Ranger had been told that life on the Sangre Fría de Cristo range was brutal, cold and short. So far, he had witnessed brutality aplenty and the cold never left his bones. But he was still alive, after all these years. A small miracle in light of the graves he had dug.
"Two out of three is bad," he muttered into the icy wind. It never seemed to quit. By the standards of Nuevo A Coruña, a cold, blustery slice of hell itself, the wind was rather slack. He checked the thermal settings on his enviro-suit. The idiot lights glowed a faint green, but the color engendered mistrust. His feet and hands were starting to go numb, despite the suit insisting that the heat was normal.
Ranger doubted it. In the two days since the fall the suit had been performing erratically. One minute he would suddenly be roasting, the next it felt like the sweat was freezing in seconds on his burned skin. His meager repair kit had stabilized it somewhat, but the parts were running out. There were no replacements.
He craned his neck forward to sip from the hydration tube poking up from the suit collar. The water, laced with electrolytes and a mild stimulant, seemed to his tongue to taste faintly of piss. It always made him uneasy. He knew the suit recycled everything so efficiently that he must be imagining things. Good thing the stimulants were chemically rigged to not increase urine output, Ranger recalled. No way could he handle the thought of having to change out the filters more than he did now.
Not that it mattered much. The scout ship was near complete ruin. The team, dead, except for Ranger and the Alférez. The rest scattered somewhere in the rocks and ice, swallowed up by chasms and the bellies of the things in the chasms. Ranger checked himself again. He was alive, but the Alférez, only nominally so.
The body moved and muttered but its eyes were now frozen orbs of a nacreous blue-white. Ranger could see them through the slightly cracked lenses of the suit binoculars. See them, that is, when he could bring himself to look. The Alférez had fallen down the scree, shouting gibberish and swatting at something no one else could see
Ranger sighed. He rubbed his hands hard on his thighs in an effort to bring some warmth back into his fingers. He was years away from home and the thought of it made his heart ache so sharply he tasted iron on his tongue. Years. He had been gone for years, searching for minerals and life forms the Directorate had deemed important. Yet he had never found the thing to quiet the loneliness in his core.
Glancing up at the sky, he saw that the sun was about to set. In his reverie he had failed to account for the lateness of the day. He was exposed there on the butte overlooking the plain below. He forced himself to stand, gathering up his survey gear. The gear was filling up, Ranger noted with a pang, but he held little hope he would survive long enough to get it safely into the Datanet.
The slug thrower leaned against a lichen-coated boulder. Ranger hesitated, knowing he was nearly out of ammunition. The weight would slow him down, burning up precious calories, but without it he was truly defenseless. He looked out into the blue twilight congealing down below the mountain range. There were shadows stirring down there, shadows that could swallow him in the blink of an eye if he let them. he picked up the gun.
Ranger sighed, strapping on his gear before setting off up the rough trail that led to the only shelter he could find in the wasteland. At a small rise, he turned to get one last glance at the Alférez. The gun was raised in a half-salute, then he froze. Something was hunched over the body of his friend. It appeared to be eating.
Ranger swallowed hard. He turned and ran, calories be damned. The cave was not far away. It would keep him alive until tomorrow, at least. Tomorrow after sunrise he would awake, cold and alone, but for the last time. Tomorrow Ranger was going to find his way home.