“What Makes the Desert Beautiful”
by John P Carr
The sun was rising somewhere behind Yaran. Even here, in the shadow of his wrecked escape pod, the air was thickening with heat. The temperature would increase, and the shadow protecting him would shrink, as the sun crept higher. The heat would become more bearable when night fell again. But by then, if he was still propped here against the pod like so much broken equipment, he would be dead.
He raised a hand with slow, painful deliberation, shielding his eyes against the glare of a flat lead-coloured sky. Emptiness stretched to the horizon. A range of ashen dunes with purple crests and deep blue shadows, rippling in the heat.
Beyond the rolling patterns of the desert, a pink smear shimmered on the skyline. The ice on the top of Nebo mountain. And somewhere in that ice was Base. Usually a place he escaped as much as possible; now an oasis he needed to reach. But an oasis as distant as the forests back home.
Home? Was Linvana still home?
Sand, caught in his glove, dribbled through his fingers and glittered as the wind tore it away, just like… Like what? The plume of grey reminded him of something, but he couldn’t remember what. His mind was starting to fog.
He let his hand fall, and his face twisted into a grimace as bone grated on broken bone. Without thinking, he pressed his hand to the blood-stained rip in the side of his overalls. That caused a yelp of pain.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Stupid, first, to neglect his pre-flight checks. “Don’t matter if your ass is on fire,” the old prospector told him during his orientation. “You still do your pre-flights before you take a float into the desert.” But with all five prospectors together at Base, and Admin too, there were too many eyes and voices. He’d rushed to get out on his own.
Stupid to ignore the system warnings when his intakes started to clog. He assumed he had time to land at an outcrop and clean them, but then he smelled overheated metal and burning plastic.
And stupid to panic at the sirens and flashing screens. He’d bailed out too soon, too low, and cannoned into the crest of a tall dune. He’d watched from his shattered pod, cursing and in pain, as the float curved toward the horizon and came down somewhere over the next dune with an impact so soft he barely heard it.
The escape pod comp, before it sputtered and died, told him the float’s systems were fully functional apart from the flight drive. Which was great. Except it was maybe thirty minutes’ walk away now, and he had a broken leg, and broken ribs, and was bleeding into the sand beneath him. How would he explain all this to Admin?
But first things first. Everything useful was in the float or had been junked when the escape pod came down hard. The pack he’d dragged out with him contained no meds, no shelter, no food. Some electronics: a couple of drives and the voice box. Could he cobble together a comms device? Except he had no power. And no time. Because, no water.
The shadow was starting to retreat over his boots and, now that he’d noticed that, he felt the heat penetrating to his feet. He’d been here too long.
Wait. The voice box. He’d been due to meet Pak this morning. He’d missed the rendezvous, so Pak would have come looking for him. And Pak was always eager to help. Eager to a fault.
Down the slope, in line with his leg, a pattern in the sand. He had to squint to see it clearly, but it was a precise, geometric spiral that moved against the wind. Pak’s signal.
Yaran tossed the voice box onto the dune, towards the pattern. The movement sent a sharp pain scything down his body.
The sand sparkled as it heaped and flowed around the voice box. Then Pak spoke through it in the buzzing, humming, drone that always set Yaran’s teeth on edge.
“You were not at the intersection expected. I needed to flow on many vectors to find you. Perhaps we did not share our intents well.”
“Whatever. Listen–” Yaran began, but Pak’s drone continued.
“I have found a new cluster of iron to interest you. Seven point five seconds negative vertical here. I will calculate a precise vector and direct you.”
No acknowledgement. Yaran frowned: had Pak left? But the sand rippled and the voice box droned again. Was the voice more staccato? Hesitant?
“I conclude you ask me to stay here with you. You do not often want this.”
“Yeah, well. No choice. I want you to… do something. Then we’ll get back to normal. You won’t have to talk to me anymore.”
“I value to talk to you. Exchange with offworlders interests me.”
Yaran drew as deep a breath as he could manage without pain.
“Maybe later… I got separated from my float. The machine I–”
“I understand ‘float’. The other offworlders talk to me of it.”
“You understand ‘offworlders’ too, right? You understand we can’t… We need stuff to live in the desert. Water, things like that?”
“All that stuff’s back in my float. So I… I don’t have it.” Yaran heard defeat in his voice.
Another pause. Long enough for Yaran to notice the heat creeping over his ankles.
“The others talk to me of a place where the offworlders gather on top of the rocks. Long horizontal from here and long positive vertical. Water is at the rocks. You should move to there.”
Yaran gritted his teeth.
“I can’t get to the float. Never mind back to Base.”
“I will flow to the place on the rocks and talk of you to others there.”
Yaran would have to endure being the centre of attention. He shuddered at a vision of faces gathered around him in the medical bay, sympathising and interested, with an excuse to ask him questions. The shudder sent a spasm of pain down his side and into his leg. It jerked, and kicked a swirl of prismatic sand out of the shadow and into the arid light.
“Alright,” he said. “Do that.”
“I calculate the movement will last three hundred thousand seconds.”
Yaran did the arithmetic and felt a sick pressure in his diaphragm.
“Perhaps more,” Pak droned through the voice box. “I flow with lower velocity in the rocks. Some rocks resist me. That is why I am here in the sand.”
“Okay, that’s… Whatever.”
Yaran tried to pull himself more upright against the escape pod, further into the shrinking shadow. The movement wrenched his broken leg, and he hissed through dry lips.
“Pak,” he said. “There’s still water here, right? Deep under the desert. You could find it.”
“I can find water. I will calculate a vector and direct you.”
“No! I told you. My machines are damaged. I can’t dig. Can’t you bring the water up to me?”
Sand rippled around the voice box, forming spirals, stars, circles. Like it did when Yaran asked where to scout next, and Pak calculated a rendezvous point.
“Perhaps. I have not done this. I can flow negative vertical into wet sand. Perhaps I can move the sand and make holes. Water may move and make a cluster. I can flow again and make a new hole further positive vertical to you. When do you need water?”
Yaran looked at the sun bleaching his boots and lower legs. The heat was running ahead of it to bite at the pain already there. Rusty stains were still spreading across his jacket and the sand beneath him. The wind scoured his mouth and throat.
“Then this is not a solution.” The same toneless burr. “If I can do this I calculate the movement will last above a million seconds.”
Yaran cursed under his breath. Aloud he said, “It’s not just my machines. I’m damaged too.”
The desert seemed to lurch and tip him sideways. His eyes snapped open. No! He couldn’t afford to pass out. He had to explore options. But his eyes were heavy, and his mind was like mud at the edge of a river.
“You’re the native. Any ideas?”
Pak was silent, and the geometric patterns flowed around the voice box.
Beyond it, Yaran watched the wind swirl a puff of grey sand across the dune, like the trickle that had fallen through his fingers. Hotter now. The shadows were smaller and paler, their shapes flickering in the heat haze. That one looked like the blurred silhouette of a figure standing on the slope. As if anybody else would be stupid enough to be alone in the desert.
“You are not suited to here,” said Pak. “Query. Why did you move to here?”
Yaran’s jaw tightened.
“Did you move away from your people to find new experiences? Did you find that sand became rock that resisted you after you moved through it and you could not find the vector to go back?”
“I said not now!” Yaran glared at the voice box. He shook his head and, after a few shallow breaths, he muttered, “I didn’t want to go back.”
“Good,” whispered a voice. Not Pak’s. Yaran narrowed his eyes. That blurred silhouette, rippling on the edge of sight. Was that Kerfed on the slope, dressed incongruously in a raincoat? “Say nothing. Walk away.”
“You told me you only wanted a face-to-face meeting,” said Yaran.
“I do not understand,” hummed the voice box.
Yaran blinked his vision clear. Not a figure at all: another dissipating cloud of sand. But…
“I remember,” he said.
Pak’s sand flowed around the voice box. “Query. What do you talk of?”
“Been trying to remember something,” said Yaran, his gaze focusing beyond the desert. “The wind blowing sand out of my fingers… Was like rain blowing out of a leaky drain pipe…”
Kerfed and he had been standing in a covered alleyway. Just two citizens sheltering from the torrential midday rain. People hurried along the boulevard sidewalks in plastic coats, hunched against the downpour. Towering buildings disappeared into low clouds and the sound of water hitting glass and steel drowned out the city noises.
Yaran had been watching as rainwater guttered from a cracked drain pipe and the wind tore it into lacy patterns. Kerfed was peering out, his right hand buried in the pocket of his raincoat. Now, with his left, he waved Yaran to his side and nodded towards a man who had stopped by a car across the street. He raised his voice above the noise of the rain.
“Is that Shayzikara? In the green coat. Be sure.”
Yaran peered through the screen of raindrops.
Kerfed nodded. With a brief, grim smile he closed his eyes and threw his head back so that rain streamed across his face.
“See you when I see you,” he said. With his free hand, he pulled his collar up, and cap down, and strode away.
They’d told Yaran to walk away as soon as he identified Shayzikara. He didn’t. He stayed and watched through the wash of rain.
“Query,” said Pak through the voice box.
Yaran’s head snapped up and he blinked in the glare.
His tongue grated in his mouth when he spoke, swollen and dry.
“I interpret your form is a system of solid parts. The parts link together. You use force like my force to control the parts and the system. Am I correct?”
“I… suppose so.”
“I can move earth and sand when my force flows in them. I interpret that I can flow into your form and move your parts.”
Yaran knew he should understand, but his thoughts were sluggish.
“Perhaps my force can control your damage and add force to your movement. Perhaps together we can move your form to your float.”
Now he understood.
“No! Something else.”
“You asked me to calculate solutions. The solutions are limited by what I can do and what you can do and time. I find one proposal. You need to choose it or not choose it.”
Yaran’s skin crawled.
But the shadow had shrunk back above his knees and the hot fabric of his overalls pressed against the twisted angles of his broken leg. He had once nudged against a steam pipe when he was a child, and this was the same fierce stroke of pain. But that pain had faded when he pulled away instinctively. He couldn’t pull away now. And he couldn’t spare the moisture that filled his eyes.
“It sounds dangerous.”
“I value to find new experience and exchange. I value to help you if you choose this. You need to trust.”
It was just the drone of air passing through the electronics in the voice box, but again Yaran was sure he could hear a change. A lower tone, a slower pace.
“You’d be in my nervous system. How far? My mind? What would you… hear?”
“I cannot respond. I have not done this. I do not know your form before I flow into it. I calculate you will control but you need to allow help. Also you need to choose before we attempt. If we succeed I cannot communicate with you.”
Kerfed’s indistinct shape rippled again on the slope below Pak’s voice box.
“What are you going to reveal?” it whispered.
“Shut up!” Yaran pointed an unsteady finger. “You lied to me. I watched you.”
He’d seen Professor Shayzikara standing by his car, balancing a plastic wrapped screen on one knee as he fished in his pockets for a key card. Kerfed stepped up behind him and reached out as if to tap the Professor’s shoulder. Yaran thought he heard a flat pop, but he wasn’t sure. Shayzikara jerked forward against the car and slid out of sight. Kerfed bent over him and Yaran might have heard another pop. Kerfed walked away without looking back.
People across the street looked around, sensing something wrong or noticing the pops, confused by the rain. A woman, coming from the law department steps as Shayzikara had done, reached the car and looked down. Even above the downpour, Yaran heard her thin, ragged screams.
So they’d lied to him, to persuade him to help. It should have been a shock, but it wasn’t. There had been too much talk about violence being the only avenue left. Just meeting Shayzikara, or even threatening him, would have been a step backwards.
But Yaran had to be sure. He crossed the road and pushed into the group that was gathering on the sidewalk.
A man in clerical uniform knelt beside Shayzikara, bending over and whispering something so that Yaran couldn’t see the Professor’s face. The cleric was grasping one limp hand and the other had flopped onto the pavement. A trickle of blood trailed into the gutter, glistening red and impossibly intense for a few centimetres before it dulled and thinned in the rain.
“How do you know he’d want a cleric?” shouted a voice in the crowd.
The cleric didn’t look up or answer, but somebody else said, “Either way, he shouldn’t be alone.”
Yaran looked up through the curtain of rain at the shapes of lighted windows in the nearby buildings. Faces were appearing in them, drawn by some intangible sense that there was something to see. All looking down in his direction.
“Anybody know what happened?” asked another voice. “Who did it?”
Above the thunder of rain hitting streets, buildings, vehicles, people, he heard the angry shriek of a security siren.
“Just go back to your routine,” Kerfed had said. “Carry on like nothing happened.”
That was impossible.
Yaran pulled his cap over his face as he stepped backwards, pushed his way through the watching bystanders, and hurried away. He went straight to his apartment and filled a bag with clothes, screens and drives. He left no message; spoke to nobody. There was nobody he wanted to say goodbye to, and there were many that he wanted to avoid.
The university had negotiated a limited permit for him to travel and pursue his studies: he could only learn so much from the geology of Linvana itself. It was enough to get him off-continent and then off-world.
“I told myself I ran away from Kerfed, and the Liberation, and the government. Like I told myself it wasn’t my fault that they… But I knew. I knew.”
“Your communication has low force,” said Pak. “I do not understand what you talk of.”
Yaran’s head had slumped on his chest, too heavy to lift. The sun was bleaching colour from his overalls as far as his waist now, but the pain hadn’t changed and nor had the thirst. He could escape them by staying here a little longer. He could wait while everything else became smaller and smaller, until there was just him. If he still wanted to, he could finally, truly, leave everybody else behind.
“Do you understand what I talk of?” asked Pak. “I value to help you. But I will not attempt if you do not choose my help.” The sand flattened around the voice box and rose into a small balanced heap beside Yaran’s foot.
Doing nothing would be easier. Safer. Wasn’t that why he’d always kept himself apart? Why, for one thing, he never offered to speak with Professor Shayzikara himself, or did anything else to change things on Linvana? Why he stepped backwards and hurried away?
His arm had flopped limply across the wound in his side. Blood was seeping into the fabric of his sleeve and dripping into the sand. Glistening red and impossibly intense for a few centimetres; baked and dull as it dried. Go on alone and finish; or go on? Time to choose.
He drew as much breath as he could, shaped his chapped lips and blew out.
The sand pile collapsed over his foot.
A wave of stinging cold rushed up his body as if he had been dropped into icy water. He gasped hoarsely. Muscles clenched tightly around broken bones, and the ragged edges of his wound pressed together. The desert was no longer blurred and indistinct. Its glittering tones and colours were sharper and more precise than ever. He smelled sweat and blood and hot fabric.
He reached down, intending to drag together a handful of sand, but his fist closed so suddenly and so firmly that it squirted a plume into the air. It scattered around him and into the sunlight, a momentary rainbow flickering across the grey. As the particles settled, he waved his hand through the light and found he had the energy to do it. But it still rasped the edges of cracked bone, and dust still caked his mouth and throat.
“Move,” he mumbled. “That’s the point.”
He pushed over onto hands and knees and levered himself to his feet against the side of the escape pod. He was able to do it. His body screamed that his bones were broken, his muscles were torn, that he was dehydrated and overheated. But a cold framework of energy, outside and within, held him upright and held him together.
Squinting against the glare, he waved a vague arm towards the horizon as if setting a direction.
“Okay. Just need to think about where we’re going. Don’t need to think about anything else.”
He staggered a few steps and bent to scoop up the voice box. Then, lurching and swaying, dragging unsteady legs and wincing at every step, he set off.
He’d estimated that the float was thirty minutes’ walk away, but the journey took three times that.
He thought he’d made it when he crested the last dune and saw the float, sitting like the dot of the exclamation point that its landing has carved in the sand. It looked pristine. Only the gaping maw of the blown escape hatch, and a trickle of greasy smoke from the flight drive, indicated anything amiss.
But the farther he dragged himself, the slower his progress became. Staggering down the final bank of sand, keeping himself upright as if wading through a swollen stream, almost defeated him. The heat weighed on his shoulders, and each breath was a new effort. His vision blurred again, and the float smeared into a grey haze. The dark smudge of open hatch was a target to aim for. His only thought. He sensed Pak’s energy starting to fade. Or rather to retreat and concentrate. Into his legs and around the fractures and wounds.
When he stumbled against the hull and fell through the hatch, it was a surprise. A reminder of where he was and what he was doing. For minutes, he lay half in and half out of the hatch, blinking at the emergency kit hanging on the bulkhead.
At last, he pulled himself up and wrenched the kit free, digging inside for all the hypos he could find: rapid rehydration; coagulants; pain relief. He leant against the wall and raised them over his arm, but stopped, swaying his head. He threw one foot over the rim of the hatch so that it touched the sand.
“Pak. We did it. Enough.”
He crashed into a heap, like a puppet with broken strings, and his scream emerged as a thin wheeze. He felt as if gravity had suddenly increased and slammed him into the floor. As if his ribs and leg were shattering anew. He was still clutching the hypos and, with the last effort he could muster, he stabbed them into his leg. This time, when the floor lurched, he fell into the darkness.
When he regained consciousness, he sat without moving, slumped against the interior bulkhead, for a long time. The pain was a dull ache. Bearable, but enough to remind him of his injuries and that he should not move too quickly or too much. He could swallow and lick his lips, but his tongue was still swollen and raw.
He turned his head and looked through the hatch. The desert just outside was in shadow as the sun started to fall behind the crashed float. There was a small, lopsided spiral in the sand, like the misshapen spider webs he’d seen in the forests of Linvana, distorted by wind and rain. He pulled the voice box from his pocket and dropped it over the threshold.
“Thank you. For bringing me back.”
Minutes passed, and Yaran listened to the wind and sand whispering. Then the voice box droned, “Thank you for this experience. Thank you for this intersection.”
Yaran pulled off his glove, reached out and clawed together a handful of sand from beside the voice box. He raised it a little and let it dribble through his fingers to join the spiral pattern.
“Query. Do you have water now?”
“Yeah.” Yaran looked at the scatter of depleted hypos. “Another chance.”
For a moment, there was only background hum. Then Pak said, “I understand rain.”
Yaran didn’t move.
“Water falling from above,” continued Pak. “Query. You need water. Rain was where you were. Why did you move to here?”
Yaran frowned, then began to laugh. The laugh became a hacking cough, but he was still smiling as he asked, “That’s what you learned? About the rain on Linvana?”
“The other offworlder in the rain was damaged,” said Pak. “Did rain help him? As water has helped you?”
Yaran’s smile faded.
“No,” he said, his voice becoming even hoarser. “No, it didn’t.”
Across the cabin, Yaran saw the pale glow of the systems screen. He had the strength now to drag himself over to it. Soon, he’d talk to Admin, and the others, and he’d ask for help. He’d go back to Base, but he wouldn’t stop there. He’d go further. There were people he should speak with on Linvana. There were steps he could take there.
He remembered something he’d once read. “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” Pak had helped him find the well that was hidden from him.
It was time to leave the desert.
John P Carr is an Irishman living in England. He recently started to give his writing the time and energy needed to produce stories he’s almost happy with. Publication, as a prize-winner in a magazine short story competition, and in Abyss & Apex, has encouraged him to keep trying.