Welcome to the January 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
It’s winter in the Northern hemisphere or at least it’s supposed to be, so this month’s free is a wintery tale called “Shelter”, which may be found in the post-apocalyptic collection After the End – Tales of Life After the Apocalypse.
So follow graduate student Ryan, as he trudges across a frozen future Earth in search of…
Ryan had been walking for seven days, when he found the ships. They were just sitting there, smokestacks, masts, radar antennae, bridges, even whole decks jutting from the massive ice layer that covered much of the Northern hemisphere.
For decades, humanity had worried about climate change and global warming, engaging alternately in denial and aimless action just for the sake of it. What hardly anybody — well, hardly anybody except for a few scientists to whom no one listened anyway and a few bad disaster movies no one took seriously — had foreseen was that even as the average global temperature steadily rose, parts of the Earth nonetheless got colder. A lot colder.
And so — while humanity was still arguing whether climate change was real — the thermohaline circulation in the oceans gradually slowed and finally shut down altogether. The Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift grew steadily weaker and finally broke off. The Northern hemisphere experienced an increase in severe weather events, super-blizzards and the like, until it was finally left buried under a thick layer of ice that never melted.
All that had started a long time ago and had already been in full swing when Ryan was born, on the battered, but still inhabited South Coast of England. After three winters in a row that lasted from September to May, Ryan’s parents had enough of it all and emigrated, like so many others, to more temperate climes. And so Ryan had grown up in Morocco, until the encroaching ice layer had forced him to relocate even further south, to Senegal, as an adult.
But even though most of the Northern hemisphere and its major population centres were long lost to humanity, people still mounted expeditions into the frozen North, to check if there were any changes, if the ice layer was still growing thicker or perhaps thawing again or if there was anything up there to be salvaged.
As a graduate student at the University of Dakar, Ryan had joined one of those expeditions. These days, an expedition into the frozen North was a rite of passage, something every aspiring academic had to do on the path to doctorate, post-doc work and eventually tenure.
Besides, to be perfectly honest, Ryan had been curious what the home of his first three years on Earth, a home of which he only had vague memories of snow, hail, rain, storms and waves crashing against a grey and grimy shore, looked like today.
Okay, so the South coast of England wasn’t even the destination of the expedition, that was Denmark. But it was close enough for Ryan, especially since Northern Europe was just a featureless ice desert with the occasional very high mountain and the even more occasional very tall building poking through.
There had been thirteen of them at the start of the expedition — and yeah, maybe the fact that thirteen was an unlucky number in Western lore should have warned them. Because after three weeks of normal progress — as normal as progress through an ice desert at subzero temperatures even at the height of summer could be — it had all gone wrong.
Their expedition of thirteen had just passed Frankfurt, a city in Germany or rather what was left of it. For nowadays, what had once been Frankfurt was marked only by the tops of skyscrapers poking out from the ice layer. Apparently, so one of senior professors explained, Frankfurt had once been a financial and business centre, so it had rather a lot of skyscrapers.
But unfortunately, the uneven ground due to the skyscrapers also caused crevasses to form. And one such crevasse had claimed the entire expedition — professors, post-docs, grad students, dogs, snowmobiles, tents, provisions, equipment, com systems, everything — leaving behind only Ryan with a single barely adequate shelter, a rifle with some spare ammunition, provisions to last him maybe a week and no way to call for help, since all the radios and com systems had fallen into the crevasse along with the rest of the expedition.
That left Ryan only with two options. One, lie down and die, and two, go on and try to find provisions, shelter and a way to call for help.
And since Ryan had never been one to give up, he chose option two and went on, alone. He continued to follow the expedition’s original course, at least as far as he could replicate it with only a compass and no functioning GPS to aid him.
He’d never make it to the rendezvous point, of course, not unless he could find extra provisions along the way. But if anybody decided to look for the missing expedition, once they failed to check in, they would do so along the original course, which increased Ryan’s chances of rescue.
But there was no rescue forthcoming, no spotter planes flying past overhead. There was nothing but ice, ice and even more ice. So either no one was bothering to look for the missing expedition or they’d tracked them to their last known location, found the crevasse and deduced that there was no one left to rescue, that all members of the expedition were dead. Either way, Ryan was on his own.
For six days, he trekked across the ice, pulling along a little makeshift sled. Occasionally he came across manmade structures poking out of the ice. The tops of communication towers mostly, since they’d generally been the tallest structures around. But even though Ryan tried to coax some of the antennae back to life, it was to no avail. The com towers and their antennae were long dead.
On the seventh day finally, when the last of his provisions had run out, and Ryan was facing a slow death by starvation, he came upon the ships and a new hope for salvation.
The ships had piled up haphazardly, almost as if they had drifted here, abandoned by their crews to the ice. Though the fact that there were ships suggested that he’d reached what had once been the North Sea coast by now. Not far from the place where he’d been born then, which would make this a fitting place to die.
But Ryan wasn’t dead yet. And if he could find shelter and provisions aboard one of the frozen wrecks, he wouldn’t die for a good while yet. And if he found a radio and managed to coax it to life again, he might even be rescued.
But first things first. And first, Ryan had to decide which wreck to try. He finally selected the biggest one he saw, a gigantic boxlike ship that loomed high above the featureless ice desert. It was the logical choice, really. Better to scale the outer hull above the ice than descend down a smokestack into hell knew what.
So Ryan deployed his gear and began to climb. It was a long and laborious climb, for the vessel’s frozen steel hull was near vertical and jutted a good forty meters out of the ice. There were no windows or portholes either, just smooth featureless steel. The lettering on the vessel’s stern proclaimed her to be the MV Aniara, registered at Stockholm.
Ryan feared that he would have the climb up all the way to the weather deck, but he got lucky and came across a cargo ramp that hadn’t been fully folded up and allowed him to enter.
Inside the vessel it was pitch dark and the descent down the cargo ramp was steep. Once he reached the bottom, Ryan activated his pocket torch.
Inside the belly of the great vessel, he found deck upon deck of cars, antique cars of the kind he’d seen in old movies from before the great freeze. His friend Paul, who was a car buff, would have been delighted. There were trucks, too, and busses, farm and construction equipment and even two bright red fire engines just like the ones in the movies of his youth. What he didn’t find, however, was anything in the way of food.
He even tried breaking into some of the cars — though it pained him to destroy such perfectly preserved antique artefacts — to see if he could scrounge up anything to eat. Alas, the cars were all brand-new, up to that distinctive new vehicle smell still preserved after forty or fifty years trapped in the ice.
Okay, so the Aniara had obviously been a vehicle transporter once, but she still had to have a crew. There hadn’t yet been any fully automatic vessels at the time the Aniara got trapped in the ice. And where there was a crew, there had to be food.
After trudging up nine decks of cars, cars and more cars, Ryan finally reached the weather deck, carrying what seemed to be gigantic wind turbine blades. And at the far end of the weather deck, beyond the blades, loomed the bridge and the crew quarters and sanctuary.
The crew quarters were deserted, though the cabins still had beds and blankets and even the occasional discarded magazine and dead flower pot, suggesting they’d been left in a hurry.
Ryan also found the galley, which — praise the Lord — still held some food. Whatever fresh food there had been was useless, long rotted away in dead freezers that had been intended to preserve it. But there were still dry foods, noodles, rice, beans, as well as cans of vegetables, tuna and corned beef, jars of pickles and jam, bottles of ketchup and Sriracha, orange juice, Coke and beer. Ryan gathered everything edible together and had a feast that night of baked beans and corned beef with a dash of Sriracha, cooked over a fire he’d built from some crates he’d found in the galley, washed down with beer. Sure, the beer had gone stale in the past forty years or so, but it was still beer.
That night, he slept in a real bed for the first time in four weeks, in what had once been the captain’s cabin. In the movies, the captain always got the best cabin, so Ryan figured it had probably been that way in real life as well.
The next day, he went to explore the Aniara’s bridge. Even though the vessel was old, it still had radar and GPS and computers and communications equipment, all long dead unfortunately. Though he did find a handwritten note that the vessel had been en route from Baltimore to Bremerhaven, when she got trapped in the freezing North Sea and had to be abandoned.
Ryan spent an hour or so sitting on the floor of the bridge, lamenting that his last best hope had evaporated to nothing. Sure, he had found some provisions, but he was still stranded in the middle of an icy nowhere with dead communications equipment and no power to coax it back to life again.
For the vessel’s engines were dead, had been dead for decades. On the other hand… he was on a vessel full of cars and trucks. And cars and trucks had batteries. And some of those batteries might still be usable, if he was lucky.
Ryan spent most of the next day pulling ancient batteries from antique cars, batteries that were so much punier than the ones he was used to, for the majority of the cars and trucks and assorted construction equipment aboard the Aniara were still gasoline or diesel powered, which seemed like a colossal waste of resources. But then, if the people of old had been less wasteful, this would still be the port of Bremerhaven rather than an icy desert studded with trapped ships.
Hooking up the batteries to the Aniara’s com system took up most of the next day, but after endless hours of work, the radio finally came to life with a burst of static. Another twenty minutes of fiddling with frequencies and settings, hoping that the batteries would not die on him, and Ryan finally hailed Agadir, northernmost outpost of civilisation in this post-freeze world.
It would still take several days for rescue to arrive, of course. But until then, the Aniara would shelter and feed him just fine.
He’d made it. He was safe at last.
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.