A run in the desert usually purged Allen’s mind, the brain boiling Arizona heat rippled through his body in hazy synchronization with his stride and cleared away thoughts.
It was spring. Peak temperatures were a month off, but it was 108 degrees.
He liked to run without a shirt. He could stay cooler if he exposed as much body surface as possible to the humidity-starved air.
Allen glanced down to check a tricky stretch of terrain and noticed wild strands of gray hair on his chest mixed in with the dark brown, illuminated electrically by the stark sun.
When the hell did they pop up? They weren’t there yesterday.
He felt the first twinges of pain in his once tireless legs.
Pretty early in the run for that, Stud, he observed.
Shit, he had gray hair, his legs hurt, and his first pair of glasses lay on his desk, the ultimate insult to a an ex-combat marksman.
Things change, he observed philosophically, but this fast?
Mortality sucks, he decided, determined not to ruin a perfectly good run by contemplating anything deeper than the prairie dog holes he dodged.
Allen, something is changing out here.
This isn’t the same desert.
Something is out of balance . . .
Despite his efforts, the words of his dad’s last letter rolled up in his consciousness and interrupted the athletes’ zen he tried to achieve.
Perplexed, haunted? His dad had been dying when he wrote it.
The air did feel different today, even looked odd. The heat made it shimmer at a different frequency. The hawks overhead circled a different direction.
. . . They say when a man loses one of his senses,
the others become more perceptive. Maybe when a man’s
time is up, he starts noticing other things, other sensations
the living world overpowers and drowns out.
There are too many strange feelings in the air.
Maybe they’ve been there my whole life—maybe I’m just
now noticing, but the world is changing, and I don’t think
we’re going to be part of it much longer . . .
Allen preferred to remember his dad as the robust soldier and scholar who hunted and walked in the desert every day with him—teaching, always teaching. His mind’s inner eye winced at the image of the frail, introspective invalid that his father became, staring out the window at the desert he loved, but whose heart no longer allowed him to explore.
Allen shook his mind clear.
Jet lag, he thought to himself, jet lag, gray chest hairs, and too many Brazilian beers.
The muscles around the faded scars in his legs began to ache more, a signal it was time to finish. Much farther and the still-buried shrapnel would begin to burn like heating elements.
As he neared his home at the base of a saguaro-spiked plateau, he heard the phone ring through the open window. He loped up the low steps into the back door just in time to hear his mother’s voice on the answering machine.
“… I didn’t know you were back from Rio until I talked to your secretary. I hope you haven’t gone for a run. It’s too hot even for a Trevathan. Call me when you can. Love you.”
Allen smiled sadly. He’d called her before he boarded his plane, and she didn’t remember.
He’d have to get her back to the doctors. They said no Alzeihmers, just a little age related decrease in mental function along with what they called “moderate situational depression”. Loneliness and boredom is what Allen called it. He swore to himself—again, to spend more time with her
Her apartment was on his way from the university to the research site. He’d stop by in the morning.
Allen opened the refrigerator door and dug for a beer, he knew there had to be at least one, maybe behind the insect specimen’s rack.
“Gotcha,” he said out loud.
The incandescence of the explosion on the TV he’d forgotten to turn off flooded his small den and lit up the doorway into the kitchen. He walked in, flopped down in the beat-up leather chair his dad had left him, turned up the sound with one hand on the remote, and expertly popped the top of his trophy with the other.
“ . . . No bomb”, the voice of the narrator intoned, “At least, no intentional bomb. It is the accidental explosion of a ship being loaded with liquified natural gas in the Russian port City of Dudinka two years ago. Over eighteen hundred people were killed. At the time, the Russian government denied the occurrence. Now, two years later, in an effort to garner international support for immense pipeline projects planned from its gas fields to, and through, other countries, this film has been released.”
The picture returned in ultra-slow motion, it showed the water in the harbor compress, then spring outward a beat slower than the fireball extended its reach into the sky.
The shockwave slowed as it neared shore, its energy translated into a growing mass of sea water. By the time it hit the docks and warehouses, slightly more than a second after the explosion, the man-made tsunami was twenty feet high and moved at just under the speed of sound.
The banner running beneath the picture quoted experts as saying the potential for such incidents exists, but no other events have ever occurred, and affirmed that the shipment, by sea, of natural gas in its pressurized, liquid state has a proven safety record.
Maybe so, Allen thought, but he damn-sure didn’t want any beach-front property around where they were loading the stuff.
The narrator’s voice continued, “. . . Scientists are concerned about the impact construction on such a large scale could have on world ecology. They cite as an example the largest of the pipeline projects, planned to pass through an unspoiled wilderness between Russia and China in the Altai Mountains . . . ."
Allen pulled the beer away from his mouth and set it on the arm of the chair. It made a new moist ring among other matching stains.
That’s where Walter’s been working, he thought.
He held a sip of beer in his mouth, savored the taste and listened closer.
“. . . Russian authorities disagree, saying pipelines around the world will afford a higher degree of safety and consistency with, above all else, less risk to the earth’s fragile environment.”
Allen choked on the beer. It spewed between his lips and down his chest.
He’d have to remember to tell his research team the good news, the Russians have gone green.
He laughed out loud and took another draw.
Walter arrived home in New York yesterday. He’d call and tell him about this.
Walter Perriman’s joints creaked in disharmony as he moved through his laboratory.
He wondered idly what the next species that passed itself off as “intelligent” would be like. At first, he couldn’t remember the word he wanted. Then it came to him in faint, patina-colored memories of Sundays with his grandmother, smells of baking from her kitchen, long, lazy naps after church in her worn chair.
“Meek,” he mumbled, “That’s right, they’ll be meek.”
With a boney, blue-veined hand that trembled with advanced age, he turned off lamps that illuminated the eclectic clutter of prehistoric artifacts and ultra-modern equipment. One of his graduate students once remarked it looked like the Flintstones and Jetsons moved in together.
He moved slowly today, slower than usual, his thoughts an anchor around his body.
He wondered dejectedly about a life wasted.
Sixty years. Sixty years of digging in dirt and caves in every third world corner of the earth, he thought bitterly.
To better set the date for humanity’s funeral?
Walter fought the bitterness, and the fear.
Maybe he was wrong, he thought. There’s always that possibility.
Maybe if he gave back his Nobel Prize? Would that help? Would that allow him to be wrong?
Walter closed his eyes tightly then re-opened them.
“Control yourself old boy, you’re losing it,” he whispered.
He needed to see what Allen thought.