Night in the Mojave Desert.
The Mojave is a vast desert that stretches from California into Nevada, extending as far south as Arizona. It is only a few hours automobile drive from the glittering coasts of Santa Monica and the towering skyline of Los Angeles, yet the further one drives east from those sprawled, congested freeways and polyglot communities, the more one gradually loses a sense of where one is, in time and space. You depart from one of the most richest, advanced populations of the earth, and enter into a land that is primeval and timeless.
Yes, timeless is the word, thought Jarrod Harnester, standing at the entrance of the abandoned homestead. Well, not quite so abandoned now, as he had moved in and made it un-abandoned. It was abandoned in the sense that the people who once lived here were no longer around, left no forwarding address, had in fact left nothing but the shells of what was once a modest, 3-room house, an outbuilding, a shed. The well was still working, and produced water. Two windmills were left standing, one half toppled over into the dust. The other still moved according to the wind, creaking eerily. Jarrod had no idea if a family lived here, or a single "desert rat," a solitary desert dweller. There was many such places and transient people scattered across this desert, he knew. Perhaps it had been built by those who imagined an idyllic and rural retreat, and were confounded by the heat and remoteness and the sheer silence of the place, with no one around for miles. You were lucky if you could get any bars on your cellphone, and even then, if you had to call for help in an emergency, it would take an hour at least for anyone to respond.
Perfect. Just what he wanted.
Jarrod had rigged a generator up and so had electricity in the concrete shell, which passed for a dwelling, although possessed only a small lamp for the eveings. A week ago, when he had arrived here with his truck and his trailer, there had been nothing inside. The previous owner (or vandals) had stripped the place of everything valuable, all the wiring and anything that could be easily carted off. All that had been left were the shards of broken beer bottles, a few tattered magazines (porn, of course), and bits and flakes of concrete and drywall. But now all that was gone.
In its place was something that would have made the cast of "American Pickers" salivate. Posters of movies from the 1980s (The Terminator, Blade Runner, The Dark Crystal) covered the pocked walls. The few bits of furniture which gave the place a touch of home were only those ugly orange-and-green plastic monstrosities which had been considered quite fashionable…in 1974. Against one wall, a table held a functioning HAM radio setup, and a tape cassette recorder. Stacks of cassette tapes were piled next to it. The most modern item was the futon bed placed against the opposite wall, but the sheets were no older than the 90s. At least they were clean. Interspersed among all these were all kinds of stuff. Foxed books with war reports from the European Theater. Photoplay journals of Hollywood starlets long dead and forgotten. Toys from the 1930s through the 1960s, including rare comics that some fanboys would joyfully kill their mothers for. A stack of old vinyl records, and a record player with needle to play them on (Jarrod was not a fan of 60s music, but did enjoy some Beach Boys). Older than all of them, in a special wooden bookcase, some extremely heavy leatherbound books printed when Voltaire was young. In the other rooms were collections of similarly ancient and useless items.
Except for the discerning collector of antiques or "retro", none of the stuff in these rooms was particularly desirable, or even especially valuable. However, the lack of consistency could seem puzzling. To the owner of this motley collection, however, this was exactly the point and purpose. He had spent a lot of money, and time, and searching, to collect all these things, these old things, and bring them out here to the middle of nowhere.
The middle of nowhere, and yet, Jarrod mused, possibly the epicenter of everywhere…and everywhen.
Jarrod sat down at the desk with the tape cassette recorder, with its old fashioned cigar-sized microphone attached. He unwrapped a fresh cassette tape, and popped it in the machine, pushing it in with a satisfying loud chunk. It ran on batteries. He had plenty of both: cassettes and double AAs. Cheap nowadays.
He picked up the mike, then lowered it. He decided to have a smoke as he talked. Somehow, it seemed fitting, though it was a bad habit, itself soon to become as outdated as any of the things in this room. There was no mirror in the room, but he imagined how he must look, a man in his late 30s, dark-haired, wearing an old-fashioned white cotton undershirt called a "wifebeater" (what a name!) and ancient Levis. The latter, when it was new, had sold for under $20. He had paid no less than $1700 for this particular garment in its well-worn state. The cigarettes too were an old brand you rarely saw these days: Pall Malls.
As soon as he had lit up, and took a leisurely drag, he pulled the microphone to him and pushed REC.
"August 15," he began calmly, "another uneventful night. Tomorrow I may go into town for some more groceries. Maybe even see if I can score an old Frigidaire. Saw a couple of jackrabbits running by. Tons of jackrabbits around here. Not sure if they are worth eating…or if it's legal to eat them, either. Not that I'm in any danger of starving. Although it might be more exciting if I was."
Jarrod abruptly hit STOP, paused, and then hit REW. He would start over. Time to stop beating about the bush.
"August 15," he began again. "Perhaps I should explain what I am doing out here with this heap of junk in the middle of the desert. If something should happen to me, you may deduce I had a "hoarding" problem. Or…that may sound more sane than what I am about to relate to you now."
"No need for names or places. Protect the innocent, of course. Not that there are that many these days around here. But…you may have to get off your butt and do some work if you want intimate details. Let's just say it began, oh, 5 or so years ago. I was still married then, although it was pretty evident even then it was the divorce court for us. Total nutcase, what was I thinking. Anyway, I was also still employed. What was my job? I won't reveal that either, but with a graduate degree from Caltech, it was a nice gig for a while. I – the company actually – was on this joint deal with a British firm. A couple of their scientists had come out to the City of Angels – ha!- to liaison with us. One of my "collateral" duties was to wine and dine them. The other employees helped with that too. All guys, so we had a lot of fun without having to worry about being "politically correct." My wife was pissed, but so what? She was pissed about everything, it seemed."
"One of their senior scientists, I came to know fairly well, as we were on the same project. A really nice guy, absolutely genius, but a little standoffish from the others. He really wasn't into the Hollywood or club scene. He – let's call him Dr. J – was from some rural part of England, and he said he preferred the outdoors. I offered to take him sightseeing out to Death Valley, Joshua Tree, the national parks, do some hiking, bouldering, that kind of stuff. He was outdoorsy. We got to be good friends doing all that. I learned some stuff about him the others didn't know. For one thing, he wasn't married…he wasn't gay or anything, he just never married, didn't have a family, kept to himself. He had one sister who lived near London I think. Ok, so nothing unusual so far…then one weekend, we were coming back from a hike, and I got the idea to stop near this little ghost town, by the Death Valley park entrance. A real neat place, where the old-time gold prospectors mined, you can still see where they lived, even their gear from the 1800s, still lying about. My dad used to take me to these places. That's real history there. I thought Dr. J would be into it.
Well, turned out he wasn't. At first he didn't say anything, but as we walked around these old buildings, he seemed to grow quite pale and seemed frightened almost. I thought it was a joke, and I said that because it was a "ghost" town it didn't mean there were really ghosts here, but it acted as if he there were…and it almost seemed like, he could see them. He wanted to go, so we left right away.
As soon as we got back, he brushed it off, saying it was just the heat, but later (over some drinks) he told me this strange story. About how when he was a kid, back in England, his parents had disappeared one night. Just disappeared in front of him and his sister. Right before their eyes."
"They were taken," he murmured, staring into his pint.
"I looked at him in surprise, wondering if he was drunk or trying to make a joke, but I knew he wasn't. "Like taken by aliens?"
"No. By Time."
He then told me how three visitors had come to the house, out of nowhere too. Two men and a woman. A very beautiful woman. They called themselves Lead and Steel and Sapphire. After the elements. They weren't quite aliens, either, but some kind of beings who could get their parents back for them…from whatever had taken them. And they had taken him too, and he had nearly been lost forever, to whatever it was. He told this in such detail that I felt like I could see it happen, and he told it like this had happened yesterday, although it must have been over 30 years ago.
"And…did you parents…ever come back?"
They did. The three mysterious people had brought his parents back. His parents remembered nothing, and neither did his sister, so she'd claimed. But he remembered, somehow. He remembered especially the woman, who called herself Sapphire, who was according to him tall and blonde and beautiful and gentle. He had never before, or after, had met such a beautiful woman like that. He said it was perhaps one reason he had never married. But I could have told him that was no big loss! Ha!
"Your sister," I pressed him. "What happened to her?"
"She was fine. As I said, she didn't remember anything at all. I tried once or twice to get her to remember, but she only laughed and said I must have had a wild dream. She's married now, has two kids of her own. Works out of her house. Quite happy I think, although we don't see each other that often. Doesn't remember a bit of it."
Drag, puff, cough.
"But who were they? What were they? You never learned?"
"Had something to do with Time. Old things could call them forth…creatures through Time, to take people. My father collected old clocks, my mother liked old nursery rhymes. They said that was why. It was very frightening. Steel and Lead were frightening a bit too, even though they helped us. Ever since then, I'm not a fan of…old things."
I realized something. "You're afraid, after all this time, you'll see them again."
"Jarrod, haven't you considered this project?"
"This project!" Dr. J. turned on me, suddenly animated and angry. "What we're trying to do, with photon particles and all this nonsense, so that you can use it on some Pakistani rabble…it may do a lot more, you know!"
"I suddenly realized why he was so frightened. Not just because of the ghost town. But the project we were working on must have touched a nerve for him. The nature of our project had to do with time, you see. It's too complicated to describe. I'd need to unwrap a couple more tapes.
As it was, I didn't see him much after that. The project suddenly fizzled out, with no explanation given. Dr. J and I didn't go on any other trips, I think he was embarrassed at what he had said. Soon after, the project was canceled, and all the British staff went back to merry old England. I had Dr. J's email and send him a couple of messages, but no response. Then my divorce was a reality, and I was caught up with that. And then…our whole team was laid off, also no explanation given, other than the shitty economy, and all that bs. But I knew. They had taken our work and were developing it on a more "covert" basis. I was plenty pissed off and some of us thought about suing, but we all sold out…took a huge severance package for keeping out mouths shut. After my divorce I needed the money. Then I started playing online poker, and the story should have ended there, with me bust and broke. But once again…Caltech degree. I had some good wins, and unlike those other losers, I knew when to stop. I have plenty of money now, and no, if you're listening, bitch, you won't get a penny of it! I need the money for a project of my own. That's why I'm now out here, with a bunch of old things. You see, I have an idea in mind...
A month ago, I saw this little item the news. "Respected government physicist dead in mysterious accident." Thanks to the Internet, I learned that Dr. J had died in his home, in a remote part of England. Although he was totally healthy, he had suffered from a bizarre radiation poisoning, although he had never been exposed to any radioactive source and was in fact retired, and nearly a hermit. Very sad, and very suspicious, said all the conspiracy theorists on the Web (it was on a conspiracy web site I learned of the details – as I said I have a lot of free time). A picture of his sister was in the paper, looking very grieved, as might be expected. I did some searching, and got her address, sent a card, explaining who I was and was sorry for her loss, blah blah. She sent a response back. A lengthy, detailed, and very interesting response. Apparently, she had experienced something of a memory recall, and a bit more."
Jarrod reached into a drawer and pulled out an ashtry (itself a relic) and stubbed out his cigarette.
"So now, dear listener, if you are still with me, I have a new project. And plenty of time. And Time is what I am hoping for. You see, the company I used to work for has branched into solar. Very green, you'd think. Only, it's not really green. It's a cover for something else. Look it up on the conspiracy web sites if you want the details. All you need to know, is that I know what they are up to. And I will add a twist of my own. You see, I want to see what Dr. J saw. I want to know what he knew. And more than that, dear listener, just maybe a bit of justice to add to the mix."
Please review! This is the sequel to my previous stories "Insurgency" and "Irruption." Read those first!