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Ashlock

Doors down here seal but do not lock.

Inside everything’s cranberry, lit by single stripes of emergency diode three links down the failsafe chain.  It’s warm enough, by the grace of the geothermal, but nothing controlled by a bitwise system still has a switch intact.

“This is worse than I thought,” says Ashlock, shivering for several reasons.  She pops the topmost drive from the RAID, and its surface goes from warm to uncomfortably hot.  “Let’s get to the generator.”

Tach sees it first:  the awful mark of desperation, a wall-spray flecked with bone.  In red light, the blood barely glitters.

Ashlock

The prevailing theory around numbers from Nameless dreams goes that they are indeterminate, resolving only upon observation by a sapient. That’s usually Tach, or someone like him, in deep trance. The trance keeps your mind intact. Probably.

The people at the French Polar Institute, upon hiring the people Tach and Ashlock are impersonating, had a theory: that some of the Dumont d’Urville staff survived. This theory is hemorrhaging credence. Tach’s theory is that they should get the hell out of here.

Ashlock’s theory is that they must deliver their little number, like Tolkien’s ring, to the burning heart of the world.

Ashlock

They’ve counted twelve bodies so far. The neater ones merely blew their own heads off.

“There’s nothing here but death,” says Tach. “If we find the generator, we can unshield it, and a magnet that strong should kill the drive–”

“All that will do is kick the number into our heads and you know it,” says Ashlock. “Fuck and damn it. Kirrily. Why would Kirrily have come here?”

“Something secret,” says Tach, who’s trying to ignore the hexadecimal edging at his vision.

“And where do you put a secret in Antarctica?”

They find the ragged tunnel entrance in the loading bay.

Ashlock

The tunnel’s strung with Cat 6 and harsh lights in cages. The air is warm as breath.

It must be miles. The lights begin to struggle; that generator isn’t going to last. Ashlock keeps looking at Tach. Tach says nothing.

At the end it’s a cavern, tall and dim. Warm bodies have worn a star of six depressions in the ice; they were sitting in their own waste. Gone now. Dead monitors on carts drip with condensation.

There’s a great shadow below them, deep in the ice.

Tach collapses. Ashlock grabs him, and sees that his eyes are empty and dark.

Ashlock

Ice groans like a great door opening, and Ashlock realizes that above her, things in the darkness are unfurling their batlike claws.

How do you apply kung fu to non-Euclidean anatomy? She’s wondered before, but perhaps it’s not the day for an empirical test. She hauls Tach’s rigorous body into the center of the star.

“Here’s where I bet on you being in trance,” she says, “so don’t make me wrong, you Japanese motherfucker.” The steel of the drive burns through her mitten.  Ashlock unreels its cable with woolbound fingers and finds the USB port at the base of Tach’s skull.

Ashlock

She plugs it in. The lights go out.

Your eyes react to things that aren’t light. Ashlock learns this when the glow through the ice of the floor picks out their veins and skeletons, faintly, backed by colors that have no name. The drive is whining. Air thumps above them. Tach convulses, and she holds him down, eyes stung with the hate of it, counting seconds against transfer-rate math in her head.

“Three cronomicon, two cronomicon, one,” she whispers, fingers tight on the cable. She’s already pulling it free when she makes the same mistake as Orpheus.

Ashlock looks down.

Ashlock

Crystal flowers fractal through Ashlock’s skull, spars of ice and silicon bursting from her nose and tongue and the thin bone over her sinuses, lancing down into her throat. She can’t breathe. She can’t think. Her eyes are frayed optical fiber, every end a scraped and screaming nerve, and she cannot look away from the beast below.

She claws at the slippery edge of sanity, and Tach is there.

She’s never seen behind his trance before. He is unspeakable. Enormities thunder from his mouth, and her mind kicks backward out of madness, sending her body skidding twenty feet across the ice.

Ashlock

Up, across the slippery floor, Ashlock grabs the dead drive by its cable and shatters it with the blade of her rigid palm. A shoulder under Tach’s limp tall body and a fireman’s heave: she leans forward into the sprint, down the dark long tunnel.

Silent now but for the tight whistle of breath. Ashlock fumbles her stupid phone from her breast pocket and runs by its bobbing glow. The island begins sobbing, a sound so low it blurs vision, thunder in the cave of her chest.

Ten steps from light of the loading bay, the ice gives way beneath them.

Ashlock

The water is sickeningly warm.

Ashlock knows how far and how fast she can go on one lungful of air, but she’s encumbered, and the sea churns as the island calves blades of ice. She pulls off her boots and kicks out anyway. Tach struggles in her grip, but she has no time to let go.

She fell facing west. The bay door was south, but she still can’t see skylight, and breath fights in her like a frantic bird. Ashlock kicks and kicks, a kata of desperation, and then the razor keel of the Matthew Henson is crushing her hand.

Ashlock

“Better do this while it’s still numb,” she chatters, and though the medic’s knife is sharp, everyone hears the slippery crunch. Tach staggers off to be sick; the captain is pale. Ashlock exhales through pursed lips and then manages “I need a drink with all possible speed.”

The medic fumbles gauze. “You shouldn’t have alcohol until we get the bleeding–”

“I can still kill you with this hand.”

The captain finds a plastic flask of something clear and burning, which Ashlock hits hard. “Did you find what you were looking for?” he asks.

“Just make the boat go faster,” says Ashlock.

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