Chapter 7

27th of Thirdmoon, Saintclair 12
E27, Elsanto Mountains, Neveland

The mechanics requisitioned by Engineering were still busy helping them out with damage control, which meant that the cold weather conversion of the ground vehicles continued to be in the hands of a mere three people. Even without stopping for sleep, they were only just finishing up the work on the one cargo truck. It was converted into a halftrack for better handling, but even then there was a high risk of it just tumbling down the mountainside. If that happened, they could experience the joy of trying to repair it out in the subzero temperatures. Twenty-five croners a day didn't seem nearly enough.
As they were pumping in the new arctic fuel mix, Rockhart said, "I sure hope ta hell we got the damn form'la right."
"Ain't like we never mixed fuel before," Dakota replied. "We got this."
Once they were done pumping, Dakota pulled out the hose and screwed on the gas cap while Rockhart shouted to Scheinker, who was sitting in the driver's seat, "Yo, Joh! Turn it over!"
The truck didn't turn over the first time, or the second. They were just starting to get a little concerned on the third try when truck rumbled to life. Rockhart triumphantly clapped his hands.
"Vict'ry! That's one down!"
Dakota looked at the two other cargo trucks, four jeeps and three buggies they still had to deal with and was decidedly less enthusiastic.
"We still got a lotta damn work ta do, Rock."
"We'll get one a' them buggies ready an' then catch some shut-eye," Rockhart said. "Jus' another hour or two."
He signaled to Scheinker to turn off the truck and the three of them went over to the other vehicles and started to undo the moorings for one of the buggies. Dakota then drove it to a slightly more open spot so they would have more room to work while Scheinker got the lift truck to fish out the conversion kit from the cargo container. Rockhart then got the floor jacks and Dakota pushed their tool cabinet over to the buggy. It was a little dangerous to jack up both sides at the same time, but the three of them wanted to wrap things up quickly.
Once the buggy was jacked up, Dakota went to work getting the lug nuts off the tires. It was then that she noticed someone walk into the motorpool. It wasn't just someone either. It was that that Gandohese scout, the skinchanger, Anju or whatever it was.
Dakota's work then became the last thing on her mind.
"Oh, hell no," she grumbled. "I ain't seein' no Ganny bitch in my damn motorpool."
"Ease up there, Kota," Rockhart said.
If the Gandohese woman had just wandering in by accident and immediately went back the way she came, that may have been the end of it, but instead she continued to walk straight to them.
"Why are carts not ready?" she demanded. "Mister Ruto is still out there on foot. Why do you not do job?"
Dakota made an exaggerated display of cupping her ear as if she hadn't caught what Anju just said.
"Excuse me? I musta misheard ya, 'cause you did not jus' come inta my motorpool an' try an' tell me my damn job."
Dakota came around the buggy to confront Anju, but Rockhart put his large heavy hand on her shoulder before she could get too close.
"C'mon, Kota," he said, "let's d'escalate here."
"No!" Dakota snapped, shrugging off his hand. She held up her lug wrench threateningly and said, "Maybe this Ganny bitch'll learn her damn place if I bust out a few a' dem pearly whites."
Anju frowned and reached for the little sword behind her back.
"Whelp of Kwailung dog and black ape, what do you know of place?"
Dakota was struck speechless, momentarily too paralyzed in her anger to even shout every curse she knew. Rockhart was not unaffected either, but in his case it was a sort of tranquil fury that would pass completely unnoticed by the unobservant and terrify anyone who could see beneath the surface.
"Now ya gone an' done it, missy," he said, his voice tightly controlled. Giving no outer indication of his anger, he took hold of Dakota's lug wrench. "Gimme that, Kota."
This was enough to snap Dakota out of her catatonia.
"What're ya doin'!? Leggo!"
She struggled with Rockhart briefly, but she couldn't keep what he had a mind to take.
"I let ya keep this wrench an' you're liable ta kill her," he told her. "I ain't gonna let ya kill her. I am gonna let ya fuck her up, though."
Anju redirected her ready stance to Rockhart, gripping the hilt of her sword, her body tensed and ready to draw at the slightest movement.
Without a hunt of feat, Rockhart told her calmly, "I'd 'preciate ya droppin' that pigsticker behind your back. You two's gonna fight mano a mano."
Anju cocked her head slightly at the unfamiliar expression.
"Jus' your hands," Rockhart clarified.
When Anju made no move to comply, Rockhart held up the lug wrench.
"I could always jus' bash your head in right now, but I'm willin' ta be sportin'"
Warily, Anju drew out her sword, still in its sheath, from the sash at her waist and set it down on the deck. She then took a couple steps to the side and assumed a different fighting stance. Dakota took off her work gloves, unzipped her coveralls and tied the sleeves around her waist as she walked over to square off against her opponent. Anju eyed Rockhart, who tossed the lug wrench away and folded his arms.
"Alright, you two, let's do this."
Neither of them attacked right away. They started by circling around and sizing each other up. Dakota made the first move, a couple tentative jabs to test Anju's defenses, but because the jabs weren't meant to connect, Anju didn't even bother trying to block them.
Dakota then made the sudden shift to go in low for the takedown. Anju was pushed back, but she managed to stay on her feet. She brought down her elbow on Dakota's head, but it wasn't enough to shake her. Dakota then pulled Anju's legs out from under her and drove her to the deck.
Because her legs were already around Dakota's torso, Anju locked her ankles to limit Dakota's movement and prevent her from taking a more advantageous position. Dakota started jabbing her in the face, but when she drew back for a more forceful punch, it gave Anju time to move her head. Dakota fist hit the deck instead of Anju's face and jerked back, crying out from the pain. This gave Anju the opportunity to unhook her legs, pull her feet in and push Dakota away.
Anju then tried to move in, but Dakota stopped her with a boot to the groin. She tried kicking Anju again, but this time Anju caught her foot and gave it a sharp twist. Dakota howled curses and then delivered a kick to the ribs that knocked Anju over. Paying no heed to her injured foot, Dakota scrambled to Anju, seizing her by the collar of her robe. Anju responded in kind by grabbing the shoulder straps of Dakota's tank top and trying to strangle her with them. Dakota tugged Anju's collar taut in a bid to choke her first.
It was difficult to say which one of them would have passed out first, but before anyone could find out, their fight was interrupted.
"What the hell's going on here!?" a voice shouted.
Dakota and Anju's attention was momentarily drawn from trying to choke each other out to see Sub-Lieutenant LeGrange about a dozen or so paces away. Neither of them had a response for him, but that was where Rockhart came in.
"Ladies jus' workin' out a little disagreement, LT," he said.
LeGrange pinched the bridge of his nose and grumbled, "Goddammit, I don't have time for this."
The heat of the moment had passed, so Dakota and Anju untangled themselves and got back on their feet. Shamefaced, Anju averted her eyes from LeGrange while a more defiant Dakota sullenly spat some blood onto the deck.
Acting like there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, Rockhart asked LeGrange, "What's up?"
LeGrange put aside his annoyance at the situation and got right to the point. Addressing Anju, he said, "It's been 24 hours and we haven't had any contact with Lieutenant Maartens' team on the wireless. I'd send people out, but the buggies still aren't ready yet. I hear you're a skinchanger. You can get out there faster than any of us. Find out what happened to Lieutenant Maartens' team and report back to me."
"Yes, sir," Anju replied without hesitation.
"The target site is a crater about twenty kilometers north-northeast from here."
Anju nodded in acknowledgment. Saying nothing, she went over to pick up her sword and made her way to the quarterdeck. There were still no officers to serve as Officer of the Deck and at the moment a Blackamoor subofficer was filling the role.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded when he saw Anju approach.
"Anju Azuki requesting permission to leave ship."
"On whose authorization?"
"Mister Luguran."
"The army man."
The Blackamoor seemed uncertain, but did not question the validity of her orders.
"What's your purpose?"
"Rescue mission."
Not waiting to answer any more questions, Anju drew out her sword and threw it up into the air. Loosening her robes, she transformed, immediately taking to the sky with a heavy beat of her wings. She then snatched up her sword in her talons before it could touch the ground.
A fresh gust of wind promptly blew her off course. She had to struggle to steady herself. A natural bird wouldn't fly in weather like this unless it was absolutely necessary, but she was no natural bird. Her wings weren't strong enough to prevail against the wind while it was gusting, so instead she dove down and then let the wind carry her back up. It was a clumsy, winding course she had to take, but the alternative was to go on foot. If she could change into a wolf or fox, that might have been better, but few skinchangers could take on more than one other form.
Fighting the wind made it difficult to look for any sign of Root and his team. Her eyes were keen, but there was a lot of ground to cover and the snowfall would have covered up the trail.
She then heard the sound of a shot being fired. More shots followed. That had to be it. The shots continued as she flew on. It took her a few minutes to follow the sound to its source.
The first thing she saw was the dogsled. Two of the dogs were dead. There were two green figures on one side of the sled. About a hundred meters away, there were figures in white, nearly invisible against the snow, except for one that was dead, reddening the snow around it. The white figures were in two groups of four, moving to attack the green figures from both sides. Another one in the group on the north side went down, so she decided to attack the group on the south side.
She swooped down, changing back to her human form just before she touched the ground. It would have been suicide were it not for another ability of hers, the Art of the Snow Woman. The color drained from her skin and hair until they were as white as the snow around her. Not only did it make her all but invisible but it also protected her from the cold, which would have easily overwhelmed her otherwise. There was no time to hesitate. She picked up her sword and drew it from its sheath, darting over to the nearest enemy solider and running him through. The next one closest to him must have seen her kill his comrade, because he rolled onto his side, swinging his rifle around to take a shot at her. She dodged to the side and quickly closed the distance to stab him in the heart.
She then went after the next one. Before she could deliver the killing blow, the voice of another soldier shouted and then there was a shot. It sounded a little different, but she was not given much time to think about it. The soldier she was meant to kill shouted something back and suddenly the ground erupted right in front of her.
She was thrown back several meters, sinking into a snow bank, just shy of cracking her skull on a rock jutting up out of the snow. There was more shouting. She kept her body low as she peeked up over the snow. She could see the man who shot her limping away. She looked behind her to see three men from the other group retreating as well. One man was being carried by the other while the third fired off shots toward the dogsled to discourage pursuit.
Tempting as it was to leave no survivors, this was a rescue mission first and because the enemy soldiers were fleeing, it was just as well to let them go.
The ringing in her ears was just starting to go down as she got up and started to move toward the dogsled. At least one of the green figures had been shooting back earlier and she did not want to be shot at herself, so she approached slowly and cautiously. She shook the blood off her sword and sheathed it. Though she knew she would regret it, she reverted back to her natural form. The cold was less of an immediate danger than a bullet from the person she was trying to save.
The cold immediately bit deep into her bones. Pain gripped her bare feet and radiated up her legs. She held up her hands to make as non-threatening a display as she could, but how threatening could a single naked woman on a snowy mountain slope appear?
She knew she did not have much time before she succumbed to the cold, but she kept her steps slow and deliberate. The dogs were barking less now that the shooting had stopped. She had made a point to spend time in the kennel so the dogs were accustomed to her scent. She hoped that the dogs would prove to be her allies now. At very least, she hadn't been shot yet.
When she was about thirty meters from the sled, she called out to the green figures, "I am Anju Azuki! I was sent to help!"
There was no response.
"Are you hurt?"
Still no answer.
"I am coming closer. Do not shoot!"
She quickened her pace only slightly. She did not have much time. She was well-trained enough to bear the pain and cold, but no matter how well-trained she was, her body could only withstand these temperatures for so long.
When she got closer to the sled, she saw one of the men in green with his rifle steadied, but he was not moving.
"Hello?" she said tentatively. "Are you hurt?"
Still there was no answer. Carefully, she got closer and touched the man's shoulder.
She turned the man over. It was Root. He was unconscious. She would have taken him for dead if she did not see him still breathing shallowly. She activated the Art of the Snow Woman once more. There was no time to lose and there was a lot of work to be done.