Read Dark Winter Online

Authors: William Dietrich

Tags: #adventure

Dark Winter (5 page)

"What's his story?"
"There's no money in Russia. He's one of the top aurora experts in the world. So we gave him a posting here."
"He said he liked that movie The Thing."
"I think there's something in that film that gets to our ex-Commie. The fact that no one can trust anyone. I think he was into some pretty heavy science politics in the old Soviet. Down deep he's pretty serious, you know, kind of quietly ambitious. He'd love to accomplish something down here to bring credit to Mother Russia. Point of pride to bring out something new. But he's also a lot of fun. So's Hiro."
"They the only foreigners?"
"Dana's a Kiwi and Lena emigrated from the Czech Republic, but nobody's a foreigner, not down here. Antarctica is the only place on earth where you don't need a passport and you don't go through customs. No single nation owns anything. That's pretty cool, too."
There was the distant chug of the generator but no other sound. No bird call, no rustling leaves, no distant shout of children, no drone of highway noise. Lewis pushed back his hood and pulled down his gaiter a moment to listen, ignoring the bite of cold, his exhalation a puff of steam.
There was a quiet whisper behind him.
He turned his head. No one there.
They kept walking, puffing over the drifts.
Again the whisper.
Lewis turned completely this time. Odd. The snow was empty. What the hell?
The station manager was watching him with amusement.
"I thought I heard something."
"It's your breath, fingie. The moisture freezes as you walk and crackles behind your ear as it sprinkles down. Weird, isn't it?"
"My breath?"
"The vapor cloud."
"Oh." He puffed and listened as his exhalation floated away like fairy dust, with an audible crinkle. "You notice the noise," he conceded. "There's nothing else to hear."
"Just the voices in your head."

 

***

 

An outside metal staircase led up to the Clean Air Facility, perched on its columns like a heavy bird. Inside were instruments he'd been briefed on at Boulder by NOAA. Windows looked out at the flat bleakness of the ice cap. The elevated structure was here because air at the South Pole was thousands of miles from human industry, and hence the most unpolluted on earth. Lewis's primary job was to sample that air for evidence of global warming. He actually had to keep track of thirty-five separate measurements, some of them automated and some requiring manual sampling of air, snow, sunlight, and atmospheric ozone: temperature, carbon dioxide concentrations, wind, snowfall, pollutants, barometric pressure. My job is important. If the planet was heating, it would perversely show up here first, just like the ozone hole had. If their ice plateau melted, it would drown the world's ports. Antarctica was a global trip wire, warning humans if industrialization had gone too far. Jed Lewis was this winter's Paul Revere.
"Kind of cozy," he commented. Indeed, the elevated building felt like a tree house. A boy's fort.
"You've got good duty," Cameron said. "Your job forces you to get outside each day so you don't become a dome slug, and you get some privacy and independence out here. It's the closest thing to a vacation condo this side of the KitKat Club."
"The what?"
"An old balloon-launching shack. We don't need it anymore because the balloons have gotten smaller and lighter. A carpenter turned it into a getaway pad with carpeting, heat, stereo, and VCR TV. Since then it's seen more consummations than Niagara Falls. Not that we station managers approve, of course."
"There's a lot of nooks and crannies to this place, aren't there?"
"Oh yes indeedy."
"And this building is a rendezvous as well?"
"People come out to Clean Air sometimes to break the monotony and party. Carl Mendoza is promising to cook up some dome-brew."
"He'd better not spill beer on my instruments."
"Nah, they spill it over here." The station manager walked out on the platform ringing the building and pointed downward to a yellow-stained cleft in the snow. "Our Grand Canyon is the pee crevasse. It's a long run to the john in the dome so guys just piss over the rail here. It's quite a sensation when the wind's blowing."
"Clean air, dirty snow?"
"We don't take our drinking water from here, needless to say. Storms cover up the evidence each winter."
"What do women do?"
Cameron laughed. "Who knows what women do?"
"You certainly don't," a female voice said.
They turned. A young woman about Lewis's age was standing in the doorway, nylon windpants over her legs but her feet in wool socks and her upper half clad only in long underwear, which showed some nice shape to her. She was holding a screwdriver and seemed oblivious to the cold.
"We look for a leafy bush," she confided to Lewis. The closest one was two thousand miles away.
"Hello, Abby," Cameron said.
"Hello, pig," she replied pleasantly.
"You were hiding under one of your computers."
"I was getting our planned obsolescence ready for our newcomer." She looked at Lewis. "Please pay no attention to Ice Pick. He's flunked every chance at being a New Age sensitive type of guy since assuming his exalted post and all the women on station are preparing a lawsuit against him. Or maybe just ritual castration."
"Hey, I'm sensitive. And I like women."
"Exactly the problem."
Cameron made the introduction. "This is Abby Dixon, our resident computer nerd. Abby, Jed Lewis, our new weatherman."
They stepped inside and Lewis shed his mittens to shake. She had long, slim fingers and a firm grip. Her hair was short and dark, her features tomboy pretty, her smile wide and welcoming. Not bad.
"I didn't see you at dinner," he said.
"Sometimes I eat on the job. Especially when we have fruit. An apple, a PC, and me. Heaven."
"You don't miss our companionship?"
"Machines are good company. Especially compared to some of the alternatives." She cast a mischievous glance at Cameron.
"Abby's an elusive one," the station manager said. "Pretends to have some geek boyfriend stashed elsewhere in Antarctica. Our isolation and my charm, however, are breaking down her reserve."
"I'm positively gregarious compared to Jerry," she told Lewis. "Jerry Follett. You'll work with him, too. His idea of small talk is atmospheric dynamics. He'll want some help launching his balloons but he's loud as a mollusk. Don't be put off by it."
"So you work out here, too?"
"Just when you need me. I heard you'd arrived and thought I'd better get the busted one up and running. It's been on my list after your predecessor broke it."
"I hope he didn't spill beer," Lewis said.
"Probably threw up on it. Had a tough time with the altitude." She turned to Cameron. "So, we going to name this guy Snowman, too? He's collecting it."
"No, everyone needs their own nickname. Polar tradition," he explained to Lewis. "I'm Ice Pick, because I can be a prick when I have to be."
"He's just fussy," Abby said. "Picky. He fails at being mean."
"I'm just nuts from coping with twenty-five other eccentrics in a place that demands conformity. Everyone wants to make their careers in six months and solve their life problems while they're at it. When they don't, it's the station manager's fault."
"Maybe we should call you picked-upon," Abby teased.
"Picked apart, anyway. Cotton-pickin' crazy. Now." He considered Lewis. "Abby's Gearloose, for her vast technical skills. And you are… maybe… Krill."
She laughed. "Oh dear!"
"Krill? What does that mean?"
"Zooplankton," Cameron replied smoothly. "A tiny, translucent shrimp that makes up much of the marine biomass off Antarctica. Vital to the ecosystem."
"I look like a shrimp?"
"It's worse than that," Abby said. "He means you're at the bottom of the food chain. The new guy."
"The fingie," Cameron said cheerfully. "Nobody newer for eight toasty months."
"I don't think so," Lewis said slowly. "How about something flattering?"
"Not allowed," the station manager said.
"What about the grumpy shower guy? Tyson? What's his nickname?"
"Buck to his face, because he's big and into knives. But we spell it with an F behind his back."
"And Island," Abby said. "As in, 'No man is'? Every winter there's one guy so weird that he runs the danger of being ostracized. Tyson seems to crave the honor."
"Not me. I came down to get along." Embarrassingly, his stomach chose that moment to growl. As Geller had predicted, he was hungry, fiercely hungry. "And eat."
Abby took pity. "Don't think you look like a shrimp."
"Thanks. I am almost six feet." His stomach rumbled again.
"In fact, aside from his rude noises, I'd call him an Antarctic Ten." She smiled slyly, head tilted judiciously. They were still making fun.
"A what?"
"An Antarctic Ten is a member of the opposite sex who'd be a Five anywhere else," Cameron explained.
"Ah. Very flattering. Great."
"We all look better and better as the months drag on."
"Terrific."
"You could be a Six." Abby winked. "The women will have to vote."
"I'll look forward to that."
"But Krill is too cruel for him, Rod. He's right. Maybe Ozone."
"Maybe Sediment. He is a rockhead."
"A what?" she asked.
"Geologist. Running from rocks."
"Rolling Stone, then."
Lewis shook his head. He'd have to find his own name. And if I could make Six, you could be an Eight, he judged, watching Abby laugh. Even a Nine after a few months at the Pole. Things were looking up.
A telephone rang and Cameron answered it. "Hello… Yeah, he's here." A pause. "Okay, Mickey… Right, I'll tell him." He hung up.
"Who was that?" Lewis asked.
"Our estimable astrophysicist, Michael M. Moss. Pooh-bah of the Pole. He'd like you to come by astronomy later today." He pointed to the other building on stilts, three-quarters of a mile away. "You can do that?"
"After lunch." His stomach growled again.
Cameron was looking at Lewis curiously. "Mickey usually isn't this welcoming. He can't remember half the names on the base. But he asked for you."
"I'm flattered."
"It's interesting that he'd want to see you so soon."
"Maybe he likes fingies."
Cameron shook his head. "No, he doesn't. He's a snob."
"Well," Lewis said, enjoying finally knowing something the others didn't, "maybe he likes geologists."
CHAPTER FOUR
Nine-tenths of the universe is missing, Lewis. My job is to find it."
Michael M. "Mickey" Moss leaned back in his desk chair in the astronomy building and waited to be asked for clarification, his hands making a tent in front of an expression both regal and watchful. Despite a Disney nickname that had dogged him from grade school- or perhaps because of it, in compensation- Moss looked nothing like a cartoon. He instead maintained an Aristotelian aura with his mane of white hair and beard, raw pink skin, and eyes both bright with intelligence and as dark as obsidian marbles. Lewis was sure the look had been cultivated: Moss was the kind of scientist who could command the lectern of an academic gathering on appearance alone.
"I wasn't aware we'd misplaced the universe," Lewis said on cue, playing straight man to the lecture. Moss would get to the point of this visit in his own good time.
"Exactly! Exactly the problem!" The scientist bounded out of his seat and theatrically pointed toward the ceiling. "People marvel at the sky. All those stars! And yet those trillions of suns represent only a tiny fraction of the matter that has to be out there, judging from the rotational speed and placement of galaxies. There should be ten times as much stuff. A hundred times, maybe. So- what else? Dim stars? Dark planets? Or something we don't even suspect? That's what we're looking for." He pointed at the floor. "Down there." He smiled as if posing a riddle.
"Sparco told me you're building a telescope in the ice."
Moss looked mildly disappointed at this shortcut in his lecture. "You're familiar with neutrinos?"
"Never seen one."
The astrophysicist nodded wryly. "Precisely. Far smaller than an atom. So small that billions are passing through our bodies right at this moment without effect. So small that a neutrino can pass through the entire planet without hitting anything. The most inconsequential objects imaginable. Chargeless. Massless. Yet what if they do have mass, however slight? There are so many of them they could represent a substantial fraction of our missing universe. If we could find and count them and tell where they come from, it would bring us a lot of information. It's the finding that's the problem."
"Which you've done."
"Which we're in the process of doing. Statistically, a very few neutrinos do collide with the particles of an atom as they streak through the earth. When this happens there's a tiny explosion of sorts, a spark, a kind of radiation- a point of light, if you will. We can't see these flashes in rock. But sensitive instruments can see them in transparent mediums such as tanks of water. Or, ice."
"Ta-da," Lewis said.
"Drill holes deep enough and the ice becomes so compressed that all the bubbles and color are squeezed out of it. Ice becomes clearer than glass. Clear as diamond. Instruments can detect these flashes for a thousand feet in all directions. We've drilled holes a mile deep to spot neutrino light. It's the best place in the world, really. If it works. If it works."
"There's been problems."
"No! Not problems. Scientific realities. Impatience by funding agencies. Because they have no idea of the conditions down here. No idea! I'm staying this winter to try to keep things on schedule. Because we might find something so unexpected that it changes all our understanding of gravity, matter, energy…"

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