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The roar of the engine filled the small cabin of SunVista’s sleek propeller-driven airplane. My hand rested on the porthole while puffy cotton-ball clouds drifted past, well spaced in a bright blue sky. I was barrelling at great speed toward what I could only think of as my future.
After I’d been assigned to gather data from the Rocas Caliente job site, the HR department sent me a prep packet for the trip, full of tips about heat exhaustion and scorpions. I thought it might be a good idea to talk to Eddie Vanvactor, an engineer with a cubicle near mine at SunVista headquarters; he’d been on the original Pier Design Team and done on-site testing and specification work in the project’s early days.
“Way different back then,” he’d said, happy to share what he knew. With a few clicks on his keyboard, he brought up photos of what looked like a Wild West mining camp. “Those were the tents we stayed in – on cots, hot as hell. Now I hear they’ve got modular housing, AC, everything.”
I wanted to do my field assignment as well as possible, and to me that included figuring out the who’s-who and what’s-what of a place. So I asked Vanvactor, “Any dirt about Rocas Caliente I ought to know?”
He stiffened and rotated his office chair back to his computer, closed the photo app, and said over his shoulder, “I gotta get back to work.”
The pitch of the airplane’s engine noise changed; the cabin tilted downward into a descent. Once the tires touched the dirt runway, I didn’t breathe until we rattled to a stop. Waiting for me when I got off the plane was a company man with a company SUV offering me a company swag bag.
“Richie Simms, autonomous construction coordinator and welcoming committee,” he said, extending his hand. It was a big hand and he was a big friendly guy, a few years older than me but probably still under 30. We got in the SUV and tore over the dirt and gravel of the straight desert road, past miles of sagebrush, juniper, and cactus. Unable to resist, I dug into the bulging tote bag on my lap.
“Coffee cup, T-shirt, hat, water bottle, key chain, letter opener, binder, pen and pencil set.” Richie spoke in a funny voice that sounded like he was hawking something on QVC. “Each emblazoned with SunVista’s distinctive sunburst logo. As fine an assortment of corporate crap as you’ll ever find – at least on this side of the landfill.”
I laughed. “You’d never make it in the PR department.”
He shuddered. “Fairy dust and bull puckey.”
“How did you end up out here?” I asked.
“Worked in robotics and autonomous machines for a couple of years at a start-up. When this job posted, I jumped on it.Thirty-six arrays in North America, each bigger than anything ever built – our own frickin’ Manhattan Project.”
“You don’t mind the isolation?”
His face screwed up like, Are you crazy? He reached into the back seat and retrieved a magazine. “Hot off the press,” he said, handing me the copy of Engineering Weekly. I opened it to the page marked with a yellow stickie note and read the headline: Rocas Caliente: They’re Fabbing the Future. Rickie’s grinning head rocked up and down as if to a favourite song.
I saw my opening. “Did you ever know a guy named Vanvactor? Eddie Vanvactor – they sent him out from Palo Alto probably 18 months ago.”
“Just before my time. What about him?”
“Odd guy. When he talked about being out here, he acted kind of, I don’t know . . . funny.”
“No shortage of weird shit in this desert. Pardon my French.”
A security checkpoint appeared up ahead, a small structure with a long yellow barricade arm extended from its side to block the road.
“You’ll need your ID,” Richie said. “It’s in with the trinkets.”
I found the laminated tag and slipped its lanyard around my neck as we came to a stop. A uniformed guard wearing mirrored sunglasses and a US Department of Energy patch on his shirt approached Richie’s window. They exchanged a few words, and the guard looked my way. I smiled and held out the plastic badge.
He touched two fingers to his brow. “Welcome to Rocas Caliente, ma’am.”
Up went the barricade and in we drove. After a mile or so, the left side of the road changed abruptly from a wild rugged wasteland into a manicured, state-of-the-art solar energy installation. Thousands of sturdy, precisely spaced concrete piers rose up 20 feet tall, each topped with one of SunVista’s dual-axis heliotrackers, a photovoltaic panel the size of half a tennis court.
The structures were identical, every panel angled toward the sun at exactly the same inclination. Row after row after row, like some alien robot army standing at attention.
As suddenly as the desert had bloomed into a well-tended solar farm, the farm now gave way to several acres of messy chaos where gigantic machines roared and clanked and belched dark smoke. Bulldozers, graders, excavators, pile borers – and not a single human operator in sight.
“They’re finishing up Phase I,” Richie said. “Next week we start in on the south side of the road.”
“All fully autonomous?” I asked.
“Run ’em 24/7 – or until something breaks.”
We sped past the machines and were now back alongside more elevated PV panels that we skirted all the way to the base of the eastern hills. The road ascended the craggy slope, hugging the twisting contours up the rimrock. When we’d gained a good deal of elevation, we pulled to a stop at a turnabout.
“It’s not far,” Richie said, getting out of the SUV and leading the way to a trail that disappeared behind a bulky outcrop. “Keep your eye out for snakes.”
I followed him closely. The badge around my neck swung back and forth with each step up the steep rocky staircase. Heat radiated from south-facing boulders and sheer walls baking in the late-afternoon sun. I wondered how much farther, and if maybe we should have brought water. We rounded a corner and the trail broadened onto a flat overlook.
Richie walked to the edge of the high cliff, sweat blotching the back of his shirt. “This is the best view,” he said.
Breathing hard from the climb, I joined him, and we gaped out over the vast frying pan of the desert, a broad valley extending to a range of hills in the west. Bisecting our view was the thin line of the road. On the south side of this incongruous geometry, a barren wilderness that looked as if it hadn’t changed since time began; to the north, the solar towers, an architect’s vision imposed on the landscape with the precise angularity of a checkerboard. The rows of gleaming heliotrackers receded toward the horizon in converging perspective lines.
“See over there,” Richie said, pointing at the construction site we’d driven past, where 20 or so bright yellow earthmoving machines crawled with the coordinated industry of ants. He had the satisfied look of a father watching his kids playing soccer.
I took in the whole of the project spread before us, one of 300 being constructed around the world as part of the UN’s Comprehensive Climate Emergency Initiative. We were finally taking responsibility for our impact on the planet, finally repairing rather than destroying. I remembered the upwelling pride I’d felt when telling my parents I had landed the SunVista job. And now, gazing down on the sea of shiny panels, I felt that same joy but even more intensely.
“Four months ago I was in grad school,” I said, trying to keep my voice from quavering. “Now I’m part of this.”
Richie nodded like he understood. “For so long it was all this gloom and doom shit. The planet’s dying! The planet’s dying! But nobody was doing dick about it. Pardon my French.” He reached to the ground and picked up a rock, hauled back, and chucked it like he’d played some baseball. “Those days are gone.” The rock sailed in a long, lazy arc and landed far below with a little puff of dust. “Well, if you’ve seen enough . . . the VIP tour will conclude with a visit to the Cantina del Mar for a tall cold one.” He flashed a quitting-time smile.
We hiked back down to the SUV and drove 10 miles to a crossroads where a minimart, a gas station, a boarded-up Quonset hut, and our destination occupied the four corners, each in its own way losing the battle with dust and dilapidation.
The cantina was half full and quietly murmuring. Three workmen in yellow reflector vests with SunVista logos were sharing a pitcher and watching a baseball game on the big screen TV.
“Hey, Rich,” one of them called out.
Richie bobbed his chin. “Hey, Stan. Guys.”
We settled into seats at one of the tables and a grizzled waiter with a Willie Nelson ponytail and a faded Metallica T-shirt came our way, rising and falling on uneven steps. He took our order and limped off.
The walls were adorned with fishing nets and starfish, a captain’s wheel, life preservers, a pair of crossed oars, a hideous velvet tapestry of Noah’s ark with animal pairs lined up to get on board, and, arched above the liquor bottles behind the bar, a stuffed marlin.
Richie noticed me checking out the décor. “What’s up with the nautical theme, huh?”
“Maybe they know their geology,” I said. “A hundred million years ago this desert was under half a mile of saltwater.”
The waiter brought two pints. After the exertion of our hike, the cold beer tasted good and went down easy.
Setting his glass on the table, Richie leaned toward me and in a low voice said, “See that guy over there?” He made a slight nod, his eyes aimed behind my left shoulder. With a stealthy turn of my head, I spied a gangly older man slumped alone at a table for four – rumpled shirt, dirty pants, dusty worn boots, and a week’s worth of gray stubble.
“Looks like my crazy uncle,” I said.
“Professor Carlton Maddox, the world’s expert on the desert pygmy blue dot butterfly.”
“Okay . . . and?”
“He’s a big deal out here – or was. People wanted to build a wind farm in this valley since back in the ’90s and he fought it.” Richie let out a little laugh. “He was stubborn as a mule and fiercely anti-windmill – which got him the nickname Donkey Hotey.”
I smiled and sipped my beer. “He stopped the windmills?”
“But Rocas Caliente . . . ?”
“Maddox and his Sierra Club buddies used the Endangered Species Act – installing wind towers would destroy butterfly habitat. But then along came the Clean Earth Act with its ‘emergency superseding authority’ and poof, with those three magic words everything changed.”
“So, what’s up with the butterflies now?”
I wasn’t sure if Richie heard my question – he lurched up from his seat, pointed toward the restrooms, and walked in that direction. When he passed the bar, he caught the waiter’s eye and gestured for him to bring us another round. One would have been fine with me, but apparently that isn’t how they roll at Rocas Caliente.
I thought of the Clean Earth Act and remembered the famous video clip we’d all seen a hundred times, of the senator from Mississippi pounding her fist into the podium as she delivered her impassioned speech in a heavy Southern drawl – If we don’t pass this Act to protect the Earth, there isn’t going to be any Earth left to protect.
I swirled what was left of my beer and finished it off. Richie’s exit had been so sudden – maybe he had heard my question. His strange behaviour brought to mind Eddie Vanvactor and how he froze up when I asked about his experiences out here.
It’s better not to turn over rocks – I recalled my mother’s voice, talking to one of her friends when I was a five or six. She was a woman who liked things tidy and always avoided trouble; but as a little kid, I took the phrase literally and, being a smarty-pants, started turning over every rock I could find. Under most of them wriggled a freaky menagerie of creepy-crawlies, my very own circus of tiny dinosaurs.
The waiter brought over our pints. Richie wasn’t far behind. He sat and took a pull on his beer and brushed a finger across his lips. “As far as the butterflies are concerned,” he said, picking up the conversation as if he’d never left, “we’re operating in full compliance with all applicable regulations and controlling legal authorities.”
Huh? Did he get a law degree from one of those little machines in the bathroom?
“How does that play out?” I asked. “I mean, specifically?”
“Full compliance.” He shrugged like, What else can I say? “Everything’s by the book.”
“That sounds pretty corporate.” I knew immediately it was the wrong thing to say.
His face flushed. “You want to know about the butterflies,” he said, strangling his glass with both hands, “specifically?”
The last thing I wanted to do was set him off, but yes, I did want to know. So as unthreateningly as I could, I raised my eyebrows and gave a little nod.
He didn’t move for some time, just blinked his eyes and made little huffing sounds as he breathed – I could almost hear him counting to 10. The tension left his fingers first, then his face. “Okay, screw it,” he said and shifted his weight in the chair. “When the dozers go in to prep the lots for the panels, it’s kind of like . . . well, bye-bye habitat.”
“You mean here, right, just here in the valley?”
He cleared his throat. “This is the only place they breed.”
I stared, waiting for the rest of the story – eager to hear the clever way the problem had been solved. But he just sat there, a sheepish look on his face. “There’s gotta be more to it than that.”
He shook his head. “All I can say is we’re in full compliance. All the Ts are crossed.”
Not satisfactory. Not satisfactory at all.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw that Professor Maddox was still there. “I want to talk to him.”
Richie sucked in a breath and ran his hand over the back of his head. “He can be a little . . . prickly.”
“I’m a good talker,” I said with the confidence that comes when I drink. I took up my glass, rose, and marched to Maddox’s table, planting myself opposite him.
With his gray eyes fixed on his glass, he said in a deep voice, “What do you want?”
“I heard about your work. I’m interested – ”
“I don’t have any work,” he snapped. He hoisted his beer and drained it. “Not anymore.” He slammed the glass hard against the tabletop twice. The waiter looked over and Maddox gave a nod.
Richie walked up as I tried again. “The butterflies – ”
“Who told you about me?”
“He did. He works – ”
“Oh, I know him.” Maddox cocked an eyebrow and squinted at Richie. “The exterminating angel.” He turned his gaze back to me. “But who are you?”
The waiter lumbered up, removed the empty glass, and set a frothy pint on the table.
“Kayla. I do geology, geoengineering – the dynamics of foundation piers and soil substrates. My team is tasked with – ”
“Oh Christ.” He snatched the glass and drank. “Sit down. Sit down.” He swept his free hand toward the unoccupied chairs. “At least while you’re here you aren’t doing any killing.”
As we sat, Maddox’s eyes were daggers aimed at Richie. “You and your damn machines.” He drank and then worked his lips like he wanted to spit.
“The fact is, Professor,” Richie said, “what me and my damn machines are doing is part of the solution, the global solution – in case you missed the news flash.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Maddox answered, slathering on the mock contrition. “In all their infinite wisdom, Congress hath declared your work to be more important than mine. Has more val-ue.” He lifted his pint, took two great swallows, and dragged the back of his hand across his lips. “With a stroke of a pen . . . .” He emitted the low growl of an angry dog. “Emergency circumstances. Extraordinary necessity. Just like when we locked up the Japanese during the war.” He sank lower in his chair and rubbed at his forehead. “Stroke of a goddamn pen.”
“But isn’t there’s some provision in the Act,” I said, “some exception, some way to challenge – ”
Maddox snorted. “No, young lady, there is no such provision. The pendulum has swung. As pendula will. The day the Clean Earth Act passed the whole country celebrated – marches, parades – and you know what I did? I sat right here, right at this table, and I got drunk. Drunk, drunk, duh-runk. I saw the handwriting.”
“There are always trade-offs,” Richie said. “That’s how things work. In a perfect world – ”
“Of course, of course. You’re saving the planet. I get it, really, I do.” Maddox said in a conciliatory tone that disappeared when he thundered, “All hail the great god Sus-tain-ability! In whose name no wrong can be done.” He made a sloppy sign of the cross and threw down the last of his beer. “But this glorious new world of yours, it’s not a place I want to live.” He burped.
“So, over and out, adios amigos.” He frowned and squeezed his eyes shut.
I looked to Richie, who put his hands on the arms of his chair and gave a little jerk of his head toward our table.
It couldn’t end like this; I couldn’t let it. Then it struck me. “Show us one,” I blurted. “Show us one of your butterflies.”
Maddox’s eyes sprang open.
“One of the blue dots – in the wild.” The words poured out. “I want to see one. Right now. Will you?”
He considered this for a moment, then his bony body shook with a weary little laugh. “Off limits, I’m afraid. Roadblocks and drones and that gentleman in the guard shack – he might not understand.”
I grabbed the ID hanging around my neck and thrust it toward him. “We have credentials.”
Maddox eyed the badge, blinked several times, then rolled his head toward Richie. “What do you say, boss?”
Richie picked at a callus on his hand.
“C’mon,” Maddox pleaded. “I worked with those butterflies 36 years.”
Richie ignored Maddox and looked at me. “You really want to do this?”
“Don’t you think we should? We could be the last people ever to see them alive.”
We finished the beers and paid our tabs. Maddox had his keys out, but Richie shook his head.
No one spoke all the way to the security checkpoint. The guard with the mirrored sunglasses recognised Richie and me. When he saw the passenger, he made a circling motion with his finger and Maddox rolled down the back window. The guard leaned in and gave Maddox a careful once-over.
“He’s with you?” he said to Richie without turning his head.
The guard shifted his jaw back and forth. He leaned in a little farther, sniffed, and recoiled. Noticing the safety belt dangling unused, he hooked his finger around the nylon strap, and gave a tug. “You ought to be wearing this.”
Maddox made a show of pulling the harness across his chest and clicking the buckle. The barricade arm swung up, and we eased forward.
“A ways up there on the right there’s a turn out,” Maddox said, unfastening the buckle and flinging the restraint aside. “The blue dots are stubbornly resistant to transplantation,” he said in a way that reminded me of my Bio 101 lecturer, which, it occurred to me, is more or less what he was. “There’s something that allows them to thrive on this plain, at this elevation – some micronutrient, some symbiotic relationship we have yet to identify. As soon as the plans for your project were announced, we focused all our attention on answering this question, but . . .”
“You ran out of time,” I said.
“When the feds tell you, ‘restricted area, do not enter,’ it’s generally a good idea to listen.” He sighed. “I passed the lab to my post-doc, retired, moved to the cabin I always kept out here.” A sullen shadow darkened his face – maybe sadness, maybe shame. “I tell people I’m writing a book.”
The high wall of solar towers rose on our left. Maddox pressed himself against the window and gawked up at them, curious and horrified, as if glimpsing in broad daylight the monsters that haunted his nightmares. A hiccup broke this trance, and his eyes returned to the road ahead.
“That’s the turn,” he said.
Richie steered us onto two pitted tracks, and we slowly bounced through gullies and washouts.
Maddox craned his neck at the landscape outside the windows, getting his bearings. “At my old lab they maintain a temperature- and humidity-controlled propagation chamber. But that’s only a stopgap, hardly adequate.”
The rough trail became no trail at all. Richie braked to a stop and cut the motor. “End of the line.”
We stepped from the air-conditioned SUV into the hot, still air. The sun was halfway below the line of western hills and coloured our harsh surroundings in mellow orange light. Maddox meandered with unsure steps first one way then another, his eyes sweeping the terrain.
“Is this the right place?” Richie asked.
“To develop a viable reintroduction protocol, we need to be out here,” Maddox said, now ambling in an aimless arc. “Without studying them in situ . . .” His words trailed off; something had his attention. “There,” he said. “I think over there.”
He thrashed through the brush and trudged up a rise topped with jagged rocks and spindly plants. We followed, thorns grabbing at my pantlegs.
“We pass idiot legislation like the Clean Earth Act, rushing forward before counting the costs,” he groused, scanning the low hilltop. “The great human pastime: saving the world from the last joker’s effort to save the world.” He stopped and listened, panning his head slowly left then right. “Collateral damage, acceptable losses.” He turned to stare Richie in the face. “Trade-offs, as you people so delicately put it. Oh, the sublime hubris of the exculpatory euphemism.”
“Look,” Richie said, chest out, hands dug in his back pockets, “I’m not seeing a whole lot of butterflies, doc. Fact is, I’m not seeing a damn one.”
Maddox glared at Richie, and Richie glared right back.
When I had asked to see the blue dots, I’d imagined a happy little field trip to a big green bush shimmering with a hundred bright butterflies. Instead, here we were, in the middle the desert, traipsing after a drunk Donkey Hotey through a thicket of nettles going nowhere.
“Let’s get out of here,” Richie said.
“Shhh,” Maddox held up his hand. He listened, swivelled his head, listened some more while looking hard into the scraggy brush. He whistled a bird call, whit-whit-whit and stood motionless. Whit-whit-whit . . . whit-whit-whit.
A small brown bird appeared and alighted on a boulder. Its head jerked from side to side. Maddox whispered, “Don’t move.”
The bird hopped to the ground and pecked at the sand. It pushed a twig with its beak and clawed at a small rock. Spooked by something, it flew off.
Richie and I relaxed, but Maddox held up his hand for us to remain still. He whistled again, whit-whit-whit . . . whit-whit-whit. The bird glided back onto the same boulder. It flitted to a small cactus and from there to the ground near a low leafy vine with a white trumpeting flower. The bird looked left and right then hopped closer to the vine and after glancing nervously around once more, ducked under a large flat leaf. The leaf quivered as the bird pecked at it from below.
“Byah!” Maddox called out, clapping his hands to shoo the bird away. He dropped to his knees beside the plant. “That little fellow likes a gnat that lives on some of these vines – but only some of these vines.” He turned over one leaf after another, searching along midribs and veins.
“There’s an association between those gnats and where the butterflies prefer – ” He bent closer.
“Aha!” With a pinch of his fingers, he removed a bit of the leaf, stood, and walked toward us, his discovery held before him. Dangling from the green swatch by the thinnest of threads was a tiny pod the size and colour of a coffee bean.
“Put out your hand,” Maddox said, his face aglow.
He placed the chrysalis on my outstretched palm and all three of us leaned in close.
“Behold,” he said, “Brephidium bolanderii.”
It weighed at most a gram or two – but what if this fragile little thing was, after millions of years of evolution, the species terminus, the blue dot’s last incarnation, its last hope?
“Put that in a jar, outside, in the shade. Punch some holes in the lid, and in a few days,” Maddox said, “the most beautiful creature on Earth. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there to watch it emerge.”
We climbed back into the SUV. Richie executed a series of manoeuvres to turn us around and got us back on the main road. He accelerated, and we travelled alongside the PV panels. From ahead of us came the beep-beep-beep of the machines’ warning horns, soon joined by the noise of clanking treads and gunning engines. The sound rose to a crescendo as we passed the behemoth earthmovers, hydraulic shovels, and dump trucks carving relentlessly into the soil – driverless, guided by some invisible plan. As we left the construction site and the din faded, I heard soft snores coming from the back seat and saw Maddox, leaned against the door, asleep.
I looked down at my hand, open, palm up. On it, the bean.
Ross West has placed fiction, essays, journalism, and poetry in publications from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. His work has been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest, Best of Dark Horse Presents and elsewhere. He served as senior managing editor of Oregon Quarterly magazine and as text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.