As the coast of Antarctica came into view from the US Air Force C-17, those who had been to the ice before stayed seated, earplugs in place, trying to catch up on the sleep they had lost while crossing from North America to the jumping-off point in New Zealand. The new hands climbed out of the webbing perches that folded down from the naked walls of the fuselage and crowded around the two small portholes in the passenger doors, trying to get a squint at the measureless white world they would inhabit for the coming months.
Valena Walker was more assertive than the rest. Taking advantage of the fact that she was, by some quirk, the only woman on board, she moved to the desk at the bottom of the steps that led up to the flight deck and asked the loadmaster if she could climb up there for a better look. He gave her an appreciative smile, spoke into the microphone on his headset for a moment, then waved her up.
Climbing up the steps was somewhat difficult. As was required of all passengers—pax, in military jargon—traveling to Antarctica, she was dressed in ECWs, extreme cold weather gear. She had slipped out of the giant down parka emblazoned with its US Antarctic Program patch but still wore two layers of polypropylene underwear, thick black wind pants with suspenders, and, most cumbersome of all, giant blue boots. FDXs, they were called, another abbreviation for the growing list of Antarctic speak. The boots were glorified couch cushions with Vibram soles. The thick, insulated fabric and leather toes and heels of the uppers were a fetching royal blue. Inside these voluminous outer layers were two thick felt inner soles and quilted liners, and just to make certain she was warm enough, Clothing Issue had supplied her with extra-thick wool socks. Her feet were damp with sweat. Nothing daunted, she thumped up the steps and presented herself on the flight deck.
Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw over the pilots’ shoulders. Beyond the arc of the windshields lay . . . what? Those were mountains, certainly—they had to be part of the Transantarctic Range, as by her reckoning their flight path was taking them over Victoria Land—but everything was backward. Instead of dark, tree-swathed masses capped by snow, the mountains were bare fins of naked rock sticking up through . . . ice . . . which was . . . incredibly white—no, bluish-white—and . . . it looked oddly familiar . . . it looked . . . like . . .
It looked like whipped cream! How strange. A whole continent made of pie topping. And beyond the mountains, the whiteness rose and became the horizon, endless, unimaginably vast. The Polar Plateau, a sheet of ice miles thick and as broad as the continental US. Add to that the ice sheet of West Antarctica, and it was seven million cubic miles of ice, too great a number to comprehend. And there were no familiar objects to suggest scale.
Valena turned to the captain. “How high up are we?”
“Thirty-five thousand feet,” he replied.
Six and a half miles. The confectionary swirl of chocolate mountains notched by whipped cream glaciers went on and on, trackless mile after mile—no, think in kilometers now, Valena reminded herself—hundreds, no, thousands of square kilometers spread below her with not the tiniest mark of human passage. Nothing in this alien landscape offered her eye a reliable scale. Nothing lay beneath them but delectable whipped cream ice and chocolate mountain kisses. She saw not a tree, not a road, no cities, no towns, not even a lonely hut, no marks of man, and for that matter, no animals, plants . . . nothing but ice!
The coastline swung majestically out from under their route, revealing an embayment strewn with another pattern of white and blue, reminiscent of lace, even stranger than the flowing cream topping and edible mountains.
Smiling at her amazement, the captain spoke to her again. “This is Terra Nova Bay. Look at that glacier down there, where it flows into the ocean, see the cliff it forms! Imagine how high that has to be to be visible from way up here.”
Terra Nova, named for the ship Sir Robert Falcon Scott had sailed south for his last great, and fatal, attempt at reaching the South Pole! The very sound of the name shot a thrill through Valena. She had wanted to come here ever since her grandfather had read aloud to her and her cousins from Endurance, the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1917 attempt to cross the continent overland. Something in that story—their joy in adventure and their willingness to release themselves into the void—had filled her heart with longing, and she had followed that urge like a beacon down all the years that had culminated in this day.
“Are those ice floes?” she asked. It was early November, springtime in the southern hemisphere.
“Brash ice, to be specific.” Suddenly, the captain was all business. “It’s time for you to get back to your seat.”
“Will we be landing soon?” Valena asked, hoping to stay just a few minutes longer. “Can we see McMurdo Station from here?”
He shook his head. “It’s still half an hour to the south, but we’re heavy, so we’ll be flying around low and hard to burn off some fuel. Otherwise we can’t land. The sea ice runway is only seventy inches thick.”
“Seventy inches? That’s six feet.”
“We don’t like to take chances.”
“Take your time,” Valena told him. “I’ve come a long way, and I’ve been planning to come to Antarctica for sixteen years. I don’t want my visit to end just as I arrive.”
“Sixteen years? You barely look that old. Younger than my daughter.”
“I am twenty-four,” Valena answered, more stiffly than she had intended. It bugged her that people underestimated her age. She needed every bit of respect she could get to make it in the competitive world of science.
The pilot’s attention lingered on her face, examining each of her features with a look of intellectual abstraction.
He wants to know my heritage, she decided. Everybody asked sooner or later, or looked like they wanted to, but it never made it any easier for her to take. She wanted to tell him, You’re right, keep looking, I don’t fit in anywhere. But here I am in Antarctica! She stared back at him, willing him to look into her eyes. When he did, he flushed slightly, and the muscles of his cheeks bunched into an uncomfortable smile. Having extracted this price for his curiosity, she thanked him for allowing her on the flight deck and went back downstairs to her seat.
An hour and a half later the jet touched down and rumbled to a stop on the sea ice runway next to Ross Island. Valena was sitting in the seat closest to the passenger door but could not see out through its tiny round window. Antarctica is right out there, she told herself. No longer a dream. I am here at last on the ice.
An enlisted man moved to that door and popped it open. Instantaneously, all moisture on the aircraft shattered into ice as the warm, humid New Zealand air she had been breathing was sucked away into the emptiness of outside. It was as if some cold monster had put its lips to the doorway.
That’s exactly what did happen, Valena thought, her mind reaching out into the frozen white wilderness beyond to take in each and every sensation. But that monster is Antarctica!
She stabbed her arms into the sleeves of the giant red parka that had been issued to her in Christchurch. Instantly, she felt warmth returning to her as the dense surrounding of down cuddled back heat that it gathered from her own fragile flesh. The parka was heavy and bulky, like a wearable sleeping bag. It’s true, she realized. It really is this cold here. And this dry.
Falling into line behind the other passengers, she juggled her duffel bags and stumbled down the steps onto the ice. The ice! “See you on the ice,” her professor had told her, as he’d left Reno two weeks ahead of her. So this was what was meant by that salutation! She staggered around in a drunken pirouette in her loose, toasty warm clothing and voluminous boots, taking in the scene. The ice spread flat and cold and white for miles in every direction except to the north, where the island rose in steep volcanic cones from a chaotic fringe of ice pressure ridges. The thin civilization of McMurdo Station clung like a mass of barnacles to an amphitheater of naked black basalt between the nearest cones. She set down her duffels and reached into one of the array of patch pockets that encrusted the front of her parka, searching for her camera.
“Keep moving!” someone barked. “You can take your pictures later!”
Valena turned to face the man who had spoken so brusquely. Why was he in such a hurry? Like everyone else around her, he was covered from chin to mid-thigh in the blaze red of a huge, standard-issue expedition parka, and from there down by the black insulated wind pants. He had pulled a brightly colored fleece fool’s cap down tightly over his brow, its levity incongruous above his scowl. Staring past her into nothingness, he swung his arm briskly from the shoulder, exhorting her to hurry toward a looming red vehicle that had been cheerfully emblazoned in white letters as ivan the terra bus.
Valena craned her neck. Ivan was huge. Its passenger compartment was not much bigger than that of a standard school bus, but it was mounted atop six balloon tires, each taller than Valena. The driver’s side door was accessed via a ladder that was bolted to the side, and on the passengers’ side—well, most large buses had steps, but this was a full staircase. Everything here was completely out of scale with anything she had seen before.
She picked up her duffels and shuffled toward the bus. Climbed the stairs. Found a seat. Looked around. The other passengers stared out the scratched windows, exhausted but wired. She gazed from face to face, trying to figure out which of these people were scientists like herself—here on grants from the National Science Foundation or NASA—and which were employees of Raytheon Polar Services, the contractor that provided all the infrastructure support that would soon put her out in a field camp on the ice, far beyond the jarring hustle and bustle of this arrival.
The scowling driver climbed aboard, closed the door, and put Ivan in gear. Off they went across the ice toward the island and its harsh jumble of steel buildings. At the edge of the ice, the road pitched steeply upward, then turned between the hash of metal buildings. Like the bus, some of the structures had names painted on them: Royal Society. Hotel California. Everything rolled past too quickly in a chaos of impressions, until the bus pulled up in front of a wooden building that looked like a Swiss chalet. It looked like part of a movie set, no more real than anything else she was seeing.
The driver opened the door and got out. The other passengers rose and headed down the aisle toward the stairs. She followed them, peering through the windows for her first glimpse of her wandering professor. Emmett Vanderzee had a way of getting lost sometimes, mostly in his head, but he was a brilliant man, and the work he was doing was essential. He and an assistant had come south a week ahead of her, “to look after a few details from last year,” he had told her.
But where was he? All the people gathered outside to greet the arrivals looked alike in their red parkas, like a gaggle of bad Santa Claus impersonators. Even so, Emmett should have been easy to pick out: he was tall and angular, and, even bundled in a big red parka, his pale narrow face and long curving nose and crooked smile would be visible, a combination of attributes that gave him the aspect of a curious camel. If he wasn’t wearing a hat she would spot his thin rooster-tail of unkempt, graying hair, and if he had forgotten his sunglasses, she would see his soft, inward-gazing blue eyes.
She looked from face to face. He wasn’t there. Perhaps he was waiting for her inside the chalet, where everyone from the bus was now heading, first stacking their orange duffel bags on the porch. She followed along, peering into every face she passed, growing anxious. He’d said that there would be a briefing that would go by way too fast for a “fingie”—whatever that was—but that he would be there, to help her put everything in context and so that they could get right to work preparing for their field deployment.
She pushed through the door into an airlock, passing a sign instructing all visitors to take off their crampons before entering, and continued through the inner door into a small assembly room that had been prepared with chairs, a screen, and a projector. Emmett wasn’t here, either.
The in-brief was an overwhelming flood of instructions presented by an array of National Science Foundation and Raytheon section chiefs in rapid monotones. To check out keys to your dorm room, go to building such-and-such and see so-and-so. To check out a vehicle, see this blah-de-blah in building mumbled number. Raytheon employees have training sessions here and science grantees will meet there. Don’t bug Raytheon personnel in the dining hall; make an appointment to see them in their offices. Wash your hands after using the bathroom and before meals so you don’t spread the crud. Put your sunglasses on even when passing between buildings; if the UV doesn’t get you, the blowing grit will. Don’t leave McMurdo before you’ve gone through Happy Camp. Don’t go anywhere without checking out. After hours, call the fire department for phone numbers. Fill out this form. And this one. And this one. Make sure you recycle. Do this, don’t do that. Don’t screw up. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
The United States, Reno, and the Desert Research Institute seemed long ago and far away, figments of another planet.
At last this firing-squad introduction to How to Survive in McMurdo was over and everybody was standing up. They had arrived too late for supper, so someone was handing out another round of sack lunches. Eating seemed a good idea, but what was she supposed to do after that? Where in hell was Emmett? Or, where in . . . the ice?
She heard her name being called: “Valena Walker? Is Valena Walker here?”
She turned. A tall, bearded man was moving toward her. “Ah, there you are,” he said, reading the name tag on her parka. “Would you come into my office, please?” He gestured toward an inner door. He wasn’t smiling.
Valena followed him, her big blue boots thumping on the floorboards. Something was wrong, that much was now certain. Her stomach felt like it was full of sand.
The man closed the door behind them. “Have a seat,” he said.
Valena sat, clutching her flight lunch. What was his name? During the in-brief, he had been introduced as the National Science Foundation’s top representative here in McMurdo, el jefe, the man in charge of all of the scientists, but had used up copious amounts of his welcoming message trying to persuade everyone that they should not believe or spread rumors. She now watched him acutely as he paced slowly across the room, searching his stiff posture for clues about what he was about to say. Had Emmett been injured? Was he sick? Where was he?
The man reached the far wall of the room, turned, started back. He wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at the floor. That was bad.
“Is something the matter?” she asked, feeling like she was reading from a poorly written script. This was not how it was supposed to be. She was in Antarctica. She had worked hard, had excelled in science, had moved heaven and earth to get into the Antarctic program, and now . . . where in hell was Emmett Vanderzee?
“I’m George Bellamy,” the man said. “Well, you know that; I was just introduced to all of you right outside that door.” He stopped pacing, his face twisting with discomfort. “Well, uh . . . I have some bad news for you. Uh, very sad, um . . . well, your PI—uh, the principal investigator of your project, Emmett Vanderzee?—uh, well, he I am sure meant to be here to greet you, but, ah . . . well . . .” He crimped his face into an unfunny smile, as if he’d just been stung by a bee on one cheek.
“Well then, um . . . where is he?”
“He’s on an LC-130 Hercules,” he said.
“An LC-130. Oh, I see. He’s been delayed coming in from checking his field locations, then . . . or whatever it was he had to do before I got here.”
Bellamy blinked. “He—no, no, he’s been redeployed.”
“He’s going north,” Bellamy snapped, as if speaking to a student who had been caught daydreaming.
“North.” Valena quickly computed the implications and permutations of the word. Okay, this man is speaking in present tense, so that means that Emmett is not dead, but why would he be heading to New Zealand? “Has Dr. Vanderzee been injured?” she asked.
Bellamy shook his head vigorously. “No. No . . .” He began to pace again.
Valena tracked his movement. Well, if Emmett’s not dead, and he’s not sick or injured, and whatever is wrong with him is making this man really, truly uncomfortable, then what exactly is the problem? She cleared her throat. Waited. Spoke. “And he’s on a plane going north because . . . ?”
“Hm. Well, I can’t tell you that, exactly. In fact, I am not sure, myself. And the less said about this, the better.” He let out an uncomfortable laugh. “McMurdo is a rumor mill. We must be careful not to feed it!”
“Now, as regards your status here, I’m sorry to say that we can’t get you on a plane until at least Tuesday.”
Valena jumped to her feet, dropping her sack lunch on the floor. “Wait! Isn’t Emmett coming back?”
“Well, that is to be determined, I suppose.” He presented her with a dismissive smile, a man done with an awkward duty. Stepping behind his desk, he said, “Now, you must be tired, so you’ll want to get situated in your dorm room, and—”
Valena raised her hands in entreaty. “But I’m here to do research for my master’s degree!”
Bellamy shook his head sadly. “I know this must be a terrible disappointment. We should have caught you in Christchurch this morning and saved you the flight, but we did reach the other student on your project—Taha Hesan? He hadn’t left Reno yet, so we were able to put him on hold. But, well, now you’re here, so . . . well, as I say, we can get you out in a few days. I’ll just need you to be discreet.”
Valena’s self-control began to slip. “He’s not coming back?”
Bellamy flipped a hand toward the ceiling in frustration. “This could all be cleared up, I suppose, and we’d get Dr. Vanderzee on the next available flight south again, but scheduling here in Antarctica is always tight. The next several flights south are filled, and there are frequent delays due to the weather. Antarctica is the land of delays! Nothing ever quite goes according to plan, and after a while it wouldn’t be worth continuing, because the season will simply fly by.”
“What could be cleared up?” she said, and then, her voice hitting a keen pitch, demanded, “Tell me what’s going on here!”
“Dr. Vanderzee . . . had to leave to attend a hearing.”
“A hearing? What kind of hearing?”
Bellamy’s face darkened ominously. “A man dies in your camp, there are matters to be cleared up. Surely you understand that.”
A thin ringing noise filled Valena’s ears. She sat down and tried to brace her elbows on her knees, which felt oddly gelatinous. “That journalist died of altitude sickness,” she said.
“Indeed he did. And I’m sure that will all come out in the hearing. Now, Ms. Walker, I’m sure this is all a shock to you, but . . . well, I really can’t tell you anything more, because you see it’s all got to be kept confidential, and I need you to, uh, keep everything I’ve just said to you in strictest confidence. The US Antarctic Program does not need this kind of publicity!” His hands suddenly seemed to have left his voluntary control and began to fly around like great sallow moths. “We do the finest science, and we struggle and slave to get the word out, and now this!”
Valena stared up into his face. “I am here to continue Dr. Vanderzee’s excellent work.” She wanted to add, And this is not going to stop me, but her words had grown thick, and she couldn’t get them to come out of her mouth. Huge government programs were an abstraction to her. Her priorities lay in her thesis work and what lay beyond it: having participated in Emmett Vanderzee’s critically important study of rapid climate change, she intended to roll on through a doctoral program, thereby earning a position at the DRI—the Desert Research Institute in Reno, which was world famous for work in cold deserts like Antarctica—and begin her own projects, which would bring her back to the ice again and again. “I—I’ll phone the other people on the project and get back to you in the morning with a revised plan,” she managed at last.
Bellamy nodded his head like a woodpecker. “Certainly. Certainly.”
Even though she was swathed in layers of down and fleece, Valena felt cold. She was ten thousand miles from home, exhausted, and had no idea whom to turn to for help. Bellamy had an agenda, and it did not include her. If she didn’t get out of his office soon, her tears would flow, and she did not want him to see them. She needed time to think, to get her emotions back under control. She stood up and headed out of his office and toward the outer door.
“I need your word that you will keep our conversation in strictest confidence,” Bellamy called after her.
Valena turned, said, “I’m scheduled for survival training day after tomorrow, and—so that’s what I am going to do.”
“As long as you exercise the utmost discretion. We probably can’t get you on a flight until Wednesday, anyway. Watch the bulletin board near the entrance to the galley. They’ll post your flight north. Make sure you’re on it.”
Valena’s chill suddenly turned to heat. She turned and gave the big man with the pale hands a quick but defiant stare, then shoved open the door that led into the airlock, bowing her head against the cold blast of air that awaited her outside.
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Andrews. All rights reserved.