Fiction

Last of the rational actors at the end of the unnatural world

THE BLIZZARD WAS expected to last two more days and, as the sun wouldn’t rise for another thirteen, the phrase ‘dark and stormy night’ definitely applied – even if the sense of midwinter gothic was heightened by events elsewhere and discussions about something far more serious than weather. The prospect of ending it all had been mooted during the annual midwinter feast, causing serious dissension amid the traditional costumery and viewing of The Thing. Perhaps too much bootleg liquor had been consumed. Or maybe it was just that the monster was supposed to be inside the station, where it could be contained, for why else have a base in the first place? But there it was and here they were – handpicked for health and sanity, as everyone who worked in the station had ever been; debating mass suicide like entirely reasonable people, which they remained even under the circumstances. 

Fourteen souls the station held, buttressed against this year’s deep nadir by insulated walls and mementoes of all that lay intractably far off. July in Antarctica was a dark, alien time that naturally brought ghosts to mind, the wind perpetuating the moans of dead explorers and the yowls of their dogs, which the former had often killed in vain attempts to stave off their own end. Modern expeditioners were caretakers steadier of heart than Jack Torrance had been in The Shining, and no less besieged by the uncanny. Not once but a hundred times had they sensed movement behind them of things that ought to be there but weren’t. Pets. Loved ones. Lives. An all-­encompassing absence pressed this huddle of humanity into shapes reminiscent of the lean times when starving for glory was what one signed up for. Here, now, there was food and little glory, but the storm went on, and ghosts wailed and walked.

 

ONE OF THESE modern expeditioners, the station doctor, woke to a knock at her window. A single, sharp rap as of impatient knuckles against air-­gapped glass, which was further insulated by layers of aluminium foil against the glare of summers past. Switching on the electric light, the doctor thought of dreams and the tricks that senses play in the absence of stimulus. Only the ears knew no such absence, with wind constantly howling and walls creaking and whispers of fast-flung snow underlying it all.

So, a knock, was it? Just a rope blown loose, most likely. There couldn’t be anyone actually out there. Awake, though, and not likely to return to sleep, she tugged on her underwear and a T-­shirt, deciding on a tour of the dimly lit corridors. The walls were thin, and what one heard bumping in the night might reveal much about a station’s mental and physical health. Such rituals had headed off disasters in the past – and she still had a flock to care for.

Stepping carefully as one did through those corridors, with pains taken to slam no doors and thereby disturb no slumbers, the doctor progressed by stages to the spacious common area, where she found others had already gathered. There was always someone awake and on shift in these timeless days. Of the station’s fourteen occupants, there were presently five, including the station manager, who was dressed only in a patched kimono dressing gown. Now six, with the doctor, who was besieged at once with questions.

Had she heard it too? The knocking?

And as she explained that it had woken her, another distinct rapping came from the high ceiling above them.

Someone’s out there.

This concern, voiced by the station’s chef, could not be ameliorated by the manager’s insistence that he had performed a careful bunk count and determined that no one was missing. They all knew it was impossible for someone to be abroad in the storm, anyway; but for the knocking, they would never have entertained the notion.

Some thing, though…

Fantastic possibilities proliferated, unspoken.

As a group, they debated the wisdom of stepping out to look and quickly concluded that this would be foolish. On a scale from green (clement) to black (catastrophic), the weather was currently deepest noir and would remain so until the blizzard passed. Only direst need would see anyone exit the habitat: not even to refresh the supply of Tim Tams, which had been entirely consumed during the midwinter feast, a matter that would in a normal winter have been the heaviest weight on the collective mind. For two more days, the doors would remain firmly closed.

Speaking of doors, the IT officer suggested, why wasn’t this hypothetical wintery spectre knocking on them, if it wanted warmth and succour from the storm so badly?

The doctor begged him to be serious.

Explosive sound from above sent the expeditioners screaming and ducking for cover.

Glass smashed behind the bar.

What was that?

Did anyone see?

Where did it go?

The doctor raised her gaze to the ceiling, now punctuated by a hole the size of two fists pressed together through which snow whipped in a descending tangle. Shouting to be heard over the invasive screech of the storm, she urged her fellows to prioritise warmer layers over hunting for the cause of the puncture. The temperature was already dropping inside the common area. From the neighbouring boot room, the cook and the manager passed footwear, jackets, beanies.

Found it!

The cry from the IT officer, inadequately dressed in long johns and ugg boots, brought everyone to where he crouched behind the bar, poking with the stem of a broken wine glass at what he’d discovered.

It’s a meteorite! Look, fusion crust – and those are regmaglypts. No doubt about it.

The small crowd gathered around to stare at the lumpy visitor from beyond. They were familiar with the IT officer’s interest in such things and from where that interest stemmed: he had had an intense and oft-­recalled relationship with a summering meteorite hunter several tours ago, and the ending of one human passion had left this other in its wake. Since most expeditioners doubled or tripled their roles while on tour, his designation as informal star-­rock collector had stuck.

There were, therefore, no questions regarding the veracity of this claim.

As one, the over-­qualified band looked upwards at the hole, then back down again. Priorities ranged from the necessity of fixing the roof as soon as the blizzard passed to getting the IT officer into proper clothing before he froze to death. The station manager instructed three people to take non-­perishable supplies from the kitchen, which adjoined the common area, and to make caches in their rooms sufficient to last the rest of the storm. The others joined him in spreading tarps over furniture, game equipment, TV screens, computers – anything that couldn’t withstand the weather. The IT officer bowed to pressure and put on a coat.

Another imperative knock sounded from outside. Then from elsewhere in the station came a second crash, prompting cries of alarm perceptible through the walls. Heavier sleepers had at last been awakened, and the crowd quickly grew until all fourteen were present to assess the situation. Two reported damage to a bedroom vacated by a summerer fifteen weeks ago: previously empty, it was now filling up with snow thanks to another unapproved hole in the ceiling.

Meteorites, explained the IT officer to the newcomers in some excitement. A meteor swarm.

The doctor, remembering stories of poltergeists throwing stones on roofs to frighten young girls, shuddered from more than just the cold. Once cast, the spectre of the uncanny was hard to shake off.

And it was he, she could not forget, this IT officer, who had first cast that shadow over the midwinter feast, with his proposed solution to their enduring problem.

Aloud now, the station sparky worried about damage to the wiring and the danger this would present to all. This prompted the manager to direct everyone with rooms in the upper level to gather their things and move to the ground floor. No more mass convergences, he ordered, except in emergencies. Further damage would be inspected by him and the sparky alone, to avoid the possibility of electrocution. If power went out, they would gather in the surgery and wait out the storm there.

Galvanised by this new, immediate crisis, they dispersed in twos and threes, full of speculation and wonder.

 

TWO DAYS LATER, when at last the winds died down, a small repair crew kitted up to investigate the nine holes that now perforated the red roof of the habitat. The power had been off for twenty-­four hours, which had curtailed the IT officer’s attempts to determine the origin of the meteor shower. Even before the satellites and mobile phones went silent, though, he probably would have drawn a blank, given the lack of data. The rain of rocks had ended with the storm, as had the knocking they caused, and now their trajectory would likely never be known, making their presence only more mysterious. The nine that had crashed through the roof were lined up in the surgery for anyone to examine, anonymous space-­charred chunks ranging in size from a fat grape to a quince, collected by torchlight from the wreckage of various chambers. The IT officer often found himself staring at them when the doctor was asleep or busy elsewhere.

The station manager led the expedition to the slippery roof, cautioning his three companions to spread out with all due care while examining the holes. The priority was to fix the damage, using provisions the station kept for such eventualities: not meteorites specifically, but weather in general, which was ever trying to scour human interlopers from the continent’s black-­and-­white back.

The sky had blown startlingly clear, allowing a full moon to shine on the four of them and their surrounds. A complete lack of vegetation, which the mind unconsciously sought to measure the size of things, conspired with a faint, green aurora to trick peripheral vision into thinking there were vast metropolises in the distance when in fact there were only straight-­edged bergs locked in sea ice, close enough to reach on foot in a day. The illusion never failed to put the station manager on edge, even though he had fallen victim to it innumerable times before. It had a cruel twist now. Was it Douglas Mawson who compared Antarctica to Mars? Yes, it was: he remembered the quote from the great man’s diaries, a copy of which was held at every Australian research station. Outside, one might be a lone soul standing on Mars, or something very much like that. All is desolation and hard.

These distant cities of the dead, mere mirages on a frigid horizon, were a grim reminder of other worlds swimming empty through space…

Here, cried someone. And here, another!

There were more meteorites scattered on the ground or half-­buried in the snow that had resisted the best efforts of the gale-­force winds. There were bound to be more, someone suggested, completely submerged.

Ignore them, the station manager instructed his crew. Fix the roof!

But meteorites went into pockets and toolkits, and these soon joined the others in the surgery.

 

THE IT OFFICER was delighted at the new additions to his collection, now numbering more than thirty. Chondrites to a one, with grainy interiors that looked more like ordinary concrete than ancient building blocks of the solar system: he dearly wished he had been able to see them falling into the atmosphere, sparking and smoking, and then steaming as they formed hissing snow craters. Perhaps, if their parent body had survived longer before exploding, they might have made a serious dent in the ice – ice that had existed long before humanity and would outlast humanity too, but would have been as nothing under the boot heel of astronomical forces.

Get them out of here, the doctor told him when the power went back on. She said she was worried about someone tripping over them, but really she was more irked by him and his proximity to the lethal drugs she had in her care. Happy, for the moment, to comply, he packed the rocks into a clothes basket and took them back to the reopened common area. There, the heat had been turned up high in an attempt to dry the carpets, making the normally bone-­dry air of the station uncomfortably humid.

The chef, working in the room next door, wondered aloud about contamination from outer space. Impossible, the IT officer explained. They were just rocks, sterilised by the heat of re-­entry. Even if they had once contained something living, it was all dead now.

That one looks like an ear, the chef said then. Just saying.

Under restored lighting, the IT officer examined the rocks again. The regmaglypts that formed when molten chunks were snatched by thickening atmosphere from the surface of a falling object were often compared to a sculptor’s thumbprint. Or to eye sockets.

Not usually ears.

Turning that particular piece over and over in his hand, however, he decided that yes, he could see the resemblance.

While others handier than him restored the station’s structural integrity from the inside, he went up onto the roof alone, armed with a broken shovel that, since the nearest Bunnings was approximately three-­and-­a-­half thousand kilometres away, had been welded back together by a previous expeditioner. Digging through the crisp, white crust, he found more intersections between sky and ice and gathered far more meteorites than he could safely carry, requiring three trips to bring them all down. Then he walked the perimeter of the accommodation building, high-­stepping through thick drifts and maintaining a careful eye for telltale pockmarks, picking through the snow as if it were a repository for memories that he would be better forgetting, but of which he couldn’t let go. He ignored rough diamonds of blue ice that had been tumbled in the blizzard – still an endless source of wonder that gems like these would be mere water back home – and found further evidence of the meteor shower out to a radius of about ten metres around the habitat, but none beyond that.

Pretty good aim, he thought, for a wheelbarrow-­load of cosmic gravel.

By the time he finished his search, he had amassed ninety-­seven fragments. And found another ear.

This is creepy, said the chef, offering him some of the chocolate from the secret stash she kept in the freezer, inside a brussels sprouts bag, where no one ever looked.

It doesn’t mean anything. Here, this one looks like a finger or toe – something with a nail, anyway.

The two of them rummaged through the grey fragments, neither admitting that they were actively looking for more such pareidolic pieces; both doing so, nonetheless.

Nostril, she said, displaying her find.

God, here’s a nipple.

I’ll give you the rest of my chocolate if you find a dick.

Well, that’s just wrong.

Take it up with the space gods. And get looking.

The urge to peer over the shoulder of someone working on a jigsaw was powerful, and this slight task, started as an idle exercise in pattern recognition, soon became an obsession that others shared in their downtime. Fresh eyes brought insights that only increased the glamour of the game: some were accomplished at finding smooth sections that looked like skin; others had a knack of identifying patches that flowed like hair. Complex organisational systems were suggested to keep track of the pieces of a three-­dimensional object flattened on a two-­dimensional surface – until someone finally brought in the glue and construction began in earnest.

It’s rubbish, said the doctor to the station manager over a glass of cheap Australian wine, but it’s keeping their minds off things. That’s okay, isn’t it?

Definitely okay, the station manager agreed. Privately, though, he was spooked. As a humanoid body made from meteorites came slowly together on one of the dining-­room tables – ankle bones joining shin bones and so forth, looking more and more like the kind of thing one saw on a mortuary slab – he visited the kitchen less frequently, preferring to eat in his room despite the smell of clandestine cigarettes that had built up in recent weeks. The reintegration of this interstellar ‘corpse’ profoundly disturbed him, suggestive of something that had once lived and was now dead. Something that had, perhaps, been killed.

As the figurehead of an authority that no longer prevailed in Antarctica, this was much more than a game to him.

The doctor too resisted the compulsion of this strange evocation. A ghost was taking form in the station. But the ghost of whom? Or of what?

 

A WEEK AFTER the storm, the IT officer applied glue to the last meteorite and handed it to the chef to put in place, directly below the left ‘elbow’. Then they stepped back, the two of them plus all twelve others who lived in the station, to marvel at what had been made.

She was humanoid and female, this extraterrestrial eidolon – or so she seemed to some, despite the lack of breasts and hips. To others, she seemed male, despite the lack of penis and testes. She had hair at head and groin, and her features were regular, with an eerie symmetry that conveyed a sense of familiarity to all who viewed her.

He looks like my brother, one observed.

She looks like my daughter.

…my neighbour.

…my gym instructor.

…that actor I like.

…a crush I had once.

The multifarious doppelganger belonged to everyone, and yet to no one, for it wasn’t finished yet. Many pieces were still missing: a fragment of knee here; a chip of jaw there. Until it was finished, how could they know what it really was?

The sparky proposed an expedition to find those pieces while the weather held, and quickly roused a posse. The IT officer declined, having searched outside all he was going to. He was tired from hours of labouring over the fractured form, and a little high from the glue, if he was being honest with himself. Wordlessly, he went back to his room, masturbated, and slept for four hours without moving.

He dreamed of the meteor hunter and what she’d told him. Go south married, come back single? I’m not going to be like that. Catch you on the next tour, maybe.

The possibilities hinted at by that word, maybe, had reverberated, taking some of the sting out of his heartbreak. Now, they meant nothing. There was never going to be a maybe, and he accepted that, because what other option did he have – now, at the end of all things?

The thought of letting go of possibilities didn’t scare him like it scared some of the others. The trick, he supposed, was knowing when to let go. When there was no choice left but to let go – then, he reckoned, it would be too late.

On waking, he felt drained and headachy. His desk light was still on, its cool LED wash reflected by a plastic snow dome that held Uluru in its never-­seasonable embrace. The topography of that curve caught his attention and held it. The snow dome and the hole below the visitor’s right clavicle: was it possible that they matched?

Tugging his clothes back on, not bothering with deodorant or brushing his hair, he hurried the touristy trinket to the dining room, where he found that someone else had proposed a similar fix.

A section of wrist, where one primordial building block had been missing, was now home to a curled-­up smart watch showing Hobart time.

It’s mine, said the doctor. I didn’t want him lying full of holes. Injured. Broken. Whatever.

She had been there for half an hour, wrestling with this impulse. Trying to understand it. Were they fashioning this statue out of whole cloth or following a blueprint written in the stones? Maybe it didn’t matter – because it was real, this thing they were making. She could accept that much, wherever it originated. Out of the void, a gift – of building and of building together. Whatever it might lead them to.

I get it, he told her, slotting the snow dome into place, where it too fit perfectly, new nestling among old as though it belonged.

And I get where you were coming from, at the feast, he added. Do no harm and all that.

It’s not that simple, she said. People should have the right to end their suffering.

Not to avoid suffering, though?

Are we suffering?

Did any of them?

Neither wanted to argue about this again. They didn’t like arguing. That was why they had been chosen to come here in the first place – for their cool rationality, although that was presently, and sorely, being put to
the test.

The chef came in, flushed from the cold. No sign of any more rocks out there, she said. But oh, hey, what a wonderful idea!

She hurried off and returned with a Ken Done scrunchy that made up for a missing ab.

Perfect, she said, unable to put the feeling more aptly into words. This strange hybrid gave them a home for their grief and put it to a purpose, making it…making them and their memories…part of…something. Anything. More than nothing. Itself.

They all felt this, a sense of being part of a process bigger than themselves. Perhaps it was the lack of exactly something like this that had troubled them all along, even if they occasionally disguised it as a yearning for the sun or for any word from the outside. Taking the doctor’s lead, and the opportunity for reconnection she had created, the others trickled in, minus more mislaid meteorites but providing contemporary curios to take their place. A Cowell jade statuette in the shape of a Singapore dragon. A hard drive full of TV series that would never now be finished. A bunch of plastic daisies. A Star Wars figurine with limbs folded in a meditational pose. A child’s toy sheep, stuffed full of rags.

 

WHEN THE LAST fragment slotted into place, the creature’s eyes opened with an audible click.

The station manager backed hastily away, empty hands out-­thrust in a primal warding gesture. It was his Zippo lighter that had sealed the last breach and made the figure whole. He had agonised over the lighter, but he could see what the others were doing, sacrificing things that came from before in order to enlist in this new purpose. He had to do the same, with meaning and at some cost to himself, or why even make the attempt? And in doing so, he had handed the reins of the station to…whatever this was.

The figure on the table moved, but not like a human. There was no stretching as of someone waking from a long sleep. No disoriented flailing for balance or bearings. The mouth opened in a perfect circle, revealing perfect teeth, and then closed again, having uttered no sound.

The expeditioners were silent too. In the face of the impossible, there was nothing they could possibly say. They couldn’t roll back time to the beginning of winter and bring the world back from the brink – and what would they do differently if they could? They were just fourteen people at the end of the world.

Fourteen lost souls.

Fused stone skin scraped softly against the tabletop. Light gleamed on its lately manufactured components. Levering upright to a sitting position, the statue placed the soles of its feet onto the floor and stood in a single, assured motion. Without recognition, without any acknowledgement of them at all, it turned and walked out the way so many of its meteoric pieces had come, straight through the materials of the station as though they were no impediment whatsoever. No knocking this time – just a terrible rending that no one made any move to prevent. The manifestation had the kind of elemental strength that could grind a base to nothing.

The doctor put her hands over her ears and was amazed to find that she was weeping with something very much like relief. Or release.

She wasn’t the only one. There was a lot to be said for surrendering to natural forces. They had shaped this thing and woken it, but they couldn’t control it.

In the shocked wake of the phantom’s departure, flakes of white settled on the floor, the snow and plaster dust mingling with a delicacy at odds with what had just occurred. The wind, for once, was silent. Through the hole, or doorway, they saw only darkness. Waiting.

Dawn would be a long time coming.

Loosed at last from their deathlike passivity, first the station manager, then the chef and then the others followed their alien guide outside.

You idiots, the doctor called after them. At least get your coats!

The IT officer conceded that much. Then he took her hand and walked beside her into the night.

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