Venus woke up hot and sweaty
in the front seat of her car. The sandstorm was over, in fact, it was the next
day. As she wound down the window, she noticed Wohaka sitting cross-legged on
the hood of her car facing away from her. Venus got out of the car squinting
as she fumbled for her sunglasses. She looked at her watch. It was nine o'clock
in the morning and already it was close to ninety degrees. It was a beautiful
ninety degrees though. They were at the base of a reddish-gold sandstone rock
formation shaped like a fat upside-down funnel about eighty feet high. Around
them were strew small and medium size boulders, some kind of thorny scrub bushes
and some cacti.
"I wonder how far we are from the highway." Venus said as she leaned on the front fender next to Wohaka. She traced a finger through the newly acquired sandblasted finish on her car. There was no answer from the old one. Venus sprinted up to the top of a small peak near them to see if she could see the highway from there. She figured they couldn't have gone more than a few hundred yards from the highway but she had no idea what direction it was from here. Once at the top Venus was completely baffled. There was nothing but desert as far as she could see. No highway anywhere. No valley or depression for it to be hidden in. What's more, it was impossible to follow the tire tracks back to the highway because they were erased by the storm. She thought for a moment that maybe they hadn't had time to clean the sand off the highway and that's why she couldn't see it. Surely, sometime today they'd have it cleared away. She'd spot the road crews or something. The best thing is to wait, she thought and scrambled back down to her car.
Venus looked for something to rig up to make some shade. They'll be needing it soon. She had a tarp she used when camping and she strung it up on the North side of the car as a sort of extension of the car's roof. Then she got out some food and one of a few drinks she always kept with her in the car. Venus asked Wohaka to join her in the shade and share the food and liquid.
"So . . . you just going to, uh . . . hang out with me, . . . 'til when?" Venus asked, feeling less nervous about Wohaka's presence than for the reason for it.
"Until you ask me to leave." He answered.
"Is this - being stuck in the desert - the trouble you said I was going to get into?" She silently cursed herself for even thinking of any other outcome than being back on the highway by the end of the day.
"That is your decision." The old one smiled and nodded his head.
"But," Venus returned, "I'll be safe in with you, right?"
"That depends," her uninvited companion replied, "on whether you work with me or against me."
Venus noticed how peaceful and quite it was here. There was no wind. No bird-song. No sounds of civilization. There she was in this great big, wide open space full of intense color and it was perfectly quite. She felt at peace in this place. Wohaka sat beside her peering into the desert as if he was absorbed in something going on out there. They passed the time silently in the shade, waiting.
After a few hours, Venus couldn't stand sitting still any longer. She wanted to get back up on high ground so she could see when they began to clear the highway. She could take her camera with her and take some pictures while she was up there, besides, she had a telephoto lens and would be able to see the road crews no matter how far away they were. Venus remembered the old tan colored umbrella she kept in the trunk of the car for emergencies. She could use it to take some shade with her and for once she wasn't disappointed that it wasn't black.
Wohaka joined Venus on her trek up to high ground. He led the way up a barely detectable trail that took them on a relatively easy climb, taking about twenty minutes to reach the top. This small mesa was much wider and longer than it was tall and it had, for the most part, a flat top. Venus looked around in 360 degrees using her hand as a visor. She took a few photos then hung her camera around her neck, put up her tan parasol and set out, with Wohaka in tow, for a stroll around the rim of this little plateau. The table rock was about a hundred yards long and maybe fifty wide at it's widest point. When they reached the other end, they stopped and sat with their legs over the edge and admired the view.
"Oh, look!" cried Venus, pointing, "I see buildings over there. A town!"
"Ghost town maybe." Answered Wohaka, "See? No road."
"Yeah," Venus agreed, "Those buildings don't look very real from here."
Then something caught Venus's eye. Up on the side of a hill there were a couple of what looked like billboards. Square ones with a plus sign in the middle of a circle on each one. They didn't look very old. Venus used her camera's telephoto lens to look around at the 'ghost town' and the 'billboards'. The town looked more like a junkyard. There were cars and trucks but the buildings looked like movie sets. They weren't real buildings, they just looked like they were. She even thought for a minute she saw some people but they turned out to be mannequins in some of the windows. Maybe it was a movie set or something.
Venus was looking through her camera at the billboards when she got a demonstration of their purpose. An almost imperceptible sound rapidly grew into a roar as a fighter jet ripped the air as it passed the just above and to the left of the plateau and fired two rockets at the billboards about a mile away blasting one of them to smithereens.
"Oh, shit." Venus gasped, "We're in the middle of a military practice range! We gotta get out of here. Right now!"
As they made their way as quickly as they could back to the trailhead, Venus wondered just what she was going to do when they got back to the car. Where were they going to go to 'get out of here'? She thought she was busted for sure now, caught on a military range with a camera and an umbrella that looks like desert camouflage. Just great.
At the car Venus was nearly hysterical, waving her arms about, pacing back and forth, talking to herself, to try to calm herself. She could imagine a helicopter full of heavily armed guys being dispatched, already on it's way. She'd go to prison as a spy. Wait a minute, she thought, she hadn't really seen anything top secret. Everything could be explained.
Then a rocket exploded on the side of the plateau near them. One of the pilots had missed by a mile. Venus freaked and ran in the opposite direction from the blast. She ran full tilt in the full sun toward a low ridge line about a quarter mile away. Wohaka got two warm Pepsi's out of the car and walked after her. More jets came into the area. More explosions were heard. Venus ran even harder.
When she reached the base of the ridge Venus stopped to catch her breath and look back. Bent over, holding a boulder for support, she gasped for air and with each breath it felt like she dried out clear to her gut. Sweat was getting into her eyes as she dumped the sand out of her shoes. She could still hear explosions but she couldn't see them. She looked for Wohaka but could see him nowhere.
"Looking for me?"
There he was on a rock above her perched under the parasol. He rose to his feet and motioned for Venus to follow him. He led her to a place where there was a vertical crack in the ridge that led all the way to the base. It was as if the mountain was dropped there and it broke it's back. The vertical fissure was wide enough to walk through with one's arms out to the side but to get through in some places, you had to squeeze through sideways. You could in effect, walk from one side of the mountain to the other without climbing it.
"If you want to get away from this place, this is a way." Wohaka smiled, offering her the entrance to the fissure.
Looking over her shoulder one last time Venus tentatively entered the cool darkness of the stone passageway. Wohaka followed her. Enough light entered the passage to permit them to see quite well once their eyes adjusted to the dimness. As they made their way through the safety of the passage, Venus began to calm down a little and started thinking a little more clearly. "First of all," she thought to herself, "We can't be very far from the highway. This must happen from time to time. People get lost. People on vacation. With cameras. What was I thinking? I could run away. My car and everything I own is back there in the desert. A boy scout could track me down. The Cold War is over, for Christ's sake. Nobody's going to bust me as a spy." She thought over and over how ridiculous her hysterical reaction was. She felt embarrassed.
"I must've looked like an idiot back there." Venus said pausing in the passageway. "I don't usually overreact to things."
"Roaring steel bird attacks mountain." Wohaka replied. "Smart to run away. Steel bird lousy shot."
"What're we going to do when we get to the other end of this crack?" Venus wondered aloud. "We're still going to be in the desert. All my stuff is back there at the car, . . . if they haven't blown it up already."
Wohaka reminded her that things where exploding on one side of the mountain. Maybe things are quieter on the other side. Besides, he said, this path goes both directions. We could always go back when it quieted down.
When they reached the other side of the mountain, they decided that it was better to remain in the shade the fissure provided rather than venture out into the now scorching Sun. It was When Wohaka handed her one of the warm Pepsi's that Venus realized how thirsty she was. That sprint across the desert back there took a lot out of her. It was very warm, tasted horribly sweet and the carbonation seemed to burn like acid but at least it was wet. Wohaka declined when Venus offered him a drink. Venus leaned back against the granite wall of the great crack and pushed the sweaty hair out of her face. She squeegee'd her forehead with her forearm and took another drink. Surveying her surroundings, she noticed how different the geology was on this side of the mountain. Didn't look like the same desert. The ground was a different color and rockier instead of sandy but it was perfectly level. A space about five square miles made up this hidden bowl shaped valley. Here too, there were signs of war games. Some craters and scraps of twisted metal strewn about. There were some old trucks and even a couple of armored vehicles.
Wohaka tapped Venus' shoulder and pointed at something in the distance. A half dozen helicopters, looking like big flat-black dragonflies flying in formation almost silently dipped into the valley's airspace. They broke formation and formed a line across the valley, from ridge-top, to valley floor, to ridge-top, then they covered the length of the valley and back. Venus and Wohaka ducked back into the fissure far enough not to be detected. When they came back to the end of the passage, the choppers were gone.
They where just crouching to sit down again when Wohaka, wide-eye and slack-jawed, rose again. Venus turned to see what he saw but she heard it first. A large muffled thud, like a sack of bulldozers with their motors running being dropped. Then the sound of a small rock slide in the distance. Repeatedly, steadily, like giant footsteps the metallic sound grew as they could now feel it below their feet. Now they saw it. A giant quadruped! Like one of those things in the Star Wars movies. Venus and Wohaka stared in amazement. The Star Wars thing had a lot going for it in terms of style, compared to this thing. This was a design nightmare. What they did was take a Navy Destroyer and added six giant stubby robot legs to it. Venus started to snicker, then, unable to hold it back, laughed out loud. The Thing moved at about two miles per hour and had to choose it's steps very carefully. What was amazing it that somebody actually got the money to build this thing. More astounding is the fact that it can walk at all. Ironically, now that the extensive modifications have been made to make this a land craft, it couldn't possibly float. The Thing made impressions in the earth that Venus could make out from where she stood as it made it's way up the length of the center of the valley. At a point about a third of the way through the valley, the Thing stopped and seemed to rest with it's engines running.
Then from the other end of the valley, a similar large metallic sound echoed across the plain. All they could see was a cloud of dust in the distance heading toward the center of the valley. This one didn't make the ground tremble as much as the first one. In time it made it's way to a rendezvous with the first mechanical monster and came to a stop when it was within a mile of it. When the dust settled Venus could make out the new arrival. It had a lot more style, she thought. It looked to her sort of like a giant metal beetle bristling with armaments. It was about the same size as the six-legged naval vessel. Venus looked at Wohaka and said, pointing her thumb to the strange apparition on the plain before them, "This is what they're spending our tax dollars on."
Then just when Venus figured the two metal monsters would start to battle, they were attacked instead. From who-knows-where, tanks appeared charging full-bore across the plain, canons and rockets blazing. Explosions shook the ground around the machines, some of them hitting their mark. Over the rim of the ridge top roared a squadron of attack jets and bombers swooping into the valley. Their canons blazed as rockets left their wings and they circled back for another run. Aft sections of the ship exploded and caught fire. Parts of it dropped off to the ground below. Attack helicopters came in next and fanned out swarming about the metal behemoths like angry bees. Gunfire and explosions, the roar of the jets, the quick thumping of the choppers, crashing jets, exploding tanks, dust, fire and smoke seemed to fill the valley. Venus held her ears and winced as she watched the spectacle. Wohaka as usual, watched calmly, with no discernible expression on his face. In the well orchestrated attack both giant machines where mercilessly bombarded. The ship with legs went down easily, exploding and burning, buckling and sagging in the middle, then lurching to port as two of it's six legs collapsed, taking with it relatively few of it's attackers. The giant metal insect, on the other hand, withstood everything that was thrown at it, though not entirely unscathed. It quickly and efficiently dispatched it's attackers with what appeared to be laser weapons and high-tech rockets until, realizing the futility of their efforts, the attackers broke off. As the dust settled, there was only one thing moving on the plain; the giant metal beetle was heading off to wherever it is they keep it.
Now it was quiet again. Out on the plain there were twisted and burning heaps of scrap metal sending columns of smoke into the afternoon desert sky. In less than fifteen minutes, no less than thirteen jets, eighteen helicopters, and twenty-seven tanks were left smoldering on this field surrounding the pathetic wreckage of the legged ship sending up a thick black column of smoke. Venus stood there, slack-jawed surveying the scene, shaking her head. Several hundred million dollars worth of military equipment just got reduced to junk, for what - an afternoon of play?
A half dozen commandos rappelled down the face of the cliff where Venus and Wohaka were standing and hit the ground right between them, guns cocked and already pointed at them. Venus's camera was taken away from her and without a word they were herded off to a waiting helicopter not far away and put aboard it. The commandos boarded another chopper. Besides the pilot and copilot there were two other men aboard the chopper containing the captured trespassers. One of the men was obviously an officer, he held out his hand to Venus.
"Let me introduce myself. My name is Lt. Col. Stanley South. You must be Venus. We found your car and your ID."
Venus cautiously shook the Colonel's hand as the chopper lifted off. She figured she'd end up at Leavanworth for sure now. She wasn't used to sitting in an open area in the back of a helicopter as it banked and turned through the canyons, so sheer fright kept her mind off prison for the moment.
"Didn't you know this a shoot on sight area?" The Colonel continued. "You're lucky you didn't get killed out there."
"I was lost!" Venus shouted above the noise, clenching her fingers tighter into the edges of the seat, even though she was strapped in with a seat belt.
"Yeah," the Colonel responded, "That's what they all say. We'll see." He held up her camera and looked into her eyes. "I sure hope you didn't take any pictures."
Wohaka sat smiling enjoying the ride. The officer didn't seem the slightest bit interested in Wohaka, never looking at him nor addressing him.
The Colonel instructed the pilot to head to another military base. There, he explained, somebody else would take over the debriefing and it was they who would decide what was to become of Venus.
"What do you think will happen to me?" Venus asked him almost pleadingly.
"Beats me. I just catch 'em." He answered, quite frankly. "I have no idea what happens to them after that."
Venus hoped for the best; that all this would be straightened out and she'd be back freewheeling down the road in her car like nothing happened.
Then Venus heard the pilot cry out. "Look out!". The chopper banked hard to the right and there was a muffled bang right above the rear passengers heads. "Damn!" said the pilot. "We sucked and eagle into one of the jet engines." The helicopter began a slow rotation about it's propeller's axis. "We've got some stabilizer damage as well, Sir. We better land before we lose control altogether."
"Affirmative." The Colonel replied. "This is pretty rough country. Better look hard and fast for a place to put her down."
"We're gonna crash!" cried Venus.
The chopper continued to make forward progress but it was slowly circling like a horizontal pinwheel as it did so. The servicemen in the chopper were trained to handle this kind of stomach churning travel but Venus was not. She was terribly sick to her stomach. All she could hear were men barking orders and speaking in some kind of military jargon, and the choking sputtering of the engines above her head. The longer the chopper remained airborne, the faster the spinning became until, unable to hold it back any longer, she finally vomited on the floor. Centrifugal force began to spread it around. Wohaka just sat there smiling like he was on a Sunday drive. Venus was bent over with her head between her legs moaning. She felt the aircraft descending fast. Spinning faster, everything was a blur outside the doors. She couldn't tell how fast they were spinning or falling, she just wished it would end. The Colonel's aide was shaken from his seat and thrown out the door. The next thing she knew, tree branches were snapping off in the doorway as the chopper bounced back and forth between trees down the slope of the mountainside. A large branch broke against the chopper's interior and tore the Colonel and his seat right out of the aircraft. He was gone in an instant. The rotor blades shattered against the tree trunks. The chopper's tail smashed wildly between the trees until it broke off. When the chopper finally hit the ground, it's momentum kept it skidding upright down the mountainside through the forest. Every time it hit another tree parts of the chopper broke lose and the fuselage's shape was changed a little more. By the time it finally came to a rest on it's side against a tree near the bottom of the mountain, it was hard to tell what the pile of mangled metal used to be. Everybody except Venus and Wohaka had been thrown from the craft somewhere back up the side of the mountain. They were all killed. Venus and Wohaka didn't have a scratch. Wohaka sat there smiling with his hands on his knees, like this was perfectly normal. Venus tried to get up but couldn't move until she remembered she still had her seat belt on. She decided to just sit there for a moment before she got out of the wreckage. There, across from her wedged into the seat next to where the Colonel was sitting, was her camera. She got out of the wreck and took a picture of Wohaka standing next to it.
"Tell you what,"
John said, looking up from his stick-scratching in the dirt by his feet. "Let's
stay here in Mirage and see if we can observe the phenomenon of this time change
He and Karl and Mars had been sitting among the rubble of the burned house and were about to head back down to main street. As they rose to their feet, Karl added, "Yes, and if our companion, Mars, would be so kind as to bring our things from camp, we could keep an eye on things until he gets back. We could make a new camp here. I want to know if this thing is real or if our minds are playing tricks on us."
And so, Karl and John stayed in the town of Mirage anxious not to miss the time shift, if it did occur, while Mars went back to their campsite to gather his friend's things. On his way out of town he noticed two men near the hidden bridge. They were wearing sunglasses and matching black suits and hats. They reminded him of the Blues Brothers. They seemed to be frozen in mid-stride, like a snapshot of them walking. Mars called out to them. They remained frozen. Mars quickened his pace to reach them and suddenly they began walking again. At that same moment, one of the men began speaking in mid-sentence, it sounded like. ". . . ay from there! This area is unstable!"
Mars caught up with the men and they repeated their warning. They said that this area was experiencing a very unstable time-space warp and that it wasn't safe to be here. Mars was told that when the ripples in time settled it would become stable again, but they couldn't tell how long it would last. Sooner or later this area would stabilize into one time period. If you went in there and there was a time shift and the area settled one could be stuck in another time-place. Mars looked back at the town. He told the men in the suits that his friends were back there and that he should warn them. He turned to run but the black clothed men stopped him. Then Mars saw it. There, right near the edge of town the very air seemed to ripple like water disturbed by a stone except it pulsed and throbbed too. It only lasted a moment but when it was over the town was young again. There on main street, he could still make out the figures of Karl and John. They looked excited. Apparently they too had seen the warpage in the atmosphere at the moment of the time shift but why weren't they lost in the time frame of the town when it was run down. While Mars watched his friends in town the dark suited men explained that an eddy in time such as this one are virtually unpredictable. Anything could happen. Then, right before his eyes, Mars saw the town disappear completely. In it's place there was nothing but a forest with no sign of there ever being a road or a town there.
Mars turned to the men in the dark suits and saw that they were quietly walking away. Mars ran after them calling them but before he could catch up, the men turned one last time and waved to him before they step through an invisible hole, right in thin air, and disappeared. Mars stopped dead in his tracks and blinked. Stunned, he looked at the spot where the men had disappeared and he rubbed his eyes. Then he turned around and looked back where the town was. He looked quickly back and forth between those two spots several times. There was nothing to be seen all around him but forest.
(to be continued.)
Way Out West ©1993 Martin Scherer. Venus & Mars © 1995 Martin Scherer. E-mail: Scherer@tesserak.net