APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 1 February, 2000


Snow Job

John Guilfoyle

It's been a good week, up till now. I'd never been to Pioneer before; one of the reasons I took this job was so that I'd finally get to see the snow Edgar always raved about. He was right to rave, of course. Seeing the city's gabled rooftops and cobblestoned streets - let alone the surrounding mountains - cloaked in pure white snow is a sight no good southern- born Terra Novan would ever forget.

I've found the snow deceptive, though. It all looks the same, with that uniform crispness, but if you stop to take the time to touch it, to let it melt in your hands, you find that some of it is powdery, some's sticky, some's crunchy, and some's icy. I've heard that the locals actually have dozens of different terms they can use to describe very particular kinds of snow. Reminds me of the desert, where some Badlanders can point out and name twenty different kinds of sand and dust just by looking at it. The lesson in that, I suppose, is to pay close attention to your surroundings.

I spent the first day or so site-seeing along the river and up the slope of Mount Seraphi, getting a feel for the Mercantilist city and its people. It's an unusual town, not so quaint as it first appears. It's as high-tech as any other city in the Federation - except Marathon, of course - and the place is absolutely overrun with tourists. Mostly rich Northies looking to spend their winter vacations away from jobs, spouses, kids and other responsibilities. The natives are pleasant enough, but they're well aware of Pioneer's unique appeal, and they capitalize in a big way by charging rates for goods and services that would be outrageous in any other city. Lot of military and aerospace people around town, too, I noticed, from the nearby base and satellite launch facility.

So what do all these tourists do all day long, I found myself wondering at first. It's colder than hell outside, hard to get around, and the prices in the shops are double what they should be. When I visited the Kragarin Complex the next day I had my answer.

Sports. Winter sports - more winter sports than I could count. Daredevils of all sizes and shapes were plunging down mountainsides in every way imaginable, from skis and boards to toboggans and even rocket-powered sleds. I'm not sure what thrill it holds for people; I spent part of one afternoon at the complex, and I witnessed four accidents which resulted in trips to the hospital. I've never seen people so intent on hurting themselves.

There are other sports, too. Snowballing, ice-skating, ice-climbing, ice-sailing and even ice- fishing. The truly depraved do something called winter camping, where they set off on foot and camp for a week or more in the wilderness, under the night stars and frigid wind.

I'm painfully aware of how strong and cold that wind is right now, in fact, because I can feel it cutting through my parka like an icy knife. What makes matters worse is that it's gusting - and that's going to make my shot that much harder. It's not a long one, but it's snowing, and I've been having trouble keeping my telescope dry and clear. My gear's built to withstand the humidity and heat of the south, not this kind weather. I didn't have much choice with this job, though - I had to take it. Since blowing that shoot in Marathon, I haven't had employment for almost a full season. Word travels fast in a line of work where reputation is all that matters, and I need a few fast, clean hits if I'm going to pull my name back up out of all the shit my fuck-up in the smart city buried it under.

Crawling forward on my belly, I raise my rifle and try to pick up the target. No sign of him. Just my luck he'll be two hours late tonight and I'll end up freezing to death waiting for him. Worming back down to the hollow I'd created in the snow, I crank the heat control on my survival suit to maximum. Mamoud, it's cold.

An hour passes, and now it's really starting to come down. My fingers, toes and nose are freezing. I hadn't realized how cold you get when you aren't moving around. A quarter- kilometer away, across a steep gorge, the occupants of a well-lit chalet are warm and cozy. Still no sign of Nikelson, the man I'm here to do. Two of his goons are in there, and so is his mistress. A brunette, she's stretched out by the fire like an Earth cat. I take a good long look at her, and I wonder if she has any idea just what she's gotten herself mixed up in. Nikelson's wife is my employer; she's hired me to kill her husband because he's fucking some other woman on the side. This woman, it seems.

It's nearly midnight when the hopper carrying Steivin Nikelson arrives. He's got with him another bodyguard and a bottle of wine. I don't know much about him other than that he's handsome and rich; I'm sure Mrs. Nikelson stands to inherit quite a fortune. Maybe that's why she agreed so quickly when I asked for double my normal rate since I'd have to work under such unusual conditions. Unusual, indeed. By now it feels like I'm frozen half-to-death, and I want to get this done and make my exit as quickly as possible.

I shift my position as Nikelson greets his mistress, kissing her like the bodyguards aren't even in the room. Too bad he hadn't saved that kind of passion for his wife - it might have saved his marriage, or at least his life. For the next few minutes I watch the scene unfold, keeping my cross-hairs on my target, looking for my opportunity. I want this done in one shot, and I'm under strict orders from Mrs. Nikelson not to injure the woman. She was explicit: take out the bodyguards if necessary, but do not, under any circumstances shoot the girl.

Nikelson dims the lights and pours two glasses of wine on the low table near the fire. It's pretty obvious that he's really in love with this woman. I've been keeping my eye on him around town all week, and I've never seen him break that cold expression of his until now. No wonder his wife is jealous.

After they finish their drinks, the brunette leads him over to the bay windows I've been looking through all this time, a teasing look on her face. Seeing her more clearly, something about her strikes me as familiar, but my attention is focused on my quarry.. The pair stands admiring something in the sky for a few minutes - the two moons, I imagine - before the girl says something, moves over to the wall and turns the lights back up. I won't get a better chance than this. The target is alone, directly in front of a floor-to- ceiling window in a well-lit room. The wind is howling and the snowing is blowing, but this is a shot I know I can make. Though my fingers are numb, I have no trouble pulling the trigger. Something lurches in my gut as my rifle's report echoes across the mountainside and Steivin Nikelson drops dead to the floor of his winter chalet, shot through the head.

As I shoulder my rifle and start strapping on my snow-shoes, the whole moonlit landscape suddenly comes alive with activity. Before I know it, the hopper is back in the air and I can see searchlights on my side of the gorge. Ignoring the faint rumbling that's starting to fill the air, I take the time to raise my binoculars and have one last look at the chalet's living room through the now-broken window. The brunette is kneeling over Nikelson, and I now realize why she seems familiar to me. It's the woman who hired me - it's Nikelson's wife. She'd been a blond when I'd met with her, but there was now no denying it was her.

Fuck. I'd been played like a first-timer. The search parties that are already closing in undoubtedly have shoot-to-kill orders, so there'll be no loose ends. Ducking down, I look to see if I'm going to be able to outflank the team on my left, to find my way back to my snow- buggy. It doesn't look good. My mind is racing, trying to think of a way to out-maneuver or out-wit my opponents when I finally notice the sound. It's like rolling thunder, except it's not stopping. Instead, it's getting louder, more resonant with each passing second. I can feel the vibration of the air more in my chest than my ears by the time the leading edge of the avalanche reaches me. I'm lucky; I'm just on the fringe of the booming phenomena, so I don't get it bad. I end up ten meters or so downslope, a little banged-up and half-buried in snow. The search party on my left doesn't fare so well - they bear the brunt of the avalanche and are swept screaming off of the rocky precipice below.

It's a few minutes before I can get oriented again, and the other team is almost on top of me by the time I set off for my vehicle. The next hour is a blur; I'm injured and cold, running for my life across the most rugged terrain I've ever seen. Somehow, I make it out, I find my way back to my buggy. The drive back to Pioneer, all 10 kilometers of it, is as harrowing as my flight on foot. The snowstorm hides me from the hopper, and I ditch the vehicle just outside the city's limits. Collapsing back into my hotel room, I decide that I've had more than enough of Pioneer and her picturesque snow. My train leaves first thing in the morning, and believe me when I tell you - that's not soon enough.

Author's Note

Well, it's not exactly "How I spent my winter vacation," but it's close. Sort of. =) Next month I should be back to finish up 'Bad Trip.' See you then.

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APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 1 February, 2000