Jack of Many Trades

All Your Plans Come Undone

Originally posted: 2013-04-10

The ranch was nearly untouched, perched on a mesa outside Sedona, acres of reclaimed wild desert surrounding it. I was interested because there was an old satellite dish visible on the back of the property – I’d seen it when I was driving by – and it looked like it might be in good enough shape to repair and set up a relay.

A quick overview of the property told me why it looked untouched. There was a security system that must have been state of the art when they installed it. It was still live. When I got close, three of the four spotlights flooded around me and a tinny, run-down voice announced that the fence was electrified. The body on the ground next to it suggested this wasn’t an exaggeration, but I tested it to make sure. I pressed a screwdriver with a plastic handle against the metal chain link and dragged it briefly along the metal. The electricity arced prettily.

The place looked abandoned, as far as I could tell from here, but you never really knew. You had to be at least a little bit of a paranoid survivalist to bother buying a place like this and fencing it in with a security system like that. I waited, trying to make out if there was any movement in the ranch house, but I didn’t see anything. I traced the fence, hoping there was some kind of control box I could reach.

Halfway around the property I found it – on the other side of the fence, of course. Since the place was empty, I decided on a shortcut and used a couple of old fireworks I’d been hanging on to. The first one blew up when it touched the electric fence, so I tied the remaining ones to long, dry sticks. That gave me the control I needed to get them through the holes in the chain link and up against the control box.

Just for irony’s sake, I used a spark from the fence to light the long wick. Then I ran for cover in case I’d misjudged the amount. Last time I’d used too many, and there was no accounting for these illegal fire-

The explosion echoed through the empty desert, followed by one brief wail from a security alarm before another explosion. This one was louder than the explosives alone, the sound of the transformer overloading.

I waited a second time, in case there were any inhabitants, but it seemed there weren’t. I clipped a hole in the fence and went in, eager to see what I’d gotten my hands on this time.

First of all, the place was pristine. The minute I picked the locks and stepped inside, I could tell there was still air filtration and even cooling running up until a minute ago. It was a thing of beauty.

And I had blown it up, but hopefully it was reparable.

I picked my way through the house in the semi-dark – most of the windows were tinted as well as covered in thick shades to keep the sun out, but enough light was getting in for me not to bang my shins on the furniture. There was a thick coating of dust despite the air filter – this is Arizona, after all, and even when we were civilized the desert got into everything. I guessed that a lot of the electronics had been new just before the world ended.

Just off the main bedroom I found a room with a steel door and an electronic lock. I couldn’t pick it, but with the power down, it didn’t matter.

The two bodies inside were almost perfectly preserved. It looked like one of them had had the plague when they went in, and neither of them made it out.

I shut the door pretty damn fast. I knew what they said the half-life of plague cells was, but I’d also heard enough stories to make me nervous.

The sun in the window was fading fast. It was time to fix what I’d broken. I twisted one of my glosticks and the LEDs gave me enough light to find my way back downstairs. The quiet seemed a lot more ominous now that I knew what was waiting but I’d been in plenty of dead places before.

I found a linen closet, two more bedrooms, a spare room, a bathroom and a pantry full of five-year-old canned goods before I found the circuit breakers in the wine cellar. I popped the circuit and the house came alive. Light, air circulating, the hum of all the systems. Cool air began blowing into the wine cellar with me.

I didn’t know enough about wine to know what was a good year, but I didn’t really care either. This called for a celebration, so I used my multitool’s corkscrew to open the first bottle I found. It was sweet, just the way I liked, and I ended up drinking most of the bottle as I heated various canned foods over the stove.

Civilization felt like trying on last year’s clothes when I was little. Some of it was comfortable enough to last me the summer, but mostly it felt awkward and a little too tight in all the wrong places. I ate soup, carrots and peas in the kitchen, finished the wine, and headed out toward the satellite dish.

It took most of the night, working under the security lights and listening to the transmissions the dish could pick up. Changing the frequencies it hunted for was the easy part. I spent about half an hour readjusting the angle and welding a couple of rusty cracks in the foundation. It was in good shape overall, though. The hard part was rewiring it to take what it caught and transmit it back out again. I based the wiring on a satellite phone design and brought in more power from the house to keep it up.

I spent most of the morning going through the house, looking for the most useful things to take. The idea of setting up camp in the ranch had crossed my mind, but every time I closed my eyes, I saw the bodies in the safe room upstairs. It wasn’t going to happen.

The woman had been a crafter, apparently. The spare room at the end of the hallway held enough scrapbooking paper to keep an elementary school happy for years, buttons, stickers, letter-tiles. I pulled one of the matching scrapbooks on the bookshelf and flipped through it. Empty pages. I pulled out the next, same thing. The very first one was about half-full of decorated pages, showing a happy family of four. I wondered how old the pictures were, where those two young kids were now.

The room did yield two baskets of yarn that I was pretty sure were up to Annie’s standards, however, and a pair of knitting needles with a few rows of stitching on them. The linen closet turned up some spare blankets – I wasn’t touching the ones in the bedroom – and a big linen tablecloth I thought she might find a use for. It also offered the couple’s luggage, most of which was only worthy of airports. I did manage to find a canvas duffel to shove everything in. After packing the blankets and yarn in, I took the duffel downstairs and filled the remaining space with wine and canned vegetables.

Despite the ghosts upstairs, I tried to catch a couple of hours sleep on the couch before it got dark. I don’t remember what I dreamed – something about my mother, and empty photographs – but I woke to the screech of metal against metal and an electrical bang.

I was on my feet as fast as I could move and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. There was an irrational moment when I thought it was bombs again, and then I heard the squeal of tires outside. Somebody must have noticed the lights on.

Shoving one of the shades aside a few inches, I saw a Camaro screeching up the long front driveway, almost silhouetted against the orange sunset. The hood was black and scratched, and as it reached the pool of floodlights, I saw that the remains of the front gate were still attached.

Time to go.

I grabbed the duffel and ran out the back door, grabbing my equipment and heading for my bike. I didn’t recognize the crew, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be trouble. There was just the one of me, after all. The back gate was down too, due to the disruption at the front. It was a damn shame, really, but it did make it easier for me to get to my bike.

Yeah, maybe they’d destroy my work on the dish… but maybe they wouldn’t, and it would work in the mean time. And I had an excuse to go see Annie. I always liked those.