At the border of Basin and desert, I pass through a graveyard, burial ground for the teak jungle that thrived here. Branches of trees long since buried by sand reach out at me, scratching with skeletal fingers the high cotton socks that cover my ankles. The closer to the waystation I come, the more alive they seem, emerging from desert bit by bit. First only the gnarled tree-tops are visible, thin branches that, once burdened by green, are now only a desolate brown, fitting color for the death around them. Then trunks scrabble into view, hollow yet proud things. Eventually whole corpses become evident, the remains of what must once have been a lush, well-forested area, choked with life and dense vegetation.
No more, such places on this Earth have long been scarce.
I stop for a moment, unshoulder my pack, stuffed with a burden that might stoop a lesser man. Removing the canteen, I shake it to check the fullness. Almost empty as I suspected. The sun, unforgiving, glares down at me and I curse it back—silently, of course, I do not have the spit to spare. My mouth feels as dry as my brow does wet beneath fine, absorbent fabric. I must address both situations before continuing my journey. It would not do to enter Kong’o Waystation half-crazed with thirst and drenched in moisture many would kill for. One needs one’s wits in such a place. Who knows how the rules have changed, or what surprises might await me therein?
I remove the reservoir from my pack, one of my few blessings, and place it on the sand. Standing over its open mouth, I unbutton my canvas pants and jerkin, stripping to the reclamation suit beneath. The long tube of my reservoir I hook to a tabbed opening in the suit, and I feel the suction cooling my skin, the sweat and the heat with it sucked away into the reservoir's filtrating depths. I fumble with the opening at the suit's waist and, uncorking another opening in the machine, relieve myself into the filters. The craft dines on thick, yellow soup; it whirrs, hums and shakes as it goes about cleaning the water I have reclaimed, making it fit once more to drink.
That necessary work done, I assemble a small tent to shade me from the heat and lie naked in the cool shadow, eyes closed. I must rest before approaching the waystation, before the deathly business of trading can begin. Voicelessly I mouth the names, drifting through my sins into sleep.
Alas, rest is not to be. Survival in the desert-Earth requires many skills. Chief among them the ability to discern between the random shifts in the sand, stirred by wind or entropy, and an intruder's attempts to mask their footsteps as they sneak up on the unsuspecting to rob them of riches—chiefly, their scrap and their water. The human body contains on average 1.5 gallons of blood. Enough to last one man a week if he stretches. Combine that with the water you recoup from sweat and waste, one murder can buy you up to a month of life.
In these times, only fools refuse to take precautions against the desperate human thirst.
I let him approach, I can tell by my would-be killer's footfalls that he is male, and large, and driven mad by the desert-heat. He is sloppy, too sloppy, not only can I hear his feet as he stumbles towards me, but I can hear the sub-vocal mutterings, barely coherent. The man works himself into frenzy.
Still I do not move.
Eyes shut, I hear the tent's flap pushed aside, and the brute breathes loudly over me. I know he is unimpressed by what he sees. A slight, naked aged man, skin wrinkled and dry, greying hair shorn down to the roots, revealing a burned and scarred scalp. What he does not notice is the danger, the whipcord sinew of muscle running up my arms and legs, hidden strength earned in decades of hard-living and sacrifice. And his end: the blade hidden between my palm and the ground, its blade slick with a solution distilled from Devil's Helmet—though the apothecary insisted on calling it Aconitum, a flowery name fit for a deadly flower.
Small knife in hand, I lie still. I hold my breath and I wait.
The man he creeps closer, shaking and trembling. Probably suffering withdrawal from some opioid in addition to his thirst. Our bleak world drives all men to seek self-destruction in all its wondrous forms.
This here is my addiction.
He leans yet closer, slowly, hoping not to wake me from false slumber. I can feel his breath, but still I wait. He reaches toward me, fist closed around some large scimitar, an unwieldly weapon for such close quarters. Likely he hopes to menace me up and out of the tent, before leading me back to his own scrap of desert where I can be properly drained.
He picked to prey upon the wrong helpless old man.
He nudges my side with a bare, calcified foot. Point of his blade aimed wavering at my throat.
"You, ol' mayne, get up and folla if you wan-"
My blade does not wait for him to finish before it strikes, I roll quickly, away from his sword and towards his tree-trunk legs. Lithe in my fingers she bites him, a shallow cut on the ankle. The countdown begins.
He roars with inchoate rage, probably more at being defied than any pain he might feel. I use the brief reprieve this grants me to take to my feet. I do not leave the tent, so exposed that would waste too much of my moisture.
“Now why’d y’have to go and do that?” He lumbers towards me, scimitar dragging in the sand. Suddenly, I am incredibly aware of how small this tent, what an eternity five seconds can be. Quickness can only get me so far.
I dance just outside the reach of another swing. “Yer quick ol’ mayne. How quick?” The dark look in his eyes, the look of madness, tells me that he cares not about my water any more. He will spill my blood wasted into the sand given the chance.
He swings again, more sluggish this time. I smile, the paralytic works fast. “I’m quick enough for you, young buck.”
The change comes in an instant, every muscle in the killer’s body ripples, spasms and then goes rigid. He falls to the ground face down, stiffer than the wooden graves around us. I squat down on top of his back, standing on its still shuddering strength.
“Now, is that anyway to treat your elders? Disturbing ‘em while they sleep? Waving blades around, tearing up their personal property?” My tent flaps uselessly in the desert wind, torn to canvas shreds. Both us of exposed to the unforgiving sun. I wave my hands around me, indicating the destruction.
“I shall have to spend some of my hard-earned coin repairing or replacing this now.”
Eyes wide, he works his jaw uselessly, but no words
“What am I to do with you, eh? Teach you a lesson you won’t forget?” My tongue rubs against my chapped lips like sandpaper. I drag him by the legs from our brief encounter’s wreckage, conscious of the sweat that reappears on my brow, dripping from my naked flesh lost onto the sizzling sand. We come to a sturdy looking tree, where I leave him and hobble back to my pack. I wince. Those brief seconds took more from me than I like to admit.
I return, dragging a length of rope and my reservoir, sloshing, to the hanging ground. “When you come for a man’s water, you also hazard your own.” I tie the rope around his still twitching legs. “To the victor goes the spoils, eh? As close as lives like ours come to fairness.”
The other end of the rope goes up over a thick branch. I hoist him up. He dangles, lips swollen, eyes bulging as he faces the fate that awaits him. The begging will come. It always does.
“Puh-p-pleez,” He speaks, slow and slurred, the paralytic must be wearing off. I need to work fast. “Mer… merc-”
I would laugh if I had time. “Ah… mercy? Would you have granted me mercy, had I begged? I think not, each choice digs another shovelful from our graves. Yours-” I unhook the suction tube from the reservoir and hunch down before the swaying, breathing watersac.
“Oh, what’s your name, by the by?”
“Hobarth,” I commit his name and face to memory, add his to my list of sins, one of many souls I will atone for when my time comes. “Mine is Jethro. Nice to have met you.”
His eyes bug even wider at that name. Most in the region know it, most fear… or revere it.
“Seeker. O Gawd, it is you. I shoulda known… had I only kn-“
My blade bites into his carotid, and with the other hand, I press the tube to the open wound. No water lost. The reservoir whirrs and sucks loudly as it must accommodate the sudden intake of moisture. I smile.
“You ‘shoulda’ known, but you didn’t. And now here we are.” My eyes go soft as he quickly stops thrashing about, dangling ever stiller from the tree. The branch trembles, sheds cracked bark, but does not break.
The light fades from his eyes, but I trace the curve of his square jaw lovingly, hold the gaze of his dark, angry eyes until they see no more. Only just now noticing how firm and full his frame was. Such a pity, under different circumstances…
“Sleep well Hobarth. Go and know your death was not in vain. No more than anyone else’s at least.”
Pulling the straw from the res, I suck deeply of water tasting slightly of copper and ammonia. Still, it is cool and quenching and… delicious.
The sun creeps across the sky, falling beneath the dunes. The world turns cool. I pack up my tattered tent, my reservoir, my poisoned blade and dress again for my journey. The waystation is near, I intend to get there before sunrise.
I walk further into the copse of corpses. Muttering a long litany to pass the time. The names, always the names.
“Hobarth, for his moisture. Jean in self-defense. Rochelle, for her moisture. Hyman, for his artifacts. Roy, for his-”
Hours later, the waystation looms in the distance. Light begins to threaten in the distance, dark crimson and pink on the horizon, though still I walk in darkness. The names continue. It has been a long life, filled with much sinning. And still I have yet to atone.
Their faces… I remember them all.