The Cold Beyond the Pools
The shining ones came and took us from the boiling acid pools. They choked us with chains and dragged us wailing from the warmth of our ancestral home. We didn’t know how to fight; the pools had always kept us safe. The shining ones lined us up, prodded us with spears, separated families as they grouped us into categories: the men, small, with plain brown shells; the children, pale, almost white, so terrified they stayed curled up tight into balls; and we, the females, the largest and most beautiful.
They made the females pull their carts. I was given the task of bearing their king on his throne—they could only see the beauty of my shell and strength of my limbs; they could not see that I was barren and without status. The king spoke to me often as we travelled, his cruel face full of patronizing admiration for my form. I did my best to shut out his shrill chittering, to keep my trembling legs moving forward. I was so, so cold. If I had known how to beg the king for warmth, I would have.
Our men followed behind in a herd, surrounded on all sides by the tips of spears. Their smaller bodies did not cope well with the temperature. Many of them collapsed, and the shining ones left them behind to dot the plains like boulders. The smaller shining ones played with our children, rolling them around, kicking them. I wondered how many of the children were still alive inside their shells and how many had succumbed to the cold like their fathers.
We walked for weeks. Without the acid of the pools to thin our shells, they grew grotesquely thick. The weight was unbearable. Hinges pinched and grew inward, slicing into our soft parts. The shining ones grew impatient with our slowing pace. We had been in the mountains for days, following a lava flow that ran far down in a ravine. The rising steam reminded me of our home in the pools, the familiar haze, the beautiful oranges and yellows and deep blues that had slickened the chalky earth. I could not feel the warmth rising from the lava through my shell, but the sight of the steam gave me hope. It reminded me that the pools were real, that I hadn’t dreamed them, that they were still there waiting to welcome us home.
I forgot myself and began to turn. The spears were on me in an instant, probing at my eyes, clicking off my shell. I did what they wanted and kept walking.
When the snows came, the shining ones used the last of the goats they ate, so they began to eat the few males who had resisted the cold. They took my mate—the one who had remained my mate, even knowing I couldn’t bear him young—and began to saw through his overgrown shell. I looked for his eyes, to see if he was afraid, to see him one last time, but his plates had grown over them. I called out to him, bellowing into the sky, but he didn’t answer, or if he did, I couldn’t hear him. They ate him in front of me, the king nodding his head noncommittally as though still deciding whether he liked the taste or not. I turned my eyes, watched the steam from the lava flow, watched the moons, and slowly, tear after tear, I locked my heart away.
In the morning, when the king climbed aboard and ordered me to move, I did; I pulled with all my might toward the ravine. The king stumbled, clutched his throne, and began shrieking orders to his men. They swarmed, striking me with their spears, but I felt nothing; my shell had grown too thick. I could hear the other females calling out to me, some begging me not to fight, some praising me for it; a few fought their restraints.
When I reached the precipice, I pulled my body into a ball, hinges creaking, skin tearing. My harness twisted with me, and many of the shining ones got tangled up in its straps and chains.
Then we were falling.
Then I was sinking.
The shining ones’ cries faded quickly, followed by the hiss of their frail bodies burning up on the surface of the lava and floating away with the steam. The sounds of battle began up above on the cliffs, but soon, even these were lost to the soothing rumble of boiling lava; it sounded like home.
Slowly, I felt my shell giving way. For a moment, I was warm again.
Steve grew up listening to his dad’s ghost stories and never recovered. He attended Uncle Orson’s Literary Boot Camp in 2009 and currently lives in Oklahoma in a small house full of girls. His stories have appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and others. His nonfiction blog posts have been featured by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.