It was warm and dark inside the tent, but the door parted, letting in the bright light of day. Estraven was there, holding the tent open with one hand.
“I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long,” they said, smiling, and it seemed to Genly that they had not been gone so long at all, that the apology was mere courtesy.
He tried to answer something, but words bobbed to the surface of his mind lazily, upside-down, without relation to each other. Instead, he only smiled back.
“Come out, now,” Estraven said pleasantly, and Genly did so, and stepped out into the snow. He expected it to be bone-breakingly cold, but it was warm like a late spring day in Ollul. The only thing that hurt was the whiteness of the snow, reflecting the sun of the cloudless sky. It made the eyes ache. The two of them stood by the beach of a lake. It was not frozen, but lapped gently at the shore.
Panic entered Genly for a second.
“You died,” Genly said. “Didn’t you die?”
“Oh,” he mumbled. No, of course not. Why had he asked if they were dead? How could he say something like that to a friend? “All right.”
“I’ve been at sea,” Estraven said, by way of explanation, and that made sense, because people could go to sea and be gone for ten years. Ten years? But they didn’t look changed.
“What was your business at sea?”
“Whales,” answered Estraven. “Hunting some, learning about them, talking to others.”
“But there aren’t whales on Gethen,” Genly said.
“No,” said Estraven, “No. That part was difficult. But I was among them. I reek of them. Come closer.”
Stepping closer, into each other’s breathing space, Genly found that they were right. Estraven smelled like a cat’s mouth, but there was nothing repulsive about it. He drew closer still, and Estraven placed their hands on his chest, bringing the two of them chest to chest, so that Genly was looking directly into their deep, almost black-brown eyes. They gestured for him to bow his head and kissed his forehead when he did. They nibbled on his eyebrow, brushing his skin with a small, raspy tongue. What?
“I’m sorry, she’s figured out your doorknob—door-handle, I mean,” said Connonney, Genly’s roommate. Connonney was a postgraduate student, Alterran by extraction but raised here on Ollul. The “she” in question was a heavyset Terran tabby called Elpizomai, “pizza” for short. She had gotten into Genly’s bedroom and onto his chest while he slept.
He didn’t want to be rude to the cat, but she had intruded on him and on the intimacy of his sleeping mind. When he lifted her off his bed and put her on the ground, he did not reward her with pats or scritches.
“It is your turn to feed her, is all,” Connonney said. “She knows that, somehow, I think. It’s amazing what cats can—” he stopped, and looked Genly in the face. Connonney couldn’t bear eye contact—among his family, eye contact had always been considered a feature of corpses and fish, not of human beings—but occasionally made himself do it around other people. His face softened a bit in what looked like pity or affection. Genly didn’t know how his own face looked. Not good, since it had given the other man pause. He had only just woken up and hadn’t had the time to put on the everyday masks of living.
“You sleep all right, man?” Connonney asked, which was the closest he could come to asking what he meant to ask.
“Well enough,” Genly said, which didn’t mean anything at all.
After getting done the various things that have to be done in the mornings, he set out to the Churten Field Labs of Port of Ollul.
Port of Ollul was a university city. It had twelve of them, thirteen if you counted the Philosophical Institute, but they considered themselves something else. The white streets of the city were wide, but carless, collonaded with trees. People got around by foot, pedal, or mobility hovscoot. Genly walked.
The Churten Field Labs were an anthill of physicists working on a theory of instantaneous transport. Churten was travel between two places without any distance. No time elapsed. No experience. It was not a drive. It was not an effect. The churten theory marked a renaissance in Cetian physics, a marriage between Temporalism and Neo-Intervallism, and it was Genly’s job to put that into words that made sense to people outside the mathematical sciences. He was not a physicist, after all. Words were his material.
He had wondered, more than once, if his post at the Field Labs was not a mercy position given to a poor, middle-aged, half-frozen former envoy who wouldn’t be of much use elsewhere, and had once phrased the question in a far less pitiful manner, but the director of the labs, a Cetian woman called Artewa Rueui, had clapped him heartily on the back and assured him that he was here to help them beat the churten labs at Ve Port and Hain. Good communications were the key to coming out on top, she said.
If you worked in anything connected to the Ekumen, most of the Cetians you met were Anarresti. The lab director wasn’t. She was Urrasti, from A-Io, but didn’t look it, because she grew out her light, downy fur and dressed simply. Nevertheless, you could tell that she wasn’t from Anarres the moment she opened her mouth, because instead of decrying competition as egoizing, she encouraged it, and made it her way of life. She said she had a nemesis in Ve Port, another Cetian, one Dr. Gvonesh. From what it sounded like, the other woman had barely heard of her, and the petty enmity was completely one-sided. Talking to Dr. Rueui for too long about anything besides physics made Genly depressed.
On his way into the Field Labs, he checked his pigeonhole for printouts of ansible messages from Sorve Harth, his friend and Estraven’s only child of the flesh.
The young man was forty-seven now, slightly older than Genly, because they had stayed on the planet and Genly had left. It was seventeen light years from Gethen to Ollul. Genly had not aged, while Sorve had been twenty-six when Genly’s ship left and forty-three when it landed. They had spent eleven of those years working with the Ekumenical embassy in Ehrenrang, and the other six in Estre, ruling as hearth-lord after their grandmother’s successor Detres Harth retired.
The pigeonhole was empty this time. No news from Gethen today.
Genly had parted from Sorve on good terms, or on good enough terms. He had invited them to come with him to other worlds, but Sorve had refused. They had wanted to know and learn about other worlds, but not to abandon Gethen. What good is it to gain other worlds and lose your own? Sorve had been very shaken by Lang Heo Hew’s going-away party. She was leaving for Hain, which made seventy years’ travel by planetary time. No one at the party would ever hear from her again. Despite the festive tone, it was a funeral in life, by Sorve’s account. It takes a certain kind of person to travel by ships nearly as fast as light. Sorve had decided they were not that kind of person. They knew where their life was centered. Their thoughts could go anywhere in the universe but their soul could only be built in Karhide.
One of the last conversations they’d had with Genly in person was about how they’d changed their plans, and intended to continue with their Ekumenical studies without going to space.
Genly had asked if they were going back to Estre, but the tone had come out wrong and Sorve had bristled. As their face stiffened and closed, he felt like when someone knocks a glass of water from a table for the split second between when it tips and when it smashes on the ground. In that split second, nothing can be done but watch and regret the imminent consequences.
“For the spring holiday, yes,” said Sorve, “and then I’ll come back to Ehrenrang. It’s the thaw. I’m going to see my grandmother and my hearthkin. Did you hear that Detres Harth is Lord of Estre now? My grandmother has not been well, and I asked my Hearth not to consider me for the position yet, because I wanted to continue with the Ekumen’s work here. But as a stabile, not a mobile.”
Genly had not replied.
“My mother would be proud of me,” Sorve said defiantly.
“Your mother would have been very proud of you, Sorve. I’ve never wished to imply otherwise.”
“Thanks,” Sorve answered, brusque but disarmed, heart half-open.
Two months after that, and fortunately on mended terms, Genly was on a ship to Ollul. The two of them had kept in touch. Sorve had never had much faith in their own ability to write letters, but still sent regular updates on Gethen, Estre, and their own life. Sorve had neither borne nor sired children, but had adopted their kemmering’s children as their own. Genly sent back updates about his work on Ollul, and about his roommate’s cat. They weren’t much, but Sorve welcomed them.
The work itself was getting on well. The lab had succeeded in churtening live fish, Terran cats, and Hainish gholes from one building to the next. Dr. Rueui herself had made it, churtening around Ollul in six skips. The only time it took was setting up one skip to the next, between skips, there was no time at all.
“It’s fantastic,” she said. “It’s like—”
But she couldn’t find words to describe the experience. She resorted to a shimmering gesture with her hands.
“If I was good with words,” she lamented, “I could tell you.”
Then Ve Port had tried to churten a ship of ten people, and it had gone wrong. They had gone out of sync, perceived things differently, and only managed to return by telling stories and establishing a consensus of reality.
The story infuriated Dr. Rueui, not so much because the ship had been sent on an experimental procedure with three children on board, but because the crew’s reports seemed to support psychophysical theories of matter, which she was keen to disregard as mysticism, and because Ve Port had beaten Ollul to sending people from one world to another. She had been in a nasty fug of irritation for six days after the news came. The other lab members sent word to each other to avoid her. It was a mercy she wore loud clogs, they said, because you could hear her coming and get yourself busy somewhere out of the way.
The other lab members discussed the work over lunch. Genly said nothing, and only listened.
“They’ll probably not allow sending people anymore,” said Helledrey, a tall, dark-skinned Angyar scientist from Rokanan. Her thin hands clenched slightly tighter around her thermos of spiced cider as she spoke. “It’s a pity.”
“They won’t grant funding, for sure,” said a colleague of hers, Osmass Rong, a bald fellow from Chiffewar, “but they’re not in the habit of outright forbidding things.”
“I’m sure Artwee,” (this was what they nicknamed Artewa Rueui behind her back) said another colleague, this one a Beldenean man in thick green-framed glasses, “could rustle up the funds if it came to that. Doesn’t she have that one brother in real estate? But that’s not the issue. You can’t send people to other planets unless you know it’s safe. Or at least not till you’re sure it’s not psychophysics.”
There was a mutter of halfhearted agreement, and they got back to their lunches.
By the evening, though, Director Rueui was in a far better mood. Two new papers had come out. The first one, by a charismatic Terran named Dalzul, she held as proof that travel between planets was possible without disorientation or distortion of experience, so long as only one person was sent. The man had played his own little guinea pig in his experiments, which wasn’t the most sound methodology, but which Rueui insisted you had to respect the bravado of. She wasn’t sure if his paper proved or disproved the notion that a subject’s frame of mind affected the results of a churten trip, but she was more invested in the idea that a person could churten between planets, and her competitiveness was excited by his proposal to repeat the experiment.
“Ollul can still beat them to it,” she insisted, “and I know how.”
The other paper was some ki’O farmer’s narrative report that had originally been sent to the Churten Field Labs of Ve Port, and was being circulated as a curiosity. Rueui had leafed through it and pronounced it proof that Ve Port had lost their edge and marbles.
“What do you make of it, Mr. Ai?” she had asked, tossing him the twenty-eight printed pages of it. “I think it’s fine literary fiction but by god, what gall! When something like this gets out, you don’t let it get around without explaining it’s fiction. None of this would ever work like that. Imagine if themes and narrative were forces of physics. Read it for a laugh! A shame Ve Port has any patience for it.”
But Genly didn’t read it, and never would. He didn’t care about her one-sided feud with Ve Port. He read the first paper, and drafted the Field Labs’ official response to it according to Rueui’s specifications. She was quite impressed with it. If more people could write like him, she said, and then trailed off. Probably something very good would happen. She wasn’t sure what. Probably the same things that happened in life would happen, except more easily, whatever that meant.
Around this time, she began to get obsessed with the idea that Genly ought to churten. At first, she only had him do six skips around Ollul, like she had done, and asked him to describe the experience. There barely was an experience, but he did his best to describe, in detail, what it was like to be in in one room in one continent of Ollul and then in an eyeblink, in another room in another continent of Ollul. There wasn’t much to it. He figured the shimmering feeling Rueui had described was the result of the altitude differential. Two of the other labs on Ollul were on a high mountain range, and the one on the skip-path after them was in the middle of a richly-forested inland valley that dipped below sea level. She was satisfied with his description, or at least pretended to be, even though it was not much different from her own.
He knew what was next, of course. He knew she would ask him to churten between planets. He could see her justifying it to herself in her mind. Neither Helledrey nor Osmass Rong nor any of the other people in the lab had volunteered to be sent. They had all made sure to occupy themselves with important, uninterruptible tasks from which they could not possibly step aside. Rueui was on the warpath to beat Ve Port and Dalzul to the next human interplanetary transmission, and safety was not her primary consideration. Rueui had, as predicted, rustled up the funds herself, and needed a sacrificial lamb. In one part of her mind, she assured herself that there was nothing to worry about, that she would go if she could, and in another part of her mind, she was afraid, and didn’t dare.
Gethen was the closest planet to Ollul, and hadn’t Genly been there already? He knew the languages and knew his way around. Not that this was important, of course, since he would be churtening to the Ekumenical college in Ehenrang, and they spoke Koine Hainish there, but wouldn’t it be nice to see it again? Those lovely red trees, what were they called, like droop-pines.
Genly could see through her pleasantries and her wilful underestimating of risk, but never let on. The other lab members looked at him pityingly, but made no sort of intervention. Better him than me.
He was entirely free, of course, not to go. If he had believed something bad would happen to him while churtening, he would have refused. But there was a possibility nothing would go wrong at all, and that gave him a space of plausible deniability in which to be incautious with his life. From the outside, it looked quite brave. From the inside, it looked like nothing. Bravery was the defiance of fear, and fear was one of the things he had long ago stopped feeling.
In the best case, he could spend an evening strolling around Ehrenrang, visit the embassy, where no one he knew worked anymore, order roast blackfish and hot beer at an alehouse, order more beers, visit the gardens outside the Red Corner Dwelling, and have a nice little breakdown. That might feel like something, which was a shame, because he had been holding it together so well.
“The hemmens, yes!” he said, smiling so falsely that he sickened himself. “The red trees are the hemmens. Yes, I would love to see them again.”
“Oh, wonderful!” Rueui cried, putting her arms around him as if they were friends. “Really wonderful. Thank you. I’m so glad you’ve said yes. What do you say we do it tomorrow? I can set everything up overnight.”
“Sure,” Genly answered.
He went home, made himself dinner, slept, dreamed, forgot his dreams, fed the cat, cleaned up after himself, left a note for the roommate, and came back to the labs through the wide, pleasant, carless streets of the university city of Port of Ollul. He brought his heaviest coat, one suitable for the cruelest nights of Ollul winters but only the most delicate days of Gethenian late-autumns. When Rueui gave him the thumbs up, he stepped onto the platform, and churtened.
It felt like nothing, except for the part where he fell on his hands and knees onto the ice. That hurt. But something soft and fur-covered cushioned his fall. It was a person in a parka, around his own height, lying facedown, unresponsive. The person’s neck was at an angle that would have been uncomfortable had they been alive. Around them, there was no one else. The two of them were in a sort of pit.
The weak sun was setting. It was cold in the pit, so cold Genly’s face stung and his joints ached, but at the very least, it was not windy.
Genly could see where the other man had fallen in from. It was not too high, but if you fell at the wrong angle, it could certainly be dangerous. Still, perhaps the person was not dead, but unconscious. Taking care not to disturb the neck, he took the man’s gloves off and felt for a pulse. There was none, but the hands looked familiar. An impossible, disturbing idea came into his head, and he rolled the body onto its back to see the face, and screamed.
Someone else outside the pit shouted back, a hopeful, happy shout, but it was indistinct. The owner of the voice must have realized they weren’t getting through, because then they tried mindcalling, sending out — Genry!— and Genly screamed again, before reaching back with his own mind.
Estraven pitched the tent in silence and Genly helped as best he could, though he had forgotten how to do it. Once they finished and rolled out their bags, Estraven melted snow to a boil for hot orsh and gichy-michy, which he pressed into Genly’s shivering hands.
“Now explain,” Estraven said after they had both eaten, and Genly went on at rambling length about churten theory as best he could, completely automatically. His mouth was speaking and he was not sure what it was saying, but the sentences seemed coherent enough. Rueui would be so disappointed to learn she was wrong about the effects of the churten-user’s psychology on interplanetary transilience, ha! It then occurred to him that these words meant nothing to the person in front of him.
“Am I going too fast?” he asked.
“No,” said Estraven, who did not appear in the least shocked. “I think I have the sense of it. You were in the future, and you were meant to travel in space, but you travelled in time as well, and now you’re here. Is that it?”
“Yes,” Genly said, suddenly giddy. “Yes, that’s it! But that’s not supposed to be possible, don’t you see? It’s perfectly unreasonable! How can you accept it so easily?”
Estraven tensed a little.
“I am sufficiently ignorant of physics and metaphysics not to know the limits of what your people consider possible, and I know better than to trust the limits of what is considered possible by Gethenian scholars and scientists. Up till two years ago, there was no life elsewhere in the universe, and then a person came down from the stars and began to talk of an alliance with eighty-three worlds. So forgive me if I have seen so many extraordinary things that I have ceased to be astonished. I have always had faith in your word.”
“I’m sorry,” Genly said. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Nusuth,” said Estraven, dismissing the fault with a wave of their hand. “It’s worth considering that other people will disbelieve you. But as I see it, there’s nothing that needs to be explained. You’ve aged, but a trip across the ice caps will weather a man, and besides that you’ve aged well. How long did you say you’d come?”
“It’s seventeen light-years Gethen to Oll—oh, no, that’s not what you’re asking. This moment was ten years ago for me, and twenty-seven years ago, planetary time.”
“So you’d be in your thirties now.”
“Oh, no! No, you flatter me. Early forties, actually. I think I’m older than you, now.”
This, at last, was what surprised Estraven.
“You seemed younger before,” they said.
“I was merely foolish, then.”
Estraven laughed, and the atmosphere in the tent changed. It was cozier, now. Genly sipped at his orsh and Estraven’s words fell on his ears like warm music in another language. He was feeling, not listening.
“...not as suitable for the weather, though it looks waterproof enough,” they were saying, tugging at his sleeves. “But the boots are, forgive me, useless. I can rappel and retrieve the clothes off the… off the other you. It’ll be easier. I’m lighter. That way, you don’t have to look at the dead.”
“But I am looking at the dead,” Genly said dreamily.
There was nothing Estraven could say to that. A silence fell.
“We’ll discuss that later,” they declared at last. “Let’s get your coat first.”
That night, as he was falling asleep, Genly fancied he was in the tent on the Gobrin ice. He dreamt nothing. In the morning, he was in the tent on the Gobrin ice. The smells were what awoke him.
Breakfast was gichy-michy again, hot orsh with sugar, and the last of the dried fruit.
“You still remember how to radio your ship, yes?” Estraven asked.
“I remember the signal. I remember I used the transmitter at Sassinoth. It was on Opposthe Anner.”
“Opposthe precisely?” Estraven asked, frowning. “What a good memory. But so late? By my calculations, we were supposed to reach Karhide by Arhad Anner.”
They got out their pencil and journal and began adjusting their ration calculations in their journal.
“At least we make it,” they muttered to themselves, “but the fact that we make it so late—!”
“We got to Karhide some eight or nine days before Opposthe,” Genly went on. “Though, we did run out of rations. It was Kurkurast that we arrived in, and we got to Sassinoth the day before Opposthe. I remember I radioed the ship on Opposthe because it was the day before Ottormenbod Anner, which was when they sh—which was when you g—when you d—”
The tip of Estraven’s pencil snapped. Breath was not coming easily to Genly. His eyes were wide and unfocused, as if looking through the wall of the tent. Estraven grabbed his jittering hands, but that did nothing. They tried mindspeech instead.
Estraven, he replied. It was still their sibling Arek’s voice that Estraven heard in their head, but they had resolved to bear it.
Estraven, I’m sorry, Arek’s voice said, and it sounded confused and frightened, like when they had gotten lost together in the ice caves of Kerm Land for a night and two days. I’m sorry, Estraven. They shot you. Tibe’s guards, at the border. Your friend in Sassinoth called them. You skied right into them and they shot you. I tried to stop you. I think they heard me. They let me hold you while you stopped breathing. I—
Words fell away and turned into images and sounds. Hideous raspy death rattles of a ruined lung. Animal panic. Anger. Raw loss.
“Enough!” Estraven shouted, shaken. The mental link dissolved at once.
“Please,” they said, gentler now, “don’t you ever do that again.”
“Don’t apologize. I understand. Only don’t do it again.”
Genly agreed quietly.
It was a relief to be pulling the sledge again. It was a relief to be doing difficult physical work that occupied enough of one’s mind to keep one focused. Genly felt somewhat less in shape than his old self from ten years before, but had an advantage over his younger self in that he was not starving yet, and his metabolism had slowed. It was a hard haul, but they made four miles together before noon, and stopped, and cut themselves a wall of ice to eat their second meal in the lee of.
Estraven’s mouth was chapped, and they did not like to talk much, so Genly did the talking for both of them. Estraven asked about Sorve, hoping Genly had met them, because he had mentioned visiting Estre after he got (would get?) back to Karhide. Genly told them everything he knew about Sorve, even the things that hadn’t happened in this life yet. He told them in nitid detail how they were, how they looked, what their personality was like. They get that from me, Estraven observed at one point. They get that from Arek, they observed at another. It was a great comfort not to have to explain any of that to Genly, because in any other context, it was impossible and painful to talk about. Recounting is reliving.
Nearly one month ago, when they had first achieved mindspeech, Estraven had tried to tell Genly, the other Genly, who Arek was. They had not succeeded. The words had caught in their throat. They were not sure the words would come out now, either. The other Genly had not fully understood what it meant for a brother to have to leave home for a beloved brother’s sake. His people’s ways were not Estraven’s people’s ways; he was raised across the speckled seas of night and Estraven, a mere couple thousand miles south. The other Genly had not fully understood that Estraven saw their life as one that left broken promises littered in its wake. It was easier like this. It was easier for Genly to already know.
They made five more miles before stopping for the day, and made similar progress on the following days.
This Genly pulled more evenly too. He did not speed up, grow tired, lose hope, and lag, but pulled at a steady, consistent pace all the way through. No bursts of effort, no bursts of weariness. It was a joy to pull with him.
It seemed to Estraven that this Genly had some brief, fragile moments of joy, and that his mind then went off to a closed, sorry place. They understood that. They too knew what it was to be bitten by a grief so deep, it becomes part of you. That Genly’s grief was for them was a fact they could know, but knew they could not truly grasp; it slipped through their mind’s hands like an oiled fish.
It saddened them that time had taken away his jokes. They kept thinking about the caves in South Kerm Land, and the echoes and reverberations of the cave walls that so distort a person’s voice. You must speak slowly if you are to be understood at all. This is how Genly spoke to them now, like one under ice; slowly and gravely, out of great silence.
But though he had been buffeted by time, he had also been strengthened. Estraven found him more solid, and darker of shadow. Still, Estraven wanted to bring his mind back from the closed place and ground it here, with them. They wanted to touch the careworn lines of his dark face and hold his hands still.
At night, in the tent, the two of them talked logistics. It wasn’t pleasant, but it had to be done. They discussed cutting the rations further to make them last longer. They had a meager dinner and downed it with hot orsh. They discussed how they would get around Karhide.
“Let’s not stay with that friend of mine, this time, the who betrayed us,” Estraven said. “Who did you say it was?”
Genly shook his head.
“I don’t remember. It was ages ago. But you bought them their farm.”
“Ah,” Estraven said, stretching out comfortably in their fur sleeping bag. “That’ll be Renid Thessicher. I can imagine that of them. They aren’t an immoral person, but they’re too small-spirited to resist fear well enough to be a moral one. We won’t give them the opportunity to fail us. Let’s stay at the Trades College. We’ll give them false names. Give them a good cover story, make them feel sorry for us. Not that I need to say much, the way I’m starting to look! Oh, Genry, you’re staring. What is it?”
“Nothing,” Genly answered, a bit abashed. “Only, you hate lying, Estraven. It’s not in your nature.”
“Therem,” they insisted. “We agreed on first names a month ago. Ten years ago, for you. And I do hate lying. It’s not in my nature. But it’s not in my nature to put ourselves or the people we meet in grave danger either. I lied to the Sarf to rescue you from the prison farm. I forged papers. I stole food. If I can lie in Orgoreyn, I can lie in Karhide.”
“All right,” said Genly fondly, “let’s pick false names. What should I be called?”
“You? Hmm. You look like an Ithehend, or a Kerriguyr.”
“I can’t be an Ithehend, that’s too young-sounding.”
“My great-grandmother’s sibling was called Ithehend.”
“Ah, but the name makes a comeback in some years. You’ll see!”
They were both smiling now, neither noticing their own smile in the light of each other's. Genly switched off the light on the Chabe stove and settled down to sleep. He could hear Estraven reciting the Handdara grace in praise of the darkness under their breath, and felt peace. He pondered the image of Estraven he had built up in his mind over the years, and was glad to have it challenged. No more Saint Therem who can do no wrong and tells no lies. Real Therem only, who lives here and now and lies to Sarf and cops and guards. Real Therem was still the person he had loved, but not smooth and simplified. He had forgotten their beautiful laughter. What good was remembering, if you forgot the little things, the things that made up the texture of life? As long as he lived, he would not allow himself to forget Therem’s laughter again.
In the morning, Genly asked,
“When are we? When is it? I mean, what day are we at?”
If he sounded groggy or clumsy, he didn’t mind. Perhaps Therem would find it endearing.
“Streth Nimmer,” Therem said. “You can look at my notebook entries to catch up on our journey, if you like, while I heat the water to wash up with.”
Genly had read those journals long ago. He knew what they contained. But there was something urgent and forward about Therem’s invitation now. They were holding the journal out to him. He took it. He read it. He read through the descriptions of the pass through the volcanoes Drumner and Dremegole, and of the sulfurous gas, and of their games of go with pebbles in the foothills of those fierce mountains. He read through the technical descriptions of the weather and the ground they had covered and their arrival on the ice sheet. He read the entry Therem had written while in kemmer.
“You were afraid I’d laugh at you,” he said.
“Yes,” they said. “But you didn’t laugh. As different as we were, you didn’t laugh. You were thoughtful, even then. You weren’t as foolish as you say you were.”
“Thank you, I suppose,” Genly answered. Then he added,
“I was in love with you.”
It had taken less courage to say than he thought it would. Once said, it was a weight lifted.
“You were in love with me then?”
“I’m not entirely sure when it started,” Genly confessed. “It might have started shortly after then. I wasn’t sure of it yet. But I was sure of it by the time we were in Kurkurast, when you were telling stories by the hearthfire. Even windburned and chapped and half-starving, you were— The room, you were at the center of it, and the light was coming from you, not the fire. I couldn’t stand to look into the face of anyone who wasn’t you.”
“Then as opposed to now?”
“Then is not opposed to now, no,” Genly answered. “Now, too. Now too, always. And there hasn’t been anything between then and now. It's not because I haven't had the time, it's— I couldn't— No one— Your death—”
“Was in another country, and in another life,” Therem said quickly, taking his hands again. “It won’t happen this time. I die in one life, you die in one life, and in this life we slip under the harvester’s nose.”
“I don’t think it works like that.”
Therem grasped his hands tighter.
“It won’t happen this time, Genry. That’s a promise.”
It was a promise sealed with a kiss. It was a somer kiss, uncomplicated, but a kiss all the same.
The tent on the ice had been the center of his life the first time round, and it was the center of his life again. Genly was truly tethered, grounded in the present moment in a way he had never been while living on Ollul, or even on Gethen after their journey. He did not even think about Ollul. That life was barely real. It lacked substance. Substance was in the little things. Substance was in the stitching of the lining of his pesthry fur gloves, in the tiny squares formed by the weave of the fibers of the straps of the sledge-harness. Substance was in the flakes of snow that fell on the dark fur of his parka. Substance was in the ache in all of his muscles after a day of pulling the sledge, and in the ache in his stomach from the poverty of their rations. Substance was in the painfully cold winds that felt like needles on your skin, even when half your face was covered, because your muffler began to freeze over the damp of your exhalations. The present moment is clear. It is alive. It is always realer than memory, which does not preserve everything.
There is nothing that makes you feel so buoyant as the keen awareness of being alive and in requited love.
They had figured out how to stay connected through mindspeech without sharing words or images or anything but each other’s presence, creating a constant feedback loop of here I am, here you are, here I am, here you are. Holding hands, but without hands.
They stopped their daily haul in the early afternoon because it was the start of a blizzard, and it was getting difficult to see. They pitched the tent, unrolled their bags, and heated snow-water for their orsh and dinner.
After dinner, Therem heated more water to wash with again. The rations had been cut so fine, they initially thought they might not go into kemmer this month, but it seemed kemmer would come after all. They had gotten the physical sign that they were due to start soon and wanted to clean the thin, watery blood off the inside of their thighs.
It would be different this month. Last month, ten years ago for Genly, Therem had reasoned it out: On a planet where everyone was in a permanent state, but not in kemmer or somer, the customs must be different. Couples would still probably go to bed together, but it couldn’t be as common for friends. Therefore, to be a friend to someone from that planet, one mustn’t touch him in kemmer. But the love between them had changed kind now, and this time, they wanted him. Last month they had both been exiles, too alien, too unfamiliar with each other’s ghosts and pasts and too fearful of the future. There had been no question of sex then, not even as comfort between friends. What comfort could there be, so far from home? This time, were it not for the constant daily accounting of miles travelled and rations consumed, and were it not for the fact that they were travelling towards an endpoint, Therem thought, they would have forgotten the two of them were on a journey. The ice felt like a home, like the center of a hearth, like the very navel of the world. The air between them was as light and sweet as between a just-sworn pair on holiday, although the two of them were an odd pair; one had no vows left to make, the other had no kemmer to vow, and both had love enough to bridge the oddness. Desire enough too, though it was latent for Therem now. It would not be tomorrow. And how to broach the question?
“I'll be starting kemmer soon,” Therem began, “When it comes, would you...?”
“You didn’t know what I was going to ask,” they teased. “I might have been intending to keep apart again.”
“I would have said yes to keeping apart too,” Genly said. “Yes is my only possible answer to anything you request.”
“Of course,” they replied, "a supremely answerable question. Best not waste the fastness' time."
Genly washed up as well. There wasn’t much you could do with a hot, damp, slightly dirty towel, but it was the idea of the thing that mattered. Water mattered. There was an old kemmerhouse verse he had once heard in the audiotape library of Ossibre: You cross earth now/ You cross water now/ You cross the ice now.
“That’s how they say it in Rer,” Therem said. “Ah. You were thinking it very loudly.”
“How do they say it in Estre?” Genly asked.
“The Estre introit goes the same,” Therem said, “only the tune is different, like this.”
It was a simple chant. Therem led it and Genly repeated it.
Then, in the same tune, Therem recited, very solemnly,
“Not you again, young person! You had better not run and jump into the pool!”
“They said that to you?”
“No!” Therem said, laughing. “Not to me! I was good, at least mostly. That’s the parody of the verse. I don’t know where I first heard it, but everyone knew it; All my friends and hearthkin knew it. And you had to say it in the voice of the old doorkeeper. They were an ancient person in permanent female kemmer, and they were always scowling. Like this.”
They made a stern, forbidding face.
“I’d always be scowling,” Genly said, deadpan, “if people kept jumping in the pool.”
Therem laughed again, fondly. Mid-laugh, it turned into a yawn.
The sleeping bags could be zipped together to make one bigger one. The two of them did that. Genly turned off the light on the Chabe stove, Therem said the Handdara grace, and the storm blew outside, wind wailing and snow pattering against the walls of the tent.
It was still storming wretchedly in the morning. The wind was a gale, the air was a spiteful -25º, and visibility was nil. It was Nimmer, the month of great storms. The only thing for the storm was to wait it out. They slept in till late, catching up on much-needed rest, eating less to save rations for work-days.
And yet, even without hauling, there were still things to do. Therem kept up their journal and made calculations against the sledgemeter and the shoddy map of the Gobrin that they had gotten in Orgoreyn. Genly mended the fraying straps on their slit snow goggles. They played go again for a bit to pass the time.
Snow was beginning to build up against the walls of the tent, improving the insulation. It was now sweltering hot to Therem and merely hot to Genly. He turned the heat on the Chabe stove down a level, for their sake. Therem combed out their long, heavy black hair and put it up in a braided bun to keep it off their neck. They stripped down to an undershirt and pesthry-fur shorts.
Anticipation hung in the air like a thaw-season holiday garland.
Around dusk, Therem looked up at him with a singular focus, face flushed and bright, voice low and like dark honey, and said,
“You’ll have to show me,” Genly said, slightly nervous. “Show me what you want. Guide me.”
They were both sitting on their heels, facing each other. Therem held out their hand to take Genly’s. He thought it was a gesture of reassurance, and that they would merely hold his hand, but they climbed onto his lap and stuck his hand up under their shirt. The skin of Therem's chest was warm, burning with the fire of kemmer. His other hand, they guided to their cheek, and placed their own hand on Genly’s cheek, and kissed his mouth hard. Therem bit down on Genly’s lip a little when he rubbed a thumb over their nipple, so he did it again, harder, and they rolled their hips against his and gripped his shoulders very tightly.
“Like that?” Genly asked. “Tell me. Tell me if I do it wrong.”
“The way I feel right now,” they confessed, breath hot on his skin, “there is very little you could do wrong.”
“No. Right now, if you so much as touch me, I will melt onto your hand.”
Genly thought he might melt too. His face did not easily show a blush, but it was hot as well. The fervor Therem sparked within him could have cooked him alive. Therem was beautiful to begin with, but in kemmer they gleamed as if lit from within. Their dark face was flushed and their eyes were fixed on him with a fierce focus. He had known affection and love from them in somer, but in kemmer, these existed combined with a singularity of intent and a force of wanting that stole his breath from him. There was light, and then there was the heat of the sun, and Therem was like sunlight to him, burning him so pleasantly that he would have let himself be consumed without question.
They took his hand again, by the wrist this time, and drew it to the waist of their undershorts. He tugged the shorts off them while they slipped out of their shirt.
“You too,” Therem said in a husky voice, their hands at the buttons of Genly’s clothes. “Let me see you.”
Once Genly was free of his clothing, Therem pinned him onto his back and straddled him, grinning wickedly. His heart sped. The sight alone was so heady that he would not last long. The sweet friction and pressure of Therem's sex rubbing against the underside of his cock and the sound of Therem’s involuntary stuttering gasps quickly sent Genly over the edge, and he came before Therem could get him inside them. It was with his mouth that he gave them the pleasure of their release. Therem was in so-called female kemmer, which made their clitopenis small, but not so small that there wasn’t anything to suck. With lips and tongue, he made them cry out into the night, trembling powerfully.
The two of them had gone past words, gone past names, gone to you and I. They were the only people that there were.
They lay together for a bit, panting, and when they had both recovered their breath, kissing. Therem’s gentle, languorous caresses deepened, and their kisses grew needy again, telling Genly that they weren’t done. He sat up again. He had no intention of denying Therem anything they desired. They got onto his lap and guided his hand between their legs, where their body was hot as a heartbeat and wonderfully wet.
Genly held his hand out palm up and flat, half-remembering some safety tip from a childhood farm trip, and then feeling silly about it. He was touching a lover, not feeding a hungry animal. The way they ground their body against his hand was quite hungry, though. He cupped his hand. It was slick from touching them, and he moved it back and forth to suit the rhythm of their rocking hips. They answered this with a close-mouthed little whine and grabbed his hand again, tipping two of his fingers towards the opening of their body. The sound they made when he sank his fingers into them was a groan of pure relief. Their muscles twitched around his fingers, squeezing hard. The ridges within put Genly in mind of strumming a string instrument, so he moved his fingers, and in a strangled whisper, Therem said,—yes!—or,—deeper!—or,—quick!—till Genly found the rhythm where Therem had nothing sensible left to say.
At that point, their face was buried in the crook of his neck, kissing it messily.
Genly remembered someone else’s head in the crook of his neck, but not a lover’s. He remembered Ashe Foreth at Estraven's burial rites, whose face wet his shoulder with silent tears. Only it wasn’t a burial at all, because no body had ever been found. No body showed up come the thaw, ruined, lonely, floating downstream. No body showed up in the woods, gone sour, half lunched-on by animals. No burial for a traitor, even one pardoned. You, my love, had a cenotaph, and they read the rites for the drowned.
Though, how could they have not found Estraven? The body was here, warm and quick and heavy on Genly’s lap, hips lurching a little forward and back, internal muscles clenching around Genly’s fingers, mouth mumbling love-words. He’d had this dream before, too: Estraven and sex. It was a nightmare, not because he didn’t want to be making love to the only person he had been in real love with, his lost friend, but because he wanted it so hopelessly that it was cruel of his mind to make him dream it, to trick him into believing it was real, only then to wake him up. All dreams worse than life or better than life are nightmares.
Being in a nightmare, Genly was afraid. His pulse sped, his breath shallowed. He tensed like a man in sleep paralysis, trying to shiver his way out. Therem noticed, and moved back.
“You’re not well,” Therem said, worried.
“You’re not real,” answered Genly. “Or I’m not. Often, I dream of you, and the tent. I’m seventeen light-years away, sleeping. I’m sorry.”
Therem stared at him. He sounded pathetically alone, as if speaking to himself.
“That’s not true,” Therem said at last. “No.”
“Or we might be in the place inside the blizzard,” Genly continued bitterly, unhearing, “both dead.”
“No,” Therem answered. “No, of course not. We’re in a blizzard, but it’s not the blizzard. Listen to me here and now. Show me your hands.”
Genly demurred. His right hand was still partly coated with the slick token of Therem's arousal.
“I’ll wash them first.”
“That doesn’t matter. Look.”
Therem’s hands met Genly’s palm to palm.
“See? We are alive. Your hands and my hands look human. Inside the blizzard, everything is frost-charred or dead white. We are real. We are alive.”
Their hands were warm against his, and he grew ashamed of what he had said. He muttered apologies and tried to hide his face, which was filling with tears. His chest heaved in shuddering breaths. But Therem held him still, breathing with him slowly, running a soothing hand across his shoulders. They held him for a long time.
“I’m sorry you didn’t—” Genly began, but they hushed him.
“Nusuth,” they said. “There will be time.”
They zipped the sleeping bags together again, and got between the furs together, holding fast to each other, real against real, alive against alive. Genly’s head lay below the covers, on Therem’s chest. They were stroking his hair slowly, careful not to undo his twists. Genly had grown calm again, but his eyes were still streaming.
“We will make it, Genly,” Therem whispered. “We will make it to Karhide, and we will make it out of this all alive, love.”
Genly nodded against their chest. There wasn’t much he could trust himself to say. With a click of the dial, Therem turned off the light on the Chabe stove, leaving only the dark warmth of the tent. They kissed Genly on the forehead before closing their eyes to sleep. Before sleeping, they whispered the Handdara grace to themselves. Praise then the darkness and creation unfinished.