A scientist must survive in the Antarctic. 1000 points for 200-word critiques
I believe mankind’s greatest fear is not so much the fear of death, as it is of the unknown. For many, death is merely the beginning of a new journey into uncharted places, from which no-one has ever returned and described. But whether you believe there is a heaven or a hell, or something else to which your essential essence is delivered, it is the ‘not knowing’ - the uncertainty, that has the power to grip with terror like nothing else.
Not knowing whether your physical self will exist in any sense that we can understand. Not knowing whether the people you’ve known and loved in life will ever be seen again. Not knowing whether there will ever be pain or fear of entirely new things in that new, unknowable after-life. And to add to that fear, there is the fear of not knowing how you will die - in what horrible way your body will be pushed to its extreme, from which it can never, ever recover.
And yet, even in life, there are things about which we know so little. Things of which we have only the most miniscule and inadequate understanding. Please don’t think I must be some sort of coward. But it would be wise to appreciate that there are things in this world from which every person would cower, when exposed to their fullest reality. And so I feel no shame in saying that such an experience did indeed put me in a state of being from which I doubt I shall ever truly recover, neither physically, nor mentally.
I had been at the Howard-Scott South Pole Station for the first three months of the Antarctic winter, a period when the sun never quite rises and the atmospheric temperature ranges anywhere from -40 to -80 degrees centigrade. It must be said how bleak and isolated it can be to live in such a cold, dark and remote environment, even among the company of thirty others. This alone can sometimes take its toll on weaker, more sensitive individuals, and even I was glad when my astronomical research was concluded.
A small group of scientists and myself took off from the station, aboard a Hercules transport aircraft, bound for New Zealand. Despite high winds and a mild snow storm, both before and during departure, these are not such uncommon things, and were not considered a problem. I can say with certainty that these were not responsible for the terrible accident.
A few minutes after leaving the ground, we could feel that something was wrong with the engines. Everything happened so quickly, and my only clear memory of the incident is of the words ‘bird strike’ shouted from the cockpit, followed by a general panic. I believe I was already in a state of shock when we were told the airplane was about to crash and our best chances were simply to evacuate by jumping out the cargo door.
How I managed to hurl myself into that blustering swirl of whiteness, I think I’ll never know. Perhaps the survival instinct kicked in after I had witnessed most of the others jump and could hear the pilot screaming and running for the exit himself. The last thing I remember was blindly flailing my arms and legs about, as the snow stung my face and eyes.
I don’t know exactly when I passed out, whether it was before or after I landed. All I know is that I lay there, staring at greyness, wondering whether I was lying in bed after some kind of deep slumber, or whether I may actually be dead. The cold never really hit me until I properly came to my senses. And then it ‘really’ hit me. I must assume I had blacked out for only a brief time, otherwise I surely would have been unable to move from numbness.
The thought of surviving the fall never occurred to me until much later. I only knew that I was in trouble and desperately needed help. The cold had the effect of weakening me, making it hard to open my eyes and move my limbs. I was able to tell, despite blurry vision, that I was lodged deep in thick snow. It was a small mercy that I was wearing warm clothing and a thick coat, one of many factors which must surely have saved my life.
Even so, my hands already felt like ice and it took considerable effort to manoeuvre myself into a position where I could rub them together and get some circulation back. At least everything was intact and no bones broken. It was also with sheer luck that I’d hit the snow feet first, rather than upside down, and also that I’d hit at an angle, so as to create a sloping hole. For this reason, I was eventually able to work my way to the surface, through interminable movements of arms and legs.
When my head poked above the surface, the wind was still quite strong and snow filled the dirty-white air. If anything, it was noticeably colder than it was under the snow, away from the biting gusts. I knew that if I were to survive, I would need to climb out and try to find wreckage or other survivors. Otherwise, there would be no hope of rescue before my body becoming frostbitten beyond repair, and finding my way back to the station would have been absurdly improbable with no means of guidance.
I staggered onto the surface, but of course the same softness that had saved my life in falling, then slowed my progress due to my feet sinking with each step. Around me lay a shelf of thick snow, only slightly higher than the icy plateau which was barely visible in the dull distance.
Before long, the wind became perceptibly weaker and much of the whiteness around me and greyness of the upper air cleared away. As the sky turned more into the familiar deep blue of the Antarctic night and the pale disc of the moon quivered near the horizon, I was able to see more of the surrounding scene.
Behind me, the sloping snow blocked the view, but in the direction I had been slowly walking, the shelf descended gently to the wide expanse of the plateau. But yet, nothing could be seen of the station, nor wreckage of the plane or any other sign of life. My legs were becoming stiff with cold, while my feet and face were numb. Looking out at so much emptiness not only gave me a feeling of desolation, but told me what little chance I had of stumbling upon anything helpful.
There is no question that if I had remained in that extreme sub-zero atmosphere for much longer, I would literally have frozen to death. As it was, my ability to walk became quite pathetic soon after I reached the snowy flat ice of the great plateau. Every step became a great effort and my body begged to curl up and rest.
At least there was one last possibly of prolonging my life, with the dim hope that I might yet be found. I struggled back to the edge of the snow field and began burrowing a hole into the side. I had so far managed to keep my fingers from numbing by a constant gripping and opening of hands. Once the hole was deep enough to shelter me from the freezing air, I climbed inside and huddled in a shivering ball.
As my eyes slowly closed, I knew that sleep would eventually take me, no matter how hard I tried to resist. Perhaps I was too exhausted or else the whole thing was such a shock to the system, but it didn’t frighten me to know that I would probably die as I lay there. Disturbing dreams came to me at some point, or should I call them nightmares.
At first there were faces that kept appearing and disappearing. I might well have believed I had been rescued by a search party, except that the blurry countenances were wholly alien to anything I had known before. To begin with, I thought they were African in origin, due to the dark brown skin. But what came into focus was not at all African-looking in any other aspect. For example, their noses were small and pointed, while the large eyes tapered at the sides. But what unsettled me most of all was how big the hairless heads were, especially in proportion to their slender necks and shoulders. I had thought they might in fact be small children, but the expression in their eyes somehow conveyed great wisdom and depth of thought, giving more the impression of great age than youth.
Then I dreamed of voices, unlike normal human speech, being far too high pitched and whispery. I could not at first connect the sounds with the faces, but then began to notice the tiny child-like mouths move quickly in time with the voices, though barely opening or moving at all.
Something deeply unpleasant about those visions scared me. Not simply in the shape or skin-colour of the strange people, but something in the eyes which felt cold and sinister. Something distant, beyond knowledge and understanding. In another dream, I was moving, and everything around me was shaking, although I saw nothing but darkness. However, I soon thought the dreams had abruptly come to an end.
It would seem that I had woken up and was lying on something soft, but warmer than snow. I wanted to look, to know if I was still dreaming or if I had finally succumbed, but my eyes were weak and heavy as lead. I think I must have been drifting in and out of consciousness for a while. At times I could hear the sound of dripping and perhaps of flowing water. Other times, of shuffling noises and once a stony cracking sound that made me more awake.
Then I felt something touching my lips and felt water in my mouth. I was drinking, while a hand held up my head, though still I struggled to see any more than a dim blur. Shortly after, a hand was dabbing my sore face and eyes and another rubbing at my feet. I became aware that I was no longer cold, although still felt some pain when touched. But all that mattered was that I had been found, as surely I wasn’t dead.
I slept undisturbed for some time, then was woken by voices close to me. At first the figure sitting and rubbing something sticky onto my feet was too dark and unclear. An orange glow flickered on a rocky wall behind him, and I could feel heat on my bare skin.
I’m not sure exactly when the shock first came to me. I had started to feel comfortable lying there, being looked after, knowing I was safe and in good hands. The first sign that something was wrong was that I recognized the whispering noises. The shape of the figures brought the shock fully to my senses - the large heads that bent over me while I was examined – the long slender fingers that tried to put food in my mouth.
I started to panic, but felt too weak to act. I spat out the warm fatty substance that they wanted me to eat. Not that it was unpleasant, but I had no idea what they were giving me. Even the water started to make me feel sick, but I had little choice but to drink it.
After a while, I tried to sit up, but managed only to reach out an arm and twist my body to the side. It was while I concentrated on this small exercise that I first heard the horrible sound. I suppose it was something like a squeal, somewhere between a pig and a walrus, but more high pitched, like the squawk of a sea-bird. I had the impression that it was in pain.
Eventually I became more aware of my surroundings. A small fire cast an orange glow on the walls, which were extremely rough and glistened with water. The space was the size of a large room, although clearly there was much more that I couldn’t see, judging by several openings where tunnels disappeared into darkness. Most of my clothes had been put in a pile nearby, and I lay on a dull cream fur-skin, which I guessed to have come from a seal.
Two or three days must have passed, during which most of my time was spent sleeping, and I was soon able to sit up to drink by myself. Water was regularly left in a bowl which was made of bone, and which I eventually thought must have been part of a skull. That thought came too late, since I had been drinking from it long before I actually saw the horrible contours.
When my hunger became too great, I also gave in to the temptation to eat whatever repugnant blubbery substance they provided. In retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. However, my eating was often marred by the squealing / squawking which echoed through from an adjoining tunnel. I wondered whether some unpleasant creature could smell the food and was more hungry than myself. I don’t quite know what it was about that obnoxious animal cry, but I felt that it came from something terrible and utterly alien. Something hideous rattled at the back of my memory, like a dark shadow that would have overwhelmed me, had it entirely surfaced.
As soon as I was able to stand, I began to have thoughts of getting away. This caused considerable conflict in my mind, due to the problem of not knowing where I was, whether I was in some sub-arctic cave system, whether there would be any way to find the way out and whether I would then freeze to death in the snow. Although the barely-human things showed no sign of hostility, I couldn’t shake off how unnatural they appeared and sounded, and how blank their expressions were, which altogether caused me an obscure feeling of threat.
Once they were aware of my state of recovery, all of that indecision became redundant. Although some frostbite to my toes had left me sore, and my muscles were still quite weak, I was otherwise in good shape. I was entirely unable to understand any of their strange hissing whispers, but it became clear that they were preparing us all for travelling. I was given furs to cover my own clothing and led through a long tunnel, into a network of flickering caves, lit at intervals with burning sticks which protruded from cracks in the walls.
A number of others joined us along the way, including some who dragged sledge-like objects behind them, carrying mounds covered with grey hide. One of the mounds was large and box-shaped, and caused some trouble for the little man-thing to pull over the rocky floor.
The black ground was treacherously slippery as we ascended, passing through a larger cave which opened into a wide tunnel, where pale light streamed down to us. Unlike the previous tunnels, this one was clearly the product of much work, showing signs of cutting or chipping away using small tools, into something more even and rounded.
I cannot imagine how it was possible for these small, wiry people to have dug so much rock, except to assume it was done over a very long period of time, or else was achieved with a great of number of them. At one point, the carved rock gave way to walls of large stone blocks which were quite evenly constructed along the tunnel.
The ground rose quite steeply towards the end, and brought us to the surface, where snow and ice coated the narrow aperture into the open air. I have never before known the Antarctic weather to be quite so still as it was when we surfaced. The sky was a pure deep blue, but sprinkled with the majestic heavens, stars which didn’t twinkle, but glistened with whites, yellows, pinks, like a dark blanket encrusted with tiny jewels.
The beauty was awe-inspiring, yet at the same time gave me a sense of insecurity and utter loneliness. Combined with the silence of the great expanse of flat, snow-scattered ice, the effect was both ominous and even frightening. The landscape seemed to extend as far as the eye could see, unbroken by signs of human activity, or mountains, or ice shelves, or sea.
Once the sledges were pulled through the hole onto the ice, we began a long trek in a direction which meant nothing to me, but which members of my company seemed to recognize from the stars. My only hope was to follow and pray that eventually I would see some trace of humanity, then make a break for it.
We travelled quite slowly, which I soon noticed was because of me and my sore feet. I’m sure the rest of them could easily have forged ahead to whatever unknown destination they sought, but always one of them kept close by, while the others continually checked that we following behind.
I’m not sure exactly when I first heard the horrible noise which apparently came from one of the sledges. The sound was obscured by the crunching snow and ice until it grew louder and more insistent. Then I knew that the covered box must be the source, and that the squealing creature must have been brought along. That horrendous blood-curdling whine only intensified the building sense of dread that I felt dragging me down.
And the silence in the atmosphere was equally unnerving, as if pending doom hung in the air; that any moment the firmament would collapse, like a solid wall filled with glowing cracks, caving in and destroying us. This fear seemed almost to get into my bones, just like the cold was starting to.
We must have been trudging for many hours when the snowy opaque ice became quite dark under our feet. A large patch of it formed a rough circle, about the size of a house. One of the leaders stopped and knelt down to clear away some of the white mush that layered it. He peered down, then signalled for the rest of us to gather. I was only too glad have the opportunity to crouch down and rest while adjustments were made to their belongings.
I rolled onto my back and stared up at the glittery splay above, but had to turn over when I felt as though I was about to fall into the sky. Just as my eyes were beginning to close, I saw a faint glow spread near the horizon. I thought it might have been a station, but then the flickering became more clearly something moving.
I don’t believe anything could properly have prepared me for that final shock. I suppose nothing really could have helped, when you consider how terrible, how unnatural and how impossible it was. I must consider the idea that every single thing that happened to me after falling from the plane was no more than a disturbing nightmare or else a horrible sequence of hallucinations resulting from delirium. Certainly that would be a preferable and more realistic conclusion.
If it were true, then I can only say that much has yet to be learnt about the reality in which we live, let alone discovered about the vast unknown places of the earth which remain untouched by humanity. Yet I for one would never assume it to be the right thing to do – to go poking around into the hidden places and darkest secrets of the world. If it’s all true, then some things are far too harmful, far too overwhelming for mankind to accept, and which absolutely must be left alone.
The initial shock came when I was punched from behind as I lay there on the ice, turning to stare at the mysterious light. One of the people-things was recoiling from me and moving away towards the others, who were also starting to move off. It seemed strange that they had left the box-shaped object covered in a sheet of hide, which was now sitting on the ice behind me. As I rubbed my arm, surprised by how much it was hurting, I quickly realized that something was seriously wrong. Pain was shooting up to my shoulder and neck, and then I could see blood soaking through a rip in the cuff of my coat.
At the same time, I was distracted by the horrible sound of wailing from that god-forbidden squealing thing under the cover. Then everything started to happen at once, crowding my mind and making it hard to think. While I was transfixed by the fact that the top of the cover was bulging upwards into the shape of something living, at the edge of my vision, I felt sure that something very large had moved under the ice, very close to my feet.
All I could do at that moment was to stare in shock, while the hide cover slid away and the most vulgar abomination of nature squeezed through the opening of its wooden cage and clambered down, slapping webbed, foot-like appendages on the ice. A bunch of trembling eyes hung from a bulge at the top of its marrow-shaped trunk, while stunted combs tried to fan out from the body, slightly flapping.
Though merely the size of a large fox, yet it conveyed a sense of hidden danger, of intelligence and malevolent purpose. It alternately sucked and squealed sloppily, at times rising to a high whining whistle from tiny pink tubes around the head.
My most immediate thought was to get far away from both the loathsome creature and those horribly unnatural people, who clearly had meant to harm me after all. In a blind panic, I ran in the direction of the lights that flickered and stirred near the horizon. Too terrified to look back, I concentrated everything on one direction alone and ran as best as my pathetic body would allow, despite pain in my arm and feet.
Above the sound of my boots crunching on the ice and the horrid squeal and whine of the damn thing that had fumbled from its prison, a much louder noise filled the air. I had passed the circle of dark ice just in time to hear it cracking behind me while the ice shook under my feet. Something huge slapped against the surface and flopped about. A thunderous, wet, squealing roar seemed to hit my back and force me forward, as if a gust of wind had passed me.
I ran with a conviction that my life depended on it, expecting at any moment to be shoved or clutched violently from behind. Ahead, the flickering lights were moving more quickly, darting about and spreading a glare. As my heart felt close to bursting, my neck felt thick and strangled with blood. Another roar sounded, though more quietly, while I forced my legs to endure the pain.
Then with the lights came the sound of a helicopter, flashing its beam around me, momentarily blinding. Even when it came closer and I could feel the wind, I was too terrified to stop, despite my legs being close to giving way. And that terrible horror that I expected to come; it never happened. Nothing came at me and crushed me, which it surely was capable of doing, perhaps worse.
I collapsed when the helicopter came so close that the draft pushed me down. And when I did finally look, while I was carried on a stretcher, there was nothing to be seen. Just snow and ice. I was unable to see what remained of the dark patch; whether it had opened up and what might have been revealed.
None of my rescuers reported seeing anything unusual. At the time, my mouth was so cold that I couldn’t speak properly, and my only thought was to sleep. So I said little of my experience. Then as time passed, I knew that saying too much would only lead to ridicule. Even if my horrible encounter was real, it might be best if people don’t investigate whatever absurd thing it was that affected my mind so badly. I think perhaps it’s better to leave such things alone.