Frozen – A Random Picture Prompt

Frozen – A Random Picture Prompt

This was actually the first picture I found to use for these random picture prompts, but I waited a little while to write it because I wanted to develop the idea a little bit. I’m pleased to report it came out exactly the way I wanted it to!
. . .

A thousand generations the mountain had stood silent watch over the frozen wastes, or so the local aboriginals claimed. This was no formation caused by the hectic tossing of the Earth’s tectonic plates. This was no extinct fountain of hardened lava. No, according to local legend, this was one of the sky people, descended from their high place when the world was young to keep watch over the coming ages of reason and development.

When ancient men asked this star traveler how they could help, it replied only that they should stay away, give the new land formation wide berth and wait until the moment is right. But, cried these same inquisitors, how will we know when the time is right?

You will simply know, had been the typical cryptic answer. Pretty standard for an ancient myth.

Except that the tribes which still eked their living out of this harsh, barren terrain still maintained those beliefs, still made steady pilgrimages to worship at the mountain’s feet once every ten years. Because, according to them, the time had not yet come. The atmosphere, the sensations and resonances were not quite right. The spirits didn’t speak.

But scientists were a persistent bunch when they wanted to be, and the mystery of the mountain had galled them for five decades at least. When offers of trade and several fine bribes had gone refused, their tactic had simply been to push until the locals relented, agreeing to show them the way, though they would not touch the mountain when they arrived. Scaling it, finding a way inside – if it had an inside – would be their problem.

From the comfort and warmth of the trading outpost, Alexander had been one of the most confident among his peers. He had led the push, prodding the local chief weekly until the man relented, scowling as he asked what supplies the scientists required for their journey. From the warmth of the nightly fires and the comfort of his fur-covered cot, the legends had seemed both distant and silly. What waited for them beyond charted territory was only a rare land formation, a unique quirk of the Earth’s development, some fluke that had a one in a million chance of occurring.

But with the wind raking what little skin his arctic gear left exposed, with the mountain looming over the tired, aching travelers, Alexander’s mind began to change.

Nothing about this place was what he expected. He had expected jagged mountain peaks, worn by time and erosion until they vaguely resembled the image of a man. He had expected signs of smaller mountains, or some once verdant valley buried by snow and ice.

But the figure they had come to study looked like a man. It looked as if some giant simply sat down at the base of a hill, folded himself into a posture of deep contemplation, and waited until the icy winds froze him solid. Lines of muscle almost seemed to ripple beneath the white-blue skin of the mountain, marking powerful arms and legs. The fist which supported the ancient neck was large enough to crush the entire party in its grasp, should it move. And it looked like it would, looked like it could.

The face was so finely chiseled, Alexander didn’t believe even an artist’s hand could be so accurate. Here was the drawing of lips in a contemplative pout, parted ever so slightly to reveal a hint of the mouth beyond. There were eyes mostly closed, but left open the barest hint, the delicate lines revealing the hint of an iris beneath. No wonder the natives said the star man watched!

Even the frozen icicles, miles long by now, clinging to eyebrows and beard gave every indication that this was some great being frozen in time as it was frozen in place, waiting for some grand tropical thaw to restore it to its former state of activity.

“But could it really be a god?”

Alexander didn’t realize he had spoken the words aloud until one of his colleagues barked a laugh. It came out as a harsh, gravely hiss against the howling wind. “We’ll know soon enough, won’t we? Looks like finding an entrance won’t be too difficult after all.” A sharp elbow jab to Alexander’s ribs accompanied this statement, though he barely felt it through his arctic gear.

“No,” he agreed, still mesmerized by the hulking visage. “Though reaching it might be.”

*   *   *

“Not a god, no. Something far worse.” With a soft sigh, Alexander removed the thick-rimmed glasses from his face and rubbed his sweat-stained brow. Hard to believe it could be so hot in a cavern surrounded by ice, whistling winds and near-constant snowfall.

They should have camped with the natives. Their indigenous guides wouldn’t come near the mountain’s sheer, icy face. They had agreed to wait for the scientists half a mile back down the trail. Their earthen-colored tents and campfires were clearly visible against the stark white backdrop both day and night.

But no one had wanted to scale up and down the cliffs daily. No one wanted to waste the hours when there was perfectly flat ground here. When it was warm inside the mouth cavern, sheltered from the weather, and easily housed all their gear.

Besides, if he was going that far, they shouldn’t have come here at all. They should have headed the old chief’s warnings, should have listened to the shaman’s stories. Cautionary tales or not, they had truth in them. Alexander could see that now.

Why did they never listen until it was too late?

“What’s that?” The gruff grunt belonged to Rick, the same man who had poked him playfully when he mused aloud about the mountain proving to be a god after all. And it was only when the man spoke to him that Alexander realized he had spoken his thoughts aloud again. Talking to himself was turning into a nasty habit outside the privacy of his own personal lab. He should work harder to break it.

“Have you seen these?” he replied, gesturing to the microscope set on the less than sturdy portable table they lugged up here for such work.

Rick crossed the room, empty at the moment aside from Alexander and the science team’s sleeping bags, motioning for another of their companions to follow. Barry; Alexander recognized the nervous geologist. Something about the quality of the mountain formation spooked Barry that first day and he had been quiet ever since. Whatever the results of his studies were, it seemed the rest of the team wouldn’t be able to drag them out of him until they were far away from here.

Alexander’s expertise lay in completely the other direction. No one questioned why a biologist would want to study a rare and remote land formation. Who knew how many microbes could be frozen in that untouched ice, just waiting to be discovered? And that, it seemed, was exactly the problem.

Between the two thin sheets of glass, illuminated by the bright light of the microscope, Rick would soon see for himself the squirming, wriggling, simple-cell organisms they had come to find. And being a biologist himself, he would know exactly what he was looking at.

“Who else has seen this?” Rick hissed as he lifted his head. Barry silently leaned forward, pressing an eye to the scope, though who knew if he would understand what he was looking at.

“Just you,” Alexander said softly. “Just us.”

Rick swore.

“What is it?” Barry asked, his voice barely more than a whisper. Perhaps he worried his words would carry. Not an unfounded concern, considering how well sound echoed within the caverns.

“A virus,” Alexander replied without preamble. “For years, biologists have speculated that there might be some super virus frozen beneath the arctic poles. Turns out we don’t even need to go that far.”

Barry didn’t ask how Alexander knew it was a virus. Perhaps he trusted the biologists knew their craft as well as he did. Or perhaps he had already discovered something just as disconcerting.

“Let’s not panic,” Rick insisted, though tension made his arms and shoulders rigid. He clenched his fists at his sides and Alexander detected a hint of a tremble in his limbs; clearly he had worked himself up over this far more than his companions. “We don’t know exactly what it is. Or if anyone’s caught it.”

“But we’ve all breathed the air,” Alexander hissed, barely daring to let the words out. “And drank the water, boiled and filtered or not.”

“So we have enough supplies to last another month. More if we ask our guides to make a second trip. One thing’s sure; no one can leave until we figure this out, Alex. You understand?”

He did. And that was what troubled him most.

*   *   *

They scuttled up from the deep places in the earth, shuffling on their insect-like leg pairs, surprisingly agile considering their odd shape. They paused when they came upon the first of the bodies, sprawled across the wall and floor of the passageway, eyes blank, mouth open in silent horror.

They looked at each other, all three eyes locking momentarily on the other’s face before they moved on.

It was worse near the surface. The bodies were not piled, but they lay so closely together that the creatures could not pass without stepping on them. Instead, they bent their c-shaped bodies, reaching out with hands that bore too many fingers to gently peel the cloth thrown over a few of the remains. As if those who had died last had been trying to preserve the dignity of those who died before them.

If you could preserve the dignity of someone you murdered.

“Gunshots, all of them,” her partner chittered, shaking his head as his third eye darted rapidly across the room, noting the blood smears.

“Not this one,” she protested, clicking her fingers together over the corpse closest to the entry. “Looks like he bashed his skull against the rocks.”

Her partner made a soft sound. “He might have been the last.”

“Such a shame,” she murmured in response, turning away from the carnage. Not that the path back down into the depths was any less gruesome to behold. “Such a waste.”

“Another failed test,” her partner agreed. He didn’t sound sad anymore, just tired. Worn. “How long will we have to watch them destroy each other before they learn?”

“Some never do,” she said, gingerly sidestepping another corpse as she led the way back down into the deep. “I heard one team waited fifty thousand cycles before they abandoned their project.”

Her partner only made a soft clicking sound in response. He waited until they passed the last body – or the first, depending on which direction you were going – before he said, “I’ll organize the clean up team. We can’t leave the bodies to fester and rot.”

“Strange that it ended the way it did. It almost seemed like they might pull together, try to save each other.”

“Panic always gets them in the end.” Her partner’s tone was grim. “If they can’t save everyone, they can at least save themselves.”

“Perhaps.” She clicked softly, thoughtfully for several seconds before she added, “Though I wonder if it was themselves they were trying to save, or those that lay beyond.”

“We’ll never know.” Her partner sighed. “It’s not as if the dead can speak.”

She rather thought they could – if they looked a little harder – but there seemed no point in arguing.

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