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WHITE DEATH (CHIONIS ALBA)

Short story By: Philip Roberts
Science fiction



Antarctic terror inspired by H.P.Lovecraft. Originally titled, Chionis Alba.


Submitted:Dec 19, 2010    Reads: 46    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


It was mid 1978 and we were a team of mercenaries assembled by the CIA. Our mission: to assassinate a Soviet exploration team deep within the frozen wastes of the Antarctic.
We weren't told why we were to murder the Soviet team, and, of course, we never asked. But one member of our team suggested it was probably out of fear that the Soviet Union was upon the brink of making some important breakthrough in polar research. Since the early 1970s geographic and seismic studies had indicated both of the polar regions might be new sources for near limitless supplies of crude oil. Both of the superpowers were in the same boat by 1978, having little or no domestic oil production, therefore having to rely almost entirely upon the ever more and more unreliable Middle East nations for their supplies of oil and natural gas.
Our party comprised four assassins: Donald Hall, a tall, blond American with a build like an early Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though only in his early forties, Hall had been employed by the CIA for twenty-two years. Officially he was employed as an accountant, but in reality he could barely count to five on his fingers. Ross Saxton was in his late thirties, half a head shorter than Hall, and stockily built. Whereas Hall sported a deep, brown tan, Saxton was almost anaemically pale. He had worked for MI6 for-nine years before being offered a job by the Agency. Terry Harris was the baby of our group, a mere twenty-eight. He was tall and lean, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and, although he lacked Hall's muscularity, had the Celtic good looks to turn more than one female head. Officially Harris was said to have transferred from MI5 to the CIA, however, my unofficial sources told me he had been a member of the provisional IRA since his thirteenth birthday, and was currently on loan to the Agency, in exchange for American weapons to be used against the English in Belfast and Ulster. As for myself, I am Douglas Reagan, an expatriate Australian then in my late forties. Of medium height and medium build, I have always prided myself upon my ability to fade effortlessly into almost any crowd. I worked for the Sydney Police Force for twenty-two years, the last ten years in the CID, before being employed by the newly formed A.S.I.O. (the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation) in 1970, changing over to the CIA in late 1975.
There were also two non-mercenaries in our team: the tracker, Leonard Smith, looked about thirty-eight, although I knew he was at least a decade older. Born in the black ghettos of Harlem, Smith had learnt street fighting at an early age and was well-muscled, although not muscle-bound like Hall. Secondly our marine biologist-cum-medic, Elizabeth McKay, an attractive green-eyed redhead. A stand-offish feminist who did her best to treat the five males as decidedly less than her equals, although occasionally she couldn't resist sneaking an interested glance at Hall's muscular physique, or Harris' handsome face.
* * *
We set off on May 7 from Houston Aerodrome by Pan Am jet for Sydney, then the following day cruised down to Auckland, aboard the liner Waratah. Two days later we flew down to the Antarctica in a vast, red-and-white striped, aquatic helicopter-plane, which had been crated to New Zealand from the United States, upon Smith's request.
The chopper touched down a few kilometres inland, descending straight onto the hard-packed snow, to prevent time being wasted while disembarking. And also to save us from the danger of having to work our way through the field of vast, tabular icebergs, which float menacingly all around the pole for a number of kilometres, threatening to crush to tinder any vessel foolish enough to attempt a sea landing.
It had grown steadily darker, the further south we flew from New Zealand. By our watches it was a little after 2:30 p.m., New Zealand time, when we set down a few kilometres inland from the Kemp Coast on the Antarctica, yet by the sky it was already late night.
"Night sure comes early down here," whined Hall.
"Yes," agreed McKay, "it starts in March. At the poles night and day don't rotate in twelve hour shifts, as they more-or-less do everywhere else. Instead there is six months of winter-night, followed by six months of summer-day."
"Oh great, just great! In other words we have to do this whole mission at night?" complained Hall.
"That's right," I agreed. "Washington thinks we'll have less difficulty going undetected at night."
"Maybe, but it'll also be that much tougher for us to find the pinko bastards."
"Not necessarily," said Smith, coming across to us, from the chopper where he had just finished attending to the unloading of the dogs and sleds. "We already know the Soviet base is somewhere around Queen Maud Land, in the Norwegian Dependency. Probably about seventy-five degrees south, by ten degrees west."
"Let's go then," said Hall. "The sooner we get started, the sooner we get it over with."
We all agreed with him, so as soon as our equipment and stores had been strapped to the sleds we set out. Harris, Hall, and Smith each stood on the runners of a sled, and McKay sat on the load in Smith's sled, while Saxton and I skied along behind.
"Blasted cold," whined Hall. "We'll all freeze to death before we ever get the chance to kill any goddamn Soviets!" It sounded as though he regretted the thought of not being able to kill Soviets more than he minded the cold.
"Well, what the Hell did you expect?" demanded McKay. "A summer holiday!"
"Hell no, I knew it was going to be cold, but I never dreamed it was going to be this cold. Hell this is more than just cold!"
And he was right, it was an icy, biting, satanic cold, which seemed to chill the very marrow in our bones.
As we trekked slowly inland across the unbroken whiteness, the atmosphere seemed charged with something more than just the cold. Not a sound broke the silence of the night, save for the constant yapping of the sled dogs, the crunching of the hard-packed snow beneath the runners of the heavily-laden, aluminium-framed sleds, and, of course, the occasional whines of "Goddamn cold!" from Donald Hall.
The blue-white night snow all around us was rippled for as far as the eye could see -- about a kilometre thanks to the perpetual full moon -- like wet sand upon the beach, and the rolling dunes of snow and ice away in the distance could easily have fooled us into believing we were in the desert, if not for the tell-tale cold.
We had trekked inland for a few hours, when Saxton turned to me and said, "I might be just getting jumpy in my old age, but I could swear we're being followed."
"You could be right," I said, "I've had the same feeling for a few minutes now."
"What's the hold up?" asked Smith, coming back to see what was detaining us.
I hadn't realised we had stopped, but I said, "We could have some company."
"What do you mean, company?" asked Hall.
"He means he thinks we're being watched," explained Saxton.
"Well, I don't see anyone," insisted Hall, scouring the endless blue-whiteness with infrared binoculars.
"If someone were watching us, you wouldn't necessarily be able to see them," said Smith. He reached for the binocular case hanging around his neck. "Even if you knew for certain they were out there."
"Maybe," replied Hall, obviously convinced that we had imagined it. After a few moments he put away the binoculars and began to stare unashamedly at Elizabeth McKay, who did her best to pretend not to notice. Clearly the beautiful redhead was uncertain of her own feelings toward the American: on the one hand turned-on by his muscularity; on the other turned-off by his brutish, overbearing nature. (Personally I thought there was no contest, rugged up in a great array of fur-clothing he was barely distinguishable from a polar bear -- as were we all.)
Turning her back on Hall, McKay said, "Anyway, we don't have the time to spare to stop here and check it out."
Yet we did stop where we were for ten long minutes, scanning every centimetre of the endless whiteness behind us and to both sides, for as far as we could see. Then, unable to detect anyone, we continued on our way warily, moving slowly forward, with machine-pistols and Uzis at the ready.
We were painfully aware of how easy it would be for anyone to track us, even in the continual dark, without being seen by us. The sleds left tracks nearly a centimetre deep in the snow, and the prints of the dogs were like small directional arrows, pointing the way to go.
The air around us seemed to grow all the while colder and colder, almost as though drawing strength from our uneasiness.
"God, I wish something, anything would happen to break up this oppressive stillness," said Terry Harris, his voice quivering with a touch of fear. My sources had told me that in Belfast Harris had been a merciless killer, afraid of nothing. But I suspected he wasn't quite so sure of himself when transplanted from his home territory to this strange, blue-white, night world.
"Don't go wishing anything down onto us," cautioned Hall. And for once I was forced to agree with him.
* * *
After a further half an hour or so, we were stopped in our tracks by a completely unexpected obstacle. Before us stood two great towering peaks of ice and snow, like H.P.Lovecraft's mythical Mountains of Madness, soaring high into the sky. We would either have to go around them -- perhaps wasting two or three precious days -- or else risk passing through the small valley running down between them.
"Well, this is it," said Harris as Smith began to lead us down into the sunken valley. "If anyone is going to ambush us, this is their perfect opportunity!" And I suspected he was probably talking from first band experience, having himself engineered many ambushes of British Military (and civilian) personnel in Ireland.
"Do you have to be such a goddamn death-watch all the time?" said Hall. Then to Smith, "Couldn't we go over them?"
"Not a chance," replied the tracker. "We haven't got the necessary equipment for mountain climbing. Even if we did we'd never be able to take the sleds and dogs over. That would mean leaving behind too much of our supplies. Besides we're here to kill, not get killed. Polar mountaineering is a pastime to be left to the experts."
"Okay then, let's go," I said.
"Goddamn mountains!" whined Hall.
Our fears of being attacked by Soviets turned out to be groundless, however. After little more than an hour, as we came toward the end of the sunken valley, we heard the sound of falling snow from the mountains. Looking up we saw our audience scrambling down toward us. They had been able to scale the peaks, where we had not.
It was a flock of seemingly thousands of large, white Antarctic birds, which looked for all the world like oversized seagulls, except for their silver beaks and feet. The largest of them reached up almost to our knees.
"No wonder we couldn't see them through our binoculars," said Smith. "We were looking for people -- creatures four times their height -- and with their colouring they'd blend in perfectly with the snow and become invisible."
"What do you make of them, Doc?" Hall asked McKay.
"Chionis, or as they are more commonly known, Sheathbills," she replied. "They're related to the Woodcock and Sandpiper."
"Are they likely to cause us any trouble?" I asked.
"Well we'll have to keep a close watch on our frozen food stuffs. They are perpetual scavengers."
"We aren't likely to stray far enough from the sleds for them to be able to take advantage of our absence," said Ross Saxton.
"Oh our presence won't worry them in the slightest," said McKay. And to prove her point, she opened a can of frozen meat and hurled the contents toward the birds.
Expecting them to turn and flee in terror from the oncoming object, we were surprised to see the large birds squatting calmly upon the hard-packed snow, staring up at the approaching morsel, which they pounced upon the instant it hit the snow.
A fracas broke out as the creatures squabbled over the frozen titbit.
"Not exactly the best of mates are they, Doc?" I said.
"Oh they get along all right. They're really very peace-loving creatures. They simply love quarrelling over food, or anything else they can think of. But it's never very serious."
After the frozen offering had been devoured by the lucky few who had been first on the scene when it landed, we found ourselves inundated by the large birds. They scurried up to us, ran around the sleds, swarmed amongst the dogs, causing them to bark excitedly, and even ran between our legs.
"Hey watch this," called out Hall. Seizing one of the birds as it ran by him, he yelled "Hike!" then tossed it long and low through the air in American Football style.
Before the bird could recover its senses to flutter down safely to the ground, it crashed heavily into the solid ice wall of one of the mountains, to crumble broken and bleeding onto the snow.
The other birds instantly became silent. One by one they turned to stare at Hall, almost as though they were summing him up in their small, black-marble eyes.
"They won't...won't attack will they, Doc?" asked Donald Hall genuinely awed, and more than a little frightened by the angry silence of the large, white birds.
"Don't be bloody stupid!" snapped McKay, angry at the American's senseless brutality. As she walked across to examine the small bundle, I suspected her revulsion for Hall had finally conquered any attraction she may have felt for him.
As McKay knelt upon the hard-packed snow to examine the injured bird, the other birds turned one by one to face her. One very large bird crept across until it was standing less than a metre away from her.
"Dead," announced the redhead, startled as she looked up to find herself addressing the large bird almost eye-to-eye.
At the announcement the large birds turned, again seemingly one by one, to look back at Hall, who retreated toward one of the sleds, with the obvious intent of trying to outrun the Antarctic birds should they decide to attack him.
"All right let's get going," I said in a bid to break the tension. "We've wasted enough time here, we've still got a long way to go."
As we moved away the white birds squatted upon the snow, allowing us to pass, then sat watching us for a while before turning to scurry away, back down the sunken valley that we had just come through. All except for the bird which gone across to Elizabeth McKay, which stood in the snow glaring after us until we were well out of sight. It was perhaps a third larger than the other birds, with a vivid splash of red, like an open cut, above its left eye.
"You'd better watch out," Saxton said to Hall, pointing toward the bird. "That one has your name on it."
The American paled until he was almost as white faced as the anaemic Ross Saxton.
* * *
We halted at 9:00 p.m. to pitch our tents.
"We have to try to keep to something like normal hours, despite the endless night," explained McKay. "It's a common mistake among polar travellers to just keep on going, sometimes for days without stop, until finally collapsing from exhaustion. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the same error."
After a quick supper we fed the dogs, then set up our tents and settled down for the night. Guard duty was assigned between the five men, with Harris on first shift, Saxton second, Smith third, Hall fourth, and myself last.
I awoke a few minutes after 6:00 a.m. and crawled out of my tent to be greeted by an icy wind whipping across my face. Surprised to find I had not been awakened by Hall to stand my shift on guard, I set out across the snow to where our guard post had been set up about twenty metres from the tents, thinking Hall had fallen asleep and slept through both our shifts.
I was enraged by this suspected carelessness. It had not caused us any problem this time, but if repeated later, it could well cost the lives of all of us.
"Hall, you lazy son of a bitch," I called out, not worrying about the Soviets, who were too far inland to possibly overhear.
I was greeted by only silence, Donald Hall was nowhere to be found!
Returning to the camp I woke the others and told them what had happened.
"But where the Hell could he have gone to?" asked Elizabeth McKay.
"Who could guess with that fruitcake?" replied Terry Harris.
"Anyway," I said, "rather than standing around insulting the bastard, we should be organising a search for him."
"Why bother?" asked McKay. "He's probably just goofing off somewhere. He'll return in his own good time."
"You're probably right," I agreed, "but we can't afford to waste precious time, and it might be much quicker to search for the bastard, than to wait around for him to return of his own accord in umpteen days' time."
"Oh Hell," cried Harris, "why bother about him at all? Why not just pack up and leave him for dead? If the bastard dies out here, whose fault is it? We didn't ask him to go off playing silly buggers!"
"That's right," agreed Leonard Smith, "but if the Soviets have anywhere near the fire power that Washington says, we're going to need all the help we can lay our hands on to have any chance of taking them out!"
We all knew Smith was right; we had been told there would be twenty-nine Soviets: seventeen scientists, plus a dozen heavily-armed guards. So we set out to scour round for Hall.
* * *
Twenty minutes later we hears a cry of, "Over here!" It was Ross Saxton. He had located Hall's body.
It was battered and torn to a pulp. The face, or what was left of it, was contorted into an ugly, twisted death-mask of agony. Its features were ripped and pocked in the semblance of the symptoms of some weird South American malady.
"My God!" cried Harris. "It looks as though he's been pecked to death! But by what?"
"How about by them?" I asked, thumbing toward the Chionis. They had begun to assemble in their thousands only a few metres from where we stood; summing us up in their small, black-button eyes. All except for the larger bird with the splash of red above its left; eye, which stared, seemingly contentedly, toward the bloody remains of Donald Hall.
"Don't be bloody ridiculous!" snapped Elizabeth McKay. "I've already told you the Chionis don't attack human beings!"
"Tell that to Hall!" I snapped back at her.
After a frozen breakfast, we interrogated McKay at length on all she knew about the Chionis. All she could tell us was: Common name: Sheathbill, due to their beaks being semi-sheathed at the base in a horny casing. Genus: Chionis. Species: Alba. Adult height: generally not more than thirty-five centimetres (although the one with the red splash above one eye must have been nearly fifty centimetres tall). They are the only Antarctic birds not to have webbing on their feet. They are quarrelsome by nature and are constantly fighting amongst themselves. They live on small fish and whatever they can find, beg, or steal -- often taking the food right out of the mouths of baby penguins. And they are totally unafraid of human beings.
All very interesting, in a cold, clinical sort of way, but not in the least bit of any use to us.
"Listen, Doc," I said, picking up on the remark about their quarrelsome nature, "I thought you said yesterday they are peace-loving creatures?"
"What I said was, they are basically peace-loving, and that they don't attack human beings," she corrected.
"To the best of your knowledge?"
"Yes, Reagan, to the best of my knowledge. And to the best of the knowledge and research of dozens of biologists and marine experts, who have spent vast fortunes, and devoted inestimable man-hours exploring the Antarctica and all of its life forms!"
"Right at the moment, I don't think Hall is all impressed with statistics!" I said.
After the ensuing squabble, which continued for nearly ten minutes, we buried Donald Hall about a metre beneath the hard-packed snow, then continued on our way.
* * *
We located the Soviet base-camp nine days after Hall's death.
"Any signs of life?" I asked Harris.
"None," he replied, looking down upon the base, from our vantage point on an ice ridge above the base, which was in a small valley. "The place looks deserted."
"Are we going down for a closer look?" asked McKay.
"Not just yet," I said. "We'll pitch camp half a kilometre away and keep watch on the base with the infrared binoculars." Nobody questioned my decision, we were all reluctant to go charging down blindly into the unknown.
We remained hidden for another twelve hours, watching the camp from the ridge in shifts. Unable to detect any sign of life by then, we voted to go down to the camp for a closer look.
The Soviet camp was made up of one large rectangular wooden building, approximately one hundred metres, by fifty metres, by four metres, divided into eight separate rooms. Down the centre of the building ran a two-metre wide corridor. On the left of the corridor were three bedrooms, each containing a dozen collapsible bunk beds and a dozen grey, metal clothes lockers. On the right were two larger rooms, one a recreation room-cum-gymnasium, the other the kitchen-cum-dining room. At the end of the corridor was a medium sized laboratory, which led off into two much smaller rooms, the bathroom and a small storage room. Outside, connecting to the back of the building was a second, much larger storage room, inaccessible from inside, three metres in depth and spanning the entire width of the building.
"Impressive," said Saxton as we moved among the wooden benches, laden with all kinds of elaborate glassware in the laboratory.
"Yes, they must be planning to stay for quite some time," I said. "A bit risky, but I guess they figure that in this wasteland they can go undetected forever."
The camp was clearly deserted, so after a hasty search we returned to our own base to get some much needed rest.
When we awoke we returned to the Soviet camp, which was still deserted.
"Well, what do we do now?" asked McKay.
"There's only one thing we can do," said Smith, "scour around till we find them."
It was obvious they hadn't returned to the Soviet Union, because there was a great deal of clothing and supplies still in the camp, not to mention the valuable chemical equipment. It was highly unlikely they would have left all their equipment behind; even less likely they would have left the building standing to be discovered by explorers from other countries.
"It just doesn't make any sense," said Terry Harris, obviously still concerned about working in the blue-white night world. "Unless they were watching us earlier as we suspected, and ran from us, rather than stand and fight."
"It doubt it," said Smith, "they had us greatly outnumbered, so why should they be afraid of a direct confrontation?"
"Particularly on their own terms!" said Saxton, voicing my own thoughts. "They could have easily picked us off back at the valley where we first saw the Chionis, or at any number of places between there and here!"
"So we scour around for them?" asked Elizabeth McKay
"We scour for them," agreed Leonard Smith.
* * *
We set off in five different directions. Harris had wanted McKay to stay behind, however, she had insisted upon taking part, saying, "This is no time for any of your bloody male chauvinism. You're going to need all of the help you can get, if this search is to have any chance at all of success."
"She's right," I agreed, much to her obvious surprise. "Five can scour more effectively than four, so let's stop bickering about it."
"How long should we stay out, if we don't find any sign of them?" asked Harris.
"How about two days?" suggested Ross Saxton, apparently much less concerned about the strange night world than Harris was. I realised Saxton's years in MI6 meant that he was more experienced at operating on other people's turf than the Irishman, and therefore had grown more adaptable.
"No, no, we can't afford to stumble around blindly for so long," I said to Harris' obvious relief. "If we don't find them fairly quickly, we'll have to report back to Washington to get some help in the search. Our job was to strike quickly: get in, get the job done, then get out again. Not to go off half cocked on a blind hunt across endless wastelands."
"Then how about twelve hours?" suggested Saxton.
"Halve that and you've got a deal," I said.
So, having agreed to meet back at our camp in six hours' time we prepared to set out. McKay and I going on skies, the others on the sleds.
"Won't they hear the dogs yapping?" McKay asked, concerned about taking the sleds.
"There's a chance they might," conceded Smith, "however, there's a good chance that the noise of their own sled dogs will drown out the sound of ours. And since the sleds will be faster than skis, it's a chance we have to take."
"It's a pity we don't have any walkie-talkies," said Harris as we set out.
"Yes," I agreed. "But this was supposed to be a quick job, so it was assumed we wouldn't need them. Besides, there would be too great a risk that the Soviets would pick up any transmissions we made and use them to home in on us.
* * *
I set off on a direction roughly thirty degrees west.
From the onset I found myself battling against the elements. The strong Antarctic winds lashed at my face like a whip, stinging my flesh through the green and gold Balaclava which I wore for protection. Powdered snow blew up all around me, settling upon the woollen Balaclava to coat my face with a mask of thin ice, which I had to keep breaking away every few minutes by slapping myself in the face. And the glare from the ice and snow did its level best to blind me, despite the dark, nearly black snow glasses which I wore -- I was just grateful that I only had the reflected winter moonlight to contend with, not the blinding summer sunlight.
I was able to move fairly rapidly across the winter snow, despite the strong headwind. In summer I would have had to take a lot more care, moving much more slowly, ever wary of the constant danger of ice drifts and the rolling, dune-like snow. After three hours had passed, I felt that I couldn't have covered much less ground than one of the sleds. I had just resigned myself to starting back to base, when I noticed a dark shape against the snow a few metres ahead of me.
At first glance it appeared to be the carcase of a large animal. Imagining it might have been killed by the Soviets, and therefore could act as a pointer to the direction they had taken, I went over for a closer look.
It turned out to be a human corpse. Beside it, concealed in the snow by their colouring, were an aluminium sled and the carcases of six sled dogs.
The Russian had been more savagely gnawed than Hall had been. His features were barely recognisable as human.
I set out in a circular path, coiling steadily outward from the body of the Soviet, in a bid to cover the surrounding snow in as thorough a manner as possible.
It was little wonder I had been able to stumble upon the Soviet's body in the middle of nowhere. The bodies of the other twenty-eight Soviets, and the carcases of perhaps a hundred and fifty sled dogs, and twenty-eight more aluminium sleds, were spread out around the same area, in a circle of roughly three kilometres in diameter.
* * *
I arrived back at our base camp about six and a half hours after the agreed time.
"Where the Hell have you been?" demanded Elizabeth McKay, like the others having obviously suspected the worst. "I know you have appointed yourself as leader of this group, but what gives you the right to stay out double the agreed time?"
So I told her and she was instantly silent. The others, of course, had found nothing, since I had stumbled across everything there was to find.
My story told we moved to the comfort of the Soviet base to discuss our next move. With our mission completed for us, we did not need to consider that point. But we had yet to come up with anything which could feasibly explain the deaths of Donald Hall and the twenty-nine Soviets.
"It has to be the Chionis," I said as we crowded around the large oil heater in the dining room. "What the Hell else could it be?"
"Oh come back down to earth, Reagan," snapped Elizabeth McKay. "You aren't still flogging that dead horse, are you?"
"Well, how would you explain it?" demanded Ross Saxton. "We haven't spotted any other bird life since landing here."
"I can't explain it," she admitted. "Maybe we're being too hasty in assuming they were pecked to death."
"Come off it!" yelled Terry Harris. "How the Hell else could you explain their condition? Vampire bats!"
The redhead regarded Harris with a long, icy stare for nearly a full minute before answering. When she finally spoke, she bombarded him with a lengthy tirade of abuse, during which she questioned everything from his Intelligence Quotient to his manhood, pointedly referring to Harris's obvious unease at being at the Antarctic wasteland. When, after nearly three minutes she stopped for a breath, Harris leapt at her, knocking McKay over backwards onto the hard wood floor, and began clawing wildly at her clothing, determined at least to prove his manhood to her.
"Get off me, you stupid oaf!" she shrieked.
"Not much of a man, aren't I?" he shrieked back at her. "I'll show you how much of a man I am!"
Harris had tom his way through the top of her garments, exposing one pink breast, its dark red nipple instantly hardening in the frigid air, before Smith and I were able to drag him off her.
For a second or two the redhead lay on her back on the floor, staring up at us in shock. Then slowly she returned to her senses and began hurling further insults at the Irishman.
This time as he moved toward her, Smith moved forward also and leapt on Harris, pinning him face down upon the floor, while Saxton and I helped McKay to her feet.
"Bastard!" shrieked Elizabeth McKay, holding closed the rip in her clothing.
"Bitch!" shouted back Terry Harris, trying futilely to escape Smith's hold.
They were glaring at each other like two prize fighters in opposite corners of the ring, waiting for the start of a big grudge match.
"Clearly we aren't going to get anywhere right at the moment," said Smith. "So let's grab some sleep, then we can talk things over in the morning. After we've all had a chance to cool down a little."
"He's right," agreed Saxton. The anaemic Briton rarely spoke, but when he did it was inevitably with cool, calm sense. "The way we are at the moment, we're only going for each other's throat, and that isn't going to solve anything."
So it was agreed that we would bed down in the comfort of the Soviet base. The four men sleeping in the first bedroom, Elizabeth McKay in the third -- as far away from Terry Harris as possible. We would talk things over again when we awakened.
* * *
As it turned out, however, when we awakened there was nothing left to talk over.
I had hardly fallen asleep, when I felt a hand on my shoulder shaking me awake.
"Get over here and get a look at this, Reagan," said Ross Saxton, leading me across to the large, single-paned window.
We stood in silence, gazing out at the Chionis for nearly five minutes, before going to wake the others.
"I think we're about to find out how Hall and the Soviets died," said Saxton. This time there was no argument from Elizabeth McKay.
At first the Chionis came slowly and stood at the very edge of the clearing around the camp, thirty-odd metres away from the building. They stood without moving, or even appearing to breathe. Simply standing in the snow, glaring at us, with sheer hatred radiating from their murderous little, black button eyes. At the very front of the procession was the now familiar figure of the larger bird with the splash of red above its left eye.
"There's the bastard which gave us the evil eye earlier," said Saxton, pointing toward the bird.
"Are you sure?" asked McKay.
"Yes, see the red slash above its eye." he replied. "It must be their leader."
"Don't be bloody ridiculous," said McKay, but with less conviction in her voice than previously.
There were literally thousands of the large birds, going back as far as we could see. They had us surrounded, like a wagon train surrounded by Indians in a western.
Slowly the Chionis began moving forward, until they were about three metres away from the building. Then they stopped again and took one last, long hard look at us, before launching themselves forward at a lightning fast pace. They were hurtling across the ice and snow at a much faster pace than any of us would have given them credit for. It was almost as though the snow itself was rippling with a solid wave of whiteness, like the froth upon the coastline as the waves are breaking. Except this was a wave of sheer hatred, a wave of white death!
"Close that bloody door!" I yelled to Harris, who had been watching the procession of birds with the front door ajar.
He just managed to slam the door and bolt it, before the white death reached us.
"This is impossible! It can't be happening!" cried Elizabeth McKay.
"Wake up baby, it is happening!" snapped Terry Harris, making me look hard at him, searching for any sign we were going to have a recurrence of the earlier trouble between Harris and McKay. However, I soon decided I had nothing to worry about on that score. Whatever nervous problem had afflicted the Irishman while confronted with an unknown enemy had disappeared the moment the Antarctic birds decided to show their hand. In an open confrontation Harris was a cool, calm, professional killer.
The Chionis began pecking furiously at the heavy wooden door, trying to break through, while we all slowly backed down the corridor, having moved out of the bedrooms to prevent ourselves from being trapped there.
We secretly thanked the Soviets for having used a solid oaken door instead of one of the modern plyboard variety, and for a fair while it seemed as though the door might hold. But after about fifty minutes, the first of the large birds broke through.
At first we were able to easily shoot them down as quickly as they came through, but slowly the crack in the door began to widen and soon they were pouring through in the dozens.
A battle royal began with our team using machine pistols and Uzis. The attacking birds used only their sheer bulk of numbers, surging forward, committing mass suicide by heading straight into a volley of bullets.
"If they've got any brains at all, they must know they can't win!" cried the previously calm Saxton, showing the first sign of beginning to crack under pressure.
Yet for hours it seemed as though the birds were going to win. In the initial onslaught Terry Harris was swamped by the large, white birds.
"What can we do to help him?" screamed McKay.
There were only two answers: fire upon the seething mass, and risk killing the Irishman, or else allow him to be pecked to death. No one was going to offer to fight the birds by hand.
We hesitated for only a few seconds. In the end our minds were made up for us by the sound of Harris' high-pitched screams, which rang out from beneath the swirling mass of silvery beaks. We opened fire and the Irishman died in the initial volley of shots.
Yet still the birds were not satisfied. They continued to peck the lifeless carcase to pieces, noisily gulping small chunks of the still warm flesh down their tiny gullets, while the bird with the red slash above its eye stood back watching. I've heard it said that a school of piranha fish can strip a large carcase of beef to the bone in under eight minutes. It looked as though the Chionis were determined to break this record with Harris' corpse.
This latest atrocity was too much for Ross Saxton, who ran toward the birds, screaming, "Bastards! Bastards!" firing from the hip with a machine pistol as he ran.
A group of the white birds turned away from Harris' corpse (now little more than a skeleton) to swarm upon Saxton. Somehow we managed to drag him clear before the main body of birds could reach him, however, he was badly injured and would not live long without receiving the proper medical attention.
After the attacks upon Harris and Saxton we fought in the corridor, spraying the Chionis and doorway alike with machine-gun fire.
"Keep your aim low!" Smith yelled to McKay, who was firing wildly in nervous excitement, her green eyes shining from fear. "We don't want to make it any easier for the bastards by shooting the bloody door down!" Although in reality the front door had almost fallen in two by then anyway.
It was perhaps a quarter of an hour later when we heard the first of the popping noises. The windows to our right had just imploded as the Chionis broke through into the first two bedrooms. A few minutes later we heard popping sounds behind us and to our left, as the birds broke through into the third bedroom and the recreation room.




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