In The BarrowMature

A lost soldier doggedly searches for her comrades.

“Shit.”

The word left Jaxine Flint’s mouth in a puff of moisture, warm breath flash frozen in the cold temperatures of The Barrow. There was a brief buzz as her radio picked up a short lived signal, just a quick burst of noise to punctuate the moment.

Trudging through maze of canyons that made up The Barrow she’d caught sight of two things – a patch of scarlet snow and something that looked very much like a rifle sling or utility belt hanging from a rock outcropping.

What Jax found behind it had elicited the frozen curse. More crimson snow, spent shell casings, and an abandoned rifle slowly being buried by the falling show.

“All right,” more words froze in the frigid air as they left her lips. “This isn’t all bad. Somebody’s around. Wounded, but…” she squinted down at the clues she had to work with. The blood was red enough that it could still be fresh, and judging from the rate of snowfall the rifle hadn’t been laying there for more than a few hours.

She clumsily triggered her radio’s transmitter with one gloved hand. “Check, check. This is Able Three, Blackstar Company. Able Squad, do you copy? Anybody out there?”

There was a soft squelch as she released the transmitter. One puff of icy breath turned into two, then three. There was a buzz of errant signal, but nothing more. When she counted five with no answer Jax triggered the transmitter again. “Check, check. This is Able Three, Blackstar Mercenary Company. I’m calling general distress, extraction needed. Does anybody fucking hear me?”

Another squelch, another five breaths, still no answer. Well, it wasn’t any different than the last three days. Snarling in frustration Jax reached down and plucked the rifle from the snow. As she brushed it off she could clearly see the Blackstar logo emblazoned on the stock. Brow furrowed she quickly checked for a number. Seven. The rifle was assigned to Able Seven. That would have been Talbot. Flipping it over she found the ammunition counter. It read zero, which explained why the weapon had been abandoned.

It landed with a dull thud in the snow when she dropped it. Jax squeezed her eyes shut and tried to focus. Talbot had been here. He’d fought something and come away bleeding. Why hadn’t she heard the gunshots? No, wrong question. The vagaries of the canyons could explain that. The real question was, what did he fight and was it still a threat?

A quick survey of the area turned up  nothing but the bioluminescent fungi that dominated The Barrow’s ecology. As far as she knew, those didn’t eat people. Still, she made sure to unsling her own rifle and hold it at the ready. An impulsive check of the ammunition counter momentarily surprised her.

“Half?” she asked aloud. Had it been that many? The ambush had been quick and brutal, and admittedly the adrenaline rush of a firefight made the details blurry. Still, it seemed like a lot. She shook off the concern and focused on the blood in the snow. Though it was slowly being covered over by freshly fallen powder she could still make out the direction it headed, and even a few depressions that might be footprints.

“Hang on Talbot,” she breathed, “I’m coming for you.”

The blood trail and footprints traced an erratic and seemingly random path through The Barrows. Not that Jax had done much better herself, she reflected grimly. The place was a damn labyrinth. The perpetual gloom of the place gave no clue to how long she trudged onward through the snow. With little in the way of a day/night cycle and constant cloud cover the only real way to tell was to bring a watch, and hers had the display turned off to conserve power. It beeped at her every twenty four hours, but that was all.

As she pursued Talbot she chewed on half of an energy bar, part of her dwindling food supply. Water, at least, wasn’t a problem with all the snow. At last she seemed to catch up. The snow that filled the footsteps became less and less, until it seemed they’d been made just moments before. Alarmingly, the amount of blood also increased. It led into a field of sharply angled boulders just ahead.

She toggled her radio. “Able Seven?” she asked softly. “Talbot… Ricky,” she switched to his first name, “are you out there man?”

Only the soft buzz of an errant radio signal answered her. Jax walked slowly through the jagged rock, rifle always pointed where she looked. The enemy could be out there anywhere. Might even be using Talbot for bait. It paid to be prepared.

The trail led around the backside of a particularly large boulder. Following it around she found Talbot leaned against it, sidearm resting in his lap. “Tal… Ricky?” Jax asked softly, rifle lowering only slightly as she came around to face him directly. Tiny puffs of white breath issues from his mouth at irregular intervals. “Ricky!”

He jerked away, wide eyed and pale, pupils so large they butted up against the whites of his eyes. He took one look at her and raised his sidearm, trembling sights aligned with her center of mass. “No!” he shouted. “Nooooooooo!”

“Ricky, woah!” Jax brought her own weapon up, finger on the trigger. “Stand down man! What the fuck!”

“You’re one of them!” he choked out. “You killed us!”

“What the hell?” She followed the sights of his sidearm, first thinking that he was so delusional he was just drifting off target. Then she realized where it pointed – the glowing fungus she’d wrapped around one shoulder to help her see in the darker canyons.

Before she could say more, his sidearm discharged. The aim was wide, but her finger tightened on the trigger of her own rifle as a matter of reflex. As the noise of the exchanged finished echoing from the canyon walls she stood wide eyed at what she saw.

“Shit,” the word left her mouth in a puff of frozen moisture. “The bastards got Talbot.” Maybe if she’d moved faster, gotten here sooner, she could have saved him.

A fantom signal buzzed from her radio, drawing her attention. A faint transmission? “Must be more survivors,” she muttered. “Someone else from Able must have gotten out.”

With one long last look at Talbot, Jax turned and headed off into The Barrow. “Check, check,” she huffed into her radio, “Able Three, Blackstar Mercenary Company… anyone else from Able out there? Can anybody hear me?”

The End

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