I had less than twenty-four hours to talk him out of it. Watching him across the table, I could feel the faith in my ability to do so dwindling. Howe wore an expression of utter implacability that I knew I could never shift. No matter what I said now, there would be no difference to the result. My usual way — knowing exactly the wrong moment to talk.
“You could always — ” I began.
“No.” And thus, the debate closed.
I glanced up at the hourglass. The reminder that the decision had to be made, that time was running down, running out. Of the contract on the captain’s desk, signed by both participants, legally binding unless proven invalid. The prospect of the agreement to be fulfilled.
Seconds in duels conducted by pilots of the Polarin Aerial Fleet were allowed only one kind of interference: to try and talk combatants out of their folly, or to watch as time ran out and they went to their deaths. This was thought to be a way of reducing the number of frivolous challenges. It had had virtually no effect. If people like Howe are given the legal means to throw themselves into unnecessary mortal peril, they will not hesitate, in my experience, to do so. I maintain that one can’t teach someone a lesson by ensuring that they die, but then, I volunteered for this position, which undermines that point. With one short enough lifetime to spend on whatever pleased me, I had no time for legalities.
Not that I had time for anything right now. I was getting distracted, and the problem wasn’t going away. Until tomorrow, when it would be dealt with permanently. I thought of the duelling ground, the expanse of smooth ice behind the auroral engine-chargers. In winter, it would be the deep blue-black of the sky. Auroras shimmering through. Not a bad way to go, I had to admit. Those brilliant dancing lights would blow out the flare of the pistols, the snow would devour the gunpowder.
The subtle shifting of the liquid within the hourglass snapped me out of it. A fine way to go, sure, but there was no need for them to die at all.
* * *
But I should back up a little. Why had it started? That was more the question. I still couldn’t satisfy myself as to an answer, at least not as to how it had escalated so fast. I knew that the quarrel between Howe and Brin, his opponent, had existed since their earliest acquaintance, and was apt to resurface on important occasions. Their first captain had favoured Brin; our current captain, Flint, did not, and this fuelled the fire. The challenge itself had been issued over a particular instance, one that was seared into both of our memories, and clearly had given him enough sleepless nights to become reckless. That this had been in part my own fault was something I was studiously trying to ignore, while I worked on a plan to save him.
I now considered sabotage: I had heard of seconds who did desperate things, who knocked their friends on the head, or drugged them, or tied them up in the holds of ships bound southward. Three arguments dissuaded me from this course. For one thing, he would be furious, but furious with himself and Brin, not with me. For another, I would not have risked doing him real damage, which would have been inevitable if I knocked him out or any such tactic. If I tried anything, it would have to be along a different tack.
The thought of sending Howe out of harm’s way did tempt me. As our UltraLights could not fly beyond the auroral belt, there were often ships bound for the south. I’d never been down there, my flights being confined to the communities along the coast, the edge of the tundra, and the ice-floating cities beyond them. Howe had been as far south as the Seal Isles, on a rare solo flight. It was one of the perks of having the captain’s good opinion.
This had come in part because of natural skill; Howe was an excellent pilot and navigator. Much of it came down to luck, as well, and I say that with the utmost respect for Howe’s abilities. He took risks, they worked out. It wasn’t that way for all of us. I had been made cautious by experience, having made miscalculated risks, or mistakes that had resulted in misfortune. The balance of poor judgment and ill luck seemed to make little difference to Flint, who believed luck was of a pilot’s own making. I had joined the fleet two years after Howe, and we had flown several missions together, delivering trade goods and relaying messages, or carrying naturalists and diplomats over the pole. The only adventure that we had shared, if one could call it that, was one of utter chance. A flurry of snow had erupted from the ground, far off on the horizon but making the earth and ice shake, and we were the pilots chosen to investigate. As we approached, Howe got on his radio to warn me to stop, come to land. I’d run up to Howe’s plane as it glided to an awkward landing ahead of us, and he jumped out. I’d glanced inside — his equipment was out of alignment, the symptom of some great magnetic disturbance. Our eyes met. He was thinking the same thing.
“We should bring a piece back.” Magnetite was valuable to the engineers, fascinating to the naturalists, and rare enough to be in constant demand.
“In which plane? Neither of us brought anything to protect the equipment, we can’t carry magnetite.” Compasses were our lives, Flint had told us since the beginning.
“Not a plane. A sled.”
“We’ve no dogs.” We did have a sled, collapsible, on board, but it was supposed to be for emergencies only.
“Well, we can pull it ourselves.” Howe’s stubbornness, when faced with solving a problem, was intense and immovable. I usually supported his plans wholeheartedly, but in this case, I was starting to feel he was taking it a bit far. (I had, at the time, no idea how easy I had it.)
“Pull a sled? All the way back to the hangar? And, what, leave our planes here?”
He nodded, an almost comical full-body motion when his face was all but hidden by the fur ruff of his parka. “The mechanics will have to take a look at my plane, anyway. There’s no risk. We’ll just ask them to send someone out.”
I assessed the terrain. It was even, solid ice of a sort that would make the task of pulling a sled fairly easy. We were well dressed and had rations in our planes, which we could take out and enjoy on our walk. Both of us were undaunted at the prospect of distance, of exertion and cold.
There was no reason not to.
“Well,” I found myself saying. “How hard can it be?”
* * *
I could probably blame the magnetite for the duel, now that I think about it; most of what followed was tied to it in one way or another. We’d been hailed with three cheers when we returned, by the engineers and naturalists who had been waiting in hopeful suspense since we departed. They were thrilled to hear their suspicions confirmed, even more so to take the heavy lump of metal off our hands. We left them chittering excitedly about its extraterrestrial origins, its enormous potential, and grinned at each other over our hot chocolates.
Sometimes an image, irreversibly tied to some subsequent event, takes on a peculiar sweetness of its own, which it wouldn’t have developed if everything hadn’t gone to hell. I could claim that was the case with Howe and me and our hot chocolates, steam curling through an empty mess hall. Just us and our brilliant adventure, the only people in the world.
Then the consequences. Two weeks later. We were gearing up for a mail run, when the call came in that a pilot had gone missing coming back from a long distance flight. Howe and I exchanged an anxious glance — more than anything, to make sure we were both still there — but it was Brin who had flown into bad weather, forcing him to land. He’d sent coordinates, and his plane was not badly damaged, but the ice-field was still a dangerous place to be alone.
We volunteered to fly the mission at once, setting off before the mechanics could even arrive. From the start, luck wasn’t with us. The weather was getting worse, with whirlwinds of snow playing about the ice-field beneath us. We lost radio contact only a few hours out, as another squall whipped through, and for a brief second all I saw was Howe’s plane, disappearing into the flurry of white, seemingly devoured by the whirlwind, walls of snow on either side.
In spite of Flint’s order to keep to the charted course no matter what, I left my flight path to search for him. One missing pilot was bad enough. What I hadn’t realised was that in turning slightly, I would put myself right in the path of the same snow squall, and in a few moments I was upended by it, floating for what could have been minutes or days in a vortex of cold. I don’t remember much about the rest of it. I was in control of everything throughout, except somehow the navigation and steering. It could have carried me into the side of a mountain or out to sea, and the great absurdity of it was that had I carried on along our initial route, the squall would have passed to the south and we would both have continued unharmed. I hadn’t seen Howe’s plane dodging swiftly to the side, by sheer luck and good timing avoiding the worst of the storm.
When I emerged, I heard the crackle of the radio returning, and I signalled as quickly as I could to Howe, to the airfield. No answer. My equipment had been knocked about fiercely, and without a mechanic, there was no way to fix it. I could only try to determine, with malfunctioning equipment and disoriented enough that I was almost bound to miscalculate, how to return to the intended route. There was no sign of Howe, and my fears seemed for a moment confirmed — until the minute I was over open water, and against the black ocean his silver plane showed like the back of a whale. He had come back, had left the flight path in search of me. But the delay of the squall — the detour to find me — the damage to my equipment — meant that we would have to return to the airfield, leaving Brin where he was.
As we landed and disembarked, voices buzzed into my brain like a radio tuning back in. Howe’s voice relaying the failure of the mission to Flint, who barked commands to another pair waiting nearby. I couldn’t, or at least I couldn’t seem to speak, though I desperately wanted to explain, to tell her that I had been trying to help. We had been trying to help. It wasn’t enough.
It was at the evening watch that the second rescue party returned, with Brin weary but hale, but relief was short-lived. Flint gave him the briefest of explanations before sending him to the mess hall for a hot meal. I was caught between trying to avoid him, and wishing to tell him we had done our best. Too late, I realised, hearing my name from one of the tables.
“ … should be dismissed from the fleet,” Brin was saying. “Never seen the like.”
“Drop it, Brin,” someone cautioned. “Navigational problems happen to everyone.”
“Especially to people who like to play with magnetite,” he growled, but let it go for the moment. I left the mess hall to find Howe, who was still alone and shouldn’t have been.
What exactly Flint had told Brin, I did not know. She had barely addressed me or Howe since our return, and I had assumed this was to do with there being more important things for her to deal with, such as the second pair of rescue pilots returning successfully.
* * *
The last thing I wanted to do — apart from confronting Brin, and I’d done a fine job of keeping out of that so far — was talk to Howe about the failed rescue mission. This was partly my own guilt, and partly the knowledge that he was taking it even harder. We each kept to ourselves the next day, and it wasn’t until the day following that anything happened. It was a clear twilit day, all the planes out in the field, engines charging with auroral energy. I was getting ready to set off on a mail run. So far that morning no one had said much about what had happened, nor repeated any rumours, though Brin’s expression could have seared through ice.
I strapped on my snow goggles, the metal of the clasp cold against my skin. I handed Howe my flight plan in case anything went awry. Then I climbed into the cockpit, wishing I’d given him a severe look before putting the goggles on.
“Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.” He’d never been good at following instructions. I left with a dark feeling in the more sensible part of my mind.
I was, to my displeasure, quite right. I’d come back to find him surrounded by a knot of fellow pilots, various degrees of surprise, horror, and indignation on most of their faces. I leapt from my plane and ran to him, aware of all eyes on me. But it wasn’t the place to discuss it. Leading him away by the arm, I whispered, “What did I tell you?”
He shook his head. “There wasn’t another answer for it. He wasn’t trying to get under my skin, he picked his moment too well, he was trying to have you dismissed.”
“Dereliction of — ”
“The hell with dereliction of duty!” I said, a little too loud. He jumped. It was then that I saw that this had not been a rash decision, nor a stupid one, even, but an act of desperation and calculated self-defence. Or, rather, friend-defence. It was good of him. I hated that.
“I’m sorry,” he said evenly, forcing me to lower my own voice again. “He accused you in front of everybody. Told them he was going straight to Flint. Said you’d kept a bit of magnetite in your pocket and sabotaged your navigational equipment, that we’d brought it back to get out of flying dangerous missions. If no one defended you, you could have been dismissed.”
Magnetite was the tool of the deserter, or so we had been told. It left no trace upon navigational equipment and so could easily be used to get temporarily, deliberately lost, and making it look like an innocent malfunction. I had never known anyone to actually desert, but several such rumours had circulated around the fleet. I had not thought at the time that our finding the magnetite would be cast as suspicious.
“Well, I can prove it now. Rescind the challenge. Let me talk to Brin.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. You know it’s not that easy, we’ve signed the contract.”
“Couldn’t you have explained to Flint? Brin wasn’t there, he couldn’t know, he’s just throwing out stupid insults because he’s angry. You could’ve told her all of that.”
There was no way of proving my innocence. I had been alone in the plane. Howe — well, everyone knew that he would be willing to lie for me. The fact that we hadn’t waited for the mechanics looked even worse, leaving no one on the ground who could speak for us.
“What do you think she’d do if she knew what happened? We both disobeyed orders, Vance. But that’s not the point — we both tried to complete the mission, and Brin lied about it. You weren’t back yet. I had to make a choice.” You had to make my choice for me, you mean. I left it unsaid, but my anger was growing. He’d made the same decision on the mission. If he had carried on, had gone to collect Brin before looking for me — I stopped myself there, realising that I had done the same. At the time it had seemed reasonable.
It was then that I blurted out the fatal words. “I’ll be your second.” As though it were an inconvenience only. Softening the blow, I added, “Of course.”
“Thank you.” I think he was surprised. No reason to be, but it was always like that with Howe.
After an hour’s failed persuasion, I lapsed into silence. I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I didn’t notice that Howe had left, and Brin appeared, until I looked up to find the latter lurking in the doorway. I covered my surprise as best I could, pretending that I had been intending to spring up from the table and knock my bench over. He on the other hand remained irritatingly cool.
“Vance. Good to see you’re talking some sense into him.”
Not how I had expected him to begin. “If you’re here to gloat, you might as well leave. I was just about to.” I went to pick up the bench with as much dignity as I could muster.
“You think I want to fight this duel any more than he does? Don’t be ridiculous. This wasn’t my idea.”
“Doesn’t matter whose idea it is. It was a stupid one. But you’re wrong about one thing — if you don’t want to fight this duel, you’ll have to be the one to call it off.” It struck me that I had no idea what he thought he would get out of this — vindication, the captain’s favour, or merely the chance to take out his resentment towards Howe in legally acceptable fashion. It had to be the latter: while it had not been his idea, he must have known where his accusation would lead.
Still, I could not tell whether he honestly believed we had deserted him deliberately.
He stayed in the doorway, making no move to either enter or leave, and against my better judgment I felt the need to break the silence. That was Brin, though — he had the uncanny ability to get other people to say more than they intended. If he hadn’t been a pilot, he could have been the more dangerous kind of lawgiver. And so he stayed silent until I blurted out, “If neither of you wants to do this, why not tell Flint you were mistaken?”
He laughed. The least encouraging sound he could have made. “No.” As firm as Howe, but with an edge of mockery to it that set my teeth on edge. “Even if I wanted to take it back, I’d have to consider how that would look. Besides, I haven’t mistaken anything.” A conspicuous glance at the hourglass, and he was gone.
I was left alone again. The mess hall, vast as it was, had started to seem suffocatingly small. I stepped outside, and before I quite knew where I was going, I was at the duelling ground, just beyond the bounds of the floe edge. A ridge of broken ice separated it from the airfield, shielding it from view.
Duels on an ice floe. Only we Polarins would think that up. Still, we had done so with style, polishing the duelling ground until it shone with the eerie gleam of ice beneath the winter sky, shimmering with auroras, suspending our steps above a pool of stars.
I wasn’t the one who would be taking my place here tomorrow morning, but I paced the ice as if it were mine to pace, evaluating each step and leaving soft brush-strokes from my boots.
Midnight. Time was running out. It was in that mood that I sank down to the ice, hoping against hope that no one would see me as I cast myself down to lie on it face-first, like a fool.
No such luck. There was suddenly someone beside me, kneeling, a hand on my back. Then a voice.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
Howe. The last person I wanted to see me. The last person I wanted to look at or speak to, unless it were to sway him from this course of action.
“Go away,” I murmured, not looking up.
He stayed where he was.
“I’m quite serious,” I went on. “I cannot stand to think about you. I’m only doing it now because you won’t do what I’m begging you to do and just leave me alone.”
He sat on the pool of stars, as alone as I had ever seen him, staring straight ahead. “I didn’t do this for you.” I twitched a little at his honesty. He went on: “I didn’t want you being dismissed.
By rights I should be dismissed. But I wanted to remind him that he cannot rashly accuse — ”
He broke off, a sign, in his case, of high emotion. I let him collect his thoughts. “I didn’t want the others to think he could get away with those lies.”
“Lies? Like you said, I disobeyed orders.”
“Not because you wanted to get out of flying. You didn’t go barrelling into a snow squall deliberately, you were looking for me. For what it’s worth, it was no worse judgment than mine was — you thought it was for the best.” And yet you feel responsible, I added to myself, for being the reason I did something that stupid.
“But I could’ve talked to Flint.”
“Not before Brin got there. And if Flint believed him, what would’ve happened?”
“There had to be a better bloody way.” His mouth quirked into a smile, and I glared back. “You know what I mean. A better, less bloody way.”
“What would you have done, had it been me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well.” He let out a long, slow breath, and it struck me that he was afraid, just not in the same way that I was, or for the same cause. He was afraid of where this left us, afraid that in these final hours before the duel, I genuinely did hate him. Though I still could not look at him, I said softly, “I’m sorry. I don’t blame you, actually, contrary to all appearances.” He laughed — warm and pleasant sound — and remarked, “I never would have guessed.”
* * *
I would like, for the record, to dispel a notion that I fear will follow me to the end of my days. We weren’t best friends because I liked him better than anyone else. Everyone liked him. No, we were close because I knew what he was like, how stubborn and melancholic he could be, how much each flight cost him in stress and worry, his diffidence, his doubts, how unpleasant, in short, he could be at his worst, and how much pleasure he took from small kindnesses, how easily I could make him laugh. And in return, I gave him my nameless worries, my desire to raise my status in the captain’s eyes. It was a partnership of strength to weakness, weakness to strength, as two magnets to each other. That our flights were nearly always successful and prompt, our mechanics happy and our machines well-kept, caused many to attribute our friendship to mutual skill. But that kind of friendship does not make people do this kind of thing.
What would you have done, had it been me? What else could I do? Ask Brin to apologise? I’d tried to explain myself, and it hadn’t worked. It was my word against that of a more experienced pilot, the one who had been the injured party.
What would I have done? Left the fleet, left Polaris, sought out a new life in the south. But that would have proven Brin’s lies correct, and besides, what else would I do? I had been a pilot ever since I had told my parents that I did not like to hunt. They had shrugged and told me that they figured as much. I was terrible at it. I’d always had my head in the clouds, and if I wanted the rest of my body to go and join it, that was no great surprise. I had been sent to Flint for training, and she had, ever since, been my captain. I did not know how to be anything else. My UltraLight, green and silver in the sun, was the only accomplishment of which I was proud.
Lawgiving, my father’s profession, I knew little of. Hunting, my mother’s enterprise, even less. Yet I knew that the contract was legally binding unless the principals backed down or the original challenge was found to be invalid, and I knew that anyone with hunting experience, as Brin had, would be an inconveniently excellent shot. Neither of those facts was likely to get myself or Howe out of this, but they might prove useful in persuading him. Or perhaps, I thought, an idea striking me, persuading someone else entirely.
* * *
“Vance. Come in.” Flint never looked up from her early-morning paperwork. I tentatively stepped inside, a little worried that I’d heard wrong, the longer she sat writing without a single sign that she had noticed my presence.
“Captain — ”
“One moment.” Finishing the signature, she looked up. “What is it?”
“Captain, I have to speak to you about the duel.”
“You are Howe’s second, are you not? Any matters to do with the duel ought to be taken up with the principals. My involvement consists solely of drawing up the contract.” Her tone of voice made clear her opinion of the custom.
“I would like to question the legality of that contract.” Imitating my father, and not well.
“It is a straightforward matter,” she replied shortly. “Brin accused an absent pilot of dereliction of duty. Your principal challenged him to retract his statement, which he refused to do. Howe called him out on for slander.”
This would be the moment, I knew, to speak my speech, but my mouth was hopelessly dry. I coughed several times before I could even begin. Flint had the effect of making subordinates believe themselves hopelessly outmatched before even starting.
“That would be the trouble,” I said, as confidently as I could. “The facts of the story are true, but the details are mistaken. My plane did break radio contact, causing our rescue mission to be unsuccessful. My navigational equipment was damaged. I must have had some of the magnetite in my pocket by mistake.”
To my surprise, she observed me keenly for some moments before asking, “Are you sure that’s what happened?”
“What if it would make no odds as to this contract?”
I had no reply. She rolled up the paper, tapped the desk with it. “I thought not.”
“Legally you are now obliged — ”
“I know full well my legal obligations.” Incredible, really, that the one time my captain had taken notice of me was when she thought I was being phenomenally dense.
“Time is — ”
“I know that too.” A swift, piercing glare. I physically flinched. “If you are sure about this, there is nothing I can do to stop you. But you should know there’s no undoing it.”
“Quite sure.” I didn’t flinch this time. I’m nothing if not stubborn.
“Then. So be it.” She took the contract, crumpled it, put it on the fire. “You’ll stay on the fleet. But you’ll have to be transferred at the earliest opportunity, as an example. It’s a sorry business all round, and should never have been carried this far. Tell Howe and Brin to come to my office as soon as possible. No, tell them immediately.” She paused. “I always figured you’d come to trouble.” As I retreated, I could have sworn I saw her fish in her desk for a light.
And there was Howe, already outside the office, as though he had known.
“What did you do?” Pleasing, that. He now knew how I had felt on hearing of the challenge. Asked the question, though he already knew the answer.
“The duel is off,” I told him. “Legal troubles.”
“What did you do?” I’d never seen him this angry with me before, and it felt so, so satisfying. “I cancelled the duel. Try thanking me, for saving your life.” He was dumbstruck, and I could understand why. He had a rather different understanding of who was saving whom in this situation.
“You can’t … ” You can’t leave. And for the most fleeting second, I had a pang of doubt. I was doing him wrong, leaving like this, leaving his own future uncertain. Leaving him with Brin, and under the cloud of rumour that was bound to build up around this.
“Howe. It’s the only way. I’m not leaving the fleet, I’m being sent to another station, that’s all.”
“You — what?”
“She knew I was lying. But she can’t contradict me — she let me confess full responsibility for my plane’s damages and my absence from the mission, and face the consequences. It’s better than letting you get yourself killed.”
He was silent, either impressed or gobsmacked, didn’t matter which. Then he swept me into a hug, shocking us both.
“I’m going to miss you, Vance.”
“Yeah. You too. Howe — don’t do anything stupid.” I wasn’t sure I could say much more, what with the sudden constriction in my throat. He, on the other hand, kept talking, afraid, for the second time in as many days, of where this left us. I let him continue, though that hardly mattered yet. For that brief moment, once again, we were the only people in the world.
Dear Editors, I write to send a story for your consideration, titled “The Second,” with a word count of 4995. I hope that it will be enjoyed. My previous work has been published in Augur Magazine (April 2020), Lighthouse Digest (May 2019), and Queer Sci-Fi (August 2019). I have been awarded second place in the Gregory J. Power Student Poetry Contest (2020), first place in the Íslendingadagurinn Open Prose Prize (2019), second place in the Helen Schaible International Sonnet Contest (2019), and first place in the Íslendingadagurinn Open Poetry Prize (2017). I have also been a runner-up for the Chatterton250 prize hosted by the Keats-Shelley Association of America (2020). Again, I hope that my story will be enjoyed, and thank you for the chance to submit it. Sincerely, – Karin Murray-Bergquist