“Loretta, isn’t it time for those temperature checks Dad wants?” Sam shook her by both shoulders of her multipurpose suit. “Loretta? Where’s the scanner?”
The glinting walls that surrounded them crowded into her vision until she could almost feel the points of ice. When she tried to turn her head, she couldn’t look at her cousin.
“The inner pocket,” she managed. “Be careful. Temperature may have damaged it.”
Sam fumbled for the scanner, and she heard the crinkle of chemically-engineered insulation. Sam’s suit-to-suit communication clicked off, and he removed his helmet to run the scan. Her visor blurred the numbers, but she watched the red line drop.
“It’s working, Uncle Rob,” she whispered. “His temperature’s coming down. But I can’t move very easily. Can you?”
Static crackled in her ears, and the Commander’s voice sounded. “No. It must be the cold. Our suits can’t withstand it.”
Automatically, she started to look over her shoulder, but she couldn’t complete the turn. Sam stood directly in her line of sight, holding the scanner in his faintly glowing hands.
“I’ll have to wait here.” The Commander’s voice faded to a whisper. “I’ll try and contact the officers waiting above the surface.”
Sam lowered his helmet, and a clearer voice sounded over the static. “Loretta? My temperature’s down to normal. Is K’tor still with Dad?”
She tried to shake her head, but the cold forestalled her. “I don’t know. Can you see him?”
Sam replaced the scanner and looked past her, over her shoulder. “Yeah. His light’s way back there. He’s unhappy, or in danger, because it’s not very bright. And I can see a dark smudge, probably Dad.”
“But our suits are white,” she objected. “Those Lucian cells must be getting to you.”
He grinned. “I guess they see things differently—but at least I’m not burning up from the inside.” His gaze shifted over her shoulder again, and she watched his smile fade.
“Are they far behind?” she prompted. “He said we might have to leave him.”
He nodded. “K’tor’s light is getting dimmer, too. We should have made them stay.”
Her laugh probably sounded more like a gasp. “He’s the Commander, Sam. What could an officer and a cadet order him to do?”
Sam kicked at the ice crystals underfoot and almost slipped. “K’tor told me where to go. They didn’t have to come.”
“Suit-to-suit communication is not closed circuit, Cadet Robinson,” the Commander interrupted. “I appreciate your concern, but you must go on. K’tor and I will remain here, or, if we can, join Officer Anderson.”
She leaned against Sam and shuffled forward. “Uncle Rob, I can still walk. Can’t I go with Sam?” For a moment, she listened to silence. “Commander? Commander? Come in, please.”
Something that might have been a sigh cut across the static. “Yes, Commander coming in. The temperature’s only going to drop from here, is that right?”
“Yes, sir,” Sam said. “K’tor told me Lucians don’t even go to the deepest places.”
“Did he inform you have much further until cellular transformation takes place?”
“That’s not a guarantee, sir.” Loretta spoke before Sam could. “I know the risk for both of us.”
The static increased, and then cleared as the Commander spoke. “I’ve connected to the officers on the surface of the planet, so I won’t order you to stay.”
She could almost hear Sam’s smile. “Thanks, Dad. I didn’t want to go alone.”
“Take all due precaution, Loretta.” The Commander’s static completely disappeared. “You too, Sam. Don’t let the doctor run this expedition.”
Sam saluted. “Yes, sir. Loretta’s running this one, and she’s a scientist.”
The Commander chuckled. “That’s enough, Cadet. The surface is cutting in, so I’ll sign off for a moment. Status updates, highest frequency.”
Loretta released the breath she’d been holding. “Of course, sir.” Another click sounded in her ears as the Commander switched communication circuits, then Sam’s voice.
“Hey, Loretta? I have an idea. Could you slide off your gloves for a second?”
“And watch my fingers turn to ice?” She laughed. “The doctor must be talking.”
He made a face. “No, it’s the Vulcan and his logic. You saw me take off the helmet, right? I’m not even cold. My insulation is damp with—”
“Okay, I don’t need to know the condition of your suit.” She paused. “When I was testing you aboard Lightfoot, you were literally hot to the touch. Do you think you could repeat the phenomenon?”
“Exactly,” he said. “My temperature’s not where it was then, but transfer is still possible.”
“If you’re wrong,” she said, sliding off her gloves and grabbing Sam’s hands, “I’ll never—wait, I can move my fingers.”
Sam nodded. “Makes me wonder what I could do. Human-powered central heating?”
She shook her head and shifted her feet. “Central heating’s ancient history, Sam.”
“People-heating?” he countered, and then laughed. “No, that’s weird, even for 2221.”
She took a step forward, dropping one of his hands so they could walk side by side. “Weird or not, we don’t need to think about it. Much closer, and your cells won’t be Lucian mutated.”
“You told Dad yourself, it isn’t guaranteed.” He paused mid-stride. “Wait, if my cells return to normal, won’t we both freeze?”
“That contingency has been planned for,” the Commander broke in, his voice laced with static. “We have officers above the surface ready to break through and lift you out, if necessary.”
“Too bad we couldn’t beam up in a transporter,” Sam remarked.
“Breaking up a person’s molecules like that?” She laughed. “Definitely science fiction.”
Static cracked in her communications circuit. “Commander still here. Update, Anderson?”
“I’m mobile now, Commander,” Loretta said. “As we approach the center of the ice caverns, communications will likely fail. I’ll keep an automatic log on my suit, but we won’t be able to update you personally.”
“I’ll see what the officers on the surface can do to increase circuit strength,” the Commander replied. “Continue high-frequency updates.”
“Dad?” Sam said. “Are you and K’tor stable?”
“I’d estimate just above threshold,” the Commander admitted. “Don’t let that stop—”
As they slid across another patch of ice, the Commander’s voice dropped out of the circuit. She almost lost her grip on Sam, but he swung her in a wide arc, and she hit the solid bank on the other side. Pulling him towards her, she looked over her shoulder.
“There’s another cavern up ahead,” she said, squinting hard even behind her visor. “The biggest and brightest yet.” She paused and punched a button. The background whirr of assembling data filled her helmet, culminating in a rapid series of beeps.
“Are you sure your eyes aren’t under strain?” Sam asked. “Looks like a black hole to me.” His voice cracked, and she stared at him.
“The data automatically correlated, Sam. It’s a cavern, dimensions—”
“I don’t need dimensions,” he interrupted. “But if it isn’t a black hole—”
He didn’t finish his sentence, and she reached for the scanner. “Off with the gloves, cadet. A cellular sample is in order once we reach the cavern.”
He shuddered and turned away. “Loretta, I don’t want to go in there.”
She grabbed his shoulder and forced him to face her. “That’s the doctor talking. Remember what Uncle Rob said? Don’t let emotions run this expedition. What about the Vulcan?”
His smile twisted. “He’s not saying much—my head’s full of the doctor. Even the captain’s not sure what to do.”
She pulled off his gloves and initiated a contact sequence for one of his fingers. When the bio scanner collected a tissue sample, he didn’t flinch.
“Okay, I’ll handle the logic,” she said. “K’tor inadvertently exposed you to a Lucian element that triggered widespread cellular change, mutation into a Lucian?” When Sam nodded, she continued, “And we deduced that exposure to the opposing element could counteract this mutation, correct?”
He nodded again as the scanner signaled completion. She read the data stream and slipped the scanner into her pocket.
“You can’t live in temperature-controlled environments forever, Sam,” she said softly. “We have to find a way to keep you stable, and this is the most probable solution.”
He glanced at the entrance to the cavern. “But my Lucian cells—I can see their light now. And that cavern is so dark. And K’tor says—”
“Sam, you aren’t a Lucian. You might feel like one, but you can’t sustain the light they emanate.”
“Who says I can’t?” he retorted. “Biologically speaking, it’s only logical—”
“Biologically speaking, you’ll burn up if your environment doesn’t counteract the phenomenon.” She drew a deep breath. “Come on, I’ll help you. One step at a time, okay?”
His shoulders slumped, but he reached for her hand. “The Vulcan admits that the cliché is logical. Successive steps are the only way to travel—at least in this case.”
Facing him away from the cavern, she motioned for him to take a step back. “Count them, Sam. Don’t let the people in your head have any say.”
“One,” Sam said, the word wavering a little. “Two. Three. Four.”
She looked past him, over his shoulder, measuring the distance to the cavern. Before she could encourage him to keep counting, he broke the string of numbers.
“Loretta, I’m cold.” He stumbled, but she steadied him. “Hot and cold at the same time.”
Retrieving the scanner, she ran a non-contact sequence. “Your cellular structure hasn’t changed, and your temperature is the same.”
He frowned, then straightened his shoulders and took four more steps back. “How about now?”
“The same,” she said. “Try stepping back until you feel normal—approximately normal.”
“One. Two. Three. Four.” Sam paused and shook his head. “One. Two. Three. How about here?”
She glanced down at the scanner, and then at Sam’s feet. “Temperature still normal. Cells, no change. You’re very close to—”
He didn’t look down. “I think one more step should level out the temperature, at least psychologically. Ready?”
They moved together, her step forward and Sam’s step back, so they stood hand-in-hand just inside the cavern. Sam swayed slightly, but she caught him before he fell.
“So cold, so cold,” he whispered. “Why is it so cold?”
She felt her own fingers growing numb, but she fumbled for the scanner and initiated a contact sequence. The scanner settled on Sam’s palm, which had stopped glowing.
“I won’t let it have me,” Sam shouted. “The darkness can’t have me!”
The contact sequence ended. She lifted the scanner from Sam’s palm, but her other hand still held his. The faint aura of light around his fingers reappeared, a soft glow against the piercing glint of the ice around them.
“You can’t have me,” Sam said, looking over his shoulder to stare down the cavern. “You can’t have me, or Loretta—or anyone. You hear?”
The cavern echoed, and slivers of ice splintered off the walls, but Sam laughed.
“That’s right,” he said. “This may be a place of darkness, but not for me.”
Sam’s aura flashed—not a blinding glare of white light, but warm sunset light. She felt the heat flood through his hands into her numbed fingers. He laughed again and pulled her out of the cavern.
“The scanner?” he asked. His light faded slightly, but she could still see his grin.
She scrolled through the data and shook her head. “The cavern didn’t alter your cells, at least not substantially.”
His grin didn’t waver. “But my temperature’s steady, isn’t it?”
She re-read the data and nodded. “Your cells are still producing light, but they aren’t overheating. I can’t isolate the element, but the cavern must have altered them.”
Sam glanced back at the cavern. “I can see the outline of the cavern now, but it still looks like a black hole.” He turned back to her with a somber smile. “Enough to counteract the light without destroying it.”
“A stabilizing agent,” she added, dropping his hand and sliding across an ice patch. “Hey, I don’t need your hand to keep my fingers warm.”
He took a running leap and slid ahead of her. “I don’t think it’s permanent. The flash will hold it, but you’ll need your gloves soon.”
“No people-heating?” she teased, jumping from one patch of ice to the next.
He raced ahead, doubling back in a narrow curve. “I don’t think so. Multipurpose suits, complete with insulation, are here to stay. But—” At the edge of the ice patch, he stopped.
“Hey, what’s with the human wall?” she asked, her visor knocking against his back.
“I can see Dad and K’tor up ahead,” he said. “K’tor’s light—it’s going out.”
Inside her helmet, the communication link clicked. “Loretta, Sam,” the Commander said. “The Lucian is no longer stable, and I—”
“We’re coming, Dad,” Sam interrupted. “You’re in sight, and K’tor too.”
“The officers weren’t able to come down, Sam. The ice was too thick, and we—”
“Dad, don’t worry. I’m stable now, and I still have those Lucian perks. I’ll get you mobile in no time, K’tor too.”
“We’re gliding toward you like those old-fashioned skaters, Uncle Rob,” she added. “Count until we get there, okay? Don’t think, just count.”
“One. Two.” The Commander’s voice steadied. “Three. Four.”
They almost flew across the last stretch of ice. “Keep counting, Dad,” Sam said, sliding to a stop beside the Commander. “Loretta’s going to take your gloves, and I’ll—just wait.”
She unfastened the Commander’s gloves, and Sam took his father’s hands. His aura flashed and for a moment the sun seemed to set in the ice below the earth.
“How’s this for stable, Dad?” Sam asked. “Not so cold?”
The Commander shook his head. “Not cold at all,” he said. “I’m surprised the ice isn’t melting.”
K’tor’s light brightened, almost blinding her, but Sam didn’t flinch. She couldn’t follow the flood of Lucian words, and Sam held up a still-glowing hand.
“I have your light, but I do not have your words,” he said, shifting languages. “Is the light strong in you now?”
K’tor’s light flashed again. “Yes, the light is strong. But I do not understand, Sam. You went to the staying-place of the darkness, and still you have the light?”
Sam shook his head. “I do not understand, K’tor. Only that the darkness did not take me, and I have the light.” He looked from K’tor to Loretta, shifting back to his usual speech. “If I’m the world’s first human-Lucian hybrid—”
“A space cadet alien hybrid? That’s definitely a new entry for my panzoölogy index.” she said. “Sounds a bit like a superhero to me.”
He grinned. “Every superhero needs a sidekick. Are you volunteering?” When she made a face at him, he added. “I would really be like the Vulcan, half-Lucian and half-human.”
“Half-Lucian or not, you’re still a cadet,” the Commander intervened. “Hybrid status doesn’t guarantee a promotion—but saving a commander’s life just might.”
Sam shook his head. “Only if you say so, sir. I can do plenty, even as a cadet.”
Loretta couldn’t help smiling as she translated the conversation for K’tor.
“Yes, Sam will do much,” he said, his light flaring. “The Lucians who have little light, from the staying-place of the dark, he will bring them his light. And he will do even more than this—you will see.”
The Commander smiled. “I’m sure you will, Robinson—and do it carefully.”
Sam grinned. “Of course, sir. If I wasn’t careful, where would I be today?”
“I can think of several safer places,” she interjected. “Earth, for example.”
“Earth?” he echoed. “Where’s the adventure there? I’d rather be a Lucian on GT-937.”
“Well, isn’t that lucky?” She pulled him into a hug, light aura and all. “Because that’s exactly where you are.”