Sam watched as Greenland’s shore receded. He held onto the ship’s frozen metal railing and kept his eyes glued to the sight of Panuk, the two Russians, and their sleds winding back up the hill, until they crested the top and disappeared from view. The ship’s diesel engines puffed black soot into the frigid arctic sky and filled his nostrils with an unwelcome acrid smell. The black sea rocked the ship up and down, side to side, as it plied the icy waters. Chunks of blue ice bumped against the vessel’s steel hull with a dull thud. As they approached the island, Sam strained to see any sign of Professor Satsky. At his alma mater, Karl Satsky was a legend, and his grizzled features were said to match his personality: even his friends joked that he ate research assistants for breakfast.
Sam held tight to the ship’s gunwale as it neared the island’s rocky shore. A silent crewman stood beside him, rolling easily with the swells. Sam turned to the crewman. “Is Satsky supposed to meet us?”
“The professor? Never see him. We drop off supply. Pick up garbage. Head back.” He jerked his chin. “Camp up there.”
Sam’s eyes moved across the dark bay and followed the middle rocky finger of land to where it met the island’s palm. Perched between tall natural towers of sharp rock were two tents, surrounded by blue barrels, a black metal stovepipe, and a tall pole festooned with the vanes of an anemometer spinning in the wind. Cold bit his face, and his blue eyes burned as a sudden gust of frigid air blew across the bay.
“Last one we drop here dead or crazy now,” scowled the crewman. “Why you go island?”
Sam was wondering the same but did not turn his head. “Research project.”
The truth was this project wasn’t working out like he’d imagined. When he’d first made the deal with his father to spend six months in the field, he’d pictured a blend of paleoanthropology, camaraderie, and adventure. This rocky wasteland looked less like a professional dig and more like hell frozen over, its fires gone out.
The ship dropped anchor off the craggy coast. The Russian crewman pulled a gray metal lever for the ship’s crane to pick up the small boat, swing it over the edge, and lower it into the black water. The crewman jerked a gloved thumb at the pile of crates and boxes, then pointed to the bobbing tender.
“We be back in morning,” he growled. “Then no come ’gin six month.”
A blast of arctic air knifed through Sam’s parka hood as he hefted the last of the crates out of the tender and onto the finger of land. His frozen boots crackled and crunched from their wet encounter with the sea as he pulled the tiny boat onto land.
Sam squinted toward the distant pair of tents perched high atop the rocky outcrop. The spinning anemometer, tugging at the top of the tent, looked ready to take off. His home for the next six months. Could he do it?
He watched the big boat pull anchor, and as it turned to break through the black swells he collapsed onto the pile of supplies. The Russians would be back tomorrow—his last chance to throw in the towel and admit that his father was right. Magnus, that son of a bitch, was determined that his son would fold under pressure and come running home to join the family business. Screw him, dammit. Dad thought he would make this hard for him? It wasn’t going to work.
There wasn’t much to warm Sam as he lugged crates up the steep, quarter-mile incline to camp—the work helped, but after two hours the pile didn’t look much smaller.
This was madness. Was it really so important to beat his father at this game? They’d been through it before. Their first battle had been over dating. His father believed his son’s good looks and ease with women was a curse, and did everything he could to stop him from what he labeled fornication, citing biblical passages from Corinthians about each man having his own wife. Their latest battle was over Sam choosing an academic career rather than the family oil drilling business.
But Sam didn’t have to go back home. Why was he so obsessed with showing his father he could manage on his own? At 34, he should be making his own way in the world, without his father’s help.
Another blast of frosty air swept low over the icy rocks, nearly knocking him over.
“Hey there!” From out of the wind, a woman’s voice. “Need a hand?”
Halfway down the boulder-strewn path, someone in a faded yellow parka waved.
“You Sawyer?” she asked.
He nodded and stood to face her.
Her outstretched glove was black and tattered. The small area of her face left exposed by her parka’s tightly cinched hood disarmed Sam. She was attractive—at least, her dark almond eyes were.
“You got a first name?” she asked.
“Sam. Sam Sawyer. UT Dallas. Paleoanthropology. I think I’m yer’ replacement.”
Julia laughed. “We’ll talk, Sam Sawyer from Dallas. Meanwhile, let me give you a hand.”
They worked in silence, hauling supplies and stacking them next to the larger of the two tents. As the waning sun’s red sliver struggled below the horizon, Julia pointed to a sloppy heap of trash-filled crates that would need to make the return trip to the ship. Sam groaned.
Too much later, Sam fell onto the empty cot in the smaller tent.
“You might want to grab that sleeping bag,” said Julia. “You’ll be spending enough time in your parka that you won’t want to ever see it again. I plan on burning mine when I get home.”
Sam forced his heavy eyelids open just as Julia stripped off her parka.
“How do ya’ get a shower ‘round here?”
“You don’t. Closest thing is a washcloth and a bucket of near-freezing meltwater. I haven’t had a proper shower in half a year.”
Delightful. “Where’s Satsky?”
“Probably in his tent by now. He only gets about four hours’ sleep a night. Once I’m gone, he’ll rattle your cage early enough each morning.”
“Is he as bad as all the rumors? The professors all think he’s brilliant but crazy.”
Julia turned her back to him, pulled off her thermal top, and gingerly pressed a washcloth into one armpit.
“Jesus! That’s cold. Whatever you’ve heard about Satsky you can ignore.” She scrubbed her other armpit. “He’s worse. Far worse. The man’s obsessed with this dig. Thinks he’s found some sort of treasure. Have you heard about it?”
She pulled her thermal underwear back on, then reached up to pull the rusted chain of the tent’s bare LED lantern. In the blackness, Sam heard her slip into her bag, but waited until the quiet told him that she’d settled herself. “Several of my professors mentioned some kind of treasure he’s supposed to have found, but most of them just think he’s nuts. Is there really a treasure?”
“Satsky thinks there is, but I’m with your professors.”
The wind picked up outside. Sam lay in his mummy bag, listening to the dark lantern bump against the sloping ceiling as the north wind tried to work the tent stakes loose. Tomorrow Julia would get on the supply ship’s tender, along with the empty crates and garbage they’d spent the day hauling, and head back to the Russians’ ship. This place was nuts. That crewman had thought she might be dead by now. Sam wondered how she’d survived.
Through the low moaning of the wind he thought he heard something outside the tent. A voice. Laughter—or maybe wailing. It was hard to tell. Sam slipped his boots over his thermals, pulled a knit cap over his ears and gloves over his hands, and unzipped the tent. There it was again, coming from the big tent across the little cooking area from their own. It must be Satsky. Sam shivered against the cold, waiting to hear what was going on inside the big tent.
Above him, a sky blacker than any he’d ever seen was lit by more stars than he’d imagined existed. Tiny points of light scurried about, crisscrossing the black—satellites making their rounds, like ushers seating guests on opening night. The universe was a theater starring the fires of a trillion suns. When a gale threatened to topple him, Sam squatted on his haunches and, when the gust paused to catch its breath, listened again—then clamped his eyes and jaw shut as the cold air blasted.
There. Again. A cackle? He longed for the warmth and safety of his sleeping bag, but this seemed important. Was he in the presence of a madman? Should he leave tomorrow with Julia? From inside the big tent flickered a yellow glow. Sam moved closer and heard mumbling, talking. He saw the shadow of a man hunched over the light, larger than life, the light’s flicker making his shadow dance on the tent’s wall.
Then the wind again. It began with a low moan across the rocky crags before rushing up the island’s rock face. Bitter cold, it tore at him, threatening to claim him. The yellow glow inside the big tent went dark, and there was silence. Was Satsky listening too? The wind continued. Sam decided he’d had enough. He’d make his decision in the morning.