The plane rocked violently. Stowed bags lurched into the aisle. From somewhere at the back of the DH6-6 Twin Otter, someone screamed.
“What the hell’s going on?” demanded Nathan Price, a tall, thin-faced man with thinning hair and a permanently sour expression.
The pilot, Andres Larsen, muttered some choice Nordic curses and said, “The storm. Everyone strap in. We are in for bumpy ride.”
“I thought you said you were going to go around the storm,” Nathan snapped.
“Storm is too big,” said Andres. “Hold on. I will do my best.”
Ellen Palmer hastily shoved the National Geographic magazine she’d been reading into her seat pocket and did up her seatbelt just as the plane lurched downwards. Her stomach rose up and she swallowed hard, worried that the tuna salad sandwich she’d eaten two hours ago was about to reappear. She wasn’t usually bothered by air sickness. But then, she’d never been on such a small plane in a violent storm. She stared out the window, trying to identify geographic masses to take her mind off her roiling stomach.
There was very little to see. For the last hour the clouds had gone from grey to black and now the plane seemed to be flying straight through the middle of a cloud formation. The plane had been flying above clouds for most of the journey from Norway, which had begun nearly three hours earlier. Ellen had started the journey excitedly peering out the window, trying to get a glimpse of land and ice formations in the Arctic ocean, but after a while of being able to view nothing but dull grey clouds she had got bored and resorted to reading to pass the time. As she looked out the window now, a bolt of lightning lit up the angry sky and the driving rain buffeting the plane. The lightning strike had been close to the aircraft. Ellen wondered uneasily if it was possible for an airborne plane to be struck by lightning and what would happen if it was. Her speciality involved what happened on the ground, not in the air.
Daniel Jenner, her American counterpart from the Texas office of OLKON Energy hunched over in his seat, groaning and throwing up into an air sickness bag.
“Are you OK?” Ellen asked.
Daniel looked up as he folded over the top of the bag, his face white. “Just peachy.”
The plane lurched forward and dropped a few more feet. An insistent beeping noise emitted from the plane controls. Andres slapped at them and muttered savagely in Norwegian. Nathan leaned forward, straining on the seatbelt. “What’s wrong now?”
“We have lost the radar,” Andres said.
“So we don’t know where we’re going?”
“I do not know how to get out of storm. I think we have to make emergency landing.”
“Emergency landing where?” Nathan demanded.
“I do not know. I have lost radar.”
Out of the window, another lightning strike illuminated the sky. From her vantage point, Ellen saw it strike the engine at the end of the wing. The engine started smoking, and a moment later flames trailed from it. The plane plummeted again and started a nosedive.
Ellen screamed. Everyone around her screamed.
“We are going down!” Andres yelled. “Everyone please adopt brace position!”
Ellen bent forward and clasped her hands to the back of her head. She closed her eyes, doing her best to ignore the sick feeling in her stomach and the painful popping in her ears. It had been a long time since she’d given any thought to theology. She hadn’t believed in any kind of god for many years. The more she learned about science, the less likely it had seemed that there was some all-powerful deity in the sky somewhere controlling things. The concept was illogical, just a way for ruling classes to control the population the way parents told stories to their children to make them behave.
But Ellen’s grandmother on her mother’s side had been Irish and staunchly Catholic, and every time Ellen had visited her as a child, she’d been taken to Mass and made to say her prayers before bed. If she’d ever been naughty her grandmother, diminutive in stature but large in personality, had glared at her with folded arms and said haughtily, “God sees you, so He does, and His judgement means more than mine.”
It was her grandmother’s face in Ellen’s mind now as she found herself praying to the God she didn’t believe in. Oh please, I don’t want to die. If I live through this I promise I’ll start going to church again.
Acrid smoke seeped into the cabin as the fire in the stricken engine spread. A horrible high-pitched whine joined the chorus of screams. The plane rapidly descended, lurching back and forth as it was buffeted by winds. Anything not strapped down flew through the cabin – handbags, wallets, phones, tablets. An iPad crashed into Daniel’s armrest. Its screen smashed. Glass sprayed. People were crying, praying, wailing. Ellen could not differentiate the voices; they all merged together in a horrible cacophony.
The suspense became unbearable. Ellen risked raising her head to see what was going on. In the pilot’s seat, Andres yelled and struggled with the controls. Beyond him, the black clouds had parted for a view of ice and snow that rapidly grew closer. The plane raced along, smoke from the fire trailing from both sides.
Land was only a few feet below them. Ellen put her head back down and prayed again for a long-lost God to save her.
The impact came: a thunderous bang, screech of metal. Ellen’s jaw snapped shut, her knees slammed into her face. Blood filled her mouth. She slipped into darkness.
Outpost H311 was a top-secret base used by the Nazis in World War II conducting experiments into paranormal activity, on a desolate island in the Arctic circle.
An oil exploration team are plunged into a nightmare when their plane crashes on the remote island. The survivors soon discover that they are not alone, and a supernatural evil released by the Nazis’ experiments inhabits the island.
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This scary, atmospheric, ice-cold supernatural thriller by Sara Jayne Townsend will chill you to the bone.
Ellen was running down a long, dark tunnel. She was dogged by the uneasy feeling that there was something behind her and that if only she could reach the end of the tunnel she would be safe. Far ahead there was a glimmer of light and safety. Ellen ran on, ignoring the pain in her side, towards that faint glimmer of light. Behind her she was aware of a dark mass moving quickly. She could hear ragged breathing, heavy footsteps thudding on the damp ground. Moving faster.
She didn’t dare look behind her. She tried to run faster, but the pain crippled her. The light ahead was close now, but the thing behind her was even closer. And then there was something holding her back, something gripping her legs, forcing them to stop moving...
Ellen swam back to consciousness, disoriented and confused. She couldn’t remember where she was. A blast of snow rushed past her face. Howling wind. Human wailing.
Then she remembered. The plane had been going down.
The front half of the plane was several feet in front of her, nearly obscured by a blizzard of snow and ice. The window next to her had shattered. She could see nothing outside it now but swirling snow, dislodged and churned up from the impact. The wing she had been looking out at during the flight had gone, shorn off during the crash.
Beside her, Daniel was still in his seat. He was awake but white-faced and moaning. A large piece of twisted metal had skewered diagonally through the cabin. It pinned Daniel’s left leg to the ground.
As reason seeped back into her addled brain, Ellen decided her first priority should be to establish if she herself was injured. She could move her head, her arms and her legs, but she couldn’t stand up. Then she realised that the seatbelt still held her in place. The pain in her side that had been plaguing her in her dream was still with her. She looked down to see a shard of glass sticking out of her jacket. She was wearing several layers of cold-weather clothing, and she didn’t think the glass had penetrated too deeply. She took a deep breath, gripped the shard of glass, and pulled it hard. It revealed a hole in her jacket and a small circle of blood staining the layer beneath, but it didn’t seem to be a serious injury. She pressed her right hand hard to the puncture to try to encourage the wound to clot.
“Hurts,” Daniel wailed beside her. “Oh God.”
Ellen reached out with her left hand, and put it on his arm. “Take it easy. “We’ll get you out of there as soon as we can.”
She tried to see what was going on in the back of the plane. She craned her neck to see Nathan Price, the finance guy, rocking back and forth. “Oh god, we’re all going to die,” he wailed. “I never wanted to come on this stupid mission, I’m just an accountant. I’m not an Arctic explorer. But when the Big Cheese asks you personally, says you’re the only one he trusts to keep an eye on the expenditure, you don’t say no. And he hinted I might be up for the FD post when he retires in a couple of years. I didn’t want to come, but how could I say no to that? And now we’re all going to die!”
A bulky figure appeared in Ellen’s sight line – the American marine, Jake, hired by the corporation to accompany the mission because he was an expert in extreme weather survival. With him, maybe they actually had a chance of surviving this.
“Can you all just shut up a minute?” Jake bellowed. “We need to establish our situation. Who is wounded?” He leaned over Ellen and Daniel. “How are you folks doing here?”
Ellen shifted her hand on her side. “I had some glass stuck in me, but I don’t think it’s serious.”
“How about I take a look and confirm that?”
“Look at Daniel first,” Ellen said. “I think he’s pinned.”
Jake examined the bar pinning Daniel’s leg and then looked back at Ellen. “Let’s get you out of there first. Can you walk?”
Ellen fumbled with the seatbelt’s buckle but it wouldn’t undo. “The seatbelt’s stuck.”
“Hold on.” Jake produced a wicked-looking knife, leaned over and sawed at the seat belt strap. It fell away. “Climb over the seat back,” Jake said and held out his hand to help Ellen to stand.
Jake’s calloused hand was strong and firm and offered comforting support, but her legs trembled.
Jake inspected the wound in her side, parting layers of fabric for a closer look. “It’s not serious,” he said. “Go sit down back there and keep applying pressure.”
Ellen lowered herself into one of the seats at the back of the plane, sheltered from the storm raging through the gap in the cabin. She felt dizzy. She pressed her hand to her injury, making a point of not looking down. Jake was stooped over Daniel, inspecting the piece of metal holding him down. He barked an order to two able-bodied men – the engineer, David and the camera man, Pete – to help him. Between the three of them, they managed to dislodge the bar pinning Daniel.
Jake picked Daniel up in a fireman’s lift and hefted him out of his seat, gruffly ordering the other two to clear a space in the aisle for the injured man.
Even from where she was sitting Ellen saw that Daniel’s leg was badly broken. His hiking pants were soaked in blood and shredded. A shard of bone poked through the flesh halfway up his thigh. He was wailing in pain, which at least proved he was still conscious.
With Daniel settled in the aisle, Jake looked back at the survivors huddled at the back of the plane. “OK we’ve got a man with a broken leg, but I don’t think we’ve got any other injuries.”
“Shouldn’t we be trying to get out of the plane?” Nathan said.
“With the blizzard raging outside we’re safer in here.” Jake had to shout to be heard over the racket of the storm ripping through the hole in the plane.”
“What if it explodes?”
“The fuel tank is intact,” Jake said. “It’s not going to explode.”
“We all clearly saw the flames in the engine as the plane was going down,” Nathan said.
Jake glared at Nathan. “The engine on the right-hand wing did catch fire. But that wing fell off the plane before it came down and is currently burning away a good five miles away from the crash site. What we have now is a fuselage in two pieces, but there’s no danger of anything else catching fire. The other engine is still intact. Once the blizzard dies down we can take stock of where we are, but for now we’ve got a better chance of survival if we shelter from the storm. Though I would advise everyone to wear as many layers as possible for warmth.”
The project manager, Allison Brewer, said, “All of our luggage is in the hold.” Allison’s name had been the only one on the list of team members that Ellen had recognised. She was a good ten years older than Ellen, a tall and somewhat imposing woman Ellen had seen on occasion in the corridors at Head Office. She always wore sharply tailored suits, two-inch high heels and had her brown hair forever pulled back in a severe bun. In truth, Ellen had always found her slightly intimidating. Things were different now, of course. Allison looked as scared as everyone else, and tendrils of her hair had escaped from the ever-present bun.
“We’ll try and get to that as soon as the storm dies down. For now, stay together. We need to find the first aid kit.”
“On it,” called out an Asian woman in her late thirties. She was rummaging around in boxes stored at the back of the plane. She was the documentary maker, Ellen recalled, doing a feature on how climate change was affecting the polar ice caps. Ellen didn’t know how she’d managed to persuade the energy company to let her and her camera man tag along on the exploration mission, but somehow she had. What was her name?
“Now is anyone missing?” Jake asked.
Ellen looked around at the frightened faces huddled together in the rear of the fractured cabin. These were all the people assigned to the project, a joint venture between the UK and American offices of OLKON Energy. Herself and Daniel, the geologists. Allison, the project manager. David, the engineer. Nathan, the finance guy. Jake, the Arctic survival expert. The film maker and her camera man. A feeling of dread gripped Ellen as she realised someone was missing. “Where’s the pilot? Where’s Andres?”
Jake swore under his breath and turned towards the front half of the plane. He crossed the path of the blizzard and disappeared into the cockpit.
The documentary maker emerged from the boxes, triumphantly waving the first aid box in the air. Her name was Neeta, Ellen suddenly remembered.
Neeta and her camera man, Pete, busied themselves seeing to the minor injuries, handing out antiseptic wipes and bandages as needed. She had also retrieved torches from the supplies.
Neeta came over to Ellen with the first aid kit and a torch. “Let’s take a look at that wound,” she said.
Ellen reluctantly peeled away her many layers of clothing to reveal the bare patch of flesh on her side where the glass had penetrated. She was relieved to see, in the torch light, that the wound was about two centimetres across, but did not look deep enough for stitches.
Neeta dabbed at it with antiseptic wipes. Ellen bit her lip and tried not to scream. “It should be fine as long as we keep it clean,” Neeta said. “It’s already started to clot.” She taped a large pad of gauze securely over the wound.
Jake emerged through the blizzard into the back of the plane, carrying Andres over his shoulder. The pilot was tall, but the marine carried him easily.
Jake laid Andres down in the aisle. Andres’ chest and face were covered in blood. He was unconscious. Jake stood up and said, “OK, we need something to use as a splint for Dan’s leg. Two straight pieces of wood or metal.”
“What about Andres?” Ellen said.
Jake frowned. “I’m not sure if there’s anything we can do for him. We can patch up the external wounds, but he might have internal bleeding.”
For the next hour, the priority was tending to the wounded. Jake and Allison used two metal poles to splint Daniel’s leg. Ellen watched Jake make use of his field medical experience as he improvised, attempting to set Daniel’s leg by forcing the bone back into place. Neeta found a piece of wood for Daniel to bite down on while this happened, but his face was white, and it was obvious he was trying not to scream. With his leg splinted and bound, Jake and Pete carried Daniel to the back of the plane where he rested on a couple of blankets. He was whimpering in pain, but eventually he settled down to sleep.
The pilot was a far more serious case. Upon closer inspection, Ellen saw his foot had been crushed. Jake said the bruising on Andres’ chest indicated internal bleeding. Jake and Neeta did what they could, but to Ellen, who had no medical training, it was obvious that without proper medical treatment he wouldn’t survive.
Everyone else had minor injuries, so as first aid was going on, the others unpacked luggage in search of warm clothes. They bundled up in as many layers as possible to protect themselves against the cold and huddled together to wait out the storm that raged around the ruined plane.
Ellen blearily blinked sleep from her eyes, emerging from her cocoon of sleeping bag and blankets. She wore three sweaters over a thermal base layer and two pairs of thermal socks, a pair of gloves, and a hat. Through the shattered window, came freezing air that was silent and still. The storm was over.
It was dark. She squinted at her watch, expecting it to be broken. She bought it two weeks before the exploration mission was due to leave. It was a hard-wearing traveller’s watch meant to endure extreme heat and extreme cold, and immersion up to two hundred meters.
It seemed to be living up to its promise as it was still working. It was just after six in the morning. That it was dark outside was meaningless. In the Arctic, in October, it would never get light.
Ellen shuffled and stretched, her neck cricking painfully after several hours spent hunched in the seat. She looked around her to see if anyone else was awake and saw movement beneath the other cocoons of blankets elsewhere in the plane.
She stood up, stamping her feet to try and bring life back to them. Despite the many layers they still felt frozen.
She shuffled to the back of the plane to see how Daniel was doing. As she bent over him, his eyes fluttered open and he smiled weakly at her. “Hey, limey,” he said.
“How are you doing, Yank?”
“I’ve been better, but this nice lady here found some drugs, so I’m OK for now.
Neeta sat next to Daniel with the first aid box. “It’s only paracetamol,” she said. “But it will take the edge off the pain.”
On the other side of Neeta lay the injured pilot, still unconscious in a makeshift bed of sleeping bags and blankets. He still looked in a bad way.
Jake stood over them. “OK people. The storm has ceased, and hopefully everyone’s had a bit of sleep. It’s time to get organised.” He scowled at the video camera in his face. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“What does it look like?” Neeta’s camera man, Pete Tennant said. “We’re making a documentary.”
“I thought you were filming the polar ice caps melting or something,” Jake said.
“Now it’s a human drama of survival. Don’t look at the camera. Just ignore it.”
“Keep it out of my face. Look, people, this is serious,” Jake said. “Let’s take stock of the situation. First, and most important, the plane is fucked. So is the radio. We’re not going anywhere, and we can’t call for help.”
“What about using mobiles?” Ellen asked.
“I’ve already checked. There’s no signal out here.”
“What about the satellite phone? I thought that’s why we brought it. For emergencies.”
Jake held up a piece of mangled electronic equipment. “That was the first thing I thought of. Unfortunately, it was in the cockpit and took the brunt of the impact in the crash. It’s useless.”
“What the hell was it doing in the cockpit?” Nathan demanded. “Surely the point of bringing it was to keep it safe somewhere in case we should need it.”
“I don’t know what the fuck it was doing in the cockpit, but this is where we are. We have, at present, no way of calling for help, and with no imminent chance of rescue, the most important thing is survival. That’s the bad news. As for the good news, we have all the supplies we were taking to the base. We have plenty of food and cold weather gear. But we need heat and we need shelter.”
“Isn’t the plane safe enough?” Nathan said. “You said it wasn’t going to explode.”
“This place is adequate but not if we have to stay for any length of time. However, we’ve also got two injured people who can’t be moved. I suggest we send out a scouting party to do a reconnaissance of the area. Try and find someplace else to make a better shelter.”
“What do we expect to find?” Neeta asked. “Where are we?”
“We have no clue where we are,” Jake said. “The radar’s fucked. All the more reason for having a scout around. So here’s what I suggest. Three of us form a scouting party and go out. The rest stay here. We’ve got a generator and an electric heater amongst the supplies. We’ll get that going, so those of you that stay have some heat. You need to keep an eye on the wounded. The scouting party will load up some supplies on one of the sledges and go out for a look around.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to split up,” Nathan said. “That never ends well in films. And besides, what if a plane spots us?”
“Planes are not going to come,” Jake snapped. “We’re way off course.”
“How do you know? You said the radar was broken.”
“We can sit here waiting for rescue until we run out of food and starve to death or the generator runs out of power and we freeze to death. The first rule of survival is to exploit all your resources. We need to find out what resources we’ve got. We have no idea what’s out there. So I’ll lead the search party. It would be useful to have you along, too.” Jake pointed at the engineer.
“Me?” David had been sitting at the back of the plane minding his own business.
“You’re good at fixing stuff, yes?” said Jake. “If there’s been anyone here before us, there might be parts lying around we can cannibalise for something useful. Besides, you’re not injured.”
Ellen raised her hand. “I’ll come along on the scouting party as well.”
Jake frowned. “I thought you were wounded.”
“It’s a minor injury. I’m fine.”
“We could be out for a couple of days. Are you sure you’re up to it?”
“I’m a geologist. I’m used to crawling about in inhospitable climates.”
“We’ll be walking a long way.”
“I used to be a long-distance running champion in my school days. I can handle it. Trust me,” said Ellen.
“I’ll come too,” Neeta said.
Jake looked her up and down. “Sorry, honey, three’s enough. Besides, you’re more useful here with that first aid kit.”
Neeta rolled her eyes at Jake, hands on hips. “Who are you calling honey? Anyone can use that first aid kit.”
“But you’re so good at it.” Jake started rifling through the supplies.
“It’s not as if I’ve got any medical training,” Neeta said. “What, you think because I’m a woman I’ve automatically got nurturing instincts?”
“Something like that,” Jake said.
“You sexist pig!”
Ignoring Neeta, Jake retrieved a sledge and tossed it down onto the snow outside the plane.
Neeta sat down between Andres and Dan, arms crossed and glowered at Jake.
“OK, those in the scouting party,” Jake said. “Make sure you’re wearing several layers, including at least one pair of thermal socks, and appropriate footwear. I would suggest your snow boots. We’ll take some tools for cutting and energy rations, enough for three days. We don’t know how far we’ll have to travel to explore the environment. I’ll take care of these items, along with one of the sleeping tents. You both need to find your cold-weather sleeping bags. And maybe some extra clothes. If you fall over in the snow and get wet, you could freeze to death.”
“What are the rest of us supposed to do?” Nathan said.
“Set up the generator and try and keep warm. Look after the injured. And ration the food – we don’t know how long it has to last. OK then.” Jake emerged from the hole in the fuselage that allowed access to the cargo hold, laden with supplies. “We’ve all got jobs to do. Let’s get to it.”
Ellen, David and Jake set off with the supplies tied to a sledge which they pulled along behind them. As well as all the layers she’d already put on, Ellen now wore Daniel’s parka. She felt very bulky with so much clothing on, but she hoped it would keep her warm.
Despite their grim situation, Ellen thought the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. Unbroken snow covered the landscape, with nothing else for miles. The three of them cut a path through the virgin snow, leaving in their wake three sets of footprints and a flattened path where the sledge had passed.
Jake pulled the sledge but he said they would take it in turns, to preserve energy. He was far stronger than David and Ellen put together. He was swathed in layers now but when the plane had first taken off he’d stripped down to his t-shirt, and Ellen had noticed his overdeveloped biceps, covered in tattoos.
For a while they walked without speaking, steadily moving forward, the only sounds the soft thud of their footsteps in the snow, the huff of laboured breathing and the snicking noise the sledge made as they dragged it over the snow. Despite the beauty, Ellen found it disconcerting to be in a place so silent. There was no birdsong; no sound of any life at all. For all Ellen knew, they could be the last people left in the world.
It seemed they walked for hours, with no change in the landscape. Every once in a while, Jake paused to check the compass reading, and light up a cigarette, but they didn’t speak to each other. Ellen focused on putting one foot in front of the other and traversing through the snow. She tried not to think of the seriousness of their situation.
David gave up first. His breathing had become increasingly laboured. He stopped walking. “It’s hopeless. There’s nothing out here.”
Jake stopped and turned around. “There’s a long way to go yet.”
David sat down in the snow. “What are we expecting to find?”
“No idea. This island is uncharted.”
“We should have stayed with the others.”
“We won’t survive very long sitting around. There’s no shelter.”
“The plane is shelter.”
“The plane is in pieces. We’ve no hope in Hell getting out of here in that.”
David groaned and rubbed at his boots. “My feet feel like they’re about to fall off.”
Jake picked his way through the snow and inspected David’s boots. “You’re wearing the right footwear. How many pairs of socks are you wearing?”
“Three. Two cotton, one thermal over the top. What has that got to do with anything?”
“Then your feet are not going to fall off.”
“We’ve been walking for miles, and there’s bugger all out here.”
Jake checked his watch. “We can stop for a few minutes. Have some water and some food. But then we have to press on.” He rummaged around amongst the supplies on the sled and brought out a thermos and some energy bars, which he handed out. “You may as well sit down, give your feet a rest for a few minutes,” he told Ellen as she took the energy bar.
Ellen cleared a space on the edge of the sledge and perched on it while she ate the energy bar. It did feel good to sit down, if just for a few minutes. Her feet were so cold, she had lost all feeling in them. She knew the many layers of thermals would prevent frostbite, but it was difficult to stay warm out here.
Jake handed round the thermos. The water in it was tepid but clean, and it tasted pretty good to Ellen, who hadn’t realised how thirsty she was.
She wiggled her toes in her boots and clapped her hands, clad in thick mittens, together to try and bring some feeling back to her extremities. “So,” she said to Jake, “what’s the plan? I mean, is there a plan? David’s right – we’ve been out here for hours and we’ve seen nothing.”
Jake squinted at the horizon and pointed. “There’s a ridge over there. We can’t see beyond it. I’d like to go check it out, see what’s on the other side. I don’t think it’s all that far away.”
“But what are we expecting to find?”
“Our only shot at long-term survival is to find something, anything, we can use. If there’s ever been a base here there’ll be parts we can scavenge. Even a crashed plane will help us, if it has a radio or supplies.”
“But you said this place was uncharted,” Ellen said. “That means no one’s ever been here.”
Jake looked at her. “It just means it’s never been reported, not that no one’s ever been here. And the truth is, I don’t know where the fuck we are because the radar’s broken. We could be someplace where there was once a base. If we are and we find it, it would be a way better place to shelter than the crashed plane.” He packed the thermos away with the rest of the supplies and re-secured the tarpaulin covering the sled.
Somewhere in the distance, a lone wolf howled. The sound floated across the snowscape. Ellen looked up. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. After so long in a landscape apparently devoid of life, the noise unnerved her.
“I thought there weren’t any wolves in the Arctic,” Ellen said.
“You must have heard of the Arctic wolf,” Jake said.
“Well yes, but they’re mostly in Alaska and Northern Canada. Not out here. Wherever here is.”
“Evidently they’ve come this far.” Jake struggled with the final fastening on the tarpaulin.
“How can it survive out here? We’ve seen absolutely no other signs of wildlife.”
“Which probably means it’s hungry and might view us as a food source.” Jake straightened up, stepping away from the sledge. “We should get moving.”
David climbed reluctantly to his feet and squinted up at the twilight sky. “What time is it? Why is it so dark?”
“At the North Pole at this time of year it never really gets light,” Ellen said. “It’s a permanent state of twilight. We knew that when we set off on the expedition. We were supposed to be leaving in September, you know, but various corporate politics delayed things. I was the one who said if we couldn’t go in September we should delay until next spring, because of the lack of daylight.”
They set off again, Jake ahead pulling the sledge, the other two falling into step behind. Ellen found it easier to step in the trail left by the sledge where the snow had been flattened.
“I did wonder why there was no confirmed date,” David said. “I was told I was going on the expedition, they gave me all kinds of details except when it was going to be. Then suddenly I got told by my boss, pack your stuff, you’re going in three days.”
“I was over-ruled in the end,” Ellen grumbled. “What do I know about perma-frost and perpetual twilight in the Northern Hemisphere? I’m only a geologist.”
David grinned. “Not that you’re bitter.”
Ellen snorted. “In the end it was all about money. The powers that be got a sniff of all the oil that’s supposed to be out here, and they only saw pound signs. Or maybe dollar signs is more appropriate. Anyway they couldn’t wait to tap the well and start making money off it. Nathan was one of the people pushing for us to start as soon as possible.”
“You mean Nathan the finance guy? On the plane?”
“That’s him.” Ellen sighed. “He’s here to protect the company’s investment. Make sure none of us do anything to jeopardise the oil well.”
“And we’re not going to reach the oil well now. We’ve crash landed in the middle of nowhere. What’s he going to do now?”
They moved onwards, the ridge getting ever closer. Ellen thought about the trick that used to get her through endurance runs in her school days. Get into a rhythm, get your feet moving automatically, and then focus on something else. Think about something nice. The reward you give yourself when it’s all over. A hot bath. A glass of wine. Settling down to read a Peter Hamilton novel. Preferably all at the same time.
“A hot bath would be really good right now,” Ellen said.
Jake looked back at her. “It’s going to be quite a while before you get to have one of those.”
“It’s something to focus on to get me through this. I don’t want to think about how cold my feet are, how much my legs ache. Or how much I fear this is a pointless exercise.”
They had reached the bottom of the ridge. From a distance, the slope upwards had looked quite gentle, but as they started to climb, it became evident that the gradient was misleadingly steep. They had already walked a long way in the snow, and Ellen’s legs protested.
Ellen and David both struggled with the gradient, panting for breath. Jake, even pulling the sledge, overtook them easily and reached the top before them.
Jake stared down into the valley. Ellen reached the top a minute or so later, stooping over with her hands on her knees as she tried to catch her breath. David trailed behind.
“Are you superman or something?” Ellen gasped. “I’m just about dying here and you’ve barely broken a sweat. Even though you’re a smoker, and I’m not. How do you do it? Did they put something in your cornflakes during your marine training?”
“Come look,” Jake said, pointing down.
Ellen stood up straight and looked to where Jake was pointing. It took her a moment to focus on what it was. She had been looking at nothing but a stark snowy landscape for hours; her brain was not able to comprehend the idea that there might be something else there. But there it was, in the distance. A building. Two buildings, in fact.
The one closest to them was a square concrete structure, with a slit near the top.
Some distance beyond the first concrete structure was a second one, also made of concrete but longer and lower. It had no windows, and with several feet of snow piled up on its flat roof, it was quite difficult to make out.
“What is it?” Ellen asked. “Surely no one could be living out here.”
“I would say it’s probably a base of some kind.” Jake pointed at the nearer structure. “What does that look like to you?”
Ellen stared at it, thinking that the slit at the top would make it easy to see everything around you but no one would see you. Then it came to her. “It’s a lookout post. A watch tower of some sort.”
Jake smiled at her. “Well done.”
Ellen gauged the distance between the structures. “Is it a base then? Why build them so far apart?”
“I’m willing to bet there’s a lot more underground,” Jake said.
David reached the top of the ridge, panting heavily. “Please tell me we can stop and rest soon,” he managed to say. “I feel like I’m about to collapse.”
Ellen ignored him. To Jake she said, “If it is a base, it must be huge.”
“And it’s not on any charts or mentioned in any records of this area,” Jake said.
“Why wouldn’t it have been logged? How can you keep something like this secret?” Ellen asked.
“That’s a very interesting question. Let’s go check it out, shall we?” Jake looked down at the ridge below them and then at the sledge. “Seems pointless to drag this all the way down when there’s a much faster way to get it down this hill. Why don’t you two hold onto the sledge, and you can ride down to the bottom.”
“What about you?” Ellen asked.
“There isn’t enough room for three of us. I’ll follow you down, don’t worry.”
Ellen and David squeezed onto the sledge with the supplies, and Jake gave the sledge a push to start it going down the hill. The wind whipped past Ellen’s ears as she held on tight, watching the snow at the bottom of the hill come rushing towards her. It took her back to childhood winters, of sledding and snowball fights with her brother. Had the situation not been a dire matter of life and death, it might even have been fun.
The sledge stopped abruptly when it hit a snow bank, fishtailing and throwing Ellen, David and some off their supplies off into the snow. Ellen picked herself up and brushed the snow off her parka and ski pants. She looked back up the slope, where Jake was carefully inching his way down.
The watch tower looked tantalisingly close, but the snow disguised distance so that things looked a lot closer than they were. Even so, this was the first object they had seen in the snowy wasteland.
Ellen walked towards the building. “I think we should wait for Jake,” David called after her.
Ellen looked back at David, who was returning scattered supplies to the sledge, then at Jake, now halfway down the ridge. “He’s right there,” she said. “I just want a closer look.”
She turned back to the structure and took a few more determined steps through the thick snow.
She was barely ten feet away when she felt more than heard a loud splintering crack. The ground beneath her feet gave way. She screamed as she plunged beneath the snow.