By William Dietrich
Published by Warner Books
December 2002 in paperback; 0446611972; 464 pages
Sometimes you have to go into nothing to get what you want.
That was the Jed Lewis theory, anyway. West Texas oil patch, Saudi, the North Slope. Hadn't worked for him yet but one kind of extreme had led to another, one kind of quest to its polar opposite. Sometimes life patterns like that, when you keep changing your mind about what it is you do want. So now he'd come to the very end of the world and was peering over its edge, too late to turn back, hoping that in the farthest place on earth he'd finally fit in. Atone to himself for his own confusion of purpose. Belong. Maybe.
"The Pole!" Jim Sparco had seduced him. "Feels closer to the stars than anyplace on earth. It's high desert, a desert of ice, and the air's so dry that it feels like you can eat the stars. Bites of candy." The climatologist had gripped his arm. "The South Pole, Lewis. It's there you realize how cold the universe really is."
The money had almost been secondary. They'd understood each other, Sparco and he, this longing for the desolate places. A place uncomplicated. Pure. Except for their rock, of course. That raised questions. It was their pebble, their tumor, their apple.
The world is round but it has an edge. A cold crustal wrinkle called the Trans-Antarctic Range runs for more than a thousand miles and divides Antarctica in two. On the north side of the mountains is a haunting but recognizable landscape of glacier and mountain and frozen ocean: an Ice Age world, yes, but still a world--our world. To its south, toward the Pole, is an ice cap so deep and vast and empty as to seem unformed and unimagined. A vacuum, a blank. The white clay of God.
Lewis crossed in the sinking light of an Antarctic autumn. He was exhausted from thirty hours of flying, constricted by thirty-five pounds of polar clothing, and weary of the noisy dimness of the LC-130 military transport plane, its webbed seats pinching circulation and its schizophrenic ventilation blowing hot and cold.
He was also entranced by beauty. The sun was slowly dipping toward six-month night and the aqua crevasses and sugared crags below were melodramatic with blaze and shadow. Golden photons, bouncing off virginal snow, created a hazed fire. Frozen seas looked like cracked porcelain. Unnamed peaks reared out of fogs thick as frosting, and glaciers grinned with splintery teeth attached to blue gums. It was all quite primeval, untrodden and unspoiled, a white board on which to redraw yourself. The kind of place where he could be whatever he made himself, whatever he announced himself, to be.
The Trans-Antarctic Range is like a dam, however, holding behind it a plateau of two-mile-thick polar ice like a police line braced against a pressing crowd. A hundred thousand years of accumulated snowfall. A few peaks at the edge of the ice plateau bravely poke their snouts up as if to tread water but then, farther south, relief disappears altogether. The glaciers vanish. So do ridges, crevasses, and theatrical light. What follows is utter flatness, a frozen mesa as big as the contiguous United States. When the airplane crossed the mountains it entered something fundamentally different, Lewis realized. It was then that his excitement began to turn to disquiet.
Imagine an infinite sheet of paper. No, not infinite, because the curve of the earth provides a kind of boundary. Except that the horizon itself is foggy and indistinct with floating ice crystals, suspended like diamond dust, so that the snow merges without definition into pale sky. There was nothing to see from the tiny scratched windows of the National Guard transport: no relief, no reference point, no imperfection. When he thought he saw undulations in the snow the load master informed him he was merely looking at the shadow of cirrus clouds far overhead. When he thought he saw a track across the snow-left by a tractor or snowmobile, perhaps--the load master pointed to a contrail being left by an outgoing transport. His track was the shadow of that dissipating streak across the sky.
Lewis moved among the pallets of cargo from window to window, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. The plane lumbered on, cold slithering along its fuselage.
He checked his watch, as if it still meant anything in a place where the sun went haywire, and looked out again.
He looked out a different window. No movie would start on the blank screen below. No progress could be discerned. He searched a sky and plateau that seemed blank mirrors of each other, vainly searching for some rip, some imperfection, some reassurance that he was someplace.
He sat on his web seat and chewed a cold lunch.
After a drag of time the Guardsman cuffed his shoulder and Lewis stood again, looking where the sergeant pointed. Far away there was a pimple on the vastness. A tiny bug, a freckle, a period with a white runway attached to make a kind of exclamation mark. Amundsen-Scott base! Named by Americans for the Norwegian who got there first in 1912, and the hard-luck Brit who froze to death weeks later after seconding at point zero. Lewis made out a bottle-cap of a dome that sheltered the South Pole's central buildings and an orbit of smaller structures like specks of sand. From the air the human settlement was remarkable only for its insignificance.
"The buildings fit in a circle about a mile wide, altogether," the load master shouted to him over the roar of the engines. "Doesn't look like much, does it?"
Lewis didn't reply.
"You staying the winter?"
"Glad it's you and not me!"
They buckled in, the snow seeming to swell up to meet them, Lewis's heart accelerating during that disquieting gap between air and ground, and then with a thump and a bang they were down, swerving slightly as the skis skidded on the ice. The plane shuddered as it taxied, continuing to vibrate when it stopped because the pilots didn't dare shut down the engines. Lewis stood, stiff and apprehensive. He was the only passenger, the last arrival of the season. An anti-migrant, swimming against the tide of humans fleeing north. Well, his timing had never been the best. The cargo ramp opened to a shriek of white and the cold hit him like a slap. It was palpable, like a force you waded into.
"We had a fly stowaway from New Zealand one time," the load master shouted, his military mustache almost brushing Lewis's ear. The propellers were still whirling so the hubs wouldn't freeze, and the National Guard sergeant needed this intimacy to be heard. "Buzzed like a bastard for three thousand miles! When we opened the doors it flew to the light and made it three feet! Three feet! Then the fucker dropped like a stone!" The man laughed. Dizzy, Lewis walked out. He couldn't get a proper breath. There was a crowd of orange-parka people at the edge of the runway, waving but fidgety, anxious to get away. The last of the summer crew, going home. Snow from the prop wash blew over them, hazing them as if they were already being erased. Awkward from his duffel and enormous white plastic polar boots, Lewis staggered toward the group in seeming supplication. A figure detached from the crowd to meet him. The man's hood was up and all Lewis could see were goggles and frosted beard, framed by a ruff of fur. Lewis had been given the same government-issue parka. He'd been told it cost seven hundred dollars and a sacrificial fox.
"Jed Lewis?" It was a shout, above the noise.
A nod, his own goggles giving the Pole a piss-yellow tint. The man reached, not to shake hands but to shoulder the duffel. He turned to the others. "Let's move, people! Let's get this cargo off so you can all go home!" His goggles rotated across their rank, taking mental roll. "Where's Tyson?"
There was a long moment of silence, goggled heads turning, a few smiles of unease and amusement. In their cold weather gear everyone looked alike except for strips on their coats with block-letter name tags. "Sulking!" someone finally called.
Lewis's greeter stiffened. There was another silence beneath the drum of the engines, someone shrugging, his guide sucking in unhappy breath. "Well, someone go the hell and find him and tell him to get the damn sled up here so we can get this plane off! He's got eight long months to sulk!" The others shifted uncomfortably.
The man turned back to Lewis, not waiting to see if anyone followed his command. "This way!" They set off toward the central aluminum geodesic dome, half buried now by drifting snow, their pace briskly impatient. Lewis looked back, parts of the orange-clad group now breaking off to troop to the plane. Then ahead to the dome, an upended silver saucer, dramatic and odd, like surplused flotsam from a World's Fair. He'd read the dimensions: fifty-five feet high, a hundred and sixty-four feet in diameter. An American flag snapped at the top, its edge ragged, its gunshot stutter audible now above the idle of the plane. Streaks of snow dust curved across the top of the dome in neatly drawn parabolas.
Lewis's nose hairs had already frozen. The cold ached in his lungs. His goggles were fogging up and his cheeks felt numb. He'd only been outside a few minutes. It was worse than he'd expected.
They descended a snowy ramp to a dark, garage-sized entrance at the base of the dome, Lewis mincing in his Frankenstein-sized boots so he wouldn't fall and slide on his butt. His guide paused to wait for him and let their eyes adjust to the dimness inside the door. Two cavelike corrugated steel arches extended into gloom to his left and right. "BioMed and the fuel arch that way, generators and garage over here." Lewis had a shadowy impression of walls and doors of plywood and steel, unpainted and utilitarian. Before he could peek into the arched tunnels he was led straight ahead. "The dome where we're quartered is this way."
The overturned bowl shielded the core of the South Pole base like a military helmet, keeping warmth-sucking wind and blowing snow off the metal boxes where people lived. Three of these boxcar-shaped structures, colored orange, sat on short stilts under its shelter. Since the base was built on snow, the powder didn't stop at the entrance but formed the dome floor, drifting over wooden crates and mounding against the orange housing units. Dirt and grease had colored the snow tan, like sand.
"It never melts," his guide said, scuffing at it. "The ambient temperature in here is fifty-one below."
Lewis tilted his head back. There was a hole at the top of the dome that let in pale light from a remote sky. The entire underside of the uninsulated structure was covered with steel-gray icicles, pointing downward like a roof of nails. It was beautiful and forbidding at the same time.
"You didn't finish the roof."
Someone bumped Lewis and he staggered to one side. It was another winter-over, rushing a crate of fresh fruit to the galley before it could harden in the cold. "Sorry! Freshies are like gold!" They followed the hurrying man to a freezerlike door and opened it for him. To get inside you pulled a metal rod sideways and tugged at a slab like a wall. Lewis realized that the freezer wasn't inside here, it was the outside: Anything not carried into the orange housing modules would turn hard as a brick. They followed the fruit bearer. There was a vestibule hung with parkas and beyond it a galley of bright fluorescent light, warmth, and the excited chatter of more people saying goodbye. Their duffels were heaped like sandbags. People were packed to go.
His guide let Lewis's gear drop with a thud and pushed back his goggles and hood. "Rod Cameron. Station manager."
"Hi." Lewis tried to fix the face but the men in their parkas looked alike. He had an impression of beard, chapped skin, and red raccoon lines where the goggles cut. Lewis was wondering about the absentee at the plane. "Someone not show up for work?"
Cameron frowned. He had a look of rugged self-confidence that came from coping with cold and administration, and a hint of strain for the same reason. The Pole wore on you. "Egos in kindergarten." He shook his head. "My job is to herd cats. And I'm having a bad day. We had a little alarm last night."
"The heat went off."
"We got it back on."
The station manager studied the newcomer. Lewis still looked smooth, sandy-haired and tanned, with the easy tautness of the recreational athlete. It would pass.
"You got your file?"
Lewis dug in his duffel and fished out a worn manila envelope with employment forms, medical records, dental X rays, and a list of the personal belongings he'd shipped to the Pole in advance of his own arrival. His new boss glanced inside, as if to confirm Lewis's presence with paper, and then put the folder under his arm. "I've got to go back outside to see this last plane off," Cameron said. "I'll show you around later but right now it's best to just sit and drink."
Lewis looked around the galley in confusion.
"I mean drink water. The altitude. You feel lousy, right? It's okay. Fingies are supposed to."
"F-N-G-I. Fucking New Guy on the Ice. That's you."
Lewis failed at a grin. "Latecomer."
"Just new. Everybody's a fingie at first. We know we're lucky to get you last minute like this. Jim Sparco e-mailed about you like the Second Coming."
"I needed a job."
"Yeah, he explained that. I think it's cool that you quit Big Oil." Cameron gave a nod of approval.
"That's me, man of principle." Lewis had a headache from the altitude.
"Course, we need their shit to keep from freezing down here."
"Not from a wildlife refuge, you don't."
"And you just walked out."
"They weren't about to give me a helicopter ride."
"That took some guts."
"It had to be done."
Cameron tried to assess the new man. Lewis looked tired, disoriented, chest rising and falling, half excited and half afraid. They all started like that. The station manager turned back to the door, impatient to get away, and considered whether to say anything else. "I've got to go get the plane off," he finally said again. "You know what that means, don't you?"
"That you can't quit down here."
A stream of people followed Cameron out, some looking at Lewis curiously and others ignoring him: the winter-overs going to off-load the supplies and the last from summer flying home. The Pole had a brief four-month window when weather permitted incoming flights, and then in February the last plane left, fleeing north like a migrating bird. In winter it was too dark to see, too windy to keep the ice runway clear, and too cold to risk a landing: Struts could snap, hydraulics fail, doors fail to open or close. The sun set on March 21, the equinox, and wouldn't rise again until September 21. From February to October the base was as remote as the moon. There were twenty-six winter-overs who retreated under the dome to maintain its functions and take astronomical and weather readings: eight women and eighteen men this year. It was like being on a submarine or space station. You had to commit.
The galley had emptied and Lewis took a place at a Formica table. The room was low-ceilinged, bright, and warm. A bulletin board was thick with paper, a juice dispenser burbled, and in the corner a television monitor displayed outside temperatures. It was fifty-eight below zero near the runway, the breeze lowering the windchill to minus eighty-one. The reading was an abstraction except for the freezer door he'd come through. That was old, and cold leaked around its edges to rime its inner face with frost. The frost reached all the way across it in stripes, like fingers. The pattern reminded Lewis of a giant hand, trying to yank the door away.
"Drink as much as you can. Best cure for the altitude."
Lewis looked up. It was the cook, bald except for a topknot that hung from the back of his head. His skull looked knobby, as if knocked around more than once, and he had a gray mustache and forearms tattooed with a bear and eagle. Here was somebody easy to remember.
"It doesn't look high."
"That's because it's flat. You're sitting on ice almost two miles thick. Our elevation is ninety-three hundred, and the thinning of the atmosphere at the Poles makes the effective altitude closer to eleven thousand. Walking out of that transport is like being dumped on the crest of the Rockies. Your body will adjust in a few days."
"I feel hammered." The short walk from the plane had made him ill.
"You'll be racing around the world before you know it."
"Around the world?"
"Around the stake that marks the Pole." He sat down. "Wade Pulaski. Chief cook and bottle washer. Best chef for nine hundred miles. I can't claim any farther because Cathy Costello back at McMurdo is pretty good, too." McMurdo was the main American base in Antarctica, located on the coast.
"Jedediah Lewis, polar weatherman." He shook.
"Jedediah? Your parents religious?"
"More like hippies, I think. When it was a fad."
"But it's biblical, right? You're a prophet?"
"Oracle of climate change by temporary opportunity. Rockhound by training. And it's actually just another name for Solomon. 'Beloved of the Lord.'"
"So you're wise."
His head was pounding. "I take my name as God's little joke."
"What do you mean by rockhound?"
"Geologist. That's my real job."
"So you come to the one place on earth where there aren't any rocks? Doctor Bob will have a field day with that one."
"Who's Doctor Bob?"
"Our new shrink. NASA sent him down to do a head job on us before they plant too many people on the space station. He's wintering over to write us up while we mess with each other's minds. He thinks we're all escapists."
Lewis smiled. "Rod Cameron just told me we can't quit."
"That's what I told Doctor Bob! It's like being paid to go to prison!"
"And yet we volunteered."
"I'm on my third season." Pulaski stretched out his arms in mock enthusiasm, as if to claim ownership. "I can't stay away. If the generators stop like they did last night we've got maybe a few hours, but we always get them running again."
"Why'd they stop?"
"Some moron turned the wrong valve. Rod went ballistic, which meant nobody was in a mood to confess this morning. But it was a stupid annoyance, not a threat. And you're going to learn that as long as you don't freeze to death things are really good down here, especially now that the last of summer camp is leaving and the bureaucrats are ten thousand miles away. I give you better food than you'd get back home and there's no bullshit at the Pole. There's no clock to punch, no bills, no taxes, no traffic, no newspapers, no nothing. After today everything calms down and this becomes the sanest place on earth. Cozier than most families. And after eight toasty months you come out with your head straight and your money saved. It's paradise, man."
Lewis reserved agreement. "You got any aspirin?"
"Sure." The cook got a bottle from the kitchen and brought it back. "You feel like shit right now, but you'll get better."
"You even acclimate to the cold. A little."
Pulaski went to the counter where food was passed. He bent under it to get a commissary-sized soup can, its label stripped and its inside cleaned to a bright copper. "Here, your arrival present."
"What's this for?" Lewis realized he felt stupid from the altitude.
"You'll drink all day and pee all night, this first night. It's your body adjusting to the cold and altitude. This can saves you about three hundred trips to the real can."
"A chamber pot?"
"Welcome to Planet Cueball, fingie."Copyright © 2001 William Dietrich
Reprinted with permission.
AT THE VERY
BOTTOM OF THE EARTH...
IN THE DEPTHS
OF THE HUMAN HEART...
ARE THE MOST
DANGEROUS DISCOVERIES OF ALL...
William Dietrich was born in 1951 and grew up in Tacoma, WA. A journalism graduate of Western Washington University, he has spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest, with brief sojourns in Washington, D.C. and Boston. He spent a year at Harvard University at the Nieman fellowship program for journalists, was a fellow at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, and has won numerous journalism awards. He worked as a journalist for a quarter century before turning to fiction after two visits to the Anartica. He is married, has two college-age daughters, and lives in Anacortes, WA.