Staring at the sky quieted the flashbulb flickers at the edges of her vision and dimmed their association with the silver-foiled eyes that might have stared back from between the trees. The prospect of captivity beneath an eidiré with the woman standing guard as her only companion shared its colour with the interstellar spaces. That no one would come to intervene was something that lay like the snow, anaesthetic once accepted, its principles and mechanism just as spotless and pristine. When Susan closed her eyes she saw the face that Sachiin turned to her in another kind of darkness, discovering the ease with which those most private of exchanges could serve as a farewell, its tender, down-like irony bending the trees once more as tears beaded between her lashes.
Josephine shifted in her seat upon a fallen bough. The girl had turned her face away, rolling into a curve around a cough between the two chains that held her in the mist of the small clearing. Her hair, still gently blue, retained its close-set braids, the tortuous romanticism of the arrangement skewed by the blind rote of their construction. Slowly, she returned to lying on her back. Josephine counted off the hours the hostage had already passed in silence while the prospect of captivity grew protean features and an intent tuned to her darkest spectrum. She had seen its nightmare aspect rend and gut resolve and knew that it required no assistance, thinking herself privy to one of the small concessions dowering submission when she saw the girl's attention had shifted toward her.
A closer look revealed that it did not solicit or even consider her, but had settled on the darkness over her shoulder. Reclaiming her weapon, Josephine turned and beheld the shape that had come forth between the branches. An owl grasped a slender limb at the edge of the clearing, wearing a white far warmer than the snow and as plush as winter ermine, the disquieting schematics of its pallid, annular mask laid round eyes like polished domes of quartz. It shrugged its pinions before blinking from the way ahead, setting a stare on the girl as she used her arms to rise and sit back on her knees. Josephine oversaw their exchange with the suspicion she accorded all requited silence, opening her mouth in unformed objection while Susan reached out slowly and took up snow between her fingers, touching it to her brow in deference to the visitor. The beam from her guard's torch crossed the branches and found the bird's glowing eyes; it clapped its beak, put out its wings and flew on over their heads.
The same light blanched the girl's face when Josephine turned it on her, studying her for a while.
"Call to them." she instructed, her voice echoing slightly in the quiet. The captive sat without moving, her saturnine refusal drawing Josephine from the fallen tree. She unclipped something from her belt as she approached. "Put your back into it." Susan let the woman loose the chain from her hands without looking at her. The ruby binding of her multitool was empurpled by the darkness, like the ends of her own fingers. "Do it now. Nice and loud or I will hurt you, just like before." She felt her cold hand flattened across her knee and pinned fast at the wrist. When she would not comply, the woman closed the alloy jaws on her bitten index finger and prised the riven nail from its bed.
Susan did not know which of Sachiin's names she screamed into the trees. One of the conscripts, his skin prickling with its shivering abandon, halted at the northern end of the clearing with his rifle in both hands, his frown hardly distinguishable from his customary expression.
"I gotta relieve you if you can't keep her iced." he called, making a careful study of the surrounding trees as Josephine rose. In watching him return to his unseen station, she pressed her boot down on the girl's bleeding hand, leaning over as she twisted it slowly into the snow and desisting only when her full weight did not elicit any more audible response.
One and Three lifted Susan from the ground together, bruising the crooks of her arms and availing themselves of fumbling manual gratuities while Shaw lifted a scope to his eye and played it once more over the visible ruin. He muttered to himself as she was dragged past him, glaring at Josephine's back while she stooped to collect the sensor units.
"Called it in yet?" the latter inquired. His silence prompted her to reach into her shirt and retrieve the locator beacon once more. "We've got a good window to get the choppers here."
"The snow's done. We're walking out." Shaw told her.
"I lived half my life in Telluride, and if this snow's done, then you're exactly the kind of charismatic overachiever we need in a leadership role." He stuffed the scope into his pack. Confident she had attracted the conscripts' attention, she blew the moisture from the sensors as she packed them away. "So today we're going to haul her dead weight through hostiles waiting to burn us with our own gear... I guess, to a town, stacked double-wide with tipsters, off-season mercs, so you can... maybe blow off the pick up and run for the border? Try and turn her in? They'll do the flyover, look at your log pics and want to know why you left that shady..." She nodded up toward the ruin. "You'll say you just had a feeling it was clear. They'll promote you and give these guys a ten g bar tab."
Behind her their subordinates dropped the girl into the snow and devoted themselves to his response, snorting and wiping their noses with their gloved hands. Their captive's voice issued from within the copse of black-clad legs encircling her, barely loud enough to penetrate them.
"None of us will get anywhere." she observed, examining the blood crusted on her fingers.
"Why's that?" Shaw asked of her, scowling again.
"The other things... the wolves."
"You made contact with them?"
Her laconic delivery did not moderate the impact of its substance on the conscripts; she watched their boots shift in the snow before her while they absorbed it.
"They'll kill everyone. There's ten of them to every one of you."
Josephine smirked and tightened the straps of her pack, hoisting it onto her shoulder.
"Which is why the two subs are sitting up there, waiting for us to walk into them."
"If they were here, they would have come down the hill with knives and cut your fucking heads off." Susan observed, to which Josephine smiled again, dryly.
"If they were here, that's what I'd say too."
"They cut you loose." Shaw reminded her. "Bailed... walked out right over the top of you, and it looks like that total lack of interest in your welfare's gonna work out great for them. How's that feel?"
The girl seemed to ponder his inquiry.
"Not as bad as letting you go when I should have let them hack you into dogfood." she admitted. "You fucking weasel knob end."
"She let you go? I don't remember that in your report." chuckled Josephine, adding another strip of tape to the gauze on her face.
"He was hiding behind a door." the girl informed her, watching the woman extract grim pleasure from the intelligence. "You're all fucked, alright? Just let me go."
"I know dodging contact is a thing for you, but that's not why you won't head up there, is it Nathaniel?" Josephine inquired, both hands on her hips.
Shaw fired his pack so hard at the ground that its lid lapsed open and spilled its contents onto the snow, leaving him to stand with empty hands. The conscripts backed out of his way around the girl; he dragged her to her feet and held her for a moment, unable to decide on a reprisal, then thrust her once more at them.
"Two, Three... take the hill, keep a tight line... you see something, you get low." he told them, walking away from the disturbance Susan caused by refusing the climb. Josephine strode toward her and kneed her hard onto her face.
"Walk or lose a finger."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEKISH
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