(This story started out as a piece of flash fiction…but kept growing. The way it turned out, it looks like it’s the first part of a longer story. I haven’t written any more on it, but I have several ideas about where it will head. The main character is not totally unsympathetic…but he has a lot of room to grow if I write further installments.)
Part I: The Relic
Before earth dropped the EMP on us, crossing all these rivers was easy, frozen or not. But now, everyone who once had an Ice-cat half-tread, instead has a thousand-pound snowdrift behind their cabin. It would have been easier if we had started out roughing it, instead of having to suddenly learn it from scratch.
On the far side of the broad white river Pakuutsi, I could make out two tiny figures, climbing the grey bank up to a line of tall trees. That told me that the ice was thick enough to cross over. Which was good. Even at almost two hundred yards, this was the narrowest crossing for several miles.
Maybe that’s why I thought we could make it.
The two figures were too far to wave them down, even if we wanted the company. Travelers you could trust gave you an advantage in the wild – which could include many of the habitations, now. But not knowing each other made it too risky for us to cross paths unless we had to.
Without speaking, my traveling companion and I fastened our sandskin treads on over our snow boots — just enough of an edge that they were worth the time. Although the main local predators didn’t often attack humans, they were almost always deadly. Snowverines were named “goliath snow wolverines” by the first naturists to see them. The locals call them “snow ghouls”. Either way, if one showed up, you didn’t want to be caught in the middle of the frozen river without sufficient traction.
Max and I had not traveled together for long. We didn’t get on well, and didn’t talk enough to try to change it. That didn’t bother me. Things were simpler and more focused that way. Most of my previous partners and I had had…personality differences. Cool disinterest was less troublesome than heated likes and dislikes.
Still, we had been out making this run for many years separately, so were somewhat in tune to what needed to be done. After a long trip to market, we had what curie we could make. We had to cross the river to get back to our villages, and if we didn’t move, we might be caught and killed.
My nose was raw. Winter was the worst time for me to be outside, my mucous membranes being as sensitive as a girl’s vanity. I hid my frequent nosebleeds, for it lead to not only scorn, but also the potential for violence against a perceived weakling. A good red scarf served double purpose – while risking some ridicule of its own.
I steeled myself, jaws clenched, eyes shut. Once we got out onto the open plain of the river, the wind would be much worse. Each gust of cold air burned like winter fire.
For the first few minutes we made good time. Ice and snow were loud under our sandskins, and occasionally we would stop for a few moments to listen for sounds of pursuit, or the calls of predators in the area.
Roughly halfway, the ice on which we walked, solid as the ground that was our usual home, shifted up and to the side. A muffled – and yet very loud – rumble reverberated through the ice – and our feet. A river leviathan. They didn’t often ram the ice this late in the season. This one was hungry.
Max spoke for the first time in hours. “I told my daughter there weren’t such things. She worries too much already.”
“This late in the season, the ice is too thick for them. We’ll be fine.” If we make it across. The last thing I needed was for him to panic out here.
I drifted behind him, letting him take the brunt of the wind, now in our face. My nose and sinuses were raw, felt bigger than my face. My eyes were starting to water. My goggles were cheap and old, not great protection against either the wind or light. I closed my eyes, hoping to keep drifting along on my feet for a few seconds to get some relief. The ice was smooth, and Max would warn of anything up ahead. Even my ears were ringing.
That must be why I didn’t hear it coming.
The last moment before it struck, my inflamed nostrils lashed out with a horrible sneeze, bending me double. It seemed like an ice giant had jammed two icy fingers up my nose. Almost at the same time, I felt two ribbons of fire, tearing up my back, and hitting me hard in the back of the head. I was thrown face first into the ice.
If I hadn’t been bent over, I think the snowverine would have snapped my neck.
Whatever happened those first moments between Max and the creature, I couldn’t see. I was facedown and what part of me wasn’t numb was stinging so badly I wished I were numb all over. Max must have turned just enough at my sneeze that he caught the snowverine as it flew into his chest.
When I could stagger to my feet, my scarf was a hardening mesh of blood, and my head was pounding to several different rhythms. My eyes couldn’t make out what was happening to Max – that was left to my ears and imagination.
He never stopped screaming. First, I hadn’t known what it was – and then it seemed like all that was.
I groped for my staff. Too many years of safe crossings had left me careless. All I had was a strong rockwood staff with a laser-honed metal tip. I had used it as a tool many times – but never as a weapon.
Perhaps I was too tentative. Or too hasty. I wasn’t sure how to go about it, but knew I had to do something — I jabbed the lower back of the creature with the staff as hard as I could.
It didn’t faze him. He wasn’t even mad – just irritated. It must have been solid muscle where I had jabbed. He swung back so quickly I didn’t see it – but the staff snapped, and I went flying and landed, skidding across the river.
Can you feel shame over something you believed at the time you had to do? Maybe later, when you have the luxury of time for the luxury of reflection. But at the time, I didn’t believe, didn’t think. I certainly didn’t “reflect”.
Not many know me, but those who do would not be surprised. It was due to no particular cowardice, or cold indifference on my part. It was just apparent that I had no chance, and I saw no reason for both Max and me to die.
I’ve been told, “Pain drives wisdom from a man, as fear drives him to the foe he thinks he flees.” I don’t know. What I have learned is: bad things happen — bring a shovel. I knew this, and yet was unprepared with a sufficient shovel for the task.
I felt that Max was shortly to die. He was screaming and screaming. Blood spattered the snow. Snowverines are notoriously slow killers, but they don’t stop until they’re done killing. I didn’t want to be his next slow food. I plodded away, toward the far shore.
And Max kept on screaming.
Insanely, I thought I could hear some birds singing on the wind – either too far away to care about the carnage so close to me or waiting for the spoils. His screams rolled past me, and moments later their echoes reproached me from the slowly nearing shore. And suddenly I remembered why Max hadn’t spoken for so long before we were attacked.
He had been singing. For hours, it seemed. I had been fine with his talking the whole trip, since he didn’t require any input from me. But something about his singing pushed me around the bend. I was mad at him for being weird, mad at him for being happy. And so I yelled at him till he stopped.
He was just happy that he was almost home and would see his daughter soon.
And now I got mad at him for screaming, and for making me feel sorry for him. I had to make him stop.
I stopped and turned.
I knew I couldn’t do it without either killing him or the creature. As low as I have sunk in my life, I won’t kill a man…like that.
So kill the creature. But with what?
Max’s pike. It was long and entirely metal – an unusually expensive addition to his usual pack. It looked to be a bitter weapon, a long tooth that should bite deep – even into the hide of a snowverine.
It had been thrown clear in the initial attack. I ran up to it now, and attempted to pick up its dull grey length. I couldn’t. My gloves seemed to be too slick, slippery to be able to hold it. The only thing I could do was to take them off. Dreading the horrible cold, I did it anyway.
The metal was cool – not even cold. And within moments, it started to warm. The metal even began to respond to – even yield to – my skin. It mirrored my body temperature, like I was touching flesh.
I felt something I hadn’t felt in years. Confidence, I think. Whatever it was, it gave me the spit and wind to grab the pike firmly with both hands.
If you can’t reach an enemy’s heart, I figured the guts would do. I took a run at the creature and rammed the pike’s tip into its lower side, trying for under the ribcage – if it had such a thing.
This time, my new weapon slipped inside the animal’s abdomen and out the other side – like a hot poker into a snow bank. I could even feel its heat, smell the heat as it roasted the hapless predator’s belly.
“Like a scream ripped from a snow-ghoul’s chest,” they say. But this one died too quickly, perhaps as close to wonder as any of its species had ever been. It did not slump, but dropped, stiff, to the river’s placid, hard surface. A trickle of blood steamed the snow, but quickly stopped.
I released the pike as the creature fell, almost as shocked as it had been. Now I stood, disbelieving. That worked well, the thought came, before I bit it off at the sound of Max whimpering.
My legs went in odd directions as I stumbled over to, and got down beside him.
I could not recognize this man I had been berating less than an hour before for being too happy. Most of his body had been torn, and I felt like I was seeing more of his insides than his outside. Blood.
His face was not that badly wounded, but it was contorted in agony.
I looked for some part of him that I could touch, to…in vain, comfort him. His left hand seemed to be mostly unscathed, but limp. Once I touched it, though, he clasped my hand with what must have been all adrenaline. It hurt.
He started a ragged whisper, saying only one thing, a name, over and over.
His daughter’s name.
I couldn’t say anything. Anything you say to a dying person is stupid, even if you know them, and I did not really know this man, had only barely tried to save him.
He dropped my hand and tried to reach inside his shredded coat. What I had taken to be fear of dying seemed to be more a panic at not finishing one last task. He fumbled at the tatters, jerkily.
I pulled back at where he was reaching, trying to help. I knew he must have been trying to find something for his daughter.
It was a sodden mess, but there was a hard round object in what had been the inside of his coat. His curie. The payment for all of his hard work for the better part of the year.
I retrieved it and held it close to his face, where he could see. Forcing myself, I could just look in his eyes. They seemed to relax some even as they waned. “Shora. Shora.” He was weaker, slowly letting himself go.
“You want me to take it to her?”
He kept repeating her name, but I knew. “I will, Max.”
I put it inside my own coat.
With one last spasm of energy, he tried to get at something on the other side of his chest, pawing weakly before it became too late.
His hand stopped on his chest.
Only a few moments passed before the spell of fight and death and blood had dissipated. Only because it had to. Others might have wept, might have mourned, and might have waited. But I could not wait.
Stiffly, I stood, turning in a faltering circle, trying to see any more approaching snowverines. They don’t hunt in packs, but if they catch wind of any carrion, they will neglect their suspicion of each other long enough to fight over spoils.
Nothing. I stood in the center of a white circle, whose circumference was the horizon, except for two small grey shorelines – only one of which I could see. It was snowing again, and I could barely see the woods on either side of the river. I had to hurry, though. My former companion was still fresh kill, even while slowly freezing. The animal that had taken his life seemed to be totally devoid of life, even its blood dried and odorless. Strange.
My back was starting to burn and throb where the creature had hit and scraped over me. I didn’t think the skin was broken, but knew I would have some bad bruising. Despite being numb, my face hurt, too.
Still, in less than two minutes I had scanned Max’s corpse for any possible useful items. Some food left in his pack. A short knife. A much-needed muffler. Holding out on me? I needed that almost more than anything. Never mind that I never would have told him I needed anything. I’ll take what I believe to be mine, but won’t accept what I can’t earn.
My own scarf I shoved into my coat. Even though I didn’t need it anymore, I could not risk giving any new predators a close-up snort of my fresh blood. I would either bury it or burn it further on.
Wasting precious moments, something made me stare through flurries at my ex-companion, one last time. What had he been reaching for?
I lifted the edge of his coat again. A hardened pouch of hide. Something was in it, but I had taken far too long already to look inside it. I added it to the pile.
My pack had been partly torn by the snowverine’s claws as he slid over me. Something else which had helped to save my life. I bound it up the best I could, with the meager additions – meager except for the muffler, which I had already wrapped around my neck and face. I stood. Took a quick glance at the stiff snowverine.
The pike. Absolutely the pike.
It stuck out of the creature at a sharp angle, appearing to be solidly buried, like a sword in a stone I had read about one time. Some “paper” book my uncle claimed had come from earth. I guess so, since I’d never seen any book (on this planet) that looked like it.
Dreading how hard it would be to extricate, I set one boot on the hardened animal and grabbed the pike firmly. I moved to turn it, assuming I would have to twist it back and forth to work it loose.
It turned easily. I almost fell from the lack of resistance. Huh. Wondering, I pulled it straight out, a pin out of a cushion.
For the first time, I let myself think it. A Relic. Max, where did you get a Relic?
No time to dwell on it. No time to work out a sling for my new weapon. My pack was already slung, and barely held together. I would just have to carry it.
Turning from Max, I started again for the shore.
It’s not that I have no respect for the dead. I just have no words I believe to say for them. With no words to say, what’s the point in taking the time?
The trees ahead were vague, tall shadows behind waving, wailing sheets of snow. I locked in on them, as they grew bigger and taller, until they finally loomed over me, at the top of a low hill. Not stopping until I had clambered to the top of that hill, and stumbled past the first few. By this point, the snow was falling hard. I fell harder.
Maybe I slept for a few minutes.
Before I heard a scream. Two screams.
Jerking awake, I rolled around on the ground for a moment, before I had my bearings.
The “screams” had to be two snowverines, at least, back on the river. They must have found the bodies.
I don’t believe in fate. But I do acknowledge when something’s working for me, and some things worked for me that day. My sneeze. My backpack. The pike. The snow, covering my scent and tracks. And, if Max hadn’t been with me….
Thank you, Max. If not for you, I would have died. Smiling ruefully, I thought, I’ll probably even take her the money.
I winced as I tightened the straps on my pack, and hefted the pike. Still no time to rig a proper sling or carrier, yet I had a funny but growing feeling it wouldn’t let me lose it.
The shapes of the fighting, howling snowverines faded into the storm.
Max, why the hell did you have a Relic?
Turning toward the trees, I trudged into the forest and snowstorm, letting their dense white maw swallow me whole.