Over on THIS blog, writer Chuck Wendig issued a flash fiction challenge to write a story based on Shackleton's Scotch. (Play along, it's fun!) He gave readers a week window, but I made it a literal flash fiction challenge, so here's my twenty minute interpretation:
First you run out food, then fuel.
When the dream's new and all you can think about is the journey, it's not something you consider. Others might mention it as an aside or caution; they tell you horror stories about how the lower circle is what the old sailors meant when they talked about people dropping off the edge of the earth. Down there, emptiness becomes a living, breathing thing, a monster that thrives on the cold and doesn't abide outsiders in its territory.
But you don't listen. The warnings drone like white noise just below the glow of your own ambition, in a place that's too warm to understand the nature of cold. You fancy yourself an explorer, like the Vikings in stories you loved as a kid. You haven't figured out yet, that you're headed into a place where the world is upside down.
Reality butchers the dream with wind honed sharper than any knife. What little heat remains in your body melts the weapon of its own destruction so there's no proof of any outside force, only your own folly. You've gone beyond cold to where time itself slows down in the absence of sound and motion and where you traverse an alien landscape made without color. You can't even see your own skin to remind yourself its not as monochrome as everything else.
Your heart wants to break when the decision comes to turn back, but it's frozen solid. If you let it break, it'll shatter beyond reparation.
So close to the goal, you can taste it. Considering it's the Antarctic, you can see it on a clear day. The only thing you can't do is reach it.
Someone gets the bright idea to crack open a case or two of whiskey and use the bottles for wick-lamps and small stoves, and for a while there, you have your own Southern Lights burning on the ice. Your ramshackle base camp looks like something out of a kid's adventure story with blue-white lights popping up like ghosts guarding a treasure cache.
One of the men pours a bottle out and lights it on the ice. Why not, you wonder- there's nothing else to do.
The flame catches along these tiny little spider veins and branches out in every direction. It doesn't last long, because the whisky burns fast, but it's enough for you to realize you've set ice on fire and it isn't even cracking. That kids' story in your head hops to another one you heard when you were young, back to those stories about Vikings and the ships that went places no one else dared go.
Viking hell was frozen solid.
Now you start to understand. Being so close to the goal... it's torment. You've somehow left the mortal world and ended up in Purgatory, on the outer edge of madness. You're Sisyphus and the journey's your stone.
The fires go all night, as one after another of your companions take a turn burning the ice, but not you. You know better than to disturb the things a human mind can't comprehend; you know to wait it out because the places beyond don't keep those who know enough to realize they've crossed the border. When your chance comes, you'll be one of those who makes it out.
You don't grumble or complain when you pack up your things, and turn back. It's a tense morning while the others argue about what to take and what to leave. They say it's a waste to abandon the liquor, but you speak up, finally. You say it's best to leave it for what it was intended. It's meant for those who reach the end, so they can celebrate, and none of you are going on. It's bad luck to take it back.
"Bad luck" turns out to be the magic phrase that gets the others moving, and you wonder if they realized where you'd ended up, too. The quiet returns, and soon the only sound is the whoosh from your skis as you put hell behind you.
It actually makes you smile beneath your layered scarves and mask, where no one else can see it. You left them a little heat... maybe that'll count for something in the long run.