The nearest cloud cluster was sixty miles away, almost an hour’s journey if Bombay went at top speed.
A fruit trader had seen it on her way to Sabon-Gari, floating lazily across the azure sky. “You don’t see that often,” the trader had said to the crowd, grappling her basket of mangoes. “A whole cluster, untethered, unbothered, what a sight! So you see why you have to buy my mangoes, they’ve been blessed by clouds!”
Zik straddled Bombay, brought her heels to its torso, and held on tight as its mechanical legs whirred into life. On any normal occasion, she would have preferred the smooth train ride to Sabon-Gari, staring out the windows and soaking in the views of Zazzau, but this wasn’t normal. The trains would begin at Kachia, stopping at every station in Zazzau between her hometown and the market town Sabon-Gari, a thirty-minute ride turned ninety by heated exchanges between conductors and last minute passengers. There was simply no time for that; if a cluster had danced so proudly across the sky on a weekend that even an ordinary fruit trader could see it, then smugglers and everyone else would have seen it too.
Bombay whinnied as Zik dug harder into its thigh, propelling both horse and rider forward in a speed burst. This might even be futile, thought Zik. For one, smugglers could have caught wind of the cluster and siphoned them away into calabash gourds, the thieves! Even worse, the cluster could belong to one of the Herders from down south where Rainmakers harvested clouds daily, there could be a white-collared man sitting smugly and sipping ginger shai’i as he tapped directions into his Winds transponder. Or the trader could have been lying, a ploy to get the townspeople to buy her wares which wouldn’t be the first time someone had lied about cloudwatching. Every thought that came to her as Bombay’s hoofs clopped across the roads led to the same unnerving conclusion: Hasan spitting in her face about using Bombay without permission or supervision. Did she know how difficult it was to get spare parts for an old Andalusian, they don’t even import these anymore! Did she know how complicated it had become to calibrate Bombay, to oil his joints? How would he save up for one of those new-generation AI Mustangs if he had to keep using his savings to replace the horse’s hoofs every time she went on a joyride, eh? Why would she even go to Sabon-Gari on the word of a petty trader?
Zik thought of everything other than Hasan’s spittle on her face. It would all be worth it if she got to the cluster before it was emptied, it would all be worth it if she got a few litres, just one or two even. It would all be worth it to see the joy on their faces when they realized her escapade had saved them. Transferring the reins into her right hand, she checked if she had brought everything she needed. She patted the Imam’s gourd which bobbed on her chest: “No more than five minutes old, you hear,” the Imam had said, “We need the freshest you can get or the medicine won’t take.” Her satchel, which contained every kobo she could find in the house, was buckled around her waist; cloudwater was expensive, fresh ones even more so and she feared that what they had wouldn’t be enough. So she’d brought his old takouba along. He wouldn’t mind, she told herself; after all, this was all for him.
The steel sword was sheathed and strapped across her left thigh. At first, she’d only picked it up for protection, sure that any roadbandit who saw the tiny rotating teeth whizzing across its edges would retreat, but as she removed the weapon from its hold, Zik remembered the pride in her grandfather’s eyes as he carefully polished the blades with olive oil on Saturday mornings. She remembered sitting with her brother, listening to their grandfather gloat about it, “They don’t make them like this anymore. Pure steel, copper wiring, not that cheap bronze-shelled nonsense those wannabes carry around.” Hasan would whistle and tease, “But Baba, you know if we sell it, we can probably buy a good house in Kajuru, and even have enough for a Mustang, or two.” Her grandfather would glower at a laughing Hasan, point the tip at him and say, “The only way you will sell this sword is if I die.”
He would die if the sword wasn’t sold, she decided. The disease had spread, the Imam said; her grandfather would never walk again and if nothing was done, he would soon never breathe again either. Over the course of the month, she and Hasan had traipsed the many towns of Zazzau on weekends in search of pharmaceutical substances, Hasan straddling his biotech steed and she, gliding along the railways. Fermented hibiscus leaves from Kaura, sour hartebeest milk from Kafanchan, even hundred-year-old honeycombs from the luxury stores in Kajuru: they’d gotten everything the Imam needed to make Baba’s medicine. All except fresh cloudwater.
Everyone knew that the only way to get fresh cloudwater this far up North was the farm at Kajuru where they had a Rainmaker, but the farm was only open on weekdays. Weekdays were for work: Hasan working at the Factory recalibrating wonky limbs, and she in one of the Customer Care cubicles of Winds Inc®, listening to people drone on about what was wrong with their transponder app. Even if there was some way they could escape work into the tepid sophistication of Kajuru, they would have to sell the antique takouba, Bombay, their small house, and their limbs before they could afford a meagre liter of fresh cloud water from Kajuru’s cloud Farms. She’d even considered it, trading limbs, perhaps her arm from the elbow down on the black market; the sale would be certainly enough to fetch enough money to buy a few gallons of fresh cloudwater and a cheap new arm, perhaps one made of brass with copper wiring, or she could save up to buy a durable fiberglass-and-titanium one that was waterproof. In the end, she’d decided against it after Hasan had told her how steelsickness would kill her when her body began rejecting the jury-rigged arm.
This was their last resort, she was sure, racing to do the very thing they’d seen the Hisbah imprison people for. They’d done everything else, beg their neighbors, request loans, even peddle the black markets for smugglers who had a few litres to trade, but no one softened when they’d told them their grandfather would be dead in a month if they didn’t find fresh cloudwater. He hadn’t said it, but Zik knew that Hasan had resigned to fate; on the weekends, he’d taken to flinching every time Baba tried to talk, thrumming deeply when she wheeled the old man out so he could gaze at the empty sky, or skulking at the door as she fed him koko through a straw. To escape Baba’s stagnant stares and Hasan’s heavy gloom, she’d began taking long walks around the streets of Kachia, her eyes affixed upon the sky as the Imam’s gourd nodded on her chest. With her gaze on the heavens, she missed everything in front of her, tripping over a scavenger’s wheelbarrow once – and having the dazed loon chase after for purportedly trying to skim his precious scrap metals; stomping into many oily puddles that left her boots slimy; and stumbling into dazed pedestrians, including an off-duty Hisbah official who threatened to detain her until she handed him a few kobos. When they saw her on the street, with her head lifted up and the wooden vial dancing between her breasts, the people of Kachia whispered amongst themselves and blessed Zik with a new moniker. “Here comes the Cloudgazer,” they would taunt, “Careful she doesn’t trip you,” and Zik, whose ears perked up at any mention of the word cloud would have her head darting in all directions, trying to find what she desperately needed. This was how she’d come across the fruit trader’s sermon: the cloudgazer had been wandering around Kachia searching the skies for white fluff.
On Bombay, she zipped past the railways, holding on tight to the steed’s reins as wind slammed into her whenever a train came gliding beside them. She’d never understood why Hasan wanted to buy a new horse. Bombay was the fastest thing she’d ever ridden, faster than trains and certainly faster than walking. He would be angry she had taken the horse without his permission but Zik was sure that a solution laid in wait at Sabon-Gari. She was sure she would return to Kachia with something that would paint a smile across Baba’s face and bring Hasan’s laughter welling to the surface. And for that promise of joy, for the imminent laughter she believed was at the top of her tongue, she would gladly sell the takouba . . . and even Bombay.
When heavy smells hit her, Zik knew she had reached Sabon-Gari, for everyone knew that one would smell the market-town before one would hear or see it; the malodourous emulsions an enveloping hello paving the way for raucous sounds to caress ears. She resumed cloudgazing, her eyes zipping across the empty skies as the sounds of the market-town filled the air around her.
They met her at the outposts, the traders, and they grabbed at her shins even before she slid through the gates of the market, calling her to their wares. One waved diaphanous bags filled with silicon at her and argued that his prices were the best in the market for fleshwork, another rubbed the metallic sheen of Bombay’s fur and told her he could get her a good price for her steed. Others stretched their arms and gestured for her to follow them: I have the silkiest microsteel fabrics, soft but steady, bulletproof too; You’re in the presence of the best connoisseur of palmwine in the whole of Sabon-Gari, let’s go to my stall, I will give you some samples, a special cask of rambutan-and-lime you will love. The traders of Sabon-Gari were immodest about their wares, assertive about their trade in calling out for patrons, unlike the shop owners at Kajuru who sneered at customers and promptly ushered out anyone who attempted to haggle prices.
She ignored them all, her eyes fixed on the empty skies. Her hands led Bombay away from the many stalls haphazardly scattered around on the dusty cracked roads. The traders saw that their words would not entice Zik to visit their stalls and they began to fall away like dead petals off rose stalks, returning to the outposts to seduce other visitors with their attractive prices. One by one, the crowd around the cloudgazer thinned until only the fleshworker remained. The man stuck his silicon bags into his kaftan pockets and took instead to telling Zik about his certifications as he followed her on foot.
He was the only one in the whole of Sabon-Gari with the skills to use reinforced keratin and calcium, did she know, did she? For a small price, her nails and teeth could be just as strong as steel, “And they’ll weigh the same,” he added. She needn’t worry about his certification, he comforted, he had studied bio-metallurgy from the University of Pangaea; “In fact, I am one of the few persons in Zazzau who has successfully practiced neuro-wiring.”
“Then why are you here?” Zik snapped. With her wandering eyes finding no signs of cloudburst in the skies above, Zik’s apprehension had grown heavy and weighed down the happiness she was sure she would find in Sabon-Gari. The fleshworker’s recitation only added to the weight.
“Why what?” the man asked.
“Why are you here?” she hissed. “If you’re so good at splicing metals into bodies, why are you in this dump? Why aren’t you working in one of those fancy auto clinics in Kajuru?”
The man smiled sheepishly. “Well, there’s the small problem of certification,” he confessed. “I’m still waiting on my certificate but once I get it, I’ll be as revered as a Rainmaker.”
When he received no reply from Zik, he increased his pace and stopped right in front of Bombay who whinnied to a stop. “Why are you here then? You’ve been wandering about for a while. Perhaps if you just tell me what you want to buy, I can help you out.”
“Clouds,” Zik said. “I’m looking for fresh cloudwater.”
The man grimaced, his nose crinkled as he said, “There’s no fresh cloudwater in Sabon-Gari, everyone knows this. There’s a cloud farm at Kajuru, that’s the only place you’ll find it.” He turned away from the steed and made to walk away.
“I can’t afford that,” Zik announced. “I’d heard there was a cloud here today. I just need a few litres.”
“That was a stint by the Hisbah. There was a cloud here,” the man admitted, turning around. “But I’m afraid it was planted to catch smugglers and illegal harvesters.”
Bombay creaked as Zik sank lower onto his back. The reins slipped from her fingers and her face clouded up. Her hands raced up to clutch the vial on her chest as she quietly began to sob. She thought of her grandfather, sitting at home waiting for a medicine he would never get. She thought of Hasan who didn’t seem to be able to decide which was more precious, horse or family. She thought of herself, gliding across the plains looking for something everyone knew she could never afford.
“You don’t look like a smuggler,” the fleshworker said abruptly, patting Bombay’s muzzle. “What could you possibly need fresh cloudwater for?”
For the first time, Zik looked at the trader. She could see that his eyes had been augmented, they flashed a vibrant blue that seemed to make a quiet whizzing sound. He had high cheekbones and his lips were pursed as he watched her eyes run over his kaftan. “My grandfather,” she finally replied. “We need it for his medicine.”
The fleshworker grimaced, turned left, then right, and leaned in closer to Bombay’s back. “There are other ways, you know,” he began quietly. “I cannot get you fresh cloudwater, but I can get you the money you need to buy some at Kajuru.”
Sneering, Zik said, “You think I’m stupid? I’m not selling my arm. I know about steel sickness. I know how you fleshworkers are.”
“Steelsickness? Only a rookie would make such a mistake. If there’s anything you should be worried about, it’s getting a second-hand arm with ghost touches. Besides, we wouldn’t take the whole hand, a finger should be enough.”
A finger didn’t seem too bad, Zik thought. Perhaps, if she made enough off it, she could even get an augmented replacement, maybe a thermoplastic one that could glow in the dark, or something cheaper like one of those steel ones she’d seen that could store data. Yes, a finger didn’t seem too bad. She wasn’t Hasan, she knew what was most important to her and would sacrifice something for it.
“If a finger will be too personal,” the fleshworker began, “then you should know that there are as many things to sell as there are to buy here,” he said, patting Bombay again. “An antique Andalusian would fetch a lot here.”
He leaned in closer and whispered how much she could get for a finger, and for a horse. “Joy cannot come without sacrifice,” he proclaimed mournfully. “Something cannot grow from nothing. We all have to give, to receive.”
Zik’s eyes widened at the numbers she had heard. She shifted her gaze to the sky, sweeping for clouds one last time. When she found none, the cloudgazer turned her eyes away from the heavens, fixed them upon the fleshworker and said, “How do we begin?”