Trial by Ice(2)
Author:Casey Calouette

    “I’ll shoot! Drop it dammit!” William yelled through the gritty snow. He’d never shot a man before. He knew he had to, but the man was a surgeon, he needed him alive.

    “Sir, set the weapon down. You’re in shock. Just lay it down.” William spoke slowly through shivering lips. His fingers ached from the cold. The trigger burned and his joints ached.

    The Surgeon turned his head and locked eyes with him. William knew that he’d have to shoot the man. The Surgeon spun his arm around slowly with the weapon extended and pointed it at William.

    William shot. The pistol mechanically cycled a fresh round. A tiny puff of smoke rolled out of the action. The Surgeon slid down slowly onto the ground with blood rolling out from a wound just below his chest.

    The Surgeon looked at the wound in his chest and back to William. He took his pistol, put it into his mouth, and fired.

    “No!” William screamed. The red mist drifted into the snow behind the Surgeon. William stuffed the pistol back into his pocket and blew warm air onto his hands. He walked over to the corpse of the doctor and kicked him squarely in the guts. “Fuck!” He shouted angrily.

    “Hey,” A dim voice called out through the wind.

    William spun around and shielded his eyes from the wind. He was sure he heard someone. He stumbled and caught his balance before he fell. He looked up again and saw a man walking towards him in full combat gear.

    The man wore a heavy gray coat, goggles, and a gray face mask with holes punched in it. The holes were surrounded by a fuzz of frost. A stub carbine was anchored to the webbing in the center of his chest. As he approached he raised a gloved hand and slid the goggles up. Bright blue eyes peered at William.

    “I’m not alone,” William said simply. He looked to his side and sat down slowly.

    “That’s how it looks,” the man replied. “I’m Sergeant Crow. Have some trouble?”

    William nodded and tucked his hands under his arms. “Midshipman Grace. Ships Surgeon lost it.”

    Crow nodded and walked over to a corpse with a bullet hole in the cheek. He slid the heavy mittens off the man and tossed them to William.

    “Thank you,” he said as he tucked his frozen fingers into the fleece lined mittens. His fingers warmed slowly.

    “Orders Sir?” Crow asked in a questioning tone.

    The moment began to set in. William was no longer “Midshipman Grace” studying for his exam and preparing for his next fleet posting. He was now in command, even if it was just two of them. Suddenly he realized that a whole lot of lives depended on what he did, and right now. There were people alive, maybe a lot, and if he didn’t do something they would die. They might die even if he did.

    “Crow, are you hurt?” William stood slowly and began to walk towards the crumpled dropcap. He eyed up the debris looking for logistics canisters.

    “Bruised up sir.”

    “We need shelter, anything.”

    Crow began to walk towards the smoldering capsule. “Give me a hand, we need to pop this open.

    William hurried to Crows side and the pair pried open clasps of the canister. It was designed to release upon landing but this one stuck until the contents emptied it. It dropped with clang when the springs let loose. In front of them were boxes, bins, bags, and every manner of gear possibly needed along with a sea of small white balls used as cushion.

    “There we go,” Crow said as he leaned forward and tugged on a large brown case. It was marked ‘Shelter-Inflatable-10 man’ in orange letters. A patterned circular ID code was centered below it. The pair pulled it out of the pile and heaved it away from the dropcap.

    William released his grip once he realized he wasn’t doing any good. Crow tugged it out.

    “Pop the side, drive the first anchor in. Pull the green tab, wait for it to inflate then drive the next anchor. Do that till you get around it all and pull the final tab, that will inflate the top.” Crow dropped the case on a patch of clear ground.

    “Sergeant, we’ve got people alive. About 100 meters back I left a man in a thermal blanket. We’ll start dragging them here.” He pointed behind the small hill to where he had found the man. William turned back to the case.

    Crow nodded and began to walk briskly.


    “Sir?” Crow stopped and turned.

    William wanted to say some something, anything, to bond with him. He just nodded instead.

    Crow locked his blue eyes on William and nodded. He dropped the goggles down and walked forward.

    William pounded the slender stakes into the frozen dirt and gravel in slow methodical thumps. He managed one or two strikes before he had to take a break. Each strike drove the rod an inch into the frost. The frozen dirt fought every single bit.

    The men worked in silence. William pounded, tore, clawed, and fought to get the shelter set. Crow slid men and women near to where the door of the tent would be. Each worked as quick as they could. William looked over to the growing line of unconscious survivors covered under the blankets. He knew he had to work fast.

    A light hand startled William. He turned and fell painfully onto his back. A man in full white body armor with a large gray backpack stood above him. His face was obscured by a neoprene mask. The man held out his hand to William.

    “Who are you?” William asked, thinking of nothing better to say.

    A soft voice replied, “I’m Sebastien, let me take over.” Sebastien gripped his hand and pulled him to his feet.

    William nodded. “I’m Grace.” He walked slowly, painfully, over to the mylar covered wounded. The clanging of the stakes grew loud and steady. More men had died while he worked. He simply pulled the mylar over them. He sat at the end of the line. The fatigue, and the nanites, were catching up with him.

    Sebastien smashed the hammer into the stakes. Three strikes. He focused on the task and ignored the diagnostics bubbling up near his retina. Nothing critical was going to fail. Nothing essential was knocked out. He paused a moment and restarted his right arm. The nano-augmented systems shifted and adapted.

    A part of him wished he had just walked away south. He’d seen the young man shoot the other man. The chilled wind touched his skin but the heat from the reactor within would keep him alive. The man dropped and shot himself in the head. He played it over again, why should he care? He could just go south.

    The next stake took two strikes and jammed into a hard spot. He pried it out and shifted it a few centimeters. Three strikes. He pulled the tab. It hissed and popped and grew into a shape like a flexible log.

    He stopped and rotated his arm feeling the bent connective assembly. He’d opened his eyes in a capsule that was collapsed upon itself. The seams had split and his fellow Marines were dead. He didn’t spend much time dwelling on it.

    The young Midshipman had collapsed next to the row of corpses. The wind had already began to deposit grit and hard snow next to his body.

    Sebastien stood slowly and walked over with a slight limp. The young man had a tint of frostbite that was spreading on his cheeks. He grabbed the small form and drug him down the line. He laid him roughly next to a man with only a ragged wound for a face.

    Why hadn’t he left? He sighed and felt sad, lost, detached. They were so different now. Or was he the different one? The wind had grew stronger and was whipping the snow.

    He could leave now, walk south, get away. Then what? Die somewhere for no purpose? He flexed his fingers, some machine lubricated with nanite while others were bone grafted with alloy. He’d felt lost for too long.

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