The novella is typically between twenty to forty thousand words, longer than a short story, shorter than a novel, and in the words of the novelist Ian McEwan, “long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness.” It is focused on one theme in an organic unity of structure and meaning. The plot is self-contained and the characters breathe the action. In other words, the novella is the aesthetic ambition of an author in search of perfection.
In the search for such perfection is Michael Fertik’s Allotrope. You can read Allotrope in one sitting; no, Allotrope compels you to read it in one sitting. The four characters—Yitzhak, Sleeping Bear, Arielle, and Sunny—form a multicultural elasticity that heightens as the story tightens and the mystery deepens. The characters each play a role but their synergy transcends their individual will, and the story unfolds in irony woven into the denouement. Taking from drama the literary device of foreshadowing, Fertik interjects clues and asides in the dialogue and the myth at the story’s core.
Here is a summary of Allotrope without giving the ending away: The novella opens with Sleeping Bear, the driver, and Yitzhak and Arielle, the passengers, in the Inuit’s Chevy Tahoe on their way to an old, deserted mining camp in traditional land two hundred and fifty miles east of Nome. Having received a letter from the Executive Chairman of the Conference of the Aleut Peoples of Alaska, Director Clarke of the U.S. Geological Survey taps Yitz and the young summer intern Ariell né Kha Hli to investigate why the River Haagil has turned from a “healthy blue to a dark black.” When they arrive at the deserted mining facility, they do not expect to meet Sunny, an African-American geologist checking out the asset of the private equity firm Northern Light and Power. Thus, the intrigue begins, along with instruction into rocks and rock formation and the difference between chaoite and graphite and graphene.
One day, a bright blue river in Alaska turned pitch black.
The windshield spidered instantly. Yitzhak hadn’t even seen the rock. He ducked under the dash and clapped his hands on his head.
“That’s gonna be expensive. Son of a bitch.”
Yitzhak looked up from his crouch. Ronald, who had said when they shook hands that he preferred his local name Sleeping Bear, laughed.
“Fuck, man! That coulda killed me!” The pane had cracked right in front of Yitzhak’s eyeballs.
“Coulda shoulda woulda.” Sleeping Bear grinned. “I saw who slung it. In my language he is called Fishes with his Hand. It’s what it sounds like. Fishes could have waited to throw that rock through the side window and crushed your skull. He must’ve been trying to make a point, Yiznak. Now he owes me a windshield.”
“Yitz. You can call me Yitz.”
“Okay, Yitz.” Sleeping Bear looked at the disappearing protesters in the rearview mirror. “Son of a bitch can’t afford a windshield.”
Yitz peeked above the weatherstrip. Nothing outside but territory. There had been maybe a dozen protesters in this cluster, all bundled in dusty puffy jackets and hairbands and sunglasses. They could have been a biker gang. Protesters had spaced themselves out for miles all the way from Nome, picketing, throwing dust, spitting, tossing rocks. This one had been too close.
“Leave, Yankee, and take your money.” They made it rhyme, sort of.
“Out, Yankee, out!”
“Yankee mining has to go!”
“Makes you feel welcome, doesn’t it?” Sleeping Bear spoke softly. It had only been four hours, but Yitz had already become grateful for his soothing voice.
“Don’t they know I’m the cavalry?” Yitz stared at the spider crack, convinced it was about to give way and shatter in his face.
“Well, kemosabe, it’s not like they had such a good experience with the cavalry.” Sleeping Bear let that sink in. Yitz sensed that, even at the bar with his friends or at home with his dogs, Sleeping Bear knew how to make the other guy feel dumb. Yitz sensed that Sleeping Bear made it a specialty to make white people feel dumb.
“Look, my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss got this letter from your leader.” Yitz fished the envelope from his Jansport and brandished it. “I’m the guy who’s here to make sure the mining companies don’t mess up. Maybe you could fly a white flag from your Jeep. You probably want me to live long enough so I can protect your land if it’s going to need protecting.”
“Depends what you mean by mess up.”
Yitz could see Sleeping Bear squint under his Oakleys. It was the squint of victory. Since his 1L year in law school, Yitz had envied the naturally loquacious who could pick out the weakest thing you’d said and respond to just that, ignoring the rest, then drop the mic with the confidence of a stadium emcee. Yitz had gone to law school for the same reason all the kids like him had. It was the next step in an American Jewish education. But he had never possessed the verbal dexterity of his peers. He never had the blistering speed of their logical processing power, especially for analogy and disanalogy, which he discovered were the bedrock tools of the legal profession. Yitz understood, of course, why this or that thing, why this case or that fact pattern, could be similar or dissimilar to a prior adjudicated one. Sure, he got it. It was useful. But it wasn’t the best of all possible things. It wasn’t the optimal architecture of rationality. It certainly wasn’t scientific. A thing was a thing or not a thing. It was true or untrue. Deft arguing did not make it so and could not unmake it. Analogy was a necessary muddling trick of the legal enterprise, but it was still a muddling trick. He just wasn’t that into the law.
He was interested in rocks. His mom, a hippie shrink named Greta who had spent a lifetime total of 45 seconds on hiking trails, told the story that his first word was Joshy, for his older brother, and his next were igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. She died when he was ten, when he was at a sleepaway camp he hated. He had not had the chance to say goodbye. His parents had thought it best not to ruin his summer.
In middle school, the other boys collected baseball cards and coins. He collected quartz. The best part of visiting cities with his dad was the geologic wing of the natural history museum. His first independent trips as a young man had been outdoors. First a self-guided trek along the Marcellus Formation, and, once he had enough summer spending money, the Iceland plume. In college, he had studied geology. Petrology. He had resisted the calls from his professors to move to the adjacent fields of geophysics or even paleobiology, where the future clearly lay. He preferred the rocks.
Rocks were this or that. They existed in this or that state. They had properties, chemical compositions. You could – should – describe them exactly. Other people could – would – acknowledge that such and such rock was a such and such rock, and then you could move on to the next topic, build knowledge, make progress in exploration, without needing to re-argue forever the foundational point or articulate a compromise to satisfy disagreeable parties. Even composite rocks – the preponderance in the known universe – were mixtures of discrete and knowable parts.
But the cultural pull had been strong. To study the Constitution and the American Talmudic tradition was too old a familial idea to pass up. So he went to law school, only to find it was vocational training for a field to which he couldn’t relate. He made of it what he could, taking environmental law courses and classes in oil, mining, and maritime, the closest he could get, and then at the engineering school when he could convince the deans to give him crossover credit.
After graduation, saddled with debt, he enrolled in graduate school for rocks, which for some reason the faculties of the 1970s had renamed departments of Earth Sciences. Yitz thought it would have been more authentic to study at the Departments of Geology, Geodesy, Mineralogy, or Petrology. Those words conjured Oxford in the 19th century, when rocks were rocks. But nowadays it was different. Not too many young people, set aside law school grads, wanted to study rocks and minerals, so when he applied to the Earth Sciences departments, he’d had his choice. Visiting the schools, he discovered that his peers were split into two populations. On the one hand were the good-looking, rock-climbing, pot-smoking Burners who wanted a professional reason to stay outdoors and were privately torn between the quiet lives of coastline beatitude they imagined and the inevitability of mammon. On the other hand were the Midwestern, southern, and Mormon kids, the petroleum and civil engineers, for whom the energy sector was an honest ticket up. Petroleum engineering was the most valuable degree in the United States for about two decades running, once you factored in hazard pay.
He chose MIT and managed to finish his PhD in three years, which made him a minor legend in his pool. He studied carbon allotropes, the different forms in which carbon can exist in the same state. That meant coal and diamonds, among other things. For about ten minutes, he was the most recruited earth scientist in the world. They came from West Virginia, Angola, South Africa, Russia, Myanmar. He said no. It wasn’t hard. His email responses were short. “No.” Those jobs weren’t for him.
Yitz learned around ten that he didn’t know how to lie. Not to help himself or be polite or protect someone’s feelings. He eventually became aware that teachers or neighbors might indicate that the behaviors associated with not dissembling might belong on the Asperger’s spectrum. He wanted his mom to be around to explain it. She would have known. Psychology was her field. So he had researched it the first time he’d heard it. Some time in the last decades everyone who was shy or communicated differently had come to be included in the “spectrum,” and everyone who was not gregarious was understood to have an anxiety disorder. Yitz graphed a timeline of disorders that had been discovered, labeled, and then re-characterized or discarded since Freud. He mapped the types of inputs that saw the rise, amplification, and fall of each one. They included Key Opinion Leaders and later published papers and studies; endowed institutes to investigate the phenomena, often funded by the wealthy parents of one sufferer; the advent of sensational crime, empathetic novel, or impassioned journalistic interest which gave a real or fictional name to the new form of neurosis; public social ill or unease deriving from war, economic depression, or scaled societal cataclysm; normalization; acknowledgment of pervasiveness; inquiry as to whether a thing could be simultaneously so pervasive and a disorder; recalibration by the experts toward sub-classification and precision; and then either substantive refinement or abandonment and repudiation. Yitz estimated that the diagnosis of Asperger’s spectrum, at least in its broad application, would survive as long as the disorder diagnoses of neurasthenia, drapetomania, and homosexuality. Besides, Yitz himself did not believe that his behavior fit the pattern of people who were “on the spectrum,” except insofar as he did not, seemingly could not, lie or exaggerate. If that was a disorder, there was a problem. That is where he came out. A thing either was or it wasn’t. How did it serve anyone to pretend otherwise?
So he said “no” to the petroleum companies. The terseness of his response made some of them think he was joking, but they got the point eventually.
His PhD advisor turned him on to the Director of the United States Geological Survey, who promised to take care of his student debt if he gave her two years, so the next thing he was sitting in Reston, Virginia, at one of those aluminum desks he had previously only seen at the DMV, in movies, and at the principal’s office in elementary school.
Ten days later, he was crouching in this Chevy Tahoe a couple hundred miles from Nome, taking rock flack.
He opened the letter and reread it. Of all things, it was handwritten. The heavy stock paper was embossed with a multicolor seal of the Great Aleut People. But the author had decided to make the letter in long hand. Yitz calculated it was an overture of intimacy.
I am the Executive Chairman of the Conference of the Aleut Peoples of Alaska, which is to say I have the honor of serving as the spokesman of the Inuit people of much of Western Alaska. In that capacity, one of my responsibilities is to raise issues of concern and mutual interest to the Alaskan State authorities and to the United States federal authorities as appropriate. I send this missive to you under the authority of the Indian Reorganization Act of June 18, 1934 (Wheeler-Howard Act).
I am writing to you directly because my inquiries with our friends at the Alaska Governor’s Office, the Office of Alaskan Mining and Drilling, and the Alaskan Environmental Authority have remained unanswered. My people and I sincerely hope you can and will assist us.
The essence of the problem is that the River Haagil – which also appears on some maps as the Kaak River or the Allen River (for Henry Tureman Allen) – located in the heart of our traditional lands approximately 250 miles to the east of Nome, has quite suddenly and for the first time in our people’s memory turned from a fresh and healthy blue to a dark black. Countless fish have surfaced dead, and the wildlife on the banks, including both animals and plants, have become ill or died. This devastation continues for at least one hundred miles.
Four weeks ago, on June 28th, there appears to have been some form of explosion near the site of the devastation. We are not yet sure what it was. Perhaps it was a ground level explosion. I believe it was a meteor. By itself, that much is probably not remarkable. Occasionally meteors do fall in our country, and sometimes explosions emanate from old mining facilities or campers or illegal dynamite fishermen who get out of hand. There were no injuries and no damage to private property. The affected territory is a remote part of Alaska. There are no paved roads there. There are dirt roads – seasonal and unmaintained and deeply rutted and problematic for reasons I will describe below. Otherwise, to the extent that it is accessible, it is so by plane, by difficult overland trek, or by rubber boat when the river isn’t frozen, and even then frequent portaging is required.
But since that date, the wildlife in the area has collapsed. There was an immediate die-off of fish, which appeared bloated on the surface by the tens of thousands or more. The trees and plants in the vicinity of the strike were scorched and damaged, and then they turned brown or black and died. Even the land animals and birds became sick, and we have found hundreds of dead creatures along the way there.
As far as I can tell, so far, that much devastation was to be expected from a meteor or perhaps a very large explosion, between the impact, the fires, and other damage.
But the devastation has continued for more than a month now. I can- not get any good answers as to why. I also can’t find out what actually happened to cause this chain of events in the first place. No one seems to know, and if they do, they aren’t communicating with my office.
Fish are still coming up dead. Not just a few. Every day, the river in our area closer to Nome brings truckloads of dead fish from the upstream places where the initial burst impacted. Our people who have visited have reported the continuing die-off of plants and animals. I myself saw on my site visit a few days ago something I had never before seen in my 64 years: a pile-up of an entire herd of reindeer that had died literally on top of one another at the river bank. This was miles from the original impact zone.
The death is continuing to spread steadily for the flora, too. Plant life is getting sicker and sicker more downstream, which I don’t have to tell you is closer and closer to our homes and, eventually, to the city of Nome.
The river is black. That is the most striking thing of all. The rivers in Alaska flow fast and deep. Volumes of water gush every day. When there is a mudslide or an earthquake, the waters clear and return to their natural blue within days. But the River Haagil has remained black for more than four weeks now, and it is not abating. The closer you get to our houses the water is brown or light grey or bluish. But as you move toward the point of origin, the color gets darker and darker and for over one hundred miles, I estimate, it is black. The heavier discoloration is moving our way.
As you may know, almost half a century ago, the Alaska-American Resources Company developed a mining facility in this area. They found coal and bought a fifty-year concession. My people and the State of Alaska both benefited. The high school I attended was paid for by the license fees. I remember the day they opened the new building, with brand new desks like they had on TV. We practiced nuclear drills under them in case the Russians fired on us. The walls of the school had fresh paint, and the blackboards were the deep grey they would never be again after they were first used. All the pupils received new sweaters with the high school mascot – a Caribou – and the people came from all over to greet the opening day of Johnson High, named after our president who signed the purchase of the territory. It was a proud day, and we felt American.
Not all of my people were equally happy. I was old enough to know that a couple of the elders mistrusted the trade of our lands for exploit. Promises of ongoing concession fees and even jobs had persuaded the Aleuts to lease a half-century of rights to Alaska-American. At first it was exciting and remunerative.
Within three years, the mining facility was closed. Alaska-American went bankrupt and was bought by some other company that shut down the site. They said the weather was too harsh too much of the year to make the operation feasible. They just padlocked it and went away. As in so many things, both the hopeful members of my people and the skeptics were partially right. It worked for a while, and then it didn’t.
Every few years, a representative from the company shows up to check out the facility, and every so often some high school kids come back with stories of camping there. But it’s basically as it was the day they left. A few decades ago we stopped writing letters asking them to remove the equipment, as it has basically just been leeching rust. We realized no one was going to answer, and it wasn’t doing much harm to anyone, anyway.
Of course, what may have been a meteor explosion could also have emanated from the abandoned mining facility. Maybe some drums of volatile material deteriorated and set off an explosion. Maybe someone left behind some TNT all those decades ago.
There is another possibility. The original lease is set to expire in approximately two years. Perhaps the current owner of the facility is conducting experiments to assess whether there is any new or residual value in the land that should be exploited before the lease expires and they lose their chance to renew or extend. I do not know. This is also speculation.
Because no one in Alaska has provided any response to my inquiries to date, because the natural devastation has not only continued but may be getting progressively worse, and because there is no one among my people who possesses adequate expertise in this field – especially as it relates to possibly explosive substances in the area or potentially very dangerous substances in the water – I am writing to you to ask that you send a team to investigate the site of the explosion, to see if the mining facility is somehow involved or possibly pushing harmful chemicals into the water, to assess the nature of the dark matter in the water, if maybe even there is the risk of another incident.
We need professional, expert assessment and guidance. We are now anticipating that it is only a matter of days or weeks before the area where our people live will be directly impacted.
Conference of the Aleut Peoples of Alaska
“Can I read that again?” Arielle Kong reached out her hand from the back seat.
“Yes.” Yitz let her have it. Arielle was probably 19 years old, but Yitz had decided he did not know how to ask. She was a summer intern the Director had assigned to him when he’d arrived. Probably like everyone else her age, she was usually glued to her phone. When not – which was always since they had left the signal area of Nome – he noticed she was physically perched in a kind of light coil, as in a state of perpetual readiness. Her parents were part of the Hmong diaspora that had arrived in the Midwest following the Vietnam War. She was straight Michigan. Mom and Dad believed the United States Government walked on water, so they had instructed her to find internships with the Feds. By Yitz’s read, she did not have a particular interest in rocks, but her visual identification was fast, and her knowledge was encyclopedic. He thought that she – her given name was Kha Hli, but she had received the bonus American ‘Arielle’ in the style of most parents in her neighborhood – had petroleum engineering stapled to her forehead. Alternatively, she might end up doing off-earth or asteroid mining, which was increasingly plausible as a career choice for people her – their, he allowed – age.
“You said you’re his intern?” Sleeping Bear asked.
“Yep. But technically I’ve been working at Geo ten days longer than he has.”
Yitz blinked in the 10 pm sunlight as they exited the SUV onto the hard rock and pebbling. He stretched his back.
“I don’t hear anything.” He turned to Arielle and Bear, who both nodded as if it were already obvious to them.
“Water, gushing,” he said.
“Light winds,” said Arielle.
“No birds, no animals, nothing.”
“Nothing moving,” said Bear. “Almost no leaves to rustle, even.” He put the three middle fingers of each hand into the pockets of his Levis.
“I don’t, umm…” Yitz trailed off. He walked slowly toward the river. The water was flowing with all the vigor and energy of the Alaskan melt. It churned and cascaded and sprayed and gurgled and swirled and flew around rocks and into the air and back down again into the currents. But it was black. Pitch black. Mars black like the oil paints from his first elementary school kit. Black like a Kubrick set design. The eddies were black. The foam was black.
For the last 100 miles, the riverbanks had gotten darker and darker. Carcasses of fish and birds lay rotting on the mud and pebble shores in ever-greater density. Death grew thick. Then as the Tahoe moved upriver, the cadavers became sparser, as if the animals had known not to drink from the deepest greys but had died because they had tasted the mud-colored water downstream.
Here at the mining site there were no animals, dead or alive. The river gushed like a muscle spasm from space.
“Never seen…” Sleeping Bear took off his Oakleys as if to confirm he wasn’t getting a mistaken impression. Then he took off his cap, an Adidas Adizero II embossed with Bill’s Flying Service and still bearing the burn scars from the Piper crash that had killed Bill. He placed the dome over his heart.
“Yitz, look.” Arielle pointed at the diamiction near the bank. Undisturbed boot prints marched to and from the old buildings. “We are not alone.”
“Those are fresh. I’m no tracker, kemosabe, but those are new.” Sleeping Bear squinted at the main structure, which still had a few windows left intact. The footprints made lines to and from the doors. Then they saw the open vehicle port.
“Hello?” Yitz shouted. “Hello? Someone there?” They walked up the embankment and then the slope toward the main building, which sprawled two wooden stories along a 200-foot length. Now they could see a pickup truck in the broad garage, parked as if five more vehicles were expected even though it was all alone.
The front door swung open slowly. Then something else. Yitz barely made out a movement, a lightning fast head bob in and out of the door frame. It was so fast, he wasn’t even sure it had happened. Was it a man’s face? Was that a mane of hair and a beard? Were his features…Asian? Apparently Arielle and Sleeping Bear had also seen or imagined something. The three of them froze in place. Seconds passed. Then a man sauntered out. He was African American, clean-shaven and bald. Yitz shook his head. The man was wearing a matte brown parka and holding a shotgun, which he was ostentatiously pointing at the ground. Yitz felt his heart rate explode. He glanced around. Arielle looked like she had seen death. Sleeping Bear was moving air through his nose in steady breaths. And out of nowhere he had produced a pistol, the tip of the barrel hanging just inside the holster.
“Who are you?” The man stopped at the front step of the structure.
“U.S. Geological Survey.” Yitz shouted. He immediately thought he hadn’t needed to shout. The entire world around them was silent, and they were maybe 100 feet away from each other. He reached into his pocket and removed his government ID from his wallet. His palms beaded sweat, and he dropped the wallet to the ground. He picked it up and raised it toward the man. At this distance, he could have been showing off his Safeway card. But somehow it seemed the thing to do. And somehow the guy saw it for what it was.
“My name is Darryl Carmen,” the man broke the barrel of his shotgun and walked toward them at an easy pace. “Call me Sunny.” He stretched out his hand. “I’m a geologist for Northern Light.”
“Who?” Yitz asked.
“All the same, Sunny, I’d feel a lot better if you took the shells out of that gun.” Sleeping Bear said it so quietly Yitz wasn’t sure the guy would hear.
“Northern Light and Power,” he said, allowing a broad smile. Yitz felt temporarily dazzled by it. Sunny turned the piece upside down and caught the shells in his right hand and pocketed them without acknowledging Bear. “It’s not really a power company. It’s more like a financial concern that buys up assets. They call it a private equity firm. I dunno how it works.”
“You call yourself Sunny? Is that like an inside joke?” Sleeping Bear asked.
Yitz felt the seizure of political correctness lurch through him like a sudden attack of shit to the heart.
“It’s ok,” said Sunny, smiling warmly. “No one expects a black guy.” He didn’t take his gaze away from Yitz’s. Yitz immediately laughed, relieved. In his years of study, he had never once met an African-American geologist. He looked at Arielle, expecting her to be laughing, too, or at least embarrassed. She just looked shocked. Her mouth was gaping.
“I’m the guy Northern Light sends around to the various places they own when they need a read on something out of their ordinary. Some years ago they bought this place along with a whole bunch of other facilities in the northwest from some energy company or another.” He paused.
“I never met a black guy except when I was in Anchorage and last time was five years ago,” Sleeping Bear reported.
“I’m usually the only Hmong chick in the rock set,” Arielle said in a flatter tone than Yitz would have expected.
“I’m your average bible-thumping Oklahoman born-again African-American Jesus-freak geologist, Darryl ‘Sunny’ Carmen, Army Ranger, at your service.” He loosened his shoulders. “Come inside. You guys got a bivouac? You can tent up in here if you got ‘em, but I don’t have any beds.”
“Ours have stakes. Gotta put ‘em in the ground outside,” Sleeping Bear whispered.
They walked through the front door into what looked like a combination of office and dormitory. Yitz smiled to himself as he noticed that the aluminum desks left there to rust fifty years earlier were probably the same make and model as the one the government had given him in Reston.
A single battery powered field lamp hung from a nail on the wall and cast uneven light and prison shadows through its rubber coated steel grill. “Enough for government work,” Sunny apologized. “Look at this.”
He directed the light at the closest wall, which was dominated by a detailed map, four feet across and fastened to the wooden siding at the edges with heavy push- pins. It showed the site and its surrounds. The map was heavily marked in hand drawn color lines and dashes and x’s, some of which were annotated in a lettering Yitz couldn’t make out, perhaps, he thought, because it was too small. He remarked on the pencil and pen drawings. Sunny was a big, physical man, but the lines and symbols he had drawn on the map were among the most flawless Yitz had ever seen in field cartography, revealing a meticulousness, dexterity, and even elegance that Sunny’s frame had not telegraphed.
“Been here a week,” Sunny declared, describing an arc with his hand as he gestured to the wall chart. “I haven’t been on the river yet, though I did bring a good pontoon. Been up and down the bank sand as far as the truck would get me.” He began to gather up papers that were strewn about the table closest to the wall map. “Lemme clean up my crap and make some space for us. That right there” – he jabbed his finger at the center of the map – “that’s the spot where the river discoloration starts.”
Yitz raised his head to look higher. Sleeping Bear was scrunched up close to the wall squinting. From the side of his eye, Yitz could tell Arielle wasn’t looking at the map at all. She was staring at Sunny’s hands.
“Yep, ha ha,” Sunny chuckled. “Took me a couple days to find the source for this particular hellacious flow, but it’s there alright,” he said, jutting his chin.
Yitz noticed Sunny’s hands were indeed beautiful, almost mesmerizing. They were probably a third larger than the rest of his proportions would have suggested. The musculature was pronounced, like a Rodin marble statue Yitz had seen once and admired, and Sunny’s fingers appeared to come from the pages of an anatomy textbook. They were hairless and unbroken by bumps or other blemishes, and the skin looked soft and tough at the same time. Then Yitz realized it wasn’t Sunny’s hands Arielle was staring at but at the materials he was gathering up.
He couldn’t make out much. Mostly loose-leafs and books and rolled charts. All the stuff he had usually seen on geological expeditions. Then he caught the edge of one steno, and he glimpsed a hand-drawn chemical structure.
It was perfectly rendered in pencil on a first pass, no erasure marks, the hexagons looking almost laser printed.
Sunny caught his eye as he picked up the rest of the papers and deposited them in a brand new Osprey Atmos backpack. “You guys wanna come scout out the source location with me tomorrow? Or wanna look at my maps? I can share whatever you want.”
“How far is it?” Yitz asked, looking back at the map.
“It’ll take you 25 minutes on foot. It’s very close, but it’ll be slow going.”
“Alright. Let’s get some sleep. We will put our heads together in the morning and come back to you with a plan.”
“That’s fine. If we don’t head upstream together, I’ve got a bunch of cleanup things to do, anyway. I’m almost done here, so I’ll probably be pulling stumps morning after.”
It took forty minutes to get the tents up and the mats filled with air and the lamps hung and the sleeping bags unrolled. Yitz observed that Arielle was far more nonchalant about sharing a tent with him than he was. Sleeping Bear had his own solo job, a triangular sheath just large enough for a body like his. It occurred to Yitz eventually that Arielle’s silence may have had to do with something other than their sleeping arrangements.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked her finally, as he opened his sleeping bag to climb inside.
“This guy, Sunny. He knows why we’re here, right?
“He says he’s been here a week, and he’s willing to share all his stuff with us, right?”
“Well, after a week doing field research and gathering data and making notes and charts, and the feds show up, and you don’t tell them what you think happened?”
Yitz unzipped the tent flap and smelled coffee. Arielle was crouched in her down jacket next to the butane burner boiling water. Sleeping Bear was not sleeping. He was rubbing his face under his Oakleys with his meaty left hand and dwarfing a camping cup with his right. Sunny stood at the top of the embankment with a thermos. Yitz looked at his watch. 430 a.m. The sky was bright white and blue like streaked cotton candy. He smiled grimly as a thought popped into his head that G-d and all His children were already wide awake except for little Yitzhak “Yitz” Kleinberg, who was just rising, and all the other animals in the neighborhood 200 miles east of Nome, who were dead. It wasn’t exactly what his mom had said to him on weekend mornings when he was waking up at noon, but the variation was a familiar enough Jewish flavor of macabre that it made him smile aloud looking out at the three gentiles who, though from disparate places and races, were all of them already more ready for the day than he.
He scrambled out and walked to the river. Arielle followed him with the kettle and cups. The coffee was not quite as black as the water.
“It happened in the taiga.” Sunny spoke aloud to everyone, his gaze fixed at the flow.
Sleeping Bear turned. “What?”
“Hundred something years ago. 1908. In Siberia.”
“You talking about Tunguska?” Arielle sounded dubious. Yitz winced. She always sounded dubious. He winced because he thought that might be how he sounded when he spoke, too.
“How old are you?” Arielle asked. It didn’t sound like a joke. Yitz flinched again.
“Not quite as old as the rocks.” Sunny replied, a grim smile appearing on the profile of his face. “I wasn’t there, in Siberia. They say it happened in the taiga.”
“What’s Tunguska?” Bear asked.
“The Tunguska event. Summertime, like now, end of June, early July. Locals in Siberia heard a boom. They woke up to find a remote part of the forest totally flattened, all the plant life crushed and dead, some burned, in a wide circle. The Tsar’s surveyors found almost a thousand square miles squashed like a pancake.”
Arielle’s question was right. It was always the therefore.
“How did it happen?” Bear seemed concerned. His jaw pointed to the trees. Though suddenly dead, they were, in fact, still standing.
“The lunatics have been saying it was aliens since pretty much the morning they discovered the impact. It’s one of those epically dumb rumors that just won’t die, as if aliens would cross the galaxy to land their UFO in the middle of Siberia and depart an hour later without talking to anyone or seeing the Eiffel Tower or choose a low altitude flight path over New Mexico instead of, well, instead of almost anywhere else.”
“So?” Arielle sounded impatient.
“It was probably the air burst of a meteor that exploded before impact.”
“So?” Arielle was impatient now.
“There was a river in the impact zone. The original reports of the event say the water turned black.”
“Dark or black?” Arielle asked.
“I don’t know what the Russian word was. The translation I read said ‘black.’ It stayed that way for a long time. For months. All the wildlife died. But I think they must have chalked it up to the explosion. Not the water.”
“Why are you here?” Sleeping Bear shifted his weight enough to make Yitz feel an implied menace.
“Northern Light, my good man. I’m just a squirrel trying to make a nut. I go where the good man tells me to. Simple as, ha ha ha.” He looked as relaxed as a picnic. Yitz figured Army Rangers don’t easily feel menaced; he was suddenly, as had often been the case throughout his life, aware of his light build and only notional musculature. He looked at his forearm. Well, it wasn’t fat….
“You travel a lot, huh?” Arielle asked, allowing a smile for the first time. “Your wife must miss you.”
“She’s gone half the year, too.” Sunny answered a little too quickly. Then abruptly his face looked embarrassed, almost plaintive. “It works out. You know how it is.”
“Let’s eat and walk. Sleeping Bear, can you…?” Yitz indicated, and Bear made more sausages than were necessary. Arielle dabbed at them, as did Yitz, who felt inexplicably more peckish about eating trayf than he usually did. Sunny and Sleeping Bear wolfed theirs with crackers.
They were at the location after almost exactly 25 minutes of marching through heavy clast underfoot and brush up to their faces.
From the river’s edge, it seemed impossible. As Sunny had said, the discoloration started here. But he had not conveyed how precisely it started here. The blackness flowed like an underwater spigot, like a plume of soot from the bowels of the earth, a volcanic eruption of ash that had opened from a seam under the hard planetary crust. Under the churn and swirl and gurgle and foam, Yitz could almost make out – yes, he saw it right there – a continuous stream of ink black fluid springing up from the riverbed and into the heavy gush.
“What the hell made that?”
“Hell is right,” Sunny exclaimed, his eyebrows popping up to the middle of his forehead.
The river’s enormous pressure kept the impact of the underwater jet-black geyser urgently moving downstream. Three feet upriver was Evian clear.
“Have you been digging?” Yitz spun around to find that Arielle had wandered off. She was shouting back at Sunny from the distance.
“Yes, I dug all that,” he said, finally, as they approached her spot some stretch below the source of the color.
“Sunny, did you find any explosives or any volatile material up here since you arrived?” Yitz put his hands in his back pockets and stared at a trench that made little sense to him. Arielle was hovering over it peering down.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Look. It wouldn’t have been Northern Light’s fault if there was some explosive stuff left here when the mining operation was abandoned. That was half a century and a couple of owners ago. I’m not trying to get your employer into trouble.”
“That’s okay, man. I didn’t find anything like that. I agree with you there could have been some explosion here. But I didn’t find anything like explosives or volatile chemicals or whatnot.”
Yitz stared into the hole. There were no implements around, but it was clearly a new breach. More than six feet long and four feet wide, it reached seven feet deep, at least. At that level, black water had seeped into the trench and made a still pool, disturbed only by a trickle that was continuing to leech from the earth.
“Jesus, what was this for?” Yitz asked aloud. To his surprise, he heard Sunny answer “I don’t know. Just thought I should see what was what.”
“What happened to all the dirt?” Arielle asked.
“A little of it’s there,” he pointed at a small mound, which was obvious enough. “The rest of it, I just tossed in the river.”
“You didn’t use any TNT to get this party started?” Arielle asked.
“Nope,” Sunny chuckled. “That was all pig sweat.”
“Do you see that?” Arielle pointed down into the hole but looked Yitz in the eye. “Do you see that?” She fished out an HDS EDC Ultimate Flashlight – nearly the entire suite of gear Geo used was remaindered military equipment – and shone a bright beam into the ditch.
The first thing Yitz observed was that the water pooling at the bottom was so black that it did not reflect her 60 lumens lamp. That was spooky. He sensed the others noticed, too.
The second thing Yitz saw was a blaze of white and gray around the underground dirt perimeter. It looked like it might be everywhere.
Dozens of rock chunks from quarter size to grapefruit gave back the light as brilliantly as the water below did not.
“What is that?” Yitz repeated. “Quartz?”
“Nah,” they said together.
“Diorite?” he asked.
“Not enough speckling,” she replied.
“Not pumice, not stibnite, not jamesonite,” he listed.
“Bourbonite?” he wondered aloud, unconvinced.
“I think it’s Chaoite.”
Yitz looked up at her. She nodded. “Chaoite. That’s chaoite.”
“That shit doesn’t fucking exist,” Yitz blurted. He looked at Sunny, who smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Sleeping Bear was doing the opposite of his usual squinting and had opened his eyes to the maximum aperture of ‘I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about.’
Yitz lay down on his belly to reach into the pit. Sunny handed him a thick rubber coated work glove. “Just in case,” Sunny said, and Yitz slipped it on and reached for a hunk of the stone. The rock came out easily, a baseball shape, jagged edges that Yitz immediately estimated were dihexagonal dipyramidal.
They huddled over it under the lamp.
“We need magnification,” Yitz said.
They set out for the camp.
“You’re right.” Yitz looked up from the microscope. Everything matched. A swell of pride touched Arielle’s lips as she attempted to fend it off. Sunny grinned at everyone.
“What the fuck is Chaoite?” Sleeping Bear asked the room.
“It’s pronounced Chow-ite,” Yitz said.
“Chow-ite?” Arielle sounded dubious.
“I would have sworn it was ‘kaoite.’”
“I agree that would be much better. But it’s not named for chaos. It’s named for a geologist called Ed Chao.”
“Sucks to be the Asian chick geologist who didn’t know that, I bet,” Sleeping Bear said, staring at the rock, as if closer examination would tell him what the fuck it was.
“It’s white carbon. Pure carbon, like coal or diamond.”
“At least it can be pure,” said Arielle.
“Yes, that’s right. We don’t know. Almost no one’s ever seen it.”
“So what’s the big deal?” asked Sleeping Bear, apparently wanting the point.
“Well, that’s it. That pretty much no one’s ever seen it. It was first reported in Bavaria in the 1960s, in a crater. Only a couple of other times since, both from meteorites. It is said to form under conditions of extreme shock metamorphism. Basically, the conjecture is that the carbon changes its nature under tremendous instantaneous pressure.”
“Like from a meteor,” whispered Sleeping Bear.
“Like from a meteor,” Yitz nodded. “So that’s what makes it special. That, and it’s…”
“Very, very hard,” Arielle uttered.
Yitz wondered if he was the only person present who immediately thought of a penis.
“Supposedly it’s harder than graphite,” he said. “Which would make it ridiculously, ridiculously hard, one of the strongest materials ever known from a weight-to-hardness perspective. As you can see, it’s very light.”
“Well…?” Sleeping Bear asked. Sunny crossed his arms and cocked his head to listen to Yitz’s response.
“I can’t tell. I would need to run some tests. They aren’t difficult to do, but I can’t do them here.” He paused and looked up at Arielle. “It’s pretty cool, anyway, kid. We got our hands on the only sample large enough for anyone to examine it properly. Ever.”
He beamed at her.
Sleeping Bear took a step back. He reached one hand to slide back his cap and rub his forehead. The other disappeared into his jacket, as if looking for a resting place.
“Is it valuable?” he asked.
There was a momentary silence. Yitz had only very lately come to realize that such silences were his to fill.
“Not in the sense I think you’re asking,” he said slowly. “I don’t think it would be worth much money. I think it’s valuable in the sense of scientific discovery. But unless it is a lot stronger than graphite, which I’m guessing it isn’t, and unless there is a lot of it, I don’t think it’s worth….” He screwed up his face and looked at Sleeping Bear. “You mean mining for this?” He held up the rock. “I doubt it. You can’t do much with lumps like this.” He looked at Sunny. “Can you?”
Sunny put up his palms in protest. “Don’t ask me. I just report the stuff. That’s above my pay grade.” He crossed his arms again and spread his legs to shoulder width as if he were surveying and enjoying the whole scene. “Besides. I never heard about Chaoite until today. If it makes you feel any better, I doubt Northern Light is going to sink a gazillion dollars into this place to open it up again for a Chaoite mine seeing as how there is about zero demand in the world right now for Chaoite, ha ha.”
Sleeping Bear grunted.
“Where’s the mine shaft?” Yitz asked.
“I can take you there. Same direction as where we found that,” Sunny replied. “It’s easier to get to. The old rail cart line is still there. We just have to walk along it.”
Twenty minutes later, Yitz, Sunny, and Arielle were standing at the mouth. Sleeping Bear had waved his hand when they asked him if he’d wanted to come along. He had mumbled something about his truck and gone outside.
Sunny unchained the steel fencing that blocked the entrance and swung open the gate. Yitz stepped back and waited for odors to float out. It smelled bad but didn’t seem noxious. He saw no fumes. He took his MultiRAE monitor suite belt out of his backpack, switched it on, and hung it on the fence near the mouth. A few minutes passed without beeping, so he said “all clear” and clasped the belt around his waist.
Arielle and he put on their helmet lamps, illuminated the inside, and entered. Sunny hadn’t brought one. They waited for their eyes to adjust.
Less than five feet from the entrance, the slope tilted aggressively downwards. Moving his light from side to side, Yitz saw what he had expected: a dusty, abandoned mine shaft, eight feet tall and eight feet across, with a rail line to one side, pointing directly into the earth.
“Have you been in here?” Yitz asked him.
“Find anything interesting.”
“Not in my book.”
“I mean, it seems not much has happened in here. It seems undisturbed.”
Arielle nodded, which Yitz could tell only because her lamplight bounced up and down off the shaft walls.
They carried on like that for a few minutes before Yitz said it was enough.
“I don’t know what to make of it yet,” he said as they walked back toward the camp. “I don’t even know what tests to start doing.”
“We have to do the water,” Arielle said.
“We have to do the water,” Yitz repeated, nodding. “It’s going to take six hours to set up the lab. We can get on it when we get back. I need some more coffee.”
“Fine by me,” Sunny explained. He kicked a pebble down the path. “I’m going to wrap up. I’ll be out of here in the morning. I take it you guys can find your own way home.”
Arielle found Sleeping Bear napping in the Tahoe when they returned. She roused him to break out the lab tent setup they had picked up from the Anchorage station.
When it was erected, Yitz checked the manual to make sure the fumigation venting looked like it was supposed to. He realized he hadn’t followed instructions like this since LEGO.
“Never mind that. It’s right.” Bear seemed confident or impatient. “I’ll show you.” He opened the heavy rubber door and followed Yitz and Arielle inside.
“I found TNT,” he whispered. “This guy Sunny is wrong. I found a stockpile of TNT and primers. It’s in the garage behind the truck. I found it under a load of burlap and old tires, but it’s new. There’s expiration dating on it and everything.”
“Why would he be lying to us?” Yitz asked. “That stuff might not even be his.”
“You’re kidding, right? You’re the government. Of course a guy from the mining company would lie to you.”
“About anything, Yitz!” Arielle reddened. “Any version of it. The company’s been doing some digging around to see if there’s something valuable to mine before their lease expires. They blew some stuff up. Some old shit some other guy left here forty-five years ago exploded. And all of it is suddenly and surprise surprise contaminating the river like cyanide. And this guy doesn’t want to reveal anything until he reports it to his bosses back home. Why wouldn’t he lie to you?”
Yitz looked around at the bright yellow rubber walls and suddenly felt sweaty and aware that Sunny could be right outside listening.
“I don’t know why he’s up here,” Sleeping Bear whispered, “but I think he found something.”
“The Chaoite?” Yitz raised his shoulders and hands to ask why it would matter.
“I don’t know about Chaoite. But I’m going back up to that hole to find out. He dug it for a reason. It doesn’t take ten minutes to dig a hole that size. We don’t even know how deep it is yet.”
“I agree,” Arielle said. Yitz looked at her like she was an alien.
“Let’s get out of this.” Yitz eyeballed the tent walls. “It’s weird that we’re all standing in here for so long. He’s going to leave tomorrow, so we might as well just lay low for the next 18 hours till he’s gone, and then we can do what we want to do.”
“I took pictures of the explosives with my phone, just in case.” Sleeping Bear produced his brand new smartphone. The photos were clear. He had taken broad shots and close-ups and a short video that showed the garage, the license plate number, and the materiel. He had used the flash to make sure he’d gotten the brand names and warning labels. It occurred for a second to Yitz that Sleeping Bear wasn’t exactly who he said he was.
“Do you have a sump pump?”
“Handheld. I can move a lot of water pretty fast with it.”
“If you’re going to drain the ditch, use gloves and wear a mask. Just in case. Don’t touch your eyes or mouth.”
“Roger,” Sleeping Bear said. It sounded a little too official to Yitz, who immediately wondered if he was imagining things.
They stepped out of the tent. Yitz was relieved to find that Sunny wasn’t in sight.
At midnight Sleeping Bear unzipped the flap of their tent. Sunlight poured through the opening. They sat up.
“Look at this.” He reached into his down jacket and pulled out the stones. “I had to wash it in the river, upstream where it was clean. The black shit came right off. Look.”
“Gold. Gold!” Yitz heard himself say. He put his hand to his face and suddenly felt the rush of what it must have been like to be a 49er. “You found this in the ditch?”
“A lot of it.” Sleeping Bear produced four stones, each about the size of his thumb. “I pumped all the water out. These were just lying around in the walls of the hole.
“No shit,” Yitz whispered.
“I bet you that fucker took all the gold as he dug down and just left the Chaoite and other crap. I bet you he has ten times as much.”
“How deep is the hole?”
“Deeper than it looks. It was maybe seven feet to the water level, and there was probably four feet of standing water in there.”
“You got to the bottom?” Arielle asked.
“Were these pieces on the bottom in the mud?”
“No. Listen to what I’m saying. They were stuck in the sides. But the bottom wasn’t muddy, anyway. I hit some kind of hard rock.”
“Did you get it all?”
“I think so.” He grimaced. “I think these Yankee rapists are gonna come back here and tear up the earth for gold. They’re going to leech their poison into this river and destroy everything.” He was working himself up.
“I want to go see it.”
“Everything we love is going to die. These people don’t care about anything. They never have. They don’t care about animals, plants, nothing. They don’t even care if my people die or have to move or anything.” He looked Yitz right in the eyeballs. “We have lived here for 40,000 years.”
Yitz scrunched his nose and decided it was time to say nothing. He privately thanked Arielle for not correcting the dates if she knew better.
“Let’s go,” Arielle said. She pulled her jeans over her leggings and threw on boots.
“You guys go ahead. I’m going to wait here to watch the door,” Sleeping Bear said. “In case that lying sack of shit decides to get up and follow you out to the trench.”
Yitz and Arielle slipped past the main building and into the woods as quietly as they could. There was no question that they would have been silhouetted had Sunny been looking out the window. They paused and heard nothing. Onward.
Arielle was the first to dip her lamp into the hole. Water was already accumulating again at the bottom. She leaned over and gazed into the deep. Something did indeed look hard under the small pools of black fluid. And it was reflective. Yitz fixed two more lamps on to tree trunks and lowered them. They did not see more gold. Definitely more Chaoite. Some granite and other scruff, too, nothing interesting.
But what was that at the bottom? He looked at Arielle the same moment she looked at him.
Arielle opened her backpack and dug around. She looked up at Yitz. “Do you have a cup?”
“Yeah, a cup. A thermos. A container. Anything that can hold water. I assume you didn’t bring a bucket.”
He smiled and opened his Jansport. He found a mostly full bottle of Fiji water he’d bought at the airport in DC. Arielle tucked it into her belt.
“Lower me down.” She was already scrambling into the hole. He grabbed one of her gloved hands. She dropped her legs, let go, and landed on her feet.
Arielle stamped her right foot hard. “Some give. I’d say four or five on the Mohs or equivalent. Not as hard as it looks.”
She took a Schmidt Hammer from her backpack and bounced it on the surface. “Well it ain’t concrete. Yup, five-ish Mohs.”
She took the water bottle out of her belt and a hard brush from her backpack. “Shine the light here,” she said, and she brushed the surface briskly to remove water pooling and residual black grime. Then she sprinkled the bottle and continued to brush.
Underneath it was smooth and brightly reflective. The color was a cool, steel grey.
“What is it?” Yitz asked aloud. All of a sudden he raised his head and spun it around. No one was there, but he was feeling spooked.
Arielle kept brushing and sprinkling water. The more she revealed, the more they saw. A flawless, flat surface. She stood up, raised her face to the sky, and thought for a second.
“Yitz, this is graphite.”
“You heard me. This is graphite. It’s harder, way harder, than graphite is supposed to be. Maybe it’s a compound. I don’t know. But it’s graphite.”
“It’s got no angles.”
“Yes it does. It’s smooth, alright. No hard edges. But you see the refractions from the lamps? It’s sparkling, Yitz. Dihexagonal dipyramidal. I can see it with the naked eye up close.”
“That’s ONE piece?”
“Good question.” She continued to brush. The next ten minutes felt like fifty. Every brushstroke, every drizzle of water, revealed a larger stretch of level, unvariegated stone. She finished the entire surface area. “It’s all the same. This is one piece. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“You’ve never heard of anything like it.”
“I think this is what that Sunny character was after,” Arielle said. “I doubt he cares about the Chaoite. And for some reason I don’t think he’s especially moved by gold.”
“Well, not that kind of gold, anyway,” Yitz murmured.
“Truth.” She looked again at the hard mineral beneath her feet. Water was beginning to seep in at the edges again. She brushed it away as if the sight of the naked graphite was too beautiful to be disturbed.
There was silence.
“Just for kicks here,” he said eventually. “Do you think this is some kind of spaceship?”
“Fuck me,” she said, looking up at him, and he realized he was thinking about fucking her. She stamped her foot hard three times. “Maybe they’ll hear me.”
They looked at each other and laughed. “Okay, probably not a spaceship.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Yitz continued. “I don’t even know where to begin. Look, we’re going to lose the light soon. Let’s get back to the camp and think about whether we want to catch Sunny in the morning to talk with him about it. Part of me says we have to.”
“And part of you is saying don’t talk to him about anything before you can get safely back to civilization and file your report to the big dogs. Right?”
He nodded. She got a foothold in the rock siding and stretched out her hand. A minute later, they were on their way back to the camp.
The last glimpses of sunlight were evaporating as they crept back into their tent. The camp was quiet. From the corner of his eye, Yitz watched Arielle remove her jeans and felt a strong urge to touch her body, somehow, anywhere. He did not sleep.
At 5 a.m. it was already bright. Yitz hadn’t been able to pass out. He figured it was time to rise. Arielle was breathing quietly. He slid his body into his gear and outside and fiddled with the butane cartridge until it lit. He organized coffee. Now that he was up, it felt important to stay awake this morning.
Nothing was stirring. No birds, no sounds, no wind. No movement in the camp. Only the flapping of the butane flame and the gushing river. Now the bubbling of the water boil.
Yitz poured the coffee and enjoyed the sensation of the heat on his hand and the steam rising into the clean air and the scent in his nostrils. He thought of how warm Arielle’s skin must feel now. He smiled, walked down the embankment, and gazed across the river. It occurred to him how quickly he had become accustomed to seeing a massive river flow deep black. He laughed to himself at the ridiculousness and decided it was high time today, no matter what happened with this person Sunny, to test the damn water.
He looked down at his feet. Sitting on the ground, barely moving in an imperceptible breeze was a fluff of brown fabric. He picked it up and recognized it immediately. It was a stretch of the Artic Tech and nylon from Sunny’s parka, about the size of Yitz’s palm.
Gazing back at the ground, he saw scuffing in the gravel and sandy bank, a cluster of footprints, many of them irregular, signs of a disturbance and even, he thought, of dragging. The trail led to the river.
Yitz bolted back up the embankment toward Sleeping Bear’s tent.
“Bear! Bear!” he shouted. “Damn!” he yelped, as he spilled the piping hot coffee on his right hand. “What the fuck! Bear! Wake up!”
The flap opened on Sleeping Bear’s tent, and Yitz felt relief as he saw his friend’s calm face, already covered in Oakleys. His concern immediately shifted.
“Bear, did something happen to Sunny? Did you see him? I found this.” He held out the swatch.
Sleeping Bear made as if to yawn, but it was a yawn of boredom, not fatigue. Yitz stopped running. He put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. He placed the meat of his right hand in his mouth to soothe the burn. That was going to swell.
Arielle emerged, putting her arms through her own orange colored Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber. She looked alert, and her face was tightened into a skeptical wince. Yitz was quickly figuring out she was always right.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Yitz raised the parka fabric. She took hold of it.
“Where’s Sunny?” No one answered. She looked at Sleeping Bear. “Where is Sunny?”
Bear stood up slowly. He was huge at his full height. He reached back into his tiny tent and put on his sweater and down vest.
Yitz and Arielle simultaneously broke into a brisk walk toward the main building. They made their way past the carport and saw the pickup truck sitting exactly where it had been. They approached and saw gear in the bed that hadn’t been there before. Long, hard, lockable cases that might be used for instruments or samples were stacked next to one another, with room for more in between and on top. There was no Sunny in the cabin, no Sunny in the garage.
“Sunny!” Arielle yelled as they entered the main door of the building. “Are you there? Sunny?”
The large office space was neatly organized now. The books and charts and papers had been removed from the wall, and three large stiff top carbon boxes were lying near the door to the garage. On top of the boxes were a handful of assorted lamps and flashlights.
“No duffel,” Arielle noted. “He hasn’t packed yet.” But when they walked around the building, they could find no sign of clothing, no sign of toothpaste or soap, no sign of a bed, and no sign of him.
“Did he go to the hole?” Yitz asked out loud? She looked at him. They dashed to the trench and found nothing.
“Sleeping Bear,” Yitz said upon their return. His own voice sounded quieter and more assured than he had expected. He thought maybe it was the fatigue. “Do you know what happened to Sunny?”
Sleeping Bear didn’t respond.
Arielle pressed it. “Bear, did something happen to Sunny?”
“I don’t know what the hell you are talking about,” Sleeping Bear said. “Maybe he slipped and fell in the river.”
“Jesus.” Yitz sat down hard on the ground. He didn’t feel the impact.
“Don’t ask me to give a fuck about what happened to that gold-digger,” Bear said, sitting down next to him, crossing his legs on the ground. “I don’t give a fuck.”
Arielle laced her fingers through her black hair slowly, walking away, looking downriver, as if she might spot something. She lifted up the strands and let them fall slowly down against her back.
Yitz rolled his spine down on to the ground, letting his head touch the uneven pebbling. He gazed up at the enormous, uninterrupted sky above him, and he breathed. He counted in his mind to one hundred, which he had learned to do as a young man when he felt overwhelmed. He heard Arielle’s footprints crunching around in the sand and clast, and he heard Sleeping Bear’s heavy, defiant snorting.
“We have to leave,” Yitz said after he had finished his count. “We have to report this. We can’t stay.”
Sleeping Bear said nothing.
“Shit. I agree,” said Arielle.
“A guy’s gone missing. We have to report this.” Then he sat up quickly. It occurred to him to look at Sleeping Bear to notice any sudden moves. Bear wasn’t making any. Just in case, Yitz said, as if to the world, “We only have to report that a guy is missing.” Sleeping Bear looked at him as if he was an idiot.
They packed the Tahoe quickly. Yitz decided to leave Sunny’s gear intact and in place, for later retrieval or inspection.
As they opened the SUV doors to climb in, Arielle shrieked.
In the middle of the river, right in front of the camp clearing, a figure sat on a large rock, watching them.
“Holy shit what the fuck!?” screamed Arielle.
“Jesus Christ!” shouted Yitz, feeling the adrenalin surge and his heart rate spike. He looked at Sleeping Bear. Bear’s Oakleys were off, in his left hand, and he was staring, his skin sheeted white, his mouth gaping, his lips just barely moving but uttering no sound.
The figure was Sunny. The figure was Sunny and not Sunny. He was wearing the same clothes, a parka, jeans, boots. But he had a massive head of hair and a broad, thick beard.
And all of him was black. From head to toe, every inch of surface area, his clothes and skin, he was black, dark black, like the river flowing beneath the rock, so black that it was hard to make out his features. He was staring at them intently.
Yitz felt himself walking toward the embankment to get a closer look. Sunny just sat there, one leg crossed over the other at the knee, swinging the free foot slowly in the air, his hands propped up behind him to keep himself upright.
He looked utterly relaxed. And then he smiled. It was obvious he was smiling because the only parts of his person that weren’t pitch black were his eyes and now, his brilliant, glittering teeth, which sparkled almost like diamonds.
They stared at him across the river. Yitz felt an urge to run, to remove himself from what surely was some kind of new and unnatural danger, a murderous Inuit on his left and a shape-shifting apparition across the gushing water in front of him. But his feet were affixed to the ground. He had to know what would happen next.
“You are alarmed,” Sunny said, but it didn’t sound exactly like Sunny. The voice was deeper, graveled, and hollow. “I dare say one of you is more alarmed than the others.” He seemed to look at Sleeping Bear, but Yitz couldn’t be sure at that distance.
“Who are you?” Yitz asked. It was the obvious question, the only question.
Sunny slipped off the rock and into the river. Immediately he was submerged. Arielle raised her hands to her mouth. Yitz stretched out his arm, as if doing so he could somehow reach and rescue the man.
Sunny’s head bobbed up, and he swam lazily toward them. The visibly powerful current had no effect on his path. He looked calm and even continued to smile when his face was above the water, and Yitz noticed that he let the dark, freezing flows come in and out of his mouth as he swam.
They backed up when he reached the shallows and stood. He appeared larger than he had before, though perhaps it was the shock of hair and beard that increased the volume of his crown. He made his way on to land and stretched. He did not seem bothered with the temperature of the river or of the air outside.
“Who are you?” Yitz asked.
“Let’s say that I share your interest in the chthonic. But for a longer time than you.” His body dripped with the dark water of the river. He put one hand in his jeans and waited for them to react.
“Not quite as old as the rocks, huh?” Arielle said. He winked at her. “Your wife is gone six months a year?” He winked again.
“What?” Yitz asked.
Sleeping Bear was trembling. Yitz realized he was, too. So was Arielle.
“You are . . .” she looked at him. He nodded at her to continue. “Pluto.”
He offered a twinkling wince. “I never liked that one, but close enough.”
“Yes,” he nodded.
Yitz put his hands on top of his head. “What the hell are you talking about? Hades? The Greek god of the underworld?”
“Not just Greek,” he said, massaging his beard with his left hand. “What else do you need to see?” he asked Yitz, cocking his head. Yitz shook his, defeated at yet another game for what he felt was probably the twentieth time since leaving Reston.
“Called yourself Sunny. Fine joke,” Arielle said.
He laughed, and his body appeared to grow in size as he did. “That’s when you noticed, huh? I thought you had it figured when you were asking me how old I was.”
Yitz looked at her like he had been visited by not one but two alien forces in the same minute.
“The way I grew up it’s not all hard coded church and science. Hmong are basically animists. My parents think spirits show up all the time. I thought maybe you were an Inuit spirit.”
“That’s Sedna. She rules Adlivun.” Yitz watched him explain it matter-of-factly, as if it all made tight sense.
“Adlivun….” Sleeping Bear repeated in a whisper, perhaps conjuring a memory of a childhood education in a topic he had long since forgotten. Yitz noticed the way Bear enunciated it lengthily in a mild, rhythmic singsong.
“Sedna is busy,” he continued. “She has a lot of responsibilities, many of them up here.” He looked around, his face pointing to the sky and then back at them. “That is part of the point.”
“The point of what?” Yitz asked, bewildered by his own question as much as by the premise to which he was asking it.
“The point of why I am here. Why….” He gestured at the black water.
“Why you did this?” Yitz asked.
“Why on earth did you do this?” Yitz asked, exasperated, imbalanced by the notion that he was having this conversation with an immortal being from another epoch.
He sat down on the ground and invited them with an elegant sweep of his hand to do the same. He sniffed the cool air and seemed to fill his lungs.
“You see, almost always I am not on the earth. I am underneath it. For thousands of years I have faithfully remained in my place below.” Yitz looked at him. He sounded and appeared…contemplative.
“A long time ago, my family had a fight. My generation against an older generation, let’s say. We won. I drew lots with my brothers. My reward was to rule the underworld. It is a wonderful empire, mine. I have barely left since. Over the centuries it has become a prison. My pleadings with my big brother to have a hand at something else have resulted in nothing. Scorn, even. Which is all the more ridiculous because there are only handfuls of people still walking the earth who light the fires for any of us now.” He pointed to the sky. “The big guy still thinks we’re coming back, or so he tells me, so we have to remain in place and do our duty. Easy for him to say. He has no real duty nowadays, though I say it myself. I, on the other hand….” He trailed off. “Too many souls.”
“So you came up to look around?” Arielle asked, allowing sarcasm.
He grinned. “No. I’ve been trapped too long in my hole. I want to escape. I want to get off this rock and to a place beyond the reach of the big boss and the Titans who came before him. I want to go…up there.” He looked at the sky, straight up, ramrod straight, as if he knew the exact perpendicular to the spot on the earth’s surface on which he sat.
“You want to go to space?” Yitz blinked, wondering if he was actually alive and present for the exchange.
He hung his head. “I can’t fly. Even if I could, my votaries had no real notion of space, not like men have now. I can’t will my way there with a snap of my fingers. I have thought of stowing away on a rocket ship, but then where would I be? Returning to earth as soon as the trip was over, then facing the wrath of my brother and right back into my hole. I couldn’t bring any of my stuff with me.”
“You want to move.” Arielle said.
“I want to leave.”
“You can’t just make a ship to take you off the rock?” Yitz was impressed with Arielle’s sensible questions in a senseless moment.
He rolled his eyes up slowly. Four tears, two from each eye, golden in color, swelled and delicately streamed down his cheeks. “I’m no builder. I don’t know how to make anything.” He looked at his hands. “I always wanted to have the hands of men. And to have their brains. For over a millennium, I allowed jealousy to rule my life. Oh how I made so many suffer.” He cried now, the golden tears washing away some of the deepest black from his skin, mixing it into an olive at the top of his cheekbones.
“I am so impressed with you,” he said, looking up at the three. “Your race makes such machines. You imagine things that were never before possible and then fashion them into reality. I do not know how you do it. Not even my smartest sister and my most creative brother could keep up with you these last centuries. You are truly blessed. I am truly cursed.
“I want to leave this place forever and find a new home, where the votaries are not so…developed. Where I can rule in the open air. Where I can help them, nurture them, be useful again. Where I can be wanted again and can see sunlight. Where I can be married all the time.” His chest heaved up and down briskly.
“I need men to build what you call the space elevator.”
“Graphene.” Yitz said swiftly. Arielle looked at him. So did Sleeping Bear.
“Since the last century, men have been talking about a space elevator that could be tied to the surface of the earth and reach up, up, up, up, up high into the sky and into space beyond,” he said, raising both arms as if in supplication to the galaxy. “To move people and chattels and houses and everything you could need to get off the earth.
“I have been listening for decades to the men whose souls have traveled toward me. Your people have the know-how to build the space elevator. But you – ”
“We haven’t had the materials,” said Arielle.
“Now I have revealed for you the greatest and most perfect horde of suitable graphene in the world. I can’t keep waiting around. My patience is growing thin, and I am growing indolent, aggressive, dangerous. The technology is here. The will and imagination are here. You are far more imaginative than I. I did not want to wait two more centuries for you to stumble upon the horde.”
“Why did you have to kill everything?” Sleeping Bear asked, sounding more curious this time than angry.
“I have no other way of coming up without being discovered. The guardian of my kingdom is also the warden of me. If I leave, he will shout it to the heavens, and my big brother will be furious. I came straight up, as far from the entrance to my home as possible. Where I go, death follows. It is simple.”
“The source of the blackness in the river was the tunnel you dug coming up?” Arielle asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Close enough,” she said.
He shrugged again. “You know by now that this graphite is not like any other ever discovered. It is as flexible but far stronger. This is far better suited to building the space elevator than the graphene material your scientists have wanted.”
“And it is smooth and flat and in one piece,” Yitz spoke aloud, understanding.
“It is more than 200 miles long,” he said, watching them for a response.
“So you blew a hole in the earth to create an environmental disaster that would get enough attention that someone would find the graphene.” Yitz summarized.
He shrugged his shoulders. Yitz thought he saw him wipe a new wave of tears from his eyes.
“Tell the people,” he blurted. “Tell the engineers. Build the space elevator. Tell them to build it. I beg you to help me get out of my prison and off this rock so I may never come back.”
Then, just as quickly, he stood up, smiled at Yitz, and walked into the river, submerging his body. In less than ten minutes, the river color visibly lightened. Yitz, Arielle, and Sleeping Bear watched the water change from black to grey to brown to blue in an hour.
When they looked, the pickup truck, the cases and the boxes were all gone, as if they had never been there. Even the pinholes where the map had been affixed to the wall were not visible.
It was nearly two hours before Sleeping Bear spoke.
“You know they’ll open up a seam in the earth 200 miles long,” he said. He sounded resigned, as if he knew it was inevitable and somehow for the best but that, once again, his people would bear the brunt of someone else’s dreams.
Yitz listened and sniffed the clean air coming through the inched open passenger window. He eyeballed the spider crack in front of him and hoped it would hold till Nome.
Then he felt Arielle’s fingers, stretched out from the back seat, touch his neck and move through his hair. It was gentle, delicate, knowledgeable. He had not had the sensation since he was a child, since his mom had been alive. He closed his eyes and felt, for a second, so much less alone than he had since she had died.
“What are you going to do?” she asked softly.
He leaned back into her hand, and she held his head as he had hoped she would.
“We’re going to tell them we found Chaoite.”