Read The Thing Online

Authors: Alan Dean Foster

The Thing (7 page)

BOOK: The Thing
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Garry had thought of forbidding the practice, but Fuchs was adamant. And the station manager was forced to admit there was nothing in the regulations forbidding it.

"It wakes me up," Fuchs continued to insist despite the derisive hoots of his companions. "Gets the blood flowing."

"Everywhere but to the brain," Palmer had quipped.

Garry couldn't find it in his heart to order the biologist to quit. There was little enough entertainment in the camp. If Fuchs wanted to amuse himself by trying to freeze to death every morning, well, that was his prerogative.

The only concession to reality the assistant biologist made was the substitution of winter boots for his jogging shoes. It slowed his pace if not his enthusiasm.

He came to a halt, panting, his breath freezing in front of his face. Warm air rose from a vent pipe nearby. He was standing on top of the kitchen.

Most of the camp's permanent structures were buried beneath the shifting snow, cut into the frozen ground and out of the heat-sucking reach of the constant wind. Stairways led down to home.

Fuchs unlatched a roof entrance, looked around and then down past the ladder. The corridor was empty, no one was watching. He assumed a commanding pose.

"Dive, dive!" he muttered, making hornlike sounds, and started quickly down the ladder, pulling the hatch shut behind him.

He jogged dawn the corridor toward the central complex. Off to his right he saw Clark coming out of one of the supply rooms, rolling a wheelbarrow filled with what looked like brown pebbles. The dog handler waved cheerfully at the biologist, trailing dry food in his wake.

The underground kennel was close by. As Fuchs receded into the distance Clark unlatched the kennel door. As he rolled the barrow inside, seven sled dogs began jumping at his legs and onto the load, kicking dry food in all directions. They yelped and barked eagerly.

Sled dogs had lousy table manners, he mused. They snapped at each other's flanks and legs, not to injure but to reestablish dominance roles prior to gorging themselves. Sometimes Nauls would give Clark kitchen scraps to mix in with the dry food. Then things really got noisy in the kennel.

"Take it easy, take it easy!" he shouted at them. "Lord, what a bunch of chowhounds!" He inspected them as they settled down to eat, making sure there were no signs of infection or disease, checking their teeth for breaks or accumulated plaque.

The men he worked with were okay, but his dogs were better. They were ever affectionate, did their jobs unhesitatingly when required, and rarely argued with him. In return, the sled dogs had conveyed their highest honor on Clark. They thought of him as one of their own. He was the lead dog.

Besides which he brought the food.

The storage section, which held the fuel tanks, was older than the rest of the compound, having been put in place first. The wood-and-metal supports that held up the roof there were starting to look rickety. Antarctica put pressure on metal and wood as steadily as it did on the men who had to survive there.

Piping and concrete blocks were stacked neatly nearby. The concrete was special, designed to withstand the cold without cracking. The blocks were tongue and grooved so they could be fitted together without mortar.

Doors sealed off other smaller rooms filled with duplicate electronic gear, duplicate plumbing supplies, duplicate everything. There was no hardware store a block or two from Outpost #31. The men had six months of polar winter ahead of them. They had to be ready to replace anything that broke down without outside help.

Childs was humming to himself as he entered the main storage area. He stopped in front of a door that was close to the massive horizontal fuel tanks. There were six locks of varying types attached to the door. A couple were combination jobs, several required keys, and one a magnetic bar. He opened each one carefully.

The little room behind the door was unusually warm. Heat flowed from a small radiant heater that looked like a painting of the American Southwest. Bright fluorescent lights of slightly purplish hue beamed down from the ceiling. The room smelled of Wisconsin farmland and Mendocino coast.

Childs grinned paternally as he inspected the rows of healthy plants rising from the hydroponic tanks. They had narrow green leaves with serrated edges. Some of them were nearly as tall as the mechanic.

He chatted with them as he added nutrients to the metal tanks, pouring the stuff from a plastic jug. "How my brothers and sisters doing today? Looks like everyone's doing fine."

He knelt to check the gauges that monitored soil moisture and pH, checked the thermometer on the wall and adjusted the heat control slightly. A hum rose from the radiant heater, warming the mechanic's face. Little light came through the small skylight overhead.

Turning to a tape deck he selected a well-worn cassette from the pile next to it and switched the machine on.

"What say to some nice Al Green for my babies, huh?" He pushed the "on" button.

A high, wailing voice softly filled the little room.

". . . IIIIII cried
. . ." the voice sang agonizingly.

What a waste, that man going and turning to preaching, Childs thought sadly. He remembered seeing him in L.A. at the Music Center, in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, singing on the same stage usually occupied by the Philharmonic. Oh well. I guess when you get the call, you got to answer.

But how that man could sing. Damn shame.

A new sound reached him above the music, a steady panting. He whirled, it was only their new visitor, the dog the crazy Norwegians had been trying to kill.

A thought made the mechanic frown at the animal, who cocked its head to one side and regarded him querulously. The bandage was gone from its hip. Probably scraped off against a wall or piece of furniture, Childs mused. Dogs had a tendency to do things like that.

They also had a tendency to do something else, which is why the mechanic was frowning. He moved toward the dog, making shooing motions with both hands.

"G'wan, beat it, mutt! You get the hell on out of here! Scram!" He took a swing at the wet nose.

The dog eyed him reproachfully, then turned and trotted off. Childs turned back to his garden, grumbling under his breath.

"Comin' in here . . . goin' to pee on my babies. Damn dogs, you can't even get away from their dirty at the bottom of the world." He shut the door carefully behind him and bent over the burgeoning plants.

"That's my babies." Al Green shifted to another song. "Be all grown pretty soon. All nice and green and healthy. And then me and my babies going to have a nice, long smoke . . ."

Blair's gaze was fixed on the chart he was carrying as he strolled down the corridor. Preoccupied, he nearly fell as his feet got tangled in something unseen.

"What the . . .?" He bent, picked up a torn, shredded piece of stained bandage. "Well shit," he muttered, looking around for its owner. But the husky was nowhere to be seen.

Have to mention it to Clark, he thought as he resumed his walk. Dog'll bleed all over the place. Shouldn't worry too much, though. The exposed wound was unlikely to draw infection. Germs didn't last very long inside the compound, and those that attached themselves to the men died quickly once exposed to the outside. Antarctica was a difficult place to get sick, so long as you were careful not to catch cold.

The generator whined steadily down in the lower level, keeping men and equipment in working order, fighting back the constant cold with light and warmth.

Palmer was probing its driving mechanisms, trying to locate possible failure points ahead of time. Normal maintenance. A rising whine made him frown, until he pulled his head away from the interior and recognized the sound as coming from outside. Helicopter blades fighting with the wind.

A loud crash sounded close by. Screwdrivers and probes spilled across the floor as the tool box banged against the planks. The husky had jumped onto Palmer's work table and knocked the box over. The dog stood panting atop the table, trying to peer out the narrow window just below the ceiling, its forepaws resting on the little ledge there.

Palmer cursed softly and got to his feet, and started to gather up his tools, replacing them carefully in the box. He yelled toward the open doorway.

"Hey, Clark! Will you kennel this goddamn dog? If he's healthy enough to jump up on tables he's sure as hell healthy enough to join his cousins!" When no reply was forthcoming he picked up a wrench and started banging against a pipe running toward the kennel. "Hey, Clark!"

The dog ignored him, pawing at the window as it stared out at the arriving chopper.

The helicopter jiggled unsteadily in the wind, finally settling on the pad near its mate and the bulldozer. Childs and Sanders were waiting for it.

As soon as the steady
of the rotors had slowed sufficiently they came running toward the craft, bent over against the wind, hauling guy wires behind them. Childs snapped one hook onto the link welded to the copter's tail while Sanders did the same near the cockpit. Macready was out quickly, assisting them.

"What'd you find?" Childs bellowed at him through the gale. The wind was picking up again. It bit at the mechanic's exposed cheeks.

Macready appeared not to hear him. Childs snapped on another guy wire, attaching it to the side of the copter. It sang in the wind as he moved closer to the pilot.

"Hey, Mac. I asked you what—" He broke off as Macready turned to face him. The pilot's anguished expression was eloquence enough for Childs.

"Later," Macready mumbled. Childs stared into his friend's face and just nodded.

The science staff had crowded into Garry's quarters. The station manager's room was somewhat larger than the others, but the atmosphere was still claustrophobic.

There was initial concern that the Norwegian videotape wouldn't play back on the camp monitors because of the difference in broadcast signals used by U.S. and European stations. The concern had turned out to be well founded.

At first try the screen had displayed only intense visual static and aural mush. But Sanders was able to transfer the tape via the station's own elaborate video equipment and come up with one that put out a signal the camp monitors could read.

The result wasn't perfect, but at least it was viewable. The picture was grainy and faint and there was no sound. No one commented on the video as it unspooled.

Whoever had operated the video camera was no Victor Seastrom. The picture weaved and tilted, occasionally blurred by overexposure, darkened by under. Not that they seemed to be missing anything of importance.

There were numerous, matter-of-fact shots of the Norwegian team at work, a long sequence of them playing soccer out on the ice, shots of the cook preparing meals, of men playing chess, of day-to-day life. Which was to say, long stretches of tape boring to look at.

Norris was barely paying attention to the monitor. He was devoting his attention instead to the thick bundle of notes Dr. Copper had hauled back to camp.

"Seems they were spending a lot of time at a place four miles northeast of their compound."

Blair looked questioningly at him. "And when did you start reading Norwegian?"

Norris threw him a thin smile. "About the same time I mastered Xhosa." He tapped the uppermost sheet of paper. "There are maps in here. The notations are in Norwegian, but the topographic features are the same. A contour line's a contour line in any language. And of course the math is the same, once you convert the metrics."

"Oh. Right," said Blair subsiding.

"Any indication of what they were involved in? asked the station manager.

Macready was fiddling with the video monitor, trying to improve the picture and failing miserably.

"Lots of manuals and pictures scattered around the place," Norris told Garry. "Indications of ice-core drilling, seismology, glaciology, microbial biology. Same old shit we do."

Snatches of a rowdy song burst suddenly from the monitor's speaker as the scene on screen shifted from someone at work by a laboratory bench to an unsteady shot of a bunch of naked Norwegians holding a sign in front of their waists as they stood outside their camp in super- freezing weather. Several held artifacts common to every contemporary culture, though the brand of beer was unknown to the disgusted watchers. The sign itself was incomprehensible. In all likelihood it contained nothing of enduring scientific value.

Bennings turned away from the TV, muttering disgustedly. "How much more of this down-on-the-farm crap is there?"

"If Sanders's timing is right," Macready told him, "about nine more hours."

The meteorologist shook his head. It was hot and crowded in the room and he had important work to do. "We can't learn anything from this."

Copper nodded reluctant agreement. "You're probably right. Maniacs don't usually think to turn video cameras on themselves while they're in the process of going crackers." He glanced over at the station manager.

"All right. Mac, kill it." The pilot shut off the video deck and the television, and disconnected the patch cord linking them. Garry looked back over at the doctor. "You two find anything else?"

BOOK: The Thing
12.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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