A Hike on the Icecaps of Mars
The door of the stone emergency shelter cabin was missing. I looked at it and cursed. It was snowing, the wind was whipping, and we had no door on the cabin that had been marked on our stupid fucking maps as the one place where we could maybe, possibly, have waited out this storm.
I stopped walking and turned to shout at Ghang — he was walking a few yards behind me. I hollered to him that there was no door. He shouted something unintelligible back… Whatever it was, the wind blocked a lot of it out. I shouted at him to explain. He was a little closer to me this time, and removed the fleece scarf covering his mouth before shouting back: “WHAT DID YOU SAY THE FIRST TIME?”. He quickly covered his mouth again. I removed my scarf and informed him that “THERE’S NO DOOR ON THE CABIN”. He stopped walking and just stared at the rectangular outline a few feet in front of us.
He removed his scarf to speak again, then his eyes fixed on the cabin, and then he just stopped for a bit. He was staring at where the door should be. After a few second he looked at me and said “WELL WE MIGHT AS WELL GO IN ANYWAY. WAIT FOR THE DRONES.” I dropped my scarf and said “SURE”. My lips felt numb.
We walked inside the crude, red stone shelter. It had a broken window that was letting in some snow inside in addition to the flurries coming in through the spot where the door was meant to be. But this was better. The wind wasn’t as bad. Ghang and I sat in a corner and looked around. A light blanket of snow covered an area extending out from the doorframe and below the half-shattered window. There were no foreign footsteps in the snow — not even the deep kind that you can still barely see after 6–7 inches fall which indicate that someone was somewhere some time ago. The snow was inside the cabin was pristine, actually. Perfectly smooth and white, but for a few footsteps we left. I stared at it for some time.
The perfection of it made me feel a strange kind of alone. I realized that we were very far away from anyone, even the other half of our ice-cap expedition. There’s a kind of solitude that only comes when you realize you’re one of maybe two conscious beings about for a few dozen miles. It almost feels like when you walk around a residential neighborhood late at night and see no cars on the street or lights on in the houses. You realize this is your world, but there’s a slight sadness to it all. No people means that there’s nothing to do. The best you can do is hope someone else shows up. But this feeling, it was worse. In fact, the feeling of being on a Martian icecap without anyone — save the man next to me — for at least 175 miles, was far, far worse. It hurt.
I looked around a little more while Ghang stared at his gloves. He was rubbing his hands together, trying to make warmth. The remnants of a fire was in the center of the building — someone else had clearly used the hut before us. I could also see that the maker of the fire was long gone: The stone circle around a pile of burnt things on the tile floor was close to covered with snow. I could see bits of a burnt chair leg and a piece of wood with a soot-singed doorknob attached to it sticking out from under the powder.
This gave me pause. I, maybe naively, previously had some hope that the door was somewhere in the building. I had wondered if we could reattach it. That was no longer a possibility for us.
I slowly began to understand that whoever was here before us had been very, very desperate to keep their fire going. Probably too desperate. They burnt everything in here, I imagine, if they got to the point where they burnt the door. This didn’t bode well for the two of us: we had no door or chair legs to burn. Or even a lighter, if we did have something flammable. Our world was this snow-covered half-burnt wood and nothing but me, Ghang, and our cargo: Wilson.
I started thinking about Wilson and turned to Ghang. We were curled up next to each other, tucked in our corner, so I didn’t need to shout to speak.
“The sled — the sled. I don’t see it is… is it outside the cabin?”
‘No, Rob. I’m sorry.’
“Is it far away?”
‘I don’t know.’
He looked at me intently; there was sadness in his eyes, frost on his eyelashes.
‘I cut the rope off my waist when the storm started — I couldn’t pull it anymore.’
He looked down at his hands again.
‘The wind was whipping it, it was jerking me around and pulling me down and I could barely even saw at the cable with my knife because my hands where shaking and I am sorry — I am so, so sorry, Rob, and, and I— ’
“Don’t panic. It’s fine.”
I looked at my hands for a while before rubbing my gloves together, just like Ghang was doing. I spoke after I felt a bit of warmth reaching my palms:
“I had just wanted to pray over him. Thought he might make it.”
We sat in silence for a bit. I looked up from my hands, then over at Ghang before speaking again. He was still staring at his hands when I began:
“Was he talking to you before the wind kicked up?”
‘No. He stopped an hour or so after it started snowing. Before Tse got lost, even.’
“Did he respond to anything during that?”
I paused again. We sat for a while; the wind was howling.
‘Did you see where Tse went?’
“No. Just snow. I shouted for him for a while, too. I heard nothing. Then I heard you shouting for him, and me, and Darrien.”
‘I think one of those two had the lighters.’
“Both of them did, I think. Or maybe one of them and Wilson.”
The wind picked up and we sat for a while.
‘Would it be worth it to go look for them?’
“I don’t think so.”
We sat in silence, again, after that. I don’t know for how long. It felt like hours. We stared at our hands and shivered.
At some point I looked up at the metal, triangular ceiling of the hut.
More time elapsed. Ghang and I got colder; the wind got louder.
We moved closer after a while, when we were practically seizing from the way our bodies where shuddering. The huddling didn’t help much. After a while of that, I started back up. I sighed, and said:
“Ghang — do you think we were sent here to die?”
‘No, Rob — I don’t think that —’
“But the maglev, Ghang. The maglev. We couldn’t find it. It’s a train. Trains don’t just disappear.”
‘Rob, what are you saying?’
“There was no train, Ghang. There was never a train.”
Ghang was looking at his hands again. I was back to staring at the ceiling. We sat in silence for some time. Eventually Ghang stirred.
He pulled his hands away from each other and then used one to open his coat slightly — he fished around in it before producing a black envelope.
I tried to take it, but my hands kept trembling. I eventually grabbed it, but I couldn’t open it. I couldn’t even hold it consistently.
“I — I want to,” I sputtered before Ghang cut me off.
‘There was a train, Rob. It’s all in here.’
“There couldn’t have been — we’re at war. This track is only used for civilian travel, and it hasn’t been used since we cut ties with them and, well — the city where it goes is theirs and — ”
‘Rob, I need you to stop for a second. This is a civilian line, yes?’
“Of course. Cargill operates like that. It goes between Climpton and uh, what’s the resort city, uh — ”
‘And Brightlights has a lot of people in it, right?’
“Of course. Two million, at least.”
‘And we saw no one, no one on the stretch of icecap up here that separates the two. No one manning their guard posts, or our guard posts, or anything that is sign of anyone but for a few places where someone might have gotten off something that was in the air above the rails a few days ago.’
“What’s your point?”
‘The letter says there was an bomb on the train, Robert. A big bomb. That’s why they sent us.’
I paused and tried to furrow my brow; I felt nothing move on my cold forehead.
‘Robert, no one was guarding the tracks because no one thought that anyone could use them in winter, and if we got that train through the icecap it would be 40 miles away from Brightlights. And it would pull in to town unmolested at that point. And explode.’
“But it’s a tourist town, Ghang. A big tourist town — filled with theme parks. There’s no military there. Just families.”
‘Lomax said the same thing.’
“Lomax? The Lomax? Commander Rodger Lomax?”
Ghang paused and looked at the wall opposite us.
‘He was driving the train. Last transmission we got from him, the letter says’, Ghang said as he poked the part of his jacketed chest where the letter was buried. ‘was that he couldn’t do this to families and kids. That’s what his last transmission said.’
“But they — they manned it? It was a suicide mission, and they — ”
‘No. There was an escape car.’
He stopped to rub his hands a bit and let out a frosty breath, before continuing.
‘A signal was supposed to go out when he used it to head back towards us and the rest of the folks at base. Signal never came.’
“How long ago was that — how long ago was he supposed to have went back?”
‘Three days before we left.’
“The crossing only takes one and a half.”
‘I know, Rob. That’s why they sent us: We weren’t meant to die. And I, I was supposed to explain all of this when we found the maglev.’
“And then — ”
‘We were to take the escape car back.’
“And the train?”
‘It would be moving towards Brightlights.’
I stopped to think for a bit. Ghang said nothing. We sat in the cold for a while after that. I stewed on this new information; At some point I also realized I couldn’t feel my fingertips. After a few minutes of thought, I rose to my my feet.
“Ghang”, I said as I stood up, “I wish you the best of luck with your mission”.
I unzipped my parka and put it on the ground in front of Ghang. I stared at it for a bit, then took off my gloves. I dropped them on top of the jacket. I looked at Ghang, nodded, and walked out of the cabin through the spot where there was no door.