The final challenge asked our contestants to write a story about an explorer’s greatest find.  Naturally, since there were only two of them, they used insanely similar concepts.

One last bit of weirdness in a season full of it, I suppose.  To our other contestants – from the dedicated to the unfortunate nonsubbers – here’s to you.  Now, let’s see how our finalists brought it.

1 ERIK SUNDBERG

I’ve been crawling all over the literal ends of the Earth for a long time now.  I’ve run all around the Poles and up and down most of the noteworthy mountains, Everest included, all by my lonesome.  All of this is probably why the spooks sent me out here.

The Ruskies have been drilling deep into the Antarctic ice since the end of the Cold War.  `Bout 2 miles below the surface is Lake Vostok, conveniently located under Vostok Station.  Lake Vostok is a liquid water lake, one of the biggest lakes in the world, actually.  They say she’s kept liquid by a combination of pressure from the weight above, and heat from the Earth below.  What’s real interesting is that the lake’s been sealed off from the outside for who knows how long, millions of years at least.

Anyway, the Russians cracked the top of the surface a couple months ago.  Everyone clicked their glasses of bubbly, and life moved on.  Except, we didn’t hear anything about it again.  The Ruskies  weren’t telling us nothing, and our ears didn’t hear nothing specific, but there was a whole lot of talk about something.

So that’s how I found myself flown in under cover of darkness to find out what that something was.

It was a 3 day hike to reach the area of the station.  It was a balmy -50, warm for this time of year, actually.

I reached the edge of the Station and immediately knew something was wrong.  I realized it because I didn’t know I’d arrived at the Station until I was among it: no lights.  There wouldn’t be more than about 15 researchers this time of year, but now there didn’t seem to be any.  I got my bearings, consulted my map, and headed towards the facility which housed the borehole.

I tripped over the door, which laid about 10 meters from its previous hinge.  My gun had been out since I reached the base, but I made sure the safety was off again.

I’d been plenty nervous plenty of times in my life before.  There was that time I was hanging from my fingernails on K2, but that wasn’t nothing compared to this.

Along the way the facility, I saw several small mounds, which I eventually discerned were crumpled bodies.  Stepping over one just before the doorway, pitch black beyond the frame, I inhaled deeply, steeled myself, and plunged into the darkness.

The feeble light didn’t show much past a meter, as if the darkness had taken on a viscous quality.  However, my eyes seemed to be adjusting to light.  When I questioned what light that could possibly be, I realized the ice below seemed to brightening with some ambient glow.  When I saw my surroundings,  I dropped my gun and my flashlight, wondering what ungodliness those Cossacks unleashed.

Then, my eyes shot to the borehole once I heard the sound.  The sound of drain pipe fastly filling with water…

K: This is like the third reference to Cossacks I’ve seen today.  Weird.  Anyway, it begins and ends with odd phrasing (“literal ends of the Earth,” “fastly filling with water”), and it’s a tad too coy, but I like the idea.  I probably should have allowed more time for the final; this one needed punching up and didn’t really get the time for it. SILVER

P: Ooh, I love the concept here (and it got me to reread the wiki article on Lake Vostok, so added bonus there!), and I like the dread. We don’t end up finding out exactly what our intrepid narrator has found, but a little bit of uncertainty can be a good thing. The tone does meander a bit, at times seeming informal, at times something a bit more by the numbers, but overall I like this a lot.

SILVER

2 SARAH JOHNSON

I ran my first drag when I was eleven, braiding marine line with tractor parts and dismembered rakes. I rowed out past the dropoff. I wanted to conquer the black void beyond the weeds and pale boulders – the place that gave me nightmares. I pulled the net through the gasoline swirls at the shore: my first pull was a beer can and I’ve been dragging ever since.

My sixth birthday was at Horseshoe – the same lake I’ve been dragging all my life. I got my first fishing rod that weekend, barely old enough to bait my own hook; I lost it on our first trip out. I watched its blue stripes sink from the surface. “It’s too deep here, Joel. Let it go.” That’s how this started, I suppose. I wanted it back. I wanted to see what else was down there.

My trips normally brought in junk – disintegrated tires, buckets of cement, snail-covered hammers. I found a mannequin leg and a drum kit three years ago. Last summer I pulled a swing set to the shore. I always liked the small, harmless surprise.

I was dragging in the morning when I saw it: a spine of silvery birch flashing like coins. I drifted closer to see a stunt in the tree line. A small trickle of water twinkled under waving ferns; I tied the boat up and walked in. A clearing emerged, its stripes of perfect sun warming my face. A hidden circle of birch trees and lake glittered in the center. I listened: absolute silence.

The water didn’t move. Whitish movement blobbed up to the surface – a shy fish looping in a pool of symmetrical blackness. I couldn’t see the bottom. The shore was its own dropoff to a watery crater the size of duck pond. Above me, the treetops leaned away from the hidden pool, as if the sun had shoved them aside. I trudged back to the boat for my line-drag.

I haven’t hit bottom. I dropped the line using every anchor rope I had on board. I went back to the cabin to get more coils from the shed, unable to reach the floor of the miniature lake. The anchors dropped down 600 feet, not counting the drag-line on the end. I’ve never heard of this kind of place.

Something in that pool pulled on the drag from directly beneath me. It nearly tipped the boat.

I’m taking a break, fixing a sandwich and filling my thermos. I’m bringing the rest of the rope. The drag will go down 2400 feet now. I’m starting to feel afraid, obsessed – I just need to find the bottom. I need to find out what’s down there.

I’m going to drop the drag from the shore this time. I’m bringing a tent – just in case I need to stay the night.

K: Did you assbutts really both write stories about evil water where the payoff isn’t completely explained?  Both seem like horror movie opening scenes (which is great, since about 80% of horror movies have their best scenes as the opener).  Both were imperfect, as neither felt complete and neither had the writer at the top of his or her game for the season, but I ended up trending toward this one because the horror was RIGHT THERE in the end, and it’s a cerebral type of horror where I can see our protagonist as a mental divergent, in addition to the more straightforward reading. GOLD

P: Wow. Did the two of you collaborate on subject matter or something? Two sinister (and very possibly supernatural) lakes, two unknown fates – you’re making it difficult. Both stories feed on the innate fear of unknown goings on beneath the surface, and there’s a lot of great horror to be had there. This one gets to that horror just a little bit quicker, and indwells that horror just a little bit more. Bravo to both of you, but I’ve got to give the edge to #2.

GOLD

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Just like every challenge this season, Pete and I totally agree.  But hey, we all agree on one thing: Ian, you’re a dick for not being here this week.  Aw, snap!

Seriously though, friends, what an excellent ride this has been.

Erik, thank you for pressing on when it was clear you didn’t want to.  Your reasoning was noble and I very nearly allowed you to bow out, but frankly, I was listening to your fanbase (and you DO have a fanbase) who really wanted you to get in there and battle your tail off.  In two straight seasons where you’ve now failed to nonsub, I’ve seen some real strides in what you do; your prose is getting stronger, but more than that, you’re finding strong subjects and interesting characters whereas you used to fall back a bit on easy humor, perhaps as a defense mechanism.  Maybe I’m way off on that part, but I’m NOT off on the fact that you’ve matured into a much stronger writer, and I am stunned but thrilled to see you in this position.

SJ – aw, hell.  What to say to the girl who was at my side in Turbo, who was angrier than I was at my own elimination, who now had no pesky backstabbers to deal with?  You’ve always been good with plot, but your biggest strides have been in the area of character.  Last season in Turbo, I always connected with your ideas, but this season I’ve found loads more emotional resonance in everything you write.  Your backdrops are fascinating; your conversations are loaded with subtext and I FUCKING ADORE subtext.  Enjoy one last double-gold and, more importantly, YOUR NAME FREAKING IN LIGHTS ON THE SIDEBAR!!!!!

Cheers, Sarah.  It’s been over four years since a female won a solo competition at CdL.  Hot damn, that’s a nice streak to put behind us.

Good season, everyone.  Now, why don’t we talk about the next one?