She wasn’t used to the direct heat. It felt like it was choking her, scorching her lungs with each scarce breath she took through her bloodied nose. Gusts of sand lapped at her exposed, bruised ankles like tiny knives slicing through her and infiltrating her nostrils, making her throat feel as rough as steel wool with each swallow. Her mouth scarcely had enough moisture to peel her tongue from the roof of her palate. This was what she deserved. This was what she had wanted. Only ever having to labor at night meant her body never knew the unforgivable harshness of the heat during the day. She was meant to know a greater cruelty within the next impending seconds.
Marcali always thought that the name ‘Twenty Year Drought’ was a bit of a misnomer, considering it had been fifty years since there had been consistent rain in the city of Quake. Maybe once or twice per year rain would try to grace the land, only for it to evaporate as soon as it touched the scorched earth below it. Steam would rise from the ground and mask the image of children dancing in the short-lived rainstorm. Marcali was lucky to have been born and raised in Quake, given the land possessed a groundwater reservoir that was able to be tapped and utilized for the citizens. So very lucky, she was told, because other cities were not able to survive the cataclysmic drought. Their citizens withered within days without water. Walls were built and encapsulated the fortunate folk of Quake to prevent outsiders from trying to steal their coveted water- their only sustaining life source. Even in the lower castes, homes were equipped with rudimentary systems to convert their waste into water for the people to use. Marcali always felt spoiled on the rare days that it rained. Rainwater tasted so pure, almost sweet in comparison to her household water which tasted bitter with a putrid tinge that lingered on her tongue. Rainwater tasted like joy. While the city itself consisted of barren streets and enshrouded homes to prevent heat penetration, it was an even greater wasteland outside of the walls. Miles of naked and desiccated land stretched farther than the eye could see, and its depravity was worse than the mind could comprehend. The umber sand that hung in the air was highlighted by the punishing sun and created a haze in the distance so that no one could see the horizon.
It was that depraved wasteland that Marcali directly faced in that moment. She had never seen it so close. She had never been outside of the walls. Citizens weren’t allowed outside of the walls for the sake of their safety, and because the community relied upon its workers. To be cast out wasn’t just a punishment upon you, but upon the entire community for losing a means to produce water.
She had only been standing statuesque for a few moments before feeling the tip of a rifle press against her back. She stiffened but didn’t move as she waited for her sentence. After enduring the physical viciousness of her interrogation, she thought surely she wasn’t about to lose her nerve. The peacekeeper that held the rifle began his usual ritual when dealing such a punishment:
“Marcali, you have been sentenced to banishment for crimes against your community…”
Marcali’s face fell at the sound of bitterly familiar voice, almost relaxing against the tip of the rifle as the realization washed over her like a rainstorm. “I cannot believe they chose you to carry this out,” she muttered into the dry air.
He continued as monotone as before despite her profound understanding. “For your crimes you will walk forward until out of sight and not allowed re-entry back into the comm-”
“Are they punishing us both? Because you once associated with me?”
“If you cross the line between us, I will fire upon-”
“You wouldn’t shoot me, Darius.”
“Dammit, Marcali!” his chided with his professional tone having slipped away into familiar annoyance. “If I’m being made to do this because of you then you can at least try to make this easier for me.”
She slowly turned, her turban blocking part of her view, but she could still see Darius’ eyes. They were a deep brown and the only part of him she recognized considering the rest of him was covered head to toe in his peacekeeper suit. Rumor had it that peacekeepers had their own filtration system in their suit to provide them water from their waste. She smiled at the thought of him actively drinking his own shit while pointing his rifle at her.
“I did nothing wrong.”
His eyes widened with his rifle remaining in place. “You were caught stealing water, Marcali! There isn’t a greater offense.”
If such an accusation was valid, then Darius would have been telling the truth. Stealing water was worse than killing a man, because it meant you were a direct threat to the entire community.
Her head shook, making the wind envelope her turban and almost carried it off her cropped scalp. “I did not steal. I would never.”
“You were found in the reservoir,” he accused.
Her shoulders dropped. “There is no reservoir. There hasn’t been for years, Darius. It’s dry down there. I saw it.”
She watched, despite his features being covered, disbelief plague Darius’ entire body. His rifle lowered itself the slightest bit. “But…our water-”
“It must be coming from somewhere else. I saw the series of tunnels leading outside of the walls- away from Quake! There’s more out here,” she said while gesturing to the barren land before her. “We’re not meant to know. If we did then-”
“I won’t listen this,” Darius growled beneath his mask and resumed pointing his rifle at Marcali, almost prodding her in the chest. “I’ve sworn my life to the peacekeeper corps, and you have the nerve to say you think it’s for nothing.”
“I know it’s for nothing,” she asserted while sucking in a dry breath. “Nothing but to barely keep ourselves from withering. Did you know that the old priest takes a bath every night? When was the last you bathed, Darius?”
Words failed him, making him maintain his silence as Marcali could see him actively letting her words sink into him. In a way, she was now glad it had been Darius who had been appointed to sentence her. She had to tell someone she trusted or at least had trusted. She licked her lips, only making her tongue glue itself to the tissue from the lack of moisture. Biting the inside of her cheek to produce saliva and free her tongue, she continued. “Meanwhile, Maris had to wear my mother’s blood for two months after he was born. You serve the very people who deprive you, and I told you this would happen!”
The tip of the rifle rapidly dropped into the sand as Darius lunged across the distance between them to tower over her, showing Marcali the unadulterated ferocity in his eyes. They looked sandblasted. “I did what I had to, to provide for my family by joining the peacekeepers! My parents are less withered because of my sacrifice,” he hissed into the wind. “You’ve only deprived your family of water and pride. You justified the shame that’s put upon our caste!”
Her bound hands reached up to cup his masked face with her free fingers, feeling him stiffen in her grasp. They hadn’t shared such close proximity in years. It was achingly familiar. “I’m doing this for my family…and for you. If there is truly water outside of this place, I’ll find a way to bring it back. You won’t have to be a peacekeeper. Mama and Papa can bathe when they like. We can dance in the water,” she spoke with a wide smile on her chapped lips, seeing Darius’ once ferocious look having melted in her hands. “Like we did as kids during the rainstorms. We’ll dance as much as you like.”
She watched as Darius squeezed his eyes shut and shook in her steady grasp. His entire suit quivered as he inhaled sharply. “My God…You did this all on purpose,” he spoke with his voice breaking in utter horror.
Marcali smiled while stroking his rough cheek beneath her calloused fingertips. She urged him closer to where their foreheads met with her trying to breathe in his obliviousness one last time. “How am I supposed to find us water if I’m not allowed outside of these walls? There was no other way, Darius.”
Her childhood friend wrenched away from her, practically ripping her hands from his face as he resumed his previous stance and rapidly blinked away water. She hadn’t meant to make him lose his moisture- he would need it for the days to come. “You are so consumed with being a victim that you can’t see how fucking selfish you are, Marcali!” he bellowed with a strained voice that made Marcali’s heart shudder. “Do you know how much water you’ll cost because of the people who care about you? Because of all the people you’re voluntarily leaving behind?”
“I’m not leaving you. I’m going to come back for-”
Darius took one step back before lifting his rifle to its original begrudging position. His right foot stretched out and drew a single line in the sand between them. “If you cross this line, I will fire upon the second you move. It is your choice if you wish to venture forward or meet a quick death here,” he informed, resuming his formal tone that disappointed her.
Marcali glanced between Darius and the tip of the rifle. It was wobbling in his grasp. “I’m not going to make you kill me, Darius,” she said.
He paused with his eyes squinting harder from the harsh gusts of wind casting sand into both of their eyes. He was growing more horse by the second, and Marcali could feel herself actively losing moisture beneath the merciless sun. Darius reached into his utility belt. “You’re allowed one last portion of water. Do you wish to invoke that right?” he asked.
Darius extended her a small pouch, not even the size of her palm, as well as two tablets concealed between his fingers. It was Marcali’s turn to appear stunned, shooting her gaze up at him in disbelief.
He had given her two salt tablets.
“It’ll make it quicker,” he said, as if offering her some great comfort.
Maintaining direct eye contact with him, she finished the water pouch before handing it back to him. She savored the taste, as bitter as it was, and tried not to allow herself to be tempted by the end of his rifle. Her body had been living off the bare minimum of water needed for her whole life- surely she could survive long enough to find her hope of a water source.
Her tongue lapped at the corners of her mouth to not waste any droplets as the sun rested directly overtop of her head. A bead of moisture cascaded down her brow and followed a trail along her narrow jaw. Darius watched the bead of sweat trickle down with obvious dread. It was like a reminder of what was to come. She knew her lips would become chapped and blister. Her feet would open and ooze onto the sand as her lungs would fry within her chest. Her clothes would stick to her like a second skin until she had no moisture left for her poncho to adhere to. The notion of these consequences hardly touched her resolve. Her decision was made the day a peacekeeper killed her brother, Maris, for asking to drink from their suit.
Marcali looked down at the salt tablets in her bound hands and tried to open her palms to let the salt tablets tumble to the ground. They were immediately buried in sand. For her to truly seek out her greatest truth, she could not afford the luxury of a quick ending.
“Look after Mama and Papa for me,” she asked, almost commanding before turning away from her oldest friend whose rifle steadily lowered to the ground. He’d have to watch her walk into the wasteland. He’d watch and waste his moisture as she actively gave hers up in hopes of aspiring to a better life that she craved. Each step was heavier in the heat, weighed down by her lost moisture that she tried not to focus on. She could feel Darius’ stare remaining on her back- her only remaining company on her journey into nothingness.
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Excellent worldbuilding! I’m curious to know what will happen. Would you write a sequel?
Thank ya! It was my first submission, so I was a bit antsy. I hadn't initially thought about a sequel. I kind of liked the idea of it being a stand-alone with a cliffhanger, but I'd definitely consider it!