This story was written in response to Chuck Wendig’s Shackleton’s Scotch challenge. Though in my research, I couldn’t find any record of Shackleton actually carrying scotch so I’ve changed it to brandy.
“Pendleton’s fucking dead,” Remer said to no one in particular. The radio stopped working an hour before, whether from the cold or just the batteries gone dead, he didn’t know. He stomped over land, through shards of ice sometimes as high as his waist. The sounds of them scattering everywhere in his wake made him think of a silent cocktail party, glasses clinking in a muted room.
The hut was up ahead. He known it would be there. It been there for a hundred years or more. The last outpost of a perilous journey. But back then, everyone had got out alive. As far as Remer knew, he was the only one left. With the amount of blood he’d seen on the ice, steaming and pooling and soaking into the porous ground, he was sure everyone else was dead.
He slid most of the way down an embankment, leading to the invisible shore. The sea was encrusted with as much ice as the land and a hint of darkness on the horizon was the only indication that it was even there. He finally reached the hut but it didn’t offer much shelter. The beating winds came in flurries, whipping through decrepit boards and blowing century old canvas till it beat against the air like a waving flag. Remer hunched down and inspected his dwindling supplies.
Pendleton had not outfitted the expedition with any kind of defensive weaponry. Unlike the arctic, they’d thought there were no apex predators prowling the antarctic plain. No governments at war like they’d found in the Karakorams when they led the first winter expedition up K2. Then they’d come prepared with hand guns, rifles, flares. Here it just would’ve been dead weight for someone to carry around. Remer grunted a bitter laugh at this miscalculation.
The hut did offer a good vantage over land. If they’d followed him off the trail, he’d be able to see them coming. Downwind from the ridge, he should even be able to smell them coming. He concentrated on find some way to weaponize the various ropes and buckles he had at his disposal. He risked building a small fire in the old stove to keep his aching joints spry. He warmed himself slowly on the shore in Shackleton’s hut, waiting for rescue or death.
Night was short, thankfully, at the edge of the antarctic continent in the summer. The sun performed its looping wave, dipped just beyond the horizon before popping up again. The hut cast a long shadow to the west and Remer sat inside it watching. By this point he’d exhausted any usefulness left in his own supplies and started pillaging the cast away booty from Shackleton’s settlement. He found cracked tins full of pickled meats that had become rock hard jerky in the preceding century along with the fermented remains of fruits and vegetables. Under the pile of foodstuffs he came across a pair of spiked ski boots. The leather had wilted but he was able to strap the metal soles across his fist to create a makeshift weapon.
Remer wasn’t sure how long he’d been holed up when he started to think thristy thoughts. He brought in pans full of ice to melt over the little flame but the water had a salty mineral taste, like frozen piss. He ventured warily out to the ice shelves on the higher ridges and came back with the same lot, undrinkable. The flask in his pack was worth nary a swallow. The ultra-dry air sapped the moisture from his mouth and left his tongue swollen. He made an effort to keep his mouth firmly shut and tried to nap on one of the old cots.
Sounds from the distance broke the silence and roused Remer from his uneasy rest. Hooting calls from over the ridge. And then from up the shore. And then coming down from the mountain base. Remer searched the skyline for the ragged hairy shapes he’d only caught glimpses of as he fled the camp but nothing moved. The ocean was still as well, no miraculous ships appearing out of the calm. No ice breakers storming up the shore to rescue him. He turned to the radio once more, fidgeting with the controls with his clumsy gloved hands. No lights, no squawks, dead.
The noises ceased after a while but the silence that replaced them felt even more uneasy. Remer strapped on his spiked knuckles and sat facing the continent warped by thirst and fear. He chased spots in his vision, startled by their movement in his peripheral vision. Night fell again.
The calls from over the ridge came again in the dawn, closer together now and closer to the hut as well. Remer sat slumped on an crate wrapped in old wool blankets. His eyes had sunk deep into his skull and shrunk to slits against the daylight, ice tipped eyelashes obscuring his vision. The din from the creatures beyond seemed more distant to him now, even though they came from just beyond his line of site. He rose on wobbling legs back and considered the crate underneath him. A glint of glass shone from a hole punched through the side by bulging ice.
Remer punched at the side of the crate weakly, then tugged until they came free to reveal several bottles labeled Cabinet Brandy. He dropped his would be weapons to the ground and plucked out a bottle. Alcohol, he knew, would exacerbate his dehydration issue but the problem seemed remote, frivolous. He tried to coordinate his hands to open the corked bottle but gave up and shattered it’s neck against the beam in the entryway. Honey brown liquid spilled out onto the ice.
There were thumping sounds now from over the ridge. Remer could here hot breath descending, closing in on the hut. He raised the broken bottle to his mouth and took a mouthful. He shut his eyes and felt the warmth in his chest, in his lungs. He could hear the breath at his back now. One more drink out here on the edge, and it would be over.