In the distance, Laúm could hear a low rumble, and he put the book away. The rumble was growing louder. He looked to the north to see the familiar blinking lights—red and blue—moving steadily along the coast. He touched his glasses to check the schedule. Right on time. He zoomed in with his glasses to watch the landing of the massive silver ship as it turned before it reached the bay. Its eight down-firing fans rippled the dark ocean below as it descended to the platform and covered the painted X. The fan’s roar quieted. A ring of lights encircling the craft lit the ship as its cargo door opened. What wouldn’t Laúm give to fly aboard one of those mighty ships?
Laúm’s glasses faintly buzzed and vibrated. He pushed back his long curly locks and touched his glasses again. It was the expected call from his classmates, Sophus and Alluria, who made faces and taunted him to join them in the Forbidden City. Sophus pulled a bottle from under his garment and waved it at Laúm, who laughed. Perhaps tonight, he thought. He always had the feeling when with the two of them that he was intruding somehow, but they were so insistent that he join them. It was just another excuse. Laúm decided the matter. Yes, he thought, tonight, for tomorrow my life changes.
Laúm switched off his fire, stowed it and his book in his backpack, and headed down the path—away from the rocky cliffs. The way was dark, but the distant glow of the compound shone like a beacon. He could see others walking toward the community, some with small lights and young children. The path was a steady incline to the top of Sandy Hill, and it was there where Laúm waited for the others to pass. He sat off to the side of the major trail. The cool of the ocean’s breath blew at his back, and the warmth of the thirsty ground pulsed beneath him.
The compound sat atop a high plateau and rose out of a wide valley ringed by tall, black silhouettes. In the center of the plateau, long, windowless, rectangular buildings—all colored the same milky white—stretched to the edges of the mesa. Along each side, evenly spaced doors broke the smooth surfaces, each with a white light shining below. Closest to him was the public center, empty except for the insects drawn to the bright lights. Tomorrow, Laúm and two others would join in the public ceremony he had waited eighteen years for.
The first sliver of moonlight nudged against the black eastern sky. Laúm knew he must hurry to the perimeter, but, still, he hesitated. A halo of ghostly white had tinged the tallest peak. He wondered if this was what snow had once looked like. His father, Jaúl, had told him that once, long ago, the long-departed rains would quench thirsty carpets of valley green. Then the rains would freeze and paint the mountain tips white. He sometimes wondered if this tale of green and white had only been a story told to a young child.
He was alone on the mesa now. The compound’s gate had closed. His parents wouldn’t worry for a few hours, and those hours were precious time that he could spend with his friends in the Forbidden City. Now it was time to go.
Laúm and his father had often ventured down to the riverbed together. He knew better than to go alone, but tonight would be different. To his left a small crackling noise made his heart race even faster. He crouched and listened. The whisper of salty breeze cooled the warm dirt but made no sound. Perhaps it was a wild dog, or a snake? He pulled himself from his reverie and remembered to touch his glasses. Three taps on the right edge, a final on the left. The gray landscape turned white as he scanned for heat signatures—white shimmering that meant he was not alone. Although he was satisfied that he was by himself, he walked quietly.
Ahead was a tall berm that once held back fast waters. He elbowed up the embankment to look into the riverbed. There were no heat signatures. He switched off the glasses and waited. The crickets had yet to share the music that he remembered from the many nights with his father when the two would sit atop the berm and watch the stream of brown water struggle its way toward the sea. Jaúl had told his son that the waters once were blue and strong. In the spring, when the mountain snows would melt, the water’s journey was loud like a chorus of hands clapping. Jaúl and his father, Laúm’s grandfather, Raún, could drink from the river, cupping cool liquid in their hands before the waters returned to the ocean.
The brown stream was only a distant memory to Laúm. He had never seen the blue water or tasted the cool liquid enjoyed by his father. Laúm had never felt rain on his face. Rain. Water falling from the sky. How strange that must have been. His mother, Lial, said it sounded like pebbles falling onto the roof. She had told him that when the clouds cleared, the air smelled sweet, like the fresh green of their hydroponic gardens.
His glasses vibrated and an image of Sophus appeared.
“Where are you?” Sophus asked.
“I’m coming,” Laúm whispered before the image faded. He tapped the right edge of his glasses three times and the left twice. He could see a lazy red electronic wave undulating along the riverbed. It was the Quondan security field erected to keep the Sahu from crossing the river.
Laúm belly-crawled across the caked river bed, careful to miss the red crests of the moving barrier beam. He had heard the stories. Beam breakers would be spotted by the many cameras ringing the shore. His classmates said that high voltage bursts immobilized intruders. Their carcasses would be left for the bands of roaming dogs and their bones picked clean by the crawling things that lived in the dirt. Sophus said that the Sahu were so disgusting that even the wild dogs would disregard their bones. Laúm’s instructors had said that none of this was true, and his father had laughed when Laúm had shared those stories. Still, his father Jaúl warned Laúm never to cross into the Forbidden Zone. It was a matter of life and death.