The Road Less Travelled

The television rattled with its breathy whispers in the background, a continual clatter of hushed prayers and entreaties punctuated by joyful proclamations and ecclesiastical whoops. That sound, those hushed prayers, that gleeful praise had been a constant thorn in his side, so dizzying that he heard it in his sleep, that he almost began to believe what he was being told—almost, but not quite.

The signal, intel had informed him, was being broadcast from a location between longitudes 20°W and 80°W, a contested space of land along the peninsula, sodden with snow and ice and laid claim to by no less than three nations; Argentina, Chile, and, of course, Britain. Had it not been for the content of the broadcasts, the fact that they existed at all would have been problematic for all three nations, yet when the signals were recorded, when they were analysed, there had been outrage. This, coupled with lack of contact from Britain's two established research stations within the territory—Halley and Rothera—had been enough to cause such sharp escalation in the rhetoric voiced by each nation that, under cover of both subterfuge and snowdrift, Britain had finally seen fit to attempt to do something about it.

It was just a shame that the course of action they had decided on involved him sitting listlessly in his shelter, miles away in Ny-Ålesund, waiting for something to happen—waiting whilst, presumably, the Argen 7 or some other clandestine unit made their move and Britain's politicians waxed lyrical in public about the importance of the overseas territories.

Time crawled on amidst the endless fall of the snow, and it was in this way that the whispers of the old television set had begun to get under his skin.

Absently, he tried to distract himself, leaning back and rocking on his creaking, wooden chair, two legs pivoted, two legs lifted from the floor, his attention drawn to the window and its view of the endless white of Kongsfjord and the Greenland Sea beyond.

The image on the television screen flickered, a brief burst of static reflecting from the silver helm that rested atop the pile of papers on his desk. A wry smile touched his lips. Whose bright idea had it been to deck out a covert operative in silver anyhow? It was a miracle he hadn't died on his first day in action.

All the paperwork, all the red tape, this wasn't what he had signed up for, wasn't what he had believed in, and yet now here he was, an unlisted guest on Norwegian sovereign soil.

Once upon a time, there would have been none of this. His role had been clearly defined; he had known what was expected of him—even if it had been unreasonable.

He closed his eyes, sick of the television, sick of staring out at the snowfields, sick of the cramped surroundings of the pitiful office the scientists in charge of the installation had afforded him—yet, in the dark, there was the whisper of the old television, the rattling, chanting voices, the hushed hymns, and it felt terribly familiar, terribly haunting… and it felt like there was something important he had forgotten.

"I take it the waiting is getting to you?" a voice abruptly cut through the sound of the television.

Slowly, he opened his eyes again, blinking the shape of a firmly built middle-aged man in green overalls into focus, idling in the doorway, an expression of consternation upon his face.

Despite himself, he smiled.

"What's up, Doc?" he offered, lowering the chair legs back to the ground and rising up slowly, "Haven't they paid you off, yet?"

The other man snorted with derision, stepping past the threshold and reviewing the squalid space of the office and the constantly chattering television set with undisguised displeasure.

"I'm not so old that I couldn't run laps around you," the older man answered in his heavily accented English.

Behind the desk, he found his smile no less diminished.

Sven Inglesen, older than the majority of his unit at the time in which he had served in the field, was a reminder of better days, there was no doubt of that. Not that he himself relished conflict or enjoyed enacting violence against others, but he at least had felt that there was a reason for what he did. Even as recently back as the Gulf War, when he had been on the ground in Kuwait and Iraq as part of the Coalition force, he had at least understood how events had escalated. Nowadays, however, he wasn't so sure, everything was about computers and hacking and Soviet chemicals and mind control—and there was that niggling sensation again, that feeling that something was wrong, that he wasn't where he should be, that he was forgetting something terribly, terribly important.

"That I don't doubt, sadly," he responded, a hint of sorrow entering his voice.

Inglesen grunted, watching the black and white images on the screen.

"I can guess why you're here," the medic said after a time.

"The whole world can," came the reply as he moved from behind his desk and came to stand alongside the older man.

"Why didn't they send a team?" Ingelsen pushed, never once taking his eyes from the movements, the sparse decoration of the location on the screen, the wooden pews and the ugly altar.

"Budget cuts," came the unwelcome reply, "no one has that kind of money nowadays, not for anything fanciful like we were, not anything that they'd be willing to admit to, at least. Transparency is the name of the game now, Doc, if you don't have transparency then Christ alone knows how many UN regulations you'll be accused of breaking."

Inglesen grunted again, inclining his head in begrudging agreement.

"The Wild West, yes?"

Once more, the other smiled.

"Not anymore," he said sadly, "not for a long time."

The two of them were silent for a while, both intently looking at the series of images on the television screen, the same clips broadcast endlessly, day in, day out; the pews, the altar, the carved serpent in the pulpit of the building, looming over the heads of the shadowed occupants and their hushed praise.

"You know, the serpent used to be a symbol of wisdom," Inglesen said after a moment or two. "The Greeks thought so, the Egyptians too. The Ophites even went so far as to say that the snake in the garden wasn't tempting Eve, it was empowering her."

There was a silence between the two of them in which he did not know how to reply, then Inglesen, seemingly sensing the distance between them, changed tack.

"They really expect you to go in there alone?"

Slowly, he nodded.

"That's what I signed up for, apparently."

Inglesen shot him a scowl.

"It was a different world when you signed up, when both of us signed up," he reminded the younger man, "now look at us, chasing ghosts across the globe whilst politicians pretend we don't exist."

He smiled at this, pleased for once to hear someone else voice their displeasure—pleased that he didn't have to.

"I'd drink to that but alcohol seems hard to come by this far from home."

Unexpectedly, Inglesen's face lit up, a smile that accentuated the wrinkles of his face.

It's sad, he thought then, how we only notice those around us ageing when they smile.

"I might just have something in my quarters that can help remedy that," the older man remarked, "if you still know how to keep a secret."

Wryly, he returned Inglesen's smile.

"Have I ever failed you before?" he remarked.

The smile faltered, that sudden sense of unease returning, and abruptly he turned back towards the television, its prayers and hymns now suddenly silent.

A chill ran down his spine.

From the screen, a tired face looked back at him, a familiar face.

"I asked if you could keep a secret," Inglesen whispered, his voice now unusually close, the warmth of his breath brushing his ear.

Whatever reply he might have made was lost; all that mattered now was the face looking at him from the flickering television screen—his face.

He closed his eyes, relishing the darkness, his heart trembling in his chest as the words of a poem he had read long, long ago flittered to the forefront of his mind, the world dying with the shutting of the eyes, its rebirth with the opening.

And yet when he opened his eyes again, he knew then, with absolute certainty, that nothing would be the same.