Sofita sensed her anxiety. “We’re out of the fusaxica zone, Dox!”
“Uymtik packs roam the perimeter,” she yelled back. “They won’t come into the soft snow, and we can just dig our way through it.”
Marixi loved tunneling through snow, but this one hated uymtiks.
Ramaxia had engineered a breed of predatory polar bears called fusaxica after the KB Trench construction tripled the penguin population. Overbreeding among these bears led to the creation of a pack-minded canid called the uymtik.
Uymtiks struggled with citizenry-surface boundaries and often hunted femmar for sport. For every alpha killed trying to take down a powerful fusaxica den-queen, another met its end by way of a surface scout’s palm blaster.
Sofita stopped running when the snow reached her knees.
“We need to make the Fairgrounds by midnight!”
“Fairgrounds!” Dox exclaimed, winded. “That’s over two days on foot!”
Sofita closed her eyes and stood firm against the wind.
“Kul, no!” Dox cried, her voice fading as she sprinted away.
Their room is alive with an electronic beat.
Sofita’s fingers move over the keyboard, playing along with one of Fusada’s favorite songs. Neither notice Fusa enter until the brute pushes the dancing marixidoe aside and, without warning, strikes Sofita.
The spheres in her flesh quaked.
Fusa stands over her, eyes wet with pure delight.
Around her neck, Fusada’s small arms suddenly snake out, twisting with murderous intent. Teeth together, Fusa falls backward, slamming her marixidoe against the floor and trapping beneath her powerful back.
Sofita screamed, her fury echoing on the wind.
Fusada thrashes beneath her kerma, not to be free but to keep the large marix down long enough for her to run away. Only, she doesn’t run away. She rushes at Fusa and lands a kick to the older bully’s frontal.
Heat exploded from Sofita’s feet and curled its way up her legs.
Fusa’s fingers latch onto her ankle, and when the brute stands, she yanks the five-year-old into the air by her foot and then smacks her little body against the floor as one would blunt a seal upon the ice.
Fully transformed, Sofita hovered above the white and found that the young marix made healthy ground during the Shell’s ignition.
A thought sent her charging through the wind, and when she caught up, she scooped Dox up under her arm and blasted off over the tundra. The breakneck speed caused the Donmat to pass out before they covered hundreds of miles within minutes.
Sofita slowed within sight of the arena’s curved stained-glass walls.
“Remember the ’89 Finals, ‘Fita?”
Sofita deposited Dox onto the snow and recalled the day her seven-year-old self opened the front door to a smiling Pel Ru. The sugary subak often visited since the demise of their cherished caregiver, Bilo Balru.
The twins had spent their first two years roaming the grounds naked, unkempt, and fed when the bizaki kitchen staff worked their shift. Pel had urged bond partner Rasa Jyr to convince Fusa to hire a caregiver, playing to her marix sensibilities by suggesting Fusa couldn’t spend her days raising donats.
Pel arrived that day knowing Fusa would be absent, and finding the twins returned to their former state of neglect, she bathed and dressed them before corralling them into her transport, still waiting outside. Inside the vehicle sat Laxum, Pitana, and the pretty zaxiridoe, Pitasa. Pel styled Sofita’s hair on the surface ride while an unusually docile Fusada sat subdued by Pitasa’s charms.
The podcresting final proved exciting for Fusada and Pitasa.
Pel, sensing the young hizaki disenchantment, marched the trio up to her clan’s elegant observation suite and arranged for a late-night meal; that time with Pitana and Laxum made Sofita feel like a true hizak.
Face-down in the snow, Dox began to rouse as Sofita powered down.
“Give it a few moments,” she advised when her underling tried to stand.
Dox wavered on her feet before falling to all fours.
“Did you have to carry me like I’m a doe-doe!”
A blaring horn signaled the end of an Isurus Relay and sent Sofita and Dox scurrying behind a lofty snowbank. They set off east over the white, leaving behind the exiting crowds. After a time, Dox began trotting backward.
“Did you catch the podcresting finals in Gurtat?” she asked.
Sofita shook her head. “Did you know that helovx regard podcresting as the most violent sport played by women?”
“I didn’t know women podcrested,” she grinned.
“They consider us, women, Dox.”
“Well, that’s stupid,” she quipped.
Sofita caught up so that the Donmat could run facing forward.
“Which teams hunted for primacy this year?”
“Vanda and Utama,” said Dox.
“The Primaries made it to Week Six?”
“I know, right? Utama hasn’t made a final since the Ninth got here,” the young marix laughed. “But the Meg’s ended up spanking them, 43 to 9.”
“I haven’t been to a match in over twenty-two years.”
“That’s longer than I’ve been alive!” Dox exclaimed. “The way you look at bizzies, I figured you’d be at the Fairgrounds every day,”
“No time away from Orta, Donmat,”
“You can’t live on duty all the time, Kul,” she said.
“I’m the only hizak in uniform,” Sofita reminded. “Duty is my life.”
“Kul, you’re the only one able to make the Shell work,” she countered. “You can tell Orta to ride off if you want.”
“I did tell them to ride off once. Now I,” Sofita brought her fingers up and curled them to make quotes, “Hunt hybrids.”
She followed Dox over hills of pack snow, created thousands of years before the impact. Here, the icy wind invigorated her hide. Down the incline appeared a time-ravaged sign marking Antarctica’s last human settlement.
All that remained of Camp Vostok was a buried metal foundation and two rooms with broken walls. Just beyond the decaying structure lay the widened borehole that gave rise to her their species. Two half-shell barriers marked its opening, where well-meaning bizaki had carved narrow steps into the ice.
Sofita descended carefully with her fingers dug into its icy walls. When she noticed halfway down that Dox wasn’t behind her, she yelled out the marix’s name. A bald head peeked over the opening.
“I can keep a lookout, Komad!” Dox called down.
“Get down here, Donmat!” she growled, assessing a drop-off past the last step.
Sofita hopped into the thick slush, cracking a thin coating that shielded it beneath her bare feet. Bits of ice poked at the webs between her toes, but the chill on her ankles felt like paradise.
Behind her, Dox tumbled off the drop, cursing when she hit the slush, knees first. Pitch dark set in the deeper they traveled into the crevasse, but an inborn night vision allowed views that light couldn’t touch.
A half-mile down then came upon a glowing grotto, and when she inquired of its color, Dox sulked and claimed it gray, like everything else down there.
Sofita sat upon its slick, ice-covered bank before trudging waist-deep in its flow. The stream narrowed into a cave with cloying rock walls and low overhead. Higher water prevailed the deeper they walked, the numbing cold hardening her uzxi.
Dox snorted. “Kul?”
“No, my gash isn’t swelling.”
Dox sniggered. “Mine is!”
“I could’ve gone a surface night without knowing that, Dox.”
Sofita halted before a limestone wall and spotted a dull gray light shimming in the waters beneath it. She bent at the knees and went under, eyes searching the brackish tow for a navigable passage. She stroked way through the oxygen-deprived murk and arose within an ice-littered lagoon.
Dox sprang up as Sofita climbed out, and together they pulled themselves up the smoothed rockface with their fingers and toes, taking a much-needed moment upon reaching the top.
Beyond the overlook lay the subglacial womb that bore her species, an unhealed sore that spread for miles in the cavernous expanse. Miles above the Vosk’tulak, a dull glow radiated from the ice sheet, a subterranean sky atop its decaying splendor.