The Dream of Rain
by Constance Cooper
The mesa was a good place to sit and contemplate sabotage. Agna could see the whole valley below her, baking under the noonday suns. At the foot of the cliff the abandoned city lay like a clutch of fossilized eggs. The domes of fitted stone or fired brick were still intact despite their age, though their doorways were choked with chalky sand.
From this height it was easy to overlook the size difference and imagine it was an ancient human city there below—that she could walk into one of those buildings instead of crawling in on her hands and knees. The sunken roadways looked drab, though the ones that the archaeologists had dug out were lined with brilliant tile mosaic underneath the layers of grit.
The current dig site was marked off with yellow tape, but from up here it was easier to find it by looking for the tents and awnings set up by the archaeological team, who found it impossible to work in the direct sun even during the morning and evening hours. Even then the still air was stifling, and Agna felt grateful that most of her work had been inside cool walls.
The archaeologists had been working their way down-valley, going back in time as John called it, since the structures seemed to get older and smaller as the ground sloped downward to the base of the cliff. The only area the team wouldn’t touch was probably the oldest of all—the small group of buildings pasted up against the rockface like a groundhugging wasp’s nest. Those were cordoned off with red rope so that stray humans wouldn’t disturb the last remaining city residents. Agna was the only one who went there now, besides the Dwellers themselves.
At first she’d worried that mobs of curiosity-seekers from the settlement would drive in and harass the natives. But there’d been very little of that, even though the settlement was only up at the head of the valley. From here on the mesa she could see the pale gray wall of the reservoir where a small side valley had been closed off, and the blocky grid of settlement housing up the slope beyond. Winding down from the settlement buildings, between the fields and past the dam, down into the fringes of the ancient city, was the snake-track of road that she and the archaeologists drove along four times a day.
It had surprised her how little attention the Valley Dwellers received. They were the only species yet found on this planet whose intelligence or civilization could be compared to humans’—possibly the only species like that anywhere, though of course they might never know what other colonies had found.
Maybe it was the unassuming way the Dwellers had about them—their soft, gentle voices, their self-effacing gestures with front foot or trunktip, their diminutive size. Maybe it was because they were obviously old, with mild, wrinkled faces and a slow, deliberate shuffle. Or maybe it was because there were only four of them, so that they were seen as not so much a species as a sort of living fossil.
Most likely, the Dwellers were ignored because there was already so much work to be done around the settlement. Clearing and leveling more land, installing more solar panels for the groundwater pumps, laying irrigation lines, planning the second reservoir—and all this with the first wave of babies due in just four months. There was no time to worry about a few funny old geezers who were obviously no threat.
It had made Agna’s days easier not to have gawkers disturbing her and her informants, but it had also put her under pressure that not even John really understood. She felt responsible for learning all she could of the Dweller language, enough to understand and record not only everyday matters but also nuances and subtleties, their mythology and their religious beliefs, even their slow ironic jokes. And unlike John, she had no assistants to help her.
It had taken time. Thierry, that arrogant biologist they had sent out to examine the Dwellers, might have only needed a few days to do his scans and take his samples before returning to the settlement. But Agna suspected that a large part of his efficiency was because he considered his agricultural work more important. “It’s not practical for me to keep coming out here,” he’d said brusquely on his last day. He’d as much as told her that anthropology was a waste of time, that even one trained expert in the expedition was more than enough.
If Susannah had survived the ship-sleep, he would never have dared say that to her.
Agna had twisted up the corner of her sun-tent just thinking about it. Could Thierry have accomplished any of his work without her there to interpret for him, to persuade poor longsuffering Green Bowl to submit to his tests? And to apologize for him afterward?
It took time to study a culture, and patience, and courtesy. Susannah and her other teachers had taught her that, at least, though they couldn’t do more than speculate on how to relate to a nonhuman culture. But Agna had trouble being patient, knowing that the Dwellers were older than old, and the last of their kind.
Luckily the Dwellers had been warmer and more welcoming than she could ever have hoped. They didn’t even seem to resent the archaeologists’ work.
“Are you angry, when they go into the houses?” she’d asked awkwardly, early on. White Sky blinked up at Agna with her round, liquid eyes. “Why should we be? We are not using them,” she pointed out. “Though it makes little sense to clear the dust, when the wind will only pile it up again.”
Agna squinted up at the bright sky above the valley. It was cloudless and a deep purple-blue. By craning her neck, she could see the native houses nestled at the bottom of the cliff, where the valley floor dropped to its lowest point. She’d been a guest in every one—Five Fingers’s home, and Green Bowl’s, White Sky’s and Hidden Mountain’s. She’d spent days crosslegged on smooth tile floors, asking questions in her halting Dweller speech, cooled by the air from the adjoining caves.
No Dwellers were stirring outside at this hour. When the shadow of the cliff crept over their roofs, they would emerge and carry water to their pond-garden. Agna liked to help them, though she was always afraid she’d break the handle off the water-jug with her clumsy big hands, or crush some delicate plant by pouring too quickly.
She couldn’t see the garden from here; it was protected from the direct glare of the suns by a rocky overhang. Probably just as well. The garden made her sad, although it was beautiful, with flowering water-fronds as well as the food plants and pebble-sized snails the Dwellers subsisted on. Because it was only big enough to feed four, the garden made her think about the loneliness of these remaining people. The fact that it was a water garden made her saddest of all.
It hadn’t taken long for the colonists to realize that the Dwellers were originally an aquatic people. They walked well enough on their four webbed feet, but you could tell that the packed dirt of the valley floor was hot and painful to them. The dexterous tips of their trunks were useful now for grasping a paintbrush or shaping clay, but it was clear that they would excel at probing for food in the fertile mud at the bottom of a pond.
But the valley had been dry for ages. The climatologists and geologists agreed there had been no rain for several human lifetimes, and the Dwellers could not have survived without the water from the depths of their caves. John praised the arid conditions for preserving the city so well, but Agna couldn’t help but imagine what it must once have been like. The sunken roadways would be canals, cleansed of dust and sparkling with vivid color. Much of the city would be wallowing in the shallows of a great network of lakes. The dun-colored valley would be velvety with green. The sky, so empty now, would be overcast with pearly cloud.
The Dwellers had tried to describe it to her. At first she was amazed, thinking that they were old enough to have seen these sights themselves. Later, after questioning them on how many days they had lived and making some calculations, she determined that a Dweller’s lifespan was not much longer than a human one. She was forced to conclude that the memories had been passed down through the generations, as the drought continued, and the waters dropped, and the population dwindled away.
White Sky described how she hatched and grew to adulthood in a lake not far from the cliffside. She pointed it out to Agna with a gentle wave of her wrinkled trunk: a dry hollow in the dirt, with desiccated homes scattered around it like cattle skulls at an empty water hole.
Agna lifted the gold chain from around her neck and held her phone in her hand. It was a silly ornamental thing, a gift from John in the days when they couldn’t go for more than an hour without talking to each other. He was back at the settlement now with the others, preparing to sleep away this planet’s long midday. He had nodded casually when Agna told him she’d spend the sleeptime here.
The natives were so philosophical, living their lives day by day, with no bitterness or grieving for what had been lost. Agna remembered one day she’d become frustrated and tried to break down that impassivity.
“Are you lonely?” she asked Five Fingers. He (she chose the pronouns as she liked, since Dwellers were all the same sex) was so called because he had five prehensile tips on his trunk instead of the usual six.
He bobbed his earless head slowly, a gesture the Dwellers made when they were thinking. “There are four of us,” he replied slowly. “It is enough.”
“But would you be happier, if there were more?”
“Of course it would be a joy to have my hatching mates around me. But that will not happen again until after I am buried.” He swung his trunk meditatively back and forth. “For now, it is an honor to be here, as one of these four, and to entertain a guest. Never have we had such an interesting guest!”
Still Agna wasn’t satisfied. How could he be so serene, hiding from the suns in the ruins of a great city? “But there is so little water,” she said.
“Someday the rains will come again.”
This was perfectly true; the climatologists confirmed it. But looking at Five Fingers, all Agna could think was that it certainly would not be in his lifetime.
Their religion seemed to bring them great comfort. Through many patient days, Hidden Mountain described to Agna an afterlife in which the rains would fall every day, and the valley would brim with water. “We will see our friends and hatching mates again,” she told me, “and we will swim instead of walking.” She delicately extended one dusty foot and flexed it, drawing tight the withered webbing.
That night in their air-conditioned room, John couldn’t understand why Agna cried into her pillow.
Agna had felt a kinship with these people from the first, seeing their existence as even more futile and isolated than her own. That was why she had been devastated days ago when White Sky told her that the others had gone to assist with Five Fingers’s burial. The native seemed surprised at her distress, saying only that Five Fingers had been here long enough, and now his time was done.
They sat in the shade of White Sky’s house, and Agna drank cold cave water from a blue-glazed cup the color of White Sky’s belly underneath the dust. No, the Dweller told her, Agna could not visit Five Fingers’s grave, since he would be buried deep inside the caves with all the others. Never before had Agna been so frustrated at her own size. For the thousandth time she looked over at the narrow cleft where the house’s wall joined the face of the cliff.
“So now there are only three,” she said softly.
White Sky flipped her trunk in negation. “No, there must be four.” Agna stared at her as she continued, “They will bring Two Rainbows with them when they return. He will be excited to meet you.”
It took several hours before she fully understood.
“No one stays too long in the Dry Valley,” White Sky explained. “Who would want to? But it is important work. Only the most responsible among us are trusted to keep watch over the buried ones. It is a great honor to be chosen.”
Agna fumbled in her memory for the day she had deduced the meaning for the word ‘buried.’ She would have to check her notes, but as she recalled, it literally meant something like ‘gone below the ground.’
She sipped water, trying to calm herself. “So, Two Rainbows will replace Five Fingers? Do his work?”
“Yes. They put him in the water days ago. After a good meal, he will be awake and strong enough.”
“White Sky—how many Dwellers are buried underneath the cliff?”
She blinked sleepily. “I have told you this before, my friend. All the people who lived in the houses of the city are buried, deep below the ground.”
“And someday—someday they will come back?”
“This I have also told you. When the rains come, and the valley is green again.”
Agna felt a fool. Their afterlife, described in such detail, was a season, not a dream.
“So you have seen it yourself—it is not just stories—”
“Have I not shown you the lake that is my home? So far I have lived two and sixty seasons, and always in the wet. This is the first time I have seen the Dry Valley. It is not comfortable—” she twitched her trunk—”but it is very interesting.”
No wonder the Dwellers had never wanted to hear about irrigation techniques, or other ways they could make their lives easier. It was only for a little while, after all. When their span of duty was done, they would retire underground and sleep the years away. They would return to their Green Valley, living happily in the lush interstices between the blocks of drought.
Agna sat silent for a while, twisting the cup handle in her fingers. The ceramic was fire-hardened, she had thought, and she had pitied the Dwellers for everything they had lost—even the knowledge of fire. Now she wondered if they had ever used fire. They hardly needed kilns for their clay when the whole valley periodically became one. Agna recalled John shaking his head in puzzlement, telling her about the pottery he’d uncovered, set out in long rows on a field of flat stone. New pieces, perhaps, waiting down through the years until their owners returned to claim them. Clay would bake hard after lifetimes in the sun.
How misguided the colonists must seem, with their forestation projects and climate-controlled housing. Just the fact that they had come from another place, Agna remembered, had been troubling to Five Fingers. “Did you not love your home? Could you not keep it beautiful?” It was the only time she ever saw him agitated, clenching his five trunk-tips tightly together.
Agna stayed in White Sky’s house and greeted Two Rainbows when he emerged in the evening. He was large for a Dweller, with a blue-gray belly and a mottled pattern on his smooth brown back. It was the first time she had seen one of the natives without a coating of dust. He was not as wrinkled as the others, they explained, since he had just come out of the water. Agna talked gravely with him and answered his questions as well she could, but behind her politeness she was distracted. She had begun to fear for the Dwellers.
The last few days had confirmed her fears. Her authority had never been great, and the settlement officials would not credit what they considered wild stories about thousands of Dwellers asleep under the cliffs.
“You’ve never seen them yourself, is that right?” an aide queried her. “These hibernating aliens?”
“Of course not; the tunnels are too small,” Agna said. “And actually, a better term would be ‘estivating’, since they do this during dry times. Please keep in mind that we are the aliens here.” Sadly, the diplomacy that served Agna well in her work seemed to disappear when she dealt with bureaucrats. She never even got as far as the Third Planning Director.
Worse still was John’s reaction. “We all know how hard it’s been for you, with Susannah gone,” he told her, stroking her hair. “All that new responsibility, and spending all day long with those creatures—well. I think you need to take a little rest. Come help out at the dig, maybe. We’re already planning the exhibits for the museum.”
No one noticed that Five Fingers had been replaced. To most humans the Dwellers looked pretty much alike.
As she looked down now at the Dwellers’ vacant city and the human settlement at the end of the valley, she knew that the Dwellers had also misunderstood the colonists. They were used to going into the ground when the waters had subsided, and emerging to find their world renewed. Just as the humans slept away the journey to this planet, they slept away the drought, traveling in time but not in space. For them, it was always springtime. They couldn’t conceive that they might wake one day to find their valley filled up with human farms and schools and factories, highways and Earthborn forests. Their four watchers guarded against rockfalls and vermin in the deep caverns, but no matter how she explained, they didn’t understand this new, unfamiliar danger.
Agna couldn’t stop herself from fingering the jeweled button of her phone. It had been easier than she thought to plant the charges—you could get away with a lot, when no one took you seriously.
Up the valley, the wall of the reservoir loomed like a closed eyelid against the blank blue sky. What would happen when it opened? Would there be enough pumped groundwater to flood the bottom of the valley? Enough to sweep the dust out of the Dwellers’ streets and reveal the mosaic-floored canals beneath, enough to restore White Sky’s lake? Enough to wake all the Dwellers, and Agna’s people too?
Her phone was shiny and brilliant even in the shade, like the glazed tile of the Dwellers’ homes. Soon Agna would speak the detonation command. But until then, she kept searching for rainclouds on the horizon.
Constance Cooper has worked as a journalist, balloon animal twister, linguistic researcher and software engineer. She has sold work to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Black Gate, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Mythic Delirium. Find out more about her writing at http://constance.bierner.org.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish