The Christmas 2000 Story by Jeri Massi Episode One
Set after Frontier in Space Jo sleepily opened her heavy eyes. Cold air seeped into the cabin on her left side, and a fiery hot blast from the ship's furnaces jetted onto her right arm and down her right trouser leg from the vents in the floorboards.
The skin of her face and hands was chapped and dry already from the super-hot, ultra dry air that was circulated below decks, and yet her toes had chilblains from the damp chill that permeated everything. Her lungs ached.
She forced herself to sit up in the narrow, tomb-like cabin that was her temporary home. It was hard to believe that 24 hours ago, she had been larking through Hairdo's with the Doctor in tow, modeling the reindeer pin with the nose that actually lit up, being stopped by the store detective because she had accidentally walked out the main doors wearing a necklace worth hundreds of pounds.
And now this, she thought. She had learned in the dutiful catechism lessons of her childhood that Hell was a place of flame and torment, but the Arctic circle, with its unending dimness, its unremitting cold, and its cramped, close quarters, would have made a promising alternative.
She had napped in her clothing, but on rising she donned the insulated jumpsuit that covered her from shoulder to foot, and she slipped her thickly stockinged feet into the short, squat, thick nylon boots that were insulated with several fingers' width of dense felt boards. There were still scarves, head gear, and two layers of special gloves to put on, but she would worry about these topside, where she had more room to move about.
Her stomach unexpectedly churned. Her body was hungry for food and her eyes were hungry for real light. Sunlight. But there was no light here, not of that nature. The best that one could hope for was a slight thinning of the darkness at mid day as the sun almost reached up to the horizon line and then gave up again and retreated.
A calendar with tear-off sheets had been posted on the wall of the cabin. Today was December 24. Dark, cheerless, grim. Could anything else happen to dim the cheer of Christmas?
She made her way to the galley, which on board this ice breaker served as the meeting room as well. Somebody had switched on a tape player, and Bing Crosby's voice: paternal, calm, and warm, filtered down the narrow walkway to the short ladder that led to the galley:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar, carols play.
And wild and sweet,
The words repeat,
Of Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men!
I thought as now this day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Would toll along Th'unbroken song,
Of Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men!
Then in despair I bowed my head.
"There is no peace on earth," I said.
"For hate is strong,
and mocks the song,
Of Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men!"
These sentiments did nothing more than make her feel more grim, and apparently the message of the assorted carols had sparked another of the pointless debates between the Doctor and Briley, the ship's resident born-again Christian.
"And when you hear the bells, what do you think they say?" the Doctor said as Briley unsmilingly set down a mug of hot, bitter, thick, overly acidic coffee before the timelord. The Doctor, also swathed in an insulated jumpsuit, brightened as Jo's head appeared at the hatch. By now she was fully adjusted to the occasional motion of the boat. She climbed the ladder and pulled herself through the hatch. She stopped in the entry long enough to reach up and click off the tape machine.
"Hullo, Jo," the Doctor said, his voice warm. "Come and sit down, my dear. Are you feeling rested?"
She felt perfectly awful, and three hours of sleep in an uncomfortable, cramped cabin that was freezing on one side and roasting on the other had done very little to revitalize her after 12 hours of flight from cheerful London.
But the stint would only be as bearable as she chose to make it. In her third year of service with the military and Intelligence, Jo Grant knew that her own state of mind depended mostly on her choices and her attitude. So she chose the high road, though she was not enthusiastic about being cheerful.
"I'm better, thanks," she said. "But the music hurts my head."
Briley, perhaps more conscious of his Christian duty now that he had the Doctor twitting him, showed concern. "Perhaps a cup of tea would help, Miss Grant," he said. "I'll get it for you."
"Thanks," she said. She liked Briley well enough, from the little she had seen of him. Like everybody aboard the ice breaker, he served two roles: one in Intelligence operations and one in ship operations. Aboard ship, he was cook and quartermaster. Out on the ice, when the UN patrols were out seeking the infiltrators of the NATO security net, he was a broadcast engineer with exceptional skills in both sonar and radar tracking. He was an American: tall, rail thin, with the growth of beard and gaunt-faced, slightly weary look that was the norm on the ship.
Upon their arrival several hours earlier, he had risen from his bunk without complaint and produced a truly magnificent breakfast for them of waffles, syrup, bacon, and eggs. The coffee had been fresh then. But the pot he was now using was the same stuff, and after sitting on an electric ring for several hours, the brown fluid had blackened. Jo could not watch the Doctor drink it.
Briley brought her tea.
"Are we ready to go out?" she asked the Doctor.
"Just about. Cap's refueling the machines." He took another prolonged sip of the acidic, tarry coffee. She looked away.
Unobtrusively, Briley reached around the corner of the bulkhead to the tiny niche where the stereo set was bolted into place. He turned the volume knob lower and then switched on the tape. Bing Crosby's voice came out in an inarticulate murmur that was more distracting than it had been at a loud volume.
The resumption of the singing, however muted, served as a signal for the Doctor to continue his debate. "Of course, if you assume that there was a manger, and angels, and shepherds and all the rest, then even bells will serve as supportive evidence," he said loudly. "I mean, if you assume something to be true, then you'll fit everything into place to serve the assumption."
Briley was extracting a tea bag from an air tight canister. It further amazed Jo that on an ice breaker in the arctic, cockroaches were still a problem. Certain creatures could survive anything. Like they were programmed to be everlasting.
Briley glanced coolly at the Doctor. "Just like if you assume something can't be true, you'll explain away all the evidence that says you are wrong." He dropped the limp tea bag into a chipped white enamel mug. "You might even rewrite the rules of evidence to favor your own side."
"What's that I hear?" a cheerful voice called. "Must be the Doctor and Briley arguing religion again!" And Cap swung down from the ladder that led to the forward deck. He effortlessly dropped from the forward hatch onto the bench on the other side of the small table.
Cap was the youthful Intelligence Officer who had been handed this mission. He must have memorized (or perhaps authored) the handbook on How to Get Along With People at Close Quarters When Everybody Would Rather be at Home. He had not reacted at all when Briley, while serving breakfast three hours earlier to welcome Jo and the Doctor aboard, had announced that at midnight he would hold a prayer service to welcome Christmas. Nor did Cap flinch when the Doctor had replied that at midnight he would be toasting Christmas, kissing all the girls aboard ship, and setting a lit match to the canned flaming pudding he had sneaked aboard among the scientific equipment. It was only when Nelson, the electronics technician and first mate, had pointed out that Jo was the only woman aboard ship and perhaps they should initiate a sign up sheet, that Cap had spoken a word to end the discussion. And Cap's word, perhaps because he did treat his own authority with such leonine calmness, was law. He was the only man aboard who still shaved, and he looked a bit brighter, more alert, and well rested than the others.
He nodded as Briley threw a glance at the smoldering coffee. The cook brought him a filled cup. "Throw in a slug of rum, will you, Cook?" Cap asked.
And Briley, who didn't approve of rum, nodded and obediently sloshed in about an ounce and a half of rum. He passed the cup to his commanding officer.
"What about you, Doctor? Miss Grant? We'll be out all day. You might want to keep your bellies warm."
Both Jo and the Doctor declined, and Cap got right down to business. From his pocket, he extracted a folded map that had been coated with clear contact paper. He set it on the table. Like everything else, the map was compact to the point of being nearly unusable. But Jo's eyes adjusted to it as they were briefed.
"All right, somehow or another, somebody's broken into the security net around Greenwich." Cap's greased pencil drew a nearly perfect line from a point at the edge of the map inward to another point within the arctic circle. "We're picking up high-speed flash reflections, and we've got indications of infra-red lights traversing the sky. Our security installations are being photographed by some operation out there on the ice. We don't know who they are. We don't know how they got here without being detected. And we sure as he----" He cut himself off and said, "We sure as heck don't know how they're getting so close to the NATO air fields."
"Our Brigadier briefed us on all of this," the Doctor said. "Have you monitored those high range broadcast frequencies with the bandwidth filters I suggested?"
Cap threw a look at Briley and nodded for him to come sit down.
"I did, Doctor," Briley said, and Jo was pleased to see that Briley, for all the antagonism of the religious debate, was professional when it came down to the mission. "We did get a signal interruption a few days ago, but nothing we could identify. Not a voice transmission. Code, rather."
The Doctor also cooled down his own attitude. "I suppose it was too brief for triangulation."
"No, I got a fix on it. Both times." And Briley nodded. "Two different locations, though both in the general area we've marked as the region of origin of these agents."
"But when we went out to check, " Cap added. "We found some indications that temporary camps had been set up. But nothing more than scratches in the ice pack. Temporary shelters had been rigged up with pegs in the ice, then dismantled and moved."
"So whoever is out there on the pack ice knows that you're here, and knows that you're looking for them," the Doctor said.
"Or else is extremely cautious." Cap put the round point of the grease pencil onto another spot on the map. "Last night---or I should say early this morning, just as you got in, we saw something. It was clear as a flare. A brief red glare that went up. Like an explosion or flash fire. Richards and Henry are off to find it. The first point of contact today is with them. We'll have to see what they found. We're under radio silence, of course." He cocked an eyebrow. "Not that transmissions are all that reliable. This close to the North Pole, we occasionally suffer heavy interference with all our broadcast and receiving equipment."
"Oatmeal's ready," Briley said, and he rose to dish it up. Jo frowned and then caught herself. Eating oatmeal, in her opinion, was second only to eating sand. But Briley was a good enough cook to doctor it with raisins, pecans, and brown sugar. But reality had set in. It was time to get to the mission.
Thirty minutes later, Cap, Briley, the Doctor, and Jo donned their assorted outer layers of insulation: scarves, hats, goggles, inner gloves, outer gloves.
Before Jo pulled down her ski mask, the Doctor carefully applied a lanolin ointment over her cheeks and under her nose.
"Your skin is already chapped, Jo. It's too delicate for these conditions." His voice was concerned. He knew that she was tired from the long journey by military transport. He wrapped one scarf around her neck and then carefully pulled down her mask over his fingers first so that it wouldn't wipe off the lanolin. Then he adjusted it in place over her skin.
They went out in a fan formation of the snowmobiles. Jo rode behind Cap, and the Doctor was behind Briley. A heavy layer of snow had fallen over the pack ice, and channels of water in the ice, called "leads" by the military men, were hazards for people who had not yet negotiated this strange and shifting terrain. So the Doctor and Jo were passengers.
It was thirty degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale, and the airflow around the speeding snowmobiles dropped the wind-chill for those aboard them even further.
In this cheerless, sunless day, time was almost meaningless, but Jo knew that it was late afternoon by Greenwich time, and so it was late morning in London. But here in the Arctic circle, close to the North Pole, it was always twilight.
Cap had studied the latest terrain maps. Using brief waves of his left arm and hand signals, he directed Briley on their approach. But for the most part, it was a journey with few turns, and the scenery never changed. The twilight was actually less oppressive the further they got from the electric lamps of the ship. Out on the ice pack, with only the faint cones of light from the head lamps of the snow mobiles, the broad expanse of white gave back some reflection of light into the dim sky.
At last, after nearly an hour of travel, when Jo was actually dozing with her head against Cap's heavy snowsuit, the snow mobile slowed down, and she woke up. She looked around. The twilight had deepened.
Two snows suited figures, each carrying electric torches, approached on foot. Behind them, two snow mobiles made dark, lumpy shadows against the snow, and over the area, a ring of debris was spread out. It was spread from a much larger pile of wooden planks and charred rubble that was still smoldering.
Cap and Briley pulled to a halt, and everybody dismounted and stretched their legs.
Steven Henry, the ship's medical officer and a forensic specialist, came from West Indian and African ancestry. But his accent was purely the Bronx, though educated and precise.
"There was no sign of life, Cap. Or death, I should say," he said immediately. "Nobody was killed in the fire, nor in the first explosion. No human or animal remains."
"Fire?" Cap asked, puzzled. "First explosion?"
Dr. Henry pulled up the cloth of his ski mask to let his skin breathe. He tucked the flap under his heavy wool cap. His own complexion was a deep, chocolate brown, and he sported the usual short and ragged beard. He pointed to the center pile of debris. "That pile was gathered after the fact, sir. It appears to have been a wooden structure. It was burst apart by some type of explosive device-probably more than one. And then afterward, somebody came, gathered up the pieces, and set them alight. Though why, I don't know."
Cap pulled off his own ski mask and then re-settled his cap onto the back is his head. "Why the dickens would them fellows light up a bonfire? It would be sure to attract our attention."
"Maybe it was the victims who lit the fire," Steve Henry said. "Perhaps as a means of warmth after their shelter was destroyed, or perhaps to signal for help."
"Or to draw back the cut throats who destroyed it in the first place," Cap said. "Anybody with any sense would know that anybody who plays so rough ain't gonna want survivors around lighting bonfires. It would draw them back to the scene of the crime."
The Doctor finally spoke. "But what was it doing here in the first place? A wooden structure?" The time lord gazed around at the silent terrain. "You don't build a house on pack ice!"
"And where did the wood come from?" Jo asked. "How was it brought here?"
"The wood appears to be quite old," Dr. Henry said as his partner Richards, still muffled up, led the Doctor closer to the pile of smoldering debris. "Varnished rather than painted on the outer sides."
Cap, as baffled as anybody else, watched the Doctor and Richards scan the dense pile of charred remains. "Anything else?"
"Well, it was a sizeable structure," Dr. Henry said. "All piled up like that and burned, it doesn't look like much, but from the size of the longest boards that we could find, and from the ring of ice that was melted around the fire and re-froze, I think we're talking about a single-story structure that was built along the same dimensions as a barracks. We found the remains of a few three-legged stools. Low stools. But they were heavily varnished, too. So they would have burnt to ash pretty efficiently. It's hard to know exactly what the building was used for."
"But no human remains?" Cap asked again.
Steven Henry shook his head. "Whoever was in there got out in time. But how they could survive out here is beyond me."
"Others have done it," Cap said. "With primitive skills."
"Found this." And the young medical doctor withdrew a soft bundle from his jumpsuit pocket. Jo winced at sight of it. It was what remained of a teddy bear. Half of it had burned away, and the eyes had melted on its face.
Cap took it and turned it over in his hands. "A child?" he asked. "Did a child live here?"
The Doctor came striding back towards them, his head bare and his mask off, the goggles dangling around his neck. "Let's get my equipment off that snow mobile!" he called. "This place may be the reference point for any broadcast communications. With my equipment, we can scan the atmosphere for old transmissions. Perhaps learn what happened a few days ago. Or at least what was transmitted."
Steve Henry was intrigued. "You can detect old broadcast signals?"
"Certainly," the Doctor said. "For a day or two, in good conditions."
Cap had already known that the Doctor and Jo represented unusual expertise in cutting edge technology. He was more concerned about this recent bit of evidence.
"Look, if somebody did survive this, they must be out on the ice somewhere," he said. "We must attempt some sort of rescue." He held out the charred teddy bear. "If there's a child out there---we've got to at least try."
The others seemed inclined to agree to this.
"Look," the Doctor said obligingly. "It will take Jo and me an hour to set up the detection equipment. Why don't the four of you fan out from here and do a search?"
Cap was surprised. "And leave you?"
He shrugged. "You'll be circling the area, with us inside your perimeter. You can leave us a rifle if you think polar bears might be a concern."
Jo was in agreement. "Just give us a radio and a few carbide lamps. We'll be all right for an hour. Then perhaps I can help in the search while Briley and the Doctor look for signals."
Cap did not like the idea of leaving them, but the problem of finding survivors of this smoldering wreck was more pressing. "All right. You'll be within our perimeter. We should be able to keep out any other dangers. Henry, Richards, you take your vehicles out about a quarter of a mile and start to circle. I'll keep Briley with me. We'll follow a zig zag pattern within your perigee. Move outward as you circle."
They nodded. Everybody readjusted their ski masks and caps as they hurried to the snowmobiles to start the search.
"That equipment may be sensitive to the cold," the Doctor said to her. "Let's get it set up fairly close to the wood pile. It's a few degrees warmer over there."
"The ice hasn't thinned?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Not appreciably. We're on a pretty thick ice pack. As long as we stay away from the leads, we'll be all right."
They lugged the plastic, insulated crates closer to the pile of rubble. Jo helped the Doctor unpack the specialized sweep generator and other pieces. As they worked, the distant sound of the snowmobiles set up a smooth, almost comforting background noise. Cap and Briley came in towards them and then went out again into the twilight in wide, curving turns. There wasn't time to watch them, but it was good to know they were searching for survivors who could answer their questions.
The Doctor used hand tools that looked like forceps to enable him to make the necessary connections to the battery pack without removing his gloves. They set one carbide lamp onto a heap of snow that Dr. Henry had piled up, and Jo held another lamp up to shed light on the connections.
As he worked, she looked at the small mountain of rubble and debris. As Steve Henry had reported, there were the remains of a few very short three-legged stools thrown in among the long, old planks. These were burned along clean lines. A charred edge along the remains was the only real charring. So it had been a fast, hot fire. Undoubtedly, the heavy varnish had assisted it. It had flared high and hot, and then burned itself out quickly.
"That three-legged stool is short---too short for adults," the Doctor said. "But stools of that size would fit children very well."
"Was it a school building?" she asked. "But who would build a school out on pack ice? The ice is always breaking up out here. Or else over freezing and then pushing itself up in big piles."
"And who would go to school out here?" the Doctor asked in his turn. "Quite a mystery. Perhaps we can pick up a few answers."
She was gazing into the tangle of ruined wood, and her eyes, even in the uneven glare of the carbide lamp, picked out another item. "I see a hammer," she told him. "A hammer head, anyway. The handle's been burned away." The white carbide light reflected with a silver twinkle from a metal saw that was wedged among the debris.
"Jo, You're moving the light," he said.
She turned back to him. "There are bits of tools in there."
He switched on the power. The antenna system was a slightly conical dish with delicate wires attached at its vertex. It was mounted on a telescoping stand. He untwisted a fastener on the center of the stand and pulled it out to its full length. He pointed it in one direction at the sky and crouched before the control board. "Let's see what we can find. Of course there are bits of tools in there, Jo. You couldn't live out here without tools."
"It might have been a school," she said. "Or a workshop."
He paused long enough to throw a glance of incredulity at her. "A workshop? In the north pole? For children?"
She wanted to say that the short stools could have fit very short adults and not necessarily just children, but she felt uncomfortable in suggesting the idea. "You don't think they could be having us on, do you?" she asked. "Cap and his crew, I mean."
"I hardly think so. There was certainly a structure here, and they didn't build it. They wouldn't have the means. Perhaps who ever has intruded out here built it, though I don't know why. But it's most likely not a school, and it's certainly not a workshop! For all we know, those could be milking stools, but I don't see any dairy cows, either!"
He was sharply annoyed, and he went back to work on operating the sweep.
The twilight, she realized, was deepening. And then she realized that she did not hear the snowmobiles, except at a great distance.
She straightened up and turned with the carbide lamp, startled. "They must have found something," she said. But just as suddenly it occurred to her that they could have been lured away. Was all of this one great trick to trap them all?
"Jo, the light!" the Doctor exclaimed. But just then he half stood and then collapsed. She turned and knelt over him. Before she could call tot him, she saw something like the shadow of a man with a great, indistinct form behind him, like a back pack that had grown outward into a great rectangle. He was standing out on the fringe of the light, and there was something in his hands like a gun, but there had been no rifle shot.
She lifted the lamp. A sharp, piercing sting lanced through the layers of clothing and into her side. She dropped the lamp. For a moment she pulled at a narrow spear that was jammed into her, and then abruptly, her own interior awareness went out, and the blackness came up with the cold.