Tana looked around. Next to her, was complaining, but appeared unharmed. In front of her, Dashwood had slumped sideways with his head at a strange angle: his neck was evidently broken. In front of Brandt, the windscreen was crazed, and there was a smear of blood where his head had impacted. Tana concluded he was also dead, and was galled that fate had robbed her of the one triumph she had promised herself: revenge on Brandt.
But there was no time to dwell on the matter. With one eye on she quickly removed Brandt’s service blaster and his gloves. The blaster she tucked into her belt. The gloves she tossed to .
“Here,” she said curtly. “You’ll need these.”
Sullenly Elizabeth pulled the gloves on. They were several sizes too large for her, but she stuffed them inside her cuffs.
The helicopter was lying at an angle in a snowdrift, so that snow was pressed against the windows on Elizabeth’s side, while Tana’s side was well off the ground. Tana reached past Brandt, her blaster still levelled at , and, fumbling, released the door catch. As she slid the door open, cold air rushed in, making the two women shiver.
“Follow me out,” said Tana. “And be quick about it. The sooner we can get to shelter, the more likely we are to survive.”
She scrambled through the open doorway and dropped into soft snow below. With tentative movements, the Leader of the Presidium followed her.
Tana pointed across the pristine wilderness in front of them. “We’re going that way,” she announced. “And you’re taking the lead.”
“Where, exactly, are we going?” demanded.
Tana had but one thing in mind. “I’m going home,” she affirmed. “And you’re coming with me. All the way to Vale.”
Mumbling something under her steaming breath, Elizabeth began making her way through the snow, with Tana following in her tracks, a few paces behind, yelling at her every now and then to walk faster.
They walked thus for hours, and the slope became progressively steeper, until it became necessary to walk sideways to maintain their footing. Then suddenly slipped and was sliding ungracefully down through the soft snow. Tana hurried after her, trying desperately at the same time to remain upright. When reached a gentler slope and got to her feet, she saw the difficulties Tana was in and decided to make a run for it.
She had not got more than a few paces when a blaster shot made a neat hole in the snow a metre from her. She turned, hands raised, to see Tana sliding towards her on her bottom, both hands clasping her blaster.
Tana got to her feet, still keeping her gun pointed at the terrified Elizabeth.
“Next time,” Tana panted, “I won’t miss. Now, start walking.”
And so they walked on through the starkly majestic landscape, where no sound was to be heard but their breathing and the steady tramp of their feet in the crisp snow.
By late afternoon they reached the tree line. Tana concluded that they were unlikely to reach any place likely to offer greater shelter before nightfall, so when they had advanced far enough for the trees behind them to offer an adequate windbreak, they made a crude pit shelter.
“Get into the pit,” Tana instructed, “and sit with your feet in the excavated part.”
Elizabeth did as she was told. When she was in place, Tana climbed into the pit beside her. She took ’s right wrist and knotted the end of her belt around it, pulled the belt and the arm around the tree and knotted the other end of the belt to ’s left wrist, effectively immobilising her.
“I’m going to see if I can find us some food,” Tana told her as she pulled herself out of the pit. “Try anything at all while I’m gone and it’ll be the worse for you,” she warned.
Elizabeth pulled a face. “What am I going to try, with my arms pinioned like this?”
Tana smiled. “That’s the spirit.”
She planted a few branches into the snow at a shallow angle to offer something more of a windbreak, then slowly moved away through the trees, listening all the while for any sound emanating from the pit.
She was not happy with the situation. The sun was fading, light was being rapidly blotted out to the north by the approach of stormclouds moving along the flanks of the mountains, dark clouds heavy with the threat of snow. The pit would offer no protection at all from really bad weather. Meanwhile, she had to try and find food, and what creatures could there be in a snow-covered forest? She racked her brain to try and recall what Crispin had told her of his hunting expeditions.
Then suddenly she stopped stock still, listening to sounds coming from further down the slope, sounds of something large.
Moving as swiftly and quietly as she could, Tana approached, keeping low to mask the sight and sound of her. She realised with dismay that she was upwind of whatever it was that was moving through the trees.
And then she saw it. Not fifty metres away, fifteen tonnes of solitary bull woolly mammoth moving nonchalantly through the trees, cropping branches as it passed.
Tana couldn’t believe her luck. If she could bring it down, it would provide ample food, and its carcass would make for a much better refuge for the night, albeit a smelly one. But it would have to be much closer before she could hope to kill it with a handgun.
Stretched full length on the snow, she lay behind a bush, and let the muzzle of her blaster protrude marginally through its branches.
The huge beast sauntered closer, sniffing the air with its trunk between snapping off mouthfuls of vegetation. It was thirty metres away now, and Tana took aim on a spot in front of its flapping ear where a clean kill could be assured.
At twenty metres it stopped, its trunk swinging in the air. It showed signs of distress. It looked about and started to turn. It was going to retreat. She could not be sure of hitting the sweet spot, but there was no time to delay. She fired.
The mammoth bellowed in distress and stamped about in a clumsy pirouette until it lost its footing and fell over. It rolled helplessly down the slope, over and over, until it crashed against two trees. The impact jarred them, but they remained standing, with the mammoth lying at their base, flailing its legs and trunk helplessly in the air.
Tana sprang upright and moved rapidly across the slope to where she could get a clear shot at its head from close range without being speared by its magnificent tusks. She drew closer to the thrashing giant, and felt a pang of sorrow as she saw the mournful look in its eye as it beheld her.
Showers of snow continued to fall from the trees as the animal continued to rock their trunks. Tana positioned herself, raised the gun and fired again. The mammoth gave a last mournful cry and closed its glinting jet eye. A violent spasm ran through it, and then it expired.
Without further ado, Tana began toiling back up the slope to where she had left Elizabeth, retracing her steps through calf-deep snow. As she came within sight of the pit, she was in time to glimpse two furtive figures emerging from it and fleeing silently downhill.
Cursing silently, she cut across the slope to reduce the distance between them and herself, moving the control on her blaster to stunning power as she ran. As she got closer, she heard calling out Brandt’s name. Tana became apoplectic with rage. The man was going to cheat her not only of revenge on him but also of her captive.
Leaping, plunging down and across the slope, Tana rapidly intersected the tracks of the others and raced in hot pursuit.
As she reached the lower edge of the belt of forest, she could see Brandt hurrying away over an open snowfield, a shambling, ineffectual and wholly pathetic figure against the stupendous backdrop of white snow and lowering grey clouds. was trailing further and further behind, calling to him pitifully to wait for her and save her from the madwoman. But Brandt showed no sign of stopping. He had done his duty in freeing her, and now he obviously expected her to fend for herself.
Tana raced into the open, determined at least to prevent Elizabeth from escaping. When she felt she was close enough, she took aim on the stumbling, crying woman, and fired. She hit her target squarely, and with a little gasp fell face down in the snow.
Tana turned her attention to Brandt, but she had no hope of catching up with him. She switched the blaster to full power and fired a futile shot in his direction. He did not even turn at the sound of it. From such a distance, he was an impossibly tiny target.
“Brandt!” she bellowed in frustration. “BRANDT!!!”
The man’s name echoed off the mountainsides, reverberating amid the increased rushing of the wind.
To its fierce onslaught on the ears was added another sound, a deep hollow rumbling which grew in intensity. As Tana watched dumbfounded, the whole mountain cracked, shifted, slipped, cascaded into a tidal wave of white, plummeting to engulf all in its path. And directly in its path was the miniscule speck that was Lionel Brandt, frozen in mute contemplation of the gargantuan force which seemed to have as its sole purpose his obliteration. Relentlessly, it thundered over him.
The avalanche rolled on, unstoppable, into deeper forest below. Its outermost fringe buried , and would have reached Tana but for the trees above her dissipating its power.
In a minute, an awesome, stretched out minute, it was all over. The snow had not had time to settle before it was whipped to a frenzy by the storm. The first flurries spattered against Tana’s face as she stood in a kind of stupor, staring unseeing in front of her. Galvanised into action, she pushed her weapon under her belt and raced to where had been lying. She scraped frantically in the snow to uncover her. When she had freed her from the snow, Tana seized her wrists and pulled her upright, then released one wrist and thrust her free arm between ’s legs, hoisting her over her shoulders to carry her back up the slope.
At once, Tana’s legs buckled under her, and she dropped to her knees, depositing Elizabeth like a sack of potatoes in front of her.
“Sorry, old girl,” she muttered, getting up again, “but this is the way it’s got to be.”
So saying, she positioned herself at Elizabeth’s feet, grabbed her by the ankles, and dragged her back through the tracks she had made.
Tana had to stop for breath several times, and by the time she had reached the mammoth it was completely dark, and the intense cold threatened to freeze her rigid. She was exhausted, but she still had work to do before she could rest. She pulled the blaster out of her belt once more, and began wearily cutting open the underbelly of the mammoth.
She had not got far when the beam from the blaster fizzled and died. With a shrug she tossed it aside and pulled Brandt’s gun from her belt.
“So you finally came in useful for something, you old bastard,” she breathed as she began anew cutting open the monster.
As more of the innards of the animal were laid bare, the stench they gave off became insufferable. Tana looked about for something to cover her face, and her glance lit on ’s unconscious body and the pouch on her belt.
“I suppose the Leader would carry a Breathaid like everyone else,” she murmured, flipping the catch on the pouch with stiff fingers.
She rummaged through the contents of the pouch. “Aha. Here we are.” She fastened ’s smog mask over her own nose and mouth, and sighed with relief as the stomach-churning smell of mammoth intestines was filtered out. She took up the blaster and began cutting again.
As the slimy gizzards were exposed to the sub-zero temperature of the night air, they rapidly froze into lengths of grotesque plumbing which Tana had to hack off with short bursts from the blaster. It took her half an hour to gut the beast sufficiently to create a space inside in which she and Elizabeth could shelter.
At last it was done. She crawled into the abdominal cavity of the monster, dragging in after her. She pulled down the loose skin behind her like a tent flap. Her last thought before fatigue overtook her entirely was that Crispin would be proud of her.