I spent a very long time outside the Commissar’s small office, trying to figure out the right path.
That’s the thing about horror movies, and stories in general. There are a lot of paths in them, but the ones the protagonists take are almost never right. It’s kind of the opposite of a dating game; watching someone make choices, and always knowing that they’re doing the worst possible thing in a given situation. You sit there, and watch them, and you scream at them that they’re making the wrong choice, and it’s all so obvious. Except it’s a story, and whatever choice they make is the wrong one, because the author has a grudge against those poor sons of bitches.
And in real life, the difference between the right choice and the wrong choice is always so damn murky.
Take this, for example. I see something impossible, and then some more impossible things, and then a bunch of other impossible things, all of which strongly suggest that I- the guy with At The Mountains of Madness prominently displayed on his bookshelf- may have allowed my imagination to get away from me. What do I do?
Idiot protagonist possibility number one: Immediately go to the Commissar and start gibbering about shoggoths and ruined cities, and look like a total numbskull, and wind up getting ignored until at least half of the crew has been devoured.
Idiot protagonist possibility number two: Keep it to myself, fearful of sounding crazy, and wind up watching as the rest of the crew gets eaten.
Idiot protagonist possibility number three: Soft-sell it, get the rest of the crew interested enough in the crevasse without also making sure that they bring along some weapon or some goddamn thing to stop whatever we might ruin into.
Idiot protagonist possibility number four: Be too evasive, wind up becoming the sole suspect in the whole ‘Otto nearly got his skull caved in’ fiasco, get locked in brig or my room, watch as the rest of the crew gets eaten.
Brilliant protagonist: ???
If I still had the damn knife, it would be at least somewhat easier. It would corroborate part of my story. But there had been no sign of it in the Sno-Cat. I wondered about that. The shadowy figure was the only explanation I had for how we’d been returned. Had it acted out of the goodness of its heart? That seemed like a damn longshot, and not something I’d want to bet the continued existence of humanity on. Had it wanted a ride back? Was it biding its time, waiting for a chance to return to the mainland? But in that case, why leave me alive? Would I even know if it had subsumed, or corrupted, or… whatever’d me?
I’d tried using a hot needle to jab myself when I got back, and there hadn’t been any reaction besides the predictable cursing. Otto was still in the small clinic, being watched over by the only person with any medical training. The medic- Mikhail, maybe- had told me it looked good, that there were no signs of a concussion, and in fact that there were no signs of any serious injuries in either of us.
My toes should have been goners, hiking through that ice. But my feet looked healthy. That all rang alarm bells in my head. But I still didn’t know how to handle it.
Some people believe that life is one long predestined path. That you can only end up in one place, and that it’s fated. I don’t buy that for a second. I think choices matter a lot, and they can place you in wildly different end points. The problem is, it isn’t always clear which choice leads where. If it were, visual novels wouldn’t need walkthroughs. Sometimes, you’d failed long ago, and you just hadn’t realized it yet. A bad ending was already inevitable, but you kept squirming wildly, hoping and praying that you would be able to stay ahead of it.
The door swung open, and Bald Mikhail stepped through, glaring over his shoulder. “I’m telling you, if the damn panties don’t show up in my locker, by tomorrow goddamn morning, I’m going to be pissed!” He turned towards me, and nodded brusquely. “What kind of world do we live in where a man’s frilly delicates can be snatched out of his locker, with no regard for the man’s privacy or well being, Lucky?!”
The Commissar sat in the office beyond. It was perhaps eight feet on a side, just barely large enough for the desk. A Soviet Union-era flag sat behind him on the wall, which was especially amusing because the Commissar- as everyone knew- had defected out of East Germany sometime in the 70s, and had only returned after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His pistol was on the table, which made it clear that the argument had grown heated.
So far as I knew, the thing didn’t have any ammunition, but he could throw it extremely hard.
“Lucky Charms,” he growled. That wasn’t because of anger, the Commissar always talked in growls. “You are recovering from your experience?”
“Yes,” I said, entering, and taking a seat. “Commissar. How would you react if I told you that, during Otto and my little expedition, I saw something… strange?”
“This is Antarctica,” he growled. “Everything is strange. We are on Lake Vostok. The strange outnumbers the mundane by orders of magnitude, here. So I suppose the question would be whether it was the right kind of strange.”
I took a deep breath. “Let’s say- oh, I don’t know. Let’s say that we were attacked out there on the ice, by something that wasn’t entirely human. Let’s say that we fell into that crevasse, Otto, and I, and the thing that attacked us. The thing was killed in the fall. I lead Otto and we find an ancient, ice-covered city. While exploring it, we find an impossible idol, and a number of impossible corpses, and we are- I believe- saved by something, which may nonetheless have dark plans for us all.”
The Commissar nodded once, gruffly. “I would probably say that you had been a bit spooked by the weekly John Carpenter marathon, and had confabulated the scenario in the wake of a stressful encounter with unstable ice out on the glacier.”
I nodded glumly. “I figured.”
“Life is not one of those dreary New England horror novels. I suspect you have been out here for longer than is strictly healthy. I believe that I will recommend you return to civilization with the summer. You have been an excellent addition here, and my recommendation to any future employers will be glowing.”
If I were an idiot protagonist, I’d start freaking out, lose control of my emotions, and make things worse. I simply nodded. “I understand, sir. And I’ll accept that decision. But I hope you’ll keep an eye out for things.”
“We have enough trouble as it is.” He frowned. “Someone has been… stealing. Grabbing clothing, books, food; We found a tin of dog food out in the snow outside of the mess building. Who steals dogfood?”
“And you’re certain that it couldn’t have anything to do with the weird stuff I’m saying happened?”
“Lucky, please. This is a tense settlement full of socially awkward scientists. What is more likely, that there is a fearsome hidden creature lurking among us, frozen in the ice for centuries, or that one of the morons on this base turns kleptomaniac under pressure? Occam’s razor, Lucky. Occam’s razor.”
God, how I hated Occam’s razor. It worked so well that when it stopped working, you wound up slashing your own wrists with it. I didn’t express that thought. I just nodded politely. “I understand, sir. I’ll let you know if anything else strange happens.”
Then I turned and left the office.
The way that conversation would go had been predetermined. If I hadn’t lost hold of the knife while I was unconscious. If I had brought some trophy of the orca man. If I had done something right, everything would be going down a different line. For now, all I could do was hope that when Otto woke up, he could help corroborate my story, or at least voice a desire to go visit the crevasse with an expedition. It would require a dedicated effort to get down there. It wasn’t impossible, but I sure as hell wasn’t managing it alone.
I walked through the cramped confines of the meteorology lab, where the Commissar had his office, and reached the door to the outside. Changing into clothes for the brief sprint across to the mess hall was as complex as any moonwalk, and the consequences of failure very nearly as deadly. I didn’t know how long a human being could survive those temperatures unprotected, and I had absolutely no interest in finding out. I was careful about strapping on the layers of clothing, before heading out into the icy winter.
There were lights on outside, illuminating the mess hall. We weren’t hiding from anyone, and it was helpful to keep the site lit to avoid any falls or other injuries. And yet, I was forced to ask myself, had the shadows always been quite that dark? Did I see something moving, there, in the night? I moved quickly, and entered the mess hall, shutting the door behind me a little harder than I needed to, some primitive part of me certain that some predator, black and unseen against the endless night, was right behind me as I did. Instincts that had been keeping my ancestors safe for hundreds of thousands of years, and so were still strong despite being good for little else than sudden heart attacks in the modern world.
I ate dinner, which was unremarkable slop like any other night, and returned to my room.
Almost all horror derives from wrongness. A conflict between expectation, and reality. Torn open bodies; walking corpses; food eating people. The more subtle it is, often, the more powerful the horror, because people react to sudden, absurd differences with humor; an evolutionary advantage which everyone needs nowadays. Subtle, creeping terror takes a while to get to you. It percolates, building up slowly, outlasting the adrenaline rush and the giddiness that we use to fight shock and fear.
And so it was when I realized that one of the figurines was missing from my desk.
That wasn’t the only thing that was wrong. There were a dozen little irregularities and shifts. A small damp patch on one of the CD cases. A book out of place, sticking slightly out of the shelf. My laptop shifted a fraction of an inch. Each easily dismissed. Each insignificant on its own. Together, it painted a pretty clear picture.
And in spite of the Commissar’s words, I didn’t think that this was the actions of one kleptomaniac scientist. Among other things, there was a fine layer of something frost-cold, slick and gelatinous resting over another one of the figurines, and whatever other deviant things I might do, I didn’t do that kind of thing. Mostly.
I stared down at the patch for a long moment. I had been away for no more than an hour or two. If the thing was stealing from the buildings, then it had to be somewhere close. Assume first that it couldn’t take on truly human shape, because if it could, then I was about to enter a nightmarish world of paranoia and uncertainty. And I spent enough time in such worlds as it is. So, it followed from that assumption that it must be somewhere nearby. Clearly the creature could freeze, considering what I had seen down in the strange city. Then I had to assume it had sought shelter. There were three sources of shelter mostly free of people. The first was the man-made caves where we stored the ice core samples. The second was the power station. The third was the Sno-Cat.
I swallowed hard. I didn’t have anything I could use to defend myself. I didn’t even know what I could use to defend myself. It was a shoggoth, right? Terrifying, protoplasmic being, capable of surviving the extremes of cold…
My mind went to the Sno-Cat. There was a tank of kerosene in there, in case of emergencies. At the temperatures we operated at, fuel could freeze solid. It was only the sheltering effects of the Sno-Cat and fairly frequent check-ups on the vehicle that kept it functional. I looked around the room. No wood here, but soak a shirt in kerosene, wrap it around a makeshift stick, light it… Fire could deal with a lot of things. Worst comes to worse, touch the fire to the kerosene tank, go out in a blaze of glory… I’d said I wanted to die, right? This was a chance to put my money where my mouth was.
I steeled myself, straightened my back, and ventured out. First I’d have to go through the Sno-Cat. I clipped the flashlight to my parka’s shoulder as I suited up. The crowbar, usually used for breaking through any incidental ice, sat by the doorway. I lifted it up, and wrapped one of my spare dirty shirts around it. The lighter I’d borrowed from Mikhail sat in the parka pocket. I took a deep breath, trying to come to terms with what I was about to do. I’d watched so many horror movies over the years, always telling myself that if push came to shove, I would be smarter than the jerkoffs in the movies. I’d do it right.
It was put-up or shut-up time.
I stepped out into the night, and the cold gripped my chest like a vice, making it hard to breathe. At these temperatures, the cold went right past brain and assaulted the body directly, but I had long since gotten used to it. It was the fear that was making me vulnerable now. I talked a good game, but when it came right down to it, I really didn’t want to goddamn die.
The Sno-Cat stood in the dark, ominous and imposing. I swallowed as I stared at it, the small section of orange paint lit up by the flashlight glowing like a torch in the night. The ferocious winds swirled and screamed around me, that low and eerie rumble that you only get in truly cold environments, the howl in the distance that never seems to appear except in the most bitter cold. The cry of Ithaqua, the-
I was getting lost in the spooky environment. I stepped towards the Sno-Cat, and opened the door into the cab.
Nothing leapt out at me. I scanned the walls, doing a quick circuit, and stepped towards the kerosene tank, opening it, and dipping in the crowbar’s tip. I pulled it out, watching as the honey-thick fuel slowly dripped back into the tank. The flow slowed, becoming a gentle patter of drips, just audible over the wind outside. Then it stopped.
There was another soft drip, a few feet away.
I spun, and there was something dark and glistening in the cab. The flashlight skittered across iridescent black flesh, but couldn’t seem to resolve it into anything my eyes could make sense of. I grabbed the match with my glove-clad hands, fumbling for a second, heart pounding, adrenaline making my fingers shake. Evolution betrayed me as a combat drug designed to turn me into a force of pure elemental fury instead left my hands shaking violently, unable to cope with the sheer influx of energy and the desire to run, leap, strike, and then die horribly.
I took a deep, sharp breath, focused, flicked. The tiny lighter sprung into life, and the kerosene flashed on the torch. Fire began to rise and scorch the ceiling. The dark figure was brought into sudden view as I thrust the torch towards it.
My mind rebelled as I tried to make sense of it. She looked… human. Ish. She was still obviously composed of the iridescent black slime, ferocious yellow eyes glowing in her face, but she was otherwise shaped like a young woman, very short, petite Asian features, her hair done up in something like a pixie cut. The torch also illuminated the figurine that had been stolen from my room. The two were almost identical.
The eyes were too large for a normal human, glistening and fish-like in the night, but something about it pushed it past the uncanny valley, onto the far side- not human, but close enough that my mind could make the jump without being disturbed. The creature regarded me, and then lifted its hands, smiling, until they were close to the fire.
“Arigatou, Lucky Charms-san.”
I stared blankly for a moment.
“Ah, Это лучше?”‘ That was Russian, I knew. My mind tried to pull up the Russian I’d learned from being on the base, and it simply didn’t work. “Um… English?” I nodded mutely. The creature beamed pleasantly. She held her hands up to the kerosene torch, and smiled. “Lucky Charms, I am very glad that you are willing to share the warmth of a fire with me, but isn’t it making kind of a mess?” I looked up, and cursed, tossing the torch out and into the snow, where it was doused immediately. Then I turned back to stare at her. She was not quite dressed- since whatever clothes she was wearing were clearly a part of her own body- but she had shaped herself to look like she was, dressed in a modest and chaste outfit, a cardigan sweater and a skirt, with thigh-high stockings. Just like the figure. “How do you know my name? And why the hell do you have a Japanese accent?” “I accessed your laptop.” She smiled. “I read your diary. This is a pleasing form, yes? You had several models, and I did not know which one you would prefer. Am I speaking your language correctly? I did my very best to learn, but it seems there are significant variations on phonemes and pronunciation, even within groups-” “What are you?” I asked, my voice muted, slightly choked. This was insanity. It was like something out of one of my fucking games, which was more than enough reason to mistrust it. “I am in love with you,” she said, and I realized to my shock that I was thinking of the thing, the monster, the shoggoth, as a ‘she’. Then I realized what she’d just said. “How the- What makes you- I-” I opened and closed my mouth a few times. My brain was stuck in the wrong gear, fight or flight and terror mode, and it had just walked face-first into an admiring young woman. She reached up, and touched my cheek, and I flinched back- she was cold as the ice outside. Her eyes widened. “Have I hurt you?” “No. You’re, uh. Cold.” “Oh.” She nodded her head, and leaned down, picking up one of the cans of dogfood. She slid a finger into the aluminum can’s lid, and slowly worked it around the edge of the can. The metal parted around her finger, as she carefully peeled off the top. Her flesh was almost liquid, and it didn’t look strong enough to do anything like that. My mind conjured up images of mercilessly effective molecular acids and all-consuming enzymes, apparently because it was an asshole. She dipped her finger into the dogfood, and it disappeared. There was a sudden wave of heat from her, and I flinched slightly as she approached, resting her hand on my cheek. It was warm to the touch, and soft, and not at all vicious. And I realized that the terrifying monstrous thing in the night was really rather beautiful. “Why do you love me?” I asked, and considered just what a sad question that was to ask. “I was dying, in pain, frozen in a shell of ice. I cannot remember what I did, but I was being killed. The first thing I can remember was your touch, and seeing you. Saving me. And now, you find me, and you bring me the gift of fire, the warmth of contact. I don’t know what I am, exactly. I just know that you gave me life, and can give me purpose.” She threw herself at me, and clung to me like a drowning man might embrace a life preserver, and her body was warm and curiously soft and felt like something I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. It could be a trap. It was almost certainly a trap. A beautiful and monstrously alien woman throwing herself at me, clinging to me, embracing me, eager to be close. That was the kind of behavior patterns a monster would use to subvert someone. taking advantage of the human desire to mate, to be close, to be intimate. I couldn’t trust it. Or was I just looking for an excuse? Did I just want to have a reason to say to myself that I should shy away from the first warm, gentle contact I had experienced in months? Did I just want to believe that everything was a trap, to avoid the heartbreak that had driven me out here in the first place? Was it possible that all of this was just something good happening to me? Hell no it wasn’t possible. Magical devoted girlfriends don’t just drop into your lap. But whatever this was, the best way to keep an eye on her was to stay close to her. To at least seem to reciprocate her feelings. So I embraced her back. And the sound of soft, animal joy that she made sank a hook into my heart and yanked on it without mercy. “Alright,” I said, trying to gather my thoughts. “You need to return these things, because people are getting suspicious. I can get you what you need- Food, books, whatever else… Why were you stealing these things?” “To understand.” She pointed towards the dog-food can. “What you’re made out of, what you need, what your body desires.” Then she pointed to the books. “To understand your ideas, your thoughts, what your mind desires.” Then she pointed at the figurine. “And to understand what you wanted in a mate. I feel like… that’s what I’m supposed to do.” She smiled brightly up at me. “But I haven’t found many good guidelines on how humans are supposed to reproduce or engage in romantic relationships. Can you find me any books like that?” “I’ll… see what I can do,” I said, and coughed into my hand. “Are you sick?” “No, just… embarrassed.” “Oh. Don’t be embarrassed!” She smiled at me, and leaned closer, a sweet expression on that inhuman, ebony face, the yellow eyes glowing in the darkness. She exhaled, and her breath was sweet, smelling vaguely of the incense I sometimes lit on my shelf, as she clung to me a little bit tighter, her face pressing gently against the corner of my neck. “Nothing you do could make me think less of you.” That one got me right in the conscience. You may be wondering why I was so certain that this was a trap, that this was something awful. The truth was, if this was some gift from the universe, I absolutely did not deserve it. But I could worry about that later. “Listen. You can’t let the others on the base see you. It’d be-” “Oh. Are you jealous?” She smiled sweetly. “I would never let another man steal me away, Lucky Charms.” That was another hook right through the aorta. I nodded weakly. “I trust you,” I lied. “But it’d make me feel better.” “Of course.” She smiled. “No one will see me. I promise. And I’ll return everything.” She interlaced her fingers with mine, and her flesh sank through the gloves, her skin pressing directly against mine. When she withdrew her fingers, the gloves were still whole. “I’ll meet you in your quarters once I’ve gotten everything into its place, alright?” She kissed my cheek, and looked up at the ceiling. “And I’ll clean this up for you too, my love.” She winked at me, and I tried again to keep my heart from lurching each time she spoke. I just gave her a weak nod, and stepped out of the cab. The cold wind was almost a relief from the girl’s warm embrace. as I took several deep, bracing breaths, trying to focus myself through the haze. If she was telling the truth- it would only be a matter of time until she moved on. The absolute best-case scenario was that she was telling the truth, and that she would realize I wasn’t worth her time sooner or later. Confronting that, looking that idea in the face, I found that it didn’t scare me as much as it once had. It was a little melancholy, but if I confronted it, accepted it, it wasn’t as fearsome. I could deal with it. As long as I didn’t get attached. I returned to the base, sat down in the mess, and went through a series of vitamin supplements, trying to figure out my strategy. What books would I share with her? What would I have to do to socialize her? What was the best way to make sure that she wasn’t a threat to everyone, that she was happy, and content? My mind went back to my first relationship. Not happily, but I wanted to avoid making the same mistakes. We’d met in college, and been happy together for four years. It had been comfortable, calm, the two of us able to spend hours together talking, or silent. I had thought it would last forever. But of course, it hadn’t. I still didn’t understand why she’d done what she’d done. I had broken off contact with her afterwards, never accepted her calls. Drifted away. Just thinking about her still hurt. I returned to my room, and settled down on the bed, closing my eyes, feeling a little gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach. Warm arms wrapped around my shoulders suddenly as a gentle, comfortable weight pressed into my back, the curve of modest breasts lightly leaned into me. The monstrous thing pressed her warm, thoroughly attractive body into my back, her arms slung gently around my neck, holding me tenderly. And in her arms, the sting of past memories faded away, leaving behind just a pleasant warmth. “Lucky Charms?” she asked, softly. “That’s not my name.” “Oh. What would you like me to call you? It was the name you signed everywhere.” I paused for a moment, considering. Then I sighed. “It’s fine. You can call me that. It doesn’t make much difference.” “Of course it does,” she murmured, pressing her cheek against mine, her breathing slow, steady, comforting. She trailed her fingertips down my chest lightly. “Names are important. They tell us who we are. What we are. What we should be. What we should strive for.” She laughed softly, and her voice was clear and gentle, ringing like a bell as she nuzzled into the side of my neck. Effortlessly, carelessly intimate. That wasn’t something I was used to. I was not generally fond of being touched, but the soft, slick feeling of her body against mine was comforting, almost like floating in a warm pool. It was the sort of thing I could get used to. Though I shouldn’t. “What do you want to name me?” “I’m not sure,” I murmured. “That’s kind of a big commitment.” “It’s alright,” she cooed softly, and as I slumped down on the bed, suddenly feeling very tired, she slipped down to lie next to me, slithering around until she was pressed against my chest, curled up. Her body was just the right temperature, warming me without becoming uncomfortable, and my eyes felt very heavy as I leaned against her, her nose tucked in against my collarbone, her arms wrapped around me. “You can name me when the time is right.” I nodded sleepily, my head leaning forward to nuzzle into the crown of her head. “If you get bored,” I murmured, my eyes closing slowly, sinking into the soft body, enjoying the warmth, “You can try some of the games on my computer.” I really should’ve known better. In my defense, I was tired. It was hard to figure out. It didn’t seem like she was dangerous, though I tried to keep my guard up with limited success. The situation was still strange and alien and twisted and weird, but it was also one that I had grown familiar with over years of consuming media. Just as prone to dark ends, sometimes, but a very different kind of situation. I might be in some kind of messed up love story. And wasn’t it just so very much like me that it would happen like this.