A ‘Hallowe’en’ UFO story
I’m back. He’s back. Not sure which of us is the happier.
October 19th 2013
‘Time.’ Straker glanced around the Control room before swinging the microphone around and leaning forward to speak. ‘All sensors to maximum. All stations Red Alert.’ A satisfying silence. No unnecessary noise, no distracting replies, just a well-trained workforce in action. Foster looked up from the satellite image he was studying.
‘Here it comes.’
Penumbral lunar eclipse. Not uncommon, but with solar activity rendering the Antarctic satellite system temporarily out of contact, the whole continent was an open target for any UFO fortunate enough to get past the lunar defences. Straker stood there, arms folded and watching as satellite images displayed the lunar surface turning red, Ford concentrating on the sensors, head tilted to one side as if he was listening to some faint, far-away sound, Foster tapping his fingers soundlessly on his thigh. Alec, out of contact at the other end of the world would be listening as well.
They were all waiting.
October 27th 2013
‘mnnfh..’ A hand reached out, fingers stretching for the source of the noise, then pulling the phone back into the warmth under the duvet. ‘Straker.’ More of a grunt than a word, but at least he was awake, even if not particularly lucid.
‘Alec. You awake Ed?’
It was enough to bring him to full wakefulness, though the chill in the air as he sat up would have had the same effect. Three in the morning and the temperature low enough to make him shiver as he rubbed his face to waken sleep-filled eyes. ‘Awake. What’s up?’
‘Amundsen-Scott weather control found an unusual spike in gamma readings. Reported it to me straight away. I suspect it might be that UFO that slipped in during the communications blackout. Several hundred miles from the pole, and –‘
‘Can you get a flight out to the area?’ Straker was on his feet now and heading for the bathroom.
‘No chance. Too mountainous to access by plane. Wisconsin Range; glaciers, crevasses, rock outcrops, you name it. Terrain looks absolutely lethal. We’re going to get close as we can by aerocopter but it’ll have to be Ski-doos from there. Might take couple of days, depends on the topography and the weather conditions.’
‘Who are you planning to take?’ He began running water in the handbasin, one hand reaching for the shaving foam. ‘Hold that, Alec. I’ll get a flight down to you. I want to see what’s there for myself. If it’s a UFO after so many days without self-destructing, it has to be under the ice. You know what that means.’
‘Sure, but I can get out there in two days or less. It’s going to take you 24 hours, maybe longer, to get down here to start with. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.’ The confidence in the Londoner’s voice was unmistakable and Straker paused.
‘I know, Alec. That’s why you’re there, just for this eventuality. But I expected any UFO to use the blackout just as a corridor to get somewhere habitable. Not land in some god-forsaken frozen glacier.’
‘Damage from the interceptors? Minto did say he thought he’d hit it.’
‘Possible.’ Straker put the dry razor down and rinsed the untouched foam from his face. The fine stubble would have to remain unshaven. Not that anyone would notice, not where he was going. ‘Hold it anyway. I’ll be out as soon as I can. A day at the most. Don’t do anything till I get there. And I mean anything.’
‘You’re the boss.’ There was a soft chuckle. ‘And, it’ll be good to see you. Don’t worry, I’ll sort transport from Christchurch from this end. Just give me a call when you leave McMurdo so I can get the final details organised.’ The phone went dead and Straker put it on the side of the basin, staring at the mirror. Was he doing the right thing, going down to oversee the operation? It would involve a long, tiring journey but as someone, Henderson maybe, had told him when he took on the job, ‘It’s easy to say yes; it takes leadership to say no.’
Yes, it would be easier to stay here. And probably just as effective, but he needed to be there, to see everything for himself, to put the facts together and hopefully come up with answers.
He spared himself a few minutes to get dressed in the frantic half an hour of arranging a flight to Christchurch, informing Paul of his plans, leaving messages for Miss Ealand and finally packing a few items into a rucksack: thermals, socks, an unused tube of suncream from the summer, sunglasses and notepad, throwing his wallet and passport and iPod in at the last moment. It was quicker to drive himself to the airport, a cold night ahead of him, the weather unusually frosty for this time of the year in London, and it would be far colder where he was heading.
It took him just thirty minutes to get to the airport, the roads mercifully empty of traffic at this time of night, and then he stood in the private Harlington-Straker lounge area watching early flights leave for far-off sunny destinations. The Shadair jet completed its pre-flight checks and rolled out of its hangar and he hurried across the apron and ran up the steps, the door closing behind him as he entered. There was no steward on board to greet him and the crew was reduced to two and busy, but they would be landing at Dubai to change and refuel. There was no need for formal greetings or safety procedures and Straker went to sit in the cabin, fastening his seat belt and waiting for the engines to power up for take-off. Quick and efficient. Just as he expected. There was nothing to do now but try to catch up on lost sleep, and hope that his suspicions were correct. If the UFO was trapped beneath the surface of the ice then it might escape the worse effects of the atmosphere, enough at least for him to take a look inside. And then… who knew what they might find.
There was a crescendo of noise, nothing alarming, just the plane going into supersonic mode and he was pressed back into the seat by the increase in speed. A few more hours and he would be in Dubai. He dimmed the cabin lights and tried to sleep.
Colonel Freeman ticked off another item on the list. ‘Fuel, two tents, supplies for three people for ten days.’ He watched as the second sledge was loaded with more equipment, shaking his head. ‘Easier with just the two of us. Less to carry and a quicker trip. Sometimes Straker seems to enjoy making life more difficult.’
‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you say that, Colonel.’ The dark-haired man busy counting fuel tablets looked up and grinned. ‘The boss might decide to call that insubordination and leave you to overwinter here.’
‘Wouldn’t bother me much.’ Freeman made a note on his list. ‘We’d better take extra lip balm and so on. Straker might not have chance to get any.’ He tossed a tube into the bag open at his feet and paused. ‘Add more suncream will you? Fair hair and all that. How are we doing weight wise with the fuel?’
Sam Morton hefted the bag. ‘Just under. If we have to take more we’ll need an extra Ski-doo and sledge. It’s pushing it already.’
‘Let’s try to stick with just the two. Otherwise it’s extra fuel and space is limited enough. I don’t want to have to make more than one trip out there.’ Freeman ticked off the last item. ‘Okay. We’re as ready as we can be. Just a case of waiting. I want to go over the satellite images as well, see if there’s a better photograph. I wouldn’t mind a closer look myself.’ He dropped the checklist on top of the sledge and walked out, muttering to himself about weather and cloud cover.
Dubai was hot, the runways shimmering in the sunlight and passengers sweltering and sweaty as they headed along walkways for the shade and coolness of the arrival lounge. A busy airport and on any other visit he might have enjoyed a walk through the terminal, but he remained on board, watching the activity from the air-conditioned quietness of the cabin. The delay in refuelling was an added annoyance, but there was nothing he could do about it; it was a rush job after all. Instead, he paced the length of the aisle, wondering if perhaps he should have left Alec to deal with the whole thing. But it was important to get out there and see for himself.
Years ago he had taken on this responsibility, and although it was going to be inconvenient, and annoying, and probably unnecessary, he had his duty to perform. The clunk of the fuel tanker disengaging was sufficient notice and he went back to his seat, grabbing a cold bottle of water from the dispenser. The work he had brought with him was completed, Headquarters was running smoothly according to Paul’s latest report and he had nothing to do. A rare occurrence. He could not remember the last time he had sat down and…. done nothing. It was a little unsettling.
There was no point in contacting Alec; he was busy enough preparing for the trip and anyway it was late evening by now at the base. They would be getting together in the mess hall and eating. The base had pretty decent food from what he remembered. Good food was a real necessity, working out there in sub-zero temperatures. The thought of food reminded him that he had not eaten since yesterday, more than twelve hours ago and he was hungry. Perhaps there were some sandwiches in the galley. The warning light came on, he strapped up, aware of the grumbling of his stomach and forced himself to relax. There was another four hours to Christchurch and then he would have to take a Galaxy to McMurdo. He would be lucky to get to Alec in the promised twenty-four hours and he just hoped his friend had enough sense to wait for him and not do anything foolish. There was a strong sense that this mission was not going to go as he hoped.
Christchurch at last and after ten hours in the air the relief of being able to get out and walk, to stretch his legs and feel the crisp night air on his face, was enormous. He stood there for a while, taking deep breaths and rousing himself from the dull stupor of hours in an airliner, even a top of the line SHADO SST, with its dry re-cycled air and the constant thrum of engines. It was nearly three in the morning and the quartermasters of the SHADO supply section were quietly furious at being called out at this early hour, making their displeasure known. Their subtle discourtesy and silent treatment did not go unnoticed and he took his time, determined to linger over the process while his own annoyance increased with each trivial insolence.
He sat there, insisting on testing goggles, boots, even skis; trying different parkas and rucksacks, pondering the merits of fleece boot liners and thermal inner gloves as opposed to silk or lambswool. A petty thing to do but it gave him some satisfaction after his long and solitary journey, and after all, the US Galaxy to McMurdo was not due to leave for another four hours. On reflection, the team had a cushy number here, an easy nine to five job with few late night calls. He would put them through a Level Five inspection before Christmas; see if they were pulling their weight or not, after all there were enough older members of SHADO who deserved a settled life without the stress of twenty-four hour duties. The Mobile Team leader injured last year for example. William Casson. A decent man who deserved better. The loss of his leg was a huge blow to his family and team but at least he was alive and Straker had been searching for a suitable post for Casson for some time – the man was too loyal to cast aside and SHADO owed him a great deal. It would mean re-locating the former team leader here, but it was a good place, Christchurch.
Straker picked up a pair of boots, the ones he had tried on first of all before declaring they were not quite comfortable enough. ‘These will be fine. Have everything ready for me at the airport in an hour.’ And he walked out, unzipping the white parka he had selected as he set off back to the airport. The weather was really too warm for wearing such a coat but it was easier than carrying it. The cold weather clothes would be waiting for him to change into, together with the other equipment he requested. Sensible rules really, having to wear the full E C Weather outfit on the flight, but it would be hot and noisy. He looked at his watch; five am., plenty of time to get back to the airport. He sighed; another five hours of travel stil to come and he stepped up his pace, eager to get at least some proper exercise before yet another long haul flight, stuck in the cargo bay of a military transport.
The glowing double arch of the familiar logo drew him like a magnet and he found himself scrabbling through the various pockets of the parka, until he pulled out his wallet with a feeling of relief. The restaurant was closed but the drive-thu was open, though without any customers, and he walked down the lane to lean on the counter and plead with the bored and slightly amused young man sitting inside. A large coffee and double sausage and egg muffin. He sat outside on the wall of the raised flower bed with its winter foliage plants under the sign, watching a few cars drive past and eating an early breakfast, his first real meal since leaving England. He put the last piece of sausage in his mouth, crumpled the packaging up and checked his watch; two miles or so back to the Centre. Plenty of time and, brushing the last crumbs from his coat, he set off.
Freeman sat on the ground and waited to be sighted; an easy task, the distress beacon was equipped with smoke flares and his parachute was brilliant orange. It stood out on the white landscape like a huge flame, even though it was close to three in the morning according to his watch. Still daylight, though; the sun above the horizon and casting a light glow over the snow covered land. Various pieces of the Twin Otter plane were scattered over several miles and already he could hear the first of the search aircraft approaching. A stupid thing to do. Straker would be livid. He pulled of his gloves, inspecting each hand to check for injuries. The minor electric shock he suffered when the power systems shorted out, had been painful, but there seemed to be no visible damage, not even any residual stiffness. A good thing, otherwise he would be confined to the base for a week or more, and he needed to get out on this mission. The worse thing though, the really depressing aspect of the whole sorry business, was that he hadn’t managed to get a single aerial photo of the crash zone. The brief weather window had seemed such a perfect opportunity to get out there and see what was going on. A decent shot might even have made Straker shrug off the expense of replacing the aircraft, unlikely though that was, but he had come back empty handed. Nothing. Apart from a bill for ten million dollars.
He would wait until the mission was over before informing Ed, it would only be an unnecessary distraction and Straker had enough on his mind without worrying about this.
The first aircraft circled overhead and he stood up, waving both arms to show them he was unhurt. It was freezing out here and he wondered where Straker was, hoping his friend had the sense to take it easy in Christchurch. There was no point in wasting energy; Straker worked hard enough as it was and this could turn out a relatively easy mission: a downed UFO, a couple of bodies, and with any luck, some alien technology they could take back to the research section in HQ. Alec knew just how desperate Straker was to get his hands on one decent-sized piece of an alien craft.
It was just a case of waiting for the aerocopter to arrive now.
The passenger seats on the plane ran along both sides of the cargo hold in two long rows facing the centre. Straker moved down the narrow aisle, finding a spare seat and fastening the straps. At least there was room to stretch out his legs although the seat was fixed. He was tired and his initial spurt of energy had long since worn off, leaving him jaded and aching with fatigue. A group of scientists followed him, chatting in somewhat incomprehensible language about nematode distribution in penguins and iridium dispersal in core samples, casting curious glances at his non-regulation white clothing. He was tempted to move, but the space was filling up and there was no chance. It would be close to midday when he arrived at McMurdo, and he knew Alec would have arranged a flight for the afternoon, even if it meant pulling rank.
The flight seemed endless, turbulence making it impossible to sleep or even read and after four hours he was sweaty and clammy, pulling the thick material away from his neck to get some small amount of fresh air against his skin. It felt as if he was suffocating. There was nothing for it but to sit there, head back and hands resting limply on his knees.
The jolting increased and he could hear someone vomiting. It set the others off and he swallowed his own nausea, desperate not to have to use the paper bag provided. He had never been sick, not even space sickness. Never. He wiped the back of his mouth with one gloved hand, took a sip of water, and focussed his vision on the ceiling. And then the plane banked and he sensed the engines powering down; close to landing. He gave a sigh and concentrated the things around him, from long years of experience the best way to bring his body back under his control: the air heavy with the sour smell of vomit and sweat, his own included, the loud throbbing of the engines, the seat shaking beneath him, the tilting of the aircraft as it approached the landing strip. He held his breath, fingers gripping tight as the landing gear engaged and the plane flattened out to land with little more than a slight bounce on the ice and then a judder. A long exhalation from someone nearby, a sense of relief filling the bay. Only one more flight today. He straightened his legs, fingers pushing deep inside to loosen the knotted muscles, desperate for a shower and a change of clothes, a decent cup of coffee, some fresh air and, more than anything, a familiar and welcoming face.
He let the scientists disembark first, enjoying the peace and silence before picking up his single and somewhat cumbersome bag and clambering out into sunshine, blinking in the brilliant light sparkling from snow and ice and whiteness. He paused in the doorway, pulling his goggles down to cut the glare, boarded the waiting bus for the trip to the Station and dumped his bag in the reception area while he went to phone Alec.
‘I’ve got you on a flight leaving at four. You should get here by nine. Weather report has visibility good, wind speed low, no precipitation. We’re setting of at five in the morning, so I’ll be asleep when you arrive.’ Freeman glanced over at Morton and winced. ‘Get some rest, Ed. You sound tired. Have a good flight.’ He closed the connection putting the phone down with a shake of his head.
‘Straker?’ Morton folded the map he had been examining and tucked it down one side of the topbox on the sledge. ‘Hope he’s ready for this. Personally I’d stay right here where it’s warm. Safer as well.’
‘Want to drop out? We can manage without you.’
Morton laughed. ‘Without me? No way. I’m actually looking forward to this. Something to tell the grandkids. How I was there when the boss and Alec Freeman fought it out on the ice. My money’s on you by the way. He’s a desk jockey now. Soft. Easy meat for someone like you.’
‘Pfff. You don’t have grandkids. Not even married. And what sensible girl would have you anyway?’
‘Let me see…..there’s been ……. Ayshea, Gay, Joanne, Joan……’ Morton was counting on his fingers when Freeman tossed one of his mukluks across the room, hitting the younger man on the shoulder. ‘Oy. Straker won’t be like that you know. Senior members of staff are expected to set an example.’ He went back to counting. ‘Virginia, Georgina, …..’ but Freeman had grabbed his boot and gone, the sound of laughter echoing in the corridor.
Another military plane, slow, unwieldy, loud. And even more uncomfortable. The cargo hold was crammed to its limits with crates of supplies: food and fresh vegetables, replacement parts, mail and newspapers. And a single passenger. He edged his way down the narrow aisle between crates and the long row of seats running lengthways down one side, not sure where to sit at first, at the front near to the cockpit, or at the back near to the exit. It seemed silly to sit in the middle and he vacillated for a few moments, standing there, unsure. In the end he simply tossed his bag on the nearest seat and sat beside it, his back to the tiny windows. There was nothing to look at, apart from wooden boxes and pallets, and nothing to do and in a way he missed the ridiculously abstruse chatter of the scientists, though not the sounds of travel sickness.
He got out his notepad and opened it, relishing the chance to catch up on SHADO news while he was alone. All was well in Headquarters, the stations quiet and nothing to report and in the end, out of sheer boredom, he stretched out across the empty seats and dozed. The sound of the co-pilot coming aft to use the head woke him and he pushed himself upright, rubbing his face and uncomfortably aware of the rasp of bristles.
‘Another hour. You look as if you’ve been travelling a while.’ The co-pilot stopped on his way back, handing over a polystyrene mug of coffee. ‘Special trip? Don’t usually get many passengers this early in the season.’
The coffee was scalding hot. Black and bitter and strong, but he sipped it gratefully. ‘Called out last minute. You know how it is. Replacement pilot.’ A spur of the moment reason, but it would explain the need to rush him to the base.
‘You timed it right then. They’ve just had an accident. One of the Otters from the military group based there. Pilot was lucky to escape from what I heard.’
Straker froze. ‘Military group?’
‘Yep. Keep themselves to themselves. Nice enough people, but don’t say much. Something to do with Defence I think.’
Alec. It had to be Alec. There were only three SHADO pilots out there right now, and neither of the others would dare disobey his orders. The idiot. He kept his voice calm and interested, trying not to appear too concerned. ‘Pilot hurt much?’
The co-pilot laughed. ‘Got away scot-free from all accounts. Luck of the devil I guess.’ He finished his own drink and crumpled the mug, tossing the remains into a nearby bin. ‘Don’t go back to sleep, you’ll need to watch out for the seatbelt light.’
And then Straker was alone again, worrying about the mission, about whether the aliens were still alive and there was a chance of capturing one, and most of all, worrying about Alec. He twisted his fingers together in a combination of anger and concern.
It was still daylight when he arrived at the base, the sun low down but nowhere near setting. It would not set again until the end of February. No darkness, just daylight. The two SHADO lieutenants waiting to meet him were polite and reserved and duly deferential despite his somewhat dishevelled appearance. Yes, Commander, everything was ready for the flight out tomorrow first thing, no, there had been no changes in the readings from Weather control and yes, Colonels Freeman and Morton were both asleep, oh and Colonel Freeman left his room at your disposal. Sir.
He asked for the daily log and skimmed through the details. Yes. As he suspected. Alec. The aircraft was a total loss and the clear-up operation another needless expense in a continent where every single iota of waste, both human and mechanical was collected, stored and sent back to the States for disposal. There would be hell to pay for this. But tomorrow, after some proper sleep instead of broken catnaps on inadequate bench seats.
He found Alec’s room, the bed neat and ready and a brief note on the desk reminding him they were leaving at five. There was no mention about the plane crash, and he wondered where Alec was sleeping tonight; probably in one of the smaller dormitories, or perhaps on the couch in Morton’s room. At least that way they would be able to get up early without disturbing those on the later shift, and Alec could delay the inevitable.
Straker finished in the tiny bathroom across the corridor; a quick wash, mindful of the need to conserve water though he craved a long shower to clean the staleness and dried sweat from his body. No chance of that tonight with the showers operating on alternate days. It was his intention to get the IAC to spend some real money on the living facilities here. Cramped bunk rooms for shift workers was not the way to keep staff working at peak efficiency, never mind that some people considered that the base was not of vital importance. SHADO needed a presence here and he didn’t give a damn if the other sections complained. His people deserved better than communal accommodation blocks and sharing bathrooms and other facilities with civilians. It made it even harder, knowing you had to watch every word you said.
He closed the door; no-one would disturb him tonight unless it was an emergency and even then they would go to the Station Commander first. At least the bed was warm and long enough to stretch out full length. He felt old beyond his years, tired and aching from the interminable journey, and the walk in Christchurch so many hours ago was a distant memory of fresh air and good coffee, hot food and muscles tingling from brisk exercise.
The pillow was cool under his face and he turned on his side to face the door, a habit instilled into him after the attempt on his life in Moonbase. It was impossible to sleep though. The bed seemed unusually still after so many hours of constant movement, and he tossed and turned, running through all the things that might go wrong tomorrow.
‘Colonel.’ Straker looked up from his breakfast as Freeman approached. He put his knife down, hands now on the table, fingers fiddling with the handle of his mug.
‘Morning Ed. Ready to go when you are. Ski-doos are loaded and Sam’s doing the last checks.’ Freeman stood there, more than a little perturbed. Straker had that look on his face, the one which meant someone was in for a lecture, or worse.
‘Morton? A good choice. He has the right experience.’ Straker drained the last of his coffee and stood up. ‘Five minutes. Meet me in your room, Colonel.’ He walked away without another word, only stopping to speak briefly to one of the Weapons specialists who was eating pancakes and maple syrup over on the other side of the room.
Alec sighed. Five minutes. Just enough time to prepare himself for whatever Straker was going to say.
‘Come in Colonel.’ Straker was packing the small bag that was all he could take on the trip; nothing more than spare socks and one set of underwear. Even that was bulky, but spare socks were a necessity. They might be out for a couple of nights or longer. No toilet bag, or razor, or toothbrush. A small washcloth was all and even that might not get used.
Alec opened his mouth to speak, and stopped. He took a breath. ‘Commander?’
‘Well?’ Straker zipped up the bag, tossed it onto the bed and pulled the fleece gaiter over his head, tucking the bottom edge of it under his overshirt, then turned to face the other man.
‘Abuse of authority, misuse of assets, dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming, and refusal to obey a lawful order?’ Straker slammed one hand down on the desk. ‘What the blazes did you think you were doing Colonel? Did you hope to keep it quiet until I’d left? And just what part of ‘Don’t do anything’ did you not understand? Not to mention losing an aircraft.’ He leaned forward, glaring at Freeman. ‘I have to beg for every penny right now and you go gallivanting off, against my direct orders, and end up costing me ten million dollars. I’m sorely tempted to leave you behind.’ He straightened up, folding his arms. ‘I want a detailed written report on my desk within twenty-four hours when we return. No excuses. Just the facts.’ He turned to pick up his parka, and Alec opened the door, preparing to leave. But Straker had not finished. ’One more thing Colonel Freeman. Just remember. This is a Court Martial offence.’
There was ice in the words and Freeman left his reply unspoken, walking swiftly away down the corridor to collect his own bag and outer wear from Morton’s cabin. It was going to be a difficult few days.
Morton was waiting for him. ‘Rough? I heard some of it. Think most of the base did as well.’
Freeman gave an embarrassed shrug. ‘My own fault. And he’s every right to be annoyed. He’ll get over it. Eventually.’
‘You’d better hope so. He can be a tough bastard at times.’
There was nothing to say in reply. Agreeing would be a betrayal of his Commander and friend, but he could understand, and sympathise with Morton’s view. One thing was for sure though; the next few days were definitely going to be chilly.
Straker had no chance to talk to Alec on the flight out. His second-in-command was acting as navigator to help find the nearest landing site to the crashed UFO, or whatever it was. He was relegated to the cargo bay again, although Morton was also there. They shared a few brief words, but there was a definite air of tension in the air and then Morton made his excuses and went to finish re-aligning the tracks on the second machine.
It was a relief when they landed and he could step away and let the others deal with the unloading.
‘Roughly a hundred miles in a straight line. Closest we could get.’ Alec connected the smaller sled to the one-man Ski-doo. He paused, ‘Commander? You want this one?’ then walked over to the two-man machine where Morton was waiting.
So that was the way Alec wanted to play it. Fair enough. ‘Sure.’ Straker climbed on, settling himself in the seat before pulling the zip of his jacket up, the hood over his head, neck gaiter and goggles firmly in place; armour against the elements. He watched as the others did the same, abruptly and somewhat disturbingly anonymous behind their identical uniforms, faces and eyes hidden behind dark glasses and balaclavas. Not even name badges to tell them apart. No matter, there would be no chance to talk until they stopped for a break.
He looked at the controls; a long time since he had driven one of these, but no way was he going to admit that fact. He let one hand rest on the red button, running through the brief instructions he remembered from the last visit here. Yes. That was it. Alec and Morton were already setting off, driving away at slow speed to let the ski-doo take the strain of the sled. He pulled the button up, turned the key and then tugged the start cord, grinning to himself as the engine sprang into life with a smooth purr. And then he twisted the throttle, steering the small machine to follow in their tracks as the Aerocopter lifted off and headed for base, leaving them alone in the icy desert with the Wisconsin Range looming ahead in the far distance.
It was nearly three hours before they stopped, the journey slow and the terrain almost impossible at times, the ground ridged with huge frozen waves of hardpacked snow and deep crevasses. Alec, at least he assumed it was Alec, pulled to a halt and waved at him, far enough behind to avoid any dangers the lead team might encounter. A quick lowering of goggles. Yes. Alec.
‘We’ll take a break if that’s alright? Fifteen minutes? Need to check the GPS and see if there’s any updates.’
Energy bars and chocolate munched in silence, the cold so bitter he could hardly feel his lips, his eyelashes stiff with tiny crystals of ice, sipping energy drinks from insulated flasks, pee bottles used in the scant shelter of the Ski-doos, out of the constant stiff breeze that flung snow granules into faces. He swiped balm over lips already cracking from the bitter cold, smeared more suncream on his cheeks and handed the tube over to Morton. Still over seventy miles to go. No way could they make it today, they would be lucky to get there tomorrow at this rate. He crumpled the wrappers up and tucked them inside the sled, checking the straps more from habit than necessity. But this was a lethal place, and it was better to be over-cautious than end up losing vital equipment.
Alec was watching him, a long look before hiding from sight again behind his thick goggles. And then they were off again, bouncing over the sastrugi, swerving avoid the smaller cracks and holes that seemed to open up in front of them. Mile-long detours round bottomless crevasses, the wind increasing to a howl as the hours passed, snow blowing up to make the visibility difficult. In the end, he made the decision to call a halt to the journey. Alec was reluctant, arguing that they had already delayed and time was getting short, but Straker was adamant. It was getting too dangerous. And he was not the mood to take foolish risks.
‘An early start tomorrow, if conditions allow.’ He started unpacking the topbox from his sled, ignoring their quiet objections. A one man tent identical in style to Alec and Morton’s apart from its size, its sheepskin mat and thick sleeping bag practical and weight-saving. Even his own stove and lamp and separate rations. Well, at least he wouldn’t be kept awake by Alec’s snoring. He scooped up snow in the billycan, and put it aside, then started on the tent, siting it on the leeward side of his Ski-doo, a scant shelter, but better than nothing, then his vehicle refuelled and left ready for the morning. He was aware of the other two doing the same, but they were all too busy to stop for idle conversation. For a moment he wondered if Alec had planned this all along, a separate tent just for him, or was it originally for Morton.
He waved an acknowledgement to the two of them before clambering through the tunnel into his own small space, the walls gleaming a soft orange in the sunlight reflected from the snow and there was no need to light the lamp. He could hear Alec talking, Morton’s replies. Muted laughter. The tent walls rippled in the wind and he took off his outer layers and boots, putting the inner gloves and boot liners into his sleeping bag to keep them warm. A tidy space once he finished, everything neat and folded and within reach. The small space required only one stove to provide sufficient warmth and he set it up quickly, putting the lighter back in his pocket for safety afterwards.
Now for something to eat. His iPod was sufficient company as he heated one of the freeze-dried meals and then brought the can of half-melted snow to the boil and made a mug of cocoa. A long night ahead; he hoped he would be able to sleep in the persistent orange glow, but once he was inside the sleeping bag and warm, the peacefulness was soporific and he drowsed to the gentle murmur of Alec and Morton in the other tent, aware that the wind was easing even as he sank into restless and unsatisfying sleep.
‘Ahead.’ Straker swerved his machine to a halt in a swirl of snow spray. ‘There.’ He pointed as Alec pulled up alongside, tugging goggles down and squinting. ‘See it now?’
They had spotted the irregularity a few hours ago, a degree or so off their planned line of travel and the debate about whether to investigate had turned into another argument.
‘That smudge? Could be anything. Rock outcrop, debris, glacial deposition?’ Alec tilted his head, trying to see what it was Straker had spotted about the black lines spreading out across the ice a couple of miles or so ahead and disappearing into the massive ice wall at the end of a glacier.
Straker paused, wondering if he might be wrong after all. Distances were confusing out here, and his eyes ached from the glare whenever he removed the goggles to check. ‘GPS confirms it’s close enough to the target area to be more than an accident. And it can’t be rock. The ice sheet’s too deep out here. We’ll take a look.’
‘Fine. If that’s what you think. I don’t want to be accused of disobeying orders, do I?’ Alec pulled on the start cord and prepared to move off again.
‘It’s worth investigation. But we’ll take it slow. I don’t want to rush up there just to fall into a trap.’ He yanked his goggles down again and tugged up the zip of his parka. He wanted a hot coffee, and a shave. Several days’ worth of stubble was catching on the fleece keeping his face protected from the worst of the cold, Alec’s attitude was verging on downright rudeness and Morton had not said anything, just stood there munching chocolate, listening as the two of them argued.
Another hour before they had to leave the Ski-doos behind and walk, and the blackness had become like a huge arrow on the ice, pointing to … something. Alien? Straker had never seen any trace of a landing trail from a UFO, and yet this could only have been made by some alien thing. The marks on the ice were almost inhuman; curving like tentacles protruding from the base of the glacier. Liquid, possibly fuel, spilling from the UFO and blackened by smoke perhaps?
They made their way towards the nearest strand, clambering over fractured blocks of ice, slipping into shallow gaps between the blocks, all the time trying to keep out of sight. Hot, tiring work, ankles aching from the strain of not slipping, hands and knees bruised from falling onto knife-sharp shards of ice. The whole ground looked as if it had been lifted into the air and then dropped, shattering like an immense sheet of glass. He had never seen anything like it before. Even Alec was quiet, pausing to catch his breath and wait for Straker. No words of disdain though, not that they had much chance to talk. It would have taken too much effort.
In the end Straker held up his hand. ‘Break. Ten minutes.’ He slumped down on a convenient block of ice, pulling off his outer gloves and goggles and taking a long drink from his flask. Jet lag, not to mention the stress of the past couple of days, was catching up with him. He could fight it off a while longer, but there was no point in rushing ahead when they could all do with a breather.
‘We should keep moving.’ Alec hunkered down, ignoring the bottle Straker held out to him as a peace offering.
‘We all need a break, Colonel.’
‘We’re wasting time here.’ Freeman turned round to survey the broken snowscape. ‘There’s an opening in the ice about a hundred yards further on. I’ll go ahead with Morton and take a look. You stay here, Commander. And take it easy.’
‘Give it a rest. You’ve made your point. You’re annoyed with me. Fine. Deal with it.’ Straker stretched, wincing. ‘Ten minutes.’ He drained the bottle and put it down. No point in carrying an empty flask with him. He would collect it on the return journey.
Time had never seemed to move so slowly. Straker rubbed at the cramping stiffness in his legs while Alec stood, back to him and watching the line in the snow. It looked darker, now they were closer. Black. In fact, blacker than black if that were possible. There was something evil about the twisting, curving lines, as if they had reached out from hell. He shook his head, mocking his foolish thoughts. And yet…. And yet. A chill ran through him, despite the warmth of his parka. He looked up at Alec, eyes hidden and distant, his own face reflected in the dark plastic of the goggles.
He turned away in the end, unable to face the image staring at him. His own face, framed in the white, fur-edged hood of his parka, a skull-like apparition, gaunt and hollow-eyed with tiredness. Alec had not moved. It was as if they were statues, frozen in time.
No one spoke. The minutes passed in sullen silence, Alec and Morton going through the motions while he sat, his burning muscles twitching and then finally easing, his eyes adjusting to the light, his fingers regaining their sensitivity. He looked at his watch. Ten minutes.
‘Let’s go gentlemen.’ He moved out, scrabbling over the terrain, hearing the other two follow close behind. The last hundred yards were the hardest, the ground ridged and fractured and cover difficult to find in places.
By the time they reached the nearest point, they were all gasping for breath. A last cautious look over the top of a snow dune, and there it was; laid out beneath them, some sort of glossy dark liquid that appeared to have poured like a river out across the ice before freezing solid. It was several meters across at its widest point where it emerged from a wide vertical crack in the wall of ice overhanging their current position. The entrance point to where the UFO had crashed? It was certainly large enough to take one of the smaller alien craft.
Alec tugged at Straker’s arm, pulling him away from the very top of the dune to lower down, where they could talk. ‘Looks like you were right. The UFO could have crashed here, maybe even broken though the ice wall and got trapped when the face collapsed again. That could be a spillage from the fuel tanks or their liquid atmosphere. We need to get a sample, even get inside to find the UFO, but the crack looks pretty unstable. What do you want to do?’
‘Any chance of getting a message through to our base?’
Alec shook his head. ‘Sporadic connection at best. We’re totally reliant on the base’s satellite links, but its way outside the normal range here.’ He spread his hands in a gesture of futility. ‘SHADO needs its own set-up here. Urgently.’
‘So. No back up. We’re on our own. ’ Straker wriggled back up the snow to peer over the ridge once more. ‘We have to get down there. See what that liquid or whatever, is. And what’s inside that crevasse as well.’ He rolled over, letting himself slide down the slope to the base. Alec followed him and, after a moment’s pause, Morton twisted around, lifting his feet and slithering down to join them. A swift grin at the childishness of the action and then Straker pulled a pistol from one capacious pocket and checked it over before replacing it and fastening the pocket securely. All sense of fun and frivolity disappeared in that one act.
‘Careful. Keep to the edges and ….’ Straker paused. ‘Hoods off. We won’t be able to hear if anyone’s on the move, or coming up behind us.’ He pushed his thick hood down, wincing as the icy air bit into the exposed flesh of his face. The fleece hat was no real protection from the bitter wind, but it was essential that they were able to hear any approaching alien. Frostbite or an enemy bullet. Not much choice really. He inched his way round one of the ridges. The liquid, now he was closer to it, was deeper than he expected, not part of the ice, instead it lay in an even sheet a couple of inches thick on the surface; a smooth black substance with a soft sheen somewhat akin to hot tarmac. There was no smell. ‘Alec? Thoughts?’
‘New to me. Never seen anything like it before. We need a closer look.’ They made their way along the edge of the liquid, up to the opening. There was no sign of any alien or UFO and eventually, Straker put the tip of one boot to the very edge of the black substance. It was tacky, clinging to the boot as if it was trying to drag him down. He shivered with revulsion and pulled himself back.
‘You okay?’ Alec leaned over to him, concern in his voice.
‘Don’t step on it.’ Straker was still shivering, and not from cold. He had experienced enough horrors in his life, but this was beyond any imagining, and yet he could not say what it was about the clinging sticky substance that filled him with such dread. Morton was silent, head down and concentrating on each footstep, but as Straker moved away, still shivering, a long strand of the viscous liquid seemed to reach out, worming itself over Morton’s foot. Perhaps a random splash, or a ripple, but it was enough to startle the man. He yelled, falling back onto the ice, one foot pushing deep into the black liquid before he managed to scrabble away.
‘Sam!’ Alec bent to drag him into the shelter of the overhanging ice and the three of them huddled together while Morton rubbed frantically at the fluid that seemed to be creeping up past his ankle as if it was alive.
‘Get this off me.’ He started to tear off the thick boot, fingers trembling.
‘Don’t be a fool. You’ll freeze to death.’ Straker put his hand on Morton’s shoulder. ‘Hang on a second. This might work.’ He found a chunk of ice and started scraping the black stuff off Morton’s boot, swift movements, the liquid falling away to lie in small droplets that stained the pristine snow like clots of black blood.
Morton was ashen but even so, Straker could see the first signs of frostbite – a small circle of dead-white skin in the centre of each cheek. He took off his own mittens, rubbing Morton’s cheeks with his gloved hands, the softer inner gloves gentler on frozen flesh, then he pulled the man’s balaclava up. ‘Keep yourself warm.’ He turned to Alec. ‘Wrap up as well Alec. We’ll take it in turns to keep alert. That way we shouldn’t get too cold. I’ll go first.’ He rubbed his own cheeks, aware now of the dull sensation of ice in the soft tissue. The tingling was painful, but he was aware how close they had all come. The goggles were annoying, hampering his vision, and he tugged them off, stuffing them into one pocket. It was easier to see the oily liquid without them.
Alec had obeyed and was hidden deep within his hood and gaiter, as was Morton, both of them well away from any inadvertent contact with the sticky substance. Straker moved closer and tossed a small chunk of ice onto it, watching as the block sank with a soft plop and a bubble of clear liquid rose to the surface. So the liquid was warm. He rooted through his pockets, dragging out the receipt from Christchurch and crumpling it into a ball. It was harder to get into a position to drop that onto the surface, but he managed it, and then scraped a line in the snow to mark the point at which he had placed it. Then he sat back.
The liquid was moving. A slow movement, unnoticeable unless you were patient. It took a couple of minutes before he could gauge the distance, but it was certainly moving. He gestured to the others and they moved further away in silence. And then a single black strand extruded itself from the mass of liquid, lifting the paper into the air and casually flicking it away. It landed beside Morton and he rolled away in horror. ‘Bloody hell, it’s alive. A living creature. What in God’s name is it?’ He sounded as if he was going to be sick.
By unspoken agreement they all moved further back, edging their way up along the side of the substance until they were hard up against the ice wall. There had been no evidence of aliens, and Straker was bitterly cold now, his face numb and painful. They took a few minutes to give him time to massage some semblance of life back into frozen cheeks and lips, then Alec pulled his own hood down, took off his gloves and reached out to Straker, his hands spreading out to press against his friend’s face. ‘My turn. Get yourself warm Ed.’ He kept his hands in place for a minutes, then Straker pulled away, aware that even that was too long to be glove-less here.
He nodded at Alec. ‘Thanks. No more than three minutes.’ God it was wonderful to feel the warmth return to his face, but it was important now to keep a watch on Alec. He was acutely aware that his hearing was muffled by the fur-lined hood; an uncomfortable sensation, being so reliant on another person.
They were close to the fissure in the ice wall now. Far wider than the black liquid oozing out of its depths, it also stretched upwards; a jagged rip in the ice, splintered and ragged. Straker led the way inside, glancing upwards in a futile effort to see if the fractured ice was stable. He had no way of knowing if the walls might collapse in seconds or years, or if the whole rift would close up again as the glacier continued to move. They just needed to get in, find the UFO, if it was hiding in here, and get out. Fast. He motioned to Alec, a swift upwards lift of his hands and Alec gave a sigh of relief and pulled his hood back up, as Morton lowered his with obvious reluctance. Straker held up three fingers in reassurance, and then turned back to lead the way.
The floor of the fissure was a nightmare, shattered ice lying in slabs several meters high, huge icicles stretching down from the fragile ceiling, and all the while the sluggish river of liquid making its way down the centre, smoothing away obstacles to leave a clear pathway. But there was no way any of them would step closer to the black horror. They moved in silence, concentrating on each single step, aware that a slip could be catastrophic.
A few more paces, separated from sight now by obstacles. Then Alec slipped with a painful and noisy grunt against one of the blocks and Straker, hurrying forward to help, caught his foot in a hidden crack and wrenched his ankle. He sat for a moment, rubbing it as Alec leaned over, hands on knees while he caught his breath. The ankle was painful but not sprained. Alec gave him a hand up and he nodded a silent thanks. Three minutes; time for Morton to wrap up again. He turned around.
There was no one there.
Straker stood there shocked and for once unsure what to do, before springing into action, clambering over the ice blocks to call out, his voice a low hiss. ‘Morton.’ Louder with greater desperation. ‘Sam.’ There was a scuffle behind him and he twisted round, his heart pounding. Alec, coming to help.
‘Where the hell is he?’
‘God knows. He was right behind us when we set off. A few paces, that’s all. I heard nothing. Nothing at all.’
‘We have to go. Get back to the Ski-doos.’ Alec squeezed into the gap between two shards of ice, shuffling his feet sideways. ‘Come on, Ed. No time to waste.’
‘Wait.’ Straker held up one hand. ‘Look. Over there.’ A flash of red. Light glinting from silver chains. ‘Aliens. Two of them.’ He grabbed hold of Alec’s arm. ‘Get out of there Alec. Fast.’
They huddled together, watching in silence as the two aliens made their way deeper into the cavernous fissure, walking along the edge of the slow stream of black liquid and then disappearing behind a huge boulder. Straker held his breath. ‘The UFO must be here somewhere. We have to find it, but it could be anywhere in the glacier.’ He waved a hand at the huge expanse of ice looming them over in a cathedral-like pointed arch of blue-tinged ice.
Alec raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s obvious isn’t it? Just follow the yellow brick road.’ He shrugged. ‘Come on. You never know what we might find at the end.’
‘Morton? Let’s hope so.’
They set off, keeping the trail on their left, the rough pathway becoming easier as they ventured deeper into the vertical opening. There was no further sight of the aliens, or of anything resembling a UFO and Alec was on the verge of giving up when Straker pulled him down behind yet another ice block, one finger on his lips. He pointed. There, on the other side of the stream of fluid, he could see the aliens.
And Morton. Standing there with them, motionless.
There was no mistaking the white parka, the fur-lined hood and dark goggles. Straker cast a worried glance at Alec, eyes questioning. Alec shrugged, then, with slow, cautious movements, pulled out his own pistol, gesturing at the small group. Straker shook his head. ‘Need to find the UFO first,’ he whispered and began edging his way out of sight, a slow crawl over the ice to the scant shelter of an overhang. They huddled there, watching as Morton and the Aliens swiftly moved away again, heading deeper into the fissure. Time to follow.
It was almost a relief when they saw the first signs of the UFO: broken shards of metal scattered across the ground, a shattered fin protruding from the steep wall of the fissure, and a deep gouge carved out of the wall from the impact with the craft. They halted, leaning on yet another fractured piece of ice. The temperature was warmer here in the abeyance of the bitter wind and it was easy to hear the snow crunching underfoot as the aliens, and Morton, moved forward.
And then without warning, the UFO itself was ahead of them, tilted over on one side, half buried in the ice, its remaining fins bent and distorted and the smell of something acrid and sour filling the air. A jagged gash in the top of the hull revealed a gap wide enough to clamber through and green fluid had seeped into the ice below, staining it a brilliant emerald green and huge icicles clung to the fins and shell.
Straker paused, holding up one hand to stop Alec moving any further. ‘Look.’ He pointed beyond the UFO, into the narrowing cleft of the fissure. In the distance dimness a dark mass could be seen clinging to the walls, long tendrils of sinuous liquid reaching out in every direction like a massive spider’s web, holding it in place. The source of the black substance, and nothing to do with aliens, or at least their red-suited enemy.
And then they saw the trickles of black flowing down from the central mass, weaving their way round the cracks in the wall, pouring down to the floor where they combined together to form the river of living fluid slowly oozing its way out of the fissure into the thin daylight of Antarctica’s night time.
Straker took a deep breath, fingers tight on Alec’s arm. ‘The UFO first. That’s our priority. I’ll make my way over and try to get inside. Stay here and keep watch and…’ he paused, looking at his own white face reflected in Alec’s goggles, ‘if anything goes wrong, get out of here. Forget me and aliens and Morton.’
‘That’s a direct order, Colonel.’ He loosened his grip. ‘Keep yourself safe. I still need your report.’ He let go and moved away, keeping low and silent, heading for the gash in the side of the UFO a hundred yards away
Alec pulled out his pistol and hunkered down, legs aching from the strain of the day. The sunlight that filtered into the crevasse was insipid, the whole space crisscrossed with soft shadows that distorted the hard outlines of the UFO. He saw Straker drop into a deep crack and then reappear again, pulling himself up and out, to lie flat on the .snowdusted surface. Closer and closer to the accidental doorway, a few more yards, nearly there. And then Straker clambered through the gap and disappeared from sight, and Alec turned round to keep watch.
The interior of the craft was utterly inexplicable and confusing, like one of those old-time fairground attractions with mirrors and sloping floors. It was almost impossible to keep upright, the floor was not only tilted at a steep angle, but slippery with oil and grease and what could have been blood. He could smell copper and smoke and, for some peculiar reason, lemons. Lights flashed in confusing patterns and sickening colours and he took just one step inside before slipping in a tangle of twisting cables and wires that seemed to coil themselves around his ankles, sliding down to crash against the far wall.
His elbow crashed into a sharp corner and his pistol slipped from his fingers despite his efforts. He heard it clattering against metal nearby. Brilliant sparks arched across the interior from unknown sources, several landing on his arm and burning through the thick outer layer of his parka. He crushed the burgeoning flames with one hand and then, tugging off the singed glove, he reached out to find his pistol, scrabbling among cables and slime and cursing his own stupidity. His fingers touched something familiar and he froze. A space suit, and he brushed aside the coils of wire and knelt there, his hand resting on the crumpled body of an alien, frozen, closed eyes rimmed with ice, fingers twisted into claws, mouth open in a silent scream and one side of its suit charred and blackened by fire, much as his own parka would have been.
A pool of the black liquid had settled beneath the corpse, and he pushed himself away with a grunt of dismay, remembering that long, living, tentacle of liquid that had thrown the receipt back with such contempt. It took him a few moments to make sure he had not come into contact with the stuff and even so he felt shaken as he moved back towards the body once more to examine it, wary of any tentacles that might be extruded. But the liquid was not moving, it was dull and he could see faint cracks in the surface, and shards of ice lying there. Dead. Not just the alien, but the creature as well. He wondered what had killed it. The atmosphere in the UFO? But he rejected that thought almost instantly; the air inside the craft was unpleasant, but not poisonous.
He took a moment to look around, wondering if there was any other sign of the liquid life-form but he could see nothing. Just that dark puddle. He would deal with that later, but right now it was the actual UFO itself that was his main concern. An alien craft, and intact. A prize worth having. He pushed himself to his knees, climbing up through the tangle of wires and oddly angled panels in an attempt to find anything resembling a power supply or a control panel.
Then he saw it; a pulsing green light in one corner of the craft, growing brighter. The self-destruct. Perhaps his disturbance of the interior had been the catalyst. There was no way to stop it, and he flung himself at the wires, hauling himself hand over hand up the wide cables, fingers still slippery from the spillages inside. Gasping for breath, the heavy parka hampering every move, his heart pounding in time with the pulsing light. Did he have time to reach the gap in the hull, let alone get far enough away to be safe when the ship exploded? His fingers caught painfully on the torn metal of the gap and he pulled himself out, tumbling heedless of any aliens on the outside, down the ice, rolling and sliding away from the craft.
There was no time to warn Alec, and no need to either. The throbbing whine and sickly, pulsing light were enough notice. He ran, flinging himself behind one of the massive slabs that had fallen from the upper part of the crevice, hands protecting his head and counting down the seconds in his mind.
The blast was confined by the ice, the sound muted by the walls, and he was aware of a rush of hot air over his head followed by an almost deafening creak as the ice fell, cracking and splintering in a huge roaring avalanche of ice and snow and shards of metal.
He held his breath, waiting for the first stab of pain or a crushing blow on his back, but there was nothing, the ice shaking under his body,. The last sounds died away and he lifted his head, shaking snow away and wiping his face with one trembling hand. A close shave.
The UFO was a total loss now; nothing remaining apart from tiny scraps scattered in all directions. Time to re-group and find the aliens. He pushed himself upright and looked around for Alec.
They were dragging him towards the river of black running down the centre of the fissure, his struggles futile against two of them. And he could see the liquid creature responding, the surface beginning to move and swirl, slight ripples forming as it gathered itself to reach out with a tentacle. Morton was watching, not making any effort to stop them.
He had no idea how they had managed to get to Alec unseen, although it was possible that they had used the explosion as a diversion. Whatever, he had to stop them, before they succeeded in their attempt.
A ridiculous question crossed through Straker’s mind. How had they been able to cross the black river? And the answer came to him in a blinding revelation that made him feel utterly sick with the image and he knew without a shadow of a doubt what would happen if they managed to get Alec close enough for the creature to make contact. It was too late to save Morton now, but there was no way he would leave Alec to be sacrificed. Even if it cost him his own life.
The three of them were less than a hundred yards away now and he could see the surface of the liquid roiling and dimpling with eager anticipation. Short tendrils reached out, beckoning to the aliens. Alec shouted; an unrecognisable sound, fear and pain and a primitive roar of defiance, and Straker could see the blood pouring down the side of Alec’s face to soak into his parka. He reached for his pistol. And swore.
Nothing he could do about that now. And there was nothing here in the cavern that could be used as an effective weapon. Certainly not against two aliens. His only chance now was to get to Morton, overpower the man and take his gun before Alec was within reach of the creature.
He leapt forward, flinging himself at Morton’s back and catching the man unawares, his weight crashing the other to the ground, to roll together in the snow and ice and fine debris of the UFO. The hood of Morton’s parka slipped back and Straker, yanking at the goggles in a desperate attempt to try to reason with him, dropped his hands in shock and frantically scrabbled away as he saw the man’s eyes.
Black. Not just the pupils were dark; both eyes were black, totally, and yet Morton was staring at him, watching him. With jet black, liquid eyes. He could not move, could not breathe even, as Morton turned to face him, reaching out now with one hand that stretched, and stretched and stretched, his once pale skin dusky with the vile liquid that was now running through his veins. Frozen with horror, Straker could do nothing as the arm came closer, extending beyond the length of the sleeve, the fingers clawing and crooking and creaking as bones strained and skin split, and Morton opened his mouth wide, a gaping maw filled with pitch.
The noise of the explosion had been loud, but it was quiet compared to the next sound;
Alec, shouting. Not a cry for help, but a warning, loud and desperate. ‘Get out of here Ed..’ It was enough to bring him to his senses, and he twisted around, rolling out of reach of the fingers and then, before Morton could react, flinging a handful of ice into his eyes. It was enough to make the creature that was once Morton stop in his tracks. Straker had no chance of getting a weapon now, and he turned to see Alec slumped between the two aliens now, unconscious or dead Straker had no way of telling, but the aliens were still dragging him away.
There was nothing he could do but run. Be a coward and run. To get away from this hell-hole and get help. It would take days to get back here though, and Alec had less than a minute.
And he still hadn’t received Colonel Freeman’s report. He clenched his fists, furious at the events that had led him here, furious at the aliens who came here to steal and kill and destroy lives, at the creature who was orchestrating this whole nightmare, and also at himself, that he could not find some way to destroy it. Not daylight, not the Earth’s atmosphere, not the cold.
Cold. The dead alien. The burn marks on its suit and the pool of dead liquid beneath.
He delved into one of his pockets, praying, heart pounding with the thought that it might have fallen out, or he might have left it behind. It was there. And he pulled the small lighter out, flicking it open with fumbling fingers, his thumb catching the igniter. Again. Again, his eyes watching as Morton began to shuffle back towards him and the aliens continued to drag Alec, ignoring him for the moment.
Click. And the flame lit. Just for a couple of seconds, but it was sufficient to see that his suspicions were correct. Morton stopped dead. He clicked it again, stepping forward, waving the lighter at him, clicking it, the flame bright and hot and terrifying, forcing the creature to back further and further away as Straker edged closer and closer.
He pulled one of his inner gloves from his pocket, held the lighter to it, all the time his eyes on Morton. He felt the fire take hold, burning his own hand and then he flung the soft material, praying the flame would last long enough to achieve his goal. It landed at Morton’s feet. Time stood still. No one moving now, Morton still watching him with expressionless jet-black eyes, mouth now closed and hiding the hideous truth of his real being, limbs slowly regaining their normal length, the aliens frozen, holding Alec up by his arms and yet not daring to move. And then the first flicker appeared. A tiny glow of orange, a wisp of smoke, and then it burst into brightness, growing upwards and reaching greedily for the fine nylon outer coating of Morton’s salopettes. It was horrific. And yet he could not stop himself watching, as the creature writhed and twisted, arms flailing, head thrown back as the flames destroyed clothes and skin and hair and thick and acrid smoke poured from its mouth. There was no sound of pain and Straker was thankful. It gave him some measure comfort to know that it was no longer one of his men burning in front of him, or even a human being; it was a nightmare creature, a vile and hideous being, however much it resembled Colonel Sam Morton.
It only took a few moments for the body to crumple down into a heap, flames still eagerly licking at the remains as oily smoke coiled upwards and then Straker, a fierce grin on his face, turned round, held the lighter up and clicked it into life. The aliens paused, and he took a long stride towards them, flame at arm’s length, gesturing at Alec, still slumped between them. They dropped their burden and moved away. It was tempting to see to Alec first, but he knew the dangers and he forced them towards the smouldering remains of Morton and the river until they were standing on the surface of the liquid. This close to them he could clearly see the darkness behind the visors as tentacles of black rope swam through the green liquid of the helmets. There was no need to see their eyes to know that they too, had been consumed by the darkness. But he would not spare any scrap of pity for these beings.
He turned and hurried back to Freeman.
Alec was alive. Unconscious but breathing and Straker began to drag him behind a tumble of huge shards of broken ice that would shelter them while he finished the job.
He stripped off his parka, turning it inside out and ripping open the lining to reveal the mass of goose-down inside which he pulled out, placing handfuls on the open jacket. He carried it over to the river and tossed its contents onto the surface, the white down billowing out across the surface like a thick snowdrift. Another click of the lighter and he held it up, took a breath, and dropped the lighter on the mound of feathers.
He was huddled behind the wall of ice, covering Alec with his own body when the flames erupted. Far brighter and taller and hotter than a few handfuls of feathers could ever produce. A roaring fire, he could see flames reach upwards to the distant ceiling, could see the aliens crumpling, their helmets and suits melting, could hear a terrible high-pitched screech. An inhuman sound, and then a rushing of wind as ice blocks were flung across the chasm. He ventured a look. And wished he had not.
The river had lifted itself up, a ribbon of black, flinging itself in agony in an attempt to rid itself of the flames. But even as he watched, the flames spread, moving away from the source, pouring down to the exit as well as up the end wall, engulfing the huge body of the creature embedded in the ice. Not silent this time: groans and creaks and rustlings, ice cracking and melting as the creature burned, water gushing past. He turned his head away, put his hand over Alec’s face to protect him from water droplets that would burn as they froze, or glowing embers from the ash that was beginning to accumulate.
He was cold by the time silence returned to the cavern, bitterly cold and shuddering, his face and limbs stiff. No matter. Alec was a dead weight, head bloody and bruised, but he managed to haul him into the centre of the cavern before lying him down again. The liquid was motionless and dead, its surface covered with fine cracks and ash. A repulsive thought, to walk along it, but it was the quickest way out of here and he picked up the tattered remnants of his parka, grateful for even that scant protection against the wind outside and pulled it on.
The Ski-doos were nearly half a mile away, an impossible distance if it had not been for the pathway on which he now stood. He could carry Alec, at least some of the way to the vehicles. The cold would no doubt kill him before he could get back to the machines, but it was better to die outside than in here surrounded by death and horror. It took all his strength to lift the colonel over his shoulder and start walking but the sheer physical effort kept him warm enough for now. One step and another. And another. And then they were out of the cavern, the land spreading before him and the sun low in the sky. He lowered Alec onto a slab of ice and bent over, gasping for breath, his legs trembling with exhaustion. On a whim he looked at his watch; twenty minutes past midnight, though he had no idea what day it was.
He reached for Alec’s collar again, sitting him up and bending to put his shoulder at the unconscious man’s waist. A grunt, his back straining, and then he was upright and walking again. Sweat trickled down his face, freezing in long rivulets and stinging his eyes; it was too late to put his goggles on now. Memories of route marches when he was in Boot Camp, laden down with full kit. Press ups, and push ups. Running. Overnight treks and survival training. So easy. Alec’s arms flopped against his the back of his thighs. The unseen end of the dead path, his foot jarring as he stepped onto lower ice and nearly fell. How much further to go yet?
Miles and miles and miles.
‘About that Court Martial, Colonel Freeman.’ It was stupid to talk, to waste precious breath on unheard words, but he needed to say the words. Another gasp. ‘I’ll make my final decision based on your report.’ Four more steps, dragging air into his lungs. ‘So you need to get it written. Remember. I gave you twenty-four hours. No excuses. ’ His muscles were burning now. Not like the aliens or Morton, but painful enough. ‘D’you hear me Colonel? I want that report.’ Feel the burn. Accept it. Walk through the pain, his shoulders aching, the cold eating into his body, despite the sweat. There was no answer, but there again Freeman always was a stubborn second-in-command.
Perhaps changing the subject would help. ‘I wonder. Did it come from Earth or another planet? Was it there in the ice for hundreds of years, waiting for someone to arrive, living on daylight and the cold and whatever it could catch, or did that UFO bring it. I don’t think we’ll find out and anyway, it doesn’t matter now. It’s dead.’ He waited. ‘Colonel?’ Still no answer. So Alec was still angry with him. Tough. He was numb now, the cold making it hard to talk or hold his burden in place or move one leg in front of the other and he was tempted to stop and rest for a few minutes. But then he remembered that soft, snide comment: ‘You stay here, Commander. And take it easy.’ No way was he going to give Colonel Freeman the satisfaction of being proved correct. ‘Sod it Colonel. And sod you as well. Be thankful I didn’t leave you back there. You owe me for this.’
He thought he heard Alec grunt some vague and incomprehensible reply. Typical of the man. Never could let him have the last word. ‘Shut up Colonel. I’m the one doing the carrying. You just lie there and be silent for once.’
He walked on, shuffling now, the hands against the back of his legs annoying him with their rhythmical slap-slap-slap, his hand stinging despite the cold. He looked at it; blistered and sore. It would be painful driving his Ski-doo back to the base.
Ski-doos. He had to be close by now. He staggered sideways, his burden slipping from his shoulder as he fell to his knees. Alec; pupils reactive, pulse rapid but not irregular, breathing normal, temperature…. well that was impossible to determine. A livid bruise on his forehead as well. No other visible injuries.
Straker stood up, rubbing his arms in an effort to bring some slight warmth back to his body. A flash of silver caught his attention and he looked across, shading his eyes as he stared at the later-than-midnight sun. It would not set tonight, and neither would he. ‘No rest for the wicked, Colonel. Come on.’
Straker wrapped the sleeping bag around Alec, tucking it in with care then covering the man with the sheepskin mat to leave no bare skin exposed. He forced himself to eat some more chocolate and finish his energy drink before settling himself in the driving seat of the Ski-doo. Alec would be more than warm enough and Straker was no longer cold, though the Colonel’s parka was a little on the large size for him and the bloodstains an unpleasant reminder of the past few hours. He had chosen the more powerful two-man vehicle after discarding the larger sledge and putting Alec on the lighter one once he’d dumped all superfluous equipment. If it was necessary, he would manage with the one-man tent. There was room enough for two inside at a pinch, but he was going to drive as long as possible, through the nights until he could get a message patched through to base and get the Aerocopter out to collect them both. The good news was that Alec had roused a couple of times, not much, but enough to give Straker hope that they would both survive.
And when they got back he would read Alec’s report, and decide what to do. Probably nothing. Damn Colonel Freeman. Straker would have grinned, but his lips were too cracked and weather-burned, so he contented himself with starting the engine and preparing to tow the slender sledge with its precious cargo safely on board.
Ten million dollars? A pittance compared to the life of a man, the life of his colleague. His friend. One last look at his watch. It was just three in the morning; and the day? He frowned. November the first. So yesterday was Hallowe’en.
He twisted the throttle, hissing as his blistered fingers complained, and then the Ski-doo and its sledge headed out, leaving the horror behind.
This story was in my mind for a while. The image of Morton stretching out his fingers, his mouth open and full of black liquid was the initial ‘idea’ for a Hallowe’en story although I had no concrete plan in mind. But on October 19th I was researching into eclipses for something totally different and I discovered that on that very day there was a penumbral solar eclipse visible in Antarctica. And I started writing.
I didn’t really want to kill Morton off, but if I had ‘saved’ him, then the story would have ended up another ten thousand words longer and I simply didn’t have the time for that.