Our breath crystalizes before us and cracks and squeaks like nails on a blackboard. Fog inside my ski goggles freezes in fractal patterns that makes it difficult to see. Lights from the buildings refract from the crystals so the world in front of me becomes a kalidoscope of black and yellow.
We're a couple hundred yards from Pole station when we start passing big hummocks in the ice. Between six and ten feet high. There are cat tracks leading from some of the mounds with steeper sides. Others are rounded and lower.
There are dark shapes between the mounds. We pass close to one that reminds me of a Remington painting I once saw of a buffalo felled by an Apache warrior during a moonlight hunt.
Whatever it is seems to be furry. Something like hair flies upward on the frigid breezes. I'm sure I'm not seeing that right, but I don't dare remove my goggles to clear them. Flesh freezes in seconds. Second-degree frostbite in ten. The burning around my goggles rim has already faded, and I know my face is going to hurt like hell when I get warm again.
Jim is a couple steps ahead of me. He starts walking more slowly, crouching occasionally behind a hillock. "What is this stuff?" I ask him.
"Shut up," he says, holding a hand out and motioning downward. I'm cold as hell. Let's just get inside one of these buildings.
"Trash," he says. "Out for recycling."
I touch one of the furry things. Sure looks like long black hair. Stiff bristles. About a foot long. What kind of equipment is made from material like this?
The door is open to the "beer can", the cylindrical structure that serves as the main entrance to the station. I follow Jim inside and try to shut it behind me. A drift of snow blocks the entryway, holding the door open.
"That is not a good sign," Jim whispers. His words condense like snow before his mouth.
I kick at some of the ice blocking the doorway, but Jim stops me. He drops the bags he's carrying and holds a finger to where his lips are under his balaclava. Then he reaches under his parka and produces a gun.
I'm in awe. He checks the chamber, hits the safety with his gloved thumb, and hands me the weapon by the barrel like he's done this before.
"You know how this works, right?" he says, quietly.
I can't believe it. I don't want to touch the goddamned thing. I thought we'd left the last of civilizations' inhumanity to man six-thousand miles north.
"Your choice," he says. "Stand here and shoot whatever comes through that door, or follow me."
"I'm not shooting anybody. They can kill me first. I don't give a shit."
"I didn't say you had to shoot anybody," Jim says. He's still holding out the gun butt. "Come on. This thing freezes, you're going to have to warm it up before it's any good."
He doesn't get it. "I'm not shooting..."
"Fine. Follow me and listen closely. No more points for sloppiness. This is pole. There is no forgiveness. God himself sees to your punishment here."
He slides the gun back under his parka and starts up the stairs. Dropping my bags, I can barely feel the first blast of warmth through my ECWs as we step into the station hallway. All the lights are on but the building is completely silent.
Jim points to the ceiling, says quietly, "Notice anything?"
"Where is everyone?" I look up. There's nothing on the ceiling. Ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights. What's he pointing to?
He turns and looks at me, disgusted. "Eyes and ears, pal. No mistakes."
We move down the hallway. The doors along the corridor are all open. Nobody in the dormrooms. Beakers and electronic gear litter table tops in the labs. There are dishes of food still on tables in the galley.
We walk between the tables. Everything is cold.
"Left in a hurry?" I ask, wondering where they would go.
"Brilliant," Jim says.
"This is sort of like The Thing, isn't it?" I say. A spike of electric cold runs up my spine. "Holy shit. Tell me that's not real."
He shushes me. "It's not real."
Something rustles in the hallway. The gun is in his fist so fast I'd have never believed he'd put it away in the first place.
Jim says, "This is not anything like that movie. Get that through your head."
I manage to say "ok" between convulsions of shivers. Something between cold and terrified is living in my stomach. "Let's go back to the plane," thinking it's the only place we can be that's not here.
He smirks and pulls a paper off the wall. It tears off from where it was taped. He looks at it, and hands it to me.
He says, "Come up with some better ideas. Like, where's the party we're missing?"
The paper says: "CROATOAN. Clean air." There's a big yellow smiley face on the bottom.
Jim says, "You don't know these people. It's dark. It's isolated. There's an endless supply of booze and science. Think for a minute. They're the most creative, adventurous people on the planet. What would you do?"
The rustle in the hallway gets louder. He bolts to the entryway, the muzzle of the Glock pointed outward, rigid arms, grip tight in both fists.
I hear him push off the safety. I don't want to be where he is, right now, but it seems worse to stand away.
Pulling up behind him, I have to blink a couple of times to register what I'm seeing.
Something that glows slithers across the floor, through a doorway. It's bright green and yellow and seems to have scales.
Jim bends his elbows, points the gun toward the ceiling and resafes. "No sense shooting at those things."
"What the fuck was that? What the fuck is all of this?"
Him turns around, and when he does he has to push me backward a step because I'm up against the back of his parka.
"What. Indeed, what? What of all of this? How much did they tell you?"
"That I had to come fix some radios. That they needed someone to copy morse code."
"Nothing about AMANDA or the conjugate fields? The army of light? The Apocalypse. Isis and Marduk. Why you can't play Black Dog at birthday parties around here? That sort of thing?"
"What the hell--?" I couldn't get my brain around any of it. To say I'd never been so scared in my life made zero sense. I had to pee, and I was afraid to go into the toilet alone.
"Good. We'll do it one step at a time or you'll never get it. They've gone running into the night and frozen to death. We don't want that for you."
"No. No freezing for me." He could have told me I was going to become the cereal box boy for Wheaties. I didn't care.
"So the first thing you were supposed to notice is that the fluorescent lights aren't buzzing. The pipes aren't gurgling. This whole being afraid is really screwing up my routine and you're going to have to get over it or you're not going to last the day. Capisce? Wakarimasu? Comprende? Comprenez? Pick a language and speak it, because every single thing here will kill you if you're afraid. Including me. So you gotta stop. OK?"
I nod, because I've run out of brain power for anything else.
"Wanna gun? Some boys feel more comfy with one."
I nod again. He pulls up his parka, produces another pistol. Racks the slide and puts on the safety.
"They told me you know how to fire one of these. Tell me you do."
I don't want to ask him who told him what. My father had taken me to the range many times as a kid. I knew exactly what he meant.
My hands dropped to my thighs under the weight of the weapon.
Jim says, "Don't shoot at anything that even slightly resembles a human being, got it?"
Holy holy holy...this is the thing. I knew it was true.
"Don't shoot off your feet," he says, motioning to the gun I have wrapped my palms around and pointed at my toes.
"And don't shoot at those little, whatever they are, those stegosaurus things that just went by. They're cartoons. The bullets go straight through and you wind up with holes all over. You can hurt someone."
I heard myself say, "Ok" as we started down hall and up the stairs to the second level.
From that point, Jim seemed on his own mission. He got way ahead of me.
We traversed the second floor of the station building, then down through the tunnels to the clean air building. In the tunnel we could hear people. Music. Disco. Laughing.
There was apparently a big party somewhere.
"Jim. Jim? What am I shooting at, then?"
He didn't answer me until we got to the doorway.
He put his hand on the latch and pushed it open. We were bathed in light and warmth and sound. The room was illuminated in red, blue, and green lights from big arrays of LEDs on the walls. Streamers criss-crossed the ceiling. A poster proclaimed: "Happy Lost Civilization Day". The word CROATOAN was spelled out on a table in white cake next to an array of at least a hundred open bottles of liquor in various stages of being emptied.
One of the polies came toward us with two plastic cups in her hands. Long blonde hair fell around her shoulders. A t-shirt ended just below her breasts and a diamond shone in her navel. She wore running shorts and was barefoot. Her skin radiated the comfort of being cradled.
"Slushies?" she said. Jim slid his gun under his parka and motioned for me to hide mine.
When I hesitated, he came toward me, aggravated, and pulled the gun from my hands and zippered it into my outer parka pocket.
"Big things," He said. "Ten, twenty feet tall. With teeth. Okay?"
Then he turned to the woman and stripped off his outer layers. He kissed her, and when it seemed a welcome kiss should end, they kept going. He ran his fingers from her hair, lower until they rested naturally on the flesh just below her waist.
When he stopped he looked into her eyes for a couple of seconds, and then without looking away: "Of course. Thanks. This is two-n Glenn. He'll be spending the rest of the season with us again."
Jim took one drink from her. She left his embrace closed the door behind me and handed me the other drink.
"Get those clothes off. You're dripping," she said to me.
When she turned to Jim, he was already down to his fleece and long underwear. She led him to the middle of the room, and they started to dance.
That's when I was sure we were either dead or back in the Antarctica I knew.
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