The thick layers of ice groaned and let out a deafening crack. Professor Kate Landry jumped, unnerved by the sounds, each one more ominous than the one before. The blue light filtering through the frozen walls gave everything an eerie, otherworldly hue, adding to her unease.
Kate feared this would be her last opportunity to collect data in the tunnel, chiseled deep inside a living, flowing glacier. She and Frank, her PhD student, hurried to collect ice samples into sterile plastic containers to salvage what they could before retreating outside.
A week earlier, she had stared in horror at the telltale signs of the tunnel’s fate—fissures in the roof and droplets of meltwater forming puddles on the floor, where small streams joined to drain from the tunnel. Particles of dirt pockmarked the once-solid ice at the entrance. How much time did they have left? Months? Days? Maybe hours? How long before the huge slab overlying the tunnel sloughed off or the roof collapsed, sealing the opening forever?
The samples they collected were worth the risk—the pollen and spores in the layers of ice confirmed that climate change was increasing at an alarming rate. Nature’s clock was ticking—faster and faster. Before entering the tunnel that day, she had measured a record high air temperature for the second time in a week.
“Let’s wrap this up and get out of here while we can.” She approached Frank working at the end of the tunnel. The muffled sound of her voice made her feel claustrophobic, but she willed herself to stay calm.
As he swung his hammer at the chisel, Frank stopped in midair. “Hold on, Kate. Take a look at this.” He aimed his headlamp into the cloudy ice in the wall in front of him.
“Got another layer?” She stood on her toes, straining to peer over his shoulder.
“Here.” He ran his insulated glove over the blue ice.
“What the hell?” She squeezed in next to him to get a closer look, their parkas making it nearly impossible to stand side by side.
“What do you think it is?”
The powerful light of their combined headlamps penetrated the thick ice, revealing a large, shadowy mass—something she’d never encountered in her eight years of glaciology work.
Kate shook her head, making the beam of her headlamp dance across the ice. “How did we miss this?” She and her students had been through this tunnel inch by inch every year for five summers. “The melting ice must have exposed it.” She trained her handheld flashlight at the dark mass from a different angle. “I’d say it’s some kind of body.”
Her pulse quickened. The image of a brown skeletal mummy flashed in her mind—the Ötzi Iceman that had melted from a glacier in the Alps. What if they’d found their own iceman? That would surely get people to notice their thawing glacier.
“Maybe a bear?”
Frank’s question brought her back to considering more plausible ideas. Built like a linebacker, yet amazingly agile, Frank had led the junior members of the research crew for the past two summers. Over that time, he and Kate had come across the frozen remains of pica, marmot, and ptarmigan—the usual high-alpine wildlife of the Pacific Northwest. This thing in the ice appeared a lot bigger than any of those.
“Can’t we radio Tom to postpone our flight this afternoon?” he asked. “If we stayed another day or two, I bet we could chip away enough ice to see what this is.”
She hesitated, staring at the mysterious object. Should they take the chance? “We might be able to catch him if we—”
A series of loud, sharp cracks echoed through the tunnel, sending a tremor through her boots and up her legs. “Oh my God.” The air closed in around her, thick and heavy.
Frank let out a long, low whistle. “Damn.”
“Okay, that’s it.” She stepped away from him. “This place isn’t safe. We need to leave. Now. Maybe we can check it out next June—if the tunnel’s still here. And it could be after this winter’s freeze.”
He glanced at the entrance. “You’re right. It’s getting too dicey in here.”
Kate hated making a last-minute discovery. It reminded her of Professor Howard, who would end his last lecture of the school year with a question he refused to answer until the fall. The dangling mystery of the shadow in the ice would haunt her for the next nine months. “This tunnel could cave any minute. And I don’t want us to get stranded either. Remember the blizzard last September?”
“Sure do. Came out of nowhere.”
“We should keep quiet about what we’ve found until we identify what it is. Let’s not fuel curiosity at the university, and that includes the students who’ve already left.” She touched his arm. “Are you okay with that?”
He nodded. “Not a word.”
“Thanks for your support.” Kate moved her flashlight in small increments over the dark object buried in the ice—the ice that had been the focus of her life, her research, her second home, for almost a decade.
She always dreamed of making a discovery on the glacier that would capture the world’s attention. But now all she wanted to do was run to safety. “C’mon, Frank. Let’s get the hell out of here.”