The Desert



Mark was working his small farm on the edge of the desert.  He had already collected the eggs from his chicken coop and he had to check his north field for obstacles.  His robot, a self-guiding tractor, was already turning the dusty soil and planting his precious seeds in the south field.  He could hear the machine in the distance as it followed the pattern he had programmed into it.  When it was finished, he would send it to the north field to do the same, but before he did, he had to make absolutely certain that there were no obstacles that could damage or halt the machine.  The robot cost too much for him to replace.  The ground he was inspecting was dry and hard.  As he walked over it, he thought about how he would irrigate it and which fertilizers to use in order to bring this land to life. 

            Mark’s family had worked the plot of land ever since it was given to his grandparents.  Those two had accepted a contract from the Colonization and Natural Terraforming Corporation and left the Earth behind.  They had been given land, machinery and supplies when they had arrived on their new world.  Settlers had named the world Kokie, after the name that someone on Earth had given to the sun that shown down on their new home. The generation of Mark’s grandparents had worked it all out on the way.  The trip had taken years and they had had plenty of time.  Some had founded small towns and built houses, much like Ortiz City, the town nearest Mark’s home, while the majority had chosen to farm.  It was believed that having many people farming was a good way to begin the new civilization they were building.  The CANT Corporation had sent a shipload of specialists ahead of them with plants, animals and equipment in order to transform Kokie into a livable planet with its own ecology in time for the colonists to arrive.  The specialists had begun their own life on the other side of the world.  When the colonists had arrived, they collected seeds from the descendants of the domesticated plants brought by the specialists.  The plants and animals that had survived had adapted to the planet.  The best survivors were strains of wheat and corn, orange trees, chickens and a new breed of goat, which were nearly as large as cattle.  Mark had a herd of ten such goats in his west field.

            The hot wind picked up, blowing southward.  Mark was at the edge of his green field.  He looked over the barren land to the North.  When he was a child, over twenty years ago, that same land had been green and grassy.  Everyone he knew was concerned that the young ecology would fail, but the colonists had no way of preventing it.  Mark took out his bandanna and tied it over his face and then put on the pair of sunglasses he kept in his shirt pocket.  He pulled his white cowboy hat forward on his close-trimmed head.  The wind carried dust, which swirled around him, reminding him that his way of life might be doomed. 

            Mark saw a single figure stepping steadily through the desert to the North. The person was dressed head to toe in loose white cloth and may have been a man or woman, Mark could not tell which.  It was one of them, Mark thought.  The colonists called them the desert people.  That was the polite term, but more of the colonists had begun to call them scavengers, or even whities, after their habit of covering themselves with loose, white clothing.  No one really knew who the desert people were.  Stories were being spread over Kokie’s internet, mainly about how people disappeared. Some said that people ran away, into the desert.  Kokie’s desert was like a hole in the planet’s imported ecosystem and the hole was growing.  Some farmers had lost their land to it, as it grew.  The land could be preserved through irrigation and fertilization but, sometimes, the farmers gave up and disappeared.  Other stories were more dangerous.  There were stories of people being taken, but most of them had been proven to be false.

            Although skeptical, Mark always kept an eye on any news about missing children. His own son, Tom, had run away. The boy had been fifteen, bored with life on the farm and inclined to make trouble.  They had had a particularly bad fight and Tom had simply told his father that he was leaving and that he was not going to stay and fight to keep the farm alive.  Mark had successfully sent him to his room, but the child and his things were missing the next morning.  He had done what he could to bring his son home but nobody was able to find the boy.  One distant neighbor had encountered Tom.  He had said that he was moving on, seeking a job in another town.

            That had been six years ago and Mark had not heard a word from his son.  Mark had his wife Monica and five other children to tend to, so, eventually, life had gotten back to normal.  Still, he sympathized with any parent who was missing a child, even if they were inclined to blame the desert people.  Mark often wondered how many of the rumors about them were actually true.  There were all kinds of stories about them stealing, mainly food and water.  Mark had never had problems with them, although he did see them occasionally.  Something about them being different, anonymous in their white clothing and living out there, had encouraged unfriendly storytelling.  Mark supposed that folks felt threatened by the oncoming desert and the desert people seemed to be part of it.

            Mark’s own attitude was more neutral.  So long as they left him alone, he did not care what they did. He kept right on working until suppertime, checking the land and occasionally removing obstacles.  He ate with his family and then spent the evening preparing programs for his robots while his family gathered around the computer to watch video.  He did not want to do the tedious work in the morning, so he got it done while he listened to the computer, occasionally joining his family’s conversation.  They watched a few videos and went to bed early, as usual. 

            Mark woke up in the middle of the night.  The window was open and he had heard something.  Noises from outside were nothing unusual, but the sounds he heard as he lay in the darkness and listened to the night were different.  They were sneaky noises.  Someone or something was attempting not to be heard, moving delicately and tentatively.  The sounds seemed to be close to the house.  Mark slipped out of bed and stepped silently toward the closet.  He could not see, but he knew where everything was.  He slipped on a bathrobe and fumbled for his gun.  The weapon was light and smooth in his hand.  It was a zapper, a long, plastic device that shot a bolt of electricity. It was not lethal, but it could drop a man or drive away an animal.  The most formidable predators on the planet were barwolves, the descendents of domestic dogs.  They had adapted to their new home, becoming large, solitary and dangerous.  A barwolf would try to steal livestock and would return again if it had success.  Mark hurried carefully through his darkened house to the side door, holding his zapper close.  He turned the knob gently, then eased open the door and the screen door beyond. 

            Mark paused with his back to the wall of his home.  He looked and listened, sorting the sounds he heard.  The calls of toads and birds filled the night, but he could also hear a slight rustle from the direction of the water tanks that rested against the rear of his house and waited for their turn to feed his irrigation system.  Mark moved around the house, careful not to make a sound.  As he moved, he heard the distinctive squeak of a water tank valve being turned.  He froze, listening.  He could hear the deep hiss of the valve as it delivered a steady stream of water. Mark continued on, a little faster. As he came around the corner with his zapper leveled, he could just make out the person crouching in front of the tap on his water tank, filling something with stolen water. 

            Mark aimed the weapon skyward and pulled the trigger.  The blue-white flash was blinding in the darkness and, combined with its thunderclap report, caused the thief to jolt and roll over.  The person was clad in something baggy and black that covered all but the eyes.  The thief scrambled up, reaching for the thick bag filled with water that rested on the ground nearby.  Mark leveled the zapper and took a step forward.

            The thief dropped the water bag.  The balloon-like container came to rest with its narrow mouth pointing at an angle. “Dad!”  The word halted Mark.

            “Tom?”  He recognized the voice and his mind processed the concept that it was his son under the mask.  “Tom, what are you doing taking water in the middle of the night?  Where have you been?”  Mark was still pointing the zapper at him in an attempt to keep him from running away again. 

            Tom’s voice was muffled under his mask.  “I was in the desert.”  The young man was silent and tense after giving the brief explanation. 

            Mark raised his weapon.  “Son, if you wanted water, you could have asked,” he said.  “Come inside and we can talk.”

            Tom picked up the water bag and walked inside, pulling off the mask that covered his face as he went.  Mark followed, cradling his zapper with the business end pointed at the ceiling. Monica and the children were gathered in the kitchen with the lights off, waiting.  The sound of the zapper’s discharge had awakened the entire house. Mark’s youngest daughter shrieked the name “Tom” and ran up to the young man.  He hugged her and sat down at the table, next to his mother, who was giving him a worried look.

            Mark sat down at the head of the table, leaving the zapper resting against the wall next to him.  He broke the tension.  “You have been in the desert,” he observed.

            Tom nodded.  “And I will be going back.”

            “Why?” Monica asked.  “Do you want to be one of those beggars?”  She sounded hurt.

            Tom leaned forward.  His face had a seriousness that looked out of place on his young features.  “We know what we are doing out there,” he informed them.  “The world is changing and we are changing with it.  After I left, I tried to live like an Earthling.  I tried to find a job, live in town and fit in.  There was nothing there for me because the desert is coming and it will swallow the Earthling life.”

            Tom’s sister spoke up with the sad tones of an innocent child seeking reassurance.  “Will the desert swallow our farm?”

            “Not if I can help it!”  Mark was defensive.

            “Yes”, Tom commented.  “The desert people are adapting.”  He leaned back and moved the water bag from his lap onto the table.  “There are times when we have got to take what we need, but out there, underground, we are building something that will survive.  Can you say the same?”

            Mark opened his mouth as if to answer, but said nothing.

            Monica waved her hand dismissively.  “No matter what you are doing, you are still our son, Tom,” she declared.  “You can come visit your family.”

            “OK,” Tom agreed.  He stood. “The others are expecting me to come back with water.  I have to leave, it’s important.”  He looked at his father, wearing an expression that asked if he could leave without trouble. Mark nodded and watched his son hustle out the side door.  He and his family stayed up and discussed the night’s events for several hours. His children were confused and were asking questions that Mark did not have the answers to.  Monica was upset.  She did not care about the circumstances.  She simply wanted her son back and his premature departure had hurt her.  As for Mark, he felt free from the nagging question of what had happened to Tom and all the worry and guilt that went with it.  He did his best to play the stoic father figure for his family.

            Mark and his family continued with their farm work.  They did not see Tom until a few weeks later.  Tom simply showed up on foot one day, wearing the loose, white cloths of the desert people.  He found Mark loading a robot with seeds for planting.  Tom invited him to come into the desert, having something to show him.  Mark shrugged and went along with the request, after a quick call to Monica on his cell phone.  The two of them walked quietly for what seemed to be hours.  The hot wind of the desert blew sand and grit around them, but Tom was covered and Mark had his bandanna and hat.  Tom led him to a mound that protruded from the desert floor. He walked up to it and brushed away some of the loose dirt, reveling a metal elevator door and then manipulated a keypad next to it, which beeped rhythmically as he entered a code.  The door opened, revealing the carpeted interior of an elevator.  They entered, bringing the desert with them on their boots.

            As they rode down, Mark took off the white, baggy cloths he was wearing. Underneath, he wore blue jeans, cut off at the knee with white threads dangling, and a plain, purple T-shirt. Mark took off his hat and slapped it against his leg, dumping dirt on the floor next to his right foot. 

            “Where are we going?” 

            Tom looked smug.  “You wanted to know where I have been.”

            Mark nodded. 

            The elevator door opened, inviting them to walk out into the concrete chamber beyond.  The area was a vast artificial cave with lights on the ceiling.  The place was crowded with people and homes, and shops spanned from the floor to the ceiling, dividing the underground space into walkways and plazas. Tom led his father past doors and storefronts that lined the walkway leading straight ahead and into an area filled with lawn furniture.  A swimming pool sat in front of them, illuminated by a skylight in the ceiling. Several men and women sat around the pool.  Many of them were drinking and a few greeted Tom by name, receiving brief but friendly greetings in return as Tom picked through the crowd. 

            Tom stopped and turned to his father.  “Dad, this is Craig,” he said, gesturing to a shirtless, elderly man sipping a mug of beer.  Craig took off his sunglasses. 

            “Good to see you again, Mark,” he said expectantly.

            “Craig!”  Mark suddenly recognized his former neighbor, who used to have a farm north of his own.  “Everyone thought you gave up and moved on.”

            Craig shook his head.  “Welcome to my humble abode,” he said with a crooked smile. 

            “This is your place?”  Mark sounded astonished.

            “Kinda.  It’s on my land, but anyone who wants to be here is welcome, so long as they do their share of the work. I found out how to do it on the internet and downloaded some programs for the robots.  Folks are building places like this all over the planet.  Might have been the specialists’ idea. We built solar and wind generators for power and have gardens near the surface for food.  Doesn’t matter to us what happens topside.”

            “And the desert wind never stops blowing,” Mark added with realization.

            “You and your family are welcome to join us, if you decide to give up on dirt farming,” Craig informed him.  He took a long drink from his mug.

            “I would have to discuss it with the wife,” Mark stalled.  “My son has been here all along?”

            “Sorry about that, Mark,” Craig said, setting down his beer and looking serious.  “We do keep it a secret, since the Earthlings don’t care much for us scavengers.”

            Mark nodded.  “I won’t tell nobody,” he promised. 

            “Thanks,” Craig’s face warmed.  “Sit down and have a beer.” A young woman with wet hair sitting nearby pulled a clear plastic bottle out of a cooler near her seat and poured the foamy yellow contents into a mug before handing it to Mark.  Mark stayed a few hours and talked, finding out more about his son’s new home. People there lived in a leisurely manner, without much work that their robots did not take care of for them. They had set up credit, abstract money for spending at stores and restaurants as well as betting on the sporting events that the desert people had organized.  Most folks adapted well to life underground and were more comfortable than they would be on the hot, dry surface. 

            Mark also found out that the desert people had written off the civilization above ground, the Earthlings, as they were called.  They believed that there was no point in trying to prop up the ecology with irrigation and animal pens. 

            “You can’t stop the desert,” Craig had declared.

            “We can try to have a normal life,” Mark said, defending his own decisions.

            Craig reached under the table and retrieved a large, black and yellow striped lizard, placing it in his own lap.  “kokieguanas like this one here are our favorite pet,” Craig said.  He scratched the reptile’s back affectionately. “Know why?  Because they were the first to adapt to the desert.  Came down here when the place was empty and started laying eggs.  There’s even more of them on the surface, out in the sand.  They barely need water and they can stand the heat.”  Craig leaned forward, causing his kokieguana to shift position, lazily.  It looked at Mark with its expressionless yellow eyes.  “The Iguanas that did not adapt are long dead.  Change happens.  Sooner or later you have to make adjustments.”

            “Craig, I have to be getting back.”  Mark looked up through the skylight.  Alone, he went back to the elevator and onto the surface.

            Mark went home to his family and said little about what he had seen.  He worked his land for another two years, fighting the desert with irrigation and fertilizer until his crop cost more to produce than he was making.  Tom visited occasionally, bringing news from the community next door, as well as the beer that they brewed, which was a rare commodity on Kokie.  And then Mark gave up.  It happened in the spring when he had programmed his robot tractor to clear the sand out of his field.  When the sand clogged the machine and it overheated, Mark knew he could not afford to replace it. 

            It was then that he went to see his neighbor, Craig.  He and the others welcomed Mark and his family.  They were given space near the edge of the underground colony.  Tom led a crew of desert people and robots back to their old home.  Mark was impressed to see them dismantle everything.  The robots took apart the first floor of his house, moved it down a freight elevator and reassembled it underground.  Mark and his family were paid for the rest of their equipment, materials and livestock, giving them credits with which to start a new life.  Although Mark’s pride was hurt by his failed farming venture, he adapted to the easy underground life soon enough.



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