He is sitting cross-legged on the packed earth at the edge of the shadow of the rock wall. The morning light rests on his bare shoulders. He is sitting still and shirtless, with his back straight and his eyes closed, as though he has been waiting there to feel the sunlight move across him. And I’m standing in the doorway watching the air stir the hair on the back of his neck.
I’ve joked about it so often, you’d think it wouldn’t mean anything any more — what it does to me watching the dark hair move against his skin. He usually pulls it into a pony tail or a braid, but today in the morning light he is wearing it loose down his back and over his shoulders, letting the wind shift it along his collar bone.
I am all at once aware of the sand under my bare feet, the rough earth edge of the door sill against my foot and the condensation on the glasses I am holding against my chest, soaking into my shirt. I meant to bring them out to him. He has never let me stay at the research station before. I’ve slept less than an hour — I hiked in through the night. That’s why he has let me stay here and nap on top of my unrolled sleeping bag.
Even now he can sit like that. My pants are stiff with dried sweat, my throat is tight with adrenaline, and nothing but physical exhaustion let me get an hour of sleep.
When I got up and found him gone from his cot, I thought he was out filling water bottles at the seep and driving the truck out past the end of the box canyon and clearing away its tire tracks on the way back. I thought he’d be hot and dusty and ready for a drink. Maybe I’ve been reading too much about water brothers.
Now, seeing him, I can’t move until he opens his eyes and lifts his shoulders lightly, as though he’s easing on an invisible pack, and I want to know what he is thinking, but it would feel like asking how he prays, or who to.
He turns his head, and I walk out across the cool packed earth, into the sun, carrying these two scratched glasses with rims like sea-glass, half full of the minty tea I found in a jar in the cooler, and trying not to slosh it. I can’t tell from his face whether it’s ok that I poured out his tea, but he reaches for a glass, and I hand it over and sit down beside him with my legs stretched into the sun.
“You were right,” I say.
He motions with his glass, and I never need much encouragement to talk. I go at it all day without a visible audience anyway.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” I tell him, “what you said. When you sent me that email about morning prayers, because of the way I start and end the show, and you said the way we start the day matters.”
I first read that email in the early morning, when I’d closed the station down for the night and stayed sorting through old vinyl, drifting from one cover image to the next. When I read it, I went out to stand in the street with the smell of hot oil and chiles rellenos from the taqeria, and I remembered my grandmother’s voice in the mornings in the early fall: Shivti b'veit Adonai kol y'mei chayyai.
“I keep thinking now about what I’m thinking about at night and when I wake up,” I say. “I’ll find myself thinking that that’s not the last thought I want to have before I fall asleep, or not how I want to start the new day, and I’ll choose something new to have in mind.”
That’s not entirely right. These days I like what I think of while I’m falling asleep. But I can’t tell him about that, and it’s true what I really want to tell him.
“It makes a difference,” I say, drinking tea because my mouth is dry. “Even a short time, it can shift the day somehow.”
He drinks his tea one-handed in measuring sips. He has the other hand flat on the ground, and I can see the sinews. He nods and looks up the canyon, letting the silence go on he way he does, and I think I’m talking too much. Why talk about prayer of all things at a time like this, when I’m stopping myself by will from checking the time on my phone?
He says, still looking up the canyon, “I like that about being out here. Sometimes I’m tired. I’d probably sleep later in town. But out here’s almost as good as camping.”
“You like camping?”
He lifts his glass toward the canyon running off into deeper canyons and plateaus for more miles than even the coyotes have counted. (They have the best gps mapping system around, built into those tracking collars the city councilors installed, unobtrusively modified by Carlos’ team and made better when the coyotes learned how to hack them.)
“I’d live out there,” he said, “if I could live without this, and without talking to anyone more than once a year.”
“Is that what you’ll do, then?”
It’s hard to say it, but I have to. I’ve seen it over and over in my head since yesterday — seen him walking away down the canyon floor with his frame pack and a camera slung around his neck. I keep on seeing it, like a burn feeling steadily hotter until you give up and ice it. But my back is prickling as I look around this quiet place. The adobe house has a curve of blown sand on the roof where the satellite dish used to be. He must have dismantled it while I slept. The heavy ceramic water jar has already gone from its place by the wall, and the marks it left are smoothed away. He knows he is not safe here. They may come any moment.
I should have made him leave as soon as I got here. It was late, or early. I had to keep broadcasting until the usual time and set out in the dark, and it takes hours to pack in here on foot. I took it too fast in the beginning , in raw fear, and had to stop to bang the cramp out of my legs. As it is I’ve never covered the distance so fast, and I was sweating freely in the cold night air, with my shirt off and wedged under the straps of my pack.
He was awake when I reached here. I came up to the open doorway panting and blotting my face, and leaned on it, and he moved silently from where he’d been standing behind the other side of the doorway, so I didn’t get to wake him — I didn’t have to wake him — I just gasped it out.
“They’ve found out about the government grant. You’re not safe out here. Josie says they’re coming after you. She said she couldn’t get you by email. She said to tell you not to use an internet connection from your phone or computer. You have a virus — you won’t detect it, but it will spread with any online contact. So she sent me.”
Sent me hell, Carlos. If you’re in danger, I have to be here. But I know how you’ll look at me if I say that. The virus is real, and he didn’t question it.
He just said “how did they find out?” and I told him she didn’t know yet.
They are the city council. What they’ve found out about the grant is that it doesn’t exist.
Old Woman Josie and Carlos had the idea between them. The city council doesn’t mess with government mandates, at least not without a lot of howling and a cover story you can see coming 50 miles off. If they thought Carlos had federal funding and someone to report to, they’d leave him and his work alone. They’d probably decide he was harmless anyway — if his research ever touched on anything dangerous, an energy vortex or an extradimensional portal or a case of spontaneous generation would take care of the problem for them.
“Right,” Carlos said. “So we get the government to issue an invalid nonexistant agreement. They’re good at that.”
“I can do better than that,” Josie said. “I can make them all think it exists.”
But someone found out. Josie told me. She walked into the station last night with my frame pack on her shoulders and caught me playing Amadou et Mariam — je pense à toi, mon amour, mon bien aimé ... She took my dog home, and I ended the show, flipped off the mike and walked out of town.
Josie is the reason Carlos and I can write to each other. In fact I think she’s the reason Carlos was ever willing to talk with me, because I took him to see her and Black Angel.
They live in the round-on-the-inside house under the cottonwoods, down along our only creek, and they’re my friends. Josie used to let me fish behind the house when I played hookie, and she would bring me a jar of iced tea to keep cool in the creek, wedged between stones, and sit on the bank with me, with her feet and her black skirt in the water. That’s how I knew the jar in Carlos’ cooler when I saw it. I really brought him to see her and Black Angel to see what he would think — Josie in her night-blue shirt and long dark skirt, with her silver-dark hair wound up over her ears, shelling peas into the collander, and Black Angel, tall and elegant in her jeans and knotted cotton shirt, her short hair white and beautiful against her dark skin, moving behind Josie to the sink and stopping to kiss her bent neck.
They’ve always been my safety.
But when I said Josie is the reason Carlos and I write to each other, I mean that she’s the best hacker in Night Vale. I think she taught the coyotes. The day I brought Carlos, she let me take him into the smokehouse and down the spiral staircase to show him her servers. The city council has never caught on to the broadband or to the uncensored blog network she keeps going. They haven’t figured out that my broadcasts stream online either. You see Josie down here in her round room, with the light spangling down from the high windows and the screens of deceptively ancient monitors and the coils of cables eddying around her, and you know why they call it the web.
So when she told me the city council were planning a move on Carlos, I didn’t ask her how she knew. She said she would slow them down any way she could. I stayed at the station long enough to record extra segments of me talking, for later — another thing city council has never stopped to wonder is whether anyone is really in the radio station, as long as a voice is coming out of it. I set out as soon as the moon rose and walked through the night.
And he told me to rest while he packed up.
He gets up now and goes in to disassemble the cot. I help him to pull off the bent metal bowed tubes it rests on. He stows it and lashes it to the foot of his pack, and I put the glasses into the cooler, wedging them upright between oranges and a plastic bottle of cooking oil. He has already packed away his camp stove. I bring out the cooler and watch him break off a spray of rabbit brush and cross his doorway again to sweep the sandy floor smooth — and that fast he is ready to leave.
He picks up the pack he has left outside the door, and we walk down the canyon, keeping to the rock as much as we can. We both know the truck will be easier to trace than a man on foot.
We drive the truck up canyon three or four miles. He is looking at the canyon bottom, and I am looking at him. When he takes his hand off the gear shift I move mine without thinking. He swerves around a stone, and I remember that he doesn’t like being stared at. I try to look at his profile and out past it at the same time, at the sun catching an outcrop of quartz on the canyon wall.
I gesture, and he runs the truck into a side canyon and around a bend and pulls in among the rocks where the cliff overhangs and shields us from the sky. I told him about this place — I grew up here, and I spend a lot of weekends packing out with a sleeping bag. I told him about the seep where he set up the research station too. From where we sit now in the shade of the rock, we can walk down to the same creek that runs through town, without having to climb.
He opens his door, and I open mine, and we climb down onto the sand. We walk back down the canyon to the turn-off, clearing away obvious tracks. The wind picks up enough to send stinging grit against my bare shoulders, which may help.
And then we hear an engine. He is ahead of me, and he hugs the shadow along the rock wall. We move toward the lip of our canyon, any sound we make shielded by the wind and the engine noise. From where I am, dropped low behind an outcrop, I can see only kicked dust and movement, but I know what it is. I can hear it, not one engine but two, the desert jeeps with the laser rifles — this is no squad car with one officer on a recon. They’ve sent a full unit of secret police to arrest one ethno-geologist.
Carlos stays motionless in the tumble of sandstone ahead until the dust settles, and then I see him by his movement, and he slips back to me, and we are running back up the canyon, my feet sliding on the scree.
We pick up our packs. He leaves the heavy canned goods in the truck. And we set out in the other direction, toward the creek bed.
The water is running low now, but it still runs, a clear channel among the weathered stones. He stops on the bank, lifts a palm of water to his mouth. And I know we will fill our bottles, and he will head into empty country, and I will to have to start walking back to town.
But I don’t move. I don’t know where he’s going to go, or how long it will be before I can safely try to get in touch with him — assuming he’d answer.
And then we hear an engine. But it is not a jeep echoing through the canyon after us. It comes from above.
From cover in spilled boulders we stare up as a black helicopter skims along the mesa, not far above the highest canyon walls. A tall frond of green in the red rock along the river bank, crooked at the top like a pointing finger, rocks in the wind.
The sound of the rotors echoes back, and we can’t see whether it has turned for a new sweep. The sweat from my arms has darkened the rock before the noise ebbs into silence. He says, barely above a whisper, “we’ve got to get out of sight.”
I nod, and my stomach is knotted. I let my hand touch his shoulder and then brush his cheek and neck as I point. Even now, with my mouth too dry to talk, I can’t help the shiver in my gut, the lift of feeling that I know something he needs.
What I am looking for is not far along the creek from here. It’s the reason I know the canyon where we left the truck. We sink down in the mouth of a natural limestone cave, in the shadow, but close enough to keep an eye out the entrance. With my phone set to flashlight, I show him the marks on the ceiling from a 100 years of boyscout campfires.
In my hand the phone vibrates. I feel myself flushing and thank God I have it set to silence. It’s Josie, and she’s also the reason I have a signal out here. I show Carlos the number on the screen, and he nods. I answer.
“C,” she says, “are you out of there?”
“We’re clear. But they came straight to him, Jo. That shouldn’t be possible.”
“I don’t know how they traced you.”
Thanks to Josie, our equipment lays a false trail. If the city council were trying to find Carlos based on their tracers on his laptop or phone, they should have been looking for him 30 miles north of here — far enough away for him to get well clear.
“Jo, they’ve sent a copter out here. Snipers, everything.”
“C,” she says, “listen. That chopper isn’t the city council. It’s the feds.”
Carlos is leaning over the phone, our heads together so we can both hear.
“No way, Jo,” he says. “The feds after one stupid grad student studying wormholes in prairie dog colonies? They don’t give a damn. I make sure they don’t.”
“They’re not after you,” she says. “They’re after the city council. Soon as they heard the council was getting ready to move, the orders started flying. And soon as the city council heard about that, they amped up the operation.”
The silence drops down until we can hear the sound of moving water below our feet. Then Carlos begins to laugh. He laughs silently, and it shakes his body against mine. I hear my own pulse beat and swell, and I am trying to breathe evenly, as he says, “You mean there’s a real one? There really is someone out here with a government grant? And they’re willing to go apeshit to protect it? And now the council has decided I’m some kind of Los Alamos Mata Hari developing the next cyberdrone all on my own— and they’re all out here chasing each other? Oh my God, oh sweet Mother ...”
“Jo,” I say, breathing hard, “is that true? What are they going to do now — shoot on sight?”
I can imagine her in her quiet round room, tapping the unending circular movement of thought around the ether, a small woman with greying hair and deft fingers wearing her mother’s leather boots, carefully oiled, and a silver necklace.
“I’m on it,” she says. “So’s Dana.”
“Jo, never mind me,” Carlos says. “The question is, what in hell are they protecting. There’s something out here they wanted to hide. And now we know it, and they don’t know we know.” He is laughing again, with a kind of sober triumph, like he’s just gotten a cosmic joke on them. “It’s a moccasin game, and we’ve just started winning. But if they get too scared they’ll move whatever they’re doing, shut it down. So we’ve got to find it, now, while they’re all out looking for traces of my outhouse.”
“They’ll need water,” I say, “whatever they have set up. And they’ll need to be close enough to hike a road or somewhere they can get supplies without being seen. If someone had been dropping supplies by copter out here, we’d have known by now. Get Black Angel on it, and John. And the coyotes.”
Black Angel came out here on sabbatical, working on dry-land irrigation. She and John have adapted techniques going back centuries. If anyone knows the movements of water on and under the earth, they do. And the coyotes know who’s drinking it.
“We’ll find out,” Josie says. ”But what about you?”
“We cover for you,” Carlos says. “”We keep them busy. Don’t worry. Soon as you know something, you tell us, ok? And Jo — keep safe.”
We hear her murmur something to herself, the way she often does when she’s working, talking to her communication lines, singing to something out in the sun and the wind. All she says to us is “you too.”
Then we’re looking at each other across the silent phone in the dark. I can still feel the laughter pulsing in him, half afraid and half assured, and I am aching to share the joke. I am still shaking, feeling his movement in the air between us, and listening with my neck and shoulders and calves for the sound of the helicopter returning.
I ask him, “what’s a moccasin game?”
I feel him nod. “It’s a betting game,” he said. “We play it on winter nights. You have two teams, and each team has a set of shoes. Each side puts something in one of them, and then they set out their shoes in a row and take turns trying to guess which shoe is full and tossing something to hit it, to see if they’re right. So here we all are, and we’re all looking. But you and I know which shoe is full.”
Now I’m smiling at the dark roof of the cave, even while my face is stiff and my throat feels scoured dry.
“I get it,” I say. “It’s like with John. I do that all the time.” I feel him turn toward at me, so I go on. “You know how I’m always making cracks about the empty greenmarket and his nonexistant crops, and it feels like I’m taking a dig at him. It feels like that to the city council. But everyone here knows you just drive out to his farm. Whenever I mention his name, I’m reminding them to check out whatever’s in season. The city council think I’m jibing about the planning board caving to the supermarkets and refusing to permit a farmers market. Or they think I’m making wiseass jokes about trying to grow anything in this climate. But everyone else knows farmers have raised maize and fruit trees here for 20,000 years — and they know I’m really telling them he has sweet corn and peaches to sell.”
He is still now, completely still, as though the air has gone out of him. Then he sits up with his arms folded around his knees.
“You know,” he says, slowly, quietly, “I’ve been wondering why Black Angel never seems angry with you. When she’s working with John and all.”
Now I am sitting up too. I feel suddenly lost. All this time, thinking about how I could help Carlos, what knowledge I could give him to get him to call me again, and now this. I never thought. I say, “she was the one who came up with that joke. She and John worked it out between them.”
He rests his forehead on his arms, and we hear the wind rise and fall. He says, “is it all like that?”
I can’t believe he didn’t know. I can feel drag of the sleep I lost last night, and I am talking without the radio knap in my voice. I’m talking out of sheer need for him to know.
“Carlos,” I say, “I run a radio station in an authoritarian state. I grew up knowing what the city council can do for fun, because they’re bored, because it’s Tuesday. How do you think I survive when they’ve shut down the paper and the whole damn phone and mail system? My whole life is a moccasin game.”
We sit in silence. And this time, it’s my silence. I own this silence. It isn’t going anywhere until I know he understands.
I gave him a place to set up his research station. I started coming out here as soon as he set it up — about three days after I first heard him speak at that town meeting. The first time, I told him I was here to ask about his work. That’s the best part of being a reporter, right? You show up with a notebook, and it’s amazing the people who will talk to you. He talked to me. Sometimes only for a few minutes, sometimes I could get him going about crystal structures and erosion patterns for hours. He knows I’ve never said on air anything that really mattered to him. He’s seen me walking around with my notebook, C the geek with his illegal pencil and his glasses, asking questions. He’s heard me talk with Josie and Angel and John. He’s heard me tell my interns where not to go, when to stay home, who to ask and who not to ask and what to ask the mayor to pull her leg. How in hell can he not know what I do? His hand fumbles against my ear and settles on my shoulder and tightens. The creek wash sounds clear, the water running over the gravel, and I feel as though it’s running down me head to foot.
He says “C, we’ve got to do something.”
I’m going to prompt him, but I wait, letting the silence do that, the way he does with me.
“We’ve just carefully erased all the signs we could that we’re here,” he says. “They may think I left awhile ago. They may even miss the whole station — I wouldn’t trust the council for anything. We can’t let them give up and go home. We’ve got to keep them out here, concentrating on my top-secret carbon-dating research.” His hand tightens to punctuate it. “You ok with being a decoy?”
His arm slips across my shoulder and he grips hard and briefly, and I lean into him. He lets go before I can return his touch and says, smiling again in the dark, “Then let me use your phone.”
When Josie’s voice comes up he says ”Listen, Jo. You told C I have a virus. I need to know.”
She says it’s something new. Most viruses become obvious on the infected computer. This one creates carriers. It’s invisible on Carlos’ laptop, but it can be activated to target any site he visits, anyone he sends an email to. It can even target a specific group or conversation, or people who use a certain word.
“You know how?” he says and his shoulders lift at her terse answer. “And you can scramble the back-trail. Ok,” he says, with the grin plain in his voice. “Then which government enforcement agency should I write to, to complain of unjustifiable persecution from my local police force?”
He sits back against the wall to compose the email, and I’ve been thinking too. I tell him if I’m supposed to be in the station today, I should be reporting this as though I were there. He looks up, and the assurance is suddenly gone from his voice.
“How long will it take to get it on the air? You’ll have to hike in, and even if they don’t see you — or can you call in to Dana?” I flick on my phone.
“I can have it on the air 20 minutes.” I hear him breathe out. I say “Don’t you know Josie better than that? I can broadcast from anywhere. She built the app two years ago. I’ve been careful not to use it except in emergencies. Come on, man — the radio station is my biggest moccasin. When they think they know where I am, they don’t look.”
He says, “do it then,” and goes back to infecting the fed computer system, and I call the station. At the first break in the news I pause the pre-recorded broadcast.
“Listeners, this just in. A black helicopter has been seen flying across the canyons. Our sources in the Sherriff’s secret police tell me this craft is not local. Carlos, on a field expedition near his research station, called in to tell us he has heard the sound of a helicopter in the distance but has not yet seen it. He has been studying the passage of time as measured in sedimentary deposites. So listeners, if you see any good schist in the neighborhood, let us know, and if you see a black helicopter, look down, stay indoors, and wait quietly until the sky is clear. Further updates — stay tuned.”
He waits to make sure I’m off the air and then without looking up, he says, “What about Dana? If you’re wrong and they come to the station?”
“She won’t be there,” I say. “She’s keeping out of this. I don’t want her hurt. Josie’s keeping an eye on her.”
“Josie said she’s in on this.”
“Only remotely,” I say. “Dana’s monitoring the police scanner.”
We found it years ago. They broadcast a frequency above human range of hearing. But they forget I bring my dog to the studio. The quiet here now is thick enough to make the patter of his fingers on the phone echo like water dripping through limestone.
“Do I have to tell you,” I say, “where every one of my interns is now?”
The patter stops. I say, “That’s how I learned about moccasins. Keeping my kids safe. Do you really think I’d put them at risk?” I can’t keep my voice steady, though I try. “I only made that mistake once,” I say. “I was 18, and I was an intern myself. Ask me and I’ll tell you.”
“I’m sorry.” His voice catches in his throat too. He hits send and says, “Here goes. We’d better get clear of here, just in case.”
We scramble along the river for several sweaty miles. Dana texts us the secret police have combed through the empty research station and destroyed Carlos’ bat scanners. His shoulders stiffen at that. He built those himself, tracing the patterns of hunting fruit and brown bats, plotting their caves and the flow of insects, and building the movements into algorithms, just for the beauty of it. She says they are patrolling to the north of us, circling out from the station, but they haven’t found the truck yet.
I broadcast from a scrap of shade under a rock shelf while we discuss tactics. Computer signals and fake radio are only going to hold them so long.
We are eating oranges and cold canned soup with our fingers when Josie tells us she has narrowed down the location of the real grant to several places within about 15 miles of us. The Carlos-born virus has shut down email systems across the federal networks, because the first response most people had to malfunctioning hardware was to email their IT department or their bosses. The helicopter, she says, has been unable to communicate with its superiors and is tracking the city council convoy.
“When you find their bolthole, we’ll check it out,” Carlos says. “If you get worried, let us know and we’ll wave our coats at them. We’d better set up some kind of serious distraction to cover us.”
He is lying on his back, looking upward at the rock as it shifts from clay red to dun to slate to translucent. I see him tense and raise his head.
“Let us know,” he says and hands me back the phone and says to me, “I know how to call them when we want them. Where can we climb out of here?”
“When they find the truck, they’ll follow the river. We left tire tracks.”
“Which they drove over. With two convoys.”
“Two caterpillar tractors wouldn’t erase every sign. Do you want to bet they won’t start checking every canyon that leads to the river?”
I am looking up the rock wall to the exposed edge.
“We’ll be visible higher up.”
“That’s the point.” He gives me a hard, slanting smile and says “we’ve got to bait a copter trap.”
We look at each other, and I nod slowly. I’ll trust him. Because I choose to trust him.
We find a cracked and tumbled place to scramble up the cliff wall. We’re bouldering below the rock chimney when we hear the distant beat of the rotors.
I touch Carlos’ ankle above me, and he drops down beside me. We angle in against the rock, as close as we can press into the shadow of the cliff.
We wait for it to grow louder. It seems to be following the line of the river. We aren’t the only ones who can find water in dry country. The sound grows. My hands are sweating on the rock. I can feel my heart beat in my throat. I can feel Carlos’ heartbeat against my back. The noise is going to rattle stone off the cliffs.
It passes on up the river, deeper into empty country. We wait until the silence is complete. He is shaking as hard as I am. My feet are wedged painfully between sloping stones, and I am gripping sandstone as though I could fall backwards into the sunlight. I can feel the muscle taught in his arm. We wait long minutes, until my ankles are shooting pain and my shirt sticks to me.
Finally he says, “We’ve got to get up there” and pushes himself off the stone and sets his boot into a crack.
I haul myself up to the foot of the rock chimney and watch him climb, a shadow moving in the crack in the rock with a smooth pause and lift and press. I dry my hands and leave blood on my jeans.
We find three more places to bait the canyon rim. We head north along the mesa’s edge with the river below, then double back to cross the mesa through the thickest screen of sage brush.
At the far side, a scrub of juniper gives us, for the first time, a screen of branches against the sky. We sink down in the shade, breathing hard, and we drink sparingly while Carlos tells me how the trap will spring.
“See,” he says, “if they do trace it back to me, it’s got to look innocent. I can say it’s a test run for an experiment or —” he shrugs, unsatisfied.
“You can say it’s a joke on me,” I say. “Something weird for me to boadcast.”
“We still need to rig it.”
I tell him Dana can work it out from my old scout manual. My phone has begun vibrating under my ribs.
“I think we’ve got it,” Josie says.
A flagged map appears on the screen. The coyote gps, the system she and Carlos have built into those tracking collars, taps satellite and universty databases and feeds data from the coyotes back into Josie’s web. They figured out that a coyote’s tracking collar doesn’t have to track just coyotes — and they’ve set up as many collars as they can find to take different readings. The system maps aquifers, water sources, geological deposites and strata, abandoned mine sites, movements of game, fossil beds, archaeological remains excavated and unexcavated, with meteorological data, pollen dissemination and carbon dating — in four dimensions. It can call up a dimensional map of this area in any period over the last four million years. It even maps mirages. Carlos has told me that the coyotes have programmed their own version by smell, which is still more accurate. They’ve been scouting water sources within human range of supply delivery, and they’ve found a new human encampment inhabited about as long as Carlos has been here.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“Four white men in an aluminum trailer,” she says. “Let me talk to Carlos.”
I pass the phone over, and they switch from one language to another. It makes me envious listening to them. My Spanish is ok, and I can get pretty colorful in it when I get going, but it’s not like knowing a language from before you can remember. In Hebrew I only have a few words from my grandparents. Jo’s taught me a little of her language, but not enough to have a real conversation or to follow what is Carlos saying now, and who am I kidding — I’m envious because she can speak to him in Apache, and I can’t. I never had the patience to learn until he came and gave me a reason.
I sit and mop the sweat on the back of my neck. She must be telling him what she knows about where we’re going. I think of the beautiful irony of it, the two of them exchanging vital information securely and simply like this, like the code talkers in World War II.
He sucks in air as though he has taken a kick to the gut. He draws breath and says something low and bare. Then he turns to me.
“Ok,” he says. “We’re on our way.”
Another scramble and the phone compass bring us down into a network of canyons running west. We set off hugging the rock wall for the shade as well as the protection. He’s wearing my ear buds, so he can listen to the phone as he walks. I am worrying about water long before he finishes talking with Dana, and my shirt is soaked with sweat.
The sun has slanted up the walls toward the canyon rim before we get within range, and we climb again. We’re heading for the blunt end of a long blind canyon, and we need to see them before they see us.
This time I hear the copter first. It’s sweeping the mesas, and it’s still a dot on the horizon. We are flat on the mesa with 100 yards of stone-hard earth ahead and no cover, not a stone or a Joshua tree.
Carlos speaks softly into my phone. A light flashes on the canyon rim, miles behind us now — a light that could come from a carelessly held pair of field glasses. The helicopter veers off toward it, back oward the river, and we are sprinting in the other direction to throw ourselves down in the brush before our movement can give us away.
Lying in the rabbit brush, we look down at a plain aluminum trailer with anything but plain windows. They look all right to the naked eye, but through binoculars we can see they are the kind of tinted one-way glass you see in expensive government cars.
I know what happens next. Now that the chopper is back we have no time to waste. I sling off my sweaty shirt and put on the spare from my pack. Carlos tosses me the jean jacket he’s had rolled and strapped to his pack, a battered baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses.
One of us is going in there, and it’s going to be me. We both know why. It’s an ugly fact, but it’s there. How likely is it that the feds would hire an Apache-Mescalero-Nakai officer? It doesn’t even matter if they would — what matters is whether those thugs in the trailer would believe it in the first seconds or minutes when we make contact.
Carlos has been texting Josie on my phone. He gives me the sign.
As I slide cautiously down from the talus slope, behind us on the mesa along Vale creek four bubble tripods on four rock outcrops are pointing toward the sun. They are the palm-sized stands Carlos uses to mount motion-sensitive cameras in remote places, and he long ago rigged them to move remotely, so that he could move the cameras or program them to follow movement. Now, each one is holding not a camera lens but a palm-sized flat slice of mica — the original reflective mirror. As I begin my descent, half a dozen miles away Carlos’ tripods are heliographing to the sky.
He got Dana to set up the message in morse code and Josie to program it, randomizing the letters using his bat algorithms. And when I saw what he meant to send I grabbed his shoulders and swung him around before I could stop myself, in glee. If they have their system back up by now, the helicopter boys will be decoding: When, in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth ...
But now I’m on the canyon floor, a layered slice of rock shielding me from the trailer so they won’t see how I came, and I’m walking up the canyon. We can’t see in the windows, and its obvious there’s only one way to find out what’s going on in there. Through the door.
My footsteps sound loud and gritty. The sun has fallen behind the canyon rim, and in the shade I am shivering in my sweating skin. The plain aluminum trailer with the blank windows looks like a man in sunglasses. It looks blank. No trash, no buckets, no marks in the baked dirt — a trailer with no sign that anyone has ever gone in or out, except that it’s too shiny to have sat here long.
I don’t know how I keep walking, except that I can’t face Carlos and tell him I didn’t make it.
I get within 50 feet before anything visibly stirs. The door opens inward five inches, and a man’s voice asks me who I am.
“Scan me,” I say, and keep walking. This place will have all the tech. They’ll have been reading me every step I took since I came within sight of the windows. But the problem with relying on scans is that a computer decides who my retinas belong to — and Josie is talking to this one. From where he stands, the man behind the door has been watching the approach of a man in sunglasses who has higher clearance than he does.
“There’s been no word,” he says. “You have no authority —”
“They’re putting you under quarentine,” I ride over him. This is the hard part. “They flew me in. Someone from this area sent an email infected with the variola virus. How does it happen that the virus you are developing has fouled up large sections of the Federal system in less than 12 hours? I have the authority to shut — you — down.”
The last three words come out hard, and I am leaning into the gap in the door. Josie traced the virus on Carlos’ computer back here.
“Until they are satisfied that this situation is contained and the source of that virus is eliminated, you are off-line,” I say. “You know the risks.”
“I need more authorization than —”
“Check your scanner, soldier.”
My voice snaps into top radio-alarm range, and I turn desperation into anger. He’s a marine as well as a physicist — Josie got us the names of the four men in this building and their background checks, but she couldn’t see inside these walls. The tablet they use for an internet connection was easy once she’d followed Carlos’ virus backward to it, but any other hardware they’re using here has no outside connection, no link to any external machine or satellite. Their research exists only in their own encrypted network. That’s why I’m here, banging my backpack frame against this door. On the upside, thanks to Carlos and Josie these four haven’t made contact with the outside world since breakfast.
“You want authorization on an insecure line? Your virus has shut down half the Mall, sir. You are attracting attention. You heard that copter,” I say. “Someone set the local council clowns on you boys. You have a leak, soldier. You want authorization with witnesses? You think I packed in here for the exercise? Hell, they don’t want a truck within 50 miles of you.”
I am crowding in, spinning this out as though it’s two minutes to midnight in the station and I’ve got nothing on the turntable. He backs a step as he works it out. If he countermands the orders of a senior officer, he will put himself under suspicion as the saboteur.
He is hard muscled and stiff as a splitting maul and trained in hand-to-hand combat and outweighs me by two to one. Inside the camper, in the lack of light, I can see a metal bunk bed, an unused camp stove and a propane tank, and nothing else — except a door in the far wall, where the camper backs against the cliff. I ground the backpack and keep walking. Right now it’s all about momentum.
I feel the vibration against my collar bone, inside the jean jacket. I pray to whoever Josie sings to over her wires and put my hand on the inside door.
It opens. She’s gotten me this far.
It opens into a sealed tube of a corridor. Whatever natural crack in the rock they’ve made use of, this walkway is airtight.
The far end is fitted with a metal door sealed with a biokey. Why bother with electronic key cards when you can key the mechanism to my chromosomes? He is walking behind me, jaw locked, and at the first sign of faltering I’ll be spread-eagled against that door with my nose flattened like a spatula — I can feel it in him. So I keep walking, steadily, as slowly as I can plausibly allow for a rock channel in the dark. Josie will need every milisecond I can buy her to work on that mechanism. But if I’m within its range, it’s within mine. I’m wearing a spare coyote collar. Carlos had some of his lightest equipment in his pack, in case they found the truck and impounded it. Jo’s taking readings now off a chip resting in the hollow between my collar bones. Under the jean jacket and T-shirt it’s inconspicuous, and if you saw it, it might look like a heavy concho necklace.
I reach out slowly, and red light glows against my fingertips. The vibration touches me again below the throat, and a prickle lifts the hair on the backs of my calves. I’m in, here, too. I put my hand against the door, and it slides back.
Three white men look toward the door. The room is sealed in rock, and it feels airless. They are wearing lab coats, leggings and head coverings, with rubber gloves and masks over their mouths. The man behind me is pulling on gloves. I am giving him a running commentary on the state of the federal communications system, all accurate to the minute from the time I climbed down the canyon, while I take in the room.
One man works at a tablet running a three-dimensional design program. One sits at a microscope, manipulating images on the screen of his own tablet, and one stands at a meticulously levelled metal table, folding a sheet of tracing paper. Beside the microscope, tubes of a translucent gel float inside a clear liquid.
The sweat is cold on my neck.
Folded paper. Carlos told me about a student working with origami in his grad program, and I loved the elegance of it. Origami designed to create microscopic machines too small to see or to engineer in any direct way — create creases in the material and heat it to fold it into that shape.
The face masks turn towards us as the man behind me says “he says it’s variola in the system.”
His voice comes muffled, as though he is shielding his mouth and nose, like a surgeon guarding against infection.
When the word imprints itself on my brain, my hands tremble so that I thrust them into my pockets, pressing against my hip bones.
I could almost believe in a God again so I can thank him for the sound of my own voice going on without me — thank him for the irony of what saves me right now. Because if I have one skill it is talking into the silence while I think about something else. I am still leading my false inspection into their safeguards, haranguing them about their firewall, while I stare at a test tube and absorb its implications.
A virus they can control — not in machines — in people. They’ve done it before, less technically, but with wholesale devastation. Not far from here I’ve seen adobe houses with footholds still clear in the cliff wall and corn bins broken open, houses and temples and workshops where people sang, and fed the fires with pine cones to watch the sparks, and smelled sweet corn roasting, and taught their children the stars in the summer triangle. And prayed morning prayers.
They lived all through here before illnesses took them. I look at these four men, and I feel sick even to shaking. I clamp my mouth shut. Variola, they called that computer virus. The Latin name for smallpox. What if they could spread it at will, with pinpoint accuracy, like a drone strike?
I ask them for a progress report. The man behind me is still breathing hard. But I know all of their names — I know things no one should know beyond their immediate government contacts.
The silent touch on my skin tells me Josie has breached their encrypted system.
We have planned for this. I tell them I am ordered to pack out to a safe distance and make contact with the copter. I let them decide whether I mean safe for them — not to bring the copter here and attract notice — or safe for my superiors. If I’m right, the isolation of this lab cuts two ways. No one in the White House is ever going to admit to knowing about this place.
The door closes behind me. The air washes down the canyon over me. I breathe the way I drank water in the creek at noon. I run my hands over my hair as though I can scoop clean air over my head the way I slicked water over my scalp.
I walk up the canyon, making myself walk, not sure whether they will follow, how far their scanning equipment reaches, whether they now have me on satellite recon, a dot on a map, whether they are watching the moonlight on the canyon wall out of my eyes.
So I walk one foot at a time, with no sound but my soles against the stone, until the vibration comes a fourth time, like damp fingers touching me in blessing. Josie is telling me the coast is clear. My sinews all seem to give at once. I walk on, my head leaning against the pack and my hands tangled in the straps, until I find a bouldered place where I can climb out, and I lean against the rock and am sick into the sand.
Higher on the cliff, Carlos is sitting with our one working phone. He has been sending pre-recorded conversations out over the air. His voice, apparently on the phone from a crevasse near his wrecked research station, calls into the show, and mine answers, apparently in the station, following the gyrations of the city council jeeps.
He is giving me an alibi. If it comes to it, we’re hoping those four scientists won’t remember a face seen in uncertain light under a hat brim and behind sunglasses — and that no one will have tossed any stones at the empty radio station to see what’s in it.
The cool air from the higher levels flows down, washing away the hot air off the canyon floor. The pack is scoring my shoulders by the time I reach his niche, and my arms are trembling with muscle strain. I bellyflop onto the ledge.
He is sitting well back in a break in the rock, shielded on three sides and above. As I ease into the cooler space between the rock walls, weight on the palms of my hands, I can hear the thread of sound from the phone he is holding in both hands.
It’s the last of the decoded message from the heliographs — we recorded it as though I’d picked it up from “sources within the Sherriff’s secret police” to run as soon as Josie gave us the high sign that someone had cracked it.
At home, on a thousand radios, my voice is repeating: We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
I think, maybe we’ll mean it this time.
He looks up, and I see he is running wth sweat. Even today in the canyons he never showed the heat like that, no more than a glisten on the skin. But if I feel sick, if I can still feel my diaphragm juddering, it must be nothing to what he feels. The people who lived and live here are his people. I don’t have to tell him what this could mean if I’m right. I don’t have to say a word.
He knows what I saw. The collar is a webcam. He has been watching every step I took. That’s the other reason I went in alone — if anything happened, he would be the one witness, the one who could get out of here alive. And he could break the story without exposing Josie and Angel.
“What do we do?” I say, working to breathe so the words are even. “We don’t have long. Not even Jo can keep them from sending a man out here if the net stays down much longer.”
The last of the light washes off an upthrust thumb of rock. You could make an observatory here, I think, and send people out on this night of the year to see that conjunction. Maybe people who live here already have.
“In the story about the first moccasin game,” he says, “when the giant realizes his team is losing, he runs away.”
I look out into the darkness over the cool planes of rock, and I can feel the hard smile lift my mouth.
“So I’ll tell the giant he’s losing.”
His hand tightens on the phone, and he doesn’t seem to notice.
I grin at him. “What’s the media for? If this goes public, do you think the feds’ll have the cojones to admit they’re involved? They’ll let these guys hang by their thumbs.”
“You’d go public? You’d take that risk?”
“For something like this? Without question.”
He isn’t breathing. I wonder if I have ever really surprised him before. And I mean it. If I have no other way to act against what I’ve just seen, the station will go down in flames tonight. I feel almost reluctant as I say, “But I may not have to.”
I explain, and he listens in stillness, in the shadow of the rock. I can’t see his face to read it, but he nods. He lifts the phone and seems to swallow, and I watch him fumble through a series of texts in his own language.
When he holds out the phone at last, all he says is “you think 140 characters is bad in English.”
I take the phone from him and play back the first few seconds of recorded footage.
“This’ll take some time without my laptop,” I say.
“And we don’t want to work it from here,” he says. “Come on. Jo’s given us a present.”
He touches the phone in my hand, bringing up the map app, and I see a flag down canyon away from any place we’ve covered today. We’ll pass another flag to get there, a seep that should have something left in this season.
“It’s five miles,” he says, neutrally. Maybe he’s remembering I’ve hiked farther today than he has, but I hear no doubt in him. Right now, between adrenaline and sickness and cold sweat, it’s all I can do to stay sitting here, so close to the air of that place.
So we walk in the dark along the baked-hard top of the mesa, and he puts a hand through the strap of my pack to keep us from getting separated. I can feel the backs of his fingers along my ribs.
We find the place on the far side where we came up, and we wait for moonrise while I record my voice into the phone. We both have headlamps, but we agree that turning them on would make us feel as exposed as a campfire. The copter doesn’t have to land at sunset. When the moon comes, gibbous and compact, we begin our descent. He goes first, and I try to put my hands and feet where his have been.
When the earth comes under my feet again we set off along the canyon floor, keeping to bare rock when we can. When we have gone a mile or more by the phone’s clock, I begin to record as we walk.
We find the seep not by the map but by the quiet sounds of the night creatures who know it. I want to dunk my head, to sluice off the stink of fear, but it’s a slight pool of water, and so many mouths need it that I check the movement. Carlos tells me to wait until we take this last step. We drink and fill our bottles, and I let one palmfull of water run over my face.
I would not have known what Josie had given us without him. In the dark, listening to our feet chafe the rock, I would have walked by it and kept on going until I had to stop. But he knows. He finds the hand holds and the footholds, and I follow him again up to the sandstone ledge and the clean stone walls. The cliff leans overhead, darkened with fires 600 years old. We stand in the central dooryard where families would have sat together in the evenings. He leaves me sitting in a doorway with a high sill to protect small children, and I hear him moving about the stone as I to work.
Josie aleady knows how to get me inside the last fence. When we first heard of this device, she said it seemed such an obvious tool to instill fear, she had to know how to dismantle it. I patch my voice recording to the film footage from the trailer as cleanly as a phone app can do it, and the result is rough but impossible to mistake. Then I record a radio broadcast.
When I look up finally, stiff in the shoulders, and feel the night chill for the first time, Carlos is sitting cross-legged in the open, watching me. Beside him from somewhere has grown a pile of kindling and wind-scoured wood. He must have climbed again to find it, more than once. His pack leans flat and empty against the wall, as though he used that to ferry the load. Behind it a humped, rounded shape must be the ground sheet from his pack held up on a frame of lashed branches. I suppose he must have rigged himself a tent.
I can see it, and I can see him, in a muted light. He has lit a scrap of fire back near the wall where it can’t be seen from above and ringed it with stones.
He unfolds and moves to sit beside me in the door, close enough to see the screen. And then I text Jo.
Across Night Vale, the government security alert system on phones and televisions begin to beep those jagged sounds that wake you out of a sound sleep to tell you about flash floods and tornadoes. The system turns on televisions and radios automatically to spread the message. Footage of a hidden laboratory in the desert. The faces of the men involved, recognizeable behind their masks. Warning. Contamination. Possible source of illness. Federal agencies urge caution.
And then, after the right interval, after time enough for the me who supposedly spent the day in the station to jerk groggily awake and stumble into the station in my jockeys, my first broadcast goes out over the air, confused, groping for sources, repeating the public warning. And my show goes out over the net, as it always does. And now the whole world can hear it.
It’s not over yet. Now I have to do all the things I would do if I were really there. My head is swimming. I won’t let Dana make these calls — she doesn’t know anything about it. She’s staying the night away from any electronic devices. Angel has promised me that. I want her safe, asleep with my dog at the foot of the bed, away from any possible blame.
I have to call the city council and the sherriff officially, and all my contacts unofficially, and ask all the questions I would ask if I were just jogged out of bed with the warning still dinning in my ears. I have to be muzzy and panicked and hot after the story. My tongue feels thick, and my head aches with the effort of keeping my eyes open.
Carlos shifts to stand, and I feel cold air against my skin and listen to his footsteps. My head touches the doorway and I lift it, roll my shoulders to straighten my back. Footsteps. Carlos hands me a metal camping cup hot to the touch and a hard, lumpy plastic bag. Black tea. Peanuts, raisins and chocolate chips, melted together.
“I thought you might be hungry.”
How long since the oranges we ate by the river?
“You read my mind.”
“Yeah?” I can hear him smiling, though his voice is unsteady as he watches me haul my head up off the wall again. “What would you give for a neck rub?”
“We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
He slides his hands into the jean jacket I’m wearing, his jacket, and eases it half off my shoulders to rest his hands at the nape of my neck. He keeps them there all through the weary series of calls. While the drone voices shout and hang up, while I argue my way through the night shift at the police station, while I shake on the edge of an exhaustion that would make me afraid I could not keep myself going if his hands were not there holding me together, he kneels behind me, sometimes rubbing at the tension, sometimes resting his hands flat and quietly along my shoulders or cupping the back of my head.
When I hang up the phone, my hand drops like a dead weight, and he stops me from smashing the screen against the stone. He has reached forward around me, and I sag against him.
And then he notices what I’m wearing under the jacket. It’s his t-shirt. He let me borrow it at a music festival up-canyon when a city council gopher spilled beer all over my front and my notebook. The shirt has a slogan, an archeology joke. He really does use carbon dating — he has the equipment — and this shirt uses the periodic table abreviations. It says: “C dating is for big rocks” — with a monolith against the setting sun.
So you figure out why I kept it. And why I’m wearing it now. I’ve worn it enough, I’ve sewn up a couple of holes. Not that it was new when I got hold of it.
“Did you bring my shirt on purpose?”
“Yeah. I did.”
I don’t even try to pretend I brought it to give it back to him.
“Look,” I say, “I don’t care how this sounds — if I was going into battle, this is what I wanted to wear.”
He’ll know now, if he didn’t believe me before. He saw the art exhibit with me up at the university with the contemporary artist who makes shirts as collages, because among his Cheyenne people a woman would make a shirt for her husband or her son when he went to war, and she would incorporate their lives together into the cloth. I told Carlos I liked that, and we talked about what we might want to wear on our bodies to remember from our lives.
His hands move around me to touch the symbol on the shirt.
“You never told me.”
“I told you all the time. Over the air. Until I thought you didn’t want me to.”
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want you to.” His voice is low, without defiance, the gentle tone I used to think was neutral. Now I know I was wrong. “It’s a private thing,” he says. “I couldn’t understand how you could talk about it like that to anyone listening. Not if you felt it.”
He’s right. I was mocking myself, but he couldn't have known. He still has an arm around me and his fingers lightly on my chest. I move my hand lightly over his.
“I know I sounded like a dumb teenager, but I meant it. I meant it more every time. I’m sorry.”
He is looking through the open doorway toward the fire, and I know now that not looking at me doesn’t mean he isn’t listening to me. I can feel him wanting me to go on — or maybe I just have to believe it because I can’t leave him thinking what he’s thinking — so I do.
“When I’m in the station late at night, it doesn’t feel like the world out there exists. It’s just me and a million vinyl records no one outside a college dorm has ever heard and the desert at night. It’s like I’m sitting out here in the dark, listening to the rodent feet in the sand. I wasn’t saying those things to everyone. I was saying them to you.”
I could almost feel him there those nights, in the chair by the mike, close enough to talk into it, so when I was talking his head would rest against mine.
“I wanted you to be listening,” I say.
His fingers press inward.
“Why wouldn’t I be listening?” He says. The words come out hard, like an old frustration made sharp. “Why do you assume I wouldn’t be? I’m a scientist, man. Paying attention is all I do.”
I’m looking at the firelight spreading on the rock because if I look at him he’ll look away, and I need him to hear this the way he heard Josie today, with his whole body, so his hearing will draw it out of me until I can finally put it in words.
“I know,” I say. “Being with you, I’ve learned that quiet is courtesy. That when you’re quiet, it’s because you’re letting me talk. Radio never taught me a lot about silence.”
He lets the silence lie around us, and I think about what I just said, and I feel him letting me think about it, letting me hold it until it fades naturally into the smell of the night, the dry sharp smell of piñon and heating rock and wood smoke, and his scent too, and I feel naked, and the silence is holding this open naked pulsing time. And his leg is against mine from hip to knee as we sit, and I am shaking.
He says, “we could try some silence.”
If I knew how to pray an evening prayer, I would be praying it now.
Shivti b'veit Adonai kol y'mei chayyai.
Let me be with you all the days of my life.
He says, “I can make us a sweat bath.”
And then I know what he made for me while I was sitting here in the doorway. His arms tighten, and I can feel heat like the stones around the fire, and I fold my arms over his. We will sit in the heat and the damp and the dark, and he will sing softly in his own language. He will tell me stories he remembers the way I remember those words of prayer as a child, when they moved the day, when words could make people act and change the way you saw. He will tell me stories about the first people singing in the damp and the dark when there was nothing, singing the earth to stand on, singing a frog or a duck out of mud and laughter, when everything was night and everything was new.
And we will come out again clean and wet into the night, and he will hold me up and give me the water he has saved to drink, and we will pass it between us, and I will touch him dry with my shirt.
I tremble. I am praying.
Ani l'dodi v'dodi li.
I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine