In Search Of Citizen Zero
Everyone remembers where they were when the government announced the end of the world. It was a tough thing to forget. I was in third period Biology when Principal Hennessey came over the loud speaker and told us all to turn on our phones. It was a weird thing to ask-she spent most of her time telling us to do the exact opposite.
I watched my classmates dig out their phones, all giddy about it, like she was going to clue us in on some new Fortnite app. Yeah, right. I didn't own a cell phone; my parents didn't believe in them. They thought cell phones were going to give us all cancer. How paranoid was that?
Tony Cardosa and I huddled around his iPhone while the news anchors did their thing. Honestly though, we all knew what this was about. Anyone who didn't wasn't paying attention.
When President Stanton appeared on the screen, he was sitting behind his fancy desk, with his fancy tie, that hid his big presidential belly. Whenever he showed up on TV, he always had this sort of sneer on his face. Like he had better things to do. But not on that day. On that day, there was a thin layer of dread that even he couldn't hide.
"My fellow Americans, I come before you to address the news stories that have been circulating in the past 24 hours. As you are no doubt aware, over the last 12 months we've seen a drop in the Earth's core temperature. An international consortium of scientists, philosophers, leaders, and military men and women have been working around the clock to solve the problem. We have made progress.
"However, I come before you today to inform you that the issue is still unresolved. We continue to make every effort to find the cause with all haste. I want to be very clear, this is not the end of the world.
We will never stop fighting; we will never stop believing in the values that make this country the best and the..."
I didn't really need to hear the rest. The President didn't go on national T.V. to tell us all the world was not ending. After a year of silence, he was finally giving us an update. But seriously-we've made progress? My uncle Kenny said it best-it sounded like what a politician says right after they've done exactly nothing.
The speech, which came to be known as the Doomsday Address, was an epic fail. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know we were all in big trouble. Maybe not right that second, but it was coming, and the best minds on our planet didn't have a clue. Twelve months of around-the-clock work...and not a clue.
I'd already done the math. Actually, my parents had done the math. My dad was a professor of geology at the University of New Mexico. My mom worked in the same department as a mineralogist. They liked to joke that between the two of them they knew more about rocks than any other couple on the planet. It was the reason they named me Slate, my mom's favorite foliated metamorphic rock. I liked my name-it sounded cool, even if I wasn't.
According to their calculations, if the rate of temperature loss continued on its current course, the Earth's core temperature would drop by a factor of ten in less than a year from now. It was an astounding drop; from 10,800 degrees to basically nothing in a little under two years. Chilling, as my dad once joked. None of us thought his joke was funny. Not even him.
There was lots of speculation about what would happen once the planet lost its core heat. Most assumed we would all freeze to death, like those hikers on Mount Everest; frozen forever in place. But they were all wrong. Well, except for the death part. They got that part right.
To be fair, even scientists didn't know exactly what would happen. But they knew enough. Once the planet lost enough internal heat, the magnetic poles would cease to exist. Then an onslaught of radioactive solar rays that would either burn us all to death or give us all cancer. I didn't like to imagine either of these outcomes.
For those who survived, the solar winds would sweep away every last lake, river and ocean from the planet. Without water...well, anyone could figure that one out. Any way you sliced it, it was the end of human beings on planet Earth. It was a scary thought. Like really scary. But it wasn't like dog-in-your-face scary. It was more like on-the-horizon scary. There was something coming, but you couldn't see it or smell it or even sense it, really.
So there it was, we were all going to die. It didn't matter your race, religion or sexual orientation. Even the super wealthy were going to suffer a miserable death. Just maybe not as quick as the rest of us.
From the time they'd announced the Core Dilemma, wealthy Americans had been buying up these elaborate underground bunkers. I never actually saw one, but I watched every episode of Bunkered Down, a Netflix series that explored these subterranean palaces. It was a pretty sweet show, I have to say. Some of these bunkers had movie theaters, pools, saunas, spas, basketball courts, even full on game rooms. One of them had a dance club that could hold up to 50 people. Was someone really going to host a party down there?
But even an underground fortress could only hold so much food and water. Sooner or later, the supplies would run out. Then the richest of the rich would die, just like all the rest of us.
I looked over at Lindy Newbury, by far the prettiest girl in our sophomore class. She looked like she was on the verge of tears. I wanted to reach over and tell her it would be okay-a lie I was happy to tell. In my year and a half at Carver High School, I had spoken to Lindy Newbury exactly never. I wasn't cool enough to be in her orbit. She was like the sun-the center of the solar system. Her and Jody Dempsey and Michael Barrett and Ron Waylin and the rest of the coolie kids.
That's what we called them-Tony, the two Brians, and I. The coolie kids, the height of the social food chain. And if they were the sun, we were somewhere in the Neptune region, drifting along like chunks of discarded meteorite.
Lindy Newbury and I locked eyes for a moment. She was soooo hot; off the charts as Tony used to say. I wondered for a moment if Lindy was going to profess her love for me. Like she'd been holding out all this time for the perfect moment.
"This is so unfair," she whispered.
I nodded back, words suddenly gone from my brain's CPU. In my head, I could always talk to girls, but in real life I froze up, like some pathetic Disney sidekick. Lindy stood and started from the room, not even bothering to take her backpack with her. Our biology teacher, Mr. Perkins, looked up from his desk, his mouth wrinkled in disbelief.
"Miss Newbury," he snapped, "class is not over!"
Lindy stopped mid stride as a tear slid down her porcelain check. I could almost see the comic book blurb above her head-I'm way too hot to die like the rest of you. But she didn't say that.
"Good luck to you, Mr. Perkins," Lindy whispered. Then she walked out of the room and I never saw her again.
325 days-that was how long we had before we reached the point of no return. Once we hit that, nothing we did could reverse the loss of the core temperature. The fate of the planet would be sealed. 325 days before we were all toast.
Tomorrow the Countdown would stand at 324. Then 323. Soon it would be 100, then 10, and then 9...and then 1. Then it would be game over.
"I got something!" Del called out, his voice echoing down the dark tunnel.
I stood and wiped my hands on my "Happiness Is A Warm Tauntaun" Star Wars t-shirt. It had been one of my favorites before the Doomsday Address, but now it was seriously on its last legs.
"What's it look like?" I called back as I headed for the glow of Del's headlamp.
"Gold, for sure," he chirped. "A big chunk!"
I walked along the old rail line, past a mining cart, its wheels rusted solid to the metal. The Golden Butte mine had been abandoned a century ago, leaving behind a trove of useless mining equipment. The air was cold down here, hundreds of feet below the earth. A thin scent of fish hung in the air. We wouldn't be here long, a few days at the most. There were better abandoned mines to explore.
By the time I reached him, Del was bouncing from foot to foot, his eyes burning with hope. Del was 15, African American, and the youngest of our five-some. He grinned as he chomped the last of his gum, his right hand clutching a chunk of dirty gold.
If our group, The Tunnel and Light Brigade, we had a pecking order, which we did, Del and I were squarely on the bottom. I'd like to think I was fourth in line, but I couldn't say that for sure.
I held out my hand, but he suddenly pulled back. "I found it."
My chin dipped as I flashed him a look-seriously?
Del scrunched up his face and handed over the hunk of metal. I adjusted my headlamp and turned over the piece in my hands. It only took a few seconds to identify, but I still pulled out the shard of porcelain. The metal made a chalky screech against the tile, leaving a greenish black streak in its wake.
"Iron pyrite," I said, handing it back to him.
"Iron pyrite," Del replied with wonder. "What's that again?"
"Fool's gold." Nev's voice floated down the tunnel as she closed the distance. Nev was like of one of those Amazonian women, tall and fit, with olive skin and a smile that could probably light up half of New York. I'd only seen her smile once in the four and a half months I'd known her. Whatever joy she felt, she kept it locked up good and tight. She was like a fairytale heroine who'd made a deal with the devil, vowing never to reveal her true nature.
"Fools gold," Del repeated, his face back to scrunch mode.
"Makes sense," Jay said, his headlamp jostling toward us. He walked on the tips of his toes, said it helped him work his calves. "Seeing as how you're a fool."
"Rather be a fool than a dumb ass," Del shot back.
"I'm pretty sure those two are the same thing," Jay replied.
"It's a nice piece," I said quickly, not wanting the two of them to get into it. Their back-and-forths got super annoying super quick. I focused on the weight of the metal in my hands. "Worth, I don't know, a thousand bucks before the Countdown." I had no idea what it was actually worth, but I was the group's rock hound. I wasn't above exaggeration.
Jay snatched the metal out of my hands.
"Hey, give it back!" Del said.
"Give what back?" Jay replied with a lopsided grin.
Jay was the muscle in our group. There were times when I was glad to have him around; he had good instincts when it came to danger. And as time went on, dangerous situations were becoming way too common. Jay was strong and I suppose good-looking; he definitely would have been one of the coolie kids at Carver. He had a goofy streak in him, but more often than not, he was a real dick wad. Especially to anyone he considered weaker than himself-and that certainly included Del and myself.
"Give it back, ass wipe," Del said.
"Ass wipe?" Jay snorted. "Real original, Delroy."
"I told you never to call me that!"
"It's your name, isn't it?" Jay said. "Tell you what, why don't you take it from me?"
Del clenched his fists, his eyes fiery as Jay tossed the chunk of metal into the air, catching it just out of Del's reach.
"I get it, you're scared." Jay said. "Can't say I blame you."
Del kept up his slow burn as I told myself to step in and protect my friend. Del was my only friend left in this world; I ought to make sure he didn't try anything stupid. Step in, I told myself one last time, but my legs were like lead weights.
"Cool it," Nev said, nodding for me to show her the porcelain tile.
I held up the greenish black streak as she flashed back a disgusted look, as if I were responsible.
"Give it back to him," Nev said flatly to Jay. She didn't wait for answer, just turned on her heels and headed back to her dig spot.
"You heard the lady," Del said. "Give it back!"
"Sure thing, little man. Thing's worthless anyway." Jay tossed the rock carelessly to Del, who snatched it out of the air. "Maybe get us two loaves of bread on the black market."
Jay's eyes followed Nev into the darkness, the corner of his mouth turning down. I could imagine his comic book blurb-Who made her alpha dog? I'd bet a four-carat red diamond Jay had never not been the leader. It bugged him that Nev paid him so little notice. He was in love with her. Del might have been, too.
My watch read 5:34 p.m. when we started back up the mine. We'd found a few pebbles of gold, along with Del's chunk of iron pyrite. Jay was right though, it wouldn't buy us more than a couple loaves of bread on the black market. It wasn't going to get us into a bunker of our own. We needed a miracle find for that: a fist full of painite, or blue garnet, or taaffeite. Rare gems like these might have enough value to buy our way into a bunker. But even that was a big if. Every day that ticked off the Countdown lessened our chances. The Countdown now stood at 78. 78 days until we hit the point of no return.
We were less than a mile from the entrance when we passed a small crosscut, boarded up with wooden planks. Crosscuts connected the larger tunnels and pathways inside a mine. Boarded up entrances usually meant there'd been a cave-in somewhere along the way. I stopped in my tracks as my headlamp caught a glint of metal. Del smacked into me with a grunt.
"Dude, what's up?" he asked.
I held up a finger, angled it toward the shiny head of a nail. "Look at this."
Del squinted fiercely as Nev doubled back and scanned the boards, her eyes tracing each one with machine-like precision. "What am I looking for?"
"The nails," I said.
"Give it a rest, Sci-fi," Jay said, jostling past.
That was his nickname for me, Sci-fi. He meant it as an insult, obviously, but I'd decided to own it. Mainly because there was nothing I could do about it.
"No one cares about the nails, nerd burglar," Jay continued.
Nev ran her large hands over the boards several times before she got it. "There's no rust on these."
"Exactly," I said with a smug look at Jay.
"Who cares if there's rust on 'em?" Jay said.
"Whoever boarded this up did it in the last year," I said, as a flutter of excitement buzzed along my scalp. We hadn't had a decent discovery in a long time. We were due.
Nev clucked her tongue softly, deep in thought. "Could be anything," she finally allowed.
"What if someone found a vein of gold down here?" Del asked, back to bouncing from foot to foot. "But they didn't have a way to get it out? So they board it up and then never came back?"
"Why would they never come back?" Jay asked as he circled back. "That makes no sense, dingle rod."
"Maybe something happened to them, Jay," Del chided. "In case you haven't noticed, the world's messed up."
"D's got a point," I said to Nev.
"Fine," she said to me. "You lead the way. Jay, get out the pry bars."
Jay scowled, but did as he was told. Nev pulled out the PED, a one-way texting device that let us communicate from deep inside the earth. Normally, we didn't need one-Axel usually dug alongside us-but she'd stayed up top to work on Sexy Rexy.
Del and I liked to name things: our group (the Tunnel and Light Brigade), the situation on the planet (Operation Slow Death), even our transportation. Sexy Rexy was our RV, perfect for hauling around all of our crap. Food, water, and mining equipment took up quite a lot of space. Sexy Rexy was getting on in years; this week it was the fuel lines.
It took Jay and me twenty minutes to pry the boards from the entrance to the crosscut. We found another set of boards on the inside. Whoever had sealed this up wanted it to stay that way. The thought set my mind racing-what didn't they want us to find: a vein of gold, a mass grave, an underground bunker? Nev was right-it could be anything.
I led the way down the crosscut, while Jay stayed behind to wait for Axel. They wouldn't be more than 15 minutes behind us. We marked our way into every mine using red soccer cones, placed at any split or turn. We couldn't get lost in some random New Mexico mine. These days, death came in all sorts of stupid ways.
I led the way not because I was the leader. I did it because Nev considered me expendable, although she would never admit this to my face. She was much too smart for that. If there were a sinkhole or cave-in down the crosscut, I'd be the first to find it. It lessened her chances of death. I should have taken it personally, her lack of concern for my life. But somehow I just didn't, I can't quite explain it.
For the first half mile, the crosscut was tall enough to walk through. The tunnel was fortified with thick wooden beams placed every ten feet or so. This didn't mean a cave-in couldn't happen, but it certainly lessened the chances.
The crosscut gradually lowered in height until I was bent over at the waist, slowly picking my way around the beams. I hadn't seen any veins or placer deposits to indicate gold or other metals, but I knew there was something down here. Otherwise, why seal it up?
"Everyone all right back there?" I called out.
"Still here," Del said.
"How's it look up there?" Nev asked.
"Nothing yet," I called back. "Is it me or is it hotter than normal?"
"It's not you," Nev answered cryptically.
After another quarter mile, the shaft had shrunk to the width of a doghouse. We were now on our hands and knees now, crawling through a hole in the earth. I'd never been bothered by small spaces, thanks to half my childhood searching caves for geologic treasures. I almost enjoyed them-I felt a strange connection to my parents, whom I hadn't seen in months. Six to be exact.
We crawled on all fours for what must have been another quarter of a mile before the tunnel started to widen. By the time we could stand, I was sweating inside my jacket. Unlike the surface of the Earth, the temperature below ground remained constant. At the depth we were at, the temperature should have been somewhere in the low 50s. It was warmer than this, which made no sense. I pushed this from my brain and plowed on.
By the time we reached the end of the crosscut, the tunnel had widened to the width of a room. In front of us was a pile of heavy boulders, big ones, hundred pounders at least. It didn't look like a cave-in though; it looked like the boulders had been moved here.
"What do you think, Sci-fi?" Nev asked.
"I think someone put these here," I replied, hefting a sliver of rock.
"If so," Nev replied, "it would have been done with a machine."
"What's up with the heat?" Del asked, unzipping his thick gray coat.
The cold air from the crosscut pressed on our backs as it rushed to meet the heat from beyond the boulders. I unzipped my jacket and gave a heavy breath.
"Kill the lights," Nev said, switching off her headlamp.
It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the black. Then I saw it, a pinprick of light between the boulders.
"There's light coming from the other side," Del said.
"And heat," I added.
Del pulled a small rubber chicken named HeiHei from his pocket, dipped its head, and bawked three times under his breath. The chicken was his good luck ritual; he'd been doing it since the day we met.
"Whaddya think it is?" Del asked.
"One way to find out," Nev replied as she clicked on her headlamp and looked in my direction.
I frowned back. "Why me?"
"You're the thinnest," she replied, scratching softly at the corner of her mouth.
I'd taken a class on gaming theory the summer before the Countdown. One of the chapters was "How to Read Your Opponents' Tells." This was Nev's, the mouth thing. She knew I knew it too; she just didn't care. I was intimidated by her, by everything she was and I wasn't: good looking, confident, a leader. I wanted to be all those things, I mean, who wouldn't? I just wasn't. I was a middle-of-the-pack guy at best.
My mom once described me as tall, skinny, and sweet, like I was a diet soda or something. She mostly avoided comments on my looks, although I remember her telling my aunt once that I was a late bloomer with lots of potential. That was the best she could come up with. I just hoped it wasn't a total lie.
I tightened my mouth and began picking my way up the pile. I set down the backpack at the top and pulled out the pry bar. If any of the boulders shifted and fell on me, I'd be crushed. And that would be it-no rescue party, no emergency room heroics. Not with 78 days left.
"Keep your distance," I called out.
"Careful, Slate," Del said. "Go slow."
I managed to pry several boulders loose, sending them tumbling into the darkness below. With each one, the stream of light widened, until it was the size of a grapefruit. I could feel the heat now funneling through, the air anxious to escape from beyond the rocks. What the hell could it be? It definitely wasn't above ground, that much was clear.
At the edge of my grapefruit-size hole was a large boulder, more vertical than horizontal. If I could remove it, I should have enough room to wriggle through. I wedged the pry bar behind the boulder and pushed, hard. The boulder shifted forward for a moment, then gravity pulled it roughly back into place. The thing must have weighed two hundred pounds.
I stepped to the other side and tried from a new angle. This time, I managed to pry the thing forward a good four inches. Grabbing a rock shard from the pile, I wedged it in back. The boulder needed another six inches before gravity would send it tumbling down. It took another ten minutes to get the boulder to its tipping point. Another inch and the thing was ready to go.
I gave one last strong push and felt the boulder unweight itself. It wobbled for a second before gravity sent it my way. I scrambled, fast, not even enough time for the sheer terror to filter through my brain.
One step, two step, three step, and then I lunged sideways, my body curling in mid-air as I struck the pile of rocks, shadows from my headlamp pin-balling chaotically.
Rocks scraped and groaned as the boulder crashed down, landing six inches below my right leg. My breath was ragged in my ears as the dust hovered in the air. I coughed-once, then again-as the still mine air rattled in my lungs. I'd just come inches away from losing my limb in a gruesome mine accident.
"Did you lose the pry bar?" Nev called out with a hint of annoyance.
"I'm fine, thanks for asking," I replied.
"If the boulder had landed on you, you'd be screaming right now."
"Not if it had crushed me!"
"Did you lose the pry bar?"
"I see it."
I plucked the bar from its hollow. The shaft of light was now the size of a large pumpkin.
"Can you get through?" Nev called out.
"I think so."
I collected myself, wiped the sweat off my forehead, and made my way to the top of the pile. The opening was not so much a hole as it was a triangular crevice, the negative space where three large boulders had settled. Getting through was going to be tight.
I stretched my arms through first, then sort of inch-wormed my way forward, squeezing in my shoulders. Once I'd managed that, I pulled my body along the rocks until I emerged into the small recess, just large enough to kneel in. The heat was even stronger here, moving through in steady waves.
The boulders were larger inside my little nook, like they'd started with the small stuff and worked their way up. In front of me was another narrow passageway through a set of thin, vertical boulders. I ran my hand along one of the sharp edges. I'd have to pretzel my way through.
I turned sideways, tilted my head back, sucked in my gut and arched my back. My arm went through first as I adapted to the eyebrow curve of the crevice. I wriggled through the jagged rocks, the edges digging into my side.
When I emerged, I rubbed at my jaw and came away with three fingers of warm blood. I wiped most of it away on my sleeve and reassessed. Above me, maybe 20 feet up, was a small opening that I was pretty sure was the other side of the pile of boulders. The light and heat were now pouring down upon me.
The shaft above me was narrow and uneven, like some deadly, life-size Jenga set. I could make it up though; I was a decent rock climber, thanks to a childhood spent scrambling up cave walls. Not that I was all that strong, but I didn't have much weight to lug up either. I tested each handhold as I went, squeezing and snaking through crevices and cracks. Harry Houdini would have been impressed.
It took ten minutes to reach the top. I peeked out of the hole cautiously, just in case it was some drug cartel. The cavern I emerged into wasn't all that large, maybe the size of a Cheesecake Factory. There were hundreds of caverns like this one across New Mexico. Except for one very important distinction-along the far wall was a massive white fire opal.
My eyes widened in disbelief as a soft whaaaaaaat escaped my mouth.
White fire opals were translucent white gems with shimmering, vibrant flecks of color inside-reds, greens, blues, yellows. Cut and polished, they went for like $3000 a carat before the Countdown. Not as valuable as diamonds, not even close, but the size of this one was insane. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen-ten feet high and ten feet wide, in the shape of a near-perfect square. My heart hammered beneath my rib cage as I stared, transfixed, at what was surely the largest white fire opal ever discovered. If anything could buy our way into an underground bunker, this was it.
It was hard to say how long I stood staring before it dawned on me-when had an uncut gem ever been in the shape of a square? Like a perfect square? It was possible, sure, but the odds were a trillion to one. Maybe less.
That's when I noticed the soft white undulations inside the massive source of light.
Del and Nev's voices echoed from somewhere below me, but I couldn't pull my gaze from the lazy swirl of color and light. Like morning steam off a winter lake. I shook my head and blinked hard to clear my vision. I wasn't seeing this right. I couldn't be. When I opened my eyes-there it was, unchanged.
"Sci-fi!" Nev yelled from somewhere below me. "What's the light from?"
"You're going to want to see this!" I shouted into the pile.
A minute later, the crown of Nev's head appeared from around a rock as she tilted her face up to me. A sparkle of hope glinted in her eyes. For a moment, I wondered what it would be like to have a girl as pretty as Nev look at me like that.
Nev pulled her way to the top of the shaft and stared open-mouthed at the swirl of color across the cavern.
"What in the hell is that?" she muttered.
"At first I thought it was a fire opal," I said.
I shook my head with a dumb expression on my face. "No idea." Nev pushed her way past me and started picking down the pile.
I gave Del a hand up from the shaft. Not surprisingly, Jay refused my help. Axel was the last to reach the top, our eyes skimming one another. Hers were obsidian, black and hypnotizing. Axel Pham knew more about engines than anyone I'd ever met. She was the Tunnel and Light Brigade's grease monkey.
Axel was Vietnamese by birth, although she'd lived her whole life in Los Angeles. She was the most exotic girl I'd ever laid eyes on. It was an observation I'd once made out loud. It did not go over well. It did, however, sort of summed up me and girls.
Axel moved past me as my stare came to rest on the plume of ink across her left shoulder. It wasn't so much a tattoo as an entire scene-a winged warrior launching into the air, readying for battle. She'd had it done right after her whole family had disappeared; vanished while she'd been out on a parts run. Probably rounded up by some gulag gang on the hunt for free labor.
The five of us stood at the base of the pile, staring across at the square of white light. Heat filled the cavern, some of it escaping through the rock shaft, but most of it gravitating toward the square of light.
Nev was the first to start toward it, the rest of us following a few steps behind. We moved slowly, inching toward the oversized, square crystal ball. We were several body lengths away when a voice suddenly rang out.
"Move away from the gateway!"
Out of sheer instinct, we froze, our eyes scanning the cavern for the source of the sound. It was as if God had just spoken.
"Wh-what was that?" Nev called out, her voice wobbling in the hot air.
"This is Brigadier General Stephen Montgomery," said the voice. "You need to move away from the gateway. Now!"
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