“Fuck.” I took a deep pull from my cigarette, letting the warmth seep into my frozen lungs. “Fuck, Smith, come here. You need to see this.”
Thumping of boots on the steel catwalk.
“Oh Jesus, Rath, what the Fuck-”
Leslie Smith clutched the guardrail tightly for support, an unattractive look of bafflement etched onto his face. “Jesus Christ, I…”
I leaned onto the rail myself, looking much less tense than my coworker.
Once you’ve seen a warzone, bodies sort of lose their shock value.
“And you’re not having problems with the temperature?”
“No! The station is rated for temperatures twenty degrees lower than these, and… I don’t understand it.” That was Smith again, still jittery a day later. I felt bad for the man; life wasn’t easy for any male named Leslie. Also, there was the issue of his employees hanging themselves. Leslie’s boss was somewhat upset about this (A fact that I gathered from the color of his face, a delicate shade of splotchy rust-red). Leslie himself was more panicked than anything, though he did go through bouts of hilariously impotent anger lately. His frustration showed in his appearance, too: the air of calm condescension was gone, an unwashed lab coat and cracked glasses had replaced his anal-retentive cleanliness, and on occasion he now even swore. Truly, it was an amusing show.
The conference came to an unsatisfying close, with Smith still making inarticulate wheezing noises and his boss (who’s name escapes me-he reminded me of a slightly tackier Donald Trump) shutting down the Skype connection. Smith slumped down into his fancy-schmancy office chair looking only slightly more defeated than Napoleon watching a review of Waterloo. I cracked the seal on a nearby bottle of Sprite. This momentarily revitalized Leslie, who fired me a look that should have been banned as per the EU. I guess that the recent oil crisis had left them too busy to regulate glares.
“You could have helped me out a little bit you… you ass!”
“And you could have ordered more Sprite. We’re out, by the way.”
I believe that was about the time that he sputtered something incomprehensible at me and walked out of the conference room. I took a moment to enjoy my soda before leaving, because hey, when everybody else is dying left and right, you have to enjoy the little things.
Our friend Leslie was employed by mr. Trump to study microrobotics and the applications thereof up here in the ass end of nowhere, just off of the Ross Ice Shelf and apparently not far from the afterlife, if our coworkers’ spiritual departures were anything to judge by. My job was a little bit more concrete: as security officer Harry Rath, I was in charge of not screwing up the monitoring of post six. Or I was up until about a week ago, anyways; I had officially quit my job watching for corporate mercenaries trekking across the snow at us and taken up a full time position not giving a shit. Some men react to stress by getting all jumpy and upset-see the aforementioned Leslie Smith, who was going gray at 30-and others, like myself, perfect the art of zen. So with engineers turning up in supply closets left and right, I was busy listening to the soothing sounds of an archaic MP3 player and playing poker with other members of outpost 17 who couldn’t be bothered to attend to their duties.
Chandos was hunkered down in the common area when I arrived there, getting ready to sleep. Beside her sat the company 9mm and a pack of smokes. She looked a little pathetic curled up in an armchair, but I was in no position to judge the woman. After the incident with Renker, nobody was staying in their rooms at night. We told the boss that it was because the rooms were drafty and men risked freezing in them. We never did come up with a convincing reason that none of us would use the third floor bathroom. or a good reason that it was constantly barricaded shut. Man disappears out of the windowless bathroom and you start to wonder. Same guy shows up at your window at 2 AM, black with frostbite from two weeks of exposure, and you stop asking fucking questions and start living in the commons.
If you’re Chandos, Specialist Renker’s former lover, you start jumping at small noises and stay away from windows at all costs.
For a week now, things had sort of reached a peak of fucked-upness with the result of a few suicides and one suicide that looked a lot like murder. When the first kid opted out, we figured hey, it had been a depressing time out here. Everybody had some nice words to say for him, and it was a somber time for a few days.
And then we found John, the chef, dangling from the rafters in the cellar. And that was weird, not because John had been such a chipper guy and so quick with a joke, but because he had absolutely no business in the cellar. there wasn’t anything down there with the exception of some creepy fucking shadows and the storage space we used for extra clothes and medical supplies. You can imagine my surprise when, going downstairs to raid the supplies for a clean shirt, I happened to notice the weathered old cook dangling from a belt with his tongue lolling out. I noticed that he didn’t have a stool or a box near him to have stepped off of. I chose to keep that to myself when I informed Leslie; The guy was already one ‘boo’ away from a heart attack and I didn’t feel like pushing it.
Death number four, for those of you keeping count at home, was a drowning not ten feet from the front door. My neighbor, Sarah Kensington, dropped through the ice out front and into a pool below. We had driven over that ice with the truck dozens of times, and a woman maybe a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet (sorry) drops into the abyss in the middle of the coldest night we had in weeks. She kept surfacing just under the ice out front, and we couldn’t get up the balls to fish her out for weeks. Pansy recruits kept insisting that she was going to pull them in. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to test that theory myself, actually.
So we have Kensie the mermaid in the yard, a new guy with a bullet hole, John hanging out in that big cellar in the sky, and Renker who drops out of the bathroom like fucking Houdini. And who’s standing there when all of this shit goes down?
That’s right. Yours truly.
So now half of the lab crew is walking well clear of me and the other half is just giving me this look like I’m going to start breathing fire at any second. And what could make the situation worse, you ask?
A snowstorm. The biggest, roaringest, blindingest fucking snowstorm we’ve ever seen at outpost 17 comes hauling ass out of nowhere to envelop us for going on a week now. The engineers have been whispering about locking me outside with the snow and Renker while the security team (most of whom are refusing to call me a murderer) is keeping tabs on said exile plan and a nervous watch on the windows. And me?
I’m enjoying my Sprite.
We’re about to reenact Lord of the Flies and I’m just hanging out in the outpost living spaces playing Detective Harry Rath, which I’d like to point out was not in my job description and I am so asking for overtime pay for this shit.
So then body five appears, right? And the whole crew is already going bats except for me and Hansen, and Hansen is so high that he keeps calling everyone mom. The guy manages to get into a secure research facility with more pills than the entirety of our pharmaceutical supplies and as soon as shit gets bad, he’s booked a ticket to cloud nine, one way. I’m just waiting until he manages to overdose in some spectacular way and gives the engineers a reason to lock my ass outside. But I digress.
I’m cleaning out the garage this morning, and it’s dark outside and the windows are coated in this craggy, hexagon-shaped frost (I kid you not, the shit forms in these big fat tiles down here) so I can hardly see what i’m doing. The garage, by the way, is a prefab warehouse tacked onto the main compound as a combination afterthought/plausible deniability shelter (Oh, you got stranded? But we left you a jeep…). It’s made of the very thinnest, lowest quality corrugated steel that money can skimp on, with plastic windows that all cracked in the first week of our being here. It’s also well below freezing outside, and paper-thin metal makes some pretty crap insulation. There’s snow whirling in through the jagged cracks in the windows. Piles of the frosty bullshit have made semipermanent residence in corners and on various pieces of our equipment, and I’m standing there holding a snow shovel and looking like the biggest fucking sap this side of the equator. I knew bums back in the DMZ who would turn their nose up at this place.
This was, I think, the incident that finally convinced me to enjoy what were likely to be my final days on earth. There’s something pretty dismal about a dude fumbling with a cigarette between his mittens. But you pick up bad habits when all hell breaks loose: smoking, pills, and in Leslie’s case, being an asshole. I tried explaining that is considered rude to make pariahs shovel out garages in some cultures. He just glared. Very little appreciation of diversity exists in that man.
The garage wasn’t a large building, but neither was it small. Built like one of those little airplane hangars, It was little more than half of a cylinder. Come to think of it, it may have once actually been a hangar; the little tin can of an add-on had a heavy cellar door that we didn’t open until the real paranoia set in. I suppose that, in retrospect, the frozen junk inside would have fit the description of aviator’s gear.
Anyway, I’m standing there with a dorky snow shovel and my fifth cigarette of the morning and deciding just where to start when something catches my eye. The hangar/garage is a pretty monochrome space, all shades of black and white, so spatters of red really draw your attention. Our primary means of transportation was a crawler, this ugly mule of a machine made of nothing but malice and the occasional backpack/tool/new guy that we ran over. Once, it had been green and had an ugly yellow deer logo. Constant exposure to whipping winds and ice had stripped the body clean of all markings, except for the dent left when Levitz backed it into Leslie’s room at three in the morning. I only knew the identity of the driver because just a few seconds after the crash, Levitz comes hauling ass up the stairs and runs into my bathroom smelling like whisky and the unique scent of the soon-to-be-fired. I lock my door at night now.
The crawler had this look to it, too, and at the time I was too busy trying to not piss myself to place it, but looking back- it was like the thing was smiling.
I’d like to point out at this point that I am not a coward, and that there is a limit to how much a man can deal with before he decides to throw in the towel. I was right at the end of the rope, and the icy arc of blood and brains spattered across the crawler’s windshield was making me lose grip on that final, frayed hunk of lifeline. And so I didn’t look, and I know what you’re thinking right now and fuck you, you wouldn’t have either.
Levitz and I liked to spend our friday nights getting drunk on our alcohol allowance. We’d save it up all week and then binge in the late hours of the night. After we set the couch on fire, management banned us from drinking in the building. So being responsible and mature adults, what did we do?
We drank in the fucking garage, that’s what.
We’d sit around with a fire lit in our badly built little pit in the northeast corner, rifles tossed onto the piles of rusty junk. On good nights, we’d have six or so people down there shooting the breeze, but most of the time it was just Levitz and Rath, the career alcoholics and security officers. Levitz had this big stupid rifle, I always remember it because one night we got pissed drunk and carved the word COMPENSATING in shaky letters on the barrel. And now the end of that never-fired gun was lying on the familiar pile of busted parts and looking pretty fucking lonely, with it’s owner currently lying mangled in the teeth of the crawler’s treads.
I sat there and chain smoked my way through another three cigarettes before I managed to prop myself up on the flimsy-ass shovel and limp over to Ardo Levitz’s broken body. He didn’t have a face left, and I think that overall, that was a good thing. Who’s ever heard of headless snow ghosts? that’s just fucking stupid.
It was around then that I called Leslie over, watched him vomit into a snow pile, and officially quit my employment with Pavlichenko Robotics, two weeks notice be damned.
It took about a week after the Levitz incident for things to start dying down again. the snowstorm blew itself out, and we could to go and pick up supplies from the harbor, much to Smith’s relief. Several of the engineers had threatened to start borrowing his books if he didn’t manage to resupply the toilet paper ASAP. I voiced my support there. The neglected things would then at least get some use; I heard a rumor that Leslie couldn’t read. I also started the rumor, though I would like to point out that this does not make it necessarily untrue.
There was a little (lot of) grumbling about who would make the trek across the frostbitten shithole that was our backyard, and after a fair and civil voting process, It was decided that one engineer and one officer would make the trip. While the scientists are literally drawing straws, our sorry-ass group is busy deciding who would go based on what looks like a primitive form of trial by combat. It’s amazing that the discovery channel didn’t rush a team out there to film us. Halfway through Galsman giving Chandos an angry-red indian burn, I speak up.
“Galsman, sit down. Scott, shut the fuck up. I’ll go.”
Never have I heard a more stunned silence. Even the scientists stopped, staring, and suddenly wild slapfights broke out between them to decide who was going to go with Harry the Psycho. I threw them a thumbs-up to accelerate the process. Oddly, the looks of horror that that they flashed back didn’t seem very appreciative.
“This is BULLSHIT! you got us LOST! AGAIN!”
“We aren’t losht, Meredith, Jeshush H-” I was discovering the difficulties in talking around the cigarette poking through my scarf pretty fast.
“Then where is the GOD DAMNED HARBOR?” A vein in her neck was pulsing alarmingly. Some women are cute when they’re angry; Meredith Jones was never one of those women. And if she didn’t knock off the slapping bullshit, she was going to discover firsthand that the walk back to outpost 17 was a long one indeed. I spit out the butt of my last smoke.
“Harry, we are a little bit… ah… turned around.”
I stand corrected.
“Leslie, have you ever considered snowshoeing?” so I look into the backseat of the crawler where my coworker-I still won’t call that man my superior for any amount of money-crouched over a map that looked a whole lot like it was upside down. Let me repeat that for you: The fucking map was upside fucking down.
I don’t like to think of myself as an angry kind of person.
After a few more minutes, we’re moving in the proper direction, Meredith’s holding the map, and Leslie Smith has this big ass purple bruise over his left eye. None of these things is coincidental.
I would like to take a moment to talk about myself. Egotistical? You bet your ass it is. But it will also help to explain the events that followed, like meeting Renker one last time out there on those snowy plains, and how exactly a man with absolutely no previous experience in security ended up being the primary officer on a top-secret project.
Harry Robert Rath, as my mother was fond of calling me when I was in deep shit, is my full and legal name, but not my only name. Aleksandr Kavrovich, John Wong, J. Hollande Christophe, and several others have been used for various situations from hiding in the Czech Republic to evading the asshole bill collector from my hometown. But Harry Rath is my original moniker, and the one that I was dumb enough to use all the way back in the gulf when I got paid to sell fake bomb parts to the Russians. Uncle Sam is a clever old bastard. But that’s a story for another night.
What’s important here is Spokane. Spokane, Washington is this quirky town trying to be a city, caught between the weirdness of Oregon and the backwoods hilarity of Canada. They also have a lot of wannabe cowboys, for some reason, most of whom are unaware that being a cowboy requires more than a stupid hat and chewing tobacco. Spokanites don’t frequently make syrup or ride moose (mooses? meese? moosen?), but have been known to do goofy shit like go to work in three feet of snow. Trust me, it happens. “Hi Joe, can you come in today? Yes, I know there’s a class four blizzard going.”
The moral of the story here is that I know a thing or two about navigating snow. Meredith (Pheonix, Arizona) and Leslie (probably somewhere in Alabama) had no experience in the wily ways of snowstorms. They did not realize, for example, that tracks left by a John Deere knockoff will disappear in a matter of minutes, leaving you stranded if you for some reason decide to try and follow them back to your origin point. They also did not realize that you do not for any reason shut down a diesel engine in such extreme weather, because it may not start again. I took this as common knowledge. I was mistaken.
We took a few minutes to read the map and try and find our position while Leslie did his best to help, which mainly included whining in a tone not unlike a mosquito. I suspect that puberty never did quite hit him until his mid forties. Unfortunate man. Anyways, we’re looking over the map when Meredith decides that we’re wasting time out here, and the best course of action is to panic. In the ensuing scuffle, which I am not proud of, she manages to push me out of the cab of the crawler, into the snow, and begin driving away before I can get my bearings. Again, not my best show.
I proceeded to do the only sensible thing. Calmly drawing and cocking my revolver, a weighty .45 with an ivory handle (Got it in a flea market in Morocco-another story for later), I fired two rounds into the air. I guess that I was hoping for her to stop the crawler and let me back in, which in hindsight was slightly retarded. Hey, you know that madman you just shoved out into likely death by exposure? Yeah, he’s going to fire a weapon and start shouting at you like… well, like a madman. And he expects you to stop. Seems pretty reasonable.
Lucky for me, the crawler is a stick shift from about the paleolithic era. And-you guessed it-none of these Ivy League incompetents can drive anything more complicated than daddy’s BMW.
So the three-ton iron giant coughs out this shuddering, horrible black cloud of exhaust and dies, and above the wind and snow I can hear Meredith screaming. Actually, it may have been Smith, it was a little hard to tell. But that scream dies out and suddenly there’s this awful fucking silence, the kind that only shows up after you’ve been hearing a growling engine for six hours, driving while looking around the bloodspray frozen to the window because nobody brought a fucking ice scraper for Levitz’s brains.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment, not as long as I live. I’m standing there up to mid thigh in powdery snow, trying to holster this hand cannon of a gun, and it’s dead silent, and from behind me I hear: “Hey there, Rath.”
The next few seconds are something of a blur, with me tripping and sprinting back to the crawler, not daring to look behind me but firing the four remaining rounds in my revolver blindly backwards anyways. I yank open the door and shove Meredith out of my seat and heft myself up and in, and my years of driving stolen diesel machinery come into play as I start the crawler and stomp it into gear and I haul ass out of there because despite the cold and the now months of exposure and decay, that was unmistakably Renker’s voice.
We get maybe a mile through the snow at an excruciating pace, Meredith huddled against the other side of the cab and Leslie remaining uncharacteristically quiet, when I feel a heavy pressure thump into my temple and then… nothing.
My next sensation is of cold, still air and someone pawing at me. It’s Leslie, with his clumsy mittened hands trying to remove my gun from its holster ( located in the small of my back, by the way. Bulky coats don’t allow for much other choice.) I decide to save him from further embarrassing himself. I’d like to point out that at this point, Leslie has two black eyes and looks like a raccoon. Just so you get the proper mental picture.
“Lizzie, God so help me, I’ll turn this car around if you don’t knock it off.” I may have been a little concussed.
“Rath! um… hey there! So we uh-we couldn’t drive this very well and we uhm-sorry about the hitting.” He’s doing his best to smile and hide the tire iron while I do my best Dirty Harry impression. Even have the gun out and pointed at him. Perfect.
“Do ya feel lucky, punk?”
“Nothing. Where the fuck is the wicked witch?”
“Meredith, dumbass. where did she go?” I gesture around the empty cab of the crawler with a jerk of my head. I’m flopped into the back seat, by the way. My best guess is that this dip knocked me out, the crawler died again, and they tossed me back here. As for Merry, I assume that she either left or had been abducted by sasquatch. Which, considering the other weird happenings this month, wouldn’t even really be that odd.
“SAY WHAT AGAIN, MOTHERFUCKER.” I was on a roll. Leslie just sits there in the front seat about to piss himself. “Jesus, Smith, go watch a movie sometime.” I lower the revolver. It’s empty anyways, and my spare rounds are in my bag on the floor. Judging by Leslie’s face, Meredith probably kicked the shit out of him before she left, which almost makes up for her exiling me into Renker’s loving arms. Almost.
So we spend the next ten minutes trying to start up the crawler-no, sorry, I spend the next few minutes trying to start it while Leslie explains that Meredith freaked out and hit him with her canteen (I may have laughed aloud there), said that she was going to walk back before the nutcase (not very nice name, that) in the back seat shot her. And then she jumped out and started hoofing it through the snow in a completely random direction. And this guy-I swear, I’ll introduce you to Smith sometime, you have to meet him to believe this shit-he says that he’s not going outside because he doesn’t want to get eaten by a polar bear.
I shit you not.
We are on the other side of the Earth from the bear that he’s worried about, and he’s spending quality time with me instead of trying to save himself from death by freezing. To be fair, Leslie’s a pretty irritating guy. I can see a bear swimming down from the north pole just to spite him. Or maybe using a canoe. Again, it was a pretty weird month.
The engine on the crawler is pretty much toast. Usually in temperatures like this, you park diesel engines with a heater plugged in to keep them warm. They won’t start if they get too cold, and the ambient temperature out on the shelf that day was around -110 Fahrenheit. I think that it dawned on us both at the same time that we were going to have to either sit here and freeze, or go out into the snow and probably freeze anyways.
Now, you’re probably wondering exactly how we hadn’t turned into popsicles already. Part of our standard kits in the Antarctic winter include a layer of battery-powered heaters in our snow gear that would keep you toasty even in the -30 degrees of the garage, at least for a bit. But even our best coats and warmth equipment were nothing compared to our hostile environment suits. At around a quarter million apiece, the armored exosuits were sealed for maximum heat retention. They had domelike helmets that locked onto the main body of the armor and servos powerful enough to pull apart machinery. They took some pretty specialized training to operate, but inside of one, you were the single safest being for miles. Luckily for us, we had four of them at the outpost. Unluckily for us, they were still at the station because a certain someone insisted on hurrying up to go get toilet paper.
I’m the first one out of the crawler, unlocking the gun case (perks of being security officer) and hefting out the two rifles inside. One finds its way to Leslie, who I doubt knew what to do with it, and the other I sling over my own padded shoulder. I fix my goggles in place and point in a direction that I’m hoping goes back to Outpost 17, and we’re off into the great white abyss.
Snow’s whipping by us horizontally, the wind’s blowing so damn hard. We move forward for a few minutes, maybe twenty, before the bone-freezing cold starts to seep into our suits.
Let me tell you a little something about fear.
Fear is not worrying about your grades. I used to think that it meant precisely that, back when I was working my ass off just to get a degree. I’d stay up night after night, studying and worrying about finals and slugging back Red Bull like my kidneys were made of steel. At the time, I thought of that as fear. It was not.
Fear is not hoping to god that your dream job accepts your application and lets you start the internship. I thought that it was that, too, for a time.
Fear is not even being lost in a blank white void, a world of nothing that will kill you in an hour no matter what you do. Even though the air outside with burn you with the sheer lack of heat, this is not the fear that kills men’s spirits. Things like that are mere anxiety, frustration, anger. No, fear is watching the only person you love more than yourself bleed onto the pavement, life pouring out in sudden, decreasing spurts of red and being able to do nothing about it. I need you to understand that before you can understand the next part of this story.
When I say that we were not afraid, it is only because fear is too strong a word.
In that emptiness, the only things that exist are Leslie and I and the promise of an end within the next few minutes one way or the other. No sky, no horizon, we feel nothing but the screaming wind and the way it shoves us to the left as we fight to maintain a forward direction. This void, it doesn’t want us to leave. It refuses to let us go easily, if at all. Our heat is seeping out between clenched teeth and thinner portions of the environment suits. We are going to die out here, both of us, and even though we both know it, neither of us is the kind of person who can accept death gracefully.
It’s been another thirty minutes. We’re still warm, and this surprises me. I’m sure that it would surprise Leslie too, if he had ever gone outside to do any work. We should be almost dead by now, major organs shutting down, frostbite in advanced stages, the whole freezing-to-death bit.
But we aren’t. We’re not anywhere close to that, actually; not only can I feel my fingers and toes, I’m having no trouble moving them. The rifle weighs in my arms. I’ve got a blister beneath the heel of my boot. My nose itches.
Two more hours (That’s a guess, because my watch froze) and we’re knocking on the sealed airlock into O17, and the engineers are hiding behind the couches when we come in radiating cold steam the way that dry ice does. The security guys are halfway through getting shitfaced in memoriam of me, and I’m just standing in the common area doorway like the ghost of christmas fucking past. It’s worth mentioning that they don’t actually stop partying, but Scott does throw me a beer. It freezes solid to my glove.
And Leslie, poor Leslie, manages to croak out: “Has anyone seen Meredith?”
For the second time that day, deathly silence.
Things at O17 never really did get back to normal, I guess. Right up until the station closed, there was this air of distrust and bitter fear. And yeah, we found Meredith. She had wandered out in the wrong direction, towards Outpost 15 to the south. And you know what?
She didn’t freeze to death.
Oh, she was dead. But she never got a chance to freeze out there on the plains. I’ve seen some gruesome things, too, and even I was skittish about this one. Because the day that we found her iced over on the ground, nobody bothered asking how she got there or who could have done it. We knew, all of us, even if we didn’t want to know. Afterwards, Chandos wouldn’t leave the building for anything except evac when we all finally went home.
But we did leave, eventually, and we even managed to avoid too many more casualties. I collected my paycheck (after convincing a certain supervisor to give me a glowing performance report) and drifted on, same as I always do. Leslie and I haven’t seen much of each other since then, though I heard that Scott’s gone and become a writer. The other people from the post-Galsman, Tawney, all of them-Just sort of disappeared after it was all over.
All of them except for Chandos, Leslie and I. And Jessie-that’s Chandos’ first name-she’s not doing too well, I hear. Had a heart attack a few years ago. Actually, I don’t even know If she’s still around. I found the report on the incident after a little snooping. It’s amazing what you can do with internet access and a few names.
Chandos’ neighbors said that they’d noticed a dark form lurking around her house before Chandos had her heart attack, and a few minutes later, they heard her scream and called the police. The woman was about catatonic by the time they found her on the bedroom floor.
On her bedside table, Chandos had left a camera, Just a little digital one like they make now. One picture. It’s pretty blurred-she must have moved while taking it-but the one thing you can make out is a dark form outside of the window. It’s got some lettering printed on the chest: “O17-SPC RENKER”
(I'm thinking about this being the first in a set. If you guys are interested in this continuing, Let me know. -Desqua)