Authors: Dell Magazine Authors
First time, she'd used her contacts in New York and London to set up a very profitable export business dealing in alien artifacts, but then she'd made the mistake of getting married, and her husband and her accountant had conspired to rip her off, and they'd squandered everything they'd stolen on dumb land deals. So she'd started over, prospecting out in the City of the Dead, the hundreds of square miles of ancient tombs down south, in the American zone. She'd made decent money, mostly in those little touchy-feely artifacts you found all over, smooth little sculptures that gave you odd, pleasurable feelings when you held them. She'd parlayed that into a dealership, which she lost when her partner skipped out with cash made on a big deal, one of those unique finds that have the potential to kick-start new industries, like the bound pairs of electrons at the heart of the q-phone system.
"And that's how I ended up here with you, in a motel room at the wrong end of the Strip. We're like two characters out of one of Springsteen's songs. We both came here looking for new lives and found we couldn't escape what we are."
"What are we?"
"You're a handsome drifter. I'm a woman who's good at business but bad at love,” Rachel said, and laughed when I said I thought she was pretty good in all the areas we'd tried so far. She had a nice, rough laugh. Saying, “This is sex, darling, not love. But I think you and I can get something done together. Are you up for a little adventure?"
She told me about the Henry Wu Memorial Museum, said that its security was ridiculously weak because as far as most people were concerned it didn't have anything worth stealing.
"But there's one thing that means a lot to me. Something I dug up early in my prospecting career. Something that could lead us to a fortune."
Rachel walked her fingers down my stomach and smiled when I responded, and we rolled together.
Well, you know I said yes. Not just because I was dumb enough to think we were in love. But because she'd brought something rising to the surface. A hunger and a hopefulness I hadn't felt since I learned I'd won a lottery ticket off Earth, and every kind of new possibility had opened up.
Besides, I thought it would be easy.
It wasn't, of course. We broke into the museum at midnight. Two hours later, we were speeding out of town along the coast highway. We'd passed the checkpoint into American territory, a routine stop that terrified me much less than I'd thought it would. We had left two dead men behind us and Rachel was cradling the thing she wanted so badly while I drove as fast as I dared in her rented car and Bruce Springsteen played on the iPod plugged into the stereo, a compilation of all his big loud tracks.
Dawn was coming up, the sun huge and orange and pitted with spots around its equator. It was a lot smaller than Earth's sun, I'd read somewhere. An old, old red dwarf star. But it was much cooler than the sun, too, so that the Goldilocks zone in which First Foot orbited was close in, and from the surface its little red-dwarf sun looked eight times as big as Earth's.
The light woke Rachel out of her daze. She asked me if I was okay, driving. I said I was. It helped me to not think about what had happened.
"What happened, happened. We have to deal with it,” she said. As if she was talking about a minor inconvenience, like a snapped heel on her shoe.
She switched off the music, fiddled with the radio, pulled in some breakfast show. Eventually the news came around. Right at the end there was a two-sentence item about the break-in at the Henry Wu Museum, that persons unknown had killed two security guards.
"I guess the cops don't know who we are,” I said. “Maybe our luck is changing."
"I wouldn't count on it,” Rachel said.
She didn't say anything else. Sitting there, stroking the damn stone we'd killed two men for. It was black and smooth and oval. Sooner or later she'd tell me where we were going, and what we'd find when we got there. Meanwhile, I was happy to be driving. As long as I could do that, nothing else much mattered. Not even our two little murders. We were putting those behind us, mile after mile after mile. And ahead of us was only the road, aimed at the continent's empty heart. Human beings had barely scratched the edge of this world. There were plenty of places we could hide, on or off the map. With one decision, I'd opened up my life to endless possibilities.
Signs for a rest stop appeared. Rachel said she needed to freshen up, told me to pull over. The lot was empty apart from a pickup parked near a picnic bench, where a young couple was eating breakfast. Furniture and cardboard boxes stacked in its load bed, a German Shepherd lying under the grin of its chromed bull bars, sitting up as I followed Rachel toward the couple, a cold feeling growing inside me. The man stood when she pulled out her gun and the dog stalked toward her wolflike and growling, and she shot it.
I found a roll of parcel tape in the pickup's glove box and we used that to tie up the young man and woman. I had to whack the man on the head when he refused to hold out his wrists; after that they didn't give us any trouble. We dumped them among the boxes and furniture and set fire to the rental car and drove off in the pickup. Rachel took the wheel. She drove faster than I would have dared, those strange trees that grow along the highway there, like mushrooms grafted onto barrel cacti, whipping past on either side.
After a few miles, Rachel turned off the highway, followed a dirt track between trees and rocks to a rise where microwave masts clustered inside a corral of wire mesh fencing. We left the man and woman there, with a couple of bottles of water. The man was still mostly out of it; the woman was making noises behind her tape gag. We got back to the highway and drove on. Shadows shrinking as the sun climbed the dark blue sky where a few day stars shone. Cool air pouring through the open windows. Springsteen on the stereo.
I'd seen him once. Springsteen. One of his last concerts, at the end of a tour to raise funds to support research into climate change. Before the war, before the Jackaroo came and shrinking glaciers and homeless polar bears became irrelevant.
It was in Milwaukee. My hometown. My dad took me. It was a year after he'd finally split with my mom. I was twelve.
My dad was an accountant. Was? I bet he still is, if he's still alive, even though he went through the usual kind of midlife crisis involving an affair with a younger colleague, buying a motorcycle and an expensive leather jacket, staying up at nights drinking high-end scotch, and listening to his old CDs on headphones. Nodding along, rapping fractured beats on the arms of the chair, singing off-key snatches of lyrics. I felt sad for him rather than angry. And after he moved out, I found that I kind of liked hanging out with him in his downtown bachelor apartment, mainly because it meant hanging out with his girlfriend, too. I guess I was getting my first hormonal jolt.
Anyway, the concert. There I was, watching my dad bop in his seat in his good Italian leather jacket and his brand-new boot-cut Nudie jeans, one arm around his girl's shoulders, as Springsteen and the E-Street Band did their thing up on the big stage under fans of lights. Which wasn't my thing. If anyone asked at school I said I was into trancehop, but I wasn't really into any kind of music at all at back then. Still, the spectacle and the energy, the sheer industrial volume of noise and light, did get to me. It was like being caught in a flood. You had to go with it. And at the center of it all was this wiry old geezer standing rigid at the mike, sweating hard as he sang and slashed chords from his guitar. Sweat gleaming on his face. Sweat spraying in a halo and catching in the lights when he shook his head.
I don't remember the songs, but I remember the rasp in his voice, the way he'd yell out
and the drums would come down and his band would swing in behind him. I remember the shine in my dad's eye, his stupid happy smile. But that was about all I knew about Springsteen until Rachel enlightened me, told me that he stood for the America that was all around you but which you didn't see or hear properly because it had been drowned out by Clear Channel and ten thousand cable channels with nothing on. That he articulated the hopes and fears of people caught in the traps of their lives. That he sang about small and personal rebellions that blew up or went bad, about how people had to live their lives in the wreckage of failed dreams, of how to survive in a country where the fantasy of winning is the first, last, and only prize . . .
Talking on and on as she drove down the four-lane highway that wound out of the mountains and straightened out across a great desert plain. Making little sense that I could tell.
Rachel was crazy, I knew, but I was crazy too. Something had broken inside me. I was out of the trap of the Deadwood Gulch Roadhouse and Casino. Out and free in an alien world under an alien sun. On the run with my woman beside me, and the strange prize she nursed in her lap. I had no idea if it was valuable or not, whether or not it would lead us to some kind of mysterious alien treasure. I didn't care. That we had it was what counted. Although I couldn't forget how we'd taken it, and what it had cost. Maybe that was what Rachel was trying to tell me, when she was talking about what Springsteen meant to her. I hope so. She didn't express any other kind of regret about what we did.
We'd broken into the museum at midnight. It wasn't hard. It had been a vanity project of the man who'd built it, an upside-down wedding cake of a building stuffed with alien artifacts. None of them were worth much. Henry Wu had lost his casino to maneuverings by officials in the pockets of one of the Chinese gangs who really ran Mammoth Lakes, the best of his collection had been stripped out, and the rest had been left to gather dust in that white elephant of a building. It was closed to tourists and marked for demolition because it occupied a prime spot on the Strip, but it was caught up in complex legal wrangles between the Chinese authorities and Wu's family. Like the roadhouse, it was stuck in limbo while Mammoth Lakes grew and changed around it.
We came in through one of the loading docks, where the big sliding doors were fastened with ordinary padlocks, and waited until a guard came to switch off the alarm. An old guy who, when we showed him our guns, sensibly put up his hands and said he didn't want trouble. But there was a second guard, young and keen, and he shot at Rachel as we came down the curve of the main ramp, and she shot back and nailed him in the leg, and followed the blood trail he left as he crawled toward the alarm box and shot him dead right in front of a big cylinder of armored Perspex glass that held in murky water an armature of carved bone taken from the floor of one of the lakes.
I remember seeing his blood run across the uneven concrete. Quick red tentacles of blood. I remember being in a bathroom, ripping off the leg of the tights Rachel had cut in half for me to wear over my head, leaning over a sink until the sudden gout of nausea had passed. She'd painted a mask in tiger stripes with mascara and lipstick on my skin, but when I looked in the mirror and smiled it was my smile behind the red and black. Rachel came in, then. She was carrying the thing she'd come for. She said, “Your turn."
There wasn't much traffic on the highway. We were descending now, the highway winding between shaly slopes, crossing deep canyons on concrete bridges. Mostly we passed road trains, three or four loads towed by big tractor units with chromed exhausts like chimneys on either side of their cabs, chrome grills like fierce smiles, and names airbrushed in florid scripts on their doors.
Big Bob's. Easy Does It. Mack Attack
Rachel pointed one out to me.
Livin’ in the Future.
She said that it was the title of a Springsteen song. A good omen. About all she said that afternoon, as the sun swung overhead and the highway left the mountains behind and crossed a wide playa. Drifts of sand on either side, sand blowing across the road, dry flats of sand and rock and dead-looking trees stretching ahead toward mountains that floated at the shimmering horizon.
Pretty soon, we were driving through the outskirts of the alien necropolis. The City of the Dead.
There weren't many tombs at first, and they mostly looked like clusters and clumps of rocks. Slumped, half-buried, overgrown by rings of thorn bushes. Then we passed a tract of square, slab-sided, flat-topped tombs as big as ranch houses, and I saw Boxbuilder ruins like soap bubbles stretched along to the top of a low ridge.
Rachel sat up and started to take notice of things. Cradling that black stone like it was a baby, stroking it. Pointing out tombs like staircases made of broken pillars, labyrinths that coiled around underground entrances.
I was driving again. I was tired, but it felt good. I was ready for anything.
The sun set. Prickles of electric light appeared ahead of us. A little desert town at a crossroads. Joe's Corner. We pulled up in the parking lot of a motel, the
, got a keycard from the Indian-from-India clerk, showered together, fucked slow and easy on the king-size bed with the TV on. CNN. Local news alternating with news from Earth. Rachel watching over my shoulder as we moved together, watching when we'd finished, sitting up against the padded headboard, naked and sweaty and tousled. That black stone on the nightstand beside her.
The theft and the two murders at the museum had dropped off the bottom of the local news cycle. There was no mention of the pyre we'd left behind at the rest stop, and when she used her phone to check the net she couldn't find anything about it there, either.
"We got away,” I said.
"Not yet,” Rachel said, and got up and started to pull on her clothes.
I asked her where she was going.
"Pizza first. Then we'll see."
She took the stone along with her, weighting the bottom of her sling bag. She had her gun in there, too. I had mine tucked in the waistband of my pants, covered by the hem of my sweatshirt. The way I'd seen it done in movies.
We paid for the pizza at the drive-in window of a place shaped like a flying saucer, like a couple of regular customers, and Rachel directed me to the edge of town, a rise looking out across the City of the Dead. The sky everywhere scattered with stars. The mountains to the east in saw-tooth silhouette against them. I wondered for the first time if we'd ever find out what lay behind those mountains.