They almost missed it.
White fuselage, white background: only the faded markings were visible against the flurry of the snow, and then only at close range.
Brannigan was the first to see it. Peering up from the increasingly erratic compass he caught a shadow against the horizon, almost dismissed it as condensation inside his goggles – but when he removed them and pressed the sockets of the binoculars close against his eyes it was still there.
He called out a warning to the others then, realising his voice would be lost to the wind, sent up a flare.
One by one the sleds turned towards the distant object, still moving cautiously over the thin ice. Despite Brannigan having called in the sighting it was Templar that reached it first, pulling his sled to a sudden halt outside the broken shape. He looked around thoughtfully at the others and put a heavily gloved hand on the open door of the plane. Outside in the snow the others waited for the all clear, the dogs panting white clouds of heat into the chilly atmosphere. The snow seemed to have slowed to a steady flurry now, or perhaps it was that they were partially sheltered by the broken shape. McKenzie pulled down her scarf, revealing tufts of red hair and skin chapped by the cold, ‘Get a bloody move on in there, can’t you’ she called, her voice as cracked as her skin.
Behind his own scarf Brannigan smiled and shook his head, feeling his neck click. Two weeks of this and McKenzie was still behaving like the arrogant bitch she had been back in Oslo. He’d thought somehow that the cold would have knocked some of the edge off her brittleness: instead it had only served to sharpen it.
Templar’s head appeared from inside the plane, no longer engulfed by the enormous hood. The face behind the visor was old; prematurely greyed and lined with concern. He grunted and waved for the other two to climb inside and they did so, pausing only to tie the dogs to the fuselage.
Once inside Brannigan removed his own scarf and slowly slipped back the hood on his jacket, as if expecting the wind to slice his ears off. He was younger than the other two. He slipped off a glove and wiped his hand across his nose, trying to kill the itch that had been driving him insane for the last two hours, ‘Is it safe?’ he asked
Templar nodded, ‘Safer than outside’ he replied
‘Not much of an answer’ McKenzie chipped in, already looking to find fault
‘Best I can do’ Templar looked around at the cramped interior, ‘Cessna: just as described, ‘No sign of survivors though’
‘There wouldn’t be: not here’ Brannigan replied, moving towards the cockpit with a distracted look on his face, ‘whoever they were – they took the compass with them’
‘So somebody survived’ Templar nodded. He paused at the doorway, seeing that one of the seats was already taken. He couldn’t see much from behind the thick layers of clothing, but from the angle of the body he could see enough to know that the figure was long dead.
Brannigan was already leaning in towards the corpse and pushing back the layers: behind the clothes there was nothing but skeleton. Even here, in this extreme cold, there had been enough decay to strip away the flesh: or maybe the wind had done the job. ‘Died on impact by the look of him’ Brannigan announced with professional detachment, ‘Neck broken’
Templar squeezed himself past Brannigan and into the spare seat beside the corpse, examining the readings, ‘no flight logs either – might be something in the black box…if there is one’ He paused and looked through what remained of the windscreen and narrowed his eyes, ‘Must be three days walk to the nearest habitation – even if they knew which direction to head’
McKenzie popped her head into the already cramped space and grunted, ‘Then they were stupid, as well as crap pilots’ she glanced at the corpse and added, ‘No offence’
Brannigan ignored her and took a second to cover the exposed bones from view, ‘We should bury him’ he murmured
Templar glanced through the windscreen at the rapidly darkening horizon, ‘Our first priority has to be to get the shelters up…we’ll worry about the body in the morning…after all,’ he continued ruefully, ‘he’s been waiting long enough.’
The two men moved out into the snow, fumbling with the survival packs, whilst McKenzie watched from the shelter of the plane, a cigarette pressed between her blue lips
‘A little help would be appreciated’ Templar called over his shoulder
‘I’m sure it would’ she replied, but made no move to go to their aid. Instead she headed back inside the plane, resting an exposed hand briefly on the cold metal wall before throwing the cigarette butt into the wilderness and thrusting her hands into the deep pockets.
After a few minutes Templar came in, refusing to make eye contact as he ripped open his bags and fumbled for supplies, ‘We’re losing the light fast’ he growled, catching a disinterested eye, ‘we really could do with another hand’
‘You two boys seem to be doing fine’ McKenzie replied, ‘Besides…what do you think I pay you for?’
Templar laughed and shook his head, ‘Your money won’t save you out here, Claire’ his Scots accent was full of gravel, turning the name into an accusation as he spoke it, ‘you want to survive then you’d better start pulling your weight’
McKenzie pulled herself upright and retrieved her gloves, ‘Very well,’ she replied, her voice as cold as the wind that bit into her face, ‘but you needn’t expect a bonus’. She took a mallet from his outstretched arm and made towards the doorway. As she reached the entrance she paused and looked back. Just for a second Templar could have sworn he had seen a hint of vulnerability; then it was gone.
‘Do you think he’s still out there?’ she asked, gesturing towards the horizon
‘Who: Fisher?’ Templar stroked his chin, ‘I’d lay odds on it.’
McKenzie shuddered and then nodded towards the cockpit, ‘What are we going to do with that?’ she asked
‘We’ll bury it in the morning’ Templar replied thoughtfully, ‘…assuming there’s any of us left to do it’
To be continued…
Author’s note: about six months ago I saw an episode of (UK motoring programme) Top Gear where the presenters were given a challenge to drive a 4x4 to the magnetic north pole – they had to establish if it was still possible with global warming.
Along the route they came upon an abandoned plane in the wilderness – it had clearly been there for a long time.
This fascinated me: how had it come to be there? What had happened to the occupants? This story takes that mental image on to see where it leads to.
I wrote the main bulk of this last night, then edited and re-wrote a few bits to include the corpse earlier than originally envisaged. I hope to make this story a regular weekly post, so look out for further episodes in the near future…