by Jack Frey
Two minutes is a long time underwater. It was a dupe, right from the start, Konrad now realized. A plot to uncover the research program and maybe even to start a war. The fake scuba tank, with a gauge that always read full, even if there were just three breaths left. The phony GIs, with their perfect Midwestern, Corn Belt accents. And now, beneath him, in the black depths of the Arctic Ocean, the divers were circling.
The program, codenamed Gooseflesh and overseen by the Pentagon, had been in existence for three years. Here’s what they knew for sure:
1. The Soviets had developed (accidentally discovered?) a way to revive the dead.
2. Although the corpses regained some function, and were apparently capable of following orders, the necrotized flesh decayed rapidly.
3. The Soviets had begun using the undead as divers beneath the polar ice cap, where the freezing temperatures maintained the bodies in a state of near refrigeration.
With the permission of the Canadian government, a monitoring station had been built on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, where the Navy could track the progress of the Soviets. Of course, this was particularly difficult, given the enormity of the polar region, the adverse weather conditions, the thickness of the ice, and the simple fact that when using sonar a single human body beneath the water, truly living or otherwise, is very difficult to distinguish from a beluga or a narwhal.
From time to time, the scientists and Navy personnel got lucky. They found one, trapped in the ice about sixteen miles off the coast. Probably a woman, or had been once. Its head was caught, locked in the ice, or else it might have just chewed through its ankles or wrists to get free, like a fox in a trap. But the thing must have had some sort of temperature sensor, or else it was just that sensitive to heat, because as soon as they had chopped it free and dragged it into the station, it turned black and began to rot. Within five minutes, the corpse stopped twitching, and after that the meat turned to stinking paste.
While the scientists could be sure of nothing, there was a lot of speculation back in Washington. The Pentagon believed that Uncle Joe was at the top of it all, that Stalin himself had authorized the program. He was reputedly obsessed with the paranormal, and had built a psionic resonance parabola on Severnaya Zemiya. But President MacArthur swore it was Rasputin himself who oversaw the operation. He claimed that Rasputin had never been killed, or maybe had, but then turned himself into a zombie, possibly as early as 1922. MacArthur had been elected on a solid majority after he turned the strip along the Yalu River between North Korea and China into a radioactive wasteland, and anything he said carried a lot of weight, especially for a project like Gooseflesh.
But none of that mattered especially. Not now. At least Konrad’s gauss rifle was real, he knew that much. It was his own, a bearing model with a harpoon slide, not some fake handed to him by the people who had infiltrated the program. But it couldn’t blow through three feet of ice.
How had it happened? he wondered. How had the Russians got in? Or had they always been in, skunking the project right from the start?
Seventy-three seconds had passed since the hole in the ice was sealed up behind him. Those three breaths had long since bubbled out of his lungs, floated up to the flat sheet above him that blotted out the sunlight. Konrad had imagined all this before, in the warmth of his bunk at the station. He’d imagined it and dreamed about dying beneath the ice.
Konrad had a light, fixed to the end of his gauss rifle. He shone it down into the depths, swung it in slow circles. His diving goggles were fogging over. He thought he spotted a dull white object, far below him, moving fast. And even though Konrad knew he ought to fear the undead creatures that he would soon encounter, his mind was elsewhere. He was thinking about the Inuit woman that he’d met on the ice few days earlier, and the way that her long black hair fell across her round face. He wanted to kiss her, even now.
Suddenly, a noise that was impossible to ignore, impossible, impossible to think at all. At first Konrad thought it might be an earpiece, a bug in his ear, but the noise was inside his head, and only there.
Telepathy. The Pentagon didn’t know about this. The undead creature swam near enough to give Konrad a clear view, a milky-soft white texture to its naked body. The flesh along its back was almost all gone, scraped away, or eaten by fish, perhaps. Ribs and vertebrae, yellow like ivory. The thing turned its face towards him, and Konrad saw that its lips and eyelids were in tatters, fluttering in the icy current.
Konrad struggled to stay focused, to keep his head. He had to stay near the hole in the ice, even if the Russians had closed it over with a steel lid. There was no other way out. He gripped the rifle, gave the trigger a quick squeeze. In the moment before the steel bearing connected with the thing’s head, the noise came again.
After that, the creature’s head burst, dissipated in a fine cloud of bone and colourless tissue, no blood. The diver’s body went completely limp and began drifting slowly downwards, into the deep.
But now Konrad heard them, their telepathic voices muted across the distance. They were coming from all directions. Faster now, swimming like snakes beneath the ice. He spun, waved the light in a broad arc. A white shape. He fired.
This time he only caught the thing in the chest, and while its ribcage was now splayed open, it swam on. Another round, another ball bearing, and this time the creature’s head shattered, the body motionless.
Beneath him now, another one, shredded fingers grasping at his boots. But he brought the rifle down quickly, fired point-blank into the thing’s skull, kicked away the pulpy mess. The noise, from all sides.
Everywhere, and no air. Lungs burning, blood pounding in his throat, eyes going dark. They were everywhere. Ninety-seven seconds and no air. Two more rounds, two imploded heads, the water thick with floating particulate. Konrad felt himself beginning to black out.
He was fumbling with the harpoon now, trying to slide the bolt back, to set it in position. But his fingers were numb. The things were all around him now, circling, coming up under him, snatching and clawing. Their limbs, their faces, lurching beyond the shaft of light, spongy and dead.
Konrad’s eyes were closing, the hands at his ankles, his wrists, no air. One hundred and fifteen seconds. The rifle was moving down now, the light falling away from him as it slipped from his hands into the unseen depths. But on his face, on his mask, fingers.
One hundred and eighteen seconds. A shaft of white that swallowed up the sea. The steel lid was pulled away and sunlight poured into the hole. Two, then three splashes, lifeless bodies falling into the water, but this time, blood. The phony GIs, with their perfect Midwestern, Corn Belt accents. Konrad felt the lip of the icy hole, and strong arms grabbing him. He felt the slick touch of the things below, shredding the newly deceased. One hundred and twenty seconds.
On the ice now, steam rose from his body. Konrad drew the Arctic air into his lungs, burning him, making him bleed. There were boots on the snow, people around him now, living people, and he lifted his face towards the sky. The Inuit, the ones he’d met on the ice, and they carried ancient Lee-Enfields. And then Konrad saw that she was there, too. The one with crow-coloured hair and beautiful face that was round like the moon.
“Gooseflesh” originally appeared on the website staticmovement.com. And by “appeared,” Jack means in the Douglas Adams sense of the word: “It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”
JACK FREY lives in Winnipeg, Canada with his wife and two young boys. He plans to walk across Asia on foot, but is still searching for the perfect pair of hiking boots. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shelf Life Magazine, Rose & Thorn Journal, Fractured West, and the Last Man Anthology, among others. Like many of us, he is currently working on his first novel. jackfrey.wordpress.com