“Old-school creepy. . . a five-star horror novel.” STEPHEN KING
A mind-bending speculative thriller in which the sudden appearance of a mountain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean leads a group of scientists to a series of jaw-dropping revelations that challenge the notion of what it means to be human.
IF YOU EVER READ THIS
DON’T COME HERE.
When a mountain mysteriously appears in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a group of scientists are sent to investigate – and discover what is at the summit.
Eminent scientist, explorer and chronic loner Harry Tunmore is among those asked to join the secret mission – and he has his own reasons for joining the team beyond scientific curiosity…
But the higher the team ascend, the stranger things become. Time and space behave differently on the mountain, turning minutes into hours, and hours into days. Amid the whipping cold and steep dangers of higher elevation, the climbers’ limbs numb and memories of their lives before the mountain begin to fade.
What will they discover about themselves and their world as they rise? What, or who, will they discover at the top?
Framed by the discovery of Harry Tunmore’s unsent letters to his family and the chilling and provocative story they tell, Ascension considers the limitations of science and faith and examines both the beautiful and the unsettling sides of human nature.
Release date: April 25, 2023
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Print pages: 352
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My dearest Harriet,
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
Do you remember those words, Hattie? I don't believe Ben would have exposed you to them. He never did take to faith. But when Grandpa used to take us to church when we were kids, every Sunday he'd point out the little box in the corner. "That's where you go to confess," he said. "That's where you find salvation."
Talking to the priest was never easy. Salvation is not an easy thing for children to understand. I don't believe that we're born sinners, any of us. We've yet to discover what "sin" really is. I remember sitting in the dark of that little room, searching my heart for some kind of transgression.
"I was mean to my sister at school," I would say. "I stole some money from my mum's purse."
None of this ever happened, of course—I never really strayed far from the rules—but I knew enough to know my lines. And though I couldn't see his face to check if I was doing it right, he'd give me my Our Fathers and my Hail Marys and send me on my way. And Dad would smile. I think, perhaps, that was all I was really after. That little approving smile that would appear on his face.
As we grew older, it got more difficult. Puberty made me awkward, self-reflective to the point of nausea. The little white lies didn't come as easily anymore. Real sins bubbled somewhere underneath the surface, nebulous and incomprehensible, and I didn't quite know what to do with them.
Ben stopped going, but I never did.
One day I sat in that cubicle and said nothing. My place in the world had started to weigh on me and I didn't know how to hold it. I had no words to break the holy silence of that little room, until Father Michaels—did you ever meet him, with the red hair?—he said to me,
"You know, son, I can't make you speak. You've come here every week since you were a boy and I don't think I've ever heard you say a single thing that's true."
"I . . ." My mind blanked. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. Everyone has their own relationship with God. The confessional is here to help you, as am I, but I'm just a translator."
"A translator for God?"
He chuckled. "No, my dear boy. None of us are capable of that. A translator for you. Sometimes a man needs help giving his thoughts life, giving his words meaning, so that he can confide that meaning with God. I think, perhaps, your problem is the opposite."
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
"If you'll let me give a little advice, I recommend you keep a journal," he said. "Set down your thoughts. Not to me. Not to anyone else but yourself. Just the simple events of your day, in plain form."
"Sometimes what the soul needs isn't to give meaning to hollow words: prayers and confessions that you do not really believe. Instead, we need to let it give words to the unspoken meanings inside of us. To do that, you have to give it a voice. It's not an easy thing, son. Not at first. It's not an obvious task, but . . . write everything down. Don't cross anything out. Don't lie or explain or prevaricate. You have no one to hide anything from but yourself."
I did as I was instructed. I don't think I've ever told you this. It's never seemed appropriate—for all our trips together, my faith has always been a very personal thing, just as your father's pragmatic atheism has always been for him. My journal, for many years, became a form of communication—of speaking to an other. It was Father Michaels who taught me this need not be done on my knees, or in a church.
Pages upon pages of ink spilled out of me then like blood from a thousand cuts. The need to confess has never left me: the curative, cathartic power that comes from sharing oneself with the world and with others. I obsessed over it. But the truth is that in time, it became too much. When everything happened with Santi, and the hospital, I had to step away, wean myself off it, rehabilitate. To look too closely would have driven me mad.
And yet, for the first time in a very long time, events are happening that I do not understand. I feel that I must communicate them with someone, if only to make sense of them myself. That is, after all, my stated purpose, isn't it, Hattie? Making sense of things.
But I find I cannot return to my journal now, not in the way I once did. The words are false. They ring with a cold emptiness.
I write this letter in the hope that you might be my translator, of a sort. I'm sorry to place this burden on you, but you're the only one I have left. You must be what-fourteen now? It was your fourteenth birthday when I took you to paddleboarding, wasn't it? You're old enough, then, perhaps, that you understand what it means to confess. Though in truth, part of me hopes that Ben will hide this away, or burn it. In fact, I expect that it will probably be burned. But there is no one else that I can think of, no one else that I haven't already pushed away.
I no longer believe God is listening.
I watched an old friend die today. I wanted to get that out of the way early, so it didn't come as a shock. I have no wish to scare you, but I am sitting here, staring at camera feeds and desperately clawing at an explanation. I'm not sure I'm allowed to write this; I have no idea how I'll even get it to you. I just needed to share with somebody, with anybody.
* * *
Yesterday, I arrived in New Mexico for work. My own work—not a commission but rather a personal investigation, spurred on by bizarre and contradictory reports of bird migrations coming out of the region. It was as though, all of a sudden, all the swallows that would normally have migrated south for winter were coming back early.
Like they were running from something.
It might seem a strange lead to chase, but you know I like to travel. Living alone in my dusty London flat becomes tiresome and exhausting, as though I can feel my very brain atrophying. And I'd made enough from the Hubble launch in Florida last year-that space telescope I told you about—that I could afford to follow my own interests for a while.
I checked into the Historic Taos Inn, a quaint location set across several adobe houses, thankful that I was here in January. I'd been to New Mexico once before in the summer—you remember that awful physics conference?—and I was sweating the moment I stepped off the plane. Winter is appreciably cooler, and for all the desolate and desert landscape, the cold winds remind me a little of London.
As I was led up to my room, I was smiling at the pride the proprietors took in their inn's history. Old pictures and placards littered the walls, consistent blaring reminders that this place was over a hundred years old.
"This main building dates back to the 1800s," the porter told me, chest out. "There's a lot of history here."
He left me just outside my room, key in hand and heavy luggage at the door, and bade me good evening. I stood, still smiling at him, and he at me, for some time. What a fool I must have looked, beaming at him. It took me a good ten seconds to remember that I was supposed to tip in this country. I fumbled in my pockets haphazardly, muttering a poor mixture of apology and an excuse about different cultures. I managed to pull out a crisp ten-dollar note and he disappeared promptly and efficiently.
Sighing, for I was finally to be offered some solitude, I turned the key to my room.
It was not empty.
Two men waited for me. The first was right in front of me: an imposing, straight-backed man with military bearing, tall and wide, his shoulders barely squeezed into the fabric of his suit jacket. He stood, towering over me, the grizzle on his dark face hinting at scars tucked beneath. His leathery brown skin spoke of a life worn by a few too many exotic experiences.
It took me a second to notice the second man behind him. He was sitting at the desk—a pale white man, his face gray and hair fading like an old photograph. The shadow of the curtains fell on his brown polyester suit and almost completely blended him into the dark wooden chair. In front of him, there was a closed briefcase.
"Mr. Tunmore," the first said. "We've been waiting for you."
"Well, I can see that," I replied, squeezing past him and into the room. "Otherwise, this would be an astonishing coincidence."
"Ha!" He let out a deep grunt of a laugh. "People are usually a bit more taken aback. Do you know what happened last time we waited in someone's hotel room? The man fainted—actually damn fainted—I swear, like something out of a movie."
I shuffled forward and took an awkward seat on the bed. "I suppose nowadays I'm always half expecting some sort of corporate or military representative to show up unexpectedly. What can I do for you gentlemen?"
"Oh." His face lit up as if he'd just realized something. "Please, let me get your bags. You relax, maybe have a cup of tea? That's what you English do, isn't it?"
I frowned, trying to reconcile the bullish image of this man with his jovial nature. "I hate to be one to reinforce stereotypes, but yes. I could murder a cup."
The big man laughed, flicked the electric kettle on. As he went to grab my suitcase, I couldn't help but notice there was already water in the kettle. They had been here awhile.
I turned to the man in the chair. "You have me at a disadvantage. You seem to know my name."
The man smiled back at me, wordless.
"Names aren't important right now," the first man called back, lifting my bag like it was filled with feathers. "Just call me the Warden. Everyone calls me the Warden."
"Very well. I suppose I should ask why you're here?"
The Warden ripped open a tea bag and dropped it in a cup, pouring water over it.
The man at the desk reached forward to open his briefcase, and I noted his long, spindly fingers, like the legs of a spider. They deftly clacked at the combination. He pulled out a few pieces of paper, which he tapped on the desk to keep in line before placing them in front of him.
"We've come to find you," the Warden said, looming over me as he handed me my tea. "Because apparently you've got a nose for this sort of thing."
"What sort of thing?"
The Warden frowned, as if a little confused, and looked at his colleague. The man at the desk just smiled.
"You're a physicist, right?" he said. "So . . . physics."
I laughed, and leaned back a little into the bed. There's something about an American using sarcasm that always puts me a little more at ease.
"Physics is a pretty broad umbrella. It encompasses most of the known universe. Could you be more specific?"
"I'd like to tell you, but the problem is . . ." the Warden said, then paused, frowning. "Well, it's difficult."
"Ah," I said. "Top secret, is it?"
"You know the funny thing about that phrase, 'top secret'? It isn't actually the top." The Warden stepped forward, his figure blocking out the light. "It's a common myth. Top secret is just a term people use to convince people with top secret access that they have the highest clearance-to keep them from asking questions about what else might be going on."
I didn't reply.
"You see, there's all sorts of higher clearances than 'top secret.' There's T Access and there's Q Access. Hell, there's accesses that I probably don't even know exist. And trust me—I know a lot. But if we really wanted to tell you anything, anything at all, you know what I'd have to do?"
I shook my head, taking a sip of my tea. "Perhaps you'd have to kill me?"
"I'd have to leave the room," he said, pointing at the door, "and call my superior to ask if you had the specific access required, which you don't. You wouldn't be allowed to be with me, obviously, as then you'd hear the name of the access, and even that would be too much. And if they confirmed that you did—which they won't—I'd have to come back in here and make you leave the room and call your superior, to triple-check that I had the clearance required to even be having this conversation."
He smiled. "I can't tell you that. You don't have the clearance."
I took another sip of tea. "Then why, if you can't tell me anything, are we here?"
"There's a man," he said, glancing at his colleague. "Well, there's a . . ." He pressed his eyebrows together. "Let's call it a . . . phenomenon. The organization I represent would like you to take a look. I am, of course, not at liberty to tell you what it is."
"I'm sort of engaged on a job already. Can you at least tell me where it is?"
The Warden shook his head, splaying his hands out as if to apologize.
I sighed. "So, you've got a phenomenon that you can't talk about, in a place you can't tell me, working for people I'm not even allowed to know the names of. It's late and I'm tired-what on earth makes you think that I'll say yes?"
He grinned. "A more interesting little bird than you're currently chasing told me you wouldn't be able to resist."
I frowned, thinking about the investigation that had brought me here. Did he know about that? I hadn't told anyone what I'd been looking into.
"I mean—" The Warden shrugged. "I could tell you how well you'd be paid, but they said that wouldn't matter. The more obscure the mystery, the more intrigued he'll be, they said."
I sighed again.
The truth is I was tired. I was hungry. All I wanted was to tell these men to leave, that I wasn't interested, and that they could find someone else.
But damn it, Hattie, the man was right. I don’t know who he’d been talking to, but this—all the secrecy, the strangeness of their visit, the hint at larger answers? I felt a familiar shiver of excitement run down my spine.
This was a mystery.
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