Volume 2.4: 'Necrotic Ice'
David Lucas sits on a rock, watching the ice, and considers trying his luck but in his heart he knows that this won’t end well for him. Faye tried an hour ago with no success. David’s blood runs cold thinking back over the horrifying consequences of her attempt.
The ice, or perhaps dense snow, groans and creaks around him, reminiscent of how icebergs lethargically grind against each other in the polar spring. From his vantage point, it appears to be a normal snow field but recent experience has taught him that it is much more treacherous than that. Looking over its smooth, featureless surface makes him pull his chilled limbs together more tightly at the centre of the flat, grey boulder that has been his refuge for the last three hours.
Coming out here had seemed like such an adventure at the time. Life had always been dull and lately there had been even less to stir him from his apathy but then Michael, his brother, had had a typically erratic idea. The television stations were full of news that the most severe solar storm in over a century was colliding with the Earth and tonight’s aurora borealis promised to be the most spectacular seen by living eyes. What would be better than grabbing Faye, Sue and a few cases of beer, Michael beamed, and heading out to watch the burning sky?
He’d been taken first. Mike’d picked this snowy depression with the smooth, grey boulder and declared it a fine place to make camp, even insisting on it when Faye had wrinkled her cute nose in distaste. He’d made the decision almost unilaterally. In retrospect, the decision seemed suspicious but he was no longer around to ask about it.
David isn’t watching the Northern Lights any more, even as they reach their furious peak. Once Michael was taken, a chill wind began howling through this treeless hollow, numbing David’s flesh wherever it penetrated the thin material of his check shirt. He now looks with longing eyes at the picnic spread on the red chequered blanket, just ten metres away across the pale ice. From his perch, he can see the thermos filled with hot soup and a few fleece jackets, lazily piled up. It looks so close, that island of warmth, but it might as well be on the far side of the moon for all of his ability to reach it.
Between the boulder and the blanket is an ordinary, blank stretch of snow that David Lucas dares not cross. It glows in a strange way, these prisms of the aurora. Each tiny crystal seems luminous and each seems to have a different unnatural colour trapped in its hard heart. From time to time, the grains shift and tumble against each other as if disturbed by the gale, except that their movement bears no correlation with the intensity or direction of the storm. David’s rational mind tries again and again to convince him that the snow in the depression looks exactly the same as every other stretch of snow that he’s ever seen in his life and that it’d be safe to cross. He dare not.
The aurora party had been going well for David – Michael had been dating Sue for nearly a year now and had finally persuaded her to bring a friend to introduce to David. David had had high hopes when he saw Faye for the first time – slender and pretty and clad in clothes that were the most alarming shade of yellow he’d ever seen. Now he hopes desperately to never see her again.
To David’s growing disbelief, the temperature drops as the wind’s ferocity surges again, just as the aurora above writhes into another brilliant, tangled, permutation. He comes very quickly to the conclusion that the cold will kill him very soon unless he gets those jackets and that soup. Despite everything that he’s seen tonight, David Lucas is weighing up the odds.
In desperation, he looks at his phone again. Of course, it is one of the latest models of smart phone, glorious in its chic plastic casing: the perfect accessory for a man who no-one ever phones. For once he has remembered to charge the battery, though the raging solar storm makes it highly unlikely that he will get a signal. With a despairing look, the thin mobile phone is slid back into his trouser pocket by stiff fingers. Not for the first time, he wishes that the two girls, Sue and Faye, were still with him.
You see, Sue almost made it out of the depression before something under the ice took her. David’s reckoning makes that nearly fifteen metres. Faye had tried heading for the opposite edge and had made thirteen metres before she, too, was snatched. Now David considers himself an able sportsman and thinks, erroneously, that he’s faster than both of them. Fast enough, he thinks, to sprint the ten metres to the blanket, snatch up its contents and make it back.
They’d managed to hold their nerve when Michael had been snatched through the picnic blanket and yanked down through the loose snow. After a moment’s shock, they’d thought to run for the boulder as a safe haven. When Michael’s empty wristwatch was expelled violently up through a small sinkhole with an obscene belch, Faye had panicked and run out onto the ice screaming for her mother, her father and anyone else who she thought could help her. The incoherent nature of her pleading was comical to everyone save those sheltering on the rock.
David comes to a decision, finally. There will be enough time; he will be fast enough, he hopes.
The loose ice stirs churns with excitement as David prepares for the attempt; eddies and swirls begin to surface from all around, converging on the rock. Five small ripples rise close together in the loose snow and begin to swirl towards his boulder in formation. Occasionally they break the surface, revealing dead grey fingers tipped with unusually bright yellow nail polish.
David Lucas steps out onto the ice. The smell of his terror is delicious.
The loosely packed snow crunches deafeningly under his unsuitable footwear. His heart, already racing from fear, begins to thump heavily in his chest. It feels like it’s lurching from one side of his chest to the other, like it’s trying to burst free from his ribs. His breath, misting in the extreme cold, begins to whistle painfully through his mouth and nose. The very act of bringing such frigid air deep into his lungs is agony.
The ten metres to the blanket race by; icy shard-like snowflakes stab at his face. Each footstep forwards is one more than he thought he’d get.
David skids to a halt, spraying an iridescent shower of frozen crystals into the swirling. Already, he can feel the ice weakening and thinning beneath his feet.
It is a matter of seconds to scoop up the whole picnic blanket into a bundle and throw it over his shoulder.
His heart thumps heavily in his mouth as he races the ten metres back to the boulder. The aurora borealis is dazzling in its brilliance; some part of his brain wants to stop and gaze, slack jawed, at its eerie beauty.
With a sobbing gasp, he throws himself onto the boulder, badly skinning his knees in the process. His relief is amusing. Tantalising fear hormones billow out from beneath his thin, impractical jacket in a delicious cloud. It is to David Lucas’ credit that he can still work up such a sweat in such cold conditions.
It takes him a few more seconds to realise that none of the humps of snow or distortions in the ice bothered to chase him in his hysterical dash to the picnic spread.
To his horror, the snow merely a metre away parts and a hand extends itself up into the night air. The hand is dark grey and its flesh has clearly been mauled or bitten at but it is clear that the skin had once been tanned like Michael’s. There is a strip of especially white skin around the wrist, roughly where a wristwatch might once have sat.
Slowly and sardonically, the hand gives him a stiff thumbs-up signal before retreating back beneath the ice once more.
The isolated man on the rock stares blankly for a few seconds before pulling on the extra fleece jackets with stiff limbs, never taking his eyes from the slight depression into which the tanned hand had retreated.
David Lucas sits on a rock and reconsiders escape, except that this time he knows that the ice won’t let him go. The little performance earlier, he surmises correctly, was just humouring him – any genuine attempt at escape, like both Sue and Faye tried, will end the same way.
However ridiculous it seems, he feels a pang of guilt about Sue. He had always had a thing for her, an unrequited little crush that he’d never mentioned to anyone.
“You’re a man with hidden depths,” she’d said once upon a time, making him blush.
If only she’d held her nerve. When the ice started singing, she listened too closely. She’d sat there, cross-legged and swaying slightly, head cocked in concentration. Gradually, over time, the swaying had caused her to slither slowly off of the boulder and on to the snow. David hadn’t dealt well with that. An unusually passive man in his everyday life, the sight had snapped something inside him and he’d begun to shout incoherently, grabbing at her. Insensible with terror, he slapped her across the face. When Sue ran out onto the ice to escape him, it shocked David to his grey core.
It was pathetic to watch. For a whole second, David had stood on the boulder and watched Sue run inefficiently across the loose snow field. When she’d staggered halfway, dropping heavily to her knees, he had screamed out. That, at least, showed more of the living meat at the heart of the man. For a second, Sue looked back at him, her cheeks glowing bright red but for a single white hand mark. There was no time for anything; a surge of snow raced forwards and struck her heavily, turning the air into an opaque blizzard. When the snowflakes settled back, Sue had gone. The ice had taken her but left one of her scarlet mittens lying on the brilliant white sheet.
David is thinking about her now, obviously. It’s a mistake to get distracted by emotions in a crisis situation. He’s gazing gloomily at the mitten, at that crimson spot of blood in stark contrast to the purity of the snow. The churning ice around the boulder mimics the rage erupting in space; the aurora has grown in intensity once more. The ripples of plasma billowing through the air look as if the sky itself was rupturing, spilling its secrets.
In a way, it’s a shame that David has managed to warm himself with the fleeces and soup. If he had continued freezing to death, he might have tried to escape. It would’ve been entirely unsuccessful, but at least he would have experienced a few seconds of hope. As it is, his sense of urgency has evaporated. He’s honestly thinking about trying to wait until morning.
What is especially confusing is why he thinks that the things lurking in the ice can’t get at him on his rocky perch. It is a rule that we never agreed to, but he seems perfectly happy to gamble his life on it.
The ice sings now. A barely perceptible sound emanates from the tumbling snowfield: a high-pitched ringing like fingers around the edges of a million wine glasses. It sets David’s teeth on edge even though he doesn’t really hear it. It is glorious and somewhere in his terrified little soul he knows that these events are heading towards a grim conclusion.
The concealed figures are stirring beneath the snowfield again, except that this time they’re not coy enough to retain a concealing blanket of snow. The thin layer splits and flakes away as the shapes stand stiffly upright in the freezing air. The straightening shape closest to him wears a shabby red check shirt, exactly the sort that Michael used to favour. This particular garment has been torn at by something frenzied and now hangs loose, revealing swathes of mottled grey flesh underneath. The flesh undulates and heaves against itself in a manner that provokes terror in the stranded human on the boulder. It suggests that the flesh is not entirely like it was before. It suggests that the flesh has new owners, writhing beneath the skin. David catches a glimpse of the revenant’s face for a split second. It is indeed, or rather was, Michael.
Just behind Michael, a figure dressed in a shredded yellow dress begins to surface from beneath the singing, glowing ice grains. It is Faye, except that she now looks tired and sad: her eyes move erratically in dark, sunken sockets and her plump, young flesh is drawn back tightly against her skull, accenting her delicate cheekbones in the most ghastly manner. The beautiful, near symmetry of her face is marred by an ugly bite mark across her left jaw line that weeps a transparent, slightly iridescent fluid.
The smell of David’s terror is even more acute now - almost intoxicating in its intensity as it flows like an enticing river across the waiting snow. He drops to his knees and curls into a frightened little ball, pulling his bony legs tight up against his chest. It is to the man’s credit that he doesn’t pull his fleece over his face in some pointless attempt at protection, but that may be more through the insanity of extreme fear than through any kind of courage.
These two presences turn away from him momentarily, to knee and reach inside a depression that has yet to yield a horror. With a minimum of effort, they lift Sue out onto the ice. She has been damaged more severely in her taking than the others: sloppy work. The creature that was Sue cannot stand unaided: both legs and one of her arms have been broken – not enough to break the skin but enough to create disquieting bulges beneath her grey flesh. The Sue-creature hobbles around in its compatriot’s grip until its mangled frame is facing the prone human. With a feline yowl, the flesh pulls the twisted body upright, snapping broken bones back into alignment with a grisly crack. Now finally standing unsupported, the cadaver grins in satisfaction through smashed teeth. The head of an eyeless thick worm writhes greasily out through her mouth for a moment before retreating back into the sanctuary of the body’s gullet, as if it were hesitantly testing the air.
The bodies that used to be Michael, Sue and Faye walk decisively and dispassionately to the ice around the small rock, looking down at the man who, once, used to be their friend. David is now saying, or perhaps singing, something to himself as comfort, but it is too quick and too quiet to make much sense. Amusing, it sounds very much like a nursery rhyme taught to a young boy to keep him safe from the imaginary things that lurk unseen in the dark. It is baffling why he thinks that it will help him now.
The aurora overhead is unbelievably fierce now, scorching the sky like a blazing supernova. It is, perhaps, curious that this snowy depression is the only place on the Earth where the aurora borealis is anywhere near as fierce. Elsewhere on the planet, observers are watching a remarkable, but not astonishing, celestial light show. At no other point on the planet too is the snow singing like this; the ice around the boulder seething and churning with songs of strange ideas and places.
The song of the snow begins to gently prise the boulder apart into tiny fragments. The rock groans slightly as strange forces dissolve it from within. With every passing second, the hairline cracks in the boulder split wider and wider, revealing more and more of the hidden snowfield underneath the rock. David barely notices; fear has driven him to the edge of catatonia.
The three revenants, those who used to human, turn their burning gaze to the sky and begin to sing in long, oscillating moans from their dead, frozen throats, releasing inhuman sounds that echo effortlessly across the bleakness of this place. In eager response, the ice underfoot softens without melting, allowing the fragments of boulder with their whimpering occupant and its honour guard of the dead to sink slowly into the snow. Little by little, the boulder lowers until the snow begins to lap at the fleece coats of the man David. He barely notices as the icy threads begin to penetrate his clothing and tenderly caress his chilled flesh. If there was any semblance of his man left, he might have wondered why he was being treated with such reverence when his companions had been ambushed by brutal assaults from below the snow.
Soon the ice field, underneath a calm and empty sky, is silent and deserted once more except for a single red mitten, lying unclaimed and unloved out on the snowy waste.