Chapter 1 – Uneasy Rider
Michael Levits was on his way home to his condo in Flagstaff from a distant college lecture. Hunger could no longer be ignored, so he pulled his chopper off the freeway onto a segment of old Route 66 in search of a meal. Slowly cruising the service road he spotted a large rustic building, surrounded by an expanse of deteriorating pavement that was large enough for semis to maneuver. The pickup trucks parked outside assured him that it had good food at a reasonable price.
He was a young man and clean shaven, but the wind and sun of the freeways made it difficult to discern his age. He was still about two hundred yards away when the setting sun revealed a young lady working her way through the weeds and sparse sage from the freeway. He briefly considered driving behind the building to intercept her and see if she needed help, but her stride seemed strong enough, so why bother. Although exceptionally young for his impressive academic credentials, Levits was not a social person.
As he entered and drank the aroma of the beef-heavy menu, he noted the already busy bar in the far end of the room. He knew he was in redneck heaven, and he didn't mind it a bit. He did feel a little out of place as he shed his leather jacket to reveal an expensive silk shirt, but he had no interest in relating to the culture – just the food.
He made eye contact with a waitress, who nodded towards a stool at the counter. As he slipped in and began to survey the slightly greased menu, a lovely young lady with a strong balanced stride entered. Her clothes were simple, but her long light colored hair had become complicated during her trek through the sage and the freeway fence beyond.
She paused to stand in the counter pathway, and lifted her chin slightly as she surveyed the patrons. She soon made a selection and zeroed in on Levits. “Nice shirt. Silk?” she asked with a winsome smile. “May please I borrow your cell phone?”
As Levits stood up to dig into a front pocket for his cell phone, they were interrupted.
“I know you – you name Kat,” said a gruff and slightly inebriated voice. “Honey, you can borrow my cell phone any time you want it.”
“She wasn't talking to you,” said Levits quietly.
As Levits extended his hand with his phone, a powerful hand batted it to the floor.
“Mind your own business – Silk,” said the man, to the rustle of his friends rising to their feet.
In a pretense of reaching down to pick up his phone he crowded between the speaker on his left and Kat, to prevent him from taking a step towards her as she backed away. He had just learned that this brute was right-handed, and expected a blow would quickly follow as he bent over.
“Silk!” screamed Kat, assuming the looming blow was unexpected.
Silk shifted to his right, and raised his left forearm to deflect the blow. As he rose he continued to turn, and drove his right elbow into the side of the brute's neck. As the man staggered sideways Silk briefly face Kat. “Out!” he said. “Left – to the chopper.”
As the brute toppled, his head met the edge of a table, spewing instant evidence of a severe cut. “You've killed Tommy!” yelled a brawny worker as he reached across his fallen friend to seize Silk.
Outside, Kat paused to glance through the glass door in time to see Silk grab the wrist of the extended hand and yank it forward, causing the man to stumble over his fallen friend. Silk gave a hop as he placed a knee on the inside of the man's elbow while still tightly holding his wrist, and slammed him viciously into the floor. Bounding from there to the door, Silk quickly passed Kat as he raced to his chopper, starting it as he backed it out of the parking place. “Now!” he urged Kat, as she looked frantically back and forth between the door and the chopper.
When the restaurant door flew open in the fury of pursuit, she made up her mind. “This is insane!” she exclaimed as she bounced onto the seat behind Silk.
It seemed only seconds before the roar of the motorcycle was answered by the sound of pickup trucks awakening for pursuit. At least one of them sounded far more powerful than it would have been while on the showroom floor.
Silk controlled his speed as they passed a scattering of gas stations, old motels and pedestrians. The pickups didn't seem to care, coming perilously close to oncoming traffic and completely ignoring a stop sign.
“I think they're gaining,” said Kat. “I expected this motorcycle to be faster than this.”
“It is but I'm not,” said Silk. “I'm not going to drive stupidly just because they are.”
“Ooh!” said Kat, cringing as she saw a pickup narrowly miss a pedestrian.
A rapidly approaching pickup was only fifty yards behind as they passed the last of the businesses and turned to ascend the overpass to the freeway on-ramp beyond. The pickup ceased to gain further as it negotiated the curve leaning heavily to its left.
As Silk aligned himself with the freeway on-ramp, chopper and driver became a different animal. “Hang on,” shouted Silk.
Kat shamelessly wrapped her arms around the muscular back of this total stranger and clung for dear life. The engine began to bellow and she closed her eyes tightly and let out an involuntary wail, as the power lifted the front wheel off the ground – surging forward, clawing the on-ramp for traction. Kat opened her eyes to see white dashes flickering past beneath them, and occasional cars that appeared to be parked on the freeway in comparison to their speed.
After about five minutes had passed, one of the trucks was still within sight, and Silk was in need of another tactic. He suddenly began to slow down after passing through a shallow road cut. A half-minute later he pulled to the shoulder near an obscure sign and a dirt road – as the pickup came roaring up behind. In the fading twilight and the rising moon, Kat could see that the road disappeared into some low hills.
“Where are you taking me?” asked Kat, suddenly concerned.
“I can drop you off here so you can hide while I lead the pursuit into those hills – watch out for snakes though.”
This offer gave Kat a little reassurance of Silk's intentions. “For now I'll assume you're safer than the snakes,” said Kat.
“Thank you,” said Silk.
It was soon evident to Kat that Silk was familiar with this road as it wound through the low hills. The dust stirred by the chopper and the lack of familiarity by the pursuit made it extremely difficult and dangerous for them to follow. After a few miles, the pursuing headlights pulled to a stop atop a rise overlooking a broad flat area.
At a fork in the road, Silk turned left for a quarter of a mile, turned off his headlight, and turned around to travel back the other direction. He then continue on the other road. Driving very slowly in the dim light of the sky. “That was clever,” said Kat. Silk made no comment.
“You don't use your brakes much do you,” observed Kat, as he kept his same speed over a rough patch.
“Were you aware that some brakes turn on tail lights?” said Silk with a touch of sarcasm.
Kat gave a brief startled look in response to his rudeness, and then silently mouthed his reply with exaggerated expression.
It was a little while before Kat dared to speak again, but finally: “Got a name?”
“Tommy works at the feed store in the town. He gives me the creeps. Are you trying to protect me by not telling me your name?”
“I'm protecting me!”
They slowly made their way along a flat area for about another mile, and just before it dropped off steeply to a narrow valley the road veered left. Silk took a less used path branching off to the right, but it was shortly blocked by a heavily padlocked gate just before it descended into the valley. At this point they paused to see if the headlights of the trucks were still there. They had been replaced by a campfire.
Searching for some hope of escape, Kat looked past the gate and the moonlight showed the valley becoming narrow about a mile away, as it began to drop into a canyon. “We are so-o stuck,” observed Kat.
The rim of the valley through which the driveway was cut made it impossible for even the motorcycle to bypass the gate.
“How well can I trust you?” asked Silk.
“That depends upon how well you behave,” said Kat.
“Fair enough. I don't want you to tell anyone what I'm about to show you – at least not where it is – promise?”
Silk stepped off the bike and soon had the padlock opened.
“Where did you learn to pick locks?” asked Kat.
“Maybe I didn't.”
“I saw you. You had that lock open in ten seconds flat!”
Silk held a small object up over his head in the moonlight. “This little gadget, is called a 'key.'”
In the relative quiet of the slow descent, Kat made another attempt at conversation. “You work out don't you.”
After a half minute of awkward silence, Silk finally spoke: “What's the matter with your car?”
Kat just rolled her eyes and shook her head, thinking that maybe he needed talking lessons. And finally, after another long pause, and an expressiveness one might use for a small child: “I think it is out of gas. It runs very poorly under those conditions. The gas gauge quit over a year ago and the car quit this very afternoon. When it started acting up I pulled over within walking distance of civ-il-i-zation, so that I could choose my help. I thought it might be wiser to do that, rather than to wait for whomever might choose to stop. And so, I honored you with my request.”
“Oh,” said Silk, not even noticing the sarcasm of her intentionally wordy response.
Obviously nobody ever taught this guy how people communicate, mused Kat. “What kind of movies do you watch?”
“Sports? You're obviously in great shape.”
“What do you do?”
“Like what – saving the human race?” Kat was getting really irritated, to the point that she didn't care if she irritated this... this... whatever it was.
Kat was not expecting this for an answer, but continued her assault anyway. “So you're some kind of a super hero?”
Silk was becoming irritated with this probing, but was also a little amused, and he silently mouthed her last question before responding. “No.” This annoying interrogation was beginning to awaken his long lost playful side. “Well, maybe not just yet at least.”
Kat was determined to get him defensive enough to get a real answer out of him. “Are you some kind of uh... a psychopath?”
She couldn't see Silk's amused smile. “So you haul young maidens out to your lair to molest them?”
Backfired: A chill went through Kat's being and her mind was suddenly in a whirl of contradicting thoughts. “Stop the bike or I'll jump off anyway! I'll take the snakes!”
Silk had to stop the bike because he was laughing too hard to drive, and Kat was suddenly pounding his back with her fists in mock anger, as she realized that she'd just been had.
“Please,” she said, “Can we have a conversation sometime?”
“Look,” he said, “we are in a fix here, and I'm sorry I've been too preoccupied to think of anything else. I won't be fit to talk to until we've found an answer to eating and sleeping tonight – if there is one.” And then as an after thought: “But even so, I'm not much good at trivial conversations.”
Something had begun to thaw.
Kat sobered as she too began to face the reality of it all. Until this point the evening had registered as a fantasy adventure, shielded from reality by this strange person who seemed to have everything under control. But the adventure had been growing less appealing as she discovered he had the personality of a sand bag.
But suddenly, humor – and an apology! And even beyond this, he had just admitted that he was not invincible! This guy was beginning to look more like a human being every minute. At this point Kat resolved that she would quit toying with him and be as helpful as she could – if he would let her. She was educated, confident and at home in the outdoors.
Chapter 2 – What on Earth?
Soon the air grew chilly and carried the scent of water. A narrow driveway bridge spanned the sandy bottom and its shallow, seasonal stream. It was supported by a large rock on the other side, and a crude concrete pillar in the middle that had been carefully poured to the same height as the rock. Less than twenty feet up the other side they were suddenly on a large concrete slab separated by short walls, shallow pits, and stairways that seemed to go nowhere.
“What is this place?” asked Kat in wonder.
“It was a biosphere.”
“Yeah, a sealed living environment where even the atmosphere doesn't mix with outside air. Unlike the one at Oracle, this one contained only one ecosystem. Think of a sealed terrarium inhabited by humans instead of reptiles or insects.”
“Why would anyone want to live like reptiles or insects?”
“Some visionaries feel it wise to prepare for a time when the Earth might become damaged – a major asteroid strike for instance. As a precaution to ensure the survival of the human race, they want to establish human colonies in other parts of the solar system.”
At last, thought Kat, Here was something Silk seemed interested in talking about. “Tell me more.”
“An early stage of this planning involves hermetically sealed environments that are self-sufficient for indefinite periods of time. They plan to evolve these into space stations on the moon and on other planets.”
“Why would anyone want to actually live in one?”
“Like you said, I'm here to save the human race, but things didn't turn out the way they were supposed to.”
“Stop it! You're creeping me out! Now seriously: Did you actually live in this thing?”
“Yeah, for awhile.”
What appeared to be a twisted piece of steel laying on the slab suddenly moved as they drove past it. “There's your snake,” said Kat as calmly as she could. Silk instinctively advance the throttle.
“Wait,” said Kat. “I'm hungry – we can eat that thing.”
She was in fact bluffing. Kat had never eaten snake in her life, but she was getting hungry, and was trying to impress Silk that she wasn't totally helpless. It was working. For his part, his macho pride required him to behave like he did this every day.
It was a messy kill by two frightened children trying to pretend like they knew what they were doing.
“I've got a box cutter in my toolbox,” said Silk. “I'll let you use it to skin and butcher it.”
“I..I've never done this with a box cutter – it's your box cutter, so I'll let you be the one to butcher it.” And butcher it he did.
“OK but you're going to have to do the cooking – since you've done this before.”
“Any ideas on a dining room?” asked Kat.
They opted to return to the stream bed and dig out a level place in a bank of sand, where flooding had heaped it up behind the rock supporting the bridge. Silk retrieved a small flashlight from his toolbox, and they began to gather twigs and branches for a fire.
“Got any matches?” asked Silk.
“Do I look like I carry matches? I didn't even bring a purse. I think this one's up to you, MacGyver.”
Silk pulled a half-inch thick stick from their pile of kindling and studied it briefly. He then whittled away the about six inches of bark from one end, and dipped it into his gas tank. Next, he pulled the oil dip stick and dribbled a few drops of oil on it. Finally, he pulled one of the spark plug wires and arranged it so the spark would cross the prepared end of the stick, and briefly cranked the engine. Instant fire.
After a meal that both would laugh about later, they confronted the problem of sleeping.
“I would definitely prefer the sand to the concrete for a bed,” said Silk. “You have any problems with that?”
“None – especially since rattlesnakes seem to prefer the concrete. I notice that blankets are scarce around here – any ideas on that one?”
“I have an unopened space blanket buried among my tools.”
“So what's a space blanket – something you super heroes sleep in?”
“It's a thin sheet of Mylar with an aluminum coating that reflects body heat back at you. Not very cuddly, but surprisingly effective. You can use that, and I'll find some leaves or something for my own bed.”
“You are something else! I was forced to cling to your back for almost an hour this evening, an now you're afraid to even lie down beside me? You're terrified of girls – aren't you.”
“No, just women.”
“So what's the difference?”
An air of mystery
As the sun crept into the valley, it caressed the shivering couple cuddled for warmth in the sand bank. Silk opened his eyes, glanced at Kat, and was suddenly on his feet dusting himself off.
“Understood: We need to get out of here as soon as possible, but it's very important that I search this place. I have some unfinished business here.”
“That was you talking just now wasn't it?” asked Kat as she slowly awakened, feeling the place beside her that a wide awake Silk had vacated a few seconds before. “What sorts of busyness?” asked Kat as she dragged herself to a sitting position and began untangling cobwebs from her brain.
“Right now, just an answer, and I'm not sure what form it will take. May I give you a tour – selfish motive – your questions might help me discover what I need to learn?”
Kat was beginning to focus. “OK. You mean I actually get to ask questions? Let me get a few trivials out of the way first: Do you have a college degree?”
“Of course, a couple of them.”
“Physics and biology.”
“And they are?”
“Doctorates! you must be in your thirties!”
“Take a few off of that, I started college when I was fifteen.
“Education costs money,” said Kat, hoping for just a little more information – and to her surprise:
“My parents have plenty, and they began to invest early when they saw what I could do in my first years of school. From there, scholarships pretty much took over. Do you have any college?”
“Bachelor in sociology,” replied Kat, and then continued. “So you've spent your life in school and in a biosphere and have had no time for a social life?”
“You've got part of me figured out. Are we through here? I've got work to do.”
“Almost. How did things go for you here?”
“Things went well for awhile, and even when the carbon dioxide rose higher than was expected we were still OK. But when oxygen levels began to drop, we were faced with a serious problem. It was extremely puzzling, and I began to suspect that it was somehow related to the rise in carbon dioxide. But before the conditions became unlivable, the oxygen levels suddenly began to rise for no apparent reason. I'm a student at heart, and I don't quit trying to understand a problem just because it goes away. So I continued to look for answers. Eventually I discovered that the excess carbon dioxide was reacting with the concrete to create calcium carbonate and water. Each instance of this reaction takes two oxygen atoms out of circulation.
“I had found the problem, but now had another one: Why did the oxygen levels suddenly begin to rise? Nothing in the cement chemistry held the answer, and as I systematically analyzed the chemistry of other materials within the environment, I still couldn't find an answer.
“Most were happy enough to accept this without question, and as the youngster on the block my concrete theory – no pun intended – was not taken seriously. But I was a noisy little brat, and communicated my findings and calculations indiscreetly with academics who were not invested in the project. Soon Dr. Higgs, the program manager, found a better position based upon the supposed success of this project, and then allowed the funding to lapse – shutting the whole thing down.
“For my part, I tried my best to locate the mysterious source of the impossible oxygen, but had no success. Soon we were all reassigned to other places. I am left with the conviction that the shutdown was some kind of a cover-up on the part of the upwardly mobile Dr. Higgs – you're sworn to secrecy, remember?”
“I'm good for it,” replied Kat.
“Now that everything salvageable has been stripped away I'll be able to look a little deeper. Sorry to inconvenience you with this personal opportunity.”
“I'm hungry, but this is fascinating,” said Kat. “Let's get on with the tour.”
“That looks like the remains of a waterfall,” said Kat.
“It was. It helped get air into the water as a part of the purification and recycling system.”
Noticing a concrete bench built into one of the nearby walls: “Was this a picnic area?”
“It used to have a couple of stone tables and free-standing benches as well. It was a very pleasant place.”
“I bet it didn't have trash like it does now,” suggested Kat, as she noted a couple of fresh bags from a fast food chain.
They were too fresh. There were still a few french fries scattered around. Silk picked up a bag, and stared at the french fries on the concrete. “The fact that there is still anything that has not yet been hauled off by rodents convinces me this stuff must have been left here yesterday – most likely the afternoon! What is going on here?”
“I think I recognize those tanks. They were for hydroponics – right?”
“Good. You've worked with hydroponics then?”
“I grew up around it. My mom would grow some of our food in hydroponic beds – still does in fact.”
“Where does the tunnel under that hole lead to?”
“That was used to condition the air – taking it behind the waterfall to cool it, or displacing the warm air near the roof, as necessary. Wait a minute. I wasn't able to get to this thing before.”
Fetching the flashlight from his toolbox he dropped down into the hole, and after letting his eyes adjust a little, he began to examine the tunnel. Shortly, he found it partially blocked by a fresh mound of soft dirt against one side. There was no reason for that dirt to be there. As he began to dig out some of it, he found that it covered a duct leading off towards the left. He crawled back and poked his head out of the hole. “Kat, would you stand about fifty feet from me in that direction?” he said, pointing along the direction of tunnel. “Come a little closer,” he said, as he briefly ducked down into the hole again to check his bearing, and then: “Just a little to your left – hold it.”
He then climbed out and stood beside her, and studied the direction the duct led. “There's a duct that takes off in that direction from about where we are standing, but I don't see anything it could be leading to.”
“What about that building?” asked Kat, pointing to a structure about fifty yards outside the biosphere perimeter.
“That's just the bunkhouse for external help, and wouldn't be connected to the biosphere – wait a minute! Let's check this thing out.” With growing excitement they approached the bunkhouse and found it locked. Selecting a tool from his key ring, Silk had the lock picked within a couple of minutes.
“I thought you said you hadn't learned to pick locks,” protested Kat.
“I said maybe I hadn't – which also means maybe I had.”
“So where did you learn to pick locks?”
“We need to get some gas in your car don't we.”