by Carlton Herzog
Captain Olivia Mason, PSS Peary, Mission Report: Shackleton Rescue
We found two frozen bodies. One inside the wreck, another embedded in the ice wall. We also found the diary of Captain Red Lamont. We had to break the crewman’s frozen arm to pry it loose. As for the rest of the crew, they were nowhere to be seen.
When we returned to the drop ship, I began the slow process of thawing the diary. It gave a harrowing account of the crew’s last days. I will skip to the more relevant pages.
Captain Red Lamont’s Diary:
“I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”
I thought Pluto, that cold and distant sphere with its singing nitrogen dunes and cryo-volcanoes, would scratch that itch. For a time, its geologic complexity and remoteness satisfied my wanderlust. It offered important work and purpose, as well as riches, in the frozen nitrogen trade. But like every place before, it eventually shackled my spirit. Every time I looked at its tidally locked moon Charon, which always presented the same face to me, my discontentment grew.
I would stand on Mount Cthulhu and gaze upon the glittering beauty of interstellar space. I longed for a ship to sail that silent sea. I yearned to reach the farthest galaxies, and whatever lay beyond. Although there is no place other than the Earth to escape the lethal cold, I would gladly freeze to death in that airless void among the stars. For I would count myself a lucky man having charted my own destiny.
As luck would have it, the Pluto Nitrogen Mining Corporation intended to survey the recently discovered Planet X, a distant giant planet 40 times farther from the sun than Pluto. Astronomers have suspected its presence for a century from its gravitational effects on other Kuiper Belt objects. But it was not until the Tombaugh Pluto telescope went into service that its existence was confirmed, and Planet X got a new name: Hyperborea.
Navigation is a problem. The amount and density of rock and ice fragments orbiting planet X present severe difficulties in achieving orbital insertion. The debris creates a further complication in its being highly ionized. and so likely to disrupt our instruments.
For safety reasons, therefore, I have decided that we will forego orbital insert. Instead, we will launch the probes from our static position and await the data feed.
Most of the probe data has been corrupted by the planet’s electromagnetic interference. My engineers are baffled as to its source. I am torn between ordering an end to the mission and returning to Pluto or attempting to gather the data by putting the Shackleton in low orbit under the EM field lines. The ship is more heavily shielded than the probes and should survive the encounter.
Lucky to be alive. Barely. When we passed through the EM corona, the Shackleton’s magnetic shield failed. After that, it was inevitable the impact of micro-meteors and other flotsam would rip apart the ship’s primary hull and send the Shackleton plunging nose first into the atmosphere.
The Shackleton split in two on impact. The bow was wedged on top of a large ice crevice. The stern had fallen thirty meters below it. It was lodged vertically against one ice wall and flattened hard against another.
Things have gotten ugly. Although the cabin air is breathable, it stinks of recycled human waste and electrolysis. Bathing of any sort, as well as shaving, is out of the question, so we all exude a primeval ripeness. To conserve power and fuel, we keep the cabin temperature just above freezing during the day, slightly warmer while we sleep. Sometimes lower. We sport icicles in our wild beards, hair and running noses. Somehow our brutish circumstances seem appropriate, given that our ship had been named after that most redoubtable of polar explorers and survivalists, Sir Henry Shackleton.
Hyperborea’s cold grinds us down and drives some of us mad. To be sure, we have all been exposed to extreme weather as part of our deep space training. Who among us has not worked on Jupiter and Saturn’s array of icy moons. But there is an added element. Specifically, Hyperborea’s shrieking silence and frozen nothingness in every direction as far the eye can see. It gnaws at our souls like termites devouring a building from within. We are the only pulsing creatures in this stern desolation. There are no crystal domes inhabited by workers and scientists. No ships taking off and landing. No thermal drills melting through to oceans percolating below the ice. In short, all the signs and activities of human civilization have been left behind save its crumpled vestiges: our wrecked ship and our questionable emotional balance.
We would give anything to see a smear of stars burning in the sky, or a moon perhaps. Just a dash of color and texture to break the monotony of the interminable ice plain outside. So, our minds obsess on the inescapable truth that we will likely freeze to death long before we are rescued. To make matters worse, the conditions of sensory deprivation, coupled with our dwindling rations and confinement magnify trivial events into things significant and problematic. To brush against someone accidentally, to take more than one’s perceived share of food, or to misstate an obvious truth, can cause a physical altercation. The slightest provocation, an insult real or imagined, can become grounds for fist fights and drawn weapons.
We settled on using the repair pods to explore a heat source emanating from below. We had gone down half a kilometer when we spotted living creatures frozen in the ice. I think at one time the planet orbited in the solar system’s habitable zone where it evolved life. Then something came along and knocked it out here. During Earth’s period of heavy bombardment, the solar system was a shooting gallery of objects colliding with one another and redirecting orbits. Like Mars-sized Thea knocking off a chunk of the Earth to form the moon.
We pushed forward through the tunnel as it snaked downward into the planet. We came around a bend into an open expanse of water fronted by an ice beach and dotted with ice islands. But the most remarkable thing was the fauna. There were floaters, jellyfish-like creatures with positive buoyancy wafting through the air in incredible profusion. There were the alien equivalent of crabs scuttling across the cavern’s ice ceiling, with worms and other soft body creatures burrowing up into it. There was bioluminescent algae and algae grazers on the ceiling and on the water.
Yet, what astonished us the most was the coral blooms. Great spirals of it looping above and below the water. In the water, we could see what must have been predators with eyes on their upper surface looking for creatures clinging to the unsubmerged coral and the vaulted ceiling. Creatures using the same strategies for motion that evolved on Earth — paddling, squirting and rippling cilia.
The water was salt free, doubtless because the ocean had been planet wide. On Earth, salt in the ocean comes from two sources: run-off from the land and vents in the sea floor. Here there is no land run-off. As for the salts coming from the volcanic activity, they would be confined to the lower depths where they would be used by whatever life is down there. Consider too, that on Earth, salinity is very low at the poles. We counted our blessings that we only needed to boil the water before we drank it rather than having to desalinize it.
We periodically returned to the Shackleton to gather our gear. We stay busy cataloging the life forms here. It’s an amazing eco-system that keeps us entertained and well-fed. We’ve had a few close calls with the local sea monsters. We’ve named them sea wolves, since they are covered in thick coarse fur, canine snouts, and rows of razor-sharp teeth. They are the apex predator down here.
Unusual sighting: blue humanoid Gill Man walking upright along a coral column. He looked like he was harvesting polyps. When he saw us, he dove back into the water. Now we must be wary of the Creature from the Blue Lagoon as well as the sea wolves.
Gill Man climbed onto the ice beach, walked up to Crenshaw, and touched his bare hand. Then he turned and dove back into the water. Crenshaw was beside himself. His mental state got worse as the day progressed because his skin started turning blue.
Crenshaw doesn’t look or act like Crenshaw anymore. Refuses to wear clothes. His skin from head to toe is sky blue and is manifesting incipient gills around his neck. His eyes have become protuberant–bulging like those of a fish.
Crenshaw dove into the sea and never came up for air. He had become an aquatic creature on a frigid alien world. I wondered how he faired with all the other gill people. Did they speak to one another? Or was it an unspoken language? Was there a culture of sorts, a religion, a system of government? Or were they like dolphins, with a limited intelligence born of a purely aquatic and therefore limiting existence? I must know these things, and sooner or later, I will.
I took off my gloves and sat by the water’s edge. I had been there a little over an hour when a Gill Man popped his head from the water, reached over and clasped my bare hands. From his odd fish-like face, I couldn’t tell if he had once been Crenshaw. But the congenial and gentle way he touched my hands, I suspected it had to be. So, now I wait. My hands have turned the tell-tale blue. I suspect by morning, I will be a blue man all over, and by the next day, a creature wholly of the sea before me. This, therefore, is my final entry. Whoever finds this diary should know I have no regrets about my choices in life though they led me to this premature end to my humanity. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, I have followed “Knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
End of Diary
Resuming Report of Captain Mason
In short order, we found the tunnel described by captain Lamont as well as the great cavern and lake of alien life. When we had finished our initial survey, we boarded the pod. I saw three figures emerge from the water and stand on a coral arch. They stood there watching us.
The crew of the Shackleton, for better or worse, had become a part of Hyperborea. They had passed through an arch to a gleaming untraveled world beneath the water. In that moment of reflection, I wondered if that body of liquid would be named after its discoverer alone, or would the entire crew share in the glory of having been the first men to explore the Shackleton Sea. Questions for minds better suited to such things than mine. Like Lamont, I too was an explorer. One cursed with an itch for things remote. An itch that might one day be my undoing or my fulfillment, or as in the case of Lamont, both.
Carlton Herzog publishes supernatural horror, science fiction and crime stories. His work portrays characters who are outsiders to ordinary life, depictions of otherworldly dimensions, and dark visions of humanity. He is a USAF veteran with a B.A. magna cum laude and J.D. from Rutgers. He served as Articles Editor of the Rutgers Law Review.
The story should be seen through the eyes of Mr. Darwin, whose work had inspired it. The last paragraph to later editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species summarizes his views as follows: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”