THE MAGLEV TRAIN accelerated away eastward, following the route that had once been State Highway 20. Caleb stood on the platform and let the silence descend in its wake. Even the ambient grew quieter here, far from the torrential noise of Seattle. The town of Kulshan was a thumbprint in the wilderness, beneath the shadow of the volcano that was the reason for its existence, or more precisely, the geothermal plant fueled by the volcano’s heat. Nestled in a bend of the Skagit River, surrounded by forest on all sides, Kulshan’s concrete wall stood like a dam against an encroaching green tide.
After a few minutes, Caleb shouldered his pack and walked down the stairs. The gate, the one through which the few visitors to Kulshan’s backcountry exited the town, was just a couple of blocks from the platform. The people he passed on the street gave him curious looks, but none spoke to him. A glance into the ambient was enough to reveal that he was here to find out whether their geothermal plant, wiped out by a landslide the week before, could be recovered.
As Caleb approached the gate at the corner of Superior Avenue and Limestone Street, a red light flickered in the lower left of his peripheral vision. He kept walking. Soon enough the light flashed green, and the gate, a monstrosity of dark metal out of a medieval fantasy, swung open with ponderous silence.
A woman waited on the other side, tiny in the gate’s monumental frame: short, but broad in hip and shoulder. A backpacker’s pack surmounted her dark hair and turned her into a hulking, immutable figure. Her dark eyes focused on Caleb with such immediacy that he almost stopped walking. Only when he had drawn close enough to shake her hand did he realize that the cloud of data that surrounded every person in the ambient was, in her case, entirely absent.
He blinked, shook his head, and refocused his attention.
Still nothing. Not a name, not an affiliation, not so much as a favorite song or coffee flavor. He squinted at her, as if willing the data to appear.
“That always surprises people,” she said. She had a deep, full-throated voice.
“I’m sorry?” She had to be one of the arktoi, they’d said they were sending someone, but then—
She laughed. The laugh was ticklingly familiar, but it couldn’t be her; he’d have known her right away, because—
“Don’t you recognize me, Cal?”
The unaccustomed effort of memory threatened to overwhelm him.
Something appeared on the sun-browned skin of her left wrist, above her glove. A tiny paw-print. And then another, and another, the first fading as the next few appeared, pacing up her forearm to disappear around the outside of her elbow.
He remembered that.
“Kate?” he said in shock.
“Iphigenia,” she replied, not smiling now. “Let’s go.”
Ten years ago:
They’d met over complementary doctoral research programs focusing on the Kulshan installation. Him: trend analysis on the scalability of geothermal power resources. Her: environmental remediation measures and the grandfather clause, the only reason the Kulshan plant was still in operation.
“The key question,” she said, over their first round of drinks, “is whether the remediation measures being taken are effective enough to meet the clause’s requirements. Intent doesn’t count. It’s whether they actually work.”
He nodded. Her faceted fingernails sparkled beneath the bar’s pointillist star lights, drawing his gaze. He’d made his own intent known right away, through the ambient. <<I’d like to have a drink with you.>> “But the closer to the energy source you are, the better. The Kulshan reservoir is practically inexhaustible. They could safely run at five, maybe ten times the capacity.”
<<That would be nice. Yes.>> “As long as the remediation can keep up. Have they tested whether the reinjection rate can be set that high?” Data swirled around her head like smoke.
“They’re going to,” he said, pushing the proposal abstract into her dataspace. All the water the plant used had to go somewhere; pushing it back into the system was standard, thoroughly studied, and a higher rate would increase this system’s capacity.
“Of course the arktoi maintain that the plant never should’ve been grandfathered in the first place.” The data cloud around her head cleared, replaced by an impression of damp forest green and the well-muscled stewards of rewilded lands.
“Yeah, but it’s not up to them, is it?” He didn’t know much about the arktoi; what they allowed to be known about themselves made them sound like a religious cult.
“Not entirely. They do have some influence.” Her nails tapped the side of her glass in rhythm, making little multicolored ripples in the gin. <<I’d like to dance.>>
He slid from his seat and offered her a hand. The mix morphed to trance-Irish as one of the music projector’s bristling wands began tracking her. They moved out onto the dance floor, the multi-colored tiles flashing random patterns in time to the music.
The trail climbed alongside Boulder Creek, up Mount Baker’s eastern slope. It had been a service road, back when there’d been such things. Now it was overgrown, washed out in places, snaking among the ferns beneath ancient cedar trees. Cal could have followed it on his own—there was an ambient, even out here, layering will-o-the-wisps across his vision to show him the way—but this was not allowed. Anyone entering had to have a guide.
At least one guide. Certainly there were others, shadowing their progress from Kulshan to the mountain; flickers in the ambient indicated as much. But whenever he turned his attention to them, they vanished.
The arktoi had sent Kate. Not by chance, he was certain. They knew who he was.
Arktoi: bears. On the one hand, government contractors, living in the vast wilderness designated by the Reclaiming Act and tending it as they might a garden. On the other, priestesses of the goddess Artemis under sacred charge, protectors of wild sanctuaries, feared for being a little wild themselves.
One of many, to be sure, and the one that more than a few wilderness stewards followed. Different professions trended to different adherents: his officemate, who studied eruption hazards, had a shrine to Pele; couriers tattooed themselves with Hermes and Ganesh, or dangled representational charms about their persons; and the Sunday churches were full of social workers and social justice activists. Others, like him, didn’t bother with religion much at all, outside of the occasional civic celebration.
When they were married, she’d been an atheist, too. And her name was Kate.
Caleb hadn’t even recognized her, until her tattoo had crawled up her arm. Hadn’t recognized her smile, or her eyes. Even now he couldn’t see her clearly, his memories of her far more vivid than the woman walking up the trail right in front of him. If he looked away, she’d vanish, like those flickers in the ambient.
She glanced briefly over her shoulder, giving him a small smile. “We should reach the site in an hour or so.”
That had been the last two days: little conversation, sidelong looks and smiles, as though she wasn’t sure. Of what? He couldn’t read her at all. Her observation about their rate of travel was useless. He could tell how far it was, just as well as she. But he could tell nothing about what she knew—or what the arktoi as a whole might know—about the real reason he was here. The sharing that had once existed between he and Kate as easily as breathing was gone, and only a void remained.
“I’m a little surprised they wanted to send someone out,” she said. “You have real-time monitoring.”
He did. The data spike of the explosion, which had engulfed Kulshan’s main power source and caused flickers in the grid as far away as Seattle, had woken him out of a sound sleep and propelled him into a face-to-face meeting at three a.m.
“Sometimes seeing it tells you something the data don’t,” he said.
“Just because the arktoi disapprove of Kulshan being grandfathered in doesn’t mean we had anything to do with the explosion, Cal.”
“I didn’t say you did,” he protested. So she, they, suspected the real reason for the trip. He took a deep breath, filtering and tagging the contaminants in the air, their relative proportions. All were in line with the data he’d received.
“It was a landslide,” she said, over her shoulder. “You get those, you know, in mountains. A sudden pressure drop on the reinjection reservoir triggered the eruption. Result: a superheated steam explosion, and mudflow that buried the power station. Exactly what I predicted could happen, given the mountain’s slope instability.”
“I know,” he said. He’d read her study. “But even you said that we could do geothermal extraction here safely, if we lowered the reinjection rate.”
She shrugged, the pack on her back shifting with the gesture. “You didn’t go far enough.” The mobile tattoo crawled up the back of her left arm and disappeared over her shoulder.
Eight years ago:
Before the Reclaiming Act, Kulshan’s population had numbered about 700. Now it was half that, surrounded by concrete walls, the high-speed rail line that followed the old Cascade Highway the only way in or out—except for the gate. But only the arktoi and the occasional field engineer to whom they granted reluctant access ever went that way. Both Cal and Kate had applied. Only Kate had been approved.
“How was it?” he’d asked, that night. They had opened the windows. Amazing how quiet Kulshan was. Only the rushing water of the Skagit disturbed the silence. He’d spent most of the day on the wall, looking out over the endless green outside, wondering how the sensor placement was going.
There was a long pause. Kate’s presence in the ambient seemed vague, as though she was trying to work out what to say.
“Different,” she said finally, turning toward him. “Not like a park at all, not like anything I could’ve imagined. We saw bears, a whole family of them, but they paid us no more mind than they would a mouse.”
“Are there a lot of them?” he asked, and she smiled.
“More than in hundreds, thousands of years. Oh, Cal, it’s—” Her ambient presence enveloped him suddenly: soft ground underfoot, uneven with rocks and roots; massive tree trunks like pillars holding up the sky; a cathedral of green, smelling of water and earth. And so much life: deer and mountain goat, owl and grouse and red-tailed hawk, cougar and bear, coyote and wolf. He was there with her, inside her record of the day’s events, as she followed her guide up the mountain trails to place the sensors. And she was there with him, her arms enfolding him like the forest, the taste of her like summer.
“Marry me,” he gasped, and she smiled above him and said she would.
The lahar had flowed down the mountainside like a river, half-burying the ancient cedars and younger pines in a suffocating layer of solidified mud over three meters deep, partially blocking the creek and fouling the water with sediment.
The sulfurous fumes were beginning to irritate Cal’s eyes and nasal passages. He blinked a protective membrane over his corneas, and increased his respiratory filters. He met Kate’s gaze, saw the sheen of a similar protective layer in her eyes. That surprised him. He’d thought the arktoi eschewed such things.
They found the control center, a low-slung concrete building, two kilometers from the edge of the lahar, almost entirely buried in mud. A pipe ran out the back and up the slope, vanishing into the muck. Another pipe ran straight up from the building like a chimney, though nothing vented from it now.
“What exactly are you looking for?” Kate asked.
“I got the same data dump you did, you know.” She sounded calm, maybe a little amused. It irritated him. “So what else do you need?”
“Something that’ll let us get an exemption to rebuild the plant,” he said. Like if someone had done something to increase the risk of a blowout. Raising the reinjection rate past tolerance levels would do it. So would strategically placed dynamite. “Those are almost impossible to get. Anything helps.”
She shrugged, as though the arktoi weren’t the principal reason for the impossibility.
He put his hand on the hatch—tiny thing, the control center wasn’t really meant to hold a human—and waited while it read him and queried the ambient for a match. At last the hatch parted company with the bulkhead with a gasp of atmospheric equalization. He crawled partway in, then waited for his eyes to adjust.
Checking the controls and data inside was a matter of minutes. He already knew when he opened the hatch that he was the first person to pass through it since an exempted maintenance robot had entered to make a manual adjustment, three years ago. Someone might be able to keep their presence from being sent back to Seattle, but they wouldn’t be able to cover the hatch being opened. The controls on the reinjection rate were just where they ought to be, too, with no evidence that anyone had moved them manually—he already knew no one had remotely. The pressure sensors had been working correctly, right up until the accident. The only other possibility was that they’d been tampered with directly, but it would take locating them under three meters of lahar, not to mention explosion and landslide debris, to find out.
That left explosives.
He crawled back out, letting the hatch slide closed behind him. Kate came walking out of the woods.
And someone else, he thought, motionless and almost invisible through the trees, but when he focused in close, there was no one there.
“All right?” she said, but he kept squinting past her, fumbling into the ambient.
“Cal?” Her gaze caught his. For a long moment, neither of them moved in that dying forest, its roots and rivers buried in a concrete of solidified mud and particulate matter, the trees silent and ignorant of their fate, the air smelling burnt. He met those dark brown eyes: suddenly, terrifyingly familiar in that unfamiliar face. Her gaze softened, and he had to look away.
In the arkteia ritual of ancient Greece, priestesses danced like bears in restitution for a bear that had been killed, angering Artemis and delaying Agamemnon at Aulis. Iphigenia had been Agamemnon’s daughter, sacrificed to and, some said, rescued by the goddess, taken to Greece and set to preside over the rituals there.
Iphigenia, the name Kate had chosen.
The implications of that troubled him. Was she their leader, now? Had she gone to them with more reluctance than he’d thought?
Had he had more opportunity than he’d known to change her mind?
Seven years ago:
“Why?” he said. “You haven’t been straight with me since you came back from that internship, not once. I didn’t even know you were interested in this!”
“Why would I have interned with the arktoi, if I wasn’t interested?” The bear-track tattoos walked down her arm, each one appearing for a few seconds before vanishing into her skin again. He’d noticed them right in the middle of things, as it were. Her scent was still on him: his hands, his face. It had been their first time since she came back from the internship that had taken her away from him for over four months.
“I thought that was for research!”
“It was.” She stood by the window; the patterned sheets of light cascading down the skyscraper across the way turned her tanned skin red and blue and burnt orange. She took a breath, so deep that something seemed to come into her with it, and her shoulders trembled. He wanted to go to her. Instead, he watched her across a vast gulf ten feet wide, waiting for her to come to him.
“Cal, we can sit here in the city and refine design parameters and re-engineer remediation measures for the rest of our careers. Only it’s not enough. Anything we do in rewilded lands has an impact. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t, or that performance within established tolerances is any substitute for stewardship.” Her voice shook, too. It unnerved him.
“The arktoi are a religion.” He made his obeisances at the civic temples, same as anyone, but this…. “Is that what those tattoos are? Have you already joined them? What about us? Have you?”
Words were too slow. His, hers.
Everything she was, everything she was becoming, flooded the ambient between them, overwhelming the channel, until he thought he might suffocate. She reached for him, but didn’t move, and he didn’t, either. She shook her head—denying what he’d said, denying him, he didn’t know—just no, no, no.
They tried once more after that, before she left for her first assignment. “I’ll be back,” she said, but it felt like goodbye.
The site of the principal explosion was a mess: sharp-edged boulders, blown apart, shredded underbrush and splintered trees. And the ripped-open wound in the earth where the landslide had broken away from the mountainside and set the whole thing in motion.
Cal scanned the ground, paying close attention to where the landslide had broken free, comparing it with ambient data concerning slide zones and slope instability. That matched. He sniffed the air. No contaminants beyond the ones he’d expect: sulfur, mostly. He took some images. There might be something in how the landslide had broken loose that indicated an explosive charge, rather than the destabilization simply becoming too much for the slope to hold. Anything else meant digging, which meant heavy machinery and construction crews. That, the arktoi would never allow.
“Satisfied?” Kate asked, behind him.
He turned from the devastation to her. “The arktoi have been arguing for shutting this plant down ever since the Reclaiming Act took effect. I’d think you’d be satisfied.”
“Mount Baker is seismically active,” she said. “Our warning was just that. Not a threat.”
They might have sent her—she might have chosen to come—because they thought he’d believe her. Instinctively his mind reached for her, as he’d used to do. But he found only a gap in the ambient where that connection had been.
Six years and six months ago:
“Where have you been?”
“Out for a walk.” The lights that cascaded down the skyscraper across the way had gone out hours ago. He’d wakened to find her gone from the bed next to him, searched the ambient without finding her. In those first, confused moments, he thought he’d imagined her arrival earlier that day, her presence popping into the ambient in Kulshan, then coming closer and closer on the maglev until he could meet her at the station.
“Kate,” he said, from the great room couch. She paused in the act of walking past him—to the bathroom, he supposed. Or back to bed. She looked at him with her dark eyes. Looked away as though it hurt.
<<I didn’t mean to.>> She wore a dark sleeveless skinsuit with thick soles, her dark hair a sleek cap against her head. “I was masked.”
“Against me?” Had he done something wrong? Maybe she hadn’t wanted to—but it had been so long, and she’d seemed as eager as he had.
“It wasn’t meant to block you.” She sounded tired. “I just felt…restless. I’m not used to having the ambient in my head all the time anymore. All that data. It drowns out what’s right in front of you. You’d know that, if you ever unplugged yourself.”
“You sound like one of them.”
“I am one of them.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Do you know, if you’re not in the ambient, people don’t really see you? Their eyes slide right off. They don’t hear you speak. No perception that you’re even there. Guy on the Street almost walked right over me.”
“You went to the Street?” Seattle’s ground level wasn’t as dangerous as some cities, but they lived a comfortable fifty stories up. There was no need to go all the way down to the Street for a walk. “What’d you do that for?”
“I wanted to feel the ground.” She drew in on herself, her ambient presence retreating, almost vanishing.
“You get to feel the ground every day at work,” he said. “If you wanted to go for a walk, why didn’t you wake me? I’d have gone with you.”
“You don’t understand.” Her arms dropped to her sides and she half-turned from him.
“I want to. Kate. I want to understand. I don’t know anything about what your life is like, now. I don’t know where you are when you’re out there, what you’re doing, nothing! And now even when you’re visiting….” <<What am I doing wrong?>>
“Nothing,” she said. “You’re not doing anything wrong.”
The sun had slipped behind the mountain’s shoulder by the time they reached the edge of the lahar, orange light spilling across the slope and turning the denuded and dying trees around them the color of flame. They continued down the trail along Boulder Creek in silence, reached the overgrown, paved roadway that ran alongside Baker Lake, and turned south.
As they walked, Cal assembled a package of his findings, the data streaming into charts that resolved themselves into icons before his eyes. On sudden impulse, he padded the report to enormous size, enough to make a blip in the ambient that she would notice.
He sent it without breaking stride. But there was a tiny hitch in hers.
It grew dark, though the moon—waxing gibbous, near to full, the ambient informed him—was coming up to the east, and the stars had begun to appear overhead. How much he could see by them surprised him.
Finally he said, “We going to keep walking all night?”
She stopped. He almost ran into her. When she turned, her backpack almost clocked him.
“You sent a huge quantity of data back there,” she said. “What was it?”
She shook her head, her mouth and nose curling up as though she smelled something foul. “You haven’t changed.”
You have. “What do you mean?”
“You never did want to share anything unless you were absolutely certain you were right. When, for all you know, I might have the answer to your question.”
She might, but he wouldn’t get it by asking directly. “I doubt it.”
“What did your report conclude?”
“You tell me.”
“You could have just asked.” She turned and walked off, down a side trail.
“Where are you going?”
“Water,” she said. The road crossed a stream, which ran into a culvert underneath.
He followed the game trail she’d taken. She crouched by the stream, blending into the pattern of leaves and earth, moonlight and shadow as readily as any other creature of this place, fawn or fox or bear. She dipped one hand into the water, sipped from her cupped palm, and waited. Then she took the camel pouch out of her backpack and sank it in the stream. Bubbles popped to the surface as she filled the pouch with water. She touched the water’s surface with her free hand, as though soothing it.
He shuddered. Devotional stuff like that gave him the creeps.
He couldn’t argue with the arktoi’s results, though he could—and did—argue with their extremism. The land around them hadn’t been so pristine since the coming of the Salish tribes. Both of them had known people in their doctoral programs who’d gladly kill to be standing where he was now, without a human sound to be heard aside from those they made themselves.
And the flank collapse wouldn’t have devastated Kulshan’s power grid, if the arktoi had had their way.
But would it have happened anyway?
He walked away from her, further along the trail, brushing aside ferns and salal branches, ducking low beneath evergreen boughs. Aside from a few thin slivers of land set aside for recreational use, woods like these, mountains like these, were closed to humans now.
Even the constant thrum of data in his head seemed quieter. He walked further, letting that silence steal into him and claim his attention. How caged Kate must have felt, during her infrequent visits to Seattle. Maybe she hadn’t really wanted to leave.
Maybe she’d had to.
There was a strange smell, rank and unpleasant. Then a noise: a grunt, almost like a cough. Cal went still. A bear the size of a boulder, a house, a mountain, rolled up from the earth with a rustling, crushing, rushing sound, and onto the path not ten feet in front of him.
Cal’s pupils dilated involuntarily; between that and his already-enhanced vision, he could see the bear all too clearly. It had small, dark eyes. Its gaze focused on him with unnerving precision and interest.
“Kate,” he said. Not loud enough, and his voice wavered. The bear’s ears twitched. It yawned, showing a mouthful of enormous teeth. Cal took a deep breath. “Iphigenia?”
And down that channel that hadn’t existed between them in years: <<Iphigenia!>>
“Get behind me,” she said, her voice so close that he jumped. The bear’s head came up. Its ears perked forward. Adrenaline flooded Cal until he shook.
The bear took a step forward, and Cal backed right into Iphigenia. She made an irritated sound, then slid around him like a shadow.
“You’re going to back off now,” she said to the bear, her voice pitched lower than he’d ever heard it. She set her feet shoulder’s-breadth apart, her arms half-spread, like a linebacker ready to receive a charge.
She began to sing in that same low-pitched voice. She swayed from side to side.
The bear coughed again and pawed the ground. Iphigenia broke neither voice nor movement. She just sang, swaying like a bear walking down a trail, each side-to-side step heavier than her slight frame should have allowed, her backpack a rounded hump.
The bear swayed too, shifting its feet. It mirrored her motion, its tiny eyes fixed on hers. Cal wanted to tell her not to meet its gaze, not to challenge it like that. He didn’t dare. To disturb her concentration now, he sensed, would be fatal.
Iphigenia took a step back. Cal did, too. It was that, or let her back into him.
And so did the bear, its black-eyed gaze still fixed on her, its ears still pricked forward.
Iphigenia took another. So did Cal. So did the bear.
They backed down the trail in that peculiar lockstep dance, until the bear vanished in the darkness with a massive crashing through the brush.
Iphigenia walked past him without saying a word. But she gave him a look, and there was something wild and strange in her gaze that admitted of nothing he had known as Kate.
Five years ago:
“I’m not coming back to Seattle anymore.”
He wasn’t surprised. It had been in her presence the moment she’d stepped off the train. But he had to try.
“Then we’ll meet in Kulshan,” he said.
“No,” she said. She hadn’t even set down her backpack. “I’m sorry, Caleb. But no.”
“Well, why not?” He wanted to throw something at the window. Sweep the detritus off the coffee table—he’d taken to sleeping in the great room, lately, unable to sleep soundly in the bedroom without her there. “Is it the arktoi? It is, isn’t it. They make you drop off the ambient when you go on-site; they won’t let you talk to me; now they won’t even let you come visit.”
“That’s not it.”
“Then what?” He couldn’t stop pacing: toward her, away again. The ambient churned between them.
“This is what I need to do, and I can’t keep coming back here. I don’t belong here anymore. Being one of the arktoi…it’s changed me. I didn’t want it to—not this much. They’ve never said I can’t come back and see you. My personal life is my own. But I can’t.”
“Why?” His voice almost a whisper.
“I don’t see things this way anymore,” she said, and one hand came up in a helpless half-shrug that took in the room, the city…him.
The divorce was granted without her presence.
The next morning, they walked the rest of the way back to the town in silence. She left him at the Kulshan gate.
“The arktoi didn’t sabotage the plant, Cal,” she said.
“I didn’t say you did.”
“In your report?” She gave him a small smile.
“That’s right. Is that why they sent you? Because I’d believe it, if it came from you?”
“I asked to come.”
“Really.” <<Why?>> The question floated out into the ambient before he could stop it.
<<So you’d know what I said was true.>>
He had, in looking at her, a sense then of what she saw: the wide, wild world of the arktoi, the mountains protruding like bones, clothed in earth and trees and deer and bears, rivers and roots its lifeblood. The complete system, in all its complexity, in which the landslide and the explosion were wounds that would heal in geologic time. And in it, the arktoi, Iphigenia herself, no gap at all.
It was just for a moment, and then he was Cal again. But something in how he saw her had changed.
He hadn’t been looking in the right way.
She smiled. A real smile, just like he remembered.
Then she didn’t so much walk away as fade from his sight, forest and daylight and shadow taking her back until he could no longer see where she ended and her world began.
This story is from See the Elephant, Issue Three, Slipping Through The Cracks. Click here to purchase the whole magazine (only $2.99 for ebook, 6.99 for print). Every sale supports the future of this magazine!
Genevieve Williams lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, Analog, and Perihelion SF. She has an MFA in Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast program.