He dreamed he was back in the cool, dark chamber—not in Orlick’s chamber, but in his own. It was a long dream, a dry dream, a drought dream—but at the end of it was water, glorious, burning water, filling his cells, pouring in his face, till he woke up swimming in it.
He woke in the dream only, reliving his memories of waking in the cool, secret vault that was the twin of Galvin Orlick’s. He remembered the dark cell, the lights coming on slowly around him, the lid rising as he sat up in a pool of foaming, vaporous liquid like a man who’d fallen asleep in his bath and slept for twenty years.
Thirst had been his initial sensation. Thirst and a maddening confusion—amnesia. He had found a huge cache of water jugs and drank till he was sick, but he didn’t find memories. In an adjacent chamber, he found the truck, and wondered at its purpose. He found messages that had been left for him to read when he awoke—notes reminding him of an obligation he must fulfill in exchange for his long, cool sleep. Obligations to a man named Galvin Orlick. The name meant nothing to him.
“If you’re awake, there are only a few reasons why,” read one message written in glowing letters that scrolled across a little screen at the foot of the vacuum-sealed bed where he had slept:
The first possibility is that the drought has ended, in which case you are under no obligation to me. Go your way in the new green world. Another possibility is that my rest has been prematurely disturbed. In this case, you must investigate my current condition, awakening me if necessary, according to the instructions and chemicals you will find in the truck. It is also possible that you will be awakened if my financial conditions erode below a certain level, in which case I must ask you to check on my affairs, again reviving me if necessary to put them in order. Do not attempt to resolve them yourself. 1 am certain you will not shirk these small duties, remembering the weight of your obligations to me, the vows you swore, and the anxiety with which you took your leave from present affairs. Trusting you, I am—Galvin O. Orlick.
Examining various instruments in the chamber, he discovered that the drought showed no sign of ending. He learned that he had slept for twenty years. Maps showed him his present location, and that of Galvin Orlick. He carefully read the instructions for practicing revival on Fritzy, who slept in a tinier version of the tear-shaped casket, but he decided to delay this experiment until he might get the most from it. He also found a gun.
Many more things were left unclear, however, his name but one of them. He could not uncover the cause of his “obligation.” Apparently it had been squeezed from his brain along with the original waters, and had not returned when his cells were drenched afresh.
Why not simply walk away from his obligation? What could he possibly owe a man he had not seen in twenty years?
The answer lay in his realization that after twenty years he would be utterly alone in the world—alone except for that other. If he did revive Orlick, then he might learn his identity and the nature of the debt he had awoken to discharge. Ultimately that was what drove him out into the hot, dry world. What other purpose did his life have except the one hinted at in all these notes?
He had loaded the truck with water, leaving most of it untouched in the cache. Then he had opened a secret gate into a sere, weedy wilderness, and driven up into it. The truck was solar-powered, and there was no dearth of sunlight to drive it. That first day the heat had nearly killed him. He left the chamber just after dawn, and within a few hours he had stopped a dozen times to drink and cool down. Even the shade was like an oven. The glint of heatlight on the glass dazzled and dizzied him. Finally he had passed out in the driver’s seat, crashing the truck into a clump of brush. That was when he fell on Fritzy and broke off the dachshund’s leg. He had lain there in a faint until sunset, dreaming feverishly of his cool bedchamber, dark dreams, dreaming almost of the lifetime twenty years behind him. . . .
And now these dreams abandoned him again, and he rose once more in a dark place to the touch of water. A cool cloth rough as a cat’s tongue licked his brow.
He opened his eyes and saw the sheriff bending over him. She smiled. “That better?”
“Where am I?”
“It’s—it’s so cool.”
“Rank has privileges.”
She stopped stroking him. He realized she had laid wet pads all over his face. He peeled one off and found that it was green and oozy, a strip of succulent.
“Borrowed these from the steak house next door,” she said.
“In the road. Good thing I went back to check on Orlick’s grave. You were breathing dust. Another hour out there, and you’d have been a crispy critter. Dehydration would have killed you.”
“Thank you,” he said. He touched one of the steaks to his tongue and sucked on it, drinking the green juices. It tasted salty from his skin.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” she asked, sitting down in a spring-backed chair. Her metal desk was covered with plastic printouts and carved wooden animals—antiques.
He sat up and found that he’d been sprawled on a couch. “Sure,” he said.
“Why don’t you have a pair of pisspores on? We checked your truck and didn’t find any—oh, I gave Fritzy some water while we were there. Did someone steal ’em while you were lying in the road?”
He swung slowly forward. “No, Sheriff. You won’t find any. I didn’t have any to steal.”
“That looks pretty suspicious, you know. I also got a look at how much water you carry. That’s a dangerous load, you realize, don’t you? Most people would build a fortress around a supply like that. I found a gun, too. Not a dart gun, but the real old type, using gunpowder and bullets—the kind that strike sparks and’ve been illegal for years because of it.”
“You must have looked pretty carefully.”
“Fritzy seemed hungry. I gave him some kibble. Didn’t recognize the brand, though. It claimed to have meat and grain in it—not just cactus products. By then I was almost ready for that.”
He realized that he couldn’t bear her suspicion. The secrets he’d been hiding weren’t even his to hide—they belonged to a man he couldn’t remember meeting. It looked as if that man might never be found. If Galvin disappeared or proved incapable of being revived, the Rehydrator would be alone in this place—an alien. It was time to start taking responsibility for his own destiny. He needed people. Needed friends. Corey was one, and maybe now the sheriff could be one as well—if he trusted her.
All right, he thought. I’m telling her.
“Sheriff,” he said, “I don’t have a pair of pisspores for a stranger reason than you’d ever think. There’re plenty of other ways I’m not equipped or suited for this place—this drought.”
“Exactly how have you been getting along, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“The truth is, I haven’t been getting along at all.”
He told her everything.
Lawrence Wing, Esq., listened closely to Corey, punctuating the narrative with various noncommittal sounds. Even when Corey had finished and Wing started giving his advice, it was hard to tell what the lawyer personally thought and what he merely recommended in his professional capacity.
“You know, I’ve defended Galvin for nearly ten years now without any real input from your father, rest his soul, or you, Corey. Galvin never asked for my help, you know. He thought he’d get a better bargain from Bannister, and maybe he did, for a while. But that was Bannister Senior. If he’d looked twice at Junior, he might have worried a little bit. Medford never showed signs of following in his father’s footsteps. He was a troublemaker, a lot like Marlys Runyon, though with plenty of family money to give him a gloss of respectability, and a good education to sharpen his cunning. Marlys never had those opportunities. She’s crude but effective.”
“I know. She used my father,” Corey spat.
“I was aware something went on there, though the details—well, I never thought it was my business.”
“After my mother died, he wasn’t in his right mind—”
“Who would be?”
“—and she started coming around, pretending she wanted to help us out, saying we needed a woman’s touch around the place, though the touch she had in mind was a different one. She was looking to see what access my dad had to Galvin’s money. Soon as she realized Bannister held all the strings, she dumped him hard—even tried seducing me just to shame us both. It helped kill him, all that misery heaped so high.”
Wing regarded him soberly, lips pursed. “I don’t want to add to your own misery, Corey, but there may have been more going on there than you guessed. Marlys and Medford were partners since before you were born. She was probably on a fishing trip for Medford’s sake when she tried to get close to your daddy, see if old Galvin had left any loose ends hid from his lawyer.”
“You mean the whole time she was living with us, she was really working for Bannister?”
Wing nodded slowly. “Guess I knew more about that situation than I realized. I’m sorry we never talked before, Corey. I hope we’ll keep in contact from now on.”
Corey jumped to his feet. “Well, why even wonder who stole Uncle Galvin? It’s obvious they did it! They snatched him away so he couldn’t wake up—and now there’s not even a body for you all to argue over whether it’s alive or not. They’ll take everything!”
Suddenly he’d had all he could take. He collapsed in a plush, overstuffed chair and sobbed into his open hands.
“There now, son. You’re not helpless. I’ve been fighting them with the law all these years because that’s my way, and because I felt I owed it to Galvin even if he was too proud and penny-pinching to ask for my help in the first place. See what it cost him in the end, that infamous thrift?”
“I—I can’t pay anything either, sir.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, son. The point is, there’s no way for me to move quickly on this one. I’m all mired down in law; it’s the only swamp the drought couldn’t touch. For every move I make, Medford sees me coming a mile off and has all the time he needs to plan a countermove. Meanwhile, he could ship that body out of here or burn it in a bonfire for all I know.”
“Well . . . I’m not a lawyer. I’m not bogged down.”
“Exactly why I’m telling you all this, in a cautious, advisory sort of way. Maybe there’re things you can do that I can’t even counsel you about, because if I did, I might be telling you things that go against my professional ethics—not that there aren’t plenty of my peers who have no qualms about going out and doing such things themselves.”
Corey leaned eagerly over the desk. “And you can’t suggest anything? Anything at all? Are you sure?”
Wing yawned hugely. “My, my, look at the time. It’ll be noon soon. I should be in bed.”
“Please,” Corey said.
The lawyer winked. “I’ll bet Bannister’s in bed, too, and Marlys with him.”
“But I can’t get near his place. It’s booby-trapped.”
“And you wouldn’t catch him red-handed anyhow. He’s too smart for that. What you want to do is check out his possible stashes—and Marlys’s. Now, I know there’re no alarms around old man Runyon’s place. . . .”
The sheriff came for him at sunset, knocking lightly on the side of the truck until he woke. Fritzy scampered down the steps and started nuzzling at a pocket in her uniform.
“You’ve got something he wants,” the Rehydrator said.
She pulled a dried lizard from the pocket and let it dangle just over Fritzy’s nose.
“I see. Come on in. Help yourself to some water.”
She climbed in and sat on a folding stool, and covered her cup with a hand when it was half-full. “Too much at once, and my pisspores start sloshing. Thanks.”
He gulped two cups in straight succession, trying to purge the dust that seemed to have gathered behind his molars; he poured a bit more into his hands and ran them through his hair until he noticed her wincing. Feeling like a fool, he let them drop to his sides, wondering if it would be more polite to lick them dry. Would he ever be comfortable here?
“I don’t suppose you remember anything else about yourself?” she asked. “Anything that might’ve come back to you in a dream?”
“No more than when I first woke,” he said. “I feel like a robot or something, with a few programs missing. I mean, I speak the language, I know some of the routines, but I have no past. I guess those tissue samples you took didn’t turn up anything?”
“Nothing yet. It’ll take a few days to follow up all the possible records. You’ve been away twenty years, so chances are whatever’s still on file is archived pretty deep. If nothing turns up, then I’d say old Galvin Orlick went to some pains to erase you before he wrung you out.”
“Maybe . . . maybe I wanted that. Maybe someone was following me, and that was the only way I could think to escape.”
“Or maybe you’re a robot, like you said. But I don’t think so.” She tapped him lightly on his chest. “I heard a heartbeat in there yesterday. And you’re not the fugitive type.”
“Sheriff . . . ”
“Why don’t you call me Lorna?”
“Lorna, all right. I wish there were something you could call me. ‘Rehydrator’ sounds like a spare part—which is appropriate. A spare part for something they don’t make anymore. I’m obsolete.”
“No. You just don’t know where you fit in yet. Why don’t we give you a name? You came here with all this water—you know, something like that. Waterman. Water. Walter?”
“Walter,” he repeated, meeting her eyes. “Thank you, Lorna. You’re so nice to me. There’s nobody . . . nobody close to you around here? You’re not married or anything?”
She shook her head. “Gas Lake’s a small town, and I’m not from around here. I sort of got into law enforcement through a civil service fluke—turned out I was pretty good at it. But the people here won’t exactly open up to me—they keep their distance. You know. They all have secrets I’ll probably never know.”
He put his hands on hers. “I’m from out of town, too.”
“Farther than that. Looking in your eyes, it’s like looking down a tunnel into the past.”
He let her gaze into that tunnel for a moment, wishing he could see what she saw. Maybe she could find answers to his questions in there.
Suddenly Fritzy started howling.
“Sheriff!” A man’s voice, nearby. “Sheriff?”
“My deputy,” she said. She went to the canvas and peeked out. “What is it, Skelton?”
“Edgar Runyon’s looking for you. Claims he caught Corey Orlick trespassing on his property. He wants us to come out and arrest the kid.”
“All right, I’m coming.”
She turned back to him, absently slapping the horny toad into her open palm. “Damn that boy. You know what he was after, don’t you?”
She nodded. “Still, it saves me the trouble of coming up with a better excuse for poking around out there. You’re welcome to come. It’s cooled down quite a bit.”
“Be right with you.”
When she was outside, he pulled on his sandals, took another swallow of water, and pulled out the gun—the “antique” Lorna had found when she searched the truck. As with an unpredictable number of other things, he remembered how it worked. Illegal, she’d said. But he felt like he needed something for himself now. Not knowing his identity, how would he recognize his enemies? The strap fit snug around his ankle.