Heart of Ice: Part Three
I woke up. It was cold. Still immobile with sleep, I remembered what I had been too brain-tired to think of last night, the soporific effect of extreme cold. One had to keep active and warm and not fall into the trap of thinking that it would be so easy to just rest, close your eyes for a little while. People froze to death like that.
I hadn’t frozen to death, but I felt close. I couldn’t open my eyes at first because the lashes had frozen shut; I had to rub them and warm them with my hands to get the ice off so that I could part my eyelids enough to see. Without a source of heat even my thick heavy-duty sleeping bag had been hard-pressed to contain enough of my body heat to keep me from freezing. My limbs felt dead, and I had to massage them with clumsy hands to get the blood flowing.
Skye was a concern. At first I was unable to wake him up from where he had slept in the curve of my neck, under my hood; when I finally managed it, he uttered a plaintive croak and snuggled deeper into his feathers. Intrepid explorer Skye might be, but he was bird-shaped and even with his fast metabolism and thick feathers he was especially vulnerable to cold, being accustomed to the muggy jungles and plateaux of Tyrannia. After we shared a cold breakfast – it would have been best if it had been something hot, as it takes a great deal of energy for the body to maintain heat in temperatures like these, but I wanted to preserve my magical energy for creating warmth and melting ice for water – I tucked Skye into the front of my coat and zipped it up so only his head poked out from under my chin. He didn’t protest at this curious handling, a worrying sign in a pet who was usually so vocally independent. Instead he just hunched up inside my coat, fluffing his feathers and wings. As I walked I could feel his heart beating rapidly against me, his little toothpick ribs expanding and contracting as he breathed.
Speed was now more of a concern than care, although I certainly did not want to have come this far to take a spill and break a leg, trapping myself. I pounded in pitons only every fifty meters or so, as a precaution, without bothering to pace out the distance as I had in the beginning. I could travel more quickly and comfortably on four legs than on two, but with my splinted left hand that was impossible, so I made my way on two legs, awkwardly. When I got cold I jumped in place, spiked boots skidding on the icy floor, until I started to sweat, at which point I would stop to conserve water and to keep from having to suffer it freezing on my skin. I tried to drink sparingly to conserve magical energy, and dehydration was beginning to wear on me so that I started sucking on pieces of ice to keep my mouth moist, although the ice was searingly cold and did nothing for my heat conservation.
I traveled like this for two days.
By the afternoon of my third day of travel, five days since I had entered the glacier, I was beginning to deeply regret not having tried to climb back up the wall of the frozen whirlpool. There had been no sign that the caverns were on a course to exit the glacier, and my food was starting to run low. (Admittedly I was capable of generating a Great Feast, but was loath to do so when I needed all of my energy to keep warm and get water.) I ate less and less with each meal to conserve my food as long as possible; I was used to fasting, and the hunger was less pervasive than the thirst. I still fed Skye well and regularly, figuring the small amount of jerky he ate wouldn’t make much difference overall to my cramping stomach. Skye was still suffering; by now he had sunk into a deep lethargy from which he roused only to eat and to protest when I slipped, despite my keeping him warm and sheltered in the front of my coat. It was for him I was most concerned, and for my family if I didn’t manage to get out.
I exited another bubble-shaped cave (formed when the river rolled stones around and around until they had hollowed out a sphere, a common enough if interesting formation) to enter an opening cavern whose ceiling sported fantastic icicle lattices and smooth, slightly pitted round formations of which I could make nothing. Walking across the rippled floor, I realized that the air was becoming warmer. An icicle-stalactite dripped water onto my face, making me blink. Automatically my tongue came out to lick the droplet from my upper lip; the water tasted mineral, metallic, a little sulfuric. As I did so, my boot crunched through a thin layer of surface ice to splash into an inch of cold water.
The air around me was now comparatively sultry, a little below zero Fahrenheit. At the center of the sloping floor of the cavern was a muddy bubbling spring of boiling-hot water surrounded by vibrantly colored algae in blue, green, and even red and purple-pink rippling up and down on the surface of the water. Billowing steam rose thickly from the roiling surface of the water and condensed on the icy ceiling to freeze into the odd formations I had noticed. The cavern was centered over what geologists call a “hot spot,” where magma rises unusually close to the surface, heating the groundwater to boil up through crevices in the bedrock as geysers. This hot spot was not beneath a reservoir of groundwater but directly beneath the glacier.
As pleasant as the warmth was, the hot-spot cavern made me nervous; if I stayed here too long, the steam would condense on me as well and then freeze to a thin icy shell once I left. The water wasn’t good to drink, either. It was too mineral, full of particulates and eroded-off pieces of rock and dirt. Algae that had grown out too far from the hot epicenter and frozen to death floated against the icy edge of the pool. I left as soon as I could navigate around the geyser lake, too soon to get any benefit from the heavy humid warmth.
A day and a half and about thirty kilometers later, the dim blue glow of the caves began to lighten. I would have thought that day was breaking again if my watch had not shown two in the afternoon; about ten minutes later, the floor of the caverns began to slope upward for the first time since I had entered the Ice Caves. Although the slope was fairly gentle, no more than fifteen degrees from the horizontal or so, I frequently had to utilize my pickaxe and pitons to climb the slippery floor. Despite the increased difficulty of travel that cut my speed in half, I was in a good mood as this was the first sign I had encountered that the river course I was following would exit the glacier. I stopped to rest less often, and even poor Skye caught my optimism and, though not leaving his comfortable nest in the front of my coat, instructed me in caws and screeches as I climbed. I continued to travel even after night fell, too wired by the hope of escape to stop and rest now. It was about eleven o’clock at night that I finally reached the cave opening.
The opening was no longer open. What had once been a spring where the prehistoric river exited the glacier had been eroded into a complete cave mouth; over time, through the spring and autumn thaws and frosts, massive toothy stalactites and stalagmites of icicles had formed, some fusing into thick barred pillars from floor to ceiling. Then, at some point, a massive geological disturbance – earthquake or icequake or a shift in the ice like that which had formed the crevice through which I had entered a week ago – had shaken down and shattered the icicles and even some of the cave ceiling, blocking the exit with rubble meters thick that had subsequently frozen together. When I hacked at the rubble with my pick to try to tunnel out, icicles and small boulders of ice detached themselves and fell on me, striking me on the shoulders and mining helmet, and the whole wall and ceiling groaned dangerously.
After almost seven days in the Ice Caves, five of them lost and fighting to survive the extreme cold, it was the exit that defeated me. It was maddening, and utterly unfair.
I had come all this way by my own skills and determination, but now I could do nothing myself to get out. That didn’t mean someone else couldn’t help me, though. I had no way of knowing whether there was a settlement near enough to receive a signal, but I did know that the Terror Mountain government hired rangers to patrol the slopes and rescue pets lost or trapped by avalanches and so forth. Hopefully there would be one nearby.
I took off my mining helmet, gritting my teeth against the cold that struck my ears and scalp, and set it in the little alcove formed by my pickaxe. I wouldn’t have too much time to be able to do this – the most body heat is lost through the head, where a great number of blood vessels are between scalp and skull, with very little to keep them insulated – and I would just have to hope that the hypothetical ranger was looking in the right direction. Squinting through my lashes to shield my eyes from what I was about to do, I flipped the switch on my helmet to turn on the headlamp’s high beam. Even with my eyes nearly closed I was dazzled by the light from the reflections.
The code for an SOS was short-short-short-long-long-long-short-short-shot. I switched the lamp on and off over and over in that sequence, whispering the count to myself to keep time. Even if the hoped-for ranger didn’t know Morse code, there was no way he could doubt that the regular pattern was a signal.
Ten minutes of signaling and with a little metallic sound the high beam burned out. My teeth were chattering by then, and I put the helmet back on and curled up with Skye in the little camp that was becoming depressingly second-nature to set up. I had done all that I could, and hopefully it would be enough.
I woke slowly, to the sound of indistinct voices echoing off the vaults of ice. My eyelids had frozen shut again. For a few minutes I thought I was still dreaming, which only underscored my drowsiness as I seldom dream on expeditions – too much physical exertion, I suppose. The impression was shattered by Skye’s loud and self-satisfied caw.
I shifted around under the space blanket, trying to get my right hand disentangled enough to use it to melt the rime on my eyelashes, and was arrested by the gentle but rather powerful touch of a large warm paw. “Try to stay still,” said someone. “We’ve sent a team back for a stretcher and transportation, but you’ve suffered dehydration and some pretty bad frostbite besides your other injuries, and right now the priority is getting you warm and hydrated while we wait for the medical team to arrive. You’re lucky you had your Airax with you, though – we were on the wrong heading tunneling in, and with you asleep we wouldn’t have been able to find you except that he kept leading us by sound. Oh, thanks, Kaira,” he added, draping a thick heated comforter around my body. The unaccustomed heat sent powerful shudders through me. Skye hopped up onto my shoulder and chirped smugly.
“My eyes,” I croaked. I could barely speak, I was so dehydrated.
“What? Something’s wrong with your eyes?” my rescuer asked. Sounds of shifting. “Oh, I see. Frozen shut. Give me a second.” He held the comforter against my face for a few moments; the heat soon melted away the ice on my lashes, and I blinked rapidly to clear them of water.
“Thanks,” I murmured, still drowsy. The pet that had been helping me was a huge green Eyrie. He wore a heavy-duty winter coat over his folded wings to protect the delicate membranes from the cold, making him look hunchbacked.
“You’re welcome. The medical team will be here in a few minutes, and then we’ll get you back to the area hospital.”
When the medical team arrived, they strapped me into a long stretcher hooked up to the harnesses worn by a Lupe and an Aisha on long cross-country skis. The entire rescue team chattered almost constantly back and forth with the hospital and rangers’ stations via neomail. A number of sets of skis and snowshoes were scattered and stacked haphazardly around the trampled snow and rubble from the tunnel through the blocked cave mouth. The medical team left first with my sledding over the snow in my stretcher behind the tandem skiers, while the rest of the rescue team continued milling about the tunnel and cave in incomprehensible activity.
The hospital was about fifteen minutes away, and surprisingly modern and well-stocked for being in the middle of the wilderness. I passed out not long after my stretcher was transferred to a gurney and I was rolled into the wash of warmth and light of the hospital, but woke up a few minutes later in a proper bed, hooked up to all sorts of monitors and with an IV taped to the inside of my elbow. A nurse was in the process of drawing some blood, and when she noticed I had awoken said, “We found your ID and contacted your family. They’re on their way here.” She finished what she was doing and moved aside, revealing a tray with a number of little cartons on it on the table behind her. “You’re to eat this,” she continued. “You’ll be on a liquid diet for the next couple of days, but hopefully you’ll be able to move up to real food,” and she grinned in sympathy, “after that.”
I’d had to be on liquid diets before, and never liked it. On the other hand, I later learned that I had lost nearly ten pounds while fasting in the ice caves, a dangerous amount when I only weighed about eighty pounds originally. I’m already spare normally, with a fast metabolism and an active lifestyle that leave me without an ounce of fat to spare over a fine bone structure, and now I looked positively emaciated. It took me a long time to recover the weight I had lost, and longer to regain my full strength.
(At no point did anyone use any healing magic on me. It might sound counterintuitive, but I’ve been in enough hospitals to know that healing someone magically takes a huge amount out of the healer – so much so that hospital staff are forbidden to use healing abilities except in cases of emergency. For the rest of us, the doctors and surgeons have to rely on good old-fashioned medical technology.)
There’s not much left to tell, really, after my adventure and rescue. My family came, of course, and were as mad with worry and as admonitory as I would have expected. (Considering how often this sort of thing happens to me, you’d think they’d learn to take it in stride by now.) I was recovering in the rescue hospital for ten days before they transferred me to the main hospital in Neopia Central. I didn’t lose anything to frostbite, although I came close, and had multiple fractures in the last three fingers on my left hand that were pretty bad. I’d apparently done a good job of splinting them as a temporary measure, but I was in a cast for the next month. I’ve still got a permanent crook in the last joint of my pinky finger. I also had to get physical therapy for my shoulder, because even though I’d snapped it back into place the dislocation had loosened the ligaments and tendons that held the joint together and made it more likely that it would dislocate again.
Oh, and apparently there’s a zoological team investigating the ice caves to study the giant ice-burrowing creature that I saw. They’re using my maps, which is pretty gratifying. It would be interesting to learn if it really is like the Snowager, and whether there’s a whole species of them instead of just the single one. I guess that makes more sense biologically, though.
So that’s it. That’s the end. If I ever go back and re-edit this for publication, I might change the ending to something more interesting. I don’t think I will, though. It may not be much of a resolution, but it’s what happened. Life is like that.