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The Ice Limit
Read by Scott Brick
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Beyond the Ice Limit
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January 16, 1:15 P.M.
THE VALLEY that had no name ran between barren hills, a long mottled floor of gray and green covered with soldier moss, lichens, and carpha grasses. It was mid-January—the height of summer—and the crevasses between the patches of broken rock were mortared with tiny pinguicula flowers. To the east, the wall of a snowfield gleamed a bottomless blue. Blackflies and mosquitoes droned in the air, and the summer fogs that shrouded Isla Desolación had temporarily broken apart, allowing a watery sunlight to speckle the valley floor.
A man walked slowly across the island's graveled flats, stopping, moving, then stopping again. He was not following a trail—in the Cape Horn islands, at the nethermost tip of South America, there were none.
Nestor Masangkay was dressed in worn oilskins and a greasy leather hat. His wispy beard was so thick with sea salt that it had divided itself into forked tips. It waggled like a snake's tongue as he led two heavily burdened mules across the flats. There was no one to hear his voice commenting unfavorably on the mules' parentage, character, and right to existence. Once in a while the complaints were punctuated with the thwack of a sucker rod that he carried in one brown hand. He had never met a mule, especially a rented mule, that he liked.
But Masangkay's voice held no anger, and the thwacks of his sucker rod held little force. Excitement was rising within him. His eyes roamed over the landscape, taking in every detail: the columnar basaltic escarpment a mile away, the double-throated volcanic plug, the unusual outcropping of sedimentary rock. The geology was promising. Very promising.
He walked across the valley floor, eyes on the ground. Once in a while a hobnailed boot would lash out and kick a rock loose. The beard waggled; Masangkay grunted; and the curious pack train would move on once again.
In the center of the valley, Masangkay's boot dislodged a rock from the flat. But this time he stopped to pick it up. The man examined the soft rock, rubbing it with his thumb, abrading small granules that clung to his skin. He brought it to his face and peered at the grit with a jeweler's loupe.
He recognized this specimen—a friable, greenish material with white inclusions—as a mineral known as coesite. It was this ugly, worthless rock that he had traveled twelve thousand miles to find.
His face broke into a broad grin, and he opened his arms to heaven and let out a terrific whoop of joy, the hills trading echoes of his voice, back and forth, back and forth, until at last it died away.
He fell silent and looked around at the hills, gauging the alluvial pattern of erosion. His gaze lingered again on the sedimentary outcrop, its layers clearly delineated. Then his eyes returned to the ground. He led the mules another ten yards and pried a second stone loose from the valley floor with his foot, turning it over. Then he kicked loose a third stone, and a fourth. It was all coesite—the valley floor was practically paved with it.
Near the edge of the snowfield, a boulder—a glacial erratic—lay atop the tundra. Masangkay led his mules over to the boulder and tied them to it. Then, keeping his movements as slow and deliberate as possible, he walked back across the flats, picking up rocks, scuffing the ground with his boot, drawing a mental map of the coesite distribution. It was incredible, exceeding even his most optimistic assumptions.
He had come to this island with realistic hopes. He knew from personal experience that local legends rarely panned out. He recalled the dusty museum library where he had first come across the legend of Hanuxa: the smell of the crumbling anthropological monograph, the faded pictures of artifacts and long-dead Indians. He almost hadn't bothered; Cape Horn was a hell of a long way from New York City. And his instincts had often been wrong in the past. But here he was.
And he had found the prize of a lifetime.
Masangkay took a deep breath. He was getting ahead of himself. Walking back to the boulder, he reached beneath the belly of the lead packmule. Working swiftly, he unraveled the diamond hitch, pulled the hemp rope from the pack, and unbuckled the wooden box panniers. Unlatching the lid of one pannier, he pulled out a long drysack and laid it on the ground. From it he extracted six aluminum cylinders, a small computer keyboard and screen, a leather strap, two metal spheres, and a nicad battery. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, he assembled the equipment into an aluminum rod fifteen feet long, with spherical projections at either end. He fitted the computer to its center, clipped on the leather strap, and slapped the battery into a slot on one side. He stood up, examining the high-tech object with satisfaction: a shiny anachronism among the grubby pack gear. It was an electromagnetic tomographic sounder, and it was worth over fifty thousand dollars—a ten-thousand down payment and financing for the rest, which was proving to be a struggle to pay off atop all his other debts. Of course, when this project paid off, he could settle with everyone—even his old partner.
Masangkay flicked the power switch and waited for the machine to warm up. He raised the screen into position, grasped a handle at the center of the rod, and let the weight settle around his neck, balancing the sounder the way a high-wire artist balances his pole. With his free hand he checked the settings, calibrated and zeroed the instrument, and then began walking steadily across the long flat, staring fixedly at the screen. As he walked, fog drifted in and the sky grew dark. Near the center of the flat, he suddenly stopped.
Masangkay stared at the screen in surprise. Then he adjusted some settings and took another step. Once again he paused, brow furrowed. With a curse he switched the machine off, returned to the edge of the flat, rezeroed the machine, and walked at right angles to his previous path. Again he paused, surprise giving way to disbelief. He marked the spot with two rocks, one atop the other. Then he walked to the far side of the flat, turned, and came back, more quickly now. A soft rain was beading on his face and shoulders, but he ignored it. He pressed a button, and a narrow line of paper began spooling out of the computer. He examined it closely, ink bleeding down the paper in the mist. His breath came faster. At first he thought the data was wrong: but there it was, three passes, all perfectly consistent. He made yet another pass, more reckless than the last, tearing off another spool of paper, examining it quickly, then balling it into his jacket pocket.
After the fourth pass, he began talking to himself in a low, rapid monotone. Veering back toward the mules, he dropped the tomographic sounder on the drysack and untied the second mule's pack with trembling hands. In his haste, one of the panniers fell to the ground and split open, spilling picks, shovels, rock hammers, an auger, and a bundle of dynamite. Masangkay scooped up a pick and shovel and jogged back to the center of the flat. Flinging the shovel to the ground, he began feverishly swinging the pick, breaking up the rough surface. Then he scooped out the loosened gravel with the shovel, throwing it well to the side. He continued in this fashion, alternating pick and shovel. The mules watched him with complete impassivity, heads drooping, eyes half-lidded.
Masangkay worked as the rain began to stiffen. Shallow pools collected at the lowest points of the graveled flat. A cold smell of ice drifted inland from Franklin Channel, to the north. There was a distant roll of thunder. Gulls came winging over his head, circling in curiosity, uttering forlorn cries.
The hole deepened to a foot, then two. Below the hard layer of gravel, the alluvial sand was soft and easily dug. The hills disappeared behind shifting curtains of rain and mist. Masangkay worked on, heedless, stripping off his coat, then his shirt, and eventually his undershirt, flinging them out of the hole. Mud and water mingled with the sweat that ran across his back and chest, defining the ripples and hollows of his musculature, while the points of his beard hung with water.
Then, with a cry, he stopped. He crouched in the hole, scooping the sand and mud away from a hard surface beneath his feet. He let the rain wash the last bit of mud from the surface.
Suddenly, he started in shock and bewilderment. Then he knelt as if praying, spreading his sweaty hands reverently on the surface. His breath came in gasps, eyes wild with astonishment, sweat and rain streaming together off his forehead, his heart pounding from exertion, excitement, and inexpressible joy.
At that moment, a shock wave of brilliant light burst out of the hole, followed by a prodigious boom that rolled off across the valley, echoing and dying among the far hills. The two mules raised their heads in the direction of the noise. They saw a small body of mist, which became crablike, broke apart, and drifted off into the rain.
The tethered mules looked away from the scene with indifference as night settled upon Isla Desolación.
February 22, 11:00 A.M.
THE LONG bark canoe cut through the water of the channel, moving swiftly with the tidal current. A single figure, small and bent, knelt inside, expertly feathering a paddle, guiding the canoe through the chop. A thin trail of smoke rose from the smoldering fire built on a pad of wet clay in the center of the canoe.
The canoe rounded the black cliffs of Isla Desolación, turned into the smoother water of a little cove, and crunched onto the cobbled beach. The figure leapt out and pulled the canoe above the high tide mark.
He had heard the news, in passing, from one of the nomadic fishermen who lived alone in these cold seas. That a foreign-looking man would visit such a remote and inhospitable island was unusual indeed. But even more unusual was the fact that a month had passed, and the man had apparently not left.
He paused, catching sight of something. Moving forward, he picked up a piece of shattered fiberglass, and then another, looking at them, peeling some strands from the broken edges and tossing them aside. The remains of a freshly wrecked boat. Perhaps there was a simple explanation after all.
He was a peculiar-looking man—old, dark, with long gray hair and a thin little mustache that drooped down from his chin like the film of a spiderweb. Despite the freezing weather, he was dressed only in a soiled T-shirt and a baggy pair of shorts. Touching a finger to his nose, he blew snot out of his nostrils, first one, then the other, with a delicate motion. Then he scrambled up the cliff at the head of the little cove.
He paused at its brink, his bright black eyes scanning the ground for signs. The gravelly floor, dotted with mounds of moss, was spongy from the freeze-thaw cycle, and it had preserved the footprints—and hoofprints—excellently.
He followed the trail as it made its irregular way up a rise to the snowfield. There it followed the edge of the field, eventually cutting down into the valley beyond. At a brow overlooking the valley the prints stopped, milling around in a crazy pattern. The man paused, gazing down into the barren draw. There was something down there: bits of color against the landscape, and the glint of sunlight off polished metal.
He hurried down.
He reached the mules first, still tied to the rock. They were long dead. His eyes traveled hungrily across the ground, glittering with avarice as they registered the supplies and equipment. Then he saw the body.
He approached it, moving much more cautiously. It lay on its back, about a hundred yards from the mouth of a recently dug hole. It was naked, with just a shred of charred clothing clinging to the carbonized flesh. Its black, burnt hands were raised to the sky, like the claws of a dead crow, and its splayed legs were drawn up to its crushed chest. The rain had collected in the hollow eye sockets, making two little pools of water that reflected the sky and clouds.
The old man backed away, one foot at a time, like a cat. Then he stopped. He remained rooted to the spot, staring and wondering, for a long time. And then—slowly, and without turning his back on the blackened corpse—he turned his attention to the trove of valuable equipment that lay scattered about.
New York City,
May 20, 2:00 P.M.
THE SALE room at Christie's was a simple space, framed in blond wood and lit by a rectangle of lights suspended from the ceiling. Although the hardwood floor had been laid in a beautiful herringbone pattern, almost none of it was visible beneath the countless rows of chairs—all filled—and the feet of the reporters, latecomers, and spectators who crowded the rear of the room.
As the chairman of Christie's mounted the center podium, the room fell silent. The long, cream-colored screen behind him, which in a normal auction might be hung with paintings or prints, was vacant.
The chairman rapped on the podium with his gavel, looked around, then drew a card from his suit and consulted it. He placed the card carefully at one side of the podium and looked up again.
"I imagine," he said, the plummy English vowels resonating under the slight amplification, "that a few of you may already be aware of what we're offering today."
Decorous amusement rippled through the assembly.
"I regret that we could not bring it to the stage for you to see. It was a trifle large."
Another laugh floated through the audience. The chairman was clearly relishing the importance of what was about to happen.
"But I have brought a small piece of it—a token, so to speak—as assurance you will be bidding on the genuine article." With that he nodded, and a slender young man with the bearing of a gazelle walked out onstage, holding a small velvet box in both arms. The man unlatched it, opened the lid, and turned in a semicircle for the audience to see. A low murmur rose among the crowd, then fell away again.
Inside, a curved brown tooth lay nestled on white satin. It was about seven inches long, with a wickedly serrated inner edge.
The chairman cleared his throat. "The consigner of lot number one, our only lot today, is the Navajo Nation, in a trust arrangement with the government of the United States of America."
He surveyed the audience. "The lot is a fossil. A remarkable fossil." He consulted the card on the podium. "In 1996, a Navajo shepherd named Wilson Atcitty lost some sheep in the Lukachukai mountains along the Arizona–New Mexico border. In attempting to find his sheep, he came across a large bone protruding from a sandstone wall in a remote canyon. Geologists call this layer of sandstone the Hell Creek Formation, and it dates back to the Cretaceous era. Word got back to the Albuquerque Museum of Natural History. Under an agreement with the Navajo Nation, they began excavating the skeleton. As work proceeded they realized they had not one but two entwined skeletons: a Tyrannosaurus rex and a Triceratops. The Tyrannosaurus had its jaws fastened about the Triceratops' neck, just beneath its crest, virtually decapitating the creature with a savage bite. The Triceratops, for his part, had thrust his central horn deep into the chest of the Tyrannosaurus. Both animals died together, locked in a terrible embrace."
He cleared his throat. "I can't wait for the movie."
There was another round of laughter.
"The battle was so violent that beneath the Triceratops, paleontologists found five teeth from the Tyrannosaurus that had apparently broken off during the heat of the fight. This is one of them." He nodded to the assistant, who closed the box.
"A block of stone containing the two dinosaurs, weighing some three hundred tons, was removed from the mountainside and stabilized at the Albuquerque Museum. It was then taken to the New York Museum of Natural History for further preparation. The two skeletons are still partly embedded in the sandstone matrix."
He glanced at his card again.
"According to scientists consulted by Christie's, these are the two most perfect dinosaur skeletons ever found. They are of incalculable value to science. The chief paleontologist at the New York Museum has called it the greatest fossil discovery in history."
He carefully replaced the card and picked up the gavel. As if on signal, three bid spotters moved wraithlike onto the stage, waiting at quiet attention. Employees at the telephone stations stood motionless, phones in hand, lines open.
"We have an estimate on this lot of twelve million dollars, and an opening price of five million." The chairman tapped his gavel.
There was a faint smattering of calls, nods, and genteelly raised paddles.
"I have five million. Six million. Thank you, I have seven million." The spotters craned their necks, catching the bids, relaying them to the chairman. The sotto voce hubbub in the hall gradually increased.
"I have eight million."
A scattering of applause erupted as the record price for a dinosaur fossil was broken.
"Ten million. Eleven million. Twelve. Thank you, I have thirteen. I have fourteen. Fifteen."
The show of paddles had dwindled considerably, but several telephone bidders were still active, along with half a dozen in the audience. The dollar display to the chairman's right rose rapidly, with the English and Euro equivalents beneath following in lockstep.
"Eighteen million. I have eighteen million. Nineteen."
The murmuring became a groundswell and the chairman gave a cautionary rap with his gavel. The bidding continued, quietly but furiously. "Twenty-five million. I have twenty-six. Twenty-seven to the gentleman on the right."
The murmuring rose once again, and this time the chairman did not quell it.
"I have thirty-two million. Thirty-two and a half on the phone. Thirty-three. Thank you, I have thirty-three and a half. Thirty-four to the lady in the front."
An electricity was building in the sale room: the price was mounting far higher than even the wildest predictions.
"Thirty-five on the phone. Thirty-five and a half to the lady. Thirty-six."
Then there was a small stir in the crowd; a rustle, a shifting of attention. A number of eyes turned toward the door leading out into the main gallery. Standing on the crescent-moon steps was a remarkable-looking man of about sixty, a massive, even overwhelming presence. He had a shaved head and a dark Vandyke beard. A Valentino suit of dark blue silk was draped over his imposing frame, shimmering slightly in the light when he moved. A Turnbull & Asser shirt, uncompromisingly white, lay open at the neck. Over it was a string tie, held in place by a fist-size piece of amber, containing the only Archaeopteryx feather ever found.
"Thirty-six million," the chairman repeated. But his eyes, like everyone else's, had strayed toward the new arrival.
The man stood on the steps, his blue eyes sparkling with vitality and some private amusement. He slowly raised his paddle. A hush fell. On the remote chance anybody in the crowd had not recognized the man, the paddle was a giveaway: it was numbered 001, the only number Christie's had ever allowed to be given permanently to a client.
The chairman looked at him, expectantly.
"One hundred," the man said at last, softly but precisely.
The hush deepened. "I beg your pardon?" The chairman's voice was dry.
"One hundred million dollars," the man said. His teeth were very large, very straight, and very white.
Again the silence was absolute.
"I have a bid of one hundred million," said the chairman, a little shakily.
Time seemed to have been suspended. A telephone rang somewhere in the building, at the edge of audibility, and the sound of a car horn filtered up from the avenue.
Then the spell was broken with a smart rap of the gavel. "Lot number one, for one hundred million dollars, sold to Palmer Lloyd!"
The room erupted. In a flash everyone was on their feet. There was exuberant clapping, cheers, a call of "bravo" as if a great tenor had just concluded the performance of his career. Others were not as pleased, and the cheering and clapping was interlaced with hisses of disapproval, catcalls, low boos. Christie's had never witnessed a crowd so close to hysteria: all the participants, pro and con, were well aware that history had just been made. But the man who had caused it all was gone, out through the main gallery, down the green carpet past the cashier—and the multitude found themselves addressing an empty doorway.
June 1, 6:45 P.M.
SAM MCFARLANE sat cross-legged in the dust. The evening fire, built of twigs on bare ground, cast a trembling net of shadows over the thorn scrub surrounding the camp. The nearest settlement lay one hundred miles behind his back.
He looked around at the wizened figures squatting on their heels around the fire, naked except for dusty breechclouts, their alert eyes gleaming. San Bushmen. It took a long time to gain their trust, but once gained, it was unshakable. Very different, McFarlane thought, from back home.
In front of each San lay a battered secondhand metal detector. The San remained immobile as McFarlane rose to his feet. He spoke slowly, awkwardly, in their strange click language. At first there were some snickers as he struggled with the words, but McFarlane had a natural affinity for languages, and as he continued the men fell back into respectful silence.
At the conclusion of his speech, McFarlane smoothed out a patch of sand. Using a stick, he began to draw a map. The San squatted on their heels, craning their necks to look at the drawing. Slowly the map took shape, and the San nodded their understanding as McFarlane pointed out the various landmarks. It was the Makgadikgadi Pans that lay north of the camp: a thousand square miles of dry lakebeds, sand hills, and alkali flats, desolate and uninhabited. In the deep interior of the Pans, he drew a small circle with his stick. Then he stabbed the stick in the center of the circle and looked up with a broad smile.
There was a moment of silence, punctuated by the lonely sound of a ruoru bird calling across the distant flats. The San began talking among themselves in low voices, the clicks and clucks of their language like the rattling of pebbles in a stream. A gnarled old figure, the headman of the band, pointed at the map. McFarlane leaned forward, straining to understand the rapid speech. Yes, they knew the area, the old man said. He began to describe trails, known only to the San, that crossed the remote area. With a twig and some pebbles, the headman began marking where the seeps were, where the game was, where edible roots and plants could be found. McFarlane waited patiently.
At last, quiet again settled on the group. The headman spoke to McFarlane, more slowly this time. Yes, they were willing to do what the white man wanted. But they were afraid of the white man's machines, and they also did not understand this thing the white man was looking for.
McFarlane rose again, pulled the stick out of the map. Then he took a small, dark lump of iron from his pocket, no bigger than a marble, and placed it in the hole left by the stick. He pushed it down and concealed it with sand. Then he stood, picked up his metal detector, and snapped it on. There was a brief, high-pitched whine. Everyone watched in nervous silence. He took two steps away from the map, turned, and began walking forward, making low sweeps over the ground with the detector. As it swept over the buried lump of iron, there was a squawk. The San jumped backward in alarm and there was a burst of rapid talk.
McFarlane smiled, spoke a few words, and the San crept back into their seating places. He turned off the metal detector and held it toward the headman, who took it reluctantly. McFarlane showed him how to turn it on, and then guided him, in sweeping motions, over the circle. A second squawk sounded. The headman flinched but then smiled. He tried it again, and again, his smile growing broader, his face breaking into a mass of wrinkles. "Sun'a ai, Ma!gad'i!gadi !iaad'mi," he said, gesturing to his band.
With McFarlane's patient help, each San Bushman in turn picked up a machine and tested it on the hidden iron nugget. Slowly, the apprehension was replaced by laughter and speculative discussion. Eventually McFarlane raised his hands, and all sat down again, each with his machine in his lap. They were ready to begin the search.
McFarlane took a leather bag from his pocket, opened it, inverted it. A dozen gold Krugerrands fell into his outstretched palm. The ruoru bird began its mournful call again as the last light died from the sky. Slowly and with ceremony, he gave a gold coin to each man in turn. They took them reverently, with paired hands, bowing their heads.
The headman spoke again to McFarlane. Tomorrow, they would move camp and begin the journey into the heart of the Makgadikgadi Pans with the white man's machines. They would look for this big thing the white man wanted. When they found it, they would return. They would tell the white man where it was …
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- Nov 1, 2005
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