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Journey to Longyearbyen

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Water and sky run together into black; he cannot tell how fast they are going or even if they are moving at all. Gus and Algie are talking lowly, fragmented and out of time to the thrashing of the waves against the side of the boat. Jack stares out at the sky, his breath shaking, pulling in and out of his lungs in aborted gasps, dragging at the sides of his ribs, catching in harsh pants. Cold clings to his bones and seeps through his skull into his brain where some primal fear is still screaming within him, at him.

He cannot heave himself properly into the present: still water is black around him; still the fire is stabbing at his heels; still Gus’s hand is just out of reach; still waves are punching him backwards and pulling him under; still he can see Gus’ shocked expression as he was hauled into the boat; still Algie is shouting and clinging to the rail, eyes bulging. Beyond the relief and the adrenaline and the terror, defiant humiliation is flaring up inside his throat and stinging sharp under his jaw. He can still feel the crush of Gus’s chest hard against his when he had flung himself at him.

He has been stripped of his wet things and so is cloistered in a heap of spare overclothes and blankets, all of it too hot and yet not enough to keep out the cold. His heartbeat is hammering through every layer. It is over; it is not over. He cannot shed the growing knowledge that there is another person in the boat, some presence unaccounted for and invisible; that they are carrying some thing back from Gruhuken. He knows it; the indefinable dread of it steals up his chest. The boat is groaning as it lumbers through shapeless waves. The sky is malice dark. They are not alone here—

“Jack,” Gus says. His voice is hoarse from inhaling water; it isn't right, Jack thinks, something is wrong here. “Jack, old fellow.” Whatever he wants to say he clearly can't quite bring himself to say it. Gus’s face seems very far away, as if it's at the end of a telescope, or from a photograph of now dead explorers. “Jack.” He sounds near on desperate; Jack wonders what his own face must be betraying. Every inch of his skin feels flayed open. Air is still pulling in and out of his lungs, too fast, too shaky. “Everything is OK now.” It does not sound like a lie when Gus says it, instead it is painfully earnest. He says it as if it is true, but Jack does not think that it is. Gus seems very far away; there is something else much closer to him. Some void in their midst. “Jack.” He is very kind, Jack thinks. He would like to reply but he does not have the breath for it. “I promise you.”

It is too much to look at Gus after that. Jack shuts his eyes and sees instead nothing but insistent darkness. His eyelids are very cold. There is something missing, he thinks, there is someone missing, perhaps it is me. There is something here that should not be here, he thinks. Perhaps it is me. The boat is unsteady on the water; his gut churns as if it is still being battered. Something is missing; something is here that should not be here. All his thoughts narrow down to this. The cold is lodged and jagged in his brain, there is no room for anything else.

Suddenly he realises something concrete is missing – the journal waterlogged and heavy with despair on his chest. Did it slip off down into the ocean? Where— “Where is my journal?” he manages, his voice pitifully raspy.

“Jack,” Gus says heavily. A brief stumbled pause. “Algie, didn’t they give it to you—”

“Yes. Here—”

Only, he realises, he does not actually want it back. It is oddly soft in his hands, near to slimy. He would like to throw it over the side, yet he feels an inexplicable urge to keep it with him. He cannot take his eyes off it. He wonders if any of it will still be legible.

“I didn’t look in it,” Algie assures him. “Neither of us have.”

He doesn’t reply. He is confused by it: surely they have not been on the boat so long – not long enough for Algie to reassure him on this – but he does not feel that more than seconds or some minutes have passed – his heart is still thrumming too fast, his skin is still imbued with heat from the fire, cold from the water – but maybe hours have gone by – or days – is he still on the boat, he thinks that he is –

“Jack,” Gus says again, only he turns his face away from Jack almost immediately, so perhaps he did not mean to say it at all. Gus is looking at Algie, some exchange there that Jack is too drained to try and interpret. Gus is perhaps trying to force himself to say something, Jack thinks, with a return of humiliation – he has made his own feelings too plain, vulnerable and unanswered, a question.  He does not regret – he loses his train of thought for a second or maybe a minute, a disconnect between his brain and everything else, a short circuit – he does not regret jumping off the boat into the water of course but –

“Jack.” Gus is talking, he registers, perhaps he is trying to – “Jack.” Firmer – or sharper, what – “Jack, please look at me. Everything is OK now, I promise.” Jack’s head is too heavy, with some effort he tries to comply and meet Gus’s eyes, but everything is closing in around him. He can see the pale green pieces of the clock, broken on the floor. With a sudden stab of panic, he thinks: we are not alone on this boat. There is something wrong here. Perhaps it is him. Perhaps –

“Jack.” And Gus sounds panicked now too, perhaps he feels the wrongness too. “Jack.” Something is missing; something is here that should not be here, sitting beside him quietly, too dark to be seen. It is so cold. “Jack.” Quieter now. Gus reaches out and grips his shoulder through the blankets and the two spare overcoats. The impact of it seems to judder through his entire body. Gus is shivering too. His hair is not dry. It had felt like seaweed in the water; Jack’s hand had gone through it at some point, he thinks, though perhaps it had been something else— “Jack, I promise you. You’re going to be OK.” He shuffles forward into a space that Jack had thought was occupied by something else. To Algie he says: “I can’t believe we didn’t come earlier,” and he does not sound like he had intended to say it. “We never should have left you there – Jack. I am so sorry. But you’re going to be OK, now.” His eyes are very intent on Jack’s, so he attempts to pull himself into the moment, but the back of his brain is so distant – cut off by cold or by something else. Gus’s thumb strokes the join of his shoulder and chest once, twice, three times. He sways very slightly without meaning to into the touch.

“Something is missing,” he forces out of his throat. He should tell them; if he had only told them before, or let Gus tell him, then perhaps nothing would ever have happened. “Something is not – not here.”

“Nothing is missing. I promise you, Jack. You’re here. I’m here. Algie is here. Isaak is here.” At this, something of the pressure on Jack’s chest abates, is smoothed out. Gus’s voice is less hoarse now, stronger.

“There is something here that should not be here,” he tells them. He had once thought of himself as rational.

“There is nothing here but what should be here,” Gus assures him worriedly. “Jack—” He leans in closer. “You are safe now. You’re OK. I promise you.”

“It’s not over. It’s not over. It wants something. It wants—” me, he nearly finishes it. There is a short, stiff silence, which Jack can feel himself falling into awkwardly. He is aware that he must sound insane, paranoid, beyond reason. They have probably been hours on the boat now. But it is so painfully cold, gnawing away at him, the sea tapping against the boat in precise, measured slaps. Gus’s eyes have lost some focus, as if he is looking at Jack and seeing something else.

“Well,” Algie declares, too loud in the dark, “it’s not going to get it.” Gus’s hand tightens almost imperceptibly on his shoulder. The sea rocks into the boat sickeningly, its maw gaping, and dark water is flung onto the deck. And then all is still again.

Jack cannot quite believe that it is over, but the dread starts to slip away from him very slowly, his ribs loosening around his lungs. He sighs and looks straight upwards at the dead expanse of the night. Maybe there are miles and miles of ocean beneath them, a black infinity that they have barely escaped. Certainly there are miles and miles of ocean spreading out ahead of them in an immense endless gloom. Longyearbyen… Longyearbyen. Somewhere ahead. The cold is lulling him almost to sleep, or into some state of dragging consciousness, some pressure on the back of his head, a call to rest or death as the cold creeps through the skin of his ankle to the bone… He sighs again.

“We’re alive” Gus says. “We’re alive”. In his eyes there is something vulnerable and shaken that Jack has never seen in them before. Or perhaps he had, when Gus had tried to tell him, under the lights. Why hadn’t he listened? Oh he had been so foolish. So foolish…  But they’re alive.

He closes his eyes and feels rather than sees the boat continue to charge through the waves, the stars with their malicious pale useless light, Algie stunned and bewildered and not knowing where to look, Gus staring out into the terrible well of the sea. The night looms over him with no destination in sight and he does not quite know where he is going, now, but as they sweep through the relentless dark, Gus grasps for his wrist and holds on.