What he loved was the silence, the pristine clarity of the ice shelf: the purposeful breathing of the dogs straining against their traces, the hiss of the runners, the opalescent arc of the sky. Garner peered through shifting veils of snow at the endless sweep of glacial terrain before him, the wind gnawing at him, forcing him to reach up periodically and scrape at the thin crust of ice that clung to the edges of his facemask, the dry rasp of the fabric against his face reminding him that he was alive.
There were fourteen of them. Four men, one of them, Faber, strapped to the back of Garner’s sledge, mostly unconscious, but occasionally surfacing out of the morphine depths to moan. Ten dogs, big Greenland huskies, gray and white. Two sledges. And the silence, scouring him of memory and desire, hollowing him out inside. It was what he’d come to Antarctica for.
And then, abruptly, the silence split open like a wound:
A thunderous crack, loud as lightning cleaving stone, shivered the ice, and the dogs of the lead sledge, maybe twenty-five yards ahead of Garner, erupted into panicky cries. Garner saw it happen. the lead sledge sloughed over–hurling Connelly into the snow–and plunged nose first through the ice, as though an enormous hand had reached up through the earth to snatch it under. Startled, he watched an instant longer. The wrecked sledge, jutting out of the earth like a broken stone, hurtled at him, closer, closer. Then time stuttered, leaping forward. Garner flung one of the brakes out behind him. The hook skittered over the ice. Garner felt the jolt in his spine when it caught. Rope sang out behind him, arresting his momentum. But it wouldn’t be enough.
Garner flung out a second brake, then another. The hooks snagged, jerking the sledge around and up on a single runner. For a moment Garner thought that it was going to roll, dragging the dogs along behind it. Then the airborne runner slammed back to earth and the sledge skidded to a stop in a glittering spray of ice.
Dogs boiled back into its shadow, howling and snapping. Ignoring them, Garner clambered free. He glanced back at Faber, still miraculously strapped to the travois, his face ashen, and then he pelted toward the wrecked sledge, dodging a minefield of spilled cargo. food and tents, cooking gear, his medical bag, disgorging a bright freight of tools and the few precious ampules of morphine McReady had been willing to spare, like a fan of scattered diamonds.
The wrecked sledge hung precariously, canted on a lip of ice above a black crevasse. As Garner stood there, it slipped an inch, and then another, dragged down by the weight of the dogs. He could hear them whining, claws scrabbling as they strained against harnesses drawn taut by the weight of Atka, the lead dog, dangling out of sight beyond the edge of the abyss.
Garner visualized him–thrashing against his tack in a black well as the jagged circle of grayish light above shrank away, inch by lurching inch–and he felt the pull of night inside himself, the age-old gravity of the dark. Then a hand closed around his ankle.
Bishop, clinging to the ice, a hand-slip away from tumbling into the crevasse himself. face blanched, eyes red rimmed inside his goggles.
“Shit,” Garner said. “Here–“.
He reached down, locked his hand around Bishop’s wrist, and hauled him up, boots slipping. Momentum carried him over backwards, floundering in the snow as Bishop curled fetal beside him.
“My ankle,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Here, let me see.”
“Not now. Connelly. What happened to Connelly?”
“He fell off–”
With a metallic screech, the sledge broke loose. It slid a foot, a foot and a half, and then it hung up. The dogs screamed. Garner had never heard a dog make a noise like that–he didn’t know dogs could make a noise like that–and for a moment their blind, inarticulate terror swam through him. He thought again of Atka, dangling there, turning, feet clawing at the darkness, and he felt something stir inside him once again–
“Steady, man,” Bishop said.
Garner drew in a long breath, icy air lacerating his lungs.
“You gotta be steady now, Doc,” Bishop said. “You gotta go cut him loose.”
“We’re gonna lose the sledge. And the rest of the team. That happens, we’re all gonna die out here, okay. I’m busted up right now, I need you to do this thing–”
“What about Connell–”
“Not now, Doc. Listen to me. We don’t have time. Okay?”
Bishop held his gaze. Garner tried to look away, could not. The other man’s eyes fixed him.
“Okay,” he said.
Garner stood and stumbled away. Went to his knees to dig through the wreckage. Flung aside a sack of rice, frozen in clumps, wrenched open a crate of flares–useless–shoved it aside, and dragged another one toward him. This time he was lucky. he dug out a coil of rope, a hammer, a handful of pitons. The sledge lurched on its lip of ice, the rear end swinging, setting off another round of whimpering.
“Hurry,” Bishop said.
Garner drove the pitons deep into the permafrost and threaded the rope through their eyes, his hands stiff inside his gloves. Lashing the other end around his waist, he edged back onto the broken ice shelf. It shifted underneath him, creaking. The sledge shuddered, but held. Below him, beyond the moiling clump of dogs, he could see the leather trace leads, stretched taut across the jagged rim of the abyss.
He dropped back, letting rope out as he descended. The world fell away above him. Down and down, and then he was on his knees at the very edge of the shelf, the hot, rank stink of the dogs enveloping him. He used his teeth to loosen one glove. Working quickly against the icy assault of the elements, he fumbled his knife out of its sheath and pressed the blade to the first of the traces. He sawed at it until the leather separated with a snap.
Atka’s weight shifted in the darkness below him, and the dog howled mournfully. Garner set to work on the second trace, felt it let go, everything–the sledge, the terrified dogs–slipping toward darkness. For a moment he thought the whole thing would go. But it held. He went to work on the third trace, gone loose now by some trick of tension. It too separated beneath his blade, and he once again felt Atka’s weight shift in the well of darkness beneath him.
Garner peered into the blackness. He could see the dim blur of the dog, could feel its dumb terror welling up around him, and as he brought the blade to the final trace, a painstakingly erected dike gave way in his mind. Memory flooded through him. the feel of mangled flesh beneath his fingers, the distant whump of artillery, Elizabeth’s drawn and somber face.
His fingers faltered. Tears blinded him. The sledge shifted above him as Atka thrashed in his harness. Still he hesitated.
The rope creaked under the strain of additional weight. Ice rained down around him. Garner looked up to see Connelly working his way hand over hand down the rope.
“Do it,” Connelly grunted, his eyes like chips of flint. “Cut him loose.”
Garner’s fingers loosened around the hilt of the blade. He felt the tug of the dark at his feet, Atka whining.
“Give me the goddamn knife,” Connelly said, wrenching it away, and together they clung there on the single narrow thread of gray rope, two men and one knife and the enormous gulf of the sky overhead as Connelly sawed savagely at the last of the traces. It held for a moment, and then, abruptly, it gave, loose ends curling back and away from the blade.
Atka fell howling into darkness.
They made camp.
The traces of the lead sledge had to be untangled and repaired, the dogs tended to, the weight redistributed to account for Atka’s loss. While Connelly busied himself with these chores, Garner stabilized Faber–the blood had frozen to a black crust inside the makeshift splint Garner had applied yesterday, after the accident–and wrapped Bishop’s ankle. These were automatic actions. Serving in France he’d learned the trick of letting his body work while his mind traveled to other places; it had been crucial to keeping his sanity during the war, when the people brought to him for treatment had been butchered by German submachine guns or burned and blistered by mustard gas. He worked to save those men, though it was hopeless work. Mankind had acquired an appetite for dying; doctors had become shepherds to the process. Surrounded by screams and spilled blood, he’d anchored himself to memories of his wife, Elizabeth. the warmth of her kitchen back home in Boston, and the warmth of her body too.
But all that was gone.
Now, when he let his mind wander, it went to dark places, and he found himself concentrating instead on the minutiae of these rote tasks like a first-year medical student. He cut a length of bandage and applied a compression wrap to Bishop’s exposed ankle, covering both ankle and foot in careful figure-eights. He kept his mind in the moment, listening to the harsh labor of their lungs in the frigid air, to Connelly’s chained fury as he worked at the traces, and to the muffled sounds of the dogs as they burrowed into the snow to rest.
And he listened, too, to Atka’s distant cries, leaking from the crevasse like blood.
“Can’t believe that dog’s still alive,” Bishop said, testing his ankle against his weight. He grimaced and sat down on a crate. “He’s a tough old bastard.”
Garner imagined Elizabeth’s face, drawn tight with pain and determination, while he fought a war on the far side of the ocean. Was she afraid too, suspended over her own dark hollow. Did she cry out for him?
“Help me with this tent,” Garner said.
They’d broken off from the main body of the expedition to bring Faber back to one of the supply depots on the Ross Ice Shelf, where Garner could care for him. They would wait there for the remainder of the expedition, which suited Garner just fine, but troubled both Bishop and Connelly, who had higher aspirations for their time here.
Nightfall was still a month away, but if they were going to camp here while they made repairs, they would need the tents to harvest warmth. Connelly approached as they drove pegs into the permafrost, his eyes impassive as they swept over Faber, still tied down to the travois, locked inside a morphine dream. He regarded Bishop’s ankle and asked him how it was.
“It’ll do,” Bishop said. “It’ll have to. How are the dogs?”
“We need to start figuring what we can do without,” Connelly said. “We’re gonna have to leave some stuff behind.”
“We’re only down one dog,” Bishop said. “It shouldn’t be too hard to compensate.”
“We’re down two. One of the swing dogs snapped her foreleg.. He opened one of the bags lashed to the rear sledge, removing an Army-issue revolver. “So go ahead and figure what we don’t need. I gotta tend to her.. He tossed a contemptuous glance at Garner. “Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to do it.”
Garner watched as Connelly approached the injured dog, lying away from the others in the snow. She licked obsessively at her broken leg. As Connelly approached she looked up at him and her tail wagged weakly. Connelly aimed the pistol and fired a bullet through her head. The shot made a flat, inconsequential sound, swallowed up by the vastness of the open plain.
Garner turned away, emotion surging through him with a surprising, disorienting energy. Bishop met his gaze and offered a rueful smile.
“Bad day,” he said.
Still, Atka whimpered.
Garner lay wakeful, staring at the canvas, taut and smooth as the interior of an egg above him. Faber moaned, calling out after some fever phantom. Garner almost envied the man. Not the injury–a nasty compound fracture of the femur, the product of a bad step on the ice when he’d stepped outside the circle of tents to piss–but the sweet oblivion of the morphine doze.
In France, in the war, he’d known plenty of doctors who’d used the stuff to chase away the night haunts. He’d also seen the fevered agony of withdrawal. He had no wish to experience that, but he felt the opiate lure all the same. He’d felt it then, when he’d had thoughts of Elizabeth to sustain him. And he felt it now–stronger still–when he didn’t.
Elizabeth had fallen victim to the greatest cosmic prank of all time, the flu that had swept across the world in the spring and summer of 1918, as if the bloody abattoir in the trenches hadn’t been evidence enough of humanity’s divine disfavor. That’s what Elizabeth had called it in the last letter he’d ever had from her. God’s judgment on a world gone mad. Garner had given up on God by then. he’d packed away the Bible Elizabeth had pressed upon him after a week in the field hospital, knowing that its paltry lies could bring him no comfort in the face of such horror, and it hadn’t. Not then, and not later, when he’d come home to face Elizabeth’s mute and barren grave. Garner had taken McReady’s offer to accompany the expedition soon after, and though he’d stowed the Bible in his gear before he left, he hadn’t opened it since and he wouldn’t open it here, either, lying sleepless beside a man who might yet die because he’d had to take a piss–yet another grand cosmic joke–in a place so hellish and forsaken that even Elizabeth’s God could find no purchase here.
There could be no God in such a place.
Just the relentless shriek of the wind tearing at the flimsy canvas, and the death-howl agony of the dog. Just emptiness, and the unyielding porcelain dome of the polar sky.
Garner sat up, breathing heavily.
Faber muttered under his breath. Garner leaned over the injured man, the stench of fever hot in his nostrils. He smoothed Faber’s hair back from his forehead and studied the leg, swollen tight as a sausage inside the sealskin legging. Garner didn’t like to think what he might see if he slit open that sausage to reveal the leg underneath. the viscous pit of the wound itself, crimson lines of sepsis twining around Faber’s thigh like a malevolent vine as they climbed inexorably toward his heart.
Atka howled, a long rising cry that broke into pitiful yelps, died away, and renewed itself, like the shriek of sirens on the French front.
“Jesus,” Garner whispered.
He fished a flask out of his pack and allowed himself a single swallow of whiskey. Then he sat in the dark, listening to the mournful lament of the dog, his mind filling with hospital images. the red splash of tissue in a steel tray, the enflamed wound of an amputation, the hand folding itself into an outraged fist as the arm fell away. He thought of Elizabeth, too, Elizabeth most all, buried months before Garner had gotten back from Europe. And he thought of Connelly, that aggrieved look as he turned away to deal with the injured swing dog.
Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to do it.
Crouching in the low tent, Garner dressed. He shoved a flashlight into his jacket, shouldered aside the tent flap, and leaned into the wind tearing across the waste. The crevasse lay before him, rope still trailing through the pitons to dangle into the pit below.
Garner felt the pull of darkness. And Atka, screaming.
“Okay,” he muttered. “All right, I’m coming.”
Once again he lashed the rope around his waist. This time he didn’t hesitate as he backed out onto the ledge of creaking ice. Hand over hand he went, backward and down, boots scuffing until he stepped into space and hung suspended in a well of shadow.
Panic seized him, the black certainty that nothing lay beneath him. The crevasse yawned under his feet, like a wedge of vacuum driven into the heart of the planet. Then, below him–ten feet? twenty?–Atka mewled, piteous as a freshly whelped pup, eyes squeezed shut against the light. Garner thought of the dog, curled in agony upon some shelf of subterranean ice, and began to lower himself into the pit, darkness rising to envelop him.
One heartbeat, then another and another and another, his breath diaphanous in the gloom, his boots scrabbling for solid ground. Scrabbling and finding it. Garner clung to the rope, testing the surface with his weight.
Garner took the flashlight from his jacket, and switched it on. Atka peered up at him, brown eyes iridescent with pain. The dog’s legs twisted underneath it, and its tail wagged feebly. Blood glistened at its muzzle. As he moved closer, Garner saw that a dagger of bone had pierced its torso, unveiling the slick yellow gleam of subcutaneous fat and deeper still, half visible through tufts of coarse fur, the bloody pulse of viscera. And it had shat itself–Garner could smell it–a thin gruel congealing on the dank stone.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay, Atka.”
Kneeling, Garner caressed the dog. It growled and subsided, surrendering to his ministrations.
“Good boy, Atka,” he whispered. “Settle down, boy.”
Garner slid his knife free of its sheath, bent forward, and brought the blade to the dog’s throat. Atka whimpered–“Shhh,” Garner whispered–as he bore down with the edge, steeling himself against the thing he was about to do–
Something moved in the darkness beneath him. a leathery rasp, the echoing clatter of stone on stone, of loose pebbles tumbling into darkness. Atka whimpered again, legs twitching as he tried to shove himself back against the wall. Garner, startled, shoved the blade forward. Atka’s neck unseamed itself in a welter of black arterial blood. The dog stiffened, shuddered once, and died–Garner watched its eyes dim in the space of a single heartbeat–and once again something shifted in the darkness at Garner’s back. Garner scuttled backward, slamming his shoulders into the wall by Atka’s corpse. He froze there, probing the darkness.
Then, when nothing came–had he imagined it. He must have imagined it–Garner aimed the flashlight light into the gloom. His breath caught in his throat. He shoved himself erect in amazement, the rope pooling at his feet.
The place was vast. walls of naked stone climbing in cathedral arcs to the undersurface of the polar plain and a floor worn smooth as glass over long ages, stretching out before him until it dropped away into an abyss of darkness. Struck dumb with terror–or was it wonder?–Garner stumbled forward, the rope unspooling behind him until he drew up at the precipice, pointed the light into the shadows before him, and saw what it was that he had discovered.
A stairwell, cut seamlessly into the stone itself, and no human stairwell either: each riser fell away three feet or more, the stair itself winding endlessly into fathomless depths of earth, down and down and down until it curved away beyond the reach of his frail human light, and further still toward some awful destination he scarcely dared imagine. Garner felt the lure and hunger of the place singing in his bones. Something deep inside him, some mute inarticulate longing, cried out in response, and before he knew it he found himself scrambling down the first riser and then another, the flashlight carving slices out of the darkness to reveal a bas relief of inhuman creatures lunging at him in glimpses. taloned feet and clawed hands and sinuous Medusa coils that seemed to writhe about one another in the fitful and imperfect glare. And through it all the terrible summons of the place, drawing him down into the dark.
“Elizabeth–” he gasped, stumbling down another riser and another, until the rope, forgotten, jerked taut about his waist. He looked up at the pale circle of Connelly’s face far above him.
“What the hell are you doing down there, Doc,” Connelly shouted, his voice thick with rage, and then, almost against his will, Garner found himself ascending once again into the light.
No sooner had he gained his footing than Connelly grabbed him by the collar and swung him to the ground. Garner scrabbled for purchase in the snow but Connelly kicked him back down again, his blonde, bearded face contorted in rage.
“You stupid son of a bitch. Do you care if we all die out here?”
“Get off me!”
“For a dog. For a goddamned dog?. Connelly tried to kick him again, but Garner grabbed his foot and rolled, bringing the other man down on top of him. The two of them grappled in the snow, their heavy coats and gloves making any real damage all but impossible.
The flaps to one of the tents opened and Bishop limped out, his face a caricature of alarm. He was buttoning his coat even as he approached. “Stop! Stop it right now!”
Garner clambered to his feet, staggering backward a few steps. Connelly rose to one knee, leaning over and panting. He pointed at Garner. “I found him in the crevasse! He went down alone!”
Garner leaned against one of the packed sledges. He could feel Bishop watching him as tugged free a glove to poke at a tender spot on his face, but he didn’t look up.
“Is this true?”
“Of course it’s true!” Connelly said, but Bishop waved him into silence.
Garner looked up at him, breath heaving in his lungs. “You’ve got to see it,” he said. “My God, Bishop.”
Bishop turned his gaze to the crevasse, where he saw the pitons and the rope spilling into the darkness. “Oh, Doc,” he said quietly.
“It’s not a crevasse, Bishop. It’s a stairwell.”
Connelly strode toward Garner, jabbing his finger at him. “What. You lost your goddamned mind.”
“Look for yourself!”
Bishop interposed himself between the two men. “Enough!. He turned to face Connelly. “Back off.”
“I said back off!”
Connelly peeled his lips back, then turned and stalked back toward the crevasse. He knelt by its edge and started hauling up the rope.
Bishop turned to Garner. “Explain yourself.”
All at once, Garner’s passion drained from him. He felt a wash of exhaustion. His muscles ached. How could he explain this to him. How could he explain this so that they’d understand. “Atka,” he said simply, imploringly. “I could hear him.”
A look of deep regret fell over Bishop’s face. “Doc…Atka was a just a dog. We have to get Faber to the depot.”
“I could still hear him.”
“You have to pull yourself together. There are real lives at stake here, do you get that. Me and Connelly, we aren’t doctors. Faber needs you.”
“Do you get that?”
“I…yeah. Yeah, I know.”
“When you go down into places like that, especially by yourself, you’re putting us all at risk. What are we gonna do without Doc, huh?”
This was not an argument Garner would win. Not this way. So he grabbed Bishop by the arm and led him toward the crevasse. “Look,” he said.
Bishop wrenched his arm free, his face darkening. Connelly straightened, watching this exchange. “Don’t put your hands on me, Doc,” Bishop said.
Garner released him. “Bishop,” he said. “Please.”
Bishop paused a moment, then walked toward the opening. “All right.”
Connelly exploded. “Oh for Christ’s sake!”
“We’re not going inside it,” Bishop said, looking at them both. “I’m going to look, okay Doc. That’s all you get.”
Garner nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
The two of them approached the edge of the crevasse. Closer, Garner felt it like a hook in his liver, tugging him down. It took an act of will to stop at the edge, to remain still and unshaken and look at these other two men as if his whole life did not hinge upon this moment.
“It’s a stairwell,” he said. His voice did not shake. His body did not move. “It’s carved into the rock. It’s got…designs of some kind.”
Bishop peered down into the darkness for a long moment. “I don’t see anything,” he said at last.
“I’m telling you, it’s there!. Garner stopped and gathered himself. He tried another tack. “This, this could be the scientific discovery of the century. You want to stick it to McReady. Let him plant his little flag. This is evidence of, of…. He trailed off. He didn’t know what it was evidence of.
“We’ll mark the location,” Bishop said. “We’ll come back. If what you say is true it’s not going anywhere.”
Garner switched on his flashlight. “Look,” he said, and he threw it down.
The flashlight arced end over end, its white beam slicing through the darkness with a scalpel’s clean efficiency, illuminating flashes of hewn rock and what might have been carvings or just natural irregularities. It clattered to a landing beside the corpse of the dog, casting in bright relief its open jaw and lolling tongue, and the black pool of blood beneath it.
Bishop looked for a moment, and shook his head. “God damn it, Doc,” he said. “You’re really straining my patience. Come on.”
Bishop was about to turn away when Atka’s body jerked once–Garner saw it–and then again, almost imperceptibly. Reaching out, Garner seized Bishop’s sleeve. “What now, for Christ’s–” the other man started to say, his voice harsh with annoyance. Then the body was yanked into the surrounding darkness so quickly it seemed as though it had vanished into thin air. Only its blood, a smeared trail into shadow, testified to its ever having been there at all. That, and the jostled flashlight, which rolled in a lazy half circle, its unobstructed light spearing first into empty darkness and then into smooth cold stone before settling at last on what might have been a carven, clawed foot. The beam flickered and went out.
“What the fuck…” Bishop said.
A scream erupted from the tent behind them.
Garner broke into a clumsy run, high-stepping through the piled snow. The other men shouted behind him but their words were lost in the wind and in his own hard breathing. His body was moving according to its training but his mind was pinned like a writhing insect in the hole behind him, in the stark, burning image of what he had just seen. He was transported by fear and adrenaline and by something else, by some other emotion he had not felt in many years or perhaps ever in his life, some heart-filling glorious exaltation that threatened to snuff him out like a dying cinder.
Faber was sitting upright in the tent–it stank of sweat and urine and kerosene, eye-watering and sharp–his thick hair a dark corona around his head, his skin as pale as a cavefish. He was still trying to scream, but his voice had broken, and his utmost effort could now produce only a long, cracked wheeze, which seemed forced through his throat like steel wool. His leg stuck out of the blanket, still grossly swollen.
The warmth from the Nansen cooker was almost oppressive.
Garner dropped to his knees beside him and tried to ease him back down into his sleeping bag, but Faber resisted. He fixed his eyes on Garner, his painful wheeze trailing into silence. Hooking his fingers in Garner’s collar, he pulled him close, so close that Garner could smell the sour taint of his breath.
“Faber, relax, relax!”
“It–” Faber’s voice locked. He swallowed and tried again. “It laid an egg in me.”
Bishop and Connelly crowded through the tent flap, and Garner felt suddenly hemmed in, overwhelmed by the heat and the stink and the steam rising in wisps from their clothes as they pushed closer, staring down at Faber.
“What’s going on?” Bishop asked. “Is he all right?”
Faber eyed them wildly. Ignoring them, Garner placed his hands on Faber’s cheeks and turned his head toward him. “Look at me, Faber. Look at me. What do you mean?”
Faber found a way to smile. “In my dream. It put my head inside its body, and it laid an egg in me.”
Connelly said, “He’s delirious. See what happens when you leave him alone?”
Garner fished an ampule of morphine out of his bag. Faber saw what he was doing and his body bucked.
“No!” he screamed, summoning his voice again. “No!. His leg thrashed out, knocking over the Nansen cooker. Cursing, Connelly dove at the overturned stove, but it was already too late. Kerosene splashed over the blankets and supplies, engulfing the tent in flames. The men moved in a sudden tangle of panic. Bishop stumbled back out of the tent and Connelly shoved Garner aside–Garner rolled over on his back and came to rest there–as he lunged for Faber’s legs, dragging him backward. Screaming, Faber clutched at the ground to resist, but Connelly was too strong. A moment later, Faber was gone, dragging a smoldering rucksack with him.
Still inside the tent, Garner lay back, watching as the fire spread hungrily along the roof, dropping tongues of flame onto the ground, onto his own body. Garner closed his eyes as the heat gathered him up like a furnace-hearted lover.
What he felt, though, was not the fire’s heat, but the cool breath of underground earth, the silence of the deep tomb buried beneath the ice shelf. The stairs descended before him, and at the bottom he heard a noise again. A woman’s voice, calling for him. Wondering where he was.
Elizabeth, he called, his voice echoing off the stone. Are you there?
If only he’d gotten to see her, he thought. If only he’d gotten to bury her. To fill those beautiful eyes with dirt. To cover her in darkness.
Elizabeth, can you hear me?
Then Connelly’s big arms enveloped him, and he felt the heat again, searing bands of pain around his legs and chest. It was like being wrapped in a star. “I ought to let you burn, you stupid son of a bitch,” Connelly hissed, but he didn’t. He lugged Garner outside–Garner opened his eyes in time to see the canvas part in front of him, like fiery curtains–and dumped him in the snow instead. The pain went away, briefly, and Garner mourned its passing. He rolled over and lifted his head. Connelly stood over him, his face twisted in disgust. Behind him the tent flickered and burned like a dropped torch.
Faber’s quavering voice hung over it all, rising and falling like the wind.
Connelly tossed an ampule and a syringe onto the ground by Garner. “Faber’s leg’s opened up again,” he said. “Go and do your job.”
Garner climbed slowly to his feet, feeling the skin on his chest and legs tighten. He’d been burned; he’d have to wait until he’d tended to Faber to find out how badly.
“And then help us pack up,” Bishop called as he led the dogs to their harnesses, his voice harsh and strained. “We’re getting the hell out of here.”
By the time they reached the depot, Faber was dead. Connelly spat into the snow and turned away to unhitch the dogs, while Garner and Bishop went inside and started a fire. Bishop started water boiling for coffee. Garner unpacked their bedclothes and dressed the cots, moving gingerly. Once the place was warm enough he undressed and surveyed the burn damage. It would leave scars.
The next morning they wrapped Faber’s body and packed it in an ice locker.
After that they settled in to wait.
The ship would not return for a month yet, and though McReady’s expedition was due back before then, the vagaries of Antarctic experience made that a tenuous proposition at best. In any case, they were stuck with each other for some time yet, and not even the generous stocks of the depot–a relative wealth of food and medical supplies, playing cards and books–could fully distract them from their grievances.
In the days that followed, Connelly managed to bank his anger at Garner, but it would not take much to set it off again; so Garner tried to keep a low profile. As with the trenches in France, corpses were easy to explain in Antarctica.
A couple of weeks into that empty expanse of time, while Connelly dozed on his cot and Bishop read through an old natural history magazine, Garner decided to risk broaching the subject of what had happened in the crevasse.
“You saw it,” he said, quietly, so as not to wake Connelly.
Bishop took a moment to acknowledge that he’d heard him. Finally he tilted the magazine away, and sighed. “Saw what,” he said.
“You know what.”
Bishop shook his head. “No,” he said. “I don’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Something was there.”
Bishop said nothing. He lifted the magazine again, but his eyes were still.
“Something was down there,” Garner said.
“No there wasn’t.”
“It pulled Atka. I know you saw it.”
Bishop refused to look at him. “This is an empty place,” he said, after a long silence. “There’s nothing here.. He blinked, and turned a page in the magazine. “Nothing.”
Garner leaned back onto his cot, looking at the ceiling.
Although the long Antarctic day had not yet finished, it was shading into dusk, the sun hovering over the horizon like a great boiling eye. It cast long shadows, and the lamp Bishop had lit to read by set them dancing. Garner watched them caper across the ceiling. Some time later, Bishop snuffed out the lamp and dragged the curtains over the windows, consigning them all to darkness. With it, Garner felt something like peace stir inside him. He let it move through him in waves, he felt it ebb and flow with each slow pulse of his heart.
A gust of wind scattered fine crystals of snow against the window, and he found himself wondering what the night would be like in this cold country. He imagined the sky dissolving to reveal the hard vault of stars, the galaxy turning above him like a cog in a vast, unknowable engine. And behind it all, the emptiness into which men hurled their prayers. It occurred to him that he could leave now, walk out into the long twilight and keep going until the earth opened beneath him and he found himself descending strange stairs, while the world around him broke silently into snow, and into night.
Garner closed his eyes.
Editor’s note: I rarely publish reprints, but in the case of The Crevasse, I could not resist; it is one of my favorite Lovecraftian stories, first published in the excellent Lovecraft Unbound. And if you enjoyed this story, you’ll want to purchase Nathan’s brand new anthology North American Lake Monsters.
Dale Bailey lives in North Carolina with has family, and has published three novels, The Fallen, House of Bones, and Sleeping Policemen (with Jack Slay, Jr.). His short fiction, collected in The Resurrection Man’s Legacy and Other Stories, has won the International Horror Guild Award and has twice been a finalist for the Nebula Award. You can find him online at www.dalebailey.com
Nathan Ballingrud is the author of North American Lake Monsters, from Small Beer Press. Several of his stories have been reprinted in Year’s Best anthologies, and “The Monsters of Heaven” won a Shirley Jackson Award. He’s worked as a bartender in New Orleans, a cook on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and a waiter in a fancy restaurant. Currently he lives in Asheville, NC, with his daughter, where he’s at work on his first novel. You can find him online at nathanballingrud.wordpress.com
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Story illustration by Peter Szmer.