‘I am going out
and may be some time’
Famous last words of Captain Oates
Behind that door evil lived. It was the same door, there was no doubt about it; Lawrence recognised the patterns on the wood and the little notches and ridges. The snow poured madly over its surface, pushing with all its force. He was going to try the handle, but he thought better of it. The same old fear came rushing in again, exactly as it had more than twenty years ago.
The door stood on its own in the middle of that white desert which moved with the intensity of the never-ending blizzard. It wasn’t connected to anything; no wall or house supported it. It was perhaps the ghostly version of that same door… Or perhaps it simply was the same door, brought forward in time and space in order to torment him. It seemed solid enough. And behind that door, which had come out of nowhere, or so it seemed, his father was beating his mother. This was a fact, he was certain of it. He couldn’t do a single thing. He just stayed there, unable to react, exactly as he used to do twenty years back, in another life, when he was a boy of twelve. He took a moment to rationalise the situation: they had been warned of this outcome, they had been prepped on the possibility of hallucination, mirages, fiercer in the snow than even in desert environments. Rigid, disorientating waves, formed by the winds over the snow, were called sastrugi. And the nunatak, an island of earth in the middle of the snow, always set at an unreal distance, another shadow.
He thought of an experiment: he started waking backwards slowly, careful not to trip and fall. The storm made progress a clumsy, indeterminate thing; he was sliding slowly backwards more than walking on his own two feet. Around him, there was only that constant hallucinatory whirlwind of dead white snowflakes, which made the simplest of tasks impossible, the white substance they hated so much forcing itself everywhere, obstructing his vision, filling his mouth with its sharp taste, numbing his face and his feet and his hands.
The door remained where it was. The savage weather made visibility ever more difficult, until, after only five or six paces, he lost sight of it. But it was still there, he somehow knew it, with a certainty he could neither explain nor account for.
Then the howl came to him, taking him by surprise, ripping through reality without warning. It had been two days since they had heard it last. The notion had been entertained, although with many reservations in some quarters, that the unseen beast had moved on, perhaps advancing deeper into the unexplored recesses of the unknown planet, leaving them able to snatch whatever rest they could inside their frozen tents.
And now there the howl came again, the beast making sure they did not forget about its existence. He felt lost, tired, he fought to prevent himself from vomiting on his useless feet.
They first heard it the day they went looking for Felix. They had managed to climb the left side of a little hill, near one of the valleys, following what looked like a ghostly path that he could somehow ‘feel’ existed under the snow shroud. They were all holding a rope in order to stay together, perhaps the only inhabitants of that vast white desert. The planet seemed to him then an infinite ocean of silence and absences.
All of a sudden the path became wider, opening into an unexpected avenue delimited by large boulders of ice balancing over their heads on either side. Some of them were enormous, vast, and austere like out-of-place colossi, built by some god so at least one thing was made in His image, and was equally terrible.
They established the unexpected proportions of the avenue; they were off-key, everything too large, disproportionate, according to the information they possessed about the creatures that had lived on the planet. Simon reflected out loud that it looked like a thoroughfare, made by alien hands, perhaps in use when the planet had been inhabited. The elements, or time, or whichever form of destruction the place had endured, had covered the main access they had taken, and now there was no other possibility than to climb on foot as they had just done, as John assured them he had seen Felix doing the previous day.
Very early on during the ascent they had stopped seeing their tents, the broken exploratory vehicle abandoned farther beyond, and they felt stupidly lost then, as if the sight of those few elements of safety, of ‘home’—a couple of rotten tents and a useless machine, which could hardly provide shelter for the whole group—meant something, the difference between life and death. But every inch they climbed left a taste in their mouths of leaving behind what stood in for them as the basis of the ‘civilised’ world.
The notion of the vast empty landscape overtook Lawrence, who felt all of a sudden even lonelier up here. It was a desolate feeling, imposed by the wind cutting your skin, the snow, sticky and piling on your eyelashes, the increasing and unbearable coldness, a warning implicit in its deliberate discomfort: turn back, it is your soul that is freezing. If you continue climbing this mountain, it will be death who you meet, it is life that you are leaving behind, do not be mistaken.
The crevices and the cliffs did not take long to appear, the uneven slopes, the frozen rocks, and small stones which only the inexperienced eye dismisses as harmless, unaware that the tiniest of them can twist your ankle. You are stranded then, slowly or rapidly covered in snow, with only the company of those sad ghosts we all carry; a small stone all it takes to finish you.
Once on the summit of the hill, the dangers were different. They were conscious of the possibility that, before they found traces of Felix, some sort of avalanche would wipe them from its surface. They walked as slowly as they could, a line of mice in the middle of the blizzard, measuring every step, communicating with signs. Each and every one of the marks left by their boots was wiped out by the elements in less than a second.
Lawrence looked behind to reassure himself of the exit route. What he saw depressed him: there was nothing there, not even the tents below, or the small ship. They would stay stranded and lost in the middle of nowhere.
The blizzard gained momentum. It was very bad news indeed. To get lost in this part of the planet, almost unexplored and mostly uncharted, with barrows, and crevices, and openings everywhere leading towards some unknown and frightful abyss, would be deadly.
The chasms weren’t the only danger. Just when they reached the middle of the thoroughfare something entirely unexpected happened.
The lives of these men were directed by precision, by protocols and rituals that could mean the difference between life and death. The hostile environments they had charted in their expeditions forced them to somehow re-establish priorities around survival lines: food, orientation, shelter. Their lives did not have space for superstition.
They continued advancing, painfully slow, against the wall of the wind. John had started signalling that they should head back, but Simon would not hear of it. His stubbornness had placed them in that situation in the first place, but the old bonds of loyalty were difficult to ignore, and Lawrence, turning in Simon’s direction, advanced towards the expedition leader, deliberately ignoring the pleas of the younger man. He was perhaps choosing death with that simple gesture, it remained to be seen. Further on there was the glacier, which they had baptised the Ocean of Ice, in memory of the one on the original planet of their forebeares. They were heading towards it when it happened.
It was the dogs who warned them; their fearful whimpering seemed to announce that the devil himself was waiting for them behind the soft wall of snow, only an inch from where they were, but so hidden that it felt a league away. The animals started to struggle to turn round, suddenly incapable of moving, too strong-headed in their determination not to continue. They were crying, snarling. Simon started hitting them and shouting at them. The vision of the struggle, man against dog, dog against something, whatever it was, made Lawrence shiver even more. A shudder climbed his spine and prickled at the frozen hairs at the back of his neck.
Lawrence knew perfectly well, as did Simon, as did everyone else, that if the dogs left, they were as good as dead. It would be impossible to get back to the tents, and they would surely remain stranded there, with even less hope than they had now. It was not all lost yet. Simon had assured them that the distress signal had reached its destination, and he believed in Simon. But they would not be found there, on that hill. The snow would cover them fast, and they themselves would become another barrow, part of the hellish landscape of the alien planet.
It was soon clear that the dogs’ wailing was directed at something specific, a kind of indeterminate shadow which gained consistency with each advancing step, until it resembled a longish shape, a human form seen through the wall of falling snow. Someone was waiting for them in that godforsaken place. Felix, obviously. Even if the proportions did not match the figure of their friend, it had to be him.
Lawrence broke into a run, or tried to do so, only to find in front of them a softer spot of snow. Their legs and their boots sank deep into the white, making walking, or even moving, impossible. He managed to reach the shadow with the human form, but he also tumbled down when he got next to it, and it was only with great difficulty that he managed to stand up. He fell again. He looked up: there was nothing there. He shouted Felix’s name, now on all fours, trying in vain to find a place to support himself and stand up once more.
It was then that he heard the squeal of a door opening, an auditory hallucination, completely out of place, which provoked an unease he recognised, a bitter feeling long forgotten, which he could not place.
It was in this position that he found Felix’s altimeter, sunk deep into the snow. There was no doubt it was his friend’s; they both had the same old-fashioned model, and it had his initials engraved on it: F.J.W., Felix-Julius Walton.
They were all shouting in his direction. The blizzard had increased out of all proportion, magnificent in its death wish. They had to get back. The hill had become, according to the team’s own vernacular, an ‘easy spot to die in.’
They heard the howl then for the first time, while they made their retreat, the desperate cry of some creature, something that had to be enormous and powerful, and as big as a whale to make itself heard through that rattle of weather, something monstrous, as disproportionate as the mountains, making the very hills shudder, and bringing a shiver to their human hearts.
There is talk amongst the men about what happened up on the hill. Nobody wants to be the first one to say it, that elusive word: ‘apparition’. ‘Ghost’. When Simon catches someone talking about it, he cuts it off root and branch; he does not approve of wasting energy on this kind of useless talk. Days pass, or so they think. Forty human hours, a long and exhausting day. To keep their energy, they mostly sleep. They usually wake up from a dark and empty sleep—the end of a tunnel, a well. There are no dreams; they would imply spending energy they do not possess, the very energy they need to crawl out of the sleeping bags, heat up some water, drink it, divide the nutrients, fall asleep once more, live a few more hours. Wait for the creature’s growl. Someone explains that there were once some cultures on the dying Earth that measured time in dreams instead of days. But there are no dreams here, and this is perhaps good. They would be tainted with the howls of the creature; they would be nightmares instead of dreams. All they have is the water, the division of nutrients, and that dark stupor of not being able to count the days, or the nights. And the chaos of the tent, infinitesimal shelter whenever a storm hits them.
The chaos outside is different. The chaos outside is death. White horror. Disorientation, to perish a few metres from the tent, a few metres from the frozen sleeping bag and the water and the out-of-date biscuits.
What you miss then is the inertia of those first few weeks of the expedition, in the southern side of the planet, the steppe long and unmoving, metallic blue, sandal pink, violet. Snow seemed never to be white there, on those far-off southern slopes, so inaccessible from these parts; and when it was white, they had to come out of their tents to observe the marvellous absence of colours, the weird phenomenon that contradicted what they had learnt to believe, day after day. The world was the same unchanging vision, eternal, the steppe repeated into infinity. It was a different time, before the exploratory vehicle got broken, before they perished. Perhaps, he thinks, they have perished already, they simply are not aware of the fact. They are kept busy counting the forty hours they think make a day, boiling the water, counting the biscuits.
A conversation starts about this topic, a multicolour distraction from the threat of the beast. Some of the men in the expedition have been lucky enough to have known the Earth oceans; they almost cannot remember the intense colours: emerald green, tired brown, all of them tinted by the olive hue of memory.
They try to explain it to the younger men, but it is impossible to put into words. The ocean needs to be seen. And these men will probably never do so.
They discuss the journeys that got them there, the different circumstances that led each of them to volunteer. They do not discuss the journey back, or any possible rescue. The journey back is a different space, distinctively felt as another, carefully cut away from their existence on the metallic blue, pink, and violet planet. As for the beast, it is prohibited territory. The world is a single panorama, eternal, broken only by the spectacle of the aurora, by the halos surrounding the four moons, by the clouds, as shiny as huge old-fashioned serving plates.
The world is also the storms, deadly, that come and go capriciously; wind blowing, stiffened extremities, the tons of solid clouds hanging over their heads, the snow, the snow, the snow.
The overpowering shadows, the dark reflections crossing the mountain planes, the ghosts and ghouls, the low clouds that play with your mind; a feeble sea, coming and going, never reached; a mirage, a phantasmagoria, a lying shadow. Sastrugi, nunatak. Borrowed words from a planet that doesn’t exist any longer. One believes in mirages because there are no dreams, and one must believe in something.
And then there is the door, green paint licking the wood, the well-known ridges.
He mentioned hearing the howl, before anybody else did.
He mentioned the hellish growl of something enormous, disproportionate, gigantic, a creature as big as a mountain.
He went to it, now Lawrence understands.
He mentioned the creature.
He also mentioned seeing his wife, that morning, outside of the tent. He saw her. Spoke to her. No one believed him, of course. Mirages.
In a second the mirage dissolves, and all is clear: Felix simply decided to go back home.
It was time Felix gave them, the greatest of all gifts. His sacrifice did not go unheeded by the beast, the god-like creature; after it had taken place, the signal worked at last, salvation in that frozen hell, the planet. Simon had assured them it had attained its destiny, and he believed in Simon.
There is hardly any mist, and the snow, dusty and thin now, is no more than a yellow shadow which has decided to cover this piece of solid ice, twirling around their legs, forming curves refracted over the wavy surface, ever-changing, but eternally itself, forever itself, until the end of time.
‘I am going out, and may be some time.’
Lawrence goes out into the blizzard, and heads on in the direction of the howling.
The door is there, waiting for him, when he exits the tent.
It has the same exact patterns on the wood and the little notches and ridges. And behind it, he knows it only too well, his father is beating his mother.
He takes the handle and turns it, opens the door, and crosses its threshold never to come back, never to be found, towards the blizzard, towards the beast, towards the unknown.
When the rescue team arrives on the planet the next morning, he will be declared officially lost while on duty.