The Creeping Desert
When I am a long way from the prison, though I can still see it, I can’t stop myself celebrating. “I’m out, out, out! Yes! I’m out!”
Capering on Lotor’s wide desert sands in my double slippers, I enjoy the night sky. At totem school I learned that Earth has a large natural satellite called the Moon. At night the Moon reflects the light of that system’s central star called the Sun.
Here on Lotor, the exploded superstar Procyon-A rules the night hours and so the desert sands are dark red. Some people think that whoever once lived on Moera, that star’s only planet, were Lotor’s first settlers. Others think that the Moeran people built Lotor.
How far have I come? The distance to walk is fifty kilometers. When my average speed might be four kilometers an hour that could take me twelve and a half hours. I look back. There’s a lump of rock on the horizon darker than night that I don’t recall passing. I’m disappointed that the prison still seems so near.
Speed when slide-footing in double slippers? What am I thinking? I’m starting to get quite thirsty. Later I’ll have water. When I catch up with the ones I’m going to catch up with. I don’t think as far as the other possibility though it lurks in my mind.
I look back again. Wait. What was that? I swear I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye. Darker than night. I blink. There’s nothing.
I’m slow. What if the ones I’m catching up to, leave before I get there? Stop looking back. I look at the slip-sliding tracks I’m leaving behind. No wonder I’m making hardly any progress.
I step out of the slippers straight into the high-stepping gait. Right away I feel the sand begin to engulf me. I pick up the slippers. I’ll probably need them again.
The sand covers my feet with prickling with every step I take, and doesn’t fall off when I raise my feet at the end of a pace. The sand seems hungrier than the creep back in the black cell.
I stop. After divesting my left foot by wiping down it with my hand, I step back into that slipper. Wipe my wrist and hand with my other hand. My right leg in the meantime is covered to the knee. Off! Get off me! Slip-sliding it must be.
Can’t stop yawning. If I had a staff I would lean on it and fall asleep between two steps. My jaws crack and my eyes water. My eyelids want to fall shut. I sleep for two paces and dream. That darker-than-night thing follows me still. Shock! I almost fall!
I jerk awake. Manage not to fall. Slip-slide. Slip-slide. It will be useless to peer back to look for the thing. It’s a dream, right?
Open wide! My eyes. I stare forward. I want to run. I slow. I sleep. I dream. A crack opens down the darker-than-dark thing’s chest. A man climbs out and rolls up a suit, stows it in his backpack. It’s Simmon. Pale skin flakes flutter from his forearm. He’s following me.
I fall over, wake before I hit the sand. I jump up! Twirl and shake. Wipe! Down my arms. Wipe! Down my legs. High-step. Wipe my chest. My back! Get off me!
Slip-slide. Open wide! Smile, grin, be a clown. Think, think, think of a way to stay awake! And I need to stay ahead of Simmon. I don’t dare to look back.
Telling myself Soowei’s story should keep me awake. I know it so well I’ll be able to attend to my walking too. So, start. I take a deep breath.
“Soowei, as I understand it, was the child of the Captain then. They were of the first generation of settlers, dropped off on Lotor by the Ark-Ship. My father, telling me the tale, never gave him a name. “Don’t interrupt,” he said. “I have no time. The First Captain had no totem to teach his child. It was before the totem system, before the shaman schooling. Before we had any idea that we might need to hide what we were about.
“Soowei ran up the uneven blocky stairs to her father’s rooms. When she’d been a four- year-old making her pronouncements, he’d got a job as night watchman over the food stores. The rooms came with the job—daytime jobs only got you a place in one of the dorms. He taught her to never tell anyone her dreams but him, and only up there in their little rooms.
“She twisted with the stairs. They were so narrow that her satchel swung over the drop. She slept in the dorms now, but still joined him for her evening meals. For her birthdays, Father always cooked up something special. She was sixteen today and her mouth filled with saliva, anticipating what he had made. She’d wait with telling him the dream. Or she mightn’t tell him at all.
“Because how should you tell your own father that you saw him die? Her heart galumphed again, thinking of it. She almost tripped. The open, un-protected side of the stairs yawned to the dark ground below. She clung to the outer wall. There was no balustrade, which was one of Father’s ways of discouraging visitors.
“She knocked, and lifted the door a couple of centimeters to swing it open. The door forever sticking on the floor was another discouragement. “Hey,” she said, sniffing for the birthday treat. Tea towel covered dishes stood on the kitchen bench. Chicken curry? She hung her satchel on the hook by the door.
“Come and sit down,” her father said. “Opposite me.”
The chairs faced each other along a longer side of the table. First aid paraphernalia was laid out on the place-mats. She saw it all at a glance. Two tourniquets. Two sets of bandaging. Two needles threaded. Two scalpels. A cloth and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. She felt the blood leaving her face. “What are we doing?”
“The thing we need to do before we celebrate,” he said. “The thing I’ve got no words for. First I have to hurt myself. Then I have to hurt you. You know I love you. My own little girl despite that the planet owns you.”
He didn’t sound sober. She glanced about, searching the various shelves for the liquor he might be sipping.
Then she noticed the glass by his elbow. Clear liquid. The rubbing alcohol? “What’s with the grog?” she said.
“Crutch. Helping to steel myself for what I need to do.”
He’d treated her as an adult from the minute she’d spoken the first of her other-wordly judgments. That’s what he called them, judgments. As if she made them happen.
She’d told him that Steed Gulle would break his back in a fortnight. It was before she could count. She’d named the days on her fingers … Monday again, Tuesday again … The same week she dreamed that Bessit Brown was growing a lump in her belly, not a baby.
She’d been twelve before she found a different name for them, if not where they came from before she knew them. Fore-tellings. They came from her unconscious awareness and who put such thoughts into that part of her? “So maybe you should stop drinking now so you’ll still be able to cut straight?” she said. “I’m going by the presence of the scalpels,” she said to his eyes searching her soul.
He slumped. “Yeah. All right.”
“Tell me why?” she said. “Why we’re doing this, and why now?”
“You’re leaving,” she said. Which was the first part of the dream. “You haven’t told me everything yet, the things that I might be able to use to survive. Maybe do something with my life other than being in the thrall of the planet.”
“You dreamed it? And then thought it through?” He sounded surprised. They normally analyzed the dreams together.
“No one sleeps next to me in the dorm,” Soowei said. “No one will work alongside me. People are afraid of me. The only reason they don’t stone me is because you have power over their food. Why would I stay when you leave?”
He grunted agreement. “That’s my girl. Your mother and I were the first to jump from the ship-to-surface-lander. We lay down and made love. Yes, I would call it that even though we did it to win a bet. Pregnant from day one, who would’ve believed that?”
He shook his head at the long-ago mystery. “After we discovered how alive the planet is and how resistant to us settling on it, I was afraid for you. I’ve missed your mother more than I can say.”
“Sixteen years,” Soowei said.
“I only knew her for a year. You are feisty the way she was. I was her anchor like I’ve been your anchor.”
He gathered in his voice, though the walls were thicker than a hand’s length and no one else lived on this level. “Something is coming that I can’t save you from. The town committee got the news yesterday and are crying and weeping. A lot of them in the same situation as me, kids in the nominated age group.”
“What?” Soowei said.
He didn’t listen or didn’t hear. Didn’t even look at her. “All I can do is give you my chip. Make you known to the ship and so maximize your chances of surviving. Why it’s got to be done now! Before the announcement.”
“Surviving what?” She joggled his arm. “What?”
He still didn’t say though he stared at her now. “The planet has ordered a round-up.”
“Lotor has ordered? How?” She heard herself being strident. Everything to do with the planet was important to her. How would she ever be her own person when she still didn’t know what Lotor could do to her?
“Her father got that severe expression on his face. His face was made for stern. Grey eyes. Grey stubble. Lank, uncared-for grey hair. “We know the planet can influence humans, because of you. There must be others. Someone who listens.” All her life he had sheltered her from the planet in every way he could think up.
Soowei stepped off a path sometimes, testing Lotor. The creep or whatever grew in that place always lay down quiescent before her, telling her that Lotor still knew Soowei.”
Slip slide, slip slide. My eyes feel so grainy I can barely see.
Keep at it. Each of my feet is in the air fifty percent of the time. My robe drags behind me, giving free rides to the sand. More and more collects at the frayed edge. I think I thought I could spread it on the sand to sleep on, but now I don’t dare.
The prison isn’t visible now even when I am up on a dune. That’s progress, isn’t it? I was going to stop looking behind me. Keep going with Soowei.
“Soowei made herself ask the next thing. “What’s a round-up?”
Her father frowned. “It’s all the towns sending all individuals of a certain age group to a certain place. They are never seen again. Even the guards that look after them aren’t heard of again. The planet tells its lackey to tell us that we are outstripping our resources.” He swallowed. “This time it is all young people aged fourteen to eighteen.”
Soowei perched on the edge of her chair. When had she risen? She felt faint. “We’re such a little population. Eight villages. If they are never heard of again it means they are killed, doesn’t it?”
During one part of the nightmare she’d felt herself in a frightened crowd, a claustrophobic crush. A reddish glow hung over them. People coughed as though the glow had dust in it. “I think the planet has been waiting to catch me.”
“Hush a bye baby,” he said. “A dream?” He held out one of the tourniquets. Showed her the place to tie it on his arm. Swabbed his arm with the rubbing alcohol.
“Nightmare,” she said.
“Tighter.” He handed her a table knife to slide under the bandage and twist it, to help restrict the blood flow. He took up a scalpel. Sliced into his arm below the constriction. Dropped the blade and gripped the wound together. “Ah!” He grimaced pursed-lipped.
Soowei swallowed. She wouldn’t feel faint. She wouldn’t feel faint. Her father prodded in his wound. The edges bled despite the tourniquet.
He laid the chip onto the bit of alcohol-sodden swab. Took up the needle. “Help me with this? With that?” He glanced toward his pocket-knife. He poked a hole into his flesh, into the opposite side of the cut. Drew the edges together with a knot. “Now.”
She pinched the thread together and inserted the knife tip. Pulled. Snap. Three times. Three stitches.
“Bandage,” he said.
She wound it round his arm. Firmly. It turned red straightaway he released the tourniquet. “It’ll do for now,” he said. He picked up the second tourniquet. “Roll up your sleeve, Petal.”
She would never again hear him calling her by his nickname for her. If she cried she would be lost as well. She clenched her teeth against the sting of the blade. Looked away from her blood flowing.
Her father shoved something into the wound. The chip. It felt as big as a groat pea.
The sewing was almost unbearable. Five stitches. Ten holes. She was crying now. “More stitches than you got.” As if he hadn’t sewed himself up. She laughed, blubbering.
He slathered alcohol over the wound.
She managed to not cry out.
“There.” He’d bandaged her without her noticing. “Wrap the tourniquet over mine? Better not leave a trail.”
She knew exactly what he meant. Leave a blood trail and the planet will have you. “What will you do?” She asked him, dry-mouthed. Whatever he did, she already knew how it would end.
He wedged the scalpels and the needles in the wall. Places that he years ago had carved into the soft cement. “Chicken curry,” he said. “Your favorite.” Set the bowl in front of her. Put the spoon in her hand as if she was three again.
She laughed. It meant he’d shaped the tofu mix into little chickens. The only way he’d got her to eat the eternal tofu. Their town had six hens. They were far too precious to eat. The hens laid four eggs a day and Soowei had eaten approximately one egg in her life so far. Everyone was on the list.
“Got the satchel? Yes,” he answered himself, fetching it to the table.
She frowned. “You knew a long time ago this was going to happen? When you told me to take the satchel everywhere I went, to get people accustomed?”
“Ben Cloff takes size eight boots,” he said. “Take them. The planet shouldn’t know you among the rest.”
He never called the planet by the name the settlers picked for it. Glade. He figured it would have its own name for itself. Anyway it was wishful thinking they’d ever turn it into a glade.
“My leather gloves.” He put them in the satchel. “Same as the boots. Good for climbing the mountain. The flying horses live at the top. Could be they’ll help you. Food.” He put in three thick carrots and a round turnip. “Ben Cloff again, good gardener.” Last he put in his pocket-knife.
She made a sound of disagreement.
“I won’t need it again. I won’t be leaving the town. That way neither the town nor the planet will know what I did. The committee will shortly make the announcement and everyone will suddenly be busy dealing with that. You should go now, Soowei.”
He rose and she rose. He rolled down her sleeve. He hugged her hugging him. A big sob escaped her.
“Remember how much I love you, Soowei. And how much your mother loved you. If she hadn’t wrapped you in her shawl, the only thing not blood-stained, the planet might have taken you too. You lay in a little nest she made in the grasses. Go now, Soowei, my child of the swaying grasses.”