Drummond spent most of the next day looking online for a secondhand hot-air balloon. The price didn’t matter, but he needed one ready-to-ride by Thursday. He had hardly cut into his contractual hush money. Living in his car meant no rent, mortgage, or property taxes. Gas had a shelf life of two years, and he had a trunk full of it to keep the heater running on cold desert nights.
When his body odor became unbearable, like a creature engulfing him, he bathed outside. He used a washbasin and a dishcloth from the dollar store some 20-minute drive into town. The bottled water had barely warmed in the midday heat. Its coldness on his skinny frame felt like a new creature altogether.
He could see over the roof of his car all the little square signs posted around the bigger square of the observatory. The signs all read NO TRESPASSING which he could just make out with the new telescope he had bought. It didn’t matter which security guard worked today. Day and night hardly mattered, although Earth’s rotation relative to the beam certainly did. Only the timer on his laptop really mattered, the countdown to 4:08 PM on Thursday. On that moment, the invisible beam would reveal whatever the probe had recorded when it soared over the center of the worship zone 16 years ago. The rotting smell from the takeout trays, including the ones blowing around outside his car, didn’t even matter. Drummond’s clothes smelled about as bad anyway. He never knew sweat could rot the way it did in his driver-seat office, when the new sweat layered over the old.
Drummond redressed in those same clothes after his crude sponge bath. He still had to smile, though, because of the two days remaining on the timer. He smiled for the existence of drive-throughs and family packs.
He couldn’t watch the ’Goyles anymore, but he couldn’t stop watching either. Watching Mathias’s desert property, the closest thing to the ’Goyles, would have to do, at least for today.
He went to the trunk and tightened the ropes which kept the lid halfway down. Four layers of tarp hid the satellite dish which could hardly fit inside. A little rain wouldn’t hurt the wiring, but the dish stuck out half a meter from the back of the car. It looked like a giant plastic-wrapped spoon, a novelty for the police to gawk at. Thankfully, they hadn’t pulled him over yet.
The desert had no neighbors or nosy visitors—another thing to smile about today. Drummond spotted the cast iron flagpole on the ground by passenger side. It couldn’t roll anywhere in the wind with its two segments strapped alongside each other, but Drummond checked its position anyway. Checking gave him a tingle of pride. It made his GPS software worth the money, as he had no other way of driving to this same spot after trips to town. Ironically, using the flagpole itself as a marker might draw attention from the guards. He’d hate to lose track of it out here after tying those hazardous poles to his car roof and driving them through the deserted highway. He had waited, parked by the seller’s house until 4 AM, to avoid getting pulled over.
He clambered into the driver seat and resumed his cyber hunt for a hot-air balloon. Every few minutes, he checked the security car’s position. It never approached, and in all likelihood, the police would arrive instead if the guard used a telescope of his own courtesy of Mathias. Drummond wondered if the daytime guard could contact Mathias himself, as Hefferman had done, or if the nighttime guard did instead. Perhaps both guards got paid through a middleman. If so, they’d have no clue what kind of data arrived on the bedrock 12.649 meters outside their workplace. Maybe one worker had gotten hired for his stodginess and authoritarian mindset, like Hefferman. The other, of course, would fit the servile yet driven profile. The minimum two guards, then, would never team up and rebel because of their opposing personalities. Mathias knew his people-chess well.
Drummond found a seller for a supposedly functional hot-air balloon, but it would take a day of driving to get there and back. He still needed to buy a trailer to tow it. Seeking relief from his online dealings, he checked his emails. Hefferman still hadn’t responded to his requests about pestering Mathias. It made perfect sense to bring back the dish antenna, start up the project again, and study the ’Goyle sanctum. Surely by understanding the aliens’ tyrannical culture, humanity would have the best chance to avoid a similar fate.
The emails, however, came back blocked via anti-spam software. The most recent wave of them threatened legal action against spammers perceived as stalkers.
The coffee from town, now cold, tasted like a dead man’s ashes. Drummond had checked online to see if he could live off coffee, but found it didn’t have enough calories. Some days, he lived off it anyway.