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In the early part of the twentieth century the Beresovka mammoth carcass was discovered in Siberia. Nearly intact, the animal was found buried in silty gravel sitting in an upright position. The mammoth had a broken foreleg, evidently caused by a fall from a nearby cliff ten thousand years ago. The remains of its stomach were intact and there were grasses and buttercups lodged between its teeth. The flesh was still edible, but reportedly not tasty.
No one has ever satisfactorily explained how the Beresovka mammoth and other animals found frozen in the subarctic could have been frozen before being con sumed by predators of the time.
– J. Holland, Alaska Science Forum
As Terminal Freeze made the long journey from concept to printed reality, many people generously lent their time and expertise. J. Bret Bennington, PhD, of the Department of Geology at Hofstra University, helped me gain a better understanding of paleoecological field-work and principles. Timothy Robbins provided a window onto the nuts-and-bolts details of documentary filmmaking. (I hasten to add that the particular peccadilloes of Terra Prime, Emilio Conti, et al. are completely of my own devising.) William Cors, MD, assisted with several medical aspects of the story. My father, William Child, PhD, former chemistry professor and associate dean of Carleton College, offered invaluable insight into crystalline structures and other chemical matters. Special Agent Douglas Margini once again helped with firearms details. And my cousin Greg Tear listened patiently and offered his usual excellent advice.
I would also like to thank my editor and friend, Jason Kaufman, for as always being an essential guiding light through the composition of this novel, as well as Rob Bloom and the many others at Doubleday for taking such good care of me. Thanks also to my agents, Eric Simonoff and Matthew Snyder, for fighting the good fight. Thanks to Claudia Rülke, Nadine Waddell, and Diane Matson for their various ministrations. An ice-cold Beefeater martini, extra dry, straight up, with a twist, to my writing partner, Doug Preston, for his many years of comradeship. His daughter Aletheia suggested a great twist. And last but most certainly not least, my thanks and gratitude to my family for their love and support.
At dusk, when the stars rose one by one into a frozen sky, Usuguk approached the snowhouse as silently as a fox. There had been a fresh snowfall that morning, and the village elder stared across the gray-white arctic desolation that ran away endlessly on all sides to a bleak and empty ice horizon. Here and there, ribs of dark permafrost jutted out of the snow cover like the bones of prehistoric beasts. The wind was picking up, and ice crystals stung his cheeks and worried at the fur of his parka hood. A scattering of surrounding igloos stood unlit, dark as tombs.
Usuguk paid no attention to any of this. He was aware only of an overwhelming sense of dread, of the rapid pounding of his heart.
As he entered the snowhouse, the small band of women gathered around the moss fire looked up at him quickly, their expressions tense, worried.
“Moktok e inkarrtok,” he said. “It is time.”
Wordlessly, they gathered up their meager tools with trembling fingers. Bone needles were returned to needle cases; skin scrapers and flensing ulus were slipped inside parkas. One woman, who had been chewing sealskin boots to soften them, bundled the boots up carefully in a threadbare cloth. Then they all rose, one after another, and slipped out the rough opening that served as a door. Last to go was Nulathe, her head bowed in fear and shame.
Usuguk watched as the caribou skin fell back over the opening, blotting out the view beyond: the lonely huddle of igloos, the desolate icescape stretching on across the frozen lake toward the failing sun. For a moment he stood, trying to forget the anxiety that had settled over him like a heavy cloak.
Then he turned away. There was much to do-and little time to do it in.
Moving gingerly to the rear of the snowhouse, the shaman drew blankets off the top of a small mound of furs, exposing a box of polished black wood. Carefully, he placed the box before the fire. Next he removed a ceremonial amauti, folded with ritual care, from between the furs. Pulling the hooded parka over his head and placing it aside, he donned the amauti, its intricate fretwork of beaded tassels clattering faintly. Then he seated himself cross-legged before the box.
He sat for a minute, caressing the box with fingers wizened from years of fighting a hostile landscape. Next he opened it and removed one of the objects inside, turning it over and over, feeling its power, listening carefully for anything it might tell him. Then he returned it to the box. He did this with each of the objects in turn. All the while he was aware of the fear within him. It lay deep in his body’s core like undigested blubber. He knew all too well what this thing they had witnessed, this awful portent, meant. It had happened only once before in the living memory of the People, scores of generations ago, although the story-handed down from father to son before the snowhouse fire-remained as portentous as if it had happened yesterday.
Yet, this time, it seemed so frighteningly out of proportion to the transgression that provoked it…
He took a deep breath. They were all counting on him to restore peace, to bring the natural order back into balance. But it was an oppressive task. The People were so diminished that there had been but a tiny handful to pass on to him the old, secret knowledge. And even they were gone now, passed into the spirit world. Of nature’s secret order, only he was left.
Reaching beneath the amauti, he drew out a handful of dried herbs and botanicals, carefully tied together with a slender stalk of arctic balsam. He raised it with both hands, then placed it on the fire. Clouds of gray smoke began to rise, filling the snowhouse with the smell of the ancient forest. Slowly and reverently, he took the objects out of the box and arranged them in a semicircle before the fire: the tusk tip of a rare white walrus, caught and killed by his great-great-great-grandfather. A stone the color of summer sunlight, shaped like the head of a wolverine. A caribou antler, cut ritualistically into twenty-one pieces, decorated in intricate patterns of tiny awl holes, each filled with ochre.
Last of all he withdrew the tiny figure of a man, made of reindeer skin, ivory, and blanket cloth. He laid the figure in the center of the semicircle. Then, putting his palms flat on the floor of the snowhouse and letting his chin sink to his chest, he bent low before it.
“Mighty Kuuk’juag,” he chanted, “Hunter of the Frozen Waste, Protector of the People. Withdraw your rage from us. Walk quietly again in the moonlight. Return to the way of peace.”
He raised himself back to a sitting position. Then he reached out for the first object in the semicircle-the walrus tusk-turning it clockwise to face the small figurine. Hand on the tusk, he half sang, half chanted the atonement prayer, asking Kuuk’juag to soften his heart, to forgive.
The transgression had occurred the previous morning. In the midst of her daily chores, Nulathe had unwittingly brought the sinews of a caribou and the flesh of a seal into contact. She had been tired and sick-this alone could explain such an oversight. But nevertheless the forbidden deed had been done, the ancient rule broken. Now the souls of the dead animals-in spiritual opposition to each other-had been defiled. And Kuuk’juag the Hunter had felt their anger. This explained what Usuguk’s tiny band had witnessed in the frozen wastes the night before.
The prayer lasted ten minutes. Then-slowly, carefully-Usuguk moved his wrinkled hand to the next object and began his chant anew.
It took two hours to complete the ceremony. At last, bowing one final time before the figurine, the old man said a parting blessing, then uncrossed his legs and rose painfully to his feet. If all had gone well-if he had performed the atonement prayer in the proper way of his ancestors-the taint would leave them and the Hunter would withdraw his fury. He walked around the fire, first clockwise, then counterclockwise. And then, kneeling before the box, he began to place the objects back inside, beginning with the small figurine.
As he did so, he heard cries from outside the snowhouse: sobs, shrieks, voices raised in despair and lamentation.
He stood quickly, dread pressing upon his heart. He shrugged into the parka, pulled back the caribou skin, and stepped outside. The women were there, tearing their hair and pointing at the sky.
He looked heavenward and groaned. The fear and dread, which had receded in the calming motions of the ceremony, consumed him with redoubled strength. They were back-and worse than the night before. Much worse.
The ceremony had failed.
But now, with a horrible creeping certainty, Usuguk realized something else. This was not the result of anything Nulathe or the others had done. It was not merely the wrath of Kuuk’juag, or some accidental desecration. Only a violation of the most serious of all taboos could cause the kind of spirit fury he now paid witness to. And Usuguk had been warned-as had countless generations before him-what that taboo was.
Not only warned-Usuguk knew. He had seen…
He looked at the women, who were staring back, wild-eyed with apprehension. “Pack what you need,” he told them. “Tomorrow, we head south. To the mountain.”