Actions

Work Header

Ad Astra

Work Text:

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
T.S.ELIOT

 

"Jesus," said Cameron, profane. "What the fuck happened to that guy?"

The face that stared from the screen was harrowing. A nightmare. An obscene testament, written in agony. Scars clustered in the hollow of his cheeks and beaded his chin, tore at his throat and delineated his jaw line. Tattoos, black and ochre and red, spiraled over his forehead, outlined the thrust of his nose and patterned his mouth. His ears had been delicately shaved into a latticed silhouette. Even his eyelids were scarified, a curvilinear raised weal carved into flesh.

"Motherfucking hippy," said Frank Jr. He was the youngest of them, the desert yet to harden his face, the blue veins at his temples baby-fine under the tender unwritten veneer of his skin.

"Guess he was one of those - whaddaja call them? Grub miners?" The snort of contempt was the disdain of a surface dweller for the toiling masses of the subterranean colonies.

"Nah. Exploration. Says it right here. Spent...sixteen years down there in the dark. Fuckin' A. Sixteen years."

They stared. Under the flickering fluorescent lights and viewed on an elderly screen, the image was blurred. Like most public services, the police department was starved of resources in the aftermath of the race for the treasures of the subterranean world. The deep, colonized, yielded the rare, the beautiful, the gourmet; nameless viruses and unclassified bacteria; the ravening and the radioactive, the miracle cures and the last hopes of that final terra incognita. For those who remained on the surface, it was incomprehensible.

Cameron tweaked the sagging blind in the window, shutting out the sun.

The man stared stone-faced from the screen. His hair was tied back from his face, dreadlocked, the plaits matted and woven with shells and coins, twists of leather and sinew. His face was bare. There was no shame in that naked, powerful image.

The printer clattered, laborious. "Well, he's all yours," Frank jr. said. "Missing person numero uno."

"Who called it in?"

"Greenwald. That old guy lives out by the double H. Said it had been six weeks. Some friend from out of state came by."

"Dead," said Cameron, with the sudden thrust of adrenaline death brings to the inexperienced. "Betcha. Gets them all ways, don't it, the deep?"

The last death in their jurisdiction had been that pile-up on the interstate, two years before, unless he counted Betsy's sister Jo-Lou, shot by her four-year-old and her own revolver in her triple-bolted Dallas duplex, a tragic accident. But he barely remembered Jo-Lou, a freckle-faced girl in denim, two grades above him in High School. She'd never been a cheerleader, and by the time he'd graduated she'd moved out of state. Town folk aged fast and died slow, eking out their desiccated years in the desert heat. Even with the air conditioning on full blast, the air was gritty with dust, and his serge uniform clung uncomfortably to the leather seats of the car. Sand plumed behind his wheels. He'd been born in town, was used to the crowded comfort of the office, the diner, the sports bar at the end of Main Street. His ex, Sandy, worked behind the bar, which had been awkward until he'd worn her down far enough to let him back into her house, and then her bed. There was a thrill about their clandestine fucking he preferred, guilty, to the sanctioned lovemaking of their broken engagement. The illicit memory, the sweaty conjunction of their bodies, carried him across the desert, a welcome distraction from the heat, the sun, and the unending slice of asphalt across red sand.

Then the car bucked and spun, turning onto the long unpaved track leading up the Greenwald house, and he had to ease off or risk the elderly suspension.

Greenwald himself was monosyllabic to the point of exasperation.

"So when was the last time you saw Mr. Crockett?" he asked. He was tugging at his collar with one finger. Greenwald had closed the screen door behind him and not invited him inside, and the cool sweet water from the artesian well haunted the back of his throat. He swallowed.

"Told ya. Six weeks," said Greenwald. "Thereabout."

"That's a long time not to see your neighbor," he said.

Greenwald said nothing. They were all of them odd, the people who stuck it out in the desert heat. Misfits.

"You said a friend of his had come by," he tried.

"Yup," said Greenwald. His face was a mass of wrinkles, inscribed so deeply his face was a caricature of itself. The desert did that to guys, burnt them up and spit them out, dry.

"Leave a name? An address?"

"Nah," said Greenwald. The old man's gaze had moved on, past the squad car with its dusty paintwork and ticking engine, past the sagging fences and the half-collapsed outhouse. Above the heat haze, the skyline peaked into the mountains of the mesa.

He coughed.

Greenwald's eyes came back to him, painfully slow, rheumy. "She's out there," he said.

"What?"

"Went after him," Greenwald said. He spat. For an instant, his spittle colored the sand to a rich darkness. "Best get gone if you're going."

The ranch was twelve miles further on, into the mesa proper. The plain of the desert grew grittier, shaded into red by iron particles that gave the air a metallic undertone, bitter and heated. Rock thrust through the sand, wind sanded into insane sculpture. The mountains, hidden in the haze, grew closer. Gravel tumbled under the wheels of the car. Driving, he followed the single set of tire tracks embossed into the desert.

At midday, his car's shadow huddled between the span of his wheels.

The woman was waiting for him under the rock, in the shadow of the archway. Something about the stillness of her face, the inward turn of her bones and the way the light picked out the curve of her skull under her skin, unnerved. He loosened the gun in its holster before he got out of the car, the palm of his hand gritty with sweat and sand.

"Ma'am?"

For a moment, as he walked towards her, sand dragging at the heels of his boots and dry at the back of his throat, he thought she did not know he was there. In that moment he thought she was beautiful, an angular, shocking beauty alien to the fleshy bodies of his laptop screen, but as the shadow of the rock folded around him he realized she was old, double his own age, more. Time had thinned the skin on her face and hands and carved its pathway into her eyes.

"Ma'am."

"Deputy," she acknowledged.

Her voice was low, clear, and surprisingly deep. He was suddenly and uncomfortably aware of her presence, in a way he had never been for any other woman. There was something familiar about her face, the carved line of her jaw and the tilt of her eyebrows, the controlled stillness of her expression. She owned a cultivated assurance at odds with the place, with her modest and functional clothing, with himself. He had never spoken to her before. He would remember.

In the office, insulated against the desert and filled with the chatter of phones and computers and people, the exacting paperwork of petty crime, this had seemed a routine call.

He shivered.

"I asked him not to leave me alone," she said.

The relief of familiarity relaxed every muscle. It was the plaintive melody of a country song crooned from the radio, a woman betrayed, a man strayed, a seduced and a seducer, oh, don't you take my man, Jolene....This conversation, he understood.

"I'm sure we'll find him for you," he said, the thoughtless certainty of rote appeasement. "Now, can I take some details from you? Your name?"

"Ali," she said. "Ali von Schade." The words were brisk, accustomed. She stepped out of the shadow of the rock, her feet - he realized with a shock that she was barefoot - soundless on the sand. "You're here about Ike. The old man called it in, then."

"Mr. Greenwald, yes," he said. "Is there some reason he was mistaken? Is Mr. Crocket available?" They were standing in the middle of the goddamn desert. Behind him, his car baked in the heat. Hers, a late model SUV, stood in the shadow of the rock. In front of them, the red rock towering sheer and smooth, the only possible hiding place was the archway where she had been standing.

The way she looked at him, as sharply and dispassionately as if she read his bones under his skin - he was suddenly aware of the way his belly had softened, the faint heavy curve of it, the excess flesh he carried that had once been muscle. When he shifted from foot to foot, a pimple on his back dragged against the harsh cotton of his shirt, stinging as it burst, and the acrid prickle of sweat behind his balls was awkwardly distracting. He'd played sports in school, of course he had, and these days, nominally, a pick-up basketball league he cancelled on more often than he attended.

"You've never been underground," she said to him. There was no question to the intonation of her voice.

"No, ma'am," he said. "Not much call for-" there was a name for it, something he'd laughed about in school. "Spelunking, out here." In high school, Sandy had giggled at the unfamiliar word.

Ali von Schade said, unsmiling, "It's the iron pan. You can see it in the sand, the red color. The taste. It's sixty meters deep here, under the sand. Not much, of course, when you consider, but enough to deter casual visitors."

Her face was unmarked. She had none of the deformities he'd gawked at on YouTube, the ruined skin, the bony deformations of head and body, the lacerating adaptations of the deep.

He hadn't been able to stop himself looking.

"You saw Ike's photograph," she said, unsurprised.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

"If your girlfriend asked you to ink her name on your skin, would you do it?" she asked.

Tattooed on his left shoulder, his police crest itched.

"Well, ma'am, I can't say as it's ever come up in conversation," he said.

She smiled, looking at the desert. The smile gave her a terrible beauty, but he had no context for the medieval slenderness of her bones or the ascetic splendor of her face. Her smile - fading, when she turned towards him - carried the echo of a barbed ferocity. She said, "Of course." Then she said, "You'd better come inside."

When she moved, by the doorway, carved in shadow, he saw a symbol on the rock. It reminded him of the linear liquidity of a Discovery Channel gazelle, frozen in motion. A cave painting. A misshapen N, some kind of Asian symbolism. "What...?"

"It's a glyph," she said. "A name." Her voice echoed, hollowed out by stone.

He crossed the threshold. Inside, instantly, the cold was heart-stopping. "What the-" His own sweat chilled instantly, congealing in his armpits, in the small of his back and the space between his shoulder blades, in the clean delineation of his upper lip and in the crack of his ass. Every hair on his body startled in fear and shock. The first breath he drew in darkness was cold enough to seize his throat and cramp his lungs, sharp as the thrust of a knife. He coughed, gasping for life. There was water here, he could feel it in the damp air, but he could not see. He was blind, blinded, helpless, staggered by the depth of his own disorientation, lost. He could barely feel the stone under his sneakers, his flailing hands found nothing but empty space, his brain told him he was falling, endlessly, stars behind his eyelids lengthening into endless strings of light.

The woman said, "This is where he lives."

He was outraged. Anger shocked him upright, fed his veins with blood, opened his throat. This was a joke. This was some kind of Halloween prank three months early. "You're fucking joking," he choked out.

"No," she said.

His eyes were adjusting now. Light from the doorway gave him back stone walls, closed and blank, a cage, a tomb, stone above his head, under his feet, a chamber barely wider than the span of his arms. There was a hollow in one corner, a darker space in the back wall. Nothing more.

"This is a bust, lady. I don't know what you're playing at, but there's no way in hell anyone could live here. It's a fucking hole in the ground!" His hand was on the holster of his gun.

Light caught the whites of her eyes when she turned her head and looked at him, a luminous glitter. "There is shelter. Water. Food," she said. Her voice was without weight. "He lived here."

"Next you're gonna tell me there's cable. Lady. If your friend was ever here, he is long gone. You hear me? Capisce. Gone. Fucking the hell out of here. And if you-"

"He's still here," she said. "Can't you feel him? The warmth on the air?"

"You're insane," he said, with conviction. The door, etched in sunlight, was two steps away.

She said, "The process of adaptation to Subterra invokes different senses, deputy. To you, this space is dark, but to me it is almost uncomfortably bright. The stone tells me...the taste of the stone, the feel of it under my fingers, the smell of it in the air..." She was touching the stone, her fingers pale as bone. "It's young, this stone," she said. "But it has depth. He wrote his life on these walls. Look."

Her fingers described curves and patterns, an encircling meditation. "This is his daughter," she said. "My daughter. This is me." Her touch hesitated, lingered. "His love for both of us. This is what it feels like to stand on the top of the world, the sky, the clarity of the sky, the - I did not know how much he loves the sky," she said, and for the first time her voice was shaken, uncertain.

"So he was some kind of artist," he said.

"Perhaps," she said.

"You're not exactly giving me much to go on here," he said.

Her eyes glittered again. "Missing is a relative term," she said. "Do you believe any map to be honest? If you know where you are, but no one else does, are you lost? She had one hand on the stone still, fingers spread. "If you are remembered? If the stone knows your name, does it matter if the sun has forgotten you? If your identity is inscribed in your own skin, who you are, every aspect of who you are, can you be lost?"

"Well, perhaps you could start by finding Crockett," he said, "And then we can both find ourselves the hell out of here."

Encased in stone, his voice sounded nasal and grating. But he had begun to adapt. He could see, now, the patterns on the walls, the inscriptions and symbols and friezes patterning the stone, the damp glimmer of the hollow, the straight-cut edges of what must be another archway, leading further into the dark. The air brushed his skin with the echo of warmth, but smelled damp, musty, old. There was a faint breeze, stirring the hair on his forearms.

She was very still, looking at him. "I didn't call you here," she said.

"Well, someone did. So, lady, you just show me where-ever your artist friend hangs out, I can sign off on my report, and then we're both outta here, yeah?"

"You're sure?" she said.

"Oh, come on," he said. "Yeah, I'm sure, okay? Is that the password? The magic word?"

"It'll do," she said.

The breeze flirted with his hair. He thought she was laughing at him.

Stone took his blood at the gateway. He stumbled on the first step, thrust out a hand, and caught the edge of a sigil carved into the rock. Traumatized, his skin split, smearing blood across the sandstone, a unique offering. In return, the stone gave him microscopic granules, iron-red, an infinitesimal stain under his skin. He swore at the brief pain, shook his hand, and took his first step on the staircase.

It was a spiral. Underfoot, the slabs were organic, curved to fit the shape of a bare foot climbing with ease. Rocking, his sneakers slid, unused to the way his weight was forced onto his toes, their soles unyielding against the curve of the rock. His right hand, grasping for balance, trailed the enclosing stone, finding the tail ends of year-long friezes and half-remembered songs. Mandalas, the maps of the deep, emblazoned their sinuous pathways onto stone morphed millions of years before the natives of Subterra, the hadals, created the underground roads that linked continent to continent a mile, two miles, five, ten, beneath the earth's surface. Stone spoke to stone, carrying the songs of war and death and birth. Ali's voice echoed through the grain of every incised image. Maggie's hands traced fairy-tales where light signified all hope lost.

They climbed. At intervals, a hazy, uneasy compromise, clefts in the rock let in the sun. He was gasping for it. He'd already lost sight of the woman, her bare feet and the slide of her skirt against her ankles.

The stairs turned. The rock - the rock towered over his head, millennia of it, stone layered on stone, beating in on him - light, shocking, gave him a few more steps and a carving of the lower half of a man so tortured he could only be beloved.

"Fuck," he muttered. "Fucking sick."

The light was gone, behind him. He climbed on. They were already higher than he would have guessed, and the carvings showed no sign of stopping. It was a lifetime's work, incised in darkness.

"Hey, lady!" he called. "Is there - an end?"

Closer than he could have dreamed, she said, "Yes."

He nearly fell. Swore, caught himself against the rock, and grazed his elbow. Blood oozed from the wound, mixed with sand, stinging. He could almost smell it, metallic and sweet.

He remembered the smell of his mother's skin, the dry, bitter scent of permanent lotion and dye. His brother's running shoes. The smell of his first car.

The stairs narrowed. Some faint memory of a video game he had played as a child came back to him, startling green dragons and beribboned knights. "Hey," he said. "He's not a swordsman, is he, Crockett? With the left hand spiral?"

"All spirals are clockwise," she said.

"No, I mean, for the attacking..." Her footsteps had faded. "Hey!" he shouted. Stone flung his own voice back at him.

"Think of it as a meditation," she said.

"Right," he muttered. His calf muscles were already aching. Lactic acid fed on the long muscles of his thighs and gathered in the tensed strain of his shoulders. Straining, the laced muscles of his rib cage and the contractions of his diaphragm forced air in and out of his lungs. His sweat evaporated into the air, carrying his scent in front of him and trailing it behind him in great concentric circles, smearing stone.

"How far is it? Where are we?"

Stone knows exactly where it is.

Eventually, he found his rhythm. With every twist and turn, he knew his own body. His legs lifted, even as pistons. His lungs bellowed. He hissed through his teeth with every second step. The arches of his feet ached, balanced in their alien footwear against the organic curves of the steps. He clutched at the metallic sharpness of the car keys in his pocket, dragged at the harsh serge of his collar and raged against the drag of his leather belt against his hipbones.

"There's only one way up, right?"

He coiled his belt on a ledge and placed his gun on top. In return, unscrolling under his fingertips, the stone gave him a frieze of weapons, of obsidian knives and flint axes, bronze swords and iron shields. It gave him the beetling carapace of a samurai's armor and the pointed beak of a knight's helmet, the jade medallions of a Chinese warlord and the woven amulets of an Inuit shaman. It gave him an aviator's dog tags and an iron cross, wreathed. It gave him machine guns and assault rifles and a sniper's infra-red scope. It gave him death in a sealed capsule.

Always, above him, the woman moved, sinuous and powerful.

He stripped off his shirt. Bare, his skin breathed in her scent. He began to feel the minute disturbances of air that marked her passing, the precise track of every shifting hair on his body.

His sneakers, he left tucked into a crack in the rock. Two steps higher, he stripped off his socks. Free to feel the stone, his feet molded to the shape of every step, carrying him higher. His stride was smoother, organic. His muscles lengthened, easing. He gave his keys to a carving of a woman extravagant with tended voluptuousness. His underwear, he folded, and left on the steps. He climbed naked.

Now the light came seldom, and tinted red with the setting stone. Stone consoled him for the loss with the images of the serried wonders of the deep, with fish as translucent as glass, with plants as ancient as the stone they grew on, with insects of infinite variety and taste.

The last window gave him a single star. By now, his eyes had adapted to the dark, his pupils enlarging, his photoreceptor cells flooding with retinol. He carried his head tilted, utilizing, not the cone receptors of daylight, but the peripheral vision of his rod cells. His stride was easy and smooth, anticipating the riser of every step. He did not grasp at the stone, but read it, trailing his fingertips over the carvings that spiraled upwards into the dark.

He thought himself alone, and began to hum.

After a while, he knew the stone was singing with him.

He did not know the words. The tune was staccato and broken, threaded through the grain.

The woman was singing too, in counterpoint. Her voice was sweet and low, as if she was singing to an infant. The stone gave him images of children, proud and unafraid, healthy, cherished. One child, a girl, laughing, loved. Time dilated. He knew the pain of her birth and the miracle of her first breath. He learned her name and gave it back to the stone in a single step.

The stone fractured. In clumsy, bitter strokes, it gave him the man. It gave him his broken promises and his failures, his agony and his pain, his consuming love and the disfiguring, unraveled chains of his faithlessness. In hadal, in the language of the deep, it gave him his name.

Underfoot, the stone was uneven. Slabs shifted, disjointed. He lost the rhythm of his stride, panted, riven with the torment of the climb.

The spiral narrowed.

Ahead, the woman had stopped moving.

The last steps were an agony of birth. Stone cast him out, grounded him on a platform no wider than the span of his own feet. After so long in the dark, the sky was a horror, infinite, implacable, sparing nothing. Starlight blinded him. His hearing was so sharply acute the faintest breath of the breeze on skin was torture.

When the woman took his hand, he shook with the weight of her touch, her heat, her presence. When she said his name, her voice was as powerful as the word of God.

He knew her.

They fell.