Great story, I'm glad it won, Khealmin. As soon as you PM me the theme for the next story contest I can open it - Lemex Don’t go where the winter’s atomic (2944 words) I woke up with a start and fumbled with the grip of my rifle, trying to get it at the ready. But nobody was attacking. It was only Jens, my fellow Solarian Knight, reminding me it was my turn to keep watch. I let the barrel of the ice encrusted weapon fall back into the snow and got up, using it as a crutch. Gods be damned, but this cold was getting worse every day. ‘Jesus, I can’t feel my toes.’ I whispered in my helmet. ‘Stop complaining, Rookie,’ growled Jens as he settled in his sleeping bag. ‘For the last time, the nanites in your blood will protect you from the frostbite. Now, if you wake me up before the nine hours are up, I swear I’ll kill you in most gruesome ways.’ I said nothing and started to roll up my own sleeping bag with numbed fingers. The nanites kept you from freezing, alright, but you were always on the brink of it. I couldn’t remember the last time I was warm. They were really perverse that way. They didn’t let you die, but they did nothing for the pain. Get your arm chopped off? No problem, they’ll stop the bleeding in seconds, but you’ll be cursing the day you were born until you got some proper medical attention. Or maybe they’re like that so you don’t get too cocky, I don’t know. Everything’s blurred these days, torn between the constant tension of not knowing when the enemy’s going to attack and the cold. Always, the bloody cold. I stowed away the bag and started making my way to the ridge we’ve been guarding. What a joke that was. I remember when they gave us the gear for the mission. Hyper-arctic issue armored suit, hyper-arctic issue weaponry, high calorie rations for a full month and a thin sheet of weaved polymer. When the Quartermaster Knight saw my confused expression, he just laughed in my face. ‘The sleeping bag’s not there to keep you warm, Rookie!’ he leered. ‘It’s to prevent the snow from infiltrating and freezing the joints of your suit while you sleep.’ ‘But it’s said to be ninety Kelvin over there! Don’t you think we’ll need something more substantial? Like a heated shelter?’ ‘Your suit’s heated, and that’s all you’ll ever need. Plus, I’m told you’ll only be groundside for a couple of days.’ That was over two weeks ago. I cursed and stomped onward, trying to get the blood flowing again. It wasn’t pins and needles the cold was driving through my muscles, it was bloody nails. I got to the ridge and switched the visor’s view to infrared. I swept my gaze around the valley we were tasked with guarding. Nothing but this blasted carbon dioxide snow, falling slowly to the ground, the same way it’s been doing for thousands of years. Rumor has it this was actually a tropical planet, some five millennia ago. Not habitable by humans, on account of the high carbon dioxide atmosphere, but close enough. Then some of the more advanced denizens of our galactic sector had a throw down, and one or more of their monster gigaton bombs found their way over here. There was nothing but joyous atomic winter ever since. ‘Tricosa Saladin,’ said a displeased voice in my helmet’s speakers, bringing me back from my reverie. ‘Are you at your post yet?’ ‘Yes, sir, Icosa Luiz,’ I replied and waved my hand over my head towards the opposite edge of the valley, almost two kilometres away. ‘Oh, there you are, Rookie!’ replied the Icosa, my squad leader, in a somewhat more pleased tone. ‘The snow’s almost covered you whole. How’re you hanging on?’ ‘Every day you ask me that,’ I sighed, ‘and every day I give the same answer.’ ‘Miserable, then.’ ‘Utterly. Any sign of the enemy, sir?’ ‘Not yet. But they’ll be here, make no mistake. They want this bomb, and badly. They’ve sacrificed a minor fleet trying to get through our blockade at the edge of the system.’ ‘Then what the hell’s keeping them? My ass is so frozen it’s gonna fall off.’ The Icosa didn’t reply. The bomb he was speaking of was a remnant from that ancient war. The two players of the conflict didn’t exist anymore, but their trash sure as hell survived. For some reason the projectile hadn’t exploded, instead it had just carved off this mammoth of a valley when it impacted. It was bigger and more powerful than anything we Solarians had, and doubly so than what our enemy could build. Suffice to say that everyone wanted it. The problem was that the Worgens found out about it a little sooner than we did. We blockaded the system in an attempt to stop them, but some got through and hid somewhere on the planet. That’s why we were deployed, to stall them until some of our technicians could get here to study and disable the thing. As luck would have it, in a war technicians are needed everywhere at the same time, so it’ll be a while until some of them get here. I stared back at the valley and the mounds upon mounds of snow. So it went, every day and every minute of the nine hour shifts we were assigned. I suspect the nanites were also releasing a moderate amount of antidepressants in my blood, because otherwise I would have blown my brains out long ago. ‘Hello,’ exclaimed the Icosa merrily. ‘Rookie, have a peek at 43 and 57 and tell me that’s not just another damned snow mirage.’ I zoomed the image on my visor to its limit and trained it on the coordinates Luiz had pointed. They were faint, but there was no doubt about it. Five kilometers out, there were thermal silhouettes. The enemy was finally here. By the wait, it felt like they must have come over from the other damned side of the planet. I knew it was crazy, but I felt giddy that they finally showed up. Don’t get me wrong, they’re formidable opponents, and nobody goes into a fight with a Worgen smiling. But this meant we could get off of this hellhole, one way or another. ‘Confirmed, sir,’ I rasped back into the microphone, ‘Definitely Worgen contacts.’ I heard a click, which meant the Icosa switched to the general squad channel, so our other two sleeping comrades could hear. ‘Rise and shine, ladies!’ he called, skewing his voice to the highest pitch he could. ‘We have gentleman callers coming. Docosa Jens and Tricosa Nadia, why don’t you join us on the ridges, so we can greet them properly? Make sure to bring your camouflage as well.’ On cue, I activated my own optical camouflage. With a series of sharp punches, I dislodged and cleared the carbon dioxide ice that had encrusted my plasma rifle. While Jens and Nadia were grunting their acknowledgements, I checked the systems, the scope and the ammunition. Everything was ready. My initial excitement had gone up in smoke. All that was left now was a lead ball rolling through my stomach. ‘I count sixteen,’ said Luiz, all business-like this time. ‘Rookie, can you confirm?’ Now that they were closer, I could distinguish some features. Sixteen long and ungainly forms were trudging through the snow. I disabled the thermal vision and I could see them better. Like all of their kind, they were well over two meters in height and performing that half step, half hop of theirs. Even though their world was of a lower gravity than Earth, they were much stronger than a normal human, almost on par with some of our younger generation Solarian Knights. But our nanites improved our muscles and bones over time, so strength was not really a problem. They were called Worgen on account of their furry outward appearance, but internally they had nothing to do with said mammal. They were actually closer to lizards than wolves. But that is irrelevant, seeing how they came from a completely alien ecosystem. ‘Check, sir, sixteen,’ I replied. ‘Alright, boys, we proceed as rehearsed. Let’s teach these filthy aliens it’s not nice to steal. For Earth, Sol and the Solarian Knights! U-ha!’ ‘U-ha!’ we shouted in unison. This goes to show you, that no matter how technologically evolved a species, its army always stays the same. We waited for them to close in. The first salvo needed to be surgical. We had to take down as many as we could, before revealing our position. No telling how many more there were out there. When they were three kilometers out, I aimed through my scope at the right outermost one. I knew Luiz would do the same with the left one, to make them bunch together, so Jens and Nadia could do the most damage with their heavy weapons. Mark, two kilometers and six hundred meters. Luiz and I fired almost at the same time. My superheated aluminum dust projectile hit my enemy in the right shoulder. It made his shoulder plate fly right off and revealed the fur beneath. The minus one hundred and eighty degrees Celsius must have frozen it instantly, because when it reached to grip it with its good hand, the shoulder just shattered. Its suit compromised, it collapsed into the snow shortly after. But I was no longer paying any attention to it. I managed to nick the one closest to him in one of its double jointed legs, with similar results. It didn’t matter where you hit them. If their fragile suits were even a little compromised, they were toast. As predicted, they started bunching together, and that was Jens’ cue. The heavy, two hundred and fifty gram, depleted uranium projectile flew out of his railgun at ten thousand kilometers per hour. It superheated the air around it, turning the carbon dioxide vapor into a thick misty line on its trajectory. The ground where his and Nadia’s shots impacted just exploded. Shards of ice flew everywhere and pierced everything. The shot itself hadn’t hit any of the enemy, but there were now seven fresh bodies with ice sticking out of them like hundreds of daggers. The rest of us didn’t idle. When visibility was reestablished, we started picking off the survivors one by one. The last Worgen died gruesomely, hit by both Luiz and myself almost at the same time. It just folded in on itself like a crumbly accordion. Then there was only silence. We surveyed the area carefully, but no others came forth. ‘I think that’s all of them,’ came Nadia’s voice, still high from the adrenaline. ‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that,’ growled Luiz. ‘They’re sneaky bastards, these aliens. Maybe as sneaky as we are.’ ‘I think we all know that’s impossible,’ said Jens and laughed. ‘It’s a well known fact around the galactic cluster that we’re legendary in our-’ But Jens couldn’t finish the sentence. The ice wall behind us exploded and we were flung over the ridge we were standing on. While I went tumbling through the air I thought I could hear someone shouting ‘Tank! 46 and 72!’ I landed in the snow below, getting buried two meters deep. All around me I could hear ice shards falling and getting stuck in the snow. Then a mountain of snow fell over and buried me. Even though I knew my suit was pressurized and there was absolutely no chance of suffocating, I couldn’t help but panic. I felt like puking from fear. This was exactly how it was when I was enrolled into the Solarian Knights. When I almost died the first time, two hundred years ago. I was skiing in the Alps back on Earth, when I was caught by an avalanche. I was nearly brain-dead from oxygen deprivation when they found me. Almost beyond help from conventional medicine, my family brought me to the Solarian enclave. There, a Recruiter Knight infected me with the nanites still flowing through my veins today. They saved me alright, and more. My mortal life had ended there. This brought my fear to an abrupt end. I was longer a mere human. I couldn’t suffocate while the mission was still not complete. How did the saying go among our enemies? Neither shame, nor pain, nor death may stop a Solarian with a purpose. That’s it. It was time to live up to it, my comrades needed me. I tensed my considerably strengthened muscles and started making my way to the surface. The weight of the snow was crushing, but it was getting lighter all the time. I poked my head through the loose surface layer and surveyed the scene. The tank was half a kilometer away, firing at Luiz’s position. I weighed my options. How to take down a Worgen tank? They were armored mammoths, with little to no weak spots. All I had were some implosion grenades. Then I saw Jens’ heavy railgun, buried barrel first in the snow. Now we’re talking. I removed myself from the snow and with rifle in hand I ran to the gun as quickly as I could. I picked it up and checked the ammo. I cursed. One shot left, but it’ll have to do. This means I’ll have to fire from close range. Closer than I’d like. Thinking there’s no time like the present, I started running as silently as I could towards the tank and the small group of foot soldiers around it. I prayed to all of the gods I’d heard about for them not to look back. When I was fifty meters away, I thought it’ll have to do. I kneeled, instructed the magnetic coils to begin charging and took careful aim. If I managed to hit it in the engine exhaust vent, the fire might spread and the whole thing would blow. I held my breath and fired. I sidestepped to see around the trail of mist and my heart sank. The fires around the exhaust vent were quickly dying away. I had failed. One shot was all I had and I had wasted it. A wall of fire came at me and I got into the prone position, hiding behind an ice curtain. I peeked over it and I could see the tank’s barrel swinging towards me. Damn it, now I’m really toast, I thought. But to my surprise, the barrel lined up with the ice curtain, and kept turning. It did two full rotations, until a tongue of fire jutted from between the turret and the main body. I stared, dumbfounded, until I realized that even though it didn’t blow from my shot, I had managed to break the containment. The cold must have killed the crew and made any explosive ammunition they had crack and explode. I almost felt like jumping up in joy, until I remembered that there were still three enemies alive and well. I threw one of my implosion grenades over the wall and seconds later I could hear a satisfying crunch. I peeked over the wall, rifle at the ready, but there was no one standing. It was then that I had the ground run out from under my feet for the second time. My head was throbbing. I turned on my back and I realized I had missed one of them. He’d flanked me and hit me over the head with the butt of his weapon. To my surprise, he threw the weapon away and from his gloves came long metallic claws. Right, Worgens evolved from predators and there’s nothing they like more than a melee kill. One clawed hand came crashing on my breastplate. I could see and hear alarms flashing inside my helmet and over my cracked visor. It was slowly screeching down the plate towards the relatively unprotected area of my groin. No, no, no, I kept screaming and tried flailing at it with my hands and legs, but it was much too crazed with bloodlust. When I thought I was done for, I heard a whistling sound and the pressure on my chest stopped. I looked up and I could see that half its mask had been blown away by a plasma shot. The ugly, elongated face behind it was still as stone. I touched it lightly with one finger and the thing just disintegrated, the rest of the body following, kept together in a pile by the suit alone. ‘You’re welcome, Rookie,’ came Luiz’s voice through my stuttering speakers. ‘Now we’re even.’ ‘Jesus Christ, that was some awesome marksmanship, boss,’ I breathed, relieved. ‘Are there more of them? Should I worry?’ ‘Nah, you can relax. I think that was the last of them.’ I fell on my back again, savoring each breath of recycled air like it was my last. It nearly was, anyway. I lay there for a while, until I Nadia’s voice brought me back to the real world. ‘I’ve found Jens, sir. Not in good shape.’ ‘I’m mostly fine, sir,’ came his voice between two gasps. ‘My leg got nicked by a shard of ice, and the suit had to cut it off to keep containment.’ ‘Well, nothing our Medicus Knights can’t handle,’ came Luiz’s reply. ‘I think that about wraps it up, boys and girl. I’ll call for evac.’ ‘Where do you think they’ll send us next, sir?’ I asked. ‘To be honest, Tricosa Saladin, I have no idea. With our luck, it’ll probably be a volcanic planet.’ I burst out laughing with joy. I couldn’t help it. Anything had to be better than this frozen hellhole of a rock.