Carmino sits bolt-upright on his cot, gasping. THOOM-THOOM! comes the shudder of rockets, of artillery, striking nearer and nearer. The ceiling shudders; dust falls on Carmino as he scrambles his plate carrier on and struggles with the combolock on his locker. It won’t open, it won’t open, it won’t open! Frantic glances to and fro, but every other spot in the chamber lies vacant; the bastards deserted last night, they always hated him, odd one out, fifth-gen wetback. No one can help him get the locker open, get at the firearm inside that’s his last defence inside these walls. Pick the damned thing up, throw it at the concrete, and the rotting plywood shatters wetly into a stack of mulch over a rusting M4 and three magazines. A last shudder from outside, and all is silent.

Carmino jams a pair of mags into pouches and nearly jams the M4 with the third mag, then footsteps, footsteps in snow outside the barracks door. The windows of this old pillbox show only pine boughs bent under five feet of snow, and the main door has no window, only three inch steel. Vinyl wrapping on the door handle sticks a little too long to Carmino’s touch. The footsteps soften with a murmur that is to Carmino a strange accent, like boots on gravel with a howling mumble of wintry bubbles. These cannot be Carmino’s comrades; their own tongues were never this thick. A minute more, and all’s still: is it safe outside, with only an endless freeze to kill him? Better than staying here, where the frost creeps quicker than the roaches ‘cross the floor. No bodies but his to warm the concrete prism, no rations anyway since the gear bags are all at the Quartermaster’s: fuck it fuck it fuck it, Carmino throws the door open with one arm and sprints into waist-deep snow through the trees and towards the pillbox 20 metres out.

Carmino somehow makes it. The Quartermaster’s door was thrown open and the heater screams away at full blast; the shock of the heat paired with the exertion of his first real run since basic training triggers a wave of exhaustion and a sudden flush. Wheezing, he slams the door and staggers to the bench, coughing and dry heaving. Flecks of blood and spittle fly into his palm and shudders rack his body until he catches his breath. Phlegm chokes his tonsils. Every locker in the Quartermaster’s is thrown open, every lock smashed on the floor, none of the food or rations touched, but everything else that wasn’t bolted down or run down is missing. A bag with a stuck zipper and a half-frayed strap will serve as a food pack, since there’s not much else to put in it despite Carmino’s best efforts in searching. Without a map, he’s lost; the paths can’t be told apart from the streams under all the snow. If he stays here, who knows how long until those barrages hit home? Who knows how long until someone comes to rescue him? Who knows how long until he runs out of food and the heater dies and he starves or freezes to death?

Carmino hears voices outside again; they snap him out of his reverie. This accent sounds even more indecipherable. Some words sound like mangled versions of his own español, if it were split off ten centuries ago and forced through frozen maple syrup. It scares him to hear such perversions; if only he had rejected his tía’s advice and gone to join the gangs! At least he could believe there that he had a patron watching over him and indulgences would buy away his sins, instead of fighting in this godsless wasteland on behalf of those godsless peoples. Just like the others, though, these voices fade a bit, then disappear. His only option is to strike out on whatever looks like a path and hope it leads to the next outpost, and with the voices gone, so is his opposition: Carmino throws the Quartermaster’s door open again and is met with the 30-inch barrel of a 50-inch antique rifle shouldered by a boy five years his junior.

***

Snowmobiles are the cavalry commander’s choice in the Frozen North because of their low fuel requirement, extreme speeds over any snow, and decent manoeuvrability. A helicopter cannot weave between trees and uses far too much fuel to be practical; a motorcycle gets stuck in even a light drift and is not built for the cold. Trucks are too wide, too thirsty, and too heavy; they get stuck the most quickly. With a snowmobile, a driver and a rider may both bear arms and move far more quickly than a traditional wheeled unit ever could over snow-covered terrain. With an older snowmobile, parts can be fashioned makeshift from whatever’s nearby to keep them running for decades longer than otherwise would be feasible. Where the fuel supplies are too scarce for teams of snowmobiles, lone riders do rapid recon while the raiding parties use dogsleds. In the deeper parts of winter, the raiding parties of the North take in nearly as much as their truck-driving counterparts to the South, and with their opposing times of plenty, a healthy economy of war fuels yearly cycles of erosion at the Coastal borders and the few outposts between them.

A snowmobile is what Sasha rides now, providing a second set of eyes for his brother Wensel. Sasha has the reflexes to drive or ride, but his brother won the lots cast before this mission and chose the front seat. The brutal artillery stops like a sign from God, and the AK slides easy under Sasha’s arm; a quick final check, the sign of the cross, and the raid bursts from the trees, pouring lead into a pair of towers above two charred bunkers. Bulletproof glass crackles and spits under the barrage, and shadows of guards can be seen scrambling for radios and weapons. Wensel swings the sled round the bunkers’ far side and Sasha sees a rocket flash-spiral off into the tower’s legs. Rust and wooden lashings give way to Slavic fire; the tower collapses and shakes its occupants like rice in a rattle. Turning to the other tower; the glass kept out 7.62 like mosquito netting keeps out rain: industrial sabotage at its best. The occupants of either tower did not survive.

Wensel cuts his engine, and the brothers dismount. Three other pairs do the same; a father claps his son’s shoulder in praise of accuracy. Grinning, the son fixes his RPG to the snowmobile and shoulders an archaic bolt-rifle. The father turns.

“Wensel, Jean, you four go for the near bunker. Urho and I’ll take the far one with ours.”

“Aye, sir,” says Wensel, and the team of four head for the charred husk. No other forces are expected here since the friendly portion of the outpost deserted last night; their debrief an hour before the raid revealed there’d be five combatants left in the cold with enough supplies for twenty. Sasha keeps his Kalashnikov ready regardless, and moves with Wensel to the bunker’s right. The other two move left of the bunker in a low crouch, and call “Clear!” when they’ve rounded the corner. Wensel does the same; the squad stacks up near the bunker’s rear door and breaches through it. Inside the bunker lies very little; the deserters brought all they could with them, and those left behind were wearing their kit during the strike. Standing out from rows of cots, a heap of wood chips lies near a side wall, covering a moldy sling.

A flutter of movement is in Sasha’s periphery near the door, and when he turns the other squad has flattened itself into the snow. The father chatters Quebecois and his son stalks forward while the rest crouch; Urho waves the others up.

“Saw someone haul off into the bunker ahead just after we heard you breach. Went from the opposite side of the clearing or we’d’ve’ad’im. Fred’s taking the door and we’re supporting; you’re in from the back entrance.”

“Understood,” says Sasha. Fred, the son, is ready and waiting at the door, so the seven are moving up when it flies open and a fat Hispanic in an ancient woodland camo pattern staggers out.

***

“Hold!” cries the father.

Carmino hears a foreign shout, and jerks left.

A shot rings out and Fred’s bullet rips through neck rolls, snaps vertebrae, severs the spinal cord. 7.62
cuts tissue and ricochets off the concrete ceiling.

Carmino feels ice-hot pain, then eternal void. A blinding flash of holy judgement, then an image of his tía devours him whole.