The winds were already vicious, and hammered the transport from the moment they emerged from the relative shelter of Valhalla’s surrounding ridge wall. Heavy as the vehicle was, to the passengers it felt in danger of a tip-over the length of the trip.
It was slow going for most of the way, circumnavigating a rookery where a thousand or more Adélie penguins were launching into the sea, probably some of the last to leave for the months-long night ahead. Only the emperor penguins wintered over, McGee thought he’d recalled, and he wondered how the parents could tell their own offspring after the ordeal.
Red smoke appeared ahead; that would be Echo’s signal flare. The transport slowed to a rumbling crawl, and the driver pointed ahead at something he’d spotted. It was far too loud in the vehicle to bother speaking. McGee squinted. His gut told him it was another body, and sure enough, the Marshals on patrol were cordoning off the area accordingly. Flares were set up around the perimeter to augment the fading light of mid-April.
“Okay,” McGee half-shouted over the wind, and over the transport’s engine, “you guys are probably about due to get to shelter, so let’s make this quick. What have you got?”
“Looks like a mother and child, sir,” answered the patrol leader.
“Yes, sir,” she repeated. “Likely acute hypothermia; likely time of death within the past two-to-three hours.”
McGee knelt beside the body. She wasn’t very old, mid-thirties at most. She was dressed in numerous heavy layers, the sum of which were no match for this cold. The infant appeared to be bundled in every spare piece of fabric she owned, yet he didn’t doubt the poor thing was frozen solid by now.
Then he noticed the mother’s face, and hung his head in grief. She was from the group of deportees whose custody he’d overtaken from Roos van Rhijn. How the hell did she slip out? he wondered. Where had she hidden since then? Where could she have been going, and how the royal hell did she even make it this far?
The most stomach-turning question, nagging him as he stood, was this. What could she have been running from, that made this look like the lesser risk?
McGee turned. It was Nweke.
“Sir, shall we pack them up?”
McGee tried to speak, couldn’t, and just nodded instead. His jaw clenched; his head was in a million places. Was this what they were all creating? Just one more out-turned palm, refusing the hopeless while congratulating themselves on their precious freedom? Was this not any one of them, perhaps himself, if he were to become incapacitated, or if he just got old?
He suddenly felt very, very old.
“Sir… you okay?”
“Don’t… don’t call me ‘sir’ for a little while.”