After Mo, real name Mohammed, came back from the Far North, he did things that were expected of him. He found an office job and married an educated, beautiful woman.
“Always marry out of your league,” his friend Evan said. “You’ll be less likely to fuck it up later.”
Evan had fucked it up three times. He knew what he was talking about.
Mo and his wife Sally had one child. Evan had three children by two ex-wives, and one child by a girlfriend who vowed to feed Evan to her dogs should he ever set foot on her property. Evan urged Mo and Sally to have more.
It was expensive, Mo argued. “Plus,” he added whenever he and Evan got into one of their winding conversations, vaguely irritating in the way that arguments disguised as debates are, “Overpopulation is bad for the planet.”
“The planet doesn’t care about you, Mo. You’re not a dent in its existence.”
“So do whatever you want. You earned it.”
Evan was right and wrong at the same time. Discussing this further would’ve meant discussing the North — the angry Russians, the tribes with their apocalyptic legends and odd ways that were just sustainability by another name when you thought about it, polar bears mad with hunger, old diseases thawing out from the permafrost. One of these days, Mo knew, a plague would sweep down, unlocked from the melting ice. The rich would ride it out in compounds and on yachts. The people serving the immediate needs of the rich would be OK too. Everybody else would fight over bandages and canned beans. There would be blood on kitchen knives, crows on playgrounds.
Until then, there were their comings and goings in a big house behind blackberry vines, the sounds of mourning doves at the window, the shape of Sally’s shoulder growing more defined as night retreated. You had to live like there is no tomorrow, Mo thought, because one day, there really won’t be one. It was the Russians who taught him that, and when he was younger, he ascribed this mentality to the unpredictable nature of successive tyrannies Russians had lived under. He used to laugh at their fatalism. Yet the older he got, the more Mo came around to the Russians’ point of view.
The town that Mo and Sally lived in was small. Their son, after he left, talked about having “escaped it.” This offended Mo. No child of his would have to escape anything, that was what he promised himself when he joined the rangers, and he had kept that promise. Bobby had the ignorance of privilege and there was something perfect, unhatched about that state. Mo hoped it would last for Bobby for as long as it could.
Their town was the sort people referred to as “sleepy” — a misnomer if you thought about it. Small towns are watchful. They have memories. In a big city, you can’t keep track of the people who piss you off on a given day. Your anger fades to apathy. Not so among neighbors whose names you know.
In the town, everyone knew about Mo’s time up North, and because he didn’t talk about it much, elaborate stories were invented to fill the gaps in his neighbors’ knowledge. Mo, it was said, had swum with orcas. He had fought a zombie animated by prehistoric wasps thawed out of an ancient carcass. He had found out the fate of the world from Netsilik elders. “Disinformation is absence of information,” his Russian friend Yury once said. “You no tell people what to think, they invent more interesting stuff than truth.” That the truth could be more interesting than fiction should’ve occurred to a man like Yury. But like any human being, he had his blind spots.
Evan had a messy family, sprawled across the town and all of the neighboring towns. It was difficult to keep track of their feuds and divorces. This was why Mo had a hard time placing the excited woman who accosted him by the seafood counter — Evan’s cousin? A very young aunt? — with the words, “I saw a man just like you today.”
“A guy like me?” Was she Evan’s sister-in-law? The woman that his second wife had left him for? “You mean a guy who grills?” Mo pointed out the salmon steaks to her. “That kind of guy?
She was impervious to his humor. “He had the bumper sticker — the tree under the star? The bear? He was big like you. I saw him get out of the car in the hotel parking lot.”
That emblem was kind of stupid. The North Star and the polar bear caught in mid-stride, its loping gait perfectly rendered, were a nice touch, but in most places they worked, there were no picturesque pines. Yury liked the emblem, though, and said it reminded him of the words of some famous poet who was, naturally, repressed by the Russian government — something about “a pine reaching a star.”
Both the beauty of Russian writing and its ability to make one tip over into clinical depression were explained to Mo by Nana, a Yupik biologist. She went to school in Anchorage but went back to study the North, traveling everywhere from Tikhaya to Svalbard on research missions Mo wasn’t supposed to worry his pretty head about. “I took a course in Russian lit to fulfill a core curriculum requirement and it kicked off a major depressive episode,” she said. The tone of her voice suggested to Mo that the clearly smitten Yury — handsome in an angular way and yet possessing zero game, unable to hide his true feelings for anyone — had little chance with her.
So there was another ranger in town, causing ripples of excitement, as rangers did. Mo thanked Evan’s niece, ex, illegitimate child, whoever she was, for the information, and paid for his carefully wrapped salmon steaks, oysters, fresh lemons, and jar of capers. He wasn’t sure where the disquiet inside of him was coming from. There were many rangers. The world found uses for them. It wasn’t any of Mo’s business, not anymore. He had fish to grill.
Everyone was busy trying to out-colonize the Far North, but not all the things found up there were conducive to colonization. Many Russians had died in the first years of the race for the Arctic — the exact numbers covered up by the government, but still argued about online. Many Chinese soldiers too, but it was Russians who were willing to sign a cooperation agreement, in the end. They didn’t have as many people to lose as the Chinese did, or so Yury’s cold logic went. And that was how, as a ranger, Mo found himself guarding a coalition white site — ”the opposite of a black site, for the obvious reasons,” his obnoxious lieutenant had quipped, and waited for Mo to join in his laughter — a place nobody was supposed to know about, and everyone knew about anyway.
“Mohammed? You a warrior, my man! Why work for Americans? Americans are soft!!” Yury told him this the first time they had shared a cigarette outside a security gate, where it was so dark that its lit end was a shock in the night.
Mo didn’t bother pointing out that it was Yury’s leaders who were chastised by their failures in the North. He had liked Yury immediately, and allowed him his posturing.
The main problem around the white sites, Mo was originally told, was bear activity. Nana set him straight on his first night. “The bears have gone nuts up here, but the people are more nuts,” she said. He expected her to follow up with a tale, some exotic belief of her people that could explain madness, but she just sighed and gave his shoulder a friendly enough thump. Years later, he sometimes imagined he could still feel her touch there.
In the big house behind the blackberry vines, Mo overheard things a lot. “Does dad ever talk to you about the North?” Bobby would ask his mother before he moved out for good.
Bobby was at an age where he believed that talking about the past robbed it of its power. Mo didn’t want to ruin his son’s illusions, figuring that the world would do it for him eventually. Were there also things that Sally did not talk about? Some whispering undercurrent in her life? Mo suspected that there was — Sally was too refined to not have secrets — but Bobby never hassled her like he hassled his father.
There was a time when Mo talked to his wife about the places he had been to — Resolute, Qaqaitsut, Sakha, Laptev Sea — names like magic spells. With the years, the geography of his past began to run together, the borders crumbling in his head. It was all just the North to him after a while.The North, and him a young man in it.
At dinner that evening, after the incident at the seafood counter, Sally also brought up the ranger sightings “It’s like the circus is in town,” she said as she sliced into her steak, her face serene and inscrutable. “Everyone’s talking about The Guy.”
“Why the fuck are they doing that?” It was strange for Mo to hear the irritation in his own voice.
She looked up, startled. “Because they have nothing else to do?”
He could see her trying to read his mood, giving up, and going back to her dinner. “Anyway, he was shopping on Main, apparently,” she tried again, after a while. “A ridiculously beautiful woman on his arm. Decked out like a stripper. Or a princess. Both?”
Yes, that sounded like a girlfriend a ranger would display. The disquiet in him rose once again and he had to put his fork down. Somewhere inside the house, an old clock ticked. Sally licked a lemon slice and made a lemony face.
Gate duty at the base was usually easy, and it was the patrols that could get tricky. This was why Mo liked going out on the snowcrafts with Yury. Yury knew that losing your head out in the black could kill you as surely as the cold and the animals.
One night, a scientist disappeared. A Dutch guy, a wildlife disease specialist who studied God-knows-what in the labs Mo did not have access to. The head of security immediately thought it was a kidnapping, maybe the Dutch guy was in possession of an all-important dataset about causes of ass cancer in puffins or whatever, but cameras just showed him walking out, looking aimless and perhaps more than a little drunk off of the glogg the Norwegians unwisely served in the cafeteria. Mo and Yury set out on the snowcrafts to where his tracks led — toward the water.
It was a good night. Quiet. Starry. “We’re like ISS, you know,” Yury said, raising his head up to the sky. The crags of his face looked softened. “International crew, out in the fucking void.” The stars were wild, refusing to resolve themselves into a single constellation that Mo could identify. The Dutch guy’s tracks led straight toward the water, but then veered off again, running parallel to the coast. “There is place there,” Yury said, shining a flashlight into the darkness. “You’re not supposed to know.”
“Clearly I’m not, it’s not on any fucking map.”
“We leave the snowcrafts here and walk, is not far. We pretend you never see the place. You not technically cleared for it. But who cares about our fucking clearances in all this fucking snow, yes?” That was another thing Mo liked about Yury — he was creative with his interpretation of the rules.
Eventually, they came upon a small coastal observatory, halfway buried in the water, illuminated by nothing but the indifferent starlight. A door opened and Nana walked out to greet them, her expression in the beams of their flashlights one of annoyance mixed with relief. “Turn those things off,” she said. “What took you so long? The guy wandered here with full blown snow psychosis.”
“Is that what they calling it now? Snow psychosis?” Yury thought this was incredibly funny.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, OK? He’s ranting about birds trying to peck out his eyes. I’m so sick of this happening. Every time someone goes crazy on base, they find their way here.”
“They drawn by your beauty.” Mo joined Nana in rolling his eyes at Yury, and the brief spark of solidarity felt good.
“I honestly think they come here to drown, or swim away. Either way, their inner compass needles point here.” Mo tried to not show how much he loved it when Nana spoke in metaphor.
“I’ve given him a sedative and locked him up for now. You guys can take him back in the morning. I’m not clearing you to go back out this late.” Mo didn’t like the way she had looked past their shoulders, into the dark, as if waiting for something to manifest there.
“Oh, you in charge now?” Yury asked, but it was purely a rhetorical question.
“How come there are no guards here?”
Nana laughed at Mo’s question, then gave him an I-can-guard-myself-you-idiot sort of look. It made his heart expand just a little.
Because part of that strange place was under the water, Mo heard the sea through its hull. He felt like he was at the bottom of some great creature’s stomach — an ice dragon, a prehistoric shark. Yury came knocking with mugs of steaming tea at some bizarre hour. “I can’t sleep,” he said, by way of greeting. “You too hear it, no?”
Instead of answering, Yury pressed his ear against the hull and closed his eyes. After a while, Mo did too. He wasn’t sure what he heard — water, the sleepy movements of living things he could not name, maybe the occasional whisper of equipment-generated static — but it seemed to him after a while that the sea in that place was telling a story, muttering in its own language, and that he was part of the story’s plot, observed as surely as he thought himself an observer.
“Is the secret creatures,” Yury said, his voice low and filled with quiet wonder. “Is what they study here.”
“Don’t tell me you’re getting snow psychosis too.” His Russian friend did not laugh at that.
“Every place needs monsters, Mohammed. It is how it is. Without monsters, a place is not a real place.”
A few days after stories of the visiting ranger were first told around town, Sally told Mo it was time to visit his mother’s grave. His mother lived her entire life in Florida, but insisted that she be buried not far away from where they lived. Mo always had a vague sense of guilt during these ritual outings. His mother had been poor, and had named him Mohammed because she believed that the Prophet was the bringer of justice and liberation. Her beliefs just gave a bunch of assholes an extra excuse to cause him problems at school and work. He never bothered to pretend that he was interested in religion.
Now that his mother was dead, he regretted having been stridently honest with her. He hadn’t been the world’s worst son, but neither had he been the best, and it was why he didn’t like coming to her gravesite. At least Sally enjoyed their visits. She liked the role of the dutiful daughter-in-law, which was easy to play with the dead.
On the way back, they stopped at a diner for lunch, and a familiar waitress there immediately started telling them about her encounter with a ranger new to town. “I think he and his wife are thinking of buying property up here? I saw them coming out of that real estate place on Main.”
Mo wondered why he was expected to be interested in any of this. The military-civilian divide was to blame, maybe. He decided that he would tip the waitress extravagantly and that this would somehow demonstrate his contempt for her.
“Wonder if he’s come straight from the North? Considering all of the shit that goes on there now?” The waitress was leaning in so that they could smell the detergent in her uniform. She met Mo’s eyes and blushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say shit just now! And whups, there I go again! A slice of pie on me?”
When Sally and Mo were younger, Sally’s friends expected Mo to hold forth at parties — entertain them with his opinions about past and current wars, discuss overfishing and pollution in Arctic waters, maybe offer his thoughts on the status of the Netsilik Inuit over wine. Sally shielded him from that. He liked how fiercely loyal and yet graceful she was in social situations, how she subtly mocked people who would try to make her husband perform for them. But in the years that followed, she came to resent his reticence, the parts of himself he kept closed off. She never said so, but he could feel it, parts of her closing off too, going dark, lost to him because he didn’t know just how to talk to her.
After the diner, Sally told him that she didn’t understand why he seemed mad. “What are you worried about, baby? Not being the biggest badass around?” When he glared at her, she took that as an acknowledgment that her theory was correct. She was standing in front of him, cocooned in silk and perfume mist, and her beauty and good taste and the way she could burst little pockets of insecurity inside of him like boils made his love for her so strong that it felt unbearable. Still, he didn’t care about being the biggest badass.
Evan came around for dinner that night. He presented Sally with an extravagant bouquet, complained about the latest woman who had wronged him, compared all of his children to Bobby and found each one wanting, and otherwise cheered them up. Mo stared at the fire in the fire pit and waited for his friend’s words to apply themselves like a balm, as they usually did, but he felt only restlessness instead.
In the North, Mo and Yury got into the habit of visiting the observatory that wasn’t on the map. Nana spent a lot of time there, monitoring coastal biological activity under the ice — or so she said. After her working hours were over, Nana lit candles and broke out a deck of cards that went well with their glogg and Yury’s philosophical rambling. She had a good poker face.
If they got drunk enough, Yury would tell fortunes with the cards, putting the queen of hearts in front of Mo and grinning. “See? A blonde. You will marry a nice, corndog-fed American wife in future.”
“I think the operative term is corn-fed.”
“Yeah, is what I said. All you people eat is shit anyway. As for me, I’m a troubadour. I’m not for marriage, I’m free.”
“Free is another word for alone,” Nana said, as eloquent as ever, even after all of that alcohol.
“I do not argue with that.” Yury smiled, candlelight hopping in his eyes. “That’s why a man needs balls to be free. So does a woman. So does everyone.”
One morning, Yury swore he heard voices in the water the previous night. He stood shivering in the cold, a cigarette jumping in his chattering teeth. “They say my name,” he said. Who? He couldn’t explain.
Nana gave Mo a look — I told you, her eyes said, people go crazy here — but Yury got distracted and soon calmed down. They didn’t speak about it afterwards. The snow and the ice and the depths that fell away from them played tricks on everyone from time to time.
“Your friend is cool, but he asks a lot of questions,” Nana remarked to Mo once. “It’s not good for him.”
“You’re sounding more Russian than the Russians.” She threw her head back and laughed at that.
“I mean it. Rational people come here, they go at this place with furious logic, and they break on it. It’s like a wave hitting a rock.” She made motions with her hands to illustrate her point. She had lovely fingers. If Yury wasn’t so into her, Mo just might have — but there was no point in dwelling on scenarios.
“I’d understand what you mean if I knew what you are doing here.”
“You mean, you want access to extremely classified information? Want to take more risks with your career?”
“Sure, I do.” You had to fuck up quite a bit for it to matter. He had been up North long enough to know it, by then. He also wanted her to be impressed with him, and how he didn’t care.
She thought about it, then motioned him to follow her back inside the observatory, down halls curved like the insides of a mollusk. There was a room at the very bottom, and when she punched a code in and opened it up, he saw that the floor beneath their feet was glass. A giant, lumpy shark body was suspended in the water under them, worms dangling from its eyes. It didn’t look dead, but it didn’t look very alive either. It existed in an in-between state and it made Mo’s teeth itch to look at it.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” Nana improbably said of the monster. “It’s a shame that his body is so useful for science.”
“This thing? Beautiful? Useful for science?”
Nana rolled his eyes at him and sat down. She placed a hand on the glass, and her voice became affectionate.
“They’re very long-lived. This one here has been alive for centuries based on my tests. Some people pay a lot of money to bottle this longevity before they go extinct like everything else. Personally, I don’t know why anyone would want to spend hundreds of years alive on Earth. Sounds like something a vampire would do.” Not waiting for him to answer, she curled up on the glass floor, on top of the shark. “People are so afraid of death. It’s pathetic.”
“Well,” Mo said. “I don’t know if it’s beautiful per se, but—”
“What bothers me is that I’ve figured out their language,” Nana interrupted him without looking up. “I know how they think now. I’m involved.”
Nana lightly rapped on the glass with her fist, a code of some kind, but not one that was immediately familiar to Mo, and the shark came alive, sharp movements aligned with the rhythm.
“It’s mimicking you?”
“He’s agreeing with me.”
“Agreeing on what?”
“He has a simple language, but he’s still capable of abstraction. What he’s telling me is this: When you’re surviving, you’re still dancing with death. The sharks are old and slow and hence they know this, but that’s what people who want to live forever don’t want to understand. Soon, this entire species will be utilized as a resource for prolonging human life — its flesh, its DNA, its everything. And so many others. By people who don’t know the life-death boundary really doesn’t matter.” They were weird things for a biologist to say, but they sounded right for that weird place.
Nana rapped her fist against the glass again, and the shark responded with a sharper movement. Nana smiled. “He likes you.”
Mo wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. “What happened to its eyes?” He asked, unable to look away from the worms dangling there.
“He doesn’t need them. He has gone beyond the need for trivialities. Do you know what I mean?” Mo had no idea, but he didn’t want to press the matter further, as he was beginning to feel annoyingly out of his depth. Instead, he just watched the two of them for a while, the girl and the monster, and how the boundaries between them seemed to blur on the glass.
Nana turned away from the shark and gave Mo a sad little smile. “Sometimes, I think I should burn this place down.” She laughed, but there was an edge to her laughter that didn’t entirely convince him that she was joking.
He should have asked more questions, but then again, asking questions was not in his contract. He had crossed a line already. It made him feel not quite right in his skin, as uncanny as the thing below his feet.
Sally said she had a headache and excused herself early after sharing a long look with Evan. Mo knew what her departure meant — no sex tonight. They were lucky that after decades together they still wanted each other, he knew that. He knew that she loved him. And yet even the briefest of her distant phases scared him. As if they were a rehearsal for the ultimate solitude. “There are no ends,” Yury told him once, out on the snow, beneath the stars. Considering the man lived in Mo’s head now, he may have been right about that too.
“So what’s up with you?” Evan asked as he graciously loaded the dishwasher for Mo.
“What do you mean?”
“Sally says you’re going through stuff?”
“I’m not going through anything.” Mo was instantly so angry that he had trouble figuring out what buttons on the dishwasher he was supposed to push. “Sally’s got this weird thing where she acts like I’m fragile? About the North? Man, most of the shit I did there was boring. I just froze my ass off. I was basically a security guard. Who cares about any of that shit.” The dishwasher was old and usually needed a little kick to get started, but Mo’s kick went beyond little. Evan stared at him with a mixture of concern and awe.
“Well, if you ever need to talk, man,” he finally said. Then he brought up the fact that he was secretly seeing his crazy ex-girlfriend again, the one whose dogs were supposed to feast on his flesh. Mo clapped him on the shoulder. “They’re good guard dogs. I think we’ll all need guard dogs in the days to come.” He knew that Evan liked it when he said ranger shit like that. He didn’t tell Evan that these days, he had begun to say it seriously.
The next day, Mo went out, determined to run into the other fucking ranger. He hit up Main Street and the attractive residential neighborhoods branching off of it. He wasn’t sure why he was doing it, it just pissed him off that he couldn’t even get a glimpse of the guy and figure him out. What was he? A POG? An asshole? An OK dude? If they had to share this town, Mo had to know the score. The streets were unusually empty for the time of day, and the sunlight illuminating them was weak and half-hearted. The weather was changing again. Months of unbearable heat would soon be replaced by freezer locker temperatures that would make the pavement crack and buckle.
One night, they came to the observatory, but the person who greeted them was a preoccupied-looking stranger who told them Nana hadn’t been seen in days. “Fellas, calm down,” the head of security at the main base told Yury and Mo the next day, looking at them with the polite contempt of a psychoanalyst. “There are aspects of her work that are classified, you know that. I can’t comment on her whereabouts, you know that too. I’ll do you a favor though. I’ll pretend that I don’t know that you know about that place.”
Neither one of them believed that Nana would leave without saying goodbye. Yury began to drink morbidly, and Mo was instantly annoyed by him — crumbling like that because of a woman who wouldn’t deign to let him touch her, what a joke. But it was in Yury’s nature to worship possibilities, and to mourn them accordingly.
Mo walked around with the strange sense of having lost something without knowing that he had it in the first place. “You see the true shape of things in the rearview,” was his mother’s saying, and he always thought it was corny as hell. He had realized too late that the reason why she grated on him so much was because she only ever told him the truth. His dreams in that place grew strange — he was running across the snow to catch up to Nana, but no matter how he spun her, he could only see the back of her head. He dreamed that his father, a man he never knew, lay whispering to him from underneath the continental shelf.
One day, Yury came to him and told him that Nana had been leaving clues for them. “Clues?”
“Yeah, Mohammed, clues. She’s trying to make us find her. First someone rearrange stuff in my room. Then I find dead bird by barracks south entrance. A sparrow. They no have sparrows here, but sparrow is messenger of death. Then someone draws a shark on the message board in hall. Nana talks to sharks, you know.”
Mo listened to Yury go on for a while. At the end of Yury’s monologue, he suggested more sleep and fresh fruit, because Yury was starting to sound just a little insane.
Unable to spot anyone on the streets, certainly unable to spot the car with the telltale sticker, Mo went to the obvious place — the big, dim bar at the end of Main. The old bartender made a joke about how “the Prophet says you can’t drink” — the same one he had made over the last twenty years. Mo liked the guy because he was consistent. The beer in that place was good, but it failed to scramble his thoughts quickly enough, and so he asked for a whiskey.
Another report of a roving polar bear came in at the end of Mo’s shift. Reports like that should’ve been rare — most of the bears were dead by then. Every once in a while, though, hunger drove them to go on the offensive in a nearby village. There had also been speculation that whatever experiments were going on at the bases, it was making the wildlife go nuts. It was radio waves, the locals said. It was magnetic fields. It was demons. It was meteors sent as messages by ancient aliens. They asked Mo about it when he drove to town, pointing at his ranger patch as if it meant that he could and would tell them everything. At the very least, he never bullshitted them in order to have them buy him rounds.
He wasn’t thinking much when he set out with his headlamp and rifle to look for the bear that night. A soft snow was falling. No stars. He hummed to himself over the purr of the snowcraft. There were old songs his mother used to dance to on the radio that had begun to run together in his head over the years. Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can’t you see. Love me, love me, say that you love me. His childhood had been sweaty and sun-drenched. Climbing seas, AC units that constantly broke down, electric bills that went unpaid for months. In retrospect, his desire to be swallowed by the North made sense.
Eventually, his headlights picked out bear tracks. He knew where they would lead to.
The main door stood distressingly ajar. The corridors of the coastal observatory were quiet, save for the wind. The electronic lock on the door to the bottom chamber was torn out of the wall, the door itself was off its hinges. Inside, there was no sign of the bear. Just a wet Yury, sitting next to a giant ice axe and a big hole in the glass floor, his hands full of something that looked like gray rubber. His pupils were huge and black in the light of Mo’s headlamp and he smelled sharp, like an animal that had pissed itself. A shark head next to Yury stared at Mo, the parasites attached to its corneas hanging limply.
“I figure it out, friend,” Yury said. “The secret is in the fish.”
“Yury, whatever is going on, man, it looks fu—”
“Is OK.” Yury grinned wider, and Mo knew without looking too closely that there was flesh in the corners of Yury’s mouth and between his teeth. “Nana gone, but bear come in her place. I hear it, at night. It says eat of this flesh and be saved. People want to live forever like shark. But you have to fight to be immortal, man. You know it, your people know it.”
“Yury, whatever this is, it’s not looking good.” A voice inside Mo said: Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. What is good around here anyway. Another voice, Nana’s voice, said: Greenland sharks have toxic meat. It makes you feel like you’re drunk and can cause you to see things that aren’t there.
“Is OK, my friend. I killed shark in extremely fair fight. I keep my honor. I see things now. I see things crystal clear. I know where Nana go. I must follow.”
It occurred to Mo that the floor underneath them could give way at any moment.
“I want to go find Nana, Mo, I like that girl. I live unhappy life, you know. Is why I come North.”
“My man. I get it. She packs up and leaves. You get pissed off. You carve up her fish friend. It’s OK. You’re just sick. You’re not getting enough vitamins. Let me help, OK?”
“Sick?” Yury jumped up, and for the first time, Mo saw that he also had a knife, a big, curved one. It glinted in the light of Mo’s headlamp. Don’t do this, my man, Mo thought. “They sick, Mo! Everyone sick! You know what they do here? Do you? I see it now! I know! It’s not good! There will be consequence! A lot of consequence! It will not end! It never ends! Death won’t be a way out, my friend!”
Well fuck, Mo thought. I’m going to have to shoot my buddy Yury.
While Mo was thinking, Yury sprinted around the room, across the glass that crackled beneath his feet, looping around Mo. Mo raised his rifle, but Yury ran straight past him, not even looking at him as he went. The shark head on the floor was grinning, enjoying itself. He is right, you know, it said.
Mo became better at lying to himself as the years wore on, pretending that the things he saw and heard were not necessarily real. But back then, in that place, he knew exactly what was going on, and he couldn’t hide from it, nor did he want to. He is right, the shark head said. The seas are emptying out and consequence is coming. He is right. The world is growing more silent. He is right. There are no ends, and no oblivion for you, Mohammed. Sorry.
Mo listened to it whisper in his head longer than he should have. Then he ran after Yury.
Outside, the snow instantly began to come down harder, as if determined to cover Yury’s tracks. Mo could hear him in the dark, calling Nana’s name, until his plaintive voice faded.
There were many tracks, maybe made by the people going in and out of the observatory, or by skin-walkers, or whatever the fuck one wanted to think. In the dark, you could believe anything. In the dark, he knew, the shark head was still grinning.
He radioed it in right away, of course, but he helped the rest of the team search only half-heartedly that night. His report on the matter was very concise, and it left some things out. He had learned, by then, that nobody would dig around much. In the end, they never did find Yury. Or maybe they did, and didn’t tell him. They were paying him enough to refrain from asking.
There would be many stories after that. The time the bears really did attack. The time the villagers rioted. The time that the head of security swore he saw a shaman turn into an owl. The time the Russians began dying again, and the time Americans began joining them. There were many memories that were trapped up there, locked in the ice, but not for much longer. One day, Yury would step out of the inky Northern night pierced with stars and walk all the way south, and finish telling Mo his stories. If he stilled his breath and listened carefully enough, he could hear Yury’s footsteps, how they were always getting closer.
“The thing is, I don’t know what’s going to kill us, babe, but I know that something will,” Mo told Sally when she came by the bar to pick him up, having been informed that there was no way in hell he could drive home. “And I know,” he said, struggling to form the words, knowing just how drunk and stupid he sounded, “that it won’t be the worst thing. I’m so sorry, babe. I’m sorry I can’t protect you.”
She looked at him for a long time, her lips pursed and her head slightly inclined, reminding him of a curious bird. Her eyes looked gold-flecked and liquid. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever known. She had secrets. He had failed her in ways he could not name. It worried him that she always forgave him easily, and he wondered if that forgiveness had a false bottom of some kind. He wondered, but he did not dare ask her.
“Baby, let’s go home,” she said, and took his hand. In the corner of Mo’s vision, the bartender smiled. It was last call anyway. The road would be dark on the way back, but at the end of it, their house was waiting. She would hand him a couple of painkillers and a glass of water. The wind would tangle itself in their garden all night long, rocking the branches studded with watchful crows. He would have dreams, which he would not remember.
What he could never say to her was how much he missed them, those nights in a place no roads would lead him to. How much he missed being with his friends, listening for monsters beyond the hull.
Natalia Antonova is a Ukrainian-American writer and journalist. Her fiction has previously appeared in Strange Horizons, and her poetry has appeared in Pedestal.