The creature from the cave
Final warning, it's a creature feature my friends
“Come into my parlor, look at my wares, some items have sharp pointy edges and others are only softly consuming. The tale before you is of chilling delight, a lovely dance of horror and fright. Oh, yes, yes I will ask in vain. I don’t wish to coddle or pretend to be above any thought or feeling; it is in reality that we all tend to feel like reeling. Ah that crazy sentence, the elusive slip, is it real or is it a quip? That is where the scary stories sit, and oh how I hope to draw them bit by bit. A gentle yarn made of comfortable setting, springing a shock when wrapped in netting. And now dear little children, who may this story, read, to idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne'er give heed: Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye, and take a lesson from this tale...” –Inspired by fright and the love of a well-spun tale.
The boat left Pouch Cove at eight a.m. which meant that the Prescott’s left their hotel in St. John’s by seven. Their rental car sputtering out tufts of white exhaust, only one cup of coffee for each of the parent’s, and not much sleep from the night before; they made it to the ‘dock’ on time yet weary.
Ethan and his sister Ruth yawned in unison as they walked from the parking lot. They were puffy eyed and ready to go back to sleep. (We all are kiddo Hank thought) Bundled up in toques and thick gloves buttoned into red fur-lined parkas. Winter boots with metal spikes lining the bottom bought especially for the trip weighted their feet. Their mother told them to layer up, it was going to be cold on the water, and once they got onto an iceberg there was no telling what the temperatures would be.
Valerie Prescott looked at her two kids with concern. It was a strange trip. Hank had come home one day all excited. He told them that there was an iceberg tour off the coast of Newfoundland, and there were even private tours where you could go spelunking in the ice caves on some of the more sturdy bergs. The idea of the titanic came to Valerie’s mind at the time. She kept it quiet. Another movie about a killer orca trapping a captain on an ice float also surfaced.
It might be fun, she said honestly.
She didn’t want to be a downer. Hank was enthusiastic. He told her he had already looked into the costs, it was only half of what their trip to Arizona would have been, and they could fly instead of driving down south with a trailer rental to worry about. The kids accepted the news as kids do, a little crestfallen that they wouldn’t get to see the Grand Canyon, but intrigued at the idea of taking a boat onto the high seas.
The plane had been fun, it was the third one Ethan had ever been on and the second for Ruth, they sat with in-flight colouring books and grade school readers. The two were well behaved for an eight and ten year old, never rude and always respectful of strangers in public. They looked out for each other; Ethan had his sisters back, and still looked to her as his best friend. Ruth respected her brother above anyone else, thinking he was just about the coolest mentor one could ask for. Hank and Valerie sometimes wondered if this bond would always exist, sometimes siblings got tired of each other, it happened all the time, and sometimes they stuck it through thick and thin.
Their flight from Kelowna was uneventful, with one stop over in Halifax. It gave them enough leeway to shuffle casually between boarding gates.
The flight into St. Johns was a little livelier. Anticipation had crept into each of their thoughts. Hank was bouncing on the balls of his feet when they landed, he couldn’t wait to hop on a boat and explore icebergs. The tour wasn’t the only thing on their list of sights, but it was the first.
The family landed in the afternoon and checked into a hotel within walking distance of the car rental agency. They planned on taking a trip up to L'anse aux Meadows, snow and ice dusted the land, luckily the locals talked about a predictably warm mid-winter reprise. Gripmund Iceberg, however, was the whole reason for coming out here.
They spent their first two nights at a hotel, enjoying the laid back feel of the city, the two adults musing at the rowdy street partiers that meant no real harm. The following day they walked around and toured as much as they could without tiring out the kids too much. It was cold on land, not reaching even close to positive digits, and would be even colder on the water; thankfully the sun was always present, bringing warmth to them whenever the bitter wind slowed down. The sense of adventure was its own kind of wild electricity. However, that spark was only a small fizzle once they actually boarded the boat.
Instead of getting a proper night sleep, it had seemed like a bright idea to watch movies with the kids until past eleven. Eating burgers and sharing on a two-litre of coke (to which allowed Hank to produce baritone ‘burger-burps’ as they had coined it, much to the children’s genuine amusement, each echo of gas able to produce a torrent of giggles) and they watched movies. Ghostbusters, Goonies, and E.T., a solid line up that all of them had seen quite a few times by now. Wholesome, family movies, the kind that Hank and Valerie were okay watching with their impressionable children: people didn’t cuss every five seconds and monsters weren’t always trying to shock the viewer with excessive gore and terror. It had each of them giggling–almost as much as Hank’s chorus of belch’s–and gasping in just the right places. The morning drive to Pouch Cove meandered out of the city (not an industrial mecca, however it was far more developed with office buildings and high-end boutique shops. Hank and Valerie noted there were even a few condo units that looked very posh.) St. John’s ended, not entirely abruptly, and gave way to picturesque red, yellow, and blue homes and ocean side shacks.
The sun was almost above the horizon, getting ready to bless the brutal cold that came with February temperatures. The chilling air outside of the warm rental car breeze brought them quick enough to their senses. Ice crystals formed with every exhale of breath. The temperature was expected to be around negative eleven for most of the day. The estimation didn’t include the damp cool air from the Atlantic, which probably brought it closer to negative sixteen.
The kids wiped more sleep out of their eyes, admiration for the vast ocean shone on their frost kissed faces. Red blotches were already forming on their cheeks. Valerie made a note to get them to put their face guards up soon.
She looked at Hank, and held her children’s hands as they all looked down at the boarding dock.
It was more of a float, or a raft of sea-worn poles strapped together, than a dock. Three large rowboats rested upside down taking up a good half of the walking space, puttering up to them was the McDougal’s Reef , their tour boat that looked like a oversized fishing boat. Valerie was not impressed, and with the look on Hank’s face, it was clear that he was none too pleased as well. The booking agency had alluded to nothing like this. It spoke of the promise of a once in a lifetime experience. Complete with first class accommodations once on the ocean. She didn’t think that it was possible for the reality to be so far from the truth. Other passengers had appeared by now and also looked at the dock with equal curious annoyance.
Valerie thought about the screening process in Kelowna, it had been very thorough; she likened it to getting screened for cadets, including a strict physical where she gave blood. Now, in front of them, she was beginning to think there was some serious false advertising going on...
“...alright, I’d like you to breath into this tube for ten seconds; we just like checking respiratory functions, basic mobility things like that–great. Now I’m going to tap your knee, excellent. Can you look into here for me? Perfect. Okay, so now I’m just going to ask you some more basic evaluative questions:”
“Um, is this necessary?” Valerie said. Her husband had already gone through with the general evaluation, and so had the kids, he had taken them to the Gripmund Naval Liaison–GNL–office in Vancouver the week before, she had been unable to go with them and ended up scheduling her exam solo. “I mean, I thought this was more of a sightseeing tour? We already filled out the waiver forms and passed the basic check, all this seems a little, much...” She added. “I didn’t think Hank went through all of this.”
The examiner–a man named Greg Butt–was a spectacled fellow with a thinning widow’s peak. He looked at Valerie with patient eyes, a hint of something was behind them, or maybe that was just a trick of the light in the examining rooms. She had thought that for a moment there was a glimmer of contempt and malice–but no, that was just a trick of the light. He was just a member of the GNL public contact department, probably had a minor degree in medicine, kept a very boring life in a lab–which she assumed he probably enjoyed deeply–and was used to seeing people through the scope of assessment. Mr. Butt sat across from her looking calm and matter-of-fact, a pocket protector lined his steel-blue button up, in his hands a white clipboard with a list of check boxes and space for notes.
He wouldn’t hurt a fly.
“I assure you, this is all just covering the bases. I guess I’ll mention that we contract out the boat captains, so all this formality is just a way of making sure participants are cleared through government restrictions. Gripmund Berg is one of the many investments Jervas Group–our controlling parent company–oversees and they established GNL, and my department, to oversee any concerns to public safety our tours and research teams may encounter. Our head quarters here is one of many outreach locations around the globe, naturally with such a wide reach it’s important to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.” He said.
His face lit up with a smile that begged assurance. His eyes closed behind his glasses as he continued what came across as a well practiced diatribe.
Valerie listened patiently, aware that car salesmen came in all shapes and sizes.
He continued “The tour you will be on is much more low-key than the research expeditions that we usually ferry; those require a lot more funding. You see, Gripmund is sort of jurisdictional gray area, as far as Greenland and Canada is concerned, it’s a special place, and a rarity in that we are able to host private tours. GNL works hard to make sure any civilians we send are tip-top. The waivers are another part of the process. Your family is going in February, so it’s important to stick to the recommended list, bring anything extra you might think you’ll need... food and that sort of thing. The boat will be anchored next to the berg for roughly eight hours, it can be a tiring trip but we guarantee that it will be everything we promise.”
He talked boldly. Valerie wasn’t sure what kind of trip Hank had gotten them into. The whole process was weirdly over involved. And, had he said something about the boat being anchored away from the iceberg?
“Is there not a tour guide accompanying us?” Valerie asked.
The words came off her tongue dull and flat. She felt like a yuppie tourist, not her usual nature, it was because the whole thing seemed huge, oddly risky, and she was starting to second guess bringing her family to this ‘once in a lifetime’ iceberg.
The examiner informed her that there would be a guide at the landing point. Tourists would be briefed and given a map of the area. Gripmund Iceberg however, was a place for solo sightseeing. He told her that the destination was unique, and only brushed this close to Newfoundland once every three or so years.
“We get a lot of groups when it’s this close; typically it’s only accessible by helicopter, which increases our tour costs significantly. The people of Newfoundland are very proud to offer the service, and help out greatly, it’s rumoured that the berg existed before even the Beothuk inhabited the area, I’ll be sure to send you additional information on past studies. Gripmund Berg is still registered as the eleventh largest iceberg in the world.”
“But again, the tour is beyond comparable.” His voice was now holding a hint of pride.
“The location your group is being dropped off at is only about five kilometers of explored, and monitored, terrain. It’s well marked. The guide at the landing point is required to be in communication with the boat at all times, it’s a safety protocol ensuring a response team can be there within minutes. I’ve been there once, and it was spectacular.” Mr. Butt said. “Now, just a few more questions...”
He was smooth; she had to give him that. Years of working as a glorified tourist agent probably made him an expert at keeping people on track. Sign here please, okay... now your credit information goes here, excellent... and if you apply the insurance I’ll just need your information there, perfect... She didn’t dislike the guy, but there was an undercurrent of disconnect with him and his explanation of the tour. Yes, Valerie had looked up everything she could online, because it was fascinating to learn about the history of Gripmund Iceberg, and because she didn’t want to end up wasting their money on a death trip in the middle of winter. The kids would need to be taken out of school, both were advanced enough that Hank and she weren’t all that concerned about them falling behind, the two-week trip would hardly set them back, and the trip would be the educational experience of a lifetime. Not too many of their school mates would be able to imagine something more fantastical.
A floating ice palace! Ruth had exclaimed when her parents finally announced the potential change in vacation venue. Ethan was serious when he heard the news, and devoted a good amount of time looking up any pictures he could–there were surprisingly few considering the fact that helicopters ferried people to the berg when it was floating South of Greenland, far from notable harbours and migrating in the Labrador Sea.
The family had decided to go for it–the trip was primed and set up as a whimsical vacation destination–and Valerie didn’t want to be a stick in the mud.
The man in front of her just gave her an off feeling. She was sure he was right. Their family would have a great time. It was going to be filled with memories that would stick with them for life.
The questions were mildly off putting, but she supposed it was a part of the process. What was their occupation? Did they have any childhood injuries that GNL should be aware of? What was the name of her dental practitioner? What were their plans after the iceberg tour? How many days did they think they would spend in Newfoundland? It was a series of oddly stated questions. Some of them they had already filled out in the online form. Others she supposed were just for tourism tracking.
The interview was strange, without a doubt, but it had been all and all only a couple hours of her time. A few blood tests, a weighing in–pokes and prods–some minor questioning to gauge her mental and financial stability; and then it was over. Valerie left the office wondering if it had even happened.
She asked Hank later that night if they had been as quote-on-quote thorough with him and the children when he went. He told her they had with him, but the kids didn’t have to get grilled as hard about personal stuff. At their age it was up to their parents to handle the logistics.
He mentioned that peeing in a cup had been the strangest request. Valerie agreed and the two of them went to bed a little nervous and anxious.
The first four or five icebergs were mammoths, but Captain Scott Kilpatrick–and their tour guide, one of his sons–said Gripmund Berg put them to shame. He told them it was one of the largest glacial floats that migrated through that area; in the early nineteen hundreds it acted as a marker in the waters for sailors and fishermen going northeast. It had become, the captain said, a boon for people of science and local tourism. He told them that it put some islands made of dirt to shame.
Ethan was wowed by the ones they were already passing. He couldn’t imagine bigger ‘bergs. Ruth too was open mouth awed by the white-blue giants around them. They passed by one that soared over their tour boat like an island made of glass, plucked straight out of a national geographic magazine and place beside them in the ocean.
Valerie had to admit, her husband may have been right, this would be a once in a life time trip–for her and the kids.
The captain dropped them off at what could only be considered one of the unspoken wonders of the world. It was an iceberg to them only because the captain assured them so, it seemed like this was what a glacier could have been, roaming the earth, tearing out plots of land during the ice age.
“No, it’s an iceberg, people studied it good back in the nineteen-sixty’s, but it’s mostly left alone now.” He said. Promptly, before dropping them off with his son, and anchoring three hundred yards away from the eleventh largest iceberg in the world.
Kevin Kilpatrick, the second mate and son of the newfie tour boat captain, was part tour guide, part thick newfie accent, and part shy enthusiasm. He told them all about the berg, how it came to be, what his family did to maintain it, and how to keep an eye out for the yellow trail markers.
He didn’t hike the berg much these days, he had younger siblings that handled it (he looked eighteen, and made Valerie and Hank wonder just how many the siblings the kid might have, the captain was no spring chicken), he told them he preferred keeping an eye on the docking port. It was good to stick close to there in case an emergency–should one arise, he told them.
The family wasn’t alone with Kevin, two other couples and an Austrailian backpacker–one was a lesbian duo from Germany, the other an elderly pair of hippies from Wisconsin–the backpacker was laden with climbing gear and a camel pack, everyone looked ready for a hike.
Kevin–in tour guide mode–helped point out the best spots to find sturdy ice walls for climbing. He gave each of them a map of the berg, pointed out all of the sensitive areas in the crust, noting that you can’t actually get to the top unless you have gear for it.
“Even that might not be suited for some of the weak spots in the wall. The crust can be touch and go.” Kevin said.
He pointed at the Ausi’s climbing apparatus. It looked impressive to the rest of the group. They heeded his warning nonetheless.
“And if you see white ropes, definitely don’t go past them, I know that’s not a great warning, but it’s the old trail markers... It fades like that from the salt air, and we don’t have time to take them all down, especially if they’re in spots that we don’t hike around much. You won’t find much of the old rope up here, but they’re scattered all over the caves.” He looked thoughtfully at them, “The new markers block it off plenty... I could maybe tell ya what to do all day, but for the most part, the berg is safe as houses.”
The group separated after asking Kevin a few more clarifying questions, what to look out for, was there any canyons, he cautioned them again, reminding that the crevices in the caves could be treacherous if one was foolish, but everything was corded off. He kept assuring them the whole place was safe, and that if they spent too long talking about it there wouldn’t be any point in seeing anything.
It was a good hour before anyone actually walked away from the landing dock.
The trail from that followed into the canyon looked like a bizarre fantasyland; constructed of glass and sparkling white crystal. Clear blue waterfalls trickled down the sides of the canyon, perpetually thawing and freezing with the seasons. The yellow perimeter marker was double layered, at the two-foot height and the four foot height, and held enough of a birth that in some spots of the crevice they lost sight of it, seeing it span over a kilometer side to side.
In some places the trail broke off revealing caves that offered even more delightful feats. The walls were like perfectly molded glass, and rivers of water could be heard above them in the deeper areas, shifting and cracking tons of ice in the air pockets around them. The whole experience felt like an amusement ride or one of those fun-houses where you want to go back, and see if there are more twists and turns.
Valerie and Hank decided to split off from the group after a few hours and several caves worth of ooh’s and ahh’s with the other groups.
The kids liked the hippie couple the most, they had all sorts of stories of travelling the world, different tropical paradises, savannah tours with lions, riding elephants. It was almost enough to distract them from their surroundings; however the iceberg was by far the star of the show. They repeated their goodbyes and promises of more stories as the parents made effort to shepherd their children away.
Nice couple, but a little clingy. Hank thought.
He wanted it to be an adventure with their family, a few hours separated from the group themselves wasn’t going to hurt anything. It was fun to have just the four of them exploring the ice paradise. Zach (the ausi) and the German couple–who didn’t seem to speak much English around the rest of the group–were off to find spots to try and repel around, hoping to take pictures of their findings. Hank had a sneaking suspicion repelling wasn’t the only thing on their minds, the spelunking either.
The four of them walked through the canyon, admiring its unending path, seeming to dive off at any given moment. A few caverns split the path, but for the most part, their map told them the canyon ended at a wall, marked by a final cave. After a short break of ham and cheese sandwiches and little baby carrots stuffed in Valerie’s cooler-backpack, they decided to take the kids to check out the cave marked on their map. It was a short distance, less than a kilometer through the canyons smooth snowy surface, and if any of the caves on the berg were maintained, they assumed that would likely be one of them.
Ruth was getting tired, but had fallen in love with the ability to slide from place to place. It kept her content and excitable. She had already slipped a couple of times, barely able to regain her footing without assistance, not one to usually be a klutz, they all teased her a little. The metal spikes made the whole feat tricky, but she made do by angling her boots in odd directions.
Her father warned her after a certain point to stick close to them, and not to slide off. He didn’t want to be the fun police, but it was technically risky having two kids on a trip like this. He still felt like it was a great idea, and still thought it might be earning him a place in the history books as a rad-dad. Ethan had decided to snap as many pictures as possible with his parent’s camera, mystified by the marvel of nature around them. He was calm and cool, and got a kick out of every time Ruth almost fell on her ass.
Valerie didn’t really care for the attitude, but held her tongue for the time being, if it was a pattern then it would be worth saying something.
She didn’t like the idea of them not getting along. It was inevitable that they would squabble, but everything about them growing old held a nasty edge of apprehension within her. Valerie knew she had to pick battles, the line in the sand got hazy and three dimensional over time. Someday it would be an argument with them, and not just refereeing one between them, what school was Ethan going to for college? Was Ruth going to be ready when it came time to move out? All these were concepts that flashed in front of her, especially at night, since they had been babies. Events that were years in the future yet sometimes it felt like they were approaching with the speeding intensity of a coal fired freight train. It never left, and she only felt more responsible as time progressed. She saw it as her motherly instinct, and she cherished every moment doubt was surpassed by the joy she felt when looking at her children.
Hank worried too, but he kept it to himself, and felt like the best way to stay involved was to share his passions. He took them to soccer and hockey games, or hikes in parks around their home town and spoiled them whenever he wasn’t trying to spoil Valerie. He knew his children would appreciate it, and this trip was another experience he thought they would keepsake forever.
The cave, labeled Gripmund Crevice on their map, loomed in front of them. Hank noted that it had to be at least a hundred feet high, and arched to a curve that allowed for ceilings inside the cave to be thirty or forty feet up.
Valerie commented that it was more like eighty feet, and twenty foot ceilings, but they both agreed it was spectacular.
The hollowed canyon sloped in and soon dropped off into a void beyond their line of sight. Yellow cords marked the furthest edge people were allowed to walk. The path continued in by following natural erosion in the caves walls, several of these offshoot tunnels turned immediately going in unknown directions. Standing inside, the family heard a crash of ice hitting a lake bed. The momentous splash of water echoed against the crevices walls.
It was a few moments before they realized that if they went any further, the reflection of the sun outside would fail to light their path. The cavern was lit with a series of LED lamps, the spacing of them was far and few between. Valerie made sure everyone stuck together. The four of them had head lamps. However, Hank and she didn’t want to rely on it as the main light source. It was an adventure, not a suicide trip.
Zach, Mia and Emilia broke off from the group well before noon. The three were roughly of the same age, eager and energetic with youthful exuberance, each of them physically fit and ready to explore the canyon. The two German girls made it abundantly clear–speaking English only to Zach because as they said ‘he had a cute beard’–they weren’t interested in a fling. They just liked to travel together. He was a little confused, and decided not to question their words, the dialect was a little thick in the brief English they did speak. He tried speaking with them in the broken Dutch a few times, it was futile but he got genuine laughs out of them.
The canyon was ‘amazing’ he told them. They nodded in agreement, repeating the word with frank understanding. He pointed at one of the canyon walls and said that he’d like to get up there, if they’d mind spotting him he could take pictures for them. They eagerly agreed, impressed and a little giggly as they joined in on his trek.
So it had been the whole time they had explored as a trio. The two girls conversing in their native tongue, admiring Gripmund Berg’s alien-like landscape, sometimes being playful with their English just to hide behind their own language. Both had blue eyes, Mia had short multi-coloured dark hair, pinks and reds, Emilia shoulder length blonde, they shared some sort of chemistry, as Zach had noticed, for they seemed to be partnered souls. And they both took joy in being playfully flirtatious with him.
It wasn’t the worst company to have as spotters.
He started to hammer in anchors into the ice wall, he had at least eighty feet to climb, not bad, and if he kept a good pace he could probably make it to the top in an hour or so, probably two... His hikes through Nepal and Arapiles and other out skirting retreats had made him well suited with a rope and harness. He felt confident and limber. Open to adventure and full of optimism.
The repel down would be faster, naturally, and what a drop it was going to be, he had never seen such a wonderland: flats of ice, tundra floating on the ocean, carved in its surfaces was the natural course of time. He was blown away–and didn’t really care to complain about the shoddy transport to the island, the tour guide had been a joke as well, some kid that talked like an old man but wouldn’t lift a finger to show people around–it kind of was a once in a life time trip.
He counted twenty feet before he took his first breather. It was easier than he had expected, the smooth wall was solid enough to instill confidence in the anchors he had brought along.
Zach looked down and waved at the two ladies below. They gave him thumbs up and whistled, Mia blew him a kiss.
He smiled and shook his head, then looked back up the ice wall. He supposed he wouldn’t mind getting into some trouble with them at all.
The view up was intense, cool-blue sky opened up into the heavens. The edges of the canyon were trimmed with blazing white sunny light. In the distance he could hear the gentle whoosh of the ocean, and possibly a boat revving along the sea beyond; wind echoed dully along the canyons interior. He counted the feet with each new tap of an anchor.
twenty-five feet... thwack
thirty feet... thwack... thirty-five feet... thwack
It was a steady climb, peaceful and exhilarating. He felt very alive. The crisp air almost warm the moment it entered his lungs, fired by the inferno inside of him.
At fifty feet he paused again to enjoy the view. He could actually see the turn in the canyon’s walls from this height; they had turned off from the main path almost a kilometer back. The whole time they had been looking up at the berg walls in humbled fascination. Now it looked like a child had dragged their finger through the snow, as though tracing through a giants maze. It made him shiver, something he chalked up to a shift in the breeze. Looking below again to wave, he saw that both of the girls had noticed his momentary break and seized the moment to flash him. Jackets unzipped and thermal underwear-hoisted high, apparently both were liberal and didn’t believe in too much support. He smiled again and decided that he better go a bit faster. There was no telling how much time they had.
He returned his attention back to the climb, grinning a little from ear to ear. He could hear the two spotters down below shriek at the cold and burst into laughter. (Crikey, your nips are probably popsicles in this climate girls... he thought) The rest of the assent had Zach preoccupied with an assorted jumble of thoughts, some of them not so savory but all very exciting.
The view from the top was breath taking. Zach looked over the ice canyon and marveled at how it only took up a small percentile of the glacial mammoth. Gripmund Berg was massive, and there were still sections that soared over a high into the cloudless sky, it would take weeks to ever climb such a surface. The crust around him looked sturdy, but he didn’t dare tread too far away from his harness, he knew that the local was right and he should be cautious of weak points.
The white icy surface sparkled rainbow hues of colour against the mid-day sun. He had made the climb in an hour twenty minutes. The boat was estimated to depart at five p.m at the latest.
He took a sip of water, cool and refreshing from his canteen.
The boat had been odd. It wasn’t at all what had been advertised. He likened it to one of the shark boats he had been on back home, big enough for tours but not really meant for it, make shift and under a tight budget.
His internal assessment was cut short when he noticed a clump of snow seem to rise and fall a few hundred feet away. Zach looked closer, the surface almost bubbled at times, little black tufts of snow dancing on the surface. It was an illusion of the sun. He decided that it was a mirage on the surface of the dazzling white-blue ice. Next he would be like those wanderers in the desert that saw an oasis just beyond the horizon... Only to be beckoned to the bleak fate of exposure... He took his camera out and snapped as many pictures as he could without letting his fingers freeze outside of their gloves. There was a peak half a kilometer away that was crusted with a web-work of silvery white ice crystals. Zach made sure to use the girl’s cameras as well; it was a nicer model and managed to focus in better on the icy feat of nature. Snapping away, he observed his environment in pure awe and amazement.
He doubted many outside of government expeditions managed to capture a view like he had.
The time for sightseeing was growing short, and he still would rather spend time exploring with others of an adventurous spirit. The two girls were waiting below, eager to see what he had seen. Zach was sure of it. He took some final photos and the secured the equipment back onto harness. Next he pulled out more bolt-like anchors and pinned a proper repelling line into the canyons lip. Satisfied–he threaded a sturdy hundred and fifty foot rope through the anchors, yelled for them to be all clear below, and tossed it over the edge. The rope limped tightly to the canyon edge after a few seconds.
He clipped his harness onto the new support line and looked over the edge. Zach’s face behind the thick ski-goggles turned to an expression of puzzlement. The girls were gone.
No one was in sight.
He yelled that he was coming down, and for them to stand clear.
Zach was starting to get a slight tremor of nervous uncertainty. The support line was stable, sure, no way would he fall–but, if he did fall, nobody would find him right away. And there was no way he would crawl away from this height.
Ah, don’t be a scaredy cat. Another voice from within whispered.
A little shaky, he balanced himself on the edge of the canyon wall, testing his weight on the line as he did so.
He let out a surprised pent up exhale of air as he relaxed with his body hanging over the edge. It held. The repel was indeed quicker than the assent, Zach zipped down the rope in less than three minutes, slowing towards the bottom, jumping in one second bursts. His knees cushioning his legs like springs as he touched foot back on the floor of the canyon.
The German couple was nowhere to be seen.
He noticed a small grouping of tracks, but the glare from the sun above made it difficult to follow. Their back packs had been left behind, perhaps they had just gone to fine a little privacy, call of nature and that sort of thing. Zach didn’t like the feel of that, it seemed strange, they had been playful and silly, but seemed serious in regards to the risks involved with trekking through Gripmund Canyon.
The tracks led back the path they had taken leading into this section of the canyon, part way he found them split off and continue into a cave. Surrounding the four sets of boot treads was now something that looked like ruts from fence posts. They were jagged and oddly spaced. It almost looked like they bore a deeper indentation than any of their footprints. Zach looked up from the tracks to the cave and around the small valley of ice. Wind shrilled unnaturally against the walls. It had a frightening quality when one was alone. He wanted to look in the cave, call out to the girls... but...
But something else was chipping away at the canyon’s harmonics. Clicking, scuttling sounds, not human, staccato and rattling. It was in the cave, ever so faint, but there and playing percussion for the wind. Zach wanted nothing more but to turn around, however the clicking sound was growing louder and from behind him. It thudded softly against the icy surface. Slow, toying and testing the ground where its prey stood, helpless and gawking at a cave.
Zach looked down at the tracks on the ground again. The fence post size ruts weren’t perfectly round, they were almost cone shaped, or pointed like pincers. It looked like a large spike, or spear had lightly danced along the ground.
He turned and saw one of the many ravenous creatures that grew fat and old on Gripmund Berg. It had a bulbous abdomen, hairy and white as a yeti, eight spindly legs supported the creature a respectable four feet above the ground. The eyes looked white and milky, dotting its head like a crown above the beasts salivating black pincers. Black and brown nubs of hair dotted its backside, dancing and shivering as it advanced on him. He noticed a thin trail of webbing extrude from it like a sinewy tail. Behind the beast, it towed two human shaped lumps wrapped in silky diamond-like cloth; the figures wriggled and convulsed in their cocoons. Zach was frozen in place. The thing was advancing on him, knowing he was cornered, perhaps trying to decide what to do with all this providence.
It would never make any difference, but Zach made the first move. His want to fight barely surfacing and flight being the only thing on his mind. He lunged left; the creature lazily hopped at him, sticking a pincer the size of a golf club into his chest, narrowly missing his heart. His lungs tried to grasp at the sudden in rush of air, cold and coming from a hole that wasn’t in his head. The creature withdrew slightly, allowing venom to seep out and into him, he saw it ooze out of the other pincer, silver, turning blue... The whole world was turning blue...
Valerie thought the ice over head made the whole place feel like a giant’s icebox. Images of giant turkeys and packages of frozen pizzas the size of helicopter pads danced in her mind. It calmed her down and brought a smile to her lips, her rosy cheeks rising into beautiful dimples. Blond curls bounced from under her toque as she arched her head up and around, admiring the natural course of water–solid from subzero temperatures. She felt like she was done being a negative Nelly, and was being transported back to a world of pure wonder, the air dancing before all of them like little puffs of white cotton candy. Hank standing next to her, one of his children on each hand, the spikes strapped to the bottom of their boots crunching in the hard snow-like surface of the iceberg. They walked in a little further, silent, awestruck by the force of nature around them.
“Amazing; it’s almost like this place holds its own time. I bet people rarely come out here, you know Ethan, not like Kelowna, or a big city, no, this is more like...” Hank started to say.
His voice echoed in a magnificent volley of acoustics. The four of them stopped walking; allowing their eyes to adjust to the darker area of the cave, ahead of them by roughly twenty yards was what looked like the drop off of a cliff edge. The glacial lake bed must be down there, perpetually freezing and thawing with time, trapped in its geography, bound by physics and the natural laws of the universe.
“Hello!” Hank yelled.
The cave filled with chants (“hello... hello... hello... hello!”) of Mr. Prescott’s word. It danced around them, coming from all angles. The cavern below was surely massive. Valerie began to wonder: even if stadium-sized spotlights were set up on the bank, would they actually be able to shine on the other side? She supposed lamps of that nature would produce too much heat, and probably consume too much power out here to stay functional. The LED’s were secured with battery packs, probably only got replaced during the tourist season; strangely, February, when the berg made its way close to land.
The children looked at their father with godlike fascination. His voice bounced at them in the caves silence.
“Woop, woop!” Ethan shouted.
“Yippie!” Ruth yelled.
“Burger Burps!” Ethan followed with another mantra of joy. The whole family burst into fits of laughter.
Valerie held a balled up hand to her face, her thick canvas mitts stifling back gasps of laughter. Tears were streaming down her face. “You two are the silliest!” She managed to say past her own fits of giggles. She kept her voice low, not wanting to affect the show that could rival the Hollywood Bowl, or Hyde Park.
Her children’s voices were echoing around them (woop... burger... yippie... burp... woop... burp... yippie... burger... wooop...) endlessly circling. It was followed by deep chortling laughter as their own amusement rattled against the ice walls.
The four of them decided it was time to get exploring, the boat–as meager and oddly ill-equipped as it was–would expect them back for departure, and they still had plenty of spelunking and investigating of nooks and crannies ahead of them. Hank didn’t want to have to jog back if it was dark when they exited the cave. He warned them that now that they were inside time would go by faster.
He almost wanted to turn back, a paternal instinct tweaked at his reactions, pulling him away from adventure. It took a considerable amount of will, to not bring the unease to Valerie’s attention, and hell, he wanted this to be a special trip not just some paid ticket sight-seeing tour. Why don’t they advertise this place more? Why did it have an ominous feel of being low-key? Hank didn’t really buy the cock-and-bull story the GNL guy had given him. He had been full of questions, and while most of them had been answered, the guy hadn’t been very direct about it.
Yet, he could do nothing more at the moment than join his family in ogling at the beauty around them, it felt like the ice was alive. Shifting and moving through time. Prehistoric water particles trapped in the walls around them. It will be melted someday, Hank thought gone, or synthesized into another ice float, growing again assuming the world didn’t blow itself up or ocean temperatures haven’t risen and consumed the land; it’ll last longer than us. It would outlive them all, his children and probably his children’s children. Ice, water trapped as a solid, (ice ice baby, built to last and ain’t goin nowhere fast!) He couldn’t decide what was more beautiful, seeing the frosty sparkle against the glow of their headlamps? Or to know he was sharing the experience with his family?
He looked over the flat surface ahead of them, leading up to the caution line. The floor of the cave was well trampled, footprints didn’t seem to last, however it was clear that this had been a main exploration trail at one point or another.
The edges sloped in at various points, making a tunnel effect, like some sort of giant icy half-pipe. You could probably rent the space out to extreme-sport junkies, charge a premium, see to all the proper safety guidelines, make up waivers for would-be x-sports nut’s, and it could all be made possible by this natural wonder. The tunnel they were walking through arched twelve feet above their heads. Rock-hard ice curved off and rounded from the ancient winds and floods from glacial flow.
The family remained silent, warnings of caution already spoken, and any relevant questions about science already answered (How does ice form like that? How come it doesn’t melt like a ice-cube in a glass of water? Can animals live here? Why don’t people build houses here?–it would be so cool!). Kids said the darndest things, adults do too, Valerie thought, we just don’t say it out loud.
Hank had been clear that safety was the number one priority, and having fun was number two, which meant for it to be super fun, they had to be super safe. The tour company had assured them that the berg was safe and free to open exploration. So long as you followed the guidelines.
Still, he wanted them to have a good time.
He told the kids a wifi tower was being installed in the next year or two and then condos were commissioned to come up the summer after. It made them laugh. Inside, each child took to wondering just what life on an ice palace would be like.
The tunnel gave way to a magnificent view of skeletal bridges made of bone-white ice. Thick crystals of cobwebby frost sparkled from the glow of their head lamps. The marker posts were fewer in number in this area of the cave, only two stood at the edge of the nearest ice bridge, another pole could be seen somewhere across the dark chasm, emitting light on a pedestal sixty feet away, another hundred feet the faint glow of another light-post beaconed deep into the cave. The structures looked like a frozen M. C. Escher painting. Over lapped and extending in cortex shapes, the pathway almost made the head spin from nausea and beauty. Yellow marker-cable lined some of the walkway, but it was hard to tell how far into the fathom it extended.
“Woah... that climber should have come here!” Ethan said. His eyes darting back and forth, mystified by spectacle.
Valerie’s stomach lurched at the idea of repelling in this dark enclosed space–as vast or unimaginably large as it may be. She wrapped her hand around Hanks, and went to put the other mitt on Ruth’s hood. Her hand made a soft crunch as it depressed some of the crusty ice that must have been on top. Her daughter said something about not wanting to cross any of the bridges. No siree-bob. She marveled at the intricate spikes of ice where coronas danced with the glare of their head lamps.
Hank started to point out how the ice formed that way: “it has to do with the structure of water molecules, they form that way when-”
Ruth’s shriek of terror resonated in chorus along the cave wall.
She was frantic, filled with panic and not caring one way or the other about some silly science fact. Valerie jumped in shock and immediately looked down at her daughter.
Small, walnut-size, and scuttling along her daughter’s jacket and legs was an army of spiders. Her boots anchored in what appeared to be a patch of hairy looking eggs. Tiny babies made their way in all directions away from their smashed clutch.
Ruth danced and screeched as her family desperately tried to brush them off and sooth her at the same time.
Valerie noted that the palm of her mitten was coated in a thick jellied-goo. Six legs poked out from under the brown and white hairy body, two other legs had trailed away down her sleeve–which was thankfully tucked behind her glove. It had been on her daughters head not moments ago. The abdomen of the arachnid was bigger than the tip of her thumb. As they brushed off the creepy-crawlers as fast as they could, she saw that some bore gruesome looking fangs, and held egg-sacks that looked like a peanuts covered in furry exoskeleton.
White bleached eyes danced back at them as the family struggled to clear Ruth from the terrible nest she had stepped into. Now all of their voices were screaming panic against the cave walls.
“Alright, you just make sure the back-ups check out and we’ll be peachy keen on this end... No communications out of the berg, according to the St. John office... Not a trace that’s right and you have plenty of samples ready for collection... Yeah, maybe hold off on booking any groups, we recon it’ll give the colony a chance to wean itself off... Yes Greg, it’s still contained, but we’ve been feeding them too much lately, they have their own natural process of elimination... And what’s that supposed to mean?”
A man in a yellow long-shoreman slick sat on a wooden crate aboard the McDougal’s Reef. His back resting against the cabin, eyes fixed on the cold Atlantic horizon. One of his hands played with the plaid coat poking out of the top of his seamen’s slick; the other held a mobile phone to his ear.
Unwitting tourists knew him as Scott Kilpatrick–however on GNL employee pay-stubs he was known as Todd Graff.
“I’m not saying to stop getting specimens... Look, we just don’t need to be feeding them...” Todd said.
His brow furrowed as he listened to the voice on the other line. His second mate, and ‘son’ according to the charade, observed with an amused expression.
Todd let the call end shortly after, the person on the other line likely just as happy to end such a chat. He gave out a few choice curse words that had been picked up among his time on The Rock. He didn’t mind his post there. In fact it was probably one of the more cushy gigs in the whole outfit. GNL had their fingers in all sorts of cookie jars, and medical research was only a minor blip on the St. John’s quarterly budget. The research there produced million’s, but the higher investors were after big-game advances.
He sometimes wondered how many non-enhanced employees were actually on the payroll.
“Nice call, was it?” The second mate with all pretense of a newfie accent mostly gone, said.
Another bogus entity like me, does it even matter that we know each other’s real names? Todd thought as he looked at the other faux tour-boat operator.
It was easy work, just ferry people out, don’t think about the Gripmund experiment’s run wild, just let your conscious be assured: something will replace them in good time. Todd’s thoughts on the matter were complex, he had been the ferry captain for well over fifteen years, soon it would be time to move on, find another station among GNL ranks–the fakery of a father son tour boat was an easy cover story, but after awhile people would begin to wonder just where the family came from, and if they were around for so long how come nobody knew where they were from? And the answers would never be known, because they would pack up shop and leave for different positions elsewhere, hopefully...
“Yeah, the usual” Todd said. “He just repeated that GNL’s mandate on the Gripmund project is to follow course until need to do otherwise is seen as necessary...” He looked at the cell phone for a moment, perhaps to consider tossing it in the ocean, and then tucked it safely into his inside coat pocket.
“And of course he was harking on about how the duplicates were already harvested and being integrated back among the patron’s lives, this project is ground breaking but not above pay-cuts, blah blah blah... The whole company is a joke, but what can ya do? As long as they don’t make me join an extraction team I can’t really complain.”
‘Kevin’ agreed. He was a good clone, like Todd, perfectly passable for your everyday two-legged human; the two had been navigating the McDougal’s Reef for almost as long as the guys make-believe age. His body was stunted, on purpose, current protocol in cloning meant that harvested specimen’s (people collected through false-fronts like their Gripmund Berg tour company, Area 51’s star gazing industry also had a great deal of specimens collected, although US sanctions made the cloak and dagger game a little dodgy these days, Canada was a little more lax.) The cloning procedure was refined enough so that a subject could be processed and mimicked within a week.
Impressive, but the real issue was how do you get the cloned subjects to pay it forward? In other words how do you make the replacements valuable to the producer of said replacements? The answer was tour gigs and scientific research.
Some clones went mad, the cause typically being because the idea of having fake memories was just utterly terrifying; for some it settled out fine in the wash; in others it may have been onset from a predisposed biological trait, a carryover from the collected specimen.
The extraction team was something Todd presumed only madman would do. It was one thing to see dusty husks of humans being transferred to the island, it was an entire other terror to try and capture the creatures that resided there. GNL had taken over the berg through some sort of back door government deal, long before people even cared to look into giant conglomerates. The shelf of ice it had been latched on to was another site for their parent company to conduct fly-by-night schemes, however it was purchased by the company after the wealth of Gripmund Berg was realized.
The berg, so he had been told, had separated as a result of an earthquake under an ice shelf near Greenland. It did as all large hunks of glaciers do once they are separated from their host and began navigating the earth’s ocean. It was big enough to influence its own currents, and for hundreds of years it simply wandered about the paths of migrating whales and arctic fish. In the eighteen hundreds legends circled that animals steered clear of the berg, most assumed that it held bone chilling temperatures and nothing could feed or rest in its wake, however indigenous peoples also shared stories of hunting parties scouting the berg and finding the carcasses of animals sucked dry, stuck to the frosty surfaces with white strands of ice. Nobody thought much of it, until the government of Canada had the idea of installing a satellite naval station on the berg. A proposed floating fortress, it was one of the many hair brain ideas that circled about in history (the Avro Arrow, Manhattan Project, Captain Trips, etc.), the berg was going to be their geographical-edge leading into the Great War. Thankfully the idea was scrapped before any serious public scrutiny was involved.
However, this was where GNL came into play, a private interest group founded by Jervas International, put in a bid to scout the iceberg. It had been early days for documented arctic research, and Canada wanted to help be on the forefront, and ideally find a way of finally encompassing Newfoundland under national dominion. The expedition was nationally funded for the most part, instead of being funded by the Crown, and saw heavy defense investment, all the while maintaining the secrecy of scientific exploration. (Whatever that meant–Todd assumed it was a fancy way of saying “to see how much money there was to make”)
The iceberg was officially named Gripmund Berg shortly after. The expedition had been fortuitous for the company.
Twelve people died. Four survivors were picked up two days after the teams boat was seen drifting off the tip of what was yet to be called Canada.
GNL hushed it up and remained a silent research group until the 1960’s. The cause of the expedition’s death was marked as an ‘unfortunate exposure to the elements’. The surviving members were paid well and incorporated themselves back into the company, all moving on to become senior members. Best to let the people with all the secrets climb to the top. Most rumors were mere speculation among employees, but if you worked for the company, you heard things. Gripmund Berg was inhabited by a rare breed of Arctic wolf spiders, vicious, nasty looking things that dwelt in the icy heart of the berg. Extraction teams reported white gargantuan eight legged beasts the size of rhinos as of late. The spiders fed on themselves, cannibals as much as carnivores, cunning and vile in their tactics. Some would paralyze a larger prey over a long period of time, and then feed on the carcass, laying eggs in the hollowed out sections, and then once the babies hatched they would likely eat some of the young. The expedition had been considered a success by the company.
Todd hated the idea of those things lurking on the island, and even though he felt bad letting ‘Kevin’ be the man on deck at the landing point he still wanted to never step foot on the thing. GNL had made too much money off of the rumored creatures, and they would probably never ever harvest enough of those things for him to want to step foot on the berg. He knew that natural evolution was something not even a company built of clones could stop. The ocean temperatures were rising, they were sending more people to the berg every year, and the spiders were growing in size.
The two clones finished their brief evening meal (moose-steak and boiled potatoes with a healthy helping of gravy, black coffee and a shot of rum to wash it down), and set course for St. John’s. Pouch Cove was just a misdirecting pick-up point, less people seemed to ask questions in the smaller communities, and assumed the McDougal’s Reef was just picking up the usual fair of sightseers.
The wind whistled over a briny-dark blue sea as the motor thrummed below. Their thoughts circled around heading home. They had residence not far from the GNL research lab.
It wasn’t far enough,
Not by a long-shot was a thought that often popped into Todd’s head. The lab had dead Gripmund specimens, creepy sure, but dead as a door-nail. The berg had live ones. And he wasn’t up-to-date on how long it had taken spiders to learn how to skim across water.
“My, what a lovely couple, and their children are so nice!” Heidi said.
She watched the Prescott’s follow their map to Gripmund Berg’s grandest of caves.
“You’re not wrong Heidi. I do wish the children had seen us off, I know they’re busy but this was sort of a special trip.” Dudley Jervas said.
He said the children with a mild tone of annoyance. Gruff and blunt like most people aged by wisdom.
The elderly couple waited at the canyon’s fork in the road, watching as the family hiked away from them, it was a real stunner of a sight. Something a couple of old timers like them cherished. The spark of adventure in a multitude of generations, each bright in their own ways; their own spark hadn’t dwindled, but it felt fleeting. The trip to Gripmund Berg had been a long time coming, something they had both agreed upon long before their own kids had been in their teens, and it was a perfect way to start settling down.
“You know why they say you only visit it once don’t you?” Jervas said.
“Yes dear, you’ve told me before.” Jervas said.
“Right, I suppose I probably have, it was granddads saying after all, that sort of thing sticks even when your bones are old and don’t want to move like they used to.” Jervas said. “I always wondered if we should have come here sooner, you know, like them... I guess since we knew what this place was... It kind of begs the question as to why we waited...”
“I think we waited just long enough.” She paused, looking in the direction of the lost-from-sight Prescott’s and the other direction of the three adventurous hikers. “We’ve both done great things, and lived longer than almost anyone else in the company... You know, the natural way...”
Mrs. Jervas looked down the road not traveled. The third of three forks in the canyon, she knew it lead to a cave, and like all of the other caves on the iceberg: its attractions were beyond imagination. Their life’s work had centered on this project, and Mr. Jervas had made countless lives better with the research conducted here.
Dudley met Heidi at the St. John’s research centre in the early seventies. Both of them had barely been out of teens but had cushy corporate gigs. She was in charge of lab inspections, knew what was going on but thankfully never had to get down and dirty like some of the other GNL technicians. Dudley’s grandfather had been a founder of the GNL group, and as things went back then, he was grooming any potential heirs in the ways of proper business. The business their family was concerned with was evolution and enhancement. Gripmund one of the many troves of research potential across the globe, plain and simple, and his family made sure it stayed on the cutting edge.
He had never really cared for the corporate play involved, it was all just show, smoke and mirrors showmanship. The truth of the matter was that if Jervas International decided to stop keeping their foot firmly atop Pandora’s Box, the world would be a very different place.
Still, it had felt right to live a natural life, wait out as long as he could. The Jervas family was vast, and record of any biological human’s in the bloodline was mere rumour now a day. As far as Dudley knew, he and his remaining kin were the last of a long lost race. He and Heidi had spent many nights discussing the possibility that even their own children wouldn’t try to live as long a life as they had. It was all too easy to consent to stunting ones biological aging process. There were plenty of ways to preserve one’s self.
“I think it’s time we moved on dear.” Mrs. Jervas said.
She gripped her husband’s hand, pausing for a moment to extract her own time wrinkled hand from its warm glove. She caressed his cheek and said she loved him. Then the two walked along the path and into the nearest cave.
“You know;” Heidi said as they entered the mouth of the cave “one of the ads on the website says: ‘Here, breathtaking landscapes have a way of coming and going.’ I don’t really think that’s a great marketing line, but I suppose we’re not trying to be flashy.”
Her husband agreed, deep in thought, some of it business related (old projects that had already been completed, and on-going ones that he was taking a temporary break from). He looped his arm through hers and they walked on in silence. Inside the cave they found a canopy of silver-white webbing balancing over a dark gulley; it criss-crossed over forty-feet and into unknown directions. Dudley thought it looked sturdy as the cable ties on a suspension bridge. The LED posts shed enough of a glow into the cave for them to see the blinking pupils among shadow.
It was like a flickering array of twinkling white jewels.
The two of them, hand in hand, walked to the center of the web and embraced each other. The thread-like strands bounced under their weight and vibrated ever so slightly as something scurried in excitement not too far off.