Tristan stirred. He shook the snow out of his hair. The memory of his encounter with the... whatever it was... lingered. He had thought about it from time to time, but why had it come to him again now, of all times?
He drew himself gingerly to his feet. He smiled. The cell repair technology in his system had done its work. Whatever damage had been done in the fall had been mended. He had never before put his body’s self-repair system to such an extreme test, and was gratified with how well it worked.
But he was hungry, and the terrain offered little that even the molecular converter pack on his belt could turn into sustenance. And while his suit would protect him, his face was exposed. Some shelter might be handy. Through the thick cloud he could tell that the sun was going down.
He began an awkward shambling walk down the mountain slope. Several times he lost his footing and slid on his bottom. This hastened his descent, even though it was a little ungraceful. He was thankful there were no witnesses. And then, with a pang of guilt, he remembered Smeed and Jokesh and Montague, and wondered what had happened to them.
He came down into a gully that seemed to lead nowhere. Steep snow-covered ridges punctuated with granite boulders of varying sizes rose up on all sides. It became clear that he would have to climb up again in order to continue descending.
As he stood in the gully trying to decide which would be the best direction to take, he heard a sound, the first sound he had heard which was not the wind. Mewling cries were coming from beyond the ridge directly facing him. The sound, while indistinct, was unmistakably that of a living creature.
He began climbing the slope, his boots making a satisfying crunch each time they penetrated the crust of the thickly drifting snow. He weaved a path between the rocks, clambering over them when necessary, and in time made it to the top of the ridge.
In the fading daylight, the view beyond gave him hope. The mountains appeared to be receding. They seemed less tall and less formidable, and directly beneath him was the head of a broad rubble-strewn valley which snaked away relatively unhindered, seeming to suggest that it offered an easy path to lower ground. And where there was lower ground, he might find a settlement. Smeed had said after all that this place - what was its name again? Thelma? - was colonised.
The mewling became more distinct. Tristan looked around. While the valley below was enticing, getting there would not be easy. This side of the ridge dropped away fairly precipitously, and climbing down would be a tricky business.
Aha! A rocky shelf, some four or five metres below him and a little to the left was occupied by a large nest of woven twigs, wedged in between the rocks and secured in place by artfully placed shards. The nest was lined with soft, downy feathers, and was occupied by half a dozen black chicks, who were sampling the air with curved, sharp beaks. In the nest and around about, Tristan could see the bones of small animals.
Curious, Tristan scrambled over the ledge he was leaning on, and began making his way down towards the shelf. He tested each foothold and each crevice, but it all seemed sound, and he began to feel that descending to a place where he could shelter for the night would not be arduous.
He dropped lightly onto the shelf. The chicks turned in his direction, seeming to notice him for the first time. He dropped onto his haunches beside the nest. Cautiously he reached out a gloved hand. A razor-sharp beak lashed out, scything through Nanotex and flesh. Tristan yelped in pain and sat back sharply.
He was sucking his wound through the gash in his glove when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. A rasping cry rent the air as a tremendous black bird swept down out of the grey overcast, some hapless furry prey clasped in its talons.
Tristan made haste to put some distance between the nest and himself, rolling sideways off the ledge and scrabbling frantically for places to put his feet. The fact that the bird’s claws were occupied was the saving of him. It swooped to within centimetres of him, dropped the bloodstained carcass in the nest, and swung about, hovering over him, fanning him with three metre wings, as he hastened away, slipping down the cliff as fast as he could while at the same time raising his arm to shield his face.
The bird screeched, and its claws sank into his upper arm and his back, shredding muscle with dextrous ease. Tristan yelled in agony, and felt himself sliding away down the cliff face. His fingers sought to arrest his fall, but his wounded arm would support no weight, and he continued careering downward.
A narrow ledge stopped him, but he landed awkwardly and heard the loud unmistakeable crack of a bone breaking in his leg. A dark fissure loomed beside him. It reminded him of the limestone country of his childhood.
The bird was about to make another pass. He scraped through the crack with moments to spare, and landed heavily in the cave inside.
Tristan lay still, racked with pain, watching as the sky visible through the crack grew darker. The bird did not return. With laboured breathing, he waited for sleep to come.