What Lies Beneath the Icy Depths of Pellucidar?

arctic depths

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It wasn’t his fault that Eduardo Phillips suffered from that damned ictus, or whatever the doctor called it, and died. Yes, they’d been arguing by the kitchen’s coffee machine, having randomly encountered each other, but Joshua had never laid a hand on him, not that he didn’t want to at times. The paleontologist was incorrigible, insisting that some form of humanoid had actually lived and thrived in the depths of Sorth 662 B’s primary ocean, called “Pellucidar” by Roxanne Sims, the team’s marine biologist and resident romantic, sometime within the past 10,000 years.

At the height of their raging, mutual diatribe, Phillips dropped his Styrofoam cup of tepid Sumatra, clutched at the sides of his head with both hands, an expression of profound anguish on his toffee-colored face, and then collapsed into a heap on the floor, his salt-and-pepper hair soaking up a pool of what one of the Marines called “Java.” Captain Marcus Fink and most of the rest of the team had already been running into the galley in response to their shouting match, and were just in time to see 28-year-old Josh Munoz, astro-geologist, and the youngest member of the expedition under the planet’s north, arctic wastes, standing over the elder scientist, his fists and teeth both clenched, staring at a corpse at his feet.

Doctor Beth Holloway, 61 years old, through as active and intellectually keen as someone half that age, pronounced Phillips dead on the spot. Fink and Patrick Simmons, the Gunny Sergeant heading the small complement of Marines attached to their operation, icily escorted Munoz to his quarters, disabled his comm, and locked off the door mechanism after leaving.

Their research facility, really a massive submarine designed to slowly melt the surface ice near Sorth’s north magnetic pole, had now descended to nearly 160 meters under the arctic, where it held its position. It was currently frozen in at all quarters, and would remain that way until Phillips either ordered they go deeper toward the interior, or to melt the ice above them and ascend using the variable gravity generator, which would let the Pagos Dytis, their nearly 180 meter in diameter “home away from home,” rise back into air and light.

Josh was sitting on his bunk, rubbing his perpetually frigid hands together while regarding the miniature inkwood tree decorating the small dinner table in front of him. It had been a gift from his mother, to remind him of her own mother’s ancestral home near Port St. Lucie, Florida, when he twitched at an unexpected knock on his door.

“Come.” He no longer had the ability to let anyone into his rooms, but privacy was still highly regarded among the research team.

He heard the locking mechanism making small, mechanical sounds, then the door slid open with a small “whoosh,” admitting Captain Fink. It had been two days since he had been confined, and although, normally decisions among the first exploratory team to visit Sorth were settled in committee, in this situation, his authority was absolute.

“How’s it going, Munoz?”

Fink was the only Jew on the team, average height, thinning reddish hair, pale skin, with more than his fair share of freckles, though they probably looked cuter on him when he was ten than now, at age 45. Like the rest of them, he was dressed in royal blue one-piece overalls with the official patch of the mission on his right shoulder, and his last name and first initial stenciled above his left breast pocket.

“About as well as could be expected under the circumstances.” Munoz didn’t bother to stand. Neither of them were military men, and truth be told, Josh tolerated Marcus only a little better than he had Phillips.

“Holloway completed her autopsy. Death by natural causes, though getting into a screaming match with you probably didn’t do the weakened vessel in his brain any good.”

“Aneurysm?”

“That’s what she’s calling it. You’re free to move about the station, resume your duties again.”

Munoz stood up. He was barely 1.7 meters tall, just 2 centimeters shorter than Fink. His black hair and tan complexion, about the color of a cup of black coffee with two “creams” in it, was in stark contrast to the Captain’s almost anemic skin. “Resume my duties? You invoke police powers, lock me up in my quarters, treat me like some biological impurity not allowing me visitors, and now I can resume my duties?” He heard his own voice was getting louder, and stopped speaking abruptly, not wanting to get into another argument.

“We had to make sure the injury to Phillips’ brain wasn’t caused by an assault.”

“It wasn’t. Sure, I’ve got a hot temper, but I’d never hurt anyone, even an inept fool like Phillips.”

“The man is dead, Munoz. You might show a little respect. Human life is not inconsequential, not on Earth, and certainly not here.”

“Certainly not here where the number of human lives can be counted on the digits of both hands and toes, but death is as common on Earth as a head cold. People in the Northern hemisphere can only live above the latitude of Toronto, or in the South, below Tierra del Fuego. Disastrous climate change has made the middle latitudes totally uninhabitable, and things aren’t getting any better.”

Fink took a deep breath of reconstituted air and slowly let it out, still standing in the doorway, the light of the corridor behind him putting him in shadow, since Munoz chose a much lower light setting in which to sulk.

“Are you through?”

“I guess.”

“Feel better for lecturing me on what any first grader knows back home?”

“A little. Finding a sanctuary for humanity is the reason I applied for this mission in the first place.”

“Look, reality impinges on us all here. We’ve got a tremendous responsibility to do the initial survey of Sorth, to make sure not only that the planet is safe to colonize, but that there are no other intelligent, indigenous life forms which could be negatively impacted by our presence.”

“Phillips was wrong about his mermaids. He had to be. The humanoid form is totally unsuitable to have evolved for an undersea existence, especially intelligent humanoids. I don’t know why he wanted to stall efforts to certify Sorth safe for human habitation, but this world is our last hope.”

“He was the paleontologist. You’re a glorified rock hunter. Did it occur to you that maybe he was just doing his job?”

“Your degree in Anthropology makes you about as useful on this trip as a sloth in a marathon. Which one of us is more redundant? I ran the numbers on the outcroppings we retrieved from the sea floor beneath us, the ones Phillips found those bone fragments in. They can’t be older than 10,000 years, probably less. The specimens almost don’t qualify as fossils.”

“The last time I looked, Munoz, you weren’t immune from being wrong. As scientifically important as finding out Sorth once supported intelligent, aquatic life or otherwise may be, our mission is to verify that there are no current intelligent species on the planet. That means, I really don’t give a rip if Phillips found fossils, as long as that particular life form is now extinct.”

“At least we agree about something, but it’ll take twenty years for survey teams to cover all the key areas on and underneath the planet. Over three-quarters of the surface is covered in water, and it’s only temperate 200 kilometers on either side of the equator. We don’t have a lot of time to screw around like Phillips was doing.”

“Excuse me, Captain. I think you’d better see this.” Roman Becker, the chief engineer appeared behind Fink, a look of concern etched upon his ebony face.

“What is it?” Fink was still looking a Munoz, maybe deciding if he should leave him locked up after all.

“Latest readings say the thickness of the ice underneath us is only at 55 meters now, and it’s getting thinner.”

Fink turned toward Becker, irritation lacing his voice. “I thought I said to hold the Dytis at 70 meters above the lower layer. Only the sample probes are supposed to breach the ice into Pellucidar. Who’s been screwing with the heaters and grav units?”

“That’s just it. No one. We aren’t moving down. The bottom of the ice is melting. Something’s moving up toward us.”

“Bullshit.” Fink pushed past Becker, apparently having forgotten about Munoz. Josh and Roman exchanged puzzled looks, and then the 34-year-old engineer motioned for the geologist to follow him.

The central control room sitting at the lower core of Dytis, just above the airlock chamber from which the probes, and if necessary, four-person submersibles, could be launched, was a hum of activity, both human and electronic. Roxanne was sitting at one of the sonar stations, headphones mashing down on her unruly mass of curly, dark blond hair.

Fink burst in through the open pressure hatch, quickly followed by Becker and Munoz, the Captain ignoring the latter. “What’s going on down here?”

Becker brushed past him to the station on Sims’ right, and picked up a vacant pair of headsets plugged into the iron-colored panel that was flashing with multicolored lights, the screen beneath showing the startling image of a rapidly thinning ice layer beneath their frozen habitat. “Listen for yourself.” He held out the earphones to the Captain.

Roxanne dismissed the presence of everyone around her, her expression that or rapt attention bordering on astonishment.

Fink put on the headset, scowling for the first few seconds after he started listening, and then staggering to the seat in front of him, mouth agape with shock.

“What is it?” Munoz was puzzled, not being able to hear what Sims and Fink were listening to, but being able to correctly interpret the sonar screen, realizing that only fifteen meters of ice separated the Pagos Dytis from the unknown ocean of Pellucidar as it existed underneath the planet’s frozen northern arctic.

After several moments, Captain Fink slowly removed his headphones and absent-mindedly placed them on his lap. Staring at the sonar screen, his face transitioning between wonder and horror, he muttered, “Put it on speakers, Becker.”

Roman leaned over Fink’s right shoulder and toggled several switches, then a strange series of calls squawked forth from twin grids mounted over the forward control cabinets. Sims looked around, and understanding what Roman had just done, pulled her own headsets off.

“What’s that?” Munoz had heard something like it before, but only in recordings he’d checked out from the library when he was in elementary school, and later, in a marine life history class he’d taken at Uni.

“Nearest thing I’ve heard like it are the sounds made by Bottlenose Dolphins.”

Munoz stared at the marine biologist while recalling the class he took eight years ago. “But they’re extinct.”

“On Earth, yes.” Roxanne turned in her seat to look up at Josh, her pale green eyes open wide, shimmering as if in their own light. “Whatever’s making those noises aren’t dolphins. They can’t be.”

“Ten meters until whatever it is breaks through,” declared Becker.

Fink seemed to wake up from a long sleep. “I’m putting the Marines on alert.” He donned his headphones again, extended the mouthpiece to his lips, and changing channels, said, “Sergeant Simmons. Some unknown force is melting the ice beneath our craft, something alive and possibly intelligent. You’re on combat status.”

Something unintelligible issued from Fink’s headset.

“Captain, under the ice, we’re reading something moving, hundreds of objects.” Becker’s gaze locked on the screen in front of Fink.

“Oh my God, they’re alive.” Roxanne gasped, staring at her own scope.

Then the ice disintegrated around the Pagos Dytis, and the nearly flat, oval science station was floating free in 1.8 °C water, multitudes of aquatic life swimming rapidly around its circumference; humanoid life.

“They’re trying to communicate,” Roxanne whispered.

“Sonar says they’re congregating around the main airlock,” Roman observed.

Munoz resigned himself to being both right and wrong. No, the humanoid oceanic life were not ancient fossils from a bygone era, but yes, they were a living species. Then he realized what he had to do, the mistakes he was here to correct. Humanity had made most of species extinct on Earth. They couldn’t be allowed to do it here.

“Captain, call off the Marines. We don’t know they’re hostile. Captain!” Munoz grabbed Fink by the shoulders and shook him, but he might as well be trying to animate a mannequin.

A deck beneath them, an open portal to the ocean, the pressurized atmosphere in lock cabin keeping out the arctic waters, was churning with life about to emerge into the station. A dozen heavily armed Marines each had their automatic assault rifles trained on them, prepared to repel invaders.

I wrote this for the Bonus Wordle “The Letter I” writing challenge hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to craft a poem, short story, or other creative work using at least ten of the twelve words in the “Wordle.” I used all twelve. They are:

Inkwood (n.)) a tropical tree, Exothea paniculata, of the soapberry family, yielding a hard, reddish-brown wood.)
Icily
Incorrigible
Invoke
Interior
Immune
Impurity
Injury
Inept
Inconsequential
Impinge
Ictus (an epileptic seizure, a stroke, a cerebrovascular incident)

I recently read an article at Quartzy called Nine Sci-Fi Subgenres to Help You Understand the Future. Some of the “subgenres” are Chinese Sci-Fi and Chaohuan, the “Ultra-Unreal,” Afrofuturism, and Gulf Futurism. On the surface, they read like a politically correct inventory of topics acceptable to progressives desiring to remake the future (and present) in their own image.

If I stop being cynical, at least some of them are attempting to drive science fiction away from “Euro-centric” characters, environments, and topics, and include people groups from the rest of the world, which seems more than reasonable.

However, another such subgenre is Climate Fiction (“Cli-Fi”):

“All novels written now should be climate change novels unless they’re a fantasy in some way. Realist novels that don’t have climate change as part of the contemporary landscape are fantasies, genre novels.”

So says author Jane Rawson, speaking in 2018 to Ben Brooker about Australian literature.

Similarly, media theorist McKenzie Wark has written about the “obsolescence of the bourgeois novel in the Anthropocene.” That is, “climate change exceeds what the form of the bourgeois novel can express.” He recommends “cli-fi” as a genre, though he notes that “it includes some quite terrible books,” such as Ian McEwan’s Solar, in which “the imminent collapse of industrial civilization” is mapped onto that most literary of topics, “a middle-aged white man’s issues with his penis.”

I believe it’s possible to write about environmental issues including “climate change” without blindly adopting a litany of associated ideologies, and I’ve attempted to do so here. Just for giggles, I might try to write a story or two on each of the subgenres, not to speak to, or comply with, a specific worldview, but to be fair. I also think that authors from all walks of life, from all nations, ethnicities, and the various other categories used to split humanity into individually isolated components rather than a unified “peoplehood,” should be able to freely contribute our visions of the future and how they impact the present.

So here we are. All of our stories are important, mine no less than others.

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9 thoughts on “What Lies Beneath the Icy Depths of Pellucidar?

  1. Sci-fi that includes apocalyptic visions of climate change has been around for decades, with a variety of proposed causes of that change, including warfare, disease, meteor strikes, political conspiracies, and runaway production of greenhouse gasses, among others. And sci-fi that poses scenarios of first contact with aliens and responses that may potential massacre of one side or another also are not new. The topics of racism, gender relations, inter-species relations, species superiority or inferiority, adaptability, cloning and genetic manipulation, alien communications, and mixed exploratory crews consisting of various earth races and alien species are also not new. So what is this nonsense about “cli-fi” and claims of “Euro-centrism”? Someone has not been paying attention to the diversity that has existed in sci-fi for half a century already. Someone is disrespecting the history of the genre and trying to create false controversies, perhaps to push a political agenda outside of the sci-fi realm. Where is the emphasis on good storytelling, development of plot and suspense and intrigue and entertainment and inspiration and exhortation and peroration?

    The nature of sci-fi has always been to envision other worlds and perspectives and rules of operation, in order to consider how some human or some group of them might adapt to new circumstances. A sci-fi writer has always been free to describe a world however they wished — though there has never been any guarantee that anyone else would want to read about it or publish their story. Commercial publishing, of course, must evaluate what is likely to be saleable, which places some majority readership constraints upon what will be published. Nonetheless, anthologies and short-story magazines have been published regularly, containing a mixture of styles and worldviews, of which some percentage could sample the fringes that might not have general appeal. But if a demand arises to insist that everything published must meet someone’s standards of political correctness rather than what the majority of paying customers enjoy, the industry will quickly be bankrupted and cease to exist altogether. Only niche self-publishing and electronic postings will exist, and no-one knows if anyone will read these scribblings.

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    • I suspect the proposed “subgenres” don’t necessarily reflect SciFi as it has actually existed over the past nine or ten decades or so, but how the current progressive lens sees that history and the present relative to the social justice concerns folks have absorbed as “Gospel.” Nevertheless, I’m willing to give it a whirl.

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      • Ahh, yes, well you may mention the Orwellian oxymoron “social justice” that views some as more equal than others and hence is the very contrary of real justice. Nevertheless, as you say, trying to address one of these “subgenres” could be a worthwhile writing challenge.

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