the desert

Their auto-bike is humming, sparkling white, speeding itself down the long, narrow desert road. Sand sprawls out in every direction. No stars or moon to be seen, but the dark night sky still glows with warm sand and cool light.

“What do you think happened there?” Alex hollers back at Carson.

“Y’mean back at that stopover?” Carson clings to his waist. Flecks of sand gust through the fast winds around them. “Y’mean that . . . thing? The Ghost?”

“Yes.” Alex squints across the barren horizon. “What do you suppose it was? Why were all those militia guys so afraid of it?

“No idea,” Carson chuckles. “Strange shit happens in the desert, Alli. Best not overthink it.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’ll drive yourself mad.” Carson shifts his eyes between all the lights and data popping up in his blue visor. His white helmet shines with heat. “My psych distortion’s goin’ up just thinkin’ about some of the creepy-ass stories I’ve heard. Weird shit out here. Let’s chat about somethin’ else.”

“Are we safe?”

“Of course not,” Carson chuckles again. “Thought that was the whole point of comin’ out here, no? Take a few little risks so we can have a whole lotta fun.”

“Right,” Alex sighs. “Fun. You told me the desert would be fun.”

“It is fun!” Carson squeezes Alex with excitement. “What, ya gettin’ cold feet now?”

“No,” Alex sighs again. Dunes rise and roll around them as they barrel down the bumpy road. Dead houses and cars and mini-malls sit half-swallowed beneath the tall sands. “I do want to see what’s out here. Just feeling a little nervous is all.”

“This is what happens when you never leave that damn tower they keep you in,” Carson teases, hugging Alex’s back tight. “Social anxiety. Agoraphobia. All those white walls and VR battles fuck with your head. You gotta get out more.”

“I know, I know,” Alex rolls his eyes and smiles. “I am interested to see this desert party you’re talking about.” Alex glances back at him with little grin. “It better live up to the hype.”

“Oh it will,” Carson nods. “The Oasis never disappoints.”

“This party’s not at an actual oasis, is it?”

“You’ll see.”

“There’s not even water anymore in this part of Texas, is there? I mean some of our moisture sensors do detect a few large aquifers nearby, but didn’t all those nukes misfire here during the Event and—”

“C’mon now Alli, don’t spoil the surprise for yourself with your big overthinkin’ computer brain,” Carson laughs, “Just enjoy the ride.”

Their auto-bike purrs as they ride deeper and deeper into the desert. They dash through the vacant night, mile after mile as sand and dust breezes and beats against their shining white helmets and clean white combat suits. The dim headlight of an old motorcycle whips by them on the other side of the long, empty road.

“Ay Alli, you remember that graduation dance we went to?” Carson calls ahead. “Long time ago. Too long.”

“Ya I remember,” Alex smiles back. “When you came up to Hudson and we climbed that hill and—”

“Hudson?” Carson laughs. “We never danced in Hudson. No, I meant a looong time ago. Way back at the Palace.”

“Oh . . . oh yeah.” Alex raises his brow, feigning a memory. “The dance at the Palace. For sure I remember.”

“Remember how you joked about wanting to run away from the Palace to start a little farm?”

Alex wrinkles his nose, struggling to load their graduation dance into memory. “I . . . I think I remember?”

“What’d you say you’d grow on your farm? Bunch of sunflower seeds or somethin’ silly like that?”

“I dunno,” Alex shrugs.

“Well, I definitely remember you wanted peppermint,” Carson smiles. “You love your peppermint.”

“Very true,” Alex laughs. “Some things never change, I guess.”

“Remember how long your hair was back then? Real pretty, you were so—” Carson gulps, shuts himself up. Doesn’t want to trigger any psych distortion in Alex. “Your short hair is real nice now too, though. Very clean and handsome.”

Alex sighs. “Thanks, Carr.”

The white auto-bike buzzes between their legs as it accelerates. They fly faster and faster into the middle of nowhere. The desert wind howls by them as they race ahead as fast as their bike can take them.

“You still think about that fantasy farm of yours sometimes?” Carson chimes up again. “Any big dreams of a life other than Global Command?”

“Sometimes.” Alex bites his tongue and seals his lips. He’s already said too much. Stay focused on the mission: go to a party at the Oasis. Don’t trigger any psych distortion with wild fantasies or forbidden̶ me̴m̶o̸r̶i̵e̴s.

“Really?” Carson jolts up eagerly in his seat. “What you been dreamin’ about?”

“I hate Global Command,” Alex’s lips suddenly slip open. His eyes go wide, his brain catching up with his mouth, slowly realizing what he just said. Big inhale. Bring the psych distortion back down.

“What?!” Carson calls ahead to him. “I just hear you correctly? You hate Global Command?”

“I mean I don’t hate what we do, it’s important work, but I—”

“Alli, I fuckin’ hate it too,” Carson grumbles. “Just a few years of active service but I’m burnt the fuck out. I can feel my goddamn mind melting a little every time I sit in that damn command chair, I can’t keep—”

“Carr stop, we have to—”

“You ever think of just runnin’ away?”

The auto-bike speeds along the lonesome road. Awkward silence hangs in the air. The wind kicks a cloud of dust up onto the road.

“What the hell do you mean?” Alex giggles. “We can’t just run away.”

“Sure we can. Our sat link’s still kinda weak.” Carson nods at some data points inside his visor. “And our control node is lagging. We’d have a big head start. Plenty of hackers and smugglers out in the Oasis, could help us cook up an escape plan real fast.”

“Carr, don’t even joke about that,” Alex laughs. “Aeschylus would—I don’t even wanna think about what Aeschylus would do to us.”

“I know I know, I’m just jokin’ around,” Carson chuckles through a pained smile. “Half-jokin’. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how far out there I’d get until they found me.”

The dust cloud fades away. They gaze out into the clear desert night. Soft orange and red lights flicker and pulse in the dim horizon.

“See those bonfires way off there?” Carson nods at the flickering lights in the horizon, sinks his hands tighter into Alex’s waist. “That’s the Oasis. Almost there.”

The auto-bike rides onward to the warm, distant lights.