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Night poured over the desert. It came suddenly, in purple. In the clear air, the stars drilled down out of the sky, reminding any thoughtful watcher that it is in deserts and high places that religions are generated. When men see nothing but bottomless infinity over their heads they have always had a driving and desperate urge to find someone to put in the way.
—  Terry Pratchett - Jingo
2

Arches National Park, Utah

Deserts were probably Ford’s least favorite environment to travel through.

They were unbearably hot in the daylight and numbingly cold in the nighttime. They tested the limits of his physical endurance with rapid temperature changes, parching lack of humidity, shifting or uneven ground, and lack of cover from the elements. There was nowhere to escape the biting winds or baking sunlight except inside layers of protective clothing and headgear – a pair of UV resistant goggles was one of the best things Ford had ever stolen acquired. Not only did they offer protection from the harsh glare of the sun (or suns, as was often the case), after a few choice modifications they allowed him adequate night vision as well. Travel during the colder periods of the day was much less strenuous than travel in the heat of it, and it was handy to be able to see the nocturnal predators that so often frequented the desert.

On the other hand, though, deserts were also where Ford learned to survive. It was desert folk that taught him how to make the nutrient supplements he now subsisted off of. It was the necessary evil of survival that gave him the hardness of heart to do what it took to survive; and it was the stubborn refusal to become anything less than good that kept him from becoming a monster and giving in to the temptations of selfishness. He had seen firsthand that survival was not synonymous with selfishness, and that though an extended hand may be oft burned one never extended receives no help in return.

And deserts also held beauty, in their own harsh manner. Wildflowers would blanket the earth to the horizon, blooming bright and vibrant against the clean white or dull grey or bright yellow or dust red. The singing of coyotes and dune-beasts to the stars at night held a haunting beauty that sent shivers through his very core. Dawn breaking across a sky so vast it made one feel as fragile as dust; sunsets setting the whole heavens ablaze with color; the thread of galaxies across the sky so filled with colors and stars that one seemed to be walking among them; these were the things that the desert held and shared only with those brave enough to walk it.

Ford felt rather privileged to be one of them.

Seven deserts

1. The desert of the dreams of snakes, smooth and warm and whispering of tiny burrowing things beneath. This desert stretches flat to the ultimate horizon, snakes having no truck with round worlds, and it has no footprints.

2. A desert with purple sand as far as the eye can see, shading into pink in the distance. This is an old world and once it had oceans and plastic and merry-go-rounds and lighthouses and perfume and despair. And then that all got swished around into the oceans, and for some million years tiny fishes in their courtship dances brought a piece of this colour or that colour or the other of the whole messy wrack, until the debris of the other world was quite sorted into colours. And by then the oceans were almost gone, and all that was left were colourful deserts to the end of sight.

3. A cold and high and airless desert on a distant planet, on top of a mountain so vast that it rises out of the planet’s breathable atmosphere. They used to say there were buildings up here, up at the edge of sight in the unclimbable crags. Then people went up in spacesuits and of course there were no buildings. But it was interesting to find how many times previously someone around the planet had made a spacesuit of their own and abandoned camp or shat or died up there.

4. That desert on the desert menu which has a big box around it and costs a bit more and probably has an extra scoop of rock dust or meteorites on top, just to make you think that you are getting something really special. They bring out that desert for the birthdays of small gods, and all the tiny gophers in it sing a haunting lullaby. For big birthdays they light a volcano or two.

5. A desert with only light; not even sand. Just light upon light upon light, musky syrupy rose-gold light, no up and no down and no sand or rock or ice and no water and just light, only light.

6. A desert that is ninety percent composed of water, but is officially a desert due to the water technically belonging to the water company, who have cut off supply to humankind due to non-payment of the dolphin tax. Of course, we could just drink it, but then we would be in breach of our obligations and legally forfeit and the ghosts of humanity’s future would be obliged to repossess us already.

7. The Just Desert, a small but intensely arid pile of sand which can, if needs be, be packed into a truck and delivered to the doorstep of someone who truly, truly deserves it.

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