Shelley travels to the North Pole to conduct a survey, and, also, to die.
The survey is about polar bears. Traditionally, polar bears receive their surveys by post, but this time, Shelley’s boss sent her north.
“Polar bear literacy rates are reported at 98%,” said Shelley’s boss. “I don’t believe those numbers. I think that many polar bears are ashamed to admit that they can’t read. Others, unable to read, eat our survey. It’s a tasty paper treat! We can fix the first problem with marketing—making it glamorous to admit one’s flaws. But to fix the second problem we need someone on the site. We need someone to go there and put the question to the polar bears directly!”
“Me,” said Shelley. Her voice was quiet and her affect blank. “Send me.”
“That’s wonderful!” exclaimed her boss, and hugged her. That’s one reason why Shelley is traveling north.
The other is that she’s had a hard life and she’s tired.
Shelley reaches the north pole and begins lining up polar bears. She administers the survey to each. It becomes rapidly obvious that very few polar bears can read. Some even try to eat her. Shelley does not want to live. But she clings to life. When they snarl and bite at her, she flees across the snow. Behind her, more civilized bears run interference, crying, “Without table manners, we are nothing more than animals! White furry animals! With teeth! Please, you must show restraint!”
Shelley does not hear. She runs, and runs, until the ice cracks beneath her feet and she falls into a cavern beneath the snow.
“I don’t deserve to live,” she says. “I have no value.”
A time passes, in the dark.
“But it’s very cold.”
So she lights a flashlight and looks around her. She’s in a great cavern, and all around her, in frozen sleep, they are.
“What are you?” she says. But she knows. This is a thing that was not meant to exist in her world.
She stands. She hobbles over. She stares at them.
They are princes in shining mail, and great beasts, and witches, and old women, and golden spindles. And there, to the left, is hers. Her prince.
She touches his frozen skin. “I had a wicked stepmother,” she tells him. “I ran from her, out into the forest, but you never came. She enchanted me, and for years I lived with that enchantment, and in the end she died and turned to ash and never the enchantment broke. And you never came.”
The prince is silent.
Shelley walks through that great cavern, and sees them all, and after a time, she tells them the story of that place.
“You were here before humanity,” she says. “Before people. When we were still rats and lemmings, you were here. And you fought others. The gnawing things from the Moon’s dark side. The unshaped things from the bottom of the sea. And you won. But the world grew cold.
“‘We shall die,’ said the princes, and the princesses with their golden hair, and the beasts that spoke, and the witches, and the frogs. ‘We shall die. The world grows cold.’
“And so you came to the coldest place of all and buried yourselves here. Not to die. Not truly. Simply to be.”
Shelley sits, leaning against an ice-pink unicorn. Its face is feral and wild.
“I do not think I can revive you,” she says. “I do not think anyone can.”
The unicorn is silent. Shelley’s prince does not move.
“I must die here,” she says. “People must never know. The universe cares more for us than I can bear, and that gift is frozen under the ice.”