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Snowblind

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 6

The wind keened across the desolate landscape with the banshee wail of a bereft lover. Under ice-rimed cliffs jutting against leaden skies, the Federation patrol huddled like lost sheep, their standard issue cold gear virtually useless in Scandia's hellish winter. Shivering in misery, they were almost too numb to respond to the verbal lash of Commander Travis's parade ground voice.

Almost.

"BRANT!"

The section leader cringed, loath to abandon even the scant relief of shared body heat among his half-frozen troopers, but trudged reluctantly over to his commanding officer. Space Commander Travis was bareheaded, seemingly oblivious to the frigid wind, as he glowered over the shoulder of the unlucky commtech manning their virtually useless scanner. His cold-eyed expression was scarcely warmer than the cruel winds whipping around them.

Brant saluted sluggishly, barely able to open his clenched, half-frozen fingers, then reluctantly raised his helmet's face mask at Travis's impatient gesture.

"Scan shows hundreds of caves in this area. Some are actually inside the glacier, though the majority are honeycombed through the cliffs. The approaching storm is playing hell with the directional signal so we can't get a hard fix on the rebels' location. Order your troops to fan out and search for signs of human habitation."

Brant took a hopeless swipe at the icy slush on his upper lip, results of a perpetually runny nose. "Signs of human habitation?" he croaked, peering at the ice dervishes whipped up by a wind that howled like one of the damned souls in hell. "But there are too many caves for us to search one by one."

"Use your brain . . . if you have one." Travis barked impatiently, icy streaks silvering his dark hair. "Forget about the ice caves and use infrareds to screen the rest. Any difference in the ambient around an entry point or waste vents ought to stand out like a mag lamp. Now get to it!"

Turning away from the section leader, Travis grimaced, massaging the old wound where his patch's frigid edges gouged into sensitive scar tissue. It was the only hint of human weakness Brant had seen in the driven officer since they had set down on this frozen wasteland.

"Blake and his rabble will be here soon. He probably heard about Dickon's band blowing up the comm relay station before the base commander's report reached Servalan's desk. He'll come here to finish the job and further disrupt Federation operations in this sector."

He flexed the fingers of his artificial hand, bringing up his laseron weapon as though drawing a bead on a target. " I know his tactics well. He'll walk into my trap . . . and when I have him in my sights, I'll kill him slowly . . . blowing off one piece at a time, like he did to me."

Brant shivered at the menace in those soft-spoken words, much colder than the bitter winds that threatened to blow them off the frozen mountainside.



* * *

Aboard Liberator, Kerr Avon stared in distaste at the forbidding display on Zen's viewscreen then turned his scornful glare towards the two bulky figures on the flight deck. They were already kitted out in Liberator's survival gear, insulated boots, furlined parkas and thermal generators that would enable them to survive in a minus 50 degree blizzard.

"I hope this doesn't turn into another 'hare and hounds' rescue mission like Avalon's." His silky voice was only marginal degrees warmer than the planet's frozen surface.

The smaller of the two figures shoved back his hood revealing a mass of thick dark curls that topped a beguiling grin and a forcefully set jaw. Though the grin seemed somewhat forced and there were spiderwebs of strain in the corner of his eyes, Roj Blake's revolutionary zeal burned as brightly as ever despite Avon's disapproval.

"I guarantee this won't be another rescue mission, Avon. This rebel cell has taken stringent precautions to safeguard their security. There's no way the Federation could have discovered the location of this meeting."

Avon grimaced, "Somehow I find that less than reassuring, especially since promises of security you've given us in the past have proved false. Your road to hell is obviously paved with misplaced confidence."

The burly giant at Blake's side shoved back his own hood, wiping the sweat from his eyes. "Please don't get started on another one of those arguments," he rumbled impatiently. "I'm about to burn up inside these furs!"

Blake glanced at Avon in sidelong amusement before acknowledging Gan's protest and pulling up his hood again. " Well, if we are on the road to hell, at least we'll stay warm during this mission."

Striding down the hallway to the teleport, Blake wasn't aware of Avon staring after him, his dark eyes smouldering with distrust.



***

As soon as they materialized, the icy winds and blowing snow lashed both men with a bone-numbing cold.

"Down and safe," Blake managed to gasp into his teleport bracelet, through teeth chattering in shock at the abrupt change.

Within moments, the thermal units in their suits had compensated for the sudden temperature drop and Blake scanned the area for the rebels he was supposed to meet there.

Gan cupped his mittened hands around his eyes, trying to shield them from the stinging snow. "Where are they, Blake? Isn't this the meeting place you agreed on?"

"It should be." The rebel leader peered up the sheer cliffs soaring above the low-hanging clouds. "These are the grid coordinates they transmitted."

"If they've been delayed, maybe we should try to contact them.".

"No," Blake answered shortly. "There's at least one more Federation listening post here, besides the one they destroyed. We can't take the chance of our signal being intercepted. Dickon's a man of his word, he'll get here as soon as he can."

Gan grunted, flapping his arms across his chest and stamping his feet in an effort to keep warm.

Suddenly a burst of laser fire seared into the ice shelf just over their heads, half-blinding them in a cloud of steam and flying ice chips. Instinctively both men dived for cover, barely managing to dodge the next beam. A ragged series of blaster fire followed, triggering geysers of steam and exploding rock that forced Blake and Gan to withdraw into the ice-choked canyon.

Cursing the ice-laden winds that had spoiled his first shot, Travis charged out from behind the rocks where they had been waiting in ambush, ranting at his troops, "Come on, you slime eaters! Don't let them get away!"

An ominous rumble sounded from the ridge above where Blake had taken cover, causing Travis's men to mill nervously at the edge of that cold, grey gorge.

"Sir," Brant tried to restrain his rabid superior. "That ice sheet is unstable, if we go in firing, it may collapse on top of us."

Travis's eye gleamed in a blue-hot fury as he backhanded the reluctant section leader with his cyberarm, stopping just short of the necessary force to dislocate the ranker's jaw.

"I gave you an order, trooper," he grated. "Now either follow it or die!" The crystal arming circuit on the laseron gleamed menacingly as Travis aimed at him, forcing Brant to swallow back his protests before waving the rest of the section to follow.

Pushing ahead of his men, Travis ignored the danger, determined that Blake would not escape him this time, if he had to follow the man into the pit of hell itself. Some twenty yards away, he caught sight of a large, fur-clad figure ducking behind some tumbled rocks that jutted out of the ice.

Travis cursed under his breath. Almost out of range! If Blake escaped this time, he'd have Brant flayed alive! Plowing through the thigh-deep snow, he overrode the safety circuits on his laseron for a single long-range blast of fire. That should bring his target down!

Just as he took aim, he caught a flash of movement off to the extreme left, at the very edge of the restricted vision field of his remaining eye. He pivoted sharply and saw Blake, drawing a bead on him, less than twenty feet away. Aiming and firing instinctively, Travis forgot his weapon was set for long-range targeting. Blake dropped as the beam seared past him, boiling deep inside the frozen ice face beyond. But before he could fire his weapon, the outcropping of ice and rock that was just hit, sheared away from the cliff with an almost human moan, creating a juggernaut of debris that rumbled down the canyon, sweeping over the two men directly in its path.

***


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