by Amie Kaufman
He’s listening—though the hammer’s continuing its steady tap-tap-tap, I can see the troubled furrow of his brow that tells me he’s thinking.
“Anyway, I worked solo until about six months ago, when this honcho Mink needed new operatives and one of my fences dropped her my name. I impressed her, and she offered me this, in the end. Gaia. I had to decide right there whether to go or not, and I have a feeling if I’d said no, Mink would’ve been making damn well sure I couldn’t tell anyone else about her plan. But the money’s too good. I had to try.” I sigh, stretching my hand and massaging the palm, which is still protesting the drill work. “So here I am. Not exactly one of your epic literature whatnots.”
“On the contrary.” Jules’s words are punctuated by his breathing—he’s getting winded, and I can tell by the slight quiver in his arm that the drill work is getting to him, too. “The epics are filled with litanies of tests and trials for their heroes. And the best stories are always about heroes who work their way up from nothing.”
“Hah.” It’s all I can think of to say. This dumbass guy comparing me to heroes from his great stories—there’s a ghost city full of “heroes” just like me back in Chicago, waist-deep in dumpsters and old department stores. I just happened to be the one Mink sent here. “Let me take back over, it’s almost deep enough.”
Jules relinquishes the drill, and I test the rock a few times before giving the multi-tool a little wiggle to dislodge it and pull it free. I dig in my cargo pockets until I find the tubing I’m looking for, only a hand-length long, and feed it into the hole so I can put my lips to the other end and blow the rock dust out of the hole, then use the tube to measure how deep it is.
I’m searching in my pack for my climbing bolts when he breaks the silence again.
“Tell me about Evie.”
My fingers close around a bolt as I look up.
“That’s your sister’s name, I’m guessing. The reason it was important to you that Chicago was close enough you could still get back home to visit?”
I let my breath out, fitting the end of the bolt to the hole. I’m trying not to let Evie’s face, the last time I saw her, blind me to my task. Just keep working, I tell myself. I start hammering in the bolt, fully intending to ignore Jules until he gives up. But instead I find myself speaking, almost before the words form in my mind. “She’s a terror. She never thinks, she just does, you know?”
“I don’t know anyone like that,” he replies, wry, teasing.
“Shut up,” I reply automatically, still hammering.
“It’s not an insult,” Jules replies, and something in his voice makes me glance up. He seems almost as surprised by his words as I am. “Maybe for her it is, I don’t know, but you…you don’t waste time. You figure out what you need to do and you do it.”
I swallow, blinking and forcing my gaze back to the bolt. “That’s why I’m alive.” I shrug. “Stop to weigh your options too long in the field, and someone either beats you to your next score or scams you out of your last one.”
“So maybe Evie’s just trying to be more like you.”
“Maybe.” My hands stop, but my heart’s too tight for me to think of a way to disguise how much that hurts me. “I think a lot about why she did what she did—applied for a job at the club, I mean, the company that owns her contract. She didn’t know what she was doing, she was just a kid. Thought she was helping me.” I breathe out, the bolt before my eyes blurring. “Trying to be like me.”
Jules is quiet, and it gives me time to collect myself. I drive the bolt home and shove the hammer back into its slot in my belt, wiping at my brow. I’m probably covered in dirt by now, rock dust and sand and god knows what, mixing with my sweat. At least it’s dark.
I switch the multi-tool over to its wrench setting, and twist until it’s the right width for the anchor bolt. I yank it tight against the rock, throwing my weight behind it until it doesn’t budge anymore. I reset the multi-tool, slip it back into its pocket in my sleeve, and take a breath. Nothing left now but to make the descent.
Softly, into the darkness, I find myself whispering, “I miss her.” Jules doesn’t answer, but the quiet that envelops us is soft, and for a strange moment it’s almost like I can feel his sympathy in the air between us. I take a deep breath of it, then pull the coil of rope from my pack and start tying in.
I’ve done it so many times that tying these knots is easier than signing my own name, but when it comes time to do Jules’s rope—shiny and new, of course, just like his harness—my fingers fumble. I tell myself it’s because I never had to do it on someone else, that in mirrored reverse the movements are harder. I tell myself that because the alternative is that I’m fumbling because, to tie him in, I am by necessity right by his crotch, and climbing harnesses fit guys in such a way that leaves little to the imagination.
Focus, idiot. I grit my teeth and finally get the S-curve of the knot right, and tied through both loops of his harness. I run my fingers along the thigh loops, fingers scraping against the khaki of his pants and warming along his leg. I give one of them a quick tighten. When I glance up, he’s staring hard at the ceiling, the beam of his helmet light fixed on a featureless chunk of rock.
I exhale noisily and stand up, giving him a chance to start and take a step back. I can’t tell, even when I point my wrist LED at his face, whether he’s blushing. But the too-casual way in which he tries to shove his hands into his pockets, then finds them blocked by the harness, then crosses his arms…that’s better than a blush. I resist the urge to laugh, mostly because even flustered, he’s hot. Especially in climbing gear.
“Okay, I’m gonna go first.” I lift up my ropes, looped through the brake. “Once I get down I’ll be able to—”
“Wait, what?” Jules’s arms fall to his sides and the beam of his helmet swings over to blind me as it fixes on my face. “We should stick together. You shouldn’t head off alone.”
“So chivalrous.” I roll my eyes, knowing he can see it in that helmet beam of his. “I have to go first—I’ve only got the one belay device for a brake, and besides, it takes practice to rappel without a belayer.”
Jules looks down, where I’m gripping the gear at my waist, unblinding me enough so I can see his face and the blankness of his features. For once, I’m the one using the big words he doesn’t understand.
“Look,” I say slowly, relishing in the fact that I get to lecture him for a change. See how he likes it. “I rappel down, using this brake. Then once I’m on the bottom, I can belay you—I can hold your rope while you come down the cliff. I can tie in on the ground so that even though I’m lighter than you, I can still use my brake to slow your descent.”
The light swings over to the abyss and quivers once. Abruptly, I realize something—maybe it’s not misplaced chivalry at all. His gear’s brand-new, his rope stiff and unused. He’s not a climber. A cliff like this has got to look like death on a tea sandwich to someone like him.
“It’ll be easy,” I promise him, softening my voice. “And I promise I won’t let you fall. I’ve done this more times than I can count.” Then, while his focus is on the drop and the ropes and his fear, I decide to take my opportunity to see if I can even the scales a little. I just told him about Evie, and I want to know more about him. So I add a few more words: “Trust me, Jules Addison.”
It takes him a few seconds before what I’ve said sinks in. His eyes stay on the drop, and he’s letting his breath out and nodding absently—and then he freezes. And in that moment, I know I’m right about who he is. Because when he looks back at me, there’s guilt and fear in his face, not confusion. I can see him panicking; I can see him trying to figure out if there’s any point in denying that he’s the son of Elliott Addison.
Then he closes his eyes. “How long have you known?”
“About two seconds,” I reply, my own heart rate climbing as I try not to dwell on the implications. “But I’ve been wondering ever since you showed up. Mostly after you claimed to
know what he knows, what the IA would kill to know.”
“You figured it out just from that?”
“Well, you look like him too. And you’ve mentioned your father a bunch of times, but never a mother. It was all over the net when Dr. Addison’s wife left him after he started up with the ‘Undying tech is dangerous’ bullsh—” Too late I realize that might not be the most tactful approach. “Sorry. Um.”
“Mehercule.” He turns, pacing a few steps away from me. “Sorry for the lie,” he says finally, stiffly. “I was told I should keep my identity secret.”
This is my moment, the one I’ve been waiting for. He needs me, my climbing expertise, to keep moving forward. This is where I get to ask every question I’ve wanted to ask him—hell, every question and accusation I’ve ever wanted to level at his father. But when I open my mouth, the only thing that comes out is, “We really aren’t from the same planet.”
Jules’s head snaps up. “What do you mean?”
“Did you ever have any intention at all of helping me, helping Evie? Your dad refused to even come here—I’m supposed to believe you’re going to let me profit off the Undying tech that your father sacrificed his career, his freedom, to keep mankind away from?”
Jules is tense, that much I can see even in the gloom. “I gave you my word,” he says, voice stiff. But despite that insistence, my gut tells me there’s something he isn’t saying.
Now that I know, I can see Elliott Addison in his face. His skin’s lighter—that’s his mom’s genes, I guess—and he doesn’t have a beard, but the nose is the same, the brow, even the slight stoop to his shoulders. I’ve been traveling with the son of Elliott Addison.
When the first broadcast arrived fifty years ago, before we discovered Gaia, Addison pioneered the field of xenoarchaeology. As a young man, he became the first to decode their transmission. He’s a freak, basically—mathematics, linguistics, archaeology, all coming together in perfect combination, so this guy was the first one to understand what the aliens were saying. He figured it out at eighteen.
And then a couple of years ago he went totally bonkers in a live newscast that then went viral online.
Overnight his tune had changed—suddenly he was babbling about how dangerous it was to use the Undying technology, just as they started using the solar cell Explorer IV brought back to power LA and its water purifying plant. Just as scientists started to realize that this near-magical power source could be just the miracle our energy-starved planet needed to survive, if only we could find more, or discover how to produce these cells ourselves—he started preaching to anyone who would listen that the cell ought to be destroyed, and further exploration of Gaia’s temples put on hold until we were sure we knew what we were doing.
Put on hold, while people like me—people like Evie—suffered.
Though I had my suspicions before, everything is different now that I know. Now he knows. I want to tell him I don’t believe him, that if he shares his dad’s eyes and academic zeal then he probably shares his ideals too, that maybe we’re better off separating and going our own ways. Except that I can’t read these stupid glyphs, and I won’t get much farther than the Explorer IV team did at the other temple without him. This revelation just proves he does know what he’s talking about, that as much as I might hate his pampered life and his roadblock of a father, he really is the one person who could get me into the heart of an Undying temple, past the outskirts I’d planned to ransack.
And he won’t get very far without me.
The truth is that I have absolutely no idea what to say.
Fortunately, I have another way out. I angle the rope in my brake up enough for me to slip over the edge of the pit and start making my descent into the dark.
MIA’S A THIRD OF THE way down already, gripping the rope by her hip, her feet planted against the rock, pushing off to bounce slowly down like she’s jumping in low gravity. I’m leaning over the edge of the cliff to watch her, my head torch illuminating her path, motes of dust and debris dancing in the beam of light.
She’s silent all the way down to the ground, letting me stew in my fear—and the fact that she knows who I am—the whole time. This is terrifying on all possible counts.
I took a basic course on climbing before I left, because I didn’t count on having Mia here to help, but the clean, predictable wall of the gym was nothing like the ancient, crumbling rock face below me. I didn’t like the idea of climbing then, and I hate it now.
Once she hits the floor of the cavern, she’s quick to unlace the rope in movements I can’t make out, then uses both hands to roll a boulder into place beside her. When she shouts up, her voice is steady, and I’m trying to pretend to myself that my breath isn’t sticking in my throat and my hands aren’t fumbling as I thread my rope through the anchor point and drop it down to her. The prospect of the climb is crowding out what I should really be focusing on, which is that my cover is blown. But how can I think about that when I’m about to rely on an anchor we just drilled into the rock ourselves?
The rope slithers as it unwinds, whispering like the wind, taking forever to reach the bottom. Though I suppose those few seconds won’t seem very long if I’m the one falling. She secures one end of the rope under the boulder—she’s too light to be my counterweight all on her own—and calls up that I should launch myself off into space. Just like that, no big deal.
You’ve done this in the gym, I remind myself, carefully turning and backing up to the edge of the cliff. If I’m to make my way down like her, feet planted against the rock face, body bent like an L-shape, I’m going to have to lower myself backward over the cliff, against every instinct I have, my gut and my brain screaming at me in chorus to stay safely perched up here, where gravity can’t hurt me.
Deus, I’m going to die.
Prickles run up and down my spine, the back of my neck tingling, trying to warn me danger’s nearby. I have to wait until I’m almost not thinking about it, until the image of my father’s face—and of Mia’s face, when she worked out who I am—is floating in the forefront of my mind, and then I let myself ease back, catching my warring instincts unawares.
It’s not so bad, once I’m underway. I don’t make long leaps like her, but instead simply walk down, carefully placing each foot before I move the next, craning my head back occasionally to eyeball the rope. It seems like the anchor point is holding. After a few moments I even dare to look sideways, along the ragged edge of the cliff. Far into the distance, I think I can see cables sticking out of the rock, thick as my arm, trailing down into the darkness below. Some part of the mechanism behind this broken trap, I suppose, but I can’t make out more than that.
A pebble slides away beneath my foot, and I yank my attention back to the rock face in front of me. But I’m not just moving slowly because I’m inexpert—it’s because I need to know what I’m going to say by the time I reach the bottom.
She’s heard the stories about my father, and she believes them, that much I could see in her face. And I understand. The thing is, he tried every possible channel before he went public.
He was the one who decoded the language of the Undying. He studied every text, every second of the footage from first our probes, and then the Explorer IV crew. He’s devoted his life to this ancient civilization since before I was born.
When we discovered we could use Undying tech as an almost endless energy source, he understood what that meant for Earth. People said he didn’t—they called him a cloistered academic, an elitist, accused him of being so distant from the real world that he couldn’t imagine what the energy to filter water, to light up cities, to protect crops could mean to…well, to people like Amelia.
But those people weren’t there with him as he struggled with his decades-old translations, obsessed over them, let them consume him. They didn’t watch him endlessly coding and decoding the broadcast, and the fragments of text from the Explorer mission, praying out loud by lamplight that he was wrong. They weren’t raised by a ma
n desperate to disprove his own life’s work so that he wouldn’t have to tell the world we hadn’t discovered a way to save ourselves after all.
Nothing stopped him, not even my mother leaving. At the time I hated him for it, for ignoring us in favor of a bunch of stupid maths problems on the walls of his study. My parents were—are—so different from one another. A chemist and a linguist. You’d think his mathematics specialty would help him stay in her world, her scientific sphere of yes and no, right and wrong, thesis and proof.
But mathematics and linguistics always came together for him as a merging of art and science, a world full of shades of gray, where hers was black and white. The two of them were like oil and water, never quite mixing, and when it all became too much for her, the answer was clear. It was like a chemical response.
When unyielding husband is added to desperate social pressure and worldwide publicity, normality evaporates and stressors multiply. Solution? Remove husband.
So she cut her losses and asked me to come with her. But somebody had to stay, to try to keep him from drowning completely. And I had already started to learn the language he was reading—not just the Undying glyphs, but the language of mystery and secrets.
My father’s office walls were covered with translations from the original broadcast, along with sticky notes and satellite images and pictures from early exploratory missions. I can still picture a particular passage that had spawned dozens of notes: Know unlocking the door may lead to salvation or doom.