The dunes marched on. Grain by grain, they flowed, twisted, and merged, sculpted by the delicate fingers of the prevailing wind. At one point, not too long ago, the dunes’ long progression from the saline lake was halted by simple vegetation. Grabbing a toehold in the sand, the vegetation slowly consumed the dunes like hungry bacteria. Now there was no vegetation, volcanic winter had seen to that, so the dune’s marched on. Cloaked in a mantle of ash, they overtook their fallen brothers in their inexorable march to the mountains.
From the roof of an overturned RV, Eura watched the dunes shift in the wind. Grains of ash slid down fifty-foot slope, revealing a glimpse of the sparkling white sand beneath. A hundred yards away, Clive was hard at work in the desolation, dredging the dune with a metal bucket. He cleared away the dark ash to get at the white sand beneath, then, with the bucket full, hobbled along the interdunal flats to a deep pit where he dumped the contents of the bucket before returning for more. Eura had been watching for hours.
She looked down the dirt road leading to highway 70. In the distance, the hazy outline of the large arc stretched across the road welcoming tourists into this melancholy land of wind and sand like it was a theatrical production.
Interstellar Enterprises presents White Sands, NM
She found brochures and post cards in the gift shop inviting people from all over to enjoy the majesty of a landscape evolving on human timescales.
See the spectacle!
Surfs the sands!
Admire the beauty!
Photos of children on sleds. Families laughing over a smoking grill. A lighting strike illuminating the clear desert night. Eura surveyed the gray sky blanketing the gray land. The age of the tourist was gone. There was no one except her, and it was not by choice.
Eura lit a cigarette. She took a deep drag, the cloud of smoke escaping her lungs not unlike the smoke leaking from her bike’s engine. She knew it was dying. It had been protesting for the last hundred fifty miles or so, just as she was leaving Artesia. The climb up the mountains hadn’t helped none either. She hoped to get some parts or maybe replace the engine in Alamogordo, but the hools forced her to keep going. She watched Clive gather another useless bucket. If only she could take some of that boundless energy for herself.
The cigarette was at the stub when Henri arrived. He leaned his bicycle against the wheel of the RV and called to her, holding out a thermos and a mug.
“Made some coffee. Want some?”
Eura flicked the end of the cigarette out into the ash. “How’s the Rebel?”
“As you suspected,” he replied. “Come. Have a cup.”
With a groan, Eura leapt down from the RV. They walked to one of the picnic tables and cleared most of the ash. Henri set out the mug, thermos, and a large can of baked beans with a single spoon between them.
“We’ll have to share,” he said, a wry smile forming on the corners of his wrinkled lips.
“That’s fine,” Eura grabbed the spoon and removed her filtration mask. “We’ve all eaten enough ash to tear up our stomachs, what’s a little spit?”
Henri chuckled as he removed the lid off the tin while Eura shoveled beans like a starved child.
“When’s the last time you ate?”
“This morning,” Eura said through a half-chewed mouthful. She wiped her lips with a sleeve. “But I never refuse a meal.”
Eura passed the tin and picked up the mug. The coffee was black and steaming with a tablespoon of loose grounds mixed in. She never liked coffee, preferring the warm, flat sodas littered in every town, but she never refused a meal. “So, it’s the crank seal?
“You got it.”
“Damn. It’s shot then?”
“You ran it rather hard. It was almost close to bursting when you showed up.”
“Where else should I go? Nothing between here and Las Cruces.”
“You checked ‘Gordo on the way in?”
“Of course, but didn’t get to see much. Whole thing’s surrounded by a fence as tall as a house. Didn’t get to the first gas station before a gang of hools chased me out.”
Henri nodded. “Glad the bike made it this far.”
“Ain’t that the fucking truth…”
The old man ate a spoonful of beans then wiped his lips on a filthy handkerchief.
“Where are you headed?”
“West,” she said.
Eura shrugged. “Don’t know. California, probably. Somewhere I can see the ocean. Need to be someplace that isn’t gray.”
“I hope it doesn’t disappoint.”
“But I can’t get there without some wheels.”
“Nothing ‘round here. You’ll have to go back to ‘Gordo. My old garage may have something. It’s right next to the Walmart.”
“Is it behind the fence?”
“Most likely,” Henri said with a shrug.
She sipped her coffee, the bitter taste matched her sour mood. Off in the dunes, Clive dug in the sand.
“Why is he doing it?”
“Never thought of it as a ‘he’,” Henri said with a shrug. “Not a clue, really. He’s been digging for as long as I’ve been here, a number of years now. He’ll keep going until his solar cells run out, then he’ll set aside the bucket, spread on the ground for maximum exposure and wait until fully charged. I suspect that, when the sky was clearer and the ash wasn’t about, he worked more efficiently.” He paused and watched the automat hobble across the flats, knees bent like a toddler learning to walk with his bucket clutched close to his body. “You see that hole in the ground? It’s about half-way full. I know ‘cause there’s others scattered about the place with just the same dimensions. From what me and Sahil figured, Clive’s been working at it for the last fifty or so years.”
She watched the automat upend the bucket over the pit. A shower of white sparkled in the pale sunlight as in rained down into the emptiness below. Clive labored tirelessly and without complaint, like a worker bee eager to please the queen. But this worker didn’t know the queen was dead. How long did the hive mind perpetuate before all were aware of the change? How long could she go on before realizing same futility?
“You live here alone?” she asked.
“No. Sahil lives with me. He’s out right now. Went up to Bolder for some supplies.”
“How do you eat? You obviously don’t grow anything.”
“Sahil makes supply runs every couple of months. Heads out to a place outside Lebonnon, along the Kansas border. Someplace called Geemoe. Heard of it?”
Eura held the drink inches from her lips, heart hammering in her chest. She was such an idiot. Hundreds of miles through town after town, avoiding anything to do with the Compound, but the moment she relaxed, the moment she let her guard down, was the moment their disease got into her.
“You get all this there?” she asked, indicating the food and drink.
“Yeah,” Henri replied with a smile. “Ain’t no where else to get food no more.”
She set down the mug. Bike problems were one thing and an empty stomach could be remedied by foraging in the next town, but now the Compound was at her heels. She had become lazy, squatting in suburbs like a damn junkie. She needed to get away from this lunatic old man and his Compound food. She needed wheels.
“You said there’s a garage in ‘Gordo?”
“My shop,” Henri’s face beamed. “Near the center of town. Next to the Walmart.”
“Yeah, you said that. You’ve got a two-thirty four cc twin-cylinder?”
“Don’t know. Probably, but it’s been years since I was last there. The town used to just be populated with junkies, but it’s grown since, and not in the good way. It’s like a little society now, or so Sahil told me. They’ve got this kind of chief, a huge man, Sahil says. Taller and bigger than anyone he’s ever seen. Like he was built rather than born.”
Eura cletched her fingers to stop them from trembling. “He got a name?”
“I’m sure he does, but what it is, I ain’t never heard it.” Henri’s face softened at the tension in her face. “You okay?”
She looked at her hands, balling her fists to ease out the tension, the genetically-enhanced muscles of her forearm tight under her skin. If the Tower was here, then the Compound’s influence was spreading out. How many towns had been infected, and where would it stop?
She was riding out west, outrunning the storm, but when the road ended, what would she do? She could sit there and let it swallow her, or she could do something.
Amid shifting dunes and roving automats, the Tower had come and with all the power of the Compound with him. He couldn’t be allowed to follow. Better to charge into the chaos when it wasn’t looking.
“How can I get there?”
Looking to escape her PAST, Eura is forced to CONFRONT it! Who is this TOWER and what is the COMPOUND? Find out in the next…