The Journey to Ekur — Chatper 13

Chapter 13:

The sand dunes rippled off in the distance, the setting sun lighting them up with a brilliant orange glow. Their smooth, cohesive surface stood in stark contrast to the brightly colored woven tents that flapped in the evening wind. They spread out, twenty of them dappling the desert plain. Robed figures occasionally walked to and fro, carrying baskets, buckets, and other supplies as they prepared for dinner. Three children played in front of the largest tent, cartwheeling and leap-frogging, ignoring calls to come in to eat, trying to stretch out the day just that much longer.

A rider approached, pulling up short of the children who laughed and swarmed the animal in greeting. He gave them a short hello then told them to fetch their mother.

“What is that?” the youngest child asked, pointing to a large bundle strapped to the animal.

“A fool,” the man said with a sigh, climbing down and moving to attach a feed bag to his ride.

A moment later, an older woman emerged, appearing annoyed.

“I have food cooking,” she admonished him. “Can’t you get the children to help you?”

“Not with this. Stand here and get ready,” the man said, untying the bundle and carefully lifting it down. “Here, catch the head.”

The woman gasped as the weight fell into her arms and she pulled back the wrapping. A sunburnt face stared back at her, the eyes confused with thirst. They carried him inside, laying him by the fire. The woman propped him up, fetching water.

The children stood back, whispering among themselves.

“Where did you find him?” the woman asked, spoon-feeding the young man water. He took it quietly, wincing as it stung his cracked lips.

“He was wandering a few miles from the city. Was basically delirious by the time I found him. Couldn’t get much out of him, but he told me not to take him back.”

“Stupid child,” the woman sighed. “Much longer and he wouldn’t have even been able to tell you that.”

“The western tribe found another one this week,” he said. “Some girl, Saleh told me. He sent me word the night they found her, heard only this morning. From the sound of it, she was in a worse state than he was. In some sort of withdrawal.”

The woman tutted, going back to her food, handing over the water. “Don’t give him too much,” she said, stirring the food on the wide pan. “He’ll get sick.”

“I know how to do this,” the man replied. “What are they doing, wandering out of here, not even dressed properly? Do they think life here caters to them the way that their little robots do for them inside?”

“They do not know.” The woman smiled. “We cannot know what we do not live.”

“And you cannot live if you only bring two bottles of water to the desert,” the man said.

“Is the girl they found okay?”

“Getting better. The aridity, it sucks all of that crap right out of your bones. She’ll survive.”

“I cannot blame them, using those sorts of shortcuts in there. I would, too, if I was trapped in a box my whole life,” she said as she pulled the pan from the fire, dishing the food in carved bowls, bringing them first to her husband and their unexpected guest and then their three children.

“You think they’d find a better option,” her husband said.

“Maybe that’s why they were out here,” she pointed out. “Now, make that boy eat.”

The boy tried to talk, after dinner, but the woman admonished him, telling him to sleep. He could tell them his sad tale in the morning, but for now, rest was the most important thing. He seemed like he was about to protest, but exhaustion caught up with him, and he soon drifted off. The woman and man took turns keeping watch over him during the night. They were willing to welcome him into their home, but there were a lot of reasons why someone may run from the city and not want to go back — and not all of them were good.

The next morning, the woman woke early, preparing breakfast before the rest of the family rose. The young man woke as she was finishing up, stretching as he rolled over.

“Hello,” she said, smiling. “I am Amaya. This is my husband, Jawad. What is your name?”

“Noah,” he said as he looked around. “I’m sorry, where am I?”

“You don’t remember? My husband found you last night, wandering deliriously on the dunes. This is our home,” she said, motioning around to the tent. It was a wide, low structure, coming to its highest — about a man and a half tall — in the center. Rugs and blankets covered the floor, laying atop a tarp that could be seen here and there, poking out from beneath the woven coverings.

“You live out here?” Noah asked, rubbing his head.

“Thousands do,” Amaya replied. “Though there are only a few dozen in our tribe. Why would you head out of the city, if you did not know there were people out here? Were you hoping to die?”

“No, no.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what I was hoping for, really. Maybe to walk to one of the other cities? Maybe just to clear my head. Though it feels more muddied than ever,” he said as he winced.

“That would be the dehydration,” she explained as she brought him a small flask of water. “Drink slowly or you will make yourself sick. It might take you a few days to recover. You can stay here, if you want.”

“Thank you. Please let me know how I can help out, what I can do.”

“You look embarrassed,” Amaya observed.

Noah blushed. “I’m not used to being rescued,” he admitted. “I’m in your debt.”

“It is the duty of any who live out here to help those in need. Even those who may be on the run from the law.” She gave him a pointed look.

“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that!” he explained. “I didn’t like my life path. I tried to find something else, but it didn’t work out. And going back home…” He put his head in his hands. “Well, that would be giving in, I guess. Admitting that the path was right all along. Plus, my father would have been furious with me.”

“We’ll be here another week or so,” Amaya said. “You can stay with us as long as you like. It this way of life works for you, we are willing to bring you with us, though you would have to get rid of that,” she said as she pointed to his arm.

“My integration?” he asked.

Amaya nodded, revealing her own, unblemished arm. “My family was born and raised out here, so many of us never got them. But we have a few like you, who decided to give up that way of life. There’s no need to make a choice now. You can think about it when we are ready to move on again.”

“How often do you move around?”

“As often as is needed,” Amaya said.

The children woke up next, and Amaya busied herself taking care of them. Noah finished his food, still sipping his water, and got up to explore. Jawad was already out, discussing something with a group of other men. Noah wanted to thank him, but it all looked important, so he kept walking. Everyone seemed busy. People carried, tended to camels, repaired clothes and tents, even the children were running around and toting things for their parents.

He helped a group of kids who were struggling to carry some heavy, rolled rugs from one tent to another, getting a brief thanks and high-fives from the group before heading on. Nobody seemed terribly surprised by, or interested in, his presence, and Noah wondered how common it was for people like him to end up out here. He was surprised by how much he noticed the lack of everything he was used to in the city. They had tools, but they were mostly hand tools, and there wasn’t even evidence of more primitive tech — no generators, no cables running here or there. Tents were lit with fires or by rolling up the sides, allowing the natural light in. Children played with handmade toys, the occasional plastic creation from the city. A small oasis, the water ringed by sparse trees, was just beyond the camp, and there was a line of people moving water from it. Everyone was sinewy, thin, their clothes loose-flowing. He was shocked, later in the morning, when a truck rumbled up from over the dunes and stopped nearby. A string of men greeted the driver, and supplies were traded off the back. It appeared to be mostly food traded for some of the woven work the people had made. Noah was recognizing more of the designs now from where they had been used to accentuate or decorate offices back home. He had always figured they were made in some factory in the city, but they originated from a weaving tent that formed the center of the encampment. Twenty women worked at looms, children sorting through baskets of wool, a small herd of sheep — freshly shorn and bleating — meandered in a small, makeshift pen outside, an awning providing them shade from the sun.

“They’re hardy animals,” an old man said beside him, watching Noah as he looked at the animals. “One of the good things to come out of the cities,” he jerked a thumb back towards the wavery metal outline of the city in the distance.

“You didn’t raise them here?”

“Oh, they’re raised here,” the man chuckled. “Generations of them. But those big-wigs bred them heartier. Need half the food and water that they used to. Makes our work much easier.”

“If you use them, why not other things?” Noah asked. “I mean, I guess I get not using the AI. But lights? Or even cooling? There’s clothes they have, they’ll keep the sun off of you, easier than all of this.”

The man shrugged. “What we have, works,” he said, taking a deep drag of a pipe. “Why muss about with it?”

He didn’t seem to want to talk further, and Noah made his way back to Amaya’s tent. He had heard that people lived out in the vast desert that separated the cities, sure. But he had alternated through his life between not quite believing it, or imagining some miniature version of the cities. Smaller towns, using the same tech. Nothing like this…

“You said you wanted to help, right?” Amaya asked, emerging from the tent with a large basket of fruit. “I need these all peeled. Mind getting to it?” She passed him the basket and reached out briefly, touching his arm. “You’re going to get burnt, walking around in that. You’re a bit shorter than him, but I will see if I can adjust any of my husband’s clothes to fit.”

“Oh, thank you!” Noah said. “I don’t want to be too much trouble.”

“That’s why you’re peeling the fruit,” she said with a kind smile. “I hate how sticky it gets. Now, get to it. If you get it done by dinner, I’ll give you extra dessert, but don’t tell the children.”

She bustled away, and Noah found a spot under the tent, grabbing another basket for the peeled fruits. They were tightly woven and looked as homemade as everything else. He hadn’t really done anything like this, and it took him a minute to get the swing of it, using the small peeling knife tied to the basket. But once he got the movement down, he fell into a rhythm, letting his mind drift as he listened to the hum of the camp. It was much quieter than the cramped basements of the movement had been, and the air smelled clean and bright. Before he knew it, it was dusk. He carried the basket to Amaya, wondering what Andi was doing. She wouldn’t be able to see a sunset like this in the city. He wished he could share it with her.



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