The sinkhole had opened up in the middle of downtown Freestone at a little after three in the morning. This was fortuitous, of course, as it would have killed or injured hundreds – if not thousands – if it had appeared during business hours. It was almost perfectly circular and took out the entire intersection of Twain and Fifth, along with the properties on the corners. By the time the morning commute started, the police had blocked off the roads and set up detours, which inconvenienced drivers, but not too much.
By chance or the grace of God, the hole had just missed a major subway line. Still, that line had to be closed down between stations, just to be on the safe side. The gas and electric lines were shut off from the main station, which left a few blocks without power, but the rest of the city could continue on without trouble. The sinkhole made the morning news and crowds came to see it, those who didn’t have jobs that necessitated them staying in the office. It was the biggest event of the year thus far, aside from the fire at the north docks that killed forty-one people.
Still, city officials had to deal with angry property owners who wanted to know where their businesses and buildings had gone, and reporters who kept asking the same unanswerable question: how did this happen?
The truth of it was that no one knew how it had happened. From initial observations, it seemed to go down forever. That was, however, an inexpert view by some of the police officers on the scene, who dropped a piece of asphalt from the edge and waited to hear it land, which they didn’t. As the sun rose higher in the sky and shined deeper into the pit, the bottom remained in shadow. It was eventually decided by Mayor Levens that experts should be called in and allowed to find out what exactly had opened up in his city.
The geology department at nearby Sallicen College sent their team over, headed by professor Jenna Spenser. Professor Spenser had gained notoriety in the past decade for leading teams into the most inaccessible regions of the world. She was an expert mountaineer and spelunker, and her expertise had been sought by some of the nation’s top corporations and governmental bodies. An event like this, which was already becoming known as the Freehole, was one that she could hardly pass up.
Early the next day, she brought her team to the hole and walked three full circuits around it. When she finished, she stood at the very edge, her chin in her hand and her foot slowly rubbing back and forth on the rim. “The northwest corner,” she finally said, and her team of eight started making their way to the corner where there used to be an upscale clothier.
“Why there?” the mayor asked. He had come out to see off the expedition, and had to be convinced not to make it a media event. His original plan was for a brass band and some bunting, to turn it into a gala moment for the city. His advisors reminded him that there was a good chance professor Spenser’s team would find nothing, and even some chance that not all of them would come back. Added to the still-increasing financial cost of the sinkhole, it was suggested to him that he might keep it as low profile as possible.
“The ground is more solid there,” she said. “And there are structures in the remaining buildings that can act as excellent foundations for our tethers.” She looked over her shoulder. “Lucy, when we get there, I want the harnesses out and ready to go!”
The young woman who was carrying a large black duffel bag nodded and ran ahead. The other students picked up their pace. When the team arrived, the harnesses came out and were put on immediately. Professor Spenser checked each of them, and nodded in appreciation to find that nothing was out of place. They spent the next hour preparing for their expedition, checking lists of equipment, readying the lines that they would descend on, and making sure that every possible safety measure would be taken. When they were finished, the mayor came over, followed closely by the TV crew that he hadn’t been able to resist calling in.
“I would just like to say,” he said, “that we are all of us grateful for your agreeing to help us in our time of need.” He turned to the camera. “Truly it is the great spirit of Freestone that has moved us all to pull together when it seems that the world is, truly, falling apart around us.”
The cameraman zoomed in on professor Spenser’s face, which was very carefully blank. After a moment, she said, “We have enough line here to take us to about five hundred meters down. We’ll be taking samples -” she patted the bag around her waist, “and documenting the whole thing on our helmet-cams here.” She walked over to the winches that had been bolted to the supporting columns of the building. “When we’re done, my two people here – Carter and Maria – will start these up and bring us back.”
She turned back to the mayor and glanced sidelong at the cameraman and the reporters. “When we get back, we’ll bring our samples up to the university and start work on them right away. But to warn you – the process will take a while. A few days, maybe.” She looked at the reporters again. “So don’t get your hopes up, okay?”
The mayor smiled and nodded and promised that no, he would not expect too much too soon. Then he walked professor Spenser and her remaining team members to the edge of the hole, where they had already installed a ladder system that would allow them to descend more easily. “Into the bowels of the earth you go,” he said. “And I pray for your safe return, with the knowledge that we have advanced in our understanding of what goes on beneath our feet.” He stood, smiling for the cameras for a moment, before he realized that professor Spenser was already in the hole, and her team members were on their way to follow her.
The pit was truly vast – at least thirty feet across, which made the geologists look utterly tiny as they crawled down. Within a few minutes, they had vanished into the shadow of the pit, and it was only a few minutes more before even the lights of their headlamps could no longer be seen. The darkness had swallowed them utterly, and no one who watched could suppress a feeling of dread.
Up on the edge, Mayor Levens hovered around the surface team. Every time their radios would crackle he would snap to attention and listen for the voice of professor Spenser. Each time, however, she simply radioed up her depth, and that she had nothing to report. A hundred meters, a hundred and fifty. Two hundred, two hundred and fifty. Three hu-
The radios squawked loudly, letting out a squeal that pierced the air. Everyone put their hands to their ears, but it didn’t help. The noise went on and on until one of the students picked up the radio and dashed to to the concrete floor. The radio warbled and hissed a bit, and then went silent.
Everyone started at the broken radio and then ran out to the pit.
The sun struck the northern edge of the pit, but all the rest was impenetrable shadow. The lines still stretched from the winches into the darkness, but they no longer played out. There was no sign of the team. “Hallooooo!” the mayor yelled. All he got was silence.
The students ran back to their base area and started setting up the backup radio. It took time, and the mayor had the chief of police set up a cordon around them to keep the reporters away. Word of the loss of contact had already leaked out, and the media wanted to know what was happening. What had seemed to be a simple operation was rapidly becoming a human tragedy.
Then the earthquake struck.
It started low and quiet, a mere tremor that barely shook dust off the rim of the pit. People looked at each other as if to confirm what they were feeling, and no one was entirely sure. Freestone stood far from any active fault lines, and the last quake that anyone could remember feeling was decades ago. That quake had managed to knock stock off shelves in the grocery store, but little more. This one was prepared to do far worse.
The vibrations became a rumbling, which became a shaking. People fled from the rim of the pit, helping up those who were at risk of being trampled by those who came behind. The police looked about, unsure of what to do, and some of them saw to it that the impromptu evacuation was made more orderly. It was hard to do, however, as the quake grew stronger, knocking people off their feet and into each other. The buildings shook and rattled, masonry dropping and smashing on the street. Glass began to break and burst outwards in great shards, cars were overturned by the force, and in moments, it seemed as though the entire city was destined to collapse into rubble – or worse, to fall into a vastly larger hole than the one before them. The mayor clung to a wall, crying out for someone to make it stop, for anyone who could save his city.
As though a switch had been hit, the shaking stopped.
Buildings that had been damaged too far started to crumble, blowing great clouds of masonry dust into the air. Smoke could be seen rising above the skyline in several different directions. Water mains had burst and were spraying all over the street, covering it in a thick slurry of mud.
The mayor walked out on shaking legs, looking at the wreck his city had become. Windows gaped emptily from the faces of buildings that were crazed with great gaps and cracks. A city that had never been built to withstand the shaking of the earth was revealing its flaws before his eyes. Mayor Levins started to weep quietly on the edge of the pit.
It was one of professor Spenser’s students who first saw the light emerge from the terrible darkness and called out to her companion. They all crowded the edge, wary of the crumbling asphalt, and looked down.
There, deep in the bowls of the sinkhole, was a shining light. A blue-white point of brilliance that seemed to be getting larger and larger as they watched it. A cold wind began to howl up from the hole, blowing away dust and debris and forcing them back as far as they could go.
Moments later, in a great whirlwind, a crystalline platform burst up from the sinkhole. It shot up into the sky and glittered in the sun above them, a great diamond more brilliant than anyone would have imagined. It spun lazily, throwing light and rainbows everywhere in the ruined city, sending spots of illumination into every shadow.
Slowly, then, it began to descend. The platform was nearly as big across as the sinkhole, and had no visible way of holding itself up, unless it was being powered by the six glowing crystals that jutted down towards the pit. As it dropped, the onlookers could see what looked like people standing on the smooth and glittering platform. They were tall and looked strong. Each of them was dressed in a spiked armor made of the same stuff as the platform, and they held shining spears and swords and tridents at the ready. They each looked like they were ready for an attack, even from a city that had been so recently devestated.
And in the center of the platform, standing in a small, filthy group, was the unmistakable figure of professor Spenser and her team. They were bound at the hands and feet with crystals that looked like they had been grown into place, but they looked unharmed. Professor Spenser stood between her team and the soldier who guarded them, and she looked ready to fight if necessary. Her eyes were as hard as the crystal, and she looked as dangerous as anyone else on the platform.
When the great crystal surface was even with the street level, it stopped. The mayor looked at the two students, who in turn suggested with subtle nods and gestures that he might want to go do something about this.
He straightened his suit jacket – which was covered in dust and debris, and was badly torn at the shoulder – raised his substantial chin high and walked out to the edge of the crystal platform. Several of the armored men saw him approach and moved to intercept him with their glimmering weapons. The mayor forced himself not to look at them, but instead trained his eyes on the woman who had led the mission into the first place.
“Professor Spenser!” he called, and she looked over at him. A sudden playfulness overtook him, undoubtedly an irrational reaction to the stress he had endured that day. “Did you find anything?” he asked.
To her credit, professor Spenser didn’t laugh, nor did she look astounded that he had asked such a plainly ridiculous question. She did smile, though. “I may have,” she called back. “I’ll have to wait for the test results to be sure. It might be a few days.”
The mayor bit his tongue and then said, “Well, be sure to let me know if you find anything.”
She shrugged. “I wouldn’t get my hopes up.” She barely got the last word out before she finally cracked and let loose with a peal of laughter. She was quickly followed by the mayor, and then by her exploration team. The crystal platform seemed to amplify it and send it ringing out far and wide. The armed men looked confused and worried, and didn’t seem quite sure what to do about this strange and unexpected reaction.
Mayor Levins laughed until his jaw hurt. He would have to deal with this problem, certainly, and in the back of his mind he knew it would not be easy. But for right now, he was able to laugh in the face of the unknown, and it was the best thing he could do.