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.