Under the Midnight Sun

A pool of water near icebergs inhabited by penguins

By Debra J. Tillar

There was a commotion in the penguin colony. Frantic screeching and clamor. A skua had stolen a pin-feathered chick from a nest left unattended and the outraged parent was trying to snatch back the tiny, lifeless creature. Devin watched the skua win the tug-of-war and sail with its plunder into the wide white sky where the ever-present summer sun glowed from behind a veil of ice clouds. An eerie halo portended an imminent storm.

It was when his gaze fell that he saw the body. It lay just beyond the reach of the icy waves, across a tumble of rocks washed clean of the pink guano that covered the rest of the cove. Devin thought it was a seal, one of the crab-eaters that liked to bask onshore and bark at him when he came too close, but he saw arms and dark hair that swept across a human face. He cried out—and the body leapt up.

Alive! A young woman—

“Good lord! What are you doing here? Are you okay?”

She was wild-eyed, filthy, her hair tangled like seaweed, her wet, leathery garments tattered and hanging in shreds. She didn’t speak, but raised her hands to ward him off. On her arm she wore a magnificent bracelet that dazzled with shining gems.

“Did you fall off a boat? What happened to you?”

He took off his parka and stepped closer, held it out to her, but she backed away into knee-deep water he knew was frigid.

“Please. Don’t be afraid. Let me help you.”

Her bare feet had to be burning with cold, yet she seemed about to retreat further into the sea. She looked over her shoulder at the water. Reluctant. Fearful.

At that moment a large orca broke the surface, surprisingly close to shore. The young woman jumped just as Devin reached to pull her to safety. It was only then that he noticed the gaping wound on her leg. He caught her in his arms as she stumbled.


The small research station on Vernaldi Point was separated from the nearest settlement by fifty miles of treacherous, brash-filled sea. Devin had just spent two months taking core samples; it was now less than a week until the chopper from McMurdo Station would come to collect him. The decades-old shack, once a military outpost, had been upgraded with an attached Quonset hut. Devin carried the young woman straight in to the kitchen.

“What’s your name?” His shirt was covered in her blood. She moaned as he cleaned her leg and applied pressure, but she still didn’t speak. Of course she was in shock. Maybe a brain injury. He would have to radio McMurdo as soon as the ugly wound was bandaged.

Her large eyes were dark and heavy-lidded, the whites abnormally gelatinous. How had she survived the cold? He offered her a mug of hot tea but she stared and didn’t take it. She seemed remarkably alert as she watched his hands closely then anxiously scanned the room.

“There’s nobody else here. Just me. My name is Devin. De-vin.” He pointed at himself, then at her. “And you? Your name?”

Her ruddy face was blank, expressionless except for the peculiar eyes. He tried to keep his voice bright, but he was badly shaken. Tourist ships never came to this part of the peninsula. How did she get here? Maybe on a private yacht?

“I’m not a medical doctor, but I have been trained to do this.” He put on surgical gloves and laid out sutures. The gash in her leg was deep. “I’m a scientist, an eremologist. I study deserts. Antarctica is the largest desert in the world, did you know that? Almost no precipitation. All this ice is millions of years old…” He realized he was prattling, that she obviously couldn’t understand a word. But his voice seemed to calm her.

“This wasn’t supposed to be a solo gig but the other guy got sick. Appendicitis. Had to be air-lifted out about five weeks ago.”

He tried to pull away her ripped pants to better cleanse the wound, but the pants stuck to her skin and when he pulled harder she yelped. “Sorry! The fabric must be…”

And that’s when he realized.

He froze.

The ragged clothes he’d thought were made of faux leather weren’t clothes at all. It was her skin.


The solitude, the thin polar air, the inexplicable claustrophobia in this vast world of ice, that harsh, unrelenting sun that danced in a circle every day but refused to set, had all conjured many unusual dreams in the weeks he’d been at the station, even a few odd waking moments. But this was extreme. Had his prolonged isolation triggered a mild psychosis? He hadn’t really felt so terribly alone, surrounded as he was by thousands of malodorous, squawking Gentoo penguins that followed him everywhere, the fur seals and crab-eaters that cavorted in the rocky shoals, the harem of stinky, gargantuan elephant seals that lounged, belching and farting, on the shingle behind the station. He radioed McMurdo once a week and had felt no desire for more.

He felt fine, but didn’t all psychotics think they were fine?

With great effort he suppressed his mounting alarm, steadied his hands, and finished the stitches. While bandaging the leg, he took time to examine the young woman’s astonishing skin—slightly textured and overlapping in layers that hung from her body. He wondered about her gummy eyes, her apparent lack of language, the fact that the bitter cold didn’t seem to bother her. None of it made sense.

And that extraordinary bracelet: precious gems woven into a fine silver filigree that spiraled tightly around her forearm. It looked ancient, a museum piece. Where could she have gotten such a treasure? He touched it—and her hand flashed out and pushed his fingers away with remarkable strength that could easily break his bones.

He hadn’t radioed McMurdo yet. What would he say?

She laid a hand on the bandage, and her strange eyes thanked him. But when she stood up and tried to leave with determined steps to the door he quickly blocked her way—“Wait! You can’t go!”—and suddenly found himself on the floor and the door swinging open.

Her body was a dark streak as she ran through the harem unmolested by the huge seals that snapped and bellowed at Devin as he followed. The cove was just beyond.


But she was already in the water. And just beyond, the orca was swimming right at her.

“Look out! Look out!”

She turned just as the orca tossed her. Both submerged.

“Oh my god!”

The sea was calm for a long, terrible moment. Then: a hiss of parting water as the orca surfaced, a gush of spray as the blowhole spewed air; and the woman—straddling the whale, clinging to its dorsal fin. She lifted an arm high and threw something. It landed on the beach at Devin’s feet.

The bracelet.

He looked back at the sea in time to see her embrace the fin with both arms as the orca dove. The water became still, flat. Devin stayed and stared for a long time, but the sea remained flat. The ice halo thickened and the midnight sun still danced, still refused to set.


Debra is a former archaeologist, a retired teacher, an artist, and a writer. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles on food and travel and her short stories have been included in science fiction and horror anthologies. In 2021 Debra published a two-volume science fiction novel, The Nomad. Debra has traveled to all seven continents and has visited over 60 countries and territories. She grew up in New York City and now lives on the seacoast of New Hampshire.



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