-I can take you there if you'd like and show you.-
After hours of perusing the newest models of defense-drones, Garza welcomed the break. A weapons convention was nothing more than a supermarket – it should’ve been sponsored by energy drinks and fast food places. One more cardboard cutout of one more device threatened to destroy more than the worse insurgents. She might lose the rest of her patience. She's cruised on nearly 15 hours, now. The best-on-the-market Sleep-Nos had produced the worst feeling in her head. Pretty soon she'd go just as ballistic as some of the models on display. But with more precision. Anyone who knew her understood that.
She'd met the man between the Raptor THX-5000 and the Centi-Impeder Mark II - just in case their kids ever wanted to know how they'd met. She always thought that far ahead. Would her kids ask why'd she come to the convention? If they did, she'd say work. She'd come by way of her assignment for Re/publica. She still had yet to learn his story.
That was not all that intrigued her. Maybe it'd been his eyelashes. They were long. His eyes, speckled, lightly hazel. And gray?
But it'd been his words that grabbed her attention. His display hadn't at first, until she thought about it. His wares did attract some looks. At a convention for private weapons contractors seeing a sign that read "U.S. Geological Service" was a rarity. Like a good rain in the Colorado River Basin - rarer even. Most of the scientific governmental agencies lived on borrowed time, or depending how you looked at things, borrowed Han funds.
She'd walked up just as he'd been in a middle of a conversation. Something about human migration flows. How to approach the problem from a hydrological perspective. Odd, but maybe not really. She welcomed any solution for the causes of the MZ. The two corporate-gray suits he'd spoken to seemed less interested by the minute. With a polite goodbye they excused themselves, just as she'd picked up his business card.
Harry S. Helstrom
U.S. Geological Service
-Can I help you with something?-
Yes, she'd thought, and introduced herself. Ana Marina Garza. It'd felt weird to say her full name. She usually went by Garza. A leftover from her college soccer-playing days.
He told her about his project with a firm he worked for, and their plan to interdict human traffic through diversions. She wondered at his choice of words. It sounded so much like the Diversionary Acts.
She forgot all about her assignment for Re/publica, as the floor of the convention cleared out, and he showed her maps with motion-graphics of arrows that represented migration patterns on the U.S.-Mexico border, tactics to box the "illegals" between the urban polities, and actually use the worse of the low-intensity "firestorms" to detain them. When she'd asked if this was what the U.S. Geological Survey hired him to do, he said no - he was also a consultant for a private firm. The John Quincy Adams Society. As a member of a well-connected think-tank in the District of Columbia, the name surprised her. She'd never heard of them before.
-Of course, there's all sorts of crossover between the human diversion and waterworks, hence why the JQA hired me. The border is riddled with tunnels that people have used for generations - centuries even! In fact, there's one such place that's close to here. The Indians in the region say it's older than them...older than the First People. They say it goes straight through the earth and has no bottom."
With that they packed up their stuff and left the nearly deserted convention with the few hanger-ons and hawkers of death-tools for the urban battlefield.
Garza just wanted to get laid.
Tucson's night sky shed off the light from the city, a second skin sloughed off, dying, red and raw from the thick clouds of smoke that made their way from the fiery south.
Garza drove by way of Dr. Helstrom's directions straight into the direction of the worst of the smoke, until they got off the highway and headed into the desert basin. He pointed out the landscape to her, saying the place was an ancient sea. Garza took her eyes off the straight line of the highway that disappeared over the horizon. A few points of mountains poked up in the Sonoran desert. It was almost hard to believe a political line ran through here. The land was indivisible.
Very soon the highway began to gradually turn, and just as Garza felt they spiraled to the bottom of the sandy sink, Dr. Helstrom pointed to a service road to their left.
-Just drive over the median and cross the other lanes. You can get on the road, anywhere.-
Garza didn't worry about the terrain. She drove a rented 4x4 Hindustan Thar-Trekker. Second thoughts only came to her when the car's headlights shined on a sign.
No Entry by Order of the Diversionary Act.
Dr. Helstrom reassured her with a smile and they barreled over sand until the wheels of the cars sounded upon asphalt. The service road's smooth surface ended quickly. Very soon the first of the potholes emerged and where they looked worse, Dr. Helstrom pointed out another road. There were a series of hills in the far distance and very soon, Garza bounced along a path that entered those hills. At first she guessed she'd entered a canyon. But when the car's headlights shined against the side of the walls, she realized the land had dried up and split in half. They drove now through a crack in the earth.
-Where are we?-
Dr. Helstrom had taken a flask out of his sports jacket and took a quick swig. He handed it to her. She took it blindly out of his hand, not daring to take her eyes off the road. She smelled the mezcal before she took it. The worm.
Dr. Helstrom spoke with his hands.
-You are in one of the last vestiges of the late, great Thalassa Sea, an ancient and primordial ocean of the early Earth, the very first place where....-
Garza felt the mezcal warm her insides and for a second she couldn't concentrate on his words. She tried to imagine this...Thalassa Sea and the first ocean of the Earth. But she wiped the distractions from her mind. Just in time. The headlights of the car came to a chain link fence and gate. A faded sign barely hung.
She stopped the car and Dr. Helstrom jumped out. Stumbled out, more like it. Garza watched him rummage through the pocket of his jacket and, after a very long minute, take out a jumble of keys on a ring. When he'd gone through every single key, he came back to the one he'd started with and opened the gate.
He also had a bag in his hand.
Beyond the dark gates the lights lit up a deserted work area. Garza rolled through the gate and saw earthmoving equipment with giant wheels and tall cranes neatly parked in rows. A few trailers served as construction offices, and Dr. Helstrom told her to keep driving. For the first time Garza wondered if they should be here - if she'd done the right thing. But he seemed indifferent, a silvery flask in his hand, gesturing to the lit-up spots on both sides of the road.
-94 million years...many of these rocks haven't seen the light of day since this place was underwater. Its not even the most impressive rocks weve seen! Subducted for all that time… That’s all much of the terrane out in the West really is. The buckled terrane of a tectonic plate, actually, sinking into the mantle. Hundreds of millions of years ago.-
Garza realized the side of a cliff wall now blocked out the sky. The car drove under it, to their right, a desolation of darkness that the carlights intermittently alighted. All she saw was narrow-gauge rails for some kind of cart. With that path, the road descended deeper into the crack. The cliff wall seemed to spreads its wings over them.
A perfectly symmetrical hole the size of a car yawned before them. Letters spelled out a word above the narrow tunnel.
Test Bore #6:
Garza's hidden Tejana past translated the word. Farallon. Pillar. She had to stop the car. Dr. Helstrom handed her the flask after taking a hungry one first. When she took the warm mezcal for herself, he took another one. Larger than the first.
-When the oceanic crust was subducted into the Earth's mantle, the sea in the area - what was left of the Thalassa Sea, anyways - was closed up. But some of it survived, barely, under the crust. Not much of it, but it was. Trapped underground for millions of years. Until now.-
They got out of the car. Garza with her survo-kit. Whenever she traveled near - or in - the MZ she carried a kit. She turned on the lamp. Dr. Helstrom had his own, which he used to guide himself to a shape.
A blue plastic tarp, covering something nearly the size of their car, but not as tall. He withdrew the tarp and she shined her lamp upon it. A rock. A giant slab of rock with the chalk outline of something. She got closer, examining the shapes. It looked long, like slender fingers, as wide as her body. They stretched the length of the rock slab. And inside each one, ovals the size of her head.
It looked the outline of tentacles of a squid or an octopus. The suckers...the size of her head. The pieces looked broken off in midsection. Incomplete sections. There must have been more of the incomplete sections. She did the math. Fifty feet long tentacles...
Dr. Helstrom laughed and covered the rock slab. As if not to wake it.
-Just some of the things we've found of the animals that swam in the Thalassa Sea. Just imprints in the mud, their bodies were much too squishy for fossilization. Nevertheless...our scientists call it 'the Kraken.'-
He pointed his lamp at the cliff wall above them. She didn't see anything until he pointed it out, and when she did, spirals of lines covered seemed to radiate out from black spots. It was a bizarre pictograph of striated lines. Something was written here that Garza could not read. He might have tried to help for all Garza knew, mumbling about underwater volcanoes. She couldn’t be sure.
She traced the narrow-gauge tracks into the tunnel with the beam of her light, and followed. Dr. Helstrom walked quickly into the tunnel and she quickened her pace. The path rapidly descended. She felt her shoes begin to slide in the dirt. At first she could see her breath in the air, but that changed with their descent, until she began to feel warm and wanted to take off her coat.
A sign was ahead.
That made little sense. They’d traveled so far, so quick. The tunnel’s nondescript surface finely ground dust and loose rocks pried from the walls never changed, and Garza guessed there was something here to see. She finally took off her jacket.
-What’s down here?-
Dr. Helstrom had not taken the flask out of his jacket in a long time. He’d seemed to have sobered up.
-What’s left of the Thalassa Sea.-
-How much farther do we have to travel?-
-About 2 miles.-
-We can’t walk two miles.-
-We won’t have to. That’s not where we’re going.-
-Where are we going?-
Dr. Helstrom turned around. She thought he looked absolutely dashing with his sports jacket and slacks dusted by a million year old terrane.
-When my clients from the JQA hired me, they did so with the knowledge of my work in the rock formations here. They talked about the possibility of using my data to help them build a pipeline.-
-A pipeline? Oil? Gas?-
He turned around and disappeared into the shadows, calling to her as his feet scrunched on ground up rocks.
-Follow me. I want to show you the Pit.-
She followed him down into the muggy bank of heat that seemed just beyond the reach of her light. Finally she caught up with him, thinking of things. She felt something on her. Wet. She swatted at it, felt it on her hand, pointed her light at it…
Water. The roof of the tunnel dripped water. The rocks perspired. She felt a great weight above her.
Their descent steepened even more. She struggled to maintain traction. Very soon, she began to feel herself slide and loosed control. Only great efforts of leaning back slowed her downward momentum. Very soon she needed to put her hands on the ground, nearly sitting down, as she slid deeper and deeper…she had no idea how they’d get back up.
She thought she heard Dr. Helstrom ahead. Not that she could shine the light his way. Her hands had other things to do.
The ground felt muddy beneath her feet, and when she finally had enough traction to balance herself, she stood up. Her face was wet. From water maybe. Or sweat.
She searched around with her flashlight. Nothing at first. Then she saw the beam of Dr. Helstrom’s light. He must have looked at something far in the distance. She struggled to get over to him. The ground still felt uneven.
To her left she felt something…warm. Warm air seemed to rise.
She took a few steps.
Something under her foot tripped her.
When she landed on her hands and knees panic gripped her. For a second she thought she would start to tumble down the incline. She didn’t and wobbled up, with her light ready to see what’d tripped her.
-This way. Hurry.-
She turned back in the direction of Dr. Helstrom’s voice. He still kept his light frozen on something in the distance. Far across the blackness. Nothing.
-I don’t like this. I don’t know how we’re going to get back up. Please. Let’s go.-
-You need to see this. You need to.-
She wobbled over to where he stood. The beam of light didn’t move. She pointed the light at him.
And tripped again.
This time she hit the ground more prepared not to slide. Now she wanted to see what tripped her again. Carefully, she sat on her haunches and turned around. Slowly. The beam of light caught something.
A plastic bag. With clothes spilled out halfway.
She heard footsteps.
-For generations this place has been used by people to walk across the border. They would crawl up from here, and…-
She turned around towards Dr. Helstrom. What “border?” There was only the MZ.
His light stayed in the same place. She aimed her light at him.
Nothing. The lamp lay suspended on a ledge of rock.
Footsteps to her right, and she turned.
A plastic mask of a wrinkled, old man stared back at her. When she realized the identity of the mask (President Harrison?!) the person took a step forward.
With a knife.
-I. Am. The. Borderlander.-
Dr. Helstrom must have been dead. The thing wearing the President Harrison mask took another step, then swung the knife.
She ducked - slid more like it, and lost her balance. Meaning to land on her elbow, so she could hold onto the light, she failed at both. The light fell from her hands, her face hit the wet dirt, and she rolled onto her back – just in time to watch the flashlight roll down the incline, then suddenly disappear without a sound.
She scrambled on hands and knees towards the light Dr. Helstrom had left on the rock shelf. Between her and the light, a gulf of darkness…
She tripped over something again. Clothes?
A swipe of air touched her cheek and a drop of water ran down her face. More drops came. She put her hand to her face. The ceiling started to gush water. Her face felt warm and tingly.
Another brush of air, and she struggled to get up and reach the light. Only a few feet now.
More drops of water ran down her face. A great warm stream.
Another waft of air breathed by her face. She struggled on all fours, scrambling across the ground, just up the incline, trying as much as she could to ignore the water that ran across her face. Some dripped into the corner of her mouth.
It tasted like blood.
For the first time she made a sound, just as she felt another whiff of air, then…
She felt something in her hand. Clothes, her mind said, then told her something else. She obeyed, picked up the bag, and swung. When she did, the momentum took her off balance.
She yelled as she tumbled down the incline. Headfirst. Towards the dark maw. The closer she got – desperate to grab a handhold – the warmer it became.
A hand grabbed her leg by the ankle and stopped her decline.
She yelled for help. The cave’s echo mocked her.
Then she heard heavy breathing.
She hadn’t dropped the unknown bag of what she guessed were clothes. Nor had she forgotten about her brother, the police officer, in the District of Columbia and his wicked tales of 101 ways to kill a hooker.
Garza knew some things.
So, she began to empty what was left in the plastic bag.
Whoever meant to take one final swing of the knife began to pull her by her leg. Up the hill. Towards them.
Sit-ups and other abdominals had given her the strength, which she used – sitting up suddenly. She simultaneously opened the bag and emptied out the clothes. The great desperate lunged to put the bag over the terror’s head. Just like her brother had said…
A waft of air signaled the blow from an unseen knife that cut through the bag. Another backslash went right through her hand. She imagined cords of muscle opening up, to maybe match her attacker’s cruel smile in the dark.
She could see the grin in her mind.
Her brother also used to wrestle with her, and always win. It’d been a good experience.
This was the perfect time.
She yanked her body over, planted her face on the ground and, for a split second, tasted the damp dirt and maybe some mold from a million years without sunlight.
She thought of seeing the sun again and completed her move. Her attacker still had her other leg and, she hoped would reach over to swipe at her. He had better to do what she expected. Because she’d spent way too much time making her arms big and manly at the gym, and she planned with all her strength to push off with her arms and her thighs. Nearly impossible with the slope of the pit…with gravity’s laws to fight…Ana Marina Garza rebelled and leapt backwards. Into her attacker, into the knife.
She felt a stabbing pain, heard a grunt, and yelled with all her might. She tumbled back to the ground on her back and screamed again.
The knife was stuck in her back.
With her last chance, she crawled up the incline, punching her fingers into wet earth, meeting rocks and other debris, feeling her nails bend back. But she began to gain traction and ascended.
Briefly. She felt strong hands grab her from behind.
So she kicked with her legs and felt one foot land. Crunch. Her brother - the big, bad police officer - he’d said you always knew when you’d broken a nose. Today was truly a day of firsts.
She heard a body began to slide down the pit, the hands grabbing frantically at the dirt. She gave one more kick just to be safe, simultaneously scrambling up the hill.
Screaming. It might have been her. But she was sure it was her attacker. A frantic desperate wail was sounded, and a man screamed in terror as he plunged into the pit.
Dr. Helstrom was right. There was no bottom.
The stormfront grew largest as the sun appeared and uncoiled its orange tendrils into a brightening sky. Each section of the clouds undulated with the warmth. The earth burned hot, but not from the day. The fires of the night stoked the flames. The MZ burned with terrorizing delight.
The weather reports from the MZ always had a sense of drama about them. Even the people most obsessed with the news were forced to admit. It was not called the Hyper-bull or the Zoo for nothing. But all belonged to the captivated, and all stood transfixed by the latest of that twilight struggle. The golds and the oranges and the reds were locked in a battle since midnight, and more at 6 o’clock with the worst of the news.
The stormchasers and the firemen - the minutemen of the Front – raced into the purge. Their sirens preceded their charge into the fighting. Then the Doppler effect snuffed out the swirls of red and green and yellow, until the headlong charge vanished.
The great surge continued, hidden behind the clouds. On the other side lurked engines… horrible engines…and their energies? All which drove the storms were halted. For the time. Any development could have happened. It was left to the merciful news to report.
Garza put the rented car into park and threw the keys at the attendant. They immediately began to scan the car, looking for explosives. The GPS on the car had, after all, announced her travel into the Front. No one wanted the responsibility of another Pearl Harbor. Not workers at a car rental getting minimum wage.
No one asked about the cuts on her face, still bandaged up. No one asked to carry her bags, not until she’d left the lot and hailed a shuttle. She waited there. Behind her, footsteps in the fallen ash. It had stopped for the moment. The winds must have shifted from the fires in the MZ. Somewhere else, she guessed, fresh ash would fall and children might play in the strange snow, maybe in the basin of some vanished sea.
She looked back at her footsteps.
Not until she stepped on the bus and sat down did her mind finally unwind, her thoughts unspooling from her last moments in the hospital.
The investigator had sat by her hospital bed, writing down everything she said. On a pad of paper, no less. She had wondered where he came from.
Garza played with the tape that held her IV in place, the sticky underside of the tape accompanying her thoughts of the bags of clothes, and other belongings, investigators had found - and which she'd stumbled over - in the bottomless pit.
Most of clothes were faded coveralls, some jeans. Workshirts. Some had names stitched on them. Investigators then looked into the names. All were women, all were missing. Workers from the mobile combine companies in the region, la maquiladoras not inflamed by the infectious MZ.
Garza's throat still felt raw from screaming.
-How many? How many do you think he killed?-
The investigator worked for some undisclosed border bureau in the MZ. He had a big bushy black mustache. Maybe a former security soldier, she thought, waiting for him to give up something. Some answers.
-It's impossible to know. We haven't found any bodies.-
Because he'd been throwing the bodies into the pit.
-But from all the bag of clothes, you might be able to...-
-Impossible to know. But from that, we'd say....-
And Garza thought she heard hundreds. But he hadn't. She just knew that Dr. Helstrom - The Borderlander - had killed women workers for a long time, now.
The investigator coughed. Garza heard a roughness in that cough. Once, he'd injured his lungs, maybe. All the makings of a stormchaser. The firemen of the MZ.
-The Diversionaries in the district want to talk to you some more. About why you were down there with him.-
She nodded. Her story would remain the same. She wouldn't quite admit that lust had led to the pit. But what else could she say? It was his eyes? The same ones that looked behind that plastic President Harrison mask. Then those eyes had really twinkled.
Garza got off the shuttle. Still thinking of the last thing the investigator said to her. They'd looked into the firm Dr. Helstrom said he'd consulted for. The John Quincy Adams Society. They'd never heard of him, asking at the end why a hydrogeologist would work for them. And an underground sea? Their project in the MZ concerned the construction of a vast water diversion project, to reroute rivers and replenish the dying West.
Garza imagined making snow angels in the falling ash.
One of Dr. Helstrom’s last words stuck with her. She thought of the women he'd killed. She wondered on the cruel way they’d immigrated here, then been thrown away. There must be countless holes here that swallowed them up without a trace.