Today's freebie comes courtesy of Louisa Larkin, whose antarctic thriller, Thirst, I've been meaning to run here for a while. It's a longer than usual freebie, about 3000 words, so you might want to save it for a bus trip or a lunchtime read. It proves conclusively, I think, that girls can do splodey. The chilly feel of the descriptive passages comes from the trip she took to Antarctica to research this bad boy. That's right. To the south fucking pole.
Makes my Google Earth efforts like a bit shoddy.
Anyway, long story short, somebody is killing off the members of Australia's research station down there. I suspect villainy.
Like the laptop in front of him, Luke Searle was finally in sleep mode, slumped forward over the desk. His head of disheveled hair rested on his crossed arms. Outside, it was minus forty one degrees Celsius. Antarctica’s howling katabatic winds swept icy spindrift across the glacier and battered the exterior walls of Hope Station. Luke had tried everything he could think of to get the phone, radio and internet to work, but with no success. He was a glaciologist, not a comms officer. But after Mac’s and Dave’s sudden deaths, Luke was their only hope of contacting the outside world. He knew there had to be a way of rebooting the whole system and reloading the IOS images program, but he couldn’t find it anywhere on the server. And he couldn’t find the back-up discs either. Eventually, exhaustion had claimed him.
But his sleep was sporadic. He’d woken twice from the same nightmare: Mac was calling his name, over and over from inside the crevasse. Mac’s arms were raised towards Luke, begging for help, as Luke stretched over the lip of the fissure, desperately trying to reach him. But Luke was too far away. He thrashed about but couldn’t get any closer.
Luke woke up with a start to find he had knocked over his empty coffee mug. Luke squinted at the bright lights overhead, rubbed his eyes and checked the time: 2:43 am. The station was silent except for the low thrum of the generators and the rhythmic snoring of its occupants. Craig’s was the loudest. Even with his bedroom door shut his guttural gruntings resounded through the living quarters like a sow at feeding time.
Normally this would have made Luke smile, but not tonight. He yawned and resumed his search for IOS images on Mac’s laptop, until his eyelids gradually closed and he fell asleep again. Something hit the outside of the sleeping quarters but the sixty-centimetre-thick aluminium walls, filled with polystyrene insulation, absorbed the sound. No-one inside heard it.
Minutes later, Luke coughed in his sleep. He coughed again, this time more violently, and awoke. Where was he? His eyes stung and he was surrounded by a haze. He breathed in and it made him choke. He shot his hand out and hit the laptop which lit up like a Christmas tree. Yes, the communications room. But why no power except for the equipment still running on batteries?
A scream that sounded like an animal being torn apart pierced his eardrums. He stood so fast the chair toppled backwards. Fire. The station was on fire. Their worst nightmare. Luke had no idea who that scream came from but it was excruciating. A man’s voice. He realised it had to be Tubs, Craig or Blue.
Luke opened the door and was met by dense, acrid smoke. The emergency floor lighting provided a dull glow. At the end of the corridor the door to Craig’s room was a hole surrounded by a circle of flames. Luke ran to the bathroom, seized a towel and turned on the shower tap. The nozzle only dribbled. Why wasn’t there water? The towel was damp, but not enough. He threw it into a shower cubicle to mop up whatever moisture was left.
With a wet towel over his head and arms, he approached the archway of fire that was the entrance to Craig’s room. Above the doorway the roof was alight with golden waves that appeared to flow into the smoke filled room. Backdraft, Luke realised. When Craig had opened his door to escape, the flames had been sucked into the vacuum. Luke ducked low and charged in.
Craig was rolling on the floor, his hair and clothes alight. Despite the thick smoke Luke saw that Craig’s face was red-raw with burns, waxy and ghoulish. Luke threw the towel over him to starve the flames of oxygen. Craig stopped moving. Luke coughed as the smoke burned his lungs.
He pulled the towel away. Craig’s face had melted and not a hair on his head, beard or eyebrows remained. His hands were like gnarled claws, twisted in agony, the skin bubbling. The poor man moaned and then was still. Luke touched the raw flesh of his neck to check for a pulse but there wasn’t one. Luke stepped back, then, horrified, he noticed his hands were covered with bits of Craig’s skin.
‘Luke!’ A voice called, hoarse and unrecognisable.
Luke felt light-headed and confused. A flaming piece of timber from the ceiling collapsed, landing an arm’s length from him. Adrenalin and panic fought for supremacy of his body. The heat felt as though it was singeing his skin through his clothing. The towel was now useless, so he picked up Craig’s desk chair and held it over his head as he ran through the doorway.
In the corridor, Luke dropped the smouldering chair. Tubs – the station chef - had the fire extinguisher and was spraying dry powder onto the flaming walls. He only had on his candy-striped thermals – he’d been sleeping in them – and, incongruously, his expedition boots. It had been drilled into them that in an emergency they had to put on their boots. They couldn’t walk outside without them.
‘The others?’ Luke shouted.
‘Exit 1,’ Tubs spluttered. ‘Craig?’
Luke’s eyes were streaming caustic tears and he could barely see. Tubs stopped his useless attempts to quell the fire and the two stumbled down the corridor towards the exit. As they passed the kitchen another part of the ceiling collapsed behind them. The cold night air was sucked in, further fuelling the flames. They turned a corner to see Blue – the doctor - in shorts and an open parka hurl himself at the door. It didn’t budge. Sue, dressed in pink brushed cotton pyjamas and hiking boots, was kicking at it. ‘It won’t budge,’ yelled Blue above the roar of the flames.
‘Maddie?’ coughed Luke.
‘Went to check Exit 2,’ shouted Blue.
‘Shit!’ said Luke glancing back down the burning corridor. His station leader had guts.
‘The door, Luke!’ screamed Sue, her round face creased with fear. Luke shook his head. How could it be jammed? Tubs had shoveled away the snow yesterday. Luke threw the full force of his weight into the door. Fit and strong, his broad shoulders had no impact. And again. The door creaked but didn’t budge. Tubs tried to ram it open with the fire extinguisher but it held tight.
‘Exit 2?’ gasped Blue.
Luke nodded and they ran, crouching low to avoid the suffocating smoke and flames. Why wasn’t the ventilation working? They stepped around burning debris. The heat was unbearable but Luke knew the smoke would kill them first. They reached the first internal fire door and shut it behind them. This would give them ninety minutes, as long as the fire was only at one end of the station.
Sue fell to her knees. She couldn’t breathe. The smoke was everywhere. Luke pulled her to her feet and held her up. He had never realised how short she was till then, having always thought of her as one of the lads. He now realised how her personality had made her seem larger than life.
‘Get to Exit 2 and look out for Maddie,’ said Luke, wheezing. He dragged Sue past the mess and the kitchen, towards the laboratories. ‘Maddie,’ he tried to shout, but his voice was strangled and weak.
The further they stumbled towards Exit 2, the thicker the smoke became. Not good, thought Luke. Like an apparition, Maddie stumbled through the smoky darkness towards them.
She fell to her knees, gasping for breath. ‘Both exits are blocked,’ Maddie said, her freckled face smudged with grime. ‘Fire’s coming from both directions.’ She was wearing the same clothes as last night. She must have fallen asleep fully dressed. ‘I was about to … try the lift.’
‘Power’s out,’ Sue croaked .
‘Break a window?’ Luke said.
‘Triple glazed. Take… too long,’ Maddie coughed.
Luke’s mind worked with hang-over like slowness and his lungs felt as if they were being torn to shreds. He peered into an inferno of flames coming at them in a pincer movement.
‘Lift shaft!’ he said. ‘Follow me.’
They moved deeper into the stinging smoke like drunks, tripping and falling. Luke shut another fire door but the conflagration seemed to be all around them. At the lift, Maddie leaned against the wall, unable to stand.
‘The ladder,’ Luke said as he tried to open the maintenance door to the lift shaft. It was locked and the key was in Maddie’s office on the other side of the corridor fire door. ‘It’s locked - I’ll get a knife. The kitchen.’
Blue grabbed his arm. ‘I’ll go. You’ll need to carry Sue - I can’t,’ he said, nodding at Sue who lay semi-conscious on the floor. Blue lurched back down the corridor in the direction of the kitchen.
‘Lie low,’ Maddie directed them, ‘Avoid the smoke.’
Before anyone could respond an explosion shook the whole station, throwing them to the floor. It tore at their eardrums. Debris hurtled through the air. Luke felt something hit him in the back and bounce off. Ting, thwack, crack, as metal, wood and glass fell around them. The heat felt like a blowtorch. Maddie shrieked. Luke looked up and could see she was hugging her left calf.
Disoriented, Luke’s balance was shot to pieces. Tiny shards of glass were embedded in his hands. What had exploded? What in God’s name was going on? The fireball had come from the direction of the kitchen but Luke didn’t want to believe Blue must be dead. Tubs had been thrown against the wall and lay winded.
Maddie sat up, hands trembling as she stared in shock at the triangular piece of metal protruding from the side of her leg. Sue stared blankly at Luke, her mouth opening and closing like a ventriloquist’s doll. She was impaled on a length of steel pipe.
‘God, no,’ said Luke crawling on all fours.
Sue tried to say something, then her mouth stopped moving. He couldn’t find any pulse and for a moment he felt completely overwhelmed. His head dropped forward onto his chest. Tubs was now sitting up, stunned. He touched his face and stared at his bloody hands like a child fascinated by a strange new toy.
‘Luke,’ pleaded Maddie. He stared at her, his face blank, uncomprehending. ‘Luke!’ she said, louder this time. ‘Help me!’ He moved at last and knelt at her side.
‘Get it out!’ she screamed, holding her leg and rocking backwards and forwards in excruciating pain.
‘Not now,’ he gasped. ‘You have to stand. Come on! There could be another explosion.’
‘You fucking bastard.’ she screamed. ‘Get it out!’
The encroaching smoke was getting thicker, as though moving in on cornered prey. Luke smelt diesel and petrol and his alarm increased. On his knees, barely able to see through tears thick with soot and grime, he searched for another piece of metal, feeling his way through the detritus. His hand landed on one and he stood weakly, almost collapsing into the lift maintenance door. He forced the piece of metal into the gap between the door and the wall and using brute force, broke the lock. The door swung open.
Unsteadily, Luke peered down the lift shaft. The air inside was pretty clear and the ladder was still there. Their first bit of luck. ‘Tubs, snap out of it. Help me lift Maddie.’
Coming out of his stupor, Tubs helped Luke. They placed their hands underneath her armpits and pulled her up. She leaned against the wall.
‘Can you climb down the ladder?’ Luke asked her.
‘I’ll have to,’ Maddie managed to say. ‘We can’t leave Sue.’
‘She’s dead, Maddie.’ He coughed. ‘So is Blue.’
She looked back at the source of the explosion and nodded.
‘I’ll go first,’ Luke said, ‘so if you slip, I’ll catch you. Tubs, you go last, and shut the door behind you, for God’s sake. Keep the smoke out.’
Tubs choked out a ‘Got it.’
Luke started his descent, relishing the clearer air in the lift shaft. Maddie took her first step down the ladder, using her stronger leg first. One way or another, her wounded leg had to bear her weight, but it was clearly agony as the metal dug into her muscle. She groaned with each step.
‘You’re doing well. Just a little bit further,’ Luke called up to her. The thought flashed though his mind that Craig had built the ladder, but wasn’t with them. He pushed it away: they weren’t safe yet and they’d need to break through the maintenance door at the bottom of the lift shaft. Luke looked down at the bare steel roof of the lift, stationary at the garage level. The gap between the cage and the shaft walls was just wide enough for one person. Luke reached the bottom rung.
‘Hang on while I get this door open,’ he called up.
Maddie’s trouser leg was soaked with blood. She clung to the ladder, gulping air as she rested her weight on her good leg.
Luke leaned his back against the lift cage and kicked at the shaft door. It opened easily as it was designed to open outwards. What greeted Luke took his breath away. He’d hoped the garage was free of fire, but the wooden storage containers in the corner were burning, as was the snow tractor. The flames were dangerously near the snowmobiles.
‘Hurry!’ he yelled. ‘Get down here!’ Fearing more explosions, the panic in his voice brought the limping Maddie and then Tubs quickly to his side.
Luke knew the sound of gunfire, but it was so totally unexpected that he was slow to react. No Antarctic station had weapons and military action was banned. As a bullet fizzed past his right ear he grabbed Maddie and they plunged to the ground.
Tubs hit the floor with a thud. ‘Jesus! I’m shot. I’m bloody well shot,’ he screamed, clutching his chest.
The gunfire started again. It was coming from somewhere near the main garage doors.
‘The snowmobiles,’ whispered Maddie.
The keys were still in them. The quad bikes were further away and even if they had been able to cope with soft snow – which they couldn’t - their tyres were on fire. It had to be the snowmobiles. Through the thick, foul smoke, Luke tried to locate the shelf under the workbench where he stashed his tools. He couldn’t help but glance momentarily at the two white body bags containing Mac and Dave, raised above the flames as if on a funeral pyre.
‘Can you drive?’ he asked Maddie.
She nodded, clutching her leg.
‘Gotta get into the work overalls, otherwise we’ll die of cold,’ he said, nodding to where the bright yellow, all-in-one waterproof freezer suits hung on hooks. They were used by all maintenance staff for outdoors work and were fleece lined for warmth. Tubs, in particular, who was only in his thermals, had no hope of survival without them.
For a moment Luke was wryly thankful for the smoke that was their only protection from the gunman. ‘Wait here,’ he said and crawled on his belly across the floor to the freezer suits. Above the crackle of the flames, Luke heard radio chatter - it wasn’t in English. He reached the legs of the first overall and, still prone, he tugged at the material. But the all-in-one suit stayed on the hook. He yanked harder and the loop of material at the collar tore free. Luke did the same with two more, then bundled them under his arms and crawled back to Tubs and Maddie.
Bullets zinged over Luke, the shooter unable to see his target. Tubs was lying on his side, his grey thermal top soaked with dark blood seeping through his fingers.
Luke paused, horrified, then pulled himself together. ‘This’ll hurt, I’m sorry’ he said, pushing Tub’s legs into the overalls and then rolling him from side to side as he pulled it up. Tubs gagged with the pain.
Maddie tore at the waterproof material with her teeth, yanking apart the stitching on the left leg so she could get both the shrapnel and her leg inside. She struggled into her suit, using her hands to force her wounded leg inside.
‘Follow me,’ Luke said to Maddie. He looked at Tubs. ‘Mate, when I bring the snowmobile near you, you gotta get on, okay? Can you get up?’ Tubs nodded, the bloody stain now hidden by his yellow suit.
Luke crawled along the floor, followed by Maddie. He grabbed a hammer and threw it at one of the metal storage containers at the other end of the garage. The gunman opened fire at the container and Luke scuttled towards the snowmobiles hoping to reach the furthest one with the full tank, but the gunfire turned in their direction. He jumped on Mac’s snowmobile and Maddie took Dave’s.
Luke sped off and, leaning over, pulled Tubs onto the seat behind him. Tubs yelped in agony. Then briefly checking Maddie was okay, he charged for the open garage doors and the source of the gunfire. It was suicidal but he had no choice. He heard shouting outside, angry, sharp. Luke burst out of the garage, followed by Maddie, and began driving in a zigzag, which Maddie mimicked. Without goggles, the raw polar air tore at his eyes. They needed headlights but Luke knew that would make them an easy target. As they careened into the darkness, the shooting began again, this time from several directions. Luke glanced back and saw the silhouette of a man firing at them. Behind him, the station was burning in startling oranges and reds.
‘Stop,’ panted Tubs, slouching forward.
‘We can’t stop,’ called Luke over his shoulder. He could just make out Maddie, accelerating ahead. He called out, but she didn’t hear so he gunned the engine to catch up. He waved at her to get her attention and she slowed.
‘Go to the fire hut - emergency supplies,’ she shouted.
Luke made a cutting motion at his throat and they stopped. ‘Too close,’ he said. ‘They’ll find us.’
‘Where?’ she asked in desperation.
‘The Zodiac,’ he replied. They had no other options. With their station destroyed and the emergency hut out of bounds, their only hope was to escape in their inflatable boat. How they would stay alive after that, Luke had no idea.
‘No,’ she said, ‘We need shelter - Mac’s hut.’
Of course. Built a few months ago, it wasn’t on the plans or any map. It was on a pebbly beach they’d christened ‘the Nest’ because of all the Adelie penguin nesting sites in the area. It wasn’t far from where they’d left the Zodiac.
‘Perfect,’ he said, nodding.
‘Got to lie down’ said Tubs, whose grip around Luke’s waist was weakening.
‘Not long, mate. Keep your head down out of the wind,’ said Luke. He pulled Tubs’ arms tighter around him. Tubs groaned but hung on. Maddie had moved off.
Before he followed, Luke took one last look at Hope Station. Their home had been turned into hell on earth.