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Arc 3 – In Sekhmet’s Hands
Antarctica never changes.
It wasn’t true, of course—in the broad sense, given time and energy, everything changed. Long ago, Antactica hadn’t been a continent of ice, but the march of time had seen to that. In the more limited sense of a geographic scale, it still wasn’t true: like any other place on the planet, Antarctica had seasons. But, to Maxwell Lewis, it felt true.
He knew it wasn’t. It was mere geographic pontification, a selfish moment for him to appreciate the landscape all around him as he thought no one else could. As he trudged across the endless expanse of blue-white, Lewis admired the desolate plains and found them beautiful. Where he was walking, perhaps, no man had ever walked before.
If Antarctica changed, then it changed less than every other part of the world. For fifteen million years, it had remained a desolate constant at the base of the world, alluring and forbidden in equal measure—an icy desert where humans feared to tread. No matter the technology, no matter the advancements, Antarctica remained the most inhospitable place on Earth.
Yet, to Lewis, there was no fear.
Oh, he knew the facts, the dangers arrayed—he was a geomagnetic engineer with two degrees, damnit. But he was also an Antarctic veteran of six years, and there was a simple truth under the regulations and procedures: respect the possibility of danger and death, but do not fear it.
Lewis knew just how anathematic to human life the continent was. He knew that hot water would freeze before it hit the ground, and that the scourging winds could turn ice into shards of glass. He knew that, were he to blink at the wrong moment, the vapor of his breath would freeze his eyelids shut.
He knew, too, that his arctic environment suit was designed to keep him safe through such conditions, sealed against the elements. A transponder screamed his location to the heavens. If man had ever walked here before, they never had done so with the security he had.
But even so, that thought was fragile. In Antarctica, what passed for human civilization consisted of maybe a thousand people across three dozen different nationalities and a dozen different languages. The one thing that bound them together for the ten months of any given year was their shared isolation from the rest of the world.
It was enough to drive anyone mad.
Most people went back after one tour. Went back to the places were humans had evolved to live, where there was grass and running water, where the sunburn came from the sky and not from the ground. Where everything was sensible. But Lewis wasn’t most people.
Even so, the last thing he should’ve been doing in the middle of the Antarctic winter—no matter his years, no matter his experience—was completing his work alone.
But he felt comfortable here. Safe, even. It wasn’t just that he was girded against the elements, wearing cutting-edge sensors that’d warn him if the ice was going to shift and crack and fissure, it was that the rest of the world didn’t exist. Here, walking across the snow, it was like Lewis could remember the truth of the world. A truth that, day by day, felt more like a delusion: the memory of a world where superheroes did not exist.
The world. Lewis indulged a moment’s curiosity and brought the news feed up across his goggles. As usual, a litany of horrors scrolled across his view. All the horrors that had followed in the wake of the empowered heroes. Not a single continent had been spared.
In North America, the socialist revolution had finally gone cold, stalling out to ninety days of no armed conflict. In South America, an ancient temple had been flattened and so much rainforest with it—all necessary to apprehend a supervillain, of course. In Europe, a ten-year memorial for the victims of Panacea’s continental rampage. And, sprinkled through it like it made up for any of it, was the speculation about their fucking marriages, their personal lives…
It was like the world was caught in a fucking seizure. Only Antarctica stood unchanged, spared the madness.
Lewis swept his eyes left and banished the insane world from his desolate paradise. Everyone had said he was crazy to take up engineering work in Antartica of all places, but Lewis hadn’t seen it as a slur. If he was crazy, then it was only so he might better match the rest of the world.
March 3, 2022. The day the world changed, the day when Preceptor had stepped onto the world stage and revealed the fantasy made flesh: that superheroes were real, and they were here. Lewis had been twenty. He had remembered the order of the world before that fateful day, and the order that had come afterward. The way everyone had thought the man heralded a utopia.
For a time, he had and the heroes with him. Preceptor, Demigod, Sentinel—all of them. It had seemed like there was nothing beyond the capabilities of the empowered—diseases cured, tribalism ended, security ensured. They’d flat out reversed climate change, for God’s sake! And that was years ago, one of their first man-made wonders. Hell, just last year, some enterprising empowered had cracked the secrets of safe, achievable fusion power.
The media called it a Golden Age. It seemed an apt term. After all, hadn’t all of humanity’s dreams had come true? Weren’t the gods living among mortals once again? Prometheus’ gift of fire didn’t even rate comparison.
Yet, even at the time, when the world was swept up in the idea of utopia, Lewis had thought: if our dreams are coming true, then what of our nightmares?
As it turned out, the utopia had an expiry date—a mere ten years. The nightmare that ended the hope of it, that lasted for almost double.
No one was sure what to call it yet, but everyone knew what it was: a cataclysm of fire and bloodshed, of superpowered tyrants and world-breaking calamities. Of the end of nations, the annihilation of cities, and good old-fashioned fratricide that went back to the days of Cain and Abel.
Lewis had been taking these surveying jobs for the IPSA since ’45, and he figured he’d keep taking them until he died. He’d welcome death by exposure more than he would death by half of the things he had seen on the news. Somehow, Antarctica was the safest place on the face of Earth.
After all, it was the only continent to remain untouched by the Golden Age and the hellfire that ended it. There had been rumors of secret lairs and brooding, solitary fortresses, but Lewis didn’t put much stock in them. Even superheroes had to wrestle with geography and logistics.
But the IPSA, assembling order out of chaos, wanted to be sure. The UN, satisfied with the state of the First World, turned their attention to the rest—or what remained of it. In Antarctica, they paid good money for people like him to wander the wastes, to pick up on leads and sensor traces from satellite imagery, to ensure that Antarctica forever remained a bastion of science. Somehow, the old treaty held power, even now.
Even when so much of the world is gone…
It was like hunting ghosts, and the atmosphere didn’t help. Above Lewis, the aurora australis pulsed and flowed in strange, incandescent patterns. Like a rainbow weaved again and again in the hands of God. Sometimes, Lewis thought there was a pattern to it. Sometimes, he thought he was just going crazy.
His goggles beeped. Lewis squinted, and the alert appeared before him, rendered the topography of his surroundings, laying out his little slice of paradise. Nothing around him for kilometers, the various base camps were merely signposts at the edge of his map. The only sign of anything human-made was the transponder on his snowmobile, and that was some distance behind him.
There, to his north, a flashing red icon blazed, pulsing again and again.
That was new. Chewing at his cheek, Lewis frowned and scrolled through the data, picked out the key bits of information. In a few seconds, he had it: an irregularity in the Earth’s magnetic field.
Whatever the source was, it was to his immediate north. Close, too—three kilometers away, maybe less. Lewis mulled that thought over. Whatever he had stumbled upon, he was practically right on top of it.
Strange, though, because he hadn’t been looking for it.
Lewis brought up the map of his route, overlayed it. The golden path of the route he was supposed to take curved east, away from the glowing red blip that marked the approximate location of the magnetic disturbance. Lewis checked the numbers again—whatever it was, it was barely perceptible over the background noise. Had he never gotten off his snowmobile and come for a walk, he might never have detected it.
There was a procedure for this, Lewis knew. Mark the coordinates, radio basecamp, and, whatever you do, don’t investigate without approval in triplicate. After all, the Golden Age had left so many things buried—some of them ruins, some of them relics.
Some of them unexploded ordinance.
The winds picked up again.
“Fuck it,” Lewis said, to the air. “Let’s go.”
It took Lewis twenty minutes to double-time it back to his vehicle, and then ten to close on the coordinates, the long polar night lit only by the aurora above and the headlights on his snowmobile.
He slowed when he saw the fissure.
By the time he had stopped and dismounted, his goggles were giving him only gibberish. Whatever he had found, the smart systems of his scientific array weren’t sure to describe it beyond that they couldn’t.
His eyes and mind agreed, if not for the same reason—the fissure wasn’t on any maps.
Lewis didn’t need sensors to peer into it. It wasn’t very wide, but it was deep enough that the beam of his headlamp floundered in the darkness. The patterns of the aurora played over the walls of the chasm, a reflected dance.
Some part of him whispered to turn back. The only reason the readings could be so much gibberish was if something was very, very wrong.
He knew the facts, the dangers. It was stupid enough to go out alone, and it was especially stupid to climb down into a fissure like that alone. Whatever pressure had cracked the ice open so suddenly could so very quickly slam it shut.
He knew this, and he knew he was going anyway. Five minutes later, he took his first step down the wall of the crevice.
If there was some superhero down there, Maxwell Lewis, geomagnetist, was going to give them a piece of his mind.
Lewis descended into the dark, icy walls illuminated by his headlamp.
The ice here had a history all of its own; it was like walking backwards through time. It had survived the Golden Age, had stood sentinel to so much of human history—the first man on the moon, two world wars, the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of electricity, the construction of the Pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Great Wall. Perhaps societies even older than that. Perhaps before humanity’s ancestors had even dreamed of societies, of nations, of cultures.
Leave temples to the religious. This was truly hallowed ground.
Finally, his boots touched the ground, upon rock and not ice. Lewis didn’t want to think about how deep he had stupidly come. Here, on either side of him, the ice was dark, and the patterns of the aurora still danced across the walls. Where he was walking, surely no one had walked before.
Silence. Lewis turned left and right. Down here, the ice groaned under the titanic pressure of itself. It sounded almost like a song, like there was meaning in it. The walls glimmered in rainbow, reflecting the light above-
No, Lewis thought, looking again, cold cutting through him. That’s reflecting something down here.
That was when he saw it.
A jagged spire, thrust up through the ground like a cthonic spear. Lewis stepped closer, staring at it. Took a moment to toggle his recorder. His helmet lamp illuminated the icy monolith, maybe a hundred feet tall—and that was just the visible part. Another step, closer still. No, Lewis realized, not ice—another type of crystal, but not one he had ever seen before.
The angles of it were too precise to be natural, too angular. Bits of it had been chipped away, damaged. Yet, Lewis had the impression of something ancient, a single projection of something greater, buried beneath the continental rock.
But who the hell had buried it?
Lewis took another step closer. The ice hummed around him, and it sounded so much like a song. His teeth vibrated, but he could see something. Within the structure of the crystalline spire, something glimmered—like rainbow smoke, like the aurora so far above.
How simple it looked, how obvious, how coherent. Like he could touch that interplay of magnetism and particles, hold it in the palm of his hand and perhaps, with time and practice and will, master it.
Some part of Lewis removed the glove of his suit and stepped closer. Another part of him screamed to step back, to climb back up the rope, to let his hand suffer the ravages of frostbite before he ever let it touch that. But, he reached out and set his hand upon the smooth, perfect surface of the spire.
Lewis exhaled, laughed at his inexplicable fear, and pulled his hand back.
Then, in that simple motion, in the movement he had performed a thousand times, he understood—he beheld.
He stared at his hand, and the shadow of it. He could see the particles that made up the limb, and the gaps between them, the forces that kept the structure bound together. And so far above him, around him, he was aware of the stars and the gaps between them. The difference there, he understood, was only one of scale.
What was he, but a composition of atoms? A systemic arrangement of organic material, somehow gifted with a spark of bio-electricity—a little trick that tricked the structure into calling itself I. He could hear the song of the stars, feel the fury of their fusion hearts. He beheld. He beheld.
Lewis stepped back, muscles seizing, something hot and wet draining from his nose, his eyes, his ears. He coughed blood against the inside of his visor, crashed to his knees. Something had clamped his temples in a vice, ripped away his ability to scream.
Stupid, he thought. Stupid. He had to call for help. Had to warn the others. But he did not know who the others were, and he could not remember his own name.
He reached up to his helmet, remembering the only thing he could—a simple pattern, a language imprinted upon it. An aspect of him found the call button on his helmet, pressed the pattern: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot.
Dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot.
His breath slowed.