We are thrilled to present the honorable mention from this year’s Flash Fiction Contest: “Observation Tube—McMurdo Station, Antarctica” by Justin Herrmann. What exists just below the ice? What exists just below the surface of our interactions, those words both said and unsaid? Feel the chill of Herrmann’s world in this breathtaking flash.
A flask inside the big pocket of his coveralls digs into his sternum. He brought it intending to drink, but, given their situation, decides better of it. She points out a tiny jellyfish, no bigger than a thumbnail, floating before them. While the two of them try to shift into a comfortable position, she notices dozens more jellyfish in every direction. No heart, no brain, no eyes, she says. He imagines they’re similar in size to what’s growing inside her.
A half dozen Weddell seals lay in the distance like giant slugs baked on pavement. Six austral summers at McMurdo, Mike has seen seals appear and disappear on the gray sea ice, but has never seen one actually move.
This season Station installed an observation tube on the sea ice that extends fifteen feet below the surface. Mike’s with Laura, a first-season Dining Attendant with a degree in decorating cakes. They sign in at the firehouse for their turn inside the tube. They’re given a radio, a key, and a check-in time. One minute late reporting back, the dispatcher says, we send Search and Rescue.
A twenty minute walk from Station, the tube, from above, looks like something out of a Mario Bros. game, huge PVC pipe leading to another world. They spread their heavy Station-issued parkas on the ice so they’ll fit together in the tube. Mike undoes the lock, lifts the lid, sets it aside, goes down first. Laura follows. They descend metal handholds until they reach the part surrounded by thick clear plastic on all sides, and then down a rope ladder the last few feet.
From below, the ice glows children’s-toothpaste blue under the intense Antarctic sun. The bottom of the ice is covered with sharp slivers protruding all directions like thousands of frozen urchins.