Despite the copious amounts of layers and insulation the mercenaries adorned, they still trembled as the sub zero temperatures infiltrated and nipped their skin. They had been walking for what felt like centuries and though they knew the sun was up, it was obscured by thick grey clouds and whirling snow. What little exposed skin they had was quickly turning red and numb. It was impossible to get their bearings for whatever direction they looked, they saw nothing but a blizzard.
"This is suicide!" Demoman shouted over the roaring wind.
"Shut up!" Spy shouted back, holding a compass in his hands and studying it carefully. The needle swayed precariously from south to north, occasionally doing a 360 across the entire field. "We're here. We must have crashed close."
The Pryo muttered something that sounded a lot like, "Thank God!"
"Just how are we supposed to find our way back to the plane?" Sniper asked, walking up next to the Spy.
"Not to worry, maggots!" Soldier barked, shaking excess ice from his parka. "I have developed a keen sense of direction from my time spent navigating enemy territory abroad! I can sniff out jet fuel and carcasses from miles away!"
The others exchanged doubtful glances. While the Spy and Sniper deliberated over their next course of action, Demoman hugged his arms to himself and shook. He stole a glance to his right and saw the Heavy standing there stoically, lost in thought.
"Aren't yeh cold, lad? I can't feel me naughty bits anymore!"
Heavy sniffled casually, shrugging. "I am from Siberia..."
The sound of the Sniper's raised voice caused everyone to focus forward. "What in the bloody hell do you mean 'it has to be here'? Look around, mate! There's nothin'!"
"Look at the compass, you fool!" Spy exclaimed, gesturing towards the tool in the palm of his hand. "Where else could we possibly be?"
Pyro took it upon himself, just then, to give his flamethrower a little squeeze. It erupted into orange flames, illuminating the mercenaries' faces with a warm glow that penetrated their grey surroundings. It was a welcomed warmth and for a split second, they all forgot what they were arguing about and relished in the relief. Grateful, everyone inched in closer to the heat. Everyone, that is, except the Spy, who stared straight ahead towards their direction of travel.
He saw it. A glimmer in the air like a reflection of motor oil in a puddle of water. Spy narrowed his eyes and reached into his parka, pulling out his revolver.
"What is it?" Sniper asked, teeth chattering.
Spy ignored him and fired off several rounds; the blasts all but silenced against the wind and snow.
"What in the hell are yeh doin'!" Demoman exclaimed.
There was a flash of green light and, suddenly, the mercenaries found themselves gobsmacked and gaping at three bullets suspended in midair. The Spy cautiously approached and with a flick of his hand, tapped one of the metal bullets with the tip of his gloved finger. It remained suspended but the disturbance in the electric field around it caused a ripple of pink and green light to surge upward around what appeared to be a giant invisible dome.
"Electricity," the Spy said simply, shaking the uncomfortable shock from his hand. "It's the same force field Nicolas Crowder used to deflect our bullets in Teufort. We're here. Crowder is protecting his base with the aurora."
Demoman gaped. "What in God's name...?"
Pyro, knowing he was insulated in his rubber suit, cautiously inched forward and put his right foot through the swirling light. The bullets instantly dropped to the ground and blew away with the wind, rolling like pebbles along the ice until they vanished. Pyro glanced down at his foot but it was completely out of sight. His heart began to race. With a subtle nod of encouragement to himself, he followed through with the rest of his body until he completely disappeared.
"Pyro!" Soldier barked.
Pyro's head popped out, appearing to be floating, bodiless, in midair. He muttered something unintelligible and then disappeared again. The mercenaries exchanged worried glances. They knew what they had to do but none of them felt they had the strength to endure the pain. The force field was electric; made of swirling particles of plasma. They had recalled the brunt force and twinging pain that Crowder had unleashed on them at headquarters, so walking willingly into a wall of electricity was not exactly something they were prepared to do.
"Let's just do it fast. Like bandaid," Heavy said begrudgingly under his breath.
Spy gave a heavy sigh. He glanced around at his comrades and was greeted with a sea of apprehensive looks.
"On three," he said simply, knowing that stalling any longer would do them no good. "One...two...three!"
Scout hit the ice and slid for what felt like an eternity, feeling the rough, frozen terrain scrape his skin. He clenched his eyes shut and hissed in pain through his teeth. The cold was paralyzing. Gale-force winds whipped his damp clothes wildly about; his dog tags jingling. He came to a stop on his side and gingerly managed to prop his upper body up on his elbow before Crowder was upon him.
"Let me start off first by saying that the little alliance you had formed with Moesby was...endearing, at best," he shouted over the wind, circling the Scout like a hungry predator. "All you had to do was build me some weapons, Scout. In fact, all you really had to do was keep your mouth shut and allow me to take what is rightfully mine. But you had to be a little hero, didn't you?"
Scout could barely even comprehend what Crowder was saying. The cold was gripping his entire body like a vice. He shivered violently and forced himself to breathe. Not saying a word, there was a very brief moment of situational awareness, and Scout suddenly swung his elbow back to strike Crowder in the knee. It was like hitting a stone. Unfazed, Crowder reciprocated the attack with his boot.
Scout could do little more than weakly cry out as Nicolas Crowder's foot connected with his back. He wanted desperately to fight back; to wipe that grin off Crowder's ugly, wrinkled face; to avenge Moesby. He wasn't going to die at the hands of some old man.
The cold was making it hard for him to move, but Scout managed to twist his body out of the way of Crowder's last kick. If he could just get to his feet, he'd have a chance. Speed was one advantage he had against Crowder's inhuman strength. And somehow, against all odds, he was successful. Scout couldn't even remember how he managed to stand up so quickly, but once he had, he found his strength was draining even faster. Warmth penetrated his left leg; his bullet wound bleeding once again. He instinctively wrapped his arm across his torso, protecting himself as he stood there weakly. His chest heaved with every forced wheeze, the frozen wind sucking the life out of him with every passing second. He glared daggers at Crowder as their silent stand off continued.
"It's over, Scout," Crowder said with a condescending smile. "I don't even have to fight you. It's twenty degrees below zero. All I have to do is stand here for another two minutes before you die where you stand. Just like Moesby."
Scout snarled, clenching his fists. He willed his body not to shiver but it was futile. "Yeah, y-you must f-feel real t-t-tough, pal. L-l-lettin' the c-c-cold do the d-dirty work f-f-for you..."
He couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw Crowder roll his beady, white eyes. "Stalling will get you nowhere, I'm afraid."
"I ain't s-s-tallin'. It's j-just...if I'm g-gonna d-die out here, I w-wanna make s-sure I g-give you as m-m-much hell as p-possible b-before I g-go."
"Oh, believe me. You've done a wonderful job so far."
Scout grinned. "You ain't s-seen nothin' yet."
Five mercenaries lay on the Antarctic ice shelf, scattered haphazardly like rag dolls. Groaning rag dolls. The wind and ice forgotten briefly, they sat collecting themselves as the last effects of the electrical force field wore off.
"Let's never do tha' again," Demoman whined, rubbing his temples. "I feel like I jus' ran through a car wash fulla cattle prods."
Gingerly, the mercenaries heaved themselves to their feet. Spy stumbled a bit before he was caught by Heavy's massive forearm. He did his best to remain dignified and nodded a silent 'thank you' to the heavy weapons expert before brushing flecks of ice off the lapel of his parka.
"C'mon," said the Sniper reluctantly. "Let's go find the Scout and then get the hell outta here."
The sun shining on the vast, snowy landscape was blinding and the freezing cold continued to seep through their insulating layers. Wind whipped the fur lining on their parkas as they trudged through the ice, leaning into the gale. It was hard to believe that it was almost midnight; the sky as bright as noon between the cracks in the clouds. The mercenaries sighed gratefully as the blizzard began to lighten up.
It was almost alien. Never before had any of them seen such a stark emptiness. Not even in the deserts of New Mexico. Not even Heavy, who hailed from the frozen tundras of Russia could say he had experienced such isolation. It was like walking through a void. But when the sun finally illuminated the continent for more than a few seconds, the air became alive with glittering ice.
For a moment, they had forgotten their prerogative until a dark patch in the snow ahead brought them back to fruition. Sniper put his hand up, signaling the others to stop. They looked at him curiously and then followed his line of sight.
"Is that...a body?" Soldier thought out loud.
"Let's hope it's not our Scout's," Spy sighed, wishing more than anything he could light up a cigarette.
The mercenaries broke out into a jog and approached the lump in the ice without any hesitation. Worriedly, they peered down at the small body and sighed collectively in relief. It wasn't Scout.
"Poor bugger," Sniper said under his breath, kneeling down on one knee.
"Where'd yeh think he came from?" Demoman inquired.
"Dunno." He placed his hands on the body to turn it towards him. His mouth fell open when he found it soft beneath his touch. "What the-? This fella's thawed! He's still warm!"
Suddenly, a flurry of hands were upon the body, turning it on its back. It was then that Moesby opened his eyes and took in a great gasp. The mercs jumped back.
There was an awkward silence for several seconds as the mercenaries stared in bewilderment at the young man partially buried in the snow and Moesby stared back at six men in parkas carrying large guns; one in a rubber hazmat suit.
"Am-m-m I hallucinat-ting?" Moesby finally stuttered, weakly. He shivered violently.
"What in the bloody hell'r yeh doin' ou' here, lad? An' how are yeh still alive?!" Demoman asked.
"I s-shouldn't b-be. I was thrown out-t-t here t-to d-d-die."
Spy suddenly put his hands on Demoman's shoulders and stared hard at Moesby's clothing. "Look. His clothes. His ears."
It took the others a second to realize that Moesby looked and dressed like an elf. Pointed ears and all. Did that mean...?
"You know where our friend is, don't you?" Spy asked. It was more of a statement than a question.
Moesby's mouth went ajar for a moment. He blinked in bewilderment. "You're Scout's t-t-team! He s-said y-y-you'd c-come! I d-don't believe it!"
"Where? Where is he?"
"Help m-me. I'll sh-show you. B-but it m-might be t-t-too late."
"Staring out zhe vindow like a puppy vill not make your master come home sooner," Medic said with a warm smile, his back propped up against the fuselage.
Miss Pauling turned to meet his gaze. Her arms were folded across her chest as she shivered against the ever-penetrating arctic cold. Frost had accumulated heavily on each window but she still looked outside into the abyss of white. The worried features on her face were illuminated by the occasional red glow of Engineer's welder.
"I'm just worried, that's all," she said quietly and walked over to the Medic, kneeling down by his side. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine. You mustn't vorry so much," he replied, hiding his hands from Pauling's view; his fingertips developing into a shade of blue.
Miss Pauling's eyes took in Medic's injuries. He was still wheezing slightly with every breath, however it had improved once he was sat up. His left leg was still protruding awkwardly below the knee; mangled flesh sticky with drying blood. The medi gun lay uselessly at his side.
Miss Pauling gave Medic's shoulder a very gentle, reassuring squeeze before she pulled herself to her feet and walked over to check on the Engineer. His face was tense in concentration; his goggles flickering red with the glow of his welder. Sparks showered the floor and gave off some minor but welcome heat. Miss Pauling stood back and admired the Engineer's handiwork. The teleporter spanned the width of the fuselage; it's platform deceptively ordinary and lifeless. She knew it would be only a matter of hours before it was up and running and they could escape the Hell they brought themselves to. For now, all she could do was pace about and gaze worriedly out the frost-encrusted windows, looking for the hint of red that would signal the mercenaries' approaching parkas.
The Engineer seemed to read Miss Pauling's mind. He parked his goggles on top of his forehead and wiped some sweat from his brow.
"Should be ready soon," he said.
"Good. We can get the Medic out of here then," Miss Pauling answered with a nod.
Engineer sucked in a breath. "I'm 'fraid that won't be possible. At least, not without everyone else."
Miss Pauling's eyes widened.
"Ya see, even with the Australium I salvaged from the engines, the teleporter still only has enough juice for one trip. It's just too far. We can't risk it shortin' out."
"So we have to wait for everyone?" Miss Pauling reiterated in disbelief.
Miss Pauling rubbed her arms, feeling the chill in the air intensify. She lowered her voice. "He's in pretty bad shape. He needs a doctor. A real doctor."
"I heard zhat!" Medic called out. "I'm fine. I must insist you stop fussing over me."
Just then, he broke out into an unstoppable cough. Flecks of blood, once again, flew onto his lips. Instantly, his face contorted in pain and he hissed through his teeth, bringing a hand up to gingerly press against his rib cage. At once, Miss Pauling was on her knees by his side, a fearful and concerned expression behind her cat-eye glasses. For a second, she let her hands hover over the Medic; unsure what to do, before they simply landed softly on his shoulders. She said nothing, only stole a glance over her shoulder at the Engineer, who nodded knowingly and set back to work on the teleporter with fervent speed and urgency.
His fever was raging and his wounds stung, but Scout was still putting up the fight of his life. He knew he had only minutes left before he succumbed to the elements and he refused to give Crowder the satisfaction of witnessing his downfall. Still, every move of his body caused his freezing joints to seize and he was wracked with clenching shivers that he could not will away no matter how hard he tried.
Crowder knew it was only a matter of time, too. His knowing, arrogant smirk spoke volumes. The Scout's footsteps faltered, his skin was ashen, and his clothes were covered in blood and ice. Yes, he was mere minutes away from collapse. And then Crowder would be rid of the biggest thorn in his side since Moesby.
Still, the kid's tenacity was...admirable.
"Just give up," Crowder said over the wind. "You want to avenge Moesby so much, then die with some dignity."
"I ain't d-d-dyin'! And even if I w-was, I'd r-r-rather die kickin' y-your ass!"
Scout wildly lunged at Crowder, fist raised and poised to strike. But he was weak and sluggish and Crowder moved away with ease. Still, Scout whipped around and swung at him at close range, hoping the quickness of the assault would at least throw Crowder off guard.
Nicolas Crowder caught Scout's bandaged fist in the palm of his hands and squeezed. The mercenary instantly cried out in pain and tried to retract his hand but Crowder's strength was unrelenting. The Spirit of Australian Christmas sneered; his eyes lighting up with sadistic glee. He relished in the young man's futile struggles for only a moment before he jerked him forward and pummeled his stomach.
A puff of fogged breath and drops of blood were propelled into the arctic air. Scout fell to his knees and doubled over before falling back, sprawled out on the ice. He lay there wheezing; face screwed tight in pain. The advanced stages of hypothermia were already well in progress. It was actually remarkably peaceful. But then a jarring pain brought him back to his senses. Crowder was digging the heel of his boot into the bullet wound on Scout's hip.
Scout cried out; a deep, desperate scream. His legs and arms were frozen but his torso was now on fire. He grit his teeth and clutched at Crowder's boot but his fingertips were numb.
"I've heard the term 'glutton for punishment' but you take it to a whole new level, Scout!" Crowder laughed and released his foot.
Scout immediately rolled over onto his stomach to protect his wound from any further injury and rested his forehead on his wrist. Vaguely, he could hear Crowder monologuing about something in the distance but his vision and hearing were quickly fading. All the "fight" in his fight-or-flight was gone. His body went into overdrive and he thought of nothing but getting away from Nicolas Crowder as fast as possible; getting out of the cold. Unfortunately, 'fast as possible' with his injuries was nothing more than a feeble and pathetic crawl. As Crowder continued talking, Scout continued moving, leaving a trail of blood in the ice and snow behind him. He wasn't even sure how far he had gone or how much time had past before he felt himself being turned onto his back and hoisted up off the ground by his neck. Instinctively, his hands came up as if to pry the fingers away but they merely flopped down at his side. His feet dangled off the ground. His hooded eyes struggled to focus.
"There's a good lad," Crowder growled softly. "I want to see the life leave your eyes; that arrogant fire inside you die out."
The last morsel of Scout's energy began to fade. He didn't even feel cold anymore...
"If you beg, I'll kill you quickly," Crowder whispered.
For a second, Scout only stared blankly but then something occurred to him. He smiled and then without warning, spit right in Crowder's eye. His smile remained even after Crowder dropped him to the ice and cursed; wiping away the offending saliva with his sleeve. Scout knew this was it. He was going to die and there was nothing he could really do to save himself. But dammit all to hell if he wasn't going to have a laugh before he went.
He kept his eyes closed; his face no longer tense with pain but content and relaxed as his life slipped away. He heard the clicking of a pistol loading. An eternity passed...
And then Scout felt nothing.