No one actually believed this day would come. There had been protocols and procedures, certainly, but that was the way of bureaucracy. To believe it would come to pass? A fool’s hope.
Here she stood at the cusp of rebirth.
Centuries ago, humanity dove underground in a plea for survival, amid propaganda that claimed everyone would emerge into a safe, healed world. The top scientists were working, and it was only a matter of time.
Yes, of time that stretched into generations. They were a new subterranean race, only now risking exposure above ground.
The iris began to open, and she could hear the held breath behind her. There was hope in that sound, but also fear.
It might go well, or perhaps she would combust. Drop dead of some new poison. Get mauled by a new alpha predator. The readings were favorable, of course. But the readings were nothing but paper as she considered that first step.
Deep breath, this one stale and recycled, but holding a taste of something fresh. The door was open. It was so much brighter than the constant glow of the overhead lights, somehow sharper. She almost felt her pupils racing away from it as vague shapes began to form on the other side of the door.
She walked forward blinking into the sunlight of a world reborn.
Jerah’s fingers turned the pages of the spellbook, eyeing them with earned distrust. “He left all this?” he asked the innkeeper skulking in the doorway. It was as if the very room was cursed.
“Yessir. Took a pack into the Shattered Mountains weeks ago and hasn’t been back.”
Jerah sighed. That sounded like his father, foolhardy anytime the opportunity arose. But this venture turned sour. As usual, it was now Jerah’s problem to deal with.
“How much do I owe you?”
The innkeeper’s eyes darted between the man and the pile of arcane artifacts. Fear of haunting must have been the only thing keeping him from torching the entire room. “Just get it gone. I’ve no part with that kind of devilry.”
Jerah nodded and set to work gathering the belongings, ignoring the stomping footsteps marching away from the room.
“What did you get yourself into this time?” he whispered to himself as he surveyed the maelstrom of conflicting magicks left behind.
He did not hear the soft bootfalls outside until her voice spoke up. “He was searching for the Everspring.”
Jerah spun and assessed her with a glance. She was young, dressed in rags over merchant finery, and precisely the sort of person his father drew into his orbit.
“Of course he was. And probably dead from it now.” He pursed his lips and considered the map. It had a clear path marked out, notations all along the way. Breadcrumbs to damnation.
“He told me you would show up if he did not return.”
“Well, he was never wrong, was he?” Jerah tossed the map onto the bed, captured by the siren song. His father had set the perfect trap. Years of running from this legacy, all about to be undone in the fading daylight of a rundown inn.
The Premise: An astrobiologist accepts a job on an Antarctic research station, where strange things are being held below the ice. As she learns about the site, the station manager, the AI, and the creatures in her charge, danger threatens.
My Review: In the wintery months for my region, Tartarus has been a perfect accompaniment for those long, dark nights. Building on the foundations of great sci-fi horror stories, this plays with the themes of isolation and calamity effectively to propel the story. I’m a sucker for stories of aliens in the frozen wastes; ever since I first saw The Thing and learned about this genre, it’s been a slam dunk for me. So this show was always going to entertain me, but it is packed full of details that make it enjoyable for others who may not be quite such an easy mark. Where a number of media projects take this theme and leave it there, Tartarus also brings in a healthy dose of complicated characters with compelling personalities. This ramps up the stakes as the story unwinds, revealing more sinister things beneath the surface than just aliens.
As I mentioned, the characters are what make this stand out. The listeners first meet Brie, an astrobiologist down on her luck and wishing for more. Rather than start with a lengthy backstory or explanation, the story starts with contrasted images of an emergency and Brie’s fateful final lecture. Later on, the details get filled in to add context to what can be disorienting at first blush, but it does so organically throughout the story. I love that moment when a piece falls into place, and Tartarus leaves plenty of opportunities for that moment of realization.
As new characters appear, they too have their secrets. Viola, the station manager, is aloof. She reads as someone who has had to rely on themselves for a long while, and so will be minimally helpful insofar as it does not inconvenience her or interfere with her aims. But maybe she cares, in her own unique way? And then the AI is curious, kind, but limited by their programming and immense knowledge. This cast bounces off one another, each needing different things that the others can or cannot provide. There is human conflict, and as their stories are revealed, it clarifies how their pasts have led to the present behavior. The motivating aims for everyone are a bit murky throughout, which makes it harder to predict what will happen and how the sides will align. There is this recurrent feeling that everyone knows more than they let on, and repeatedly the show delivers in unexpected ways on that promise.
In addition, the beings below the ice are yet another cast of unique characters. As Brie gets her tour of the facility, the listener gets a chance to better appreciate the attributes of these creatures. I appreciate that the narrative does not bog down with descriptions of them, but paints a brief enough sketch through the outlined rules, sound design, and descriptions to let the listener fill in the gaps. It is also perfectly consistent with Violet’s character in that there is enough detail to hopefully not die…probably. Like Brie, the listener is at times left adrift, wondering what is safe and what is dangerous. What is known and what is unknown. There is a curated feeling of uncertainty and chaos throughout the narrative that pulls the listener in. I ended episode one with a number of questions and, while they are not all answered yet (where’d be the fun in that?), those that are have been revealed in ways that deepen the mystery and threat.
A good deal of the story is carried by the sound work, and it would fall flat if not crafted with such care. There are crucial background noises, alarms, and cues that help place the action and support the plot. When things get confusing that is often because, well, it’s confusing. The story plays with past and present, as well as reality and illusion. It starts with an absurd premise: aliens below the antarctic ice and hidden from everyone. Once that is shown to be true, it becomes harder to separate fact from fiction, adding yet another layer of complexity to the story. There is also a running question about how the past leads to what is happening now, and the way memories and current events are linked. With a rich sound design, a listener can get lost in what is happening…and that can have its own dangerous consequences. The podcast feels real and alive in the moment, yet keeps the listener anchored in the orchestrated chaos of the plot.
As someone who loves a story that keeps me guessing while also ramping up the tension for characters I care about, Tartarus nails it on all accounts. The characters balance each other well; they accentuate each other’s weaknesses in ways that promote growth, while also using those constellations of strength and weakness to propel the story along. Story beats are hidden and revealed in ways that keep things exciting, carefully unwinding a complicated story with far-reaching consequences. This is a story that is easy to binge, and I hope you will give it a listen. Then you can be as hooked as me, excited for whatever comes next.
You can find them here:Tartarus and help them fund their next batch of episodes here
(I have supported them, and I would love it if you help them meet their goal. It’s a great show, and we need more!)
Thomas pulled the reins short as they neared the forest. His mare stamped the ground, eager as he was to make it to his grandmother’s cabin before dark. It was just this stretch of wood remaining.
He remembered nights when visitors came. She’d light a candle, tending it throughout the dark until the familiar knock on the door.
“So they can find the way,” she’d recite. With her gone, he wondered if anyone had thought to light one for him. No matter; the way was short.
He dismounted and held the reins, leading Ivy through the undergrowth. The last of the daylight fled as they stepped beneath the canopy, and the lantern in his hand cast a pale glow.
Trees crowded in, long branches clawing toward them. Thomas picked his way, doing his best to recall the path he learned as a child. But the forest had changed, and nothing seemed familiar.
The dark deepened as they pressed on, and Thomas swore he saw something moving beneath the shadows. Ivy began to spook and skitter at every snapping branch.
The light retreated from the dark, shying from that thing he sensed. Sounds–growls, barks, and animal laughter–began to echo. The trip should not have taken this long. They should have been there by now. His heart pounded in his throat: it was hard to breathe around it.
Branches snapped, the lantern light faded. Ivy pulled on the reins, trying to flee. Thomas felt crushing panic in his chest.
And then a pinpoint of light between the branches. Thomas gripped the reins and dove toward it, bursting through a thin line of trees and into the clearing.
His mother stood in the doorway, match still smoking.
“So you could find the way,” she answered the unspoken question.
When John Stevenson answered the knock, he couldn’t know death was at the door in a mismatched jogging outfit. Death did not wait but lunged into the entryway. His knife lunged, too, making quick work of the late John Stevenson.
Panting in the aftermath, John’s death listened and was rewarded by a slow, solemn knock. The door swung open to admit a black-robed silhouette.
“I knew this’d bring you!” the imposter cried, words flying alongside near-rabid spittle. The dark hood turned to peer at the man in the same way one might observe a desiccated roach. Death stepped inside.
The man clenched the knife, his one chance. It was pure silver, forged in the dark of a new moon. Every religious figure that could be bought by a modest donation had blessed it. And now it was consecrated in blood.
“It wasn’t her time!” The words started as a yell and became a growl. “But that’s your last mistake.” Death paid the drama no heed, gliding toward the rapidly cooling body.
The knife lunged again, burying itself in Death’s chest. It passed through without resistance. There was no tug of flesh or impasse of bone. Even the thin cloth offered no fight for the knife. It stopped only when the hilt met the robe.
Unperturbed, Death reached a hand toward John and John reached back. He rose to his feet with a disoriented glance. As his eyes fell on Death, the confusion was replaced with serenity.
The attacker’s smile faded into rage. He pulled the knife out, driving it in again and again. Death continued to walk and led John by the hand into the night.
And then the man was alone, staring wild-eyed at nothing. Failure. Yet resolve settled in his eyes.
Corrine smoothed the straw over the garden bed, tucking it in to rest. Another harvest settled in her pantry, another season come and gone. The autumn sun was warm on her back as she worked, an act of stubborn defiance of that cool edge to the air.
A spark of wind snapped through the trees. The branches above her swayed, wailing and mourning the summer now passed. Leaves fell like teardrops to the ground and tumbled along with the dancing light and shadow. Corrine watched, struck by the solemnity and playfulness. Autumn was a liminal time, one full of changes. Here that truth stood in stark relief.
She sat back, resting on the ground and surveying the work. Each year was getting a little more difficult. Maybe this year would be her last garden, she mused. Of course, she had said the same thing a year ago and the year before that. One of these years it would have to be true.
But that was a problem for another day. Today’s problem was getting up from her position on the ground. As she rose, her knees and joints clicked with disapproval. Autumn was young yet, and still she felt the chill of winter nipping at her heels. She brushed the dirt, grass, and straw from her hands with a clap, sending a murmuration of starlings to singing and dancing.
The wind was quiet, and now the trees stood proud and resplendent against the blue sky. That was how you approached a change with grace. That was how you met winter.
Corrine raised her head high as she strode away from the garden. She felt sure she had at least one more year’s worth of planting in her, maybe even five. Who knew how long her autumn could last?
Maria heard the rain tapping the windows. Not cold enough to snow, but certainly enough to embody drear. Around her, the detritus of Christmas past—boxes, wrapping paper, candy, and toys—left a maze around the room. Clean-up would have its time. But not now.
She wrapped her fingers around the mug of cocoa and studied the tree. Its lights glowed warmly, cutting the gloom. She traced the path of ornaments along each branch. It was a timeline of life. There were aged, faded first Christmas ornaments, two sets, followed by a catalog of childhood loves and memories. And then the two streams became one, newlywed memories, before branching again for a new generation of first Christmases.
“Mom,” interrupted a drowsy voice from the hall. She disentangled herself from the blanket, set aside the mug, and made her way to the door.
“Is it Christmas again tomorrow?”
She could not help but smile at the bleary eyes looking at her hopefully from beneath the covers. With school parties, family gatherings, and the big day itself, it had seemed Christmas stretched on forever.
“I’m afraid not. No more till next year.”
She heard the disappointed sigh as he settled back, face fallen. It was little consolation, but she blew a kiss and pulled the door to with a compassionate, “Love you.”
Back in the living room, the rain still rapped plaintively. She felt that same feeling settle on her, that feeling of saying goodbye to something wonderful. But it was over, the tree would come down, and time would march on into the New Year.
But, as she nestled onto the couch under the light of the tree something stirred, who said that had to be tomorrow? Perhaps, the tree could stay. Perhaps the magic could last a few days longer.
Saccharine Christmas music overcame the blare of cars as she stepped into the humid store. The lights, noise, and miasma of warm spiced odors were an assault on her senses. Simone felt an irritated twinge in her Grinchy heart.
She needed the traditional Christmas cake to fulfill her familial commitment. It was too sweet, too chocolaty, and too expensive, but there was no arguing with tradition.
Package in hand, she stepped out of the Winter Wonderland and back to reality. No White Christmas this year, rather a spitting drizzle that left everything cold and damp.
It was a waiting game, she thought as she slogged along the sidewalk. The Christmas magic would kick in and she would feel that flutter. “Advent is a time of hopeful anticipation,” her pastor had dutifully proclaimed. She just had to wait. Only this year, it seemed further away than before. An empty chair at the table, a ghost of Christmas past.
Hallmark would have the answer. A tree lot, carolers, warm cocoa, and a miracle snow flurry to revive the joy in her heart. Simone looked around her at the grey, the grim, the gloom. This was no Hollywood imagining, to be sure.
She pushed up the stairs to her apartment. Inside was warm and home. It was blessedly quiet, but as she turned the corner, there was Jake. He stood on the stepstool, placing ornaments on a lopsided Christmas tree. Half the lights were out, and she could now smell the distinct aroma of something burning. He smiled at her.
“I noticed you hadn’t put up the tree, so I thought I could surprise you.”
She smiled back. It was a train wreck, yes. But, its many faults shifted something within her. An ember of hope began to glow again.
Theme: When a shrill cry echoed in the mist, I knew I wasn’t alone.
My world was a fog of sensations and scattered memories. Like cotton candy, it was sweet, warm, and infinitely layered on itself in incomprehensible tangles. I floated, lost in a nostalgia-bathed glimpse of the past. The present snuck in through flickers. The sun on my skin, a cough down the hall.
A cry from beside me.
That drew me from the haze; I was not alone. As my eyes focused, I could make out my daughter next to me. Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen.
I tried to speak, but the words were brittle. Instead, I settled for a smile and squeeze of her fingers. She was holding my hand; how had I not noticed before?
“I love you,” she said with a hiccoughing sob. I kept smiling because it seemed the only thing I could do.
The mist was pushing in, the world fuzzing around the edges as I fought back. I could not leave her alone to face…whatever this was.
She studied me a moment. “It’s okay. We’re all okay. I’m okay.” She tried to smile behind the tears, but it broke away. “It’s okay.”
The world slipped again, and then I was standing at the window. It felt good to stretch and move without the familiar aches, pains, and maladies. Outside the window, sunlight beamed down on a blooming garden.
Turning back to the room, I saw my daughter by the bed, a body lying under the sheets. I could barely recognize myself, so frail.
I walked over and kissed my daughter’s head as she began to sob anew. She could not feel it, I knew, but the love would find its way to her.
“I will love you forever,” I whispered before walking out of the hospital room and into the perfect day beyond.
“Well done, hunter.” The fanged corpse beneath me laughs. “It’s too late but well done.” Laughter continues to bubble out of him, flecked with blood as I drive the knife into his heart until there is silence.
My hands are slick with blood and viscera–so many horrors slain. I slip on the floor and limp toward the final door. She has to be there.
The lamplight dances across a catastrophe of broken bodies. Nothing moves, nothing makes a sound. My hopes falter as I search the ruins. Then I see her, a canvas of blood.
Her eyes open to my trembling touch. There is recognition in them, shock giving way to relief. I help her escape the tangle of bodies, trying to ignore the stink and cloying warmth of congealing blood. I can’t let myself think of the carnage in that charnel house. Instead, I focus on her hand in mine, an escape from our nightmare.
We leave the room and pass the disintegrating corpse of the former leader, but she stops short. “You did it,” she whispers, an edge of ecstasy to her voice.
“Of course. It was the only way we could have any peace.”
She smiles and draws me close. There’s a hunger there, a lust I have never seen before. “There’s no one to lead them.”
I feel her hand twine into my hair. But those aren’t her fingers; they are too long and too sharp. Her eyes hold mine as she speaks. “But we could. Together.”
Her breath tickles my neck, and my hand is on the knife. Before my fist closes, I know I will never raise it. Breath becomes teeth, ripping and tearing. I feel agony rush over me, equal parts pain and betrayal.
In the time it took one wave to slam against the hull, Quinn realized she had been wrong about her greatest fear her whole life. When people asked, voices tinged with the safe threat of truth-or-dare, she had always said heights. And yes, being up high made her legs quake and her heart race.
et in the face of actual terror, she longed for somewhere high above the seas to run. This fear reached into her bones and drew out something primal. Every nerve raced to its full potential, pulling her in every direction at once. Inside, she felt her soul tear away and fling itself against the confines of her body in an attempt at escape. Her heart stopped. The world stopped.
The only thing that remained was the ocean yawning before her, ravenous and cold. The waves continued to hurl themselves at the ship but in silent protest. Everything else faded, and she was transfixed by the still spot in the water where horror swelled.
It was an eye. Golden yellow and brimming with intelligent malice. It stretched on as wide as the ship was long. The black pupil fixed on Quinn, a quivering form frozen to the railing. She was a flea on the periphery of some universal beast. Beneath that eye, she could begin to make out rows of teeth, long, slender, and sharp. They were made to tear the world in half.
The eye blinked and the image vanished, a rip in the cosmos sealing itself with one wink. The wind and rain roared back to life, the world spun on.
And Quinn remained frozen. Certain she could still make out the outline of the beast hiding within the depths.