The fountain was blocked by a grey sphere. The sphere was not solid; it was entirely gaseous, and it had definite moods. The Bedouin who showed us down to the chamber refused to look at the sphere; they left us, the mad white men, to examine it. The ancient maps we had found in a private library in New York pointed us here, a dried oasis in North Africa. It took two days to dig down to the chamber; we almost gave up, thinking that, after all, the entire project was folly. There was nothing on the satellite photographs and there was nothing in the desert.
We hit the flagstone just before midnight. We had been working at night to avoid the heat. If you touched the jeep’s tyre in the day your hand came away black with rubber. That was the heat. So we carried on digging all that night, and, when the sun chipped the sand dunes that towered over us, we broke the seal on the door and descended to the chamber.
We had come to let the waters flow again; we would dissolve the sphere and then the water would dissolve the desert. We could see the channels where the water used to flow. To the north, there had been a great dictator, a man who was beaten to death live on CNN, who had planned his own watercourses for this region. Those dreams, charted by Swiss engineers, ended in a bloodstain on a lonely road not far from his burning capital. Where he failed, we would succeed.
The sphere presented its own problems. We had many old books that vaguely sketched what we had to do to remove it, but the ancients, though profound, were also…vague. Three men, three attempts. The first was a Canadian. He chanted what sounded like antique Ethiopian at the sphere, but there was no result. He returned to his tent and drank vodka. If anyone approached the tent, he threatened them with his revolver. The second man was a scholar from Oxford, a man in the line of natural philosophy. He applied various instruments to the sphere and took careful notes. After a week, he applied an electrical device; it had not finished its cycles before he stood up and left the chamber. The Bedouin found him hanged from the calcified tree, the sentry at the edge of the oasis.
Now I alone remain with the sphere. I have sat here some six months or so. The Bedouin have mostly left; only two teenage boys keep me company and drive to the station sixty miles away for water and dates. I can hear them now, joyriding the jeeps over the sand dunes. The burnt wrecks of two vehicles testify to their teething period. The scholar failed and the scientist failed. Shall I fail? What special talents do I have that could carry me to success? That is not an uncommon question for a man to ask. I rise from my lotus position and place both hands on the sphere; nothing changes, there is no revelation. The architecture of the chamber, so low and Mesoamerican, breathes with me. I think I can hear the river beneath the sphere: “Come out, come out,” I say under my breath. I close my eyes.
When I next open them I am looking at a fan. A hotel room in New York. A woman from the insurance company is talking to me about medical bills and trauma. There are questions about my companions and a coroner who wants me to make an identification. I look up at the fan and see the grey sphere, its clouds are turning and turning…faster. The woman leans over me. I feel a tension in my throat, just as I did when the female teachers stood over me at school; perhaps I will call her mother, my mother is dead.
The door clicks back on the latch. She is gone.
At the sound, the sphere dissolves.