She sat in the cave mouth, pulling the handles off cups. The tinkle of stressed and fracturing bone china echoed around her, but the echoes drifted out onto the plateau and didn’t reach back into the cave.
I had found the cups three days earlier, part of someone’s cache I thought. They had been buried, and I’d been using the metal detector (if it was a metal detector; it clearly detected something) and it had made that trilling sound like the whooper bird. I’d set it down in the dust and scraped away with my trowel, the one with the red-painted handle where the paint was flaking away steadily and revealing rust underneath. I wasn’t expecting much, as the plateau should have been solid rock over that way, but to my surprise the dust was covering loose scree, and when I levered that up it revealed a small, cubical hole containing a pouch and a large box. The box contained the tea-set, each cup and saucer set neatly into some kind of black foam that was soft and friable when I touched it. I brought them both back, but I told Sis and Dad only about the tea-set. I put the pouch at the bottom of my sleeping-roll
She cast the last handle aside and set the cup down gently with the rest of them. Her eyes were unfocused and slightly filmy. Dad said that she was just a deep thinker, but I was growing more certain that she was just mad. Dad just didn’t want to admit it. Or put her over the edge.
I turned away, not wanting to know why she’d broken the cups. They’d still be used, to hold water or flour, or whatever else needed holding when we were looking for a container, but they couldn’t be used for tea now, or ersatz-coffee. I’d enjoyed having a proper cup again, and feeling, even just for the duration of a cup of tea, like I was back before the crash.
The arroyos were in front of me, and I realised I’d not taken the detector down there before. Dad would be out hunting, if that’s what you called raiding other people’s goods trains, but as he said, we had to eat. Of all the oddities that the plateau threw up, food wasn’t one of them, and there were no plants worth talking off – lichens and mosses, but you’d be desperate to eat them and you’d spend all day trying to find enough to sate your hunger. And then there was tomorrow. The biggest animals were us humans, and the few horses we’d managed to salvage were too valuable to eat. No-one had managed to get them to breed yet, and that was getting pressing. No-one had managed to have any children yet either, but no-one talked about that.
The plateau sloped down towards the first arroyo. Where the rock was normally a deep red fading to black, it gained new stripes of colour in the arroyos. Dad said that it meant the rock was sedimentary, laid down over aeons by geological processes that we didn’t understand, and that the colours meant that the land here had been very different over the years. I wasn’t convinced, but there were definitely layers there, and when you rubbed the different layers then felt different. The white layers made my fingers tingle, and the yellow ones had a musty, mushroomy smell about them. That smell came out strongly after the rain, and reminded me that I missed mushrooms.
The edge of the arroyo was above my head now, and I knew that this track led down about eighty feet to a dried-up river-bed. I’d found a couple of bones and skulls down there, but Dad made me stop bringing them back to the caves. No-one could identify the bones or skulls, and one of them had been almost too big for me to carry.
“What if something looks after their dead?” he’d asked me, as we sat together watching the sun set. “What if they want it back?”
Sis smashed the skull with rocks, so I hope they don’t.
I slipped the headphones into my ears and turned the detector on. I swung its disc-shaped metal head out in front of me. For a moment it was silent, and then there was a noise like the crashing of waves of a distant shore, and a voice in the roar that uttered, “Let me drink,” over and over again. I frowned, wondering where the voice could be coming from, and swung the detector head across the ground. Then I swung it up against the side of the arroyo, wondering if there might be things buried in the layers.
Everything went quiet, and suddenly I knew that I was being watched. I pulled the headphones off and looked around, but everything was quiet. It didn’t fool me for an instant. I’d attracted the attention of whatever it was that lived in the arroyo, and I knew that it was thirsty. I trembled.