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Mike Dixon leaned against the hood of the Border Patrol truck and gazed out over the Sonoran Desert spread out below the hill on the top of which the truck was parked. A little over half a mile to the east the people of the Town of Sasabe were beginning to turn on their lights as the shadow of the Pozo Verde Mountains slipped over them. A mile and a half to the southeast the Mexican town of El Sasabe was also beginning to light up against the coming night. And running between the towns, in stark black, ran The Barrier.
Presented as one of the engineering marvels of the age, The Barrier ran some seven-hundred miles, from coast to coast, on the border separating the United States of America from Los Estados Unidos de Mexico. It was essentially a trench, twenty feet deep and one hundred feet wide, dug right up against the border and lined with steel-reinforced concrete. Where the trench abutted the border itself, on its south side, the wall rose an additional twenty feet above the Mexican landscape. In the trench robots resembling manic dune buggies patrolled, watching the sky for any sign that someone was trying to span the trench and pausing periodically to listen for sounds of digging under the trench.
"So there it is," Mike said. "Complete at last. America's very own Maginot Line."
"That's not the put-down that you think it is," Jennifer Dobrovski said. Standing on the opposite side of the truck from Mike, refusing to lean against the hood lest she soil her Border Patrol uniform, she scanned the scene below with a predator's gaze. "The Germans never defeated the Maginot Line; they outflanked it by attacking through Belgium. This...'Maginot Line' goes into the sea at both ends. There is no 'Belgium' for the boys and girls over there to blitz."
"Sure looks that way," Mike said. "So how many billions of dollars did we spend on this thing so that we can all now enjoy twenty-dollar-a-head lettuce?"
"I don't know the exact figure," Jennifer said, "but it's certainly more than the eight billion that the project was originally meant to cost. But it's money well spent. That barrier is going to last forever!"
"I'm sure the Russians entertained similar thoughts about their wall in Germany," Mike commented sourly.
"Well, here's a difference you might appreciate," Jennifer said. "Unlike the Berlin Wall, this one will save lives. No more will we have desperate people crossing the border only to die in the desert. I've had to pick up some of the bodies. I'm glad I'll never have to do it again."
Mike sighed. "Yeah, I hear you. But I just can't shake off the feeling that we could have done so much better if we had used that money and effort to develop the Mexican economy and taken down the pressure that's driving those desperate people."
"Yeah, well, maybe now that pressure will drive them in a more productive direction." She shaded her eyes with her hand and stared at something beyond The Barrier. "Is today a Mexican holiday?"
"No," he said, "at least none that I'm aware of. Why?"
She pointed at a place west of El Sasabe. "Someone's shooting off fireworks over there."
Mike looked whither she was pointing and saw over a dozen flames burning brightly above a site on the south side of the wash that ran past El Sasabe. "What the...?" He watched for several seconds. "Shouldn't skyrockets rise faster than that?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said, "unless they're carrying a load. Or," she added with fear growing in her voice, "they're not rising vertically! Oh, shit! Get in the truck! They're bombing us!"
Mike opened the passenger side door, started to get in, then grabbed the binoculars off the dashboard and leaned partly back out, bracing himself with his right foot still on the ground. He found one of the flares and caught a glimpse of a bat-like silhouette before the vibration of the truck starting knocked his field of view away from it. He got into the truck. "Huh," he grunted as he fastened his seat belt. "Huh," he repeated and then began laughing.
Jennifer turned the truck around and went down the dirt road to Sasabe as rapidly as she dared. "What's so damned funny?" she growled.
Struggling to control himself, Mike gasped out, "They're...not...bombing...us."
"Then what...?" Jennifer prompted.
Mike pointed straight up and squeaked out, "Belgium", before dissolving into complete hysterics.
Jennifer stared straight ahead, her eyes widening as her face settled into a look of horrified dismay.
Rogelio Morales hung in his harness and watched Earth's rotation slowly, lazily roll the Pozo Verde Mountains in front of the sun. Dangling above a crude carriage that was set to slide up a pair of greased wooden beams rising at a thirty-degree angle, he struggled to control his anxiety. He knew that the device had been well tested, that it was as safe as modern technology could make such a thing. Nonetheless, there is something in a man that quails at the thought of being shot two kilometers into the sky with nothing more than an oversized kite to prevent a meteoric descent back to Earth. He felt relieved, then, to hear the countdown blaring from the loudspeakers on top of the launch van:
Rogelio pressed the button on the handlebar and heard from behind him a whoosh that segued into a roar. He felt the harness pull him forward and a few seconds later he saw that he was approaching the end of the launch track. He gently pushed the handlebar forward and felt the craft lift gracefully. Then he saw the launch carriage tumble into the wash, saw the land fall away from him, and saw the shadows turn into black streaks smeared across the tan of the desert.
His heart pounded and he could barely breathe, but he kept the glider climbing at a thirty-degree angle, glancing every few seconds at the artificial horizon mounted on the handlebar. Soon he was soaring over El Feo Grande, the concrete scar that the yanquis had gashed into the landscape. Some ten seconds later the rocket's roar guttered into silence and the harness no longer pulled him forward. He pulled back on the handlebar until he was flying level. Now all he had to do was to glide as far as possible, perhaps as far as twenty kilometers according to the man who had sold him the glider.
He saw, in the deepening darkness far below, the lights of a small truck going down the road to Sasabe. La migra, he thought. Then, with a mischievous grin, he called out a nasal"beep! beep!" and laughed.
Mike lifted the shimmering wing off the creosote bush, one of whose branches had pierced the wing's plastic skin. He probed the hole and rubbed the plastic film between thumb and forefinger.
"Feels like Mylar™," he commented. "Double layer...for safety I think. This is a robust little thing."
"It's a dangerous little thing," Jennifer said as she lifted up the rear of the rocket tube that formed the glider's backbone and looked into it. "The official estimate is that these people shot themselves a little over a mile into the air. That's a long way to fall if something fails."
"We're about ten miles from the border," Mike mused. "That's a glide ratio of about ten-to-one. That's not bad. Typical hang glider can have a glide ratio as high as fourteen-to-one. This guy likely had some extra baggage --food and water at least -- and that lowered his glide ratio."
"And if that glide ratio had suddenly become zero-to-one?" Jennifer asked.
"Not gonna happen," Mike said. He pumped the wing up and down several times. "Since hang gliding was revived in the 1970's it has become a mature technology. And with modern composites these things are virtually unbreakable."
"Even when they're attached to rockets?" She peered again into the rocket tube. "Look at this! It burned through at the front!"
Mike lifted up the front of the glider and looked at the rocket tube. "These aren't burn-throughs," he said. "They were cut into the tube when it was made."
"Why!?" Jennifer said as a look of horror crossed her face.
"Rough guess and this is only a guess," Mike said. "I think there was something inside that blocked the holes. The propellant held it in place at first and then the pressure inside the rocket held it in place. When the rocket burned out, the thing fell out and allowed air to blow through the tube to cool it down."
"Seems like an awful lot of trouble and expense just to get a couple of dozen people across the border," she said. She let the glider down and began examining the area around it.
Mike noticed letters stamped on the wing's leading edge. "Hecho en Mexico," he read.
"Well, we knew that," Jennifer commented. She knelt and sighted along a series of small depressions in the soil. "Looks like our guy went this way."
"It's machine stamped," Mike said. "You know, it wouldn't be all that hard to mass produce these things. One, maybe two hundred bucks apiece."
"You can't be serious!"
"Why not? It seems like a good business plan to me."
"What kind of...?" She just stared at him.
"I don't believe this was a one-shot deal,' he explained. "Think about this. Assume that each of these costs two hundred dollars to make. The manufacturer sells them to the smugglers for three hundred apiece. Some smugglers used to charge as much as two thousand dollars per person to lead groups of people across the border. With this system the smuggler stays in Mexico in his cheapo launch site. So assume he charges only one thousand per person. If he has an overhead of one hundred per person -- and I think that's high -- he clears six hundred per person. They launched about twenty people from El Sasabe last night. If they can repeat that performance five days a week, fifty weeks a year, they can launch, uh, ...five thousand people a year."
"Times six hundred dollars is.... Oh, my God!," she cried, "three million dollars a year!"
"Not to mention the half million the manufacturer clears. And of course he's going to supply more than one smuggling operation."
"It's not going to stop, is it?" she said.
"Not with that kind of economic pressure driving it."
"Before the wall was built," Jennifer said, "over one million illegals crossed the border every year. At a thousand bucks a pop, that's over a billion dollars! How can they afford it!?"
"By staying in this country long enough to send over twenty billion dollars a year back home," Mike said. "It's one of the biggest foreign aid programs in the world...and it's entirely private enterprise, a Libertarian's wet dream."
"It doesn't seem to be doing Mexico any good."
"It isn't," Mike said with a grunt as he lifted the glider over his head. "The conditions for turning that flow of money into development for the poor just aren't there." He carried the glider to the truck and laid it in the bed. With Jennifer's help, he lashed it down and then attached a red flag from the tool kit onto the wing protruding over the tailgate.
"How do we stop it?" she asked.
"Go to the eye em eye effs who paid out umpteen billion of our dollars for that wall and see if they'll pop for some really big butterfly nets."
"Eye em eye effs?" Jennifer prompted.
"Idiots, morons, imbeciles, and fools," Mike replied. "Though their number has all too often included much worse."
"Cynic," Jennifer said. She looked around at the surrounding desert and sighed. "Over one million of these things littering our landscape every year. What are we going to do about that?"
"Oh, that's too easy," Mike said with a chuckle. "We just hire a buncha Mexicans to go out and pick 'em up."
"I'm afraid to ask what you think we should do with them."
"Well, I'm sure we don't want to just stack them up in a junkyard somewhere," Mike mused. "And we certainly don't want to burn them or bury them. No, the rational thing to do is to ship them back to Mexico so that they can be refurbished and reused."
"Which is, of course, the only sane approach to this problem," Mike said with a grin.
Pablo Amende made a final check of the ropes holding the glider to the launch track. Although the dummy hanging in the harness was heavy enough to hold the craft down, a strong enough gust of wind could flip the craft and that would not be good. He confirmed that the craft was secure and safe; the simple plastic shower cap stretched over the end of the rocket would prevent stray sparks from entering the tube and lighting off the propellant. He made one last check of the stubby cylinder set into the ground behind the glider, aimed south and upward at a forty-five degree angle. Then he went to the launch control van.
On his way to the van he passed the big sign facing the border, the sign that proclaimed"El Sasabe International Airport" in meter-high letters. Sometimes he questioned the wisdom of taunting the yanquis so blatantly, but then he asked himself what Tio Sam was going to do about it and laughed.
Not that he disliked norteamericanos. Most were kind and generous, as good and as decent as most mexicanos. That being the case, something must have gone horribly wrong with the democracia of which the yanquis were so proud. More and more Pablo came to think of it as a borrachocracia. Often he imagined peals of drunken laughter echoing down the halls of Congress whenever the subject of Mexico came up. How else to explain the Big Ugly squatting on the border between two supposedly friendly nations? No, he didn't object to the taunting sign.
He paused at the door to the van and looked up into the sky above the wall. He thought he could just make out several dozen faint shadows hovering over the border, but then again it might just be his imagination pranking him. He went into the van, sat down in his chair, and waited for Lupe to begin the countdown.
Jennifer and Mike stood next to Jennifer's Border Patrol truck on top of the hill west of Sasabe, Arizona.
"They're ready to launch," Mike said as he lowered his binoculars. He glanced up at the two dozen shadows hovering over the border. He could only see them, he knew, because their optically active skins were set to make them invisible against the sky as seen from the El Sasabe launch site.
"And Operation Butterfly Net is ready to render it all futile," Jennifer commented.
"Yeah, we're about to find out," Mike said. He pointed at the launch site where smoke and flame shot out from behind the gliders on the launch racks.
A few seconds later Jennifer brought her binoculars up and stared at the site. "Something's wrong!" she said. "They're not going up into the air! The rockets just shut down!"
Mike saw that the flames had abruptly vanished, leaving only smoke to drift over the launch site as it dissipated. Something in his peripheral vision caught his attention and he turned left to get a better look at it. Quickly he brought his binoculars up to get a better look.
"Looks like they're launching over Tres Boleros," he said with a laugh. "No way are those miniblimps gonna catch 'em."
"What...!?" Jennifer said as she turned her binoculars to the east-south-east. "Why, those...! They faked us out!" She sounded downright indignant about it.
"For which we can thank Congressfool Hawnkenblather," Mike said.
"Why?" Jennifer asked peevishly, "because he created this new interdiction program?"
"No," Mike said, "because he couldn't stop gassing off about it on the news." He lowered his binoculars. "You know, when you're in a struggle against someone your primary objective is the demoralization of your opponent."
"Von Clausewitz," Jennifer commented.
"Elementary theory of war," Mike confirmed. "So how much damage do you think our miniblimp armada has done to their morale over there?"
"OK, so we made a mistake."
"Mistakes lose wars. Every one of those flyers should have been under a blimp's spotlight until your colleagues could pick them up. It would have given them a morale-killing shock. But because nothing outgasses like a politician in front of a microphone, they had plenty of warning, plenty of information, and they adapted. In boxing it's called telegraphing your punches and it's not recommended. And do you think they might have found another company to build the blimps?"
"What's wrong with ACM Enterprises?" Jennifer asked.
"What do the initials spell?"
"ACME," she said. "It's a Greek word, means something like 'the best'."
Mike shook his head. "It's the name of the company that provides explosives, booby traps, and other nefarious devices to a certain hapless coyote in a series of cartoons involving a rather insouciant roadrunner."
"This is not a Roadrunner cartoon," she said a little too harshly.
"Don't tell me," Mike said. He pointed across the border. "Tell them."
Jennifer looked across the border, at the lights of El Sasabe sparkling in the twilight. She thought that she could hear, very faintly, a nasal "beep! beep!" coming from beyond the wall.
Pilar Magaña looked down on the land in astonished delight. The rocket that had lifted her and her glider two kilometers into the air had just burned out and now she was gliding, looking down at a landscape that the sunset painted in shades of orange and black. So far the flight had been as easy as"the astronaut" in the video had told her and the other fliers. Dios mio, she thought, this must be what it's like to be an angel.
Suddenly the glider's wings lit up. The translucent plastic glowed under the spotlight on the miniblimp that was now following Pilar. Listening to the growling hum of its engines, Pilar allowed the blimp to come closer. When it seemed to her that the blimp was right on top of her, she slid her left hand to the center of the glider's handlebar and pressed the red button mounted there.
She heard a loud poof. Immediately she swung herself to her left to roll the glider into a left turn, then, a few seconds later, she rolled the glider into a right turn to resume her northward flight and to avoid any risk of colliding with other fliers. She pulled back on the handlebar to pitch down into a short dive, trading a little bit of distance for speed. When she leveled off she glanced back over her right shoulder. She was pleased to see that she had put some distance between herself and the blimp and that the distance was growing. Free and clear, she turned her full attention to her flying.
In her imagination she became a hawk, soaring over the land of her far ancestors. But all too soon it ended. As the land seemed to rush up at her, she pulled the ripcord hanging off the handlebar and thereby released the part of the harness holding her legs parallel to the rocket. She swung her feet down as the glider came down into a wash and felt her feet sink an inch into the sand. Then the weight of the glider pushed her down onto her hands and knees. She unbuckled the harness and crawled out from under the glider. Standing up, she settled the pack carrying her water, food, and personal items more comfortably onto her back. With the beam from a flashlight to guide her around obstacles and the stars to provide direction, she set out walking north.
She walked until she came to a dirt road that ran from southwest to northeast. A small tributary wash crossed the road nearby. On the bank of the wash, some distance from the road, she sat down under a large manzanita and dozed off.
The faint glow of dawn filling the land with light woke her up. From her pack she took the cell phone that"the astronaut's" deputy had given her and entered the number she had been given. She exchanged passwords with the person who answered the call, read off the coordinates displayed on the phone's GPS receiver, and then she rang off and waited.
An hour later she saw a motorhome, of the style favored by members of the Minuteman Militia, trundling up the road trailing a small cloud of dust. As the vehicle approached her location loudspeakers on its roof played"No Tengo Dinero". Nonetheless, she was wary, even when the man "riding shotgun" (as yanquis like to say) called to her in Spanish. Again there was an exchange of passwords involving Mexican cultural references that few gringos would know. Thus reassured, Pilar boarded the motorhome and took a seat with the other fliers who had been picked up. After picking up two more fliers, the driver took his passengers to Tucson.
Mike Dixon drove his car into the gravel-paved lot of Hector Garcia's Plastic Recycling Works and parked next to the Border Patrol truck in the shade of the receiving shed. Little more than a chain-link fence enclosing the area under a twenty-foot high corrugated-steel roof, the shed emitted the grumble of trucks, the whack and clatter of flat plastic structures being tossed into piles, and shouts in Mexican accented English. Mike found Jennifer talking with Hector Garcia himself by a table on which a glider lay.
"Behold the latest wrinkle in the fabric of illegal immigration!" Hector declared as he indicated the glider with a wide sweep of his hand.
"Well, one of the latest wrinkles," Mike said as he approached the table.
"There's more than one!?" Jennifer asked.
"Apparently so," Mike said. "Ten people launched from the east side of Ciudad Juarez at midnight last night."
"In the dark!?" Hector said. "Isn't that rather dangerous?"
"They went over south El Paso," Mike said, "so I'm assuming that they used the streetlights for guidance. If that's the case, then I suspect that we'll soon be seeing night launches over Laredo, Nogales, Yuma, that whole strip between Brownsville and McAllen/Pharr,...."
"Oh, God!" Jennifer exclaimed. "San Diego! They could send hundreds every night!"
"Nah," Mike said with a wink and a grin. "They've already got the Tijuana Subway."
Jennifer gave him a dark look. "That's only a rumor."
"Well, that's what they want us to think, now isn't it?" Mike said.
"Such an interesting sounding rumor," Hector said, "and I have never heard it."
"There's really not much to it," Mike said. "The rumor has it that a bunch of investors bought a maquiladora close to the border on the east side of Tijuana. They continue to operate it as a maquiladora, but in a room at the rear of the factory they had a shaft sunk down into bedrock and then had a tunnel bored about a mile north to a factory they bought east of Otay."
"And they continue to operate the factory as a factory?" Hector asked.
"Oh, yes," Mike replied. "That's their cover. As long as they produce goods, they can have trucks coming and going without raising suspicion. Moving supplies, finished product...and people. One hundred per day at a thousand bucks a pop. Standard two hundred and fifty day work year...."
"Twenty-five million dollars a year!" Hector said, his eyes going wide. "Oh, my gracious Lord and Savior! I think maybe I need to start a new recycling plant on the south side of Nogales!"
"There is no Tijuana tunnel!" Jennifer insisted.
"Dream squisher!" Mike snarled at her playfully. Then to Hector he said, "You know why she always gets lost here in Arizona, don't you?"
"No," Hector said warily.
"No sensa Yuma," Mike said.
"There's no tunnel," Jennifer repeated. "We would have detected the blasting."
"They didn't use explosives," Mike said. "They used an oxyacetylene torch to cut crisscrossing slots into the rock face and used a pry bar to pop the chunks of rock loose."
"So there's a tunnel," Hector said.
With a glance at Jennifer, Mike shook his head. "I hired a guy in Tijuana to get himself sent through it. He's good and yet he failed, so the tunnel's just a rumor...for now. So what do we have here?"
"This," Hector said as he pointed to a structure rising above the rear of the wing.
It looked like a pie pan made of thick aluminum foil. It was mounted on a four-inch pylon that attached, through the wing's plastic skin, to the rocket. Mike saw the stubby ends of two wires protruding through the pan's center and matte-gray streaks radiating from them across the shiny metal.
"The wires are for the igniter," Mike commented. "Probably a layer of gunpowder to throw the load outward and a big load of flash powder."
"Among his other skills," Jennifer said to Hector, "he channels Sherlock Holmes."
"Nonsense," Mike said. "There's no heavy-duty deduction going on here. We know what happened last night. They launched just as it got dark...."
"At Sasabe!?" Hector said in astonishment.
"Yeah," Mike replied. "The blimps were just getting ready to leave when our guests lit their rockets. The blimp pilots were each able to pick up a glider and get their spotlight on it. Then they moved in to follow and each pilot got a blast of light in their eyes. Dazzled them so badly they couldn't see for several minutes. They had to cut their engines lest they collide with a glider or another blimp."
"And, of course, the gliders got away," Jennifer added.
"OK, flash powder, yeah," Hector said. "But in the dark!? Sure, I can see them flying over a city and using the streetlights, as you said. But there are no streetlights north of Sasabe. How could they possibly...?"
Mike lifted the glider's wing and so tilted the glider that he could examine the handlebar. He pointed to a bracket the had four prongs, all bent outward.
"That would just hold a cell phone," he said. "They just use a cell phone whose video has night vision. It would be good enough for landing one of these in relatively flat country."
"Maybe for the final approach," Jennifer said. "But I can't see someone making the actual landing while staring into a small screen."
"That's why they have this," Mike said, pointing to a second bracket on the opposite side of the handlebar. "It held the flashlight."
"I wouldn't want to be fumbling with the switch on a flashlight while trying to fly one of these things," Hector said. "Especially while trying to come in for a landing."
"Yeah, that could be a bit of a risk to say the least," Jennifer commented as she examined the handlebar. "Oh! Probably wasn't necessary," she said. Reaching under the bracket, she pulled up a cord with a piece of stiff black cloth dangling from its free end. She held the edges of a vee-cut together and showed that it made the cloth form a conical cup. "Rough guess. This covered the end of the flashlight. So the pilot turned on the flashlight prior to launch and this prevented the light from showing. When they pulled the ripcord to let their feet down for the landing it also took the this cover off and left the flashlight to serve as a landing light."
"But still," Hector protested. "In the dark? That is so very dangerous!"
"And the old way wasn't?" Mike asked. "I'll grant that flying one of these, day or night, is not for the timid. But, then, when have you ever met a timid Mexican?"
Hector and Jennifer laughed.
"But now this raises an interesting question," Mike said. "If they can fly in the dark, why didn't they wait until later and launch after the blimps had left? It's almost as if they're taking every possible opportunity to embarrass us. This goes beyond just crossing the border and playing it like a Roadrunner cartoon. There's something else going on here."
"Or maybe they're all just crazy," Jennifer said.
"Is it truly wise for us to go out of our way to torment Tio Borracho?" Carlos Ortiz asked. He was sitting in a small office with the man he knew only as "the astronaut". Through the window he could see the tents, the trailers, and the amusement rides of what appeared to be a small traveling carnival.
"Well, certainly it's not completely safe," the astronaut said, "but there is a reason behind it, so we cannot say out of hand whether it is wise or not."
"Yes, I accept that," Carlos said. "But we really didn't need to use the flash bombs. We could have sent the fliers later, after the blimps went away."
"True," the astronaut said, "if all we want to accomplish is to get people across the border. Perhaps you watched the ten o'clock news and saw videotapes of the flashes lighting up the blimps?"
"Yes," Carlos said. "It seemed strange to me, though, that anyone in Sasabe could have videocameras with telephoto lenses pointed at the right part of the sky at the right time to record such brief events. But not so strange, after all, eh?"
"Indeed, amigo," the astronaut said, "not so strange, after all. You understand that we are engaged in a great struggle with Tio Sam, something a little bit like a war. And you understand that the first objective of warfare is the demoralization of your enemy."
"Standard von Clausewitz," Carlos said. "But surely the yanquis understand that doctrine as well. They will take measures to counter our attempts to demoralize them."
"They have already done so," the astronaut said, "and what happens to yanqui morale when those countermeasures fail, as they did last night?"
"They simply change their tactics," Carlos said. "A few small failures won't discourage them. Surely you know that."
"Yes, indeed so," the astronaut said. "That is why we must prolong this struggle, drag it out, as the yanquis themselves did when they revolted from the British Empire."
"Yorktown lies far from Nogales," Carlos commented.
"True," the astronaut replied. "But I don't see us winning in one big decisive battle. No, we take small steps to draw them into counteracting them, and then we take a few more steps to add to their expense and frustration. We create the illusion of an endless struggle and rely on their own memories of being ground down in Viet-Nam and Iraq."
"But they have so many resources that they can employ," Carlos protested, "and we have so few. How could we ever hope to win?"
"We are Mexicans," the astronaut said. "They will always underestimate us."
"The North American Free Trade Agreement brought cheap American food into Mexico and drove a million campesinos off their farms," Mike Dixon said. "So what did the politicians expect those people to do? Stay in Mexico and starve?"
"I don't know what they expected," Jennifer said.
"Why, only happy days," Mike said brightly. "For everyone. Well, at least for everyone they care about."
"You're only guessing," Jennifer said. "You don't really know what they expected either."
"You're right," Mike said. "Perhaps we should go over there and ask Congressfool Swindle what he expected."
"You're always down on the politicians," Jennifer said. "Well, if they're so stupid, as you think, then how do they get elected?"
"Through the Bush Doctrine," Mike said. "Nothing to it."
"The Bush Doctrine," Jennifer said noncommitally.
"I'm sure you're familiar with it," Mike said. "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you only need to fool enough of the people at election time."
"Cynic," Jennifer snarled.
"Realist," Mike countered. "Consider, for example, the ones who honk long and loud about how Christian they are and then display utter contempt for the Ninth Commandment."
"The Ninth...?" Jennifer paused and tried to remember. "Oh. 'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.' But...." She let out an exasperated sigh.
"So perhaps you can tell me what the term 'Swift-boating' means?" Mike prompted.
"They don't all rely on deceit," Jennifer said a little too harshly.
"No?" Mike countered. "Here's what I see. I see the modern politician as being very much like the man who has just enough money to buy a wonderful gift or to have it beautifully wrapped, but not both."
"So you see the politician as a fancy-wrapped empty box?" Jennifer said with a tone of incredulity.
"They have to devote so much time and effort to getting elected," Mike said, "what else can they do? I want to vote for people who will solve problems, not make them worse or create more. That just doesn't seem to be an option any more."
"We'll see soon enough," Jennifer said as she led the way to their seats.
They discovered soon enough that Congressman Swandale's press conference had been designed more as a pep rally, with shout-outs to virtually all the high brass in the Border Patrol and (God help us, Jennifer muttered) statistics, lots of statistics.
When the ordeal was over, Mike summed up his feelings in two words: "We're doomed."
Jennifer did not disagree.
Mike caught up with Jennifer at a Border Patrol field headquarters. Outside the tent, under an awning set up to provide shade a half dozen sullen Mexicans sat on the bench and waited. Correction, Mike thought, five sullen Mexicans and one who seemed completely indifferent to having been caught. Then recognition lit up a memory. He went to the agent in charge and asked a few questions and then went to talk to Jennifer.
"Six," she said to him. "Out of hundreds." She sounded disgusted.
"Notice anything unusual about the second guy from the left?" he asked.
She looked over his shoulder and shook her head. "No, looks just like the others."
"Does he look to you like someone who just lost a couple thousand bucks on an act of futility?"
"Now that you mention it," she said with another glance over his shoulder. "But so what? Some of these guys just hide their feelings. I think it's called machismo. It's nothing special."
"You perhaps noticed that he followed a course that seems to have been carefully designed to attract the maximum effort from the Border Patrol?" Mike said.
"I hardly think so," Jennifer said. "It's just his bad luck."
"You mean like last time?" Mike said.
"Last time?" Jennifer prompted.
"Don't you recognize this guy? Your people picked him up just a couple of weeks ago. Same story, too."
"And it's going to have the same outcome," she said, "until he runs out of money and has to get a job in Mexico."
"I think he already has a job in Mexico," Mike said.
"Then why is he...?" A look of chagrin came over her face. "He's a decoy, isn't he?"
"That would be my guess," Mike said. "This whole rocket-glider phenomenon seems to be run by a rather large corporate entity, one that can give its customers aircraft, training in using them, and launch sites. If I were running such an operation, I would certainly want to offer my customers what protection I could from La Migra. I can't make the Border Patrol go away, but I can certainly draw them off with decoys."
"Isn't that rather expensive?" Jennifer asked.
"Oh, yeah," Mike said. "Your Mom-and-Pop-scale smuggling operation could never afford such a thing. But a corporate-scale operation can certainly afford it. And safety, in all of its aspects, is their big selling point."
Jennifer looked at him in astonishment. "They're shooting people over a mile into the sky under giant kites! How safe is that?"
"They haven't had any fatalities so far," Mike said. "Apparently safer than it looks."
"Aw, Jeez," Jennifer grumbled. "Fake-outs, decoys. What's next?"
"I think we'll have to wait and see," Mike said.
Mike and Jennifer carefully made their way down a steep slope. Every few steps Mike could feel the gravel sliding under his feet, threatening to make him slip and fall.
"Apparently they came into this canyon," their guide was explaining, "and found that the upstream end rose faster than they could gain altitude." He was a local rancher who had found the craft and then called the Border Patrol. "They didn't crash, though. The slope is just gentle enough that they were able to land and walk away."
Mike was almost on top of it before he noticed it."Woe!" he said as he came upon the camouflaged craft sitting under a large manzanita. "This is something new!"
The rancher looked on with a combination of pride and annoyance at the thing while Jennifer merely gaped at it.
"It's a Wright Flyer!" Mike said in awe.
"How can these people afford something like that?" the rancher asked.
"What was expensive in 1903 is cheap today," Mike said.
"So any aircraft built prior to World War I can serve as a pattern for our aero-coyotes," Jennifer said. She noticed that Mike seemed to be fascinated by the Wright Brothers' design in a way that he had not been with the gliders.
"Oh, this is so beautiful!" Mike enthused. "Look at this! They used a rotary-combustion engine made mostly of ceramic. Light and cheap." He moved the control stick from side to side and watched the wings twist in opposite directions. "Wing warping. Same as the Wright Brothers used. So they don't need ailerons and that makes the craft cheaper and more reliable as well. In a way this is better than the gliders."
"How so?" the rancher asked.
"It flies low and slow," Mike said. "It goes under radar and with this camouflage it's nearly impossible to spot from the air."
"Yeah," the rancher said, "but it casts a shadow, doesn't it. Can't you track that?"
"On a smooth, uniform landscape, sure," Mike said. " But on broken country like this or any area that's broken up into light and dark patches this plane's shadow becomes the proverbial needle in a haystack. I am thinking that we will be seeing more of these. Welcome back to the first decade of the Twentieth Century."
"Oh, God!" Jennifer exclaimed. "Alberto Santos-Dumont!"
"I have heard that name," Mike commented.
"Before he started designing airplanes," Jennifer said, "he built airships. He had a small blimp that he flew around Paris. In fact, he kept it parked outside his apartment and would fly it to his favorite restaurant."
"OK," Mike said. "If I want to go to a restaurant, I'll use a small blimp. But if I want to cross the border and many miles of desert...."
""Don't you see?" she asked. "They could send whole families across the border in airships. They wouldn't have to be much more than plastic bags full of hydrogen."
"Dios mio, amiga!" Mike exclaimed. "Have you ever considered a career in the Mexican People's Aviation Industry?"
"No!" she said petulantly.
"Aw, you should," Mike said. "You have such wonderful ideas!"
"I have never been so humiliated in my life!" Jennifer growled as she came into her office. "And I have half a notion to blame you!" she said to Mike, who was sitting reading a report.
"And what have I done now that I have not really done?" Mike asked.
"You just had to fly that plane out of there, didn't you?" she said with a more accusing demeanor.
"We would have had to break it up to carry it out," Mike said, "and that would have been a shame. Much more efficient to turn it around and fly it out of the canyon and over to a proper landing area."
"Where the news media just happened to be waiting," Jennifer said coldly.
"Well, I had to call and get directions," Mike said. "So my contact called his contact, who called his contacts, and so on and so on...."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Jennifer said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
"You mentioned something about humiliation," Mike prompted. "And that is somehow related to my little flight?"
"We found the next step beyond fake-outs and decoys," Jennifer said. "One of our helicopter patrols found two punks flying a two-seat version of a Bleriot monoplane and forced them down."
"I was wondering when one of those was going to show up," Mike said. "I take it the news media were present."
"Not physically," Jennifer said. "But it doesn't really matter, does it? The punks had cell phones mounted on their plane, so the bust appeared immediately on the blogosphere."
"They couldn't jam the signal, I trust," Mike said.
"Oh, sure, let's just knock out cell phone service in Nogales for a couple of hours and see what happens," Jennifer said. "And, oh, by the way, the punks can make up any story they want about how the mean ol' Border Patrol abused them and who would most people then believe?"
"This story doesn't have a happy ending, does it?" Mike asked.
Seething, Jennifer said, "The punks were American citizens. They were loaded with ID and they were flying back and forth across the border just to bait us."
"While an unknown number of Mexicans took full advantage of the helicopter's absence and crossed the border for real," Mike said, more as a comment than a question.
"Exactly," Jennifer said. "What are we going to do?" she muttered. "What are we going to do?"
"Hey, here's a really stupid idea," Mike said. "We could try to solve the problems that make a border necessary."
Jennifer simply glared at him.
The"astronaut" watched the scene on the television with the sound muted. An American news crew had found a family of seven piloting a crude blimp across the desert. The blimp consisted of a plastic bag, presumably inflated with hydrogen, inside a tubular fishing net stiffened with bamboo poles that came together at the ends to give the craft a cigar shape. Cords hanging down from the net held the rest of the craft, what looked like an elongated bicycle frame with a propeller attached to its rear. The people rode on the bicycle frame and cranked the pedals to turn the large four-bladed version of the two-bladed propeller copied off Paul MacCready's Gossamer Albatross, the simple, muscle-powered airplane that had crossed the English Channel in 1979. Soon, though, the blimp crossed an arroyo and the news crew could only stand and watch it disappear into the distance.
The"astronaut" peeled off his fake mustache and pulled off the wig that hid the blond hair he had inherited from his father. He would have to return north soon, but for now Miguel Dixon de Benavides could relax and enjoy life in his native Mexico. Paulina Rubio was singing "Ayudame" on the radio.
"Ayuda me, indeed," he muttered. He wondered whether Bruce Wayne ever suffered through such moments. And then again, perhaps he had read too many Batman comics when he was growing up. The yanqui Zorro surely never suffered doubt, though he seemed to have little effect upon the problems that plagued the people of La Ciudad de Gotham.
It was strange how he felt a kind of sadness over the fact that others had joined his quixotic quest. He understood that he was mourning his loss of control over what he had come to think of as the Mexican Space Program (boldly going where millions of campesinos had gone before), a loss that he himself had brought about. The MSP was his baby, but now she was walking by herself and he had to accept that fact. Indeed, he had only himself to blame for the expansion of the project: he had told his friend Felipe about Jennifer's blimp idea and he had worked to interest yet other people in the hobby of recreating early aircraft.
In the 1970's a group of young men had re-enacted the experiments of Otto Lilienthal at certain beaches in Southern California and had thereby kicked off the hang gliding craze of the time. In like manner he had hoped that establishing the hobby of recreating early Twentieth-Century aircraft would kick off a similar craze, one aimed at tweaking Tio Borracho into abandoning his closed border policy and focusing instead on making it unnecessary. Now that he had succeeded in the first part of that plan he found that he held a firm hope that no one would get hurt in the game that he had started.
Well, he had enough to worry about. He had to think about the next step he was about to take. Not all cheap aviation technologies pre-dated the First World War. Something from a slightly later era would advance the project beyond its current reach. And he wanted to witness its first deployment.
Rogelio Morales listened to the silence after the rocket burned out. It was completely dark now and only the glow from the screen of the cell phone mounted on the handlebar of his glider provided any light. At least it did until the Border Patrol blimp shone its spotlight on him. A wicked grin crossed Rogelio's face as he flipped the enabling switch and then pressed the starter button.
A flatulent roar shredded the silence. Thrust pulled Rogelio forward and he pitched the glider upward. Driven by the pulsejet, the glider pulled ahead of the blimp and climbed above it. It took several minutes for the glider to climb an additional two kilometers, but at the end of that time Rogelio leveled off his flight and flipped the enabling switch to turn off the engine. Far below and behind him he saw the flicker of the blimp's spotlight as the crew tried to find him again, but he was too far away and had maneuvered off his original course.
He looked ahead and adjusted his course again. He saw the skyglow from Tucson, one hundred kilometers away and headed toward it. Several times he would have to relight the pulsejet, but he would reach his goal. In only a few hours he would disappear into an urban complex where La Migra would never find him.
Soaring high above the desert, looking down on small lights scattered across it, he felt an almost beatific sense of peace. Then a mischievous grin crossed his face and he called out into the night,"Beep, beep."
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