by Jay Mark
The asphalt flats were baking from the sun’s fearsome fire, and as far as Aldaire could see, there was nothing but a flat, dark, burning plain. Even in the midst of a cloudless afternoon in the middle of the summer, the uniform black ground made it seem darker than it was. Waves of heat cooked the air to a hundred and twenty degree inferno. Her light blonde hair became a heavy burden soaked with sweat, and it clung to the back of shoulders as she limped forward; every drop of perspiration hitting the ground sizzled before evaporating to nothing. The skin on the back of her neck was velvet where her hair had parted. The knees of her light brown slacks were stained with small traces of tar. Her left side was dirty, and her torn sleeve revealed a severe elbow abrasion riddled with grains of black. She took a misstep from exhaustion and her ankle gave out; she tripped, scraping her open elbow across the asphalt oven. She rolled over onto her back with a scream, holding her elbow as she sat up. The ground was menace, clothes were like a thin pot holder against the surface of a hot pan. It vibrated, then changed consistency, becoming softer, almost gooey. She knew that her ability to suppress the asphalt was waning, so she jumped up and ran swiftly despite a slight limp from her throbbing foot. She didn’t want to be tar food, even if it was only a matter of time she was determined to fight to the end. The tar pit chased her, a boiling, bubbling, gurgling pit of gooey, viscous tar that wasn’t selective about its meal. Its bubbles grew larger than a human head before they popped with a stinky hiss of oily air. Arms of tar waved for her as she ran. And she kept running, without a care for the precious water that beaded off her brow. A hope of salvation came in the form of a white speck floating steadily in the air; she put her hand above her eyes and squinted. It had to be man made, even the hardiest bird of prey couldn’t survive out on the asphalt plains, so she waved tiredly, continuing to run in that direction, until she could see that it was a long white blimp that came to blunted points at aft and bow. Clinker Corp. was spelled in large black letters on the synthetic fabric of its sides, and it carried a complex underbelly stretching its entire length, from the propeller driven rudder, to the pilot’s cabin at the forefront.
* * * * *
“Drop another sonar boom; I’d like to get a reading here,” Tray said.
Larox refused to budge, he kept his feet propped on the instrument panel, and the straw of his water bottle in his mouth.
“Give it a rest,” he said, biting his straw. “We’ve been at it for five hours. It’s too damn hot to keep working like this.”
Tray kicked his swivel chair across the room. “Damn it all to hell then! I’ll do it myself. They’d decommission this damn blimp if we’d all take your stinkin’ attitude.”
“Relax,” Larox said, “Everyone knows I’m the only one here with my attitude.”
“If you weren’t such a damn good gunner, I’d have thrown your ass overboard a long time ago and let the asphalt get a taste of it,” Tray said, getting in Larox’s face.
“Watch the personal space, Tray,” Larox growled.
Tray leaned back respectfully, then went to check the scope. Miles and miles of blackness numbed the eye. He mumbled something about how hard it was to believe that the country below was ever free soil.
“One of these days I’ll do it,” Tray said to himself, though making a point of having it heard. “Larox won’t even know it’s coming till his ass is tar food.”
Larox just laughed, “I’d like to see you try. Hey, what did they call this area again, before I was born?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know,” Tray said, “Lauren, keeps track of that kind of stuff.”
A door from the back slammed open and then shut again as Lauren entered from the crane room. Her gray polyester work suit was stained with oil, floor grime, and hydraulic fluid. Her brown hair was pulled back as tight as possible into a large bun above the back of her neck. It was a dirty, reeking ball soaked with all the putrid chemicals that powered the crane, and a fair share of oil and sweat. She slapped her name tag because it was peeling off.
“Someone call?” she asked.
“Yah,” Tray said. “Larox wanted to know what this part of the parking lot used to be called.”
“What are the coordinates?” she asked
“Last I checked we were running 99.61 long and 38.74 lad, somewhere around 350 miles south from were we came,” Larox said.
Tray shook his head in disgust. “That was fifteen minutes ago.”
“We’re over the middle of Kansas; in fact, Hill River used to be right around here. This is the land my grandparents farmed, so I should know.”
“Free soil farmers.” Tray said, “Not much to farm now.”
“How would you know what they did?” Larox asked Lauren, “You weren’t even born.”
“My parents told me stories—about the world they knew as children, before they built the parking lot.” She placed her eyes behind golden-hued telescopic goggles mounted to a swivel post at the edge of the bridge, and took a long look at the darkness below. “I don’t recognize this world. I’ve known it all my life, and it’s still strange to me.”
She saw something moving below, a tiny figure in the distance, so she adjusted the goggles for a more detailed view, keeping the object in sight as well as she could.
“How can that be?” Lauren asked. No one responded to her question because they thought she was being rhetorical. “There’s someone out there!” Lauren said. “There’s someone alive down there!”
“You’re hallucinating,” Tray said, “Take a closer look.”
“Probably too much sun in her eyes,” Larox suggested.
“I’m serious,” she said. “It’s a person—running toward us.”
“You gotta be kidding!” Larox protested, butting past Tray and pushing Lauren aside to seize the goggles, ignoring both their protests.
“Don’t see a thing,” he said calmly.
Lauren adjusted the viewer and Larox’s head with it, not bothering to be gentle.
“We gotta do something before we drift out of range,” Lauren said. “Have Horst get a bearing on her position so he can lower the crane.”
‘“I’ll go down,” Larox said,
“What the hell is this!” Tray hollered, “I’m the captain here. I’ll give the freakin’ orders.”
The door out of the interior cabin slammed shut and the others were gone before Tray could protest any further. The sounds of the opening hatch and the crane’s clinking chains were heard along with the hum of the motors that controlled them.
“There they go again,” Tray muttered. He went to the cockpit and yelled at the pilot. “Horst, some girl is wandering the flats. Check your scope, and take this baby within range of the lift.”
There was no response from Horst, whose cockpit was littered with empty water bottles. Horst leaned back over his seat and navigated the wheel with his feet while keeping his hands behind his head. A pair of headphones blared his favorite rap songs directly through his ear canal. Tray pulled the headphones off and pointed to the cabin door.
“I’m taking over the controls,” Tray said, “Man the EM pulse cannon. I want you ready to assist if the asphalt activates.”
“Wha-?” Horst said. “How we supposed to get the goods without opening things up down there first. Sounds ass backward to me.”
“There’s no treasure,” he said. “This is a rescue operation.”
“Someone’s down there?” he said, looking out the window. “Out here? That’s crazy. There’s no way someone could be down there.”
“Well someone is, now get to your station before I throw you down after her.”
Horst turned from the door with a jerk. “Still don’t believe it…”
“Now!” Tray screamed.
* * * * *
The asphalt melted around Aldaire’s boots, clinging to them as a sticky tar that held stronger with every step. She waved desperately at the blimp, hoping its crew would care enough to pluck her from certain death. She fought until she couldn’t free herself from the tar, but continued waving as the blimp grew larger. It was sailing to her, and a crane was lowering. Larox called to her, and he reached for her hand, but missed. Meekly, she lifted her head and squinted. The blimp was circling, and the crane going lower, but the asphalt wasn’t going to give up its prey easily; a pool of hot tar had formed around her position. It was drawing her in slowly. The blimp was like a giant white whale lowering its head as it swam towards her from above, and Larox on the crane looked like a cowboy on an iron seahorse. He called again, and came so close that she reached upward as he approached. The blimp caught a wind and lifted before he was close enough, and he had to go upside down to reach her, hanging on to the hook of the crane by his legs.
“Grab my arm, you can do it!” Larox yelled, but the blimp couldn’t stay long enough for her to manage it, even though the propellers were off and the captain was attempting to stabilize its position. Larox threw off his boots, pulled off his black jeans, and tied their legs to the crane before hanging with one hand from the pants themselves. She was within reach of his foot, but only looked up tiredly, as if finally resolved to her fate.
“Grab my foot, damn it! I’m trying to save your life.”
“I can’t,” she whispered.
A gust of wind forced the blimp back up, and suddenly a twenty-foot drop was beneath him. Larox climbed back up his pants, untied them, and slid them back on.
“One more time,” he yelled. “Tell that dumb-ass to let Horst pilot, and you put the hook on the ground if you have to!”
The third time was a charm, Larox lifted Aldaire by her waist as the crane swooped past, and she clung to his shoulder.
‘“A flower in the tar,” Larox suggested casually.
She didn’t respond.
“Bring it up!” Larox yelled.
An arm of asphalt extended from the earth, wrapped around Aldaire’s ankle, pulled her from Larox’s grasp, and swung her forcefully.
“Shit!” Larox yelled, jumping from the crane and catching the coil of hot asphalt, sliding downward as if on a greased pole.
A canister fired from the blimp hit the asphalt formation dead on with a wave of electrically charge water. The asphalt released Aldaire. Larox caught her. She pushed herself up, but when Larox tried to lead her she fell against the asphalt. She cried over her badly swollen ankle.
“Hop on,” Larox said, lifting her onto his back.
The crane approached, for the blimp was burning its fuel to work against a prevailing breeze. There would only be a matter of seconds in which the crane would be within reach, a brief window of opportunity. The ground shook as geysers of hot tar burst around their position.
“We’re getting out of here, trust me on this,” Larox said.
The crane was only a few feet away when the ground started rolling in tidal patterns, and it was inches from the tips of their fingers when the tide got the best of them, knocking them into a tidal chasm. Larox pulled Aldaire close and slung her over his back again, but he couldn’t keep step with the tide. They were rolled away from the blimp unmercifully as the asphalt softened yet still delivered blows and abrasions. The blimp launched three more canisters, and the asphalt abated enough so that Larox could get to his feet. The crane was coming his way from the opposite direction.
“Here goes,” he said. “Can’t take much more of this.”
Aldaire clung to Larox with all her power as he grasped the hook with his sweaty palms, which were slowly slipping as the hook was raised.
“Lower, lower,” he yelled, “I’m slipping.”
He looked down to Aldaire, who wasn’t moving.
“Can’t you climb?!”
She didn’t move.
“I can’t pull us both up. You have to climb,” he yelled.
Fortunately, Lauren had heard him and lowered the crane until it was dragging on the ground. Larox was able to fall off without getting hurt. Once they were on the ground, arms of asphalt slapped them both before wrapping them up like a snake squeezing its prey. Aldaire’s eyes lit fiercely. She pounded the asphalt coil with a fist that was lit as by a blue fire. The coils cooled, turned blue, and broke into a thousand small pebbles. Larox and Aldaire sat bewildered, but free.
“How’d you do that?” Larox asked.
If she had answered him Larox wouldn’t have cared, for a searing blob of tar sucked on his right hand. He screamed before pulling out his sizzling red flesh. Blobs of tar formed around them. Geysers of black gunk shot forth. A pool of boiling tar claimed Aldaire’s boot with such tenacity that she couldn’t pry it loose. Larox shook his red, welted hand, and pulled her stocking clad foot from the boot before she was sucked beneath the tar with it. His feet were burning, as his heavy stockings weren’t enough to combat the ground’s heat, but he waited patiently, holding her on his back as the blimp made another approach. A huge canister was dropped to neutralize the asphalt. When it hit, an electro-magnetic pulse wave spread, and the asphalt disintegrated to reveal a circle of flat, gray, bedrock. The blimp’s turbines burned for the fourth pass overhead, while it continued to fire pulse canisters that kept the asphalt at bay. The chain scratched the rock as it approached, for the blimp was at an exceedingly low altitude and flying very slowly against a strong wind. Larox knew Horst was back on the pilot’s seat as he sat Aldaire on the chain.
“Hold on tight,” he said, as the crane lifted her up. His hand was so badly burnt he didn’t even bother trying to hold on, even though the asphalt was reclaiming what it had lost. He laughed as he saw the sole of one of his abandoned boots floating in the wall of tar surrounding him. There was a half-smoked cigarette in the back pocket of his jeans, but he had nothing to light it with, so he flicked it against the asphalt. The blimp circled tightly as the asphalt recovered. Horst managed to get back with enough time for him to grab the hook with his good hand. It was a close call, there were only inches to spare when the hole in the asphalt closed beneath his foot.
* * * * *
The sleeping cabin had two bunk beds at both sides of the wall. At the front was an arm chair with a portable television sitting on its cushion. A small freezer sat on the metal floor next to the left bunk. The only cooling system was a small, metal ventilation fan in the ceiling. Aldaire sat on a bunk as Lauren wrapped up her ankle. Larox sat on Tray’s bunk at the other side of the room and tied two cold wraps over his burnt hand with some tissue and an old cord. Tray sat on the sofa, watching Aldaire suspiciously.
“All tied,” Lauren said, “That should hold you until we get back to Mandaree.”
“If we get back to Mandaree,” Tray sighed. “That double loop Horst performed to rescue your sorry asses cost us too much fuel.”
“Forgive us, oh great one,” Larox said stoically.
“How in the world did you get out this far into the asphalt flats?” Lauren asked Aldaire. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to be wandering around down there?”
Aldaire looked down at her ankle silently.
“More like deadly,” Tray said, playing with the buttons on the television. “I never heard of anybody getting this far out without becoming pavement food. Someone must have dropped you out there. Do you have any idea who?”
Aldaire stared at her foot blankly.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Can’t you hear?” Tray yelled.
“Relax, Tray,” Larox said.
“Don’t pick on her,” Lauren protested. “She’s had it rough enough.”
“He wouldn’t know that, though,” Larox snickered. “He’s still setting records for stupidity.”
“That would be impossible, because you hold the unbreakable title,” Tray growled.
Larox turned to Aldaire.
“Hey,” he said, “I rescued you and you haven’t even told me your name.”
“Aldaire,” she said softly.
“Aldaire, heh, that’s a pretty name. Sounds a lot nicer than Lauren.”
“Hey, what’s wrong with my name?” Lauren protested.
“Nothing in particular,” he said, “just kinda heavy on the tongue.”
“I’ll show you heavy,” she said, batting him on the head before leaving the sleeping quarters.
* * * * *
A stifling breeze blew through the open windows of the deck as Larox leaned outside, casually watching the awful scenery. The sunset was upon them, looking like a huge egg yolk over the surface of a hot griddle as it sunk into the black horizon. Larox sighed at his bandaged hand, happy that the pain was killing him, for that meant he probably would get to keep all of his fingers.
Suddenly, Tray’s boots thumped against the metal deck behind him.
“All our fuel and ammo is gone,” he complained, “We don’t have anything of value to present to the corporation; no treasure, no metals, no soil, no water, nothing. We’ll be damned lucky if they don’t fire us. And that’s if we’re lucky enough to make it back.’”
“Relax,” Larox said, “we’ve been good to them; besides, where else are they gonna find such a professional crew?”
Horst and Lauren entered simultaneously from opposite sides of the deck.
“The wind’s favorable for a return to Mandaree,” Horst said. “I think I can manage it.”
“See that,” Larox said. “Things always seem to work out.”
“Yah,” Tray said. “Well, one of these days they ain’t.”
Tray looked toward Lauren, barking at her, “How’s the girl doing, she all right?”
“She’s asleep,” Lauren said. “I thought I’d come out here and take some time for myself, but seems everyone else had the same idea. I’m gonna clean off a little bit of this grime.”
“One pint of water!” Tray hollered, “And not a damned drop more!”
“Want some company?” Larox asked.
“You both need to get real,” she said.
“We don’t got any treasure this time,” Horst said. “What’s up with that?”
“It’ll work out,” Tray said. “Haven’t you heard the news? We’re freaking heroes now.”
“Oh,” Horst said complacently. “Heroes, I like the sound of that.”
“Yah,” Tray said, as the last of the sun boiled away from the asphalt. “Heroes. Too bad we can’t save this world of ours.”
“It’s too late for that,” Larox said. “Nothing can save it now.”