A shadow fell across the workbench where Dak was disassembling an old motor. Nothing was wasted in Hel. Every scrap was carefully recycled into something useful, even if as nothing more than ballast for the pumps on the windmills. Dak looked up from his work and saw Kevin standing there, an unreadable expression on his face.

Dak set the coil of copper wire he was unspooling aside. “Need something?” he asked of the big man.

Kevin jerked his head back toward the settlement. “Michael wants to see you.”

“What about?”

“He doesn’t tell me everything. He just wants to see you.”

Dak rubbed the grime from his hands onto his pants and fell in beside Keven who was already heading back.

As they descended the low hill just north of the village Dak saw a small knot of people gathered in front of Michael’s yurt. He scanned faces and realized all the elders were assembled. Only one face looked out of place—his partner, Lin, was standing at the edge of the group, looking anxious. He caught her eye, gave her a quizzical look. She shrugged, evidently as clueless as he.

Michael, seated in the sole chair in all of Hel, waved Dak and Lin forward. They exchanged glances, and stepped before him. Lin looked at the ground near her feet in deference, but Dak looked right at Michael, refusing to be cowed.

“I’m glad you could come,” Michael said, as if the visit were optional. “We’ve been watching you two a lot.”

Dak gave Lin a sideways glance.

“You do good work.”

Dak relaxed a little. “I do what I can.” What he could was damned little. Resources were scarce as hell—one of the things that lent the village its name.

“Your assignments thus far have all been tests. We have been debating about you, whether or not to have you join us in the Elder Circle. It would be a big move. You have not been here all that long.”

“The windmill you designed is brilliant,” Kevin interjected.

“All of your work has been brilliant.” Michael shot Kevin sharp look. He did not like being interrupted. “Your windmills have given us the water of life to make the valley bloom. For that, we are forever grateful. In fact, we think you may be suited for a leadership position. We are going to make you our Chief of Engineering.”

It was all Dak could do not to laugh. He was the only engineer in Hel. Instead, he said, “I am honored.”

Michael nodded, as if it were only proper Dak should be honored. “If you perform admirably in your new position we will induct you into the Elder Circle.” He made a sweeping motion with his hands to indicate the offer included Lin. “Do you know what that means?”

“Immortality.” Michael shot Kevin another angry glance, for speaking out of turn.

“We have some of the Nano Juice,” Michael said, returning his attention to Dak. He was referring to the vitality serum, reserved for the ruling class in First City—self replicating nanobots which worked at sub-cellular levels to repair frayed ends of DNA strands. A shot of the ‘juice’ gave the recipient virtual immortality.

Lin leaned into Dak, gave him an affectionate squeeze.

“We will discuss your new assignment tonight, in Circle.” Michael looked directly at Lin, but spoke to Dak. “Come alone.”

Lin once again dropped her gaze to the ground.

“Lin will get the juice too?” Dak asked.

Michael let out a heavy sigh. “Yes, of course. But she is not privy to our discussions—yet.”


Dak came to bed very late. Lin listened to him enter the yurt, strip off his clothes, then felt him slide under the skins to join her on their mat. She snuggled up to him, ran her hand over his shoulder and chest. She could feel the tension in his body.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

He lay there in silence for a long time. Finally he turned from his back to his side, facing her. She could see naught but his form beside her, but knew the look on his face was not happy just from the way he breathed and the tightness of his muscles.

“They want me to build a bomb.”

Lin sat up. “What?”

He pulled her back down, shushing her, drawing her close. “They have been gathering the components for years. That’s why they wanted an engineer, Lin. That’s why they had you recruit me. They needed someone to make a bomb.”

Lin lay there in silence, tears forming in her eyes.

“He wants to sabotage the nuclear plant, cause a meltdown.” He pulled her to him, wiped the tears from her cheeks. “He thinks that is the way to overthrow the ‘tyranny of First City,’ Lin. I do believe Michael’s quite mad.”

She lay there, trying to make sense of it all.

“I can do it voluntarily, and get the juice, or they will use you to make me do it.”

“What are we going to do?”

He pressed her to himself until it nearly hurt. “We run, and hope to God they don’t hunt us down.”
© 2010 by J. M. Strother. All rights reserved.

This story was inspired by India Drummond’s Writing Adventure Group prompt, WAG Topic #28: The Little Things. “Sometimes a small, unexpected thing has the power to affect big changes.” I’ve been kicking around the notion of nanobot DNA repair robots for quite some time. They certainly are little things, so I figured, what the heck. Thanks for the prompt, India.

Related story:

Organics – introduces the Dak and Lin characters.

  28 Responses to “Water Of Life”

  1. This makes me think of Einstein, his good work to something awful. It’s a terrible realization. Nicely crafted.

  2. This doesn’t seem like the kind of world I’d want to be immortal in. Then again, I don’t think there’s any way around someone always wanting to use new technology for destruction and power. I like the nanobot idea, I hope you use it again! Enjoyed this one lots.

  3. That’s brilliant, edge-of-your-seat stuff! I was utterly gripped by the end of the piece and really wished I could read more. Is there more? There should be!

    • You can get a peek into the Dak and Lin characters in Organics. Other than that, this world is still in the mulling phase in my brain. There may be more some day.

  4. Once I straightened out the names, I loved this. Intertwining their politics with Dak’s personal reactions gave this depth.

  5. Going to read the introductory story now. This was great. My only complaint would me that I want more!

  6. Jon, I love this! And I don’t usually care for sci-fi – there, I said it and didn’t melt!

    The tension you portrayed in the opening set the scene perfectly. For some reason [the opening] made me think of The Lottery. The voice is fantastic, the setting just the right shade of dark. I just love it!

  7. haunting. so nice to see yurts referred, we stayed in one while in the gobi in mongolia.. brought me back to the nether-world feel. very cool Jon, liked it a lot.

    • I’ve always been fascinated by yurts, and Mongolia for that matter. I am so jealous that you’ve been there. It’s one of the places I’d like to visit some day. I always find new environments very stimulating for my muse.

  8. Your ending was unexpectedly powerful, Jon. Where both options are terrible, find the third way.

    Good one.

  9. Ooh, very cool! This reads like a prologue to a much longer piece. I hope they can get free.

  10. Very nice, Jon. I would sit down to read this novel… :)

    Great story with just the right levels of everything. Well done.

  11. Cool. This could easily be part of a longer piece, say some combination of that Patrick Swayze movie, Steel Dawn and the episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation where Data had to defend the nanos as being sentient beings and therefore worthy of deciding their own fate. What a twist that would be, eh? lol

    Nice work.

  12. I really enjoyed this, after someone linked to it on Twitter. The revelation right at the end was a jolting sort of twist. Excellent.

  13. Love this story and I hope this isn’t all there is to it. Please make this a series. It’s great.

  14. This is a great story and you’re the second person I’ve met to use “Hel.” I too was reminded of Einstein in Dak and I’m curious how it would play out if you continued the story.

    I’ve read some great writing today. I guess I picked a good weekend to join #fridayflash. :)

  15. Strong telling. Has a nice vibe, well-defined atmosphere.

  16. Reminded me a little of the move “The Village.” With sci-fi undertones, that is. Well done and very interesting read!

  17. I like these characters, Jon. This is definitely a story to be continued…


  18. [...] Strother’s “Water Of Life” … Is immortality worth the [...]

  19. They better get going…

    I hope there is more, because I am anxious to read it.

  20. Interesting problem you’ve set up for these characters. I enjoyed it and makes me curious about what happens next.

  21. This would be an awesome set-up for a novel! I’d love to know what happens next.

  22. Great story this week, Jon. Nice build-up and intro to the world without a major info-dump. It all flowed very well. Nice ending!

  23. Did Dak have a hairy chest?
    Seriously, when you come in at the end of the comment party everybody’s already taken the good stuff! Yes, I agree with everybody. Great story, Jon. The characters had real punch. At first I thought you were talking about Hell, you know, the opposite of Heaven, and Michael was the archangel.. which would work, too, I suppose.
    Nothing’s better than a good flight story and this has the potential to be a good one.

  24. Very tightly written, Jon. I remember a comment from you long ago about how difficult science fiction is for you in flash. Something about too much time spent world building.

    You’ve gotten over any problem you may have had – in spades.

    This one pulled me along right from the start and ended perfectly.

    Really well done.

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