Squalor. That was the only way Cairo could describe the scene. Even at 11 years old it was apparent. Far from the gorgeous green fields and full, flowing rivers that had been promised, his family had arrived to a barren plain, skulking grey skies, and the only view an enormous concrete wall separating them from the European Federation of States.
“Can you watch your brother please? Go meet your father, he should be coming home any moment.” Cairo’s mother called from the entrance of the temporary prefab shelter, one hand on her enlarged belly, the other holding a dented electric teapot.
His younger brother shot past him, kicking his bare feet into the soft brown ground, giggling like the child he still was. Cairo groaned and set off in pursuit. Wading through desert sand meant you could just brush off your feet, but this soil stuck and had to be cleaned off with water, something hard to come by in their ‘temporary’ camp.
He grabbed his brother’s hand. “Come Fikri, let’s go meet dad!”
They set off through the camp. An automated water well barked at a group of people to scan their passes, while volunteers worked an overcrowded aid station, desperately trying to get everyone a turn in the full body medical scanners. They passed the prefabricated shelter that occasionally doubled as a school before coming into sight of the imposing gate in the border wall. Armed guards stood on either side, checking IDs and ensuring the line of people waiting to re-enter the camp were properly scanned and logged.
His father was in the line, standing tall in his dark blue, oil-stained jumpsuit. The Offworld Life badge on the shoulder glimmered as a lone ray of sunlight escaped through the clouds. Cairo squinted, usually his father was beaming at the end of the workday, but today his brow was furrowed, and he was talking in hushed tones to another man in line. He seemed to barely notice the guards frisk him down.
“Baba!” his little brother screamed at a volume loud enough to startle everyone in the vicinity. Immediately rifles pointed at the two of them, and Cairo instinctively pulled his brother behind him, chastising the younger boy. The rifles lowered and his father hurried to meet them, his pensive face having melted into his usual beaming smile.
“There’s my children!” he said, grabbing Cairo’s hand and hoisting his brother up. “And how are you both today?”
“Tell me about the spaceship Baba!” his brother cried.
“All in good time little one, let’s get some dinner first.”
They made their way back to the shelter where their mother was waiting with a pot of water. “Get washed up children, or your food will be cold.” She stepped up to his father and put her hand on his cheek. “What is it Amir?” she whispered.
Cairo put his hands in the warm water, trying to wash some of the grime off, straining to overhear the conversation.
“There have been some changes to the immigration rules, Alya. Entry now requires payment.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw his mother frown. “But…my family inside should be enough to secure us entry? Under family immigration?”
“Not anymore apparently.”
His father noticed him paying attention and gave his mother a look, and she called the children over to a steaming pot of koshari. Cairo ate in silence, his father finally indulging his little brother in tales of his employment.
“They call it a colony ship son, it will hold maybe 20,000 people – and it will travel to a new planet far, far from earth on a one way trip.” His brother sat, wide-eyed, listening intently. “For 500 years people will sleep, yes, and then awake on a new planet, yes! Now I am working on the engines. Every day we hammer out giant bells of the nuclear rocket. It must withstand the freezing cold of space on one side, and the heat of a thousand suns on the other. Yes, and clambering around the inside of these engines gets oil everywhere, as you see,” he indicated to a particularly large stain on his uniform.
His brother giggled and clapped his hands. Cairo rolled his eyes. It wasn’t exactly true of course. While his father was working on the engines of a colony ship, the days of metal being beaten by hand were long gone. Before they left home his father was a sought-after engineer, experienced in robotic construction and tele-operation of large scale projects. The stains on his uniform were actually from helping repair run-down prefabs and medical equipment in the camp, combined with a lack of laundry facilities, not from his job at the Offworld Life shipyard.
Cairo sighed and stood up, walking over to the entrance of the shack and looking out over the dismal camp. His mother walked over and looked at him quizzically.
“Why did we come here,” he asked, “why didn’t we stay back home? We had a better life there, surely?”
His mother put a hand on his shoulder. “We had no choice. You are too young to remember the days when the Nile flowed all the way to the sea, flanked by fertile farmland. By your first birthday the river was barely a trickle, by your fifth nothing but a barren riverbed. If we had not left we would be buried by the desert sands already,” she squeezed his shoulder, “surely you remember how little water we had? Neither your father nor I were willing to stay without a future for you and your brother.”
“I heard you talking to father earlier. It doesn’t sound like there is a future for us inside the Federation either.”
“As your father always says, I am sure a solution will present itself.” She smiled at him and he pulled her close in an embrace.
He did not share his parent’s optimism, and he wasn’t the only one. The news of the rule changes spread almost immediately through the camp, and the change in people’s faces was all too clear. Where before they looked at the high concrete wall of the Federation’s border with a hopeful smile of a better life, they now turned away with pain in their eyes.
For the next few weeks, life in the camp continued in something of a trance. Those with connections inside the Federation desperately tried to get the down payment to enter, but the only people in or out were those lucky enough to have a skill in demand by the Offworld Life shipyard. For everyone else, there was little they could do but pass time.
Summer must have been over, as the temperature started to fall quickly when he went to sleep next to his brother, sharing a hard mattress opposite their shared space heater for warmth. His brother was snoring immediately, leaving Cairo tossing and turning. Eventually he sighed and slipped out of bed, walking to the entrance of their prefab, where his parents were talking over a tea, sharing a moment of peace. He hung back, feeling awkward.
“Why you?” his mother asked.
His father shifted closer to her, putting a hand around her shoulder. “Those of us building it know the systems. Should something break on the journey who better to fix the ship than us?”
“And me and the children?” she said.
He put a hand to her growing belly. “Unfortunately not. They and you would have to pay for a ticket, which we could not afford on the bonus alone.”
His mother whistled through her teeth. “So, you sign up as crew on the colony ship, and with the bonus we can all move into the Federation. Then about one year later we lose you forever?” His father didn’t reply, and there was silence for a moment. She continued, “You have work, we have some money coming in…can we not save and pay our entry?”
“Alya, you know how much I am paid. You know how much of that is lost just for permission to cross the wall every day. Even if we save everything we can, the ship will be finished and departed long before we have enough to pay our family’s entry. There is no word on whether the shipyard will continue after that.”
She put a head on his shoulder and sighed. “You are always willing to do anything for this family. Just like your father. Too heroic for your own good.”
Cairo’s mouth dropped, and he took a step forward, ready to explode in anger. How could they be thinking this? He balled his fists, but retreated back to the bed, sullen, as they shared a small kiss. The temperature had dropped further, and his brother was shivering. He hugged him close and tried to put what his father had been saying out of his head, but he couldn’t fall asleep.
He stayed quiet through most of the day, much to his brother’s dismay. As the sun started to set he left his sibling with his mother and set off alone to confront his father. Again his father wore a frown, a look of distraction as he was frisked over at the gate. He didn’t notice Cairo waiting, an equally unhappy look on the boy’s face.
“We should leave, find another place!” Cairo pleaded.
“And go where son? Back to the desert? The flooded plains of Siberia, or the underwater forests of Canada?”
“Anywhere! Let’s take the money you save and go to a different place, one where they are happy to let us in. All of us!”
His father cocked his head and paused. “What is on your mind?”
Cairo said nothing.
“Well, spit it out.”
“I don’t want you to go! Let’s go somewhere else, anywhere. I’ve talked to others in the camp, if we go east there are countries that would allow us in. Children can work there, I can work. We can make money together and you don’t have to go.”
His father knelt down beside him. “You shouldn’t make assumptions based on what you overhear.”
“But you’re considering it!” Cairo spat. “How can you even be considering it? Why did we leave home just so you can abandon us on a spaceship?”
He looked his father dead in the eyes, expecting to be told he was too young to understand. Instead the eyes softened, glimmered, and his father looked down at the ground. “When the water wars began my father saw me hiding from bombardments. He had no choice but to join the war. When the Nile stopped flowing I saw you rationing water. I had no choice but to uproot us all. I see your brother facing a childhood in a refugee camp with no education, while a better life waits across the wall. I don’t want you or your brother to look at your own children and have such bleak choices. We want better for you.”
“But why you? Why do you have to go? Why can’t I help?”
His father stood and took his hand. “Child labour in a mine is not the better life.”
Cairo looked back at the wall, with its patrols of armed guards, aerial drones, razor wire, cameras and movement sensors running along the entire perimeter. He looked at the people coming in and out, at their tired faces. His father started walking back to their shelter, and he followed. He looked at his brother sitting outside their shelter, watching a children’s holographic video on a neighbour’s ageing and battered datapad.
The sky rumbled, and he looked, transfixed as water – actual, physical drops of water – fell from the sky. He raised his eyebrows, and tentatively put a hand out to feel it. Rain. It quickly soaked into the ground, and he dug his feet in, feeling the silty soil pool between his toes.
His father laughed, a short, incredulous bark. “Before you were born, the rain was cause for celebration. It meant hope that the dams would fill and that the Nile would keep flowing. Now it shows there is hope of a better life for the family.”
Cairo turned back to his father. “But Baba, what will we do without you?”
“Your mother’s family are already waiting.”
“What about you? What if you have an even worse life on the spaceship?”
His father pointed to his younger brother, now splashing through small pools of water forming on the ground, smiling gleefully as his bare feet squelched in mud. His mother watched, laughing. His father smiled, “What I find on the other side of the journey is not important. We could fly straight into the sun, all that matters is that my family are safe, away from the desert and the war that we left behind.”
Cairo watched the rain fall. Rain. Hope. This was what they left home for, what his father was willing to leave the earth, and his family forever to ensure they had.
“Come play with me!” his brother screamed, bounding through the mud. He walked over, and glanced back at his father, now standing holding his mother’s hand. They were gazing at each other, nodding and quite possibly crying. He bit his lip, forcing himself to smile and join his brother in the rain.
The next day, their immigration applications were granted, and they crossed the gate together. Cairo stood, slack jawed in amazement at the sight of perfectly manicured green grass, clear blue rivers and the shimmering skyscrapers that lay beyond the wall. He met his father’s eyes, and nodded in understanding.