My love affairs were starting to get out of hand. My love affairs, and my drinking. It was no way for a particle physicist to behave. There was nothing for it, they said, but to send me to the South Pole.
“For how long?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that right now,” they said.
Don’t worry about it? The South Pole?
“Think of it as a chance to… reassess” they said.
And then they stuck me on the plane.
Three days later I stood at the end of the ice runway at the Amundsen-Scott Station watching the last grey Hercules transport fly out for the winter. It was already minus thirty degrees – and the sun wasn’t due to set for another four weeks.
Johansen the engineer put his giant arm around my shoulders.
“For the next eight months nobody comes in and nobody goes out!” he shouted over the wind, as the aircraft disappeared into the low cloud. He took a swig from his hip flask and handed it to me.
“A toast to the skeleton crew!”
Then he fell over and passed out in the snow
Welcome to the South Pole. Population – for the next eight months anyway – forty-seven over wintering scientists and technicians. On essential maintenance duties only.
Oh, and one alien monster, accidentally woken from its million-year-long slumber beneath the ice.
Dr Kristina Gjennestad pounded away at the running machine in the gym, like she did every morning.
In her native Norway she was an Olympic cross country skier, a swimmer, a runner of marathons and ultra marathons. Snowbound now, her smooth, muscular thighs still strained to escape the limitations of her thermal underwear and carry her, stotting like a gazelle, off across the Antarctic plateau.
I was a little bit obsessed with Dr Kristina Gjennestad. I wanted to make love to her on a glacier while the Aurora Australis crackled and whooped over our heads. Unfortunately she knew exactly what I was up to and wanted nothing whatsoever to do with me.
“You don’t find the creature fascinating?” she was saying. “From a purely scientific point of view?”
She was hardly breaking a sweat. She was magnificent.
It was the neutrino detector that had disturbed it. Neutrinos are basically the most useless particles in the universe. They don’t interact with anything. There are billions of them streaming through your body right now. Doesn’t even tickle, does it? In fact, just about the only way to detect them is to bury the instruments so deep in the ice that there’s absolutely nothing else to obscure the signal – should a random neutrino decide to do everyone a favour and actually make itself known.
Unfortunately deep in the ice is where you tend to find the frozen alien monsters too.
To be honest, I told Dr Kristina Gjennestad, the thing made me nervous. For a start it looked like an inside-out crocodile doing an impression of an octopus. Plus, it had a habit of hanging around in the ice tunnels underneath the base and eating people.
Dr Kristina Gjennestad made no attempt to hide her disappointment in me.
To our credit, for the first month or so we all tried to pretend we had work to do. I was supposed to be analysing some data on high-energy muon-to-tau oscillations that someone, somewhere was supposed to be interested in. I stared at the numbers for a couple of hours every day without making any progress whatsoever, waiting until it was time to get drunk and go snowmobile racing.
The party to celebrate the sun finally going down lasted for three days.
After that everyone gave up on the charade that we were going to get anything done. We spent most of our time sitting around in our pants playing cards and drinking and telling physics jokes while outside the wind screamed by at one hundred and fifty miles an hour in the polar night.
Johansen had left a wife and a six-month-old baby girl at home. They were planning, eventually, to buy a house back in Sweden. “All I have to do is make it through the winter without gambling away my earnings,” he told me.
It wasn’t going well. He already owed me ten grand, and he was in hock to the Danes for another twenty on top of that.
“Fucking Danes!” He shouted.
The Danes had the place stitched up. You couldn’t clean the rime off an anemometer without asking the Danes first. Don’t let anybody tell you any different: the South Pole is basically one big Scandinavian turf war.
At least the Finns mostly kept themselves to themselves.
The monster, meanwhile, was picking people off one by one. Martinez disappeared from one of the tractor sheds during a three-day blizzard. Espenson stepped outside to check the alignment of a satellite dish and was never seen again. Opinion was divided on whether Antonopolous had been eaten or had just accidentally locked himself in a cupboard somewhere and starved to death (apparently he had form).
All through the darks months of May and June we did battle with the beast. We tracked it through the ice tunnels. We chased it with flamethrowers. Sometimes the fuel would run out and it would chase us back, flailing around with its tentacles and all those teeth.
Then it got cocky and started ambushing people inside the base. In the shower. On the toilet. It appeared to have a sense of humour. Not much of a sense of humour, admittedly, but under the circumstances we took what we could get.
By July there were less than thirty of us left. Being scientists, we decided to hold a conference. We needed ideas.
“Maybe we can reason with it,” said Takegashi, “perhaps using some sort of basic mathematical language?”
“Maybe this is a cry for help,” said Nichols, “maybe it’s depressed.”
“Everyone’s depressed,” said Trofimov, “it’s the modern condition! Try competing for funding with those bastards running the Large Hadron Collider: that’d give it something to be depressed about!”
“Could we blow it up?” said Garcia.
“What about electrocution? Or some sort of man-made virus?” said Chang.
“Maybe it’s homesick,” said Guttmann.
“Maybe this is its home,” said Dr Kristina Gjennestad, of course. “Did you ever think of that? Any of you? Maybe it was here first.”
We were all quiet then, cowed by her steely Norwegian gaze and spectacular physique.
“I still think we should blow it up,” whispered Garcia, when he was sure she wasn’t looking.
Sixty five million years ago Antarctica still had a tropical climate. Dinosaurs capered among giant ferns, magnolias and redwood trees. Life was everywhere. Then continental drift and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current got to work and buried everything under four miles of ice.
There’s evidence that some form of life still exists down there underneath the ice cap, in isolated lakes that haven’t seen daylight since the Cretaceous period.
If so, it’s likely to be pissed off. Not to say unstable.
Who wouldn’t be?
After all, we’d only been cut off from civilisation for a few months, and look at the state of us.
By the middle of August we were down to twenty barely-able-bodied men and women. We’d lost three PhD students and a tenured professor in the explosion that took out Garcia’s lab. Sunrise was still weeks away, and the first relief flight wasn’t due until the end of October.
We were in a bad way.
There were arguments and fistfights and desperate, ill-advised sexual liaisons. Johansen had managed to mortgage his daughter’s potential income for the next eighty-five years and was getting through two bottles of schnapps a day (actually I tended to help him out with at least one of the bottles).
The temptation, sometimes, to just step outside and surrender to the elements was generally acknowledged.
And every day Dr Kristina Gjennestad put in the same five miles on the running machine.
“Peter,” she told me one morning over breakfast, “I think I’m in love.”
She looked radiant.
“With me?” I said, hopefully.
“No, you idiot,” she said, “with it. With the thing. With the monster.”
This was a blow.
“Is that… wise?” I asked.
That was a mistake.
“God, you’re just like my father!” she shouted. “What’s wrong with all your boyfriends, Kristina? How do you expect to win if you don’t train every day, Kristina? If you’d been a better daughter your mother wouldn’t have left us, Kristina!”
Then she threw her orange juice in my face, got up and left.
She didn’t get very far: we’d barricaded most of the base off a couple of weeks back, so she had to make do with standing at the end of the corridor glowering at me.
After a while she gave up and went back to the gym.
October the fifth. Evening. Or morning. Or night. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.
The sun has been up since the twenty first of September.
If we thought things were going to get better with the end of the endless night, we were wrong. Things look much, much worse in the cold light of day.
Under the midnight sun there’s nowhere left to hide – from the monster or from ourselves.
Dr Kristina Gjennestad disappeared a week ago. I like to think that she and the creature are living happily together in one of the abandoned outbuildings. The rest of us have moved into tents – Johansen burnt down the only remaining habitable part of the base trying to set up a moonshine operation to get the Danes off his back.
The relief flight is due to arrive in a week, if we survive that long. To be honest, nobody cares that much anymore. There are only seven of us left, and we keep ourselves to ourselves.
I’ve taken to going for long walks out on the ice, following the sun as it circles the horizon. It’s nice and quiet out there. The sound of my frozen breath is the only thing that reminds me I’m still alive.
That’s how I met the monster.
I have no idea what it was doing out there. Maybe the same as me. We recognised each other from a good mile away.
When I was close enough it stopped scanning the horizon and turned all of its eyes to me. Its horrible features rippled for a second, as if it was trying to match my expression. Somewhere, deep in there, I thought I saw something like empathy.
That said, I hadn’t slept in days and I was, of course, drunk.
Draw your own conclusions.
Either way, the moment gone, the creature went back to watching the skies. It didn’t follow me when I started back for the camp, and I haven’t seen it since.
But I think it helped me work out why we all ended up here, at the end of the world.
We’re like neutrinos.
All our lives we’ve been travelling at the speed of light, never gaining mass, unable to interact properly with anything. Or with anyone. All our lives we’ve been waiting for the moment when someone spots our impossibly brief signature as it lights up the ice.
Yes? No? Maybe?
Seriously, that’s the best I can do. If you want anything else you’ll have to ask Johansen. God knows he could use someone to talk to.
As for me, I’ve got a plan. I’ve been collecting provisions and scavenging equipment. The McMurdo station is eight hundred miles away, on the other side of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, and I think I can make it on foot.
I think I can walk out of here.
Wish me luck.
[This story was performed by the magnificent Mr Paul Clarke at the fantastic Liar’s League ‘Tooth and Claw’ night in October 2012]