It was that time of year in Antarctica when the sun peaked in the sky just above eye level, then dipped below the horizon again a mere three hours later. He walked with the midday sun at his back, crossing a snow field, ducking to fend off the pellets of snow and ice that assaulted him with each gust of wind. His thick red parka and extreme-weather gear gave little comfort in this cold. But he trudged on, knowing it would be worth it, even if he got caught in the end.
His assignment would last just two more weeks anyway. After that the conditions would be unbearable, even for one of NASA’s most battle-scarred field scientists. He had been tasked with studying ancient microbes in the ice, and learning how and why they were able to survive for millions of years in this environment when he couldn’t make it more than a season. Such answers could provide clues about whether and how life might exist elsewhere in the universe. And that was a mission worth coming here for.
Yet if this wound up being his last assignment in Antarctica, he was ready for that, too.
He carried a black hard-shelled case that housed a precisely engineered instrument—one prohibited at the coring site to avoid introducing unwanted contaminants. It was heavy and awkward in the wind, and it bounced off his legs as he walked. His arm was getting sore trying to control it. Yet he smiled rebelliously and struggled on, looking around occasionally to ensure none of his colleagues had followed.
NASA was ruthless about its on-site sterility protocols. But some rules just begged to be broken.
The ice cave was nestled in the foothills at the edge of the field, and the hills tamed and muted the winds as he approached. He stood at the cave’s opening, with smooth ice arching over him, peaking fifteen feet above his head. Light blue pocks and divots held shimmering pools of daylight in the walls. He stepped forward, his thick rubber soles crunching softly on the snow with each footfall, the sounds echoing in the hollow expanse ahead.
The light faded as he descended. He passed numerous cavities where he had meticulously extracted cylindrical ice cores using the same sterile procedures he’d adhered to for years as if they were religious commandments. But he did not pause to observe protocol today.
Deeper inside, he found himself bathed in a blue glow so faint he could barely read the “NASA Microbiology” patch on the breast of his parka. He knelt and lowered the black case onto the packed snow, and two clicks echoed throughout the chamber, one after the other, as he released the latches and lifted the lid.
Polished brass glinted in the low light. He looped a neck strap over his head, and secured it around the outside of his red hood. He lifted the body of the instrument, fastened the strap to it, and secured the neck to the body. He wedged the mouthpiece onto the neck with a squeak that sounded like a wine bottle being opened in reverse, and looked around one last time, laughing to himself as he contemplated what he would say if anyone happened upon him now.
With a broad satisfied smile he removed his gloves and felt the icy brass of the saxophone in his bare hands, the pearl tops of the keys under the pads of his fingers. Standing and turning toward the opening through which he had entered, he licked the small reed clasped to the mouthpiece, filled his lungs to capacity, and released a rich, woody, Charlie Parker tune into the cave. The melody rang throughout, bouncing off the smooth ancient ice, radiating out into the virgin Antarctic afternoon with a perfect natural resonance he’d dreamed of hearing since first coming here years ago.
He played on, his mouth cast into an irrepressible smile, as all of time distilled into a moment, where consequences became meaningless and everything gave way to the gentle blue glow and the transcendence of the music.