Hickey is staring fixedly out beyond the icicle-sheathed bowsprit, the foremost ten feet of which are now embedded in a ridge of sea ice, as HMS Terrors stern has been forced up by the ice pressure and the bow is pushed lower. Hickey is so lost in thought or cold that the caulkers mate doesnt notice his captains approach until Crozier joins him at a railing that has become an altar of ice and snow. The lookouts shotgun is propped against that altar. No man wants to touch metal out here in the cold, not even through mittens.
Hickey starts slightly as Crozier leans close to him at the railing. Terrors captain cant see the twenty-six-year-olds face, but a puff of his breath instantly turning into a cloud of ice crystals reflecting the aurora appears beyond the thick circle of the smaller mans multiple comforters and Welsh wig.
Men traditionally dont salute during the winter in the ice, not even the casual knuckling of the forehead an officer receives at sea, but the thick-clad Hickey does that odd little shuffle and shrug and head dip by which the men acknowledge their captains presence while outside. Because of the cold, the watches have been cut down from four hours to two God knows, thinks Crozier, we have enough men for that on this overcrowded ship, even with the lookouts doubled and he can tell just by Hickeys slow movements that hes half-frozen. As many times as hes told the lookouts that they have to keep moving on deck walk, run in place, jump up and down if they have to, all the while keeping their attention on the ice they still tend to stand immobile for the majority of their watch, just as if they were in the South Seas wearing their tropical cotton and watching for mermaids.
Mr. Hickey. Anything?
Nothing since them shots that one shot almost two hours ago, sir. Just a while ago I heard, I think I heard maybe a scream, something, Captain from out beyond the ice mountain. I reported it to Lieutenant Irving, but he said it was probably just the ice acting up.
Crozier had been told about the sound of the shot from the direction of Erebus and had quickly come up on deck two hours ago, but thered been no repetition of the sound and hed sent no messenger to the other ship nor anyone out on the ice to investigate. To go out on the frozen sea in the dark now with that thing waiting in the jumble of pressure ridges and tall sastrugi was certain death. Messages were passed between the ships now only during those dwindling minutes of half-light around noon. In a few days, there would be no real day at all, only arctic night. Round-the-clock night. One hundred days of night.
Perhaps it was the ice, says Crozier, wondering why Irving hadnt reported the possible scream. The shot as well. Only the ice.
Yes, Captain. The ice it is, sir.
Neither man believes it a musket shot or shotgun blast has a distinctive sound, even from a mile away, and sound travels almost supernaturally far and clearly this far north but its true that the ice pack squeezing ever more tightly against Terror is always rumbling, moaning, cracking, snapping, roaring, or screaming.
The screams bother Crozier the most, waking him from his hour or so of sound sleep each night. They sound too much like his mothers crying in her last days of that and his old aunts tales of banshees wailing in the night, predicting the death of someone in the house. Both had kept him awake as a boy.
Crozier turns slowly. His eyelashes are already rimmed with ice, and his upper lip is crusted with frozen breath and snot. The men have learned to keep their beards tucked far under their comforters and sweaters, but frequently they must resort to hacking away hair that has frozen to their clothing. Crozier, like most of the officers, continues to shave every morning, although, in the effort to conserve coal, the hot water his steward brings him tends to be just barely melted ice, and shaving can be a painful business.
Copyright © 2007 by Dan Simmons. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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