“Welcome to Melville Island, Doctor.”
“Thank you, Agent. Is it a heartbeat? That’s the last I heard. But that was hours ago.”
“Would you like to settle in first?”
“That’s probably best, but I’m quite eager to get your latest. Frankly, based on what I’ve heard so far, I was half expecting to see a huge shadow beneath the ice when we were flying over the base.”
“Doctor, if we were able to see it through the ice, we probably wouldn’t want to stick around.”
With that, Agent Ivar led Doctor Straw toward the resident modules. He was glad to see that she was appropriately bundled up. He didn’t usually handle such meetings and hadn’t been sure what to expect. He put her in the general category of “bureaucrat,” and had half-feared she would arrive wearing a business suit. Straw was the special envoy from the international panel that had been convened to discuss the recent discovery under the ice of the uninhabited Arctic island.
Independent reports of strange sounds coming from or near the island had been reported by civilian sources for months. The sounds were described as rumbling sometimes. Others heard what they only described as a rhythmic rippling. Canadian authorities investigated. At first, they found nothing. They didn’t even hear the sounds that had been reported. When they kept receiving reports, they assigned a small team to set up equipment and remain on the island to monitor the readings and try to determine the source of the sounds.
“At first we thought some company might have been doing some illicit drilling—this region is supposed to contain deposits of oil sands. Or maybe it was a submarine or bomb testing,” Ivar said as he walked the envoy to her temporary quarters. “At this point, we’ve ruled out all of those possibilities.”
Doctor Straw nodded. “I’ve read your reports. A few times. But I’ve also heard some sensational news from other sources. Not all of them seem like rumor to me. I thought you might be leaving a thing or two out of your reports, not knowing who those reports are being disseminated to. I need to hear the whole story. I assure you, it won’t be shared with anyone who might be inclined to…overreact.”
Agent Ivar peered into the envoy’s eyes and smiled. “I appreciate that.”
Doctor Straw winced and brought a gloved hand to her nose and mouth. She’d lowered her scarf so she could speak with him. Ivar had a feeling he knew what she was trying to do. She was probably trying to create some moisture around her nose and mouth with her breath.
She lowered her hand. “Sorry, I knew it would be cold, but I didn’t realize how dry it would be.”
“I’ve been told we’re technically in a desert.”
“Is that significant to what may be going on here?”
“At this point, that is unknown.” Ivar noted the slight bowing of Straw’s shoulders before she straightened again. She was probably exhausted from travel, from the cold, from whatever series of meetings and sleepless nights she’d endured before being told she was the one who would be coming. She probably wanted to get it over with. Like everyone else onsite, she needed to rest, but probably wouldn’t admit it or do so unless nudged.
“It’s almost dinnertime,” Ivar said. “My team could use some rest. We always make hot meals around here, of course. Plenty of steam. If you’d join us, you can meet a few team members. We can meet afterward for a briefing. Tomorrow, I can take you out to the site.”
He saw a flash of relief on the envoy’s face before she composed herself and gave a professional nod. Dinner was actually a few hours away, but it would give the envoy time to settle in, get warmed up, and recharged. She would need to be sharp for what was coming.
“Why do you think it’s a living creature?” Straw asked. “Why not some vast machine?”
Ivar and Straw were sitting at dinner with a few of the earliest members of the research and monitoring team. Mohammed and Joseph were with the geological imaging group. Claire was with the core sampling team. The three also happened to be fellow agents, though Ivar wouldn’t reveal that to the envoy unless it was necessary. The panel was concerned about the presence of so many non-civilians at the site. Normally, Ivar would have agreed, but the more they discovered about the thing beneath the ice, the gladder he was to have a military presence supporting his team and the civilian scientists.
“Like a spaceship, you mean?” Joe asked.
Doctor Straw shrugged. “You know why I’m asking. It would be a lot less…complicated if the thing under the ice was a long-abandoned vessel, building, or machine made by some native or even non-native civilization.”
Mo raised his brows. “When you say non-native, do you mean non-native to Earth?”
Claire turned to Ivar. “We’re going there, sir?”
“Let’s say it’s a machine,” Straw said. “It could have a timed program that was meant to be activated right now. That could explain why we never knew about it until now. But if it’s a living creature…what is causing it to suddenly show signs of activity?”
Everyone turned to Ivar. He pointed his soup spoon at Straw. “Someone had to say it.”
“There are so many variables,” Claire said. “And so many questions we need answered. We’re still trying to figure out what we need to know first.”
Joe took a sip of his coffee and sighed. “That’s easy. Is it friendly?”
Straw glanced around the table and smiled. “Of all the questions that we want answered, the most intriguing one right now is the ‘who or what’ question. So who or what do you think it is?”
Claire grinned. “Mo thinks it’s something called an ifrit from…Persian myth? A huge winged being of fire and smoke.”
“Claire favors Greco-Roman myth,” Mo said. “She thinks it’s one of the titans that Zeus and his gang threw down into Tartarus.”
Joe shook his head. “It’s a dinosaur or prehistoric whale, or some kind of ancient animal we haven’t discovered.”
Claire nodded. “So, a cryptid.”
“Not. A cryptid. This thing is real.”
Straw looked at Ivar and smiled as if to acknowledge that she was picking up on a running joke among the obviously close trio.
“Well, I’ve read a bit of Lovecraft,” Ivar said. “And all of those choices seem a lot more desirable than the cosmic horror I’ve been imagining.”
He thought he discerned the envoy give a slight shudder. His aim had been to keep the shop talk light during dinner.
“All joking aside,” Ivar said. “I never thought I’d say this, but I think the prehistoric animal theory is the least likely. That creature or entity is showing signs of life. Science doesn’t seem able to explain that. But out myths might. There are some truths to be extracted from myths.”
Straw cleared her throat. “Surely not literal truths.”
Ivar propped his elbows on the table and folded his hands together. “Thus far, the only living things we’ve observed showing signs of life after defrosting from arctic ice is microbes. This is definitely not a microbe. And I can’t imagine any known multicellular organism being able to survive this.”
“This just occurred to me. Would a water bear be able to do it?” Claire asked.
Straw frowned. “What is a water bear?”
Mo snapped his fingers. “You’re right. The official name is tardigrade, ma’am. It’s a microscopic animal. You can throw almost anything at them and they’ll survive—radiation, extreme heat, extreme cold.”
“We’d have to look it up, but definitely able to survive being buried in the ice.”
Ivar nodded. “Yes, but again, they’re microscopic.”
“According to your reports,” Straw said, “the ice this being is trapped in is permafrost ice. I assume that means it’s very old. So how long has it been there? Have you managed to figure out its size?”
Ivar set his soup spoon down. “It’s been difficult to tell the age of the ice.”
“We haven’t detected anything in the core samples that might give us enough information to place them in a specific time period,” Claire said. “If we guess, we could be tens of thousands of years off. We don’t want to take too many core samples either. We don’t know for sure, but we have a gut feeling that even that small amount of exposure to air seems to have affected the being. At least two of the cores went down far enough to nick a piece of some organic material that might be the being’s skin or scales, along with traces of sand that don’t seem to be native to this area. We’re still analyzing.”
“And based on our imaging so far,” Mo said, turning to Joe. “We haven’t been able to get a grip on its size either. Sorry, ma’am, I know that’s not the answer you were looking for.”
Straw gave a nod of acknowledgement. “I’d rather you tell the truth of having nothing than give me an arbitrary number. You haven’t been out here that long.”
“Some think we’ve been here too long, and that we should have some answers by now,” Ivar said.
Straw made a deliberate scan of the table, locking gazes with each of the scientists and finally Ivar. “Those people aren’t here, Agent Ivar. But I do represent their interests along with the interests of the entire panel, which represents the interests of everyone on the planet in this matter.”
“We’re not dragging our feet, Doctor Straw,” Claire said. “Please trust us on that.”
“I didn’t think that you were, but in order to make decisions, we need at least a few solid answers. Even if that answer is that there is a mythological being trapped in the Arctic ice.”
“When you arrived,” Ivar said, “you asked if it was a heartbeat, what everyone has been hearing for the past several months. We think it is. Unfortunately, we haven’t been measuring the sound steadily for all those months, so it’s still early to tell, but we believe the beat is getting stronger, and faster.”
“We’re also detecting miniscule amounts of movement,” Joe said. “Movement that seems to be caused by water flows.”
“We’re getting indications of radiative energy,” Ivar said.
Straw’s eyes widened slightly. “Nuclear?”
“No, it appears to be just heat.”
“From within the being?”
“We think so.”
“It’s melting the ice from the inside?” She turned to Mo. “No wonder you think it’s an ifrit.”
“And we’re thinking that as it shakes itself loose like a hatchling struggling out of an egg, we might expect to experience tremors and quakes soon.”
“Begging your pardon, Doctor,” Claire said, “I know you read the reports, but I’m impressed by how calm you seem.”
Straw smiled at Claire and gave a pointed look to Ivar. She took a deep breath and exhaled. “To be quite honest, the details are a great help. Your reports contained an alarming lack of detail, Agent Ivar, considering the proverbial bombs you were dropping. I quote, ‘In the midst of our investigation, we realized that the sounds were coming from something vast that was frozen inside of the permafrost. That something appears to be a living creature, and it appears to be waking up. The team has located the general area that is the source of the sounds and has commenced the endeavor to measure the thing’s size and to gather information about its age and identity.’ Striking statements. And chilling, especially the part about the waking up.”
Ivar was impressed by the envoy’s recall. He hadn’t really believed she’d read his reports all that carefully.
“And you thought having details would give you some peace of mind?” he asked.
“Ignorance may be bliss, my dear agent, but partial knowledge is torment.”
“I’m glad to see the diversity in the onsite team,” Doctor Straw said the next morning as they toured the outer perimeter of the site. They had extended that perimeter twice already, when the imaging indicated that the size of the thing beneath the ice was larger than they had first surmised.
The researchers initially consisted of Canadian scientists supported by an American team of imaging specialists and a foremost glaciologist from Britain. Ivar’s agency, an international investigative agency in charge of protecting sights of historic, scientific, and religious significance, sent agents and scholars from around the world with permission. The onsite team did not take long to adapt to each other and work well together. This was mostly due to the magnanimity of their Canadian hosts and the growing realization of what a profound discovery had been made. Six months into the investigation and study, an international panel was convened to evaluate the situation. Only a few months later, they sent out an envoy to get a report and first-hand look at what the team was doing and what was really under the ice.
“You’re actively keeping your team in good spirits, too.”
Ivar sighed as they crunched through the snow toward the inner perimeter. A guard waved them through.
“Between the unbearable cold and the uncertainty and terror of knowing there might be some chthonic over-god frozen in the permafrost beneath our feet,” he said, “it helps to have a chuckle at least once in the day.”
“We’re standing above it now,” Ivar said a couple of hours later. There were only two small modules within the inner perimeter. An emergency module and a module where preliminary data was evaluated and samples were temporarily stored before daily transport to the main camp.
Straw looked down between her feet and saw only snow and ice, of course. The highest part of the thing was at least two miles beneath the surface on which they stood.
“What are your conclusions?” Straw asked. “And I don’t mean just from the data.”
“At this moment? Discussions of trying to keep it contained in the ice are likely moot. I don’t think we’ll be able to stop the melting. Whatever it is, it’s going to emerge. Since we won’t be able to stop it from coming, we have to prepare for whatever it is that comes. It’s big, and its emergence is going to have a huge effect on the island and the rest of the planet. But even more immediately than that, unless it’s weak from age upon age of frozen sleep, we’re likely looking at an immense amount of destruction just from its emergence. And even more damage if it wants to destroy.”
“You don’t think it’s more likely that the energy signatures you’re seeing are some reflexive phenomenon? That this being or creature is dead and even if it’s body melts out of the ice, you’ll have a huge corpse to study instead of a huge beast to escape from? What makes you so sure that the signs you’re detecting really are signs of life?”
Ivar took a deep deliberate breath and exhaled heavily. “You’re right. I’m not sure. We don’t know how big it is, what it is, how it got frozen. Was it an accident, like the dinosaurs getting trapped in those tar pits? Or was this being purposely frozen? Was freezing it the only way to imprison something very dangerous? How was it done? Who did it and where are they now? Whatever its natural disposition, if this being was purposely frozen, it’s likely going to be angry when it wakes. And we might not have time to do any explaining. In the absence of more information, we have to assume that whatever is down there is dangerous, so we can take precautions.”
“What precautions? What’s the plan, Agent?”
“Learn as much as we can about what it is. Narrow down all that speculation to a specific being. If it’s something from myth, we have clues in our myths for how to handle it. If Joe is right, and it’s some kind of animal we’ve never encountered, then we have to put together a profile based on animals we are familiar with. We need to continue gathering data and information so that we can develop a knowledge base, and figure out how to contain it.”
“And what if we don’t have the means to contain it? Or if we can’t build those means?”
“Are you asking me if we might have to destroy it, with nukes maybe?”
“Would that even work?”
“We don’t know yet. And my people may already be having those conversations among themselves. But as far you and I and the other leaders involved are concerned, there must be a definite alternative to bombs and destruction. If we lose hope, we won’t be able to keep our people encouraged when they lose hope. It’s up to us to manage the uncertainty.”
Straw watched as a member of the core sampling team trudged toward the data analysis module carrying a canister. “There have always been things in this world that are bigger than us. Things that are far, far out of our control. I don’t know much about myth and ancient history, Agent. My job directs my focus on the present and the future. But it’s always seemed to me that ancient peoples dealt with uncontrollable things by relinquishing that control to a higher power…kings, emperors, gods. I don’t want us to be back in that position. I understand that you can’t make any promises. But please do all you can to give us the options and the ability to maintain control.”
“There’s no shame in relinquishing control to a higher power, if it’s the appropriate thing to do. If I weren’t the man for this job, for example, I would be expected to step down. I should step down, and let someone who’s smarter, tougher, more experienced, and more qualified do the job. But I think I just understood you. You’re talking about a way bigger scale of relinquishing. Like asking a god to step in and protect us.”
“I don’t know that we even have that choice. We will do our best, but it’s right for the panel to keep an eye on us, especially from afar. If we’re putting all our myths, legends, and folk tales on the table, we’re opening the door for a lot of things that are beyond our control. For instance, what if that being under the ice has psychic powers of influence?”
She frowned. “Has there been any indication of such a possibility?”
“Not that I know of. I’m just saying…watch us from afar. And don’t aim for control. Aim for understanding and knowing. Don’t aim for suspicion. Aim for caution. Let’s hope the being is friendly, or relatively harmless for something so large. But let’s prepare for it not to be.”
“We haven’t yet addressed the fact that the very existence of this being raises many uncomfortable and frightening questions about the reality of our world and the beings that inhabit it. But some of those questions might be answered when the being awakes.”
“I imagine that half the panel wants it to wake and half the panel wants it to be nothing but a mistake of detection.”
“Just a whole lot of hot air and smoke?”
Ivar smiled appreciatively at the callback to a lighter and more exciting conversation. If only it were about the speculation and excitement of a new discovery. But every discovery bore its own burdens. He gestured to the data analysis module, where he would show the envoy a few of the pictures from the ground-penetrating imaging instruments.
He felt a bit unsteady on his feet as they walked, and when the earth shifted and shuddered beneath them, he realized why. He and Straw stopped walking and clutched each other, several feet away from the module. In seconds the earth was still again. They’d managed to stay on their feet. The two looked at each other.
Then they looked down at the ice between their feet. They couldn’t see past it. They couldn’t see what had caused the tremor. Something lay in frozen sleep beneath their feet. Something shifted in its sleep, dreaming perhaps.
Dreaming of waking.
Copyright © 2016. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Arctic Sand” by Sanjay Patel.