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There is graphic content that might trigger certain readers such as drug use, addiction, sexual assault, and the consequences of these matters.

Cold Hell - 24. Chapter 23

Calvin sat across from Steig Evreux, the tip of his tongue sticking out from the corner of his mouth, in an expression of the deepest concentration. He was fully convinced the bastard who thought of Chess meant it to be a mental torture device rather than a game of fun. Yet Steig insisted he learn to play, stating it was good for the mind; and so for the last two days they'd played back and forth, one game after another. And every time Steig beat him.

It seemed the old man was about to beat him yet again. Calvin could see it now; he was surrounded. Steig could finish Calvin off with his queen or pawn. Calvin had lost his queen half a dozen moves ago. The only reason why he hadn't given up yet was due to stubborness and the fear of humiliation. To Steig's credit the old man seemed to have an endless amount of patience. Not once over the past few days had he ridiculed Calvin, who was not used to this sort of treatment; everyone lost their patience with him sooner or later and labeled him a lost cause.

After nearly two minutes of blandly staring at the board, Calvin sighed heavily, and said in a subdued voice, "You win...again."

Steig smiled in that patient unpatronizing way of his. "Don't just give in. Even if you know you're going to lose and the game is over, it is best to see it through - even if it's just to say it's finished."

"Alright," Calvin said grudgingly. What the hell, he thought to himself, it's only a game. He gripped the wooden Chess piece between his thumb and index finger, just beneath the crown. Lines had been indented into the wood like wrinkles on an aged face; once upon a time, maybe a century or two ago, this piece and all the other pieces had been polished and smooth with newness.

"This particular Chess board has been in my family for four generations," Steig had informed Calvin fondly as he lifted the faded, slightly dusty lid from the box and set it down on the table. "It was given to my father, Martin, by his father.

For the first time, with a feeling of warmth and affection towards the old man, Calvin realized Steig had shared something quite special. Something a grandparent or parent would share with a child. He set the king down on the next white spot. Eyes twinkling behind the lenses of his glasses, Steig took his queen and gently knocked Calvin's king over.

"Checkmate," Steig said.

Calvin stretched, making the chair he sat in creak. The game was finally over. Though it had gone quickly it seemed to last forever.

Having seen the look on the younger man's face, Steig said, "Do not fret over it. Chess is a complicated game that has been around since the sixth century. I'd tell you the history if I didn't think it would bore you to death. It took Everest forever to learn and even then he never got truly good at it. My son has never had the patience for such things."

As if the mere mention of his name had summoned him, the door opened and Everest stepped in followed by a second man. Calvin sat rigid in his chair, frozen as he watched Everest stoop over his father and hug him.

"Sorry I was gone for so long," Everest said quickly to his father, glancing at Calvin distractedly. "I tried to get back before the blizzard hit but it was too late. We ended up having to take shelter in the clinic until it passed."

"I'm fine," Steig said, cheeks coloring with embarrassment. "I've had Calvin here to keep me company. Poor lad got lost in the blizzard and was just fortunate enough to find himself outside my door."

"Calvin?" said a familiar voice.

Calvin looked at the second man and realized it was Danni. Calvin had been so focused on Everest he hadn't realized the man who had come into the apartment was Danni. With a full length blonde beard, tinged with red, Danni was almost unrecognizable. He was further surprised when Danni heaved him to his feet and seized him in a hug.

"I was worried about you," Danni said, voice soft with relief. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Calvin said as he patted Danni on the back. He managed to wiggle out of his friend's embrace. "Where the hell have you been?"

Danni and Everest exchanged strange, knowing looks across the table. Something had happened to them while they were gone, Calvin realized, and judging from the way Danni's shoulders bunched up and his fingers curled into fists it hadn't been good.

"It's a long story," said Danni.

"I'm starting to wonder if you were attacked by the same thing I was," Calvin said before he could stop himself. He felt as if his Adam's apple had grown to twice its normal size.

Danni's eyes shot to his, wide and startled.

"Attacked?" Steig turned his gaze from Everest to Calvin while his son was watching Danni closely. The room had grown uncomfortably tense. "You didn't tell me anything about being attacked. You said you were lost in the snow."

Calvin smiled apologetically. "I left that part out. I didn't think you'd believe me." Even now he wasn't quite sure what to believe; the man who had attacked him hadn't just been raving mad. He looked at Danni. "It was one of the men from the crash sites. I was walking home when he attacked me." As he spoke Calvin remembered crawling underneath the building, burrowing his way through the snow like a frightened insect. It was a memory he didn't want to recall.

Danni nodded grimly. "It seems we have some catching up to do."

"I'll put on some tea," Everest said, gesturing for Danni to pull up a chair.

Calvin watched the two of them; something had changed between them since they'd left the Pavilion on Delivery four nights ago. Before they had been enemies but now something was different. Whatever had happened at the clinic had brought them closer. Were they friends now? The thought made Calvin's teeth grind together. He didn't care what Steig said about his son, Calvin couldn't let Everest's prior association with Mikael go.

While Everest stood at the stove making tea, Danni explained what had happened, starting with when Everest and he had gone back to the site of the accident. "The two bodies were gone," he said.

Calvin shuttered but said nothing. In his mind he was wondering what time he'd been attacked. Had Danni already been on his way back to the colony by then?

Danni continued, going over what Adwele had told him.

"Something underneath the ice?" Steig's bushy eyebrows were drawn together. "Did he say what it was?"

Danni shook his head slowly, holding a large steaming mug of tea in his hands. The solemn, distant look on his face only reminded Calvin of how he himself was feeling: Everything had a surreal quality to it, as if everyone in the room was still perhaps asleep, only they were all sharing the same lucid dream. Correction, the same lucid nightmare. "He was talking so fast and the infection had spread through him to the point I think his mind was in the severe stages of degradation. So I touched him...and what I felt was completely alien. Extraterrestrial. Whatever Adwele and his people at the mining station found, I think it's extraterrestrial in origin."

There was a long space of awkward silence in which none of the four men in the room said anything. Calvin wondered if they were all thinking the same thing with the exception of Steig who knew nothing of their experiences except what he was hearing. Only Danni had been brave enough to say it aloud.

"I suppose it's possible," Steig said doubtfully. "But the first colonists settled down on this planet almost two centuries ago. Why are we only discovering something now, after all this time?"

"I agree," Danni said, puzzled. "When you say it like that, it sounds logical. When Aamodt Corporation surveyed this planet you'd think something would have to come up on the sensors. But what Everest, Calvin, and I encountered was anything but human. You would have had to be there and see it for yourself to know what I'm talking about."

Oddly enough Calvin found himself, along with Everest, nodding in agreement.

"What happened with Adwele?" Steig asked, giving Danni a long, considering look.

A dark expression crossed Danni's face. "I killed him. I tried to do it as painlessly and quickly as possible by injecting air bubbles into his bloodstream: An embolism."

Almost two hours later Calvin and Danni left Steig's, stepping out into the grimy air. Though temperatures had risen and the sun was out, there was no such thing as natural warmth on Planet Redemption.

In his mind, Calvin replayed the long, meaningful looks Danni and Everest had exchanged. Calvin would have chalked it up to paranoia on his own part if it hadn't happened multiple times; even Steig had noticed. No matter how he tried, Calvin couldn't shake the sense of anger and betrayal he felt.

"So are you and Everest friends now?" Though Calvin had tried to keep his voice sounding friendly and conversational, it shook with barely suppressed rage and accusation. They were wading slowly through the snow, heading back in the direction of Danni's apartment. A rare beam of slanting sunlight hit his face, making his blue eyes gleam through his long golden eyelashes. Even now, when Calvin was so angry he felt he could hit Danni, his friend looked beautiful. Perhaps this was part of why Calvin was so angry with him. Jealousy.

"Yes, I suppose we are," Danni said slowly.

"So while I was crawling underneath a building to keep from getting mauled, and nearly freezing to death, you were getting chummy with the friend of the men who raped me?" Calvin's words came out in a viscous, barbed rush meant to cut and draw blood.

They had stopped in the middle of the street and were now facing each other as if about to duel; several yards away a tractor was pushing piles of snow aside. "I had no idea how much danger you were in," Danni said wearily; his skin was flushed from the cold. His shoulders sagged. He sounded tired and slightly defeated, as if the exhaustion he felt went bone-deep. "I wanted to check on you but by the time we got back to the clinic the blizzard had already hit. We were snowed in. As for my being friends with Everest, I didn't mean for it to happen. Without him I don't think I would have survived."

"Did you fuck him?" Calvin asked before he could stop himself. His voice shook. He stood slightly hunched, physically preparing himself for the truth.

Danni clenched his jaw. His eyes pierced Calvin's warningly. "What I did with Everest while we were snowed in is none of your fucking business." Danni's angry reaction was proof enough for Calvin. Why else would he act so defensive?

"You did, didn't you?" Calvin could feel tears streaming down his cheek. His nose had begun to run, the snot thin as water. "How could you when you know how I feel about you?"

A mixture of emotions showed on Danni's face: guilt, sympathy, uncertainty. He stepped towards Calvin, hardened snow crackling and crunching beneath his boots. He reached out to lay a gloved hand on Calvin's arm, but Calvin slapped it away. He took several steps backwards. "If you want to be friends with him, that's fine - you can forget about being friends with me. I'm going back to my mom's."

He stormed away, leaving Danni to stand alone in the cold.

 

                                    …

 

Dinah stood in the corner of the room watching Natalia pack a duffel bag full of clothes. She knew she should try to find some way to make amends, to stop Natalia from leaving, but she couldn't find the right words.

When did I fall out of love with you? she thought, looking at her muse. When did I become so lustful for power that my heart became numb to all else?

Some part of her, Dinah knew, still loved Natalia of course. She would always love Natalia for Natalia was a part of who she was. Without her, Dinah would not be who she was today. Natalia had influenced her personality every bit as much if not more than her father had. But Dinah also knew she had to let Natalia go to be able to do what came next. Which was why for the past three days, back at the clinic, she had closed herself off from the others to grieve over the death of what they'd had.

Deep down Dinah wanted to believe there was a chance she could rekindle her relationship with Natalia: if she just apologized, if she just retraced her steps to the Dinah she used to be. But it was much more practical to think the rut she'd gotten them in was irreversible - somehow it made their breaking up somewhat less painful.

"Where will you go? " she asked softly. She stood with her arms crossed over her breasts.

Natalia sniffed, turned, wiped at her nose with a bunched up napkin. Her eyes were bloodshot red from crying. "I'll probably just stay at the clinic until I can figure something out. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine."

Dinah nodded. she tried to make herself feel something other than numbness, anything at all. She tried to find the strength to reach out and grip Natalia's arm with her hand, to say the words that needed to be said and make the promises that needed to be made to fix this. But it was as if her emotions had been sucked out through a funnel, into oblivion. Natalia, she thought, I'm so sorry I let it get like this. Words she didn't have the ability to say out loud.

"You'll come to me if you need anything? Anything at all?"

Natalia nodded. She pursed her lips. Fresh tears welled in her dark eyes. Slowly her face tensed; it was like watching the ground split open to reveal chaos. "God dammit, Dinah, what happened to us?" she cried. "We used to be madly in love with each other. It used to make my skin tingle and my body tremble when you touched me. I used to look at you in awe. I used to ask myself how a woman like you could ever fall for someone like me. But now when I look at you, it's in terror not awe; and when you touch me I feel nothing. I feel like I've fucking died."

"We both have," said Dinah.

Natalia nodded again in the acceptance and finality. "You're going to that place, aren't you? The place that Adwele mentioned. To see if there are any survivors, and to see what he found."

Dinah knew it would only insult Natalia's intelligence to deny this; they knew each other almost better than they knew themselves. "Yes."

"You'll take Everest with you? And you'll be careful?" The fact of how well the two women knew each other was only further emphasized by the fact Natalia didn't try to talk her out of it.

"Of course. Wherever I go, he goes."

Natalia slid her arm through the strap of her duffel bag. "I'll see you later then." And she stepped up to Dinah to kiss her. Her lips were dry and chapped but they still possessed the taste of Natalia. It was as their lips touched that Dinah realized, startlingly, how wrong this all was.

She stared after Natalia, eyes wide and wet. "Don't go," she said pleadingly, but Natalia had already closed the hatch of the apartment they had shared for years behind her.

Some hours later after night had fallen, Dinah laid in bed with a bottle of whiskey held in her lap. She had found the bottle after digging through her closet. She recalled her father had been a huge whiskey drinker - he'd been the type of drunk who would drink anything he had on hand, but whiskey had been his absolute favorite.

Dinah herself had a bottle of whiskey or two stashed somewhere, one of them being at the clinic. It had helped make the three days in which Natalia had been snowed in a bit easier. Even now it created a pleasant warmth in her belly that temporarily replaced the bouts of numbness and misery.

Dinah Fezald didn't consider herself to be an alcoholic; she didn't think she fit the standards. She didn't need a drink every day. In fact she was able to go many days without having to have a single sip. She certainly wasn't like Everest who took sips from his canteen whenever he thought she wasn't looking - there was a difference between watching and knowing.

The fear of succumbing to the temptation to drown those emotions she couldn't handle in booze had hovered over Dinah for many years. Even now she heard a small voice in the back of her head say, I should not be drinking; this is not the right way to deal with things. She could only imagine what her mother would say. It didn't matter. They hadn't seen each other in years. After the death of Joseph Fezald their relationship had died.

Dinah was good at politics, at being a good leader when it came to making decisions and doing what needed to be done, but she lacked the finesse needed when it came to maintaining intimate relationships.

Somewhere, always around or perhaps inside her, there was always the looming threat of giving in. Why couldn't she have a drink whenever she wanted? I'm clan leader god dammit, she thought. I've certainly earned the privilege. She reached over to set the bottle on the dresser, almost missed the mark and nearly dropped it on the floor. Managing to keep a hold of it, she set it securely back on the dresser. She had just collapsed back on the bed when there was a rap at the hatch.

"Who is it? " she demanded in a slurred voice. "What do you want?"

The hatch slid open with an airy hiss. It was Everest. He stepped in, closed the hatch behind them, and scanned her over. He spotted the bottle of whiskey sitting on the dresser. There was only a fifth of the liquor left.

"Having a party? " he asked.

"Yeah." Dinah managed to get herself up into a sitting position. "Want to join me?"

Everest shook his head only once. "No thanks."

She speared him in place with a look of drunken suspicion. "Don't tell me you're going to make another futile effort to quit again?"

"Not quit. Maybe slow down."

Dinah scoffed. "Whatever."

Everest shifted uncomfortably on his feet, clearly wanting to get to business. "I spoke with Rowe to secure us better weapons. I figured we'd need better weapons considering where we're going. Not only are we breaking the treaty by going into Mureen territory but we don't know what we'll be dealing with."

"Good. Did you make sure to get something suitable for Danni?"

Everest frowned. "Danni?"

"Yes, Danni." Dinah flashed him an irritable look. "I want him to come too."

"Why?"

"Why do you think? You've seen how good at killing he is. He took on those two things at the clinic with very little help from us." She sneered at her squire knowingly. "But you don't want him to come, do you? Your beautiful little blonde boy. Don't think I haven't noticed how you look at him - how you look at each other. You can keep one another company on the cold, long journey. Talk to him. Convince him to come with us if that's what it takes. We leave at first light tomorrow."

  

                                       …

 

Everest stood outside Danni's hatch. He raised his fist, about to knock. Lowered it. Raised it again. This isn't right, Everest thought even as he rapped on the door. Dinah shouldn't even be asking him to go. Yet here Everest stood, about to do the asking because he always did what someone else told him to do. No mind of his own.

On the other side of the hatch he heard the graceful padding of bare feet on the carpet before the hatch slid open. Danni stood in the doorway, wearing a white sleeveless tank top and gray sweatpants. The outfit showed off his lean but fit body. Everest had to restrain himself to keep from taking another up-and-down look.

"Hey," said the younger man. He sounded exhausted, as if he had just been through a strenuous ordeal.

"Hey. Are you okay?" Everest had surprised himself by asking the question.

"Calvin and I got into a fight. Now he's going back to live with his mother and sister. Other than that I'm fine. Did you need something? "

Was it just Everest's imagination or was there a hopeful look in Danni's eyes. Here goes. "Dinah is going on an expedition to the mining camp Adwele mentioned to see if there are any survivors. She wants you to come along."

"Okay," Danni said without hesitation. "When do we leave?"

Early the next morning, Everest and Dinah were loading their gear into the truck: bags of food, camping gear, and weapons. Several passersby stopped to peer at them curiously. Why did it look like Dinah and Everest were about to go off and start a war? Maybe because we just might be starting one, Everest thought. Several of the more courageous clan people who felt comfortable enough with Dinah asked where they were going. She negated them deftly with a smile and said, "Just clan business. Nothing anyone needs to worry about."

Everest's stomach was tied up in knots. He kept scanning the faces in front of him, hoping he would spot Danni coming towards him; each time his heart plummeted when the man didn't appear within his sight. It seemed Dinah and he were doing this without his help.

Breathing in the smell of diesel fuel blasting from the rusty tailpipe of the idling truck, Everest threw the last duffel bag into the back of the truck and looked one last time to appease his growing disappointment. His heart went from plunging deeper to soaring within a single beat. Danni was walking towards the truck with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder and a Winchester rifle slung over the other. He wore a black winter hat over his hair. He seemed to have come very prepared for whatever dangers they could be facing.

"I didn't think you'd make it," Everest said. He turned towards the back of the truck as if checking to make sure everything was loaded properly so Danni couldn't see him smile.

"I made a last minute deal with Rowe. I wanted to make sure we had plenty of weapons and ammunition."

Everest didn't like the sound of this; making a deal with Rowe could lead to bad consequences if the person didn't have what it took to pay up.

Danni shrugged nonchalantly; his breath plumed out in clouds of white mist. "I'll be okay assuming we make it back."

Despite the fact Danni'd said it in such a matter-of-fact way, Everest felt a chill go up his spine as he was reminded of what they were about to do. The thought of encountering more of the abominations made his bladder feel incredibly full. He was scared, yes, but the thought of Danni comforted him. Now we have a little more of a chance, he thought.

Danni set his duffel bag in the back to join the rest of the supplies. When he turned around to face Everest he looked completely serious. "I want to be clear on something. I have my own reasons for going on this mission. I'm going to prevent this thing from spreading any further. I don't know if this matches up with Dinah's plans. I do know you tend to do whatever she tells you to do because you're loyal to her. I'm warning you, I will do whatever it takes to keep this pandemic from spreading throughout the rest of the planet. If it comes to that you don't want to be standing in my way."

"I won't," Everest said. But whether he was telling the truth or not he didn't know.

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.
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