A lucky consequence of the pandemic is that, staying mostly home now, I have more time for my fiction writing. As The Providence Journal’s health reporter, I remain on the coronavirus strike team -- but after (and before) those long days, and on days off, I am indulging anew a passion with roots in elementary school, when I began scribbling tales of fantasy, perhaps as a way of momentarily escaping a rigid Irish-Catholic childhood.
I recently completed “Blue Hill,” a novel that will be published on October 6, and I am deep into writing another, due in 2021.
I also have had opportunity to open the proverbial writer’s trunk, where dozens of short stories and books, in varying degrees of completion, some promising, others worthy of immediate burial, have languished – some for decades. (Fellow writers, you know whereof I speak!)
One such piece is “This Time, I Walk,” a horror short I began in 1986 about a virus that was soon to cause a pandemic. If you haven’t guessed, it was inspired by reading my favorite author Stephen King’s “The Stand” – and by the many headlines about HIV/AIDS, which had reached wide public consciousness in 1985, when Rock Hudson announced he was infected. I interviewed King in 1986, in a session that remains one of my favorite encounters with creative giants. And I was writing “Thunder Rise,” my first published book.
In light of today, "This Time, I Walk" was prescient.
The idea came to me walking the streets of Manhattan back then, perhaps even that day I interviewed King, though my memory is not so precise. The mid- to-late 1980s was a heady period in horror writing, with King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker and others breaking into the mainstream with best-sellers that captivated mainstream audiences. I was on board, furiously penning horror (and sci-fi, mystery and thriller) stories and the novel “Thunder Rise,” published in 1989 by William Morrow and edited by the late Alan Williams, who was also editing King at the time. My agent then and for many years was Kay McCauley, who with her brother, the late Kirby McCauley, represented the man from Maine.
As I walked teeming Manhattan on that day, the idea for “This Time I Walk” materialized – I can think of no other way to phrase it, for the genesis of ideas remains a mystery still, although King’s answer one time to the question “Where do you get your ideas?” was “Utica,” as in the New York city, seems as good as any.
OK. Reading “This Time I Walk” for the first time in many years, I discovered that I had not written the ending. Not even any notes.
So I had to write that ending, and I did.
Here it is in its entirety, ending and all.
This Time, I Walk
by G. Wayne Miller
Copyright 2020 gwaynemiller.com
This time, I walk.
I start early, in order to catch the commuters. So many busy people in the big city. So many pretty secretaries. So many hard-working mothers and fathers. So many big shots, major domos, people of substance and weight, the movers and shakers of society here in and around Boston, Massachusetts.
You see, I walk.
I begin where I sleep, the Park Street subway stop, and I walk down Tremont to Chinatown. Up Washington, past the hookers, the porn palaces, the stores where the magazines are wrapped in cellophane. Past City Hall, through Quincy Marketplace to the over-priced waterfront, back through the banking district, over to the mall in time for the midday shoppers.
All day and into the summer night, I walk.
I walk and I breathe -- always breathing, deeply satisfying breaths, in-out, in-out, in-out, a healthy vigorous breathing even though I allow myself a smoke every now and then. When I breathe, I can feel that familiar strange tickle in my lungs, and I smile. I know it can't hurt me, what's been waiting patiently inside there all these years.
So many thousands go by, an endless river, and I walk.
Scum, they say, those that speak.
You need a shave, bud. Whatcha got in the bag, arse-hole. Smoke? Stick it up your butt, dogbreath. Get lost. Get a job. Get outta my way. Get bent. Get stoked, stiff.
Lots of gets, courtesy the fine people of Boston.
I do not answer. I do not speak at all.
But it makes me grin, knowing what I know. Yes, I am a forbearing man.
It is good to be alive. In my own way, I am having a ball. You may find that difficult to believe, looking at my clothing, my beard, the shoes, the bundle I carry, but it is true. It is good to walk, to have that occasional cigarette, to drink heartily from that bottle and enjoy. It is good to be free, to have my health, such as it is, to be able to breathe.
It is good to be alone.
It is good to be in the city, surrounded by so many.
I consider all of you to be my friends. I hate you with a passion that does not abate, yet you are my friends. A paradox, you say? The world is full of them. The sun that rises in the morning must sink in the evening. From the dead earth of winter blossom the living flowers of springtime. In the eye of a storm, the calm. Paradox, my friends, the natural order of things. Or are you so blind that you cannot see?
The young ones, most frequently, spit.
I have been robbed, beaten, rolled, mugged, preyed upon, chased, cornered, locked up, sent away. I have been kicked, pounded, pummeled, struck across the back of the head, and once, while I slumbered, urinated on. I have fought back, but in my own way and on my own terms.
I admit I am not a pretty sight. I have plans to clean things up.
Still, I know what I am, the nasty side of mankind still living in caves. I myself lived cave-like once, in the not-too-distant past.
And yet, that is not the half of it.
Has it always been this way, you silently ask yourselves as you pass me by, the signature of disdain and disgust written unmistakably on your faces, in the way you will cross streets or step off the curb to avoid me. You should know better than that. You with the stylish clothes, the kids and Volvo station wagons at home, the golf courses and Cape Cod weekends, the neat ordered lives that are about to be ripped asunder and destroyed -- you, my friends, should know better than that.
No one is always this way, or any way. Motion is inevitable. Change is eternal. Didn't Hegel teach us that? Marx? And Darwin? Everyone is born. Everyone is a baby once. Everyone crawls before walking, burbles before speaking, scribbles before writing. Everyone loves, and in turn feels love, somewhere, no matter how faint or how brief. Everyone has a past, and there is good in that past, and there is bad, too, not always in equal proportions. No matter how many storms have ravaged.
I walk because I want to be with you, because I have something for you. I walk because of what you, this species called homo sapiens, have done for me. I want to pay you back.
Not necessary, you protest? What was due has been paid?
Oh, but I insist.
So I walk, always on the move. I especially like to walk past the tourist hotels and the convention centers, of which there are a growing number in Boston. I especially like to mingle with the out-of-towners, the Midwest teachers on vacation, the busloads of schoolkids from New Hampshire and Maine, the businessmen hoping to strike it lucky in the hotel bars, the company outings here for an afternoon at Fenway Park. They will go home, all of these out-of-towners. They will not know it, not today or tomorrow or the next day even, but with them they will carry the lasting memory of me.
Let me tell you a little story.
It is my story, all I have. I think there are things you should know, the next time you push on past me, through the heavy stench of my breath.
The story begins, as many do, in the long-ago and far-away. I was a much younger man then, a far more respected man, if I may be immodest. I was, in fact, a scientist, and I was called a doctor for the PhD I carried after my name. Specifically, I was a climatologist, a well-published and scientifically daring one, and my specialty was the conditions of weather and astronomy that produce glaciers. My theories of orbital inclination (that is, the changing angles with which the earth over the millennia have faced the sun) had revolutionized our basic understanding of the Ice Ages and I had recently co-authored what was then the definitive text on the subject.
Therefore I was honored, but not surprised, when I was invited to join Polar '62.
Chances are you have never heard of the Polar '62 expedition. There is no good reason that you should have. Kennedy was in Berlin when the undertaking was announced, the news was all bluster and the fate of mankind, and we rated only a small mention as a wire story on an inside page of the New York Times. This bothered none of the 17 scientists who formed our party, and I sincerely doubt it made any difference to the 26 seamen and officers who manned our ship, the RV Arctic Maiden, either. Almost without exception, the most significant work in science is conducted in a methodical and decidedly non-romantic fashion, hardly the stuff of front-page headlines, unless it happens to be polio or cancer or something or someone shot into outer space.
Whatever the scientific fascination, ice and snow, I need not remind you, fit none of these categories.
Do not imagine, however, that this was your run-of-the-mill scientific junket. This was a million-dollar effort, years in the planning, supported by private funds and a congressional grant, and it would be many more years before our best universities and scholarly institutions would sift and sort their way through the incredible wealth of data with which we expected to return. Never had there been such an assault planned on the Arctic. Byrd and Peary could only have dreamed of what we were determined to do. The spectrum of interests was, perhaps, for a single mission, unique. There were scientists with expertise in glaciation, zoology, ultraviolet radiation, meteorology, geology, microbiology, internal medicine, immunology -- yes, the explorers themselves were to be subjects of unprecedented research. The eventual result, we were confident, would be not only a deeper understanding of that God-forsaken region, the Arctic, but also of the globe and mankind itself.
On an unusually hot, steamy day in late June, we left Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. We departed with considerable fanfare including attention from the local press and the tears of wives and children, of which I, a 32-year-old with dreams of a Nobel Prize, had neither.
The irony the weather presented did not, of course, escape us. In another week we were to be plunged into one of the harshest environments on earth, the northern extremes of Greenland, that most misnamed of lands. True, it would be summer there when we arrived, with daylight around the clock, and afternoon temperatures rising well into the balmy 50s -- but Arctic summers are notoriously short, as fleeting and ultimately disappointing as a mistress's midnight kiss, if I may be so poetic. Within two months of our arrival, along toward the end of August, the mercury would begin to plummet, the snow would begin its relentless siege, and we would be locked into the Siberian vice-grip of an Arctic winter. We planned to stay almost a year, returning in May, when the ice had released what would then have become our captive ship.
From Woods Hole, we put in at St. John's, then continued on to Godthaab, Greenland, where we took on board a handful of bearded and bespectacled Danish scientists who were to make the journey with us. From Godthaab, we steamed north, along the shore of Baffin Island, where we observed the icebergs to be multiplying in both number and size. We put in a day and a night in Thule, a truly tiny and dreary outpost of mankind, then proceeded north again, until our captain found suitable moorage in a magnificent fjord extending like a skeletal finger off Kane Basin. The ice had grown even thicker, and the fog was nearly impenetrable at times. We would safely go not further, our captain informed us, and there was universal assent that Kane Basin suited our various needs to a T.
It took the better part of two days to unload our supplies and equipment and establish our base camp on a solid sheet of rock overlooking the sea end of a tired and dirty glacier. Ours was not so much a travel expedition -- the vastness of Greenland by then, of course, had long since been charted and mapped -- but an exercise in information-gathering and experimentation that could, for the most part, be conducted from a single camp. Naturally, there would be out camps and selected journeys inland, of two or three week's duration. For these, we had along two dozen Huskies and traditional Eskimo sleds -- this at the insistence of our Danish hosts who, for reasons we did not attempt to fathom, were soured on mechanized means of over-snow locomotion that were then becoming popular.
The first weeks were a period of industry and good cheer amongst our party, which had taken residence in a series of tents erected behind the comparative shelter of a series of house-size boulders. There is a certain savage beauty to the Arctic summer, and that beauty, combined with the endless day, was like a tonic for all of us. For it is summer when the wildflowers bloom, the lemmings and ermine and arctic hare are on the prowl, when whatever other limited flora and fauna there is in this unforgiving territory explodes in one fleeting celebration of life and reproduction. Then, too, there was the almost daily display of aurora borealis, or northern lights, which paints its ghostly rainbow across the sky like the backdrop to some wildly haunted dream.
As for me, I was intent on rainfall collection, pollen analysis, color spectrometry, ice coring -- especially the latter. An entire history of weather is captured in the layers of ice that comprise a glacier, and a simple hand-auger-driven core, although time-consuming and sweat-inducing and muscle-tiring, is worth its proverbial weight in gold. My colleagues were plunged into their various and sundry labors, and there was the unspoken but certain feeling that what we had successfully embarked upon was an expedition bound for inclusion in the ranks of all-time great Arctic ventures, if such is the way to describe a hardy legacy that predates Eric the Red.
Winter's arrival did nothing to disturb the enviable camaraderie that had developed amongst us. If anything, it only served to strengthen the bonds that had grown and which now joined us together like the close-knit family we had in fact become. The snow was virtually without stop, as those of us who were newcomers to this land had been told to anticipate. The wind was a harsh master and the temperatures were soon similarly uncooperative, and by the beginning of October, it was rare indeed the day when the mercury could be coaxed above zero degrees Centigrade.
But it was not weather, or the onset of the Arctic night (which, as you may know, lasts 24 hours a day) that began to change the temperament of our party toward the beginning of January.
No, it was not that. Christmas had come, and we had joyously celebrated it with an evening of old-fashioned caroling and a rare dinner of reindeer steak with gravy, a Danish custom on this largest of Denmark's islands. Those of us who so desired had chatted fleetingly with our families by short-wave radio, and that personal contact with loved ones and kin would be enough to sustain us for many weeks to come.
No, it was the discovery at Outcamp 3 that would eventually bring ugly turmoil to Polar '62.
Outcamp 3 had been set up some four kilometers inland by the microbiology folks, who were in pursuit of various strains of bacteria known only to this region and its equally inhospitable twin, Antarctica. It was little more than a single tent, this particular Outcamp, and it was not manned on a continual basis, but only as the dictates of microbiology demanded. Dave Heddon was the head of the microbiology contingent, which numbered exactly three, including Dave. He was a subdued man, introspective yet not glum, a powerful, broad-shouldered father of two young boys who looked for all the world like a starting defensive lineman for a professional football team. Had he been less clumsy, or more aggressive, I think that sport indeed would have suited him.
But he was a scientist -- tops in his field, or so was the glow of his reputation -- and he possessed that deliberate and calm way of speaking, so wonderfully rare, that is immediately soothing and almost therapeutic to those who hear it.
And that's how I knew something was up the evening of January 24, when he returned from three days at Outcamp 3.
I was alone in the chow tent, finishing off a cup of freeze-dried coffee, when Dave walked in, his beard twinkling with frost and his boots glazed with ice. In place of that calm voice was an imposter, a voice that fairly crackled with excitement. Remember, Dave Heddon was a man of unusual emotional maturity and control. I had learned that listening to him describe how much he missed his two young boys, but how sacrifices must sometimes be made in the name of science -- and now, now he was a man speaking with the control of a teenaged girl.
``Out there,'' he began, sipping on the steaming coffee I had brought him, ``I think we have discovered extraterrestrial life.''
``What?'' I asked.
``What we found by 3,'' he said. ``Frozen. And perfectly preserved, or so it would appear.''
``What?'' I repeated, persisting in my ignorance. ``What have you found?''
``Alien life. Twelve beings. From where, is anybody's guess. But definitely not of this world. You'll know that as soon as you see their... their heads.''
And then, his voice still tinged with an unusual excitement, he went on to relate the events of the last two days at Outcamp 3. How he and one of his party, Joanne White, one of the few women in our group, had set off the first day to gather samples on the agar plates they carried in special aluminum boxes. How they had wandered perhaps 200 meters north of the camp through an unusually strong, snowless wind when they happened upon... shall I call them beings, as Dave did?... and the wreckage of a vehicle they initially believed to be constructed of steel.
We had reached the peak of a slight rise and were descending the opposite side when our lights picked up what we first assumed was another rise, albeit one irregularly contoured. Thinking little of it, we moved closer, our lights stabbing the pitch. As we approached, the rise took on a distinctly different shape. Or shapes, I should say, for there were several.
The most prominent was a rockpile, roughly the size of a large automobile. It looked as if it may have been erected, however crudely, for purposes of shelter. Off to one side was a circle of blackened stones that appeared to have once enclosed a fire. Moving closer still, we got our first indistinct look at the... beings, four of them, sprawled in various contorted postures around the stones.
Of course, the term `beings' had not occurred to us then. Standing from the distance we were, and under such unsatisfactory light conditions, we assumed we had found the remains of earlier human explorers -- the frozen cadavers of the unfortunate members of whatever ill-fated party it had been. Many of the early European and American pioneers of this region, as you know, never came home and were never found. As recently as 1956, not 10 years ago, the Finnish expedition was last, as also you may recall.
And who would have thought otherwise? The forms we were surveying were of human size and appeared to have the human compliment of limbs -- two arms, two legs -- and they were clothed in mammalian fur not the least bit incongruous for this cruel environment. Arctic hare was my guess. Of the four forms, no faces were visible. Not then. It seemed that their heads were unusually large, but that was difficult to ascertain. They had died in the same position, on their stomachs, faces into the snow.
Dave stopped. Without speaking, he beckoned for more coffee. I willingly obliged him. Never have I been so transfixed by a story as then.
``Wasn't there a feeling of, of -- of perturbation, observing such a scene?'' I said softly. ``Even assuming, as you say you did, that they were early explorers of this vast wasteland.''
``Indeed there was,'' he continued. ``I don't know how long we stood there, staring, contemplating, trying fervently to put the pieces together, in all honesty more than a little scared. Miss White and I are microbiologists, Robert, as I need not remind you. Perhaps someone better versed in anthropology or paleontology or medicine might have felt differently, but we, frankly, were most uneasy standing there.
``After an indeterminate period -- it probably was a matter of mere minutes, although it seemed an eternity -- Joanne and I moved closer. I think we felt it simultaneously -- the heat coming from that camp, if camp is indeed what that place was for them. It wasn't a suffocating, tropical heat, but the zone surrounding the... the beings was clearly several degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. We could feel it on our faces.
``That's when it occurred to me how unusual it was that snow had not drifted over the whole site. Obviously, the heat, whatever its origin, had been sufficient to keep the site clear. Protected, as it were, from the elements for a period of time.
``By this point, neither Joanne nor I were talking. This feeling of perturbation you have alluded to was beginning to intensify. Even before we turned one of them over to get a look at a face, we both knew something about this site was terribly strange. And I don't mean the fact that death had visited. Certainly, that was gruesome. But this feeling -- by the second, it was growing stronger. Not fear exactly. No, it was closer to the sort of nervous excitement I imagine Howard Carter felt on first entering Tutankhamen's burial vault.
``I see by your look I'm having difficulty conveying it.''
``Hardly. You are doing an admirable job,'' I said, as encouragement.
``Naturally, our curiosity was too much to contain. Just as Carter could not control the urge to gaze upon Tutankhamen's visage, neither could we curtail our desire to see the faces of these... at that point, we still believed they were human, you understand. Having some scant knowledge of earlier discoveries of camps, I believed it was possible that what we would see would a perfectly preserved face. Pained and suffering, no doubt, but preserved, nonetheless.
``We moved to within inches of one of them. We could see then that the head was much larger than it should have been, but we were too on edge to dwell on that incongruity. It took the two of us to roll that one over. The body itself was frozen solid, of course, and it was heavy and the job was complicated by the poor light. Finally, after trying various positions and leverages, we managed to turn it onto its back. I had placed my flashlight down to free both hands, so it was Joanne who first illuminated the face.
``I was sure I would faint. My knees went weak and my breath seemed to have been sucked away by something unseen.
``For instead of the human face I had been expecting there was something one only encounters in nightmares. There was no forehead, no nose, no ears -- only a single eye, the compound eye of an insect such as the common dragonfly, grossly exaggerated in size. Worse, it seemed as if that eye were still experiencing vision.''
``Dear God!'' I exclaimed.
``I say that because there was a purplish iridescence emanating from that eye. But it was not a constant color or intensity of color, far from it. For the few seconds we stared at it, unable to do otherwise, it seemed to be changing hue, from purple to blue to yellow -- to be pulsating, as if it were electrically charged, or had been irradiated, or was radioactive. Almost like -- like it could still see us, whatever it was. Naturally, it couldn't, but that was the overwhelming impression.''
``Lord.'' I swallowed. Suddenly, I was cold. I drew my coat closer around me, with negligible effect.
``I know how all of this must sound,'' he continued, ``like it was scripted for a Hollywood back lot, but you and everyone else will have the opportunity to see for yourselves, I am sure. I assume every effort will be made to recover all four beings.''
``I am sure you assume correctly.''
I noticed that Dave was tapping his fingers, as if he were still trying to fully comprehend what he had seen, without great success. ``Where was I?'' he finally said.
``The face. You were describing the face.''
``Yes. The face. After seeing that, there ensued another period of near-complete silence -- nothing but the wind, and the odd whistling noise it made passing over the rocks. Joanne looked at me and I returned her look, but we said nothing. I am sure you are wondering if I was frightened. In fact, I was, I will admit -- but only to a minor degree. Because despite whatever low level of energy remained active within its eye, which presumably was its nerve center, I was convinced it was dead. Frozen, probably for years, possibly for decades, there seemed no way it could have survived.
``So it is understandable that after our initial surprise had begun to fade away, we would succumb to natural curiosity. From being to being we went, turning each of the four over, visually examining each, taking mental notes of each. As near as we could determine, they were identical -- the same approximate size, same number of limbs, same compound eye. If, indeed, there were differences of gender or age, they were not discernible from outside inspection.
``It was not until after we had briefly examined each of the beings that we happened upon the vehicle. It was secluded on the far side of the rock pile, deliberately, I suspect, to protect it from the prevailing winds and storms. It would not surprise me to learn that the pile was erected specifically to protect it from the elements. In the hope, one might assume, that it might someday be repaired, or refueled, or have value as salvage.
``By that point, a hypothesis was beginning to gel. Namely, that these beings, whoever they were and wherever they were from, had been stranded there by accident or mishap or mechanical malfunction -- and maybe by something as simple as running out of fuel. Quite conceivably, they were awaiting a rescue mission that never unfolded. That theory would explain why they had built their camp, and why they had died in it. It would explain how they had come to hunt the arctic hare whose fur they made into the coats they were wearing when death overcame them. And it would explain the fires they burned from the few scraps of vegetation they had been able to forage back toward the coast. Because no matter how technologically advanced they were, I was convinced that they were warm-blooded creatures absolutely dependent on the secure inside environment that was their means of transportation. Once that environment was lost to them, it was only a question of time before they -- so fragile as they must have been -- succumbed to the elements. Particularly if they were stranded here in the dead of winter, as is my strong suspicion.
``In any event, we found the vehicle, or what I have to suppose is their vehicle until proved otherwise. If you have ever read the popular press, you may have some conception of what a so-called spaceship is supposed to look like. Cigar-shaped, or pie plate-shaped, along those lines, and large -- certainly large, with an abundance of buzzers and bells and flashing lights. This is nothing like that. To begin, it is in the shape of a perfect cube. It is not very large, seven feet a side at most, although with a seating arrangement that maximized all available space, I suspect the four could fit inside with little difficulty. Based on a cursory look, I would hazard that it is made of stainless steel. There are no markings, no lights, no windows or portholes, and only the fine outline of what I imagine is a door. I think others than I will be tempted to try to crack it open once we have retrieved it -- that is, if a salvage job is feasible with our present equipment.''
The remainder of Dave's account told of how he and his colleague had spent another hour at the site, probing and sifting through the snow for other artifacts. Strangely, there were none, none that could be found, anyway -- no tools, no lights, no sleeping bags or tents, no food supplies, no utensils or scraps that would indicate food had ever been prepared or eaten at the site. In fact, Dave recounted, the entrails and meat of the hares they had made into coats had been left untouched. These findings, he noted, reinforced his hypothesis that they were fragile beings -- beings that perhaps were unable to eat the kind of food available in this sparse environment, if they ate at all, and didn't subsist on some form of energy unknown to us. Beings that were of a higher order, unquestionably -- but beings completely unequipped to deal with Arctic cold once their vehicle was out of commission.
Seeing that their battery power was running low, and recognizing that their original mission of collecting microbiological samples was still largely incomplete, Dave and Joanne left the site -- but not before determining to their mutual satisfaction that they would be able to find it again without trouble.
``Truly, it's an awesome discovery,'' I said when Dave had done.
``I think you understate the case,'' he said, with a smile, and with that same excitement that had been in his voice throughout his account. ``Next to this, King Tutankhamun would appear insignificant. Think of it, Robert! Extraterrestrial life, perfectly preserved! Along with the vehicle in which they traversed the universe. There's simply no telling how this could revolutionize any number of fields. Aeronautics. Physics. Biology. I could go on and on. It will be decades before the true meaning of this is known!''
Needless to say, word of the discovery spread through the main camp in no time. A meeting was convened the next morning, and all but a handful of our party was in attendance. After allowing Dave and Joanne several minutes for a brief retelling of their discovery, attention turned to the logistics of retrieving the beings and their vehicle. A crew would leave that afternoon to do the preliminary specs, and the hope was that the beings could be brought to base camp the next day, with the vehicle to follow within a week -- the latter timetable depending, of course, on its weight, the difficulty of building a suitable contrivance to move it, and the power of the Danes' trusted Huskies, which had proven themselves all winter in whatever tasks had been put to them. It was further agreed that a special tent would be erected solely for the purpose of studying the beings. A separate tent would house the vehicle.
As it turned out, recovering the beings and their vehicle took only a few hours, and we had everything safely in camp by dinner the following day. The explanation for this unanticipated expediency was at once simple but baffling: the vehicle, which we had assumed to weigh on the order of several tons, actually weighed far, far less. In fact, much to the amazement of our mechanical crew, we found that three men of average build and musculature could easily lift it, and a single Huskie could haul it once it had been balanced and secured to a regular sled. Whatever alloy had gone into its construction, it was not iron or aluminum or steel -- or any material known to mankind, for that matter, as subsequent tests would reveal.
Almost immediately, the physicians, led by Dr. Bruce C. Hazlett, the expedition's only surgeon and its medical chairman, began their autopsies. They worked virtually around the clock, fueled, as they were, by the same adrenalin coursing through all of us. They were extremely meticulous in their work, for they well knew that a veritable legion of scientists and physicians back in the states would want their own opportunities for research once we had returned with our find. It was slow work, painstakingly documented by extensive note-taking and photographing, but by the end of the first week the doctors had learned a tremendous amount -- and had been confronted with an equally impressive number of mysteries and inconsistencies.
Dr. Hazlett's team discovered, for example, that the beings' skin was similar to human skin, having the same number of layers and composed of cells similar in structure and apparently serving the same functions -- protection from infection, regulation of internal temperature, retention of vital fluids. Through careful dissection, our medical staff was able to map out the muscles and ligaments and bones of the skeleton, all of which suggested the beings had walked in an upright manner. There were no toes on the feet, and no hair on their heads or anywhere else on their bodies, but as one member of our party noted, those features are already all but vestigial in homo sapiens himself.
I suppose none of us were surprised to learn that Alpha, Beta, Kappa and Epsilon, as we had taken to calling them, possessed brains nearly twice the size of their human counterparts. Their spines, too, were approximately double human size, with a capacity for twice the volume of nervous tissue. As for the eyes -- those haunting eyes, which none save the doctors chose to look directly into for very long -- they were indeed the source of radiation, of an intensity, fortunately, that was too low to be of danger to uas. What its purpose was, however, remained an open question, one that could not possibly be answered with the limited technology and expertise available to Polar '62.
And so that question and many besides were left to subsequent endeavor.
What did they eat? A particularly vexing puzzle, for there was no stomach, no intestines, no rectum. Did they eat at all, or exist on some non-organic form of energy? Did they speak, or was communication accomplished in some far more sophisticated mode, as we suspected? They indeed had mouths and tongues, but the muscles of the tongue, the doctors concluded, were only crudely developed, and where vocal cords should have been was nothing. How did they reproduce? There was no evidence of sex organs, neither primary nor secondary, and no indication of differences between the sexes -- if, in fact, two sexes were represented, but of course there was no way of knowing that. Alpha, Beta, Kappa and Epsilon were carbon copies of each other, or so it seemed.
The technicians were not successful in their efforts to penetrate the quartet's vehicle. It absolutely resisted any and all efforts to be punctured or drilled or pried or banged open. Mild explosives found in a ship's locker were enlisted in the cause, with the same result. Unquestionably, their vehicle held clues as to the origin and nature of the beings. What quantum leaps in space technology might be possible after a thorough plumbing of the vehicle's secrets we could only guess. It was not too wild to dare to believe that the vehicle might even provide useful to our nation in keeping the edge in the arms race even then developing between the two superpowers.
Alas, those exciting developments were destined to wait until later.
The weeks passed and the furor over Alpha, Beta, Kappa and Epsilon subsided considerably. Spring was approaching, and although in that clime spring can promise no more than the return of feeble sunlight and temperatures only occasionally above freezing, something that could legitimately be called spring fever had us in our grip. Even excepting our alien finds -- they themselves were destined to make the name Polar '62 a household word, I was confident -- our expedition had been a tremendous success, much more so than anyone had dreamed during the months of planning that had preceded it. My own endeavors had borne fruit beyond my greatest expectations, and with no small measure of pride in my achievements, I looked forward to authoring several major pieces upon my triumphant return to the halls of academia.
It was the last week of April, nearly one month before we had planned to depart Greenland, that Dave and Joanne became sick.
Curiously, they both took ill the same day, and at approximately the same time, late morning. But beyond that apparent unlucky coincidence, nothing about their initial complaints raised an eyebrow. Without exception, all of us had had our bouts with sickness since our arrival on the island -- those most unfortunate several times -- and their symptoms matched exactly those of the flu that had spread through the camp earlier in the year. Headache, stomach cramps, fever, annoying cases of diarrhea -- as I say, their symptoms fit those of an ordinary viral infection. Seeing that their business was microbes, I, for one, simply assumed that Dave and Joanne had contracted their bugs in the course of their work.
By the third day, it was becoming manifestly clear that their malady was not commonplace. Far from it. For instead of improving, or moderating, or at the very least stabilizing, their conditions had worsened markedly. Their fevers had grown in intensity, and with temperatures threatening to break the 107-degree barrier, they had begun mild auditory and visual hallucinations. Had we been in an equatorial zone and not an arctic one, Dr. Hazlett said, there would have been a great suspicion of malaria. But malaria was not their diagnosis, nor could the doctors come up with one that satisfied them at all.
What was most disturbing was that their sickness did not respond to antibiotics or any of the various other treatments the doctors tried in their growing desperation.
At 10:25 p.m. on May 2, after having lapsed into a wild, fevered frenzy that had forced us to bind his ankles and wrists and strap him to a stretcher in the camp's tiny sick bay, Dave died of massive heart failure. Three hours later, in the early part of May 3, and following a similar period of extreme agitation, Joanne also succumbed. Their deaths plunged us into a mood of severe depression, the likes of which I have never seen. Naturally, everyone had been following the course of Dave and Joanne's health, particularly in their last three or four days, and the knowledge that they were gone was devastating to all.
But what was even more chilling were the fevers two or three others were beginning to report even as Dave and Joanne were breathing their final breaths.
By May 6, nearly half the camp was experiencing the same symptoms that had preceeded their deaths. Like Dave and Joanne, none of the newly diseased gave any indication that recovery was included in their prognosis. Whatever the agent, we were witnessing an epidemic we could not curtail. That fact was indisputable. During an emergency meeting of the remaining healthy doctors and members of the governing board, it was decided that Polar '62 was to be immediately terminated, and we were to return to the states, more than two months ahead of schedule. In the two or three days it would take to break camp, the sick were to be quarantined and the healthy were to take rigid precautions in the handling of food and water.
Six more expeditioners -- I need not name them -- had died by the morning we pulled anchor and steamed back out through the ice-clogged waters of Kane Basin. Like Dave and Joanne, their bodies were placed in cold, locked storage on the Arctic Maiden for the grim journey to home and proper burial. Autopsies, of course, had been performed on Dave and Joanne, and they were performed on the next six, as well. The manner of death in every case, Dr. Hazlett reported, was heart failure induced by prolonged fever and dehydration. As to the cause of the fevers -- that was surmised to be viral in nature, although Polar '62 lacked the expertise and technology needed to isolate or positively identify the villain virus.
I was not the only person as yet unaffected by disease to begin to believe that its advent must be associated with the discovery of the beings -- who, ironically enough, were being kept in the same cold storage as the human dead for the trip south. True, our first contact with them had been three months before the onset of Dave and Joanne's distress. But as those two scientists themselves would have been quick to observe, some microbes have an incubation period in humans of weeks or months or even years -- consider syphilis, as only one example among many, whose tertiary effects may be delayed as long as three decades after contact. Perhaps the beings had not been overcome by cold, after all, I thought; perhaps it had been a virus, one they had brought with them, or been infected with on their arrival here. If so, that virus had remained inactive, but lethally alive, in Greenland's numbing cold.
As might be imagined, we were in almost hourly radio contact with the authorities during our trip south from Greenland. Our situation, from what I could gather talking to the captain and Dr. Hazlett, was being monitored with growing concern in certain circles in Washington. By the time we had reached the northern coast of Maine, plans had been formulated for a Navy helicopter to fly several of the government's infectious disease specialists out to our ship for an on-site inspection. We did not blink at this announcement. Naturally, it would be necessary to take the proper steps to ensure our arrival would not contaminate the population at large. These specialists would assist in the planning, we assumed, and no doubt would take tissue and fluid specimens from the shipboard autopsies so as to commence their own investigation without further delay.
Just after noon on May 11, the helicopter touched down on a makeshift flight deck the crew had cleared by rearranging some of the equipment and booms aft of the pilothouse. Perhaps I had given it little or no thought, but I was nonetheless unnerved by what alighted from the helicopter: a half dozen men dressed in white rubber suits and wearing hermetic hoods and gas masks with 12-pound oxygen tanks slung over their backs. More disturbing still was what three of them carried with them: automatic rifles. I asked one of them why it was necessary to be armed, and he replied that this team according to regulation was routinely armed, whether on a friendly mission such as ours, or on a guerilla trip behind enemy lines in some future war.
The men in white spoke briefly with the captain and Dr. Hazlett, then were led below decks to where the bodies were being stored. In less than five minutes, they returned, but not empty-handed. With the help of several of our crew members, the men in white had brought topside the bodies of the beings, wrapped tightly in canvas. They also carried steel canisters containing autopsy specimens from our human victims. It took no time to load them into the cargo bin of the helicopter, which had kept its rotor spinning and door tightly sealed while the beings had been brought up. Next, a line was attached from the helicopter to the space vehicle, which we had encircled with steel cable and lashed to the deck with hemp rope. Before we knew it, the helicopter was gone -- and with it, Alpha, Beta, Kappa Epsilon and their vehicle.
Dawn the day after the helicopter visit, a U.S. Navy frigate appeared on the horizon and broadcast a brief radio message ordering us to remain at our present position, some 70 miles due east of Jonesport, Maine, until further notice. The frigate, the USS Sam Houston, then steamed approximately two miles upwind of the Arctic Maiden, where it took up a watch it was careful to maintain. Like the Arctic Maiden, Sam Houston's captain informed our own skipper that the frigate was to remain in the area awaiting further word from the authorities as to the time and place and manner of our return home.
Our instructions by now were originating in the highest levels of the Kennedy Administration, which, we learned from monitoring the radio traffic between the Sam Houston and Portsmouth Naval Base, had mobilized a crisis team of epidemiologists and public health experts. The number-one concern, of course, was the public-health threat we represented -- and while we on the Arctic Maiden were becoming increasingly panicked about our own fate, I think even the sickest among us could appreciate the administration's grave worry. Although we were not privy to the details of deliberations concerning us, this much was conveyed to us through the Sam Houston: That arrangements were being made to quarantine the remaining members of our party in abandoned barracks at Brunswick Naval Air Station, north of Portland, Maine.
A week we waited, conditions on board the Arctic Maiden deteriorating almost by the minute. There was one other helicopter visit -- to drop supplies of morphine sulfate requested by Dr. Hazlett to ease the discomfort of our most seriously ill -- but otherwise we were as disconnected from civilization as we had been in Greenland. It was during this week that morale absolutely disintegrated. It was during this week that six more of us died, and all but two of us began to show at least the beginning symptoms of the disease -- the two being Dr. Hazlett and myself.
In their fevered states, the survivors took to wandering the ship aimlessly, talking to themselves, gesticulating wildly at imaginary foes, uttering incredibly vituperative and profane language, accusing their colleagues of the most reprehensible behaviors. Of a more frightening magnitude were the altercations that spontaneously began to erupt among the crew and the scientists, especially the violent fisticuffs that regularly broke out between the more plebian of the sailors. The word nightmare does not adequately describe this week, and I spent much of it together with Dr. Hazlett barricaded inside my cabin, venturing out only to procure food from the mess hall or catch a breath of fresh air when the deck was free.
On the seventh day, those few sailors who had stayed faithful to their posts abandoned them. Until then, they had managed somehow to keep a head of steam inside the ship's boilers, and thus had been able to maneuver the ship so it stayed roughly within the two-mile radius allowed by the Sam Houston. On the seventh day, they shut down the boilers, locked their hysterical captain into his wardroom, and left the ship to drift. A group of five then took to a lifeboat, lowered themselves into the water, and headed off in a westerly direction.
They had traveled perhaps a mile when the Sam Houston, after a barrage of bullhorn warnings that went unheeded, lobbed a five-inch shell in their direction. Ten minutes later, the mutineers were back on board.
So you’d like to know what happened next, wouldn’t you? You people who scorn me now as I walk among you, inhaling and exhaling deeply, this most highly-transmissible of all germs I carry spreading nicely, spreading widely, doing what its genes tell it to do.
Long story short, in a sort of modern take on the Titanic, I miraculously survived when the Sam Houston sent our ship to the ocean floor. Survived, along with this little bug that now suffuses my flesh. In my lighter moments, I imagine it rejoices, for stripped to its essentials, what is the purpose of any life form but to reproduce, to propagate its RNA or DNA so that it sees another tomorrow?
And while it has arguably made me insane, this germ cannot kill me, for I am lucky to have developed immunity. The scientist still in me knows I belong to a very small cohort.
One in a million, if I had to make an educated guess.