The Station Companions

Standard

Andrew saw it first.  About a month into our six-month rotation maintaining the company’s Arctic monitoring station.  He was doing weekly maintenance on all the pumps on the north side when he thought he saw some motion.  At first, he thought he’d just imagined something. 

We’d been up late the night before playing board games after a failed search for some root beer he said he’d seen in one of the storage rooms.  For some reason, we’d both been craving root beer.  So he thought it was one of those hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation.

But then he heard something too, and he held his breath and crept closer.  He almost jumped out of his skin, he said, when he heard the high-pitched whistling and then the gurgling of a leak in one of the pumps.  But the adrenaline rush gave him courage, and he leapt into the corner where he thought he’d seen movement.  He saw nothing there.

There was plenty to occupy his attention with the damaged pump.

His irritation overcame whatever fear he’d felt then.  He thought he was going to get away with approving all the pumps that week.  But the one that had leaked was one he’d already performed a function test on, and it had passed.

We’d been warned that there would be malfunctions here and there, and that whatever the maintenance frequency was for all the equipment in the station, we should double it at least.  The guys who’d given us our orientation said the malfunctions were just idiosyncrasies and flaws in the way the station was built.  They didn’t go back that far with the program, but they’d heard it was a budget thing.

***

In its first year of operations, two dozen people had stayed at the station, gathering and processing data at the same time.  But ever since they built the temperature resistant servers smack dab in the middle of the station, there was no need for researchers to stay onsite all year long.  The servers regularly relayed and backed up data via satellite to the company’s main servers.  Researchers came during the peak data-gathering weeks.  The rest of the time, technicians like Andrew and me operated the station.  Two people, resupplied a couple of times a month.

So we kept the place pretty dim, except for the areas we frequented.  The data lab.  The kitchen.  Living Room B (it had the better television screen).

The other monitoring teams did the same during their rotations, to conserve energy and keep operational costs down.

The dim, combined with the constant malfunctions, combined with the near-emptiness of a station that once housed twelve times as many people made for the perfect recipe for creepiness.

It was no wonder Andrew thought he’d seen something that day.  Others had reported the same.

Two weeks after Andrew’s somewhat vague encounter, I came face to face with the third resident of the station.

***

Andrew was doing the pumps again, which meant it was my turn to check the filters.  I got lucky enough to get filters duty during a week that they didn’t have to be maintained or replaced, just checked.

So I was done fairly quickly, and I decided to finish an inventory of Supply Room C, still hoping to come across that root beer.  About ninety percent of the items in the room were barcoded, so those were easy to track.  The real work was in tracking the remaining ten percent.

I remembered afterward that I was quiet for a while.  The scanner on the tablet was acting up, so I leaned against the wall between two shelves, and I restarted the tablet.  It was a little old and laggy.  So while I waited, I stared up at a crate full of tomato soup cans, and I started hearing a noise.

At first, I thought the sound was coming from inside my ears.  I reached up to put my hand against my ear.  My eyes widened, because I remembered stories about how bugs crawled into people’s ears, and those people would get terrible earaches, and would be able to hear the bugs moving around in there.

But I didn’t feel any pain, and when I put my hand against my ear, the sound became muffled.

But with one panic averted, another replaced it.

I didn’t call out to Andrew.  I didn’t think it was him.  He would have announced himself.  But then again he might be playing a prank to relieve his boredom.  I hoped that was it.

It sounded like a slow scratching noise, but a low-pitched scratching, with a touch of a growl in it.  And it was rhythmic.  Making as little noise as I could manage, I crept closer to what I thought was the source of the sound.

It definitely got louder as I moved toward it.  And it changed a little.  I heard a tap-click, like maybe the sound of someone taking a step.

I hesitated.

I stood at the edge of a shelf.  The sound was coming from just around the corner.  I took another two steps.

And just as I turned the corner, it turned toward me.

I caught my breath and I froze.

It had long ears, pointed, glassy eyes, skinny arms and spindly fingers wrapped around a granola bar that was wholly removed from its wrapper.

It froze too.

And then I blinked.

A few times, I blinked, and it was gone.

Gone, in a blink, just like the saying goes.

***

It took a moment for my breathing to resume.  My eyes were still wide, as if they’d be able to see more that way, see the thing coming for me.

I left the room, glancing around me as I walked quickly and quietly to the exit, gulping once or twice.

I had a walkie-talkie on me.  There was a wired low-power communication system running through the station too.  I could have called Andrew.  But I wanted to go see him.

I rushed over to the pumps.  It started feeling like a longer walk than it usually did going from the south building to the north.  I finally stopped and tried to hail Andrew on the walkie-talkie.

I got nothing but static.

I spotted a receiver on the wall and used the dialing guide next to it to dial the room where he was supposed to be doing his rounds that day.

There was no answer.

I shook my head.

Andrew and I almost never used our walkies, and we were barely aware of the wired system.  They were back-ups.  In my agitation, I hadn’t tried our primary method of keeping in touch with each other.

I pulled out my cell phone as I shook my head at myself.  There was a tower on the grounds of the station.

I had better reception inside the station than I did inside my own apartment back home (where calls didn’t come through if I had my phone charging in that one corner of the bedroom).

I sent him a text.

Five minutes later we were in the kitchen.

***

Naturally in the bright light of the kitchen, with the windows letting in even more light and the peaceful view of snow drifting down, with Andrew in the room, and a mug of heavily sweetened hot coffee in front of me, doubt overcame certainty.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

Andrew had just asked me what it looked like.

He bit his bottom lip and clamped both hands around his own mug.  He peered at me.

I described what I remembered.  Long pointy ears, and so forth.

“I blinked and it was gone.”  I shrugged.  “I must have just been so stunned, and it was so dim that I didn’t see it running off.  Or hear it actually.”

Halfway through my description, Andrew had started nodding.

“I didn’t tell you, because I didn’t know what to think,” he said.  “And you hadn’t seen anything then.”  He blew an exhale through his lips, making his cheeks puff out.  “A couple of weeks ago, during our last resupply, I talked to some of the supply operators.  I made it seem like I had cabin fever maybe, like I was seeing weird things.  I asked them if the other monitors ever complained of the same thing.  And they said pretty much everyone did, of course.  Especially with this station, because of all the construction flaws.  That was their explanation.  Crappy construction.  I asked them what kinds of things people said they saw and they caught on that I was asking because I thought I’d seen something.  So I told them what I’d seen, moving along the walkway, two nights before they arrived.”

He glanced down at his mug.  “It was the pretty much the same description you just gave.”  He glanced up at me again.  “Only I think you got a way closer look at it.”

I frowned.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to think your only partner was losing it already.  It’s been less than two months.”  He bit his bottom lip.  “But I also didn’t want to actually be losing it while you’re stuck here alone with me.  So I did call Doctor Shirley.  Remember that day I had breakfast in my room?”

Doctor Shirley was the company therapist assigned to us, if we ever needed to talk to her before or after our rotation.  I didn’t think we’d need him for such a short period of time.

I nodded.  “Okay, but why didn’t you think what you were seeing was real?  Shouldn’t we both know if there’s something or someone creeping around the station?”

Andrew blew his breath out again.  “I had a job one summer during college doing night security in a junkyard.  I was always seeing things.  Shadows whipping by.  Glowing eyes looking at me.  Okay sometimes it was real, but it would just be a dog or cat.  A mean-looking opossum one time.  I don’t know if I’ve got an overactive imagination or an overdeveloped predator detection thing, but I’ve always jumped at stuff, even when there was another person around.  And the other person almost never saw anything, or else they’d clearly see that what I thought was a demon coming to claim my soul was just a neighborhood stray.”

I sighed.  “Well, I’ve seen it.  I’m pretty sure.  Maybe we can call Earl later—the IT supervisor?  We can ask him to play back the security videos of whatever areas are covered around the spots where we…had our sightings.”  I shrugged.  The security cameras only really covered the hangar, the lab, and the areas where the major equipment was located.  There were cameras mounted all over other areas of the station, but they were inactive.

“What if it’s an animal?” I asked aloud, thinking about the pointed ears, and the way it was chewing the granola bar, and wondering why it might be inside the station with us.  “It could be hurt.  It could be dangerous.”

“It could be both.”

“Or what if it’s a prank?” I raised my brows and Andrew frowned at me.  “What if someone on the resupply team thought it would be funny to leave something behind for us?”

Andrew’s frown deepened.  “That’s a pretty elaborate prank.  And a messed up one.”

“Yeah, that’s unlikely.  Okay, let’s assume for the time being that it’s an animal.  A bear, maybe?”

The tone of Andrew’s frown shifted from disgust to skepticism.  “How do you get ‘bear’ from what you saw?”

“Well, what do you think it is?”

He shook his head.

“Maybe we should put some food out—or water—water is the safest bet.  And see if he comes out.”

“Or she.  And what if she’s too smart to fall for it?”

“It’s not a trap,” I said.  “I just want to test whether this…whether our friend is real or a shared figment of our imaginations.  I feel like we both need to see it at the same time.”

“Then we definitely need something more enticing and harder to come by than water.”

“I know just the thing,” I said.

***

We put the plate of granola bars in the hallway just outside one of the pump rooms, where we’d reactivated a camera that was pointed right at the plate.

It was evening, long after Andrew and I had finished our maintenance rounds, and data-gathering.  We’d sent our daily status report, and made and eaten dinner.  We were putting together a puzzle in the main office.  A door connected the office to the lab.  The lab had the computer with the biggest screen, so we had turned that screen to face the office, and had it stream the video of our granola bar platter.

I searched for an edge piece, distracted by the odd flicker of the monitor that tricked me into thinking there was some movement.  I kept glancing over.

I tried to divert my own attention away.  “Hey, do you remember when one of the orientation guys first told us about how stuff is always breaking down around here, and they gave us a few examples?”

“Like how that one poor married couple had an ordeal because every day they’d fix one thing and the next day another thing would break, and that was pretty much their life until their rotation ended?”

I nodded.  “Yeah, remember that I joked about how it sounded like the station had gremlins?”

“Oh yeah, I think so.  What is that anyway?”

“What, gremlins?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you serious?”

Andrew shrugged.

I briefly explained the folklore about little imps or fairies that messed with mechanical things, either out of mischief or downright malice.  They specifically seemed to focus on aircraft, especially according to pilots who reported having to contend with the creatures in the middle of combat during World War II.  Gremlins seemed to be very knowledgeable about mechanical devices, and adept at tampering with them.

Andrew shrugged again.  “I’m not into that folklore stuff.  Unless someone’s made a summer movie about them, I pretty much won’t know anything about them.”

I blinked at him.

“The air was thin up there, and it would have been cold,” he said.  “Maybe they were hallucinating.”

“Are you moving back towards believing that we might be hallucinating too?”

He pressed his lips together in an uncertain smile.  Then his eyes flicked to the left and he turned his head that way, toward the monitor.

“Whoa.”

I followed his gaze.

The plate we had loaded with granola bars was still there.  The granola bars were not.

An alarm starting beeping in the office.  It was one of the pumps.

Andrew and I both stood up at the same time.  I held out a hand.  “I’ll go.  It’s my turn.”

Andrew shook his head.  “Oh, I don’t think so.  I’m coming with you.”

***

Pump Six was the one that had alarmed.  It wasn’t where we’d put the plate of granola bars.  But it still felt scary walking down the hallway toward the pump room.  I’d planned on just keeping Andrew talking to me on the walkie, but I was glad he’d come with me.

The alarm couldn’t tell us what the issue was.  It just indicated some problem in the pump’s primary function.  But we guessed it was probably a leak, because till that point, all the pump issues had been leaks.

When we walked into the room, we heard the local alarm still beeping.  I switched on the lights while Andrew stepped toward the pump.  I heard a splashing sound.  We glanced down.  The floor was flooded with maybe an inch of water.  I could hear it slowly draining away through the floor grate on the opposite side of the room.  The room was a step lower than the hallway.  That was why the water hadn’t spilled into the hallway.

“Careful,” I said, glancing around the room to make sure there weren’t any live wires.  There shouldn’t have been, but I was on edge.  All I could picture was that empty plate in the hallway.

Andrew stepped around the pump, checking for leaks, while I turned the alarm off.

“I don’t see anything,” he said.

I glanced around the room.  There was something sitting on a nearby worktable.  A blowtorch.  I moved closer to the pump.  We’d been giving the basic training for how to performance the weekly maintenance, and a few minor adjustments.  But no repairs.  The pumps were too important for us to tamper with them if we didn’t know what we were doing.  I swept my gaze across the meters, pipes, tubing, knobs, and panels that comprised Pump Six.  I didn’t know the instrument well enough to be sure, but I thought I saw something on one of the pipes.

I narrowed my eyes and peered at the pipe. “Is it me or…does that part look like it’s been repaired?”  The ribbed metal pipe had what looked like a smooth slightly puffy scar twisting along its side.  I glanced down at the pool of water at our feet.  “Andy, I think this pipe was cracked.”

I pointed to the blowtorch on the table.  “Did you bring that in here?”

Andrew glanced at the torch and held up both hands, palms out.  “No I don’t know how to weld anything.”

“Neither do I.  We would have had to shut it down and report it.”

Andrew reached out toward the pipe, but didn’t touch it.  “Doesn’t it take a long time to weld stuff?  That gash looks long.  We made it down here in under ten minutes.”

I shook my head.  I didn’t know.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Andrew turn his face toward me.  “These gremlins of yours, are they ever friendly?”

***

We were spooked.  So we decided to wait until morning to review the security video.  And we spent the night fully dressed, sleeping in Living Room B.

The next morning, we watched the video, and it didn’t surprised either of us that the image seemed to “blink” just before the plate was emptied of its contents.  We watched frame by frame, but saw nothing.  The camera in the pump room, however, did show something.  The room was dim.  The camera didn’t even really pick up any shadows.  But at the expected time, a red flash began pulsing in the room.  It was just an alarm light, not mean to illuminate anything.  When it flashed, we saw the vague shape of the pump.

But then, a few moments after the alarm sounded, a blue flame appeared in the middle of the room, and it moved toward the hulking shadow of the pump.  And showers of sparks, like fireworks, erupted from the blue flame.  The sparks were so bright, they saturated the image.  We couldn’t see who—or what—was holding the blowtorch.

The sparks stopped.

And maybe less than a minute later, Andrew opened the door, and we entered.

We entered an empty room.

I watched myself looking down at the water that had leaked, following its course as it poured through the floor grate.

And I wondered if anything else had gone down that grate.

***

We made more offerings.  Of granola bars in plates.  We didn’t always bother placing the plate under cameras.

But we were also cautious.  It took longer, but we shifted our schedule around so we would both do the equipment maintenance together.  We both moved our bunks into Living Room B.  And only used our assigned rooms to shower and to store our personal stuff.

The granola bars always disappeared.

And we started noticing what we thought was a pattern.

The malfunctions kept happening, every now and then.  A cooling fan would get stuck and stop working.  Another pump would leak.  A microcentrifuge would display an error code we didn’t recognize.

But now, before we could go find out what was happening or reach for a manual, or look up a “shutdown and report” protocol, the issue would get fixed.  By the time we got to that cooling fan, it would be spinning again.  Before we got to the leaky pump, armed with wrenches ready to tighten bolts, the bolts would be tightened.  After we went to go fetch a manual for a malfunctioning piece of lab equipment, we would return to find the equipment functioning properly again.

We never saw our friend.  Elf or gremlin or whoever our third companion was, we soon established this unspoken rule not to try to catch a glimpse.

We started putting out some different food.  Milk chocolate bars.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Cheese and crackers.

The sandwiches would vanish.  But our friend didn’t seem to have any interest in chocolate or cheese.

We didn’t include any of this in our daily or weekly status reports.

But we were both looking forward to telling our tall tales to the resupply crew when they arrived in a few days, especially to the pilots.

***

Resupply would be delayed.

That was the latest news from headquarters.

We’d been warned this happened from time to time.  Typically because of bad weather, which was the case in this instance.  There was a storm approaching the station.

We would be okay.  The station’s stock supplies would last us another month if need be.  And so long as we braced the hangar and the station properly against the storm, we’d be fine inside.

Andrew had done snow storms before, but I’d never been in one.  I’d barely ever seen snowfall in my life.  Every time it had fallen during my stay in the station, I’d stepped outside at least once just to stand in it and let it fall on me.  And have Andrew take pictures of me marveling at a simple thing like frozen flakes of water.

I wasn’t planning on stepping outside that day.  We were busy with storm prep.  Advisors at headquarters instructed us to do a final check of the air filtration system.  They’d detected some nasty stuff riding in these particular storm winds.  Toxins and the like.

We did our checks.  We battened down.  Then we got all of our supplies ready in Living Room B.  It wasn’t within sight of the main office and lab.  But it was a short run down the hallway.  We figured we would finish off our shift in the office, drinking hot chocolate and working on that puzzle, and then spend the night watching movies.  The storm was likely to interfere with our communications, so we would send headquarters a ping every hour on the hour just to let them know we were still alive.

***

Once the storm was on top of the station, it started getting cold real fast.  I’d never experienced anything like it.  I went from wearing a hoodie to my parka, to gloves, and scarves, and two pairs of pants.

We hadn’t planned to blast the heat during the storm, but we had set it to keep a steady temperature, not warm, but bearable.  I didn’t like blasting heaters anyway.  I’d always preferred piling on layers of clothes.  It made me feel more secure.

So I couldn’t tell, but Andrew thought something seemed off with the heat.  He was checking on it, while I made us some tea and poured it into a large thermos for each of us.

When I walked down the hall, it felt as if I were walking on snow with my bare feet.  I hurried along and found Andrew peering at the main computer’s screen where he’d brought up all the station’s readouts.

“It’s not on,” he said.

The heating system was offline.  The very system we needed was malfunctioning.

“So much for movie night,” I said.  “Looks like we’ll have to make ourselves comfortable in here until the storm passes.  I don’t think I can make it down that hallway again unless I have to anyway.”

Andrew nodded.  “We have some space heaters we can bring in here.  And the electric oven in the kitchen.”

Just as he finished speaking, the room went dark.  The monitors, the lights, it all shut off.  And with the windows blocked, it was truly pitch dark in the office.

“The generator should be kicking in,” I said, not moving.  “Give it a moment.”

I fumbled for the penlight I usually kept in my pocket.  I found it just as Andrew clicked on the clip-on LED light that he usually kept hooked to his collar.

We waited.  The generator didn’t kick in.  We waited another moment.

I blew out a cloud of breath as my shaky hands reached into my other pocket and pulled out my cell phone.  It appeared that I still had reception, but I didn’t know how long that would last.

I sent a message, the code for the most urgent distress call.  The message looked like it went through.

Just in case, Andrew did the same on his phone.  Then he walked over to the door separating the lab and the main office and pulled it closed.  And he walked over to the door leading to the hallway and closed it as well.

He whipped his flashlight around the room, and I was certain he was searching for other entry points.

He looked at me.  “Is this our friend, trying to kill us?”

My head was shaking, but it wasn’t because I was saying “no.”  I was trying not to shake.  “We have candles.  We can make a controlled fire.  We just have to stay as warm as we can.  We’ve called for help.”

Andrew nodded.  “Even if I messages didn’t get through, they’ll send someone right after the storm passes.”

***

We went to the kitchen together.  We gathered all the candles we could find.  Andrew found a metal bucket, and we found one wooden chair that we took turns chopping apart using the emergency axe mounted in the hallway.

We returned to the main office, figuring that if the power came back on, that was where we could do the most to help ourselves.

We split them up the candles so we could ration them.  There was enough light to play games, but we were too nervous.  We tried telling stories, thinking it would help to hear each other’s voices instead of the eerie quiet that resulted from all the machinery that surrounded us being silenced at the same time.  But we each kept trailing off, distracted by shadows.

It didn’t take long for me to start feeling sleepy, and I thought that would be dangerous, even with the heat of a small fire burning nearby.  I didn’t know how long the fire would last.

“It shouldn’t be this cold,” Andrew said when he tossed another piece of broken chair into the fire.  But his expression seemed uncertain, confused.

I wanted to ask him if we were going to be okay, but my face already hurt, it was so dry and cold.  I didn’t dare to move it.

I thought I should get up and walk around, to keep myself from dozing off, maybe to warm up a little.  But I couldn’t make myself get up.  I was lying under three layers of blankets.  But the cold was seeping in somehow, under the cuffs of my sleeves, through the threads of my socks, weaving through the layers of blankets.

Every bit of it was reaching me, scraping past my skin, and chilling my muscles, my bones.

I felt my eyelids slipping down, and I didn’t mind having a little nap…

***

I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I woke up.

And I looked over at Andrew, and he was waking up.

We were still freezing, but we were also still alive.

I heard a sound, a familiar sound.  One I didn’t normally pay attention to.  The heating system was up and running.  I was still freezing, but the air around me was warm.

My limbs were stiff.  I wondered if any of them were frostbitten.

I figured I’d worry about that later.

Andrew and I looked at each other but said nothing.

I started noticing other familiar sounds around us too.  The electric humming sound of the computer.  The periodic tiny beep of some sensor.

We rebooted the main computer.  According to station diagnostics, the heating system was working as it should.  But there was an alarm on one of the filter units that we had just checked, less than twenty-four hours prior.  And alarms were plashing for all of the pumps.

We couldn’t bring up any of the cameras.  But we both realized that there was one sound we’d been hearing before we fell asleep that we no longer heard.

The storm.

The storm had passed.

***

By the time help arrived, a few hours later, Andrew and I had gotten back in touch with headquarters and received guidance on how treat our frozen fingers and toes.  We were both afraid we had frostbite.  I’d never been so relieved in my life as when I saw my hands start turning red after I held them in the warm water.

My toes took longer.

Andrew warmed up more quickly.  He opened up the station to our very welcome guests.  The emergency medical team checked us out.  Aside from my one pinky toe that was still blue, the medical team cleared us of serious injury.  Whether we appeared okay or not, we were expected to board that plane and leave the station.

It was an instruction I was happy to follow.

***

A week later, Andrew and I returned to the station, much to the chagrin of our families.  I didn’t think I would even for a few hours.  I didn’t think it would be worth the risk of some other major mishap.  But I’d learned a few things during that week I was away, and I had some unfinished business to attend to.

Engineers had checked the whole station.  They discovered that there was an irreparable fault in the filtration system.  A filter had been replaced during the last yearly maintenance rotation and was a faulty lot.  This meant that the air outside was not being effectively filtered.  So we were lucky that the heating system was down during the storm, because if it hadn’t been, we would have been breathing in concentrated toxins from the storm all night.  At best, we would have gotten very ill.  At worst, exposure might have been fatal.  And we were also lucky that the electricity and the generator were both knocked, because if they hadn’t been, a failsafe that turned on the heat when temperatures outside the station reached a minimum level would have activated, turning the heating system on through some kind of secondary relay or circuit.  I didn’t really understand the specifics.

After the storm passed, the winds that followed cleared the air.  The rest of the world typically didn’t have to worry about the stuff in these types of storms because of the way their harmful components were diluted or sent further up into the atmosphere and then disintegrated.  So by the time the electricity and heating system came back on (according to a clock and duration counter), the air would have been fine for us to breath without filtration.

Andrew and I had lunch after the briefing where we learned about the storm and our bit of luck.  So of course we wondered, did our friend, our third companion, know about the toxic storm and the failure of the filtration unit?  Andrew had asked in a terrible moment, if our friend was trying to kill us.  But had it been the opposite?  Had our friend saved our lives?

We asked the supervising engineer some questions after the briefing, questions about the generator, the filtration unit, and the heating system.  The engineer gave us a strange knowing look then, and said his team could clearly see some tampering with the systems we mentioned, as if they were purposely shut off and then turned on again.  By someone who knew what they were doing.

So Andrew and I returned to the base.  We weren’t expected to finish out our rotation.  We couldn’t have anyway.  All the pumps had been severely damaged by the cold during the storm.  Repairs would take far longer the length of our rotation.

We’d been allowed to return on a resupply plane for a few hours to gather some final belongings.

But our real purpose was the package we hoped to deliver.  And the sentiment behind that package.

We went straight to the kitchen.  Andrew pulled a dinner plate from a cupboard.  And I opened the box I’d been carrying on my lap during the whole flight, and pulled out the first of several peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and granola bars.

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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