Iracema didn’t sleep well, she tossed and turned, sweating and sore, and in the early hours she crept out of bed and dressed, wincing when she pulled her top over the bruises on her breasts.
He was on his back, a snoring drunken mouth with a wasp’s nest inside. They didn’t sting him, but they were going to chase her. She was certain of that.
She searched, but there were only a few coins. He’d flushed the rest at the bar the night before. She took her backpack out of its hiding place and left.
The magnetometer signals were strong. The ore body was close enough to the surface for open cut, a no-brainer, but Doctor Ana Fliess was puzzled. She’d read the report on the area west of Marimbondo from the year before, and there was no mention of it.
Still, there it was, and she’d have to do a full survey. She looked out across the low ridges, the scrub and baked red clay, and her geologist’s eyes saw contours and grid lines. She unloaded more equipment from the back of the truck, electromagnetic transmitters and receivers, and set to work.
She was olive skinned with the widely spaced eyes of the Guaranis, and sunburnt, with her clothes and backpack covered in dust from walking all day. She asked for a bottle of water, and counted out the coins as if they were made of gold.
Ana had already paid, but she waited outside by the gas pumps.
“Would you like a lift, senhorinha? Which way are you going?”
The woman was startled, like a sparrow, as if nobody ever called her senhorinha, at least no-one like Ana.
“I’m traveling east to São Paulo, senhora.”
“I’ll be staying overnight in Marimbondo then going on to São Paulo tomorrow. You’re welcome to come with me. I’m Ana.”
“Thank you, Senhora Ana.” She almost smiled. “I am called Iracema.”
As they pulled out of the gas station, a loud continuous noise began, the sound of bending, tearing metal, and in the rear vision mirror Ana saw the green and yellow roofing over the gas pumps peeling back. It twisted around its last attachment to a support column, ripped it from the ground and flew upward like an enormous origami bird.
Iracema’s scream brought Ana back from frozen astonishment, and she rammed her foot down on the accelerator. The motor raced but the truck didn’t move forward. Its wheels had already left the ground.
It was late, and the straight run into Marimbondo was a monotony of scrub and patched bitumen. The tanker routes in the north of Paraná were long hauls, and that meant time away from family and friends. A lot of the Petrobras drivers weren’t interested, but Carlos didn’t mind. There were compensations.
His thoughts drifted to back to the prostitute he’d negotiated in Pinhal the day before–Iracema, at least that’s what she’d said. She was a little the worse for wear, and there wasn’t a moment’s pretense. She’d gazed at the wooden walls without moving, except for the motion he’d impressed on her when he climaxed.
Now there was change in the monotony, and it took Carlos a moment to realize what it was. The road noise had disappeared, as if he was travelling on smooth concrete and not tired asphalt. The tanker was slowing–he pressed the accelerator–and drifting to the verge–he tried to correct–but nothing made any difference.
As the tanker rose into the night, Carlos forgot Iracema and remembered his wife and son, framed on the dash. He touched the Saint Christopher medal beside them, opened the cabin door, and jumped out, but he was far too late and far too high.
Through the night, Iracema and Ana prayed and comforted each other. They wondered whether they were destined for the vacuum of space or to plummet back to earth, and tried to understand what had befallen them.
“It’s no use dwelling on the unknown. We must do what we can with the here and now, and the Holy Mother will take care of the rest,” Iracema said.
Ana looked out the window, “I think we might have stopped going up. The lights of Marimbondo aren’t getting any smaller.”
They decided that the best in the here and now was to get some rest, and they slept clinging to each other, with the truck rocking gently in the breeze.
At first light they woke to find themselves floating in a Sargasso Sea of metal, surrounded by water tanks and guttering, corrugated roofing, and rusted cans and scraps. In the distance, they saw another vehicle, and they called out, waved through open doors, but there was no response.
“They’ll come for us, won’t they, Ana?”
“I’m not sure they even know we’re here.”
“Then we have to send messages.”
They tore up Ana’s maps and wrote on them, rolled them in pieces of floor mat tied with wire ripped from under the dashboard, and threw them out the windows. There was activity below, trucks crawling along the roads like tiny insects, and they hoped for the best.
In the afternoon, they found a screwdriver under the seat. Ana popped the hood, and Iracema, tethered with wire, clambered to the front of the truck and retrieved the plastic container that fed the windscreen washers. The water tasted a little soapy.
At sunset they saw a helicopter.
It was from the Globo TV network, labelled ‘Globocop’ along its tail, and there was a cameraman filming out one window. They waved and shouted, and the pilot banked to come in closer. But when the helicopter had almost reached the iron sea, its nose bucked violently upward and it began to precess like a top, spinning wildly out of control.
Ana and Iracema watched it fall and explode on the ground, a distant flare.
Iracema crossed herself. “Those poor men. What happened to their helicopter?”
“The helicopter was lifted by its blades. It must have been thrown out of balance when its metal nose came into the upward force that holds us. Helicopters aren’t designed to handle anything like that.”
Iracema nodded, and thought for a moment. “Whatever the force on the metal is, it’s just at this altitude that it exactly balances gravity. The force must decrease with height. It must be stronger below us.”
“Yes, I guess it has to be.”
Ana didn’t see what use the information was, but to know there was logic even in the incomprehensible was a candle, a comfort.
The stars came out, and made sisters by fate, Ana and Iracema told each other their secrets.
Ana talked about geology, her profession, her career. “The rock strata, the secret patterns hidden in the ground. That’s all my life has ever been. I told myself I’d take a break, go on a holiday. Volcanoes. I wanted to see the volcanoes in the south of Chile.”
She sighed. “But there was always a reason to put it off. And now… and now it might be too late.”
Iracema took her hand. “It’s not over yet, Ana. We have to have faith. Our messages are down there, someone will find one.”
Ana nodded, but in her heart she knew there would be no rescue.
Iracema talked about the man she’d escaped from.
“I was so young, so naïve, still in school in Paraguay, and he was a Brazilian, a man of the world. He took me to the cinema and the amusement park, bought me chocolates and silver balloons shaped like hearts. I ran away with him and we came to live in Brazil.”
Iracema hesitated and Ana said nothing, just waited.
“I was completely dependent on him. I had no money and no documents, and that’s when it all changed. He said I had to earn my keep.”
Ana held her as she sobbed.
“I’ve been studying. I can type. I want to get an office job in São Paulo.”
The next morning was windy, the truck rocked from side to side and there was movement in the metal sea.
Iracema saw it first. “Look, over there.”
It was a floating Petrobras tanker, side on to the wind off the Andes and driving towards them like a sailboat.
“I think it’s going to hit us.” Ana tried to imagine a traffic accident in the sky.
As it approached, the tanker gathered metal driftwood before it like a plough. Eventually it tipped onto its side and stopped moving.
“I think I can hear something. Do you hear that, Ana?”
Ana listened and heard the sound too. There was a deep thrumming beneath the whistle of the wind through the floating metal. “A motor. Its motor is still running. I don’t like that, it might–”
The tanker exploded in a massive fireball, and there was roar of sound, shrapnel slamming into the truck and shattering glass.
She felt a stinging blow to the side of her head and lost consciousness.
Ana looked around at the rides, the Ferris wheel, the Russian mountain, the funhouses. Where will we go next?
Iracema was holding a cluster of heart shaped balloons. I’m going to fly, she said, and took a ball of string out of her pocket. Here, tie this to my leg.
Ana knotted one end around her ankle, and Iracema and the balloons rose into the air.
—Hold on tight, she called down.
—How can you float like that?
—It’s easy, this is all upside down.
—Come back, Iracema, I don’t think I can hold you. The string was pulling hard and her fingers were slippery.
—It’s fine. You have to let go. And wake up.
“Ana, wake up, you have to wake up now.”
When she opened her eyes, she saw blood on her hands and glass diamonds, in her lap and all over the seat. She touched the side of her head with her fingertips. It felt sticky. Chunks of torn metal floated in the cabin and outside, and the windscreen was gone.
“Iracema, darling, are you alright?” Iracema was turned away from her, looking out the window. Ana touched her shoulder and she fell back against the seat. Her clothes were soaked in blood, and a metal shard protruded from her chest.
Ana was silent for a time, until the dry sobs melted into tears and screaming.
It was a violation, the last violation. She stripped the clothes from Iracema’s body and tore up the outfit she’d saved in her backpack, cleaned and pressed for job interviews in São Paulo, and wet everything with tears.
The military had closed off an area the size of a football field outside Marimbondo, and only certified scientists and connected politicians were permitted to enter the rising, the zone where iron had no interest in the current laws of physics.
Following the principle of monkeys with typewriters, the scientists collected data from a wide range of instrumentation, hoping that something would turn out to be useful even if it wasn’t a line of Shakespeare.
Unrestrained iron was strictly forbidden in the rising, and the politicians discretely played with ball bearings they’d hidden in their pockets.
On the fringes of the rising, a fair had appeared overnight. Holy men urged the crowds to accept that god had come to Paraná, the media chased stories, and locals swore that their discarded beer cans had risen off their back porches and floated for five famous minutes. When they were bored, the curiosity tourists wandered down rows of hastily erected stalls and purchased coffee, snacks, and mementoes.
One visitor from São Paulo noticed a piece of trampled matting and wire on the ground, and was vaguely curious about it. But his wife called to him, “Darling, come and look at these ‘I rose at Marimbondo’ tee shirts,” and that was that.
At midday, someone looked up at the sky and pointed, as if superman had flown out of a comic book, and a contagious buzz ran through the crowd.
Ana was close to the ground now, but the upward force on the metal in the knotted cloth bags tied to her ragtag harness was still increasing. She pulled a wire cord towards her, grabbed another piece of shrapnel from the exploded tanker and let it fly upwards.
Iracema had told her how. It’s easy, this is all upside down.
Her hands were cut and bleeding from the sharp edges on the metal shards, but really, it was easy. Ana was the upside-down balloon and the metal was her upside-down ballast. She’d discarded enough pieces to start falling and then released more along the way to keep descending.
She touched down like a feather and untied the last of her ballast, let it return to the sky, and the crowd around her clapped and cheered.
With the media held at bay by the military, Ana was given food and water, and her wounds were sterilized and bandaged. Colonel Lima, who accompanied her, politely didn’t ask too many questions.
“I think it would be best to have the doctors at Londrina Hospital check you out, senhora. I’ve arranged an airlift.”
The bottles on the shelves in the first aid tent rattled and shook, and Ana was startled.
“A minor earthquake. It’s the third one today. The scientists are looking into it.”
Earthquakes in Paraná were rare, but not unheard of, and the impossibility of the rising overshadowed anything that was just a little out of the ordinary, like a small tremor. Or like the ore body that Ana had discovered, even though there was nothing in the survey from the year before.
She tried to focus her thoughts. Most people’s thinking stopped at ground level, but that was where Ana’s began. The force of the rising was higher at lower altitudes, and it didn’t stop at ground level either.
“Colonel, I think something is going to come out of the ground, something big,” and she told him about the iron ore deposit she’d mapped out two days before, and what it meant.
“You’re saying the rising is coming from this … thing, underground.”
“Yes. It’s a mile long. You’ll have to evacuate the whole area.”
He was making his way counter flow through the crowds that were leaving, holding a dog-eared photograph and accosting disinterested strangers. He was unshaven and his eyes were bloodshot.
“My wife. She came through here. Have you seen her?” He sounded desperate.
Waving the photo towards Ana was a mistake. She kneed him hard in the groin and he doubled over, choking, unable to breathe.
Colonel Lima seemed slightly bemused. “Do you need any … assistance, senhora?”
The man with the photograph began vomiting and Ana shrugged. “It’s not important, Colonel. I’ll explain later. Let’s go.”
The ground heaved and split, erupted, and the battered craft rose upward on glaring tails of flame. The crowds watching at a distance saw the unbelievable, the certainty of extra-terrestrial life.
Ana had to stay overnight at Londrina hospital, and she joined an audience of patients and nurses in front of a television set. The camera followed the great vessel skyward until it scattered the terrestrial metalwork that had floated for two days, and then it tracked the objects themselves as they fell back to earth in a dark meteor shower.
Ana thought of Iracema’s dream, her flight, her hours of freedom.
“It makes you think, doesn’t it?” someone said, “How insignificant humanity is in the universe, how meaningless and trivial our day-to-day struggles really are.”
Ana wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She didn’t know much about the universe, but she knew that was horseshit.
Steve Simpson lives in Sydney, Australia mostly. In 2013, he won the ‘In Places Between’ short story contest and his stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies. His hobbies include experiments on time travel and the creation of negative light, and research on epileptic seizure detection. View his website at inconstantlight.com.