Home > Below Zero (The STEMinist Novellas #3)

Below Zero (The STEMinist Novellas #3)
Author: Ali Hazelwood

 


Prologue


   Svalbard Islands, Norway

   Present

   I dream of an ocean.

   Not the Arctic, though. Not the one right here in Norway, with its close-packed, frothy waves constantly crashing against the coasts of the Svalbard archipelago. It’s perhaps a bit unfair of me: the Barents Sea is perfectly worth dreaming of. So are its floating icebergs and inhospitable permafrost shores. All around me there is nothing but stark, cerulean beauty, and if this is the place where I die, alone and shivering and bruised and pretty damn hungry . . . well, I have no reason to bitch.

   After all, blue was always my favorite color.

   And yet, the dreams seem to disagree. I lie here, in my half-awake, half-unconscious state. I feel my body yield precious degrees of heat. I watch the ultraviolet morning light reach inside the crevasse that trapped me hours ago, and the only ocean I can dream of is the one on Mars.

   “Dr. Arroyo? Can you hear me?”

   I mean, this entire thing is almost laughable. I am a NASA scientist. I have a doctorate in aerospace engineering and several publications in the field of planetary geology. At any given time, my brain is a jumbled maelstrom of stray thoughts on massive volcanism, crystal fluid dynamics, and the exact kind of anti-radiation equipment one would need to start a medium-size human colony on Kepler-452b. I promise I’m not being conceited when I say that I know pretty much all there is to know about Mars. Including the fact that there are no oceans on it, and the idea that there ever were is highly controversial among scientists.

   So, yeah. My near-death dreams are ridiculous and scientifically inaccurate. I would laugh about it, but I have a sprained ankle and I’m approximately ten feet below the ground. It seems better to just save my energy for what’s to come. I never really believed in an afterlife, but who knows? Better hedge my bets.

   “Dr. Arroyo, do you copy?”

   The problem is, it calls to me, this nonexistent ocean on Mars. I feel the pull of it deep inside my belly, and it warms me even here, at the icy tip of the world. Its turquoise waters and rust-tinted coastlines are approximately 200 million kilometers from the place where I’ll die and rot, but I cannot shake the feeling that they want me closer. There is an ocean, a network of gullies, an entire giant planet full of iron oxide, and they’re all calling to me. Asking me to give up. Lean in. Let go.

   “Dr. Arroyo.”

   And then there are the voices. Random, improbable voices from my past. Well, okay: a voice. It’s always the same, deep and rumbling, with no discernible accent and well-pronounced consonants. I don’t really mind it, I must say. I’m not sure why my brain has decided to impose it on me just now, considering that it belongs to someone who doesn’t like me much—someone I might like even less—but it’s a pretty good voice. A+. Worth listening to in a death’s door situation. Even though Ian Floyd was the one who never wanted me to come here to Svalbard in the first place. Even though the last time we were together he was stubborn, and unkind, and unreasonable, and now he seems to sound only . . .

   “Hannah.”

   Close. Is this really Ian Floyd? Sounding close?

   Impossible. My brain has frozen into stupidity. It must really be all over for me. My time has come, the end is nigh, and—

   “Hannah. I’m coming for you.”

   My eyes spring open. I’m not dreaming anymore.

 

 

Chapter 1


   Johnson Space Center, Houston, U.S.

   One year ago

   On my very first day at NASA, at some point between the HR intake and a tour of the Electromagnetic Compliance Studies building, some overzealous newly hired engineer turns to the rest of us and asks, “Don’t you feel like your entire life has led you to this moment? Like you were meant to be here?”

   Aside from Eager Beaver, there are fourteen of us starting today. Fourteen of us fresh out of top-five graduate programs, and prestigious internships, and CV-beefing industry jobs accepted exclusively to look more attractive during NASA’s next round of recruitment. There’re fourteen of us, and the thirteen that aren’t me are all nodding enthusiastically.

   “Always knew I’d end up at NASA, ever since I was like, five,” says a shy-looking girl. She’s been sticking by my side for the entire morning, I assume because we’re the only two non-dudes in the group. I must say, I don’t mind it too much. Perhaps it’s because she’s a computer engineer while I’m aerospace, which means there’s a good chance that I won’t see much of her after today. Her name is Alexis, and she’s wearing a NASA necklace on top of a NASA T-shirt that only barely covers the NASA tattoo on her upper arm. “I bet it’s the same for you, Hannah,” she adds, and I smile at her, because Sadie and Mara insisted that I shouldn’t be my resting-bitch self now that we live in different time zones. They are convinced that I need to make new friends, and I have reluctantly agreed to put in a solid effort just to get them to shut up. So I nod at Alexis like I know exactly what she means, while privately I think: Not really.

   When people find out that I have a Ph.D., they tend to assume that I was always an academically driven child. That I cruised through school my entire life in a constant effort to overachieve. That I did so well as a student, I decided to remain one long after I could have booked it and freed myself from the shackles of homework and nights spent cramming for never-ending tests. People assume, and for the most part I let them believe what they want. Caring what others think is a lot of work, and—with a handful of exceptions—I’m not a huge fan of work.

   The truth, though, is quite the opposite. I hated school at first sight—with the direct consequence that school hated the sullen, listless child that I was right back. In the first grade, I refused to learn how to write my name, even though Hannah is only three letters repeated twice. In junior high, I set a school record for the highest number of consecutive detention days—what happens when you decide to take a stand and not do homework for any of your classes because they are too boring, too difficult, too useless, or all of the above. Until the end of my sophomore year, I couldn’t wait to graduate and leave all of school behind: the books, the teachers, the grades, the cliques. Everything. I didn’t really have a plan for after, except for leaving now behind.

   I had this feeling, my entire life, that I was never going to be enough. I internalized pretty early that I was never going to be as good, as smart, as lovable, as wanted as my perfect older brother and my flawless older sister, and after several failed attempts at measuring up, I just decided to stop trying. Stop caring, too. By the time I was in my teens, I just wanted . . .

   Well. To this day, I’m not sure what I wanted at fifteen. For my parents to stop fretting about my inadequacies, maybe. For my peers to stop asking me how I could be the sibling of two former all-star valedictorians. I wanted to stop feeling as though I were rotting in my own aimlessness, and I wanted my head to stop spinning all the time. I was confused, contradictory, and, looking back, probably a shitty teenager to be around. Sorry, Mom and Dad and the rest of the world. No hard feelings, eh?

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