by Gary Clifton
“Mr. Black, we’ve been wedged in this compartment like canned sardines for nearly three months. Trapped... helpless. We work, eat, and sleep in a closet. My apologies, sir, but It’s very uncomfortable.” Lt. Branger’s normally crisp military voice was edged with apprehension.
Carter Black looked up over half-glasses from the keyboard of his computer. Black was fifty, going to pudgy with a thin comb-over. “John, we’re only a hundred miles from Resolute Bay. When this blizzard finally subsides a little, they can reach us by helicopter.” But Black didn’t fully believe himself. The CIA had assigned young Branger and him to winter at Resolute Bay in the vast Queen Elizabeth Islands in the northern Nunavut Territory of Canada.
The operation had ostensibly been simple weather monitoring — plus some sensitive satellite tweaking. Aboard the Seattle Holmes, they’d tailgated the icebreaker U.S.S. St. Marquis, skirting Alaska to the north, before turning east through the Northwest Passage and into the Cornwallis Island Channel. The mission required arrival at the joint U.S.-Canadian weather station in the hamlet of Resolute before massive Arctic storms closed the channel with ice six feet thick.
The weather hadn’t cooperated. The icebreaker had been trapped by “nipping.” An early mass movement of ice many miles distant had squeezed the St. Marquis to a halt thirty days before forecasters thought such harsh weather remotely possible. When the icebreaking ship stalled in its own narrow channel, the Holmes was trapped behind and in imminent danger of collapse from enormous pressures.
But now Black was concerned with Lt. Branger, whose behavior was consistent with early-onset Melancholosis Displacia, which, despite his assurances to the young West Pointer, was a very real and debilitating illness.
The trip from Seattle to their present location had taken 15 days. Now they’d been trapped an additional 72 lonely days in a sea of white, stretching to the horizon in all directions. Arctic nights were already 22 hours long. The delay weighed heavily on the respective crews of both ships.
Black, a veteran CIA operative, was not overly concerned with the cramped isolation of the compartment. But in view of the extremely sensitive data in his custody, he never fully trusted the civilian contractors who manned the ship. Everyone had a price. Paranoia drew much water in the clandestine world.
“And our Captain,” Branger said. “Pressure be damned, he appears mentally unstable to me. You’re a shrink. Don’t you see it, sir?” The ship swayed constantly with the movement of the water below, even while vise-locked in solid ice.
“I have an M.S. in psychology, John. I’m not a doctor. We’re in a fix here and he’s worried.” But Black had seen the Captain of the Holmes: rude, hostile, distant. “CIA assigned you as military liaison for this mission, not to develop an ulcer worrying about something that won’t happen.”
“What did you call it again, sir?”
“Melancholosis Displacia Syndrome, a condition brought on by extreme isolation and loss of hope. We have neither, actually. We’ll survive. Captain Fanelli is a veteran CIA contractor. He just re-passed his psychological profile. This ship is privately owned and his situation just makes him testy.”
But Black made a mental note to watch Fanelli and that snotty First Mate, Roxton, who’d also shown odd behavior lately. CIA agents trusted no one, particularly when they acted as suspicious as Fanelli and Roxton.
A loud knock on the cabin door broke Black’s reverie. “Open up.” The coarse voice of Captain Fanelli drifted through the bulkhead. The deep-seated groan of the Holmes being slowly crushed shuddered through the ship.
Black cracked the door slightly. “Yes, Captain?”
Fanelli, in charge of all on board except the highly sensitive CIA compartment, peered through the small opening. “We’re low on fuel, Black. Can’t run the diesels full time to recharge the batteries. Our meters show you’re using enormous quantities of electricity.” Black studied Fanelli’s face, oddly twisted and angry, voice slightly distorted.
“We’ve gotta maintain contact with Langley, Captain. The computers are the only reason for this mission.” Fanelli shifted to peer into the compartment. “And you are not cleared for this area, sir.” Black slammed and bolted the door.
“Hear it in his voice?” Black saw Branger’s eyes fixed on the door. “He sounds more than just testy to me.”
A man who never lost composure, Black’s sixth sense of survival instinctively grasped the need to test the Holmes crew a bit. “Very well, John.” Black studied his computer. “Our most vital secret besides these computers is the JN27 code book.” Black held up a bound volume with a padlock securing it shut. “I’ll stay here and watch the essentials. You bundle up, slip down the stern ladder, and walk over to the St. Marquis. It’s dark, but the light from the ice will help you along. It’s only fifty feet.”
“And ask them what, sir?”
“Be cool, son. Talk to their Captain, he’s regular Navy. Ask if he’s noticed unusual behavior from officers of the Holmes or from any other crew member. He’ll cooperate, I’d wager.”
In five minutes, Branger was out the heavy door, disappearing up the companionway at the end of the passageway fronting the CIA compartment. In a few moments more, two staccato explosions wafted in on the frozen air. “My God, what have they done?” Black blurted. Has Fanelli sold out or slipped into the displacia illness. Or has the ship ruptured? He had to go forth to investigate. It was his sworn duty.
Black took time to spool up his computer and report the whole scenario to Langley, then hit the one-hour self-destruct switch on the computer system. The code book stuffed in his front waist band, he pulled on winter garb and stepped out into the passageway. He crept up the companionway onto the main deck in the vicious, freezing wind, tiptoed to the stern ladder and climbed down to the frozen, endless wasteland of the ice-locked Arctic Ocean.
“Man overboard,” an on-deck voice shouted seconds later. Pledged to die before giving up the codes, he veered away from the safety of the St. Marquis and ran headlong into the darkness, aware he was fully visible on the white ice. If they’d hurt Branger, they’d do the same to him. Grunts and friction sounds of men descending the ladder warned him the Holmes crew was in pursuit.
Black slipped and fell hard. He scrambled to recover, but they were on him. He was surrounded by four or five figures, horribly gnarled faces dimly visible in the semi-darkness. Fanelli came close, brandishing a length of rope. “Come on Black, there’s no place to go. You can’t hide out there,” he gestured into the emptiness.
Black could see Fanelli’s twisted, demonic face, hear the distorted voice blending into the howling wind like tearing cardboard. Was the illness actually this extreme...or was it something else?
Then the Mate, Roxton, tackled him. “Got ’im,” he said in a whining monotone. Black was horrified. Roxton’s face and voice were terrifyingly identical to Fanelli’s. Then, the sharp stab of a hypodermic in his neck... and darkness.
* * *
Black drifted out of a haze. He was strapped to a surgical table, a band gripped tightly across his forehead. He recognized immediately they were going to perform some sort of surgery, possibly cut into his brain. “What is this room?” he demanded.
“You’re on the St. Marquis,” a female voice said. From a corner of his eye he could see a female strapped to a table next to him. “They’ve taken the ship... the whole mission,” her voice quivered.
Black recalled the St. Marquis was assigned a female doctor named Smith, but security precautions had prevented him from meeting her. Constricted by his bindings, he could vaguely discern her white physician’s smock. “Who, Doctor. Who... what have they done to you... with the crew?”
“The crew are all unspeakable monsters... not human. The cold has somehow blocked their ability to retain human form or speak human language. They’ve kept us alive to conduct medical experiments,” she sobbed. “They murdered your assistant... butchered him.” Her voice was filled with horror.
Black suddenly realized Fanelli and Roxton were in the room. Both leaned close, their distorted, inhuman faces leering at him. Fanelli waved the JN27 codebook and screeched in gibberish Black couldn’t understand. Fanelli was wearing a hands-free microphone rig supported by earphones clamped over his grotesque, distended ears.
“I’ve already advised Langley you’ve murdered my assistant, Lt. John Branger, Fanelli. The CIA has a drone incoming to take out this whole sordid operation. Cutting me up won’t save you. Dr. Smith here has already briefed me on you aliens’ mission.”
Fanelli and Roxton exchanged mutant glances. “Stop struggling, Black. It won’t help you now.” Fanelli’s voice was like fighting cats.
The sound of a helicopter hovering above filtered into the room. Fanelli turned away and spoke into his mouthpiece. His voice was lost in the roar of the helicopter landing beside the ship. They’d lured the aircraft in from Resolute Bay.
“They’re going to cut out your brains!” Black screamed in a futile effort to warn the helicopter pilot through Fanelli’s mike.
Two husky aliens in Navy uniforms entered with a stretcher. Black then realized they had taken over the whole mission, including the station at Resolute Bay. Mother of God, all is lost. They carted Dr. Smith out the door. “They’re taking me to the mothership!” she shrieked, her voice blunted with hopelessness.
In minutes, the two monsters with the stretcher slithered back, loaded Black and lugged him out the door. Black, resigned to a hero’s death, remained stoic. “You’ll answer for John Branger and Dr. Smith some way, somehow, you Area-53 freaks,” he spat between clinched teeth. CIA men didn’t give up easily. Then he was gone.
Roxton smiled at Fanelli. “Lt. Branger was it? And Doctor Smith? Usually they hallucinate about their mother, or the tooth fairy.”
Fanelli spoke into his mike: “Airvac, we’re sending up a CIA operative. He spent too much time in isolation. His condition has a name, but I can’t pronounce it.” He held up the codebook. “I’ll lock this up until the spooks get up here to claim it,” he said to Roxton.
Copyright © 2012 by Gary Clifton