Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Michael Cuillen's new book The Null Prophecy.
SATURDAY, APRIL 22 (7:00 A.M. EASTERN DAYLIGHT TIME)
CANADIAN FORCES STATION ALERT; NUNAVUT, CANADA
Dallan O’Malley leaned into the squall, his face turned away from the howling, freezing madness. Small, hard snowflakes pelted the hood of his down parka—the pattering sound redolent of rainy days in the attic of his childhood home, where he often hid from his alcoholic father.
He squared himself and, squinting hard, searched the shrouded landscape. His escort, base commander Major John Brody, was no longer in sight. A shiver of fear halted him; a few heartbeats later he burst out laughing.
Flinging out his arms, he shouted, “This is freedom, baby!”
He lifted his head and sucked in the bracing air, snowflakes and all, then pushed ahead blindly. A dozen or so halting steps later he bumped into the big man, who spun around and shouted, “There you are! You okay?”
“Top of the world!” Dallan cried out. “Top of the world!”
Brody waved him on. “Stay close!”
Dallan wondered what it would be like to live and work year-round up here, the northernmost human outpost on Earth. They called CFS Alert “Santa’s Workshop.” But in truth it collected military and environmental intelligence for the Canadian government, sharing whatever wasn’t classified with clients worldwide, including Dallan’s own U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center.
No way, he decided. This place would wear thin really fast.
Not enough women.
He thought of Lorena and immediately felt ashamed. Truth was he still loved her.
Eventually, a gaudy, mustard-colored shack with a fire-engine red entryway materialized out of the paleness—like a specter dressed for Mardi Gras.
A large animal, white and furry, dashed across his path. Startled, he looked to Brody.
“Arctic wolf!” the major shouted. “People here have never hurt ’em so they come right up to you. They’re all over the station.”
Once inside the building, Brody quickly led him to the magnetograph. The instrument didn’t look like much—metal boxes connected by electrical cables to a computer monitor—but it was the reason he schlepped all the way up here on short notice from Boulder.
That, and to escape the mess with Lorena.
On Brody’s orders, a technician cleared off a nearby table and then laid out a long sheet of graph paper.
This is the pole strength for the past twenty-four hours,” the base commander said, smoothing the paper with his hand. “Here’s where it started wavering yesterday morning.” He tapped his forefinger on the spot. “And we don’t know why.”
Dallan’s mouth hung open. “Good god, it’s like a jumpy stock market!”
He bent down for a closer look. “You sure this is for real?”
“Oh, yeah. We’ve checked and rechecked the system for glitches a gazillion times. It’s as real as you and me.”
It was instantly clear to Dallan why he’d been called. An instability this bad anywhere in the earth’s magnetic field would be alarming. But up here at the pole, naturally a weak spot to begin with, it was extremely dangerous.
“What about the radiation levels?”
“So far, so good—no increases.”
The magnetosphere was the main barrier protecting Earth from the sun’s lethal radiation; it acted like sunscreen. Without it, the radiation would rain down on our heads like napalm, setting the atmosphere on fire and cooking everyone to death—literally.
He shot Major Brody an anxious look. “And the polynya?”
“I’ll show you as soon as the weather clears.”
SATURDAY, APRIL 22 (12:23 P.M. EASTERN DAYLIGHT TIME)
It took hours for the storm to play itself out, its legacy a thick layer of fresh snow and a heavy, pewter-colored sky.
The sun was a pale amber smudge just above the horizon. From now until fall it would circle round and round, low in the sky, bobbing up and down ever so slightly—the only clue for distinguishing morning, noon, and night.
A hulking, rattling, yellow Snowcat ferried Dallan, Brody, and a small military entourage out to the station’s frozen runway, where they boarded a CC-130J Hercules cargo plane. Dallan knew from experience Hercs were the workhorses thereabout, shuttling heavy equipment, food, fuel, supplies, solid waste, and personnel between Alert and Thule, Greenland.
When they arrived in Thule, he looked up and gawked at the curtains of scarlet light fluttering overhead. “Northern Lights in broad daylight. My god!”
The Northern Lights were commonly seen in the night skies all over the Arctic. Like all aurorae, they were caused by charged particles from the sun blasting the upper atmosphere and making it glow. Because the spectacle happened tens of miles up, it was usually dim and could only be seen at night. Northern Lights bright enough to be seen during the day meant the bombardment was either unusually strong or infiltrating unusually low—or both.
“Wait till you see what’s coming next,” the major said. He tugged gently on Dallan’s parka. “C’mon, let’s go.”
They hurried to a waiting skiplane, which flew them a short distance due west over Baffin Bay and set down on the snow. Before deplaning, Brody reminded the scouting party they’d be walking not on solid ground but on ice, springtime ice that was beginning to fracture.
“So everyone, please be careful, eh?”
Once under way, Dallan tried not to think too much about the pitch-black ocean lurking beneath his feet. His heavy, white rubber boots crushed the snow underfoot, making it cry out like rusty hinges.
The virgin-white terrain was mostly flat, but here and there were towering pile-ups of bluish-colored ice that looked to him like gigantic modern sculptures. Less than ten minutes into their hike, he came around one such icy heap and was arrested by the sight of a vast lagoon teeming with walruses, seals, polar bears, and scores of exotic-looking birds. Everyone stopped to stare at the unusual sight.
“Behold, the North Water Polynya!” Brody called out, sweeping a gloved hand in the direction of what he explained was the biggest warm-water oasis in the Arctic.
Dallan knew polynyas existed wherever there was frozen sea ice. But this polynya was huge, and it was the first time he’d actually seen one.
“Unreal!” he exclaimed.
“It’s kept open by warm water welling up from below,” the major said. “It attracts all kinds of whales: narwhals, belugas, bowheads, you name it. C’mon, keep walking, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
On the polynya’s southern shore they arrived at a campsite and met up with a small woman encased in black snow pants and a pink, furryhooded parka. Brody introduced her as Dr. Rebecca Anawak, a marine biologist from the Isabela Oceanographic Institute.
Dallan took her all in—the aspects he could see, anyway.
“Isabela,” he said, fist-bumping her gloved hand. “That’s in the Galapagos, isn’t it? You’re a long way from home.”
“Yes and no. I grew up in these parts. I’m Inuit.”
For the next few minutes Anawak filled him in on the bizarre animal behavior she and her assistants were observing since the previous morning. She finished by saying, “Come see for yourself—it’s awful.”
The biologist led them to an artificial blind at the water’s edge. She handed Dallan a pair of binoculars, directing his gaze to a female walrus hauling herself out of the water with her tusks.
“Wow, I’ve never seen that before—the way they do that with their tusks.”
“Keep watching,” Anawak said. “She’s being courted by the polynya’s alpha male. He’s over there.” She pointed to a massive, pear-shaped walrus lolling in the water nearby.
Abruptly, he clacked his teeth and pealed like a bell—a guy thing, the biologist explained, caused by sacs in the neck filled with air. He then charged out of the water. But instead of displaying affection, as Dallan expected, the bull began goring the female with his saber-like tusks.
“Good god!” he cried out. “What the hell is he doing?”
“It’s what we’ve been seeing,” the biologist said. “It’s insane.”
The besieged cow howled in agony, causing the polynya’s water fowl to leap into the air, their screeching and squawking a deafening cacophony. Dallan, still staring through binoculars, followed their frenzied flight. What he saw next made him drop the glasses.
No! It’s actually happening!
The tops of the scarlet clouds appeared to be hemorrhaging, their undersides a sickly shade of green.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” he bellowed. “The sky is catching fire!”
“Good god!” Brody’s voice bristled with alarm. “We have to go, everybody!”
Dallan remained transfixed.
“Now!” Brody ordered. “NOW!
Michael Guillen, a former Emmy-winning ABC News Science Editor, taught physics at Harvard and is now president of Spectacular Science Productions. His novel, The Null Prophecy, debuts July 10.