• Sunsette

Scene 03: What

Snow was a new phenomenon to Mara, to be sure. Despite appearances, she'd lived her whole life in the prairie and the desert — it was just that pale was as tan as she got. Snow was different. But it wasn't that much different. The rushing blood to her head meant she was upside down, she knew that much, even if she couldn't see anything. And panicking rarely helped. Her hands moved instinctively for her apron, only to realize there was snow all around; her right hand was pinned somewhere near her head, her left near her waist.

Waist, what was near her waist?

Ah. Gun.

Had she loaded the gun before they jumped out the skyship? If not, would she even be able to reach the ammunition? What if she shot herself? At least if her clothes ignited the snow would put them out. Probably. All thoughts that crossed her mind. But she didn't have a lot of choice — the pressure on her head, it was making it hard to think.

She struggled through the snow, wrenching her hand through a packed little tunnel back and forth; each pass of her hand gave her a little bit more room, and she had the sense that she was close to her gun. But close and in-hand were different.

Mara was sweating now — sweating! in the snow! that felt ridiculous, and she tried to focus on how silly and funny that would be, laughing about it with friends once she was back safe and sound at the barracks. Much better to focus on that than how she felt fuzzy-headed at the edges. She wasn't even sure what that meant, but those were the words that popped up in her head if she wasn't thinking about being back at base, quaffing cider.

Then the magnetic ring on her gloved finger was suddenly drawn towards something hard and metallic. Was it the gun? She'd have to wait another little while to figure that out. She was just barely touching it. It had to be though — how many ferromagnetic metals would just be laying around in the middle of nowhere? Back and forth, back and forth, twist and push, and... yes. That was the handle of her pistol.

She gripped it like an old friend and found the weight indicated that, yes, it was loaded. This was not going to be the smartest idea she'd ever done, but it was about the only idea she had.

Blindly, Mara wrenched the weapon in the general direction away from her and pulled the trigger — or, well, tried. It wasn't firing.

The safety was on? Why in the hell would the safety be on, that was the entire point of the magnetic ring. Something must have gotten jammed when she landed. Stupid damned machines! She cursed under her breath and scrambled her ring finger all over the gun handle. How much time had she lost? Do something, do something, do someth-


With a renewed jolt of adrenaline she pointed the gun and depressed the trigger. The bang was loud, but not deafening; flare cartridges were lower pressure than standard. She imagined the bright white flare going off and grinned. Everything was going real faint now. Oops. Fire. Right.

But she wasn't done yet. With one last heave of energy, she punched her gun arm upwards through the soft, half-melted snow and into the air. Almost immediately, Mara found her vision coming back, and she took a deep breath.

Rarely helps. Not never.

She didn't know how long she lay there, just resting, but it was a little while. Air was a hard-earned gift. But when she'd recovered enough to be clear-headed, a little warning feeling came at the back of her neck; the cold was different from the heat, but she had a good feeling if she stayed in the cold too long it'd be just as much the end of her, air or not.

So the plump woman wrenched herself out, slowly, until she could feel the wind on her face directly. Once that was done, she worked on digging her other arm free. At this point, her left was due for a raise, she was pretty sure, not that the pinchpennies at the Regimental HQ would ever spring for it.

Slowly but surely, as the minutes passed, Mara Bloom finally pulled herself up and out of the pit of snow she'd found herself in, and crawled onto the snow on all fours. The angle of the snow here was pretty steep and horribly uneven, but she wasn't where they'd started the slide, that was for sure; where were they? She needed to figure that one out soon, given the grey sky and frigid, snowy winds.

She suddenly realized, however, there was a much more pressing issue of interest for her: fire. She could see a fire up ahead and two dark little blobs nearby. Who could it be? It didn't matter.

"Well, don't just sit there like a bump on a log! Help me!" Mara shouted with all she could muster. She could afford the air now. But they didn't move, didn't react. She kept pulling herself forward on hands and knees through sharp, broken ice as the wind kicked up a blast of diamond dust into her face.

For some reason they couldn't seem to hear her. Maybe her voice was weaker than she thought. Well, bugger that, she thought. She flopped back onto her knees, reached for a pouch with her right hand and her gun with her left. A second later, a bright white cone of flame ripped into the air alongside a loud crack of thunder.

That got their attention. They were moving, they were looking towards her, and then... music? She heard a whistle float through the air; it seemed to cut through the silence of the snow as well as the pistol had, but more gently. Was that fifer playing music? Now? Of all the—

Before she could think too much about that, she realized the other figure was getting a lot bigger very fast. It was... red. With wings. The flyboy!

"Took you long enough, Sergeant Minor," she grunted. She didn't bother to hide either the relief on her face or the annoyance.

"Specialist! You're alive!" Knickers paused and hovered over Mara, offering a hand up; the thundering hiss of the aerosene rocket on his wingpack filled the silence between the two of them as Mara indignantly struggled up to her feet without his hand, despite the way the snow shifted and crushed under her feet.

"No thanks to the two of you. Your little friend there nearly got me killed." Maybe it was anger, but Mara felt a sudden burst of energy, not to mention an overwhelming desire to throttle Knickers just for being so cheery.

The rabbit popped its head out of Knickers' front and yawned indignantly.

"Paddy?! He wouldn't hurt a soul." The boy paused and tapped his lip thoughtfully. "...Pretty sure vegetables don't have souls, right? Right."

Mara just stared unblinkingly for a long moment. She wasn't in the mood. Knickers coughed. "You mean Bobbin. Yeah, uh, been having a talk with him about that," he said, scratching the back of his head. "He came with something important we should all maybe hear, though. Can I give you a lift?"

Mara squinted up at him. "Are you or that wingpack strong enough to lift me up? I'm not exactly a teensy little thing."

He rubbed his chin and shrugged thoughtfully, before giving a bashful smile of admission. "...Well, it's more that I'm going to hold on to you while you walk so you don't sink into the snow."

Mara narrowed her hazel eyes and grumped. "...Sounds mighty uncomfortable."

"More than walking on all fours through jagged bits of shattered glacier?"

Mara took a second to brush some stray snowdust and brown hair away from her face, and blinked to clear her eyes. She wasn't the best judge, but from here it might have been a hundred ocks to where that campfire and the flute music was.

"Alright, bunnybrain, you got a point. How does this work?"

"Okay, well, I move around back here..." his legs gave a little flutter kick and the wingpack moved correspondingly, beating backwards and rotating around so that he was behind Mara; then he reached forward with both arms to hug around her middle.

She gulped a little bit. He had a surprisingly tight grip with those little arms of his, and she'd probably eaten more rations than she should have. And the way his arm bones were kinda pressing into the bottom edge of her rib cage... ow.

He seemed to pick up on the discomfort because he piped up, "Sorry, Bloomy, I need a good purchase to pull this one off."

"What? I'm fine. Let's do this." She placed one foot on the ice and snow before her, then tried to shift her weight towards it. There was a little delay as Knick seemed to take a moment to catch up with what she was doing mentally, but then his rocket let out another hiss and shifted forward with her.

She didn't sink.

One foot after the other, they progressed through the snow, Mara feeling much lighter on her feet — both literally and metaphorically — than she had a few moments prior. Only the fife music, gradually growing stronger, stood out against the background of snow and engine burn.

"...Sergeant Minor, huh?" Knickers suddenly broke out.

Mara rolled her eyes. "Well, you're sure as hell not a Sergeant-Major. You've got a few screws loose in there, y'know that?"

"Let's stick with Sergeant-Engineer." He giggled cheerfully and winked. "The lads usually screw me pretty tight."

Mara groaned. What a tart. "How'd you two make it out?"

"When the wagon hit the boom, we all went flying, but Bobbin started to fly off since he wasn't strapped in. Paddy and me jumped off to get him, then an ice boulder flew outta nowhere and smacked the back of the wagon so hard it broke in two and you went into a tailspin. I lost too much altitude and speed holding onto him to chase after you. Sorry."

Mara shook her head so hard her ponytail bobbed. "Don't be. You can't save everyone."

Knickers made a noncommittal mewling noise. When he spoke, his voice went somber. "Empire's killed a lot of people. We've got to save as many as we can. That's why we've got to move fast — can't afford to miss the mission. Tight schedule."

"From what I hear, we're not the only squad trying to bust up the empire's trains," Mara reminded him. "Let's not kill ourselves going breakneck. Especially not with the Sergeant-Major's reputation. I'm not real eager to die in general, let alone on that night of all nights."

"The other squads are on different parts of the operation; getting this one done is all us. Don't worry," Knick said with a squeeze of his arms that surprised Mara; was he taking the opportunity to hug her? "We'll all make it out. We just need to hurry. The regiment's counting on us."

"Alright, alright," the older woman said, shaking her head. "So what's next for us, Sergeant Minor?"

"I said stop calling me that!" Knicks huffed. It was Mara's turn to laugh. So 'trollop' didn't get under his collar, but 'Sergeant Minor' did.

"Yes, sir," she said, a twinkle in her eye.

"As for what's next... well. We can't stay up here. Let's get a little patched up then figure out how we're moving down the mountain again. We can't rest too long."

As they neared the campsite — and Bobbin — Mara could finally get a good look at the campfire. Or more accurately, what the campfire was built of. There were chunks suspiciously like wheels and some lumpy, charred chest-like pieces in the back.

"You. Set. The. Wagon. On Fire."

"Hey, it was in no condition to take us anywhere!" As Knickers protested, the rabbit jumped out of nowhere onto Mara's arm to offer a loud, chuffing support, with big, round, button eyes.

Mara shook Paddywhack off of her shoulder with one irritated heave and tried to turn her glare on Knick, though it was quite impossible given the death grip he had on her waist and their positions. "I. Was. On. The Wagon."

"You were on part of the wagon," the Sergeant gently pushed back.

"So you found the wagon. But. You didn't find me." The woman simply stared at the boy, deeply peeved.

Knickers gave a little shrug. "How do you think we found the wagon? It didn't fall next to us at all. "

She ran her hand over her face and through her hair. It took her a moment to find words. "You are the worst Sergeant."

"Sergeant-Engineer will do, Bloomy," he replied with a slightly exaggerated sniff.

Mara let it go. Wasn't worth it. "No supplies left on it?" Her voice was more whimsically despairing than hopeful.

"Bobbin salvaged what he could, but it's pretty bad. Speaking of... Heya! Bobbin!" Paddywhack jumped on Knickers' head and waved as the trio came close, before Knickers finally dislodged from Mara's back.

The fifer didn't stop playing right away; he was in the final decrescendo of the piece he was doing, and he kept his eyes closed the whole time. Mara rolled her eyes and took a seat in the snow next to the fire.

And then he stopped the music. She knew the moment he did; ears weren't the only clue. She fundamentally felt more tired the moment he stopped. More like she'd been when she fought her way out of the ice. Not as bad, but still there.

"What in the hell...?" She mumbled, slumping forward. "Damn, didn't know fifers could do that."

Knickers took a seat next to her and pulled out a lumpy, hard piece of bread from one of his belt pouches, which immediately drew Paddywhack's attention; the rabbit ran down his arm to nibble at it, then made a face. "It's not one of the usual pieces of song magic they learn, but they're good for more than inspiring courage and competence on the battlefield, just so ya know!"

Bobbin grinned brighter than the fire he was next to, and bounced up and down on his heels on the snow, hands and flute behind his back. Mara noticed he didn't seem to sink into the surface; what a light kid.

"Fifer Socks at your service, ma'am! And uh... sorry about the stowaway thing..." His voice dropped real soft and quiet at the end and he looked at his feet with a bit of embarrassment.

"Bobbin didn't think you were going to need to use all of those potions right away, right?" Knickers asked. The freckled fifer nodded, pigtails bobbing up and and down.

Mara waved it off. "Sergeant says you had a good reason for it. What's the reason?" And it had better be damn good, she thought to herself.

"Well, um..." Bobbin mumbled, before taking a deep breath. "So, I was in the HQ and, uh..."

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