Two figures walked through the snows. From above, they appeared like leaves bobbing along with the flow of a white river. They crested dunes of snow while they wore long, fur-lined, grey parkas. Their faces were buried, but for their eyes; their heads were nestled in scarves over hats which where hidden under the hoods of their jackets. One wore a red, pill-shaped backpack.
The two had said little during their journey until they began walking alongside a small, red-hued stone cabin. It had a grey roof covered by a foot and a half of snow. The cabin was missing a door; outside of it, a many-propellered robot sat idle in the snow. The machine was the size and shaped of a rounded coffin; it had fan-like propellers attached to its underside. It was quiet save for an occasional beep accompanied by a blinking red light on the top of the machine.
One of the two figures approached the machine and bent down to inspect it. The drone had been flying at one point —the skid marks behind it showed that it fell from the air and into the snowbank it was currently resting on. Icicles had grown on the blades of its fans. The woman then stood and turned to face her compatriot: “Rescuer,” she said while pointing at the machine, “but it looks like it froze up on it’s way — crashed.”
The speaker crouched back down to inspect the drone. The second woman leaned on the cabin, then spoke herself: “A third?”
‘A third’, the woman crouching over the drone acknowledged.
“You know why they freeze up, right?”
‘… I don’t.’
“Costs a lot to winterize them. So they don’t.”
The crouching woman stood up and looked at her compatriot, before saying: ‘But, wait that means they don’t work — at all.’
After a brief pause, the two of them laughed loudly.
“I suppose this means we should check in the cabin.”
The woman leaning on the cabin made her way into the build through the space where a door would be. She looked to the left an saw nothing, save a patch of snow and a broken window. She looked to the right and saw a shaking man, clad in green. His thick jacket matched his his boots, pants, and hat. He was curled up on his side — shivering, and barely breathing.
The woman walked over to him and knelt down next to his face. She slowly waved a finger in front of him; she watched as his eyes followed it.
‘We found someone.’
There was a pause.
“He’s alive this time, too.”
The man’s eyes focused on the woman’s covered face. A whisp of grey hair appeared slightly above her right eyebrow; her eyes were gray and surrounded by the kind of creased, leather skin that only one who lives a life outdoors will ever be awarded.
Ghang tried to speak to her; he needed to say that he was a soldier — with a mission — and he had drones on their way. Nothing came out. His mouth moved but his tongue was numb; it did nothing.
The woman looked at the man as he gasped for air. She brushed her hand against his cheek, sat next to him, looked into his eyes, and told him to wait.
The second woman walked into the cabin. She knelt again, then placed her red backpack on to the ground. She stuck her whole arm in, furrowed her brow, then pulled out…. something. Ghang’s vision was fading. He couldn’t tell what it was. He saw the woman lay it on the ground, then his eyes shut.
The next thing he felt was hands. He was being lifted, and stretched. Then placed on… something? Someone moved his gloves down a bit, then her heard a whir, and felt — a pinch? Maybe? It was… again, something. Maybe.
The something that he was laid on on was zipped over him. Then lifted off the ground.
For the first time in hours, he felt a little warmer.
“Irell?” came a voice from outside Ghang’s cocoon — it sounded like it came from everywhere around him, all at once.
“We’ll have to avoid summiting Tulvanu today. Perhaps tomorrow, though, dear. Let’s go.”
Ghang felt movement, then felt very, very happy — before feeling tired. He was then even warmer; he saw colors dancing around him as he drifted off to sleep. For a brief moment before he lost consciousness, he wondered why Robert left the cabin.
The two women emerged from the cabin; they carried a bright-orange, covered stretcher between them. Two robotic legs on the underside of it walked in step with the first woman.
They again crested small hills of snow. The wind whipped around them. After some time, they descended down the side of one hill into a long, flowing valley. Irell imagined that it had been a riverbed once. They walked along the bottom of the valley for some time. Eventually, the snow and the wind calmed. There was nothing but still air and light flurries when they exited the valley and headed towards a some kind of towering ice formation topped with snow. They approached it, then walked around its base until they descended into a cave of ice. They emerged some time later, on the side of a steep cliff. They walked down the side of the edifice via a series of switchbacks. The women watched their feet closely all the while.
At the bottom of the cliff, they stopped briefly. The robotic legs under the stretcher spread out and crouched, balancing the whole mechanism on top of them. The women let go of the stretcher.
Irell, who was at the rear of the three-person convoy, walked alongside the apparatus and tapped something on the stretcher’s cover: a lighted silver square appeared on the fabric, then populated itself with various words and numbers that glowed neon-green and dark blue. She studied it intently.
The woman at the front walked away and looked into the distance. She exhaled and closed her eyes. Then she heard a squeak: a small white fox, snow colored save for its black whiskers and yellow, narrow eyes was standing on her boot. It was the size of a large cat.
Irell’s mother rummaged around in her pockets before finding a small container. She opened it and placed two dried, red berries on the ground next to the fox. The animal ate them, then silently walked a few paces away before turning back to look at her — it locked its eyes with hers for some time. After a few seconds it bowed its head and carried on. The woman lost sight of the animal after it crested one snowdrift or another.
She resumed staring into the distance at that point.
A few seconds later she heard a voice say “Mom?”. The woman turned, saw her daughter gesturing to her, and returned to the stretcher. She grabbed it again; without another word, the two were off. A light breeze picked up.
They began walking through a flat, snow-covered plain. The two remained on it for some time. Eventually a slight hill slowly rose on the horizon. As the caravan approached the knoll, the carriers slowly made out a figure standing on top of it. A man, wearing a black hooded cloak. It was flowing in the wind.
The two adjusted their track to go around the base of the hill. He turned to watch them; his pale face was mostly covered by a red scarf. Irell noticed his cloak seemed to be sackcloth, secured by a coarse rope; her mother noticed that the fox she fed earlier was curled up against him, resting its head on his shin. The two said nothing. They passed around the hill in due time.
After an hour on the plain, a snow-covered building slowly came into view. It appeared to be wide, at first, with a low-slung sloping roof that gradually curved upwards at it’s end. As they approached, the building became taller. Irell began to see it clearer: it was familiar. The bronze, engraved gate, the grey-brick walls, the red-and-black striped pillars, the stucco roof — home. This was home. Finally.
When they arrived, he woman at the front of the stretcher let go as the robotic legs balanced the gurney. She approached the giant, brazen gate: on it was a carved depiction of a rising sun cresting over an ocean. It dwarfed her completely. From the distance, her silhouette looked like a fly landing on a foot-long plank. She took off her gloves, then pressed a small circle on one of the left-most of the two pillars the gate was mounted on. A man’s voice crackled alive from an out-of-sight speaker
“Is this the pizza guy?”
The woman didn’t move.
“Jesus, Maura, sorry, no need to be humorless — ”
‘We have a medical case, Jeremy. Just open the door.’
A silence filled the air. The breeze stopped.
“Should have realized that” the voice noted, as the right half of gate began to creak open.
Ghang awoke to what felt like a thousand pounds pressing down his skull. He slowly clasped his hands to his head and rolled over on to his side, all while groaning and jostling with a blanket he didn’t realize was on him. He quickly felt a hand on his shoulder, then heard a voice:
“Hey, big guy — cool it, cool it. The headache will die down in a bit. You just need more fluids but you keep moving like that, the IV will pop out. That’ll make you feel even worse.”
Ghang gradually opened his eyes and saw a young man. His attendant was tan, bald, clean shaven, and wearing a saffron robe over a pair of blue scrubs.
“Oh, you actually heard me. Wait a second — uh, let me get the Olmo-Luong — ”
‘The.. uh, what….’ Ghang mumbled.
“My boss. Gimme a second.”
Ghang closed his eyes again. Some time later, he felt two hands on his left arm.
He awoke and looked up: a man was laying his palms flat on the soldier. The man, who Ghang assumed (correctly) to be the Olmo-Luong.
“My son…” said the man.
Ghang’s vision slowly came into focus. He saw that the man was wrapped in a glowing silk robe, lined with cheetah print-fur. The red silk itself was covered with illustrations of fractals, each of which had been expertly embroidered with bright-blue string. Then he inspected the man’s face — his visitor was doughy and pale. He had a white goatee, and some well-kept white hair on the side of his head. The top of his head reflected a bit of light into Ghang’s eyes. Ghang blinked, then looked back to see that the man was staring down at him with beady eyes, warped by a pair of thick, brown wire-frame glasses. A necklace of thick, brown, polished wood beads sat around the man’s gelatinous neck.
“You were hurt, my son, yes?”, said the Olmo-Luong
“You have lost people — compatriots, no? I can sense it.”
Ghang nodded again.
“And my son — I can sense something else…..”
He closed his eyes, then looked down at Ghang with a sense of tenderness and care, before quietly saying:’
“You have health insurance, as well.”
Ghang groaned, and nodded.
The formerly frost-bitten soldier closed his eyes and nodded solemnly.
“Wonderful. What is your group number?”
Ghang sat up gingerly, then faced the man, before speaking: ‘Uh, Olma — Olma lungs —’
“Please, my son. There is no need for formality here. This is a place of familiarity — call me by my birth name: Randal.”
‘Uh, well, uh, Randal — I don’t uh, have my group number — ’
“Sh, shh, my son. Do not distress. Give us the name of your employer”, the man said before turning his head to the side and looking away stoically, “and we shall contact your HR department for you. Such is our duty.”
‘Cargill, then — Cargill Security services, technically.’
“Wonderful. You received great care here today, my son, and many opioids while you were transported. It shall make you stronger”, he said before pausing and closing his eyes while bowing his head, “and the co-pay shall be eminently reasonable.”
‘Thanks, I suppose — where, uh, where is this place?’
“The Bastion of the 57th Ulaan-Laama, Krishu Duane. This is a place of healing, dedicated to a man who taught thousands Americans the way of the Buddha, as well as compliance with many applicable Medicare/Medicaid regulations.”
‘Uh, well — like technically, what is it?’
“A publicly-traded Delaware corporation, if we’re being specific.’
‘No, no — I mean is this uh, one of them artic monasteries, uh — I see some kind of religious theme — or something — -’
“It was, my son. Once. Long ago.”
The man sitting over Ghang stiffened his neck and looked away again before continuing.
“But after a series of disastrous calamities — rising interest rates, poorly thought out acquisitions, executive compensation-related catastrophes — we entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy. We were purchased in it by Archlance Capital, who has charged us with a simple mission: being the greatest and most profitable urgent care in the broader Martian-Polar region.”
‘Oh fuck, an urgent care — — no, no. This is all definitely out of network, Jesus Christ — ”, Ghang said as he quickly sat up and pulled the IV out of his arm. ‘Get me a phone, you animals. I need to call my boss. He’ll be sending a convoy for me,too, assholes — so don’t try to play any games with the bills.’
The Olma-Luong stood up, bowed to Ghang, and said “As you wish, my son. Calls are 5 dollars per minute. We only accept — ” the man looked away dramatically, again, before noting: “credit cards”.
As the urgent care’s chief clinician left the room, he could have sworn he heard his patient mumble that he’s ‘killed over less than this bullshit will cost’. The man look at his silk robe; he then chose to ignore Ghang’s grousing all together.
In a different room of the former-monastery, Irell and her mother sat playing a card game on a worn-out picnic table. Eventually a man in a grey-t-shirt with an apron and chef’s hat walked in. His kissed Maura on her cheek, then said: “Well girls, another great rescue — think they’ll pay us more than our rent this week?”
After a brief pause, all three laughed. The cook then ambled out of the room and returned to preparing dinner. There was profound sadness in his eyes. In his head, he tried to calculate this month’s wages and rent.