I decided to tell Lundquist the endings of his books. Lundquist's books were important to him; I suppose they would be important to anyone who found themselves in our position. In fact, I suppose the reason I started telling Lundquist the endings of his books was a direct result of how much I cared about my books. The books were the only thing we had to pass the long hours between the moments when the time came to probe the ice beneath us. We were forbidden from running the generator at any other time, although neither of us could tell whether this was out of desire to preserve the secrecy of our station or in the interest of cutting down on fuel costs. This meant during the day all we could do was sit in the dark research station and read by hand cranked flashlight.
We developed a system, Lundquist and I, where we would each take a turn powering the flashlight while the other read. In this way Lundquist was able to enjoy the strong steady beam of light created by my tireless cranking and supported by my level hands. Meanwhile, I struggled to read much of anything in the faint wobbly beam emitted by Lundquist, who frequently stopped the whole process to warm up his hands. Charitably, I declined to recommend he warm up by holding one of his incredible self-heating books, since he apparently never got cold hands when it was his turn to read. Instead, I sat there in the dark with my book open in my lap while I contemplated Lundquist flying through chapter after chapter while I still muddled through the exposition.
Like most great discoveries, the revelation that Lundquist hated to hear the endings of his books happened entirely on accident. Lundquist, already on his third book of the expedition, started reading a work that I'd been assigned in school. Making conversation, I mentioned this and he asked me what I thought about it.
“It's pretty good, although I was sad when the captain sacrificed herself to save the--”
Lundquist covered his ears and let loose a high pitched wail. I'd assumed he'd read the book already, almost everyone had. However, I had not met Lundquist until we arrived at the brushed steel door that led down into the depths of the research station we now occupied. I had to face the fact that much of my knowledge about the man, his education, and the books he read as a child relied almost entirely around such assumptions. I didn't even know if Lundquist was his first or last name, or if he'd been a successful soccer player in Brazil in his younger years and Lundquist was the only name he needed. Considering his apparent physical frailty, that last scenario seemed unlikely, but as his shrieking continued I realized that anything might be possible with Lundquist.
At that point, I still desired peace between us. I tried to reason with him. “Even if you know the ending, it is still fun to find out how they got there.”
Lundquist threw his book down against the concrete floor of the station. He'd chosen to sulk.
“I'll let you take a double turn on reading today to make it up to you.”
“I don't want to read anymore.” To emphasize his point, he stomped his feet down and folded his arms, sitting upright in his chair, stiff and unmoving.
At this juncture, it feels fair to mention that Lundquist was about my age, maybe even a little older, considering the gray hairs which started to appear in his beard. I also don't want to defame him by neglecting to mention that, despite the whole book thing, he was an exemplary researcher. When the time came, he never hesitated to open the trapdoor and descend into the ice cave to install the probe. He would go to any length, possibly even at great personal risk, to ensure the probe brought back useful data to transmit to our employers before we shut down the generator again and went back to reading in the dark. There are people who are perfectly fine coworkers who you cannot spend several months locked inside an antarctic research station with, and Lundquist was one of them.
Since Lundquist was done reading, I decided to let the flashlight go out. We sat there in the pitch black for about ten minutes, saying nothing. Lundquist broke first.
“What do you think we're measuring?”
I didn't know the answer to that. My training revolved almost entirely around maintaining the probe, loading and unloading the probe from its heavy case, repairing the equipment that sent and received data for the probe, and some winter survival, so that I might stay alive in order to continue serving the probe. None of my trainers felt it was important that I know what the probe was for, and apparently Lundquist's trainers felt the same. Maybe they also didn't know. Either way, I decided to lie to Lundquist. “I've only heard rumors, you know. Nothing definitive. Only whispers around the cafeteria at HQ.” I tried to bring up HQ as casually as possible, as if I went there all the time. Even my handler spoke of HQ in the sort of tone that suggested asking someone if they'd been there was like asking if they'd ever been to the moon. Since Lundquist and I were—at least nominally—peers, suggesting I'd been to HQ might lead him to think that I might be something more, planting the seeds for me to seize authority in the station, should the need arise.
“What's headquarters like?” Lundquist asked.
“You mean you haven't been?” I threw this out casually, as if I thought everyone got to walk around and say hello as part of their new-hire orientation.
“You're the first person I've met whose gone there.”
I had to be careful not to lay it on too thick. Lundquist was a trusting sort of person, but even he would be skeptical that I was some sort of chosen one who could float between HQ and the field at will. “It's nothing special, you know. I started out as an analyst, but I begged and begged for a field assignment. Eventually I must have annoyed the right person and they sent me away.”
Guessing from the sound, Lundquist probably leaned forward in his chair, trying to make out my face and see if I was joking with him. The darkness made this effort useless. Either way, I was not about to have Lundquist leaning all the way over into my space, breathing on me.
“Do you want to know what's under the station or not?”
“There's something under the station?” Lundquist pulled back.
“I can't say for sure. These are only rumors, you know.”
“Right” said Lundquist, apparently unconvinced.
“If you'd rather not hear about it that's fine with me. I don't like to talk about it at all, especially not while we're here.”
Naturally, once I'd said I didn't want to talk about it, Lundquist had to know more. I told Lundquist that people believed the probe was used to monitor another, even more secretive, research station. Some thought it was founded by the Germans during the war, others that our own organization had established it a decade later. Whether they were Nazi scientists deemed unfit to rejoin society or a team of researchers who'd fallen short of the organization's own opaque standards, the result was the same: the organization buried the entire station under the ice and established another station, our station, to ensure that nobody ever emerged. Presumably what they'd discovered was too dangerous to be seen by anyone, even a hit squad. The probe, naturally, ensured that nobody could activate the station without us knowing and also confirmed that everyone inside was dead.
“That had to have been years ago, right? No way anybody could live in there that long.”
I decided to push further. “Of course. And these are only silly rumors, a fun joke to make to initiates. The probe is probably just measuring the structural integrity of the ice or something like that.”
“Why all the secrecy then?” Of course Lundquist would not be satisfied with such a flimsy deflection.
“Secret ice I suppose.”
“So, after you hit me with your rumors about geriatric Nazis crawling around below us, you mean to say your theory is that it's actually secret ice?”
My wristwatch began to beep, signaling that it was once again time to bring the probe into the ice cave below. “Do you want to go in this time or shall I?”
“You can go this time. Let me know if you notice anything different about your 'secret ice'.”
I made a point to smile at Lundquist as I descended through the trap door.
Referring to it as the ice cave was a bit of a wild overstatement on my part. It was a hole in the ground beneath the station barely big enough to admit one person, and I had to struggle to drag the probe through the short tunnel to the measuring point. Even though it was a short walk, I had to resist the urge to look over my shoulder as I moved through the tunnel, as if I might lose sight of the ladder and be lost down there. I kept the beam of my flashlight focused on the back wall of the cave, it was not far now. The probe, once fought into an upright position, emitted a series of beeps, like a thermometer in a sick child's mouth, counting up the degrees. Neither Lundquist nor I knew what these beeps meant, only that if they ever stopped we should immediately try to fix it. Similarly, we lacked any awareness of the significance of the green and blue lights that winked on the probe's long handle. This is not to say that Lundquist and I did not know the probe. We'd both been trained to take it apart and put it back together in nearly any environment, including underwater. Our final test was to replace a malfunctioning processor in the probe while locked inside a room devoid of oxygen—the idea was that unlike the water, there was nothing, save our presence of mind, to make us remember not to breathe.
We never learned why it was important that we know how to repair the probe while not breathing. Maybe it could malfunction and emit some sort of toxic gas, or maybe there was something down here that might try to strangle us.
I shook my head. I was being ridiculous. Was I really going to start worrying about the story I'd made up just to frighten Lundquist? Of course not. Until he'd asked, I hadn't been bothered by the thought of what might be inside the narrow crack in the bottom of the ice cave that we plunged the probe into. Yet, I had to admit that even if we were measuring something innocuous, which was unlikely, given the organization's interest in things that were slightly dodgy at best, Lundquist and I were alone. We were alone in the dark at the bottom of the world, and if anything happened, it would be months before someone would find what was left of us.
The ending of the next book that Lundquist read went something like this:
The hero, an FBI agent turned treasure hunter, discovered the location of several long-lost Italian renaissance paintings when she arranged the triple AAA travel guides from 1980-1981 in order, both chronologically and alphabetically by state. It turned out that when arranged this way, the spines of the books formed a street map of Chicago that marked the location of the hidden treasure. Unfortunately, the treasure was buried under the headquarters for the American Dental association, and our hero had a terrible fear of dentists (which was established in act one). Unable to overcome her fear, the treasure hunter destroyed all of the evidence that she'd collected of the paintings, and they were presumably lost forever—or at least until someone decided to clean the basement. Lundquist did not like this at all.
“I figured you should know.” I told him. “I didn't want to see you get five-hundred pages in only for it to disappoint you.
Lundquist seemed to be practicing some sort of deep breathing, his face growing redder and redder.
“I'm doing you a favor, honestly. Everyone knows that the author only wrote that part of the series to get out of a lowball multi-book contract.”
If the length he held his breath before exhaling was any indicator, my argument did not move Lundquist.
“Lundquist, have you ever tried to look through the crack in the ice cave?”
“I don't know how you'd see anything, the opening is so narrow.”
“Apparently it widens out farther down, at least that's what people were saying.”
“Have you looked?”
“I try not to.” I figured that sounded vague enough.
“What do people see?”
I hesitated, not because I didn't know what to say to Lundquist, I'd thought out the next part of my story while I waited for the probe to finish its work. I paused because after I lifted the probe out and returned to the ladder, I felt an urge to turn around, return to the crack in the floor, and look. I stood there on the ladder, frozen, torn between wanting to return to the surface and to spend the next few minutes lying on the ice trying to gaze into the darkness below. Even though it was my invention, I could not escape the hold the the other station had taken in my mind. Would continuing the story only make it worse?
At the same time, it would be selfish, having so much of this feeling stored up inside me, not to try to share a little bit of it with Lundquist.
Those who looked through the crack in the bottom of the ice cave saw a room, not entirely unlike the room of our own station, only bigger. At the end of the room a steel door hung open, although it was impossible to determine what, if anything, was in the darkness beyond it. Those who looked felt an overwhelming sense that something was going on just outside their view.
One veteran scientist, a bit of a pariah at HQ but too knowledgeable to replace, insisted that he'd managed to see more of the room by redirecting his light with a mirror. Nobody wanted to give him the satisfaction of thinking they believed him, but his story was spread around the most. The scientist claimed he saw a human hand, attached to the arm of one of the doomed crew of the station. He barely could look at it before it pulled back out of view. Yelling down into the station accomplished nothing; the scientist wasn't sure he wanted to contact the owner of the hand anyway.
The most popular theory held that this was the sole survivor of whatever fate befell the station. Alone in the dark and possibly horribly wounded, the survivor crawled around in the station, his eyes huge and useless. He survived off of what he could find on the floor, sometimes old bits of rations, other times puddles of ice that formed when the condensation on the walls dripped down, but most often the bodies of his fallen comrades. When he encountered one, he would cut away a frozen chunk of their flesh with a carving knife he'd stolen from the kitchen. His teeth totally destroyed over the years, he would thaw the chunk of meet in the space between his raw gums before swallowing it whole.
My watch went off again. This time, it was Lundquist's turn to head down into the hole. I moved over to the little desk, raised in the center of the room like an altar, which housed the probe monitor. The display had the same collection of lights that lined the handle of the probe, along with a little line that traced a gentle wave across the bottom right of the screen.
It took me longer than it should have to notice that the light at the very top of the rows of status lights had gone from flashing green to solid red. I spent enough time trying to think about how to respond to the light that I nearly missed the wave, usually smooth and gentle, jumping up and down, from jagged peak to deep trough. I hadn't heard from Lundquist, leaving me with the terrible dilemma of whether or not I should open the trap door and try to find him or if I should pile every heavy object I could on the trap door to ensure whatever was down there with him and the probe could not possibly come up into the research station. Realizing either course of action would make me look silly should Lundquist return to the surface unharmed, I resolved to search through the probe's technical manual to see if it offered any explanation for the solid red light.
After a minute, or maybe ten, Lundquist popped his head out of the hole.
“Did you see what was going on with the probe?” I asked.
“When is anything ever going on with the probe? If we ever found a way to loop back yesterday's data and send it again, we'd save ourselves a ton of time and nobody would be the wiser.”
I wanted to show Lundquist the readings on the monitor and ask his opinion, but with its transmission now complete, the monitor faded to black, its earlier data irrecoverable. I reassured myself that if those readings fell outside the normal range of what we were supposed to experience, reinforcements would soon arrive. The organization did not allow harm to come to its operatives. Unless, of course, it wanted it to.
I did not know how the last book that Lundquist read ended, but that didn't stop me from telling him anyway.
The main character, a prince, had its mind swapped with one of the castle dogs by a malicious sorcerer. Given the prince's usual sullen, brutish behavior, everyone agreed that the new version of the prince was vastly superior to the old one, even if he were a little eccentric. The novel followed both characters as they learned the difficult lessons imparted by each other's lives. The dog-prince, ever eager to please, immersed himself in the lessons of warfare and statecraft. The prince-dog had his sense of divinely ordained superiority beaten out of him by hard life on the streets. The dog-prince, a victim of his trusting nature, fell in with crooked advisors who led him to start a war with a neighboring kingdom. The castle was besieged and food ran low. The invading army flung plague infected corpses over the walls, and disease roared through the city. Alone and starving in the wreck of the castle, the prince-dog stumbled upon the wreck of his human self, also mad with hunger. In the end, the two of them, alone, and both probably in the last hours of their lives no matter what happened in that dark hallway, locked eyes and shared a moment of terrible recognition.
Lundquist gave up on reading after that and took to scribbling notes in a little journal. Initially, as I held the light for him, I assumed I struggled to read its contents because I could only see it upside down, and his handwriting was abysmal. As I kept watching, I realized he was writing in some foreign alphabet, or perhaps one of the organization's more esoteric ciphers. I could not imagine what Lundquist could want to keep secret from me. Did he have some other set of hours not accessible to normal men to lead a life that I could not observe? Maybe he was trying to write a story of his own and feared I would still somehow find a way to tell him how it ended.
“Do you think they'll let you bring that notebook with you when we return to the surface?”
“Not at all. But maybe you can show it around to your friends at headquarters.”
I did not like the way Lundquist smiled at me then. He'd replaced his usual pose of docile affability with one that suggested he held superior knowledge. Perhaps he'd seemed to embrace my stories about HQ so readily because he knew them to be laughably false. I'd hoped to cultivate in Lundquist the sense that I held knowledge completely inaccessible to him; he retaliated by taking notes I could not possibly understand.
My efforts to sort out Lundquist's new and enigmatic behavior nearly succeeded in distracting me from the dread I felt at needing to return down into the ice cave once more. I hoped Lundquist had been right about nothing noticeable going on in the cave while I stood in the station and watched the monitor go haywire.
The deployment of the probe went easily enough, but that was always going to be the case. The probe ran normally for about the first five minutes, and then the top light, the one I had been watching with a queasy mixture of hope and fear, stopped blinking and went red. The ground beneath me pulsed steadily. I struggled to keep my feet, the ground vibrated so violently it seemed the whole cave might collapse. I slipped and fell as I tried to stagger back toward the ladder. I lay there on the ground, the cave rocking and surging as if it were inside the lungs of a giant animal. I seized onto the wall with both hands, shut my eyes, and cried out for Lundquist the way one might invoke the name of God.
Somehow, through it all, I heard the chiming alarm that told me the probe was ready to be withdrawn. Determined to get out of there as fast as possible, I hauled the probe out of the ground and sprinted toward the ladder, and it wasn't until I was about halfway out that I realized the heaving of the cave had stopped with the probe.
“That was fucking crazy.” I told Lundquist when I emerged from the cave. I'd hoped my coarse language might show him that we were in this together. That I'd emerged from the cave a new man, one who would not tell him the endings of his books. Despite our differences, we were in here together, after all.
“You mean you didn't see it on the monitor?”
“All the same up here.” He made a few scratches in his notepad, as if he were writing me a citation for not alerting him to what was happening in the tunnel.
“I yelled for you.”
I told him everything I'd experienced in the cave and he encoded it into his little book. I explained that I thought the issue was a result of the probe and he asked “and why do you think that is?”
Lundquist angled his head expectantly, pencil at the ready, a scientist making time for a particularly interesting rat.
I decided to try an experiment with Lundquist. When he went down into the ice cave I did not bother with the monitor, except to push it from the center of the room and on to the lid of the trapdoor. I brought his chair over, and then my own. I let the generator run, bathing in the glorious fluorescent light. I stacked Lundquist's books by the propane stove. I would read the last pages to him while he waited at the bottom of the ladder. When the generator died I would read to him by the light of the pages I'd just read as I fed them into the stove. I would see how long he could keep up his deep breathing down there in the dark. Every now and then I would ask him if he could hear the shuffling of the doomed scientist in the station below. Maybe I could've built my own probe, given enough time, to send down there and see how he was getting on.
The trap door rattled under a heavy blow. Another came moments later, hard enough to bounce the monitor off its table. The next actually caused the trap door to pop up slightly. I rushed to push it shut, but the door was wedged open by the handle of the probe. It would be only a matter of time now.
I rushed for the station exit, pulling open the steel door only to encounter a solid wall of packed snow. The station had been buried, probably during the incidents with the probe that Lundquist denied ever took place. The trap door popped open behind me and Lundquist emerged. He was exhausted and bloody from pounding on the steel at the top of the ladder. Barely able to stand, his movements toward me were somewhere between a shuffle and a crawl. In his right hand he dragged the broken off point of the probe against the ground. My back to the open door, I planted my feet to face Lundquist. Above us, in the center of the room, flashed the unmistakable blinking lights of another probe.
Michael Somes has an MFA from the University of Colorado, where he also worked as a lecturer on American Literature. His work has appeared in JMWW, WAS Quarterly, Bear Review, and Necessary Fiction. He currently lives in Maryland where he writes about teeth. Michael recommends the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver, Colorado.