The air here is a water thief

It’s August and the best time of day is dawn. The shadow of night brings the temperatures down almost into the seventies in the desert, past the edge of the sprawl, past the abandoned spread of too many people and too little water. The skyline glows in anticipation of the day and the night creatures make their way deep into the earth, under the dirt, beneath the desiccated sage and dead creosote. I’ll only get to stay for a little while, when the sun fills a full circle and paints Newman Peak in harsh golden light. That’s when the heat rises, the winds rushes out, and the air here becomes a water thief. I’ll stay as long as I can, but the process is quick, and I’ll cover my face, my dark hair tied back and my blue eyes covered in dark goggles and creep down into the airlock, into artificial caves, into the cool earth below.

But now there are are still a million stars fighting against the glow on the horizon so I have time to think on them. I think about what those places must be like, where so many humans have escaped to. My family has lived in this valley for generations, from a time when long swaths of green were watered by open sprayers, great spouts of artificial rain. Such a wasteful luxury, such a wondrous time. But I do have a cousin out there I’m told. My father’s sister escaped this desert to live among the ice freighters. It was a touchy time, she even changed her name to simply Jane. Not Janet Obispo as she was born, just Jane. She even visited once and brought my cousin, but I was too young to remember much, just a small blonde girl with eyes like mine. She marveled at the sunrise as I marvel at it now, though I’d watched it a thousand times and it was her first time seeing anything like it. I’m told we played well together, but the time was short.

Jane died. That’s how that story ended. But every once in awhile we got word of the goings on in my cousin’s world. Just recently I saw a report that she was now the governor of Enceladus Station, a settlement orbiting an Ice covered world, a marvelous thing. I understand why Jane left. If I were a braver man I’d follow her example but I have so many responsibilities here, there are so many things to do. Why change where I’m needed?

I turn to give a brief glance to the northwest. There’s a mound of light there intruding on the sky. Phoenix. The great city that rose again after the mass migrations away from the thirsty city. Most everything now is underground, and what just out from ground-level is for show or is enclosed in air-conditioned buildings. But most of the life there has become nocturnal, covering up and going to sleep as the sun creeps overhead. In the winter there are ephemeral gardens and even open air golf courses erected shortly after Autumn delivers the first tolerable temperatures, but it all wraps up again by April. I don’t like it there. There’s too much waste, too many people oblivious to the satisfaction of living lean.

A bright flash catches the corner of my eye. A ball of fire is falling. A streak out of the southern sky points towards the desert in front of me and I cover my eyes as the line completes in a great cloud of flame not three hundred meters in front of me. I can’t tell what it was that crashed but the flames are catching the dry shrubs and the flames are spreading towards me. A brush fire like this could blow out into to the farm and damage the solar panels there. Worse, the smoke will clog our air scrubbers and if too much brush is cleared then the haboobs this summer will be worse than ever. I glance at Newman Peak and the sun is a glaring sliver cresting the brown-grey mountain. I’ll have to move fast.

I dive into the airlock and sound the alarm, heading towards the garage without a moments notice. There’s a truck there with a CO2 fire suppressor tank and I take the keys. I’m not normally authorized to operate this thing alone but there’s no time to wait. There’s a spare environment suit in the back in case I get stranded and at least a day’s worth of water in the emergency kit. I’ll be fine.

Within minutes I’m barreling through the desert and the wall of flame in front of me is making me nervous. I don’t know if the foam suppressor on this truck will be enough. I call in for a second vehicle but there’s only static. Something’s wrong with the radio. This explains why I hadn’t been contacted yet, yelled at for taking the truck alone. Now I wonder if this was a mistake and I should turn back, but I’m so close, and there’s not a minute to waste.

The truck slides to a halt as I slam the breaks barely ten meters from the flames. I unhook the hose and prime the electric pumpers. They whine at me like puppies begging for treats and I feel the hose gain pressure. I run to the flames near the center and begin laying down a thick layer of yellow foam. It’s working. The foam takes out most the flames closest to me and prevents them from coming back. But the area I’ve put out is small and I’ve already used a quarter of my supply, perhaps I should minimize the ability of the flames to spread while help is on the way. I switch tactics and begin laying down foam over the the unburned ground just in front of the flames and leading towards the farm habitat. I’ve emptied my entire supply by now, and the flames aren’t advancing, but sparks are landing in the areas around me and now I’m stamping them out with my feet. Where are the other trucks? I wonder. There’s no movement by the habitat, no more trucks. A large piece of burning sage flies over my foam barricade and a large swath of creosote is in flames. I stamp and I stomp but it’s no use. I’m just catching my shoes on fire and I have to retreat.

I catch movement behind the flames now. Something is over there, where the object had crashed. Was it an aircraft of sorts? Oh God, someone could be burning alive in there! And I’ve used all my foam. I call out to see if they are okay but there’s no answer. I have to go back to the habitat, I have to try the alarm again. But then, suddenly, the flames begin to die down on their own, as if the gas was slowly being turned down on a stove. I’m also feeling light headed then. There’s smoke, but I’m not coughing, and I’m breathing just fine. I’m sleepy though, and I collapse to my bare knees, catching flint in my skin. I look up and a shadow is standing over me and the stars are winking out. I can’t believe what I’m looking at, and I think I must be dreaming. But I’m not able to even have the thoughts that go along with the vision standing over me and I pass out.


References characters from: The Ice Princess of Enceladus Station

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