He slowly crawled out of his tent and looked around, shielding his eyes against the glare of the sun. For at least a mile in any direction, right up to the foothills that surrounded the plain, he could see nothing but sharp-edged salt formations that he knew would lacerate his bare feet and break his ankles if he tried to walk across the formations. At least that’s what he’d been informed after the trial.
The snow-streaked mountains in the distance seemed to dance and shimmer as he gazed at them, and he tried not to recall the military judge’s final pronouncement: “The jury has declared you guilty of the crime of second-degree murder by negligence of three civilians. You shall now serve a ten-year sentence which also will result in either your complete rehabilitation or your death. You will be placed in isolation for a term of not less than six months in an inescapable setting known as the Devil’s Golf Course and then returned to a prison stockade, the location to be determined. You will be monitored and returned to your camp if you do attempt to escape, and you will not be provided with anything more than the basic means of survival – a regular supply of food and water and soap, shelter, toilet facilities, but certainly no electronic device to allow you to communicate with others, especially not one similar to the texting device you employed to cause the deaths for which you have been hereby adjudged as directly responsible. So rules the court.”
He glanced back at his one-man tent, and sure enough, a package about the size of a basketball had been placed behind it during the night. Probably a gallon jug of water, some fresh vegetables and fruit, another MRE, a container for his waste. He knew that already from his last briefing.
His thumbs moved involuntarily, and he shook his hands and jumped up and down until his body was calm again, but not until after sweat had popped out on his forehead. Even during an early morning in late October, the temperature in Death Valley was already climbing, and in spite of the anti-heat inoculation he’d received, he did not feel comfortable.
The images that had been imprinted on his brain pushed into his consciousness … the three mangled, bloody, and burnt bodies inside the crumpled vehicle from which the roof had been removed after his transport vehicle had ridden over it and crushed before it caught fire. The medical officer had told him that in time they’d fade away, but he’d dreamed last night, all night, each dream starting with him texting his fiancée and ending with him staring down at the nest of bodies in the car.
Breakfast? Why not? He certainly wasn’t going to bash out his brains with a rock or a piece of salt, or stop eating and drinking and die of dehydration, and even if he did try to commit suicide the hidden cameras would alert a supervisor who would be on top of him before he could shed more than a few drops of blood. And then he’d be yanked out of here so quickly that his sweat wouldn’t have a chance to dry before he’d be dumped in a cell underground, with stale air pumped in and out and a single bulb in the ceiling, protected by a grill, instead of the sun and fresh, if overheated, air he had out here.
He lit the propane burner and poured a little over a cup of water into a disposable aluminum pan and waited for it to boil while he pulled the tab on a cinnamon-oatmeal mush MRE. He dropped a rounded spoonful of instant coffee into an enameled cup, and when the water started to roil he poured it into the cup, turned down the flame, and placed the MRE atop of it, wondering how long he should leave it. And how long he should wait until the next MRE, and whether it would be turkey or pork or beef pot pie, and when the next time would be that he would see an actual human being, and if his fiancée would be thinking of him now, and what the high temperature today would be and the low tonight, and whether the relatives of the three people he’d kill would hunt him down and enact vengeance … and he slowly crumpled to his knees, salty tears running down his face and into the salt crystals that made up much of the ground, knowing that the wet crystals might melt for an instant, but at least they’d be whole again when they dried.