On Top of the World

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

There is something about the polar regions that have drawn people ever since they were first discovered. Now you would think that it was relatively safe to venture beyond the arctic circle with modern equipment and technology. When old ways meet new though and cultures clash the outcome can be unexpected.

 

On Top of the World.

 

Polar exploration in the 21st century was supposed to be a straightforward affair. With a GPS and radio contact with the rest of your team you couldn't possibly get lost. With a high velocity rifle you could fend off the most aggressive polar bear or if you were really in a fix, kill a seal to eat. High tech clothing and high calorie rations could keep out the cold. In fact there was no reason why Jack Nuttall shouldn't survive quite comfortably for three days alone on the ice studying weather patterns and temperatures in the arctic. The main body of the scientific expedition were camped in a temporary hut with a myriad of instruments. Sea ice and currents were being measured alongside the meteorological data. The arctic was melting and the world needed to know how fast.

Jack had volunteered to go off alone with his portable mini weather station. The lure of being alone on the ice was powerful. He looked on it as a chance to find himself and what he was made of. The beauty of this desolate place had captivated him. The ice and snow wasn't just white. It shimmered with the reflected late summer sunlight in a thousand shades of gold. Icebergs that jutted up through the sea ice reflected blues and greens. It was a different kind of beauty. Then of course there was the silence. As he had made his way away from the main camp with his man hauled sledge it hit him. Once the voices of his companions had died away it was just him and the wind.

The first two days had gone well. He had a lot of data to collect and it was keeping his mind occupied. He fell asleep on the second night warm and comfortable in his sleeping bag and with a full stomach. The third morning he put his head outside of his tent and everything was gone. The sledge, the instruments, the main food supply was all gone. Panic surged through him. He looked around the immediate area of his tent wondering if a hole or crevasse had opened up and swallowed the sledge. There was no sign of such a dramatic event. On investigation there were also no footprints and no animal tracks. Jack got back inside the tent so he could think out of the cold. He took stock of what he did have. He had all his clothes, his sleeping bag and his tent. He had his stove and enough fuel for another two days. He had his breakfast, bars of chocolate, milk powder and tea bags. He was in good physical condition and probably about a stone overweight. He thought his chances of walking back to the main camp were good. All he had to do was retrace his steps. He reached for the radio to report back to his colleagues and tell them his predicament. There was a tracker on the sledge. They might be able to pinpoint it. As he tried to raise them all he got was static. He realised then he was completely alone in almost featureless landscape.

He decided that the mystery of the sledge would have to be solved later and his personal survival and how he was going to carry his remaining kit were the immediate problems. The next one was which direction he should go. A compass was not of much use in these latitudes, the needle wanting to find the magnetic pole which was currently situated somewhere in Canada, wavered and wobbled around. He would have to rely on the old fashioned method of using the sun and the stars. Jack fashioned himself a rucksack of sorts, wrapping all he had up in the tent fabric and hauling it onto his back. It wasn't too heavy and he thought it wouldn't drain his energy too much. He knew by the position of the now midday sun that he should head straight towards it. His snow goggles on and snow shoes he set off at a brisk but sustainable pace. Perhaps when he made his next stop he would try the radio again. He knew he would have to make hot drinks along the way to ward off dehydration. Hopefully as he got closer to the base camp he would be able to report in. It was six miles and he felt confident that he could do it in a day. Of course he was unarmed and the ever present threat of hungry polar bears weighed on him some. Without a rifle his chances were virtually nil if he encountered a hungry one. If he did he hoped the end would be quick.

After two hours of trudging he couldn't estimate how far he had gone but he had a terrible thirst and stopped to melt down some snow and make tea. While he was doing this a fog rolled in from behind him and before long blotted out all but the faintest trace of the sun. Jack cursed his bad luck , gathered his things together and put up the tent. It was the only thing to do as wandering around in zero visibility would achieve nothing. What he wouldn't give right now for the sight of his colleagues and the cramped hut they erected temporarily in the wastes of this inhospitable region. The words of Captain Scott came to mind from the famous diary he wrote. On reaching the South Pole and realising he had been beaten by Amundsen he wrote “ Great God! This is an awful place.....” With these negative thoughts running through his mind Jack drank his tea and got into his sleeping bag to wait for the fog to lift. He tried the radio again to no avail. With no other course of action to take he decided to conserve energy and have a nap.

He wasn't sure how long he had been asleep but when he put his head outside the tent the sun was low in the sky. The temperature had dropped but the visibility was excellent. He made himself a hot drink and ate half of the chocolate he had in his pocket. This was going to be his push for safety. Checking the time he saw it was midnight and he reasoned that if the sun was directly at his back he would be heading in the right direction. He was determined to get as much mileage as possible under his feet this time in case the all enveloping fog returned. The going underfoot was good. The lower night time temperatures firmed up the surface. He wished he had his ski's as he could have made really good progress.

After walking for a long time he stopped to take stock of his position. He thought he was still on the same bearing and used his binoculars to check in the distance for bears. Off to his right he was completely amazed to see someone else. The figure in the distance was also man hauling Jack's sledge. Maybe one of the team had come out to search for him, found the sledge and was now heading back to the base with it. He couldn't be more than half a kilometre away and sound carried a long way here. He called out to get the man's attention. Looking through the binoculars still Jack could see the figure turn to look at him. Instead of acknowledging the sound of another human being the strange man broke into a run and started to drag the sledge further away. Jack knew if he kept shouting the sound would be picked up by bears for miles around so he deviated from his course and started to follow his sledge . He should catch up without a problem. He would be much faster than someone hauling that weight behind them. As much as he tried though and as fast as he tried to run in the cumbersome snow shoes he couldn't make up any ground and the stranger stayed tantalisingly out of reach. With a huge final effort Jack dropped his makeshift pack and the last of his equipment and put all his effort into the pursuit. Inside the thermal clothing he could feel the sweat running down his back and out of his hair. The cold twilight air was burning his lungs and finally as he reached an uneven area of sastrugi he fell flat on his stomach. He heard himself yelling and raging in despair as he struggled to get up on the ridged uneven ice. He looked up and found he was looking at the figure of the man who was in possession of the sledge. A shortish man dressed in a combination of seal and polar bear skins was looking down with a finger pressed to his lips.

“Sssh. Bears will come.” he whispered.

Jack stopped and came to his senses.

“What are you doing with my equipment? How can you take things from another person here, knowing it could kill them?” Jack seethed angrily.

“You people bring too much here. You don't understand how to touch lightly on this land. The noise and the instruments. You scare everything for miles around.”

“We are here to make scientific measurements. We aren't here to scare anything.”

“If you spoke to those of us that live here you wouldn't need all the instruments. We know what is happening. We are living through it.”

Jack was now upright and could see he was several inches taller than the Inuit man he was addressing. He lowered his temper and his tone reasoning that confrontation would probably only deepen his predicament and not help it.

“I'm sorry. I'm sure you understand that to lose your kit here is a devastating thing. Now if you would like we can go back to retrieve the tent and the cooking stove. Perhaps you would care to take shelter and share some rations? A hot meal goes down well and I'm pretty hungry.”

The stranger looked Jack up and down and finally smiled.

“You not Canadian?” he asked.

“English.”

“That figures. I expect you have tea and not coffee.”

Jack nodded and the other man laughed. Together they hauled the sledge back to where Jack had dropped the tent which was mercifully untouched. They made a proper camp together. Jack cooked up some of his rations along with some seal meat his companion had been carrying in a bag.

The fatty meat was a welcome addition and Jack could feel an instant energy boost as he ate it. The hot food and drink improved his demeanour. He needed to find out if he was on course to get back to his base and this man who had appeared seemingly from nowhere would probably know. The GPS was indicating that he was no nearer the hut than when he had started out despite several hours of walking.

“Sea ice. The current is constantly moving it. You walk north and end up being swept south. Your GPS is misleading you. I can get you back to your colleagues. Now I know you aren't miners or oil men.”

“And if I was?” Jack asked.

“I would still be watching you and you would never have seen your sledge again.”

Jack shivered, and not from the cold.

“I'm just a humble climatologist” he answered simply.

“Jack the climate man, and Tulok the wise one. We will make a good team. I will get you back to your people. We must rest for a while and you must get dry clothes. Then you will be with your people tomorrow.”

Jack had little choice now but to throw his lot in with Tulok the wise one.

After a few hours rest and sleep the two men broke camp and Tulok indicated the direction that they should be taking. Luckily it was across flat terrain which although featureless and slightly disorientating to Jack, meant that the hauling was easy. It also made sense to Jack as his journey out had been across this same flat surface. No crumpled sea ice or tortuous ridges to negotiate. Things were turning out to be hard enough. He felt reassured when at midday after four hours trudging they were walking straight into the sun. Jack felt his goal must be within touching distance. Tulok indicated to the right of them.

“Here” he said “Two igloos as you call them. I built them a few days ago. Good compact snow here for it and all my equipment is here. Let's stop and eat and have hot drinks. We have about another three hours to go. I will see if there are any fish to add to the rations.”

While Jack set up the camp once more Tulok found his basic but obviously useful kit and smashed a hole in the ice with a harpoon. He lowered some fishing line and hooks baited with small morsels of fish and hauled the line up and down rhythmically in the cold water. After about twenty minutes he pulled the fishing line in and several decent size fish were dangling from the hooks.

“Get the pan on Jack. Sedna is good to us today. We will eat well.”

“Sedna?” Jack asked.

“The sea goddess. She is in charge of all the creatures in the sea. She brings us the seals and walrus to hunt. She makes sure we don't take more than we need to survive.”

“And if you do?”

“Then we know hunger and the goddess has to be appeased.”

Jack nodded his head but didn't venture into asking how this appeasement happened. He new a little about Inuit culture and dismissed it in his head. It would probably involve a shaman and a lot of singing and dancing. It was all a bit beyond Jack. He was hard wired for science and facts. Ancient superstition of any kind did not enthral him. Tulok passed him some perfectly filleted fish for the frying pan. All they needed was batter and chips and Jack would almost feel as though he was back home in England. He suddenly missed the green trees and meadows at the back of his house in Oxfordshire. The buzz of the city and even the sound and smell of traffic a thousand miles away seemed preferable to this place. Tulok looked up from his food.

“You will be back with your people soon.”

Once again they were on the move making good progress. Another two hours of walking and dragging the sledge must be bringing them close to the hut. Jack stopped and pulled out his binoculars. There, in the distance was the green outline of the hut. Jack could see the piles of supplies around it. At last he would be going home. He saw movement and knew then he would make it back in time for the airlift planned to take them back to civilisation.

“Tulok, you truly are the wise one!” Jack exclaimed and put his arm around the smaller man's shoulders. “Thank you for helping me get back.”

Jack had momentarily forgotten that Tulok had been the cause of his problems in the beginning.

On drawing closer to the hut Jack was alarmed to see that the movement was not created by one of his colleagues. The man was not wearing a bright coloured modern coat but like Tulok was dressed in seal skins. When he turned round he had the elaborate embroidery and markings on his clothes of a shaman. Hands, one one each side of his chest adorned the tunic and elaborate patterns were worked into the bottom of it. Fringes of leather decorated the edges. The face of the man was wrinkled and weather beaten and showed no sign of emotion as he looked Jack straight in the eye. Tulok rushed past and fell to his knees in front of the old man. They spoke to each other in their own language leaving Jack feeling uneasy. The last thing he saw was Tulok springing to his feet and lifting a harpoon. He felt the thud of it in his chest and as he drifted away he saw the green fields of his home and felt the warmth of summer day on his face.

Tulok looked at the corpse that had once been a man. He had been a foolish and naïve one like his friends but this had made things easy for them. Sedna, the sea goddess must be appeased if they were to have good hunting. The shaman, the angakkuq, could now perform the ritual. Jack was dragged into the hut to join his colleagues. He was back with his people as promised. As the shaman began to chant the ancient song the sea ice heaved under their feet. Sedna was rising from the deep.


Submitted: June 12, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Petula Mitchell . All rights reserved.

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