First Chapters Excerpt: The Trouble With Miracles by Stephen Steele
The sun burned bright and hot on this steamy summer day in January as the Boeing 737 from Los Angeles turned onto its final approach and settled into a long glide path into Chile’s Santiago airport. Out the left side of the plane, the passengers admired a view of the towering Andes that soared close by and ran the full 2,700-mile length of the long, narrow country from Peru to Cape Horn. Out the right side of the aircraft, they caught glimpses of Chile’s 4,000 miles of glittering coastline. And far out to sea beyond the horizon, unseen, lay the Chilean territory of Easter Island where mysterious stone statues stood as silent guardians of lost secrets that would soon be told.
Cyd leaned over Alex to look excitedly out the window on the other side of the plane at the white-frothing blue of the Pacific Ocean, then turned back to watch out her window as the plane sank below the 20,000-foot peaks of volcanic mountains that seemed so close she could almost touch them. In her enthusiasm she woke Alex up. He made an impatient sound, resettled himself and went back to sleep.
Before leaving Montana, she had been ambivalent about the idea of going all the way down to Chile on a wild goose chase to find the source of some mysterious underground lights that may or may not be coming from a new form of energy. That was then. Now that the plane was about to touch down in Santiago, she couldn’t wait for her adventure to begin. She looked over at Alex’s sleeping form curled comfortably in the seat beside her and smiled to herself thinking how lucky she was to be sharing this amazing life with such an amazing partner.
It was a relief when she learned that their friend Clarence, the tech millionaire who was sponsoring their trip, had bought them first class plane tickets. Alex would have been miserable back in coach with his long legs pulled up under his chin for fourteen hours.
She smiled again remembering Africa and how much she loved watching Alex treat their patients in the clinic they had in Senegal. His rapid, gentle, fluid movements were like watching a ballet performed in hospital scrubs. She marveled at his quiet resolve once he made a medical diagnosis, at the absolute confidence with which he administered treatment. It was as if his training and intuition were always working hand in hand. Beyond that, she loved his almost child-like wonder at the world around him. He was a different person when he wasn’t with patients: curious, bold, unafraid. It amazed her how he could be so decisive as a doctor and so completely accepting and nonjudgmental about everything else. His patience amazed her, especially since she had so little of it herself.
At thirty-four she had outlived the idealism and moral outrage of her youth. The world had moved on and so had she. The polarizing propaganda that had everyone hating each other back home, the violence and the double-talk in the media, made her never want to see another television news program again as long as she lived.
She thought of Cannastar and their efforts to bring their organically grown cure for viral diseases to the world. It pleased her to think it was relieving so much pain and suffering, so much death. It frightened her as well. With so many more people in good health, she was afraid they would use their newfound vigor and vitality to create even more chaos and destruction in the world. Fewer people dying meant more people living longer, and there were already too many people pursuing too few resources. You let one species overrun a planet, she thought, and they’ll destroy everything.
Before leaving Montana, Helmut Stein had called from Israel. The inventor of the Organ Grinder was thrilled to report that the money from Cyd and Alex’s Israeli Cannastar Grow that funded his research was being put to good use. His 3-D printer had recently replaced vital organs in a dozen primates in a row without a single failure. Human trials, he added enthusiastically, were scheduled to begin next year.
Stein’s ongoing success triggered yet another fear in her. They were tampering with the primal forces of nature, and in the process once again helping to overpopulate the world. The thought was depressing and brought back the memory of the time they were driving to Bethlehem and their car was hit by a Palestinian rocket. It occurred to her then that thanks to the Organ Grinder, the world was currently overpopulated by one Cyd Seeley, and that thought improved her mood considerably.
Her decision at the last minute to come on this trip, however, was based on something else entirely. Truth be told, she hated routine, hated chores, hated the idea of getting up in the morning and doing the same thing day in and day out. After all she and Alex had been through, after the dangers they had faced and the challenges they had overcome, she thought she wanted nothing more than to go home and lead a dull, domestic life. She had tried it for about a week after the wedding and realized she was bored to death. She simply wasn’t the domestic type and that was that. A restlessness burned deep inside her, a need to learn and have fun, to search out new and broader horizons. And if she could help make the world a better place in the process, well, she had to admit she wanted that too. She wasn’t so much of a cynic that she was ready to give up on the human race just yet. In spite of everything, she still had hope.
Out both sides of the descending airplane, the passengers now had a good view of Santiago’s closely packed high-rises sticking up like shiny spears out of a dull brown urban sprawl that housed some six million people.
From the cockpit, Captain Daniels had the airport in sight. An air traffic controller’s voice crackled over his headphones:
“American one three niner cleared for landing, runway one seven right.”
“Cleared for landing one seven right, American one three niner,” Daniels responded in his best pilot’s voice. His copilot lowered the landing gear, startling the passengers with a shuddering thud as the gear locked into place.
Captain Daniels prided himself on his soft, smooth landings. “Greasers,” he called them. An early career as a Navy pilot taught him to bring a plane in hot and level on carrier decks that were pitching like a bull at a July rodeo. Gliding a 737 into an international airport with barely a brush of its tires on the asphalt, especially on a sunny, windless day like this, was a piece of cake—and still a thrill, even after all these years. A good landing never failed to make him smile.
The number 17R loomed up in twenty-foot letters at the end of the runway as the big jet thundered down. The moment its wheels hit, a 7.1 earthquake centered 150 miles off the Chilian coast struck Santiago. The sensation was like landing on a field of boulders.
The airliner pinballed down the runway, bouncing from side to side with terrified screams coming from the cabin. Captain Daniels reversed thrust and the loud, whining rush of air, combined with the plane’s violent movements, only made it worse for the panicked passengers in back.
“Brace for impact!” a flight attendant cried over the intercom, and a moment later was thrown forward so violently in her harness that she broke a rib and was left gasping for air.
Captain Daniels stomped his foot brakes in a frantic effort to slow the plane. As he did, he saw a deep crack opening up in the runway dead ahead. He released the brakes and slammed the throttles forward to try and loft the aircraft over the crevasse, but only managed to raise the nosewheel. The main landing gear disappeared into the hole and was immediately sheared off. The plane dropped onto its belly and began a sickening slide down the runway, careening along the asphalt in a shower of sparks. The tortured screeching and scraping of metal, the howling protest of the engines, the blinding confusion of noise and speed sounded like the end of the world to the horrified passengers.
Deprived of its landing gear, the plane skidded off the runway, dug a wingtip into the dirt, spun violently around and came to a shuddering halt with the ground still shaking beneath it. Back in the fuselage, the desperate passengers bounded out of their seats in a panicked rush to get out.
“Evacuate! Evacuate! Evacuate!” The captain’s urgent shout over the intercom only added to the hysteria. People started climbing over one another in a frantic effort to escape. A crush of bodies piled up in the aisle trampling one another underfoot as panicked flight attendants struggled to open the doors.
Cyd lunged to her feet and Alex grabbed her arm, forcing her to sit back down.
“Wait!” he said. “Not yet.”
“What about fire?” she cried.
“We’re not on fire.”
“You don’t know that!”
“If we were on fire, we’d be smelling smoke and seeing flames.”
“What if we do see flames?”
“Then,” he smiled grimly, “we panic.”
The earthquake was shaking the plane so badly that nobody could keep their footing. Alex pushed a man away who had been flung on top of them by the mob, and the man disappeared into a panicked wall of writhing bodies.
Cyd made another effort to get out and Alex restrained her. “Listen to me,” he hissed. “You can’t force your way out of here. You’ll only make things worse and get crushed in the process. Sit tight a minute and we’ll be alright.”
She gritted her teeth and forced a smile. “Is the minute up yet?”
It was several minutes before they managed to squeeze out the door of the plane. A wall of hot, sticky air hit Cyd in the face. She stood blinking in the brilliant sunlight. Then someone pushed her from behind—a stomach-churning fall—and Alex caught her at the bottom of the slide.
“What are you looking so mad about?” he asked, amused at the anger on her face. “We made it, didn’t we?”
She was furious. “I must have been out of my mind wanting to come here! This is a horrible place! I mean, look at that will you? They don’t even try to hide it!”
He looked where she was pointing and saw a colorful banner hanging from the terminal roof that read, “Welcome to the country at the end of the world”.
“Good place for it, the end of the world,” she remarked, bending to help an elderly woman who had fallen to her knees and was gasping for breath.
The ground stopped shaking, but nobody trusted it not to start up again. Someone threw blankets over their shoulders and was ushering them along amid the pandemonium of flashing red lights, dazed and traumatized passengers and fire trucks screeching to a halt at odd angles around the plane.
Helmeted men in heavy clothing jumped out and began stretching out hoses.
Cyd was a nervous wreck now that the danger had passed. “Where’s Robert?” she cried, casting about with her eyes. “He was supposed to meet us here. I don’t see him anywhere!”
Alex threw off his blanket. “Worry about Robert later. Right now, we have to help. They’re going to need all the doctors and nurses they can get.”
It was late by the time they finally managed to get from the airport to their hotel. They hadn’t been in their room five minutes when Alex looked over and saw Cyd had fallen asleep on the bed still in her clothes. He sat on the edge of the bed and with one finger gently moved aside the cascade of dark hair that covered her face. Her beauty, even after an ordeal like this, never ceased to amaze him. He carefully pulled a blanket up over her.
The next morning when Robert still hadn’t appeared or contacted them, they became worried. Was he injured or worse, dead under the rubble from some building after yesterday’s earthquake? Before leaving home, Clarence told them his son had taken a new job with the Chilean government locating and evaluating recently uncovered natural resources on government owned land. He gave them a piece of paper with the address and phone number of the Chile’s Ministry of the Interior in Santiago that oversaw its mining operations.
Alex fished the paper out of his pocket, picked up the phone and tried calling the number Clarence had written only to be met with a cascade of indecipherable Spanish followed by a babble of what sounded like Chinese. He hung up and told Cyd they were going to have to go there to find him.
Following a hurried breakfast of coffee and toast, they caught a cab. It was a warm, humid morning and the old Spanish city was already alive with activity. The cab headed up a wide, busy boulevard with a center divider lined with palm trees, then turned down a tree-filled avenue crowded with cars and busses.
Broad sidewalks on either side of the street teemed with people hurrying past rows of tidy vendor stalls arrayed with colorful crafts and cheap foreign goods under the shade of tiny tents. A low, constant hum of vehicles and voices, haunting Peruvian flutes and the unintelligible, electronic pounding of Latin rap music filled the air. Everywhere they looked in the vast city they saw modern high-rises encroaching on centuries-old Spanish buildings and ornate Catholic cathedrals that inevitably gave way to ugly, low-rise structures painted in the explosive colors of frenetic street art. Passing a forested park, they saw a white-faced mime jump out from behind a tree and begin intimidating visitors with robotic-like movements and mechanical gestures.
Street crews were rapidly cleaning up the rubble from yesterday’s earthquake, broken store windows were being replaced and road crews were swiftly filling in the latest cracks in the streets. With so many recent earthquakes, it was a fair assumption that most of what was going to fall down had already fallen down, and anything that hadn’t was safe from any but the deadliest of quakes. The population, with typical Latin fatalism, didn’t seem in the least concerned. The earth moved all the time down here. Y qué? (So what?) And those strange lights that were appearing out of the ground high up north in the Andes when los terremotos came? A collective sigh implied that the lights were just another mystery in this land of endless mysteries.
Had Cyd not been so worried about Robert, she might have been a little more enamored with Santiago’s esoteric delights and ethnic eccentricities. As it was, she saw the city only as a crowded, bustling metropolis with a high crime rate. She had tried repeatedly to reach Robert on his cell ever since they arrived, or rather crash-landed, in Chile, but her calls had gone directly to voicemail. She was hoping the Chilean government headquarters where Robert worked would at least know his whereabouts.
Minutes later the cab entered an industrial park on the outskirts of town and pulled up in front of a maintenance yard filled with mining and oil exploration equipment. Shovels, dozers, hauling trucks and loaders the size of apartment buildings were crowded in together apparently waiting to be serviced in the compound’s huge warehouses. Another portion of the yard was devoted to towering drilling rigs and grasshopper pumps drawing oil out of the ground. Chilean workers in grimy clothes were servicing the equipment. Chinese supervisors, carrying clipboards and mobile phones, walked among them wearing matching coveralls and hard hats with red stars on them.
A high security fence encircled the entire area, blocking it off from the street. Attached to the fence was a large, official-looking sign at the top of which was a government seal for the Department of Natural Resource Management. The seal was encircled in words that read, Ministerio del Interior, Chile. Below the seal was an important message written in elaborate Spanish script, and below that, in English, were the words China Mining and Energy Co., Ltd.
The cab driver, in broken English, interpreted the Spanish for the benefit of his passengers. “Sign say national headquarters for management of national resources has moved. It say all business now being conducted out of new downtown offices. It give an address. Nosotros vamos (We go)?”
Cyd and Alex exchanged a concerned look. The unexpected news gave her a knot in the pit of her stomach. Alex turned to the driver. “Sí,” he confirmed. “Nosotros vamos.”
Twenty minutes later they were back in the heart of the city. The cab honked its way across three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic and stopped in front of a towering glass skyscraper that blazed with sunlight and impaled the sky with its pointed spire. They got out and Cyd noticed two workmen installing a bronze plaque on a wall next to the building’s enormous glass entry. Alex finished paying and tipping their driver and Cyd touched his arm, pointing to the plaque. Embossed in bronze were the words China Mining and Energy Co., Ltd.
They entered the harsh expanse of soaring glass and steel that enclosed the building’s lobby and Cyd shivered. It was like going from a sauna to a refrigerator. Alex approached a row of Chinese security guards in military uniform seated behind an enormous reception desk. One of them looked up in response to his request for directions to the head offices for Chile’s natural resource development and pointed to the elevators. “Top floor,” he said in clipped English.
The elevator ride to the top felt like a ride in a vacuum tube at the drive-up window of a bank. The doors whooshed open breaking the seal, and they stepped out into a modern reception area the size of a basketball court. Hard, uncomfortable-looking furniture softened by pale pastel fabric was arranged at a distance that made conversation between the pieces impossible. More pastels softened the cold, hard surfaces of the walls. Windows two stories high looked out on the sprawling city and windows on the opposite side of the lobby looked inward at an indoor rainforest of plants and trees.
Cyd and Alex walked over to a tall, apparently-deserted reception desk. On the high wall above the desk was an enormous TV monitor that was changing images every few seconds. A picture of a copper mine with a hole in the ground the size of a giant meteor strike gracefully dissolved into a picture of a huge oil field dotted with busy drilling rigs and bobbing grasshopper pumps. That image was followed by one of gigantic holding ponds full of milky white brine baking in the desert sun. Behind the holding ponds, at the far edge of the desert, a ragged spine of towering volcanos lined the sky.
Alex looked over the top of the counter and saw a tiny Chinese woman seated at a computer monitor. She smiled up politely. “Buenos días. Puedo ayudarlo? (Good morning. May I help you?)” Her Spanish didn’t sound at all like Spanish.
“Looking for one of your employees,” Alex smiled. “Geologist by the name of Robert Big Foot.”
The receptionist spoke quickly into her headset in Chinese, listened and smiled back up at the visitors. “Someone be right out.” Her clipped English wasn’t much better than her Spanish. Cyd had to replay the words in her head before she could understand what the woman had said.
A door opened and a Chinese man the size of a nine-year-old boy stepped out. He too was overly polite. “You will follow, please.” His diction was better than the receptionists, but delivered just as rapidly. He led them past a room full of Chinese office workers engaged in feverish activity. The din of spoken Mandarin sounded like the buzzing of flies. No one looked up, but Cyd had the feeling they were being closely watched as they passed.
Their guide showed them into a glass-walled conference room, indicated they should sit at a long, varnished table, and with a slight bow abruptly left. Cyd and Alex sat looking at one another in constrained silence. The door opened again, a line of three men in identical business suits filed in and sat in unison on the other side of the table.
Cyd smiled to herself thinking they looked like a collection of Chinese dolls. Alex returned their formal nods with his easy smile.
The one on the right spoke first. “Identification, please.”
They slid their passports across the table. The small stiff booklets were quickly examined and returned.
“How you know Robert Big Foot?” the one in the center asked politely.
“We’re friends of the family,” Alex answered.
“We’ve come all the way to Chile to see him,” Cyd added.
“Robert Big Foot missing,” the one on the right informed them bluntly.
“Missing?” Alex probed anxiously.
“He due back at mine headquarters one week ago. Not heard from since.”
Cyd’s heart sank. “Mine headquarters?”
“Salar de Atacama in Atacama Desert.”
“Which is where, exactly?” Alex asked.
“You would perhaps like some tea?”
The visitors impatiently shook their heads. The three Chinese were clearly educated men. Judging from their command of English, it was a fair guess that they probably all held degrees from an American university. They were cordial enough, but there was no emotional connection talking to them, no space between the words for feelings.
“Fifty-five kilometers south of San Pedro de Atacama,” the gentleman in the middle replied evenly.
“Sixteen hundred kilometers north of here,” the one on the far right added, then saw he had confused his guests. “One thousand miles,” he amended.
“What was Robert doing when he disappeared?” Cyd asked with growing apprehension.
“His job. Geological exploration.”
“And your search parties have turned up nothing?” Alex inquired.
“Big desert. Robert never tell anyone where he go.”
The indifference Cyd heard in his voice angered her. “You must have thousands of employees,” she declared in frustration. “How would you even know that Robert works for you, let alone anything about him?”
Her question was met with silence. The executive on the left steepled his hands. He looked to be twice the age of his fellows and up until now had not spoken.
“So sorry,” he smiled smoothly. “Robert vely different from other geologists. Vely important to company.”
“How so?” Alex asked.
“Make many discoveries of natural resources. Company fortunate to have him.”
“So why aren’t you out looking for him then?” Alex pressed.
“It is harsh and hostile land. Thousands of square kilometers of empty desert and some of tallest mountains and volcanos on earth. Robert always work alone. Claims only way he can find things. Against company policy, but he make many important finds, especially after recent earthquakes, so we let him break rules. Always he come back before. Perhaps this time he may also return safely.”
On the surface he sounded compassionate, but Cyd could sense his evasiveness and it angered her. He knew more than he was saying, she was certain of it. “We understood Robert was working for the Chilian government,” she pressed. “How did he come to be working for you?”
The senior executive smiled proudly. “China now in partnership with Chilean government. They welcome our managers, our engineers, our expertise. Good for everybody.”
“And the government, they allowed you to just come in here and take over?” Alex appeared amused, but the idea angered him.
“Chile and China friends since new administration voted in.” He stood abruptly and the other two stood with him. “You will please to leave address of where you are staying with receptionist. We will inform you of any news.”
The tiny man who escorted them in reappeared and escorted them out. They crossed the lobby and entered the elevator. Cyd pressed the button for the lobby, the doors started to close, a battered leather briefcase was inserted between them and they quickly reopened. A rumbled Chilean of about sixty walked in, the doors closed behind him and the elevator began its descent.
Cyd turned to Alex, beside herself with anger. “We just got brushed off,” she fumed. “That makes me so mad!”
Before he could respond a heavy jolt shook the elevator and it came to a shuddering halt. Cyd cried out as the lights dimmed and came back on at half strength.
“It is just another aftershock,” the other passenger assured them in perfect English. He was a stoop shouldered man in a wrinkled summer suit with dandruff on the shoulders. Intelligent eyes twinkled behind his sleepy eyelids. “Happens all the time in my country. We will be on our way again in no time.”
Cyd was too frightened to hear his assurance. “I mean, what the hell is China doing in Chile in the first place?” she demanded nervously.
The dumpy little man smiled compassionately. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said in the calmest of voices. “My name is Juan Luis Morales. I am lead council for China Mining and Energy here in Chile.”
Alex smiled and shook the hand that Cyd ignored.
The attorney regarded Cyd kindly. “It is public information, señora, that China paid over four billion dollars for a twenty-four percent stake in Chile’s lithium mine in the Atacama. The Chilean government retains seventy-six percent ownership of the mine and gets residuals on everything taken out of the ground. Chile gets the benefit of unprecedented Chinese management, as well as the world-class expertise of their U.S. trained engineers.”
“Sounds more like the early stages of imperialism to me,” Alex said.
Just then the power came back on, the elevator jolted and continued its smooth descent. It reached the lobby, the doors whooshed open and Cyd and Alex stepped out. The stoop shouldered man in the wrinkled suit stepped out after them. “People think countries rule the world,” he said with a curmudgeonly smile. “Countries don’t rule the world. Money rules the world.”
Cyd watched him shuffle off, then followed Alex to the curb where he hailed a cab. A taxi screeched to a halt and they got in the back. Alex gave the driver the name of their hotel and the driver forced his way back into traffic.
“So, Chile is selling off their natural resources to China?” Cyd said, still a little shaken from the elevator ride. “What are they thinking?”
Their driver overheard her remark. “It is new day for Chile, and China part of it,” he responded before Alex could answer. He was a young man with thick black hair who was driving with one hand while casually diving in and out of traffic. He shifted his position to shake his fist out the window at another driver, and they caught a glimpse of the writing on the back of his red shirt. It said, “Partido Communista de Chile”. Below that was a red and blue circle encircled in a gold leaf garland. Inside the circle in white was a Russian hammer and sickle.
Cyd and Alex exchanged a look of dismay. “A new day for Chile, you say?” she asked, gripping Alex’s arm in response to his erratic driving.
“The voters, they vote seventy-eight percent for new progressive constitution that return power to the people.” He swooped in front of another car and there was a sharp, metallic click as their bumpers touched. “Conservatives, businesses, the military, no longer are they in charge,” he continued. “We have new social order now that will be model for free world.”
“A seventy-eight percent margin,” Cyd repeated. “That doesn’t make you just a little bit suspicious?”
“Free healthcare, free college, free everything! I am suspicious of anyone not happy over that.”
“What’s your major?” Alex asked, assuming he must be a university student.
“I have degree in political science.” The driver’s repeated honking was creating a chorus of noisy responses from the other cars. “I do thesis on how capitalism enslave common man.”
“I see,” Alex said. “And in Chile, do cab drivers work for the government, or are they independent contractors?”
“Independent contractors,” the driver replied indignantly. “Nobody boss of me.”
Alex smiled at Cyd’s incredulity and looked out the window at the park they passed earlier that now had several white-faced mimes jumping out and confronting visitors.
Cyd turned to him anxiously. “Those Chinese we met with were so evasive, so noncommittal. I don’t trust a thing they said.”
“They’re hiding something,” he agreed, “that’s for sure.”
“They don’t want us to find Robert,” she concluded. “That makes me want to find him all the more.”
“He may just be lost.”
“Or he may be in serious trouble. We need to at least try to find him. We owe his parents that much.”
Alex nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll see if I can’t book us a flight to—what was the name of that place again?”
“San Pedro de Atacama. Absolutely. Only I’m not getting on another plane. I haven’t gotten over the last landing.”
The driver turned to speak over his shoulder and they saw in his eyes that he was far younger than they imagined. “They have wonderful buses here in Chile that go everywhere,” he said enthusiastically. “Very cheap, very comfortable.”
STEPHEN STEELE is a graduate of the University of North Texas with degrees in English literature and marketing. An avid sailor, swimmer and mountain biker, the author worked as a salesman, syndicator of television sports shows, builder and developer, ski instructor and cowboy. He lives in an 1800’s Victorian home with his ruthless editor Beverly and a fly rod amid Montana’s streams and rivers of ice and snow.
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