Posted by: lordkyler | January 21, 2017

Icebound – Short Story

Sequel to Frostbite


Josh stumbled once more, landing nose-down in a drift. Cursing violently to himself, he began shucking off his gear, throwing it into a pile beside him. The bullet wound in his leg was only getting worse. The shell hadn’t lodged in the flesh, and he’d fashioned a makeshift bandage for it, but he’d lost a lot of blood after the crash, enough to make him light-headed, and the exertion of his march had left the muscle stiff and cramped.

The arctic cold wasn’t helping either.

“Pissing Americans,” he muttered to himself as he dropped his pants. They were stiff as cardboard from the frost and wind. The chill began eating into his long-johns immediately, but he’d rather get this done quickly than cut a hole in his clothes. He still had a few heating packs left – he’d use one to warm back up.

He couldn’t keep going like this. He’d covered barely a kilometer out of the ten he needed to go, and his leg was already going out on him. If he didn’t do something about this, he’d never make it to the Seed Vault, much less defend it against the Yanks.

So that left him with only one option, distasteful as it was. He pulled out a small spray can from his kit. The one with the biohazard AND radiation symbols.

He grimaced, broke off the safety cover, and pointed the nozzle at the puncture wound in his leg. As much as he would have liked to, he didn’t look away as he pulled the trigger.

A clear liquid burst from the canister, foaming and frothing wildly on contact with his flesh. The compound was a radical solution intended for short-term fixes, a cocktail of stem cells, viral delivery systems, and low-grade radiation. The result was a fluid that replicated any tissue it came into contact with, growing and adapting at hyper-accelerated rates to bond bone, muscle and veins back into a rough facsimile of the original.

Cancer and blood poisoning would follow, but for now, his leg burned with new life. It would hold for the duration of the mission. However long that turned out to be.

Josh sighed with relief as he carefully capped the spray bottle and fixed his pants. He had just cinched up his belt when he heard the growl behind him. Not the chainsaw snarl of a wolf, but the low, windy thunder of a bear. Startled, he whirled around, realizing too late that the sudden movement would likely provoke an attack.

A polar bear stood just on the other side of his supply pile, staring at him with cold, implacable eyes, long muzzle wrinkled as it bared its teeth. It was huge. Impossibly huge. He’d seen the bears from afar, through binoculars or flying overhead in a chopper, but it was an entirely different animal up close.

Half a ton of muscle and fat. A build like a fright train. Nearly as tall as he was, even on all fours. Claws like railroad spikes. And hungry.

Against him. A scrawny pipsqueak who hadn’t even pulled his pants all the way back on. Even if he’d had his rifle in hand, it wouldn’t have done anything against this tank of a beast, unless he got lucky and nailed it in the eye. Fat chance of that with a ruined stock. He stood no chance of killing the beast.

But maybe if he hurt it badly enough, quickly enough, it would think he could. Following his instant instincts – a process that had gotten him out of as many messes as it had gotten him into – he dived for the pile, grabbing his pistol with one hand and the first thing he could find with the other. The flare gun. That ought to do it.

The bear reared back, roaring to rival the arctic wind, ten feet tall if he was an inch, intending to bring its pile-driver forelegs down on him with all the force of its significant mass.

Josh threw himself backward and kicked himself away from the bear, feeling the fire of new muscle in his healed leg. He took aim with frozen fingers and pulled the trigger.

Nothing. Had he mechanism jammed? The bear roared, taking a halting step forward on its hind legs. Belatedly, Josh realized that the safety was on. His fingers were too cold to flick it off, and he didn’t have time to fumble with it.

In the fraction of a second before the bear pounced on him, he took wild aim with the flare gun and fired. With a roaring hiss, the flare burst into life, rocketing across the short distance. With a piercing whistle, the flare shell exploded against the bear’s chest.

Magnesium flames spread across the bear’s fur, blindingly bright. The bear staggered, letting out a strange screaming roar, and tried ineffectively to beat out the inferno on its chest. Josh managed to disable the safety and sunk the remainder of his ammo into the bear’s center of mass. It would be an annoyance at best, but anything to drive the bear away was well worth it.

The bear staggered, rolling and flailing in the snow. Josh stared in morbid fascination for a moment, then realized he had a chance to escape. Frantically, he threw his gear back on, struggling with latches and straps, feeling like a kid trying to put on his snow gear while his impatient mother loomed overhead, waiting to rip him open and feast on his entrails.

As soon as he had his outfit in some semblance of order, he took off, plowing through the drifts with newfound impetus. He fought the urge to look back over his shoulder, using the tortured sounds of the burning bear to gauge his distance instead. Within a few minutes, all he could hear was the bluster of the wind and the steady squeak of his boots in the snow.

Eventually he came to a small outcropping, sheltered from the wind, and took a moment to lean against the wall and catch his breath. The moon hovered on the horizon like a pale reflection of the earth, distant and dead. The light it gave was too cold to be comforting and too feeble to useful, merely giving a little more contrast to the dim monochrome of the arctic night.

Josh pulled off his scarf for a moment, letting the cold air prick the warmth of his lungs. Like acupuncture, he found it painful but refreshing, using the cold to keep himself sharp instead of dulling his senses. How long had it been since he’d slept? At least a day.

It was hard to believe that only a day or two ago he’d been sitting in a warm bunker, sipping synthetic tea and joking with his teammates about the upcoming mission. It felt like something he’d dreamed, an idea absurd as summer, forever lost to some mythical past.

But it had to be real, because he could trace the memories back to that point, rewinding the frazzled threads of each disaster – resurrecting fallen friends, reuniting the team, reassembling the twisted wreckage of their plane – pulling every piece of the puzzle back together until he could find the fatal flaw none of them had noticed, the tiny fractures that had broken the world apart.

“Bloody Yanks,” Josh muttered, pulling his scarf back in place. They’d been one of the big players in dragging the world to this particular level of hell, and now they were determined to rule it. They were bound to be at the Seed Bank already, claiming the world’s last chance at survival for themselves. He had to keep moving.

The hike to the Seed Bank was grueling in more ways than one. With little to distract him from the endless snow and the monotonous drone of the wind, his mind drifted aimlessly, as close to dreaming as a man could come while standing on his feet. Ghostly images of the dying haunted the corners of his vision, accompanied by phantom cries of pain, begging for help. More than once, his thoughts roused for a moment, and he realized he couldn’t remember passing landmarks and obstacles until they were already behind him.

He checked the GPS on his wrist, then checked it again when he realized he hadn’t actually looked the first time. Bloody exhausted. It was 1100 hours, though you’d never know by looking at the sky. Five hours since he’d been stranded. Thirty-something since he’d slept. One kilometer more to the Bank. It may as well have been a thousand – he’d never make it as he was now. Sleep was not an option, which once again left him with one unpleasant alternative.

He sighed, heavily enough to send plumes of white vapor curling around his scarf. He only had two poppers left, and there was no telling how long this mission would last. Oh well, nothing for it.

He drew one of the slender black cylinders from the inside of his coat pocket and jabbed it into the side of his neck. There was a sharp sting. an agonizing pressure, and then the familiar, cartoonish pop that had earned the hyper-stimulant booster its nick-name. Josh could feel the warmth shooting through his veins, a potent mixture of adrenaline, painkillers, and frighteningly-named chemicals that guaranteed energy and alertness for the next two hours. And withdrawal treatments for two weeks if he made it out alive.

Apologies, future Josh, he thought, already feeling the slight mania of the drugs kicking in. Like God, Future Josh was an entity he wasn’t sure existed, but made him feel better to imagine. I salute your sacrifice, and curse our common enemy, Past Josh, who got us into this mess.

He nearly keeled over as the dose hit, a creeping fire that smoldered through him, scouring fatigue from his limbs and making his nerves blaze with feeling. Catching himself at the last moment, he shook his head, trying to clear away the cobwebs. Stim-boosts tended to hit the mind like a shot of nitrous in an old junker. It was a dickens of a kick, but it played merry hell with the machinery. He’d never been terribly strong on logic and reason in the first place, so this could turn out quite badly if he didn’t keep a firm grasp on his sanity.

Sanity. Ha.

Straightening up, he took off at a steady clip, fighting the urge to run. Time was short, and the stimulants drove him to action like a task-master’s lash, but he had to be careful and avoid over-exertion. Even so, he covered the final leg of the trek in good time. He even managed to eat a little, wolfing down a few tasteless protein bars.

After half an hour, the lights on his GPS began flashing. The seed bank was less than a hundred yards away. He would see it as soon as he cleared this last little ridge.

Moving carefully to avoid making noise or aggravating injuries he couldn’t feel, Josh shimmied across the snow-swept stone on his stomach, lifting one red eye over the edge like the sun peeking over the horizon. In the few seconds before he sank below the horizon again, Josh felt as though he had aged an arctic day.

The Americans were already here. The angular vault entrance was surrounded by tracked vehicles, their headlights creating patches of blinding light just outside the doors. Men were working in chains to haul boxes and load trucks, but there weren’t many of them, and there were a great deal of crates to move – hours worth of work. Nobody was guarding the trucks or watching the perimeter.

That didn’t mean they were unprotected, however. Josh took a brief second scan and counted three bulky boxes on tripods, red lights winking in the dimness. Sentry turrets. He couldn’t say what sort they were – that had been Tanner’s bailiwick – but he knew they were trouble. Anything that tripped their sensors would end up with more holes than the ozone layer.

Time for a bit of experimenting. So far as he knew, there were only a few types of sensors reliable enough for military use: proximity detectors, motion sensors, and thermal imaging. Easy enough to test for – the trick would be doing it without tipping off the Americans.

Shimmying back down the ridge, Josh pulled down his scarf and threw his head back, letting loose with a full-throated howl. The sound might be lost in the wind, but it was worth the attempt. Wolves probing the perimeter could be ignored, bastard Brit survivors could not.

He gave another howl at a different pitch as he knelt down and tried to gather the powdery snow into some form of snowball. The effort quickly proved futile, but did reveal a patch of ice he could use. A moment’s work with the ice pick liberated a fist-sized chunk of the stuff. Perfect.

Huffing, Josh clambered back up the boulder and sighted on the nearest turret. Since he couldn’t risk exposing himself, this would have to be a blind throw. He let off one more howl and then launched the chunk of ice in a shallow arc. It flew through the air and skittered to a stop at the turret’s tripod feet. Totally unharmed. The turrets hadn’t even twitched. Damn it.

There were methods to fool proximity and motion sensors – workable ways, though each had their own drawbacks – but thermal was tough. He didn’t have anything close to a proper thermal suit, and while flares might manage to distract the turrets, he couldn’t pass that off as wildlife. Wolves were not known for their use of magnesium flares, as a rule.

Josh rolled onto his back and stared at the sky, working through a half-dozen crazy ideas. What did he have to work with? A half-broken rifle, a few tools, a half-dozen packs of edible cardboard…

Cardboard sounded delicious right now. Might as well eat while he thought. Something he could use to distract his raring and restless body. Something that could distract him from the fate of the free world slipping through his frozen fingers.

He rifled through the packages, not so much searching for something good as he was something quick and convenient. Time was short, and eating in the wilderness was risky. Wolves and bears could smell food from kilometers away, and the last thing he needed was more…

He suddenly went still, frozen halfway between a mush masquerading as meatloaf and a can that had lost its label during the crash. The friction of the problems in his head had just produced the spark of an idea, and like a man kindling fire, he had to proceed very carefully if he wanted it to grow into something useful.

Genius and stupidity were close cousins, and – in Josh’s experience – a little too inbred for civilized society. The plan he was currently conceiving was a perfect love child between the pair, but he didn’t have much in the way of options.

He set to work, dumping the entire stack of MREs onto the snow. Each one was self-heating, but the tabs were too hard to pull with gloves on. Rather than take the gloves off, Josh used his teeth instead, feeling like a ravenous beast as he bit and pulled each tab in turn, discarding each packet as soon as it started cooking. They hissed and steamed as they landed in the snow, filling the air with a buffet of chemically-laced aromas.

Josh’s stomach growled as the scents hit his senses. Good. The unlabeled can was the last to go, and he held onto it as it steamed, feeling the warmth seep through his frost-lined gloves. Might as well take a gamble on his meal, too. Whatever it was, it smelled spicy. Just the way he liked it.

He took a few moments to arrange the meals for maximum efficiency, taking sips of soup as he worked. Once that was done, he found a hollow in the stone where he could wait and watch. He could only hope to see results before the stims wore off completely. At least they made the waiting easy. The stone was comfortable beneath him, and while he was able to keep his attention totally focused on scanning the landscape for danger, the rest of his mind could wander, half-dreaming. Remembering.

He remembered staring at the feathered pattern of frost on the train windows, unable to stand looking past them. Unable to look at the home they were leaving behind.

It hadn’t been much – just a cold little apartment down a dark alley – but it was where he’d spent his seven short years of childhood. But it was the only home he’d known, the place where his father had lived, and they had left it all behind. Everyone had left.

Things might have gone differently if they had fled earlier, but his mum had been one of the self-proclaimed weather wizards, a top climatologist convinced that there was still a chance to turn things around, right up until the evacuation order that had sent them running for warmer climes in France, and then again to Spain, and finally Morocco, where she’d gotten caught up in one of the riots and killed in the mayhem.

The old world had died with her. Millions of others had perished from the change in climate, or the resulting chaos of mass exodus, but mankind as a whole had adapted, survived, and kept on fighting. He had fought with them, joining the army of the Euro-African Alliance and doing his damnedest to save the planet. And now he was here, twenty years later, with the fate of continents resting on his shoulders.

Waiting for a bloody bear to show up.

At that exact moment, he spotted a lumbering white monster approaching, nose lifted to the air, slowly following the smell of the meals on the wind. Perhaps fate had sobered up and was trying to make up for its drunken cruelty earlier.

It was a different bear than the one he’d burned, leaner and cautious. A wary bear. Still terrifying. A scary wary bear. And hairy, for that matter. A hairy scary…

Josh shook his head vigorously. Damn popper-noggin. He only had a minute to set things up before the bear arrived, and he was sitting here making up nursery rhymes. Okay. He needed to lay a trail.

Frantically working his way down the line, Josh picked up each meal packet and threw it – frisbee-style – over the ridge and toward the turrets. Food flew free as the trays spun, painting a swirling line of bland color across the canvas of the snow.

He finished just as the bear showed up, not ten yards away. Josh froze, meeting the bear’s dark eyes, holding his breath. Go for the food, you big bastard. A free lunch, honest. I’d be awfully stringy.

Slowly, he began backing away, making himself as small as possible. The bear swung its nose toward the food, then back to Josh, then sniffed the air above it. Come on, then. Finally, as Josh managed to slip behind a snowbank, the bear put its nose to the ground and began following the trail of food. Straight to the Seed Bank.

Josh smiled, though the cold made his face ache. Finally, something was going according to plan.

Tapping into his hypothetical inner hunter, he stole forward, following his quarry but ready to bolt at a the first sign of trouble. He was only going to have one shot at this, and bear mauling tended to put a damper on saving the world.

Jason followed his ursine ally over the ridge, bracing himself for the bark of automatic gunfire. It was due any minute now, he was sure. There was no way this haphazard plan – based on a bit of half-remembered trivia from a children’s book – could actually work, could it?

But a solid minute went by, with the bear wandering well into the danger zone, and the guns were silent. Josh felt a warmth in his chest that had nothing to do with stimulants or hypothermia. Well, not entirely, anyway. It was the glow of success.

The resurgence of endangered arctic animals was a very thin silver lining to the whole ice age thing. Sure, millions of people had been displaced, the climate was irrevocably changed, and thousands of other species had gone extinct, but at least they’d saved the polar bears. They were the kings of the new world, perfectly adapted to their environment.

Not surprisingly, many of those adaptations involved staying warm. Smaller, blunter extremities expose less surface area. A thick layer of blubber forms a barrier to the cold, while dark skin and special fur trap warmth and provide a secondary layer of protection. All together, these traits work so well that a polar bear can overheat from running too long. They are effective enough to allow the bear to swim happily through miles of hypothermia-inducing arctic seas. And, crucially,their insulation is so perfect that they are practically invisible to infrared cameras and thermal sensors.

Like those on the turrets.

Taking care to keep the bear between himself and the automated sentries, Josh crept forward, using the “invisible” animal as a living screen. He still felt completely exposed, hunched over in the middle of white expanse, shuffling from side to side as he steadily trudged forward. It wasn’t that different from the cartoons where a person hid behind a single twig and somehow got away with it. But he was getting away with it. The bear worked steadily along the trail of spilled food, gradually coming closer and closer to the bank, while the turrets simply stared at the rapidly-cooling meals as if daring them to try something.

It took nearly forty minutes for the bear to reach the treasure at the end of the allegorical rainbow, just long enough that the stimulants began to wear off, making the situation simultaneously tense and tedious. Somehow, when he’d signed up for an elite military unit tasked with saving the free world, he hadn’t imagined that would involve staring  at a polar bear’s arse with great intensity for the better part of an hour. The glamorous life of a international hero.

The bear flopped to the ground to eat, and Josh dropped behind it, face to the snow. Two different forms of death were only meters away, one forestalling the other, but this was as far as he could go while under cover of bear. Somehow, he had to find a way to cover the last few yards without drawing the attention of either death machine. Bollocks.

Between the furs and an assortment of high-tech fabrics, he was fairly well insulated himself – nothing like polar bear levels, but if he covered his face, it might be enough  to dash across the border before the thermal imaging registered him as a threat. But running was sure to attract the bear’s attention, and the free meals might have only worked to whet the monster’s appetite. Twelve stone of easy meat was hard to pass up out here. He still had a flare left. He could use that to distract the bear and blind the turret, but…

Howls on the wind broke Josh’s line of thought like a jackhammer on ice, clarity of mind shattered into a thousand jagged pieces. Wolves, likely drawn by the same scents he’d used to lure the bear. A quick glance backward confirmed his theory – the pack was just visible in the distance, vague, pale forms flitting across the snow like ghosts. In a few moments, they would come swarming over that ridge, all sharp teeth and serious business. Then all hell would break loose.

That could be an advantage, if he played things right. No point in playing things safe – it wasn’t like he could retreat and try again later. Even if the wolves hadn’t shown up, the Americans were sure to be leaving any minute, and on top of that, the stimulants were practically gone, so unless he kept moving, he was going to conk out in a snowdrift and die of hypothermia.

Moving with mechanical efficiency, he loaded the final flare into the gun, stifled a mad impulse to fire the flare up the bear’s backside, and shot to the side instead. All at once the snow was stained blood red, and the flare filled the air with a sinister hiss. The bear rumbled in alarm, shying away from the demonic fire, but the turret perked up at once, a predator sighting prey.

Josh bolted for the border, stumbling more than he should have. The cold was getting to him. Everything was confusing – a fast-forward montage of moments and fleeting impressions. Clouds of powder kicked up by awkward snowshoes. The unending explosion of the turret rupturing his eardrums. Wolf eyes reflecting the crimson glow of the flare. The faint tang of vinegar in his nostrils. Tumbling through the wintry air. Snow and blood in his mouth.

Josh groaned and lay still, barely holding on to consciousness. Behind him, the panicked polar bear fled toward safety, not even noticing that it had bowled over a fully-outfitted soldier in its haste. Elsewhere, wolves yipped and snarled, confused by the sudden explosion of violence, and at the Seed Bank, men were shouting orders, preparing to defend the perimeter.

A squad of five American soldiers rushed up to the turret, three men sweeping the horizon with laser sights while the other two checked the turret’s controls. Between the snow and the spray of bullets, the flare had been extinguished, but the turret was still twitching and firing sporadically, as it caught glimpses of the wolves skulking around the perimeter. None of them noticed Josh, half-buried in a snowdrift only a few meters away. After all, the hyper-vigilant turret was still working. Any intruders should have been shot to hell. Or out of it, depending on your point of view.

Suddenly the turret deactivated, barrel drooping as though it had fallen asleep. While the technicians scanned the footage on the device, the other three soldiers fanned out, doing a quick patrol of the perimeter, just in case the disturbance had been something more than wolves.

Slowly, Josh began picking himself up, wincing at the pain in his joints. He was not feeling well, but at least he was here. He had a shot. Thanks for the help, Past Josh. At least your stupid gambles pay off once in a while.

One of the technicians stirred, leaning in closer to the tiny screen at the turret’s back, giving a suspicious grunt.

“Something strange?” asked the woman refilling the ammo boxes.

“Yeah. I don’t even know how to describe it. There was a polar bear here a few minutes ago, eating something weird, and then it looks like it just sort of blew up. I think it’s a glitch.”

Josh crept along, taking care to stay out of their line of sight. His plan had left too many signs for it to go completely unnoticed. Damn it, Past Josh. Get your act together.

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” the female technician said, shaking her head. “Keeping the borders secure? Sure! Have all the men and drones you want. Oh, you want to keep eating? Take half a platoon and these turrets we found in the basement.”

The male technician snorted in response, then sneezed. “Do you smell…” – he sniffed – “is that curry?”

The wind had shifted. Josh picked up the pace, sneak-sprinting for the cover of the trucks, counting on the pungent smell of curry to cover the additional noise he made, but in a way where that made sense. A distraction. Damn, he was tired.

He made it behind the nearest truck just as the three soldiers returned from their patrol. One of them held a half-shredded MRE tray. “Found a few of these scattered across the active zone,” he grunted. “Looks like somebody got lazy with the trash procedures and ended up drawing some scavengers.”

The soldiers looked at one another, all reaching the same conclusion. “Petersen,” the technicians said in unison. Josh grinned in relief. Somehow, he was still off the hook. He began working his way down the convoy line, searching each vehicle for weapons and keeping an ear on the conversation.

“How’d he even get put on this assignment?” the lady technician said.

“Eighty percent of the world’s wildlife went extinct, but nepotism is alive and well,” the other tech replied. “Not that a high-ranking daddy’s gonna save him from the Captain’s wrath.”

“Dumb bastard’ll be lucky if Captain Coin doesn’t stick his balls to a frosted flagpole,” the soldier said with a rueful drawl.

Josh laughed, a single whoop that escaped his lips before he could even think about it. He might as well have set off another flare. Like turrets, five heads trained on their target instantly. Unlike turrets, the soldiers were mobile and not easily distracted.

There were no shouted orders, but Josh knew deep down in his frozen soul that the three men were moving, swift and silent, like wolves encircling their prey. They would be on him in seconds. What was he supposed to do? He was still dazed from his fall, loopy from sleep deprivation and de-stimulation, and so cold he could barely feel his feet. His weapons were so useless he might as well have been unarmed.

Josh frantically studied the surroundings. If there was a way to hide, or take cover… But there was nowhere to run. Only a row of tank-treaded forts on one side, and the two-tone expanse of the tundra on the other. There was, however, a way out.

For the second time that night, Josh gripped the rungs of a ladder with frozen fingers and climbed, hoping to escape his enemies. Noisily, he scrambled up the side of the massive combat vehicle, expecting gunfire in the back any second.

“You there!” one of the soldiers barked, following the “ask first, shoot later” philosophy. A wise choice, most of the time, but in this case, it allowed Josh to clear the top of the ladder, reaching safety. The top of the vehicle held a small platform, on which was mounted the solution to this particular Gordian Knot. A rocket launcher – perhaps the very same that had shot down their aircraft at the start of this damned mission.

One of the other Americans was speaking into his radio. “Captain, we’ve got an intruder. Likely hostile. Yes ma’am.” He paused, receiving orders Josh couldn’t hear, then signaled an affirmative. “You there! Stand down or I will shoot!”

Josh investigated the launcher system. Despite the technician’s claims of under-funding, it was a right piece of work, with an attached gunner’s seat, multiple missile tubes for rapid-fire, and a computer system so sophisticated that any imbecile could fire it with ease. Even imbeciles like lieutenant Petersen, who had helpfully left his labeled security tag hanging from the handle.

“Somebody give that man a medal,” Josh muttered. A few seconds later, he was in the seat, all systems up and running. Including the seat heaters. Now he was getting somewhere.

Josh heard muffled clangs on the ladder, and swiveled to face it, the whole contraption whirling about to face the intruder. A second later, the man reached the top of the ladder to find the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun pointed directly at his face.

“Why, ‘ello, love,” Josh said, putting on a Cockney accent that should have been banned by the Geneva Convention. “Why don’t you skip back down and take a seat, eh?”

Slowly, the soldier descended again, head disappearing below the edge of the vehicle like a seal submerging. “That goes for all of you!” Josh added, waggling the turret back and forth like a cautionary finger. The group looked at one another, but nobody made a move. “Come on, now! Who’s in charge here?”

“I am,” someone called from the direction of the Seed Bank. The voice was both feminine and authoritative, with a tone reminiscent of the first step from a sauna to a blizzard, cold as hell and commanding attention. “Captain Amanda Coin, U.S. Marines. Stand down.”

Josh spun to face the Seed Bank, where the Captain had come from. She was accompanied by at least a dozen men, all with weaponry pointed in his direction. Not that it mattered much. He could reduce the entire convoy to slag with the twitch of one finger. “I don’t think so, Captain. Those seeds belong to the world, not just one country.”

“They will go to the world,” the Captain said, as though she was talking to a child. “It’s going to take a lot of work to prepare these seeds for planting, and the United States are in the best position to accomplish that. But we can’t do that if you blow them up.”

“Stow it,” Josh shot back. “They’ll hold the seeds hostage. You’re clearing out the entire vault. You killed rivals! You killed us!

“I just follow orders,” Coin said tersely.

“Well, so am I. That leaves us with a stand-off. We can either split the goods fairly, and you’ll get something, or I explode the whole damn thing.”

Silence stretched on, as icy as anything else, though the intensity of Coin’s stare might have been enough to reverse that. “That means you get nothing,” Josh clarified helpfully.

The soldiers shuffled nervously, as wolves yipped and snarled in the distance. Josh, squinted, trying to read the Captain’s expression. Little more than her eyes were visible, and it was still dark. Nobody spoke. It was dark, and the seat was warm, and he was tired…

So bloody tired…

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