The Ice Beast of Contrition

by T.C. Forsdike

The ice wall sapped the heat from his exposed hands. Sharp, hooked claws extended from Sylt’s knuckles into the ice and conducted even more precious heat away. A fierce, frozen wind also tore at his lightly covered body. He had long ago lost feeling on most of his face; his ears had felt rigid and swollen even before he had started climbing. The solid red light emanating from his wrist reminded him again that his energy supply hovered just above zero.

Fifty meters above the ground there was no hiding from the wind. His best chance for continuing his mission still lay just beyond the cliff, another thirty meters up. The unidentified energy signature had registered large enough to replenish his tanks and would hopefully give him a chance to recover. Life in this area had proven sparse and his energy, both physical and material, sank along with his temperature.

The spikes on his boots dug deep into the ice as he kicked out his next foothold. The ice cracked and he watched a split snake its way up and in-between his hands.

Despair filled his gut as a large chunk of ice slivered off the wall.

The weight of the ice pulled at his foot and swung him out into the blowing gusts. He tensed his body and twisted his foot. The ice slipped off and he struggled to swing himself back onto the wall. With both leg and arm free on his left side it proved very difficult to stabilize himself. He felt his right claws loosen because of his efforts.

“Help!” he yelled.

The systems in his suit had already sensed his difficulty and his claws grew another two inches, digging deeper into the wall. He slammed his free fist into the newly exposed ice and held his breath waiting to see if he would slip off. His energy indicator flickered deep red.

Sylt punched and kicked his way up the cliff. The knuckles on his left hand painted a blood trail on the otherwise pale blue ice; the pain was a welcome distraction from the numbing cold.

After slipping over the ledge and onto a small landing, he found a cave about half his height. He collapsed inside, against the nearest wall, happy for relief from the wind. He quickly found the wall stole more heat than the wind had but he couldn’t rise immediately. Resting in this constant cold would finish him off soon.

He forced himself to double-check his energy, even though he already knew the bad news. The display, layered into the cloth of his right arm, was faded and, even with the red highlights, it was difficult to read. There was a slim line on the energy bar and a single reserve weapon-print shadowed on the black cloth. He curled a finger, tapping a small square at the edge of his wrist, and the last pulse readout replaced his inventory. The signal he had spotted earlier lay just a few hundred meters into the cave.

He pushed himself away from the icy wall and rested on his knees.  His chronometer had just clicked fifteen cycles since he first left the station.  Unless he could claim some organic material between here and the next encounter, he doubted he could make it to sixteen.  Any threat, even a minor one, would be a challenge with only the short claws. The weapon print he had saved was useless without the energy to craft it.

His screaming, bloody hand drew his attention and he studied the split knuckles. The blood dripped from his fingers and warmed his thigh wherever it landed. The warmth of the blood seeped through his un-powered suit, contrasted with his frozen skin, and sent shivers up his spine.

He had experienced this quality of desolate environment before, right after exiting the elevator. There the land was flat and barren; a wide, sand-packed plain that provided excellent line of sight and a defensive area surrounding the station. He had felt secure with the elevator doors at his back, but here, the very walls drained him of life.

The memories before the elevator ride skipped across his mind: brief images of heavy equipment and tight spaces. His first view of this planet’s expansive sky and the distant horizon had lifted his spirits like nothing else before. He held onto that memory as the feeling in his knees leeched into the ground.

The wind struck at him again, sending goose bumps across his body. He pushed back on his heels and ducked further into the cave. Hesitating any more would only make his situation worse.

The light dimmed deeper in the tunnel but it never faded to black; the ice surrounding him didn’t glow but a radiant light lured him further. He blinked his eyes against the soft steady wind that pushed against him. After the windstorm on the cliff face this felt like a caress.

A few other paths branched off the larger tunnel that he traveled, but his tunnel drove straight ahead. A slight downgrade made progress easy and the hooks on his boots stopped him from slipping on the smooth, ice floor.

The tunnel levelled off and he entered into a large cavern.  Huge fingers of ice reached from the uneven floor and gnashed against giant icicles that sank from the hidden ceiling. The ice had melded and shaped a maze out of the massive cave.

The wind had stopped and his breath hovered about his face in a thickening fog. He walked farther away from the entrance. His boots allowed for sure-footing but they clicked with each step; the sounds per cussed off the nearby ice and echoed throughout the room.

A rough mumbling chased after his echo. Sylt froze at the strange noise. This cave might be unstable.

His slow, heavy breathing pushed surges of hot air onto the nearest ice partition. It clung to the frozen surface and he watched the thin film of moisture condense and crystallize. The pillar snapped as a large crack drove through the solid ice. The sound ricocheted around him and the echo continued for half a turn.

Heavy breathing flooded his ears as the echo faded and for a moment he felt like he had his breathing mask on again. The illusion broke as sounds of scraping and heavy movement replaced the sounds rebounding off the walls.

He had located the energy signature and it sounded very large.  And very much alive!

A frozen formation at the edge of his vision shuddered and rose from its resting place. Sharp spires of ice, layered at odd angles, reached higher than his head. The shape turned and lumbered in his direction.

“Oh mercy…” Sylt mumbled under his breath. A progenitor. Great. Even with full power he wouldn’t want to take this thing on alone. He glanced at his climbing claws and felt like a rat in a giant’s cave.

He crept away from the entrance as softly as he could. The incomplete ice walls let him slip through and out the far side of the approaching creature. It reached his entrance and lowered its head to the ground. The smooth, elongated dome showed no eyes or antennae but only razor bone fangs, each the length of his hand, gleamed on its powerful mandible.

Thick, ice-studded legs lifted the massive bulk back up to full height and it barked a deafening sound.

Sylt’s wrist vibrated and a stream of information flooded the fabric on his arm: weight, height, speed, innate abilities, and reaction times. Another soldier must have made contact with this thing previously. A multitude of data overwhelmed his eyes while his other senses cried out against his proximity to the beast.

A team-mate was exactly what he needed now. This beast was, no doubt, the largest progenitor he had encountered so far, and certainly the deadliest. His tactics were limited without a team.

He had started out with allies, a group of five, and soldiers, all of them. Those first few cycles he had felt invincible and part of a well designed machine.

‘Perimeter reinforcement’, Captain had called their primary mission. Anything that threatened the station was to be pacified and absorbed. It had started out simple enough, cutting vines and shooting critters. The machines cleaned up the mess and carried the extra energy back to the station. The secondary mission indicated priority targets called progenitors, very long lived parents of the most aggressive species, which populated the world.

Captain Monroe, Jiles, Lysey and Ballock all had ridden the elevator with him. They had been friendly faces.

Now he knelt, shivering against a frozen partition, alone and scared out of his mind. It was his fault. After everything else how could he win against this thing?

Sylt’s head snapped back at the noxious smell that corroded his nose. The beast prowled just on the other side of the half wall and its stench was a weapon on its own. He shifted his balance and the spikes on his boots scratched into the ice.

A tremendous roar filled his ears and the ice wall exploded next to him. The beast crashed through the divide sending him sailing through the air.

Chunks of ice, the size of his head, spun past him. A build-up of ice stopped his slide and he stumbled to his feet. The beast snorted and clawed at the floor.

He lifted one of the smaller ice chunks above his head and hurled it at the beast. It glanced off the beast’s thick shoulder and it crouched, ready to run at him.

It launched itself with amazing velocity. Sylt scrambled on the icy surface and slipped around a thick section of wall. The monster barrelled past him; the wind nearly sucked him backwards in its wake.

He rose and glimpsed the hind end of the beast as it skidded to a stop. He took a few quick steps and jabbed at an exposed leg, just below the emergent ice crystals.

His sharp hooked claws skipped across the armour of the creature and left a minuscule chip above its heel. He watched the foot rise and it hammered into his shoulder, sending him spinning.

The cold faded. Darkness blanketed his eyes. He floated while spinning through the air.

He had been the team’s minder; trained in biology and healing. The scout had disappeared. Captain and the others were dead. He had no right to be fighting this thing. Not alone.

Air rushed from his lungs as he smashed back onto the cold floor. The pain in his shoulder was forgotten as he fought to draw breath again.

He staggered to his feet holding his arm, the beast faced him again. It planted its feet in a wide stance but did not advance. Instead, the ice shards all across its body extended even farther. It let out a giant breath of stench.

Sylt turned and ran.

He zigzagged his way deeper into the cave. Each ice block between them was another shield from the monster’s incredible size and speed. He needed a serious weapon.

They had all been well equipped at the beginning. Fresh off the elevator each member had carried rifles and full kits. He had had all the information and energy he needed to do his job. His attention, however, had drifted.

He had known they traversed a hostile, alien planet surrounded by strange plants and animals but the only thing he did was flirt with the only female he had ever soldiered with. What a fool he had been.

* * *

Lysey liked the attention; her smile lifted his spirits every time he succeeded with a joke. He couldn’t shut his mouth and concentrate. Captain had tried to keep them focused, but he covered the rear, twenty paces behind. His authority faded with distance. Lysey’s swinging pony-tail and smooth skin kept distracting him from the ugly, alien forest they passed through.

Ballock laughed along with Lysey and gave Sylt a teasing bit of flak during these first few cycles. Sylt thought he was doing what was best for morale, keeping spirits high. He didn’t think it could hurt that he could also score points with the only female on the planet.

Threats were non-existent to minimal so far. They had entered the forest a cycle ago and were searching for a water source. Along the way they fired a single shot, at a distant flyer. Jiles had missed; a quality sharpshooter.

Jiles led the team through the forest. He had made it clear he didn’t appreciate Sylt’s jokes as the others did and had distanced himself out of easy hearing range. All the better for a scout.

“So how long do you think it’ll be till we can start colonizing this planet? I know I could go for some procreation.”

Lysey shot him a smirk at this remark. He replied with a quick wink.

“We’ve barely started here, busy boy.” Lysey checked the readout on her arm. “System says ninety-two percent of the land is still hostile. Still a long way to go soldier.”

He thought he might lay claim, in a primitive way, to his favourite friend on the planet.

He spotted a white flower with a purple center and knew it would look great in Lysey’s hair. He also wondered what Jiles’ reaction would be when he saw it. He stepped off the trail, broke its stem and presented it to her.

She loved it and played along with his idea. She pushed the stem behind her ear. The bell of the flower rested above her eyes and complimented them perfectly. Ballock gave him a thumbs-up once she started walking again.

Sylt struggled not to push his luck and he let his success sink in for a few turns. The team crested a hill and Jiles waited at the peak for his team to catch up. Captain called a rest and spoke to Ballock about supplies.

Jiles sauntered down from his perch and approached Lysey with a clearly irritated look. Sylt braced his spirit for the incoming sarcasm.

“What the hell happened to your face?” Jiles blurted.

Concern, not sarcasm. Sylt’s stomach turned as Jiles tore the flower out of her hair.

“You’re green! Doc, get up here.”

Sylt rushed up the slope. Lysey turned to Sylt and raised a hand to her face.

The change to her face almost buckled his knees. Splotches of green covered one side of her face. Most disturbing was the slack expression of her eye and mouth along the same side.

“H-holy hell…” Sylt stammered.

Confusion spread across one half of her face. “What is it?”

“The flower, it must have been the flower,” Sylt grabbed her hand and pulled it away from the infected area. “How do you feel?”

“Tired… I guess my eyesight is a little fuzzy. Why?”

Sylt sat her down and grabbed the flower off the ground. He rubbed the broken stem against his suit and information flooded his forearm. Red lights highlighted the top of his sleeve.

Captain approached from below. “Report.”

“Sir,” Sylt tried to control his anxiety, “she’s poisoned. This flower. There’s an antidote but I need ingredients.”

Jiles knelt down beside Lysey. “Why would you wear a flower? We’re here to clean this place up.”

Lysey pointed a lazy finger, “Sylt gave it to me.”

“What?” Jiles voice hit a high note. He jumped down to Sylt and hauled him up by his suit. “Great move, Doctor.”

Sylt winced.

Captain pushed his arm between them and pried Jiles’ grip away. “We don’t need blame, we need ingredients. Now split up and start looking. Stay in range.”

Jiles stumbled away, disgust on his face.

The group scattered into the forest, looking for a tiny blue flower. Sylt stayed with Lysey on the hill.

She tried to continue climbing but her legs collapsed under her. He helped her lay on the ground, his pack behind her head. Her eyes soon closed and her breathing slowed.

Sylt hovered above, rubbing her hand. “They’ll find the plant, we’ll stop this.”

She couldn’t respond. One corner of her mouth lifted slightly.  Her hands cooled fast and her breathing stalled.

He hesitated, finally reached to check her pulse. She was gone. Her greening skin hung loose on her slack face.

His throat tightened but no tears fell.

When the others had returned from the hunt empty-handed, Ballock bloodied his fists against the nearest tree and Captain only shook his head. Jiles never returned. His frequency answered only with static and his location didn’t show on a pulse beacon.

Sylt’s back ached with the extra equipment as his heart crumbled with Lysey’s death.

His back had recovered, his heart had not.

* * *

His shoulder flared in pain as he ducked against another ice wall. His arm still worked but it sure felt like a dislocation. He counted himself lucky that the kick hadn’t squared him in the face or chest.

The beast barked in the distance and pushed over an ice pillar. The massive length of ice cascaded down into the cavern smashing other formations and sending debris everywhere.

He peeked over the edge of his hiding spot and spotted stars through the ceiling far above. The animal had knocked a hole into its cave.

The ice growth beside him interlaced with another pillar and the resulting chimney rose into the darkness. His clawed boots helped to give him a footing and, favouring his shoulder, he pushed his way up about ten meters. The claws on his right hand stabilized him.

He could see the monster sniffing the floor as it approached his position. He controlled his breathing and held perfectly still.

He had been sent out with a mission. Even with the loss of his team, equipment and energy he still had a job to do. Regardless of the chances, he owed it to his team-mates, especially the ones he let down, to continue fighting.

The beast plodded its way just past his location. Its head swung side to side but it never looked up. It circled underneath him and just as it turned its head away again Sylt pulled himself free and dropped on-top of the beast.

His claws caught in-between the shards of ice on the monster’s back and held firm. His injured shoulder screamed as the muscles stretched again. His legs swung out to the side and he kicked, trying to do as much damage as possible.

The shards of ice jammed into his ribs as the monster hopped about in an effort to dislodge him. The climbing spikes on his boots marked its side but did little damage. He kicked off and swung his legs out, his hands still stuck in the beast’s back.

He slammed his feet down onto the smooth, eyeless, dome of the beast and the metal sank deep into its flesh.

The monster screamed and tried to shake him off in an even wilder dance.

Pain from his shoulder surged into his chest as the ice shards dug deeper during the beast’s raging. The spikes broke off his boots and his body slid sideways. The claws slipped out and he crashed to the ground just an arm’s reach from the rampaging monster.

He got his legs under him again and leaned away from a wild kick that would have taken off his head. The berserk animal didn’t track him and he ducked behind the fallen pillar just a few meters away.

His left arm rested on his leg and he explored his chest with the other hand. He was sure he had broken at least one rib. Perhaps two; the pain spread over such a wide area, he couldn’t tell.

A smile spread across his face; he had injured the beast. Just one man had half a chance to take out this progenitor. The people who followed behind him would make it farther because of this success.

The beast roared in pain again and Sylt felt a surge of relief. He could do this, even alone. He could make up for breaking the team.

A vibration shook his wrist just as the pillar at his back shoved him onto his side. He pushed back up onto his knees but the ice still slid him across the slick ice floor. He collided with another ice wall and the pillar sandwiched his body into it. He screamed with the pain.

The monster pushed its weight against the pillar and tightened the pinch. He cried out again.

It lowered its head to just a hand’s length away and inhaled, taking in Sylt’s full scent. He could still see the metal embedded in its head. The exhaling breath, which went straight into his face, stunned his senses and raised bile from his empty stomach. He fought the urge to throw up.

His free, weakened, left arm strained against the pinning ice but it wouldn’t move; the monster held it in place.

It lowered its head and the massive jaws clamped around the powerless forearm. He watched the teeth sink into his flesh and felt the bones snap. Radius then ulna.

The beast tugged at him and his shoulder lit up in pain for a third time. Numbness followed; he felt as cold and lifeless as the ice that held him.

The beast shifted its weight and the press of cold upon him lessened. It bit down again.

It snapped its head to the side and he whipped through the air. He saw his hand still in the monster’s mouth as he tumbled into another distant wall.

He opened his eyes to a pulse of blood squirting from what remained of his elbow. He managed to sit up and stare at the useless stump. Medic! He smiled to himself.

He heard more snapping bones.

He started to turn his head but a star crashed through the hole in the ceiling. Heat flashed across his skin. A massive impact rolled through the cavern and the floor shook underneath.

A column of smoke rose just a few meters away. He shook his head then stared at the strange machine protruding from the ice.

A long, fine thread of silver melted from the metal of the missile and trailed its way across the ice, directly towards his feet.

He watched, entranced. The moment it connected with the leg of his suit it blended together and vanished.

Three things then happened: his left shoulder tightened and warmed, the tattered suit at the end of his stump stitched itself around the gushing wound, and his right forearm hummed a solid green with a flashing white square.

Without thinking, he lifted his arm and touched the flashing square with his nose.

He felt movement on his remaining wrist and flipped his hand over to watch another silvery line leak from the cuff of his suit into a puddle in his palm.

The silver shape grew in size and formed two elliptical shapes stacked on top of one another. The surface solidified with long, thin perforations all along both edges. His new item gained surprising weight and he juggled it in his one hand. A bright energy beam linked the weapon to his suit and it drew the heavy mass back into his grip. He couldn’t discard the thing.

Ballock had died to gain this weapon, sacrificed himself in the fight against the previous progenitor. He wouldn’t let that be in vain. They had all suffered and died. He had to make something of it. He owed it to them.

He forgot his missing limb and raised himself within sight of the monster. A multitude of thin, fleshy tongues cleaned the blood on both the beast’s jaws and the nearby floor. He gripped his new weapon and stepped around his hiding wall. The beast turned and watched him.

He threw the discus object in a sidearm throw straight at the beast. The beast stood its ground and the weapon glided and bounced off the armour. The weapon glinted like metal after the impact; sharp blades had extended from the discs. He snapped back his wrist and the weapon returned, drawn by the energy beam, smooth and secure into his hand.

An image of an angled trajectory flashed on his forearm and he threw sidearm again, this time at a wall between him and the beast. The discus bounced off the ice, unnaturally straight again, and sailed towards the beast.

The hidden blades extended after the ricochet and the beast’s armour shattered as the revolving metal sliced into its flank. One set of blades stuck into the armour while the other continued to spin, cutting deeper into the monster as it collapsed with pain.

Sylt snapped his wrist back and the metal blades retreated again before the discus flew back into his hand.

The beast roared at him and, even with its severe injury, launched itself at Sylt.

He threw the discus at the ground, guessing the distance between him and the rushing monster, and dove out of the things path. The weapon struck the ground and rose, blades spinning, towards the beast.

It ducked and slid along the ground, passing underneath the deadly weapon. The beast’s momentum continued and it jumped towards Sylt’s new location.

He rolled out of the spot just before the monster crashed all its weight onto the ice.

The energy beam linking to the discus had faded from his cuff and Sylt sprinted toward where the weapon had flown.

The beast pursued, crashing through the ice barriers that Sylt struggled to jump over. It gained ground with each powerful stride.

He glanced back and twisted to the side just as the monster’s head struck his leg.

The snapping jaws missed his head, but the stampeding beast smashed one of his flailing legs into the ground, pulverizing the bones in his feet.

The thick ruin remaining of his leg pasted him to the ground and he couldn’t retreat from the returning monster.

No more running.

He snapped his wrist in a desperate attempt to regain his lost discus but nothing returned to his hand. His forearm flashed yellow and the energy bar drained to the bottom as it failed to compensate for his newest wound.

He had no more chances, no more energy. He had lost the opportunity his team-mates had paid for.

The monster used its front leg to roll his body and it bit deep into his chest.

His ribs snapped like sticks and he felt blood rush into his lungs. The pain bloomed again along with a welcome heat from the blood that washed over his freezing skin.

He became enveloped in the sudden heat and thought of his mistakes with the team. He had failed to protect them then, and now he failed to protect himself. If he could find Lysey or Jiles or any of them again, he would do anything to make up for his distractions.

He turned his gaze away from the monster.

He watched his searing right arm dissolve into a solid stream of silver that slipped across the ice, back towards the entrance he had used. The information that his suit had collected would end up helping the next team.

He smiled. He had tried his best; he had fought until the end.

The next bite pierced his heart.

The End