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January 2019 Prompt
By David Reiss
Mark pulled his goggles from his face and tucked them under one arm, squinting against the frigid wind; snowflakes scoured his face, but removing the fogged eye-protection allowed the field researcher to confirm that his wrist-computer’s screen was dead.
“Damnit,” he swore. Even with the sea of clouds whipping below the peak and obscuring the landscape below, Mark had been reasonably certain of his bearings. His tracker was working, at least; if he’d gotten too far off, someone should have contacted him. “HQ, this is Rover Three. I need a coordinate check. Where the hell am I?”
There was a pause. Mark shifted from side to side on his skis and waited.
“Rover Three, this is HQ. Hey, Mark.” The speaker’s voice was recognizable despite the scratchiness of the signal. Justin, Mark sighed to himself. The intern. “I put you right at site twenty-four. Good job.”
“Well, there’s nothing here,” Mark growled, shaking out his facemask and replacing it on his frostbitten face. “Not a damned thing. Site twenty-four is empty.”
“Uh…negative, Rover Three. There’s a strong signal from beacon twenty-four.”
“Then there’s something wrong with your equipment,” Mark bit out, feeling suddenly tired; it had been an eight-hour slog from the lower peak where the helicopter pilot had been able to let him off. Eight hours, for nothing! It was probably the intern’s fault. “Is Shelly around?”
Shelly was the expedition’s tech guru; she couldn’t be trusted within five feet of a pair of cross-country skis and her coffee was awful, but she knew the system better than the guys who designed it.
“Nah, Shelly’s sleeping in,” the intern replied.
“Well, wake her up,” Mark insisted. “Either I’m in the wrong place or site twenty-four turned invisible.”
“I’m gonna let her rest,” Justin chuckled softly. “She works too hard, y’know? Hold on, I got it. Rebooting now, okay?”
Shelly had horrible taste in men; she’d been flirting with Justin ever since the kid signed on.
From the sound of it, the intern reciprocated her interest; he probably thought he was doing her a favor, letting her sleep in even though official protocol was to keep the technical lead up to date if there were any anomalies. He was correct that Shelly would’ve been irritable upon being roused—her prickly pre-coffee disposition had become legendary among the other researchers—but she was going to be positively livid when she found out there were problems and she wasn’t alerted. Justin was sabotaging his own romantic aspirations…but Mark certainly wasn’t the type to offer unsolicited relationship advice.
The field researcher brought his hands to his face to breathe warmth into his cold-stiffened fingers, focusing on burying his irritation with every slow exhale. He was chilled, he was tired…but he had the open sky and a mountain to himself. And besides…once upon a time, he’d been young, too.
And, hell, maybe Justin would grow up a bit, Shelly would like him and they’d work things out. She was a good kid, she deserved a bit of happiness.
“Oh. Oh, shiiiii…” Justin trailed off. “Rover Three, this is Justin. I mean, this is HQ. Hunker down a minute, I have to figure this out.”
Hearing that kind of panic across the radio link should have been nerve wracking, but Mark was experienced enough to know better. He was alone up here, safe and secure, being treated to a view that few could ever have imagined.
Clouds poured across the horizon, whipped by chill gusts and swirling, eternal gales. Each breeze stabbed like knives, and the air was clear; Mark could see for miles in every direction, as though he had the entire world to himself.
Ten years ago, the weather would have looked completely different. That’s why the team was here: to study the changes and make sense of shifting wind patterns. Satellite footage and weather balloons could only tell you so much, sometimes you needed feet on the ground and local equipment. Site twenty-four should have had a small radio tower bristling with sensors (which needed regular maintenance, hence the team’s presence) and a survival shelter.
The tower could be only a hundred feet downhill and it would have been wholly obscured by the roiling mists.
“I was on the wrong screen,” Justin announced suddenly. “You need to head west. You’re not far off.”
Mark squinted, staring downhill where the mountain cut into the flowing clouds like a ship through the ocean waves. The wind was painful above the icy fog; heading lower wouldn’t be fun. In the emergency shelter, at least, he’d be able to get warm.
“All right,” the field researcher sighed and began shifting about to make sure that his gear was properly balanced for transportation. “I’ll head west.”
“You’re, um, not going to tell Shelly…are you?” Justin sounded so forlorn that Mark couldn’t help but bark in amusement.
Young, Mark thought to himself. Poor Shelly is going to have her hands full.
“No,” he chuckled. “Don’t worry about it, no harm done. This is Rover Three, going radio silent. Keep your ears on, I’ll let you know when I get to twenty-four.”
“Thanks,” the intern replied, relief palpable.
The old explorer laughed as he continued his own lonely, extraordinary journey.
Please visit David’s website and click on his blog tab to find this story and other works and learn more about his books. https://davidhreiss.com