Read an Excerpt
The Far Arena
By Richard Ben Sapir
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Richard Ben Sapir
All rights reserved.
Lucius Aurelius Eugenianus,
son of Gnaeus, Roman,
and Phaedra, Greek;
adopted son of the great Lucius
husband of Miriamne, freed Hebrew;
father of Petronius, Roman;
offender of the gods of Rome;
and, therefore, enemy of the
Senate and People of Rome,
did not feel the core bit of the Houghton rig neatly take a piece of his gracilis muscle from the right thigh, 8.2 meters beneath the glacial ice north of the Queen Victoria Sea.
The body was quiet as an unborn thought in a dark universe, stopped on the bare side of life, stilled on its way to death by the cold. Even the hair did not grow, nor did the enzymes and acids eat away at the cells. More still than death it was, stone perfect still.
The retinas of the eyes were solid. The ligaments were solid. The blood that had stopped suddenly in the veins and arteries could be chipped with a knife. Each hard corpuscle was where it had been when the body rolled nude, bouncing along ice, as stiff as wicker, into what was then called the German Sea, far south and centuries before.
At that time, being lighter than water, it floated north and joined with other ice, and, being lighter than ice, it moved within the ice northward, an inch, sometimes a foot a year, sometimes many feet. While some ice broke off and moved south or east to warmer places only to become water again, then mist, then rain, and sometimes ice again, this form remained in its unbroken water and moved north.
No part touched oxygen until the core bit, on its way toward a deeper part of the earth, went through a small piece of thigh and brought it up through a barrel core to a dark, chill night at the top of the world.
It was the long night of winter, and the men who worked here covered their faces and hands with layers of leather and fur and nylon and all the insulation that living skin needed not to freeze into pale death. Timers, worn under the layers of arctic shields, buzzed when the men had been out more than their allotted number of work hours.
Three white domes, technological wombs in a frigid world, supported the life serving the drilling rig. Exterior tunnels, like rigid veins, stretched from the domes to the rig and between each other.
There were no roads up here, and the nearest warm life was an air base two hours away by snow machine.
Up from the ice came core samples, perfectly round pieces of ice. Arctic mittens guided the core tube coming up from this outer layer of the world, this external skin at the earth's cold top, and at one-meter intervals sawed off a section. Then the mittens cradled each section and carried it through a tunnel that felt warm, even though it was below freezing, because it merely protected against the sharp wind. The derrick man brought the sample into the laboratory dome and laid it in a rack above a long white sink.
He took off his arctic mask and felt the mouth part crack in his mittens. His breath had frozen to ice.
The rockhound, the geologist for exploration, sat on a high chair over the sink. He was a big man and wore checkered long johns under a bright red shirt and worn blue jeans. He signaled for the derrick man to push the sample down from the holding rack to the sink.
The derrick man wanted to talk. Dr. Lewellyn McCardle did not want to talk back. But if the man took off his mask, it meant he was going to stay. He would find something to start a conversation, which might begin with the weather or the new equipment or the food, but it would end up with how badly the superintendent in charge of the crew was doing things and whose side was the rockhound on.
McCardle, a big man of much flesh and bone and muscle, had to take the extra care that large hands needed with precision instruments. He shaved off an end of the core sample.
"Ice, huh?" said the derrick man.
"Yes," said McCardle.
"You check everything, don't you?"
"Yes," said McCardle.
His round face was red, and the tufts of remaining hair mingled strawberry blond with white, and it would have been a very cute face if he were not six foot three inches tall and closer to three hundred pounds than two hundred. He was bigger than most men of the small crew, even the roughnecks and roustabouts who were known for their size. He sometimes suffered a locked knee from an old football injury. He had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, but the men always called him Lew.
He felt the rotary drill, which had restarted, send its vibrations up through the floor, a new synthetic compound which a vice-president of Houghton, back in Houston, Texas, promised would use air as insulation so effectively, everyone could "walk around in his bare feet up there, and never need anything more than slippers inside at most."
Lew hadn't even bothered to pack slippers and wore boots indoors. Those who had brought slippers, like the young superintendent, kept them in their duffles. The superintendent had told Lew McCardle that to pack slippers showed faith in Houghton, in Houghton engineering, in Houghton management, in Houghton integrity.
Lew McCardle had worked for Houghton for twenty-five years. He was going to retire after this last exploration. He had faith that his employer would pay his retirement. He had twenty-five years of faith. He also knew cold-weather explorations. He didn't pack slippers. He had more faith in the ice than in the new Thermal-Floor-Pack.
He brought two books instead. His size helped with that. Oil men did not particularly like people who read books, nor did they trust them. Somehow Lew's size, and his origins in a backwater Texas town, compensated for his reading. He even read poetry. This they overlooked because, while he was "funny," he was also nice.
The derrick man finally found something to talk about. It was good enough to unzip his arctic jacket.
"Lew," he said, "what's that?" He pointed to a pale discoloration in the tube of ice, like a whitish banana skin, smaller than a jagged fifty-cent piece. Lew swung an overhead fluorescent bulb circled in a jeweler's magnifying lens over the discoloration. It always happened in these cold-weather domes that you began to even smell your own body. It was like living in a sock.
"Are you staying or going?" he said to the derrick man, without looking up. "If you stay, take off that outer layer before you start sweating up. Your body has got to breathe. Or go now."
The piece had streaks of pink. Lew put his left forefinger and thumb around the discoloration. He could see the ridges in his fingers under the lighted magnifying glass. He pressed the finger ridges against the discoloration. It gave, but there was no crunch of crystals cracking.
McCardle suddenly looked at his hands. Then back at the discoloration.
"You cut yourself?" he asked.
"No," said the derrick man.
"You can cut yourself and not feel it," he said.
"No. I'd feel it. I'm warm. I'm all right."
"OK," said Lew. "Then nothing. Thanks. Good-bye."
The derrick man peeled off his outer coat down to a light windbreaker covering a layer of sweaters. He scraped the melting ice from his arctic mask.
"What's the nothing?"
"Nothing is nothing," said McCardle.
"C'mon, Lew. Shoot. Yer not gonna be like the jerk running this. C'mon. What is it?"
"It is a piece of flesh."
"Yeah?" said the derrick man, amazed. He bent over the sample in the sink. The choppy surface was now glistening smooth along the tube, water reflecting the ice. It was melting. The derrick man bent low over the discoloration. He sniffed.
"It smells funny," he said.
"That's you," said Lew.
"Maybe," said the derrick man. "What kind of flesh?"
"I would say human."
"There's a person down there?"
"No. That's eight point two meters."
"Where does human flesh come from but a body?"
"Maybe it's a piece of an arm."
"Do you think we're on top of a graveyard?"
"No," said Lew. "It's ice for a good way down. We've got ice for some time. I don't know of any peoples who bury in ice."
"Then what's a body doing down there?"
"I don't know. And please don't be making the crew more nervous than they have to be. We've got enough to deal with with the cold."
"Sure, Lew, but what would a person be doing this far up? Do you think there are other oilmen?"
"That ice we're going through is very old, thousands of years. I don't know how old. But more than several centuries. We've been using fossil fuels for only a single century."
"What about the Europeans?"
"By we, I mean man. Mankind. This happens sometimes near the surface. It won't do anyone any good if you mention this. Please."
"I swear to God, Lew, no one'll know shit from these lips. Like they're sewed closed. Swear to God."
"Thanks," said Lew.
Forty-five minutes later the tool pusher, driller, and second-shift driller were in the lab dome, taking off their outer layers of clothing, asking to see the hand.
"No hand here," said Lew. He was working on the possibility of electric logging the bore hole if there should be a sufficient heat increase at lower depths. It was a possible backup measure to core sampling.
"What we picked up at eight meters," said the tool pusher. "You know what we're talking about, Lew."
McCardle went to the sink. The ice had melted away into a small retainer drain, leaving an odd cookie-thick wedge of glistening material. It looked like gun wadding for an old-fashioned musket. It curled.
"That's it?" said the tool pusher.
"That's all," said Lew.
"Not much," said the tool pusher. "It's from a person?"
"Probably," said Lew. The rotary drill had to be working short crew with all the men in the lab. Perhaps the superintendent was out there. He was young and didn't trust anyone anyway, McCardle knew. He also knew that if the superintendent weren't so new and anxious to succeed beyond expectations, the drilling crew wouldn't be in the dome looking for reasons to help him fail. It happened this way on explorations that were cut off from civilization, as much because of distance as for Houghton's not wanting people to know where they explored, if possible. The superintendent of the crew had to be good and seasoned to prevent the sort of flareup that was coming.
"Are we drilling through bodies nowadays?" said the tool pusher, who three times in Lew's presence had felt forced to tell the crew superintendent how many sites he had worked on and how many came in before the superintendent was born.
"We didn't go through a body. We went alongside. That flesh is not big enough to be through," said Lew.
"It's wounded. Look, pus," said the tool pusher.
"That's not pus."
"What's that pinkish, yellowish straw kind of stuff?"
"Blood's red. I never heard of no blood that weren't red."
"There are things in the blood that make it red," said Lew, and he forgot whom he was talking to, because then he went on. "Red blood cells have to combine with the oxygen in the air to be red. In your body, the blood is pale. But now you take something or someone who's been at low temperatures for a while, the red cells get destroyed and the white cells increase. So what you get is pinkish, and sometimes it could be yellowish. Like straw."
"What about red-blooded? Ah never heard of pink-blooded. Or yellow-blooded Americans?" said the tool pusher, his flat Texas twang ringing like nasty prairie dust in Lew's face, looking for a fight.
"Red and blood are also symbolic. Red's always been a symbolic color. In ancient Rome it was called purple, and today we call it royal purple. Although we aren't sure what they meant by purple. It could be grape purple or blood red. You see, words—"
"Blood's always red," said the pusher.
"When it's got red blood cells. But when red blood cells have been driven out, it is straw-colored."
"Looks like pus," said the tool pusher.
"All right," said Lew. "It's pus."
"How do you know it's blood?" said the tool pusher.
"I've read. I've also seen some work done in low temperatures. In Oslo there's a Russian doctor doing work in thermal reduction. We've used him for emergencies."
"What's thermal reduction?" said the tool pusher.
"Really, now," said Lew.
"You could have said cold," said the tool pusher. "The skin's gray. Was he black, white, yellow?"
"I don't know. I am not sure it's a he. I'm not even sure it's human. Wherever that is, it's been there a long, long time."
The tool pusher accused Lew of being a suck for the superintendent, and Lew only had to stand up from the stool he had perched his backside on and the men put on their outer gear.
They almost bumped into the crew superintendent entering the lab, ripping off his cold-weather mask. They pushed by him moodily. He stared angrily at Lew, veins throbbing in his forehead.
"Where is it?" he demanded. Lew pointed to the sink.
"Well?" said the superintendent.
"That little grayish thing in the yellowish stuff," said McCardle with flat respect.
"That's nothing," yelled the superintendent, a ferret of a man, his temper always near the surface and now bursting out in the lab.
"That's what I said," said McCardle.
"Then why do I hear we've drilled through someone? Why are you telling that to the crew?"
"You're not listening to me," Lew told the superintendent.
"That's a piece of an elk or a whatever down there. That's not human."
"It probably is human flesh," said Lew. His voice was even and he was remembering every word he said. It might be needed if this young man tried to blame Lew for whatever happened, if something happened.
Suddenly there was a cave quiet in the dome. Nothing whirred around them. The silence came like doom-trumpets in a nightmare. The drill had stopped.
"Jesus Christ," said the crew superintendent.
"Your machinery can't afford down time at these temperatures," said Lew.
"My machinery, right? Not ours, huh? I'll remember that, McCardle."
He snapped his mask back on and ran skidding out of the lab dome.
Lew shrugged. He would keep his tongue, because if he could keep his tongue for twenty-five years, he could keep it for one more project that would mean his retirement. Whether they drilled in, striking oil, or whether it was a dry hole, he would collect his pension from Houghton if he couldn't be blamed for trouble.
But it was as inevitable as it was unwanted that he became involved as mediator between the crew and the superintendent. They chose his lab to fight.
"You've got two minutes before that down machinery needs blowtorches to start it again, and that means you may not get it to start again," Lew shouted into noise. They turned to him.
Now they could hear the wind, like a giant sucking maw, reminding them that the machinery had given up its pitiful temporary life in the long, cold night. If nothing else, Lew wanted to hear the grinding drill move so as not to hear the wind.
The superintendent was appointing blame for the stopped machinery when Lew interrupted to announce it was one minute and thirty seconds.
"What would satisfy you?" Lew asked the tool pusher.
"Respect," said the tool pusher, adding, "for the dead."
"We'll say prayers over that elk down there, if that will make you happy," said the superintendent.
"Do you want it dug up?" asked Lew.
"It might be a good idea—find out what we've got down there and do proper things," said the tool pusher.
"Never," said the superintendent.
"All right," said Lew, standing and using his massive body as a calming influence. "I just wanted to find out where everyone stood while the machinery froze and your bonuses went. Just wanted to know."
"All right, on your say-so, we will use a crew and possibly damage the rig to dig up some fossil. But I want you to sign a paper for it," said the superintendent.
His dark eyes twitched, and his head bobbed. He had just taken a vote in his mind and was announcing the election results that Lew should sign a paper taking responsibility.
"No," said Lew. "I am just trying to keep the facts in front of us all." He nodded to the crew, a glum, hostile group, packed together in their arctic wear like a cramped sports warehouse. Lew noticed one man perspiring now. It could be dangerous outside. Sweat became ice.
"I never heard of a crew digging up a fossil. We're looking for oil, not archeology," said the superintendent. He was smaller than the crew, and he glowered as though he had to make up for it. "Go ahead. But I don't want to stand around and watch something this stupid. I'm going back to the rig and I want help now. Whoever wants to dig in the ice, go ahead on your own time."
Excerpted from The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir. Copyright © 1978 Richard Ben Sapir. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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