The Curiosity (Excerpt)

Check out Stephen P. Kiernan’s The Curiosity, out on July 9 from William Morrow:

Dr. Kate Philo and her scientific expedition team make a breathtaking discovery in the Arctic: the body of a man buried deep in ice. A scientist in the groundbreaking project run by the egocentric Erastus Carthage, Kate has brought small creatures – plankton, krill, shrimp – “back to life.” Never before have the team’s methods been attempted on a large life form.

Heedless of the consequences, Carthage orders that the frozen man be brought back to the lab in Boston, and reanimated. As the man begins to regain his memories, the team learns that he was – is – a judge, Jeremiah Rice, and the last thing he remembers is falling overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906. When news of the project and Jeremiah Rice’s awakening breaks, it ignites a media firestorm and massive protests by religious fundamentalists.

Thrown together by circumstances beyond their control, Kate and Jeremiah grow closer. But the clock is ticking and his new life is slipping away. With Carthage planning to exploit Jeremiah while he can, Kate must decide how far she is willing to go to protect the man she has come to love.


Chapter 5
Baseball Mitt
(Daniel Dixon)


Mark,” Dr. Kate calls over the radio, and Gerber presses a button beside his monitor. The image on an upper screen freezes for half a minute—a hand ax striking at the ice—while the video feed continues on the TV below. It’s fascinating, if I linger on the still shot, how easy it is to spot hard-ice: when the ax hits, regular ice falls away and leaves something like white concrete. How had scientists before Carthage failed to discover this stuff? It’s like peeling off wax drippings without noticing the main candle.

I jot that simile in my notebook for later, because there’s nothing else for me to write at the moment. I’m just watching while they work. but I can tell this iceberg is different, if only by everyone’s seriousness. Gerber has not made a joke in hours. He even turned down the Grateful Dead bootleg of the day; it’s barely white noise from his speakers. The way his chair is positioned, he can’t see the “mark” images overhead. He’s bent toward the live feed playing before him. The tech crew concentrates on screens in front of them, too: sonar scans, temperature gauges, water content monitors.

The first team works their full shift, then the second squad digs into a side vein. They call it harvesting, billings removing cores the size and shape of fence posts. They must be sweet with specimens, because by the end of that shift, Billings is singing in his headset. And damn my ears, can that guy not sing. I’ve heard beagles with better voices.

Look, I don’t buy this whole project. But they must be freezing out there, in bone-aching cold that takes days to recover from. Every so often a piece breaks loose, and everybody scurries. They can’t help approaching an iceberg with fear. It’s like handling snakes, there are too many stories of something going wrong. plus, both crews have been underwater nearly three hours. During breaks they skip breakfast and napping, despite having pulled an all-nighter. When billings’s team made its second dive, Dr. Kate stood beside Gerber wrapped in a chocolate-brown blanket, calling “mark” every minute or so. It feels as focused as an operating room.

As soon as his dive ends, billings returns to the control room. Dr. Kate gives him a hug, the lucky dog. Instead of a fresh crew, she orders her group to suit up again.

During the transition I visit the bridge. Captain Kulak has stayed at his post longer than at any time since we set sail. The daylight view outside stuns me. peaks of white and blue float in a black metallic soup, a sanctuary for whales, or martians maybe, but no place a human being should linger. Soon the crane hoists Dr. Kate’s team overboard, easing them down like coal miners lowered into a shaft. Aside from Kulak’s commands for the crane operator, no one speaks. Neither is anyone going anywhere.

Then there’s not much to see, except cables extending into the sea with ice forming at the waterline, so that’s my cue to head downstairs again. Gerber, billings, the techs, they’re so absorbed they don’t react when I enter the room. For once I am not asking questions. I am just observing, making notes. If Dr. Kate is willing to endure a third shift in that frigid gloom, they’re getting close, is what it is.

“Mark,” she calls, and the screen shows a flipper, extended down and away from the seal’s main body. It is a slender animal, I’d say. Almost six feet long, maybe two feet wide, though it’s hard to tell exactly through the blur of ice. then the video feed shows an underwater circular saw, biting into the hard-ice two feet from the flipper.

Gerber reaches for the cup of coffee I gave him an hour ago, definitely cold by now, but Dr. Kate calls “mark” and he brings his hand back without taking a sip.

Either these people are incredible actors, every one of them, or they are captivated by Carthage’s crazy fantasy, or, possibly, they genuinely believe they can harvest this animal in the ice and bring it back to life. The implications, which I have denied relentlessly until this day, are boggling. There are something like forty thousand people around the world who are cryogenically preserved, waiting for a day that technology enables them to reawaken. There are another sixty thousand people at any given moment lying in hospital ICUs with incurable illnesses. Imagine if they could be frozen in hard-ice till a cure is found, or some antiaging medicine developed, and then reanimated. There are almost a hundred thousand people awaiting organ transplants. Imagine if you could freeze the bodies of recently dead people, then thaw what you need for parts later. It would make transplanting like going to the fridge for a beer.

I can’t believe I am starting to think like this. Most of the researchers are rookies, so I understand why they would drink the Kool-Aid. but Gerber?

“Hey, mad scientist,” I call. “Want me to freshen that coffee for you?”

He does not take his eyes from the screen. “What’d you say?”

“Coffee. you want some more?”

He doesn’t answer. Dr. Kate says “mark” and he snaps the image, then turns to me. “I’m sorry. What?”

I hoist my mug at him. “Coffee?”

He turns back to the monitors. “Help yourself.” One more time I perfect my skill at being blown off. then Gerber checks his watch. “Hey, Dr. Philo, I’m looking at our clock here.”

There’s silence in the radio, then she squawks on. “And?”

“You know you have four minutes till ascent?”

“Three minutes forty-four seconds,” she answers.

“Not that you’re counting.”

“Nope. mark.”

He presses his button. The image freezes on the overhead screen, long chisels working a cleft in the hard-ice. It’s like defrosting an oldstyle freezer with a kitchen knife, only underwater, and you’re inside the freezer.

Her radio squawks again. “Can you tell from there how close we are?”

“Definitely.” Gerber nods. “I’m worried about that flipper getting too thin a boundary. exposure would compromise—”

“I only want to know what species we have, then I’ll let it be.”

“You and your curiosity. Just be careful. That berg is starting to destabilize. And the fragments are bigger—”

As if to prove Gerber’s point, a slab of white the size of a minivan breaks free. There’s a groan through the monitor, like a whale giving birth. The slab spirals lazily onto its side, then grinds along the underwater face of the berg. Divers rush away in all directions, kicking their flippers furiously. One scrape from a beast like that and your suit is torn, immediate frostbite, or it brushes your air hose and you’re dead.

Kate hasn’t moved, though, she’s fixed on her carving like a jeweler cutting diamonds. the woman can concentrate, I’ll give her that— like a freaking sniper. Gerber snaps a photo of the ice block as it rises, silently, trailed by offspring the size of steamer trunks. The other divers gradually swim near again.

“Call it a shift, lovely,” Billings says into his headset across the room. “I’ll be in after you, straightaway.”

Dr. Kate does not answer. now only inches of ice lie between the specimen and open water. I see how the flipper fans open at the end. It looks like the wing tip of a hawk, the way feathers spread when a big bird glides.

“That fragment did us a favor,” Dr. Kate says, “but this is one awfully skinny seal.”

Gerber shuts his music off completely, rolls his chair forward till his nose is inches from the monitor. “What the hell is that thing?”

I’m standing beside him now. “Fuck if I know.”

“Should I tell her it’s forty seconds till ascent?”

No one answers. We can see the crew working beside the animal, wedging it toward freedom. it is almost ready to come away.

“Wait, team,” Dr. Kate calls. “Hold there.” The video feed shows her swimming deeper, under the very bottom of the iceberg. “Shine a light back this way,” she says. A diver leans in her direction to reveal the specimen in silhouette. The ice is cloudy, full of air, so the seal looks suspended like a work of modern art.

Next Dr. Kate positions herself farther below. she’s set aside all her tools but a brush, and she’s using it on the last bit of ice along the flipper.

“Hey, Dr. P,” Gerber says, “You okay there? We’re at major risk for breaking the hard-ice seal. You know how we mothers worry.”

Instead of answering, she beckons to the cameraman. The feed blurs as he flippers his way down, then settles near her hip, pointing the lens upward.

Billings leaves his computer and crosses the room to see what’s happening. The other technicians have all gone silent. A beeper announces the time for ascent, but Gerber slaps it off. Everyone’s watching the monitor now.

“Mark,” she calls, and Gerber presses the button. The screen shows a shadow, reaching, a dark something.

Dr. Kate maneuvers beneath the animal, then releases a huge exhale. Fat bubbles rise into the pocket around the flipper, trapped in the ice’s shape for a moment, then escaping to one side. It’s like an underwater caress.

“God in heaven,” Billings says. “She’s melting it with her breath.”

“Mark,” she says as a layer of ice separates, falling away. With the backlighting so bright, the flipper is taking a clearer shape. Silly as it sounds, I can’t help asking, “Does that look to any of you like a baseball mitt?”

Gerber squints at the screen. “It does, kinda. only smaller.”

As the next breath bubbles upward, Dr. Kate reaches high and hooks her gloved fingers into a tiny crevice. She tugs, twice.

Billings whispers, “Careful, lovely.”

All at once the ice falls away, a big plate. Someone gives a yell. Divers rush in, blocking the camera. “No way,” someone shouts. “Impossible,” says someone else.

“Mark,” Dr. Kate yells. “For God’s sake, Gerber, mark. Mark.”

Billings stands in my view, until I elbow forward so I can see. by then the divers have collected themselves. the video shows Dr. Kate restraining them in the black water.

“Gerber,” she says, her voice stern like a cop’s. “Clear the control room.”

“Say again?” he looks around himself. At some point he has stood up.

“Clear the control room at once. Also secure this video and the backups as proprietary and classified.”

“All right, everybody.” Gerber raises his voice. “You heard her.”

Billings steps away and the technicians all rise from their chairs, two of them poised to escort me from the room, but I remain concentrated on the screen overhead.

“Tell her it’s too late,” I say to Gerber. “Tell her I already saw.”

“Saw what?” he says, leaning back to squint at the screen. And there it is, blurred by ice and bubbles, but undeniable. “What is that?”

“Just what it looks like,” I tell him. “A human hand.”


The Curiosity © Stephen P Kiernan 2013


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