Sam came to consciousness slowly. “Where the hell am I?” he mumbled.
Julia’s cot was empty. So was her side of the tent. He could hear the clatter of pots and smelled something. Oatmeal? He dragged himself out of his mummy bag and stumbled onto the tent floor. He looked at his image in the small mirror, Duct taped to the tent’s sides. His lightly freckled high cheekbones were red from the cold, his wavy brown hair matted from sleep. He ran his fingers through his hair, fumbled his boots on, then tucked his 5 foot 10 inch tall frame through the tent’s door.
Julia was sitting on a fold-up canvas stool in front of a propane cooktop, stirring a pot with one hand and warming the other near the flame. Her backpack sat on the rocky ground next to her.
“Mornin’, Sunshine. Want somethin’ to eat?”
She ladled steaming gray mush into a mug and handed it to him. He held the cup close—its warm moisture collected and froze on his face.
“Did you bring a spoon?” she asked.
Sam shook his head and tried to slurp the oatmeal, which burned his nearly frozen lips.
Julia laughed. “Here, I’ll donate mine.”
After the meal they trundled down the path to the tender. Sam carried her backpack as she led the way. The Russian trawler bobbed at anchor in the light morning chop of the bay.
Julia looked at him and spoke low. “You sure you want to stay? Next ship is in six months. There’s no communication. We’re 335 miles north of the Arctic Circle and that’s pretty close to as far from civilization as it gets. No one knows exactly where we are except the Inuits and the Russians—we’re not even supposed to be here. If you injure yourself or get sick, you’re on your own.”
He looked out to sea and the Russian ship. This all seemed like a bad dream. He had worked so hard getting through graduate school, despite his father’s chiding that he was being pampered and missing out on what Dad considered meaningful work. Sam was convinced his father wanted him to fail so he’d come running back home to help with Empire Oil. Magnus hated that his son had earned a PhD in a left-leaning field of study that Magnus considered ungodly—the study of ancient humans went against everything his father’s unshakable Christian Fundamentalist beliefs taught. To Magnus, the only way to shake his son out of his folly was to make sure that folly was painful enough.
“Where will ya’ go?”
“Dallas,” said Julia.
Sam perked up. “I’m from Dallas.”
“Yeah, I know.” She smirked. “You said so before.”
She hoisted the backpack aboard the tender, then her carry bag.
“Help me turn this boat around,” she said.
They pushed the tender into the bay and turned its bow toward the trawler. She sat on the gunwale, rolled into the boat, and stood up. She cocked her head at him. “Last chance . . . ?”
Sam held on to the stern and slowly pushed the small boat into the bay, his leaking mukluks already beginning to freeze his feet. He gave a final shove and turned back toward shore.
“Good luck!” she called.
As Julia Bassi and boat dwindled on their way to the ship, Sam watched. He sighed. Time to meet Satsky.
Upon his return to camp Satsky was nowhere to be seen. The old man must have gone about his work alone. Sam was grateful for a few hours alone to sort out his belongings and learn what he could about the camp—though other than the two tents, a storage area, and the pit dug out as a toilet, there wasn’t much to explore.
Later that afternoon Sam heard the crunch of footsteps and the thud of a pack hitting the ground outside his tent.
“Burro? Where are you?” Satsky’s voice was gruff.
Sam stepped outside his tent to see a gangly man in an orange parka, lowering to the ground a heavy sack. His sunburned face bristled with unshaven gray, and his wrinkled cheeks collected in fleshy folds below his dark, sunken eyes.
“You’re my new burro,” Satsky growled as Sam approached him. “The woman was weak. Didn’t want to work. Wasn’t worth her keep.”
Sam extended his gloved right hand. Satsky ignored it, turned away, and busied himself arranging the many sacks of rocks into long and organized rows around the camp, muttering under his breath and shaking his head.
“Burro. That tent is yours.” He waved a glove vaguely behind him. “This is mine. Stay out of it.”
Hours later, as the sun skimmed the horizon, Satsky lit the propane stove and waved at a box of cans near his tent before sitting down. Sam pulled a big can of baked beans from the box, cranked an opener around its perimeter, and poured the contents into the hot pan atop the stove. The cold beans and liquid met the pot’s hot surface with a spitting noise. He used the small spoon Julia had left him to ladle the meal first to Satsky and then himself, scraping what was left from the bottom of the pan onto his bowl, hard burned chunks and all.
They sat on flat rocks, eating in silence.
“It’s going to be tough,” Satsky grunted.
“I can handle it.”
“That’s what they all say.” He shrugged. “Let’s see how cocky you are a few days from now. That’s when the burros want to leave. And the next supply vessel’s six months out!” He cackled.
They cleaned their plates with snowmelt and Satsky disappeared into his tent. Sam watched the shard of autumn sun crossing the horizon, its purple glow reflected by the dirty white of the mainland glacier.
Satsky stuck his head out of his tent flap. “Tomorrow morning, early. Be ready, Burro.” The flap dropped closed again, and Sam saw only the yellow glow of the lantern within.
He pulled back his hood and listened to the ancient new land. The chill wind moaned low, then sometimes whistled high across the island’s frozen outcrops and rock spires. Satsky’s tent went dark. To the north he thought he could see dancing green shades of light, but the swath of Milky Way was bright enough to overwhelm its faint glow. When he got cold enough, he crawled back into his tent and into his bag.
By morning, the temperature had dropped to –30° F as Sam followed Satsky out of camp. Frosted rubble left by the receding glacier littered their path. Their boots slipped on the slick debris as they climbed, and the biting gale slowed them. Satsky held a tall bucket in one hand, a shovel in the other. Sam, following with two more buckets, picked up the rocks Satsky dug out of the ice and left for him. When the three buckets were full, Satsky took a break as Sam hauled the rocks back to camp, where he unloaded them with care, writing down where they’d come from by longitude and latitude. Then he trekked back to Satsky, who’d already been digging in the ice again and filling his bucket. The rocks he didn’t want lay in piles strewn about the dig.
Day after long and cold day went by as their routine never seemed to vary. Breakfast was always at the same time: as the sun vainly attempted to rise just high enough to light the day. They would eat in silence, then trudge up the rock strewn icy path to where Satsky wanted his rocks pulled from the dig, hauled back to camp, cataloged, then sorted into neat piles near base camp. In the evenings, as Sam melted snow for water and prepared the evening meals of canned or dehydrated food, Satsky rummaged through the day’s spoils sorting rocks into different piles and noting where they had come from.
“Doc. What’re ya’ looking for in the rocks?” asked Sam after their evening meal. He hardly expected an answer from the normally silent Satsky.
“Their shape,” answered the old man.
Sam gave Satsky a quizzical look.
“Burro,” said the professor. “Haven’t you noticed?”
Satsky ambled over to the rows of rocks piled in neat little clumps and fished through the piles before finding what he was looking for.
“Come here, Burro,” said Satsky. “See if you can understand what I am doing.”
Sam put the pot of beans down next to the propane stove and joined Satsky next to his pile of rocks. Satsky held two different sorts of rocks in his hands. In the left was a jagged shard of flat rock that looked as if it had been broken off from a larger slab. In his right hand was a rough rounded rock about half the size of a tennis ball.
“Can you see the difference, Burro?” Satsky did not wait for an answer. “Yes, of course you can. This one,” and he shook his left hand with the jagged flat rock, “was broken from the indigenous rock formations you see over the entire island. It came from the movement of glaciers. But this one,” and now he waved the small round one in his right hand, “this came not from the movement of glaciers, but by the hand of a man or a machine.”
“But, Doc, this island’s been covered in ice for 100,000 years,” said Sam. “How…?”
“Shhhhh,” said Satsky. “They are watching us.” Satsky looked up to the sky which was a dark purple as night began to set. The stars were barely visible. “They have cameras. They watch our every move.”
“Who?” asked Sam. He looked up at the darkening night sky.
“Them,” said Satsky. “The devils themselves. They seek the treasure too, Burro. These stones, the small round ones, cover where the Ancients have buried their booty. When we find the rocks, we can add to our map and discover more treasure, Burro.”
Sam watched for any signs of levity from Satsky and found none. Cameras everywhere? Did he believe the satellites that frequented the heavens were watching the activities of he and the old professor? This would be a long six months from what Sam could tell.