By Wendy N. Wagner

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Everything about Councillor Rand is moisturized to the point of buttery softness. He even smells rich. The thick scent of coconut oil, an imported luxury I have only smelled on kept women with downtown addresses, drifts across the counter and crawls up my nose.

“It’s a simple inter-department water transfer. Why are there so many forms for such a small request?” His smile is the smile of someone used to getting his way.

I try to smile back. “Every request must be approved by the Water Council. Especially within the city departments. Because clarity is purity.”

The slogan is written on the wall behind me. The Councilor’s blue eyes scroll over it. His smile shrinks.

“But Charice Fleming is simply taking an advisory position in a different building. It’s less than a quarter of a mile from Finance to Water, and both departments are even on the same water main. Why do we need to file paperwork?”

Charice Fleming. Can he mean the same Charice Fleming, the beautiful Charice who once worked underground with me? Charice Fleming who now works in Finance?

He makes an impatient sound.

But … Charice Fleming. I have to clear my throat. “The water main may be the same, but the extra wear on the building’s pipes must be noted. Also, careful paperwork helps us predict leaks and maintenance requests.” I pause. This is all textbook information. “You’re on the Water Board. Don’t you know all of this?”

Councilor Rand’s eyes grow hard. “As head of the Water Council, I know a great deal about the water of this city, certainly more than a glorified plumber like you. If you knew who you were dealing with, girl, you would try a little harder not to waste my time.”

But I do know who I am dealing with, and the fact that he’s here in the office—in person—makes me deeply nervous. A councilor like Rand sends his flunkies to handle these details unless he has reasons to keep these transactions to himself.

Why is Charice Fleming’s water a matter of secrecy? Why doesn’t he want this request made in writing? And why is a member of the Finance Department (Charice Fleming, my Charice Fleming) coming to serve an advisory position in the Water Department unless—well, we wouldn’t be the first department to be absorbed by Finance.

I have to get more information so we know how to handle this.

I put on my most obliging expression. “As soon as the paperwork is finalized, we’ll make this request our first priority.” And my work-calloused hand slides a ration request form across the counter.

His eyes narrow, just for a second. Less than a second. Then his face goes bland again. “Thank you, Water Keeper. I commend your attention to detail.” He takes the form off the counter.

Then he walks away, his back stiff. A cold finger, like a trickle of water from a faulty pipe, runs down my spine. There have been changes in the city lately, and now they seem headed my way.

At the end of my shift, I fill out my paperwork and then hurry to the staircase leading to Shaba’s basement office. I need to tell her about Councilor Rand and my suspicions about the Finance Department.

Beyond the boiler room and the storage areas, Shaba’s office is a hinge connecting the world of undercity to the one above. The door is open, the yellow glow of her desk lamp spilling out onto the concrete floor. I hesitate in the pool of light. There is a pipe running along this wall, and I can feel coolness radiating from its sides. The water within waits patiently for someone to need it. It is only a matter of time before someone—a Water Keeper moistening his mouth before beginning the next shift at the Request Office, a secretary dehydrated from running errands, or even Charice Fleming, taking her first sip of our department’s water—needs a drink. To be human is to need water.

A pen scratches on paper. Shaba’s voice is too soft to echo, but I can hear it softly, the one-sided track of a phone conversation. But if she didn’t want me to hear it, she would have closed the door. I slip between door and frame, hesitating, and she gestures me in.

The space is barely larger than a closet, every wall filled with maps and notices. A stack of record books slump on a filing cabinet beside her desk. Shaba waves at me and turns her attention back to the phone in her hand.

“Yes, Border Master. I’m working on it.”

Her low voice is a comforting rumble. I let my gaze wander back to the maps on the wall behind her. The very battered geopolitical map of New America with its brightly colored city-states has been mostly buried beneath more relevant surveys of our region; now that communications are so spotty, the other city-states might as well be on the moon. Our city, our region: that’s what we have to protect.

On the biggest map, the borders of our watershed are drawn in thick black ink; the wastelands beyond are patterned with dots. Here and there along the border, someone has used a pencil to draw in gray patches, like scabs dotting the surface of a body afflicted with a disease it cannot quite keep at bay. It is not easy to fight against the desert. No one knows that like a Water Keeper.

“At this stage, it is impossible to know the full extent of the loss. I have to do the math.” She pauses. “Border Master, I will contact you tomorrow. Believe me, I’ve got my best people on this.”

She hangs up the phone and lets out her breath. Then she takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes. There are dark circles beneath them and swollen pouches that make her round face froglike. I have never seen a frog, but as a child I loved reading about them in the library’s older books. Like me, they belonged in neither water or air.

Then Shaba settles the black glasses back on her face. “What takes you away from your pipes, Yalan?” She takes up her pen and makes notes on a piece of paper, but she is listening.

She knows me so well. When I first came to train with her, only a few years before she was appointed Executive Water Keeper, her quiet unnerved me. It took my ears time to become accustomed to the language of water, and then I realized how much she said by letting the pipes speak for her.

Even aboveground, listening is the secret of all communication. There is always more to a citizen’s request than its first murmur.

“Councilor Rand came to the office this afternoon, Shaba.”

She lays down her pen. “Did he make a request?”

“He did not file paperwork, but he made a request. Someone from the Ministry of Finance is taking an advisory position within the Water Department.”

“The Ministry of Finance.”

I have to clear my throat. “Charice Fleming. You may remember her from her time in Electric.”

She rolls the pen across the pad of paper on her desk and rolls it back again. The folds of her face become severe as she thinks—she is not a beautiful woman, no Charice Fleming. But beauty is two-edged blade, and the tools Shaba has used to carve her way through the ranks of Water Keepers are far more practical: intellect and insight and a deep understanding of humanity. To her, these things are spanners and screwdrivers. I wait without speaking. We are only in a basement, but I can hear water moving in a pipe someplace nearby.

“Do you know where Councilor Rand started out? Where he first served as an apprentice?”

I shake my head.

“He worked at the City Bank. Now that trade between cities is so difficult, the bank is a very small appendage of the Ministry of Finance, but once it was very prestigious work. Members of the former bank board oversee almost every department of the city. Even the Ministries of Defense and Justice have staff who once worked within the City Bank.”

“The Water Council must seem like an unimportant post to a man like that.”

“But Councilor Rand is a very ambitious man.” She picks up her pen and turns it over and over. I can not see her face as she watches its plastic case catch glints of the yellow light from her desk lamp. “He has not cut his ties with the Ministry of Finance.”

I can’t help but glance back at the map behind her. The gray patches marking the desert incursions are not the only afflictions notated on the city’s face. Red pushpins bristle at certain corners, corners where water poachers have broached water lines or been apprehended with illegal water stores. I have been to most of these sites. My duties undercity are not limited to mending pipe and reading meters.

Water poachers are not the only ones who see water as a source of revenue. I do not trust the Ministry of Finance.

“Water must be free.”

“It is a human right.” She sighs. “Charice Fleming. I remember her from Electric. She was very pretty, very popular with everyone who worked underground.”

I have a sudden memory of Charice, petite, blond, smiling, her cheekbones casting hollows in the dim light of undercity. “She spent a week shadowing me as part of her initial training. She was …” So smart. So charming. How quickly she’d learned the twists and turns of the undercity. Once she knew the main paths, the routes Electric needed her to learn, she’d turned her dimples on me until I’d finally shown her the deeper, darker ways that only Water Keepers use. Only with her at my side, those paths had seemed as bright as the sunniest day aboveground. I’d never laughed so much in my life as I had down there with Charice.

I catch the tilt of Shaba’s eyebrow. “A friend,” I finish. “She was a friend.”

She nods. Of course she knows this already. Shaba knows everything. Whether it is information about undercity or aboveground, if it affects the flow of water, she makes a point of knowing it.

“When Electric was transferred from the Resource Ministry to the Ministry of Finance, I was surprised she was sent to work above.” I hesitate, not wanting to bring my personal affairs into the matters of water. “I haven’t seen her since Electric was disbanded.”

“Disbanded.” Shaba’s voice is strangely dry. “That’s what they call it when an entire department that once provided for our citizens is ripped apart and swallowed by an organization that counts pennies. Pennies, Yalan. What is a penny compared to the ability to turn on a light switch or keep your food cold?”

I open my mouth to answer, but see it’s a rhetorical question. She isn’t done.

“Do you know how much the average household spends on electricity now? How much do you yourself pay for basic service?”

“I live in the Water Keepers barracks, Shaba. You know that.”

“But for how much longer?”

I try to fill my mind with my duties and my belief in Shaba, but Councilor Rand’s cold eyes stay with me, and somehow I find myself aboveground. One moment, I’m patching a hairline crack on an old pipe and the next I’m climbing up through the network of drains beneath the downtown highrises.

When I emerge, no one says anything, not even the concierge in her red velveteen jacket and matching pillbox cap. My gray coveralls and dirty hands mark me as a Water Keeper, as invisible as floor tiles. I walk right out the “Residents Only” sign at the main door and then stand for a moment, blinking at the sun. I wonder if Rand lives nearby.

A woman shouts after a passing pedicab, running past me to wave down the cab. She blocks my way, and I can’t stop staring. Her long blond hair catches the breeze and floats in it, momentarily gilding the air all around her.

I don’t need to see her face to know her.

Charice Fleming.

She doesn’t notice me. She sees only the pedicab trudging past. Her lips have compressed into a tight line that makes her whole face look hard. I remember the soft smile she always had for me when we shared lunch in the big break room below the Pipes Office. Where has it gone?

I step forward, my mouth opening to speak, but Charice’s eyes run over my gray shape like they would a piece of concrete, a lump of dirt, a rock. Something inside me tightens like a vise grip closing on a broken pipe.

She’s so close I can smell coconut oil and shoe polish. Her high heels are new. They gleam like her hair.

“Charice!”

We both turn. A man waves from a pedicab whose driver is trotting toward us. I can see sweat trickling down the driver’s cheeks, and her shirt front is soaked. She has been running hard a long way. But tired or not, she swings her cab up to the curb precisely beside Charice Fleming.

Counselor Rand leans out to of the cab offer her a hand up. “I’m glad I caught you. I thought we could have lunch before our meeting with the Council.”

He doesn’t notice me at all.

Charice slips inside the pedicab and kisses him. “Lunch would be great. Henri’s?”

“Bien sûr.” Rand raps the pedicab’s frame. “Driver, Henri’s and make good time!”

The driver’s eyes meet mine. She gives a little head shake—what can you do?—and takes a long, deep breath. Then she’s off.

I make my way underground slowly, thinking about that pedicab driver and the long hours she spends walking the hot, dry streets. People like Councilor Rand have probably never thought about how much strength it takes to pull a pedicab all day or how sore the driver’s feet must get or how good it must feel to rub her skin with a cool washcloth after dragging rich people around the city.

When a pipe beneath New American Street ruptures, I beat the other Water Keepers to the call. It takes me far too long to close the decrepit valve, and water pours over me as I work. I feel a twinge for the wasted liters, but as I crouch frog-like in the cleansing flood, I do not think about Charice Fleming or the Ministry of Finance or soft, soft Councilor Rand, and it is bliss.

Three days later, I am reading in my room and the alarm bell rings. Not the bright chiming of a break or a flood, but the ugly clang of the Keeping bell. Someone is adding another red spot to Shaba’s map. I pull my thick denim jacket on over my coveralls and grab my biggest pipe wrench. The first time I ever hoisted it on a poaching mission, my hands trembled and my stomach churned. But after so many years, there is only calm, or perhaps an eagerness to see the work carried through.

Outside my room, the Pipe Master, Grandla, waits unsmiling. In the cold fluorescent lights, her silver hair sparkles against the deep brown of her skin. Her jacket, like mine, is peppered and splotched with dark stains, the kind that never wash out. She’s brought a pry bar, her favorite tool on these missions. But I like the weight of the pipe wrench. The symbolism.

We run out of the barracks. Our boots thud on the concrete floor, the steps growing louder as the rest of the Keepers fall in behind us. Each of us is one drop of strength, but together we are a troop, a river, a flood of righteousness no poacher has ever been able to withstand.

We turn into the tunnel that runs under the westernmost edge of the city. Beyond this, there is only desert. We alone stand between the city and that fate with our toolboxes and our ration tokens and our strong arms. Only us, the Water Keepers.

I see the woman kneeling beneath a pipe only a Water Keeper should touch, a dozen or more jugs at her feet. The blood of the city spills out onto the dusty ground.

A roar bursts from my mouth and resounds from the throats of my fighters. We are upon her in seconds. My pipe wrench weighs nothing in my hand.

Afterward, no one meets anyone else’s eyes. Someone rolls up the remains in a piece of oilcloth and drags it away. The others drift away, one by one or in pairs, leaving Grandla and I. All that is left of the poacher is a dark spot little different from the damp place beneath the newly repaired pipe.

I help Grandla gather up the poacher’s jugs. There’s something pink stuck to Grandla’s cheek, moist and fatty-looking. I brush it off and wipe my fingers on a dry patch of my jacket.

Her lips tighten. “It’s for the city, you know. What we do.”

“We keep the water. It’s what we do.”

She swipes her cheek with the back of her hand, then reaches for one of the filled water jugs. “We’d better get this back to the reservoir.”

The containers slosh and glug as we walk the long, dark path to the reservoir. We don’t speak again until we reach the barred doors of the reservoir entrance. Only Shaba has the keys, and she will join us soon: It’s a long walk from the Water Building’s basement to this corner of the city.

I have been on many Water Keeping missions, and Grandla was already a veteran when she and Shaba took me on my first, but no matter how many times you go out to protect the water, it never gets easy. I try not to remember the details of the woman’s pinched, pale face, the o of her mouth huge and dark when she saw us coming. There is always the chance I might remember her from the Request Counter, asking for a repair or an extra ration of water.

“Where’s Shaba?” Grandla drops the jugs on the ground. “She should be here by now.”

The water jugs give one last slosh as I set them down beside hers. I no longer carry anything, but I feel heavy. There is a rock in the pit of my stomach that weighs more than any water jug. Shaba has never taken this long to come to the reservoir.

“Where is Shaba?” Grandla asks again, and her voice echoes against the steel doors of the reservoir, the cold walls of the tunnel.

The investigators say it was an accident. That Shaba slipped on a wet stair hurrying from her office. No one will be punished, no blame assigned beyond the incrimination of a “wet stair.” As if any pipe could go unmonitored long enough to make a spot wet enough to slip upon. No Water Keeper would allow water to be wasted like that.

So Grandla and I have gone to the site. The pipe has been repaired, but Grandla points out the chipped paint, half-hidden in the curve between the pipe and the wall: the shape of a small wedge, cunningly applied. It had made a small crack, barely noticeable, and just large enough to wet the stair in the hour or two after the last Keeper’s round.

Someone clever must have made that crack, someone who knew Shaba would need to run down the little-used staircase connecting the Water Offices to the passage leading to the reservoir.

Grandla and I stand here studying the tiny mark in the porcelain. It is hard to make it out in the faint light. Light from the bulb at the top of the stairs barely reaches this point, and neither does light from the landing below. This particular step is the darkest point of the entire stairwell. Someone knew that.

Grandla reaches out to trace that terrible little mark. “Whoever did this knew the undercity.”

I can not bring myself to respond. All the moisture has gone out of my mouth, and my tongue, dry, clings to my hard palate. It takes years to know the undercity the way whoever had chosen this spot must know the underground.

“Who could do such a thing?” Grandla asked.

I can think of one person, but I refuse to imagine her doing it.

The bell on the counter rings. It’s been two days, but I can’t stop thinking about Shaba and what happened to her. Between patrons at the request counter, I have to lean against the wall and push down the feelings welling up inside.

The bell rings again. I force a deep breath, turn around, and fix my eyes on the plaque on the wall. I draw strength from the words: Clarity is purity.

I drop my eyes to the requestor. “How can I be of service?”

Councilor Rand smiles. Not a grudging smile, but a positive beam of happiness. He lays a sheet of paper on the counter and gives it a firm tap. “Just turning in my request.”

“Request?” My head spins. My stomach turns along with it.

His smile broadens. The tips of his canine teeth are unusually pointed. I hadn’t noticed that about him before. “It’s a personal request. I’m adding someone to my household.”

I pull the form toward me. It looks complete, with all the addresses and names in the right places. I touch a box and look up at him, sick inside. “Charice Fleming?”

“The plumber can read,” he sneered. “But can she also file? You’ll find my paperwork is quite in order.”

I can’t look at his face any longer. I glance over the forms, whose every box is checked and every line correct. “The Water Council meets to grant approvals tomorrow,” I manage to say.

“I think we should manage to address a few requests, despite our busy agenda. It’s a great weight on the Board, of course, Shaba’s loss. But we’ve got to look to the department’s future.”

The Council will vote for Shaba’s replacement tomorrow, then. I had wondered how long it would take them.

“Thank you, Councilor,” I say. He has turned away already. He doesn’t bother to reply.

The form looks up at me with its pale, flat face. Charice’s name stands out against the other words. I blink back a second wave of tears. I had spent so much time showing her around the undercity, carrying her tool box, sharing my lunches when she forgot. Had she been using me that whole time? Was that the only reason she put her hand on my knee and looked up at me with those beautifully sparkling eyes?

I throw open the filing cabinet and find the Fleming file. Five, ten, a dozen overages. Three ration token request forms, asking for extra water for visiting friends. So many friends using so much water. She’d clearly been just as popular aboveground as below.

I can’t breathe. I am so angry I slam shut the cabinet. If Shaba were here, she’d tell me to set Charice aside. She’d remind me that what mattered was Water Law and its clarity. That nothing mattered more than keeping the water.

Even thinking of Shaba’s wisdom doesn’t help. My stomach tightens around itself like fingers around the handle of a pipe wrench. Still, I file the request form in the appropriate basket. Procedure must be followed.

Water must be free.

The door to Shaba’s office is unlocked, but it takes me several long minutes to find the switch for the lamp on her desk. I have never seen this room dark before. Even before she’d been named Executive Water Keeper, Shaba could be found in here, reading old paperwork by the light of the battered desk lamp. Her predecessor had encouraged it, perhaps even depended upon it. Most everyone undercity had depended on her for something.

For the first time, I walk around to the desk chair and sit down. The cushion has flattened out in the center from years of her bulk pressing into it. I never thought about that, not in all the time watching her take a seat on that dusty thing. Why hadn’t I ever gotten her a replacement?

I cover my mouth with both hands. Pain rises up my throat like the tears that fill my eyes, a flood of pain, a torrent of longing. I blink it back. I don’t deserve to open that tap.

“I thought I’d find you here.” Grandla leans against the doorframe. Her brown face has grown ashy and dark patches float beneath her eyes. If Shaba’s death has been bad for me, it must have been many times worse for Grandla. They trained as Keepers together. They spent years living in the same hallway of the barracks, sharing meals in the mess hall and shifts in the office. Even Shaba’s promotion had failed to separate them.

“The council plans to vote on Shaba’s replacement tomorrow.”

Grandla follows the golden light to the desk and sits in the stiff wooden chair Shaba kept for visitors. “I know.” She closes her eyes for a moment. “A friend from Sanitation heard something today. The Ministry of Finance announced its intention to absorb the Water Department into its administration.”

I slap my hands against the desk top. “How? How can they do it? It goes against the city’s constitution.”

“They claim the city’s water is an asset, and that they are obligated to manage all such assets. They maintain the Water Department has reduced the value of water to absolute zero.”

“But water must be free. It’s a human right.”

She swallows. “There’s more.”

The beds of my nails go white as I press down against the worn wood of Shaba’s desk. “Of course there’s more.”

“Councilor Rand has already named a candidate for Executive Water Keeper.”

“Charice Fleming.”

Grandla nods. “She will support Finance’s decision.”

Shaba’s pen lays on the desktop. I squeeze the pen in my fingers. Its ancient plastic cap is prickly, the plastic surface smashed and battered by Shaba’s constant process of thought. I wish I could think half as clearly as Shaba did.

“Charice Fleming killed Shaba.” My eyes are dry and hot. “No one from Water would have done it. And Charice knew the undercity as well as any of us.”

“That’s the same conclusion I came to,” Grandla whispers. “And I hate it.”

“I hate her, Grandla. She knew us. She knew the undercity. How could she do this to us?”

“Even disbanded, water will still need plumbers.” Grandla attempts a smile, but it only makes her face look sicker than before. “At least Charice will keep us on for that work.”

I get to my feet. “We’re not plumbers, Grandla. We’re Water Keepers.”

Grandla stares up at me. “What are you thinking, Yalan? What are you going to do?”

I don’t answer her, but I give her shoulder a squeeze. The golden light of Shaba’s desk lamp pools around her small figure, and her shadow stretches long across the floor. My shadow stretches still farther, a long dark stain against the concrete.

I walk through the undercity in the dark. I don’t need my hand torch or a map. The water guides me, even though its murmur is quieter than I’ve ever heard it. I know that the city’s heartbeat slows in the later hours, but I never realized how quiet everything becomes. The pad of my bare feet against the concrete is the loudest sound in my ears.

At the end of the tunnel, I climb the ladder mounted on the wall. It follows the slender pipe running into a basement, and there’s an entry hatch beside it that allows a worker to check the overflow drain. Most people pay little attention to their basements, and Councilor Rand is no more observant than any other person.

The drain is narrow, but I am used to compact spaces. I slip my toolbox inside ahead of me and squeeze through the little hole in the floor. The basement smells musty and stale, like laundry long forgotten. My nose crinkles.

I leave the tool box, but I take what tools I need and put them in the pockets of my denim jacket. The pipe wrench, I pull tight against my body as I make my way upstairs. I do not dare risk it bumping anything and making noise. Like the pipes below me, I will be quiet.

It only takes me a few minutes to find my way to the bedroom, its big bed nearly as large as my entire room in the Keepers Barracks. Two shapes lay still in the center of the bed, two faces show in the faint light coming in through the window.

Tonight the councilor’s face is slack, his mouth open, his long eyelashes a fringe of darkness across his closed eyes. He hardly looks like himself.

Charice Fleming is curled around him like a spoon. Even though it’s night, I can still see the traces of her makeup, a little smudge beneath her eyes, a glimmer of glitter across her cheekbone. I can remember our one kiss, tender and a little sad as she said goodbye and walked out of the undercity.

If I walk out of this room, then at this time tomorrow, this woman will be my new boss. She will take over Shaba’s office and move all of it—the maps, the files, the ugly lamp—up into the bright dry world that is hers. I close my eyes for a second, imagining what would come next. How long would it take Finance to get rid of the ration credits and start issuing bills, just as they did with Electric? How long would it take for people to start missing their payments and then losing their water? I know ways for people to live without electricity, but water cannot be done without.

That’s why I am here, for those who would lose their water. Not for Shaba, who had been killed for this woman to secure the Water Department, and not for Grandla and the other Water Keepers. Not for me or the pain that still presses against the back of my eyes when I think about Shaba or the time I spent with the traitor who killed her.

I am here to safekeep the water.

I raise the pipe wrench. Charice stirs a little in her sleep, and my heart gives a squeeze, the same squeeze it gave every time I saw her when we worked down below. She is so beautiful. I can’t believe she left me for this man and the world aboveground.

The pipe wrench has never felt so light in my hand. I have to remind myself: This is for the water.

The screams begin as red spots dapple the wall like the pushpins in Shaba’s map. They don’t last long. I’ve been trained to do this quickly.

For the water. Of course.

___

Copyright 2017 Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy N. Wagner is a full-time nerd. She is the managing/associate editor Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines, and has published more than forty short stories about heroes, monsters, and other wacky stuff. Her third novel, a sci-fi thriller called An Oath of Dogs, was recently released by Angry Robot Books. She lives with her very understanding family in Portland, Oregon, and you can keep up with her exploits at winniewoohoo.com.