(c) All Rights Reserved - 2016
This story is work of fiction from my imagination. A touch of artistic license has been liberally applied, especially in the matter of the Antarctic base. In truth, it is NOT administered or controlled by the U.S. Navy. However, in this work, it was found expedient for story purposes to make it so. If some are offended or put off by this bit of chicanery, get over it. It's a story, fiction, make-believe. So are the Masi'shen and their shape-shifting abilities.
So for the purposes of fun, lets relax, sit back, and enjoy an old man's made-up yarn. I guarantee, I've got a ton of old man's stories are aren't made up, but would be far more boring than this yarn.
A final word: the places and settings in this story are actually as close to real and true as research could make them. As for the Idaho locations, those are places I've lived or neighboring places I've visited many times, often with friends and acquaintances who lived there. I lived and owned a business in central Idaho for a number of years, right in the shadow of the Stanley Basin which for many years was listed each winter as the "coldest place in the lower 48" until the Weather people changed the rules and decided there was insufficient population there (about 60 year-round residents) and disqualified Stanley, Idaho from mention. Typical flat-lander attitude! But anyway, having been there and experienced that cold, I've absolutely no interest in visiting Antarctica.
But I do know and admire a fellow who works down there on a seasonal basis. He does site maintenance. It seems to be a great place for handyman skills!
Please, enjoy! I've got many hours of work into this, and even I enjoy going back and re-reading it from time to time.
The impact came suddenly and unexpectedly, ripping through the Masi’shen ship defenses before the collective consciousness could sense alarm or mount counter-measures. The entire central section of the ship’s modules were torn loose from its spine and spun away, hurling their precious aquaculture contents in great arcing gouts.
The shock wave pulsed down the central core of the ship’s control and communications trunk, rebounding in a massive resonant spike. The ship’s intra-galactic communicator—a crystalline focus lens feeding a dished array—shattered. The primary intelligencer and the array it controlled sat blinded, helpless, its communications focus destroyed and its neural trunk cut. Auxiliary intelligencers in the forward bridge section and the aft propulsion sections kicked into emergency control mode, giving the crew time to restore stability and begin damage control assessment.
The news was grim. Not fatal, in the short term, but their voyage must end. They must land and prepare for long-term survival in some sanctuary with resources where they could remain hidden and wait for rescue. This was an explorer ship on the edge of an obscure galaxy, charting star systems in an unknown corner of the universe.
They had no way to send a distress message. No other Masi’shen ship was in this quadrant. They were alone and would remain alone for a long, long time. There was little time for grieving. Nearly one-third of their crew, the leaders and technicians tending the precious aquaculture and habitat sections of the great ship, had been swept away into the void. They must find sanctuary. Grief for their lost shipmates was a luxury they could indulge later, if they survived.
He was a tall, raw-boned veteran with geek glasses perched on his sunburned nose. Michael Hawthorne, geologist and geophysicist, was not pleased. He was pissed, highly pissed. He was enjoying a solitary vacation at his remote cabin in an isolated mountain valley, spending his days on cross-country skis and his evenings in front of the fireplace where he penned reports into journals he’d not had time to keep current.
He’d enjoyed his vacation until a helicopter landed on the frozen pond near the cabin and two agency officers impatiently stomped snow off their boots on the front porch of his cabin. He’d been alerted to their arrival by the swiveling searchlight on the chopper flooding through his cabin windows, several minutes before it touched down.
He was ordered to pack one bag and get aboard the helicopter immediately. His vacation was cancelled. No reason was given.
This was the price he paid for his lucrative consulting work for the agency. It paid well, and it came infrequently enough that it didn’t interfere with his preferred life as a geophysical consultant for major mineral and resource extraction corporations. He was also a Fellow of his alma mater and served in several advisory and steering positions. Between that and several investments, Michael had achieved a certain financial independence. He enjoyed the rare luxury of choosing his commitments.
Except for the agency. They would not be denied. When they beckoned, he complied. Michael had few fears, but he was not a foolish man. He did not go around kicking sleeping bears in their caves, and he did not provoke the agency to test their response. Nobody with any sense would anger an agency whose existence was denied, whose structure was unknown, whose funding sources were never seen, even by congressional oversight committees, and whose long reach within and without the country was never questioned. When they called, he answered. The few times prior had been harrowing but extremely lucrative. He also suspected that in some covert way, he was also serving his country.
Within hours he was seated at a conference table, reviewing satellite data of a remote antarctic region. Although remote and antarctic might seem synonymous, he had to admit that Marie Byrd Land on the continent’s western quadrant was remote even for that desolate part of the world. Satellite gravity pattern sensors and deep-sensing radar showed something massive, buried deep under the ice, uncharacteristic of anything known. There was not enough detail to determine its nature or compare it with known anomalies but even so, there was enough not right about it to raise questions. Most disturbing to the agency was the shape of the anomaly. It was massive, miles wide and many more miles long. It covered a rectangular area, bulbous at each end with a long, skinny section between. Computer analysis flagged it as “unknown, unnatural.” That was the puzzle, and a huge red flag. The agency detested puzzles without answers; it was absolutely paranoid about unnatural alerts, even in the remote antarctic.
They gave Michael the rest of the day to put his personal affairs in order and submit a list of clothing sizes and personal items. He would ride an early morning flight to McMurdo Sound base, and from there to wherever the investigation would take him. They told to prepare his equipment list. It would be procured and sent on a following flight if not already available at McMurdo.
Damn, he thought to himself. They’re pretty fired up, given that these are preliminary sensor data. Never figured they’d get so excited about a few square miles of ice and rock in an overlooked wasteland. But it is curious. Something one-half mile wide and three miles long appears to be buried on Siple Island, just clear of the volcano.
June Christie was cold, wet, tired, and confused. She’d been out on the research vessel for a week, running hydrophone sweeps and analyzing the digital returns. She’d had little sleep for the last eighteen hours and she knew that another four hours would go by before there was any hope of getting to her bunk.
“Run those east side sweep files again, the ones from 1800 hours,” she asked her assistant. “Mix in the sonogram images and overlay the audio tones. I want to follow the image movements with the pod’s calls.”
She closed her eyes, focused on the high-pitched chirps and squeaks of her pod. She recognized the call of the dominant female, her calf, and heard the responses from her pod mates. The pod had been hunting, running down penguins that were diving from the pack ice. The penguins were desperate to feed after an especially vicious storm had held them land bound for a week. There would be a frenzy of hunting and killing by orcas and leopard seals chasing down their weakened prey. But this time, in one corner of the bay, something was different.
She opened her eyes to study the faint sonogram echo traces from the sonar sweeps replaying on her monitor. The traces were synched with the pod calls.
“There, damn it! They did it! They divided, and diverted. The orcas, they had that group of penguins dead to rights, just off the ice bank, and they just divided, swept past on either side, and ignored them! Unbelievable!”
June Christie had studied orca pods since earning her Ph.D. in marine biology ten years earlier from the University of Washington. She loved orcas. “Killer whales,” they were called for many years until a more forgiving and understanding environmental community studied the orcas role in the predator chain of the ocean ecosystem. Like wolves on land, the orcas were an essential part of the system. Salmon and seals and penguins and sometimes a gray whale calf were parts of their prey base. Each orca pod differed in their hunting style, their prey preferences, and their chosen range. The Antarctic pods were big-animal eaters: they sought seals and penguins. Now she couldn’t believe their behavior. And something else bothered her: she’d never heard these particular ‘phrases’ from this pod before. There was something new, with a different meaning.
What the hell is going on here? Why would an orca pod deliberately split and go around a group of penguins? And why would they be telling each other about it, in advance? Damn it, it’s like they were giving them safe passage!
She dared not put her thoughts into writing. And in good conscience, she didn’t have anything conclusive to justify such a radical suggestion, not yet. But she did want to follow up on this. Oh, yes, this was just too different, too puzzling, to let go.
“Roy, let’s plan on another three-day sweep of this area as soon as we can, preferably when we can expect another big penguin event in this bay. I want to get more recordings, many more recordings. And let’s plan on working here, around this east side of the bay. Okay?”
“Sure, June. I’ll put together the schedule. But you’d better talk to the chief. He’ll be all over you, wanting to know why you’re wanting to spend so much budget on an over-lapping sweep.”
“Yes, well, I’ll just tell him we caught a sniff of that Russian nuke boat. That’ll tickle his funny side. By the time he stops laughing, we’ll have our new sweeps done.”
“Satellite data shows a huge gravitational anomaly on the coastal area, here, near Mount Siple. We’ve got to get you in there to perform a ground survey. A quick and dirty Navy over-flight with magnetic anomaly detection gear returned nothing useful. We know that something is there but we can’t get a handle on it. It’s massive, it’s something deep, and it’s unknown. We expect that your penetrating ground study will tell us more about whatever the hell that mass is.”
Michael stared at the satellite reports. He couldn’t dispute what he’d just heard. Most of the readings—gravity and surface penetrating radar—indicated something unusual. He wondered why the magnetic probes came away with nothing useful. Well, odds were that it was actually something natural, a deposit or a fault intrusion, something unusual for anywhere else but Antarctica.
Antarctica is a huge continent holding larger mysteries which science only recently began to answer. Problem is, of all the areas of the vast south polar continent, Marie Byrd Land remains the most remote, the least investigated, and the most difficult to reach.
“It’s twelve hundred miles from the closest base to Siple Island. How do you propose to get me there with enough gear and supplies for ground studies? It will take at least a week to get set up, make some evaluation runs, and get out of there.”
The agency man looked nervously at his stack of reports, then faced Michael straight on.
“No, not a week. We want a thorough ground sweep. We’ll take you in with a team to set up camp, and we’ll leave you there with an assistant. You’ll be in there for two weeks; more likely three, depending on what turns up.”
Michael sat stone-faced, saying nothing. His mind churned with probable risks and it was not a good plan.
It was already too late for antarctic field work. He’d been enjoying late-season cross-country skiing at his cabin; it was the fall season in Antarctica. Days were already dark with a brief twilight at mid-day. They’d be facing early winter storms and risking isolation on the coastal ice shelf, with little chance of help reaching them if anything went wrong.
“Our big problem is the distance. At twelve hundred miles, it’s right at the range limit for the C-130’s. It’s too far for the Hercs to go in and get back without a refueling stop. There’s no place for refueling since they shut down the Byrd station up on the plateau.
“We’ve arranged for an icebreaker to take you and your gear to the site. They’ll provide crew and snowmobiles with sleds to haul your stuff to the island and help you set up. You’ll check in daily by radio, and when you’re ready to come out, they’ll come in for you. They’ve got a helo deck so they can pull you out in a hurry if necessary. Don’t worry about bringing back the gear if things get dicey. That’s expendable. What we want is the data. We’ll be sending satellite up-link equipment with you for that. Try to transmit daily data feeds. We’ll have analysts working it up as it comes in.”
“You do realize that this is a hell of a risky situation you’re putting us into?”
“We don’t see it that way. It should be easy getting in, then an easy couple of weeks running back and forth with your snowmobiles and instruments, and then an easy out. The ship will stand by right off the ice shelf in radio range, ready to pull you out of there. What could be safer than that?”
Michael had never been in the habit of teaching pigs to sing. It was a waste of time and it annoyed hell out of the pigs. Obviously this fool and his superiors had never studied a single report about polar weather or antarctic operations.
“Alright, but we’ll need extra supplies for an extended stay in case the weather window closes. Storms can shut down an area for days, even weeks at a time. Trying to get a ship-board helicopter launched and recovered during storm conditions could be damned risky, if not impossible.”
“Sure, sure, no problem. I’ll tell the supplies team to offload an extra four week’s rations and fuel, just in case. Now, here’s the plan our analysts worked up. We’d like you to lay out this grid, using GPS coordinates...”
Michael spent the next day feeling uneasy about everything. He couldn’t understand why the agency was in such a hurry to survey the site. They had good satellite data, despite the confusing Navy mag-det readings. That should be plenty to keep them busy until the following antarctic spring when conditions would be safer. What was the damned hurry?
“The damned hurry” was the size of the anomaly at Siple Island. The agency deputy director sat at his desk, reviewing the report summary.
“Is this right? Are you sure there’s no error? This is the actual estimate?”
“Yes, sir. That’s it. I had the team review it a second time, and then I called in an independent section to double check everything. We ran it twice through the computers. We had a team of programmers double-check our algorithms and modeling assumptions. That’s the most accurate assessment possible. I know it’s a bit much to swallow but we either believe it, or we go back to square one with all of our systems and throw out everything we’ve done up to this point.”
The deputy director nodded, and shuffled the stack of papers closed, sliding them into their envelope.
“Thanks, Richard. I know you and the team have done a good job with this. I had to ask. Don’t be surprised if I call you in when I meet with the chief. I’m sure he’ll have the same skepticism I did, when I tell him these results.”
Damned right, he will, Deputy director Jameson thought to himself. Scientists have known for years that there are volcanoes, mountains, rivers and lakes beneath the antarctic ice shield. But who the hell would ever believe that a manufactured object one-half mile wide and three miles long would be buried under the ice in a place where humans have rarely, if ever, visited before?’
Plans went overboard from almost the first moment the ship arrived at the Getz Ice Shelf on the southwest coast of Antarctica. The shelf, small by antarctic standards, extends along the coast for three hundred miles and varies from twenty to sixty miles in breadth. Several major islands, including Siple Island and its volcano, lay surrounded by shelf ice.
The volcanic cone of Mount Siple looms over all of them, ten thousand feet above sea level. Even from a distance of thirty miles it is huge, imposing, and foreboding. Its snowcapped form stands starkly outlined against a grim horizon.
The ship’s two-man helicopter returned from its initial reconnaissance, a sixty-five mile round trip.
“Impassable? Absolutely impassable? You mean, there is no way we can get this mission to the site across the ice?”
“Yes, that is exactly what I mean,” Michael told Agent Steve Barringer. “There’s an unbroken line of pressure ridges extending three miles deep across our route close inshore. The ice is stacked up at least seventy-five, maybe a hundred feet high for as far as we could see. Worse than that, there seems to be some shearing right along the coast where the shelf meets the coast. It alternates between ice heaps and cracks. Any one of those cracks could swallow a snowmobile, its driver, and the sled with its load. There’d be no hope of getting out. But that’s assuming we can even get to the ice cracks; those ridges can’t be climbed and they extend too far to go around.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Me? What do I suggest? This is your party, your push, remember? If you want my professional advice, we’ll turn around and go back to McMurdo. Then you’ll release this ship and its crew to return to their New Zealand port for the winter.”
“That’s not an option.”
“Alright. I was afraid you’d feel that way. If the skipper and the pilot are willing, we can—just maybe—still do this. Assuming the ship has enough helo fuel aboard, we can break this down into a two-man detail, with just enough gear, including food and cooking fuel for a four-week contingency, for a fast survey. We plan on ferrying enough stuff over for a five-day quick scan: one day to set up, three days to run the survey, and the last day to get ourselves off the ice and back to McMurdo, and I’ll pray that we’re off before the first bad storm hits.”
“Dammit, that’s not enough. The chief wanted every square yard of that area scanned. We can’t cut it that short!”
“You’re not listening to me, Agent Barringer. We do it with what we’re able to fly ashore, as I just explained, or we don’t do it. We can’t ferry enough gear and reserve supplies to carry out your full plan. In case you haven’t paid attention, it’s the late fall season and we’re lucky we haven’t yet been hammered with a serious storm. If a fast-moving weather front moves in, we could be stranded on that island for weeks before it lets up enough to get us out of there. I’ll give you today and tomorrow to revise the load and transport us there. You can do that, or wait until early summer. It’s your choice.”
Steve Barringer was an intelligent man. He knew next to nothing about Antarctica. Few men who had not spent a season on the ice really did, but he trusted those who had the experience.
His problem was pressure. He was under incredible pressure from his agency superiors to get this survey accomplished, and he was equally as baffled as his consulting geophysicist by the rush. Sure, there seemed to be something huge and unknown lurking over there, but why the hell couldn’t it wait another year? How long had it been buried there, anyway? It seemed damned unlikely to pop out of the ice and take off somewhere before they could get to it.
“I’ll call and tell them we’ve got problems. You get your stuff sorted out. See how much stuff the pilot can ferry with each flight. I’ll check with the skipper.”
The director looked up and said in a voice so soft and low that his deputy had to strain to hear it:
“You bring me a shadow, and if we hadn’t worked together for so many years I would have your ID on my desk and yourself escorted from the building, under guard, to the nearest psychiatric ward.”
Deputy Jameson shifted uneasily, but he trusted his old friend to stay calm in the face of the incredible evidence.
“Yet here it is, and it’s been confirmed. The satellite instruments prove that something massive of a manufactured shape is buried there. The Navy flight added disbelief to this ‘shadow’ by showing it has little or no magnetic properties. Yet our gravity readings show that it is something very, very dense. We can’t just ignore it, can we?” the Director grumbled.
“No, sir, I don’t think we can. It appears to be nothing threatening, but we can’t be certain of that. It’s been laying there, hidden, unmoving. We don’t know enough about it to say much of anything, except that it is huge, it is unnatural, and it is buried deep in the ice where we would expect to see nothing of its kind.”
“Then what do you recommend?”
“It’s in my report with my conclusions, there with the analysis data. But I’ve already taken some action. We need to learn more but our timing is lousy. Winter is coming on down there, and our access window is closing. I’ve got one of our leading geophysicists and an investigating agent on site. They’re preparing to run a ground sweep to get accurate shape and density readings on this thing.”
“Good, very good. Make sure it happens. You’ve got free rein to run this project. Make sure we get those results before that weather window closes.”
Michael hurried to set up their base tent while the helicopter ferried supplies from the ship. He had ridden in with the first load, a sling-load of gear including their tent, sleeping bags, and duffel bags with extra clothing. He’d gotten the tent set up and the gear stashed while the pilot brought in another sling-load bearing their ground-penetrating equipment and food. The third trip delivered the snowmobile, fuel and oil, and a sled.
The fourth and final trip carried his helper, Dan Perkins, with their radio and satellite uplink equipment. Michael stood well clear while the helicopter approached on this last delivery. Twilight was almost gone. It was dark and difficult to see anything around him. He’d stumbled badly while carrying a crate and nearly sprained his ankle. The wind had come up and was blowing billowing streamers of snow. If things got only a little worse, the pilot would have real trouble. Any wind gusts or swirling snow would be dangerous when he came in to set down.
The helicopter approached, slowly, hesitating as it descended. Mike had set out flares and burning wads of oily rags pinned to the snow with spare tent stakes as beacons, something for the pilot to use as a ground reference. But the swirling down-blast from the blades obscured the markers in upswept clouds of powdery snow. Michael could see the pilot straining to guess his height above ground.
A hard gust pushed the helo up; it veered to one side and dumped its sling load. It was too high. The radio crates crashed forty feet down onto the hard snow pack. Several split open. The helo spun around and approached again. The pilot was forced to switch off his landing lights; they were blinding him in the clouds of swirling powder. He tried to see Mike’s ground flares as markers. The whole area was obscured under a blowing sheet of snow; all he could see was a swirling, rotating ground blizzard. There was no outside reference and the buffeting he was taking in the wind gusts upset his gyro horizon.
Michael could see the red flare in his own hand but nothing below his knees. The snow surface was a slithering, seething mass of sideways blowing snow, except where the helicopter down-wash was blasting it up into a huge, billowing cloud. The pilot struggled to get his equilibrium. It was hard to tell right-side up from upside-down. The helo surged up and swung away.
He circled tightly around, too high, Michael thought, and flew straight toward the glow of the flares from about a hundred feet out. The pilot descended as he came, trying to guess where his skids would contact the seething surface below him. Michael moved forward to guide him down, swinging his flare low before him.
Two things happened at precisely the wrong moment: a wind gust caught the craft from the side and its landing skid dropped and hit the snow pack, too hard. The helo bounced; another wind gust laid it over. It spun violently around when its rotor blades hit the snow. The blades shattered. Their pieces flew at Michael and the equipment crates. The tail rotor slammed down. Its blade broke loose and spun forward into the fuel tank. Gushing aviation gas engulfed the rolling, spinning helicopter in flame. Michael ran for his life.
Dan Perkins was thrown partially out of the door. He was crushed and dead before the flames reached him. The pilot, stunned from the impact of the crash, died when he inhaled superheated air from the flames. A moment later the helicopter was a burning mass of wreckage. It lay rolled against the radio and satellite equipment crates. Everything was blazing in the gasoline inferno.
Michael was down. A hail of blade fragments streaked past him while he ran. A knife-size chunk tore into his right leg, laying it open. He fell, rolled, and grasped at his torn snow pants, feeling the stub of the blade sticking out of his thigh. He fell. He sprawled flat onto the blinding, swirling snow; he lay in agonizing pain. Immersed in the swirling ground blizzard that covered him, he didn’t see the rolling, flaming wreckage destroy his camp and supplies.
What he couldn’t see on the far side of the tent was a secondary eruption of flame. Another blade fragment had struck one of the snowmobile fuel jugs, shattering the cold plastic. That sent a spray of gasoline into the air. It whirled downwind, touched the flaming wreck, and flashed back in a cloud of fire. The other fuel jugs swelled from the heat, their plastic melted, and hot gasoline gushed out. The fuel stash became a roaring inferno.
Michael fought to stay conscious. His camp was a blazing hell; soon, sub-zero cold would return and hell would be frozen over. Michael would join the two men already dead, but his death would take longer. He’d either bleed to death or freeze to death unless he did something to save his precious gear.
He tugged the metal shard from his thigh and ripped open the tear in his snow pants to reach his trousers and thermal underpants. Both were saturated with blood. He cut long strips of fabric from his snow pants with his pocket knife, slicing the pants where they’d been torn open. He cut into his inside trousers and thermals to lengthen the holes already there. He folded and stuffed his wool glove liners against the bleeding wound and wrapped them tightly with the strips of snow pant fabric.
Shock made him queasy and nauseous; he fought it. He had little time to prepare for survival. With the helo destroyed he didn’t want to think how long he’d be stranded here. There was no way that help could come from the ship.
He folded his knife and pocketed it, then slid the outer mitten shells back onto his hands. He crawled to the supply pile, pulling with his hands and pushing with his good leg, bellying forward in a clumsy scramble, dragging his injured leg stiffly, painfully along.
The fuel jugs erupted so fiercely that the adjacent snowmobile and sled were burning. Gasoline boiled out of the snowmobile’s tank, gushing up through the melted plastic fuel cap to add a tower of flame to the inferno. Heat seared his face when he came too close. He turned away to get at the supply stack from the opposite side. A few crates closest to the fire were already smoking and charring in the heat. He had precious few minutes before they would ignite and he’d lose everything.
He reached the end of the pile and grabbed at the closest containers, lifting, rolling his body, and hurling the container away from him. His torn leg flared in pain. He braced with his good leg for leverage to hurl them any distance. Thank God the bulk of his food was at this end of the pile. Another salvaged container held a two-burner camp stove and fuel canisters. Another held a medical kit.
He worked himself toward the smoldering end of the pile while grabbing and throwing stuff to safety. A few containers were too burned to salvage. The gasoline flames died down. Everything was gone. The snowmobile was a warped carcass and the sled was consumed, its fittings melted into the snow and lost.
The fire had not reached the tent. A long tear flapped noisily in the wind where a blade fragment had sliced it. Tape in the repair kit would fix that.
He felt sick from pain and exhaustion. His leg throbbed and burned like it, too, was on fire. He dare not rest, not yet. He rolled to rest his head on his hand, to see what might be left around the helicopter in its blazing pyre. His worst fears were confirmed. The helo was gone; a stub of the main rotor shaft, parts of the skids and frame, and a portion of the tail girder protruded from the snow; the heavy engine had melted deeply out of sight. Those few visible scraps were black and twisted from the heat. All of the equipment containers that the flaming wreck had rolled against were gone, burned, all the communication gear was destroyed.
He must drag some food and stuff fifty feet to the tent. He hoped he’d be strong enough to come out for more later.
In three long drags, bellying along face down in the sub-zero powder, he pulled his stove, the medical kit, and a food container to the tent and pushed them inside. He crawled in. He had two sleeping bags, two extra sets of spare clothing, personal items, and the medical kit. A double handful of energy bars were stuffed inside his duffel bag.
It took a while, but he accomplished several critical tasks. He stripped away his bloody lower clothing, inspected and cleaned his leg wound, and dressed it from the med kit. He found disinfectant and dressings, bandages, and even a suture kit. He’d deal with stitching himself up later. He felt close to losing consciousness. The chunk of shrapnel missed the big arteries or he’d have bled out by now. The danger would be infection, intense cold, and thirst and hunger if he could not melt water and prepare food. All in good time, he thought. I’m good for the moment.
He pawed through his extra clothing to dig out clean thermal undergarments and his favorite pair of fleece jogging pants. These were perfect for sleeping bag warmth. He stuffed one sleeping bag inside the other. He unrolled his self-inflating foam mattress, put the doubled bags on it, and crawled in. There was nothing more he could do but pull a fleece sleeping cap over his head, tug the bag zipper up to his chin, and let sleep or unconsciousness take over. It didn’t matter which came first.
“Mister Barringer, if you have access to some heavenly power that we do not, I’d advise you to call upon it now. Because that’s the only way you’re going to learn what’s happened to our helicopter, those men, and your survey mission. There is absolutely no way in this frozen hell of a place for us to do otherwise!”
The captain was restrained and professional, but lines of worry and despair lay deeply etched in his weathered face. He was a professional sea captain from a family of sea captains; he had commanded many voyages and was both competent and qualified to be sailing these treacherous waters. But sea-keeping was not the danger. It was the unexpected accident, the capricious conditions, and the immense distances and hostile terrain that were the deadliest adversary.
He had vehemently protested Barringer’s request that the ship’s helicopter be used for multiple trips to haul a portion of the mission equipment ashore when the surface route to the island proved impassable. Barringer radioed the ship’s charter office to insist that the helicopter be made available for his purposes.
Captain Adamson had no idea how Barringer convinced his company to authorize such a risky action. As he considered the ominous nature of the man, his mission, and the agency’s disregard for season and safety, he decided it was truly out of his hands. He wanted nothing further to do with this man or the agency he represented. He desperately wanted to know if his pilot was dead or stranded, and to arrange rescue for any survivors. There was nothing he could do but leave the area.
“Damn you to hell, captain! We cannot radio them, we cannot get to them, and we cannot stay here to help?”
“No, Mr. Barringer. We can do none of those things. We are out of VHF radio range of their site. They have low power hand-held VHF radios and we are at the very fringe of VHF radio range. We have been calling them; there’s been no answer. We’ve also been calling on the low-band frequencies that their base radio uses. Again, there is no answer. We’ve repeatedly called the aircraft emergency frequency, which the pilot would hear and answer if he were in the air. Again, no response. My radio staff has been calling and listening from the time we knew our pilot was overdue. I can only tell you what both of them tell me; there is little hope that any radio contact will be made. It would have happened by now.”
“So that’s it. We’re helpless. We’ve no way to contact them, no way to reach them, no way to see them, and no way to learn what happened?”
“How many times must I tell you, Mr. Barringer. Yes on all counts. Even if I put you onto the ice with a compass and a heading, you would die long before you could reach them, and so would anyone I sent with you. It is too far. The inshore ice is too broken and piled too high to cross over to reach them. And if you did, what then? What would you do, except join them as a victim yourself, stranded and at the mercy of the storms?”
“Mr. Barringer, I must inform you that your mission and my charter is over. For the safety of my ship and crew, I order that we will leave here when we receive radio confirmation from the authorities that they have our report. We will report the location of the men and their camp, and we will seek assurance that a rescue effort will be made. After that, we must leave. The weather is deteriorating. The changing season means we can expect rapidly worsening weather to overtake us and hazard my ship. I’ve no intention of staying here when there is no good reason to do so. We are unable to help. You must set your mind to that fact, as hard as it is, Mr. Barringer!”
Steve Barringer nodded grimly. He could be impatient, even rude with the captain, but he could not fault the man’s professional judgment or the truth of the situation. He had insisted on risking the helicopter and the mission, and he lost. He hoped that the helicopter had malfunctioned and the men were sitting stranded but safe at the camp; that was about the best he could expect. The three men had sufficient shelter, fuel and food to keep them alive until rescuers reached them. That would be only a few days at most, right?
He didn’t want to think that the helo may have crashed, or that a fast-moving storm might move in to delay a rescue mission.
The ship was underway two hours later on a course laid out to sea to clear any pack or berg ice. They would bear along the outer edge of the Ross Sea and lay a course for McMurdo Station. There they’d make a formal report to the American authorities. Barringer insisted that the ship take him to McMurdo where he could follow up on the fate of his mission and whatever rescue efforts were possible. They’d need several days to reach McMurdo.
Barringer spoke to the Deputy Director over an unsecured link patched through the ship’s radio while they steamed westward. They had to be careful what they said, but certain words were unavoidable.
“So you did get a bird’s eye view, sir?”
“Yes, we did, with the bird’s night sight. We see bad things there. The snow field is littered with black wreckage, two burned circles, some stuff scattered, and a single tent, torn and half flattened. No movement, no signals. It looks like a wash, a write-off.”
Barringer sat at the radio console, stunned. A wash, a write-off? In agency-speak that meant scrub the mission, cut their losses, and write off the casualties. He had to press; he couldn’t abandon those men without being certain it was hopeless.
“Confirmation, sir? Clear evidence or just an evaluation?”
“We must assume no hope. I’ve alerted the southern station. No further effort authorized, no risk of personnel or expenditure of resources. Wrap things up and be ready for alternate studies. That’s all for now.”
Barringer heard the door slam shut on his mission and on any hope of a rescue effort. That ended any chance of reaching the site to know for certain. If anyone survived, well, it might be better had they not survived. It would be a slow and lonely death.
McMurdo Station was informed of the hopeless situation by agency authority, an agency with the resources to divert a spy satellite to look down onto the antarctic ice with low-light eyes. It photographed the burned wreckage and picked out the lumps of two burned bodies on the melted snow. It counted half-burned, broken, and scattered supply crates. It saw a tent, half collapsed in the wind.
McMurdo Station had no choice but to accept the agency’s assessment that no rescue effort was warranted or authorized. The file was gathered up, the folder labeled and stamped ‘closed’ and sealed away.
After three days of steaming westward at 20 knots the ship reached McMurdo. Agent Barringer would stop at the station to file his reports over secure satellite link, a facility not available on the ship. He would sail with the ship to New Zealand and catch a flight home from there.
He was wrung out. Sleep eluded him. Exhaustion would force him to sleep and the nightmares would start.
Awake, he was troubled. If the tent was intact, could someone be inside? Possibly hurt, weak, and waiting? Waiting for rescue that wasn’t coming?
Asleep, he was tormented. In his nightmares he knew that someone was alive in that tent, hurt, clinging to life. And he, Steve Barringer, was damned to hell for letting that someone suffer without rescue, left abandoned in a frozen hell to conceal a failed agency mission. It was a grim mercy that Barringer slept very little.
Nightmare was too gentle a word to describe Michael’s plight. If he wasn’t so feverish, he’d appreciate the irony of his situation. He lived and suffered; the other two were beyond pain, beyond suffering, and if there was an after-life they must be regarding him with pity.
His leg was swollen. Throbbing pain woke him throughout the night. He ate two precious pain pills from the med kit’s meager supply. Without water he chewed and swallowed them, but the relief was worth the foul taste. It was enough relief to let him slip back into feverish, dreamless sleep.
The sound of the tent slapping and thrashing in the rising wind woke him. Sugar-fine snow crystals were streaming in through the tear in the fabric, sifting down onto his sleeping and duffel bags. He must pull himself up for a painful and difficult series of tasks.
First thing: crawl out of the bag, find the fabric repair tape, and seal that tear in the tent.
Second thing: assemble the small camp stove and melt some snow for water. Make a hot drink and hot soup from the instant packets in the food kit to get some warmth and nourishment into his suffering body.
He didn’t want to dwell on the third task. He must remove the blood-soaked dressing, examine his wound, and check it for infection. The worst part was knowing that he must clean the wound and sew it closed with a small gap at each end for drainage. He must stitch the gash or it would never heal properly. He most certainly intended to live long enough to see that wound heal. Grim humor: live to heal, or die trying.
A storm was building. He thanked his careful work habits for taking the time to anchor the tent securely. No worry there: the tent might blow flat in the wind gusts, but it was not likely to pull loose. The snow anchors were set deeply and carefully into the snowpack.
The taped repair was holding; he’d no worry of the snow accumulation inside the tent melting; he brushed it to the front inside edge. It would lay there, piled against the side. There was little chance it would thaw.
He had a generous supply of instant coffee and soup mix in packets, with more boxed packages in the food containers outside. The hot brew was astonishingly good, as he thought it would be. His body needed it and this simple liquid meal would satisfy him while he tended his leg. Later, when he was stitched and bandaged and refilled with hot drink, he would crawl out and retrieve as much food as he could drag back to the tent.
It was an agonizing thing, trying to see with tear-filled eyes to focus on the next stitch pushed through the raw, angry edges of his gaping wound. The med kit had little tape, so he was forced to cut some of his tent repair tape into two-inch lengths. He made a butterfly tape from each piece, snipping slant-wise into the sides one-third down from each end. He folded these snipped sides inward to stick down on the center portion, forming a non-stick pad. The sticky ends would fasten on each side of his wound. These temporary “butterfly stitches” pulled the wound closed, with the non-stick center band passing over the gash. They would hold it closed while he sewed.
He nearly passed out when he grasped the wound to squeeze it together so he could stick down the tapes. He fought the pain and rising nausea; he shook his head to clear it while biting down hard, clenching his jaw. High-pitched whining cries forced themselves out through the corners of his grimly-clenched teeth. His shrill moans mingled with the rising whine of the wind outside. He ignored the furious slapping and thrashing of the tent fabric around him.
He focused on the needle and thread piercing his flesh. He trimmed and knotted each stitch with the med kit scissors. As he came to a tape, he peeled it off and continued sewing. The cold numbed his bare hands and fingers. They grew stiff and clumsy; he fought stubbornly on until he finished.
As planned, a small gap remained at each end for drainage but the wound was closed and should heal. He prayed that no fragments or filth lurked unseen in the wound. If so, he could develop gangrene and die. He briefly noted with grim satisfaction that he’d not suffer long from the agony of gangrene. Unable to care for himself, he’d quickly freeze to death.
He shivered violently. He pulled up his thermal pants, his fleece jogging trousers, and slid his legs into the sleeping bag to warm them. He wrapped the open flaps of the bag around his waist and tried to stabilize himself in a sitting position to melt water and make more hot drink. Maybe later he would crawl out and retrieve the food. Maybe later he would be stronger, and could face the storm. He must drag food into the tent before the containers were lost under drifted, hard-packed snow.
Filled with hot broth, he fell asleep. He ignored the howling of the storm outside. He slept a dark, dreamless sleep of exhaustion and healing. He was thankful for the extra clothing and sleeping bag from his dead helper. For as long as he could keep his body warm and his belly full, he could resist the cold. Inside the sheltering tent, he could maintain a safe habitat. The snow piled against the tent was good defense against the storm blasts. If he’d been unhurt and had time, he might have burrowed into the snow pack for a cave. But this tent would do. Maybe later he could drag cartons and crates to form a windbreak, a barrier on the storm side of the tent. Maybe later he could...
Rescue. He dreamed of rescue. When the storm ended, a flight might come. Surely the ship radioed for help; alerted the outside world. They knew that something prevented the helicopter’s return, and the men were stranded. That would raise the alarm for rescue. Everyone knew the danger of the antarctic winter. He felt relief in the sure knowledge that rescue would come, as soon as the storm lifted, and the skies cleared ... then he would hear the engines of the rescue flight. As soon as the storm blows itself out...
Michael slept fitfully through the night. He wakened to use a plastic bottle to save crawling out of the sleeping bags into the sub-zero cold. While he was awake he chewed two pain pills and swallowed an oral dose of antibiotic from the med kit.
The storm blew harshly for two days, then abated somewhat. He half-hoped to hear aircraft engines that day. He scrambled outside, bellied over the snow in a leg-dragging crawl to gather up scattered cartons and crates. He piled them three cartons high beside the tent against the prevailing storm winds. This might reduce the tent buffeting and thrashing. He dragged more food containers inside to put them against the side walls to hold them against the wind. He pushed himself hard. He wanted everything close at hand if he weakened and couldn’t crawl out of the tent again.
Mike silently thanked whoever so competently packed the med kit. It went far beyond being a simple first aid kit; it contained meds that required a physician’s prescription.
He changed his wound dressings again, but he was running low on sterilized pads. He considered whether to tear up spare undergarments and boil them to make new dressing pads, or rinse and boil the less soiled dressing pads to reuse them. A full case of screw-on gas cylinders were packed with the food crates for the camp stove. It was a good supply of fuel to melt snow for cooking food and sterilizing the dressings, and he had lots of time.
His wound was still swollen and red around the stitches, draining where he’d left openings. He briefly considered inserting plastic drain tubes, but he had nothing that was suitable. No, he thought, as long as it drains naturally, I’ll be fine.
He saw no sign of the onset of gangrene. If he ever found who had packed that med kit, he’d promise them anything their heart desired as a reward for saving his life. The pain-killers and antibiotics made it possible to function against impossible odds.
On the fifth day he lay in his sleeping bag, feverish, listening to the rising wind outside. The outside crates and the row of inside crates held the windward side of the tent sandwiched between them. Fine-grained snow crystals drifted between the outside crates filling the spaces to press and hold the tent securely. The upper half of the tent thrashed wildly. The wind howled and screamed a full storm. He dare not open the zippered doorway. He cut out a circle in one corner of the tent floor and scooped out a cat hole for a latrine. His deposits froze solid within minutes.
Wait. Wait and listen. Try not to fear the storm. Try not to fear the endless darkness. The day might break only briefly with dim twilight on the northern horizon if the storm clouds would allow. The wind could rise to hurricane force. He would be secure in his snow-anchored habitat. While he had stove fuel for hot water, food to eat, beverage to warm his stomach, and if his clothing and sleeping bags remained dry, he would make and retain body heat to survive.
Dry insulation and body heat are the keys to survival. Stay dry, generate heat, and retain it. Avoid sweat, avoid chill, maintain hydration and nourishment. It becomes a religious mantra, a dogma of survival. Training and experience are the keys to self-preservation.
On the seventh day the winds did reach near-hurricane strength and Michael feared that the seams and anchor points of the tent fabric would tear away. He had to trust the tent. He had no choice. He’d done all he could; worrying was energy-sapping and he needed his energy to stay warm, to heal.
He lay awake through the screaming, buffeting horrors of the night, the seething, whining sound of snow and ice crystals driven against the tent fabric by seventy and eighty knot winds. The upper half of the tent whipped far over, yielding like a slender reed in a gale. That was its salvation. Upright resistance would be flung from the ice shelf and driven into the sea.
He slept, feverishly; his leg throbbed, his face flushed. Breathing came fast and shallow. He gasped with the exertion of living. His body rallied its defenses against the infection in his deep wound, festering and spreading its poison.
He dreamed of struggle. He dreamed of standing against invisible enemies, using his will to live as a shield against their offer of blissful surrender, of their call to submit to the inevitable, to ease into sleep and calm acceptance, to be released from pain, to accept the numbing cold ... to escape into unfeeling death ... into sweet sleep....
There was no word but the impact pushed him back in his dream state, startled him. The blast of light and feeling repeated itself.
NO! Do not!
No sound. No words. Feeling. Feeling and light and a growing sense of presence, some other entity, being, intelligence. He is the only human alive for a thousand miles on this frozen, storm-wracked coast, yet ... he was not alone?
No ... what ... not what? he threw out with his mind, rallying his will to focus, to ask whatever was touching his mind.
The answer came in a wordless response. This flash of light was softer, less ‘blinding’ in his mind. It felt gentler, less commanding.
Live. Strive to live. Apply your will to continue living. Heal yourself.
Michael felt calm settle upon him. His ears closed to the chaos and crescendo of the storm raging around him. He felt wrapped in a warm calm. His thoughts turned to his body, assessing, taking stock. He was warm, nourished, dry, and his leg throbbed but not to an excruciating degree. He focused inner sight on his wound; he willed the flesh to knit, his defenses to rally to defeat the attacking infection. He calmed his mind, set aside his worry, and slept. He felt relief in the sense of the presence he felt lingering there with him, and it was good. He slipped deeply into a peaceful, healing sleep.
The storm raged and gathered itself for a last assault against the impudent intruder in its path. The half-burned crates and their charred contents tumbled and rolled, and went bounding, hurtling off into the darkness. They crashed and broke apart on the ice shelf. Those crates and cartons that Michael stacked and wedged in place around his tent were packed tightly by the drifted snow. They would not yield.
Dreams played rapidly, one following another in scenes from his life.
He stood with his mother, holding her hand on his first day of school and he tried to be brave, drawing strength and reassurance from her confident grip.
Mother help, fear not knowing, school ... alone
Mother love strong not afraid?
His mind flashed a scene of her death. For a brief moment he was overwhelmed with grief, loss, pain.
death loss! sadness ... you continue?
yes alone continue
The scenes flashed by, dream fragments surrounded by warm glowing feelings. He felt himself in communion with another being, sharing a wordless commentary of emotions and feelings and mental images. He was led, steered, encouraged to relive his life in fragments. The feedback he received encouraged him to explain, to share.
He found himself eager to share, to relive his lifetime of memories. The moments of sadness evoked compassion, an understanding. Moments of love seemed to increase the warm, glowing atmosphere surrounding the edges of his dreamscape.
There were terrible scenes when the landscape of his dreams turned black with waves of revulsion and withdrawal. He was in the desert, at war, leading his platoon in an attack against an occupied village. They were trying to root out the infiltrators who had killed the village leaders, destroyed a school, and were systematically killing all the males, young and old, of the other religious sect.
A rocket-propelled grenade streaked from the village and his first sergeant exploded in pieces. Shrapnel killed two soldiers. A burst of machine gun fire racked across them as he fell forward onto the ground while screaming for his men to find cover. He screamed for the second squad automatic weapons team to mount opposing fire, and again for heavy covering file so his fourth squad could advance and flank the RPG position.
Vicious house-to-house fighting; he turned a corner and was nearly knocked over by a youth in ragged black clothing who burst out from a doorway. He was young, too young, but his AK-47 was no boy’s weapon. Michael was first to fire, at point-blank range. He saw astonishment, fear, and death flash in the dying youth’s eyes. A gout of blood erupted from his mouth as he fell.
Michael spun into the doorway and a scene of utter horror. Bodies, an entire family, an old woman, a young boy, two pre-school age children, their mother, all slaughtered, lying in pools of spreading blood. Michael reeled, staggered into a corner, and vomited. He leaned against the wall, fighting dry heaves and tears. He could not stay here; his men were killing and being killed; he must return to them. He ran to the doorway, wiping his mouth on his dirty sleeve, and plunged back into the blinding daylight, the filthy street, and the sounds of screams and gunfire.
No! unspeakable despicable forbidden killing anathema never! never!!
The feedback of utter horror, rejection, and the blackness that surrounded the dreamscape, the sense of rejection and shock overwhelmed his senses. He felt the presence withdraw. He was utterly alone, desolated, rejected.
He lay in a dreamless black void. His subconscious mind sifted, sorted, evaluated the buried memories, emotions, the horrors that could never be accepted or resolved. It lay them out in rows, ordered them in sequence, and prepared each for recognition and resolution. In his lifetime since the horrors of that war his emotional wounds were buried, too terrible to contemplate, too painful to resolve.
He found himself in dreamscape again. He sat at a small table with a judgment book open before him, a gavel in his left hand and an ivory pen holder with a silver nib and a carved crystal ink well at his right hand. He sat in judgment. Two figures stood before him, one in a tailored suit, the other in formal British barrister’s robe and powdered wig. A steep viewer’s gallery held one presence, a spectator, an obscure being of glowing pale gold. It watched him as he watched the two halves of himself argue his actions before his judgment table.
You volunteered to kill! his suited half challenged.
May it please the court, he volunteered to fight a great evil. Innocents were being slaughtered, his barrister self countered.
That is the grossest rationalization. Self-deception! Self-justification for murder!
Not resisting evil, not fighting to defend the innocent, the helpless, is murder. Murder by default! He acted from the highest principle, that of risking one’s life in defense of others!
The debate raged, and at the conclusion of each charge, Michael felt himself moved to render judgment, to enter the incident, the charges, and the verdict in flowing black script. He repeatedly dipped his pen into the crystal inkwell to write each verdict onto the pages of his book of life.
The process seemed endless but time streamed by unnoticed. He felt no fatigue, no distress, no impatience. Implacably he sat and listened; his two halves presented one incident, decision, action, error, flaw, regret, one after another in an endless litany of accusation and defense. The most horrible, of course, were the killings, the combat, the terrors and horrors of war. He had never been able to confront or erase the searing memory of the Taliban youth’s face when he killed him. And that room, that charnel house was the source of waking nightmares. That, and the vision of his first sergeant shredded to pieces by the RPG. Michael never married. He could not marry, would not marry to awaken screaming in the night, laying beside a terrified wife.
The glowing presence sat in the gallery, undimmed, silent, observing.
Michael rose from the table with a violent shudder. He slammed the heavy book shut. The thunderclap of its closing reverberated through the room. His two confrontational halves dissolved and vanished. The light dimmed and was gone. He slipped back into darkness. A comforting warmth spread over him as he slept.
“So, what’s the alternative?”
“In practical terms, none, I’m afraid.” The Deputy Director sipped his black tea, two sugars, laced with real cream, an eccentricity he’d picked up from six years of London service.
“I’m afraid I can only agree. Damn! Damn that antarctic winter all to hell!” The Director immediately calmed himself. His deputy was an old and trusted friend, but that didn’t excuse losing professional control. He visibly relaxed himself, leaned back in his chair, and thought for a moment.
“I think we’d better prepare some long-range plans. We’ll want to be ready to move in another ground mission the very first moment the weather allows access. And, perhaps, a short-range contingency plan with an eye to the weather. If we get a decent high pressure system over that area, we might send in another flight for a quick series of low-altitude scans. Get right down on the deck. Fly a tight grid. Get a high-definition scan of its shape and character, at least.”
“Yes,” the deputy agreed. “And of course, the decent thing would be to recover the bodies. Whatever is left of them. They can be quietly returned to their families--with an appropriate cover story, of course. I’ll get our team on it right away. Our investigators need more data; they’ve about exhausted what little we’ve accumulated so far.”
“Very good. Send me copies. Oh ... did we ensure that nothing has leaked out of that ship’s charter company?”
“Of course. The contract carried the usual non-disclosure agreement, and we compensated them for the loss of the helicopter, and the extra distance down to McMurdo and out to their home port. They were upset by the loss of their pilot, and the ship’s captain was in a mood--I’d call it a mutinous mood over what he felt was unwarranted over-ruling of his professional judgment. We had a quiet word with his employers and I don’t expect any further trouble from that source.”
“Good. Well, if we should get a decent break in the weather send in that over-flight; don’t wait for my approval. You have it. We’ll go in with a ground survey as soon as the season allows. I’m not going to sleep easily until I know what the hell is buried there!”
Another week passed and the weather abated. It blew bitterly cold under a crystalline blue sky and ragged clouds. The winds backed to the west-northwest at a steady five to ten knots, bringing a hint of continuing fair weather.
It brought no aircraft. He stood beside his tent using ski poles for support. He scanned the inverted bowl of the sky out to the horizon. He saw no sign of an aircraft.
The radio gear was gone. He need not crawl to the helicopter wreckage. What ever remained was burned-out husks, partial shells and melted lumps. He did have a hand-held VHF radio but it was hopelessly out of range until an aircraft flew in sight.
He found a bundle containing rescue panels, a set of brilliantly colored fabric panels to stake out on the snow as a large “X” visible from the air in dim twilight or darkness if its reflecting stripes were illuminated. He chose a smooth patch of snow. He hopped and crawled to spread and stake them down. He pulled the burned out oil rag stakes from the holes they’d melted. He re-staked them with packing material soaked in oil from a surviving bottle of snowmobile oil. He had a pack of three hand held rescue flares ready, just inside the tent opening. It gave him a feeling of doing something useful toward his rescue. The panels might survive through the next storm.
His wound was healing. The swelling was down, the angry red edges were turning pinkish, and the drainage stopped, all positive signs of no infection. The stitches held. He still rinsed and boiled soiled dressings and reused them. Still, it hurt like bloody hell when he moved his leg the wrong way. He tried very hard not to do that.
He took a food and stove fuel inventory. It would be a race between running out of food and starving, or being swept away by a stronger storm now that winter was coming on fast. The stout little tent, good as it was, had limits. Wind-whipping and thrashing of its fabric and seams would eventually rend it apart. He had no other shelter. He had no snow knife, no shovel, and nothing to improvise to cut snow blocks. A snow cave might work if there was a sloping bank to burrow into. There wasn’t. His windbreak of crates against the upwind side of his tent was holding well enough for now.
He had a routine, and he was sticking to it. Wake up. Do toilet. Melt snow, make water, make coffee and breakfast. Change his leg dressing, melt more snow, rinse and boil the old dressing, hang it from the overhead to dry. Write in his journal. He recorded his dreams, knowing that what he dreamed was far beyond his life experience. He couldn’t guess what would come of it, but he felt a need to write them down. He idly wondered during one long writing session, what would someone think who found this journal beside his body? Would they think he had gone totally mad, deranged and lost in hallucinations?
Mid-afternoon of the impossibly short twilight day would find him hopping one-legged, bracing himself with ski poles around his tent site, inspecting its anchor points, the stacked crates, and the pegged-down aircraft signal panels. He tucked the panel edges into slits in the hard-packed snow. He packed snow over the edges, and wetted it to freeze it in place, hoping to prevent the wind from lifting and tearing them away. He worked for hours, slithering along on his side like a seal, securing each panel. Whatever snow gathered on him, he brushed away like so much powder. He jealously guarded the oily-rag beacon pits, adding more oil to keep the wadding soaked, and keeping each pit clear of drifted snow. Each must light instantly with the touch of a flare when needed.
He guarded against over-exertion. The greatest threat to cold weather survival is not from without, but from within. Sweat and chill are deadly. Sweat too much and the inner clothing gets wet and it loses its insulation factor; lose insulation and you chill and become hypothermic, and you die. Synthetic fabrics and wool wick away body moisture but they have limits. Cross-country skiers wear polypropylene thermal-knit long-johns, and dress in layers. This wicks away sweat. Removing layers prevents over-heating and sweating. Michael, an experienced winter outdoorsman, was grateful to have both the clothing and the experience to wear it properly. He had no intention of freezing. He’d starve first. More gallows humor, he thought.
The days were dark. By the end of the third week he saw the barest bit of midday twilight. He gave himself long pep talks against his sense of foreboding. His physical health was pretty good; he was healing and well fed. But if he succumbed to the gloom of unending darkness, it would be so easy to fall into despair. And madness.
He sensed the “presence” with him every night in his dreams, stronger and more certain. Since the night of the combat memories, when the presence had fled, there had been an acceptance, a resolution. He was also quite comfortable within himself. For the first time ever, he had no nightmares, no waking to find himself screaming. It faded away to memories of days gone, never to return. No, he had not forgotten. He was not even close to forgetting. But the pain and the nightmares were gone.
He knew regret and sorrow and he despaired that anything good would ever come of the death and loss he’d experienced. But that was an intelligent assessment, he knew, of the truth of it. It was a waste: soldiers would always be called to fight and die. And innocents would flee their homes or die, or would flee and die anyway. It was the way of the world as he knew it, but there was a profound difference. He had been judged. He was not found wanting. His judgment was the harshest kind: he’d judged himself in front of a witness. Now he was at peace with himself.
The fourth week was a week of clear days, clear nights, moderate winds and no storms. But no aircraft came. He was filled with an ominous sense of dread.
Had he been abandoned? Had the agency seen the wreckage and fire-blackened site through their surveillance satellite and written him off? Were they concealing the mission, covering up their failure to return? Could they write off three men and a helicopter so easily?
He knew answer to that. Hell yes, they could. They could and they would. Quite clearly, they had! There’d been time and clear weather enough for a ship to arrive with a helicopter. Or an airlift flight.
He realized, with cold certainty, that he was a limping dead man.
He floated in an infinite sphere. He was dressed in a skin suit without substance or fabric, fitted like a second skin. He was warm and comfortable despite being outside of anything familiar to his sense of place. He seemed to hang suspended; he sensed that he might reach out to hold within his hand any glowing object within sight. And there were many of them, endless numbers of varying brilliance, form, and color. Some were near; most were farther, extending to the dim fringes of a celestial rim. He could see them singly, in clusters, in glowing clouds; sense their pulsing energies, discern their unique light and color and gravity; he could sort them by their individual selves and groupings.
all home, ours--yours--theirs, all home
How does one express in words what is not in words but in images and feelings that have no need of words? How does one relate what an entity explains, an entity who has no need of words?
Can one describe a feeling, an image, the unique essence of the reality, using verbal symbols, words? If you burn your finger on a glowing stove coil, does the word “burn” really communicate the truth of the feeling, the hurt? If one could share the feeling--the lingering pain, the seared flesh, the slow healing--with someone so they felt it, experienced it, suffered it, would the verbal utterance “burn” substitute for that? No.
Michael knew he was experiencing a new ability within himself. He wondered why it was granted? He was aware of his companion, the entity who displayed a shimmering hint of a form, the silent witness who sat in the gallery as an observer of his self-judgment, the companion of his healing.
Verbal translation was needed or he could never keep his journal. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, he sensed that his journal would be precious to him and his posterity. He must find the words; somehow he would translate the ethereal into the mundane. Words, sentences, passages, all pale and incomplete shadows of what he could know but could not speak.
We ‘humans’ call this our ‘universe’ ... it surrounds our world, our solar system.
Yes. Universe. We explore. We explore all this, for all time past, we travel.
The scene shifted, galaxies and stars moved, swiftly. Michael felt themselves carried along as space-farers on the deck of an invisible ship. He could breathe, he felt atmosphere on his face, on his hands. He felt warm and secure, anchored with gravity. He felt graceful and strong on his feet. He sensed no disorientation. His companion stood beside him, a head shorter than himself, slender, there with him but not quite there, she remained a form, less of body and more of energy. She was energy shaped and formed with life force, intelligence, presence, and an aura that expanded to include himself within itself.
We came from there, far from you.
The scene shifted to display a pale reddish star and a distant planet, glowing brilliantly under mantles of ice and equatorial oceans. He saw no land, only massive polar caps of ice. He sensed immense foundations of rock and mineral under, but there was nothing visible but water and ice.
Our world, our home. We live under, within. We harvest the sea. We harvest the heat within. We build between crust and ice. Home, many of us, together in home.
Michael had visions of huge cities and passageways not visible from the surface. Cities under the ice, carved into the interface between rock and ice, and bores tapping the heat of the planet’s core. Great shafts extended to the surface. He sensed thermal barriers interfacing between the cities and the ice to prevent melt and collapse. He saw myriad networks of trade and transport, and access to the sea where its rich resources were harvested and collected.
Machines. No machines! Where are your machines?
Few machines. No need. Ships, yes, travel off world, to other worlds, galaxies, across this universe, yes. Machines in our world, no. Different, much different there. Machines not much needed. We form ... we use energy-force. We shape energy, to do, make, preserve. We sing!
In time you will see, learn.
The scene shifted again. They streaked away from the scene, out of the system, out of the galaxy, and in an explosion of light they traversed an immense distance.
Here. Ship struck, hurt
Michael’s world exploded. He was hurled violently aside to slam against some unseen bulkhead. He reeled in shock and horror. The ship’s structures tore and spun away, gushing precious water, rich with sea life, freezing in space. Hundreds of crew died, vented into the void. He despaired as the ship surrounding him heaved in shrieking, tearing agony. It was a thing alive tortured near to death. It shuddered and stopped.
His head filled with alarms and chaos. Eventually it calmed, silenced, and he sensed a collective intelligence assessing, reporting, gathering damage reports as it struggled to regain control, to survive.
Infinite sadness was replaced with grim determination. The scene shifted again. He saw a distant planet circling a brilliant sun. A huge gas planet with rings swept past. As they flew inward a red planet, barren and devoid of life, came into view. Beyond they saw a sparkling blue and white planet capped with polar ice sheets.
Our refuge. We survive. Ship go here. Too damaged. Stranded.
Great sadness swept over them. Michael sensed how long ago their stranding had occurred and it staggered him.
Pyramids! Men on them. Building?
His mind reeled while earth rotated below them from a great height. It seemed his eyes could examine in detail every scene that moved beneath them. They were building the pyramids in the desert! And cities! Stone cities, miles of stone viaducts, and fields with men and woman and animals. Chariots! Wooden ships with sail and oars. There, an army marching, men wearing helmets and armor with spears glistening in the sun!
He and she flew lower, spiraling down the latitudes, descending to the southern pole. The ice-bound continent lay under them. The great ship circled like a wounded creature seeking safe haven, a place to lie hidden from its tormentors.
There! Small place. Earth heat near, sea, safe.
My God! It’s the island! Siple Island, the volcano, on the western coast. Here! We are here, right here, under my feet. Oh my god we are here right here they are here have been here all this time stranded here ... over two thousand years!
He regained consciousness, or awakening, or lucid awareness, or—however one might feel when coming awake with a sense of return from some infinite distance over an incredible span of time, back from an unknowable place. His head reeled. He patted himself to feel his body; he clutched his thick sleeping bag to pull it tight around him. He focused his eyes, looked up, and recognized the frosted texture of the tent fabric above his face. He turned his head, saw familiar surroundings, his stove, the piled gear, and the faint outline of the zippered doorway.
No way in hell did I dream that. It was real!
The certainty of what he knew to be a fact staggered him. Now what?
If I don’t die here on the ice, I’m a dead man anyway. The moment the agency knows the truth of what lies here under the ice, on this island, we are all dead!
He sensed her concern before he felt the question.
worry you despair now no hope?
sorry my worry, rescue not coming ... I perish here
Michael felt a wave of denial and alarm flooded his senses. His companion was distressed at his acknowledgment of impending death.
No! live, you live!
As gently and carefully as he could, Michael explained how precarious his survival in this hostile environment truly was. Humans could not live on this continent. This ice world, exposed to the deadliest cold and storm conditions anywhere on the planet, would not sustain human life.
We are here by artificial means, he explained. We bring food, fuel, shelter, clothing; everything needed to survive, we must bring. We consume it. When it is gone, it must be replaced.
My supplies are dwindling. My fuel canisters, my food, my medicine, all are nearly consumed. In a short time, I will have used the last of it. Then I will perish. I can do nothing else.
foolish! reckless! no value your life? risk death?
We are human. We plan carefully, we take precautions, we have reserves and alternate plans. But accidents happen. Like this time. Two of us perished and I was injured. Others were unable to see us or reach us. I do not know why rescue does not come. Something interferes. I accept the truth. When my food and fuel is gone, I have nothing to sustain my life.
cannot be! cannot allow!
The withdrawal was sudden, startling. One moment she was there; the next instant she was gone, vanished. He felt a chill. Her aura, her warmth was gone and emptiness surrounded him. He shook his head to clear it. He began to write in his journal.
You attach to this being, this ‘human’? You commune with him, show him, reveal yourself to him?
Yes. We sympathetic, responsive, sharing each self.
He see-speaks you? You with him? Understands?
Of course, mother-mine!
How can this be? Humans cannot see-speak!
This one does! He was not well. His mind struggled. He was weak, wavering. He saw option of death, no pain. I protested! He ‘opened’ his seeing.
He heard you?
As I explained, yes, he heard me.
He tells you he will die?
Without help from his ‘others’ it will happen. Without replenishment or leaving here, yes, he will die.
You have exposed us to the worst possible danger, daughter-mine!
Not from this one! He is ‘empathy-kind’; he is high-spirit-kind, not death-bringer! Never! I have seen his life-path, observed his self-judgment. We have condemned them all the same, but we are wrong. They are not all death-bringers!
But he has killed! His own kind!
Yes. He suffered himself more than death after. He saw innocents killed, he killed to stop further killing!
Stop! The illogic of that pains me! This is a hard world. These primitive beings, savage, death-bringers, they slaughter each other. Killing to stop further killing? How can that fit with us?
Humans share wisdom in simple stories to explain difficult things. Consider, mother-mine, a wolf kills sheep for sport. Pursues and kills them. A human ‘shepherd’ must kill the wolf to stop the killing.
You have seen this?
In his mind he is a shepherd. He killed ‘wolves’ among his kind to protect the ‘sheep’ among his kind. He killed to stop the killing.
Now he will die. Will not one of his kind preserve this protector?
He will not die. One will protect him. I will.
How is it that with your ability, your technology, that you have remained here so long? Why have not your people come to rescue you, to take you home?
For much the same reason that you are stranded here, Michael-mine. They do not know what has befallen us. There was no time to send a message. The accident shattered our sing-crystal and our primary intelligencer is silent. We cannot focus a beam to our home. We are simply ‘gone’ to them. It has been so long. I wonder if they remember we once were?
Michael shuddered as her sorrow and longing filled them. They were both stranded, hopelessly far from home. The difference, of course, was that he would very soon die.
He learned much from Dee’rah in the following days and nights. Her people had no verbal names but much like the North American indigenous peoples, each individual had a unique identifying association. As close as he could visualize in his mind, ‘Dee’rah’ sprang into his thoughts as ‘light-thread weaver.’
This didn’t strike him as odd. Years before as a young geologist in southeastern Utah, he had stumbled upon an isolated petroglyph high on a canyon ledge, away from the other rock etchings. It depicted a squat figure with stubby legs and arms, a round head with bear-cub ears, and long extended fingers on its up-raised left hand. A scattering of dots, representing blessings or power, extended from that out-flung gesture.
Later that day he entered a narrow side canyon, little more than a cleft in the high bluffs. Two things came to him: I am Patahoek and you are in danger. Turn back now. The image of the small, funny little figure etched in the rock grew in his mind to become a tall native, a shaman high upon the ridge, thrusting a multi-feathered staff towards him.
Michael turned and scrambled out of that narrow trap. He no sooner reached his jeep than a gush of mud, debris and surging water poured from the narrow mouth. It was a flash flood. Looking up mountain slopes, he saw the towering, black-bellied clouds of a thunder storm.
Patahoek was a secret name. Patahoek appeared and saved his life.
Her name is Dee’rah, he knew. She is a masi’ah (female) of the Masi’shen (singers). Her brother is masi’na (male). Her family is royal in that they are leaders among her race, revered for strength of will and wisdom and skill as singers. Her father serves on a council of nine who lead and direct their people under the ice. Her mother is equally revered. She has agreed to assist Dee’rah with her wishes.
Michael-mine, my kind cannot communicate with your other-kind. They cannot see-speak. You must show me a message, one they can see. We will find a way to get it to them.
You said the accident destroyed the ‘crystal,’ and your communications system was blind because of that?
Our ‘sing-crystal,’ yes.
Michael saw the ship’s intricate neural transmission array laid open before him. He followed it forward to an equipment bay. Cables and conduits and banks of cards surrounded a central pedestal. A black and silver crystalline structure stood in a deep socket. It seemed dead, lifeless, dull to his eyes despite the glittering latticework of silver-grey threads that encompassed it. It was not large, no larger than his fist. He could see that it was shattered throughout. Only the silver lattice held it from falling into scattered fragments.
He traced a trunk line to a hull-mounted dish assembly, protected in a massive housing. The dish would direct a tightly-focused signal wherever it was pointed.
Your aiming dish is intact. Only the crystal is broken? The remainder of your communicator is intact? It would function?
Yes, that is correct. And there is another crystal, smaller, that links our primary intelligencer to all of ship, all control, and to propulsion array. It too is broken, shattered like the one you see here.
You are familiar with your planet’s technology using ‘computers’ and ‘artificial intelligence, ‘ perhaps. That is like our intelligencers. We have large, primary one, and smaller, lesser ones, helpers. Now they, the lesser ones, help ship survive while primary intelligencer is dormant. It sleeps. Blind, isolated, it cannot function.
You cannot replace the crystal, one or both? There are no others?
Yes, we could replace, easily replace, but the destruction, the accident destroyed the area holding our crystal replacements. They are gone, everything gone. We have searched everywhere here in this place, this south polar region. We find traces of crystal but nothing more. Not enough, not good to replace what we lost. Distance to other land regions too far, too hostile, we cannot go there. We remain silenced, cannot sing to home.
Michael felt deep sadness for these beings, for Dee’rah, so helplessly stuck here in a frozen wasteland without the means to leave or call for help. He was a victim, stranded, but his coming here was largely his own choice. These ‘people,’ these intelligent beings, were so utterly stranded without hope.
Dee’rah, in my world I have much knowledge of minerals and crystals. Perhaps you can show me more clearly what it is that you need? From what I see in your communicator assembly, it is destroyed, it is not possible for me to know. I must see more closely, perhaps some idea of its molecular structure.
At that moment the most amazing thing happened. Michael’s mind expanded, his vision blossomed out. He sensed, then ‘saw’ the entities. Dee’rah stood, a vague, indistinct glowing figure, and beside her a slightly larger, different figure. Something about this second one was stronger, more forceful.
Michael-mine, this masi’na is father-mine. He believes you are as I said, a high-spirit one. He is anxious that you understand this crystal. He will show you what it is.
Michael sensed himself moving. The two figures moved closer until they three stood facing each other. They were less vague; he could see their faces, intelligent eyes, humanoid features, curious expressions studying him. Dee’rah was lovely, graceful and stately in her bearing. Her father’s eyes studied him intently, respectfully, almost as one equal to another.
We have looked into this crystalline structure to its most basic essence. ‘Atomic structure’ you would say in words, human. See how we see it.
Michael couldn’t help himself; he gasped in surprise. Suspended before his eyes, he saw a crystalline latticework. Its molecules lay in perfectly symmetrical alignment, row upon row of them, each row parallel with adjoining rows. He rotated the cube in his mind; he saw the columns and rows symmetrically aligned with one another. It was a unique structure and he recognized it!
You have found traces of this here?
Yes, with great difficulty. It is so little here, we search much around heat chambers, depths of volcano, the magma. We bore and explore the cold hard mineral foundation in all directions under the frozen cover. We filter much sea water, find minerals and metals dissolved within, but none of this. We are without hope. It cannot be replenished here.
No, it would not be here. But we do have much of this, in various forms, on this world. In other places. I know where large forms of this can be had. I have studied this. We call it ‘thorium.’ The natural crystalline ore is ‘thorianite.’ It is a prized radioactive material on this world. We are beginning to study how to produce vast quantities of energy with it. We have used a similar material, ‘uranium, ‘ but it is a deadly substance, too toxic, dangerous for too long. We will soon begin using this one, thorium, instead.
The masi’na, the father, darkened visibly and seemed to draw back from them, but in a moment he regained his ‘composure’ and if anything, grew more intense.
Horrible! Anathema! The destruction, poison, death-matter! No more bring ‘uranium’ and ‘weapon’ to mind, please.
As Michael explained his knowledge of thorium, thorianite, and uranium, his memories produced images as he had experienced them. Dee’rah and her father could see those images. Both were very disturbed at the uranium-weapon images, his knowledge of death and toxic waste and radioactive poisoning. But he also recalled his images of the thorium minerals and his professional work in exploring and evaluating north American deposits, some of them quite rich and unique. He focused on the image of a cubical sample of thorianite, a unique cube with another cube angled within it, its corners protruding from the sides of the first cube.
Yes! Oh, blessed sight! Yes! That is it!
The two figures literally pulsed with excitement, flaring so brightly that Michael squinted and almost shaded his eyes, until he realized, feeling quite foolish as he did, that he wasn’t using his eyes at all. He was half awake, not dreaming. When did he start “see-speaking” in his mind with these people while awake? Was this what telepathy was about?
No matter. If telepathic people could get excited and figuratively jump and dance around the room holding each other, these telepaths were putting on a good show of it! In another instant the space around them expanded and filled with brightly glowing people. Exited telepathic people could spread “good news” quite rapidly. Michael saw hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more excited, glowing figures and radiating happiness.
The oddest thing happened just then. A slender figure just the same shade as Dee’rah approached and seemed to meld for a moment between her and her father, then all three pulsed quite brightly, and then “she” as he surmised, blended with Dee’rah and the two of them stood, literally “hugging” each other for a long moment. They separated slightly, and he felt himself being regarded intensely and somewhat warmly.
Daughter-mine was right with trust, to close-speak with you. She explains you are high-spirit, shepherd, protector. She is most right! Welcome, Michael-ours!
He felt overcome with emotion. The happiness and hope radiating from these beings was overloading his senses, his mind. He struggled to cope.
He was lost in his own feelings for a moment, and when he “looked again,” as it were, he found himself with Dee’rah and her parents. The others had faded away.
Umm, I don’t want to ‘rain on your parade,’ as we say, which means...
Silly Michael-mine, you must learn! The moment you ‘see’ it in your mind, we see it. But please, explain in your way, of what must you remind us?
Hummph, errr, ok! Yes, silly me. All my life I exhale air through my vocal chords and move my lips and struggle to find the right words. Why ever would I have a problem not bothering with that?
He mentally smiled at them, feeling suddenly light-hearted and amused, almost in a comic, joking mode. They brightened even more, and grew closer together.
Michael-mine! Humor? A joke? How delightful! How different! Do you humans do that? Much? It is wonderful! Thank you for sharing!
He felt quite foolish, trying to stare open-mouthed in a mind-speaking session. How does one do that? Well, perhaps it is the mental state, the thinking and feeling it, and the happy emotions that go with it. That, and the shy embarrassment that follows.
Yes, Michael-mine. Special! you have no idea how special. Thank you. But you are concerned, worried... ?
I am very worried. Please remember that I am here on the ice. I remain in danger unless rescue comes. Now there is a new problem. The thorium crystals are a great distance from here...