SnowblindBy Alice C. Aldridge
Page 3 of 6
Still shaken and half-frozen from his narrow escape, Gan had returned with a
sketchy report on the search for Blake. Although he and Cally were already
kitted out for the planetary weather, after hearing Gan's account, Avon
dispatched Vila to fetch a device from his quarters. Half- suffocated in
Liberator's cold gear, they waited impatiently in the teleport bay
while Jenna fidgeted at the controls, still uneasy about her decision to
remain aboard Liberator, keeping watch for Federation ships.|
She was just about to change her mind and go with them when Zen broke in.
+ Federation vessel on the planet is sending out a distress signal.+
"Jam it!" Jenna ordered sharply, then glanced in dismay at Avon.
"Orac, did you intercept that message?" Avon's voice was absolutely flat as he addressed Ensor's recalcitrant invention.
*Of course,* came the peevish answer. *Since you programmed me to intercept and decode all Federation transmissions. A waste of my valuable time, I might add.*
"What did it say?"
*Space Commander Travis caught in avalanche with fugitive Blake. Telemetry readout shows survivors. Help needed to dig them out.*
"Well," Avon turned to Cally. "At least we know he's still alive . . . if we can believe this report."
"Buried under a mountain of snow and ice . . . with Travis!" The Auron's delicate features were haunted. "We can't wait any longer. I'm going down now! "
Avon grabbed her arm, "Let's not go charging to the rescue just yet. Not until we know whether there will be a ship for us to come back to if we do manage to find him. Zen, were you able to stop that message from getting through?"
+Ninety percent probability message did not reach Exeter+ was the emotionless reply.
"Which means there's a 10 percent chance that a heavy cruiser will be waiting for us when we return." His eyes glittered fiercely as he glared at Jenna, Cally, and Vila who had just straggled up with his equipment. "Not to mention playing `hide and seek' with Travis's patrol on the surface of the planet. Scandia is looking more unhospitable all the time."
"Stay here, if you wish," Cally's expression was impassive though her voice held a definite edge of scorn. "But I intend to help Dickon's people search for Blake. Vila, activate the teleport now!"
The nervous thief hurried to comply and moments later Cally blinked out in a waver of white light.
Picking up the scanning device that Vila had dropped in his haste, Avon glanced at Jenna's uncertain expression, a caustic smile in place.
"On the other hand, if I stay here, you'll feel obligated to go down in my place, leaving me to face Exeter with this grade four idiot beside me." He glanced sidelong at Vila, whose normally nervous expression was bordering on panic.
Stepping back into the teleport bay, he shrugged. "At least down there, I can keep a close watch on the situation . . . and if we are fortunate enough to find Blake's frozen corpse, then the pragmatists will outnumber the idealists and there will be no question about pursuing this hopeless crusade any longer. Will there, Jenna?"
"No," she answered in a low whisper, not meeting his mocking gaze.
Before activating the teleport, Jenna warned, "The long-range sensors should give us at least a thirty minute warning before Exeter arrives . . . if they did pick up that signal. That's all the margin of safety we'll have. Whether you've found Blake or not, if we don't leave by then, we risk a pitched battle with a heavy cruiser . . . and her escort ships. Not good odds for our survival."
"I'll remember," he nodded.
After he materialized, he found Cally and Dickon consulting a topographical map of the area that rippled and snapped in the heavy wind.
". . .ice sheet covers almost half this continent. The geothermal springs that keep our caverns inside the cliffs habitable, also honeycomb the glacier creating shafts, pockets and ice caves that constantly grow, shrink, and disappear with the movement of the ice. "
Cally glanced around curiously at the vast, seemingly immobile sheet of ice that they were standing on. "This whole area is . . . moving?"
He shrugged dismissively, "This glacier is relatively stable. Probably less than a hundred meters a year. But the changing topography does help to conceal our base from the Federation. "
Avon trudged over, glancing scornfully around at the forbidding icescape around them. "I don't see why they would even bother with this planet. It's hardly a garden spot."
Dickon stiffened at Avon's disparagement, "It's mainly used as a communications relay link between the Ninth and Tenth Sector. But we've recently unearthed a wealth of mineral resources - xenite crystals, dycronium, pyrocite - which could bring the Federation down on us like a plague of locusts if they ever find out. That's why we sent for Blake, hoping he could help to drive them off the planet entirely!"
"Instead, he draws the attention of a heavy cruiser and her complement of pursuit ships and troopers, who will be turning over every rock in search of Space Commander Travis and likely establish a permanent base here just because Blake made an appearance in this sector."
Dickon's craggy features dropped into a scowl as he, crumpled the map he and Cally had been consulting. The Auron attempted to smooth over the sudden tension.
"Once Blake is rescued, we can help you destroy the other communications relay station. It's unlikely Travis's men will want to continue their search for long under these worsening weather conditions and even more unlikely that a heavy cruiser will be spared to help them. Your base should be safe after we leave."
Dickon glanced at Cally gratefully, then gestured for the rest of his men to join them. As Avon busied himself with calibration of his biosensing device, he gave Cally a mocking smile.
"I thought that Blake was the only blind optimist in our group but it seems I've underestimated your ability to ignore the more unpleasant facts of life."
Cally ignored his barb, turning to listen to Dickon's instruction "We dug Gan out from the eastern edge of the ice fall. Judging by the way he described his position relative to Travis and Blake, it's likely that they were swept down the Diamondback Wash, into a sideslip along this ridge. It's one of the more unstable areas because of a heat vent and the ice caves in this area are often filled with fast-moving streams."
He glanced at the small scanner in the Avon's hands, "I hope that will help us narrow down our search area?"
"Possibly," was Avon's tight-lipped reply. "It's a biosigns detector, which should give us some generalized idea of where a life form might be trapped in the caves." His dark eyes glinted maliciously. "Unfortunately, it doesn't differentiate between starry-eyed idealists and psychotic killers, so we won't know whether we've found Blake or Travis . . . until we dig them out."
Dickon refused to be baited. "We'll just have to take that chance then. Like I said, this section is extremely unstable. The caves here can fill with water or close off completely in a matter of minutes, so unless we're cautious, whoever's trapped down there won't be the only ones in danger."
Blake limped across the narrow-walled cave where they had regained consciousness, hoping Travis had been mistaken about their situation. Once out of earshot, he raised the teleport bracelet to his lips, calling softly, "Liberator, this is Blake. Jenna? Vila? Answer if you can hear me. Can anyone hear me?" But empty silence was the only reply.
He peered into the dimness searching for any kind of opening that might lead to an exit from the cave. Just beyond where they were trapped a narrow passageway opened into a large gallery filled with frozen columns, some so fragile a whisper would shatter them, others as broad as Gan's shoulders. That glassy petrified forest glittered with rainbow brilliance, reflecting the light of his hand torch as Blake trudged through, with one gloved hand attempting to shield his eyes from the glare as he searched for a way out. But the cold blue luminescence around him - ceiling, walls, floor - made it virtually impossible to identify which way he was going - up, down, or nowhere at all.
He rubbed his eyes, trying to bring his blurry vision into focus, still searching for some way out of this death trap. But the numbing cold almost froze his lashes shut until he was able to breathe on an ungloved hand and warm his cheek enough to thaw them and restore his vision.
The Federation officer had not moved from where Blake last left him. Though he was slumped against an icy wall, chin on chest, seemingly succumbing to the hopelessness of their situation. Despite his loathing for the man and everything he stood for, Blake shuddered at the thought of spending his last hours with a corpse. Kneeling, he shook Travis irritably..
"C'mon, Space Commander, surely you don't give up that easily! I thought you wanted to see me dead . . ." The words choked off as Travis struck with inhuman swiftness, seizing Blake's shoulder and pulling him down until his left hand pressed against the rebel's throat, its laseron crystal gleaming malevolent yellow in the eerie blue glow.
"I do, Blake, but I thought I'd wait and see if you found a way out first. Did you?"
Blake froze, knowing the deadly potential of that artificial arm and wondering how Travis would react to his reply. If he lied and said there was a way out, would the officer kill him to prevent his escape or offer a truce for survival's sake? And if he told the truth, what then? Would Travis kill him outright? Or be content to let them both die by inches - together in the killing cold? He shrugged. It hardly mattered. Quick or slow -- the outcome would still be the same. They were both doomed.
Sensing the answer in that resigned shrug, Travis released his painful grip and slowly dropped his left arm, "So we're trapped here. . . to die together." He shifted, dragging himself further upright, as he glanced down at his artificial arm. "Damned laseron is useless anyway. Its circuit was burned out by the long-range shot that got us into this mess." He laughed half-ruefully, his teeth chattering with cold and shock "Otherwise, I'd blow off your head and set fire to your body to warm myself one last time before I freeze to death."
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