Think of it this way, comrade, I said to Vasily. If the bears eat us, when the wolves come we won’t have anything to feed them.
Vasily failed to see the humour. He only further furrowed his brow and checked the ammunition of the pistol again.
What do you think, that the bullets have run away in these last few minutes? I asked him.
It does not harm checking.
It makes no sense, either. At least put your gloves back on.
I cannot fire the pistol in those things.
Your hands are freezing, I said.
All of me is freezing. I nodded my head in defeat: he had a point.
We watched the heavy snowfall against the black of night above our sputtering and useless fire, the sky a starless oil above the treeline of the trail we’d blazed in our descent. We shivered in our damp clothing; great plumes of what may very well be our dying breath hung before us.
It had been merely hours — not even one rotation of this ancient earth — since I’d seen with my own eyes the vastness of this beautiful world. And now, it seemed, I was going to leave it forever.
I thought of maybe shooting another flare, as much out of boredom as desperation, but I knew it would do nothing but stir the anxiety and rage of my comrade. Vasily was convinced we needed the three remaining flares to defend ourselves against the bears and wolves once we ran out of ammunition for the pistol.
A bear or wolf on fire sounds much more terrifying than just a regular bear or wolf, I said to him.
A bear or wolf on fire is a bear or wolf soon dead.
I didn’t argue.
As the wind suddenly picked up our fire consumed whatever remained of the collected deadfall, and we were blinded in the suffocating gauze of the falling snow, we heard the howl of the wolf pack, sounding much closer than we had hoped.
At that moment, I truly hoped they would eat Vasily first, even as I clung to him (and he to me) for dear life. Immediately, I regretted the thought.
The fire finally dead, we climbed back into the ruined capsule. With the hatch and heater broken, but the cooling fans still operating despite our every effort to disable them, what had once been our insulation and armour against the harshness of unforgiving space was now, back on the frozen earth, an open-door refrigerator.
Taking our assigned seats, I sat on the inside, protected from the weather by the capsule on three sides and Vasily on the fourth, all the while I was being bombarded by the chilling force of the fans. Vasily, sitting on the outside, was covered in a fresh frosting of snow within a matter of minutes. I offered to change positions with him, simultaneously eager and loathe to switch seats, but he declined, cradling the pistol in his lap, and said he’d have a better view of our predators once they appeared.
I wanted to suggest that no animal of any intelligence would be out in this awful weather, that it was only humans who would do something so foolish, but I kept quiet. Instead I occupied my time wondering how it was that our mission could have been fraught with so many errors and miscalculations. Moreover, to have managed to make it to the end of all those tribulations only to freeze to death in the dark forest, waiting to be eaten. I closed my eyes.
At the sound of the shot I awoke from a sleep I didn’t know I’d fallen into. The storm had abated. I reached for Vasily; the sound of the gun still thundered in my ears.
I saw one, he said. I saw a wolf.
Wolves travel in packs.
This one was alone.
Are you certain?
Did you kill it? I asked him.
But Vasily looked at me as if he did not understand the question. His hands were the colour of a fish’s belly, his eyes pink as dawn. I took off my gloves and dug inside my suit for the flare gun.
What are you doing? Vasily stared at me, his body trembling, his lips blue.
I am firing another flare.
No! He reached out for the gun, but he was slow and clumsy. I pulled away from him; he drew the pistol on me.
Comrade, I said, you do not know what you are doing.
Give me the flare gun.
I do not want to die in the dark.
Give it to me.
Kill me if you must. And I shot the flare, the night sky majestically illuminated.
Vasily said nothing. He lowered the pistol and watched the flame slowly die out.
It is just as well, he said, and dropped the pistol in his lap.
We sat in the silent dark for a very long time.
Fire another one, he said, and I did. And then another, our last.
So what now? Vasily asked.
We don’t have to wait for that. There’s more than enough cyanide pills — or the pistol, if
you prefer. But me, I prefer to wait.
For what, if not for death?
Just to wait.
We watched our breath in the cold, our world silent in the wake of the storm. We heard the unmistakable sound of wolves howling and hoped the cold took us before they did.
On the horizon I thought I could see the distant glow of the new morning, hear the churning blades of a helicopter.
Dane Gill’s work has appeared in the Cuffer Prize Anthology 2 and 3, the Newfoundland Herald, Paragon, and Sterling Magazine. In 2016 he won a Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters award for short fiction; he won again in 2018. He lives in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador with his family.