The Delicate, Throwaway Confection Hidden in Mr. Tillit’s Grand Plan
“Trevor, I just caught a blip on the screen by the ring trail. Do you want to see it?”
“No. Shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“Everyone on the night watch is sick. I’m up for this shift. Come look at this.”
Trevor closed the screen for the book he was reading and went to Miguel’s computer screen. “I don’t see anything.”
“It’s gone now. Must be George River herd, but why would one come here alone?”
“It was by itself?”
Miguel dragged a window to one of his other screens and traced back until the image he had seen came up. The rectangle showed the canopy of a tree in the bottom right corner, but it was just like everything around it: snow-ridden, cold and unmoving. In the middle of the screen was the red smudge of something hot, moving south.
“Not going fast,” remarked Trevor. “I don’t think George River herd. It’s acting more like a woodland beast than a tundra one. Anyway, thanks for taking me away from my book. Think I’ll go back to it now.”
“What are you reading?”
“The Watchmen. Alan Moore. You know it?”
“Everyone knows it. Welcome to the 80’s at last.”
Trevor opened his book again. Miguel watched the screen. He pulled up a map from a reconnaissance satellite that the research station had permission to access, and narrowed down to the twenty five miles north of his location. At two in the morning this far north, the air was still, the snow brittle and sharp. He focused the satellite and zoomed closer. The snow shifted in little waves in response to a midnight breeze; on the screen, it looked like water pushing sand on a beach.
When he found the red smudge again, he sat back. Behind him, Trevor was laughing at something in the book. Miguel punched some numbers into his calculator.
“Trevor. Where is Mr. Tillit?”
“Sick with the rest of them. The most sick of all.”
“Calculate something for me then.” He read out some numbers.
Trevor returned an answer in a few seconds. “So what? What is it?”
“The velocity of the thing out there. I found it again. It’s speeding up.”
“No reindeer moves that fast.” He came to the screen again. “Show me.”
The red smudge was in the middle of the screen. Miguel gently modulated a joystick to keep track of its progress straight south. Trevor had his calculator. He ran new numbers based on how quickly Miguel was moving to keep up with the smudge. “It is motorized?”
“No emissions profile from an exhaust. Why would anyone be up here anyway? Everyone from the station is accounted for. Could it be a Svalbard breed somehow? I hear they can double the maximum speed for a short stretch…” Trevor pushed him aside and took over the screen. “Hey,” said Miguel, “what’s the problem…”
“Be quiet. It’s already past the iron trail.” The smudge, if anything, was moving faster. Trevor’s hand pulled at the joystick, moving the satellite vision ever further south. His other hand typed something into the computer.
“What kind of code is that?” asked Miguel. “Don’t think I’ve seen it before.”
“It’s the secret type. That explain things?”
Miguel’s third screen came alive with a camera image of a clearing, but this vantage point was from scrub level rather than from overhead. In about five seconds, the camera had focused on the drifts of snow that swept through the clearing, and the boles of trees on the far side.
“How come no one told me we had a camera like this?” demanded Miguel. “That’s pretty good resolution – what’s it for? Why we would want to study that clearing, no animal ever goes there…”
In the trees on the other side of the clearing, something moved. It was black. When it stepped onto the snowy waves, the drifts gusted and whistled, throwing white spray across the viewpath of the camera. Trevor tried to narrow in, but the snow reared until it obscured the canopy of the trees. When if finally subsided, the screen was empty.
“What the hell was that?” asked Miguel. “Did you see that? Was that an animal?”
Trevor hit the voice-over button. “Someone wake up Mr. Tillit and get him down here.”
“You said they’re all sick! Mr. Tillit the worst! Trevor, why do you need him? Don’t you believe that thing out there is from a Svalbard herd? It could be – you never know. We can call in tomorrow morning and see if any of the other stations have run across this…”
“What then, wolf?”
“Well it’s not a bear!”
“I didn’t say bear.”
Trevor’s free hand was typing. A new screen popped up, showing the fence line of the research station. Three keystrokes later, the image was overlaid by a grid and five circles narrowing on a small solid one in the middle. He hit the voice-over again. “I need Mr. Tillit to research control right now. I repeat, I require Mr. Tillit right now.”
“Trevor,” said Miguel, “do you want me to take a Ride out there? I can go have a look if you want. I don’t think this is such a big deal…”
“It’s past the aloha trail. You don’t think it’s a big deal that it’s still speeding up? Look at the screen. It’s almost at the fence.”
“Can’t be. That would be faster than a jet plane…”
In the haze of the monitoring camera, a black movement approached. Through the links of the fence, it looked as though it might have four feet; it also looked as though it might have eight, or two, or some number in-between. Tendrils and wisps flowed behind it, like bundles of skin or some kind of clothing. Snow rose before it, always in the way, always jumping though the wind was dead.
Trevor turned to him. “Go get Mr. Tillit.” His fingers were streaking across the keyboard. He had abandoned the joystick.
“Trevor,” said Miguel, as he saw something rise out of the snow in front of the main building, “what is that? How do you know about this stuff?”
“It’s over the fence.”
And the black thing was in the compound, still undefined, still aided by the duplicity of snow and non-existent wind, still producing a temperature signature but no other signs of life. Trevor grabbed the joystick and situated the black thing in the middle of the target screen. He hit a button and the outside camera went wild with flashes of light.
“Trevor.” Miguel tried to keep his voice calm. “Trevor, why does the research station have a machine gun array?” Trevor kept firing. The gun nozzles glowed, ripping apart everything they were pointed at: a Ride that had been in the way, some plastic drums, the fence itself. When he ran out of bullets, the camera struggled to refocus as darkness set in again. The compound had a thick, ugly black line through it, past the fence and into a strand of trees that had been felled by the barrage.
“Trevor, reindeer aren’t dangerous,” Miguel tried to explain. “Bears aren’t really that dangerous either you know. Wolves – I know, wolves can be bad, but…”
“Be quiet.” Trevor had flipped to a different camera. It showed the front door of the research station from the fence line. A black thing was standing before the door, its cane buried in the snow, its hat pulled backwards until the brim was bent against that dark coat. “Mr. Tillit,” said Trevor, as Miguel pounded the table and tried to get his attention. “Mr. Tillit, please come to research control. We need you.” Trevor switched one of the Rides to automatic control; it came to life with a sputter of twin headlight beams. The Ride lurched as it gained speed and swung about to aim itself at the front door.
Mr. Tillit kept his face under the cold cold water for almost a minute. In that time, he could feel the chill creep along his skin and diffuse through molecules of fat and muscle until it reached nerves that were not used to such direct influence from the outside world. They reacted by setting up an ache that ran along his eye sockets and stabbed at his brain.
The radio was playing, a loop of songs that was intended to never once repeat for five whole years. But it had repeated. Mr. Tillit had heard the same song twice, beginning two years ago, and now every month it seemed. He wrote down the occurrences, reported them, but there was no one who would come out to fix the problem.
By the time he had put on a shirt, he was sweating again. By the time he had left his room, the feeling of cold water was a rumour only, and a song – the same same song – was playing in his head. Over and over, borne by channels of pain that dug, and dug deep.
He stumbled on the stairs. He thought he heard voices and people coughing. In the corridor, he slumped against a metal wall. Not far away was the front door to the research station. Something in his skull tapped away to a rhythm, with perfect tempo, a symptom or a harbringer or perhaps the ending itself. He did not know. It was like a hammer, a cracking and creaking. It was like a cane, rapping and rapping and rapping against the walls of a box it was trapped within.
When the research station lurched and the shock of an explosion almost made him fall, he had sweat in his eyes. But the rapping, that was still there – and the song, that endless song, that was there too. He was hot. He was next to the door. On the other side was a thermal cavity, a vastness of cold that was connected directly to space itself. It was a colossal mystery; it was a wilderness of nothing. It was a cure too, for the heat that would not let Mr. Tillit go.
The rapping and the rapping and the rapping – it stopped as he unlocked the door and felt a hint of perfect cold, accompanied by bits of snow that took the corner so easily; and so easily dove for his aching skin.