“You'll have about three minutes to live, if you fuck up and get your evo-suit punctured.”
The old engineer fussed over a few metal toolboxes on his bench, pulling out the contents, explaining as he went. “First few seconds, frostbite sets in the local puncture area. After that, the freezing temperature leaks in and overpowers the suit's rebreather, usually around the one minute mark. Better be holding your breath by that point. You die the moment you can't."
It was hard to see what he'd been doing, since the workbench was made for grown-ups. I craned my head over the lip of the table, to get a better view.
He pushed the toolbox away, "Most human adults can hold their breath about two minutes while under stress. Factor that in and that's why it's roughly three minutes before lights out."
He brought his elbows on the table, lowering his head so that he was more at eye level with me. "See why folks beat around the snow telling you kids what's out there? You're ten, they'd rather you go be a brat and play with your friends. Leave the worrying to the adults."
Everyone said it's really bad if something happened outside the heated clan bunker. And then they'd shoo me away when I'd ask them how bad.
Anarii was, as he put it, 'too old to care about keeping secrets' - he'd tell me about whatever I asked. So, ever since I found him, I'd been sneaking past the house guards and making my way to his workstation, deep in the bowels of the colony.
"Now, here's a challenge for you," Anarii grinned. "How would you patch up the environmental suit fast enough to beat the timer?”
I frowned as I thought. A couple ideas floated to my head but none of them seemed to fit. So I did what I do best: I looked for a way to cheat and get an edge.
I’m betting he’d pulled everything out for a reason, the answer is probably on his workbench.
A square piece of suit fabric caught my attention. “A patch?” That didn’t seem right, sewing took a long time. Also I didn't see any needles or thread anywhere on that table. "A patch with a sticky surface?"
“You’re close, but there’s some issues with that answer.” His hand picked up that piece of fabric along with a spare knife. “Imagine you're having a nice stroll outside and your suit gets a rip, like this.” The tough material took him a good moment of struggling to tear through with the knife. “Now in most cases, you’ll be panicking and not thinking clearly. A patch needs too many steps for your groggy mind to handle. We need something faster and easier.”
He set down the knife and picked up a strange fat gun off the table. “That’s where this comes in. Catch.”
I caught the heavy gun-thing in hand. Welding lines held together different parts and string tied a circuit chip to the side. The barrel was way too fat compared to sidearms and rifles.
“This looks weird. Does it really shoot bullets?”
“Nope. It’s been modified to fire out super-heated glue. It's a hot glue gun!” He cackled, as if this was the world's funniest joke.
“You’re going to glue the suit back together?” I said, stunned. “That’s stupid!”
He ruffled my hair with a wide smile and took the weird gun back from my hands. “Well, if it’s stupid, but it works, then it’s not stupid. And boy does it work.” Fast on his feet, he turned on his chair, aimed and fired a snotful of glue at the rip, almost point blank.
“All done.” He patted the cloth, where the glue had sunk into the tear, already hardened over. “Easy see? That’ll hold off the environment for a few hours, more than enough time to limp back somewhere safe.”
While I poked the strange repair method, Anarii got out of his chair and brought down something big from the top shelf.
A spare environmental helmet. It had been built oddly - a glass dome acted as the faceplate for the massive helmet. Normally helmets were made with goggles instead, harder to break than a massive glass dome. I think he kept that defunct model because it looked weird.
An avalanche of tools cascaded down along the way, knocked loose by the bulky thing. “Ahh, ratshit... Eh, I’ll clean this later.”
Then he paused, as if an idea crossed his mind. “Actually,” He said, rubbing the white whiskers of his beard like a villan would. “I think I’ll apply my gods given privilege again as the only adult here and have you clean this mess for me.” He chuckled darkly.
Last time, that lazy adult had tricked me into cleaning up the workstation for him in 'exchange' for lessons on welding. But I'd had a lot of time to stew in my bed and prepare. A well designed plan was put into action.
“Wait, wait!” I turned and scrambled on top of a stack of crates, getting height. Once stable, my hands positioned imperiously at my waist, back straight and regal, like the captains of the clan did when they wanted someone to pay attention. And standing up on these boxes let me truly lord over him. I took a deep breath and puffed out my chest. “I am Keith Winterscar, of House Winterscar! By authority invested in my caste as a knight retainer, I shan't do your bidding!”
The engineer stopped in his tracks and gawked up at me.
Yes, take a good look and tremble. House Winterscar only had a few hundred members, but we were still an entire rank above engineers and scientists. From my boxy throne with the full authority of my venerable house behind me, I must have been a terrifying sight.
Anarii broke down laughing, which was absolutely nowhere in my design document.
“Ah, but there's one flaw in your clever little scheme: Who’s going to enforce it?” He lifted up his hands and grabbed me off the stack of crates, slowly bringing me back down on the ground, next to the helmet he’d pulled down from the shelf.
“The guards would back me up! I only need to tell them you’re making me clean things up. They'll shake you down for it old man!”
“And if you tell them, you’d be admitting that you snuck out to an engineering bay, again. They’re not gonna like that, I’d be betting. Scandalous for a noble knight retainer of House Winterscar to be visiting little old me.” That brought out another fit of chuckling from the old man, especially when he watched me squirm around trying to think of a counter to his point.
Before I could come up with another way to escape clean up duty, the helmet was plunked on top of my shoulders.
“What’s this for?” My voice echoed inside the helmet.
“Well, what about other problems besides hard punctures? Like suit failures or leaks you don't know about? You’ll have to deal with those too when you’re out there.” The glass muffled his voice.
A few button presses later from him and a banshee-like wail rang out in the helmet. The high-pitched alarm hammered frantically in my ears, like the heartbeat of a terrified mouse. The air instantly started getting chilly at the same time.
“This, little man, is the emergency warning. If you ever hear this - you need to move fast.”
“I get it! I get it! Can you turn it off now??” I yelled at him, the siren almost drowning out my voice. It had gotten uncomfortably cold too. A leak? My breath came out as mist.
“I already did.” Anarii frowned. “You're still hearing it?”
“Yeah! And it’s getting really cold too!”
He glanced over at his instruments, puzzled. “Oh! Can’t believe I forgot about that detail.” His hand loomed over the glass dome and tapped on it loudly. “You’re going to have to fix this one all on your own, just like a real grownup."
I nodded back at him, a bit worried now.
“Don’t worry, it’s easy.” He smiled, and drew closer to the glass. “You just need to wake up.”
Frost bloomed on the outside, coating over the glass. Temperature continued to drop, danger flared in my heart in response. Screaming now, my hands clawed at the straps. It didn’t budge. Too heavy.
The weight dragged me onto the floor, my hands still unable to pry the thing off. Everything was getting so cold. The alarm continued to ring in my ears, louder than my cries. The ice expanded over the instruments, breaking system after system in bursts of shattered glass. Needles and gauges froze in place instantly.
“Wake up, Keith. Or you’re gonna die.” Anarii’s features blurred from the rime. Now just unfocused blotches of color, diffused through the ice.
The helmet’s protective faceplate finally started to give in, massive cracks appearing on the dome, small pieces of glass snapping off and falling down on my cheek. The cold squeezed through those cracks. Reaching for me.
Reaching to kill me.
"Wake up,” Anarii said. “Wake up or die, boy.”
The dome shattered. Ice lunged for my throat.
I woke with a gasp, my eyes flared open, hyperventilating. I was back in my full adult-sized environmental suit complete with intact goggles - Anarii nowhere to be seen, no glass dome helmet, no workbench. No more memories of my childhood.
Cold reality again.
The shrill alarm in my suit’s helmet continued to beat into my ear, refusing to let me drift back to sleep. Something’s wrong... with the suit. I need to… I need to move fast.
My chest constricted when I tried moving. The cause was easy to spot: Someone had applied glue in half a dozen places. And still my teeth clattered and shivered while my skin felt ice cold. There’s a leak that got missed. I’m freezing to death.
It was a struggle to lift my numb arm. Somehow I got a visual on my wrist’s instruments despite the shaking. The gauges were still working, the nightmare frost nowhere to be seen. The reading on the needles snapped a spike of adrenaline through my heart that finally shook me fully awake.
The rebreather read as offline. No one could live without reheated air on the surface. I should be dead. How was I breathing?
I shut my eyes and on a leap of faith, inhaled. Ah. The air isn't cold enough to kill, or even hurt my throat.
Someone had turned off my suit’s heating systems, knowing it wasn’t needed here. This couldn't be the surface then. My goggles restricted my field of view, but what little I could see... this must be the underground.
No. Panic later. That leak needed to be plugged, I could worry about exactly where I was later.
An analog switch on my arm controlled emergency temperature, and with a flick the backpack hummed to life. Lukewarm air flowed through the entire suit from tubing under the cloth, like a second set of veins. It burned everywhere it touched.
Everywhere except for my left lower rib, where the heat was being sucked away.
My scavenger kit clicked open at a touch, still on the side of my belt. The field repair gun inside looked in working condition. It took three tries before my frozen hand finally wrapped around the handle and lifted it out.
The leak was a five inch rip in the cloth, hidden away on the left side. No wonder it’d been missed. I have to hurry - I’m wasting energy every second.
Pain seared my skin as the glue sunk inside the open tear. It hardened instantly, doing its job as expected, holding fast to both flesh and fabric alike.
I slumped back down, too cold to care about anything else. The warm air continued to scorch across my skin until the suit’s basic sensors hit nominal. The warning siren promptly shut down along with the heater and everything was suddenly quiet again. Safe.
That let me hear what I hadn’t been able to before.
Sounds of metal clinked softly nearby. The source of the noise came from a man sitting nearby on a concrete block, tending carefully to an old rifle. Armored in plate with a single blood red sigil on the shoulder pad. A faceless helmet turning my direction.
The last time I’d seen that armor, it had been falling down into an abyss.
Next Chapter - Prelude To Violence