Pushing the Sky Away
by Ian Cordingley
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
I just know something good is going to happen|
I don’t know when
But just saying it could even make it happen.
— Kate Bush
Tom froze when he saw the pilot unclip the knife from his belt. He didn’t believe he had been exploring any part of the vehicle that was off limits: he was just tracing the path the cloud took when it was sucked in, and he had been fascinated by the bulging, pulsing water bag that it carried. He took a step back as the giant man approached him.
“That’s nothing. Watch.”
The pilot strode over and buried the blade into the water bag. The same water bag that Tom had pressed his palm against, leaving a dark, moist handprint. The pilot twisted the blade as forcefully as he could. He loosened his grip, and the knife seemed suspended in the magic fabric. Slowly, it began to wriggle as the fabric pulled away from the blade.
The knife fell onto the ground. There were no rips, tears or abrasions on the bag. Tom’s eyes widened.
Diana came around the corner at that moment. No doubt she had been fearing the worst: as Tom had been exploring the cockpit and stood on places that were marked NO STEP she kept calling for Tom to come away.
Father overruled her by saying nothing. Father studied the milker, with its enormous bag of water, the way a man would study a shapely woman or a finely cooked meal. He ran his knife against a hard metal line, salvaging the blade from dullness.
The pilot turned to face Diana. He bent down to pick up his dull knife. He clipped it back onto his belt, an innocent look on his face. “I figured he would be interested to see that; it’s a nice trick.”
Diana relaxed, slightly. The pilot strode past her. She looked calm, but Tom could perceive the dark emotions like a shoal under the surface of a placid sea. Diana shuffled back to the community tent, looking for someone to fuss over.
Tom followed the pilot, which lately had become his favourite activity. When the milker came down, he would have been the first to it if someone had not tackled him. Tom reluctantly admitted that it may have been the wisest decision: two factions warred overhead, driving each other back, leaving only the burned, blackened husks of their drones. The man had pulled out the unexpended bullets and left them bare.
Unless the seams of the bag somehow parted, and the water gushed onto the starved ground, the water it carried would never be theirs. The milker was just holding it in trust, until its owners, rightful or otherwise, came to claim it. The pilot was just here.
Tom followed the pilot past the white plastic pillars Diana had brought. Their shiny, thin plastic sails rippled in the weak breeze. The community kept their own dew traps scattered next to them. Every drop was sacred.
The pilot had unofficially been allotted a small square under the community’s main tarp in the shadow of the dew traps. Some of Tom’s family had scattered when they saw him.
Despite the blanket of clouds perpetually covering the sky, it was blisteringly hot and surprisingly bright. The pilot sat and detached his canteen, uncorking it. He savoured the cool, clear water inside, the last he would see in some time if his bad luck held out.
He had been in the sun, but not for long; and he had not been away for so long that he only had the thinnest layer of stubble on his cheeks. He ran a hand through his dark curly hair and sighed. “Twenty thousand tonnes. Can you imagine it?” he asked nobody in particular. He turned to face Tom, inured to his company. “I know you can’t.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Yes,” the pilot replied, “quite a lot indeed.”
The pilot took another sip from his canteen. Tom noticed his name tag for the first time. Nobody had called him by his name since he was rescued, and he had not volunteered it.
“Blair,” Tom said.
Tom pointed at his name tag. “Your name is Blair.”
Blair looked down at it. “So it is,” he said.
Tom — a dusty little ragamuffin — offered his fist, and the pilot bumped it.
Blair turned to face the sky again. “If only I hadn’t taken that wrong turn at Albuquerque.”
“Sorry?” That was a very, very distant place. Had Blair come from that far south? Tom heard the demand for water there was tremendous: the great rivers were dusty beds, the seas distant and salty.
“Forget it,” Blair said. “You wouldn’t understand.”
That was the last he said for the rest of the day.
* * *
On the morning of the day after his rescue, Blair checked out the rear engines that had attracted the bulk of the fire. Shot to bits, charred by fire, useless. Blair gave one of the dead engines a good kick. He walked along the good side of the milker.
Diana insisted Tom stick close to her today. He needed time and space, she said, and besides she needed his help. A fresh load of medicine had arrived the other day. Tom needed to be her intermediary between herself and frightened parents, to assure them that it was all right.
Diana was handling a squirming, screaming toddler, trying to inoculate her. A couple of the other volunteers were busy, asking people if anyone was sick, if anyone was well. They were fine. They were also getting curious about the milker, and nobody had an answer to give them. Diana, they imagined, had to know. She of all people had to know.
The pattern and lettering on her brown T-shirt had almost completely faded or chipped off. Enough time had been spent outdoors that she was beginning to acquire the same leathery complexion, and her hair was tied back in the same brown stream, just like the other women of Tom’s community. Still, her pale skin was putting up a stern resistance. It looked unlikely that she would ever resemble the people she cared for.
Four stubby engines looked fine along the front flank of the milker. If the bag wasn’t so large and swollen, the milker would have been an empty frame.
“Why doesn’t he just dump the water if it was the only thing holding him back?” Tom asked.
“He isn’t allowed to,” Diana said, her voice lowering, “and I doubt he even wants to.”
Milkers were abstract shapes swimming through the clouds. In the distance he had seen the hazy rainfall. It was the best advertisement the plantations had for water, food and employment.
A few years ago, a time murky in Tom’s memory, Diana and the others came to help. The trailers were mounted on blocks, and improved dew traps and windmill generators had been provided. Pipes were laid and seeds installed within their niches. The community had reacted with gratitude: they had been run from plantation after plantation, and it had been a very dry year.
The land was still very dry. Periodically, migrants would pass by and beg. Father and other men would curse at them or even shoot at them until they went away. They had enough for themselves, no more, and they knew that words provided an assurance immeasurably small next to force.
Diana passed the child back to her mother and turned to Tom. “Leave him alone,” she ordered.
“What if others come back?”
Diana pursed her lips in thought. She had never dealt with men from the plantations or with water jumpers. She imagined leading her team to form a chain around Blair, and telling the others to leave him alone. Then they would have parted when gruffly ordered to and left Blair to his fate, because they were principled, not stupid.
“We’ll manage,” she said. “Until help arrives, we’ll manage. We always have, we always will.”
Tom wandered over, past his father. Father nodded at Tom, in response to a secret that was shared between them. Father, if anything, had been very happy that Tom was bonding with Blair. Most members of the community kept their distance and kept their children close, but not Tom’s father.
Tom found Blair examining how much water he had left. He swished the canteen around and nodded at the unpleasantly soft sound within. No matter how conservative he was, Blair would run out of water soon. After that, Blair would be at their mercy. It was hot enough that the canteen would be empty in no time.
Tom glanced up at the sky, trying to imagine how an unbroken film of cloud could allow it to be so hot and bright at the same time.
Blair studied Tom’s confused expression. “You know why we made the clouds?” He swallowed a mouthful of water.
“Diana said we got too greedy.”
“That,” Blair admitted, shrugging, “but we made the world too hot. We got too greedy, and it got too hot. We created the clouds to cool the world down, and the commissions were created to distribute the water.”
“To whoever pays for it,” Tom added.
“Good boy,” Blair said, “as the invisible hand of the market is the best judge of allocation of scarce resources. That’s what they say in my city.”
Blair arched his neck back, mouth wide. The last of the water — so clean, so cool — fell from his canteen and into his mouth. Blair held his canteen for a moment as if he was pondering throwing it away. Then he shrugged and clipped it to his belt.
“City?” Tom asked. Cities! Large, bright, eternally distant. Father said if they got too close their skin would fall off. How much of that was facetious was anybody’s guess.
“In my part of the city, the walls sweated to get the water out of the air,” Blair explained, his tone growing curt as he prepared for the ambush. “Don’t assume I had it easier than you. Otherwise I wouldn’t have left.”
“You’re too heavy, so you have to drop the water to leave,” Tom said. Best for him to get to the root of the conversation, say aloud what they both were thinking without pretence.
“But you won’t.”
“If you could, would you?”
Blair turned his head away and snorted, shaking his head.
Diana once told Tom that the people from the city were not evil, just misguided. When she said it, it sounded like she was having trouble believing it herself.
“If I could get away with it?” Blair asked.
Blair did not say anything. He was certainly thinking about it, but uncommitted to a response. Perhaps he knew his response and was carefully deciding how to phrase it.
“It’s different from above,” Blair said. “All so small and distant.”
Tom got up and left Blair sitting, his canteen empty, and its top dangling from its rim. Blair folded his hands and studied the milker: bloated and inert.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Ian Cordingley