Author’s Note: This story is for all the people who liked me on Facebook. I suppose my Twitter followers can enjoy it, too, though. It’s something I wrote a couple years back (© 2013), but never did anything with it except edit a few times. When I picked it back up, I thought it should be shared as a gift to my readers. If you like it, please keep reading my works; your purchases keep me writing.
I will also be revising this story to incorporate it into a much longer story about some of these characters. They have continued to stick with me, and I can’t just let their full story languish. So if you see this story repeated in part or in full in a later publication, it’s because I had to update and revise this tale to make it come to its completion.
I’ve got another short story called Exit 1042 published for your entertainment, and a short story in the anthology Zombie Bites. Soon, there will be full-length books for your enjoyment once they get through editing.
Special thanks to Jay Willison, Karl Hubert, Sara Hubert, Matt Gorsky, and Mark Bushey for expert assistance with weapons and helicopters. All mistakes and poetic license are the author’s own, but at least she knows the difference between a clip and a mag, if not much else.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
LEFT IN THE COLD
She kept waking up in the damp cold, a thin, scratching blanket covering her head.
That was the way she used to hide from the monsters when she was a little girl. Until she realized, of course, that the monsters really didn’t care much about blankets. They could just reach right through and rip the flesh off her bones.
Her sleep was interrupted frequently by noises. Sometimes, it was just a soft scraping sound outside of the encampment (the dome of doom, she’d come to call it), and sometimes, it was a gristly, chewing sound. The way teeth sound biting into the joint of a chicken bone—only much larger.
A human bone.
Rhys was asleep. So deeply asleep she couldn’t tell if he was dead or not. She didn’t reach out to him. Instead, she slipped the blanket off herself, tightened her jacket around her, and stood up slowly. Not to investigate the noise. No, that would have been idiotic. She knew what was out there.
Nothing but death and a thick slab of ice and snow.
Heading over to the hot plates in the small chamber that now housed only two of them, she noted with a grimace there was hardly any coffee left, and wondered how they went through it all so fast.
There would be plenty of explanations to be made if they got out of it alive; they’d make it out alive, right? She shook her head as if to clear it, then realized that they’d have to survive this. Their communications with home base had gone down, so they’d be rescued at any time.
Six weeks without communications of any kind was enough to alarm anyone, wasn’t it?
She set the tin of coffee down and went back to her spot next to Rhys. He snorted and turned over, draping one moderately heavy arm over her. She sighed and pulled up the scratching blanket from hell and listened to the scraping and chewing sounds just outside the compound.
Jane was fairly much an introvert, anyway, so it wasn’t too much to ask to be put in isolation in Antarctica in an experimental bio-dome for six months. She was to be the food expert — given her background in botany and her uncanny ability to grow plants in harsh desert soil (hydroponics were wonderful) — she was up to the challenge of growing food in harsh, icy conditions. Plus, she was kind of excited to see penguins and live just a little differently. There had to be a few published papers in all of this.
They arrived by cargo vessel, which was a far cry from a luxury cruise, but they needed it for the equipment. Jane had a ton of it for her part. She was to grow all of their food needs, which meant they would need plenty of protein, fruits, and vegetables. She had enough seeds to go through a full two years, and it was in her nature to be prepared. She supposed that was why they’d selected her for this project that she was almost always well prepared, and tried to think of potential problems that could arise. It wasn’t for her charming personality.
She mostly kept to herself, anyway, and this would be no different than her many lonely nights at the lab. She was just fine with that.
Jackson had come up behind her and sighed contentedly. “This is it. There’ll be just six of us in the bio-dome for six months. No outside world, just a self-contained little bubble with everything we need and all kinds of fun to be had.”
Dr. Schultz snorted. “Fun? Jackson, you might be a pioneer spirit, for sure, but to call this fun? Just don’t do anything stupid and kill yourself in the first week or two. Though I don’t think we really need you in command.” He smirked.
Jackson Parker — JP — the command leader. He was a behaviorist and top-notch psychiatrist, running the experiment and taking all the notes, observations, etc., to see how well six highly trained people could survive in an enclosed environment. His brother, John, was a journalist, she knew that much about his personal life.
Lyndon Schultz was the medical doctor, highly skilled surgeon, and all around good guy, Jane supposed, when he wasn’t busy complaining about something or insulting someone.
Then there was Livingston Rhys, and though he was a trust fund baby, he had done more than his fair share to earn a spot in this experiment. He was a survivalist — he had spent 50 days alone in Antarctica once before, and it was through his ability to ration food and go without that he managed to live through it. He was also just a zany inventor at times, coming up with the weirdest contraptions to generate energy. He could have been descended from Tesla.
Ariana Jones was a botanist as well, and, though not as seasoned as Jane, was extremely talented and bright. She was also very outgoing and always seemed to smile. Jane wasn’t sure if she liked her, yet. She fairly wasn’t sure about anybody at this point.
Then there was Curtis Black, a molecular biologist who was famous for his work in cryogenics. Jane didn’t really know what his function was in the bio-dome. All she really knew was what her job was and how to do it — getting involved in other’s business wasn’t something that she cared to do.
Jane Living, of course, was their botanist and Ariana’s supposed mentor and boss for the stint. She hoped that there wouldn’t be one of those pissing contests—a territorial struggle as Ariana tried to prove herself. Essentially, Jane just wanted to be left alone to do her damn work, not handhold a child or get into a Thing where they were constantly butting heads.
Maybe she would luck out.
Once they got off the ship and headed for the bio-dome, Jane took a long look around. This would be it. All her supplies would be waiting for her in the Gardens, delivered ahead of her by the crew. She would have to set up. Some of the food would be rations, at least for the first few weeks until Jane could get some good crops growing (oh, and Ariana, too, she amended mentally), and then they would be entirely self-contained and fully functioning as a microcosm.
It was exciting, but as Jane put one foot in front of the other, she started to feel a sense of being watched. It was nonsense, of course. Naturally she was being watched. There were other people with her!
No. It was something else.
She kept walking, regardless of the nagging feeling at her belly, like someone had inserted a fish hook into her midsection and was gently tugging on her to pull her toward them. It was a bit nauseating, and suddenly, Jane wanted nothing more than to run back to the ship, get on board and go home.
But she kept walking.
The six of them stopped in front of the dome’s entrance—a large steel door that was propped open, showing a long, narrow hallway to another set of doors, which were closed. Jane was reminded of a slaughterhouse, the way the narrow passages led to the killing area. She shivered, but not from the cold.
The others were all talking and engaging in excited chatter, while Jane stayed back and kept to herself, as always. Jackson held up a hand to get everyone’s attention. He went through almost exactly what he said to her, but to the group. She didn’t tune it out, though, just in case he added something new.
“All right, people. We have six of us, and six months to spend in the bio-dome. We’re going to get tired of each other, but we all have good personality profiles to endure the time together. We’ve plenty of food and water, and you all know the guidelines for personal hygiene and living here together. We’re going to see how humans can occupy a space like this for a period of time without outside contact and study how it affects our moods. For emergencies, we have our surgeon, and I will be the acting assistant. If it gets dire, we can make outside contact, but I don’t foresee that happening. I just want to tell you all that I think it’s going to be a good experiment, and that I have every confidence in all of you…”
Jane listened as JP went on, the entire time looking inside that long, narrow, dark hallway. Okay, I’m done. I’ve changed my mind, bye!
But she said nothing and didn’t move. She just stood in place. She didn’t want to be thought a fool.
A hand on her shoulder caused her to jump. It was Ariana. Jane scowled.
“Sorry,” Ariana said sheepishly. “You just looked upset for a moment.”
“I’m fine,” she said, softening a bit. “I’m just not accustomed to being touched.”
The younger woman nodded and said nothing, but Jane didn’t feel bad about it. She didn’t like being touched all that much, and to have someone she barely knew do it was irritating. She supposed she would eventually get used to the other woman being around and so touchy-feely, but for the moment, she was rather annoyed. Taking a deep breath, she let it go.
Ariana apologized again, and that helped Jane relax. “It’s okay.”
JP finished talking and asked if anyone had questions. No one did at first, but then Livingston spoke up.
“I just want to make sure that everyone knows that we don’t have any meat, except for what’s in the rations, but we do have eggs. We have several chickens that I’ll be tending for feeding us and supplying eggs, but they’re non-meat chickens. Kill them, you get one meal. Keep them alive, you get tons of meals, and Dr. Living will be providing the corn for them. Does anyone want to back out? Because now is the time to do it before the vessel departs. Some people don’t believe they can live without it.”
Jane nodded at the sound of her name, and Doctor Schultz shook his head, his gruff voice clear and loud in the open space. “Been a vegetarian since before you were born, Rhys, so it’s fine by me.”
The others agreed, and Curtis spoke. “We were aware of that condition before we agreed. Or at least I was.”
Jane smirked. Ariana rolled her eyes.
Hopefully, it wouldn’t be a long six months.
Jackson motioned to the inside. “When everyone’s ready, head on in, and we’ll seal the doors for good. That’ll be it for six months. No getting out.” He smiled and stood by the doors, then entered the long hallway to lead everyone else.
One by one, the six filed into the bio-dome, and Jane stayed back, taking one last look around on the snow-covered plains stretching out in all directions around her. No penguins today. Not a single one.
That was funny—there was an observation area in the dome, where they reported a good view of the water and a penguin colony. She wondered where they went.
That fishhook in her belly pulled at her again. Tugging ever strongly, letting her know that something was wrong. She sighed.
Another deep breath, and she entered the dome. No turning back now. This was it.
She wished she weren’t so silly. Her imagination always got the best of her when she was a little girl. She didn’t just have a monster under her bed, waiting for her to close her eyes so it could strike. The monsters were everywhere, even in the walls.
Now, it felt like they’d followed her into the dome.
She brushed it off and gave JP a wan smile as she entered the hallway.
“You okay, Doctor Living?”
Jane laughed. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a little weirded out about how, well, final it all seems.”
JP chuckled and nodded. “It’s okay. It’ll all be over in six months. You’ll love it here.”
He made a quick note on his iPad and opened the secondary door to the compound.
Jane waved her hand at herself. I’m just being silly.
Where the outside of the dome, the wraparound to get into the enclosure, was cramped and small, the inside was huge and illuminated, with a steady stream of sunlight coming in from the roof, which was, of course, rounded, and all glass. Jane knew it was some sort of smart glass, a polymer of sorts, but it wasn’t her area of expertise. All she knew, and all she cared to know, was about botany and growing plants.
A scraping noise came from behind her. Jane turned, brows knitted in their almost signature worry lines, creasing the middle of her forehead like a gash. But there was nothing there. How could there have been? She shook her head.
That had been six weeks ago.
Jane had fallen asleep without really noticing it, the blanket of wakefulness and silence as thin and irritating as the physical Army blanket she had on her. Gray. Thin. It was almost too difficult to tell whether she was still awake or asleep, whatever. Her mind finally hitched, bringing her back to the present.
Her eyes snapped open, looking around the dank, gray-walled room that seemed too small and cramped for the enormous biodome.
Rhys wasn’t in the room with her.
Alarmed, she sat up, her heart starting a pounding rhythm in her chest, pushing against the ribcage, hard. Sweating underneath the thin blanket, she ripped it off and let the cold air shock her back into reality.
Jackson, dead. Ariana, dead. Lyndon, dead. Curtis…
Curtis was missing. He’d ran out of the dome and Jane just assumed he was dead. It got well below freezing out there, with temperatures dropping into the -70C range from their last measurements. Their last reliable measurements, anyway.
The dome’s temp was somewhere in the 50F range, about 10C or somewhere near there. That was a problem for the plants. Not that she could get to them.
But they were running out of food, so soon that wouldn’t matter. If that thing didn’t kill them first, surely they’d starve to death.
She tried not to think about it as she went to search for Rhys.
He preferred being called by his surname over Livingston or Livvy, mostly because of his uncle already bearing that name, but Jane had guessed it was more than that, though she never asked. What she had read and heard of his family, she wasn’t sure she liked, but judging from the way he acted, she was fairly sure he didn’t like it, either.
Rhys was an adventurer and a gun enthusiast. He had brought some with him, despite the fact that they’d been instructed not to bring firearms of any kind. But that was just the type of person Rhys was—he had enough privilege, money, and attitude to basically do what he wanted, when he wanted. Jane hadn’t lived that kind of life. She thought that her high-end salary from the University was really rich living. She had struggled through college, published papers, and worked endlessly developing heartier plants and seeds that could withstand drought. Her patents, publications, and base salary put her in a more than comfortable position in life, and the $150,000 a year she pulled in from all her sources seemed like a lot to her. Too much, almost. Livingston easily quadrupled her salary a month, according to Forbes.
She couldn’t imagine a life like that.
So for him to wander off wasn’t alarming, essentially. He probably was in the toilet, or cleaning his rifle. He had a bolt action .50 something, and a .50 some kind of handgun. Jane didn’t know guns at all and couldn’t tell the difference between a clip and a magazine. She had gone shooting once in her life at her uncle’s when she was fourteen. They used some kind of shotgun and she learned to reload it, but that was it.
The small storage area’s door was propped slightly. Rhys intended to return, of course, and the door automatically locked once it was shut. She squeezed by it and made sure the prop was in place. She couldn’t find her key, but Rhys probably had his. If he hadn’t, well, the door was wedged.
Why they needed locks in the first place was beyond Jane, but that was the way it was.
With a sigh and a shiver, she walked out into the biodome where the sun was shining through. It was much warmer in this area, and Jane pulled her jacket around her more tightly, taking a moment to soak in the bright light and heave another sigh.
She stepped over a dismembered man’s arm as if it were furniture. She’d forgotten which man it had belonged to at this point. The only thing that was left of Ariana were bones. Picked clean.
Jane guessed Ariana had been delicious. Perhaps IT preferred women.
Trying to dismiss that thought with a hard swallow, she tried not to make much noise as she trudged towards the locker room. This was another bank of rooms that they avoided except to use the facilities. They didn’t bother to shower. The thing seemed to like the sound of running water.
Rhys was cleaning his rifle. She heaved a sigh of relief.
“I’m going to try going out there this time,” he said to her, jaw set.
The fishhook in her navel started pulling on her again, and a wash of cold that wasn’t from the outside fell over her, snaking its way up to her heart and forming a cold sheet of ice around it, squeezing tight with each hammering beat. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. You saw what it did to…”
Rhys waved her off. “Yeah, I saw. But what choice do we have? It’s knocked out our communications, we can’t get more food or grow more food without climate control working properly, and only Curtis knew how to do that.” He looked around. “It’s just me and thee, petal. If I don’t kill that thing, we’re dead. If I kill it, maybe we can eat it. I mean, turnabout is fair play, right?”
Jane nodded. She supposed he was right. They were running out of food. The snow could be melted for water, but they needed to eat. The THING out there was greedy and ate everything. It was going to come back for that arm. Then what?
“Have you figured out how it’s getting in?” Jane asked. Rhys shook his head.
“Not a clue, petal.” He shrugged. “I’m still not sure why it hasn’t just taken us, too. Maybe it’s like a cat and likes to play with its food. Or it just likes fear in its meat. I’m not sure of anything anymore.”
Jane didn’t speak for a while. She wasn’t sure of anything, either.
“Well, one thing I’m sure of, actually,” Rhys said as he loaded his gun. “If we don’t kill that thing, we’re going to be royally fucked. I mean, we pretty much are, anyway, but to add to the pile of clichés I’ve been using all morning, I’d rather die fighting.”
A wan smile was the only response Jane could muster for the moment. She was staring at the shells, or bullets, or whatever it was for the rifle. Shells, she thought. But she didn’t want to say anything out loud and sound stupid. Ignorant. Ammunition. That was a safe enough word to call it, she supposed.
She replied at length. “I’ll go with you.”
Much to her surprise, Rhys didn’t protest. He wasn’t terribly macho at times, which was unexpected. She had expected him to be kind of a dick most of the time, and thought he sort of was, but all in all, she didn’t think he was the worst person in the world.
“That’s fine. I was going to come get you if you weren’t awake, anyway. You’ve got really good hearing, better than mine, and you can carry this.”
He handed her the box of ammunition and she noted there wasn’t much left. Why that was didn’t make sense. Surely she would have heard him shooting. “You can reload for me. Do you know how?”
She told him about the shotgun ‘experience’ she had. He nodded. “Yeah, that’s basically it. Just reload and hand it back to me while I try shooting with the handgun.”
Jane nodded in response, a million thoughts racing through her head all at once.
She might screw up trying to reload and Rhys would get killed in the process, or somehow, the rifle would backfire and she’d blow her own head off.
This thing—the thing they’d only glimpsed bits and pieces of over the course of their torment during the past six weeks—was not about to be killed by something as simple as a bullet. It wasn’t a polar bear (they didn’t live in the Antarctic), and it wasn’t a penguin, and all she could think of was that it was a Yeti. But that was ridiculous.
It was something worse than a Yeti, anyway.
“We should eat before we go,” she said quietly. “We still have powdered eggs and some MRE packets.”
Rhys looked at her for a moment, and Jane couldn’t figure out what he was looking at, exactly. Her, yes, but he had an inscrutable face, ideal for playing poker. It was hard for her to tell if he thought she was just weird, or if she’d had a good idea. Jane squirmed under his gaze. She didn’t like attention to begin with, but to be dissected with that look of his was more than uncomfortable.
But she held his eyes, just the same, swallowing hard and about to speak. He beat her to it.
“No, you’re right, we should eat, even if we don’t feel like it. We can’t hunt properly if we’re too hungry. Especially big game like, well, like whatever that thing is.”
They both fell silent.
Together, wordlessly, they trudged back to the small storage area where they had set up their camp. The smaller space was safer, or at least, it felt safer. Jane didn’t really know if any space was truly safe. So far, it didn’t seem to be able to fit into the area where the dome sloped downward like an alcove, nor did it seem interested in trying.
Rhys got out the trunk and scoffed—a scornful rush of air as he shook his head. “I don’t think JP realized just how much we would need to keep us going, or he was expecting a second delivery and just didn’t tell us.” He shrugged. “There’s not enough for the two of us to last very long.”
Jane shook her head. “It—it took our food,” she said simply. She didn’t need to specify.
He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow at her. “I didn’t realize that. When?”
“When you were out looking for Curtis.”
Silence stretched out for a moment. “Before Doc?”
Another nod was Jane’s reply. Rhys sighed.
“Jesus Christ. I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me.”
Jane looked at the floor.
“I wish you’d said something,” Rhys said, his voice gentle.
She shrugged. “There was no point. We were the only ones left after Schultz, and it took the food. Don’t know if it ate it or what.”
Rhys handed her an MRE packet. “Asian beef strips. I’ll take the chicken pesto pasta.”
They ate quietly for a while. They couldn’t stay out too long, but they could go for a while. Thirty minutes of hunting, at most. It was bitter out there. There was also no guarantee they would be able to shoot it when they saw it. Or that they’d survive if it attacked. That was if they could even find it. For an animal so large, it could hide really well.
“This must be kind of gross for you,” Rhys said.
Jane snapped out of her reverie and shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean.”
He laughed wryly. “I mean, you were a vegetarian, right? That was kind of the point. I mean, at least part of the experiment was to live off of plants only, wasn’t it?”
Jane’s face got a little warm. The last thing she wanted to do was wind up in an argument over vegetarianism when they really didn’t have much of a choice but to stick together. She looked at her beef bits and swallowed. “Yeah, it was supposed to be part of it. I learned that Curtis was here to measure our physiological changes and Dr. Schultz to watch for malnutrition in addition to emergencies. But my seeds. The plants I had engineered and worked so hard with—they were fortified. They produced iron, calcium, taurine, B12…” she stopped, heaving a big sigh. All that work, ruined.
“This experiment was to go beyond sociology,” Jane said, poking at the beef bits. “I mean, the results would have been useful on so many levels. And yes, I was a vegetarian, but there’s a matter of survival here. I could live on the powdered eggs if we had enough left, but what we’ve got is what we’ve got.” She stopped again, hearing that she sounded defensive, even though she wasn’t feeling particularly anything.
Rhys shook his head. “I wasn’t busting your chops. I just found it to be a cruel irony. You worked really hard and I think it would have worked out. Or at least given all of you enough data to publish some papers and work toward whatever your goals were.”
He took another bite of his food and grimaced. “I was actually looking forward to trying some of the food you and Ariana had planted.”
Jane turned back to her food, but paused, leaving the beef alone for a moment. “I just didn’t want to argue.”
“No, neither did I. Sorry if it came across that way, petal.” Rhys finished his meal and set the empty packet in a closed bin. “I’ve just read some of your papers and I know how hard you’ve worked at making it easier to adopt that particular diet. I know this must have been an opportunity for you, so it must have been a disappointment.”
She shifted uncomfortably hearing those words. Jane didn’t really know what to do with them. She ate in silence, finishing her meal.
Finally, she decided that something had to be said. She couldn’t just leave those words, kind as they were, hanging in the open. But sentiment and openness weren’t really something Jane Living was good at. She wanted to be eloquent. She wasn’t. She wanted to say something poignant.
“You know, when I first met you I thought you were just a privileged jerk,” she started. Her eyes widened with alarm at hearing her own words. “No, I mean, you’re not a jerk—erm, I mean…”
Rhys started to laugh. “No, really, that’s fine. I am kind of a jerk. It’s genetic.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Jane said, and hated the shaking in her voice. “I mean, you actually turned out to be really intelligent and kind. I misjudged you, and I’m sorry.”
He stopped laughing and patted her on the shoulder. “Thanks. I know what you meant. I do come across as an over-privileged gas bag at times.” He shrugged. “But I’m glad you said something. I appreciate it.”
Standing, Rhys grabbed his rifle and holstered his pistol, setting them aside and moving over to their gear. “Okay. Let’s get dressed and hunt.”
Jane breathed an internal sigh of relief. She wasn’t good at that sentimental stuff at all, so she was glad that was over, in a way. She wasn’t particularly glad for what it meant was coming next. Just the same, she got dressed in her cold-weather layers, piling on her sweaters over her long johns, then putting on her jacket and snow pants. She took extra care over her ears, goggles, hood, and hat, then put on her gloves. She preferred mittens, but they’d be useless for the job she had to do.
“Thirty minutes, tops. Then we have to come back in and warm up,” she told him.
Rhys nodded. “The temp is unreliable with the wind chill. We might not be able to stay out even that long, so we’ll do our best. We’ve got tracking on our side. That thing can’t not leave tracks.”
That made sense. Jane didn’t reply.
They ventured out into the cold. It surprised Jane that there was barely any wind. There was almost always some sort of breeze, she’d assumed. But not at this moment. The air seemed heavy, sterile, and dead.
It wasn’t just the cold that chilled her. Being next on that thing’s menu chilled her insides. Jane hadn’t made best buddies with any of them. Certainly, she had worked closely with Ariana, but that was necessity. She didn’t dislike the people she had been enclosed with—she just didn’t know them.
They were at the beginning of six months, and only a couple of weeks had passed together before they found Jackson’s partially eaten body. The thing had been courteous enough to leave his face intact for an identification. Probably just coincidence. Not that it would have been that difficult to reason out which one of them had been killed. There were only a handful of personnel in attendance. Jane, JP, Rhys, Ariana, Curtis, and Lyndon. Six head count, reduced to five in one moment.
Ariana had been the one to find him.
The five were eating breakfast together in the kitchen when Curtis mentioned that he didn’t think JP was a heavy sleeper, nor all that sound a one, either. The way the dome had been laid out was curious in some ways, at least to Jane. It was sound, she supposed. Sleeping quarters were next to each other, then the changing and showers next to that, then, just a small walk down a corridor to the kitchen and dining area. From there, the storage spaces and miscellany—equipment rooms and the boiler room (where energy was solar generated), etcetera—were accessible. After that, it was all sectioned off but open space. The arboretum, where Jane and Ariana spent most of their time was further apart from the other spaces. It was really because they needed room for the plants and had to have the areas where they either got the most sunlight, or faked it with sun lamps. The other areas—the cryogenics lab, where Curtis did research, and sickbay, were clustered all together further away on the other side of the dome.
Jane had slept deeply that night, only waking once to what she thought was one of the men masturbating. The grunting efforts of a man feeling lonely. Lonely and extremely enthusiastic. Not really wanting to hear it or even stir and alert the neighboring room that she was awake, Jane had quietly and slowly rolled over, burying her head under the pillow so she wouldn’t disturb or be disturbed any further.
But now that Curtis was bringing it up, it would seem to her that the man had likely not been diddling himself. Rather, that JP had been having restless sleep. She felt her face grow a little warm at the thought, and kept her head bent over her oatmeal. It was as if it was the most interesting breakfast on earth.
Rhys shrugged. “I heard him. Sounded like one hell of a nightmare. When I first woke up, I thought there was a bear in the room with him.” He chuckled. “Suppose we should probably let him sleep.”
Jane felt a little sick at the comment, but couldn’t put her finger on why. She just had a strange urge to tell them to go find him, and quickly. But she said nothing. Once, when she was a little girl, she told her parents at the breakfast table that Uncle Terry wouldn’t come to breakfast. She hadn’t been in his room or anything. She just knew.
Just like she knew at that moment that JP wouldn’t be joining them this morning, either. She never spoke aloud about her feelings and intuitions. She was a scientist, and though she trusted and believed in her instincts, she didn’t discuss them. They couldn’t be scientifically verified or measured, so why bother to share them?
Forcing herself to finish her oatmeal as if nothing was wrong, she looked up expectantly at Curtis. He shook his head.
“I dunno. He might be pretty bothered at sleeping too late. The man is one of those active people.”
Ariana, who had finished her breakfast and, looking completely unperturbed by the situation, set her napkin on the table and stood up. “I’ll go wake him.” She shook her head, and Jane nodded at her in understanding. The men were being a bit cowardly. It was true that JP could be intimidating, like a drill sergeant, but he didn’t seem all that bad to Jane. To Ariana, too, she supposed. Perhaps he was more beneficent towards the women in the group. Sort of old-fashioned in a way.
In case her instincts were right—that there was going to be a problem, Jane finished her oatmeal quickly, it settling into her stomach like a hard rock of steel-cut goodness that seemed to want to come right back up. She stood to clear her dishes, and put her tray away.
As she was composting the plate, she heard Ariana holler for Doctor Schultz.
The men were all up in a flash, even though Ariana hadn’t screamed out of fear. She wasn’t afraid, but she was urgent. Jane took her time behind the men. She didn’t want to see what was to be revealed.
When she got there, that oatmeal threatened to come back up and it was all Jane could do to swallow it back down.
Just inside of JP’s room was what was left of JP. His legs were gone and a large portion of his torso was gone as well. His chest, neck, arms, and head remained, a grimace etched onto his face.
Rhys gasped and swore. Ariana shook her head but didn’t stop looking at the sight. Curtis threw up and looked as if he was about to pass out, so he left the room, still gagging. Jane covered her eyes for a moment and took in a deep breath, then looked to Lyndon, who was already crouching down near the body.
“Ariana, go grab my medical bag. I need my supplies.”
Rhys grimaced. “Would be nice if you could put him back together,” he said, voice a mix of playfulness and sarcasm.
“Shut it. I want to find out what got to him,” Lyndon said.
The survivalist looked as if he was going to say something else, but seemed to think better of it as Ariana returned to the room with the black bag.
“The liver’s exposed,” the doctor said, muttering. Then he added something else Jane couldn’t hear. Finally, he raised his voice to be heard by the group. “I’m estimating he was killed about four hours ago judging by his core temp and the temperature of the room. Just about when we all heard the noise.”
“But he was torn apart,” Rhys said, squatting down near JP’s body. “Look, I mean, we should have heard more than some grunting. A struggle, right?” Jane saw his head snap down to the lower part of what was left of the corpse.
“Schultz, shine that light down here. Look,” he said, pointing to something that Jane couldn’t see very well. She had no intention of getting any closer to the cadaver, either. She’d gotten into botany for plants, not bodies.
The light on the site illuminated something very long and curved, covered in blood. Schultz used tweezers to pull it out of JP’s half-spleen and he wiped it off on a cloth.
“A claw?” Schultz asked. Rhys shook his head.
“Not like any claw I’ve ever seen. It’s a husk of a claw…of sorts. Look at it, though. It’s longer than a bear claw, and thick at the bottom, like a cat’s. It’s unique, that’s for sure. Bag that for me, will you? I’m going to send pictures over to a friend at the university. He’ll likely be able to identify it.”
“There are no land animals in Antarctica,” Ariana said flatly. “This is bullshit.”
Jane looked over at her, finally tearing her eyes away from that claw-thing. “You think a seal did this?”
Ariana’s eyebrows shot up and she balked. “No. Of course not. I’m just thinking aloud. There are no land animals on this continent. The man is torn apart. I want to know how, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions.”
“A person couldn’t have done this, if that’s where you’re thinking of heading,” Schultz said, examining the edges of the tears on JP’s flesh. “This was an animal, and a large one, at that.”
Jane spoke up. “When you’re done with pictures, Rhys, let me take a sample of that claw. Maybe between Curtis and me we can figure out what it is.”
Ariana sighed, muttered, and then left the room. Rhys looked over at Jane, watched Ariana leave, then back to Jane.
“She’s just in shock, and she’s scared,” Jane said. “Let her be. She’ll be fine.”
Whether Ariana would be ‘fine’ or not wasn’t a matter any of them could worry about for the moment. Likely the woman needed some space and didn’t need Rhys crawling all over her to make sure she was okay.
Whether he was interested in the woman or not didn’t matter, either. Jane just wanted to try to keep everyone from losing their minds.
As Jane and Rhys walked through the compound—the biodome—to reach the outdoors, they were alert. The dome was enormous as they had expected to add more people as the experiment went along. Should it have been a success, it would have been like a small town in the middle of nowhere. In fact, Project Nowhere was one of the running names they’d had for the experiment. Among others. Jane had preferred Project Utopia, but she’d always been a fan of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe. Utopia Planitia and all that.
No, they never found out what it was. It was just a thing. Jane brought herself back to focusing on what they were doing.
Why Rhys wanted to start on the other side of the compound for their search was a mystery to her, at first. Then she realized she hadn’t heard the animal for quite some time. The further away it was, the better, but this time, they were hunting the animal, and that meant they would have to get a lot closer.
She knew she had to pay attention, but the hunger and the days of fear and uncertainty building up relentlessly had made her mind prone to wandering.
Not that Jane had ever been all that great at survival and outdoor activities. She joined the project because those things interested her, but she wasn’t good at them. Mainly, she preferred to stay indoors and study her plants, create her hybrids, and make interesting foods. She didn’t know if she was actually good at most of it, but she was above average. Certainly there were inferior botanists, as well as superior. She was good at her plants. She was good at creating things.
She was still working on creating totally freeze-resistant soybeans, and she’d been hoping that her time spent here would have yielded some positive results. But there wasn’t enough time, now. What the breakdown of the climate control hadn’t killed, the thing that kept finding its way inside had destroyed or removed.
It was intelligent. Intelligent enough to realize that the food Jane and Ariana had been working on had been their food source. Whether it ate their supplies was a matter of debate that didn’t matter.
That was after they’d found JP dead. Everyone had been in shock, and it had been difficult to go back to work. Ariana had been a miserable mess, either chattering on and on about the incident at full speed or breaking down and crying. Jane was quickly losing patience with her, but that was because she was upset by it, too, and needed to have her own breakdown moment. Instead, she’d just tried to go about her work and stuff it.
It was the third time that Ariana had a meltdown that Jane finally lost herself.
“JP is dead. We can’t change that. There’s a lot of work to do and you need to get your head together and work! The leader of the group is gone and you’re acting like it’s the damn end of the world. You can’t keep acting this way and stay sane.”
Jane’s words sounded hollow and staccato to her, like little dots of hail on a window pane. Ariana seemed to take it like a splash of cold water, though, and stopped crying. “I just—I—how can you deal with what you saw?”
“I can’t,” Jane said, louder than she’d intended. She felt her face grow too hot and her heart speed up, so she forced a breath and tried not to be as upset as she was. She lowered her voice. “I can’t and don’t want to deal with what I saw, Ari. I’m sick about it. But the project is all we have and we have to keep doing our jobs until Lyndon and Rhys get into contact with the authorities and we can get the hell out of here.”
Jane couldn’t speak much after that. Her throat felt like there was a hand around it, squeezing on her windpipe. She turned back to her work and bowed her head over her seedlings. A silent prayer to no one to ask that they get out of this alive. That whatever it was would simply go away.
When she opened her eyes, hot tears emerged, making dewy specs on the leaves of her soy plant. Ariana was gone. Wiping her face, Jane went back to work.
Ariana’s bones were found two days later. Well, just a female femur. Lyndon had been able to identify it. Two days after that, Lyndon’s legs and a hand were presented. At that point, Rhys, Curtis, and Jane were not shocked. They were just hopeless.
Well, Jane was. She figured this was it. This was how she was going to die.
Rhys seemed stronger than she’d thought he’d be. His joviality and snide comments were long gone, but his skills on making the food last after the thing depleted them were incredible. He stretched out the rations for the three of them. He kept his guns clean and helped Jane with the plants. In just a couple of weeks, they’d be ready. The rations would last. That gave Jane some hope. The fact that they were being picked off one at a time, however, balanced that hope right out.
Curtis was pissed off and sullen. A broody man to start, he seemed well-suited to the cold, but after everything that had happened, the man became worse. He didn’t speak. When he did, it was tacit and rude. He kept to himself.
One morning they woke up, and he was gone. No note, nothing. Just gone. They assumed, at first, that he’d been eaten by that thing, but Rhys found a wet foot print by the door. It seemed he’d just left to either find the thing or die in the cold. Either way, he wasn’t there anymore.
The soy had stayed hearty and hale up until a couple of weeks ago, when the climate control shit the bed because Curtis was missing. Without daily maintenance, the controls weren’t holding up well, and that had been a problem from the outset that they’d been working on addressing, according to Rhys. She didn’t know anything about solar-power and the collectors, and kicked herself for it. She punished herself for not studying the basics. It was too late now, though. She tried not to think about it any longer.
No one had been particularly worried about it at first, because they had communications working, the university was aware of it and planning to send a team to come work on fixing the problems (whatever they were), and Curtis was keeping it going.
The temperature had dropped below zero for several days, and that had been it for the plants. It wasn’t quite the test that Jane had planned all those days ago. Earlier, she’d had set aside some resistant plants for a controlled test in Curtis’s lab, but there wasn’t time for that. Not anymore, because of that thing.
There was no time for anything, or any of them, she supposed. It was down to Rhys and herself, and she wasn’t confident that it would last very long. She’d try. She’d do whatever she needed to do to survive, but that thing seemed to be more powerful than any of them put together. Its seeming intelligence bothered her, too. It taunted them.
It likes to play with its food…
Pushing that thought aside once more, Jane realized that Rhys had asked her a question and she wasn’t listening.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
Rhys smiled ruefully.
“I asked you if you were ready. Clearly you weren’t. Take a couple of minutes and get your head together, because you can’t be distracted once we’re out there.” He said. He didn’t sound irritated or impatient to Jane. He sounded matter-of-fact. Focused.
Jane took a deep breath and looked at the small door that led to the corridor and the outer wall where their means of escape was. She brightened—what if they opened the door and their rescuers were on the other side? Wouldn’t that be lovely?
She shook her head internally. Don’t be stupid.
“Okay, I’m ready,” she told him. Rhys nodded and handed her the ammunition. “If I drop the rifle, you pick up and load. If I drop a mag, you hand me a new one. You know which ammo is which, huh?”
Jane looked down, indicating each box. “Yes. These are shells for the rifle, and these are magazines for the pistol, yeah?”
“Yep. Keep one in your left pocket and the other in your right so you don’t confuse them.”
She nodded and did as he suggested. This was busy work, wasn’t it? Jane got the idea that he was giving her something to do because he was a hunter for fun and could do this himself. Yes, he was trying to help her by making her feel like she had some sense of control. A twitch of her lips betrayed the fact that she was grateful for it.
He started telling her about the gauge he preferred for hunting large animals—something about never going any lower than a .45 and also that he was glad he brought these particular weapons. She tried hard to keep up as they headed outside, but it was difficult to keep that kind of information straight. She didn’t fear guns, she just didn’t have any previous experience, really. Her uncle, the same man who put a gun in her hand, got shot in a hunting accident (allegedly), and after that, Jane just lost interest.
Rhys seemed like an expert to her, though. The way he went on about it even made her laugh a little—she didn’t understand why he would have thought to bring weapons with him, but he had. Had he planned to hunt penguins or something? Had he planned to shoot one of the group if they got out of line? Safety, security, or what? Anyway, now she was glad he’d thought to bring them.
She wanted to ask if he’d sneaked them in, but didn’t have time. The door was open and they were out in the cold. The breeze was gentle, but with it came the bitter slap of frost. Jane adjusted her goggles and pulled her hood more tightly into place, securing the straps. Again, she wished for mittens as her hands slid into her pockets and held onto the box of shells and the magazines in each one.
The crunch of the white snow underneath their feet was all Jane could hear at this point. It would no doubt make them easier for the Thing to track, but couldn’t they hear it, too?
They walked a ways out, and Rhys set down red flags shaped like arrows in the direction they were walking, placing the final one once they were out of sight of the biodome. That lonely little red flag pointing out towards nothing pulled on her belly. That fishhook of sickness wrapping itself deep inside her stomach, pulling her towards…
“Hey, you okay?” Rhys asked her. “You started looking a little gray, there.”
Jane looked up at Rhys, who was nearly a foot taller than she, and nodded. “Yeah, just a little sick to my stomach.”
“You’ll be okay. Doesn’t look like we’re having any luck yet,” Rhys said, and Jane thought she heard some bitterness in his voice. She still didn’t know him well enough to be sure, but the jovial person she’d first met was slipping away. Bits and pieces returned every once in a while (he couldn’t be anything more than what he was), but a man like him—a man accustomed to being in control—likely was bitter about being hunted.
Jane wasn’t exactly bitter. Angry—perhaps a bit. But wasn’t whatever that thing was just being true to its own nature? Just as they were being true to theirs?
Stowing the philosophical thoughts in a hurry, Jane turned at what she thought was that all-too-familiar scraping and shuffling noise. Rhys followed her gaze, but there was nothing there.
“Did you hear something?” Rhys asked, leaning near her and squinting in the direction of the noise. Jane couldn’t see anything.
“I heard a shuffling and a scraping noise behind us,” she said, loud enough for him to hear through his parka hood. She shook her head. “But there’s nothing. Nothing there at all.”
Rhys was quick to reply. “Don’t psych yourself out, Jane. It’s bound to happen sometimes, but try not to think about it too much. Remember, we’re the ones doing the hunting this time. Don’t make yourself a victim.”
Jane nodded. “I understand.” She turned back to Rhys, following closely as they walked towards the sea.
A fruitless fifteen minutes later, Jane signaled to Rhys that it was time to turn back.
He agreed, saying something about Bio Arctic for the guns, but Jane didn’t understand what that meant. He also mentioned being glad to know a wholesaler, but she didn’t get that, either. Something about this special sub-zero lubricant that kept the guns from freezing. She was glad he knew what the hell he was talking about. What if they got out again and had to use the guns, but they misfired or something from the cold?
They didn’t say much else as they headed back to the biodome/compound. Jane was still keeping an eye and ear out, just in case the creature decided to make itself known.
As they got closer to the relative safety of the compound, they took a quick look around to ensure that no one or nothing was following them. It seemed silly to be that cautious—after all, a creature that sounded that large shouldn’t be able to hide in plain sight.
Yet they were still jumpy, unsure. That, and the creature seemed to be able to get in and out of the biodome without them knowing how or even hearing its entry. It seemed to be able to only make noise when it wanted them to know it was there.
Also, Jane had only seen flashes of the beast over the course of being hunted. It was large, and white. Not fluffy like a polar bear, though. Perhaps she was seeing it wrong, somehow. But it looked slick and pale white. Like it had a greasy coating over its skin.
That and the giant black claw that they’d found inside JP was pretty much all they’d seen of the creature.
Unsuccessful in their first hunt, Rhys pried open the door after inputting his code, and they went inside. The entrance had a goddamn security code. Who the hell was going to break in, the penguins?
Determined to conserve her energy, Jane went into the small storage area and bundled herself up under her itchy blankets, curling up and starting to fall asleep. She heard Rhys move in closer to her, and opened one eye.
“Don’t fall asleep till you’ve checked your temperature,” he told her, handing her a thermometer. For a moment, Jane balked, thinking he was actually going to put the thermometer in her mouth, and sighed internally. Awkward. She took the plastic, slug-looking thing and placed it in her ear after checking the probe cover. It beeped once after five seconds.
“Thirty-seven. That’s normal for me. Our meals just aren’t enough. I’m tired from the lack of food, Rhys. Not from hypothermia, I’m sure,” she said, lying down again and closing her eyes.
“Well, I just wanted to make sure,” Rhys said, taking the thermometer from her and putting it back in the first aid case. She heard it snap shut and then a soft shuffle as he made his way back to the beds. A soft creak as he sat down. In her imagination, she could see him staring at her. It was almost like she could feel him staring at her.
“Rhys?” She said quietly.
“Are you afraid to die?”
A long pause stretched out between them, and just for a moment, Jane had been sure she shouldn’t have asked that question. It was almost like she was sealing them into a fate. But they were trapped. There was no getting out of this. Unless their rescue vessel came soon, they were either going to be eaten, or die from starvation.
As she opened her mouth to say something else, perhaps to retract what she’d asked, Rhys answered her question.
“No. I used to be. But no, not anymore. I mean, I won’t know it, and I’ve had a chance to really live, so no. I just don’t want to suffer for long. I don’t want to be aware of it. If that thing came and knocked my head off or killed me instantly, yeah, I’d be pissed off, but then I wouldn’t know it.”
She heard him shift but Jane didn’t turn over or open her eyes. Jane didn’t want to discuss this anymore, and kicked herself for bringing it up in the first place. She did that kind of thing all the time. When she finally decided to speak, it was something that was wrong. Too deep, too dark, or too much. This was the main reason she didn’t mingle or go to parties, because she felt like she was constantly saying something she shouldn’t or asking something she shouldn’t.
“What about you, Jane?” Came the inevitable question. “Are you afraid to die?”
Jane nodded, but knew he couldn’t see her through her hood while her back was turned to him. “I am, a little. Mostly I’m afraid that it’ll hurt, no matter what. That I’ll somehow still stay aware of what’s happening to me. That part of me will still be attached to my body and know exactly what’s going on. It’s weird. I just don’t think anything really dies, it just gets transmuted into something else, so why would consciousness die? Wouldn’t it move to another level or exist as energy? So yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of—not oblivion, but a lack of oblivion.”
The silence expanded in the room again, impregnating those words with a heaviness that made Jane feel like she was choking.
She felt arms wrap around her, and opened her eyes long enough to see the mustachioed man leaning in to kiss her. Not understanding if these were advances or friendship overtures, Jane froze and closed her eyes again, wondering what he was going to do. The last thing she wanted was sex. Not that Rhys wasn’t nice to look at, and it might be her last chance, but she was exhausted, bone dry, and felt utterly used up in that moment.
But he didn’t give her anything but a chaste kiss on her cheek, like a brother trying to comfort his sister in a thunderstorm, and squeezed her into a tight hug.
“Everything will be okay. No matter what. Live or die, it will be okay,” he said, voice low, breath warm on her cheek.
He left little space between them as he curled up next to her. Jane felt foolish all at once for jumping to the thought of a perfervid love affair with the man. Maybe, just maybe, he was exhausted, too, and his reputation as a ladies’ man forgotten in the cold, harsh reality that death was imminent.
She opened her eyes and turned over. His face relaxed, eyes closed, and slow breathing signaled to Jane that he was falling asleep. She did the same.
“We’ll survive this. We have to,” he said. That was all she heard from him.
Sleep seemed to be the only thing they had left in them.
Jane opened her eyes and wasn’t sure how long she’d been out. She didn’t dream at all that she could recall, and time had escaped her. It had been like being dead, she supposed, if Rhys was right.
One moment she was awake and the next moment she was here, lying down nearly hanging off the mattress, one gloved hand brushing the floor. She searched the room, sitting up slowly.
Rhys was gone.
Sweating, she opened her hood and pulled it down, listening for some sound of him.
She could hear nothing but the ugly, familiar scraping sound of the creature, and her heart quickened. For certain, it had gotten him this time.
No doubt she would be next. The idea made her stomach churn and her heart beat too fast. She wasn’t ready to die. She wasn’t like Rhys who had seen the world and had done everything he’d wanted, if that was the truth. She had so much more to do before being taken out of this world. She had work to do, she had places she wanted to see, papers to be published, and a life to live.
She wasn’t about to go out without a fight.
Jane crept off of the mattress and looked around. She wasn’t good with guns but she imagined that she could at least operate the pistol. Once the safety was off, she could aim and fire, after all. She was sure it wouldn’t be anything like the video games she played or the rifle she’d once fired, but the principle couldn’t be too difficult, right?
She figured she’d do her best.
Looking around, she saw neither the pistol nor the rifle that Rhys had with them from the morning, and sighed.
With the noise outside, she wasn’t going to venture out, and she cursed Rhys for not waking her. For going out alone. The fool. What was he thinking? Trying to play hero or something, she supposed. Great.
Sitting down on the mattress again, Jane put her head in her hands and let the darkness smother her. She needed to think, and thinking was hard without enough food. Sitting like this, without distraction, gave her clarity. Well, almost without distraction. There was still that god-awful noise out there. Probably the thing ripping Rhys apart.
She shoved that thought out of the way, and decided she would wait till the sounds were gone, then venture out to Rhys’s locker. There was bound to be a cache of his weapons there. Whatever he brought with him. She’d do her best to load them up and find the creature herself, or maybe shoot herself in the process.
Another thing she needed to do was get the communications back. Perhaps she could do that, too. It was better than sitting around and waiting to die, she figured. It was worth the action.
The noise died out. No fading. It just stopped.
Jane snapped her head up and looked towards the door, almost expectantly, but nothing happened. No one or nothing came through it. Maybe she’d see Rhys come through with good news, or the creature would barrel in with all its might and that would be the end. Then it would be over, one way or another.
But it wasn’t over, and Jane braced herself for whatever might come next.
She crept towards the door, holding her breath and trying not to make any noise. She was going to try to listen and ensure the creature was nowhere near her before running over to the lockers. She wished Rhys had moved all his weapons into their hidey-hole, but no luck. The trunk wouldn’t have fit with the mattresses and the narrow supply closet, anyway.
Putting her ear to the door as gently as she could, she listened.
There was no sound but the rush of air from the compressor. It reminded her of putting her ear to a conch shell. People would tell her it sounded like the ocean, but not to Jane. To her, it just sounded like a rush of air.
Jane jumped, heart leaping from her throat down to her stomach as she almost wet herself. She moved back from the door as it was thrown open, and she yelped, grabbing the only thing she could find to use for a weapon. Raising the thing over her head, she got ready to bring it down on the creature.
But it wasn’t the creature. It was Rhys. A sweaty, somewhat bloody Rhys, but the man himself, just the same.
She lowered whatever it was (some kind of metal bar, shaped like a T), and choked on her words.
“I’m all right, I’m all right,” he said breathlessly, holding up a hand. “I almost got the fucker. It—I can’t—damn.”
He stopped talking and sat down. “I shot him with everything I had,” he said. “And it still kept coming. I missed the first couple of shots because of this.” He pointed to his head. His hood had been torn on the side and his ear was bleeding. Jane peeled back his hood carefully to get a look at it. The tip of his ear was missing, squared off at an angle. It was leaking blood.
She went to the first aid kit and grabbed the clotter, antiseptic and bandages.
Rhys was cooperative, which surprised Jane yet again. He let her clean him up and didn’t wince, not even once. As she stopped the bleeding and began stitching the wound, he made a face, but that was the extent of it.
“I’ve had stitches without anesthetic before,” he said with a shrug. “On the back of my shoulder. Fell on a sharp rock when I was climbing. My ear barely feels a thing by comparison.” He gave her a small smile. She kept working.
“What happened?” She asked after she was finished with him. Rhys reclined on the mattress and elevated his legs.
“I’m fine,” he said, patting her arm to reassure her. She didn’t flinch. “Just want to prevent shock.”
Jane covered him with a blanket.
“Thanks.” He wrapped it tightly around himself.
Jane was kind of glad that he wasn’t explaining what happened right away. Part of her knew she wasn’t going to enjoy this particular account. This adventure story from hell. That feeling of a fishhook in her belly pulled on her once more.
This is never going to end. Your nightmare has just begun.
She shushed the chatter in her head and focused on what Rhys had to say.
“I couldn’t sleep after a short snooze, so I got up to see if there was anything I could do with the communications system. I took the guns. Probably should have left you the pistol, but I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just looking for something to do. To try to get us out of here.” He sighed. “Anyway, I was in the communications room and thought I should go check the towers. Not that I know what the hell I’m doing but if I could see a hardware problem, I could try to jury rig it or something. So I stepped out into the corridor and WHAM. The thing hit me.”
Jane shook her head. “You didn’t see it?”
“No, and that was the weird part. It was right in front of me and I never saw it. I only saw it when it hit me. So I fired.”
Jane didn’t believe him. She couldn’t believe him. “But I didn’t hear any gun shots.”
Rhys shrugged. “You were half dead. I mean, you were in a deep sleep. Like you were drugged, almost. I thought the shots would wake you up, for sure.”
She swallowed. Sleeping that deeply wasn’t good at all, for a variety of reasons. Her heart raced again as she vowed she wouldn’t let herself sleep that deeply from that point forward. If she couldn’t hear a gun being fired, she wouldn’t hear the thing coming after her. It worried her, too, because she wasn’t normally a deep sleeper, so she knew the lack of food was really getting to her, affecting her mentally. But how could she hear the beast and not the shots? Maybe it was finished with him and running away when she heard it. She needed to shut her internal monologue up and just listen.
“Rhys—you shot it?”
“Not at first. It hit me hard enough to slice off part of my ear. If I hadn’t pulled my head away it would have slit my throat, I’m sure. But the hood provided a barrier. I was lucky. That wasn’t skill. It was stupid luck,” he said, shaking his head. “So I reeled backwards and nearly fell on my ass. Then I managed to get myself together long enough to fire the rifle. I missed the first shot, then the second one hit its shoulder. Well, I think it hit its shoulder. It was camouflaged somehow.”
“Like in the Predator movie?” She felt her face get hot again.
Rhys kept going. “Yeah, like that, I guess. So I dropped the rifle and went for the pistol. Chest shots. It kept at me and then boom, nothing. It was gone. I couldn’t see where it went, but it wasn’t there anymore. It stopped its attack. Either I wounded it or it stalked off for some other reason. I came back here as quick as I could.”
Jane stared at him. He wasn’t pale any longer and his color was much better. Almost as if he’d enjoyed relating his tale. She sighed softly. “You don’t know if it’s dead, then.”
Rhys sat up slowly. “Yeah, I don’t know. I just knew when it was gone. Something about the air quality. It—I don’t know—it became lighter, somehow. It’s too hard to explain. I’m sorry.”
Jane shrugged this time. “You don’t have to explain. I think I get it. I mean, I understand about the air quality. It was oppressive, and then it wasn’t, right?”
He pointed at her. “Exactly.”
She nodded. “Well, maybe it’s dead.”
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up, but yeah, it could be.”
Jane stood up and went over to the rest of the rations. “We’ve got steak and…” she paused, rummaging through the few packages that were left. “Steak. Which one would you like?”
He chuckled. “Well, how about steak, then? I mean, unless you want it.”
Mirthless laughter from both of them.
They ate again in silence, and she wondered once again if this would be her last meal.
THREE DAYS LATER
Breakfast was sparse, the last of the powdered eggs completely gone. There was no food left. Jane had been surprised that they’d manage to make everything last as long as it did. Three extra days of life.
The reprieve over the last three days had been nothing short of a miracle. The creature had seemed to disappear, completely, leaving Jane to try to find ways to revive some of the plant life. No luck, naturally, which was about what she had expected. Plus, even if she’d found something worth saving, they’d have starved to death long before it was ready to eat.
Rhys had better luck fixing the climate control and working on the communications systems. He reported that morning that he could now hear people speaking when he was in the control room, but it was filled with interruptions and static of sorts. At first, Jane was heartened by this news, but thought better of it.
Shouldn’t they have come looking for them at least a week ago?
Maybe it was time to give up. Perhaps just lie out there and die of exposure, or die from an attack of whatever that monstrosity was.
She was tired. It took too much energy to even think about how she wanted to die.
Rhys, however, had an optimism that couldn’t be swayed. It seemed as though he got off on the setbacks, as if it was the most exciting challenge of his life. That was really starting to get on Jane’s nerves; she found that she wasn’t able to cope with him for more than a few minutes at a time without wanting to punch him and having to bite her tongue all the time to keep from snapping at him.
She gathered that it could be hormonal, or just the simple fact that she was sure that it was over, and his lack of acceptance seemed too jejune for her.
She didn’t believe she was being pessimistic. Not at all. She just felt the gravity, the reality of her situation. Help wasn’t coming, the reserves were depleted. Time to fish, hunt a seal or a penguin to eat, or get eaten. There were no more turns on this road, and death was quickly becoming a friend that she could easily court for a long-term relationship. Forever.
“There were some seals making a racket last night,” he said. “Did you hear them?”
Jane nodded. “They woke me up. Pretty loud. Mating calls or distress. I’m no animal expert.”
Either way, it was obnoxious and had frightened her for a moment. But after a while, when she realized they might be victims of that thing, she felt better. Better them than her. Or Rhys.
“Gonna cast our net for some fish and crabs to eat,” he said. “Wanna save my ammunition to keep us safe.”
Literally biting her tongue to keep from snapping at him (to what end?), Jane nodded again.
“Are you okay, Jane?”
“Don’t worry. We’re going to get out of this. Things are starting to look better already.”
She gave him a grave look. “Better? You call running out of food ‘better?’”
Rhys held up his hands defensively. Jane stopped herself.
Standing up, she made her way out of the room to do absolutely nothing. There was no point in anything, including getting mad at Rhys. This wasn’t his fault, and she knew it. She knew snapping and sniping weren’t going to help, and she was now thoroughly irritated with herself for letting all of it get to her. The unflappable Rhys was who he was. Facade or not, genuine, whatever—Jane could only let him be.
She went to their hiding spot and put on her last fresh shirt, layering her other clothes on top, then finishing with her balaclava, ski goggles, and a beanie. Snapping on her gloves, she quietly fetched the fishing net and gear, then went to find Rhys.
Silently, he smiled at her, nodded, and got into his gear.
Jane tried not to be annoyed with that smile of his.
As it turned out, optimism was infectious. They’d managed to catch enough fish—small fish that she didn’t really recognize immediately, but didn’t care—to have meals for a few days. It gave Jane a bit of hope that they could survive for just a bit longer, and maybe someone out there would realize they were in distress and search for them.
Scaling, gutting, and cleaning a fish wasn’t as difficult as Jane thought it would be, and though she’d never done it before, Rhys told her that she’d done well.
They cooked on the hot plates, conserving power. Jane found a packet of lemon juice. It was a find of a lifetime. She giggled and flapped it at him. They split it.
Whatever kind of fish it was, it had a fatty taste to it, and Jane felt grateful instead of angry that night. Just grateful to be alive.
She fell asleep closer to Rhys than ever before. Drifting off easily from being satisfied that she wasn’t dead yet, when just hours ago she was ready to give up and die, Rhys put an arm around her, protective. She thought briefly of sex, but was far too tired. It seemed Rhys was also of the same mind, as he was quickly snoring beside her. She closed her eyes and let sleep pour over her.
It’s over, and you are already dead.
Jane started awake, the darkness surrounding her completely. She couldn’t see anything. Her heart pounded fast and hard in her chest, and she squinted to try to see something, anything.
She heard a chopper, and men shouting. She thought she also heard a growl. Swallowing hard, she wiped at her eyes as if to try to force them to adjust to the darkness.
“Rhys? What’s going on?” She asked, voice stronger than she thought it would be.
“Rescue!” She heard him shout. It sounded like he was scrambling around in the dark. “We lost lights, I can’t see a goddamn thing! Where’s the flashlight?”
Jane felt around her mattress till she clasped the small, cylindrical torch that resembled a phaser, and flipped it on, nearly blinding herself with the brightness. She fumbled, dropped the flashlight, and rolled out of bed, half-naked in her last fresh nightshirt, the cold hitting her lower half with its icy claws. She found her pants and got layered up again.
The beam of light highlighted the desperation they’d been living in—piles of discarded ration packs, clothing sparsely laid out here and there to be aired out, and there, in the far end of the small space, Rhys was jumping up and down getting into his boots.
A distant roar coming closer, louder than the sounds of the chopper, and pushed both of them into adrenaline rushes and haste. She took nothing with her and started to run out the door as fast as she could. Rhys paused long enough for his rifle, and made his way out behind her.
She saw nothing beyond her beam of light, and nothing in front of her from the illumination. She swept over the area briefly and headed towards the exit where the whooshing, quick ebb and flow of the ‘copter blades beckoned.
The MH-60S Seahawk hovered overhead as she and Rhys emerged from the dome. She switched her light to a flash set of the Morse Code SOS, and thought herself silly. They could clearly see her and Rhys on the ground, though she feared what they wouldn’t see approaching them until it was too late.
The Seahawk made a smooth landing on the hard-packed snow, and Jane ran weakly towards it as one man and one woman in uniform followed by a couple more Marines emerged from the chopper.
“Sergeant Davis!” Rhys shouted, waving at a man whom he clearly knew. “We’ve got to get out of here, now!”
“Where are the others?” Davis shouted over the whirring of the blades. The other marine was heading towards the dome.
“They’re dead. All dead,” Rhys yelled. “There’s something out here!”
Davis looked around, and, clearly seeing nothing, but not disbelieving Rhys (he wore a look on his face that Jane thought looked determined to believe his friend no matter how insane he sounded), he pursed his lips and nodded. “Get to the chopper and we’ll get you both out of here.”
Jane couldn’t run anymore. She was all out of energy. Exhausted, shaking, and feeling her sweat freeze on her forehead, she headed at a crawl for the helicopter.
The other Marine, the one female that had been heading for the dome, yelled a loud curse and opened fire on nothing that Jane could see. But it couldn’t be anything else but that thing.
Davis told them to stay where they were in no uncertain terms, and ran over to where she was. “Lieutenant?”
“Get back, Davis!” She hollered, opening some kind of dye pack. A deep blue mist of dust or some sort of sticky substance emerged from it, floating towards where she’d been firing. It stuck to the thing, illuminating it in a cerulean cloud.
Larger than a polar bear by Jane’s estimate, she inhaled sharply at the form that was taking shape in front of them. The head of the beast was enormous, and looked like a cross between a lion’s head and a bear’s head. Its body size was gargantuan to support such a head, with heavy paws that appeared to have opposable thumbs, each long claw highlighted in that serene blue.
Davis made his way to the Lieutenant’s side, staying back just enough to follow orders, but close enough to lend aid. But the Lieutenant was ready for action. Her shot was on target for the beast’s chest with some kind of high-powered rifle, and it blew a hole into the blue the size of a large peach.
A howl—a howl that Jane could hear easily over the blades of the helicopter—rang out in the field, and her hands found their way to her mouth as if to stop a scream of her own. She glanced over at Rhys, who was sitting next to her. Rhys had turned the color of the snow and his scruff from going without shaving stood out in a black contrast.
Black ooze pumped out of the beast, splashing both Davis and the Lieutenant. An incredible shout came from them both, along with a flume of curses from Davis.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” He hollered as the cerulean-covered beast fell to the ground.
They got on the helicopter and the Lieutenant gave the order to head back to the carrier or vessel or whatever — Jane was only half-listening, her eyes transfixed on the melted flesh near Davis’s eyes, and the fact that their clothes seemed to be melting and congealing, as though they’d been hit by acid. Tossing their jackets, the two tended to each other, spraying some kind of counteracting liquid on each other. When they were finished they tended to Rhys and Jane. It seemed like chaos, with Rhys answering the newly scarred Davis and all his rapid-fire questions, the Lieutenant barking orders to the flight crew and talking into her headset, that Jane couldn’t understand a damn thing with all the buzzing about. She looked over at Rhys, who reached out and took her hand in his, squeezing it reassuringly. She squeezed back. He needed it as much as she did, if not more.
Settling back to get out of there, Jane looked at the ground near the dome, hoping to see the beast lying dead.
But all she could see were cerulean drag marks away from the dome, fading away into nothing.
Nothing at all.
Author Bio: Anne Hogue-Boucher is an American writer currently living in Atlanta. She is almost certain she’s been placed in a real-life weird fiction tale where people consider her to be potentially extraterrestrial. She neither confirms nor denies these suspicions in order to continue enjoying a quiet life away from Area 51.
© 2013 Anne L. Hogue-Boucher.