Lolo doesn’t sleep all night. His instincts tell him to run, but he doesn’t have the heart to tell Annie, or to leave her. He goes out in the morning hunting tamarisk and fails at that as well. He doesn’t cut a single stand all day. He considers shooting himself with his shotgun, but chickens out when he gets the barrels in his mouth. Better alive and on the run than dead. Finally, as he stares into the twin barrels, he knows that he has to tell Annie, tell her he’s been a water thief for years and that he’s got to run north. Maybe she’ll come with him. Maybe she’ll see reason. They’ll run together. At least they have that. For sure, he’s not going to let those bastards take him off to a labor camp for the rest of his life.
But the guardies are already waiting when Lolo gets back. They’re squatting in the shade of their Humvee, talking. When Lolo comes over the crest of the hill, one of them taps the other and points. They both stand. Annie is out in the field again, turning over dirt, unaware of what’s about to happen. Lolo reins in and studies the guardies. They lean against their Humvee and watch him back.
Suddenly Lolo sees his future. It plays out in his mind the way it does in a movie, as clear as the blue sky above. He puts his hand on his shotgun. Where it sits on Maggie’s far side, the guardies can’t see it. He keeps Maggie angled away from them and lets the camel start down the hill.
The guardies saunter toward him. They’ve got their Humvee with a .50 caliber on the back and they’ve both got M-16s slung over their shoulders. They’re in full bulletproof gear and they look flushed and hot. Lolo rides down slowly. He’ll have to hit them both in the face. Sweat trickles between his shoulder blades. His hand is slick on the shotgun’s stock.
The guardies are playing it cool. They’ve still got their rifles slung, and they let Lolo keep approaching. One of them has a wide smile. He’s maybe 40 years old, and tanned. He’s been out for a while, picking up a tan like that. The other raises a hand and says, "Hey there, Lolo."
Lolo’s so surprised he takes his hand off his shotgun. "Hale?" He recognizes the guardie. He grew up with him. They played football together a million years ago, when football fields still had green grass and sprinklers sprayed their water straight into the air. Hale. Hale Perkins. Lolo scowls. He can’t shoot Hale.
Hale says. "You’re still out here, huh?"
"What the hell are you doing in that uniform? You with the Calies now?"
Hale grimaces and points to his uniform patches: Utah National Guard.
Lolo scowls. Utah National Guard. Colorado National Guard. Arizona National Guard. They’re all the same. There’s hardly a single member of the "National Guard" that isn’t an out-of-state mercenary. Most of the local guardies quit a long time ago, sick to death of goose-stepping family and friends off their properties and sick to death of trading potshots with people who just wanted to stay in their homes. So even if there’s still a Colorado National Guard, or an Arizona or a Utah, inside those uniforms with all their expensive nightsight gear and their brand-new choppers flying the river bends, it’s pure California.
And then there are a few like Hale.
Lolo remembers Hale as being an OK guy. Remembers stealing a keg of beer from behind the Elks Club one night with him. Lolo eyes him. "How you liking that Supplementary Assistance Program?" He glances at the other guardie. "That working real well for you? The Calies a big help?"
Hale’s eyes plead for understanding. "Come on, Lolo. I’m not like you. I got a family to look after. If I do another year of duty, they let Shannon and the kids base out of California."
"They give you a swimming pool in your backyard, too?"
"You know it’s not like that. Water’s scarce there, too."
Lolo wants to taunt him, but his heart isn’t in it. A part of him wonders if Hale is just smart. At first, when California started winning its water lawsuits and shutting off cities, the displaced people just followed the water — right to California. It took a little while before the bureaucrats realized what was going on, but finally someone with a sharp pencil did the math and realized that taking in people along with their water didn’t solve a water shortage. So the immigration fences went up.
But people like Hale can still get in.
"So what do you two want?" Inside, Lolo’s wondering why they haven’t already pulled him off Maggie and hauled him away, but he’s willing to play this out.
The other guardie grins. "Maybe we’re just out here seeing how the water ticks live."
Lolo eyes him. This one, he could shoot. He lets his hand fall to his shotgun again. "BuRec sets my headgate. No reason for you to be out here."
The Calie says, "There were some marks on it. Big ones."
Lolo smiles tightly. He knows which marks the Calie is talking about. He made them with five different wrenches when he tried to dismember the entire headgate apparatus in a fit of obsession. Finally he gave up trying to open the bolts and just beat on the thing, banging the steel of the gate, smashing at it, while on the other side he had plants withering. After that, he gave up and just carried buckets of water to his plants and left it at that. But the dents and nicks are still there, reminding him of a period of madness. "It still works, don’t it?"
Hale holds up a hand to his partner, quieting him. "Yeah, it still works. That’s not why we’re here."
"So what do you two want? You didn’t drive all the way out here with your machine gun just to talk about dents in my headgate."
Hale sighs, put-upon, trying to be reasonable. "You mind getting down off that damn camel so we can talk?"
Lolo studies the two guardies, figuring his chances on the ground. "Shit." He spits. "Yeah, OK. You got me." He urges Maggie to kneel and climbs off her hump. "Annie didn’t know anything about this. Don’t get her involved. It was all me."
Hale’s brow wrinkles, puzzled. "What are you talking about?"
"You’re not arresting me?"
The Calie with Hale laughs. "Why? Cause you take a couple buckets of water from the river? Cause you probably got an illegal cistern around here somewhere?" He laughs again. "You ticks are all the same. You think we don’t know about all that crap?"
Hale scowls at the Calie, then turns back to Lolo. "No, we’re not here to arrest you. You know about the Straw?"
"Yeah." Lolo says it slowly, but inside, he’s grinning. A great weight is suddenly off him. They don’t know. They don’t know shit. It was a good plan when he started it, and it’s a good plan still. Lolo schools his face to keep the glee off, and tries to listen to what Hale’s saying, but he can’t, he’s jumping up and down and gibbering like a monkey. They don’t know—
"Wait." Lolo holds up his hand. "What did you just say?"
Hale repeats himself. "California’s ending the water bounty. They’ve got enough Straw sections built up now that they don’t need the program. They’ve got half the river enclosed. They got an agreement from the Department of Interior to focus their budget on seep and evaporation control. That’s where all the big benefits are. They’re shutting down the water bounty payout program." He pauses. "I’m sorry, Lolo."
Lolo frowns. "But a tamarisk is still a tamarisk. Why should one of those damn plants get the water? If I knock out a tamarisk, even if Cali doesn’t want the water, I could still take it. Lots of people could use the water."
Hale looks pityingly at Lolo. "We don’t make the regulations, we just enforce them. I’m supposed to tell you that your headgate won’t get opened next year. If you keep hunting tamarisk, it won’t do any good." He looks around the patch, then shrugs. "Anyway, in another couple years they were going to pipe this whole stretch. There won’t be any tamarisk at all after that."
"What am I supposed to do, then?"
"California and BuRec is offering early buyout money." Hale pulls a booklet out of his bulletproof vest and flips it open. "Sort of to soften the blow." The pages of the booklet flap in the hot breeze. Hale pins the pages with a thumb and pulls a pen out of another vest pocket. He marks something on the booklet, then tears off a perforated check. "It’s not a bad deal."
Lolo takes the check. Stares at it. "Five hundred dollars?"
Hale shrugs sadly. "It’s what they’re offering. That’s just the paper codes. You confirm it online. Use your BuRec camera phone, and they’ll deposit it in whatever bank you want. Or they can hold it in trust until you get into a town and want to withdraw it. Any place with a BLM office, you can do that. But you need to confirm before April 15. Then BuRec’ll send out a guy to shut down your headgate before this season gets going."
"Five hundred dollars?"
"It’s enough to get you north. That’s more than they’re offering next year."
"But this is my patch."
"Not as long as we’ve got Big Daddy Drought. I’m sorry, Lolo."
"The drought could break any time. Why can’t they give us a couple more years? It could break any time." But even as he says it, Lolo doesn’t believe. Ten years ago, he might have. But not now. Big Daddy Drought’s here to stay. He clutches the check and its keycodes to his chest.
A hundred yards away, the river flows on to California.
Paolo Bacigalupi is online editor for High Country News. His writing has appeared in Salon.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. He has been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, and is the winner of the Theodore Sturgeon award for best short sf story of the year. His short story collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, will be published by Nightshade Books in Feb. 2008. He maintains a website at windupstories.com.
Tacoma, Wash., illustrator Stan Shaw’s work has appeared in The Village Voice, Esquire, Slate, DC Comics, Willamette Week, The Washington Post Sunday Magazine and many others. He teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, and leads workshops at the Tacoma Art Museum, Seattle Public Library and local elementary schools. He can be reached at drawstanley [at] harbornet.com or through drawstanley.blogspot.com.