Alaska, 1958The dogs jumped in their traces. Eight dogs divided into two columns. Forepaws in the dry snow. Their breath smoked in the arctic air. They'd only done ten miles since last night's camp and were eager to do more. The youngest whined about it aloud until one of his seniors nipped him silent.
They'd reached the cabin and now was the time for stopping.
The sled-driver, Hellry, kept them in their line, and shouted their term for rest.
Grudgingly, the lead dog knelt. The others followed.
Hellry took off his goggles and suddenly the world came alive with light. His hard face squinted against the white glare of snow. He pulled off his gloves, finger by finger, and stuffed them into his pockets. He unzipped his heavy coat and held the panels of it open, letting his own heat out. The air was perfect and deep. It was a bright morning. Ten degrees Fahrenheit. Miles of packed, white snow. Near perfect silence. Sky livid blue, not a thread of cloud. He felt to be in some child's snow-globe, open and available for any eye to see.
He pushed back his fur hood and looked at the dogs. He knelt down by the sled and checked his .44. It was sharply cold to the touch. He swung open the cylinder and found, yes, six rounds slotted home. He snapped it closed and slid the gun into the leather holster at his hip.
He'd spent a handful of years living in Alaska once, but never these parts. Never this far north.
Hellry had loved it then. He recalled a different version of himself once trapping elk in hunting pits. Those simple constructions that took a day to build:
One pit dug in the snow or soil, disguised with a balsa wood ceiling and snow, and a six foot drop into three steel spikes. Giant bulls would sound and gurgle while their blood openly drained. They would swing their great heads, shattering antler spreads on the pit walls. A simple trap that would feed man and his dogs for weeks.
Now, he pulled his coat down over his gun and reached for his pack in the sled. He took out what he'd come to trade. The vessel was heavy; tubular and made of thick display glass. The forearms inside were human and yellow. Ageless and floating in preservative alcohol. The hands were sexless, thin and fragile. Wrists like knots in wood.
He held the container in the crook of his arms as if he were toting a child. He stood and ran a hand over his ragged beard. He tugged away some ice.
The cabin was small and deteriorating. Over time the wind had forced it all into an angry slant.
No smoke came from the pipe and there was no smell of fire.
It was suspicious. Torcher had told him he'd be there. Not some hired agent, either: Torcher himself.
Hellry walked toward the cabin and examined the surface of the snow floor as he broke it with his boots. Hardtop, level, half up his shins. There'd been no activity since at least last snowfall. Was that yesterday? Before that? Hellry stomped up on the porch and rapped twice.
Hellry heard labored movements inside and after a while the door opened.
Torcher did stand there, wrapped in a ratty blanket.
In other times, in other places, Hellry had known him to be a healthy man, in the pink of conditioning, age always bobbing around fifty. Now, he looked older. His face was flushed and sunken, hair matted with grease. His moss-green eyes bulged and shone, he looked like he hadn't eaten in days.
"Hellry," the man wheezed.
"Are you all right, Torcher?"
"Now that you're here. Come in. Please." Torcher touched his own chin.
There was nothing in the cabin. A nest of thready blankets by the cold hearth. A floor of wood and dust. A single chair and no table. Cold coffee pot.
"How long have you been here?" Hellry asked. He ran through the calendar in his mind. Was he late? No. They'd arranged to meet on this day.
"Two days. I wanted to beat you out here, I'm afraid I've become ill."
"Do you need me to take you back?"
"No. I have a plane coming."
"Where are you going?" Hellry asked.
"Let's get to it, if you please. I see you've got my prize. May I see that?"
Hellry rolled back his arm, showing Torcher the vessel.
Torcher took it in both hands and lifted it with much effort. His blanket slid off his thin shoulders and pooled at his feet.
He looked at the arms, floating, gently and silently knocking together. The fingers were rigid and curled in the water. Spears of sunlight came from the window and refracted in the tube.
"Amazing," Torcher said.
"I'm glad you're happy."
"The hands of Emperor Nero himself."
"Yes," Hellry said.
"I was radioed that these were stolen three weeks ago. Thank you, Hellry."
"They've no idea how it was done or by whom. You've gotten away with it completely."
"You look terrible," Hellry said.
"I'm fine. I'm ecstatic." He wouldn't stop looking at the hands.
"I've got to go then, Torcher."
"The lyre, Torcher."
"Yes, the lyre."
After a brief and awkward silence, Torcher looked at Hellry's hard-blue eyes.
"Okay," Torcher said, setting the container upright on the table. "You've got to follow me then, I've hidden it outside."
"It's safe, Hellry. I promise you. It's in exactly the same condition I found it—pristine."
Torcher slid his arms into the sleeves of a thin coat and draped his blanket around his shoulders. The men walked out behind the cabin in the snow. The dogs barked and Hellry told them to hush. They did.
They moved across a gentle undulation of snow and ice toward a gray clutch of wind-deformed trees. Hellry heard the thin trickle of a half-frozen river.
An axe was set upright in a wide stump of tree, its cold blade half-sunk in the rind.
"You'll need that," Torcher said.
Hellry said nothing and pulled the frozen axe free in two tugs.
"Come, Hellry, your lyre waits."
Torcher hobbled down toward the river. Huddled in his blanket, he looked like some miniature hunchback, lost in the tundra. Why would he arrive early, Hellry wondered. Why would he come out here with no provisions and get himself sick?
The two men moved slowly among the trees. They wore their breath in front of their faces like ghostly masks. No birds called and there were no sounds but for the sail of wind and the warped peel of dreamy river water. The trees were all white and stripped so that their branches looked like clashing systems of nerves.
"Are you a believer?" Torcher asked. "Do you think Nero plucked his instrument while his great city burned?"
"Believer? What do I know?" Hellry said. "We trade in myths."
"Yes, we do. Thieves like us."
Torcher stopped and pointed a broken finger at a low structure of piled stones. There was snow and frost and what looked like a stiff frozen blanket over the stones.
Hellry looked at the structure and then looked at Torcher.
Torcher walked around the stones and, with great difficulty plain on his face, lifted the blanket from behind. It cracked and came off, like the waffled lid of a city garbage can.
Hellry saw the half-buried locker, completed with heavy padlock.
"There's no key. I threw the key in the river," Torcher said.
"Why'd you do that?"
"To ensure the lyre's safety. Here, just knock off the lock and take your prize. You've earned it."
Hellry looked at Torcher. Looked at the trees, the world.
"Stand in front of it," Hellry said.
"What? Hurry, I'm cold. I'd chop the lock myself if I were well enough to heft that axe."
"Stand in that spot," Hellry said. "Stand where I'd need to stand."
"Why?" Torcher said.
"Because a trapper knows a trap."
Torcher's face was blank. His eyes looked already frozen in his skull.
The two men watched each other for a long moment. The wind stopped.
Torcher reached into his wrappings. Hellry dropped the axe and reached into his own coat and Hellry was the first to produce his pistol.
Hellry dropped to one knee and leveled the pistol butt against his wrist and shut an eye and fixed Torcher in his narrow sight. Hellry had his cold finger in the trigger guard, against the curved metal stem of the trigger.
Torcher stood, hunched forward, like some wounded bird. His hands hung heavily in front of him. Torcher bobbled his own revolver and finally sandwiched it between both his hands. He hadn't been quick enough and he now knew it. His face was empty and his eyes were large. He looked at Hellry. The wind started again and moved his gray hair.
"You drop that pistol," Hellry told him, his voice crisp and perfect in the cold.
Torcher looked at the sky, then back at Hellry, and he dropped the pistol in the snow.
When the sun became red and lowered in the sky, it poured fourth a wide and impossible fan of blood red light onto the snowy tundra floor. It repainted all the acreage of ice a perfect oriental red, so that it was like a new red sun in a new red landscape. The wind was long and screaming. And it was all like an ice-glass Mars.
Hellry and his team ran across the tundra, pulling long miles as night came on.
The sun fell. Hellry stopped the dogs and they built a small camp.
Small shell tent, good healthy fire. They were alone in the world.
Hellry sat with his hands on his knees at the fire.
The dogs lay with their bellies in the snow, slavering tongues out, awaiting supper.
He looked at the dogs that he loved. You'll eat all right, he thought.
The northern lights blazed above. He watched the great green current like a brilliant gash in the dark sky, its broad striations of electricity and spirit. Proof of God.
Satisfied, Hellry unfurled his new bundle. The ancient lyre lay chipped and tattered but intact. He rolled them back into the cloth and laid them in his sled back beside the vessel of forearms. He had them both now, Nero's arms and instrument. Together, they'd fetch an unheard-of price.
Hellry sealed the sled pack and turned back to face the fire.
Torcher's fresh arms, newly severed, hung from Hellry's shoulders like a yoke. Hellry hauled them off of himself now, and they left a corona of bloodstains about his head and ears. The arms were tied at the elbow with sealskin rope. There was still blood in the arms.
Hellry drew his knife and cut the line between them.
He whistled for the dogs.
You'll eat all right.
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