Twenty Miles South - Fiction - By Michael Palisano -









In Memory
Sean Pettibone



Twenty Miles South

It was eerily silent. We stood in a kind of strange position, looking across at each other, seemingly crossing paths at random. Neither one of us seemed to know how we'd ended up there, stranded and alone in the desert expanse. Each moment infused with uncertainty, underlined with a mixture of confusion, disorientation and a fearful sense that something had gone wrong. We were two seemingly insignificant, unknown figures standing across the invisible divide. Standing across from one another, we were stuck in a strange stand-off. It felt like we were both trapped. There wasn't a way out, it was like standing within an elaborate, inscrutable puzzle without an obvious solution. We stared at each other, cautiously observing, watching, calculating and plotting out next move. I walked closer towards the other mysterious figure, waiting for some signal of what to do next. As I came in towards his position, he pulled something out of his immaculately tailored, strangely sharp-angled jacket. I looked at it closely and knew immediately that he was seeking something that couldn't be found easily. Eventually, it could be located but not without patience and determination.

The object he held in his hands at first resembled a strange weapon of unknown origin, but I knew better what the purpose of the machine was. It looked unremarkable at first, nothing but a dormant metal shell. There were no signs that it was anything special lacking in function and purpose  until he held it outward and extended it up towards the sunlight. This revealed the switches and dials hiding on its reverse, its mysterious and clandestine functions revealed. My heart raced immediately when i recognized its form under the bright sun, which somehow changed its appearance. He held it outward under the bright sun. Its fiery heat burned through it almost immediately, infusing it with an unmistakable energy that was immediately familiar and strange. He twisted and turned some of its dials, marking each position with his fingers until he finally created an alignment that satisfied him. There wasn't any indication of success at first and he waited patiently. I remembered that it probably needed time to synchronize and process the unfamiliar light and make adjustments amid its new surroundings. He made more adjustments and moved it around until it was directly under the sun until he found the correct position. It seemed to glow as the light poured into it and there was a response. The machine began to hum and buzz. At first he tried to hide it from me, but he saw my excited reaction. He couldn't keep it hidden, and I think he realized that I knew what he was holding. He seemed to have changed his mind and took a more straightforward approach towards my curiosity.

He thrust it outwards even more until it extended it directly into the sunlight, displaying it proudly where I could see it quite clearly. Sliding his fingers over its surface and turning its dials on the opposing side revealed the true form and purpose of his machine. I walked a few steps closer to get a better look and he withdrew his fingers, revealing its true form, which was immediately familiar. I stopped in my tracks, the strange object took on a familiar form. I had to blink and focus. It seemed that eyes were deceiving me. It was the last thing I was expecting to see. Nearly identical to the machine I had seen in the past, except with a strange green color, its shell glistening under the hot sun, reflecting its heat with a kind of supernatural forces that made it seem almost impervious. Its surface covered in strange arrays of dials and switches. I moved closer, wondering how he was able to procure such a unique item. I only knew of one other who would have created such a device, and it had the familiar look but somehow different, it was slimmer but looked quite a bit older. I looked up and saw the expression on his face had changed. No longer severe, he seemed remarkably calm, almost serene. It was a reluctant calmness. He looked resigned to half-accepting our precarious situation and the somewhat constrained options we faced.

It felt like neither one of us understood how we had gotten there, in the middle of that strange place. When I looked around, it didn't feel like either one of us were in the right place. I knew he was looking for something, but it wasn't the same thing or person I was seeking. I didn't know how to help him, and he seemed perplexed as to how he'd be able to aid me. I wondered why he was suddenly standing in my way, or if as seemed more likely, I was in his path. His silence was unsettling, and more than a little frightening. I had no idea what his plans were, but the presence of the familiar elements in his mechanical device offered a strange reassurance, but I wasn't completely at ease. I had no idea of his origin or motivation, which was unsettling.  I remembered the signs I'd made in the sand, and waved back towards them. At that point, enough wind had blown over them, deforming their lines and meanings but I stepped aside and gave him the chance to take a second look. Perhaps, he recognized the shapes I'd tried to make in the sand. Walking closer, the stranger examined their lines carefully, but it didn't seem to alter his position. Glancing back towards his machine, he turned its dials and seemed to reconfigure its positions. He didn't say a word during this process, there was no way of knowing what he was up to.

I didn't understand what was happening, it was like an accident, or some kind of mistake, the kind you can't take back. He'd come from nowhere, without warning. I stood there and wondered how he was able to locate me and what his reasons were. I walked closer, carefully. There was no way I was going to intrude on his space and risk provoking any undue retaliation. It was difficult to stand still with the unrelenting sun on my head but I was able to make it through by concentrating on him, his serenity and odd character. I noticed his eyes had focused on the machine, and he resumed finishing his task. He seemed to know what he was doing, this wasn't an experiment or test for him. Steadily, he went through different configurations until settling on a position that seemed correct. He waved the device around until he had it where he wanted it, battling against the sun's glare, he seemed to have a hard time reading its responses. His attention seemed to have drifted away from my direction by the task at hand. It didn't seem to fluctuate or waver no matter where I stood.

I decided to take a few additional nervous steps forward, moving closer carefully as not to break his concentration or distracting him. I wanted to get a better view of his techniques without getting in the way. I was surprised to see the dials seemed to move on their own, and make small adjustments and corrections in their position automatically when he moved the machine towards the sun. At a closer range, I noticed it would occasionally shake depending on where he held it, but despite this, it wouldn't shake free of his possession. Despite its apparent effort to break free, he held it firmly in his grasp. Oblivious to the heat and dusty gusts, he was undeterred. He continued carefully adjusting the assembled dials until reaching a precise, definitive position. It seemed he was aiming for a specific relation between them, stopping only sporadically to examine its condition, cataloging its response. At one point, he seemed to notice it had accumulated dust and dirt, and he carefully swiped its surface while removing any other particles on its surface that might have impeded him from turning its dials. I watched from a safe distance, not wanting to interfere with his process. He waited patiently to see how the device would react to each configuration and style. He positioned it at different heights, at eye level, beneath his chin, above his head. He took it and held it towards his left, then his right. None of these positions produced noticeably different results. The device would hum and shake for a few moments then subside back to slumber, seemingly unable to catch any energy from the sun. Instead of growing frustrated, he maintained his calm composure and continued turning the dials, determined to see the process through to its final objective.

I fought off the urge to walk much closer, deciding it was safer where I was. I moved close, knowing the barrier was still active and potentially dangerous. I sensed that it had been placed there unknown reasons. There was an invisible chasm that separated us, and it seemed necessary for both his safety and mine. He continued to slip his fingers over the machine, watching it carefully for anything unexpected, its green surface reflecting the bright, hot desert sun. It looked precisely as it should after a few more adjustments, the metallic bands on its sides shining brightly, cooling themselves effortlessly. I began to focus on its machinations as well, and began to feel a little of its surface, even at that distance, coming through. Slowly, he began to change his technique and it became more evident that something was happening. Initially, there wasn't much reaction but he finally seemed to reach the right position after much trial and error. After reaching the correct height and angle, the machine began to hum loudly and consistently. I immediately recognized the sound it made. It had a strangely familiar energy that conducted the light through his fingers and diffused its power. It seemed to capture the hot rays of the sun, scattering them back up into the air, through the wind and then channeling downwards into the ground surrounding him. Evaporating and diminishing, the brutal heat submerged into the sand, dissolving as it sank beneath the desert floor. I wasn't sure what he was trying to accomplish with that technique but I was careful to stand far enough away to avoid the impact of the discarded energy bursts.

He continued this process, building a kind of strange circle that surrounded him, pulsing with an odd energy that coalesced into minor indentations on the surface. At first, they were small bumps, but they increased in ferocity as he waved the machine around in faster, increasingly severe motions, until their force increased. Before I knew it, small craters began to form from the repeated, strengthening impacts, causing the surface to shake. He didn't seem to notice the impact that he was causing and continued skimming light from the air, redirecting it towards the ground without looking. Trying to stand in place became increasingly difficult. I had to anticipate the rolling motions so I wouldn't stumble or find myself thrown off-balance. He continued slamming the surface, relentlessly gathering and discarding pieces of energy until he found ones he could channel in the right directions. He built momentum and worked through the surrounding area until the barrier completely surrounded him, containing an accumulated energy that felt impenetrable. It seemed that he had created a second manifestation of the barrier that stood between us. After performing additional movements, he finally ran out of patience. He swirled the machine around, twisted it and almost threw it, sending a massive, fiery burst crashing down onto the surface. It might have been an accident, since it looked like it had come down in the wrong location. It had broken a small gap in the surrounding barrier, leaving him unexpectedly exposed.

This mistake seemed to catch him off guard and he seemed perplexed as what he would do next. He stopped making the motions with his machine and spun around a few times. Surveying his surroundings, he seemed generally confused as what had gone wrong. It didn't seem like he was used to making mistakes. He zeroed in on the missing portion of his barrier and pointed the machine directly at it. He held it downward and seemed to scan it, carefully examining its flaws and making adjustments. Finally, he spun his arms back around and turned it back towards the sun. He twisted one of its dials and flung it back above his head. He closed his eyes for a brief second, reopened them and waved his enigmatic machine around. It began to hum loudly, and suddenly grew an incredibly bright green. I felt the air evaporate for a moment, there was a sudden, quiet pause and it shot upwards with a great force, nearly jumping out of his hands. He was able to maintain his grip on it, and aimed it almost directly towards the sky. It captured a particle of sun, processed it and threw it back directly into the gap. There was a massive burst of light which caused a huge ringed explosion on the surface. When it subsided, it left a giant rupture in the ground, larger than any of the preceding craters.

It smoldered for a minute before cooling, its sharp edges needled the side of the inner barrier, brokering another layer of protection surrounding him. He stood for a moment, apparently satisfied that his work was complete. I watched from a distance, and walked a step further towards him before stopping, remembering the other barrier that stood in my way. Resolute in his apparent mission, he took the machine and placed it backwards, examining its back side, which had somehow gotten through the ordeal without a scratch or singe. He turned it back over and turned its dials for a few seconds, barely glancing in my direction. The surroundings began to calm down as he reset the machine, returning to a restful state, quickly resuming their emphatically mute accompaniment. Silence permeated the atmosphere and gradually returned, tethering us back to the ground. He walked around the surrounding barrier, inspecting the craters for any additional gaps and didn't find any. Moving back towards the center of the ring, he raised the machine again, but unexpectedly aimed it in away from the skies above and toward the ground between me and him. The invisible barrier suddenly appeared, shimmering briefly in a burst of green light that outlined its surface and just as quickly vanished from sight, evaporating beneath the burning sun's unforgiving heat. He jumped over one of the shallower craters and began walking towards the barrier, effortlessly navigating the past the inner encirclement and its uneven surfaces. There was no trace of hesitation as he walked towards the barrier, he passed through it without flinching

He looked in my direction and seemed puzzled by my stoicism under the intense pressure of the experiment. He seemed surprised to see me there, almost expecting me to run away from the somewhat strange occurrences. Instead, I was mesmerized and intrigued, noting the maneuvers and techniques he was implementing and comparing them to those previously approached, wondering where he'd gained the confidence and experience to those secrets. As he came closer, I managed to slip a closer look at him. When I looked in his eyes, I felt something strange about him. He seemed distant and removed from the moment, somehow lost in time, despite his focus on the task and function of his machine. He seemed to be looking right through me, searching for something or someone who wasn't there. I turned around, looking backwards and saw no signs of anything out of the ordinary. I looked above and while nothing seemed to have changed at first, when I looked closer, there was definitely something different. Small streaks of thin light had appeared in the skies above, cutting through the clouds and forming odd patterns. When I looked away from the sun, into the southern sky, I noticed that the thin lines had formed a series of odd shapes. I couldn't quite make out what they were until I squinted my eyes.

Looking carefully, I was able to trace their trajectories and figure out their patterns. What emerged was surprising yet reassuring. After a few moments, my eyes could discern the outlines and structures of many unexpectedly  familiar forms. It was fitful and transitional, but there were several I had seen before during previous encounters. Piecing them together took me some work, but I located some, downwind that seemed to parallel nearly perfectly with the shapes I had scrawled in the sand. The shifting winds blew them apart quickly and they reformed into other shapes. I looked towards him and he seemed to have seen what I had, but it didnít seem to have the same effect on him. I scanned the skies searching for any signal of affirmation, but nothing was visible despite my efforts. Not so much as a head nod. He looked a bit lost, looking at the skies in the same general direction, at the same time. His eyes darted around from side to side; past my position and our immediate surroundings. It slowly became apparent that he was searching for something entirely different than what I was seeking.

(Continue to part two)