The Fall at the End

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After a point, you forget about the cold. The shivering continues, yes, but the sensation of the cold itself starts to numb over, just like the rest of your body. It squeezes at your skull, constricting you, making you want nothing more than to burn yourself to the bone.

The land was still flat. It was always flat. It had been flat for weeks. Simon had no idea how fast he was traveling, but perhaps it didn’t matter. The white went on forever. He kept seeing those thin patches of ice, and it would tempt him. Before, when he had his company with him, they would avoid those patches like the plague. They’d bob under your weight, and creak and squeal, but Simon had never seen it break out from beneath anybody, never seen anybody swallowed into the silence.

Those patches of thin ice were a temptation. Why bother watching your feet? Who cares if the ice eats you alive? And maybe it would feel nice, the frozen water crushing at you, biting at you.

Freeing you.

Still no food. Hadn’t been food for days. Simon had caught a penguin not too long ago, might’ve been four days, could’ve been ten. The meat was all fat, good for staying awake, no good for nutrition. His stomach felt like it was being stretched taut inside of him. Finding water was never a problem. A person’s just got to break a chunk of ice off the ground, hold it in his mouth. Couldn’t drink the water underneath, full of salt. Makes you gag, and choke. Simon had tried, in his impatience.

The ice went on forever. There was no end. There was no edge to the world.

If there were creaks and aches sounding below his feet, he didn’t hear them. He didn’t hear anything anymore. For a long time, he was lost in his head, just thinking, about anything, about nothing, about how wrong he’d been to come out here on this expedition. He didn’t think much at all now. His mind had frozen over.

Sometimes he could hear his footsteps. It was all he heard. It was his universe. Crunch crunch crunch, through the ice, through the thin snow. The white dust picked up in swirls, stung at Simon’s eyes. But it was all dry, so dry, and it scratched at his throat when he tried to swallow.

He hadn’t looked at his feet in weeks, but they must’ve been thick with blisters. Every step should’ve been agony. Not anymore. Not since the cold had befriended what was left of his soul.

And now Simon was starting to see shapes. Through the gray haze, there might’ve been a little hut in the distance, or a tent. Could’ve been anything. Could be a mirage. Mirages were only supposed to happen in the desert, but it was a desert out here.

But the shape didn’t disappear, only grew sharper. Came closer. Must’ve been a person, somebody with camp set up all the way out here. Impossible. Only a mirage. Simon didn’t have the strength to get excited. But the hut was coming closer.

He tried to call out. The words wouldn’t come up. His teeth were chattering, and his throat was locked shut.

There was light inside. A lantern. Maybe. It’s nothing. It’s a mirage. It’s a reflection of the sun. No light. Just dreams. Just sleep.

“Hello?” a voice called. It didn’t sound real. Simon couldn’t have been sure that he’d even heard anything. All a hallucination. He’d fallen down from exhaustion hours ago, and this was all a vivid dream. Not even vivid. Vague, disorienting.

“Hello?” it called again. Something moving, a person climbing out of the hut.

Simon wanted to answer, but couldn’t. He felt the strength draining out of him, but he kept moving, had to be sure that this was real.

In the blink of an eye, he was just in front of the man, the man bundled up in fur from what must’ve been sea otter. The man was holding Simon up, but he couldn’t feel it. Couldn’t think. Still didn’t know if it was real.

“Come inside, come inside, my god.”

Simon was on his hands and knees, which felt wrong, because for weeks now he’d been trying not to fall to the ground, but he was sitting, resting, inside with the bright light of the man’s lantern.

“Who are you?” the man asked.

It was warm in the hut. Impossibly warm. “Simon,” he grunted, dizzy. “Came with a group of seven. All dead now. Searching for The Fall at the End.” The words were tumbling out of him, and he couldn’t tell if he was making sense of not.

“Travis,” the man said. He reached out a hand. Simon might’ve shook it, might’ve just moved his arm limply. Hard to be sure.

“Eat. Eat,” Travis said. He held up a hunk of meat. “It’s caribou. Eat.”

Simon took it and bit into it. It should’ve been frozen solid, but it was only a bit frosty. It was supposed to taste like paradise, but Simon tasted nothing. “Where?” he asked. “Where’d you find caribou this far?”

“Supply drops. Got men at camp, week’s ride back north. They come out on sled. They give me food, I give them my reports.”

“Reports?”

“I’m a researcher. Examining the water out here, and how the currents move under the ice. I’ve dug holes in the ice a short distance out from here. You’re lucky that you didn’t wind up falling in, in your state.”

Simon nodded, though he felt like he couldn’t quite understand anything. He took another bite, but still couldn’t taste. “Researcher?”

“The Fall at the End is out there,” Travis said. “Aye, almost seen it myself. Almost. Another two days south, you’ll hear the rush. Nothing to see, I’m afraid. The mist is too thick. The waves make a blizzard out there. Ice is all broken up, too dangerous to go forward on foot or by sled. No, you’d need a ship. Who knows how you’d get a ship this far out. Even so, currents are bad enough even from this distance. You board a ship out here, you won’t get back off. You’d be tumbling over the edge of the world for the rest of eternity.”

Simon nodded again, the numbness covering him like a blanket. “The Fall at the End is real.”

“Aye,” Travis said. “It’s real. But what about you? What are you doing out here? You were with an expedition, you said?”

“Not an expedition,” Simon answered, shaking his head. “Too smart of a word. We were just young and stupid. All we wanted was to see the edge of the world.”

“You won’t. The Fall is great, yes, but if you get too close…”

“There’s nothing left of me,” Simon said. He might’ve been whispering. He took another bite of meat, but his throat was sore, and he could barely swallow. “So what if I plummet over the edge of the great waterfall? I’m dead out here no matter what happens.”

Travis studied him. “I can bring you to camp. Even if you’ve got frostbite, they’ll do what they can. We have doctors, and medicine. Maybe they’ve even got a job for you.”

Simon shook his head. “I just want to see it. No matter what.”

“Then you’re asking to die,” Travis concluded. He looked out of the hut, out at the white wind. “I know people have gone over the edge of The Fall at the End. They’re still falling to this very day. The edge of the world is the last thing out there.”

“I want to see it,” Simon repeated. His brain was numb. “I just want to see it.”

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