The sand was blowing again. It formed a cloud of stinging needles that whipped through the wind, threatening to scour the skin from her bones as it had the vegetation from the sandstone dunes. Aza wrapped her canvas scarf tighter around her face, trying not to breathe too deeply. The fine particles would work their way into the lining of her lungs soon enough, reducing her capacity to inhale and stealing years of her life, but she’d been lucky so far on the journey—she’d found abandoned but functional BioShields before the last two storms. This time, it didn’t seem she’d be so fortunate. When the wind started to change and the moisture was sucked out of the air, there was nothing before her but the monotonous waves of pale stone trapped in their eternal swells and rolls and the wide, yellow expanse of the sky.
Aza wasn’t willing to push the glider any faster—her sail already strained and snapped in the wind despite being nearly completely furled. She scanned the horizon again, chest tightening, hoping for a glimpse of the life-saving green that might indicate an oasis outpost. Nothing but the white stone waves and crags of the Barren met her eyes. A glance over her shoulder confirmed her fears about the changing weather. The mass of the storm was little more than a hazy red outline on the horizon, but she knew that it would be upon her by the time the hour was out. Aza gave the sail a bit more slack, flying across the stone so quickly the little craft threatened to shake to bits. This wasn’t how she imagined her first posting—rattling into the oasis half-dead, flayed by sandstorms, in a glider that was little more than a child’s toy. And alone. That part was the worst. She shouldn’t be alone. No one traveled alone across the great expanse, the Barren, unless they were feral, but the Council of Seven simply didn’t have anyone to send with her at the time, and the Lostara Oasis was about to run out of water. Resources were stretched thin, she knew. Half a dozen wells had gone dry in the last three cycles, and the council was forced to send out trainees to evacuate the citizens of the unlucky oases. Still, she’d been the only Dowser sent without an escort.
The situation was strained in the capital, but here, facing the waves of white stone and the sun-swallowing blood red mass behind her, far from the towering Biowalls and lush gardens that protected the Council of Seven and Asoria City, she couldn’t suppress her rising anger. They shouldn’t have made her pour her energy into years of training if they were going to send her out to the desert and her death.
She gave her head a vicious shake, trimming the sails again and forcing more speed from the glider. It didn’t do any good to linger over the decisions of the Council. They had far more information than she did, and they wouldn’t have given her the grave responsibility of relocating the Lostara Oasis if they weren’t confident in her abilities. She shouldn’t doubt the Council’s decision, and she certainly didn’t want to prove them wrong. They’d taken a risk on her, and she wanted to prove that she was worth it—that the circumstances of her birth weren’t going to define her.
Aza glanced back again. The storm was close enough now that she could see the swirls of differently colored sand and dust, scoured from the surface of the Barren. It was beautiful, the black, gold, and red streams that rolled through the wave of sand, but she knew it would kill her in moments if she were caught in the open. Aza scowled, debating internally. It was forbidden to use her power exclusively for her own gain, but surely an exception would be made if it permitted her to successfully complete her journey and lead the people of the Lostara Oasis to a new well-site. She hesitated, eyes still fixed on the swirling mass that swallowed the landscape. A violent flare of lightning arcing through the storm made up her mind, and she stretched her power forward into the dead earth ahead of her. She Dowsed in vain for a moment, despair blooming every second that she detected nothing except emptiness, but a glimmer caught her attention. Aza latched onto the miniscule spark of life, swinging the rudder of her glider to angle further south, off of her course and towards a massive fissure in the rolling white stone.
She dropped the magnetic anchor of the glider at the edge of the crevice, frantically untying knots and untangling lines to gather the sail cloth in her arms. Aza shoved the cloth into the metal-lined chest that ran along the edge of the glider as the first few stinging bits of sand hit her exposed arms. They felt like nothing more than a tingle, but a single crimson drop of blood pattered onto the deck, the laceration so fine it was invisible. She hissed, pulling her pack over her shoulder and leaping from the deck. Landing lightly on her toes, Aza ran towards the edge of the cravace. She peered over the edge for a moment, staring tentatively into the black depths beneath her. If there was a water source and BioShield down there, she couldn’t see it. Then again, this is what she had trained for all of those years. She was a Dowser—she didn’t need to see water to be certain of its presence. Hissing with pain as the sting of the sand increased, Aza took a few steps back, casting a MagLine behind her. It fixed on the stone with a gentle click, and, with a firm test tug, she planted her feet on the edge of the fissure, took the cable in her hands, and began the descent. Aza had always been more athletic than the other, oasis- or capital-born Dowsers. It had set her apart, easy fodder for snide, cruel comments, and she’d quickly learned to wear long, excessively loose clothing to disguise her naturally muscular form. As she repelled into the crevice, though, the wind growing from a whistle to a scream above her, she was grateful for both her “uncultured” strength and the tight, non-regulation clothing she’d slipped into her pack for the journey.
Aza had guided her craft well—her Dowsing had always been accurate—and only had to swing a few feet to land on the ledge from which the sparkle of life emanated. Between the shadows of the crevice and the rapidly darkening sky, it took a moment of fumbling in the gloom to find the moss film on the cliff wall. Her blindly groping hands sunk into the spongy material, fingers pushing depressions into the dense, moist pad. She was surprised at how fresh the BioShield felt—she’d expected it to be dried out, struggling to sap the last few drops of remaining moisture from the parched air, but it was nearly as thick and lush as if it was new grown. By the time she’d felt her way to the edge of the pad and peeled it away from the cliff wall, shards of sand were beginning to hiss down the sides of the crevice.
It wasn’t a large BioShield, only about a foot and a half wide and five or so feet tall. She had to duck slightly and turn sideways to squeeze through the crack it exposed, spilling out into an open space and pulling the Shield tight against the wall behind her. It was perfectly dark and damp, the air heavy with the scent of rotting vegetation, but the hiss of the sand and scream of the wind was swallowed by the mossy Shield. Aza shivered slightly, suddenly missing the searing heat of the double suns. She pulled the light stick from her pack, shaking it violently. It flickered, but slowly grew to a blue-green glow that illuminated a bit of the space around her.
She was in a chamber, half the natural, rounded corners of the sandstone and half showing the distinctive pattern of rectangular chisel marks from human hands. It wasn’t a large space, but there were a few blankets folded neatly in one corner and a stout chest tucked in the other. Rudimentary shelving had been hacked into the southernmost wall. She opened the chest, expecting the usual array of Asoria City certified and Dowser distributed dried goods stacked in neat piles. It took her a moment to process the neatly stacked items. There were piles of goods, but in small quartz boxes and tightly stitched and oiled furs rather than the transparent algal layer of capital city packaging. It had been more than a decade since the capital had used any sort of animal products, and this BioShield certainly wasn’t that old. More than that, she’d memorized the maps of every shelter between the capital city and Lostara Oasis, and this one, as small as it was, wasn’t marked. She frowned slightly, gazing around again at the chisel marks in the stone walls. There was no record of ferals ever making their own shelters—they were willing to steal and kill decent oasis citizens for mere drops of water. She couldn’t think of another explanation, though. This shelter didn’t grow out of the cliff face out of its own volition—someone built it, and the Council of Asoria didn’t know it existed.
Her frown deepened, and she slipped her hand into her bag, folding back the false bottom to access a hidden pocket. Aza felt a wave of guilt as she pulled the bone knife carefully from the pouch. The capital had strict regulations against the possession of animal products, but, as her classmates never permitted her to forget, her parents weren’t from the capital. Dowsers weren’t permitted to carry weapons, either. They were intended to be Astoria’s agents of peace, and she would have been severely chastised and likely placed in solitary confinement if she’d been found with the blade. Aza tried to follow the Council’s many rules, tried to be as obedient, modest and self-sacrificing as a good citizen should be, but she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of the last traces of her family. The knife, a charm, and a few blurry memories of raised voices, screaming wind, and golden sand were all she had left. She’d been little more than an infant when she’d been abandoned just outside of the city walls, wrapped tightly in a ragged blanket just before the worst sandstorm in recorded history swept in, scraping the land clean of every living thing that wasn’t behind a BioShield. Her teachers in the academy, guardians, and advisors throughout her life reminded her that she was lucky. Lucky her feral parents saw the wisdom of giving her a chance at life in the capital, lucky the patrol had found her and brought her within the city walls, and, most of all, lucky she was the first and only of her kind to be born with a drop of the Dowsing power.
As she sat and listened to the wind scream outside, shivering slightly in the damp chill of the crack, she didn’t feel particularly lucky. Aza placed a tentative hand on the weave of the BioShield. It fluttered like a frightened heartbeat but held firm against the blades of sand she knew pummeled it from the other side. Aza allowed her light stick to flicker out, leaned her head back against the cold wall of the shelter, and calmed her breathing. She couldn’t guess how long the storm would be raging outside—from what she’d seen on the glider, it had looked massive. A storm of that size should have been predictable, should have been something the Council warned her of. But then again, she should have been traveling to her first assignment with a full support team, equipt with portable BioShields and advanced storm prediction. Nothing about this situation was typical for the launch of a new Dowser, and as much as she tried to explain it away, the pit of insecurity rolling in her gut told her that the Council wouldn’t have been so unconcerned if she’d been born in the capital, or even one of the oases. She returned her focus to slowing her heartbeat to near stasis. As calm descended upon her, a more positive thought drifted into her mind. Maybe they’d sent her because they knew she was the only one that could find a way to survive such a journey unsupported and lead the people of Lostara Oasis to safety before their water ran out completely. After all, surviving unsupported in the Barren was what ferals excelled at, and after spending years defending oases and the capital from the ferals’ scattered incursions, the Council should know that better than anyone. She smiled slightly before letting her mind slide away completely.
The silence brought Aza out of her trance. She placed a tentative hand on the BioShield, which hung damp and still once more. The wind had slipped back to its normal murmur rather than the scream of the storm. A few more moments of careful listening confirmed that the hiss of sand had vanished. She slipped through the BioShield, pulling her pack over her shoulder and stepping onto the sand-scoured ledge. Her cable hung, drifting lazily a few feet away, and she used the short ledge to run a few paces before throwing herself into the air. Her hands caught the cable, but she still slid a few feet, burning her palms. Mag cables, being made to retract smoothly, weren’t pleasant to climb, but she eventually threw an exhausted arm over the edge of the ravine and scrambled over the sandstone lip. Aza jogged to her glider, relieved the storm was intense but not particularly long. The craft seemed mostly unharmed, and after a few moments of digging, she cleared the lee-ward side of the sand drifts that had formed. A few grains of sand had found their way through the sealed sail box, but the thick cloth was whole. After a bit of cloth-shaking and line-tying, the craft was skimming along again, hurtling shakily towards the Lostara Oasis.
Aza glanced up from her chart, scanning the horizon. She saw the towering red cliffs that sheltered the oasis from the worst of the storms and the deep crack in the rock through which the community was nestled, but the warding houses marked on her map were missing. There should have been a pair of BioShelters squatting at the base of the cliff, waiting to welcome travelers and keeping watch for storms or wandering bands of ferals. She was sure that this was the right canyon—she was a good navigator, and the surrounding landmarks were exactly as had been described to her. For a moment, she thought that the shelters had perhaps been buried under sand drifts from the most recent storm. But no, as she pulled her craft closer to the cliff, she could see where they should have stood, moored to the soft stone by a series of carved eyelets. They were not buried—they were simply gone. Perhaps they’d already been packed up in preparation for the impending move. Aza tried to shrug off the missing watch shelters as she nosed her craft into the narrow canyon, but a flame of nervousness lit in her stomach and refused to be stifled.
She drifted slowly around the bends in the canyon, carefully piloting around jutting overhangs and sudden turns. The sun was nearing the horizon when she finally made her way around the last outcropping of rock, spilling out of the rift in the cliff walls and into the small valley that sheltered the Lostara Oasis.
Aza gazed out at the expanse of empty sand stretching in front of her, littered with the skeletons of a few buildings before ending in another sheer cliff face. Nothing grew, nothing moved. Even the eternal wind didn’t sigh in this silent nook that should have been teeming with life. She leapt from her glider, not bothering to drop anchor, and strode towards the ruins that should have been a sanctuary. A few wooden frameworks corroded to delicate spires by the sand and wind still stood, but the elaborate water catchment system, the dozens of homes and BioShields, the gardens and animals that should have been nestled in the valley were gone—long gone, if the height of the sand dune were any indication. Aza kicked a loose stone violently, letting out a shout of frustration and agony that bounced off the cliff walls before echoing into the uncaring sky.
“What’s this about, now?” said a grating voice from behind her. She whirled, startled to see a weathered man dressed in layers of beige canvas standing at the mouth of the canyon, next to her glider. He held a crude bow in his hands, arrow knocked but held loosely, pointed at the ground.
“Step away from the glider, sir,” Aza said, striding towards him. By the sun beaten look of his face, the makeshift weapons, and the rags of canvas sailcloth, he must be a feral, hoping to scavenge what little remained of the Lostara Oasis. The man spit on the sand, a supreme insult from someone who ought to treasure moisture.
“You talk Capital,” he said. He looked at her for a moment, head cocked, before snapping up the bow, drawing, and firing in a single fluid motion. Aza squaked, darting left and throwing herself into a graceless roll. She came to her feet in a low crouch. She was eyeing the distance to the glider, wondering if she could make a dash for the deck, where her pack and knife sat, when another voice spoke from behind her.
“Don’t move too Capital, though, do you, darling? Those oafs don’t know their rump from their cap. What’re you doing out here?”
Aza slid a few steps backwards, pivoting so she could see both of the ferals. A woman stood to her right, wrinkled face topped by a cloud of grey hair. Despite her apparent age and the long staff she held, she stood perfectly still and erect. Aza immediately got the feeling that the staff was a weapon, not a crutch, and woe upon any fool that didn’t draw the same conclusion. She considered the couple for a moment. The man’s head was cocked, bow lowered once more, and he looked at her curiously. The woman’s eyes, shockingly blue, were surrounded by a net of crow’s feet and smile lines. Aza hesitated momentarily.
“I appear to have been sent to die,” said Aza, unable to keep either the bitter bite or the choke of tears from her voice. The woman clucked sympathetically, but the man gave a braying laugh which turned to a hacking cough.
“Well, that makes all of us, child,” he said, recovering himself. “Strange that the Council is chucking younglings out to the Barren, now though. What’d you do? Spirituality? Asked questions? Refused to sleep with the wrong Councilor?” The woman gave the man a sharp look, but her eyes swung to Aza, obviously waiting for her answer. Aza stood still for a moment before exhaling sharply, glaring at the sky.
“I existed, I guess. I wasn’t born in the capital, and they took offense.”
“Born in an oasis?” said the woman.
Aza shook her head. “Feral. My parents left me at the gates.”
Both the man and the woman frowned at the word, and Aza shrugged apologetically.
“Unassociated or nomadic is better. But call us what you will, we don’t leave our babes, and the capital certainly doesn’t take them in. Not exactly known for their affection, those arrogant thieves. How’d you end up here in a glider instead of at a mining camp?” The woman rubbed her staff between her hands, letting it twist a divot in the sand.
Aza eyed them hesitantly. Beyond their initial ferocity, they didn’t seem particularly threatening. Besides, she desperately needed help—she’d been relying on the oasis to restock on food and water before leading the people to a new water source, and there was no way she’d survive the trip back to the capital on what she had. Not that she wanted to return to Astoria. She looked at the strip of yellow sky that peeped through the canyon’s walls, scanning the sheer cliffs and glancing again at the abandoned ruin that should have been her oasis. Finally, she met first the man’s suspicious brown eyes and the woman’s keen blue gaze.
“I have certain skills that were in short supply. Not short enough, I guess, for them to get over their prejudice.”
The man’s gaze became speculative. “Well,” he said slowly, finally un-nocking the arrow, “my Vik can weave as good of a BioShield as you’ll see outside the capital, so we’re doing quite well. But if there’s something else you can offer…”
Aza gave him a bitter smile. “I can Dowse.” The man smiled in return, displaying even, shockingly white teeth, and she heard the woman’s short intake of breath.
“You’d be welcome to join us, but you are sure you don’t want to go to a different oasis? Back to the capital? It isn’t a comfortable life out here,” the woman said.
Aza shook her head. “It wasn’t comfortable there, either. I’d rather be with people who wouldn’t send me into the Barren to die.”
The woman smiled as well, reaching out to offer a hand. “Well, then. Perhaps you’d like to meet the rest of our little family group.”
Shaking her hand, Aza let her surprise show on her face. The woman chuckled.
“They might call us feral, but we get along with each other well enough. You didn’t think that everyone was pleased with the Council’s rules, did you?”
“I didn’t think there was another option,” Aza said, following the woman back towards the crack in the cliff where a second, equally rickety glider sat moored behind her own.
The woman laughed. “Oh, child,” she said, “come. Come see the other option. It isn’t the luxury you can find in the capital, but I have a feeling you’ll like it far better.”