The arrival of the dust-covered girl caught Keraf by surprise. The girl’s slender face, sun-beaten to a deep brown, blended seamlessly into the cloth wrapped around her head. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen, but she wielded her rifle with ease.
Keraf didn’t even try for his own rifle, slung over his shoulder. Shooting her would be a waste of his last bullet because she didn’t appear to have a canteen.
“My sand sled got demasted four days ago,” he said in response to her unspoken question. His tongue, dry and dusty, made it difficult to speak. “I have things I can trade for water.”
Her eyes roved over Keraf’s gauzy robes, his keffiyeh wrapped around the lower half of his face, his rifle, the narrow metal cylinder at his waist, and the empty water bag slung over his back.
“I could just shoot you,” she said.
With roles reversed, Keraf might have said the same. In the wastes of the Atlantic Basin, bandits outnumbered honest men. He didn’t think she would believe him, but told her what he thought was the truth. “I’m carrying something that could save the Earth.”
“Nothing can save the Earth,” the girl said.
Keraf thought he saw the tip of her rifle dip, but the sun was strong and the shadows stark.
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “Start walking, and don’t try anything. I’ve deaded better liars than you.”
The girl led him across the dunes to an earthen embankment. Keraf hadn’t realized it was there until he was upon it; the mound of earth blended with the beige and umber monotony of the rippled dunescape. They were met by a boy covered more in sand than clothing. After a whispered exchange with the girl, the boy set off running up and over the hill.
Keraf waited with the girl, collecting a thicker skin of dust.
After a few minutes, the boy returned with a bundle of cloth-wrapped poles slung over his shoulder. A stoneware bottle bounced from a cord against his left thigh. He gave the girl the bottle, then set about erecting a canopy from the poles.
The girl’s lips glistened when she lowered the bottle.
Keraf watched the water evaporate. He licked cracked lips with a sandpaper tongue. Six swallows, he had counted, more than a day’s ration in the lamasery.
He unslung his water bag and dropped it in the sand at the edge of the canopy. It wasn’t any cooler in the shade, but at least he was out of the sun.
The girl eyed him, but said nothing. She shared the same fine bones and gold-flecked eyes as the boy. A family compound, then, Keraf thought, hidden somewhere over the embankment. They couldn’t have had more than a condenser or two, but maybe a trade was still possible.
After a few minutes, an older man and woman came over the embankment and down the sand face. The woman carried a naked toddler on her hip. When the girl saw them, she ran to meet them and exchanged her rifle for the little boy.
As they came into the shade, Keraf pushed his shoulders back and rose up to his full height. The man peeled his checkered keffiyeh aside to reveal cheeks covered with coarse gray stubble and skin pitted from where the cancers had been cut away.
In his hands he carried another stoneware bottle capped with a small metal cup. He wiped the dust from the inside of the cup with the sleeve of his robe and poured a finger of water. He extended it to Keraf.
Keraf pressed his palms together and touched his fingertips to his forehead. “Your water is life,” he murmured. When he reached for the cup, the old man pulled it back.
“Your face,” he said. “I want to see who drinks our water.”
Keraf unclipped his keffiyeh, exposing his face. Even though the air was hot, it felt cool on his black skin.
“The mark of the Mechanists,” the man said, nodding at the metal ankh hanging at Keraf’s throat. “We don’t see many of your kind here.” He extended the cup a second time. “I am called Faruk,” he said. “You have met Imani, my grandniece.” He motioned to the girl with the toddler in her arms.
The child’s top lip was split from his mouth to his nose, a defect of birth. Keraf had seen such deformities in small enclaves before. It gave him hope that the one thing he could trade had value.
Keraf stared down into the water, and forced himself to sip. It cooled his burning tongue. He licked every drop of moisture from his lips before tipping the last of the water into his mouth. He handed the cup back to Faruk.
“I am Keraf,” he said, now that his throat was lubricated. “Your water is life; I owe you my life.”
Faruk handed the cup to the little boy in Imani’s arms. The boy’s slender red tongue snapped in and out through the cleft in his lip, licking dry the beads of water that clung to the metal.
Keraf found it difficult not to stare. “I am on a mission to Costa de Santo,” he said, pulling his eyes from the toddler. “Four days ago, my sled capsized crossing the mid-Atlantic mountains. What water I had was lost. I seek water so I can complete my mission.”
Faruk’s eyes narrowed. “We have no water to spare.”
Keraf did not expect anyone to give him water. A single condenser could produce a gallon a day from the basin’s arid atmosphere, enough for only a handful of people and a few plants.
“I can trade,” he said. “I carry a fully-functional uric acid modification, enhanced melanin, and high-efficiency sweat glands.” The genetic modifications had become fixed in the Earth’s human population prior to the final dewatering by the Orbitals, but small enclaves could regress through inbreeding. “My semen is worth a few days of water.”
“It’s worth nothing if we dry out.”
From Faruk’s expression, Keraf could not tell if the man was simply negotiating. The Atlantic Basin was isolated, and opportunities to maintain his clan’s genetic viability could not have presented themselves often. Pressing the issue this early in a negotiation could offend.
“You have the advantage,” Keraf said. “My rifle is worth something, as is my water bag. I’m willing to work for a ration.”
Faruk looked unimpressed.
“I beg your compassion. My mission is important.”
“He says he carries something that could save us,” Imani said. The toddler squirmed in her arms, and she set him down. The boy hid behind her robes and poked his tongue out at Keraf through his cleft.
“The Earth is dead,” Faruk said. “Those who believe otherwise are chasing fantasies in the dust.”
“What if he speaks the truth? We can spare—”
Faruk hissed and the girl fell silent. The toddler started to cry. The tears on his cheek made Keraf’s mouth water.
Imani knelt and pulled the boy into her arms, quieting him. She collected his tears on her fingertips and put them in her mouth.
Keraf pretended to ignore the exchange, even as his mind tried to construct what Imani had intended to say. Could they spare water? No one could spare water, for there was none to spare.
“Let me show you.” Keraf slowly unclipped the metal cylinder from his belt and unscrewed the cap on one end. “These are copies of a document discovered by my Order.” Keraf removed a tube of handmade paper and carefully unrolled it. It was covered with intricate lines and neat blocks of hand-printed text. “It is a plan for a deep drilling machine, but my lamasery lacks the resources to construct it. The Mechanist Court at Costa de Santo can build it, and if they do, they can bring water to the surface.”
Faruk studied the document for a moment, but Keraf suspected the man could not decipher it. Without water, industrialization and the skills associated with it had collapsed. Other than condensers, little remained from the wet-Earth.
Faruk’s lips pulled downward into a frown. He waved the paper aside. “The deep ocean? A myth. I won’t spend time looking at what I don’t have, only to lose sight of what I do. My grandniece should do the same, for her son. We cannot help you. We have no water to spare.”
“Please, I am at your mercy.” Keraf reached for Faruk, but the man stepped back.
Faruk pushed aside a fold of his robe to reveal a revolver in his belt. “It’s best you be on your way.”
Imani grabbed her great uncle’s arm. “You talk of the future, but my son has no—”
Faruk pulled his arm free. “Enough!”
Imani lowered her face.
“How long will your condensers last?” Keraf tried to keep the desperation out of his voice. “Ours run on sweat and prayer. Out here, it must be—” An odd sound drew Keraf’s eyes to the toddler. The boy was peeing on the sand.
Keraf dropped the paper. His eyes grew wide. “You have found water,” he whispered, as he fell to his knees.
Faruk drew the pistol from his belt. In a single fluid motion, he leveled it at Keraf’s chest.
Keraf could not take his eyes off the arc of lemon-yellow water. The toddler did not have the genetic modification to produce uric acid instead of urine. He would need over a gallon of water a day to survive; yet he lived.
The toddler finished peeing, and Imani scooped him into her arms. Keraf watched the puddle sink into the dust. He ached to hold the wet sand in his hands.
Faruk pulled back the hammer on his revolver.
“Don’t, Uncle,” Imani said.
“He will bring others. They will take what we have.”
“But the drilling machine . . .”
“Those drawings are probably not even real,” Faruk said. “A ruse to steal water from our mouths.”
“Already the seep gives less than it once did. If the paper he carries can bring back the water . . .” Imani squeezed the toddler in her arms. The boy squirmed but could not slip free.
Keraf stared, no longer seeing the toddler’s cleft lip. “Your child is the future,” he said, “one where we have enough water to wet the ground with our urine.” He looked up the revolver’s barrel, past the three bullets arrayed in the chambers. “I have dedicated my life to bringing water back to the world,” he said. “I have heard it used to fall from the sky. I have never seen such a thing, but I dream that our children will. If you shoot me, at least deliver these plans to Costa de Santo. I believe they can save us.”
Faruk’s eyebrows pinched together. “Why do you believe?”
“If I do not, then everything is just dust.” Keraf waited for the bullet. He imagined a heaven with cool rain.
The pistol wavered. “The last time I saw the rain, I was a small boy,” Faruk said. “We ran outside with pots and plates and cloths—anything that could hold water. It rained for less than a minute—only a fine mist really—but enough to dampen my face.” He touched his cheeks, as if wiping moisture from them. “I will never forget that.”
Keraf licked his lips, trying to imagine what rain would taste like. “Sometimes it is hard not to lose hope,” he said.
Faruk lowered the revolver. “Hope is a powerful thing.” He picked up the paper at his feet, carefully rolled it, and handed it back to Keraf. “Come.”
Keraf followed Faruk up the embankment, leaving the others to dismantle the canopy. As he crested the top, Keraf stopped.
Below, in the dusty trough, a dozen dome-shaped dwellings ringed a small greenhouse. Through beads of water sparkling on the greenhouse glass, Keraf saw a pool of water nestled among green leaves. He drew an audible breath.
“Without hope, we are dust.” Faruk said. “Before you leave, we will share water.”
© 2012 D. Thomas Minton.