Julia Maciel peered down off of the sheer cliff. Yeah. Ha ha. No way.
Julia and her – what were they, co-travelers? – had followed the tracks of the airplane. At first it was a relief to know that the earth hadn’t just swallowed it up. Or that someone had somehow dismantled it piece by piece within an hour.
Yet the truth wasn’t that much better. Based on the tire tracks, someone had rolled the jet off of the rim of a crater. Pine forested or not, Mars still had more big craters than Minnesota had lakes, because during millions of years its thin atmosphere had done next to nothing to stop massive asteroids slamming into the planet’s surface.
Deleuze, wearing their only holo-ring, used an app to measure the distance from where they were, the top of the cliff, to the bottom. It was about 75 meters, or about the height of a 25-story building. Carefully peering down, they saw no evidence of a fallen plane.
“Somehow it disappeared,” said Stuart with a true believer’s awe.
“Look at this,” Kenyatta pointed to a small hole in the ground near his feet. “They had a pulley here, maybe just pulled it out. The plane didn’t disappear. There must be a cave somewhere in the sheer face. They lowered it and took it.”
“They’re alive!” squawked Isabel. “They’re really here! There are people here!” She did a happy dance, her knees lifting high while her feet swung side to side.
Julia was still skeptical, but it had to be true. Somehow, people living here had avoided satellite detection. Obviously, no animal could move a plane like that – right?
Stuart peered down the cliff. “Do we have any rope?”
“Do we have any anything?” answered Julia. “No. It was all locked in the plane.”
“We have our bos,” declared Isabel. “And Deleuze’s ring.”
“Not forever,” sighed Deleuze. “Its charger is in the plane. Why didn’t you guys bring your rings to the river?”
“Uh, so they wouldn’t get wet,” replied Stuart.
“Besides,” rued Kenyatta, “The whole point was to be off the grid, right?”
“Now,” Stuart declared, “The whole point is to get down into this crater.”
“I’m not climbing down this thing,” Julia said. “I’ll wait for you guys here.” As Binto City had recently reminded her, it was hard enough to do a pinball move against two faces. Point-three-eight-g or not, jumping off this thing meant death.
“Guys,” said Isabel, “you realize they didn’t need to take the airplane? They could have just left it, and we might have been here for weeks wondering if humans were anywhere within kilometers.”
Deleuze bored his eyes into her. “What are you saying?”
Isabel smiled. “I’m saying I feel…welcomed.”
“Hmmm,” mused Stuart. “Can we make rope by peeling the bark off of pine trees?”
“Technically, yes,” chuckled Deleuze. “Realistically, that will take weeks – and it may not work.”
“Then realistically,” said Stuart, “We have to follow this cliff, on foot, until it tapers off or becomes more manageable or something, and then double-back and hope the cave isn’t too far up the face.”
“I don’t normally say this,” Isabel said, “but I agree with Stuart.”
Kenyatta looked out to the other side of the crater, which was further than the horizon. “It probably tapers off sooner to the east, though it’s hard to tell.”
Julia knew that she couldn’t stay here by herself, not with the animal noises she’d heard. “How long is this walk going to take?”
“Shouldn’t you know that?” Deleuze asked Julia. “You didn’t map the area when we came in?”
“Of course I did,” answered Julia. “And I left all that in the plane. What about you guys? I thought you had this whole holy site memorized.”
“I don’t appreciate that skeptical tone.” Isabel was still jubilant. “Especially not after this clear evidence of nearby humans.”
Who are living in a cave around here, Julia thought. Kenyatta and his friends came all this way to live with them in a cave, and now we might never get back? Julia liked being a low-maintenance girlfriend, but this was pushing it. She shared a long look with Kenyatta.
“Well I say we start moving.” Stuart’s eyes alighted on each of them. “Unless anyone has a better idea?”
Kenyatta looked at Julia with resolve. “Sooner we start, sooner it’s done.”
They began following the caldera to the east. Deleuze said it was safer to avoid the cliff’s edge, because of “crumbling cliffs and coming creatures.”
They stayed about five meters from the edge. There was no trail. Stuart opened the “spear” function on one of the three bos and used it as a machete, to blaze them a trail. Minutes passed.
“Stuart,” Julia began, “how about you not use the bo blade that way?”
“First you don’t want us at the cliff, then you want to just push through all this brush?”
“If you wear out that blade…we may need it later.”
“She’s right,” said Kenyatta.
“Fine,” said Stuart, sheathing the bo’s blade. “But that means this trip to the cliff’s bottom is going to take even longer.”
Hours passed. They passed through an area blackened by lava flow, then entered the forest again. They checked the cliff every ten minutes or so; still went on and on and on. They marveled at types of birds that none of them had ever seen before in person.
“How much power is left in your ring?” Julia asked Deleuze at one point.
“Let me see,” he said, turning it on. “About a week, depending how much I use it.”
Isabel wiped sweat off of her brow. “Are we going to stop for lunch?”
“What lunch?” said Stuart. “I’m gonna keep munching on these snowberries.”
“Hate to agree with Stuart again,” said Kenyatta, reaching for a pink-white bulb and pulling the berries off of it.
They came upon what looked like a wolverine, or at least a very bulky raccoon. It hissed at them and crept away into the jungle.
They kept walking.
More time passed. Julia and Kenyatta found themselves out of earshot of the others.
“Kenyatta,” said Julia, “What if this is some sort of elaborate trap?”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe Aquinas, or whoever is out here, lures people into doing what we’re doing…and then takes advantage of them.”
“I hope so,” said Kenyatta. “If even half of what they say is true, I hope Aquinas finds a way to use us, to help create a paradise of peace.”
Julia thought that the peace part sounded good, but she had a bad feeling about the rest of it. “What do you think of Deleuze using his ring to signal for help?”
“If he does that, we’ll never find Aquinas.”
“I figured you’d say that.”
“Of the people who went missing and never came back,” added Kenyatta, “they stopped sending any electronic signal within minutes of arriving on Olympus Mons. The theory is that, just like government satellites, Aquinas senses those signals, and won’t take you if you’re still on the grid.”
Julia kept walking.
“You get that, right?” asked Kenyatta.
“I get it,” she said. Not that she liked it.
The sun was becoming noticeably low in the sky. They paused for a break while Stuart checked the cliff. In a minute, he yelled, “Hey guys, come here!”
Julia was briefly hopeful, then saw the distance to the bottom of the cliff. Deleuze held out his ring to measure it. “Nineteen and a half meters,” he said.
“That’s nothing!” said Stuart. “Look at these gradations here. The angle is far less vertical, and look at these footholds. One of us can get down this thing.”
Everyone looked at Julia, who peered down the cliff again. “Uh, whatever you may have heard, I don’t like playing Spider-Woman.”
“Fine,” said Stuart. “I’m doing it.”
The other four walked about seven or eight meters along the cliff face to a slight outcropping, to be able to give Stuart better advice on his descent.
Suddenly, another wolverine popped out of the woods growling at Stuart, who screamed, lost his footing, and fell off the abutment – clinging to a sheer part of the cliff about a meter from where he’d stood.
“Oh my god!” screamed Stuart. “Help me!” The wolverine was still snarling at Stuart, apparently deciding whether or not pouncing would cause it to fall.
Julia ran over, wielding her bo. Just as she came within striking distance of the wolverine it turned to her, and she had to adjust her upward bo swing slightly as she hit the beast and knocked it right off the cliff. But the wolverine brushed against Stuart on its descent, and Stuart lost his grip and fell. Their gargled yelps made it hard to tell which one was screaming, but they both fell all the way to the bottom.
Julia felt as though she’d been gut-punched. The whole thing happened so fast. She looked at the others, who could see the crater floor better than she could. “Is Stuart moving?”
“I don’t think so,” said Deleuze in an even tone.
“It’s hard to tell from here,” said Isabel.
Julia looked at the path down the mountain that Stuart had scouted. It was doable, though she’d need her bo. She started skittering down…
“Julia!” yelled Kenyatta. “What are you doing?”
The cliff wasn’t as bad as it looked – Stuart had been right. After a few initial places where Julia used her bo to steady her, she was able to follow a divot all the way down.
Julia alighted on the crater floor and ran to Stuart’s body. She listened for a pulse. Nothing. He was dead.
“Can you save him?” shouted Isabel from the top of the cliff.
“He’s barely breathing,” Julia lied. “Deleuze, turn on your ring’s beacon and bring in the cavalry.” Julia remembered the lie she’d told Martina at the BankBank building – to save their lives.
Julia could see the hesitation in Deleuze’s body language even from 20 meters away. “How do I know he’s alive?”
“Are you kidding me?” asked Julia. Equally disturbing, no one else was challenging Deleuze on this. “Hurry before another wolverine knocks you off a cliff!”
“Didn’t you knock him off the cliff?” asked Isabel.
“Don’t you dare,” remonstrated Kenyatta.
“Why aren’t you trying to revive him, mouth-to-mouth?” asked Deleuze.
Julia hoped he couldn’t read her poker face from 20 meters distant. “I’m not sure of his injuries, that could hurt him.”
“How about I check on him?” said Kenyatta, who began scrambling down the mountain, following Julia’s trail. “Hey,” he smiled, “This isn’t as hard as it looks.”
“In that case, I’m coming too,” said Deleuze. Wángbā, Julia thought. “Stuart knew perfectly well that getting to Aquinas would be difficult. He wouldn’t want me to turn on my beacon – whether he’s alive or dead.”
If he’s dead, Julia thought but didn’t say, he doesn’t want a whole lot now does he? For a moment, Julia considered pretending that Stuart had died as the boys climbed down. Then the moment passed.
Kenyatta worked his way down the divot, with Deleuze right behind him. Isabel, obviously not wanting to be left behind, began her descent. Kenyatta and Deleuze arrived on the crater floor one after another, and ran over to Stuart.
“You found him dead, right?” Deleuze asked Julia.
“So that you would call for help.”
“You lied to me?”
“I like winnable fights, Deleuze. This isn’t one.”
“There’s your problem right there, Maciel. This isn’t a fight at all. It’s a journey to salvation.”
Julia noticed the dead wolverine nearby, but she couldn’t take her eyes off of lifeless Stuart. It was her fault, Julia said to herself. Isabel was right. If she hadn’t flinched when she hit the wolverine, if she had just taken the cliff-rappelling job in the first place. Her fault…she felt her heart shiver, like a shadow had fallen over it. As Isabel made it safely to the bottom, Kenyatta came to Julia and hugged her.
“It’s not your fault,” said Kenyatta. “It’s not your fault.” But it was, Julia knew. Another person was dead because of her.