|The fire snapped and creaked as it devoured the scrub brush kindling. She’d selected a good quality log; dry but not rotted; substantial but not oversized. It should catch and keep going through most of the night. She wished she still had some charcoal, but she ran out of that a little ways outside of Phoenix. Should have bought more, she thought. She should have spent the money on charcoal and lighter fluid instead of on the whiskey. She considered drinking it, but hesitated on the grounds that doing so weakened her overall resolve to save the stuff for a real victory. She bit her bottom lip, chewing on it gently as she mulled over the thought. The bottle, most of a pint of Kentucky’s best, sat in her bag waiting for her to drink it. Then again, she sighed and raised her eyes to the weak, dancing flame. Too late to worry about, she decided. She wouldn’t freeze to death in the summer Mojave, her food heated itself with the addition of an ounce of water, and as a last resort she could just get drunk and forget all her problems. The fire, while not completely necessary, did a lot for her spirits. Beyond her small, flickering circle of red orange sanctuary a million miles of black desert lay all around her, ready, it seemed, to swallow her whole.
She avoided looking out there. She knew the highway was a mile due east, and that highway would take her all the way to the Hoover Dam and Searchlight and civilization, but at that moment, utterly alone, the highway meant nothing. She meant nothing, liable to fade into the backdrop of nothingness and digested by the desert itself. She turned her head to gaze at the rusted husks of two vehicles, both overturned. She couldn’t place the style exactly, but she dated them at twenty years. Maybe right after the war. Maybe these two traveled in a convoy that was attacked. Maybe they tried to run the military checkpoint and were summarily riddled with machinegun bullets, killing everyone. Maybe the soldiers pushed or towed the ruined vehicles to the edge of this pit and shoved them in. Maybe these wrecks rolled down the steep slope and turned over; coming to rest with the bloody remains of their passengers upside down. Left to rot and rust.
The fire cast an orange glimmer upon their Mars red patina; shadows danced and flittered over the poor, long dead bastards’ skeletal remains. A sad story, she conceded, but a good lesson to any traveler this side of the Divide. This desert kills people; has killed people since way before the conflict that tore her country in half. Yeah, the desert is eternally thirsty, she agreed sourly. And for twenty years folks thinking they could make it rich looting the ruins of the west had quenched the desert with gallons and gallons of blood.
Stupid. She withdrew a pack of Camels and flipped the cardboard flap open. She sure was stupid. Selecting one and lighting it from the same Bic that supplied flame to her little pile of kindling – one that used to bear the American flag, but now showed only faint stars and wavy lines – she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes in mute appreciation. She held the smoke in her lungs for a minute before releasing it slowly. Nights alone in the wilderness supported her decision to pick up that old habit. Unlike her stuttering, anemic fire, the strong glow of the cigarette’s tip comforted her in a way that she could only describe to herself as friendly. Predictable. She inhaled, the cherry brightened. It dulled and then she ashed it and it grew bright again. A brilliant orange star between her lips. Probably the nicotine.
She wanted to power up her tablet and go over the information again, but she lacked the motivation to stand and retrieve it from inside the truck. However, her bag was also inside the truck, and the bag contained the whiskey. She stood. Felt her knees creak, felt her back pop once, and when she stretched up on her toes she felt it pop again. Those insufferable days sitting and driving were becoming a physical burden. The pulled open the truck’s driver side door, winced when the cabin light came on, and pulled her bag from the passenger seat. It was a tan rucksack, a war surplus she picked up on the cheap from a trade show back east. It was nylon and canvas and well worn and she liked that. It was supremely functional, having two zippered sectioned as well as numerous pockets and pouches. It contained some necessities of this type of work, plus a few sundry items that were not so necessary but nice to have. Like the whiskey.
She thumbed the power switch and while she waited she helped herself to a sip of whiskey, wincing when the rough flavored burned all the way down to her gut. She puffed on the cigarette. Put it out in the coarse sand. The tablet’s screen leapt into white brilliance as the operating system booted up, and when the icons appeared she tapped the one that looked like a little notebook with her finger. From the icon a full page grew and displayed a map studded with text and diagrams. The data gave her the most up to date information about the current state of this part of the country; which bridges were out, what areas still had power, and a host of other important facts a solo traveler might need to survive. The whiskey gave her a warm sting in her belly. The data updated once every seven minutes. The whiskey updated much faster than that, based mostly on her metabolic rates, which were on the decline since she hit the big three zero. Someone charted a more complete mine layout down in Chloride, complete with photos and a video, but that meant nothing to her. She rolled through Chloride two days ago. This deep in the West almost never saw an update. Almost.
“So?” She said it around a mouthful of authentic American cheeseburger. Two grilled all beef patties, two slices of cheese, a tomato, some lettuce.
“So someone is out there. Deep out there.”
She set the burger down, reconsidered, and picked it back up. She swallowed her last bite and said it again. “So?”
“So that’s a story. No one ever goes that deep and updates regularly. We’re talking twice a day. Have you even looked at it yet?”
She glared over her burger at the man seated opposite of her, then looked past him, at the décor of the diner. Scraps of pre-war Americana hung from the walls like broken memories. There part of a bicycle, there a pair of cowboy boots, an entire wall tiled with license plates. Even the waitresses wore old styled clothing – reproductions of course. Graphic t-shirts and skinny blue jeans seemed the dominant trend here. She sat back and surveyed the burger. Even though it advertised two all beef patties, the meat never once belonged to a cow of any type. It was tofu or ostrich. She sampled another bite. Probably tofu. She hated to admit it, but the junk Americans owned before the war, the things they did and the way they spoke were all haut couture these days. Among the young, though. She supposed the generation that lived through that hell wanted nothing to do with it.
“So a guy’s out there, charting and updating and whatnot. Good for him. What’s your angle?” Or profit margin, she should have said.
“So that’s gold. That’s what people want. They want adventure, Glyn, and they want this.” He gestured around them and nodded.
She sighed and put her burger down. “And what? You want me to top him? I’m not exactly hurting for money.”
“You made your money on the front lines of the blogosphere. You lived the adventure others sat at the computers and pecked about. All I’m suggesting is that you give it another go.”
Oh, what a clever move. Yes, she had slipped into obscurity in recent days but her legacy as an advent-blogger was already etched in stone. She was a star among the YouTubers and Facebookers and Flickrs. Some guy in Japan built a shrine in his apartment to her.
The man nodded again and rubbed his chin. “You remember when you did that Longs Peak piece? When you filmed your Sherpa going over the edge?”
She did. She smiled, remembering the look of absolute terror on the man’s face as he went over the side.
“And you dove over after him? And there was that pause, while you were looking at the sky, this gut wrenching moment when no one knew anything but that you had gone over after him?”
She nodded again, reliving it. The blistering wind against her exposed face, the slick, freezing ice hard and polished under her parka, the way the weight of the helmet camera always tilted the thing to the right, how the sky was crystalline blue, beautiful.
“And then you looked down and there he was, holding your pickaxe and looking right into the camera?”
“God, I got fifty million views on that one.”
“If I recall, you single handedly crashed YouTube’s servers for three hours.”
She laughed and shrugged. “My favorite accomplishment.” Then, still smiling she realized that she was going West.
She was at the surplus store later that day, her belly still full of tofu burger.
“And he’s not uploading any video?”
The man shook his head, leafing through a rack of Gortex parkas. “Only progress reports and terrain data.”
“We know his name?” She examined a pair of boots, held them to the bottom of her sneakers and set them back on the shelf.
“No. He’s uploading as Runaway.”
“Well it is original enough. He’s got somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve thousand followers.”
She scoffed. “This is what people are going for? Why did I ever retire? I could have just blogged my trips to the gynecologist for Christ’s sake.”
“He’s in the West. Deep in. That’s the place you go and people don’t hear from you anymore. I think that’s what they’re waiting for.”
She found a pair of boots to her liking that fit and tossed them in her cart. “How are they going to know?”
He shrugged. “Hasn’t missed an upload yet. Once at zero six hundred zulu and again at twenty one hundred.”
“He misses an update-,”
He finished the sentence for her. “He’s dead.”
She stopped in Denver. The wholesale destruction always took her by surprise and when she crested the last hill before the highway brought her to its ash gray remains she had to pull over. They said all of Denver still suffered from severe irradiation. She discounted it as urban myth; something to keep kids from wandering into the desecrated city and getting trapped in one of the half collapsed buildings. Colorado state rangers supposedly blocked off the whole of downtown, anyway. She sat on the hood of her truck and played with the camcorder in her hands. She took a breath, flipped the device open and hit record.
“This is the last of civilization,” she said. “There is no law past these mountains. No emergency services. No help. No rescue.” She turned the camera away from that reeking ash pile and on herself. “We don’t know what’s on the other side of those mountains, but we know who is.”
She paused, looked down, back up. “He’s out there, Internet. He’s somewhere in the West and we’re going to find him.” She gave the camera a winning smile. She always used ‘we’ whenever referring to something she planned to do. It gave the viewer the idea that he or she was a functioning part of the adventure, which is why people watched Advent-blogs in the first place. “We’re going to make one last stop down there-,” she pointed the camera back at Denver, “-and then we’re going to head due south.”
She glanced at the sky, at the storm clouds gathering there, in anticipation for the maelstrom of rain and wind they promised. It was going to be a great show.
“Check it out, Internet. What’s one thing I should buy while I’m in Denver? What would you buy before going in Deep West? Let me know in the comments, or make your own video. Out.”
She flipped the little camera shut. When filming an adventure blog, she used a Canon VIXIA high definition camcorder, but she also carried a Flip UlraHD that she could clip to the front of whatever shirt or jacket she wore to give viewers what she called ‘boobs-eye view’, which was whatever she saw, from the perspective of her left breast. It freed up her hands. In the event she ever wore a helmet, the lightweight Flip could mount easily to it via generous amounts of duct tape. Yeah, sure, companies made special cameras and mounts specifically for helmets, but she had yet to find one that cost less than a good roll of military surplus duct tape and that worked as well.
With the press of a button her video was uploaded straight to YouTube with the help of a few dozen satellites orbiting roughly four hundred kilometers above her head. She liked to post shorter teaser videos while en route to a location, something to give her viewers discussion material, as well as generate hype among the social network word of mouth. Most of her three million followers watched, commented on, or discussed her return to advent-blogging, with another twelve million waiting in the wings for something interesting to happen. Or so said her agent. She never read the comments to her videos. Her agent paid someone to do that, select a few dozen and summarize them into a paragraph that came in a daily email. She would then bang out a paragraph outlining her feelings, and that same comment reader would translate that into individual replies.
The only part of the whole thing that wasn’t fake was the footage she shot. Distant thunder motivated her behind the wheel of the truck and as the first drops of rain his her windshield she shifted into drive.
She helped herself to another sip of whiskey and lamented her fanbase. Sure, she had dedicated followers who made their own video replies, or tribute collections of her best work, but leave it to the internet to make her comment reader search through fifty seven pages of suggestions- most involving a penis of some sort. In the end, the second most suggested item was alcohol, and so she picked out the whiskey. She tapped the section of her tablet that represented Phoenix and watched it zoom with dull eyes. She dragged the map until it showed a little gray dot labeled Tucson. She tapped the dot and it zoomed further. A little exclamation point showed the latest update, at twenty one hundred hours. She had already looked over the update; road conditions, standing structures, and surviving population of flora and fauna.
“There is almost nothing left, not even traces of the fire. Maybe half of the remaining buildings are too decayed to enter safely. At night I hear them.” She read his words, shocked at how loud she sounded in the vacuum of the night. Hear who, she wondered. There were rumors of wild, feral people living out in the West, killing anything they found and eating it, but the infrared satellite images never showed anything larger than varmint.