“Can you believe all this used to be water?”
We passed lumpy, shining stone with great white figures, curved and with intricate cracks that rose and fell. Hollow shells crunched between my bicycle tires and the loamy soil beneath.
Venice scoffed as her own bike bobbed over the land. “Yeah, if you trust that.”
I squinted ahead and up at the blue-green sky, clear aside from a streak of fading smoke. “Why would the elders lie about it?”
“About a light that took away all the salt water?” Venice lifted her head and looked forward, but not up and at the sky. “Over there.”
Wind whipped across our bodies and howled in the deep, throat-like pit. Clear as a bell, even at our distance.
“Are you sure? They’re not usually out this far.”
My grandmother said once it was called the Mariana Trench, but Venice and I have taken to calling it the great cliffs. A steep slope that gave way to more sprawling, shadowed flats and pits of impossible size and darkness, viewable from the top edge. We approached and saw shapes on the horizon of it.
“Is that it?”
Venice nodded, though I needed focus to differentiate the motion between her bounces on the bike seat.
“But I only see one.”
We pedaled harder until we found the largest shape on the edge of the great cliffs, smooth, inorganic, and mechanical. A propellant fuel tank for the spacecraft, a ship already too far for us to see from the ground aside from its smoke halo over our heads, its discarded and empty propellant tank on the cracked ground and poised half over the edge of the great cliff.
Likewise, we cast our bicycles aside to get closer. Dust kicked up around our feet, loose stone and dirt broken from the impact of the empty tank. “It looks good enough to return,” I said after I counted the minimal number of dents and scratches; not all of them new.
Venice shook her head. “Where are the rest?”
I shrugged and stood up on my tiptoes to peer over the great cliff into the trench below.
Venice groaned. “Oh, no.”
We made a slow advance to the cliff’s edge and squinted in the dimming evening light. Without full sunlight, the basin of the cliffs looked even darker, drearier, than usual and we had little hope of making out any shapes below in its vast depths.
I sighed. “At least there’s one. They can use it again and get more people off the planet.”
Venice said nothing. From our bikes we unfastened bags of coiled rope and heavy metal clasps.
Someone stole the ocean before I was born. My grandmother told me a story of the time when the place we stood was submerged in water. Our home didn’t exist and couldn’t have existed back then, not before the night the water was taken. She told me that, as she slept, the dark sky blossomed with a blazing green light from one horizon to the other, pulsed once, then retreated into the sky again. After that, the salt water oceans were empty. The seas vanished. Creatures that lived inside of it floundered and died to sink into the soil as their meats melted while people figured out what to do next.
By the time my mother was old enough to tell her own stories, the survivors had decided on both a plan and a back-up plan. The back-up plan gave me my position as a scout alongside Venice. She taught me how to do the work, even though she was only two years older than me.
Read the rocket schedules. Watch the sky. Follow the smoke. Then the hard part started.
Venice and I took ends of the long ropes and spread out to either side of the fuel tank. The metal clamps clanged against themselves and against my legs as I ran with all my might.
She took the furthest end of the tank and I knelt down at the opposite side, feeding the ropes through fittings and clamps and affixing it to the side of the tank. I soon realized that Venice hadn’t done me a favor by taking the furthest side. As the sun sank lower in the wide open sky, the shadow of the tank blocked any light I had to work by. I needed to use my battery operated flashlight to finish my work, though I’d planned to save its power for the trip home.
Our shadows stretched along the uneven ground like warped reflections. The tangled roots of our bodies that held us to the earth.
“Ready on this end!” I shouted, my thin, scratchy voice carrying over the lumps and rocks and hollow emptiness around us.
Venice responded, but the wind took away whatever she said.
I pulled myself to my feet and leaned forward to run ahead, but stopped myself short when the sound of clunking came from beside me. From the fuel tank.
I’d heard horror stories about scouts being blown up by gasses pressurizing in the fuel tanks, and had to fight to suppress my urge to drop down and cover my head.
“Portland, are you listening to me?”
Venice’s voice speared me. “I was trying.”
“I said I’m going to stay here.”
I stammered, clambering to catch onto the words that threatened to leave me.
“Don’t try talking me out of it.”
“But the haulers won’t be here until tomorrow,” I managed. “It’ll be cold.”
“Then leave me your coat.”
“Or you could just come --”
“I told you not to do that!” Venice’s shout echoed across the canyon, with a whisper of groaning from underneath her feet to punctuate it.
I sighed and shook out dirt from my clothes. “Venice, I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re just a kid.”
I sloughed off my coat and wind sheared against my exposed flesh. “You’re 15,” I muttered under my breath.
As I approached the fuel tank it shielded me from the wind but not from the chill. The ropes dug against my fingers and palms when I used them to hoist myself up, not that the smooth exterior of the metal offered any purchase. I held confidence in the knots we’d tied, but knew that they left enough slack for the transportation process that the hauler would take it on, back to the upper lands and out of the basin of what once was ocean.
Venice knelt down to meet me as halfway as she could when I held out my coat to her.
“Wait,” I jerked it back and earned a scowl from her. “Tell me what’s going on.”
She let out a half scoff half growl breath and leaned back on her seat. The setting sun cupped the curvature of her face but left her eyes shrouded in darkness. “‘What’s going on?’ That’s the question, isn’t it?”
I paused as she did, waiting in literal suspension for her to continue.
When I didn’t say anything she sighed again. “I want to know where these tanks go. We always scout them out, mark their location for the haulers, and they take them away behind their gasoline-powered trucks. You’ve never wondered where they go?”
I shook my head. “They take them back to where they build the spaceships.”
Venice stayed quiet.
“The ones that take people to other planets, collecting water and looking for signs of whoever took ours. It’s the same kind of thing that this -” I jabbed a finger against the unyielding metal “- fell off of.”
“And you really think that’s what they’re doing?” She asked.
“What do you mean?”
“When people leave the planet, do you honestly believe they’ll come back with more water?”
I hung at her feet, jaw left slack as I tried to parse out a response.
Venice left me no opportunity to do so. “They’re not going to bring water. They’re not going to find who stole it in the first place. The origin of the green light and the promise of water stored in ice on some distant moon or whatever? None of it is real.”
“No,” I said in a breath. “They just won’t be back in our lifetime, that’s all.”
Venice laughed a bitter laugh. “And you think that if you stick around long enough to have babies that will in turn have babies they’ll get to see an ocean? You’re just a scout, Portland. Like me. We make sure that the people who leave have their ships, but there isn’t any room for us.”
“So you’re saying...?” They lied to us? They abandoned us? I tried to finish the sentence but dirt and oil and sweat and tears stung my eyes.
“They left us in this miserable place... to die!” Venice slammed her fist against the discarded fuel tank with a thunder that rumbled through my entire body.
But the rumbling didn’t stop there. The metal creaked and groaned like it felt pain from Venice’s blow and craned backward as though from the force. I wobbled on the ropes and banged against the side of it. Dust flew up around my ankles as new, deep cracks spiderwebbed out.
“Venice,” I breathed. “Venice we have to get down.”
The fuel tank jerked as its foundation shattered. When I looked up, Venice sat hugging her knees and the light that held her face was gone.
“Venice!” I called to her, then shouted again and again. Each time the groaning of the metal overpowered my voice. So I cocked my arm back and swung overhand, the sleeve of my jacket catching her on the broad side of her face and chest.
Venice started like I’d pulled her out of a trance. Even though I couldn’t see her eyes in the dark, I knew she had to be staring at me. I shouted at her again that we had to go, that the fuel tank was about to plummet into the trench with the others. My body begged me to jump back and leave her there if she wasn’t going to save herself, but I held firm and shouted with all my might, “Grab on!”
And to my surprise, she did.
The world spun in a blur as I kicked off the side of the tank with my feet and Venice propelled us further, using the coat between us to pull me along and out of the crackling earth. The edge of the great cliff broke apart and released, taking the fuel tank with it in a cloud of dirt and booming echoes in the trenches below.
Venice and I fought for our breath between the dust and the panic, gripping the sleeves of the coat with white knuckles. And for the first time in years, salt water dripped onto the ocean floor again.
About the Creator
Elizabeth Kaye Daugherty, or EKD for short, enjoys a good story, cats, and dragons.
Though she has always written fiction, she found a love of creative nonfiction while studying at Full Sail University.