Shell knew he had a few more hours before the dehydration would reach critical limit. It wouldn’t be long before his judgment would be impaired and he would begin stripping himself of his heavy insulation, the dying neurons convinced he was boiling. He removed the mask from his face and shouted downwind to Ozzie, who was adjusting the nozzle of her oxygen tank.
“How much further to the coordinates? I don’t know if I can make it much longer without water.” The convoy had rerouted back to the base and left them 49 degrees and roughly the same number of miles off course. Shell was navigating the frozen archipelago by a compass his father would have thought out of date when he established the settlement here on the Norwegian island. He was starting to regret agreeing to let Ozzie join him.
“If we keep up our pace and don’t run into any crevasses or hollow ice, three hours?” Her voice trilled above the scream of the permafrost wasteland around them.
“That’s too long” he shouted back.
Ozzie knelt down and chipped away at some ice on the surface and brought over a small handful to Shell, who pushed away her outstretched hand. “There’s no way of telling just what pH count that is, and ever since the Toadstool, ice has been forming and melting and reforming too frequently to know what toxins are in there.”
“Suit yourself. But I’d rather be radioactive than dead.” With that, she pulled up her mask and started trekking. Permafrost stretched as far as the eye could see. The fissure had to be nearby and Shell hoped the other team had made it back to base, though his radio had been silent for days.
All we need to do is get to the compound.
And so they kept walking. Soon any bits of exposed flesh – the gap between the bottom of the goggles and bit of face mask that covered their noses and mouths, were peeling with sunburn. The final hour felt as long as the decade that had passed since the attack – interminable, hopeless, and futile. The only thing they could do was put one foot in front of the other.
The fissure wasn’t visible until they were almost on top of it. The topography had changed a great deal since the last time Shell had seen it; when everyone from the base had deposited their embryos inside the impregnable deep-freeze, a failsafe protection for the future. But the signpost that used to carry the jaunty flag of the Confederation of Surviving Nations had broken off, and there were tide marks halfway up the doorframe of the entrance to the arctic stronghold.
Shell punched at the keypad with fingers arthritic from the cold. Nothing. He tried again with similar results. A yowl tore from his throat and he slammed the palm of his hand against the apparatus, throwing his shoulder against the door.
“Shell, stop.” Ozzie fished around in her pack.
“It won’t open. I don’t understand. This base was supposed to be monitored 24/7.”
“It’s rusted over. The meltwaters must have reached further north than we thought.”
Shell’s rage crested and he slumped his back against the doorframe, sliding down to land with a childish thud against the icy ground. “This was supposed to last for eternity.”
“Yeah.” She had found was she was looking for: a small battered tin bottle.
“You had water this whole time and didn’t tell me?”
“Hey, I’m a sharer. Whatever’s mine is yours.” The liquid sloshed hollow and enticing. He ripped off the top and took a long pull. Her chuckle deepened and spread in seismic waves as he spluttered and swore, the alcohol stinging his throat and flooding up his retronasal passageways.
“The last of the whiskey from the base. I’d been saving it to celebrate, but a tot as we fade into the sunset seems equally appropriate, don’t you think.” She took a swig.
“We’re not gonna make it back”
“I reckon you’re right. But by the looks of it, we’re gonna get one hell of a sunset tonight.”
“Ozzie, we’re too far north for that.”
“Drink your whiskey and pipe down, I’ve got a great imagination.”
Everything around them was grey and white and sounded exactly like the television when his father would fall asleep drunk and leave it playing only to have the line blown out by a tree branch or something. Snow. It sounds only like one sound at first, the same way that white looks only like one colour until your eyes adjust. Greens and pinks started appearing and Shell could almost pick out a melody amongst the white noise. It was lovely.
Written by Sasha Wilson with artwork by Michelle Coler and voiced by Sandra Soson
Inspired by: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/19/arctic-stronghold-of-worlds-seeds-flooded-after-permafrost-melts