Corey worked all night at The Succulent Steak, trimming needles off the big green arms, slicing them into inch-thick slabs, juicing aloes. Tonight he could hardly concentrate on his work. By the time his shift ended, it was nearly light. He took off along the road out of town and found the Rehydrator’s truck parked where he’d left it. Fritzy yapped softly as he rapped on the side. A moment later the Rehydrator poked his head out through the canvas flap, blinking sleep from his eyes.
“Ready?” Corey asked.
“I’m not on your schedule,” he said, stumbling out to sit on the steps and pull on his sandals. He strolled yawning to the edge of the campsite, facing away from Corey, taking a somehow formal stance toward the rising sun. At first Corey thought it was some religious thing, but then he heard a drizzling sound and realized that the Rehydrator was pissing.
“What’re you doing?” he cried, grabbing the cup he’d drunk from the previous night, nearly knocking over the Rehydrator in his haste to catch the stream. The man jumped back, as surprised as Corey, pulling his thin robe shut. Corey saw in that instant that the Rehydrator wasn’t wearing pisspores at all under the robe; his sweat was free to evaporate into thin air without recapture, wasted in the same way as his urine.
They stared at each other in embarrassed confusion for a minute, Corey holding the empty cup, until the Rehydrator grinned and took it from him.
“Sorry,” he said. “I guess that is wasteful.”
“Hell, you were going right in the dust, mister. Nothing can grow there. I mean, if you have to waste it, wait’ll we get to Uncle Orlick’s grave. I sometimes do it there.”
He didn’t think it would be polite to say anything about the man’s missing pisspores. Such open wastefulness was bad enough.
“I’m sorry if I offended you,” the Rehydrator said. “I’m a bit profligate with the water, I guess. It’s just that my truck’s full of it.”
“Full?” Corey looked at the vehicle, never having guessed that so much could be kept in one place. He hadn’t looked inside. “But—but you must be rich. What’re you doing traveling around like a. . . .”
“Like a bum, rich enough to waste water? You’re making me feel immoral, Corey. I’ll have to mend my ways, with your help. First, though, let’s see your uncle’s grave.”
They put Fritzy in the truck and set off walking through the sere, stump-ridden hills. The land around the town was mainly free of sand, thanks to the driftwalls and acres of matted grabgrass that surrounded it. Corey took a shortcut through a cactus orchard, keeping well away from the poisonous black spines that bounced around them as the heavy green arms bobbed in a hot, sterile wind. The moment the sun broke free of the horizon, the wind filled with sand, dust, and thistles. They bent forward into it, Corey covering his face with the dust veil clipped to his collar, the Rehydrator pulling on his white mask of plastic mesh. The sky was orange as a needle held in a flame, and growing whiter every minute. The Rehydrator lagged behind, stumbling and coughing even though the wind died down slightly. Finally he came to a complete stop, crouching with his head between his knees.
“You bring any water?” Corey asked.
The man shook his head.
“That’s stu—not too smart. You better have some of mine.” He unclipped the tube from his pisspores, happy to see that the suit had inflated after last night’s deep drink. The Rehydrator took the tube between his lips, sipped, and pushed it away with a gagging sound. “What—what’s wrong with it?” he choked.
Corey sipped experimentally. “Tastes fine to me. You be all right?”
“How much farther?”
“About a half mile, I guess.”
The Rehydrator got to his feet, readjusted his Mylar cap, and peered down the trail—such as it was. “Is that water up ahead?”
Corey laughed. “That’s the lake.”
“It is! It’s a lake!”
The Rehydrator’s enthusiasm boosted him forward. The lake was clear near its edges, almost the same shade of white as the sky, but it darkened toward the depths, and in the center was a deep orange color, like liquid rust. It seemed to waver vaporously in the heat, causing the dunes on the far shore to ripple and shimmer. Corey stopped on the beach, well back from the little dust-speckled mercury wavelets the wind stirred up, but the Rehydrator rushed ahead, taking long strides.
Corey screamed at him. He was going in!
He caught the man from behind and hauled him back, upsetting both of them so they landed in a tumble on the cracked banks.
“What’s wrong?” the Rehydrator asked. “I was just going to cool my feet.”
“There’s a good reason they call it Gas Lake, mister—though it’s not gasoline exactly. Used to be a factory over the hill—same old plant that made the Orlick fortune. They dumped stuff here, some kind of toxic liquid. If it were water, it would’ve evaporated years ago, but it doesn’t. It just sits there shimmering. My dad told me it’s a vapor with high surface tension—not even the wind can disperse it. You can’t smell fumes unless you’re right on the surface—which is good, because it’s supposed to be pretty flammable.”
“My God,” the Rehydrator said, shaking his head in confusion. “I almost walked into it. I’m going to listen to you more carefully from now on, Corey.”
“I’m surprised you’ve gotten along without me this long, mister. No pisspores, wasting your pee. Living with all that water has made you careless.”
The Rehydrator didn’t seem to hear him. His tongue looked white and swollen, his eyes glazed over.
“Oh no,” Corey said. “Get up, can you? Come on, lean on me. It’s not far.”
They stumbled along the edge of the lake, then cut back into the hills. Ahead Corey saw the reassuring branches of the big plastic oak, offering little at this hour but the promise of shade to come. He practically had to drag the Rehydrator up the hill and sit him on the western side of the trunk, the coolest spot. He shoved his tube back in the man’s mouth, this time to no complaint. He felt his pisspores deflating as the Rehydrator sucked and sucked.
“O.K., that’s enough.” Corey pushed him away. “You’re gonna owe me a refill when we get back to your truck.”
The Rehydrator mumbled his assent. Corey crouched and watched him, wondering at the tenderness of his pale skin, as if he had spent more time than was natural inside that truck of his and never built up a tan. Even living mainly at night, it was impossible for most people to avoid getting baked and burned by the sun. Water must have allowed this man some incredible luxuries.
Suddenly Corey heard voices and footsteps coming up the road past the hill. He crouched down behind his uncle’s gravestone as Marlys Runyon and Medford Bannister came into sight.
“Where’d they go?” Medford said.
“Keep your voice down,” Marlys scolded. “They’re probably at the gate.”
Corey tapped the Rehydrator till his blurry eyes opened, and put a finger to his lips for silence. “Can you move yet?”
“I’ll try,” the man whispered.
Corey led him over the crown of the hill, through thickets of sage and artemisia, between waving stalks of parched mullein, avoiding a cactus patch whose location he’d learned from painful experience. They finally came out at a point where the trail ended at a shorn-off side of the hill. Marlys and Medford had just reached an equivalent point on the road below.
“See?” Medford said. “No sign of them.”
At that moment the Rehydrator stumbled on the crumbly earth, falling into drought scrub that crackled like applause. Corey swore and forced himself to stand up.
“What’re you doing here?” he demanded, trying to take the offensive.
“I should ask you the same thing,” Bannister said.
“He’s trying to break into the tomb,” Marlys said. “It’s obvious.”
“I have every right to be here,” Corey said.
“And I as well,” said Bannister. “In fact, I was just coming out to perform my custodial service.”
“What a coincidence,” said Corey. “Then we can all check together to make sure that Uncle Galvin’s O.K.”
“Lucky timing,” said the Rehydrator, finally getting to his feet.
“What’s he doing here?” Marlys said.
“I asked him along,” Corey said. “He’s gonna prove my uncle’s alive—prove it once and for all.”
Medford scowled. “I’m not empowered to allow strangers in the vault.”
“You were bringing in Marlys,” Corey said. “I can bring my friend in if I want.” He grabbed the Rehydrator’s elbow. “Come on; it’s tricky footing.”
They made their way down carefully to level ground.
“Don’t be stupid, Corey,” Marlys said when he was near her. “That guy’s a stage magician—he’s using you.”
“You know all about using people, don’t you?” Corey said.
“Why, you little—”
Medford took hold of her arm, twisting it slightly. “Now, now.”
She wrenched herself away from him, furious.
“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” Medford said. “I’m —”
“That’s Medford Bannister, the one I told you about,” Corey said. “He’s a snake, and Marlys Runyon—she’s something worse.”
“I know you have a poor opinion of me, Corey,” the lawyer said. “But you’re going to have to grow up and see how the world works. You can’t blame me for your uncle’s oversight in not providing for you. I know you feel slighted, but—”
“Who cares what he thinks?” Marlys said. She walked up to the side of the hill and gave it a hard kick. The metal door made a booming sound.
“That’s right,” Corey said. “It doesn’t matter. But you’d better open that door and show me my uncle.”
Medford smiled and took a magnetic key from his robes. He pressed it against the lock panel, twisted, and, with a whirring sound, the gate swung inward. A breath of air cool as midnight wafted out of a corridor big enough for all of them to walk abreast. Sunken lights switched on as they entered, and a soft pinging sound followed them down a ramp, like an alarm signaling their presence to the sleeper within.
The casket sat in the center of a round, domed chamber. Corey hadn’t been here since he was a boy, but there wasn’t much to forget. Four square pillars stood at the points of the compass around the casket, each bearing various indicators and controls. The container itself was tear-shaped, with a curved, mirror-silver lid that warped their reflections as they passed between the columns. As Corey reached out to touch the surface, he saw greasy streaks disturbing the pristine silver, the stains of hands, and something in his heart clenched up.
“Open it,” he said.
“There’s no call for that,” Bannister said.
“Open it, I said! Someone’s been here!”
Bannister pursed his lips, adjusted his spectacles, then bowed slightly in acquiescence. He worked some combination of controls on each of the pillars, and a hissing sound emanated from the casket. Slowly, the lid lifted. Corey stared into the receptacle in disbelief, although his suspicions had been confirmed.
“He’s gone,” he whispered, an unnecessary but irresistible (and accurate) description of what everyone could plainly see.
“My God,” said Medford Bannister.
“How about that,” offered Marlys Runyon.
“That’s what woke me,” the Rehydrator mumbled, but Corey hardly heard him.
“What did you do with my uncle?” he screamed.
“Not a damn thing,” Bannister said, his composure slipping, his forehead beaded with sweat. “I—I don’t know how this could have happened. No one else has a key.”
“Someone could have made one—if you didn’t do it.”
“Calm down, Corey,” the Rehydrator said. “Maybe he’s around here someplace.”
“If he’s anywhere, he’s in Bannister’s safe.”
“My God, what would I stand to profit from absconding with my own client? This only complicates things.”
“Oh yeah? As much as if you’d left him here for the Rehydrator to revive? You’d do anything to avoid that. And now you have.”
Corey spun away from them, plunging toward the disk of daylight at the end of the tunnel. The Rehydrator called his name, but Corey kept going. He had to find his uncle’s body, even if it was an impossible task; he couldn’t rest until he’d convinced himself it was impossible. Galvin might be anywhere—in someone’s cellar, buried in the dunes, tossed in the ocean or the lake . . . anywhere!
He knew he wasn’t being rational, heading off on a search by himself, but he couldn’t stop now. He had to do something.
Outside, blinded, he nearly plowed into a saguaro cactus. He would call Larry Wing, his dad’s old friend. Larry was always offering his help.
As he remembered the Rehydrator, he felt bad for a moment. How could he leave someone so vulnerable at the mercy of Medford Bannister and Marlys Runyon?
Well, it was a tough place, Gas Lake. The guy would just have to fend for himself.
“That’s what woke me. . . .” Now, what the hell did that mean?
Marlys turned away from the tunnel where Corey had vanished, and glared at the Rehydrator. “Look at you standing there, watching everything. You’re the cause of all this, I hope you know.”
“Now, Marlys, calm down,” Bannister counseled.
“What’s he doing here anyway?”
“I don’t believe I have anything to contribute at the moment,” the Rehydrator said. “Not with the body gone. I suppose you should tell the sheriff.”
“Lorna?” she laughed. “She couldn’t find dust on Earl Taws’s shelves.”
“He’s right, though,” Medford said. We have to report this.”
“Maybe if I had a description, I could help look for him,” the Rehydrator said.
Marlys’s laughter echoed in the close chamber. “He looked like that old dog of yours before you soaked it. But with one less leg.”
“Come on,” Bannister said. Well leave everything as it is.”
They filed out of the chamber. The Rehydrator lingered at the threshold, reluctant to reenter the blazing world that looked even hotter now than it had when they went underground. But he trudged along behind them toward town, letting them pull ahead, too hot to keep pace. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, his nose began to run. When he wiped it, a streak of blood gleamed on the back of his hand.
Dizzy. The other two looked far away. He called out weakly, his nose now so full of blood that he felt he was drowning in it. Marlys glanced back briefly, and must have seen him with blood running down his face, but she only smiled and slipped her arm through Bannister’s, and moved off even faster.
Help, he whispered.
Then the sun hit him like a hammer, knocking him flat in the middle of the road.