Max watched the night through the window as the bus ferried them from the support team headquarters, where he'd filled a locker with the clothing and gear he wouldn't need in Antarctica, to IAC--the International Antarctic Center--a distance of less than a mile that always felt longer because it meant leaving civilization and the warm spring air of New Zealand behind for the institutionalized freezer that was Antarctica. For Max, it also meant putting his libido on hold and burrowing deep into the closet for the six months the dive team would be on station at McMurdo. But it was worth the price, because underneath that icy continent lay his beautiful deep blue playground.
At four in the morning, the IAC looked like any other flight terminal until you got inside and found yourself shuffling down a corridor to be outfitted with thirty-five pounds of fashionable orange and black cold-weather gear. Max and the rest of the crew were part of the winter fly-in--WinFly--the first flight to the continent in six months. Most of them were destined for a season on Ross Island at McMurdo Station, while a handful would travel on to the South Pole. Their job would be to prepare the stations for the main season, when scientists would arrive for a few hectic months of research studying the ways the changing climate was shrinking the whole goddamned continent. Right now, the skeletal crews overwintering at McMurdo and the South Pole station were no doubt looking forward to an influx of fresh produce and an opportunity to restock the liquor cabinets. Since Palmer--the other permanent US base--lay north of the Antarctic Circle, in the dark season it hadn't been cut off from New Zealand delights.
About a hundred people milled around the waiting area, chatting and laughing, stuffing extra clothing into their duffels or slumping sleepily in molded plastic chairs. Bones and Smitty sauntered off to try their charms on a clutch of young women. Max dropped his bag and leaned against the wall.
He could feel the thrum of excitement bouncing around the room. First-timers chattered like nervous crows, their eagerness high-pitched and volatile. Returning snowbirds like Max stood alone or in quiet groups emitting bass notes of joy. They were going home.
The plane wouldn't leave for a few more hours. Max was used to waiting. A decade in the military had accustomed him to hurry up and wait. Of course, most of that time he'd been a SEAL, and the hurry-up had been adrenaline-fueled and often bloody. The blood. That was what still haunted him most.
He gazed around the room. There was the usual weird jumble of hippies, jocks, and geeks who'd found their way to the bottom of the world. Max recognized a couple of people from past years, but he was in no hurry to greet them. There'd be time later. Life in Antarctica was all about togetherness.
As Max was wondering where they got cold-weather gear to fit the tall, skinny guy, he turned, and Max recognized the wild mop of hair and long, thin nose. Max's stomach fell. He swore under his breath. The Guy shifted, and when his gaze hit on Max, he paled, his lip curled, and he looked away. At least the feeling was mutual. Maybe they could avoid each other. At McMurdo. For months. Christ.
Eventually the call came, and they all shuffled out to the swish of a couple hundred nylon-clad thighs rubbing together. As many boots clomped across the tarmac, like a line of black-and-orange bugs crawling into the round belly of the Herc--the squat military transport plane that ferried cooks, janitors, computer jockeys, scientists, and divers to the frozen continent. Max climbed the short steps into the beast and snagged a seat against the wall near the front, which gave him a clear view of the door. Almost eight years since he left the SEALs, but the training was drilled into his bones. Always know what's behind you and what's coming next. He strapped himself in and leaned into the elastic webbing that stretched the length of the plane and served as their only seat back.
Max watched the man who could ruin his life duck his head as he passed through the door, look around the plane, and shuffle toward a seat in the back. As usual, despite the fact this was the only flight until October, the plane wasn't anywhere near capacity. Bones and Smitty had scored spots with supply boxes strapped into the seats on either side, and Max watched them settling in for the five-hour flight, thankfully a long way from The Guy. At least the three of them wouldn't be chatting on the way down. Homophobia was a trait that seemed ingrained in every diver. Max needed to have a word with The Guy before he interacted with Max's redneck colleagues.
It was only when the hatch closed and the plane engines roared to life that Max relaxed. He took a long pull from his hip flask and slipped in a pair of earplugs. The woman next to him pulled out an e-book reader. Max took one more glance around the plane, decided he was safe for the moment, closed his eyes, and imagined the clear blue water of the Antarctic Ocean.
The early morning flight was timed to get them to the sea ice runway at noon, during the brief gray daylight. Max woke, feeling a subtle shift in the vibration of the engines. People around him stirred. Even without windows to look out, he could feel the altitude drop in his belly. His ears popped. He braced his legs in preparation for landing and saw the other experienced Antarcticans doing the same. The plane leveled, dropped, leveled, dropped, and hit with a thud. Someone laughed. The woman beside him gasped and clutched her elbow, which must have poked through the orange netting holding them all in place, to bang against the plane wall. Max's teeth clattered as the plane bounced along the icy runway. For a military landing, it wasn't bad, but the civilians didn't look too happy about the bumps.
The plane slowed and stopped. The engines cut. Max removed his earplugs. The pilot announced the local temperature was -30 Fahrenheit, winds only 10 mph. Max shrugged back into his jacket as the door opened onto a balmy August day in Antarctica.
He pulled a balaclava over his mouth and nose, tightened his jacket hood so that only his eyes were exposed, and slipped on his goggles. Around him, his fellow passengers were doing the same. The rustle of clothing sounded loud in the quiet cabin. Max unstrapped himself from the wall, hooked an arm through his duffel, took a deep breath, and launched himself up and out into the cold. He inhaled the frigid air and felt his heart swell as he surveyed the flat white valley rimmed by jagged peaks. God, it was good to be back.
He loped down the steps, and his boots crunched into the snowy runway. His clothing flapped in the wind. The lights of McMurdo Station twinkled in the distance through the gray twilight that defined daytime this time of year. Max watched a giant yellow forklift edge up to the rear of the plane. The whine and clang of the tail door opening echoed through the air, followed by metal tongs clanking against the deck as they slipped under the first giant crate of supplies.
Max took his place beside Bones in an assembly line of passengers passing out the extra bags of foodstuffs and supplies that had been strapped into every available seat. They loaded the supplies into the back of a large red van with huge rubber wheels that always made McMurdo Station vehicles look like the toy trucks Max's brother had thwacked him on the head with back in the day. As they finished, the giant Terra Bus rumbled to a stop. The door opened, and a small figure bundled in red, black, and yellow sprang out.
Bones jabbed Max in the ribs, a move made fairly ineffective by their layers of insulation. "See? Told ya she'd be jonesing for you."
Max rolled his eyes, but he smiled as he stepped forward and swung Annie Shea up into a hug. When he put her down, she nodded toward his fellow travelers, who were filing past them and onto the giant red van. "Can't say I'm glad to have all these people invading. But it's nice to see you, Mac." She'd given him the nickname the first time she saw the initials he'd marked in black ink on his duffel: M.A.C. It wasn't a name he allowed from anyone else.
"Nice to see you too." And he meant it. Annie and that cold blue ocean, that was what kept bringing him back to McMurdo. His best friend and his favorite dream.
He eyed the line. The Guy was talking with a few of the other newbies. Maybe they'd bond and Max wouldn't have to worry about him for a while.
"Well, don't stand around here freezing. Let's go." Annie waved him into the line of people shuffling forward.
When everyone was in, Annie swung up into the bus, closing the door behind her. She faced the group and flipped off her hood. Someone inhaled sharply, the noise level dropped, and Max wondered again what it would feel like to have people react that strongly to the sight of you. After all this time, he barely noticed the scar that puckered the skin and twisted her lip up and eye down, but he doubted Annie ever forgot.
She looked at them without expression, slid into the driver's seat, and with a grind and a lurch, they were off. Annie's voice, devoid of inflection, sounded over the van speakers. "Welcome to McMurdo. If you've been here before, you know the drill. For those of you sampling the bottom of the world for the first time, lunch now, after which you'll be briefed on how we live down here and get a room assignment. Sunset starts in a couple hours. Should be pretty. You might want to check it out."
The heat from their bodies and moisture from their breath crystallized ice on the windows. Through the windshield, Max watched the black crud of McMurdo appear. Lights shone from the cluster of mismatched buildings, lending an unexpected warmth to the general mining-town ambience of the place. Day had come back to Antarctica, and in a few months it would completely replace the night. Excited chatter swelled around him as Antarctic veterans pointed out sights to wide-eyed newcomers.
The Terra Bus ground to a halt. Max waited while everyone disembarked. He watched Bones and Smitty sprint toward building 155, undoubtedly hoping to avoid standing in line for food. The Guy strolled more slowly, apparently engrossed in conversation with a middle-aged man Max recognized as having worked computer support the year before.
The last puffy jacket descended the bus steps, and Max stood. He walked up the aisle to join Annie. "How was your winter?"
"Nice. Quiet. Dark. Can't say I'm looking forward to all the bright lights and people." She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Did you bring me anything?"
He smiled. "It's in my bag."
The side of her face that moved broke into a wide grin. She patted his arm. "That's my boy. Now let's go in before your scummy friends eat everything."
After lunch, the air would fill with the churn of engines, the clank of metal, and the slosh of tires through the volcanic mud, but while everyone ate, the station was quiet. Max and Annie crossed the lot to building 155. Inside, Max inhaled deeply. It smelled of institutional carpet, the wet-dog odor of drying parkas, and ancient cooking smells, a mixture so familiar that he instantly felt at home.
He took in the college dorm-style decor. On a corkboard by the recreational office, colorful posters advertised activities from ceramics to band practice. There was a sign-up sheet recruiting volunteers for the library and flyers notifying the community of the availability of various part-time jobs.
The hallway stretched before him. He could hear the clatter of conversation in the dining room. "What's for lunch?"
Annie snorted. "Hamburgers, veggie burgers, and chili. Same thing we've had for the last week and a half. I hope that plane of yours brought some fruit, eggs, and milk that haven't been dehydrated yet. I'm tired of chili for lunch and oatmeal for breakfast."
"I'm sure it did. The bacon hold out this year?" He waved to a woman he recognized from last year who looked up from a computer terminal. She smiled briefly and returned to her screen. It would be a while before the winter-overs, used to the intimate company of each other, were comfortable with the newcomers. One planeload doubled the station population. Max knew from past experience that there'd be grumbling about lines for food and crowding in the dorms until the new crowd was absorbed into the old. And it would all happen again in another couple of months when the bulk of the researchers arrived, swelling the population from three- to four-digit numbers.
Annie hung her coat on a hook in one of the outerwear alcoves. He hung his beside hers. "This year it was steak. The meal plans got mixed up, and we had steak nearly every night for most of June and not once since then. Dinner tonight is supposed to be beef stroganoff, but I'm betting that's scrapped for steak, sauteed veggies, and fresh fruit. I'm sick of hydroponic cucumbers and tomatoes. I can taste the oranges now."
They climbed the steps to the cafeteria and took their places at the end of the line, which was moving quickly. Max's stomach grumbled, and he realized it had been a long time since he'd eaten. Even McMurdo hamburgers and chili sounded good.
Annie laughed at the giant bowl with which Max approached the Frosty Boy. He grinned at her. "Come on, it's been a long time."
She shook her head. "And do you go out of your way to find soft-serve ice cream up north?"
He shrugged. "Not since I was a kid. But this is Frosty Boy. It's like an icon or something."
She gestured toward the dining room. "Okay, Mr. Icon. Where do you want to sit? If it's with the troglodytes, you can count me out. How you stand those Neanderthals is beyond me."
Max considered. There were several empty tables, and he knew Annie wouldn't mind sitting alone, would probably prefer it, but he thought it sent the wrong signal for the first day. Bones and Smitty's table was full. Even if Annie had wanted to, that wasn't an option.
"What is this, high school?" Annie shook her head and headed right for the only table Max did not want to sit at, the one with two open chairs, a middle-aged computer geek Max knew from the year before, a young man he hadn't met, and The Guy.
They passed a table of people Max recognized as part of the winter staff. One of the men whistled and called out good-naturedly, "Well, look who's back. Little Annie's gonna be a happy girl tonight."
"Shut up, you moron." She swiped at him with her napkin.
Max glanced at The Guy, who was watching him, his mouth puckered as if he found his lunch revolting. Annie slid into her seat, and Max found himself sitting across from The Guy.
It was always instructive to watch new people with Annie. Most people looked away or held their faces rigid and smiled unconvincingly. That was certainly the case for the kid, Henrick Krause, a big blond whose eyes skittered across her face as he mumbled hello.
The Guy, who introduced himself as Andre Dubois, greeted her with genuine warmth. His gaze didn't turn cold until it found Max.
"We've met." His tone chilled Max more than his Frosty Boy. "Although I expect Mr. Conway would not remember."
The table seemed to wait for more, but neither of them said anything, and the conversation moved on. Max's head started to hurt.
Annie turned to Andre. "So where are you from?"
Andre's eyes warmed again as he turned to her. "That's a complicated question for me to answer. I was born and grew up in Paris, my father moved us to Switzerland when I was in secondary school, I went to university in the States, completed a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute in Bremen, and now I'm at UC Davis in California."
She nodded. "We get a lot of that. It's the travelers that fall off the globe and end up here."
Andre smiled at her. "Where do you come from?"
"Nowhere special. The States." Annie's face closed up.
He leaned back, as if allowing her some distance, and turned toward Henrick. "It's the same with you, eh? Only one nationality?"
Henrick's smile was haughty even as he licked a dollop of mustard from his thumb. "As your President Kennedy said, 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'"
Annie's chair scraped against the linoleum as she stood. "There's a difference between us, Henrick. I don't belong anywhere but here."