Ice Rider




The train whisks its cargo through the ice tunnels. They are narrow; only a motorcycle could slip between the train and the frozen walls. Inside the carriages, children huddle on the bare floor. Despite their short stature, there is not enough room to stand.

Ignacia, back pressed against the sides of the car, ignores the others as she focuses on the vibrations. It is a habit that has outlasted the varnish of hope. One of the new gifts taps her on the knee. Ignacia raises her gaze to meet the young girl’s, no older than seven, with large watchful eyes still wearing a veneer of innocence. “Why are some of the children crying?” she signs.

Ignacia doesn’t peer into the dim light. She’s witnessed this far too many times, as eardrums burst, blood trickles down terrified faces, and worlds go silent. There was a year, near the beginning, when she tried to comfort the new gifts as their inner ears were destroyed. But time has taught her that the hearing-born transition better to their altered state under the care of those who’ve also been through the experience. They have an empathy Ignacia lacks.

The girl taps Ignacia’s knee. “Why?”

Too much magic. High concentrations ruin human ears,” Ignacia signs back.

Will they be deaf, like us?”

Yes,” Ignacia says, with a nod of a fist.

The young gift goes quiet. Ignacia wonders how much the hunter was rewarded for this particular deaf-born. When Ignacia was donated by her kidnappers, it was two thousand Agency dollars. But it must be more now, as rumors claim deaf-borns are becoming harder for the hunters to source. But she doesn’t ask the child beside her about her life before the ice. Such questions tend to bring tears.

The train stops. Small fingers tap her knee. “What now?” signs the girl.

We go to the mines.”

Ignacia doesn’t bother to say more. This one must know what is coming. All of the gifted are put through a week of training before they are sent into the ice. Taught the techniques that best preserves the blue nuggets of magic when they are lifted from their frozen seam.

Will the new-deaf children be okay?” asks the new girl.

Ignacia shrugs, looking away.

It is claimed that Agency workers used to medically deafen the hearing-born during training, rather than allowing nature to take its course. Cost cutting, the rumors say. Ignacia often wonders if the Agency lost as many of the gifted doing it the old way as they do now. In each batch, there are hearing-born who shut down in their new silent world, staring out into the unseen, useless for work. The Agency gives these children one week to awaken before they are “rehomed.”

The carriage door slides open, cold air punching in, revealing dirty ice smeared with brown stains, like the backs of long-used underwear. The children crawl out of the train and line up in front of the arch that guards the entrance to the shafts, wincing under the glare of ice and lights. One by one, they pass through. The sobbing ones have to be given a gentle shove. When it is Ignacia’s turn, she is careful to allow her spine to settle, to keep her knees soft, shoulders slightly rounded. Nothing too obvious that might draw suspicion from the camera’s eyes, only enough to slip under the arch without a single hair brushing against its upper curves and risking a zap.

On the other side, she takes position in front of one of the next set of cameras, peering out of the frozen walls. As she waits a small hand slips into hers. It is the new gift from the train. Ignacia tries to untangle the child’s grasp, but fails.

Words appear on the ice: Permission granted for Gifted Ora to volunteer beside Gifted Ignacia. Donations collected at shaft 01000001.

She looks down at the child. “Ora, that’s me,” the girls signs with her free hand.

Ignacia does not reply as she leads the child away.

* * *

That evening Ora is assigned to share Ignacia’s narrow bunk. The older girl peers at her slumbering bedmate. Ignacia cannot muster hatred or resentment for the child’s presence, despite being well aware this new sleeping arrangement is an ominous sign. At thirteen, Ignacia is a year older than the second eldest gift. Her frame, while small, will soon exceed regulation. Fear should arise, yet only pity seeps out for her bedmate.

Ora sleeps on, exhausted by the day’s work, as Ignacia gently runs a finger along the curve of the child’s cheek. Her long, thick lashes lie against skin that holds a healthy plumpness and sheen. Most of the gifted lose that by their second month.

Ignacia’s finger sparks. She pulls back as Ora stirs, inwardly admonishing herself for being so careless. But there is no mark on the child’s perfect flesh.

Ignacia breathes carefully, reining in the magic that tingles throughout her being. She should have done this sooner. Before touching her bedmate. Because no matter how careful she is in the mines, she absorbs far more magic than her body can safely hold. She cups her hands in front of her and, with slow, controlled breaths, she gradually releases a line of power. Her body silently hums with relief as a swirling orb forms between her palms.

Further down the cell, another orb appears.

Ora stirs; eyes blink, then stare. “What are you doing?” her fingers ask.

Ignacia shakes her head as she holds her hands steady under the hovering orb.

You will be killed,” Ora signs, jerky and frantic.

Ignacia shakes her head, keeping her eyes on the orb. It is both her favorite and least enjoyed part of the day.

It’s illegal.”

Ignacia nods. The Agency has long maintained to the Client and Worker base that only the Agency’s board and official members are capable of absorbing and mastering the power that comes from these ice mines. They insist that only they, with their elite status, possess both the talent, wisdom, and fortitude to handle such power.

Clients who are able to absorb magic vanish,” Ora signs.

Ignacia shrugs, careful not to move her hands. But even if she could talk, she wouldn’t have told the child the truth: we are the vanished.

More orbs pop up along the beds of their cell, bathing the cramped and cheerless room with an azure light. Warmth radiates and grateful sighs are released.

Can we all do that?” Ora asks.

Ignacia shakes her head, as she pushes more power into the orb. It begins to clear.

Ora rubs her eyes and blinks as a woman comes into focus in the center of the orb. The woman is holding up a sign. Ora moves closer, squinting to read: Ignacia Calvo, Missing 2,555 Days.

Ora’s head swivels, between ball and Ignacia’s face.

Your mama?”

Ignacia nods.

You are lucky to be able to see her.”

Ignacia does not reply.

* * *

The ice rider enters Ignacia’s dreams. Barreling down an infinite ice tunnel, the motorcycle’s tires spray ice crystals like a boat cutting through water. At its rear, the exhaust emits flames of blue that taper to red. Even in her dreams, she cannot hear the motorcycle’s roar, but she can feel its steady purr, different from the train, which vibrates in rapid, jerky, rhythmic, rolling stomps.

In her dreams, the rider is always dressed in black, from helmet to boot. Even the visor is tinted. The rider is slim, but not tall. It is impossible to tell much more than that. The rider could be a woman or a man, young or old, hearing-born or deaf. Whoever the rider may be, he or she is a master of driving on ice — graceful, flowing around the bends, knee out, occasionally brushing the ice without a wobble.

Ignacia finds herself on the train’s roof, flat on her belly, stretching out her hand. The rider comes, closer and closer, pulling alongside the carriage in the narrow space between train and ice. This happens every dream.

Take my hand, Ignacia always pleads with the rider. Grab it and set me free.

The rider raises a glove, and —

* * *

How long before I’m as fast as you?” Ora asks on the train. It is late; they were forced to volunteer for an additional hour today. No explanation for this was given. There never is.

You can’t,” Ignacia signs.

Because I’m small.”

No, because you don’t absorb magic. The power can be used to warm the hands, melting the edges of the seam. It makes it easier to scoop out the frozen nuggets.”

Ora mulls this over, picking at the buckles of her boots. “That’s why they let you live.”

Yes.”

Ora falls quiet. Ignacia closes her eyes with relief. She’d been anticipating the big question: Why don’t you use magic to set you free?

* * *

The carriage wall vibrates at its typical rhythm against Ignacia’s back. Change could mean an earth tremor or a shift of the ice. Once, during a tunnel collapse, Ignacia’s first thought had been rescue. As the train screeched to a halt, she’d eagerly scrambled onto the roof to search for the ice rider. A wall of broken blocks of ice greeted her. It took two days for them to dig their way out.

A tap of the knee opens Ignacia’s eyes.

Don’t you get cold against the wall?” Ora signs.

Ignacia shrugs.

Are you warm enough because of the magic?”

Ignacia almost says yes, but stops herself. Ora would only have to talk to a few others before she’d discover the untruth. Not that it should matter if Ora thinks she is a liar. Isn’t like they will know each other for long. Soon, Ignacia will be retired. She wonders if it will hurt.

What? Are you worried we might crash?”

Ignacia shakes her head.

My mama used to tell me a fairy tale.”

Ignacia raises a brow. Few speak of their time before. But Ora continues on, oblivious.

She told me about goblins who’d steal children to work in ice mines, much like this. There was no escape. But sometimes, as the children were transported on the train, an ice rider would appear. Nobody knew where it came from. The children would reach out their hands and the rider would grab one, and they’d ride away.”

Where did they go?”

Home.” Ora’s face is resolute.

Ignacia nods, and says nothing more.

Did you know the story?”

Yes.”

Do you think it is true?”

Ignacia considers her answer carefully. “I’ve never seen it.”

And you’ve been gone for 2,555 days.”

2,556, Ignacia thinks, but does not correct. She is touched that Ora remembered.

You going to see your mama again tonight?”

Ignacia has seen her mother standing with a sign each night since day 42. But she only shrugs.

Ora goes quiet. Ignacia shuts her eyes, focusing on the unchanging rhythm of the train. All other vibrations, from the children’s movements, she ignores.

A tap on the knee.

Ignacia cracks open on eye.

Would you be able to show me my mama?”

Ignacia first two fingers snap down on her thumb, like a crocodile clamping its jaws.

Ora’s shoulders slump.

* * *

Ora stares at the woman holding the sign. It reads: Ignacia Calvo, Missing 2,655 Days. “Is she always holding a sign when you see her?”

Ignacia nods.

Does making the orb use up all your magic?”

Ignacia shakes her head.

When are you empty?”

Ignacia doesn’t reply.

Ora gives a silent huff, before burrowing into the scratchy bedding.

Thirty minutes later, long after Ora is asleep, Ignacia still can’t come up with an answer.

Before I was hunted, she decides, dousing her orb.

But as she begins to drift off, she realizes this cannot be true. The first time her fingers stroked a seam, the sensation of magic was familiar, like her arm brushing against her hair. What surprised her was how her body had vibrated with too much power later that evening. That was new. As sparks had shot from her fingertips, an older girl approached and demonstrated how to unload safely.

But have I ever felt empty? she wonders.

She falls asleep before the answer arrives.

* * *

Ora taps Ignacia’s knee. “Did you think the ice rider had come?”

That’s only a fairy tale. The change of rhythm is because of ice on the tracks.”

Ora frowns, but says nothing.

Ignacia doesn’t add that this is a bad sign. That if she still prayed, she’d be begging the Lord to spare them from a cave-in. But she’s old enough now to know that such pleas do nothing. No angel ever appears. No ice rider ever comes.

How many times has she witnessed children retired? The boys are always dead the moment they brush the top of the arch. Their bodies land lifeless on the ice. Many of them used to pray: Please, oh please, may this never happen to me.

It always does. Eventually.

Unless the gift is a girl; she is stunned rather than killed. The arch always seems to know which is crossing through. After the girl is immobilized, a camera lowers. She is assessed. Sometimes the girl explodes herself, releasing her magic, which often claims another life or few. But most wait: the lethal zap, or life prolonged. Then the body — dead or alive — is loaded back into the train and never seen again.

Ora taps Ignacia on the knee. “Some fairy tales might be true.”

Ignacia shrugs.

Stories have to come from somewhere. Maybe the ice rider is real.”

Ignacia doesn’t reply.

Ora carries on, regardless. “Maybe we are inside a fairy tale. After all, nobody knows she’s in one until the tale is over.”

If we are in a story, then we are in one of the darker ones, like the original brothers Grimm.”

There are grim fairy tales?”

Ignacia suppresses a smirk. “Never mind.”

Ora pouts. Her lips have managed to retain their plumpness.

She’ll never be zapped dead, Ignacia thinks.

But she cannot decide if that is lucky or not.

* * *

Shaft 01000010 is colder than 01000001 and Ora’s lips are turning a greyish blue.

Work closer to me,” Ignacia signs.

The girl scoots over in the cramped space, and Ignacia allows a trickle of magic to seep out her pores. She focuses on creating a gentle heat, nothing too aggressive that may threaten the ice holding the shaft together.

Thank you,” Ora signs.

Ignacia does not reply as she sticks her arm deeper into the blue seam, finding a notch with her finger. She carefully heats the ice around the nugget before lifting it out of its resting place.

A tap on her shoulder. Ignacia turns her face as she deposits the nugget on the conveyor belt.

Where does magic go after it is used?”

Ignacia shrugs. But another girl, Pabla, signs, “Back into the ice.”

How?” Ora asks.

She doesn’t know,” Ignacia signs.

I do,” Pabla signs. “My mama is a scientist and —”

An orange light fills the shaft. A warning.

Heads bow, fingers quit talking, and the gifted return to work.

The temperature in the shaft drops further. Ora shivers. Ignacia embraces the child, transferring more heat.

There is a burst of light at the far end of tunnel. It sends violent vibrations down the shaft. Ignacia tosses Ora over her shoulder and runs.

At the mouth of the shaft, Ignacia sets Ora down and begins to count the bodies spilling out amongst the cacophony of various flashing colored lights. She reaches fourteen and cannot find more. There are always twenty assigned to a shaft.

What happened?” Ora asks, as words scrawl across the ice wall: Gifted of Shaft 01000010 please wait for further instruction.

Cave-in,” Ignacia replies.

How?”

It is Pabla who answers, “Ana exploded.”

Ora looks stunned.

She was cold,” Pabla offers. “Tried to generate extra heat with magic.”

Ora looks at Ignacia, face full of expectation. The older gift inwardly sighs before signing, “We are not trained to use magic, beyond the making of the orb and warming our hands.”

So you can explode?”

Ignacia nods. “Lack of control can cause the magic to flood out of the body too fast.”

Ora’s wide eyes blink.

Ignacia tries not to notice how the girl’s eyes have lost their veneer of innocence. They haven’t hardened, not yet. But that too, will come.

* * *

Ora warily watches Ignacia form an orb. As it begins to clear, the young child flinches.

Ignacia extinguishes it and signs, “I’m not going to explode.”

How do you know?”

Ignacia blinks.

You are the only person who can see her mama in her orb.”

Ignacia slowly nods.

Which means you are using magic in a way you are not trained.”

It has always been this way,” Ignacia signs.

Always?”

2,667 days.”

* * *

Ignacia stumbles on the platform. Just two steps, before she manages to firmly plant her right foot and push, catching her balance. Leg extends, spine straightens, and the top of her head brushes the curve of the arch.

Zap.

Every nerve feels on fire as she lies stunned on the hard ice. Children swarm the platform, watching to see if she’ll live or die.

Magic gathers in her gut. It would be so easy, Ignacia thinks. But she doesn’t dare, as Ora grabs her shoulders and shakes.

A light changes to green.

Words are scrawled across the ice.

Two of the older girls pull Ora off while another two grab Ignacia under the armpits.

Ignacia shuts her eyes from the sight of Ora’s wails. But she can feel them, even as the train is shut.

* * *

It has been 2,669 days since Ignacia had been topside. The slate colored sky seems bright to her sensitive eyes as she takes in the Agency outpost for local workers and their families. It reminds her of a Christmas village from a storybook her mama read to her when she was small. Lights dance on strings, which hang outside buildings and over streets. The magic powering them raises the tiny hairs on her body, as the currents rippling through her veins press for freedom. This surprises Ignacia, as she had been forced to make an orb until its light burnt out. They had declared her drained. She believed she was, too, and aside from a few elite, nobody can absorb magic from anything other than the blue nuggets.

Ignacia is handed over to a brightly painted woman in an emerald green dress with a low neckline. Magic vibrates in the air as the woman circles Ignacia, running fingers through her hair, giving her small breasts a squeeze, and checking her teeth. As the woman inspects, the teen’s body greedily sucks up the surrounding power.

Ignacia is taken to be bathed, shaved, perfumed, curled, powdered, and dressed before being led on to a small stage. She stands there blinking, observing these new surroundings. Men stare back from the crowd, leering, one of whom resembles the hunter who had captured her so many years ago. People are talking, but she cannot read their lips. But she suspects their words are far from kind.

Anger coils inside her, like a snake from her homeland, waking the magic. Power simmers, hot and ready, as her pores draw more magic from the air. Movement to her upper left catches her attention. On the balconies stand lines of dead eyes in pretty dresses. The discarded gifted, Ignacia thinks, recognizing more than a few. One moves her fingers, ever so subtly, fingerspelling: “Die if you can.”

Another gives a slight incline to her head, while yet another fingerspells, “Kill us, please.”

No ice rider will come, Ignacia thinks, closing her eyes, as her body continues to draw in power.

I will not live here, Ignacia vows.

She ignites.

The building begins to tremble.

* * *

The motorcycle barrels down the tunnel, spraying ice crystals like a boat cutting through water. Magic funnels through the engine, letting off a flaming exhaust of blue that tapers to red. The rider is dressed in black, from helmet to boot. Even the visor is tinted. The rider is slim, but not tall, riding hunched, focused, as the bike catches up with the train.

A body emerges onto the train roof, scooting across on her belly. Wide eyes peer down, as the rider comes closer and closer, pulling alongside the carriage, raising a glove.

Give me your hand, Ora, Ignacia inwardly pleads, as she holds the bike steady.

The young girl reaches out.





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