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Absolute Zero - cont.

by Steerpike`s sister 

Posted: 06 February 2007
Word Count: 2716
Summary: Next bit! Prologue has been more or less scrapped.

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I tried to forget about my mother and the stupid Kay. I went back to doing the things I usually do when my mother isn’t at home. In our library there are no books, but there are thousands of mirrors, some no bigger than a sequin, some too big and heavy to hold. What I like most of all, next to being with my mother, is looking into these. They are not ordinary mirrors, they are made of ice, or something frozen anyway, and they are all pieces of a huge, magical mirror that was broken when some demons tried to carry it up to heaven and dropped it. At least, that is what my mother says. I think this is true, because when I look at them I see black spots dancing in the corner of my eyes, which my mother says is the trapped reflection of the demons who were carrying the mirror.
The things you see in them are beautiful and odd, and even if they do not make much sense, I like looking at them.
I mean, it is not as if there is nothing to do in the ice palace. I should have been able to forget completely about my mother and Kay, and how she liked Kay better than me. There are thousands of rooms that I haven’t explored yet, there are complicated games made of jewels, there are wardrobes the size of houses full of clothes fit for queens, there are labyrinths to ice-skate in, there are tunnels of raging wind that make you feel as if you’re really flying, there are caverns of ice-crystal flowers where you can play at echoes for hours and hours. And then there are all the human things my mother has stolen and then got bored of, or that have broken. Usually I enjoy these the most, because they are so strange. There is a whole room full of broken cars, for example, and one full of radios, and another full of money. I like trying to make these human things work again, or finding out how to do them. Like knitting. I like knitting a lot, because I worked out how to do it for myself. It is also very calming, and you can stop when you want to and start again when you want to. It is such a funny thing to do. Only a human would think of it.
But every time I tried to settle down to a mirror, or to knitting, or to ice-skating, I would hear distant shouts and laughter. And there would be my mother, making funny plays with actors of snow, and Kay’s silly little red and blue human face gaping at it in delight, or there would be the jangle of sleigh bells, and they would speed past outside together in the sleigh, my mother laughing like the wind, and Kay giggling through chattering teeth, the stupid little thing not even knowing he was cold because he was spell-bound, or they would swoop past me, on skates of silver, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t catch up with them, because my mother skates faster than anyone, and she had Kay’s hand in her own, and she was dragging him behind her the way a comet drags dust. I kicked and kicked my legs to try and catch up, but they were gone, and all there was left was the dark moist green ice-caverns, and the echoing of their laughter, having so much fun without me.
I tried to distract her. I was worried about the ghosts. They were really piling up, and she hadn’t made any monsters yet.
“Shouldn’t I help you make some monsters?” I asked her. “It’s nearly daylight, and the ghosts are getting really thick.” I hoped she would say yes. She lets me hold the ingredients, sometimes.
“Oh, Kay can help me with that,” she said cheerfully.
“Kay? He can’t help! He’s just a human baby! He’d be scared!”
“Oh, shut up, Nina,” she snapped – and that was all I heard from her.
So it was hard to enjoy myself any more. I took off my skates and went back upstairs to the wide, marble-white corridors, and the big arched windows that look out over the ice plains. I stared outside as my mother gestured and raised cities from snow, and warriors of ice and wind scaled the battlements. Armies clashed, Kay at the head of one, and my mother at the head of the other. Whirling snow formed ghostly soldiers. Missiles screamed by like gusts of wind, bursting harmlessly in snowflakes.
Sometimes, when she is bored, my mother says she would like someone to try to over-throw her, so she could have a real war. But I do not think she would really like it, and besides, who is there to fight her?
Standing there, watching her and Kay, I found myself wishing that someone would fight her. Just so she could see, what it was like, to not get what you want all the time.
“Hello?” said a voice. “Hello? Is there anyone there?”
I turned to see a very neat and respectable-looking see-through lady, with a funny turban and a purple crystal in her hand, standing next to me. She was staring at the snow and frowning as if she didn’t know what it was.
“Yes,” I said. “What?”
I knew she couldn’t hear me, though. She just kept staring out at the snow cities, and rubbing her crystal with her thumb.
“Is there anybody there?” she asked. “Knock once if you can hear me.”
“Knock on what?” I said. “Your head?” I would have, and hard, if she could have felt me.
I realised there were another two ghosts at the other end of the corridor, gliding slowly towards us. I sighed. So many meant that the long night was really coming to its end.
“What are these strange white pillars before me? Am I in Atlantis?” asked the woman, staring out at the whirling mists of snow. “Knock once for yes.”
I said to her “It’s only snow.”
“Is there someone you would like to talk to?” asked the woman.
I leaned closer to her, suddenly angry.
“I’m not dead!” I shouted.
“I sense hostility,” said the woman. “Did you depart this plane of existence unexpectedly? Were you murdered?”
I stormed off to get a broom. It is usually men, old men, who are the ghosts, old smelly men – at least, if they were really there, not just their spirits, they would probably smell. They are just shamen, and they are not so bad, because at least they don’t talk much. But these women really annoy me. They wander through the palace saying things like “Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?.” Even if you stand right in front of them and shout, they don’t hear you. If you let them alone they start building webs in corners, and getting harder and harder to walk through, so they have to be got rid of, by the monsters.
My mother would have boiled some up already, if it were not for the kay.
I came back with the broom and started sweeping the ghosts up. They squeaked and gibbered, but they are not really there, so there was nothing they could do.
My mother will be happy that I’ve started on the spring-cleaning, I thought. When she finally gets tired of Kay. She’ll notice what I’ve done and be pleased with me.
Finally I got them all to the window, and I swept them out. They faded into the snow, back to whatever world they came from.
I was staring down, thinking how lovely it would be to be able to float like that, when I heard a shriek like a blur of sudden snow-storm, and looking up, startled, I saw my mother flying by in her crow-feather cloak, and, following her, laughing wildly, was Kay.
She had made him a cloak of white goose-feathers, all bound up with spells so it glittered as if it was sewn together with silver thread. He was dipping and diving after her, stream-lined as wind, fast as a storm, reaching almost as high as she did into the clouds.
I heard a snap like ice breaking, and looked down. The broom handle was splintered, and my knuckles were red and white from clutching it. The corners of my eyes were hot and I found it hard to get my breath. I did not want to be on my own, sweeping stupid ghosts out of stupid windows. I wanted to be with my mother, sleeping at her feet in the sleigh as she crossed miles of ocean and storm, swooping through the air at her heels as I should do, as I deserved to, as the eldest, her real daughter. She never made me a cloak of feathers, though I asked her.
It’s not her fault, I reminded myself quickly. She can’t think about more than one thing at once. Everyone knows that. It’s just Kay, who got in the way. Stupid little Kay. I really hope he breaks soon.
And that’s when I had the little idea. A tiny little idea, just the size of a seed.
Maybe I could help him break.


It is a very long time since Gerda has thought about magic. She bites her nail, as she thinks. She stares out of the window at the alley-way. She is sure the mist is shrinking. Could she really have seen the image of the car, trapped within it?
“Not possible,” she whispers to herself. “Don’t be silly, Gerda.”
Gerda used to be a straight A student, in Maths and Science at any rate. Lately, she’s stopped caring. School is useless. There’s nothing it can teach her about the important things. About how to make her father come home from work earlier. How to make Kay stop asking when Mum is going to come back from her long holiday. How to deal with changing school and city every time her father gets a new position as Professor of This or Reader in That. The idea is that one day he’ll find a job that lasts longer than a year, and they’ll settle down, and stay somewhere, but she knows by now that it’s not going to happen. So who cares if she goes to lessons or not anyway? She’s not going to be there next year, to screw up their exam statistics.
She used to think that if she was good at science, her father would be interested in her, would care about her, talk to her. Yeah, right. He never came to a single parents’ evening.
But all that study can’t be so quickly forgotten. She knows what is possible, and what is not. But she also knows that there are things on the boundaries. Uncertainties.
For example, she knows that if the temperature drops – is cooled – to absolute zero, as cold as it can get, then a different, extraordinary sort of matter forms. Sometimes. Occasionally. For a very brief period of time. It looks like a cloud, a mist or a smear and it slows down any light that passes through it. It is called a Bose-Einstein condensate.
But making one of those requires thousands of pounds worth of equipment, and brains like her father’s to tease it into split seconds of hesitant existence, before it collapses. It could not simply pop into being at the end of a blind alley in Copenhagen. And if it did, you could not drive a car through it, to somewhere else.
“It’s completely impossible,” she says furiously.
But she hasn’t got changed yet. She still has the torch. It has been two hours now since the car left, and she knows that with every minute that passes, it gets less and less likely that Kay will be found alive. The fear is colder than the temperature, it sits inside her like a solid thing.
She never imagined that she loved her brother much. Love is a soppy, advertisement thing, a soap bubbles and roses thing. Gerda and Kay fight all the time, over stuff like TV channels and who owns the toy rabbit, Einstein, and why the window got broken. But this cold, solid fear – that he might be hurt, might never come back – is real.
It’s alright for me, I can take care of myself, she thinks. But Kay… She’s suddenly furious, her breath coming fast and her face hot. She thinks of this evening, when Else came in looking embarrassed, and said “Your father called to say he’s been held up at the lab again.” And how neither Kay nor her had looked at each other. Kay just sucked his rice pudding off the spoon very slowly, and she said “Whatever,” and finished her orange juice. And it was just the two of them in the room, even though Else was there too.
She thought she had given up being angry at her father, but if he had been here tonight, it wouldn’t have happened. If he had cared a little bit, none of this would have happened. Kay would be in bed right now, like he should be.
“I hope you hate yourself now!” she shouts, as if her father were in the room with her. He’s not. He’s never there. He’s never listening.
That is when she realises: she is going to have to find Kay herself. No one else’s best is going to be good enough. Nobody else cares.
The policemen are back in the house; she hears voices, radios, boot. The roof slopes almost to the ground. The first thing she had thought when she walked into this room, bare and smelling of air-freshener, was I could run right down that roof to the ground. She never has, she knows she’d get in trouble. Her father would shout.
She climbs over the sill, skids down the slope, jumps onto the snowy ground. Then she walks back into the alleyway.
The cloud has shrunk. It is only the size of a window now. The black speck is gone. She points the torch at the wall, turns it on. The wall is flooded with light. She turns it off, and the light disappears as if it never was. She points the torch at the cloud and turns it on. The light hits the cloud and slides into it. Beyond the beam, the wall remains dark. The light is having to fight its way through the cloud.
“Amazing,” she whispers.
She stares at the cloud. What does she expect to find beyond it? She doesn’t know. But the memory of the car is strange, unearthly. She knows there was something different about it, something that detectives won’t be able to trace. And the shape at the window – Kay’s frightened face?
She thinks how ludicrous and terrifying the universe is, and how, given enough time, anything can happen, even things that can’t happen. In her mind’s ear, she hears her father’s voice: Everything interesting happens on the boundaries. The boundaries of what is possible and what is not.
She lifts the torch slowly towards the cloud, wincing as her hand approaches it. If it is cold enough to slow light, then the cloud should be at what is called absolute zero: zero on the Kelvin scale, 273 degrees below the point at which water freezes. That is the coldest it can possibly get, a temperature so low that it is just an idea. Her hand should shatter when it touches the cloud. Part of her cannot believe she is reaching towards it.
But it doesn’t shatter.
The cold grips her like a handshake, and she whips her hand back, shaking with fear as well as cold. But it hasn’t killed her. She can still see her breath in the air. A fine snow has begun to fall, brushing her skin like feathers. It is funny, she can tell that it is so cold that it ought to snap her bones, but somehow it doesn’t – as if this very cold was just an idea.
Quickly, before she can change her mind, she steps into the cloud.

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Comments by other Members

Sally_Nicholls at 15:22 on 13 February 2007  Report this post
You are so inventive! I really love the descriptions of Nina's mother's palace and the idea of her getting all excited by knitting. i think kids will like this too. I also like the sciency bit with the Bose-Einstein condensate. is this real? It's very cool if it is.

I would be wary of confusing your readers (i know this is teenage, but teenage books aren't actually aimed at anyone over about 14 (assumption being that by the time you're 15ish you're probably reading adult books - i know i was)). I wanted a bit more explanation of the ghosts - why do they end up there? why do monsters scare them away? how does the medium women experience the monster? this is still quite early in the book and there's a lot of information to take in, so having something (very cool) that isn't explained lost me a bit.

having said that, im now going to totally contradict myself and say that i think one of your biggest problems is that you don't trust your readers enough. there is a lot of unnecessary 'telling' in both the gerda and nina bits, particularly when it comes to emotions. Nina's jealousy is reiterated over and over and by the time we get towards the end of the piece the reiterations stop adding anything. this bit is less wordy than earlier bits, but i think there's still more that could be cut - sorry! similarly, i wanted to be 'shown' gerda's dissatisfaction with her father - perhaps she could argue with him?

this is a wonderful idea for a story and a wonderful world, but i still think it needs to be much more streamlined.

Steerpike`s sister at 17:19 on 13 February 2007  Report this post
Thanks Sally! I will work on streamlining. The idea was to have a first draft finished by the end of the month, but have a bit of a major personal crisis going on at the mo. which is slowing things down a bit.

SarahT at 18:04 on 13 February 2007  Report this post
Hi Leila,

I really enjoyed this. I don't think it read too wordily but I'm sure it won't hurt it to trim it.

I had to re-read the Gerda bit but I think that was because it has been a while since I read the last chapter and I had forgotten what had happened. I could not see anything hugely wrong with it although there is something almost calm about the way that Gerda presents herself, even though she is sitting around worrying about Kay and realising that she really cares for herself. I am not sure why this is but I wonder if it is, again, down to a bit more tell than is necessary.

I wonder if you could get rid of the following, without interfering with the substance in any way:

School is useless. There’s nothing it can teach her about the important things. About how to make her father come home from work earlier. How to make Kay stop asking when Mum is going to come back from her long holiday. How to deal with changing school and city every time her father gets a new position as Professor of This or Reader in That. The idea is that one day he’ll find a job that lasts longer than a year, and they’ll settle down, and stay somewhere, but she knows by now that it’s not going to happen. So who cares if she goes to lessons or not anyway? She’s not going to be there next year, to screw up their exam statistics.
She used to think that if she was good at science, her father would be interested in her, would care about her, talk to her. Yeah, right. He never came to a single parents’ evening.
But all that study can’t be so quickly forgotten.

It interferes with Gerda's worrying. Also, when she decides that she is going to have to find Kay herself, these might work better as direct thoughts.


Steerpike`s sister at 18:20 on 13 February 2007  Report this post
Hi Sarah, and thanks. I guess too much tell seems tp be the problem here - I'll try and iron it out on re-edits.
One thing:
realising that she really cares for herself.

I don't understand, did you miss a word out? Cares for Kay herself, maybe?

Steerpike`s sister at 10:06 on 14 February 2007  Report this post
Hello again,
Was having a think about your good comments - I think the feeling that there's too much tell may come from the narrative POV I;ve used, at least in Gerda's section - it is as if someone else is telling the story, result of the 3rd person present tense maybe? On the re-write I'll try a different mode.
I wondered about characterisation. How is it? That was something readers criticised in my previous book (The Follower, in YA), and I wanted the characters to be more defined here.
I do see what you mean, Sally, about wanting to see the relationship with her father, but I don't think an argument would work because he is not a confronatational person, rather a distant and absent person - one who freezes his children out. As the main thing about him is his absence, it's kind of hard to place them in direct conflict. But there must be a way of showing not telling - perhaps simply, as you say, cutting a lot of the repetition and just reducing to the most powerful phrases/ images/ moments.
just musing aloud, really! :)


oh and yes, the bose-einstein thing is true, though it's basically not as simplistic as I've made it - I mean, you couldn't really travel through time in one. but this is fiction! :)

Sally_Nicholls at 10:14 on 14 February 2007  Report this post
I thought characterisation was fine. i got a really good sense of both nina and gerda as seperate people.

Maybe we could see him not dealing with kay's absense? or gerda being like, 'dad, we have to do something' and him just locking himself in his study?

SarahT at 11:13 on 14 February 2007  Report this post
Hi Leila,

Yes, your interpretation of my typo was correct! Doh!

I'm not sure that you need to rebalance too much of the show and tell but I think that changing the voice might make the story more direct.


Steerpike`s sister at 15:13 on 14 February 2007  Report this post
Maybe we could see him not dealing with kay's absense? or gerda being like, 'dad, we have to do something' and him just locking himself in his study?

Actually, later on in the book there's a section from his POV.and we do see something very like this, which is integral to the plot. Perhaps I should simply understate Gerda's relationship with him for the moment... hmm. will think on!
Sarah, I think I agree with you about voice - I'll try it in the rewrites.

Issy at 16:51 on 17 February 2007  Report this post
I did find this a little less strong than the previous posting, but would think that a hard edit would make it stronger and to the point. I also agree that a differential in the voice would between the two girls would be very effective and bring out the different chracteristics of each.

I very much enjoyed the descriptions of the rooms in the ice place, and then the introduction of the science - delighted to read it is not all pseudo.

Not absolutely certain if I am reading in the right sequence - I seem to recall something about books in the previous but perhaps I have got it wrong.

I did hesitate a bit over the sweeping up of the ghosts. Could be a very funny scene, but I wondered how if they are not aware of her, and she walks through them, how she could sweep them up, unless there was something special about the broom.
Maybe this just needs to be clearer.

Totally agree this is a highly imaginitive piece. Still loving it and looking forward to seeing where this is going.

Steerpike`s sister at 18:02 on 17 February 2007  Report this post
Thanks Issy, that is a good point about the ghosts! They are sort of fine dust, so if you sweep them along they lose definition and go into a heap, which can be ushered out of a window/ door. I'll make this clearer.

Issy at 18:41 on 17 February 2007  Report this post
Oh that's wonderful Leila! Had me chortling, although of course in the context of the story it would be serious. Wish I'd thought of it !


Ooooh! This has sparked off a possible solution to a stuck plotline in story no 7 of my C of H series - how the ghosts could be affected by the "real" world - not sweeping, but something very different which only their enemies (the Aggies) know about ....

Thank you Leila!

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