"What are you doing?" demanded Mal of his co-pilot.
Towering head-and-shoulders over the human, the woolly Woonky snarled and grunted in frustration. I'm fixing the damn inlet manifold that you keep ignoring, what does it look like I'm doing?
Waving away the Woonky's angry protests, Mal shook his head. "Dammit, Shaggus, I'm trying to get us out of here and you pull everything apart."
The Woonky, Shagpyle Duphus, stood beside one of the Serendipity Sparrow's huge VTOL engines. The cowling was open, and several parts lay scattered around the large feet of the green giant. He grunted again: Well, if you would tell me your plans in advance...
"Just put it back together, okay?" said Mal.
Shaggus glared at him in silence.
"Hey look," said Mal softly, "I'm sorry, pal, I really am. I've just had a lot on my mind lately; you know how it is."
Shaggus lifted his broad shoulders in a slow shrug. He had a pretty good idea what—or who—had been on Mal's mind.
"But we really do have to get out of here," Mal continued, "and the manifold can wait."
Shaggus grunted. If you say so...
"Thanks," said Mal. "As soon as I say goodbye to Lurk, we can leave."
Shaggus grunted again: Whatever. His broad green face crumpled into a scowl and he opened his mouth in a snarl. Where is Lurk anyway? He promised he'd come by, but I haven't seen him.
"He must be around here somewhere," said Mal.
"What do you mean, he hasn't come back yet?"
"I'm sorry, Captain Single. Captain Splitwhisker has not checked in." The technician tapped a few buttons, then turned the screen towards Mal. "His snowrunner is not back in its stall, and nobody has reported seeing him for several hours. It's possible he came up the Back Passage, but..."
"But then everybody would know about it," said Mal. The Back Passage was a narrow, winding chasm with barely room for a person; it was not set up to accept incoming snowrunners. "Damn."
Mal left the tech and jogged across the hangar bay floor to the snowrunner stables. "Saddle my snowrunner," he said to the first person he saw. "I'm going out."
"But sir," he said, "it's a blizzard out there, and it's almost night. The temperature is dropping rapidly."
"That's right," snapped Mal, "and my friend's out in it."
"But you and the snowrunner will both freeze before you reach the outer marker."
"Then I'll see you in Hell," said Mal. "But if you don't go fetch my snowrunner now, I'll send you on ahead to let them know I'm coming." He yanked open a supply closet and began pulling out extra equipment and clothing.
"What's going on here?" said a short stocky woman, the same handler Mal had spoken to earlier that afternoon.
Mal was busy shrugging himself into a second outer jacket. "I need my snowrunner, now. I'm going out to look for Lurk."
She looked at him for a second, then nodded. "You," she said to the junior handler, "go saddle Bella. Load her up with a rescue kit. Now, dammit, we've got an emergency on our hands." The young guy ran.
"Thanks," said Mal. He sat down and started removing his boots. "Bella?" he asked.
"Your snowrunner has an injured toe and won't make it far in this weather," said the senior handler. "Bella's one of our oldest 'runners. She may not be quite as fast as some of the younger ones, but she'll get you safely to your friend and back again. She's seen a lot of winters, and survived the worst this planet could throw at her."
Mal paused in the act of pulling a second pair of insulated socks over the first, and looked up at her. "Thanks," he said again.
She shook her head. "Just bring your buddy back in one piece; you can buy me a drink when you get back!"
Mal grinned. He pushed his feet, one at a time, back into his boots. "You've got yourself a deal," he told her. He fastened his boots tightly, and stood up.
He was zipping up his third jacket when the young stable hand led a large old snowrunner into the chamber. Behind the saddle was a large pack—the rescue kit, loaded up with a weatherproof tent, a week's supply of rations, and numerous other tools and gadgets which might be required to survive a night or two out in the open. Mal checked his pockets one last time, then stepped up into the stirrup and swung himself up onto the saddle.
"If I'm not back by morning, send a rescue team," he said. He spurred the snowrunner into motion; Bella lumbered forward, gaining speed rapidly, and they passed through the 'runner hatch into the howling storm beyond.
"Good luck," said the senior handler quietly as the door slid slowly closed behind them.
The metallic clang of the hatchway sealing echoed throughout the hangar.
Visibility was practically nil. A barrage of stinging ice crystals, flung by the savage wind, pounded the lone snowrunner and its huddled human rider. The clouds above, low as they were, remained invisible; only the constant flickering of electrical discharges within their hidden depths provided a clue to their presence. The distant sun was slipping below the horizon, but all daylight had long since been extinguished.
The snowrunner barely managed to make any headway through the onslaught. Every couple of minutes, Mal lifted his head long enough to check the compass clutched within his double-gloved hand; he tugged on the reins a little if necessary, to alter course, and whenever Bella seemed ready to stop, he spurred her on. He spoke softly to her from within his huddle, muttering words of encouragement—although given the noise made by the howling blizzard, he doubted she heard him. He suspected he was speaking to himself, trying to convince himself that he would survive this night.
Slowly but steadily, rider and mount made their way towards Lurk's last known position.
Lurk drifted in and out of consciousness. During his lucid moments he reminded himself that he needed to stay awake, that if he slept he would probably die. When he slept, he dreamed he was trapped in the snow, and that if he didn't wake up he would die. Dreams and reality blurred together and became one; he could not determine where sleep ended and wakefulness began.
Falling snow began to form a mound, drifting against the fallen bodies of Lurk and his snowrunner. Gradually it began to bury him, piling up around him until it blocked the worst of the hungry wind which was doing its best to suck the life from his body.
Lurk dreamed, and woke, and dreamed.
Shimmering and indistinct, a ghostly figure stood over him. It wore brown robes which did not flutter in the wind.
Lurk, said a voice that the fallen youth recognised. You must go to the Daggyboil system.
"Bent," gasped Lurk in a frozen whisper. "Bent, help me. I've fallen, and I can't get up."
You must train with my old master, Yodel, said Bent, ignoring Lurk's plea.
"I know," whispered Lurk. "You told me already."
He will lead you to mastery of the Source, said Bent.
"I'd prefer a hot bath," gasped Lurk. The figure faded away, and only the storm remained.
"Bent," moaned Lurk.
Lurk woke, and dreamed, and woke.
A shadowy figure loomed over him. Dressed all in white, outline indistinct, it approached cautiously. To Lurk's blurred vision, it seemed human, but the face was like something from a nightmare, all large eyes and strange angles.
Lurk tried to speak, but no words emerged.
The figure crouched beside him. Steam rose from the snow where it stood, then whirled away, taken by the wind.
Lurk waved his arm to attract attention. It seemed like a good idea, but his limb refused to obey, and did not move.
Pushing a drift of snow aside, the figure lifted Lurk's hand and gripped it carefully as though feeling for something.
Lurk watched, helplessly, unable to gather enough strength even to move his finger.
The figure began to feel around inside Lurk's jacket; suddenly its head jerked up, and then it silently backed away and was gone, lost to the storm.
Lurk dreamed, and woke.
A third ghostly figure appeared from the swirling blizzard—a third strange visitor—and loomed over him. It was vast and alien, impossible to identify. Then it split, became two unfocussed blobs. One of them leaned over him as everything went black once more.
Mal leaped down from Bella's back and ran to the huddled figure in the snow. "Lurk, speak to me," he yelled. He dropped to his knees beside the motionless body of his fallen friend and brushed away some of the ice crystals from his face. He removed both gloves from one hand—gasping as the chill seeped into his exposed flesh—and slid his fingers into Lurk's hood. He pressed them against the cold—so cold, too cold—flesh of the lad's neck, feeling around. There. He repositioned his hand slightly, and waited. Again. Weak and slow though it was, Lurk still had a pulse.
Mal thrust his hand back into the gloves, and clenched his fingers. They ached already, even from such brief exposure to the wind.
"Hold tight, Lurk," he said. "It will take me a minute or two to get the shelter up." He pushed himself to his feet, and stumbled through the knee-deep drift of fresh snow, fighting his way the short distance back to the snowrunner. Freed from the urging of its rider, the beast had curled up to protect itself from the worst of the wind. Mal fumbled for the rescue kit; after a couple of false starts, he managed to get it open. There on the top lay the emergency shelter. Mal hauled it out; it was surprisingly light.
The wind complicated the task of erecting the survival tent, but once the first piton had been fired deep into the snow the task became a little easier. Mal tugged on the thin but strong tie rope firmly; it gave a little, then held fast. He repeated the procedure with the second piton, and then the third. Quickly he ratcheted each of the tethers tight, until the tent was locked into place on the snow and would not blow away. Then he opened the valve of the inflation cylinder. The structure took shape quickly as the compressed gasses in the cylinder filled the support vanes and puffed the tent up to its full domed shape.
Moving quickly now—or as quickly as the howling wind would allow—Mal retrieved the miniature heater, the first aid kit, and an armful of food packs from the rescue kit. He threw them in through the open entrance flap of the tent, then turned his attention once more to Lurk's fallen body.
It was plain at a glance that the lad's leg was trapped beneath the frozen corpse of the snowrunner. Mal considered his options. Digging him out was the obvious choice, but it would take too long—and in this blizzard, with this wind, would be well nigh impossible. Dammit. Were there any other options?
Then Mal remembered Lurk's light rapier. He felt around on the kid's belt; sure enough, the silver cylinder was slung from its usual place on Lurk's right hip. Mal unfastened the holster and gingerly removed the weapon. He examined it for a moment without touching anything, then pressed a round silver stud. Three feet of humming energy blade hissed into existence, and Mal squinted against the sudden blue glare. An aura of steam surrounded the blade; driven snow and ice puffed instantly into vapour as they came into contact with the harnessed energy.
Moving cautiously—he'd seen what this blade could do—he stepped closer to the lifeless snowrunner. He touched the cylinder of light to the back of the large creature, just past the edge of the saddle, and slowly cut into the carcass. The stench of seared flesh rose around him, and he gagged. Even through the scarf which protected his nose and lower face from the cold, it smelled awful. He cut deeper, further, and the stench grew worse as he severed the creature's intestines. Releasing the switch which activated the blade, Mal turned away, gasping for breath.
"Damn," he muttered. "And I thought they smelled bad on the outside!"
He turned back, and examined the cut he had just made. It was already freezing up again, filling with frozen green blood. This was not going to work—which left only one alternative.
Mal shivered; whether from the cold, or from the thoughts running through his head, he couldn't say. He activated the light rapier again. Carefully he slid the humming blade into the triangle of space formed by Lurk's two legs and the tough leather saddle.
"Sorry, kid," he muttered, "but it's the only choice left."
Before he could change his mind, he pushed the blade down. There was a brief sizzle as it sliced through Lurk's thigh, severing his leg. From the depths of his unconsciousness, Lurk moaned.
There was very little blood. The heat of the blade neatly cauterised the wound.
Mal dropped the light rapier into the snow, then leaned down and grabbed Lurk's arms. With a grunt, he heaved him backwards a few inches, and then a few inches more. It took a couple of minutes, but finally he managed to get the unconscious lad's body into the shelter. He sealed the flap, and activated the heater. Then he turned to the medical kit, and pulled out a large syringe.
It was a stimulant, for use in case of extreme shock or trauma; Mal figured that this situation more than qualified. Acting quickly, he pulled open Lurk's jacket and tore open the garment beneath it. Finding a patch of bare skin, Mal felt around carefully until he found the correct spot. He pressed the needle to the point he had identified, and then pushed down hard, driving the thick needle into the lad's chest. He pushed the plunger, delivering the full dose of stimulant directly into Lurk's slowly beating heart, then pulled the needle out. Lurk screamed, thrashed around for a few seconds, then sank back into sleep again.
Mal checked for his friend's pulse; it was there, stronger than before, and more regular.
He sighed with relief, and sank back against the wall of the tent. He was trembling with a mixture of relief and fatigue. Soon he would have to bandage Lurk's leg, and perhaps administer another drug or two to stabilise his condition, but now he rummaged through the first aid kit looking for something else.
"There you are," he said aloud as he pulled out a small bottle of medicinal whiskey. Quickly he unscrewed the lid and took a large swallow. Heat flooded through his frozen body, and he felt some of the knots in his back begin to ease.
They were safe.
Mal woke to the crackle of his communicator.
"Repeat, Rover Twelve to Rover Five, come in. Rover Twelve to Rover Three, please respond."
Mal scrambled to pick up the communicator. He keyed it: "Hello, Rover Twelve; glad you could join us, Ramirez! I'm activating my beacon now."
"Roger, Rover Five. I am, uh, five minutes from your position. It's good to hear your voice." There was a pause—no doubt young Ramirez was relaying their position back to the Rebel base—before the comm crackled back to life. "Transports are on their way, Captain Single. Should be a couple of minutes behind me. What is your condition?"
"I'm good," said Mal. "Captain Splitwhisker is stable for now, but requires immediate medical attention." He looked at where Lurk lay; after a fitful night, he seemed to be sleeping peacefully at last. The bandage that covered the stump of his leg was spotted with red stains, but it was no worse than Mal had expected.
"Acknowledged, Rover Five." There was another pause—without a network of booster satellites, the communicators had a limited range, which required messages to be relayed back down the line from person to person—and then Ramirez said "I'll be right there."
"See you soon," said Mal. He unfastened the tent flap and crawled out, emerging into the brilliant morning sunshine. The sky was a deep clear blue, and only the snow piled up against the side of the tent remained to show that the night's storm had actually happened. Mal stretched and looked around. A short distance away stood Bella; the old snowrunner was scratching with determination at a patch of icy ground and occasionally lowering her shaggy head to nibble at whatever she had unearthed.
A loose mound of fresh snow marked the resting place of Lurk's 'runner. Something which had caught Mal's eye the night before had been niggling away at the back of his mind, but at the time he had been too busy to take a closer look. Now he wandered over to the mound and began to brush away the snow until the beast's large head was exposed. He squatted down—his stiff knees cracking and popping as he did so—and examined the dark spot beside the ear. It was a hole. A wound. It hadn't been made by a blaster bolt, though. He frowned. Who still used antiquated projectile weapons?
He straightened, and stretched again. I'm getting too old for this, he told himself. He lifted the communicator to his mouth—and suddenly something snatched at his shoulder and spun him around. He tumbled to the ground, the communicator flying out of his hand to land in the snow beside the tent. As he landed heavily, he heard the distant, unmistakeable crack of a kinetic energy weapon.
"Fuck, that hurts," he complained aloud to the universe at large.
His left shoulder throbbed hotly, and he could feel heat spreading down his back as blood flowed freely, soaking into his jacket. With his right hand, Mal fumbled with the fasteners of his outer coat. Once it was open, he scooped up a gloveful of snow, thrust it inside the coat, and pressed it firmly against the inner jacket, over the wound. He felt the cold seeping in through the material. That should slow the bleeding enough to keep him awake for the next few minutes; he didn't have time for anything more fancy.
Gritting his teeth, and staying low, Mal rolled over. Pain blossomed, but he did his best to ignore it.
Staying low—and hoping the carcass of the snowrunner was ample cover—he extended his right arm, thrust his clawed hand into the snow, and laboriously dragged himself forward. Pushing with his left leg, he repeated the move. Once more, and the tent loomed over him. He stretched out, and his fingers closed over the communicator.
"Rover Twelve, Ramirez," he screamed into it, "get down. We've got a sniper."
"Say again, Rover Five," came the voice of Ramirez over the comm. "Did you say..."
"Sniper," shouted Mal. "We've got a sniper, probably Imperial. Jump down off your 'runner, lad, and kiss the snow before the bastard blows your head off."
There was a long pause. Finally the comm crackled again.
"I'm flat in the snow, Captain Single. I've relayed your message. Command Central wishes to confirm your statement."
"You tell those sanctimonious pricks that I'm lying here bleeding to death," snarled Mal, "and if they've got any doubts they can come take a look for themselves."
"Uh, roger Captain," said Ramirez. Another pause. "Do you have a location on the sniper?"
Mal thought about that for a moment. "Roughly south-east of my position, range could be up to a mile." Now the choice of weapon made sense; anyone firing a blaster immediately revealed their own position but a projectile weapon would be a lot more difficult to spot. Only the sound gave it away. "Any chance of air support, Ramirez?"
"Confirmed, Captain Single. Three of the ice-speeders are operational; they are en route to your position now." Mal heard a muted roaring sound through the comm, and then Ramirez spoke again. "Also, the transport just went over me, and is headed your way."
Shit! "Negative, Rover Twelve. Do you hear me, transport? Back off."
"We're almost to your position, Captain," said a new voice.
"Negative," said Mal hoarsely. "There's a good chance this guy is firing armour-piercing rounds." Another advantage; an energy weapon would be ineffective against even minimal shielding. "You set down here, you're just another target for him. Go pick up Ramirez and wait there until the 'speeders flush him out."
"Roger, Captain Single, returning to evac Rover Twelve. Will stand by until further notice."
Breathing heavily, Mal let the communicator fall from his frozen fingers. When the first of the ice-speeders screamed past his little makeshift camp, he was already on the long slide into unconsciousness. He barely heard the excited crackle from the comm as one of the pilots yelled "Yippie-kiyay," and the sudden blast of heat as his rescuers turned their target zone into an incendiary nightmare washed over him unnoticed.
Stamping impatiently in the snow, Bella snorted noisily. There was no reply from the unconscious man.