Bob One pointed, “What’s ‘Williams Grand Canyon’?”
Judith looked at the road sign. “Williams is a town. The Grand Canyon is a famous canyon, very big.”
“The same one in ‘Zion Natl Park Grand Canyon Lake Powell Exit 27’?”
“That was a long distance back.”
“It’s a big canyon. The Colorado River carved it. We’ve circled around. You can see it on the map.” She pointed. Bob One picked up the map and began unfolding the sections.
Judith noticed he was holding it upside down. She started to correct him, but the right side tires began making noise as she drifted onto the shoulder guard grooves.
Keep my mind on the road.
Joe was awake. He’d taken the shotgun seat an hour back. After rescuing the map from the aliens, he was navigating as they approached Holbrook, Arizona.
“There’s our exit.” The sign advertised the Petrified Forest National Park and the town of Show Low. They had to turn south.
“Don’t tell Bob One.”
Joe looked her way. “He pestering you about tourist attractions, too?”
She nodded. “I wasn’t sure we were going to get through the Flagstaff area without taking a detour. National Parks, National Monuments, scenic areas—there was too much for him, and he wanted to see them all.”
He looked at the sign wistfully. “I know how he feels.”
Holbrook had never been on Joe’s list of tourist attractions, but from a motel perspective, it was a fascinating place. He was jealous.
Holbrook was on Interstate 40, and of course, it had the old Route 66 alternate. From what Joe could see, there were many nice vintage motels, well maintained, with fresh paint and attractive signs. There were restaurants and curio shops all along their route.
And of course, they were just miles to the east were the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Parks. Just a few miles back was the great Meteor Crater. All of them were places Joe had longed to see. All were just passing blips on his radar for this trip.
Next time! Next time, I’ll see it all.
It’s a Sunday morning. Joe realized that with a start after they turned onto Highway 60 in Show Low. There was a Church of Christ beside the highway, with its parking lot filled. He looked at his watch. It was the fourth Sunday of the month.
Had he been home, this week it would have been his turn to hold down the office while the rest of the family went off to Sunday school. Of course, with Mom off in Albuquerque, maybe things would have been messed up anyway. Still, it was his turn with the duty, and he wasn’t there to do his job.
“I can’t detect any talkie activity,” Bob One said as they approached the side road.
Joe nodded to Judith, “Drive on past. Don’t slow down.”
They’d been checking the maps since they’d entered the town, expecting to detect a talkie from the base at any time.
“According to Daddy, there’s supposed to be one here. It could be turned off.”
“We’ve just been lucky so far. Your Trust has to know what’s happened at the other bases. This is a trap.”
Bob Four said, “They don’t know about the tunnels. I can go inside and look.”
“We don’t know that they don’t know.”
Judith said, “I can go knock on the door.”
“No. They have to know you were there at Rock Springs. If we could talk you through your hidden memories, they’d have done the same thing with Duke. In spite of the rollback, they’d find that much out, at least. They’ll be looking for you.”
“And you, too.”
Joe remembered the interrogation he had experienced.
Bob Four said, “But we can’t leave our people behind!”
Joe nodded. “I understand that. Judith, find a place to turn around. Drive back into town. We need some stuff from Wal-Mart.”
Joe pedaled his new bicycle up the gravel road.
“Sorry.” Bob Four was curled up as small as he could manage in the oversized backpack Joe was wearing. The RV was waiting in the parking lot of the airport, just down the road. Joe was worried about using the talkie, but if the base unit were turned on, even for a moment, Bob Four could communicate with Bob Eight inside and learn what was going on.
“I hate tunnels.” A thin fingered hand gripped his hair as they bumped along the rough path.
“The entrance is always dirty, with leaves and bugs, and the gateway is hard to operate, especially with fingers like mine.”
“What’s wrong with your fingers?”
“Nothing’s wrong with them, but they aren’t a Sam’s claws. Sams dug the tunnels, not Bobs.”
Joe listened as he chatted on. The tunnels had been dug back in the 1950’s, when they had hope for an early escape. But as Sams and Bobs made explorations to see the outside world, they realized that every one of these bases were located in dry, inhospitable terrain. Show Low at least had trees, but it was still a hot dry place, by Bob standards.
“No Bob could live long in this desert of yours. The only place I’ve seen in your magazines that looks anything like my home planet was a story on the Everglades. Of course, we don’t have alligators.”
The Trust had separated the original crew very early, partly to prevent any mass escape. Officially, no alien could communicate with anyone in a different base.
“Passing information from one base to the other has been an on-going game with us. Everything had to be obscure, so the Trust wouldn’t suspect.”
“Like what?” Joe wondered at Bob Four’s willingness to reveal their secrets. Was it just a side effect of Bob Four’s optimism that he was going home, or was there a more sinister reason, like a cache of super-rollback.
“For one thing, the Sams pass RNA memories back and forth in their pods, all Sams of a triad are really the same person, with the same memories. And for another, the Freds played a trick on the Trust.”
“Tell me.” Joe was sweating from the effort as the road slanted uphill. His bicycling in Las Vegas was on flat city streets, not uphill on gravel.
“Freds are clever. They can make exotic chemicals easily. When the Trust realized this and found that although none of us would teach our technologies to humans, Freds would make things for them, the Freds insisted that no one of them could do the job alone. One Fred would make the raw materials, the ‘sludge’, and a courier like Judith’s father would transport the sludge to the next base where another Fred would make the final substance.
“But it was easy for the Freds to encode messages directly into the chemicals.
“So with the help of the Sams and the Freds, any of us could pass messages to another.”
“So you planned your escape that way?”
“We tried. There were obstacles, like the desert heat. For another, the Freds couldn’t use the tunnels at all.”
Joe asked, “What chemicals did the Freds make?”
“Industrial catalysts, mainly. Certain chemicals, ones that humans would learn how to make on their own shortly anyway, were very valuable to the Trust. I believe the Trust has depended on those for their funding lately.”
Bob’s voice sounded lower, and confidential. “Don’t tell anyone, but the Freds could have made the Trust a lot more money if they’d wanted. It served our purposes to keep their resources fairly limited.”
“I knew you guys were a sneaky lot.”
“We do what we can. We’re getting close.”
Joe stopped and carefully let Bob Four out of the backpack. He hid the bicycle away from the road in the trees.
“The tunnel entrance is this way.” Bob Four led the way.
They were close to the Trust’s house, and had to keep out of sight and quiet. But, before they reached it, the trees opened up into a large gravel pit. There were signs this was a regularly used industrial site, with a trash dumpster and a portable toilet. There was a gate that could close off the pit, although it had been left open.
“This isn’t right.” Bob Four walked a few paces back and forth, hunting for some landmark.
Joe shook his head. “The hillside has been carved out.” He kicked at the roadway underfoot. “Here’s where they get gravel for roads probably. Your tunnel entrance has been destroyed.” The site looked several years old, but there were fresh road signs. If they’d arrived during the week, they’d have had to dodge gravel trucks.
Bob Four shook his head. “Bob Eight was never one to use the tunnel, he hated getting dirty. And the Sam who had dug it was one of the triad that died in the 60’s. No one’s checked this tunnel in decades.
“We should have kept prepared!”
Joe pulled out the FRS walkie-talkie he’d bought when they picked up the bicycle. “Keep in contact with family and friends”, said the packaging.
He checked the channel number, then pressed the push-to-talk button. “Problem. We’ve lost his way.”
There was a double-click from the radio. Unfortunately, the talkie couldn’t help Judith reply more than that.
Joe walked around the pit, looking for any sign of the old tunnel, but he could see nothing. Bob Four kept out of sight behind the trees. It was a Sunday, and there were no workmen in sight, but they were too near an urban area to take chances.
“Hey you there! Stay where you are!”
Just then, three men came out of the tree line. Trust agents! Joe tossed aside his walkie-talkie and ran. There was a shout, and they started after him.
He looked back. They were gaining. One man was ahead of the pack and closing fast. Joe put his head down and scrambled up the side of the road, hoping to get into the trees.
The last thing he felt was a sting in the middle of his back.