It’s a hundred and thirty miles, give or take, from here to where the city of Los Angeles used to be.
The city is still there, sort of. Something of a skyline remains, blackened and battered but still standing. You could see if from here if the smoke ever cleared. Which it doesn’t. By day, an almost biblical plume half a mile high blocks all vision, and at night the lights of aircraft slicing through the dark red haze, and the occasional missile, give the impression of a nebula viewed from several light-years away.
Here in the desert it’s quieter. You get kind of a country vibe, even. Broken down muscle cars of 1960s vintage litter the ditches, and the restless ghost of Gram Parsons still haunts the little roadside motels, looking for good music and a cheap fix. Very little moves on the road at high noon except the lizards and the snakes.
The Mormon pilgrims of the 19th century named the cactus-like trees that dot the desert for their prophet: The trees, like Joshua, seemed to be extending their thorny arms heavenward in prayer. And now something else is moving along what was once the four-lane blacktop of the Twentynine Palms highway. A family of four, heads hidden under dark robes, backs bowed under the weight of a lifetime’s possessions. The mother holds an infant to be her breast, trying to shield him from the sun, and the father pulls a two-wheeled handcart lashed, oxen-like, to his shoulders.
Now there’s a noise behind them, the puttering of an ancient and underpowered gasoline engine. In an instant the trap is set: The father and the older son hide themselves in the scrub beside the road, while the mother and infant wait, centered on the cracked double yellow lines. The sidecar-ed motorcycle putters over the horizon, spots the woman and child, and stops. In less then a minute it’s over: the father slits the throat of the driver, while the son dispatches the passenger. The faith of these pilgrims lacks a prohibition against killing, or anything else. The family loads their gear onto the bike and putters away towards the horizon.
Four days of hard travel later, their water is almost gone. There hasn’t been a spring or a supply cache for two hundred miles. The family’s belief in their patriarch has always been unquestioned, but now they glance at him sideways as he uselessly wipes the sweat from his brow and studies the hand-drawn map one more time.
And then, as the sun sinks over the desert, they see it. Something metal reflects back at them. Approaching, they find a natural staircase wedged between two huge boulders. The air cools as they descend into a box canyon. No one would find this place in a thousand years, if they didn’t know where to look. But now a blonde-haired child, dressed in white, appears to them. Her smile shows a level of dental care that presumably no longer existed in this world- certainly there is no reasonable explanation for its existence here. And yet, she is not a hallucination. She speaks:
“You seek the Oracle?”
The man is too full of joy and exhaustion to speak, but he manages a nod. The child beckons for them to follow, and they move deeper into the canyon. Ten minutes later, they emerge from a series of switchbacks into an amphitheater. Ancient sandstone walls rise two hundred feet above, closing together as they do. Only a tiny sliver of sky is admitted into the Oracle’s chamber. There is a pool of cool fresh water here, more drinkable water than the family has seen in ten years. More blonde children frolic around it, each more perfect than the last. They splash each other without a care in the world, as if it were the pool at any middle-American motor inn. The armed guards don’t phase them a bit.
About those guards: They carry compact but deadly submachine guns, and their body armor is completed by their helmets, adorned with full faceshields, liberated from riot police of one of the region’s former cities. The ancient logo has been scrubbed away, and replaced by three crudely stenciled letters: “JDC.” Some who remember the ancient books, and the man for whom the desert trees are named, say it stands for “Joshua’s Dominion under Christ.” But the fact is, no one knows but the Oracle. And on this subject he is emphatically not talking.
But on other matters, to those of sufficient faith, the Oracle does speak. For there he sits, on his pedestal, face hidden under his black robe, his tall gaunt frame hunched over on his simple throne of wood. The father is afraid, but with the eyes of his wife and children on him, he walks eight trembling steps forward onto the wide mat of palm leaves, holding in his arms their humble offering.