RIDING IN MEXICO
Brenda Cooper is — among many other things — a futurist with an upbeat vision (and I especially agree that we need more education, and more clean water), even when she does a talk for the US army. Quite often, when I mention the term ‘optimistic SF’, a lot of people immediately interpret it as a kind of über-Utopia, an idealised future where things are so close to perfection people die of boredom. Brenda, though, immediately sees ‘optimistic SF’ as a complex and interesting future, where some of today’s problems are being addressed while new challenges arise. This is the kind of future I have in mind when I’m looking for stories for Shine, DayBreak Magazine and even @outshine.
When reading Brenda’s fiction and non-fiction, and especially after meeting her at the last World Fantasy Convention in San José, I got the impression of an well-travelled lady who hadn’t let the inevitable scars — physical and/or emotional — of bad experiences in the past mar her vision of a doable future. (And also one of the growing numbers of writers — and other people involved with writing and/or publishing — who don’t quit the day job and do all the crazy SF stuff when they have the time, meaning they’re extremely busy all the time.)
This mixture of a certain youthful élan (which one can have at any age, and can easily be mistaken for naïveté) with a more adult trepidation is what also drives Isa — the main character in “Riding in Mexico” — and while her host Valeria (the Mexican girl being ‘ridden’) seems to have more of the latter than the former, both women need to come to grips with the fact that sometimes in a grim situation one needs tough measurements…
My host, Valeria, barely noticed the Mexican sun sparkle on the Caribbean, gold on brilliant blue. The salt scents of the sea and her sweat sat thick in my head, laid over with unfamiliar flowers, and a trace of animal — pig? She barely reacted to heat that made it hard for me to breathe. Her right knee sent shooting pains up her back whenever she stepped on an uneven patch that turned her foot inward. A chronic injury? She didn’t let the pain slow her. She turned from time to time, looking back over her shoulder. The thick wooden handle of a machete rode loosely in her fingers, like I might carry my car keys or all-in-one, like part of her. We rode host’s senses, not feelings, not true emotions. That’s what they told me, anyway. But right now, I felt her. I felt what she felt. I knew she was frightened of whatever it was she kept turning to look for, frightened of something or someone who could leap out of the jungle at her.
I had been told that it would be hard to ride a far-host, but no words had told me how foreign another woman in another place could smell and move and even see. And yet how close she would be to me, how much I felt like she and I walked through the heat and the thick scent of green and rot and dust all together.
I faded slowly away from Valeria’s senses, trading the Mexican Riviera for the plastic chairs and scuffed tile of a small classroom on the University of Washington campus. For the first few breaths I felt as if I were still in Valeria as well as in me, Isa.
And I still felt fear not my own.
I had wanted Indians. From India, like people who rode dromedaries and lived in the Thar desert near the border with Pakistan. To feel heat, and the rolling gait of the camels and see the women who still travelled veiled and help them understand how modern women lived, help them see how they didn’t have to submit to anything they didn’t want to. But my friend Kay got the Indian desert women, and I got Mexico. Probably that was a result of choosing Spanish in fifth grade instead of Punjabi or Hindi. Not that Kay spoke either.
Kay and I shared everything, so I’d learn about the desert anyway, even if I didn’t get to ride in a caravan across it. Besides, now that I’d ridden her, I wanted Valeria. And hey, at least they gave me the Mexican Riviera and not someplace awful on the border like Tijuana. Dr. Peters, who oversaw our trips, told Kay and me we’d see poverty, but probably not senseless violence. He sent the male students to places like Darfur and Columbia. No women to anyplace scary or unsafe. Prig. Not that I wanted Darfur, even though the enemy had transformed from the Janjaweed to simple poverty and drought.
The small room felt crowded with ten of us, five teams, me and Kay together, all of us blinking uncertainly. Besides us ten, there was Dr. Peters and the paramedic the school insurance required for this class, a tall drink of cuteness who sat in the corner and ignored me completely.
After ten minutes with Valeria, I worried about her. Exactly like I’d been told not to. I couldn’t say anything for fear of Dr. Peter’s legendary wrath-of-god-look.
A slender blonde puked into her coffee cup in the back row, her face red with pain and maybe also embarrassment. The paramedic didn’t respond, so apparently puking was a normal reaction.
Dr. Peters ignored her, too. He stood calmly in front of us, hands clasped in front of him, his incredible blue eyes calm. “Remember, these people are doing a job. They barely knew you were there. You felt what they felt — sensually. Taste and smell and touch and hearing. They feel you as a weight, a buzz of electricity. Starting tomorrow, you will ride them daily. If you think twenty minutes was hard, wait until you’re on for two hours.”
Hosting students and tourists paid enough for them to live. It had made me shiver at first, but during orientation Dr. Peters told us, “It’s easier than whoring or picking bananas.” That took care of some of my guilt. Besides, I’d suffered through a background check and an NDA just to get into the Good Doctor’s scariest course. I wanted a job in the diplomatic corps too bad to drop, and the other option had involved remoting drones in the Afghan/Indian war.
And now that I’d been once, I wanted to ride Valeria again. To smell the Caribbean and feel the strange, slight differences between our senses. To fix whatever made her afraid. Even so, I heard my father’s words in the back of my skull: “Diplomacy can’t fix everyone. Some days it breaks hearts.” Knowing that had never stopped him from trying.
After an hour of lessons and questions, even puke-girl had stopped and become quiet. I think we were all too disoriented to pay exact attention. I know I was.
After class, Kay and I had two hours free, so we wandered our way through the grounds, taking paths between buildings aimlessly, passing the big Suzzallo Library and going down the steps to the quad, dodging smart-boarders. Kay was tall and red-haired and fair, and so surely nothing like her host, Bani. “It’s too bad we can’t hear thoughts,” she mused.
I didn’t think so. “How would we keep two sets of thoughts free of each other?”
She hugged herself, bent slightly over. “I just felt lost. Almost dizzy.”
“The Caribbean Sea is prettier than I thought it would be.”
“The desert smelled like dust and sun and oil.”
“Valeria is scared of something.” We went up a short flight of stone steps. “Maybe the drug lords? Or the federales?”
“Remember not to jump to conclusions.” Kay wagged a finger at me and stuck her neck out, a fair imitation of the good Dr. Peters. “Be an observer, not a participant.”
I shrugged. “It’s not a conclusion. I know it. She’s scared.”
“Maybe she was scared of you.”
“Maybe. But I’m just not as scary as whatever she was scared of.” Besides, I didn’t explain her looking over her shoulder. “How did Bani feel?”
“Like her mouth was dry and like she was tired and a little sweaty. But it’s not her first time. Hosting is like walking for her.”
“I’m Valeria’s first.”
That night, I dreamed I swam naked in that warm sea, and floated out on the low bob of the water past the shallow waves and felt the sun on my belly and breasts. When I woke it seemed like the sea-smell had followed me, until I noticed I’d left the window open and a summer rain had come in with a vengeance unusual for Seattle.
The next day, class started at seven in the morning. I sat in my hard chair sipping a latte and feeling anxious. Dark circles under Kay’s eyes suggested she’d slept about like me, but Doc Peters was already pontificating in front of the class and I couldn’t ask her.
Had Valeria spent a good night, or a bad one? Had she been scared?
Her picture was the background for my all-in-one. She looked about twenty-five, with long dark hair that fell to her waist in thick curls that wanted a comb. In the picture, she had on khaki pants and a white shirt with buttons and a pocket over each breast. Thin sandals supported sturdy feet. Something glinted in one ear, but it was impossible to tell if it was silver or gold against her nearly-mahogany skin. Except for shorter and thinner hair, I might look like that if I lived in sun instead of rain. What frightened her? How different were the two of us? I had travelled of course, summer vacations in Europe and Canada and, once, a week on the Cuban beaches. But that had not been intimate, the people curiosities or helpers or simply confusing.
We’d had transmitters slipped under our scalps. For now, our rides started at the same time, Seattle. Kay would fall into an Indian evening and I would land in Mexico’s late morning. They’d split us later, four classes, but for the first few days the hosts just had to deal with it. Not too bad for Valeria. With a push of a button, Dr. Peters turned on the fields that sent our normal senses to sleep, fading the room we sat in into the very barest back of ourselves and sending a jolt of new senses into our brains.
It was three hours later in Yucatan, and already hot. Clouds piled on the horizon, and the air was full of near-rain. Yesterday, I hadn’t been acknowledged at all, but this morning, Valeria nodded. “Hello Isa.”
I could not, of course, reply.
“I will treat you to coffee and we will walk on the beach today. It will be a tourist day for you.” Valeria’s English had the barest accent. She took me through a town, someplace with more Mexicans than tourists, although the background included Hawaiian shirts and fat white woman and skinny guys with red hair and big laughs. I had started to adjust to the ways Valeria’s walk was different than mine, with longer strides and less hurry. She stopped for coffee so dark and bitter I wanted cream in my mouth to cut it down.
“We are in Playa Del Carmen. East of the stinking resorts.” For two hours, she walked and pointed out an old ruin, a shop that had been selling sweet cakes and coca cola on the same corner for fifty years and had kept it up even after Hurricane Mallory, the house of a rich French man with an aviary so close to the crumbling sidewalk that Valeria’s eyes could see brightly colored birds darting through lush plants with green leaves and red stems. Many of the things she pointed out were new, of course, post storm, and post investment. But Playa had not been damaged beyond repair, and old and new mixed with rich and poor.
Other than the wondrous raw scrape of a stranger’s senses cutting through my brain, I might as well have been wearing museum headphones. Unlike yesterday, she felt more resigned than afraid; cool and distant. So why? Was it part of the class exercise to figure out how to get actual information from your host?
Well, of course it was. My brain ran down that path while she meandered on, dragging me back with a vengeance when she stepped into the water and waded through sand. My legs felt wet like hers even though my feet were still and dry. She looked out, pointing at the sea. Resentment clogged her voice. “The reef has been bleached by excess, by pigs who burn too much gasoline and tourists with sunscreen. It is filled with dead coral that stinks when you pull it out of the water.”
I wanted to tell her it wasn’t me, or even my parents. To say we were helping her now. But of course, I could hear what she said out loud but I had no mouth in Mexico. She stood and looked out at the beautiful water with the sun splashing it, an offshore break the only sign of the dead things buried in the waves. I couldn’t hear her thoughts, but what I thought was how things often looked one way, like the calm, warm water looked inviting. But really, they hid something else.
A soft buzz filled her ears. The timer on her watch. She turned it off. “Thank you for choosing me,” she said formally. “I’ll talk to you this evening.”
I returned to the shuffle of metal chair feet on tile and the sounds of the same woman who’d retched yesterday retching again. Sweat ran down my forehead, as if my body really had been in a tropical ninety degrees instead of the cool northwest summer near an open window. In the corner, one of the men looked straight ahead, his eyes wide and damp and his tongue licking his lips frantically.
Dr. Peters called on him. “Mathew?”
“The … my hosts’s baby died. Now. I saw it.”
Dr. Peters didn’t even soften his voice. His words were clipped. “The poor choose to let us host.”
Sanctimonious bastard. Easy for us to assume the poor let us host. Sensory Wireless Ride Chips wasn’t supposed to be available to the public, but rumor said they were big in the sex trade. But I didn’t say that. Mathew closed his eyes and put his long-fingered hands over his face.
Dr. Peter’s continued. “Write. Now. Write down what happened without talking to each other and then we’ll discuss next steps.”
So pens scratched paper and fingers tapped all-in-ones and the puking girl had the hiccups and one of the women in the front had an experimental table-topper that let her just write on her desk with her finger. Even though she made the least noise, most of us sent fascinated glances her way regularly. Kay, true to her nature, was completely absorbed in her bamboo-paper journal, crabbing out tiny lines.
Me? I wrote the following:
Why is she so pissed? How do I get to her? We know nothing of each other except this business transaction. We have each other’s pictures. That’s so … surface. I know what she feels but I don’t know why! I hate this. I was afraid, being in her. What is she afraid of? And then, as an afterthought, What am I afraid of?
Then I figured I best have a whole page at least, just in case the Good Doctor came by and peered over our shoulder, and so I described the things I’d seen (crumbling bricks and sidewalks, dirt paths, children with patched clothes but clean faces, houses like mansions next to houses with leaning walls and tin roofs), the smells (the sea, the sea, and the sea, and the bitter coffee), and what I’d heard (tropical birds, with voices twice as pretty and ten times as loud as our little northwest finches).
I felt like a tourist. I wanted … to learn about Mexico and Valeria. If I couldn’t have camels I could actually learn about the drug wars and the tourist tensions and how it felt not to be American. What did someone like Valeria think of people like me, richer by a factor of ten or twenty even if I was only upper middle-class?
Dr. Peter’s voice startled me. “Turn your responses in.” I twitched and looked up. He was glaring at me, and probably repeating himself. So I sent my paper, kneejerk good behavior, and soon as it was sent I wished I’d removed the dorky lines about fear and feelings. He was going to give me a lecture and mark me down. Students called him the Good Doctor because you couldn’t get away with anything in his class. That made us like him and not like him all at once. He’d told us to be impartial observers, like scientists. Like junior scientists. No attachments.
Outside, Kay leaned down and whispered at me. “You looked downright pissed.”
I shook my head. “Just not what I expected. What was your ride like?”
“I bet I can ride a camel now. We were part of a caravan, like fifty camels and fifty people, although some men and boys walked. Did you know camels fart? Bani has to ride veiled, but she barely notices it. I’d rip the damned thing off.”
“You have her picture, right?”
She nodded and peeled off her coat. “Thank god it warmed up. This morning was so cold, then the desert was so hot, and now it’s perfect.”
“So she wasn’t veiled in her picture? You know what her face looks like?”
“Yes. But she had on a turtleneck and a neck scarf in the desert.” She frowned. “She’s pretty. Almost thirty-five, and her skin’s like cream.”
“What did she tell you about the caravan? Did she, like narrate?”
“Just the names of the camels and the people. I think she liked the camels better. Who’d have thought I’d be doing a camel fair in 2021?”
“I think it’s cool the world is still different in some places. Did you feel like she was talking to — well, to you? Or was she narrating for a stranger?”
Kay laughed. “I am a stranger. Look, I gotta meet my group from Online Finance. We get to see if we made money yet.”
“Of course you did.”
“Well, how much.”
My next class was Vertical Gardening, a bit of engineering daydream about feeding the world by planting green skyscrapers full of dirt and lights in major cities. I kept seeing Valeria walking around the buildings in my head, her strong dark face and slender body limping among the lush corn and beans and wheat on the fiftieth floor or striding through the rooftop flower garden, looking down at the sculptured beds as if they represented evil instead of beauty.
Each student got to call their hosts at night. They required we do that from the diplo department offices. Our calls were by team for the first day, so Kay and I met again in Dr. Peter’s tiny office. There were only two real books, stacked horizontally on top of his desk. A copy of the Rubiyat, the big illustrated kind, and a slim, battered version of The Art of War. I couldn’t picture him reading the Rubiyat.
He told us what to say (thanks, and to ask any questions we had about the day) and what not to say (anything that would make them think we saw ourselves as better than them, a lecture we got all the time, not to think we were better at all, ever. We knew that, but Dr. Peters told us every day anyway). Lecture delivered, he told me to wait and asked Kay to follow him to another office.
When he came back into his office, he sat down more quietly than I expected and gave me a thoughtful look. It felt like he wanted me to say something, but I held out. I didn’t want to be the one who started the process of beating me up for feeling Valeria. Finally he said, “You are a rare one.”
“Only one in a hundred people have your empathy with the hosts.”
“What about Mathew?” I challenged him. “He was almost crying.”
“Because of what he saw, and how that made him feel. Not because of how much he felt his host’s pain.”
I wasn’t sure I understood. “You think I feel Valeria more than he felt…” I had to reach for the name of his host. “Jacob? Why?”
“It’s almost never men.”
“And you had so much feeling in your report.”
Yeah. I felt my cheeks get hot. He must have read my uncertainty about his reaction on my face. “It’s okay. But I wanted a moment with you. What you think you feel from her may not be what she is feeling. Your interpretations will still be filtered through your own experiences, even if you are as strong an emotional rider as possible.”
I twisted my hands a bit and thought about it. “So you’re saying I may think I know what she feels but not really know?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“So why are you so sure I’m feeling more about Valeria than the other students feel about their hosts? Was it what I wrote?”
“Partly. And partly how your brain waves pattern.”
Right. Like we students were bugs. I’d known it was all experimental.
He went on, his voice almost soft and friendly. “It means you’ll be particularly valuable. You’re skill is rare enough that I’m sure I can get you work — real work — even before you graduate.”
He shook his head. “Sort of. We’re information gatherers. We ride victims and catch bad guys. Remember the story in last week’s paper, where the slaver ring in South Korea got busted up and fifty teenage girls got to go home? We caught the bastards by riding one of the girls. That’s how we got descriptions of the slavers and figured out how to find evidence.”
Oh. Wow. What would that feel like? “So wouldn’t you want someone who didn’t feel their hosts for that?”
He smiled. “Some hosts can feel their riders. They get good at this and use it for misinformation.”
“Plus, an empath we’ve validated can use the emotional state of the host in court.”
All right. Enough new information. “Can I call Valeria now? She must be waiting for me.”
The way his gaze stopped for a long time on my face, I figured that if he could stick me with a pin and display me he would. But instead, he nodded. “Go on. But push her. Tell her to show you what she’s scared of. I’ll be done with all the other students at nine tonight. Can you drop by then?”
And just like I’d sent him the paper without thinking, I nodded without thinking. Someday I was going to get out of the blind obey mode. Really I was.
But first, I placed my call to Valeria.
Her voice sounded slightly higher on the phone than it had in my head. We had video, a small square of her face showing in my computer monitor as she smiled and said, “Hello Isa, how are you?”
We talked for a few minutes about nothing, the thank you’s and all that. I leaned forward in the hard chair. “What was it like for you, having someone else in your head?”
She looked away and then said, “Odd.”
At least she wasn’t lying. “Were you afraid?”
“Of something besides me?”
Hesitation gave her away, although she said, “There is always fear here.”
She blinked at the screen, and then started twisting her fingers through her copious dark curls. “Tomorrow we’re going to my home and you will see me talking to my family. In Spanish.” She grinned. “Sometimes I am afraid of my mother.”
I laughed. It was the most genuine response I’d seen from her. “Then ignore that fear. I’ll never follow the conversation. I only have two years of school Spanish.” But she wasn’t talking about her fears. I didn’t want another tourist day. “Can you go look at whatever scared you yesterday, instead? I want to understand how we can help.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth opened. She leaned away from the camera, which had the effect of making her head look smaller in my computer screen. A tense look took over her face, thinning her lips and narrowing her eyes. “You are like — the NGO’s. You try to change the world into a better place, which means someplace you feel comfortable.”
That stung. “A safer place.” An uncomfortable silence stretched for a bit, then I said, “So show me what would be better. For you.”
“You don’t know what to do, so you flutter around the edges of our real problems.”
“Maybe you should keep your eyes open and then you’ll see.”
I pushed back. “I’m in school. I need to learn something. If you hide yourself from me every time I’m with you, what will I learn?”
Her voice was stiff. “If I see anything I’m afraid of tomorrow, I’ll show you.” She glanced at her watch and looked resigned to spending more time on the call with me.
“I’ll tell you about me.”
“I’m interested in global sustainability. I want to help people find ways to live together.”
She stared straight forward at the screen.
“I mean it when I say I want to help.”
“Don’t you want sustainability?”
This time, I didn’t say anything either.
Eventually, she spoke. She had to; I was her employer. “I want to have the world back the way I knew it before. Before Hurricane Mallory, before my little brother died, when more tourists flew down here.”
“What did your brother die of?”
She looked away. “He ran drugs and he got shot.”
“I’m sorry.” What to say next? “There is no place to go but the future.”
She stared back at me from the tiny square on the screen. Her beaches were cleaner now, and so was her air. Maybe the reefs would recover, but there was no telling yet. I made my words as gentle as I could. “You can’t go backward.”
“Forward means I have a tourist in my head.” I wasn’t riding her that moment, I couldn’t feel her. But some things can be written on faces. Despair, and feeling trapped.
“If you don’t want me with you, I’ll find someone else.”
She swallowed and looked away, her head bowed down at an angle and her hair falling across one closed eye. “Please don’t.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. Please show me why you’re scared.” I fell silent. We’d been told to push them in this hour, that it was the only time we would really connect. After all, when we rode them, we couldn’t talk to them at all. I lowered my voice to almost a whisper, a soft-ball plea. “I need to learn.”
“I promised to tell you about more tomorrow, about what is scary for me.”
But she didn’t promise to look for it.
“I don’t promise to like you.”
I felt gut-punched. I liked her! “I know. Thank you,” I said, and closed the connection, setting her free to be herself. Maybe this was what the Good Doctor meant by riding victims, although I didn’t think so. Of course, being scared of something didn’t make her a victim; it made her scared. And not liking me made her smart, in the sense that I was an intrusive stranger. I had to become more to her.
At least I knew her fear was real. Maybe I was lucky to have a first-timer — I would be willing to bet Bani would never open up to Kay. Even if Bani hated Kay as much as Valeria hated me, Kay would never know it.
I left before Kay was done with her phone calls, and before Dr. Peters returned, hugging the walls, sliding past students preparing for night classes and joking about yesterday’s losing game. Outside, the cooling air braced me. I walked through it for an hour, aimless and meandering, thinking about feeling Valeria.
Just before nine, I waited in the hallway outside of the Good Doctor’s office. I hadn’t told Kay I was coming back, and it felt weird to keep things from her. I kept my all-in-one off so I wouldn’t have to lie to her if she reached out for me.
Darlene, the puking girl, finished up a conversation with Dr. Peters where she rubbed her belly and made funny faces and he shook his head at her and sat back in his chair looking resigned. Right on the hour he stood up while she was mid-sentence, waiting politely while she gathered her things. When she saw me she gave a little wave and ducked her head, and I could already hear the rumors. I should have been late.
And then he was closing the door behind him. “Have you eaten?”
Well, no. So I shook my head, suddenly mute.
“Then let’s go get a burger.”
Instead of walking over to the U-district, I followed him onto a Capitol Hill bus and we ended up in a cheap bar a lot like the ones closer to the University, except this one wasn’t full of students. He ignored the slightly-dressed hostess and led me through a room with pool tables and immersives and outside onto a deck with a view of the lights of West Seattle sprinkling glitter on the dark water of the Sound.
The table he picked wasn’t empty. A slender gray-haired man in a navy-blue sweatshirt nodded as Dr. Peter’s sat down. “This must be Isa,” he said.
Dr. Peters nodded and glanced at me. “Isa. This is Dr. David Meera from the NSA.”
The what? Why hadn’t Dr. Peters told me he was meeting somebody else? I held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Dr. Meera’s hand was dry, his grip firm.
Dr. Peters said, “I called him after I read your notes this afternoon. We have … something has come up and we may…”
The older man interrupted. “We need to give you more background. Valeria is in real danger.” He picked up the plastic-sheathed menu and glanced up at an approaching waitress, an older woman with stringy red hair and kind, blue eyes. “Let’s order.”
I’d just lost my appetite, but I managed to squeak out an order for a hamburger with a side salad and a microbrew. Neither man said anything else until our beers appeared. I finished a long, foamy sip. “Explain?” I suggested.
Dr. Meera continued. “Mexico still has a serious black market. Even though marijuana dried up with legalization, they can produce psilocybin and a number of other designer jungle drugs, especially in the Yucatan and Chiapas. Valeria’s mother and brother are in that business, which is why we recruited her.”
Her mother? Maybe she had been telling me her fears. I stayed quiet, sipping my beer while the pair of professors watched me. “They have some enemies, and that’s what Valeria was afraid of. You sensed that, right away. We were going to let her get used to being ridden with a few classes of students, then introduce someone better for her, an emotion rider like you, but with advanced training.”
Dr. Peters took it up, “Someone like you could become.”
A sudden fear iced my stomach. “Are you going to take Valeria away from me?”
“We should,” Dr. Peters said sharply.
Dr. Meera, however, shook his head. He was clearly the boss. “There’s no time. Rivals are closing in on Valeria’s family. It’s possible you are the only one who can save her.”
“A little melodramatic aren’t we?” I watched them both as I took another sip of beer. They didn’t flinch under my gaze. “Tell me you’re just testing me. This is part of the class, right?”
“I can’t talk to her. How am I supposed to save her from anything?”
Dr. Meera put his hand on mine, on the table. He used light force, flattening my fingers against the oak. “Sometimes you can’t. But if anyone threatens her, or hurts her, or kills her, you will be able to see who they are and act as a witness.”
“You aren’t pulling your punches.”
“We need to know if you’re strong enough.”
I remembered how Dr. Peter’s had given all the real war zones to the men in the class. “I can do it.” Dr. Meera hadn’t moved his hand, so I tugged mine out from under his. “I’ll be okay. I want this job … I want into the corps and I need to do the hard stuff.”
Dr. Peters said, “It will be worse for you than it was for Mathew. It would be … best if she does not die. That might be very hard.”
The waitress appeared with three plates, sliding them expertly in front of us. I didn’t want to eat until I bit into a cherry tomato, which reminded me I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. After I finished the burger, I looked from one man to the other. “If I do this, will I get your recommendations for the diplomatic corps?”
Dr. Meera looked at me. “Why do you want to do this? Why take so much risk?”
“My parents were in the Peace Corps. They taught me you save the world globally. It’s time to get past all this my country first stuff, or none of us will have a country.” They were dead now. I didn’t say that. We’d all coughed up all our background just to get into the program. So if they’d read it, they knew. That’s how I was getting through school, on their death payments.
“If you succeed, I’ll put in a good word.”
“Does that mean if I keep her from getting killed?”
Dr. Meera smiled sadly. “You will not have control over that. If you stay sane.”
I signaled for another beer, and this one tasted good.
The next morning, summer drizzle slicked the paths and made jewelry of the spiderwebs. Kay caught up with me, a little breathless. “You abandoned me, where the heck did you go?” And then, after she got a better look, “You’re white. Are you sick?”
I’d been warned not to talk about it. Silence was a skill I’d need if I got into the corps anyway. “Just a bad dream.”
“You’re taking this too seriously. Dr. Peters said we’d flunk if we got too attached to our host. You don’t want that.”
I almost burst out laughing and hurried to change the subject. “How did your talk with Bani go?”
“Good, I think. I had a bunch of questions prepared, and she answered most of them. She was very polite. Tomorrow, her people are going to a camel-fair and they hope to get new cams they can mount right on their heads and on the camel’s headgear to send pics up to GeoSearch. For kids to use, like in class. Almost what we’re doing, but with gear on camels.”
“Cool. Do you like the camels?”
She nodded. Back in the classroom, sitting on hard seats, we breathed in the industrial world while we got ready to trade it for the developing and destroyed parts of the Earth. I was suddenly proud of us, all of us. We were making a future. Most of the other students looked excited. The paramedic was a new one, younger, with a scar on his chin.
And then I was scared again, swearing I wouldn’t see Valeria die, that it would be okay. Why hadn’t the teachers talked to me before I talked to Valeria? I could guess. But Dr. Peters had goaded me into asking her to show me what she was afraid of, hadn’t he? Was that ethical? And did they tell me everything they knew?
Dr. Peters thumbed the switch and I smelled Valeria and the jungle. She was breathing hard, jogging, the back of her knee hurting. She ran along the side of a paved road with no cars on it, with banyans and cieba on the far side, a canopy of dark green against a pale blue sky dotted with high thin clouds. She felt me come into her — and I felt her close down and then open again. She spoke. “Buenos Dias, my friend.”
Her voice was almost laughter. She didn’t seem as angry as she had sounded yesterday. I wanted to ask her about it, but of course, conversations were one-way.
“Yes, it is a pretty day, my gringa friend. That means white girl.”
From what I knew, the term wasn’t complimentary.
“I will show you my fears today,” she said. “They might fire me for it, at least if you tell them. But no one but you can hear me, right?” Her breath was fast from the slow jog and the heat. “We are alone.”
She slowed, let her heart slow until I could no longer feel it overtake mine. Her stride became a ground-eating walk, something she did with no complaint even though I felt actual physical pain with ever step she took. It made me wonder if she felt the pain like I did, or if she had somehow learned to go through it and past it and beyond it.
Personally, I wanted an ibuprofen, and it wasn’t even my leg that hurt.
“I am going to show you my grandmother’s house.” She spoke English, out loud, since that was the only way I could hear her. The road was empty; a few birds and maybe a monkey overheard her. “My grandmother’s life. And then I will show you my mother’s life, and then my life. And then maybe we can talk about hope the way you talk about it in America. This isn’t what I’m supposed to do, but then I’m not good at doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m no good girl like they usually pick for this. But after talking to you, I think maybe you are a little like me.”
She fell silent and watched, not fearful but wary. I could feel her — she was proud of herself and apprehensive as well; she felt like I felt when I suspected that something I was about to do would get me into trouble. Only I hadn’t felt like this for a long time, hadn’t taken risks, had done just what I was told, like sending my report to the Good Doctor Peters on command and doing everything else on command because I thought that would get me what I wanted.
If this was real diplomatic work — watching a situation that might hurt someone you like and not being able to do a thing about it — it sucked. Besides, mom and dad had always said it sucked, even though they went back every day.
Furthermore, if I got into the corps, and if I rode a host, I’d have my own button. As it was, I couldn’t even come up without hitting a panic button and jolting the whole class, and even Mathew hadn’t done that.
In the meantime, Valeria turned down a thin track. Ruts showed a car or a scooter or something wheeled with an engine used the road. She walked down the middle, swinging her arms. She wasn’t carrying the machete in her hands, but she did have on a backpack. She started singing in Spanish. She felt wary, but not afraid. She was still singing as she rounded a corner, and in front of us a short, circular home with no walls — an honest-to-god thatch hut — sat beside a small cenote. An orange tree had been planted beside the hut, the fruit ripening. A banana palm and three or four other non-native trees seemed to thrive. A white plastic bucket tilted on its side by the cenote suggested they were hand-watered. Three brightly colored pots with herbs sat by the hut. Another whole line, maybe a dozen more pots, sat under a makeshift shade of tied colorful tourist sari’s — the kind you can buy for five dollars each in the beachside markets. These pots held blooming flowers that might have been found in an American grocery store: miniature roses and sunflowers and orchids. I peered at the hut, and while there might be enough shadows inside to hide someone, I rather doubted it. Whatever wheeled transportation used the road, the only thing here now was a broken bicycle completely missing both wheels.
I guessed we’d come all this way for nothing, but Valeria didn’t hesitate, or even stop singing. She simply went around the back and followed a thin trail into the jungle. After a few minutes, she stopped and smiled, watching a small woman so old her back had humped and her hair had thinned to mist. The woman balanced on her toes, her slender brown arms reaching into a tree. Before she turned, she pulled down a spray of yellow and orange flowers. Valeria sounded proud as she whispered, “That’s my grandmother. She makes her living selling flowers.”
There weren’t enough flowers in all the pots for any kind of living.
“And I bring her some money every week. Otherwise, the jungle feeds her, too.”
It sounded romantic, but I imagined it wasn’t. The two women broke into excited, fast Spanish that I didn’t have a prayer of following, so I watched the old woman’s face. Wrinkles had folded her cheek and chin to the texture of figs and nearly hidden her eyes from the world. Even though her body moved slowly, her tongue kept up with Valeria’s and they seemed happy to see each other.
Valeria passed her a handful of bills. The amount never came up, and the older woman simply shoved them in her pocket. After, Valeria gave her a long hug, and I wished I knew if it was more than usual. I couldn’t see the grandmother’s face, of course, not at that point. I couldn’t see either woman since Valeria’s eyes had closed. I smelled the flowers — still in Valeria’s Grandmother’s hands, and felt the love my host had for her grandmother.
I had never known one of my grandmothers, and the other I certainly wouldn’t have known enough to find on a path in the jungle. I’d seen her at a handful of family events.
But Valeria also felt a deep sadness. Maybe because the older woman felt frail and tiny, but I reminded myself of what Dr. Meera had said and tried to just remember.
When we were nearly at the corner and about to turn down the track, Valeria said, “I would have liked to take you swimming. Her cenote is very sweet. But there is only an hour left, and I want to show you how my mother lives, too.” She turned for a last look back. “See how happy she is? She works hard, works every day. She hardly has anything. That thin old dress and two more, plus one I gave her that she says is too nice to wear until her funeral. But she is happy. More happy than me, or I bet than you. I know she is happier than my mother. Almost no one lives so simply any more, even here. The deeper you go in the jungle, the more there is peace like this. Old women are mostly left alone. But if I lived alone out here, I would be raped.” As if she heard my silent protest she said, “Even today.”
With that she turned and started a fast walk down the pathway. “I’m not going to tell you more until we see mom. I want to be able to ask you about it when we talk on the phone tonight.”
Her tone indicated a test of some kind. She did sound kinder today than yesterday. Maybe something I’d said last night, or that I hadn’t made her stay on the phone the whole hour. Maybe even an event in the part of her life I didn’t share. Who knew? I didn’t think she trusted me yet, and maybe she didn’t like me yet either.
For the next twenty minutes, she hummed or was silent, and I smelled the jungle and noticed the unfamiliar sounds of birds and, once, the loud engine of an old gas-guzzler jeep with tires half as tall as me and a green roll bar that had one corner crumpled.
She stopped and said, “We’re here,” moving her head back and forth slowly as if panning her vision. “No one else is here, so we’re safe. We won’t be long. Watch closely.” It took me a moment to realize she was doing that for me, helping me see what she wanted me to notice. In that moment, it dawned on me how much a host could provide, or hide, from a rider. If she had a gun strapped to her leg — or her machete in her back pack — I wouldn’t know unless she looked at it or someone around remarked on it.
The small house looked slumped. It was mostly white now, but chips of stucco had fallen off, revealing that it once been green, once brown, and maybe even once yellow. The wooden windows were rotten and one was gone entirely. Three bikes and a scooter stood chained to a post just outside the door, and even so, one was missing a back wheel. On the potholed street, but maybe or maybe not associated with the house, three gasoline cars rusted happily to the ground, all of them past driving, and one past having any color at all. If this were a poor neighborhood in America, there would have been litter around the house, too, but the open dirt was so neat it might have been swept. Plants struggled in shady spots.
Valeria slipped through the ragged screen door. The living room was a small rectangle with two chairs that belonged in a dump and a small, neat wooden table with a lamp. Thin rugs scattered across the floor. The air sat still and tasted of old grease. “Madre?” Valeria called.
The woman who emerged from the bedroom looked older than Valeria’s grandmother had. Although she moved a little better, her forearms were bruised and the skin under her eyes looked like the opening of a dark cave. She didn’t approach, and the smile she gave Valeria was worried. Although her Spanish came fast, I caught the gist of it. “Why are you here now? It’s the middle of the day. I thought you were looking for a job.”
“I found one.”
“So why aren’t you working?”
“There’s a schedule.”
I lost track of the next comments from the older woman, a stream of something about food and the neighbors. Her bruises fascinated me. They ran up and down her arms and on the back of one hand. She looked older than the grandmother I had just met, even though her skin looked less like paper. Her eyes and her tone and the way she carried herself tucked inside her hunched shoulders screamed of a hard life. She raised her voice. Although I couldn’t follow it all, I got the idea the older woman meant to get Valeria out of her house without making her mad. Valeria felt hot and angry and embarrassed. Under the embarrassment, still fear. But for her mom or for herself?
The door opened and a tall young man came in. For a brief moment I expected him to be Valeria’s drug-dealing brother, Raul. But the woman called him Mario and took a step back.
Valeria’s heartbeat sped up and she glanced toward the door.
Mario looked at her and spoke in English. “Valeria. How nice. But you should leave now.”
Even though I felt her hands shaking, Valeria stiffened. She spoke slowly, maybe for my sake, or maybe to counter her racing heartbeat. “This is my home, my mother. I belong here more than you.”
His cold smile exposed brown teeth. He said something that sounded like ‘not anymore,’ and then he reached inside his pocket and handed her a thin package, something wrapped in paper. “Take this to town.”
She didn’t ask what it was but stepped back again, her back now to the wall. She shook her head. “I will not.”
He held it out.
She didn’t want to take it, but she did. I was the problem. If she took what must be drugs, she could be arrested or caught. But she couldn’t tell him I rode her.
He grabbed her hand and shoved the packet in it.
The door behind him opened and two men came in. When they spotted Valeria, they stopped. One of them looked like he wanted to eat her. Really. His eyes were angry and hard and he was not at all happy she was there.
She gasped. I’d had thought she was afraid before, but this was worse.
He hit her. Her/me. I’d never been hit, never expected to feel the whip saw of human flesh crushing my cheek against my eye and nose, feel the way flesh gives under the force of hatred.
I didn’t. I screamed, my body jerked into the cold hard classroom. My heart beat fast. I blinked and touched my smooth cheek, completely disoriented by the fluorescent light mixing with the pale outside light from the one window and shivering at the change in temperature. I had been told to do something if this happened? What? I shivered too hard to remember.
Oh. I finished the fall I’d started — like an interrupted moment — and hit the tile, moaning.
I caught a glimpse of Dr. Peter’s face wearing the wrath-of-god look. It seemed directed at the universe, and not me. The faces of my classmates turned toward me, blinking and shocked.
Dr. Peters jerked his head toward the paramedic, who picked me up and carried me from the classroom. My face scraped against his dirty yellow coat, which smelled of old smoke and sweat. “Send me back,” I whispered.
He didn’t respond, except to tuck me in even closer to him and keep going. Down the hall, he punched for an elevator, and kept holding onto me until we stepped inside. He set me down then, and looked into my eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. Just send me back. Something’s happening.”
“I need to get you to the right place, first.”
I wanted to curse at him, but you don’t curse at paramedics. I bit my tongue and worried.
The old elevator shuddered and slowed one floor above the classroom we’d just been in. We went back down the hall the way we’d come but a little higher. At the end, he let us through a locked door. Dr. Meera greeted me on the other side. He led me to a couch and gestured for me to lay down, and then tucked a pillow under my head. “What happened?” He asked.
“I have to go back. There’s a man who hates her.”
He wasn’t going to let me go back until I did. I could see that in his eyes, even though they looked kind. He was a firm man. I told him fast, just about the visit to her mother’s, and then he took my hand. It felt good, his hand. Like support. “Are you sure you want to go back?”
I nodded. “I have to. I can’t abandon her.”
He glanced down at his watch. “It’s been fifteen minutes. That’s a long time”
“Good luck. Observe closely. Help will come. Pray it comes in time.” To my surprise, he gave me a small dark button, and closed my thumb over it.
“How do I find the button on the other side?”
“Don’t let go of it.” He helped me push it. The give was soft and easy, and there was a little click I’d never heard before.
Valeria lay on the floor. She had to look up to see what was going on, and her face hurt. Her right hand cupped her cheek and her hurt leg felt hot and sharp.
Everyone was still in the house, Valeria’s mother crying and pleading with Mario in Spanish. The dark-eyed man was ignoring them all, speaking rapidly into his all-in-one. It was the only modern thing in the room, a model more expensive than I could have afforded.
The button felt hard in my palm.
The house was already full, but one more person came in the front door anyway.
“Raul,” Valeria whispered.
I wondered if she knew I was back, or even that I had gone. I might have guessed he was her brother from how similar they looked. He was a bit taller and broader, and his belly had settled outward some. Her brother should help her, shouldn’t he?
He saw her almost right away, and reached a hand down, pulling her upward with enough force to send pain shooting through her shoulder. Unlike the rest of the people in the room, he spoke in clear English. “Are you ridden?”
Oh god, he knew. He knew I was here.
She shook her head. “No. No. It is only for two hours. The time is past.”
“I told you never to come back here if you let them make you a spy.”
“I’m no spy!”
He stared at her, his dark eyes angry and appraising. I wanted to flinch away from the blow that seemed inevitable, but he let out a long breath and said, “Take some stuff in. Get it to Jesus on fifth. Don’t get caught. Then go quit that stupid job today. If you do all that, I will let you live.”
Over Raul’s shoulder, the dark-eyed man glared at him, then at Valeria. He didn’t seem to agree with Raul and it felt like another near fight.
“Go,” Raul said, shoving her out the door, slamming it behind her.
She stood outside, quivering, her leg sending pain up her back, her cheek and shoulder sore. Then she swore in Spanish. I knew most of the words.
Her mother was in there with those brutes. But surely Raul would protect her. These were my thoughts, of course, not Valeria’s. Valeria was scared and mad and embarrassed all at once. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I did not expect them during the day. These are my fears.” She paused. “My worst fears.”
Then she was running, her heart rate increasing, her leg slowing her down a little.
Two black cars with insignia on them passed us. Mexican Police. They stopped behind us, surely at her house.
She slowed and started crying, and for a long time I was sure she had forgotten me. She ended up on the beach in one of the tourist areas of Playa, sitting on a bit of grass in front of a hotel, the hot afternoon sun sending sweat down her back. She pulled her backpack off and shoved the package Raul had made her take into its outside zipper pocket and reached into the bigger middle section and took out a flask of water. She drink slowly, shuddering and moaning. It took a long time for her calm to return.
Finally she spoke. “I wanted you to see what Mexico has done to women. That is what I’m afraid of. Not my brother, not now anyway, since I am far from him and he will probably be in jail a night before he gets out. I am afraid that I will not be anything more than my mother, and the doorway to my grandmother’s life is closed. I wanted you to know what it’s like to have nothing. That is my fear. That I will be less than nothing.”
That wasn’t what I expected her to say at all. She paused and ran the hot, white sand between her fingers, letting it fall onto the grass in a small cone-shaped pile.
“I’m afraid I’ll take the drugs he gave me. I was addicted once.” Her mouth grew dry at the words, and she shook a little. But she didn’t reach into her back pack. “I need to make the delivery or they will hurt my mother again. So you need to leave me now.”
My head hurt. I hadn’t understood anything. I slammed my thumb down on the button and woke to find Dr. Meera had let go of my hand and had pulled up a chair by the couch. He rose and helped me sit up, and then handed me a cup of tea and a chocolate bar. I shoved the button in my pocket and took the doctor’s offerings, although I couldn’t quite sip the tea or open the candy yet.
I told him from the beginning this time, the story taking so long I missed lunch. From time to time Dr. Meera made notes on his all-in-one, and once he took a call. When I was done, he said, “So, what did you learn?”
“She wasn’t … what I thought. She really was willing to run the drugs, but she was smart enough to try to show me her real fears, and … desperate enough to hope I could help her.”
“So I guess I didn’t expect her to be so … subtle. Or to break the law.”
“Do you want to know what happened next?” he asked.
I nodded, finally opening the chocolate bar.
“They did arrest all of them, even Valeria’s mother. But she’s out. Raul won’t get out in a day, not this time. We’ll use what you saw.”
“Do I have to go to court?”
I flinched at that. But it was part of doing this for real, if that was what I wanted to do. “What about Valeria? Can I call her tonight?”
“I’m sorry.” He licked his lips and looked sorry.
I tensed, waiting for it.
“We had to arrest her.”
Damn. I chose my next word carefully. “Damn.” And then I said, “Hey, let her go.”
He ignored me. “This was a chain. We’ll have stopped a whole drug ring. They’ve killed two people. I don’t know if Raul would have ever let them kill Valeria, but he let them kill one of his friends. We have been watching them a long time.”
“You need to let her go. She was trying to show me things that mattered. She’s sweet.”
“She broke the law.”
“She was scared.”
“I’ll put in a good word for her.”
He looked like he meant it. “Thank you.” At least I wasn’t being a total wimp. “Who do you really work for?”
“Maybe, if you decide to do this for a living, I’ll tell you some day.”
“What will happen to Valeria?”
His smile was soft. “She’s a victim more than anything. We’ll put her through rehab and give her a chance to start over if she agrees to testify. We’re halfway done cleaning up the drug lords. We need her to tell her story.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Not much is certain in this business.”
I remembered how she’d looked talking about her little brother and decided she probably would say at least some things. We sat quietly for a bit. The quiet was companionable, but not intimate. “So what do I do next?”
“It’s up to you. If you think you might like to do more of this, we’ll give you someone experienced to help train you. Keep you in the class, so you get your credits.”
“And my other choices?”
He laughed softly. “There’s always the Afghan/Indian war.” Then he put a hand up before I could answer. “Or you could just do the class the same way as everyone else. If you can. The emotional attachment makes it hard. But maybe we could find a boring host.”
I drank another whole cup of tea before I answered him, and he was patient enough to let me have the time. What I said was, “I like excitement, and I don’t like war. We did some good.”
“You did some good.”
“Thank you.” I stood up. “I guess I should do some more good.”
He looked both happy and sad that I’d told him yes, almost as conflicted as Valeria had felt over the drugs. Maybe life was like that everywhere. I found a bit more courage. “Will you put in a good word for me with the diplo corps?”
“This will help you with that.”
An odd, opaque answer. But if I was going to be a diplomat corps support, and eventually a real diplomat, I needed to learn to read and speak the smoky answers of politics. This would help.
I left him, and skipped the rest of my classes, sitting outside smelling Seattle; cedar and mud and roses from a thin garden close to one of the science buildings.
I slept better than night, although I did dream of the Caribbean Sea, and the way the hot sand felt between Valeria’s fingers right before I left her.
When I saw Kay on the way to class the next morning, she looked worried. “Are you okay? What happened? How come you never came back to class? What made you fall out of your chair?”
“It’s no big deal,” I said. “Problems on the other end. I get a new host today.”
“Are they going to give you someone more experienced this time? Like my Bani?”
“Good. Good for you.”
So I asked her about the camel fair. As she talked about hot sand and thirst, I decided I was happy enough they’d chosen to send me riding in Mexico. Maybe sustainability wasn’t what I thought. It wasn’t just recycling and walking. Maybe it was messy, and full of farting camels and stopping some of the abuse of women, and learning to walk in other people’s lives.
“Riding in Mexico” by Brenda Cooper. Copyright © 2010 by Brenda Cooper
- Yucatan Peninsula: via Earth Snapshot;
- Dromedaries: via Encyclopedia Britannica;
- Xaman Ha Aviary: via Maya Playa Villa;
- Vertical Farms 2: via Future Timeline;
- Coral Reef after Storm: via Reefs magazine;
- Spiderweb via Bandage Bloggage;
- Small Cenote: via Lollopoleza;
- Old Mexican House: via Nicole Delisi;
- Mexico Drug War: via War News Update;
- Clouds over Yucatan: via Tom Clark;
Brenda Cooper is a technology professional, a science fiction writer and a futurist.
Brenda’s fiction has appeared in Nature, Analog, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, The Salal Review, and multiple anthologies. Brenda has four novels out with Tor books: the Silver Ship trilogy comprising of THE SILVER SHIP AND THE SEA, READING THE WIND and WINGS OF CREATION (released last November); and a collaboration with Larry Niven titled BUILDING HARLEQUIN’S MOON. Brenda is represented by Eleanor Wood at the Spectrum Literary Agency.
As a futurist, she has worked with Glen Hiemstra for over ten years. Brenda gives talks about the future, technology, and writing. She blogs regularly at http://www.brenda-cooper.com and periodically guest-blogs at Futurismic and other venues. Brenda is a member of the Futurist Board for the Lifeboat Foundation.
As a technology professional, Brenda started out in Aerospace, where she worked on some of the early efforts to apply knowledge engineering to the field. She is currently CIO of the City of Kirkland, Washington.
Brenda was educated at California State University, Fullerton, where she earned a BA in Management Information Systems. She lives in Bellevue, Washington with her partner, Toni Cramer, Toni’s daughter Katie, and two dogs. She has an adult son, David Cooper, a firefighter/paramedic with Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue.