I had never been headbutted before. Especially, by a thug whose breath smelled like the village biowaste site.
White light flashed across my eyes. A thunderclap of pain split my brain. I fell to my knees. One well-placed kick to the ribs later, and I fell to the ground, too.
“Final warning,” said a voice to my right. “Next time, we’ll have fun with you, boy, and even more fun with her.”
Waves of nausea washed over the blaze in my ribs like paraffin on fiery logs – not that anyone had seen logs in these parts for decades. With my head about to implode, I tried to gather my thoughts.
Several motorcycles and a truck (our truck, to be specific) pulled away. The whir of the engines faded in the distance.
I crawled to where Tapiwa lay face down and rolled him onto his side. His face was covered in blood and desert sand.
It seemed the infamous WaterCorp Greeting lived up to its name after all.
I squinted into the brown dust haze that was the sky. The small cloudburst on which we had been testing the upgrades on the water harvester had dispersed. The sun was now a hammer, and we were the anvil.
Two stunted acacia trees were about a hundred metres away to the west. I struggled to my feet and pulled Tapiwa up. We hobbled towards them across the cracked, parched ground. After I laid him down in the meagre shade, Tapiwa opened his eyes to find me searching his pockets until I found the communicator. As expected, it was still on.
“I was going to turn it off,” he said with a cough.
“Sure,” I said. I wiped the blood from his mouth. Its metallic smell filled my nostrils.
I pressed the red button labelled EMERGENCY on the communicator, then turned it off after a minute to save the batteries. Waste not, want not, as they used to say.
Tapiwa tried to sit up. “We should have left when you said,” he began. “This is my fault.”
In reality, any number of governments and companies were eligible to enter that blame game.
I eased him back down onto my lap. “No, it wasn’t you. We couldn’t leave without Sam’s water.”
As time passed, Tapiwa’s breaths became ragged. I could no longer think straight. Worse still, a dust storm brewed on the horizon. It would hit us in an hour.
I looked out at the vast expanse of desert. Zimbabwe used to have a temperate climate. The green and blue scenery in the village elders’ photographs astonished me as a child. However, fossil fuel consumption increased, as did pollution. Then, Earth was super-heated into the slab of brown chalk before us. Soon after, the entire ecosystem unravelled. Only the elders remembered the days before most animal and plant species died out.
Something sparkled in front of the pall of dust that drew ever closer. I held my breath. It felt like an eternity before I heard the familiar, low drone.
It was the solar panel-armoured, metal juggernaut that Tapiwa and I called The Dung Beetle, after its fabled namesake. As it came to a stop before us, the hum of the electric engine (which I insisted was our greatest design feat) blocked our ears. The very air particles vibrated to its rhythm.
The hatch opened. Paida and Nick jumped out. Nick held two large water canisters.
“Looks like things here are heating up in more ways than one,” Nick drawled.
Before I could roll my eyes, he poured the water over us. The cold liquid ribbons rolled off my sun-baked skin and onto the ground. I felt a twinge of guilt as the cracks sucked the water away, beyond our reach.
“We need to move,” Paida said. The turbulent wall of sand was almost upon us.
The Dung Beetle was as cool and dim as a cave. Nick took the wheel at top speed, Paida tended to Tapiwa’s wounds and I explained what happened.
“They were going to come for us sooner or later,” Paida said.
I looked at the blood caked on Tapiwa’s head. “I don’t know if we should still do this.”
“Well, what are we going to do?” Nick said over the engine. “Profit by ripping people off and monopolising everything like the WaterCorp Racket?”
“Look – Tapiwa nearly died today,” I said. “The cops are in bed with WaterCorp and nobody will help us. The water harvester’s gone too. This isn’t worth our lives.”
The solar panels rattled and sand scratched the windshield as the edges of the storm licked The Dung Beetle. The dust shroud settled over us.
“We’re almost there,” Nick said. How he could see even a metre in front of his eyes was anyone’s guess.
Our hideout was located under an old hydro-electric plant. As the water levels dwindled and temperatures soared, people constructed underground cities to escape the unpredictable weather. We first took refuge at the abandoned plant as teenagers when the orphanage was attacked during the Water War. Tapiwa liked science; I liked to build things. Together, we became inventors of sorts, to survive. We found a way to draw water from humid air using condensation. We repurposed the equipment at the plant and built our first water harvester. Later, Paida and Nick, who were meteorologists, found us. Soon, we supplied the villagers with cheap water.
The Dung Beetle screeched to a halt inside the plant compound. The sand filled our mouths and the furious wind flung us back from the entrance after every few steps until we staggered into the plant and made our way to the basement levels.
Later, after I had tried (and failed) to wash the clay taste of sand out of my mouth, I sagged onto my bed and listened to the rumble of the storm as it ripped through the upper floors of the plant. I stared at the soft glow of the yellow solar lamps that we built to keep the night terrors at bay, but my thoughts flickered to Tapiwa bleeding out in the desert. I pushed my palms against my eyes.
Paida came in holding a piece of paper. “I forgot to give you this a couple of days ago,” she said.
It was an old WaterCorp leaflet. I turned it over. Drawn in acacia bark were two stick people standing in a friendly sun with one, shorter stick person in the middle holding a bottle of water. On closer inspection, one of the stick people had an afro like mine. A note in a childlike scrawl was at the bottom:
thank you hope and tapiwa from sam
Before my heart could take off, it crashed it with guilt. I said something inaudible about sand in my eyes and shuffled out.
I found myself in Tapiwa’s room. He was awake.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Better,” he said. His eyes fell to the leaflet in my hand. “Let me see it.”
I ignored his request and rubbed my eyes. “This is too dangerous. You could die. We could all die. I’ll harvest alone from now on.”
“And I don’t get a say in this decision that is clearly all about me?” He smiled and put out his hand. “Show me.”
I handed over Sam’s drawing. Tapiwa’s eyes softened.
“Wow – he really captured your likeness,” he said.
We laughed (or rather, I laughed and Tapiwa wheezed).
“Listen, Hope,” he said. “Whatever anyone says about it, doing the right thing is never futile.”
The storm passed. I made up my mind.
“On one condition,” I said. “We need to speed up the harvesting so that we’re in and out before WaterCorp gets us.”
“And we need to make the harvester smaller and easier to hide.”
“I thought you said there was only one condition.”
“We’ll need some guards too.”
“What – you think I can’t take them?” Tapiwa gestured to his pummelled body.
I laughed and looked up. The solar lights above drenched us in warm, golden light.
“They really do keep the gloom away,” I said.