“You know that feeling? When you’ve spent a whole lot of time on an endeavor you thought was producing results, just to find that you’ve wasted it all on chasing your own tail?”
“You mean frustration?”
“Sure, frustration. Only with a healthy dose of emptiness thrown in to add to the sting of regret.”
“Yeah, I tend to regret losing time.”
“It’s pretty bad this time, John.” They were sitting cross-legged in front of a roaring fire, and Steve could see John shivering despite the intense heat.
“We’ve been through bad times before.”
“Not like this.”
Outside, the wind howled. Their cabin was just under the tree line. It offered enough shelter for survival but left very little room for comfort. It was night, but the snow that had piled deep beneath the triple-pane windows reflected bright moonlight. Steve wondered what they would do if the firewood ran out. Probably burn the furniture first, he thought.
It was two days since they had hiked up to the cabin on the final leg of their annual journey into the Antales Mountains. They had taken the same trip every year since graduation, and this was the tenth time they had done it. Steve took a moment to study the face of his best friend. New lines were there, around his eyes and mouth, etched a deep black by the dancing orange light of the fire. Whether they were put there by stress or mirth Steve could not tell. John, for all their close companionship, remained something of an enigma. Too many unknowns, a voice inside Steve’s mind whispered. Yes, he admitted, that was part of the problem.
“John, where were you when we did the final test in August?”
“August?” John’s eyes turned from the flames and stared into Steve’s. They glittered and quivered with the chills that wracked him. “I was in Tuloosa, putting in a requisition order for new fuel cells. I spent two weeks in a Motor Inn going between staring at the wallpaper and watching shitty porn while Major Douglas made up his mind.”
“You spent the whole two weeks in the motel? You never bothered to go out or do anything else?” Steve was trying very hard to keep the questions non-interrogational, but the edge was creeping in. If John noticed, he made no sign.
“No. I went out for food and toiletries and the occasional drink, but I never left that one-horse shithole town for the entire two weeks. I’d stupidly forgotten my laptop at home, and the Grisham paperback I’d brought I’d practically finished reading on the flight. Poor preparation.” John spat into the fire, causing a brief hiss as his spittle struck the blazing logs. “Why?”
“I don’t know. It’s probably nothing.” A pregnant silence rushed into the room. The sound of the wind died, and the constant crackle and snap of the fire stopped. Time seemed to slow, and Steve watched as a single silvery bead of sweat popped up on John’s forehead then rolled straight down the center of his face, leaping off the tip of his nose and splashing on the splintered wood floor. The tiny wet spot faded quickly in the heat.
“The fire’s hot, Steve.”
“Reminds me of the test before last, the one I missed. The fuel rods were all fucked up, out of alignment or something. The generator room was hot like this, only full of the stink of ozone. Scared the shit out of me to go in there and adjust those fucking things. Almost burned my hands off twisting them into place.”
“Was a good thing you were there to do it. Argus and I had a hell of a time wrestling the generator back online before the fail safes gave out.”
“We could have died,” John said. His face was so empty of emotion that Steve thought he was staring at a corpse, then John blinked and scrubbed his palms over his eyes. “And here we are.”
“What.” Again, that flat tone.
“Something. Something came through the portal, while you were in the generator room.”
“I know,” Steve said, in a voice as cold as the mountainside. “Argus saw it, right before I killed him.”