by Brenda W. Clough
Ah Love! Could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits – and then
Remold it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!
From the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,
translated by Edward Fitzgerald, 1879.
Friday, March 16, or Saturday, 17 . Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all down the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping bag. That we could not do, and we induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come.
Should this be found I want these facts recorded… We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not — would not — give up hope till the very end … He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning — yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since … We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far.
From Scott’s Last Expedition
by Robert Falcon Scott, 1913.
It’s said that death from exposure is like slipping into warm sleep. Briefly, Titus Oates wondered what totty-headed thick had first told that whisker. He no longer remembered what warmth was. He had endured too many futile hopes and broken dreams to look for an easy end now. Every step was like treading on razors, calling for a grim effort of will. Nevertheless without hesitating he hobbled on into the teeth of the Antarctic storm. He did not look back. He knew the Polar Expedition’s tent was already invisible behind him.
Finer than sand, the wind-driven snow scoured over his clenched eyelids, clogging nose and mouth. The cold drove ferocious spikes deep into his temples and gnawed at the raw frostbite wounds on brow and nose and lip. Surely it was folly to continue to huddle into his threadbare windproof. What if he flung all resistance aside, and surrendered himself to the wailing blizzard? Suddenly he yearned to dance, free of the weighty mitts and clothing. To embrace death and waltz away!
He had left his finnesko behind. Gangrene had swollen his frozen feet to the size of melons, the ominous black streaks stealing up past the ankles to his knees. Yesterday it had taken hours to coax the fur boots on. Today he had not bothered. Now his woolen sock caught on something. Excruciating pain jolted his frozen foot, suppurating from the stinking black wounds where the toes used to be. Too weak to help himself, he stumbled forward. His crippled hands, bundled in their dogskin mitts, groped to break his fall. They touched nothing. He seemed to fall and fall, a slow endless drop into blank whiteness.
And it was true! A delicious warmth lapped him round like a blanket. Tears of relief and joy crept down his starveling cheeks and burnt in the frost fissures. He was being carried, warm and safe. Rock of Ages, cleft for me!
For a very long time he lay resting, not moving a muscle. Stillness is the very stuff of Heaven, when a man has marched thirteen hundred miles, hauling a half-tonne load miles a day for months, across the Barrier ice, up the Beardmore Glacier, to the South Pole and back. He slept, and when he wasn’t asleep he was inert.
But after some unknowable span Titus slowly came to awareness again. He felt obscurely indignant, cheated of a just due. Wasn’t Heaven supposed to be a place of eternal rest? He’d write a letter to the Times about it …
“Maybe just a touch more?” one of the celestial host suggested, in distinctly American accents. Silly on the face of it, his unanalyzed assumption that all the denizens of Heaven must be British …
“No, let’s see how he does on four cc. How’s the urine output?”
Shocked, Titus opened his eyes and looked down at himself. He was lying down, clothed in a pure white robe, all correct and as advertised. But were those a pair of angels lifting the hem? He used the drill-sergeant rasp he had picked up in the Army. “What the hell are you at!”
Both angels startled horribly. Something metallic slipped from a heavenly hand and landed with a clatter on the shiny-clean floor. A beautiful angel with long black hair stared down at him, eyes blue as the Aegean and wide as saucers. “Oh my God. Oh my God, Shell! Look at this — he’s conscious! Piotr will be like a dog with two tails!”
“Damn it, now the meter’s gone.”
As the other angel stooped nearer to pick up her tool Titus stared at her face. It was tanned but flushed with irritation. The nose had freckles. She wore huge coppery hoop earrings, and her short curly hair was dull blonde, almost mousy. “You,” Titus stated with conviction, “are not an angel.“
The happy angel — no, blister it, a woman! — exclaimed, “An angel, Shell, did you hear that? He called you an angel.”
“He did not! Don’t you ever listen, Sabrina? He just said I was not an angel.”
“This isn’t the afterlife,” Titus pursued doggedly. “Am I even dead?”
“Shell, this what we have you for. Hit it, quick!”
The irritable angel elbowed her companion into silence and spoke, clear and slow. “No, Captain Oates, you are not dead. We are doctors. I am Dr. Shell Gedeon, and this is Dr. Sabrina Trask. You are safe here, under our care.”
Titus could hardly take her words in. His mind hared off after irrelevancies. He wanted to retort, “Stuff and nonsense! Women can’t be doctors. They don’t have the intellect!” But he clung to the important questions: “What about my team? Bowers, Wilson, Scott: Are they safe too?”
Dr. Trask drew in a breath, glancing at her colleague. Dr. Gedeon’s voice was calm. “Let’s stop the drip now, why don’t we?”
“Excellent idea. If you’ll pass me that swab …”
“They are all right, aren’t they?” Titus demanded. “You rescued me, and you rescued them.” The doctors didn’t look round, fiddling with their mysterious instruments. “Aren’t they?”
He wanted to leap up and search for his friends, or shake the truth out of these bogus ministering angels, these impossible doctors. But a wave of warm melting sleep poured over him, soft as feathers, inexorable as winter, and he floated away on its downy tide.
* * *
Again when he woke he was met with pleasure: smooth sheets and a cool clean pillow. No reindeer-skin sleeping bag, no stink of horsemeat hoosh and unwashed men! He lay tasting the delicious sleek linen with every nerve and pore. How very strange to be so comfortable. His gangrened feet no longer hurt even where the covers rested on them. Double amputation above the knee, probably – the only treatment that could have saved his life. He was reconciled to the idea of footlessness. Lazily he reached down the length of his left leg with one hand to explore the stump.
The shock of touching his foot went all through his body, a galvanic impulse that jerked him upright. He flung back the covers and stared. His feet down to the toes were all present and accounted for, pink and clean and healthy. Even the toenails were just as they used to be, horn-yellow, thick and curved like vestigial hooves, instead of rotten-black and squelching to the touch. He wiggled the toes and flexed each foot with both hands, not trusting the evidence of eyes alone. It was undeniable. He had been restored, completely healed.
He examined the rest of himself. At the end in spite of the dogskin mitts his fingers had been blistered with frostbite to the colour and size of rotten bananas. Then the fluid in the blisters had frozen hard, until the least motion made the tormented joints crunch and grate as if they were stuffed with pebbles. Now his fingers were right as ninepence, flexing with painless ease: long, strong and sensitive, a horseman’s hands.
The constant stab from the old wound in his thigh, grown unbearable from so much sledging, was gone. He leaped to his feet, staggering as the blood rushed dizzily away from his head. He sat for a moment until the vertigo passed, and then rose again to put his full weight on his left leg. Not so much as a twinge! He was clad in ordinary pyjamas, white and brown striped, and he slid the pants down. The ugly twisted scar on his thigh had opened up under the stress of malnutrition and overwork, until one would think the Boers shot him last week instead of in 1901. Now there was not a mark to be seen or felt, however closely he peered at the skin. Most wondrous of all, both legs were now the same length. The Army doctors had promised that, with the left thighbone set an inch shorter than the right, he would limp for the rest of his life.
He had to nerve himself before running a hand down his face. Such a natural action, but the last time he’d tried it the conjunction of blistered fingers and frozen dead-yellow nose had been a double agony so intense the sparks had swum in his eyes. Now it didn’t hurt at all. His nose felt normal, the strong straight Roman bridge no longer swollen like a beet-root. No black oozy frostbite sores, but only a rasp of bristle on his cheek. Even the earlobes – he was certain he’d left those behind on the Polar plateau! Incredulous, he looked round the room for a glass.
It was a small plain chamber, furnished with nothing but the bed and a chair. But there was a narrow window. He leaned on the sill, angling to glimpse his ghostly reflection in the pane. He ran his tongue over his teeth, firmly fixed again and no longer bleeding at the gums. The brown eyes were melancholy under the deep straight arch of brow bone, and his dark hair was shorn in an ordinary short-back-and-sides.
Suddenly he saw not the glass but through it, beyond and down. He leaned his forehead on the cool pane, smearing it with a sudden sweat. He was high, high up. Below was a city the like of which he had never seen, spread from horizon to horizon in the golden slanted light of either dawn or sunset. Buildings spangled with lights, gleaming in sheaths of glass, reared mountain-high. His own little window was thousands of feet up, higher far than the dome of St. Paul’s even. Far below, vastly foreshortened, people scurried along the pavements. Shiny metal bugs teemed the ways and flitted through the skies.
“This isn’t London.” His voice had a shameful quaver. He forced himself to go on, to prove he could master it. “Nor Cairo. Nor Bombay …”
“You are in New York City, Captain Oates. As you will have observed, you have traveled in both space and time. This is the year of our Lord 2045. How do you feel?”
Titus turned slowly. Though every word was plain English, he could hardly take in what the man was saying. With difficulty he said the first thing that came into his head: “Who the devil are you?”
Unoffended, the slim fair man smiled, revealing large perfect teeth. “I am Dr. Kevin Lash. And I’m here to help you adjust to life in the 21st century. We’re connected, in a distant sort of way. My three-times great-grandmother was Mabel Beardsley, sister of the artist, Aubrey Beardsley. You may know her as a friend of Kathleen Scott.”
“The Owner’s wife.” Titus grasped at this tenuous connection to the familiar. “Then — you’re an Englishman!”
Dr. Lash continued to smile. “I was born in America, but yes, I’m of English extraction. Insofar as several generations of the melting pot have left me with any claim to …”
Titus crossed the room in a bound. He wrung Dr. Lash’s slender hand as if he were his best friend in the world. In a sense this was true. The doctor was his only friend. Such was his inner turmoil that Titus only belatedly realized the doctor was continuing to talk. “Sorry — it’s all quite a lot to take in.”
“Absolutely, I don’t doubt it.” With an amiable nod Dr. Lash sat down in the chair and waved Titus towards the bed. “A very natural reaction, given the tremendous change in your circumstances. I was outlining your schedule for the next day or so …”
And Titus was off and away again, sucked into an interlocking series of irrelevancies. It was stress, the alien environment all around, that made it so hard to concentrate. But recognizing why didn’t help him focus any better. This time it was Dr. Lash’s pronunciation that set Titus off: ‘schedule.’ Titus himself would have said ‘shed-jool.’ But Dr. Lash used ‘sked-jool,’ the American pronunciation. Indeed every word, his every tone and posture and gesture, spoke of the United States. So it must be true. “Damn it! Sorry — I’m trying to attend, believe me. But I keep going blah. My head’s full of cotton wool.”
Dr. Lash smiled. “Not at all, Captain. I’d be happy to repeat or amplify anything you haven’t quite grasped. I was giving you a quick outline of time as our theories suggest it applies in temporal travel. No man is an island, you know …”
Complete unto himself, Titus finished silently. So Lash was a man of education — must be, if he was a doctor. A doctor of what? Those two women, the sham angels, had obviously been doctors of the medical sort. But curse it, he had to listen!
Lash was saying, “… the tiniest change can have an incalculable impact. The death or life of an insect, a microbe even, may not be inconsiderable. Nothing can be plucked casually from the past, for fear of …”
The past? But of course. If this was the year 2045, then 1912 was long ago. “Is it possible to go back?” he interrupted.
“What, you, you mean? Return to the place and time you left? I believe it is impossible, Captain. But you would not wish it — to return and freeze to death in Antarctica? That was another subject of debate: the moral dimension of what we were attempting. It would be surely wrong to wrench away some poor fellow with a life ahead of him, family and friends …”
My family, Titus thought. Mother, Lilian, Violet, Bryan. My friends. I will never see them again. They might as well be dead. No — they are dead. Died years ago.
“… an ideal subject,” Dr. Lash was saying. “Not only are you a person rescued from a tragic death, but your removal is supremely unlikely to trigger any change in the time-stream, since your body was lost: presumed frozen solid, entombed in a glacier for eons …”
Titus stared down in silence at his pale bare feet. They were a little chilly now from resting so long on the uncarpeted floor, but that was all. Impossible to think of them frozen rock-hard, embalmed in eternal ice. Yet only a short time ago (or was it 133 years?) they were nearly so. “My team.”
Interrupted in mid-discourse, Dr. Lash said, “I beg your pardon?”
“The others. Scott, Wilson, Bowers. Did you rescue them too?”
“Ah … no.”
“Then they made it. They got back to the depot, back home!”
Dr. Lash’s copious flow of words seemed to be suffering a momentary blockage. “No.”
Titus sat silent, his shoulders bowed. So his companions too had died. Had it all been for nothing then, all their work and sacrifice and heroism? “Why did you save only me, then?”
“Remember, Captain,” Dr. Lash said patiently. “You are unique. Your body was never found.”
“Just as well, since it was here. I’m here.” He grappled with slippery verb tenses. “This is the future. You must have histories, newspapers. Records of Scott’s Polar Expedition.”
“And you shall see them. But, if I may make a suggestion, not today. You should recover your strength a little. The doctors have further tests —”
Titus growled in disgust. “No more doctors! Now!”
“Tomorrow,” Dr. Lash promised. “Tomorrow I’ll get the books. As you can see, it’s already evening. Not the time to start a new project.”
Titus stood to look out the window. Only the closest observation revealed that night had fallen. The city outside glowed and throbbed like a gala ballroom, its lights smearing the dark sky, blotting out stars and moon. So beautiful and strange!
“ … a good night’s sleep.” Dr. Lash rose to his feet. “And breakfast. I’ve tried to have food that isn’t too strange for you …”
Titus hardly noticed the doctor’s departure. The moving lights outside held him. The soaring or darting small sparks must be the metal bugs of before, lit for night work. Presumably behind every glowing window were people working and living. There must be thousands, millions of them. By night or by day the city was alive. He leaned his ear to the cold glass and heard its murmur, a dull continuous roar.
He wanted nothing to do with it. This strange monstrous city was far more foreign than the Antarctic ice. The thought came to him that this was all delirium, the final flicker of phantasy in the brain of a dying man already half-buried in blizzard-drift. It wasn’t even a delusion he enjoyed! A tremendous hollow longing for home filled him, for England, his family and friends, anything familiar. And there was nothing left to him now, except perhaps his own renewed body. At least this was as it had always been. He climbed back into bed and hugged himself, curled under the covers, diving into sleep’s reprieve.
by Brenda W. Clough
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-002-6