[Estimated reading time: 3 minutes]

[This is a work in progress.]

The jeep bounces over uneven ground, kicking up a cloud of dust behind it. The driver's hands dance on the steering wheel, never gripping it too tightly, just nudges here and there, the fingers push and pull at the dusty leather that's been smoothed over by the decades of continuous use. The driver reaches into the side console and pulls out a tape with a faded label ("Safari Song") and jams it into the car's stereo. Old world music comes out of after-after-market speakers and sounds exactly like a landslide of a thousand tons of broken glass.

Today there are three passengers. Seated next to the driver is a nervous-looking bespectacled Anglo with a wild mustache, and sharing the backseat are two Asian ladies decked out to the nines in unblemished designer gear that must have first encountered dust and sweat just this morning. They arrived at the Outpost on the cross-continental train a few hours ago and paid handsomely for the ride. The driver has stopped glancing in the mirror, he's already seen all he needs to see, knows everything and nothing about his fare.

"...then the locals stormed the palace and carried out the gov'nuh on a rail. Honest injun, I was there, never seen anything like it. No one wanted another repeat of the Winter Solstice Incident, so we just elected a new gov'nuh and pretended we'd never heard of Old Gaspar. Now, his son..."

The driver is talking to himself more than anyone. The passenger next to him is tuning him out, just staring at the wild expanse of emptiness around the jeep. The ones in the back are asleep.

The jeep is driving through a land that can't be called a desert, on account of it lacking large swaths of sand, but that's just the only problem with that comparison. Nothing grows for miles around, there is no wildlife, and this land hasn't seen water in ages. The jeep cuts a path, and the land heals itself in mere minutes. Stop and you won't know which way you came from.

After an hour the tape pops out of the stereo, but the driver doesn't replace it, not just yet.

The jeep pulls around the tip a vast mesa and the driver slows down. A few miles ahead, where the horizon has finally changed to something other than steep escarpments, is the first sign of life they've seen all day: a great big tree stands at the tip of a small hillock. Its branches are lifeless, devoid of leaves.

"Dios mío," the Mustache utters. The women in the back stir and look around, uncomprehending their situation, their minds probably still reeling from whatever dreams they were having.

"Are we there yet?" The Blonde asks.

The pink-haired Pixie next to her yawns and stretches. "Too soon, we're still a good..." She trails off at the sight of the tree.

"That there tree is not on our route, that'll be extra," the driver leans back and stretches, giving his passenger a moment to ponder the situation. "And it'll take a while. You won't get to the Tower until tomorrow afternoon, at the earliest."

"It's only a few miles..." The Mustache whines. He's obviously never traveled here before.

"That's what it looks like. But looks are deceiving," the driver replies and, as if that's the only necessary explanation, gets out a piece of jerky and concentrates on gnawing on it.

Mustache looks back to the ladies and the three of them exchange some looks, shrugs, and side-glances. In the end, Mustache points forward with a weathered hand: "Onward. We must see the tree."

The driver nods, switches out the tape for another ("Immigrant Song") and the jeep sets off.

They leave the mesa behind and progress ever so slowly toward the tree. The distance, as the crow flies, is indeed just a few miles (the driver would say four, but it's a bit farther), but the way to the tree is anything but direct. From the base of the mesa the route drops down into a desolate valley full of twists and turns. The high walls block the sun and most of the ride is spent in a red sort of darkness, the crimson stone bathing the jeep in hues of red and orange.

Mustache notices something out the window, points up and to the right. The ladies behind twist and crane their necks to see whatever it is that fascinates their company so much. The driver keeps his eyes on the road.

"It's a plane!" The Mustache is excited.

"Nope," the driver says to no one in particular.

"And it looks like someone jumped out of it," the Mustache is narrating now.

"Nuh-uh," the driver continues.

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