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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis (3 page)

BOOK: Borealis
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The trawler passed beneath the lee of a great conical of ice. The moon was wiped out, dousing the ship into darkness greater than a thousand midnights.

“There's someone out here,” Charlie said. For whatever reason, he was still whispering. “There's someone out on the ice.”

“What?” Joe cawed, incredulous. He perched himself along the rail and peered through the darkness at the looming iceberg. “Are you insane? And we're too close to this thing.” Joe turned around and started waving his arms at the pilothouse. “Asshole's gonna pull a
Titanic!”

“We're fine, we're fine,” Charlie said, his breath coming in excited gasps now. He was staring through the dark, his eyes cutting through the undulating depths of the mountain of ice. The shadows appeared to be alive. If he looked at any particular place for too long, the landscape appeared to shift. He blinked and pressed the heels of his rubber gloves into his eye sockets.

Billy McEwan materialized beside Charlie. One of McEwan's large white hands closed around Charlie's left wrist. “The hell's going on, Charlie?”

“I saw someone on the ice. A woman.”

“We can't be cutting this close to the ice, man. You know that.” McEwan still had his wrist.

“Mike knows what he's doing.” He yanked his wrist free and locked McEwan in a heavy stare. Billy McEwan stared back, his too-white face framed in a black, rubberized hood, the loose threads of his knitted cap spiraling down over his forehead. McEwan had spent a good chunk of his career as a pilot with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Alaska until he got caught doing overflights for poachers in his private Cessna. As a deckhand, McEwan was a strong and silent worker…but Charlie always got the feeling that the man resented his current lot in life and thought of the rest of the crew as no better than a mob of uneducated roughnecks.

McEwan's eyes pulled away, cutting out across the flank of ice. Charlie let his gaze linger just a bit longer, nothing more than a childish exercise in superiority of course, until he watched McEwan's eyes widen and his lips purse. A waft of cloudy vapor rose from between McEwan's lips and vaporized in the freezing air. Charlie swung back around and stared over the ice just as McEwan mumbled something unintelligible under his breath.

The figure reappeared down the opposite side of the ridge—just a black blur among a density of deep shadows.

“There's someone out there,” Billy McEwan breathed.

“There!” Charlie yelled, waving again at Mike inside the pilothouse. He began pointing vigorously at the ridge. “There! There!”

The rest of the crew, including Dynamo Joe Darling, turned and stared at him as if he'd lost his mind.

Just then the trawler cleared the shadow of the icy spire and the three-quarter moon reappeared in the sky. Moonlight washed down the frozen slopes of the iceberg and spilled down to the frozen shores. The figure was illuminated coming down the ridge—white, glistening skin, athletic build, undeniably female. Smallish breasts capped in dark areolas were quite visible, as was the narrow thatch of dark pubic hair nestled between the V of her thighs.

“She's fucking
naked,”
McEwan uttered. The incredulity of his statement would have been a cause for good laughter had the situation not been so absurd.

The young woman—for Charlie already decided she was somewhere in her early twenties—whipped her head around at the sight of the boat just as Mike turned on the floodlights. The entire wall of ice lit up like a dance floor, the mysterious young woman suddenly at center stage. She had long, dark hair, wet and plastered down against her shoulders, her skin glowing in a freezing sheen of icy water. Eyes large and black, she stared directly at the trawler's floodlights without wincing, frozen as if in spectacle without movement, her narrow little breasts quivering, her mouth opened in a partial snarl through which the vague gleam of teeth glowed.

Joe, Bryan Falmouth and Sammy Walper dashed to the portside in unison, causing the 200-foot trawler to list to one side. All of them speechless, the only sound that could be heard above the chugging of the trawler's diesel engine was a commingling of raspy, exhausted breathing.

The young woman turned away from the floodlights, her hair whipping in a single frozen fantail from one shoulder to the other, and stared down the length of the ice floe. Then she turned back and stared at the men. By inches, the trawler crept closer to the edge of the ice floe. A second later, Mike cut the engine, and the ship, following a heavy growl, went silent.

The girl collapsed into the snow, seemingly unconscious.

“Jesus,” Joe gasped.

Charlie spun around and grabbed the coil of line that he'd nearly tripped over moments ago. He found the end and slipped it around his waist, tying a halfway decent lasso. Kicking out the length of line to relieve the tension, he was about to make sure the other end was firmly fastened to the hydraulic arm when Joe grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.

“The hell you doing, Charlie?”

“Going out there.”

Joe blinked twice, shaking his head. “You've lost your mind or something?”

“Not unless I'm the only guy who sees a naked girl lying facedown on the ice.”

“How—”

“Listen up,” he said, stepping away from Joe and addressing the rest of the crew. Mike was already hurrying down the pilothouse steps, pulling his coat tighter around his waist. “I'm gonna go down there and grab her. Bryan and Sammy, you guys lower me out over the ice with the hydro arm then pull me back up when I give you the okay.”

Bryan and Sammy just stared at him, equally dumbstruck.

“Whoa, whoa,” McEwan said, raising both hands. “Calm down, hero. We ain't sending a man overboard tied to a goddamn piece of cable—”

“Is there a better idea?” Charlie returned.

“We've got grappling hooks down below,” McEwan said. “Ain't nobody's life on the line. We yank her up and over with the hooks the way they used to yank people off stage in the old vaudeville days.”

“Sure,” Joe countered, “and we stab her full of holes in the process. Nice thinking.”

“Neither one of you assholes is the captain,” McEwan said, suddenly leveling his gaze on Mike Fenty. “What say you, Cap?”

Mike glanced over the side and down at the broken white form crumpled in the snow. Her skin had started to crystallize and turn blue. “Much as I don't like it,” he said, “we'll send Charlie down. Dynamo's right—those grapping hooks'll turn her into a spaghetti strainer.”

Charlie tightened the knot at his waist. “All right, then. Clock's ticking.”

4

In hardly no time at all, the hydraulic arm began to whir. Joe and Mike, positioned on either side of Charlie, steadied him as he stepped one foot up onto the narrow railing. As the hydraulic arm positioned itself at the proper angle, it began to raise Charlie up off the railing. Mike's fingers trailed down the length of Charlie's left leg while Joe took a step back, feeding the cable out over the side of the boat.

“Keep steady,” Mike called up to him. “Try not to swing.”

Thankfully, there was very little wind. Still, Charlie could feel the cold air seeping into every open pocket; he tried to hug himself against the chill, his teeth already beginning to rattle in his skull, as the hydro arm rotated out over the water. He looked down and saw his mirrored self in the glassy surface of the night waters. The hydro arm began to hiss as it extended itself out over the water and toward the floating island of ice. He could smell the gears burning. It seemed to go impossibly slow.

On deck, Mike raced back up to the control booth and manually swiveled the spotlight toward Charlie, catching him suspended in midair like a yoyo having run out of string. Slowly Charlie rotated in the beam of light, shielding his eyes with one gloved hand as he wheeled around to face the spotlight.

The arm jerked to a stop, causing Charlie to swing gently from side to side: a hypnotist's watch on a chain. “What happened?” he yelled. His eyes, which had been trained on the slight, pale form of the young woman sprawled on the ice, turned now to Sammy and Bryan back on deck. “The hell's going on?”

“It's fully extended!” Bryan called back, his hands cupped around his mouth.

Charlie looked down. The ice below was thin and gray, sloping gradually up toward the snowcapped mounds of ice that made up the first ridge of the massive floe. The boat, he knew, would be unable to get any closer.

He called back to Bryan, “Lower the arm!”

Bryan was clearly shaking his head. “No way! Ice is too thin! You'll go right through!”

“It'll hold!” he shouted back. Glancing down a second time, however, he had serious doubts…

“Bullshit!” Bryan returned. “We'll try to get closer!”

“Impossible,” he called back. Mike was outside on the deck now, shaking his head as well. “Just lower me down.” Charlie added, “Slowly.”

Bryan and Sammy exchanged a look. A second later, the gears above Charlie's head once again started to whir. He felt himself slowly descending, keeping his eyes locked on his all-weather boots. Water dripped from his boots and struck the ice below as frozen pellets. In his head, he was already doing the math: he was a two hundred twenty-nine– pound man with approximately forty pounds of gear on; below, the tongue of ice was maybe four inches thick…if he was lucky. He could have taken one of the grappling hooks, prodded the ice to test its strength, but he didn't want to make his fear a reality as the ice broke apart under the weight of the hook. He would just go ahead and do it the same way he'd done everything else in his thirty-nine years, including his relationship with Johanna all those years ago: he'd simply close his eyes and take a single step toward the abyss.

In fact, he realized his eyes were closed as he felt the world come up to meet the soles of his boots. He opened his eyes just as the hydraulic arm wheezed to a stop. He was standing perilously on the narrow peninsula of ice, conscious of the distribution of his weight equally between both feet. Above his head, the cable slid from the runner and spooled down around his feet. Back on the boat, Joe continued feeding slack.

Holding his breath, he took one step up the incline. Solid. He took another step—and a distant breaking sound echoed back to his ears, hardly perceptible yet as loud as the rumbling of a cement truck at the same time, causing him to freeze. He sucked cold air through his teeth. There was a hairline fissure in the ice running directly beneath his boot.

He looked away, focusing straight ahead. Backlit by the trawler's floodlights, Charlie's shadow, projected onto the iceberg, loomed enormous. Arms outstretched for balance, he crossed the finger of ice quickly then mounted the incline, dropping down on all fours to scurry up the slope. Behind him, he heard the cracking ice peel away from the floe. He turned to see chunks of gray ice float away on the inky waters.

“Perfect,” he grunted.

Still on all fours, he spied the young woman's frail figure fallen slumped, face first, in the snow. Maybe ten, twelve feet away. Mesmerized momentarily, he stared at one narrow buttock, the flesh so white it was almost translucent, before Joe's urgent cries sent him scrambling toward her.

Sitting up on his knees, he touched one of her shoulders and rolled her on her back. Her head lolled, as if filled with ball bearings. Charlie gasped. Her eyes were still open, milky and cataract blind. Her thin lips had purpled and split in the cold; blood from open sores had frozen in spidery calligraphy down her chin. She wasn't breathing.

“Come on, hon.” He managed to hoist the girl up in his arms while standing simultaneously. She was as light as an empty husk, her arms and legs already beginning to stiffen. He shouted out to the
Borealis,
and Bryan Falmouth gave him a thumbs-up. A second later, the mechanical hoist reeled the extra cable up into the hydraulic arm, pulled the rope taut. Charlie hugged the girl against him, squeezing his own eyes shut. The rope around his waist tightened and pulled up. The cable was set at an angle, causing him to swing violently the moment his boots lifted off the ground. Keeping his eyes shut, holding tight to the girl's rigid body, he felt his stomach lurch with the swinging of the rope. On deck, a couple of the guys cried out and someone told Bryan to steady the rope, steady the rope, steady the fucking rope.

The arm retracted and swiveled over the deck, dangling Charlie and the girl like two fish caught on a line. Overzealous, Sammy Walper struck the release too early and sent Charlie and the girl crashing to a sopping wet heap on the floor of the deck.

The girl's stiff body sprang from Charlie's arms and rolled like a mannequin away from him. Scrambling backward on his hands and feet, Charlie slammed his back against Joe's legs. Joe reached down and tweaked his ear, clapped him on one cheek.

“She's not breathing,” Charlie said, struggling for breath himself. “I don't know CPR.”

McEwan dropped to one knee over the girl. He reached down to roll her over on her back but jerked away the moment his fingers touched her bare flesh, as if shocked by a current of electricity.

“What? What?” Joe yelled.

“She's freezing,” said McEwan.

“And not breathing,” Charlie said again, struggling to his feet. Joe helped him, slinging one arm around his shoulder. “Does anyone know CP-fucking-R?”

Surprisingly, Sammy Walper came bounding off the crank rig and hurried over to the girl. Without a word, the kid shouldered McEwan out of the way. He peeled off his gloves and placed one hand atop the other, braiding his fingers together, and proceeded to pump stiff-armed down on the girl's chest.

“Go to it, kid,” McEwan muttered, standing and sliding out of Sammy's way.

Mike scurried down the pilothouse steps, breathing just as heavy as Charlie. Briefly, their eyes locked across the bow. Mike nodded once. Charlie wordlessly returned the gesture.

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