Walking the Dust
28: White Light/White Heat
The sky is white; the sky is black. It all depends on whether you're walking or sleeping.
See, in the small towns, it doesn't make much difference. Everyone works outside during the day, and finishes when the sun goes down. They eat and drink, but aside from walking to and from their houses, they're hardly outside. In the big cities, people pay even less attention. They're safe behind their walls and guards, working through the day, and at night they're either still working by lamplight, or too busy making sure they don't get robbed on the street.
It's only when you start walking across the land, when you spend all day chasing the horizon, and all night staring up from under your blankets, that you notice how empty the sky is.
Now, everyone knows it's been that way for a long time. But how long? It's not hard to find old folk who'll tell you about the “stars” that used to shine and glitter in the sky, normally while they're sitting around a fire with a full pot of booze. Lots of folk believe them, too. Throw a rock, and you'll find someone who says the stars disappeared just before they were born.
Trouble is, when everyone says that, no matter how old they are, somebody's got to be wrong. And if you listen close and long enough to those old drunks round the fire, they start to contradict themselves, especially the ones who claim to remember the time of stars themselves. Talk to people with a little more reading and little less ego, and the consensus is pretty clear. The stars, assuming they ever existed at all, went away after the Big Wet. Just like the “birds”.
But I reckon they did exist, all right. If they didn't, someone's done a great job of faking it, because my family has books passed down from before the Big Wet. Books that we know are that old, because mine's the kind of nit-picky, argumentative and obsessive family that keeps those kind of records.
And some of those books have references to stars... not to mention a blue sky, something else you don't see any more.
Now, I've seen the sky turn yellow, on warm days — days when you'd want to take off a layer or two as you walk across the hills, if not for remembering where you were — and I've also seen it turn grey, white, even purple on really cold days. But that's rare, because most of the time it's anything but cold.
This is something most people don't realise about walking the land, out here. It's damn hot. Folks think that because walkers wrap up before we head out — because we wear layers, and face cloths, and hats, and big old boots — that it must be cold out there. But the clothes aren't to keep us warm. We wear them for protection against the winds, and the sand haze that gets into every crease and cranny of your outfit, rubbing and scratching whatever it touches.
Truth is, you can burn out here just as easily as you will if you stand around for too long in a city. It's hot, sweaty, and damn uncomfortable.
But you live with it, because the alternative means getting blasted by the sand and dust with every step. I've seen ruin runners who lost their face cloth, or got attacked in the wasteland and their clothes stolen, and trust me, you don't want to look like that. They don't want to look like that, either, but at least in their line of work, looks don't matter much.
So then night falls, and all that heat just disappears. On days with a purple sky, especially, you know you're in for a freezer once that sun goes down. But even on normal days, you daren't sleep at night without some kind of blanket or goat fur to lie under, and a fire going. Those flames aren't just to keep the wulves from getting too close.
What about the sky? At night, it's just plain black. No other colour, no matter how cold it gets, or what the winds are like.
And no stars. You can see the moon, fuzzy and bright above the horizon, but it's all alone up there. I've never seen anything that looks like the stars those old books talked about.
And despite the old folks' tall tales, I never met anyone else who did, either.