The sands are full of bones. Bleached white bones from creatures long-gone litter the dunes, empty rib cages pointing to the sky. The shifting winds cover some and reveal others as they scour across the barren landscape; no valley is ever the same twice. The lightest bones stay on the surface, pulled about by the harsh wind – a never-ending dance of the dead. These bones flock together on ridges and then disperse down the sides of dunes, forming temporary reefs and shoals in the sea of sand.
On higher ground, there are other bones. The bones of buildings that once, the stories say, reached up to the sky. Now they are rubble, jumbled shapes of steel and stone that no longer show their original purpose. No wall stands higher than twice a man’s height, no roof stretches over more than a few spans.
We shelter in the wreckage of the past, using what little shade the tumbled walls still provide. We cannot build as the ancients did, but simply scavenge. Their fallen structures are our protection from the sun’s glare, the scraps of metal that survive them are our tools, our weapons.
Our world is small. No man can carry enough water to travel far from the settlement, and no man who tries returns. The sands shift constantly, and it is easy, even close to the settlement, to become disoriented. We make our home in the only visible building as far as the eye can see – the tallest, most noticeable part of this wasteland – and yet every year, we lose people. Children, wandering from the safety of the broken walls, are lost to the endless sands. Men and women, out scavenging or hunting in the wastes, never return. Sometimes, borne by the winds across the dunes, their bones do.
There are stories of other settlements. Stories of strangers met in the wastes, stories of seeing smoke on the far horizon. Stories that, beyond the endless sands, there is something else. A place where more than sparse moss grows in the shadow of walls, a place where other animals than dust-grey lizards can be found. But these are stories, and nothing more.
Wilder stories, too, are told around our little flames. Stories of a world that was once fresh and green. Stories of the tall cities of ancient men, the glowing lights and machines that could carry more than any man. Stories of science and magics and wonders that are long since gone. And there are stories, little more than myth or fantasy, of water.
There was once, it is said, more water. Water everywhere. Water that fell from the sky, and ran in channels, and filled valleys. There was a time, the children recite, when “sea” meant endless water, teeming with life, and not bare and empty sands. A time when we drank, and washed, and even played, with water, never thinking of the waste. There was a time when you could drink as much as you wanted, could travel for days in any direction and be sure of finding water there. Even travel across water, swept across the not-dry sea by the winds. So much water you could never count it, never use it, never run out.
But these are all just stories. Half-remembered truth from bygone times mixed with lies to comfort children and amaze the foolish. There never was such water, there never were such seas. Since the time of my father, and his father, and their fathers before them, there have been the sands. Since the dawn of this settlement, there have been the sands.
We have water. We have water because we have dug for it, sending wells far, far down into the earth. We have water because we set traps for it, guiding the few scarce drops that form in the shade down into carved bone bowls. We have water, but never enough.
We husband it carefully. Each man, woman, and child receives the same allotment. Every day, we fill our bottles from the store and drink from it sparingly, only drinking when we must. There is no water-sea, no sky-fall of precious liquid. There is only the bottle, and the hollow sound of emptiness it makes at the end of each day.
They are cruel stories, I think. Cruel stories that make us long for a world that can never be, perhaps never was. Stories that make the harsh ache in our throats smart the worse, stories that make our pitiful wells seem a mockery of water. If we had no such stories, we would know no other way. We would not long for cool seas and falling rain. We would be content with this dry world and our jealously-hoarded shade.
But I am not content. Every night, I close my eyes and dream of a soft breeze across blue water. I dream of a sun that warms, not one that glares and threatens angrily, a red ball of rage in a shimmering sky. I dream of exploration, of finding some way to leave our little settlement and travel out, carried by winds across shifting sands to a new, wetter world.
At noon, when no one scavenges or walks in the waste, I watch. I sit in the shade of a stone block, and watch the sands. I see the bones drift past, the creatures with no names that still swim in a dry sea. I see the dunes rise and fall in front of me, and wish for something new. I wish for a dark shape on the horizon, a traveller from distant lands or a relic of the past world. I wish for a cloud to float across the sun, for cool drops of water to fall from the sky. They are cruel stories, but I cannot get them out of my mind.
I watch the sands, and I dream of a better world.