The Ice Submarine
a short story
Systems were malfunctioning again. This time the fault was in insulation systems, so that heat was leaking into the living spaces from the superheated outer skin. The Chief Technician reported directly to the Captain to insist, for the third time that week, that the vessel be taken off active service for proper repairs.
'We follow orders, Chief,' the Captain replied.
The men had stripped to their waists, their beards heavy with sweat, working with a fuggy slowness that was, the Captain was certain, pregnant with mistake. He was weary too, but always there was a cold spot at the focal point of his mind that reminded him that errors in a vessel such as his could be nuclear- catastrophic. He jingled the flat metal key restlessly. His second officer had objected to being locked out of the missile launch, but the Captain had over-ruled him. He copied from the data log onto paper, a standard procedure in case Western anti-submarine technology should scramble the electronic storage systems. His pen worked awkwardly: Systems malfunction, heating insulation breakdown. Temperature 48. Trouble with military contingent, who insist incessantly on surfacing. Will continue current voyage for only thirty more kms. Blots of sweat plocked the paper. Experience told him that to wipe them away would be to blur the words. Instead he dabbed at them with the corner of the facing page. He wrote the date at the top, a last thought: January 3rd 1440.
Before the war the captain had been a scholar. He had specialised in Medieval poetry. Occasionally he pondered the connection between war and poetry; listing in his mind all those great soldier-poets of tradition. But his own poetry, when he had written it as a young man, had been small and derivative. He had tried to capture in words the grandeur of the sky, the way the stars had seemed so far and simultaneously so close; the way some evening sky-colours struck the eye as ordinary, banal, and then a tiny shift in tone would blaze the sky with a glory of red-gold that dug deep into the soul. The proximity of the numinous divine and the rounded nothingness of beast-life that most people lived. But his destiny, it had transpired, had not been the contemplation of desert skies. Instead, destiny had sent him to that place that was furthest from the huge open spaces and the heartbreaking sunsets.
He ordered the engines full stop, and all was silent. For an hour there was no sound at all except the gunshot splitting noises of the ice settling around them, a series of clockwork-regular bangs. Everybody twitched with each enormous crack, even the Captain. He trusted his ship, he trusted that it had been built strong enough to withstand the pressure, but he twitched anyway. He tried to distract himself by encoding his report in random data, ready for the next surfacing. 78 South, 12.8 East, Queen Maud's Land. Pursuit of Enemy Craft abandoned after eighteen hours. Malfunction of insulation system, operating temperature unacceptably high, request orders to proceed to repair co-ordinates. He knew it would come to nothing as he wrote it, but he continued with the formality. In the name of Allah, the Great, the Compassionate. Victory to the Pan-Islamic People's Republic. Captain Sayyid Ali Beheshti. He fitted the clip into his personal transmitter, and settled down to read the technical reports. The Chief, handing him another chip with a detailed technical report, grunted. 'If I had proper fat-boys working for me, it'd be good, sweat them down a bit. But the skinny lads I have, if we keep going they'll just melt away, melt away like butter in the oven.'
'It'll cool down now, Chief,' said the Captain.
Another microsense was sent up, wriggling through the ice to the surface. If it picked up the coded launch command, it would wriggle back down to them in twenty minutes. Never more than twenty minutes from the world's end.
The Captain sat back, stroking his beard in time to the bangs from the ice. Eventually they began to slow, and finally they stopped altogether. With the ice settled around them he ordered the sensor-probes poked out into the surrounding ice. These picked up a few possible vibrations; possibly the signatures of following moles. Maybe the whole escapade had been a Western trick, to lure the ship from its secrecy. After a few hours the vibrations died away. Could be anything. 'Could be ice settling', said Gupta, the second-in-command. 'Could be a battle on the surface. Could be nothing at all. Sir.' He always said 'sir' a tick too late, as if in afterthought, with an unmistakable odour of implied disrespect. Increasingly the Captain found his fury at Gupta harder to block down. He had resorted to internalising a mantra: all of us are brothers in Islam, all of us brothers. But the words gave him little purchase on his rage. He could feel himself slipping towards an explosion, towards screaming at Gupta's surly face.
'Could be those things, Gupta,' he replied, focusing on keeping his voice level. 'Could be moles after us. We sit tight.'
For a day and a night, and then another day, the ice submarine lived in darkness, in blindness. Its crew turned in on themselves. Men got back into their uniforms; then into their woollens; finally into their plasjackets. The Captain, muffled up like the rest in the hellish cold, read the Koran quietly to himself. Third-officer brought reports of restive behaviour among the men, and in the morning of the second day the Captain made a speech on headphone-only. In the hectic storm of this war, soldiers and submariners alike should relish the opportunity provided by an interval like this. If they were cold, they should think of the ground troops being irradiated and heat-blasted on the surface; of the oceanic submariners being blown, lasered or microwaved into nothingness by the latest Western Satanic devices. He concluded by advising his men to spend the time in contemplation of the benevolence of Allah, and in the study of the Koran. But afterwards he sat with a sick feeling in his chest. At the launch, a year and a half previously, he had genuinely believed that the time of confinement would enable all his men, and the soldiers they carried too, to get closer to the One God. But the hermit life seemed only to focus their pettiness and self-concern. The soldiers were worse than the submariners. On the evening of the second day their squad-commander, Baru, clattered through to the bridge.
He spoke without preliminary: 'Captain, we must move the submarine.'
The Captain tapped at his beard with all four finger-points at once. His subordinate officers looked at him. The sensible thing would be to avoid a confrontation.
'Commander Baru,' he said, very softly. 'It would be a courtesy to me if you could let me know your reasons.'
'We must rotate the submarine. My men find it uncomfortable praying to Mecca. The quarters are narrow across, but long alongways. If you twist the submarine through ninety-degrees, we will be able to pray without inconvenience.'
'But if I rotate the submarine, I will need to heat it up.'
'For a moment, only.'
'Commander Baru, a moment may be all the Western machines need to determine our position.'
Baru sniffed noisily. He was scoffing, coming close to publicly disagreeing with his Captain. But the moment of confrontation came and passed, and instead Baru turned and stomped noisily back along the central corridor.
In the night of the second day the Captain ordered movement. Any moles on their trail would have given up by now. The reactor moaned, the hull heated, and the vessel moved forward; ice subliming to steam before them, congealing back into ice behind. They moved up through half a kilometre, then cooled the hull to a few degree above zero. Their rate of progress slowed, supposedly to become indistinguishable to seismic or other spy-devices. The Captain had never really believed it, just as he never quite trusted the maps of the mountains and landscape thought to exist under the kilometres of Antarctic ice. How did people know that this was the way the hidden land lay? Ice this thick was extraordinarily difficult to sense through. Some Western Satanic satellite had passed by overhead a hundred years previously and determined that the Transantarctic Mountains lay here rather than a hundred metres further over. But an ice-submarine, shuttling along in its envelope of superheated steam, burrowing through the ubiquitous medium of ice at many kilometres an hour, could not afford a hundred metres of error. A collision with unyielding rock would be death.
In his meditation, in the evening, the Captain had tried to map his consciousness onto the Antarctic continent. The soul was rock, covered in the frozen ice of flesh. God might melt the latter, but the Devil himself could not thaw away the former. He ran his crew through an attack drill to help eat up the time. Only when his inner balance told him that it was the right time did he recall the microsense and order hot ahead.
They surfaced in the blackness of night. Dust in the atmosphere hid all but the brightest stars. The blackness tasted of almonds, of grit. There was a strangely metallic decaying smell faint in the cold of the air. The ice stretched away lone and bare in the darkness on all sides, somehow sensible, even through the gloom. The Captain stood in the open air with Gupta and one Technician, and put his report into the stratosphere, to be picked up and decoded from its cloaking noise by Islamic satellites. Or so he hoped. Then he peered at the sky.
'Battle fought recently, do you think?' he asked his second-in-command. Gupta's eyes were the only part of him to catch the attenuated starlight, but the Captain sensed the scowl, the irritation. 'There's a lot of dust in the air,' he replied. 'Sir.'
'There are anomalies to the east, sir,' said the Technician.
The Captain pulled at his beard. 'Allah has provided for us' he said softly.
Back below he summoned Commander Baru. The soldier was still chewing something, presumably his supper. The insolence of it. Sayyid Ali Beheshti thought of standing on his privilege as Captain, and ordering him to get rid of it. But Baru would probably only have spat it straight on the floor of the Captain's cabin. That would require disciplining, and then there would be even more tension between soldiers and submariners.
'Commander,' he said. 'There seems to be a camp of some kind a few kilometres to the east.'
Baru thought for a while, chewing, swallowing. Then: 'Will you move the vessel closer to the camp?'
The Captain all-but sighed. Baru's ignorance of ice submarine tactics was astonishing, not to say depressing. 'No Commander, that would probably alert them to our presence. They will most likely be a scientific station, with few arms but much sensor equipment. If we come closer we make it much more likely that we will seismically register.'
The Commander stood to attention with a smack of heels together. 'Your
He took his place on the platform as Baru led his dozen men over the side and onto the ice. Their dark uniforms registered blotchily in the ghost half-light. A hundred meters to the east and they were invisible. Beheshti went below and slept for an hour. Then it was time for prayers, which he took in his cabin. When he poked his head into the frosty night air again it was just in time to hear the first sounds of gunfire, hollowed and flattened by the distance and the echo-index of the ice. It was a spooky series of sounds. A hound's bark slowed down and broken into fragments, played deep underground. Devilish. Beheshti flicked little pearls of frost from his beard with his thumb. Those had been his breath only moments before. When he died, perhaps Allah would explain to him the place of war in the great pattern.
Then there was a light, an orange bauble only thumbnail sized near the horizon. The rumble came a little afterwards. At that Beheshti almost lost his composure and swore. What was that idiot Baru playing at? The West would be all over them in minutes.
'Prepare the engines,' he ordered. His number two coughed, interposed: 'but the men, sir? We can't leave them on the ice.'
Beheshti wanted to say that idiot Baru has dug his own grave, but he didn't. Instead he put through a rapid series of orders. 'We'll hold as long as we can,' he told Gupta, his voice pulled thin with anger. 'But as soon as we detect air support for that camp, we must go under.' The ship would be a quieter place without Baru and his boneheaded soldiers anyway. It was all he could do to hold back from ordering immediate going-down. The latest version of moles were faster and deadlier than any before. He needed all the head-start he could get.
But at five minutes a buzzing sound started to swell from the blackness, and a few minutes after that Baru and his men arrived back at the submarine, riding ice-buggies. Baru himself clambered up the platform and breathlessly counted his men past him. 'We found a hanger-full of these little cars. They ride along on a cushion of steam, very fast.' His breath, panting out in gouts, flickered faint in the starlight.
'Aboard, commander,' ordered Beheshti. 'Now.'
'Yes, Captain, yes.' His last man clambered up, carrying a sack over his shoulder. Beheshti thought it was a body bag, and his anger was too much. 'You've brought one of your dead back with you?' he hissed. 'I'll have you court-martialled.'
'No, sir, no, sir,' panted Baru. 'No, we have no dead. This is a prisoner.'
Beheshti took the vessel down to five hundred metres and a kilometre from the incident, sent up a microsense and put all his probes into the ice around him. He was angry now, and his men could see it. It wasn't the anger as such that scared them, more the fact that the Captain's famous self-control was starting to slip. He ordered the prisoner, an ice-coloured Western woman, locked in one of the toilets, and told Baru to come with him to the Captain's cabin.
'What are we to do with a prisoner, you idiot?' he demanded. His control was slipping, he could feel it. A stream of invective came from him, and Baru's piggish face looked startled. But, to Beheshti's surprise, the soldier did not give way. Instead he responded in as loud as voice as the Captain's
'It was a tiny scientific camp, Captain. They were clearly not a military base, and so they must have been engaged on some spy-mission. I thought it best to capture one of the westerners for interrogation.'
Beheshti's anger was stopped by the sheer nerve of the man. He put both hands over his mouth, trying to hold in his rage. It pulsed, then subsided; he could actually feel it going down inside him like something swallowed. Then he breathed.
'And what are we to do with her? Once she is interrogated?'
Baru looked a little puzzled. 'After, sir?'
'Do you suggest killing her in cold blood?'
'Of course not, sir. Couldn't we take her back?'
'How long will we have to keep her locked up in a toilet? How much food do you think we can spare?'
'But, sir, how long will it be before we are recalled for repairs? Surely, given the state of the vessel ...'
'The state of the vessel is my concern,' Beheshti snapped. 'As, now, is this woman. You are dismissed.'
Beheshti had the woman moved to the mess, and went to see her there. She complained a great deal, but knew only a few basic phrases in any comprehensible language. It seemed that her shoulder was dislocated, and that her head hurt. At any rate, there was blood on her ear. Perhaps one of Baru's men had knocked the side of her head.
By the time a computer translator had been brought in, she had quietened down. The shoulder, it turned out, was only 'stretched' (Beheshti assumed the meaning was 'strained'), and the head wound was easily cleaned. Baru hovered excitedly. He was like a dog; he hated the confinement of being aboard, and loved the chance to stretch his legs on the ice above. Always badgering the Captain to surface. He would be high-spirited for hours.
'What was your base working on?' Baru asked of the woman. She peered at the screen for the translation. Her voice, when she spoke her reply, sounded croaky, and she kept stopping, or hesitating with a weird high-pitched err sound. Beheshti looked at her hands. They were trembling, as if with cold. Was she cold? The ice was still clanging as it froze around them, but to the Captain the air still felt warm. Was she trembling with fear? If so, fear of what -- of being found out?
The screen printed out a reply, scientific station [ ] engaged in science [ ] [ ] studying the atmosphere conditions [ ] peaceful [ ] outrage.
Beheshti ignored the machine. 'Are you scared?'
She read the screen, and then looked up at his face. Her frowning mouth made creases in his cheeks in time to the cracking noises outside the submarine.
'What is your name?' Beheshti asked.
She read the screen, and replied: 'Sue-Ann Keltner'. Then she said something more. suing kennel [ ] environmental scientist, said the screen.
'But you are affiliated with the military,' barked Baru. He leant forward.
The screen replied: scientific expedition.
'There were weapons and explosives at your camp,' Baru pointed out.
As she was reading this and replying a crewman called the Captain away. He hurried through the corridor and up the ramp to the bridge. The Bridge Technician hurried to meet him.
'There's definitely something going on, Sir,' he said. 'All sorts of seismic action.'
The Captain nodded. 'They are after us. Ready reactor, and launch three torpedoes.' Beheshti's guts were shimmying. He paused, tried to listen to his intuition. 'No four. Five. Yes. I believe they have come after us in force.'
The torpedoes went, steaming their way through the ice, in five directions. The Ice Submarine fell into line away and a little to the east behind one of them. He shut his eyes, tried to sense what was happening around him in the blind darkness. The aircraft launching hunt-kill moles. The moles searching for heat, for vibration, for anything to move towards. He searched for that impossible telepathy, that godlike ability to read the blank surroundings that is the ice-submarine Captain's fantasy. There was a loud thump, and he twitched in his chair. But it was only a piece of rubble suspended in the ice, bumped aside as they slid past.
'Sir!' shouted the Technician. The screen showed a sudden bunching of data. One of the torpedoes had been detonated. 'Drop to three kilometres,' he ordered. Now was the time to try and slip past these weapons, whilst the shudders and heat of that explosion masked their movements. 'I want to be right down, as deep as is safe. What do the maps show?'
The technician scrabbled with the keys. They were within twenty-kilometres of the coast. He entertained and dismissed the idea of driving straight out into the ocean: a good way of baffling moles, but only at the cost of making them much more readily identifiable by the Westerners. Oceanic submarines were lost nowadays at an appalling rate; that was why the war council had decreed that the entire nuclear capability of the People's Republic would be carried by ice-submarines. That only made the pressure on Beheshti the worse, of course. If the moles found him, they not only killed his men, but they broke another finger in the nuclear-hand of Islam.
'We're nine hundred metres off the rock, sir,' called a navigator.
'All stop, let it freeze.'
Once frozen in position, it was an easy-enough thing for an ice-submarine to settle downwards through the ice so slowly as to be undetectable. Heat the ice to 5°, and the water slid upwards past the hull to freeze easily and with minimal cracking, whilst the vessel bedded down under gravity. Beheshti sat for an hour in the Captain's chair, before going back to the mess to find out what was happening with the westerner.
'She still claims she's a scientist, sir,' said Baru. His men were sitting around looking bored now, but Baru still had the puppyish gleam in his eye. 'Claims they were only affiliated to the military by force of necessity in the war. She even had the courage to lecture me, sir.'
'She disapproves of ice-submarines. Says they are wrecking a pristine scientific site, thawing and freezing ice at all depths. Says we're contributing to the melting of the ice-packs. I told her, good, maybe we'd drown New York, but she said Mecca would also go under. That's not right, is it, sir? Mecca's a way inland?'
'She's trying to war with your thoughts, Commander. Ignore her.'
'Still, there was a base there for some reason. To begin with she insisted that it was a random position. Then it turns out that there was a battle there a few weeks ago, and that she was studying the detonation patterns frozen on the ice.'
Beheshti sat opposite her. He smiled at her, and shook his head slowly. She looked away.
The vessel settled slowly, sinking through a few hundred metres of ice so slowly it was almost impossible to detect the sense of slippage. Yet it was there, a liminal feeling of going-down. The men felt easier, Beheshti could see. The deeper the better, the defence of the burrowing animal.
Six hours in, the Captain decided they were safe enough for him to take a nap. He slept for several hours in his cabin, and woke when a distinct lurch took the ice-submarine down through at least three metres in a moment. That was a distinctly unpleasant sensation. 'What is going on?' he yelled, pulling on his plasjacket and tumbling up the ladder to the bridge corridor. 'What is happening here?'
The Chief Technician was blanched with worry. 'I don't know, sir, I don't know. We dropped 3.4 metres suddenly. That shouldn't ...'
There was another lurch. Somebody screamed, and then was quiet. The silence was horrible. Beheshti got to the Captain's chair, positioned himself in it, when the whole world fell.
For long seconds they free-fell. The Captain watched with horrible detachment as the long hair of one of the under- Technicians, a lad also called Ali, floated upwards. Then they hit to floor. There was a terrific crash, a buckling crunch, and the yells of men, as bodies collapsed and loose equipment smashed about. Beheshti was driven down into his chair.
'What was that?' Beheshti asked. Nobody replied, so he repeated the question. 'I want to know what is going on.' His lips were dry; they stuck on the words as they tried to form themselves.
The Chief Technician was the gloomiest. The reactor had been so badly shaken by the fall that he was certain it was irreparable. He had sealed the fusion room. They had a few days power on conventional sources, maybe enough to move through half a kilometre of ice: which was no good to them when they were five kilometres down.
'Ice,' said the Captain, twining his forefinger into his beard. 'Ice, yes.' The probes, poking out from the hull, were not detecting any ice at all.
Beheshti, his face masked, climbed out onto the platform. Behind him came Gupta, Baru. It was utterly black, but the air felt surprisingly warm. 'There's no way we can be on the surface, is there?' Gupta asked. 'Sir?'
'How could it be, Gupta?'
'I don't know. Maybe we were closer to the coast than we thought. Perhaps some odd ice formation, some sort of cave.' He stopped speaking. 'A sort of overhang, perhaps? Why,' he said, as if interrupting his own chain of thought, 'is it so warm here?'
Beheshti ordered power to the ship's floodlights, and great tunnels of light suddenly filled the darkness. They reached through blackness to end in great white ellipses. Beheshti angled them in various directions, but wherever they pointed the same white ellipses ended their beams at roughly 500m. The ellipses bulged, shrunk, deformed as the beams moved up, down, around.
The Captain sent out exploratory parties to check out the strange bubble, or cave (he didn't like the way Baru called it a 'bubble'; the word sounded too fragile), and it was one of the men on this who discovered the air was breathable. He must have taken his mask off in a spirit of curiosity, which angered Beheshti: had the atmosphere been toxic he would have died. But it seemed true, thought hard to comprehend. This space under the ice had a high level of oxygen.
'It can't be a natural formation,' insisted Gupta. 'Sir. The oxygen proves that. It must have been constructed by the Americans. It is some sort of anti-submarine base.'
'But why, then, is it deserted?' The searchlights could find nothing; only a huge arching ceiling of ice over a flat ground of flattened pebbles. The only feature was a low saddle of rock reaching up out of the ground, to a height of less than a metre, a quarter of a kilometre from the where the ice-submarine had fallen.
'I don't know sir, but I must advise caution. As your second-in-command, it is my duty to advise caution.'
'Caution, Gupta. Yes.'
'Sir, if this is a Western site, then they could be on us at any moment. I must insist, I must beg you, Sir, to relinquish single control over the missiles. Give me a dual key again, as a precaution.'
Beheshti angled a searchlight directly up. The white spot on the roof was perfectly smooth, blank. 'Yes, Gupta, the missiles. But would the missiles even fire, here? They are, after all, encased on ice-torpedo shells. They are designed to burrow through the ice and only when they reach the surface fire into the atmosphere. I doubt it they are of any use to us at all, in our present condition.' Nor could Beheshti send up a microsense, or know whether the People's Republic wanted him to launch an attack.
By the second day, the men had grown used to their strange new environment. Beheshti had authorised the setting up of racks of floodlights, positioned on the shingle. Men off duty played football, their shouts echoing weirdly in the great chamber. The Captain himself strolled, his feet crunching on the pebbles. It was amazingly warm, considering that they were buried under so much ice; considering that the temperature on the surface so far above them could be anything up to sixty-six below. He hunkered down to his haunches, and picked up a pebble. It was a black stone, flattened and worn smooth. By the ice? But ice didn't make pebbles: this must have been a beach at some time. Most of the stones were the same dolomite of the Transantarctic Mountains, but some were a paler, yellow stone, and some were pitted like old sandstone.
Why was it so warm? And why didn't the temperature melt the ice above and bring the great weight of material over them crashing down?
After working all night the Chief Technician thought that he might be able to work the reactor turbines for up to six hours before the whole thing became dangerous. Six hours was probably enough to get them to the ocean, where they could travel for days more on battery power as a conventional submarine. But six hours of reactor power or six thousand was equally irrelevant to the vessel in its current situation, beached on Antarctic shingle, with the ice half a kilometre distant in every direction. 'We need to be actually in the ice, or on it,' the Technician reminded him. 'Its not enough our nose is pressed against it.'
'So we need to do more than drag the vessel to the ice,' said Beheshti. 'We need to dig a tunnel and push the vessel into it. Yes?'
'We should start soon,' said the Chief Technician. 'The oxygen in that bubble out there -- God knows how it got there in the first place, but it won't last for ever. Our boys are breathing it up. We'll need to get into breathing packs in a day or two, and that'll make the digging harder.'
When Beheshti asked about dragging the ice submarine over the shingle the Chief Technician had literally thrown up his hands in horror. 'It'll wreck the underside, just wreck it. But there's no other way.'
All available hands were sent to the nearest face to begin burning and digging a tunnel, but twelve hours work produced only a feeble-looking indentation in the side of sheer ice.
Baru brought Sue-Ann Keltner, the western woman, out on the second day, and she was as astonished by their environment as any of them had been. Beheshti didn't think she was pretending her surprise. She clambered down the side of the submarine and scrunched about on the pebbles.
Gupta said: 'Sir, you are going to make sure that she is guarded at all times?'
But Baru was dismissive. 'Where can she go?'
Gupta was eager to make his point. 'Sir, we don't know. This may be an American base, of some kind. There may be some sort of equipment that can summon the Westerners here. We should keep her in view.'
'Do you want me to pull soldiers off digging detail to baby-sit her?' asked Baru, with an unpleasant edge to his voice.
But Beheshti interposed. 'I don't like the idea of the woman wandering about by herself,' he said. 'Commander, I want two of your men detailed to be with her, to make sure she doesn't get up to mischief.'
Later in the day, Baru reported to him on the bridge. 'Perhaps you should come and take a look at this.'
The westerner had been exploring the 300 square metres of black rock that poked up through the shingle. With only a hand torch, and with both bored guards sitting on the edge of the rock-formation smoking, she had seemingly stumbled through a crevice. Her leg had gone into the crack up to the thigh. Her cries had brought the guards, who had helped her out, and brought her back to the submarine; but not before peering into the crack themselves. 'They think it's worth going down into,' Baru told the Captain.
'Down into?' echoed Beheshti. 'Is there something down there?'
He went out personally with a torch into the blackness beyond the arc-lit area of the submarine itself. The woman and her two guards followed. Away over to his right, the digging area splashed a puddle of light in the darkness. He teased away the strands of hair from the corner of his lips where they were straying into his mouth. Was it his imagination, or was the oxygen already being used up? And so warm.
At the rock formation he let the westerner go forward. They came to the crevice, and went down on haunches to look inside. It was less than a metre across, a black slash in the rock that bent round to the right, boomerang-shape. The westerner was already lowering herself into it, wriggling with her legs to see if there were any purchase. Beheshti's first instinct was to stop her, but when she found a ledge and stood grinning with only her head and chest poking over the top, he instead lowered himself down to follow. They stood side by side, bathers in a weird rock-sea. One of the guards got in beside them, but there was no room for the other. When the westerner ducked down and disappeared, it took a moment for the Captain to summon the courage to follow her.
They crouched and followed a sharpwardly down-leading slope. After a few hundred metres the ceiling lifted, and the sense of space returned. Beheshti could see the westerner's torch beam flicking and dancing away ahead of them. It turned towards them, and moments later she was by their side, gabbling her gibberish with tremendous energy. She kept pointing and pulling.
They were in a bell-ended chamber, apparently formed by nature itself; but when Beheshti lifted his torch he saw the reason the space had been preserved under the rock. The roof was tiled, a vault of what looked like bricks, aged and blackened.
It took a while for this to sink in.
The woman was pointing to the ground. There seemed to be the broken remains of a wall, antique-looking, and a pile of what looked like bones. 'How strange,' he said to the soldier. 'It's archaeological.'
'It looks old, sir.'
The woman was chattering away, talking rapidly to herself. She seemed to be gathering bones, cradling her arms around a whole mess of rubbish. Beheshti slapped the stuff out of her grasp. Her voice rose, and then stopped as the soldier angled his gun. Her expression was distorted; it looked like rage, like pain. Beheshti could imagine her complain, without needing to decipher her gibberish. A whole civilisation buried under the ice, the archaeological find of the century, we must explore it. But there was no time for such things in war. Nor did he really see the need for scientists, archaeologists; it was all known to Allah, and nobody had to wait very many years before meeting Him.
Back in the submarine the westerner was increasingly agitated. When they brought her the translator she spoke at length. Antarctica thought to be iced for three million years [ ] discovery of these archaeological remains of the highest significance [ ] at least twelve thousand years old [ ] imperative these results be communicated to international community.
Beheshti sat opposite her pulling at the two chief strands of his beard alternately with each hand. All his rage felt pure now, focused, brought to a shining point. It wasn't Baru, it wasn't even Gupta. It wasn't the faceless Westerners manning the American ice-submarines, trying to kill him. They, after all, were doing a job. As he looked into eyes of this woman, he understood the point of the hate, and that in itself it was a clean thing. It was not going to provoke him to violence, that was not the way it worked. It would instead inspire him, bring a new strength of will to his work. That this woman could sit here with a defiant expression on her face, as if some ruins underneath the ice were more important than the war being fought. He could lecture her, but what would be the point in that? They were fighting for no small extension of territory or material greed; they were fighting for the actual souls of humanity. For God, and God would answer all scientist's questions soon enough when they encountered him. Did actual people, real souls, matter less than some old bones and bricks?
'Tell her,' he said to Baru, 'that if God had wanted people to discover this old rubbish he would not have buried it under five kilometres of ice.' He stood. There was some shouting coming from above, in the bridge.
The voice of the Chief Technician came from overhead. 'Sir, sir.' Beheshti scrambled up the ladder.
Gupta was out on the top. 'Sir,' he bellowed through the hatch. 'The roof is tumbling.'
Even as he climbed out to see for himself Beheshti was struck by the odd literariness of Gupta's tumbling.
At first it wasn't clear. But out past the spaces illuminated by the arc-lights Beheshti could see that torches, each one marking a man, were scattering from the ice-face. Streaming like fireflies back towards the submarine. There was a shuddering thud, and then another one. A huge hunk of ice appeared from above suddenly in one of the lit areas, and crashed to the floor with a strange elegance. The body of the block seemed to flex as it struck the earth. The sky was breaking to pieces, and the huge weight of the five kilometres of ice overhead was forcing destruction downwards. 'Back to the submarine,' yelled Beheshti, straining over the lip of the platform to shout to his men. They needed no telling, were swarming back to the ship, but the words were bursting from the Captain's mouth, like an explosion, like the ice blocks shattering into shards of ice-shrapnel. 'Back to the submarine! Run! Run!'
© Adam Roberts 2001.
This story is published here for the first time.
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