Dust. The locals call it grit, but whatever. Semantics don’t change the fact that it’s dust and that dust sucks and that it’s everywhere. I slap my jeans and dust billows off like a bad aura. It’ll wreck my first date. Well, my first date in Utah, anyway.
I’ve been on hundreds of dates. Maybe thousands. I’m almost seventeen so, yeah. I’ve been around. But this date goes down as my weirdest ever—not that I’d call hiking to cruising altitude on some god-forsaken mountain a date. From here the valley looks like an oil spill. Except it isn’t oil. It’s a dig-site, its boundaries staked into the night with lamps. I didn’t see dust the first time I looked. But now? Dust drifts through one of the light pools ….
I glance toward Beck, mastermind of said weirdest date ever. He makes the weirdness worth it. Probably. I mean, he’s so hot that I can’t convince my friends back home he really exists. They think I snagged his photo from stock on the Net. Like I’m desperate or something.
He tilts his head and his green eyes flash. “Burger or dog?” he says.
“I’m, uh, sort of a vegetarian.” I smile. Only a fool wouldn’t.
His grin rates up there with chocolate. But dust doesn’t float in the other lamplights. Just in that one. I hold up one finger—I need just a minute—and edge farther into the night.
The western boundary of the dig is quiet. But in the starry-eyed glance I shared with Beck—a glance my friends in New York would totally crucify—fresh dust appeared, and in the same light as before. It swirls round and round like a swarm of stoned bees.
Far-away shouts override the monotonous purr of a generator. Spots flare at the dig’s perimeter, just as something streaks through the guard lights at the mid-way checkpoint. Was that a person? There were workers on site when we hiked up here, guys digging under the tarps or driving carts of tools. I’m still wondering at what I saw when another shadow darts through the checkpoint light.
The guards don’t see the shadows zeroing in on Central. They’re busy at the site’s border. Truck headlights bounce along the grey-green dirt roads. Men on foot—led by LED helmet lights—stream from every corner of the dark.
A guy in a tee and jeans is quickly surrounded but there must be others—I hear them shouting. Screaming. Guards advance and the guy breaks free and runs. Someone yells. But the heart of the site—a huge white tent called Central located near the mid-way checkpoint—remains unguarded. Like a brightly lit Eames lantern floating on black water. Central is the dig-site’s headquarters. Mom’s office and lab. I saw her truck parked near the tent as I hiked up here in the setting sun. Mom and her crew are there. Unprotected.
Shadows dart through the checkpoint lights, streaming toward Central.
Beck yells, “Yo! Maya! You want a veggie burger? Carrots and stuff?”
“Um.” Stupid, how the word yo jetted my memory all the way back to Manhattan.
“S’up?” Beck whispers into my ear. I jump for Wyoming. I didn’t hear him climb over the rocks behind me, didn’t hear him land in the fine dust that made this mountain, didn’t hear him work his way through the sage. So yeah. I’m easy prey.
“I point. All I can think of is Mom, hard at work in the bowels of Central, no doubt surrounded by her usual platoon of eager-beaver grad students. But even with their phony praise I want to believe she’d hear people running toward her tent. I mean, the woman hears me texting when she’s in the shower. “Something’s wrong,” I say to Beck, and start downhill.
I make it three steps, trip over a bush, and fall. For two terrifying seconds I ride a crest of rubble before crashing into a clump of something scratchy.
Sharp pain jabs my shoulder. I rub it, feeling for broken skin. Uphill, through a haze of dust, firelight crowns the boulders surrounding our camp. Something rustles to my right and I hold my breath. I’m pretty sure it’s alive.
Beck shouts, “Hang on!” A landslide of dirt and rocks piles against my legs. Dust buzzes into my eyes and mouth. I hack and—ugh—spit. Then Beck’s reaching for me, happy to rescue, his hands warm as cocoa. “Sorry,” he says. “I, uh. Sorry.”
He’s seriously sweet, but he doesn’t know my Mom could work through an apocalypse. “I’m okay,” I say as he moves from dusting me to finger-combing my hair. His touch is hypnotic. Mesmerizing. Where I find the super-hero strength to step away and take off toward the dig, I’ll never know.
Why do mountains have to be so steep? It’s unnatural. And the rocks! My tennis shoes are totally princess-and-the-pea. I hate the moonless night—what was that, flying up just now?—the thin dry Utah air. I’ve made it what, twenty feet? Whatever is going on at the dig’s boundary looks like an army operation from here. Like someone called out the National Guard. But why are they ignoring Central? I’ve lost track of how many people oozed from the dark and into the tent’s firefly glow. Though I guess the number doesn’t matter. The tent’s walls are a shadow-puppet show.
My palms itch and I rub them against my jeans. A sliver burns somewhere along the side of my left pinkie. I dig at it, stumble over something and almost land on my face. The shadow puppets seem to be looting or starting an orgy, or maybe both. I’ll never get off this pile of dust in time. Where is my mother?
People say Central shelters a lot more than the brains behind the dig. They say it hides Jurassic discoveries, rare gems, countless fossils. Some girl at school, a scrawny little tenth-grader with zits and freckles and bleached-blonde hair who drops the ‘g’ from words like hunting, swears she’s been there twice. I don’t believe her.
The local-yokes, as my friends back in New York call the parents of my current peer-set, think Central protects a new energy source more valuable than the oil fields that surround Vernal like a twirling skirt. Which is lunacy. I mean, just the other day as I gassed my car, two guys came out of the station store carrying Cokes and besting each other over how they’d spend their share. But the truth is even people like me—people whose parent traveled from Columbia University to head the largest, most sophisticated dig the planet has ever seen—have no idea what lurks behind those canvas walls. Site security is that tight.
Or at least, it was.
A tsunami of pebbles surges into my shoes. Beck grabs my arm—“Wait up,” he says—but I twist free and keep moving. “I need to warn my mother,” I announce to the night as if it cares. “I’m going down there.”
Our double date, the All-American Cam and his passive-aggressive girlfriend Olivia, appear out of nowhere. I remove one shoe and then the next, dumping little stones.
“The dig’s gone war-zone,” Cam says.
Olivia doesn’t say anything, though it’s easy to picture her thin-lipped frown. She wants the night the way it was presented to her. Snuggling and s’mores. The whole time we hiked she did the ‘Utah-stock’ is equal to ‘New York City born-and-bred’ routine I get from pretty much everyone at school. If she’d ask I’d admit, snuggling works for me. I mean, I’m here because Beck is tall and nuclear-hot. I’m here to look into his verdant eyes and ravage his crazy mess of panther-black hair. I’m here because even though Mom made it a rule to stay home on the nights she works, when he asked, I couldn’t say no. His voice could charm cancer from infected cells.
“You sure about this?” Beck looks toward Central. “It’s a rough hike. No moon. Sage brush, rocks. Snakes—”
“Rattlers.” He scratches his neck—something I sense more than see. “We’ll get caught.”
“They weren’t caught.” I feel stupid, pointing out the obvious. “I mean, not all of them.”
Cam whistles. “My dad’ll kill me.”
“I’m fine going alone,” I say.
Olivia flaps her arms. “Oh come on! S’mores! A perfect fire. Stars!”
I look up, still not over the night sky. It’s so much bigger than I imagined from our apartment in Manhattan. So much more alive. I’ve been in planetariums, sure. But I had no idea how the Milky Way spreads into the universe like a throbbing, breathing thing.
I side step Olivia and start down the hill.
“I’ll go with her,” Beck says. “We’ll hurry.”
But Cam and Olivia tag along. Cam says, “You know I’ll make it up to you.”
“A hard thing to do from prison,” Olivia snaps.
We hike down in single file, weaving through scratching brush, stumbling into holes, tripping and sliding on rocks. The going gets easier once we reach the valley. I fix on Central, sucking the blood from a scratch on my wrist, searching the tent for shadows.
There aren’t any.
Cables spill like black intestines from semis parked near the tent to form a dark river that flows under a canvas wall. Chugging generators drown our footsteps. Nothing moves—except the ten billion moths beating their brains out for access to Central’s light.
“This does not make sense,” Beck says, like he’s reading my thoughts.
“Let’s just get it over with.” Olivia shoves her backpack into Beck’s arms. She drops onto the cables, stretching out like a surfer on a board, and wiggles under the canvas.
“Huh,” I say, mostly to myself. I didn’t peg her for brave. Olivia’s hushed voice commands, “Get in here!” and Cam goes next. Then me. Then the packs. Then Beck.
“We should have ditched the packs,” Cam whispers loudly.
“I did not fix dinner for coyotes,” Olivia grumbles.
“Zip it,” Beck says over the generator’s racket.
A high-tech security panel stands near the tent’s closed flaps—it connects to a gate trimmed with little glowing lights. To come in the front entrance would have triggered an alarm, for sure. The shadows knew to avoid it. But where are they now?
We search the huge tent methodically, cautious at first. Desks. A lab. Storage. In a corner, behind a partition scaly with Post-it notes, we find a hole. A big one.
Cam fits his pack to his back and snaps it across his chest. “Cool,” he says.
The floor around the hole is paved with stainless-steel. We add our own dusty shoe prints to the dozens already there as we walk to the edge of the rim and peer over. A steel tube, about three feet in diameter, drops straight as a straw toward a distant floor.
“What’s down there?” I ask.
Beck looks at me, his eyes electric. “The dig-site’s secret,” he says.