The Account of Lars Mathiesen
“The creatures that are down there are like science fiction creatures. They range in the way that they would gobble you up from slime-type blobs, but creepier than classic science fiction blobs — these would have long tendrils that would ensnare you, and as you try to get away from them you just become more and more ensnared by your own actions. And then after you would be frustrated and exhausted, then this creature would start to move in and take you apart. So that’s one example of one of the creatures, then there are other types of worm-type things with horrible mandibles and jaws and just bits to rend your flesh.” — Sam Bowser, cell biologist (from a conversation with Werner Herzog)
(Found among the abandoned possessions of Lars Mathiesen)
We were not idle on the 7th of May, in spite of the swirling snowstorm which rattled the doors of our half-cylinder shelters and, as we heard over our intermittent communications system, caused a fair bit of damage to McMurdo station, over the bay on Ross Island. Though the winds were fearful, Randall, Karen, Jan, and I risked the brief trek through the skin-abrading downpour to the solid shoals of the ice-capped southerly portion of the Ross Sea where, in the months following the initial settlement of New Harbour Camp, our predecessors built a shelter meant to store diving equipment and cover the main diving hole.
Once inside, we set to dawning our neoprene suits and bright orange three-fingered gloves, removing the hole cover, and breaking the thin layer of ice which had accumulated in our absence. We remained silent, reflective, and respectful in preparation for our ingress into the strange marine world tucked beneath the ever-morphing, millennia-old icy arms of Antarctica. We stood on the edges of the blue-to-black spectral aqua-pit, turning and jerking and settling into our stiff second skins. Jan, who oversaw the dive from the surface, remained unsuited, helping others with their suits and air tanks. Radios were tested, gauges were checked, and timers were set for a thirty-minute dive.
Taking up empty sample containers and attaching miscellaneous gear to our suit loops, we each leapt, feet first, into the blue cylindrical shaft and gently fell into the subfreezing liquid abyss, sealed by ice ten feet vertically and many miles horizontally. There is only one exit. We don’t employ tethers as they limit our movements and, being so near to the magnetic pole, compasses are unreliable.
Coming to the end of the ice, we dropped into open water, made strangely clear by a general cold-induced stagnance. Everything seemed inverted, the ocean floor yawning darkly like the night sky while the blue-hilled ceiling — where air bubbles collected in black, watery puddles and a kind of upturned horizon stretched — seemed more analogous to good-old ground. And so, the urge to walk upon the solid sky, in defiance of gravity, was ever present, a layer of bedrock upon which insanity might easily have been built.
White ice pillars — some pointed, others bulbous bundles of silky sharp ice crystals — pierced the uniform blue where comb jellies — gelatinous, somewhat elongated, bioluminescent balloons — floated and curled, their edges rippling in waves of iridescence. Jellyfish, like alien willows, bobbled and scallops zipped with each clap of their eye-rimmed halves, sinking ever so gently in the intervals.
We came to the frozen shoal wall which swelled up like a far-facing wave, its crest meeting the glowing ceiling. At the foot of the wall, on a ridge skirting a tumbling void, Antarctica’s marine fauna were densely clustered. Grey, eight-inch brittle stars — starfish-like creatures with five long, thin, flexible, bristled legs and sand-dollar-looking bodies — snaked and rowed quickly in overlapping droves. Scallops rested, feeding. Sea spiders the size of a man’s hand slowly legged among pink and yellow sponges. Red, spiked Antarctic sea urchins dotted the swarm and pencil urchins clung to the base of the ice wall. A pile of writhing nemerteans — slim, yellow-orange-red, ten-foot, carnivorous worms — feasted on the remains of a crocodile icefish.
Among these things which I had established as normal on previous visits, something very abnormal grabbed my attention. From the top of one scallop’s shell, in its approximate center, sprouted a long, straight, grey protuberance with a bulb halfway up its length. The scallop itself was behaving very erratically, zipping about in a haphazard way and ramming itself into the ice wall. I drew very close and inspected it to the limits of the naked eye, finding the growth reminiscent of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (known colloquially as zombie fungus). I would have taken a sample right then but the containers were with the others.
Karen and Randall took sand samples while I checked on the time-lapse video equipment. The thirty minutes allotted soon passed and we flew on winged feet toward the frozen sky. In our absorption with otherworldly wonders, however, the location of the hole had become hazy. We swam three abreast, sweeping the air-speckled ceiling, searching for any recognizable feature.
Another twenty minutes elapsed and Jan was becoming frantic over the radio. We’d tried to retrace our path several times, attempting to follow the puddles of air produced by our diving tanks — now worryingly low. Finally, as I flailed on the cusp of panic, Randall called over the radio: “Uh, guys, I found it.”
It was easy to find Randall on the fairly-crisp inverted horizon and I paddled toward him as calmly and steadily as I could manage. We rose through the tube (or maybe we fell. the whole experience had left me thinking strangely) and emerged (or submerged) into the shelter where Jan greeted us, obviously relieved.
We’d come out of the ordeal without any real negative repercussions, although Karen did complain of a headache — probably the result of mild hypoxia.
That evening, back in primary shelter — a research station by all accounts, furnished with unpainted plywood shelves and tables, shoes and snow cloths hanging from support poles — Karen and I sat on our adjacent cots, discussing the events of the day while Jan and Randall analyzed the samples in another room.
“Something very strange happened while I was taking samples,” Karen had said, “I got a little too close to the nemerteans, I guess, and a whole bunch of them sort of came after me. Usually, they’re pretty slow but this time I had trouble getting away from them. Randall saw it happen and was coming to help when they just quit and when back to the icefish. Jeez, my head.” She placed her hands around her forehead and leaned over a bit. Recovering, she returned her attention to me.
“I guess I wasn’t watching,” I’d replied, “I found this scallop — ” Just them I was stopped. Karen still watched me intently but there was something in her expression which made me ill-at-ease. Even more disturbing, she offered no acknowledgment that I had stopped talking. She remained fixed, a statue holding the past in its features.
Though it pains me to recall what followed, I’m placing it down here in hopes that the events of May 7th will not be questioned or investigated.
A pinprick drop of blood arose from the center of her forehead, growing steadily until it ran in a red streak between her eyes, down the side of her nose, and into her slightly open mouth. Her stillness was suddenly interrupted by violent convulsions which knocked her to the floor. Calling to the others, I made an effort to contain her thrashing arms. And still the wound grew. Blood ran into her eyes but they remained open, fixed. Randall held her legs and Jan tore through the room, looking for the med-kit. Something began to protrude from her brow, growing outward in a grey spire. In our horror, we released Karen and, amid continuing convulsions, she lifted herself from the floor. She stood, stumbling, arms writhing.
There was a shudder-inducing crack and the two hemispheres of her head fell away in rotten heaps, fully revealing the slender protuberance which sprouted from her mangled cerebellum. Jan, thinking quick, pulled down the wall rifle and took three unaffecting shots at the creature which had been Karen.
Turning, the avatar walked to the door, turned the knob and let the wind throw it ajar. It stepped into the maelstrom, wearing only Karen’s pajamas, and walked south toward the Mount Barnes and the Kukri Hills, its headless figure quickly fading into the whiteout.
Following several seconds of stunned silence, Jan closed the door and began throwing orders: “Randall, clean up this mess. Put the, uh, remains in a sampling jar. Use gloves! Lars, contact McMurdo.”
Try as I might, my signals were unable to reach McMurdo, flying instead into a static void. Eventually, I gave up the attempt and returned to my cot where I now sit, jotting down these few pages in a feeble attempt to purge my mind of these horrors.
Karen must have been bitten by an infected nemertean and I am glad now that I was unable to collect the infected scallop which, I now realize, was similarly intent on traveling south. What lies there, I wonder, tucked away in frozen abysses where human feet have yet to tread? What force compels these creatures inland? What criteria of natural selection does this beast satisfy?
Might these creatures or others like them have provided the evolutionary pressure for the water-to-land mammalian exodus of an unremembered eon? Perhaps, it was by the will of these parasites, driven by their unknowable urges, that the first of our kind emerged (or submerged), flopping, from the sky-world where creatures stolidly fly, unmolested by gravity.
I will now bring this text to a close as the vapors of sleep fog my eyes. I will rest now, though I fear I may not survive the nightmares which darkness may conjure. Sleep will, at least, give me some relief from this splitting headache.