Note: Please use the hashtag #ea0107 when discussing this piece on Twitter. For Facebook discussion, check out and follow the Centre for Science Fiction & Fantasy page.
‘Maybe you want to put that weapon down, son.’
I never figured out how Moore could sound so calm with the barrel of a gun pointed at him. The two strangers standing on the edge of our lands were haggard, thin, and twitchy—the worst kind of travelers on Nuaga. Moore looked like royalty compared to them, in their threadbare clothes. But the way he squared his shoulders, the way his low baritone issued smoothly through the dry air—that was the real source of his authority, which set him apart from the wanderers and from me.
The stranger holding the gun flicked his eyes between us. I was pressed against the ancient, long-dead harvester on the edge of our land, with my gloves wrapped around an old rifle that was levelled at the man’s head. I wasn’t a very confident shot, but I tried to pretend by borrowing some of Moore’s calm.
‘We just need some water,’ the gunman said. His companion nodded in rapid agreement. ‘Please.’
‘And like I said, we don’t have any to spare.’ Moore shook his head. ‘I wish the condensers were working better this season, but they aren’t. If I had anything to spare for you, I would.’
‘How do I know you’re not just feeding me lies?’ the gunman hissed.
‘You’ve visited a few homesteads, I imagine?’ The gunman nodded. ‘Is anyone faring well these days? Is anyone sitting on some miracle cache of water that no one else knows about? Has someone figured out how to tame the clouds?’
I felt the usual anxiety at the back of my neck—a bizarre mix of hopefulness and fear of that hope being broken again. Moore asked the same question of everyone that passed by their homestead: has someone tamed the clouds? Had someone else solved the puzzle and saved the world?
But the gunman just hissed again. ‘No one controls the clouds, old man. They drop water whenever they please.’
Moore sighed and spread his hands. ‘Then we’re at an impasse here, son. The clouds don’t favour me anymore than they favour you. More time spent demanding something I don’t have just means you’ll be thirstier when you find someone who can help you. And if you decide to shoot, odds are that you and your friend won’t walk away alive.’
I caught the gunman’s eye again and decided to wink.
‘Let’s just go,’ the gunman’s companion said. He grabbed his friend’s scrawny shoulder. ‘Let’s just go.’
The gunman blinked a few times and turned away. The two of them started down the rocky slope, and I saw Moore’s shoulders relax. Conveying that kind of authority took energy, he had once told me. I blew out a cautious breath.
I didn’t see the gunman turn until it was too late.
His face tightened into a mad, desperate snarl as he raised the gun. It clicked twice in the time it took me to level the rifle again and fire. Despite not being much of a shot, I hit the gunman square in the forehead. His companion cried out and started running.
I didn’t even think. It took two shots to bring him down, and then the rifle was out of my hands and I was running to Moore.
One of the gunman’s wild shots had missed. The other had struck Moore almost in the centre of his chest. Blood was pumping furiously from the wound; it swirled around my hands as I pressed them to his shirt. I had no way of knowing what damage might have been done, and in my panic I had no idea how to save him. Applying pressure seemed natural, but other than that I was at a loss.
I heard shouts from the homestead and saw two shapes running toward me: Warren and Lecea. They had been watching from a distance—just in case, Warren always said.
One of Moore’s hands gripped my shoulder. Even then, his eyes were still surprisingly calm.
‘The work…’ he whispered weakly.
Then his hand dropped to the stony ground, and he closed his eyes.
We buried Moore on a hill behind the homestead, where the cracked ground was a little softer. The two strangers went in a deep crevice off our property and weren’t spared another glance. Supposedly, elsewhere on Nuaga, there were people who extracted all the fluids from the dead before they were buried, not wanting to waste an ounce of liquid. None of us believed in that.
Warren was silent through the entire process. He and Moore had been married for almost forty years, back on Earth. Where Moore was calm and approachable, Warren was firm and tight-lipped; they had seemed to complement each other perfectly, though I didn’t have any couples to compare them to. He barely breathed as he stared at the grave.
Lecea stood apart from us, chewing on a fingernail. Part of me wanted to take that hand and hold it, but I got the feeling she wouldn’t want that. We were close in ways that were mostly physical, but that kind of comfort didn’t seem like one of them.
There were a few clouds in the sky as the sun started to set. None of them passed directly overhead, and none of the Tamrynites within chose to drop any rain.
We walked back to the homestead in silence. Lecea said something about checking the condensers, and drifted away. Warren said nothing as he opened the door to the old habitation pod. He and Moore had lived there alone for six years after the Landing, before taking Lecea in, and me the year after. I watched him pause at the threshold and rub the back of his broad, brawny shoulders before he disappeared inside.
I ended up at Moore’s makeshift workshop without really thinking about it. I shut the door to the converted supply container, turned on the one working light, and sat down on the stool beside Moore’s desk. The metal chair he had made for himself sat empty a few metres away.
The workshop was a mess of cobbled machinery, bundles of wire, and scattered notes written on old multi-use sheets. A lot of the settlement equipment that had proven useless on Nuaga had ended up in there: fertilising pods, drones for monitoring crops, hydroelectric converters. There was little tangible evidence of Moore’s various attempts to attract the Tamrynites; there weren’t a tonne of materials on hand, so we had to keep recycling components over and over. Some of his original notes were stuck to the walls, as well as transcripts and screenshots from before the communications network went down. I remembered from my first homestead how people had shared ideas freely after the Landing, having realised that Nuaga wasn’t the temperate gem the people of Earth had thought. It didn’t take long after the network died for people to turn into savages.
One of the screenshots was a photo of Professor Tamryn, the man who had figured out how Nuaga could have so many clouds and such arid terrain; the man who had discovered the Tamrynites and shared sensor data showing the tiny aliens living in the clouds, feeding on hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Moore had explained Tamryn’s theories to me a couple of times, and while some of it had gone over my head, I understood that the rain we depended on for survival was just waste to the Tamrynites, full of nitrates and other substances that they either couldn’t ingest or just didn’t enjoy. They stored this waste water for a while, dumped it on whoever was lucky enough to be beneath them at the time, and drifted higher into the atmosphere to collect fresher H2O.
Moore had idolised Tamryn, always saying that he wished he had half of the professor’s genius. I thought the two were a match. It was Moore who had built the collectors and spread them out to catch the water the Tamrynites discarded, Moore who had adapted the habitation pod’s water purification system into condensers to draw moisture from the air. Moore was the smartest man I had ever known.
I must have sat there for a while, just staring at the notes and the hodgepodge of equipment, before Lecea came inside. The open doorway didn’t cast any light into the room.
‘You should get some sleep. Warren wants to run a full diagnostic on the condensers tomorrow.’
I thought she had left, but she eventually said, ‘It wasn’t your fault, by the way.’
‘I’ve read that line in a lot of stories in the Library,’ I said without turning. ‘Doesn’t make much of a difference.’
She closed the door without saying anything else.
I decided to sleep on the floor of the workshop.
The condenser diagnostics were pushed aside when a packer wandered onto our land. Every meagre life form on Nuaga had adapted some way to survive the Tamrynites’ unpredictable water cycles; for the four-legged packers, that equalled two fleshy sacks hanging from their torsos, which stored water for their body to slowly siphon from. A lot of them were hunted and killed when people’s water stores started to disappear, but there were a few in our area that didn’t fear us.
I was halfway through drawing water from the sedated packer—not enough to harm it, but a sizable quantity for us—when I heard a crash from Warren’s lab. I left Lecea to finish up and ran over there as quickly as I could, imagining some stupid accident taking my last remaining father figure the day after I lost Moore.
The door to the lab—another converted storage container, like the workshop—was hanging open when I got there. Inside, I saw our meagre root vegetables untouched to the left, along with Warren’s meticulous workstation. Further down, Warren was leaning over a jumble of equipment, disconnecting wires from circuit boards and organising the parts.
‘What are you doing?’
‘None of this has gotten any results,’ Warren said as he finished with another board.
‘I thought you were making progress,’ I said. ‘Reverse-engineering the crops could—’
‘Could what?’ Warren snapped. He grabbed a container of plants—part of an experiment he had started a year earlier—and dumped them into the organic reducer, to be mulched.
‘It could save us.’
Warren grimaced as he started cleaning out one of the jars he used as a beaker.
‘Nothing is going to save us.’ I had never heard the burly old man speak in such a harsh whisper. ‘Moore was the only one who was close enough to that, and look what happened to him. This has all been a waste of my time.’
‘Look, maybe if you just—’
The jar shattered against the far wall. ‘It was a waste! Do you understand? My greatest mistake was thinking that I could actually accomplish something here. That any of us could. The only thing that matters is staying alive in this God-forsaken place, not…not screwing around with toys, thinking we can change the world.’
Before I realised it, I was inches from Warren’s face. ‘How dare you? Moore dedicated his life to this kind work. He believed that—’
‘Oh, he believed, all right.’ Some of the anger seemed to leave Warren. He leaned over the edge of one of his little gardens, staring down at the tiny vegetables inside as they tried to grow with their limited water. ‘And he was wrong. Every experiment..they were just forestalling the inevitable. Foolish ideas aren’t going to keep us alive. I’ve wasted enough time and energy as it is. I’m done with it.’
Warren went back to dismantling his equipment. I wanted to berate him some more, maybe convince him that he was wrong. But I couldn’t think of what to say. Both of us seemed to be out of words. I left and stalked across the homestead to Moore’s workshop, ignoring Lecea’s questioning glance from afar.
I couldn’t give up on what Moore was doing. He had spent years trying to figure out a way to communicate with the Tamrynites—tame the clouds, like he always said. I looked around at the half-finished machinery and the fresh notes Moore left behind.
I knew then that surviving wasn’t enough for me. Just like it wasn’t enough for Moore.
Moore had tried a few different ideas to coax rain out of the Tamrynites, based on what he could cobble together from the equipment inside the pod, but nothing had panned out.
His latest project had involved sound. He figured the Tamrynites had to have a way to coordinate expelling their waste water—even that they might be semi-sentient—and that doing so via a particular noise or vibration would be the most efficient way for creatures their size. He had scavenged the speakers from the pod’s communications system and connected them to one of the portable Libraries, intending to use its vast store of music to try to replicate the Tamrynites’ signals. The only thing left was to boost the speakers’ range and fiddle with the acoustics, since there was no way of knowing what particular frequency might work.
I spent the rest of that first day tinkering, and then into the next. Technical work and programming had always been my knack, Moore had said. Warren stepped into the workshop partway through the second day, saw what I was doing, and wandered back out with a low grumble. I kept working, and when the door opened again, I thought Warren had finally decided to force me to be more useful.
Lecea appeared beside me. ‘You’re making some progress.’
She leaned on the back of Moore’s chair; I had switched its position with the stool. ‘Warren says we’re going to fall behind out there, just me and him. Our stores are already really low.’
I put down the soldering iron I had been using. ‘Did he send you in here to make me stop?’
‘No.’ I glanced over, but she didn’t meet my eyes. I admired her long hair instead. ‘I wanted you to know I’ll pick up the slack for you, until you’re done.’
She caught me off guard by reaching out to touch my hand. We usually only held hands after we’d finished making love in the back of the pod. This was different, and not in a bad way.
‘Let me know if you need any help,’ she said, and left before I could say anything else.
When I was done, I had four speakers hooked up to a heavy amplifier; the portable Library doubled as my control board, for modulating frequencies and so on. I fabricated a wheeled cart for the board, since I was afraid of dropping it. Lecea helped me haul everything out to the tallest hill on our land, after dark when the rest of the day’s work was done.
A group of small clouds passed over our northern collectors about an hour later.
I turned on the machine and picked a particular frequency from a list Moore had jotted down. Lecea and I stood back as sound blasted at the cloud. Nothing happened, so I dialed up the volume until we had to cover our ears. When the cloud still didn’t seem affected, I switched to a second frequency, and then a third as I worked down the list. The Tamrynites continued on their slow path; their cloud didn’t even shift in form.
‘It’s not working!’ Lecea shouted over the noise.
I refused to admit that until we had tried the last frequency, and the cloud drifted away.
A week later, after more failed attempts, I started rummaging through the discarded equipment in the workshop, mulling things over. It was hard to admit that Moore might have been wrong, and I didn’t trust myself to brainstorm another theory. I was worried about Warren’s reaction if I admitted defeat.
I picked up one of the crop-monitoring drones and rotated the disc-like machine in my hands. I wondered what Warren would say if I got them working again and used them to watch for approaching strangers; that would be a useful contribution. I started thinking about how to do it and how high I could get the drones to go—maybe even get one among the Tamrynites, to learn a little more about them.
Something else occurred to me, and I froze. Then I raced back to Moore’s desk and started writing.
Lecea came to the workshop that night, and I explained my idea.
‘The needs of the many,’ I said, and she just blinked at me. ‘I think Moore was right about using sound, but we’re sending our signal from the wrong place. Moore said that the Tamrynites have to communicate with each other—but how do they decide as a group when to release their water? If one Tamrynite starts signalling, but the others aren’t ready or don’t sense the need, the cloud does nothing. But if multiple Tamrynites signal, then the rest of the cloud would naturally follow suit, right?’
‘Okay…but how does that help us?’
I held up one of the drones. My grin was only partly forced; I was still getting past the desire to share my bright idea with Moore.
‘I can attach the speakers to the drones and reprogramme them. They’ll go up into the cloud, spread out, and start broadcasting the same frequency. Once the Tamrynites respond, the control board will lock in that frequency in all the speakers. That’ll trick the Tamrynites into releasing their waste water.’
‘But you would still have to figure out the right frequency,’ Lecea said. I nodded, and she added, ‘Assuming they even use sound waves to talk to each other.’
I frowned. ‘You don’t think this is going to work, do you?’
Lecea studied the equipment, and I noticed her brilliant, blue eyes were sparkling. ‘I don’t know. Moore thought it would. I’ll keep an open mind.’
We brought the equipment back to the hill the next day, as the sun was setting. There was a massive cloud up in the distance, heading directly toward us. Warren was nowhere to be seen; he had started ignoring me completely during the day, and disappearing into the habitation pod before the sun went down.
Lecea helped me set up the equipment. The control board went in the same place as before, and we spaced out the drones so they wouldn’t hit each other when they lifted off. There were four drones, each with a speaker attached to its underside, remotely linked to my control board. I spent a long while hunched over the board. The program I had come up with was entirely automated—the drones would find the Tamrynites, spread out in the cloud, and test different frequencies until they registered a response—but, for some reason, that made me even more anxious about technical failure.
Something crunched in front of me.
I looked up and saw three people standing in front of the drones. They were hard and dishevelled, like the ones from before. The lead man was older, with grey in his receding hairline and a scruffy beard. Something more than the gun at his hip reminded me of the one that had shot Moore. I wasn’t entirely sure why, until he started speaking.
‘Name’s Hoston.’ His voice was low and raw, like so many people who survived on too little water. He glanced at the drones. ‘Looking for my brother. Last I heard, he came out this way.’
I stepped around the control board, thinking of the drones. Hoston slowly drew his gun and I froze. Again I couldn’t find my words.
‘We don’t get many visitors here,’ Lecea said.
‘I know. Figure my brother would stick out in your minds.’
‘And if we told you we haven’t seen anyone in months?’
‘Then I’d call you both liars,’ Hoston said grimly, ‘since I’m the one that sent him here to steal from you.’
Just like that, there was a sick feeling in my gut, a sort of fearful certainty that we were both going to die. My old rifle was back at the homestead. It hadn’t crossed my mind to bring it, even after what happened to Moore. Hoston’s eyes flicked between us, as though he was deciding who to kill first.
I glanced back as Warren stepped onto the hill, clutching our only other weapon: a battered shotgun he and Moore had traded for before they took me in. He stepped up beside one of the drones, and Hoston was smart enough not to even twitch.
‘Your brother killed a member of our family.’ Warren’s voice sounded oddly flat to me. ‘I’d like to assume that wasn’t part of your plan. But I’d be happy to blow your head off, just in case.’
Hoston studied the shotgun. ‘That the weapon that killed my brother?’
‘Time for you and your friends to leave.’
The bizarre déjà vu of the scenario struck me. I had already lost one father like this. I couldn’t lose another.
‘It’s going to pass us,’ Lecea whispered behind me.
My eyes flicked to the cloud. It was almost directly overhead, but I knew there was nothing I could do.
Lecea didn’t feel the same way. I felt her move behind me and saw Hoston’s eyes widen as he lifted his gun. I threw myself to the side, reached for Lecea and missed, and saw the control board light up in the darkness. The gun went off behind me.
The drones whirred to life, kicking up dust and tiny pebbles, and surged into the sky. I flailed and fell onto my back.
The shotgun roared and Hoston stumbled toward me, clutching his shoulder.
I was close enough to Hoston to kick his legs out from under him. He fell to the ground, his cry of surprise and the sound of him hitting the rocks drowned out by a loud chirp from the control board. Warren’s next shot sprayed into the air overhead. I kicked Hoston in the side for good measure. His two friends were scrambling away, hands held high in the air.
The control board chirped again as I got to my feet—that meant the drones were in position and testing the first frequency. Hoston started to rise, but I leapt onto his chest and punched him hard in the face. His gun was already gone, but I raised my fist to punch him again.
Warren caught my wrist and pulled me to my feet. ‘Lecea,’ he barked, and pushed me away.
She was sitting with her back against the control board’s makeshift cart, arms slack at her sides. I landed on my knees beside her and stared at the bloody wound in her chest. It was almost in the same place as Moore’s, and once again I felt helpless.
The control board chirped again—a different tone, but I didn’t register it.
I started fumbling with my shirt, thinking that I should press it to Lecea’s wound, but she caught one of my hands. Her beautiful, brilliantly blue eyes were on the sky. ‘Look.’
At first, I thought she’d be watching the cloud, but she was trying to look behind her at the control board. I looked up and saw green lights shining bright from the controls. There were no more chirps. There didn’t need to be.
Rain started to patter around us.
‘It worked,’ Lecea said. Her lips curled upward in amazement. ‘You did it.’
The cloud kept drifting with a strangely ponderous graze, and my cheeks were wet before the raindrops fell against them. I glanced behind me and saw Warren still standing over Hoston, but neither of them were paying attention to the other. Their stunned looks were fixed upward as the rain started to fall more heavily than I had ever seen before.
‘Moore did it,’ I said to Lecea. ‘He’s the one who saved us.’
But she was already gone, the tiny smile of amazement permanently etched across her face.
Oblivious to us, the Tamrynites eventually moved on.