Something lies beneath the ice in Wilkes Land, Antactica, a “gravitational anomaly” 115 miles long and beneath millions of tons of ice. The United States government wants it no matter what the cost.
That’s why five prominent scientists find themselves abducted and flying to Antarctica in the dead of winter, with temperatures 100 below and winds whipping ice at 80 miles per hour.
What they find is more than they expected, more than terrifying, more than even they themselves can believe.
Clock time in Antarctica is completely arbitrary. A single day at the pole—from sunrise, morning, noon, evening, sunset, midnight, to the next rosy-fingered dawn—takes an entire year to unfold. Without astronomical markers to divide a day into 24 hours, every expedition to the continent must keep its own time. As long as everyone in a specific camp is referring to the same arbitrary clock time, it doesn’t matter what time it “really is” in the rest of the world. The “rest of the world” itself is a construct in Antarctica, theoretical, irrelevant.
Some countries use UTC, others GMT, and others don’t use any outside reference at all. Those last decide when exactly to begin their 24-hour cycle: watches are synchronized at 00:00 hours and the day is over at the end of 23:59. Like everything else made by men in Antarctica, timekeeping there means nothing to any other living thing on the ice or in the frigid waters around the continent. It means nothing to the ice itself or the slanted sunlight or the cold and the ever-hungry death.
Everything in this story takes place in one 24-hour period. The clock starts at 00:01 and ends at 24:00. Events in the story aren’t presented in a straight line, but instead move back and forth within that “day.” You may find this disorienting as you experience the horror of that entire day.
If so, the author has done his job.
Antarctica never allows the comfort of knowing where you are. In winter, this means you’ll be disoriented, spinning, lost, never knowing exactly where you are when you die.
It is very difficult to fight a battle in absolute darkness.
Or at least absolute to human eyes. Some of the monsters have a distinct advantage over us with their infrared or ultraviolet sight that evolution gave them under a sun that shined in those longer and shorter wavelengths just beyond the human visible spectrum. We have night-vision goggles that bring out the shape of our predators from their heat signature against the –62°C night, but most everyone wearing these either lost their marbles almost immediately or were killed, crushed, eaten alive.
I can’t retrieve the valuable goggles—or the bodies wearing them—since I can’t see a damned thing. Even with our powerful LED lights mounted on our chests, the whipping wind full of dry snow and ice, I can see only a few feet in front of me. The creatures have no trouble snatching and eviscerating a human at that distance.
But we fight the bastards. There is no backup coming in an Antarctic winter, even if our satphones were working. We are utterly alone … except for the predators.
“Hold your fire! They can see us by the flash!” Colonel Ash bellows, his voice barely carrying through the 60-knot wind. The gale is so strong that it’s all any of us can do to remain standing. And if someone falls and slides even a few feet away, the darkness and the flying ice and snow will keep him from ever finding his way back to the group.
“They can see us without the flash!” Chief Ferro—the toughest Navy SEAL left on the team—shouts. “We just need to lay down fire in a circle sweep at knee height so they—GAH! SON OF A BITCH!” Covert Ops soldiers are trained to have a very high pain tolerance. But Ferro’s screams of agony are so loud that they carry through the howling wind.
A wet crunch ends her screaming, and my LED shows only a flash of the Rhiasaurus dragging away my compatriot’s body. I was right next to Ferro, manning a weapon I had never seen before, even in photographs. I blast and blast with no idea if any of the projectiles are hitting the mark. Tracers light up the ammo’s path, illuminating for an instant the many creatures right in our faces. I swing the weapon to where the damned thing was a mere second earlier and let it have it with everything I’ve got.
I scream from the base of my stomach as the recoil batters me with every shot. I don’t even know what I’m shooting at—is it a Jumper, a Cloaker, a Splitter, what? I have to hold the side of my parka hood to keep my face from being cold-scorched right off my head.
There is a primal screech followed by a thud I can feel up through my boots; I hope that’s the monstrous son of a bitch going down for good.
“I said hold your fire, Weaver!” Ash barks at me like I’m one of his underlings. “All hands! Retreat to The Vehicle! Retreat to The Vehicle now!”
I sense rather than truly hear bootsteps on the permafrost running to the all-terrain, all-mechanical transport that looks like an SUV pumped full of steroids and Miracle-Gro. Its tank-like tread enables it to go anywhere as well as provide a firm base on the ice. But it wasn’t made for midnight at the bottom of the world: its super–heavy-duty lights are barely detectable through the slicing wind.
I know I shouldn’t stop long enough to grab them, but my chest light shows that Jones’ infrared goggles were thrown off when he was attacked. I quickly reach down and pull them onto my face.
It is a mistake. My sanity sustains a hairlike crack, making me want to gibber at the sight: half a dozen monsters closer than where the sheets of ice-laden wind wipe out even the infrared. I stifle an honest-to-God scream and just barely keep the contents of my bladder and lower intestines inside me. I see the Rhiasaurus still chewing into a bolus what’s left of Ferro; I see the remaining few of us left running as hell for leather as fast as they can manage in the impossible wind, toward The Vehicle. The one in front must have infrared goggles like mine, since that leader seems like he’s moving in a straight line with a fixed destination in sight.
I can barely see the people—I can’t see The Vehicle itself in the storm. All I can see is the last person trying to run against the wind behind the person who is trying to follow the person in front of him, and I have to believe they’re heading for the transport. The Colonel wasn’t 100 percent correct when he said all of the predators can see us without the light of a discharging weapon—some of them can, but most of them can’t. The same opaque, battering wind that keeps us humans blind keeps the horrors from seeing us from even a few feet away. But there’s a lot more of them, a lot more, than there are of us.
The green glow of the last running human is almost gone.
If I’m going to make a move, now is the time.
You can’t just “turn around” in this kind of wind—I have to plant my feet pointing in the direction I need and then take a step. Then another, slightly more quickly. Then the first, and again and again until you’re moving at maximum velocity, slower than crawling but damned fast compared to standing still in shock and horror.
A little faster: Step.
Again, moving it: Step.
A giant, gelid-shiny object blocks my path. I’m too close to see what it is, but it is enormous and the heat signature fills my infrared-goggled eyes with phosphor.
I have to stop the tiny bit of forward momentum I had built up, shut off my LED, try not to move even as the wind tries to push me over. Is this thing passing as slow as an eclipsing moon the Rhiasaurus that ate Ferro? Or its mate? Or some other abomination? There was two of everything, almost everything, in that hold.
But I don’t think this is the dinosaur or its mate—it’s too huge. If it weren’t winter here, the thing’s mass would certainly send it sinking into the melting ice. But it is winter, and it seems to be moving just fine for a voracious prehistoric behemoth.
The last of the thing passes … but I have lost any heat trace I had found coming from my compatriots as they made for The Vehicle. There is nothing to be seen except predators. There is nothing to be heard but the wind—
—and the air horn of The Vehicle! It sounds again and again, thank God. I scramble toward the sound—very difficult to do not only because of the force of the wind, but also because that howling wind muffles the air horn enough to make it difficult to tell what direction it’s coming from—and I’m able to finally make out the faint glowing trace of our mechanical beast’s warm engine.
The world’s 24 hours are almost up. The rest of the mission’s survivors won’t wait long.
So I run for it. Or rather, against this unholy wind, I am knocked down hard as soon as one foot is lifted. I have to crawl for it before they leave me for dead.
00:01 UTC (23 Hours Earlier)
The first thing I notice when I regain consciousness is that I am on an airplane. But not a Cessna, not a 747; it’s something I’ve never encountered before. The dimly lit interior is vast, the only seats bolted to the bulkheads on either side. The dips and rumbles tell me the plane is in the sky, but to my slowly focusing eyes it looks like I’m inside an airplane hangar, not an airplane. Reinforcing structures arc across the top. Everything is, at least in the dim light, gray or brown. I am not on a commercial flight. This is a cargo plane. I am lying on the floor in a sleeping bag, next to other occupied sleeping bags.
And, my God, it is cold. This is cold cold, and I hate the frigging cold. That’s why I live and teach in the South, where the mercury rarely drops to 4°C all “winter.”
I crane my stiff neck around to see in a blur what is going on around me, which is not a whole hell of a lot. Many of the seats, facing inward from either side, are taken by serious-looking men and women. Their puffy red jackets look designed for some seriously low temperatures. One man wears a puffy black jacket and an LED light on a strip around his head, like an old-fashioned doctor with a mirror or a coal miner with a mounted head-lamp trying to push back the blackness far below the surface. He is intently studying some stapled pack of papers on a clipboard. No one talks to him. Actually, there is precious little talking at all, except for some barrel-chested men with thick beards making amused conversation too far away for me to pick up on any words.
My head hurts and my body is stiff a hundred different ways inside the thick sleeping bag. I can feel that my glasses are in my shirt pocket. They must have been carefully slipped in there, which makes me think that my captors—
Wait, captors? That might be a bit of a logical leap, even for a scientist who makes his living researching and extrapolating data to make educated guesses about alien life. I’m an exobiologist at [redacted] University, which means that I spend a great deal of time bringing together the disparate fields of biology, geology, astronomy, space science, and any other disciplines I find relevant to making better guesses.
Who would kidnap an exobiologist? The whole area of study is beloved by the media wanting a fun story, but it’s the red-headed stepchild compared to each of its component parts. No one wanting to build a new kind of bomb or end cancer in our time or find a long-theorized particle is turning to the handful of exobiologists occupying faculty offices. Thus, I have to conclude that this is not a kidnapping and I don’t have captors. The question then becomes “Well, what the hell am I doing on a brutally cold cargo plane stuffed to the gills with equipment for a Colonel operation and grim-faced operatives?”
The last thing I remember before waking up in this weird plane is locking up my office for the night and heading out to my Prius in the faculty parking lot, already sweating in the summer day’s leftover heat. Then nothing, then this.
What in the hell is going on? Have I been taken by aliens wanting to thwart me because I got too close to “the truth”? That sounds like full-on tinfoil-hat paranoid schizophrenic. I get letters, emails and calls from the true believers every day, demanding that this exobiologist tell them “the truth” about our alien overlords. I’m not going there. (Spoiler alert: There are no alien overlords. Well, that I know of.)
Also, the people on the cargo plane are just that: people. Not to mention that it’s a cargo plane and not an alien spaceship. I sit up in the sleeping bag and try to unzip it from the inside. I can feel the fob for the zipper, but it’s on the other side of a layer of Gore-Tex. I attempt to speak, but nothing comes out but a raspy squeak. I collect some saliva and force it onto my tongue.
It works. I clear my throat and say clearly, “A little help?”
The burly man with a white streak right down the middle of his beard turns in surprise. “Hey, welcome aboard, amigo!” he shouts over the noise. His accent is somewhere between Scandinavian and British, making the Spanish word sound really weird, and his face is just as inscrutable. “Climb on out of that cocoon and say hi to the rest of the gang!”
I nod at “the gang,” all of whom are taking me in now, and see six smiles and six expressions of wary blankness. I rustle around the sleeping bag, but to no avail. “Can someone spring me from this thing?”
The burly fellow chuckles, unbuckles from his jump seat, and comes over. He says, “Pretty warm in there?”
“I’m sweating a little.”
“Oh, hell,” he says and looks me right in the eye. “This might be … unpleasant.”
“Where the heck am I, anyway? What’s going on?”
“First things first, brother. Brace yourself.”
“Brace myself for wha—” I say as he grabs ahold of the outer zipper fob and yanks it to down to my waist in one superfast move. “JESUS CHRIST ON A POGO STICK!”
Some chuckles even among the grim-faced passengers. They chuckle because they already knew that the inside of the cargo plane is cold. Cold. My slightly damp shirt makes it at least twice as bad as it would have been anyway, and I scream, my mind running the table: heart attack, seizure, frostbite, agonizing horrible death. Once again, I lose the ability to speak, and begin shivering like I’ve been suddenly submerged in a bathtub filled with ice water.
Except ice water is always exactly zero degrees Celsius. The interior of this behemoth machine is at least ten degrees lower than that. This is ten degrees worse than a bathtub filled with ice. Where in the holy hell am I? Where is this plane going, space? I almost laugh as my mind screams OMG I don’t want to say it’s aliens … but it’s aliens … in a spaceship!
I almost laugh. But I’m in too much pain to do anything but shake like a tree during an elephant stampede. “H-help?” I say weakly, the tone rising at the end like it’s a plea. Which I guess it is.
Faster than I can follow what’s happening, my short-sleeve oxford shirt (it was at least 89°F at 8:30 p.m., when I was abducted) is whipped off. Three of my fellow passengers—the burly stripe-bearded man, a weathered but very strong woman a head shorter than anyone else, and a man wearing a balaclava with only his glasses and eyes visible—lug over three heaters with powerful fans and turn them toward me from different directions. The sweat on my exposed skin dries immediately, and before 60 seconds have passed, I’m not shivering in pain anymore. It is bliss.
“Throw these on,” Stripe says (I like anchoring new people in my memory with nicknames) and buries me with a thermal base layer like superpowered long underwear, a layer of fleece, a red cold-weather jacket, and down-filled parka with a waterproof shell. With help, I get these on, and then the process is repeated with my lower half: sleeping bag whipped off to excruciating pain from the cold, the heater fans focused on my legs, momentary bliss, and then I step into the long johns and my lower body is quickly wrapped in the same layered, thick but lightweight, bright red items. A number is in white on each arm of the bright red parka: “51”
As in “Area.” As in hidden space aliens and eldritch government schemes. As in this real exobiologist’s pet peeve, not to mention the cause of those daily contacts from the UFOers and conspiracy theorists. And doubly not to mention the amusement of research grant committees.
They slip moisture-wicking thermal gloves and socks onto me, then shove my hands into a pair of dark green gloves that make my hands look like the Incredible Hulk’s. Another pair of socks made of magically thick-yet-light material go onto my feet, and finally insulated boots with Gene-Simmons–level thick soles. As they help me stand at long last, every muscle and tendon in my 40-year-old academic’s body screams, every joint popping and creaking like the support beams of an abandoned roller coaster. I manage to straighten myself, and finally I can examine my fellow travelers to wherever the hell we are going. Stripe, Suntan, and The Bank Robber check me for stability and then step back.
“Thanks,” I say as mildly as I can. “Now can someone tell me what the hell is going on? Did you all kidnap me? And where … are … we …” I trail off as Stripe points behind me, toward the rear of the plane.
I follow where he’s pointing, and I see at least six sleeping bags with faces framed by the ultra-insulating material. They’re all still asleep—more like unconscious, like I was—and I get a chill even under all my layers.
“Seriously, I’m dreaming, right? I left a fan on and it’s blowing on my bare feet while I sleep and so I’m dreaming about a freezing plane that makes no sense whatsoever.”
“You’re not dreaming, Doctor Weaver,” a deep voice comes from behind me. “You have been drafted into service by the authority of the government of the United States of America.”
I spin around as quickly as I can in my bulky getup, and I see a man’s face, a hard face, a grim face that looks exhausted and ready for action at the same time. He’s what, maybe 55? (Not that much older than I, but he probably hasn’t spent the last twenty years with his only exercise standing at the front of a graduate classroom.) Clean-shaven over angular, pock-marked cheekbones. Gray buzzcut. He couldn’t look more “military operative” if he was burning down a village. “I’ve been … drafted? Into what?”
“That is on a need-to-know basis, Professor.”
“Don’t you think I need to know why I was kidnapped … um, Mister … ?”
“Colonel. You are speaking to Colonel John Ash. United States Air Force.”
Ash? I literally bite my lip to keep myself from making an Evil Dead joke. But I hardly had to stop the words—the Colonel’s steely gaze killed any attempts at humor, gallows or otherwise. And I wasn’t in a particularly jokey mood anyway.
The Colonel didn’t put out his hand to shake, which was probably for the best considering we both were wearing layers of gloves thick enough for a stuntman to land on. “You don’t need to know jack right now. The science draftees will be briefed soon. Information relevant to your role in the operation will be given.”
This is illegal on more levels than I can count. I don’t dare say that, but my mind reels: Does Susan know where I am? The biology department? Does anyone, anywhere at all, know I’m gone? Have I been extraordinarily renditioned? Are we going to Guantanamo Bay? At least that would be warm. The only question I can think of—and believe me, scientists don’t shy from asking questions; never go to a movie with them—is “What operation might that be … um, should I call you ‘sir’ … sir?”
“Stop asking questions.”
My head vibrates in a double-take. “W-What?”
“That’s another question,” the Colonel snaps. “I just told you not to ask those.”
“Do not follow that ‘but’ with another question. I promise you that I will shove my $600 Baffin Impact boot right up your ass,” he says with no more or less menace than when he told me I wasn’t dreaming. “My footwear is rated for minus-100 degrees Centigrade. That’s minus-150 in Fahrenheit, Doctor. Right. Up. Your. Ass.”
I nod, lips shut tight. Drafted? More like enslaved. Like before-the-Fourteenth-Amendment enslaved. But what else can I do? It’s not like he’s going to share one iota of “intelligence” until he damn well feels like it. I decide to keep my ass boot-free as long as possible.
He motions to two of his men—immediately identifiable military men and barks, “Drake, Hudson—wake those lumps and dress ’em. Then get their asses over here, pronto.”
The two airmen do as they were told, quickly and without one unnecessary movement. They lightly shake each of the five “lumps” until the sleeping-bag–wrapped people—I’d bet my sabbatical that they’re other “draftees”—open their eyes and try to speak. Squeaks come out, then raspy coughs, and then finally sit up and feel with shock the extreme cold of the cargo plane. The men shove each person, three men and two women, in the same layered cold-weather kit I was outfitted with.
In just less than a minute, the five bleary-eyed people—three men, two women—are awake and clearly in shock at they took in their surroundings. Bishop and Frost led each, one by one, over to where the Colonel and I are standing. We all look like giant tomatoes in our thick red parkas.
“What in the name of God is going on?” The bespectacled fiftysomething has a well-trimmed white beard and a face pink from the cold. As the airmen Bishop and Frost (a man practically made out of protruding muscles) lead over the rest of the Sleeping Bag Brigade, I notice that everyone’s face is pink—and mine must be as well. It is literally as cold as a walk-in freezer in here.
“Relax, Doctor Stanton,” Colonel Ash says in the least relaxing tone I have ever heard. “Our men are leading your colleagues to join us. I will begin your mission briefing at that time.”
“Mission? Who are you? Who are these other people? Why are we on a plane? Why is it so goddamn cold?”
I cringe. That’s a lot of questions. I whisper to him, “He doesn’t like questions.”
“Secure that chatter, Doctor Weaver,” Ash snaps, then says to Stanton, “I don’t like questions.”
As Bishop, a female airman who looks a bit green, brings the last of the five new recruits to the party. The white-bearded Doctor Stanton scoffs at Colonel Ash’s dismissal of his questions and says, “Surely, you know that those of us in academia are committed to the asking of questions? Now, let’s try again: Who are—”
“Doctor Stanton,” the stone-faced Ash interrupts, “would you please be so kind as to pull back the hood of your parka? We may be getting a bit overwarm with all this gear on.” He must be warm, since he starts removing his two layers of gloves as he speaks.
Stanton looks like he’s going to make a wisecrack about the irony of Ash asking questions, but he plainly decides it’s not worth it. He pushes the hood off his head, revealing thick brown hair at the sides, perhaps to compensate for the complete lack on top. He fixes Ash with a querulous expression—
—and then the Colonel slaps him across the face with an open hand.
“Jesus Christ!” yelps a woman’s voice from under one of the other parkas. “What in the world is going on here?” She pulls back her hood to reveal long black hair disappearing into the collar of her gear.
“Doctor Vasquez, I advise you not to ask questions.”
She stares at Doctor Stanton, who hasn’t made a sound since Ash slapped him. He has finally straightened from the twist of his body forced with the assault, but there are tears of pain and humiliation in his eyes.
Doctor Vasquez nods curtly at the Colonel’s instructions, not meeting his eyes.
“Does anyone else have a question?” He’s met with a complete lack of anyone making a single peep. “Very good. Lieutenant McCall—come assist me with the briefing of the indoor kids.”
McCall, a small but intense-looking woman with a black pixie haircut, is by her superior’s side almost immediately. “Sir,” she says with great clarity even in the loud hum of the cargo plane’s engines.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ash begins without a trace of welcome or warmth, “I will now give you the information about this mission that I deem necessary for you to know at this time. Your questions will be ignored. Do not ask them.
“Who am I? I am Colonel Ash. I have spent thirty years in the United States Air Force. Many of those years have been utilized toward the mission we now undertake.”
I take in my compatriots, and indeed, no matter what race, we are each plainly an “indoor kid.” I now see that we are six academics, professors, scientists. Well, five—Vasquez is something different, I can tell just by her glasses and what’s left of the makeup she must have been wearing when they grabbed her. She looks more hale and hearty than the rest of us, but she has the bearing of an educated professional, serious and calm. (If I were in a joking situation, I would say I can tell the difference because she seems to lack the crushed and soiled soul of a university lecturer.)
“What is this mission? Human explorers and, later, satellites have been continuously measuring gravitational fluctuations over Antarctica since 1962.”
All six of us visibly flinch at the last word, each simultaneously connecting Antarctica with the extreme cold on board the cavernous airplane. The eyes under parka hoods goggle with anxiety, even fear. I can’t tell you what my eyes look like, but I can say that the rest of me wants to throw up.
“We have for years detected the existence of and gathered information about a very large density anomaly under more than a mile of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.” He fixes his eyes on the man he had just abused. “Doctor Stanton may now see why his expertise is needed.”
Stanton doesn’t acknowledge the mention of his name. In fact, he stays utterly silent as well as perfectly still. It’s while I’m subtly observing his lack of reaction that it hits me—I’ve written a paper with this man! He’s one of the world’s most influential research geologists. I’d be willing to bet that Stanton has forgotten much more about the continent of Antarctica than the Colonel (or the rest of us) has ever learned. So, yes, I agree silently that Stanton’s knowledge would be vital to such a mission … but I have absolutely no idea why they Stanton has been dragged here in the flesh. He’s hardly frail, but he seems a bit aged for a covert operation to the harshest place on Earth.
The Asian scientist raises his hand politely. At Ash’s glare, he says in as neutral a tone as I’ve ever heard, “Colonel Ash, I do not have a question.”
“Good,” Ash says and moves to continue his briefing.
“But I do have a declarative statement: My field is theoretical fluid dynamics—”
“Just say ‘meteorologist,’ Doctor Yutani. This isn’t a tenure committee meeting. You don’t need to dazzle us with your utter brilliance.”
Yutani clears his throat and continues. “As you say, I am a research meteorologist. But it doesn’t take a PhD in theoretical fluid dyn—sorry, meteorology—to know that it’s July, the dead of winter in the antipodes. It is not possible to conduct any field research, or, rather, go running around the continent on a so-called ‘mission,’ in July in Antarctica. No question about it.”
That was clever. I wonder if Yutani is next in line for an open-handed slap across the face.
“What you say is true, Doctor.” Ash looks first at him, then takes the rest of us in, with an inscrutable expression. “There is nowhere on Earth more deadly than Antarctica in winter.”
His matter-of-fact tone puzzles everyone—just as he intended, I’m sure.
“However, you should all think twice about whining about how ‘impossible’ it is to do anything but hide inside a research station until the run rises in a few months. Instead, understand that this ‘so-called mission’ must be of vital, urgent national interest. Of global interest. Otherwise, we could wait for the balmy twenty degrees below zero Fahrenheit in January. You are the most accomplished experts in your areas of relevant science. You must come to the logical conclusion that this expedition is happening now because spring will be too late.”
We scientists exchange glances of dread mixed with undeniable curiosity. What role could we possibly play in such an international emergency? Yutani was right when he said theoretical fluid dynamics—he’s probably more comfortable with a chalkboard and computer simulations than he is walking in the rain to his parking spot. My field, exobiology, is entirely theoretical, extrapolating data and speculative ideas from Earth-based biology, geology, meteorology, and more to speculate what extraterrestrial life might be like. Stanton has probably spent more time writing theory-based papers with people like me than he ever spent out in the field. Whatever the others do, I’m willing to bet that they do it in complete comfort and convenience—the direct opposite of the Antarctic.
Utter darkness, outer-space cold, abduction and enslavement by the government.
I should’ve listened to my dad. I should’ve become a plumber.