the Dig

the Dig
a short story

They told us not to go into the DYE site during our initial briefing because it was unsafe. There were other reasons given; although, I can’t recall them. Radiation? Monsters? But after we got stranded, we wandered. Thirty minutes of snowshoeing on the hard snow seemed little distance away from the camp, still on the flat horizon. I followed Neil in a sliding tumble, up and over the bank, down to the ladder. When we stood hunched at the bottom of a snow bowl, the sudden, dim light temporarily blinded me after coming out of the bright arctic landscape. Neil snickered at the metal ladder leading up to a steel hatch as every rung except the top four sunk into the miles of solid ice below. There was no telling how far it descended. Before climbing, I took one last look at a snowy circle surrounding the raised structure and steel support columns like an oil rig on a frozen ocean. My thick boots barely fit between the rust-layered, round, metal rungs, up through the opening at shoulder height into a black hallway full of musty chilled air and snowdrifts.

As I mentioned, I’m not supposed to be here, and if there were any part in the story when the monster attacks, this is the right moment.

The small, timid, young university Ph.D. girl, that’s me, and the taller, over-confident, photojournalist, Neil – we suddenly scream in terror. A Yeti-like creature stomps in from a darker-still doorway. Its slender rows of silver teeth shine from the flashlight and open to let out a hideous screech. Its massive melon head brushes the drooping, water-stained ceiling tiles. The creature rips Neil’s arms from the sockets in an instant he holds up his camera in a Night-Stalker-like defense. Now Neil screeches. Of course, I’m smarter, so I use the moment to turn and jump back down the hatch, where I run-stumble-slide back toward the only warm shelter at this spot on the Greenland ice sheet for 125 miles. Behind me, I hear footsteps hammering on snow, growing louder like my pounding heartbeat.

Maybe there is no monster – just noise in another hallway, ongoing deterioration. Still daydreaming, the flashlight is shined in my face. Neil walks on. I follow him down the deserted passage, being extra cautious past the doors now to an open area that I am sure was the shared room. Our breathing sends out white moisture plums. The inside is not warmer, I decide, like an empty freezer, and abandoned since satellite systems made the giant radar dome on the roof above us obsolete.

“You know that movie, The Thing?” Neil whispers. “Probably not, you’re what again, twenty?” louder.

“Old enough,” I replied, not giving him the answer he probably wanted. I’ll play along.

“I’ve watched that movie. Kurt Russel. There’s a newer movie too. Why?” Anyways, his point is like my Yeti vision. I may be a new adjunct, a brainy science nerd with a research grant, but my uncle likes Kurt Russell. Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, and especially The Thing, so this place was close, minus the shape-shifting, face-eating, psychotic alien on a killing rampage.

Neil widened his blue eyes inside his olive-green balaclava and nodded to animate the point – it went without saying – this was creep city.

I looked at a mixture of snow and abandoned junk everywhere. I saw scattered silverware, a green vinyl tarp, rusted chairs, a charred cooking pot on the grey linoleum floor with bits of burnt furniture in it. It felt more post-Thing as if the characters killed it and left its frozen, rotted carcass in a wall – that’s the smell.

Neil wandered further, now taking photos around the corner where outside light bled in through the wide, steel-louvered window shutters. He volunteered to record the trip for the university. He sweetened the deal with an offer to write on the National Guard unit that landed us here on a ski-equipped cargo aircraft, three days ago, from Schenectady. 

“Aren’t you not supposed to take photos of all this, secret military site?” I hollered out to the other room. After a more extended silence, he walked back into view, smoking a cigarette.

“No, there’s nothing of value. The reason the crew got up one day and just abandoned it,” he replied. He threw his cigarette in the pot on the floor, put his thick mittens back on, and closed the mask’s Velcro on his flushed face.

“Your face is pretty red from the snow reflection,” my strategic comment to change the subject from an anticipated history lesson. [Man … no speeches. You lost both arms.]

This arctic building was DYE 2. Remote DYE sites across North America once searched for Soviet bombers coming over the pole. Neil lectured, not taking my bait. The states even operated radar sites on ships and ocean platforms, off both coasts. Back in the 50s and 60s, everyone knew about them. They expected an attack at any moment with fallout shelters and surface-to-air Nike missile silos around the big cities. Kids practiced air-raid drills, taking cover in school hallways or under desks. Now it all rusted out of knowledge after the development of satellites. No one’s vaporized. That colossal Cold-War effort included ski-equipped cargo planes, much like the one that flew us in. Every bit of rotting junk arrived on them, including the building, piece-by-piece. They transported the fuel used for heat and power. The operators lived isolated on this barren, inhospitable plane. Like an orbiting space station, they relied on resupply. Nothing lived naturally. The sun never set in summer months and never showed in winter months. A balmy day was 48 degrees, and a cold day was -58 F.

Neil reopened his mask to reveal a sideways smile behind a goatee face. It all made his jutting chin more prominent. “You need to see this before we go.” He turned and walked back toward the other room. His snow boots kicked up drifts and debris.

“What’s in there?” Getting spooked again.

“Some clues to your mystery,” Neil shouted.

She is getting tired, hurting, she is cold. She is past ready to go home. Not to the camp, but home, at her apartment, where there is summer weather. No more digging in the ice, down 10, 20, 30 feet to recover the scientific instrument that Doctor Wyatt mysteriously set here 50 years ago. He led the university’s studies on dark matter, that is, until his disappearance and before his spells of madness before that. These things are not understood by anyone now or for some time, she supposed. Whatever was the cause of all of it, there was a small part in her mind that worried about what they were digging up, should she be exposed to it. Pretty silly. But there was also part of her that hoped it was some revolutionary discovery buried under the ice. As mythical as the monster. 

They pulled shifts digging at the coordinates left like a treasure map by the doctor soon after arriving. Their orange plastic toboggan-and-rope system lifted ice blocks out the hole. She cut squares with a chainsaw on her shift, and Neil yanked them up a slope into the sunlight. She reflected on how each ice block locked in climate information during a time as surface snow. The hole reached further back in that buried time as they dug; their topside pile of tossed time grew extensive. Actual ice core projects were going on specific to such environmental studies at Greenland facilities west. Those scientists pulled out cores of frozen atmospheres dated tens of thousands of years old. But would her university group ever reach past their meager five decades of seasonal crust here?

When the university cleaned out the professor’s office, his notes on an experiment pointed to an unknown object he left in 1967. No one alive could recall him in Greenland, including retired faculty and the National Guard unit practicing their snow landings and arctic survival training at the DYE’s ski-way. It was no wonder that everyone on her team quoted scary movies and felt creeped out by it all. Captain America lay frozen under the ice for all they knew! That drew her to pursue the equipment. It was indeed why Neil jumped on the opportunity to document it for the university. Despite his promises to cover the National Guard’s training missions, he wanted the story for his news blog.

Neil was once one of those adult learners who stood out on campus. He sought a new life, crossing into the civilian world after serving 33 years in the Army and a timely divorce from his wife, who automatically-collected half his military retirement. She met him during a Sociology class, and they became acquainted during breaks in the smoking area. She finally kicked the nasty habit as a means of stress relief. He had not. She had not seen him since he graduated from his associate degree program in social media management. Still, they kept up on each other online. That’s how she told him about the temporary reporting position with her research staff. As the new adjutant of Doctor Wyatt’s old department, she selected and led the arctic-recovery team. In many ways, Neil was like her Uncle Dave, her dad’s only sibling, who lived in Alabama, who she rarely saw except for weddings and funerals. He had been in the military too. Dave also suffered a nasty divorce. Anyways, Neil made her feel safe on the trip, as he’d been through Desert Shield and Desert Storm and deployed to Bosnia and Afghanistan, and God knew where else. He’d even served at a missile defense site in central Alaska.

It was a small office where she found Neil looking through a four-drawer file cabinet. His thick, oversized mittens swung from his snowsuit’s wrist-clips. “Did you find the dirt, Geraldo?” she said, trying to bust him. He remained oddly quiet, without reply. His hand, gloved in a green wool liner, pointed to a file folder set on a rusted and peeling steel desk. His attention stayed on files in a drawer. Beams of sunlight invaded them and the other things in visual suspension through the broken louvers on a skylight, bouncing off objects and highlighting the kicked-up garbage. Humans were temporary, she thought. All would resettle when they left. The yellowed memo in the folder on the desk, many pages long, looked official, with a Department of Defense letterhead.

OFFICE OF THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
WASHINGTON, D. C. 20301

15 Apr, 1973

John Stuart
Site Director, DYE II
USAF Operations, Kangerlussuaq
Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Dear John:

I hope this memo finds you and your crew well. I am sorry to be so late in replying to your letter and suggestions on the Antarctic Operation Deep Freeze access. Still, we have had some extensive reorganization underway in our Science Foundation support office. I did want to have these people give some thought to your concerns about potential protestors. As I understand, you are all about halfway through your rotation, and I congratulate you on it …

She skipped past the grayed typewriting quicker until she saw Doctor Wyatt’s name on the second page.

It has also come to the attention of NGB that the Science Foundation support project, entitled Raven Dream, led by Doctor Wyatt, did not submit the required safety compliance documentation, per the recommendation provided, July 15, 1967, by DoD Arctic Transport and Support and Security Council Supplement 361-016, Appendix 12. I don’t think that any of your crew there were working the DYE at the time. It’s pretty important to us here that you’re on it. Still, the council recommended that all support to Raven Dream cease indefinitely. This stop-order includes any mil-air travel and asset support to include: The Dark-Matter Transport-Hyper, quark-phantom collectors, and the Broken-Pencil array rider. The Schenectady folks know this, but Dr. Wyatt is indisposed with a mental illness – an involuntary commitment. The problem is that we don’t know precisely where the site(s) is/are on your lawn. Dr. Wyatt is not of the mind to tell us. We certainly don’t want you to go searching for them or disturb them until we have a better idea of just what they are and do. We are at least pretty sure now from the images that they are not collecting UV and air samples, as the documentation suggested. The university is at a loss for details as well. Safety is imperative until we can determine the cause of the doctor’s sudden illness. He dropped out of reach from the world for some time prior. Forward any queries to …

She skipped to the back. It was signed, Stan Evander, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Sciences and Technology).

“Broken-Pencil array rider?” she mocked with a hawkish voice. 

“Some general’s chief of staff named that one, no shit,” Neil replied. “Probably pissed off. But what’s a dark-matter transport?”

“Hyper,” she added on. “I’d explain it, but then I’d have to kill you,” semi-joking.

She looked down to a separate hand-written note, in pencil, that looked stapled to the page later.

We’re leaving that one out there, under the ice. So let’s be sure it stays forgotten when you shut it down.
– Stan

 The note was stamp-dated, RECEIVED June 12, 1982. There was a typed label on the file folder tab, “WYATT.”

“Where did you find this?”

“In this busted cabinet,” Neil said. “It’s pretty hefty. I think it was for secure stuff, but somebody broke in, by the looks a while ago, probably a dog-sled group looking for valuables but not these old memos. They probably used some of this to start that fire in the other room.”

“I don’t think we should tell anyone that we saw this,” she said.

Neil remained on the cabinet, now cumbersomely searching the bottom-drawer with cold-stiffened hands, and silent.

“I’m serious, Neil. This shit will fuck everything up; if not, somebody comes after it.” She folded the documents the best that she could through her mittens and shoved it all inside her snow-boot. “Was there anything else?”

“Neil!”

“No, nothing else, yet!” he replied. “You know, the university isn’t paying me shit to document that I could make with this story. It could get me a placement with the Post.”

“But you won’t because you’re loyal to us, right?”

“Yes, yes,” Neil said. “It fucking figures, I’d be at the friggin’ North Pole, surrounded by ice and this alma mater assignment; then I get a possible break. Something good, but gone.”

“I think we better head back,” she said, satisfied with his reassurances. 

“Wait … … … what the …?” Neil had pulled out, opened a folder holding a large photograph, and now looked as frozen as the room. 

During the snowshoe back to camp, she remembered Uncle Dave living at their house, after discovering his wife cheating on him with a married colleague. Her uncle had also been nearly committed to an institution for his self-protection. Still, her father talked to some people who allowed Dave to stay with family in New York instead, and he managed to pull out of the deepest parts of depression. It was not too long that Uncle Dave found a new job and headed south. She remembered that she had a few hours alone with him one afternoon when everyone else was out shopping for the holiday. They watched The Thing and then a parade on television and got laughing, acting as the announcers and voicing out a disastrous parade review with mock voices. Dave managed to slowly re-establish his life, and she missed him much.

Along with her uncle’s heart, the aunt that she never really knew [She met her once.] kept the old city house in Missouri that Dave spent blood and years renovating. It was probably her plan all along, she thought, like Neil’s ex did to him, waiting for his retirement to file for divorce. She also lied to her family and her work colleagues and friends about the breakup. Naturally, they all distanced themselves from Dave as if he had done something wrong. Even after having been abandoned and nearly homeless in the Midwest, he never let on about her lies and the affair, thinking better; that women’s collogues and family, they all swam in the same septic tank, he said. He could have screwed with them and their adultery in so many ways, especially with their government clearances, but he took the higher ground. Maybe something similar happened to Doctor Wyatt to cause his mental breakdown and disappearance? “Some cupid kills with arrows, some with traps,” Shakespeare wrote. Yeah, she thought, or some with false witness. She was never getting married.

On their return, the Air National Guard unit looked packed for the morning’s C-130 arrival and airlift back to Kanger, their seasonal operations center. It had been scheduled to pick them up this afternoon, but they were weathered out. Several thin metal pallets, called skids, held a pile of tightly ratchet-strapped gear under cargo netting for loading. The only other things left were a snowmobile and the collapsible half-domed shelter, which everyone would sleep in and break down as soon as the aircraft was on the way. A half-dozen Airmen took the opportunity to wander over to the dig and help the university. It relieved the exhausted staff, which included six of them counting her and Neil. Their time to find the equipment before the plane arrived was running out.

Over the last two days, the Airmen’s attention was turned toward their barren land arctic survival school and the students’ training on personal protection, as well as their overnight remote field survival test. When the aircraft landed, the university team did their own thing. Their dig was some 100 feet from the camp. But just off the plane, a dozen students had to get by as if they had crashed alone on the ice sheet. They spent one night in the group shelter, but one night in pairs inside the snow-trenches, they dug, with benched sides and v-shaped roofs made from snow blocks. That night it was -14 F with 20-knot winds, but no students showed up for a warm night in the heated shelter – an automatic course failure. She had noticed them practicing this morning with orange signal smoke and flares. She and Neil walked past the class on their way to the DYE to see if they could gather any information on the buried scientific equipment. Like those mock stranded castaways calling for help, the DYE site was the science team’s Hail-Mary to nothingness.

Doctor Wyatt’s early dark energy studies centered around its use as a means for space travel. But the theory that dark matter was actually a scattering of primordial black holes dating back to the big bang carried little support in the 70s. The university and the scientific community outcast him slowly for its radical concept, if not, acceptably, in a way much colder and devious than direct opposition. They took advantage of slight mistakes in his research and papers. They overlooked his work while taking bits and genius from his hyper-transport mathematics to gain momentum and funding for other research projects. At least, that’s the conclusion she came to after her research and dissertation. If only the doctor’s time in the field was now. Dark matter carried large research grants and some of the most significant studies pushing the science today; billion-dollar super-colliders and time on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. It was now acceptable to imagine lassoing the ass end of a primordial black hole to pull a spot of the galaxy to your feet by never actually moving. Doctor Wyatt’s quantum math eventually proved black holes everywhere, a large percent of the universe’s mass. Like those sent from the defunct DYE, accessing them with high-frequency radar waves was as possible as deflating a balloon and stepping into its stream of escaping air.  You just had to untie them or find way to undo the knot.

She and Neil had the last shift until the plane arrived. No one was awake and the quiet somehow added to the dead cold. Up from the bottom of the pit, she looked through her breath to the dim twilight – their arctic midnight. She did not want a dislodged ice block falling from the toboggan onto her head. They had dug down farther than she’d predicted, and the climb back up to the world was considerable.

This was usually the moment at the end of the scary movie when the survivors, having dodged the monster’s bloody attacks, mistake disappearance for death, generally, after an explosion or a fall from a high place. The false demise of the beast lets their guard down. It’s the young, virginal girl … there’s something cliché like a shower scene or another moment of sexual vulnerability. Well, she did not feel too sexy in her sweaty, three-day worn snowsuit, so she had that going for her. Everyone looked asexual under all of their clothing and gear layers, and she went days without a man staring at her chest, which just occurred to her, and she smiled.

Looking this time to cut another row of blocks with the chainsaw, her flashlight caught something buried. It was not a shadow, but something was certainly there.

Cutting further down. “Looks like a weather balloon,” she said. “A simple instrument.” There was a connection.

“Wait, it’s a parade float? That whale is the balloon!” she yelled to the surface.

This was not the doctor’s experiments, which gave them a moment of pause at the DYE. When they saw it in the old photo, on the ground. A whale had been dragged hundreds of miles over the ice or transported from a dimensional portal? Doctor’s Wyatt’s experiments did not do this. The equipment would never be found, she now realized, probably purposeful. But what of the bodies they saw? None of it made sense.

Then, feeling foolish, she thought to read the old memo’s parts that she skimmed over. She pulled it from her boot and read under the flashlight.

… at a loss for details as well. Forward any queries to my public affairs office. We’re keeping a better eye out now for Polar Peace activists. We realize how they got out there at your site on dog sleds thanks to the doctor’s help to protest the DYE and inflated that float, like some Macy’s march. The red liquid they threw on themselves as fake blood for effect and the diesel fire they set. It goes without saying that confiscating their film made good sense twice over. None of it ever made the papers that we have seen. Seeing the doctor’s unvetted, classified experiment in the background also triggered the end of university support at this time. The protestors were all released from federal custody on the gag order. Still, we don’t expect a second attempt at arctic or Antarctic operations, as they lost some credibility from the event’s environmental impact. Again, let me assure you of my deep appreciation for your crew, and please accept this expression of thanks. See you soon.

Sincerely yours,

Stan Evander
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
(Sciences and Technology)

Attachments:
1. Photograph of DYE 2 Polar Peace protest
2. Background paper, Raven Dream, FOUO

By that point, Neil climbed down the extension ladder. He took some photos. They pulled pieces of the hardened vinyl from the ice and could make out what remained of a gray whale’s image with the hand-painted letters “P lar P e” remaining on its silver coating.

“How could he do this?” she said aloud, watching the morning landing. “Destroy everything that he researched.” 

“Sometimes people change from discovery,” Neil said. “Maybe a lie to get through. It doesn’t work. Just buying time with something that seemed expendable. He found something groundbreaking but destructive. He was smart to realize that.”

The C-130 lifted off the ice. She would soon be in her summer weather after an overnight at operations. But something stood atop the DYE site’s bulbous radar roof, watching them take flight. Or perhaps swirling snow. It had not been there before, and there was no access above the array.

The plane shrunk steadily then disappeared. No one heard the faint noise, maybe a spell mumbled in the wind, then a pop, but now nothing in the cold, forgotten decay.

(Written by Mike R. Smith, 2020)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.