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2nd Lieutenant Blanker wasn’t sure what he’d wanted to find at the crash sight, but he was fairly sure this wasn’t it.
Most of the men crammed into the Crawler beside him were just grateful to be out on an honest-to-throne mission after months of interminable boredom and routine. He suspected they really didn’t care what lay at the end of it – just getting out and doing something was a relief. An endless expanse of hard-packed snow stretching in all directions might not have been their first choice, but it was still a change from cramped oil-stained corridors, piping and gantry floors.
Back in the Machinarium, Private Makasura had nearly run over Brother Mayhew, their resident Techpriest, as he attempted to anoint the Crawler’s hull for the journey. It seemed Blanker wasn’t the only one eager to get out into the open air.
He tapped the Crawler pilot on the shoulder as they grew closer to the slanting column of smoke. ‘Any transmissions?’
‘Nothing that I can pick up, Lieutenant,’ Makasura said. ‘If it was an escape pod, it must have got junked when it hit the glacier.’
The structure had smashed like an egg. Debris was scattered in a long expanding cone for several hundred metres. The largest pieces lay in shallow individual craters, formed when the surface melted from the heat of re-entry. Everything had been half-covered by drifting snow in the six hours it had taken Blanker’s party to reach the crash site.
In another six hours, all evidence of the impact would be smothered under a freezing white blanket.
‘Are you picking up anything at all?’ he asked.
‘Not much,’ said the pilot, gesturing at the console. ‘Some residual cosmic radiation, but that’s not unusual. The thermal imager’s not much use, either. Another hour or two and all this debris will be as cold as the snow around it.’
‘I don’t want to take any chances,’ Blanker said. ‘Even if the pod itself has broken up, the transmitter might have survived. We’ll have to collect it all.’
‘What do you want us to do, Lieutenant?’ Sergeant Rose asked from further back in the Crawler.
Blanker had been sent for reasons of medical expertise rather than leadership. The facility nurse and assistant to Dr Crowley, he was less experienced than the other command staff, but his rank still gave him jurisdiction over the mission.
‘Sergeant, have your men gather up all the pieces of the pod,’ he said. ‘Anything larger than a fist. We’ll pile it all together and destroy it with thermite.’
The soldiers grumbled and groaned at this, until the Sergeant cut them short.
‘Button up, you maggots!’ he snapped. ‘You got your orders – I hear so much as a mouse’s fart from any of you and you’ll be double-timing it back to the Machinarium in your skivvies!’
Sergeant Rose was a medical phenomenon. Nineteen times Division boxing champion and with a higher scar-to-body-tissue ratio than any man Blanker had ever seen, it was commonly accepted that the Sergeant was harder than a coffin nail. When he opened his mouth, the men closed theirs.
There was a general scuffle as the men squeezed into their exposure suits. The human body was a frail thing from a cosmic perspective and the wind chill on the Igness glacier brought the temperature down to roughly -60 degrees Celsius. To the unprepared, this meant hypothermia in seconds, frostbite in under a minute and, mercifully, death soon after.
The exposure suits were triple-insulated, electrically heated affairs complete with built-in gloves, helmet and over-boots. They would keep the average man alive, if not necessarily comfortable, in temperatures as low as -100.
They tramped clumsily down the Crawler’s belly-ramp and into the crunching snow.
Blanker felt the wind hit him immediately, even sheltered by the Crawler’s immense wheels, but it was tolerable. In fact, the wind-speed was well below normal for such an exposed area and as a consequence the visibility was much improved.
More typical weather on the Igness glacier was gusting wind up to 200kph and visibility of around five metres. Meteorology was next to useless in such a volatile climate and Blanker knew from bitter experience that this relative calm could change in minutes. For this reason, Private Makasura was staying aboard with orders to keep the engine running.
‘Okay, Tumbler and Cross – get over to the northern edge of the debris field and start working your way in,’ Sergeant Rose said, his voice sounding disembodied and slightly processed inside Blanker’s helmet. ‘Hook, you’re with me.’
The four men broke into two pairs, each making for a separate hunk of twisted metal. Blanker followed them a short way into the debris field, moving directly to the largest remaining section of the pod.
It was near impossible to tell architectural origins from the wreckage. Blanker stooped to lift a corkscrew of carbon scored metal and hefted it. His specialty was medicine rather than engineering, but the metal seemed unremarkable. It was almost certainly of Imperial design.
‘Sergeant Rose,’ he said into his helmet vox. ‘I think we’ll pile all the wreckage here. It’s about as central a point as we’re likely to get and this section looks too big to move by hand.’
‘Right you are, sir,’ replied his helmet speaker. ‘You heard the man, ladies. Time to earn your pay packets.’
They set to work.
Blanker was just about to call a halt after the next load of shrapnel when the shout came over his helmet vox.
An hour had passed and the men had carried or dragged virtually every chunk of pod they could find into a waist-high pile, fifty metres from the hulking Crawler. Already the northern side of the pile was beginning to build a modest snow drift and the wind was picking up, bringing with it swirling clouds of snow that frequently blocked his sight of the men around him.
They had found the transmitter beacon among the wreckage – in three pieces. It was marked with Imperial symbols of manufacture, but seemed to belong to a civilian craft rather than military. It looked like Captain Belial’s surmise of a drunken privateer was right, after all.
‘Sarge!’ The voice in his helmet was Private Hook’s and it sounded more surprised than alarmed.
Blanker turned in their direction, but couldn’t see much more than slanting snowfall.
‘Sarge,’ said the Private again. ‘Look at this.’
The seconds ticked out.
‘What is it?’ Blanker asked. ‘Private, what have you found?’
‘It’s a body, sir,’ said Hook. ‘Must have got thrown clear in the crash.’
‘Alive?’ It was a long shot, but Blanker felt compelled to ask.
‘I doubt it, sir.’
‘Stay where you are,’ the Lieutenant said. ‘I’m coming to you.’
He knew Hook’s general direction and set off into the blustering snow. After a few dozen strides, the hazy grey silhouettes of Hook and Sergeant Rose bloomed against the white and he quickened his pace.
The body lay between them, sprawled facedown as if it had indeed been thrown from the wreckage. It wore a flight suit common to spacecraft crew across the galaxy, but the fabric was torn and burst in a dozen places. Rising wind had shifted the skim of snow that had initially hidden the corpse. Its hands and feet were naked and pneumonic blue.
Blanker crouched awkwardly in the bulky suit and brushed snow away from the shoulders and neck. The insulated gloves were much too thick to sense a pulse, but habit made him go through the motions.
‘Dead, sir?’ asked Sergeant Rose. After six hours in sub-zero temperatures, it was unlikely to be anything else.
They rolled the corpse over. Blanker was mildly surprised to find it still supple and not frozen stiff.
It was, or had been, a man. Snow clung to his hair and eyebrows and the skin beneath had the same numb hue as his hands and feet, but there wasn’t a mark on him. His flight suit was all but shredded, but his skin was pristine.
‘No obvious signs of damage,’ he murmured, half to himself. ‘I’d have said the impact killed him by the looks of his clothing, but there’s no tissue damage. It looks more like he died of exposure.’
‘What do you want to do with him, sir?’ Rose asked.
‘Well, we can’t leave him here,’ the Lieutenant said, frowning down at the corpse. ‘We’ll take him back the medical bay. I can perform an autopsy there and find out for certain what killed him.’
The Sergeant shifted his feet.
‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ he said cautiously. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if we buried the gentleman out here? Only, I’m not sure what we’d do with him once we got him home, other than finding out the manner of his death, as you say.’
The Sergeant was correct, of course. Captain Belial would swallow his teeth when the search party returned with a half-frozen corpse they hadn’t set out with. There was no real reason to bring the body back – no dignity to be mustered from a burial at the listening post rather than right here where he had fallen. There was no justification Blanker could give the puzzled Sergeant other than, of course, boredom.
There was something slightly mysterious about the demise of this nameless space traveller and the Lieutenant itched to find out more. An autopsy would prove infinitely more fascinating than another excruciating round of heath checks and dietary programmes.
‘Nevertheless, Sergeant,’ he said. ‘I still intent to-’
The dead man had opened his eyes.