Copyright © 2007 by Dan Simmons
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First eBook Edition: March 2007
54: DES VOEUX
About the Author
Also by Dan Simmons
Song of Kali
Phases of Gravity
The Fall of Hyperion
Prayers to Broken Stones
Summer of Night
The Hollow Man
Children of the Night
Fires of Eden
The Rise of Endymion
The Crook Factory
A Winter Haunting
Worlds Enough & Time
Hard as Nails
This book is dedicated, with love and many thanks for the indelible Arctic memories, to Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, Dewey Martin, William Self, George Fenneman, Dmitri Tiomkin, Charles Lederer, Christian Nyby, Howard Hawkes, and James Arness.
Sir John Franklin Arctic Expedition to Force the Northwest Passage
May 19, 1845: HMS Erebus and HMS Terror with 129 men depart England
Late July 1845: Ships last seen by whalers in Baffin Bay
Winter 1845–46: Ships frozen in at Beechey Island
Sept. 1846–April 22, 1848: Ships frozen in place at Lat. 70°-05′ N., Long. 98°-23′ W
This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathesome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark.
— HERMAN MELVILLE
Moby Dick (1851)
Lat. 70°-05′ N., Long. 98°-23′ W.
Captain Crozier comes up on deck to find his ship under attack by celestial ghosts. Above him — above Terror — shimmering folds of light lunge but then quickly withdraw like the colourful arms of aggressive but ultimately uncertain spectres. Ectoplasmic skeletal fingers extend toward the ship, open, prepare to grasp, and pull back.
The temperature is −50 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping fast. Because of the fog that came through earlier, during the single hour of weak twilight now passing for their day, the foreshortened masts — the three topmasts, topgallants, upper rigging, and highest spars have been removed and stored to cut down on the danger of falling ice and to reduce the chances of the ship capsizing because of the weight of ice on them — stand now like rudely pruned and topless trees reflecting the aurora that dances from one dimly seen horizon to the other. As Crozier watches, the jagged ice fields around the ship turn blue, then bleed violet, then glow as green as the hills of his childhood in northern Ireland. Almost a mile off the starboard bow, the gigantic floating ice mountain that hides Terror’s sister ship, Erebus, from view seems for a brief, false moment to radiate colour from within, glowing from its own cold, internal fires.
Pulling up his collar and tilting his head back, out of forty years’ habit of checking the status of masts and rigging, Crozier notices that the stars overhead burn cold and steady but those near the horizon not only flicker but shift when stared at, moving in short spurts to the left, then to the right, then jiggling up and down. Crozier has seen this before — in the far south with Ross as well as in these waters on earlier expeditions. A scientist on that south polar trip, a man who spent the first winter in the ice there grinding and polishing lenses for his own telescope, had told Crozier that the perturbation of the stars was probably due to rapidly shifting refraction in the cold air lying heavy but uneasy over the ice-covered seas and unseen frozen landmasses. In other words, over new continents never before seen by the eyes of man. Or at least, Crozier thinks, in this northern arctic, by the eyes of white men.
Crozier and his friend and then-commander James Ross had found just such a previously undiscovered continent — Antarctica — less than five years earlier. They named the sea, inlets, and landmass after Ross. They named mountains after their sponsors and friends. They named the two volcanoes they could see on the horizon after their two ships — these same two ships — calling the smoking mountains Erebus and Terror. Crozier was surprised they hadn’t named some major piece of geography after the ship’s cat.
They named nothing after him. There is, on this October winter’s dark-day evening in 1847, no arctic or antarctic continent, island, bay, inlet, range of mountains, ice shelf, volcano, or fucking floeberg which bears the name of Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier.
Crozier doesn’t give the slightest God-damn. Even as he thinks this, he realizes that he’s a little bit drunk. Well, he thinks, automatically adjusting his balance to the icy deck now canted twelve degrees to starboard and down eight degrees by the bow, I’ve been drunk more of
ten than not now for three years, haven’t I? Drunk ever since Sophia. But I’m still a better sailor and captain drunk than that poor, unlucky bastard Franklin ever was sober. Or his rosy-cheeked lisping pet poodle Fitzjames, for that matter.
Crozier shakes his head and walks down the icy deck forward to the bow and toward the only man on watch he can make out in the flickering light from the aurora.
It is short, rat-faced Cornelius Hickey, caulker’s mate. The men look all the same out here on watch in the dark, since they’re all issued the same cold-weather slops: layers of flannel and wool covered with a heavy waterproof greatcoat, bulbous mittens protruding from voluminous sleeves, their Welsh wigs — heavy watch caps with floppy ears — pulled tight, often with long comforters — scarves — wrapped around their heads until only the tips of their frostbitten noses are visible. But each man layers or wears his cold-weather slops slightly differently — adding a comforter from home, perhaps, or an extra Welsh wig tugged down over the first, or perhaps colorful gloves lovingly knit by a mother or wife or sweetheart peeking out from under the Royal Navy outer mittens — and Crozier has learned to tell all fifty-nine of his surviving officers and men apart, even at a distance outside and in the dark.
Hickey is staring fixedly out beyond the icicle-sheathed bowsprit, the foremost ten feet of which are now embedded in a ridge of sea ice, as HMS Terror’s stern has been forced up by the ice pressure and the bow is pushed lower. Hickey is so lost in thought or cold that the caulker’s mate doesn’t notice his captain’s approach until Crozier joins him at a railing that has become an altar of ice and snow. The lookout’s shotgun is propped against that altar. No man wants to touch metal out here in the cold, not even through mittens.
Hickey starts slightly as Crozier leans close to him at the railing. Terror’s captain can’t see the twenty-six-year-old’s face, but a puff of his breath — instantly turning into a cloud of ice crystals reflecting the aurora — appears beyond the thick circle of the smaller man’s multiple comforters and Welsh wig.
Men traditionally don’t salute during the winter in the ice, not even the casual knuckling of the forehead an officer receives at sea, but the thick-clad Hickey does that odd little shuffle and shrug and head dip by which the men acknowledge their captain’s presence while outside. Because of the cold, the watches have been cut down from four hours to two — God knows, thinks Crozier, we have enough men for that on this overcrowded ship, even with the lookouts doubled — and he can tell just by Hickey’s slow movements that he’s half-frozen. As many times as he’s told the lookouts that they have to keep moving on deck — walk, run in place, jump up and down if they have to, all the while keeping their attention on the ice — they still tend to stand immobile for the majority of their watch, just as if they were in the South Seas wearing their tropical cotton and watching for mermaids.
“Mr. Hickey. Anything?”
“Nothing since them shots … that one shot … almost two hours ago, sir. Just a while ago I heard, I think I heard … maybe a scream, something, Captain … from out beyond the ice mountain. I reported it to Lieutenant Irving, but he said it was probably just the ice acting up.”
Crozier had been told about the sound of the shot from the direction of Erebus and had quickly come up on deck two hours ago, but there’d been no repetition of the sound and he’d sent no messenger to the other ship nor anyone out on the ice to investigate. To go out on the frozen sea in the dark now with that … thing … waiting in the jumble of pressure ridges and tall sastrugi was certain death. Messages were passed between the ships now only during those dwindling minutes of half-light around noon. In a few days, there would be no real day at all, only arctic night. Round-the-clock night. One hundred days of night.
“Perhaps it was the ice,” says Crozier, wondering why Irving hadn’t reported the possible scream. “The shot as well. Only the ice.”
“Yes, Captain. The ice it is, sir.”
Neither man believes it — a musket shot or shotgun blast has a distinctive sound, even from a mile away, and sound travels almost supernaturally far and clearly this far north — but it’s true that the ice pack squeezing ever more tightly against Terror is always rumbling, moaning, cracking, snapping, roaring, or screaming.
The screams bother Crozier the most, waking him from his hour or so of sound sleep each night. They sound too much like his mother’s crying in her last days … of that and his old aunt’s tales of banshees wailing in the night, predicting the death of someone in the house. Both had kept him awake as a boy.
Crozier turns slowly. His eyelashes are already rimmed with ice, and his upper lip is crusted with frozen breath and snot. The men have learned to keep their beards tucked far under their comforters and sweaters, but frequently they must resort to hacking away hair that has frozen to their clothing. Crozier, like most of the officers, continues to shave every morning, although, in the effort to conserve coal, the “hot water” his steward brings him tends to be just barely melted ice, and shaving can be a painful business.
“Is Lady Silence still on deck?” asks Crozier.
“Oh, yes, Captain, she’s almost always up here,” says Hickey, whispering now as if it made a difference. Even if Silence could hear them, she couldn’t understand their English. But the men believe — more and more every day the thing on the ice stalks them — that the young Esquimaux woman is a witch with secret powers.
“She’s at the port station with Lieutenant Irving,” adds Hickey.
“Lieutenant Irving? His watch should have been over an hour ago.”
“Aye, sir. But wherever Lady Silence is these days, there’s the lieutenant, sir, if you don’t mind me mentioning it. She don’t go below, he don’t go below. Until he has to, I mean… . None of us can stay out here as long as that wi— … that woman.”
“Keep your eyes on the ice, and your mind on your job, Mr. Hickey.”
Crozier’s gruff voice makes the caulker’s mate start again, but he shuffles his shrug salute and turns his white nose back toward the darkness beyond the bow.
Crozier strides up the deck toward the port lookout post. The previous month, he prepared the ship for winter after three weeks of false hope of escape in August. Crozier had once again ordered the lower spars to be swung around along the parallel axis of the ship, using them as a ridgepole. Then they had reconstructed the tent pyramid to cover most of the main deck, rebuilding the wooden rafters that had been stowed below during their few weeks of optimism. But even though the men work hours every day shoveling avenues through the foot or so of snow left for insulation on deck, hacking away ice with picks and chisels, clearing out the spindrift that has come under the canvas roof, and finally putting lines of sand down for traction, there always remains a glaze of ice. Crozier’s movement up the tilted and canted deck is sometimes more a graceful half-skating motion than a stride.
The appointed port lookout for this watch, midshipman Tommy Evans — Crozier identifies the youngest man on board by the absurd green stocking cap, obviously made by the boy’s mother, that Evans always pulls down over his bulky Welsh wig — has moved ten paces astern to allow Third Lieutenant Irving and Silence some privacy.
This makes Captain Crozier want to kick someone — everyone — in the arse.
The Esquimaux woman looks like a short round bear in her furry parka, hood, and pants. She has her back half turned to the tall lieutenant. But Irving is crowded close to her along the rail — not quite touching, but closer than an officer and gentleman would stand to a lady at a garden party or on a pleasure yacht.
“Lieutenant Irving.” Crozier didn’t mean to put quite so much bark into the greeting, but he’s not unhappy when the young man levitates as if poked by the point of a sharp blade, almost loses his balance, grabs the iced railing with his left hand, and — as he insists on doing despite now knowing the proper protocol of a ship in the ice — salutes with his right hand.
It’s a pathetic salute,
thinks Crozier, and not just because the bulky mittens, Welsh wig, and layers of cold-weather slops make young Irving look something like a saluting walrus, but also because the lad has let his comforter fall away from his clean-shaven face — perhaps to show Silence how handsome he is — and now two long icicles dangle below his nostrils, making him look even more like a walrus.
“As you were,” snaps Crozier. God-damn fool, he mentally adds.
Irving stands rigid, glances at Silence — or at least at the back of her hairy hood — and opens his mouth to speak. Evidently he can think of nothing to say. He closes his mouth. His lips are as white as his frozen skin.
“This isn’t your watch, Lieutenant,” says Crozier, hearing the whip-crack in his voice again.
“Aye, aye, sir. I mean, no, sir. I mean, the captain is correct, sir. I mean …” Irving clamps his mouth shut again, but the effect is ruined somewhat by the chattering of his teeth. In this cold, teeth can shatter after two or three hours — actually explode — sending shrapnel of bone and enamel flying inside the cavern of one’s clenched jaws. Sometimes, Crozier knows from experience, you can hear the enamel cracking just before the teeth explode.
“Why are you still out here, John?”
Irving tries to blink, but his eyelids are literally frozen open. “You ordered me to watch over our guest … to look out for … to take care of Silence, Captain.”
Crozier’s sigh emerges as ice crystals that hang in the air for a second and then fall to the deck like so many minuscule diamonds. “I didn’t mean every minute, Lieutenant. I told you to watch her, report to me on what she does, to keep her out of mischief and harm’s way on the ship, and to see that none of the men do anything to … compromise her. Do you think she’s in danger of being compromised out here on deck, Lieutenant?”
“No, Captain.” Irving’s sentence sounds more like a question than an answer.
“Do you know how long it takes for exposed flesh to freeze out here, Lieutenant?”
“No, Captain. I mean, yes, Captain. Rather quickly, sir, I think.”
“You should know, Lieutenant Irving. You’ve had frostbite six times already, and it’s not even officially winter yet.”