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A short story by

Danny McAleese

"I'm not going either," said Kort, turning over his own hand to reveal a pair of jacks. "And thank God for that, because I'm already freezing my balls off."

Everyone's attention went to Garrick. He intentionally made them wait a few long seconds just for effect. "Pair of nines," he finally announced. Then, more convincingly, the marine flipped his cards face up on the cold metal table.

The game came down to Prescott. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, glancing from his own cards to the other players' hands as if trying to make things work. Eventually he tipped his cards sheepishly forward, so everyone could see.

"You got nothing," Kort told him, scanning his hand. "Ace high."

Garrick took Prescott's cards and laid them out on the table. "What the hell were you going for, anyway? Another inside straight?" He pushed the younger soldier's cards around with one thick finger. "You remembered that this deck was already down a king when we found it, right? So stupid."

Prescott still hadn't said anything. Shoulders slumped, he was slowly shaking his head. His hands went up in a futile gesture of surrender, palms flat, fingers spread.

"Well, bundle up," said Garrick, reaching for the cards. "'Cause it's gonna be—"

Charn's hand suddenly slapped over Garrick's wrist and held it there. "Hang on a second."

Annoyed, the marine jerked his arm away as if he'd been wounded. Charn let it go, nodding toward the cards in front of him. "Looks like you have two nines of diamonds."

All eyes fell upon Garrick's hand. It was true.

Kort burst out laughing. "Oh man! Where the hell'd you get that? All those one-way tickets... all those times we've drawn straws together, I always thought you were being straight with me!" He continued laughing, fingers closing around the offending card. Not only did it come from a different deck, but the back was also an entirely different color.

"Shut up!" Garrick snapped, his words dripping venom. He delivered a scathing look in Charn's direction. "Little cherry here got three queens. How cute. Only queens he's ever seen in his life."

Garrick stood suddenly and rose to his full height of two meters tall. The marine slammed a booted foot on the table and drew back his torn leggings to the knee, revealing a wicked, jagged scar that ate away half of his calf muscle.

"See that?" he said, pointing. "That's where a zerg queen nearly took my leg off on Revera. Lost eight hundred brothers that day. Six the next."

Everyone was standing now, but nobody said a word. Prescott wouldn't take his eyes off the floor. Kort was still smiling.

"And this," Garrick said, jerking back his mop of filthy black hair, "this is where a slugthrower carved a groove in my skull." He traced the gouge with a finger, probing it obscenely. "Friendly fire. Great day."

Charn stood his ground, but Prescott tried to step backward. Garrick grabbed his shoulder and pulled him face to face, yellowed teeth only centimeters away from the kid's nose as the big marine's lips curled back in snarl.

"You're still going," he told him. "This doesn't change anything. I've done my share, put in my time. I'm gettin' way too old for this crap. It's your turn now."

Slowly, Garrick released his grip. Prescott sank into his chair, utterly defeated. It was pretty obvious he wasn't going anywhere, anytime soon.

"I'll go," Charn said simply. It didn't even feel like the words were coming from him.

Kort turned curiously as if seeing him for the very first time. "Yeah? You sure?"

"Positive." Charn nodded, more to himself. "I'm done sitting here. Let's get this over with."

* * *

The combat armor was as heavy as it was old. They'd found the chestpiece in the bunker's armory and the leg plates in a footlocker just outside the pressure doors. It was an ancient, unpowered strap-job that felt icy cold against Charn's skin, but at least it broke the wind.

The boots and gloves were long gone. Charn had almost left without the helm, too. "Here," Kort had said as he walked away, tossing Charn the visorless headpiece. "Brave's one thing. Stupid's another." And with those words, the marine had disappeared under the awning and back inside.

Outside the bunker, however, the wind was a driving force. Charn had to lean heavily into it to keep from falling down. The two remaining men were huddled beneath what was left of the awning, waiting desperately for their chance to go back in.

"The south tower's that way!" Prescott shouted into the wind, pointing. He was shivering from head to toe. "Go around the machine shop and past the third garage. When you hit the wall, go left and follow it down."

Charn nodded. Garrick handed him his modified AGR-14 and slapped him on the shoulder almost hard enough to knock him over. "Good luck!"

"Remember to reseal the doors once I'm gone," Charn reminded them.

Garrick smirked, already holding a plasma torch. "Have no fear of that."

His comrades disappeared. Charn turned into the swirling wind, cursing the fact that it blew against him instead of with him. Step by step he cut his way into it, shielding his eyes with one hand and steadying himself with the other.

To get to the machine shop, he had to cross the vast, empty expanse of the courtyard. This was the worst part of the journey; without any buildings nearby, the wind felt twice as strong and five times as cold. It ran like liquid over his body, across his exposed face and down his neck and chest. Charn's hands were quickly frozen in position, fingers locked in a twisted salute as he tried to protect his eyes from the worst of the wind.

Still, he kept moving. Step followed step. Soon Charn found himself at the halfway point of the icy courtyard. Looking around in all directions was like being in limbo. Behind him, he could only barely make out the vague shape of the low-slung bunker. Forward, the machine shop seemed miles away. Beneath was nothing but smooth black ice, and much deeper, the frozen asphalt.

Charn gripped his AGR-14 even tighter and continued walking. It took a good ten minutes to cross the courtyard and another two or three to get around the shop. He found the line of garages Prescott had pointed out and began making his way toward them before realizing the second one was actually open.

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