by Ilan Lerman
It’s so peaceful at Regis Station. The only sounds are the wind whipping across the tundra and my own breathing.
I didn’t think I’d like it out here. The solitude. The lack of stimulus. Some people have to have another person around to keep them straight. For me, it’s another extreme experience, like bungy-jumping in Queenstown, or skydiving over Monterey Bay. Instead of the adrenaline rush of freefall, it’s an opportunity to confront the unknown.
Larry dropped me off here in the ATV three hours ago. He should be over halfway back to McKinlay Station by now. He was the only one of the Grise Fjord Inuit who would drive me out here. Not one of the McKinlay scientists would do it. Bloody cowards.
Larry’s a jovial sort. Always smiling with those splintered, yellow teeth of his. He likes to crack jokes and tell stories about his family, but he didn’t say a word for the entire three-hour drive out to Regis Station.
“Bye, Chris,” was all he managed after he helped lug the crate of supplies in and refuelled. Then he was gone, the rumble of his ATV quickly swallowed by the vast, mountainous landscape of Ellesmere Island. See you in a week, Larry.
As research stations go, Regis is pretty basic. They designed it for two, but I’m glad I’m on my own as the bunks are crammed together and the wash facilities are rudimentary. There is enough workbench space to carry out some simple research, but it was only ever meant to be a short-stay camp to visit the Regis-Bell locality. A low, meandering river cuts down from the plateau behind me through extensive patches of purple saxifrage.
The generator didn’t take long to fire up, considering the length of time since it was last used. There’s plenty of spare fuel, a rifle and my radio in case of emergencies. Pascal gave me the drill on polar bears for the third time before I left. Never startle a bear. No shit, Pascal.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. Bears are incredibly rare this far inland and, according to Pascal and the others, are the least of my worries. Despite having the licences sorted and the time booked far in advance, I practically had to beg to be allowed out here on my own. Pascal wouldn’t have it on his conscience, not after the history of this place. Nothing scares me, though. No amount of campfire ghost-story tactics are going to come between me and completing my damn PHD thesis.
I just can’t get over how tranquil it is. Not a single noise. Not like Edinburgh, with the traffic thundering up London Road, and the boy-racers pulling handbrake turns in Sainsbury’s car-park. No unwarranted interruptions. No nagging every five minutes from Sonja. I wondered if I’d miss her at all out here. At the moment, apart from a few midges, my own company is looking pretty good.
Tomorrow I’ll walk out to the locality and see if Regis and Bell were really on to something, or if they just lost their minds through boredom.
It was remarkably easy to find the old dig site. Despite the years of weathering and every square inch of land around here looking identical–-undulating mountains encircling the horizon, rocky outcrops sheltering patches of ice, and the ubiquitous carpets of saxifrage.
The silence helps my concentration, although I’m half expecting a car to go by, or Sonja to start her chatter. It’s not that I dislike the sound of her voice. I married her after all. I’m just enjoying the peace. That familiarity after seven years together results in more nagging than I can stand at the moment. We’ve only been married six months, but is this what they call the seven-year-itch? I thought that had more to do with chasing large-breasted blondes than studying Arctic mineralogy.
The silence is clean. It’s as pure as the air at twelve thousand feet. It’s as exhilarating as the roar of wind in your ears during a skydive; both create the same blank state in my mind. As much as Sonja hates it, I still like to call it the brain enema.
I found the tektites just as Bell wrote. Hundreds of them embedded in the sediment, and even some scattered like marbles around the edge of the crater. I’ve got a vial full of them now and some rock samples to test. Can’t get over how perfectly spherical the tektites are. Normally they’re curved, and reasonably smooth, but these are uncanny.
Coffee tastes sweet after a day on the tundra. The dried food tastes like shit, looks like reconstituted cat sick. My eyes hurt from the permanent sun-glare. It didn’t matter which direction I looked on the way back from the site, the sun seemed to glance off every tiny patch of ice and ignite in my eyeball like white phosphorus. Winter clings to Ellesmere, even in June. The Inuit had the right name for Grise Fjord, Aujuittuq: place that never thaws.
Too many questions after today’s find. Bell said the tektites were easy to locate in his unfinished paper, but I don’t understand how they’re here at all. With all the years of glacial flow they should have been swept away, or buried deep. Yet there they were, right in the top layers of sediment. And the loose ones; I can’t believe Regis and Bell chipped that many out of the rock. The only conclusive answer I have now is that they were right about one thing: there is an impact crater here.
My eyes are burning. I should try and get some sleep.
How long have I been talking out loud?
Can’t sleep. Every time I shut my eyes I’m racing down a glittering tunnel. Reminded of the bobsleigh ride I did once, with the sun flashing off the ice into tiny points like stars. Think I’ve got a snip of fever. Took some paracetomol to try and calm it. I suppose I have Sonja to thank for reminding me to pack them.
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this level of unbroken silence. That could just be the city boy in me talking. Even though I was only at McKinlay Station for three days, the buzz of activity there was enough to help me sleep. Pascal snoring like an elephant seal. Fitz up all hours fondling his precious gadgets. Those glaciologists are such geeks. Pascal would be laughing if he could hear me now. “I told you not to go alone,” he would say in his ridiculous French-American accent. Pascal’s mantra: Always carry a gun. Always bring a radio. Never go alone.
I came prepared. Fortunately, I was able to procure Bell’s unfinished research paper on the Ellesmere trip. Apart from their instruments and clothes, it was the only thing recovered from the station.
Most of Bell’s writing was about the locality–several paragraphs describing the perfect peace and quiet. He was in love with the place, but the undiscovered impact crater and mineralogical discoveries they made were more interesting.
Regis had proposed the existence of a crater from his own geophysical investigations, but the evidence was inconclusive. So the two of them had come here and set up this place with the express purpose of proving themselves.
The McKinlay scientists thought the circus had come to town when I walked in declaring my intention to investigate the Regis-Bell locality. Fitz constantly nudged me and whispered crap about the two of them going mad.
“Regis Station is best left alone,” Pascal had said. After all the trouble it took to obtain licences and tickets to undertake research here, I started entertaining ideas of stealing an ATV.
All these barriers and rumours are nonsense. Professional jealousy and nothing more. A well-worn method of warding off young, optimistic PHD students from their territory. They might as well come and piss on my bedpost.
“Why do you want to banish yourself to such a lonely wilderness?” Sonja had asked when I finally admitted what I was up to.
“It’s only a week at Regis Station. Two weeks altogether in the Arctic. I’ve been before. You know that,” I’d said. She couldn’t understand. Sonja needs people around her at all times; if not physically then at least on the end of a phone line. She doesn’t know what to do with herself left alone in the flat, can’t exist without someone there to remind her who she is.
“How can you stand the silence?”
“It’s not so bad. Nothing scares me.”
“Nothing scares you… how many times have I heard that piece?”
“It’s original research. Something truly untapped. It’ll blow the doors off my PHD.”
“So tell me what it is.”
“Can’t do that. Classified.”
That vial of tektites will surely end up in some government research lab, classified, secret. I can’t resist, have to have a look.
They are the smoothest, darkest specimens I’ve ever seen. They look tumble-polished, as onyx-black, but transparent with barely any pitting. Light curves around their surface in gentle parabolas.
This is something to shout about. Even if there’s no-one here to listen.
Sonja used to catch me talking to myself; said I did it all the time, but was never aware of it. Sometimes when I talk to her it feels like I’m talking to myself. I have to contend with her dreaded mobile, text messages farting out every thirty seconds. It’s enough to make me feel like I don’t exist.
Talking aloud seems obvious. It’s the prerequisite of scientists and the prerogative of the lonely. Not that I’m lonely. Far from it. There’s not a thing for miles around, but I’ve got my microscope out and work is progressing.
My lecturers reprimanded me for lack of focus. Hard not to focus out here. Everything is in sharp relief; carved by glaciers, wind and the sun hovering ceaselessly over the horizon. Focus used to come so easily after a skydive, or some white-water rafting on the River Orchy. The adrenaline buzz. The brain enema. It cleared the way to fill up on studies of shocked feldspar and hydrothermal mineralization.
Difficult to get a bead on these tektites. If that’s what they are. Refractive index is too high to measure. Must be the instruments, but they should be working fine. All I can see beneath the glassy surface is something that looks like asterism. Which is impossible.
Nothing scares me.
That’s right, my dear. I stopped jumping out of planes long enough to marry you, didn’t I? That was far scarier than ending up alone. Travelling through life forever with no human contact. Now that’s scary. Everybody needs somebody. So the song goes.
Asterism. I didn’t see it at first, but once you get a strong light over them it’s clearly visible: a six-rayed star. That means crystalline structure and these rocks can’t be tektites as I know them. Tektites are nothing but boring little deformed lumps of impact glass.
Regis Station is best left alone.
Is that all you could come up with, Pascal? You must’ve known about this. All of you. How could you leave this unbelievable find all alone?
Third morning here and my sleep patterns are all over the place. At first I can’t sleep. Thinking I’m hearing voices in the silence. The infinitesimal gap between sleep and waking can play havoc with your imagination. With nothing else to fill the gaps, it’s just your own thoughts loud and clear.
Dreamed I was having an argument with Sonja. The most bizarre thing: two of us racing down a dark city street and the car I’m driving feels out of control, like it could crash any second. It’s as light as a cardboard box. She’s shouting at me. Some bollocks about having children. The buildings on either side are lit up like Christmas trees with millions of fairy lights spiralling past. Sonja is crying and I’m screaming about how I can’t imagine spending twenty-four hours a day servicing some fat, lazy homunculus to the detriment of my career. This PHD paper is going to be my baby, I keep telling her, and then I’m sitting up in my sleeping bag and shouting into the shuttered murk of Regis Station.
Strangest thing was: she carried on the argument. I swore I was awake, but I couldn’t have been. She was answering back.
And now it’s morning and I must’ve slept eight hours on the trot. Pull up the shutters and the view is the same: miles and miles of empty tundra and distant mountains.
Larry told me that the Inuit used to be nomadic, following the migration routes of the animals they hunted, living with the rhythm of the seasons and seeking shelter where they could find it. What would a newborn, travelling endlessly across the relentless landscape for the first time? Would they see it as infinite?
I might have spent the whole night arguing with Sonja, but right now I can’t recall her face clearly. Think. She’s got chestnut brown hair, cut in a chin-length bob. She’s five-three in her slippers and her cheeks dimple when she smiles. Her eyes are blue. No… brown. No.
They’re black with a six-rayed star and deep as the universe. I would travel forever to see them.
The vial of tektites rolls back and forth on the desk, as though an invisible finger is idly toying with it.
Last night, I left them locked in my field case.
I am aware of the blood pumping in my ears. An erratic flutter. It increases when I look at that vial. My heart thrums like a plucked bass string.
There’s a puzzle to be worked out. What happened to Regis and Bell?
Bell’s unfinished paper was so intriguing. I can’t have been the only person to try and follow it up. Fitz made vague suggestions that others had been out here in the three years since Regis and Bell came.
“Why do you want to go and lock yourself away up there?” he had asked. “There’s nothing to see. Just more ice. Anyone will tell you that.”
Anyone? Who’s been up here, Fitz? You?
You tip-toed up here during the night, fished the vial out of my field case and left it rolling on the desk. I can take a practical joke with the best of them. Come out from behind the door. I know you’re there.
Don’t be so paranoid, Chris.
The last person I need telling me that is you, Sonja. Queen of paranoia. High priestess of…
Who are you talking to, Chris? Well, right now you’re talking to yourself. So who’s talking back to me?
It’s midday already and I haven’t even been outside. Haven’t even rolled up the shutters yet. Can’t face looking out onto those vast, cold silent reaches.
Perhaps Regis and Bell are still out there somewhere. Floating through the wilderness trying to find a way home, wondering how far they are from Regis Station.
I take a drink from my water bottle. Some water spills onto the workbench. Tiny droplets splashing across the white surface. Not sure if it’s a trick of the lights in here, but I can see my reflection–-stretched, glistening–in each and every droplet.
I tried contacting McKinlay Station on the radio, but there is only static.
Static sounds the way I imagine the universe would sound if you could listen to it. A billion tiny voices all crying out for attention, but each one has dwindled to a whisper. The distant hiss of life across light years, every one craving the recognition of the other, but none of them hears. It’s the loneliest sound.
I don’t want to end up alone. Travelling through life. Travelling endlessly.
These tektites–or whatever they are-–change every time I look at them. Under magnification I can see the crystalline structure that must be causing the asterism. Intersecting planes of some mineral inclusion that I can’t even begin to identify. The deeper I look, the more there is. These stones shouldn’t have such high dispersion, but they refract artificial light as though faceted. Inside there is a stream of light; tiny fires igniting and swirling out from a central point. Ribbons of colour emerge from even deeper within.
There is no end to this. It’s impossible to pull my eye away from the lens. My breathing is shallow and catches in my chest, trying to escape.
Something approaches from behind the ribbons of colour. Something immense and dark blocking out the light, and then an eye opens; a glistening black spherule with a six-rayed star, spinning and spinning.
Why did you have to go?
Because I had to find out. I had to see for myself what was here.
But you left me alone. I didn’t want you to leave.
It didn’t seem to me like you cared so much. It’s never bothered you before.
You’re so far away. Why did you have to travel so far? I can’t see your face anymore.
We’ll see each other again soon. There’s only a couple of days to go.
But you’ve been gone for such a long time. There is so little of you left now. It is so cold.
Sonja, is that you? How can you hear me?
Who is Sonja?
Woke up on my bunk today, right arm trailing on the floor. Not sure what day it was until I checked my watch. Opened the shutter then closed it again. Now, I’m sitting drinking some bitter coffee, trying to shake the fuzz and flashing lights out of my head. I don’t think I ate at all yesterday. Can’t remember. Every time I close my eyes I’m rushing at light speed down a glittering tunnel.
I want to get back now. Every bone in my body wants to leave. To go home.
The radio crackles and spits. I need someone solid to talk to. Someone who belongs to the land, like Larry. The more I look at the horizontal abyss of tundra out there, the more it seems to melt away into the infinite distance.
Wish I could talk to Larry. He could make some joke about caribou and peel back those wizened lips into a crooked smile. I would return the smile, helpless to his wistful charm. Is he really all that happy? The Inuit call this whole region of islands Nunavut: Our Land. All Larry ever does is talk about old times before the snowmobiles and instant food, when they travelled the land. He’s as lonely as the rest of us, separated from his true love. He can never really get home.
Larry was the last person I saw. I want to speak to him so he can he tell me I’m really here.
I empty the contents of the vial onto my sleeping bag. I need to know what these things are. They roll into the folds of cloth and find warmth. Their movement is slow and, as I pick one up, I watch it tilt back and forth like a muddy water droplet, ice-cold in my palm. Yet they have a certain gravity to them; a pull.
Bell never managed to write anything about these unearthly stones other than their existence. It was the crater itself that I was most interested in. Any new impact crater discovery would be like stamping my name onto the scientific community. Here I am world: Christopher Bell. No. Christopher Regis.
If I could just get my head straight and write down some of this stuff. My brain feels like it might just evaporate and float off into the sky. What is so remarkable about these things anyway?
Why did you want to go all that way on your own?
Come on, Sonja. You know me. I’m as social as the next guy, but I need that freedom; that buzz of adrenaline to remind me I’m alive.
Did you not feel alive when we were together?
Don’t lay that one on me. Of course I did. Nothing beats waking up next to the warmth of your body lying there.
It has been so long. When will you return? We miss you; your son and me.
Very funny. Even I know it takes longer than a week to get pregnant.
Will you be coming home soon?
It won’t be long. I don’t like it out here anymore.
Don’t be scared.
Nothing scares me.
I wake up and I’m still dreaming.
The station has faded around me-–fuzzy and indistinct. It’s the radio crackling just on the edge of a signal, but the static grows so loud that it fills the room.
Ribbons of colour swirl around my head and coalesce into a spinning six-rayed star. As though I was inside one of the tektites looking out. I am as light as a mote of dust. Stars flash past with tails of fire as I move at incredible speed. Yet there is no sensation of movement.
I am suspended in a bubble. A thin film separates me from the vacuum of space.
Her voice in my head, encourages, soothes. The further I travel the more faint she becomes. I am fading–fading until I can no longer distinguish my physical form from the light and darkness.
She keeps me conscious long enough to make tiny changes in course, and then I fall and can no longer hear her.
My body vibrates as I drop, shaking me apart into the mouth of a storm. Splitting me into tiny particles, each one alive, barely.
I am a shower of black raindrops falling upon a blank white canvas.
I still can’t get the radio to work. Some kind of magnetic interference? Who knows anymore? Perhaps it’s working fine, but it’s me that’s not really here.
It’ll be two days before anyone comes to get me, although I might have hoped they would come and check after five days of radio silence.
Unless they knew it would happen, that I would slowly dissolve into the landscape like floodwater.
Sonja is out there somewhere. I just need to get back to her. To find my way home across light years of space.
I climbed to the top of the plateau overlooking Regis Station this morning, with the radio, but still nothing. If I close my eyes, the land disappears and I can see the way home. It reminds me of my first skydive; the mixture of eyeball-straining excitement and fear. Just keep repeating the mantra: nothing scares me, nothing scares me.
Now, I’m standing on the lip of the crater. Well, it would be the lip of the crater if the whole thing weren’t covered by sediment, but I can see it perfectly in my mind’s eye from above, from a great distance. The tektites are heavy in my hand, but I am light. A whisper, a cold breeze. I open my fist and they roll around in my palm. The stars inside glowing intensely from the sunlight. They build up speed and then release, shooting over the crater, drawing the others out from crevices and dips in the rock, from within the sediment, until they swirl around me. They were just fragments, too heavy to escape, but now they have me and together we are as light as a soap bubble. A bubble that swims in front of my eyes, coated with a giant six-rayed star that spins and spins.
I want to go home. See everybody and drink in their smiles as they see me. Then I’ll know who I am. My reflection in their eyes.
Sonja stands behind me and shouts, Be careful. Please be careful! It’s her voice. I am sure of it. Distant amongst the static, but guiding me.
Don’t worry. We’ll be here waiting.
I’m all right. Nothing scares me now that I’m going home.
Ilan Lerman is a writer from Edinburgh, Scotland. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static, ChiZine and Ideomancer among other places. You can find him at http://ilanlerman.wordpress.com or on Twitter @ilanlerman.