Fahrenheit 52

Susan, She Who Does Wonders

When a climber slips from the crags of a Himalayan mountain, they do so quietly. Blink, and you'd miss it: the silent puff of a well-insulated body swallowed by the forever snow. There's no cartoon dust cloud, no coyote hovering above the cliff-top.

But when a person falls


through the ice floor of a half-frozen river, there's usually a thunderclap: a snap, a crackle, a splash. Basically, there's a somewhat better chance that someone notices the calamity.

Susan Oakes didn't speak for two whole days after Chhaya Mehta plucked her from the tumbled waters of the Vine River. As for the rest of the seaside town of Little Bighill, Susan's splash had the opposite effect. The Fishmonger's Lodge reluctantly postponed the long-awaited ice-boat race, which would have marked their first regatta in eight years of unseasonably warm winters. Perennial grumblers grumbled that anyone with eyes or half a brain could have, should have, known the ice wasn't yet suitable for ice-skating. In response to growing outcry in the editorial section of THE LITTLE BIGHILL LEDGER, the town fire house attempted to tap wooden NO SKATING signs along the waterfront, but no post-hole digger could make the frozen red clay yield. What everyone failed to notice was that Susan wasn't wearing ice-skates when she broke through.

When Susan's parents Annie and Jonathan graciously received their daughter, who somehow still appeared defiant and unblinking despite her bedraggled, hypothermic condition, from their neighbor and dear friend Chhaya, they swaddled the red-headed girl in layers of handmade quilts and scratchy down blankets until Susan felt as a caterpillar wrapped in a coccoon.

Susan spent the next days home from school, metamorphosizing. She hardly left her perch on the windowseat bookshelf in her bedroom, a


circular room beneath the rooftop turret of the Oakes house at summit of the town's namesake hilltop. From this vantage, Susan could see much of the riverside, all the way to where it lazily merged into the ocean. This wasn't her favorite view, however.

After the second day of nonstop bundling, ginger-lemon tea, and chicken-and-rice soup, Susan spoke.

"Mom, can I go play outside?"

Her request was granted (so long as she brought along a thermos of warm hot chocolate).

A light dusting of powder snow had coated the backyard overnight and Susan delighted in each crunch of the frozen grass blades under her snow boots. She made straight for the old oak tree and climbed


about twenty feet or so until settling into a pretzel-ed snaggle of limbs. From here, Susan could see everything. But there was only one place that held her gaze.

When Susan returned to school the next day, her Lazarean revival caused a stir among her classmates, but attention fizzled when "weirdo" Susan plumly refused to talk about it.

That afternoon, Susan tried to cross the river again.

This time, Firefighter Zane got to her first (Fire Chief Castillo had decided to keep someone stationed at the marina after their signs debacle). When Zane returned the girl to the Oakes household, Annie gripped her eleven-year old daughter by the shoulders and asked the question that everyone'd forgotten to the first time around: why?

"Cause Daddy needs help at work."

Jonathan Oakes was stationed at Fort Crawley, a military communications post in the woodlands across the river. Susan was old enough to know that something was bothering her dad about his work. She saw it in his face every night at dinner. For weeks now, Susan had watched the fort's massive radar dish blink its red signal light, wondering what message it was sending out. Or listening for.

Susan naturally thought she could solve whatever problem was troubling her father. She was not a particularly good student, but, at the same time, she also knew that the "teaching to the mean" school system wasn't particularly good at teaching her. Any given school day was an oscillation between I am a failure and I am being set up for failure. Instead, Susan held the unswerving belief that she was born for greatness. Much the same way some people know they're cursed. Susan knew that had it in her to help fix her father's problems.

When Jonathan learned about Susan's reason for crossing the frozen river, he grew as silent as Susan had been. He knew Susan's grades were bad and getting worse, and this odd extracurricular quest wouldn't help. For two following weeks, Jonathan stayed even later than usual at the fort. If you didn't know him well, you might have suspected he was trying hide from this particular parenting problem. But, then, one February evening, Jonathan returned home with a


and he gave it to Susan.

Jonathan explained that it was something to help with her schoolwork.

The small machine perhaps best resembled a toppled-over cereal box with four tank-tread wheels. Susan first thought it was a remote-control car, but then discovered that it could move on its own -- and it could talk!

It was a tiny robot, of course.

Jonathan said that the fort's robotics collaboration with ITEROBOTICS was on the brink of failure and they were thinking about shutting everything down. But he thought Susan might be able to help. Jonathan asked Susan if she would become the robot's tutor, and teach the robot whatever she knew using the computer Jonathan installed in her bedroom.

From that moment, Susan and her robot became inseparable. And Susan became exceptional.

After breezing through middle school and high school, Susan graduated early from ONJIT (that's the Old New Jersey Institute of Technology, for the uninformed) at the


of her class, then dove headfirst into a dual electrical engineering and expermimental physics PhD programs. What came next for Susan most of you already know. The infamous origin story of Susan Oakes Gray, Orren Gray, and Alexandre Storm's ROCKET SUMMER company has been told a thousand times.

And yet - somewhere along the ascent of her company and career, Susan forgot about her robot, relegating her mechanical companion to a forgotten bookshelf somewhere. It wasn't long before Susan's feelings of inadequacy reemerged. No matter which heights she and ROCKET SUMMER achieved, they were never enough. Susan remained convinced she had yet to reach her true potential, discover her great discovery. Susan's quest had an obvious negative impact on her marriage (even if her husband was one of her co-founders), as well as her relationships with her young daughter and her now-estranged father. Orren called it her Beast.

But Susan finally felt close to something again.

For the dozenth time that morning, she recalibrated the particle accelerator's sensor array. It was ready. Ten meters underground, at the


sub-floor of her company's headquarters, Susan nodded at her colleagues behind the triple-glassed walls of her laboratory.

Susan triggered the LoopWave.

The thrumming began in her teeth and spread like icewater through her bones. Susan's unexpected exhale briefly fogged her helmet visor. The particle waveform materialized and shimmered in electric blue, as they had expected. The loop appeared to be stable.

There is some debate about what happened next. Many commenters on the leaked footage (known as THE VIDEO) claim to see something in the waveform stretch towards Susan, like a small finger or tendril. What is undisputed is that Susan Gray reached out her gloved hand to touch the LoopWave.

"Dr. Gray, don't!"

Oblong shapes moved above her, shadowy floes warped in their translucence, frantic voiced muffled into whalesong.

Susan was under the ice again.