“When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” – George Washington
We were directed to hit some back roads to I-80 West, which then led us directly into the Salt Lake Desert. This long stretch of road offered nothing but flat lands with a few mountains in the distance to distract you from the never ending scenery of shrubs and dirt. I watched Celeste for a moment, reading her lips that created words without sound. I couldn’t help but chuckle; she looked so focused, so intensely wrapped in her thoughts.
“What are you doing?” still chuckling. I must have surprised her. For a moment her eyes looked at me in the same manner as a deer’s caught in oncoming headlights.
“I’m counting,” was the only explanation she volunteered.
“Counting? What, the poles?” I really thought she was joking.
“Yes, the map indicates 123 poles on the right side before we need to stop and look for a white stone the size of a grapefruit.”
“HUH? Ok, now you’ve lost me. I didn’t see anything on the map that says that.”
“Ok, stop here, D,” which I did as instructed. She got out of the car and stood still, looking around the barren scenery that now surrounded us. She walked around the car to my window, opened the door and knelt down before me, showing me the map. “This map was written cryptically. There are instructions here that only a few of us would be able to interpret. Like right here,” now pointing to a section of the map with some numbers separated by spaces. “For example, this first number here, two, tells me that I’m to search in the area to my right. This symbol here,” showing me a small circle with a diamond inside, “tells me I’m looking for a dead tree, like that one,” now pointing to the not-so-obvious remnants of a tree whose trunk was flush with the ground with the center of it hollowed out in the shape of a diamond. “This number here,” pointing to the 77 that followed the symbol, “tells me how many steps I need to take before our next clue.” Celeste had the biggest smile, like a child playing hide-n-seek. She oozed a sense of excitement that I found to be very contagious. “It’s like a treasure hunt!”
“Ok, so we need to take 77 steps, but in which direction?”
“Doesn’t say, but see these letters here?” now pointing to ‘WS’ on the map. “That means we’re looking for a white stone. SO, you go that way,” pointing me in the direction of the sun, which was east, “and I’ll go this way.” She then opened the truck of the car and grabbed two huge roll of twine and a stake. She jammed the stake into the center of the rotten hollowed out tree trunk before tying the ends of each rolls of twine to the stake. “This will help us cover a large area. If not, we start all over.” Before I could begin, she was already moving away from me, counting out loud her footfalls on the dirt unraveling the twine as she went along.
I stared at the ground and counted my own steps leaving the taut trail of twine behind me. Looking around me for any white stones proved to be a challenge in itself, due to the over abundance of small white stones in various sizes that riddled the entire area we searched. I stopped and looked back toward Celeste, who was still consistently making strides away from me. When we both reached our 77th step, Celeste indicated to me in gesture that she was unsuccessful, then began walking toward me in an arc formation, keeping the end of her twine tight. I followed her example, walking toward her, keeping my own line tight.
“I found it!” she yelled not long after we changed directions. She began digging underneath a white stone about the size of a grapefruit resembling Half Dome mountain from Yosemite National Park. What she found underneath 6 inches of hard dead soil was a thin cylinder tube about four inches long. When she unscrewed the cap, out popped another map, apparently hand scribbled. “This map tells us where to go once we get inside the duct system at our station.”
I sat on the hot surface of the desert and laughed. I couldn’t help it. All of this seemed so staged, so movie-like, that in times like this it was hard for me to see the severity of our mission.
“What’s so funny, D?”
“How long had your group been working on this to go through such lengths to keep it covert?”
“Oh, I see. The testing we put you through and now this treasure hunt. I guess it would seem funny without the dark cloud of reality looming over us. Yes, we have been planning this for some time. There are a LOT of us who worked together in secret to make this happen, including some military personnel responsible for the construction of these Stations and ventilation systems, the very ones we will be using to reach our destination. So come on, I’m hungry, tired and in dire need of a shower. We still have about an hour’s drive before we reach our motel.”
I stood up first, grabbed Celeste’s hands and lifted her into my arms. She subtly tried to break free, but I held on tight until she gave in. I leaned in to kiss her, feeling her breath on my lips, watching her eyes slowly close the nearer she came to me, noticing how her lips parted slightly, inviting my own lips to hers.
We were so intensely focused on each other, we never heard the jeep approach us. It wasn’t until we heard the squeal of its brakes that we knew we had company. Celeste lowered her sunglasses back over her eyes before we both turned to see who was now with us. There were two young men adorned in the new and improved uniforms of the military, proudly displaying the Logo of Unity, as they now referred to the symbol. One of them spoke with a strong German accent, barely understandable. He was angry and gestured accordingly, using the back of his rifle to direct us where he wanted.
“What you doing here?” he asked aggressively, “You have weapons?”
Celeste, always the surprise, answered his questions in German. This surprised the man somewhat and he seemed pleased, almost eager to speak to such a beautiful woman in his native tongue. That was until he noticed the cylinder and map in Celeste’s hand. The other soldier had walked around the car, and also took notice of the map that laid in perfect view on the dashboard. There were words shared between the soldiers which resulted in an expression on Celeste’s face that injected fear into me.
They directed us to our car with a shove, allowing only the rocky surface near the tires for us to sit. We watched with a nervousness only impending doom could cause as they searched the rest of our vehicle. Celeste told me that they saw and interpreted the maps.
“They are going to take us in!” she whispered to me, “We can’t let that happen, D. When I act, you need to follow.”
“Stand UP!” the one shouted at us, jerking on Celeste’s arm in the process. Once on our feet they instructed us to turn around with our hands behind our backs, I watched and followed Celeste’s lead, and just before she placed her hands behind her back she swung around and dropped to one knee swinging her other leg in such a manner that it took the soldier in front of her down. I reacted with a backwards head butt into the nose of the other soldier just as he was about to handcuff me, resulting in a spray of blood and enough of a distraction to allow Celeste to take one weapon and fire off three rounds, killing both men.
“Shit, Hurry, D, we’ve got to go now!” She took back the maps from the soldier’s hand and grabbed his other weapons and extra ammo before taking reign of the driver’s seat and racing back the way we came.
“This isn’t where we’re supposed to go,” I reminded her.
“I know; that route is compromised now, we need to find another way.”
“Hold on, how is it compromised? You took care of them. They aren’t going to tell anyone, and by the time they’re discovered we’ll be long gone.”
Celeste took her eyes off the road just long enough to meet mine, “They are chipped. Someone will discover a lack of movement from them and become suspicious. How long do you think that will take considering we are between two military facilities?”
“Point taken. So where to now?”
“I don’t know,” she threw the map in my lap, “find us a destination.”Celeste remained very silent and emotionless during the remainder of our evening’s trip. I directed her to one of the ‘friendly’ motels at which we could stay, promising us both a hot shower, food and rest.
The rest of our journey remained uneventful due to Celeste’s very careful selection of back-roads. The sky was painted in brilliant orange and red splotches which stretched on until it hid behind the distant range of mountains, growing more burnt in nature where the sky met the horizon, and the last of the yellow glow of the sun became barely visible. We saw in the distance the faint lights of a small town, flickering near the ground.
“YES! Food.” It was all I could think about then. As we approached the small town, we immediately noticed the large military occupancy there. Every where we turned we saw tanks and jeeps, with soldiers marching in formation, again reminding me of those old pictures of WWII, Germany, in school history books.
“Martial Law,” Celeste spoke with a sense of melancholy in her voice.
“Nationally enforced?” I wondered, “so soon?”
“I don’t think so.” She spoke softly, “With those two military bases in this area, they probably don’t want the surrounding towns to escalate beyond their peaceful control.” She threw the guns and ammo under the seat, before telling me to find a way to hide both maps in the cylinder we’d found earlier. “We’re going in there.”
“What? Are you serious?” feeling incredibly nervous at her bold decision. “Do you think they know about those soldiers yet?”
“I don’t know, most likely they do, but unless there were hidden cameras on that jeep, I can’t see how they’d know it was us, not this soon.” I handed her the cylinder with the two maps in it before she pulled the car over. She walked over to the trees that momentarily hid her from my view still holding the cylinder in her hand. When she returned the cylinder was gone.
“What did you do? Bury it again?”
Celeste smiled at me, before acknowledging my question with a quick, “Sort of.”
I sat silent and motionless, lost in my thoughts as we approached the town. We were stopped, as expected, at the entrance to the town, next to the sign that said ‘WELCOME, Population 322’. There were two more military men standing on each side of the barricade they half-heartedly erected, blocking entrance from either direction to town. The man that approached us looked less adversarial than our previous encounter, while the other man stood still with his rifle aimed in our direction. He tapped on the driver’s side window, then motioned with his fingers to roll it down. Celeste accommodated his request before asking if their was a problem.
“Well, ma’am,” speaking with an American accent, “two of our guys were attacked earlier on I-80. We have to search all vehicles coming into town.”
“Oh,” Celeste responded with a tone that indicated to me that she had put on her mask of ignorance, “are they dead?”
“Yes, ma’am, they are. Now would you and your passenger please exit the car and stand over here by the tree.” He watched me first exit the car before asking Celeste how we knew each other.
Celeste looked at me with a smile before winking, then got out of the car, intentionally dropping the keys on the ground. She bent over to pick them up, purposely aiming her beautiful buttocks at the soldier before her and answering his question from this position, “I picked him up in Nevada for company.” Looking behind her to validate his unblinking gaze, she said, “Like what you see, soldier?” I watched in silence from the tree as Celeste slowly stood up and leaned against the car door, shutting it with her buttocks before rubbing the tips of her fingers along her neck and down her cleavage line, carefully unbuttoning her blouse, never once looking away. “I get lonely traveling and I look for companionship wherever I can find it. Is that wrong?”
“Well, now,” the soldier responded as he leaned closer to her, forgetting just for a moment he was supposed to search the car. Celeste distracted him even further by lightly stroking the young man’s arm, running her finger softly along the barrel of his rifle, sticking her finger in the open end, subtly implying the sexual innuendo, making sure to keep his eyes locked within her own. “You’re not hiding anything in your car, are you?”
“Me? Oh no.” Celeste again opened the car door, bending over to unlock the back door and open it, giving the soldier another glance at her perfectly rounded ass, then she stood up and gestured the soldier to have a peek, which he half-heartedly did, seeing nothing unusual, confident we were no threat before focusing again on Celeste’s enticing form.
I walked over to the other soldier, acting as stupid as possible, intentionally tripping over an invisible rock, hoping against all odds that Celeste wouldn’t have to ‘perform’ for this soldier like she had done in the past. “Um, scuse me, sir?” I asked with the biggest hillbilly accent I could muster, “Don’t know much bout what’s goin on, we at war or somethin?” Then I scratched my groin area before pulling out the non-existent wedgy from my ass.
“Sir, you’ll need to go back to the car,” he said, appearing disgusted, even turning away when I started picking my nose.
“Well, I don’t know if that other man thar wants me to, he’s lookin kinda busy with that girl thar.” Making sure he noticed her along with me, I said, “She shar is perdy, ain’t she? She’s my ride here.”
“Sir,” he was getting quite angered, “please return to the car.”
“But look man, she’s fixin on gittin busy with your pal and,” looking at him again. “Why ain’t you over thar gittin you some of that too?”
The soldier looked in Celeste’s direction, watching Celeste bring the man in for a deep passionate kiss. “Well GO ON now, go get you some!” I told him.
“DALE!” the soldier yelled, “Come on man!” noticing his partner was ignoring him.
“Well, I don’t know bout you, but I’m a goin to go git me some!” then I walked away, again tripping over the same invisible stone before I heard the soldier cuss, “DALE, God Damnit!”
“Your friend is getting mad.” Celeste followed with another kiss, seeming very convincing of her part, that was until one word was finally spoken from his cohort that resulted in instant detachment from Celeste. All three of us looked at the soldier by the gate when he yelled out, “Rosemary!”
“Shit!” he responded, pacing if only for a moment in small steps around Celeste, “Ok, just go, Jimmy, let them through!” followed by one final expletive.
Celeste continued her role, sighing loudly and pouting subtly, “well I guess I’m stuck with him now,” pointing in my direction. I responded with a very loud, “YEEE haw! Well come on now!”
Celeste drove slowly beyond the make-shift gate, making sure to be out of hearing distance before we both finally exhaled loudly. I looked in the side mirror back at the soldiers just in time to see Celeste’s target get slapped in the back of the head by his counterpart. I couldn’t help but chuckle at that sight. Even now, it’s a memory I treasure. “So, I’m thinking Rosemary is the wife!”
In town, we encountered only stillness. There were no more road blocks or suspicious soldiers eager to question us. It was black and still as if the end of the world had happened, and we were the last two civilians alive. The street lamps were off and all the local pubs and eateries were closed, some permanently as indicated by the boarded-up windows. We were relieved to see homes with lights and TV’s on. The only lights working were the stop lights, controlling traffic that existed only in the local’s memory. Our light was red, and while waiting for the change, we noticed a two level home on the corner with a small boy leaning out the window. He had in his hand a pellet gun. Celeste and I both watched in delight as he randomly began shooting little hard stones at the nearest stop sign to him. Celeste continued watching the boy with a smile on her face; I watched Celeste with the same smile.
“Do you have any kids?” I finally asked her. She turned to me without a response and held my gaze in hers with a look that made me feel foolish for asking, “of course you don’t; stupid question.”
“Now why would you think that?” She asked sympathetically.
“Well, I wouldn’t think your occupation would have room for a pregnancy or a child to raise.”
“You are correct.” She responded without elaboration, before she turned to look back at the young boy in the window.
“Well, I don’t have any either. At least none that I know about.” This got her attention, rewarding me with a suspiciously friendly sparkle in her eyes.
“Yeah, whatever, D!” noticing the light had finally turned green. I turned one last time to see the boy in the window stand up and point as if he’d just seen a ghost. I looked in the direction he pointed and saw the bright lights that flooded momentarily the entire car before I felt the shockwave of impact throw me into Celeste; then all was black.
I woke up for a moment to see only my thighs, with the rest of my legs buried and immobile beneath the crushed steel. I tried to turn my head to see Celeste, but couldn’t move. Every time I tried, the most intense pain would shoot through my neck and down my right arm. I called out Celeste’s name, forgetting the potential impact my doing so could cause. I hoped against impossible odds that she had escaped injury. There was no response. My first thoughts were that she was unconscious until I felt myself fall victim to my own encompassing darkness. When I woke again, there were people around me and a commotion taking place outside. I remembered feeling groggy like I’d been drugged, lapsing in and out of consciousness, remembering only bits and pieces of the activity around me. I vaguely remembered the medics that finally freed my legs from their steel prison, like the little boy in the window who stood over me, talking about what he saw, before I blacked out again. Every time I regained some level of consciousness, I felt I was functioning in slow motion. The conversations around me sounded distorted and deep as if my mind was unable to keep up with my other senses.
When I came to once again, I was able to move my head with less effort and slightly less pain. Again I asked for Celeste, without any response from those immediately around me. I tried to sit up and look for her but the medic caring for me pushed me back down, telling me to relax and not move. Another started asking me a million questions once they realized I was somewhat coherent. They asked me my name, where I was from, and if I felt pain anywhere else.
“Who’s Celeste?” one asked, “Who else was in the vehicle with you?”
“Look here!” a soldier hollered, waving another soldier to the crunched up pile of glass and steel that used to be a car. “They have guns!”
“What are you doing with guns?” another soldier asked. “Where’s the other driver?”
“Huh?” was all I could reciprocate before once again falling victim to the pain in my right leg when they lifted me onto the stretcher. It was as if someone had inserted a burning hot steel rod into the heel of my foot and forced it up the inside of my leg. It was so intense it stole my breath and voice; I couldn’t even cry out in my agony, resulting once again in a total lack of consciousness.
I regained my awareness again just as they were preparing a syringe. This was when I became completely coherent and became overwhelmed with a sense of panic I’d so desperately tried to contain. “No, no I don’t need that.” Trying my best to fight them off, still feeling as if my movements were not my own.
“Sir, this is necessary. You are severely injured and this will alleviate the pain.”
“NO!” lashing out at the very man trying to help, knocking the syringe from his hand. “NO, give me a pill then, NO injections, NO!” trying my best to maneuver away from the needle. However, every time I moved even the slightest, the pain that traveled up my leg and the stabbing sensation in my neck produced agonizing outbursts followed by an unstoppable rush of tears.
“Strap him in, he’s going into shock!”
The two soldiers in the ambulance with me restrained my arms and strapped me in the stretcher with handcuffs wrapped around my wrists. I remember crying out in anger, lashing out at the obstruction of my personal freedom of choice. I fought now with only my voice, struggling within my confines until I felt the sharp prick of the needle enter my arm, until I felt the slightly cool liquid entering my veins. I once again succumbed to the total euphoria of unconsciousness, only this time not as a result of pain and shock, but the medication they injected into me.