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Weasel is following me, panting, on hands and knees, through a passage we call Route 66, even though it’s only a hundred feet long, the diameter of a barrel hoop, and made of clay.
“Do you think I want to die in here?” I say. I dim my headlamp to save batteries.
Weasel only grunts under her facemask.
“I’d rather die up in the World,” I say, “even though the World is fucked up. In case you hadn’t noticed.”
“I noticed,” says Weasel, as the tunnel finally deposits us into the cramped cubicle we call the Meeting Room. “That’s why I’m here, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Feisty White sister, or privileged snow bunny? Too soon to say. Why Weasel is here is another matter. My immediate concern—our concern—is that the Extractors are getting closer. With my pickhandle braced against a rock, touching it to my skull, I can identify the specific harmonic signatures of their machines and robots, their TurboSuction Excavator, Gigatron Saw, Corkscrew Hammerhead, and Wormbots.
Feeling the earth’s vibrations and interpreting their meaning—that’s what I’m supposed to be good at.
“Well, I suggest you finish your story and get the hell out,” I say.
“How much time do you think we have?” She pulls down her mask and immediately coughs from the gritty dust. So young, I think.
“Isn’t that always the question.” As I’ve already warned Weasel, long stays underground, in the dark, can alter your perception of time, not to mention your vision, your stamina, your cognition and memory.
“I read about the hallucinations,” she says.
“You read about them.” Like reading about the experiences of another culture or another race, doesn’t mean you can write about them. Anyway—even if we make it through our full shift, dust ourselves off, and return to civilian life on the surface—it will be only 12 hours underground, not long enough to start hallucinating.
I didn’t invite Weasel; the request came from higher up, so to speak. Her real name is Ricky-something, but I insisted she take a Protest Name like the rest of us, even though she’s a journalist and not officially part of our Action. She’s going to tell our story to the World. “Bring it into the light,” as Weasel says.
Good luck with that, I say. Though we can use the publicity.
She rubs the grime off her goggles, rapidly blinking her pale blue eyes. “According to my research, lack of sunlight . . . can make you prone to anxiety, fear, and depression.”
“Ha, the prone part is right for sure!”
“Oh I get it—ha, no place to stand up.”
Is she making fun of me? So far, I wanted to say to Weasel, you’ve only scratched the surface, no pun intended. I notice she’s careful not to use the c-word, i.e. claustrophobia. I can spot the neurotics, the hysterics, the phobics, a mile away; like racism, or homophobia, everything’s amplified underground. I’m not sure she’ll last the day.
“You don’t know anything about me,” Weasel says out of nowhere. She’s probably right, although it’s not my job to know about her, I can only speculate about how she acquired her fear of confined spaces from, say, hiding under the bed from an abusive sibling, or about her barely-integrated upper middle class high school with her sports and her proms and her AP courses, about her private college and liberal-guilt-thesis on the techworld neoliberal order, about how she learned she was adopted or that her mother was bipolar or that her father was having affairs, about her scraping by living with roommates in the city working as a bartender, or about her getting a few freelance pieces published concerning climate change and sea-level rise and then persuading a swashbuckling editor of a progressive journal to assign her to write about us.
“Maybe so,” I say, “maybe not.” We hear the scrabbling and the muffled voices of Muskrat and Rabbit before they clamber down from the recently-completed Pacific Coast Highway and join us in the Meeting Room. The New Jersey Turnpike is still under construction. Working at night, starting from the dwindling, oxygen-starved forest outside the fences, Vole Team 6 had worked our way in from south, west, and east, spadeful by spadeful, like a reverse prison break: breaking in instead of breaking out. Breaking in to the construction zone, to disrupt the construction of more destruction of the environment. Breaking in—or technically, digging under—to help set the planet free. And like The Great Escape with its Tom, Dick, and Harry tunnels, our plan includes three redundant passageways.
“How was the traffic on Route 66?” asks Rabbit, under her shamrock-green full face bandana.
“A little slow,” I say, pointing at Weasel.
Muskrat nods a greeting to Weasel, as if to apologize to her for my impoliteness, then tilts his head toward me for an update.
“Their Extractorbots are closing in from the south,” I say.
Above us, where the temperature is already sweltering, above us in the World where I imagine Weasel will soon return to her day job in an air-conditioned bar, inside the fences they are building—they were building, until our Action stopped them in their tracks—another Megatronic Fabulizer Farm that will decimate more trees, poison more habitat, generate more toxins, and kill more people.
The four of us barely fit in the Meeting Room, twenty feet underground. They all have to hunch over. Everyone except me. I’m short and slight as a jockey, another dangerous and underpaid occupation, if that’s what you can call this. My stature I got from my daddy, along with my Black skin, the same combination that made him the perfect Tunnel Rat back in the Asiatic Wars. When available, they used Mexicans for that distasteful job—sounds familiar doesn’t it?—Mexicans who later leveraged their underground skills to burrow under walls into the country they used to own. But a small Black man was even better. Daddy was celebrated by “our” side (exploited would be the better term, Weasel, I’m sure you agree) and feared by the otherwise fearless Enemy Negrito Tunnelers, who called him The Black Rat of the Rainforest (Nesh-kur nu’ri-masu-laptra), back when the Rainforests still provided cover. He could maneuver underground as proficiently as the ENT themselves, detect and dismantle their booby traps, and flush them from their own tunnels. He freaked them out with his shaved head, his skin several shades darker even than theirs, blending in with the shadows, appearing silently, and deadly, out of the blackness. The Legend of The Black Rat grew along with his dozens of kills, until one day he disabled a punji stick trap, two Molly bombs, and a venomous viper pit while mapping a fresh tunnel network, used up all his ammo chasing down a Negrito colonel, then had to kill the colonel’s whole extended family in a burrow in hand to hand combat. Evidently you could hear the screams all the way up on the surface. One of the colonel’s family poked out my father’s eye with a stick. Finally the ENT set off an alarm blowing up the whole complex section by section, burying Daddy alive. Somehow he dug his way out, strapped on an eye patch, shipped home, and for years barely spoke to anyone, including my mother, until I was a teen and came out as gay and he said to me, “That’s fucked up, little man.”
So here I am following in my daddy’s footsteps, I guess you could say, except for the gay part. I am Mole, aka The Black Mole. Because: moles are small and black, they have powerful arms and extra thumbs for digging, and they have a special kind of hemoglobin in their blood for survival in low-oxygen environments. Some ignorant people think my father’s blood—my blood—doesn’t bleed red. But it’s true enough (another throwaway line I offer freely to Weasel for her story) that as The Black Mole I too am renowned among a certain audience, as a Protest Tunneler par excellence, much as The Black Rat was renowned in a different war.
Of course I’m hoping not to lose an eye, or get buried alive.
And here we are too, three seasoned members of Vole Team 6 plus one young bartender/freelance journalist—naive or brave, or both—crammed in the Meeting Room directly under the building site where we’ve managed temporarily to derail the erection of their Megatronic Fabulizer Farm, because the MFF Cartel has calculated, for the time being at least, they cannot risk killing us outright by violently collapsing our tunnels, tunnels which in any case they have not yet found. The Cartel has also calculated that every hour, every minute that goes by with construction halted, they are losing gazillions. So they have deployed their small army of Extractors, including robo-machines poring over the terrain above us boring exploratory holes and planting sensors. Mercenary Human Operators, armed to the teeth and trained in counter-resistance, are poised to follow any lead.
To minimize potential collateral damage (to borrow their Orwellian euphemism), we keep only half the Team underground during the 12-hour daytime shift when the Extractors are active. Our motto for this Protest Action: Fuck the Fabulizers. Please ask your readers, Weasel: does the World really need another Megatronic Fabulizer Farm?
Rabbit breaks out some cheese and crackers. Outside, in the light, sans tunnel gear, her name is Ursula and she’s a raven-haired Irish lass with luminescent green eyes.
“Yum!” says Muskrat (aka Cormac, freckled, also from Dublin), affecting an American accent as he delicately passes a cracker sandwich to Weasel with his filthy fingerless gloves.
Up in the World, Ursula and Cormac are lovers. I can’t help wondering if, after all this time beneath the surface as burrowing mammals—I’ve lost track of how many weeks it’s taken us to reach this point—above ground they might be furtive Furries, going in costume to Furry conventions, later mounting and humping away making beastly noises while wearing animal head masks and calling each other by their Protest Names. Furry seems like a White people fetish to me. And pretty gay, I admit, though I was never tempted. Anyway, down here we are all business. Or try to be.
“Pacific Coast Highway is foiled!” announces Rabbit, slapping hands, or paws, with Muskrat. Foiled, as in aluminum foil. With Weasel recording them (“not for attribution”), Muskrat and Rabbit explain how we attach strips of household foil along our tunnels, randomly so as not to reveal a pattern, as microwave shielding from the Extractors’ ground-penetrating radar.
“Extractor GPR signal strength is already limited by the high electrical conductivity of the clay content here,” says Muskrat. “So this is supplementary shielding.”
“And to generally fuck with their sensor data,” adds Rabbit.
I think, they’re showing off for the writer now, with all this electrical conductivity of the clay. Let me jump in here.
“The same clay,” I say, “that gives structural stability to our tunnel complex.”
“Complex?” says Muskrat. Gotta challenge me. He’s right of course that we don’t exactly have a vast underground network.
“A simple complex,” I say, and everyone laughs. Besides the Meeting Room at the intersection of our three superhighway crawlspaces, there’s only a tiny adjacent Kitchen with our stockpile of battery packs and fans, dried and canned food, and the jocularly named Restroom, off the New Jersey Turnpike, where you hold your nose above a hole to poop in plastic bags.
“Anyway, I’ve worked in all kinds of soils, above and below the water table,” I continue, “and what we have here is some bad-ass clay.” I want to make it crystal clear this isn’t my first subterranean rodeo. Nothing against Rabbit and Muskrat, per se, but as a Black man, not to mention as a small and gay Black man, I’ve found that if you don’t speak up, it will be assumed that all the available knowledge and expertise resides in the White people present, whether they’re talking or not. The same knowledge and expertise, I might add, that directed my daddy down under the jungle humus to do the dirty work.
I tell Weasel that this reddish, iron oxide-laden clay is ideal for tunneling. It requires minimal bracing. It’s also on the dry side, which keeps down the humidity and thus the microbial contamination from bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Fungi, so fun to say.
“Those are just the natural hazards,” I say. “Be sure to tell your readers about the human-made, xenobiotic contaminants in the ground, the pesticides and petrochemicals, the microplastics and nanoparticles, the asbestos, benzene, creosote, lead, mercury, and radon. Tell them how the soil is the Earth’s kidneys, collecting and filtering all the planetary toxins from agriculture, dumping, industry, and waste disposal.”
A chunk of gooey dirt plops onto Weasel’s shoulder, giving her a start. We feel the earth tremble, and we hear a high-pitched whirring in the distance.
“TurboSuction Excavator,” I say. We tighten our masks and goggles thinking about those nanoparticles, but we all know that the bigger, badder threats to our underground Action are structural failure, flood, fire, and asphixiation. Especially from human intervention: sabotage, arson, the interjection of toxic materials. Such as, by the Extractors. We do not know what they will stoop to, if and when they find us. As a Protest Tunneler, I have analyzed the Daegu subway arson fire, the Moscow subway suicide bombing, the Chicago freight tunnel flood, the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack; I’ve researched the secret Knights Templar tunnels under Acre, Israel, and the medieval underground network of Provins, France; and I’ve studied modern tunnel warfare, from the Red October Factory (Battle of Stalingrad) to Cu Chi (Vietnam), Mosul (Iraq), and the Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine. We have implemented numerous defensive and counter-counter-resistance measures, clever little tanktraps for their Wormbots and camouflaged trapdoors for their mercenary Operators, but we have no devices to detect chemical or biological agents; we are the canaries in this coal mine.
“What should we do?” asks Weasel, brushing off her shirt. Her courage appears to be flagging. I knew it. She’s getting cold feet in the cool clay.
“It’s okay honey,” says Rabbit.
The ground shakes again. A small crack appears in the ceiling of the Meeting Room.
“Do you smell something?” asks Weasel, her voice quavering. We lower our masks to sniff the chalky air.
“No,” I say.
Rabbit, Muskrat, and I must decide, as we do daily and sometimes hourly, whether to remain or to vacate. I brace my pick against the wall and touch it to my head. The handle’s made of dense old-growth hickory, now rare, inherited from my father; modern carbon fiber tools will not transmit the acoustic frequencies.
“Here comes the Vulcan Mind Meld,” says Muskrat.
“I knew it was coming sooner or later,” Rabbit says to Weasel. “He has to bring Star Trek into everything,”
It’s more than that, I think. Muskrat wants to be in control of the narrative, to wear the mantle of authority from centuries of oppression of his Irish forebears. We’ve had this discussion before. I respect what they went through, I told him, but it was still White people oppressing White people, and what the English did to your ancestors is not the same as what they did to mine. Only a culture of White colonizers could dream up a Star Trek universe, with a militarized Federation spaceship seeking out “strange new life forms and new civilizations.” Such as the Klingons, with their dark, dark skin and large bony ridges in their skulls like “lower” primates. To an African American, I had told Cormac, it’s obvious that Klingons are Star Trek‘s Black people, and as such, they’re portrayed as an exotic, primitive, highly sexualized, and violent warrior culture who can barely control their passions. To which Cormac responded by sharing with me his theory that Mr. Spock and indeed all Vulcans were gay. “Gay as fuckin’ Tinkerbell!” he said. Well, I said, the actor who played Spock in the later movies was gay. But what you’re actually revealing, or excavating, is your Catholic culture’s construction of homosexuality—along with Blackness—as alien.
“Add those up, and you get me,” I’d told him.
“Keep digging, Mole,” Ursula/Rabbit had added, “and you’ll uncover as well the historically unmentionable Irish women.” And to their history of invisibility and struggle—the policing and censorship of female sexuality and reproductive rights, the legal relegation of women to domesticity—what could I say? That my Black sisters have had it worse?
“The vibrations have stopped,” I announce presently, having completed the “mind meld.” “They must be recalibrating.”
“Their Extractorbots are like the Horta creatures on Janus VI,” says Muskrat. “If Spock didn’t mind-meld with the Mother Horta and learn about the threatened extinction of her species, the Federation miners who’d colonized the planet would’ve kept destroying her eggs.”
“Here we go again,” sighs Rabbit, who must’ve sat through all the episodes of all the Star Trek series with Muskrat. She turns to Weasel, who looks perplexed. “The Horta were a highly intelligent silicon-based life form who lived underground and looked something like giant tortoises without appendages. Natural tunnelers, they chewed through solid rock like an army of Ms. Pac-Men, forming perfectly tube-shaped passageways in their wake.”
“So,” I say, “the Gay Vulcan Spock saves the ugly alien species of rock creatures from the ignorant human colonists, a double strike against imperialist and anthropocentric narratives?” I don’t know Star Trek as well as you, but I went to college too, I want to say to Muskrat and Rabbit. Unlike my father, who was dispatched for war and damaged by PTSD right out of high school. Maybe he’s looking down posthumously on the proceedings with his one eye, like a perpetual wink.
Are we competing for Weasel’s deference? Vying for the attention of the claustrophobic writer caught in the cultural crossfire? I wonder if Weasel will figure out what the real story is here, how characters with diverse backgrounds and identities like Rabbit and Muskrat and me, The Black Mole, would be thrown together underground in a fight for the future of our species. Not to mention the other members of the team (Beaver, Shrew, and Squirrel—I hope Weasel does mention them) who are out of the spotlight, outside the fences, patrolling the exterior, engaging in diversions to keep the Extractors guessing, to keep our tunnel portals hidden, and to keep our air supply fresh. I’m guessing that she can faithfully depict the actions of our Action, that she can describe the details of our fragile underground landscape—but can Weasel really capture the lived experience, the subjectivity, the phenomenology, of being The Black Mole? I think what I most want to ask is: should Weasel, should this Ricky-something the snow bunny writer, even be trying to do that—veering so outside her lane, trying to conjure The Black Mole in words across the void, across the chasm, of our differences?
Weasel sits on the hard, damp clay to change the batteries on her voice recorder. If she starts crying or has a panic attack, we’ll have to evict her, I think. Instead she rubs her fingers together, holds them up with something slimy from the cave floor. She has an idea.
“The fungi—the fungi are not only a hazard,” she says. “The soil is not only the Earth’s kidneys. It’s also the planet’s nutrient recycling center . . . and global communication network. Right?”
“The mycelial hive mind!” says Rabbit. Yes, the tiny fungal filaments that co-evolved with plant life in a billion-year collaboration to break down and redistribute organic matter and contaminants . . . the cognitive network of fungal threads that make intelligent decisions about how to branch, respond to threats, navigate in space, interact and communicate with plants, and reallocate resources throughout the ecosystem. We had a unit on Mycelium for our Pre-Action Orientation, taught by Rabbit herself, right after the program on the Ancient Persian Qanat Tunnels, led by Muskrat, and a brief component on Unconscious Bias, delivered by me.
“I read that fungal colonies also have memory,” says Weasel. “They can actually remember stressful experiences for up to 12 hours.”
“Uh-oh, colonies again!” says Muskrat.
“Same word, different meaning,” says Rabbit. She dropped out of med school, but she knows her science. “In biology, a colony is formed when individuals live closely together, but if separated, they can survive on their own.”
“Sounds like us,” I say. “And 12 hours—the short-term memory of fungal threads—that’s our stressful day shift, almost over.”
“But hopefully not soon forgotten,” says Muskrat.
“Maybe . . . the mycelial network can even help humans reconnect,” says Weasel. The writer trying to pull the threads together. Seems doubtful to me. Maybe in a science fiction world?
“Yes, that’s exactly what the fuck we need,” says Muskrat. Wait for it. “The Spore Drive!” Of course. In Star Trek: Discovery, as Rabbit reluctantly explains, the mycelial network has become in the future a vast intergalactic ecosystem comprising its own subspace domain that spans multiple universes and also powers the starship’s displacement-activated spore hub engine, aka Spore Drive, an organic propulsion system capable of quantum jumps around the multiverse.
“Plus . . . ” says Rabbit.
“Wait,” I say.
“Stop,” says Weasel.
The red clay over our heads drips with condensation from our collective expiration, not to say hot air. The ceiling crack yawns wider. The rumbling starts in the west.
Then it hits us, a massive shock wave of wet dust and hot air, almost knocking us over.
“There goes Route 66,” I whisper when we catch our breath.
“Fuckin’ Extractors!” says Muskrat, and just like that, for the moment anyway, we’re all on the same team, helping each other scurry down the Pacific Coast Highway and hoping to fight to live another day.
Richard Holeton is author of widely-exhibited electronic and multimedia literature including the critically-recognized hypertext novel Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, available on the web in a 20th-anniversary archival edition from the Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University, and recently adapted as a radio play. His award-winning and Pushcart-nominated stories have appeared in Indiana Review, Mississippi Review, ZYZZYVA, F(r)iction, and Cult Magazine, among other journals. His work has earned fellowships from MacDowell, the National Endowment for the Arts, Dora Maar House, the California Arts Council, and the Henfield Foundation Transatlantic Review Award. A former writing teacher and administrator at Stanford University, he lives near Half Moon Bay, California. More information is available at richardholeton.org.