This is a rewrite of a story I published around the beginning of the year. I decided to simply delete all the old chapters and to replace them with the new chapters, one by one. I experimented a little and it looks like that way all the wonderful reviews, the favs and follows are not deleted (I hope I'm right).
I thank all the fans who wrote those reviews and kept up the encouragement despite my struggle to finish it. Now I can happily reveal that the end is in sight. I have the last chapters plotted, but will use the rewrite to build momentum for when I plunge into that ending. I hope you will use it like that as well.
Enjoy the ride!
Before I forget: I own nothing in this story except, perhaps, the weather.
They were three men, lost under the screaming mountain. They dragged themselves through the drift, through snow up to above their knees. The catabatic wind that barreled vertically down the mountain face was intent on crushing anything that rose above the surface, which it sculpted into a layer of ice inches thick, hard as cement.
The leader had long stopped lifting his boots to break through it from above. After each step he hacked at the ice shelf before him with a half-hearted swing of his small axe. Sometimes the ice calved off. More often it didn't. He forged on anyway, breaking through it with his legs, cutting and bruising the flesh and muscle of his thighs.
His body had become a wedge. His mind had become one thought.
Keep the pace.
The tight rope, linking him to the man behind him, jerked on his harness. He sucked in the razor sharp air that lacerated his throat and lungs and lost his balance. He fell backward into the furrow he had blazed, landing hard on the box strapped to his back, jarring his side.
He bit down against the pain in his ribs and gasped again when a tooth shattered in the back of his mouth.
He lay there, dazed, pain washing over him, blood pooling in his mouth. For a moment, he could not remember where he was, what he was doing here. He took a shallow breath, more like a sob. When he exhaled what little body heat he had seeped out to crystallize on his cracked lips, along with frozen pearls of blood.
He wanted to curl up and welcome the blanket of snow.
He grunted angrily, turned and spat blood and shards of tooth. Balancing against the weight of the box, he struggled to his feet.
He staggered to the fallen man, pulled him up. They stood for a second, supporting each other. He brought his face close to the other and pulled away his crudely crafted goggles and facemask. He squinted against the blizzard - the crystals clinging to his eyelashes threatened to fuse. His eyes were bloodshot in a face tight and pale as bone, streaked with blood where the tiny shards of ice cut him. But the hazel eyes were on fire.
"Paul!" Captain James Kirk yelled into the exhausted man's covered face. "You have to keep going!"
Johnson nodded, just once.
Kirk squeezed the man's shoulder and looked behind him to the third man, the miner. Rayan Grale was a giant – he stood over a head taller than Kirk – but now he stood bent over, resting his mittened hands on his knees.
He looked up at Kirk and nodded as well to indicate he was alright.
Kirk pulled his face mask and goggles back in place. He turned. The path he had cut was already gone.
Keep going. Lead.
His body was a wedge.
Hours later it was a relief to be out of the mountain's shadow, but the blizzard kept at them. Kirk, still in the lead, could barely see a meter ahead of him for the thickening snow. His altitude headache, which troubled him more than the others, had honed his vision to a very narrow tube. His ears roared with the rush of his blood, pumped by an increasingly frantic heart that had nothing left to run on. Over the last two days he had furtively cut his own food rations so the others could have more. And he was effectively towing Johnson, who had given up, who was just humoring him now.
He fought the urge to lick his lips, to swallow. The thirst was agonizing. He hadn't drunk in over ten hours. Even with all this water around them, they were dehydrated, because to eat the snow or ice would thrust them into hypothermia. But they had to conserve their stove fuel, and they couldn't spare the strength to set up the tent, and they didn't want to stop moving.
We stop, we freeze.
One more step. One more mile. Keep going.
The rope pulled at him again. Again he fell back but, expecting it, he managed to brace his side against the impact. He rolled and looked back. All he saw was the rope, on the ground, disappearing in the darkened whirlwind of snow.
He found he couldn't stand so crawled the ten feet back on his hands and knees. Grale was already there.
"He's done!" the big man shouted over the howl of the wind.
Kirk looked up. Johnson had collapsed in the lee of a large boulder.
"Good place to set up camp!" Kirk yelled.
They fought the wind for the tent, almost lost it, finally bundled the unconscious Johnson into it. Kirk crawled in last.
Groaning, he eased himself onto the thin thermal blanket next to Johnson. The small tent could just about house the three of them at a crouch. It did little to keep out the noise of the wind, but it did trap their combined body heat. All three lay there, their breaths creating plumes, condensing on the walls where it froze instantly. When the wind shook the fabric, drops of ice rained down.
"Need – to –rest–" Grale gasped, his voice a mere whisper.
Kirk had heard him.
"No!" he yelled, forcing himself up on his elbow and slinging a stiff arm over Johnson's body to shake the miner, whose eyes had already closed. "Wake up!"
Grale's eyes shot open. He looked at Kirk like a man rudely yanked from deep sleep.
"Get the stove out, Commander Grale," Kirk ordered hoarsely.
Though Kirk had no authority over him, Grale obeyed automatically.
Shocked out of his own stupor, Kirk sat up, his back and legs screaming, already stiff after that short rest. He shook off his leaden mittens and pulled off the ice-encrusted mask. He intended to check out Johnson, but had to sit with his head in his hands, collecting himself.
His hands were numb. His face didn't quite feel like it was his.
"Head bad, Captain?" the miner asked.
Looking up was like lifting a ton of bricks with just his eyelids, but Kirk managed to smile.
"It'll pass," he lied.
Grale didn't question him. His hands were shaking so badly, he couldn't touch the small flame jutting from the lighter to the stove. Kirk reached over and steadied his arm. He looked at his hand and thought it was hardly recognizable as a human hand. It was a pale blue, the nails were blackened and torn, the skin around them deeply split.
Then he looked at Grale, Grale's face. It was scoured by the small ice particles that, despite the masks, still got to their skin and rubbed it raw. Underneath the angry red there was the telltale pallor of exhaustion, malnutrition, hypothermia.
Kirk wondered what he must look like.
The fuel caught fire. He let go of Grale's arm, grabbed the pan from his pack, opened the tent flap a little and scooped up snow.
They drank the water as soon as it started steaming and managed to get some into Johnson, who had slipped into deep unconsciousness. Who was, Kirk knew, dying.
He swished the hot water around his mouth, chasing away the taste of old blood and washing out the broken tooth. His tongue caught on the shards and he winced when it touched the exposed nerve.
"We're close. I know it," he said, still grimacing.
Grale stared at him. Kirk held his breath. He knew that if the other contradicted him, he might give in. Give up.
But slowly Grale nodded his big head.
"I think so too."
Kirk breathed out. A puff of vapor. By now it was much warmer in the tent and it wasn't a blessing. His fingers, feet and face were on fire with the renewed circulation. The sweat that had frozen inside his clothing was dripping down his back, his chest, sending shivers though him. And it wasn't as if sitting still was restful. His muscles were starting to cramp with the sudden immobility.
Kirk glanced at the colonist. Kirk had always known that it might come down to one of them and that Grale might be the one. The giant was used to this climate and the extreme physical labor. He was also immune to the altitude sickness. He had certainly pulled his weight, literally too, as on this last stretch he carried more than half of their gear on his back while Kirk carried the rest and towed Johnson and blazed the trail.
"How is your foot?" Kirk asked.
Grale was trying to pull off his left boot. He cried out in pain. Kirk took out his knife and cut the boot off the foot. Grale gagged when he saw it: coal black, already stinking with rot. Kirk handed him a flask and Grale took a pull, grunting with gratitude. Kirk dug out his sleeping bag and wrapped the miner's foot in it.
"Thanks," said Grale. He passed the flask to kirk who also took a draught. They looked at the bundled up foot.
"Does it hurt?" Kirk asked.
"Nah," the colonist lied.
They both smiled grimly.
"Listen, Rayan, we both know that if we sit here much longer, we're dead."
"We can leave Johnson in the tent. Move on," Grale said.
Kirk didn't condemn him for wanting to leave Johnson, Kirk's own crew member, to die. He had witnessed some of the brutal existence of the colonists. He knew their very lives depended on the ruthless weeding out of weakness. But it was something Kirk couldn't accept, and he knew he was taking a double risk, saying what he had to.
"It doesn't look like you're going anywhere, mate," he said softly, using the moniker he had heard the colonists use for each other.
Kirk stiffly got to his knees, careful not to bump the tent.
"Stay with Johnson, keep him warm. Don't go to sleep."
He closed his heavy coat. His trembling fingers, on fire, could hardly handle the latches.
"It's maybe another seven miles," he bit, fumbling with his hood. "I'll take nothing, I'll be quick."
"Aim for the pylon! It has a red flare mounted on it. Remember, the compound's surrounded by barbed wire. It's minimal, there's not even a gate, just an opening. But it's there. There's a cargo elevator at the base of the pylon, like at Alpha Camp. You'll find the control room and the supplies room, easy."
"I'll call them in, restock, come and get you," Kirk said. Grale nodded, silent. "If I'm not back in twenty hours, if the weather turns, maybe your foot is better-try it then. Not earlier. I can do it. I'll be back."
He pulled his face mask over his mouth and nose, snapped on the goggles and shoved his hands into his sopping wet gloves. His heart was pounding. He had to go. He had to get out of that tent, that grave. He had to move, for Johnson and Grale, and for the seventeen men in the shuttle, a hundred and thirty miles, a ten days' march, to the North, over a murderous mountain pass and a vast glacial field of crevasses and pressure ridges.
He made the mistake of looking up at Grale.
He opened the flap and threw himself out into the blizzard. It was like slamming into a wall of ice. It took his breath away.
A hand caught his arm.
"Don't go!" Grale shouted. Kirk could see the fear in the man's hard, ravaged face.
"I have to!" Kirk yelled. "Stay here, stay together. No one should be alone!"
"What about you?"
Kirk didn't hesitate.
"I am the Captain," he said, simply.
His voice hadn't carried. Grale could not have heard.
Kirk turned and walked away through snow up to his knees.
The miner watched the Captain go. Five steps and he was lost in the driving snow.