The Mastery of the Ice
(A Demeter’s Bar Story)
By Jeff Baker
It was a week before Christmas when Andre Lanier wandered into Demeter’s Bar, and we all thought he brought the cold with him. The weather had been nice and pleasant “You could have played baseball on Thanksgiving,” Paco had said. Some of the other regulars admitted they would have paid to see Paco get all hot and sweaty in a tight tee-shirt, but that afternoon there was a forecast of snow on the way within a day and the temperature had already dropped to thirty degrees. Not a white Christmas, but pretty close.
“You have anything warm?” Lanier asked. He was about thirty and wearing a light jacket and a with a wool hat. The rest of us had walked into the bar all bundled up, scarves, coats, the works. He sat down at the bar and drank down the coffee he’d been brought in one gulp.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” said Mrs. DeLeon from behind the bar. “You used to come in here all the time when I first took over the place.”
“I’ve been travelling,” Lanier said. “And I’ve spent so much time reading old archaeological manuscripts I’m starting to talk like one.”
“Prithee, what wouldst thou have?” someone snarked. Lanier ignored him, but I remembered him from when he came into the bar years ago (I’d thought he was nice and we’d talked a few times.) and it seemed he had developed a slight British accent.
Lanier ordered a Hot White Russian, like a man who had ordered a lot of them, and started talking.
I graduated about six years ago (Lanier said, sipping his drink) with degrees in archaeology and biology. In a roundabout way I found myself attached to an Antarctic expedition within a few months. A Sir Borthwick-Leslie, whose family had been Arctic explorers since Victorian times, was sponsoring an expedition to the Antarctic, what he called “the mastery of the ice,” and I signed on. It was a heady rush to be on such a prestigious endeavor and I was filled with excitement. It didn’t hurt that I had become involved with Carleton, one of the other young men they had hired, he from one of the British Universities.
The expedition went much as you would expect; a flight to the southern tip of Africa, then Australia, then New Zealand. From there we were flown to our base in Antarctica. It was then that we were told the true nature of our trip: the leader of the expedition had found evidence in manuscript, with ancient photographs, of a once-thriving civilization beneath the surface of the Antarctic. If we had a way, some of us might have left right then. But we were largely stuck there for the season. Somebody grumbled that we had travelled all that way “to follow some Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy.”
We largely found nothing the first month, but we were able to establish another base camp several miles south of our original base. And it was during one of my marches between camps that I got lost. Wind and fog suddenly swept in and I found myself going the wrong way. My normally reliable GPS system simply was not registering, and I suddenly found myself in unfamiliar territory, facing a large, dark mountain. It was at that point that wind and snow began to swirl around me and I looked for some crevasse for shelter. But the hole I found was actually the entrance to a passage; I followed it a short way until I saw a light at the other end. I had felt that I was descending and to my amazement I rounded a bend in the passage and found myself in a huge cavern, lit by some unseen light source. There were houses of some sort scattered around as well as taller structures, all carved out of solid rock. And these structures were inhabited. At first I thought they were ordinary humans and so I started down the path to the structures, but on second glance, I saw that these people bore more resemblance to cavemen; large, muscular, hairy. I ducked behind an outcropping of rock and hid and watched as they went about their tasks. There was a strange atmosphere in the cavern and it was cold. I saw the inhabitants roasting something which I hoped was an animal on a large fire pit. When I was sure nobody was watching, I went back through the passage and somehow found my way back to the base camp.
I told everyone about what I had seen; a still-active prehistoric civilization beneath the Antarctic floor, but was unable to find the passage or even the mountain again. Then a vicious storm blew in and we holed-up for several days in camp. When the weather let up we made a full-scale effort to find the mountain and the passage to the cavern but were unable to find as much as a hint. I kept my eyes on my device, hoping the GPS would shut down, like it did near the entrance to the cavern, but nothing happened.
Carlton joked that it must have been a passageway into another dimension. I stopped dating Carlton. But the idea bothered me.
Lanier finished his story and sipped his drink.
“Do you think that might have been what you saw in those old pictures?” Mrs. DeLeon asked.
“No, the pictures showed some old stone ruins on the surface,” Lanier said. “No cavern. But I have one memento, sort of.”
“I can’t get warm,” he said. “I went to a doctor and he said my body temperature has been lowered about ten degrees. The sort of thing that would kill somebody, but doesn’t kill me. I remember the strange atmosphere in the cavern and wonder if that’s how the cavern people survive in that climate. And if I was there just long enough for the atmosphere to affect me. Sometimes for the better. I mean, I don’t need air conditioning anymore, and I don’t bother with a coat in the winter but still…” he smiled. “I’ll have another white Russian. Hot.”