by Ronald Linson
I am the seventh and last to exit the shuttle. My boots crunch in the snow as I take my place at the starting line. The race will begin when the shuttle’s hatch closes.
I look ahead to the snowbound forest beyond the beach, and then over my shoulder at the flat expanse of ice upon which the shuttle rests. I shift my backpack to a more comfortable position.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that the others aren’t moving. They’re just standing there as still as statues, no motion at all.
We’re spread out, so I must step forward in order to see them all. As one, they turn their heads towards me. Their faces are entirely frostbitten. Blackened. Dead.
My thrashing throws off the thermal blanket. The frigid air bites into my sweat-soaked skin. I rub my eyes, trying to dispel the last vestiges of the nightmare, then wrap the blanket around myself.
The fire has burned down to embers in the night. I add some wood and nurse it back to a healthy crackle. I open my pack and count how many ration bars I have left. I snap one in half, staring into the flames as I eat, thinking about whether I should start hunting or trapping soon.
Trapping is doable, but hunting would be next to impossible. We’re not allowed to bring projectile or beam weapons, and humans just aren’t made for hunting up close and personal. I curse myself for not taking lessons in primitive weapons construction.
I make sure all my equipment is where it’s supposed to be and that my pockets are sealed. Losing something, anything, could mean death, so no matter what, I check and recheck. You’re allowed whatever fits in a single backpack and your pockets, plus what you can scavenge along the way.
Once I’m ready, I open the door. The air in the rest of the house is well below freezing, which isn’t surprising, since there is no front door. Cautiously, I peer outside. Seeing that there are no footprints other than my own, I venture out to stand beside my snowman.
“Good morning,” I tell it, patting it on the head. “You did well.”
I set off eastward, always eastward. I turn to wave at the snowman and notice smoke rising from the chimney. I forgot to douse the fire again. The smoke drifts toward the south, seeming to meld with the clouds.
The snowman’s dark stone eyes watch me reproachfully.
“All right,” I say, shrugging. “I forgot. Who cares?”
The road in front of the house runs north-south. Following it would be far easier, but I’ve fallen into that trap before. Out of habit, I look both ways before crossing, and dive into the woods on the other side.
Forest soon gives way to field, rolling pastures interrupted occasionally by barbed wire fences. These are not a problem. Some time ago, I acquired a set of tools which included a wire cutter.
A couple of hours later, I come upon a house. It’s in far worse condition than the one I left this morning. All the windows are gone, and the roof is sagging so badly, it’s as if a frost giant out of Norse legend had gotten tired and sat on it.
I dare not enter lest it collapse. A thump on the wall evokes an ominous creaking sound, justifying my concern. Besides, there’s little of interest inside, just some furniture as decrepit as the rest of the place.
Circling around the deathtrap, I discover a concrete block garage. It appears undamaged, save for some chipped and peeling paint. To be sure, I walk all around it. The two small side windows are intact, and a peek inside reveals a lack of snow or debris. A good sign.
Snow has drifted against the aluminum door. I dig to find the handle. It sticks at first but yields in fits and starts, squealing to a stop halfway up. The air inside is stale, tasting of concrete and dust, with a faint hint of chemicals.
The place is empty except for a wooden workbench against the right wall. It has several drawers, which I would feel remiss in not checking.
All I find is a small pry bar and some assorted nails, screws, nuts, and bolts. The pry bar goes into a side pocket of my pack. I’m thinking about taking some of the nails when I spot something wedged behind the bench.
I peer underneath, but the light is dim, and all I can tell is that it’s red. I strain to pull the bench away from the wall, but it won’t budge. After a futile minute of trying to pull the object out from behind the bench, I allow my temper to lend a hand.
Gripping the corners of the bench at one end, I put my hip into it and tip the whole damn thing over. Drawers slide out and hit the floor first, only to be crushed an instant later. I laugh at the sheer chaos of it.
Almost nonchalantly, a red plastic sled leans away from the wall and clatters to the floor. I pick it up. It’s saucer-shaped, with nylon rope handles on either side. It’s also a bit small, sized for a child, but I figure I can squeeze onto it.
I’m happy when the sled clips onto my pack neat as you please. I can barely wait to try it out. Ducking under the half-open garage door, I continue on my way.
This planet, originally called Gardenia, is a failed colony world. An orbital perturbation has left desolate. Some wag had dubbed it “Winter Wonderland,” and the name stuck. One of about twenty such minimally habitable worlds, it’s a prime draw for survival challenges, death sports, and masochistic naturist movements. Others had been given names just as imaginative, if less descriptive, like “Pineapple Surprise,” and “Isn’t She Pretty?”
Late in the afternoon, I happen upon a perfect situation. The land suddenly begins to slope downward, and not too far distant is a row of tract houses on the outskirts of a small town. The hill, a hundred meters or so until it levels out, will give me a chance to try out my new sled, and the town will afford much needed shelter and an opportunity to do some pillaging.
Dropping the sled at my feet, I consider it. If I sit, the backpack will drag on the ground, and standing is out of the question. So, my only option is to kneel awkwardly on it and hope that I don’t break my fool neck.
I get down on my knees on the sled and use my hands to push off. I have to make a few tries before it starts to move on its own. Once I’m sure gravity has a firm grip, I grab the handles.
“Woo-hoo!” I shout as the sled picks up speed.
The backpack makes balance precarious, but so far so good. Experimentally, I tug on the left handle and lean slightly to the right. The sled swerves to the right. I try the opposite maneuver and it goes left.
Suddenly, I’m airborne. “Holy cr--”
The sled slams into the ground and I fight to stay on board. It spins, and then I’m sliding down the hill backward. I taste blood. I’ve bitten my tongue. I spit and watch the red splotch in the snow recede.
When the sled comes to a stop, I jump up and immediately fall down. My legs have gone numb, but I don’t care. The ride was even more fun than I’d imagined. I’m tempted to go back and do it again, but I need to remain focused on the big picture. I will encounter other hills along the way.
The six tract houses are solid brick structures, more than adequate to hole up in for the night. I enter the nearest one, perform a cursory check of the interior, leave my pack, and head back outside.
It’s time to roll some snow for my snowman. Starting with a clump of packed snow about the size of my head, I push it around until it’s as big as a medicine ball. I make two more, each slightly smaller than the one before. After stacking them, I use gravel to create a pair of eyes and a lopsided grin.
“Okay,” I tell it, “your job is to stand guard during the night. If you see or hear anything, wake me. Got it?” I nod once and go inside.
The previous occupants left a treasure trove behind, if a little one: canned beans and vegetables. I don’t want to eat them cold right now, and as the house lacks a fireplace or a wood stove, it’s campfire time.
I choose a spot well away from my frozen sentry, building the fire with pieces of furniture. Dinner is beans, served hot in the can, the best I’ve ever had. When I’m done, I’m too tired to do much more than cover the fire with snow and retire.
I stand on the shore alongside six other men in heavy winter gear and backpacks. We are ready to begin the race, waiting for the signal to proceed, the shuttle closing its hatch. I notice none of the others are moving at all, so I step forward and turn to get a good look at their faces. As one, they turn their heads towards me. Their faces are entirely frostbitten. Blackened. Dead.
The nearest nods to me. “May the best man win,” he says in a pleasant voice.
I awaken more confused than frightened. The first gray light of dawn is seeping through the windows, so I get up and eat a can of sliced carrots cold.
The moment I open the door, I see the footprints. They’re all over the place, crisscrossing my own. They look canine, a feral dog probably, but I can’t recall if the colonists had introduced wolves or coyotes as well.
Incensed, I stomp over to the snowman and gesture wildly at the prints. “You son of a bitch, you were supposed to wake me!”
I don’t like the way it’s grinning at me, so I punch it in the face. Its head explodes. Quite satisfying, but it’s tempered by the sharp, sudden pain in my hand.
I stare at the bloody gash on my knuckles. It takes me several seconds to realize that it must have been the gravel. With a growl, I kick the snowman, but all I’m left with is disappointment.
The town is well worth lingering a few days. There’s plenty of canned food to be had and I’m able to exchange some of my found equipment for better. As far as I can tell, I’m the first competitor to pass through since the colony was abandoned four years ago. Signs of animals notwithstanding, nothing seems to have been disturbed.
Past the town, the terrain becomes more rigorous, with boulders and gullies and nasty patches of thorny brush half hidden by the snow. The cans in my pack don’t make it any easier, but given the choice, I’d rather not go hungry.
The next hill I come to is steeper than the first. I hesitate only briefly before plopping the sled onto the snow. One push is all it takes to get it moving.
I forgo a whoop of joy; I’m going too fast and need to concentrate. A blanket of snow tends to obscure obstacles, smoothing things out. I grip the handles tightly, leaning this way and that.
The sled banks around a boulder, scrapes against another, then vaults a shallow depression. Ahead, the land flattens out and I breathe a sigh of relief. There is one last dip, and the sled is gliding over level ground, slowing quickly.
“Yeah!” I yell, exhilarated.
I move to rise and I hear a loud crack. I freeze, then shift my weight. There’s another crack, followed by a groan. I look down and realize that I’m not on snow, but ice.
I am just about in the center of a small lake perhaps twenty meters by thirty. Jagged black lines radiate out from beneath the sled. My best chance to avoid falling in is to lunge for more solid ice. I tense, causing the ice to tremble.
Copyright © 2015 by Ronald Linson