Does Anyone Ever Laugh?
“Up, McKaren.” I requested.
A second later we were a hundred feet above our previous location.
McKaren laughed. “We are cloaked. They couldn’t see us. The instruments in their hands were weather sensors, not guns.”
“Oops,” I said.
“My stomach is still on the ground,” said a slightly green Arn. “Was that really necessary, Tammy?”
“You’re the one who screamed ‘Do something.’”
McKaren descended to a position about twenty-five feet to the side of the four men, who were discussing their instruments and where they should be located to best monitor the weather conditions. We turned on our sound sensors to listen in.
“Did you hear it’s been raining for two days down at national headquarters?” asked one man.
“Yeah. Unbelievable. It never rains in July. Did you hear the crazy story that a giant Santa Claus showed up there yesterday and gave everyone chocolate pudding?” answered another.
“Someone’s trying to be funny. Maybe they still have some liquor and had a party. Santa Claus and chocolate pudding. Yeah, right,” added a third.
“The colonel says headquarters thinks it’s no joke and we’ll be getting our pudding soon,” the fourth man chimed in.
Everyone laughed for a long time.
“See, McKaren. We should have brought some chocolate pudding so we could drop four packets on these guys right now. They’d freak out.”
“That would be perfect, but they’ll have their pudding when they wake up tomorrow morning, Tammy.”
“I think they really needed a good laugh, don’t you?” I asked Arn
“There’s never anything on Hoth to laugh about. I’m surprised they even remember how. I figured I was the only one on the planet who laughed.”
“At me when I’m not looking? I asked, half serious.
“No, no. A few of the books I read had funny stories.”
“Sorry to change the subject, Arn, but where’s the settlement, McKaren?”
“Inside the mountain, Tammy. It’s a huge survivalist compound, constructed prior to the chaos by a very wealthy corporation. The Revolutionaries seized the compound just before the chaos began. It is heavily fortified, heavily armed and extremely difficult to find.”
“How many people live here?” Arn asked.
“Four hundred eighteen.”
The four men near us were not dressed in uniforms, but in clothing similar to what Arn and I wore in the fields, long jeans, long sleeve shirts and broad-brimmed hats. However, they wore no gloves.
As we watched, they turned to face the mountain and a large concealed door opened. The four men stepped through the opening, and we zipped in above and slightly behind them. The door closed.
“Are you two crazy?” Arn exclaimed. “You’re taking us into the goons’ cave?”
“It’s not the goons’ cave, Arn,” McKaren explained. “Only a few goons live here in ‘the cave’, as this outpost is called. Everyone else is a worker, like the two of you. We’re completely safe in here. They have no way of detecting our presence.”
‘The cave’ was a natural cave in the mountain, with a domed ceiling that rose at least sixty feet above the floor. A small city lay before us, complete with streets and buildings. Some sort of backlighting gave the entire cave the appearance of early dusk. The windows of the buildings revealed brighter lighting inside the buildings.
We slowly moved around the cave, taking in what appeared to be office buildings and residential apartment buildings. Near the far edge of the cave a stream of water flowed.
“Amazing,” Arn gushed. “I had no idea there was anything like this left standing.”
“The chaos never touched this place,” McKaren explained.
“There’s even a stream,” I remarked.
“Yes. This outpost is an ideal location considering the circumstances of the planet. However, the air is still poisonous, as is the water and the food the people must eat. There are buildings, water and a power source, but even here people will not survive past this generation.”
“You said these people are workers. What do they do?” I asked.
“Money was no object for the wealthy technology company that built this complex. They realized that the planet was edging closer to what later became the chaos, and they thought they could run their technology empire from here if necessary. The complex is fitted with a vast array of what was the latest technology when the complex was completed approximately thirty eight years ago.
“The technology in this cave runs many of the operations of the revolutionaries both in North America and in Asia. Things like keeping track of parts needed to keep desalination plants running, vehicles and planes working and power plants online are all managed here. This facility also manages communication between all settlements on the planet. Many of the workers here work in those functions.
“Some of the other workers here keep this complex functioning and in good repair. A few work in the mushroom farms, which are located in a smaller cave that connects with this cave.”
“Mushrooms?” Arn asked. “We’ve never had any mushrooms.”
“Most of the mushrooms grown here are eaten here. A small quantity are shipped to headquarters and are eaten by the goons. Plants from the headquarters location are shipped here, and exchanged for cases of mushrooms.”
“So the goons at headquarters get weed soup, vegetables they grow in their greenhouse, mushrooms, and the best cuts of the meat?” Arn asked.
“That is correct,” McKaren answered. “Have you not noticed that they are not as lean as the field workers?”
“I figured that was because they don’t do much physical labor,” Arn replied.
“That is true, but they do receive slightly more food than you. However, they receive only a few ounces more food each day than you do, even though their diet is somewhat more varied.”
“This is a cave. Is it cooler in here than outside, McKaren? I asked. “It must be if they’re growing mushrooms in here.”
“Yes, it is approximately twenty three degrees cooler in here than outdoors.”
“Whoa! How do we get assigned here?” Arn asked. “This has to be the plum assignment on the planet.”
“You are correct, Arn. Cooler temperatures, flowing water, fresh mushrooms and a room you share with just one other person, complete with beds. However, you must have the skills that are needed here.
“Since the population of the planet is slowly dying and not being replaced, each year fewer workers are needed to perform the jobs here. Field workers are in short supply. The outside working and living conditions tend to make for shorter lives for field workers. Arn.”
“You’re telling me my job is going to kill me faster than a job in here would, and there’s nothing I can do about it?”
“Statistically that is all correct.”
“Can we get a closer look at the buildings?” I asked.
“Of course,” McKaren answered.
McKaren slowly passed the buildings. All the buildings had four levels. They were built in the style of pueblos, and were tinted a sandstone color. I had always wanted to live in a southwestern style house. However, there were no cacti, no plants, no sand, no horses or anything else that reminded me of the southwest. We saw only a tan cave floor with walls and ceiling to match.
McKaren took us into the mushroom cave, where workers tended trays of mushrooms. I counted five or six varieties of mushrooms.
“What powers the lighting and other equipment in the cave?” I asked McKaren.
“There are several sources of power. There are several discreet solar collectors located atop the mountain. There are also generators in the ocean below powered by the movement of the ocean. In addition, a natural gas-powered generator is located in a third cave located nearby. The natural gas is piped in from a nearby natural gas field. As you can see, the location for this facility was very carefully chosen by the corporation that built the facility.”
“Can we get out and walk around and take some mushrooms home with us?” Arn asked.
“No. You may not. We will not risk detection. We may look, but not touch or even get out and look around, as you call it. We have probably seen everything we need to see here at this time, so it is time to leave and move on to the second settlement we will visit today.”
“How do we get out of here?” I asked.
“We will take a position near the door and wait for it to open.”
We moved to a wide ledge located near the door and sat there a few minutes until several workers approached the door, which opened for them. When they walked out, we followed.
We passed just a few feet above their heads. Two of the workers’ hats blew off.
“What made that breeze?” one asked.
The workers looked around and above them and shrugged. We moved away from land, headed out over the open water, turned north and ascended.
“Next stop ‘Karma Gardens’, the garden spot of the west, as the goons call it,” McKaren announced.
“That’s a weird name. Why do they call it that? Do they grow plants there?” I asked.
“No. Before the chaos the plain on which the settlement is located was rich and fertile and grew a variety of fruit and vegetables. Now, however, there are no plants. The settlement relies on a small desalination plant located a couple of miles away next to the ocean, but there is only enough water to supply the needs of the people. There is an inadequate supply to grow food plants.”
Once again we ascended above the cloud cover, and a few minutes later began descending. As we descended from the clouds, what appeared to be a fort came into view, a fort sited on a wide, flat, bleached mesa.
“Karma Gardens,” McKaren announced. “Once a paradise, but no more.”
“It looks like a fort,” Arn observed. “A fort with really tall, thick walls.”
“That’s right,” McKaren informed us. “When the great chaos began a group of revolutionaries came here and built a small, heavily fortified compound. This compound has eight large cannons similar to those atop the greenhouse at headquarters. As the chaos progressed, the revolutionaries here increased the size of the compound and the height and thickness of the walls.
“The location makes them look like good targets, but it is highly defensible. They can see for miles in every direction. Any land assault would be doomed, and their cannons could decimate anyone on the surrounding mountains. Their cannons can lock on any incoming plane, missile or projectile and vaporize it before it reaches their fortress.”
“It looks like pointed logs on top of the walls,” I commented.
“Yes, it does. However, those logs are not wood logs but are made of concrete,” McKaren answered.
“Where do they get power?” Arn asked. “What do their workers do?”
“Many of their workers run the small refinery and oil production facilities located directly north of us. The products the refinery produces power their generators. They also deliver refined petroleum products to the other North American settlements. The refinery facilities include several tanker trucks used for that purpose.
“Some of the workers maintain the fortress, and some of the workers keep the tanker trucks running.”
“Where do they get replacement parts for the oil field equipment, the refinery and the trucks?” Arn asked.
“The facility includes a large machine shop. If the workers cannot repair a part, they make a new part.”
We passed low over the fortress, noting a small administration building and residential buildings, then moved north to the well-camouflaged oil production and refinery facilities.
The facilities were smaller than I expected. Three tanker trucks were parked near the refinery. A handful of workers were visible. The others were inside the machine shop and refinery buildings.
“Boring,” Arn announced. “There’s not much to see here. Since you told us you’d show us three settlements today, why don’t we move on to the third settlement.”
“Yes, at the present time there is little here that would interest you. In its heyday you would have seen much more activity in this area, but now it’s just a fortress near this continent’s only oil production facility.
“We shall move along to our last stop of the day, the cliff dwellers.”
“The cliff dwellers?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Surely you know about the ancient cliff dwellers who lived in the recesses of the cliffs in the southwest, Tammy” McKaren said.
“Yes, I’ve read about them and a couple of years ago my parents took me on a vacation through Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. My dad stopped at two or three of the cliff dwellings. We climbed through some of them.
“I remember one house, if that’s what you call it, that I climbed up to. There were handprints in the walls. The guide said that the handprints belonged to the woman who plastered the walls with mud. The handprints looked fresh, but he said they were over a thousand years old.
“I remember putting my hands in the prints. They fit exactly. Whoever plastered those walls had hands exactly the same size as mine.”
“What did you think about that, Tammy?” McKaren asked.
“I felt a connection to the woman who did it. I could almost see myself there plastering that wall with mud that would dry, but before it dried I stuck my hands in the wet mud to say ‘This is my handprint. I was here. I plastered this wall. Remember me.’”
“Do tell, Tammy. Do tell,” McKaren commented.
“Gramps used to say exactly the same thing.”
“Are you and Gramps one and the same, McKaren?”
McKaren said nothing.
While we had talked, we had been flying north along the coast. McKaren descended and turned toward the cliff.
“Cliff dwellers!” I exclaimed. “Just like the ancient Indians.”
“Why don’t you ask Gramps?” McKaren suggested.
As we approached the cliff dwellings a man standing in front of them came into focus. He was looking directly at us, smiling and waving.
“Gramps!” both Arn and I shouted. “How did he get here?”