by Luke Pebler
When I wake, it is not yet hot. But it will be soon.
I am already thirsty.
I get up from the cot and go to the machine. I put my dick into the intake cup, and when my pee flows into the machine it clicks on automatically. I stretch and reach out to snag my camera by its strap. I review the shots I took yesterday while I finish going. The machine whirs while it does its work. I wait, still looking at photos.
When the machine beeps, it has produced almost eight ounces of clean warm water. I sip some of it, just enough to wet my mouth, and put the rest into a second machine.
When the second machine beeps, it has produced five ounces of hot coffee.
I crouch in the corner of the room, where the rising sun cannot find me. It is still cool here. I inhale deeply, wanting not even the steam of the coffee to go to waste. I sip.
When I look up, the boy is in the doorway, watching. I do not know how long he’s been there.
“He wants you,” the boy says.
The warlord sits in a chair on a dais built from ammunition crates.
There’s a child lying in the dirt in front of the warlord. Her mother stands over her, quaking.
The child’s left leg is tatters from the knee down. Gore and pink bone, then a foot. Blood seeps through the bandages and into the dust.
“Please,” the mother says. “She needs the gauze.”
The warlord watches the woman tremble, then looks up and searches the room. When he sees me, he waves me over and the guard lets me onto the dais.
“Post pictures,” says the warlord. “Show them I am merciful.” He smiles with all his teeth. I recognize the child. I saw her yesterday, when she was still whole.
I know that one of the warlord’s own mines exploded and shredded her calf when she wandered too far. I know her father had to cut away some of the shrapneled flesh with his knife while the girl screamed.
I know because I photographed it.
I do not say any of this out loud. I pull out my camera and take a shot of the warlord smiling. I adjust one of the lights and tell him where to stand to enhance his dramatic pose. He nods and claps me on the shoulder.
I get down off the dais and go to the girl and her mother. The warlord calls to his medic, who comes forward and kneels next to the girl.
The warlord’s medic has a case. On the side is a red cross and the letters UN. The medic opens the case and pulls out a soft white roll. He measures the girl’s leg and cuts a piece of smartgauze carefully, not wanting to waste any. For every lucky child the warlord heals, there are many he sends away. There isn’t enough gauze for everyone. The unlucky crawl in the streets, maimed, or just die.
The girl tenses when the gauze touches her. She cries out, but her mother holds her head to her chest. Beyond the three of them, I can see the warlord watching.
I photograph all of this.
By tomorrow, the smartgauze will turn firm and deep pink. The gauze will work like flesh. The girl will be whole again.
“I am merciful,” the warlord says into my camera lens. I make sure to frame him just the way he likes.
There is plenty of water at the warlord’s meals.
At my table each man is given a cupful. We try not to drink too quickly, because we may not be given more until the next night.
At the warlord’s table it is passed around in large jugs. The men at the table slosh it into their cups and onto the table and sometimes the floor.
Once, when I was first captured, the warlord watched me pee into my machine and make my coffee. When it was done he took the cup from me and sniffed, but did not taste. “Drink,” he told me. When I did he laughed at me, but he let me keep the machines.
The men at the warlord’s table all have strange left hands. The warlord calls the men the circle. The circle men wear long-sleeved army shirts, but I have often looked at their hands through the zoom lens of my camera. There are large men with small left hands, and vice versa. There are dark-skinned men with lighter hands, and the reverse.
The warlord’s left hand is lightest of all.
I once asked the boy what happened to the left hands of the circle, did they bleach them or what. He said a word that means glove or gauntlet, but he wouldn’t say more.
The boy is with me tonight. He sits next to me at many meals. Can he see the camera, he asks me. I nod and he puts down his gun and takes the camera. He plays with the buttons like I’ve been teaching him.
“Don’t take photos without me,” I tell him. I watch the warlord’s table.
Tonight there is an empty chair. The circle usually laughs and jokes and drinks, but tonight they discuss in low voices.
The warlord looks at a computer. I wonder if he is admiring his photos now. I post the merciful photos and no others, or he will find out and I am a dead man. When I post them I call the warlord the General. He likes this. I wonder if he thinks he looks merciful. If he is pleased with my work. I am still alive, so perhaps he is pleased.
Two of the men in the circle shout at one another. One of them taps at his phone.
I look over and see that the boy has wandered. He is watching the two circle men through the lens of my camera. I call to him and he comes back to me. The men don’t notice us. They stand up and go outside.
“Don’t take photos without me,” I tell the boy. I take the camera and see the photo he has taken.
“This is a good photo,” I tell him.
When I wake, it is still night. I wake because the boy is there.
He motions me to follow. He whispers the word that means gauntlet.
I get up and put on boots. I reach into my bag to get my camera. When the boy sees it hanging at my side, he looks scared.
“No camera?” I ask.
The boy doesn’t say no camera. He takes my hand and leads me outside.
I step on a can in the street, because it is dark. It makes a clatter, and the clatter makes a dog start to bark. In the moonlight, I see the boy roll his eyes. He leads me through the village, past the market shacks and the church shack and the big building where the warlord keeps water and flour and guns and gauze. There is a stool next to the door of this building, but there is no guard tonight.
Behind the big building is a building I have never been inside. It is made from cinderblocks instead of corrugated steel like the rest of the village. Its door is large and always locked tight. I have never seen anyone enter or exit. The windows are far above the ground and always dark.
Tonight there is light in the windows.
The boy takes me around the side, and I see he has stacked up some junk so that he can see in the window. He climbs the junk and holds out his hand to me. When I climb up and look in, the window is fogged. I reach out to clear the condensation off, but it is on the inside of the glass.
Behind the fog, there is a ring of the warlord’s men. Many are bare-chested. They are cheering and I realize that the fog is their sweat.
In the middle of the ring, a man I do not recognize stands over a man that I do. The man I recognize was the one missing from the warlord’s table. Through the fog I cannot see if he is alive or awake, but he is on his back. The new man is stepping on his chest.
The new man holds a machete above his head and speaks to the warlord, who is also in the ring. I cannot make out words through the window. When the warlord nods, the new man kneels. He holds the left wrist of the man he has beaten. His machete flashes, and I can hear the beaten man’s scream through the glass.
The new man stands. He presents the beaten man’s severed hand and forearm to the warlord. Blood pools at their feet.
When the boy whispers gauntlet once more, it reminds me about my camera.
I try to focus through the fog to the men below, but I know these shots won’t be any good. I get a shot of a man carrying a table into the ring, but it’s blurry, especially when I zoom.
The warlord puts the beaten man’s arm aside. The new man lays his own left arm on the table, and the warlord takes the machete. He says something I can’t hear. He strikes.
The new man’s cry is loud, but it is not a scream.
The warlord tosses the new man’s old forearm on the floor.
The man who brought out the table comes back with a case. I can see now that it is the medic. He begins to wrap smartgauze. He wraps and keeps wrapping and I have to look away because I feel sick.
In this way, the medic joins the beaten man’s arm to the new man. He joins the new man to the circle.
The new arm doesn’t move yet. The ring of men begins to chant. At first it is too quiet to hear through the glass, but soon it is loud enough.
The boy and I and everyone watch the new arm. When the fingers clench into a fist, the ring of men roars.
I still cannot get a good shot.
The new man stands. He looks tired. He smiles. The warlord offers his pistol, and the new man takes it. His new hand is shaky, but he fires a shot into the beaten man on the floor.
The warlord and the new man embrace.
The boy pulls at my sleeve. It is time to go.
The circle has come back from a raid. They have taken a water truck.
The men shout as they walk along next to it. Some of them shoot their guns into the air. Some of them carry cases full of medicine or gauze. One man eats a piece of fruit.
I stand in the shadow of my shack. When the truck rolls past I can see there is blood inside the cab. It stains the arm of the driver and this makes me think about the ceremony from the other night. The new man and his new left hand.
Behind the truck, villagers follow. More and more join the line as the truck rolls through the street. A few have pink limbs, healed by gauze, but most don’t. Some struggle to walk. Some can’t walk at all and pull themselves along the ground.
There are soldiers that have machine guns and ride on the truck’s back bumper, so the villagers don’t get too close. I see that the boy is one of the soldiers.
I will go out there to try to get some extra water, but first I lift my camera and take some photos.
The warlord comes up from behind and puts his arm around me. It startles me. He says, “You came here to see the bottom. To be reassured you are not living it yourself.”
I came here in a jeep, at gunpoint. That was over three weeks ago, according to the date on my camera.
“I came here to get some water,” I say out loud.
I drop my camera and let it hang on its strap. The rules for what I am allowed to shoot are not always clear. Sometimes they change.
The warlord doesn’t say anything about the camera today.
He stands with his arm around me and we watch the truck park in the street. The soldiers get off and push the villagers back. Other circle men gather at the tap on the back of the truck. One of them uses a wrench to turn the valve, and a trickle of water comes out.
The circle motions to the new man. He will be the first to drink and fill his canteen. When he steps up, the wrench man turns the tap so that the water shoots out hard. It sprays the new man in the face and knocks him back.
The villagers do not laugh at this, but the circle does. The new man does, too. Soon all the circle men are laughing and spraying each other with the water.
The villagers wait in the sun. A child cries until its mother silences it.
The warlord laughs loudest of all, here in the shade. It is painfully loud because he is so close to me. The laugh makes me angry, but anger does not make me brave.
Watching the men splash makes me thirsty, and it is my thirst that makes me brave.
“Does it make you feel bad, to steal?” I ask.
The warlord stops laughing. I do not turn to him, but I can feel him looking at me. “Who have I stolen from, photographer?”
“From the government. From the nations that send aid.”
The warlord shakes me with his gauntlet around my shoulder. “You are funny. You know there is no government here. That is why you love taking pictures.”
The circle men keep spraying and laughing. The ground around the circle is becoming muddy. The villagers wait.
“Whatever you think of your government, you owe the water to the people,” I say.
“I took the water for these people. If I had not taken it, they would have gotten none.”
“What about other villages? Your nation?” I ask.
“I do not want to talk in circles, photographer,” he says. “There is no nation. There is the village and the desert. You know this.”
“I know there are other villages. And cities. Where I came from,” I say.
“You used to believe that, photographer, but you do not anymore.”
The circle men have herded the villagers into a queue. They begin to fill the people’s containers.
“How do you know what I believe?” I ask him.
“If you believe, why don’t you take your piss machine and go into the desert and find the other places?” the warlord asks me.
Because it’s too many kilometers in any direction. Because you would hunt me down with your trucks and your guns. Because I’ve always been more afraid to die today than to die tomorrow.
But as I watch the villagers bake in the sun, perhaps that’s changing.
“I think I would miss my coffee too much,” I say out loud. I hope it will make him laugh and pull me closer. I hope it will anger him and he will pull his pistol and kindly shoot me.
The warlord releases me, and I finally look at him. He is not reaching for his gun.
“Why would you miss your coffee, photographer?” he asks me. He is always smiling, but he is not smiling now.
I step closer and look right into his eyes. “It makes me feel civilized,” I say. I hope when I say civilized it hurts his ears as much as his laugh hurts mine. Perhaps he will reach for his gun now, I think.
But he does not. When the warlord laughs this time, it is longer and harder than I have heard. When he is done, he asks me, “Do you know what the purpose of civilization is?”
I think about it. I look out at the truck, where two villagers are fighting over a jug. Water sloshes everywhere. I watch the circle laugh while the people suffer.
“To share,” I say.
“Wrong,” says the warlord. “The answer is to waste.”
When I do not reply to this, the warlord says, “Animals share, photographer. They use every drop. They fear the heat of the sun. But the animals only do what is necessary to survive. Man takes more than he needs so that he might waste, in ways that make him feel civilized.” Beyond him, the sound of the villagers clamoring for water is growing louder.
The warlord puts his arm back around my shoulders. He smiles and motions out at the village. “Take your pictures, photographer. We can feel civilized together!”
I ask the warlord if he will roll up his sleeve.
I am taking extra shots of him after he’s sent away the last villagers of the day. Another mother and child. When the warlord refused them gauze, the mother wailed and begged. The child was too weak to do anything.
The warlord stops preening and looks at me.
“Your mighty gauntlet,” I say. “It deserves to be photographed.”
To convince him, I show him a photo I have just taken. The lights and my framing and focus make him look good, but bare arms would make him look powerful. The gauntlet would make him look superhuman.
I remember the first time I showed the warlord my photos, to convince him not to kill me. It worked then, and it works now. The warlord nods and rolls up his sleeves.
The gauntlet has a ragged edge where the dark flesh and the light flesh and the pink gauze have grown together. A gauntlet of tiger stripes. Of neapolitan marble.
“This hand was once used to oppress me,” the warlord says. “Now it is my trophy.”
I want to ask who the oppressor was, local rival or imperialist foreigner. I want to ask exactly how much gauze it takes to make the body accept another man’s flesh in a display of fetishism. I want to ask how many villagers could have been healed instead.
Out loud I say, “Thank you, General.”
The photos I take of the warlord and his gauntlet are powerful. They are photos that would win awards and make me a fortune. They are the sort of photos that I’d like to think I am brave enough to die for.
The warlord asks to see them. He smiles at his image, but to me he says out loud the thing that is always implied.
“If you post these pictures I will kill you,” he says.
I have decided I would rather the desert kill me than the warlord.
In the dark of night, I pack only what I need to survive. I take nuts and millet and a plastic jug of water I have saved. I take the piss machine but not the coffee machine. I take a sleeping bag but not my camera bag.
In the dark of night, I teach the boy about my camera.
He already knows how to take shots. I teach him how to post the photos for the warlord. “So he can feel merciful,” I say.
I teach the boy about persistent satellite backup systems. I tell him that every photo the camera takes is uploaded to a secure server, even the ones he does not post for the warlord. Whatever he takes, I will be able to see from the city.
If I do not die today.
“Are my other photos on the secure server?” he asks. The ones we took together, and the ones he snuck alone. I nod, and the boy looks very proud. I remind him never to tell about the server. I remind him to say that he stole the camera from me.
The boy asks me if I want his photos to tell the truth about the warlord.
I think about the stories my photos have told. I think about the shots of the gauntlet, waiting for me if I am strong enough. I think about the warlord’s laugh, and how I cannot sleep because I cannot find fault in his logic.
I think about an Earth that thirsts.
“Tell any story you want,” I say.
The boy takes his camera. He lingers in the doorway, watching me. Perhaps he will be the one to prove the warlord wrong, someday.
“Go,” I say. He does. I finish packing.
When I leave, it is not yet hot. But it will be soon.
About the Author
Luke Pebler is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Workshop at UCSD, and his fiction has appeared in the Sword & Laser Anthology and others.
About the Narrator
Joshua Price describes TV shows and movies for a website in England. He also spends a great deal of time producing fully casted audio dramas of comic books. He tries to change a visual art form into an audio art form, thus keeping the idea of comics as art. He makes what sighed people see into something that blind people can hear. It is his hope that the audio can create an image in people’s mind that resembles visual art.