The metal felt colder than ice, stealing the warmth from Josh’s fingers. He gritted his teeth and drew a deep breath, feeling the cold scour his lungs. Then he resumed his climb up the ladder, rung by rung.
The wind was fitful, one moment a gentle spirit with a frigid caress, the next a shrieking banshee that threatened to send him to his doom. Overhead, the sky was glowering and dark, forming a black ceiling over a stark white world, and hiding any hint of the moon.
Josh kept moving, knowing that to stop now would mean death. His heart was pounding and his chest and arms burned with exertion, but none of the warmth reached his fingertips. He looked up. Still nearly a hundred feet to go. He redoubled his efforts. The sweat would soak into his ratty furs and chill him later, but for now he was more concerned with losing his grip. It was a long fall, and the constant winds here at the mountaintop had swept away any cushioning snowdrifts.
A harsh growl from below caught his attention. He glanced down and saw three pale shapes crowded at the base of the ladder, looking up at him. Wolves.
Shit, Josh thought. He exhaled heavily, causing fog to creep around the edges of his goggles. Then he shook his head. It wouldn’t make much difference anyway. Climbing the tower was a one way trip. So long as the chopper arrived on time, he would be okay.
He was halfway up the ladder when the wolves started snarling again. He looked down briefly, only to see them slinking off into the swirling snow. Only the white circle of the spotlight remained, as if to highlight their absence. There were only two things in this part of the world that could dissuade hungry wolves with a meal in sight: polar bears and soldiers. Polar bears wouldn’t present a problem. Soldiers would.
Josh went still for a moment, straining his hearing. It was difficult to hear anything above the wind, but he thought he heard a few rocks clicking as they bounced down the mountainside.
The silence was ruptured by the bark of machine gun fire. The spotlight exploded in a shower of sparks, leaving the area in darkness. Josh’s grip tightened as his heart leapt. Hooking his elbow around the ladder, he fumbled for the pistol strapped to his leg. His bare, numb fingers struggled with the latch, trying to move quick and quiet. Likely it wouldn’t make much difference though. The enemy wouldn’t waste ammunition if they didn’t know he was here.
The clouds overhead shifted, allowing a weak beam of moonlight to shine down. Below, the light reflected of the goggles of three… four… five men closing in from the west. They wore white, but the American stars and stripes were just visible on their shoulders.
Damn it, Josh swore silently. The last thing he needed was the bloody Americans. Ever since the New Ice Age, America had been the most aggressive in claiming valuable resources, hoping to come out on top of the proverbial dog pile. If there were five men assaulting this station, it was a sure bet that a lot more were close behind.
Josh squeezed off a couple of shots with his pistol. The gun nearly wrenched itself from his frozen grip with the recoil, and the sound was deafening, but it had the intended effect. The American troops dove for cover, leaping behind rocks and the abandoned machinery of the camp. Josh used the opportunity to gain ground, managing to make it another ten rungs before the soldiers spotted him and opened fire.
Their guns were old and unreliable, but they could put out a lot of bullets. Josh felt one hit his leg, like a hot lance driving through the muscle of his calf. He gritted his teeth in pain, and for a moment it was all he could do to cling to the ladder until the pain subsided. Muzzle flashes from below lit up the area like flickering lightning. His jaw clenched and his eyes streaming with tears, Josh popped off a couple more shots, causing a brief respite from the onslaught.
This wouldn’t last forever, he realized. He was already wounded and had at least thirty feet to go, and only about ten more rounds in the pistol. He was going to need something more. Where was the damn helicopter?
He stuck his pistol in his mouth like a cartoon pirate with a knife, feeling the icy metal bite back, and reached for the grenade at his belt. Scanning the area below, he picked out a rock that had three soldiers huddled behind it, then stuck a finger in the ring attached to the pin. Before the soldiers resumed fire, he tossed it, keeping hold of the pin.
His aim was slightly off, and instead of landing on the far side of the rock where he had intended, it struck the rock itself, and promptly exploded, sending a shockwave of stone shards and powdered snow across the ground. He did not hesitate to see whether any of the Americans had died. The pain in his leg had dulled to a mere excruciating throb, so he drove past the pain and hauled himself to the top of the tower.
Gunfire erupted around the lip of the upper platform, but the platform was made from thick steel, and the bullets ricocheted off in a chorus of pings and clanks. Once they realized that he was out of reach, the soldiers quickly stopped shooting. Josh risked a quick peek down. One of the soldiers was hunched over a dark, misshapen bundle. Josh didn’t like the looks of that.
A dull thumping noise began to distinguish itself over the incessant wind. The helicopter, Josh thought. But if the Americans were preparing an RPG or SAM as he suspected, they were done for. He would have to stop them for at least long enough to get away. But how? He only had a few rounds left in his gun, and one more grenade, which he couldn’t depend on to take out all the soldiers.
The wind blew wildly for a second, causing him to cling to the platform to keep from being swept off. He could feel the tower swaying beneath him. That gave him an idea. It was insanity, of course, but he had left sanity behind when he signed up for this mission.
The helicopter grew louder and louder until at last it crested a nearby hill, a grim black specter hovering over the blank and barren landscape. One of the Americans hefted a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher onto his shoulder and spun to face the chopper. Josh carefully lined up a shot and pegged the man in the shoulder.He stumbled backwards and collapsed in the snow, blood staining the snow crimson. One of the other soldiers broke cover and dashed to the side of his fallen comrade.
The helicopter was growing closer. It would be at the side of the platform within thirty seconds. Time to set his plan in motion. Scanning the ground below one last time, Josh took his last grenade, pulled the pin, and dropped it straight down the ladder shaft he had just climbed up. It struck the ground at the foot of the ladder and promptly exploded. The force of the explosion tore at the brittle, frozen steel of the platform, warping and shattering it beyond repair.
Josh felt the platform buckle and stagger underneath his feet. With agonizing slowness, it began to tilt, going faster the further it tipped. The helicopter was still some twenty feet away, but he didn’t have time to wait. He took three steps and leapt into the void.
Seeing him fall, the pilot dropped the helicopter to compensate, and Josh slammed into the side of it violently, half his body hanging out over the edge. The impact drove the air from him, and he gasped for breath, the ice searing his lungs as he did so. He managed to find a handhold, and after a moment catching his breath, hauled himself up.
“You alright?” asked the pilot. “What the hell is going on here?”
“Bloody Yanks!” Josh yelled back over the roar of the rotors. “They’ve got a rocket launcher!” The pilot wasted no further time on questions, instead pivoting the chopper around and flying away at top speed. Josh watched as the tower collapsed behind them, falling the same direction as the Americans had been. The crash was accompanied by the ear-piercing shriek of twisted metal, and the tremendous clang of steel on stone as it hit.
“Did it take them out?” asked the pilot, whose back was turned to the destruction. Josh waited a moment before replying. The scene was already fading away as the wind kicked up sheets of snow between them.
“I think so,” he yelled. But at that moment, a flash lit up the snowstorm, accompanied by a rapidly-approaching spark. Warning alarms buzzed in the cockpit, indicating an imminent missile strike. The pilot swore loudly and began evasive maneuvers. Josh felt his stomach drop out from under him as the helicopter pitched and rolled, heading downward. The spark curved to follow them. Seconds before the missile caught up, the pilot suddenly reversed direction and spun. It almost worked.
At exactly the wrong moment, the wind gusted, resisting their sudden acrobatics, and the rocket struck the tail of the chopper. A wave of fire swept past the doors as the shockwave sent them lurching forward. Josh was deafened by the noise, disoriented by the movement, shell-shocked by the force of the blast. It was all he could do to cling to his seat as the chopper spun crazily, like an out-of control top. Thirteen seconds later, they crashed.
Josh awoke in darkness lit by then fitful glare of fire. This far north, night lasted half the year, so there was no telling how long he’d been here. Squinting, he looked around to find himself in a deep snowdrift surrounded by wreckage. He must have been thrown clear of the crash.
He struggled to sit up in the powdery snow, although every fiber of his body screamed at him. He was grateful to find that all his limbs still worked. The burning wreckage had been enough to keep him from frostbite, though he had little sensation in his extremities.
Moving through the snowdrift was difficult. He could get through the powder easily enough, but the snow underneath was deep, and his feet simply punched through, leaving him immersed to his waist. He opted to roll on top of the snow instead, spreading his weight enough that he was able to make it to an exposed patch of black rock nearby.
Josh took a few moments to work his muscles into life and get his bearings. Looking around, he could see that most of the wreckage had plowed through the snow until it hit a small cliff some fifty feet away. A trail of debris littered the ground in a trail leading to the site of the crash.
He was able to find a pathway to the wreckage across the rocks, avoiding the snow until he reached the point where the chopper had plowed a path for him. The skeletal remains of the helicopter lay crumpled against the base of the cliff like a beer can after a party. Burning chunks of wreckage cast leaping shadows all around, surrounding him with ghosts. Several rotor blades were broken, and the remaining ones swung listlessly back and forth in the wind, as if wagging their fingers at him. See what’s happened? they chided. You never should have come here. Josh ignored them.
The pilot sat slumped in his seat. He was cold and stiff and all-too-clearly dead. Josh didn’t have the time or the resources to bury him, but he took the icy dog tags from the man’s neck to pass on to any relatives later. Assuming he made it back. The pilot’s name, he saw in the firelight, was Michael.
“Well, Michael, looks like it’s just you and me now,” Josh said, tucking the dog tags inside his shirt. “Just you and me to save the free world.”
He searched the wreckage for supplies. There was a lot of wreckage but not much he could use. By the time he was finished, he had collected a small sackful of MREs, cobbled together a makeshift spear out of a length of pipe, some zip ties, and a field knife, and gathered some flares and a pair of snowshoes. The biggest treasure was a rifle, though the stock was twisted and broken. He took it anyway. He had only two shots left in his pistol and no other weapons.
He pulled back his sleeve to check the micro GPS on his wrist. The display pointed north and showed the time. 0600 hours. A ring of lights surrounded the display, one of them flashing to indicate the direction of his destination.
Josh suddenly grasped at his pocket. He was relieved to find that the access card was still there. That was the reason he had been at the outpost in the first place, retrieving from the Norwegians who had starved there. If he had lost that, everybody was doomed. Except maybe the wolves.
He stopped and took a moment to gather his thoughts. So, all he really had to do was cross ten miles of mountainous arctic terrain, defend himself against wolves, bears and the American army by using the damaged dregs of his crashed helicopter, then force his way into the Global Seed Vault and retrieve the samples. And then escape somehow. Also he was alone and it was dark.
The consequences: If the Americans won, everyone but the Americans would starve. And if he messed up bad enough, everybody would starve together.
“No problem,” he said to himself.
He strapped on his snowshoes, loaded his rifle, and began walking. Somebody had to save the free world. Might as well be him.