The sands were a river of fire under our shoes, its grains slow cooking us for the birds. Vultures above circled on wings of doom, carried by the exhaust of our vapid breathing. A gust kicked up sand and it lashed the arm I threw up to shield my face. Not far behind me, Gary coughed and sputtered. He hung by a thread, towed along by an invisible rope named peer pressure, ever since that chopper flew over and off into the bloody sunset three days ago. I kept pushing him to come on this trip, much as I pushed him now. It left a sour taste in my throat, but for both our sakes, I had to swallowed it down.
Whoever named this place Death Valley wasn’t kidding. I resisted the urge to whip out my mobile and look it up; blasted thing got us lost in the first place.
“If we don’t keep moving,” I told him, “we’d end up food for the birds.”
That much was clear when Gary looked at me, all sunken eyes. His lip quivered and he looked down at his shoes. The skeleton was half-buried, its arm missing. Torn brown rags hung from it’s bones, which were scraped clean of flesh and bleached in the sun. It’s sockets gazed up at our beloved beating star. Gary threw up his lunch. The sand clumped it together like kitty litter. Poor sots, the both of them. Gary’s always been a squeamish fellow and who knows how long that dead bloke’s been out here. Or what happened to the rest of him.
I nodded at the pile. “Bobcat, you think?”
Gary panted through chapped lips, with tears in his eyes. “Cougar.” He wiped his mouth. “There’s cougars here.”
“Saint George’s spitting on us.”
Gary’s voice quivered. “Why didn’t it take the body, Oliver?”
It may be my imagination, but the vultures seemed closer. They followed us for days, across the dunes and badlands of this desolation; as we dragged our feet over its crags, when we sought respite in its canyons.
“We need to go Gary,” I said.
He didn’t move.
He squatted next to it, and stuck his hand in it.
I stomped over. “What in the blazes are you-”
Something flashed from his hands. Two dog tags. Salazar, Kelly S.
“Ancient artifact,” I said, “Can we go now?”
“See this code?” He pointed to a barcode with ones and zeros under it. “This is a new American tag. It has their military I.D., blood type, and religion in it. This other tag here, it’s for us to see.”
“Who cares whatever blazes it came from? We need to get to shelter, Gary.”
He turned it over in his hands. I’ve never seen him so calm this whole trip. “Wait,” he said, he dug into the sand.
He pulled up another chain from the sand. And another. Two more. He shook the grains off; they jingled like wind chimes and tangled together.
I squatted and grabbed his wrist. “Gary if these were water jugs I’d be fascinated but we’re going to die out here.”
“We should bury them.”
“Gary, you’re hysterical from the heat.”
“Jason Assafo,” he said, sifting through each in turn, “William Robertson. William Hill, Skyler Carter. Michael Burns.”
The hair on my neck stood up. A knife ran up my left leg. My face twisted into a grimace. It felt like the back of my leg was dipped in acid. I’ve never believed in omens before.
“Burns indeed,” I muttered, “Jesus Christ on a log, Gary, they’ll write ‘Burns to death’ on our autopsy if we don’t go.”
I stretched my calf out. When it felt some relief, I turned, and scanned for something. Dunes, and hills, a cactus, and dunes, and sheer crags, and- to the west. A rock poked up behind one of the smaller dunes. I limped along, one leg straight, like some gimp.
“I think I see something,” I panted. “To the west.”
As I ambled along, sweet salvation came into view. An outcrop rose up like a castle, no more than three hundred meters away. A passage carved through its center, the entryway framed by columns of boulders stacked on top of each other. A gateway.
My own palace, I thought. I grinned at the sheer absurdity of it and I broke into laughter.
“There!” I yelled, cackling like a loon, “There it is. There it is, Gary- Christ man!” The contents of his rucksack were strewn out on the sand. He carefully folded the skeleton’s arm and placed it inside.
“Gary, what are you doing?”
“She deserves dignity, Oliver,” he said, “I can give her that much.”
“Rubbish,” I said. “Desert’s going bury it anyhow.”
“And someone’s going to kick poor Kelly up again.” He held the skull by the eye holes and put it in his bag.
“You don’t have to name it, Gary.”
He hoisted it over his shoulder. I imagined the bones clacking together inside. My body shivered to its core. The last time I was this afraid was at the thought, What if the chopper ignored us? It was big and beige, like a military type equipped for the desert. It had literally flown right above us and kept onwards. We chalked it up to a rocky landing, but surely they would’ve come back.
“She has a name,” Gary said, “so I’m going to use her name. America’s still our ally, Oliver, one of the few we have left.” He looked me square in the eyes, and for the first time, I noticed he was taller than me. He plowed through the sand towards the outcrop.
“We’re going to waste energy,” I called, “Leave it be.”
“Well, you can rest over there,” Gary said, “I may not be American, but I can give one of her soldiers some peace.”
Idiot, I thought, why did he have to pick now to gather his stones?
I pulled out my phone, a single panel of transparent plastic, light as a feather. “This might be Mosaic Canyon.” I tapped it. The surfaced flickered and glitched, worse than when we first got lost. With all the damn satellites in the sky I didn’t think it was possible. “Hyperion’s still not telling me anything.”
“We’re probably in a dead zone,” Gary called back, “More and more popping up. Or maybe they were testing an EMP. Maybe this is a restricted area in the park.”
“If so, that’ll be where that chopper went.” I limped along. “Those pulses don’t last long anyways. That bag of bones you got there has been sitting awhile.”
Gary never turned back. “Not if the birds picked at it.”
I didn’t want another debate so I kept quiet. At least we can waste energy in the shade.
We walked in silence. Blazing sands gave way to simmering, rocky terrain. The wind occasionally kissed my cheeks with a lazy, warm breeze. I thought I heard whispers, but I shook them out of my head. I’ll let Gary be loony enough for the both of us.
The tawny coloured rock wall was smooth, carved with horizontal lines along its grainy surface. The columns were piles of shale; with veins of black, orange, and white. Smaller stones littered the area. Under the shade the terrain changed: this time to soft, cool sand. I swept aside some of the smaller stones and plopped down against one of the columns. At my back, the surface was hard but cool, and I felt the heat in my body transfer to the sand and rocks. I closed my eyes and exhaled whatever heat was left. That’s all the vultures get today.
I heard rocks knocking together and opened my eyes to find Gary making a space.
“You still on about that?” I asked.
Gary dug with his hands. The sand seemed to fill in faster than he could dig. I sighed and got up to help him. We shoveled furiously at it, me doing it like a dog in case I cramped again. We made a pretty sizeable hole, big enough for the bag.
I stood up. “Think that’ll do it,” I said, “Let’s put her in the ground.”
Gary gently placed his bag inside, made sure it was secure, and said a small prayer. We filled the hole back up.
“Thanks,” he said, “We should build a cairn.” He looked around. “Can you hand me that stone? The one over there.”
It was the size of a dinner plate, more or less. We placed it over the grave and Gary piled more stones one over the other, a miniature of the massive monoliths next to us.
“Hey Gary,” I said, “I wonder what giants are buried under those.”
“I don’t know,” he said, “Dinosaurs? Want to wake them?”
“Nah.” I nodded at the passage. “Let’s rest up in there.”
Gary sat before the fresh grave. “I’ll be there a minute.”
I walked into the portal to find a winding path through the crag. The place was deathly still. I turned a couple bends and the beige-orange sandstone darkened in parts. I stepped over a boulder. It’d be best to find an open area, in case a bobcat ambushed us. My foot kicked a rock. It made a hollow sound and tumbled too easily. I looked down. A flashlight. I picked it up and clicked it on.
Dead. I turned around to see if I missed anything. My heart swelled in my chest.
A few meters away, at the base of the boulder I passed, a rifle lay on the ground. Whatever heat I’d lost before started to creep up my neck and into my face. I bent down, and picked it up. My hands touched warm metal; brown flakes crumbled away under my fingers. I looked up at the dark orange splotch on the rock.
Not orange, but reddish-brown. And splattered.
An echo of rock against rock swept through the passage. I swung my head over my shoulder and looked up. Black wings took off out of sight. I didn’t think I could sweat anymore in the desert, but my body found a way.
“Gary?” I called.
It had to be Gary, we’re all that’s here. I swallowed and grabbed the gun. I never used one before.
“Yeah?” Gary’s voice echoed faintly. I exhaled and closed my eyes, cursed my stupidity.
“Come further in,” I said.
I picked up the flashlight. I don’t know why. Just to have it, I suppose, to feel like I have something substantial. Stupid though, I forgot the rifle in my hands.
Maybe it’s Kelly’s. The thought pulled my heart down like a weight tied to the legs of a sinking man. We shouldn’t be here. But I couldn’t turn away.
I edged forward at first and then found the strength to take proper steps. Another splotch by my feet, it’s colour bold maroon. Gary’s grunts echoed like some ogre behind me. A rustling sound, like the beating of wings, intermingled with gruff hissing from around the next turn. I gripped my rifle harder and pressed my back to the wall like some James Bond-type about to attack an outpost. A quick glance, I told myself, just a glance.
A dry wind carried a whiff of rotten cabbage into my nostrils. I turned away, breathed deep to cool the heat in my chest and calm my turning stomach. I poked my head around and gasped.
Scorch marks, crimson blood, and black wings covered the canyon’s interior. A small stream divided the battleground; the untouched dead lie with me, and the vultures beyond gorging themselves on dinner. Two dozen feasted in a great wake upon Kelly’s lost platoon. They jerked their bloodied pink faces up from mangled necks and opened bellies; each body cloaked in shredded brown and beige camouflage.
I trudged into the clearing. Two bodies lay in the stream, one of them covered with the scavengers. As they tore into him, their heads shook violently, and they made guttural woofing noises like little dogs. Blood dribbled from the man’s mouth, inking the water. A whimper tumbled from my chapped lips.
The smell of cabbage mixed had with hints of garlic and egg. There were at least thirty bodies, six of which lie this side of the stream. The nearest body lay face down, encased in an exoskeletal combat suit, a great halo of black dust and shrapnel between her and another. She was tan skinned, with long brown hair that obscured her face. A vulture swooped down upon the torn pieces of the mechanical exoskeleton. It pecked at the body within, then flew across the stream to dine with its companions. It reared its head, vomited on its feet, and dug into the man’s arm.
A dreaded thought crept through my mind. They’re ignoring the fallen around here.
In fact, besides the occasional spots of blood on the ground leading to my passage, this side of the gorge was relatively clean of gore. I crept over to the rejected body and kneeled next to her. The stench of grease made my nose wrinkle.
“What do you look like?” I muttered.
I pulled on her, but she was a heavy girl. Or perhaps it was her gear. Sand-colored plating armored her limbs, chest, head, and neck. They weren’t supposed to be so heavy anymore. After considerable effort, I flung her over and she hit the ground with an incredible thump that made me jump and startle the vultures. They lifted their heads from their feast for a moment. The woman’s head rolled to her left side.
Her glassy brown eyes stared upwards, as if she were daydreaming. I cupped her cheek and turned her head. My fingers slipped into something hard and wet. It was the side of her bloodied eye; red oozed around metal fragments that pockmarked half her face. The greasy odor was stronger now and as I held my hand over my nose, it grew stronger still. I sniffed my fingers. Her blood was speckled with black and white, almost like glitter in a gel. Around her neck were two dog tags. I yanked them off.
Salazar, Kelly S.
Something scraped against the rocky ground to my left. I turned, rifle shaking. One of the untouchables pulled his arm under his body. The arm of his jacket had melted into his shoulder. Tingles crept into my fingers, they gripped the gun so hard.
“Oh my god-”
When he shifted weight to his knee, it crushed a stone. The man let out a groan, guttural, like the breath of the reaper.
My own escaped the back of my throat in a high, cracking whine.
“G-Gary,” I could barely breath.
The man rotated his head left and right like a radar scanner, tearing the twisted skin around his neck. Silver twinkled off the meager light left in the canyon. It was unnatural, no scream in pain, his movements measured and precise. He put an ear up to the sky and pivoted it towards me. I swear he could hear the pounding of my heart. It took me half a second to realize, it was the footsteps echoing in the passage behind me.
Gary needs to run.
As soon as I thought that, he jerked upwards, turned and walked to the passage, unaware of my presence.
I had only a few seconds. I could shoot at him and run across the dead bodies and follow the stream. It’s worth the chance. I brought the rifle level.
I fired. It clicked, empty.
Kelly sprung from the ground, her arm like lightning.
“H-he-,” I stuttered. Her hand silenced my throat. Her momentum propelled her to her feet. Tears swelled in my eyes. She looked possessed: the whites of her eyes smoldering, a hiss of steam slipped from the corners of her mouth, her arm lifted me with impossible strength. Darkness crept along the edges of my vision as my feet left the ground and sensation left my arms. I’m sorry Gary. I’m sorry I dragged you here.
The suit slid off her as she stood, like a reptile’s moulted skin. Lights danced in my eyes and across the metal beneath Kelly’s facial wounds, and the grains of circuitry in her eyes sparkled like stars. All the while, the vultures dined, and the raspy hiss of their consumption coiled around me.