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Avalanche, Chapter 1 - Showcase

by  Xena

Posted: Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Word Count: 4953
Summary: This is a novel about friendship, maybe in its unusual, I would say, extreme form. It looks into the nature of ties between people, the limits of loyalty and the power of conventions.
Related Works: Avalanche, Chapter 2 - Showcase • Avalanche, Chapter 3 - Showcase • 

                                                     Chapter 1
       Another lash of blizzard. Mike shut his eyes and listened to the howl. This was the kind of moment one imagines being somewhere else. Somewhere more welcoming. It didn’t work for him. He couldn’t think of a place where he would feel welcome, where he would want to be.
       He opened his eyes and looked around. He could no longer see the mountains behind the thick cloud of the raging snow. He could see nothing. Nothing… Nothing seemed to be an attractive alternative, when so much had been tried and so little of it had ever made any sense.  When you couldn’t even say to yourself ‘my life is ruined’, but simply ‘it has never happened.’
       ‘Do you want me to go first?’ he heard in his right ear.
       No, he didn’t. He turned round. That was Ben, their team leader. Mike had completely forgotten that he was at the top of their group of five on this narrow track.  Everybody depended on his pace. He had no time for drifting away.
       He pressed on. As far as he could judge they had made good progress. His legs were getting used to the uphill struggle. His back no longer ached under the weight of the backpack. He was beginning to feel more relaxed making an effort than taking a rest.
       Something brushed against Mike’s sleeve. Mike looked up. Ben was breaking forward.  
      ‘We’ve got to get there before dark.’ His voice was cutting through the wind. ‘Not the best conditions…’
      ‘Have you been here before?’ asked Mike.
      ‘Yeah,’ said Ben. ‘I had to organise everything.’
      Mike found it hard to relax in the company of strangers. It would take him a long time and a volume of effort to ease into small talk. To start with, he wasn’t good with remembering names. Somehow he remembered Ben, as the odd one out. He was their team leader and the only doctor among them.
      Another name Mike could remember was Tim, the climatologist, the only member of the group Mike had seen before, although they had never exchanged a word. He didn’t know the other two. He wouldn’t tell between them at all if not for the colour of their jackets – blue and red. Blue Jacket was in geophysics, like Mike himself, but Mike had never met him before. Red Jacket was the IT man.
       Someone from behind neared him. Mike screwed his neck round. It was Blue Jacket.
       ‘I see you’re a skier?’ Blue Jacket asked, levelling with Mike. He looked over Mike’s head where a pair of skis was rising tall from the backpack.
       ‘Yes,’ said Mike stiffly. ‘That was one of the reasons why I signed up for this expedition.’
       ‘The same with me,’ Blue Jacket smiled. ‘Shall we join together? It doesn’t look like the rest are up to it.’
       It’s not bad for a start, Mike thought. It wasn’t that hard to connect after all.
       The path had narrowed down forcing them apart. Mike found himself on his own with the blizzard again. It was getting dark and the path was already barely visible in the thickening twilight. Soon Mike realised that the ground was no longer sloping under his feet. He looked around and saw that they now were on a long stretch of a plain skirted with bushes and conifers. It resembled a miniature valley, stubbornly claiming its existence among these inhospitable peaks. At the far end of this ‘valley’ he distinguished a regular structure, shadowing out on the otherwise virgin background.
       ‘That’s it,’ announced Ben.
       They headed for the structure. They entered slowly, one by one, as though unsure they would be welcome here. Ben clicked on the lights and they saw themselves in a large room. Mike’s eyes slid along the row of windows, which formed a good half of the room’s perimeter. This room was more of a conservatory, surprisingly warm. Numerous computers and other devices crowded a number of tables. This was to be their main place of work without a doubt. Then Mike noticed an open plan kitchen and a large table next to it. So, it would be their dining room as well.
       Problems with space, thought Mike. Of course
       ‘There’re only three bedrooms here,’ said Ben. ‘So, one of us will be more comfortable than the rest. Anyway, someone can sleep here, in the common area.’
       There was a single bed by the wall on the left. It was hard to imagine, though, that someone would agree to sleep here, literally in the middle of everything.
       Of course, Mike would prefer a separate room, but he was not prepared to fight for it. There was no fight, anyway. When they had settled in the rooms, Ben happened to be on his own.
       Naturally, thought Mike.
       Mike had settled in his room first and was relieved to see Blue Jacket enter. They had already made a connection, and for this reason or another Mike thought him to be the lesser evil. But the name! Mike was desperately trying to remember his name, but it was hopeless. 
       ‘Is anyone after that bed?’ Blue Jacket pointed to the bed opposite. 
       ‘No,’ said Mike. ‘Welcome.’   
       ‘Don’t worry, I don’t snore.’
       ‘Me neither. Here it would be a nail into the coffin,’ Mike chuckled.
       Blue Jacket gestured in understanding. The room was painfully small. Two beds stood on either side of the only window and were separated by a table on that end. The passage dividing them was just about the greatest expanse of the free space in the room. A toy-sized wardrobe was rising at the foot of one of the beds. It interfered with the door. They could never fit all their things in there.
       His new roommate didn’t seem to be too bothered. With unconcerned expression on his face he threw his backpack on the floor, which didn’t leave much space for anything else. He took his jacket off and too threw it on the floor, notably not over his backpack. He then lay down on the bed with a deep sigh.
       Meanwhile a swarm of sounds was coming from the common room. Mike could hear a lot of stomping and rustling, occasional clanking and banging. It became very obvious that the rest of the group were unpacking and arranging the stuff they had brought. It was a signal to come and help.
       Mike threw a glance at his roommate. The roommate was staring into the ceiling. Nothing in his face suggested that he interpreted signals the way Mike did.
       Mike stood up and left the room carefully negotiating his way around his roommate’s belongings on the floor. After a moment of doubt he realised his roommate wasn’t coming at all.  
       Mike didn’t take these things lightly. That was the reason why he found the team work so taxing, despite it being the only type of work he had ever known. There would always be someone refusing to pull his weight, and there was no means of balancing it out without conflicts. Human beings were generally very susceptible to sponging, and to overcome this flaw they had to make a considerable effort. Pity, this effort hardly ever paid. Mike always thought that it was ironic that such a social animal like human being could be human only in solitude, otherwise it would be just an animal.
       If Mike knew his roommate any better, no way would he leave it alone. Unfortunately, the last thing he wanted to do was to start a new project with an argument. With some force he grabbed the first backpack in his way and pulled the buckle. Almost at the same time he saw with the corner of his eye Ben retrieving a newspaper from one of the bags.
       Oh, no, flashed across Mike’s mind. He’s not gonna do what I think he is.
      Fat chance. The discovery of the newspaper marked the end of Ben’s contribution to the team’s effort. He sat down on the bed and opened the paper. It wasn’t enough. He then took the pillow and propped it against the wall. With a deep sigh he sunk in the pillow and buried his face in the newspaper.
       Mike threw a glance at him. Mike felt a burning anger rising in his chest. He was wondering whether it really was such a bad idea to start the project with an argument. He looked down and delved his hand into the backpack. It was apparent that the reduced team of three had been left to finish with the bags.
       When the bags were mostly sorted, it was time for dinner. The IT man was already fussing about in the kitchen. Mike looked around. Tim was now sitting by the window, staring into the darkness outside. The clunk of kitchenware did nothing to jolt him out of his stupor. Ben was absorbed in his reading on the bed.
       Mike found it sickening. His acute sense of justice, from which he had suffered for as long as he could remember himself, was now drumming violently on his temples.
       A typical chain reaction, he thought. It only takes one clever dick.
       For a moment Mike had a sensation that he was losing it, that as little as was left in his life wasn’t going to work either. He just couldn’t take it. Without thinking he directed himself to the kitchen, and as he reached it, the sensation was gone. He smiled to the IT man and said:
       ‘Can I help you with anything?’
       It was apparent that the IT man was very grateful. It wasn’t difficult to strike up a conversation now. It was a bit trickier to learn his name, but Ben’s friendly assistance was there just at the right moment:
       ‘Mark, if you need something fast,’ he peeped over his paper, ‘there’re some tins in Tim’s bag by the front door.’
       Mike had hardly heard Mark drop a word on their way to the location. He judged him to be a quiet type. Now he was beginning to realise that he was off by a mile. Oh, Mark could talk. In fact, in the span of fifteen minutes or so Mike had learned all about Mark’s family and relationships, even about his dog and his pet car of an unheard make, which he was immensely proud of. Soon Mike felt it was just as much as he wanted to know about Mark. To his relief his roommate emerged, no doubt attracted by the smell of food.
       ‘Do you need my help?’ he asked them, clearly expecting to hear ‘No, thank you’ in response. Mike had only just taken air into his lungs to breathe out a resounding ‘yes’, when he heard Mark’s cheerful voice:
       ‘No, thank you. We’re nearly done.’  
       His roommate then sat at the table.
       ‘Ben,’ he said. ‘I understand you’re the only one who knows precisely what we’re going to do here. Maybe you can explain now, at least our immediate plan of actions. We’d save time tomorrow.’
       ‘Well, I know my part of the job,’ said Ben, ‘and I have a general idea as to what you’re supposed to do. As it says on the cover, we have to study the responses of the human body to a range of stimuli from an avalanche burial.’
      ‘Leaving the mechanics of the burial completely out of the picture?’ the roommate asked. ‘Dealing only with the aftermath?’
       ‘We’re certainly not concerned here with the avalanche as a process, but I don’t know whether it will be completely out of the picture, since it may affect the aftermath. We will look into what happens when someone is already buried in snow. How his body reacts to the pressure, low temperatures, the lack of air inside the pocket and so on. We’ll experiment with different amounts of snow, consider different physical properties. But we have to be as close to the real conditions as possible. That’s why we’re here and that’s why you’re here.’
       Mike let go of the tin he had in his hands and left the kitchen area. He was by the table when Ben continued:  
       ‘So, what you have to do is to study the transport and the deposition of snow in real conditions, which means around here, in this massif, and measure values which we will have to replicate by the hut just outside. What we need is not an abstract pressure or density, but what can really occur on real slopes. You’ll consider particular dynamics, altitude, changing weather conditions…’
       ‘Excuse me,’ interrupted Mike, who had heard enough to suspect a serious problem. ‘Is there a plan to the whole thing? How detailed is it supposed to be? Where does it end?’
       ‘In a sense it’s up to us. We have to plan it in a way so as to fit it in the time frame we have…’
       ‘When you say ‘we have to plan’, who do you mean?’  
       ‘That’ll be you,’ said Ben.
       Mike’s eyes grown. 
       ‘Err…’ Ben uttered. ‘I mean you and the guys,’ he tilted his chin towards the roommate and Tim. ‘I’m fairly flexible. I’m open to suggestions. As I said this is not my expertise.’
       ‘But I…’ Mike choked. ‘I’ve hardly ever dealt with snow before. I’ve been working with sand and soil.’
       ‘Doesn’t matter…’ Ben flicked his wrist. ‘There should be something in common.’
        If you say so, thought Mike in vexation.
       ‘Anyway,’ said Ben. ‘Why did you come here then if it’s not your area?’
       ‘Because they said I was suitable. Because I thought we would have someone who knew the area well and who could guide me through it. I expected a lead of a sort. I just wanted to branch off into a new area, if you wish. I was up to a challenge…’ Mike stuttered to a halt.
       ‘And you’ll have plenty of that,’ his roommate laughed.
       Mike scowled at him.      
       ‘I wonder what contribution I can make to the team’s effort,’ the roommate said. ‘I’ve been involved in subsidence modelling in the past few years.’
       ‘Well,’ said Ben after a short pause. ‘We also have Tim. He specialises in climatology.’
       ‘Yes,’ responded Tim. ‘I’ve worked in the Bahamas for three months…’
       This time everybody laughed, including Mike. Mike knew he did it more to relax, than for the funny side of things.
       ‘Okay, with Tim…’ said Ben still laughing. ‘Tim was a member of our Antarctic expedition. He’s also been to Everest. And he worked as a waiter in the Bahamas when he was a student. Anyway, guys… I see no reason for me to justify someone else’s decision. I didn’t recruit you. If you’re in a difficult position, so am I. I’ll have to work here with you and face the same problems. There’s plenty of stuff available on the web you can look at. Our organisers provide support. Mark has software you may find interesting. You just need to spend some time going through all this.’
       ‘In other words tomorrow we’ll be studying, not working.’ concluded Mike.
       ‘It looks that way,’ agreed Ben. ‘Take as many days as you need, if tomorrow is not enough. I can already start some of the experiments tomorrow.’        
       ‘Before we’ve even prepared the input for them?’ the roommate asked.
       ‘Some basic experiments can be conducted. Forget all specific properties. We can take into account just the pressure and the size of the air pocket. We’ll bury a volunteer right outside the chalet, by the hut. There’s a hut with the equipment outside.’
       ‘And who’s the volunteer?’ the roommate asked.
       ‘One of you,’ said Ben.
       No one uttered a word for a moment. Mike was first to come round:
       ‘I definitely didn’t discuss this clause when signing.’
       ‘I don’t think anybody did,’ the roommate grinned.
       ‘They were supposed to tell you!’ exclaimed Ben. ‘Tim, you know!’
       ‘Just because I’ve been in a very similar situation before,’ said Tim. ‘I was alert to it this time around.’
       ‘Look, guys,’ Ben said. ‘You knew the goals of the expedition. You can’t say you didn’t. It’s essentially a medical research. We could do nothing here without a volunteer. On the other hand, it would be a waste to have here someone who was nothing, but a volunteer. And you knew we didn’t have one, anyway. It’s just us. It makes more sense to use those who already work on the project. It goes without saying that any of you can refuse, any time, in fact. It’s not dangerous, though. Your conditions will be closely monitored at all times. If anything at all is a bit off, we’ll take you out of there in a matter of seconds.’
       Ben looked at the others with a plea in his eyes.
       ‘It makes no difference to me,’ said Mike. ‘I can do it. This is not my main concern.’
       ‘I was expecting it. I’m ready,’ said Tim.
       ‘Count me in,’ the roommate said.
       And Mark simply said: ‘Okay’.
       Ben was noticeably relieved.
       ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘As the leader of the team I apologise for this misunderstanding. They were obliged to bring it to your attention. It was in the papers you’d signed. I wish someone bothered to read those papers. It’s important now that you let me know if you have any health problems, especially heart problems. But anything at all, you must tell me.’
       Everyone shook their heads.
       ‘But we’ve done our medical,’ the roommate said. ‘Good health was one of the requirements… It usually is with expeditions of this sort.’
       ‘Okay,’ said Ben standing up. ‘It’s sorted then. I’ll just ask you to complete and sign some questionnaires later on, you know, to tick that you don’t have this and that illness.’
       ‘I bet we’ve done something like this…’ the roommate mumbled.
       Mark was already arranging their dinner on the table and this time everyone joined in to help. Pity, Mike was too taken by other complications to savour it.
       The food was welcome, but the dinner party was still morose. The first day in a new crowd was always the most difficult. Definitely when it’s full of surprises… Mike heaved taking a sip of his coffee. Coffee here was shit… Who had bought this coffee?   
       ‘Ben, I’m just thinking,’ faltered Mike. ‘How on earth are we going to replicate precise conditions of an avalanche burial by the hut, if we can’t collect data from the real thing even when we’re up there?’
       ‘Well,’ Ben said. ‘Avalanches around here are quite common. If we’re lucky to have one within our reach, go for it!’
       ‘Is this something to look forward to?’ Mark smiled raising his eyebrow.  
       ‘I don’t mean anything of the kind!’ Mike said. ‘We can’t base our research on something which may or may not occur. And then we don’t have the resources to chase avalanches, unless something comes right to our front door… What are the chances of that? We need something a bit more probable than that.’
       ‘I hope you’re not suggesting what I think you are,’ Ben chuckled.
       Mike smiled wryly.
       ‘I’m not talking anything grand,’ he said. ‘But surely we should be able to trigger micro avalanches in controlled conditions from where it would be easier to extrapolate…’
       ‘Mike, you’re in the Alps,’ Ben said. ‘There can be nothing micro here. You trigger something micro and it grows out of all proportions in seconds, and before we know it we’re in the local prison facing charges of manslaughter.’
       ‘Ben, we would do it in a location where this scenario would be simply impossible,’ Mike said.
       ‘We’re not authorised to do such a thing. Our insurance doesn’t cover this activity. We’re a small expedition. In fact, we have strict guidance as to what we are allowed and not allowed to do, which you will have to study extra carefully. I’m sure you covered it in you briefing. Please, don’t tell me that you didn’t… Apart from that there are certain areas, which are particularly avalanche prone, which we are not even allowed to disturb…’
       ‘I know all that. I’ve seen the maps, but this is not what I’m talking about. I’m not suggesting we should go to the avalanche prone areas and trigger avalanches on an off-chance that they won’t go all the way down the valley. We could find a mole in the valley and roll down a snowball… I’m talking along these lines.’
       ‘I don’t understand the problem here,’ Ben said. ‘When you study subsidence, you have to subside something? And when you study the sand drift, you have to drift it?’
       ‘I think what Mike means is that when you study subsidence or sand drift it’s actually happening,’ the roommate said. Mike looked at him. He was speaking sluggishly and looked tired. ‘Here we are dealing with something we know about only in theory, and even up there, on the slopes, we won’t be able to study the actual process. We can only extrapolate. So, it will be an extrapolation over yet another extrapolation. That’s why an experiment could be very helpful.’
       ‘In any case,’ Mike said, ‘you can’t compare things like subsidence with an avalanche. Subsidence is a gradual process that happens over a long period of time. In fact, replicating it in controlled conditions can be counterproductive exactly because of that, because it’s difficult to project the real timeframe. Avalanches are different. The real thing happens as fast as a controlled experiment and you’re much closer to the money.’      
       ‘You’re not exactly starting from scratch here,’ Ben said. ‘You’ll be feeding your data into already existing models. That’s what experimental science is all about! There’re volumes of results already available from the outdoor experiments, and indeed from the actual things.’
       ‘Only to do with the dynamics,’ the roommate said. ‘You have very specific requirements. You’re not interested in velocities, at least not directly. You don’t need to know what area is covered. You need to know how long a human being could live and breathe at any given point. I doubt you’re going to get this information from anywhere. I don’t think there are precedents.’
       ‘And this is exactly why we are here,’ Ben said. ‘Look, I understand your frustration. You face a difficult task, but on the brighter side, as I said, no one has defined how detailed and thorough we should be. It really is up to us. It is an uncharted territory.  No matter what we do, we can’t be criticised for it. Consider what is available. See how far you can go from there… and use the rest of your time to explore avalanche prone areas on your skis. You’ve seen the maps. Can’t be that difficult…’
       Mike and the roommate chuckled. Mike shook his head.
       ‘I actually have a problem with this approach on a more conceptual, rather than practical level,’ Mike said. ‘It’s somewhat odd to study something you know only from third parties. You can’t reach for it, you can’t feel it, you can’t even see it… It might as well be a myth, it would make no difference to you.’
       ‘Do not despair,’ the roommate smiled looking at Mike. ‘As Ben rightly observed we’ve seen the maps. The world is our oyster.’                     
       And it probably is, Mike smiled back.
      ‘Okay, it looks like bedtime’ the roommate heaved standing up. ‘I suppose we can do the tiding up in the morning,’ he said looking at the table. ‘It’s been a long day.’
       Everybody nodded an approval. The roommate bid goodnight straight away and retired to the bedroom. Mike delayed, because he expected someone to do something and he was wondering if he had got it right.
       When Tim and Ben were leaving the room, Mark reached for the cheese board and the butter on the table and went to the fridge. Mike slightly nodded quietly snorting. He lifted the large plate with the leftovers of their greens and vegetables and followed Mark to the fridge. When he approached, Mark still had his back towards him. Mark turned round and started back from surprise. Mike held out the plate.
       ‘Oh, thank you!’ Mark exclaimed receiving it. ‘Don’t worry, it’s only a couple of things. I thought they’re not gonna last if we don’t fridge them… The rest of the stuff can wait till tomorrow.’
       ‘Good night!’ Mike smiled and left.
       ‘Good night!’ he heard behind him.
       When Mike entered his bedroom, he was surprised to see that his roommate was still fully dressed and lying over the blanket. He hadn’t put his linen on. He had an open book in his hands and didn’t look like someone dozing off after a long day.
       ‘I thought you would be out by now,’ Mike smiled to him.
       ‘Give me a chance,’ the roommate said looking up at him. ‘I’ve got all the right literature here. Shouldn’t take too long…’
       ‘What are you reading?’
       ‘Got you,’ Mike chuckled opening his backpack on his bed.
       ‘So, what do you think about the whole thing?’ the roommate asked.     
       ‘What can I think?’ Mike sighed taking his set of bed linen out of his bag. ‘Their organisation is pathetic. Why couldn’t they recruit people who knew the subject?’
       ‘I think,’ the roommate said, ‘it’s because in England there’re not many specialists in this area. Most of the research is carried out here in the Alps or in North America. I mean almost any land on earth is better equipped to handle this subject than England.’
       ‘Why didn’t they cooperate with other institutions in Europe or America, or indeed in other lands?’
       ‘Perhaps, because they didn’t want to share. They didn’t have enough for themselves.’
       ‘Why are they paying anything at all for something which is not their area and they can’t do properly?’
       ‘It’s not exactly them who are paying. They are those who are being paid. The subsidies have come from Europe.’
       ‘Why did they ask for subsidies for this particular program?’
       ‘They probably didn’t, but this was a program Europe was ready to subsidise. Why? I’m sure it’s possible to find out, but do we need it?’
       ‘It doesn’t make any sense.’
       ‘Why not?’ The roommate sat up on his bed and put his book aside. ‘They had access to funds. Who turns down money? Don’t forget, these payouts don’t just further science. They feed great many people. They even make very rich quite a few. In fact, it’s lucky that science ever gets furthered. It’s certainly not going to happen here. This is no longer about science. This is politics, mate. It’s ugly, it’s perverse, but it’s here to stay.’
       ‘I understand, but I hate to be on the receiving end! I hate to be a victim…’
       ‘Someone always is,’ the roommate grinned. ‘Now it’s our turn.’
       ‘I envy your stoicism. I wish I could be just as laid back about the whole thing. They want us to master a new area in a few days, then to structure and lead an entire research project, which is apparently unprecedented, and all we have for guidance is Ben who is open to suggestions. All he’s supposed to do here is to record the output of our research. To measure the heart rate and pencil it down. And this is project management. It’s like wake me up when you need me. In this case why is a doctor, and not a geophysicist, the leader of our team?’
       ‘Because it’s a part of a larger program – human body in extreme conditions.’
       ‘I see you have an answer to everything.’
       ‘I certainly can find an answer to everything. But I don’t have to! If only you stop asking me questions, I’ll stop coming up with answers!’
       ‘Sorry,’ grinned Mike with a sigh. ‘Nothing really bothers you, does it?’
       ‘I don’t like to be bothered with things I can’t change. I could just give up the whole thing and leave, if I wanted. But I don’t really want to leave. I’ll do as best as I can without killing myself, and meanwhile I’ll be skiing. Someone has to put those maps to good use.’
       Mike smiled. He too didn’t want to leave. And in his case too skiing was one of those things which could make him forget all problems.
       ‘Mike,’ the roommate said. ‘It looks too chaotic, yes… But whole life is chaos.’
       Mike couldn’t disagree.
       ‘If you embrace chaos as it is,’ the roommate continued, ‘without attempting to tame it, you’ll be surprised how soon you’ll see logic and order in it. The trick is to overcome the discomfort of the first encounter with this chaos… Just get the early days out of the way, and life will be easier to handle.’
       Mike looked at his roommate intently. He was stunned. He didn’t expect this turn. He had thought of these exact things many times. He had never tried to put them into words, though. He had never spelled them out. Now he heard it spoken, and from a complete stranger. Weird…
       One way or another, he suddenly felt a wave of trust for his roommate, and – for the first time – he felt comfortable in this god-forsaken hut in the middle of nowhere, in this tiny dark room cluttered with someone else’s things. He lay down in his bed.
       He thought that his roommate had been calling him by name. And he still didn’t know his roommate’s name. Now was the time to ask him about it. Not only because he couldn’t carry on without, but just because now he definitely wanted to know this name.
       ‘I’m sorry,’ Mike said. ‘I can’t remember your name.’
       ‘That’s Okay,’ the roommate said. ‘I’m Nick.’