Cobe looked back at the trail of bodies struggling in his wake. The harsh frigid wind whipped through the group forcing them to lean into its relentless attack as if always on the edge of toppling over. They only had a few more hours of light left and the winds were growing fiercer by the minute, promising a subzero night. He stopped them with a hand signal. His com-link had long since frozen. Another hand signal brought the four scouts to a huddle. The scientists milled about in the howling gale.
“We need to find a camp,” Cobe bellowed against the roaring winds. “This is going to be a bad one.” The others nodded agreement, not wasting precious warmth by removing their face shields to speak. Frost grew like white lichen on the fur trim of their parkas, and the tiny bit of exposed skin between their hoods and goggles was chapped and blistered red. He knew the scientists, only aware of these climates and the approaching storm as a possible weather phenomenon, were miserable, if not dying.
If they could find a suitable enclosed space to set up their “tent” they would be fine. “Jethro, take Kate and find us a spot for the night.” Cobe immediately snapped his face shield back in place. The two scouts nodded. Shouldering their weapons, they moved ahead of the group and were soon invisible in the blowing debris and wind driven snow.
Cobe made his way back to where the scientists were huddled in the lee of a collapsed building. Huddled together in their bright parkas he could not help but think of them as a six petaled flower in this frigid wasteland. The red survival parkas certainly would make it easy to find one of them if they got separated, but the other inhabitants of this frozen waste that would find it just as easy would have little interest in their rescue. He tapped his mittened hand on the back of the man he knew to be their leader, the only one that did not carry a heavy pack.
The man turned. Cobe could see his blistered lips through the opening in the wool facemask he wore, and his own frost ringed face was reflected in the man’s goggles. “We find shelter for the night here,” he barked to the man.
“We have a few more hours of light Commander,” Rake yelled back, his face just a few inches from the scout. Rake was the scientific lead for the expedition and the chief researcher for the project.
“We will be dead in another hour if we remain out in this storm,” Cobe shouted back. The few scientists who could make out his words nodded in frightened agreement.
“I will defer to your judgment, Commander. It does seem that this is getting quite out of hand but I need you to know we are eager to get to the research site,” returned the scientist.
“I will take that under advisement,” Cobe growled, turning back to the scouts. Quite out of hand he thought. That madman is going to get us all killed. He would have to remember to have a second look at their contracts from now on.
Jethro and Kate returned from their reconnaissance. With hand signals they motioned that they had found a suitable spot just a short distance ahead. Cobe nodded acceptance and they returned to their positions within the miserable caravan. The scout named Jethro now took the lead followed closely by the Commander. Kate and the fourth scout fell in behind the sixth scientist as they trudged ahead into the teeth of the oncoming storm.
After just a hundred yards, Jethro brought them to what looked like had once been a factory building or industrial complex. Several large buildings interconnected and overlapped each other stretching back into the dim half-light. Jethro halted the group and he, Kate and Commander Cobe entered the nearest of the buildings. Once inside, they lit the torches fixed under their rifle barrels. The bright lights danced all over the room’s interior, stretching thirty yards to the back wall. The room was relatively free of debris. A single double wide exit blackened the back wall.
“Check it,” ordered Cobe. The two scouts moved forward into the room, their torch beams splashing into the darkness as they moved and finally disappeared through the opening. For just a few moments he could see the beams of their torches play over the interior of the second room before returning to his position.
“It’s good. That whole back half of that room has collapsed. There is no way to get in or out that way,” reported Kate, removing her face shield in the relative safety of the room. Her pale skin shined like ivory in the grainy torch light, a sharp contrast to the patch of wind blistered skin along her hairline. “Want me to take first watch?” she asked as Jethro moved to signal the rest of the group to join them.
“I don’t know yet. Let’s just get these guys safe and snug and then we can work out the assignments.”
“Roger that,” she said moving away before turning back to her commander. “Do you think this guy will find what he is looking for?”
“I hope so. The sooner we can get back to base.”
“Has he told you yet what they are looking for?”
“Proprietary research, he says. Something about ancient relics and long forgotten mythologies. Sounds like a bunch of crap if you ask me.” They had been traveling into the ruins for three days. The GPS coordinates they had been given would get them within a mile or so of their target. From there the map Rake had would have to get them to the exact spot. Cobe had only glimpsed the map very briefly but Rake assured him it was genuine. That and the fact he didn’t bat an eye at their fee had convinced Cobe of his sincerity.
Jethro returned with the six scientists and the last of the scouts. Reynolds, the fourth member of the team, was a big man, the bulk of his parka and protective clothing hiding most of his size. He unslung the assault rifle he carried over his back and assumed a position where he could see the entrance to the warehouse.
Once inside the warehouse, the pandemonium that raged outside seemed to disappear. The team visibly relaxed, some removing the hoods of their parkas or mittens as they prepared to work. The temperature inside the warehouse was still well below freezing but the relative calm of their shelter made them feel a little safer.
“Ok, let’s get this tent thing on the ground,” barked Cobe, shocking the scientists back to the reality of their situation. Without additional protection they would all be frozen stiff by morning. He noticed Rake had wandered to the far end of the room, playing his flashlight over the wall before him. Already some of the scientists had set glowsticks around the perimeter of the room. They gave off a faint but steady glow that bathed the room in a dull yellow light of a dying sun.
Two of the scientists had begun setting up the tent. Cobe and the rest of the scouts could hardly believe their eyes the first time they had seen it erected. The men placed a solid metal disk about two feet in diameter and ten inches deep on the floor of the warehouse. One tapped a few keys on its surface panel and the tent began to take shape. The top surface of the disk unfolded and a thin vaporous substance began to issue from its interior. After several minutes the vapor began to coalesce into a rough dome that encompassed a ten yard radius around the disk. A few more moments and the vapor had hardened into a thin plastic like sheeting, transparent in some sections and opaque in others, allowing for a combination of visibility and privacy from the outside. Once deployed, the disk in the dome’s center began to hum faintly as it began emitting heat. Cobe stood amazed at the technology that still remained in their broken world. Within an hour the interior of the tent would reach a cool yet survivable fifty degrees. Not warm enough to strip to the waist but comfortable enough to remove most of their protective wear.
He wandered over to where Rake was still studying the warehouse walls. “What do you see?” he asked. Cobe could see nothing that would make them different from any other abandoned building in the ruins.
“It is nothing, Commander,” he replied. “I thought I could make out some long faded writing on these walls.”
“Like graffiti,” he asked, sure the man had been unhinged by the cold.
“Sort of,” was all he said.
“Well, the tent is up and warming. I wouldn’t stay outside too much longer. It will be a very cold night out here.” Cobe turned and headed back toward the tent. The rest of the scientists and his scouts had crowded into the increasing warmth of the shelter. After a short meal of dried meat and fruits they began to drift into sleep. Most just laid down where they sat, curling into a ball covered by a single heavy wool blanket. The heat inside the shelter, as well as layers of insulated clothing, would serve to keep them warm throughout the night.
“Commander…watch?” asked Kate.
“Reynolds has it,” he replied. The big scout was scanning the surrounding room through a clear window in the dome’s surface.
“Have him wake me if he tires.” She didn’t know much about him other than he hardly slept. This would make the second night in a row that he had stood watch over them through the night. Kate wondered what kind of man he was that he could endure hardships that were even beyond the rest of the team. She was thinking about him as she drifted into sleep.
They woke the next morning to quiet and blue skies outside of their shelter. Kate yawned and pulled herself to her feet. A pair of scientists who seemed to have snuggled closer than she remembered still snored beside her. She pulled on her parka and gloves and stepped through the dome’s flap into the chill of the warehouse. Cobe and Reynolds were talking a short distance from the tent. “Looks like the storm blew itself out,” Cobe said as she approached. “Still damn cold though.” Despite the sunshine the outside temperature was still below freezing.
“We are getting close,” said Reynolds, more a question than statement.
Cobe checked the transmitter he carried in his pack. “Looks like this is as close as we are going to get with the GPS. We better have a pow wow with Rake before we set off today. Take a good close look at that map of his.”
“Where is Jethro?” asked Kate.
“Scouting. He’s been gone about a half hour now. Should be back soon.”
“Reynolds, did you get any sleep last night?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. His icy cold glare once again made her think that he was more, or maybe other, than human. It was not unheard of for mutants or outworlders to hide in human populations. In many places, mostly the larger cities and settlements, they lived and worked side by side without conflict. In others they were hunted like animals or forced to live an existence secondary to that of the humans.
As she was thinking, Jethro returned from his scout. “There is something big out there. Some kind of complex, not too far off. If that scientist has any kind of map it’s gonna be on it.” he said, stomping the snow from his boots.
“Let’s go take a look,” replied their commander.
Rake cleared a section of table and unfolded the map that would lead to their final destination. It was only three sheets, the creases in them near to tearing through. It looked like it had been printed at one time but several revisions had been made by hand. Blue and black lines as well as other colors combined to create a disordered blueprint that none of the gathered scouts could read. “And I thought I was good with maps,” chuckled Jethro.
“This is more than a map,” replied the old scientist. “It is more of a story.” he indicated the various lines and sketches that had been drawn by different research teams or scholars. “Every time we got a little closer to our goal.” he said.
“And what is our goal, Rake?” asked Cobe
“There,” he indicated a hand drawn rectangle that overlapped several more sketches and diagrams. It sat roughly on a similarly sized shape on the original map. Several of the lines on the map led to this figure, some even terminating with a crudely drawn arrows pointing to it as their destination.
“Could that be the complex you saw?” asked Cobe
Jethro checked the map, and thought for a moment. “It’s the right direction, assuming this is the way we are coming from.”
“That is correct.” replied Rake.
“And what is this place?” asked Kate.
“It was once a great place of learning. A university.” Kate had heard the word before but was not familiar with it. “The ancients unlocked the secrets of their world there. Great mysteries were mere puzzles to the men and women who lived there. They labored to change the world and make it a better place.”
“Instead they blew it up.”
After packing their gear and the shelter, which dissolved just as easily into its case as it had emerged they set out into the bright sunlit morning. The air was calm, lifting their spirits after the night’s howling storm. They moved as before, with Cobe and Jethro in the lead followed by the six scientists in their bright red parkas and Kate and Reynolds bringing up the rear. They moved quickly, the night’s rest seemed to energize the group. Or maybe it was the thought that they were nearing their final destination.
As they moved through a natural choke point between two collapsed buildings the group began to string out into a thin line. Jethro was on point several yards in front of Cobe who was in turn several yards in front of the scientists when they came to a sudden jolting stop at Jethro’s signal. They froze in place. Jethro moved forward a short distance and signaled for Cobe. The commander moved forward cautiously scanning the surroundings for signs of trouble. He approached Jethro from behind calling out quietly to the scout to let him know he was near.
“What is it?” he asked. Jethro nodded his head toward a shadowy mass of tumbled stone not twenty yards from where they stood. Cobe squinted into the bright overhead light trying to penetrate the shadows.
“Snow Tiger, and a big one,” Jethro responded keeping his rifle trained on the patch of shadows. Just then the lighter shadow within the darker shadow uncoiled itself and stepped into the sunlight. Jethro was right. It was the biggest cat he had ever seen. He had heard rumors of giant cats stalking the ruins but had never imagined they grew so large. The beast moved from the shadow of its shelter and approached the two men, halting a short stone’s throw from the pair. It eyed them suspiciously, pale green eyes flickering in the bright light. It stood nearly six feet tall at the shoulders and twice as long. Its white coat glowed in the sunlight, blending perfectly with the new fallen snow.
The cat settled into a crouch, ready to spring should the strangers represent a threat or a meal, content to watch its prey. With another hand signal Cobe waved for the other two scouts to join them. Kate and Reynolds moved up cautiously, prepared should the beast attack. The scientists huddled several yards behind, not sure what to make of the giant feline.
“What is the plan?” whispered Kate.
“Hope it decides not to eat us, and goes away,” replied Jethro dryly.
The four scouts armed with their rifles could certainly bring the cat down. It was just a matter of how many of the scouts it would take with it. So there they stood, the four scouts in a wedge pattern, rifles ready, watching the feline as it sat and watched them, its muscles taut, ready to strike at any moment. For several minutes they remained that way until the cat uncoiled itself from its crouch and moved a tentative step towards them. It growled, displaying its ten inch fangs. Reynolds flicked the fire selector on his rifle to automatic.
Another tense, silent moment passed as the scouts trained their weapons on the hissing and spitting tiger and to everyone’s relief it turned and moved back toward the shadowy outcropping. With a single leap the mighty cat bounded to the top of the rubble pile and without a glance back at the intruders to its frozen realm, disappeared into the ruins.
“Kate, Jethro…forward,” called Cobe pointing in the direction they were heading. “Rake,” he shouted. “Get those scientists up here now.” There was no telling if the cat was just circling around them to strike at the less prickly group of humans in the rear. Reynolds instinctively took up a position covering their rear should the hunter return.
The scientists hurried forward, taking a position between Kate and Jethro who had moved several yards forward, and Reynolds and the commander who were now covering the rear. When the cat had not reappeared after several minutes Cobe motioned them forward again.
They traveled for several hours through the twisting rubble. The ruins seemed to grow denser with every passing mile. Abandoned hulks of buildings leaned out over their path threatening to crush them underneath. More than once they had to climb over piles of rubble blocking their path, almost as if the broken city itself was trying to block their way. They checked Rake’s map often.
Jethro climbed another pile of rubble, the tallest they had encountered yet. “Here. It is here!” he called from his perch. The others hurried to the top of the mound to see what was there. The ruins seemed to give way for nearly a half mile ahead of them, hemmed in on either side by nearly intact buildings of several stories. Rows of massive trees, too linear not to have been intentionally planted that way in the long distant past, lined the lane with bare winter branches clawing at the blue sky above. At the end of the lane was another massive building several stories tall and wide enough to disappear behind the buildings on either side.
Rake quickly checked his map and agreed. “That must be it.”
They made their way single file down the rocky snow covered defile like a multi-hued snake winding into the ghostly woods at its base. Once among the trees they quickly lost sight of the buildings that loomed to either side as black limbs intertwined into a dense web around them that blotted out the blue sky above and hushed the crunching of their boots in the snow.
Without a word, they made their way toward the far end of the woods, pausing only to examine the shattered remains of what once must have been quite a statue. Thick leathery vines snaked around its base and twisted around the broken stumps of legs that remained of the pedestal’s occupant. A copper plaque, black green with tarnish and worn smooth by years of wind driven grit, was illegible at its base.
Cobe halted them just inside the far edge of the woods which ended a few yards from the brick building that completed the third side of the quad. Foreboding black windows glared down at the small party like empty sightless eyes. “How do we know this isn’t some kind of ambush?” he asked.
“We don’t,” replied Reynolds
“I can’t believe we have been brought here just to be turned back by a few lurking savages,” growled Rake, intently watching the building ahead. A wide set of double doors remained intact at the top of a short flight of steps not twenty yards ahead of them.
“We can’t go back,” growled Jethro. “Will be dark long before we make it back to the last shelter.”
“Right. I guess.” Cobe scanned the empty facade before them. He had heard of only a few encounters with humans living in these frozen wastes but the massive building complex around them would provide enough shelter to keep a relatively large band of survivors safe from the elements at least. “Jethro. Reynolds. You are in first. Kate, take our tail. We all go in together and secure as much space as is practical and then regroup.” They all nodded, welcoming the call to action and escape from the gray woods that surrounded them. “Rake, get your people in right behind us, keep them together and stay out of the way.”
Jethro and Reynolds were at the doors within seconds followed closely by Cobe. The doors, rusted and frozen shut for uncounted years, fought stubbornly against their attempts to open them but eventually snapped open as their rusted hinges broke free. Jethro and Reynolds disappeared into the blackness beyond. Cobe stood just inside the doorway and motioned the scientists inside. “Go,” hissed Kate. The red clad scientists filed noiselessly into the building. Kate paused one last time on the steps of the building to scan the woods they had just departed. Not a thing moved among the black clawing limbs and dusty white ground. Even their footprints had vanished in the blowing snow.
* * * * * * *
The small group huddled in the confines of what might once have been a lobby or foyer. The smashed remains of furniture, shelving and what once had been a floor to ceiling display case, with its dirty bronze trophies and long faded ribbons in a tumbled pile at its base, lay scattered about the room. A hallway opposite the door disappeared into the darkness, occasionally illuminated by a burst of pale blue light from an exterior window. Other hallways, lit by the same crisp blue light filtered through ice encrusted windows, ran in both directions along the exterior wall. A stairway rose ahead of them, doubling back on itself to a second story barely visible through the broken banister and fading light. The scouts took positions covering each of the four exits.
“What now?” Cobe crouched by the stairwell with the shivering scientists.
“I don’t know….” replied Rake. “I do not know that anyone has ever made it inside the building.”
“Assuming it’s the right building.”
“Oh, it is the right building. I am sure of it,” answered the scientist, his voice disappearing into the silent corridors.
“We can’t spend the night here. Kate, Reynolds. Take point. Let’s see where this leads.” Cobe motioned to the hallway opposite the door. Like phantoms, the two scouts moved silently into the hallway and quickly disappeared in the patchy light. Behind them, the six scientists followed by Cobe and Jethro moved deeper into the building.
They began to see signs of habitation as they progressed further into the building. In one outside courtyard, pieces of wood from broken furniture, sawn and chopped logs lay piled along the length of one wall. Numerous rooms contained the remains of long dead fires and human refuse. Bedding and scraps of clothing lay piled in many of the rooms. None of the signs appeared recent, as if the complex’s previous occupants had long since moved to different lodgings.
They moved silently down the cold dusty corridors, the torches attached to their weapons splaying wildly ahead of them as they moved. Down a ramp, they paused in what was once the foyer to an auditorium. Thick curtains hung in rags and the plush carpet was worn through to the dirty tiles below in most places. Glass doors and windows exited on one side of the foyer into the rapidly dimming light of the desolate wood they had crossed to get into the complex. Opposite the exit was a long curved wall broken in several places by wooden double doors that entered what they presumed must be the auditorium. Rake busily wiped away the grime from one of the wooden door windows and shined his own light into the room beyond.
“This is it,” he cackled, tugging at the door. It opened slowly with a long squeal of metal grinding against metal.
“Wait,” called Cobe, but the scientist had already disappeared through the door. “Stay put,” he ordered the rest of the team and darted after Rake. The auditorium was dark and dusky, lit by dim gray light filtered through dirt encrusted overhead skylights. It smelled dank and moldy like a graveyard with the wooden auditorium chairs stretching before him in neat rows like tombstones. A tattered curtain hung before the stage as if ready for its final show.
“Rake,” he shouted. “Stop.” The scientist continued down the main aisle. “I will shoot you.” He raised his rifle. Rake still did not comply. The shot echoed through the empty space like dynamite. Rake dropped to the floor. The rifle shot had been close enough for him to get the message before tearing a ragged chunk out of the stage. Cobe approached the prostrate scientist glaring up at him with wild fury.
“You are still under my command,” growled the scout. “We move when I say we move and go where I say we go.”
The rage in Rake’s face seemed to fade in an instant and he became once more polite and mild mannered. “Very right commander, very right, my apologies.” The scientist wiped at the new layer of grime that coated his jacket. “I was just caught up in this.” He gestured toward the stage.
Cobe watched the stage as if he expected a troop of gypsies to emerge from behind the curtain. “Right.” he mumbled. The scientist had already begun moving toward the stage again.
“Commander,” came the familiar voice of Jethro from the auditorium door.
“We are good. Bring the rest in.”
Soon the whole group was on the stage, flashlights flickering throughout the enormous auditorium. Reynolds returned from a quick check behind the curtain. “It’s black as pitch back there. Looks like the shop where they built all the crap that went on this stage. The space back there is nearly as big as the front.”
Rake grabbed a handful of the curtain and tugged. A large section pulled free and crumpled to the stage. “Help me.” Soon they were all pulling at the curtain as it crumpled to the floor in great ragged sheets. Without the curtain to block the meager light from the skylights they could see a short distance into the backstage area. The remains of ropes and pulleys lay scattered about. Long metal poles that once held backdrops crisscrossed the space behind the curtain like a collapsed jungle gym. Off to the side was what Reynolds called the shop area. Sure enough it contained the remains of what must have been workbenches and powered fabrication stations. But it was the back wall that caught their attention.
At the far back of the room like a great brick of black glass was a slab of ice nearly forty feet high and twenty wide. “What the hell?” asked Kate as she approached the frozen monolith. “Is this what we came here for?”
“It is.” Rake had gotten close enough to run his hands over the cold slick surface and pressed his face to it as if looking through a window. “It is beautiful.”
“It’s a chunk of ice,” growled Jethro in disbelief. “We could have picked up a ton of it on the way here.”
“It is so much more. Look closer.”
They approached the slab, torch beams darting over it like maddened spotlights. “Oh my god,” Kate gasped as she realized what she was looking at.
“Are those legs?” asked Cobe in disbelief. Encased in the block of ice several inches below the surface was a pair of legs wrapped in what looked like dark brown pants. But the legs were larger than any he had ever imagined. They must have been two feet across at the knee. The torso was barely visible several feet above his head.
“A giant.” Rake seemed to have entered a trance as he ran his hands over the surfaces he could reach, as if smoothing out the rough surface of the ice. “It’s a giant,” he mumbled to no one in particular. Several of the scientist stood gaping at the ice entombed man. Rake must not have told them what they would find, if he even knew himself.
The commander cursed to himself. “A god damned giant.”