Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Poem: "Bitter Ice"

This poem is spillover from the January 2, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] siliconshaman and [personal profile] dialecticdreamer. It also fills the "climate change" square in my 1-1-18 card for the Apocalypse Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by a pool with [personal profile] ng_moonmoth and [personal profile] dialecticdreamer. It belongs to the Kraken thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains material that some readers may find unsettling. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features Antarctica, an ice rescue, history of World War I, a mass-casualty incident including large numbers of long-dead sailors and survivors, temporal dislocation, superpower overstrain, and other challenges. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.


"Bitter Ice"


Isolde O'Breen pushed her hood back and
let the Antarctic breeze ruffle her short red hair.

It was coming on toward summer, warming
as much as it ever did down here, and
the breakup of the Larsen B ice shelf
had left scattered pockets of ice from
different times all along the fringes.

Isolde and her two minions were
just a few of the researchers interested
in exploring the area to see how the wildlife
responded to open water and sunlight.

Sunlight brought phytoplankton brought krill
brought fish and penguins and everything else.

Briella Bailey, a young ornithologist, was
most interested in Antarctic birds of all kinds,
while Sander Albinson had wider taste in sciences.

Now they scrambled over ice made more slippery
with meltwater, searching for signs of life.

A handful of penguins -- either ones who
failed to breed this season, or whose chicks
had fledged early -- were exploring the ice.

"They're gravitating toward those pockets
where the ice has started regrowing in winter,"
Isolde said, tracing the line with her arm.

"I have the latest core map," Sander said,
popping up at her elbow with a tablet computer.

"Let's see now, there are fissures here and here,"
Isolde said as she tried to match where they had
hiked with what the map showed. They watched
the fissures to see how the fragility of the ice
influenced the wildlife -- it was a risky location,
but for that precise reason, full of food that
not many competitors had discovered yet.

"What is that?" Briella said sharply.

"Where?" Isolde said, looking up.
The area seemed deceptively bland,
but it could change in an instant.

"There, we were mapping a fissure
just the other day, and I think it calved off,"
Briella said as she pointed. "Now there's
something dark, and it doesn't look like rock."

"It's not rock," Sander said. "See how
it has that flat plane? The rocks here don't
fracture that way, they're the wrong kind for it,
I remember the geologists talking about that."

"Then what could it be?" Briella said.

"Let's go find out," Isolde declared.
She led her minions across the jumble of
stone, ice, and occasional wads of seaweed.

Eventually the explorers came close enough
that they could identify the mysterious object.

"It's a ship!" Briella exclaimed.

"A submarine, I believe, from the shape
of the visible deck," Isolde added.

"But what's it doing here?" Sander said.
"This is dangerous territory with all the ice."

"Where are we, timewise?" Isolde said.
"Sander, check the core map and get me
an estimate on the age of this ice."

"We're, um ..." His fingers followed
a line of dots. "... right in that big patch
laid down in the winter of 1917-1918."

"Oh, my god," Isolde said. "The War.
Germany had a U-boat pen somewhere
around here -- Britannia used to send
Q-ships down to hunt them, and we've
found ruins on some of the islands."

"You think the wreck is that old?"
Briella said, her jaw dropping.

"Look at her, those straight lines,
all that rust -- she's very old, and
the timeframe fits," Isolde said.

"Wow," Briella said. "This is
quite a discovery, then."

"Indeed it is," Isolde said.
"We get the first peek, since
we'll need to scout it for safety,
and after that, we'll turn it over to
those with more relevant specialties."

"Woohoo!" Sander hooted.

"Wait," Isolde said, chopping
her hand in front of him, and he
skidded to a halt. "I need some time
to stabilize this first. The last thing
we need is for the ice shelf to calve
under us and take us for a ride."

"I have the watch," Briella said,
scanning the area around them
for any possible dangers.

"Lean on me if you need to,"
Sander said as he stepped behind
Isolde to put his hands on her shoulders.

Probably she wouldn't need the support,
but it was November and there was
quite a lot of ice to influence.

Isolde reached out with
her superpower and felt
the ice around the ship.
It was old, and bitter with
a tang that she associated
with that vicious winter.

She smoothed the fissures
and pushed the ice deeper into
its frozen state, using that to lock
the submarine into position.

She got an inkling of how
the ship might have come here --
either blown astray by a storm, or
pulling in deliberately to shelter from it,
then getting trapped by a winter
more brutal than usual even for
the depths of Antarctica.

And then Isolde felt something else.

"Boss? Is something wrong?"
Sander asked, squeezing her shoulders.

"I don't know," Isolde said. "I'm picking up
something with my superpower ... like a hum
or a buzz, almost, but right inside the ice."

"What could cause that?" Sander said.

"It must be something about the ship,"
Isolde said. "The shape of it in the ice,
maybe? I'm not sure, it's new to me."

"Is it safe to look closer?" Sander said.

"The ice is safe," Isolde said.
"Briella, what about the perimeter?"

"Nothing here but us and a few penguins
with a non-standard risk assessment,"
Briella said with a fond smirk.

"All right, team, let's go see
what we can find," Isolde said.

The U-boat was jammed in the ice
at enough of an angle for the prow
to hang well out of reach, and the stern
disappeared into crystal rubble where
a berg must have calved off recently.

Isolde dropped a hand to make
an ice ramp for herself, but Sander
stopped her. "Save your strength,
boss, let us lift you up," he said.

"All right," Isolde agreed.

"If you give me a boost, I can
grab the edge," Briella said.

Sander made a stirrup of his hands
and tossed her up. She grabbed
the U-boat and hauled herself up,
then deployed a rope from her pack
for Sander to climb up after her.

Then it was just a simple matter
of making a rope harness and letting
the strong young minions do the heavy lifting.

When Isolde reached the deck and untied
the harness, Briella pointed and said,
"I found the hatch, but it's jammed."

"No surprise," Isolde said. "Stand back
and let me see what I can do with it."

Ice had gotten all into the hinges
and locking mechanism. What was
a hindrance for everyone else was like
a crystalline lockpick for her. It took
some concentration, but soon
the hatch swung open.

They walked into a tomb.

Briella gasped and put
her hand over her mouth.
"You said -- when I signed up,
you said that there wouldn't
be any plans for violence!"

"This isn't planned, and
these men died before we
were born," Isolde said. "If it
bothers you, just wait outside."

"I'm not leaving you," Briella said
as she stood up straighter.

"This is ... really something,"
Sander said as they looked around.

The sailors had known they were doomed.

Most of them seemed to have caroused
with a stash of liquor to numb the pain.

Two of them lay frozen in amorous embrace,
defiantly mooning the future with a love
that they no longer needed to hide.

Some had devolved into fistfights,
or worse. The captain had put
his service gun to good use,
as had several others.

And then they reached the ice.

A smooth wall of piercing blue
gleamed in the light of their headlamps,
faintly curved as it arced away to the sides.

"Well nuts," Sander said. "The engines
are back there. I was really hoping
to get the first peek at those."

"There's something ..."
Isolde murmured. It was
so strong in here, it made
her teeth buzz in concert with
whatever was pinging her senses.

Stepping closer, she could make out
the dark form of a sailor trapped
just beneath the ice, a bottle
raised to his lips.

Whatever this ice was,
it had formed almost instantly,
and that was most unusual.

Isolde pulled off her glove and
pressed her palm to the ice.

"Be careful, boss, if you get stuck
we don't have any hot water here
to unstick you," Briella said.

Isolde clucked her tongue.
"I won't get stuck, I can control
the ice," she said firmly.

"Not if you wear out,"
Briella said. "You've been
working hard already, and
nobody's strength is infinite."

This was true, but not
an immediate concern,
so Isolde set it aside.

"This is not natural ice,"
she said softly. "It's too smooth,
too perfect. Look at the curve;
we're seeing part of a sphere."

She pushed her power
into the ice -- and it was
met with an extant power
so strong that she gasped.

"Are you okay? What's wrong?"
Sander said, catching her shoulders.

"I'm fine," Isolde said, but she was
reeling from the impact and grateful
for a minion to lean on. "I'm not hurt,
it's just -- it's a lot to take in. There's
some kind of super-gizmo back there."

"From World War One?" Sander said.
"I thought superpowers didn't emerge
until Whammy Lass in World War Two."

"And the Sterbenfeld device," Briella said
with a shudder. "It's from a little later."

"That's the public emergence," Isolde said.
"Superpowers have always existed; they were
just rare enough that it didn't stick until then.
Wars make for advances, and that attracts
Super-Gizmologists and Super-Intellects."

"Germany," Briella breathed. "They always
had an interest in artifacts and esoterica."

"Well, they found something esoteric,
all right," Isolde said. "Someone's
going to have a field day in here,
if I can clear a path to the engines."

She formed her power into an edge
and pushed it into the ice, carving a slot --
then jerked away, stunned at what she felt.

"Boss?" said Sander. "Talk to us, you're
starting to scare us a little here."

"There's -- I think there's someone
alive in there!" Isolde exclaimed.

"What? How? It's solid ice!"
Briella said as Sander said,
"But it's almost a century old!"

Isolde reached for the ice again,
stroking it, trying to feel deeper into
the wreckage. There, and there, yes,
faint sparks of life glowed in the dark cold.

"The super-gizmo," Isolde said. "You know
that super-ice doesn't kill what it contains,
it preserves -- and some of it stays put
once it's set, until something releases it."

"Something like you," Briella said, awed.
"Then we could, what, rescue them?"

"Yes," Isolde said, then snapped into action.
"Briella, take the Dione back to the Geco Snapper.
Fetch the medic and everyone with first aid training.
Sander, you stay and help me free the survivors."

"But -- but I'm not ready --" Briella stammered,
giving the older woman a wild look.

"Yes, you are," Isolde said firmly.
"You've been piloting that boat under
my supervision for weeks. You can handle
a short jaunt back to the research vessel,
and Briella, I need you to handle this.
We can't get the medic here as long
as the landing boat is with us."

"Okay. Okay." Briella licked her lips.
"I'll go. I'll come back as soon as I can."

"Good girl," Isolde said, patting her
on the shoulder. "I know you can do it."

Then she focused on the man in the ice.

It took time and care to carve him free,
then lay him down on the deck for
the medical team to pick up.

Isolde worked her way deeper
into the U-boat, creating a tunnel
through the glossy blue ice.

She came to another cluster
of sailors, all of them huddled
together, and there were more
than she had anticipated.

As soon as Isolde freed
the next one, she towed him
to the open part of the submarine.

"There are a lot more where
this one came from," she said.

"I have an exam bed and a gurney
in the sickbay on board the Snapper,"
said Kedrick. "If we have more than
two victims, then that amounts to
a mass-casualty incident, for lack
of resources rather than personnel."

They weren't exactly long on medics,
either, even with the volunteers.

"How many are there?" Briella asked
as she helped shift the new man
onto a signal-orange stretcher.

"At least a dozen," Isolde said.
"All right, mass-casualty incident
it is. Briella, see if you can get us
a hospital ship. After so long frozen,
these men may need a lot of care.
I can thaw them, but I can't provide
more advanced medical treatment."

"I'll do my best," Briella said,
and headed back outside.

Isolde returned to her work,
carefully extracting more men
from the icy enclosure.

Toward the back, she
found a group of officers --
probably the second-in-command
and some of his assistants.

Isolde made sure to leave
a protective coating of ice around
each man, including his hat
and any other insignia.

When she brought out
each new victim, Sander
plied her with fresh coffee
and emergency food bars,
bland but filling fare.

"They're sending us
the Yemaya," said Briella,
"as soon as they can arrange
a teleport for a ship that big."

"That's good to hear," Isolde said.
"I'm almost back to the engine room.
Sander, do you want to help me open it?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world, boss,"
Sander said, falling into step behind her.

The door to the engine room was not locked,
but it still took careful work to melt the ice
enough for Sander to pull it open.

Inside they found not just the engines
for the U-boat itself, but also a tangle of
pipes, gears, and some lurid blue crystal
that pointed toward the distant bow.

"This thing is amazing," Sander said,
one hand hovering above the device.

Four men huddled around it,
the shortest with his hand
wrapped around a switch.

"This must be the engineer
and his assistants," Isolde said.
"There's no choice but to thaw
the engineer here and move him
to safety as soon as we can -- I
can't get him loose any other way.
The assistants I might get out
frozen like the other men."

She pushed her power into him,
driving the ice out of his body and
pulling him away from the switch.

A faint gurgle of air stirred his chest,
and then his eyes fluttered open.

"Grab him and run," Isolde said,
and her minions leaped to obey.

Her power ached as she turned back
to cut free the last two of the sailors.

Isolde was handing off the last man
to a pair of helpful geologists when
her vision suddenly grayed out.

She woke in the cleared part of
the submarine with worried minions
hovering over her sore body.

"I think she's worn out," Sander said.
"I couldn't get her to eat anything
after the previous removal."

"Well, she's waking up now,"
Briella said. "Come on, boss,
sit up and eat something. I've
brought you that seal ice cream
from your stash, and they're making
some sha shogok on the Yemaya."

Isolde hauled herself more upright
and snatched the bowl of akutaq.

The dense fat sweetened with
wild berries helped revive her.

"How are they?" she muttered.

"So far, so good," Briella said.
"We got them all out, at least.
The medics want you to thaw
everyone at the same time, if you can,
to minimize psychological separation."

"Sure, a few thousand calories later,"
Isolde said as she shoveled food
into her mouth as fast as possible.

Her minions had to help her clamber
through the U-boat and then navigate
the icy terrain outside until they
finally reached the Dione.

In the deeper water,
their own Geco Snapper
was dwarfed by the Yemaya,
her white hull surmounted by
a red cross on the tower.

At least they would have
enough beds for all the victims.

Someone had sensibly put them
in a ward room together, cleared of
all nonessential items to minimize
stress to men from an earlier time.

Isolde leaned heavily on her minions
as she moved from one man to the next,
releasing them from their frozen state.
It was easier than meticulously carving
them out of the ice, but still exhausting.

The moment it was done, Briella pressed
a cup of butter tea into Isolde's hands,
which she drank as fast as she could.

Sander followed it with a bowl of sha shogok,
savory beef and tender cabbage, although
Isolde barely tasted the food she ate.

"They gave us a cabin to share,"
Sander said as he helped Isolde
to her feet. "It's meant for a couple,
but they put in a pair of cots for me
and Briella to sleep in. You get
the full-sized hide-a-bed couch."

"Mmmgood," Isolde said, too tired
to articulate anything more than that.

Sander and Briella steered her into
the cabin, where someone had already
set up both her hide-a-bed and the cots.

Her minions gently undressed her,
stuffed her into flannel pajamas,
and then helped her into the bed.

Isolde fell asleep as soon as she lay down.

* * *

Notes:

The notes for this poem appear separately.  See the character noteslocation notes, and content notes.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, ethnic studies, fantasy, fishbowl, history, nature, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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