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Polar Night

Chapter Text

I awoke to the shrillness of my alarm in the pitch-black early morning, as I had grown used to, in Smeerenburg at the top of the world.

We were caught firmly in the grip of polar night. My schedule was as normal as one could hope for, were they employed, as I was, in the development and preparation of the Icewalker, and under typical geographic circumstances I would have gotten out of bed each morning at approximate sunrise.

My alarm stopped as I shuttered the clanging brass. Smeerenburg would not see another sunrise for many months.

After a breakfast of cod and cloudberries spread onto stale bread, I made my way out. A mild commotion had erupted again on the field of flat, packed-in snow where the hunting balloons could safely land. One had come in just a bit ago, from the looks of it, unloading its supplies and crew, ready for the slow process of deflation. I found myself heading curiously closer: we were, of necessity, a somewhat tight-knit community here, but there were two men climbing out of the cabin who I did not recognize in the least.

One of them, the younger of the pair, began as all newcomers do—as I had as well when I first arrived here—by experiencing obvious distress over the potent smell of the place.

I informed him that the stench was from the processing of whales, and though he briefly balked as if I might have been lying to him, he digested my subsequent explanation a little more easily, it seemed, as he responded to it by shaking my hand, though I hardly knew why he was introducing himself to me. As if I were any sort of official, rather than a locally-posted Artificer who happened to have been walking along nearby.

Our conversation continued briefly and politely enough. Even now I wonder why I stayed to chat about Guild outposts and our planned expedition northwards. Novelty, perhaps: a new face in this settlement is rare indeed. All the same the pair did not stay here long and I do not blame them.

The expedition, as it happens, remains delayed. No doubt this round of testing will postpone things another full year at minimum. We really ought to have left already, ideally, were we going to leave this season at all. Too much longer and we run the risk of weak ice. No one wants to see the Icewalker stumble over meltwater and get stuck along the way, least of all myself, and so we continue to wait in Smeerenburg.

Chapter Text

I awoke to the shrillness of my alarm in the pitch-black early morning, as I had grown used to, in Smeerenburg at the top of the world.

We were again entering a period of polar night, that time of year when the sun sets below the horizon one night and simply fails to return until many months later. Far enough towards the top of the globe, one loses one’s sense of the correct passage of time. We seem to continue to function as a society only by popular chronological consensus.

Somehow, that has been enough, and despite several failed starts and several hundred more stubborn arguments between all of the involved, officers and hunters and Artificers alike—and no, I do not exclude myself—it was finally the day of the Icewalker’s departure.

We had, though of course not unanimously, elected to take on the recently-arrived pair of explorers as our passengers and guests. It seemed that they had provided funds, so I hardly begrudged them their presence. I only hoped they knew what they were getting into.

My second encounter with Passepartout told me rather emphatically that they did not.

I told him it was called the Icewalker. I confess, at that moment I felt a strange burst of pride, though I suppose I am owed at least that measure of fondness, after everything. Others had done more work on it, of course, and at that had done work which was central to our scientific undertaking rather than—better not to dwell, perhaps, on my particular talents. All I mean to say is that, that day, I felt myself a part of this whole grand enterprise. Who could fail to be caught up in the excitement?

Nonetheless, I have not mingled with my fellow crew as I might have. Mezensky and his hunters and their weapons. Juho and her sharp glare. I respect them both implicitly, of course, and trust them with my life as they have trusted me with theirs. It only remains that I prefer to spend my time in other ways, resting or reading or tinkering, and though the expedition certainly has much character and verve, I cannot deny that keeping to myself seems to mean avoiding being struck in the face with fruit pies. A good decision, then.

I allow myself one social outlet: Passepartout, a curious delight, always observing and communicating. I understand that he is Fogg’s man, and yet it nearly seems, in all ways but their actual interactions with each other, the other way around; Fogg, despite having argued fervently for his chance to join us aboard, is perfectly content to remain in his room for the full duration of the trip. He seems merely to want to make it to his destination. A respectable commitment to travel, I suppose, and far be it from me to question a paying customer, but it is Passepartout I have chosen to invite for a picnic in our tethered balloon for a reason.

Something in his curiosity reminds me of myself, or of the way I would like myself to be. I find it hard to articulate. If nothing else, I feel that we each look at the world in a way where we might understand the other, or at least have a better chance at that connection than we would with others, like facing pages in the same book…

Chapter Text

I awoke to the shrillness of my alarm in the pitch-black early morning, as I had grown used to, in Smeerenburg at the top of the world.

We were again entering a period of polar night, that time of year when the sun sets below the horizon one night and simply fails to return until many months later. It was therefore just the right point in the season at which to launch the Icewalker out into the northern wastes. We had developed and revised and revised again for quite long enough: it was time. Everyone, I believe, felt poised on the edge of something momentous. This was it.

Everyone here knows some part of the stories of early Arctic adventurers. Perhaps few have all the historical details in their brains, but we share a general knowledge of those failures, considered by most to be in equal measure tragic and romantic. It is that knowledge which colors our thoughts. This is not something we set out upon lightly. We will succeed, or we will die.

None of us could have known. None of us could have known. Not really, or who would have done it? No, to ask more directly: who of us would have gone on this mission without being convinced against all sense and experience that we would be the ones to finally beat the odds?

The failsafes will fire soon and propel us all into the wastes. I write only to keep myself from tears. I do not know how much more I will be able to say. I will die out there in the cold, the entire crew will be propelled away from the collapsing Icewalker and out into the frozen Earth. We are much too far to walk for help, much too north for our compasses to do us any good regardless.

We will stand in the snow and huddle uselessly for warmth until the weakest of us fades away, and then the next, and then the next.

I suppose it must be our passengers first. Fogg, although stronger than he looks, has nothing against the Arctic. Passepartout, as well, who had kissed me against a machine console, would go blue and cold.

Maybe that is for the best. Let me be the last. Let no one else have to suffer.

I have killed us all.

Chapter Text

I awoke to the shrillness of my alarm in the pitch-black early morning, as I had grown used to, in Smeerenburg at the top of the world.

It was the last morning before the setting-out of the Icewalker into the unknown. It was, though I did not know it then, the last morning I would spend that felt familiar to me in the least. I fear I have little chance of making it out of this place. They are, at least, diplomatic enough in Qausuittuq; I am alive, warm and well-fed, and that is something I try not to forget.

The Icewalker’s journey went reasonably well at the outset. Soon enough, however, we began drifting from our intended route. All of our tests revealed repeated disparities between the methodically-determined coordinates we should have been on and the ones we actually were. Minute differences, to be sure, but with a mission like the one we were undertaking, a difference of angle of half a degree could see us swung off in an entirely different direction; we would, if we did not catch and correct the mistake, scuttle useless past the geographic North Pole and have done nothing but trace an arc along an unremarkable spread of tundra.

If our problems had never become worse than that, it would have been, I suppose, alright. Even if we had missed the pole entirely, it would have been alright.

I can be honest about what happened because it seems vanishingly unlikely that any eyes but mine will ever read this, and because, for my own sake, I have to be. I have to give myself that small kindness. It was sabotage. It was sabotage done for a reason worthy of respecting, that much I can admit, but it was nonetheless sabotage, and while part of my mind can understand the protective measures Juho had been trying to take, the rest is stubborn, and weak, and broken, and blames her for how lost I feel, how some part of me was taken and ripped from me during that ordeal. It is too easy to blame Juho for the fear and the absence of my old self. It is too easy to hold onto rage, in a place like this, alone.

At least we are here. At least we have tents over our heads and food in our bellies; at least the Council has allowed us to remain as their guests, although the kindliness of that welcome wore somewhat thin after Fogg and Passepartout snuck away. There was an uproar when it happened, even calls for our execution as a pre-emptive defensive measure, but these were thankfully on the extreme end of the spectrum, and were shot down nearly as soon as they were voiced. No death, but severe increases in how closely we were to be watched.

Fair enough. I certainly have no intention of making any sort of daring escape, though it warms me, it chases away some of the dark and bitter shadows that have enclosed my mind, to think about Passepartout having done so.

Perhaps it is jealousy. Perhaps regret, or longing, or something more than all of those put together.

Chapter Text

I awoke to the shrillness of my alarm in the pitch-black early morning, as I had grown used to, in Smeerenburg at the top of the world.

It was the day I was to meet Passepartout, an adventurer, of all the sorts of people to walk out of a hunting balloon. His master easily afforded their passage as guests of the Artificer expedition toward the North Pole. Forgive me if I brush over the details of that expedition. It is not something I like to remember.

Not long after our arrival, judgment was passed on the crime of our arrival. The fallen Icewalker’s crew learned that we were to be kept on indefinitely: hidden away until the Council decided it was ready for Qausuittuq to be revealed to the outside world. The topic was a politically divisive one, and that decision, it seemed, could have been made in a week’s time, or after five years, or never at all. There were as many divided minds amongst our crew. Some were reluctantly accepting; some were livid; but most of the colder responses thawed, after a time, replaced with a tentative curiosity.

It was the latter sentiment that I shared, at least at first. Of all the places to be stuck in indefinitely, I reasoned, at least here was one where I could continue to learn and study. To be sure, it was not there for me to learn from it; the people here were understandably mistrustful of their ‘guests,’ and I could hardly accost strangers and demand they explain their everyday lives. Still, I could not help a welling of hopeful interest: it was a small concession in light of the overall situation, true, but Qausuittuq was overwhelmingly beautiful and impossibly real.

Passepartout and Fogg, we learned, had disappeared. No bodies turned up frozen in the tundra. It was eventually determined most likely that they had somehow made their way back out of the Arctic, down into the comparatively temperate rest of the world, though no one could imagine how.

It stung me harder than I could have imagined when I learned that. Passepartout and I had grown close, and in him I had finally found some sort of common ground, someone I could understand and who seemed to understand me. He had done his part to put the first piece of me back together. I loved him. I love him still; I know that now.

As for the rest of the city: there was an initial enraged tumult. People’s lack of trust in us increased, and their willingness to allow us to freely mingle decreased in kind, though there were never any direct consequences.

After a time, the intensity of people’s reactions to their escape faded; a vote, carried out perfunctorily in standard response to a crewmember’s formal petition, resulted in a small majority in favor of releasing us from our travel restrictions. We could stay, if we preferred, and it was made rather clear we were preferred to do so. But we could also leave, if we preferred, and several did.

I did. I would not have expected it from myself—but one never does know what actions one will take in a certain situation until that situation becomes real and true.

A dark-gray airship, seeming somehow both weightless and substantial, like some great metal stormcloud, docked in Qausuittuq some two months after I had decided that I was going to leave. We—myself and the half-a-dozen others who had made that decision—were routed into the same room, with not quite enough bunks for the group of us, so that we were forced to share them in scheduled shift. Three of us accordingly became nocturnal.

Is it odd to say that it did not bother me even a little? For the three of us, it was perfectly normal. We found getting used to it remarkably easy. Perhaps something to do with being inside anyway, or maybe with our having already been acclimated to that long Arctic darkness.

It was my sleeping shift as we docked at Virgohamna in the mid-morning. I was shocked to see the sun low in the sky: my sense of the passage of time had been lost to me after departing from Smeerenburg. There was no longer any doubt about that. How long had it been since I had set foot on familiar ground? Not, of course, that I had ever previously been to Virgohamna, it is only… Well. Once, in a Council meeting, I had heard Juho whispering in an undertone something about how very different it was to live at the North Pole than it was merely to live in the north.

As I took my first step onto the well-trodden snow where the landing dock ended and the path to the Guild outpost began, I realized some of what she had meant.

Passepartout had accused me, once, of being pole-mad. I think he may have been righter than he could have known. An obsession—but surely one that every last person on that expedition had shared. Now I have glimpsed the crux of that obsession. Now I am back in the world I know, with that glimpsed knowledge weighing heavily on my soul.

I know that I will never speak a word of it to anyone, shall never mention it but for in these pages. After I begin my life again I am sure I will try, much as I can, to forget, to become who I was before. The shadows of the… wreckage of the Icewalker still lurk in my mind and in my dreams. I have more shadows, now, in the shape of a city of glass and bone.

It is all I can to do move forward.

After casting a wide net to find where my talents could be of use, I received scattered offers. All but one sounded excessive to my mind: too much interaction, too many people for me in the state I had found myself in. I would need time to recover; I would need time on my own, to piece myself back together and try to make sense of the world again.

I would need Nanortalik, its isolated one-man meteorological outpost. At that point, I was sure of very little, but I was sure of that.

There can be, I think, no doubt that the most dramatic part of my life has come and gone. I find it a great comfort, in fact, to think so. I am ready to be a small person again, an unknown—merely an Artificer assigned to a lonely post. And if I must be alone to do it, if I must fix myself by placing myself outside of the story, then I

“Vitti?”

Chapter Text

I awoke to the shrillness of my alarm in the pitch-black early morning, as I had grown used to, in Smeerenburg at the top of the world.

We were caught firmly in the grip of polar night.

Smeerenburg would not see another sunrise for many months.

After a breakfast of cod and cloudberries spread onto stale bread, I made my way out.

The settlement was quiet but for the distant churn of the whale-processing plants, and the sky was empty but for the scattering of stars not blocked out by the ever-present stinking smog. I turned away from the empty landing field; today was the day of the Icewalker’s departure.