The day came when Amos walked out across the flats, and the brine pools were gone. He stopped and stared around him, through the thin slit in the fabric he had wrapped round his head to protect him from the sun. It was setting now, swollen and red, sinking towards a distant range of hills that marked where the oceans had once ended and the land begun. Even so the reflection and glare from the white crystals of halite beneath his feet was blinding, and he adjusted the thin strip of tinted Perspex that he used to protect his eyes. It was scratched and old. But it was better than nothing.
He turned and looked back towards the people, now merely a cluster of black specks in the distance. The mush of crystals crunched beneath his feet as he moved. There was still some moisture here, but that would soon be gone, leaving only a dry white crust and the bodies of the last few creatures, rotting in the sick red light of the dying sun.
There was nothing to stay here for, and Amos started the long walk back.
They had finished packing and started to move away as he arrived; all their belongings on a few old carts that the men pulled before them. The women and children straggled alongside. Amos fell into step beside them. The salt flats still shimmered in the heat of the evening. Soon it would cool.
Somewhere there had to be more pools, more water. But the pools had been getting further apart over the years, and whenever they found one the evaporation was further advanced. Amos ran his tongue over dry cracked lips. They tasted of salt, everything tasted of salt.
He quickened his step. The first of the moons was rising, its amber glow replacing the glare of the angry sun. It was full, enough light to see by. Tonight they would make good progress.
“I’ll scout on ahead,” he said. The man beside him nodded, but did not speak.
Amos strode out leaving the group trailing, a thin line of desperate people in the moonlight. He removed the cloth and home-made visor from his face. The warm breeze was refreshing, but his breathing was laboured in the stale air. He scanned the horizon as he walked, his eyes sharp, but it was the same as always, smooth, endless.
And then he paused and blinked and looked again. Had something moved? He stared hard, eyebrows furrowed, eyes straining until they hurt. There it was again. A light flickered, and then was gone.
Amos drew in a sharp breath and his pulse picked up speed. People? It was roughly in the direction they were heading. Maybe there was water there.
He slowed and let the rest of the group catch him up. Some of the older ones were struggling, weak and tired. A woman dropped to her knees as the others limped past. Amos paused, then, since no one else seemed to be bothered, he went to her side and knelt beside her in the crystalline sand. Her breath was shallow and rattled in her throat.
Amos pulled his water bottle out from beneath his robes and pulled the protective fabric back from her face. He blinked in surprise. She was young, but her eyes were sunken and lined from the struggle to survive. He held the bottle towards her.
“I can’t.” She shook her head. “It’s yours, you need it.”
“No, you need it more.” He pushed it between her lips, salt caked and cracked, and when she had drunk he helped her to her feet.
“Thank you,” she murmured, though her stride was uneven. Amos noticed for the first time the bulge of her stomach and sighed. This was going to be a slow journey.
He glanced towards the horizon but he didn’t see the light again. Perhaps he had imagined it and he licked the salt from his lips. The thirst ached inside him, but there were others in more need. Better not to mention the light—just in case.
But as the moon set and the dawn lit the sky with a pinkish glow Amos paused and stared, for there was something there.
The people had stopped walking now and were setting up their shelters; pools of shade on the desolate salt flats, the only protection from the heat of the day and the glare of the sun. But beyond them, rising up from plain, was a mountain. Amos squinted at it as the light around him brightened and the heat mirage began to blur its outline. That mountain had once been an island, and he sighed. They wouldn’t find water there. The only pools that remained were in the deepest parts of the ancient oceans that had once covered much of this world.
He didn’t know much about those times. He had only ever known the salt flats. But the women still told the stories to their children that he himself had heard as a child:
We came from the stars. One day those who brought us will come to take us back.
Amos had stopped believing it a long time ago.
He moved across to where two men had nearly finished their shelter and were making the final adjustments to the canopy.
They looked round at his approach.
“Do you see that,” one of them said nodding towards the horizon.
Amos nodded. “An old island. I’m going to take a look.”
“Why?” said the other. “We won’t find water where there once was land.”
“I know,” said Amos. He hesitated a moment, and then added. “I saw something last night.”
“Yes, I saw a light blink on and off. I think there might be people there.”
The two men exchanged glances.
“Perhaps you imagined it,” said one.
The other gestured towards the lightening horizon.
“You’ll only have a couple of hours before you have to shelter from the sun.”
“I know. I’ll catch you up tonight.”
Amos hoisted one of the lightweight portable shelters onto his back and picked up an extra water bottle. The woman he had helped was sitting on a rock gnawing on a strip of dried fish.
“Good luck,” she said as he passed. Amos didn’t answer her. He adjusted his perspex visor and fixed his gaze on the island ahead. If he walked fast he might just be able to make it before the heat became too intense. There might be better shelter there too.
His feet beat a steady rhythm on the crystal sand and he drank only when he had to. The island drew nearer and the heat was beginning to burn back at him off the bare rock as he started to climb the lower slopes.
He peered up at the land looming above, dark against the glare of the sick ochre sky. There was no sign of life, no sign of people. The heat was almost unbearable now. He had to stop.
He lowered his pack and drank deep, draining the first of his water bottles. Then he set to work setting up the awning, a pool of hot shade on this God-forsaken rock.
He worked hard and fast, and never heard them approach. When he looked up they were watching him, crouching on the rocks and boulders. They had him completely surrounded. He could only begin to guess at how long they had been sitting there and cursed his lack of caution. They were so still; figures shrouded in rags as he was. But from the set of their shoulders and the angle of their heads it was clear that their mood was hostile.
He straightened up and turned towards them, the sun beating down on the back of his head. His shelter was ready, the shade inviting. But not yet.
“Greetings,” he said, and stood waiting. They didn’t answer. Two of the figures nearest to him exchanged glances. Then one stood up, pushing back his robes. Amos swallowed hard. The man was armed, the barrel of a gun pointing at Amos’s chest. He glanced round the group. The others probably were too.
At last one of them spoke, the man who was nearest to him, the man who appeared to be in charge.
“Where are the rest of your clan?” he demanded, and his voice echoed off the cliffs above.
“There is only me,” Amos lied.
“No. Your kind is never alone. You are a scout. We ought to kill you.”
“Why?” Amos’s heart beat fast and his brain whirred, trying to think. These men were defending something. There was only one thing that could be. Water.
“Leave, now,” said the man.
Amos scowled, then gestured towards the shelter behind him. “Let me shelter from the sun. I’ll leave as evening approaches.”
The man snorted. “I think you’ll leave now.”
Two more of his companions rose to their feet and now three weapons were pointing at Amos. He turned to his shelter and reached to start dismantling it.
Amos looked round and the man was shaking his head. “Leave your shelter. You’ll have no need for it.”
“But I’ll die…” Amos faltered. That was what they wanted. He gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists. The weapons still pointed.
“Go,” said the man, and Amos began to move away, slow steps, glancing back as he went. The men stood ready, watching him. Amos fumed in silence. At least he still carried water, not that it would do him much good out on the salt flats. He would never make it back to the rest of his people, and his body would rot like the bodies of the last of the fishes as the brine pools evaporated around them. He ground his teeth and clenched and unclenched his fists.
“I will not die,” he muttered as he walked.
The heat was unbearable, and his body poured with sweat beneath his robes. His tongue seemed to swell in his mouth and he reached for his water. No. Make it last. He looked back towards the island. The strangers were lost in the heat mirage that blurred the salt flats into a shimmering haze.
And then he saw it; a lone figure drifting in and out of the heat haze. Following.
Of course. They weren’t going to leave things to chance. If the heat and the salt flats didn’t kill him first, this man would make sure that he never returned to his people.
He couldn’t blame them. What little they had they would kill to preserve. Anyone would.
But Amos wasn’t ready to die. Not from the desert heat or at this man’s hands. He turned and continued on his way, slowing his pace so that his pursuer drew nearer.
And then, passing through an area of boulders, he had his chance. He doubled back, crouching low behind the rocks, waiting.
The man came on, forgetting caution in his haste to get the job done and return to the shelter of his island. He didn’t want to be out here either.
Amos watched him approach, his breath shallow. His fingers closed on a jagged piece of rock jutting up amongst the crystals.
Amos waited until the man was almost on top of him—until he was passing by, and then he struck.
The rock thudded against the fabric that the man had wrapped around his face and head as protection from the sun, and the man stumbled sideways. Amos pressed forwards and stuck again, an upwards blow—rock against bearded chin, and a red blood splattered the crystal dust by his feet.
His moment’s advantage was short-lived though. The man sprang forwards with a roar of hurt and rage. His fists struck and Amos folded. Maybe this hadn’t been wise. Maybe he should have tried to outrun him.
The man’s hands were around his throat, choking his breath from him. His visor was knocked to the ground and he screwed up his eyes against the glare of the sun, as the man forced him back and down onto the salt crystal sands.
Not like this.
Amos wasn’t ready to die.
The rock, it was still there, still in his hand. He clasped his fingers round it, sweeping it up into the air. Then he brought his fist slamming down onto the man’s head. Hair ripped and flesh tore and the man fell sideways.
Amos coughed and rolled onto his hands and knees. His visor was near and he crawled to it, fumbling the tinted Perspex back over his eyes, and at last he could see properly. He could look around.
The man lay, blood seeping into a red stain on the white crystal sand from the hole in his skull. He was quite still and Amos knew at once that he was dead. He let out a slow breath and staggered to his feet.
The man had come to kill him—but maybe he had just saved Amos’s life.
There was a portable shelter strapped to his back. That was good. And a water canister over his shoulder. Even better.
Amos took the canister and unscrewed the lid, tipping back his head to let the water through his cracked lips and onto his tongue.
And he froze.
For he had never tasted such water in all his life. This water was sweet and clear. This water was pure. Water never tasted like this—however much they treated it to take out the salt from the brine, they never got rid of all the impurities—water was never so good.
Amos stared at the canister in his hands. Then he looked back towards the island.
With dusk Amos dismantled the shelter he had taken from the dead man—a man who’s body was already starting to stink after a day of being baked by the sun.
Amos wrinkled his nose and headed away, back across the salt flats.
It didn’t take long for him to find his people. They gathered around as Amos struggled to catch his breath.
“What did you find?” asked one.
“Water,” he said, as he unscrewed the lid on the water canister and passed it round for them to taste. They stared at him with wide eyes.
“But we’re going to have to fight for it,” he said.
The men nodded and Amos’s skin prickled with the tingle of excitement that comes before a battle. His men handed out stones for their slingshots without speaking. They were used to fighting. They’d had to drive a hostile clan away from the last pool they had stopped at. These days there was no room for compassion.
Amos sucked in the dry air between his teeth and looked back across the salt flats. The island loomed like a giant shadow in the moonlight. They would soon wonder why their friend hadn’t returned. There was no time to waste.
“Follow me,” he said, and started back.
The men and some of the women fell into step behind him, leaving the very young and the old and infirm huddled together in the night. They ran over the salt crust which broke and crunched beneath their feet, back towards the island, and followed Amos in silence over the rocks and boulders of the lower slopes. And there, above them, looking like a shadow in the moonlight, was a cave.
There was no sign of anyone waiting for them. Just silence and yellow moonlight. Amos crept forwards, towards the cavern, and the others hung back, letting him take the lead. This was too easy. They had to be here somewhere, watching. He swallowed at the thought of those guns.
And then the strangers showed themselves. They emerged from behind the rocks and bombarded them with stone projectiles.
Amos ducked as a fragment of stone splintered against the rock behind him, and lifted his slingshot to take aim. They were fighting with stones and rocks, just the same as his own clan were. Amos blinked. So their other weapons were useless, just for show.
He smiled. This was going to be a much fairer fight that he had expected.
He loosed off a shot and someone near the cave mouth fell with a grunt to lie still in the sand. Near him another man cried out in pain.
Amos straightened up to stand tall among the boulders.
“Forwards,” he shouted and his heart thudded at the sound of movement behind him as his men followed. The men on the cliffs above fell back into the caves, still throwing the occasional rock down. But nothing could stop the charge of Amos and his people.
The battle was already as good as won. Amos pressed forward their advantage, leading his men into the caves.
They were waiting for them though, and their counter attack came out of nowhere. One moment Amos was running, and the next someone had jumped him. His feet vanished from underneath him and he rolled over in the dust, his assailant with him, a tangle of limbs and rage; the same man who had tried to send him out into the salt flats to his death, the man who was clearly the leader of this clan. Fists pounded his face and Amos lashed back, striking the man a firm blow on the jaw that knocked him back.
But the counter attack was quick. Amos ducked a vicious blow that left his assailant off balance—just for an instant, but that was enough. He sprang and grabbed him around his thighs bringing him down, head smashing against the cavern wall.
Amos stood up and kicked the prone body which groaned once and then lay still. He looked around. Men were still fighting, tussling in small knots. And then a figure ran forwards into their midst, a young boy, thin and pale.
He ran over to the man lying at Amos’s feet and cradled his head in his arms.
Amos turned to the boy. “We only want water. We only want to survive, the same as you.”
Amos’s people now had control, more bodies lying in the sand, and others, prisoners, struggling in their clasp. But their fight was gone. Their leader was dead.
“So where is your water?” Amos asked.
The boy looked up at him, face smeared with dirt and tears.
“It’s a borehole. It pumps the water up from the depths beneath the planet’s crust to the surface to irrigate the fields.”
“Fields,” Amos heard someone murmur behind him and he lifted one hand for silence. Could there really be fields? The fighting was stopping, people listening. Amos knew what they were all thinking.
“Is there much water then?”
The boy nodded.
More people were emerging into the chamber now, women and children. They inched towards the figures on the sand and started to tend to their injured.
“Show me these fields,” Amos said to the boy, and reached out a hand to help him to his feet. The boy nodded. Amos signalled for two of his comrades to join them, and followed the boy into more tunnels, hewn rock, in some places lined with concrete and steel, taking flaming brands from the alcoves in the rock to light their way.
“What was this place?” one of Amos’s companions asked.
“It was built by the people who brought our ancestors here,” the boy replied. His feet rattled on metal stairs as they climbed ever higher.
“From the stars?” Amos asked. “It’s an old legend. I’ve never really believed it though.”
The boy shrugged and led the way along a wide corridor.
“Can they come and take us away then?” his companion asked.
The boy laughed. “I don’t think they’ll ever do that.” He paused. “I’ll show you.”
Ahead was an open doorway and beyond it the moonlight and stars. Amos guessed that it led to the surface and fields. But the boy was pointing down one of the side passages. It was in shadow but the boy moved towards it, holding his torch high, the flame casting flickering shadows across the walls.
Amos followed, peering into the gloom.
The end of the corridor was screened with metal bars, broken and bent, and the boy pushed between them. Amos hesitated a moment, then slipped through after him. Along the corridor were doorways, each leading into a tiny room.
“This is where our ancestors were kept. This is where they were brought to stay,” the boy explained.
Amos looked closer at the tiny cells. The doors were broken. More bars, more metal—signs of scorching—a fight—a breakout.
“The fields are this way,” said the boy.
The boy led them up towards the light, and the stars that would for ever be beyond reach. For their prison was now an entire planet and their bars were the rays of that dying sun.