The hang glider looked like a parrot with a broken wing, a patchwork of coloured cloth stitched together in a swooping arc across its five meter wingspan. The wings told the story of the last year of Ewan’s life. He had scrounged every scrap of material from old clothes, furniture, and even dried out rabbit hide. He needed less than half a square metre to finish building his Little Dragon, and with it, find a way to save his father’s life.
Ewan had secured the hang glider to a makeshift bench in the middle of his wood-shack workshop. He had hand-built every inch of the shed and furniture, the wood and nails salvaged from nearby dumps or broken carts and the resultant outhouse had the look of a mangled old oak patched with shiny sheet metal.
He made his way across the dusty room, avoiding the scattered tools and piles of cardboard boxes.
In the corner he heaved a rickety shelving unit to the side revealing a handle on the floor. He grunted as he pulled the handgrip and lifted away a large section of flooring. The secret compartment housed a folded heap of fabric. The pattern was similar to the hang glider sail. A mismatch of different materials stitched together and attached to ropes of different sizes and lengths.
Ewan had seen the design in an ancient book. It was called a parachute, used long ago so people could jump from great heights.
Technically they were legal as there was no law against jumping off a cliff. But the hang glider was a different matter entirely. He would be fined a week’s water rations just for building the thing and prison time for actually flying it… if he got caught.
Since he was a boy he dreamed every night of flying through the sky with nothing between him and the stars but the rushing air. He soared and dived on the whim of the wind like a bird.
His mother used to call him her little dragon. When he was a child, Ewan would tie wooden planks to his arms and flap them wildly pretending to soar as high as the Rain Catchers.
Later, when he was eight, Ewan took his kite with him to the ruined city. There, he climbed a slanted tower overlooking his own village.
His best friend, Ava, waited nervously for him as he climbed the decaying tower. Time had worn the bricks enough to reveal foot holds in the structure. Ewan could climb better than anyone he knew. As surefooted as any grownup. Ava could never understand why he didn’t freeze with fear.
The truth is he felt free when he was climbing. The only thing better than looking down from the great heights of the old buildings would be to launch himself off and fly through the clouds like the dragon from his bedtime stories.
The wind was strong that day. His kite was strapped securely to his back, but each gust of wind threatened to catch the overhanging fabric and hoist him uncontrollably into the air. Ewan felt fear, but somehow it drove him on, filled his body with electricity.
At the top he clung to a rail with shaky hands, his breathing heavy, and a smile that lifted his cheeks and stung his wide open eyes.
He took in the familiar view of the old ruins. He could see the lay of the town, how it must have been when it was built centuries before. Wide roads snaked through the rubble, impossible to see from the ground but their outlines were visible from this height. Their boarders faint lines under years of dust and decay.
Ewan closed his eyes and imagined the brilliance of this place at its pinnacle. Tall trees, lush parks surrounded by thousands of brick built homes, schools, and offices. A place where water ran freely into each home.
Ava’s voice carried to him on the wind. He couldn’t make out her words but her tone was anxious. Ewan smiled, she had tried to talk him out of it because she was scared for him. But Ewan wanted Ava to share his love and enthusiasm for the sky. His father said he was a show-off, but he wasn’t, not really. In ancient times, before machine rule, people had flown through the sky in aeroplanes and helicopters – like extensions of their bodies.
He’d never known any different. Nor had his father, or his father before him, but Ewan hated that the world had flipped around.
He wanted to escape, to feel the wind under his arms. He wanted to see the world laid out with the eyes of an eagle.
He unstrapped the kite, holding tightly to the rusted metal railing. The wind pulled urgently and roared noisily against the sail of the kite, nearly dragging him away. All he need do was let go and let the wind take him.
He looked down and saw Ava sweeping her golden hair from her eyes. She had a washed-out look of worry that Ewan seemed to frequently rouse in her.
He cleared his mind, breathed deeply, and let the kite take him. His memory of that moment forever crystallised in his mind. The way his stomach lurched as he gave himself over to the whim of the wind. The momentary feeling of weightlessness. He took off suddenly and so fast that he screamed with the thrill of it.
The seconds seemed to stretch and soon he realised his weight was too much for the kite. The ground below hurtled towards him in a flash of brown and grey, smashing him unsympathetically into darkness.
When he woke, his mother’s and father’s happiness lasted as long as the time it took them to determine he would be okay. That his broken ankles would heal, in time.
In the two years that followed, and even in the event of her passing away in the drought of ’56, his mother never again called him her little dragon.
In his wooden shack Ewan picked up the light fabric of his parachute, and contemplated using some of the material to finish his sail; he only needed a little… No, I mustn’t cut corners. He had to find the fabric from somewhere else.
He removed the hang glider from his workbench and carefully hid it under the floor with the parachute.
Footsteps crunched on the dry dirt outside. Ewan quickly replaced the section of flooring just as the door rattled against the lock. “Ewan, hurry up or you’ll be late for work. Come and have something to eat before you go.”
“I’ll be right in, Dad.”
Ewan made sure his secrets were safe then ran to the house, a wooden home only twice the size of his workshop.
Ewan’s father, Daniel, sat at the breakfast table, a warm smile on his tired face. “Eggs?” he asked.
He asked the same question each morning, and each morning Ewan gave the same reply, “go on then, Dad, you cooking?”
“Someone’s got to,” Daniel said with a soft grin. “Get the water from the safe will you?”
Ewan reached over and turned the dial on the heavy floor safe. Its dented body betrayed its age. Inside were two small canisters. Ewan took one and carefully passed it to his father.
Daniel licked his parched lips. The sound made Ewan swallow hard against his dry throat.
Ewan watched his Father pour two measures of water, his rough, withered hands shaking as he did. He stopped mid pour, overcome with a coughing fit.
Ewan placed a hand on his father’s wrist, took the canister, and finished pouring the drinks. He filled each cup with exactly fifty millilitres of the precious liquid.
“Have you taken your medicine this morning?”
“Don’t worry, I’m okay,” Daniel said through a stifled cough.
“No, Dad, it’s not okay. I’ll get you some after work today. It’s payday.”
Ewan cursed his old man’s stubbornness. Too ill to work, too proud to admit he was sick.
Daniel smiled, showing two missing teeth. “You’re a good boy, cleverest damn factory worker that company has. They don’t know what they’ve got yet, but they will, you’ll see, they’ll give you a promotion soon.”
“I know, Dad. Thanks.” Ewan knew it was wishful thinking, but he didn’t want his dad to know how bad things had gotten. People like them didn’t get promotions anymore, no matter how good they were.
They slowly sipped their morning rations of water, savouring every mouthful.
Daniel inclined his head, and his eyes sunk with a hint of sorrow. “Hear that, Son. There’s a storm coming.”
Ewan held his breath and listened to the distant hum of the approaching Rain Catchers. “Sounds like a big one.”
A shadow leaned across the arid land. The wicked hum of countless motors drowned out nature’s thunderous roars. Below, the dry earth shrivelled from lack of rain. A mass of grey clouds swallowed the glow of the shimmering sun, heavy with water riches most could only dream of.
Half the sky was already dark. Ewan mounted his bicycle, flicked on the flashlight, and pushed off along the dirt track. Above him, Rain Catchers flew under the clouds like thousands of bulbous sacks, each square of sagging material was a hectare of absorbent yarn, stretched and attached to a vast array of water tanks spaced along the seams at one-kilometre intervals. The tanks hung from airships that kept the whole structure airborne. The fabric sections connected in all directions, an unnatural shadow that blocked out the sun, following stormy weather and capturing every drop of precious water that fell.
The engine noise grew louder, and daylight dwindled as Ewan peddled along the parched dust track.
He turned onto the main road towards town, and joined the heaving traffic of bicycles and Camel-drawn carts.
Through the haze, in the centre of the sprawling hub, Ewan could see the Factory towering over a sea of low brick buildings. It gleamed in the last rays of the disappearing sun. The glass covered skyscraper was a lone stallion standing tall among the bustling squalor beneath.
Inside the Factory, Ewan heaved and pulled fistfuls of material through greasy rollers. The production machinery roared angrily as it spat diesel fumes into the hot air. Everywhere was thick with the stench of it. It clung to Ewan’s forehead with sweat and grit from the factory floor. The work was monotonous and unforgiving. The process was highly manual, unskilled work. But he couldn’t lose focus for a second or he might end up dragged through a high torque cog.
Thousands of miles of Aramid Yarn was threaded through semi-automated weavers. The base sheets were stitched together and rolled into huge drums waiting further processing. It was the Rain Catcher’s strength layer, the element that kept the foam from tearing under the stress of three million tons of water.
Several layers of absorption foams would be assembled to the base fabric before the completed product was shipped to the testing facility. Once there it would be fitted with complex pumping systems and attached to the colossal water tank engines, and sent for commissioning.
It was hard work that made him feel guilty, like he’d been forced to work for the enemy, the machines who stole our rain, thieves who’d blistered the land and enslaved the people with a water-rationing whip. But he had taken the job on his father’s advice: It’s a job, Son. You can’t afford to be moral, not when they’re paying you two canisters of water a week.
Ewan heaved the knitted fabric from the weaver and wound it tightly into a drum. His arms and shoulders complained with every pull.
When a drum was filled, a section was cut – the edges had to be completely square. The accumulated cut-offs were thrown in plastic bins and removed at the end of the day to be thrown away. The yield was high, but there were always leftovers. The rejected yarn would be perfect for his hang glider.
He glanced down the long line of workers adjacent to him, all performing identical tasks in their navy blue overalls streaked with oil and grit. Like him, each worker’s face was covered from the nose down in a face mask.
He bent down and took three small cut-offs of fabric, ducked under the weaver, and hurried to the tool bench. He removed a pair of Kevlar cutters so he could shape the material and ran to his locker. He folded the material into his rucksack and smiled at the thought of finally finishing his Little Dragon.
Clocking out time, Ewan reached the front of the queue and passed over his work-sheet, a detailed printout of his workload for the week.
The bored-looking clerk glanced at it and stamped the front sheet. “You get eight litres. Give me your canisters.”
Ewan opened his rucksack to retrieve the empty water canisters, completely forgetting about the scraps of material. His bag opened, and the fabric fell out in plain sight.
The clerk sprang to his feet, gesturing to a security guard. “Thief! We’ve got a thief here.”
Panic seared Ewan’s chest. “I’m not a thief–”
Vicelike hands gripped him around the torso and lifted him high in the air. The guard-droid carried him across the lobby and despatched him into the lift. Ewan hit the floor hard and looked up into the chrome skeleton face of the guard. Its eyes burned white hot like twin suns flickering with murderous intent. Its thick plated body revved and clattered spilling black smoke from exhausts that wound around its chest like ribs.
The guard smashed its fist on the UP button.
Ewan let out a ragged breath. His whole body was shaking and his chest heaved awkwardly with each spasm.
He had never known a human that had been sent upstairs, but he had heard the rumours. There was a saying on the factory floor: You screw up, you go up.
Ewan tore his eyes away from the guard and its murderous glare. He looked at the elevator’s LED display as it travelled quickly through the floors, all the way to two-hundred.
All the way up.
The manager’s office was lush to a degree Ewan had thought impossible. The far wall was entirely glass covered, and the view overlooking the city took his breath away. He fleetingly longed for his hang glider, to escape this office, to jump from this height and fly above the land.
The floor was black marble, and the side walls sported huge water tanks teeming with freshwater fish. There must have been a thousand litres in each tank, more than Ewan was paid in two years. His eyes bulged at the sight of such opulence.
“Sit down.” The android who spoke was dressed in company clothes, a dark grey business skirt and single-breasted jacket. She gestured to the desk and the single chair in front.
Under her cold scrutiny Ewan felt his fear receding, in its place anger advanced like the inbound tide. His planned excuse stuck fast in his throat. His father’s cure could be bought for a fraction of the water in the fish tank.
The android-woman was an old model, from a long ago time when the machines made an effort to look like their creators.
She smiled from across the desk, but her plastic skin barely moved and her eyes remained cold, dead. She opened a file and fished through some papers.
Leaning forward, she passed him a standardised letter confirming his dismissal. “We will not press charges, but you will never work for Yu Yún Services or any of our subsidiaries again. Goodbye.”
Ewan laughed – a sharp angry sound.
The android stiffened, taking all the slack out of her tight grey uniform. Underneath her pencil thin dress and fragile layer of synthetic skin, Ewan knew she was constructed with an intricate array of moving parts. Dozens of independent systems working together in a fine balance to keep her functioning. Her micro-mechanical parts made her as fragile as an antique watch; Ewan had never seen one in the flesh before today.
Her gloss complexion seemed to darken, but still she smiled with her cold eyes.
“You’re joking, right?” Ewan said. “I took some rubbish.”
She raised an eyebrow. It struck Ewan as an unnatural emotive; the rest of her face remained perfectly still, her aspect was a tight plastic sheen too yellow to be real skin.
“You can leave now, Mr…, um, Jackson.” She waved her hand, ushering him towards the door. “And rest assured I will write a full report of this incident on your employment file, and post it on the public system for future employer’s information.”
Hot blood heated his cheeks. He couldn’t keep his tongue in check. “You know, there’s a special place reserved in hell for you… things.” He kept his words calm, despite his racing heart.
She looked past him to the security guard. “Please escort Mr. Jackson off the premises.”
“Seriously, lady, I need this job. It was scraps I took… rubbish–”
The security guard yanked him back and dragged him from the chair.
To hell with it, what have I got to lose? Ewan kicked the security guard in its knee joint and freed himself from its grip. Running around the table, he enjoyed a moment of triumph as the android-woman yelped in fear. Her face cramped and tightened as she scrambled to get away from him. His intention was to scare her, not to cause her harm. But the guard couldn’t read his real intentions. It roared and clattered as internal engines revved. The floor shook as it stomped heavily around the table with its brilliant white eyes screaming virtual fury.
The guard-droid struck Ewan across the back knocking him over the desk. Papers went flying in every direction. Ewan squirmed in the mess as he was pulled by his feet towards the exit. He grabbed at the table for something to hold, but his hands came away with nothing but papers.
One final glimpse of the awful android and Ewan shouted, “You’re going to hell, lady…remember that.”
Ewan pushed his bike home, hoping the long walk would clear his head – hoping to find the right words to explain this to his father.
The late-afternoon sky had disappeared under the Rain Catcher’s shadow, and Ewan wondered if it had always been this way. Had the powerful always taken from the needy? Was it tough-fate? Should he simply accept his place?
He stopped a moment and opened his rucksack. They had allowed him his eight litres of owed salary, but they hadn’t noticed the fistfuls of papers he had grabbed in the office during the struggle.
He sat down on the side of the road and felt something poke him sharply in his thigh. He pulled out the borrowed cutters and muttered, “At least I got something from them.”
It was quiet where the road ended at his village, which bordered the empty desert expanse beyond. Not much opportunity for trade in the poor backwater village he called home.
He wound-up the dimming flashlight until the beam was wide and bright and began to flick through the papers. Most were useless quotes or invoices. One or two more interesting documents showed detailed specifications for some of the Rain Catcher’s engine parts. The last scrap of paper was torn, but most of the detail was still intact. His eyes widened with wonder at what he saw: blueprints for a complete Rain Catcher segment.
Heart racing with excitement, he carefully rolled the blueprints and placed them back in his rucksack. He discarded the rest in a nearby skip and raced on his bike all the way to Doctor Don’s, to get the medicine for his dad.
The waiting room was empty apart from the Doctor. He was sitting cross-legged in the centre of the waiting room floor dressed in a black suit with a matching waistcoat. He wore a stethoscope with the chest piece resting against his own body. Dr. Don Elkin’s eyes were closed, and a low hum emanated from his throat. His wholesome cheeks vibrated with the rhythm of his breathing.
“That’s odd,” Ewan said.
One of Don’s eyes opened and regarded him. “What’s odd?” he asked between exaggerated breaths.
“You’re odd… I mean, you’re acting in an odd way right now. What the hell are you doing?”
“It’s called medi…tation. Some kind of ancient hocus-pocus, meant to make folks relax some. Helps me get through the dark days, you know, numbs out the hum of Rain Catcher motors. Helps the old claustrophobia those damned water thieving machines give me.”
He pulled himself up and regarded Ewan. “I Read about meditation in one of those old books you found last year.”
“Does it work?”
“Nope, not a bit.” Don laughed. He stood up and slapped Ewan on the back. “Take a seat, boy, I’ll get your father’s prescription.”
When Don returned, he held a bag of painkillers and passed it over the counter, one month’s supply. “Here you go, boy. How is the old man, haven’t seen him about the village recently?”
Ewan pulled a canister from his rucksack and poured a little less than three litres into a water bag hanging from the counter.
Don carefully tied it and placed it in the safe.
“He’s getting worse, Doc. He’s coughing a lot in the mornings. But you know what he’s like, no fuss, stubborn as a diesel spitting dump-bot.”
Don let his chin drop to his chest, “Damn it, kid. That old man of yours and me grew up in this village, and there ain’t no way I’m gonna watch him die for no good reason. I could cure him in no time with the right medication.”
“Penicillin?” Ewan asked. “It’s rare and expensive.”
Don looked at him for a long moment. “Look, if you can raise fifty percent of the price, I’ll put up the other half, and you can pay me back in monthly instalments. I’ll charge you no more than the water I pay for the medication, and I’ll carry out all appointments and check-ups free of charge. It’s the best I can do.”
Surprised at his generosity, Ewan felt a surge of gratitude, but it was quickly replaced with a sense of desperation. No job, no income. No hope.
“Thank you, Doc. I… I appreciate it.”
“Do what you can, Ewan, and I’ll get your old man fit again.”
Ewan skulked over to the village gardens. Bessie was on security. She sat on an old rusted chair that was chained to a twelve foot security fence surrounding the allotment. A drop of precious green on the scarred land, twenty square metres of plants and vegetables made possible by a highly-efficient irrigation system and village water taxes.
“Hey, Bessie, is my father inside?”
“Go right in, Ewan. He’s in the power-shed.”
Chickens roamed freely inside the security fence. Ewan closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He imagined what it was like when the whole country had been green and wet. Before the machines took the rain.
Inside the four-man shed stood two old bicycles that had been converted into generators. They powered the ultraviolet lighting that was required to feed the plants while under the shadow of a Rain Catcher.
Daniel sat atop one of the bikes, laboriously peddling. Overhead lights flickered above neat rows of plants and vegetables.
“Dad, you shouldn’t be doing that, seriously, doctor’s orders.” Ewan passed his father the bag of painkillers. “Come on, let me take over. You can keep me company.”
Daniel’s face was red, and sweat gleaned on his forehead. As he dismounted, a spluttering cough escaped his throat, despite his best efforts to hide it.
Daniel growled out, “Don’t write me off just yet, boy, I’ve still got some life left in me.” He paused a moment, catching his breath. “These are difficult times, here especially. We all have to do our bit. Just because I can’t work anymore doesn’t mean I can’t be useful. Don’t you, of all people, deny me that.”
Ewan let his father’s words hang in the air. Ewan wished his mother was still around. She always had the right words, and right now Ewan felt powerless. At least she would make him listen to reason. “You need to take it easy, Dad, is all I’m saying.”
Daniel sat on a tree stump in the corner of the shed. “We’ll make it someday, if you keep working hard for that promotion, we can get some antibiotics, then I can work again. With two salaries we can get on top. Maybe even build our own allotment one day.”
Ewan looked at his father’s hopeful smile. But His face was gaunt and his shirt hung from his narrow shoulders. Ewan wanted nothing less than to tell his father a lie, he wanted to tell him what happened at the factory, but he just couldn’t form the words.
He decided right there and then that he would make this right, he had to find the water to exchange for the cure, and he had to do it before it was too late.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel path outside – Ewan recognised the indelicate stomps – clumpy for such an elegant frame. She tapped on the shed door four times. “Can I come in?” and burst in before waiting for an answer. “Whoops, too late.”
Ewan smiled at the sight of his lifelong friend, a ray of sunshine the Rain Catchers could never deny him.
She carelessly flounced over, narrowly missing his fully stacked shelves. He shuddered at the memory of the last time she had knocked over his bookcase.
“How’s our secret project coming along?” she asked in a loud voice.
Ewan pointed to the unfinished section of sail. “Nearly done. I just need a little more fabric to finish her.”
“Why the glum face then?”
Ewan took a deep breath, “I messed up, Ava. Big time.”
Her hair was a dark shade of blond, and she wore a long white summer dress that floated along the floor when she moved. She had a beauty about her that was hard to pin down, a kind of carefree innocence and unwavering individuality. He told her the details of his dismissal and watched her face grow darker with each sentence.
“I’m glad you’re here, Ava. I’ve been working on a plan to sort this mess out, and if I can pull it off, my father could be treated – and we could be swimming in the rewards.”
She lifted an eyebrow and looked unconvinced. “You’ll never get enough water to swim in.”
“But I haven’t even told you the plan yet.”
“If it’s anything like your usual bright ideas, I guess I should brace myself.”
“No it’s not,” Ewan stated. “Well, actually maybe this time it is a bit, shall we say, ambitious – but the payoff will be worth it. It will pay for my Dad’s medication.”
“Go on then, let’s hear it.”
He waved her over to the desk. The Rain Catcher blueprint he’d taken from the factory was spread out and held down with rocks.
Ava showed her disappointment with a grumpy pout. “This isn’t as exciting as you built it up to be, Ewan. How are these scribbles going to save Daniel’s life?”
Looking for part 2? Click here to read Part 2 of Dean Giles’ novella Shadow of the Rain Catchers, available for free only on The Colored Lens.