Once Upon A Time: The Hillside.

Inferior Mirage in Mojave Desert.
Inferior Mirage in Mojave Desert. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This story got away from me and the kids loved it. It’s longer than the others, so start reading earlier.)

Once upon a time there was a hillside. It had scrub shrubs and a little stunted tree fighting its way out of the dry brown earth. The hillside came to a flat top, like a miniature mesa, and its sides were mostly dry earth that fell away from beneath our boots like thick sand.
Over the top of the hillside stretched the bowl of a valley, flat and shimmering in the heat of mid-day. The heat waves made the facility sitting in the middle of the valley waver in the air like a mirage. Maybe it was, this manufacturing plant in the middle of nowhere. We’d had to track its power supply and water lines for more than fifty miles underground, and through several different kinds of traps, before we reached here.
It should have been visible from the air, a plant this size. But nothing showed up on overhead passes or satellite images. Didn’t make much sense, because there it was, and we had the water and power flow readings to prove it was there and was pulling enough power and water to fuel a small city.
I looked over at my commander. He was doing the readings and scanning data for our home base. Another scout, Parker, was taking pictures. “Look sir!” he held up the digital camera to our commander, “there’s nothing showing up.” I looked over his shoulder. The camera showed an empty valley.
What was it, mirroring technology? Did these yahoos have something perfected that we were just starting to experiment with? And if so, why didn’t it work on the human eye, which should have been the most susceptible to deception. But our scanners also picked out infrared, and whole spectrums I didn’t even know the names of. There was no way to completely conceal a plant of this size. But they had.

English: :Mirage in Great Salt Lake Desert
English: :Mirage in Great Salt Lake Desert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was me, the commander, and Parker on this “fool’s errand in the desert.” Higher command agreed that there was a power and water drain, but they couldn’t spare a whole lot of men to go on an extended desert hike to see where it was going. And they had a good point, there was nothing out here or they would have seen it. I suspected that this was the commander’s last command, tolerated only because he’d been worked around the clock for as long as anyone could remember. So when he got back they’d ship him stateside, and then ease him into retirement or a desk job because he’d finally blown a fuse.
“Jackson.” The commander called to me. “You see it as well as we do, right?” I nodded. “Yes, sir. It looks like a fully functioning weapons facility. I don’t know how we missed it.”
The commander looked unhappy. “I just talked to home base. They don’t have anything on their scanners and satellite is negative. So they’d like some sort of evidence that they can see before they call in an airstrike.”
I nodded. I’d seen the maps of the area before we set out. The satellites could map down to a few feet. There was no way we could see anything they couldn’t .
“Could it be a mirage, sir?” I bit down on my lip the second I said it. The commander looked like he wanted to punch me, but he nodded as well. “Could be. Check it out and we’ll cover you. I haven’t seen any movement or anything on the ground.”
I shouldered my weapon and hiked up over the top of the hillside. There wasn’t much point in trying to hide on that valley floor. If I’d wanted to, I could have colored myself like the dirt and belly crawled out to the facility without anyone seeing me. But I didn’t know if the facility was even there. I’d have to trust my body armor and helmet to deflect any initial attack and my buddies to give me some cover. If home base decided to act, we could have eight aircraft over the top of this thing in ten minutes, each with enough firepower to flatten the place. But it wouldn’t be in time for me if there was a sniper watching me.
It made me itchy, thinking of a sniper. I’d gotten a bit of shrapnel under my helmet a while back during a convoy explosion that took out the truck ahead of me. They said they’d gotten it all, but the scar itched whenever I got nervous.
Snipers made me nervous. I’d known one back in basic training. Could take the wings off a fly at a hundred yards, but spent most of the rest of his time twitching. It was like the only time he could stay still was when he had a rifle pointed at something. So thinking of snipers made me think of tall, twitchy guys who couldn’t quite look anyone in the eye.

English: Sniper-soldier from the Second Batall...
English: Sniper-soldier from the Second Batallion of the Norwegian Army (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The valley floor had looked like a couple hundred yards from the hillside, but once I was out on it the distance got considerably longer. I kept my head down, scanning the facility for any signs of movement. With every step, the facility seemed to get farther away. Could this thing really be a mirage after all?
Twenty minutes later, the facility disappeared. I must have walked into the middle of the mirage and it just evaporated. I could see little puddles of mirage around me, looking like water on the sand. I felt bad for my commander. It was his butt on the line for getting us all the way out here. It still didn’t answer where the power and water cables went, but I doubted home base would waste any more time chasing power cables in the desert.
I tripped over something. Went face down in the sand and scrambled away from it. We’d had too much landmine training to get too close to something in the sand. Then I looked back at the thing and it winked at me. A camera projector, disguised under a chunk of desert grass, shining the light back at me.
I bent closer to the camera, and it whirred slightly, turning toward me. I froze. The camera stopped, looking up at me. I had a very bad feeling about this. If I was on top of an underground bunker, they knew I was here and were looking right at me. Something this size definitely wouldn’t be defenseless, and right now I probably had a dozen remote-controlled guns pointed at me.
But then I thought a bit more. Whoever it was couldn’t take on all of us. They didn’t want to riddle me with bullets and let me lie on top of their little bunker as a marker for an airstrike. So all I needed to do was walk away and call in the strike. As long as I was alive, I could tell home base about the camera, in the middle of the desert, underneath the factory mirage.
I played that one through in my head. There was no way home base was going to call in a bunker buster airstrike on a patch of desert based on the word of a grunt who had just admitted he’d walked through a factory mirage. I needed proof.
The camera might be proof enough. I reached down and grabbed a hold of the camera stalk. It was steel, but if I bent it back and forth, I bet I could break it off. All I needed was a little piece to prove something was out here.
When you get a lot of electrical current through you, it makes you grunt. I grunted like a pig as the camera pretty much fried me where I grasped it. Next time, I promised myself, I’ll wear gloves. Then I blacked out.
Whoever it was must have put me under for a while, because when I woke up the three of us, commander, Parker, and me, were all lying in a cell. It was one of those white cells, with the sanitized clear glass doors like they wanted to put us on display. The other two were still out.
We were dressed only in our boxers, so I figured whoever it was had a pretty good chance to go over us. I got up and looked around the cell. There wasn’t much to see, but they had a sink and a toilet, so I used both. No point in not feeling comfortable while you wait.
A couple of hours later, both my buddies woke up. Commander said they’d seen me bend over to get something through their sights and then somebody had dropped them both with tasers and some kind of gas blown in their faces.
A white coated man came up to our glassed in door. He opened a slot, and deposited three sets of paperwork and pens into the slot. His face was covered in a white hood, and when he spoke he had a voice modulator that masked any accent. “Please fill out the paperwork, and you will be fed.” Then he left.
We got the paperwork. They were complete medical records sets, one for each of us. We discussed whether or not we should fill out the paperwork. The man in white came back, wheeling a flat screen television. He turned it on, and we got to see three men, dressed in our fatigues, picking their way through a rocky landscape. “Three men enter the valley. Three men leave.” He said to us. “Fill out the paperwork.”
The commander chewed his lip. “Maybe satellite was watching you when you went out there. Maybe it got an image of the guys who attacked us. They might be coming for us right now.” We watched the three men leaving the valley. “Maybe,” I said. “But maybe nobody at home base really cares about this mission. The best they’ll do is track us occasionally. And there we are, happy as clams, so what’s the issue?”
I started filling out my paperwork. The commander and Parker tore theirs up. When the man in white came back, I deposited my paperwork in the little drawer. “Thank you, Mr. Jackson.” The man was expressionless. I could hear gas seeping into our vents. While Parker and the commander pounded on the door, I lay back in my bunk. I figured it was knockout gas and the worst thing we could do was fall over and injure ourselves.
When I woke up again, I was out of my cell. I was in a room with a nicer bed, and my own television. On my arms and legs were bracelets. A note by the bed explained that the bracelets were water resistant but that any attempt to tamper with any of the bracelets would generate a possibly fatal shock.
I turned on my television. It only played a snippet of a local news story. The announcer was talking about my commander’s fatal stroke, and speculating about what had happened to my commander mentally before he shot both of the soldiers under his command. Parker had been killed, and my bloody footprints had been found at the edge of a deep ravine. The body would be retrieved in the next few days. I shivered. Whoever had me here didn’t need me anymore. I was hungry, and wandered out of my room looking for something to eat.
The man in the white mask, or maybe someone else, met me in the hallway. “Come with me, Mr. Jackson. I wanted to throttle him for my buddies. “Resist your impulses, Mr. Jackson. The bracelets have been calibrated to your heart rate.”
I grabbed him. If I was going to get shocked, so would he. When the shock hit, I crumpled and the man waited for me to recover. “I wear rubber undergarments, Mr. Jackson. And you have used up your one chance. A second attempt will make you an unsuitable candidate.”
I followed him down a corridor, and into a mess hall. The room was filled with bracelet wearing folks. I saw soldiers I thought I recognized, but also guys with civilian haircuts and a number of women sprinkled through the crowd.

Hospital corridor, in gray
Hospital corridor, in gray (Photo credit: Julie70)

Getting my food, I saw that even the servers had bracelets. The whole place ran on borrowed labor. Even the rations I was getting served were standard issue. Everything about this place had been taken from our own supplies.
I sat down to eat and asked the guy next to me: “So, what’s the deal here?” He looked over at me and put his finger to his lips. I looked around and saw all the cameras. “So what?” I said. “They know we’re going to…yowtch!” My bracelets shocked me. I swore. The man next to me nodded. I grimaced. “So, how long you been here?…YOWTCH!” The man looked over at me sympathetically and held up a three fingers. “Three months or three years?….Oouch!” The last time the shock got both of us and the man moved away from me at the table.
That last shock did something weird. While I was getting shocked it was like I wasn’t dressed in a nice white suit after all. I was still dressed in my filthy boxers. And the room around me didn’t look like a nice mess hall. It looked like a big cave, dimly lit by a string of bulbs along the wall. Then the shock ended and I was back in the mess hall.
I moved down the table. The guy on the other side of me didn’t look too happy. “You don’t have to talk..Ouch!” I took the shock and spent the second looking around. We were in a big cave, and everybody else was dressed in their underwear. We were eating standard, cold, survival rations out of the foil. Then I was back in mess hall with the guy, who was also getting shocked for just being near me.
I looked across the way at the guy, who started getting shocked just because I made eye contact.
When I looked behind me, the man in the white mask was walking rapidly toward our table. Only now he didn’t look like he was dressed in white, he looked like he was dressed in a black robe with silver stars? “I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson, it’s time to die.” He said it without emotion.
As he said it, I reached out and grabbed him by the throat. I felt the shock going through me and saw that it wasn’t going through him. I could feel the skin of his throat. There was no latex nothing between us. My heart hurt in my chest, but I fought it off. As I fought, I could see the mess hall fade and the cave resume. The white mask faded away and the man in front of me was a hooked nosed little man with graying hair and an absurd magician’s robe. I was dying, but I had him by the throat. He winced as my grasp tightened. Then his eyes got very round and he waved his hand. Immediately, the shock ceased.
I struggled to stay upright. “Come with me, Mr. Jackson.” The man’s voice was quavering, but clearly more Mediterranean than Middle-Eastern. I came with him, still trying to figure out why I wasn’t dead, and what had happened to the mess hall. We threaded our way through a bunch of filthy people hunkered down on the floor eating survival kits in a cave. All of them had strands of what looked like human hair tied around their wrists and ankles.
The man brought me to a cave and set me down on some army issue blankets piled in a corner. “Sleep, Mr. Jackson. We will talk in the morning.” I faded out without a sound.
In the morning I woke up in the cave. When I got up, the little man was there, dozing at the cave mouth. He got up with a start when I did. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited, Mr. Jackson! It’s so rare to find anyone these days, anyone at all.”
I resisted the urge to strangle him. “You killed my buddies.”
“Oh, no, Mr. Jackson. You just think I did. Come and see.” The little man led me down the caves until we came to a closed cave mouth. Both the commander and Parker were bloody and bruised, asleep in the entrance. When they heard us coming the commander got groggily to his feet. He saw me and swore. “Traitor! What, did they make you a commander already? Going to lead the strikes against home base? I’d kill you if I could get out of here!” He threw himself against the cave wall, striking his already bloody hands against the rock. I looked down at my filthy boxers. What was he seeing?
“Commander, don’t you see? It’s just me. You’re in a cave.” The commander glowered at me. “Threaten me all you want. I’ll never switch. Take your threats and shove ‘em.” He collapsed back to the floor with his back to us.

English: Sdom cave, the Judean Desert, Israel....
English: Sdom cave, the Judean Desert, Israel. עברית: פיר במערה בהר סדום, מדבר יהודה, ישראל. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The little man walked me away a short distance. “I’m terribly sorry. There is nothing we can do for them. If I remove the hair, every time they go insane. It’s better to let them live out whatever they are living in now. It makes them happy, in a way.”
“What are you, a magician?” I looked at him. “An illusionist,” he bowed. “At one point my family ran much of Europe, but I fear we are out of fashion. Currently three other families control much of the globe.”
“How is that possible?” I looked around me. “You’ve seen for yourself.” Said the illusionist. “With the advent of modern technology, everything magical has become believable once again. Your dragons breathe smoke and exhaust, or hover in the air as silent saucers. A man may appear in one place and then another without causing suspicion. Commands and information come through the ether, manifesting disembodied voices without any inkling of disbelief. Watch.” The illusionist stopped a young man who was passing us. He held up a hand to the man. “You may talk with your family.” I watched as the young man accepted something in the air and started talking animatedly with his empty hands. Evidently that conversation went badly and he was soon in tears. Eventually he threw something against the wall and stormed off.
The illusionist explained how the illusionist families had created empires for themselves. “Once you start an illusion, it takes hold,” he explained. “For example, there is a stock exchange in the Midwest that is simply an empty room. But people buy and sell there every day, and see their fortunes made and lost on empty walls. Nothing more needs to be added to the illusion. It self-perpetuates.”
How did we end up in the desert? He told me the long version, but the short version was that he was afraid that one of the other families would find him so he retired to the desert. Then the rest of us showed up and started blowing things up. He started taking in lost soldiers out of pity, and then needed supplies, electricity and water. So he did enough illusion to have workers lay down the lines. “They thought they were building a weapons facility,” he explained.
Seeing through the illusion is the illusionist’s greatest trick. So when he found me, the illusionist was overjoyed. He’s been training me in how to do the tricks, but they are fearfully easy. Create a series of online images, add an interview, and you’ve got a minor war. The three major families keep everything in chaos, and have gotten more desperate in recent years. So we need more people like me, trying to set things right.

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