Friday, January 16, 2009

Best served cold

Hey, I forgot to post a preview of "The Coldest War"! Here it is:

"I may be gone for some time," Gord had said.
It was their only joke, Oates' last words as he left Scott's shelter in Antarctica, and like everything else in the base it had been worn smooth with use and re-use: Stan and Gord each said it before leaving the base, every time they went out to walk the inuksuit and fire the flare, their way of laughing at the dark.
The whole island was just over a kilometer square; on a good day, Defence had calculated the whole circuit would take just over three hours. The problem was that Hans Island had no good days. At this time of year there were hardly any days at all: only a little over an hour of grey twilight around noon, the remaining time given over to the endless Arctic dark.
Stan glanced at his watch, put down his book and went to start the Coleman stove. Though it was substantially warmer within Base Hearn than outside, where kerosene turned thick and white as lard, it still took the stove a few minutes to heat up; while he waited Stan unpacked two dozen frozen Tim Hortons doughnuts and a can of coffee. It was a challenge, getting the six thousand calories they needed each day, but the doughnuts and coffee were more than a contribution towards that: the two half-hour overlaps between their shifts were the only time either of them saw another human being each day, and the ritual helped them pretend that they were back in the real world -- not planting a frozen toehold for Canada in a place so remote even the Inuit considered it uninhabitable.
Before long the stove was hissing with a bright blue flame, but Gord had not returned. Stan checked his watch: 14:35, just five minutes late -- six hours was normally enough time to get from base to base, but with the storm he could hear howling outside it might easily take more. He turned the stove low, just hot enough to keep the fuel liquid, picked up the one-volume Deptford Trilogy and started reading, careful not to lose Gord's place.
It was around 14:45 when Stan checked his watch again, and he decided to brew the coffee and fry the first dozen doughnuts. He had to give himself a good ten minutes to suit up, not to mention warming his hands enough that he could stand to insert the catheter, so he unsealed the pack of frozen doughnuts and tossed them in the skillet. The smell quickly filled the small space, the fat surrounding each doughnut melting and starting to sizzle, and when the coffee aroma joined it Stan could almost imagine he was home.
When another ten minutes had passed he began to worry. Gord was now almost a half-hour late, and Stan began to wonder if something had happened to him. Of course, he might just be holed up in Base Franklin; they were under strict radio silence -- anything battery-powered died within a week in this cold, anyway, and their hand-crank radios could receive but not send -- so there was no way to communicate between the two bases, just thirty-five meters apart as the goose flew. No way, for that matter, to send a cry for help.
Stan sighed, drank the last of his coffee; a layer of frost had already begun to creep inwards from the rim of the mug. "Sorry, Gord," he said as he shut off the stove's low flame, hoping the fuel would not have time to thicken again before Gord got back. He pulled his undersuit off the hook, stepped to the middle of the room where he could stand up straight and stepped into it, cotton and Kevlar covering everything but his mouth and eyes. Then he popped a bulb of hydrating gel into his mouth, minty and medicinal, and stepped to the first door of the heatlock.
He reached towards the emergency override before stopping himself. If something had happened to Gord -- if he wasn't just late, hadn't just decided to wait out the weather at Base Franklin -- what if it hadn't been an accident? What if there was a Dane out there?

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