The Intrepid Explorer

By Michael Drakich

 

William Lassell, as always, was watching. Whatever would occur would happen, soon.

***

Bartholomew could see the faint light. He knew he was close. He needed to intensify his digging. The cold felt so intense. He didn’t know if his strength would last. And damn it! Why was it so cold?

“Bartholomew Higginbottom, you are a fool.”

Bartholomew pondered the remark from his close friend. Was he merely being exaggerative in playful banter or was he serious? “Winston, my friend, suffice it to say, I have never been clearer in thought.”

“Nevertheless, you risk much in this venture of yours. Yes, I know you are the great adventurer. You have traveled the world, taken all the dares, and conquered all the challenges. But this time you go too far.”

He knew that. But when he discovered a great open space lay beneath the ice field, the trailblazer in him had to see. A miner had run bore tests on the glacier to see what lay beneath and, lo and behold, discovered there was…nothing! “Winston, you are not the risk taker I am, that is for sure. But you cannot deny the proof a vast, unexplored area lies beneath the ice. The reports state the miner bored no less than twenty holes over a large area and came up with the same result every time.”

“Yes, you have shown me that report many times. What more have you to prove though? You have braved all the dangers this world has to offer, from jungles to volcanoes, explored the deepest waters and captured the wildest of creatures. You have become…extraordinary. Yours is a household name. Bartholomew Higginbottom, the intrepid explorer, that’s what they call you.”

He allowed a small smile to cross his lips in satisfaction of the title but held himself in check enough not to seem smug. “People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things. In my life, yes, I have always pursued challenges, rare and new. But think, Winston, where would we be if no one dared, no one reached out. We would be like the other animals of the world, scared and hiding.

“You know I never go anywhere unprepared. I have the money. I have access to the equipment. I intend to go where no one has gone before and discover this new land for my own. Who knows what I’ll find there. And just to be sure I have all things covered; I’m bringing you with me as a wet nurse to guarantee I don’t get into any trouble.”

Bartholomew was down to his last excavator. The other machines were either broken or would no longer operate in the intense cold. As such, he narrowed his area of operation so more speed could be applied to the depth than the width of his excavation. As he looked out from the cabin in the machine, solid walls of deep white ice surrounded him. The material was very hard, almost like rock. He broke more than one set of cutters in the process of trying to cut through. 

The miner picked a spot much lower than the surrounding area. Vast ridges of the sleek white material stretched throughout the landscape, mountains of solid ice miles high. White crystals drifted by, limiting one’s vision, but the enormity of what lay before them was not lost on the group that comprised his company. Spread out across the plain, one could see the tops of the twenty-plus bore test holes. Metal pipes stuck out of the ice in a haphazard pattern. The pipes were all filled now, making their removal all but impossible.

Bartholomew had brought with him a crack team, experts at what they did and hardy in their bodies and mind. Some of them had been with him on previous adventures, such as Winston, who came as a friend and for moral support. As much as he complained, he appeared exhilarated by this quest as well. They struck a base camp, pegging down their tents, and plotted the dig site. They wanted to clear a large area so the machines could move easily in and out. It would take longer this way but the final result would be a road to this new land, not a hole. When they were through, he wanted to bring anyone and everyone to witness what he accomplished. This would be the greatest conquest of his illustrious career. He could feel it. Yes, his name was already well known, but with this victory, it would last through the ages. He would become immortal.

Bartholomew stopped to eat something. He needed to keep up his strength. Pausing in his chewing, he gazed around at the ice. A soft glow emanated from his excavation. There must be light on the other side. The walls glinted from the glow. The ice at that level had the appearance of being so hard it gave the crystalline image of quartz. Its luster appeared as a wondrous sight. Too bad he was alone and had no one to share it with.

The work began in earnest. The excavators gnawed at the site in large chunks. The ice was hauled away and progress clearly visible. The crew chatted amongst themselves of what waited on the other side. Many dreamed the work would bring them great wealth, and for what he paid them, they weren’t far off. When they were about a quarter of the way in, problems began. The ice at that level proved much harder than on the surface. Equipment began to break against the harder material and delays for repairs slowed progress. 

***

Lassell became aware of something amiss. He could sense the ice thinning at one spot. It intrigued him. This was obviously something warranting further attention. His humdrum existence suddenly changed.

 

***

His meal finished, Bartholomew became sleepy. For the last little while he took to sleeping in the excavator, the base camp being deserted and a long way up. In his last visit to the camp he packed up what stores he could and brought them down into the hole. He knew his rest would be a short one. Sleep served only as a momentary reprieve now. Soon he would get back up and start digging again. He took one last look at the ice walls around him and then nodded off.

When they were about halfway, a terrible storm swept through the area, catching everyone by surprise. Two members of his crew were sorely injured. A large iceberg cascaded into the base camp from the neighboring ridge, obliterating much. Bartholomew himself almost got caught but swam free of the snow and ice. He sent the injured men home, but he and most of the others stayed to continue the work. A fair amount of the loose ice drifted into the excavation area and needed to be cleared. Another delay. Fame and fortune weren’t without their risks. But what started as a happy mood in the camp now changed to one of gloom. Talk began of this all being a waste of time, and no good would come of it. Progress slowed the deeper they went, and machines kept breaking down, not just from the ice, but from the cold as well. Soon he would need to send for more parts or go without some equipment. He suffered a momentary doubt as to whether they would finish at all. No, best not to let those types of thoughts enter his mind. He was going to succeed and that was it. 

***

Lassell sensed movement on the other side of the ice, and vibrations. All other things meant little to Lassell now. He needed to stay and focus on this new anomaly.  

***

Bartholomew woke with a start, looking at the time. He surprised himself with the realization he actually got a fair amount of rest. Getting back to work, he glanced once more at the ice. A chill went through him. He had lost too much of his body heat while he slept. The ice walls were closer than he remembered.

When the second machine broke down, he had more men than equipment. At breakfast his crew wanted to leave, come back with fresh equipment and more men. Bartholomew remained stubborn. At the end, the crew packed up and headed home while he and Winston and his foreman stayed. The trio worked in synchronism with the remaining machines and things, albeit slowly, moved along. Operating the rig, he felt a new sense of purpose as work progressed. It wouldn’t be much longer until they broke through. The bore readings indicated they were better than three quarters of the way there. Confidence filled him. No challenge had bested him before, and this one wouldn’t either. With his good friend by his side, there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish. 

***

They were close now. Lassell could sense it. If ever Lassell wondered as to his destiny, somehow, he knew this to be the answer. 

***

The excavator gave one last shudder and then shut down for the final time. Bartholomew stared at the controls, hoping it would do something, anything. He crawled out of the machine and retrieved an axe from the kit. The glow from the other side of the ice appeared stronger than ever. He wasn’t quitting now. Putting his back to it, he began the arduous task of hand-cutting his way through.

The following morning, when Winston did not rise on time, Bartholomew went to check on his good friend. “What’s the matter, old man? Weather got you down?”

Winston struggled to rise. The lines about his face were deep and his color pale, his complexion waxy. “Bartholomew, I don’t think I can carry on. I have never felt so weak. It is as if the very life is being sapped from me.”

Bartholomew stopped to ponder his friend’s predicament. If they stopped work now, they would need to wait another year before they could return. He cared for his friend, but he could not let this challenge go unbeaten. “Rest here then. The foreman and I will work alone for a while. Should your strength return, come join us.”

Bartholomew knew himself to be a large strong man. The physical task of hand-cutting through the ice energized him. Hunks of ice blasted away with each stroke. For the moment, the horrors of this escapade were forgotten as he bent to the task. Beside and behind him, the walls of ice continued to close in.

Then tragedy struck again. A large block broke away from the side wall and caught the foreman squarely. Trapped between the block and the ground, he had no chance. He died instantly.

It took time to free his body from the ice. Bartholomew and Winston packed the man into the only remaining transport. Winston, normally a man of many words, could only shake his head forlornly. Bartholomew could tell Winston was failing in his mental state and he worried over his friend. They called it a night with plans for Winston to head home the next day.

In the morning, he went to rouse his friend. To his astonishment, Winston had died while sleeping. Though neither injured nor ill, because of his mindset, his body just gave up. It shook Bartholomew to the core. For the first time he considered leaving everything and going home. He emptied a large crate to use as a makeshift coffin. Loading it next to the crewman, he made ready to leave. But something inside him held him back. He wasn’t going to be beaten by this. No! He was going to finish this dig, even if it cost him everything.

He stopped to scrawl a note and put it with the body of his friend.

“Great God, this is an awful place and terrible enough to it without the reward of priority. We took risks; we knew we took them.”

He paused and realized if someone else were to read this, it would mean he also had not survived.

“Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companion which would have stirred the heart of every man. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale. I shall stick it out to the end, but I am getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God’s sake, look after my people.”

Bartholomew returned to the dig. 

***

The progress behind the ice had slowed considerably. For the first time, Lassell doubted whether the event would happen. He could only stay and wait, wait and hope. 

***

Being outside in the elements, instead of in the excavator, the weather began to gnaw severely at Bartholomew. Damn, it was cold. He came prepared with the best gear, but it seemed no match to the intensity of this frigidity, here in the ice. He wasn’t going to let the temperature beat him. Retreating to the base camp one last time, he retrieved a pressurized suit especially prepared for him. He’d used it once when visiting a volcano. It limited his movement, but had protected him from the blast of the volcanic temperature emanations. If it could stop the heat, then it could stop the cold. “All right, ice. I’m ready for you now.”

He descended and faced his task once again. “You will not stop me, I’m coming through!” With all his strength, he gave the axe a powerful swing and the thunder erupting from the crack that formed startled him to tumble backward. With renewed energy he attacked the fissure and an opening appeared in the ice. In moments he cleared enough to squeeze through. Grasping firmly, he pulled himself through.

In an instant, the world turned upside down. He found himself kneeling on an immeasurable plain of ice. When he looked up, he saw countless twinkling lights and an immense multi-color-swirled globe illuminating the sky above him. Though so large, it also appeared so very far away. How could this be? It was then he became aware of nothing around him. His pressurized suit was self-contained but even it could not protect him against the incredible cold assailing him. He tried to move but couldn’t. His limbs failed to cooperate. He tumbled to the ground, landing on his back to stare at the endless sky. It looked so vast. How could it be so? None of this made any sense.

It was incredibly frightening.

It was incredibly beautiful.

As Bartholomew Higginbottom lay there, the hole beside him quickly froze over.

***

When the crew returned with new equipment, they discovered the excavation site mostly filled in with new ice. They recovered the body of Winston and the crewman, but Bartholomew Higginbottom was nowhere to be found. There seemed to be nothing to do but go back home. All had proved to be for nothing.

***

William Lassell completed his watching. At the very beginning, he’d thought an undersea volcano was trying to breach the ice, but the size made that unlikely. Lassell focused all his abilities on trying to discern what was going on. In the end, the actual breach was so small he almost missed it. Focusing intently, Lassell noted the final events and recorded them.

Lassell approached the breach point and set down next to the still form lying on the ice. Ever so gently, he picked up the spent body of the intrepid explorer. If ever a death was so precious, to William Lassell, this one was beyond measure.

Lassell carried the body up and away. A certain euphoria overcame him. If a machine could feel happy about oneself, the Jupiter moon explorer William Lassell would have smiled. There was life on Europa.

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4 comments

  1. There is a real touch of class in this story. I think that’s what I see in it (there certainly is something). Maybe it’s the characters or subject, but it all comes together in a very interesting read. Thanks for posting it here!

  2. What a fun story. I loved the characters and that ending…fantastic! Hopefully we see more of your work here in the future.

  3. Thanks, everyone. For me, I think the defining note was my use of famous quotes throughout by such luminaries as Sir Edmund Hillary and Robert Falcon Scott. They gave the dialogue the proper tone.

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