Trial by Ice(9)
Author:Casey Calouette

    The greedy eyes all coveted the heat. Men held out hands before them with white and brown palms aching in the cold just waiting to feel the heat. A single drop of water slid down one of the cooling fins and fell as liquid. It landed as ice but everyone saw it. A barely audible gasp went out as the heat slowly began to radiate.

    For the first time since they awoke battered and cold, they had heat.


    The Cut

    The night was finally warm, though only warm in relative terms. A drip could exist but only in the center of the room. Everyone huddled and shook, none wanting to get too close, and none wanting to be too far. Throughout the night the cooling fins pinged like an out of tune banjo.

    The greatest downfall of the twanging fins and the meager heat was the moisture. What had a been air as dry as a desert now seemed to deposit moisture. It seeped into gloves, sleeping bags, and clothes. The dry crispness slowly changed into wet chill or frozen crunch. Men awoke not to a dry shiver, but a steadily growing moisture that seeped into everything.

    William sat up stiffly and pushed the sleeping bag aside. The dim heat radiated on his cheeks. He sat and let the waves of thermal energy seep in. It was like sitting on the far edge of a campfire on a cool spring night. The tent shook and the air shifted inside stealing away his brief moment.

    The room slowly began to awaken. Men peaked dirty faces out from dampening sleeping bags and watched, waited, for someone else to be first up. William stood slowly and stooped over to grab his mittens. He jammed his fingers in and gasped in surprise. Dampness.

    A man walked out before William and returned with a container of fresh snow, setting it near the heating fins. The snow slowly lost the hard razor crystalline edge and shifted to a sponge like texture before disappearing into a dampening mass. Everyone moved closer and stood in close contact waiting. Half ration bars were passed about in silence.

    The time was approaching to go. William knew it. He knew south was the only way, regardless of what it held. Staying was certain death, even if departing was as dangerous.

    A voice spoke in short staccato bursts. “She came down like a rock. When we came to we were near the ship, the capsule was split and the striders were wrecked,” said Eduardo. He licked his lips and watched the snow melt. “We moved south to the ship, she was broke and smashed. She’s right next to a foggy water.”

    More eyes lit up around and the men listened.

    “She was broke on the spine and emptied out like an egg. Wreckage everywhere, just crash. Crash,” said Eduardo. “So we went back to the striders and got one working enough to listen for the fleet, and we heard the commset from up here. So we came.” He held a hand out before him and flexed his fingers near the coil.

    “How far?” William asked.

    “Two days eh? Maybe eh?” Eduardo replied.

    “What about the water?”

    “Rock shore mostly, a lot of fog.” Eduardo shrugged.

    William focused and tried to remember the polar orbit position. There was a land mass, with a series of smaller islands between it and the main continent. But which where they on? The polar mass was a solid sheet of ice, so they were on one of the islands. Or did it just look that way from orbit?

    “We’ll set out for the shore first thing in the morning. Eduardo, can you make the reactor rig portable?” William asked.

    The men looked to each other and nodded around him. Most at least. Grue notably scowled.

    “And what then Grace? Go Swimming?” Berry asked in his smooth drawl.

    William was waiting for this. “Actually Corporal Berry, we’re going to go for a boat ride,” he replied with a smile.

    Chuckles came from across the room and heads turned to watch Berry smirk with angry eyes. “A three hour tour?”

    “If we’re lucky.” He smiled back. “We’re on an island north of the main landmass. Once we get clear of this we can make our way to the needle.”

    “And what then? Drown in the water? Surrender?” Grue stammered angrily.

    “I have no intention of surrender, we’re going to take the needle,” stated William.

    The slick wind was the only sound as the men, battered and beaten, looked back at him. Thin smiles broke out on a few, while most just nodded.

    “Now, we need to work up sleds and a mode of transport. Get everything portable and prepare sleds, we leave in the morning. Questions?”

    The room was silent. William nodded. “Right, once the tea is done get on it.” He waited on the water and watched as the NCO’s prepped the men.

    Breakfast slid down like a lump of coal rinsed with liquid frost. The water was still cold as hell, and it was hard to take more then a gulp at once. The ration bar, or half of it, began to lose any flavor as the taste buds numbed. William was already dreaming of real food.

    William walked out into the light as the discussion behind him was on which method of cooking a chicken delivered the greatest flavor. Eduardo was delivering a very robust defense on the virtues of roasting. The crisp light hit him. He caught his breath and slid the facemask up. The dim warmth was totally wiped away and his mittens began to stiffen.

    He stuffed his hands under his arms and shuffled to the tent with the wounded. The air inside was slightly warmer than outside. Only the thermal creaking of the fins made any noise. Only four of the wounded remained. Eduardo’s companion, the unconscious blond, and two unconscious men. Vito sat near the heater fins and waved him over.

    “Vito,” said William as he squatted near the fins.

    “Did you eat?” Vito offered half a ration bar.

    “I dined already, but thanks.”

    Vito nodded.

    “How was the night?”

    “Two died.”

    “Two? Everyone off the patches?” William asked.

    “Von Hess is on one, but he’ll be off by the end of the day.”

    “Who?” William asked looking down the line.

    “The Strider Jockey,” Vito pointed to Eduardo's friend.

    “We’re going tomorrow Vito, what do you need to move the wounded?”

    “Besides a vehicle? Sleds maybe, but William, they’ll freeze to death,” Vito stated.

    “Talk to Eduardo, see if he and Grue can come up with something with the reactor.”

    Vito nodded slowly, unhappily. “Where are we headed?”

    “South, Eduardo found water.”

    “Water? That seems a bit unusual,” Vito said.

    “Warmer currents from the south maybe?” William shrugged.

    “And when we get there?”

    “Ahh well, I’m still working on that one.”

    William walked back into the cold air outside, but this time had his face-mask up and ready. Men were moving about and collecting wreckage. A single sled was already wedged into a rock. It looked to be an outer casing of aluminum with electrical wire as a lanyard. He followed a fresh group heading out and helped to scour for more debris.

    Berry huddled under his sleeping bag and snatched glances to the pile of ration cases stacked on the edge of the room. The tent was too tight, the quarters too close, he’d need another way.

    “Grue,” Berry said in a low voice.

    The man raised his eyes from staring at the floor. “What?”

    “Are you in?” Berry asked. It was the first question he’d posed in a long time without already knowing the answer.

    Grue returned his gaze to the floor and nodded.

    “I’m going for a walk.” Berry nudged Nur and sat up stiffly. The wounds felt aged, rough, but getting better. He dropped the sleeping bag and ruffled his jacket. He’d be due outside for his next shift shortly. Might as well meet them outside, he thought.

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