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October 03, 2022

Up in Gladwin, Michigan

By J.C. Miller

Solanus grew up believing in aliens. The universe was huge; there had to be intelligent life. In movies, aliens would either come to attack humanity and be defeated by our pluck or come to make friends and raise a Vulcan eyebrow at our behavior. It never occurred to Solanus that aliens wouldn't give a damn about us.

Solanus had a wonderful childhood. His parents were both law professors at Michigan State University. They doted on him as their only child and a miracle child born after they were told it wasn't possible. Their academic schedule gave them summers off. They spent their summers up north at a lake house. It was modest, on what Michiganders call an "inland lake," meaning not one of the Great Lakes. It was ringed with cottages, some more tightly packed together than others. Summers were wonderful. Solanus would boat, swim, fish, and spend time with his parents.

When the first alien ship appeared, they were already up at the cottage. Solanus remembered the excitement that first contact would bring. But there wasn't first contact, at least not like in the movies. The aliens simply started going about their business, whatever that was.

They begin building encampments and drilling some kind of gigantic borehole into the crust, without regard to the presence of humans. The first few had significant casualties, but governments soon arranged rapid evacuations. Solanus couldn't remember what all of the alien structures were like, but he did remember the one in Brazil. They had sprayed a wide swath of land with a chemical. It was like a super version of RoundUp; it killed all the plant life. Humans and animals that contacted it directly experienced mild burns. WIthin a week, the news showed the area covered with some kind of blue-green extraterrestrial lichens--a textured soup that looked like windex mixed with green jello. The aliens replaced the native flora. The only government that really fought back was the Russians. A few minutes after they did, there weren't any Russians anymore. Everyone else watched on TV and learned the lesson.

Solanus checked the smoker before hopping into the kayak. Most mornings he went out to fish, but today was market day. The lake had grown more wild since he was a kid. There was no grooming of the lake weeds to make it more favorable for swimming. Once-manicured lawns had given over to native plants. Birds came in and out of the broken windows. Even his cottage, the only one still occupied, was not being properly maintained.

His parents were smart people. They met at Harvard law school, both dreaming of academic careers. When the aliens first started to cause problems, Solanus's parents acted. He remembered long discussions around the dinner table about the fragile and fossil-fuel dependent global economy. His dad ranted about how nobody knew how to grow food and even modern farmers didn't really know how to grow food without fossil fuels. They stocked up on canned goods, food, and supplies as best they could. They weren't alone. As prices skyrocketed, shelves went bare and then stopped getting restocked. The starving years were the hardest. They didn't go hungry, not at first. But it was the violence and fear that was unbearable.

His dad understood the real problem in the starving years. He knew the world wasn't growing enough food anymore, and he knew hungry people were capable of anything. They kept a baseball bat by the door. His dad was opposed to guns, turning down offers from neighbors with extras to spare. They really were convinced that as long as they stayed by the lake they would be safe--the looting was a problem in the cities. But as cities failed, people naturally spread out looking for food.

They brought his dad home on a cold, snowy night. Earlier that day, dad had gone to town to trade food for batteries. The man who killed him took the food but didn't even rob the corpse. The Harvard class ring was still on his right hand. Gold was worth less than a can of corn. Mr. Morgenstern came over the next morning and plopped a holstered .357 magnum Smith & Wesson pistol and a box of shells on the kitchen counter. As Solanus began to protest and mom sobbed, Mr. Morgenstern told him "You're the man of the house now. You need to protect your mom."

The gun stayed with him. Even out in the kayak, Solanus kept it on the holster held to his chest by an over-the-shoulder belt. He had never killed anyone. LIke everyone else, Solanus had to deal with home invaders seeking food. They mostly came at night. His mom stood watch days; he took the nights. His system worked: he confronted them with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight pointing at some food set out at sundown. A starving man fears nothing; one with a little food in his belly would rather avoid a firefight. Solanus ran them off with a promise that next time all they'd get is lead in their belly. Sacrificing half of a can of corn was worth avoiding murder.

But there were plenty of fights on the lake. Solanus could hear the gun shots. Sound carries further over a lake. Sometimes a homeowner would kill, sometimes he or she would be killed. Without medical care, almost every shooting was fatal. It didn't really calm down until the disease came.

Solanus didn't know where the disease came from. He assumed it came from China. Humans trying to study one of the alien encampments got sick, and it spread from there. It had been all over the news, with experts saying this justified the evacuation-first policies. That was back when there was news on the phones and on the T.V., and electricity to power them. By the time people on the lake were sick, years had passed since anybody could get news. Solanus just assumed it was the same bug. The only good thing about the horrible fever he suffered was not having to witness his mom die.

Before stopping home, Solanus pulled up to the dock at the Jentes house. He remembered that Mrs. Jentes had extra saran wrap in her basement. She had stocked up. Solanus felt he had the right to take what he wanted from any house on the lake. Not just because they were empty, but because he had personally buried or helped bury every person on the lake. In the starving years, he had pitched in. After the plague cleared out the rest, Solanus took on the lonely task of giving them a proper Christian burial. He even said some words over the graves, like people did in movies.

Solanus wrapped fresh fish and some smoked fish and placed them in his bike trailer. Mrs. Perkins had used the trailer to pull her twin toddlers around. Now, it was how Solanus got his fish to market. The ride into downtown Gladwin only took 20 minutes. It would have been quicker back when roads were maintained. Now they were falling apart and dotted with horse manure from the Amish.

Gladwin had been a prosperous little tourist town with a farmer's market. Now it was an empty town that hosted a market every week in the summer and monthly the rest of the year. The Amish had reorganized it once the violence reduced. Gladwin always had a notable Amish presence. Little Solanus loved seeing their horse-and-buggies trot into town. Mother bought their furniture; Father bought their baked goods at the market. The Amish had done better than most. There hadn't exactly been a census recently, but they were a slight majority of participants in the market.

As Solanus rode up, he made sure to first visit with Mr. Yoder. He always offered to trade him the best catch. It gave Solanus an excuse to get close to Yoder's daughter. She was cute, modestly dressed, and generally avoided talking to Solanus. He assumed it was just the modesty, but one time he caught her blushing when he complimented her chicken pot pie. Her name was Sarah, or Sara--he didn't know for sure. Probably Sarah, he thought. Wasn't that how Abraham's wife's name was spelled? To Solanus, she was the most beautiful girl in the world. She was probably a few years younger than him, but he hadn't the courage to ask. He felt like he had a shot. Solanus was tall, lean, and tan. He had the figure of someone who worked manual labor and subsisted on a high-protein, low calorie diet. He kept his hair and his beard cropped short--definitely not in the Amish style. There didn't seem to be very many Amish young men. There were boys and middle-aged men, but very few his age. Solanus didn't know what happened to them. Sarah and her father lived alone, the last two of their household. If he came to court her, Solanus thought he'd have a decent chance simply because of the lack of suitable options. The problem was, he wasn't quite suitable.

Solanus wasn't worried about the obvious--the fact that he wasn't Amish. He was worried about his inability to support a wife and a family. Solanus was a fisherman, and he was getting better at it each year. During the starving years, the lake was over-fished. But the population was bouncing back. Solanus rarely went hungry anymore. He was feeding himself, but he couldn't feed a family. And Mr. Yoder certainly knew it.

As Solanus was trading away the last of his fish, a stranger rolled into the market. His bike trailer was much larger, a more expensive model with a proper roof that could have held three kids being pulled by yuppy parents. Strangers weren't unheard of at the market, but they always drew attention. Solanus mentally felt for the pistol strapped to his chest. He didn't reach for it, he just checked it with his senses. He looked around the market as his community members did the same. The Amish weren't armed. It wasn't just an issue with technology like firearms, they didn't carry knives or clubs or spears or whatever. Solanus realized for the first time that they must have had a religious objection to violence; he felt stupid for not noticing it earlier. The stranger hopped off his bike with a big smile, clearly used to this kind of reception.

"Good day my friends. This is a fantastic market. I hope you don't mind if a visitor comes by." He offered a large warm smile, missing only one tooth. He wore a Detroit Tigers ball cap and a denim shirt that matched his jeans, a fashion choice not seen in this area. "My name is Grayson Hendricks. I'm a travelling trader. I've got lots to trade,? he said, as he moved back towards his bike trailer. Solonaus noticed the black semi-automatic pistol at his side when he turned around. He lifted two mesh nets of goods. One full of batteries and bullets, another full of plastic Del Monte fruit cups. Solanus looked on with excitement, he hadn't had one of those since he was a child. Oranges! There were mandarin orange slices in there too! He loved those as a kid. He couldn't remember the last time he had one. With everyone's attention, Grayson called out: "I'm here to trade for something of no value to you. This is the deal of a lifetime. I want cell phones. Bring me cell phones and get rewarded. Umm," he said looking at a wall of Amish faces, "y'all Amish folks didn't do the cell phone thing, right?" They offered no response. "Doesn't matter, I'm not asking you to use cellphones--not that anybody could anyways--I'm asking you to bring me cell phones. Get 'em out of homes, cars, whatever. Bring me cellphones and let's trade for fair value."

The audience had nothing to say back. This was unheard of. Travelers might trade luxuries like whiskey for food, but nobody had ever come collecting cell phones. Mrs. Glover walked away from the market to the large home on the other side of the gas station. Her family had taken to staying there around market days. Two minutes later she walked out with two iPhones.

"Yes, perfect, come here," Grayson called out. He reached into his bag for the fruit cups. He tore back the cardboard and pulled one of the small plastic cups from it, exchanging two phones for the sealed fruit cup. "A square deal and a fantastic outcome for you, ma'am. Phones that were doing no good now earned your children a luxurious treat. Everyone, that'll be our standard. Two phones for a fruit cup. Bring me a stack and we can talk about some higher value items," he explained with his arm extending towards the batteries and bullets. "Get out there and get working it, I'm leaving here tomorrow morning, so make it quick." Nobody moved. Eventually, people started to conclude their market-day business a little faster than usual and set out.

Solanus didn't rush out, even though he was out of fish. Sarah was still here, and so was he. He watched Grayson pull out a set of tools and begin disassembling the phones. "What are you doing," he asked as he walked over.

"I need things inside the phone. Plenty of rare earth elements here. Fancy stuff."

Solanus looked over at the phone case, shattered screen, and discarded parts. "I can get at least 75, maybe more. What's that worth?"

"How do you know you can get that many by tomorrow," Grayson asked.

"I live on a lake. I've been in all the houses. I kind of have a mental inventory. It'll be quick." Solanus was doing his best to conceal his enthusiasm. This was more interesting than the daily fishing routine.

Really? Has nobody ever traded for phones 'round here?" Grayson took Solanus's blank stare as proof that no one had. "That's fantastic. This is going to be a great haul. If you've got 75, do you think others will do just as much?"

"I don't know. I mean, you can see Mrs. Glover over there already working down main street. There's the subdivision west of town. I think you've got people pretty excited."

"Hmmm," Grayson mumbled while looking back at his bike. "Hey kid, no offense, but you've got the vibe of someone who lives alone. Am I right?"

Solanus got serious. "What's it to you?"

"No offense, no offense. I could use a partner on this run. Do you drink?"

Solanus shook his head. Liquor was a luxury, and subsistence fishermen were not in a spot to trade life for booze.

"Well, my last partner did. That's where his profits went. And one day he walked off and got himself killed. I need someone sober, who can bike, and haul some of this back with me."

"Back where?" Solanus was clearly interested.

"Near Detroit. Just outside the alien borehole."

"What?"

"Yeah, yeah. This stuff ultimately goes to the aliens. That's who we're trading this with. Don't worry, you won't see any aliens. There's nothing scary about the aliens. It's the ride down there that you have to worry about. It'll take two overnights to go down. Probably just one to come back."

Solanus was shocked. He hadn't left the lake since he was a kid. Now this stranger was asking him to bike more than a hundred miles through God knows what. To trade cell phone parts. With aliens. And all because he didn't drink.

Grayson could read the skepticism. "Look, it's a lot safer to travel in pairs, Particularly at night. We need to trade off sleeping. And I need help hauling this stuff in. We're not equal partners in this, which I figure you're smart enough to realize. But you'll get rewarded plenty. What's your name?"

"Solanus."

"Weird name."

"It's a saint. From Detroit, actually."

"Whatever. Listen, I'd ask you what your biggest problem in life is but we all know it's dying of hunger or getting sick and dying or being so hungry you get sick and die. That's how life works these days, right?" Solanus nodded. "Well, look at this." He pulled a small tube out of a fanny pack on the front of his bike. Inside were little white pieces of something that looked like tic tacs. "These are some kind of alien food technology. Each one of these has 2000 calories." He could see Solanus struggling to remember the significance of that. "That's a days' food for a person. It also includes all the vitamins you need and some kind of immune booster. I'm not saying you'll live forever if you have one of these every so often, but it'll make a big difference in your life. They actually taste like shit, but you only need one a day anyways.. The aliens made them to trade with us."

Solanus was amazed. If he could barter worthless phones for these, he would have the kind of food stockpile that could get through a hard winter. Exactly the kind of thing needed to impress Sarah and her father. Maybe he could clear some of the land around the lake. He didn't have the farming background, but she could probably handle that while he hauled in fish.

* * *

Solanus was packing his own kit for the first time as a 20-year-old. He made up a bed roll and remembered that he was supposed to pack toiletries.. As he finished packing, he started to worry about leaving the lake. What would happen while he was gone? If somebody stole his kayak, there were plenty of other kayaks around the lake. His winter food stock was hidden inside Mr. Morgenstern's water heater, minus a small supply of the smoked fish on his own kitchen counter. During the starving years, everyone learned to hide food while making it look like you weren't hiding food.

Then he thought about the treasure. While corn had once been more valuable than gold, gold was steadily increasing in value again. Travelling merchants were often more concerned with it than smoked fish. Solanus had been miserly with his collection of jewelry, noting its increasing value and interest among outsiders and his own neighbors. As he inventoried the homes of his dead neighbors, he gathered up all the valuable jewelry and any random odd gold or silver coin. He kept them in a tool box under a turned over, rotting row boat. As he retrieved and opened the chest, the full moon made the jewelry glisten. Solanus thought it would be foolish to leave all this here for someone to grab. But even more foolish to take it all with him on the road. He decided to grab a handful to put in his pack. When he noticed his father's Harvard class ring on the top, he decided to slip it on. Maybe it would make a good impression on Grayson and show he wasn't some poor fisher boy after all

The people of Gladwin did not disappoint. They brought in a mountain of phones. Grayson spent the day trading until his wares were all gone. Intermittently, he was disassembling phones. He taught Solanus the first step of the process. The sun was low in the sky before they were packed and ready to go.

"I thought this might take a while," Grayson explained as they were loading up. "That's why I said it would take two nights. It's either one overnight or two, depending on how quickly you get on the road and how hard you peddle. We're leaving so late now we'll have to ride hard to make sure we don't make it three nights. Keep up."

And they were off. Grayson took them down Gladwin's roads until he reached the rail trail. Solanus had been on it many times with his parents. A nice paved bike path on what used to be a railroad line. It wasn't long before Solanus had gone farther than he had ever been with his parents. And it wasn't long until he was struggling to keep up. Grayson was clearly in his element. Solanus was only an occasional biker. He rode to market once a week; his legs and his lungs weren't used to this kind of exercise.

When they made camp for the first night, Grayson showed him how to move the bikes off into the brush to hide them. He set up a two-person tent, which looked like it would be a little cramped for two grown men. Grayson had been silent and focused on the road but became chatty as they made camp and ate dinner. Solanus was out of breath and out of his element, so he mostly listened.

"Don't worry," Grayson smiled. "We won't be sharing the tent." Seeing the disappointment on Solanus's face, Grayson continued. "Well, I'll be sharing the tent with you. But we won't be sleeping in it at the same time. Much better to take turns and have one person keep watch. You'll take the first watch, and I'm going to sleep. If you start to feel sleepy, stand up. If you hear anything or see anything or sense anything that troubles you, stand up. If you still feel concerned, draw your gun. Don't shoot at a scary sound. A gunshot that you use to scare off some owl could actually signal real bad guys that you're here. Got it?"

"Okay." Solanus was nervous, and it showed on his face. He had left the safety of his lake and was out with a stranger. The whole purpose of this expedition was to go towards the aliens. This was madness.

"You'll do fine. Most of what you're doing by keeping watch is scaring off pick-pocket types. People who will want to sneak in and raid your pack or steal your bike. They see someone on watch, they keep moving. They think they're stealthy, but someone stands up or draws a gun, they slink away. It takes a special type to want to go after an armed man.?

Solanus was nervous, tired, and his muscles ached. He just wanted to be back home at the cottage. He wanted to jump in the lake to wash the sweat off. He wanted to be anyplace else but here. But he did his job, kept watch in the pale moonlight, and woke Grayson to trade places at the appointed time. Morning came too quickly. Solanus was used to waking up at the first glimmer of dawn; he was a fisherman. He wasn't used to staying up so late and then getting up so early. Grayson was clearly not going to wait for him to adjust to the morning. Camp was down and they were on the rail trail five minutes after Solanus stepped out of the tent.

Grayson signaled a right turn coming as the trail crossed a two-lane state highway. Solanus immediately noticed that the road conditions were worse here than on the rail trail. Grayson began to slow down. Solanus thought he might see some defect in the road. As he pulled up next to Grayson, he saw a pile or horse poop in front of Grayson's bike. Grayson was staring at it. Then he gently rolled his bike tire over it and then back, staring intently at how it reacted.

"Oh," Solanus interjected. "There must be Amish over here." The horse and buggy and attendant horse droppings had always been a sign of the Amish. As a kid it amused him during the summers in Gladwin. As a man, it was just a part of life. He artfully dodged dung piles on his weekly ride to the market.

"Ain't no Amish 'round here." Grayson was serious. He looked concerned. But he peddled off hard and in silence.

The second night they stopped a little before the sun set. They had made it to the top of a tall hill. Solanus was glad for the rest. This last hill had been brutal. He was drenched in sweat and felt like he was going to die. Grayson was a little less chatty and a little more direct tonight as they made camp. He moved the camp a little further away from the bikes than normal and made sure the bikes were pointed towards the road.

"Whenever you can sleep at the top of the hill," he explained, "you want to do it. If something happens and you need to get away, you can get a full head of steam on a bike going down and get away from whatever you got to get away from. Stuff is valuable. But your life is more valuable." Something had him spooked in a way that he wasn't last night.

Solanus took the hint and kept a careful watch. He started to get scared when clouds rolled in and blocked the moonlight. In the still darkness every shadow or noise prompted him to stand up. He drew his pistol a half dozen times. But no trouble showed up. He assured himself it was nothing but owls and shadow cats.

Grayson shook Solanus out of a hard sleep. Solanus couldn't understand why he was being woken up; it was still completely dark.

"Get up," Grayson prodded. Solanus filled with adrenaline. Maybe something was going on. Maybe they were being robbed. Solanus was fully alert, on his feet, out of the tent, and reaching for his gun. Grayson was breaking camp.

"Early start today. Let's get out of here. Get down to the camp now."

* * *

It got warmer and warmer as they approached the suburbs of Detroit. There were no signs of extraterrestrials but the land seemed alien to Solanus. It was paved everywhere, crowded with trash, and empty of people. Solanus could see corpses and skeletons as he rode by. Some in abandoned cars. Some just out on the side of the road. Corpses that nobody buried. This wasn't Gladwin. The corpses were a nice distraction from the terror he felt about approaching the aliens. He thought about Sarah, her blonde curls barely contained by her bonnet. He had come this far; it was time to finish the job.

As they approached the encampment, the heat became almost unbearable. A shiny metal structure stood just outside a series of concentric circles that ravaged the terrain and went as far as they could see. Grayson led them up to a front door. He grabbed his stuff out of the bike trailer and gestured for Solanus to do the same.

"Can we bring our guns?" asked Solanus. It seems like they shouldn't be allowed to have a gun in there. Whatever there was.

"Actually, yeah, we can." Grayson led them up to the door and waved for it to open. "They don't fear firearms."

As they stepped into the structure, Solanus experienced a rush of cool air. It was air conditioned! He hadn't felt air conditioning since the power grid failed, and even before then the government had put in place serious restrictions on air conditioning to reduce brownouts. Several people were working in the building. Solanus didn't understand what they were doing. Grayson made chit chat with the people he knew. They were all dressed very oddly. Their outfits were monochromatic. Some with shiny blue shirts and shiny blue pants and shoes. Others were red, orange, or yellow. They looked ridiculous. Solanus slowly realized that in the videos he had seen years ago, the aliens always wore shiny monochromatic outfits. These people were trying to match alien fashion. Grayson led them to another room where a tall man dressed in silver garb smiled and gestured to a table. Grayson began unloading the cell phone components, and Solanus followed suit.

"A healthy haul," the silver man said. "You look new. I'm Clark. I run the trading here. I hope Grayson has explained how this all works." Solanus's blank expression implied he had not. "Well, the aliens tell us what they want, and we give it to them, and they give us things of great value to us."

"They speak to you?" Solanus was surprised. Back when they had the news, it was notable that the aliens never wanted to talk with humans or their leaders. In the movies, aliens asked to be taken to your leader. These ones didn't seem to care. Scientists had video of them talking to each other--they talked in some kind of click-and-hiss language. But they didn't even try to talk with humans.

"Yes, I've learned some of their language. That's why I'm the boss here. They're amazing creatures, you know. I'm sure they could speak English if they wanted to, or make their computer-thingies talk to us."

"What do they want with the phone parts? No, wait, what do they want with Earth?" Solanus felt that this man might be able to answer the big questions that all the talking heads had been debating before earth's systems had failed. If this guy talked to the aliens, if he worked with them, maybe he could make sense of it.

"Hell if I know. I can speak some of their language, and it serves me well. But I don't really understand them or all of their tech. We're nothing to them; they think earth is theirs now. These ones talk like it's their home. They're having babies here. More of their ships are coming. They fly away from here with cargo holds full of whatever they're exporting; they come back with machinery and more aliens. They're doing whatever they want here. It is what it is. All we can do is try to get ahead here under the new order. You keep bringing in hauls like this, you'll get rich." Clark opened a compartment full of things that Solanus didn't recognize. The only thing he could make sense of were containers of those little tic-tac-like food pellets--more than he imagined could possibly exist.

"What are those things." Solanus pointed at one oddly shaped mass of twisted and curving blue metal.

"Oh, there?s a lot of great things. Some really cool weapons. But today, you're getting wampum." He put it back and grabbed out the food pellets.

"They're called wampum?"

"No, I don't know what they're called. I just made it up. Wampum was something the Native Americans valued. Shells or beads or glass, I don't remember. Something hard to come by. It was currency. It was valuable. Then the Europeans come in and discover this is currency to the natives. Then they realize they've got the tools and tech to manufacture it. They can mass produce it. Trade it to the natives to get what they really want. Beaver pelts or whatever. Point is, this is something," Clark went on as he picked up a container of pellets, "that costs them nothing but is worth anything to us. A day's rations and immune booster. You can space 'em out over time. Each of these has 70 wampums. That'll get you through winter no worries." He explained how the trading worked and how he valued what was brought in.

As they were completing the trade, Grayson slid a full container over to Solanus. "This is your share. You keep riding with me, you'll get a greater share each time.?

Solanus beamed. A few days' work and he had food for a winter. He could space it out as emergency rations for years, probably. He held the vial up close to his face. The light caught the small ruby on his father's Harvard class ring.

"Hey," Clark called out. "Can I see your ring? Is that a Ruby?"

"Yes, a little one, I guess. I think it's for the crimson color of Harvard. It's my dad's ring."

"I'll trade you for the stone. You can keep the ring. It's the ruby we need."

"They want rubies?" Grayson jumped in. This was news to him.

"Yup," Clark confirmed. His hand out for Solanus to deposit the ring. "They do something with 'em. Make lasers for all I know. Just started going crazy for them. This is way better than the cell phone stuff."

Solanus handed over the ring. It was his dad's ring, but this was just a stone. And his dad would certainly rather he have more food than one more stone.

"Here," Clark said as he tossed the ring to Grayson, "take the stone out."

Grayson expertly went to work with his tools, the same he used on cell phones, to get the stone out. Solanus remembered that he had grabbed some of the jewelry collection from the lake. He didn't have a plan to do anything with it, but thought it was better not to keep all his eggs in one basket. As he quickly dug through the zipper compartment his mind raced--had he brought Mrs. Booth's necklace? Yes, it was there. A large pendant, a white gold heart with an obnoxiously large ruby in the middle. Mrs. Booth used to wear it proudly and, after margaritas, would joke that her husband had to buy it for her "because of the au pair." Solanus never understood what that meant, but he knew the ruby was big. As he pulled it out, Clark's eyes grew wide.

"Yes, yes." Clark was enthusiastic. "This is what I want." He took it and turned it over in his hand. "Grayson, go find more rubies." After Grayson removed the large ruby, Clark tossed him the remaining necklace and gold chain, as if to indicate it was compensation for the minor trouble of having removed rubies for Clark. Then he went to the compartment and pulled out a small mesh back with 10 more containers of wampum.

Solanus was ecstatic. They exchanged concluding pleasantries, went for their bikes, and peddled hard to get away from the heat radiating from the borehole. They stopped for a rest at the top of the hill where they had camped the night before.

"Maybe we should stop here for the night." Grayson surveyed the area. "I know the sun won't set for a few hours, but we're going to have to overnight somewhere. And this is a pretty secure spot. We can make it up with a hard ride tomorrow."

I'd like to stop here, if you're okay with it," Solanus confessed. He was exhausted. The riding and the lack of sleep had taken a toll on him. His enthusiasm at his new found wealth had kept him going to the top of the hill, but this pause had given a chance for his muscles to cramp up.

"Yeah, let's do it. Take it easy. This must have been hard on you. So when we get back to Gladwin, let's get the word out for people to bring you their rubies. And then," Grayson stopped. He could see Solanus wasn't on board. "So, now that you've got a little wealth, you're done for. Well, you can at least give me a good word in Gladwin if you won't keep riding with me. But hey, what are you going to do now that you've got all this wampum."

"Well" Solanus puffed up his chest, "I'm going to go court a girl."

"Excellent!"

"Yes, Sarah. She's beautiful. I see her at the market every week. But all this wampum, I can definitely take care of a family. I've got a nice setup on the lake, and with this, I should be a good match. I think I need to talk to her father first, I don't actually know how the Amish do it."

"Amish?" Grayson was starting to laugh. "You plan to impress an Amish girl and her dad with your collection of alien technology? Aren't they against technology, like, going back before all this? Seems like it would go double for alien stuff. Solanus started to turn red. "Hey, the plan will probably work, right. Even if she can't eat this stuff for religious reasons, you can eat it and feed her your share of fish, right?" Grayson was smiling; Solanus nodded along. ?Well, at least give me the chance to pitch you on being a trader. We?ve talked, but we haven?t really talked. Let me get up the tent then I?ll tell you my story.?

Solanus bowed out to go relieve himself. He stepped out of their soon to be camp and found a place in the woods to squat with some privacy. He heard the whinny of a horse off in the distance to his left. His thoughts first shifted to Sarah. Ever since childhood, he associated horses with the Amish. Then he heard some shouting. His pants were up in a heartbeat.

He crept to the top of the little ridge separating him from the camp. Making himself low at the top of the ridge, Solanus peered down at the camp. Five men were standing with weapons trained on Grayson. The biggest one had an AR-15 rifle. He shouted, demanding to know where the other one guy was. Solanus couldn't hear the response, but could clearly see the expletive form on Grayson's face. A flash of fire from the muzzle, a loud metallic bang and Grayson was hit in the chest. Solanus's heart was pounding. He crouched low on the ridge and started backing up, noticing that his pistol was somehow drawn in his hand.

Assessing his surroundings, he looked left. Off in the distance were horses. To the right he saw their bikes, just past where the little ridge sloped down into nothing. A man with a pump shotgun was moseying towards the bikes while the others rummaged through Grayson's kit.

Solanus had to act. There were two bikes; these guys knew there was someone else. He couldn't escape on foot. It was now or never. He slunk down behind the ridge. With the small ridge separating him from the camp, he looped around to where the bikes were. Silently, he crept over as the shot-gun wielder approached the bikes. His back was to Solanus.

As Solanus moved up behind him, he came into view of the rest of the camp. He glanced over his shoulder--the rest of the gang was focused on looting Greyson?s body and tent. With the stealth of an experienced fisherman, Solanus slowly came up behind the man. The stranger propped his shotgun against Grayson's bike and then unzipped Solanus's trailer. He pulled out the mesh bag of wampum. Solanus crept closer. He made his move. Pressing the pistol to the man's head, he cocked it and whispered "don't move." The man started to turn. "I said, don't move." The whisper turned to a low growl.

Solanus grabbed the mesh bag out of the man's hand, keeping the gun to his head. He pivoted slowly over to his bike; keeping his eyes on the man and his companions. Solanus needed to unhook the trailer to get maximum speed for his escape. He tried to release the trailer while keeping his eyes on the stranger. With the hand also gripping the mesh bag, he fumbled for the release. He wasn't getting it. He briefly looked down at the bike, unscrewed the yellow release, and looked up as the stranger was leaping into action.

Solanus felt a flash of pain in his side--the stranger had pulled a knife and come at Solanus. Then he felt the gun jerk in his hand. A flash of fire and the other man's head exploded, recoiling back as a knife fell from his hand. He hadn?t decided to shoot the man; he had simply reacted. The rest was a blur. Solanus was on the bike and riding hard down the hill. He had never gone this fast before. The bike sped; he peddled. The small stab wound, the fear, the chase, all of it was pumping him full of adrenaline. He struggled not to crash, but he didn't stop pedaling at full speed. He kept going, not slowing down to look back.

At this speed he knew looking back could cause him to crash. He raced home along the route he and Grayson had rode before. Pounding the pedals mercilessly with legs that no longer felt tired. As the rush subsided, he kept peddling but took stock of himself. Without the trailer he was making much better time. He had the mesh sack with food pellets in his left hand, gripping the handle firmly. His right hand was empty, holding only the handle. He must have dropped the gun in the rush to jump on the bike. He saw the sign for the rail trail and made a hard left, trying to pick up more speed on the better-conditioned path. As the sun started to set, he risked a look over his shoulder. Nothing. He took another longer look. Still nothing. He kept pedaling hard. As twilight approached, he realized it might be safer to hide than risk crashing his bike in the dark. He pulled off on a side street and went to an obviously abandoned house. The door had been kicked in long ago; the visible interior walls were water-stained. He walked his bike into a first floor master bedroom. He drained the last of his water bottle, closed the door, and decided to take a quick cat nap on the bed. A little rest then he would keep watch all night.

The birds chirping outside woke him up. The sun was streaming in. Solanus jumped up with a start. He crept out of the house and looked out the door. No sign of anyone else. His body ached. He was desperately thirsty. No water in the house. He took his bottle and filled it from the pond out front. His thirst satiated, he started to worry about the pond water making him sick. Then he remembered the wampum also had immune boosters. That's what his parents called the stuff they gave him as a kid when he was sick, this alien version was probably a thousand times better. He ate one. Grayson was right, it did taste kind of like shit.

He filled another bottle of water and rode off, pedaling hard. A few minutes later the nutrients and vitamins in the wampum had kicked in. He felt full and recharged. This stuff was great. As he peddled hard for home, he drained the water bottle, hoping the immune booster was good enough to cover two loads of pond water. Nearing Gladwin finally, he was extremely thirsty. There was still no sign of men on horseback. He noticed horse dung ahead, but this should be from the Amish. Solanus had an idea.

At the next road crossing, Solanus pulled off. Sarah's farm was near here, a few miles closer than his lake. The Amish were hospitable. He could stop in for some water. Maybe it would be a good excuse to tell his story. He could show off his wampum. If it went well, he could express his interest in Sarah. Or maybe he should come back later when he wasn't sweat-stained. Either way, his bravery and new-found wealth would naturally come up as to why he needed water. He would leave out the part where he shot a man. That seems like something the Amish wouldn't approve of. On the plus side, since he no longer had a gun, maybe he could become Amish. Did it work like that, he wondered. Everyone today was living mostly without technology. The Amish religion had to be more complicated than just the no-technology stuff, Solanus knew. But he could probably work that out. He didn't not believe in God. He hadn't been to Mass since the aliens arrived, so it's not like he had strong views on any of this stuff. He probably wouldn't be the first guy to adopt a religion for a girl.

Solanus slowed as he approached the farm. Better to catch his breath before starting a conversation. As he pulled up the road and rounded the strand of trees, the farmhouse came into view. Solanus wiped out on his bike in shock. Pulling himself up from the dust, he stared at the house. It was in flames. Solanus rushed to the house. Mr. Yoder was dead in the doorway, a gunshot wound to his chest. Solanus started to cry. He held up his bag of wampum and stared at it. He was the richest man in Gladwin, Michigan. But he couldn?t buy the only thing he?d ever wanted.






Article © J.C. Miller. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-02-08
Image(s) are public domain.
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