This is not a diary entry. It's a story I made up on the way home.
Though, like most stories, it's true in a universe somewhere.
"Shut the fucking thing hard."
Where is my brain, they want to know. This is an island of light and warmth in the dark cold death outside and we are tenders of the warmth, stewards of light in the perpetual antarctic winter. Life itself is something warm and light. Like breeds like.
I reopen and then slam the thick door closed behind me. Turn around and my breath condenses in the cloud of cold I allowed into the tiny radio hut. There is barely enough room for the three of us and the gear. The air is filled with crackling static the giant aluminum bird of an antenna hovering over the small structure seems to draw from the stars themselves.
Martin, eyes on the shortwave, reaches down and cranks the heater near his feet.
"Come listen to this." Don't need to go anywhere to hear the static.
I pull off my gloves and hat. Then I toss my parka onto theirs on the bench behind me.
The walls are covered in world maps and QSL cards. A black bound log book sits unopened next to the radio control position where it looks like it's been since the 60's. The transceiver paints the air in the sounds of the ionosphere, the static hiss of the hurricane of solar wind all around the earth. On its face, numbers glow blue, 14.240. Martin and Harris are down to their fleeces. They sit on aluminum folding chairs, elbows on their knees staring at the numbers on the radio as if the answer to life's most challenging questions lay in the glowing blue.
There's no seat for me. I lean on one of the lab benches lining the room.
Then there's a tone in the hiss of white noise. Something unnatural. God's voice is vast and white, man's sharp and thin.
"There. What's that?"
"It's a carrier. Where you're listening, it could be a retiree in Chicago building himself a transceiver on his kitchen table."
They exchange disgusted looks.
"It's true," I add, as if I made a habit of wandering around town making up shit. "By the way, are either of you guys licensed? You're not supposed to--"
The carrier bursts into a modulated pulse. An interrupted beam of information carried in a thin tone like the a kid blowing a tin whistle.
"There. What's that?" Harris says.
"It's code," I say, knowing they know. Trying to lighten the mood.
"Yeah. What's it say, wiseass?" Martin says. He takes his eyes from the numbers and plants his gaze on my face to let me know he's serious.
"Gimme a pen--" I say, and he shoves a chewed plastic bic into my fist. Scanning the benches for a scrap of paper I can find nothing but the log book. The last page comes out blank.
"I can't copy code unless I'm writing. It's weird but it's the way I learned. Haven't done this since I got my license when I was fifteen..."
"Will you shut up? You're missing it."
I want to tell them it doesn't matter, the message is repeating. But they can't hear it. I write down the letters formed by the pulsing sound, trying to keep my mind out of the process of decoding. That's the way it works. If you think about what you're writing, you lose track. Just write.
One letter confuses me, but when I calm my mind, I remember. When the signal stops the waves of a static ocean fill the room.
Martin grabs the paper from me and looks at it. He holds it up to Harris.
"Is this right?"
Harris says, "Holy shit," and blanches.
What the hell did I write? I try to get the log page back from Martin, but he won't let go. I can see the writing, though.
S T E N D E C
"What's up with that?" I ask them.
Martin shuts off the radio. Harris stares at his feet.
It's Sunday. I don't get any more time off than anyone else. I got up early as a favor. I don't have to be standing here.
They know it. "You ever been to Pole?" Martin says, when he can't fiddle with the radio anymore.
"Wanna go?" says Harris.
"Sure," I say, figuring one favor deserves another. "You can get me on a flight next season?"
"How bout today?"
Now I'm pissed. "Last time I do a favor for you assholes."
Martin gets up when I collect my parka and reach for the door. Minus fifty or not, I'm outta there.
"Hang on. Wait."
What makes me stop? I should just go. Brunch will open in an hour.
"Something's going on at Pole. That message came from there."
"So?" I say, figuring it's some sort of shorthand these guys know. "We all heard. They got hacked again. They're off line, as usual. Ridiculous panic response by NSF."
Harris says, "This isn't just an interruption in e-mail. Arrested some kid in Munich. Semi-violent splinter group. Ex-Greenpeacers. Wrecked the science. Shut down all the environmentals."
"The what?" I ask.
"Everything's on the net down there. New system in the new station. He cut off the generators and they cold soaked before they could get them restarted."
I hadn't heard that.
"We would have had forty-eight dead polies. Thank god the backup generators weren't effected," Martin adds.
"So they've pulled the plug on all the satcom. There's no comms to Pole."
I say, "So? They've got radios up the wazoo," because I know they're going to overreact like everyone else. I say. "What's the problem?"
"We don't know. We can't get through to anyone. The best we can figure is that when the generators went down and came back up, the surge burned out most of the electronics. So they must be stuck with an old military radio from the old station."
"They've been sending morse code for the last twelve hours. You're the only guy in town who understands it."
"Well, if they send more, you know where to find me," I tell them. "I'm happy to help."
"Yeah, well," Martin says. He takes my parka from my hands and sets it on the bench. He moves like a man defusing a bomb.
"We think the comms guy is really sick. Hurt maybe."
"Holy shit," comes out of my mouth. Greg. I know Greg. We flew in together. Spent a week of boomerangs in Cheech. Georgia Tech. Taking a year off between school and a real job. Good guy.
"We don't know for sure, but from what we're getting..."
"STENDEC? Look, why don't you just get McAllister on the line? This is station manager stuff."
"That was McAllister. He's the only one on station who knows code."
"What's it mean?"
They didn't have to tell me they didn't know. I could see it on their faces. Guys in charge of remote outposts learn survival comes in the knowing. Gotta know everything, all the time.
We workers figured out long ago how to tell when they didn't. That's how things got done. Support the bosses when they don't know what the fuck is going on.
"We need someone to go down there who can fix the radios. Maybe knows code. If that's the only way you can communicate, at least you can talk directly to Denver."
"Yeah, in October," I say, pointing to the calendar on the wall. "Four months when the hercs start flying."
"We have someone who will take you in by twin otter."
"Sure," I say. This is how people get killed. Bosses with big ideas, poorly thought out. Just shuttle a guy to pole when the air temp is so cold all the plastic and rubber freezes on the engines and the plane falls out of the sky.
"I know what you're thinking," Harris says. " You can land. It's no colder on the ground than it is at altitude. The plane can make it just fine. You just can't take off again."
"So you'll be there for the rest of the season."
"And if I say, 'no?'" I ask.
"Then we pray we're just being paranoid. Wait till October. Hopefully someone's not sick and dying."
"That's some load to heap on me. I'm not a doctor," I remind them.
"Who did what has nothing to do with anything. This is what's now. We need your help. You don't have to do anything. You can go back to downloading anti virus programs or whatever it is you do over there at Crary."
I put on my parka. Slide on my gloves. "I gotta tell you now? Right now?"
"Thinking about it's going to make it easier to decide? This is the ice," Harris said, as if I didn't know.
I pull on my hat. Then like all the important decisions I've ever made in my life, on impulse, "I'll go if you tell me what you think STENDEC is about," figuring they couldn't possibly know anything.
Martin reaches under one of the benches and finds a small black briefcase. As he pulls out a notebook, Harris says, "Two things. It was the last radio transmission from a British airliner flying from Argentina to Chile back in the late 40's. They got lost in the Andes. The control op at the airport in Chile copied 'STENDEC' three times before the plane disappeared. Nobody knows what it means."
"And this." Martin hands me the notebook. On the front is Ted McAllister's name and Polar Services employee number.
I leaf through it and see what appears to me the man's diary from the prior season. Dates followed by paragraphs of text. Weather reports. Work logs. Arrivals and departures of planes.
"Here," Martin says. There's a yellow post-it stuck to one of the pages. Martin tabs to it.
On the top of the page in large block letters is the word S-T-E-N-D-E-C.
Underneath, in McAllister's hand--
"Midwinter, 2002. I have learned the code STENDEC for the transferral of matter between planes of state. In those days there were giants, and creatures we now call dragons. The land of the dead co exists and shares space with us so that nothing is ever lost. Dragons, and not apes, our predecessors. The transponder is irrelevant. Love is eternal and she is with us and will always be here. So each death brings us closer, so each love, immortality. The apostle John's spirits remain high. He has lost nothing, as he sees. Cathrine is with us always."
There's nothing else in the book.
"McAllister may have lost it," Martin says. "So Special Ops Jim is the pilot. He's a medic. It will be the two of you."
"Special Jim? The nutcase who dresses as Little Bo Peep on Halloween? He flies planes? You're kidding me. I thought he was a plumber."
Martin smiles for the first time. "So you'll go?"
And I really don't want to.
But I told them I would.
This is the ice. There is nothing to lose because there is nothing.
Next Episode: We don't pay you to think. We pay you to know.