Forget fire and brimstone, Hell was snow and ice. It was the hard-pack snow that crunched under foot and the ice crystals that formed on your beard. It was the snow that painted the world a uniform white and the ice that tossed you on your ass. Just then, and for the past four days, Fletcher would’ve given his left eye for fire and brimstone.
He stopped to squint into the endless night and his stomach growled, as though urging him on. A large shape, dark grey on pitch black, marred the horizon. It looked too symmetrical for an ice formation. Fletcher’s heart quickened and he started up again, hope cheerleading him from a trudge to a trot.
Whatever it was, that greyish lump wasn’t the station. It was the wrong shape for one, and the drill’s shaft was nowhere in sight. Even in the dark, Fletcher would’ve spotted the shaft a hundred yards and ten minutes ago, towering over the horizon like a naked flagpole.
In his triple-layered Canada Goose gear and heavy Merrels, Fletcher ran like a toddler, arms wide and feet clomp-clomping. The thing loomed larger. It was half-buried in snow, like a fat guy under a white comforter, and turned onto its side, one wing sticking out at a forty-five degree angle. The other wing had apparently been shorn off by the crash, lost to the night and a half-dozen inches of snow.
The plane was a smaller model; Fletcher guessed it seated about eight, maybe ten, plus the pilot and co-pilot. He brushed snow and rime off the craft’s grey skin, exposed the plane’s identification markings. The letters RA followed by a dash and a string of numbers. Under those though, were characters Fletcher recognized as Cyrillic. A Russian craft.
He took a few steps back, saw that he faced the aft side of the plane. If it had been coming from Russia and flying over Greenland then it would be pointed west, but if it had been returning home then it would be facing east, and if it had been off course when it crashed it could have been headed in any direction. No help at all.
But, Fletcher thought, it could at least serve as shelter and, more importantly, it might contain food. His stomach leaped, the gastric equivalent of a vigorous nod, and he searched the craft’s flank for a door. He found none, just a hole where a door had once been. Fletcher had to hoist himself in through the opening, given that, like the remaining wing, it was tilted upward, its threshold a good six feet above the ground. He barely made it, weak as he was.
His entrance was less than graceful, gravity pulling him along the plane’s angled floor and jamming his shoulder under one of the craft’s seats. Fletcher rolled into a sitting position and waited for his eyes to adjust to this new and improved darkness. Slowly, his surroundings began to take shape, like shy creatures venturing closer, out of the shadows. The seats were bravest, came into view first, then the bodies.
Fletcher took a deep breath and let it out slowly, watched it drift across the scene and dissipate. Oddly enough, he hadn’t even considered that the craft’s passengers might still be in there. He hadn’t really considered anything but, if he’d been called upon to do so, he’d have guessed the crew and passengers had survived the crash, walked away, and been rescued. But no; these guys, all one, two . . . five of them, were good and dead and still right here.
The first and nearest was a woman, splayed out on her back in the aisle between the seats, her head just a couple yards to the left of Fletcher’s feet. Two more were tangled in the seats beyond the woman, as though they’d been thrown from deep within the plane’s tail. To Fletcher’s right, the pilot was slumped in his seat, the co-pilot heaped across the controls and windshield.
Fletcher used the seat backs to pull his way up the aisle. He took a closer look at the woman as he half walked and half stumbled around her. Her face was a hardened mask of fear and pain, her arms positioned at odd angles, one leg hooked over a nearby seat. There was blood on her chin and her hips were twisted too far around but she was otherwise undamaged. Fletcher nudged her with a booted toe. She was unyielding as a statue; frozen stiff.
The two near the rear were the same: petrified, their skin covered in a thin layer of frost. These were worse off than the woman, though. One, a long-haired man draped over a seatback, was missing his lower jaw and right eye, the socket filled with a clump of pinkish slush, like cherry-flavoured sherbet. His right arm had too many elbows and his left arm ended at the wrist. Raw patches on his head and face exposed rotten flesh and splintered bone.
The second man lay across two seats, arms stretched out as though playing Superman, or reaching for the dead woman. This one’s legs were tangled together like a pretzel made in Hell’s bakery. His skull was split right down the middle and his lips were peeled back from blackened gums. Fletcher saw he was missing a front tooth.
Beyond the dead men, a large crate filled the plane’s tail section, its door open. Fletcher peered inside, hoping for food, any food, but the box was empty save for the long haired man’s lost left hand. He searched the overhead compartments but found only a silver briefcase and a couple of emergency kits. No food.
Like the others, the bodies of the pilots were frozen solid. The pilot’s forehead was cracked open, crystallized blood coating his face like a shroud. The co-pilot had evidently been tossed into the windshield, his face smashed and neck broken. No food.
Fletcher’s stomach turned over, emitted a weak rumble and was quiet, as though giving up. His last bowel movement had been over a day ago, maybe two. A hard little bolus which had produced no steam in the arctic air. Fletcher had stared at it for an upsettingly long time, wondering just how nutrient-rich the little coprolite might’ve been.
How could there be no food on the plane? Wherever they were flying to or from, it had to’ve been a fairly long trip. What did the passengers eat?
Fletcher pulled down the briefcase and one of the emergency kits. The briefcase yielded only papers covered in text which, even in the dark, Fletcher could see was Russian. The kit held basic medical supplies, a stiff blanket, a flare gun, and a couple of flares, but no food. Not even a protein bar.
“Crap.” His voice cracked and his vision blurred. The world spun, slow as a minute hand. He blinked, shook it off, nearly fell but caught himself on a seat.
No food in four days. Served him right for making the trip to the top of the world, where even rats’d have a hard time coming by food.
Of course, no way Fletcher would accept all of the blame. He’d be back in Denver, eyes on red, green and blue graphs sawing across his monitor, if not for the IGRIC expedition going far over schedule and into Greenland’s winter months, and if not for the funders losing their garbage and insisting someone fly up there to oversee their investment.
So Fletcher finds himself on a plane headed to temperatures that dip to negative fifty degrees Celsius and nights that last ninety days.
His first day at the International Greenland Ice Core station the others treat him like the scientific research expedition equivalent of Internal Affairs. But after the first forty-eight hours, they come to realize he isn’t there to shut them down or get them fired, that he wishes they’d hurry things along only because he wants to get back to Denver, back to his monitor, back to his graphs.
So they hurry things along and everyone’s happy.
And then Kathy Willis, one of the drillers, says the Northern Lights are out in full force, and Fletcher’s never seen the aurora borealis, so he runs out with the rest of them and it’s beautiful as all hell, like neon ribbon candy, and he climbs a hill to get a better view, which makes no sense since the lights are in the goddamn sky, and he slips, and he falls, and he falls some more, and when he finally picks himself up and looks around, he sees only night-shrouded ice and snow. He shouts and then screams, but the wind scatters his voice across the ice shelf. He climbs the hill—a hill—but it’s evidently the wrong one. So he walks.
And that was four days ago and now Fletcher’s stomach felt both hollow and heavy, like an empty oil drum, and there was no food on this plane and Fletcher was as good as dead.
Fletcher gripped one of the flares, loaded it into the gun. He wasn’t ready to give up just yet. The others would be looking for him. They had Snowcats so, even if he’d been walking in exactly the wrong direction for the past four days, they’d have time enough to find him. They’d be out there right now.
He stuck his body out the doorless opening, the wind searing his face like sunburn, and aimed the flare gun straight up. A hiss followed the pop as the flare arced into the black sky, a red tail trailing it.
They’d see it, Fletcher thought as he ducked back into the plane.
He was about to set the flare gun down when an idea struck him: a fire would feel good right about now. Fletcher propped the open briefcase between the plane’s angled bulkhead and canted floor, bunched a dozen sheets of paper into a small pyramid, then stepped back and reloaded the flare gun. He turned his head away, held his left hand up to his face, aimed with his right, and fired.
The pop—louder indoors—bounced around the plane’s interior like a sonic superball, the hiss was brief as a gasp, and the explosion knocked Fletcher on his ass. A fireball, big and bad as a waking polar bear, leaped from within the briefcase, punching a hole the size of a fist in the angled wall above. Flaming chunks of paper tumbled and drifted while Fletcher, temporarily blinded by the flash, coughed on the smell of sulphur that filled the plane like a fart in an elevator.
Fletcher clambered to his feet, pulled himself out the doorway, and tumbled into the night and snow. As the world tipped, flipped and faded, Fletcher saw pink-tinged smoke pouring out of the plane like an upside-down waterfall of cotton candy, the kind you get at a Rockies’ game, with a hot dog and maybe some fries . . .
He woke to the smell of barbecue. Hot dogs. No, not hot dogs—pork, pork chops. Fletcher flipped onto his side, his stomach tightened, as though squeezed by an angry fist, and he vomited into the snow. Nothing but steaming strings of bile. He sat up, peered up at the plane. A few lazy strands of smoke drifted from the doorway, but the majority of the smoke escaped the downed craft through the hole that had been torn open by the flare.
His head spun as he stood and he feared he’d throw up again. He waited until both his head and stomach settled then clambered, slowly, back into the plane.
Much of the smoke had dissipated and a healthy fire danced within the blackened confines of the briefcase. The cushions of a few seats were singed, but Fletcher noticed no serious damage to the craft. He slipped out of his top layer and sat by the fire, exhausted. The dead woman lay nearby, the light flickering across her cheeks and forehead.
The two near the rear of the plane looked even worse in the light of the fire. Their skin was a greenish-grey and slightly puffy. They looked rotten and Fletcher was glad their frozen state kept them from smelling up the place. In fact, the plane’s interior smelled delicious.
Pork chops. Fletcher still smelled barbecued pork chops. His stomach lurched, as though trying to escape his useless body to seek out the source of the aroma on its own. He looked around, following the scent, and his eyes landed on the pilot. The pilot was on fire.
A scrap of flaming paper or gob of phosphorous must have landed on the dead man, for his head was a blackened, peeling lump and he’d sprouted a crewcut of flames. Fletcher scrambled to the open emergency kit, grabbed the blanket, and tossed it onto the flaming airman. The blanket fell over the pilot’s head and shoulders, smothering the fire. A ring of pork-scented smoke wafted out from under the blanket, the smell of which brought Fletcher to his knees.
He crawled back to his briefcase campfire, shut his eyes, tried to sleep, but could not ignore that smell. It tore at his nostrils, twisted his guts.
The pilot sat under his shroud, like pork chops under a barbecue lid.
Fletcher opened his eyes but kept them on the campfire.
Lift the barbecue lid, there are pork chops under there.
Fletcher stumbled to the pilot’s side, grabbed one end of the blanket, lifted, and was assaulted by a fresh gust of cooked meat. He turned away, his belly clawing at him from within.
He wouldn’t be the first. Those Brazilian guys, the soccer players, they’d done it. And he’d read about the Donner Party in high school. Hell, what choice did he have? Push had already come to shove and, with the plane bereft of proper food, he’d just been body-checked into a corner.
He peeked under the blanket. The pilot’s head looked shrivelled, meatless. Just bones covered in soot. What Fletcher smelled—that mouth-watering aroma—was all that remained of the dead man’s face: atomized flesh floating on currents of air.
There was nothing left.
Besides, Fletcher wasn’t sure he could do such an intimate thing to another man; it felt vaguely homoerotic. And those two in the back of the plane, they already looked like spoiled meat. And the woman . . .
The woman lay on her back, her left hand just a foot from the fire. Her coat sleeve was even pulled up slightly, exposing the pale flesh of her forearm, as though in invitation. Fletcher knelt by her. There was a pair of silver scissors in the emergency kit. Her arm was stiff, the flesh hard. He placed one of the scissor blades on the meaty inside of her forearm.
She watched him. Her eyes were open, staring at him like a mounted portrait that follows you wherever you go. He brushed his palm over her eyes but her eyelids would not lower, locked by the cold in their raised position. Finally, Fletcher draped his coat over her face and, satisfied, scraped the scissor blade against the dead woman’s skin, gathering a pink rime along the blade’s edge, and gouging a bloodless furrow in her arm. The accumulated matter looked like freezer-burned ice cream, and Fletcher told himself it was exactly that as he licked it off the blade.
It slid down his throat, cold and vaguely fibrous. He gagged slightly, but his stomach welcomed the frigid paste then rumbled and spasmed, crying out for more. Fletcher scraped off a second helping, licked, swallowed. This time, when his gorge rose, Fletcher nearly lost what little he had ingested. The woman’s raw, frozen flesh was nothing like pork chops, nothing like the scent that still wafted from the pilot’s overcooked head.
Fletcher hooked his fingers under the dead woman’s shoulders and pulled her closer to the fire. Her left hand and forearm lay just inches from the flame and, within minutes, thin streamers of steam began to unfurl from her exposed skin.
Fletcher prodded her arm, found that her flesh yielded to his touch, that he could bend her hand at the wrist. She was thawing.
Despite his stomach’s impatient and noisy protestations, Fletcher waited. He had no idea if human flesh carried e-coli or parasites, and he was in no mood to find out. The last thing he needed was a tapeworm stealing what few calories he managed to ingest. As the woman’s skin began to redden, though, caution fell before hunger and he brandished the scissors again.
Mottled pink and grey, the strip of meat looked like raw bacon and tasted like a thousand orgasms. Fletcher threw back his head, felt drool spill from the corners of his mouth and trickle down his chin. His stomach cheered, then demanded more.
Another strip of warm, fragrant meat. Another. More. The scissor blade sliced faster, deeper, until it scraped bone. Fletcher sat back, intent on pacing himself. Weak as it was, his stomach would be easily strained. As though in thanks and contentment, his belly gurgled and set itself to the nearly forgotten task of digestion.
His hunger satisfied and stomach occupied, Fletcher turned his attention to his surroundings once more, examining them now with eyes no longer blurred by starvation and exhaustion. The dead woman’s arm was a mangled mess, the white bands of her radius and ulna clearly visible at the bottom of the trench Fletcher had dug.
She still looked better than those guys, Fletcher thought, eyeing the two putrefied corpses that seemed to reach out from the rear of the craft. He tapped one on the shoulder, the long-haired one with the missing jaw, and was surprised when it moved, cocking its head to the left.
“Jesus,” Fletcher breathed. He hadn’t noticed how warm it had gotten in the plane. The fire’s heat had built up, filling the craft and thawing the bodies.
Fletcher reached down, grasped the dead man’s right wrist, and lifted it to eye level. The arm offered no resistance and hung like sausage links strung between the dead man’s shoulder and Fletcher’s fingers. The second body, the one with the missing tooth, had also softened, become more malleable. If these bodies continued to warm, they would soon begin leaking; their flesh was well past their respective expiration dates.
Fletcher looked from the pair of half rotten bodies to the woman’s corpse. How was it that these two were showing signs of early decomposition while the woman and pilots appeared comparatively fresh? If they had died together in the crash, they should all have frozen together as well—unless the two at the rear had already been dead, had already begun rotting before the plane had gone down.
The crate, the plane’s only cargo, contained nothing but the dead man’s disembodied left hand. The hand could have been thrown into the crate during the crash. Then again, maybe the collision had thrown the hand’s owner out. The container’s door hung open, dangling from a single hinge, and, when Fletcher pulled it shut, he saw a symbol stencilled in yellow on its surface: a trio of linked crescents he knew warned of a biohazard. Fletcher stepped away from the crate.
As he passed the jawless corpse, Fletcher noticed something on its neck, just under its right ear. It looked like a tattoo or a brand. He pulled back the dead man’s brittle hair, squinted, and saw the same three semi-circles, the same terrifying warning. He found the mark again—biohazard—on the corpse with the missing tooth.
Fletcher stumbled to the dead woman’s side, pulled his coat off her face, checked her neck, but couldn’t get a good look. He turned her onto her stomach, flipped her over like an over-matched wrestler so that her face was pressed against the floor, and brushed her dark hair aside. There was no tattoo marring her skin. There was only a wound. A wound that looked just like a bite mark and—what was that? Was that bone? No. No it was—
Fletcher looked back, looked back at the rotting corpse that lay draped over two seats, its arms outstretched, as though playing Superman, or reaching for the woman, looked back at the rotting corpse with the gap in its grin.
Nestled in the torn flesh of the woman’s neck was a single human tooth.
Fletcher met the woman’s eyes and wondered how he could do so when, just a second ago, she had been facing the floor.
The Snowcat rumbled to a stop and Kathy Willis leaned out the passenger side door, peered through the ND Selena night vision binoculars.
“See anything?” Harry Bright asked. Bright was IGRIC’s Transportation Manager and lead on the now five day old search for Arnold Fletcher.
Willis’s hopes were low, given that the flare had cracked the sky over a day ago, and blowing snow from the north had slowed the Cat to a stop-and-go crawl. But, as she scanned the green on black horizon, Willis felt relief flood through her and a laugh escaped her lips on a cloud of condensation.
“He’s out there alright,” she said. “Looks like he took shelter in some downed plane and . . .”
“What is it?”
“There’re others with him. Two—no, three others.”
“Well hell,” Bright said and fired up the Cat, “let’s go get ‘em. Fletcher and these new friends of his’re bound to be hungry.”
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