The terror, p.29
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       The Terror, p.29


  Impossible, thought Thomas Blanky.

  It moved toward him.

  Blanky shifted the shotgun to his right hand, jammed the stock against his shoulder, steadied it with his mittened left hand, and fired.

  The flash and explosion of sparks from the barrel gave the Ice Master a half-second’s glimpse of the black, dead, emotionless eyes of a shark staring into him — no, not a shark’s eyes at all, he realized a second later as the retinal afterimage of the blast blinded him, but two ebony circles far more frighteningly malevolent and intelligent than even a shark’s black-circle gaze — but also the pitiless stare of a predator that sees you only as food. And these bottomless black-hole eyes were far above him, set on shoulders wider than Blanky’s arms could spread, and were coming closer as the looming shape surged forward.

  Blanky threw the useless shotgun at the thing — there was no time at all to reload — and leapt for the man lines.

  Only four decades of experience at sea allowed the Ice Master to know, in the dark and storm and without even attempting to look, exactly where the icy man lines would be. He caught them with the crooked fingers of his mittenless right hand, flung his legs up, found the cross ropes with his flailing boots, pulled off his left mitten with his teeth, and began clambering upward while hanging almost upside down on the inside of the inward-slanting lines.

  Six inches beneath his arse and legs, something cleaved the air with the power of a two-ton battering ram swinging at full extension. Blanky heard three thick vertical ropes of the man lines rip, tear … impossible! … and swing inward, almost throwing Blanky down to the deck.

  He hung on. Flinging his left leg around the outside of those lines remaining taut, he found purchase on the icy rope and began climbing higher without pausing for a second. Thomas Blanky moved like the monkey he’d been as an unrated boy of twelve who thought the masts, sails, lines, and upperworks’ rigging of the three-masted warship on which he shipped had all been constructed by Her Majesty solely for his enjoyment.

  He was twenty feet up now, approaching the level of the second spar — this one still set at the proper right angle to the length of the ship — when the thing below hit the base of the man-line rigging again, tearing wood and dowels and pins and ice and iron blocks completely free of the railing.

  The web of climbing rope swung inward toward the mainmast. Blanky knew that the impact would knock him off and send him hurtling down into the thing’s arms and jaws. Still not able to see anything more than five feet away in the blowing dark, the Ice Master leapt for the shrouds.

  His freezing fingers found the spar and its lines under them at the same instant one of his flailing feet caught a foot line. This shroud-line scuttle was best done barefoot, Blanky knew, but not tonight.

  He heaved himself up over the second spar, more than twenty-five feet above the deck, and clung to the icy oak with legs and arms both, the way a terrified rider would cling to the body of a horse, wildly sliding his feet along the ice-hard shroud to find more purchase on the slippery shroud lines.

  Normally, even in the darkness, wind, snow, and hail, any decent sailor could scramble another sixty feet higher into the upperworks and rigging here until he reached the mainmast crosstrees, from which point he could hurl down insults at his stymied pursuer like a chimpanzee in a tall tree throwing down fruit or feces from a point of perfect safety. But there were no upperworks or high rigging on HMS Terror this December night. There was no point of perfect safety up here when fleeing from something so powerful it could smash a main spar. And there was no upperworks rigging to which a man could flee.

  A year ago September, Blanky had helped Crozier and Harry Peglar, Captain of the Foretop, as they prepared Terror for her wintering-over for the second time this expedition. It was not an easy job, nor one without danger. The yards and running rigging were struck down and stored below. Then the topgallant masts and topmasts were carefully struck down — carefully because a slip with winch or block or sudden tangle of tackle could have sent the heavy masts hurtling down through the top deck, lower deck, orlop deck, and hull bottom like a massive spear piercing wicker armour. Ships had sunk from such missteps while striking down upper masts. But if they’d remained up, too many tons of ice would accumulate during the endless winter. The ice would have provided a constant barrage of missiles for the men on watch or other duty on the deck and rigging below, but the weight of it also could capsize a ship.

  With only the three stumps of the lower masts remaining — a sight as ugly to a seaman as a triple-amputee human being might be to a painter of pictures — Blanky had helped supervise the loosening of all remaining shrouds and standing rigging; overly taut canvas and ropes simply could not bear the weight of so much snow and ice. Even Terror’s boats — the two large whaleboats and two smaller cutters, as well as the captain’s skiff, pinnaces, jolly boats, and dinghies, ten in all — had been taken down, inverted, lashed, covered, and stored on the ice.

  Now Thomas Blanky was on the mainmast’s second-spar shrouds twenty-five feet above the deck and had only one level higher to go, and any man lines leading up to that third and last level would be more ice than rope or wood. The mainmast itself was a column of ice with an extra coating of snow on its forward curve. The ice master straddled the second spar and tried to peer down through the darkness and snow. It was pitch black below. Either Handford had extinguished the lantern Blanky had given him or it had been extinguished for him. Blanky assumed that the man was either cowering in the dark or dead; either way he would be no help. Spread-eagled over the spar shrouds, Blanky looked to his left and saw that there still was no light forward in the bow where David Leys had been on watch.

  Blanky strained to see the thing directly below him but there was too much movement — the torn canvas flapping in the dark, kegs rolling on the tilted deck, loose crates sliding — and all he could make out was a dark mass shuffling toward the mainmast, batting aside two- and three-hundred-pound kegs of sand as if they were so many china vases.

  It can’t climb the mainmast, thought Blanky. He could feel the cold of the spar through his straddling legs and chest and crotch. His fingers were beginning to freeze through the thin undergloves. Somewhere he had lost his Welsh wig and wool-scarf comforter. He strained to hear the sound of the forward hatch being unbattened and flung free, to hear shouts and to see lanterns as the rescue party came up in force, but the bow of the ship remained a silent darkness hidden by hurtling snow. Has it somehow blocked the forward hatch as well? At least it can’t climb the mainmast. Nothing that size can climb. No white bear — if it is a white bear — has experience climbing.

  The thing began climbing the attenuated mainmast.

  Blanky felt the vibration as it slammed claws into the wood. He heard the smack and scrape and grunting … a thick, bass grunting … as it climbed.

  It climbed.

  The thing had most probably reached the snapped-off stubs of the first spar just by raising its forearms over its head. Blanky strained to see in the darkness and was sure he could make out the haired and muscled mass hauling itself up headfirst, gigantic forelegs — or arms — as big as a man already flung over the first spar and clawing higher for leverage even while powerful rear legs and more claws there found support on the splintered oak of the spars.

  Blanky inched out farther along the icy second spar, his arms and legs wrapped around the wind-thrummed ten-inch-round horizontal spar in a sort of frenzied lover’s embrace. There were two inches of new snow lining the bow-facing outer curve of the ever-thinning spar and then ice under that. He used the shroud lines for purchase when he could.

  The huge thing on the mainmast had reached the level of Blanky’s spar. The Ice Master could see the bulk of it only by craning to look over his own shoulder and arse and even then could make it out only as a giant, pale absence where the subliminal vertical slash of the mainmast should be.

  Something struck the spar with so much force that Blanky flew up into the air, drop
ping two feet back onto the spar to land hard on his balls and belly, the impact on the spar and folds of frozen shroud knocking the wind out of him. He would have fallen then if both freezing hands and his right boot hadn’t been firmly entangled in the shroud lines just below the icy underside of the spar. As it was, it felt like a horse made of cold iron had bucked him two feet into the air.

  The blow came again and would have launched Blanky out into the darkness thirty feet above the deck, but he was prepared for this second smash and clung with all his might. Even ready as he was, the vibration was so forceful that Blanky slipped off and swung helplessly under the icy spar, numb fingers and kicking boot still mixed in with the shroud lines there. He managed to leverage himself back on top of the spar just as the third and most violent blow struck. The Ice Master heard the cracking, felt the solid spar begin to sag, and realized that he had only seconds before he and the spar, the shroud, the shroud lines, the ratlines, and the wildly swinging man lines all fell more than twenty-five feet to the pitched deck and tumbled debris below.

  Blanky did the impossible. On the pitching, cracking, tilted and icy spar, he got to his knees, then to his feet, standing with both arms waving comically and absurdly for balance in the howling wind, boots slipping on the snow and ice, and then he hurled himself into space with arms and hands extended, seeking one of the invisible hanging ratlines that should be — might be — could be — somewhere there, allowing for the ship’s down-at-the-bow attitude, for the howling wind, for the impact of the blowing snow on the thin lines, and for the possible effects of the vibration from the thing’s ongoing shattering of the mainmast’s second level of spars.

  His hands missed the single hanging line in the dark. His freezing face hit it, and as he fell, Thomas Blanky grabbed the line with both hands, slid only six feet lower along its icy length, and then began frantically to hook and haul himself up toward the third and final height of spar on the foreshortened mainmast, less than fifty feet above the deck.

  The thing roared beneath him. Then came another roar as the second spar, shrouds, tackle, and lines let go and crashed to the deck. The louder of the two roars had been from the monster clinging to the mainmast.

  This ratline was a simple rope which usually hung about eight yards out from the mainmast. It was meant for descending quickly from the crosstrees or upper spars, not for climbing. But Blanky climbed it. Despite the fact that the line was ice-covered and blowing in the snow and despite the fact that Thomas Blanky could no longer feel the fingers on his right hand, he climbed the ratline like a fourteen-year-old midshipman larking in the upperworks with the other ship’s boys after supper on a tropical evening.

  He couldn’t pull himself onto the top spar — it was simply too coated with ice — but he found the shroud lines there and shifted from the ratline to the loosened, folded shroud beneath the spar. Ice broke away and hurtled to the deck below. Blanky imagined — or hoped — that he heard a tearing and banging forward, as if Crozier and the crewmen were hacking their way out of the forward battened hatch with axes.

  Clinging like a spider to the frozen shrouds, Blanky looked down and to his left. Either the driving snow had let up or his night vision had improved, or both. He could see the mass of the monster. It was climbing steadily to his third and final spar level. The shape was so big on the mainmast that Blanky thought it looked like a large cat climbing a very thin tree trunk. Except, of course, thought Blanky, it looked nothing at all like a cat save for the fact that it was climbing by slamming claws deep into ice and royal oak and iron bands that a midweight cannonball could not have penetrated.

  Blanky continued edging outward along the shroud, dislodging ice as he went and causing the frozen shroud lines and canvas to creak like overly starched muslin.

  The giant shape behind him had reached the level of the third spar. Blanky felt the spar and shrouds vibrate and then sag as a portion of that massive weight on the mast was shifted to the spars on either side. Imagining the thing’s huge forelegs thrown over the spars, imagining a paw the size of his chest freeing itself to slam into the thinner spar up here, Blanky crawled and crabbed faster, almost forty feet out from the mast now, already beyond the edge of the deck fifty feet below. A seaman falling from this far out on the spar or shrouds when working the sails would fall into the sea. If Blanky fell, it would be onto the ice more than sixty feet below.

  Something snagged Blanky’s face and shoulders — a net, a spiderweb, he was trapped — and for a second he came close to screaming. Then he realized what it was — the man lines, the threaded squares of primary climbing rope from the railing to the second crosstrees, rerigged for winter to the top of the stump of the mainmast so that work parties could dislodge ice up here. This was the starboard man-line rigging that had been, impossibly, smashed free of its multiple moorings along the rail and deck by two blows of the thing’s giant claws. Thick enough with ice now that the squares of interlaced rope acted like small sails, the loosened man lines had blown far out to the starboard side of the ship.

  Once again, Blanky acted before allowing himself time to think about the action. To think about this next move, sixty feet and more above the ice, was to decide not to do it.

  He threw himself from the crackling shrouds onto the swinging man-line rigging.

  As he’d known it would, his sudden weight swung the lines back toward the mainmast. He passed within a foot of the huge, hairy mass at the T of spars. It was too dark to see much more than the terrible general shape of it, but a triangular head as large as Thomas Blanky’s torso whipped around on a neck too long and serpentine to be of this world and there was a loud SNAP as teeth longer than Blanky’s frozen fingers clamped shut on the air he’d just swung through. The Ice Master inhaled the breath of the thing — a carnivore and predator’s hot rotten-meat exhalation, not the fishy stink Blanky had noticed coming from the open maws of the polar bears they’d shot and skinned on the ice. This was the hot stench of decaying human flesh mixed with sulfur, as warm as the blast from a steam boiler’s open hearth.

  At that instant Thomas Blanky realized that the seamen whom he’d silently cursed as being superstitious fools had been right; this thing from the ice was as much demon or god as it was animal flesh and white fur. It was a force to be appeased or worshipped or simply fled.

  He’d half-expected the manrope rigging swinging below him to become stuck in the stub of the spars down there, or to snag in the port-side spar or shrouds as he swung past the centreline — then all the creature had to do was reel him in like a big fish in a net — but the momentum of his weight and twisting swung him out fifteen feet or more past and to the port side of the mainmast.

  Now the man-line rigging was preparing to swing him back into the huge left forearm that he could see extending through the blowing snow and darkness.

  Blanky twisted, threw his weight forward toward the bow, felt the clumsy torn rigging follow his inertia, and then he was swinging both legs free, flailing and kicking for the third-level spar on this side.

  His left boot found it as he swung above it. The lug soles slipped on ice and the boot went past, but when the man line swung back toward the stern, both boots found the ice-coated spar and he pushed with all the energy in his legs.

  The tangled web of man line swung back past the mainmast, but now in a curving arc toward the stern. Blanky’s legs were hanging free, still kicking against empty air fifty feet above the ruined tent and stores below, and he arched his back in close to the ropes as he swung toward the mainmast and the thing waiting for him there.

  Claws sliced the air not five inches from his back. Even in his terror, Blanky marveled — he knew that the arc of his kick had put almost ten feet of air between him and the mainmast as he swung past. The thing must have sunk the claws of its right paw — or hand, or talon, or Devil’s nails — into the mast itself while hanging almost free and swinging six feet or more of massive left arm at him.

  But it had missed.

It would not miss again when Blanky swung back to the centre.

  Blanky grabbed the edge of the man-line rigging and slid down it as quickly he would a free line or ratline, his numbed fingers tearing against the cross ropes, each impact threatening to throw him off the rigging and out into darkness.

  The man line had reached the apogee of its outer arc, somewhere beyond the starboard railing, and was starting to swing back.

  Still too high, thought Blanky as the tangle of rope rigging above him swung back to the mainmast.

  The creature easily caught the rigging as it reached the midline of the ship, but Blanky was twenty feet below that level now, using his frozen hands on the crossropes to scramble lower.

  The thing began dragging the entire mass of rigging up to it.

  This is God-fucking wondrous awful, Thomas Blanky had time to think as the entire ton or ton and a half of ice-encrusted manrope and human being began being pulled upward as easily and surely as if a fisherman were hauling up his net after a casting.

  The Ice Master did what he had planned in the last ten seconds of inward swing, sliding lower on the rigging at the same time he shifted his weight back and forward — picturing himself a boy on a rope swing — increasing his lateral arc even as the thing above pulled him higher. As fast as he clambered down while he swung, the thing hauled him an equal distance closer. He would reach the bottom of the manrope rigging about the time the creature hauled him in and still be fifty feet in the air.

  But there was still enough slack that he could arc twenty feet to starboard, both hands on the vertical lines, legs straightening against the cross-rigging. He closed his eyes and regained the image of a boy on a rope swing.

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