The desert laps at the edge of the city – what used to be a conurbation is now one city short. The place where two cities met is a sand trap. The inhabitants of the place that got swallowed, the hardy few who stayed, are referred to as ‘sand crabs’. Doctors say the mutations have begun, slight but definite, and within a few generations, perhaps, there will be something on two legs that can live unaided in the uber-desert we’ve carelessly created. For now they are just strange, shambling things, living on the edges, only coming out at night, not quite dangerous.
Sometimes I watch from the hermetically sealed balcony until it seems I have a wallpaper of sandy beige on my eyes. I almost forget there’s an apartment behind me: furniture, big screen plasma TV, all the mod-cons. Sometimes I think if I turn around it will all be gone, swept away by sand. Sometimes I think I can feel the grains against the wet membranes of my eyes, gritty, scratching, embedding themselves into my soft tissues. When I get to that point, I know it’s time to turn away, to get the eye drops chilling in the fridge and enjoy their cold, slightly oily touch. Then I watch a disk, something with a lot of water in it: Jaws, The Poseidon Adventure, Deep Blue Sea – not Waterworld, though. You have to have some standards.
It’s been harder to look away, since Sophie left – nothing I want to look at in the apartment anymore. But today it’s easier, the empty space behind me, because today I have somewhere to be. My security clearance has come through and finally my degree will be put to good use. It’s taken almost a year and that’s been a rush job – I’m a special case. Dead parents, especially high-profile dead parents who made the Party their life, and who died in the Purges of 2020, can come in handy – just when you thought the only things you were likely to get out of them were five years of brutal boarding school, a lot of money and a glass pyramid of an apartment.
Everyone’s grateful, Cato, for their sacrifice. The Party will look after you.
And it did. It took its time, but it did. I could have had a Party job, but I wanted a position at Aqua Humana. And I got it. And that’s when Sophie left me.
Where there used to be a river and a lake, now there is a wide bed of dried sand and an empty crater, with a bottom cracked and flaky as old skin. When we first moved here there was still a thin trickle of dirty, determined water creeping down the riverbed. Cato would have hated this tiny apartment; he might like the view though, all that sand and rock, the aridity of it. Strange boy. I miss him, sometimes, but less and less when I think about his new job.
I look out at the changed environment, fingering the amulet at my throat, and hum a dirge. We used to visit here on holidays, my family, and there was water then – I remember the river and the lake brimming. I prefer to imagine the greeny-brown of its memory superimposed over the yellow and brown of the sand and mud. Some days, it’s harder to make my memory obey me. Who’d have thought so much water would be so quick to leave, both land and memory?
“What are you doing?” Béné, my cousin, asks from the kitchen. She knows what I’m doing but she asks anyway.
“Praying. You know I’m praying.”
“Lot of good that will do. Some activist you are,” she sniggers, treading over old ground. “The praying activist. Didn’t help much when the drought came. Didn’t help at all when the earth dried out overnight.”
“Didn’t happen overnight, Béné.” I kiss the amulet and turn around. She smiles at me; she knows I do more than pray. “And maybe we weren’t saying the right prayer.”
“Maybe.” She throws me an apple, cold from the fridge. Its skin is a bright, sharp green. All the fruit and vegies look like that now – something is added to the hydroponics to intensify the colour, make it brighter, harder, not quite right. My appetite doesn’t respond, and she continues: “When will we hear?”
“They’re discussing it this week, in Parliament. Not sure there will be much debate. Things are desperate and I think they will try anything at this point.”
“You’re taking a chance. I can’t believe they believe you. I don’t believe you most of the time,” she says pointedly, then shakes her head. “Trying to bring an old religion back to break a drought.”
“All through human history, Béné, human sacrifice has worked, brought back crops, brought rain, saved cities – best if it’s a leader. If we live on this planet, we have to be willing to put something back into it. Sometimes that needs to be blood.” I’m not as certain as I sound. I’m terrified, nauseous, lost.
“Very scientific, you bloodthirsty tart.” She gestures at me with the knife.
“Why do you stay? If you think I’m a nut?”
“Because… because point five percent of the time I think you might be right. I must be going sand-mad.”
“Very likely.” We share grins that fade too quickly.
“They’ll turn on you, you know, if it doesn’t work. Even if it does work.” She takes a sad-looking lettuce from the fridge. This one hasn’t been artificially enhanced and it’s small and shrunken and for some awful reason reminds me of an overly large testicle.
“They won’t care you’re a Religious. It won’t matter that they’ve listened to you in the past, followed you. It’s a short step to martyrdom, cousin.”
“Everything’s a risk, Béné. Doesn’t matter – if we don’t try something we’re gone anyway.”
”What about the Aqua Humana plant? It seems to be producing enough water.”
”Enough for those who can afford it. There’s no common good in what they do. Like anything, we only worry when it starts to affect us – and it’s creeping upwards, Béné. Remember when we were comfortably middle-class? Remember when there were lower orders? We are the lower orders now. The ones below us all disappeared.” The tomato in her hand throbs red. A thought jars. “You didn’t buy any, did you? Aqua Humana?”
“Noooooo,” she pouts. “But I wanted to. I filled the buckets from the recycling fountain in the foyer, just like everyone else. Just like the plebs.” She shaves slivers of carrot into the bowl on the counter. “Salad?”
“No, thanks. Not hungry.”
“You’re too thin, Sophie. There’s such a thing as taking this asceticism too far, you know.”
“It’s not religious. I just can’t stomach most of the food nowadays. When the water went, everything else turned bad.” I look back at the window, watching the wind pick up grains of sand and hurl them against the glass. I can hear the sound, like a miniature machinegun, a hard rain falling upon us all.
It’s a beautiful plant. The engineering nerd in me wants to caress the machinery, the pipes, the smooth lines, press my ear against the great turbines and tanks and listen (just like I used to with Sophie’s belly, listening for signs of life). But I restrain myself and follow along in the wake of the other newbies at Aqua Humana. We’re distinguished only by differing heights and bad ties. The white coats they gave us are ill-fitting; mine pulls across my shoulders whenever I shrug or reach or stretch or breathe deeply. I’d like to ditch it, wander around in my shirt-sleeves, but that would make me stand out and those who stand out in the wrong way don’t make it through. We walk past a row of tremendous pipes, each one six feet wide, lined up like the ribs of a god. They carry a low-molecular-weight CFC – refrigerant for the plant. I can only imagine how big the storage tanks are.
This is our second week, the final leg of the orientation program. There were thirty of us to start, but our numbers have been whittled down to twelve – not sure where the others went. One of the supervisors blithely mentioned something about ‘incompatibility’.
The man we’re following like imprinted ducklings is the chief engineer. Bald, broad, tall, hard; looks more like a rugby player or a bouncer. But Torstein’s a legend in certain circles, for his advances in water extraction techniques. You know the saying ‘blood from a stone’? Well, he’s the man who pulls water from a stone. I used to have his picture on my wall. I read everything by him and about him. He occupied the space of God in my life; working with him has always been my dream.
We stop in front of a secure room. Torstein steps into a Perspex box, something like a shower stall. A bio-scan makes sure he is who he’s supposed to be – it’s easy enough to fake scans of retinas, fingerprints, even breath – not so much with the full body: a map of organs, broken bones, teeth fillings. Your physical trace doesn’t lie. The door slides open.
“Before we go inside, make sure you’ve got your badge properly embedded – the scanners in this room will read you at random intervals. If they don’t pick up your badges, alarms will go off and security teams will descend. This won’t bother you, though, because the defence systems in this room will vaporise you well before anyone else arrives.” He turns away, doesn’t bother to watch us all nervously check our badges, check that the pins are embedded into our flesh to track the flow of our blood and movement of our breath.
He disappears through the doorway and we follow.
Sonic showers – you never feel quite clean after them; it’s like being dry-cleaned. I miss water. I miss splashing around in a bath full of it. I miss standing under a shower as pin-sharp droplets massage my skin until I’m a bright pinky-red. I miss walking around with wet hair, miss my mother’s voice telling me: You’ll catch a chill if you don’t dry that off!
I shrug into stiff jeans and a dark tee. I miss clothes that feel soft after washing, that smell like fresh apples or vanilla or whatever fabric softener you used that week. Everything is dry-cleaned now. Everything is stiff and scratchy, even the tees – how do you make a fucking t-shirt scratchy?
I sit at the window. If I stare for long enough, I can see, or think I can see, water in the lake again; too imaginary to be of use. Cato’s letter on the side table brushes my hand, the air con breeze making it move to get my attention. His spider scrawl is strangely loose, as if an arachnid got stoned and decided to write a note to an old girlfriend. But his words are lucid. I read the last paragraph once more.
I know you think I don’t care, that I’m happy to live as long as I’m in the privileged class. It was true for a long time, but Sophie, I’ve changed. I think a lot about what you said, I think a lot about you and your noisy conscience. I think about what it must be like to have a soul so great that you carry the world around in it, even though the world doesn’t know it. I know you wouldn’t admit it but you think that every sin is your responsibility and every one is an incision on your heart. I know you’re planning something – I read the papers, all the articles they write about you. I don’t want it to come to that. I have an idea. Please don’t do anything until you hear from me. If I’m right, you won’t need to sacrifice anything. I know it’s a little late for me to grow a social conscience, but it’s happened whether you believe it or not. I love you. I love you like water.
I love you like water.
I love you like something lost.
The letter is dated a week ago. I love you like water. I crumple the foolscap sheet up, hard, and throw it against the glass.
Parliament met today, made a decision. The Premier has agreed, willingly he says. It had better be – it must be willingly, freely given or it’s a waste, just a bloody waste. It’s set for two days from now, not that we can really afford to wait.
I wonder where Béné is; it’s getting late and I need to get going. The Premier is waiting for instruction. I stand, my jeans slipping down past the sharp, greyhound bones of my hips. She’s right, I’m too thin; I can feel my ribs under the tee, my eyes and cheeks are getting hollow. I’m tired. C’mon, Béné, where are you? Once again, the sound of sand throwing itself at the glass beats a sad tattoo.
Rows and rows and rows of glass boxes, in a space like ten enclosed football fields. Each box a terrarium, so the life inside has a damp environment. Condensation gathers on the walls of the boxes, dripping into the little runnels at the edges, then downwards with the trajectory of the slightly tilted boxes, into tubes, concertinaed and translucent, that feed into the floor.
Inside the boxes are people. The poor, the sick, the homeless, the afflicted, those the prisons no longer hold, the refugees who “escaped” from detention centres, those whose boats supposedly never made it to our shores. Their bodies are naked, pathetically emaciated, each in various stages of mummification as the water is extracted from them. Two of my colleagues are being sick into waste bins. Torstein looks mildly annoyed. I swallow hard. No doubt our numbers will dwindle again.
“No children,” I mutter, rapidly surveying as many coffins as I can. Torstein looks at me like I’m a bright student, someone he’s been hoping for; he ignores my puking fellows and the other lost ducks and takes me by the arm. I’m almost as tall as him, but not so broad.
“No, no children. While the fluid they produce is more pure, there’s much less of it and it’s not economically viable to extract from them, not even in large numbers.” He points northward. “So, we have a nursery facility. My people are mapping the best time to extract for maximum productivity and quality of moisture. If you wait too long and puberty kicks in, the water is so filled with hormones we can’t use it, can’t purify it enough for drinking – we can use it for industrial purposes but that doesn’t make us the money. When they get
through puberty, then we have a viable source.”
“My parents owned shares,” I say numbly.
“What’s your name?” He pats my back the way my father used to, when encouraging me to do something I didn’t want to do.
“Cato,” I say, even though it’s emblazoned on my badge. “Cato Dunne.”
He smiles, a wide, open honest smile, the kind you’d like to see from your godfather or favourite uncle. “I knew your parents, Seneca and Honoria Dunne. Great friends of the Party.”
“Servants of the Party,” I correct. “Great servants of the Party and its aims.”
“You lot – back to the south-west labs. Dr Walker, show them how to monitor the extractors.” He steers me further along the row of clear coffins. “Let’s you and I have a chat, Cato; I’ve been looking for an assistant.”
We pass another coffin. Inside is a new inhabitant. I recognise the short dark hair, the razor-sharp cheekbones and the pouty lips. Like a Lulu Brooks doll, Béné lies naked and fragile beneath the glass.
The loss of Béné sits in my throat, like something caught. I don’t know if she’s been taken because of me or simply because she was unlucky in the choice of street, shop, parking space. Maybe she’s lying somewhere, dead or dying, desiccating in the heat because someone mugged her for the bright vegetables she was carrying, for the things she set out to get to tempt my waning appetite. Perhaps they took her car, her purse. I called the police but they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help.
I zip up my jacket. I don’t know why I’m surprised at the cold. I’ve always known deserts are freezing at night. Perhaps it’s still hard to remember that this city is now part of a desert, that sand gathers in our streets, piles against doorways and windowsills, that we have to seal our living spaces to keep from being buried while we sleep.
Willa and Gianni have let themselves in and wait in the lounge room. Willa’s features are soft, gentle, caramel coloured, her hair is a frizz of mahogany; Gianni, a former Jesuit, looks like a recruitment poster for the Inquisition.
“No sign?” asks Willa.
I shake my head. “It’s time to go. Don’t want to be late.”
Gianni wraps his long arms around me, pushes his face into my hair, like he’s trying to imprint me into his memory. Willa starts to cry. I reach a hand out and draw her to us. We stand like that for a while, as they cry for me – I have no tears left. Finally I draw away; I wipe their faces, feeling the salty liquid against my fingertips; I lick the moisture and smile.
“We can’t wait any longer.”
“Do you really think it will happen? Do you really think he’ll do it?” Willa’s voice is breathy, hopeful.
“I have to believe it for as long as I can, Willa.”
“And if he doesn’t? At the last minute, if the Premier refuses? What then?” asks Gianni, a man who lost his faith long ago.
I smile. “Then Plan B.”
Torstein didn’t take long to trust me. Stupid of him, really. All his security measures and threats of vaporising laser beams and he basically adopts me. Because he met my parents once and I asked the right questions. Maybe he wants a son, maybe something more intimate. Doesn’t matter: he’s lying under a bench in his personal lab, bleeding away quietly, hands and feet tied up with electrical tape. I wrapped my lab coat around his head so the blood doesn’t flow across the floor for me to slip on – that would be all I need at this stage; a broken arm, or a broken hip.
All the things I thought I could do, all the good, evaporated when I saw Béné lying there.
I wonder what Torstein’s conscience is like. I wonder how you learn to ignore the little voice inside; I can, sometimes, but Sophie never could. She said it was always louder than the voices outside her head.
Doesn’t matter now. The refrigerant tanks are in the furthest buildings. Time to put my theory into action.
I’ve never seen so many people packed into the square outside Parliament. They’re wrapped up against the cold, with balaclavas and goggles to keep the sand out, some with stylish new face shields that combine both elements. Storm troopers line the edges of the crowd. Riot shields and black helmets suck away any lambent light from the streetlamps. Willa and Gianni escort me to the edge of the crowd. One of the troopers recognises me as I pull off my hood, feel the sand sting against my flesh. I’ve felt numb since Gianni told me about Aqua Humana on the way here, about the plant. About Cato. I relish the bite of the particles, glad to feel anything. He clears a path and others see me; they move aside like water cut by the prow of a ship. Whispers carry along ahead of me It’s her, the Religious. Look, she’s so small.
They built a raised platform. I frown. That won’t work. There needs to be a connection with the ground. The Premier’s aide appears at the top of the steps, begins his descent.
“This won’t work. I told you not to raise it off the ground. I told you to dig down to the earth.”
His smile falters, his marketer’s mind struggling with the idea of the private, the hidden, the secret. “But then people wouldn’t be able to see.”
“This isn’t meant to be a sideshow, you idiot.” I shake my head, then shout to those around me. “Make a space. Move back as far as you can. We need a space.”
And because it’s me and because people are desperate to believe, they do it. A small space is made, roughly three metres square, with storm troopers posted along three sides to keep it intact. The fourth side is open to the stairs and the platform.
“Where is the Premier?” I ask the aide. He gives me a sick smile.
“He’s coming along. A little hiccup or two, a slight change of plan, but he’s coming. Look, there he is now.” He points to a man swaying at the top of the stairs; even from here I can see he’s the worse for drink. He has a small boy clutched in front of him, hands digging hard into the child’s shoulders. A woman screams, and his wife appears, scratching at him, trying to tear the child away. He backhands her and she falls from sight.
“My son,” he says. “I’ll give you my only son.”
I shake my head. Even now, no one can follow instructions. I turn on the aide. “I told you it had to be an adult. It had to be voluntary. It had to be a leader. I told you it wouldn’t work otherwise,” I hiss between my teeth. Heated breath and spittle hit his face.
His voice pitches high. I’m smaller than he is but he’s scared. “He won’t go himself! Take the kid!”
Willa, Gianni and I stand, staring up at the drunk man teetering on the edge of the platform. His eyes roll around, unanchored, a little foam gathers at the corners of his mouth.
“Take my son,” he repeats. “Won’t you take my son?”
“This isn’t going to work,” I sigh.
”Plan B?” asks Willa.
I nod. “Plan B. See if a couple of those troopers can lift up some of the pavers, so the earth shows.” I glance at the man swaying, his sacrifice in his arms. “And take care of him, Gianni.”
I’ve been watching the clouds for some time now, quite intently. I don’t think anyone else has – they stopped bothering a couple of years ago. See, here’s the thing: we pumped cloud-seeding chemicals into the sky for a hell of a long time, but no one was able to get them to spill. Wrong kind of clouds, not enough ice crystals, not in the right place, not cold enough.
It didn’t work the first few times they tried so they gave up; poured the money into pipelines and desalination plants that just made things worse, took more from the earth and sucked her dry. But with the cold desert air, all the refrigerant in the tanks of Aqua Humana, a big enough explosion, a big bang kind of thing, should do the trick. Cloud-busting, if you will.
I’ve been calculating: if Aqua Humana goes up just right, located as it is on the highest point for miles around, it should reach the right clouds, start the reaction we need, bring rain again, although it could take a few days. A hi-tech rain dance.
Rain from the refrigerant – chlorotrifluoroethylene – could get nasty, probably will, something carcinogenic – but, hey, we’re already fucked. It can’t get much more desperate than this. It strikes me that maybe I’m as much a fanatic as Sophie ever was, is. Determined, tunnel-vision-sure that I know what’s right. Only problem is, I won’t know if it works. Won’t be time for me to get out of here, and even if there is, the blast radius is going to flatten everything for miles and miles. Hopefully not the city – shouldn’t get that far.
If it works, Sophie won’t have to go through with her harebrained scheme. There won’t be a need for any sacrifice, for any blood spilled – only mine. That may just help if there’s any kind of higher power looking down. Maybe a bit of blood will help the pot. As long as it’s not Sophie’s.
Gianni hands me the knife. It came from a museum in Iraq, was used by the Sumerians in their sacrificial rituals, when crops and rain failed.
I stand on the dry earth, pavers pulled up higgledy-piggledy so my bare feet have contact with the ground. Willa and Gianni take my smile, don’t give it back though. Tears on their cheeks catch the light.
I look up, take in the stars, the moon. The skin of my throat pulls tight and I draw the blade across it; it stings. I am an adult; I am a leader; I am willing. The stars brighten. I hear thunder, an explosion and the sky to the west turns red. I feel blood spurt, run down, soak into my shirt, jeans, hear it patter onto my boots, then soak into the earth, sucked down as if by a thirst-stricken man.
I fold; my knees liquefy. Gianni catches me and lowers me gently. There is hard earth beneath me. It shudders and swells, taking great gulps of my blood. Faces fade. The last thing I feel is the spatter of hesitant rain on my face, a stranger, mapping its way like a blind man’s fingers.
I love you like water.
First published in 2012: An Anthology of the Near Future, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne, Twelfth Planet Press, 2008.