Wailee Ming lay on his stomach beside the extraction hole, his right arm extended over the rim trying to extract a water sample. His eyes were definitely not playing tricks on him; his face, now only a yard or so from the water, could see everything perfectly.
This is incredible!
Straining harder, Ming maneuvered the beaker in his fingers, trying to reach down to the surface of the water. All he needed was another few inches.
Unable to extend his arm any farther, Ming repositioned himself closer to the hole. He pressed the toes of his boots against the ice and firmly replanted his left hand on the rim. Again, he extended his right arm as far as he could. Almost. He shifted a little closer. Yes! The edge of the beaker broke the surface of the water. As the liquid flowed into the container, Ming stared in disbelief.
Then, without warning, something utterly inexplicable occurred. Out of the darkness, like a bullet from a gun, flew a tiny speck of metal. Ming only saw it for a fraction of a second before it smashed into his right eye.
The human instinct to protect ones eyes was so innately ingrained, that despite Mings brain telling him that any sudden movements risked his balance, he recoiled. It was a jolting reaction more out of surprise than pain. Mings left hand, closest to his face, shot up reflexively to protect the assaulted eyeball. Even as his hand was in motion, Ming knew he had made a mistake. With all of his weight leaning forward, and his only means of support suddenly gone, Wailee Ming teetered. He recovered too late. Dropping the beaker and trying to grab on to the slick ice to stop his fall, he slipped‑plummeting forward into the darkened hole.
The fall was only four feet, and yet as Ming hit the icy water head first he felt like his face had hit pavement at fifty miles an hour. The liquid that engulfed his face was so cold it felt like burning acid. It brought an instantaneous spike of panic.
Upside down and in the darkness, Ming was momentarily disoriented, not knowing which way to turn toward the surface. His heavy camel‑hair coat kept the icy blast from his body‑but only for a second or two. Finally righting himself, Ming came sputtering up for air, just as the water found its way to his back and chest, engulfing his body in a lung‑crushing vise of cold.
Hee . . . lp, he gasped, but Ming could barely pull in enough air to let out a whimper. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.
Heee . . . lp! His cries were inaudible even to himself. Ming clambered toward the side of the extraction pit and tried to pull himself out. The wall before him was vertical ice. Nothing to grab. Underwater, his boots kicked the side of the wall, searching for a foothold. Nothing. He strained upward, reaching for the rim. It was only a foot out of reach.
Mings muscles were already having trouble responding. He kicked his legs harder, trying to propel himself high enough up the wall to grab the rim. His body felt like lead, and his lungs seemed to have shrunk to nothing, as if they were being crushed by a python. His water‑laden coat was getting heavier by the second, pulling him downward. Ming tried to pull it off his body, but the heavy fabric stuck.
Help . . . me!
The fear came on in torrents now.
Drowning, Ming had once read, was the most horrific death imaginable. He had never dreamed he would find himself on the verge of experiencing it. His muscles refused to cooperate with his mind, and already he was fighting just to keep his head above water. His soggy clothing pulled him downward as his numb fingers scratched the sides of the pit.
His screams were only in his mind now.
And then it happened.
Ming went under. The sheer terror of being conscious of his own impending death was something he never imagined he would experience. And yet here he was . . . sinking slowly down the sheer ice wall of a two‑hundred‑foot‑deep hole in the ice. Multitudes of thoughts flashed before his eyes. Moments from his childhood. His career. He wondered if anyone would find him down here. Or would he simply sink to the bottom and freeze there . . . entombed in the glacier for all time.
Mings lungs were screaming for oxygen. He held his breath, still trying to kick toward the surface. Breathe! He fought the reflex, clamping his insensate lips together. Breathe! He tried in vain to swim upward. Breathe! At that instant, in a deadly battle of human reflex against reason, Mings breathing instinct overcame his ability to keep his mouth closed.
Wailee Ming inhaled.
The water crashing into his lungs felt like scalding oil on his sensitive pulmonary tissue. He felt like he was burning from the inside out. Cruelly, water does not kill immediately. Ming spent seven horrifying seconds inhaling in the icy water, each breath more painful than the last, each inhalation offering none of what his body so desperately craved.
Finally, as Ming slid downward into the icy darkness, he felt himself going unconscious. He welcomed the escape. All around him in the water Ming saw tiny glowing specks of light. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.