‘Colonel.’ Straker looked up from his breakfast as Freeman approached. He put his knife down, hands now on the table, fingers fiddling with the handle of his mug.
‘Morning Ed. Ready to go when you are. Ski-doos are loaded and Sam’s doing the last checks.’ Freeman stood there, more than a little perturbed. Straker had that look on his face, the one which meant someone was in for a lecture, or worse.
‘Morton? A good choice. He has the right experience.’ Straker drained the last of his coffee and stood up. ‘Five minutes. Meet me in your room, Colonel.’ He walked away without another word, only stopping to speak briefly to one of the Weapons specialists who was eating pancakes and maple syrup over on the other side of the room.
Alec sighed. Five minutes. Just enough time to prepare himself for whatever Straker was going to say.
‘Come in Colonel.’ Straker was packing the small bag that was all he could take on the trip; nothing more than spare socks and one set of underwear. Even that was bulky, but spare socks were a necessity. They might be out for a couple of nights or longer. No toilet bag, or razor, or toothbrush. A small washcloth was all and even that might not get used.
Alec opened his mouth to speak, and stopped. He took a breath. ‘Commander?’
‘Well?’ Straker zipped up the bag, tossed it onto the bed and pulled the fleece gaiter over his head, tucking the bottom edge of it under his overshirt, then turned to face the other man.
‘Abuse of authority, misuse of assets, dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming, and refusal to obey a lawful order?’ Straker slammed one hand down on the desk. ‘What the blazes did you think you were doing Colonel? Did you hope to keep it quiet until I’d left? And just what part of ‘Don’t do anything’ did you not understand? Not to mention losing an aircraft.’ He leaned forward, glaring at Freeman. ‘I have to beg for every penny right now and you go gallivanting off, against my direct orders, and end up costing me ten million dollars. I’m sorely tempted to leave you behind.’ He straightened up, folding his arms. ‘I want a detailed written report on my desk within twenty-four hours when we return. No excuses. Just the facts.’ He turned to pick up his parka, and Alec opened the door, preparing to leave. But Straker had not finished. ’One more thing Colonel Freeman. Just remember. This is a Court Martial offence.’
There was ice in the words and Freeman left his reply unspoken, walking swiftly away down the corridor to collect his own bag and outer wear from Morton’s cabin. It was going to be a difficult few days.
Morton was waiting for him. ‘Rough? I heard some of it. Think most of the base did as well.’
Freeman gave an embarrassed shrug. ‘My own fault. And he’s every right to be annoyed. He’ll get over it. Eventually.’
‘You’d better hope so. He can be a tough bastard at times.’
There was nothing to say in reply. Agreeing would be a betrayal of his Commander and friend, but he could understand, and sympathise with Morton’s view. One thing was for sure though; the next few days were definitely going to be chilly.
Straker had no chance to talk to Alec on the flight out. His second-in-command was acting as navigator to help find the nearest landing site to the crashed UFO, or whatever it was. He was relegated to the cargo bay again, although Morton was also there. They shared a few brief words, but there was a definite air of tension in the air and then Morton made his excuses and went to finish re-aligning the tracks on the second machine.
It was a relief when they landed and he could step away and let the others deal with the unloading.
‘Roughly a hundred miles in a straight line. Closest we could get.’ Alec connected the smaller sled to the one-man Ski-doo. He paused, ‘Commander? You want this one?’ then walked over to the two-man machine where Morton was waiting.
So that was the way Alec wanted to play it. Fair enough. ‘Sure.’ Straker climbed on, settling himself in the seat before pulling the zip of his jacket up, the hood over his head, neck gaiter and goggles firmly in place; armour against the elements. He watched as the others did the same, abruptly and somewhat disturbingly anonymous behind their identical uniforms, faces and eyes hidden behind dark glasses and balaclavas. Not even name badges to tell them apart. No matter, there would be no chance to talk until they stopped for a break.
He looked at the controls; a long time since he had driven one of these, but no way was he going to admit that fact. He let one hand rest on the red button, running through the brief instructions he remembered from the last visit here. Yes. That was it. Alec and Morton were already setting off, driving away at slow speed to let the ski-doo take the strain of the sled. He pulled the button up, turned the key and then tugged the start cord, grinning to himself as the engine sprang into life with a smooth purr. And then he twisted the throttle, steering the small machine to follow in their tracks as the Aerocopter lifted off and headed for base, leaving them alone in the icy desert with the Wisconsin Range looming ahead in the far distance.
It was nearly three hours before they stopped, the journey slow and the terrain almost impossible at times, the ground ridged with huge frozen waves of hardpacked snow and deep crevasses. Alec, at least he assumed it was Alec, pulled to a halt and waved at him, far enough behind to avoid any dangers the lead team might encounter. A quick lowering of goggles. Yes. Alec.
‘We’ll take a break if that’s alright? Fifteen minutes? Need to check the GPS and see if there’s any updates.’
Energy bars and chocolate munched in silence, the cold so bitter he could hardly feel his lips, his eyelashes stiff with tiny crystals of ice, sipping energy drinks from insulated flasks, pee bottles used in the scant shelter of the Ski-doos, out of the constant stiff breeze that flung snow granules into faces. He swiped balm over lips already cracking from the bitter cold, smeared more suncream on his cheeks and handed the tube over to Morton. Still over seventy miles to go. No way could they make it today, they would be lucky to get there tomorrow at this rate. He crumpled the wrappers up and tucked them inside the sled, checking the straps more from habit than necessity. But this was a lethal place, and it was better to be over-cautious than end up losing vital equipment.
Alec was watching him, a long look before hiding from sight again behind his thick goggles. And then they were off again, bouncing over the sastrugi, swerving avoid the smaller cracks and holes that seemed to open up in front of them. Mile-long detours round bottomless crevasses, the wind increasing to a howl as the hours passed, snow blowing up to make the visibility difficult. In the end, he made the decision to call a halt to the journey. Alec was reluctant, arguing that they had already delayed and time was getting short, but Straker was adamant. It was getting too dangerous. And he was not the mood to take foolish risks.
‘An early start tomorrow, if conditions allow.’ He started unpacking the topbox from his sled, ignoring their quiet objections. A one man tent identical in style to Alec and Morton’s apart from its size, its sheepskin mat and thick sleeping bag practical and weight-saving. Even his own stove and lamp and separate rations. Well, at least he wouldn’t be kept awake by Alec’s snoring. He scooped up snow in the billycan, and put it aside, then started on the tent, siting it on the leeward side of his Ski-doo, a scant shelter, but better than nothing, then his vehicle refuelled and left ready for the morning. He was aware of the other two doing the same, but they were all too busy to stop for idle conversation. For a moment he wondered if Alec had planned this all along, a separate tent just for him, or was it originally for Morton.
He waved an acknowledgement to the two of them before clambering through the tunnel into his own small space, the walls gleaming a soft orange in the sunlight reflected from the snow and there was no need to light the lamp. He could hear Alec talking, Morton’s replies. Muted laughter. The tent walls rippled in the wind and he took off his outer layers and boots, putting the inner gloves and boot liners into his sleeping bag to keep them warm. A tidy space once he finished, everything neat and folded and within reach. The small space required only one stove to provide sufficient warmth and he set it up quickly, putting the lighter back in his pocket for safety afterwards.
Now for something to eat. His iPod was sufficient company as he heated one of the freeze-dried meals and then brought the can of half-melted snow to the boil and made a mug of cocoa. A long night ahead; he hoped he would be able to sleep in the persistent orange glow, but once he was inside the sleeping bag and warm, the peacefulness was soporific and he drowsed to the gentle murmur of Alec and Morton in the other tent, aware that the wind was easing even as he sank into restless and unsatisfying sleep.