The Expedition

Editor’s note – the following is an excerpt from the diary of Jonah Johnson, surveyor for the Carter Expedition, an outing to the Arctic Circle in the early 20s.  The expedition left the north-most region of Canada in April of 1923, and were presumed lost.  Jonah was survived by a wife and son and two grandchildren, Jesse and Caroline.

 

July 1923, Day 5

We left base camp in Canada five days ago, setting off from a remote island in the north and across the ice bridge that forms year round between it and the Arctic.  Our guides, two Inuit men named Aguta and Itigiaq, met us there, with two teams of sled dogs and accompanying sleds.  We took what supplies we could – a compass, a map composited from past expeditions and surveys, dry rations, fuel for fire lighting, tents, and a few gallons of water.  Despite the abundance of snow and ice, most of it is salt-based, and attempting to drink it would be a futile effort at best.

The party seems to be in good spirits, Milhausen and Carter joking, and Brimly looking on with a wry smile.  We’ve already covered good ground, and with luck, will be at our destination in fifteen days or less, weather permitting.

 

July 1923, Day 7

We had considered the possibility that our rations would run out before we could return to base camp, that it was entirely possible to be stuck in the snow and weather past our scheduled time.  On the sixth day out, one of the sled dogs died, and though the idea was tossed about, no one here spoke on it or acted on that atrocity.  I can already see the worry that gnaws at Milhausen beginning to fester, and hope he holds himself together long enough to make this trip.   We all agreed to half-rations for as long as we could stomach it, which should be a good while.  I don’t think anyone wants to admit they had entertained the idea of eating a pet.

Aguta buried the dog in a mound of snow and marked the grave with a few jagged pieces of ice he managed to break free.  He seems like a good man, though quiet.  Itigiaq just looked on, and made a sign in the air at the grave.  I asked Aguta about it, and he explained it as ‘old superstition’.  Still, that night in my tent, I crossed myself and said a little prayer for safe passage.

 

 

 

June 1923, Day 10

Carter found something while striking camp.  One of the tent-pegs had cracked the ice in a deep rift, perhaps digging into an existing fissure and acting as a wedge.  Below, we could glimpse a rock formation that looked to be a vein of pure silver.  Milhausen claimed it was simply reflection caused by light striking a surface that had been eroded to a mirror over the space of ages.  With cold creeping in, and an estimated ten more days to our destination, no one was in the mood to argue.  But I know what I saw.

That night, I dreamt of things long sleeping under the ice, and other less pleasant things.  When we awoke in the morning, another sled dog had died.  Most of us assumed he had left the pack in the middle of the night and froze to death without their protection.  Aguta and Itigiaq had a heated argument while they buried this one, with Itigiaq finally storming off.  When I asked him about it, Aguta did not seem to think he would be with us much longer.

 

June 1923, Day 11

Solid travel, uneventful.  Maybe just acclimation, but it feels like it’s getting warmer.  More tomorrow, the hardest leg of our journey just ahead, what Brimly has dubbed our Everest – a four mile diameter sheet of ice riddled with pressure ridges and ice floes.

The dogs are fighting.

 

June 1923, Day 12

Snowstorm.  It came on us from the north (Ha!), and blinded us almost instantly.  A halt was called, and we managed to find each other through calls and our flashlights.  We figured the winds to be about 35 miles an hour, and had to drive our tent spikes twice as deep, though there is still the fear the ice will shift and loose a peg, and the wind will snatch a tent away.

The temperature has dropped again as well, and I can only heat the ink in my pen so many times before it becomes useless.  I will stop for the night, and pray the storm does as well.

 

June 1923, Day 13

Itigiaq is gone.  The storm abated in the night, and we woke to find he had taken a sled and three day’s supplies with him.  Milhausen is beside himself, and keeps asking when we’ll have to eat the other dogs.  I suggested that we consider turning back now, but Brimly would have none of it.  He’s convinced we’re only a few days from our destination, and will be branded cowards should we fail now.  Carter nodded assent, though I saw a worry in his eyes as well.

My other concern, I kept to myself.  That is, the farther we go, the more frequent the nightmares become.  No one else has spoken of them, but I see the dark circles under Brimly’s eyes, and the haunted look in Carter’s.  If I weren’t a rational man, I would think we were being hunted.

I had the chance to speak with Aguta before we retired to our tents.  He is upset as well over Itigiaq’s betrayal, but is sure the man will be brought to justice should he return to their village.  I am not so sure.  Three days’ supplies, and a twelve day trek back – the math does not work out well for him.

 

June 1923, Day 14

None of us slept well, between fears of dreams that had grown darker and listening to the sounds of the camp between gusts of wind.  Those dreams – I see things in the daylight now – half-shadows and shapes that lurk at the corner of the eye, and then dart from vision when you turn to view them.  I feel I should speak to Carter about this, since he is the medical expert in our group, yet I cannot bring myself to admit to another man, let alone myself, that I may be losing my mind.

When I left the tent, Brimly greeted me with a cup of coffee and a grimace.  We drank in silence for a minute, the ice just beginning to glisten from the rising sun.  He broke it first.

“Milhausen’s gone.  Poor bastard slit his wrists last night, bled out in his tent.”  He said.

I opened my mouth to ask about the others – Carter and Aguta, and Brimly cut me off.  “They’re gone as well.  Together, or not, I can’t be sure, but they’ve disappeared.  They took almost the last of our rations, the sled, and the radio.”

I took it all in, weighing our options.  Pursuing those two would most certainly constitute a complete collapse of the expedition, with precious time and resources wasted.  Brimly had apparently arrived at the same conclusion, and so we agreed on the most sensible course of action.  We would search the immediate area for signs of either Carter or Aguta, and succeed or fail, strike camp the next day to proceed to our final destination.  Depending on our supplies, should we be able to hold out there, our contingency plan called for colleagues back home to mount a rescue should we pass our trip goal.

We began our search, splitting the mile surrounding the camp into hemispheres, Brimly taking the west, and I the east.  I didn’t walk long before I found my first clue, red slush in a wide pool not even a quarter mile from the tents.

The cold restricted the senses, pressing in at times from all sides as though the air had walls and was slowly imploding.  I got to my knees and lowered the mask I had worn for the walk, and smelled almost immediately the coppery tang of fresh blood.  I looked around, trying to locate Brimly, loathe to waste one of the few flares we had left to signal him.

Luck seemed to be with me however, as I spotted him nearly right away.  He was near the center of camp, standing with his back to me.  I figured he had returned to warm himself at a small fire we had made.  I waved and shouted his name.

He turned, as though hurt or stiff, and I waved again.  Another moment passed, and he didn’t respond.  The oddest thought occurred to me then.

What if that isn’t Brimly?

A shadow flickered at the edge of my vision, and I turned my head.  Nothing there, but that thought bothered me.  This was the Arctic, after all, and we were the only two at camp.  The amount of blood I had found suggested another would be dead or dying, and as for the fourth, I doubted they would have made the trouble to come back.  I hailed Brimly again, and hesitated for a second, despite logic settling in.

I waved one more time, and saw him respond at last, his body turning in what again struck me as an odd, mechanical way, his legs punching into the snow like pistons.  I reached into my pocket and grabbed the only thing there – the flarefun I had tucked away – it wasn’t much in the way of a weapon, but it might do in a pinch.

At sixty yards, the bottom dropped out of my stomach.

Brimly was stripped to the waist, his chest a red ruin where someone or something had torn a ragged hole where his heart used to be.   In its place was a glass cylinder that seemed to be affixed by cables shunted directly into raw veins.  In the center of the cylinder, suspended in a mix of plasma and a glowing green ichor, a single disembodied eye glared out.

Even as I recognized it, it rolled in its fluid and fixed that stare on me, and I felt an unnatural chill roll its way up my spine and into the base of my skull.  For a moment, those shadows at the edge of my vision began to darken, and I could hear what sounded like words forming in the back of my mind.

I was torn away from the voices in my head, their words twisting like smoke in the wind, by the sound of Brimly, gurgling and then screaming from deep in his throat.  I stepped back, and for the first time noticed the ice axe he was dragging behind him.  He raised it, and I fell back again.

The axe whistled by me, the serrated head so sharp I could almost taste the steel in the air.  Unthinking, I reached into my pocket, and pulled the flare gun out.  Not aiming, not thinking, I raised it, and fired.

By then, the thing that had been Brimly regained his coordination, and I was knocked sideways even as an agonizing pain tore into my ribs.  I screamed and heard one in response even over what I was sure was the snap and crackle of breaking bone.

I pulled myself right even as the axe fell away from me, and heard the pop and fizzle of fire in snow.  I was able to clear my head long enough to see what had happened.  The flare had shattered the cylinder, spilling its contents onto the tundra, the eye a blackened ruin in a pool of glass and green ice.  Brimly’s body was not far from it, the torn tubing leaking green and red vital fluids into the snow.

Warmth slid down my leg, and I saw the blood seeping through the rent in my coat.  It took some time for me to stagger back to the tents, and once, I thought myself lost when my vision went black, and I found myself staring out at miles and miles of snow and ice.  Eventually, I made it, and crawled into my tent.  I was able to bind my wound with strips of cloth torn from my bedding, and when I could no longer hold my head up, I slept.

 

June 1923, Day 15

When I woke again, it was dawn.  I gathered what things I could, and determined that I would make our destination and wait for rescue, if it came.  On the way out, my pack loaded with what I could carry, I stopped at Brimly’s corpse and picked up the axe that had wounded me.  My ribs ached and throbbed, but I was able to keep them at a dull roar with some of the morphine from Carter’s medkit.

I made my way from the camp, heading due north, according to the compass.  The wind was up, and it didn’t take long for a numbness to creep into my skin despite my layers of clothing.  Head down, I crept forward, and it wasn’t until I realized a shadow had fallen over me that I looked up.

I was at the base of an ice ridge, pushed up from the sheet cracking and shifting, much like the earth’s crust after an earthquake.  It loomed over me like the hand of a long dead and frozen god, and for a moment, I could only stare, fighting the image in my mind of it crashing down on me, crushing me from existence.

I stepped forward, under the eaves of the ledge, and felt the wind drop off.  Mixed feeling flowed through me.  I was glad for the respite – frostbite can be a horrible thing – and worried as well.  The chill was helping to numb my wound, and I wondered how long out of it before it began to ache again.

I checked the compass and my surroundings, and made note of the length of the ridge.  In order to progress, I would have to go around, since I neither trusted the nature of the ice, nor my own strength to try to climb over.    I began to edge along its base, making my way to the far end where the summer sun split the shadow and turned the snow and ice into brilliant diamond reflections.

I almost fell into an opening in the wall of the ridge.  One second there was an unbroken wall of ice, and the next, an opening the size of a man, stretching down and back into the Arctic surface.  I looked into the dark, and could feel it trying to press back on me, the black like a pressure on my eyes.  After a moment, I was able to fetch my flashlight out and shine it in.

Pale light struck the walls of a smooth tunnel carved from the ice, lighting it up in a soft blue glow, and illuminating a worn path into its depths.  Outside, the wind shifted directions and picked up, and I could feel that chill coming back to me.  Snow began to drift, and then swirl in heavy gusts, and my mind was made up.  Whatever was in that tunnel, at least it wasn’t certain frostbite.  I took the first step in, and my flashlight flickered.  Shadows moved at the edge of the darkness, black cut from black, and then were gone as soon as the light relit.

I moved on, the ice beneath my boots creaking.  Walls that looked as though they were bored into the ice by a hot drill slid by, absorbing, then reflecting the light.  I could hear the wind outside, increasing to a howl, and took comfort in the idea that though I might not know my destination, I would not die in the snow.

After a long descent, the tunnel began to level out and widen, and the ice began to recede.  Walls of rock replaced ice, and hard-packed earth the floor.  I hadn’t been imagining the warmth.  Water dripped from the ceiling, and formed small pools on the floor.  After a time, I felt warmth begin to tingle in my fingers and toes, and I pulled off my mitts, trying to drink in as much of the heat as my flesh would allow.

After three hundred yards, I was amazed to find the cavern walls converging on a single egress point – as if the cavern had been shaped by purposeful hands.  Something in the pit of my stomach stayed my step, and I found myself unwilling to walk further than I had come.  I retraced my steps, to the furthest point from that black opening in the cavern wall, and set up a meager camp.

For a while, the smallest sound – water dripping on stone and earth, the distant howl of Arctic wind, even my own breath in my ears – kept me awake.  Once, maybe twice, I would swear shadows moved at the edge of vision, and then I shut the flashlight off.  I was growing too weary to be afraid.  Too tired to fear death, or insanity.

 

June 1923, Day 17

I made it a hundred feet into the tunnel at the end of the cavern today.  Something’s in there.  I can feel a warm breeze, and smell…something.   Smells like hot metal, sometimes like hot flesh.  I will make another trip tomorrow.

Shadows, and movement in the dark.  I can hear you, I can hear you I can hear

 

June 1923

I feel better.  Hunger, maybe sleep deprivation was getting to me.  I will have to leave this cave soon.  I fear I have been here too long, and missed the rescue crew.   I’ve eaten a few extra rations – it won’t matter if they’re here soon, or if they’re not.  I think I will walk through the tunnel today.

 

 

 

June

A man came today – I found the other end of the tunnel – he tried to stop me.  He tried to stop me, and I bit him, and hit him, until he fell down.  The shadows are back.  They talk to me now, and they wear the faces of my friends – Brimly, Milhausen, Carter.  Maybe they were always my friends?  I don’t sleep now, too much…

 

June 1923, Day ?

…took the man to the room at the end of the tunnel…he came back, but I had to kill him again…I will sit in the chair…no choice…out of food…out of time…

 

Editor’s note – The diary ends here.  No indication has been given as to how the diary was recovered, or by whom, and further attempts to contact Jesse Johnson, the author’s grandson, have gone unanswered.  Research of periodicals of that time indicates a rescue mission was sent to the Arctic, as scheduled, but was suspected lost as well.  

 

Epilogue

June 2012

Caroline said she wouldn’t take the house – had enough responsibilities, she said. Cleaning the basement was a bitch and a half, but I managed to get it done in a couple of days.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear my grandparents were hoarders.

Found a cool old chair down there that I think I’ll have restored.  Looks kind of like an old dentist chair, with all kinds of tubes and instruments hanging off of it.  Just brought it upstairs for now.  If nothing else, I might be able to sell it.

I’m going to have to hire a contractor to wall off the addition to the basement – it looks like an old root cellar – just a wooden door there locked tight, but so old I wasn’t able to open it.  I think there are rats in there.

I keep hearing something moving, and more than once in that light, a shadow crossed the edge of my vision.

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