by Kai Staats
“Oh shit. Shit. Shit-shit-shit!” Please don’t get stuck, please, please, please don’t let this happen now. Not now.
The drive wheels dug deeper, spit sand into a cloud of dust, pelted the hardened alloy lining of the wheel well.
“Damn it. DAMN IT!”
Jon took his foot from the accelerator, slammed his fist onto the dash board, and shifted the transmission to neutral. The whine of the electric motor stopped. He opened the driver’s door, slid from the confines of the body harness and dropped to the soft, dry sand creek bed.
Jon knelt beside the front left wheel, half heartedly pulled a few handfuls of sand from the rear of the tire. The sand felt cool. A few grains of quartz and silicon conglomerates wedged between his fingernails and the sensitive flesh beneath. He quickly removed the sand but realized the effort was in vain as there would be a lot more before the vehicle could be freed from the grip of the creek bed. What a mess this one is.
The memory of a Charlie’s stern voice pulled him into a conversation held twenty hours and one thousand kilometers earlier. “Jon, no shortcuts this time, no side roads, no dry river beds.”
No shortcuts. No river beds. Should have listened.
“If you don’t make it, we’ll all be caught in the open, they’ll find us. There will not be anyone to come looking for you. We can only assume that you made it. No radio, no rescues, no backup, no nothing. You’re on you own.”
No rescues. No backup. Shit.
“Jon, you understand?”
Jon paused as though to reconsider, then answered, “Yeah, I got it Charlie. You know how important this one is to me.”
Charlie’s solid face relaxed a little, “Jon, I am sorry for being so harsh. We all love you.” Charlie turned momentarily to face those behind him and then back to Jon, “I wish you didn’t insist on doing this alone.”
“Thanks Charlie, but it’s about time I get something right, do something more than just cause trouble around here. We don’t have much time left. There aren’t many of us left. The Guard took my parents and–”
“Jon, you didn’t even know them! You were just a boy!”
“Look Charlie, they are still my parents, and they are in there. Some day I am going to get them out. Not today, not tomorrow, but every little bit helps. Charlie, you taught me that. YOU taught me that!”
“OK Jon. But for God’s sake, remember everything I have told you. I have been there, I was in there. The things they will do to you, the awful, wicked things.” Charlie dropped his gaze to the ground and fought back the pain while shaking his head.
Jon stepped forward, embraced Charlie, and then turned to face the handful of individuals gathered just four meters to his right. He tossed his hand to his forehead in a mock salute, then to his lips for a blown kiss, and finally a loose wave goodbye. Jon turned half circle, inhaled a full breath of fresh, cool, morning desert air, then strode to the beige and gray camouflaged sand rail. The aluminum tank strapped to the rear of the frame, beneath the tail fin, glistened with condensation. Solar energy and coolant kept the fuel tank full of water, pulling moisture from the apparently arid desert air.
The large rear tires were worn from heavy use. The carbon fiber body was scratched and chipped but not cracked. Jon opened the gull wing door, slid into the comfort of the racing seat, fastened the full body harness, and ignited the control panel with the flip of a single switch.
The dash board held an array of liquid crystal displays, computer imaged topo maps, radar alert system, motor component monitoring devices, and a single, green flashing light that told Jon all was fully functioning.
During the early morning hours the photo voltaic solar cells had used electricity generated by the sun to harvest and then break water into its molecular components. The hydrogen and oxygen were channeled into the fuel cell, a carbon matrix battery.
Jon pressed the accelerator. The electricity raced from the battery through the coils of the motor at nearly the speed of light. It peaked at five thousand revolutions per minute with no more than a subtle, quiet hum.
The bystanders momentarily lost view of Jon and the sand rail as he demonstrated his driving skills with the flooring of the accelerator, the spinning of the wheels, and a cloud of dust that was picked up and carried across the mountain plateau. The disk of the sun and three moons, two man-made, were reflected off the array of solar voltaic cells that lined the roof.
Jon had chanced the shortcut. He took a risk to save a little time, and to remain more hidden from view. He was sunken in the depths of a wall lined canyon that was graced with direct sunlight for only a few hours each day. Sunken and stuck. Sand rails were not suppose to bog down, not suppose to get stuck. They were in fact designed to ride on the sand. But the last terrace that Jon flew over took the nose of the vehicle and drove it strait into the creek bed. The fall broke the surface of the crusted sand and buried the sand rail to its belly. The rear wheels spun without traction, the front nearly gone from sight.
Jon stood up from examining the front left wheel. He scanned the limited horizon of the narrow canyon for any kind of debris, rubble, or rocks. On the west side, near the base of the wall, there once grew an alligator juniper. All that remained were a degrading stump and a few branches. Jon walked to the gray wood and grabbed a branch. It broke free with little force. Jon took a few more, each time exerting little of the strength his body was capable of.
With full arms he walked back to the sand rail. He knelt at each wheel and jammed a section of branch beneath it with the remaining extension towards the front of the vehicle. If all worked well, the branches would act as a narrow bridge on which the wheels would climb from their sandy graves back onto the more compact surface of the creek bed.
This had better work. I can’t keep getting myself into these kind of predicaments.
Jon walked around the sand rail once more, inspected his make-shift arrangement and kicked the wood braces to insure their position and strength. He returned to the driver’s side, stepped into the cab and sunk into the seat. The array of illuminations on the dashboard told him that his body harness was not in use. No kidding. It also told him that the driver’s door was not closed. No shit. Jon made a mental note to disconnect those obnoxious bells, chimes, lights, and voices that reminded him of all the things he did wrong. I’m not an idiot. I know how to drive.
With the door open, one hand on the interior handle of the door and the other on the steering wheel, Jon slowly pressed the accelerator pedal. The rear wheels started to climb the wood bridges, held their traction for a moment, and then slipped down into the pit again. The branches shot forward, nailed the wheel well on one side and shot five meters down the canyon on the other. Sand flew into the air again and the wheels sunk even further.
Goddamnitallholyshit– this is not working!
Jon slid from the seat again and jogged down the canyon a few hundred meters, gathering fist-sized rocks as he went. When he reached his carrying capacity he walked back to the sunken mass. On his knees, he clawed at the sand. Like a dog retrieving a long buried bone, Jon hurriedly pulled at the sand from the rear and front of each wheel throwing fistfuls of sand between his legs. Not enough time. No time for this.
He took the mound of rocks that he had gathered and jammed them beneath and behind each wheel. The air grew warmer. The sun approached its southern most position and illuminated half of the western rock wall. Jon stopped for a moment and brushed at the sand and sweat that had caked to his day old whiskers. He enjoyed a swallow of water from the fuel tank. The benefit of the driver and vehicle consuming the same fuel.
Jon jogged down the canyon several times in the following hour, each time he returned with an arm full of boulders. He knelt before each wheel as in prayer and built a lightly packed ramp of rock two meters long.
If this doesn’t work, I’m screwed.
Once again at the driver’s wheel, his foot on the pedal, Jon pressed lightly. The rear wheels engaged, the ramp of rocks held with only a few smaller rocks flung into the wheel wells at random intervals of slippage. The belly of the sand rail was released from the hold of the sand. Jon increased the pressure on the foot pedal and the vehicle sped down the canyon into the noon warmth that greeted him at the first bend.
Later that afternoon, Jon stopped and checked the computer imaged topo maps. In an hour he would exit the canyon onto the open, easily traversed desert floor. Even with the time wasted digging out the rail, he was still three hours ahead of schedule. He ate lunch and drank water from the nearly full fuel tank. The condenser refueling system was in perfect working order, he had rebuilt it himself. Always a full tank of fuel. Always enough water. Anything could go wrong out here. Anything will. No backup, no rescue.
According to the map, Jon was to continue west from the mouth of the canyon for another hundred kilometers and follow the bed of the dry Salt River. Nothing green remained. All dust and rock. Laid to waste by two hundred years of the progress of civilization.
At the mouth of the canyon Jon was greeted by an incredible panorama of saguaro cactus placed in silhouette against a gradation of red, orange, yellow, gray, and finally purple desert mountain peaks. He could have stayed here all day, could have spent his entire life time just watching the sun set, rise again, the moon in its game of tag, and the seasons swim across the desert valley.
But Jon knew his goal, understood the challenge before him. He knew why he made this venture and why it was important to his people. He was just a small part of a larger plan. Knocking out the microwave communication trunk was temporary, as it would inevitably be rebuilt. But it would give his people time to move, to maneuver, and to regroup.
That night Jon slept on a boulder high enough to avoid confrontation with the snakes and scorpions. Without a blanket to cover, he enjoyed five hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Jon awoke to the cry of the coyotes. Their celebration of the sun swept across the desert in a wave as the packs furthest east rejoiced first and those in the west last. When the crest of the audible wave swept beneath him, Jon sat up, stretched his arms to the light blue sky, to Venus on the horizon, and joined in their hymn. He scratched at the stubble on his face, at the insect bite on the back of his leg, stood to urinate over one edge of the boulder, and then slipped down the opposite rock face to return to the sand rail just meters away.
With the kilometer high sand stone walls to his back and the vast open desert floor in front he climbed into the sand rail and proceeded down the open, shallow drainage of the Salt River.
I have just one shot with this damned thing, I had better get it right.
In his mind, Jon ran through the list of cargo that he carried and reworked the entire set-up procedure of the weapon.
Establish gravitational center. Adjust for magnetic north. Set the sight to the base of the target. Load the projectile. Release the safety. Wait, did I miss something? Better review it all again. I have to get it right the first time. No second chance. No rescue—no way.
Jon’s watch beeped twice. Ten o’clock in the morning. He had been on the road for three hours already and it seemed like more.
According to the topos, just one more hill and then– far worse than Jon could have imagined, twelve of them, each taller than the next. Each a disgusting revelation of the human ability to manipulate the environment. Jon felt captive of their power even with the great distance between them. And then he recalled what Charlie once told him, “Those who cannot create, destroy.” Jon could finally understand what he meant. Charlie had been here, more than once. Charlie knew what Jon was up against. And Charlie had trained him, for years, and trained him well.
The fornication that the Towers forced on the surrounding desert turned his stomach, forced bile to rise to his throat and anger to swell. He could hardly wait to complete his task. It would be his pleasure. He could not imagine what the inmates of that crowded nation endured. Each a raped, beaten, and tortured victim of a religious cult that went one step too far. Each the product of years of scientific knowledge geared towards helping people. But in the end the medication was used against the very same that spent their lives developing it.
Within the confines of those walls lived some of the greatest minds of the twenty-first century. Captive by their own need to see God, their own need to be God. Captive because the religion that forced them to believe as everyone else believed took not only their mind and their soul, but their freedom. Cold, stone faces, Charlie had described, thousands of them.
Few were left on the outside. Few remained free of the Citizen Guard that searched the mountains of the rim for strays, those who had not been brought to the truth that the Elders dreamed.
Jon drove the sand rail to the base of two small granite and sand stone peaks. He quickly reversed the direction the rail was headed and backed to the base of a sixty meter escarpment. The stiff branches of a creosote bush scratched at the shell of the vehicle and partially hid its dull surface.
Jon looked to the sky and saw only blue. A single black bird flew over, circled once, rolled onto its back and dove at something he could not see on the far side of a granite knoll.
From the small cargo compartment beneath the hood of the sand rail, Jon pulled a large diameter but lightweight anodized aluminum frame. It held a small socket mounted on an altazimuth joint that included a locking mechanism and various brackets. With the three short legs were fully extended to fifty centimeters, a small, solid brass ball hung from a laser calibrated, nylon wrapped steel tether. Gravitational center, Jon reviewed.
Jon lifted the frame to his left shoulder, slipped his left arm through a makeshift shoulder strap and mirrored the motion with his right arm. He then grabbed the pair of range finders, rocket launcher, and meter long conventional projectile.
He hefted all the gear to his shoulders, neck, and waist, securing it with straps, belts, and buckles. Jon proceeded to hike up the loose, boulder strewn hill that rested between him and the Towers.
At the saddle he found himself between two rounded peaks, two warm stone breasts that protected him from assault from the north and south; provided retreat to the east and a view of his target to the west. He removed all the gear from his body and placed it in a pile at his feet.
The sun rose overhead, right on schedule, Jon thought, lunch time. He pulled from one of his pockets a few slices of hardened bread, a handful of dried fruit, and a strip of salted, smoked trout that he had caught on the rim just the week before.
Having eaten, Jon lifted the range finders from his chest and brought them to his eyes. He scanned the horizon for anything that stirred, anything that moved, anything that was man made and could do damage. He moved his head from right to left while the numeric display gauged the distance to the object in the center of the field of view. Jon studied the base of a series of mountains, their mid-section, and peaks.
One mountain resembled a camel half buried in the sand, or perhaps sleeping in the heat of the noon, desert sun. Another, farther south, ran from the east to the west. It was, as Jon understood, once known as the largest city park on the continent. It was later purchased by an environmentalist group that collected land in an effort to protect it. Their intent was good, in fact, very effective for many decades. But, as Charlie had described, their purpose decayed, the good intent fell to greed, and the mountain range was turned into an amusement park with roller coasters, fast food restaurants, and endless parking lots.
Between the long dead amusement park and the camel’s back rose the dominating Towers. Their gloss black surfaces, although marred by thirty-five years of sand storms, acid rain, and ultraviolet radiation, defied nature. They stood omnipotent, overwhelming in size and bold determination to overpower all who fell within their view.
The range finder brought the Towers close, all of them filling the field of view. A barely audible bell chimed twice, paused, and then again. The computer onboard the sand rail continued to repeat the alert. Jon turned east to face the bottom of the hill and the sand rail. Idiot bells, more idiot bells. Jon returned his gaze west to the valley. Wait a minute, he pressed the zoom button and increased the power of his range finders by a factor of ten. It was hard to hold the goggles still and maintain a steady view but the motion detector was right. Holy shit. A helicopter approached.
Shit, shit, shit. This is not suppose to happen. Charlie warned me about this.
Jon grabbed the tripod and hurriedly extended the legs. He grappled with the rocket launcher and hoisted it to the cradle on the altazimuth mount. Flip the latches, tighten the bolts, re-adjust the legs for stability. Establish gravitational center. He looked again through the range finders. The helicopter closed to a hundred kilometers.
Adjust for magnetic north. Seventy kilometers distance. The throb of its combustion jet engine broke the silence, interrupted Jon’s concentration. Load the projectile.
He swung the sight of the rocket launcher to fall on the third tallest tower… locked the location into the computer targeting system… recalculated the trajectory… compared the data with the visual sight. Did I forget something?
The helicopter was a mere thirty kilometers from the saddle on which Jon sweated. His hands trembled and he considered just turning and running to the sand rail, and driving like a mad man to escape the confrontation. But he had to finish what he started. He had to complete the task.
He grabbed the remote ignition controller and half ran, half slid down to the base of the hill. He climbed onto the roof of the sand rail and stood on his toes in order to see the tail fin of the rocket. No countdown needed, he pressed the button. Nothing. He pressed it again… nothing.
Shit! I forgot to release the safety! Fucking safety buttons!
Before running back up the escarpment, Jon reached to the passenger side of the sand rail and grabbed the only other weapon he had and strapped it to his right wrist as he raced to the cleft of the peaks. At the top he reached for the manual safety catch– but the breath of the machine was on him. Its whirling blades beat the air, forced a wall of sand to block Jon’s vision, burnt his eyes, and stung his skin through the clothes he wore. He fell to his knees a meter short of the rocket launcher. He groped for the frame, the legs, something to tell him where was.
A soft, synthetic, male voice somehow made its way to Jon’s ears over the roar of the blades. “Jon. We know who you are.”
His hand brushed smooth aluminum. The frame.
“Jon. Stop. Please stop.”
He forced himself to open his eyes long enough to view the illuminated control screen through the air born sand.
“Jon. What are you doing?”
Green. Red. Blue. Orange. The safety switch is orange.
“Jon, the Elders want to help you. Your parents miss you. Come and join your mother and father.”
Charlie had warned him. The soft, soothing voice of the monitor pulled at him, “Jon, we care about you.”
He knew it was a lie. It was all just a lie. “But you see,” Jon lunged at the launcher and closed the final meter, “I don’t give a shit about you.” His hand fell onto the safety release and simultaneously he triggered the remote control in his other hand. The rocket engine ignited in a roar of intense heat and blue-white flame. The launch blast knocked Jon to the ground, back over the edge of the saddle. Jon tumbled down the hill, bouncing from one boulder to the next. His forehead was black and red, his scalp singed into a mass of burnt skin and melted organic fibers.
The rocket quickly reached over two thousand kilometers per hour in its trajectory to the base of the third tower.
The two men in the helicopter did not realize that Jon was no longer beneath the blades, no longer caught in the wall of sand. One manipulated the controls and could do nothing but watch the rocket close in on the defenseless tower. The second looked frantically through the sight of his gun for a body that should be directly below him.
As Jon gained a loose footing, he wiped the blood from his eyes and winced at the pain of the sand embedded in his forehead and charred skin. He opened one eye, raised his hand and released a signal flare towards the open cockpit of the helicopter. Before the flaming red and orange projectile reached the cockpit, Jon caught a glimpse of one cold, stone face frozen in an attempt at a human smile. And then the two men ignited in a brilliant epiphany of freedom. The helicopter fell upon the rocket launcher, blossomed in a fiery display. The scorched mass rolled to one side and then exploded, sending shards of metal and glass, billowing fuel and flame across the desert floor.
* * *
The cool water from the fuel tank poured onto Jon’s wounds, both stinging and cleansing. With the razor he removed as much burnt hair from his open wounds as he could manage without falling into black unconsciousness. He located the first aid kit from which he used a bandage to wrap his forehead.
Fifteen minutes later, the sand rail rounded a bend, rose above the surrounding desert basin and turned to face the western valley. The camel still lay as before and the amusement park continued to fall to ruin, or should one say, to perfection. But something had changed, for Jon could count just eleven Towers.
His people had but a small window of time. According to schedule, they were already on the move. Jon knew he had to hurry in order to catch up with them. He would have to take a short cut on the way to his new home.