“These are just formalities.”

Cayleb looked up from his hands. Rust, or maybe just chafing, had begun to appear around the joint of his left middle finger. He looked at the man sitting in front of him, some kind of investigator brought in by the city.
“Of course.”
The man was sitting across a desk from Cayleb. Usually it would be the foreman sitting there, but he was asked to leave for this portion of the interview. The investigator tapped his pen against his pad a few times, producing metallic clicks.
“Did you see him out there?” He let the tip of the pen hover over the tablet, waiting to record the response.
Cayleb looked down at his hands again.
“I can’t be sure.”
“But you ran after him.” The investigator hesitated before writing anything and looked up at Cayleb again. “Did you suspect what he would do?”
Cayleb shrugged and shook his head. The man leaned in a little closer, drawing his eyebrows high.
“He seemed like himself, more so than the weeks before.” Cayleb’s voice was barely a whisper, but the investigator seemed to have heard perfectly. He wrote something on the pad before placing it on the desk and folding his hands in front of him. He sighed and clicked his tongue a few times.
“Look, Cayleb, I know that he was your friend and that he had just received an evaluation.” He spread his hands wide, still resting his forearms on the desk. “You two spent most of your time working together and the rest drinking at the local tavern. It seems to me that around here nobody knew the guy as well as you.” He tapped his finger against the desk twice and Cayleb looked up to meet his eyes.

“And you’re telling me you didn’t suspect a thing?”

“You alright?”
They were sprawled out on the ice. Adrenaline was still pumping hard enough through his veins that the cold didn’t seem too bad. Cayleb looked over at his friend, who was just getting to his hands and knees. He was breathing hard, staring at his left arm. Every few seconds, something would pass through it and make the fingers spasm. 
“Yeah.. yeah, I guess. What the hell is up with this thing?” He banged his fist into the ice a couple of times causing it to crack, checking between each strike if the twitching had stopped. Cayleb watched him with concern and felt a soreness begin to work its way into his upper back. The adrenaline was wearing off, only to tell him that he might have torn a muscle. He got to his feet and took a careful peak over the edge. His light didn’t go far, but it looked like at least half a click to the bottom. Cayleb checked his suit for damage and found none, which was a blessing. He turned back to the man still hammering his fist into the ice.
“Will you give that a rest? You’ll just make it worse, Manny.”
The man stopped and looked up with a blank expression. He looked like he was going to say something, but never did. Before they both started walking back towards the shuttle, Cayleb looked over his shoulder at the edge one last time. He could see the cracked ice around where he had grabbed on and wondered how close it had been to breaking before pushing the thought out of his head. 


In the shuttle they had a chance to catch their breath and regain some warmth. Cayleb could feel the pain in his back getting worse for every minute and now the thought of a torn rhomboid seemed more like painful reality. He looked over at Manny who was still staring at his palm with that same blank expression. Cayleb felt he had to say something.
“It’s probably just a loose wire. They’ll fix it in the shop, I’m sure.” He tried reaching forward, but winced at the pain in his back. Manny looked up and the painful expression seemed to pull him from his trance. He smiled a little.
“Yeah, probably. You might need more than a trip to the shop though.. Pain means flesh and a trip to the surgeons.” Cayleb let out an exhausted sigh as he leaned his head back against the shuttle.

“I just hope the boss doesn’t dock my pay for this.”

The air of the bar was barely circulated by a lazy fan on rusty hinges. The blades swung around in slow circles above their heads as all the workers of the brink gathered to drink and talk shit. It had been almost five minutes since a word was spoken between them, mostly because Cayleb didn’t know what to say. He was staring at his half empty drink, gently closing and releasing his grip on the glass, being careful not to break it. He drew in breath to speak, but took a sip instead. The fizz was gone and the beer was already lukewarm.
“So, a year, huh?”
“Half that working on the brink.” Manny was tipping his empty glass back and forth using a finger. The twitching was gone and it seemed that all movement was restored. Looking at him then, you would think it would be years before decommission. 
“Yeah.. you’re probably right, if you want to be on the safe side.” Cayleb pushed his beer away from him. “But hey, at least you won’t have to go out on the ice anymore. You’ll be free to explore other interests and such.”
Manny’s glass tipped over and rolled in a half-circle. He turned his head slowly and the sadness in his eyes made Cayleb’s heart sink.
“Cayleb, I don’t really have any other interests.”
If the silence was oppressive before, then Cayleb didn’t know what to think now. They sat there, eye to eye for an eternity before Cayleb slapped his hand down on the bar.
“Two beers and two shots, Marie.”
The barkeep served them up with no hesitation and Cayleb slid half of the package over to his friend. He smiled and put his hand on his friends back, only to vince in pain again. Manny smiled and got a gleam in his eye. He was always amused by pain for some reason.
“So, did they have to open you up?” His eyes shone as he took a big gulp of his drink.
Cayleb slowly lowered his arm down and grabbed his own drink. He downed almost half of it before answering.
“They had to mend it. Turns out I ripped a bit of solder out too so they had to redo that too.”
Manny’s face split in a shit-eating grin and he drew breath in through his teeth.
“Aaaw, man! No anesthesia, right? Of course not, oh that must have been bad. Remember when I popped my vertebra jumping down from that ledge? The quacks had to jump on my back to make it go back in.” Manny took another large sip of his beer before picking up the shot and holding it out to Cayleb. They dinked glasses and downed the cheap swill in unison. It burned like hell and parents would scare their kids saying they would lose their teeth, but it worked if you wanted to get going in a hurry. Cayleb shook his head and signalled for a refill.
“You only popped it because you had all that crap on your back. You just didn’t want to throw it down to me.” Cayleb was relieved to see light in his friend’s eye again. He gritted his teeth as Manny suddenly swung his hand, looking to slap him right between the shoulder blades, but his touch was gentle.
“I’ve learned to listen to you, haven’t I?” Manny smiled, showing off his brilliant white teeth. He looked like his old self. 
Cayleb took another sip of beer and nodded his head. He grabbed the shots that were just refilled and passed one to Manny.
“Your round.”
Manny laughed and shook his head. He reached over the bar and took a cup with some dice from the usual spot. He shook it and held it out in front of him.
“I’ll play you for it.”

Cayleb watched the scanner fall straight down for almost a minute before the light disappeared. He looked over his shoulder at Manny who was watching the display. His eyebrows were raised and the light from the pad made his pupils contract.
“Wow, it’s still going, man.” He flipped the display around to show Cayleb the ticking numbers. They were almost at ten thousand meters and kept going. They stood there watching for another minute before Cayleb shook his head.
“No way. Let’s just throw another one.” He went towards the shuttle that was parked in between two glaciers. The light was bouncing off every surface imaginable and the faint glow of the city was barely visible in the distance. He thought to himself that this was always the scariest part, right before expansion of the city limits. He wondered for a second if it was even possible to make it back without the shuttle when Manny grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. His hand was clamped down with the usual force and Cayleb was happy that his back had healed weeks ago.
“I don’t think it’s busted. It slows down a little, like it’s bouncing off stuff or something.”
They both watched the display for a bit, and Cayleb could see that he was right. He whistled to himself, though the microphone didn’t pick it up. He clapped Manny’s shoulder and started walking back. He gestured for him to follow.
Inside the shuttle Cayleb logged the crevice on the map and jotted down all the other things they saw. He looked out one of the small windows and tried to remember the terrain they had gone through on their way there. The pad prompted him to specify depth and he looked over at Manny who was still watching the display with wonder.
“Guess we gotta wait for that thing to hit the bottom, then.” Cayleb put the pad aside and leaned back against the cabin wall. He looked at Manny and was hit by a subtle mix of melancholy and warmth looking at his face.
“I can’t believe it, man. This thing is so deep, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. How are we even still getting a signal?” A loud ping from the device snapped his eyes back to the display. He smiled like a kid and showed Cayleb the number. This time the whistle was heard.
“Twenty-three clicks. That’s crazy, Manny.” Cayleb took the pad again and put in the data. He took one last look outside before putting in the return command. The shuttle came to life with a gentle hum and began to move. Light bounced off the surrounding ice and would sometimes glare the windows for a second. Manny was still looking at the depth counter.
“What do you think is down there?” He was tracing his finger across the screen gently as he spoke.
Cayleb put his hands behind his head and tried to imagine. Down there, the dark would be oppressive. No amount of ambient light would ever reach that far down, so you would be forced to bring your own.
“I don’t know. I’m wondering how a fault that deep is even created. An ice-quake maybe?” 
Manny shook his head.
“No, man. It would have crumbled and filled itself in. That thing isn’t ice all the way down, I’m sure.” Manny was tapping the depth-measurer against his knee. “Maybe it’s warmer down there.”
“Maybe it’s colder.” Cayleb was getting a headache trying to imagine how deep down it was. In the city nothing was taller than thirty meters so this kind of scale was hard to imagine. Manny shrugged and looked away. He appeared to be lost in thought. Cayleb thought to say something, but then thought to say nothing instead. He leaned his head back and enjoyed the steady rumble of the shuttle. 


“Hey! Grandma!”
Cayleb blinked his eyes open and felt pressure on his shin. He looked over at Manny who was pressing his foot against it. It didn’t look like a gentle amount of force either. Manny had a mischievous look in his eye for a second before he let his foot drop.
“I dug up the old manual – for my rig. You’d be surprised what features they list in there.” He rapped his knuckles on the side of his own shin, producing hollow clunks. “Apparently, I’m fitted with bleeding edge inertial dampeners.. Or at least it was bleeding edge at the time I got ‘em.”
Cayleb nodded, waiting to see if there was anything else. The ride back sometimes took hours, and Manny always got antsy. The lack of response didn’t seem to affect him.
“You know they list all the other stuff: weight capabilities, user warnings, safety tips et cetera, et cetera – But it also claims that I would be able to survive a fall at terminal velocity.” He snapped his fingers. “I don’t think I’ve ever fallen more than fifty meters at most.”
“Maybe I should have let you fall, back then.” Cayleb yawned. “Would have saved me some surgery.”
“Maybe.” Manny was still smiling, but Cayleb regretted what he said. His eyes locked with Manny’s and they sat in silence. A few seconds passed before Cayleb noticed that he was holding his breath. He could feel a dull headache blossoming, slowly, in the right side of his skull. Their eyes were still locked and he was mesmerized. He knew he should say something.

But he didn’t.

A crash ripped them from the moment and the cabin was flooded with red light. Cayleb shot up and looked out the window. His mind was so filled with thoughts of deep crevices and their shuttle lying smashed at the bottom, that at first he couldn’t understand what he was seeing. He stood silently, with his forehead pressed against the glass before he realized that it was a false alarm.
“Looks like the terrain shifted by a couple of centimeters. The shuttle can’t climb the step.” He tapped the side of his head brace and with a pneumatic wheeze, his helmet and visor sealed him in. “We are going to have to lift it up.” He looked at Manny who was still sitting there, staring at the place where Cayleb was sitting earlier. His hands were on his knees and he looked like he was completely lost in thought. But just like that he came back and stood up. His visor snapped down and he gave the thumbs up.
“Let’s go.”
They unsealed the door and went outside. Just as suspected the shuttle had come up against a step. Since they hadn’t felt anything going out, it was safe to assume that the ice had indeed shifted. The light from the shuttle bounced and glittered beautifully around them, giving everything a distinct blue glow. The stars above them stood out brilliantly and Cayleb thought to himself that he would never get tired of seeing all those lights. He reached under the shuttle to grab one of the jacks but Manny stopped him. He flexed his arms comically.
“Come on, let’s do it by hand.” He pushed Cayleb up towards the front of the shuttle. Cayleb tried to push back, but only a little.
“Manny, last thing I need is another injury.” Nevertheless he stopped in front of the large threads at the tip and looked for someplace to hold. He shook his head.
“C’mon, Cay. What is this thing? Two or three tons? We’re rated for that easy.” His laugh was muddled with static as he ran around to the other side. “Just keep your spine straight, brother.”
Cayleb knew he was right about the weight – and the rating. No factory in their right minds would put the actual limit in their manuals, as people had a tendency to push their luck. He had once heard about a guy at the south wall, who had held up one of the pillars for an hour. Compared to that, a shuttle should be no problem… Though, the guy did die as far as the story goes.
“Alright, let me just get in position.” Cayleb spread his legs out in as wide a squat as he could, knowing Manny was doing the same. He placed his hands flat against the top of the threads and straightened his spine. He took a deep breath.
“Manny, on three! One! Two! Threeee-” The front of the shuttle was raised off the ground and the threads were moving closer to the edge of the step. In between breaths Cayleb muttered words like slowly, steady and so on as they took tiny shuffled steps forward. When they had the threads over half a meter across the ice they started lowering it. Cayleb felt a twinge in his back and straightened it even more. When they both let go, he looked down at where he was standing and saw the network of cracks that had appeared under his feet. He shook his head and chuckled before returning to the warmth of the shuttle. Manny met him at the back and his eyes shone brightly. Their helmets were off before the door was fully closed and the wind managed to lick their faces for just a moment, causing their cheeks to flush.
“Man!” Cayleb laughed.
“Piece of cake, man – What did I tell you?” Manny shook Cayleb’s shoulder roughly as they laughed.
They fell back into their seats with a chuckle still lingering in their throats and Cayleb used his pad to resume the trip back. The shuttle slanted upwards for a few seconds before leveling and moving with the familiar hum they had known for years.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lifted anything that heavy before.” Cayleb was examining his hand to see if there was any damage, but all he saw was some chafing at the joints. 
“Me neither.” Manny smiled warmly, but Cayleb couldn’t help but feel sad for his friend again. Manny didn’t seem to notice and they spent the last hours of the trip in good spirits – even more so when they reached the bar.

“I’m reassigning you two.” The foreman didn’t take his eyes off the pad as he gave orders. “The outer perimeter is almost logged and we need to start setting up relays for the grid.”
They were standing in his office and Manny was looking out at the loading bay. People were milling about like every morning, some filling their shuttles with relays while others simply jumped in the back and set off.
“We’ve only mapped out eighty-two percent, sir. There’s still at least a hundred kilometers to go.” Manny was rubbing his left arm as he spoke. “Aren’t we usually on recon till the last two percent or so?”
The foreman looked up and narrowed his eyes.
“Usually we don’t question the orders we get, Manny.” His glare somehow made Manny shrink a little. Almost comical given the height difference. “Now get out of my office and do your work.”
As they were leaving the foreman cleared his throat and signalled for Cayleb to stay.
“Cayleb, quick word.” He flicked his hand at Manny impatiently. “You, start hauling pylons.”
Cayleb looked at Manny who shrugged before slipping out the door. Cayleb knew he would wait at the foot of the stairs. He never really followed orders, as long as the foreman couldn’t see him anyways. As soon as he was out the door the foreman started talking.
“Make sure he doesn’t carry too much. His limit is half capacity and he knows it.” His face told Cayleb that he wouldn’t tolerate objections. “The company doesn’t want to be at fault if he tears a muscle lifting something he wasn’t supposed to and it’ll be your ass on the line if it comes to that – so make sure.”
Cayleb was at first confused and then strangely relieved. For a second he thought that the foreman had actually been concerned for Manny, but it was just about the bottom-line like always. He simply nodded and the foreman waved him away with an irritated gesture. He hurried down the stairs, wondering if he could somehow convince Manny that carrying three pylons instead of six was somehow more efficient.


The loading bay was the coldest part of the city. The gate was barely insulated and was constantly opening and closing. Company policy was to avoid using the suits until you were fully through the gate, so you either had to supply your own heating or suck it up. Currently, they were sucking it up. The two of them had been on mapping since they first started the job, so time spent in the loading bay had been around fifteen minutes on a slow day. Now they had to load their shuttle with two hundred pylons before heading out, and whatever flesh they had left was covered with goosebumps. Manny hadn’t said a word since they got back from the office. In the end, Cayleb gave it to him straight. It had seemed to go over fine, until he decided to also carry three at a time. The failed attempt to show sympathy was stopped by a grim look and Manny silently mouthing a single word: No.
After an hour or so, their cheeks were bright red and they were almost done. Manny looked like he was deep in thought as he walked back and forth. Everytime he walked from the shuttle to storage he would rub his left arm. Cayleb thought he looked sad and felt sad himself. They had taken out a large chunk of components, making his left half the size of his right. The metal underneath looked untouched and shiny, which was probably worse as it told everyone around them what he was going through. The shuttle was a little more back-heavy than they were used to and the cabin seemed to slant a little towards the back. It wasn’t a huge amount, but enough for Manny to comment as they rolled out of the gate into the frozen waste.

On the ride out Manny was constantly rubbing his arm and looking out the window. Cayleb tried to distract himself by looking at the pad, but the glowing dots on the map were unchanging and dull to look at. The shuttle moved on a programmed route, stopping occasionally so they could climb out and set up the pylons. Every pylon had a thin drill at the bottom, just under an arms length, that they had to twist deep into the ice. Once it was settled, they would press a button at the very top and after a minute the pylon would switch on. Every stop, they had to set up two or three pylons before moving on to the next. The work was monotonous and constantly activating and deactivating their suits was a pain. They only had about a dozen stops to go when Cayleb heard Manny scream out in pain. He spun around to see his friend fall to his knee clutching his chest and clawing at his arms. He tripped rushing over and almost fell head-first into the pulsating pylon. He pulled Manny a few steps away and looked him over. His palms had scorch-marks and his visor was completely fogged over.
“What the hell happened?!” He tried to make him stop clawing at his chest, afraid that he was going to tear the suit. “Stop that, Manny! You’ll freeze if it tears.”
Manny suddenly swung his right arm and Cayleb only barely managed to shield himself in time. He was knocked backwards, landing on his back.
“Get the fuck off me! I can’t- “ Manny’s voice was scrambled and the static muddled his voice. “I fucking can’t – I don’t.”
The static got worse and Cayleb realized it was because he was crying. He sat up and watched Manny flop onto his back and lie still, sobbing in between ragged breaths. His own arms had received a large scrape just below the wrist, but there was no real damage. He got to his knees and slowly crawled over towards Manny. The crying didn’t stop as he sat down next to him and they were on the ground until their visor lit up, telling them to return to the shuttle. A layer of ice had formed around them and thin flakes glittered as they broke and were carried off by the wind. Cayleb gently pulled his friend to a sitting position and coaxed him to stand up. They shuffled back to the shuttle and fell into their seats. The cabin was flooded with red light and the pad was crying to be picked up. ‘Personel injury detected’ was displayed on the screen and Cayleb had to give permission for the shuttle to initiate a scan. He looked over at Manny who was still wearing his helmet. The specs of ice that clung to him were quickly melting into cloudy drops, falling from his suit onto the floor of the cabin. Cayleb carefully reached over and tapped the side of his helmet, making it retract. His face was wet with tears and he had burst a blood vessel in his left eye. They held each other’s gaze for a second before Cayleb let his finger lower onto the pad and start the scan. 


The damage looked worse than it was. Only the outer plating had been scorched and no nerves were lost. Pylons are designed to carry extreme currents between them with no regards to safety and Manny had still been twisting it into the ice when it switched on. It had taken a while but finally he admitted what had happened. The monotony had gotten to him and he found he could break it if he turned the pylon on before twisting it in – A mini race to beat the current everytime. Cayleb knew Manny had done this once or twice last time they were on pylon-duty, but it seemed that the window got tighter and tighter for every pylon he put down. Manny was looking down at his feet in shame as he confessed. Cayleb didn’t know what to say and the pad in his hands was demanding that he make a report of what happened. He looked at his friend and back at the pylons they had left in shuttle. Either way, they had to call it a day. Cayleb lowered his head and sighed deeply before marking the reason for injury as ‘faulty pylon’ and tossing the pad aside.

“Heard about a guy in central.” Manny was staring dead ahead rotating his glass as he spoke. “He didn’t want to be decommissioned, so he tried to hide.”
They were sitting in their usual spot. Cayleb was getting a headache. Every story Manny told was about someone, somewhere in the city, avoiding decommission.
“Key-word being tried, I’m guessing.” Cayleb watched his friend closely. “Try to run and the collectors catch you.”
“Not this guy. He managed half a year beyond his due date. They just couldn’t find him.” Manny spun around on his chair to look out at the rest of the bar. “He did everything right: Used his rig sparingly, ate all the right things and tried to keep a low profile.”
Manny seemed fixated on something, but before Cayleb could follow his sight-line he looked back at him. Cayleb sighed.
“And that got him six months.” Cayleb nodded his head slowly and took a sip.
“Half a year.” Manny agreed.
He looked out at the bar again and seemed to be staring at someone sitting in the corner. Cayleb managed to take a look and recognized the older man sitting on his own, drinking a small glass of beer. He had worked on the brink fifteen cycles ago and was decommissioned only a month after Cayleb had first gotten the job.
“Turns out, the guy was a careful type. He didn’t touch other people and isolated himself more and more.” Manny was still staring at the man in the corner. “He would wear a hood or otherwise when walking on the streets, but made sure not to talk to anybody or engage.”
“Who? Oh, the guy from central.” Cayleb looked at his friend and saw that his face had darkened.
“But it all went to shit one day. He had been walking the streets one night when some old woman crossed his path. Turns out he killed her – accidentally, most likely. They found him right next to her.” Manny gently rubbed his chin, where the coarse stubble had become bears over the last few weeks. “It looked like the woman had tripped, maybe over the curb or a piece of trash. He had tried to catch her without thinking. One of his hands went right through her, through ribs and out the other side. She must have died instantly – Well, at least I hope she did.”
“Shit.” Cayleb looked into his empty glass and wondered if he should order another. “That’s why they take us apart, I guess. To avoid accidents like that.”
Manny turned to look at him and his eyes were empty. His arms had been reduced in size equally now. They were about the same size as a Naug would have and Manny had used some grit to make the shiny plates look worn. He turned back to look over at the old man again. The bartender had gotten him another drink and was looking out the window, occasionally lifting the glass with both hands and holding it to his lips. Manny didn’t respond so Cayleb tried to fill the void.
“I think it’s better this way. We lose our strength, but not our life, right? That guy over there’s got hair as white as snow. He’s lived longer than most and is still here, drinking at his favourite place.” Cayleb put a hand on Manny’s shoulder. “Shit, I’ll probably be sitting across, like a couple of old timers with nothing better to do.”
Manny was still looking at the old man, watching him drink. He didn’t smile or react to what Cayleb said and spoke as if in a trance.
“Cayleb, I’ve been watching that guy, every time we’ve been in here. I’ve watched him drink on his own, thinking that it would be me eventually. Do you know what I’ve seen?”
Cayleb shook his head.
“Six cycles ago, he would order a pitcher and pour his own beer. He would lift the thing without issue and empty it one glass at a time. Over time his arms would shake more and more, but he kept at it. That only lasted another cycle before he just got it in a glass, and nothing changed for a while. He would drink, the bartender brought him another one, he would drink again. Until he started using both hands to hold the glass, just for the first sip, then he would use one hand again. But one sip became two and then a third, then half. Now, he drinks two-thirds before switching to one hand. In just six cycles he went from pouring pitchers to barely lifting a glass.”
Manny paused, looking at Cayleb. His eyebrows were raised, like he had asked a question. Cayleb didn’t know what to say.
“He was decommissioned fifteen cycles ago, Cayleb.” Manny touched his forearm.. “They are still taking parts out. His nerves are frayed, the connection’s getting weaker between rig and body for every day that passes. Where’s the limit? When his arms can barely support themselves? Will he be able to turn a handle? Brush his teeth?”
Cayleb saw a shadow pass over his friend’s face as he spoke. He saw something in his eyes he had never seen before. Manny continued.
“If he can’t take it anymore, will he be able to do something about it? Can he throw a cable over a beam to hang himself? Pull the cap off his meds? Will he have someone to help him do this, Cayleb?”
“Manny.” Cayleb tried to interject, but he continued.
“That guy in Central I was telling you about? They found him next to the old woman. He had torn himself apart, almost pulling his head off before dying. He died scared and alone, but at least he was still himself. At least he could still- ”
That was too much. Cayleb slammed his fist into the bar, cracking the board.
“Stop this shit, Manny!” The bar had fallen silent around them, as everyone watched. Manny hadn’t even flinched. “I don’t want to hear you say shit like that. No matter what you are going to go through, you know the same will happen to me. I got your back now, and I fucking expect you to have mine.”
Manny’s face was hard and defiant, but his eyes weren’t. Slowly his expression softened and he just looked sad instead. The bar was still quiet. 
“I- I’m sorry, Cay.” Manny turned around on his chair and faced the bar again. He fiddled with his glass. “I don’t know what came over me, I’m sorry..”
Cayleb wasn’t satisfied, but also didn’t know exactly what he wanted from his friend. He saw Manny’s eyes gloss over and felt tears slowly coming into his own. He wiped them away carefully and put his hand on Manny’s shoulder. He shook him a little. 
“I love you, Manny. I am going to need your help sooner or later. I need you to be there for me too.” Cayleb squeezed his shoulder as tightly as he could. Manny nodded and smiled. They got up and left the bar while everyone watched and slowly conversation picked up again beneath the lazy ceiling fans. The old man in the corner never looked away from the window and his eyes barely followed the two men as they walked down the road towards the city.

The following weeks had been a slump. They stuck to their routine, driving out from the loading bay with a load of pylons every day. Manny didn’t say a word and seemed depressed like he had never been before. Cayleb tried to make conversation, at work or at the bar, but it seemed that no matter what he said, Manny would just stare back. He could only carry a single pylon at a time, and Cayleb set down three in the time it would take him to do one. Their work meant driving the same route every day, getting a little further for each trip. The progress for the pylon network was displayed at the end of every work-day, and they had climbed from sixty percent to the high eighties. It was on the last ten percent that something changed. Manny had cracked a joke while they were climbing out of the shuttle and Cayleb had been so surprised he didn’t know whether to laugh or not. He would poke fun at Cayleb’s posture or try to trip his feet when carrying pylons. For a week, it was like old times. They would get on their shuttle every morning and talk about all the things they used to. Manny even smuggled a bag of food on board one day and laughed it off when Cayleb said he could be fired. He watched him munch down a sandwich and couldn’t help but laugh too – It wasn’t like they could touch him anyways.
This day, Manny had a funny look on his face. He kept smiling in a weird way, which made Cayleb feel like there was some joke he wasn’t getting. When asked about it he didn’t have anything to say and eventually Cayleb let it go. They were loading up the last pylons when Manny snatched the pad and flicked through it. He tapped the edge of it before handing it back.
“Ninety-two, Cay. Looks like our work is gonna pay off.” Manny handed the pad back and had that weird smile again. “We might just get to a hundred if the other crews get their shit together.”
Cayleb took the pad and looked at the specifications. He checked the map and where their route would take them before turning it around to show Manny.
“Looks like we’ll end up around our last recon job. It’ll be nice to see if all the ice is still where we left it, eh?” He studied Manny’s face as he showed him the pad. He just smiled that same weird smile. There was something unnerving about it.
“Maybe we’ll throw another scanner down that hole, just to see if it’s gotten deeper.” Manny chuckled and shrugged before waving the pad away. He crawled into the shuttle without another word. Cayleb hesitated for a second before following him, not quite sure why.


The work was the same as always. The shuttle drove them along at a snail’s pace, stopping occasionally so that they could set up a few pylons – Rinse and repeat. The pile of pylons got smaller for every stop and just so did the conversation between them diminish. Manny’s smile slowly went away for every stop and he looked as if he was deep in thought. Cayleb himself was wondering if Manny would get the chance to join the next round of recon. His arms were reduced but still functional and his legs were as of yet untouched. Maybe he could make the case that their teamwork was worth the risk, but the idea of thawing the foreman’s icy heart seemed far-fetched. The monotony made him lose count of the pylons and it wasn’t until the shuttle stopped that he realized that they had reached the final spot. He grabbed three of the pylons and left the last one for Manny before crawling out. Outside the shuttle the icy mounds stretched and craned in every which way. The light from the shuttle bounced between them, causing the world around them to shimmer blue and green. Just enough light to work by. Above countless stars shone down on them and far in the distance, the city glowed faintly. He could hear Manny’s breathing over the intercom as he dug the first pylon into the ice. Forcing it into the ice was effortless for Cayleb and he felt a mix of gratitude and guilt over his strength. He thought about getting all the guys together for a celebration. He had saved up a little and didn’t mind spending it on a nice bottle of something for Manny. For the both of them really.
“I think this is a hundred.” Manny’s voice sounded flat and muddled by static.
Cayleb turned to look over his shoulder and saw his friend slowly drilling his pylon into the ice. Every turn seemed to require all of his strength as it slowly rotated deeper and deeper.
“Yeah, it seems like our job is almost finished. Another cycle of work for that asshole and it seems he pays less every year.” Cayleb drove his second pylon into the ice. Cracks shot out from underneath and he began turning it. “I guess we’ll have a few weeks off for the expansion.”
He turned the pylon with ease, watching the crushed ice that was getting pushed up and out by the drill pile up at his feet. He looked over his shoulder at Manny again, who was only halfway with his. He knew they would be finished simultaneously if he just held back a little, so he always did – hoping it made Manny feel better.
“Yeah, though it always seems like we’re just waiting to get back out here anyways. Time off feels more like a time-out.” Manny’s voice was cheerful and Cayleb laughed. Manny continued. “I gotta say, Cay. I love this job – the recon, not this pylon-shit. I’m glad we got assigned together all that time ago. You’re the best guy I’ve ever known. I mean that.”
The second pylon was secured and Cayleb hit the power button. He smiled to himself and could feel his heart flutter a little. He drove the third pylon even harder into the ice and was satisfied with the tremble he felt under his feet. 
“Listen, man, I feel the same way.” He was turning the drill as fast as he could, wanting to go over and hug his friend. “I was thinking that we get all the guys from the bay down to the bar and celebrate finishing this zone. I’ve been meaning to give you a little something as a surprise.”
The pylon was planted and Cayleb turned it on. He stood back and watched the little timer count down the seconds before thousands upon thousands of volts would channel through it.
“I also think we should talk to the foreman when we get back. Next recon-cycle is only a few weeks away, and I sure as hell won’t be comfortable going out here with anybody but you, so maybe we can make a deal or something.” Cayleb turned around as he spoke and stopped. Manny was gone, his pylon planted and activated. For a second Cayleb was confused before he felt something cold slowly wrapping around his heart and throat, like a steel wire.
He ran over to the shuttle and looked inside. Empty. He turned back to Manny’s pylon again and looked out into the darkness beyond it. The light from the shuttle was reflected all around him, but only went so far. Cayleb’s heart started pounding in his chest.
There was no response, no sound of breathing over the radio, just empty static. His jaw was clenched and he could feel veins throbbing inside his head as he stared out into the wall of darkness. Then he saw something, a glimmer of light so faint he almost missed it. He didn’t hesitate and ran out into the dark. He rammed his fist against his chest to activate his personal light and ran like he had never done before. His legs hammered the ground beneath him, cracking the ice for every step as he gained speed. The light on his chest barely gave him anything and he would only narrowly miss the icy walls and features as he ran. He had no idea how fast he was running but everything around him was a dark blur. Just as he thought he had lost him, he would see another glimmer and keep going. He screamed Manny’s name over and over as he ran, but received nothing but static. He could feel tears coming into his eyes as he ran and wondered how the hell they would find their way back. The glimmer appeared more often and he knew he was gaining on him. His movement was becoming manic as he stumbled and got to his feet again and again. Still he yelled out his friend’s name and strained his ears against the unfeeling static. Suddenly the walls and pillars of ice around him disappeared. His light was only illuminating the ground in front of him and he could see cracks on the ground where Manny had run. He strained his eyes until they watered and tried to blink the tears away. Finally he saw something in the distance. A light, very faint and the silhouette of a man in front of it. He heard the static in his ear change form, almost like breathing.

And then it was gone. The light, the silhouette and the faint sound of breathing. Cayleb shook his head confused and looked again, all while he was running. He saw the edge at the last second and threw himself on his back, clawing at the ice to stop in time. His legs went over, but he had managed to stop. He climbed back up and looked into the crevice below. His light did nothing to dispel the darkness, stretching downwards into a cold and dead oblivion. He stared into the infinite abyss and saw nothing at all. He screamed Manny’s name over and over, until his throat was sore and his visor was soaked in snot and tears. He hammered his fist into the ice over and over, stopping to look over the edge for a glimmer of light. Eventually he collapsed on his stomach and threw up. Then he just cried. Curled up on the edge, he cried and held himself until his suit started beeping.

Cayleb sat across the foreman’s desk and was silent. The investigator drummed his fingers on the table while he studied the report open on his pad. He scrolled up and down, nodding occasionally before looking up at Cayleb again. His face was hard to read, somehow concerned and uncaring at the same time.
“According to the log, you were away from the shuttle for almost two hours. Your temperature must have been well below safe levels.” His last question sounded more like he was reciting a fact.
“Yes. I had severe hypothermia and was rushed to the hospital.” Cayleb could hardly remember the walk back to the shuttle, only that it had been cold like nothing he had ever felt before. “I almost got lost several times.”
The investigator nodded and looked back down at his pad again. He paused to write something for a second before putting it aside. He placed his fingertips against each other and sighed.
“I’ve seen this before. People receive their decommission-date and suddenly they have an accident. Couple a weeks later, they have another one and eventually they prove fatal.” He maintained his pose as he spoke. “You’re telling me that nothing was out of the ordinary in the time leading up to the incident.”
Cayleb nodded.
“Nothing at all? Not even something that you found strange, or just a little off? I feel I should remind you that my only interest is to prevent something like this from happening to others.” He leaned back, stroking his chin. “It’s important for the people of this city – to know that life still goes on after decommission.”
Cayleb didn’t respond. He looked down at his hand and that little rusty spot on the joint. When he moved the finger, he could feel the metal grating against itself. There was no sound, but he could feel it. He knew it had been there for a while, but he couldn’t remember how long. When he bent his fingers into a fist, his middle finger couldn’t quite bend all the way. It was barely noticeable, but Cayleb couldn’t stop seeing it every time he closed his fist.  He wondered when the joint would begin to squeak, or when the rust would spread – if that was what it was. 
He looked up and caught the investigator staring at Cayleb’s hand for just a second before their eyes met. His expression was curious, if not a little suspicious. He reached over and took his pad again, never taking his eyes off Cayleb.
“When is your next evaluation? This cycle or the next?” He seemed to be navigating the menus while he spoke.
“Next cycle.” Cayleb clenched his fist and felt the joint grate.
“I see.” The investigator tapped the corner of the pad against the desk a few times before adding: “You can always request to have it sooner, if you wish.”
A dull twist in Cayleb’s stomach was followed by a familiar headache. He didn’t flinch or so he hoped. He tried to look as if considering it before slowly shaking his head.
“No, I think next cycle works fine.”
The two men sat there in silence. Tension seemed to be building, or maybe it was just the headache. The investigator looked as if he was about to say something, but kept pausing just before opening his mouth. He finally looked down at his pad and made a quick note before returning it to the inner lining of his jacket. He smiled at Cayleb.
“Well, in any case I am thankful for your help.” His expression changed to a sad frown. “And I am terribly sorry for your loss. You have my condolences.”
He stood up and walked around the desk towards the door, only pausing to place a hand on Cayleb’s shoulder for a moment before continuing. His long strides carried him to the door where he paused to say something, but didn’t. The second he was out of the room, Cayleb put his face into his hands and squeezed his eyes together. His heart was beating fast and hard and it felt like every vein in his head was going to burst. He looked at his hands and wanted to scream in frustration. He grabbed the finger with the rusty joint and almost pulled it off trying to wiggle it back and forth, but the grating sensation wouldn’t go away. Behind him he heard the door open and the heavy stomps of the foreman. He stood up immediately and turned towards the door. For good measure the foreman told him to get the hell out anyways.

As he walked down the stairs leading to the loading bay, he looked out at all his colleagues. All of them were packing up their things, guiding shuttles into their holding areas. Most of them would have a few weeks off, while others would join the expansion crews for a bit of extra pay. All of their faces were young, younger than Cayleb’s at least, and he wondered how long each of them had. He looked down at the end of the stairs, expecting Manny to be there. He imagined him standing there with a goofy smile, or waiting in the shuttle impatiently. He thought about his friend and how much he loved him. Then he thought about how he would never see him again, and how much he missed him. He thought about how he felt when the shuttle-door closed behind him, shutting out his last hope of finding him again. How the cold had almost killed him as he stumbled through the icy maze, not sure why.

He thought about Manny. How he chose to work on the brink because he wanted the thrills and the danger. How he would climb the glaciers to get a better view and jump down without a care.

It’s not the end, they say… 
Life goes on, for a long time after.
What a terrifying idea.