As she trudged down the alley, out of sight of the grey uniforms, Cenessa saw a small puddle.
Could it be a mirage? It was certainly hot enough. The dust she had stirred from the parched, cracked earth settled as she stood there, trying to figure out if she was hallucinating the water.
Behind her, the way was clear. In front of her, the puddle abutted the stone barrier at the dead end. Sandstone walls of the surrounding buildings rose high above. This was a back alley – no windows, no stairwells, and no machines to accidentally relinquish this precious fluid.
Where did it come from?
She stepped closer, curious to see if she was imagining it, nervous because someone was always watching. Any water you found legally belonged to the Resource Engagement Officers, but those with the power had written the laws…
No signs of monitoring equipment. If the REOs were watching, she could not identify their devices.
Maybe they don’t know about it? Maybe it is too small for them to care about?
No, that could not be it. A memory of a bloody, exploding leg clawed at the inside of her skull. They had toyed with the thief, letting him run far enough to give him hope that he was getting away with it; escaping with less water than could fit into a coffee cup. The ensuing projectile, immaculately aimed, had obliterated his knee, tendon and sinew splattering the sand and imprinting on her retinas. But more than the mangled ligaments, the sight of wasted water rapidly evaporating haunted her. Waterlarcene, the REOs labeled him.
Their restriction was absolute, an insurmountable sequestration so long as the REOs remained in power…
So how did this puddle get here?
She preferred her knees without bullet holes and her organs on the inside, but it had been a long time since she had tasted anything other than cotton, urinated anything other than stinging piss, dark as clay.
Before they died, her parents had warned her about mirages and the other non-aqueous liquids she might encounter. The temptation to drink them would be so great, they said, she might not process the ramifications of drinking them until it was already too late.
Super-salt pools, acid baths, or simply pathogen-filled, putrid water. The REO sometimes left those alone if the counts were too high, but with scarcity comes ingenuity and the level of bacteria that could be cleared was increasing exponentially. Formerly deadly cesspools could now be repurposed to add to the REO’s already excessive supply.
Which hazard is this?
She knelt by the liquid, checking the alley’s entrance behind her and the walls for REO monitors again.
Is it worth the risk?
But the primitive parts of her hindbrain responsible for thirst regulation were screaming at her. Drink! Just drink it!
With great restraint, she briefly dipped a single finger into the puddle, yanking it out quickly to monitor for negative effects. There were none. Not immediately, at least – no burning, no tingling. She held it to her nose – no odor. Wet finger quivering, she plunged it back in, testing the depth. Her entire fingernail disappeared.
This is more fluid than I’ve had all week, she thought. After waiting long enough, she hoped, for any side effects of a non-aqueous liquid to have manifested, but not long enough to draw attention to her absence from the near-absolute reach of REO surveillance, she stooped further, her cracked lips burning as they touched the water. That was normal though. It always burned to drink.
Half the puddle was gone before she lifted her head. Let’s see them take this back. Nausea rippled across her abdomen and into her throat, erupting in a belch.
Drink slower, she told herself. Did she dare risk the time to drink the rest? But finishing meant having strength to complete her trek. The ARC, the ironically antediluvian abbreviation for the Aquifer Reclamation Crusaders, had been whispering rumors about their impending attempt to take out the local REO at their headquarters. The rumor had been enough to prompt her journey. She would give anything to be there when the walls came down, opening the path to the forbidden fount she imagined inside. Sparkling, crystal blue water waiting for the crowd and her among it, surging forward with the collapse, guzzling the liquid ambrosia.
The cool comfort in her throat and the accompanying clear-headedness were irresistible.
She slurped up the rest of the water, the dusty silt in the last gulps barely registering as undesirable. It was not even the worst thing she had consumed this week.
What is this feeling? She stood above the dark spot in the dust, considering.
Time would tell if it had been full of pathogens. If so, the diarrhea would dehydrate her more than she had been before she drank. That would almost certainly kill her.
But that would come later.
She exited the alley, shuffling her feet noticeably less than when she had entered.
She ran into the faded grey uniform before she saw them.
“You’re looking awfully… hydrated, citizen.”
Split lips were no excuse for her lack of speech this time.
“Where did you get the water?” asked the lead REO. But his visor was looking beyond her, at the…
At the dark spot. It was a setup. REO commissions for capturing waterlarcenes were real, as real as the water they had planted here. There was nowhere to run, nothing she could do to annul her consumption.
“What water?” The high caliber rifle bullet detonating the knee played on a loop in her head.
“Don’t play ignorant. Our sensors can detect it on your breath. Your fractional expiration is too high. You drank water in the last,” the REO looked at their visor’s readout, “five minutes.”
She shook her head and the REO responded in kind.
“Hard to forget that quickly.”
Her muscles seized, frozen despite the midday sun, blocked in by the sandstone building to her rear and the huddle of REOs on her left and right.
When the butt of their rifle connected with her temple, Cenessa despaired, not for her life, but because she knew they would pump her stomach, stealing her water, stealing her chance to baptize herself in the REO’s sequestered spring. Through the penumbra of coma, she strung together one last covetous thought.
How big will their water commission be if they bring in an entire failed ARC revolt?