Sundown was a huge relief for the travellers, celebrated for them in glowing ambers and burning purples, like the landscape was lightning them a bonfire. As the sky’s gradient bled from blue through to yellow and then white along the horizon, the rock formations changed as many colors as the travellers had walked miles that day, and the temperature dropped as quickly as their tensions.
“Oh thank goodness,” Mills said when he was finally able to remove the wrap that had been pulled tightly around his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved in my life.”
“It feels so good, the wind,” Xala murmured, smiling blissfully into the sunset.
In the near distance, a pair of long-limbed chun chased each other across the sand playfully.
“Are there any Yutas out here?” asked Mills.
“No, most likely not,” answered Laquin. “Their skin can’t handle the heat. Ours can’t, either, really, but we wear clothes.”
“Help me gather wood,” Orn called to the others. “We’ll get a fire going and have something hot for dinner.”
There was only small bits of wood to be found, from a strange tree that had sprung up about halfway through the day’s journey. It had a spindly trunk that wove in and out of itself, and pointy, yellow, star-burst leaves that acted like daggers if one came at them the wrong way. The fire Orn built went up fast, and burned through the thin little pieces of dry wood quickly, so it needed constant feeding. Anaxis tended to it, while Mills tended to his blisters, Xala her aching muscles, and Laquin the small dinner she was preparing.
“What’re we having?” Mills asked as he examined a sizeable blister on his foot.
“Don’t pop that,” Laquin said from where she stirred a pot. “Let it work itself out.”
“But it’s huge!” Mills said. “I don’t think I can fit my shoe around it again.”
“It’ll squish,” Laquin said.
Mills poked at the watery bubble on the bottom of his foot and frowned.
“Does anyone else need any relaxant?” Xala asked. She was massaging a greenish cream onto her legs, taken from a glass container in her bag.
“I may tomorrow,” said Orn. “But I feel alright today.”
“Best to take care today, and prevent twice the hurt tomorrow,” Xala said. “It’s a tincture made from venudi bush. It works like a charm.”
Orn broke the last of his dried meat sticks into the pot Laquin was stirring and relented. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll use a little.”
“The walk wasn’t so bad,” Anaxis said, “Once I fell into the groove of it. I stopped thinking about walking and let my mind wander. It really wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
“Nothing’s as bad as it could be until you’re dead,” Laquin said. “And then you’re dead, so who cares? Want to try some?”
She offered some of the greyish goop from her pot to Anaxis on a long spoon. Anaxis stuck out just a bit of his tongue, as if tasting only a bit of the goop wouldn’t be as bad should it have been terrible, and dipped it into the foodstuff. It wasn’t immediately horrible, so he rolled it around inside of his mouth.
“Not bad,” he said after a long assessment. “Not bad at all!”
“Really, though?” Mills asked. “Like, not bad because you’re not dead, or actually edible?”
“It’s better than breakfast,” Anaxis said.
“Well that’s not saying much, but I’m glad to hear it,” said Mills.
The stars started to show, and the moon Paya came visible over the horizon.
“There’s old Ms. Paya now,” Xala said. “She looks good, despite her age.”
“I wonder when the last humans were out here, where we are,” Anaxis said. “Do you think ever?”
“Oh, probably,” Orn said. He passed around barkplate bowls of the grey goop as Laquin filled them.
“What, no spoon?” Mills complained.
“Use your fingers,” Laquin said. “That’s another reason to not pick at your feet.”
Mills grumbled and picked at his dinner.
“Humankind was much more active on Valor, before the war,” Orn said. “I’m sure some passed through where we are now.”
“The war?” Anaxis repeated.
“The war to end all wars,” Orn said. “Maybe three thousand and five hundred years ago.”
“Who fought it?” asked Anaxis.
“The kingdoms of Gnirea and Allovast,” answered Orn.
“Allovast?” Xala repeated. “I’ve never heard of such a place.”
“It hasn’t existed since the war,” said Orn. “Much of the world was different then. The desert we’re on now was probably teeming with jungle. But the weapons they used were so terrible that they destroyed not only Allovast, but most everything else.”
“How is that possible?” asked Anaxis. “How could any weapon do that?”
“They were horribly careless in their abuse of technology,” Orn said. “They split the very universe open on top of each other. With weapons of such immense power that they leveled cities, turned rivers to deserts.”
“We’ll come upon the ruins of one such city tomorrow,” Laquin said.
“What was the war over?” Mills asked, licking his bowl of the last of its goop.
“No one remembers,” said Orn. “But when all was said and done, Gnirean was the only city left on the planet. Those that didn’t agree with them were forced to flee, forced to live in the scorched remains. People like yours.”
“So the Gnirean are monsters after all,” said Mills.
“To a certain point of view,” said Orn. “Those that fled their dominance were not forced to. They chose to, because they disagreed with how the Gnirean chose to live.”
“I would have, too, if they caused such destruction,” said Mills.
“It wasn’t just them, Mills,” Laquin said. “Allovast used the same weapons. They just lost the war, is all.”
“So why do they continue to scour the desert with their flying destructors?” Mills asked.
“For protection,” Orn said. “There was a revolt against them, a rising up of the people dispossessed, some five hundred years after the war. Gnirean offered them peace, and the revolutionaries accepted the peace, were allowed into the city, and then nearly destroyed it, from the inside-out. And so Gnirean distrusts anyone from outside their walls now. They live their lives of ease and send out their drones to make sure no one ever attempts another move against them.”
“So we have to live in the dirt because of the decisions some people made a long time ago?” Mills asked.
“Yes,” said Orn. “Unfortunately.”
“But we don’t need them,” Anaxis said. “Whatever they have, we can discover for ourselves. We can rise up out of the desert and be whatever we want to be. There’s nothing they understand or possess that we can’t, if we put our minds to it.”
“That’s my boy,” Xala said proudly.
“Until their drones come around and blow it up,” Mills said.
“Then we’ll start again,” said Anaxis.
“All hope is not yet lost,” said Orn. “The coming of the spacecraft that we found crashed is everything Gnirean fears.”
“Why is that?” asked Anaxis.
“Because it’s proof of our real heritage. That they’ve suppressed for so long. That could set their blind citizens and everyone else on this planet free,” said Orn.