Lights on the Highway

If you drive across Wyoming or the barren parts of Utah and Nevada late at night, you will see them: far off amber lights, glowing like the forgotten sparks of a sickly electric fire. They appear every few miles between the highway and horizon, guarding unseen outposts. The ones in little dyads and triads you dismiss as the exterior lights of a lonely homestead. The bigger groups are more enigmatic. What do they watch, hours from anything? You wonder, but you never find out. You have a destination, and you can’t stop to discover. You drive on.

But suppose you did stop. It won’t matter if you arrive an hour late. You pull off at the next exit, labeled only with a number. The off-ramp leads to a lightless two-lane road. Your headlights bore a tunnel through the night’s darkness, which seems to thicken around your car. Your heart beats faster, and you chide yourself with a nervous chuckle. On your right, a gravel road branches off towards the lights. You follow it down a few gentle curves until the road ends against a gated chain-link fence. Your car crunches to a stop in the gravel.

You step out, and a dry, cold wind pummels you. With your head down you approach the fence, eight feet tall and topped with shining razor wire. The omnipresent Wyoming scrub is cut back one hundred feet from the outside. The wind makes a thin whistle passing through its leaves. Beyond the fence is gravel-covered ground, broken by a few tall weeds and the structures that form the heart of the mystery.

They are six metal cylinders standing two stories tall, topped with curved roofs like grain silos. Their sides are glossy unpainted metal, and near the top of each lies an oval hatch. No stair rises to the door; no mark or symbol gives a clue to their contents. Towers of security lights illuminate the area in a dingy orange. Your shadow stretches behind you forever.

A voice startles you. “Are you looking for something?” A uniformed security officer stands with his fists on his waist and a wide-brimmed hat hiding his eyes. You swallow, try to hide your shaking, and manage to say:

“No. I’m just looking.”

His lips part into a forced, mechanical smile. “You should probably move on, then.”

You nod and turn away. The wind rises and makes a hollow sound rushing around the cylinders. But it’s not just the wind: a ringing issues from inside them, a metallic howl rising and falling in a tuneless, alien melody. You hear the scrape of chitinous claws against metal. Then a change of timbre, a slight modulation of tone, and the sound becomes wonderful, a hidden choir fragrant with glory and eternity. You waver, terrified and unwilling to leave. Then the ringing fades, and you’re alone again with your shadow stretching behind you forever.

The officer is gone. With a shiver you return to the car. You pull away, turn the radio up, sing along to drive away the memory. You call ahead and tell your friends you’ve had car trouble, and no one bothers to question you. After a while, you cease to believe it yourself. There is nothing strange beneath the lights off empty highways. Drive on and do not allow yourself to wonder.

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JS Bangs  JS Bangs's website is a mild-mannered programmer from the Pacific Northwest by day. By night he invents dragons and slays robots. Aside from writing, he likes linguistics, bicycling, and his lovely wife.