[Original Novella] The Grinding, Part 1

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If only I could outrun the grinding. Then at least I could hear myself think. What is that horrid sound? It seems to come from everywhere. Hair thin icicles dangle from my chin. What remains of my tears. How did I get here? It hurts to remember.

There was a storm, and a crash. We’d passed over McMurdo less than an hour earlier. Officially it’s a research station but to look at it from the air it’s not exaggerating to call it a town. Around a thousand live there at any given time with everything from a convenience store to a chapel serving the people who live and work there.

I fly one of the few B52s still in regular use. Or I did until a freak storm knocked it out of the sky. Of all the things to pass through my head as the plane tumbled around me, I thought of the black mark on my record, the cost of replacing the plane and other related trivialities.

Am I still in the plane? No, it can’t be. I remember pulling my copilot Dan out of the wreckage. Wind whipping around us like so many flying daggers. The coordinates we were meant to air drop the payload to were less than a mile away. So deceptive. Less than a mile may as well be a thousand in an Antarctic blizzard.

There was no sense waiting for the rest of the fuel to go up. I slung Dan onto my back, checked my gps and began trudging towards the drop point. Everywhere the air touched my skin was in agony until numbness set in, as if resigning itself to the situation. Exhaustion soon set in, but what I dreaded more was the feeling of warmth.

It’s an illusion that overcomes those lost in the snow. Drives them to shed their layers in order to cool down which of course only kills them faster. I’m ashamed to say that when this feeling set in and I recognized it for what it was, I began to ask myself how well I really know Dan. The sort of moral calculus that’s all too easy to justify to yourself when the life in question is not your own.

My mind turned, as it frequently does while sober, to memories of friends I’d lost in Afghanistan. Could I have done more? I swore I’d never again give myself reason to wonder that. “Whether we make it or freeze, we do it together” I muttered to the breathing but otherwise unresponsive mass on my shoulders.

Romanticism goes before death. I couldn’t believe my legs were giving up, even on the way down. One minute I was trudging along and the next, simply ran out of steam. Through the howling winds, just past the freshly laid down snow drifts I spotted a brutalist concrete entryway jutting up out of the snow. Like the hallucinatory oasis in the desert.

Am I dead? That can’t be it either. I feel pain. Not the pain of burning in a lake of fire. The ever-present low level pain from various points on my arms, legs and face. I feel the warmth and wetness of blood trickling down my forehead, between my eyes. Soon that will freeze too. One foot in front of the other, in front of the other. Always the grinding. The tedious, surging, droning sound of metal scraping against ice.

There was more. The door opened. I saw it as my vision grew blurry, just before I blacked out. I saw all sorts of things. Heard and felt them. I felt cold hands dragging me as I feebly thrashed about. When I next awoke, I wondered if this too wasn’t a hallucination.

I found myself on a gurney in a modestly apportioned medical center. The walls were stained concrete. The floor and ceiling comprised of rusted steel panels. I heard the echoes of distant dripping and, for the first time, that incessant grinding. Far away at the time, not yet familiar.

“Oh, you’re awake. Welcome to the gallery.” I searched the room for the origin of the voice. A horn shaped loudspeaker in the corner. “I worried about your odds, you know. You’re quite robust! Even so, frostbite claimed quite a bit.” I hadn’t thought to roll back the sheet covering me. Underneath, both of my legs from the knee down were replaced by motorized prosthetics as well as my arms, from the hand up to the elbow.

I cried out, thrashed and tumbled out of bed. “That’s no good” the scratchy, low fi voice admonished. “You’re still healing. I’d advise more rest.” I swore up a storm amidst the confused babbling. Each of the new extremities emitted an electric whirr as I used it to right myself, stand up, walk and so on. It was an uphill battle to form sentences. This is when it first occurred to me that I might’ve suffered a head injury as well.

“Who are you? What is this place? Where’s Dan?” I heard whirring, distant at first but closer and closer until something resembling an angular steel suit of armor burst through double doors at the end of the room and approached me. Each footstep produced a resounding “clang”. Each motion accompanied by the same irritating motor noise as my own prosthetics.

“I really do insist you stay in bed for the time being. My associate here will see to that. A meal will be brought to you shortly. As for your friend, he’s recovering in the adjacent room.” I scowled. Government? No, not like this. Corporate? Didn’t fit either. A private interest of some kind, certainly. It occurred to me that I owed the mystery voice my life. That calmed me down somewhat.

The meal did eventually arrive as promised. Thick juicy steak, medium rare. Not my preference but I was in no position to turn up my nose at hot food. As I ate, the armored guard stood a few feet away. I couldn’t tell if he was staring. The helmet afforded only a pair of narrow slits to peer through and from this angle I couldn’t see his eyes through them.

I could hear him breathing, though. And once or twice I could swear I heard him whimper. Attempts to make small talk with him fell flat. Constantly, little motor whines came from his limbs. All the little adjustments we make subconsciously to stay balanced. I recognized my own as the top shelf myoelectric prosthetics Uncle Sam buys you if to lose an arm or a leg to an IED.

“Hey fella. How do you take all that off?” As ever, no answer. His helmet had no visible hinges or seams. None of it did. Just more labored breathing as he stood there, dutifully preventing me from getting out of bed. I could see his side of it. The bits where my limbs transitioned into the prosthetics were red and puffy. “You’ll want to rub some antibiotic on that. There’s a tube of it on the tray to your left.” The voice sounded like the one from the intercom, but came from the fellow in the suit of armor this time.

“Well, go on” it urged me. “You don’t want that to get infected.” I did as instructed, squeezing out a generous dollop of the translucent paste and rubbing it all over the tender inflamed skin. Still staring at the steel golem beside my bed, wondering what possessed it to talk all of a sudden.

“This fellow is one of my finest so far. I wanted to put my best face forward, as we don’t often get visitors. You’ll see a few more like him, my eyes and ears around this little community. The rest are…more rudimentary. It is difficult to get my hands on the most recent parts. That’s what you were hired to deliver. All up in flames now.”

I tried to apologize but my speech slurred. My vision was beginning to blur as well. I looked around and spotted an intravenous drip that the armored fellow was adding something to. Before I could protest, I was out like a light.

When I woke up, the guard was gone. How long was I out? No clocks visible anywhere. No windows, most likely underground, so no sense of whether it was light out. Just the sound of fans circulating air, dripping water, and that faint grinding sound.

I threw off the sheets and tested my new legs. I found I could stand easily enough, but felt pins and needles. Like when you sit on your leg for too long. I could faintly feel just enough to control the limbs but mercifully not the cold metal floor. Each step made a clickety clack sound as the heel, then toe of the metal and plastic feet came down.

Even after extended practice I still felt a little wobbly, like a newborn deer. The two legs had different styling, as did each of the forearms. A different manufacturer in each case. Whoever fit me with them did an impressive job matching it all up. I started for the double doors. Gripping the rusted metal handles I found the hands had limited sensation. Just on soft white rubber pads found on the palm and tips of the fingers.

Clickety clack, clickety clack down the corridor. I had to touch to be sure. The walls and ceiling were roughly hewn ice. The entire tunnel looked to be carved right out of the ice shelf. There was no heating here, very soon I began to violently shiver. Only a few lights still worked, even those were in a bad way. Some flickered, others went out at random for several seconds only to then spring back to life.

By the time it occurred to me how easy it would be to get disoriented, it’d already happened. Which direction had I come from? It was at least warm back in the medical room, and there’d been some expectation of regular meals. Who built all of this?

I had some passing familiarity with the various research stations on the South Pole. I also recalled a base under the ice built in Greenland by the US Government during the cold war. Whoever designed this facility took a page from that book. If only there were some logo or flag. Instead, only endless labyrinthine ice tunnels.

Stay Tuned for Part 2!

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