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.