“You have about three minutes to live, if you fuck up and get your suit punctured.”

The old engineer fussed over a few metal toolboxes on his bench, pulling out the contents, explaining as he went. “First few seconds, frostbite sets in the local puncture area. After that, the freezing temperature leaks in and overpowers the suit's rebreather, usually around the one minute mark. Better be holding your breath by that point. You die the moment you can't."

Everyone said it's really bad if something happened outside the heated clan walls. And then they'd shoo me away when I'd ask them how bad. Today I'd get my answer. It was hard to see what the old engineer had been doing, since the workbench was made for grown-ups. I craned my head over the lip of the table, to get a better view. The toolbox was gently pushed away as he spoke. "Most adults can hold their breath about two minutes while under stress. Factor that in and that's why it's roughly three minutes before lights out." Then he brought his elbows on the table, lowering his head so that he was more at eye level with me. "See why folks beat around the snow telling you kids what's out there? You're ten, go be a normal brat and play with your friends. Leave the worrying to the adults. It's not pretty out on those expeditions."

Anarii was, as he put it, 'too old to care about keeping secrets' - he'd tell me about whatever I asked. So, ever since I found him, I'd been sneaking past the house guards and making my way to his workstation, deep in the bowels of the colony.

"Now, here's a challenge for you," He grinned. "How would you patch up the environmental suit fast enough to beat the timer?”

I frowned in thought. A couple ideas floated to my head but none seemed to fit right. So I did what I do best: I looked for a way to cheat and get an edge.

I’m betting he’d pulled everything out for a reason, the answer was probably on his workbench.


A square piece of suit fabric caught my attention. “A patch?” That didn’t seem right, sewing took a long time. Also I didn't see any needles or thread anywhere on that table. "A patch with a sticky surface? Like a really strong sticker?"

“You’re close, but there’s some issues with that answer.” His hand picked up that piece of fabric along with a spare knife. “Imagine you're having a nice stroll outside and your suit gets a rip, like this.” The tough material took him a good moment of struggling to tear through with the knife. “Now in most cases, you’ll be panicking and not thinking clearly. A patch needs too many steps for your groggy mind to handle. And a sticker, well you'd need to rip off the other end, little tough to do with thick gloves. We need something faster and easier.”

He set down the knife and picked up a strange fat gun off the table, flipping a switch on it. “That’s where this comes in. Catch.”

I caught the heavy gun-thing with a slight fumble. Welding lines held together different parts and string tied a circuit chip to the side. The barrel was way too fat compared to sidearms and rifles.

“Looks weird. Does it really shoot bullets?”

“Nope. It has been modified to fire out superheated glue. It's a hot glue gun!” He cackled, as if this was the world's funniest joke.


“You’re going to glue the suit back together?” I said, stunned. “That’s dumb!”

He ruffled my hair with a wide smile and took the weird gun back from my hands. “Well, if it’s dumb, but it works, then it’s not dumb. And boy does it work.” Fast on his feet, he turned on his chair and fired a snotful of glue at the rip, almost point blank.

“There. All done.” He patted the cloth, where the glue had sunk into the tear, already hardened over. “Easy, see? That’ll hold off the environment for a few hours, more than enough time to limp back somewhere safe.”

While I poked the strangely repaired rip, Anarii got out of his chair and reached for something big, at the top of the shelf.

A spare environmental helmet. It had been built oddly - a glass dome acted as the faceplate for the massive helmet. Normally helmets were made with goggles instead, harder to break than a massive glass dome. I think he kept that defunct model because it looked weird.

When he lifted the helmet off the shelf, the bulky thing knocked down a small avalanche of tools. “Ahh, ratshit... Eh, I’ll clean this later.”

Then he paused, as if an idea crossed his mind. “Actually,” He said, rubbing the white whiskers of his beard like a villain would. “I think I’ll apply my gods-given privilege again as the only adult here and have you clean this mess for me.” He chuckled darkly.

Last time, that lazy adult had tricked me into cleaning up the workstation for him in 'exchange' for lessons on welding. But I'd had a lot of time to stew in my bed and prepare. A well designed plan was put into action.

“Wait, wait!” I turned and scrambled on top of a stack of crates. Once stable, I positioned my hands imperiously at my waist, my back straight and regal, like the captains of the clan did when they wanted someone to pay attention. And standing up on these boxes let me properly lord over him. I took a deep breath and puffed out my chest. “I am Keith Winterscar, of House Winterscar! By authority invested in my caste as a knight retainer, I shan't do your bidding!”

The engineer stopped in his tracks and gawked up at me.

Yes, take a good look and tremble. House Winterscar only had a few hundred members, but we were still an entire rank above engineers and scientists. From my boxy throne with the full authority of my venerable house behind me, I must have been a terrifying sight.

Anarii broke down laughing, which was absolutely nowhere in my design document.

“Ah, but there's one flaw in your clever little plan: Who’s going to enforce it?” He lifted up his hands and grabbed me off the stack of crates, slowly bringing me back down on the ground, next to the helmet he’d pulled down from the shelf.

“The guards would back me up! I only need to tell them you’re making me clean things up. They'll shake you down for it, old man!”

“And if you tell them, you’d be admitting that you snuck out to an engineering bay again. They’re not gonna like that, I’d be betting. Scandalous for a noble knight retainer of House Winterscar to be visiting little old me.” That brought out another fit of chuckling from the old man, especially when he watched me squirm around trying to think of a counter to his point.

Before I could come up with another way to escape clean up duty, the helmet was plunked on top of my shoulders.

“What’s this for?” My voice echoed inside the helmet.

“Well, what about other problems besides hard punctures? Like suit failures or leaks you don't know about? You’ll have to deal with those too when you’re out there.” The glass muffled his voice.

A few button presses later from him and a banshee-like wail rang out in the helmet. The high-pitched alarm hammered frantically in my ears. The air instantly started getting chilly at the same time.

“This, little man, is the emergency warning. If you ever hear this - you need to move fast.”

“I get it! I get it! Can you turn it off now??” I yelled at him, the siren almost drowning out my voice. It had gotten uncomfortably cold. A leak? My breath came out as mist.

“I already did.” Anarii frowned. “You're still hearing it?”

“Yeah! And it’s getting really cold too!”

He glanced over at his instruments, puzzled. “Oh! Can’t believe I forgot about that detail.” His hand loomed over the glass dome and tapped on it loudly. “You’re going to have to fix this one all on your own, just like a real grownup."

I nodded back at him, a bit worried now.

“Don’t worry, it’s easy.” He smiled, and drew closer to the glass. “You just need to wake up.”

Frost bloomed on the outside, coating the glass. The temperature continued to drop and danger flared in my heart in response. I screamed and clawed at the straps. It didn’t budge. Too heavy.

The weight dragged me onto the floor, my hands still unable to pry the thing off. Everything was getting so cold. The alarm continued to ring in my ears, louder than my cries. The ice expanded over the instruments, breaking system after system in bursts of shattered glass. Needles and gauges froze in place instantly.

“Wake up, Keith. Or you’re gonna die.” Anarii’s features blurred from the rime. Now, only unfocused blotches of color diffused through the ice.

The helmet’s protective faceplate finally started to give in, massive cracks appearing on the dome, small pieces of glass snapping off and falling down on my cheek. The cold squeezed through those cracks. Reaching for me.

Reaching to kill me.

"Wake up,” Anarii said. “Wake up or die, boy.”

The dome shattered. Ice lunged for my throat.

I woke with a gasp, my eyes flared open, hyperventilating. I was back in my full adult-sized environmental suit complete with intact goggles - Anarii nowhere to be seen, no glass dome helmet, no workbench. No more memories of my childhood.

Cold reality again.

The shrill alarm in my suit’s helmet continued to beat into my ear, refusing to let me drift back to sleep. Something’s wrong... with the suit. I need to… I need to move fast.

My chest constricted when I tried moving. The cause was easy to spot: Someone had applied glue in half a dozen places. And still my teeth clattered and shivered. My skin - ice cold. There had to be a leak that got missed. I’m freezing to death.

It was a struggle to lift my numb arm. Somehow I got a visual on my wrist’s instruments despite the shaking. The gauges were still working, the nightmare frost nowhere to be seen. The reading on the needles snapped a spike of adrenaline through my heart that finally shook me fully awake.

The rebreather read as offline. No one could live without reheated air on the surface. I should be dead. How was I breathing?

I shut my eyes and on a leap of faith... inhaled.

No uncontrollable coughing. A dull dry pain flashed through my throat, the cold creeping in with each breath. The air wasn't frozen enough to kill with any real speed, unless I overstayed my welcome. How long had I been out that I'd lost enough heat to trigger the alarms? Where were my heating systems?

I checked for the setting on my arm and got an answer. Someone had turned them off, likely to keep me from burning up. What was passable outside would quickly overheat anyone in less extreme temperatures, so if those systems had been turned off... this couldn't be the surface. My goggles restricted my field of view, but what little I could see... didn't look like the clan colony. Nothing around me looked like home. The only other place that wasn't frozen over...

The one place no lone scavenger ever returns from. The underground. I was underground.

No. Panic later. I needed to reboot the heating systems, warm myself up and plug the leak. I could worry about exactly where I was later.

An analog switch on my arm controlled emergency temperature, and with a flick the backpack hummed to life. Lukewarm air flowed through the entire suit from tubing under the cloth, like a second set of veins. It burned everywhere it touched.

Everywhere, except for my left lower rib, where the heat was being sucked away.

Found you.

My scavenger kit clicked open at a touch, still on the side of my belt. The field repair gun inside looked to be in working condition. It took me three tries and twenty wasted seconds before my frozen hand finally wrapped around the handle and lifted it out. The charge switch was large, like everything I owned, made to be used by thick gloves. It started humming in my hand the moment the flip was switched.

The leak was a five inch rip in the cloth, hidden away on the left side. No wonder it’d been missed.

Pain seared my skin as the glue sunk inside the open tear. It hardened instantly, doing its job as expected, holding fast to flesh and fabric alike. I slumped back down, too cold to care about anything else.Soon enough, the suit’s basic sensors hit nominal. The warning siren promptly shut down, and I flicked the heater off. Everything was quiet again.

That let me hear what I hadn’t been able to before.

Sounds of metal clinked softly nearby. The source of the noise came from a man sitting nearby on a concrete block, tending carefully to an old rifle. Armored in plate with a single blood red sigil on the shoulder pad. A faceless helmet turned my direction.

The last time I’d seen that armor, it had been falling down into an abyss.


Next Chapter - Prelude To Violence (But only on KU, see author's notes! Or online if you look around the internet wayback machine)