“Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.”
The man I called Doc was six-five with a thin frame, a long horse-face and a tangle of pure white Einstein hair. Black smudges streaked his cheeks and his coveralls had a flag sewn onto one shoulder.
I noticed the flag because I hadn’t seen one in a long time.
As I wandered into his camp, his raggedy grey dog loped toward me, causing my hand to close instinctively around the knife on my belt.
Doc’s surprisingly strong voice carried across the hot wind like a radio advertisement. “He won’t hurt you. He’s just protective of me. We used to get a lot of looters around here.”
“How you know I’m not one?”
“Earl would know. He’s a better judge of character than am I.”
Earl sniffed me for a long time. Did he smell blood on my cracked boots from the refugee center? Or gunpowder on my rucksack from the Wal-Mart? Or was it just the marmot stew from two nights ago?
My eyes traced up the fifty-foot tower that dominated the center of Doc’s encampment like a church steeple.
Was it a water tower? An antenna? What the hell was it?
I pulled my hat off and slapped it against my thigh.
“Whoah! Whoah!” Doc hollered. “Sensitive electronic equipment here. If you must delouse yourself, please do me the kindness of doing so downwind.”
I moved downwind, and habitually my eyes darted around camp, ever vigilant to threats, ever eager for supplies.
Surrounding the tower, the settlement consisted of two humongous spherical tanks, cables and hoses, a Mojave Fire Department truck, workbenches, a power-company bucket truck, a sizeable Army tent and a filthy Cadillac with its hood up.
I didn’t see any water.
“You must be thirsty!” he announced, extending one long boney finger toward the olive drab tent behind the car. “Please, help yourself.”
Trusting soul, I thought, letting myself into the canvas shelter and making straight for the Sparkletts bottle on the dresser beside the cot. Five-gallon bottle almost all full! Hadn’t seen that much water all in the same place since the National Guard post in Compton.
I drank long and deep, letting some spill down the front of my shirt to cool me. It was hotter inside the musty tent than out, which was saying something, because that day was a hellacious scorcher.
My AM radio had died three days earlier, right before I ran out of food. The last news report I’d heard mentioned Greenland ice sheets melting and methane leaking from Alaska tundra, but nothing about what I really needed to know: How to get out of this hell.
My larcenous eyes roamed across Doc’s accumulated possessions. Steel cans full of pens and pencils. Blueprints stacked on the dirt, held in place against the gusts by heavy books—the top one was titled Escape Velocity. Little plastic models of Star Trek spaceships dangled from the canvas roof, twisting in the desert’s breath.
I called over my shoulder, “Any idea if they’re still flying out of Bakersfield?”
Three nine-volt batteries lay on his footlocker, and I palmed one for my radio.
“Oh, take all of them!” he insisted, appearing right behind me and making straight for a chest of drawers. “And there’s shotgun shells over there,” he pointed, glancing back at the Mossberg slung over my shoulder.
“I won’t be needing any of this,” he explained, rifling through a tackle box. Extracting a circuit tester with long metal probes, he added, “Not after today. You’re welcome to it all. Sorry about the Caddy. I needed the fuel injectors. And the airbags. For the explosives, you see?”
His bushy white eyebrows moved back and forth like caterpillars as he thought.
“Bakersfield?” he asked, remembering my question. “No, I haven’t seen anyone taking off from there in days. Maybe weeks. Here, fill your canteen. Drink! Drink!”
Earl watched silently as the hot wind batted the tent flap against his ear, while behind the dog the white tower shone phallically in the sunlight.
“Some kind of plane you’re working on?” I asked.
“Rocket ship, matter of fact,” he answered. “Runner-up in the Ansari X Prize back in 2008.”
I sipped deeply from my canteen, trying to reverse the dehydration of the past couple of weeks. “What are you going to.…”
But he was already back at the craft, disappearing into the bell-shaped cone it perched on.
Driven. He seemed almost manic. He was manic. Or a maniac. What was he working on a rocket ship for? Where would he go in it? Back east? Up to Canada, maybe?
“What about Edwards?” I asked, pointing toward the Air Force base on the nearby salt lake bed. “Red Cross still down there?”
His voice echoed in the tinny space. “Haven’t seen nor heard of any in some time now, sorry. Oh!”
He popped up into the sunlight and stared straight at me with the current tester poised in mid-air. “Oh! You could come with me!”
I blinked in the sunlight. “I could?”
* * *
That night the smoke from the south cleared, and the desert was etched in silver by the light of the full moon. Silhouetted against its cratered surface, Doc’s rocket stood rigidly silent, like a sentinel. Frost encrusted the encampment in a crystal sheen but we had no fire.
Doc grunted, his face lit by his laptop. “No fire. LOX!”
He jutted his chin at the giant sphere standing behind him veiled in white vapor. Across the cracked soil a single pristine white hose snaked over to the ship where another frosty cloud billowed from the ship’s nose.
“Fueling. Highly explosive.” He tapped quickly on his laptop, then looked up from his screen. “You change your mind yet? There’s still time.”
“Go with you, you mean?”
I shook my head.
“Take your chances here?” he asked.
Earl lay on my sleeping bag and sighed as I rubbed his ears. His long face had that concerned look that dogs get when they’re worried about something: arched eyebrows and a little wrinkle on the forehead.
I shrugged. “It’s the evil I know.”
“No water, no power, no food.” He ticked off the circumstances on the tips of each finger. “No transportation. No salvation.”
He was right. Los Angeles was a wasteland. Anyone who could get out had already. And those that couldn’t were probably dead of thirst by now. Or maybe that was wishful thinking on my part. If it were true it meant no one would be following me, competing with me on the highway.
“You believe in God,” he pointed.
It was a statement, not a question, and his gnarly index finger stretched toward the gold cross hanging down the front of my soiled tee.
I nodded solemnly.
“No disrespect,” he curled his hand into a fist, then raked his fingers back through his unruly hair. “You think your God will save you from this?”
“The bread lines. The water lines. The downed power lines. Read between the lines!”
“How’s this for a line: God helps those who help themselves.”
Doc smiled. “That’s not even in the Bible. He who trusts in himself is a fool. Proverbs.”
I smirked. “Had you pegged for a scientist not a preacher.”
“Rocket scientist,” he nodded. “You can tell by the hair.”
I smiled at that as he finished cutting the lid off another can of Campbell’s tomato soup. We’d been stirring in water and drinking it cold from the can. Aside from the metallic twang on your tongue, it actually wasn’t that bad.
“Highway 40?” he asked.
“No way. Arizona emptied its prisons.”
“Really? I hadn’t heard.”
“Plus, if Mexican troops make a grab for Lake Mead… then I don’t want to be anywhere near there.”
“Well that eliminates Highway 15, too. Not that there’s any water left in Lake Mead. So traveling east for you is out of the question. Death Valley is due north, and I really don’t think you want to go there.”
“Mmm mmm. Figure’d I’d head west. Over to Bakersfield. Try to hitch a ride up to Frisco.”
“Nothing’s on the roads but the Guard, and they don’t pick up hitchhikers.”
“Figure’d I’d stuff my bra.”
“That might work,” he chuckled. “Seriously, though; it’s …”
He tapped on his computer for a moment.
“… 352 miles to San Francisco. Walking at three miles per hour, twelve hours per day, that’s…”
“… 9.8 days. That equates to at least 19.5 gallons of water just to keep you alive. And that weighs 156 pounds.”
“I’ll find a way.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Besides, the Bay Area is no more capable of supporting your existence than is Los Angeles. Hell, Sacramento’s submerged in salt water. And you want to cross the Central Valley at this time of year? It’s sandstorm season. You’ll never make it.”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” I replied. “That’s from Luke.”
“Religion is excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet,” he snapped back, smiling. “Napoleon.”
“Why you picking on the church?”
“Pope forbids birth control. Ayatollahs forbid family planning. The Earth is in this mess because she can’t carry seven billion passengers.”
I nodded and considered my options. I could leave. But it was dark and cold. And I was hungry. And I hadn’t seen anyone for eight days—not counting the rape gangs—and the sound of another human voice, even a blasphemous one, was, I was ashamed to admit to myself, music to hear.
He cocked his head at an angle. “Shouldn’t you have been raptured away by now?”
I sighed. “You don’t believe in the Rapture?”
“Ridiculous. People so intent on the afterlife they’ve thrown this one away. Instead of standing around waiting to be rescued by your giant imaginary friend, have you given any more thought to my offer?”
“You mean come with you?”
“Exactly!” he announced brightly. “Come with me. Slip the surly bonds of earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings. Put out your hand.” He held his red and white soup can toward me. “And touch the face of God.”
“Well, close enough.”
He smiled conspiratorially and lowered the empty can to the ground for Earl. The dog lapped at it loudly.
“I had a vision.”
“Thought you were a scientist.”
“Oh, there’s plenty of verifiable evidence supporting psychic bonds. Especially in twilight sleep, moments before the subject awakens. That’s when it happened to me.”
My face twisted into a concerned frown, mirroring Earl’s.
“It? You mean the vision?”
“Exactly. I had a vision of this craft.” He pointed. “Rising into the heavens with me aboard. And Earl of course.”
The dog’s ears perked up as he licked the can.
“At the apogee of the launch, a blinding brilliant light, brighter than a thousand suns!”
His rich radio announcer’s voice echoed across the scorched earth and he beamed, beatific; arms outstretched like a big-haired televangelist.
“And there, in the center of the light…”
“God?” I asked, sitting up.
I gaped contemptuously. “Aliens!?”
He nodded serenely, oblivious to my smirk.
“Persons from another world. They’ve visited here before, seen our industrial revolution, measured our air and our soil. They’re well aware of our planet’s plight. And they want to help.”
He turned an about-face in the dust and gazed up at his rocket ship spellbound. “And all I have to do is rendezvous with them.”
“Isn’t that.…” I cast about for words. “Well, isn’t that kind of—no offense—silly?”
He glanced at me over his shoulder. “No sillier than your idea of rapture.”
Primly, he sat and stared straight into my eyes.
“Both you and I see how bad it is. The hole in the ozone. Refugees streaming into Europe. Borders dissolving. Social services vanishing like.…”
He scraped up a handful of dust and blew it off his outstretched palm.
Earl whimpered once and lay down, resting his snout on his paws. So I scratched the thick fur on his neck.
Doc picked up his laptop again and the light from the screen cast him in a ghoulish blue radiance.
“We both see how bad it is,” he continued. “So bad in fact that neither of us feels it can be fixed without divine intervention.”
“Yeah, but. Little green men?”
“Supremely powerful beings descending to earth from the heavens to lift us up from destruction and deliver us to a beautiful, a perfect future. A paradise. How is that any different from your belief?”
I didn’t want to start a fight.
“Well, when you put it like that,” I said, sighing.
“Anyway,” his voice was softer now. “The offer is still there. I’ve got plenty of fuel and no payload. Except for Earl and me.”
* * *
The sun rose above the horizon like a big, bald head. Its rays lit the very tip of the rocket first then traced lovingly down its steaming skin, like a spotlight on a stripper.
Doc stood before me with a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his cracked lips. He wore a clean pair of coveralls and had a motorcycle helmet under one arm and his laptop under the other.
A man on a mission.
In Doc’s shadow Earl stood panting, smiling at some inside joke that only the two of them shared.
“Are you sure you won’t change your mind?”
His clear, blue eyes pleaded with me. There was no hesitation in them. No doubt. He firmly believed he was going to go meet his saviors.
I smiled and shook my head sadly.
His shoulders slumped, and he said nothing. Then after a moment he stood up to his full height and squeezed his shock of snowy hair into his helmet.
“Very well,” he announced. Offering me his hand he said, “Well, my friend, I wish you the very best of luck.”
We shook hands again for the last time.
“You’re certainly going to need it!” he said with a smile and wink.
Earlier that morning, even though it had exhausted his last dram of gasoline, Doc had repositioned the power company truck closer to the base of the rocket. And now, purposefully, he stepped into the plastic bucket dangling at the end of the rangy hydraulic arm.
Earl jumped up after him.
A loyal disciple of one.
I marveled at the unwavering devotion of a dog; a thing to admire. Sure was going to miss Earl’s smile, though, even if it was just him panting.
Without ceremony, Doc threw a lever, and with a dull whine he and Earl were hoisted heavenward.
With a final wave, he closed the hatch, and that was the last I saw of them.
My pockets full of bullets and batteries, I hoisted my rucksack and moved back the prescribed distance to the safe point and sat down, waiting.
Nothing happened for several minutes.
I imagined Doc going through his pre-flight checklist, making final adjustments, mixing fuel, whatever it was amateur astronauts did.
He was right on one point at least. We weren’t all that different.
I tried to put myself into his mind: imagined myself as Doc, arcing up into the cloudless blue. Leaving the whole world behind like a swimmer diving out of a lifeboat. Imagined the scene he had described and how similar it was to my own belief. The starry sky enveloping me. The sudden brightness of a single point of light. The gentle reassurance of a redeeming hand reaching out to me, relieving me of my burdens. Telling me I would be safe; that all of this hell of our own creation would soon be a distant memory.
And finally warm, blinding light bathing my face and—
The explosion blew the ship to shiny ribbons in a flash brighter than the sun. I held up my arm to shield my face from the intense heat and rolled away from the flames, which blossomed into the air as rocket fuel vaporized and belched toward me like dragon’s breath.
Distant mountains echoed with the roar of the concussion. My ears rang and spots danced before my eyes. Shards of metal speared the dirt all around as a shadow enveloped me. I looked up to see its source: a mushroom cloud of black, ballooning heavenward.
* * *
There were no bones left to bury. No teeth. Nothing.
Everything burned, the cars, the tent. There wasn’t even anything left to make a cross with to mark the grave.
So after Doc’s–and Earl’s–funeral pyre burned itself out and the ground had cooled, I walked into the middle of the star pattern that the explosion had stenciled on the desert floor. With the pommel of my knife I hammered a bent and blackened pipe deep into the concrete soil.
Then I reached inside my collar, slipped my necklace from around my neck, and I hung it from the pole. The gold cross dangled, dancing, reflecting burning sunlight into my red-rimmed eyes.
I took off my hat and thought about Doc’s words.
We both see how bad it is. So bad that neither of us feel it can be fixed without divine intervention.
Maybe Doc and I weren’t so different after all. It was not a comforting thought.
And poor Earl, blindly following along.
As the sun quickly climbed into the blue I sighed, and the desert sighed with me, bathing me with its hot breath.
If there were still people left in Los Angeles they could probably use a helping hand.
I knew I could.
So I put my hat back on, hoisted my rucksack and slung my shotgun over my shoulder.
Then I headed south.
Seven billion passengers, I thought. Minus one.
Two if you counted Earl. Which I did.