Short Story – “On Ice”

In writing a continuation of Night / Morning I decided to change the perspective and tense slightly; I wanted to keep my idea of trying to write something about the senses, about how it feels to feel alive, and indeed the discomfort of the setting, but to expand it slightly in scope. It has moved from one person in one room, in a way; it is now about someone trying to turn their current situation over in their mind.

Long hours of the morning stretch out before those woken early. Hours that far exceed the amount of things that need doing, and so for many the day is an initial rush of activity followed by nothingness. Trying to sleep more is a poor idea; it is important to be awake, should the call to action go out. The limited pleasures afforded in a remote, icy spit of land will not fill a whole long day. And so, for many, what remains is counting down the hours until they can fly again, and counting down the days until they can go somewhere more pleasant and spend their money.

The airfield is on the edge of a city that was first to die in a past war, and which never fully rebuilt before this one began. It sits in the embrace of ruined buildings overlooking a deep, ruined expanse of land that might have at some point been supposed to be a profitable new development. Much of it is now a shallow, rubble-jagged basin that fills – when the tide is high, or the storm-drains overflow – with water that rapidly turns an unwelcoming grey. If it gets particularly cold – in the drawing in of winter evenings where the sky is pink-tinged blue and there is not a cloud to be seen – chunks of ice form on the surface.

Former warehouses, bomb-shattered and skeletal, have been rebuilt into functional hangars. The shells of buildings have been made livable for a few floors, but nothing more than sparse metal rooms and uncomfortable beds. It is life, but it is hardly enviable.

This morning, which rose uncaring after a crisp, icy night which had screamed with metal sound, a young woman who hated her popularity was woken early by someone wishing to thank her. It had been an awkward exchange, and left her – once she had finally succumbed fully to wakefulness, any hope of much-needed sleep evaporated – hollow inside. There had been sincerity in the young man’s embarrassed expression of gratitude that she had been too sleep-deprived, too confused in jumbled memories of combat, to properly acknowledge. Now he was doubtless away, busy, unable to meet her again and she was idle, because if you were the hero of the whole squadron you could count on never having to do drudge-work. When her status afforded her idleness she found herself unable to stay still; to sit around the base invited adulation she rarely liked, played into the most unwanted perception of her as a celebrity.

The blasted-out relics of tower blocks and a shopping mall offered respite. It was easy to find the cracks, the doorways into nothingness, and climb up through shattered concrete and warped metal until an intact floor would stretch out in a grid of pillars. There, one could sit listening for the telltale chime of the alert order, and be alone with one’s mind.
Today she had headed into the wreckage of the mall. Its second floor had been home to lines of small shops, the pleasant curved shapes of which were still visible. In places the walls had not been eroded back to bare concrete, and traces of paint gave the grey skeleton some life. There were even – in the tangles of metal that filled some of the rooms – the defined remnants of clothing-rails, or shelves. She never liked to imagine what the place had been like in its prime, because that invited the thought that she, or someone like her, had been complicit in ending that peace. Imagine people happily shopping, and – if you had fought for long enough – it was all too easy to imagine firing the shot that would send fire flashing through the shop-floors and leave only tangled metal and bad memories behind. Thankfully neither she, nor any of the other pilots who had decided to see where exactly they had ended up, had found any skeletons. It made sense. There had been time after the first strikes for the scene to be cleared. If you didn’t think about death, couldn’t see death, then you could suppress the thought that this building had ever lived.

Frost-thaw dripped, icy cold, from a rusting iron spar to trickle across the smooth floor and accumulate in a cracked section. She extended a finger into its path, the coldness making her feel alive. Feeling the world with her bare skin, rather than as crackling, resistant taps and scratches against sterile plastic. That was, after all, what life as a pilot ended up being for so much of the time. Her gear was uncomfortable in ways that were hard to explain; it was cold, spongy and despite how closely it fitted was weighed down with unyielding plates and straps that meant it was impossible – outside of the cradle-like seats of the cockpit – to ever properly sit comfortably in a chair. The material of her gloves was thin enough to allow her to feel texture relatively normally, but it was still filtered through unyielding, heatproof plastic, giving everything the same cold harshness. And hours of touching the world with synthetic skin that destroyed nuance meant moments that could be spent being able to feel were welcome.

She touched a wet fingertip to her lips and enjoyed the chill of the water, the oxide, rust flavour that tinged it. It was real. Unpleasant things – harsh, tainted water, broken buildings, early winter mornings that painted the world white with frost – kept you grounded, needed to be felt to properly live. Safely reminded that she was alive, that the world was continuing to turn, to be its awkward, uncomfortable, cold self, she was able to mentally exhale. The fact she had not been able to kill again, that she had found herself – now the night before was slowly solidfying in her mind – trying very hard to miss while also keeping her friends alive, did not weigh too heavily on her. Everyone had lived. Somehow, nobody had noticed she could not kill any more. Her celebrity, her almost flawless luck, the good fortune she seemed to bring to her comrades that invited adulation and embarrassed thanks, meant she was an invaluable asset. But this was a war. Every night she was unable to kill just prolonged it, meant there would be another night of terror, of disturbance.

Perhaps half a dozen more flights and then she could get away from here. Go somewhere else, try and get herself seconded somewhere where this wouldn’t be a problem. That way she would never have to think too deeply about this current lapse. Or, indeed, think about why the sudden emergence of empathy needed to be considered a lapse.


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