The glacial plains are much like the deserts from history, my grandfather told me, except they are a little more forgiving. He was a boy when the sun had been brighter and the oceans were liquid. His father had told him once that the ice was almost all melted back then, but that is a tale too far gone to be believed today. Much like how there used to be millions of people that once lived here. Now there is little but the ice.
My brothers and I had left the village two months ago. Our expedition consisted of the three of us and a bare fraction of the food the old expeditions had when they left. The last was three years ago. It was the fifteenth and the send off was less a celebration and more a funeral. I remember crying as Sal turned his back to go. I’d given him my best knife because I knew I’d never see him again and I wanted him to have something to remember me by. The hope of our people had run out long ago. It’s been thirty years since the first expedition was sent out. Now we were the last. Our father hugged each of us tightly. He hugged Erel the longest, and though I know he meant for no one else to hear it, I couldn’t help but catch the words on the frozen air. Erel still hasn’t shared it with Dante or myself. I’m not sure he ever will.
For two month’s we’ve been taking turns pulling the sled. It took little effort due to the sharp skis and the light load, and none of us complained of the responsibility like we would have when we were younger. Our food was nearly out. We came across a tent a few days back. After some trouble, we were able to pry the jackets off the corpses and found a few dried strips of meat that had been taken by the frost. Dante still packed them on the sled. “Better than nothing,” he’d said. We’d returned to our glum silence afterward.
The deserts, apparently somewhere far below the ice now, were made of endless sand. The sun would shine bright and burn you during the day, and when the sun set the heat would disappear and leave you freezing during the night. Such were the stories we were told. The glacial plain reflected the dim sunlight and made the daytime bearable. At best, maybe a millimeter of ice would melt by midday. Enough to make the sled glide almost on its own. It would refreeze before nightfall. We would use the state of the ice as the time of day. Shortly after the ice froze again, we would set up camp and huddle together in the small tent, relying on each other for warmth to last the night. Every night we weren’t sure if we’d make it, but every night we slept soundly.
And so each day went by. The monotonous repetition of wake, walk, and sleep. We would gather the small snow that drifted atop the ice and melt it for breakfast. We’d run out of solid food two weeks ago and made do with hot water for meals. Erel handed the sled off to me, then I to Dante, then Dante would decide where we’d camp for the night. Day by day we kept going because we had no other path to turn to. We wouldn’t have been able to make it back to the village even if we’d turned back three weeks ago. We kept our path despite knowing that we weren’t going to make it. The peaks we’d first seen two weeks ago were on the horizon. Three little hills of black rock above the white and blue of snow and ice. There was a small chance we’d find villages there. Even if we had, the chances of them having food were just as slim. Yet they remained forever on the horizon. Day after day, we would cover miles, but the hills were never closer.
We kept silent as the days went by. Conserving energy was our top priority. We knew each other’s thoughts though. We were brothers. Erel would set the pace. Dante and I followed. Dante would stop pulling. Erel and I would set up the tent. Our once thick, muscled bodies were thinning. I felt it each night. Less heat. If we hadn’t taken the jackets from the dead men, we would have joined them days ago.
Luck found us during the new moon. We were trudging along when, just before midday, the ice shifted. A cracking, then an eruption. The noise was deafening against the soft whisper of the breeze. Off to our right, something had broken from the ice. Steam shot out from underneath and slowly dissipated to reveal a large metal cone protruding from the surface. We spent the remainder of the day making our way to it. We reached it just before nightfall. A warmth radiated from the hard surface. We made camp before the sun had completely disappeared. Each of us slept with our backs to the metal as it provided more warmth than we could for each other.
I was woken before morning by a high pitch squeal and a rumbling. The metal was retracting. Erel and Dante woke before it was completely gone beneath the ice. Steam rose from the hole it left and we tried gazing in. With silent nods we decided to see what lay below. First Erel then Dante walked slowly into the cloud of steam. I followed but the air was thick and hot and I could not see a foot in front of me. I was grabbed by two figures and they dragged my further in. I had no strength to fight them and their very presence gave me hope that I may be able to eat something solid. The steam disappeared and I was brought before a masked man.
“Another one?” he said, his voice muffled by the mask. His eyes were visible behind clear goggles. My handlers said nothing. “Take him to the infirmary too.”
I awoke in a dark room. Light came from little spots on the wall, but it wasn’t sunlight. The air was harsh but warm. Erel and Dante were in beds next to mine. They wore thin clothes that hardly covered them. I looked down and saw I wore the same. For three days we were confined to our beds, but they fed us more in that time than we’d had the past two years.
On the fourth day, a large, rough man came and escorted us out of the room and had us climb into a metal box on wheels. It began moving before we sat down. I could not accurately predict the flow of time having not seen the sun or the ice for three days. We must have been in that box for the better part of one day before it stopped. The doors opened and we were ushered out and into a small room with a table and chairs. The door opened and a man walked in.
“Welcome, my friends,” he said. We all remained seated. He drew his knife and laid it on the table. I recognized it immediately.
“Sal?” My voice cracked. It was the first I’d spoken in over a month. Erel and Dante looked at him closely. Sal hugged me. I knew it was him. My brothers observed a little longer before they were convinced.
“Sal,” Erel said. His voice seemed foreign even to me. “So it was true?”
“It was,” he said, “Welcome to your new lives boys. It’s not too easy, but it’s just as the stories predicted.”
“But what about the village?” Dante interrupted. “We have to go back.”
Erel shook his head. “No. We can’t.”
“But ma, and pa, and Elle?”
“We are working our way to them right now,” Sal said. “Once we found this place, we’ve been having them work back to the village. I thought we were close. How long have you guys been up there?”
“Two months,” I said.
“Shit. Well, we’ve probably got another few weeks of drilling then, but we’ll get to them. How are my parents?”
Erel shook his head again. Our father’s words echoed in my head as they did every night since we’d left.
“There’s no need to go there,” Erel said. “They’re all dead.”
“What?” Sal and Dante said in unison.
“Pa told Erel not to come back for them,” I said.
Erel glared at me.
“I heard him whisper to you,” I admitted.
“But why?” Dante asked. Sal crossed his arms and waited for the answer as well.
“They ran out of food before we even left,” Erel said. Dante sat back down.
“I’m sorry,” Sal said. He was visibly shaken, but he held himself well. “We will still go back. In case any are still alive. We can at least set give them a proper goodbye.”
I thanked him. He left us alone in the room for some time before coming back to get us. It was faint, but I could tell he shed a few tears as well. We were to start a new life here, beneath the ice, and I for one was more than ready.