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This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Drought has devastated much of the American Southwest — creating nightmare dust storms and putting cities on the verge of collapse — in National Book Award finalist and Hugo Award–winning writer Bacigalupi’s new thriller, which conjures a near future that feels all too real as California enters its fourth year of drought. In the world of The Water Knife, Arizona and Nevada skirmish over resources as California eyes a grab of the entire Colorado River while local government agents (“knives”) steal (“cut”) water from their rivals. THR’s excerpt sets the scene and introduces Lucy Monroe, a journalist who knows more about Phoenix’s secrets than she lets on. Soon she’ll team with water knife Angel Velasquez and Texas migrant Maria Villarosa in the hunt for a rumored new source of water.
Lucy woke to the sound of rain. A benediction, gently pattering. For the first time in more than a year, her body relaxed. The release of tension was so sudden that for a moment she felt as if she were filled with helium. Weightless. All her sadness and horror sloughed off her frame like the skin of a snake, too confining and gritted and dry to contain her any longer, and she was rising. She was new and clean and lighter than air, and she sobbed with the release of it.
And then she woke fully, and it wasn’t rain caressing the windows of her home but dust, and the weight of her life came crushing down upon her once again. She lay still in bed, trembling with the loss of the dream. Blotting away tears. Sand slushed against the glass, a steady etching.
The dream had seemed so real: the rain pouring down; the softness in the air; the smell of plants blossoming. Her clenched pores and the tight clays of the desert all opening wide, welcoming the gift — the land and her body, absorbing the miracle of water from the sky. Godwater, American settlers had once called it as they invaded slowly across the prairies of the Midwest and then pressed into the arid lands beyond the Rocky Mountains. Godwater. Water that fell of its own volition, right out of the sky.
In Lucy’s dream it had been as gentle as a kiss. Blessing and absolution, cascading from the heavens. And now it was gone. Her lips were cracked and broken.
Lucy kicked off sweaty sheets and went to peer outside. The few streetlights that hadn’t been shot out by gangs stood as dim moons struggling against a reddish haze. The storm was thickening even as she watched, the streetlights collapsing into blackness, leaving retina stains of imagined glows in their place. The light going out of the world. Lucy thought she’d read that somewhere — some old Christian thing. The death of Jesus, maybe. The light going out, forever. Jesus blows out, and La Santa Muerte blows in. Lucy went back to bed and stretched out on the mattress, listening as the winds whipped the night. Somewhere outside, a dog was howling for safety. A stray maybe. It would be dead in the morning, another victim of Big Daddy Drought.
A whine from beneath her bed echoed the begging outside: Sunny, crouched and shivering, thanks to the changes in air pressure.
Lucy crawled out of bed again and went to fill a dish with water from her urn. Unconsciously, she checked its level, knowing before she saw the numbers that she still had 20 gallons, yet unable to prevent herself from checking the little LED meter anyway, confirming the count she had in her own head. She crouched down beside the bed. Pushed the dish toward the dog.
Sunny regarded her from the deep shadows, miserable. He wouldn’t come out to drink. If Lucy had been superstitious, she would have suspected that the ragged Australian shepherd knew something she didn’t. That he sensed evil in the air, the Devil’s wings beating overhead, maybe.
Sunny huddled beneath the bed, fur and skin twitching, giving off a low, continuous, miserable whine.
“Come on out, boy.”
He wouldn’t budge.
“Come on. The storm’s on the outside. It’s not in here.”
Lucy sat cross-legged on the tile, regarding Sunny. The tile was cool at least. Why didn’t she just sleep on the floor? What made her even bother with a bed or sheet in the summer? Or the spring or fall, for that matter?
Lucy splayed herself belly down on the clay tile, letting it press against her bare skin. She reached under the bed to Sunny.
“We’re OK,” she murmured, running her fingers though his fur.
“Shh. Shh. It’s OK. We’re OK.”
She tried to force herself to relax, but a nervous shiver of her own refused to stop rippling under her skin. A discomfited ticking awareness.
No wonder Sunny was under the bed.
No matter how much Lucy tried to tell herself the dog was crazy, her own lizard brain believed the dog’s warning.
Lucy got up and checked the dead bolts on the doors to the dust room.
You’re being paranoid.
Sunny whined again.
“Shut up, boy.”
The sound of her own voice bothered her.
She made another circuit of the house, checking to make sure all the windows were sealed. Startled at her own reflection in the kitchen window.
Didn’t I close that?
She pulled the Guatemalan weave across the glass, half-expecting a face to appear in the darkness beyond. It was superstitious and absurd to think that anyone could actually be out in the storm looking in at her, but now she went and pulled on jeans anyway, feeling better clothed. Feeling at least psychologically protected as she gave up on sleep for good. No way she was sleeping now. Not with this storm-induced anxiety running its fingers between her shoulder blades. Might as well work.
Lucy opened her computer and scanned her fingerprints on the trackpad. Keyed her passwords as the winds continued to lash her home.
She scanned the feeds. Something was happening over by the Colorado River: a firefight or a bombing. #CarverCity, #CoRiver, #BlackHelicopters. Lucy pulled up video and got a water manager spitting invective about Las Vegas. She’d have pegged him as a lunatic, except for the wreckage and flames blazing behind him, lending credence to the idea that Las Vegas really had rolled in with its water knives and done some precipitous cutting. The balding man was ranting that he’d been abducted by Nevada guardies and then dumped in the desert to hike his way back to the wreckage of his own treatment plant.
“This was Catherine Case! She completely ignored that we’re appealing! We have rights!”
“Are you going to sue?”
“You’re damn right we’re going to sue! Las Vegas has gone too far this time.”
More sites were lighting up with the story. Arizona local stations and personalities, beating the drums of regional anger, generating hits and ad revenue off the battlefield images as they inflamed local hatreds. Lucy kicked the story into her own feeds, just to assure her readers that she was aware of Carver City’s evisceration, and turned to her own primary sources, hunting for leads in the sloshing sea of social media, stories that she could get to first and claim as her own.
Dozens of new comments, hashtag #PhoenixDowntheTubes:
• Supposed to leave again today, except for another damn storm. #Depressed
• How you know you’re at the end: You’re drinking your own piss and telling yourself it’s spring water. #PhoenixDowntheTubes #ClearsacLove
• Score! We’re going North! #BCLottery #Seeyoubitches
• Choppers in the canyon. Anyone know who’s out there? #CoRiver #BlackHelicopters
• They’re still outside my door! Where the f— is the cavalry?!! @PhoenixPD
• Don’t use Route 66. #CaliMilitia
• WTF? When did Samm’s Bar Close? #Ineedadrink #PhoenixDowntheTubes #PhoenixRising
She’d been tracking Phoenix residents, their hashtags and commentaries, for years. A proxy map for the city’s implosion. Virtual echoes of a physical disaster. In her own mind she imagined Phoenix as a sinkhole, sucking everything down — buildings, lives, streets, history — all of it tipping and spilling into the gaping maw of disaster.
And Lucy, circling the edge of the hole, documenting. Her critics said she was just another collapse pornographer, and on her bad days she agreed: Like the vultures who descended on Houston after a Cat 6, or the sensationalized imagery of a fallen Detroit being swallowed by nature. But on other days Lucy had the feeling that she wasn’t so much eroticizing a city’s death as excavating a future as it yawned below them. As if she were saying, This is us. This is how we all end. There’s only one door out, and we all use it.
When she’d first arrived as a green reporter, it hadn’t felt so personal. Back then she’d made jokes about the Zoners, enjoying the easy stories and micropayment deposits. Making quick cash off voyeuristic enticements for click-thru: #Clickbait #CollapsePorn #PhoenixDowntheTubes
The residents of Phoenix and its suburbs were the new Texans, those Merry Perry fools, and Lucy and her colleagues from CNN and Xinhua and Kindle Post and Agence France-Presse and Google/New York Times were more than happy to feed on the corpse. The country had watched Texas fall apart, so everyone knew how it worked. Phoenix was Austin, but bigger and badder and more total.
Collapse 2.0: Denial, Collapse, Acceptance, Refugees.
Lucy was just there to watch the Zoners hit the wall, up close and personal. Autopsy the corpse with a high-power microscope and a cold Dos Equis in her hand.
But then she’d met a few of the Zoners. Set down roots in the city. She helped her friend Timo gut his house, ripping pipes and wires out of the walls, like popping the bones out of a corpse. They’d pried out windows like scooping eyeballs, leaving the house staring blindly across the street at equally eyeless homes, and she’d written up the experience — a family home of three generations made valueless because the suburb’s water had gone dry and Phoenix wouldn’t allow a hookup. #CollapsePorn for sure, except now Lucy was one of the actors, right alongside Timo and his sister Amparo and her 3-year-old daughter, who’d cried and cried as the adults destroyed the only house she’d ever known.
Sunny whined again from beneath the bed.
“It’ll pass,” Lucy said absently, then wondered if it was true.
The weather people were saying they might set a record for dust storms. Sixty-five recorded so far, and more on the way. But what if there were no limit to the storms? Meteorologists all talked as if there could be records — and record-breakers — as if there were some pattern they could discern. Weather anchors used the word drought, but drought implied that drought could end; it was a passing event, not the status quo. But maybe they were destined for a single continuous storm — a permanent blight of dust and wildfire smoke and drought, and the only records broken would be for days where anyone could even see the sun.
A news alert popped up, glowing on Lucy’s screen. Her scanner came alive as well, police bands crackling. It was up on her social feeds, too: Cops all over @Hilton6. Bet it’s bodies. #PhoenixDowntheTubes
More backup was being called in. Not just some hooker or PV factory worker. Lucy shut down her computer. She might not be able to make it to Carver City, but this was too local to ignore, even with the storm.
In the dust room, Lucy strapped on an REI filter mask and grit goggles — Desert Adventure Pro II — a care package from her sister Anna the year before. She took a final breath of clean air, then plowed out into the storm with her camera wrapped securely in plastic. Sand blasted her skin raw as she ran toward the memory of her truck’s location. She fumbled with its door handle, squinting in the darkness, and finally got it open. Slammed it closed behind her and sat hunched, feeling her heart pounding as wind shook the cab. Grit hissed against glass and metal. When she powered up the truck, dust motes swirled inside, a red veil before the glow of the instrument panel’s LEDs. She switched on storm lights and pulled out, bumping down the potholed street more by memory than sight. It was nearly impossible to drive, even with the big storm lights blazing low from the truck. The street ahead disappeared into a wall of roiling dust. She passed other vehicles pulled over, waiting it out.
People wiser than she.
Lucy drove slowly, inching along side streets, wondering why she bothered, knowing she couldn’t get good art in a storm like this, yet still compelled to press on, even as winds threatened to pitch her Ford off the road. She plowed down Phoenix’s six-lane boulevards, the empty optimistic cross streets of a car culture now so drifted with dust that vehicles moved in single file between dunes, glued to one another’s taillights as they navigated the hillocks of a city being swallowed by desert.
At last she spied the dim flicker of high-rise lights, the sentinel blaze of the Hilton 6. Lucy pulled the truck over to what she decided was a curb and parked, leaving the hazards flashing. She grabbed her headlamp out of the glove box, then leaned against the door, forcing it open against the buffeting wind. As she made her way into the glare of her own headlights, she found flares on the road. She traced the line of flickering magnesium glows.
Ahead, human forms rose out of the darkness. Men and women in uniform, flashlight beams waving wildly. Cruisers strobing red- and-blues. She forged closer, her breathing loud in her ears, her mask wet on her face from the moisture of her lungs, pushing past cops vainly struggling to control a crime scene that was blowing away. Blood rivers and dust intermingled on the boulevard, a mini-badlands of murder becoming drifted, muddy and coagulated. Lucy’s headlamp illuminated a pair of corpses. Just more bodies, she thought, but then her headlamp caught one of the faces, black with blood-dust scabs.
All around her, cops and techs milled, but they had their hands full fighting the storm, trying to see through their own city-issued masks and filters. Lucy pushed closer, trying to prove to herself that her nightmares weren’t real and alive and true. But even without his eyes in his skull, she knew him instantly.
“Oh, Jamie,” she whispered. “What are you doing here?” A hand grabbed her shoulder. “What are you doing here?” the cop shouted, his voice muffled by flying sand and a filter mask. Without waiting for an answer, he dragged her back. Lucy fought for a moment, then let herself be hauled behind crime scene tape that was flapping and flying as the cops unwound it: CAUTION – CUIDADO – CAUTION – CUIDADO – CAUTION
It was a warning she’d tried to give to Jamie just a few weeks before, right inside the Hilton 6’s bar, where all the people were now pressing their faces against the glass to get a better view of his death out here on the sandblasted street.
He’d been so completely sure of himself.
They’d been drinking in the bar of the Hilton 6: Lucy, grubby from a week without a shower; Jamie, so polished that he almost glowed in the low light. Trimmed nails. Clean blond hair, not stringy with grease like hers, not gritty with the desert that was drifting across the sidewalks just outside their floor-to-ceiling windows. Jamie could afford all the showers he wanted. He liked to flaunt it. The bartender was shaking something cold and green into a martini glass, the silver of the mixer clashing with skull rings of gold on his brown fingers …
Jamie had been talking. “I mean, John Wesley Powell saw it coming way back in 1850. So it’s not like no one had warning. If that f—er could sit on the banks of the Colorado River 150 years ago and know there wouldn’t be enough water to cover everything, you’d think we’d have figured it out, too.”
“There weren’t as many people then.”
Jamie glanced over at her, blue eyes cold. “There are going to be a lot fewer now.”
Behind them the low murmured conversations of aid workers and U.N. intervention people mingled with the surreal strains of Finnish dirge music. USAID. Salvation Army. Red Crescent drought specialists. Doctors Without Borders. Red Cross. And then others: Chinese investment bankers from the Taiyang, down out of their arcology and slumming. Halliburton and Ibis execs, doing water prospecting, insisting that they could frack aquifers into gushers if Phoenix would just foot the bill. Private security guards off duty and on. Bureaucrat-level narcos. A few well-heeled Merry Perry refugees, speaking in low tones with the coyotes who would spirit them across the final boundaries and lead them north. That odd mix of broken souls, bleeding 31 hearts and predators who occupied the shattered places of the world. Human spackle, filling the cracks of disaster.
Jamie seemed to read her mind. “They’re all vultures. Every one of them.”
Lucy pressed the glass to her dust-caked cheek, savoring the cool. “A few years ago you would have said the same about me.”
“No.” Jamie was still watching the vultures. “You were meant to be here. You’re one of us. Just like all the other fools who refuse to see where this thing is headed.” He toasted her with his vodka.
“Oh, I know where this is headed.”
“So why stay?”
“It’s more alive here.”
Jamie laughed at that, a bark of cynical humor that cracked the muffled dimness of the bar, startling patrons who had only been pretending relaxation. “People only really live when they’re about to die,” he said. “Before then, it’s all a waste. You don’t appreciate how good it is until you’re really in the shit.”
They were quiet for a while, then he said, “We knew it was all going to go to hell, and we just stood by and watched it happen anyway.
There ought to be a prize for that kind of stupidity.”
“Maybe we knew, but we didn’t know how to believe,” Lucy suggested.
“Belief.” He snorted. “I could kiss a thousand crosses. F—ing belief.” Again, bitterly: “Belief is for God. For love. For trust. I believe I can trust you. I believe you love me.” He quirked an eyebrow. “I believe God is looking down on us and laughing.”
He sipped his vodka, pinching the martini stem between his fingers, turning it idly on the bar, watching the olives go round and round. “This was never about believing. You think someone like Catherine Case up in Vegas believes things? She sees how much water Vegas has, and she sends out her black helicopters. This was about looking and seeing. Pure data. You don’t believe data — you test data.” He grimaced.
“If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely f—ed ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.”
He waved out at the dusty avenue beyond the windows: Texas bangbang girls gesturing desperately at cars cruising slowly past, party slummers in from California and fivers down from the arcology, picking off the desperate. “This should have been about testing and confirmation, and we turned it into a question of faith. F—ing Merry Perrys praying for rain.” He snorted. “No wonder the Chinese are kicking our ass.” He went quiet again, then said, “I’m tired of pretending we’ve got a way out. I’m tired of suing pissant water ticks for pumping out our aquifers, and I’m tired of protecting goddamn fools.”
“You’ve got a better idea?”
Jamie looked up at her, blue eyes twinkling. “Definitely.”
Lucy laughed. “Bullshit. You’re in this just as deep as the rest of us.”
Jamie glanced back at the other tables, then leaned close. His voice notched lower. “You really think I’m going to stay here? Just keep working for Phoenix Water or Salt River Project, hope they’re going to be able to take care of me?”
“Why, is someone hiring you? SNWA or San Diego give you some kind of offer?”
Jamie gave her a disappointed look. “A job? You think I just want another job? Like I’m going to take some buyout from the California Department of Natural Resources or something? You think I want to work for some other water department’s legal office? I’m not going to push paper all my life.”
“You don’t have much choice. There aren’t a lot of people offering plane tickets out of Arizona.”
“You know, Lucy, sometimes I think you’re about the smartest person I know, and then you say something like that, and I realize how dumb you are. You think small.”
“Did I ever tell you you have amazing people skills?” Lucy asked.
“Good. I would have been lying.”
But Jamie wasn’t deterred. He had the maddening smile of a prophet sure of his comprehension of the workings of the heavens, and it made Lucy subliminally anxious, even as they continued drinking and trading comfortable insults. She’d seen preachers smile the same as Jamie in Merry Perry revival tents when she’d asked them why they thought God would give them their rain when all the climatologists were predicting less, not more. Rain is coming, they’d say knowingly. They knew how the universe worked. They’d unlocked all God’s secrets. And now Jamie looked the same way.
“What have you got?” Lucy asked warily.
“What if I told you I’d found a way to break the Colorado River Compact?”
“I’d say you’re full of shit.”
“How much would you pay to end up on top?” Jamie pressed.
Lucy paused, beer halfway to her lips. “You’re serious?”
“Dead serious. What if I gave you senior rights that you could take right up to the Supreme Court? Rights that you could count on the feds enforcing. No bullshit. No he-said, she-said; no Vegas did or didn’t pump how much water; no farmer did or didn’t divert how many acre-feet into his field. None of that. The kind of water rights that could get the f—ing Marines posted on every dam on the Colorado River and would make sure the water spilled straight down to you. The kind of rights that would let you do what California does to towns all the time.” He was looking at her intently. “What would you think of that? How much would you pay?”
“I’d think you’re high, and I wouldn’t pay you a single Chinese yuan. Sorry, Jamie, I know you. You’re the one who had sex with me just because you wanted to see whether women were any good.”
Jamie grinned at that, unrepentant. “But what if I were telling the truth?”
“About being straight or about water rights?”
“It was just an experiment.”
“You’re such an asshole.”
But still Jamie wouldn’t let up. “You ever wonder how a city like Las Vegas — a city that should have dried up and blown away about a million years ago — does so well, and we’re the ones flapping around like a chicken with our head cut off?”
“They’re a hell of a lot more disciplined.”
“Hell yes! Those f—ers know how to gamble, right? They look at their cards — their shitty 300,000-acre-feet of water from the Colorado River — and they know they’re f—ed. They don’t lie to themselves like we did. They don’t try to bluff like they have something they don’t.”
“So what’s this got to do with rights?”
“I’m saying we’re all playing the same game.” He began pulling the olives off his toothpick and eating them. “I do paperwork all day long. I see the game. I dig up the underlying rights. I file the motions. And all of us are doing it. Doesn’t matter whether you’re California or Wyoming. Nevada or Colorado. All of us are seeing what we can get away with — without the feds noticing and declaring martial law on us. And if you’ve got someone like Catherine Case who knows how to really run a water department playing for your side, you do OK. Better than the political hacks we’ve got down here anyway.” He stopped eating his olives and favored Lucy with a speculative eye. “But what if I told you that everyone is playing the wrong game?”
“I want to know what that’s supposed to mean,” said Lucy, exasperated.
“I found a joker.” Jamie smiled, looking like a satisfied cat.
“You know, you sound like someone trying to sell real estate in New Orleans.”
“Maybe. Or maybe you’ve been stuck in the dust so long, you can’t see the big picture.”
“And you do.”
Again he flashed that maddening smile. “I do now.”
Except now Jamie was dead in the dust, with his eyes pried out of his head, and the big picture he thought he’d seen — gone. Lucy sought another way to return to his side, but the cops were serious about keeping bystanders at bay, and now the reality of her situation was settling in — her better judgment returning too late.
Jamie’s body didn’t matter. The only ones who mattered were the living ones: the cops, the slow procession of drivers passing around the flares, the EMTs all hunched and bug-eyed behind their masks, waiting to be told that they could cart away the bodies. The faces in the Hilton 6 bar, pressed to the glass, watching the action. Among them, anywhere, there might be a person who wasn’t looking at the carnage but at her.
Lucy started to back away. She knew this kind of killing. She’d seen it before. Everything about it was a feedback loop, building itself into something bigger and more horrifying.
Who did this to you, Jamie? she wondered as she fled. And then, the more important question: What did you tell them about me?
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