Authors: Casey Calouette
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Military, #Space Opera, #Action & Adventure, #General
The wind slammed into the shelter like a solid wave. Everyone turned to watch the wall bend bow inward before finally relaxing. The wind had returned.
“Keep the outside time short. Everyone watch for frostbite in your men, break everyone into squads and rotate outside. Questions?” William said.
“What about the wounded?” Berry asked.
William looked to Vito and replied. “We’ve cut off the worst injured with the hopes of keeping the less injured going a bit longer.”
“Why? We’ll have to carry them.”
William looked around to the NCOs. The Marines turned red. “We’re not leaving anyone. We’re stopping the patches tomorrow. Whoever survives is coming with us. We’ve already stopped patches for the most wounded.”
Berry nodded with a slight smile on his chapped lips. “All right, Captain.” He stood and stomped into the cold.
William watched him stride out defiantly. He looked back to the NCOs and saw curious eyes. He needed to talk to Berry and hammer this out.
“All right, we’ll meet up again at the end of the day. Selim, get a ration count and stand a guard on it, you’re in charge of rations. We’re going to allow a full ration tonight, but half tomorrow.”
Selim nodded. “Full rations?”
“Full,” William replied. “Give them one last full meal.”
The men before him were silent.
* * *
Berry bent over and stomped back to the main tent. The air inside was mostly still but the wind seemed to pinch in at every seam. He found Grue and Nur and sat beside them.
“We’re going south boys,” Berry said.
Grue’s eyes smoldered. “I’m not your boy.”
“Calm down, Mr. Grue, I respect a professional.” Berry let the words hang and watched for the reaction. There, the shoulders dropped a bit and the eyebrows relaxed. “Who knows where things might lead us? A professional is always in style.”
“Abandoned. Just shitcanned aside,” Grue said.
“What’s to the south?” Nur asked.
Berry didn’t know and that bothered him. To the south was freedom from the cold, that much he knew.
“What’d you happen to be in charge of on that ship?” Berry asked Grue.
“I worked with the reactor team.”
Berry nodded and shivered. The combination of the aches, chills, and tensions sapped the energy out of him. “We’ll get out of this together. You might need someone who knows how to shoot, right?”
Grue raised his eyes. Thin growths of frost was caked on his eyelashes. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
Berry nodded and saw the augment enter the tent and sit. Big bastard, he thought. He dropped the bag away and braved the chill to go and speak to him.
Sebastien nodded to Berry. “Corporal.”
Might as well get to the point. “You going to let that Midshipman tell you where to go?”
Sebastien tilted his head.
“We need to get a comm station going and radio the civilians for help. Ain’t enough here to storm a donut stand,” Berry said with a flick of his wrist. He waited. The silence of the moment grew uncomfortable. Did he hear him? He rubbed his gloves together and looked away from the Marine.
“Rescue,” Sebastien stated as if it was the first time he’d said the words.
“Lay down the arms, get taken in, they’d get a dandy ransom I’m sure.” Berry smiled. Was he getting anywhere? Damned hard man to read.
“Corporal, follow your chain of command. If you have a suggestion, pass it along to Sergeant Crow.” The tone finalized the conversation.
“But sir, you could take the initiative, save these men,” Berry pleaded.
“Carry on with your duties, Corporal, your shift to go outside will be here soon.”
Berry stood slowly and looked down to Sebastien. The eyes that looked back up at him were as cold as the rocks outside. He thought better of continuing the conversation. Can’t squeeze water from a rock, he thought.
* * *
William walked back out into the white bright air outside. He saw blue sky for the first time. It was whipped by low flying clouds. The gripping wind tossed another blast. He braced himself against the side of the tent and waited for it to relent. Vito emerged and the two shambled to the tent filled with wounded.
He watched the wounded sleep the fitful nanite induced sleep. Vito walked around and checked each one with a careful finger on the neck.
“How long ‘til they become hypothermic?” William asked.
“They won’t, not as long as the patches are on,” Vito replied, checking the pulse of the blonde.
“Nanites generate heat. As they work and repair they each give off a tiny bit of energy. Add that up and you get a net heating effect. Too many nanites and they can cook altogether, though they normally self-regulate.”
“What about on us?”
“No work, no heat. They may make a bit of energy, but not as much as the seriously wounded. That’s how I decided on who to cut off.” Vito stood stiffly in the crisp air. “Simple thermodynamics.”
William nodded and watched down the line. He squatted onto his haunches and removed his gloves. He touched his dry hands onto his cheeks, they were cold, rough, and raspy. His hands grew cold quickly. He touched his fingertips onto the ankle of a man in front of him. It was warm even through his clothing.
These were his charge. The ones who couldn’t defend themselves. He could leave them to freeze easy enough and he knew it. No one would chastise him for saving what he could. Already it was a daunting task just to survive, but to survive and to move… He stood, put his gloves back on and walked out into the cold.
He found Grue in the tent, covered in a mound of sleeping bags like a hibernating bear. Corporal Berry sat nearby. This was going to be an uncomfortable conversation.
“Grue, wake up,” William said as he slid down and sat in front of him. He pulled a free sleeping bag over him and tried to stay warm. He was still thirsty.
“Go away,” Grue said quietly.
“Can we strip the reactor out of that capsule?” William asked.
“Is there any power source that we can take out?”
“No there isn’t or no you won’t? I’m not going to let these men die because you decided to.”
Grue raised his eyes and the anger was evident across his face. “No, as in they aren’t designed to come out, No as in there isn’t any other power supplies.”
“Is there anything that had a portable reactor?”
Grue looked at the floor in silence.
“Striders,” Grue said with his eyes closed. “We had one capsule with striders, find them and I’ll get you some power. Now leave me alone.”
“Striders,” William whispered.
“Not afraid of robots—eh, Captain?” Berry said coldly.
“Corporal, I’d appreciate some respect, I need everyone working on moving us forward,” William replied.
“Where are you from?” Berry said as he sat forward.
William cleared his throat. “Farshore.”
“Bullshit,” Berry spat. “It burned.”
“Yes, Corporal, it did.” William shifted the sleeping bag off his lap.
“I ain’t got no pity for you boy,” Berry said.
“Corporal, I’m not a ‘boy’,” William said as he stood. “We don’t have to like each other, but we’ve got to work together.”
The two men locked eyes. William knew why he didn’t like Berry, but had no real clue why Berry didn’t like him. The wind slapped the side of tent. The tension broke and William walked to the door. “Corporal, get a detail together, get Grue whatever supplies he needs in case we find the striders.”
He didn’t wait for a reply before walking into the white. He waited a moment and let his eyes adjust to the brightness. A man was running down the hill heading directly for the camp. William walked to the edge of the camp and waited.
It was Private Avinash. He had the face mask pulled down below his chin. His dark brown face was burnt white on the cheeks and his breathing was heavy and raspy. “Sir!” He panted and covered his mouth with his hands. His breathing was labored and sounded painful. The cold air had been searing his lungs.
“What is it, Avinash?” William asked, lending the man an arm.
“Avi, sir, please.” He smiled.
William smiled in return. “Okay, Avi, what has you so excited as to run back to camp?”
“More survivors. A trio coming in, sir.”
“Get inside,” William said, as he walked to the ridge that Avi had came from. The wind seemed to relent until he crested the stony rise. Before him lay the path they’d have to take. South. Beyond were low hills, scarred ground and snowdrifts that shifted daily. A dim capsule was visible on the horizon that they hadn’t seen when the weather was worse. A group of men stumbled forward, dragging a sled behind them. He rushed down the low slope to meet them.
Selim and Aleksandr each pulled on the sled while the other two men barely stood on either side. It was heaped with sleeping bags and lashed tightly down with raw black electrical wire. William grasped the rope and pulled. The group was met by more men, one of the newcomers fell and was carried to the tents. A new wind was rising and the clouds darkening.
The tents felt balmy in comparison to the outside where the wind drove the nails of frost. Though even indoors the walls fluttered and created drafts.
They pulled back the sleeping bags expecting to find a corpse, and instead found a jockey. The man on the sled wore a heavy control suit. His temples were covered in the telltale darkness of a carbon interface. No patches were visible on his neck. A slender cord snaked along his body and was tethered to a stout looking box. A reactor.
The second man was short and thin and crumbled in the middle of the room. The others stripped his mask off and draped a sleeping bag over him. He was shivering uncontrollably, almost violently. His body temperature had dropped near that point where hypothermia would roll in unchecked.
The last man stood defiantly in the center of the room like a prize fighter. He pulled a shredded mask from his face and looked around the room. His eyes were dark brown and surrounded by worry. He stripped off a glove and held out a nanite tattooed hand to Sergeant Selim and then William.
“I am Eduardo Gomes Rodriguez Gonzales, Technical Sergeant, and you have my thanks,” Eduardo said sincerely and in a low raspy voice.
His lips quivered while he restrained himself from shivering. He shook the hand of each man around him, clasping tightly with both of his cold hands. His eyes burned brightly as he locked his gaze on each. The tattoo on the back of one hand was of an angel standing on a mountain and buffeted by winds. It shook and grew brighter with every handshake, the figure standing sternly. The other tattoo of a somber cross, dark and cracked.
The survivors all stood in silence. The white elephant in the room was the man connected to the reactor. No one quite had words for the moment. The desperation that many had felt softened, while the excitement rose.
The wind shrieked in through the entryway. Grue entered with Berry, a civilian named James and a Private named Nur. Vito came not far behind. Grue walked angrily across the room and kneeled next to the reactor.
He looked up angrily. “Where did you find it?”
Eduardo looked down his nose at Grue. “It is mine, from my capsule, from my strider.”
Grue tilted it and began to unscrew the connectors on the side.
“What are you doing?” Eduardo called out. He took two quick steps and pushed Grue weakly.
“Stop!” William yelled. He worked his way forward and grasped Grue by the shoulder pulling him away.
“Get your hands off me!” Grue shouted back. He rolled his shoulder and stepped away. “Do you want to freeze to death? We need to get this hooked up to a heat sink.”
“Hess will die!” Eduardo protested. He stood, shaking. His tattoos had shifted, the angel was now bracketed by flames.
Vito stepped forward and knelt next to Hess. He peeled back the protective liner from a nanite patch and applied it to Hess’s neck. Vito sat back on his haunches and looked down at the man.
“He’ll freeze…” Eduardo said softly.
Vito shook his head. “The patches will keep him warm and help him heal.”
Eduardo sunk down onto the floor and nodded. The burden of keeping his men alive had passed, at least for the moment, to other men.
Grue stood and brushed past Berry. Berry looked at the dimming room and followed him outside. Nur stood a moment later and followed.
A team was dispatched into the cold to strip heat dissipation coils off of the nearest capsule. The reactor was disconnected gently, gingerly, and with the watchful eye of Eduardo keeping everyone on task. Even Grue was silent when Eduardo's raspy voice called out instructions. Conducting cord was run between the tents. The capsules cooling fins were wired in with a slab of cold rock as an insulator to keep them off the floor.
The reactor was stocky and featureless except for the power connectors. It was controlled by a slim panel that flipped down with the most basic of maintenance tasks. When all was hooked up the chilled eyes all went to Eduardo. He was like a creaking old man laid next to it. His hands were chilled and the tattoos seemed muted and gray.