Wrote this up for submission last year – unfortunately, and I did see this coming, it didn’t really jive with the atmosphere they were after. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Below the Mountain
What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me
Turn around quick, and start to run
Find out I’m the chosen one
“Would you please turn that crap off? I’m trying to get through this before lecture,” the young man said, casting an angry glare over his shoulder.
“Ah, take off, man, Sabbath’s a classic!” his colleague called back, not bothering to turn away from the laptop. A tinny guitar riff pushed the speakers to the limit, more buzz than distortion.
“Philistine…” the first man mumbled, returning to the sheaf of paper on his desk.
“Ah, good, I was hoping you two would be here – it’ll save me having to write up an email,” said a third man, middle-aged, who entered the cluttered office looking down at a clip-board.
“I’ve been asked to spend a few weeks up in Auyuittuq. Apparently this mining company, Bleiercom, has discovered something weird near Mount Thor – they were using some new imaging technology and it gave them some unexpected read-outs,” he looked up from the sheet he’d been examining. “You’ll have heard the Tories a couple of years back – ‘Canada’s North is open for business’ – well, I guess this is what it looks like. Hopefully, with us there, we can at least soften some of the damage they’ll do.” He shifted a few of the sheets, flipping the board so that they hung loosely over the top.
“I hope you boys didn’t have any Christmas plans, as we’ll be headed up there Tuesday next week and it’ll run through the holidays, most likely. Rush tickets, but the company have, thankfully, said they’d provide everything. We’ll go and see what this is all about, and then maybe get an early start on the dig we wanted to do out in Tanfield, as we’ll be up there already. I’ll let you sort out someone to cover your classes.” He left the office as abruptly as he had come, calling the last sentence as he walked down the hall.
“Maron’, Schuler, don’t you hate it when Frore does this to us? We’re grad students, not god-damn slaves!” said the metal-head, running a hand through greasy hair and looking flustered. “Now I’m gonna have to cancel that flight back to Montreal, and I didn’t buy insurance for it or nothing, and I’m gonna lose the money, and my ma is gonna be pissed…” he turned back to his computer, opening a number of tabs angrily. “Vanabola! I don’t even like the cold! What am I doing a degree in Arctic Archaeology for? Maybe pa is right, maybe I am just a scustumad’!” The soliloquy was peppered with wild hand gestures, as Carbone, which was the young man’s surname, battled with his imagined interlocutor. The first man, Schuler, merely watched his frenetic companion. This was nothing new, this sort of tantrum. A strange, calculating look had settled in his blue eyes, though – a look that had taken hold at the first mention of Mount Thor.
At Pearson, there was someone from Bleiercom waiting for them – mid-level management, complete with cheap suit and a subordinate with a sign. Schuler noted that there were a few other names on the list, and figured that the small group clustered around must be them. Suspicions confirmed when the suited man called out
“Professor Frore? Professor Frore, over here! Cutting it a bit close aren’t we?” the man said, looking at his watch exaggeratedly. “Name’s Johnson, Andy Johnson. HR Head, Toronto office. And this must be…” he looked at the sign, “Joe Carbone and…Caspar Schuler? Swell. You’re the last we were waiting for. Have you got the tickets, Barnes?” he said to his lackey. “C’mon, c’mon, the tickets!” The other man struggled to both hold the sign and dig out the tickets from his brief case. “Here, I’ll do it!” said Johnson, wrenching the case from the other man’s hands. Within a few minutes, the others milling about awkwardly, Johnson had distributed the tickets to their appropriate owners. “Now, daily reports, Barnes, I want daily reports!” he shouted over his shoulder as he ushered the others towards the gate. Barnes breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of him. He couldn’t imagine a better holiday, even if -he- still had to go to work.
The rush through the check-in didn’t leave much time for introductions, but Schuler took a moment to look at his co-travellers. Himself, Carbone and the Professor, as well as HR Johnson and a few other equally ill-suited individuals, and a girl. He took another look – she must have been closer to 20, though quite small. She caught him looking at her as she manhandled her baggage onto the conveyor, and smiled. It wasn’t until they’d made it to the terminal and won a few minutes respite that she came up to him and said
“Hi! I’m Anna – Casper, right? Like the ghost?” Her smile deflated the insult, or at least tried to. He looked at her blankly as Carbone came up.
“Hey babe, nice threads!” he said, shifting his hair out of his face. “I’m Joe!”
“Uh, thanks?” she said, looking him over and frowning at both before she walked away.
“What’d I say?” Carbone asked, looking at Schuler.
Unclasping the tray from the seat ahead, he took out his notebook and opened it at random. The pages were covered in ink, dense, but directed. No scribbles or rushed thoughts here. A crash cut in from the seat next to him – he looked over and saw that, though he was already sleeping, Carbone had switched on one of the in-flight movies. Some forgettable blockbuster, complete with over-the-top explosions that could be heard from the other man’s cheap head-phones. Schuler looked at him a moment, noticed with disgust the dandruff that dusted the man’s ears and greasy hair, the week’s growth of beard that curled tightly over the pock-marked skin. Sighing through his frown, he turned back to his bag and fished out his own head-phones. Nothing for it, no sense in fighting with him over the film. He thumbed his iPod to life, and the Palestrina filled his ears. The interplay of the voicing, the counterpoint as each played off the other to build something greater than the sum of its parts, put him at ease. He looked over at Carbone again, this time his hot disdain transmuted by the music to a remote disappointment. How could they both, Palestrina and Carbone, share an Ancestry? The other man shifted in his seat, burrowing further, and rubbing a plump, short-fingered hand across his thick-lipped mouth. How could, achieving the heights evident in their work, the people of Europe fall so far? He included all of Europe, as it wasn’t as if his own Teutonic brethren were any better off. And here they all came, to the New World, and devolved together. A final sigh, rueful, and Schuler turned back to his book.
Despite the pacifying, focusing nature of the motets, he found himself unable to concentrate on the neatly arrayed symbols. Here was all this data, he thought, flipping through more of the pages, all these theories and conjectures, reaching back into the dark days of Man, of his Childhood, but where was the evidence? What made any of this, this crazy web of connections, any more likely than conspiracies about the Illuminati or the like? Sure, there were all those things that happened down in New England a hundred years ago, but that wasn’t much more than rumour. What did he really have to go on here? How could he be sure that this wasn’t just another silly fiction cooked up by some low-life pot head, and thrown on to the Internet? He couldn’t.
And yet. He could feel that this was somehow right. It’s true, the connections, the cycles, they didn’t match up to a standard calendar, not to the modern one – but, if this was something older than Rome or the Catholic Church, why would it? He’d run the calculations, here was the hard data, flipping to a print-out stapled into the notebook – there was some thread that connected it all, and that couldn’t be faked. Every cycle, something big happened, something that shifted all the consciousness of the world. Last time, following on from whatever it may have been that happened in Massachusetts, great wars and the deaths of Empires. The time before that, the over-throw of the old aristocracy and the birth of new dreams, soon soured. And so on, all the way back to the start of recorded history. Every major event, every epochal shift, the links were there. Nothing so easy as the same symbols or words, though they were present often enough. No, it was deeper than that, something about the sense of it all, the patterns of it – something you wouldn’t see unless you had access to all the raw data, an emergent element from the background fuzz. If that kept happening, every time, surely that pointed to something, right?
Everything indicated that the cycle was about to turn over again, that it might already be starting. And that it had something, something very specific, to do with the Polar Regions, with Baffin Island. Maybe, thought Schuler, he’d be able to find his concrete evidence there. Settled, he thumbed to the end of the written pages, about two thirds of the way through the book. Diagrams, runes, scrawled lines in 17 different languages flashed by. Finally, he focused on what was in front of him – photographs of ancient pottery he’d pulled off the British Museum’s site last week, a stolen moment between tutorials and last minute prep.
After a quarter of an hour comparing these photos with another set, sourced from the Smithsonian, he noticed that Anna was watching him. Openly looking, not bothering to hide her interest. It was the first time he had looked at her, really, since they met in the terminal. From this close, he could see the roots of her hair where it was parted – blonde underneath that ridiculous black, almost the same tint as his own. He hadn’t really settled in to the work yet, there was something that left him restless, uneasy. He figured he might as well distract himself a moment.
“What?” he said, pulling a head-phone out of his ear just as Palestrina gave way to Mussorgsky.
“I’m bored. The movie selection sucks. Whatcha working on?” the girl, the young woman, asked.
Schuler thought a minute before answering, noncommittally, “Thesis stuff,” and turned back to his notes.
Anna pulled a face, wrinkling her nose at his offhand tone and rolling her eyes. She looked away, down the aisle. A few seconds later, though,
“Well, what is it, exactly? You’re some Social science-type, right? What’s that you’re looking at, Sumerian?”
Schuler abruptly twisted his head towards her, raising an eyebrow. “Comparative Religion, technically. How did you know that this is Sumerian?” he asked, more coolly than he felt.
“Pfft, don’t give me that look, man. You don’t have a monopoly on schooling, you know,” she said, her disdain meeting his condescension. “Comparative religion, eh? How’d you get stuck with ol’ Professor Polar Excess over there?”
Schuler looked across the aisle to where Frore sprawled in his chair, shirt rumpled and sandals askew, and had to admit to himself that the pun was apt.
“Cross-disciplinary work. Frore, on top of arctic arch, does cultural work too. Our research interests overlap enough that I do some of my studies with him.”
“K – but then what do the Sumerians have to do with anything in Northern Canada? And what’s that other stuff you’ve got – I don’t recognise it?”
“I did say I did -Comparative- Religion, didn’t I? You do have to look at -different– things to -compare- them, you know.” Childish response, but it fit the question, he felt. “This second set, it’s from the Anasazi culture down in the States, the Pueblo’s.” He must have been more distracted than he thought, to be encouraging the conversation.
“Oh, cool! That’s one of those Lost Civilisations, isn’t it? Neat!” Anna responded excitedly.
“Ha, not exactly,” Schuler said, “some of the latest information to come, climactic models, points to a pretty severe drought in North and Central America, just when it looks like the Pueblo abandoned their settlements. Chances are, it got too dry and they left for greener pastures. No more romantic than that. These pictograms,” he said, passing her the photos, and fishing another set from his bag, “are, as near as we can tell, from right before then.”
“But still, didn’t they, like, disappear or move or whatever only a couple hundred years ago? The Sumerians, they’re ancient. Like, Dawn of Civilisation, ancient. What’s to be compared there?”
“Because, it looks like the same thing may have happened to them,” he answered, distantly. After having some sort of internal struggle, he continued “Look, this isn’t technically stuff for my PhD, it’s a bit of a side-project. I’d appreciate you not mentioning it to Frore, we’ve had it out a few times over where and how I spend my time.” He tried his best to look winning, contorting his patrician face.
“Sure, whatever,” Anna responded. “No big deal to me. What do you mean, though, ‘the same thing’? They were totally different, weren’t they? Different times, different places.”
“You’re not wrong, but I’ve been seeing this come up a lot, almost like a, a thread that weaves through all human cultures. You get these big, strong empires, and then something shifts, and, within a generation, or a few, they’ve completely gone. Now, with the Sumerians, the accepted version is that they were conquered and absorbed by the Akkadians, to the north, and eventually became Babylonia, right?” Anna nodded. “But, this passage here,” Schuler said, indicating with a long finger the photos, “talks about a new religion, a kind of cult, gaining power in the South-East, near the ocean, and spreading before the eventual take-over. And then, they just disappear.”
“They can’t have just disappeared – surely it’s just that we don’t have the artefacts. This was thousands of years ago, how can we be sure we’ve even got the right translation, never mind the full story?” Anna said, doubtful. Schuler smiled – despite himself, he was taking a liking to her. He didn’t usually like people.
“I would agree with you, you’re right to be sceptical, but it just keeps happening – these pictographs, and this, this is a Navajo myth, about the Anasazi,” he said, flipping the notebook back a few pages, “they talk about a cult, a cannibalistic cult, that shows up right before our best estimation of the abandonment of that area. It’s not necessarily widely accepted, and the translation is second-hand, but, look, see that pictograph? Best anyone can tell, that means water. And see? See how it shows up throughout in connection to this other figure, the stylised-man one? That would seem to indicate a water-man, a man-from-the-sea. Again, we have a new group, associated with the sea, right before a collapse.”
Anna looked at him, doubtful. “That’s pretty thin evidence to go on…” she started.
Schuler realised he’d been leaning forward, over-excited in his explanation. He sat back, looking at the grey and blue patterned chair ahead of him.
“That’s fair,” he said. “In this instance. We’ve pretty conclusive evidence that it did happen, though, to the Egyptians. We can read their ancient texts, as well as anything, and they clearly make reference to ‘peoples of the Sea.’ Ramses II fought them several times, and eventually they wore down both the Egyptians and the Hittites. But,” he went on, “they then disappear. Altogether. No more mention anywhere. At least, not under that name…”
“Pretty fanciful stuff there, boychik. If you’ve got all these crazy theories about the sea and the desert civilisations and all the rest, what’re you doing on a flight to Iqaluit?”
“Well, the Sea Peoples, they had to come from somewhere, right?” Schuler offered, cagey.
Anna looked at him, unbelieving. “You’re kidding, right? Have you met these people? They could barely get to the mainland before Europeans rocked up. The Eskimo aren’t your Sea People, no way.”
“No, of course not,” Schuler said, amused at the distress she showed, and noting her prejudiced attitude. “No, I don’t think the Inuit are the Sea People. I do, however, think there is something weird going on up there, and I’m willing to chase what leads I have. Anyways,” he said, changing the subject, “why are you on this mad trip of ours? Helluva way to spend Christmas.”
“Oh, they didn’t tell you? My last name’s Bleier, as in, of Bleiercom. I’m supposed to be spending the holidays with Dad – alternating between the rentals since they split back when I was a kid, just kept on with it, even though I guess I don’t really have to now. Dad’s going to be up at this dig or whatever all Christmas, so I’m headed up with you lot. I kinda feel like I owe him, what with the whole Ivy League education he’s bought me and all. Still, sometimes it’d just be nice to spend time with him, y’know? I’ve been all over the world with him or mom on holiday, but I never really get to see them, like?”
“My parents died when I was quite young,” Schuler said. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh! Um, sorry?” Anna offered weakly.
As the group shuffled into the room, a woman looked up from the duffle bag she was packing. A wide grin split her face, showing strong, white teeth.
“Hiya,” she said “name’s Tukkuyummavungga Aglukar – don’t worry,” she smiled at the blank to quizzical faces in front of her, “you can call me Tukku, everyone else does. I’m your lead chopper pilot – Asuilaak over there’ll fly the second one,” she motioned towards a window, where a bundled figure could be seen examining the tail rotor on one of the MD 500’s.
After the assorted introductions, she continued “Everyone ready? K, let’s get goin. Forecast this morning was good, but weather turns around quick this time of year. It’ll be an hour or so to base camp. Mr. Bleier got in two days ago, he’s already waiting for you all out there.”
Mount Thor thrust into vision from far out, kilometres out. As the two helicopters sped towards it, Schuler reflected on what Tukku had relayed over the chopper’s on-board radio – that Mount Thor, the whole valley, was considered a place of ill-omen by her ancestors. Somewhere to be avoided. She didn’t seem distressed herself, but then it was difficult to tell over the static-y two-way. As they approached, the scale of it – Earth’s largest vertical cliff – became apparent. Coming at it from the west, they could see the full extent of its kilometre-and-a-quarter sheer drop. It was easy to understand why someone would feel uneasy, even nauseated, with that mass of rock hanging above them. Inhuman proportions, enough to trouble the mind of the beholder. And it was just where they were headed. Schuler could see now, at the base of the mountain, a collection of retro-fitted shipping containers and tents, lights blazing against the Arctic winter’s early darkness.
“Ah, glad you could make it, Professor!” the ruddy faced man said as they entered the room. He strode forward, taking Frore by the hand. “Bleier, Alex Bleier. Sorry we couldn’t meet in person earlier, but I’ve come direct from one of our sites in South Africa. I trust your travels ran smoothly enough?” he said, looking at the others. A robust man, wearing a bomber jacket despite the heat lamps glowing away, he looked more like a professional adventurer than a mining magnate. “I was just going over some of the latest readouts, not that I can understand much of them myself – that’s what I pay these egg-heads for!” he said with a laugh, indicating with a sweep of his arm the technicians behind him. “Mighty queer business we’ve got here, like nothing I’ve seen before – and I’ve seen my fair share of oddities, I can tell you!” The force of the man, his vitality, completely over-shadowed the dour professor.
Catching a moment to interject, Frore said
“You know this is meant to be Natural Parkland, right, Mr. Bleier? And sacred land to the Inuit on top of that? I hope you’re not considering too sizeable an operation here.” The other man stopped laughing, in fact, the joviality drained from his face. One could see the steel that had won this man an empire, still present under the padding of years.
“So, that’s the score, is it, Professor? Well, best to have it out in the open from the start. I thought the Prime Minister’s Office made it pretty clear – we’re ushering in the future here, economic development. Or would you prefer to leave this place a wasteland?” Reflecting on the striking landscape bare inches of metal away from them, this struck Schuler as a bit off, but the delivery carried it. “I assure you, Professor, everything we’ve planned is legal. To the letter. Now – you have an hour or so to unpack and get settled – Siluk can show you you’re allotted quarters,” he indicated an unsmiling Inuit man behind him, “but then meet back here. There’s something I want you to see.”
The ice fell away at the hacking of the axe, the two men making short work of the half-foot or so covering. Underneath, still solidly frozen in place, the wall of stacked, unworked rock emerged.
“Clearly artificial,” the professor said to no one in particular. Shooing the others out of the way, he examined the exposed rock, exasperation at the whole affair evident in his motions. “No way any rock-slide or avalanche could have set these so orderly, nor with such precision. This was done purposefully by someone.”
“I can see that, Professor. What I want to know is, why? And what is behind it?” Bleier cut in abruptly. “The scans say that, a few feet through this wall here, there’s open space. I’ve not seen them wrong before. How do we best get through?”
Frore turned abruptly. “Get through! Are you crazy? This is a huge find! This kind of work is totally unprecedented on Baffin Island – who knows what damage you’ve already done to it smashing away with those ice axes? You go through this, you’ll have hell to pay – the NTI are going to sue you as is, the Heritage Department’ll get in on the action when they realise what’s at stake–”
“When you dig as deep as Bleicom does, Professor, you get used to dealing with the devil. Now,” Bleier looked up the face of the cliff, undeterred by the wave of vertigo, “no space to get a sizeable machine in here, yet, and I doubt a CAT could manage it. Siluk, you think we could dynamite it? Doesn’t look like we’ll bring anything down on our heads.”
Shifting the ice-axe to his shoulder, the man cast his own eyes vertical, thought for a moment, and grunted his agreement.
“Jesus, what am I even here for?” Frore said, looking from one man to the other in amazement. “Why’d you even ask me to come, to get involved with this, when the first thing you find you decide to literally blow up? This is ridiculous!” He threw up his hands in vexation.
“You’re here, Professor, to advise. You have advised. I have taken your advice into account. If you don’t like it, you can get yourself back to your university. In the mean time, we’ve got work to do.”
“Oh great, what does that asshole want?”
The two younger men turned to see what Frore was talking about, just as Bleier shut the door to the dining cabin.
“Look here Frore,” he said, turning to address them. “The charges are set. I mean to sort out what’s going on here with or without your approval. I’ve the go-ahead from the Feds – you’re not the only one with friends in Ottawa – and I don’t see any reason to hold back. Now, you can leave if you want – like I said, the next trip out to Iqaluit’ll be in a few days’ time. Or – you can stay.” He moved over to the drip pot, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “And do what I’m paying you, very handsomely, for. I brought you up here, you specifically, because this is some Native mumbo-jumbo bullshit, and you’re the best in the country for it. I don’t need you to clear it with them – God knows, I employ enough of ‘em to have at least some on my side – but I need you here for the optics, see? I can get someone else, in time, but time is something I have very little of. Season’s about to turn ugly. You and I both know that you want to be around for whatever else we might find.” Frore sat, silently, frowning up at the man.
A twinkle in his eye, Bleier continued “Look at is this way – if we do find anything, and if we decide to blow it up, you can add it to the list of my malfeasances.” A glare from Frore.
“Pad your case out against me.” He had the Professor hooked now, and he knew it.
“Charges go off in an hour.” Without waiting for a response, the man left. A blast of arctic air blew into the room, chilling his untouched cup of coffee.
Siluk looked to Bleier, who gave a brief nod. The Inuit man’s staid face creased in a deeper frown, and he pressed the largest button of the remote. They could all hear the explosion from where they sheltered, followed closely by the clatter of rocks and then…nothing. Nothing but the wind, keening through the valley as it had since time immemorial.
“Right!” said Bleier, addressing the assembled. “Professor, shall we go and take a look at what’s become of your wall?” which drew a sigh of resignation from Frore.
“We might as well go and see what dog’s breakfast you’ve made of it…”
“Splendid! I see no reason why we ought to wait to explore what’s behind it, either. Everyone more or less ready? Got the equipment?”
“I’m coming too!” Anna said from the back of the shelter. Bleier’s face creased in a grimace, jaw set. “No way I’ve come all this way, to this frozen waste, to not even see what the whole point is!” Crossing her arms, she stared her father down. Looking between the two of them, the familial resemblance was plain. As was the equality of will.
“Fine, c’mon then!” relented Bleier, giving in to his desire to set this all to rest.
They crossed the short distance to the mountain base. Stones were scattered for metres, evidencing the violence of the blast. A ragged hole had been revealed, sloping gently into the darkness. Smiling to the group, Bleier turned on his flashlight and abruptly descended into the cavern.
“Wait!” called Frore “We don’t even know if the air is breathable in there! Ah – whatever,” he said, relenting. “Just don’t touch anything!” and followed him down.
The opening did slope down, for about 100 metres, with a single, long curve that blocked out the wind’s scream surprisingly well. Levelling off, it opened to a wider antechamber, squarish. As Johnson, the last of the designated group, made the room, a dull boom was heard from behind, followed by several more.
“The blast! It must have set off rocks above!” shouted Frore over the mounting noise. “You idiot Bleier! I told you we should’ve waited!” People began to scatter each way.
“Too far to get back to the surface! Deeper, run deeper!” someone shouted, and the milling focused on a single direction just as the first rocks began to fall.
Impossibly stretched shadows twisted off the irregular rock faces as the group ran, their flashlights casting in every direction. They turned a corner, finding themselves in a much wider chamber – Carbone, the first to enter, was caught short by the sudden change.
“Hey, whatchit!” he said, tumbling over as he was hit from behind.
“The hell did you stop for –oh!” Schuler said, directing his flashlight around him. Stepping around his prone colleague, he moved deeper into the cave. “It must go up for storeys!” he said, as even the industrial grade flashlight died before revealing the ceiling.
“God! We’re all going to die down here! Trapped, like rats!” screamed Johnson, eyes bright with panic.
“Jesus, someone get him under control!” barked Bleier.
“Get your hands off me, Skimo!” Johnson shouted at Asuilaak, who had put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Andy! No one is going to die! Everyone is fine! We are going to make it out of here!” Bleier shouted in the man’s face, gripping his shoulders. Johnson struggled under the larger man’s hands a moment, then grew quiet.
“I think we’ve found the source of your aberrant readings, Bleier,” Frore said as he helped Carbone back to his feet. “You see how the walls sparkle when you light them up? Guaranteed there’s aluminum in that rock – this whole place is one giant Faraday Cage. It means that–”
“Skip the science lesson, Professor. I may be a business man, but my business is minerals,” Bleier cut in, striding past the pair. “I know what a Faraday cage is.”
“Then you’ll know,” said a visibly-irritated Frore, “that our radios are going to be useless in here, even if they could’ve cut through the rock. We better hope that that wasn’t the only way in, ‘cause we’re not going to be getting any help from the outside.”
Everyone took a moment to think this over, some looking at the faces nearest them, others just staring at the walls as if they could force their way through by will alone. For most, the claustrophobia they felt earlier redoubled – no way out, no chance of rescue…
Except Schuler. While the rest sat dejected, he had continued to explore the cavern. The floor was, for the most part, smooth. It was difficult to get a grasp on it without seeing the whole space, but the floor seemed almost…regular. Flat in a way that could have been by design, if such a thing wasn’t so unlikely. He continued forward some 50 meters, leaving the others in the entrance way. Anna watched him go, the cone of artificial light soon the only thing of him she could make out, bobbing along in the rhythm of his steps. He stopped, abruptly.
“Everyone,” they heard him call, a queer pitch to his voice, “you’re going to want to see this…”
Shaking themselves out of their torpor, goaded as much by the sound of urgency in Schuler’s voice as by the need to just do something, they rushed over to the young man. As they approached, they could make out what had brought him up short – in the beam of his flashlight, large enough to dwarf it, stood a pillar. An impossible pillar – carved from the rock by the looks of it, its regular, polyhedral surfaces came to a point about a metre and a half from the ground, where it met the apex of another, much shorter, column. The point of connection was in no way sufficient, not if this were made of rock, nor even if it were steel, to support so much weight. There was no way to tell how tall it was, whether it extended all the way to the ceiling or if it stood only a few metres above flashlight reach. It was immense in proportion, though, each of its four planes must have been at least 6, 7 meters in length.
A blanch-faced Asuilaak was the first to break the silence, sweat-soaked moustache pulled back from teeth. He muttered something in Inuktitut, whereupon Siluk angrily responded. Before the two could get much further in their argument, Anna called out
“Speak a language we can all understand, eh?”
“This fool is just talking nonsense, Ms. Bleier,” a still-angry Siluk responded. “Imaginary non-sense.”
“It’s not nonsense!” Asuilaak retorted. “Everyone knows, we all know, that this is a place of Algloolik, an Evil place! We should not be here!”
“Like I said,” Siluk folded his arms across his chest, “ghost stories.”
Before they could get any further, the world lit fire.
As their eyes adjusted to the new brightness, Schuler removed his hand from the pillar.
“Maaaa-ron!” swore Carbone, looking at the now-glowing pillar.
“Any bright ideas on this one, Professor?” Bleier inquired sarcastically. Frore, for his part, merely looked at the column mouth agape. The column itself did come to an end before the ceiling, which was still shrouded in darkness somewhere far above them. As they watched, other pillars, laid out in a regular sequence deeper into the cavern, lit up smoothly. Each, identical to the first, stood what must have been a third of a kilometre high, an impossible height for a structure so thin – and yet, they stood. The sides of the cavern were, like the assumed ceiling, still dark. Now that they grew accustomed to it, all recognised the oddity of the light. The pillars glowed a faint green colour, ethereal, but the light itself was a flat blue. Wordlessly, as one, they set off down the path.
Slowly, they were able to make out something in the distance ahead. At some indeterminate point, the cavern floor had changed to a tessellation of coloured stones, a motif of incredibly complexity but still as smooth as before. Continuing forward, they realised they were coming to the end of the cave, or at least this portion of it. Set against the far wall was a raised dais, three huge blocks of decreasing size stacked one atop the other. On either side, smaller than the columns that defined the path but still of an inhuman size, were two inverted cones, glowing a faint red. They illuminated a final block, what could have been an altar in some place less alien. Behind it were three large cylinders, covered over in fine etchings. The furthest to the right was smashed open on the top, as if it had been crushed by falling rock.
“I, uh, I don’t think that this is any Inuit site, Professor,” said Carbone silently. The pattern before the dais was more regular, depicting set points of brightness against a dark background.
“Stars,” muttered Schuler, an edge of the manic to his voice. “It’s a constellation!” The others just stared.
Just outside of vision came a blur of movement, then a crash and a sickening crunch echoed in the hall, and everyone turned in time to see the body of Johnson, or what was left of it, being dragged into the shadows.
Silence, save for a wet, sliding sound, and a pop.
Several of them cried out, in terror and panic.
“RUN!” shouted Carbone.
The group split, Asuilaak and several of the techs heading back to the blocked entrance, the others perpendicular to the path.
“Jesus, what was that? A bear?” someone shouted.
“When was the last time you saw a bear WITHOUT FUR?” Frore called back as they ran. The group rounded a bend, leaving them in, by the standards of the place, a small alcove.
“Dead end!” cried Siluk. He, Carbone and Schuler immediately turned and ran back the way they had come.
“Wait! Hold on a second!” Frore called after them, to no avail. Bleier slumped against the wall, a hand to his chest, wheezing. Anna held his other arm, face betraying her distress and helplessness.
“Not <huh> quite <huh> up to the sprinting anymore < huh huh>,” the man wheezed. He reached out an arm to steady himself against the wall, and collapsed.
“Dad! Your heart!” Anna cried.
“Just, <huh> just give me a moment…” he said, struggling to rise to hands and knees. With Anna’s help, he regained his feet. Frore could do little more than stand around awkwardly.
“I’m alright, I’m alright,” he said gruffly, shaking off the proffered help. They heard shouts from behind, and a cry of pain. Casting their flashlights around in a panicky motion, they noticed raised platforms, with stacks of what looked like dried kindling arranged neatly. And then they noticed the skulls.
On all the bones were irregularly spaced, straight marks.
“Cut marks,” breathed Frore.
“He said they were cannibals,” whispered Anna, tears of fear and exhaustion streaking her mascara. “Caspar said they were cannibals,” she repeated. Schuler himself hurtled into the room following this, gasping for air.
“The thing, it got Carbone. He’s dead. Siluk took off, I didn’t see where he went. C’mon, we’ve got to move!” And he hustled the rest back into the main room.
As they ran, they could hear it chasing them, claws scratching against the patterned floor. They could hear it, gaining.
“C’mon, Dad, we’ve got to run, faster!” cried Anna.
“<huh> I can’t <huh> go much further!” the man gasped, pulled along by his daughter.
“Watch it!” shouted Schuler – dodging to a side, a blur rushed past him, and Professor Frore was propelled into the shadows. The three stopped as the creature prowled, just outside their vision. Despite looking straight at it, the image seemed to blend with the background, as if the mind refused to comprehend what it was seeing. They got hints of scaly flesh, grotesquely segmented legs, but nothing definite. The beast gathered itself, bunching its ephemeral body, and leapt –
And Asuilaak, from the side, met it in mid-air, knocking it away from the others.
As Asuilaak and the beast smashed into a gargantuan pillar, everything stopped short. The duo appeared to hang in the air several moments, and then the post behind them started to tilt. And as it began to topple, so too did the world.
Schuler kept his feet during all this, but felt, for a vertiginous moment, as if he were standing on the wall rather than the floor. There was a crash, and, looking above his head, he saw the rocks that had been blocking their escape tumble free – gaining speed as they fell towards them. They slammed into the ground at the same time the pillar did, breaking in several places. The other columns went dark.
Fissures opened in the floor, and everything was confusion. Shouts and cries of pain could be heard from where the beast and their saviour had fallen, and the others ran – Schuler ahead, Anna and her father lagging behind. Rocks, of immense size, could be heard crashing in the darkness. Without warning, the ground cleaved, a portion thrusting up over top, and falling away. The three were divided.
Schuler looked back at Anna, her face a mask of horror.
He hesitated only a moment.
Schuler ran flat out for the patch of brightness ahead, tripping on something yielding beneath him. Scrambling to his feet, he realised it was Siluk, separated since before, babbling incomprehensibly about the Algloolik or the devil or something.
“We’ve got to run, c’mon!” Schuler yelled as he ran on, but the man lay inert. Cursing himself for a fool, Schuler went back from him, pulling the man to his feet and tugging him up towards the light.
“Hurry, get in! THE WHOLE MOUNTAIN’S COMING DOWN!” shouted Tukku from one of the MD 500’s. Schuler, pulling Siluk behind him, grabbed the ladder that snapped madly in the wind. Despite the man’s disordered state, he climbed when his hands were thrust onto the rungs. “HURRY! CAN’T HOLD IT MUCH LONGER!” Tukku shouted again. Schuler scrambled up after the other man as quickly as he could, gaining the relative safety of the chopper just as a cloud of dust and rock and ice erupted from the cavern entrance. Tukku didn’t wait for Schuler or Siluk to strap in before she ripped them up and away, straining the machine nearly to breaking. Crawling against the g-forces, Schuler managed to secure Siluk, before getting himself safely seated. Looking out behind them, he was just in time to see the upper two thirds of Mount Thor pull away from its base, splintering on a diagonal line and sliding forward. “HOLD ON!” came Tukku’s shout as she redirected, desperately trying to get them out of the path of the oncoming mass.
“IT’S NOT OVER YET!” The blast of air, visible with dust and debris, expanded outwards from the peak as it smashed into the ground, gaining, gaining. It hit them, throwing them forward. And then they were falling.
After several desperate, stomach-churning, white-knuckle minutes, Tukku was able to stabilise the helicopter. The last updrafts still giving them trouble though they were at least a kilometre away. The camp had been caught in the collapse radius – all hard-copy materials, all the data readings over the last week and more, Schuler’s own notes, whomever was left down there, gone. Schuler himself leaned back. Over-top the staccato, insane ramblings of Siluk next to him, he kept thinking –
“I’ve got it – I’ve seen the connection – I KNOW it’s real now – no-one can take that away –I’ve got it!”
Siluk never calmed, always muttering. Yes, Schuler thought, he’d seen things, up-to-then unimaginable things, but what did he really know? He knew, in his heart, that he would never rest until he knew more. In fact, he thought, he owed to the others, to find out more, didn’t he?
Half-way between sleep and wakefulness, an idea drifted, driven – if there was something in the North, mightn’t there be something in the South?
“Believe!” the wall-eyed man shouted, raising Bible in one hand. A couple of tourists laughed nervously, uncertain how to take the clearly disturbed street preacher. Anne continued on down Dundas, this was nothing new – he’d be there the next time she used the subway, startling another group of Asian tourists or moon-eyed suburbanites.
“Believe in what?” she thought to herself, cutting across the busy street. “It’s not like that’s any sort of argument – who would be convinced by that?” Christmas lights began to wink on in the drawing gloom, casting green red blue reflections in the icy snow crusting the curbs. A gust cut threw her light coat – time to change to something warmer.
Across the way, plastered on the side of an office building the other side of Yonge and Dundas Square, was an advertisement for Suncor – “The Oilsands, powering Canada’s economy into the 21st century and Beyond!” it proclaimed, above the smiling visage of a man decked out in heavy industrial gear, standing arms folded in front of a mammoth Cat 797 truck.
“Ha, might as well believe in that as anything else,” Anne thought sardonically, reflecting on the latest reports of the disastrous spill at Kitimat. Anne was born the year the Exxon Valdez ran aground. Kitimat made that look like a stain on the garage floor. Suncor, Syncrude, Enbridge, they were running some serious damage control now, for all the good that it would do them. The shipping channels were devastated, the Natives had been occupying the roads and important buildings since the spill, demanding an end to the destructive practices. There had been violence. A Mountie had died, and dozens had been arrested. Great stuff for the current news cycle. No, it didn’t look like the oil companies could provide a future, any more than a crazy man with an old book and a bad case of halitosis.
Anne got back to her Annex apartment, perched over a franchised coffee shop. Mug of hot chamomile in hand, she cleared her desk of pencil nubs and soiled paper, sweeping it all to a side. Sitting down, she looked out into the night – snow had begun to fall, big, fat wet flakes. Heavy weather due for the weekend, the news had said – lake effect snow squalls to start Friday evening and carry through till the middle of next week. Maybe it would hold out until the 24th, for a change.
Christmas. No chance to see her family, this year. No chance to get back to BC, not on this budget. Her dad has just lost his job, and both her parents had always been terrible at budgeting their money, so no hope they could fly cross-country, either. She shrugged off the spasm of guilt – she had come to Ontario to escape the doldrums of Vancouver Island, to get away from the hum-drum sleepiness of it all – to start her future.
A car lazily drove down the street below her, leaving slushy tracks in the newly-fallen snow. Left to start her future, and now here she was, in snowy Toronto, while the whole country held its breath and looked back home. British Columbia, where tomorrow was being decided.
Did it really matter, though? The damage had been done, would continue to be done, whether or not the Natives won this one or not, whether or not the public had had its fill of petro-company crude or not. There would be no change, not any real one. Things would continue to grind down, the sickness would spread.
Anne looked around her apartment, the scattered, half-finished canvasses, her current work, the pile of laundry growing with silent reproaches. Her eyes fell on the easel, where the painting sat, waiting for her. Waiting and writhing, or so it seemed – eager to be enfleshed, eager to be realized and shout its ominous message. A great hole – swallowing the future. Shouting from its horrible encompassing maw, there is no tomorrow. No improvement. These are the end times.
She looks beyond the partially composed omen to her bed, left rumpled from her quick exit this morning. It would be easy to climb under the sheets, lying open for her. Easy just to slip away for a few hours, and leave the painting to itself, leave it alone with its needs and hungers. After all, isn’t that the point? Isn’t the objective of this freeze of progress, this suspension of movement, just that – to just stop? To leave things stuck, unfinished? Why go through the trouble of it, what’s the point, if there isn’t a tomorrow where it can place itself, and have it’s own time? No tomorrow…
Early January, 187-
It’s only now that I realise that Christmas has passed, that it must be the New Year, now, born into such confused times as these. I suspect that, had we made our proper landfall, had we not met with disaster those precious few weeks ago, still my letters to you would not have arrived by now. I am gladdened by this – at least, at that time of the year so reserved for joy, my circumstances, the lack of any communication, will not have cast a pall over you.
Which makes the apprehension of the soon-to-be failure of arrival, the absent word, all the worse for me. What consternation it will be for you! What anxiety it will cause, the likes of which is only the worse for me, stranded here with no way of alleviating it for you. The thought of it, its imminence, has already began to cause palpitations in my own breast – or it would, if it was not already beset by the abominable climate, the constant danger, the stagnation that fills the nose with its jungle rot.
We’ve had to leave the shores of the river and make out across the uncharted wilderness these last few days. We had come to a cataract of great height, such that, burdened as we are, there was no hope of scaling it. Thus, our natural way forward blocked to us, we set about a discussion in many languages, to try to determine our next direction. The former crew of the ill-fated dhow were in favour, somewhat unanimously, of retracing our steps and, at great risk from the vapours of that swampy country, returning to the shores of the sea.
Against this position was stacked the wisdom of Herr Anhalt, who, it pleases me to say, has proved to be an excellent companion in the dire straits we’ve found ourselves in. He has proven to be one of the few things to buoy my spirit in the darkest hours, his ebullient outlook has rubbed off on all of us, I imagine.
Anhalt had argued that, especially given the growing signs of civilization we’ve stumbled across in our journey up-river, our best chances lay in finding the heart of this unknown society. Unlike the earlier vestiges I have recorded, the nearly over-taken embankments and the vegetation-choked edifices, the later examples look to have seen more modern maintenance – the aim of which remains a mystery to all of us. In one of his more fantastical moods, Herr Anhalt has theorised that we might be seeing the handiwork of a reduced caste of people, a degenerate group who, in veneration for a lost past, go through the motions of their ancestors, cleaning and repairing things that they have no use for nor understanding of, in a religious-like behaviour.
Thus, like the civilised, democratic men we all are, our future course was to be decided by vote. This was, of course, the only fair way of proceeding! We spent an afternoon rigging up a voting booth, of sorts, from a spare blanket and some stakes driven into the red, African earth. Given that we had two choices ahead of us, we set up two separate receptacles in the impromptu booth, using pots that we had carried with us from the marooned ship. The rightmost designated a return to the sea-shore, while the left spoke for continuing on into the bush. Stones were to be placed into each of the pots, one stone, one vote.
Upon making sure all of our polyglot group understood the process, we each dutifully filed in, one at a time, to cast our earthy ballot. As arguably the most dispassionate amongst us, it was decided that Mbubu would be the one to tally the votes, despite some reservations from the Arabs. Seven for the return to the ocean, and, winning by a wide margin, nine for Herr Anhalt’s plan!
Ah, yes. Looking over my notes, I see that I hadn’t yet treated upon the passing of Klaus, nor the demise of the three Arabs sailors. Much as I had expected, I regret to say, poor Klaus didn’t hold up much past the third day since my recounting his condition. By the time the Lord took him into His embrace, the blighted man was a shell of himself – if not for the morbidity of the subject, I would say that I was struck by how quickly the man shed his weight. I hadn’t dreamed it was possible to shrink so!
Alas, none of us being ordained in any denomination, we did what little we could to provide the poor man a proper, Christian burial. I can only pray that the Lord doesn’t look darkly upon us for delivering Klaus to Him unshriven.
Hafiz, the Arab I had mentioned before, recovered from his illness. The Lord works in mysterious ways. However, another of his brethren took ill just as he was on the upswing. It seemed as if, as Hafiz regained his strength, as he salvaged his colour, his comrade Amarion was struck, that he began to waste. A very queer affair, to be sure. When he eventually succumbed to whatever this strange affliction was, we, that is, we Europeans, left his last rites to his Mohammedan confederates. Their ways are not ours, and, who be we to intrude in their moment of solemn grief?
Whatever reason the Almighty had in sparing Hafiz from sickness, indiscernible to us, it did not keep Him from retrieving the man to His breast. The day after Amarion was laid to rest, Hafiz met his doom. We were walking along the river, just as we had for the previous days. Hafiz, I imagine he was unsteady on his feet, over-eager to show his vitality, keen to reassert himself in the land of the living, which he was so newly returned to. As I said, it is likely he shouldn’t yet have been left walking under his own power.
He was nearest the bank of the river, when, due perhaps to the general moistness of this clime, the earthen projection he was standing on collapsed beneath him, depositing him into the ostensibly calm waters. Several nearby logs, or, what we, in our naivety, had taken to be logs, came to life. Crocodiles! What then occurred is truly terrible to recount – the ill-fated man, already dazed by his fall, was set upon by the reptilian leviathans, with a great hue and cry. As he struggled with his scaly assailants, Hans and the other Germans in possession of guns strove to even the odds. Alas, despite their heroic efforts, it was too late for luckless Hafiz. He had already succumbed to the roiling, thrashing assault.
The strength of the Elephant guns, robust though they are, proved to be over-matched by the tough hide of those antediluvian beasts. One, it is true, was wounded severely, and would likely not live to see the end of that dark day. However, their numbers were so great, and the amount of ammunition left to us so precious, that it was quickly decided a full extermination of these devils was beyond our present abilities. Much to the dissatisfaction of the other Moslems, it was determined that we should leave the frame of poor Hafiz where it lay, in the clutches of the Crocodiles. He had already left it, and it would have been tempting fate to further try to retrieve it.
We carried on, all of us struggling to come to terms with what we had borne witness to. Unfortunately, it would be that event which proved to be the source of our next loss. Another of the Arabs, a man called Faisal, had always been close with Hafiz. It was he that had cared for Hafiz during the latter’s convalescence, he that had protested most stridently in his alien tongue at the abandonment of the dead man’s body.
The first day since Hafiz’s death, Faisal was seen to withdraw into himself. The man didn’t communicate with any of the other mariners, only took food when it was forced on him. Though I could not with honesty say, I do believe that he failed to sleep that night, nor any night thereafter. After three days of this behaviour, the man began to, well, to come apart. He would burst out laughing at inappropriate moments, would caper about as one mad, would carry on conversations with unknown, absent interlocutors. It was quite a disconcerting sight to see a man, erstwhile decidedly taciturn, so completely unhinged. This went on for some two more days. Come the dawn of the third, the soft-pated Faisal was no-where to be seen. After some deliberation, it was determined that no one had seen him since the night previous, and, we assumed, that he had slipped away at some point in the night. It is true, the benighted man may yet live, but I do not hold high hopes for him, given our wild and violent surroundings.
Thus, with their numbers so reduced, even voting as a bloc, the Arabians were unable to overturn the vote! These last days have been strenuous ones, as our going, away from the natural avenue of the river, is much belaboured and hindered. However, each mile seems to bring new wonders. When we crested that hill yesterday, we could see in front of us, at what precise distance it is difficult to fathom, great pyramidal edifices, climbing out of the jungle! It is likely there that we shall meet with whatever tribe or rabble call this hell home. I trust that Mbubu will be able to communicate with them, and that they will be able to direct us to more hospitable climes. Perhaps, they may even know a safe route back to civilisation!
Man is a psychic snail.
A mental mollusc,
the worm builds its shell
with calciferous discrete memory
gird by strings of solid time.
The wising whelk
shelters itself from the unintelligible,
cutting out and off
and the undigestible
and the impenetrable –
the Truth with its capital.
Nautiloid chamber, curling into itself,
possibilities confined, but wide
enough for one life, at least.
How to get out when everything is inside?
How to see out when your ‘matophorae can’t reach?
How to think out, when your brain is bound by threads
stronger and lighter than the finest ‘rachnids’?
Better to retreat
Pull back into your shell
Hide your soft body
From the Alkaline that scalds
Hide your soft mind
From the Truth that splinters.
Squirrel away your moments
and horde your minutes
and pile your instants.
Clutch them with your paw –
They are your grounding.
Clutch them with your mind
They are your strength.
You travel through this Abyssal life
Don’t look up
Don’t let go.