Edition 14: Tread Upon the Brittle Shell by Rhoads Brazos
Charlie sought out adventure and the glory of discovering a new cave. What she didn’t account for was what she would find. Portents suggest the site shouldn’t be disturbed, and Charlie knows it might be sacred, but will the lure of fame and adventure be too much to ignore? SY
The vehicle pressed through a cloud that thickened into terracotta, and for a moment the desert track disappeared. In the passenger’s seat, Charlie squeezed her knees with both hands, but Yileen didn’t seem too concerned. He turned his dark, weathered face to her, grinned, and refocused on the track with a languidness that jabbed at her gut.
“Have you ever—” Charlie stole a glance at the speedometer. “Gotten stranded out here?”
Yileen snorted. “Many times. Once a month?”
The Australian outback wasn’t as flat as the Nullarbor—as if anything could be—but seemed somehow even less forgiving. Charlie picked up her canteen and felt its weight.
Yileen laughed, ending with a dry cough. “Don’t be concerned. I drive this road so many times. See—boulder coming up on the right.”
There it was, melting out of the veil.
“Patch of corkwood over the ridge.”
A twisted grove rose up on both sides. In the haze, the stunted trees looked like black bolts of lightning, arcing up out of the ground.
“We’ll make a meal of their seeds—pray that help arrives.”
This time she caught Yileen’s jest. That faint curl to his lip sealed it—wry Aboriginal humor. The truck dipped into a sandy trough, spun its tires a bit on the rise and was once again on flat ground. Grit hissed against her window. Pebbles and light debris pecked at the glass.
“Being true, I wouldn’t normally suffer this,” Yileen said, motioning to the road. “But he’s dead set on having you back.”
It made Charlie smile inside. Yes, Mum. He’s a doctor.
Charlie had discovered the cave—per Dr. Fosberg’s cryptic directions—but she doubted many would have recognized it. It was less than obvious. Curiously so.
“Sounds like they’re really stuck,” she said.
“Been for a while. You’re gonna crawl in those tunnels some more?”
“It’s what I do best.”
“But you are a very tiny girl.”
Though that was a glancing insult, she’d let it slide—Yileen meant well. “When caving, you’d be surprised how many blokes wish they were too.”
Yileen chuckled. “Right! I wouldn’t do so well down there.” He patted his stomach and then squinted down the track. “Told ya we were close. We live another day.”
The camp was ahead—a half-dozen large tents, khaki canvas splotched calico with the desert. Their sides whipped and cracked with the gusts. The helicopter that had served as transport for her previous trips was tarped down behind them—a small fleet of trucks too. That angular structure at the site must be the winch for the lift. Good, they’d listened.
“Tent on the end is yours,” Yileen said, coasting slower.
“Good, but can you let me off at the drop?”
Yileen grunted and down-shifted. After another minute, he eased the vehicle to a stop alongside the pit. He put his hand on her shoulder. It surprised Charlie; Yileen had always kept his distance.
“Be very careful.” His wide features were turned down, his brow sagging.
“I always am,” Charlie said. She pulled her goggles in place before stepping into the desert’s fury.
From within the cage, Charlie watched the pit’s receding mouth, her way lit by yellow bulbs graced with rusty halos of silt. Thick cables hung alongside her, trailing down into the earth. The air took on a chalky coolness that put her at ease.
It must have been a half-kilometer ride, or close to it, when the cage finally clanked onto a platform at the upper end of a well-lit cavern. A chapel-sized channel dipped away to a yawning cathedral with boulders for pews. Cabling twisted away to junction boxes powering floodlights and computer equipment stacked on folding tables.
“Miss Wenham?” A reedy voice.
Charlie hadn’t seen him sitting there, a narrow man with the stature of a bent stick of cane. He rustled up from a paper-littered table and offered a handshake.
“I’m Dr. Fosberg.”
“Oh, of course. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Was it? Somehow she’d pictured somebody a little more imposing—a little more Nordic. He had the blond hair and the fair skin, but it didn’t look like his pillaging went beyond the cappuccino bar.
“Likewise,” he said. “Thank you so much for coming. May I call you Charlotte?”
“Charlie, please.” She looked about, letting her interest in the environment mask her disappointment. Indulging in flights of fancy—always a mistake. “The drop was astounding, but—too bad. You’d have the Mecca of base jumping if it were wider. Where are your helpers?”
Fosberg slumped back into his chair. “Exploring. Mapping. For what that’s worth. I’m not expecting anyone for another…” he checked his watch, “six hours, or thereabouts. And the following team won’t arrive until late tomorrow.”
“Twenty-five.” Fosberg patted her wrist. “Twenty-six.”
Charlie smiled weakly and somehow avoided wrenching her hand away. As Fosberg spread out a rolled map, she silently scolded herself. He was just trying to be welcoming. His attention was more on his equipment than her. She knew the difference. How many times during Cocklebiddy tours had she been sized-up by guys with a schoolgirl fetish? Their eager agitation was palpable. With the way she was judging Fosberg…maybe they had been right; she did have something in common with them.
“I’m glad to be back,” she said.
“Show me what you’ve found.”
He motioned to the map. It was a detailed outline of the caves. The system reached downward in one massive limb that zigzagged and narrowed, before fracturing into long, twisting fingers.
Charlie scrutinized the layout while Fosberg pointed to key features and traced out the paths of his expedition teams. The two of them chatted a long while, the discussion varying from fully-explored sections to treacherous spots that may have more to offer.
“So, are you ready to look around?” Fosberg asked. “Satisfied with payment?”
“Yes—yes, it’s good, and appreciated, but I’m curious.”
“What are you really looking for?”
Fosberg rolled up the map and tucked it away. “What do you think?”
Charlie flipped through a stack of sketches. Each was a gridded outline of a cavern—numbered, indexed, and clipped with color photos. She studied them closely.
“Well,” she said, “you’re a geophysicist.”
“Partly. My focus is seismology, geomorphology, in addition to historical studies.”
“Strata. Something to do with tectonics. The island’s position and all that.”
“Eh.” Fosberg brushed the question away.
“Come on now. I’m for the game of it all, but how’d you know there was a cave here?”
“I’ve found a few before this one, down south,” Charlie said. “Just new entrances to established systems. Nothing earth-shattering. Nothing like this.”
“Personal pride. Commendable.”
“I suppose. This is definitely a new find, but, Dr. Fosberg—”
“Call me Kristof, please.”
“Kristof—this system was hidden. Not undiscovered, laying away from eyes. It was buried. Someone had sealed it.”
After two days of searching the desert, she’d found the entrance more or less where Fosberg claimed it to be—an equal distance north of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Yileen had traveled out with her in the ’copter, made sure she set foot on the coordinates, and not on any mulgas or adders. While Yileen yabbered on about how this wasn’t really a desert, and with the two monuments just peeking over the horizon, she’d found it.
“The capstone, you mean?” Fosberg asked. “It didn’t surprise me.”
“Well, I’ve never seen such a thing.”
“You were very bold to dig under it. I appreciate your daring, your insight. The data you sent allowing—” Fosberg motioned at the equipment around him. “This. That’s why I’ve asked you back. I need someone with bold ideas.” He leaned over the table. “This cave goes down deep, like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
“Sounds like Jules Verne.”
Fosberg grinned wide. “A bit, perhaps.”
“If I find it, you’ll put my name on the final drop?”
“As I said, yes.”
“And you get?”
“Recognition, much like yourself, but of a different sort. I’m proving a theory. Let’s be a team of two. I can explain on the way down.”
Charlie appraised him carefully. So, he wanted to get his hands dirty? That was to be respected. And he was eager to explore. She could relate to that. “You know the ropes? I don’t dawdle.”
“I’ve had training. I’m not a speleologist, but I can follow your lead.”
“You’re absolutely sure there’s another drop?”
“My research guarantees it. I know you weren’t convinced before, about the location, but…here we are. It was waiting for us.”
“And what do your studies say about the depth?”
Fosberg stared at empty space. “A tremendous distance.”
“Fine. Let me gear up and I’ll take you to it.”
Once they were both properly outfitted, progress was quick. The forward cavers had left ample lines. Charlie was a bit chagrined to see every pitch bolted where trad gear could easily have been placed, but it did keep matters simple.
The two of them made short work of the boulder field, descended through several shallow drops, and crossed a sluggish river via an overhead traverse.
Fosberg was capable—a bit hesitant—but he knew the basics.
“This is the epicenter of my studies,” Fosberg said, somewhat winded. “Though that isn’t the proper term for it.”
Charlie set a spring-loaded cam in place of a bolt she wasn’t willing to trust. Fosberg must have hired amateurs, maybe some club. Somebody rube enough to drill next to a severe horizontal fault. “Earthquakes?” she asked.
“Yes. They center here, but they don’t originate here. It’s very strange. They start along the coasts, north and south, and then converge. Two subtle waves of such precision.”
Charlie made a quick abseil down and Fosberg followed. She took a second to survey the newest cavern. A domed ceiling sloped down to a cataract running through the far wall.
“There’s a spike,” Fosbrug continued, “clearly noticeable as the waves overlap, right here. It’s plain on the seismometer. The north wave continues along with the south, and each ends where the other began. The whole continent ripples.”
“Never heard of that. Here, hold this.” She tossed him a line.
“The newer instruments show it discretely. But, if you examine the old data—” Fosberg scratched at his chin. “Even with less stations, poorer resolution—it’s there too.”
Charlie backed down a long, steep grade. Fosberg met her at the bottom.
“Nine year intervals,” he said. “At first I thought it was some sort of global rhythm. Perhaps the sub-plates oscillated in hierarchical tessellations. But at that speed? Ridiculous, I know. It was just a theory.”
The conversation faded as they worked down a dry streambed, retracing team five’s route. Fosberg grumbled about that fact but kept following.
“Could it be tidal?” Charlie asked.
It had been an hour since the last conversation.
“The waves,” Charlie said. “They start at the coasts.”
“No, no. I don’t see how.”
Charlie sat on a loose boulder and Fosberg joined her. His breath rasped. He might have studied the equipment and technique, but he’d skimped on the cardio. She offered him her canteen, which he eagerly took.
“You didn’t tell the others about the…what did you call it, the capstone?”
Fosberg wiped at his mouth. “This is a dead end. I told you. Team five turned around here.”
“Yes, but you didn’t tell them.”
“The capstone? No. I saw no reason to.”
Charlie loosened her pack and let it slip to the floor. Fosberg gave a questioning glance.
“You know what I think?” Charlie asked. “I think you’re not being entirely honest, with them or me.”
“That’s a bit rude of you.”
“Maybe. It’s just an honest observation. What does a cave have to do with earthquakes? Not much, I say. And measuring away from Uluru and Kata Tjuta? You can’t get any more Aboriginal and off-limits.”
Fosberg squinted down hard.
“And who would have sealed this place if not the Aborigines?” Charlie said.
“The Pitjantjatjara tribe?”
“Or their cousins.”
“I’m quite free to operate without a permit. This location is outside of the park.”
“Only because nobody knows about it. Anymore.”
“So you don’t wish to help?”
“I brought you here, didn’t I?” Charlie said. “Behind you.”
“Those photos were a great idea,” Charlie said. “If you would have informed your teams, they would have seen it.”
Fosberg pressed his hands against the wall. “I don’t—”
“Look at the wall’s structure—just like the capstone. See how the leftward surface ripples? But it doesn’t touch this section. Unusually smooth. Well, except for the chiseling.”
Fosberg’s hands trembled on the stone.
“Here!” He fell to his knees and rubbed at the wall. “A crack running, turning…” He traced his fingers up and around.
Charlie folded her arms and watched him work. It wasn’t easy; she wanted to tear at that wall alongside him.
“This is it! Help me.”
“I want the whole story.”
“I’ve told you.”
“How did you know this was here?”
Fosberg pounded on the wall. He tried to force his fingers in the crack. He spun back to Charlie and glared.
“All right. It’s going to seem…you’re not going to believe me.”
“The Earth is hollow.”
Charlie pressed her lips tight.
“Not the way its proponents believe. They truly are insane. Portals at the north and south poles? Ha! Besides, I looked. There’s nothing there. But—”
Fosberg took a step closer to Charlie. She didn’t budge.
“There is too much evidence,” he said. “Too many legends of the Underworld across too many cultures. The Mayans call it Xibalba. The Buddhists call it Agharti. The old Hebrew, Sheol. Hel, in the Anglo-Saxon.”
“Hell?” Charlie laughed nervously. This guy’s theories weren’t as funny as they should be when you were alone with him.
“I think the Christian interpretation is…a bit extreme. In the Old Norse, it was hellir. Something concealed, like a cave.”
“How’d you select this spot?”
“I crossed Aboriginal myths with Norse myths. The Nyaviah Vahs, the Place of Exile, was renamed the Never-Never. Boyd used the term in 1882, but didn’t originate it. It’s the typical Aussie grab and slang. No offense.”
Fosberg continued, his words flowing quicker and quicker. “It corresponds to the Icelandic Nifl, or what my ancestors called in Niflheim. I found multiple references of two stones separated by a dozen seven-fold thousand cubits. There was a point, northward equally far from both. It formed a triangle—the Apex of Providence. They—” He stopped abruptly and sighed. “You don’t believe me.”
“Doesn’t sound much like seismology.”
“I became interested in the subject when my colleagues found the Beijing Anomaly. It dampens tremors, you see. A sea the size of the Arctic Ocean, but underground. That area is open. Hollow. And there’s another one here. Our presence proves it.”
“Back to that.”
“I’m going to go see it. I want, need, you to go with me. I need your expertise.”
Charlie pressed her palm to the false wall. Flakes slipped away that had been loosened by other hands. Hands that had struggled to blend this stone into its surroundings. Hands that wanted to keep her out. There was something special here. A hidden place.
She opened her pack and removed her equipment.
They whittled away at the stone’s mortar. From all sides, they chipped and scraped until they found the widest gap.
Charlie worked at a deep gouge in the mortar with her knife. She blew away loose silt. “Kristof, I’m through.”
Fosberg dropped his tools and huddled close, his cheek against hers. “Do you see anything?”
“No, but feel.”
He wiggled the blade about and pulled it back free. “Ten centimeters?”
“Just a shell compared to the capstone.”
“We need a new approach.”
“Go back to camp?” Charlie asked. “We can bring in tools and some more hands.”
“That would take hours. I’m betting we can get it loose. Can you set an anchor in the ceiling?”
She eyed the distance. “Boost me up.”
After some delicate balancing, she wedged in two tricams, locked a carabiner on each, and, following Fosberg’s instructions, looped a line through. Together, they rolled a hundred-kilo stone before the wall, tied the line in place, and hoisted the stone off the ground.
“A pendulum,” Fosberg said. “You see?”
The two of them pushed the stone high and released it. It arced downward and pounded into the seal’s base.
Fosberg examined the point of impact. “A few more times.”
Ten minutes later, her arms were numb. Fosberg couldn’t have been doing any better, but he was too excited to stop. The stone slammed home again. The top of the seal buckled outward as the bottom shoved in.
“Yes!” Fosberg leapt about.
Weariness was forgotten. Another dozen drops and the seal pivoted top to bottom and crashed to the floor. Fosberg grabbed his camera and began snapping photos.
Charlie rubbed her forearms and inhaled the passage’s draft, moist and fetid. The flash from Fosberg’s camera strobed away. It slowed. It stopped. He let the camera rest against his chest.
The passage sloped away into darkness. Charlie moved closer and the light from her headlamp joined Fosberg’s own. “Well?” she asked. “Are you set to—”
She’d had unnerving encounters before, but always when alone, far forward of any group. Once, in post-war Abkhazia, she’d been lowering herself down a chokingly-tight chimney, deep in the back of the Krubera system. She was days away from the cave entrance. Nobody else had been that way; she just knew it. She was just gathering herself to wedge down lower, when something from below tugged at her leg.
Her normal response was to back out and call it a day. Act casual and blame overexertion for her loose imaginings. It wasn’t worth mulling over.
Until this moment. Now every dubious encounter was racing back.
It sat a short jog ahead, a figure at the edge of the light, slumped forward in the center of the passage, its face turned toward them.
“Hello?” Fosberg actually talked to it.
Charlie grabbed Fosberg’s elbow. He was trembling. He called out again. “Hello?”
The worst part was knowing that he saw it too. How was she supposed to justify this?
Fosberg slipped into the passage. Though he was a physical disappointment and a mediocre caver, he did have determination.
Charlie held herself tight and followed. Her footsteps were hollow, like the earth. So absurd. She clenched her teeth.
The man sat cross-legged. Time had reduced his body to little more than stiff leather with a shock of white hair. His only clothing was a twisted cord, bound about his waist. He clutched a long spear.
A flash. Fosberg’s camera again.
“Look at that boomerang,” he said. “Blue with white stars. He’s a patriot.” He chuckled and flashed away from other angles.
“Don’t touch him,” Charlie said.
“Oh, I won’t. I—” Fosberg stared down the passage.
Charlie followed his gaze.
There was nothing there.
“I never doubted,” Fosberg whispered. He grabbed Charlie’s hand. “Ready?”
She squeezed back, not even considering avoiding his touch. Seeing the emptiness looming before her, there was nothing she wanted more than to know she wasn’t alone. They walked to the edge together.
The radio crackled. “Anything?”
Charlie set her feet comfortably against the rock face and leaned back on the line. She grasped the radio about her neck. “No. I’m about to take another reading.”
“Affirma—” Fosberg cut out. His voice whistled and snapped through the static. “—holding up?”
“I’m fine. Drop another line.”
The radio was quiet. She tried again before switching channels.
“Dennis?” she called.
After a brief pause the radio answered, “Yeah, Buttercup?”
“Tell the doctor I’m out of line.”
“Your wish is my command.”
Team four had joined them in the two days since they’d found the pit. The pit. Nothing else even compared to this. Years ago, she’d visited the Cave of Swallows. It had been imposing, the jungle suddenly falling away into a shaft so deep and wide that it could be stuffed with ocean liners. Or Son Doong, wide enough to hold its own jungles. But they were just grot-holes compared to this. Empty a thimble of water into the ocean.
The ceiling sloped toward the far side, supposedly. The instruments lost track of it. Fosberg had Yileen bringing in a new shipment of surveying equipment. Some sort of military scopes used for locking howitzers on Chechens, Fosberg had joked. Twenty kilometer range. Charlie didn’t really consider that surveying.
She tied the line down, pulled her own rangefinder from her pack, and scanned the far wall. Nothing, of course. She did a slow arc to the right and back to the left. It had a 2000 meter distance, but she might as well have been scanning the moon. A quick check upwards read a little over 1800 meters.
She did a brisk bit of math. “Dennis, let Kristof know I’m at 2525.”
The radio clicked twice and answered. “Like the song?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. He wants you back up. They’ll have the lift set up by the time—” Silence. “—sometime tomorrow?”
“I’m not setting records in an elevator.”
The radio faded out and back in. “—see the bottom?”
“Give me a second.”
She tucked the radio away and pulled loose a flare. Fosberg should have supplied magnesium, something that burned in water—but, too late now. She pulled the cap and struck the tip on the wall. Sparks hissed forth, rapidly building to a jet of red in a haze of pink-lit smoke, making the forward wall look like a slab of meat. The stench of sulfur covered the ever-increasing swampiness from below.
Charlie wiped the sweat from her face.
“I see you,” Dennis said over the radio. “—a speck.”
She held the flare straight to the side and released. It tumbled downward and bounced off the wall, spotlighting the surface in a ball of light. As the wall receded, the flare tumbled through empty space. It faded to a spark. It was gone.
“Seven second drop,” Charlie called.
“Seven?” Dennis said. “Uh…hold on.” After an interminable wait. “That jibes. Doc says—” The radio faded. “Two hundred—”
One more time. She couldn’t turn back now.
“Send another bundle. I really need it.”
The supply line next to her rustled upward.
The radio chirped and Dennis came through again. “In motion.”
Charlie fastened multiple anchors at strategic points. Two for her own line and another two for the supply. She ran doubled webbing between each with a twist and clip. Standard technique. If one anchor failed, her line would still be secured by the second.
After a half-hour wait, the supply line returned, two massive coils of rope knotted at its end. Her hands shook as she made the attachments and lowered the ropes down. She stilled herself and breathed slowly. Mustn’t lose focus now.
Once she was latched into position, she tried Fosberg again.
“I’m going now.” She waited for the response. There was none. She might as well tell him while he couldn’t argue. “The surface concaves. It’s a free pitch from here on. It’ll take a long while to climb back, so…be patient.”
She checked her harness and the descender one last time. There was a rattle from the radio. She turned it off and kicked away from the surface.
To all sides a blackness pressed in with a physicality. She couldn’t even tell if her headlamp was on. There was nothing to illuminate.
Trying to lower steadily wasn’t easy. With the air so humid and slick, the rope wanted to slip. She leaned back and increased the angle to compensate for the lack of friction. The halfway point of the line drifted past.
She could hear it now. With each measured descent, it drew closer. Lapping. There was a soft rhythm to it, like waves along the beach. She’d get a little closer and touch it. She’d dip her toes into the River Lethe and forget life’s problems.
Suspended in a cloud, floating down like a lost angel, her headlamp traced out a glowing cone. She tried another reading, but it was difficult to get a bead on the ceiling. The rangefinder was nearing its maximum and the mist scattered the beam. She’d just have to mark the end of the rope and calculate it later.
She tried to pace her descent, but the rope slipped. Liquid wrung over her gloves and down her arm. She was sliding faster and faster, her pulse accelerating with her speed. Did she stop-knot the end? She couldn’t have forgotten such a thing.
God! To fall off—to spill into the earth.
The air thickened. Charlie kicked her leg out and around, looping the lower line against herself, and leaned back hard.
She slammed to a stop and warmth flowed up and over her.
She lay very still, gasping in shock as much as in confusion. Her hands stung. The whole world tilted so that it felt as if she were standing, and then lying, and then tipping with her toes in the air. Somehow, she managed to prop herself up on her elbows. A viscous liquid ran down her face.
Take slow breaths.
She brushed her cheek and studied her fingers. It wasn’t blood. Thank you.
She was in a pool, a handwidth deep and crystal clear. Her impact hadn’t even raised any sediment. The waters were tepid and feather-light. She turned her head left and right. There was no end. A glassy sea extended in all directions. Her stomach lurched.
There was no floor below the waters, just a blackness that went on without end.
Charlie flipped to her hands and knees and stared downward. Water dripped from her soaked clothes. Of course there was a bottom, but it was as black as onyx. The abyss at the bottom of the world. She pressed downward and it yielded like wet clay. When she pulled her hands back, her prints stayed, but only for a moment. They smoothed to a perfect flatness.
She stood, untangled the line from her leg, and pulled it loose from her harness.
“Hello, Dennis?” she called out over the radio. “I’m—”
Here, victorious, afraid?
Something wasn’t right. She turned to a different channel. That familiar crackle of activity was gone. Shorted out by the waters, no doubt. Just great.
Her lips were salty.
“The Sea of Charlotte.” She smiled. This could never be taken away.
After drying her camera lens, she took a few pictures. She tried to take a step but her feet wouldn’t move. They were ankle deep in the clay.
The muck sucked noisily at her shoes. With a cry, she wrenched one foot free, and then the other. Her footprints shrank and flattened even as she began to sink again.
Enough of this. They must be going crazy up there. She needed to get out of the mist and try a flare—hopefully they were still good. Dennis would pick that up and relay her state back to Fosberg and the others. It would be a tedious climb with the line so slippery, but she could do it. She turned to the rope.
It was gone.
She spun left and right.
She hadn’t moved from where she’d landed. The rope had been right at her feet. There had been at least ten meters of slack. The supply line had been here too, just off to the side. She shuffled about, aiming her light in all directions.
Finally, she saw it, overhead. On her toes, she could just touch it with fingertips, but knifed into the seafloor from the effort. She reset her stance. Now the line was out of reach.
“Are you joking?” She stretched higher, but without luck. “What are you doing!”
She yanked her feet free again and tore her pack from her back. After dropping it into the waters, she stepped on it, trying not to think how she was going to do this without equipment. She leapt up and seized the line with both hands.
It might as well have been soaked in oil. It had been directly in the waters; its every fiber dripped with the stuff. She slipped back to the bottom, only that final knot giving her purchase. Now she was even higher above the waters. They were still pulling the rope from above, but she couldn’t hold on—not like this.
“Stop!” she screamed up into the mists, the darkness. “I can’t—”
She tumbled back into the sea.
It had been hours. Charlie turned off her lamp to conserve battery. Her supplies were gone, buried in the clay. Though she made nervous attempts to dig down, she couldn’t find the point from where she’d jumped. Who knew how far her equipment had sunk by this time?
She sat in the waters with her legs stretched flat before her to slow the sinking. Every ten minutes she moved.
Shift to another spot. Listen to the waves slosh. Wait.
She tilted her head back and stared into emptiness.
She awoke with a start. Dozing should have been impossible, but with the exhaustion of the climb and the stress, she’d done it. She tried to sit up, but couldn’t budge. Curiosity turned to horror. She’d sunk down to her waist.
Echoless screams. She clawed at the surface, raking away clay in handfuls. She was just starting to make real progress when a touch brushed her face.
The tension at her brow told her that her eyes were wide open, but in this void that meant nothing.
Again, a slow motion, tracing down to her lips.
She reached up to her headlamp. As she debated whether she really wanted to see what lived down here, it touched her neck. She lashed out with both hands and wrung it tight. Her body seized, like she’d caught herself from falling. She flicked on her lamp.
It was the rope, hanging down from the mists. She pulled hard, kicking against the bottom until she had tugged herself free. Her body shook. The end of the rope was at the sea’s surface. What kind of game were they playing?
She fed the line back through her harness and tied it off. The last fifty meters had been slick, but—she gave a test pull—she could do it. A little less than 200 meters straight up. She’d climb as high as she could and then wrap the line around herself to rest. Once she—
The seabed shook. Charlie looked down. The place where she’d freed herself wasn’t sealing; it was a twisting gouge in the clay’s surface. From its deepest edge, an iridescent film bubbled up and over the waters.
She threw herself at the line and yanked herself upward.
The sea rippled in long waves and the mist thinned. Charlie clawed higher. It wasn’t easy; she had to clench tight. She wound the line around her leg to increase the friction. Her forearms ached, but she didn’t falter. One hand above the other, pull, wrap the leg, and reverse the hands.
As the line swayed, she saw the waves, much taller than before, spaced farther apart. She kept her ascent steady and quick. The line was drier now and she was able to pull hard, yet the sea’s surface wasn’t that far below her feet. The crests of the waves surged to the height of houses before crashing back over each other in a roar of spray, each pass taller than the last.
Her foot was briefly submerged. She redoubled her efforts.
She raced upward at a reckless speed, but it didn’t seem to matter. Each following wave caught her higher. Now it passed by at her knees. She was slipping.
The next wave submerged her. She spit and choked as it receded. Quickly wrapping the line about her wrists, she tried to climb again. It was no good. Another wave hit her.
“Got you! Up, up!”
It was a blur of motion. Hands pulled at her and she was lying on cold metal. A clank and shift, and she was rising above the waves. She coughed and sputtered. Fosberg knelt beside her.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“No, I—” Charlie wheezed and forced herself to her knees. “I almost didn’t make it.”
A deep reverberation swelled from below. It wasn’t the tides; it was something much bigger.
“What are you—”
“Nobody’s walking away from this,” Fosberg said. “The others ran off, as if that would help. But I couldn’t leave you.”
“I evacuated the climb. We were going to get you with the lift, see? But when they saw. When I realized—”
Fosberg sobbed and shook his head.
“Kristof, I don’t understand.”
They were almost high enough to lose sight of the waves. The crests of each just caught the little light that reached so far.
A deep rumble wrapped about them, its intensity swelling. Charlie pressed her hands over her ears. Fosberg fell to the platform and pulled at her arm. She could just make out his words.
It swept across the sea from the north. A glittering surface that sliced the waves into nothing. Charlie gripped the grated floor as the lift careened back and forth, tipping ominously. From the south, an identical surface approached.
“No.” She clutched tight and wept.
They connected with a crack like thunder. Charlie could feel the impact within her, shaking her bones. She had never felt so small.
A blink. The lids receded from a sea of tears.
Kristof spoke softly at her ear. “The Eye of Providence.”
The quakes were everywhere now. No one knew how many people had been lost along the world’s coasts. Hundred of millions was the estimate—such optimism. The entire Ring of Fire had erupted. Pacifica was only a memory.
“I don’t trust this architecture,” Fosberg said. “Loose building codes.”
Many of the older structures in the city had already collapsed.
“The radio says the Yellowstone Caldera erupted,” Fosberg continued. “It was much bigger than they thought.” He leaned back in his chair and looked out from the balcony at the jagged peaks of the Andes. “So much for those fellows. Sad, I would love to study the data. Another?”
“Sure,” Charlie said.
They had stocked up on food and alcohol after arriving in La Rinconada, right before things really started to get bad. At five kilometers above sea level, the view would be great. There wasn’t much to do now other than sit back and enjoy the altitude—while there was one.
Fosberg choked on a stale cigar. He stubbed it out. “Didn’t miss much with that habit.”
“You’re celebrating,” Charlie said.
“I am not. I just wanted…to know.” Fosberg gasped and scratched furiously with his pencil at a pad of paper. “Níðhöggr chewing at the roots of Yggdrasill, coiled about the Tree of Knowledge. Thus ends Eden. Ragnarök. Of course!”
“I guess.” She thought she might understand his point, but didn’t feel like saying it.
The ground shook again.
Charlie had thought about warning her family, getting them out too, but Fosberg made a good argument against it. They were better where they were. It would end quicker, less drawn out. By coming here, the two of them were volunteering for much worse, but they were too curious not to.
“Maybe we deserve it,” Charlie said.
“Perhaps.” Fosberg took a slow swallow from his beer. “I wish I would have learned to dance.”
“I can show you some steps, if we have time.”
“Thank you. I’d like that.”
“Wish I could have gotten Yileen to come with us.”
When they finally reached the surface, Yileen had been sitting cross-legged at the edge of the pit. Charlie gave him the boomerang. She didn’t know why she had picked it up, but she was glad she did. Yileen studied it in his lap, but didn’t say anything.
“I don’t think he wanted to go,” Fosberg said. He turned quickly and dashed back into the hotel room.
Charlie popped the cap from her own beer and held the bottle against her forehead.
Southeastern Algeria had been shaken into gravel. Fosberg claimed that was the tail end of it.
Jörmungandr was known by many other names: Uroboros, Borlung, Yurlunggur. A serpent of immense size from the Old Norse, the Aboriginal, the Hindu, the Egyptian, and so many other cultures.
The Rainbow Serpent. Once, long ago, everyone had known it was there, though they now told themselves it was only a story. But every tale, no matter how fantastic, holds a little truth.
“Snakes don’t have eyelids.”
“Snakes?” Fosberg sat down again beside her. “More of a legless lizard, I’d say. And here she is!”
It was a moonrise, rising up past scores of horizons, half a world away. A single eye with a shimmering rainbow body trailing behind. Oceans and fire flowed in its wake, into the upper atmosphere, and so much farther. The shattered remains of a continent showered ever upward.
“We’ll heal. Give it ten thousand millennia or so. Life will try again.”
Charlie drank deeply. Maybe she should go chisel a warning on a cave wall.
Rhoads currently lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and son. His every attempt at not being macabre is inevitably followed by a painful spill off the Wagon of Good Vibes. His work is a wry amusement for himself and a creative escape that he hopes to share with others.