The world is full of extreme environments. Places where human life is impossible. Places where no sane people go.
Mount Everest. Highest peak in the world. How many people have died climbing it?
Death Valley. Hottest place on earth. It hardly needs to be pointed out how it got its name.
The Mariana Trench. So deep that water is actually notably compressed by the pressure.
And Lake Vostok. Beneath a four kilometer-deep glacier on the surface of Antarctica. The land above Lake Vostok is dark continuously from late April till late August. During the polar winter, the temperature averages -70 degrees celsius, and has been recorded as low as close to -90. The coldest wind chill measured down to -130 degrees Celsius. That is closer to the boiling point of nitrogen than the freezing point of water. It is nearly two miles above sea level, with the altitude sickness to prove it. And the wind never, ever stops.
People summit Everest for the sake of having impressive pictures to show to their rich friends. Two manned descents into the Mariana Trench have been made, one of them by James Cameron- funded, I am sure, entirely by Avatar. Over a million people visit Death Valley National Park every year, and it is inhabited by an actual tribe of Indians whose existence has been threatened more by the US Federal Government than the conditions of Death Valley, which says all you really need to know about humanity.
And in Station Vostok, over the winter, thirteen lonely, maladjusted, and supremely tolerant Russian scientists spend their time keeping an eye on a dead continent.
What does it say about human nature that we are so effortlessly seduced by these scenes of desolation? Why do we find such beauty in places where we can barely survive? Is it thrill-seeking, the adrenaline rush of visiting somewhere where we are not welcome, where we are not meant to be? Is it the desire to face our own deaths, know that we are protected only by a thin shell of technology and technique? Perhaps it is the simple rarity; so few people see these places and return. Or perhaps we go to these places when we’re running from something even worse.
“Ey, Lucky Charms.”
Vladimir- eleven of the men shared three names in the base, Vladimir, Dmitry, and Mikhail, and they never wore their own jumpsuits so nobody bothered to learn anyone’s name- grinned at me, his heavily accented English cheerful. Everyone called me Lucky Charms, for changing the number of inhabitants from 13 to 14, and also possibly because of my Irish last name. Listening to them attempt my real name was like listening to a cat try to sing a basso profundo opera, and almost as cruel, so I’d settled for the nickname. It could’ve been worse. They could’ve called me ‘You’.
“What’s up, Vladimir?”
“It’s Dmitry, man, when you gonna learn?” He flashed me a good-natured grin, and I did the same. It was a rite, or a test, or just a way to pass the time, really. They watched to see how much ribbing I could take. These questions became desperately important when ‘going outside for a smoke’ was a synonym for suicide, and the closest hospital was nearly two weeks away by Tucker Sno-Cat, with escape further away still. People needed to be mentally stable here.
“You know me, Mikhail. I can’t tell anyone apart.”
He barked out a laugh, and there was a hint of vodka to it. “That why you play the games with all those girls with the colorful hair? Makes them easier to tell apart?”
“Of course. And hey, you’re in no place to complain, we’ve all sat around the mess table laughing at the stuff you call pornography. I didn’t know women could be that hairy.”
“Ah, well, you know, not under normal circumstances, but with the right drugs.” He grinned. “The Commissar has a job for you. One of the weather stations has been sending back some nonsense reports. He needs you to drive Mikhail there.”
“Bald Mikhail, Skinny Mikhail, or Disgusting Pervert Mikhail?”
“Disgusting Pervert Mikhail, of course!”
“Trick question, we’re all disgusting perverts.”
With another roar of laughter, the man slapped me on the shoulder. I was not a particularly social or public person, but I was easy to get along with, and relaxed. That was worth its weight in gold on the Antarctic glacier. I held no grudges and nothing got me angry. Not anymore.
It doesn’t really matter why. So she cheated on me. So what? It happens to a lot of guys. And they don’t run off to Antarctica. I was just kind of a mess from the beginning.
I opened my door, and slid into the small cubicle. During the summer, people had to double up and hot-bunk. During the winter, we had the dubious luxury of rooms to ourselves. It wasn’t exactly spacious, but there was room for my laptop, the handful of posters, and the figurines.
Yeah, the image of me is already starting to come through, isn’t it? I’m betting you’re imagining a lot of anonymous shit-posting and some really depressing school stories. But I try to be a decent person. I didn’t hate all women for what had happened. I didn’t even hate her. It was a lot easier just to hate myself.
I turned towards the corner, and studied the painting canvas. My most recent work sat on it. I’d avoided the rookie mistake of not bringing along enough white paint; what I had not considered was the darkness. I’d run out of black paint two weeks into the winter, and had been forced to get creative. My fingertips drew across the landscape. It had been an aurora australis- the Southern Lights. I’d climbed into the Sno-Cat, and painted for four hours, until my clothes weren’t keeping the chill out anymore. The dim greens and reds had been utterly spectacular, though dim. It had been unexpected. You never got auroras right at the geomagnetic pole- usually, they appear in a band 10 to 20 degrees out. All the scientists had been excited. They’d observed like hell, and come to absolutely no conclusions.
Things didn’t have to have a reason. Sometimes, they just happened, and you didn’t need to understand them to find them beautiful.
But I’ll be honest. I fucking hated painting. I took it up for all the wrong reasons.
I carefully shut the computer. A selection of several vintage dating games sat on the shelf. I didn’t need the boxes, but the possessions were soothing in a way that another person never could be. I trailed my fingers over them like you might fondle a lover, and then shook my head. I needed to get the Sno-Cat ready. I grabbed the small tablet, charged and ready, and slid it into my jacket. Layer after layer went on, enough to keep the bitter cold at bay for a little while. I could do some reading in the meantime, until Disgusting Pervert Mikhail figured out what was wrong with the weather station.
Starting up the Sno-Cat was a simple matter of maintenance checks. A simple checklist, a simple job. Important, obviously- if there was something wrong with the Sno-Cat, if we got stranded, best case was a lengthy and difficult towing mission. Worst case was a gruesome death out on the ice. The weather station was only about a kilometer away from the station, but that was still far enough to be a death sentence.
A lot of things were a death sentence in this kind of environment, but the funny thing was, that was what made it safe. We all knew what we had to do, knew how we had to behave to survive. It was a rote avoidance of catastrophes. A safe, predictable kind of day-to-day life. Like being in prison or on board a ship, it let you escape your memories and throw yourself into what you liked. Sometimes, it felt like my past life had been a dream.
I was still petitioning the Commissar to let me stay on another year at the end of this winter. It was the rare man who persuaded him of anything, the gruff head of the research team whose real name was forgotten, and who looked like Santa Claus’ violently psychotic brother who didn’t get along with the rest of the Claus family.
I was surprised when the man who waltzed out to the Sno-Cat was not Dmitry, Mikhail, or even Vladimir, but Otto. Otto was probably the second youngest, after me. Twitchy, and brilliant. He had graduated from college two years early, become a professor at the age of twenty-six, and had then run down to the South Pole. I could almost swear that he talked to himself, but I wasn’t entirely sure there wasn’t someone listening. And perhaps most importantly, he had absolutely no expertise in meteorology, or engineering. He wouldn’t know the first thing to do with the weather station.
“What’s up, Otto?” I asked, smiling pleasantly, wondering if this was the beginning of a horror movie. He flashed me a quick smile.
“Got to go fix up the weather station, like the Commissar said. Come on, let’s get going.”
I started up the engine on the Sno-Cat, and let it idle for a moment, before giving Otto a long, slow look. “You know as much about fixing up that weather station than you do about pleasing a woman, Otto, and the weather station is even less forgiving. What’s going on? Where’s Mikhail?”
He gave me a quick, hunted look, and stared at me for a few seconds, his expression unusually analytical. Then he took a deep breath. “I know how to fix it because I’m the one who messed it up. I patched a little program in through the remote signal. Easy peasy to fix, but gives us a reason to check it out. There’s something out there, Lucky Charms. Something huge, both physically, and in importance to the world. It showed up in my… calculations, after the aurora. I think it could change everything. So I bribed Mikhail, in exchange for being the one sent out there.”
“Otto, you know why we have the weekly horror movie marathon?”
“Oh, come on, it’ll be perfectly safe! We go out, do some deep-penetrating sonar tests, and if I win the Nobel prize, I’ll have you neck-deep in Swedish pussy before you know it.”
I sighed, and rolled my eyes. There were a few reasons not to go along with this, first and foremost that Otto was acting a little bit crazy. But another part of me simply didn’t care enough to turn him down. I started up the Sno-Cat. “I’ll settle for half the Nobel Prize money.”
“Alright, but it doesn’t go as far as it used to.”
The two of us began driving. It wasn’t a long drive, but there were no long drives around here. For all its fearsomeness, the glacier was largely level. There wasn’t much in the way of treacherous ice or hidden caves. The conditions were too steadily ferocious down here to allow for much in the way of deviation or shift. There was less than an inch of precipitation a year here.
Lake Vostok is an enigma, in many ways. What are the odds that so many factors would combine to make this strange place? A lake that rivals some of the hugest on the planet, buried beneath one of the thickest, most inaccessible glacier sheets in existence, so close to the Geomagnetic Pole- there were so many strange things about Lake Vostok that it was difficult to know where to begin with it. But there wasn’t some grand mystery behind it all. It was just a coincidence. That was life, basically. A bunch of random shit.
Maybe that was why I liked the visual novels. In them, life was simple. You learned about someone, you were able to understand them easily, and the choices were almost always obvious. When people were broken, you could help fix them. You could get close to them. And the story always ended before things wound up going bad. They were perfect.
They were perfect because they weren’t real. They were just whatever you wanted them to be. There wasn’t anything like that for me. It was better for me to be alone and fantasizing. Not hurting anything.
“So,” I said, to get myself out of the funk. “What kind of ‘thing’ are you expecting to find out there?”
“An anomaly. Magnetic.”
“Otto, so help me god, if we get out there and find a buried spaceship and some terrifying thing in the ice, I am driving us right back immediately, you dig?”
“Yes, yes. I expect it is nothing of the sort.” He smiled, and rested a hand on his chest. I nearly jumped as his pet rat skittered out of his sleeve, standing on top of his hand, tail curling around his fingers. It was a laboratory rat, one of the brilliant albino kind, its fur snow white, its unusually short tail naked, its eyes brilliant red. “It is going to be something spectacular. Of that, I am certain.”
“Don’t know how the hell you manage to get the Commissar to let you keep that thing,” I murmured. “Scares the hell out of me.”
“Oh, little Maxwell here would not hurt a fly!” He smiled warmly, and stroked the rat’s ears. It let out a happy little chitter, before hopping towards the neck of the jacket, and scurrying inside. I shivered. “Come now, we all need a bit of living contact. And a rat is easier to hide than a dog!”
Otto had once given me a lengthy explanation of the nature of laboratory rats, their strains and stocks, the different breeds and what made them unique. I had forgotten all of it, and was a better man for that fact. I wasn’t entirely clear on what his field of study was. He spoke in very guarded terms, and I’d never actually seen him working alongside any of the others. For all I knew, he could be some kind of KGB spook; not that something that exciting and unusual would ever happen.
I pulled up to a stop at the edge of the ridge where the weather station should be, and stared. Approaching the ridge, there had been no sign of the bright red light that should be steadily pulsing. That could be indicative of many things. The power supply could have failed. The LED might have gone out. I might have been off course, approaching the wrong hill in the abyssal darkness. It could have been any number of perfectly ordinary, unfrightening things.
Instead, the ridge ended in a jagged cliff, the light beaming down into… nothing. There was nothing visible on the other side. No moon, no light able to penetrate all the way down. It was as though the world came to a sudden and violent end, and had taken the weather station with it.
“My god,” murmured Otto.
“Otto, I think this is the kind of situation where we should turn around immediately.” I turned the Sno-Cat’s wheel, and Otto rested a hand on my arm.
“Just a quick look. Imagine what we may find out there.”
“I’m trying desperately not to.”
He unlatched the door, and stepped out into the arctic night. The rat leapt out of his jacket, and sat on the dashboard, watching with what might almost have been concern as he closed the door behind him. I watched, similarly disturbed.
Yes, I watch a lot of horror movies. Yes, I know life is not in fact a horror movie, that scientific exploration rarely leads to unleashing things man was not meant to know, and that this was probably just some quirk of glacial seismology that had caused the crevasse. Nothing but another stack of coincidences, like Lake Vostok itself. But my instincts were telling me to watch out. To be prepared for the danger that was coming.
“You don’t like this any more than I do, do you?” I asked the rat.
It turned towards me, and very deliberately shook its head. I stared for a long few seconds, and then looked back out the window. Otto was holding a tiny black object on a string. After peering for a moment, I realized that it was a tiny bar magnet, spinning wildly on the string. I stared for a moment, and then lifted my tablet up, losing myself in a good light novel.
Maybe it’s just human nature to dream about someone strange and exotic who brings a new light into your life. Wanting someone to rescue you from your existence, to give you the impetus and the strength and the dedication you need to make something out of your life. We all want someone to give our lives meaning, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen. You don’t get some magical girlfriend dropping out of the sky to fill your life with excitement and wonder.
I looked up. Otto was doing something that resembled a rain dance, though he might just be trying to keep warm. I had absolutely no idea how he was dealing with the cold out there. The open mouth of the crevasse stood there.
Just my luck that my life would turn out to be a story, and instead of being a romantic comedy, it was a goddamn Lovecraft novel. But what else could I have been expecting from Antarctica?
My even being here was a fluke. There was a great deal of competition for these spots, and an even greater degree of culling. I’d been confirmed for a position as a driver, after the psychological evaluations said I could handle living down here. And I’d proven I was able to get along down here. It was a simple life, but it was about all I was prepared to handle, for the time being. When it ended, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I didn’t have anyone, anymore. I didn’t want to see my family ever again. No friends after the time I’d spent isolated away. Maybe I’d just walk out onto the glacier the last day I was here. Stay here forever. Freezing to death was supposed to be a relatively pleasant way to die. And it wouldn’t take long out here.
There was an involuntary shiver down my spine. I’d never disclosed any of those particular thoughts to anyone else. It wasn’t ever something you could tell someone about. It tainted you in people’s eyes if they knew you had suicidal thoughts. I’d let my girlfriend know once, when I was in a bad place, and-
Well, no need to explain how that ended up. I returned to the novel, ignoring the low rushing sound of the wind, right up until the moment when Maxwell bit me on the knuckle.
“Motherfucker!” I shook my hand, and the rat danced back, bouncing on its hind legs, chittering wildly. “You little-“ It was waving its paws and tail towards the window. I looked up.
The thing loomed in the darkness, barely visible from the light reflecting off of the snow. Massive, burly, muscular, vaguely humanoid- but only vaguely. It had no body hair. Its stomach was pale white, and the rest of it disappeared into the night, a black so deep that it was impossible to tell. I thought I saw the curve of something on its back. It carried a great flint knife in one hand, and had to have been eight feet tall. It stood over Otto, one massive hand wrapped around the scientist’s throat.
I threw open the door, and rushed at the thing, without a real plan in mind. I was only about twenty feet away, and I crossed the ground surprisingly quickly, cleated boots digging into the hard pack ice. The thing turned towards me, opening its mouth, revealing way too many sharp, conical teeth, and bellowed something, but I couldn’t catch what it said through the wind. I struck it in the midsection. It was the only thing close to a combat technique I knew.
In any other situation, this would’ve been the point where I took the knife in the neck and died a humiliating death, having accomplished nothing. [Bad End]. Yet like a Type/Moon storyline, fortune appeared to favor the suicidal. The creature’s bare feet slid across the glare ice an inch or two. It stumbled back, on the edge of the precipice. There was a crunch, and a large shelf of ice supporting us broke. The creature fell. Otto fell. I fell.
The fall was a dizzying thing. The surface of the cliff face leading down was at an angle, and slick and smooth. That’s the only thing that saved my life. Even so, it was steep, and we twirled down it at high speed, falling deeper, and deeper into the crevice.
Falling is terrifying enough. This prolonged that experience. Tumbling end over end, occasionally spun, striking bumps hard enough to jar my teeth, and it kept going, and going, the darkness growing.
And then in the distance, there was a light—
I came to, breathing sharply. That was a surprise. My chest ached, but it was a dull pain, more of a bruise than a broken bone. I carefully began to test out every limb, shaking myself out. I felt as though someone had mistaken me for a red-headed mule, but I could move. Achy, stiff, my extremities chilly from the lack of movement. The cavern I was in was cold. Not nearly as cold as the surface- I would die in hours, rather than minutes, down here. I looked up, and was able to see the steep slope up the wall. There was absolutely no chance I was getting out through there. It was at least seventy or eighty degrees of smooth ice, leading who knew how far up.
I could see. I realized how odd that was. There was a distant luminescence that was evanescing through the walls of ice. It lit everything from within, casting a diffuse light. Like something out of a fantasy novel where the author had wanted to explain the characters being able to see in an underground cavern. They needn’t have bothered; I took out the survival LED flashlight from my jacket, and used it to get a better look around.
Otto was there. Unconscious, but breathing. There was a rather nasty bump on his head, and I felt a little strip of panic at the thought of him dying. But then, it wasn’t looking like either of us were getting away alive from this.
The thing had fallen on its knife. It lay on its back, the massive hilt protruding from its chest. Tiny, beady, sunken eyes stared sightlessly up at the cavern roof. Shockingly red blood ran down its chest, across its fingertips, and onto the ice. Its fingers were smudged with the stuff, and it had scribbled something down in an unfamiliar language of runes I didn’t recognize.
What surprised me most was how close to human it was. Bipedal, though substantially larger and more muscular than a human would be. Its face was human-like, though the blow-hole and the flat features were a bit uncanny valley. It wore a tight loincloth, made out of some curious slick leather, like shark-hide. And the runes practically shouted it was intelligent.
Despite my fondness for those stories, I was not the protagonist of some Lovecraft story, given to horrific existential dread in the face of such things. It was weird, and a bit sad. That was all. No sanity-blasting here. I had larger things to worry about, like trying to ensure that Otto and I survived long enough to need therapy. Trying to make sure we didn’t become just another poignant moment in some asshole’s life.
Isn’t that always the way? You joke about wanting to die, and then life goes and gives you a perfect opportunity, and you find that you’d rather fight and scream to the very end. Death doesn’t look nearly so pretty and inviting when it comes up and introduces itself to you.
The weather station was visible nearby, its red light twinkling among the wreckage. No heat to be had there. It did have the emergency space blanket stored in a cache beneath it. I could use that to drag Otto, and keep him warm while I searched for that light, and hoped that whatever it was would prove warm enough to let us survive. From there- well, fuck. I didn’t know. I was operating on pure survival mode. Who knew how long it would be before some kind of rescue expedition could even be managed? We were probably dead no matter what, but I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.
First time for everything.
I gave the corpse of the fish man a brief look, and considered how desperate I might become for food. It was likely that I’d die of dehydration or the sheer, mind-numbing cold first, so I’d be spared that particular horror. I took hold of the flint knife’s handle with both hands, and began tugging at it. It was nauseating, watching the blood dripping down the creature’s chest, hearing the sound of the stone scraping bone and tearing meat, but I overcame the nausea, and was rewarded with some meager form of defense. It was heavy, dense, and notably primitive, but it would do the job I needed it to. I used it to slash the space blanket enough to give it a pair of straps I could carry, while remaining a space blanket.
I thought of Maxwell, the little rat sat in the cab. I wondered if anyone would come to rescue him. I actually felt worse for him than me and Otto. At least Maxwell had probably never done anyone any harm. He didn’t deserve to die, and I wasn’t sure I could say the same for me and Otto.
Nevertheless, I lifted Otto onto the space blanket, and began to pull.
The chill down here was just this side of bearable. Cold, bitterly so, but the kind of cold humans could conceivably defend against, with the proper technology. As long as I was moving, I wouldn’t freeze to death. I’d just be damned uncomfortable. Give it more than an hour, frostbite would probably start to set in.
“Fuck!” I yelled, into the cavern. The words reverberated off the walls, twisting and shifting each time they rebounded off the walls, filling the air with strange and contorted echoes. It stopped sounding like human speech a long time before it died away. Any momentary relief I experienced from the outburst was definitely undone by the sheer eeriness of that sound. The caves twisted and contorted, but they never split. It was like the passage of some unimaginably huge worm-
Fucking fantastic, now I was going to be paranoid about that while I died. The human imagination was an awful thing sometimes, especially when it had nothing better to do than terrorize you for lack of stimulus.
The cavern suddenly opened up. We weren’t down to Lake Vostok yet- the floor was still ice. But what we came across…
The idea of there having ever been life- something capable of building- in Lake Vostok had not occurred to anyone. It was ridiculous. The sonar scans would have picked it up. Any building material would stand out from the ice obviously. I’d thought, anyway.
The massive structures before me made me think again.
The cavern had to be at least a mile across, and several hundred feet tall. The structures within were not built inside the structure. They pierced it through, and so smoothly- ice encrusting their sides, turning them into stalactites and stalagmites of truly epic scope- that they might actually predate the glacier.
I knew a little something about how violent a glacier was. They could plough out entire continents, tearing open huge gashes in the surface of the earth. There was not a single hint that any of these buildings had been disturbed by the passage. No shattered structures. They were perfect. Preserved. Cyclopean, as the man had loved to call them; so big as to defy reality.
I still didn’t lose it like some god damn Lovecraftian protagonist. It was big, sure, but I’d seen New York City. I’d seen Dubai. This wasn’t something I couldn’t handle. I set my feet in, and kept dragging Otto. Among the ancient, ice-encrusted buildings. I considered trying to break into one, seeking- well, who the hell knew- but the ice was at least a yard thick. No salvation likely to be found there.
It wasn’t until I reached the source of light that I lost it. I fell down onto my knees, staring up, and my mind rebelled.
It was a familiar enough statue. Fifty feet tall, and even that was probably smaller than the real thing. Winged. Loathsome. Tentacles hanging down where a mouth should be. Claws, which could only be described as ‘flabby’. Great conduits were a part of the statue, like tribal tattoos carved into the god depicted there. They spread out through the city. Lighting it. Providing some kind of energy. And producing absolutely no heat, whatsoever. I was going to die here, and so was Otto, and we’d do it under the face of a fucking fictional alien god.
I saw, scattered around the statue’s feet, bodies. More like the thing that had jumped us. Some were fish-like, others more unfamiliar. They carried flint weapons and wore little clothing, all of it extremely tight. Ice had dripped over them, entombing them like some bizarre Antarctic mummification. Some of them had been frozen in positions of pain, and anguish- lost limbs, gutted, mortally wounded. The rest were on their knees, outstretched, foreheads pressed against the ground, arms outstretched towards the idol. It was terrible.
I turned, and nearly screamed. The only thing that stopped me was the growing sense of enervation spreading out through my limbs. So I simply stared, mutely, at the creature.
It was a shoggoth. Impossible though that was. Absurd though that was. Fucking comical though that was, it was undeniably a shoggoth. Massive, perhaps fifteen feet across, a mound of black sludge, glittering eyes visible beneath the coating of ice. Brilliant and yellow. It was staring directly at me from its icy prison.
Then, I realized, it was not. I took a step to the side, and the eyes did not follow me. They were still on the great statue. I saw numerous flint-bladed knives driven into the creature’s bulk, and virulent green lines grew out from those points. Like it had been poisoned.
I approached, carefully, and stared at it. I reached out, and rested a hand on the ice for just a moment.
And a loud crack, like a gunshot, filled the air. A fracture appeared in the ice, and black sludge began to drip forth.
Cursing myself, I stumbled back, and fell, tripping over Otto and onto the ground, as a large portion of the black sludge leaking out. My head spun, my arms growing heavy, my head sinking, even as adrenaline sang uselessly in my veins, trying to give me the energy to leap, scream, throw the knife, and then die horribly. My vision faded as my eyelids sagged, my head falling back. I saw as the thing became a figure, humanoid, pitch-black, and…
The last thing I thought, as my vision faded away, my brain desperately packing as much activity as it could into the last seconds of life, was ‘She’s stacked.’
The creature leaned forward, and rested a gentle hand on the side of my head as I passed out, and warmth flooded through my body.
I started awake, and gasped, breathing hard. I stared around. I was in the cab of the Sno-Cat. Otto sat next to me. I peered blearily at the tablet sitting on the desk. Three or four hours had passed. The space blanket had been spread across the both of us.
For a single, glorious moment I wondered if it had been a bad dream of some kind, if I’d just fallen asleep and Otto had been too polite to wake me. The knot on his head dissuaded me of that notion, as did the bruised aching feeling returning to my body as I warmed up. I stared out at the empty crevasse.
I turned the Sno-Cat right around, and drove back towards the camp at top speed, noting as I did that Maxwell was perched on top of Otto’s head, shaking violently.