She’d never been this cold in her whole life. The wind bit through layers of her flight suit and chilled her to the bone. Snow was falling faster now, and the field was turning white.
Her teeth chattered so hard she was afraid she’d break teeth, so she clamped her jaws together so hard her head ached. The world turned a charcoal grey as the sun slowly slid below the horizon.
From the hillside where she lay, she could see a village in the valley below her. If she’d been able to walk, or at least stand, she would have at least tried to drag herself down the grassy slope toward the buildings, maybe find some shelter from the elements. But each time she tried to stand, cold fire stabbed through her spine. Either nobody had heard, or nobody cared, for several hours passed and she lay alone on the lonely hillside. She hadn’t truly expected anyone to be here – almost all settlements this far inside the demilitarised zone had been evacuated since the start of the war, and any farmers or shepherds still holding out here would have been scared off when their hostile eastern neighbours had started making incursions across the border.
She’d been flying a recon mission, skirting their edge of the border. She certainly hadn’t expected a squadron of enemy fighters to come straight at her. At least she’d managed to take one of them out before she’d been forced to bail out of her stricken jet, though. Chalk one up for pride, if nothing else.
Eventually, in desperation, she considered rolling herself down the hill. Using the last of her energy and willpower she managed to weakly flip her body over three times before coming to a stop face-up. The pain was unlike anything she’d felt in her life. It blossomed up her whole spine and down all of her limbs. She imagined every bone in her back simultaneously shattering like glass, and through the agony she wondered if she’d just crippled herself for life. She realised she was still screaming when her throat gave out and she started coughing blood.
She knew she was lucky to be alive at all. Had the parachute canopy become even slightly more entangled, she would have hit the ground with enough force to render whatever might have been left of her unrecognisable. But the pain and the freezing cold were rapidly making her uncertain she’d get out of this alive after all.
Unable to move at all now, she could see a fragile layer of snowflakes forming across her broken body and the parachute cords she lay tangled in. As darkness settled across her, a perverse thought crossed her mind that at least she was dying doing something she loved. So many people got killed crossing the road, or taken by cancer… Killed in action, serving her country. That was a death to be proud of.
The cold seemed to numb the pain away, or perhaps that was just her failing consciousness. Through her hazy senses she thought she saw a shape approaching her, but she couldn’t force her eyes to focus.
The last thing she remembered before the light went out was feeling a kiss, gentle and warm, on her cheek.
Then everything was black, and she fell forever into a bottomless void.
“Don’t try and move. Just relax.”
The voice came from beside her. She slowly became aware that she was no longer cold. She wasn’t outside any more, either. She moved her fingers (she could still do that, at least) and felt material beneath them.
The light above her was artificial. She was on a hospital bed. Two – no, three – medics surrounded her.
“How long…” she croaked, before breaking off into a burst of agonising coughs.
The kind-faced, middle-aged doctor closed the notes he’d been reading. “You were brought in two hours ago. They found you this morning. You’d been on the hillside all night following the crash. They tell me it got down to minus fifteen throughout the night.”
She was taken aback. It had been freezing, but she’d had no idea the cold had gotten so intense. “Guess any longer and I’d have died of exposure,” she managed.
He looked briefly confused. “You don’t remember anything?”
She thought. “I remember bailing. Parachute failed, the reserve tangled but I managed to get it partially open. Then hitting the ground. I thought I’d broken every bone in my body. Guess I’m lucky.”
“Well,” he began, “You should have died hours before dawn. In fact, you’re only alive because of your friend here.”
She managed to turn her head fractionally and strain her eyes as far as she could just to follow his gaze. The bed next to her was empty, but the one beyond that held the corpse of a man. His familiar features were unmistakably of eastern origin, and he was very obviously dead, his skin dark purplish and eyes glazed. He wore a military uniform – or at least the shirt and combat flight suit. His jacket and survival coat were rolled up at the foot of his bed.
“He…” she began, starting to understand.”
The doctor continued for her. “We learned that this was the gentlemen you shot down before you were hit yourself and forced to eject. He saw fit to cover you in his own coats, before he froze to death himself. Look, I understand you’ve been through a lot, but we’re at war and I have to ask you this. Did you know him?”
She shook her head, feeling tears start to prick behind her eyes. “No,” she lied.
Copyright Ben Knight