You could source the origin of Paolo Bacigalupi's best-selling novel, "The Water Knife," right back to the day his kitchen sink went dry.
"It's just a strange sort of shock to just turn the tap and nothing happens," he says. "You know, sometimes you get an air hiss, whoosh, and you're like, 'Whaat?'"
It totally messed with his head. As it should. You know, you turn a knob. Water comes out. That how it works. That's how it always works.
Until it doesn't.
"And it's weird how you run up against this thing where you're like, 'Oh, we don't have water.' And then you realize, 'Oh, I can't wash vegetables. Oh, I can't take a shower. Oh, I can't wash my hands right now.' They're these simple things that we do all the time and you just don't notice them because water is so ... it's just taken for granted.
This loss is what powers "The Water Knife."
It's a thriller set in the American Southwest. A drought called "Big Daddy" sucked the place dry. So cities battle other cities for water. The most powerful people are those who control of the taps. And everyone is fighting over who can tap into the Colorado River.
It sounds a heckuva lot like the Southwest today. But Paolo stresses it's the future.
"'The Water Knife' is sort of the worst-case scenario," he says. "It's the one where people don't plan. The one where they don't cooperate. It's the one where they deny the data says it's going to get harder. And so they make no plans and do no organizing."
Here's what makes "The Water Knife" cut deep: It's climate science wrapped in pulpy goodness. There's a diabolical villain, a mercenary with a heart of gold and an investigative reporter willing to risk it all for the story. It's straight brain candy. And it's part of a sub-genre of science fiction called "Cli-Fi."
Get it? Climate Fiction.
Related Story: Five great books you should think about reading in 2016
The big dogs of publishing are diggin' it.
A publicist from Penguin Random House told me that "much like fiction, Cli-Fi is striking a nerve, tapping into an issue we all face and is therefore something that is interesting."
Paolo says he is trying bring a visceral sense of scarcity to people who have never felt it before.
People like me.
I poured a huge glass of water while reading the book last night, took a sip, and was like, "Oh, yeah. I should value this more."
Paolo thinks that's the key: Instead of boring us with power points, he's connecting us to characters.
We can empathize with their plight.
And that's why he thinks Cli-Fi is taking off.
"You know, writers are just starting to get this grip on what it means to live in a world that isn't just going to be technologically different or socially different from the ones our parents grew up in, but one that is going to be radically, biologically and ecologically, different.
You can take that the cynical way. As cities dry out and die, forests burn and islands vanish under the sea, at least we'll have something nice to read.
Or perhaps books like "The Water Knife" will actually help us change what we do. So the American Southwest will never have to experience a waterless future.
Read an excerpt of "The Water Knife":
There were stories in sweat.
The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun, was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a checkpoint in Mexico, praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing. The sweat of a ten-year-old boy staring into the barrel of a SIG Sauer was different from the sweat of a woman struggling across the desert and praying to the Virgin that a water cache was going to turn out to be exactly where her coyote’s map told her it would be.
Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.
To Angel Velasquez, perched high above Cypress 1’s central bore and watching Charles Braxton as he lumbered up the Cascade Trail, the sweat on a lawyer’s brow said that some people weren’t near as important as they liked to think.
Braxton might strut in his offices and scream at his secretaries. He might stalk courtrooms like an ax murderer hunting new victims. But no matter how much swagger the lawyer carried, at the end of the day Catherine Case owned his ass—and when Catherine Case told you to get something done quick, you didn’t just run, pendejo, you ran until your heart gave out and there wasn’t no running left.
Braxton ducked under ferns and stumbled past banyan climbing vines, following the slow rise of the trail as it wound around the cooling bore. He shoved through groups of tourists posing for selfies before the braided waterfalls and hanging gardens that spilled down the arcology’s levels. He kept on, flushed and dogged. Joggers zipped past him in shorts and tank tops, their ears flooded with music and the thud of their healthy hearts.
You could learn a lot from a man’s sweat.
Braxton’s sweat meant he still had fear. And to Angel, that meant he was still reliable.
Braxton spied Angel perched on the bridge where it arced across the wide expanse of the central bore. He waved tiredly, motioning Angel to come down and join him. Angel waved back from above, smiling, pretending not to understand.
“Come down!” Braxton called up.
Angel smiled and waved again.
The lawyer slumped, defeated, and set himself to the final assault on Angel’s aerie.
Angel leaned against the rail, enjoying the view. Sunlight filtered down from above, dappling bamboo and rain trees, illuminating tropical birds and casting pocket-mirror flashes on mossy koi ponds.
Far below, people were smaller than ants. Not really people at all, more just the shapes of tourists and residents and casino workers, as in the biotects’ development models of Cypress 1: scale-model people sipping scale-model lattes on scale-model coffee shop terraces. Scale-model kids chasing butterflies on the nature trails, while scale-model gamblers split and doubled down at the scale-model blackjack tables in the deep grottoes of the casinos.
Braxton came lumbering onto the bridge. “Why didn’t you come down?” he gasped. “I told you to come down.” He dropped his briefcase on the boards and sagged against the rail.
“What you got for me?” Angel asked.
“Papers,” Braxton wheezed. “Carver City. We just got the judge’s decision.” He waved an exhausted hand at the briefcase. “We crushed them.”
Braxton tried to say more but couldn’t get the words out. His face was puffy and flushed. Angel wondered if he was about to have a heart attack, then tried to decide how much he would care if he did.
The first time Angel met Braxton had been in the lawyer’s offices in the headquarters of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The man had a floor-to-ceiling view of Carson Creek, Cypress 1’s fly-fishing river, where it cascaded through various levels of the arcology before being pumped back to the top of the system to run though a new cleaning cycle. A big expensive overlook onto rainbow trout and water infrastructure, and a good reminder of why Braxton filed his lawsuits on SNWA’s behalf.
Braxton had been lording over his three assistants—all coincidentally svelte girls hooked straight from law school with promises of permanent residence permits in Cypress—and he’d talked to Angel like an afterthought. Just another one of Catherine Case’s pit bulls that he tolerated for as long as Angel kept leaving other, bigger dogs dead in his wake.
Angel, in turn, had spent the meeting trying to figure out how a man like Braxton had gotten so large. People outside Cypress didn’t fatten up like Braxton did. In all Angel’s early life, he’d never seen a creature quite like Braxton, and he found himself fascinated, admiring the fleshy raiment of a man who knew himself secure.
If the end of the world came like Catherine Case said it would, Angel thought Braxton would make good eating. And that in turn made it easier to let the Ivy League pendejo live when he wrinkled his nose at Angel’s gang tattoos and the knife scar that scored his face and throat.
Times they do change, Angel thought as he watched the sweat drip from Braxton’s nose.
“Carver City lost on appeal,” Braxton gasped finally. “Judges were going to rule this morning, but we got the courtrooms double-booked. Got the whole ruling delayed until end of business. Carver City will be running like crazy to file a new appeal.” He picked up his briefcase and popped it open. “They aren’t going to make it.”
He handed over a sheaf of laser-hologrammed documents. “These are your injunctions. You’ve got until the courts open tomorrow to enforce our legal rights. Once Carver City files an appeal, it’s a different story. Then you’re looking at civil liabilities, minimally. But until courts open tomorrow, you’re just defending the private property rights of the citizens of the great state of Nevada.”
Angel started going through the documents. “This all of it?”
“Everything you need, as long as you seal the deal tonight. Once business opens tomorrow, it’s back to courtroom delays and he-said, she-said.”
“And you’ll have done a lot of sweating for nothing.”
Braxton jabbed a thick finger at Angel. “That better not happen.”
Angel laughed at the implied threat. “I already got my housing permits, cabrón. Go frighten your secretaries.”
“Just because you’re Case’s pet doesn’t mean I can’t make your life miserable.”
Angel didn’t look up from the injunctions. “Just because you’re Case’s dog don’t mean I can’t toss you off this bridge.”
The seals and stamps on the injunctions all looked like they were in order.
“What have you got on Case that makes you so untouchable?” Braxton asked.
“She trusts me.”
Braxton laughed, disbelieving, as Angel put the injunctions back in order.
Angel said, “People like you write everything down because you know everyone is a liar. It’s how you lawyers do.” He slapped Braxton in the chest with the legal documents, grinning. “And that’s why Case trusts me and treats you like a dog—you’re the one who writes things down.”
He left Braxton glaring at him from the bridge.
As Angel made his way down the Cascade Trail, he pulled out his cell and dialed.
Catherine Case answered on the first ring, clipped and formal. “This is Case.”
Angel could imagine her, Queen of the Colorado, leaning over her desk, with maps of the state of Nevada and the Colorado River Basin floor to ceiling on the walls around her, her domain laid out in real-time data feeds—the veins of every tributary blinking red, amber, or green indicating stream flow in cubic feet per second. Numbers flickering over the various catchment basins of the Rocky Mountains—red, amber, green—monitoring how much snow cover remained
and variation off the norm as it melted. Other numbers, displaying the depths of reservoirs and dams, from the Blue Mesa Dam on the Gunnison, to the Navajo Dam on the San Juan, to the Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green. Over it all, emergency purchase prices on streamflows and futures offers scrolled via NASDAQ, available open-market purchase options if she needed to recharge the depth in Lake Mead, the unforgiving numbers that ruled her world as relentlessly as she ruled Angel’s and Braxton’s.
“Just talked to your favorite lawyer,” Angel said.
“Please tell me you didn’t antagonize him again.”
“That pendejo is a piece of work.”
“You’re not so easy, either. You have everything you need?”
“Well, Braxton gave me a lot of dead trees, that’s for sure.” He hefted the sheaf of legal documents. “Didn’t know so much paper still existed.”
“We like to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Case said dryly.
“Same fifty or sixty pages, more like.”
Case laughed. “It’s the first rule of bureaucracy: any message worth sending is worth sending in triplicate.”
Angel exited the Cascade Trail, winding down toward where elevator banks would whisk him to central parking. “Figure we should be up in about an hour,” he said.
“I’ll be monitoring.”
“This is a milk run, boss. Braxton’s papers here got about a hundred different signatures say I can do anything I want. This is old-school cease and desist. Camel Corps could do this one on their own, I bet. Glorified FedEx is what this is.”
“No.” Case’s voice hardened. “Ten years of back-and-forth in the courts is what this is, and I want it finished. For good this time. I’m tired of giving away Cypress housing permits to some judge’s nephew just so we can keep appealing for something that’s ours by right.”
“No worries. When we’re done, Carver City won’t know what hit them.”
“Good. Let me know when it’s finished.”
She clicked off. Angel caught an express elevator as it was closing. He stepped to the glass as the elevator began its plunge. It accelerated,
plummeting down through the levels of the arcology. People blurred past: mothers pushing double strollers; hourly girlfriends clinging to the arms of weekend boyfriends; tourists from all over the world, snapping pics and messaging home that they had seen the Hanging Gardens of Las Vegas. Ferns and waterfalls and coffee shops.
Down on the entertainment floors, the dealers would be changing shifts. In the hotels the twenty-four-hour party people would be waking up and taking their first shots of vodka, spraying glitter on their skin. Maids and waiters and busboys and cooks and maintenance staff would all be hard at work, striving to keep their jobs, fighting to keep their Cypress housing permits.
You’re all here because of me, Angel thought. Without me, you’d all be little tumbleweeds. Little bone-and-paper-skin bodies. No dice to throw, no hookers to buy, no strollers to push, no drinks at your elbow, no work to do . . .
Without me, you’re nothing.
The elevator hit bottom with a soft chime. Its doors opened to Angel’s Tesla, waiting with the valet.
Half an hour later he was striding across the boiling tarmac of Mulroy Airbase, heat waves rippling off the asphalt, and the sun setting bloody over the Spring Mountains. One hundred twenty degrees, and the sun only finally finishing the job. The floodlights of the base were coming on, adding to the burn.
“You got our papers?” Reyes shouted over the whine of Apaches.
“Feds love our desert asses!” Angel held up the documents. “For the next fourteen hours, anyway!”
Reyes barely smiled in response, just turned and started initiating launch orders.
Colonel Reyes was a big black man who’d been a recon marine in Syria and Venezuela, before moving into hot work in the Sahel and then Chihuahua, before finally dropping into his current plush job with the Nevada guardies.
State of Nevada paid better, he said.
Reyes waved Angel aboard the command chopper. Around them attack helicopters were spinning up, burning synthetic fuel by the barrel—Nevada National Guard, a.k.a. Camel Corps, a.k.a. those fucking Vegas guardies, depending on who had just had a Hades missile sheaf fired up their asses—all of them gearing up to inflict the will of Catherine Case upon her enemies.
One of the guardies tossed Angel a flak jacket. Angel shrugged into Kevlar as Reyes settled into the command seat and started issuing orders. Angel plugged military glass and an earbug into the chopper’s comms so he could listen to the chatter.
Their gunship lurched skyward. A pilot’s-eye data feed spilled into Angel’s vision, the graffiti of war coloring Las Vegas with bright hungry tags: target calculations, relevant structures, friend/foe markings, Hades missile loads, and .50-cal belly-gun ammo info, fuel warnings, heat signals on the ground . . .
Ninety-eight point six.
Human beings. Some of the coolest things out there. Each one tagged, not a single one knowing it.
One of the guardies was making sure Angel was strapped in tight. Angel grinned as the lady checked his straps. Dark skin and black hair and eyes like coal. He picked her name off a tag—Gupta.
“Think I know how to strap myself in, right?” he shouted over the rotor noise. “Used to do this work, too.”
Gupta didn’t even smile. “Ms. Case’s orders. We’d look pretty stupid if we pancaked and you didn’t walk away just because you didn’t tighten your seat belt.”
“If we pancake, none of us is walking away.”
But she ignored him and did her check anyway. Reyes and the Camel Corps were thorough. They had their own elegant rituals, designed over time and polished to a high shine.
Gupta said something into her comm, then strapped into her own seat behind the screen for the chopper’s belly gun.
Angel’s stomach lurched as their gunship angled around, joining a formation of other airborne predators. Status updates rolled across his military glass, brighter than Vegas nightscape:
SNWA 6602, away.
SNWA 6608, away.
SNWA 6606, away.
More call signs and numbers scrolled past. Digital confirmation of the nearly invisible locust swarm filling the blackening sky and now streaming south.
Over the comm, Reyes’s voice crackled: “Commence Operation Honey Pool.”
Angel laughed. “Who came up with that one?”
“I like Mead.”
“Don’t we all?”
And then they were hurtling south, toward the Mead in question: twenty-six million acre-feet of water storage at inception, now less than half of that thanks to Big Daddy Drought. An optimistic lake created during an optimistic time, whittled now and filling with silt besides. A lifeline, always threatened and always vulnerable, always on the verge of sinking below Intake No. 3, the critical IV drip that kept the heart of Las Vegas pumping.
Below them, the lights of Vegas central unspooled: casino neon and Cypress arcologies. Hotels and balconies. Domes and condensation-misted vertical farms, leafy with hydroponic greenery and blazing with full-spectrum illumination. Geometries of light sprawling across the desert floor, all of them overlaid with the electronic graffiti of Camel Corps’s combat language.
Billboard promises of shows and parties and drinks and money filtered through military glass, and became attack and entry points. Close-packed urban canyons designed to funnel desert winds became sniper alleys. Iridescent photovoltaic-paint roofs became drop zones. The Cypress arcologies became high-ground advantage and priority attack zones, thanks to the way they dominated the Vegas skyline and loomed over everything else, bigger and more ambitious than all of Sin City’s previous forays into the fantastical combined.
Vegas ended in a sharp black line.
The combat software started picking out living creatures, cool spots in the dark heat of millennial suburban skeleton—square mile after square mile of buildings that weren’t good for anything except firewood and copper wiring because Catherine Case had decided they didn’t deserve their water anymore.
Sparse and lonely campfires perforated the blackness, beacons marking the locations of desiccated Texans and Zoners who didn’t have enough money to get into a Cypress arcology and had nowhere else to flee. The Queen of the Colorado had slaughtered the hell out
of these neighborhoods: her first graveyards, created in seconds when she shut off the water in their pipes.
“If they can’t police their damn water mains, they can drink dust,” Case had said.
People still sent the lady death threats about that.
The helicopters crossed the last of the wrecked suburban buffer zone and passed out into open desert. Original landscape: Old Testament ancient. Creosote bushes. Joshua trees, spiky and lonely. Yucca eruptions, dry washes, pale gravel sands, quartz pebbles.
The desert was entirely black now and cooling, the scalpel scrape of the sun finally off the land. There’d be animals down there. Nearly hairless coyotes. Lizards and snakes. Owls. A whole world that only came alive once the sun went down. A whole ecosystem emerging from burrows beneath rocks and yucca and creosote.
Angel watched the tiny thermal markers of the desert’s surviving inhabitants and wondered if the desert returned his gaze, if some skinny coyote looked up at the muffled thud-thwap of Camel Corps gunships flying overhead and marveled at this charge of airborne humanity.
An hour passed.
“We’re close,” Reyes said, breaking the stillness. His voice was almost reverent. Angel leaned forward, searching.
“There she is,” Gupta said.
A black ribbon of water, twisting through desert, cutting between ragged mountain ridges.
Shining moonlight spilled across the waters in slicks of silver.
The Colorado River.
It wound like a serpent through the pale scapes of the desert. California hadn’t put this stretch of river into a straw yet, but it would. All that evaporation—couldn’t let the sun steal that forever. But for now the river still flowed in the open, exposed to sky and the guardies’ solemn view.
Angel peered down at the river, awed as always. The radio chatter of the guardies ceased, all of them falling silent at the sight of so much water.
Even much reduced by droughts and diversions, the Colorado River awakened reverent hungers. Seven million acre-feet a year,
down from sixteen million . . . but still, so much water, simply there on the land . . .
No wonder Hindus worshipped rivers, Angel thought.
In its prime, the Colorado River had run more than a thousand miles, from the white-snow Rockies down through the red-rock canyons of Utah and on to the blue Pacific, tumbling fast and without obstruction. And wherever it touched—life.
If a farmer could put a diversion on it, or a home builder could sink a well beside it, or a casino developer could throw a pump into it, a person could drink deep of possibility. A body could thrive in 115-degree heat. A city could blossom in a desert. The river was a blessing as sure as the Virgin Mother’s.
Angel wondered what the river had looked like back when it still ran free and fast. These days the river ran low and sluggish, stoppered behind huge dams. Blue Mesa Dam, Flaming Gorge Dam, Morrow Point Dam, Soldier Creek Dam, Navajo Dam, Glen Canyon Dam, Hoover Dam, and more. And wherever dams held back the river and its tributaries, lakes formed, reflecting desert sky and sun: Lake Powell. Lake Mead. Lake Havasu . . .
These days Mexico never saw a drop of water hit its border, no matter how much it complained about the Colorado River Compact and the Law of the River. Children down in the Cartel States grew up and died thinking that the Colorado River was as much a myth as the chupacabra that Angel’s old abuela had told him about. Hell, most of Utah and Colorado weren’t allowed to touch the water that filled the canyon below Angel’s chopper.
“Ten minutes to contact,” Reyes announced.
“Any chance they’ll fight?”
Reyes shook his head. “Zoners don’t have much to defend with. Still got most of their units deployed up in the Arctic.”
That had been Case’s doing, greasing a bunch of East Coast politicians who didn’t care what the hell happened on this side of the Continental Divide. She’d gorged those pork-barrel bastards on hookers and cocaine and vast sloshing oceans of Super PAC cash, so when the Joint Chiefs discovered a desperate need to defend tar sands pipelines way up north, coincidentally, the only folks who could do the job were the desert rats of the Arizona National Guard.
Angel remembered watching the news as they deployed, the relentless rah-rah of energy security from the feeds. He’d enjoyed watching all the journos beating the patriotism drums and getting their ratings up. Making citizens feel like badass Americans again. The journos were good for that, at least. For a second, Americans could still feel like big swinging dicks.
The Camel Corps’s two dozen choppers dropped into the river’s canyon, skimming black waters. They wound along its serpentine length, hemmed in on either side by stony hills, sweeping up the liquid curves of the Colorado to the target.
Angel was starting to grin, feeling the familiar rush of adrenaline that came when all bets were made and all anyone could do was find out what lay in the dealer’s deck.
He clutched the court’s injunctions to his chest. All those seals and hologram stamps. All that ritual of lawsuits and appeals, all leading to a moment when they could finally take the gloves off.
Arizona would never know what hit them.
He laughed. “Times they do change.”
Gupta, riding the belly gun, glanced over. “What’s that you saying?”
She was young, Angel realized. Young, as he’d been when Case put him in the guardies and got his state residence approved once and for all. Poor and desperate deportee, looking to find some way—any way—to stay on the right side of the border.
“How old are you?” he asked. “Twelve?”
She gave him a dirty look and brought her focus back to her targeting systems.
“Twenty. Old man.”
“Don’t be cold.” He pointed down at the Colorado. “You’re too young to remember how it used to be. Used to be that we all sat down with a bunch of lawyers and papers, bureaucrats with pocket protectors . . .”
He trailed off, remembering early days, when he’d stood bodyguard behind Catherine Case as she went into meetings: bald bureaucrat guys, city water managers, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior. All of them talking acre-feet and reclamation guidelines and cooperation, wastewater efficiency, recycling, water banking, evaporation reduction and river covers, tamarisk and cottonwood and willow elimination. All of them trying to rearrange deck chairs on a big old Titanic. All of them playing the game by the rules, believing there was a way for everyone to get by, pretending they could cooperate and share their way out of the situation if they just got real clever about the problem.
And then California tore up the rulebook and chose a new game.
“Were you saying something?” Gupta pressed.
“Nah.” Angel shook his head. “Game’s changed is all. Case used to play that old game pretty good.” He grabbed his seat for support as they popped up over the canyon rim and bore down on their target. “We do okay with this new game, too.”
Ahead, their objective glowed in the darkness, a whole complex standing alone in the desert.
“There it is.”
Lights started winking out.
“They know we’re coming,” Reyes said, and began issuing battle instructions.
The choppers spread out, picking likely targets as they came into range. Their own chopper plunged lower, joined by a pair of support drones. Angel’s military glass showed another cluster of choppers running ahead, opening up airspace. He gritted his teeth as they started dropping and jigging, keeping their movement random, waiting to see if the ground tried to light them up.
Off on the far horizon, he could see the orange glow of Carver City. Houses and businesses bright and shining, a halo of urbanity blazing against the night sky. All those electric lights. All that A/C.
All that life.
Gupta fired a couple rounds. Something lit up below, a fountain of flames. Their gunships swept over the leading edge of the pumping and water-treatment facilities. Pools and pipes running all over the place.
Black Apaches settled on rooftops and parking lots, dropped to pavement, and belched forth troops. More gunships thudded down like giant dragonflies alighting. Rotor wash kicked up quartz sands, scouring Angel’s face.
“Showtime!” Reyes motioned at Angel. Angel checked his flak jacket a final time and snapped the chin strap of his helmet.
Gupta watched, smiling. “You want a gun, old man?”
“Why?” Angel asked as he jumped out. “That’s why I got you coming in with me.”
Guardies formed around him. Together they dashed for the plant’s main doors.
Floodlights were coming up, workers rushing out, knowing what was coming. Camel Corps had their rifles up and ready, keeping sights on the targets ahead. Amplified orders blasted from Gupta’s comm.
“Everyone on the ground. Down! Get DOWN!”
Civilians hit the deck.
Angel jogged up to a huddled and terrified woman, waved his papers. “You got a Simon Yu in there somewhere?” he shouted over the shriek of the choppers.
She was too scared to speak. Sort of pudgy white lady with brown hair. Angel grinned. “Hey, lady, I’m just serving papers.”
“Inside,” she finally gasped.
“Thanks.” Angel slapped her on the back. “Why don’t you run all your coworkers out of here? In case things get hot.”
He and the soldiers rammed through the treatment plant’s doors, a wedge of weaponry with Angel striding at its heart. Civvies slapped themselves up against the walls as Camel Corps stampeded past.
“Vegas in the house!” Angel crowed. “Grab your ankles, boys and girls!”
Gupta’s amplified orders drowned him out. “Clear out! All of you! You got thirty minutes to evacuate this facility. After that you’re obstructing!”
Angel and his team hit the main control rooms: flat-screen computers monitoring effluence, water quality, chemical inputs, pump efficiency—along with a whole pack of water-quality engineers, looking like surprised gophers as they popped up from their workstations.
“Where’s me some supervisor?” Angel demanded. “I want me some Simon Yu.”
A man straightened. “I’m Yu.” Slim and tanned, balding. Comb-over. Scars of old acne on his cheeks.
Angel tossed papers at him as Camel Corps spread out and secured the control room. “You’re shut down.”
Yu caught the papers clumsily. “The hell we are! This is on appeal.”
“Appeal all you want, tomorrow,” Angel said. “Tonight you got an order to shut down. Check the signatures.”
“We’re supplying a hundred thousand people! You can’t just turn off their water.”
“Judges say we’ve got senior rights,” Angel said. “You should be glad we’re letting you keep what you already got in your pipes. If your people are careful, they can live on buckets for a couple days, till they clear out.”
Yu was riffling through the papers. “But this ruling is a farce! We’re getting a stay, and this is going to be overturned. This ruling—it barely exists! Tomorrow it’s gone!”
“Knew you’d say something like that. Problem is, it’s not tomorrow right now. It’s today. And today the judges say you got to stop stealing the state of Nevada’s water.”
“You’re going to be liable, though!” Yu sputtered. He made a heroic effort to calm himself. “We both know how serious this is. Whatever happens to Carver City is on you. We have security cams. All of this is going to be public record. You can’t want this to be on your head when judgments start coming down.”
Angel decided he kind of liked the balding bureaucrat. Simon Yu was dedicated. Had the feel of one of those good-government guys who got a job because he wanted to make the world a better place. Genuine old-school civil servant genuinely dedicated to the old-school benefit of the people.
And now here the guy was, cajoling Angel. Playing the let’s-be-reasonable, don’t-be-hasty game.
Too bad it wasn’t the game they were playing.
“. . . This is going to piss off a lot of powerful people,” Yu was saying. “You aren’t going to get off. The feds aren’t going to let something like this happen.”
It was a bit like meeting a dinosaur, Angel decided. Kind of icy to see, sure, but really, how the hell had the man ever survived?
“Powerful people?” Angel smiled gently. “You cut a deal with California I’m not aware of? They own your water, and somehow I don’t
know? ’Cause from where we stand, you’re pumping some crappy junior water right that you bought secondhand off a farmer in western Colorado, and you got no cards left to play. This is water that should have come to us a long time ago. Says so in those papers I just gave you.”
Yu gave Angel a sullen glare.
“Come on, Yu.” Angel lightly punched the man in the shoulder. “Don’t look so down. We both been in this game long enough to know someone’s got to lose. Law of the River says senior rights gets it all. Junior rights?” Angel shrugged. “Not so much.”
“Who did you pay off?” Yu asked. “Stevens? Arroyo?”
“Does it matter?”
“It’s a hundred thousand people’s lives!”
“Shouldn’t have bet them on such crappy water rights, then,” Gupta commented from across the control room, where she was checking out the flashing lights of pump monitors.
Angel hid a smirk as Yu shot her a dirty look. “The soldier’s right, Yu. You got your notice there. We’re giving you twenty-five more minutes to clear out, and after that I’m dropping some Hades and Hellfire on this place. So clear it out before we light it up.”
“You’re going to blow us up?”
A bunch of the soldiers laughed at that.
Gupta said, “You did see us come in with the helicopters, right?”
“I’m not leaving,” Yu said coldly. “You can kill me if you want. Let’s see how that works out for you.”
Angel sighed. “I just knew you’d be stand-up that way.”
Before Yu could retort, Angel grabbed him and slammed him to the floor. He buried a knee in the bureaucrat’s back. Grabbed an arm and twisted it.
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Angel wrenched Yu’s other hand behind his back and zip-cuffed him. “A whole fucking city. A hundred thousand lives. Plus somebody’s golf course. But like you noticed, dead bodies do make things complicated, so we’re taking your bald ass out of here. You can sue us tomorrow.”
“You can’t do this!” Yu shouted from where his face was mashed into the floor.
Angel knelt down beside the helpless man. “I feel like you’re taking this personally, Simon. But it ain’t that way. We’re just cogs in a big old machine, right?” He jerked Yu upright. “This is bigger than you and me. We’re both just doing our jobs.” He gave Yu a shove, propelling him through the doors. To Gupta, he called back, “Check the rest of the place, and make sure it’s cleared. I want this place on fire in ten!”
Outside Reyes was standing at the chopper door, waiting.
“We’ve got Zoners, incoming!” Reyes shouted.
“Well, that ain’t good. How long?”
“Fucking hell.” Angel made a twirling motion with his finger. “Spin us up, then! I got what I came for.”
Chopper blades came alive, an angry shriek. Their whine drowned out Yu’s next words, but his expression was enough for Angel to understand the man’s hatred.
“Don’t take this personally!” Angel shouted back. “In another year we’ll hire you up in Vegas! You’re too good to waste here! SNWA can use good people like you!”
Angel tried to tug Yu into the chopper, but the man resisted. He was glaring at Angel, eyes squinting against the dustwash. Guardie choppers started lifting off, locusts rising. Angel gave Yu another tug. “Time to go, old man.”
“The hell you say!”
With sudden surprising strength, Yu tore free and bolted back toward his water-treatment plant, stumbling, hands still zip-cuffed behind his back but running determinedly for the building from which the last of his people were fleeing.
Angel exchanged a pained look with Reyes.
Dedicated bastard. Right down to the end, the pencil pusher was dedicated.
“We’ve got to go!” Reyes shouted. “If the Zoners get their choppers up here, we’ll end up in a firefight, and the feds will be all up on our asses then. There’s some shit they won’t put up with, and a state-to-state gun battle is definitely one of them. We need to clear out!”
Angel looked back at Yu as he fled. “Just give me one minute!”
Angel gave Reyes a disgusted look and charged after Yu.
All around him choppers were lifting off, rising like leaves on hot desert winds. Angel pelted through the flying grit, squinting against sand sting.
He caught Yu at the door to the treatment plant. “Well, you’re stubborn. I’ll give you that.”
“Let me go!”
Instead, Angel flipped him hard onto the ground. The landing took Yu’s breath away, and Angel took advantage of the man’s paralysis to zip-cuff his ankles, too.
“Leave me the fuck alone!”
“Normally, I’d just cut you like a pig and be done with it,” Angel grunted, as he hefted Yu onto his back in a fireman’s carry. “But since we’re doing this all aboveboard and public, that’s not on the table. But don’t push me. Seriously.” He began lumbering for the sole remaining chopper.
The last of Carver City’s treatment-plant workers were diving into their cars and speeding away from the pumping facility, kicking up plumes of dust. Rats jumping the sinking ship.
Reyes was glaring at Angel. “Hurry the fuck up!”
“I’m here! Let’s go already!”
Angel dumped Yu into the chopper. They lifted off with Angel riding the skid. He clawed his way inside.
Gupta was back at her gun, already opening fire as Angel strapped in. Angel’s military glass lit up with firing solutions. He peered out the open door as military intelligence software portioned out the water-treatment plant: filtering towers, pumping engines, power supply, backup generators—
Missiles spat from the choppers’ tubes, arcs of fire, silent in the air and then explosively loud as they buried themselves in the guts of Carver City’s water infrastructure.
Flaming mushrooms boiled up into the night, bathing the desert orange, illuminating the black locust shapes of the hovering choppers as they launched more rounds.
Simon Yu lay at Angel’s feet, zip-cuffed and impotent to stop the destruction, watching as his world went up in mushroom clouds.
In the flickering light of the explosions, Angel could make out tears on the man’s face. Water gushing from his eyes, as telling in its own way as a man’s sweat: Simon Yu, mourning the place he’d tried so hard to save. Sucker had ice in his blood, for sure. Didn’t look it, but the sucker had him some ice.
Too bad it hadn’t helped.
It’s the end of times, Angel thought as more missiles pummeled the water-treatment plant. It’s the goddamn end of times.
And then on the heels of that thought, another followed, unbidden.
Guess that makes me the Devil.
Excerpted from The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi Copyright © 2015 by Paolo Bacigalupi. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
A previous version of this story misspelled Paolo Bacigalupi's name and incorrectly referred to 'cli-fi' as 'cli-fic'. We regret these errors.