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Mark Reeder and Ron Meyer live in Boulder, Colorado and have been writing together for the last five years. Mark works as a cabinet maker and Ron runs Centre Communications, a company that produces educational videos. Book I of their Crystal Sword Trilogy, A Dark kNight for the King, is available from Electric Umbrella as an E-book at Mylero.com and Barnes and Noble. They are currently editing Book II, Queen's kNight Gambit.

 

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-2001 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

The Other Side

by Ron Meyer and Mark Reeder

 

An uneasy cold wind swirled along the road, spinning legends out of dream and time in the dry desert air. In the arroyo far below, the White River tumbled and smashed onto rocks and boulders, the sound rising like whispered secrets. Merrick stood on the steel girder bridge, regarding the concrete barricade in front of him. Instinct told him that something important lay beyond it: maybe the object he was looking for. He walked from one side of the barrier to the other but saw no way through for his rented Ford Explorer.
The country all around was steep ridges and steeper canyons, striped by slanting swatches of pink and yellow stone and filled with a great emptiness. Fifteen miles behind him lay Bonanza, a town of 350--the only people in a hundred square miles of scrub desert. It was also the gateway to the Barrier Canyons Area he was exploring. He had already investigated several other sites today and had come up empty. Now this latest promising lead had been blocked off.
He walked back to the SUV and leaning his long frame through the window, picked up his road atlas. He quickly thumbed through the dog-eared, coffee-stained pages until he found the map of Utah. He studied it and blinked. "I'll be damned," he said and frowned. The map showed the road went through. He checked the atlas's date, already knowing that it would say 2000: this year.
He looked at the barrier again, this time with the eyes of a trained archaeologist. At least twenty years of weathering on that concrete, he judged. He rubbed his bent nose--smashed flat and broken in Cincinnati's underground fight clubs, wondering why the map indicated the road ran free and clear, when it had obviously been blocked for so many years. He shrugged, another of life's annoying little conundrums.
He chucked the atlas onto the passenger seat and picked up a chamois cloth sack, the kind jewelers use for conveying precious stones. He upended it and a piece of ancient, blue-green jade tumbled into his palm. Precisely carved, the stone depicted the finely tufted point and the delicate inner whorls of a jaguar's ear. A jagged edge showed where it had broken away from the original sculpture. Spidery hand writing on a yellowed label told part of its story: "1926, Utah, Olmec." Merrick knew that this fragment of the Olmec Jaguar God had been unearthed seventy-five years ago in this area--a place it had no business being. Why no one had investigated this anomaly before now, he did not know. But then, archaeology was replete with exotic, unsolved puzzles and forgotten mysteries.
He turned back to the concrete bulwark and stared beyond it. The sun lay a fiery hulk on the western ridges. He had the feeling, which an archaeologist is lucky to sense a few times in his career, that he had at last found what he was looking for, but it was too late in the day to hike past the barrier. He'd drive back to his hotel in Bonanza tonight. Maybe somebody there could unravel this particular little mystery for him and help him get to the other side.

 

The next morning Merrick descended the stairs from his room to the hotel's lobby. The hotel was old and seasoned like the proprietor who hunched on a stool behind the front desk, a little gnome of a man, a clerk lost from a Dickens' novel. A credenza rose behind him, dark, polished wood with twenty darker cubbyholes for keys.
Merrick walked over to the man. "Good morning, Lu," he offered and handed his key to the man. The Bonanza Hotel was old fashioned, like a western movie, holding the room keys for its patrons.
"Good morning Professor," Lu answered the same as he had every morning for the last three days. He carefully pushed the key into the dark mouth of number four. He turned back as Merrick laid a pick ax, the head's iron ring twisted and broken from metal fatigue, on the gleaming desk top.
"Know anyone who can fix this?" Merrick asked.
Lu carefully picked up the tool so as not to scratch the wood and looked it over. Handing it back, he answered, "Carl at the filling station has a welder. You should try him."
Merrick smiled. "Thanks." He turned to go and then said, "You know the paved road that runs south of here toward the Barrier Canyons?"
"Sure."
"It's blocked at the bridge, but my map says it's supposed to be open. Know what the story is?"
"Stream washed out the road past the bridge a while back."
"Really. How long ago?"
Lu shrugged. "Dunno. Can't remember."
Merrick nodded and walked out under a sere blue sky, a deep summer sky without any rain in it. A breeze threw swirls of dust along the main road with a windy freedom.
He saw Bonanza in a single glance: a decaying strip of town, the buildings old and worn; the asphalt street pitted with potholes and weeds poking through its many cracks. Beside the hotel was Rosalyn's Cafe and beyond that a tired church with cupped clapboard siding, paint fading from the sun. Boarded up businesses lined either side of the street. At the edge of town, Carl's filling station loomed like a mirage, its antique gasoline pumps encrusted, their glass bowls cracked.
Merrick found Carl under a rusted pickup. He emerged holding a twisted leaf spring. "Morning," the young man said absently. "Can I help you?"
Merrick showed him the pick ax. "Can you fix this?" he asked.
Carl put down the spring and examined the twisted metal. "I can have it done in about an hour."
Merrick nodded. "Thanks. I'll be back after breakfast."
"Roz serves great huevos rancheros."
"She sure does. Say, do you know why the Barrier Canyon road is closed?"
"Bureau of Land Management turned the land into a natural prairie--no vehicles, no people allowed." Carl swatted a fly savagely. "Damn bureaucrats."
Merrick hid his surprise. That's odd, he thought. There's no prairie out there only desert.
"You know when?" he asked.
Carl shook his head. "Little while before I came here, I guess."
"When was that?"
"Five years ago." The mechanic set aside the pick and peered under the car again. "Come back in an hour and I'll have that fixed good as new."
Merrick smiled. "Sure. I'll be back after breakfast."
Walking into town, the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood up. He slued around and saw Carl, holding the leaf spring, peering at him. He turned back to the truck when the professor spied him. Merrick stopped himself from asking the mechanic what was wrong. Small town folks--friendly but a little bit wary of strangers, he reasoned.

 

Rosalyn's Cafe was as old and timeworn as its geriatric owner. Cracked and peeling linoleum revealed painted floorboards beneath. Someone had patched the vinyl booths with silver duct tape, now nearly black from sweat and grime. More duct tape layered the four stools at the grease-tinted counter. An ancient Bunn coffee machine cradled two pyrex coffee pots, their brown plastic handles broken midway.
Merrick took a seat near the cash register, an antique device that sounded suspiciously like a Las Vegas one-armed bandit. At the other end of the counter a man in faded dungarees and a sweat-stained baseball cap sipped coffee. In one of the booths sat another customer, his back turned to Merrick.
"The usual, Professor?" Roz asked, emerging from the kitchen, her voice weathered and cracked as the town itself.
Merrick nodded. Roz shouted his order into the kitchen, not bothering to write it down on a check.
She set a cup of coffee in front of him and pulled three half and half creamers out of her apron pocket to set along side it. "Find what yer looking for?"
Merrick shook his head. "Not yet. Got stymied yesterday by the blocked off bridge on the Canyon Road."
Faded dungarees snorted and said, "That's been there twenty years; ever since the military took over the canyon for its Eee Tee research." Merrick looked at him blankly. "You know, UFO stuff," he explained, winking.
Roz rolled her eyes at the man. "You wouldn't know an alien from last month's laundry." She smiled at the Professor. "He thinks his dog works for the CIA."
The man scowled. "He's a smart dog."
"That dog sleeps all day and howls all night. Drives the whole town crazy."
"He howls in code," faded dungarees said defensively.
Roz ignored him. "If you ask me, Professor, the county government didn't want to spend the money to maintain the road anymore, so they closed it down. It's as simple as that." She left to fill another coffee cup.
The eggs came and Merrick dug in. He ate with gusto like a prize fighter. It had been twenty-five years since he fought in the amateur clubs and his hair was gray and thinning, but his body was still lean and strong from all the hiking and digging.
Ten minutes later, he spooned the last bit of cheese and hot sauce into his mouth and sighed. "That was great as usual, Roz." He held up his coffee cup for a refill. "Know any way to get by that barrier? I sure would like to explore the other side."
Roz filled his cup and said, "Ain't any other roads heading south. No way across the river that I know of."
Merrick smiled. "Guess I'll just have to walk in." He paid the bill and left. Behind him, the customer from the booth rose quickly and followed him outside.
"Professor!" the man called.
Merrick turned around and saw a young man striding toward him. He squinted against the sun reflected in the man's shoulder length hair, the long curls an unearthly white, the color of moonlight on snow. The man approached him grinning, perfect white teeth in a tanned, lean face. "It's the oil companies," he said.
"What?" Merrick replied.
"The oil companies bought the land around the Barrier Canyons. They put up the roadblock to keep tourists out."
"Oh." Merrick frowned and then grinned. "I'm an archaeologist. Perhaps they'll give me permission to look for Indian artifacts."
The man tugged at his lower lip thoughtfully and frowned. "Maybe they will or maybe they won't. Just askin' could take a long time and most likely they'd never get back to you." He scuffed the asphalt with a battered Nike running shoe. Then he smiled suddenly, a hint of conspiracy glinting in dark green eyes. "If you're determined to go, I know a better way." He slapped his hand against his blue jeans, ridding the palm of imaginary dust, and held it out. "Name's William Jefferson Roberts. Most folks around here call me Billy J.."
Merrick pumped the hand once. "Conrad Merrick. You know a way around that barrier for my car, Billy J.?"
The young man grinned broadly. "Not your car...mountain bikes. Twenty-five dollars a day and I do the cookin'."

 

Overhead, the sun shown bleakly, beyond white, like pale ash. Dust devils battered harmlessly against the barricade behind them. It had been easy to hoist the mountain bikes, extra water and camping gear to the top of the concrete bulwark and then lower them to the other side.
"Where to now, Professor?" Billy J. asked.
From a pocket of his faded vest, Merrick pulled a crude map he had scribbled, based on notes that had accompanied the Olmec artifact. A sense of certainty flowed through him. Somewhere south of the bridge lay the 1926 dig that had unearthed this strange fragment of a jade carving. "Straight along this road for now. Ahead, two canyons--one cutting southwest and the other southeast--come together to form the beginning of a V. That's where we'll start."

 

They found the landmark at dusk--a stony apex that signaled the beginnings of two deep, rocky chasms that ran away into the fading light. Here, a rock slide bled onto the road, blocking most of it but leaving just enough space for Merrick's SUV, had he been able to drive it here. In fact, the twenty miles of road they had covered on the bikes was smooth and clear--no wash out or damage from spring rains.
Pictographs overlay the canyons' stone walls, murals of Native American rock art that twisted out of sight with the canyons' turnings. Billy J. laid out the sleeping bags and set up the camp stove while Merrick studied the pictures.
By the time dinner was ready, the only true light left was a band of blue shadow sliding swiftly behind the western mountains. Overhead stars filled the dark void with a brightness and clarity unattainable in the city.
Billy J. found the Professor squatting beside a hissing gas lantern, examining a pair of pictographs twice as tall as he was. One was a stretched human figure with stick arms bent at right angles to its rectangular body and two long horns protruding from a round head. The other was a bulbous circle with a cross in the center. A smaller circle, suggestive of a human head, rested on top and sprouted a single enormous horn. "What you got there, Professor?" Billy J. asked.
"Anthropomorphs from the Fremont Culture," Merrick answered absently, lost in his thoughts. "It was contemporary with the Anasazi."
"Anasazi, "Billy J. said, "I heard of them. They disappeared from around these parts hundreds of years ago."
Merrick nodded. "No one can explain for sure what happened to them. They just vanished after living here for several centuries."
"Like they walked right off the face of the earth," Billy J. said, awe in his voice. He squinted at the pictographs in the dark.
Merrick held the lantern aloft so Billy J. could get a better look at the grotesquely elongated figures. "The picture on the right represents a shaman, a kind of self-portrait, most likely. The one with the cross is the Sky God, Creator. Medicine Men would come here and craft these designs, hoping to create a portal that would take them to the other side--a world beyond this one with visions of the future."
Billy J. whistled softly. After a few moments he said solemnly, "Open sesame." Nothing happened. He laughed. "Guess it ain't working."
Merrick smiled. "Not today, any..." A sudden spear of light pierced the night sky to their right. "What the hell?" he exclaimed, nearly dropping the lantern.
Billy J. laughed easily. He said indifferently, "Gas flare. Probably from an oil rig burning off the excess gas. Kind of startlin' the first time you see one. Lots of lights out here at night since the oil companies set up shop." He stretched and yawned. "Let's get some dinner and in the morning we can start explorin'."
He turned away and Merrick stared after him. The flash of light was too bright and thin to be a jet of gas from an oil rig, Merrick thought. It was more like a door had been opened quickly, throwing a sliver of brilliant, afternoon sun into a pitch dark room, then hurriedly closed. Yet Billy J. squatted by the camp stove, spooning dinner onto metal plates, unconcerned about the light.
Merrick shivered slightly. The young guide was a mystery of sorts--youthful, energetic and smart, yet he stayed in Bonanza, a dying town with no future. Merrick realized he was holding his breath and let it out in a long, slow hiss. He chuckled ruefully. Getting spooked in your old age, he told himself and shrugged off his doubts. His right hand brushed against the bulge of the chamois sack and its jade, jaguar ear in his pants pocket next to his car keys. Safe for now. Soon he would have the answer to what he was looking for.

 

The next morning, Merrick woke with the sun. He stretched and pulled soft sheets up to his chin. No hurry today, he thought. Relax. Enjoy the last day of your vacation. Have breakfast at Roz's and then drive back to Salt Lake to drop off the SUV.
He took a long hot shower. Then he shaved carefully and packed his gear. As he reached for his pick ax, he peered at the recent weld and tried to recall something important--something he had intended to do today...yesterday? He couldn't remember. Another senior moment, he mused and chuckled. He shrugged and deftly lashed the pick to his pack.
At the desk he paid his bill and signed out. "Good-bye Lu," he waved. The diminutive clerk fluttered a cramped hand.
Next door at the cafe, Roz filled his coffee cup and set three creamers next to it. Merrick's eggs came moments later. He smiled and dug into the food with relish.
He finished. "Great as usual, Roz."
The door jingled and a young couple walked in. "Excuse me, Professor," Roz said and left to see the new customers.
"Can you fill our thermos?" the woman said.
"Sure." Roz took the thermos and returned in a few minutes with the coffee.
"That'll be three dollars," Roz said to the couple.
The man paid. "What happened to the road south of town?" the woman asked.
Merrick, sitting by the register, said, "Sorry, I couldn't help overhearing your question. The road crumbled a few years back and the county put up the barrier until it could be repaired."
"The woman frowned. "Too bad. It appears to be a good area for fossil collecting on the other side." She turned to her companion. "You know, honey, maybe we could park by the barrier and climb over it. We could hike in a ways, maybe get lucky."
The man shrugged. "Sure. Let's do it." The couple left.
"Newlyweds," Merrick said.
"Yup," Roz said. "They'll walk a couple hundred feet past the barrier, find a stone and call it an adventure."
Merrick smiled. He handed Roz a twenty. She pulled the handle of the ancient cash register. With little pings, black numbers on white tabs appeared in the machine's window. While she counted out his change, Merrick watched a young man with long, unnaturally white hair walk up to the couple by their car. The man smiled at them.
Merrick left Roz a generous tip and walked out of the cafe to his SUV. Fishing his keys from his pocket, a chamois cloth bag came with them. He upended it into his palm but nothing fell out. It was empty. Strange, he thought, and again he felt as though something were missing. He could not think what it would be and shoved the pouch back into his pocket.
As he climbed into his SUV, he heard the young man say to the couple, "I can get you to the other side, no problem."

 

THE END