The Piercing Chill

5/5 (1)

The freezing steel of the door burned the side of her face as she pressed her ear to it. Straining to hear, she prayed for the shuffling outside to fade into the whirl of the blizzard.

‘Report!’ barked Commissar Varkin.

‘Nothing, sir.’ she replied meekly, pulling her gloves off and trying to rub the piercing numbness from her cheeks.

‘Good work, Sergeant.’ Varkin nodded. ‘Wouldn’t want any interference when evac arrives.’

How long had they been awaiting evacuation? Weeks at least. Months maybe? Night had fallen after the sun inexplicably was snuffed out like a candle, never to rise again.

Within a few days their encampment had become covered in snow. The swamps turned to frozen slush that would swallow a man whole. Iselin never thought she would miss the stinking humidity, the constant buzz of insects or howls of simians traipsing the treetops. Now all was quiet save the whirling blizzard.

Except when they came. 

Varkin claimed the troops were imagining it, the whispers on the edge of hearing. Then the shuffling outside, slow and ponderous. Then the scratching at the door, the walls, the roof. Varkin sent a squad out from the bunker for reconnaissance. They never returned, and he never mentioned them again. Not when he sent out the next squad, or the one after that. One team refused, so he executed Markus, Ratface and Hobnail and sent the rest out anyway. Every day he would go into his office and confer with the other outposts.

He would emerge and clap his hands together. ‘They say evac is only a few days out.’

Duchess and Birdy tried to dig their way out from the armoury, but were crushed when the tunnel collapsed. Iselin wasn’t sure Varkin noticed. Ears pinched Leadfoot’s rations; Leadfoot smashed his head into the ground so hard it burst. Took down Sergei too before the Commissar executed him. Annika slit her wrists yesterday, or maybe the day before, Iselin had dragged her body into the armoury with the others. Only Iselin and Varkin were left.

‘Permission to retire for the night?’ she asked.

‘Granted. I’ll be in my office. They say evac is only a few days out.’

Iselin climbed up to her bunk, burrowing into the pile of thin blankets she had taken from the empty beds. She lay shivering; she didn’t want to sleep. Her nightmares were unending, a maelstrom of fear and loss and snow.

Drifting between sleep and wakefulness, her eyes shot open at a loud bang on the roof that continued to reverberate through the room. The following static silence became filled by the whispers. The scratching had never felt so close. She slid out of her bunk and jumped as another clang caused the roof to shudder.

She crept to Varkin’s office. Kahdi had broken in while she thought Varkin would be sleeping. He hadn’t been, and her body was in the armoury pile. The scraping sound came from both sides, like steel fingers dragging across glass. She drew in a breath and knocked on the door. Nothing. She tried again—no answer but the whispers outside.

Trembling, she reached out and turned the doorknob.

The room was so warm it prickled her skin. A rad-heater cast an orange glow over the richly furnished room. Varkin was at his desk, vox receivers clamped over both ears. ‘Sir?’ she ventured, eyeing the laspistol on the desk.

He removed the vox. ‘This better be good Sergeant, entering uninvited could get you court marshalled. I would hate- ‘. The shutter at his window bowed inwards from an unseen blow. 

‘S-sir?’ she drew herself up. ‘The enemy is attacking. What shall we do?’ Her jaw dropped as he put his vox-receivers back on. Tears of fury bloomed in her eyes. She wrenched the vox off him and clamped them over her ears. ‘Urgent! Require immediate back-up! Enemies unknown!’

Varkin grabbed the vox off her, but it was too late. They had suspected it for weeks, but no-one had dared say it. Even Annika in her final moments dared not. Deep down, they had all known there was nothing on the other end of that vox.

‘Sergeant! Fall in line, that is an order!’ his hand drifted to the laspistol on the desk. 

Iselin choked, between laughing and sobbing. ‘An order? By whose authority? The dead? Commanders hundreds of light years away?’ she hurled the vox unit at him. ‘Throne damn you! You delusional coward. There’s no one left.’

His face fell. ‘There isn’t, is there?’ he said softly. ‘No commands, no leaders, no help. Just you and me.’ He stepped closer to her, so close she could see the madness in his eyes. They flashed with something dark and deranged. ‘Just you and me.’ He grabbed her arm with his claw-like hands.

From outside, a deafening bang smashed into the roof above them. Varkin looked up, furious and frightened, as if he was hearing the invasion for the first time. Iselin didn’t waste her chance. She drove her palm into his nose, feeling the satisfying crunch as it shattered. Diving across his desk, she grabbed the laspistol and fired off two blind shots before she landed. Crouching for several heartbeats behind the desk, she awaited retaliation. Peering out she saw Varkin on the ground. Blood bubbled from his nose as one las-wound burned his shoulder and the other his chest. The scratching outside resumed. The whispers. Growing louder. Rhythmic like a drum.

With a shuddering breath, she hoisted herself back to her feet. She reloaded the laspistol and made her way out of the office, stepping over Varkin without looking back.

She padded down the hall. Past the bunks, past the armoury. Her palm burned as she pressed it against the door. The whirling of the blizzard outside creating a melody with the drumming of the walls. 

Snow kissed her cheeks as she swung open the door. She smiled at the darkness.

About the Author

 Jenny Strath is the author of fast fiction and audio drama “The Consuming Gaze”, as well as fast fiction “The Good Citizen,” “Setting the Stage,” and short story “The Silk Spire.”
A lifelong lover of fantasy/science-fiction, horror and gaming, she found her home in Warhammer. Based in Melbourne, Australia, her other passions include history, heavy metal, high heels and her Alaskan Malamute, Fenris.