This is my Winter Holiday Contest Entry for 2008. Enjoy! --Selena
Twenty-six degrees below zero, almost total darkness and white-out conditions, but Mary didn't notice any of it as Finn trudged up behind her, the thick cloud of his breath misting over her shoulder as he watched her work.
"What's your depth?" He had to yell to be heard over both the drill and the generator running it, but Mary didn't acknowledge his question, too engrossed, determined. Another ten feet. And then another. She'd pulled two cores on her own already—they were bagged and tagged on the sled she'd dragged along behind her on the snowmobile to the site. Both her shoulders and her head ached, but she didn't care.
He moved to help her as the mechanical swirl of the drill began to rise to the top, like a dark barber's pole or a terrible, twisted candy cane. It was heavy without an ice core in its center, but twice that now with its frigid contents. Mary stepped aside, letting him lift it out of her hands, pulling it free and turning it sideways, carrying it over to the makeshift work station. She'd set that up, too, in only the glow from one generator-powered work light. It was December twenty-second, the eve of the winter solstice, and they had officially moved into twenty-four hour darkness at the North Pole.
"We're at almost four thousand meters." The steam of her breath joined his as they bent over the thick length of ice, together sweeping chips from its surface with small brushes. The tubular metal cradle it rested in measured the core down to the millimeter.
Finn sat back on his haunches and gave a low whistle. "Christ, Mare. That's deeper than anyone's ever gone. Ever. And this is firn."
The excitement in her belly burned almost as hot as her cheeks and she nodded, noting the measurement in a notebook she pulled from her pocket. The pens they had were the same ones astronauts used in space. Regular ink froze quickly out here. She'd finally grown used to handling pens and other small instruments with thick gloves on instead of the thin latex she was used to.
Glancing over at Finn, watching him work as he wrote out a label and pressed it onto the surface of the polyethylene bag, she thought that only he would be crazy enough to suggest running off to the North Pole in the dead of winter. But she'd been wrong. There were plenty of others on the team at first, with the goal of providing the deepest and most comprehensive Arctic ice core data ever collected in the hopes of helping boost the research on climate change. She had jumped at the chance to work with firn—snow so cold all the time it never melted from year to year—and, too, with Finn.
Without Finn, she never would have known about this opportunity, let alone taken it, leaping with a blind faith the girl her father had once called "Miss Microscope" would never have considered without the solidity of her best friend, Finn, beside her. As one of the world's most renowned paleoclimatologists, he'd been on hundreds of Arctic expeditions, but she'd been naively excited beyond words when they started this project, at the thought of being a part of history, and too, of spending time away from the world with Finn. And now that the rest of the crew had left, going home just in time for the holidays and leaving them to finish up the last of their project, they were truly alone.
Mary rubbed her gloved finger over the surface of the core—ice frozen for seven-hundred and fifty thousand years and pulled from a depth of almost two and a half miles. No human being had ever touched anything so deep before. If the bitter cold didn't do it, the incredible rush of that realization should have been more than enough to give her goose bumps under her parka, but that wasn't what caused the shiver that ran up her spine, nor was it the heat from Finn's body next to hers.
She had discovered something even more bottomless, more infinite. And she was hungry for more, determined to prove to Finn that what she'd found wasn't some statistical anomaly.
"I'm going deeper." She stood, turning toward the drill, leaving him to bag and tag the latest core, but Finn caught her arm, shaking his head.
"It's enough." He nodded toward the sled. "Let's pack up and get back to base. It's freezing, it's midnight and you're sick."
"I'm not sick." Looking longingly at the drill, she sighed and let him lead her to the snowmobile. He sat her on the seat, pulling her parka hood around her face as if she were a child. "Finn! A ninety-nine degree fever doesn't qualify as sick!" She brushed his coat-tightening hands away. "Would you quit?"
"I'll pack us up." He gave her a long, steady look. "Okay?"
She relented, sitting back down to wait. It didn't take him long to break it all down and pack it onto the sled. Her head did ache, and her face burned, but she was sure it was more from the bone-numbing chill than from her little fever. It was just a cold, but he acted like she was at death's door. The thought of examining the cores she'd pulled that night perked her up as Finn climbed onto his snowmobile, starting it and motioning her to follow.
They had a thick dark rope running from their drill site to the base half a mile away so they wouldn't get stuck out in the snow in white-out conditions and could always find their way back. Their camp, now empty of the rest of the crew, consisted of an insulated trailer with a huge satellite dwarfing its dark surface mounted outside. That was where they slept and ate, but the lab was built mostly underground, and that's where they parked to unload.
"You stay here!" Finn cradled one of the cores in two hands, turning sideways to take it down into the lab.
She'd never met a man so good at giving orders. He would have made a great drill sergeant—if he wasn't such a brilliant scientist. Mary slid off the Arctic Cat, killing the engine before hefting a second core from the sled and heading down after him. He gave her a sour look as he passed, heading back out for the third one and the rest of the equipment. What was he going to do—fire her? It didn't matter out here in the middle of nowhere. She'd directly defied him and returned to the site to drill tonight, and she had no intention of following any more orders, except perhaps the insistent ones in her own head. It had always been her motivation—her curiosity, that sense of discovery. She had to know.
The lab had been built months before the crew arrived. It was a wonder of modern engineering, a simple, elegant self-supporting steel arch which could take the great load of snow without even one internal support. Their grant had paid for everything, even the heavy airlocked door that opened up to what was paradise compared to the work environment outside. Ambient air temperature remained at a constant seventeen degrees Fahrenheit underground, quite balmy compared to the negative temperatures above. Drifting snow—the kind they had now, white-out moving toward blizzard conditions—were only a factor because they had to maintain access to the portal.
She turned on the light and the arctic fluorescents, resistant to cold, flickered and came alive. To Mary, it was heaven, and she flipped her hood back, her lungs aching with the change in temperature, sucking air not quite as sharp and bitter as before. She'd never been so aware of her own body as she had become on this trip. The extremes of the environment had forced her to acknowledge her own corporeal nature, something the safety of a job in her lab at home back in Massachusetts had never compelled her to do. Sure, they had winter there, a change of seasons...but nothing like this, the deep, constant incomprehensible cold.
"Come on, Mare." Finn had the third core, kicking the door shut behind him. "Let's go to bed."
She looked up from where she was sliding the first core she'd drilled out of its bag. He didn't mean together, dummy. But her heart felt as if it were beating somewhere in her throat and she was glad her cheeks were still red from the cold to cover their flush. Instead of answering him, she finished sliding the bag free and set the core into the cradle of the scale, recording the weight in another section of her notebook.
"You are so stubborn." Finn watched as she traded her thick gloves for latex, inspecting the length of ice for a crack-free sample and, using a fine saw, separating it out.
"And you are so bossy," she countered, cutting off a few millimeters of the sample, weighing the largest section on another scale and recording the reading. Five-hundred-and-two grams. Perfect. Selecting a smaller polyethylene bag, she placed the sample inside and then set it into their flash cooler. It would take the sample down to negative eighty degrees Celsius.
"You're really going to do this tonight?" He sighed as she began sawing at another length of the core. This one she would put into the plasma mass spectrometer.
"Go to bed, Finn." She waved him away as she inspected the sample, her trained eyes looking for cracks or imperfections.
He pulled his own heavy gloves off and reached for a sterile latex pair. "I'm not going without you."
She smiled, holding up her sample like a trophy. "Then fire up Old Bessie, because I need to see this reading or I'm never going to be able to sleep."
They worked well together—they always had—their timing in sync, anticipating one another's next motion with a deft precision that came from years of moving together in the same space. Finn took the sample from her hand and carried it over to "Old Bessie"—their plasma mass spectrometer. Compact and light, it was the size of a small television and attached to a laptop for reading output.
Mary used an instrument they jokingly called "the tweezers" to extract the frigid sample from the freezing unit and lift it carefully out of the bag. It was a perfect record of history, an effective time capsule, storing a snapshot of the earth's atmosphere seven-hundred-and-fifty thousand years ago. The tests would tell them the age of the ice within a few years here or there. It would also tell them all the common meteorological data from that time period—precipitation amount, solar activity, air temperature, atmospheric composition.
But she wasn't interested in any of that. The millions of tiny air bubbles in the ice had revealed something to her even more amazing than greenhouse gases or evidence of climate change.
"Into the cheese grater with you." Mary placed the sample into a round, stainless steel extraction flask, closing the door and turning on the machine. It would grind the ice into fine chips in a vacuum, release the air and trap the gasses without any contamination to taint the sample. This, too, was attached to a laptop, and the results would be analyzed by computer.
She couldn't resist coming to watch for the results of the spectrometer over Finn's shoulder. The laptop just showed a slow-moving bar that read, "Analyzing - Please Wait" beneath. His hood was thrown back, and she noted the way his jaw clenched and unclenched, the way he pointedly didn't turn to look over his shoulder at her.
She also noticed the way his dark hair curled at the nape of his neck—long, too long. He needed a cut, but of course there was nowhere to get one out there. She wondered if he would let her do it, and just imagining running her fingers through the black raven's wings of his hair made her feel breathless.
"Well, there it is." Finn sounded annoyed as he pointed to the screen and she almost laughed.
"I told you the last one wasn't a contaminated sample." She fought the smug urge to stick her tongue out at his back.
He rolled his eyes, pulling his latex gloves off and reaching for his warmer ones. "Two samples don't make it conclusive."
"Did you run it through the gas chromatograph?"
"Does Old Bessie moo?"
Mary touched the laptop screen, pointing to one of the longer spikes. "So this one here..."
"Finn! Look!" She grabbed a three-ring-binder from the table, flipping it open and holding it up next to the screen. "It's exactly the same as the last one. Look at the graph."
"I'm looking." He was looking, but he wasn't happy about it.
"And this..." She turned the other laptop on the counter, finished analyzing its own data, so he could see the reading from the other machine. "See here? It's the same. Unidentified."
Finn shrugged. "It doesn't necessarily mean anything."
"What are you afraid of?" She couldn't believe his nonchalance, his lack of curiosity about this new discovery.
He quickly turned off the power to the laptop, not even shutting it down the way he should have. "I'm afraid you're feverish and I'm going to have to radio us out of here before you start hallucinating."
Hurt, she felt her chest tightening and confronted him, her hands on her hips. "I'm not hallucinating lab results, Finn."
"Okay, so you got the results you were looking for," he snapped, reaching over and stabbing the power button on the other laptop. "Can we go to bed now?"
Her face and body felt frozen, colder than she'd ever been out in the arctic chill. "I bet you every single one of these deeper cores will show us the same thing. It's getting stronger, you know, more concentrated, the deeper we go."
He shrugged again, turning toward the door, a dismissal.
"There's something down there!" She wanted to throw something at his head and her hands clenched into fists. "Something no one has ever discovered before!"
"Well, if it's down there, it will still be there in the morning, won't it?" he asked over his shoulder, opening the door and letting in a blast of frigid air. "Are you coming?"
She'd butted heads with him before—they'd had playful, week-long disagreements back and forth sometimes. But she had never experienced him like this—cold, dismissive, obdurate.
Her righteous elation dampened by his reaction, Mary snapped her own gloves off and reached for her warm ones, the action an assent, and he watched her put them on before he went out the door. She knew he expected her to follow him, and she did, feeling dizzy with her discovery and his trivialization of it. Leaving everything, she just turned out the light and shut the door behind her.
Her cheeks felt as if they were on fire as she trudged after him in the powder, and the cold hit her like a wall, actually stopping her breathless in the dark. Finn's retreating back, heading toward the trailer, was just visible through the blowing snow. Her heart hammered hard in her chest, her legs like lead, and she managed to call out to him once before she went down to her knees.
For a minute she thought he wasn't going to stop, that he was going to childishly storm off and leave her. And she didn't think she could get back up. Her legs felt too weak, trembling, and she let her body go, collapsing on the snow and rolling to her back, giving up. It didn't matter. He didn't believe her, he didn't care. None of it mattered. The stars were bright jewels in a velvet sky, so close she felt she could reach out and touch them, and she actually stretched a hand out into the darkness.
Then he was kneeling over her, wedging his arms beneath, lifting.
"I think I'm sick," she murmured.
"Ya think?" His gruff comment was the last thing she remembered before the stars blinked out.
* * * *
She woke up shivering in a cold sweat to find him beside her. She sensed more than saw him—it was completely dark, their rooms were small, his knees pressed right up against the edge of her cot as he shifted in the chair.
"I'm here." His voice was soft, and there was no anger in it.
She rolled toward him, clutching his knee, sure now. She didn't know if it had been the fever that had given her the sudden flash of realization, or if was just something that had bubbled up from below her consciousness, a deeper intuition. "I know what it is."
His answer couldn't have surprised her more. "So do I." His hand pressed against her forehead but she was cool now, almost clammy, and he stated the obvious, "Your fever broke."
"No, I mean...what we found." She swallowed, sitting up cross-legged, her back against the wall, her bare knees pressed to his denim-clad ones. He'd undressed her down to her flannel shirt before putting her to bed, and the thought might have embarrassed her if she hadn't been so eager to tell him what she knew. "I know what it is!"
"So do I," he said again, reaching for the light on the small table, turning it on. She was too aware now of her state of undress, the way her dark, tousled hair fell around her face. She ran a hand through its length, smoothing, looking at him watching her, his face unreadable, his gaze moving quickly up from the "v" of her flannel to meet her eyes. He picked up a stoppered test tube off the table and held it up. "I've been in the lab for hours tonight, testing samples."
"What time is it?" she croaked.
"Near morning, I guess." He shrugged. Morning didn't mean much out here without the sun. They were living blind, groping around for answers in the darkness, and the metaphor didn't escape her as Finn offered her the test tube. "This is what you found."
She took it, peering in at the crystallized substance in the bottom. "It's a solid?"
"Yeah." He snorted. "And a gas. And a liquid. I've run every test we have, and the computer's analyzed the data in every possible configuration imaginable, and it all comes up the same."
"Unidentifiable," she murmured, staring at it, amazed.
"And atomic structure? This...it's got to be a new element."
Her breathless wonder was broken by Finn revealing another piece of even more unlikely information. "It has no atomic weight, Mare."
"That's not possible." She just stared at him.
"I know." He shook his head, half-smiling, and shrugged. "It has volume, it has mass, it takes up space. But you can't measure it. It has no atomic weight."
Just when she was coming to terms with that impossible fact, he dropped another, equally as implausible, into her lap. "It also has no half-life."
"What?" She held the sample up to the light, frowning. "Are you sure you tested it right? Maybe there's something wrong with the computer..."
"Please." Rolling his eyes, he sat back in the chair with a sigh. "I've been calculating atomic weight and half-life since I was in high school. Everything decomposes and gives off some sort of radiation, right? But this doesn't. The graph won't move—it's a solid flatline. This stuff is...it's infinite. It's some sort of infinite energy source..."
"I know." Mary couldn't begin to explain her feeling, the certainty of her strangely drawn conclusion. She had no logical basis for it, although Finn's research was going a long way toward convincing the Miss Microscope part of her that her intuition was correct. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, and just said it, "It's God."
When Finn didn't respond—she'd expected laughter, at the very at least, coupled with a sarcastic comment—she opened her eyes to look at him. He was thoughtful, staring at the test tube in her closed fist. She went on, "You feel it just as much as I do. I know you do. What we've discovered...all the laws and rules of physics, of the entire universe, just turned upside down. This proves—"
"This doesn't prove anything." He did laugh then, shaking his head. "You might as well say we just proved the existence of Santa Claus. It would hold about as much weight in the scientific community. Hell, why not? We're at the North Pole, aren't we? Let's just call the new element Santa Clausium!"
"I think..." She took a deep breath, ignoring his sarcasm, and pushed forward. "I think it's here for a reason."
"Well, in that sense, I guess everything's here for a reason."