Spitzbergen, 1881. The whaling station stinks, metallic and rank, even though it’s slap-you-in-the-face cold.
David Grace—born and raised in the Welsh valleys—had thought he’d known cold. A thin layer of ice on milk left out overnight, his sisters tracing patterns in the frost on the bedroom windows. But the last few weeks in the Arctic seas have taken him somewhere entirely different.
Up here, the cold gets into a man’s bones. He looks at the huts huddled around the small bay, their bleached timbers shored up with scavenged iron, their tiny windowpanes rattling in the incessant breeze. He doesn’t know how the whalers can live with such flimsy protection from the low temperatures, the sucking despair of the months-long polar darkness. David’s small cabin is crammed full of all the books and blankets he could fit in his sea-chest: the winter night is endless, and better men than him have been defeated by it.
Behind him, the Venture sits in harbour like a visitor from another world. Dogs bark at it, straining on their leashes. The crew mill about on shore, shaking the grit from their boots; they’re unaccustomed to solid ground.
When he first sees Sven, he’s rising from the sea like a whale coming up for air. It’s the slowness that catches David’s eye: there’s a carcass hauled up onto the beach, and men work away with long flensing knives and hand-axes, chop chop chop, they’ve a quota to meet. But there’s a small undisturbed patch in the oily water, clear of the clouds of blood and viscera, and the man’s head comes up in it so slowly, David thinks a seal has come to investigate the kill.
Sven Hansen is golden-haired, but the water plasters it to his head, making him look all one colour: tanned skin, sleek brown fur. He places his palms flat on his face, wipes the water from his eyes. It’s too far away to read his expression, but David finds himself holding his breath—the water can only be a few degrees above freezing.
Sven wades methodically towards shore, revealing a bare chest dotted with scars. The rim of white foam around him turns first pink, then red, but he doesn’t seem to mind. His trousers are too tight for modesty, and David looks away, blushing. He hides his interest by turning to the whale, now cracked open to the sky. The smell makes him heave.
“There’s our whaling foreman,” Jones says, nose wrinkling. “Is he mad?”
David shakes his head, but doesn’t say anything. The tableau fills him with a curious sense of yearning mingled with disquiet. The night sky, blue with golden-streaked clouds; the rippling sea, bloody and green by turns; the Venture, their home for the next twelve months, floating fragile as an eggshell. And Sven Hansen approaching them, a hand raised in greeting, from a northern sea so inhospitable it might as well be the chill void between the stars.
“He’s mad,” Jones says definitively. “But that’s your problem, Gracey, isn’t it.”
• • • •
Captain Playfair interrogates the whalers amidst thick clouds of tobacco smoke. He looks a little like David’s most feared schoolmaster, crouching forwards over the desk, jabbing his knot-knuckled fingers in their faces; David almost expects a caning for daring to clear his throat. The whalers aren’t afraid of Playfair, though, and there are five different languages being spoken simultaneously in the slant-roofed room as they talk over each other. David has a place at the captain’s side, as their coal man; Sven at the other, as their whale man.
The company’s orders are simple: go as far north as possible, see what can be dug out of the ground or shot with harpoon. The maps are vague, the prospects unknown. The Venture will be locked into the ice off a coast so desolate no one has bothered to claim it yet.
And the ice is very bad up there, the whalers are saying.
“It’s madness to enter the pack,” one insists. “Especially around the Seven Islands.”
Sven raises a thin, pale eyebrow, leans forwards to shoot David a look. That’s precisely where the expedition hopes to find coal. Or anthracite. Maybe even marble, its pinkish white veins resembling the flayed-out muscles of the whale now slowly decaying in chill splendour on the beach. David scowls, the traditional reaction of the Coal Man to the Whale Man, but there’s a little flutter in his stomach at the way Sven looks at him; as though they, and they alone, are competent to decide the expedition’s fate.
“You’d be better off leaving that whole area alone,” the whaler says, and coughs—a deep-throated cough that speaks of winters in unventilated huts like this. “Stay south, where the whales are plentiful. We can show you some new grounds.”
“We must prosecute our search for coal,” David says quickly. He doesn’t want to have been taken on for nothing; to have this expedition turned into yet another charting of where sad-eyed whales try to make their highways in the deep. He thinks he’s seen enough dead whales for a lifetime. He needs this. “We absolutely must go north.”
The whalers disagree, but Playfair is impressed.
“Leave that damn thing well alone,” someone says from the blubbery shadows. “Lit up the skies for miles around, didn’t it? As far as ships moored off Jan Mayen’s land.”
“It’s just a story,” another says—once it’s been translated. “Years old. An old fishwives’ tale.”
Captain Playfair strokes his beard, all thoughts of coal and stone and whale blubber set aside. The room stills, just a little.
David thinks of the Eskimo of Cape York. He’s seen their sharp meteorite-iron knives, hilts bound tightly with sinew and fur, as if only creatures of the earth could tame something from the stars. This is a part of the world where things fall from the sky.
He has a horrible feeling, a prickling in his thumbs and toes, that whatever it is—they should just leave it there.
David sees the gleam in his captain’s eyes, though, as the old Dutchman continues to talk. A searing trail of flame coming to rest somewhere in the frozen waters. The fallen meteorite must be solid iron, dense and black as night. It might be worth something, if it’s a large one, but in truth—its value doesn’t matter. No, Playfair is rapt, his cheeks flushed. Their captain is a romantic; sees himself as an adventurer. The meteorite has captured his interest.
David turns to Sven, whose cabin shares a wall with his. At night, when the perpetual light slants in from the illuminators just right, it looks like the wall isn’t there at all, has become filmy like the surface of the water. As though he could walk straight through, to find a thirty-year old whaling foreman with rendering-oil burns on his chest, lie down next to him. Sling an arm around his waist. Exhale.
It’ll happen someday soon. David knows it like he knows the rocks under his feet.
• • • •
Autumn comes sooner than expected.
In the midnight sun, the pack is a jewel-box of freshly cut gems, glimmering wetly in shades of blue and green, unexpected violets and amber. The water is clear below the ship’s hull, and David sometimes thinks he can see right to the bottom, little flickers of gold and silver from sunken treasure, a spill of doubloons like in the stories. But it’s the ice in the water, reflecting the burning sun, and he has to wear slitted goggles on deck to preserve his eyesight. They’re barely moving a mile a day, now, and the air smells of explosions and gunshot: they’ve spread black powder on the brash ice before them, hoping it’ll absorb the sun’s rays and allow them through.
All Captain Playfair talks about is that meteorite. He has grand dreams of exhibiting it at the Royal Geographical Society, or Crystal Palace. He’s decided, with no evidence, that it’s the largest one of its kind, and its presence must be why no one’s made it this far: the water is magnetised, or the air, or it’s affecting the instruments, or the ice. His grasp of science is as hazy as his grasp of the meteorite’s true worth, and David begs him to hug the coast, nip around the Seven Islands to overwinter, pursue the safer roads of coal and earth instead.
It comes to nothing. They’re out of sight of land, and the pack is starting to close up around them.
The loneliness would disturb him, if it wasn’t for Sven. That wall between their cabins had indeed been illusory: a smile, a lingering touch, a telegraphed look of intention goes a long way in getting David through the miserable cold days. They don’t speak about it, but nor do they work particularly hard to hide what’s going on between them. Whalers are different, David thinks, as different from his hard sooty Pentecostal hometown as the sea is from the sky.
• • • •
“Not tempted to take a turn, Gracey?” Jones says over the thump of feet on deck. The scene has the air of a country fair in May; the boatswain has got his fiddle out, and the men at the winch are dancing round and round to the time of the ship’s drums. Playfair’s passion for the meteorite has infected them all, and although the weight of the winch makes them seethe and sweat and clench their teeth, no one shows any lack of enthusiasm.
David stands at the railings, watching the chain disappearing into the dark water. He won’t dance, and the back of his neck is sweaty with anticipation—or something else, a dread half-expressed. To starboard, a curious formation of ice towers over them, nearly overhanging the deck, like an inverted Egyptian pyramid, or a cone of sugar. David has been wondering how it balances, how the water crashing at its base hasn’t hollowed it out and toppled it. There’s a queasy sense of construction about that iceberg, the hand of an invisible maker. Visible for miles around, it had drawn Playfair’s interest, and the meteorite had been nestled at its base.
They’ve run out of time to get anywhere else. October, and the outside world has vanished in the polar twilight. David’s sisters would be knitting socks and scarves, saving their pennies for the guy. Here he lies awake at night listening to the groan of the ice around the ship, as if it’s in unspeakable torment.
“Thought you’d be more excited by rocks,” Jones says, and punches David in the shoulder. “Hey—look—it’s coming up.”
The water reveals the top of the cage, and David feels his fingers tighten on the railings, hard enough to hurt even through two layers of mittens. He breathes out, his breath dissolving into tiny sparks and flashes of ice.
“Someone get the captain!”
The music stops. Those at the winch continue to push, marching round and round, but there’s a solemnity to it now.
The meteorite reveals itself gradually, like an eclipse.
David hears uneven footsteps from below-decks, and knows it’s Sven. “You shouldn’t be out here.”
Sven’s left hand is still bandaged, and he walks sideways like a crab. He has mangled grey fingers, his flesh chill as marble, even after hours of careful re-warming. The surgeon says he’ll lose the use of that hand; he’ll have to cut low into the tendons to take off the frostbitten fingers, pray the rest doesn’t get infected. Sven had taken the news silently, as if a foreman were telling him his wages would be docked, when there’s no other work in prospect.
No one else would have volunteered for the dive; someone had to place the cage around the meteorite. “He really is mad, isn’t he?” Jones had said softly, the admiration evident in his voice, as Sven had taken a deep breath, sought out David’s eyes, and disappeared into the freezing water.
David had tried hard to feel proud. He tries still.
“I have to see it,” Sven says now, his breath warm—is it David’s imagination, or a few degrees not-warm-enough?—on the back of David’s neck. “See what I brought back with me.”
They nod to Captain Playfair as he passes, and watch as the meteorite is hauled onto deck at his feet.
It’s square yet rounded, gleaming like the night sky. “Get that thing off it,” Playfair says brusquely to Jones, rubbing his hands together, obviously eager to touch it; David wants to tell him not to. The moonlight is landing on it in a strange way—rippling, as though the thing is alive, moving too slowly for their human eyes to perceive—and it’s already taken its toll from Sven.
“This isn’t right,” David says as the cage is unscrewed.
The meteorite crouches on deck like a creature watching them.
• • • •
“There’s a problem.” Sven is silhouetted by the blubber lamp. “Hurry.”
David’s first reaction is to listen for the sound of cracking wood, inches from his head, the thunder that would tell him his world is about to explode. A ship can go down in hours. He stills his breath—tells his heart to shut up—as he listens.
But all is quiet. He looks at Sven in confusion, the yawning darkness of the companionway behind him like the space between bergs. It’s no longer possible to make out the sun below the horizon, even from the Venture’s masts; they’re into the long, long night. David knows that anything could go wrong now.
“It’s Jones.” Sven shifts the lantern from his ruined hand to his good one with a grimace. “He’s gone missing.”
David swears, and swings his feet off the side of his bunk, feeling for his boots with his toes. The temperature in the cabin is low enough to see his breath, and his greatcoat is stiff as a board. “Does the captain know?”
“They’re searching the ship,” Sven says. His slate-grey eyes warm, but only fractionally, and only visible at these close quarters. “I thought you’d want to—” He shrugs. Jones and David had signed up together; Jones hoping for adventure and discovery (the last of six boys, thoroughly unexpected to make anything of himself), David hoping to provide for his sisters, maybe get a foot in the door if the mining rights turned to anything.
Jones’s cabin is dark and unkempt, blankets screwed up into a tight knot at the foot of his bunk. Overhead, lights glimmer as unseen men walk the deck, calling out for him. “He wouldn’t just disappear,” David says, and Sven shrugs.
“It’s dark,” he says, as if that’s sufficient explanation. Sven has seen eleven polar winters.
They comb the ship together, crossing paths with other search parties. David struggles to remember the last time he’d spoken to Jones. He thinks it was out by the fire-hole, down the ship’s ladder and out onto the miles of ice. They saw the fire-hole open every morning; a thin crust of prismatic ice forms on the surface long before tea-time, and it needs to be smashed at with axes by the time the men take to their hammocks. The mess hall is empty. Down in the hold, the stinking condensation and melt-water sloshes around the bilges, drips echoing like gunshots. “Jones?” David calls into the darkness. “Jones!”
“We need to get a lantern down here.” The boatswain uses a tool to measure the depth of the water, and his voice is uncertain. The Venture is sitting low. This shouldn’t be happening. The meteorite isn’t nearly heavy enough to make her sit that low.
David swallows, and Sven grips his arm, pulls him up. They both know that if Jones can’t be found anywhere else on the ship, an accident in the hold—dark, lonely, partly submerged—is a horrible possibility.
Up on deck, Captain Playfair stands on his bridge, arms behind his back, staring at the meteorite. A small tarpaulin roof has been erected over it, and a lantern placed nearby.
A shrine, David thinks, and shivers. Sven squeezes his arm tighter, then lets go, glancing around them.
“He’s not below-decks, sir,” David calls up to Playfair.
Something pulls at David, then—something terrible and dark, something he doesn’t want to examine too closely. It drags him over to the railings, where the endless ice field reveals itself luminous under the full moon. The pyramid berg is receding to their stern as the pack locks tight around them and carries them off in its grip. The structure catches the moonlight like a mausoleum, and David feels—again—the horrible sense that it was made, not thrown together haphazardly by the random kaleidoscope of pressure and currents.
Ten yards from the ship, the fire-hole is surrounded by little flags. They’ll freeze solid overnight. Already David’s face is smarting, his fingers tingling in their layers of mittens, and if Jones is anywhere but the ship, he’ll be dead before the absence of dawn.
David stares at the fire-hole. Behind him, he can feel the meteorite’s presence, squatting on deck like a toad.
• • • •
After Jones, it starts to happen quickly.
One man disappears the next night; two the night after. None of them leave a trace, although the usual stories are told: the polar night is somehow worse this year, the dark more oppressive, the cold more keenly felt. Even the old Arctic hands agree it feels like they’ll never see sunlight again. The ship’s scientist—there’s always one—sits on deck and sketches the stars, working feverishly. He means to make a name for himself as an astronomer. On the third night, he disappears from his cabin, leaving behind a tangle of notes, drawings, and a diary in Latin no one can read.
David has seen terrible things since joining up with the company. On the coast of Greenland, he’d met an elderly woman with eyes like pitch, sole survivor of the disease that took all fourteen of her fellow villagers—held her shaking hands and tried to explain to her the concept of coal. He’s seen bodies, mouths frozen open, fished out of the water long after their whaling-ship—and its quarry—had hared off into the distance: the men had been screaming not to be abandoned. He’s seen shipboard accidents and casual cruelties. He’s never known men to disappear like this.
At night, the Venture creaks like a living thing. Her hull is Norwegian greenheart, wood so strong it can’t be worked by conventional means—but only to a certain depth, the boatswain explains. She’s sitting with the ice bearing on her midline, where the greenheart gives way to oak, and the boundary between the two is a notoriously tricky business.
She shouldn’t be sitting that low.
They patrol the ice day and night—although it’s all the same out here—and in the dark of the moon, the ship is nothing but a bite taken out of the sky. Aurora, green on the horizon, allows him temporarily to see the Seven Islands—a jumble of children’s building-blocks far behind them. The ice is taking them northwest. Soon they won’t be capable of crewing the Venture anyway.
The fire-hole is guarded by a man with a lantern and a rifle; the place has the aura of a grave. David has to stop himself from peering in, looking for Jones’s face where the dark water reflects the star-crammed sky.
“Anything?” he asks the sentry.
“Nothing, sir,” although David’s place in the chain of command is rather less delineated.
“The men like you,” Sven had said, tracing his cold fingers across David’s thigh. “Good old Gracey. Always down to earth.” It doesn’t sound like a compliment, the way he says it.
“Keep an eye out for bears,” David tells the man at the fire-hole.
“No bears, sir. None’ve come anywhere near us in a long time. Nor birds.”
Not since they’d taken the meteorite on board. Whenever they search the hold, not even rats scurry from the light.
There’s a whistle blown, shrill and discordant. An explosion on deck makes David flinch, steady himself; a flare gun, shot upwards without heed for the masts. The man deserves to be whipped. In the aftermath, the glowing aftermath, he thinks he can see the shape of the meteorite chamber, high up on the bridge, watching over them.
He bites his lip hard enough to draw blood, which freezes instantly like tiny sugar crystals. It’s the midday count, and clearly another man has gone missing.
• • • •
“Tighter,” Playfair insists. “Tighter, damn you—”
David and the surgeon share a look.
“I mean it.”
The captain lets out a groan that threatens to become a laugh—an uncanny, unbearable laugh, like the one he’d let out on midwinter’s day. They’d lit up the decks with lanterns, trying to give the impression of festivity and warmth. The ice around them was a pale goldenish colour that you could almost believe was the sun below the horizon; the light had revealed the wreckage of the ship’s carpenter. Arms broken, legs at three right angles from his body, blood sprayed across the ice like syrup on a dessert. He’d clearly jumped from the mast. David can well remember the captain’s snorting, helpless laugh echoing from the bridge.
Playfair takes a shuddering breath now. “Quickly, while I won’t fight you. While I know myself well enough. I won’t go over the side, do you hear? I won’t abandon my ship. A captain goes down with his ship, and I won’t leave her—won’t leave her. It shan’t make me. So tie those damn things tight. That’s an order.”
They’ve made the restraints from the softest ropes—picked over for every thumbnail scrap of tar—but they’ll flay the captain’s wrists nonetheless. They’ll freeze, like everything on the ship is starting to freeze. The boiler is working day and night, and men in their bunks wear all the clothing they own.
A skeleton crew. There are twelve of them left.
“You’ll have to formally relieve me of duty,” Playfair says. “That won’t be a problem. I’ve written a memorandum.” He nods his head towards the tiny fold-down writing-desk in the corner of his cabin, where he’s also relinquished his captain’s cornered hat, and his beloved wig. The memorandum talks about an uncontrollable urge to leave the ship. Anyone feeling that urge is ordered to submit themselves for medical inspection and restraint.
There’s no clear line of command any more, and things have become—hazy. Indistinct. David can no longer feel the invisible lines tethering him to the company in Dundee. He feels like he’s been set adrift, to float out here in the unbearable ice and the dark, the dark water. “You’re so used to being told what to do, you coal men,” Sven had murmured to him, grey eyes glimmering in the candlelight. “Out here, things are—”
Things are different.
“You’ll tell the crew, won’t you?” the surgeon asks David. “Gracey, they’ll take it from you.”
“I can’t,” he says numbly. But there’s an anger rising in him, a boiling sense of indignation. He’d told them, hadn’t he, to prosecute the coal claims? He’d known the meteorite was a bad idea. He knows—uncanny as it is—where their troubles come from. “All right. But I’m going to—it’s going back to the bottom of the ocean.”
Playfair jerks against his restraints, like he’s heard a sudden piercing scream.
• • • •
They gather in the Venture’s small mess hall. The Union Jack hangs limply over the table, the company charter, along with a picture of Queen Victoria, unsmiling and monolithic. David and three of the others he trusts implicitly—good men, sensible men. The sort to carry spare flints for their lanterns and keep their pocket-knives sharp, in places where such things might make a difference.
He doesn’t get halfway through outlining his plan.
“We can’t,” the boatswain says flatly.
“It’s not worth anything.” David fights the urge to bang his fist on the table. “Don’t you see? It’s a folly, a—curiosity. We won’t be thanked for bringing it back. And if it’s causing this—madness, soon we won’t be able to bring anything back at all.” He doesn’t say that this point has already been passed, that navigating a ship north of Spitzbergen with half a crew is a hopeless undertaking. They need to stay afloat and hope, stupidly, that they’ll encounter another ship next season. The company won’t send a rescue, but is very unlikely to pass up the opportunity for revenue.
“No, Gracey, we can’t,” the boatswain repeats. His eyes are ringed with dark circles. “We don’t have the men. Think about it. Think about how we got it here.”
David remembers. Men straining at the winches. The way the Venture had instantly settled, creaking, as if pressed down into the water by some invisible force. It’s heavy—much heavier than it looks. And it appears to be growing heavier still.
“We could—” he starts, but the boatswain is shaking his head sadly.
“Trust me. I’ve tried, measured. That thing’s going nowhere. Except to the bottom, maybe, when we’re flotsam.”
The little gathering breaks up, and David walks on shaky feet—as if he’s just stepped onto dry land—back to his cabin.
Sven is already there. Why hide it, now?
He’s unwrapped his left leg, and David can tell it’s bad. Frostbite isn’t the worst thing that can happen—any ship’s surgeon is a dab hand at taking off limbs and appendages, and the company pays extra. No, what they dread is the rot. The slow advancement of black and grey, forming odd little pebble-like blisters under the skin, weeping sores. The fever, coming in waves. Sven is somewhere between the first and second day of his journey out into that sea, and David doesn’t know what to say to him. A caress of his golden hair—hair that always looks as though he’s just come out of the water. A mumbled endearment into his shoulder, where the scars left by rendering whale-fat have been traced by David’s fingers, time after time.
“Well?” Sven says.
David realises he’s standing in the doorway staring. “I thought I could put it overboard.”
Sven snorts. David clenches his fists—it’s the meteorite that’s done this to his love, he could at least share some of the same low bubbling hatred. “But if I can’t, I’ll find another way.” He paces the three feet of floor-space. “We’ve got gunpowder—”
“And blow the whole ship up with it?”
“We’ve got axes. Hammers.” He realises how it sounds. The thing is solid. “No, gunpowder.”
“David—” Sven is putting his dressings back on, and his trousers.
“If it takes off the bridge, we can still steer, as long as it doesn’t—”
“I was a miner,” he says desperately. “A controlled explosion. I know I can—”
Sven is standing. Pushing past him. David gets a glimpse of those eyes, the colour of oily water around the whaling station, and Sven is out into the companionway.
It’s dark. The ship’s innards are only ever a metre or so wide, and every inch of space above is filled with spare equipment. David has to stoop. Things loom in the tiny fraction of available light as they pass doors—other cabins. A creaking whine by his head makes him jump, but it’s only the ice, squeezing them around their midsection. It’s so cold his teeth are chattering. Only timber stands between them and the freezing water outside, which is up to David’s head.
They don’t usually use their Christian names outside.
But Sven is silent, determined, his bad leg dragging behind him like he’s hauling a body over the ice. His breathing is loud in the confined spaces. Hatches and stairs, and he doesn’t stop; David grabs his shoulder, and he shrugs him off. His eyes are like silver coins in the dark.
“Where are you going?”
They’re up on deck. Above them, the stars fill the sky, like paint splattered on dark canvas. It’s a clear night, and the aurora crowns the ice with fire. Rays from another world bear down on them.
Sven doesn’t stop until he’s on the bridge. David very rarely comes up here. Why would he, when he’s not the captain, just a coal man from Abercarn? But from this height he can appreciate that the ice is almost to the bottom of the ship’s railings. Just one storm—the vice slamming shut—and they’ll be crushed. He turns and looks to the southeast, but there’s nothing to show where the horizon lies.
“Look at it,” Sven says softly, and David jumps.
The meteorite still sits under its tarpaulin, although Playfair is lashed to his bunk, and won’t be visiting it any time soon. It’s still the size of David’s sea-chest, round and square at once, and the boards under it—he kneels to touch them—are starting to warp under its weight.
“You think you can move it? You think you can destroy it?”
David shakes his head, numb.
Sven stares off the bridge and towards the narrow ribbons of dark water. He’d been the first person to touch the meteorite, David realises. Down in its kingdom, iron and saltwater and ice, as vast and imponderable as a whale.
• • • •
David laboriously nails boards across the bridge steps, and tries not to think about their good-natured carpenter, thrown onto the ice like a child’s doll flung aside at bedtime. He doesn’t think anyone else should see or touch the meteorite. Below-decks, the men murmur and sob, and crazes grow up—whist, table rapping, Celtic songs—and die in the space of each dark unending week.
It’s February now, and the ice is getting restless.
He guards the deck, sets strict limits on access to the upper world. They may each take half an hour sitting at the stern—as far from the meteorite as practical—and no more. The surgeon examines them for scurvy, for nervous debility, for tuberculosis, for lead poisoning.
David exhales, and watches it curl out in tendrils of frost-smoke. Below him, the ice makes a low, intent creak, as if a door is opening.
Playfair has been quiet. No one has gone missing in a week or so. He’s started to think—tentatively—that this might be the last of it. They’ll have bigger problems to figure out soon, when the ice breaks up.
He touches the railing with a single finger, and tries not to think like that.
Nothing moves on deck. He eyes the bridge steps behind their improvised barrier, and unbidden, his gaze slides upwards. From where he’s stationed, he can—just—see the top of that tarpaulin, sagging a little under the weight of fresh snow. He’s glad they covered it up. He’s glad there’s nothing about the tarpaulin that suggests the meteorite’s shape.
Rubbing his eyes, he turns back to his work. The notebook optimistically entitled: “plan of a journey from the Arctic Circle towards Western Greenland, as a last resource.” The drift won’t allow them to return to Spitzbergen in their small boats. They’re being spun out across the sea like sugar stirred into a china teacup.
He hasn’t spoken to anyone about his plan to abandon the Venture, and everything that currently sits—squats—upon her.
A hatch creaks open.
David looks for lantern-light, but there is none. He squints, and makes out a tall dark shape walking swiftly to the fo’c’sle stairs. The figure’s movements are sure and smooth, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t recognise Sven immediately. Bare-headed, his hair catches the moonlight for an instant—just as he reaches the top—and David draws in a shuddering breath. “Sven!” he calls. “Sven!”
Sven doesn’t look around as David skids down the deck towards him, cursing his pins-and-needles feet. Sven just puts both hands on the railings and hauls himself up, as easy as if he still had all his fingers. A crack from the ice, like bones breaking.
David thinks he’s still barrelling down the deck towards him. But then he realises he’s frozen in place.
Sven is standing on the railings, steadying himself, looking out over the frozen ocean. On such a clear night, the ice reflects the starry sky, as if they’re all one and the same.
David puts his lantern down, very carefully, not wanting to surprise him. “Sven. Sven, look at me.”
He does. Grey eyes, grey water, grey skies.
Then he jumps.
• • • •
What David remembers is the panic. The thudding, heart-bursting panic. Rushing to the side, looking down. Screaming for him. An improbable lead of open water, a chasm opened up between two bergs, glimmering with reflected light. Wide enough to admit a man, but not easily. Dark blood smeared on one side. The others had come, but not quickly enough. David had been climbing down the side, the ship groaning with the pressure, when that crack had slammed shut again like a mouth in the deep. It was cold and dark and all the lanterns from the ship invisible. That was where Sven had died. Under the ice, where any glimmer of light was simply more bloody ice.
“What do you want?” he shouted at the faceless malevolent lump of rock. His hands were bleeding from where he’d torn down the boards, and everything tasted of ash.
It didn’t answer.
And, one by one, the disappearances had started up again.
• • • •
He can’t sleep. Can’t sleep, or whatever had got to Sven—in this cabin, in this very bunk, where they’d been warm together, creatures of the earth, of this earth—will get to him too. His notebook is filled with frantic calculations. Tonnage of provisions. Spare oars. Fuel, and stoves, because if they can’t make water, they might as well lie down in the sea and wait to die. David works at it day and night, taking the boatswain into his confidence, and one or two others.
“Gracey,” they say. “Gracey.” Only his name, as if they’re scared to say anything else.
The thought of the open boats bobbing on the Arctic Ocean makes him want to throw up, but he keeps working at it. April, he thinks. Wait till April. The sun on the horizon again, breaking the darkness of this nightmare world.
They’ll need to cover the boats, though, and he goes reluctantly up the bridge steps to measure the tarpaulin covering on the meteorite. He wonders if what it’s doing could contaminate that covering, render them vulnerable to its influence, even with miles and miles between them. He rubs the material between finger and thumb. Solid. Waterproof. It’ll have to do.
He should stand. But, exhausted, he kneels with one hand bracing himself on the bridge decking, and allows his eyes to close for a moment. “Gracey,” someone is saying in the distance, or maybe he’s just imagining it.
He jerks awake.
The meteorite is looking, somehow, right at him.
The men are all two stairways below, and the only sound is the thin feeble whistle of the wind through their masts, the rigging and sails removed for winter. The Venture looks like a three-fingered beast clawing at the sky.
“You came from up there, didn’t you.”
They’re both very far from home.
Somewhere in Wales, three girls are sitting in front of the fire, doing their mending—they take in extra, earn a few pennies to put towards the company’s most reasonable wage. If they’d found coal off Spitzbergen, if David had made the most of his chances, things would be different. He can almost see them. Gwen’s hair is falling into her face, and she pushes it back impatiently, needle glinting in the warm light. Beti has her feet tucked under herself. Dinah is humming, an annoyance to her older sisters.
The meteorite looks closer, somehow. He breathes out a pillar of steam. Reaches out—just a few inches—and puts his hand on its impassive surface. Black and shiny and pitted, angles not usually found in nature. Coal man to rock, to iron. He feels he should understand it. He feels he should know what it wants. But how do you understand something from the stars.
• • • •
There’s no one on deck to call his name.
The breeze is whistling around the ship, cold and implacable as the winds blowing between the planets, and if he looks to the east, he can see a pale salmon colour on the horizon, sun at a few degrees below the curvature of the earth. In the half-light, the ice is a perfect mirror for the sky.
The railings are like white-hot pokers on his bare hands. He drops his gloves.
Exposed to the air again, the meteorite glimmers. Looks like it’s moving.
He steps off. Feels himself hover, weightless, in the freezing air. He lifts up his arms like a bird in flight, like a seal diving from a cliff.
The sea is calling, or the sky; both are dark and endless, mined with iron stars.
Spread the word!