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
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
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'
* * *
We set off on May 7
from Houston Aerodrome by Pan Am jet for
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
States, upon Smith's
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
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
"Oh great, just great! In
other words we have to do this whole mission at night?"
"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
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
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
"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
"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?"
"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
"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
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
* * *
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
"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
"Okay then, let's go," I
"Goddamn mountains!" whined
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
I awoke a few minutes
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
"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'
"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
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
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
"My God!" cried Harris. "It
looks as though he's been pecked to death! But by
"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
"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
All very interesting, in a
cold, clinical sort of way, but not in the least bit of any use
"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,"
"To the best of your
"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
* * *
We located the Soviet base-camp
nine days after Hall's death.
"Any signs of life?" I asked
"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
"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
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
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?"
"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
"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
"So we scour around for them?"
asked Elizabeth McKay
"We scour for them," agreed
* * *
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
"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
"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
"Then how about twelve hours?"
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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?
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!"
"Not much of a man, aren't I?"
he shrieked back at her. "I'll show you how much of a man I
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
"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
"Are you sure?" asked
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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?"
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'
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
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