Augustus Abraham walked briskly across the acrid playa, holding the hand of a young Cid Desmond tightly so the boy couldn’t wander more than an arm’s length away.
The tall, slender social worker was dressed in what was probably the first suit ever worn in this desert, especially during a sandstorm — a light sandstorm, but a sandstorm nonetheless. Although a few thick, white pinstripes stretched from his head (where he clutched a tall, black hat against the sandy wind) to his toes (that had since been buried in sand within his once-shiny dress shoes), the majority of his thick black suit soaked up the sweltering summer sultriness and left him inwardly screaming for relief. On the outside, however, he walked quickly and quietly through the heat without an audible complaint.
“It’s on the other side of that dune,” Augustus called out through the coarse sand whirling in the air, pointing at the hill just up ahead. “We’re almost there, little one.”
Cid remained silent and dutifully plodded forward. Even though he was wearing his favorite brown trousers, he had originally felt underdressed compared to Mr. Abraham; instead, he now found a silver lining in not owning his own fancy coat. His old, white shirt was long-sleeved but thin and breathed in the summer sun well — besides a few tatters that burned when the fiery sand hit his bare skin, and his favorite scarf (a thin, lavender one) was tied around his chin like a bandit’s mask, letting him also breathe a bit better. The denim vest he had originally been wearing was folded over his arm and heavy with sand that had accumulated within the folds.
The two reached the top of the dune and the landscape changed. What was a desolate sea of sand stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction gave way on the other side of the dune to a myriad of oddities haphazardly arranged.
“There,” Augustus pointed. “She’ll be waiting for us. Let’s hurry!”
Down in the valley, a good half hour’s walk away at least, Cid and his temporary caretaker had plenty of time to take in everything they were walking towards:
The first thing to catch Cid’s eye was a thin but incredibly tall metal spire stretching high into the sky. At its base, several other smaller poles also stretched upward, angled outward. Around each of the smaller poles, hazy blue and yellow blobs seemed to float around the ground aimlessly and flicker in and out of focus. Cid wiped his handkerchief on his shirt, and then his eyes with the handkerchief, and was surprised to see the hazy blobs still there.
Beyond the spire, a huge square of black dominated the landscape. Upon closer inspection, Cid noticed that the large black square was made up of dozens of smaller black squares. There were gaps between some, some squares seemingly broken or misaligned somehow, and a constant golden swirling of sand across it all.
Littered around were several small buildings — probably sheds — that looked too small to live in but too large to have for just storage. Cid braced for the possibility that one of these sheds might be his new home.
And in the center of it all, half-buried in the desert sands, was the biggest ship Cid had ever laid his eyes on. A massive wooden structure ribbed with iron pipes and copper plating, destined for an aquatic adventure it definitely wouldn’t find here in the desert.
The two descended the dune swiftly, careful not to slip on the surprisingly steep decline of sand. When they arrived at the ship, Augustus knocked on a large, iron door in the side of the hull and Cid couldn’t help but inspect the ship further.
The door almost immediately swung open and a short woman appeared in the frame. It must have been much colder inside, because she was covered in so many layers of clothing that Augustus briefly recoiled with empathy, but just as quickly regained his composure.
“Good morning,” he said cheerily. “May we come in?”
The woman seemed to freeze in place as if she’d been a statue all along. A pair of silver goggles sat perched upon her crimson head (both in hair color and reddened face) and a clean, white scarf was wrapped loosely around her neck; long enough to completely cover her neck and shoulders with both ends also dangling down to her knees. At one end of the scarf, it looked like a pocket watch had been sewn directly into the fabric. Below that, what was one piece of clothing or several pieces stitched together got less obvious: a white collar poked up from underneath a thick, grey jacket that sat atop what looked like a leather apron, which mostly covered a frilly blue shirt — or dress? — underneath. At her hips, the leather and frills seemed to taper into various shades of layered brown cloth — more obviously stitched together, now—that become either a long skirt or dress, about the same length as her scarf fell. Beneath that, thick stockings quickly turned into black boots adorned with the same sorts of straps and buckles that also covered her jacket.
“Augustus, oh,” the woman suddenly said, throwing her arms outward and wildly gesturing inside, “come in, come in, oh, come in!”
The two visitors entered, glancing nervously back at the storm behind them.
“Oh, that,” the woman said, already moving mechanically through the room to gather a few mismatched chairs together. “It’s just getting started. You probably shouldn’t stay long. Tea will be ready in a moment; iced, I assume?”
“Miss Desmond,” Augustus started, nodding towards the boy. “May I — ”
Before he could finish, the woman was already back with three chairs in tow and sat them down quickly next to her guests before crouching down to eye level directly in front of Cid.
“Hey kid,” she smiled.
“It’s Cid”, Cid responded without changing expression.
The woman stood back up and pushed two chairs toward Cid and Augustus — one with each hand — and then took her own, crossing her legs as she sat.
“I’m so sorry to hear about Silas and Delia. He was a great brother. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
Cid remained silent.
“Such a travesty,” she continued, stammering. “A disaster. Catastrophe, calamity — a tragedy, not travesty.”
“Miss Desmond,” Augustus started again, standing from his seat.
“Oh, the tea! Right you are, Augustus, as always! One moment please, take your seat; I’ll fetch that straightaway for you. Cid,” — she stressed the ‘s’ sound— “would you like a scone with your tea? Perhaps a biscuit?”
Caught off guard, Cid stammered, “No, no, no thank you, missus.”
“Oh, yes,” the woman started again, sitting back in her seat. “I’m terribly sorry, I’ve yet to introduce myself. My name is Sierra — also a Desmond — sister to Silas, which makes me your aunt. I’m so sorry to hear about Silas and Delia — oh, but I’ve already said that, sorry. Let me go get your tea! Did you want a scone, or perhaps a biscuit?”
By the time Cid responded, “No thank you, Miss Desmond”, Sierra was already in the kitchen fetching tea for three and biscuits for two. She returned a moment later, doled out the drinks, and handed Cid his biscuit.
“You can call me Sierra,” Miss Desmond started, “or Cee, or Aunt Cee, Cee-cee I guess, or Aunt Sierra, or, well, we can come up with something later if you’d like.” She abruptly turned to Augustus and said, “You probably shouldn’t stay long; the storm’s almost here. Cid and I” — again, stressing the ‘s’ in Cid — “have a lot of work to do to prepare, and it’d be just wonderful if we could get started straightaway, wouldn’t it?” She grabbed the pocket watch stitched into her scarf and flipped it open, checking the time.
After a moment, Augustus nodded. He stood, keeping eye contact with Sierra (or perhaps just avoiding eye contact with Cid) and said, “Thank you, Sierra. Thank you for taking in your family in a time of need. This looks to be a satisfactory lodging accommodation, so I leave Cid Desmond in your capable care. Please do reach out at any time if you need anything from me; you know where to find me.”
And with that, Augustus was gone through the front door and the howling winds kept him company on his journey back.
“You,” Sierra said, turning to Cid. “I could really use your help, Cid. The storm is picking up, as you saw, I’m sure, it wasn’t great, was it? It’s not all cake and diamonds living out here on the playa, just so you know — we’ve got some work to do to prepare and I could really use your help. Is that something you can help me with?” Again, she flung up the watch embedded in her scarf and checked the time.
Before Cid could answer, Sierra had already jumped to her feet and added, “Alright then Cid, let’s get to it! Tie that scarf back the way you had it when you arrived; that’s brilliant. You want to be able to breathe, and the sandwind is only going to get worse. Put that vest back on though; you don’t want sandburn from those holes. We’ll get you a new shirt when the storm lets up and we can make it into town, alright? Maybe tomorrow, or we can make a day of it or something. I’m surprised you weren’t given one already. And here, take this hat. It’ll keep most of the sand out of your hair and there’s some rings on the back you can tie your goggles into if you need them, though I’d recommend keeping them on while we’re out. You can go blind.”
She tossed him a hat that had been hanging from a long fishing hook dangling from a homemade shelf on the wall. It was something between a stovepipe hat and the kind of cowboy hats you’d see on old shows — tall, but collapsed down in the middle, and with a thin brim all the way around. Immediately after tossing it, the woman turned to a wooden chest against the wall and opened it, quickly rummaging through.
“There’s two — no, three — three big things we need to do to prepare for this storm,” she said, throwing stuff from the chest to the ground, “but we’ll be just fine. Oh, that hat looks great on you! Ah, here — just one second, give me a moment to gear up and we’ll be out. You ready?”
The woman didn’t give Cid much time to think, but in what little time he did give her there was an ounce of appreciation. Not directly to her, per se, but to some higher force; whatever dictates our lives and decided, no, Cid shouldn’t be given a second to think about his dead parents at that moment. Cid needs someone who might honestly be crazy, but that keeps his mind busy while keeping up. Someone like Sierra.
“I’m ready,” Cid said solemnly, as memories of the home he’d just left came flooding back. “For outside.”
From the chest, Sierra withdrew a hammer and fastened it onto a belt she’d also taken out, then wrapped it around her waist. She took two other long rods of metal — shaped similarly, but each slightly different — and added those to the belt, and then grabbed a few pouches and tied them onto her belt as well.
“Oh, I almost forgot”, Sierra said quickly, rummaging into one of the pouches in her apron and producing a small, blue pill. “Take one of these. It makes the heat more bearable.”
She handed it to Cid and he reluctantly swallowed it without a second thought.
The first thought was “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Alright Cid,” she said, bolting quickly to the front door. “We don’t have a lot of time before the storm’s fully here, but with your help we can be ready. Just three big tasks to accomplish first. We’ve got this though, I promise. Let’s go!”
“What’s that?” It was the first thing Cid had said since they started out into the sandstorm.
The storm was significantly worse now, with sand swirling and smacking every exposed part of their bodies while they walked toward the gigantic spire of metal Cid had seen earlier. Cid understood why Sierra wore so many layers of clothing.
Visibility had already gotten worse and Sierra double-checked that her goggles were securely in place. Seeing her, Cid did the same. Sand and kicked-up dust obscured the view, but the metal pillar to the heavens was visible enough to guide the way.
“It’s a lightning rod,” Sierra shouted over the winds. “Sandstorms bring lightning bolts; it catches them.”
The two reached a gated entrance surrounding the lightning rod, and Sierra pressed a metal disk from one of her pouches into a socket on the fence. The gate swung open and they entered.
The blue and yellow blobs that Cid had seen from the dune were here. They weren’t just figments of the imagination, mirages, or faults in Cid’s vision; they were actually real. Each blob was about the size of a large couch and floated anywhere between three and twenty feet in the air, with sparks both emanating outward and also within their transparent bodies.
“Careful,” Sierra shouted again, nodding towards the E’vi. “Touch one and it can electrocute you. They’re friendly, but keep your distance.”
Cid looked around. All around them, batteries of all shapes and sizes littered the ground and poked out of the sand, with a thin metal wiring (often also partially buried) connecting each one, resulting in something akin to a chaotic metal spiderweb.
Realizing this, Cid stopped in his tracks and turned to Sierra to ask, “What are they?”
Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Where did you say you were from? Come on, we need to drain the batteries before the storm hits. Careful of the ones on the ground, they’re more like, uh, well, you don’t want to step on them. Here, scatter these around on the ground. Anywhere is fine, just spread them out.” She untied a pouch from her belt and tossed it to Cid.
For a moment, the wind stopped, and Cid got a good look at the creatures flying around them. They looked almost like they were made of pure aether, or some kind of flying, transparent, veiny, shapeshifting stingray that changed its mind on what shape it wanted to take every few seconds. You could see individual sparks and lines of electricity transmitting through their bodies, but also occasionally erupting into a vein of visible energy into the air outside their body as well.
“E’vi,” Sierra explained. “I guess you don’t have them in the city, no? They feed on electricity — or pure energy — when they can find it. That’s what the spire is for; sandstorms are a feast for them.”
“And these?” Cid asked, holding out his pouch full of batteries.
Sierra smirked. “See them, uh, expelling sparks? It’s only natural after a meal, you know. The capacitors are here to soak up some of that energy in the air, and they feed into those bigger batteries over there, which relay into our main power supply.”
Cid traced from the spire, to the flying E’vi, to the batteries on the ground, to the batteries in his hand, to the huge batteries lining the fence. “Oh,” he said.
“First task before the storm,” Sierra spoke up as the wind picked up again. “The big ones along the spire, we need to drain them into the main supply to make sure they don’t overload with the storm. See the cable there? Grab it.”
Sierra pointed and Cid saw what looked like a black rope coiled up on the fence. He looked at Sierra for confirmation and she nodded before he took off towards it and she ran toward the array of large batteries sticking out of the ground at the first of the smaller spires protruding from the base.
“Bring it over here,” she shouted, pointing at something on the spire. She was unsure of whether he could even hear her over the growling wind, but eventually, he showed up with the cable dragging on the ground behind him.
She attached it to the first battery and an arc of electricity jumped into the air. The sand in the vicinity visibly blackened and fell straight down to the ground, now completely ignorant of the wind that had previously twirled it through the dark desert.
“Thanks,” Sierra said, then quickly shoved Cid away a couple of feet and pointed, “careful of the connection on the ground there, sorry. You don’t want to step on that!”
Sierra shifted to the next large battery pack and kept talking. Cid regained his balance and stepped — carefully — closer so he could hear.
“These guys? Fantastic, amazing investments, I’ll tell you what. They eat up electricity for breakfast, sure, but they get it out just as fast — and they make more than they ate if you can believe it. What other animal eats the same thing they, uh, get rid of? And there’s even more of it when they get rid of it. Amazing investment for an electricity farmer, I’m telling you. We’d be in the dark most of the time if it weren’t for these guys.”
Cid watched as Sierra moved from battery pack to battery pack, draining each in turn with the thick, black cable he’d brought over. Eventually, she moved to the larger pack they were all connected to, which sat at the base of the gigantic lightning rod into the heavens. Eventually, he asked, “why not just capture the lightning directly? Do you need these eevees?”
“E’vi”, Sierra corrected immediately, “but good question. Bigger farms can harness lightning directly, but I built my own battery rig and rod and I, well, can’t. There’s nearly a billion volts of electricity in every lightning strike” — she said, connecting the final battery pack to the cable— “And I need better equipment to handle that, is all. For now, these e’vi are my equipment; they work just as well.”
As if on cue, one of the blue blobs of amorphous electricity brightly pulsed several times, emanating a high-pitched wail that rose and fell with the brightness of its body.
“Calm, calm,” Sierra soothed, rushing over to the blob, “it’s okay. Food’s a’comin’. I promise, girl; this’ll be a good feast for all of y’all.”
The pulsing (and wailing) stopped and Sierra blitzed back toward the largest of the battery packs. The wind roared and seemed to be kicking up more sand with each second, blasting a gritty sea of heat and pain every second against the pair’s faces.
“We’ve almost got it,” Sierra called out from the batteries. “Storm’s almost here!”
As Sierra finished up the battery drain, the storm got significantly worse. Sand slapped harder against every exposed skin, now even painful against Cid’s clothes in places where he’d only had one layer against the elements. Visibility also diminished further, replacing a foggy haze in the distance with just a constant darkened static of gritty abrasion that allowed two, three feet of vision at best.
“Got it,” Sierra shouted from the distance. Cid could no longer see her and briefly panicked, but she emerged from the storm with one hand clutching the hat on her head and the other tightening the scarf around her throat.
Then she took Cid’s hand and led him further into the storm.
“Second task,” she nearly screamed in order to be heard, “is this way. I’ll introduce you to the e’vi when it’s less dire — I promise — but for now, we need to keep moving. They’re actually really nice creatures when you get to know them. Great friends.”
The field of black tiles Cid had seen from the dune upon arrival suddenly materialized into view. From this angle, he could make out each individual square hoisted off the ground by a bronze stand, each with their own box of levers and gears and the occasional glowing red bulb.
“The solar fields,” Sierra explained in a brief lapse of deadly wind, “my bread and butter — our bread and butter, sorry. The e’vi are wonderful, but solar panels are reliable. We use what we need and sell the rest to the highest bidder, but to get by with enough we need to rotate the panels twice a day to face the sun.” She glanced at her watch, squinting through her goggles. “It’s afternoon now; they’re facing the morning sun and we need to rotate them around 45-degrees. We also need to put up the south-facing shields for the storm.”
From her belt, Sierra carefully handed Cid one of the two metal cranks she’d packed. With sandpaper on her face, she grabbed Cid and pulled him close as she guided him to the first solar panel control panel.
“Like this,” she said, holding the crank steady. Deftly, she attached it to a socket in the panel and cranked it three full turns clockwise; with each turn, the solar panel shifted to face a little more towards the west. When she was done, she inspected the panel and announced, “three good turns should do it. And this, too.”
She pulled the orphan in close and pointed at a control panel button. When she pressed it, a small wall surfaced at the south side of the solar panel.
“We need to do this on each panel,” Sierra said gravely, peering through her goggles at how bad the storm was already. “Rotating and the shields, both. Can you take that half, Cid? You’ve got this, I promise.”
“Do they even work in a storm?” Cid asked hesitantly, looking at where the sky was supposed to be — nothing but dark clouds of sand and grit remained. Definitely no remnants of the sun, for sure.
“No,” Sierra said quickly, moving to the first control panel. “They’re for after the storm. Batteries are over there. Get to it, kid.”
The two worked quickly, moving from control panel to control panel. After his first one, Cid found his way towards Sierra and asked for a refresher, since without a sun to see he wasn’t confident he was placing the panels in the right orientation. He also forgot to put up the shield on several panels and had to double back, but eventually they each finished.
“This way,” Sierra said painfully, grabbing Cid from the darkness and pulling him along. “We need to go back. Back to the house.”
Cid started to shout “What about the third — ” over the storm, but found himself interrupted to hack up a mouthful of sand.
“Back to the house,” Sierra repeated, pulling Cid close.
When they were entering the front door of the ship-house again, Cid collapsed into one of the chairs set out earlier and anxiously stammered, “you, you said there were three tasks before the storm hit, but we only did two. Is that okay? Is it too late? For the third one? Are we going to be okay?”
Sierra seemed to visibly relax as soon as she was back in the house and rushed off towards the kitchen, ignoring Cid’s stammering. As she left the room, she called out behind her, “Tea should be ready! Scone or biscuit?”
Taken aback and still reeling from the hazardous conditions outside, Cid shouted back “Neither!” about the same time Sierra returned to the room with two teas in hand and a scone on a small plate balanced on one forearm. She set it down in front of Cid and took a seat next to him, snipping on her own tea.
“The third task,” Cid repeated, but was cut off.
“Oh yes,” Sierra said excitedly jumping back up from her chair and running towards the kitchen again. Near the doorway was another large chest — similar to the one she’d pulled all of her gear out of before going out — and she yanked it, still closed and on the floor, towards Cid’s chair. The brass detailing on the chest thunked against each wooden floorboard as it bumped and skidded across the floor, too heavy to pick up. “The third task for the storm.”
Cid looked hesitatingly toward the chest, and then back to Sierra, and then back at the chest. “More tools?” He nervously glanced toward the front door again. “Are we going back out… there?”
As if on cue, an explosion of thunder echoed outside, followed by a long gust of wind that rattled the old ship-house.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Sierra muttered while unlocking and opening the chest with a key from one of the endless pockets in her apron. She pulled the heavy lid backward and held it open while Cid had a look inside.
“I don’t get it,” Cid finally said.
“Oh?” Sierra responded, peering over the lid and into the chest as if it must have been empty. Within the chest were small decorative pieces, wooden shelves, brass lamps, books, fabrics, scrap metal and wood, and mountains more piled underneath.
“The third task is to decorate your new bedroom, of course. The house is old but loved, and I don’t have a lot, but I thought you might find some things in here to make your room, well, your room.” She smiled, then feigned disappointment with a sigh while she looked at the front door. “We can’t go back out into the storm; not when it’s this bad, so I guess we’ll have to stay in and get you situated to stay with me a while. Is that alright with you?”
Cid looked closer at the chest and saw more than the sum of its parts. He saw his new lamp, a book for him to read, and the beginnings of a new bedroom — maybe even the beginnings of a new beginning.
As a tear came to his eye, he sniffed and said, “Yeah, that’s alright with me.”