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Sneak Preview of THE TERROR

 

It is short, rat-faced Cornelius Hickey, caulker’s mate. The men look all the same out here on watch in the dark since they’re all issued the same cold weather slops – layers of flannel and wool covered with a heavy, waterproof great coat, bulbous mittens protruding from voluminous sleeves, their Welsh wig – a heavy watchcap with floppy ears – pulled tight, often with a long comforter – scarf -- wrapped around the man’s head until only the tip of a frostbitten nose is visible. But each man layers or wears his cold-weather slops slightly differently – adding a comforter from home, perhaps, or an extra Welsh wig tugged down over the first, or perhaps colourful gloves lovingly knit by a mother or wife or sweetheart peeking out from under the Royal Navy outer mittens – and Crozier has learned to tell all fifty-nine of his surviving officers and men apart, even at a distance outside and in the dark.

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 Terror’s 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 caulker’s mate doesn’t notice his captain’s approach until Crozier joins him at a railing that has become an altar of ice and snow. The lookout’s 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. Terror’s captain can’t see the twenty-six-year-old’s 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 man’s multiple comforters and Welsh wig.
Men traditionally don’t 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 captain’s 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 Hickey’s slow movements that he’s half-frozen. As many times as he’s 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.

“Captain.”

“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 there’d been no repetition of the sound and he’d 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 hadn’t 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 clear this far north – but it’s true that the icepack 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. The ice-screams sound too much like his mother’s wailing in her last days . . . of that and his old aunt’s 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 already crusted with frozen breath and snot. The men have learned to keep their beards tucked far under their comforters and sweaters, but frequently they still must resort to knives to hack 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 the shaving can be a painful business.

“Is Lady Silence still on deck?” asks Crozier.

“Oh, yes captain, she’s almost always up here,” says Hickey, whispering now as if it made a difference. Even if Silence could hear them, she couldn’t understand their English. But the men believe – more and more every day that the thing on the ice stalks them – that the young Esquimaux woman is a witch with secret powers.

“She’s at the port station with Lieutenant Irving,” adds Hickey.

“Lieutenant Irving? His watch should have been over an hour ago.”

“Aye, sir. But wherever Lady Silence is these days, there’s the lieutenant, sir, if you don’t mind me mentioning it. She don’t go below, he don’t go below. Until he has to I mean . . . none of us can stay out here as long as that wi . . . that woman.”
“Keep your eyes on the ice and your mind on your job, Mr. Hickey.”

Crozier’s gruff voice makes the caulker’s mate start again, but he shuffles his shrug salute and turns his white nose back toward the darkness beyond the bow.

Crozier strides up the deck toward the port lookout post. When he was making the ship ready for winter the previous month – after their three weeks of false hope of escape in August – Crozier had once again ordered the lower spars to be swung around along the parallel axis of the ship, using them as a ridgepole. Then they had reconstructed the tent-pyramid to cover most of the main deck, rebuilding the wooden rafters that had been stowed away below during their few weeks of optimism. But even though the men work hours every day shoveling avenues through the foot or so of snow left for insulation on deck, and hacking away ice with picks and chisels, then clearing out the spindrift that has come under the canvas roof, and finally putting lines of sand down for traction, there always remains a glaze of ice and Crozier’s movement up the tilted and canted deck is sometimes more of a graceful half-skating motion than a stride.

The appointed port lookout for this watch, midshipman Tommy Evans, -- Crozier identifies the youngest man onboard by the absurd green stocking cap, obviously made by the boy’s mother, that young Evans always pulls down over his bulky Welsh wig -- has moved ten paces astern to allow young Third Lieutenant Irving and Silence some privacy.
This makes Captain Crozier want to kick someone – everyone – in the arse.

The Esquimaux woman looks like a short, round bear in her furry parka, hood, and pants and has her back half-turned to the tall lieutenant. But the young third lieutenant has crowded close to her along the rail – not quite touching, but closer than an officer and gentleman would stand to a lady in a garden party or on a pleasure yacht.

“Lieutenant Irving.” Crozier didn’t mean to put quite so much bark into the greeting, but he’s not unhappy when the young man levitates as if poked by the point of a sharp blade, almost loses his balance, grabs the iced railing with his left hand and – as he insists on doing despite now knowing the proper protocol of a ship in the ice – salutes with his right hand.

It’s a pathetic salute, thinks Crozier, and not just because the bulky mittens, Welsh wig, and layers of cold-weather slops make young Irving look something like a saluting walrus, but also because the lad has let his comforter fall away from his clean-shaven face – perhaps to show Silence how handsome he is -- and now two long icicles dangle below his nostrils, making him look even more like a walrus.

“As you were,” snaps Crozier. God-damn fool, he mentally adds, but loudly enough that the young lieutenant should have no trouble hearing his thought.

Irving stands rigid, glances at Silence – or at least at the back of her hairy hood – and opens his mouth to speak. Evidently he can think of nothing to say. He closes his mouth. His lips are as white as his frozen skin.

“This isn’t your watch, Lieutenant,” says Crozier, hearing the whip-crack in his voice again.

“Aye aye, sir. I mean, no sir. I mean, the captain is correct, sir. I mean . . .” Irving clamps his mouth shut again, but the effect is ruined somewhat by the chattering of his teeth. In this cold, teeth can shatter after two or three hours – literally explode -- sending shrapnel of bone and enamel flying inside the cavern of one’s clenched jaws. Sometimes, Crozier knows from experience, you can hear the enamel cracking just before the teeth explode.

“Why are you still out here, John?”

Irving tries to blink but his eyelids are frozen open – literally frozen open. “You ordered me to watch over our guest . . . to look out for . . . to take care of Silence, captain.”

Crozier’s sigh emerges as ice crystals that hang in the air for a second and then fall to the deck like so many minuscule diamonds. “I didn’t mean every minute, Lieutenant. I told you to watch her, report to me on what she does, to keep her out of mischief and harm’s way on the ship, and to see that none of the men do anything to . . . compromise her. Do you think she’s in danger of being compromised out here on deck, Lieutenant?”

“No, captain.” Irving’s sentence sounds more like a question than an answer.

“Do you know how long it takes for exposed flesh to freeze out here, Lieutenant?”

“No, captain. I mean, yes, captain. Rather quickly, sir, I think.”

“You should know, Lieutenant Irving. You’ve had frostbite six times already and it’s not even officially winter yet.”

Lieutenant Irving nods dolefully.

“It takes less than a minute for an exposed finger or thumb – or any fleshy appendage – to freeze solid,” continues Crozier, who knows that this is a load of horse cobblers. It takes much longer than that at a mere fifty below. But he hopes that young Irving, already the victim of frostbite, doesn’t know this. “After that, the exposed member will snap off like an icicle,” adds Crozier, gilding the already very gilded lilly.

“Yes, captain.”

“So do you really think that there’s any chance that our visitor might be . . . compromised . . . out here on deck, Mr. Irving?”
Young Irving seems to be thinking about this before replying. It’s possible, Crozier realizes, that the third lieutenant has put far too much thought into this equation already.

“Go below, John,” says Crozier. “And see Dr. McDonald about your face and fingers. I swear to God that if you’ve gotten seriously frostbitten again, I’ll dock you a month’s Discovery Service pay and write your mother to boot.”
“Yes, captain. Thank you, sir.” Irving starts to salute again, thinks better of it, and ducks under the canvas toward the main ladderway with one hand still half-raised. He does not look back at Silence.

Crozier sighs again. He likes young John Irving. The lad had volunteered – along with two of his mates from the HMS Excellent, Second Lieutenant Hobson and First Mate Hornby – but the Excellent was a damned three-decker that was old before Noah had fuzz around his dongle. The ship had been mastless and permanently moored in Portsmouth, Crozier knew, for more than fifteen years, serving as a training vessel for the Royal Navy’s most promising gunners. Unfortunately, gentlemen, as Crozier had told the boys during their first day aboard – the captain had been more than usually drunk that day – if you look around, you will see that neither Terror nor Erebus, -- you may note Captain Sir John’s flagship anchored just down the way there – you’ll notice that neither Terror nor Erebus, although both were built as bombardment ships, gentlemen, have a single gun between them. We are, young volunteers from Excellent -- unless one counts the Marines’ muskets and the shotguns secured in the Spirit Room, -- as gunless as a newborn babe. As gunless as fucking Adam in his fucking birthday suit. In other words, gentlemen, you gunnery experts are about as useful to this expedition as teats would be to a boar.

Crozier’s sarcasm that day hadn’t dampened the young gunnery officers’ enthusiasm – Irving and the other two remained more eager than ever to go get frozen in the ice for several winters. Of course, that had been on a warm May day in England in 1845.
“And now the poor young pup is in love with an Esquimaux witch,” Crozier mutters aloud.

As if understanding his words, Silence turns slowly toward him.

Usually her face is invisible down the deep tunnel of her hood or her features masked by the wide ruff of wolf-hair, but tonight Crozier can see her tiny nose, large eyes, and full mouth. The pulse of the aurora is reflected in those black eyes.
She’s not attractive to Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier; she has too much of the savage about her to be seen as fully human, much less as physically attractive -- even to a Presbyterian Irishman -- and besides that, his mind and lower regions are still filled with the clear memories of Sophia Cracroft. But Crozier can see why young Irving, far from home and family and any sweetheart of his own, might fall in love with this heathen woman. Her strangeness alone – and perhaps even the grim circumstances of her arrival and the death of her male companion, so strangely intertwined with the first attacks from that monstrous entity out there in the dark – all must be like flame to the fluttering moth of so hopeless a young romantic as Third Lieutenant John Irving.

Crozier, on the other hand – as he Discovered both in Von Dieman’s Land in 1840 and again for the final time in England in the months before this expedition sailed – is too old for romance. And too Irish. And too common.
Right now he just wishes this young woman would take a walk out onto the dark ice and not return.
Crozier remembers the day four months earlier when Dr. McDonald had reported to Franklin and him after examing her, on the same afternoon the Esquimaux man with her had died choking in his own blood. McDonald said that, in his medical opinion, that Esquimaux girl appeared to be between fifteen and twenty years old – it was so hard to tell with native peoples – had experienced menarche, but was, by all indications, virgo intacta. Also, Dr. McDonald reported, the reason that the girl had not spoken or made a sound – even after her father or husband had been shot and lay dying – was because she had no tongue. In Dr. McDonald’s opinion, her tongue had not been sliced off, but had been chewed off near its root – either by Silence herself or by someone or something else.

Crozier had been astonished . . . not so much by the fact of the missing tongue, but from hearing that the Esquimaux wench was a virgin. He’d spent enough time in the northern arctic – especially during Parry’s expedition which wintered near an Esquimaux village -- to know that the local natives took sexual intercourse so lightly that men would offer their wives and daughters to whalers or Discovery Service explorers in exchange for the cheapest trinket. Sometimes, Crozier knew, the women just offered themselves up for the fun of it – giggling and chatting with other women or children even as the sailors strained and puffed and moaned between the laughing woman’s legs. They were like animals. The furs and hairy hides they wore might as well be their own beastlike skins as far as Francis Crozier was concerned.

The captain raises his gloved hand to the bill of his cap – secured under two wraps of heavy comforter and therefore impossible actually to doff or tip – and says, “My compliments to you, madame, and I would suggest you consider going below to your quarters soon. It’s getting a bit nippy out here.”

Silence stares at him. She does not blink, although somehow her long lashes are free of ice. She does not, of course, speak. She watches him.

Crozier symbolically tips his hat again and continues his tour around the deck, climbing to the ice-raised stern and then down the starboard side, pausing to speak to the other two men on watch, giving Irving time to get below and out of his cold-weather slops so that the captain doesn’t seem to be following hard on his lieutenant’s heels.

He’s finishing his chat with the last shivering lookout, Able Seaman Shanks, when Private Wilkes, the youngest of the Marines aboard, comes rushing out from under the canvas. Wilkes has thrown on only two loose layers over his uniform and his teeth begin chattering even before he delivers his message.

“Mr. Thompson’s compliments to the captain, sir, and the engineer says that the captain should come down to the hold as quick as you might.”

“Why?” If the boiler has finally broken down, Crozier knows, they are all dead.

“Begging the captain’s pardon, sir, but Mr. Thompson says that the captain is needed because Seaman Manson is near to mutiny, sir.”
Crozier stands up straight. “Mutiny?”

“Near to it, were Mr. Thompson’s words, sir.”

“Speak English, Private Wilkes.”

“Manson won’t carry no more sacks of coal past the Dead Room, sir. Nor go down in the hold no more. He says he respectfully refuses, captain. He won’t come up, but he’s sitting on his arse at the bottom of the man-ladder and won’t carry no more coal back to the boiler room.”

“What is this nonsense?” Crozier is getting very angry.

“It’s the ghosts, captain,” says Marine Private Wilkes through chattering teeth. “We all hear ‘em when we’re hauling coal or fetching something from deep stores. It’s why the men won’t go down there below orlop deck no more unless the officers order ‘em to, sir. Something’s down there in the hold, in the dark. Something’s been scratching and banging from inside the ship, Captain. It ain’t just the ice. Manson’s sure it’s his old mate Walker, him . . . it . . . and the other corpses stacked there in the Dead Room, clawing to get out.”

Crozier checks his impulse to reassure the Marine private with facts. Young Wilkes might not find the facts so reassuring.
The first simple fact is that the scrabbling noise from the Dead Room is almost certainly the hundreds or thousands of large, black rats feasting on Wilkes’s frozen comrades. The Norway rats –as Crozier knows better than the young Marine – are nocturnal, which means that they’re active day and night during the long arctic winter, and the creatures have teeth which constantly keep growing. This, in turn, means the God-damned vermin constantly have to keep chewing – and the captain has seen them chew through Royal Navy oak barrels, inch-thick tins, and even lead plating. The rats are having no more trouble down there with the frozen remains of Seaman Walker and his five unlucky comrades – including three of Crozier’s finest officers – than a man would have chewing on a strip of frigid jerky.

But Crozier doesn’t think it’s just the rats that Manson and the others are hearing.

Rats, as Crozier knows from sad experience of thirteen winters in the ice, tend to eat one’s friends quietly and efficiently except for their frequent screeching as the blood-maddened and ravenous vermin turn on one another.

It’s something else making the clawing and banging noises down on hold deck.

What Crozier decides not to explain to Private Wilkes is the second simple fact that while the lowest deck would normally be safe but cold there beneath the waterline or winter line of frozen sea ice, the pressure from the ice has forced Terror’s stern more than a dozen feet higher than it should be. The hull there is still locked in, but only by several hundred heaped tons of jagged sea ice and the added tons of snow the men have piled alongside to within a few feet of the railings so as to provide more insulation during the winter.

Something, Francis Crozier suspects, has dug down through these tons of snow and tunneled through the iron-hard slabs of ice to get at the hull of the ship. Somehow the thing has sensed which parts of the interior along the hull, such as the water-storage tanks, are lined with iron, and found one of the few hollow outside storage areas – the Dead Room -- that leads directly into the ship. And now it’s banging and clawing to get in.

Crozier knows that there’s only one thing on Earth with that much power, deadly persistence, and malevolent intelligence. The monster on the ice is trying to get at them from below.

Without saying another word to Marine Private Wilkes, Captain Crozier goes below to sort things out.

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