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Frozen In Hell

By Julia Stamford
Page 1 of 4

Blake shivered, and pulled his jacket tighter around him. "All right, Avon, say it and get it over with," he said wearily.

      Avon looked back at him, face blandly innocent save for the trace of malice in his eyes. "Say what? Cally is the mind-reader, not me."

      "No, you're just our resident Cassandra. So go on, say 'I told you so', or I'll start wondering if you're sickening for something."

      

      Another remote colony begging for help: a small mining colony on an uninhabitable planet, its life support dependent on the technology that its products bought. Only the Federation hadn't wanted to pay the agreed price and resorted to force.

      Liberator had picked up the distress call, but by the time they'd arrived, there'd been no signal for some hours and yet another furious row on the flight deck. Blake had eventually bullied his electronics genius into accompanying him to the underground colony, on the grounds that the silence probably only meant that the communications systems were damaged and would benefit from Avon's skilful attention.

      An underground colony, because using the original mine workings for dwelling space was cheaper and safer than using domes. Far enough underground that Blake and a grumbling Avon had been able to teleport into the top level, but then had to make their way on foot to the lower living quarters. Which was where they'd been when Vila's frantic voice had informed them that three pursuit ships had just appeared.

      

      The malice in Avon's eyes grew more noticeable. "All right, I told you so. I told you it was a trap, I told you only an idiot would go so deep that the rock would prevent us from teleporting out. Only that makes me an even bigger idiot for letting you persuade me. Now can we get on with the business of trying to survive until Liberator can return for us? If it returns."

      "What do you mean, if it returns? Do you really think that they wouldn't come back for us?"

      Now the acid had reached Avon's voice. "Oh, I'm sure that they will come back for you, their revered leader. If they can." He elaborated, "With two of the crew missing, how effective will Liberator be in a fight?"

      Blake noted what Avon had not quite said. "Do you really think they'd abandon you? After all this time together?"

      "Perhaps not. Although Jenna sometimes thinks we've spent too much time together already." A dry chuckle, and then, "I remind her too much of the things she doesn't like in herself." The harsh amusement in his expression strongly suggested that Avon meant it quite literally. His face returned to its normal mask as he continued, "Let us hope that it is just a random patrol, and not Travis. Travis is too persistent to abandon the chase. It could be a long and very cold wait if they have to shake him off."

      Blake nodded in agreement, then returned to inspecting the control systems. The emergency lighting was dim but serviceable, allowing him to read the life support readouts. "At least there's plenty of air. That won't be a problem."

      "With just the two of us, the loss of power to the circulation system won't matter." Avon walked over to join him at the console, scanned it briefly, then pointed at a temperature gauge. "That is our real problem."

      "Almost down to freezing. I knew it felt cold, but I wouldn't have expected to be that bad already." Blake shivered again. Knowing that it was partly his mind telling him that he should feel cold at that temperature didn't make him feel any better.

      Avon shrugged. "This is an ice world. It isn't habitable without full life support."

      "And the power's been off long enough for the base to lose heat. I suppose that with full backup systems they thought they only needed enough insulation to give them a few hours leeway." Blake sighed.

      "No, they wouldn't have expected to lose both backups as well. Not that it matters for them any more." Avon's soft voice was expressionless, but still somehow managed to convey disgust. He paused, then went on in a more normal tone, "A pity we didn't wear the thermal suits. I doubt the batteries would have lasted until Liberator's likely return time, but at least we would have been more comfortable while they did."

      "All right, you don't have to keep saying 'I told you so'. Once is enough," Blake grumbled. "I didn't expect to find all three power systems smashed beyond our ability to repair them."

      "Neither did I, or I might have insisted on going back to the ship immediately."

      "Well, you didn't, so we'd better set about making ourselves as comfortable as possible while we wait," Blake said briskly. "Suggestions?"

      "We make ourselves comfortable in the upper levels, so that we can be teleported immediately." Avon paused, obviously considering further. "I have not yet seen any portable heaters. We should collect thermal clothing or blankets, and as much flammable material as possible. It could be a long wait, if Liberator opts to run and come back for us when they've shaken the pursuit ships."

      Blake mused, "Food and water as well." He asked again, "No chance of rigging something from whatever's powering the lighting?"

      "Yes. If we can find the battery system, and if you want to risk losing the lighting as well. As you should know. You're the engineer."

      "Then we forget the lighting system," Blake sighed. "Come on, let's get on with it."

      They started searching for the things they would need. It meant going into private quarters, and some of the things they saw would remain in his memory for a long time. This little colony had obviously been used as an object lesson, but there had been no need for the degree of brutality they found.

      Then there was the physical damage. It could only be classed as vandalism for the sake of it, it went far beyond what was necessary to cripple the colony. That was only too clear when they surveyed the remains of the life support suits.

      "Why do so much damage?" Blake wondered aloud.

      "They wanted to make quite certain that no one would survive, even if somebody had evaded them while they were here." Avon's voice was cold and hard, and Blake speculated that the man had been more affected by what they'd seen than he was willing to let on. He'd noticed that Avon's bloody-minded attitude to the world at large did not extend to those Avon classed as innocents. The sight of a child's battered corpse tossed aside in the corridor outside hadn't done much for Blake's peace of mind either.

      "And you still think I'm a fool to fight the Federation, after seeing this?"

      "Yes. The people who did this weren't inhuman monsters, Blake, they were recruited from the very rabble you are so determined to free."

      "Well, I'm not going to argue with you about it. I still believe in humanity, even if you don't."

      "Oh, but you will argue about it, until the day one of your rabble kills you."

      "Morbid little soul, aren't you?"

      "No. Realistic." With that, Avon turned and left the room.

      Blake followed him out. There was no point in lingering. He tried hard not to look at the bodies lying in the corridor, and was grateful for the dimness of the lighting. It meant he couldn't see the marks of torture.

      " I think we've checked everywhere likely to be useful. They seem to have smashed most of the equipment." And the people, he thought, heartsick.

      "I imagine they only left the emergency lighting because it was useful to them and too much trouble to destroy as they left." Avon's face stiffened as he glanced at the dead child. "There seems little point in continuing. Shall we return to the top level?"

      They returned to the office they'd selected in the colony's reception area. Their cache included mattresses for insulation from a cold floor, a collection of blankets, even a few self-heating packs of food - but very little in the way of fuel for a fire. Things that would burn, but not produce poisonous smoke, were few and far between. Avon laid a fire with what little they'd found, but when Blake drew his gun to light it, said, "No. We could have much greater need of it later. For now the blankets will do. I would suggest exercise to keep warm, but we are likely to be here for at least the night, maybe longer. It would be difficult to keep it up that long."

      If only...


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