Hundreds of millions of people have already died, and millions more will soon fall-victims of disease, hunger, and dehydration. It is a time of drought and war. The rivers have dried up, the polar caps have melted, and drinkable water is now in the hands of the powerful few. There are fines for wasting it and prison sentences for exceeding the quotas.
But Kai didn't seem to care about any of this. He stood in the open road drinking water from a plastic cup, then spilled the remaining drops into the dirt. He didn't go to school, and he traveled with armed guards. Kai claimed he knew a secret-something the government is keeping from us...
And then he was gone. Vanished in the middle of the night. Was he kidnapped? Did he flee? Is he alive or dead? There are no clues, only questions. And no one can guess the lengths to which they will go to keep him silent. We have to find him-and the truth-before it is too late for all of us.
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The Water Wars
By Cameron Stracher
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Cameron Stracher
All rights reserved.
The year before he joined the Reclamation, when he was still seventeen, my brother Will set a new high score at the YouToo! booth at the gaming center. It was a record that stood for many years, and there were plenty of people who thought it would never be broken, although eventually it was. But by then my brother didn't care; he had found more important things to do than waste his time playing games in which winning only meant you had to play again.
We lived then in a time of drought and war. The great empires had fallen and been divided. The land was parched and starved for moisture, and the men who lived on it fought for every drop. Outside, the wind howled like something wounded. Inside, our skin flaked, and our eyes stung and burned. Our tongues were like thick snakes asleep in dark graves.
That's why I'll never forget the first time I saw Kai. He was standing in the open road drinking a glass of water like it didn't matter — water from an old plastene cup. There could have been anything in that cup: bacteria or a virus or any of the other poisons they taught about at school. Men had dug so deep for water that salt had leached into the wells, and unnamed diseases lived in what remained. But Kai didn't seem to care. He drank his water like it was the simplest thing in the world. I knew it was water because when he was finished, he did something extraordinary: he flipped the cup upside down and spilled the last remaining drops into the dust.
"Hey!" I called out to him. "You can't do that!"
He looked at me like he didn't know I was the only other person on the deserted road. He was about the same age as Will. Both had that lanky boy body I had just begun to recognize: hip bones and wrists, flat bellies and torsos. But while Will and I were dark-haired and lean, Kai was blond, with skin that glowed in the morning sun. I felt an urge to run my fingertips over his smooth forearms, feel the strange softness against my ragged nails that I never let grow long enough to paint like other girls did.
"Who says I can't?" he asked.
Wasting water was illegal. There were fines, and even prison sentences, for exceeding the quotas. But this boy looked like he didn't care about any of that.
"You just can't," I said.
"That's something a shaker would say."
"Because it's true."
"How do you know?"
"I know — that's all. Look around. Do you see any water here?"
"There's plenty of water," said the boy.
"Yeah, in the ocean."
"Can't drink salt water," he said, as if I didn't know.
I looked down the dusty road. Not a sign of life anywhere — just the hills, scarred from ancient fires, and sand blowing around the empty lot where I waited. Not even a lizard or an insect moved. Once there had been a row of stores at the edge of the lot, but now all that remained were the skeletons that scavengers hadn't sold for scrap. Torn insulation and loose wire dangled like innards from pitted aluminum struts. When the wind blew, they made a sound like mourning.
"Why don't you have your screen, anyway?" A new student should at least bring a notebook to his first day, I thought.
"I don't go to school."
"Are you a harvester?"
"My father says I don't have to go to school."
Everyone went to school, except for water harvesters' kids who chased the clouds across the sky. At least until you were eighteen — then you got jobs, or joined the army, or worked for the Water Authority Board, which was like staying in school for life.
"You're lucky," I said.
"School's not so bad."
I liked school, although I wouldn't admit it. I loved learning the details about shiny rocks, their hard, encrusted surfaces yielding clues about the minerals inside. I loved our field trips to the dams, where metal wheels as large as entire houses turned slowly in their silicon beds. Best of all, I loved deciphering the swirling purple patterns of thunderstorms and hurricanes, trying to predict where, on the brown-gray prairie, they would strike next.
"Did they take you out?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Didn't need to go anymore."
I peered down the road again. The bus was late. It was often late. Sometimes it didn't come at all, and I had to walk back to my building, where my father would unplug the old car and drive me to the school in town. Will was already there, a full hour earlier, because he had to empty the basins before the sun evaporated the small amount of water that collected as dew. Last year two other girls rode the bus with me, but one day they stopped coming and never returned. It was boring waiting alone. I welcomed the distraction.
"I've got a brother," I said. "He passed his army physical."
"He had to do fifty pushups."
"I can do a hundred."
The boy kneeled like he was going to start exercising right there in the dust. The place where he had spilled his cup was completely dry; I couldn't even tell it had been wet. I could see the elastic band of his underwear and the smooth skin where his back was exposed. No marks, scratches, or scabs of any kind. My own hands looked like some kind of treasure map, except the lines didn't lead to riches.
"I'm Vera," I said to his back.
"Kai," he said, standing up.
"Where did you get the water?"
"I've got lots of water."
"Are you rich?"
"I guess so."
"Should you be out alone?" "Ha!" he snorted. "I'd like to see them try something."
It wasn't clear whom he was talking about, but I didn't think Kai — or any boy — could stand up well to the bandits and soldiers who menaced our town, no matter how many pushups he could do.
"Are you waiting for someone?" I asked.
"Going to a scavenge site. Want to come?"
"I've got school."
I said I would try, but I knew my father wouldn't let me. He didn't want me going anywhere after school — not with this boy, not with any boy. It was dangerous to hang around strangers. Just last year there had been a virus, and three kids in our class had died. No one went to school for two weeks afterward, and Will and I played cards in his bedroom until we got so bored that we wanted to scream.
"We live in the Wellington Pavilion," Kai said, naming a fancy housing complex. "Meet me there this afternoon. I'll tell the guards."
"I have water team."
"After water team, then."
"I'll ask my dad." Down the road I could see the telltale signs of rising dust. "There's my bus."
Kai looked to where I pointed, and his lips drew a tight line of disappointment. I realized then that he wasn't out in the road spilling water because he had enough to drink. Like the girls who cut themselves or snuck their parents' pharmies, he wanted someone to pay attention. I promised myself I would try to visit this boy, even though my father wouldn't like it.
"Good-bye," I said. "I'll look for you later."
"Later," he said.
I boarded the bus and turned to wave, but as I did, I saw a car stop for the boy — a big, black limousine, gasoline-powered, with an engine that threw off heat in shimmering waves of silver. The door opened, and a burly guard with a machine pistol stepped into the road — mirrored glasses hid his eyes, and a thick cartridge belt cinched his waist. He signaled to Kai, and the boy climbed inside without looking back.CHAPTER 2
That night Will and I stayed up late. Will had dragged his mattress across the hallway to my room, where it rested on a couple of wooden crates our father had salvaged from a food drop. The two beds made a kind of giant spongy stair. I was on the top step, and Will was one below. We had two covers, both of which I tugged more closely around me. Will complained, but he gave up as soon as I told him about Kai.
"He must be rich," Will concluded.
"He is," I said. "And Will ..." I waited until I had his complete attention. "After the bus came, they picked him up in a limo."
"Who picked him up?"
"I don't know. There was a guard with a gun."
Will squinted with his left eye. I always thought it was unfair that I got our mother's freckles, while Will had our father's witch-hazel eyes: pinwheels of green, gray, and gold. When he squinted, it was like peering into the glass end of a kaleidoscope.
"His father must be a WAB minister, maybe."
"There are no WABs here," I reminded him.
"He could live in Basin."
"Then why would he be out walking on our road?" I asked.
If the boy's father were on the Water Authority Board, he wouldn't live in the Wellington Pavilion, as nice as it was, and he wouldn't be outside walking. There were places a lot nicer, and a lot more expensive, with better security. Most of the WAB ministers lived in Basin, the capitol, about sixty kilometers away. The Water Authority controlled the flow and distribution of water and was the closest thing we had to an actual government. Our republic — Illinowa — was all that remained of the Midwestern pieces of the old United States, and the only thing left to govern was water. The decisions made by WABs in Basin could mean life or death for the rest of us. I'd never been to the city, but photographs showed leafy trees growing from beneath semi-porous grates and real grass in the park. Everything seemed to be breathing, and the air was gauzy with moisture.
"He must live around here," I decided. "He says he does. We should invite him to dinner."
"We don't have any food."
"That's not true."
"Synth-food's not food," said Will. "And Dad is a terrible cook."
"He doesn't have time to make a real meal." I hated when Will criticized our father's cooking. "Anyway, I don't mind synth-steaks."
It was months since we'd eaten anything except the synthetic food the Water Authority Board provided in weekly food drops. They claimed it tasted like the real thing, but of course it didn't. Everything had a sort of bland sameness. Steak tasted like chicken; orange juice tasted like tomato juice. The only real differences were the colors and textures. Still, people could get used to anything, and we did.
If Kai was rich, he didn't act like it. Rich people lived in secure compounds with guards and robo-dogs and rarely left their buildings. When they did, they wore kev-jackets on the streets and carried laser-tasers or guns. In Basin they were permitted to shoot first if a stranger approached without identification. Even in Arch, where we lived, the occasional businessman was ferried about in an armored vehicle. You could never be too safe, or too protected. That's what our teachers said. Men would kill for a glass of water, and did.
Will and I talked until the power grid shut down and the lights flickered, then went dark. He had a small glow light, but it wasn't fully charged or bright enough for both of us to read by. The darkness settled. I felt myself growing weightless, thoughts flitting half-formed through my mind, pieces of one thing replaced by endings of another. I knew sleep was coming. In my dreams Kai offered me plastene cups filled with water, but I couldn't drink them fast enough. The water tasted like graphite and made my mouth dry. I tried to tell him to stop, but he kept offering them and spilling what I couldn't drink on the ground.
When I awoke, my blanket was bunched around my neck, and my hair was damp with sweat. Will was already downstairs, dry-showered and eating a bowl of Oatios in front of the wireless. I skipped the shower and grabbed a Toasty Bar as our father ushered us to the door.
"No time for texting," he said.
I reached for a controller on the kitchen table.
"Signal's out anyway," said Will.
The wireless played a news feed about a pirate attack, and Will also had a couple of game channels open, but the wi-text screen was down. My father had explained that bandwidth and signal strength varied depending on the grid, but it didn't seem a coincidence that propaganda and entertainment were always easiest to find while communication was more difficult. You could play YouToo! almost anywhere in the world, but sending a simple message across republics was unpredictable and sometimes impossible.
I hurried to follow Will and barely had time to finish my breakfast because he walked so fast.
We didn't see Kai at the bus stop. We waited until the last possible minute, staring down the road in the hope that he would materialize out of the dust. Then the driver barked for us to get on board, and we scampered up the steps. The ride to school was agonizingly slow and bumpy. Though it was fall, it felt like summer, and the bus was hot and airless even with the windows cranked open. My lips were chapped, and I was thirsty already, but of course there was nothing to drink and there wouldn't be anything until lunchtime. I licked my lips and plunged into the pages of my screen, where the seas were always blue and the skies heavy with thunder.
Our school was a one-story cinder-block building that looked as if it had once been larger. At each end the hallways simply stopped and were bricked off without windows or doors. The classrooms were overcrowded, and there wasn't enough space in the gym or lunchroom for everyone to play or eat at the same time. Fortunately on most days one-quarter of the kids were sick or absent, which meant the school was nearly the right size for the rest of us. At least there were enough chairs in my class for everyone to find a seat.
The school's venti-unit blew at full power. I could feel the air coursing over my head like a current as I walked down the hallway. It was crackly and dry, alive with static electricity. The unit was supposed to filter dirt and chemicals, but it made the air taste like something metallic. The teachers kept the windows open anyway, because the school was so hot.
I found my class and sat at my usual seat near the window. The other kids chatted noisily and tossed things at each other while I opened my screen and adjusted my pen-writer. A boy named Ryark tried to get my attention by tapping my shoulder with a calculating stick. He had hair that stuck up like a toilet brush. I ignored him. When the teacher arrived, Ryark sat back quickly in his seat, and the class quieted down. No one dared aggravate the teachers, who freely dispensed electric zaps with a battery- powered teacher's aid.
We were doing a unit on weather. Mrs. Delfina used her laser pencil to show how the jet stream carried storm systems from west to east. Variations in Earth's temperature made the jet stream dip and twist, curving north when it should be headed east. This made it snow where it should be warm and brought rain to the colder regions. Predicting weather, she said, was more art than science, because you had to take into account the changing temperature of the land and water and the competing forces of high and low pressure systems that jockeyed for position over the continent. Even the slightest variation could wreak enormous havoc.
"A butterfly beating its wings over Basin today," Mrs. D. said, "can change tomorrow's weather two thousand kilometers away."
I pictured a butterfly floating in the jet stream — beating its wings furiously to stay aloft — and moving just enough air so storm clouds would travel north instead of south. It was difficult to imagine, although I knew men changed the weather with giant airplanes that seeded the clouds for rain and enormous turbines that sucked the moisture from the sky. Many days we awoke with storm clouds on the horizon, only to see the sky transformed into a brilliant, piercing blue.
"What's the most important thing we can do to protect our weather?" Mrs. D. asked.
"Guard the earth and sky," we answered in unison.
Mrs. Delfina smiled. Her teeth were large and white and looked nearly perfect. In fact, I knew they were not real. I had seen her once, in the bathroom, with her teeth on the side of the sink, her open mouth hollow and empty. Teeth were the first thing that went bad, and most shakers had to make do with fake ones. Mrs. D. was lucky she could afford them. There were plenty who could not.
When we finished morning lessons, there was lunch, which we ate in the cafeteria. The school had stopped providing hot lunch several years ago. Now most kids brought lunch from home. I traded my Cheesios to another girl for an extra soy milk. Nearby a group of boys tossed packs of dried veggies at each other. I looked around for Will, but I didn't see him. I drank the first milk, and then the second, and still I was thirsty. But there would be no more until dinner, so I forced my lips shut and tried to think about something else.
During recess some of the younger kids went outside, even though the school forbade it. There weren't enough teachers to prevent them, and they snuck out through the cafeteria doors. I sat near a window with my screen and watched them kick a small ball around in the dust. When they came back inside, they were sweaty and dirty and laughing. One boy started coughing, and the others made fun of him, holding their hands over their mouths and whooping. The first boy looked as if he might start crying, and I nearly stood up to tell the others to stop. But then the bell rang; school resumed, and the rest of the day passed quickly. More lessons in weather, then water management and conservation, then math.
Excerpted from The Water Wars by Cameron Stracher. Copyright © 2011 Cameron Stracher. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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