Shadows quivered on the ginger-colored sand the old desert rat had pitched his camp on. The Joshua Trees replied to the easterly wind whispering melancholy through their rugged limbs. The fire in the rock ring had enough shelter to keep the flames from becoming unruly, but still they danced and squirmed, as if aching to fly with the gusts that swirled their fingers through the creosote and rabbit bush further out in the darkening landscape. Ragged-toothed mountains in the distance, mauve-colored, the sun sank behind them.
The old man adjusted the coffeepot hanging down from the triangle over the fire. There had been a ‘something’ off to the north, cylindrical or saucer-shaped, down near where the long-abandoned mines pocked that ridge of stone. It hovered low and ghostly silent, dipping finally out of sight, and now he sensed more than saw or heard, movement in that direction. He glanced around the camp, noted his tent was properly staked, his old International truck in all its authentic finery, the Whoopy Doop and Corvus properly displayed, all the time repeating to himself, “I am Edmund Jaeger. I am Edmund Jaeger.”
They appeared, four of them, the biggest one nearly two and a half meters tall, none of them shorter than two meters, coming cautiously over the rise, through the wind. A single eye glared from each of their faces, the tallest one casting a bright light from over its head. Through cholla, around century plants they maneuvered, silvery slim bi-pedals taking unsteady steps. There was no doubt the old man and his campsite was their target, their myopic eyes only rarely panned away from him.
The old timer’s heart thrilled as he watched the other-worldly creatures silently approach him. He took several steps toward the beings, across a sand break between him and Them, before pointing a finger.
"You must be Martians!”
The four slender forms stopped dead, frozen on the down-hill side of the ridge, then as a unit, jerked their cameras away from their faces. The tallest one dropped his ‘corder to dangle around his throat by it strap, its flood lamp shutting down automatically. Almond-colored face poking out of the silvery hood, he took several quick steps toward the old man.
“Well – Yes. How did you know?”
The four now approached him more hastily, although still with caution.
The old man scratched at his chin as he studied his guests.
“Well, lets see, you’re pert near t’seven feet tall, and even your youngsters aren’t under six feet. I don’t know of any other people but Martians or th’moons that grow so tall. Station dwellers, well, they all do their best t’keep th’gravity closer t’earth’s. And you’re wearing those shiny suits with the hoods. Must be real popular on Mars these days.”
The tallest coughed a laugh, a crooked, disconcerted smile graced his Asian face.
“Fashion statement. And, you’re – real?”
The old timer placed his fists on his hips and spread his legs slightly.
“I am Edmund Jaeger,” he proclaimed, “I’m a naturalist and scientist in the nineteen thirties through the eighties, spending my whole life out here in my beloved desert, studying the animals and plants and general biology, and writing quite a few books on the subject.” The old man motioned toward himself. “If y’like, you can come into my camp, be my guests, for as long as you like, really.” The old man turned and walked back toward his fire. “I have extra chairs, making coffee, and if it’s all right, I even have some treats for your youngsters.” “
You’re not some animated – thingy?” the younger female inquired. The old man crinkled his nose as he glanced back at her and smiled.
“I am a living breathing human being such as yourself, and as far as I’m concerned, I am Edmund Jaeger, and this is my desert camp, sometime in the nineteen-seventies. And, if you look around,” the old man spread his arms out and motioned about him, “there really isn’t anything t’say I’m not right.”
The gloom of night was falling fast, and the ring of light from the old man’s fire revealed nothing but the details of his camp, an army-surplus canvas tent, fold-up canvas chairs, a cooler made of plastic and metal, and a half-ton truck that appeared to have seen better days. But the old man knew, even if it was mid-day, with not another encampment of humanity for fifty miles around, his words were true . Absently he picked up an old cowbell and clanged it a couple times before opening the cooler and pulling two shapely thick-glassed bottles out.
“But, now, am I to take it you didn’t come looking for me?”
“No,” the tallest one said. “We got here a week early, the soonest we can attend the indoctrination course is like next Tuesday, so instead of just sitting around the resort, we decided to go exploring.”
“Good for you!” Jaeger exclaimed as he popped the caps off the Coca-Cola bottles in his hand. “My only fear is this’ll be the best week of your trip. All right for the kids t’drink something from the old days? Carbonated water with cola nut, sugar and caffeine thrown in. No alcohol, no hallucinogenics. Good! See, the desert is a mystery, always was, always will be. They can tell you the history, and old re-enactors like me can stagger around out here for you to find and hopefully experience our little snippet of times gone by, but the desert! It never is known. It is inscrutable, every day, every night. Especially every night!”
He could tell he’d roped them in, and he could tell he liked them. He stiffened up and spoke like he imagined a bellicose desert rat would.
“But where are your manners? I can’t sit with strangers. Introduce yourselves!”
The Martians all laughed and smiled nervously, exchanging glances. The tallest one motioned about him.
“We’re the Dzung family. I’m Charles, my wife here is Jade, this is Victoria, and this is Robert.”
“Please t’meet you! Grab some seats, now, and we’ll visit.”
The Dzungs had no problem figuring out how the folding chairs worked, but they seemed at a complete loss when Jaeger led them to the campfire.
“We sit around the fire,” the old man explained. “We stay warm, we let our minds wander in the embers before us. It’s traditional.”
Hesitantly the Dzungs followed their host’s example, settling their chairs around the ring of rock and flame and timidly sitting down.
“Is that a real fire?” Robert asked.
“As real as it gets” Jaeger amended. “You’re going to have to get used to that, things being real.”
“I haven’t gotten used to there not being a roof,” Victoria countered, looking heavenward.
“Funny, sweetheart,” Jade offered from across the fire, and looked to the still blue sky, then suddenly reached up. “I can’t imagine anything more natural, more right.”
“You folks are right off the shuttle,” Jaeger laughed. “You here for the year? Doing the whole planet?”
“Here for the year,” Charles answered. “Don’t want to do anywhere but the United States.”
The old man studied Charles, and then the others for a moment. “Best t’call it the North American Wilderness Sanctuary. That’s its name. Rangers get nervous when guests start talking about the old U.S. of A.”
“Was this Edmund Jaeger guy some kind of a hermit?” Robert asked.
“No! No, well, I must have liked my time alone.” Jaeger slipped comfortably into his character and glanced with a smile. “Can’t wander in the desert without loving your solitude, but I liked people. In fact, the one thing I can’t do today was one of the things I was really famous for, the Jaeger Palavers!”
“Palaver?” Robert echoed.
“T’talk,” the old man started. “To parley, babble, chatter. To gab profusely. Outdoors. Yessir, I’d throw these big parties out here in the desert. Just tell people, word of mouth, that we’d meet somewhere, everyone welcome, and they’d come, and we’d drink a little and explore the desert and talk, and palaver.” The old man chuckled and stared into the fire as if he was recalling a memory. “No-accounts and ne’er-do-wells, and people who liked to pretend they were, come out here and discuss science and philosophy and politics! Talk downright subversive talk! Yessir. People were willing to shout ‘sedition’ from the top of boulders in the desert what they wouldn’t whisper anywhere else.”
There was dead silence, all four Martians studying the re-enactor perform. Edgy, the old man thought, have to make it uncomfortable to be memorable, tempt the edges.
“Can’t do that anymore,” he continued. “No, those days are truly gone.”
“And why is that?” Charles asked softly, leadingly.
“There’s no people to invite,” Jaeger answered instantly. He looked over at Charles. “In Jaeger’s day there was somewhere between a hundred fifty and two hundred million people, just in this part of the continent, not including Canada or Mexico. There was something like four billion people on the Earth.” The re-enactor looked out into the deepening darkness. “Now, there might be a hundred million permanent residents on Earth, less than ten million inside the NAWS. Less every year, according to the Rangers. More things get automated, less justification for humans to be here on the surface. Used to be Ranger handed her job down to her child, right of certified birth, but that’s becoming real difficult.”
“But something like a billion guests a year, right?” Robert pressed.
Jaeger shrugged. “Ten years ago maybe. Then they tore London and Paris and New York down, then Moscow and Bejing, and Hong Kong and Washington DC. They just never rebuilt San Francisco and Los Angeles after the Big One, and Japan and Hawaii from the tidal wave. The whole damn Vatican moved to the Moon, all the artwork. They're with the Louvre now. They took away all the draws. People stopped coming, can’t just sit on the beach, can’t just Vacation, not at these prices. What I heard was, didn’t bother the EPS until the Rangers complained that revenue was falling. The answer? Raise the fees. Doubled them. They keep telling people there’s a billion visitors a year, but the Rangers tell me, its not even half that. No visitors, no need for new Rangers. It’s a sore point.”
The old man noted the steam fuming from the coffee pot, reached from his perch and grabbed blue enameled cups. “In any case, there’s less people here today than before the white man, seventeenth century, so few souls out, I couldn’t find half a dozen people t’come to a Palaver. Maybe I should settle for that, but since half of them would be Rangers, I doubt much palaverin’ would occur.” Silence fell as the old man managed to get the hot coffee pot off its hangar with a thick rag, and expertly filled three cups. “Now there’s sugar on the table over there and cream in the cooler,” Jaeger chatted as he handed the cups over to the adults. “I drink it straight. The cooler is that square box there, full of ice. Acoustic refrigeration won’t exist for another fifty years.” Jade cooed something to Charles as she took his cup and rose. Charles once again focused on the old man.
“Don’t mean to pry, but could you explain more about the re-enacting thing? I mean, we’ve heard about the re-enactors at Gettysburg, and the Little Big Horn, and we’ve scheduled for both of those, but I can’t say I heard anything about people like you.”
“Wouldn’t expect you to. I think the Rangers are looking to keep it quiet.” Jaeger nodded, blowing gently on the dark liquid in the mug before him. “I think they’re counting on folks like you going back and spreading the word, quiet-like. The EPS must know we exist, but no report, no problem, and the Rangers write those reports. If EPS had their way there wouldn’t be anyone on the planet anyway, permanent or temporary. They’re opposed to anything that might justify people staying on the surface.” The old man shrugged. “But they need the revenue, so they need the tourists, which means they need the Rangers and all that support staff. And the Rangers say we need draws.”
“This may be a bit personal,” Jade started as she settled back into her chair, handing a doctored coffee to Charles, “But does this pay real well? Dinner last night cost close to a thousand credits.”
“Yeah,” Robert chimed in. “How can you afford to eat?”
The old man seemed to squirm for a moment, then straightened up as he held his cup in both hands.
“I am Edmund Jaeger, every day, all the time. I am he. Now, if you go back to the Visitor Center and buy anything Edmund Jaeger wrote, or something about him, and you tell them I sent you, I get credits to my account, but there’s something else.”
He rose, walked back to the bed of the truck, brought back a package that he unwrapped, and handed the contents reverently to Charles Dzung.
“What is it?”
“A book,” the desert rat answered. “A real book, on real paper, from real wood.” A gasp went through the Martian family as they now all stared at the thing in the father’s hands.
“Printed and bound just like they did in this era,” the old man continued. “You can’t buy that at any Visitor’s Center, and you can’t buy a more genuine souvenir. You can buy data sticks with all of Edmund Jaeger’s works, but not actual recreations of his books. I charge a thousand credits per book, and it’s a steal at twice that price.”
“But I thought you couldn’t exploit the Earth –“ Victoria started.
“No exploitation or despoiling of Earth,” the Jaeger impersonator interrupted. “Recycled paper. There’s tons of it left after all these decades.” The old man swallowed more coffee, studied his audience. “Least that’s what they tell me. Banned farming too, except for special circumstances. Had to make exceptions. Couldn’t displace the Amish, the Mennonites, or the Hopi, the Navajo. Political landmines in those days. Thought about making it so you could only grow enough for your own personal consumption, but the tourists wanted samples, so what the Rangers decided was to call it ‘gardening’. No chemicals, no insecticides.” He snorted. “Now we got pioneer re-enactors gardening across the continent, and cowboy re-enactors punching cattle across the west, Mountain Man re-enactors culling the deer and the elk, and Sioux and Cheyenne re-enactors chasing down all that buffalo running amok on the Plains.” The old man adjusted himself in his seat as he studied the growing reaction in the countenance of his off-world guests.
“I get most of my food from World War Two Home Front re-enactors and their victory gardens.” The old man cackled. “The Home Fronters are real iffy, in the eyes of the Rangers. They have electricity and lathes, and recycle rubber, different metals and trash, but they make a whole lot of goods for other re-enactors, canned food in several styles to match the technology of the era you’re from, stuff like that. Of course, the truck over there is solar powered, but I still need tires, things like that occasionally. They make those, too. And there’s a authentic internal combustion engine under the hood.” The desert rat pointed a sharp finger at the truck. “There was a time, if you’d started one of those, a dozen sensors would go off, and there’d be Rangers all over you. Don’t know how true that is any more, but go find something to burn in one.” The old man pointed at the bottles in the young people’s hands. “The cola and coffee you’re drinking, the cream and sugar, the wood burning in that fire, its all real, all products of the Earth. All brought to you because its re-enactors making and selling them, or gathering them, all to make your stay here on planet Earth a more pleasurable and realistic experience, worth what I know it cost you to be here. And I’ts all legal, or tolerated, because the Rangers are hoping it’ll draw more tourists. As luck would have it, food costs not a tenth to grow here on Earth what it costs to grow in space then bring it down, like the meal you ate last night.”
Something flashed between the mother and father, a knowing glance, a light resplendent. For a moment, the old man entertained the thought that these people might be spies from the Earth Preservation Society, but set the notion aside. The bureaucrats and mandarins didn’t need investigators to find out what was going on outside their compounds. They had thousands of gigagbytes worth of studies and reports to tell them. Besides, they had to write those studies and reports, work groups and seminars and retreats to attend. They simply hadn’t the time to worry about the tourists or what the Rangers might be doing.
“So, this re-enacting thing, it’s not necessarily out in the open?” Charles pressed. “You just kind of fall into it? How do you become a re-enactor?”
“Well, one guy put an ad on the ‘Net.” The old man put his hands out as if defining a large-screen monitor. “Come Ride with Geronimo! Become an Apache warrior, and live in peace on the Earth!”
The old man’s hand flopped down as he grinned at his audience.
“Had thousands of applicants from the Rangers’ families alone, picked maybe one out of a thousand, and even half of them washed out. But there they are now, running along the old Mexican border, don’t have any other tribes to raid on, but the tourists love them. And you know the re-enactors from Gettysburg and the Little Big Horn? Originally half the bodies out there were robots, and the Rangers figured sooner or later all of them would be, but the robots were the ones that actually got shot and blown up, and pretty soon, they got expensive to re-condition. Humans are cheaper and more realistic, even if you can’t shoot ‘em. The robots only account for maybe a sixth of the bodies now, and where they used to have maybe a thousand participants, they’ve got three thousand. And do you know what the Indians and the Seventh Cavalry do when they’re not killing and dying on Last Stand Hill? They’re living the lives of cavalrymen and Sioux and Cheyenne in the Black Hills, cobbling boots and living Army life, setting up teepees, traveling with the herds.
“Now me,” the old man pointed to himself. “When I was young, I became obsessed with the Desert. Of course back then, you couldn’t just meander around like you do now. Only carefully monitored groups with guides and guards were allowed to go into the public lands, and then for only short periods of time, rarely could you camp, but I’d go out every chance I got, and I just learned all I could. I read everything, which, of course, included everything Edmund Jaeger ever wrote. That was all I could do, up until the Last Phase of the Only Solution.” The old man looked at Charles from the corner of his eye. “You probably weren’t born yet. EPS determined the Earth’s population needed to be reduced one more time to save the planet, so they rounded up the rest of the ‘surplus specie’, shipped them off to space. No jobs for sure, no sure way of knowing how or where they were going to store them. Heard most of them ended up in the Asteroid Belt mines and the Jupiter moons.” The old man grimaced. “I didn’t want to go to space, y’know? Even if I had a job lined up, I didn’t wanna go.” The old man held his hands up. “I know, I know. ‘Something must be done about the Disease called Man’, ‘I freely confess, my existence is a threat to Earth Mother’. I’m sure my confession is on file all over the solar system, I’ve signed it so many times, but I just didn’t want to go.” He sighed. “So, I hid for awhile. I had some Ranger friends who kind of covered for me. I was a volunteer ranger for a while, that kept me on the surface. All this time, they’re closing schools, museums and libraries, but then opening new space ports for all you fat-cat tourists from Mars and the moons, the space stations, t’come and drop big bucks to ‘do Europe’, and ‘rough it’ in the Wilderness areas. They shuttled us off, then shuttled the wealthy on. One of the Rangers suggested I find a costume, and start giving impromptu lectures at the Visitors Center for the Mojave Preserve, back before there was a NAWS, like I was one of the old naturalists.” The re-enactor slurped some coffee, licked his lips. “Started going through the closed museums and libraries, just gleaning everything I could find on men like John Muir, dressing like them, going around to their old haunts when there might be people, and act it all out. Finally settled on Edmund Jaeger, and here I am. Mind you, I’m not the only solo act. There must be a dozen prospectors wandering around these here parts, every one of them a unique character living a specific era. All for your entertainment. There’s Death Valley Scotty and Chuckawalla Bill, and there’s at least three Pegleg Smiths.”
“Three of the same character?” Victoria asked. “Isn’t that a problem?”
The old timer shook his head.
“Not for Pegleg.”
The old man watched the coffee grinds swirl at the bottom of his mug.
“Course, most all of those re-enactors on the Indian side actually are Indians. Maybe not that particular tribe and maybe one-one hundredth, but that’s good enough. It helps to have some roots in your characters.”
“Well, that’s interesting,” Charles countered. “We’ve got roots here ourselves.”
“Here?” the old man countered.
“Here,” Charles repeated. “In the United States. You see, we’re Americans.”
The old man glanced back at the grounds in his cup, threw them into the flames, looked around him for something to busy himself, all the while thinking, how the hell did they get off Mars, let alone here?
“Both our families came to the States after the Viet Nam war,” Jade continued. “Lived in Tent City at Camp Pendleton. Can’t get much more American than that. Third generation Martians, our families have been in space for a hundred years now, went up with the NASA projects, but even after the U.S. went into U.N receivership and got dismantled, we always thought of ourselves as Americans.”
“Canadian myself,” the old man said quickly. “Born and raised Canadian, lo, these past thirty years.”
“So the Rangers like the re-enactors,” Charles leaned toward the old man, the children looking silently on. “What kind of re-enactors are popular right now? Something in like Northern California, I’d think, something a whole family would do.”
The old man reached out for the coffeepot, stopped before he touched its hot surface with his bare fingers, his eyes fluttered.
“Well, now, funny you should mention Northern California.”
“Yes?” Jade urged. The old man looked up at her.
“The Gold Rush is getting big right now. Tourists get a kick out of having some old Forty-Niner show ‘em how to pan for gold . Thing that’s missing? The Chinese were big during the Gold Rush, sore point, the whites mistreated them pretty bad, but how they lived and how they worked, makes ‘em an interesting subject with no one I’ve heard of re-enacting them.”
There was a long pause, where Jade and Charles stared into the old man’s eyes.
“You understand, now,” the re-enactor finally offered. “The Apache along the old border, the Sioux and the cavalryman, we all live our characters. There’s no electronics, no electricity back before the turn of the century. They’re cold in the winter, and I’m hot in the Summer. If there’s some miscalculation and the corn doesn’t sprout or the buffalo don’t show, people go hungry, and there is no back-up. I use the facilities at the Regional headquarters maybe once a month, less if I can, and generally that’s just to check my credit account and maybe see what other re-enactors are doing. When we’re not out living the character, we’re searching around, looking for more details about how they lived. We’re always striving to be more authentic, the right clothes made from the right materials, that sort of thing. Someone wanted to re-enact the Chinese in the Gold Rush day, well, they’re going to have to be authentic.”
“But we’re Vietnamese,” Robert chimed in. “And we’re two and half meters tall.” The impersonator looked over at Robert.
“The more authentic and the more convincing, the better, but I mean, you can’t be perfect. After all, Edmund Jaeger was a white man.” The old timer ran fingers over his black face and cackled. “When was the last time you saw one of those?”
He knew he’d said something terrible with a glance around. The children’s eyes went blank, the two adults’ were haunted. After a long silence, Charles spoke.
“On Phobus,” he started, “Stripped naked, forced into the air locks, and then out onto the moon’s surface.”
The old black man’s skin became blotchy as he suddenly found the rag he needed to pour himself more coffee.
“Well – what goes around comes around,” he mumbled.
“They were our friends, and fellow Americans.” Charles spoke with singular clarity.
The old man busied himself at his chair, adjusting the coffeepot, feeding the fire.
“There’s a museum, just outside of what was San Francisco. Last time I was there it was abandoned, but it was dedicated to the Chinese contribution to California. I’ve got the coordinates.”
Something glided silently over the ridge the Martians had come from, blotting out a section of stars for a moment.
“Dzung family!” a tinny voice proclaimed “It’s late! Are you all right?”
The Martians stood and looked back at the transport as it settled on the sandy clearing past the campsite. Charles turned back toward the old black man.
“Guess it’s past our bed time.”
“Your trackers.” The old man pointed to his shoulder. Charles’ forehead creased.
“Well, I guess they work great off-planet, but here, they’re always getting screwed up, shorted, outside the range of tracking stations.” The desert rat raised his short-sleeved shirt and exposed a long-ago wound where the microchip should have been. He looked intently at Charles.
“You want to get your medical records on a stick. They don’t track at medical facilities, universal health care and all that, but you need a medical record stick for each of you, you know, just in case your trackers don’t work.”
Charles still held the book, “Desert Animals’ by Edmund Jaeger, and he pulled a card from a pocket. Without thinking the old man brought out his reader from his own pocket, and swiped the card through. The reader lit a pleasant green.
“Might take a few days to show on your account,” the desert rat said.
“Things aren’t instantaneous like they used to be, and my account, it’s under my character’s name.” The old man’s eyes locked onto the father’s. “It was tricky to get that account, but I’ve played the character for so long, and the Rangers like my work.” Charles Dzung nodded. “And you might want to re-discover your Canadian roots,” the old man continued. “I’m sure lots of Vietnamese went to Canada. The Rangers, they gotta like you, whatever it is you want to do.”
The old man took a breath, then added. “If you come back during the day, I can show you my ‘Magic Circle’, and we can talk more, if you like.”
The children and wife had begun to walk toward the transport, and its hatch hissed open, the lower part folding out into stairs. Charles also turned toward the silent machine and began to catch up with his family. Halfway there, he turned back toward the old man.
“You know, Edmund Jaeger, perhaps you should consider re-inventing these parties of yours. Even if we can’t shout from the tops of boulders, I think it would be good to palaver, even if we have to whisper.”
The Martians all disappeared into the transport, the door closed, and the transport immediately climbed, turned toward the east and silently shot away.
The stars looked like a frozen swirl of diamonds in the sky. The limbs of the Joshua Trees reflected as much shadow as light from the fire. There was no moon tonight. Several of the larger space stations were visible, some straight up, others low on the northern horizon. For the millionth time the old man thought how this was the only difference between the sky of his character and his, there in the vast empty stretches of wasteland desert.
The old man gathered up chairs, put the Coke bottles in the truck for recycling, thought how dangerous this night had become, and his heart raced in fear, real fear. The copies of the United Station Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, buried in the library in the back of the truck, might very well be something an old professor would have on hand, but all those writings had been carefully purged from every data bank that existed, fifty years ago. Possessing them could lose him his place on the planet surface, his very life. What other contraband did he possess that he couldn’t even think of right then, things he’d taken for granted for all these years, wandering in the desert, a lone figure, practically forgotten. Had he gotten sloppy? How many others would go down with him if the Rangers stopped liking him?
He began chanting his Mantra. I am Edmund Jaeger, I am Edmund Jaeger.