5 min read

Building Beyond: Ice Ice Baby

In this universe, there's only one absolute: everything freezes.

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

An Antarctic ice shelf has split open. It's free at last.

Hunter Ford is a copyeditor of nonfiction and a writer of fanfiction.

Everyone agrees that names have power: in all the old folk tales the knowledge of a name gives its wielder power over the named, and everyone knows not to follow the call of one’s own name whispered from the depths of the forest or the hush of the seafoam where it crashes on the fine white sand of the beach. So why do we name geographic features when those names seep into the rock and the water and the cracks that lance through thick glistening white-green slabs of ice, and when those names compel them like our names compel us?

The Ross Ice Shelf is seeking. It has been seeking for a long time, but when one is a slab of ice roughly the size of France one is not particularly mobile. Now the ice has warmed and melted and trickled back into the sea, first in droplets and little rivulets and then in huge sluicing rivers and deep glimmering pools, enough for Ross to break from its bounds and embark upon its search. The name has imbued it with the will to seek and the planet’s changing climate has imbued it with the ability to seek and so it does, insensible of the flooding of McMurdo, New Zealand and the southern coasts of Australia, Tierra del Fuego and the Queen Adelaide Archipelago. It moves slowly, ponderously, but it moves, edging through the Drake Passage and breaking free from the cold cling of the continent the huge protruding peak of the Larsen Ice Shelf. As he sees it drifting toward the Weddell Sea, the Ross Shelf hopes Captain Larsen finds whoever he might be looking for.

Seas are strange: they are and aren’t mobile, perpetually ebbing and flowing and simultaneously permanently fixed in a way the land is not with its seisms and quakes. The sea is the companion and sometime accomplice of the ice, buoying it ever upward and gently carrying it from place to place on its slow persistent currents. The sea hands Ross off to the ocean, and the ocean carries him northward: past the jutting elbow of Brazil, enormous waves sloshing up the white sand beaches of the scattered half-circle of the islands of the Antilles. Newfoundland is close enough for Ross to feel the cold and the inexorable pull of his destination, stronger than the tide though the tide bears him there because if anyone understands yearning, it is the ocean.

Ross nestles between Greenland and the rocky little outcroppings of Canada, blocking, with an irony he only vaguely understands, the Northwest Passage with his gleaming silvery-blue mass. Bits of ice tumble off Ross’s sides as he navigates the passageway, crashing into the sea, erratically flooding the rocky shores of the peninsulas and little islands that line the passageway. The land, having known Crozier, gives way in sympathy. It also understands longing.

And they nestle there, side by side, the Ross Ice Shelf and Cape Crozier, together in their afterlives.

“I feel that I am not in spirits for wintering but in truth I am sadly lonely and when I look back to the last voyage I can see the cause and therefore no prospect of having a more joyous feeling, the bustle of the seas oh well however the life has me and come which may I will endeavour to sit down at the end of it content…” letter from Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier to James Clark Ross, July 1849

“I was limited to 12 lines to speak of his services. It was hardly possible to say the thousandth part of what I should have like to have said of one I so truly loved.” James Clark Ross about Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, 1855

A digital designer and programmer in her life before Old Gods, Cam Collins is a native of Wise, Virginia, where she cut her teeth on the spooky folklore of the region. A lover of all things that go bump in the night and dyed-in-the-wool spooky bitch, Cam is also cohosted Appalachian Arcana, a podcast featuring stories of true crime and regional lore. She currently resides in Bristol, TN/VA.

It started with a sound. At first, it was just a whisper, a sighing as the thick mantle of ice somewhere above shifted, and the entity below it had long since learned how little that meant. She had dreamt in the depths of the cold, lightless sea for millennia, and little disturbed Her rest. But gradually, the whisper grew louder, became a series of sharp snicks, became a cracking that ripped along the surface of the shelf above, became a deafening roar, and then —


— and it had been so long since the being imprisoned beneath it had known anything but the darkness. The blazing sky brought pain, and with it a consuming rage, and She added Her voice to the thunder of snapping, grinding, disintegrating ice above them. The ice exploded. The seas rose, and bore Her up with them, out of the primordial dark, and into a bright new dawn. Her dawn.

The ones who drowned beneath the rising waves, or were crushed inside the rubble of collapsing buildings, as Her voice shook the world in those first moments were the lucky ones. When the dust cleared, the survivors woke to a world they barely recognized — a world where they no longer enjoyed a comfortable perch at the top of the food chain. For as soon as She was free, She set about liberating Her children from the chains that bound Them in the earth. Her children wore countless faces, both beautiful and terrible. They were numberless, and They were hungry.

My ice-breaker would seem insignificant at first blush: an ancient algae, preserved in a pocket of hypersaline water trapped beneath the ice for centuries. The algae would emerge into our ocean -- an ocean that has not been warm enough to host it for a long, long, long time. If the ice had broken any sooner or any later, the water would have been either too cool or too warm for the algae. But now, it is just right, and the algae will finally have a long-awaited opportunity… to bloom.

All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Hunter's romance is a stunning examination of longing on a massive and lingering scale. Cam's furious emergence is a mind-freezing illustration of how little we understand the earth we inhabit and the things that are bound to it. My algae bloom is a journey into the cascading effects of little things that can swing every ecosystem on the planet into chaos.

What hides beneath your ice? Who will survive when it finally breaks free?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

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