Short Story: Izcacus

Izcacus


Izcacus
by Brian Niemeier


Veronica Fulbright <vkpfarrer@milehighexpeditions.co.nz>          April 14 (7 months ago)
to me

Dear Mr. Sharp,

I’m in the market for an expert climber and guide. My husband always spoke highly of your abilities.

I need a team leader for an expedition I’m planning. The climb will involve moderate to difficult rock, snow, and ice terrain at altitudes up to 5000 metres. Further details will have to wait. Suffice it to say that we’ll be among the first—if not the first—to bag this peak.

Planning is (obviously) still in process, but I’ve set a target departure date of 27 May. I apologise for the short notice, but I’m under various restrictions that can’t be helped. I would appreciate a reply at your earliest possible convenience.

Best,
Veronica


Eddie Sharp <mountainmaneddie@georaider.com>                    14 April (7 months ago)
to me

Veronica, great to hear from you. For what it’s worth, I was sorry to hear about Wil. We competed as much as we cooperated, but he was a damn fine climber and a good man.

Unless my hunch is way off, your coyness about the destination makes sense. Consider me interested (unless this is Lars or Eric using you to pull my chain, in which case fuck them).

Not that it’s much safer, but you can call me at the office if you want. I’m sure Wil had the number.

P.S. Full disclosure: I’ll be in New York next week meeting other potential clients. Depending on what you’ve got to offer, I may tell them to shove it.

Condolences,
Eddie


Dr. F. Teller Austen
716 ½ White Oak Ave.
Cross Plains, TX 76443

April 23, 2014

Mr. Edward Sharp
President & CEO
GeoRaider Consultants
873 Packer Ct.
Ste. 401
Denver, CO, 80239

Dear Mr. Sharp;

Regarding your letter of April 20, it is with no regret that I decline your offer of employment.

Contrary to certain vicious rumors, my circumstances aren’t nearly so dire as to risk committing myself to your dubious leadership. For the life of me, sir, I cannot imagine what possessed you to approach me in the first place. Either your many detractors understate your arrogance, or you hoped my mental faculties sound enough to abet your scheme, yet enfeebled enough not to see your folly.

As for your assumption that we’re “in the same boat,” you clearly need a lesson in the difference between disfavor and dishonor. To wit: I stepped down voluntarily when confronted with the risk of harming those in my care. You persistently place yourself and others in harm’s way due to a spiritual infirmity of which you seem ignorant.

I can only express dismay at Mrs. Pfarrer’s lapse in judgment. She may be blind to your rashness, but I am too old for it, however fat the purse. I extend her the credit of bereavement, though reassuming one’s maiden name, likely before one’s husband has completely frozen, suggests a degree of indifference toward his memory.

This will be my final correspondence on this matter, and I will tolerate none from you, Mrs. Pfarrer, or her principals. No monetary reward is worth involving myself in the commission of a crime—because that’s what you’re asking of me, if we cut the B.S.

If, from the time of this writing, I receive so much as a postcard from any of you, I will have my attorney contact the US State Department and the Russian and Georgian embassies to inform them of your criminal conspiracy. As it is, only my respect for Wilhelm Pfarrer dissuades me from seeing his widow jailed.

Courtesy demands that I wish you luck in finding another expert in both mountaineering and high altitude medicine, but if the lack will forestall this madness, then I pray you find no one so desperate or foolish.

Yours Truly,


Dr. F. T. Austen


Caucasus scenery


Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 28 May

Wednesday.

I watched the eastern sky turn red-gold behind the Bezengi Wall on our descent, but night lingered in the mountains’ shadow until long after landing. The wind was cool and carried the scent of beech forests as bittersweet as the memories it brought.

Mestia gave me a severe case of culture shock. The airport is just a gravel strip and a tower that looks like a postmodern sculpture inspired by a mac peripheral. Mediaeval towers jut up all over town like the splintered ribs of something huge and half-buried.

The lodgings are filled with refugees from the ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia (even though there’s not much stopping the war finding them here). Eddie calls guilt an occupational risk of climbing in the Third World. He says you learn to ignore it. But I can't meet these people's tired, fearful eyes.

We’ve temporarily set up shop at a campground on the outskirts. The dodgy security and lack of amenities are what’s driven most climbers to the Russian side, which is exactly why we’re starting from Georgia.

Everybody’s getting on well enough—better than expected in Austen’s case. I don’t know how the client convinced him to come, and I don’t want to know. Still, Eddie can be rather abrasive sometimes. I should keep a close watch on them both.

Eddie’s nosing about for a guide who’s got firsthand knowledge of the southeast Bezengi Glacier, and Austen’s gone off to hire a Jeep. (I told them I’m staying behind to make sure our supplies are packed properly, and there’s plenty of time for that after I’ve rung Stavropol.)

The next leg takes us through the Svaneti region along the Inguri River road. From there most climbers follow the trekking route to Shkhara—which is our plan too, if anyone asks.

The client wants results, but the more I try to focus on business, the more I find myself staring up at that saw-toothed ridge. I can’t help picturing Wil trudging around some glacier up there. My excitement almost overwhelms my fear.


GeoRaider Blog
Starring Eddie Sharp

Hey, sports fans! Sorry for the prolonged media blackout, but there’s a method to my madness, as you’ll soon see.

I’m actually writing this on May 28 and scheduling it to be posted in three weeks. Why keep my public waiting? Well, some of you took Monday’s post to mean that I’ve been gearing up for a major expedition, and now I can confirm your deductions. (I’ve always said I have the smartest readers on the planet.) This time, the prize is a major Caucasian peak (and I don’t mean it’s white…okay it is, but white like snow, not like Ward Cleaver).

Following me so far?

Good.

So when somebody mentions the Caucasus, most mountaineers would think of Elbrus, Dykh-Tau, or Shkhara. And in this case, they’d be wrong. Some of the old-timers on this blog are probably onto me by now, and are doing top-notch largemouth bass impressions. For the sake of the newbs out there, here’s a little story.

Climbers started invading the Caucasus in the 1880s after Graham’s conquest of Dent du Geant left nothing worth doing in the Alps. The silver age climbers conquered every major Caucasian peak they could find in pretty short order before heading off to the Himalayas.

What’s interesting is they missed a few. The Caucasus’ greater height, remoteness, and political instability have always made them far less accessible than the Alps. There are still Caucasian peaks over 4000 meters that don’t have official names.

I can hear some of you saying, “Big deal! That’s nothing you can’t learn from five minutes on a wiki.” Well here’s something that no amount of web research could teach you—until now.

Back in the 20s, the Russians sealed a pass that used to run through the mountains from Georgia. The route had always been obscure, but thanks to a little dynamite and a lot of rock, it ceased to exist. That landslide cut off a whole massif from the outside world for almost a century.

But it gets even better! In the early 70’s a Chinese climber named Huan Yu gave a talk at the London Alpine Club on his involvement in the ’52 Russian Everest attempt. Huan claimed that the Soviets had run their Himalayan training regime out of a Red Army base in the Caucasus. He also let slip that a team had gone missing on an “uncharted mountain over 5000 meters” near the north Bezengi Massif. Allegedly, no search was conducted because it would’ve meant sending rescuers into “forbidden territory”.

Tales of a “Caucasian Shambhala” have met with rising skepticism over the last 10-15 years, mainly from young inexperienced types. For once I think it’s fair to blame the internet. Granted, you won’t find the missing five-thousander on any modern maps (since the Russians keep it off of hardcopies, flight paths, satellite photos, and online mapping services). There are grainy snapshots taken from neighboring peaks, but pictures are easy to fake these days.

Me, I’ve got all the proof I need from Wil Pfarrer. Despite our heated debates on this blog and elsewhere, if he said the mountain’s real, I take it as gospel. But I don’t have to, because it was real enough to kill him.

Some of you might still lump the Caucasian Shambhala in with El Dorado and the Kangchenjunga Demon, but I’m willing to put my mouth where my money is.

That’s right. I’m so sure that there’s an unconquered 5000 meter peak somewhere in the Caucasus that I’m on my way to climb it.

Hence the posting delay. The Russians still consider the area off limits, but by the time they read this, I’ll have been to the summit and back and will probably be hosting a slideshow at GRHQ.

Assuming I don’t get thrown in jail or buried in an avalanche, expect to see plenty of pictures on Friday.

Posted 2014/06/18 at 14:00 MDT.


Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 29 May

Thursday.

I can’t say I’m pleased with Eddie at the moment.

First, Ed the “Mountain Man” waits until we’ve landed in the Dark Ages to tell me he’s got no experience with the southeast Bezengi Glacier. He assures me it’s no problem; he’ll hire a local. Later he swaggers up to me, all smiles, and announces he’s found a guide. He just needs another grand.

So I give him the money, possibly due to hypoxia. What does Eddie do? He comes waltzing back into camp with a dodgy looking Armenian tagging along like some mangy stray.

No worries, says Eddie. Yves here is the real deal! He saw alpine combat during the USSR’s breakup. Been guiding teams all over these hills ever since.

Now, after a bum-numbing ride through the Land that Time Forgot, Saraphian turns what was supposed to be our final planning session into a row when he says he doesn’t know Izcacus.

I ask him who the bloody hell Izcacus is. In that porridge-thick drawl of his, Saraphian explains that Izcacus means Blood-Drinker. Apparently that’s our destination’s local name.

Austen, ever the legalist, says he thought the mountain didn’t have a name. Saraphian puts on a superstitious villager act worthy of a Hammer film and actually says that the locals avoid speaking the mountain’s name for fear of bad luck.

Austen throws a fit. Eddie rambles on about how lots of peaks have spooky names, like Death Mountain in the Urals and Nanga Parbat’s playful “Man Eater” nickname. Somehow, Austen doesn’t seem appeased.

Saraphian finally defused the situation by recommending yet another guide—an American named Steve Herzog who’s studying effects of Soviet-era pollution. Saraphian makes Herzog sound like an eco-terrorist, but ambivalence for the law highly recommends him for this team.

Saraphian advises hiking to Bezengi base camp, where he’s sure we’ll find Herzog. I’m already in so deep that there’s nothing for it but to let Saraphian earn his guide fee.

What am I doing here? Everything smells like goat, and it’s impossible to get a decent claret.

Why couldn’t you have had a proper job, Wil—or at least better business sense? If you’d screened your clientele more carefully, you’d still be alive, and I’d still be in Fairlie!


Diary of Yves Saraphian – 30 May

David,

Please forgive my long silence, brother. I have not written because not much has changed. There is always fighting. Once it was in Azerbaijan. Now it is in Abkhazia. The Svaneti region reminds me of home. Apart from that, I like it.

I write again because a new thing has happened. Westerners have come and hired me for their expedition. That is not so new. What is new is that they wish to climb Izcacus.

You would chide me for joining them. The war took your life before it could take your belief. I sometimes envy you that, but I could not do my job if I still believed the tales of the priests.

The villagers share those superstitions. They act as if the plague were banished only yesterday—as if the carriers did not perish when the Russians sealed the pass.

I tell people here they do not know the way of the world. The same Turks who brought disease here attempted genocide against my people. Others tried to destroy our nation when the Soviet Union fell. I have killed and watched men die. Ghosts from the past are nothing.

My clients are strange, even for Westerners. I called them all Americans at first, but the woman corrected me. She calls herself after a fruit or bird, but to me all English-speakers sound the same: loud and arrogant.

One—the man called Sharp—is more arrogant than the others. He says he is a famous climber, but I have not heard of him. He colors his hair brown to hide the grey and preens like a teenage boy around the woman, but he pays well.

The doctor is older, but strong. They say he has made many climbs, and I believe them. He glares at Sharp and mutters to himself. Sometimes his hands shake.

They climb Izcacus because the woman’s husband went there and did not return. For all I know, he is rotting in a Russian prison. His wife gives us orders, but she sounds, looks, and smells nervous. I know these signs from the war.

The others became angry when I told them I have never been to Izcacus. Sharp only said he wanted someone to guide them on the glacier. I am confident in surveying the mountain to find a route, but that is not enough for them. So I will take them to Herzog.

I am not afraid. But the sooner I finish this job, the better.


Izcacus

Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – May 31

Saturday.

9 AM: According to this morning’s measurements, the glacier has receded 12 m compared to samples taken from the same location this time last year. DDT, dioxins, and heavy metals are present in higher than normal concentrations.

1 PM: Yves Saraphian was waiting for me back at Bezengi base camp. I was surprised to see him, if not entirely happy. I’m grateful he got me out of hot water with those Russian border guards, but he never lets me forget it.

Sure enough, Saraphian’s here to call in the favor. He’s searching for Wil Pfarrer’s body—with a team that includes Pfarrer’s widow (she’s kind of attractive in a well-preserved news anchor sort of way). I remember hearing the reports when he disappeared. Damn shame. I’d be all for helping them if they weren’t searching Izcacus.

Saraphian accused me of superstition. I assured him that my break with the faith was as clean as his, albeit for different reasons. Ockham warned against invoking unnecessary entities, and rustic curses worry me less than another run-in with the FSB.

Easy solution: play chicken. Quote such an inflated guide fee that Fulbright will be nuts not to blink first.


Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 2

We set out on the glacier the morning after meeting Herzog (and paying him enough to fund his research for the rest of the year).

The temperature’s rising, but it’s plenty cold enough to induce hypothermia. On the map, the glacier looked like a curvy line wending southeast, but up close it’s a maze of scree and fang-like ice pillars. Mountain faces on every side make it easy to forget the outside world exists. The wind’s so loud that the guy next to you has to shout to be heard.

It was late afternoon when we neared the path that Saraphian said leads to the mountain. An avalanche had blocked the way. Just our luck.

That’s when Herzog started earning his outlandish fee. He led us back a mile to a low saddle. The way up was a gentle snow slope, but the other side turned out to be a steep descent over icy rock. Yours truly spotted the best way down.

It was dark before we all made the descent, and a nasty snowstorm blew in afterward.

The next morning I opened my tent and became one of the few Westerners to see Izcacus.

It was like seeing my hopes vindicated. My shout woke the others, who might’ve complained if they hadn’t seen what I saw: an ashen, snow-marbled pyramid thrusting upward from the collision of four serrated ridges. The snow had stopped, but the peak was lost in the clouds. I could tell that, wherever it was, the summit easily rose above 5000 meters.

The others reacted in different ways. Veronica stared as though expecting to see something. Austen looked as poleaxed as a skeptic who’d bumped into Sasquatch. Saraphian crossed himself. A moment later, so did Herzog.

We’re up around 3000 meters now. I was worried about Austen, but the altitude’s hardly slowed the old guy down. He advised us to spend a few days acclimatizing. So, we’re searching the glacier at the mountain’s base. Avalanches may have swept remnants of Wil’s expedition off the mountain, as the stench on the wind suggests.

I knew what this job could mean, but being out in some of the remotest wilderness on earth can sour you on the prospect of hauling a colleague’s body from a crevasse. Think I’ll dedicate my summit bid to Wil.


Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 4 June

Wednesday.

Not so much as a glove’s turned up on the glacier. I should be disappointed, but I’m relieved.

Herzog thinks the bodies are down a crevasse where we can’t reach them. He attributes the ghastly stench to animal remains—not that we’ve found any of those, either.

Eddie insists on checking the slopes to be sure. Normally I’d agree despite his clear case of summit fever, but I get chills looking at that monster looming over me. It’s unnatural—or rather too inhumanly natural, like hurricanes or the void of space. The satellite phone is small comfort, knowing who’s waiting on the other end.

Herzog and Saraphian bowed to Eddie’s taunts, and Austen says we’re acclimatized. Looks like I’m past the point of no return.


Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 5

Thursday.

6 PM: Good progress today. The route we picked took us up the west flank of the south ridge. We made camp in a snow field at around 4000 meters with cliffs on two sides sheltering us from that shrieking wind. The lower slopes are unseasonably free of snow (indicative of warming climate?), so avalanche risk is minimal.

Seems we’re not the first to try this route. Veronica found ropes in a chimney about a hundred meters above us. They’re modern lines—the same brand that Wil preferred, she says.

Whoever fixed those ropes was climbing faster than us, which makes sense considering Austen’s age and Veronica’s inexperience. Hell, even I’m feeling a little woozy. Must be rustier than I thought.

Sharp figures the previous team camped on the ridgeline just below the shoulder. He wanted to go up the chimney, but Austen says there’s too little daylight for a technical climb. I agree. Better to tackle it fresh in the morning.

Sharp’s drive to keep climbing is understandable. Those ropes were the first signs of life since we entered the valley. I don’t know what’s worse: the earsplitting racket when the wind’s blowing, or the deathly quiet when it’s not.


Team Physician’s Notes – June 6

Friday.

12:00 AM: Altitude 13,120 ft. Weather clear. Temperature 0° F. O2 level 12.5%.

Rose and met Sharp and Fulbright exiting the latter’s tent. They admitted sleeping little. Saraphian checking the gear. Reported fatigue and shortness of breath normal for this altitude.

Herzog still asleep. We roused him with difficulty, and he awoke gasping for air. Moderately hypoxic. No other signs of pulmonary edema. I advised Herzog to stay in camp and rest. He said he’ll see how he feels once he’s up and about. I advised him to stay hydrated. He said he would.

12:31 AM: Breakfast. Even instant coffee tastes and smells irresistible at this point. Its value as a bronchodilator outweighs any diuretic effects.

1:06 AM: Setting out for the day’s climb. Herzog has improved and is with us.

5:32 AM: We made it onto the ridge by the skin of our teeth. Fulbright slipped in the chimney and pulled everyone off the slope above. Only Sharp prevented the worst. He grabbed hold of the fixed rope and belayed us until we got our grip again. Thank God for Wil Pfarrer! It’s a miracle that old rope held. For the record, I take back any aspersions I cast on Eddie Sharp’s abilities.

No injuries except a few bruises and Fulbright’s faulty crampon, which caused the fall when a binding broke. Saraphian probably missed it due to mild hypoxia. I told him to be more careful.

6:16 AM: Altitude: 14,470 ft. Wind’s gusting. Black clouds to the north.

No sign of Pfarrer’s team. Sharp insists they camped here, since going any farther would’ve put them in an avalanche zone. Saraphian thinks the camp was swept off the hill or buried.

Fulbright wants us to press on. Seconded by Sharp. Saraphian and I oppose. Herzog wants to study a shrinking serac up on the shoulder. He’s identified a route leading up.

7:38 AM: Setting out again.

10:03 AM: Altitude: 15,049 ft. The weather’s taking a turn for the worse. Heavy snow reducing visibility. The temperature’s risen since dawn, but the wind’s pummeling us.

10:46 AM: Found cave along the route. Entrance mostly blocked with snow. Trying to clear it.

2:15 PM: Wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself.

Cave interior strewn with human remains. Smells like the meat locker where my uncle kept a wild hog carcass. Corpses not from Pfarrer’s team. Much older. Strange maxillary deformities. Body near the center immaculately preserved. Male in late 30s – early 40s. Frozen solid, but no frostbite. Complexion ruddy. Wool coat ca. early last century too thin for this climate. Saraphian agitated. Talking rapidly and cursing. Says this man was a Turk. We’ve probably found Ottoman refugees left stranded when Russians closed the pass.

Sharp, Fulbright, and Herzog rummaged around. Turned up some gloves, bits of rope, a knife, and the like. Nothing here postdates the 20s except for modern boot prints. Not all of them ours.


Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 6 June

Friday.

We made camp on the shoulder. No one knows I found Wil’s journal in the cave. I’m shivering in my tent. I wish I were just cold.

The cave made me fear this mountain. Wil’s notes make a night descent in the storm sound preferable to spending another minute here.

I know how my husband died, though closure brings no comfort. Let Wil’s body rest forever in the abyss like he wanted. Better to leave him down there than risk disturbing what he took with him. Let the world keep thinking he never brought his clients to harm, however good his reasons.

I’ve held my satellite phone and contemplated calling the first saved number a dozen times tonight. I could tell them we found nothing, but my concrete fear of disappointing the client still trumps my abstract fear of that ruddy corpse..


Izcacus peak


Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 7

Summit Day:

Overslept a bit. Frankly, I needed it after yesterday’s weirdness. The storm blew over and laid down fresh powder, but the increased avalanche risk is minimal. Temperature holding steady. Air’s so thin it’s like breathing through a coffee stirrer.

Veronica still hadn’t left her tent by the time everyone else was ready to go. I barely got her to budge. She said she wasn’t feeling well and chose to stay behind. Austen volunteered to stay with her. I could’ve shown more solidarity, but that pearly white peak was calling my name.

Me, Saraphian, and Herzog made our summit bid. A few hours in, I got this crazy notion that the snow had turned to sand and the blue sky was really a tropical sea. The mountain was clearly messing with my head, so I decided to try a little jiu-jitsu. I promised myself a trip to Barbados if I made it to the top.

Bribing myself worked! At 2:26 PM I became the first man to summit Izcacus. Cold and tired as I was, I couldn’t resist taking in the magical view. The Bezengi Wall rose to the southwest like a crooked white blade, and the Russian foothills marched northward in green and brown columns. Clouds on the western horizon hid Dykh-Tau’s peak.

Conquering this hill has been a real achievement, which I dedicate to Wilhelm Pfarrer. For all I know, I’m repeating a feat he never got to tell the world about.

Herzog, then Saraphian, summited after me. We shot some photos, and Herzog took some snow samples. Riding high on success.

It’s after three. We’re starting down.


Diary of Yves Saraphian – 7 June

David,

Today I stood on the summit of Izcacus with two foolish men. The dread from the cave drove away any joy I might have felt.

These men embody the Western mind’s habit of forgetting anything it finds unpleasant. They disregard the horror we found yesterday and busy themselves posturing or searching for poisons in the snow. I think that cave harbours a worse poison.

We returned to camp after dark, wind-burned and weary. The doctor came out and said Fulbright is getting worse. Aches, nausea, and a high fever.

Dr. Austen went to get supplies around noon, and Fulbright’s tent was filled with smoke when he got back, so he put her in his. We checked her tent, and it smells of smoke inside. There is burned paper on the stove, but no one can tell what it was.

Dr. Austen showed us a knife he found in Fulbright’s tent. It is old with dark stains that are not rust. I realized it was the knife from the cave and felt like I was sinking into the snow. Austen asked Fulbright why she had it, but she claimed not to know it was there.

I told the others that we should get off the mountain now. Austen said Fulbright can’t climb down, especially not in the dark. I said leave her. Sharp called me a coward and lunged at me, but Herzog held him back. Now they say wait and see how Fulbright is tomorrow. Fools.


Team Physician’s Notes – June 8

Sunday.

6:03 AM: Altitude 15,800 ft. Gale-force winds, heavy snow. Temperature 4° F. O2 level 11.2%.

Blizzard started around 9:00 PM. Wind beating the tent like a kettle drum kept me up all night. Patient’s fever has risen to 104. She’s drifting in and out of consciousness, mumbling gibberish and complaining of pain. Lack of cough and congestion argues against HAPE. Suspect a virus.

7:17 AM: Inspected patient for cause of infection. Found three-inch long diagonal cut on her left shoulder blade. Wound site highly inflamed. She claims no memory of being cut. Wound’s location makes self-infliction unlikely. Patient’s clothing undamaged.

Examined knife found in patient’s tent. Two stains on blade. A dark sticky substance, possibly blood. The other is certainly blood, and fresh.

12:22 PM: Saraphian came inquiring about Fulbright’s condition. I told him that even if she were fit to travel, which she’s not, we’d still have to wait out the storm. He argued for leaving her but shut up and turned white as a sheet when her babbling started again. I asked what was eating him, and he bolted into the storm ranting about Fulbright speaking Turkish.

Saraphian’s right about one thing. We must get to a lower altitude soon—for his sake.


Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 8

Sunday.

6 PM: I’m hesitant to write this down. What decided me was knowing that we’re all tired and oxygen starved. I want to record the details so I can examine them later with a clear head.

Austen came to my tent about an hour ago. His face was lined and weather-beaten—the first time since we met that he’s looked his age. I asked, half-joking, what was worth braving the storm to bother me about. He put on the look surgeons wear when they tell you the patient didn’t make it. He said Veronica had asked for me—to hear her confession.

I admit that my gut response was indignation. I may have quoted Michael Corleone. I know I said that summiting had taxed me too much to go out in the storm. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how Veronica knew I’d been a priest.

Austen’s a patient guy. Though a man of science, and a Baptist, he showed more respect for Veronica’s wishes than I did. Realizing that sobered me up. I told him I could only administer the sacrament to a Catholic, or at least a baptized Christian who agrees with Church doctrine on the matter. Austen said Veronica had converted when she’d married Wil, though he wasn’t sure how serious she’d been.

I fell back on my last defense. Without priestly faculties, I can only hear someone’s confession in a life-or-death emergency. I asked Austen if Veronica’s case qualified, and he just nodded.

That’s how I found myself trundling through frigid, near whiteout conditions to Austen’s tent. The sickroom scent hit me when I opened the flap, and when I saw Veronica’s red swollen face peeking from the mummy wraps of her sleeping bag, I knew she’d been right to send for me.

8 PM: Austen came and told me that Veronica passed. He’s sure it was a virus, and he’s torn over what to do next. His fear is that those corpses we found died of the same disease—the one the Russians dynamited a pass to contain—and that we’re at risk of infection. He says it’s happened before. Frozen bodies found in the Alps contained viable Spanish Flu particles.

Alpine tradition calls for burying Veronica in a crevasse, but Austen asked about the ethics of keeping the body for research. Her tent’s been without heat for more than a day, making it perfect for cold storage. He thinks it’ll help, so I hid my misgivings.

The Church and I may have grown apart, but I’d rather be shot than violate the seal of confession. Was what happened between me and Veronica sacramental? It was close enough that I didn’t tell Austen. It’s why I feel dirty writing this now.

Veronica was delirious when I came to her bedside. She alternated between incoherent mumbling and tearful pleading for the pain to stop. I thought it was me she was begging. I’m less sure now.

I tried coaxing her back to lucidity. Several minutes passed without success, so I decided to begin the sacrament. The instant I made the sign of the cross, her whole demeanor changed. She fell quiet. Her dull, half-closed eyes were suddenly wide open and piercing. Her face looked like an old painting with the eyes cut out and someone else staring at me from behind it.

She told me things then, calmly and in exquisite detail—shameful things only I and the chalice chippers from seminary should know.

God forgets absolved sins. A retired exorcist warned me about those who don’t forget—the counsel for the prosecution. They can’t make us do evil. They tempt us to condemn ourselves.

I asked if I was speaking with someone who died in the cave. She said he wasn’t dead. She said we won’t be either.

I’m tired and thinking’s hard. I won’t write what else Veronica said. It might be her fever or my hypoxia. Just in case I got the box of salt from my pack and blessed it.


Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 9

Monday.

11 AM: The storm finally broke. I’m going out to give Veronica last rites. Who knows when death really occurs?

2 PM: Saint Michael defend us in battle. Cast into hell the evil spirits who seek the ruin of souls. Goes something like that.

Veronica’s tent was cool, not cold. Smelled like a slaughterhouse. No reason it should have since her stove was gone—along with her body.

I must’ve cried out because the others came running, or as close as you can get to running in knee-deep snow.

Snow without any footprints

Sharp was livid. He thought someone threw Veronicas body off the mountain. Soften it up first in the heat. I think he suspected me.

Saraphian muttered about hearing voices coming from Veronica’s tent last night. Sharp demanded he say it out loud. Saraphian laid into him, shouting that everything had been wrong since the cave and that Veronica was speaking like the diseased Turks.

Sharp exploded. He accused Saraphian of cutting Veronica to get her sick and make us leave. They nearly came to blows, but Austen broke them up. Sharp turned on Austen, saying he’s senile and no wonder they took his lisence. Austen said we’ve been up here too long and it’s effecting our judgment.

Now Sharp thinks Veronica’s not dead. He thinks she wandered off in the storm and wants us to go look for her. Austen said Sharp’s thinking with his pants. I told them to bury the hatchet til after we find her.

Saraphian refused to join the search. He was red-faced and shaking. Said to leave the izcacus and get off the mountain. Sharp told Saraphian to climb down alone. I said you don’t leave your people behind. Sharp said we could go and he’d search alone. Austen agreed to help search to prove Sharp wrong about Veronica.

Saraphian went quiet.

3 PM: We’re going out to look for Veronica. Saraphian’s with us. He says he’s resigned to fate, but my presense gives him comfort.


Diary of Yves Saraphian – 9 June

David I am in the Russian tent. Should have turned back like Sharp said. He’s as good as dead now. The rest of us scattered.

The cave was warm. Reeked like an open grave in summer. Our escape was a miracle. My ice axe did nothing. But Herzog I think threw salt and she fell at his words. I lost him when they swarmed us.

I ran don’t know which way. Doctor and I somehow found old tent at the same time. Red army markings. More than fifty years old but kettle still on stove waiting for climbers’ return. It smells clean. Not like a tomb. We are cold but afraid to light the fire.

The storm is starting again. With luck we are too lost for the blood-drinkers to find us.


chopper crash

Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 9 (?)

Lots of climbers die no one knows how or where. Not me I won’t be like them. Im writing so they’ll know.

Crawled back to camp. Passed out. Woke up dont know when watch broke in cave. Fucking insane. That SOB Herzog killed her. The others left me for dead but jokes on them I made it back. They didn’t.

Storms got me trapped in my tent. Couldn’t leave anyway. Too tired. Neck’s burning.


Team Physician’s Notes – June 9

Monday.

7:06 PM: Herzog forgot his manners. I buried an ice axe in his arm before I saw it was him barging into the tent. Saraphian raised hell, but I stitched Herzog’s wound and set the bone.

A lot’s happened in a short time. Writing helps me collect my thoughts. And who knows? We might’ve avoided this mess if the folks who came before us hadn’t been so tight-lipped.

This tent was pristine when we found it. Now it’s starting to smell like a locker room. The Russians’ provisions are spoiled, except for their salt. Herzog wants to bless it and spread it around. It’s a damn waste, but he claims to know his business.

I know my business too, which includes diagnosing viral infections. Fulbright had every sign and symptom. The disease that struck the region after WWI is a matter of record.

I’m a man of faith, but Mother Nature never needed the devil’s help to birth horrors. The insect kingdom swarms with parasites that leave their victims hollow thralls. Undeath’s as mundane as malaria.

Herzog mentioned other signs. He has a point. Near the end Fulbright was rambling in florid Turkish, but in Istanbul she couldn’t order lunch without her translator app. Not only that, she told Herzog secrets he thought he’d take to the grave.

Then there’s the matter of how a ninety pound woman held Eddie Sharp helpless as a kitten, especially when he’s the strapping athletic type and she was dead.

Saraphian started mumbling to himself about pagans fearing mountain spirits He’s clearly got baggage he should drop before he snaps. It’s driving his obsession to get Herzog down, but no one’s leaving until we’re sure we’re not plague-bearers.


Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 10 (?)

Burning up. Hurts all over but wound is numb.

Had a weird dream. Dead Turk from the cave was in my tent. So vivid down to his cold hands and packing plant dumpster breath. He says he can stop the pain but I don’t want to give what he wants. Bleeding me dry.

Have to get down before I’m too weak. Wait a few more hours for storm to break. Will attempt descent even if it dosent.


Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 10

Tuesday.

3 AM: stayed awake all night. Doubt Austen and Saraphian got any sleep either.

It’s not just the pain, which went from a sharp throbbing to a constant ache, or the thin air. I’m scared as hell. No ones sure if the axe Austen stabbed me with is the same one Saraphian used on Fulbright. Im watching for symtoms. Hope all I get is a virus.

Being stranded in a freezing stuffy tent gives you time to think. I’ve been thinking back to seminary a lot. My instructors tried to “balance” that old exorcist’s medevilism with modern theories. Said demons are just metaphors for temptation or primitive attempts to explain mental illness.

I used to buy that spiel. I still think its true in most cases. But you test a theory by how well it explains events and in this shitstorm the moderns are pissing in the wind.


Five grades of demonic activity

Temptation: ordinary

Oppression: physical assault scratches, bruises, intense pain

Obsession: mental assault. Tries to wear victim down with depression lewd ideas, despair.

Possession the defenses are down and the demon’s inside. Requires victim’s consent.

Infestation: the most obscure. Best described as demonic attachment to an object or place. A pure intellect doesn’t occupy space it’s anywhere it thinks about.

That last one set me on a scary train of thought. Plenty of rubes mistook illness for demonic activity. what if we mistake possessions for illness?

or what if each side gets it half right sometimes?

The old Scholastics took this stuff seriously. Said that demons can infest objects and control animals. Hell, they can make simple organsms from scratch. Viruses ride the fence between objects and life forms.

What if a demon or a group of demons infested a virus strain? They could hitch a ride into countless hosts control the infection to cause unbearable pain and wear victims down for posession.

And if the host dies, a dead body's an object.


Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 10 (?)

Dozed off. No rest. Dark now and storm still blowing. Cant write much more. Joints on fire. Feels like Im burning up but I know better than to undress.

Keep thinking of Veronicas body in the cave. Ice axe wounds remind me of
No thats wierd. Fevers messing with my head. Got to focus. Ride this out.


Diary of Yves Saraphian – 11 June

David,

Herzog the doctor and I have been trapped in this fetid tent for three days. We have no virus symptoms, but wounds and altitude sickness have left Herzog too weak to descend in the storm.

Our fuel to melt snow is almost gone. The hunger is bad, but without water we are unlikely to survive until the blizzard ends.

I will try to reach camp and return with supplies. Dr. Austen will stay here to look after Herzog who asked for more salt. I said I would bring some.


Diary of Yves Saraphian – 12 June

David

Am I going mad? Would I know it if I were?

It was mad going out in that storm. It beat and screamed at me like an angry drunk. Held my hand at arm’s length and it vanished in the snowfall. an age seemed to pass between each step.

didn’t notice my ice axe missing until I reached an icy cliff. Dug in with crampons and found handholds. Fingers numb. Made descent somehow.

Herzog and I pieced together a rough idea of our camp’s location, but I might have blundered past it in the storm.

I have witnessed miracles on this mountain. Stumbling upon the camp was not the least. The tents were still standing All were empty of men and supplies.

False hope leads to the grimmest despair. the war taught us that, eh David?

Sudden fear urged me to leave that defiled place. Had the snow pack reached its load limit a moment sooner I would not have survived avalanche that swept the tents away. Instead I was left alone in the storm. Path to Russian tent blocked by tons of snow.

The temperature was falling. Dehydration raised the risk of frostbite. Feared losing toes and fingers more than the cave perhaps another sign of madness. But I trudged back to that restless tomb.

Entered the cave like a condemned man mounting the gallows. Fulbright’s eyes greeted me wide open in her corpses face. The stove is gone. The warmth it left fades.

Sleepless night under Fulbright’s glassy stare. I found her journal but English is easier to speak than read. She spoke to me, or I thought she did.

Pale light dawns outside. The storm has broken. I have Fulbright’s ice axe and her satellite phone. Should I call for help? Rescuers may become jailers.

Devils prowl like lions. Hypoxia thirst and exhaustion. There is the route to the Russian tent. Must take it. I cannot leave Herzog and the doctor.


Diary of Yves Saraphian – 12 June

David frostbite makes it hard to write but others must know what became of us.

Found Rusian tent after noon. Feeling half dead. Herzog, Austen gone. Tent cut open—from outside or inside? Signs of struggle. Their notes left behind so I took them.

Mended tent best I could. Spread last of the salt around inner edges. Using last fuel to melt snow warm hands. Now I wait. Never been wearier but dare not sleep.


Diary of Yves Saraphian – 13 June

David

This is my last message. We may speak face-to-face if Christ spares my soul from the Turk and his creatures.

The storm ended last night. I longed for the wind to come back and silence the cruel laughter.

Sleep took me at last. I woke to the sound of something large digging under the tent. Without thinking I fled into the night. I don’t know how far I descended before I slipped and fell. Cracked my ribs, but the sounds of pursuit drove me downward.

At dawn I saw the rocks beside me stained with blood. No other trace of my comrades.

Rotten stone ledge crumbled. Leg broken this time. No further descent.


Resting at lower altitude. Head cleared enough to remember Fulbright’s phone. Screen is cracked. Keypad is broken. I can only call the first saved contact. Rescue may mean arrest, but prison is paradise compared to this frozen hell.


Internal FSB Memo – 12 November

For immediate release to all field agents, special forces personnel, and researchers assigned to Operation Koschei.

Analysis of data recovered from a helicopter that crashed outside Stavropol on 13 June confirms that a conspiracy between Ukrainian nationalists, Wahabist extremists, and organized crime is responsible for the current epidemic.

Pertinent evidence includes the bodies of four passengers. Three have been positively identified from personal effects discovered onsite.

Austen, Fanthorpe T.: American citizen. Former surgeon whose admission of malpractice led to the loss of his medical license. Burned to death after impact.

Saraphian, Yves: Armenian who expatriated to Georgia after serving in the Azerbaijan War. Last to be identified due to advanced decomposition. Suffered broken ribs, fractured right femur, and fatal gunshot to head before crash.

Sharp, Edward: American citizen and partner in alpine touring company. Corpse bloated and flushed when pulled from wreckage. Cause of death unknown, but deep lacerations found on neck below right ear.

Unknown Subject: adult male with dark hair and ruddy complexion. Clothing decades out of date. No identification found. Cause of death: impact trauma/burning.

Notes written by the foreigners and their associates, as well as evidence gathered electronically, reveal that Sharp led an expedition to Mt. Izcacus on the Russian-Georgian border. His client, a New Zealander named Veronica Fulbright, received funding from the Stavropol group. The same group is suspected of financing a prior expedition led by her husband Wilhelm Pfarrer.

It is believed that Fulbright’s backers sought to collect viable samples of the 1922 plague for use in terrorist acts.

Based on these findings, the Border Service is directed to search Mt. Izcacus and its immediate vicinity for additional information, including the remains of Fulbright and team member Stephen Herzog, and artifacts from past expeditions.

Directorates tasked with fighting the epidemic are advised to liaise with members of the Russian Orthodox clergy.

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