lifeboat achieved liftoff. Once their craft was clearly on route to Lightfoot, Sam held out the paper.
Do you know how it feels to burn? Not a laser burn, or an electric burn, or even an old-fashioned stove burn, but burning up from the inside? You’re so hot that machines can’t hold you, but you don’t notice. You’re sure it’ll be a long time before—
“I decided to try second person,” Sam broke in. “Sounds more like me, but a little forced.”
She tried to laugh. “A bit too real, Sam. You really are burning up, and if we can’t get you to those ice caps—"
“Cadet Robinson, Officer Anderson! Over here, please.”
They turned, saluting simultaneously. The Commander stood several paces away, K’tor next to him. When Sam ran to them, she followed carefully. The Lucian’s light dimmed and flashed so quickly that her eyes ached, but she could still understand his speech.
“If you take Sam to the place of hardened water, his light will go out forever,” K’tor insisted. “There is no light there. There is something there that makes light dark forever.”
The Commander shook his head. “I can’t follow him, Loretta. Whenever I asked him to speak slowly, he only spoke faster.”
She reached out to K’tor, her palms up. “Calm your light, K’tor,” she said gently. “Tell me again what you told the Commander.”
Sam caught his breath. “Hey, Loretta, I can see him. Really see him, in all the light. Definitely humanoid.”
She shook her head. “Now’s not the time for scientific discoveries, Sam. Tell me again, K’tor.”
K’tor’s light settled. “If you take Sam where you wish to take him, he will—die. That is what you call going out forever.”
“But only Lucians who stay in the darkest places die,” Sam said. “I’m not a Lucian, K’tor.”
“You are more of us than of them, now,” K’tor answered, his light flaring. “Soon, they will be able to see the light I see in you.”
“And by that point?” the Commander asked, holding out his hand for the bio scanner.
“By that point,” she said, almost whispering, “he’ll be dead. Look at his temperature now.”
She turned away and realized that Sam was scribbling again. “How’s this?” he said. “A little artistic license this time.”
“Well, we finally found him out.”
“Oh, really? What did he have planned this time?”
“He was going to blow the whole place up, can you believe that?”
“He’s certainly got the gumption, that’s for sure.”
“Yeah, but only half the smarts. He was going to use—”
She laughed shakily. “I suppose you’re the thing he was planning to blow up?”
He nodded. “It was a bit weird, calling the Lucian-morphing cells he instead of they So definitely license, but—hey, the lifeboat’s coming back.”
The Commander handed back the bio scanner. “Yes it is, Cadet Robinson. If we’re going to reach the ice caps in time, we need transport.”
She glanced from K’tor to Sam. “You’re taking him to the ice caps? Isn’t there a risk, if he’s becoming Lucian?”
The Commander hesitated for the smallest moment, but Sam spoke up. “If we don’t get me there, I’m going down anyway,” he said simply.
She watched the lifeboat, the size of a small cloud, circle back to them. Once it grounded, Sam and the Commander marched off in true cadet step, but she glanced at K’tor.
“You are taking Sam to the hardened water,” the Lucian sad, his light fading.
She nodded. “We must. If we do, or if we do not, his light may still go out forever.”
“You must try,” he said, a blinding flash. “I cannot come in your ship, but I will go to the place of hardened water and wait for you.”
She nodded again. For a moment, the Lucian’s brightness blurred. “Thank you, K’tor.”
As she ran for the lifeboat, she glanced over her shoulder at K’tor, who was streaking away like a star. The dome settled and harnesses dropped into place, but she could still see him. Even after the lifeboat reached liftoff, low-altitude navigation kept him in range.
Sam tapped her shoulder. “You don’t have to watch him from the windows, Loretta. Dad’s piloting, and he’s got the appropriate scanners set to detect a Lucian at high speeds.”
She reached for his hand. “I know, but I—Sam, your hand is glowing now.”
He studied his fingers, then rolled up the sleeve of his uniform. “It’s not just my hand, either. Fascinating.”
“Oh, the Vulcan’s finally decided to come out?” she said. “I suppose this is science.”
“A test,” Sam announced. “Lucian expert, read my light. Feelings?”
She took a deep breath and tried to smile. “Not enough light to tell for sure, but I’d say excited, or anticipating something.”
Sam grinned. “The doctor says my feelings have been correctly diagnosed, but the Vulcan—”
“Well, as long as the doctor agrees with me, the Vulcan doesn’t matter,” she interrupted.
Sam stared at her. “Afraid of what logic will tell you?” he asked.
She nodded and glanced out the window. The ice caps rushed nearer, and K’tor’s light blended with them until she could no longer see him.
“So am I,” he whispered. “Just an atom or two of fear, that’s all.” He held out the creased piece of paper. “Here, read this.”
Here’s how the story ends: We’ll head down into the hidden places beneath the ice caps. Loretta and Dad will be cold, K’tor won’t be the brightest. but I’ll be fine. Sooner or later, I’ll stop burning. We won’t be there long enough to freeze Dad, or Loretta, or K’tor. K’tor will probably try to be a hero, but I’ll make sure he comes out bright. What else are friends for? I’ve never tried writing a story that wasn’t in a letter to Grandmam, but this is how this one will end.
She looked up and smiled. “You’re sure about this, aren’t you?”
He mirrored her smile. “Very sure. It’s time this story came to an end.”