Dust Devil Four

Ann James
12 min readMay 19, 2023


prison hill, nevada

Bordered by Burning Man to the north, Las Vegas and Area 51 to the south, the Sierra Nevada Mountain range on the west and the Ruby Mountains on the east, lies the rest of Nevada. The “Silver State” has more mountain ranges, wild horses and jackalopes than any other state. The area is situated in the immense Great Basin, which has no outlet to the ocean.

Until 2023.

Nuevo Panadero (New Baker): 31 October 2023 — Nevada Day

Me llamo Stephanie Adriana Morales. I am the granddaughter and only surviving relative of the late Martina Elena Gomez Santiago, who was unjustly accused of, or credited with, bringing down the World Wide Web.

Sainted by the Pope, millions worshipped her. Villified by billions, she hung in effigy from lampposts in London, birches in Barstow, and myrtles in Melbourne. Stuffed orange cats — Garfields and Heathcliffs — hung next to each effigy, representing her beloved tabby, Morrison.

At that time, I worked as executive assistant to the famous and reclusive investment banker and entrepreneur, Katsuo Setagaya, in his personal utopia of Nuevo Panadero, Nevada. If you had Googled “Baker, Nevada” thirteen years ago, you would have found a population of 68 according to the 2010 census. One public school, K-12, no surprise there. The proposed site for the ‘Clock of the Long Now’, and the home of the inventor of the atomic force microscope. Nearby, forming the eastern edge of the Great Basin are the Ruby Mountains with Wheeler Peak reaching nearly 4,000 metres. To the west, the Lehman caves and the observatory where mi hermano, Jorge, worked.

Not much has changed since then, except that the Clock of the Long Now is being built in east Texas. And Baker’s population has grown to a whopping 524.

Near the end of my 10-hour shift, answering texts and e-mails from Nuevo Panadero’s über wealthy residents, I received a complaint from an 80-year-old ex-socialite and Emmy-winning actress. My last bit of business to settle.

Our one and only resident professional photographer, Gunther, had “. . .made a vulgar suggestion when we took Spot to Seitz Lake for a photo shoot. He asked if I wanted to have ‘quickie sex’ with him.”

My own photographic memory eluded me. I pride myself on remembering the names, hobbies, vehicles, children’s names, level of education, favorite foods and whines of all the residents of Nuevo Panadero.

Who the fuck is Spot? I can do this. I can remember. Was it an airedale, a boxer, a calico, a dalmation, an eguana, a falcon, a giraffe? That’s it — the latest rich folk fad, miniature giraffes — perfected by a Nuevo York scientist who had way too much grant money and time on his hands. Hers were Dot and Spot, barely 45 centimetres tall, and weighing about four kilos each. Custom-made, diamond-covered leather harnesses and leashes enabled Mrs. C. to easily take both with her on walks around town — a variation on the theme of her rich-bitch, nose in the air, condescending act years earlier when she toted her pop-eyed Chihuahua in her Louis Vuitton.

I apologize for Gunther’s behavior. I am certain it was an unfortunate misunderstanding. He surely needs to work on his enunciation. Might he have said ‘quick effects’ when he was setting up the camera? All of us in Nuevo Panadero are eager to see the HG pictures of Spot and Dot that Gunther is well-known for. They will make an excellent addition to the Grand Opening of the world’s first Virtual Reality Interactive Cinema. May I reschedule your appointment with Gunther at your convenience? With our deepest apologies, please accept the DD of San Diego’s finest Eucalyptus which will arrive at your door tomorrow.

I arranged for the drone delivery. Signing out, I caught a glimpse of my unopened e-mail — at least a dozen more. HAPPY BIRTHDAY was the title of a message from mi abuela. I clicked on the only info in the message, a U-tube link. A selfie of my wonderful grandma, the picture unsteady, a close-up of her nose and right eye, backing away until her crinkly, smiling face was in full view. “This is for my beautiful granddaughter, Stephanie, who is 30 years old today. Stephanie lives in Nuevo Panadero. She’s single.” TMI, grandma, TMI.

“Feliz Cumpleaños, mi princesa.” The video was nine minutes long, so I stretched back in my chair and took a sip of sleepy tea. Grandma carefully placed the camera on a TV tray a few feet from her Hammond organ. The frame was still for a moment, then a speck of something small and brown hit the middle of the keyboard. A cat treat and Morrison leapt for it. The orange tabby Jorge found in an alley a few years ago hadn’t grown much, still a tiny cat. He ate his treat, then jumped on the keyboard, placing his little paws on the keys eliciting the notes — B, G, A, B, D, C, B, A . . . He flawlessly played the old classic rock song “Light My Fire.” I leaned in and watched him move deftly across the keys. When he finished, Morrison jumped from the keyboard and out of camera range. I played the amazing video a second time, then forwarded it to Jorge.

Time for a serious conversation with my pillow. I glanced at the clock while pulling the comforter up to my chin: 3:21 a.m. Can’t be. I quit work at midnight and watched abuela’s video twice. Where did I lose three hours?

Jorge woke me at 6:00 a.m. with an urgent knock on the front door, then his footsteps hurrying down the hall to my room, the door crashing open.

“Sis, d-d-d-did you hear th-th-the news? It’s d-d-down, g-g-gone, it’s gone.”

In fits and starts, well, you know what he told me, the story’s gone around mouth-to-ear, hand-written letters, Pony Express. “The Internet’s d-d-down. It’s g-g-gone.” By the time he’d watched grandma’s video, it was already viral — over six and a half billion views. It was the last thing anyone anywhere saw on the World Wide Web.

And they blamed it on Grandma. It wasn’t her fault.


Here’s what really happened.

The Virtual Reality Interactive Cinema (V-RIC) was the brainchild of my boss. Katsuo purchased the township of Baker, Nevada, and hundreds of acres surrounding it, choosing the isolated area for its dark night sky, astronomy being a hobby of his. The first phase was the building of a massive dome, the size of ten fútbol fields and the installation of solar panels covering every centimeter. The array of panels had the capability to generate enough energy to power Las Vegas for five hundred years. A nine-meter-tall cyclone fence, topped by razor wire, surrounded the dome. The locals referred to it as “Area 61”. And rumors, spread like brushfire, speculated that the V-RIC was an alien spaceship from Area 51, three hundred miles away.

The second phase was the drilling of wells. Due to three decades of drought in Nevada, the wells were dug deep into the desert floor until they reached an as-yet-undiscovered underground river. Nuevo Panadero would be totally self-sufficient, a desert oasis.

The spec homes were eclectic — a Tudor mansion in its own microclimate of lush flowerbeds and rolling green lawns. Many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural designs were popular, revamped with smoother lines, and cantilevered windows that didn’t leak. European castle replicas were built on-site with immense pre-fab walls and turrets, surrounded by moats. These ostentatious estates were constructed around a downtown full of five star restaurants, and the world’s most expensive fashion stores, attracting the richest of the rich. Three Park Avenue residents called Nuevo Panadero their new home. Two movie stars and the world’s first trillionaire. Seriously, who needs that much money?

Those three hours I lost? Not many people remember that time either. It seems the cataclysm that took place PST 1230 to 0330, was spent in a trance-like state for most.

We were nearing the end of test runs on the V-RIC around the clock for 48 hours, extended to 48 days, then 48 months. Four years, refining, reinventing, removing glitches in the system. The power room was at the center of the dome. Energy absorbed from solar panels during the day flowed into the core and metered out to a dozen rooms surrounding it. “Holodek” rooms could run limitless programs, from sitting under an apple tree with Sir Isaac Newton to a Ziggy Marley concert in Soweto with eighty of your best friends. Visit a celebration of polar bears in the Arctic Circle. A perfect day in your life could be reenacted or the worst one made right.

The first trial run, performed with death-row inmates, ran without a hitch.

Don’t Panic

It was the subject line of our long string of e-mails dating back to the first day I was hired by Katsuao when there were only a dozen residents of Nuevo Panadero.

The emails could be about any number of things — photos Katsuo and Jorge had taken from the observatory of asteroids, an invitation to lunch, or a note of thanks for a job well done.

One from last month I printed out and taped to my terminal. Reading it again — as I have every morning since I received it –it’s become my mantra.

“Don’t let the bastard grind you down.” I’ve just learned that our newest and most profound (in his own mind) resident has been harassing you through an avalanche of tweets with impossible demands. I spoke with him this morning. He demanded attention to his application for the V-RIC grand opening. Sent in his ap at three a.m. and “your secretary has not yet responded.”

Please process his ap asap and ignore all further intrusions from our illustrious, orange-haired, senile, small-handed, smaller-minded, former reality show host/short-term president. He cannot fire you. That is my prerogative and it’s never going to happen. You’re the best.

I read twice through Katsuo’s newest e-mail, then clicked on the monitor to pull up the view of each Holodek room. All were the usual rounded, white walls, except room XI, which was blacked out. Not the flat black of a dark, empty room, but a deep unending shade of nothingness, a void. The image gave me goose bumps — an end of the universe sort of darkness.

A colleague of mine is conducting an A.I. experiment in room XI. It is being monitored remotely 24/7. More later. No worries.

Jorge and I have apartments in the lower level of V-RIC. We’ve lived here for two months and have found that our energy has increased ten-fold since moving in. We often pass each other running laps on the Holodek level. Today I was jogging alone past empty, white walled rooms, thinking about the rumors I’ve heard in Baker — “Eighteen semis brought in building supplies for V-RIC, and it went up overnight.” “Everyone who worked on the project was paid extravagant wages and sworn to secrecy.” Katsuo always made it a priority to hire from the local work force first. All of Baker’s truckers worked for him, five plumbers and Baker’s one and only carpenter, Jesús, (no last name).

I don’t know how many laps I ran, but enough to notice when I was about to pass Room XI, it was white like the others. I stopped and, wiping the sweat from my forehead, peered in through the room’s porthole. My mirror image stared back at me. I took a deep breath and raised my hand to touch my own fingertip — not the thick glass between us — flesh and blood. I jumped back, the room plunged into darkness, then pulsed black and white. In the blackness, I saw only the image’s Cheshire Cat smile. In the light, I saw myself.

A voice and the image’s lips moving: “Nein. Nein. Nein. Nein.”

Why would she speak German? ‘No’ what?

“Nine. Nine. Nine. Nine.” She glanced down.

My shaky hand reached toward the keypad, I punched in the code and stood back while the door soundlessly slid open and AlIce stepped out. She ran down the hall, past Room XII, down the stairs to the control room. I stood transfixed, paralyzed. It was 10:10.

Dios Mio. What have I unleashed?

V-RIC (Prototype) 1 November 2026: Katsuo Setagaya

It’s been three years since the cataclysmic “earthquake” and fallout at Nuevo Panadero — the perfect storm of the millennia.

Bad timing could not have been timed better. A blue moon. The strong current of the underground river rampaging beneath the Great Basin. A power surge caused by running ten over-the-top virtual reality dreams for ten really rich, self-indulgent, jaded human beings. The storage of leaking radioactive cylinders at Yucca Mountain, a 3.1 tremor on the “Ghost Dance” fault underneath said mountain.

And at the controls of V-RIC, AlIce XI.

The last four years of working as my administrative assistant had taken their toll on Stephanie Morales. Residing and working in V-RIC, she tirelessly handled the complaints and petty grievances of the residents.

In my enthusiasm for our Grand Opening, Stephanie’s weakened mental and physical health did not register with me.

Ten days prior to our Grand Opening tour: “Stephanie, your productivity is phenomenal. Do you have a clone?”

She smiled an enigmatic smile and answered, “Yes, ‘AlIce XI’.” She spelled it aloud. “Capital A — l, Capital I, c, e.” I was puzzled, but blew it off.

One week prior to Grand Opening, two of our illustrious residents pulled their names from the initial launch. After all her hard work, I offered Stephanie and her brother a chance. The opportunity overwhelmed them. Jorge chose to travel virtually to Callisto, his favorite of the 76 moons of Jupiter. At that time, Stephanie was still undecided.

Two days before the Grand Opening, I was notified by the Elko State Prison that two of the convicts used in the first dry run of V-RIC had contracted Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever.

Twenty-four hours left. The prisoners fell into comas and were not expected to survive the night. Could their condition be a result of their time spent at V-RIC? I brought up the files of their 12-hour stay. They had both picked the same Virtual Reality time and place: Georgia’s Elite, a brothel on Kit Kat Road in Mound House, Nevada. The date: 2 April, 2023, the day before their capture by FBI agents in Reno. They had chosen to relive their last day of freedom.

From my home, two kilometers away, I skyped Stephanie. Below is the transcript of our conversation.

“Stephanie, Stephanie.” (no response). “AlIce XI.”

“Yes, sir.”

(I was alarmed at her appearance — her skin pale, her movement around the room robotic, calculated, as she fed personal profile data into each of the computers running V-RIC.)

“Two of the prisoners have become critically ill. We need to be sure no one on the tour duplicates the same date and place for their V-RIC trip.”

“I’m sure that won’t happen, sir.”

“AlIce, I’m on my way there to help you with the final countdown.”

“That won’t be necessary, sir.”

She input a command on the touchscreen. My home was pitched into darkness, and I was locked inside. A tremendous explosion followed.

A week has passed. My house is in lock-down. The windows shuttered, exits barred. My routine on waking has been to tug in vain at the outer doors of my home. Today, the front door opened and I walked toward the enormous crater where V-RIC once stood. Talking to the residents of Baker about its disappearance, “It was there one minute and gone the next. Hey, did you know the internet’s down, too? Strange days.”



I, KATSUO SETAGAYA, proclaim on this day, the fault of the breakdown of the internet was solely my own. Martina Elena Gomez Santiago and her tabby cat, Morrison, are to be held blameless. Coincidentally, her granddaughter happened to be my assistant on the V-RIC project, the world’s first Virtual Reality Interactive Cinema. In its location on the Great Basin of Nevada, a sinkhole formed beneath it. On its first and last launch, it imploded, blowing a hole through the center of the Earth. The V-RIC reappeared at its direct antipode in the Indian Ocean. Without the Net, the participants were not known by anyone outside of Nuevo Panadero to be missing. They were lost at sea and eventually starved to death. Last week, their bodies were found in the wreckage of V-RIC, washed up on the shores of West Australia, 56 kilometers south of Perth. Two miniature giraffes miraculously survived the implosion and are in perfect health.

The two remaining participants in the V-RIC launch were Stephanie Morales and her brother, the astronomer, Jorge Morales. Records of the launch show that Stephanie and her brother both chose, quite by accident, the same time and place for their Holodek experience, thereby ripping the fabric of linear time. Their rooms on the V-RIC are empty.

Their whereabouts unknown.

dust devil: tales from the high desert

8 stories




Ann James

Her writing muse lurks in the volcanic hills amidst mustangs, marmots and jackalopes. While hiking with her dogs, Ann stumbles upon stories of dark humor.