Image Rights Owned, 2018

This is a collaborative expansion of The Metroplex, by Jesus Olivas. Read more from this universe, here.

In the distance, the towers darkened as the sun descended. The blooming mirror fields began to refract. On the mountain sprawled hundreds of dwelling lights where workers of the mines and factories cycled into their ceaseless shifts — because the work does not stop. When the day came to a close, the textural landscape was enthralled in darkness save for the pools of light which came through like pin holes on the underside of a tarp hauled roof. For many years, Lou witnessed this event take place every sundown. Light is just one of many scarce resources in this part of the country.

After the nuclear disasters in the surrounding tundra of Nuevo Mexico and New West Texas, an unending current of gloom clung to the sky like tar. So the days spent in the inhospitable sand were nearly as dark as the moonless nights, and there were only two fleeting moments to catch a glimpse at our nearest fading star: sunrise and sundown.

Because electricity does not make it beyond the city limits, workers of the mine are equipped with a Nighingale, or a standard AR-ocular enhancer. Lou lowered his visor and dialed the rotary near his temple to begin startup. His eyes now sheathed in an emerald glow like the eyes of some nocturnal beast. Standing near the ruby neon of the transit-depo, he scanned his surroundings while waiting for his partner. Seeing nothing but yucca stalks and weathered brush, he sighed with indifference at the foliage that struggled to live.

Beatrice, can you hear me?

With a chime like suspended grassland bells catching wind, his Oracus woke with a sleepy mechanic groan to confirm his request.

I’m here — how are you feeling, Louis? Better I hope, considering how little you slept. Should I get started on our terra-metrics for tonight’s dig?

Hold off on that for now, Bee. Can you show me the forecast — including temperature spikes and chances of all types of precipitation.

Of course, just give me a moment.

Across his line of sight before him, a collection of nodes and digits collected to form the information he asked for. It was a pastiche of ever changing percentages and calculations ridden in the Nightingale’s signature emerald HUD. In the space of his grasp he swiped through the air at the data, putting together his most reasonable prediction for the night to come.

He was told by some of the other hollowed workers on his platform that a sand storm was rumored to make a return and scourge these wicker pueblos. However, for reasons other than the storm, Lou was on edge. Despite being scheduled to go down, he had other plans and for that his mind was scattered with anticipation.

Bee, we’re going offline from here on. Download your auxiliary memory cache and prepare for a manual mount. There’s no telling what this storm will do.

Tonight, he will finally make a break for the city.

Jakob came out of the black looking like a ferryman. The antenna pitched high like a hermit’s staff, and the motor from inside his caged buggy made a gritty commotion as it came to a full stop. As it rattled he pivoted his head towards Lou, and Lou climbed inside. They disappeared in the darkness.

You’re here early. Most the time I can go through half a pack waiting for your ass, you know that? Why do you have that bag with you?

His departing words were spat out like exhaust from the roaring engine. The passing black air was cool and refreshing on his skin as they sped down the abandoned road. Lou watched the blur of passing creosote through his Nightengale. Bee idly humming in his ear.

I almost didn’t make it home the other night. I tried to call you after you left. Some asshole was buying everyone a round, said they made an hour’s fortune down in the spider.

Lou said nothing and looked out. The carriage bobbed as both men clung to the railing. After recharging on a tall abandoned spire, a collection of budding surveillance drones began to fracture and depart like the seeds of exotic fruit.

So me and Roamy start to ask ‘round, trying to figure out who exactly is the big shot buying everyone drinks. At first, we figured it was one of the Gonzalez brothers since they got the best equipment. But then we come to find out it ain’t even a digger, not one of us at all. We come to find out it’s some woman from the city. Can you believe that? Those bastards think they can just…

I need to tell you something. I may need your help.

Jakob paused his story to shoot a glance at Lou.

I need a vehicle. Something without a trace on it. Without getting you involved, because I know you have a family, all I can say is that I’m not going to make my shift tonight. Do you think you can help?

Jakob listened intently without taking his eyes off the road. He adjusted his grip on the wheel, thinking with his hands.

I know what you’re trying to do and you’re going to get yourself killed, Lou. It’s not worth it. No matter what you heard there’s no going back, it’s impossible. This is our life and there’s no way you can change it. All the people out here are thieves and criminals trying to repay their debt, just like you and me, bottom line. We made our choice a long time ago, amigo, and you gotta’ own up to that. They don’t hand out second chances like they used to, one screw up and you end up down here with us.

You’re right, I have made my choice, and I’m choosing life. A real one. I’m not asking you for your blessing, just for you to repay a favor. If you know what I have planned, then you know what I need.

The roar of their travel quieted as the buggy began to slow down to a crawl. Lou stared at his friend with conviction.

Why now?

I found something out in the desert. A message in the waste. And I think I can use it to get to the city. I’ve heard there’s a group that can give you a new body. Give you another chance.

Lou…that’s crazy. They’ll catch you and they’ll kill you.

Either you help me, or you don’t.

Jakob looked up into the empty sky as if to take in god’s word, to meditate on what was being asked of his better judgement while the fate of his kingdom were at stake.

I can send you the location to a shack we own not far from here. Inside you’ll find what you need. Consider it a parting gift.

He crouched nearby a collection of junk, propped on his heels like a creature denied the gift of flight. He spied the shack meters away. A breeze clapped in a tarp.

The shack was made entirely of scrap metal and leaned to one side. Lou could sense the mark of his friends handywork. He was surprised by how isolated this place was, judging by the route it took to get here. If the vehicle was in there, Jakob made sure no soul knew of it.

Bee, how much time do we have before the sandstorm?

The storm will touch down in approximately forty-six minutes. Scans have also returned. The building ahead of you shows positive signs of life. Use caution.

He lowered his visor, fastened his bag and pressed down his hat while prudently imagining the best course of action. There was no way to know what exactly waited for him behind those squalid gates. It could be a squatter who is equally afraid. Or a bandit with their eye pressed to a spy hole like some astronomer of deceit, waiting for Lou to make a mistake. He even imagined the possibility of Jakob setting him up for a reward or credits. Despite the danger, he knew he must persist to reach the city.

Reaching behind him in the seat of his bag he unhitched his emergency winch for the mines and latched it steadfast to the bulk of machinery buried in the sand. Without taking his eyes off the shack, the cable spun from his bag like spider’s silk while his hands recited the motion like a blind man. After the loop was completed, he gave it a pull. The cable rang true like a tuning fork and the vibration quickened the sand around it.

Lou rose up.

If this was to be a duel, his only defense would be the single-shot pistol clenched in his hand. It was a relic spotted with rust and an unfit handle. He felt a fool to gamble his life with such impoverished technology. With only one chance to keep himself safe he knew it came down to striking right, not first.

As he drew near, the shack changed in appearance. He felt as if he were exchanging glances with it. Ignorant of what it bore, the scene overcame him like some gothic miasma. His boots came down slowly, extending his cord with each step.

When he reached the flat of the paneling, he placed his ear close. There was the murmur of a long exhale, followed by a strange silence. Bee was right, something was moving and now it knew he was there.

He edged toward the main gate. The batwing doors were held together by a crude latch. With his free hand he griped the latch like an oar-man. A bead of sweat fell into the sand. His breathe was reserved and clenched in his teeth.

I’m choosing life.

In one motion he pitched the latch and it screeched with the redemption of thousand-year servitude while the hinges relieved themselves like engines and the air around him came alive with grotesque echoes of metal reaching its limit.

The gate exploded outward and thrappled his posture.

He fumbled for the ripcord on his shoulder and pulled. In an instant the winch jerked him back, he lost the wind in his body and fell to his flank. The spool sang like a fiddle string and fed into his pack while the dust grew in his wake.

At last he reached the end of the line and his winch chimed with a green light.

Flat on his back Lou held up his pistol with both hands and looked down the barrel as the air returned to his lungs.

And there in the silent shade stood, earth-born and plucked from a womb, the steep body of a natural stallion.

Access Denied: Part 02, Coming Soon

I write about the desert, American culture and the occasional essay.