“Okay, Ladies, now let's get in Formation, 'cause I slay! Prove to me you got some coordination, 'cause I slay! Slay trick, or you get eliminated.” - Beyoncé Knowles
“I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free, His eye is on the sparrow And I know he watches me.” - Lauryn Hill - Whitney Houston - Jennifer Hudson - Mahalia Jackson
The barrels of vegetable oil slosh-splat in the back of the flatbed truck. The diesel engine lurches, sputtering through the bits of french fries and onion rings in its fuel.
JA-NL's drives the jalopy through the vast flatness of Kansas and Nebraska. Her hands shake, savoring her early morning escape from the Farm.
“I did it!”
Her breakout had only been a week since a visitor came to to her after 3 rd fecal deposit of the day.
* * *
Dump donors were allowed 30 minutes to squeeze out nugget after nugget of bacteria. JA-NL put more roughage into her diet and only needed two minutes to void her bowels, and avoid hemorrhoids. That gave her 28 minutes until she had to line up for her ketogenic dinner: high fat, zero carbs or sugars and as many leafy vegetables as she could eat.
To the fence she ran!
Beyond the fence, along the flat plain, she could see 100 miles into the distance, where a few buildings poked up into the skyline, beckoning her with life just outside her entrapment.
She holds her fingers inches from the fence and felt the sparks of electricity whipping out in waves, lashing her for even thinking she could escape.
Beside her stands an apple tree that had grown ten feet tall and, when a westwardly wind hit it, the branches would sway over the fence, almost tickling its top.
That day, a pigeon lands on a branch and bounces happily.
“Poo-tee-weet.” the bird coos. It's gray head flounces from side to side as it bounces.
“Poo-tee-weet.” The animal dances back and forth, entranced by the calypso of breeze and sway.
JA-NL sings back to the bird.
The bird looks at her, flustered that any dare disturb her dance.
“Poo-tee-weet. Poo-tee-weet. Poo-tee-weet.” JA-NL sings, adding a gentle curtesy to the bird. The bird bounces to-and-fro and sings 13 notes.
JA-NL matches these with a smile. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a handful of seeds she had swiped from lunch. She holds open her hand and the pigeon jumps up, twirls three times and lands on JA-NL's shoulder. The bird walks down her outstretched arms. Its talons dig into her flesh, reminding JA-NL of its dinosaur ancestors.
Once the pigeon reaches her hand, it pecks at the seeds and ruffles its tail feathers. Satisfied, it turns to JA-NL, who sings the 13 notes again. The pigeon coos and bends to peck at its left foot. Her beak seems to break something. A hologram camouflage disappears from around this leg and JA-NL can see a tube wrapped there. The bird hops on its right foot as it gnaws at this weight.
“Shhhhh, I've got you!” JA-NL smiles and reaches with her free hand to pop off the tube. Free from the extra weight, the pigeon shoots up and sings as it swirls like a vortex through the sky. And then it disappears to the north west.
***BEEP BEEP BEEP***
The four minute warning blares across the Farm as JA-NL runs back to her barn, tucking the secret into her front pocket.
The next morning, as she pinches and squeezes over the toilet, the only moment she was given a small amount of privacy, she whips out the tube. Inside she finds a scroll and unrolls it. It separates into two scrolls.
The first reads:
“Daughter of the Cosmos, you deserve better than this wretched world. Come find us in Wondaland.”
The second scroll has a sketch of long, criss-crossing lines with an X at the end.
She flips over the scraps four times and holds them up to the light. As photons zoom through the sheets, a series of dashes and dots jump out to her.
Some code used by sea captains to transmit warnings using short range radio waves to nearby ships.
She groans and squeezes to hide the sound of paper folding.
Late that night, she translates the Morse Code from the encyclopedia's entry.
A place called Wondaland!
And a simple ending,
“JA-NL, join us!”
They know of her!
That evening, in the communal cafeteria, she holds back, searching for her father. She finds him working in the third section, scooping kale salad. With a smile and a nod, JA-NL reaches out for her father's hand, tapping it twice before placing the scrolls inside. As she eats in her assigned area, she looks up and sees her father smiling back to her. He nods three times and taps the right side of his temple twice.
To the old apple tree!
JA-NL wolfs her food and feigns an illness to be allowed out of the hot mess hall. Through the darkness, she tip-toes to the fence, until she shrouds herself from even the moon's scrutinizing glare under the shadow of the tree.
Three minutes pass and then.
“Tkee-Tkee-Tkee.” JA-NL hears.
Her father approaches!
“Tut-tut-tut-tut.” She responds. The silhouette of her father forms through the darkness and walks to her. He reaches out and wraps his arms around her.
“Baby girl! It's a sign!”
“What is it, poppa?”
“Directions. I remember driving these routes ten-years ago. Boy, I can still feel the awe I felt rolling into Montana, watching the giant mountains spread before me. The route is to scale, one crook of your pinky fingernail equals 50 miles. Now, just trace the line with me. Up here, to the left, to the right, and now to the left.”
“But how am I gonna get there?”
“Follow me, baby girl.”
Marvin grabs JA-NL as a shock of excitement and horror sparks through them both. Marvin walks her a hundred yards to the north to a broken-down red barn next to the fence. Part of its roof had broken off and slid to the ground. As he creaks the door open, the barn exhales dust. JA-NL covers her mouth as they plod to the back, pushing aside stacks of hay.
“Oooo-weee! Ain't she a beauty?” Marvin beams, pointing to the fire engine red Ford pickup truck. “Just my little side project. Hop in!”
JA-NL slides across the hood and pops into the passenger side as he steps in. Without a stick shift or safety-belts or even bucket seats, she scooches next to her father. He shoves a flathead screwdriver into the key hole.
“Shhh. Old trick. Don't be telling your momma.” Marvin leans over with a wink and turns the truck on. JA-NL feels the whole vehicle purr all around her.
Marvin smiles from ear to ear as he chuckles.
“Oh boy! It's been a while. You feel that?”
“This should get you there.” Marvin taps the steering wheel and gives JA-NL a crash test dummies course in driving.
“But dad, how are we gonna power the truck?”
“Easy. You remember those jugs of vegetable oil in the kitchen? The ones I'm always complaining about? This here is a diesel engine. Little known fact, these suckers were made to run on vegetable oil.”
What humans called the industrial revolution was a revolution in fuel and power. Previously, all things on Earth were directly or indirectly powered by the sun. Sunlight photosynthesized the plants, which were the bottom of the food chain, that feed the animals, oxen, camels and horses that carried large loads and fed the humans who cut stone blocks and carried them up ramps to build monumental structures, like pyramids.
After plodding along on their planet for almost 200,000 years, humans discovered they could harness more powerful energy. This eventually led humans to mine the planet for fossil fuels, which they burned, setting the stage for their destruction. One outlier of this revolution was this truck's diesel engine, which had been built to run on vegetable oil, often a leftover from many human meals.
“I've filled the bed with a few barrels of this stuff just in case shit goes down. It's always best to have a plan B.” Marvin smiles.
“So you'll come with?”
Marvin grabs JA-NL and pulls her in for a hug. He lays her head on his shoulder.
“You know I can't leave Tammi. And your sister. She's seven months pregnant. And me? I'm getting too old for this shit. But you. You've gotta run. You need wide open spaces. Let me show you something.”
They walk out of the barn and he points to the west.
“Out there, they're calling you.” He says.
“How am I gonna get this hunk of metal out of the farm?” JA-NL shakes her head.
“Think. What did ol' Euclid teach you honey? Look at the world around you and pull shapes.”
JA-NL concentrates and scans the landscape. The barn's roof digs into a small grassy knoll. She blinks her eyes and sees it.
A triangle! With a 35-degree angle rising from the ground.
The collapsed roof has created a ramp!
If she could hit the hypotenuse at 43 miles-per-hour, she could propel herself off the roof with enough projectile motion to send her over the electric fence.
“I got this! When should we do this?”
“I'll make a splash tomorrow morning at 6am, so say your goodbyes tonight.”
A kiss, a hug, and they separate with the sorrowful knowledge that they may never see each other again.
Right before the Farm's longitude rolled into the sunlight, Marvin faked an escape on the opposite side of the Farm from the truck. As he cut into the electric fence, a siren blares and all the surveillance drones whiz his way.
JA-NL jumps and scurries to the barn. She slides the screwdriver into the ignition.
The engine ignites with last week's leftover fried oil. JA-NL hits the pedal to the metal and drives in a long arc, allowing her to accelerate.
“26. 34. 40.
“Come on baby! Fly for me!”
The odometer hits 43 and JA-NL straightens the wheel as the truck hits the ramp. She screams as the tires scrape the shingles off the barn's roof.
“Wahoo! Ain't no mountain high enough!”
The truck crests over the fence and lands with the back tires first followed by the front tires 1.32 seconds later.
She did it!
JA-NL grabs the wheel and swerves to control the truck as it swivels haphazardly, side to side. She zooms down the old dirt road that hasn't been used in decades. As the farm recedes from her vision, she exhales.
Time to ease on down the road.
* * *
“I've got the power!”
She drives the machine. She's never had this rush of freedom! Machines have always controlled her. But now! Now, the motor hums in front of her, her hands holds the wheel, her foot pushes on the pedal.
She's in control!
JA-NL thrills as she sends the car zipping through these decaying veins of America.
She rolls into Big Sky Country as her side of the Earth twirls away from the sun. The sky streaks with reds, yellows and oranges as the last visible rays of light burst through the atmosphere above her head.
All at once, joy swirls with sadness.
“What have I done? Will I ever see my family again?” She chokes and cries.
Zephyr in the sky at night and she wonders.
“Do my tears of mourning sink beneath the sun?”
She flicks the headlights on as she roars.
As she crests a hill, the sky opens before her, bursting with millions of lights.
Images of rapture creep into her slowly as the enormity of our universe goes to her head.
She pulls the truck off the road. She hops out and crawls on the hood, her eyes never leaving the sky. Awe rumbles down her body, rolling in waves from the top of her head to her toes. As she lays back, she yahoos into the darkness pinpricked by dazzling beams of light that erupted from dozens of light years away.
She's entranced by the light, twinkling across the vastness of the universe.
She shudders, humbled by how infinitesimal she is.
How tiny they all are!
How silly all of their pursuits had been, when the truth lay just a few hundred miles outside their climate-controlled bubble, that atmosphere that hugged nitrogen and oxygen around Earth. She swirled on a pale blue dot floating in an ocean of darkness, bedecked with sparkles exhaled from stars.
Awe wraps around her. Stunned. She had read about stars, but in her seventeen years she had never seen these. Not like this. Not all encompassing, where she can clearly see herself swimming through the Milky Way. She had been trapped in a neon valley. Those commercial lights always buzzed out all awareness of the world above and beyond. She did not like living under their spotlight. Just because they think she might be pulled out of the bullshit they fed her daily if she realized how insignificant it all was.
The cells in her body chime together as they sing in harmony with the universe, aching with the realization that she is made up of star stuff. The nitrogen in her DNA, the calcium in her teeth, the iron in her blood, the carbon that made up a fifth of her body were all forged in the furnaces of collapsing stars. Every atom in her body came from stars that have exploded. And the atoms in her left hand came from different stars than the atoms in her right. She was the culmination of the cosmos, poised with the intellect to understand itself.
Waves of realization crash on her and she glows. Hot with excitement, she sparks. It's all at once so terrifying, so exciting, so frightening that tears well and burst from her eyes. She weeps with joy and humility as she attempts to understand the universe, a world more complex than her humble human mind could ever comprehend.
Her whole life she had been segregated, separated, confined and walled off.
But gazing up into the universe, she understands she is part of it, in it, of it, powered by it. She is the result of millions of years of stars exploding, colliding and sending its energy through the universe.
And then anger boils in her.
“Nothing's right, I'm torn. I can see the perfect sky is torn. I'm cold and ashamed."
How vapid, how silly, how frustrating and stupid they had all been. Squabbling over such pettiness, elevating themselves on pedestals that are laughingly low in comparison with the real stars flickering from such great heights.
She rages at the dying of these lights. Much of the light that baths her now comes from extinguished stars. What she sees is only their visual echoes. They were gone and so would she. She was so small and would live less than a billionth as long as these stars. Finally free from the lie called the present, she raged.
“So what! Its time to raise some hell!”
She hops behind the steering wheel and slams the door. She pounds the gas and the vehicle jumps forward.
* * *
The road crumbles and is lost.
All federal funds for infrastructure had poured into building hyperloops and new highways for autotrucks to ship luxury items around the country. These old roads were left to rot.
She remembers what she read: use the North Star. Polaris, a star that lies nearly in line with her planet's north pole. That guider of the Phoenicians through the Mediterranean Sea, Chinese sailors through the South Pacific, Polynesians gliding canoes for thousands of miles through the Pacific Ocean, and Spanish conquistadors all around the planet.
Polaris shows her the way. She tacks her map next to the odometer, using its trace amounts of light to see this map.
JA-NL slows down at what looks like an intersection.
“If you see a faded sign at the side of the road,” JA-NL whispers the directions on the map, “saying 150 miles until... the Love Shack?”
Whatever, JA-NL thinks, the directions have lead her this far, why not continue the absurdity.
She follows the sign and turns down this side road, bouncing over the rubble for five miles until she sees a sign in pink glitter that reads.
“Stay away fools!”
The truck lurches along for ten miles.
And then she hears a crackle!
In the coldness of the night, her am/fm car radio sparks to life with static as she twists the dial.
“Come on, give me a beat!”
Roaring through the darkness, radio waves hit her vehicle's antenna and explode into clarity.
Her body rejoices.
JA-NL dances in her seat as the hook of the song casts through the darkness to reel her in.
A saxophone solo whirls her into a tizzy. A guitar shreds spikes of joy. After only listening to computer-generated precision, there was a grit and soul in the human imperfections of these songs.
And this tough women's voice. Not pretty. Not cute. But so powerful! It sang her through the night.
“And I want you to come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. And take it!” The voice hollers.
She bangs on the dashboard, her wheels bouncing like a tambourine.
The song breaks, static fizzles and then---
“Good morning midnight! This is DJ Crash Crash, your favorite robotic, hypnotic, psychotic DJ bringing you all the early a.m. jams on Radio Free Wondaland. I just wanna give a shout out to all the new rabble rousers, you know, those rebels and resisters who have made it into the Wondaland radio range. Welcome home!”
A southern gothic twang takes over the music as the DJ croons.
“Oh give me a home, where the insurgents all roam, where the nerds and the techies all slay.
“Ha ha, that's right gals and guys and inbetweens, if you're hearing this, you've made it within the radio reach of Wondaland, that last bastion of sanity in a sick, sad world. So get your booties down to the city's center. If you're not a threat, we'll send firefly drones to show you the way. So look for that twinkle, twinkle!”
JA-NL had passed through a surveillance scrambling bubble around Wondaland. A 50-mile perimeter surrounds the resistance, creating equal and opposite sound and radio waves to cancel any emissions. Flying high above them, drones beam light waves to camouflage the area, so even the most precise satellites would only see miles of forest, mountains and crumbled roads.
The songs become clearer as she approaches the source of the long electromagnetic radiation that hit her truck's antenna.
And then, suddenly, a hundred firefly drones dance before her car, swirling around her and then bobbing and weaving in time with the music. These form an arrow above the vast empty expanse of dirt before her.
She drove all night, dancing to power her through this final stretch.
Earth's rotation breaks the dawn. Before her, a sea of solar panels on the sides of the road catches these first photons and sparkles to life. Ten thousand panels tilt in a wave, detecting the best way to absorb the sun's rays.
A solar-paneled road ignites into yellow bricks as she drives the old truck over it. She slows as she gawks at her surroundings.
A city swells in the distance, molded into the landscape, built amongst the trees. A shire with thatched roofs is dotted with emerald green gardens. Fields of wheat and quinoa sway with the wind. In the distance, she can see an orchard brimming with juicy fruits.
“Whoa! I'm definitely not in Kansas City anymore...”
A clock tower tolls as a drum beat booms. She slams the brakes and feels the vibrations shaking her car.
A phalanx of armor-clad women and men in black berets march out to the beat.
A hundred strong!
Boom Boom! Boom Boom!
JA-NL jumps out from the truck and holds her hands up in the air in a sign of surrender.
The troops begin a countdown.
“Bass! Bass! Bass! Bass!”
The word bass is shouted from left, right, above, below, behind and all around her.
A funky beat drops as the troops break into a synchronized dance and then shifts to open a path through the middle.
Their commander, dressed in military garb, pounds her way down the central path.
Everyone freezes and stands at attention as she passes.
She stops inches from JA-NL's faces. Her black cherubic cheeks pull up as she shines a coquettish smile and then turns to address her troops, shouting.
“People of the world today.” Their attention rapt by her words. “Are we looking for a better way of life?” She walks through them holding a riding crop. She whips the ground as she demands an answer.
The hundred voices form a chorus, singing:
“We are a part of the Rhythm Nation!”
The ranks break file and circle JA-NL, dancing.
This commander watches them with a smile and then jumps in. Joining their dance with each pop, lock and drop.
“With music by our side, to break the color lines,
“Let's work together to improve our way of life.
“Join voices in protest to social injustice,
“A generation full of courage.”
The whole crowd stops and stands in salute. They slowly turn to JA-NL as the commander steps towards her again, hand outstretched.
“Come forth with me!”
JA-NL accepts her hand and is pulled into the crowd. The commander gazes deeply into her eyes.
“Are you looking for a better way of life?”
JA-NL trembles, unsure of what to do.
“SING!” The commander demands, stomping the ground.
“I am a part of the Rhythm Nation!” JA-NL responds.
The smile returns, appreciating JA-NL's answer.
“This is the test. No struggle, no progress. It's time to give a damn, let's work together. Come on!”
“Yeah!” The chorus cheers.
The music begins again as JA-NL joins in time with the dance moves. Pop! Lock! Drop! Split!
JA-NL flushes from the dance, but feels at ease with the women and men smiling around her. She is in communion with this sea of strangers. They've linked their movements together, an electric connection of a hundred strong, instantly organized into a dancing and singing chorus, acting as one body and one voice. The swell of bodies subsumes her and she flows with them into the city.
A voice erupts from speakers all throughout Wondaland.
“SILENCE!” All tremble before the voice.
“Commander Damita Jo!” She drops to one knee before the booming voice. “Bring back my GIRL!”
Damita Jo jumps up and ushers JA-NL towards the center of Wondaland.
From the largest building in the city, a dewdrop cathedral of glass and white, a glamazon emerges, blinding in a sparkling, floor-length gown, standing seven feet tall from stiletto tip to crowning pageant hair.
“Who is that?” JA-NL whispers.
“That's the *atriarch of Wondaland! But you can just call her--- Momma Ruru.”
“Daughter of Grips turned Vessels.” Ruru glides to JA-NL and hugs her. “Granddaughter of humans stolen and sold as slaves. Descendent of the very stars in the sky! You are Destiny's Child. And with our help, your destiny will be fulfilled. We've been watching you. We saw how you took down Moloch! Girl, you've got the Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent that we need. You are fierce!
“Welcome to Wondaland! You are home, Kitty Girl!”
Ruru takes her hand with a smile.
“Dontcha just love the pageantry of it all? Just something we do for group cohesion. Oh and to dazzle the new recruits.”
Ruru grabs JA-NL's chin and winks as she counts.
“And a 5, 6, 7, 8!”
Ruru twirls in her stilettos, kicking and stomping before the frothing crowd as she sings.
“We are a part of the Rhythm Nation.”
“YAAAAASSSSS my kweeeen!” The crowd bows before her glory.
JA-NL summons her courage and marches up to Ruru.
“Who are you? Where am I?!”
“All will be revealed. Just sashay my way!”
JA-NL lingers and but then sprints to catch up with Ruru, who has just stepped to the entrance of that dewdrop cathedral.
“The Library is Open!”
With her words, the doors burst open. JA-NL's jaw drops as she sees thousands of rows of books, shelved fifteen feet high. Machines snatch these and crack them open, scanning every page. In the atrium, a hologram cloud swirls with images of every page from the books as these are scanned. The system separates words and cluster ideas and themes together and sorts these through the rest of the system.
“In here, we are saving the knowledge created and collected by human societies all over the world.
Ruru sits in front of the font of knowledge as the hologram cloud twirls behind her. She gently pats the marble next to her.
“Now, come to mama.” JA-NL slides by her side.
“But before I explain Wondaland and read humanity to filth, I have to tell you a story.”