The Ascension of Dr. Hannah Stevens
NORMANDY GLACIER, EAST OF SHENKUU
ZONE: DEEP ARCTIC
Dr. Hannah Stevens squinted against the snow glare, and adjusted the filter on her goggles. Her Techpad was heavy in her gloved hands, and the stylus to write with was totally useless out in the cold, where she could barely feel her toes. She patted her chest to make sure her identification com, which sent her coordinates back to the Space Station in case she became lost, was still attached to her zipper. Printed on the side of the device, which was no bigger than a pack of playing cards, was "Stevens, Hanna. Lutari, Blue." Fyora help her if she dropped that thing.
"Dr. Stevens? Can you hear me?" Gordy's voice fizzled in her ear, and Hannah pressed a paw against it to block out the howling winds, dry like a dead desert bush but colder than the belly of the ocean.
"Too well, Gordy." She imagined the green Grundo smiling up in his control chair at the exhaustion in her voice.
"A bit tired, are we?"
"Not like I would ever admit it to you." Hannah shrugged her oversized backpack, which included dried food, grappling hooks, and extra clothes higher up on her shoulders and continued along her path that hugged the lip of the Glacier. Her snowshoes crunched over the ancient white flakes that had long since fused together. Every so often, a chunk would break off and fall into the crashing grey water below, disappearing into its unending depths.
"Well, I hope you aren't, because there is one mother of a storm heading your way." The clicking of keys being rapidly pressed came through the com link. Hannah gazed up at the azure sky almost wishfully, wondering if she could see the Station from where she stood. A few seconds of searching and she had it, hovering on the horizon like a dark second moon, peering down at her as though she was a bug and it was her determiner of living or dying. In a very real sense, she thought, it was. "The scans are estimating it will hit you in a little over a quarter of an hour, so you better set up shop for the night."
"I'm so close to the Fissure, though. I know I can make it." Hannah frowned. The Fissure. The whole reason she was out on the faerie-forsaken chunk of ice in the first place. Thirty days ago, something massive had ripped through the seismic sensors the Station kept buried in the Neopian crust. Something far too large and contained to be a normal shifting of the plates. That event alone might not have been enough to warrant an expedition out from space, but a heat signature read that covered the entire Fissure, a heat signature that pulsed, was. And so Dr. Stevens, her glorious, stupid self, had been jettisoned down to search for whatever, or whomever it was lay buried in the stark and severely beautiful landscape of barren ice.
"Go for gold tomorrow, sweetie. I don't want you to risk it." More keys clicking, and a holomap of her position blinked on inside her goggles. "I just sent some coordinates of where you should camp out. You can go see what you can see later. Whatever it is will still be there in the morning, hon."
"Thanks, Gordy. Have yourself a nice evening."
"Not gonna be nearly as nice without you here to bother me, girl scout. Be careful down there."
"Don't you worry about me. Link me up when you wake up. Dr. Stevens signing off." The button on her earpiece was half frozen, and she had to press hard to break through the frost. Once she did, though, the line in her ear went dead, and she was all alone with nothing but an approaching storm to keep her company.
The made a dull thump when it hit the ground, and she got to work setting up her tent.
Something was definitely alive in the Fissure.
Hannah had set up her own heat reading devices the night before, and they had been working throughout the early hours of the morning, even though the sun barely set that far north.
She leaned closer to her Techpad, studying the thermal images. The Glacier had been turned transparent, the ice reduced to faint blue lines on a 3D grid. But underneath it was a long, fat tube of red and yellow heat that was a good twenty degrees above normal body temperature. Hannah brushed back a piece of hair from her eyes, and ordered the image to expand. Her tent and her own body was barely a needlepoint of red on the grid, only a few miles away from the almost tentacle-looking structure.
"What are you?" she whispered. A tiny electric buzz traveled down her spine, and the fur on the back of her neck lifted, even though she wasn't consciously puffing it up.
"Gordy? You there?" The com fitted itself into her ear, whirring to life sluggishly even though it was made for the cold.
"Always and everywhere."
"Great. I'm heading out to the Fissure."
"Are you kidding me? Hannah, at least wait until the storm's blown over-"
"It is blown over, Gordy."
"No, you're in the eye." Her goggles lit up with the map of the northern hemisphere of the planet, and she could indeed see that she was trapped in a miniscule circle of calm on the Glacier. "Don't go out there until I give you the go-ahead. That's an order."
"Yeah, well." Hannah unzipped her tent and poked her head outside. Far off in the distance, the wall of the storm was swirling in place like it was waiting for something, hesitant to move forward. "I still have time."
"Hannah, I'm begging you-"
"Research doesn't conduct itself." The heavy arctic clothes had dried out over the last few hours, and the fit snugly to her frame. "Whatever that thing is, and it is alive, it might move again. And I want to be there when it does. This one... it doesn't feel right, Gordy." The link was silent for a few moments, but then filled with Gordy's exasperated exhalation.
"Fine. But turn around and get back to camp as soon as I tell you to."
"You're the best."
"Tell me about it, sweetheart."
The landscape was slowly curving upward, that was for sure. Hannah bent down to re-strap her snowshoes, and craned her neck upward as she tied. It was almost as if a geyser had blown itself into the sky and pushed the land up with it. Except she knew that it been a geyser, but something much more ominous. The answer to what, exactly, lay less than a mile upward.
She moved on.
Deep in her pocket, Hannah clutched a small pebble in her glove. Imprinted magically upon it was the image of her smiling son, only a few years old. Her mother had given it to her for her fortieth birthday, and Hannah had hated it. Hated it not only because it was made from magic, which she despised as impractical and unmeasurable and also because it represented the very thing that had taken her son away from her. That trapped him in a place that the faeries themselves could barely even understand. And that was what one got for messing with what they didn't understand, she knew, and she should never have tolerated her son's experiments with the arcane.
But then again, what was she doing at that very moment, if not tinkering with things she couldn't comprehend?
"Science," She huffed, "is different." The hill was getting steeper. She remembered throwing the pebble against the metal wall of her apartment up in the Station over and over again, but it would not crack. "Science can be explained and fixed and repaired. It gives people their lives. Magic only takes them away." Almost there, just a few more steps. Then she was standing on the lip of the Fissure, staring down into its heart. "Science, with enough effort, can be understood."
Her words died on her lips.
The Fissure was far bigger than anything she had imagined. It was spread three, maybe four miles across both in width and length, like a sore on the Normandy Glacier. Wind seemed to try to suck her in from where she stood, like the hole was calling to her. She was almost scared to look down. When she did, her breath was vacuumed from her lungs. There, seething far below her feet, was what looked like the spine of a creature far more massive than any seen before. It was pale white in color, like it had spent its life never seeing the sun, and covered with millions upon millions of scales. Even as she watched, gigantic muscles twitched and shifted as it... slept? She wasn't quite sure what it was doing, but her theory had been confirmed. It wasn't the geological power of Neopia that had sent ripples through the crust, but an organism.
"Gordy, are you seeing this?" She felt like she could barely speak.
"Crystal clear." Even the technician sounded shaken. "That looks a lot different than what we have on our scanners."
"No kidding." Hannah pulled out a small, oval-shaped gadget and swiped it across the area in a slow arc. "My sensor's saying the core body temperature of this thing is over two hundred degrees."
"The scanner doesn't lie, Gordy." She gritted her teeth. "I'm going to get a sample."
"No, absolutely not. The eye of the storm is almost past you already."
"We won't know what this thing is until we can get a closer look."
"That's exactly why you're there. You are closer. Close enough. I'm sending a shuttle now to pick you up."
"I won't get in it, Gordy. We have to know about this thing. Look what it did to this place. Imagine if one surfaces in Neopia Central." She shuddered at the very thought of it. The bustling metropolis would be obliterated in seconds.
"That's assuming there are more, a conclusion of which you have no data to support. Hannah, you promised me you'd listen to what I said. I'm saying now, get the high-Kreludor out of there."
Hannah turned the pebble over in her palm.
"I'm sorry Gordy, I can't."
"Hold on, I'm getting something else on my seismic..." Gordy's voice trailed away into nothingness on the link. "Oh, Fyora."
"What?" Her body was tense, ready for action. Her fingers squeezed the pebble so hard she thought it might crack.
"Readouts are telling me that there's another event. In the heart of Shenkuu."
Hannah opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, the ground beneath her boots trembled. She froze, and eyed the tiny rocks slowly shaking themselves over the edge of the Fissure, where they fell into oblivion. Or what might as well have been it. The trembling stopped for a moment, and all was a deadly calm. Then, slowly, like the coming of winter, the beast below began to move. The scales shifted and writhed in a mesmerizing pattern, and the neck of the thing rose up in the air until it formed a miles-long upside-down U shape the disappeared back into the ice. Vaguely, Hannah registered someone yelling into her link, but her brain no longer processed the voices. All her energy was focused on the event unfolding in front of her.
The beast paused again for a hairsbreadth of a second, then moved. One half of the U pulled itself free from the ice, which shattered on the other side of the Fissure and flew away in a furious storm of ice. And then it was free.
Hannah's stomach dropped into the oblivion, following the stones.
The neck was not a neck, and on the end of it was not a head, but a foot the size of three Yooyuball stadiums.
Her mind worked sluggishly, trying to comprehend that which couldn't be comprehended. Flashes of her son giving her lectures on how the line between the science of the Space Station and the magic of the Faeries were beginning to dissolve, how they were starting to blend together.
The foot slammed into the Glacier, obliterating all that lay to the south for almost a mile.
Her, back in University, learning about the rule of sustainable size of organisms, why there was a reason nothing grew bigger than a sea monster on its own.
On its own.
A split in the ice, tiny a web at first, appeared between her boots. Hannah stared at it blankly, not really seeing it as it widened, too engrossed as she was in her own revelations. Nothing could reach that size naturally, so there must have been an interference in its development. A magical one. And that meant that whomever had cast that spell had to be an extremely powerful magician as well as a cunning scientist. An opponent that couldn't be beaten by conventional thinking.
"I'm here, Gordy."
"Listen up, sweetcakes, you are standing right on top of Class F plate shifting. We have more Fissures opening up in three more spots around the continent and Moltara is collapsing in on itself. We're pulling you out now." Gordy sounded unusually calm, the kind of tone he used when he was truly scared, which hadn't happened since she had been trapped on the sinking Faerie City, all those years ago.
When her son had been born.
Suddenly, the world shifted into focus, even as it was shaking itself apart.
"There's a reason science and magic are separate," Hannah whispered, realizing belatedly that she was speaking out loud. "Because there are no individuals with the mind or will to undertake both."
"Hannah, you're hypothermic. The storm is pushing the cold right at you. Just sit tight-"
"But what if that boundary didn't exist? What if someone transcended it?"
"Three minutes, give me three minutes-"
"This thing won't be able to be taken down by the Station." The crack beneath her was widening to a foot, then a foot and a half. Far, far below her, the darkness seemed to call. So close, the wall of the storm swirled around, waiting to eat her alive. She was cold, so cold. Why were her fingers moving without her brain? "I'll see you in a bit, Gordy."
"Hannah, don't do it. You're not thinking straight." The noise of Neopia shattering had been dulled to a muted roar in the background of her consciousness.
"No, I'm thinking straighter than I ever have." Two feet, two and a half. Her thighs were beginning to ache. The straps of her pack were tight enough. "We're blind, Gordy. We can't see it as a war, or we won't survive. They're the same. We're all the same."
She drew in a breath that made her lungs shiver, readied her grappling hook, and let her boots slip from their perch.
Dr. Hannah Stevens fell.
And maybe she ascended.