Trial by Ice(5)
Author:Casey Calouette

    “The patches, we’ll run out soon. Each is good for a few hours. They are stabilizers, not for long term use.”

    “What happens?”

    “Some will wake up, or some will just die. The anticoagulants and nanites are the only thing keeping some of them alive.”

    William nodded. The drop capsule was closer. “Anything to be done?”

    Vito shook his head. “Not unless the fleet arrives and we get a proper med-vac. Even if the Surgeon you’d shot was here we still couldn’t save them.”

    “That didn’t end like I thought,” William replied.

    “No, but I bet you didn’t think you’d be walking on the ground,” Vito replied.

    A slight hissing and an occasional pop rolled off of the capsule. Falling snow evaporated on the stained grayish white cooling fins. A ragged plastic sheet covered the hatch. Bodies lay roughly piled just out from the crooked entrance. The reality of the moment changed the tone of the walk. He had almost forgotten, just for a windless moment.

    They pushed through the plastic sheet and a hint of warm air rushed past them. The frost that had accumulated on them softened briefly before freezing again. The electronics around them had warmed the air ever so slightly.

    “Xan, what have you got?” William asked. He walked across the crushed and crumpled floor.

    Xan had a wire and conduit console draped across his lap like an old woman knitting. “Something Sir, but I think we need your ID code to get it.”

    “Got a keypad?”

    Xan nodded his chin at a crumpled numeric pad. “Watch the screen, some of the keys double-tap.”

    William tapped, corrected, tapped, and tried again. Finally the screen relented and text cascaded down. The two men read in silence.

    “What does it say?” Vito asked.

    The two men read in silence.

    “William?” Vito asked again as he scrambled over the seats.

    “They’re gone,” William replied.

    “Who?” Vito asked clambering closer, more frantic.

    “The fleet, they blinked out,” William replied and sat down hard.

    Vito read in silence.

    The wind quickened and the plastic flapped. The brief solace of the sunset gave way to the chill night winds that brought nothing but ice and pain. The three men walked back in silence buffeted with despair.


    Walking Frozen

    The faces of the survivors wore a light coat of stubble flecked with gray frost. A dim light strip on the edge of the tent cast the only faint glow. Inside the tent heaps of sleeping bags were scattered in clumps. The tent began to take on the smell that any small enclosed space does when filled with fearful, injured men.

    William Grace pushed through the entry and into a space devoid of wind, yet cold and still. A few of the sleeping bags moved and faces looked up from shadows at him. He hesitated, then turned to Vito.

    “Go get the others.”

    Vito nodded and walked outside.

    “You mind?” Xan asked pointing to a pile of sleeping bags.

    William shook his head and waited in the chill air.

    Men began to stir. Whispers wandered through the room and they began to awaken. William looked down at them and realized that they were now both his burden, and his salvation.

    Vito returned with another small group of men who carried sleeping bags in their arms. “I’ll go relieve the guys watching the wounded,” Vito said as he walked back outside.

    William waited. He tucked his chilled fingers into the dead mans jacket and remembered he still carried the gun. The frame felt cold even through the gloves. He turned it over in his hand idly feeling its weight. The rest came in.

    He cleared his voice and straightened his back. “Xan and Grue got one of the comm sets working.”

    Eager sounds and smiles broke out across the room. Men sat up and slid the sleeping bags off of their heads. William pulled his hands out of his jacket and made a placating motion.

    “They’re gone, left system, I doubt they think there are any survivors,” William said hesitantly.

    Silence reigned with the only sound being the wind whipping the snow against the shelter. Eyes, white with fear, darted around the room all looking for one or another to speak, to question, to reassure. Only the wind spoke.

    William broke the silence. “We’re going to get out on our own.”

    “That’s fucking bullshit,” Grue called from the back.

    “Maybe, but they lost a heavy drop cruiser to a planet that was supposed to be unprotected. Would you blink the fleet in to something like that?” He replied carefully. The crowd verged on angry but still maintained military discipline, for now.

    “What do we do?” A thin voice asked.

    “For now collect supplies, tend to the wounded, and move our way South.”

    “But where are we going?” Kwesi a man with a face black like ink asked.

    “To the original objective. We’re going to complete the mission.” William looked around and let it sink in. “From what we can gather we came down about a thousand miles north, we blinked in a polar orbit and down we came.” His mouth was dry. He rasped his lips with his tongue. “For now everyone rest, there’s another wind coming in.”

    Men shifted and looked to each other. William looked back and waited, waited for the mutiny, the questions, the anger. But all he was met with was silence. Only a few sets of eyes looked at him angrily, Grue especially.

    He settled in near the door, the coldest part of the tent. He stuck one sleeping bag behind him, another under, and crawled into a third. The cold was merely kept at bay, but not stopped.

    The night was cold. Cold enough to brittle steel and destroy flesh. The tent was rimed with frost in the corners as the men slept a fitful sleep. Each was lost in his moment, alone, and without dream. The night drew on long, as all uncomfortable nights seem to do. Before the day was light the men stirred and waited, looking up to the lightband above them. The lights were dimmer than before, barely enough to throw a glow.

    “Well,” William said as he sat up into the frozen air. He felt like he had slept on a bed of crushed gravel. His body ached and rebelled at the thought of getting out of the slight warmth of the sleeping bags. He heard voices and men began to stream outside. One returned with a ration case, the other with an empty crate of snow. Breakfast.

    “It’s cold,” a man said in a sleepy voice.

    “Cold enough to chill a donkey,” a man replied.

    Raw words drifted through the tent as men adjusted to the cold. They chewed on the rough crystals of snow. William put some onto his mouth and instantly felt colder. They tasted alkaline. His tongue felt rough. His thirst was not sated.

    “Breakfast I see?” Vito said as he slid through the door and onto the floor next to William.

    William handed him a ration bar. “Stick it under your arm.”

    Vito nodded and let out a hiss as he placed the bar against cold flesh.

    “How are the wounded?” William asked.

    “Wounded,” Vito replied as he stuffed snow into his mouth. “Bleh.”

    “Doesn’t do much,” William replied.

    “No, but the tea is a bit late in coming,” Vito replied as he scooped up some more snow.

    “Can we move them Vito?”

    Vito looked around the room with his soft, dark eyes. “I’m not sure we have the strength to do it, but we can try. Most everyone here is in damn poor health. Broken bones, ribs, contusions, frostbite, and we’re all slowly heading to hypothermia,” Vito coughed in the dry air. “Once the patches run out most of the seriously wounded will die. Then we can carry the rest.”

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