The Cold - Short Fiction - Mason Chapman '22
His whole body was under attack, struggling to contain the limited heat within the goose-down jacket and merino wool shirts. The perspiration from his mouth and nose formed into a basin of humidity between his face and the balaclava. Below him, his feet had lost any sensation of pain, an absence that had started to worry him. He held fast to the guide rope and followed the blaze of orange in front of him. The dull roar of another airborne snowbank reached his ears and he braced against its impact. It slowed his progress for a second, but he was determined to make his way back quickly. The ‘expert’ in front of him, wearing the orange high-vis jacket, might not have killed him, but he had probably doomed one of Lake’s toes. Lake was already reluctant to rush out before a blizzard, but Philip S. Weld, Ph.D., had assured him the weather models were correct. Reaching the crest of a snowbank he looked down onto the lime green barracks of Scott Base. He was too numb to feel much real anger anyway, and the sight of heated buildings pushed away any lingering resentment.
Reaching the warmth of the locker room, he struggled to disassemble his shell of clothes. The door opened and Bruce walked jovially between the row of lockers. “You two almost had it out there,” Bruce laughed, “Was it worth it?”
Lake pulled off his last sock and examined his frozen toes, “The snow has started coming down the hill onto the site; it won’t be worth drilling until the summer.”
Bruce glanced across the room at Weld, “Think he’ll last that long?” he said in a low voice.
Lake laughed and stood up, “I’ve got to go check in with the captain.”
Yale had not prepared him for the cold, although his four years there had prepared him for most everything else. The Yale branded sweatshirt he wore often was a symbol of that; although it was also a reminder that he was the only American among the New Zealanders at Scott Base. Rather than going into university research, he jumped at the chance to live in the field. A resume builder like this was what he had been looking for, something that could jumpstart a career at the Department of the Interior. At least, that was the talking point he kept repeating to himself as he trudged through the overwhelming volumes of snow. He knocked and, without waiting for a response, walked into his boss’s office.
The office was small, but well decorated by a man who had traveled extensively. Interposed between the stacks of books were exotic weapons, intricate statuettes, and medals with inscriptions in different languages. It all stood in stark contrast to the austerity of the rest of the base. “Captain?” Lake queried. For a long minute, Captain Krueger sat obscured from view, looking out his window into the icy tundra. Lake didn’t know much about Krueger, only the rumors he had heard from Bruce. Krueger was ex-military of some kind, British or a New Zealander. After rising to the rank of captain in some special forces group, he had taken retirement in the Antarctic. Turning around to face Lake, Krueger looked him up and down.
“Do you know where I am at this moment? I am two months from now, sitting at home with my wife.” Krueger said. “Now I don’t see you sitting there with me, but I definitely don’t plan on leaving you out here in the snow.”
“It’s not my fault that Weld wasn’t wearing his glasses when he looked at that weather model” Lake argued. “He can’t even–”
Krueger cut him off, “I don’t care who’s fault it was. Just remember that you’re here to keep the station warm for the people coming in the summer.”
Lake swallowed, imagining his cold body lying lifeless in the snow. He hadn’t completely processed what could have happened, and the realization sucked the energy out of him.
“Alright, I’ll stay safe. No more expeditions with Weld.”
Krueger smirked, “Sorry you can’t spend more time with him. Now get out and warm up some more.”
Lake sat down in the cafeteria with a bowl of soup and some cornbread. Beside him at the plain white table were the rest of the skeleton crew. John Bardeen, the biologist, Isaac Luck and Tim Noakes, the youngest person at Scott Base. “Are you alright?” Tim asked him as Lake sat on the plastic stool. Lake nodded and focused on his soup. He didn’t have the energy to carry on a conversation with Tim, and asked him to turn on the TV. Through the limited internet connection, the base got from a nearby antenna tower, the TV could pick up grainy CNN. The war in Afghanistan was ongoing, a low flying asteroid had forced the space shuttle to push back its launch, and the Dengue fever outbreak in Pakistan was worsening. Lake didn’t know much about diseases, even after several semesters of Yale biology. What he did know about obscure viruses like Dengue fever made him glad to be in the arctic tundra, outside the reach of any pathogen. His thought was interrupted by Weld loudly sneezing as he came through the cafeteria door.
Later on, laying on his bunk he was thankful for the extra space afforded to the skeleton crew. In the summer he would have shared the room with three other scientists, but now he had at least a little privacy. Captain Krueger had been right; he really did only have two months left out of his eight-month term. He liked the idea of returning, coming back as an arctic explorer accepting a prestigious office job at the Department of the Interior. His father’s connections wouldn’t even come into play on this, he had earned it for himself. Put in ten years and he could be the deputy secretary. The thought of it relaxed him and he quickly eased into sleep.
He was running through the snow, lifting his feet through snow that got thicker with every step. The frost stung his face, but it was too late to stop. He knew that what he wanted was just over the hill. His next step sent him tumbling face forward in the snow, his trailing foot having caught in the powder. Laying in the snow he realized he was only wearing the t-shirt and sweatpants he had worn to bed. His eyes looked straight up, searching for the blue sky. He knew he had to go on, but as he tried to rise up, he sank down into the snowbank until it had covered his face.
The snow still covered his face, but a series of thumps had penetrated his thoughts. Becoming more alert, he sat up and the white sheet fell from across his face. The bedroom was only visible by the sliver of light from under the door. Also coming from the door was the loud thumping, as someone banged their fist on the plastic. “Lake, get up, you need to see this,” shouted the voice on the other side of the door.
Lake got up quickly, leaving his foot trapped in the twisted sheet. He fell sideways, painfully grazing his shoulder on the metal frame of the other bunk bed. “Shit.” Pulling himself up from the floor he grabbed a jacket and headed towards the control center of the base.
The control center could have been in any office building in America. The room was filled with a series of cubicles, a printer, and bulletin boards covered in maps and geological data. Adjacent were offices for senior staff, including Krueger, and Weld in the winter off-season. The entire team was huddled around Bardeen’s workstation, looking at something on his monitor. Lake poked his head over the side of the cubicle enough to see the screen was displaying a live CNN feed. The president sat in the Oval Office, clearly a good way into an address to the nation. “... as Americans, we have faced great challenges before this moment, and working together with our friends, allies, and all those who wish to keep the human race intact, we will emerge safely from this as well.” Lake scanned the faces of his colleagues and was shocked by the fear evident on their faces. “Thank you, good night, and God Bless America.” The view of the Oval Office was cut off and was replaced with the Presidential Seal. The collection of scientists and engineers stood stunned, completely silent for a second. It was clearly a speech none of them would ever forget watching. Lake stared back at the screen as the CNN feed returned, revealing an equally shocked Jim Acosta.
“For those just tuning in, the president just a moment ago revealed that the asteroid 2675 Tolkien, supposed to exit Earth’s orbit next week, has broken in half and is headed towards earth.” The political correspondent paused and waited for the teleprompter. “The 5-kilometer wide section of 2675 Tolkien is plummeting towards earth at 17,400 m/s”.
Shutting off the feed, Krueger turned and addressed them as he must have addressed his men before combat. “The asteroid will land in less than three hours, and the models say the bulk of the mass will land outside Berlin.” Lake exhaled slightly at that; the Germans had a problem but it wouldn’t touch his life. Krueger continued, “Smaller chunks of rock have also splintered off and will make impact elsewhere in a similar time frame.”
“Are we ditching the base?” Bruce asked.
“At this point, we don’t have enough time to get evac, so our responsibility is the same, keep the base and equipment functioning,” Krueger replied. “All of you know your emergency assignments.” With that the group of seven split, dispersing around the base. Lake quickly donned his winter gear, covering his wool long underwear with a big outer coat designed to keep his heat in and the biting antarctic wind out. He and Bruce left the locker room and entered the small airlock that buffered the heated base from the outside. Opening the door was like entering another world, not the furious blizzard it had been the day before, but a silent empty space. The cold crept up on the two men as they walked across the open ground between buildings, crunching the dry powder underfoot. Short gusts of wind stalked them until they reached the relative safety of the vehicle depot.
The vehicle depot was an unheated outbuilding, serving as the staging and maintenance area for Scott’s four snowmobiles and a single large Snowcat which currently sat trackless in the maintenance rotation. The snowmobiles were lined up neatly along a small retaining wall, except for the designated rescue vehicle which was already fueled and waiting. Lake's shoulder throbbed from the earlier fall, reminding him of his first snowmobile ride.
His parents owned a house in Oregon, on the south side of Mount Hood. His whole family would fly up on a chartered jet for a weekend. One of those weekends his family had rented snowmobiles to explore the forest near their house. His older brother, Jackson, had persuaded him to come for another ride after dinner on Saturday night. Jackson grabbed the keys off the table by the back door and they got on. The two tracks had made Lake think of tanks, a preoccupation of his at the time. As they trundled through the snow, Lake pretended to be a famous general leading his tank into battle. The snowmobile approached the base of a large slope, the end of the plateau their house rested on. Jackson didn’t hesitate to begin the climb, accelerating up onto the hill. The snow was thick, much thicker than it had been on the path they had followed earlier in the day. The tracks pushed on, creating two ruts in the snow behind it. Suddenly Lake’s world had gone sideways, catapulting him off the snowmobile, and into a tree. The scar on his shoulder had never healed. After an hour his parents had found them, his mother gently picking him up off the ground while his father raged at Jackson.
“Pull that snowmobile around into line. I’ll go get the straps” Bruce ordered. Lake used his key to start the small engine, and after giving it time to heat up, pulled the snowmobile into line. Bruce re-emerged from the depot, letting the metal door slam shut behind him. He and Lake got to work quickly affixing each snowmobile to the metal rings in the ground with two straps each. After a few minutes, they were satisfied and moved into the depot. The second half of their emergency assignment was to secure the fuel drums outside of the depot. Lake opened the large garage door by pulling on the chain, and Bruce grabbed the hand truck. The fuel drums weighed almost 400 pounds and were impossible to move by hand. Even with the hand truck, it took both men to move one barrel at a time. Moving the entire winter supply of fuel was a painstaking task. Barrel by barrel they slowly secured the fuel, but Lake noticed the wind picking up each time they returned outside. After half an hour of shifting fuel barrels, it began to snow heavily, turning the floor of the depot next to the door white.
“Should we close the door before the snow gets any heavier?” Lake asked Bruce as they finished moving a barrel.
“We’ve still got six more drums. I wouldn’t want them getting hit by an asteroid,” Bruce joked darkly. As he spoke the two were hit by a gust of wind that sent them tumbling back into the row of barrels.
Lake’s radio crackled. “This storm cell has come in quickly and it looks like we are going to hit Condition 1 pretty soon, Krueger says everyone needs to stay where they are until this passes,” Tim Noakes relayed from the control center.
“Alright you win, let's close this door,” Bruce said. Lowering the door and securing it with a metal footing, they were now trapped in the vehicle depot. The weather outside was almost condition one, meaning the wind was over fifty-five knots or the temperature was below -73 degrees Celsius. Condition 1 was almost impossible to survive for any extended period of time, and it was against base rules to travel outside under Condition 1. Bruce grabbed two reflective blankets out of the safety locker and they camped out in the back corner of the building. With the garage door shut the depot was closed down tight, letting almost none of the heavy wind or snow in. Nevertheless, the cold seeped in through the walls, surrounding them. The sound of the storm also seeped in, a howling, thunderous roar that would have been panic-inducing if it had been the first time Lake heard it. Over the radio they could hear the rest of the team, coordinating their actions back in the main building. For the most part, everyone had completed their emergency assignments, buttoning up the base. Lake didn’t exactly understand how strapping down snowmobiles would protect them from falling rock, but the timing had at least been convenient to mitigate the unexpected storm cell. As the time to projected impact ticked down, Lake started getting nervous. It didn’t make sense because the likelihood of getting hit was tiny. He didn’t even know if an asteroid could hit both Berlin and Antarctica without the pieces doing a few extra orbits first. But somehow the whole thing still gave him the jitters. What did that much rock do when it landed? He thought back to his physics classes in college. Momentum equals mass times velocity; the thing was moving at 17,000 m/s. And how much did a 5 km wide section of rock weigh? It was a big number, but he couldn’t imagine what exactly that would do to the planet.
An almighty crash shook the depot and the ground he sat on, making his ears ring. He stood up suddenly and lost his balance, falling hard on the concrete floor. Bruce jumped up as well, but after the rumbling subsided there was nowhere to go; the storm still raged outside. “Was that an earthquake or did we really almost get crushed by an asteroid?” Bruce asked him.
“No way an earthquake happened at the same time the asteroid was supposed to hit,” Lake replied.
“Krueger? Noakes? Are you guys alright in the control center?” Bruce crackled into the radio. They waited for a moment, but there was no response on the other end. “Hello? Is anyone there? Can you hear me?”
“Were they hit? We have to go over there and check.” The concrete walls of the depot were windowless and there was no clear line of sight to the main building.
“We can’t leave the building, it’s still Condition 1 out there. Even if we did get over there, they’re probably already dead.”
“We have to give it a shot, they could still be there and have gotten cut off from their radio.” Lake moved towards the door, not looking back to see if Bruce was following him. Ripping open the metal door, he was again knocked off his feet. Blasting in through the opening, like a lake breaking through a dam, the wind and snow pummeled him. The sound was enormous, and the sheer force of the elements nearly pinned him to the ground. But remembering what Krueger had said the day before, that he was returning to a family back home, gave Lake the rush of strength to stand up and through the door. Standing outside, directly in the path of the wind, he couldn’t breathe. Grabbing for the wall, and orienting himself, Lake realized that he could no longer see the snowmobiles that should be strapped down fifteen feet in front of him. The only things in his field of vision were the concrete wall and a white blur on all other sides. Lake realized the only way he would be able to reach the main building was by walking around the depot, keeping his hand on the wall, and hoping that after the end of the wall he kept walking in the right direction. Any gust of wind could spin him around, hopelessly disorienting him. Behind him, he felt something touch his shoulder and turned around to see Bruce with a hand there. They couldn’t speak through the roar, but he could see Bruce nod his head. Pushing forward together now, they moved towards the edge of the wall in the direction of the main building. Lake felt his hand slide off, so he began to concentrate on keeping each step even and straight. Step by step he moved forward, buffeted from behind by the wind. The ground that had crunched underfoot just hours before was now a slog to walk through, the fresh powder laying heavily. Lake took another step forward and kicked something. Looking down he saw one of the structural beams that should have been holding up the walls of the dormitories. Grabbing Bruce’s arm and pulling him forward, he wildly motioned at the beam, which he could now see was still attached to some of the outer sheet metal walling. Still absorbed by the nexus of the storm, they both stepped up onto the sheet metal and started picking their way through the rubble, towards where the control room should have stood. It was hopeless, the building was demolished and lay cratered. After that impact and fifteen minutes in these conditions, no human being could have survived. But shooting up into the sky above him, an orange flare defied what must have been fact. In the brief period the flare illuminated the base, Lake glimpsed the remains of the control room ahead of him. The walls formed a teepee, with a small space in the center, maybe just enough space. Bruce rushed forward and Lake followed behind immediately. The ‘teepee’ was open to the air through a single broken window, which Bruce stuck his head into. Lake followed, looking into the small space below. Inside to his surprise were two very alive men. Krueger laid against a broken cubicle, and to his right Weld was holding a balled-up shirt against his stomach. Lake pushed Bruce aside and stepped down into the rubble. Pulling the balaclava off his face, he screamed through the wind, “Where are the others?”
“Dead,” Krueger shouted back bluntly.
“Can you move?”
Krueger nodded his head and rose, keeping his weight on his right leg. Lake grabbed his arm and helped him climb up through the window towards Bruce. Looking back down, he saw Weld was not standing up. Lake grabbed his arm and tried to pick him up, but Weld shook his arm out of Lake’s grip. Weld shook his head now, motioning with his hand for Lake to leave him. Momentarily Lake considered leaving him, it seemed to be what he wanted. But he couldn’t just let someone freeze to death when it was in his power to help them. Grabbing Weld by the shoulders, he hauled him up towards the window. Mindful of the wound in his stomach that was now leaking blood onto his white jacket, Lake pushed him out and onto his back. Bruce and Lake carried Weld, while Krueger held onto Bruce’s right shoulder to keep weight off of his injured left leg.
When they reached the vehicle depot, Bruce slammed the door shut and bolted it. Lake rushed to grab the emergency blankets and they began to give first aid to Krueger and Weld. Krueger’s injuries were worse than they had looked. His left leg was mangled, with a slice of his leg cut off. The bone was visible beside his knee, but somehow he wasn’t losing blood quickly. The fracture was too complex for a splint to help much, so they settled for wrapping the bleeding leg in layers of gauze.
Weld was obviously dying. After taking off his jacket and shirt, they saw what had caused the wound. A foot-long section of thin metal pipe went through his stomach and out the other side. The pipe gushed blood in huge spurts in a constant rhythm, but removing it would have opened up his stomach and organs to the air.
“I had to break off the other end of the pipe, it was still attached to the ceiling and pinning Weld to the ground,” Krueger explained. “He won’t survive much longer without a doctor and there’s no way we get one with the communications in the base destroyed.”
“That much is obvious,” Bruce replied.
“What about the antenna tower?” Lake asked
“It’s two miles away. Good luck reaching it now. It might even have been hit by the asteroid too.” Krueger said. Lake looked back down at Weld, laying there in a pool of his own blood. Stuffing gauze down, and around the pipe had slowed the bleeding, but he needed a transfusion.
“How much food do we have in the emergency locker?” Lake asked Bruce. Bruce opened the locker and stepped aside, revealing its contents. The locker was filled with blankets, flares, and first-aid kits, but bare of food or water.
“There was never any reason to have food in the emergency lockers; there was enough emergency food in the storage room for a year,” Krueger said.
“I’ll use a snowmobile, it can get me there and back quickly,” Lake said.
“That’s out of the question! It’s suicide,” Krueger replied.
“So is sitting here and waiting.” Lake grabbed an extra jacket out of the emergency locker. He reached behind one of the rows of barrels they had stacked earlier, to grab a red jerry can of fuel.
“I’ll go with you. Two of us will have a better shot,” Bruce offered. The offer was sincere, but Lake could tell Bruce didn’t want to go. Anyway, he wasn’t going to let Bruce take the same risk.
“Bruce, someone needs to stay with Krueger and Weld.” Bruce accepted this with a nod of his head, looking at Lake with deeper respect than their brief friendship had previously entailed.
“Lake, you are not going out that door,” Krueger commanded, coming off forcefully despite the weakness in his voice. Lake took a step past him on the floor, and Krueger reached forward to grab his leg. Krueger’s injured leg shifted and he shouted out in pain. Lake walked towards the door, grabbing the handle. Turning around for a moment he took a look at the three of them: Bruce, the only one at Scott Base he could call his friend; Krueger, normally as intense as the cold, but now looking small on the concrete floor; and Weld, on the verge of death. Opening the sheet metal door, he stepped out.
Pushing his way through the driving snowstorm, he made his way to the first snowmobile in line. Dropping the jerry can, he reached down and opened the seat of the snowmobile to grab a screwdriver. Positioning the metal shaft of the screwdriver inside the ratchet block, he used all his strength to lever the ratchet open and release the strap holding down the snowmobile. The stainless steel ratchet exploded in his hand. Lake realized that the metal must have frozen so cold that it was brittle. Using the screwdriver he cracked open the other ratchet, pulling the straps out of their metal hooks. He poured the jerry can of fuel into the tank and then swept as much snow as he could off the seat of the snowmobile. The engine didn’t start on the first try, or the second. Finally with a grind and then a rumble, the freezing cold engine block came to life. Lake pulled the snowmobile out through the snow, navigating by memory, and drove out onto the makeshift roadway around Scott Base. Some of the snow had died down now, and the visibility was slightly improved. There was just enough now that Lake could faintly make out the blinking red dot hundreds of feet above his head and two miles north of him.
The tracks made twin wakes through the snow, like a boat on the water. The hills of snow around him looked like massive waves but had none of the same power. He began to feel calm, relaxed, lulled almost to sleep by the blinking red light that grew stronger by the second. Lake thought his father might be proud of this, a heroic gesture. The same thing had jumpstarted John Kennedy’s political career. The thought gave him unexpected guilt, a feeling he wasn’t accustomed to. The snowmobile stopped moving forward, planting firmly in the snow. Lake realized this after a few seconds, struggling to remember what that meant. Turn the engine back on, turn the starter with his key. The engine didn’t start on the first try, or the second, or the third. The starter stopped making much noise at all. He remembered this somewhere in the back of his head; these conditions were cold enough to freeze the gasoline in your tank. But Lake didn’t panic. He knew where the red light was and he could get there. Stepping off the snowmobile, he took a step towards the light, and then a few more.
Time passed, and Lake was aware that he was running through the snow, lifting his feet through snow that got thicker with every step. The frost stung his face, but it was too late to stop. He knew that what he wanted was just over the hill. More time passed, maybe a few seconds, maybe all the time he had. The red light blazed, far above him but now he was at its base. An electric box sat there attached to the metal frame of the tower. Lake grabbed the door, and it swung open easily as if it knew he was coming. He knew where to go, what he wanted. Grabbing a red wire he easily snapped it in half, the red light shut off. Taking both ends of the now severed wire, he touched them together, making the light blink on and off.
Lake rested easy knowing that he had what he wanted. The soft bank of snow was more comfortable than any surface he had ever touched. Pulling off his hood and balaclava, he rested his weary head on a cool, white pillow. Sinking back, he went gratefully into the cold.