They were led down several wide corridors with lower ceilings than those common in structures much north of here. Bare concrete floors were not only seamless, but did not have a single crack which puzzled Alexander Hoffman as he lugged two sea bags of his belongings. His wiry form, concealed beneath layers of heavily insulated clothing boasted the physique of an Olympian primed compete for pride and nation. He preferred to stay in shape mainly because he had the time to do so, being an unmarried professor of archeology.
Dark eyes scanned the nominally bare walls and as the corridors lacked any real attention at Station 11. Alexander, or Hoff as his friends dubbed him, didn’t expect much entertainment while in Antarctica, and by extension, came to realize the few inhabitants here were equally as dull. That’s life, and I’m here on business, he thought to himself. Thing is, he had no idea what that business was other than his expert opinion and knowledge was highly sought.
The temperature was a near steady sixty-eight degrees inside the compound, and he appreciated it immensely. He wasn’t sure if it was gas, oil, coal, electric, or even nuclear energy which effectively heated this place, and he didn’t care at all. The purpose was being served, and that suited him.
Every now and then someone would page someone else to call this number or go to that place. It was very dry, mood-wise. Hopefully he wouldn’t be here long. He wasn’t sure why an archeologist would be requested to Antarctica.
His mind wandered while he meandered through the hallways of Station 11, wondering what it was that brought him here. An archeologist in Antarctica; there’s nothing here but snow and ice.
Then again, they must have found something here to bring him half way round the world to look at or offer an opinion on. Whatever it was intrigued him and sent his mind racing wildly as to what it was. He was too distracted to notice the cold anymore. He felt just like a kid trying to guess what he was getting for Christmas.
After a while his rational mind took over, slowing his excitement. It might be just some frozen bone sticking out of the ice that might belong to a horse or something outrageous like that.
Regardless, it had to be something significant to someone willing to pay him to come from the University of Chicago to Antarctica, no expense spared. His trip to South America was first-class aboard a Learjet 85 with several other members of this team assembled swiftly and at some times, compelled. The boat ride to Antarctica was even more extravagant, as it featured individual cabins for everyone ‘contracted’ for the team. The plane from McMurdo to Station 11 wasn’t half-bad either, a privately-owned cargo hauler equipped with the comforts of home on a communal level.
Whoever this is, he or she expected results. Even though Hoffman was offered a quarter of a million dollars to just ‘examine’ some items and ‘offer a professional opinion’ he knew there was a stipulation. There always was.
Just have to wait and see. Maybe I’ll strike it rich down here. He took his career seriously, though from time-to-time he did enjoy a little sarcasm on it. Others certainly enjoyed it.
“Here we are,” said the man in the flannel, whose name Hoffman forgot. He wore a dark flannel tucked into jeans with layers of clothes beneath to combat the occasional cold spot in the station. He led the team of twenty from the garage to the station’s gymnasium which wasn’t all that impressive: it housed an assortment of weight machines, free-weights, blue mats, and a single basketball hoop. The room measured about thirty feet by sixty long with a twenty foot ceiling to accommodate the basketball hoop. “Take a seat, no particular order.”
They broke off into smaller groups as they were on the plane, each sticking with those they knew, even for a short time.
Typical, Hoffman mused to himself. He’d befriended several of the others, but not many. There were at least three other professors in this team, one of which he already knew: Doctor Kevin Sherwood, a professor of archeology at the University with Hoffman. An older gentleman, Sherwood was more of a role model to him and an inspiration. He was usually quiet and something of a loner, except when it came to Hoffman or several select faculty members who shared a common interest in the ‘early world’ as he dubbed it. They would spend hours talking about arcane and lost civilizations, debating the circumstances which led to their declines, and how they might have avoided it. Usually it would end with the older professors poking fun at him about how he being a young man didn’t have a life. He welcomed it though, respecting their intelligence and their time.
Grabbing hold of a chair next to Sherwood, Hoffman plopped down, dropping his bags on either side.
“Well hello again!” Sherwood responded in a low voice with a surprised look that the younger man knew was fake.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Hoffman joked back. Removing the last hat on his head, he revealed severely matted dark hair, though it wasn’t that long to begin with. “I hope this doesn’t take long, I’m starving.”
“You should’ve eaten before we left McMurdo, Hoff. I told you you’d regret it.” Sherwood shook his head, “Young folks don’t listen anymore.”
“Well, it’s kind of hard when you are older than the Incan civilization I just taught my class. I didn’t think mummification worked on the living.”
“Watch it! You’ll be old one day.”
“Yeah, well you got about eight centuries on me.”
Sherwood laughed. “Just you wait.”
The rest of the team seated and waited patiently, while several chattered amongst themselves. They didn’t really notice the big guy in front of them. He wore loose-fitting jeans with a short-sleeved polo, bearing the Station 11 insignia. His bald, shiny head gleamed in the fluorescent light, with small light-colored eyes and a sharp nose giving him the guise of a shrewd bastard.
“Welcome all,” the man broke into their conversations. “Welcome to Station 11, I’m Dan Cooper, director of this facility. This will be your base of operations until you are sent into the field. Your home away from home, if you will. You are free to wander the station at will. You will not leave the station unless accompanied by station personnel or qualified team members. Stupid can get you killed at Station 11, so drop it real quick, because we don’t have any vaccines. Don’t be stupid, and you’ll stay alive. Antarctica is a dangerous continent.”
They all knew that pretty well. It was cold at McMurdo, and Station 11 was further south.
“Having made that clear, I want to welcome you again. I have no idea how long you’ll be here, but hope your contracts are everything and more. There isn’t much else down here.”
“Can you tell us what is down here?” Colin Staniewski asked. He was a chemist from California, and that was all Hoffman could remember. “I mean what it is that brought us here?”
Now Dan drew a troubled breath. “You will be briefed after chow as to why you are all here. I want to enjoy what accommodations we have here at 11, and just do what you do best.”
“What do you mean you can’t tell us now?” Joseph Russell spat. “You brought us here! Now what’s the story?”
Dan’s face remained neutral, while his tone was irritated. “Now let me set you straight, young fellow: I did not bring you here. I know why you are here, but I am forbidden to discuss that with you. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have brought you here. All I am required to do is allow you to utilize this station, and keep you from freezing to death. That’s it, end of story, goodbye. Now does anyone else have a more intelligent question?”
Hoffman raised his hand, “When do we eat?”
“I like our room,” Hoffman said as he shoved another spoonful of oatmeal in his mouth. He consumed three previous bowls already, hoping they would help to bring his innards back to normal human temperature. Besides, he loved oatmeal, and it sickened Joe Russell who sipped his coffee.
“How can you stand eating that? It looks like puke.” The geologist from Colorado seemed to gag as he watched Hoffman indulge.
“It’s much better for you than that coffee.”
“Play nice, boys,” Sherwood sipped at his own coffee, having just finished his steak and potatoes. “I like our room too. It’s like being back in the Army. Good times.”
Gulping another glass of iced tea, Hoffman smiled at his old friend. “It’s not that bad.”
“Oh, I’m not complaining, just reminiscing.” Sherwood glanced at the younger man inquisitively. “You really like oatmeal?”
“It’s food, and it’s warm. I think coffee is watered down tar.” Smiling broadly, Hoffman savored the last spoonful before releasing a deep sigh of satisfaction. “I’m good for a few hours now.”
“Seriously,” said Colin, “you’re gonna get sick from eating all that.”
“That’s nothing,” Hoffman stood to return his bowl. “My brother can eat twice what I just did. Besides, it’s what we ate a lot of living on a farm.”
Laughing wholly, Sherwood sipped his black, unsweetened beverage.
“I mean it, he’s gonna get sick.” Colin made a repulsive face as he staved off mental images of people regurgitating. “So you two know each other?”
“I’ve known him most of his life. We also teach together at the University of Chicago. I suspect he’ll be taking my place when I retire. He’s earned it.” Smiling warmly as he sipped his coffee again with a slight slurp, Sherwood glanced for his friend.
Nodding, Colin seemed approve of the older man’s answer. “He’s highly intelligent. He answered every question I had beyond what I’d expected on the boat and plane. He seems very passionate about archeology. I respect that, not many people are anymore.”
“Do what you love and love what you do.”
“Welcome back, farmboy,” Joe poked while Hoffman returned to his seat with another large glass of iced tea.
Nodding at the jibe, Hoffman settled himself again. “Now what do think is down here? My mind’s been racing to come up with a logical explanation to all of this.”
“I know. I gave up trying to solve that mystery a while ago, because we’re going to find out sometime soon.” Always cool and infected with an unnatural amount of patience, Sherwood remained a true rock of logic and simplicity to Hoffman through his years of arriving to this point in his life. He was immensely helpful in the younger man’s transition from impulsive youth living in the now to a more mature adult who still possessed his good-humored adolescent charm.
“But what do you think it is?” Face relaxing to a serious countenance, Hoffman propped himself with both elbows on the table, presenting himself as businesslike. “Do you realize the money spent on just the manpower? How many others have been brought here previous to our arrival? Something is up, and whatever it may be, is huge.”
“Yes, it has struck me as odd.”
“Odd?” Joe gulped his last shot of coffee, glancing into the mug with disappointment as it was empty. “Doctor Hoffman is right! Something huge is going on here, and we’ve been brought into it!”
“But what?” Colin leaned forward like they were discussing something top secret that they didn’t want anyone else to hear. “Think about it: archeologists, chemists, geologists, and who knows what those other men specialized in. Why would someone amass a group of composed of these kinds of people?”
“Look, we’re all paid to be here, we’re not prisoners. We’ll find out who, what, where, when, how, why, and whatever else there may be to be learnt. It’ll just take time. Patience is our only certainty.”
Hoffman shook his head. “I can’t believe this: you seem disinterested.”
“Quite the contrary, I’m excited with a slight bit of apprehension. I won’t worry myself into a stomach ulcer trying to decipher some dark secret awaiting us here at the end of the world.” Sherwood stared into his mug, his mind wandering.
“I tell you what,” Colin leaned closer to them, his voice dropping to a whisper. “These other guys seem like professionals. Like soldiers or something.”
“Soldiers are great survivalists,” Sherwood spoke in a hushed tone.
“You’re just shooting down everyone’s good time.” Smiling playfully to his good friend, Hoffman raised his glass. “Here’s to you, party-pooper.”
“Now that you mention it, they do kinda look like soldiers.” Joe’s eyes conspicuously wandered about the cafeteria, observing the others with a skeptical look, like he had them figured.
“They do seem to be on edge around here,” said the older man, allowing his eyes to wander briefly. “I’m sure Doctor Neary will enlighten us soon enough.”
“Hello there,” said an unfamiliar voice from behind Joe. A tall man with silvery hair streaked with black approached with a broad smile through a thick beard. He wore octagonal glasses over narrow blue eyes which appeared to be monocles connected with a bridge. Wearing a heavy green sweater with cargo khaki pants, he appeared different from the rest of the Station 11 personnel. “I’m Brian Neary; it’s good to meet you. Please sit.” He shook their hands in turn before taking a seat between Joe and Sherwood.
“Colin Staniewski, nice to meet you Doctor Neary.”
“Nice to meet you Colin. Just call me Neary.”
“Joe Russell. Glad to meet you.”
“I’m Alexander Hoffman. It’s a pleasure, Neary.”
“Kevin Sherwood, at your service.”
“I’m so happy to meet you all, you’ve come highly recommended. I look forward to working with you all in the field. Well, the mountains actually.”
“What did you find in the mountains?” Hoffman posed as nonchalantly as he could, his expression neutral.
“Well it’s interesting, you see. We couldn’t believe it when we first found it, and have run numerous tests to confirm the data.” Neary spoke excitedly, slowly realizing what he’d said. Then leaning forward slightly he continued, “The main lab has just about everything you’ll need. It’s this way.”
Rising from his chair, Neary beckoned them to follow, departing as swiftly as he’d arrived. And like seasoned scientists, they followed, their curiosities peaked. They didn’t have far to walk this time as the lab was just across the hallway, with most of the lights dimmed.
No one else was inside as they entered, maneuvering between tables, chemical trays, and other pieces of equipment they were vaguely familiar with. The lab was about the size of the gymnasium, though filled with numerous precision devices for measuring, gauging, observing, and problem solving.
Neary led them to a wide set of doors obscured by what appeared to be a large lathe at the back end of the lab. He swiped a card through a thin slit in the wall that appeared to be nothing more than a joint between two wall panels. A small man-door clicked open their way and Neary led them through, speaking to someone just inside. “These four are with me, they’re the last.”
As they crossed the thresh, they saw a pair of guards, each clad in body armor and armed with AR-15s, pistols at their hips. They were not military, but they were definitely not standard station security either. They were something more, like a private security force. What in the world are they here for?
“Whoa! What’s this?” Joe panicked. The others shared his obvious apprehension and stopped in their tracks, baffled more than surprised.
“Calm down, gentlemen. You’re in no danger. You’ll see soon enough why we must take these precautionary measures.” Neary directed them to follow him further down a well-lit stairwell.
“I think I’ve seen quite enough,” Colin spat. None of them moved to follow even as their host descended a few more steps. Their eyes demanded an explanation. Faces covered with looks of accusation, they refused to take another step until he convinced them otherwise.
“Too late to back out now, I’m afraid.” Neary chuckled. “Trust me, it’s not what you think, whatever that may be. You’re going to love this, trust me.”
“Did you find gold down here?” Joe mocked more than asked. He was the most frightened of them all, shakily backing toward the closed doors.
“Of a sort, yes.” Neary’s smile seemed to dispel any fear the four of them had, though they refused to budge. “Look, it’s better if you see it all.”
“I don’t know, with this kind of security, I think we’d be better off remaining in the dark.” Sherwood took a cautious step forward. “Something isn’t right here, I can feel it. Why don’t you just try explaining?”
“Because words could not do it all justice. Trust me.” He beckoned them on as he continued his descent. Reluctantly, and curiously, they followed him into the depths of Station 11 toward the main lab.
They came to a set of doors guarded by a pair of sentries armed just as the pair upstairs. Recognizing Neary, they allowed him, with his guests to pass, unhindered. When the doors opened, they reluctantly entered the bright interior of the immense lab filled with more equipment and people than the one upstairs.
The smooth walls were bright white with shelves over several tables along them. The floors were polished black, almost like Spanish marble, but solid in color. The drop ceiling consisted of staggered fluorescent lights which illumined the enormous space.
The focal point of the room seemed to be along the far wall where seven people gathered about something unseen. Other smaller groups were scattered about various stations throughout the lab, unaware and uncaring about the arrival of newcomers.
Neary led them on his own winding path through the lab, focused on the group of seven. The four behind him couldn’t help but steal glances at the curious artifacts that others seemed to gape and marvel at. Though they were sure of what they’d seen, they were hesitant to believe their own eyes. There were bits of chiseled stone and fashioned metal that didn’t appear quite right.
“You may illuminate us at any time, Neary.” Sherwood’s voice was heavy with frustration and curiosity. He looked at Hoffman with a twinkly in his eye, who nodded in understanding.
“Hi there, Neary!” One of the seven noticed him before they arrived. “They’re here?”
“Yes, they’re here.” Neary answered as the other six turned to greet them, creating a gap wide enough for them to see the table behind.
All four newcomers stopped cold as they saw it.
“Who is that?!” Colin yelped in disbelief. ©