How We Survived – Water (Nano 2016, Chapter 7)

A low wind blew the loose sand around the camp, sweeping it across the corrugated iron walls of Abel’s shack. His cough rattled loosely as he sat bolt upright, attempting to recall the last time he’d had a drink of clear water.

“Tank”, he rasped at the other side of the room, “Tank, get up.”

Something massive stirred in its cot, but didn’t rise. Abel threw a dented hubcap at the cot, but ended up just knocking over a can of rusty nails. He gave up on rousting Tank, wrapped himself in something that approximated clothes and stepped outside into the breeze. He stared out at what he figured would soon be the rising sun and walked away from the beaten camp to find a latrine. He snatched a small folding shovel from his bike in case he didn’t find one. You always had to bury it; you didn’t want to alert the flying insects to your presence for any reason. He pondered as he squatted that even though there wasn’t a lot of eating on them, if you got enough insects together you could get a decent handful of protein. He buried it anyway; there would be better ways to eat today.

Tank stomped out of the tiny hut as Abel was checking the workings of his motorcycle. Tank lumbered over to his own, substantially larger, monowheel and dug in his belongings for a canteen of something that passed for water. The water in the badlands was scarce, and tasted terrible at the best of times. Badland kids were ruined for life if they ever got their hands on fresh rainwater; they’d realize just how bad they had it. The water in Tank’s canteen was so full of metals that it almost rusted in his stomach as it sat there like cooling slag. He whipped the canteen to Abel who caught it without turning around. Abel paused before drinking; he needed to steel himself for the unpleasantness.

“Where today Abel?” said Tank.

Abel glanced at the dim glow on the horizon and turned around to recline against  his bike. Just like every day, they’d pick a direction and ride in search of food, fuel, water, parts… anything they could trade, work or barter for. Or steal. Despite his gargantuan size Tank was a good thief; surprisingly good.

“How does East sound” mumbled Abel. Tank consulted with his mental mapping.

“State line is east. Lordsburg might still be standing. Heard a few months ago that it was” Tank said as he glanced at the mountain to the Northwest.

“Did those crackpots ever dome the place by themselves? You think fine gentlemen such as us would have a place in their high society?” asked Abel while gesticulating with a greasy ring spanner.

“When have we ever been refused entry to anything?” responded Tank.

Abel stretched his left leg and felt the twinge of a long healed bullet wound tense up,  snaring his shin and foot. Tank had never been refused anything because most people were too scared to say anything to a man that was verging on ten feet tall. Tank started to prime his engine and Abel took the hint.

There was no point trying to hide anything, or lock anything up at the camp; this was a nomad camp that happened to be empty. Anyone riding around the badlands would spend a night there, maybe two, and then head along. Anyone that actually wanted to get inside could probably just grab the bottom of the wall and tip any of the shacks over. Abel had spent a lot of time in camps like these, and each was as bad as the last.

The idling of Tank’s engine didn’t help Abel concentrate on his pre-start checks. Abel took a little longer to start his bike. It was a leftover from before The Choke and it was crammed full of all kinds of gizmos. Even after a few years of practice it still took Abel a minute or two to fire up the anti-gravity, to make sure that the circuitry hadn’t shorted out again, and to check that everything was getting fed with the myriad of fluids required to keep everything in equilibrium.

Tank started off slowly without Abel; he knew he’d catch up. Tank loved the simplicity of his monowheel. The engine sat inside two former truck tyres, and the front-mounted platform had a seat on it and two levers. A smaller platform extended from the back with the rest of Tank’s life on it. If you didn’t own property you’d better get used to living light and moving fast. Nobody had claim over the badlands, much less packets of land within it. Out here to be stationary was to be vulnerable.

Three minutes later Abel’s bike caught up and they accelerated in unison to Tank’s top speed. Abel’s bike had the potential to be much faster, mainly because it didn’t have to contend with the rocky ground. He buzzed over sand traps, he trimmed dead vegetation, he soared. The bike was very out of place for this kind of country. It had likely been some rich man’s toy in one of the cities. Abel could picture a smug city dweller polishing the chrome, waxing the paint, putting on his nicest clothes and driving this machine at less than 10 kilometers per hour around smooth paved streets. The continued survival of this bike with the strength of spun glass was either incredible luck, or a testament to the build quality of pre-choke technology. Abel tried to treat it well, but half of it could be powered by faith and magic for all he knew.

It rapidly became apparent that it was going to be an inhumanely hot day in the desert. The rising shimmers would be punishing by noon, and it would take until at least then to reach Lordsburg. Hopefully there’d be fuel in Lordsburg; otherwise they’d have pretty much wasted the journey. Most of the smaller towns had disbanded, been absorbed by the large domed cities, or become bastions of lawlessness; Tank’s kind of territory.

Tank had once been idolized. He’d been somewhat of a travelling celebrity. As far as anyone knew he was the only Siberian giant this far west, and in all likelihood he was the only one in the country. He had been given the best of everything, and for years he had been content with the easy life: the women, the alcohol, the cigarettes, the real meat and the fresh vegetables. About two years ago he had realized that the whole thing was a joke. He couldn’t walk down the street without being gawked at or without facing the same dumb questions. He has once gotten into a bar fight with a man with something to prove. The other patrons in the bar dragged the aggressor away and threw themselves at his knees. They thought him a monster that would destroy them all if given half a chance. As if he were some one man army just waiting for an excuse.  And while that may have been true Tank didn’t want an easy target. Given his renown, influence and sheer size he could have become king of any domed city in the hemisphere. He was in the badlands to prove to himself that he possessed some truer power.

Abel had nothing to prove to anyone. He’d left his home town, found a bike out in the wilderness and rode it ever since. It had taken him a long time to figure out just how everything worked, and he was quite pleased at his self taught expertise. Nobody would ever be able to steal his bike because it would be so incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with it. Anyone observing it would notice one thing immediately – it didn’t have any wheels. The technology contained in this formerly shiny toy would be alien to even the best mechanics. Only Abel could make it run. Abel pulled ahead and gestured to Tank with his arm out and palm down. As Abel’s bike wound down it dropped onto the ground and the circuits buzzed quietly, then ceased. Without saying a word Tank threw his canteen of wretched water to Abel, who began saturating a piece of fabric with the lukewarm swill to wrap around his head. Anything that could abate the heat had to be applied without delay. Small decisions could mean surviving, or being scorched to bones out here.

Tank took the opportunity to hop off his platform and inspect his brakes. It was hard enough to pilot this cobbled together beast without having to worry about the bike launching end over end when you tried to come to a stop. It wouldn’t be the first time that it had happened, so Tank had become very wary of the sensitivity involved. He couldn’t even imagine maintaining Abel’s dinosaur-nightmare. There was more technology in that machine than in many of the midsized towns that dotted areas between the domes. A quick upwards nod set them off again after Abel had warmed up the tubes and circuits. His damp rag idea only lasted him a few miles, but he had learned to cherish even the minor victories. Victories like “ate today”, “drank fresh water” or even “didn’t get stabbed in my sleep” were enough to keep him ticking along quite happily for at least a few days. The barren plains had worn on him for long enough, and he was looking forward to spending at least a little time in a town. Sometimes they had beds, and even showers.

Water was scarce, but a town without a well, or a stream would certainly be abandoned quickly, especially at this time of year. Only the incredibly hardy or the amazingly stupid would live in a water free town. Tank’s mouth was drier than chalk and he became more and more aware of it the closer they came to town. He’d heard rumors that Lordsburg was trying to dome itself independent of the cities and unions. It was a substantial task, even for a town that was abundant in resources, which Lordsburg likely wasn’t. He hoped they were still building because without money or anything decent to trade all they could hope to offer on arrival was labour. The kilometers rolled on, and after no small share of difficulties they saw Lordsburg appear through the noon heat haze. A rickety wood and metal skeleton hung over the town, partially wrapped in a patchwork of old plastic and sheet metal. Its unnatural nature told them that people still lived here, and worked here. But Tank and Abel only had one thing on their minds presently.

Please let there be water and fuel. Doesn’t even have to be good water. Just let there be water. One glass will do.

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