My conchiglie partner’s shell has suddenly begun to thicken up. ‘Winter’s coming, Rod,’ she told me. ‘First day of Autumn.’
‘Huh?’ I looked around – a rocky high-mountain slope, all our drilling and sample-mining equipment scattered across our camp.
‘I need to get down in the lowlands,’ she said. ‘Season’s over.’
‘You can’t. Not just like that. What about all this lot?’
‘We can pack it in the wagon. It will take me a day or two to create my hibernation shell.’
‘You never told me this happened. Can’t you delay it?’
She shrugged, with slight cracking sounds from her thickening shell. ‘We can get down to a cabin on Four-Thou level where there’s a small trading post. We can over-winter there.’
‘Over-winter? Great,’ I was flummered. ‘Now you tell me. I thought we were out here—’
She was already packing the trailer. ‘…for another fifteen days? And then over-wintering all the way down in Florritown? No?’ Apparently not – she started the wagon’s T6 motor and pointed the cumbersome vehicle down the bare slope, just as the first swirls of snow whipped around me. I climbed in, not a second too soon, as she gunned the engine a couple of times and headed down the whitening slope. Flummering aliens.
The cabin was there, alright, but it wasn’t merely the single little refuge cabin she had spoken of, tucked against a rockface with a scarcely-snowproof roof. This was much bigger, a very solidly built trading post with overnight rooms for summer visitors. A youngish man ran the place, a mixture of world-weary and twinkle-eyed, welcoming us into the polished and warm-lit entrance area. A real fire. A blast of heat! This was Total Amazement.
‘You’re only just in time,’ he said, ‘She’s shelling up rapidly. You’ll definitely have to stay here. She’ll be OK. Some of them do it every year – I have five pre-paid shellies in the cellar dorm right now. They like to push the season as long as possible. Humans like you, and me, die of cold and starvation if we’re caught outside in the mountains, but conchiglie simply go into deep freeze for the season, even outdoors.
‘Drink? Sit awhile. My other human guest isn’t here just now; you’ve plenty of time to warm up, have a drink, give me the latest gossip.’
That suited me, if only through sheer relief at not being caught outside for the winter – and so unexpectedly.
‘The conchiglie can hibernate wherever they happen to be. Come the Spring melts, they wake up. If they had a human partner, they’re almost certainly frozen solid and dead. Which seems to be the conchies’ intention, because it leaves them inheriting the joint profits, with all the survey info and samples from the previous season.’ He looked again at my partner, ‘Not seen this one before. She must be new at it. Used to be a common thing with them, entrapping humans so they can double their profit.’
‘So, I’m gonna starve here? Is the valley still open lower down?
‘No – termination snowfall was three days ago. Valley’s completely impassable till the melts.’
‘There is hope.’ He gave me that faded look. He must practise it every day. ‘I got caught that way one time. Near froze to death in a ravine. I covered a tight spot over with branches and tarp and hunkered down with my partner.’
‘Yeah? What did you eat?’
‘My partner. One hundred twenty days. Can’t face conchi-meat even now.’
‘I built this place two years later. It’s a crossroads between the long-valley route and the passes into Medan and Highgrass. I get the passing trade in summer; plus a few trappers in the winter; maybe a few guests staying over for a time in the snows.’
‘You get people and conchis staying? Long period?’
‘Sure. Like you. Ain’t got any choice, unless you want to get off my property? Your partner there would survive outside, but she’ll be more comfortable inside – less stiff when they thaw out. Mostly our guests are in similar pairs. I come to an arrangement.’
‘Such as?’ I had a sinky sort of feeling about this.
‘Well, if it’s a single conchiglie who just turns up, I check out their property and samples, and charge proportionately for their storage. If they’ve pre-booked, like the five down in the basement, it’s a standard fee. Unless they’ve admitted they deliberately dumped their human partner somewhere higher up in the first-fall colds – to inherit the partnership.’
‘And then?’ He passed me another drink – warm and mulled.
‘I wait till they’ve gone completely solid, and either crack’em open – some folks’ll eat them even now – kind of an unusual dish. Or, I can store them indefinitely – there’s an ice cave about a thousand ticks up the north face of Hielo Mount – that one.’ He pointed straight up through the roof, towards the mountain the cabin complex was nestled against. ‘It never thaws in the bottom. At the last count, I had around a dozen conchies piled up in there, not that I ever climb down to do an inventory.’
I was smack-faced. ‘No? Really?’
‘How else am I supposed to make a profit? I get folk like you want to eat all winter for free. Nothing’s free. So I have to make a charge – thirty percent of your season’s takings. That way, you come out alive, and your partner—'
‘My partner? Yesss?’
‘Comes out however you want – they’re in full hibernation, so the choice isn’t up them. Option 1: They wake up snug and smug in Spring. 2: They get split and roasted over a log fire at the Four-Roads Barbecue. Or 3: I roll them down the ice cave for the next thousand yonks – that’s a free option, by the way. And you have two thirds of their profit, too.
‘Flummery – I never thought. I mean, it takes some thinking about.’
‘Sure it does. Your partner’s not going to have any say in it – she’s shelled-up solid already. What do you think her motives actually were? Why don’t you chat it over tonight.’
‘My other guest. She arrived yesterday. I expect she’s in her room, recovering from her descent yesterday. She had a long drag down from Three Peak Lookout. Name’s Dyna. We’re actually booked to roll her partner down the ice cave tomorrow.
‘We can do hers and yours together if you decide on Option Three. Another drink?'