The Danforth Project: Stephen Mark Rainey

October 31; 19:47

“I don’t know what we’re seeing. I know what it looks like.”

Christine Danforth, founder and CEO of Geo-Astra, Inc., stood before a pair of side-by-side projected images on the conference room wall, her eyes scanning the faces in the room, clearly expecting a definitive answer to the mystery that had brought them all together. Mid-forties, an attractive brunette with huge, inquisitive hazel eyes, she appeared composed, stern; but when she lifted a metal pointer and tapped the wall to emphasize her point, her hand trembled slightly. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Dyer, U.S. Air Force, thought her eyes might have flickered toward his for the briefest second.

The satellite photo on the left showed a pale, gradated surface laced with crescent-shaped shadows, which suggested a series of small ridges, while the image on the right showed an array of jagged, saw-tooth shadows jutting across a mottled gray plain. Time stamps on the photos indicated they had been taken fifteen minutes apart, at 21:15 and 21:30, some six days earlier.

“These images are from surveying satellite GAOS-12, now in geosynchronous orbit. The center point of both images is latitude south 76 degrees 15 minutes, longitude east 113 degrees 10 minutes.”

Dyer leaned forward, as did the other three men and two women seated at the conference table, as if peering more deeply into the images might reveal some dark secret. Alek Gudmundson, chairman of Miskatonic University’s mathematics department, hesitated a moment before demanding the inevitable clarifying remark.

“You’re saying both photos are of the same geographic region, taken a few minutes apart?”

“Yes.”

“Though these are two very different landscapes.”

“So it appears.”

Gudmundson was tall and gaunt—surely close to retirement age, Dyer thought. His glasses enlarged his eyes so they resembled blue-painted Ping Pong balls. “Obviously,” he finally said, “you’ve ruled out the possibility of an electronic glitch, or we wouldn’t be here.”

“Correct. At 21:27, we detected a few millimeters’ alteration in the satellite’s attitude, possibly due to an impact of some sort. A particle of space junk, we think. We made a remote correction, but for a period of minutes, we were receiving the image you see on the right. Of course, we thought it was a glitch due to the impact. But subsequent testing proved that the lens assembly had not shifted—that the center coordinates of both images are, in fact, precisely the same. And, to the best of our knowledge, the mountain range you see in this photo simply does not exist. Not on the continent of Antarctica. Or anywhere else on Earth.”

The ensuing silence was finally broken when Dr. Sadao Takashima, a zoologist from Okayama, Japan, snapped the pen he was holding in two.

“Doctor?” Danforth said, raising an eyebrow. “Something you wish to share?”

Takashima, his features youthful but shadowed by long, brittle-looking gray hair, shook his head. “No. Not yet.”

“I have something.” Dyer rose from his chair and gave Danforth a searing glare. “You know as well as I do what you think you’re looking at.”

“We all do,” said Dr. Elizabeth Carter, psychiatrist,

magna cum laude

graduate of Miskatonic. “It’s just that, by all rights, it’s not physically possible.”

“‘The Mountains of Madness.’ That’s what your great-grandfather called them,” Nishant Khandar, Geo-Astra’s chief physicist, said to Dyer.

“Which do not exist,” Dyer said. “Every inch of Antarctica has been explored, mapped, photographed, and digitally scanned. Most every country on Earth has a base there. There’s a freaking geocache at the South Pole, for God’s sake. As soon as my great-grandfather’s treatise was brought to light, it was rejected as either a hoax or delusional raving. I favor the former explanation, by the way.”

“What if you are wrong?” Takashima said, turning to gaze at Dyer. “What about the artifacts he brought back? The photographs?”

“All the more reason to consider it a hoax.”

“Some experts disagreed,” Khandar said. “Is that not right?”

“That is right,” Takashima said softly. “And I personally believe it was not a hoax.”

“Go on,” Danforth said, peering intently at him. “This is why you are here.”

Takashima sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and lifted a cigarette to his lips. “Yes, I know there is no smoking here,” he said, without opening his eyes. “I beg your indulgence.” From his pocket, he produced an ancient butane lighter and a small metal ashtray, and then lit his cigarette with infuriating deliberation. Only after several long drags did he deign to speak again.

“Near the end of World War II, my grandfather was serving aboard an Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer. Japan was critically short of oil, and the military government believed there were great reserves to be found in Antarctica. In 1944, an expedition brought back promising results from the Ross Sea. So in early ’45, they deployed two teams, one to build a derrick in McMurdo Sound and another to begin exploratory drilling farther inland, past the Transantarctic Mountains. My grandfather’s destroyer was one of the escort ships, specially adapted to operate in the ice. The first expedition had discovered a channel near the original Scott base, which led through the mountains, and they went in for many miles without discovering its end. The experts believed it would lead them to the plains of Victoria Land. But they had seriously overestimated their ability to deal with the conditions there. One of the Japan Oil Company ships took serious damage. Both teams were forced to abandon their missions.”

Dyer said dryly, “There is no such channel inland from the Ross Sea.”

“Certainly not now,” Takashima said.

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