“Two thousand, seven hundred and one hours until the next sunrise,” says a voice, childlike and ever-so-slightly stilted. A gray-white glow flares in the corner of the dark room, becomes and gradually redder. “Perhaps you should return to sleep.”
“Maybe,” says the boy in the bed. He sits straight up.
“Go, new question: how many hours until I have to be in class?”
The boy, no longer in the bed, has already begun the lengthy and many-layered process of getting dressed.
“Go, is anyone from my Notorious list logged on right now?” he says. “Or my parents?”
“I–I don’t have the answer to that question. Perhaps if I turned off my light, it would be easier for you to return to sleep?”
“Yes, Go, turn off the light.”
“Good night, Rin,” says the childlike voice as the red light fades.
Rin continues dressing. Darkness wells in the corners of the room, across the ceiling, over the cold glass sheet of the window. He can hear the sound of wind rattling the station’s walls. It is cold, has been cold, and seems like it will keep on being cold forever. He rubs his hands together and gets back into bed.
“Go, come over here. Can you warm me up?”
There is motion in the darkness, a near-inaudible whine of servos, and the patter of feet across the bedroom floor. Something small, pliant and homoncular, crawls over the edge of Rin’s bed and curls against him like a strangely obedient cat. Something inside radiates warmth, pulsing against the boy’s hand through velvety skin.
Rin’s eyes close. “Now, let me hear the something soothing. Maybe the far ULF bands.” Almost immediately the room is filled with soft static, an undulating white noise. The darkness of the room clutches the sound, turning it over with lightless fingers, pressing its warbling incoherence against the eye until deep brown and purple tendrils coil in time with the deep rumblings and grindings that the mind conjures from the noise. The static groans, breaths, gasps, and coughs against the wind, like the texture of a blank page when examined with a microscope. Rin lets himself fall into sound, into the night, lets his cheek press against Go, lets his mind wander the pathways etched there by random static of the world.
And at the moment of perfect relaxation, of regained warmth and contentment and in the place where dreams begin to tickle the five senses, that is when Rin hears that song of the whale.
There is a jolt like falling, and his legs jerk out from under the covers. He opens his eyes to find himself exactly where he should be. But the deep, molten notes of the whale are still there, faint yet strident. Warbling upsweeps wrapped in the churn and dark. Rin hears it, and he is cold again.
“Go, wake up,” Rin whispers.
Only static; only the song.
“Go, please wake up.” In the darkness there is the whine of servos.
“Perhaps you should be asleep,” says the childlike voice.
Rin releases a held breath. “Go, what is the probability of me being able to sneak out tonight?”
“Twenty to one.”
“What if I increase my stealth score by three?”
“Ten to one, I estimate.”
“And what if I get a critical success?”
“Perhaps three to one,” says Go, the faintest possible hint of exasperation hiding in its tone.
“Well, good enough,” Rin says. The wind rattles the walls.
* * *
In spite of the grim prognostications of Go, Rin and his companion were out the main entrance to the station within five minutes. Curfew enforcement, even in climes inhospitable, is not a priority for scientists who believe they were the only humans within two hundred miles. Frost crunches beneath the boy’s boots. The sky is a starry shell, and the wind seeks gaps in Rin’s gloves and coat.
“What do you want to do?” says Go. Rin is silent, watching. His fingers hurt, and he knows his toes will be next.
“I don’t know,” he responds after a time, voice hollow. “Perhaps I should just go to sleep.”
A wisp of green flutters in the corner of the sky. Rin spins around. It wavers and sinks, seeming to recede away from the station.
“The southern lights…” he says, trailing off. The wisp is nearly gone. Rin’s eyes harden, and he crunches across the ice after it. The pattering of Go follows him, but he is not paying attention. The greenish wisp, gradually becoming fringed with yellow, hovers on the edge of vision, slaloming between stars like a lost leaf. It splits and recombines, becoming more intense, then fading again. Rin walks faster, unblinking, putting one numbing foot in front of the other. The wisp has lengthened, becoming a rivery wall of motes blending and circulating green and yellow and red and blue and purple. It zigzags over a hill, past the horizon, and Rin’s breath catches. He sprints to the top of the hill and down the other side, following the flowing veil of colors and globules that outshine the stars, yet are even more ethereal.
Rin has seen the aurora australis before, but not like this. There is a coherence to the shapes in the sky that disturbs and excites him. He runs full speed and cannot seem to catch up to them, and finally trips over his own feet, crashing head-first into a drift of snow. He is near the edge of the shelf, where the tides still flow in and out. He lifts his head and in that instant the lights resolve into the tube-shaped body of an immense whale, ghost colors steaming off from it like his own breath, gliding through the airy night.
Slowly now, Rin stands and walks to the precipice of the ice, eyes never closing. The whale glides on, a graceful radiance. As it recedes, Go trots to his side. Rin extends his hand, and feels the warmth though his gloves.
“Go, start a new list called ‘things the whale said.’” The horizon is silent fire.
“List created,” Go says.
“Add ‘the cave.’”