Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
To Leaf’s playful delight, the first flurry of snowflakes danced and twirled on the breeze, swirling up crackling brown leaves. Bundled up in snow pants, coat, winter boots, hat, and mittens against the cold, he danced about, “Snow! Snow! I want to go sledding!” Running to the porch, he grabbed the plastic sled used to haul wood to the house, and dragged it over the hard, bare, frozen ground to a spot near a short, gentle slope at the edge of the yard. With a padded thump, he plopped down into the sled, wiggling his body in an effort to make the sled move forward.
Watching him from the porch, Maggie chuckled at his antics, and then called out to him. “There isn’t enough snow yet for sledding.”
“Not enough snow?” Leaf turned to face his mother.
“Not enough snow, Leafy. Maybe tomorrow, if it snows all night, you’ll be able to go sledding in the morning,” which didn’t seem at all likely as the weak flurry of snowflakes was already petering out.
“I want to go sledding now. I make snow.”
Maggie didn’t know how to respond to such a vivid imagination, and watched as her little son climbed out of the sled and stood with his head leaned back looking up into the sky, his arms spread wide as though he were heralding in a snowstorm. Maggie felt uneasy just watching him; she didn’t like him playing wizard; it struck too close to home. Her apprehension grew as the cloudy day darkened unnaturally and it began to snow in earnest. Big fluffy snowflakes filled the sky as the darkly gray clouds descended and the snowstorm gained in intensity. Accumulating rapidly, the snow fell in increasingly thicker and thicker clumps until it totally obscured her view of Leaf still standing out in the yard.
“Leaf!” Maggie ran toward where she had seen him last, trudging through snow that deepened with every step she took. “Leaf!” she screamed again, the thick snowfall muffling the sound.
“Here, Mommy!” Leaf called out cheerfully from just a couple of feet away, buried to his chest in snow and exhibiting no fear of the snow event whatsoever. “Can I go sledding now, Mommy?”
Maggie reached his side panting and pulled him to her. “Leaf, make it stop now, please.” She couldn’t believe what she was saying. Asking him to stop was actually confirming that she believed he caused the snowstorm in the first place.
“Okay,” and as quickly as it had started, the snowfall ended. The sky lightened back up to the dull cloudy gray it was before with small intermittent snowflakes swirling on the breeze.
Upon seeing the heavy snowfall from their respective windows…Melinda in her room doing schoolwork and Vince at the living room table typing away on another novel…they stopped what they were doing and rushed out onto the porch for a better view. The snow stopped soon after they poured out the door, but what they saw was an unusual sight indeed. Snow, two and a half feet deep where Maggie and Leaf stood, tapered off to frozen bare ground again just a hundred feet away from them in every direction.
“I’m almost afraid to ask what happened here,” Vince muttered as Maggie made her way back to the porch with Leaf in tow. There could be no doubt that this had been another Leaf-generated phenomenon.
Leaf made a sled hill, Melinda thought, astonished.
“It’s hot chocolate time,” Maggie said in passing, and lead them all back inside.
Walking instead of teleporting to reserve the energy she needed to maintain the aura of warmth that kept her alive, Caleeza pushed on mindlessly, placing one foot in front the other. The wide, flat, level trail was easy walking, but the cold was biting and the wind blew fiercely, pelting her with blowing snow. A sliver of a moon shining like a jewel-studded crescent glistened coldly above the frozen landscape. The wind picked up until one gust nearly blew her off the path, forcing her to climb down the leeward side of the embankment to seek shelter. Finding a spot out of the punishing wind amongst snow-covered rocks piled against the base of the trail above her, she settled in to rest.
Caleeza struggled to stay hydrated. Getting water out of the dry frozen air and snow crystals was very difficult, requiring a lot of energy for little in return. Cupping snow in her hands, she melted it down to water, producing a bit of moisture which she licked off of her fingers. To keep her dwindling energy supply up, she swallowed another food tablet…. “Only two left,” she moaned to herself…then snuggled into a ball wrapped in her cloak. Exhaustion overrode discomforts and she fell asleep instantly.
A rumble on the trail above her woke Caleeza with a start. Unfurling from her nest, she looked about quickly and saw the lights of another mechanical beast retreating into the distance. How many opportunities for rescue had she missed while she was sleeping, she wondered? It was still dark, but she knew time had passed because the sliver of a moon had moved across the sky. Somewhat rested, Caleeza climbed back up to the trail and started walking again, following the retreating lights.
Benevolently, the wind had died down, and after some time, the sky began to lighten. In the early dawn light, Caleeza could see a long low serpentine structure on legs that ran roughly parallel to the trail off to the left, and like the trail, continued on as far as the eye could see. She thought about teleporting to it for a closer look, when she spotted another mechanical beast with shining lights bearing down on her from behind.
This time, Caleeza was determined to make contact. Reaching out mentally, she touched the mind of a male life form similar to the ones she had encountered before, but with a different signature. The mental images she read did not seem threatening, and to her relief, he was alone. Should the encounter prove dangerous, she would have a better chance of fighting off one adversary instead of two.
Assuming a warrior’s stance in the middle of the trail, Caleeza waited with calm alertness for the conveyance to reach her. As it drew closer, it loomed larger, larger than any mechanical beast she had seen so far. It made all kinds of loud blaring noises as it approached until finally coming to a stop. The enormous monster, boxy in the front, long and cylindrical in the back, the outer surface uniformly crusted in dark gray, rumbled an arm’s length away. Eventually, one side of the boxy part opened up and the life form she had detected inside appeared at the opening.
“What the hell are you doing in the middle of the road?” Stanley yelled at the top of his lungs.
The strange lady, dressed in some sort of superhero costume with no coat…and apparently no sense…failed to respond. Stanley scanned the vast empty landscape and deserted road. Where in the hell did she come from? There isn’t a vehicle in sight. Although the lady hadn’t spoken, Stanley experienced a gentle plea for help, and he softened his tone.
“Are you all right? Do you need help?” The lady still didn’t answer, maybe she didn’t speak English.
Encouraged by his softer kinder tone, Caleeza approached the cab of his truck.
What am I going to do with this broad? Stanley moaned silently. They were nearly 90 miles from Deadhorse and he had another 400 miles to go before reaching Fairbanks. He didn’t want to just leave her out here to freeze to death. He couldn’t understand why she wasn’t frozen already!
“Damn!” Reluctantly, Stanley climbed down. This was not turning into a good day; already, he had a late start this morning and now this. Didn’t anyone understand he had a schedule to keep?
“Listen here, lady! You can’t stand out here in the middle of the road, and I’m not supposed to pick up hitchhikers. Who are you? How did you get here?” he asked, coming face to face with her.
Caleeza didn’t understand what the man was shouting, but introducing herself seemed the polite thing to do, so she pointed to herself and said, “Caleeza.”
“Caleeza, is that your name?”
“Caleeza,” she repeated.
“I’m Stanley,” he said, none too happy with the situation. He was getting cold jabbering out here without a coat on, plus he was letting all the heat out of the cab of his truck. Besides, he had to get moving; he had a long way left to go before this day was done. “Get in,” he barked. It was the only solution he could come up with.
Caleeza wasn’t trained to speak the tongue of this unknown place, but it didn’t sound too difficult. All students at the Academy were trained in language acquisition. With a little effort on her part, she should be able to pick up this one fairly quickly. Stanley’s hand movements and mental images indicated to Caleeza what he wanted her to do, and she climbed up, with his assistance, onto a tiny ledge only part way up to the opening into the huge mechanical beast; and then, at his urging, she climbed in the rest of the way onto a cushiony seat. Warm air blew pleasantly on her from somewhere.
“Scoot over,” Stanley said, appearing in the opening and making motions with his hands. Caleeza climbed over to a second cushiony seat beyond and Stanley climbed in closing the opening. Soon warmth enveloped her all around.
“Brrrr…..cold!” Stanley rubbed his hands to warm them, and then opened his thermos, looking up and down the long stretch of road. He could see a long ways. Fortunately, there were no trucks approaching. Using the plastic lid from the thermos for a cup, he poured some coffee into it and handed it to her. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” She took it gratefully, searching for words of gratitude in his head.
Impulsively, Stanley said ‘thank you’ out loud…then wondered why.
“Thank you,” Caleeza said.
“You’re welcome,” Stanley said, pouring coffee into his ceramic mug.
Caleeza studied the slightly steaming dark liquid, sniffing it first, and then brought the cup to her lips and sipped with caution. The taste was strong and slightly bitter, but it was warm and fluid and she drank it all down.
“You’re probably dehydrated,” Stanley said, watching her. He dug into a storage compartment and pulled out a bottle of water. “Here,” he said, handing it to her.
Caleeza examined the strange bottle made of a substance she couldn’t identify. The clear container appeared to contain water, and with thirsty eagerness, she searched for a way into it.
“Twist the top off,” Stanley said, inadvertently providing her with a how-to mental picture as he did so.
Caleeza twisted the cap off and took one cautious sip, establishing it was drinkable water, before gulping down most of the bottle’s contents.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I guess you’re hungry, too.” He located the boxed lunch with the extra sandwiches he had requested, and tossed her one. “I need to get this rig moving; I’m not supposed to stop in the middle of the road.”
While Stanley concentrated on directing the mechanical beast, Caleeza watched him in action, touching controls and moving levers to force the enormous mechanical conveyance into forward motion. This was her first opportunity to study one of these humanoid life forms up close.
Her benefactor had thinning light brown hair with a hint of gray, and a beard to match. He wasn’t very muscular; although he wasn’t fat either, except for a bit of a paunch that stuck out in front of him. His highly animated face and light brown eyes with golden highlights riveted her attention, his expressions constantly altering with his frequently changing thoughts and moods…none of which seemed to be dangerously threatening at the moment.
“How in the world did a pretty little thing like you end up out here all alone?” Stanley asked, once he had them going again.
“How…?” Caleeza didn’t understand, but she was sure the inflection had been interrogative.
“Yes, how…?” Caleeza repeated. She didn’t know. With her stomach growling angrily, she turned her attention to the strange food package Stanley had tossed to her. The contents were enclosed in a clear pouch made of a material similar to the water container, but more pliable. She found a way to pull it open, and took out one of the two pieces of what looked like animal and plant products between two pieces of some kind of leavened bread. Nibbling on it cautiously, she found it palatable enough and gratefully consumed it.
Settling into the straight stretch of road, the radio quiet and no other truckers in sight, Stanley made a quick study of his unexpected passenger. In the seven years he’d driven the Dalton Highway, he’d never encountered anyone lost on the tundra before. Actually, she wasn’t bad looking, just a little weird. Her bright red hair, ivory skin, and violet flower-petal eyes were certainly eye-catching. But the way she studied that sandwich, you would think she’d never seen a sandwich before in her life, Stanley thought with an amused smile.
“Where are you from?” he asked, his eyes back on the road.
“Where…?” Inflection suggested this was another question.
Warm and no longer hungry and thirsty, Caleeza allowed herself to relax from urgent basic needs and focus on language acquisition. She did not understand what he said, but she could sense he wanted to know more about her. Using telepathy, she sent him mental images of the expedition she had been on and her sudden transference from there to this cold frozen treeless landscape. She showed him how she had spent the night with the first life forms she had encountered.
Musk-oxen,” Stanley filled in. He shook his head. Where were all these images coming from? Of course, he recognized the pictures from the North Slope, but the images that had preceded those didn’t look like any place he knew of on Earth.
Then Caleeza showed him images of the large herd of life forms with thin legs and long curving antlers…but held back from revealing information about the hunters.
“Caribou.” Stanley saw the images in his mind, and shook himself out of what felt like a daydream. If he didn’t know better, he would say this broad was messing with his mind.
Caleeza continued to stimulate speech acquisition by sending Stanley mental pictures which he impulsively named. Soon, she learned that the trail they traveled on was called a road, sometimes he referred to it as the ‘haul road,’ and the mechanical beast they rode in was a truck. He called the long serpentine structure on legs that continued to follow, sometimes close to the road, sometimes off in the near distance, a pipeline, and for some reason that she could not discern, that pipeline was deemed very important. Then, suddenly, she spotted a scar on the terrain, a settlement of some sort, and Caleeza tensed with quizzical anticipation. How would she be received here?
“Pump Station No. 3,” Stanley said, identifying the collection of box and round shaped structures and mechanical devices off to the right; but to her amazement, he made no effort to slow down, driving right past the connecting road. Caleeza couldn’t believe it; the first sign of a village in this vast land that she had seen and he just passed it by.
I sure hope we are headed for a warmer place, Caleeza ruminated.
They rode in silence for a while, gazing at the approaching mountains, deep blue shadows on white reaching into a clear blue sky. Occasionally, other trucks passed them headed in the opposite direction, toward Deadhorse according to Stanley, and he talked to the life forms in the trucks using a device he called a radio.
Needing to relieve himself, Stanley pulled the truck over onto a turnout. Caleeza, unaware that she had drifted off, jolted awake as the big rig came to a stop. The warmth and comfort inside the cab and the monotonous noise of the road had lulled her into restful sleep. Stanley suggested she take the opportunity to stretch a bit and he opened the cab door, reviving her with a cold rush of fresh air, but the wind seemed to have stopped completely.
When they were back in the warmth of the truck, Stanley reached for the food box and pulled out lunch. There were more of the food conglomerates he called sandwiches, which he ate quickly with a ravenous appetite. Caleeza still had half a sandwich left. He offered her a bag of chips, which she declined, pointing to what he identified as an apple instead. He gladly offered it to her, having little interest in fruit himself. In no time at all, Stanley was finished eating, and with the ease of experience, he pulled back out onto the road again.
Settled back in the comfort of her seat, munching on the apple, Caleeza became overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape. Now that she was not struggling moment by moment to stay alive, she could appreciate the raw brutal majestic beauty of the land. Finely sculpted glistening white mountains with faceted shadows of deep blue rose from the frozen expanse of white, embracing them closely as they drove deeper into the tranquility of the Brooks Range.
For the next few miles, Stanley did a lot of squawking on the radio, and from the mental images she could pick up, the concern was for a certain spot where the road crossed over the mountain.
And then she saw it.
“Atigun Pass, 4,800 feet,” Stanley said as they watched a truck with a wide load crawl down the steep embankment, coming toward them. Stanley pulled his rig over onto another turnout, giving the other truck plenty of room to pass. The driver of the other rig waved as he went by, and then Stanley started the long, steep climb up the mountain.
The truck climbed and climbed, unbelievably higher and higher up the side of the mountain, eventually moving so slowly, Caleeza wondered if it would even make it. The view from this perspective was so incredibly beautiful, it took her breath away. And still they climbed some more before finally cresting over the top. As they leveled out somewhat, she spotted a group of four-legged life forms with fluffy white coats, long pointy snouts, and brown curling horns on the peak across from them, and pointed them out to Stanley.
“Oh, yeah, I see them, Dall sheep, nice ram there,” he said, unable to take his eyes off the road for long.
Already, they were crawling down the steep grade on the other side of the pass, when they heard a whooping noise growing steadily louder. After some searching, Caleeza found the source of the strange sound and couldn’t believe her eyes. A blue and white mechanical beast appeared high in the clear blue sky. The noisy flying machine was longer than it was wide; its head a transparent bubble tapering down to a whirling blur at the end of its tail. There were two parallel bars suspended from its belly, and a pole rising from its back ended in another circular blur of motion, much larger than the one on its tail, the mechanism which apparently held the flying machine aloft. Reaching up mentally, Caleeza detected two signatures inside, and saw images of the spectacular view of the mountain range from their perspective high above it.
“The big wheels are taking advantage of a clear calm day in the pass,” Stanley said, indicating the helicopter. “Imagine what the view must be like from up there!” Soon, the helicopter passed over the mountain peak and was out of sight.
Slowly, the truck rolled down the steep curved grade. What kept it from losing control and plummeting off the side of the mountain was beyond Caleeza, but she picked up on Stanley’s tension, and was relieved when the road finally curved out onto a level stretch, the crossing complete.
As they came around the base of the mountain into a wide valley, Caleeza was astonished at the change in the landscape. There were trees! Thin scrawny patches of struggling trees with dull grayish-green pin-like leaves dotted valleys, ridges, and mountain slopes covered with withered brown dead foliage and only a light dusting of snow.
“So what do you like to do?” Stanley asked, relaxing some now that Atigun Pass was behind him. Of course, the entire haul road was dangerous, depending on conditions, but there were some distinguished points of ill repute that always put him on edge, the pass through the Brooks Range being only one of them.
“Do?” Caleeza asked puzzled, looking for clues.
“Do you like to go out? Have a few drinks? Get romantic?” It doesn’t matter what I say, she can’t understand me anyway, Stanley decided.
Caleeza picked up images from Stanley’s mind of gatherings of people merrily drinking liquids and laughing and talking loudly while watching moving pictures in picture frames…perhaps the first sign of the use of magic on this world that she’d seen. But then she caught images that disturbed her, for Caleeza detected a desire in Stanley that ran unfettered in his imagination.
Caleeza didn’t attempt to answer him and looked out the window with increasing interest. As they drove on, the terrain beckoned invitingly. The dusting of snow disappeared, and trees became a little stouter and fuller and more numerous as the elevation dropped. They even passed a stream of flowing water with ice-laced edges.
It was time to thank Stanley for all his help, and leave him with his thoughts of passion, Caleeza decided. She studied the grassy forested ridge outside her window and prepared to make a move.
“Thank you,” Caleeza said sincerely to Stanley, and picking a woodsy spot on the nearby ridge, she teleported herself there.
“You’re welcome….” Stanley swerved, nearly running off the road as he stared in shock at the empty passenger seat. Just like that, the strange lady was gone.