So this scene, like the 16th’s didn’t originate from a prompt. I wanted to explore the idea of desolation and loneliness. What’s one of the loneliest places on the planet– personally I think Antarctica is up there.
Anton had never thought himself an explorer in any respect, but lo, here he was. A mix of pride and fear of the unknown welled in his chest as he and Marie, his team lead, marched on into the blinding brightness of the cold dunes at the bottom of the earth. It wasn’t like back at UCLA. Here, on a clear day, he could see to the horizon in almost every direction. Today was one of those days, nothing but blue skies and white ice. No trace of any other humans. To pull back from his mentally desolate edge, Anton occupied his thoughts with the waddle of penguins that had appeared on the horizon.
“It still amazes me,” Anton said through the black-mesh face cover that left only his eyes exposed.
“What does? Penguins?” Marie mused.
“No. Well, yeah. Penguins. But just the fact that a living thing has adapted itself to live in such an unforgiving place.”
Marie smiled, though Anton couldn’t see it. She understood his wonderment immediately. She too had been a newbie at one point– everyone had. Seeing the struggle of life on a documentary or in stills doesn’t compare to being up close and personal.
“I mean it is incredible,” Marie began. “But where’s there’s water,” she said kicking the ice with her spiked boots, “organic life always finds a way.”
Anton didn’t feel completely satisfied with the answer, but shrugged it off as the two continued on into the wastes.
The two marched alongside parallel to the penguins for a time, stealing a glance every few minutes. Compared to the hunched march of the colorless soldiers, Anton and Marie looked out of place. Both wore their institute-issued neon-orange jackets atop their black layered pants. Each had their fur-lined hood up over their head to ward off the biting southern wind. They were, by Marie’s estimation, about half of a mile out from base.
“This spot ought to be good.” Marie said turning to Anton and confirming their coordinates on their GPS. The two stopped and humped their heavy packs off. Slowly and deliberately the two took out the makings of Marie’s developmental probe. Altogether it weighed eighty pounds and stood five feet tall when completed. Due to the inconvenience of construction, they had decided before setting out to build on-site. Together they struggled for the better part of two hours trying to assemble the blasted thing with in spite of their bulky gloves.
“Can you help me?” Marie asked turning to Anton who was then sitting on the ground attempting to assemble one of the legs.
“I need help,” she sighed holding up the base of the pulsing-sensor mount. “See this little screw here? It needs to go here, but every time I try to thread it, the damn screws sticks.” Marie held the two-centimeter screw up in her cupped right hand and the mount in the left.
Anton grunted his way to his feet, fighting the bulk of his gear the entire way up. “You tried the WD-40?”
“Couldn’t. My can is out.”
“Mine is too, almost.” Anton frowned shaking his can. “Here, let me see that,” he said reaching for the mount.
Marie handed over the mount, dropped the screw into Anton’s glove and pulled her magnetic screwdriver from her pocket. Anton grabbed all three in sequence and took a knee on the ice. His first attempt yielded nothing. Neither did his second or fourth or seventh, each becoming increasingly hasty.
“It’s these fucking gloves,” Anton grunted pulling the mesh away from his face. He stuck the index finger in his mouth and began to pull.
“I don’t think it’s going to work better when your hands become numb.” Marie said standing over his work.
“It’ll be real quick. I just need to get it started.”
Marie looked down at her watch, 2 p.m. The sun would be setting on their expedition soon turning their white tundra into a twilight-blue death sentence. At a brisk walking pace of 3 miles an hour she figured that their return journey would be about ten to fifteen minutes. With only 45 minutes to get this probe in the ground she wasn’t in a position to argue with Anton’s logic.
“Just be careful,” Marie said. “These conditions,” she paused to give her calculation a bit of credibility “you have maybe, two, two-and-a-half minutes until frostbite sets in. Once that happens, that hand’ll be useless until we get it warmed up.”
Anton nodded wordlessly, barely hearing Marie’s warning. His glove was now hanging from his mouth as he took the screw tried to force it down and through the threading. His first attempt was unsuccessful. By the second Anton’s hand began to shake heavily and his breathing became labored.
“Just leave Anton. Put your glove back on.”
Anton ignored the command and took a deep breath to steady. On his third attempt he forced the screw in partially. “Here,” he said handing over the mount. His hand shook as he put the glove back on.
“You alright?” Marie asked attaching the sensor base on top of the center stand.
Anton said slowly flexing his fingers. His right pinky and ring finger completely stiffened and all around his hand felt prodded at by invisible needles. “It’ll be fine. Fingers are just a bit numb at the moment.”
“Yeah, exposure to high winds and negative 40 degree temperature will do that to ya.”
Anton walked back to his pack for his chemical hand warmers while Marie finished up the initial mounting. Anton continued to flex his fingers and pace in behind Marie while she attached the rest of the legs to the constructed probe.
“So what does this thing do again?” Anton asked watching Marie hammer the second leg deep into the ice.
“It collects,” Marie began, exhaling between each blow, “thermal and flow data from underneath the ice.”
“Flow data?” Anton gaped.
“Sorry, yeah it’s an idea I’ve been working on for a while. So it’s essentially sonar that we use to measure currents of water under the ice.”
“Okay, but what’re the applications?” Anton asked trying to keep up.
Marie didn’t know if he was sincere at this point or just trying to save face. She was after all a leading climate scientists in her field and Anton was just a marine biologist.
“This continent is breaking. Not as in melting per say, although that is also happening. But it’s also literally breaking apart. My hypothesis deals with over-energized currents of water are running underneath the ice effectively carving off huge slabs of ice.”
Marie stood and reveled at the probe she had seen evolve all the way from her initial designs. The cold was beginning to spread through her toes and fingers now. It was time to head back to base before the cold crept any further. Marie turned westward. The waning sun was now nearing the horizon. For a moment the brilliance of the red and purple sky caught her off her guard..
“Hey,” Anton said putting a hand on Marie’s shoulder. “We should get going soon.I don’t want to get caught out here in the dark.”
“Yeah you’re right.” Marie said. “Just one last thing.” She reached in her pack and drew out an orange ribbon. Gently she tied the ribbon in a bow around one of the probes legs. They gathered their packs and set off with the sunset at their backs towards a blurred indigo skyline.