DISCLAIMER: This is an original work of fiction © J C Raine.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Written for the FSAC Dog Days of Summer 2009 Calendar.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Ice Maiden
Her milk was bluish white against the snow, pitting the smooth surface, still warm from her body. The frigid air was exquisitely painful on her tender flesh, the hurt tangible, vying for her attention with the all-consuming sullen ache that was the death of her boy. Her boy - she had not decided on a name for him in life and now she never would - had lived for three short days. And for all that time Tasha had clung to the hope that this would be the one - that this time her child would live.
But it was not to be.
Her discomfort eased for the moment, Tasha buttoned up her shirt again and fastened her furs, suddenly aware of how cold she was. Her breath frosted in the air, she was losing too much moisture. Already the exposed skin of her face felt desiccated and she had only been walking a few hours. She barely remembered her long-ago survival training. Shuddering, she clambered awkwardly to her feet, slipped on her bulky mittens and dusted the powdery snow from her sealskin breeches. It was time to move on.
She looked back only once, seeing her trail of footprints wind across the otherwise virgin snowy plain. Already they were beginning to disappear as windblown snow and ice drifted into the shallow depressions. Of the abandoned station in which she had rested for a few hours, she could see nothing. Already she was in unknown territory, with no real idea where she was going except a vague idea that she should keep walking towards the sun, which at this time of year was a burnished gold smear of light on the horizon, a beacon to guide her way home. That way she wouldn't get herself turned around. Or so she hoped.
Tears blinded her and she told herself fiercely that it was the wind. She had wept enough over the last six years. Now she must be strong, for herself, for her boy. There was no one else now to tell her what to do, to dictate her life to her. She was utterly alone.
It had not snowed for several days, and the Arctic temperature had risen to a heady fifteen degrees below freezing. Walking steadily southwards across the ice plain, trying to keep a rhythm going, Tasha snuggled deep into her furs. She felt sweat begin to gather under her arms and breasts, trickling down her spine, pooling slickly in the small of her back. She was too warm, too warm! She was not wearing the proper survival gear, of course. It made it hard for her to regulate her body temperature. It was a highly unusual and most dangerous state for one so long inured to the cold. She had thought that she could never be warm again.
Memory flashed. 'You're no ice maiden, you're just some frigid little cow,' Todd had shouted at her when she had refused to sleep with him. She told him to fuck off and leave her alone and when he'd tried to force her she'd bloodied his nose and bruised a lot more than his ego. She had to answer for that in front of the tribunal and was given a formal warning. It was not her place to refuse a man his sacred procreative duty. Another incident and she would be exposed. She had survived that once and never wanted to experience it again. Litvinov had started to call her the Ice Maiden after she'd come through twenty minutes out on the ice with no sign of frostbite. On this occasion she was merely beaten and forced to serve. Everyone had witnessed. The other women held her down as first Todd, a savage grin twisting his bruised lips, and then three of the other men had taken their turn with her. Litvinov had not partaken of her punishment. Later on he had come to her. He had been almost gentle. He had spoken to her in his native Russian, said things that might have been endearments. He could see that she was made of finer things than the other woman, his Ice Maiden. He could protect her if she gave herself to him. The others Todd would not dare to touch her then. They would see her as she truly was. Special. She had tried not to shudder openly at his touch, willing herself to get through it, to survive. She was certain that was the night when her boy had been conceived.
Tasha gasped, collected herself. She had no desire to remember what it had been like to live under Litvinov's protection. The sky was a blue so light that it was almost white. Snow glistened all around her, a dazzling, coruscating light that soon made her eyes smart and her vision blur. Tasha pulled down her goggles from the top of her head and fitted them over her eyes. Everything turned blood red. Almost immediately, her eyes felt more comfortable. Apart from her ragged breathing and the sound of her shuffling, stumbling progress across the frozen plain, there was silence. The wind had dropped, only the occasional gust whipping up flurries of snow blowing across the pressure ridges that undulated up to twenty feet high across the white wasteland. Once or twice she heard the gunshot crack of expanding ice, many miles away across the floe. It always astonished her how far sound travelled in the cold clear air.
She was tiring fast. Her body ached, her calves and thigh muscles burning from the exertion, the pregnancy-soft flesh across her belly seeming to drag her down. She wanted to rest, but she had to keep going wherever she was going. In case they came after her. In case Litvinov tried to bring her back. Forever southwards. Home. Then she could rest for as long as she wanted.
Tasha ate on the march, more because she knew that she needed to keep up her strength than out of any real sense of hunger, pulling down her scarf to take another bite from the leathery strip of dried, salted fish. She was very thirsty, exacerbated by the salt fish, but had very little clean water left. In her haste to leave, she had not properly thought out what she would need to take with her, merely grabbing whatever came to hand. As a result she had plenty of food but very little potable drinking water. Luckily, a partial solution was at hand all around her. Stooping, Tasha scooped up handfuls of snow, cramming them into her flask, before putting it back into an inside pocket, where her body heat would melt the snow. In a few hours she would have a few mouthfuls of cold, brackish water to drink. It was probably loaded with PCBs, bacteria and toxic chemicals, but she did not care anymore. It was just more slow poison to eat away her bones and pollute her system - so what! She had been breathing in and ingesting the stuff since she was born. If it made her die a little quicker, what did it matter now? Just so long as she got her boy home first.
The hours passed. Tasha marched on. Time was a constant now, the sun playing traitor to her senses, barely rising from its place just above the horizon. This was what passed for late summer. True night lasted a bare hour in this season. It would not get truly dark again for several months. And then she would long for the light. But by then she would be home again. In the now, though, this day could go on forever. She would walk another ten thousand paces and then she would rest, she promised herself.
Her breasts were still aching; she could feel a warm wetness where her milk had oozed out onto her silk inner tunic in autonomous response to the chafing of the damp material against her tender flesh. Somehow, she knew, she should contrive to collect the precious fluid and use it to nourish herself, but she could not bring herself to do it. That milk should have sustained the life of her boy. Better that it should go to waste than be profaned by her lips.
Stoically, she endured the discomfort as a mark of her failure. Unbidden, unwanted, her thoughts returned to her child, her boy, how she had held him and prayed over him to all the gods and spirits that she could think of, pleading, bargaining for his life, offering her own life, everything she held dear in exchange, guarding every scant breath jealously until the time came when he breathed no more. For hours she had not been able to bring herself to acknowledge that he had gone. She had held him to her breast, crooning over him, encouraging him to suckle, his small lips like cold putty against her nipple, his pale, delicate skin ash grey rather than the healthy pink of living flesh. At last the others had stolen him away from her, ripping him from her arms, and she had cursed them, weeping and screaming her sorrow.
Gina and Frankie had tried to comfort her, but she would have nothing to do with them. They disgusted her. The two older women knew her grief only too well, and Tasha could clearly sense in their pity their vicarious need to share her suffering and in it relive their own. They had all known loss such as this and they had all been 'favoured' by Litvinov at some point over the years.
In the six years of their existence at Haven, no child had survived beyond the first week of life. Her son was interred under the latest in a line of pitifully small cairns in the community's burial ground. Tasha did not attend the brief ceremony. None of the women did.
Tasha kept herself apart for the rest of that day. Later, when everyone else was asleep, she gathered together the few belongings she cared to take with her, and dressed in her thickest, warmest clothes. The hi-tech outdoor survival suit that had to be tailor-made for her when she had first come to Haven was far too small for her now, most of the other spares too bulky. She made do, taking a set of waterproofs and a fur-lined jacket from the storeroom and slipped them on over her own outdoor clothes. The fit was not perfect, but it would do the job, Tasha thought, fixing the Velcro webbing tightly around her calves, holding her thick soled, heat retaining boots in place. Into her backpack she thrust foil wrapped packs of dried fish, soy biscuits, some packs of beans and peas she had filched from the hydroponics garden, a bottle of purified water, and one of their precious canisters of heater fuel and the small portable heater. There was no going back now. If she was caught with that in her possession she would be severely punished, perhaps even exposed, left to the mercy of the ice - Haven's ultimate punishment. Tasha also packed a spare set of undergarments and leggings before going out into the snow to reclaim the body of her boy.
Quickly, she pulled apart the cairn, and reached down into the shallow grave to find the small corpse shrouded in a black plastic sack. She tore the loathsome stuff from his body and cradled him to her, crooning gently. Her boy. She would take him home with her, and see that he was buried properly in the village churchyard near to her home back in Durham.
Wrapping him in the blanket she had laboriously crocheted for him from wool recycled from an old jumper, she laid her boy in the Inuit papoose-style carrier one of the men had made in the hopeful early days before they realised that all their offspring were doomed to death. Shouldering her pack, securing it tightly over her shoulders and across her midriff, she picked up the small bundle, cradled him gently, pressing her lips tenderly to his downy skull before turning her face towards the south and beginning her long walk home.
She walked right through the brief twilight hours and the long, chill day, stopping at an abandoned settlement - four long houses grouped around a small chapel. Only the chapel still had a roof, though the cross had long since vanished from the gable end. The steep pitch of its roof had saved it from the fate of the long houses, which had long since been engulfed by the sheer weight of snow that had built up on them over the years. Where the original settlers had gone she did not know. Of course, it could have been abandoned long before the Death.
Inside the chapel stalactites and stalagmites of ice had built up into fantastically carved pillars between the pews and down the central aisle. One of the windows still held a few fragments of stained glass. The last rays of sunlight caught in them, sending pools of red and blue light over the snow and thick frost that layered everything.
Tasha cleared the loose powdery snow off one of the pews and sat down, gazing up at the altar. A crucifix still hung above it, its shape warped by the ice and snow as it had warped all their lives. Litvinov would appreciate this, she thought. This was a god he could understand. Behind the altar on the wall what she presumed was the same phrase was written in several languages. The English translation was 'May god stand between you and harm in all the empty places where you must walk.'
Tasha looked around. Several of the pews were broken. She could use them to build a fire, chase a little of the cold away. She set about building one, stamping on the wood to break it into smaller pieces, and constructing a small pyramid of tinder. The exercise made her sweat and also took what little energy she had left. She felt hollow inside. Her flint did not spark the first time nor even the twentieth, but she persevered and was eventually rewarded by a small plume of smoke from the tinder. Soon after the wood was crackling and hissing as it thawed out.
In a cupboard at the back of the church she found a pile of evangelical pamphlets, some hymnals and bibles. They would burn as well as anything else. She took everything apart from one of the bibles - why she left one she could not have explained. It seemed less 'sacrilegious' than burning all of them.
She emptied her swollen breasts again, the milk squirting into the flames, burning blue for a moment, hissing in displeasure or censure. She took it as her due.
She did not sleep, but kept a kind of vigil. She did not pray. She no longer recognised any meaning in the words. God had long since abandoned them.
Head bowed over her child, a Madonna abominate, Tasha's battered mind cycled endlessly over and over the same infertile ground. The immediate past was not to be borne, and memories of home were sweet and very far away.
And then the sun rose from just below to just above the horizon and she prepared herself for the day's walk. She set herself a target on the horizon, a pressure ridge with a distinctive double V wedge in it that could be two miles away or it could be twenty, distances difficult to judge in the unending blank canvas of the Arctic landscape. After just a few minutes her fire was cold ash, she could almost see the frost re-colonising her makeshift hearth.
Back in the present, trudging on through the crisp, killing whiteness, she gave herself up again to the luxury of remembrance. The faces of her family, mum, dad, Vi her little sister and her friends were shadowy now, except in dreams but she could remember things - trivia, advertising jingles, theme tunes for television programmes, every film Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie had ever made.
A childhood barely finished. There had been so many things she wanted to do. Go on holiday to Ibiza, just with her friends. Get drunk on something other than sweet cider. Go to University. Snog a bloke... or a lass. Didn't matter, except that it did. Blokes you could snog in the open, no one cared except the old biddies and you could just laugh at them. With the lasses it was different. You couldn't just go up and kiss a girl. It wasn't against the law or anything, not anymore (she was a bit hazy over whether it had ever been really against the law for a girl to kiss another girl). It just wasn't the thing to do. Not before the death, not now. Certainly not back at Haven. So kissing a lass was something that was done in the dark, in a secret place. Which somehow made it all the more exciting, all the more special. All she had wanted was to get a good job, buy a nice house and be happy with someone she had chosen for herself and have lots of healthy happy children.
It should not have been too much to ask.
Tasha had come to Haven (or the Ny-Alesund Natural Environment Research Council Station as it was known then) when she was sixteen, on a science expedition sponsored by the British Antarctic Survey. She had won her place on the two-week trip as part of a science essay prize run by the Guardian newspaper whilst she was still in her first year at Sixth Form College. She could barely remember any more what her essay had been about. Something to do with plankton and sea temperatures nothing remotely useful in the greater scheme of things. Two local firms (one ironically a manufacturer and distributor of sun beds) had sponsored her trip. She had been due to stay at Haven for two weeks. Seven years later, she had nowhere else to go.
Tasha wanted to be sixteen again, to go back there, back to her life before the Death, before the soft, deadly rains that had brought destruction upon the world, trapping her and her companions in the ice. With an almost hallucinatory clarity, brought on by several nights in succession without sleep, the memories came alive for her again; of greenness, of flowers pulsing with colours that she just didn't see anymore reds, purples, deep blues, oranges, pinks, lilacs, lavenders, yellows and greens - of lying on her back in a garden, wearing nothing more than a bikini, soaking up the sun, her bare skin so warm, listening to music, Coldplay, Razorlight, Lily Allen, Katie Perry, Goldfrapp... so much music. She remembered the joy of eating anything that she wanted, the taste of chocolate, bittersweet on her tongue, (chocolate her mouth filled with saliva at the mere thought of chocolate if when she did get home she was going to spend a long time reacquainting herself with chocolate in all its forms) the joy of having new clothes, of seeing new faces, hearing different voices, expressing a different set of ideas. Of being allowed to have an opinion, ideas of one's own.
More than anything else, she missed the rain, she missed watching raindrops race each other down window panes, she missed puddles, missed the feel of soft, warm English rain on her skin, soaking through her hair and down the back of her neck. Rain, like most other things that had once been an everyday part of her life, had become just a memory from an increasingly remote and quite possibly mythical past.
Had it ever really happened, this past life that came to her so clearly now only in dreams? Was it all only an invention, a cruel delusion? The last firing of a synapse before it froze for good. Had there only ever been snow, ice, and endless cold? Was this all there ever would be forever and ever?
Amen. Tasha tried to remember tastes other than the blandness of soya cake or krill patties, their staple diet other than the very occasional and strictly rationed hydroponically grown tomato or the welcome spiciness of a bell pepper. They had all quickly tired of the taste of the fish which they caught in the ice pool during the short summer months, even welcoming the fatty rank-tasting bear or seal meat from animals that sometimes wandered through their area, though like all mammals, they had been badly hit by the Death.
In seven years they had seen only one whale, a beluga, and that had been close to death. Harrison and Litvinov had wanted to finish the job and drag it ashore for butchering. In a rare show of unity and dissent, everyone else - including Tasha - had overruled them. It was just possible to do that then. For three days they had watched it as it wallowed in the ice pool, keeping the vigil until at last it sank below the surface and did not reappear.
Litvinov had gone a little crazy after that.
She had reached the ice ridge, the peak about a thousand feet above her. Pressure ridges, jagged seracs and deep cracks fissured out from the ridge. Ice and rocks melded together, the going would be tough, especially with the added bulk of her pack and her boy in his papoose to unbalance her. Her mittens were soon ripped to shreds on the ice boulders, her hands bloody and numb with cold. The papoose kept swinging; one of the ties had frayed. He could fall. She could lose her boy again. Hunkering down in the lee of an ice boulder that offered some shelter from the strength-sapping wind she rummaged in her pack she took out her spare set of leggings and ripped out the seams with her knife, making a harness to carry the papoose more tightly against her chest. She paused, horrified, as she caught sight of the bruise-black peeling skin on his face, white bone showing through in places. The cold was taking its toll on both of them. Banishing the truth from her mind, she drew the hood more closely around his face and spoke softly to her boy reassuring him that all would be well.
Abandoning her useless gloves she wrapped the remaining strips of material around her numbed, stiffened and bleeding hands. She was certain to get frostbite, but that was immaterial to her now. She was going home. Everything would be well again.
Over the ridge there was a second ice plain, as featureless as the first. For a moment she thought that she had come full-circle and got herself turned around so that she was heading back to Haven. She had got into mythology in her early teens, and was suddenly struck by the memory of Ragnarok, the Norse end-times. Tasha almost expected to hear Fenris howl. Or was she stuck in one of Dante's circles of hell?
The way down the ridge was steeper, the boulders smaller, forming a scree. About half way down she felt her feet begin to slide from under her and sat down, sliding about thirty feet before with a jaw snapping shock her feet collided with and braced her against a bigger, hopefully stable outcrop of rock. She managed to twist aside out of the path of the landslip she had created, turning away, cradling her boy until the rumbling stopped. Only one or two stones caught her on the shoulder and back, the impact largely soaked up by her thick layers of clothing. At last it seemed to be over. The landslip had created a broadening scar down the side of the ridge, subtly changing the landscape.
"Ice Maiden my arse. Close one that," Tasha whispered to the child. "We'll have to be more careful. We've a long way to go yet. Won't do either of us any good if I fall and break my ankle - or my neck." As it turned out the only casualty was her snow goggles, one lens starred and cracked across. She got to her feet slowly, brushed the loose snow and ice from her clothes and set her sights onwards. The terrain climbed slowly now to the foot of one of the glaciers, towering cliffs of ice and rocks greyish white with occasional threads and facets of emerald and sapphire. The wind was stronger now, a steady buffeting against her back and right side. Once again she fixed her sights on a particular landmark an outcrop of the glacier that looked like an arm with a raised fist. She giggled remembering the hokey scifi movie with the statue of liberty's arm poking out of the sands and then sobered, wondering what it looked like now.
She began walking again crooning the half-remembered words to an old pop song under her breath. Something about umbrellas of all things. She vividly remembered dancing to it at the end of term party. She had been dancing with a boy called Steve, who was the twin brother of a girl called Stacie who Tasha had had a crush on for a couple of years. Steve was tall and clever and a bit shy. Stacie was perfect and completely oblivious of Tasha's attentions. Stacie had told her that her brother fancied her that he was going to ask her out, "He's a bit of a dork really. Sweet but stupid. If he can get his act together you can be a couple of dorks together." But Steve never did get his act together and now he never would. And Stacie with her pale freckled skin and russet hair that shone in the sun was just part of the myth now. The world before the end.
She quickly fell into a walking rhythm, though her feet were beginning to numb as her body ran out of fuel to sustain its internal temperature at safe levels, her torn hands burning with the cold through the inadequate protection of the rags that bound them. Her mind fell easily into a stupor again, reliving old times, improving on them. She was back at the party with Steve and Stacie, dancing between them, well not really dancing, just swaying to the music, Steve facing her smiling his shy smile and Stacie pressed close against her back, her hands around Tasha's waist her soft lips pressed to the top of Tasha's spine, the sensation sending shivers through her whole body. The music was slower now, ethereal, something to chill out to. Moby or the Cocteau Twins or one of the Ministry of Sound albums...
"Halloo! Hey!" The voice woke her out of her dream. Dimly, Tasha realised that she had not been walking for some time, but just standing, more asleep than awake swaying a little in time to the music in her head. Already snow had begun to drift over the toes of her boots. The constant wind had eaten through her layers of clothing chilling her to the bone. She was cold, so very cold. Her eyes had automatically focussed on something in the distance, a dark mote on the horizon that was steadily closing on her position. She had been watching it without really taking in what she was seeing. Ever so slowly, her mind made the connection between what she had seen and what she had heard - there was another person, another human being walking towards her across the ice.
Tasha's initial reaction was one of panic. What if it was someone from Haven come to take her back? What if it was some stranger intent on doing her harm? Which was the worse scenario Unsure of what to do for the best, her breath harsh in her chest, the adrenalin causing her heart to thud painfully. She had no weapon with her. Haven had only a small armoury of four rifles and a harpoon gun and virtually no ammunition. They were all kept under lock and key. Two of the early suicides at Haven had been shootings. The guns were judged to be just too dangerous to leave in the open and the ammunition too precious to be wasted. At least that was what Litvinov said after the last suicide when he took all the remaining weaponry under his control.
She was too cold to think about it. Her brains were addled, her feet and fingers numb and dead. Even her face was beginning to freeze, ice forming on her eyelashes and in her nostrils. She should be worrying about frostbite, not killing strangers. She had to think. What should she do? She couldn't turn and run - there was nowhere to go.
"Hey! Hey!" The figure was waving now, both arms semaphoring above its head. It started into a shambling run, moving closer with every stride. The figure was distorted, out of all proportion, a monster! Fighting the urge to turn and run, Tasha stood her ground, the cold and her fear twisting her bowels into a tighter and tighter knot. As the figure got closer still she could see that the distortions were caused by the many mismatched layers of clothing and the pack the person carried that towered above its head. As well as thick boots it wore snowshoes that threatened to trip it up at every step. It kept calling to her every few seconds as if puzzled by her lack of response.
Then it came to her, this person wasn't the enemy, the cold was. Tasha realised that she didn't have much time left. She was slipping into hypothermia. Wrapping her arms protectively around her boy, she closed her eyes, willed herself to concentrate, to fight past the dull buzz in her head. When she opened them again Tasha realised that the strange figure was only a few yards away. Suddenly galvanised as native caution reasserted itself, Tasha called out.
"You - don't come any closer! Stay where you are!"
The figure slowed and stopped about thirty feet away from her hands outstretched to show they were empty of weapons. "Hey, I don't want to hurt you, it's just, it's just that, hell, I ain't seen anyone for so long. You a Brit or one of the Viking guys? Where'd you come from? Are there other people nearby?" The voice was muffled, distorted by the ski mask that hid most of the face, but Tasha was certain that she was speaking to another woman and that she was American. They had known of the other bases on the ice plain but Litvinov had forbidden contact with them, particularly the Americans, blaming them for the death.
Hands shaking, Tasha managed to pull down her scarf. "I came from a place called Haven about two maybe three days walk north of here. What about you?"
"My God, you're a woman! Me too, I mean. Gosh, I'm ... I was from Devon Island the Mars Project NASA. Before that US Army. Engineering Corps. I'm Josie..." The dichotomy between the soft drawl accent and the gunshot delivery almost made Tasha smile. Just the act of hearing an unfamiliar voice thrilled her senses.
''I'm Tasha. I was part of a British scientific expedition at Haven... it used to be called the NERC facility at Ny-Alesund on Svalbard. Well, not part of it really. I was only supposed to be there for two weeks. It was a prize I won with an essay. I got trapped here, when..." There was no way she could finish that sentence. "There was a plane due out just after the first pandemic alert," Tasha remembered. "The Base Commander managed to get a message through to my parents, asking if he should send me home early. I wanted to go. I'd wanted an adventure but this was too much. But mum and dad they decided that I would be better off where I was until things were sorted out. It all happened so quickly. I never heard from them again. I was stuck."
There was a long silence. "Yeah, weren't we all," Josie said in her soft drawl. "Seven goddam years. Someone somewhere sure owes me a packet in back pay. Only supposed to be here six freakin' months. Two days before my tour ends all hell breaks loose." She sighed. "Oh well. I've been travelling for a couple of weeks. Mars is gone, so is Resolute. There's no one left there now. How many at Haven?"
"Twelve, when I left. Seven men and five women. Do you know of any other groups still out here?"
"Not many. Most got evacced out before the end." As she spoke, Josie eased her pack off her shoulders and rested it on the ice. It was almost as tall as she was. She took a long knife from a scabbard on the side of the pack and started to hack at the pack ice cutting rough blocks about a foot square. "For a few years we were in radio contact with a group at Thule. They decided to head south about eighteen months back. One of their geek squad had managed to jury-rig a satellite connection, got back some mapping and climate data that seemed to say whatever caused this had broken down, was harmless now. They thought they found signs of life in central Europe, somewhere near the Austrian Alps. It looked like we could go home. They decided to chance it. We said, ok, let's see how you go. I mean, no sense sending all your birds out of the ark at the same time, right? They promised to keep in radio contact for as long as they could. Anyhow, they got somewhere around latitude 68, out of the Arctic Circle anyways, when the virus struck. They were somewhere on the Denmark Strait, had some crazy idea of skirting the sea ice to Iceland and then across to Norway or even Denmark. One of them lasted a week, died raving, completely out of her skull. She broadcast all the time, said that she had seen the glory of the lord and the day of judgement and fiery angels coming down from the sky. Scared the shit out of me."
Whilst she was talking she had efficiently hacked out six blocks of ice and began to stack them on the edge of the trench she had made, forming the edge of a wall. Tasha just stood and watched her not having the energy to do anything else. Part of her wondered whether it was possible to freeze to death standing upright.
"Anyways, it looked like it still wasn't safe and we stayed put for a while longer then four months ago, our hydroponics finally went bad on us. Our fresh food turned to pure poison. Sabotage I reckon but I could never prove it. Six died from that. The rest of us, we drew lots. Four groups went to try and get to the Aleutians and then across to Canada or Russia depending on the conditions. Two we never heard of again, the other two they got into Nunavut, about ten miles south of Iqaluit and then they stopped broadcasting. That was two months ago. There were three of us left by then, Keller, Madigan and me. Keller fell in a crevasse and never hit bottom, Madigan ate a bullet shortly after. They'd been together since the death. It was kinda sweet in a sick and twisted way. That left me. I've been alone ever since. I stayed put for a while then I loaded what I could on a skidoo and kept going 'til I ran out of juice. And then I started walking. What about you?" Josie glanced up at her before beginning to cut out a second row of blocks.
"I was only sixteen. It was supposed to be a two week visit, part of a science prize, you know a bloody school trip. And then it all happened and I couldn't go home. And Litvinov's group joined us and they changed the name to Haven and he made all the rules and... I just couldn't stay there any longer," Tasha said. "So I'm going home."
"Home!" Josie shook her head. "Hell, kid - weren't you listening to a word I said?"
Tasha laughed, a raw sobbing note tearing her voice. "I know, I know. It would be easier if I just lay down here and let the snow cover me up. But I want to take my boy home." She gently patted the bundle strapped to her chest. "Where are you going?"
Josie tore her horrified gaze from the bundle cradled against the young woman's chest. "You mean - that's your kid! Jeez, girl, how long you been carrying him like that? Is he...?"
"He was three days old. The others - Litvinov - wanted to bury him under a cairn on the ice, like our other dead, the babies and the others, but I decided to take him home to England and bury him there. There's nothing for me here."
"Look, come with me instead. All they got in the south is death and a shit load of sorrow. But I know a place where we can be safe. That's why I'm heading North, all the way to the Pole. I'm going to find the way in."
"The way in..." Tasha realised that she wasn't shivering any more. In fact she couldn't feel her body at all. It was almost funny. There was no more pain. Josie's voice faded in and out of her consciousness.
"The way inside, to the lands below the surface of the Earth. To Aghartha. I read about it when I was a kid, back in Arizona. It was in some book - I don't remember what. I read a lot of books when I was a kid. Anyway - the world isn't solid, like we were all taught, it's hollow, and there's a place inside. A place called Aghartha. We'll be safe there. The Elder Races, the First Ones, they will protect us. You'll see. That's where all our legends of gods and fairies and elves come from."
Tasha stifled a giggle. It was insane. The woman was clearly nuts. Hollow Earth's... First Ones... fairies at the bottom of the garden or at least the end of the world! The giggle turned into a snort and then a sobbing note as she felt the small weight at her chest. What if it were true? What if they could live there safely? What if her boy could live again?
"Were there any children at your camp?" Her words came out in a strangled, tortured gasp, as she fought for self-control. Suddenly it was hard to breathe, as if her lungs had frozen. Everything was greying out. She tried to concentrate on the sound of Josie's voice.
"No - there were a couple of miscarriages early on, then nothing. There were only about eight women left on the base and most of us were career military, not the marrying kind if you know what I mean. Hell, if I'd wanted babies I'd have stayed non-com. But things got weird on us, and our colonel declared us a 'national resource'. Once our shots wore off they declared open season on us gals sex-wise, which was great for a while - we were real busy little bunnies - but no one sparked. We put it down to stress, bad diet and radiation contamination. One of our generators was badly damaged in the early days. Our drinking water went bad on us." She shrugged. "We were all real sick for a while. And no more babies. Didn't stop us trying though."
There was silence between them for a time. It was starting to snow. Tasha felt the lethal sweet numbness invade the deepest recesses of her body. Her feet seemed one with the floe, her hands in their ragged bandages were long lost to her. She was turning into a pillar of ice. Strangely, it did not seem to matter. She was not afraid.
Josie shivered, stamped her feet to keep the circulation going. "And your place - Haven, did you call it? What happened there?"
"There were a lot more of us, at first almost sixty," Tasha said. "There was a Russian station a few hundred miles west and a Chinese camp somewhere north. I think the Chinese were recalled when it all started. We never heard from them afterwards anyway though they left a lot of kit and supplies behind that Litvinov's group brought with them. They'd gone there first. We'd been doing some joint observations with the Russians, satellite mapping, core drilling, that sort of thing. They joined up with us, a few weeks after ... when it became clear that no one was going home. That first year there were a couple of suicides and two people were killed by a rogue polar bear. One of its victims was the leader of the expedition, a man called Dr Stephens Gary He was a good man, nice. Litvinov - one of the Russians - took charge after Dr Stephens died. He ... made a lot of changes. There were more suicides and more deaths. Anyway," she sighed, and shuddered, hugging herself tightly. There was a hard knot inside her that seemed to be contracting with every breath she took. "I got pregnant, so did one of the other women. I miscarried in the fourth month, she carried hers full term. It killed her - and the baby was, well, not normal. Litvinov ordered that it be put out on the ice. Every time after that it happened the same way. If the pregnancy lasted full term, the child was born dead or a monster, or died within a week or so. I was pregnant four times. Three times it died in the womb. The last one, my boy, lived three days. That was when I left, after he died. Because he looked normal, Litvinov said he could be given a proper burial. They were going to bury him there, in the ice, under the rocks, but I would not let them. I won't! I won't!" She gasped, deep shuddering breaths, fighting for control. After an agonising moment, she continued. "And so, I ran away, I guess, I'm going home, to bury him properly."
"I'm sorry for your loss," Josie said softly. "Look, come with me. We'll find the way in, I'm sure. We'll be safe there. The First Ones will take care of us. You can't go home, Tasha. There's nothing to go home to. Only death."
"There's only death here. What can I do? I want to go home!" The tight knot of pain inside her was uncontrollable now. She had never been so cold. She imagined her lungs freezing, her heart and other organs, her blood crystallising in her veins. The touch of the Ice Maiden, just like the legend.
Josie noticed her distress. "I'd better get the shelter set up. You look frozen." She took Tasha's hands and exclaimed over the state of her gloves. "Shit! Your hands! How long have you been walking like this? In my pack I have spare gloves. You must take them; use them. You'll lose your fingers to frostbite if you wait much longer."
"It doesn't matter! Nothing matters." Tasha shook her head, refusing to be sidetracked any longer by this madwoman. She had to keep moving otherwise she would never get her boy home. This was a crusade to her now. She had read once how long ago, the bones of dead crusaders were carried by their still-living compatriots as they campaigned throughout the Holy Land. This stranger had delayed her long enough. She could feel the cold redoubling its invasion, leaching away her strength moment by moment. She must resist. She must be strong. The cold was her enemy. The ice was her enemy. This strange, possibly slightly mad dark skinned woman must be her enemy as well, with her seductive tales of Aghartha, this mythical fairyland, a world within, where everything would be all right. She pulled away. "No! Leave me alone! You're trying to trick me! You'll take me back to Haven! They'll take my boy away from me again."
"I'm trying to save your life, you fool!" Josie shouted, clutching her arm. "Let me help you! At the very least I have food, shelter, spare clothes, spare mittens. You need them, or you're gonna die out here, Tasha! And then who will take your son home?"
Weakness washed over her, as the last of her strength ebbed away. Tasha felt her resolve abandon her. Evil had found her as Litvinov had warned her it would find them all if they left Haven. The snow was darkening, red as blood, red as death. She fell, welcoming its lover's caress.
And woke an unknown time later, shivering with fever. She was lying in a small tent on an air mattress, wrapped in a quilted sleeping bag. The walls of the tent shook with the force of the storm that raged outside. The small but significant weight of the boy had gone, as had her furs. She was wearing her inner suit and her hands and feet were salved and bandaged. Next to her, Josie was asleep under a pile of clothes and Tasha's furs.
For the first time in days, Tasha found that she could think clearly. She wasn't as worried about the boy as she thought she might have been. Josie would have kept him safe. She knew how important he was to her.
She could be quite objective about her own condition. She was in no shape to continue on alone. There was also the sheepish slightly shaming realisation that she had no idea how to get home. Sooner or later the ice would end and she would hit open water. By then of course the virus would probably be feasting on her. On the other hand there would be cold welcome for her back at Haven and she had no desire to return to that life, a virtual prisoner of Litvinov's increasingly erratic rule. Of the other options open to her, accompanying Josie to find Aghartha suddenly seemed the most sensible. Though perhaps sensible was the wrong word in the circumstances. Marginally less insane.
Beside her Josie was suddenly awake, sitting bolt upright, her eyes wide and staring, a sheen of sweat across her dark skin. "No way," she whispered. "Not gonna happen. Not gonna happen. Not on my watch." She shuddered and then came fully awake.
"Are you okay?" Tasha asked.
"Yeah, just a bad dream," Josie muttered, making it plain she didn't want to talk about it any further. Tasha could respect that. Nightmares were very private things. In Tasha's experience it never did any good bringing them into the light of day.
Tasha cleared her mind of all such unpleasantness, something that had become something of a survival mechanism after six years of Haven and fell to watching her new friend instead. It was the first opportunity she'd had to get a clear look at the other woman. Tall and bird slender though with whipcord muscles and obvious strength, small high breasts, her dark coffee skin was almost black with old windburn scars across her nose, cheeks and brow. Her eyes in the dim light were a dark honey amber. Her hair was in tiny plaits wound around her skull. Tasha guessed that it must reach well past her shoulders when it was down.
A few minutes later Josie seemed to have recovered her previous good humour. She made an obvious effort to smile at Tasha who had dropped her gaze not wanting to be caught staring. "How're you doing? You look better than you did when I dragged your sorry ass in here two days back. You nearly slept the clock round twice y'know."
"I feel okay," Tasha said. "A bit shivery. But I would be dead by now if it wasn't for you." She was aware that that could be taken as a thank you or a recrimination.
Josie nodded, taking the statement at face value. "You've a couple of degrees of fever," Josie said. "I dosed you best I could but that's one thing I am short on. Most of the medical kit's out of code. There's stuff that's in there could kill you as easy as cure you."
Shuffling across the small tent to a clear space she set a pan of meltwater to boil on the small stove and began to paw through her kit sorting out spare clothing and other items for Tasha. "As I said - I brought the full kit and more, as much as I could carry. Candles, waterproof matches, survival bag, torch, high protein rations, spare cord, portable cooker, fuel, compass, candles, water purifier, snow goggles, spare set of underclothes and innersuit, knife, saw blade, fishing line - you name it, I've probably got it. Josie's Arctic Survival Emporium."
Tasha tried to smile. The skin on her face felt tight and sore and parts of her feet and hands were tingling painfully. Frostbite seemed a certainty. The water came to the boil and Josie filled two mugs before dividing a sachet of high protein soup concentrate between them. Tasha drank down the warm savoury liquid as slowly as she could. It did more than just warm her insides. She felt almost human again. "I was nowhere near as prepared," she said. "I don't think I was thinking straight."
"That's one thing in favour of military training,' Josie said. 'The mindset it gives you. The belief system. God, Jesus and the US of A. Not necessarily in that order. And don't give yourself a hard time. You'd just lost your kid. That's got to do a number on you."
A particularly ferocious gust of wind shook the tent. "The storm blew up yesterday morning. We were lucky that I'd managed to finish three sides of the ice wall level with the roof of the tent by then so we're pretty sheltered. As long as it doesn't collapse on us we'll be fine." She pointed to Tasha's bandaged hands. "I should probably take another look at those whilst we've got some hot water. Your dressings will need changing."
Grimfaced Tasha watched as Josie gingerly unwound the bandages from her damaged hands, soaking the dressings until they came away from her skin. The tips of all her fingers on her left hand were blackened, open bloodless lacerations so deep in places she swore she could see bone, red lines extending down her fingers to her palm. Her right hand was a little better. She tried to clench her fingers and relax them again and was rewarded with a lot of pain and very little movement. It was bad. So much for being the Ice Princess. "How long do you think the storm will last?" she asked to take her mind off the pain whilst Josie salved and dressed her hands again, rewinding the bandages over the padded dressings to protect the damaged flesh as much as possible. She tilted her head as Josie gently spread more of the salve over her cheeks, brow and the bridge of her nose.
"Another day at least before it blows itself out, I'd guess. Meteorology wasn't my thing. I'm a geotechnical engineer. I was researching the frost susceptibility of various alloys." She made a flapping motion with her hands. "Ancient history. Anyway, the bad news is that the fresh snow is going to make conditions pretty treacherous. We're going to have to watch our step, especially when we get nearer the glacier." Josie opened a notebook and showed her a map with several plastic overlays on it, contour maps of the area with annotations and alterations showing how things had shifted in the past six years since the last satellite maps had been made. "We're just about here, I think," she indicated. "And Haven's over there, about two days walk. But from what you've been saying in your sleep I'm guessing we want to steer well clear. I'm guessing this Litvinov guy doesn't play well with strangers or people who've crossed him like you have."
Tasha just nodded, not in the mood to elaborate. Nightmares and memories. One thing did impinge. "My boy "
"He's safe, over by the door," Josie said. "I didn't want to disturb him."
"Thank you," Tasha said. The warm food was working its magic and even though she'd only been awake half an hour or so, all she wanted to do was sleep. Seeing her intent, Josie helped her back into the sleeping bag and piled her furs on top again.
It only seemed like a couple of minutes had passed when Josie was shaking her awake. "Storm's passed and its full dark, for the next half hour or so anyway," she explained. "You got to see this."
Tasha managed to get out of the sleeping bag without additional help though she did need Josie's assistance to get into her furs. She followed the other woman out of the tent and into the open air. It was true night outside rather than the endless twilight and incredibly cold and clear. For the first time in longer than she cared to recall Tasha could take the time to appreciate the landscape. It struck her again, the insignificance of the human scale against the awesome expanse of landscape and sky which merged into blankness, the horizon a white infinity meeting the black sky, an eternal yin/yang. It was a landscape that seemed immutable to change imbued as it was with a cruel and timeless elegance. Thus it had been at the beginning of the world, so it would be at the end. Stars burned brightly in the heavens. And coloured light, blues, greens, golds, purples, reds shimmered in ever changing streams of colour from horizon to horizon. The Aurora Borealis. Tasha had never seen so fine a display. Even the air seemed different, so cold it had substance. It crackled as she breathed. The silence was absolute. In the face of such unearthly beauty it was easier to believe Josie's tale.
"It's a sign," Josie said at last. "See how the light streams towards one point. That's where Aghartha is. It's an energy conduit. That's where we have to go." She glanced across at her companion. "But not for a day or two yet. You still need to rest up a while, I'm thinking and heal some. And I've been on the move too long as well. A day or two's R&R seems mighty fine. Aghartha will still be there, waiting for us."
Tasha nodded, suddenly too exhausted to speak. Josie helped her to the designated toilet area, outside the tent but within the shelter of the surrounding wall and after she was done helped her back into the tent. Tasha fell to her knees beside her old pack, her son's resting place. "Everything's going to okay," she whispered. "Just you rest, boy. Everything's going to be fine."
Josie spent a couple of hours reinforcing the ice wall around their tent before the cold drove her inside again. At -70 degrees C, exposed flesh could freeze in 30 seconds. "I can't treat you if I'm all frostbit myself," she said. "And it's starting to get a bit blowy again. Another storm's brewing."
Josie's forecast was correct. The wind started to howl around their shelter again less than an hour later and did not let up for another two days. Tasha used the time to recuperate and get to know Josie a little bit better.
The problem of Tasha's still lactating breasts took their relationship to a new level. With her bandaged hands Tasha found it impossible to deal with the problem the way she had been. She hesitated to ask for the other woman's assistance in so personal a problem but the pain and discomfort became almost unbearable.
"I don't know what to do," she admitted, unfastening her inner tunic, the damp patches over her erect nipples clearly visible.
Josie was staring at the pale distended globes of her breasts with something like awe. She reached out to touch them pausing at the last moment to check with Tasha if it was okay. Wide eyed Tasha nodded. Josie gave a nipple a gentle squeeze, noting Tasha's sharp intake of breath, "Sorry, didn't mean to hurt you."
"It didn't hurt, not really, it just felt strange, almost nice," Tasha admitted, cursing her pale skin as she flushed scarlet in embarrassment. A droplet of milk oozed out onto Josie's finger, so pale it seemed almost blue against the other woman's dark skin. Fascinated Tasha watched as Josie raised her fingers to her lips and licked off the droplet.
"Sweet," she whispered. "You taste so sweet."
"I was just expressing it into the snow," Tasha whispered. "It seemed such a waste but I couldn't think what else to do with it."
"I could help you express it into a mug or something," Josie said hesitantly. She licked her lips. "Or "
Nothing more was said. Tasha piled up her furs behind her to act as a pillow and lay back. Josie lay down alongside her. Warm hands slid over her skin. Tasha blinked back tears for a moment. No one had ever touched her like this though she had dreamt of it a thousand times. Dry calloused palms cupped a taut breast, gentling over the straining nipple.
"You're sure this is okay," Josie's voice was rough with unvoiced emotion.
"Yes," Tasha said. "Don't worry, I'm not going to freak out on you or anything."
"Okay then." Without further ado Josie lowered her head and closed her lips around a plump nipple, swirling her tongue over the beaded nubbin of flesh. Tasha was suddenly beyond speech. Josie suckled softly at first giving Tasha time to get used to the sensation pausing for a moment as she filled her mouth with the creamy sweet milk and the full reality of what she was doing hit home. Tasha sighed in relief as the painfully full sensation began to ebb slightly. Josie's fingers gently massaged the taut flesh as she continued to suckle. Tasha let one bandaged hand rest lightly on Josie's hair.
Josie continued to suckle for another ten minutes or so until the flow of milk slowed and the breast was perceptibly smaller than its twin, her fingers still gently kneading the softened flesh. "Better?" she asked.
"Mmm yes," Tasha smiled, reached out to touch Josie's cheek in gratitude. To her surprise, Josie turned her head into the touch, her eyes closed and Tasha realised that she wasn't the only one to crave such closeness. They stayed like that for a moment or two before Josie drew back a little.
"I was never one for leaving a job half done," she joked, adjusting her position to get a better access to Tasha's unmilked breast.
The realisation of what she was doing for this woman who had saved her life hit her. She was feeding Josie. The feeling of rightness was overwhelming, throwing into stark contrast the sensation of shame and failure she had felt earlier when expressing the milk into the snow. The sensation was not merely pleasurable, it was intensely sexual. Tasha felt her body respond to the gentle stimulation of her breasts, her centre and crotch gently throbbing in time to Josie's ministrations. She was breathing shallowly, rapidly, almost panting, her bandaged hand still resting gently on the back of Josie's head.
When Josie finished she sat up and Tasha could see how dilated her pupils were and how her own nipples were straining against the silk of her undershirt. Josie's hand moved slowly from caressing Tasha's breast to touching her own centre through the confines of her undergarments.
"That was like a miracle," she smiled. "I ain't felt so nourished in so long. It is strange though, it's made me all kinds of hungry. How are you feeling?"
"Hungry," Tasha smiled. She held up her bandaged hands. "Unfortunately "
"Maybe I can help you with that," Josie's smile was almost sly. She straddled Tasha's abdomen, one set of fingers still busy between her own slender thighs, the fingers of her other hand reaching behind and beneath her to gently but firmly curl against the seam of Tasha's undergarments. "Mmm I see what you mean. You're really hungry for it. Some good home cooking."
"Home cooking sounds just fine," Tasha gasped as Josie worked her hand inside her undergarments, her cool fingers touching her bare flesh, combing through the fine hairs that arrowed towards her centre before beginning to stroke her engorged labia and clit. Mindful that it was only a few weeks since Tasha had given birth, Josie did not attempt to penetrate her with her fingers. Tasha did not mind, she knew it would not take her long, and from the hooded expression in Josie's eyes as she mirrored her actions on Tasha's body on her own, it would not take the American ex-soldier long to reach her climax either.
Josie stiffened, her head thrown back, mouth open soundlessly. Her hips bucked once, twice. A few moments later, Tasha felt a warm wave of something she did not have the life experience to define wash over her that left her tingling all over.
Josie smiled lazily, moved to lie beside her again and they kissed for the first time. Tasha mentally reeled as she tasted her own breast milk on Josie's lips and tongue. Whilst she was still recovering from that Josie snuggled in beside her and pulled the top layer of the sleeping bag over them both. "You okay?" she asked.
"I'm fine," Tasha replied, and for the first time in a long time she meant it.
It became a regular thing between them, every other rest stop they made that Josie would feed from her and they would take pleasure from each other's bodies. They did not speak about it not wanting to attach any special significance to it or to their relationship, not whilst they were in such a transient condition. Josie did admit to loving the sensation of warm milk filling her mouth. And Tasha admitted that she could not get enough of the feeling of Josie's lips and tongue coaxing the milk from her flesh, her fingers rubbing and squeezing her mound before insinuating themselves inside her underwear stroking and sliding between slick hot folds teasing around her centre her thumb flicking and rubbing across Tasha's hard throbbing clit alternately squeezing and rolling the sensitive nub much as her tongue was doing to Tasha's nipple as she continued to feed. Tasha was still too sensitive to take too much of this sensual massage, her bandaged hands reaching down to nudge Josie's hand out of the way as without removing her mouth from Tasha's nipple, Josie adjusted her position so that Tasha could see her pleasure herself into orgasm. It was the first time anyone had done this for her and Tasha found the sight deeply arousing. She reached out one shaking hand to gently touch Josie's face, gently rubbing the back of her still bandaged fingers against her cheek and temple. Her hands were still badly damaged and showed a worrying lack of healing.
They were making slow and steady progress towards their destination according to Josie's carefully charted route when disaster struck. They were camped in the lee of a glacial ridge for the night when suddenly the ground began to shake and there was the sound of falling ice.
"Earthquake?" Tasha asked, scrambling for the mouth of the tent.
"Worse. I think the glacier's surging," Josie started to pull stuff into her pack. "We may have to move quickly."
"We're well away from the glacier "
"If it surges it can cover a couple of hundred metres in a matter of minutes. Then there's the land slides and the flash flooding to worry about. Sometimes when one of these big girls goes there's a lot of groundwater released, like a gusher. If we get caught in one of those we could have big problems."
The air was rent with groaning and creaking sounds, as if the glacier was talking to them. Tasha could see what looked like a cloud of steam or spray forming at the foot of the glacier. Rocks and ice boulders were bouncing down the sides, undoubtedly large and heavy enough to flatten their tent with them inside. The shaking intensified for a few moments making it impossible for her to keep her feet. One of the ice walls Josie had so carefully built collapsed, luckily for them away from the tent. And then things seemed to gradually quiet down again.
"I think it's stopped," she called back into the tent.
"For now," Josie said darkly. "As soon as it's full light we'll get going. We're going to have to be extra careful. This whole area will be unstable now. And I've no liking for putting your legend to the test."
Tasha had told her about the legend of the Ice Maiden, the queen of the glaciers, one of the most powerful elemental creatures. Nothing could withstand the glacier. It carved the mountains and cleaved the oceans. Those who fell to her clutches lost their souls with her chilly kiss on their lips; her ice blue eyes and her long snowy hair are the last things they see before she imprisons them in the depths of the crevasse for eternity. Few escape her and those that do are forever changed.
"I agree," Tasha said, helping to dismantle the tent as best she could with her damaged hands. Her own belongings had been easily packed, Josie had given her most of her spare gear and she carried a portion of their food supply. Her most vital possession was safe in his carrier. Josie had never again suggested that they bury him and leave him behind.
Within twenty minutes of the surge they were ready to move, Tasha adjusting their route slightly to curve away from the glacier in case it started to shift again. She took point, using one of the tent poles to probe the ground ahead of them in case any crevasses had opened up under the snow cover.
Progress was slow, the ground was uneven and treacherous and on a couple of occasions they didn't need the pole to see the crevasses that had opened up along their route necessitating another deviation. They were now heading back towards the glacier, tracking a crevasse to where it would hopefully narrow enough for them to safely cross it.
"I don't believe this is happening, not when we're so close," Josie grumbled. "If we'd been able to stay on route we should have been there by tomorrow, the day after for sure. I " The ground started to shake again. Josie lost her footing and pitched forward sliding towards the crevasse which was perceptibly widening, ice and rocks shaking loose and falling into the depths. Tasha screamed as Josie disappeared from her sight.
Tasha did not know how long she lay there waiting for the ground to stop shaking until she realised that the ground was quite steady she was the one who was shaking. Josie was gone. It was over. She crawled to the edge of the crevasse and looked down. She was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. About twenty feet down there was an outcrop of rock wedged against the sides of the crevasse at about a thirty degree angle. Josie's body was sprawled on top of it. She was face up, bent awkwardly backwards over the bulk of the pack. Her eyes were closed and blood trickled darkly down her left temple and cheek from a cut above her eyebrow. Tasha could not see whether she was breathing or not.
"Josie!" she called down. "Josie! You have to wake up!"
She thought she saw the other woman's hand move slightly, her face crease into a pained frown.
"Don't try to move," she called down. "You're about twenty feet down the crevasse lying on an outcrop of rock. I'm not sure how stable it is." Tasha took off her pack and unfastened the coil of rope Josie had given her when they had divided up their resources a few days previously. She tied one end of the rope around her waist, her hands too clumsy to attempt anything fancy, and got as close to the edge as she dared.
"Still here, kid," Josie shouted.
"How badly are you hurt?"
"I'm a little banged up," Josie confessed. "Nothing too bad except for my right knee which I think I've blown."
"If I send you down a rope do you think you could pull yourself up if I help?"
"Better than the alternative," Josie said. "Give me a minute and then send it down."
Tasha watched as Josie tried to unclip herself from her pack whilst moving as little as possible and realised what she was trying to do. They would probably be strong enough to haul Josie out of the crevasse but not whilst she had the pack with her. That would have to come up separately. In the end Josie had to release herself by sawing through one of the straps with her knife. Then she twisted until she could snag one of the coils of rope that she carried and tied one end securely to the pack and one end to her belt. It was obviously her intention to drag the pack out of the crevasse once she had got herself out. "Okay, send it down," Josie shouted.
Tasha threw the rest of her coil of rope down to Tasha who reached up and caught it one handed. Josie edged closer to the crevasse wall and eased herself to her feet. Tasha could just hear the muttered string of curses as Josie's injuries began to make themselves felt. Josie looped the rope around her waist and gave it a sharp tug.
"Tasha, I need you to brace yourself against something so you can push with your feet. Keep the rope taut if you can, I'm going to try to climb up. It's not too far and there's plenty of foot holds. I'll see you at the top real soon."
There was a small outcrop of rock about three feet further back. As Tasha sat down at the far side of it and braced her feet against it she felt the rope go taut. Then she was taking all of Josie's weight, the rope cutting into her painfully even through several layers of clothing. Tasha gritted her teeth and hung on. Josie was doing the hard work after all.
"Nearly there!" Josie shouted somewhat breathlessly a couple of agonizing minutes later. "Just short of the lip of the crevasse now, I Shit!"
The ground started to shake again, and Tasha could hear the grinding knocking sound of disturbed rocks and ice. Suddenly the weight on the line doubled, the rope rubbing her raw even through her clothing. Tasha realised that the outcrop on which Josie had landed must have finally given way. Tasha was bearing not just Josie's weight but that of the pack as well. It felt like it was cutting her in two and she was sure that she was being pulled closer to the edge. "Josie!"
"I'm all right. It's all right, Tasha, everything's going to be okay. Just give me a moment."
"Okay," Tasha gasped. "Just... just don't do anything stupid, promise?"
"Promise. Hold on, kid."
The rope moved violently for a moment and then suddenly half the weight disappeared and Tasha could breathe again. A second or two later she saw an arm appear over the edge of the crevasse as Josie pulled herself up and out. She realised that Josie must have cut the pack free to save herself. Dizzy with relief she lay back on the ice staring up at the pearlescent sky. It was starting to snow again.
Josie's hand was on her arm. "You okay, kid?"
"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" Tasha asked. "How's the knee?"
"Bad, but I should manage to walk on it," Josie said. "It's a toss up which hurts more anyway. My back and side took a bit of a beating as well. We have to rethink our strategy though. My pack's gone which means that the tent and most of our supplies have gone. The entrance to Aghartha is no more than a day's walk from here, less if we don't stop to rest."
"What's the point of resting if we don't have a tent?" Tasha asked.
"We can still build ice blocks, maybe even build an igloo," Josie said. "Whatever we do, our food supplies are just about gone. We've been on short rations too long as it is which is why your hands haven't healed as well as they should. We're really gonna start feeling it now."
"Aghartha's our only hope, then," Tasha said. She pulled herself to her feet and retrieved the pack pulling the straps over her shoulders. Her boy was still snug against her front. She helped Josie to her feet and they got their bearings again, limping along the edge of the crevasse heading in towards the glacier in the hope they would find a crossing point.
Skirting the edge of the glacier they carefully picked their way through a boulder field. It had snowed on or off for most of the afternoon and the long day was finally fading into twilight, the sky lavender darkening to violet with a hint of green on the horizon where the sun was setting behind the clouds. After stumbling and almost falling for a second time Josie judged it to be too dangerous to continue walking through the brief night hours and set them up what shelter she could in the lee of one of the bigger boulders on a shelf of rock rather than ice and built what could be charitably described as a nest with their sleeping bag and blankets which luckily Tasha had been carrying in her pack. The temperature was dropping fast, ice crystals forming on the edge of the blanket from their breath as they huddled together for warmth.
"All the time I've been out here I don't think I've ever been so cold," Josie said, her teeth chattering.
"I have once," Tasha said. Josie had occasionally managed to coax her into talking more about her time at Haven. "It started to go bad after about a year," Tasha told her. "Litvinov had some really strange ideas, but people began to listen to him, not just to believe him but to believe in him. I resisted. I spoke out against him. After Gary Stephens died I out and out accused him of murder. Litvinov lost it, pretty much. He beat me, would probably have killed me with his bare hands if a couple of the others hadn't hauled him off me."
"There was a trial, of sorts. It wasn't what I'd accused him of, it was that I had harmed the integrity of the group, affected all of our future survival and well being with my unfounded allegations. It was treachery, pure and simple. I was already working all the hours I could in the hydroponics area and helping with basic maintenance and things so they couldn't really order me to do more work. And locking me up somewhere for a couple of days or weeks wouldn't have done much good either. Litvinov came up with exposure as a punishment. Those that we Litvinov really - judged guilty were stripped and sent outside the base onto the ice for anything up to half an hour," Tasha shuddered, remembering the core deep cold she had experienced. "Didn't matter if it was clear or storming. We had to watch from inside the base. We weren't allowed to help. It was a test of faith as well as a test of strength."
"You had to go through that! It sounds like a death sentence!" Josie exclaimed. "My God, why did you let him get away with it?"
"Yes, it usually was a death sentence, I was one of the few to survive it. That's when I picked up the 'Ice Princess' tag." Tasha tried to pick up the mug of soup with her bandaged hands without spilling it. The pressure on her damaged fingers sent pain signals jangling through her body, but it was better than the numbness. Where there was pain, there was life. "He saw their deaths as affirmation of his rightness. He had judged them to be weak. Eight people died like that, on Litvinov's word. And the rest of us did nothing. We were all such spineless creatures, such cowards. Food was scarce. Fewer mouths meant more for the rest of us. And no one dared cross Litvinov. Thirty people died at Haven since the Death and I believe that directly or indirectly, Litvinov was responsible for all of them."
There was a long silence.
"It doesn't seem possible, does it that out of six billion people, this is it. Do you think that everyone is dead?" Josie asked. "I mean, there were six billion of us. Surely some must have survived, had a natural immunity even if they were living in a hot zone. This isn't the only cold place in the world."
"I don't know. When we were still getting news, the whole thing seemed to happen so quickly, in a matter of days we were told it was an airborne virus a natural mutation and nothing to worry about. Then they said it was artificially engineered and accidentally released and there would be a certain number of fatalities and then that it was a terrorist plot and bioengineered to be 100% fatal," Tasha remembered. "And then it all went quiet. I used to think about it, dream about it - what do six billion bodies look like, what must it have been like in the big cities at the end..." she swallowed convulsively. "And yet I still want to go home," she whispered.
"No you don't,' Josie said. 'You want to go back to an idea, a memory of how it was before. I still think you'd be better off coming with me. The Elder Races have many powers. It may be in their gift to help you. Perhaps they can send you back."
"Josie - you seen very certain that these Elder Races will welcome us and want to help us."
"Of course they will!" Josie exclaimed. Tasha still wasn't completely convinced.
"Then why haven't they helped us before? Why didn't they stop the Death? Why haven't they made it easier for us to find them? You could have died earlier today in that crevasse."
"The Death - or something like it - was bound to happen, you know, sooner or later. We've been on the point of wiping ourselves out for most of the last century. Look at all the prophecies, the signs and wonders, all the evidence. This is just another Great Extinction, like what happened to the dinosaurs. We have to prove ourselves worthy of the First Ones so that they will help us to start building the next civilisation and learn from the mistakes we made with this one. This is our quest, our sacred mission. We are so lucky, Tasha."
"Well it's one way of looking at it," Tasha said carefully. "So we're something like the knights of King Arthur looking for the Holy Grail."
"Yeah!" Josie's enthusiasm was fired. "And this is our grail quest. That's where Arthur was taken, you know, to Aghartha, to sleep until our time of greatest need, when..." Josie faltered and fell silent as the full enormity of her words hit her.
"I think he may have slept too long," Tasha said softly. She started to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and after a moment so did Josie until her laugh caught in her throat and she went into a coughing fit that threatened to rip her lungs apart. Tasha held her until the fit passed and then gave her a little water to drink.
Josie just lay there without speaking, her pallor ashen, her skin more grey than brown. She couldn't seem to draw enough air into her lungs. Neither woman mentioned the flecks of blood on her lips. It seemed as if she was more banged up than she had admitted to.
"I know," Josie whispered at last. "I know what you're going to say. That we're both as crazy as each other. But Aghartha seems to be our only hope. We've got nowhere else to go."
Outside, the ice storm still raged. The temperature was dropping fast. Beyond the curtain of their 'nest' snow was falling so hard that there was no visibility. In their poor condition there was no way they could survive for any length of time in the open. Hours passed, a day and then another. Josie's strength rallied a little though she was starting a fever. They both were. Tasha suspected pneumonia.
On the third day it stopped snowing. It was now or never. With as much ceremony as she could muster Josie opened their last packets of soup and stirred the powder into the water that was heating courtesy of their last can of sterno. They had only one mug left between them. Josie let the soup come to the boil then turned off the heat. She dipped the mug in the soup and then mindful of Tasha's hands held the mug so that Tasha could drink first. Tasha took a sip and then another. She was ravenous but food sickened her. She knew that if she drank any more she would just vomit it back up again. "You drink the rest," she told Josie. "I'm going to stretch my legs a little before we start walking for real."
It wasn't just that of course. Josie was an extremely proud and self-reliant woman. Getting her battered and bruised body working again after three days in the close confinement of their nest was going to hurt. She wanted to give the older woman time to shore up her defences, pull herself together before they faced what well be their last day. She walked a little way from the outcrop. They were closer to the edge of the boulder field than she had thought. Beyond the ice plain stretched out until the next glacier ridge. She continued walking a little way further and then turned to scan the horizon. And then she saw it.
The glacier they were bypassing narrowed and turned slightly. She could now see beyond the curve. And there perhaps a mile away was an outcrop of stone that must have been almost a thousand feet high, a pinkish grey rock with strata of quartz running through it. She stared at it for a moment in disbelief. The rock appeared to be carved into the shape of a woman, her face in relief looking directly at her across the expanse, almond eyes large and calm like the Buddha or the face of the Sphinx though it must predate either of those. The swell of her breasts and her belly, the cruder outlines of her arms, her legs, though she was only visible from about half way up her thighs. It was impossible but it was there. It could only be one thing.
"Josie!" she screamed. "Josie!"
It might only be a trick of light and shadow, like the face that was supposed to be on Mars. But if Josie could see it too.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Josie limped heavily towards her, lurching from boulder to boulder.
Tasha turned her so that she was facing the monument. "I think we're there," she said. "Do you see it?"
"I see it," Josie said harshly. "Oh Tasha, I see it. Praise be. Praise be. You know what this means we're going home."
The weather stayed clear for them all the way to the foot of the rocks. Josie stayed positive but Tasha had begun to doubt. The closer they came the less the figure looked like a natural carving and more a coincidence of wind and time. A trick of the light. Josie was moving slower and slower, one arm across her body. She coughed frequently. The scarf over her mouth was scarlet with blood.
"What will it look like, the way in?" Tasha asked.
"I don't know, I'm not sure. The stories weren't specific. A hidden entrance, a stairway leading down and down." Josie swayed, reaching out to touch the rockface. "Down and down. Down and down."
Hours passed and they were still searching. There was nothing to be seen. "It's here, it must be!" Josie said, her voice harsh with thirst. Tasha sat down heavily; the last of her strength deserting her. She had the ominous feeling that this was it, she would not move again. Her bandaged hand lightly cupped her boy's mummified skull. Every day his body seemed to weigh less, even more fragile and ephemeral in death than it had been in life. His existence was slowly fading away.
"Maybe they are still testing us," Josie whispered, crawling to come and lie beside Tasha, her head in Tasha's lap. She coughed harshly, fresh blood crusted on her lips. Tasha knew that they were both dying. She could smell herself, the death creeping through her body inch by putrefying inch. She had not dared check her feet in days. Her fingers were bad enough, black and useless clumps of flesh. The decay had spread to the flesh of her palms, lesions and ulcers following the lines of her poisoned veins up her wasted arms. She knew that Josie was in no better shape. Apart from her leg Tasha was pretty certain that her friend had busted ribs and internal bleeding. If Aghartha was not here nor ever had been or if it was and the First Ones for whatever reason did not give them leave to enter then Tasha had no doubts that this would their last night on Earth.
Josie knew it too. For the first time and heedless of the consequences she was crying. She had reached the end of her endurance. If that had been the Agharthan's intent, they had succeeded. "I'm sorry... I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Tasha said softly. "Just rest now. Don't cry, your eyes will freeze. Josie, please. You'll blind yourself."
"What does it matter now? We failed..."
"No...no. They failed. These high and mighty Agharthans you've told me about. They failed. The whole damn world. I'm tired, Josie, too tired to move again. If we can't find Aghartha then this is as good a place as anywhere to rest. If we still haven't proved ourselves to these First Ones then well screw them."
Josie started to cough again. Blood dribbled down her chin. Her breathing was getting louder and slower. "Don't regret... just wish we'd had longer. Meet... being with you was the best thing, the best thing to happen to me... I'm sorry... I'm sorry you didn't get home."
Tasha rested one hand on Josie's shoulder, the other cradled her son's body. She laid her head back against the cold rock and closed her eyes. "These past weeks with you have been the best of my life," she whispered. "Wherever you are, that's home. I love you, Josie." She could no longer hear the other woman's breathing and the slight weight across her thighs seemed very still. It was easier just to fall asleep rather than think about it anymore.
The unchanging hours passed and both women fell into a kind of dream.
Tasha heard her baby crying. She struggled to open her eyes. This was not the same dream. There was neither ice nor snow here. She was warm and clean and her hands were normal, her flesh whole. There was no hunger and no pain, her whole body tingling with joyous life. She was lying on clean sheets on a bed in a white room. Curtains billowed at the open window. She heard the cry again, the healthy cry of a baby who had woken up out of a deep sleep with a wet nappy. There was a crib by her bed, she peeked inside and there was her boy, her beautiful boy. She lifted him onto her shoulder to soothe him and walked with him towards the open window. Outside there was a garden, long swathes of emerald grass, flowers of every colour imaginable. People were walking in the garden in twos and threes. Amongst them she saw Gary Stephens and others who had died at Haven. On a bench she saw her parents, who were watching her sister make daisy chains on the grass. They waved at her and smiled. They looked healthy and happy.
And walking towards her, barefoot in the grass was Josie.
For a long time Josie just drifted into deeper and deeper darkness. She heard Tasha's voice fade into silence, then there was only the wind blowing.
She was alone. All the aches and pains that had defined her for the last few days were gone. She was warm and whole, hunger no longer clawing at her insides. There was no doubt, no fear in her mind, just an overwhelming sense of well being. She might even call herself happy. The rockface behind her had split open revealing a hidden stairwell that wound down and down deep into the earth. The walls glowed with an inner light of blue and gold flames and the air was full of music. It took her days or moments to traverse the stairs, she did not know. Someone was waiting for her at the bottom, a man with long blond hair in elaborate braids, skin the colour of milky coffee and piercingly blue eyes. He was dressed in long flowing robes. Josie realised that she was dressed in the same fashion. Somehow she knew that the man's name was Yannick. He took her hand in his and raised it to his lips. "Welcome, sister." She heard him say though his lips did not move and she realised that she could hear him in her mind. "We have waited for you for so long, for you and your mate. Aghartha welcomes you, Josie. Welcome home."
They were in a garden, green lawns extending up to low houses, the scene bathed in a warm golden light. There were people wandering the gardens, sitting talking. Leaving Yannick's side, she started to walk barefoot across the grass. There was a woman at the window of the house, a child sleeping in her arms. She looked happy, her princess. The last words she had heard had been words of love. And Tasha met her gaze and smiled.
They were home.
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