Coals of Fire: The Golem (VIII)

As promised, here is some more writing that is not ‘The Singularity’. We rejoinColin and Mohammed in the desert …

*

After half an hour of walking the ground became more uneven. They came across places where the rock had either risen or fallen, creating mini plateaux that rose up fifteen feet above them, and deep sinkholes that fell away into darkness. Colin peered into them hopefully, but Mohammed shook his head: there was no water to be found there.Still further they came to the entrance of a network of shallow gulleys, smooth and rounded as if great worms had made their home there and worn them down with their passing. Colin hung back suspiciously, but Mohammed showed him how he had marked each fork and turning, showing the way he had gone before, and he led the way confidently.

Colin was soon lost, bewildered by the sheer number of forks and turnings. Every gulley was an identical shade of red-brown, identically formed into a smooth, shallow trough that barely shaded them from the rising sun. Mohammed strode ahead on long legs, without hesitation, and Colin followed close behind him; to lose himself in such a place would be certain death.

By the time they reached the end of the network and clambered out on to a narrow plateau it was midmorning. The sun beat down hard upon them, almost a physical weight on Colin’s shoulders. He was drenched with sweat, and longed to strip off the clinging grey one-piece; but Mohammed warned him against it.

“Better to sweat than to burn,” he said.

Their trek had brought them three hundred feet up; from where they stood they could see the network of gulleys sprawling down towards the distant rocky plateau where their ravine snaked back and forth in a dark jagged line. Beyond lay nothing but soft dunes of bright sand undulating endlessly towards the piercing sky on the horizon. Mohammed pointed into the emptiness.

“That is where I found you,” he said. He moved his hand a few degrees to the left. “That is where I came down, on the other side of the canyon.”

“Do you think there might be others?” asked Colin, squinting against the sunlight. “The man I killed, the woman who attacked you … Do you think we were all prisoners?”

Mohammed shrugged. “There is no way of knowing. Not unless we meet someone else.”

“And what if they try to kill us as well?”

The Somalian’s smile was feral. “Then I shall pray for them,” he said.

*

The trees Mohammed showed him were gnarled and stunted, struggling for life in a deep crack in the rock. They scoured the area for half an hour, driving their arms into every crack and crevice, sniffing and listening, straining for any sign of water. Colin followed Mohammed’s lead, though he had no idea what he was doing — it occurred to him that, left to his own devices, he would have been dead within days, attackers or no attackers. The desert would have finished him off as surely as any blade or bullet.

Exhausted, he slumped down in a scrap of shade. His side was a gnawing knot of pain; he clasped it with his hand and gritted his teeth, willing the pain away.

“Does it hurt?”

He looked up. Mohammed was standing over him, a bundle of wood under his arm. Colin shook his head.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I just need a drink.”

Mohammed nodded grimly and squatted beside him. “As do I,” he said. “If we find no water today we shall have a hard time of it tomorrow.”

“There must be water somewhere,” Colin said. “These trees are drinking something.”

“It may be they collect dew overnight,” Mohammed suggested. “Or else they can survive for many weeks on the rainfall of a storm. There is no way of knowing when the next rains may come.”

“Then why are we here?” Colin closed his eyes and rested his head on the rock behind him. “Why drop us out in the desert with a bottle of water and a bag of supplies if they just mean for us to die slowly? Why not just shoot us in the head and be done with it?”

“It may be a test of some kind.”

“Or a contest? Maybe we are supposed to kill each other after all — take each other’s supplies, food, water. Last man standing is the winner.”

“That would serve no purpose. It—”

He stopped mid-sentence. Colin opened his eyes. Mohammed had stood up, his hand shading his eyes, gazing intently into the distance.

“What—” Colin began, but Mohammed held up a hand, cutting him off. A moment later Colin saw why.

A black speck had appeared, a hand’s breadth above the horizon. As they watched the speck grew larger, and after a minute or so they heard the sound it made — thukkathukkathukkathukka — growing louder and louder by the minute, until they could clearly see the bulky outline of the military helicopter bearing down on them.

Colin stood up and raised his hands to signal to it, but Mohammed knocked them down and shook his head, pointing as the chopper veered away. A shape had detached itself from the back of the craft, boxy and cumbersome; as it fell a parachute billowed out above it, lowering it gently through the air until it disappeared into the canyon. The helicopter was already well away, the sound of its rotors fading into the still silence of the desert.

“What was that?” Colin asked when the helicopter had finally disappeared.

Mohammed rubbed his scar absent-mindedly — the first time Colin had seen him behave in a way that was not under his complete control. “A supply drop,” he said.

“Do you think we could find it?”

“Undoubtedly.” The Somalian was staring at the spot where the shape had entered the canyon. “But it is not, I think, a question of whether we could; it is a question rather of whether we should.”

“Why not? There could be food down there — water, medicines, weapons.”

“I am certain we would find all those things. But consider this: if we are not the only ones out here, then we are not the only ones to have seen that helicopter, or that supply drop. Others may be making their way there even now. Judging by our encounters so far, we may not wish to meet them.”

Colin stood up, closing his eyes against a wave of dizziness. His side was still throbbing, and the pain was worse than ever.

“Look,” he said. “I understand you want to be careful. But there’s no water up here — none that we can get to, anyway. Our only chance of survival is down in that canyon. And the quicker we leave, the sooner we’ll get there, maybe before anyone else.”

Mohammed’s brow was furrowed, and he did not answer straight away. He continued to stare out over the broken terrain, hardly blinking even in the full glare of the sun.

“Have you given any thought to the idea that it may be a trap?” he said at last. “Whoever has left us here may well be trying to entice us together into one place.”

“Trap or no trap, we need the water; I’m pretty sure I need the medicines; and a weapon or two wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world right now.”

Mohammed stood in silence for a while longer; then he nodded and turned away. “Very well,” he said. “We shall go. I do not believe it is the wise thing to do, but it is my no means the most foolish. Can you walk?”

Barely. “I’ll be fine,” Colin said. “Let’s get going.”

He let Mohammed get a head start, and when he was sure the Somalian would not look back he gingerly unzipped his jumpsuit and touched a finger to his side. The dressing was wet with blood, and when he raised to finger to his nostrils he could smell the infection setting in. There had better be antibiotics in that supply drop, or very soon it wouldn’t matter who else was out here.

He zipped up the suit, and followed Mohammed in silence.

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