Book 1

An Excerpt




Sometime in the future. Mt. BlancaóFree Air Zone.

            I notice a shimmer in the sage. Hoping for salvage, I step down from the porch and take several steps to the silver-green bush used by tribal elders of the First Nations, and free spirits like me. When lit, smudge smoke smells like pot but has select healing properties, drives away evil spirits and dark energies, and purifies hell for a moment. I should know. Iíve lived in hell for most of my life.

I jam my boney-knuckled, calloused fingers into the twigs and thick underbrush, and fish around for hopeful treasure, knowing Iím more likely to find a rusted can or barbed wire than a tire or, better yet, coin. I, like most men on this mountain, am a true-grit scavenger. My grandfather always called me a hearty-bugger, larger than most men, which has helped me survive. Itís hard to make a living, but Iíve learned to live by my chainsaw and know the best places to cut out a treeís dry heart. I bring my truckload of kindling and log cords down the mountain into Queston the nearby mountain town. It has five hundred too many Questoners, but itís remote and still part of the Free Air Zone. There, I sit in my cab on a gravel turnabout at the intersection of State and Main wearing my insulated, camouflage coveralls and twisting my shaggy beard, thick as old goat scruff. I do pretty well in a town that gets sixty below in the frozen winter. Iím not afraid to tromp through Yellow Twig Rabbit Brush and Chico. Thatís how I got my nickname, Weeds. Well, thatís not the only reason, but thatís another story.

I hear a high-pitched buzz seconds before I feel a burning zap on my hand. I jerk it back, confused and startled. Twin blood marks appear on my finger like a rattler strike. Lucky for me, I donít feel pain like most folks as my fingers are numb from a bar brawl where I once broke my knuckles against the collarbone of a man drunker than I was.

I pick up a stick, go back to poking under the sage bush a little more carefully, trying to flush out the snake, but unearth a lightweight triangle, the size of a small gold plate instead. I pull it up, and lightly tap it with my finger. I hear a high-pitched zwurping, a sound I canít identify, but itís something between a hum and a purr like the croaking of an electric toad. I inspect the triangle again. Itís smooth and cool to the touch, so I donít think itís what stung me, but as I hold it my fingertips tingleóitís like the triangle is alive. I donít recognize the alloy, and Iíve been around many scrap heaps. Itís super light, and for a moment, I think Iím hanging onto the air. I flip it over, not a mark. Iíve never seen anything like it. Could this be part of Everettís Deep Space communication system? Perhaps, itís half of a large hinge for his fifteen-foot antenna. I canít think of anything else it might be, and that opens the possibility that itís not from this world. After all, Everett has been trying to communicate with aliens for years. Maybe he finally made contact. The thought sends a shiver down to my boots.

I suspiciously look up at Everettís two-story dilapidated wood tower. Not a twitch disturbs the profound silence. I could show this artifact to Everett, but I have an uneasy feeling the old man is not coming back. Everettís compound has no windows, except two slits up high where he can slide a rifle barrel out the lookout window. Everettís tower is odd, even for Mt. Blanca standards. Itís made from weathered wood once painted green with nano-paint, a stealth technology now camouflaged by juniper trees. Someone has to know this mountain well enough to find it even with the satellite dishes poking above the tree line.

Everettís been missing for over two weeks. I know this because dirt has settled in the drive. There have not been fresh tire tracks in quite a while. I canít imagine where an old codger like Everett could have gone. Itís not like he has a family. Heís never mentioned relatives, though Everett is not one for small talk, especially not in English, and Russian sounds like pigs coughing to my ears. Iíve always felt that Everett was from a different time and with the current technology itís a real possibility. Now heís missing, my mind returns to time traveler conspiracies and alien abduction stories that frequent the San Luis Valley.

In my way, Iíve looked out for Everett over the years, making sure he had enough to eat and act as his handyman when he asks. He doesnít ask very often, but when he does, I do the heavy lifting, and he pays well. He hasnít needed major help since I installed the three radio telescopes towering above the trees. That was sixteen years ago, and he hasnít said much to me since then. Everett never talks about this bizarre electronic mass of junk other than calling it a Deep Space Communication System. Whatever it is, it has lots of parts, and very few of them work. Everettís the kind of man whoís in love with his ideas. Iím not much of a fan of plans. Theyíve always gotten me into trouble.

I unzip my daypack and slide the gold triangle inside. I hoist the pack across my broad shoulders. To my surprise, the pack seems more substantial than it was before, and I wonder why. For a moment, I think about unpacking it again to see why itís heavier, but I take the steps to the porch and bang on the door instead. Thereís no answer. The wind picks up. Somewhere metal scraps against metal, and Mickeyís Ears groan. Thatís what Everett calls his four beloved satellite dishes.

I press my ear to the door and wait. I canít hear anything. A Cortez-native once told me that if you hold your breath and quiet your mind, you can hear silence because even silence has a frequency. I canít hear the frequency because my heartís thumping, and thereís a rhythmic drone in my ears. If Everettís gone off the deep end, heíd have barricaded himself in with one of his antique Russian machine guns, The DP-27, an odd obsession to have but deadly just the same. Going to the authorities is not an option, given my jail cell history. Besides, they simply banish men like me to the nearest Settlement and let the low survival odds take care of the punishment. Iíll take my chances that Everett will recognize me and my good intentions before being too trigger-happy and shooting me between the eyes.

ďEverett,Ē I yell loudly. I wait. Not a sound.

I push myself away from the door and square my shoulders against the weight of my pack. Thereís no window to break, no back door to jimmy. Thereís only one way inóstraight like a bull. The deadbolt loudly pops when it gives way, but only because the doorjamb is rotten. I nearly tumble forward. I steady myself in a crouch, half expecting the sensation of a loaded bullís eye on my brow and the hollow pop of Everettís gun. Thereís no one here, and I stand tall, listening.

ďEverett? Everett, itís me, Weeds. You in here?Ē My voice is met by the steady ticking of a clock lost in the clutter somewhere. ďSorry about your door, Dude. I can help fix it.Ē

 As I suspected, Everett is not here and, from the amount of mouse poop, hasnít been here in quite some time. My adrenaline settles. There are semi-neat stacks of newspapers, books, wires, S.O.S pads, aluminum foil sheets, card stock, and electronics that create a maze calf-deep. Everett was never a neat freak, but I wouldnít have called him a hoarder, until now. He collected many things because, as he liked to say, you never know when you need a blue, beveled glass, brass French-style pocket watch holder.

I walk into his galley kitchen. A can opener still grips an unlabeled metal can. Itís covered in flies and smells like a toilet. I suspect Vienna Sausages. Sometime last year, Everett came upon a shipment of government issue at an auction, and he might as well have won the lottery. He loves those savory giblets and would prefer that processed, so-called mystery meat to the deer and rabbit Iíd sometimes gift him. Heís as skinny as a rail too, and Iíd tell him he was starving his body with non-food. Heíd always glare at me and snort. He was way too old and had survived way too much for me to tell him what to eat.

Everett never left me alone in his compound. That was fine with me because his place made me claustrophobic. There were too many cannibalized electronics for me to feel comfortable. I hear a whirring on his workbench where his antique IBM console and monitor sit as big as a boat. He once disappeared and reappeared through his computer. I canít explain it, and I never tell anyone because they already think Iím on edge, but it happened. He was messing around with his communication system when the monitor came on with a burp and then static. There was a gasp and thud. Iíd spun around, but Everett was gone. He reappeared across the room, looking much younger and wearing someone elseís clothes--a black wool cap and gray sweater. He was blurry-as if he stood behind a thin layer of translucent paper. When he solidified back to the snake-slim man I knew, I asked him if he was a time traveler. I mean how could he be so young and so old simultaneously? He laughed it off and told me, ďTime is elastic. It moves fast or slow depending on location which means it can create a space in between. A clever man can loop time, open a door, and slip through the space between

            ďLike a portal?Ē

            ďWhy do you have to argue with me? Forget about it! Itís none of your business!Ē

Forget about it? How could I? I broached the subject several times after that. He would break into violent Russian curses.

             The buzzing and crackling seem to be coming from the screen that appears gray with static and sounds similar to the frequency I heard from the triangle a few minutes ago. I wonder if they are connected somehow, and my imagination starts to believe that Everett indeed made contact and I look for him to reappear. A shiver goes down my spine. I carefully inspect the monitor. I touch the glass with my finger and jump back. Itís not quite solid, and I canít wrap my mind around that. I vacantly stare at the screen and study it from different angles. The gray has depth as it goes beyond the two-dimensional screen into an unknown quantum field beyond. I touch it again, and this time an electrical current runs the length of my arm like burning sand. In some ways, it feels like the sting I felt from the triangle I just found. I hear a soft buzzing, and then my pack vibrates and gets hot. I fling my pack onto a tall stool nearby and quickly unzip it. The gold triangle I just picked up is glowing. As suddenly as it begins, it dims and then goes dormant again. I tap it with my finger. It feels cool to the touch again. I stare a moment longer before walking back over to the monitor. The screen is now dark, and I gingerly touch it once more. This time itís as solid as reality ought to be.

ďDamn,Ē I say out loud. Everett bragged he was a genius at booby traps. Itís possible this is one. The nerve endings in my legs twitch, telling me to run, but Iím overcome with the type of curiosity that kills cats. Everything is quiet now. There is nothing to fear in silence. Iím no longer concerned that a bomb is about to explode, so I move through the cluttered pathways to his backroom. Itís very dark as Everett painted his wall midnight purple, and there are no windows except up high. I inch my fingers across the wall, searching for a light switch, waiting a moment for my eyes to adjust. I pop on the small light. Inside his room, there is a twin bed covered in clothing.

          An antique bomber jacket crowns the heap. I step forward to get a closer look when I stumble on a pair of skis. They clatter to the floor, and I stifle a Ninja holler. I bend over to pick them up and bump my hand across cracked leather photo album. The skis are old. Theyíre made from well-waxed hickory and are slender. The leather bindings have cracked. Everett once told me he was excellent in cross country but hadnít skied in many years. From the look of these skis, he hasnít skied in several hundred years. I stack the skis against the wall. They look like crossed fingers; a promise made, perhaps a promise broken.

            I turn my attention to the photo album as I sit in Everettís worn recliner. Corner hinges attach 3x5 black and white photos to the black pages. Many of these hinges have flaked away, so some pictures are stuck together like old playing cards. A snapshot falls into my lap. On one side, there is a young, spunky, dark-haired girl who wears sunglasses and a form-fitting wool sweater and holds onto a pair of skis. Sheís a classic beauty, timeless. I turn over the photo, and thereís a picture of a ski team, a gold hammer, and a sickle on a field of red positioned behind them. Itís the Soviet flag. I only know this because Everett once showed me the national flags of countries once called Superpowers, and he was very fond of this Soviet flag. He told me he had a long line of ancestors from Mother Russia in his blood.

On the next page, the dark-haired beauty wears pantaloons and a sleeveless shirt. Her lips are full, and I can tell her cheeks hold a natural blush even with this black and white image. She grips a vintage leather basketball in a lineup of six other young women. Basketball, skiing; she was very athletic, whoever she was. There is a cutout from a newspaper, worn, with a handwritten note in English tapped over the headline on the next page, ĎSki Team Missing.í Hoisting myself from his chair, I place the album on a cluttered shelf, and scan the rest of the compound. Everything else seems to be in order. There is no decaying corpse, no blood, no break-in, just a missing person. I pick up a hammer and broom from the kitchen. Rat-a-tat-tat. I hammer the doorframe back into place, sweep up the splinters, and lock the deadbolt. The door closes just fine. Only Everett will know there was a break-in. Iíll hear all about it when he returns, but Iíll help him fix the door, and that will be the end of it.

I inspect the triangle one more time. It duly shines. I shrug, zip up my pack, and shoulder it. I look around, remembering the bomber jacket on the top of the bed heap. Men were so much smaller back then, followed by the thought, It would look great on a young woman. I try to push away my compulsion to take it, but I know winter will be here soon, and I could sell it for cash. Before leaving the compound, I roll the leather jacket into a tight bundle and stuff it in my pack, locking the door behind me. I step from the deck with a heavy boot into the dirt. The energy is heavy, and my soul is dark enough to know. My mind races as I glance over at Everettís tool shed behind Mickeyís Earsóthe one place I havenít examined. I find a small crack in the door, and I peer in. Tools. Lots of them. I grab a stick and pry open a sideboard.

The wood gives away with a snap, releasing a dust cloud. Itís enough of an opening to push my arm through and wrestle the lock open. The door slides open like the entrance to a tomb, with nothing but treasure inside. I know itís opportunistic, but a man has to survive, and the first rule of survival is findersí keepers. Inside the shed, there are loads of boxes filled with metal odds and ends. Tools hang on pegboard like an old hardware store. I help myself to two wrenches and a box of drill bits. I stuff these borrowed tools in my sack next to the triangle and zip up my cash and carry. I donít have any room for anything else, so I leave, fitting the wood slat back like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

The air feels charged, and Iím just superstitious enough to carry appeasements for the spirits. The dried tobacco leaves husk in the wind as I sprinkle a prayer to the restless spirits before sliding my tobacco pouch back into my pocket. I back away from this abandoned place, duck through an opening in the trees, and make my way up the rocky trail toward my cabin. I have got the gait of an old goat, slow, steady, and sure-footed. I scramble over the rock and bushwhack through the brush. Finally, I recognize the scraggly tree line as part of my neighborhood. I realize my pack has only gotten heavier, perhaps with the guilt of borrowing Everettís tools. My breathing labors like a steam locomotive until it forces me to stop, and I look back while I catch my breath and stretch my limbs.

The entire Valley of Lost Souls lies below me. The San Luis Valley is the highest alpine valley in the North Divide. It used to be a massive lake as big as an ocean. Itís now an endless land mass crashing headlong into the Sangre de Cristos to the North. Iím on the Southern peak. Mt. Blanca, one of the fourteeners, is a wild and unpredictable mountain, and she exacts a harsh price in attempts to tame her. This mountain wonít be Skinned, and she kills those who try. Every Spring, a team of Skinners perish--avalanches, massive rockslides, or they fall off a cliff into a ravine. I sometimes come across their bones, which I take great pains to bury and recite a proper prayer. Despite my scruffy appearance, Iím not a heathen.

Technology skyrocketed after the Great War at the end of the 21st century after humans damaged the environmentís viability to the point of no return. Humans faced mass extinction when two corporate conglomerates divided the North and South hemisphere and invested in a biosphere technology that seemed to come from nowhere. Suddenly, biodomes loomed over every metropolitan area. Over time, these biospheres were simply called Skins. Biodome technology has advanced to Skinning mountains, but Mt. Blanca, and other mountains over 12,000 feet, are just out of reach. Thatís why theyíre called Free Air zones. Only a few areas like this are left, and perhaps more people would live here if the climate werenít so inhospitable. It gets sixty- below in the dead of winter, and Iíve recorded 70 below--so cold, pleural membranes freeze in twenty minutes. In laymanís termsóif youíre in the elements too long, your lungs freeze. I will never live in a Skin, but the only other alternative is living in one of the Settlements where humans have devolved to their most primitive nature. For me, neither of these are viable options. Iím grateful I still have my free will. I donít have to fight for my next meal like they do in the Settlements. I donít have to breathe fake air and eat synthetic food like they do in the Skins. I can hunt the occasional deer and sell firewood. I can live independently on this mountain, even if itís challenging to survive.

Mt. Blanca is one of the four sacred mountains prophesized by the ancient tribes to form a medicine wheel, a protected ring in the high desert. Itís cold and bleak, the kind of place where a man can hide. Good thing, as most of us here donít want to be found. Most who come out here donít make it through their first winter. Abandoned structures, primarily trailers, litter the valley below, dissolving back into the land. The people who homesteaded here wanted to get away from other people. We all like neighbors fine as far as a hello goes, but we donít seek each otherís company beyond that. Thereís no government or corporate control here, so anything goes. Everett built his fortress from plywood and plastic and has been on this mountain for over thirty years or longer. Like me, the mountain absorbed Everett as one of its natural-born sons, someone who belonged here.

A strong wind kicks up dirt as I adjust my pack. I canít wait to get back to my recliner and woodstove and examine this triangle more closely. Perhaps thereíre hidden screws Iíve somehow missed. I wish Everett were around so he could see it. Heíd know what this thing is. I begin climbing again, hamstrings pinging as I push against the wind. The pack feels heavier with each step. I stop for another rest, look toward the Blanca peak, and notice a storm about to crown. I cup my hand over my eyes to better look at that lenticular cloud cresting the peak. It looks like a bruise, low and dark, boiling, sinking like rain toward the valley. Iím used to these unpredictable storms, the mountain can be dangerous that way, but this cloud looks different, odd, ominous, and elliptical. A green flashing hue and an eerie glow is set deep inside its hollowness as if the holy rollers had it right about the second coming. Iíve never seen a cloud-like it in all my life, and out here, Iíve survived by reading natureís signs.

I quicken my pace, but the faster I scramble, the more I stumble. My focus is on this darkness, moving across the terrain. I almost somersault over a rock. I catch myself but am nearly in a dead run. I see smoke from my woodstove smudge the treeline. I tell myself that Iím too close to be frightened of anything, but the incoming storm is coming so quickly that I panic. I focus on homebrew in my icebox and the foil-wrapped rabbit jerky sticks on top of my woodstove. Iím almost home, and I donít want to look again at that cloud. Itís massive and obscures the entire peak. My footing is frantic until the trail gives way to a familiar footpath, and I see Little Bear, who is mostly my dog but has a habit of wandering off to the neighborís, miles away, for better food scraps. Little Bear starts down the porch steps, his tail low but still waging. I raise my hand to greet him when my back is suddenly hot. Hot like a laser, and though hornets do not swarm me, my body responds in the same confused panic. With quick grunts and snorts, I slide out of the pack and sling it as far as I can. Before it lands in the brush, I realize itís glowing from the inside. Iím in shock and forget about the burning on my back. Something tells me that the leather bomber jacket rolled in my pack protected me from a deadly scorching.

Four small orange orbs appear from nowhere. Iím shocked and reach for my semi-automatic pistol, an antique side arm I used to carry in my shoulder holster before I served time. ďShit!Ē I say as scoop air with my naked hand. When a man makes a vow of non-violence, he has to live by his own rules even when difficult. Iím outmatched anyway, I think as I remain rooted as the small orbs hover approximately one hundred feet above my head. They make no sound and appear translucent if not for the orange glow. I hear a hum somewhere off in the weeds. It takes me a moment to realize that the buzz comes from the pack. The orbs respond with a deep harmonic vibrationóthe sound intensifies until the wave knocks me to my knees. I double over and clutch my chest, my heart about to explode. Every cell of my body is stressed, and thereís a deep knowing that if I donít move, this vibration will shatter my bones. I breathe in and call in the love and protection of my ancestors. The sound wave stops, and the orbs vanish. I stand and put one foot in front of the other in one determined push forward until I am up the path, up to my steps, into my cabin, where I bolt the door, exhausted. From where I crouch, I can see the orbs flash in the vicinity of Everettís compound. Where is Everett? Who is he, and what did he summon? I close my eyes and start to pray. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evilóour Father. I repeat the prayer through the night until daylight softens the edges of my fear and delivers me from exhaustion into sleep.

 © Patricia L. Meek


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