Summer in Antarctica
Short Story by Brylle Joseph Gaviola | Science Fiction | S6 Contest Runner Up
As the dream fades, I open my eyes to find myself lying on the floor of a dark room, a sliver of sunlight peeking through a blackout curtain. Specks of dust dance in the air illuminated by the beam of light, gracefully fluttering to the floor. I push myself up to stand. My eyes re-adjust. I find a chair next to a table and sit down. Leaning my head back, I hope that it will somehow dull the throbbing pain.
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Once I come to the conclusion the pain will not be subsiding, I look around the small, dark chamber for any clues to paint a picture of what had happened. Nothing. To my disappointment, my pockets are also empty. I get up from the chair and step up to the blackout curtain to yank it back. When I do, I recognize a familiar place; the sun shining down on green fields of grass extending outward in every direction. There’s a sign in the distance surrounded by flags; suddenly, a nostalgic feeling shoots through my body and I know where I am.
This is Antarctica in the year 3022. It’s a week before Christmas, and the six months of 24-hour daylight will come to an end any day now. The extensive amount of sunlight this time of year makes it a perfect retreat for a dwindling human population. The other half of the year, it’s a freezing, dark pit of despair. About a thousand years ago, this continent was covered in ice sheets that scientists would study throughout their career. Due to pollution and a stubbornness to change humanity’s toxic habits, Antarctica is now one of the few pieces of habitable land this planet has left to offer. After people escaped to the space colonies and voyaged to other far-off planets, Earth became a memory filled with ghostly, shambling creatures that have adapted to survive, as all living things must.
I take a nice cold shower to get the blood running, but my memory is still hazy. After I freshen up and throw on some clothes, I find a backpack with a phone inside. Unfortunately, the battery is dead. I plug it in and while it charges, I look at my reflection in the mirror and interrogate myself. How long have I been here? What am I doing in this place? Has the sun been up so long that I’ve developed some type of amnesia? When the sun never goes down, you tend to lose track of the days. Eventually, those days turn into weeks and quickly into months, or so it seems.
I search through the bag again and I find a wallet with a receipt from Lydia’s Café folded nicely into the billfold. A memory flashes through my head, an image of a woman smiling, her laugh echoing with familiarity. I recall the smell of toasted bread fresh out of the oven, the taste of hot green tea running down my throat, and live acoustic guitar faintly playing in the background. I type “Lydia’s café” into the phone’s GPS and “15 minutes away” appears on the screen’s navigation.
The streets of New Vegas are immaculate. No transportation is allowed in the town other than the train that connects to Port Lockroy, the nearest spaceport. We learned long ago from our past mistakes of poisoning the air with exhaust fumes. Humans found a way to reverse the effects of greenhouse gasses by 2065 with sources of renewable energy and hybrid, mechanical trees being a couple of the best solutions. When you have to travel by foot, everything seems much farther and bigger than it is. That’s the gift of walking.
Tourists walk around in shops buying souvenirs of the old world. There are many different selections from toys, magnets, clothes, and even unique foods. The food in New Vegas is provided by people living off the land, and very different from what’s concocted in the space stations. Even now, so far in the future, we’re not able to recreate the food that had been available to those who could afford their luxuries. I find it amazing that despite being in a place filled with countless people, you can still feel so alone. Yet, the solidarity New Vegas provides is one of the few things I love about this place; the balance between solitude and social opportunity—combined with the fresh air—is unlike any other planet I’ve been on.
As I walk up to the café, I notice the sign is faded and missing a few letters. I can barely make out the words. If it were not for my GPS, I would have walked past this place. Inside, it’s empty. There are no pastries on the counter where they would generally be on display with their fresh-baked smell wafting through the air, nor are there any tables set with utensils. Just a humbling silence. There are, however, photos on the wall of customers and what I presume to be New Vegas locals. Additionally, there are myriad photographs featuring the beautifully-sculpted icebergs, vast landscapes paired underneath the vibrant colors of the aurora borealis in the background, whale sightings and rookeries of penguins, and places all over the town.
I’m searching for any familiar faces, but I find none, only moments in time, captured so that we can relive them as much as possible. The photos are an attempt to give the café life, or, at the very least, show that there were signs of life, like ancient cave paintings might have done for past civilizations. I notice an empty space where a picture is missing–
The door behind the counter opens and a woman walks out. Her eyes stare at me as if she’s trying to pull me out of a memory. She tilts her head to help fill in the blanks. I raise my hand to say hello, but she instead shakes her head and waves me off. I eventually obey her command and return outside. I glance back to see my blurry reflection in the old café window. The woman’s faint silhouette disappears into the depths of the shop where I can no longer see her.
Unsure of how to jog my memory, I walk around in order to immerse myself in the town’s tourist activities. I do everything I can to gain new perspectives so I can recreate my former self. A train pulls into the nearby station, reminding me of a shuttle docking from space. Something from my past is triggered at the sight of the moving vessel.
Back on Mars, in the city of Nuwa where I was born, my mother told me something that stuck in my head. She told me that to truly appreciate something you must look at it from a different view. If you want to appreciate the area you live in, hike up a mountain so that you can see how it looks from far away and marvel at how people can build such grand, sprawling things. If you enjoy a swim in a lake, try to fly over it to appreciate its colors and realize how important a body of water is to the surrounding areas.
As I recall this information, I walk along a paved walkway until I reach the marker of the South Pole. I had learned that long ago there were only seven nations that claimed the South pole, but now there are hundreds of nations that have planted their flags here. I sit and ponder this at the very bottom of the Earth thinking about how difficult it must have been to get here before the roads were set and the ice reigned supreme. How many people must have died to accomplish something so grand as to voyage all the way out here. Once a perilous task, now a stroll down the street all thanks to those that came before, and yet, somehow, it’s taken for granted. I look back at the town of New Vegas and can’t help but feel thankful I got to experience that last bit of Summer here.
The sun will soon set, reminding me that my time is limited. I hurry back to the station and board the Storyletter XPress to Port Lockroy. I understand now that sometimes we get away to get closer to the things we yearn for the most. With that thought, I lean back in my seat to get comfortable and close my eyes. When I open them, I find the familiar face of my wife laughing which prompts me to smile back. She hands me a set of photos that I am reluctant to flip through, but as I do, I see us at different landmarks and sightseeing areas around New Vegas. I discover a picture of myself at the same café I visited earlier. I remember that my grandmother’s name was Lydia, and how hard it was to talk to her because she could not speak English. I feel guilty for not spending enough time with her.
I look out of the window of the moving train and I see the sun vanish on the horizon. The train’s brakes engage. I’m not sure why we are stopping, but my reflection stares back at me with grey hair and wrinkled skin. I can’t help but wonder to myself:
“Am I dreaming?”