Excerpt from Beneath and Beyond
Copyright 2007 Debbie Mumford
Publisher: Lavender Isis Press
Dr. Erin Carstedter stepped out of the harness and away from the access shaft. She tried not to think about the weight of the glacier pressing down on this tiny bubble of air. The cavern glowed with an eerie blue-white light, cast by a battery-powered lantern suspended from a piton driven high into the wall. The ice’s ability to simultaneously reflect and absorb the light fascinated her.
A haphazard pile of boxes and tools occupied the space just below the lantern. On the opposite wall stood the object of her team’s efforts—a door. A magnificently carved door enthroned in an ancient wall. Technicians had already thawed its hinges, leaving heated gel packs plastered to the surface to keep the door movable until the techs could be replaced by the team’s archaeologists. And here she stood, waiting for her friend and colleague to finish his descent to this blue-tinged bubble.
Sensitive new sonar imaging had detected the land mass and its ruined city buried under hundreds of feet of arctic ice some fifty miles north of Alert, Canada’s northernmost settlement. The more romantic among the team’s members whispered “Atlantis!” But not Erin. Her thoughts revolved around solid, observable, measurable data. Though she longed to know when and how a human settlement had prospered this far north, she scoffed at the notion of the mythic lost continent. Hadn’t people ever heard of fiction? Did they suppose the tendency to imagine idealized, fairy-tale societies a new wrinkle in humanity’s collective unconscious?
She reached out to stroke the frost whitened rose of the marble door. The climate had to have changed drastically to support a civilization on the scale disclosed by remote sensing. Their access shaft, and this cavern, revealed only a minute portion of the long-buried city.
The decision-makers, after weeks of careful study of the sonar map, had finally decided to sink the access shaft at this location. Archaeologists had vied to guess which buildings might house what artifacts from the safety of wind-scoured Quonset huts staked to the surface of the glacier. Even in the heated interior of insulated shelters, men and women worked bundled in sweaters, scarves and fingerless gloves. All to allow Erin to stand and admire a door carved from marble who knew how long ago.
“Ready to step into the past, Dr. Carstedter?”
Erin turned toward the voice. She knew the figure hunched in the little cavern to be Matt Davidson, the team’s archaeometry specialist, but his voice and his name on the duty roster were her only clues. The shapeless mass of arctic parka, complete with fur-edged hood and oversized snow pants, effectively hid his identity. Goggles and huge outer mittens completed his disguise. Still, the lilt in his voice flashed an image of her friend’s mischievous blue eyes to Erin’s mind.
She grinned, though her own protective clothing undoubtedly prevented him from noticing. “I thought we already had.” She gestured to the ice-white ground beneath their feet. “How long do you suppose it’s been since this bit of earth saw the light of day?”
“I wouldn’t want to guess,” he said. “Someone else’s department. What I want is to get through that door.” He moved closer to the ancient threshold. “Shall we?”
“After you, Dr. Davidson.” She gave him a courtly bow, or tried to. Arctic gear didn’t lend itself to bending.
Matt removed his cumbersome outer mittens and ran gloved fingers over the door. He pulled the thermal packs free and swung the door wide.
Erin edged out of his way, moved back, and dragged a post driver into position to stake the door open. The machine’s boom reverberated through the cavern and her flesh alike. She winced, reminded again of the fragility of their airy bubble.
“Are you sure your name’s not Alice?” Matt’s voice cracked and a nervous chuckle ricocheted off the ice.
Erin straightened, glanced at Matt’s goggled silhouette, and then allowed her gaze to follow his flashlight’s beam into the ruin’s interior. Only it wasn’t a ruin. She grabbed Matt’s arm for support, a wave of vertigo washing through her system.
“Do you see it, too?” she whispered.
Matt’s echoing laughter died away to be replaced by a gruff whisper. “It’s a helluva cold rabbit hole, Alice, but at least we’ve fallen through together.”
Erin teetered on the threshold a moment longer, and then stepped through the looking glass onto soft green grass beneath a cloudless sapphire sky. An enormous monarch butterfly danced across her field of vision and she glanced back at Matt and the entrance to the ice cavern. Matt stood a few paces behind her, looking ridiculous in his arctic gear. The opening into their world no longer existed. Erin pivoted slowly on the spot. An unbroken horizon of meadowland, forest and mountain greeted her vision. However they’d arrived in this unexpected place, they wouldn’t be returning by the same route.
“This has to be a hallucination,” she muttered, sinking to the ground and closing her eyes. “I’m in a centuries-old ruin, buried under tons of ice, and it’s too cold to support life.”
Keeping her eyes firmly closed, she removed her mittens and pulled off her left glove. Slowly, deliberately, she lowered her hand to the ground beside her. She encountered what could only be grass; soft, resilient blades of grass. Approximately six inches high, the leaves bent easily beneath her questing fingers and gave way as she sought the earth below. Warm, damp earth. She lifted her fingers to her muffler-wrapped nose and breathed in the slightly musty scent of dirt spiked with the tang of freshly bruised grass.
She’d expected cold so bitter it burned her exposed flesh. Instead, her senses screamed “Summer!” Sweat trickled down her neck to pool at the base of her spine. She needed to shed several layers of cloth, but her intellect refused to accept her body’s testimony. Her mind insisted she’d freeze to death if she unwrapped.
“This is absolutely impossible,” said Matt’s voice behind her, “but it’s a helluva lot more comfortable than the ice shaft.”
Eyes still tightly closed, Erin listened to his movements, felt his warm, calloused fingers pull her hand away from her face.
“Snap out of it, Erin. We’ve got a whole new world to explore.” His words penetrated the fugue in her brain, and she opened her eyes to focus on his handsome face. His face. She could see Matt’s face!
“Matt,” she cried. “Are you insane? I don’t care what kind of mental aberration we’re suffering; you’ll die of exposure dressed like that!”
He had shed his parka and protective gear and knelt beside her in a pair of sweat pants and a tee-shirt. Not having any other shoes, he’d kept the fur-lined boots. His tousled blond hair needed a trim and his chin sparkled with golden stubble. A grin lit his even-featured face.
“If this is an illusion,” he said, “it’s a good one. My outer layer of dermis should be dead by now and my lungs seizing.” He stroked her bare hand. “Your skin seems fine, too.”
He stood and pulled her up with him. “Come on, Erin. Lose the parka or you’re going to roast.”
She struggled against his grasp, finally managing to twist away. Quickly, she pulled her glove and mittens back on and turned to glower at him.
“Listen,” she said, working hard to keep the rising hysteria out of her voice, “you may be suicidal, but I’m not. Obviously something in the atmosphere of this ruin is causing us to hallucinate. We need to sit tight until the team gets nervous and comes to check on us. The door is open now, so the fumes, or…whatever…will have a chance to dissipate.”
She dropped to the ground again and glared up at him, though her gear hid her expression. “We’ve got to stick tight. If we wander away...” she swallowed, the lump in her throat threatening to choke her. “If we wander away, they might not be able to find us!”
Matt stared at her, eyes narrow and jaw tight. When he spoke, his voice carried the condescension of an adult speaking to a wayward child.
“Will you listen to yourself? Sit tight? Wait for rescue? Erin, look around! I don’t know where we are, or how we got here, but we’re sure as hell not in a ruin at the bottom of an ice shaft.”
He spun away from her, paced a few steps, kicked a large rock out of his path, and strode back to tower over her, hands jammed into his sweat pants’ pockets.
“Get up, Erin,” he said. “We can’t just sit here doing nothing.”
He reached for her again, but she twisted away and scuttled a few feet sideways.
“If you want to get lost in this maze,” she said, “go for it. I’m staying right here until my head clears.”
“I’m sorry, Erin, but I can’t walk away. You’re just stubborn enough to sit here in the blazing sun, bundled to the teeth until your core temperature pushes you into a stroke.”
He launched himself at her, wrestled her prone on the grass and straddled her hips while he freed her upper torso from its protective gear.
Erin sputtered and fought, angry as a wet cat. When he pulled the parka away, she shivered violently. Her tee-shirt and hair were drenched with sweat, and despite the warmth of the breeze, her body shook with reaction.
Matt dodged away and she sprang to a sitting position, chafing her arms and running shaky fingers through her short mop of curly hair. She glared at Matt, lips sealed in a thin, tense line. No way would she admit he’d been right.
“Get up,” he ordered. “Lose the parka pants. We’re going to hike to the tree line, and I don’t want you overheating.”
“I can’t,” she snapped. “I’m not wearing sweats.” Defiance sizzled in her blood, but she forced herself to remain calm and gazed toward the distant trees. “Why that direction? Why not back toward the door?”
He offered his hand. She hesitated briefly and then rolled sideways—away from him—and pushed herself to standing.
“Because those trees look like they could be growing along a stream,” he said, dropping his hand to his side. “We’re not going back, because there’s nothing to go back to. Look for yourself.” He pointed to a heap of thinsulite and fur—his arctic gear. “I’d barely stepped through the door when it disappeared. If it existed, it’d be right there.”