it is a hot, dry day, and the late afternoon sun shimmers and sparkles around the edges of everything. i'm standing on the flattened top of a rock tower, and a chessboard of buttes and mesas spread out around me, their nearly blood-red surfaces glowing dully in the fading daylight. i try not to look too closely at the spaces around the buttes, for the blackness between the cracks gapes like a baby bird waiting for something alive and unwilling to be dropped into its gullet. instead i focus my attention on the Scraper beside me.
the tire of this behemoth towers above my head, and i can't help but feel that the mass of metal with its cheerful yellow paint and strange rubber and grease smell seems decidedly out of place here. i glance apprehensively from the crowd of silent Watchers behind me to the cab high above me and shiver, but my ascension is delayed for the moment by the appearance of the holographic guide, Vince.
he flickers to life beside me, his "body" fixed in place like a cardboard cutout, one hand raised it what is meant to look like a friendly gesture. only the head is animated, but it is overly large in proportion to the body and reminds me uncomfortably of a large bobble-head doll. his grin is mischievous and entirely wicked, as though this really were a simple game and my death here would mean an instant re-spawn starting over at the last save point. if only.
"well," he asks, "are you ready?"
"as ready as i'll ever be," i say, and words fall out of my mouth like little balls of lead.
"well, get your @$$ up in that cab and let's get the $*#!! going!" he swears exuberantly, still grinning like an eight-year-old boy for whom the use of curse-words is an absolute joy. i roll my eyes at him and look back at the Watchers. as if sensing my thoughts, Vince speaks again.
"they will be inside the bucket. i've hooked up a special monitor for them in there. there's also a toilet and a stewardess in case anyone needs a ginger ale," he says, his fuzzy holographic eyes sparkling at his own joke, but the Watchers merely continue to stare at us dolefully. as usual, Vince doesn't even notice that his jest has failed to amuse--he enjoys himself and that seems good enough for him.
with a sigh i begin to climb the ladder that leads into the cab, wishing i could be back home in my bed but knowing all such wishing is futility. the little door swings open and i climb inside, a wave of smell overcoming me as i slide into place behind the controls. it is a smell that reminds me of childhood--a combination of dirt, grease, old sweat, and diesel--and i breathe it in deeply. the cracked vinyl of the seat cuts painfully into the backs of my legs, but the discomfort is temporarily obscured by the disconcerting view out the window.
from my perch 20 feet up the edges of this particular butte are not visible, and i appear to be floating above a chasm. my knee-jerk reaction causes me to fling myself backwards and i hit my head on the metal wall behind me. as tiny sparks fill my vision a tiny Vince appears in the cupholder, his large bobble-head wagging as he giggles.
"that was smart," he says.
i wave my hand through the illusion in irritation and tell him to shut up. staring straight ahead, i sense the Watchers are already aboard, and with nothing else for it i start the engines and test the pedals and gears. but i can't seem to spur myself into any further action, and Vince gets annoyed. then he laughs, and i can tell by the laugh that i'm not going to like whatever it is he's doing. suddenly, on several other buttes across the canyon buildings appear like mirages slowly solidifying. i stare at them in apprehension, and my fear is soon justified as the doors burst open and hundreds of staggering forms pour out. from this distance i can't see clearly but i know what they are. humans, dead humans animated by magic and evil. zombies. even though i know it's impossible given the distance and the sealed cab i feel as though i can smell the sweet stench of decaying flesh, and hear the grinding of bones bent at unnatural angles and the squelching of loose gobbets of putrid flesh falling to the ground. that's it then. i press my feet into the pedals and the Scraper lurches sickeningly forward. for one awful moment the cab tilts down and i feel myself sliding into the abyss, the darkness an almost welcome relief. but then with a surprising lift the front of the clunky machine soars into the air like an inchworm striding forward and crashes down on another plateau with a bone-jarring jolt. i manipulate the controls to pull forward and the back half of the machine soon follows. through the Link i can feel the Watchers' relief even though i know that their faces, could i see them, would be as expressionless as ever. i feel my own relief as well, but it is short-lived. the denizens of death are hard at our heels, and i know that the only thing that will save us is water. lots of water to bar the dead from crossing.
with grinding gears and the squeal of brakes and hydraulics we lift again, inching over to the next mesa, and the next, each time barely escaping our pursuers. one time i overshoot and it is only the fact that i remember to drop the bucket that saves us. the giant hopper falls open with a colossal crash, biting into the rock and pinning us there as the back wheels skid and spin trying to back us up. Vince flickers to life again, commenting on how fortunate it is that he installed seat belts into the bucket for the Watchers, but i have no attention to spare for him. the cab hangs over the crevasse and my seat belt is the only thing keeping me from being pressed against the windshield. at last the back wheels find purchase and we slide back up, the blood rushing back away from my face and arms. i nearly sob with relief, but the dead are still coming. finally, we crash down on the top of a very large plateau, and i see there is a sprawling ranch house perched on its flat rocky surface. a tall texan with a huge hat comes sauntering out with his hand raised in greeting. he seems to be saying something but i can't hear him over the grind of the engines, and i dare not get out. Vince appears again.
"he says 'howdy'," Vince states with a grin. "and that he's got a nice cool swimming pool out back if you'd like to take a dip."
hurriedly i unbuckle my seat belt and bolt out the door, nearly bypassing the ladder altogether as i drop to the hard red stone. the Watchers are already behind me and we run full-tilt towards the texan's back yard. the smell of decayed flesh is all around, and inhuman screech of thwarted demons fills the shimmering air as we plunge into the turquoise waters. and then all is silent but for the slosh of water and the grinding of bones as they pace around the protective pool, waiting, waiting for their chance to come again.