‘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.