MONDAY: Holiday


Copyright is held by the author.

THE WIND blew through Rob’s parka and wind proof pants as if they were tissue paper. The garments were certified down to minus forty and had cost most of a week’s salary. He hunched his shoulders to preserve core warmth and kicked through the snow gathered on the surface of the trail. It was getting colder and chill fingers of freezing air explored the less protected places in his clothing. The exercise would warm him; he had read that shivering created heat, but there were limits. 

He clenched his hands in the insulating mitts. They felt as if they were in frigid vices the fingers squeezed by the cold until the tips were numb. He would need to use his hands and arms when the time came.

The others were strung out ahead of him, not far away but barely visible through the curtains of sleet accompanying the atmospheric blast. He fumbled with the goggles but pushed the lenses too high until they blocked his vision. Now the ice particles cut into the soft skin around his eyes. Not that there was much to see as the mist had descended, just enough visibility to keep from stumbling into the Arctic Ocean a few metres from the trail. He heard the wind pulling at the hood of the parka, otherwise there was silence and himself alone under the smooth immensity of the pale blue sky. Still, the air was crisp and wonderfully bracing in his throat and chest; too cold but real.  

The reflecting surface of the grey water gave no idea of the immense depth beneath, kilometres to the ocean floor. Here, it appeared as a long wavy puddle alongside the trail, a bit too near for comfort as unseen wave action caused the surface to bulge and contract, as if timed with distant breathing.

He started as the earpiece crackled; “How you doin’ Rob, see anything?”

“Nope, nothin’” Rob bit off a reply, resenting the time his mouth was open to the frigid wind, “Could be tracking you,” he said wanting to end the call.

Reflexively, at his own warning, he swung and looked around, feeling the weapon swing against the sling. Now there was  near complete grey-out, he could barely see the outline of the trail behind him.

His mind followed an accustomed path; why was he here? Was he chasing some unhealthy gratification, a mental itch? Seeking to avoid reality? He placed his boots one after the other forging into the shifting mist. He had heard about people losing their way in these conditions. There was no perspective to vision, only the track’s slight depression.

He slipped the rifle off his shoulder and held its length across his body, focusing on its slim deadly bulk, the smooth plastic stock and black pointing barrel.

He remembered the intense words of the instructor facing the irregular line of participants, “be ready at all times. Don’t let your attention wander. You’re going after an apex predator. Maybe the deadliest in the world. It’s bigger than the biggest cats. Grizzlies are larger but not as cunning. They won’t track you. Or eat you, but the Polars are ready willing and able. No second chances in the arctic.”

The man was too thin, with grey skin and a wrinkled face.

“You sure you wanna do this, guys?” he said after a pause, the tentative words contradicting the bold introduction. “It’s an expensive way to get a thrill you know.” Rob knew the guy was paid to create tension, just another element of the drama. But no one stepped back. They were the alpha predators, not the scattered remnants of bears in the wasteland. Then the man’s image had pixelated into a fountain of coloured sparks as the ancient hologram degraded into electricity.

Rob examined the pulsing water at the side. Where could something that big hide? There were no snow formations high enough to conceal a polar bear’s bulk if the ursine killer even thought to seek concealment in its familiar habitat. The environment was arctic desert; endless waves of winds-sculpted snow above, only marine mammals and a few fish below.   Following the thought he looked down into the water pushing his vision to pierce the wavy surface. 

As if following Rob’s thought, he saw a shadow down under the surface. A seal? He knew the answer, no seal would surface near the trail, risking being torn apart and eaten by a  ravenous bear.

He keyed his mike, “Anyone seen something in the water, deep, Leopard seals, rogue Orcas? Something tracking down under?”

There was no time to listen for confirming messages from the other hunters. It wasn’t a seal in the water. It was a Polar Bear! The thing cunningly concealed itself in the depths of the polar sea until it wasn’t and the serpentine neck and streamlined head burst out of the water next to the trail.

He remained fixed in his tracks as the bear hooked its black claws onto the edge of the ice and pulled its white bulk out of the water. The hind legs came forward onto the ice until the creature towered in the air, water cascading from its sleek fur. He had time to notice its black snake eyes and tiny flattened ears, to see there was something reptilian, plastic and bendable about the form. Worst of all, it looked at him, directly, personally but without passion, no anger, only the certainty it was going to eat him, alive.

They told you to watch its paws, those massive limbs half as long as a human body tipped with scimitar claws. Then there was the long neck and sleek head powerful enough to pull hundred kilogram seals straight up through their breathing holes in the ice. The mouth rimmed by jagged teeth swayed above him. The predator preferred seal blubber but would contentedly prey on human flesh.

He jammed the butt of the rifle into his shoulder and in a practiced move ratcheted the bolt back chambering a round. He could have opted for a semiautomatic firearm but Rob wanted the challenge of operating a weapon under pressure. He wanted to do more than point a weapon and pull the trigger.

Unfortunately, in the excitement, he had forgotten to click off the safety catch. When Rob fumbled his index finger through the slit in the glove and tugged, the cold metal trigger was immovable.

As the bear bent lowered its head to take the first bite of his face, two crazed thoughts rose in Rob’s mind; the first was to wonder insanely whether the bear’s breath smelled bad, the second, practically a shout, was I’m no hunter!

Then he realized he was seeing through the bear’s head to a ceiling composed of supports and pipes. There were lights glaring into his eyes and he raised the hand holding the rifle to shield his vision. But now there was no rifle and the head and body of the menacing animal had faded away.

“Aw damn,” Rob muttered as the adrenaline leached out of his muscles and his body relaxed into limpness. He was vaguely aware of apparatus pulling away from his body and the headset retracting over his head.

He was again lying on a moderately comfortable bed his head on the headrest, reality equipment out of sight. To his side he could see a row of identical beds, some occupied by figures whose heads were concealed by head sets and bodies by VR equipment. He thought it all looked vaguely institutional despite the upbeat colours; like a ward in an expensive spa.

The young oriental woman sitting at a desk in the centre of the room was staring at something in front of her, a hologram visible only to herself. She looked up and spoke slowly almost drawling. Her stiff posture betrayed covert hostility; he had just spent more in a few hours than she would earn in weeks.

“You’re back with us, already. A couple hours. Did you catch a good ride, at least?” The disapproval was now clear in her slightly sneering question.

“I suppose,” he answered as he focused on the conversation, “I was just about to get chomped by a bear. A huge one, all white. A polar I think. Wish it had gone on longer.”

“Yup, that would be right. The zoologists and teckies had to source the holograms from primitive images, there was nothing recent because those bears disappeared. And way faster than anyone thought around mid-century. All gone!”

She stopped and seemed to remember that after all Rob was a paying customer, as much as she despised him. She spoke in a placatory tone: “You can always come back. Maybe for something relaxing like a swim in an ocean, with or without sharks since you like adventure. I could get you a discount so you’d get the benefit of this trip even if it was short.”

The woman flicked the fingers of one hand dismissively and fiddled with her console. She didn’t want to be talking to him and he wanted to be alone with what remained of his experience. Part of his brain was back on the ice floe drifting on an arctic sea, his body shivering in an attempt to keep up with the loss of heat to the frigid wind. But he knew, had always, known, there were no arctic wastelands any more, not in the room or outside, nowhere.

The minder’s throat noise broke into his thoughts.

“It’s about time for you to get going,” she said, not unkindly, “there’s another group arriving in a few minutes. They’re in orientation right now and this room will have to be cleared to receive them. We like to start on time. You’ll be able to hook up with your group later, outside.”

As if it was coordinated with the voice, the door at the end of the room opened and people drifted in. Rob saw were smiling and relaxed. ‘They should be’ he thought, they were vacationing, getting away for a while . The attendant got up and circulated among the recumbent forms, waking one and telling another she’d find her clothes in the locker at the foot of the bed, pointing, speaking slowly.

Rob got his clothes and changed behind a screen, chucking the coveralls into a bin which was already overflowing. He put on his flimsy plastic shoes and the other clothing he had left behind. They were strange, loose and flimsy compared with the parka, insulated pants and boots he thought he had been wearing in the arctic. Then he headed for the door while the minder was still chivvying the stragglers towards the exit.

He remembered the way out although it seemed weeks since he had entered the facility. Then, his mind had been full of anticipation, nervous and tense but wonderfully excited. Now he was going to have to unwind it all. It was already happening, reality seeping in displacing the mirage of the vacation, the hypnotizing gases worn off, his skin losing the feel of insulated clothing,  the dream dissipated.  

It got warmer as he neared the entrance and the irritation started in the front of his nose rasping into his throat until he remembered the nose plugs in his breast pocket and screwed them in. He felt his shoes slide on sand tracked in by the  recent arrivals.

Then, he passed through another door and was outside. Outside, the sky was overcast as it had been when he arrived with the omnipresent yellow haze which was present from dawn to dusk.

He spoke savagely to himself, “what the hell you ‘spect, Rob? Thing you were going to wake up ‘nother planet, stoopid?”

As always, the sun showed as a sullen glow near the horizon. He breathed through his nose choking back a reflexive cough when he took a mouth breath. No one took full breaths outside, but on his trip he had imagined breathing the cold crisp air of an imagined arctic. He had done it for long enough to remember the habit of full breathing.

It was the heat in his face which finally brought him back, the temperature he had escaped for a short time and so expensively. It was always hot in the desert area of the North East where Rob lived, safely away from the ravaging ocean which was devouring the coastline like so much birthday cake. It was not so hot outside as to choke off life, but always too warm for comfort. The nose plugs kept out the worst of the smoke and dust and you could live inside, mostly. 

Within seconds waiting for the transport to his home in a tower, his face had puffed with sultry temperature and his body sought to pull away from the touch of the flimsy shirt. He was home.

  1. Great story. Loved the descriptions.

  2. Well done. I enjoyed the story.

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