FICTION: A SNOWFLAKE'S CHANCE IN HELL
* I *
It had been bitterly cold for the last few weeks before it all began. Then it had snowed and snowed and snowed, day after day, until the pavements were piled high with the purest, shiniest, crystalline snow anyone had ever seen. Both traffic and pedestrians picked their way through the streets with the greatest of care.
Carrie loved it. She was a sentimental little soul. Something quite rare in these bleak, modern days of minimalist emotion. Her heart warmed to see the snowfall outside the window, fluffy and gentle as it touched down on the already overburdened sill.
There was something cocooning about the snow, almost like being cradled in cotton wool. What made it feel extra nice was that this was one of those few experiences which were still common to humankind since a world of individual choice had opened up.
These were Harry's thoughts. More cynical than Carrie, Harry bemoaned the passing of another, kinder world, the world of his youth. He felt it dissolving like a tiny, vulnerable snowflake lying in the middle of his palm. “I wouldn't be surprised if soon we were able to buy ourselves individual weather”, he thought with a mental grimace and resigned shake of his head.
He settled down to watch the nightly news. It seemed to Harry almost as if snow was falling over the whole world tonight...
* II *
Joe put aside his book. He'd only been catching every second word these past ten minutes and his eyes were smarting like hell. He blew his bedside candle out and lay on his bed in the moonlight.
He loved these special moments of silence. Across the room, his bedroom window was a rich dark royal blue colour suffused with the silver glow of the unseen moon. The snowflakes fell silently, vertically and hugely down the length of his window and increased by minuscule amounts, the pile rapidly obscuring the holly bushes in his garden.
In that church-like silence, he heard the distant call of an owl before his eyes wearily closed over and he fell deep asleep.
* III *
Joy wondered how she was going to manage the next day. Tommy and Rebecca wouldn't be able to sit still to breakfast with all this snow about.
They'd insist on building a snowman and having snowball fights. She'd have the devil's own job keeping them dry and getting them fed in time to get them off to school.
Her bones were weary from her full day that day. It had been non-stop from start to finish.
Still... she wouldn't have it any other way. Motherhood was a long hard slog and single motherhood seemed purgatory itself at times. Not that she'd change a thing, however. Not a single thing.
Except perhaps this snow which seemed to want to fall forever...
* IV *
Amanda and Cecil had been married twelve long years. They had been very careful and there had been no little accidents along the way. Both had worked so hard and with the mortgage on their townhouse so high having children would have spelt disaster.
They were drinking the last few drops of their cocktails sitting at their smart table by the French doors when they realised it simultaneously... it didn't feel like Christmas at all.
It hardly surprised them, however. Each year the edges of the experience had seemed to fray bit by bit. All the little nooks and crannies of warmth had seemed to fizzle out like so many defective fairy lights, until only one or two areas of nostalgia were able to be fanned alive.
And now, at once, they both realised the last trace of Christmases past, had gone.
Neither spoke. Both continued to stare out the large french door window panes, through the delicate lace hangings... at the curtain of snow falling silently in the night.
In the dying light, they could still make out the soft flat expanses of lawn and smooth curves of bushes beneath a uniform carpet of white.
Unknown to each other they both simultaneously felt something like a tiny icicle enter each of their hearts...
* V *
Frank had a good heart. It pulsed warmth into the room like a huge baker's oven. His vibrant life force always gave out the same wonderful, life-enhancing heat. So much so that anyone around him immediately perked up and if they'd had any doubts about it, quickly began to feel life was indeed worthwhile and people were not so bad after all.
The place was even fuller than usual tonight as they'd used every possible space to lay down extra mattresses so no one had to be turned away.
The constantly falling snow seemed to soothe them, Frank thought happily. Usually the place would be a hubbub of noise including at least two or three arguments, either over whose bed or blanket it was or who had stolen someone's soup or slab of bread. But tonight, even with the overcrowding, everyone seemed in a soporific, almost serene, mood.
Above their heads, on the little shelf nailed on a corner of the hall, almost unnoticed, the television screen showed the snow falling, country by country, all over the world...
* VI *
N!xau awoke at dawn and soon after strode outside to judge the portents for hunting that day.
No sooner had he swept aside the hide covering the doorway when he stopped in his tracks. He couldn't believe what he was seeing.
The sky was raining cotton... But a very strange kind of cotton. One that felt cold to the touch and dissolved in your fist when you squeezed it.
He was terrified.
This was not all.
Strangely, the cold of the Kalahari night seemed to have continued on into the day. And the dawn chill of another season had come in midsummer, transforming the clear blue arc of the sky to a stormy, roiling grey.
He roused his family from sleep and soon they stood with him in a line, staring wide-eyed in both fear and wonder at the terrible sky, and the icy powder that fell from it.
* VII *
Sir Harold Humphrey wasn't a man who frightened easily but as he looked down Whitehall now he felt himself shiver from head to toe and it wasn't simply due to the cold.
In the distance he could plainly see Big Ben brightly arrayed in its mantle of white.
The snowploughs had done all they could and could do no more. Across the city, they lay stranded and motionless, more than half-covered by the endlessly falling snow.
Sir Harold's task had been to co-ordinate, as far as was possible, the snow clearance effort in London. He had failed miserably.
He consoled himself with the fact that no one, no matter how innovative, could have succeeded any better in the circumstances. The snow had fallen constantly across the country for almost two weeks now.
And... from the snatches of time after returning at night when his phone finally stopped ringing, when he caught a newscast, it was clearly occurring in every country across the entire world.
They always had to have a name for these things, he thought sardonically. They were calling it ‘Global Winter’. Without a glimmer of a smile, Sir Harold thought about how ironic it was that everyone had all been expecting ‘Global Warming’. For him, it made clear once and for all just how unpredictable and complex nature was and how comparatively myopic and ignorant Mankind was by comparison.
His bag was packed along with those of every remaining soul in London.
The last of the obstinate, brave, foolish or lame were now leaving the city as best they could.
All members of the government had been long since ensconced in a rapidly refurbished Cold War bunker on the holiday island of Jersey. Now it was the turn of what remained of the general population to depart as best they could.
A stark warning to leave the cities had been given across all still-existing media outlets. This even though the futility of it was well known in governmental circles. Still... there it was.
Anyone who stayed in the cities was doomed to a slow death. Nothing could reach anyone. Every major transport artery was blocked by tens of thousands of abandoned cars and hundreds of pillaged, jack-knifed trucks. Nothing was leaving the ports. Almost all major transport infrastructure and networks had now completely broken down.
In the countryside were the only stocks of food apart from the very few isolated warehouses around major cities all mostly emptied of anything edible inside them. Of course, the stocks of food in the countryside would soon run out too. Increasingly and quickly now the remaining hordes of city-dwellers were descending upon them.
“What else could we do?” thought Sir Harold grimly. “Say nothing? Ignore what we knew? That anyone remaining in the cities stood no chance of survival?”
This had become clear when the temperature had dropped consistently to a point where almost every water pipe had burst and maintenance of the myriad technological aids to our modern lives ended virtually overnight.
The only remaining hope had been that the earlier, agriculture-based forms of existence might provide the basis of life once again.
Sir Harold knew just how vain a hope that was, however. The inevitable result would be that those in the countryside would die all the sooner as the urban locusts swept over them, eating everything they could find, breaking into every home in their search for food in a fight to the death for survival.
Even when doing so, most of those who were leaving London now would only prolong their lives by a week or two at most.
Sir Harold shook his head sadly as he picked up his bag and gazed for one last time across Whitehall toward Big Ben.
Tears fell from his lined old face.
But, even before it hit the floor, this tiny trickle of warm water, the same water that had previously sustained all life... had turned to solid ice.
* VIII *
Don Shepherd and Roni Straker knew well that no words could describe what they were seeing.
From here on LunarDome the Earth was transformed. There was no longer any trace of the blues or browns of old, or of those iridescent colours which had always cheered and amazed them, and with which they had been so familiar.
Their home was now purest white.
The reports from EarthBase, while they had continued, had been consistent for some time now, heavy and continuing snowfalls. Everywhere. Around the globe.
Steve Harper, their main contact down on EarthBase had stayed bravely at his position giving them updates much longer than they had any reason to expect. Finally, his need to take his family out of harm's way had overcome his remaining sense of duty to the Lunites, as Don and Roni had officially come to be known. (To the less reverent of course they would always be known as ‘The Lunatics’).
Every now and then Don would switch on the Tri-V though he knew very well the inevitable and interminable focus of the news, somehow it comforted him; it was the last link to home.
Later, when all news stopped he still switched on, gazing at the terrible irony of the mass of swirling white dots on a grey background that in the early days of television, they had called snow.
He simply sat and stared at the screen in a numbness which in time became almost trance-like.
Don and Roni knew without any shadow of a doubt that they were to die on the base. They had calculated everything in minute detail.
The Dome had emergency supplies that would ensure their survival for around three years.
These resources were of course finite. Nothing could be grown on the barren, pumice wilderness of the Moon and it had been too early in the project to set up gardens.
From their bleak grey stone hanging in space, they now looked across at a polar world.
At a planet of purest white.
In other circumstances it would have been a romantic sight. After all, tonight was special, it was Christmas Eve. And across two hundred and forty thousand miles, hanging in the vast silent blackness of space, was the biggest snowball ever seen.
The three years which followed were the loneliest any humans had ever had to live through.
They were wracked with torment for their families in the first few weeks, wondering if they were okay and dreading the worst.
In the end, as weeks turned to months they knew it was unlikely anyone had survived down below, down where their memories lay, their people, their homes. No communication ever came now. Only the monotonous chatter of static ever arrived over the airwaves now.
In the early days they had kept the speakers in the foremost lounge continually switched on, beaming them the ceaseless hiss in the desperate hope survivors might contact them. But after eighteen months of the constant crackling backdrop, they agreed to switch it off.
For a while, it was very hard to get used to the silence.
They had an almost infinite variety of Tri-V programs to watch and at first they did. But they soon found that each and every image brought them immediately to tears, wracked with overwhelming and all-consuming loss.
In the end, they switched everything off except for essential life-support and lived as best they could in silence.
The face of home, however, could not be avoided. There it was, constantly tracing its slow, elegant path across the immense panorama window which swathed the entire length of the forward lounge.
Don and Roni rarely spoke now, each deep within their own inner meditation. They sat in the soft cocoons of their body loungers and constantly gazed at the great white ball held in the deepest of black velvet across from them.
The critical days came at last. Outwardly the base was unchanged, held pristine, clean, white, perfect.
Inside, little was changed also. The corridors, labs and storerooms were as they had been on the day of their construction. Only the forward lounge had become altogether changed.
Instead of the clinical whites and creams of before, there was instead a riot of colour where they had created a montage of images of the old Earth as she had been, the people, the places, the animals, the flowers... the loved ones.
With the passing of time neither moved much from their Lifepoint loungers, plugged into the now almost empty nutrient supply. Both were very weak, both in body and mind.
Slowly they were disappearing, element by element, as life force drained from them and the systems supporting them failed one by one, moving from living warmth ever closer to death’s ice cold.
Don realised Roni had probably gone when she no longer responded to the once-a-day contact they made lounger to lounger. He tried several times but with no response from her in return.
He felt impossibly weak, but he managed the superhuman effort of rising and getting himself across to her.
When he got to her lounger he realised that she was indeed gone.
With an indescribable depth of emotion containing an equal measure of sadness and envy, his tears splashed upon her as he leant down gently to her poor, lined face and kissed her forehead.
It was ice cold.
The days passed... unchanging except for those alterations occurring within Don's painfully thin frame.
Finally, it was time.
He slowly opened his eyes and took one last look at home.
Looking directly ahead his eyes met the cold white orb of Earth.
He blinked back tears. They at least seemed a never-ending resource.
The last moments of the last man were imbued with a deep peace.
Don's gaze moved to the stars... almost as if there was still some tiny hope remaining out there, a hope born of the spirit of Man. For change, for preservation, for some chance of a continuation of Mankind’s hopes and dreams.