“Come on. If we hurry, we’ll make the shade of the bluff before I burn to a flaming crisp.” Her voice sounded muffled under the hood.
Kiro frowned at her coarse language, but didn’t comment.
The pair trudged over the cracked earth in silence. Anouche could feel the heat seeping through the soles of her hide boots. The village youth would goad each other to walk barefoot across the scorching ground, the first to cry out would forfeit whatever trinket that was on the line. A grin twitched at the corners of her mouth. Despite her delicate skin, she had never so much as whimpered when Kiro and the other boys had dared her. She pressed dry lips together and banished the thought––too old for children’s games.
Sweat trickled down Anouche’s back by the time they reached the ridge. After checking for stone adders, she slumped against the rock face, grateful for the meager shade. She shook her nearly empty canteen, but didn’t drink. Instead, she stripped off her dust shield and peeled her sticky shirt away from her skin.
Seemingly unaffected by the blistering heat, Kiro put a hand on his hip and glared at her.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
He fiddled with his own water jug, but didn’t offer her any. Anouche nodded and flashed him a toothy grin, pleased that he didn’t treat her like a soft Offworlder.
“The river’s dry, Kiro. We have to do something. Without water the Tribe will die.” She grimaced and brushed a damp lock of hair off her forehead. “Some of us sooner than others.”
“But this is suicide. Remember what happened to Calfour-lin?”
Anouche wrinkled her pointed nose. She should still smell the sickly sweet fetor of burned flesh. When the Shaman’s apprentice had tried to touch The Relic, tiny lightning bolts had seared his skin. He’d collapsed, limbs a quiver and eyes rolled back into his head. They’d brought Calfour to Anouche’s mother, body limp, his heart slowed to a weak, syncopated rhythm. There was nothing the healer could do. Mother and daughter held the young man’s hands as the light faded from his eyes.
Anouche drummed her heel against the cliff face, knocking loose a shower of sandstone pebbles.
“Blast it! What’s the point of an all-knowing Relic, if no one can touch it? There has to be a way.” Her outburst echoed off the canyon walls.
“Even if you could touch it without getting zapped to the afterlife, there’s no guarantee the cursed thing has information on how to end the drought. It’s all Offworlder legend.”
Kiro’s lips curled, as if the word tasted bitter on his tongue. He caught Anouche’s simmering blue gaze and schooled his features. The tips of his ears turned a dark, dusky rose. He cleared his throat and changed tactics.
“I thought when you asked me to walk with you this morning…” His voice trailed off and he shifted his feet.
Anouche looked up at him and choked down a bubble of laughter.
“What, you thought I would Challenge for you?”
Kiro’s shoulders stiffened and his face went blank.
“I thought, maybe… never mind.” He turned, but Anouche plucked at his sleeve.
“Hey, you know how I feel about the sun-cursed Challenge. It’s barbaric and degrading.” She scowled. “Men aren’t prizes to be won through bloody combat. You should be able to choose who you mate with.”
Kiro shook her off.
“It’s tradition, Anouche. If you wanted to be with me, you’d put your name in.”
“Why are we always arguing about this? If you wanted to be with me, you’d defy tradition! You know I can’t win. I’m short. Skinny and weak.”
Kiro sighed and brushed a calloused palm across her cheek.
“You’re the toughest girl I know.”
Anouche leaned into the caress for a heartbeat before pulling away. She narrowed her eyes in accusation.
“Stop trying to distract me. Let’s go. We’re almost there.”
Without another word, she spun and stalked up the winding trail, leaving Kiro no choice but to follow behind.
The ridge path twisted and turned, so narrow it forced the pair to walk single file. Anouche set a swift pace. Her legs burned, and she sucked in ragged breaths, but was too proud to slow. She wasn’t certain if she was trying to prove to Kiro that she was strong or unafraid of what loomed ahead. Clenching her jaw, she refused to acknowledge either weakness.
As they reached the plateau, sun glinted off metal. Anouche shielded her eyes with her hand and stared.
“Great Serpent, it’s beautiful!”
At her side, Kiro glowered, his mistrust of the alien technology written across his face.
The Offworlder shipwreck lay nestled against a striated butte like a huge, shiny egg. A crack ran along the side and violet light bled out the jagged seam. At the near end, a door gaped open. The same purple gleam radiated from the hole.
Anouche stepped closer. She reconsidered. It was more like a luminescent membrane. Curious, she reached for it.
Brushing aside Kiro’s warning, Anouche’s fingers sunk into the barrier. It felt cool and slippery against her skin. She shot an excited look over her shoulder.
“It’s exactly like Calfour said! Let’s go inside.”
Kiro nodded, face pale.
Nerves thrumming, Anouche grabbed his hand and plunged through the filmy veil, dragging him along with her. It felt like wading through cold, congealed stew. It sucked them in. Time slipped sideways. Lungs burned. Black spots swam in her vision. She took another step and stumbled into the dim room beyond. A moment later, Kiro bumbled into her. He placed a steadying hand on her hip.
Before Anouche oriented herself in the darkness, a sterile, white light snapped on overhead. A clipped, emotionless voice rang out.
“Observation deck: full illumination. Solar capture: one hundred percent with intermittent power surges. Internal atmosphere: eighty percent nitrogen, twenty percent oxygen, and holding steady.”
Heart racing, Anouche peered around, searching for the source of the voice. They were alone. Kiro’s grip tightened around Anouche’s waist. She let out a limp chuckle. It fell flat.
“Any idea what that mumbo-jumbo meant?”
Kiro swallowed hard and shook his head.
Anouche took a deep breath. The air felt heavy––too rich––and a wave of dizziness washed through her. She sagged against Kiro’s broad chest.
“Try to breathe shallower. It seems to help.”
Anouche metered her breathing, and the vertigo passed. Still she didn’t move away, taking comfort in Kiro’s sturdy presence, as she surveyed the odd room. No. Deck. That’s what the disembodied voice had said.
The sloping walls seemed fashioned of the same shining metal as the outside of the ship. A large span of glass covered one side, the view blocked by the striped limestone that the vessel leaned against. Bolted to the floor, rows of chairs faced the window. Anouche grinned and dug an excited elbow into Kiro’s gut.
“Observation deck!” Her voice turned wistful. “I wonder what it was like to watch the stars fly by?”
Kiro shrugged. “Strange, I’d expect.”
“You have no imagination.” She shook her head. “Come on. Let’s find The Relic.”
At the far end of the deck a smooth, handleless door led deeper into the ship, wedged open with a twisted chair. Anouche shivered, imagining the strength––or desperation––it would have taken to tear it up from the floor. She squeezed through the gap.
“It’s too tight. I won’t fit through.”
Kiro’s dark eyes fixed on her. His hand stretched through the slim opening, muscular shoulder jammed up against the doorframe.
“Wait there. I won’t be long.”
“No! Anouche, come back. Don’t touch it!” He groaned as he tried to force himself through the doorway. “Please. We’ll find another way.”
A runner of blue lights lined the hallway. They pulled at Anouche.
“I’ll be quick.”
Kiro pounded against the metal.
“Don’t do this. You have nothing to prove.” His voice grew desperate. “I’ll go to the Council. Beg them to reconsider the Challenge. It’s a stupid tradition! Just come back.”
“It’s not about us.”
Anouche touched her fingers to her lips and then to the back of Kiro’s hand. He tried to grab her but she danced back. His shouts chased her down the hallway.
A gentle, mechanical hum kept Anouche company as she explored the ship. Most of the doors that lined the corridor were closed. A handful opened into identical mundane squares, walls lined with hard beds and sturdy footlockers. Nothing that seemed appropriate to house an all knowing, relic of wisdom. Whatever that might be. Unperturbed, she walked on, filled with the sense she’d know it when she saw it.
Ahead, the hallway ended with another open door. A tickle shivered up the back of her neck as she stepped inside. The hum grew louder.
A high back seat stood at attention before a table covered in a myriad of glowing switches and pulsing lights. The surface directly in front of the chair was inset with a cluster of small square buttons, each etched with an exotic symbol. A huge window set in the wall above, hung like a mirror. Unlike on the observation deck, the glass was opaque.
Anouche stepped closer and the hairs on the back of her arms stood on end. A large green button flickered. Scribed with a circle broken by a dash, her fingers itched to press it. Inside, a tiny voice screamed at her to stop. She tamped it down and reached.
A crackle was all the warning she had. Instinct took over, and she dove to the side. Lightning shot from The Relic. It singed the cuff of her trousers. An acrid scent tickled her nose, as a charred spot on the floor gave off a puff of black smoke. Right where she had been standing a moment before. Anouche scrambled back, heart rattling in her chest.
Tears prickled at the corner of her eyes, and she dashed them away, glad Kiro wasn’t there to see the wasted water. Or her disappointment. She wasn’t special after all. All her aberrant blood, and still she couldn’t touch The Relic. It wasn’t fair their ancestors had locked away all that Offworlder knowledge, when it could hold the key to salvation.
The window brightened in a soft glow.
“Voice protocol: activated. How may I be of service?”
The cool voice emanated from The Relic. Anouche’s stomach flipped. She clenched her fists at her side to keep them from shaking.
“How…” She worked moisture into her dry tongue and tried again. “How do we survive the drought?”
Familiar images flashed over the glass––the rocky butte, the twisting canyon, the dusty riverbed––all from above, as if seen through the eyes of an eagle. The dizzying display slowed, then enlarged on a field of prickly sticks growing just beyond the village’s edge.
“Potable water detected: three hundred meters below the surface. Location for well: ideal.”
Anouche’s forehead creased.
“What’s a ‘well?’”
Drawings flickered across the screen. A deep hole, lined with slabs of slate, slowly filling with water. Anouche watched in amazement, committing every fascinating detail to memory. When the screen went dark, she tore off down the corridor, shouting for Kiro.
As she wriggled through the opening to the observation deck, her boot caught on the doorjamb and she stumbled. Unable to keep her balance, she pitched forward and fell headlong into Kiro’s arms. He swept his eyes over her, desperate hands searching for blood.
“Are you hurt?” His voice hitched. “I heard you scream.”
She thumped a fist on his chest.
“I’m fine, you big oaf.” She looked up at him, face flushed pink. “I know how to save the Tribe. We just have to dig!”
“The Relic? It didn’t burn you?”
Anouche winked. “For once my foul mouth saved the day.”
Kiro leaned close and brushed his lips over hers. Anouche’s eyes glittered.
“What about the Challenge? The elders?”
“If you can find water in the desert, then I figure it’s time for traditions to change.”
Hand in hand, they headed back to the village to revolutionize the future.