17th June, 1898, Antarctica
Dr Frederick Cook looked out of the ship from his grimy window. It was dark. It had been dark for months, nothing to see but his own haggard reflection, nothing to hear but the moan of the wind, running its icy fingers over the ship's body. He rubbed the glass with a dirty sleeve, and then sat at his desk.
As the ship's doctor, Cook had his own private cabin. His desk sat in one corner, his bunk in another. His operating table lurked in the semi-darkness, waiting for another offering. But frostbite was the least of his worries: the crew's ailments had spread from their bodies to the dark places of their minds. Two of them were permanently locked up, raving and screaming. One had abandoned ship, saying that he was 'going home'. The crew had watched as he struggled up the nearest cliff and disappeared.
Cook opened his diary. He picked up his pencil, but then simply slumped in despair. What was the point? In this last wild corner in the world, in the freezing blackness, they would perish.
The Belgica expedition had ended when the ship had become trapped in the arctic ice, four months previously. Their first casualty, poor Carl Wiencke, had gone overboard back in January. Still, Cook mused, at least Wiencke didn't have to endure this living hell.
Cook watched the cabin walls close in on him, half-expecting the breath to be crushed from his body. He could feel his mind fraying like an old piece of sail canvas, as the ice gradually froze its way to his core.
Suddenly, there was a hiss from his candle, as water dripped down from the ceiling. Cook frowned: nothing was warm enough to melt the ice on the ship. Another hiss, and then he was plunged into blackness.
Muttering, Cook blindly searched for his matches. He knocked the box off the table. More curses. He searched the floor with numb fingers.
Suddenly, Cook heard a wet, hacking cough. He froze, still on his knees. He could hear water, as though a stream was running across the floor. Was this the start of his descent into insanity? Was he to be the next to be locked in his cabin? Another cough. He found a match and the candle's thin blanket of light once again stretched out to illuminate the room.
There was a body on his operating table. Whoever he was, he appeared to have been pulled from the icy ocean. Cook stared at it, bewildered. This must be madness, yet he could see it, could smell the stench of wet animal skins and clothes, could hear the dripping of icy water. Heart hammering, Cook approached the table and gingerly reached out a hand. All of his instincts were screaming at him to run, to get as far as he could from this room, but his desire to know outweighed his urge to flee. He leaned over and looked at the man's face.
'It can't be.'
He had fallen hundreds of miles away. It couldn't be, and yet, it was.
An explosion of coughing. The figure jack-knifed and rolled off the table. Cook jumped back and watched, bewildered, as the figure vomited up a great torrent of water.
Cook put the candle down and knelt beside Weincke, clapping him on the back. More retching, but the coughing gradually subsided, replaced by ragged breathes. Cook helped man onto his feet. He was like a block of ice to touch.
'Carl? How in God's name did you get here?'
Weincke's eyes met Cook's, and the doctor recoiled. They were completely black, dark as a starless night. Weincke appeared to breathe, but no mist escaped his mouth. Seeing Cook's horrified expression, his face twisted into a grotesque, lopsided smile. Water streamed down Weincke's face, into his eyes, yet he did not blink.
'You look terrible, doctor.'
Cook stared at Weincke, trying to understand what he was seeing.
'You're dead! I watched you go overboard!'
Weincke's smile widened, like he was in on the joke.
'Am I not dead? Did you feel a pulse?'
The Doctor swallowed hard.
'Have I gone mad?'
Weincke laughed a harsh, horrible laugh.
'My good doctor! Of course not! No, this is merely a visit! Is that not allowed?'
Cook walked towards the cabin door on unsteady legs. Wrenching it open, he looked out into the dark, narrow corridor outside. It was silent as a tomb.
'Somers? Amundsen? De Gerlache?'
Cook could hear nothing through the blackness. No rats scrabbling, no snores or voices.
'They won't answer, doctor.'
Cook turned. Weincke was standing behind him. The doctor hadn't heard him approach. He could feel the ice of fear in his guts.
Weincke smiled that dark, wet smile again.
'They won't answer because they are not there. There is no one here but us.'
Weincke's eyes were fixed into Cook's. The candle on the floor sputtered.
'Where the Hell are they, then? We are trapped in the ice! To leave the ship is to die.'
Weincke chuckled again: 'How right you are, doctor. But the question is not where they have gone, but where you have gone.'
Cook felt blood drain from his face. Weincke's laugh grew deeper and deeper, mimicking the groan of the pack ice as it crushed the Belgica, the sound of encroaching death.
Some animal instinct drew Cook's gaze to the candle. It was as though the flame was drawing darkness and shadows towards it, like water circling a drain. He could see tendrils of blackness circling the sputtering flame, drawing slowly closer.
'What is going on? Where am I?'
Weincke placed an icy hand on Cook's shoulder.
'Finally, doctor, we arrive at the right question.' The darkness was now almost absolute: Weincke's soulless eyes were all that Cook could see.
'I shall show you what depths you have travelled to, my good doctor.'
The candle sputtered once more, and finally went out.