Return to Antarctica (place)
Is this the beginning or the end?
You fiddle with the dust in your empty pocket. You wonder if you’re past the PSR, where it’s safer to continue on and risk crashing in violent storms than to go back. There isn’t enough fuel to return.
Return is death. Forward is possibility. Your bladder is bursting and the impossibility of climbing over twenty of your fellow passengers seems more painful than the need to relieve yourself.
And now the NSF appointment has reduced your life to the cost of transporting your weight. There are no human amenities on this flight. You are mass to be delivered. You’re sitting in a web of cargo netting, shoulder to shoulder with the people beside you, kneecap to kneecap with the people in front of you, your back against the webbing. Your ears are stuffed with moldable yellow foam cylinders that keep out the constant sixty-decibel drone of the engines.
They handed you a stale peanut butter sandwich seven hours ago when you boarded, and you ate it some two hours ago when it was the only way to relieve the boredom.
The restroom is behind a blue tarp in the rear of the Herc. It’s a black 55-gallon drum with a white plastic funnel dropped into the hole on top. To get there you have to find gaps in the bodies of your fellow explorers to plant your feet. Other people in similar pain have tried and have stepped on your shins and calves. You don’t want to bother fabricating the unnecessary apologies nobody can hear, so you keep telling yourself you don’t have to go. Denial.
Most of this is about denial.
The mind fixates on tribulation and won’t wander. The artificial yellow light is too dim for you to read a book, and you doubt you could concentrate enough to follow a story. If you could daydream the time might go faster. But something makes you count every second like a five-year old waiting for to open his birthday presents. The words on the sign above the head of the person in front of you are, “Emergency equipment. Access is an F-700 event.” You don’t know what it means but you know there are thirty-seven letters.
The pilots are younger than you and you don’t know how qualified they are to fly this plane, or if they’ll take risks with their lives that become risks for your life that you wouldn’t approve of. You don’t know how rough the landing will be. You don’t know how bad the weather has to get before you’re really in trouble. You know the stories are real, one of these planes crashes every few years.
“We’re due,” they say. Death row humor.
A shock of turbulence reminds you you’re on the earthly equivalent of the river Styx heading for the gates of Hades with Charon at the wheel. You hope you’ve been daydreaming for a few minutes, but you haven’t. It has only been seconds.
The guy next to you nudges you and points to his watch either indicating something is going to happen soon or that his watch has stopped. You check and your watch is still working. When you look back your neighbor has squinted and is shrugging. Then he leans back as if the communication isn’t worth the effort and closes his eyes. There's a sinking in your stomach.
Except for two small circles near the rear doors there are no windows on the Air Force cargo plane. And when you look aft amid the cargo straps, control wires, and plumbing, you see excitement in some of the passengers who can squirm to see out. They see something you want to see. Everyone wants data in the void, but you live vicariously. You must be close.
And now the crew starts suiting up. Without a word arms flail as everyone struggles to don their emergency cold weather gear. There’s a sharp pain near your eye as your neighbor, in his excitement, nearly decks you as he pulls on his parka. He motions his apologies that you have no choice but to accept happily. Some people become animated when they’re afraid. You get quiet. It makes everyone think you’re brave.
The plane tips and drops and you feel it in your stomach again. This is worse than a commercial jetliner. The motion makes you queasy and it’s worse you can’t see outside.
You tell yourself to stay calm as if insisting will make it happen. Being nervous will just make you sicker. As you descend the turbulence gets worse. Some of the jolts lift you out of the webbing. There’s nothing to hold onto, so you hold onto your neighbors. At least you’ll be able to keep yourselves from smashing into each other.
You can stand the side to side, but the sudden ups and downs forces blood from your head to stomach and back and turns you green. There’s no turning back. There’s nowhere to go but down. There’s no escape from the shaking. You know there’s not enough fuel for a go-around.
This is a one shot deal. Make or break. Live or die.
You used to think you loved these challenges. But right now, you just want out.
And this is what your life has been reduced to: forty-two years of waking for breakfast and dressing for work. Meetings. Traffic jams. Saving money and watching the news. Fighting the corporate battle to the top. Forty years, and the sum and total of all of it grips the webbing and braces your body against the forces you’re incapable of resisting. Your head slams alternately forward and backward into the webbing and you’re not sure what hurts more, trying to resist it or letting your neck muscles relax.
And no one knows. All the scientists and support workers on the plane and nobody knows why you’re there and only now when the fear of dying builds will you begin to admit what you’ve done a good job forgetting.
Violence. The drone of the engines becomes the exhalations of chained beasts as the pilots pump the throttles. The ceiling drops to meet you and then ascends as the floor slaps the back of your heels. You’re flung forward and backward, and at least once you’re sure you’ve been upside-down.
This is it. Will you be here moments from now?
Loose objects clatter across strained bodies. Are these your last breaths? This is not how you thought you’d die.
So far away. Afraid it will end before you can finish what you started.
"God. Not yet."
Now you can admit it. Now when there’s the possibility there’ll be nothing left you get yourself to say the words.
You say her name because you know nobody can hear you. You say it because there is no other reason to be where you’ve put yourself. You say it over and over and can't keep lying that the way you feel has nothing to do with anything.
You’ll tell her when you see her.
I promise. Just let me live.
And now add to fear of dying the fear you can’t undo the mistakes.
Say her name because it makes you feel she’s part of you again. Say it because you never understood as much as you do now that this was how she must have felt following you, terrified of where you were bringing her. This is how she felt when you left and she knew everything was gone.
There’s a crushing thud that slams your teeth together, and a sliding feeling as the back of the plane sways back and forth in the crosswind. The engines feather and reverse turning the din into the wash of a waterfall, and then quiet. People cheer and pull the plugs from their ears. Save for the gentle feeling of the plane rocking in the wind, the movement stops.
Now you hear their voices. Now you can breathe again.
But this isn’t Chicago, and it isn’t Paris, and it isn’t Osaka or even Ulan Bator. When the front door opens and the first blast of frigid Paleolithic air bursts in on a shaft of muted sunlight you can feel how far she’s brought you.
So few places in the universe are inhabitable by humanity, and this place doesn’t qualify.
Now it will be different forever.