Even inside the plane the cold had registered, along with a deadening of all sound. But the glacial silence that awaits him outside is something else entirely. No attempt to imagine it could have prepared him. It occurs to him that he’s done well to have been born without imagination. (That’s the last modicum of irony he will indulge in before coming to know the cold.)
Every centimeter of his skin revolts. Each part of him tries to pull back. He’s emerged from the twin-engine plane into a world so hostile as to feel unearthly. Nothing he’s previously known comes close to this sensation of every shred of heat being stolen out of these pores now pierced by burning needles of cold. His breath freezes as he tries to exhale. He hiccups, worried he’ll choke.
The sounds, too, are alien. The ice crunching under his heavy shoes like glass shattering. The faint, steady crackle of liquids turning solid in midair, too subtle to notice at first. The voice—the voices—of snow as it slides, settles, piles up, briefly melts then resolidifies, endlessly.
He will need to learn, as have so many before him, not to dawdle but to move quickly, efficiently, from shelter to shelter. This is no place to linger, not even to appreciate the light’s changing texture or the scent that enters one’s nostrils along with the cold, harbingers of marvels beyond explanation.
In a sheet-metal structure, people in balaclavas hurry him through the customs procedures, then into an overheated vehicle. He traverses other strange landscapes, catching glimpses from this cramped microclimate that doesn’t warm him but merely staves off the cold. For now.
The impression of strangeness, he is to discover in the days that follow, will not fade. It proves to be part and parcel of this place. Here, nothing ever begins to seem familiar. He has been paid to leave the known world behind. Once that frontier is crossed, no return is possible.
Later, he will tell himself he did this for the money. More than he’d ever made before. The only places where people like him—without any real skills or qualifications—are paid this well are war zones, or regions so inhospitable that nobody would otherwise willingly work there. Northern Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, coastal Newfoundland. He reached out to many ambassadors, one of whom, looking especially sad, did his best to dissuade him from the whole undertaking before pointing him to this job. He knows he won’t make it back whole. But the temptation was too great.
His job is to check and maintain and repair processing-plant equipment. His experience with such machinery, and the manuals he’s been given on the effects of subzero temperatures on industrial materials, should suffice. Or so he was told. The man he’d met had talked about the living conditions. He hadn’t sugarcoated the truth. No point selling folks on a lie, he’d said, or all they’ll do is leave as soon as they’ve landed. I want you going in with all the facts, coolheaded, you hear me?
He’d locked eyes with the man and seen a coolheaded figure indeed. Something distant in that gaze, as if unused to warmth, human or otherwise. He’d decided on the spot and signed the paperwork. The man didn’t react, didn’t seem relieved or surprised. Along with the technical instructions, he handed over guidance on how to dress and what to expect. The first line read: Forget all your routines. Farther down: Be ready for no daylight. Mysterious words, but hardly ominous. The travel documents turned up in the mail some weeks later.
Now, confronted with this vastness that feels oddly volatile, he’s not so sure he chose right.