Kalli stared up at the rising Moon and felt the cold hand of fear brush suddenly over her heart.
The Moon had risen silently behind her as she had struggled across the brittle ice and it now sat on the horizon, a mighty half-dome of pitiless red majesty.
Although she could not name any of the features on that massive quadrant, she could see many of them quite clearly, especially the dark ellipse of the crater Plato, staring contemptuously back at her from its station above the Mare Frigoris.
Familiar as she was with the sharp fangs of the biting cold, Kalli shivered involuntarily.
This was going to be a bad one—she knew it. Although not as well-versed in the lore of nature as any of the leaders of her Village, she knew, as any child would have known, that there was danger.
Were they near enough to the coast? They would find out soon.
Kalli glanced at her companions. They were still examining their fishing nets and harpoons and seemed unaware of the danger. She crossed to them, calling out Jansen’s name as she hurried to him. He turned and stared at her with sealskin-grey eyes set in a face which seemingly had been constructed from old leather, a leather crisscrossed by a myriad spidery lines inscribed there by the savage climate.
‘What is it now, girl?’ he snapped in a voice which indicated that he had been disturbed once too often.
For answer, she half turned and pointed at the dull, crimson horn which had now risen noticeably above the ice crags since she had first seen it. Jansen looked beyond her at the rising satellite and shrugged.
‘Plenty of time, girl,’ he grunted, ‘you’ve got a lot to learn. Instead of running around like a headless walrus, come and help us with these nets.’
‘But the Moon…’ she said, pointing again at the rising gibbous satellite.
Jansen was annoyed now.
‘I said we had plenty of time. Now do you want to join in or shall I tell Tomlinson that you don’t want to work?’
Kalli gave him a glare that in her mind should have burnt him to a smouldering cinder, but Jansen seemed unaware of that withering blast and gestured towards the nets.
He glanced at his fellow workers and shrugged.
‘Young girls these days,’ he observed, ‘they don’t know the meaning of hard work. They must think the fish will jump out of the water into their hands if they call them.’
One of the younger men gave a slight jerk of his head towards Kalli’s slim form.
‘I’d jump into her hands all right. And that’s not all I’d jump into!’
The men laughed.
Jansen gave a quick smile to show he agreed with their appreciation but also quick enough to show that he wanted no more of this kind of banter.
‘Right, enough of that,’ he said briskly, ‘let’s get these nets done before we freeze our arses off.’
‘Or anything else,’ grinned the one who had commented on Kalli’s charms.
‘Enough,’ Jansen said and raised a finger to show that he meant it.
Unabashed, the young man turned to the nets and for the next half an hour the entire hunting party worked on repairing them.
Finally, Jansen stood up and, brushing the powered ice from his breeches, said, ‘That’ll do. Let’s get moving while there’s still a chance of catching something.’
The entire band rose stiffly to their feet, their cold joints complaining at the sudden demand placed upon them.
Kalli came up to Jansen. ‘Boss, don’t you think we should pull back rather than go further out onto the pack ice?’
Jansen’s eyes, cold and harsh as the hummocked ice that surrounded the little group, gave her a stare that bored into her like the barbs of one of their harpoons.
‘And why would that be, little girl?’
For answer Kalli turned so she was facing the way they had come and pointed.
Behind her the Moon was now clear of the horizon, a vast semicircle of orange-red glory, but a glory smeared with black fungoid patches.
‘Aren’t you risking us all for a few fish when you know there’s a Wave coming?’
‘There’s no need to worry about a Wave,’ Jansen said, ‘the Moon’s got a way to go before it’s full.’
‘But I’ve never seen it this close,’ Kalli pleaded, ‘we don’t know it’ll follow the same pattern.’
‘ “Follow the same pattern”?’ Jansen repeated mockingly, ‘what kind of language is that? Why don’t you speak like normal folk?’
Kalli stood her ground. ‘It’s not how I say it,’ she responded, ‘it’s what I say. There’s danger.’
For answer Jansen pointed farther out into the blue-white plane of the pack ice.
They trudged on while the swollen satellite rose steadily behind them. The cloudless sky slowly transitioned from an eggshell blue through aquamarine to a rich indigo-blue, as if an entire ocean was suspended above them. A few stars began to show; one in particular on the horizon opposite the Moon, shone with a fierce brilliance that flashed in fleeting tints of red, blue, and green. On very clear nights people as sharp-eyed as Kalli could discern much smaller stars that always appeared near to that particular star.
The men began to mutter: it seemed they were starting to share Kalli’s unease.
He’s determined to bring something back to Tomlinson, she thought, even if it means killing some of us.
But then the leading man of the hunters pointed and waved for them to stop. He rejoined the others and said, very quietly, ‘There’s a blowhole over there. Don’t say anything!’
The rest of the men looked at each other, with excitement marked plainly on their frost-rimmed faces.
Proper, red meat for once!
They knew what to do. They all removed their spears from their straps and held them horizontally; all save Kalli, who had no spear.
‘You stay back,’ Jansen said to her, ‘with your skin you stand out like a lump of coal. Watch out for danger. If you hear any sound that shouldn’t be there—shout out!’
Kalli said nothing: she was used to comments about her skin tone. It was a great hurt to her that there was no one else in Tomlinson’s group who shared her complexion.
The men gradually, silently, formed a circle around the blowhole and waited.
‘Keep your eyes and ears open, Kalli!’ Jansen advised her quietly, indicating with movements of his hand that she should move away from the blowhole.
The great dome above them darkened to a fathomless violet in which more and more stars began to show through. The cold became so intense that it slipped razors of pain through Kalli’s furs. She began to feel she was standing there naked, on the cruel pack ice.
Suddenly, without warning, a seal’s head broke through the thin covering of ice over the blowhole. The men were ready and, equally suddenly, a ring of spears shot out and caught the seal in its fat neck. It had time to issue one short, surprised grunt before it died.
Hurriedly, before it could slip back into the freezing depths, the men dragged it out onto the ice, its blood creating a little crimson rivulet on the hitherto pristine surface.
The men stood around in noisy triumph, slapping each other on the back and even hugging each other.
Kalli stood apart from them, not because she did not wish to share in their exultation but because she thought she had heard something and wanted to be sure.
She moved a little further away, her dark brown eyes scanning the gradually dimming ice fields, now lit a lurid ochre by the colossal Moon.
Abruptly there was no need to wonder for there was a great, deep-throated roar and a huge grey-white bulk emerged from behind an ice hummock, heading straight for the men and the seal.
An ice bear.
The men whipped their heads around when they heard that roar and fell back, lifting their spears as they did so.
‘Don’t take it on!’ yelled Jansen, ‘let it have the seal!’
Kalli heard one of the men respond with a shouted ‘Like Hell!’ and saw him dart forward, spear pointing at the creature’s head. She could see that the bear was a male and a very large, very hungry male. As man and bear came together it suddenly reared up onto its hind legs and stood towering over him, jaws slavering, and with front legs spread wide, ready to descend and rip the human into bloody shreds.
The overbold man had the good sense to withdraw and the entire group were forced to watch impotently as the beast dragged the seal carcass away into the dim distance.
A silence fell, at first shot through with fear but a fear which was gradually replaced with anger.
Jansen turned to Kalli and beckoned her to come nearer.
‘Why didn’t you warn us about the bear?’ was his bitter snarl, ‘you had a chance to do something useful instead of whimpering about bloody waves!’
Kalli stared angrily back at him but found she had no retort. As she was too slight of physique to wield a harpoon, it was her job to act as lookout and warn of dangers such as the bear. Jansen was not being entirely unfair in his raging disappointment.
It had all happened too quickly; she had heard the bear but only when it had almost been upon them. Almost against her will, she found herself saying, ‘Sorry.’ Desperately she added, ‘It was in its winter coat so it was hard to see.’
The glares from Jansen and the other men made it all too clear that her apology was not accepted. But she understood their bitterness, for she felt it herself. She too had been looking forward to enjoying strong red meat; the lovely feeling of warm fat dripping from her chin, the feeling of fullness, of satiety that would follow the orgy of consumption.
And now it was not to be. Just the thin, bitter flesh of starving sea birds or skeletal fish.
The band looked around and even Jansen was forced to admit that it was now far too late in the day to attempt to catch another seal. And because of their struggle with the seal, they had not caught any fish either.
The whole expedition had been a disaster and Kalli glumly accepted that she was in part responsible.
They trudged back over the pack ice shelf to the permanent ice in total silence, with Kalli keeping a discreet distance behind the men.
Above them the sky-dome was now jet-black, shot through with brilliant, unblinking stars like dimensionless points of cold crystal, shining steadily with a pitiless silver radiance, while ahead of them the great half Moon was completely clear of the horizon. No longer coloured by atmospheric absorption, it too blazed in white majesty, casting the group’s long weary shadows far behind them across the ice.
The trip back to the huts seemed much longer than the trip out.