Living at the South Pole Station was like living in a frozen version of hell. The station's roof slanted at a hard incline to avoid buildup, which worked around ninety percent of the time. But when the winds and snow joined forces and packed in at the wrong angle, a lucky volunteer had to shimmy up and clean.
And today, Ionia had drawn the short icicle.
Even with self-heating tech, laser point defrosters, and remote operating droids, she still had to get out and shovel. She glared at the weather vane whirling next to her. Every spindle read north in big, friendly, brass-toned letters.
Some former Polie put the damn thing up as a joke to those stranded in the butt-crack of the world, but she wasn't laughing. Girls, her age should be idolizing sanguine vidclip singers and trying on the latest clothes from the Continent, not shoveling the roof.
She scooped a load of snow, struggling against the wind. Her insulated jacket made every move difficult. Double layering, no matter how streamlined, still bunched in all the wrong places, and the hood and headband limited her vision to about two inches.
She checked her rope to make sure it was secure and glanced over the edge of the roof into the distance. In June at zero six hundred in the morning, a glimmer might break the horizon, a peek at the sun that never rose. But the blowing snow cut her visuals down to almost nothing. Her headlight had only enough juice to show her the white roof, the weathervane, and a metric ton of snow.
A blast of wind slammed into her like a closed fist and pushed her sideways. Her foot slipped. She dug in with her treads but couldn't stop the slide. Her arms flailed as she did an ice dance down the incline.
Crap, crap, crap.
The shovel flew from her hand, and she grabbed for the rope, missed, and tumbled over the edge.
She squeezed her eyes shut, her heart ricocheting a sharp rhythm against her ribs. She tensed and braced for impact. Her lungs shriveled.
The noose of the safety line jerked around her middle, knifing a pain into her spine. The rope groaned and creaked, but held.
She hung backward, dangling three meters from the top of the roof. The thin safety rope was the only thing between her and an intimate connection with the concrete-hard snow. If the rope snapped, at best she'd break a body part. At worst--well, she didn't want to think about worst.
She gripped the line to pull herself vertical, barely feeling the pinch through her heated gloves. The station's outer wall teased her, about a meter away. Maybe she could reach with her legs. She stretched for the wall with her foot, but only grazed the snow-caked surface.
Damn it. Just a centimeter or two more. She twisted in the wind. Every fiber of her body strained to touch the edge. A gust slashed her face and spun her around.
Don't panic. Keep calm. Focus on solutions, not problems.
If the wind could move her willy-nilly, she could move herself. She leaned back and forth, throwing her body weight until she had momentum. She swung again, closer until her toe snagged the wall.
She blew out a cloud of breath and dug her clampon-treaded shoe deep into the ice. Finally, some leverage. Hand over hand, step by step, she climbed the side of the station. Using her not-at-all-athletic upper body strength, she pulled herself over the top and collapsed, sucking in freezing air so fast it scorched her lungs.
Her headlamp slid sideways and shot light into the black sky, a finger pointing to nowhere. Shit. That had been close. Damned South Pole, damned cold, damned excuse for a life.
Another snowy gust whited out her vision as she stood. A hundred pinpricks cut the two inches of exposed skin on her face and freeze-dried her eyeballs.
Enough snow and cold and torture. She slapped a palm against her thigh and the coms activated.
"Can I come in? It's a blizzard out here. I fell off the roof, and almost died."
"You had a safety line and are obviously still alive." Her mom's voice hummed in a monotone, brisk, to the point, much like the woman herself. "And it isn't a blizzard; just blowing snow at less than sixty kph. Put the extra warmers on the disc. Then you can come in."
"Chores at the SPS, nothing but fun, fun, fun."
"Ionia. Get it done."
No use arguing. When her mom said something, it was law.Ionia bit back the heil Hitler and said a much safer, "Aye, aye."
Gotta love the doting-overprotective-cookie-baking type of mom. Too bad Ionia didn't have one.
Ionia fumbled for the warmers. None of their droids could have climbed the station in this weather. Some jobs still took human hands. She shoved the supercharged, thumb-sized heater against the iced-up satellite disc, and tapped the switch with her thumb. The small bits of metal glowed like tiny suns.
But there was only one real sun, a great big sphere of wonderful that spread natural warmth. The kind of warmth that seeped into her skin down to her bones, even deeper down to her soul.
Without sunlight, her body clock didn't know when it was day or night. Time stood still, everything the same. Always set on blah.
Ionia retraced her steps to the portal into the station and climbed down the ladder in the access hall. Screw the shovel. A cost of doing business, because she wasn't about to go back outside to fight the killer, arctic, cold for a damn shovel.
She dropped her headband and gloves and unzipped her giant coat, then bounced down the hall toward the kitchen. Just enough time to eat before the shipment arrived. The companion droid would be on this delivery. She knew it. She felt it. She'd weaseled it onto the order back in May.
A grin bubbled inside her, but she couldn't look happy. If she ran into her mom, the parental would know something was up in Ioniaville. She had to look blank or angry. Had to think of something, anything, like dead baby seals, to keep her face in normal miserable mode.
She trotted through the interconnected buildings, passing the steel reinforced walls and exposed pipes. A pocket of frigid air hit her, and she pulled her jacket closer.
Over the years, CONUS had dropped compartments in and welded on to the whole with no thought to overall design, view, airflow, or human comfort. Couldn't blame the designers. Most research locations like this were fully automated, but the mainland military liked to keep a human influence at the SPS. CONUS couldn't have the good ole North Asian Republic muscling in on their frozen turf.
At least, that's what Dad had always said.