The Water Thief’, Jack Waddell

Illustrations © 2013 Fluffgar

 [ Hulk, © 2013 Fluffgar ] Sabal leaned back, digging the metal heel-claws of the Hulk’s feet into the rock as he scraped to a halt just as its toes met the edge of the gorge that sprawled below. His stomach dropped as though he hadn’t stopped in time.

A gale shoved at his Hulk’s back, threatening to topple him forward into eternity. It was strange to hear the wind howl but not to feel it. The carapace of the Hulk exoskeleton cut its wrath.

Beyond the gorge was the next rise of the mountain. There was no path down and no path across.

He remembered a prayer to Ganesha, and though he couldn’t bear to bring the words to his lips, he heard his father’s voice:

Oh, moon-hued and four-shouldered One, upon You we meditate for removing all obstacles.

The wind paused. Immediately, Sabal leaped out across the chasm, thrusting the Hulk’s arms out ahead to catch the rock on the far side. Just after his Hulk’s feet left the ground, the wind burst free again with a roar, thrusting him aside to where the gorge widened. Below him there was nothing but air and, far down, the dove-gray stones of the Talung.

Sabal’s heart dropped as he and the Hulk twisted and fell.

But the wind relented, and on his downward arc he smashed the Hulk’s left hand into the ledge. Metal claws ground through stone with a sound like a plow through gravel. He kicked his toes into the mountain side, and after a terribly long moment, he came to a halt.

He rested his head against the plastiglass carapace of the Hulk, lungs drawing deep, though even with his breather whirring, the air was puny up here. His vision swam, and he was afraid to close his eyes in case they never reopened.

He looked up at the ledge of the gorge. He had dropped six meters in his jump.

There was that much more climbing to do before he died.


The front door slammed shut, rattling the distiller perched on Sabal’s stovetop kettle. He snatched the glass tubing before it tumbled to the floor.

“Sabal!” shouted Little Bina again as she rounded the corner into the kitchen and skid to a stop. “There you are!” she said between gasps.

“A shock, I know, to find me standing in my own home,” he said, balancing the distiller’s collector over the kettle again. Water beaded into gems and slid away from the kettle into a reservoir in the cabinet.

He glanced at Bina. She had not smiled at his teasing.

“The Mayor sent for you.”

“Mister Rakesh must do one of two things, Little Bina.” He brushed the kettle with the back of his hand. It was cold. After turning off the stovetop’s chilling plate, he pulled the distiller from the kettle and tipped butterleaf tea into two small cups. “He must learn patience, or he must repair the mobile tower.”

Sabal cut two large slices of lemon cake onto plates, and Bina shifted from one dirty foot to the other as he placed the tea and cakes on the table. Cupped between his fingers, the tea was rosy red, and it smelled like summer.

“Sabal, he said you must come at once.”

“That I will,” he said. The icy tea slipped smoothly over his tongue like its name promised. Another fine genesplice from Sanjay. “Just as soon as I’ve finished my cup. You should try yours.”

“It’s the water, Sabal” Bina said. “It has stopped.”

Sabal barely heard the tinkling of his porcelain cup and the splash of tea squandered on the floor.

“It is the government,” said Nabhas Rana with his voice like a bear in challenge. His face and vest were still covered with dust from a demolition site. He took care not to shake any on the mahogany table that filled the boardroom. “They are punishing us for refusing to evacuate to the coast.”

Nirav Rakesh, the Mayor’s son, crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “I think it is the Americans. They are stealing all the water left in the world to sell it back to us.”

“We don’t know if it’s the government, the Americans, or someone else,” the Mayor said. Sabal noticed that he didn’t even suspect natural causes, though neither did Sabal. Did he know who this someone else could be?

“What do we know right now?” said Mrs. Das. She was chairperson of the village board, and Little Bina’s mother. “Sabal, please tell us.”

The village board was a quarter of the size it had once been, which reflected how the population of the town had changed in the past ten years. Even still, Sabal’s face and neck warmed as though each eye on him was a heat lamp. With any more of an audience, he might have melted away.

“Go on,” said Mister Rakesh.

“The flow meters—” his voice cracked. Mister Rana snorted. “The flow meters reported a sequential halt in the Rangeet’s circulation through the aqueducts this morning.”

He pressed a button on his mobile phone. Though the mobile network no longer worked, the wireless intranet still did. A holo glowed behind him, showing the course of the buried stream as it flowed down the mountain to Dubdi. Then the blue curve of the stream cut off, draining down its route and disappearing.

“It began suddenly at six, from full flow to zero within the sixty second report window.”

“Is the Rathong gone?” asked Mrs. Das.

Sabal shook his head and flicked a button. A low orbit image of the Talung mountaintop replaced the stream image. It was from last month, the most recent they could acquire without the Indian government’s help.

“The Rathong glacier is small,” Sabal said, pointing, “much smaller than a generation ago, but it survives. With care, it should provide water for ten years or more. Either the melting has stopped or the water was blocked.”

“How long will our reserves last?” asked Nirav.

“A week,” Sabal said. Murmurs arose around the table. “That can be stretched with common sense and rationing.”

Mister Rana scoffed. “A week? Is that the best you can do? How could you let this happen?” He looked around the table. “Tell me again why this pup is in charge of our water? Because of his mother and father?”

Sabal stared at Rana as though through a narrow red tunnel. The heat in his face flared, though its flavor changed.

“Nabhas!” shouted Mrs. Das. “Sabal has studied hydrology and water conservation at university, like his mother. He is better qualified than any of us.”

Mister Rana crossed his arms. “At least she finished her degree.”

Mister Rakesh slapped the table and stood. “Enough! Sabal has our every confidence. We will follow his direction. Furthermore, he will lead an expedition up the Talung to review the situation.”

The world seemed to drop from under Sabal. The Talung, which stood shoulders above the world among the Himalayas. The Talung, which had destroyed his family.

What would he do with Giri?

Rakesh went on. “Nabhas, you’ll go, too. And we’ll need the construction Hulks.”

“I just bought those!”

Rakesh leaned, hands on the table. “Then they should be in fine shape.”

Rana sniffed. “I can spare two. But I can’t go, my asthma has been acting up.”

“Fine, then send Gagan.”

This was just getting worse. The only person who hated Sabal more than Mister Rana was his son.

“But we need all three Hulks.” Rakesh raised his hand when Rana tried to speak. “If we can’t free the Rangeet, then you’ll have no customers left, Nabhas.”

“And Nirav, clean your rifle. You’ll be going for security.”

Nirav grimaced, but nodded. Sabal wondered what Rakesh expected them to find on top of the mountain.

Rakesh looked around the nearly-empty table before turning back to Sabal. “Bring us back our river, Sabal, before—”

He didn’t finish. He just waved them away.

Sabal slid open the door to the ‘ponics beneath his house and climbed down. The light was already on, so Sabal was not surprised to find his younger brother downstairs plucking tomatoes off the vines. Sabal shuddered at the water that splashed to the floor, but for once he did not admonish the boy.

“Giri,” Sabal started, but Giri turned to him with red eyes rimmed with tears. Sabal frowned. “You must not cry,” he said before he could stop himself. Giri pouted at him while wiping tears from his eyes with a tissue, which he threw into the extractor.

Giri sniffled. “I don’t want you to go up the mountain.”

Sabal swallowed a lump building in his throat. “It’s not like when Mother and Father went, Giri. We’re going for a week or two, not a year.”

Giri nodded, but frowned still.

“Hush, now. Little Bina and Mrs. Das will take you. You will have such fun that you’ll forget about stuffy Sabal and all his rules.”

A slight smile cracked on Giri’s face, but tears still beaded in his eyes. Sabal wrapped his arms around his brother’s head, holding it to his chest.

“May I go to the base camp with you?” Giri asked, muffled a bit from Sabal’s arms. “And light incense?”

“I hoped that you would.”

He had made good time, crossing the razor sharp rises of Talung’s peaks. The Sherpas, mostly on foot, were far behind.

Sabal reached out again, easing the Hulk’s fingers into the crevice. Feeling was gone—either the feedback triggers weren’t working or frostbite was setting in. Sabal gave the hand another shove and then gently shifted his weight. It held.

Meter by meter he shimmied along the face. A ledge sat only a few more meters above him, but it was plainly visible from where Sherpas might be climbing by now. Down here he was hidden.

He clenched the fingers of the Hulk’s right hand around a spur. They bit in tightly without crushing the rock to powder.

He let the Hulk hang as he pulled a block from the bag hung around his own body. Wind whistled in the carapace as he opened it to the world.

He hoped the wind would not push the Hulk from the face of the mountain as he carefully smashed the block of explosives into the rock and tapped at the detonator screen until it was ready.

The electric motor squealed as the truck’s driver eased it over the hump in the road. These were the last of the foothills of the Talung. Even the sun struggled to surmount its sister mountains to the East. The morning was cold and dimly, redly lit.

Nirav hopped from the passenger’s side as the truck rolled to a stop. Sabal stretched out his shoulders for the first time during the two-hour drive from Dubdi. He nodded his thanks to the driver, who only stared at him in response, but smiled warmly at Nirav when the man waved his thanks outside.

A line of monks, looking like saffron ants, toted baskets of offerings down from the Buddhist temple nestled into the mountain. More had already gathered at the stone altar built at the base of the mountain’s rise. It was covered with cloths and candles and statues of gods and bodhisattvas. Blue, red, and yellow flags hung from slanted ropes and flapped in the morning wind.

“Would you like to make an offering, young man?” A monk, nearing the end of his middle years, approached him. Deep lines marked eyes and a mouth used to smiling. Sabal remembered him.

“No, Brother Harsula.” Sabal swallowed his disgust, trying to keep his face placid.

“It is said that if you don’t give to the mountain gods here, you will give up there.” He pointed to the peak of the Talung.

The peak would mean death. It sat in the Death Zone, were the air was so thin that all life withered. Even climbers with oxygen tanks lasted only hours. Fortunately he would not have to climb quite so high to get to mountain’s shoulder where the Rathong glacier sat.

“I’ve made enough offerings, brother.”

The monk tilted his head to the side, a gesture Sabal had long since tired of, so he turned away. Giri and Little Bina were at the altar, affixing sticks of incense into the cracks of the stone blocks. An old monk smiled at them and lit the sticks for them. Little eddies of smoke twisted in the air until a frigid gust caught them.

“You are like a father to him as much as a brother.”

“He had a father, and a mother,” he said. “The mountain took them.”

“It pains me to see you turn from your mother’s faith, Sabal. I think it would do you good to make an offering in her memory.”

Sabal walked away and let the wind answer for him.

Giri was stacking food onto the altar when Sabal came up to him. Sabal knelt so that Giri could hug him.

“You’ll be good at Little Bina’s?” he asked. Giri nodded, lip quivering. Sabal began to stand.

“Wait!” Giri said. He pulled out a sprig of incense on a wire. “I didn’t burn this for you yet. I only burnt Nirav’s and Gagan’s.”

Sabal had set many such sprigs alight. Giri had been too young to remember now. Giri hadn’t slept with the radio by his bedside for nightly updates. He hadn’t taken his exams a month early to rush home. He hadn’t ridden his bike up the foothills to lay flowers at the altar, or to borrow a telescope from the monks to scour the mountainside for signs when the updates had stopped. He hadn’t begged the mayor to put him on the recovery team when it was clear they weren’t returning.

But perhaps he would this time.

Giri lit his sprig from another that was burning on the altar. The thick scent of dhoop wood reached Sabal. It seemed to fill his lungs; it threatened to drown him.

“Tubby!” came an amplified shout behind him. The whir of servos came just after. Gagan was enclosed in his Hulk. “It’s time to go.”

Sabal climbed into the carapace of his Hulk. The control rods were cold even through his gloves, and the stirrups were too low, letting too much of his weight hanging from the belts around his torso. But Gagan and Nirav were already walking their Hulks up the slope.

Sabal waved the Hulk’s massive arm to Giri, who stood and watched, waving, as Sabal trekked after his comrades.

Sabal’s pack crashed into the ground, followed an instant later by his own body. His Hulk slumped into a crouch.

Gagan laughed. “Nap time, Tubby! Better put on your breather before you fall asleep, if you care to wake again.”

Sabal was gasping and dizzy by the time he dragged out the mask-and-tube breather and slipped it over his head. The little pumps whirred as he breathed in, doubling the oxygen he could draw. He imagined he could feel it fill his blood. He lay there for a few minutes to catch his breath.

His legs burned. His arms felt like ropes stapled to his shoulders.

“The Hulk isn’t enough for him, Nirav. Maybe we should carry him up the mountain like a babe in arms.”

Nirav only grunted.

Sabal struggled to his feet and tromped over the mountain shelf to the enclosed Rangeet. There should be a sound of rushing water, but there was only the wind.

With a scrape of metal on concrete, Sabal slid open the cover and shined a light inside the aqueduct. It was musty, and Sabal resisted the urge to slam the cover shut before water vapor escaped. Instead he scrambled inside and shined his light up through the tunnels, but he saw only smooth concrete walls and a dry, rocky river bed.

For three days they had climbed and searched. It was clear that the blockage couldn’t be inside the aqueduct, because then the Rangeet would overfill it and spill outside the tunnel, reclaiming its former course. Still, Sabal examined nearly every access hatch as they went.

Sabal stopped to report back with Rakesh over the radio. The town was conserving water, but they were still running short quickly. These discussions always depressed him, since he never had any good news to give. Fortunately, in another day they would pass a ridge that would block any further radio signals, and he wouldn’t have to report.

By the time he returned to the camp by the row of slumping Hulks, the other two men had set up a hotplate. Nirav warmed rice and sauce in a pan next to a kettle. He handed Sabal a strip of flatbread.

Sabal stared at it, not at all hungry.

“Eat, Sabal. Already your digestion is slowing. Much higher and it will stop entirely. Eat while you can.”

Sabal had to pull down his mask enough to bite into it.

Gagan lifted a kettle from the hotplate and poured the steaming tea into a cup. A cloud of steam burst into the air, and Sabal dropped his bread to reach out to grab the kettle. He scalded his hands through his gloves as he tore it away from Gagan and slammed the seal shut.

“Fool!” he shouted. “You can’t let warm water touch the air!”

Gagan glared. “The tea covers the taste of your piss.”

Sabal placed the kettle on the ground near the hotplate. “There is no taste from the recycler. You are pouring our water into the sky!”

“What does it matter, Fatty? It is a fraction of a fraction, and the hot water warms my bones.”

“It matters,” Sabal said. “Every ounce we let slip is an ounce we will never see again. It passes into the air, which is too dry to give it back. Even when the clouds do form, those in the lowlands steal it from the sky with their salts. It will never return to us.”

Gagan was silent.

“If each of us saves only two percent of our water, that means ten more of us can drink for a year, Gagan.”

“And how many of us are up here on the Talung now, Sabal? We are here to save the Rangeet, not droplets from kettles.”

Sabal crossed his arms. “The recycler is nearly perfect, Gagan. The water tastes great.”

Nirav raise an eyebrow at this.

“Fine, then drink without it,” Sabal said, snatching it up to carry it away.

The exhaustion hadn’t left his arms, the cold hadn’t left his fingers, and the recycler was heavy. It pitched in his hands and tumbled toward the rocks.

Nirav dove. He yelled as the corner of the recycler tore through the fabric of his coat and into his arm. With a thud the recycler landed upright, reasonably sound but stained with Nirav’s blood.

“Clumsy fool!” Nirav shouted as he clamped a hand around his wound. Gagan dug through a pack and came up with a bandage.

“I’m sorry,” Sabal mumbled. Neither man replied.

Outside the concrete walls of the Rangeet monitoring station, the wind shrieked. The screen showed the forecast captured from a pirate satellite signal set at the station—100 kilometer per hour winds for the next two days. Winds strong enough to peel the Hulks from the mountain.

“We’re grounded,” Sabal told Nirav, lifting his breather.

Nirav stared through the plastiglass window. Sabal could see dust rise, whipping at the Hulks that they had chained in the lee of the building.

The monitoring station straddled the Rangeet two-thirds of the way between Dubdi and the Rathong glacier. They had turned on the heat, but the building wasn’t airtight enough for pressurized oxygen. Nirav looked strange in a sleeveless t-shirt with a breather on his face.

Nirav didn’t reply as he left, but he went into the barracks, where Gagan napped. Nirav would surely do the same.

Sabal was relieved. The office of the monitoring station was sparsely appointed. Two chairs at a long L-shaped desk along with two computers. A picture of his parents hung on the wall, surrounded by a wreath of fake flowers.

His parents. This office was the last place they had been seen alive, before they went out to repair a breach in the aqueduct. Before the mountain had taken them.

Sabal had been at school, studying hydrology like his mother, preparing to come back and take her place, and perhaps to marry. He only had a year left of school. He was near the top of his class.

The mountain had taken more than his parents. They had taken his future. When they disappeared, he had returned to help with the search, and then he had stayed to care for Giri, who was only five. Mayor Rakesh had hired him to his mother’s position, but at half the salary since he hadn’t finished his degree. Most of the village had left by then.

Sabal leaned back in the chair and stared at the screens until he fell asleep.

Gagan stood over the stove in the kitchenette, stirring a pot. Six empty boxes from the pantry were scattered across the countertop. “There’s enough food in the stores to last a month.”

If they ate at all. Nirav still had to cajole Sabal into eating.

Steam from the pot streamed into the air. The stove didn’t even have a fan and hood over it.

“If we had the water for it. It’s all dehydrated.”

Water would be hard to extract from solid waste. Here, they lost water with every meal, first by cooking it, and later by digesting it, but Gagan’s only reply was to slurp a spoonful of stew from the pot.

The tamed Rangeet should have been surging through its enclosed course just under their feet. They should never have wanted for water here.

“What is the forecast?” Gagan asked without turning.

Sabal turned and looked out the windows of the main entry. The Hulks thrashed on their chains like they were possessed by angry wind spirits.

“Two more days,” Sabal said with a sinking heart, turning back.

Gagan sat down his spoon and faced Sabal. “We must risk it.”

“We can’t. The Hulks will be cast from the mountain side.”

“We cannot stay here,” he said. “It took five days to climb this far. Rakesh will evacuate the city in a few more.”

“We can wait a while. We have enough water in the basement cistern.”

Gagan crossed the room like he’d been shot from a cannon. His fist flung out and caught Sabal clumsily on the side of his neck. Still, it felt like being struck with a thrown brick.

“I’m not worried about our water, Tubby! I’m worried about theirs!” He thrust his finger East, and downward. “Think of Giri, coward!”

Sabal did. He wondered if Little Bina’s family had already bundled up their belongings and struck out for the coast. Would Giri stay behind? Perhaps Rakesh would find a place for him. If not—Sabal refused the thought.

“It would be suicide.”

Gagan knelt and grabbed Sabal by the front of his shirt with both fists. His knuckles dug between Sabal’s ribs.

“I left my wife and child down there, Tubby. I will not send them to the coast. Do you know what happens there?”

“They live in government housing, and are given food and water.”

Gagan punched him in the stomach, doubling him over, and kicked his feet out from under him. He landed hard on his side, knocking his breather away. It was as though all the air in the room had vanished.

“They live in tents, Sabal. Millions of people. They have riots over water. They kill each other in the open for a cup of water or a bag of rice. Disease rages—cholera, dysentery. Tens of thousands have died already.”

Sabal had heard rumors, of course, but Rakesh denied them. Without regular contact with the rest of the nation to verify, Sabal had taken his word.

“How-?” was all he could get out between gasps.

“My father found a report on Rakesh’s desk. We have to get the water, Sabal. If Dubdi dies, so will all its people.”

The air in the tunnels should be thick with moisture. Even with it doubled by his breather, he could barely sense it.

Sabal shined a flashlight around the tunnels. It was a short space, he could just stand in the spots where the rock floor was low, but it was many meters wide.

The Rageet’s course was dry, with only tiny rivulets streaming along it. It should have been a steady flow of hundreds of liters per second. Once it had gushed, and adventurers from around the world would come to raft it.

The ground was jagged, the Rangeet’s historical course. Sabal’s parents had only built an enclosure over it to prevent excessive evaporation and theft, all to save Dubdi from extinction. Five years later, it was doomed anyway.

His light glinted off of something across the tunnel. Sabal stepped carefully over the slick and jagged rocks.

A golden tube hung down from a black cylinder, a water condenser, and entered another segment that resembled a Pythagorean cup, before finally winding down to a clock face. Another golden tube bent off to the side, where a drip of water fell.

A clepsydra—a water thief. It was an ancient sort of clock, but this one was very sophisticated. He had heard his father joke about it before—it was the gift he made for Sabal’s mother for their wedding day. It was a union of their skills—mechanical engineering and fluid dynamics. Sabal had never seen it, because his mother was irritated at the waste of water. It seemed they found a spot for it, after all, in the heart of all their marriage had built.

In the sculpted bronze on top, Ganesha sat beside a Buddharupa, their hands nearly touching. It represented his parents’ faiths, and their union. There were words once engraved beneath the seated figures, but they were obscured by oxidation.

Sabal checked his watch. Without enough moisture for the condenser to collect, it was hours off, but the hands shifted fitfully nonetheless. Sabal watched as the minutes vanished.

Sabal had spoken with Rakesh on the hardwired station radio after his fight with Gagan. The mayor was organizing half the village for evacuation, but Gagan’s family, Giri, and Little Bina’s family would stay for another few days, along with a dozen other families. Still, each family that left weakened the village and hurt its chances for survival.

The door opened. Sabal shined his light at a stooping Nirav, who held his hand out to shield his eyes.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Sabal rubbed his ribs. There was a bruise, but no damage. “Yes, thank you.”

“It wasn’t right that he hit you. I should teach him some manners.” Nirav sat on a bulging rock.

Nirav could. He could beat Gagan as easily as Gagan had Sabal. A vicious part of Sabal yearned for that, but he stamped it out, disgusted. He could picture his mother’s frown at such a thought, and the image nearly broke his heart.

Sabal sighed. “Gagan was right. We have to go.”

Nirav shook his head and pointed up. Even through the thick concrete above them, the wind howled. “That would be suicide.”

The Hulks were strong, but they were large, making an target for the wind’s rages. But neither could their bodies survive the wind without them.

But they were almost there now, weren’t they. Only two more days of climbing, at least with Hulks. How long without?

They needed shelter from the wind, and they needed the Hulks. They couldn’t have both, but perhaps they could have one.

He pulled out his mobile and tapped at the topographical map he had stored. The tunnels of course ran through the Rangeet’s channel, and as far as he could make out, they were traversable all the way to the top.

“The tunnels.” Sabal said, pointing up. “Get Gagan to pack. We leave in an hour.”

Sabal couldn’t feel the axe in his hand. With an effort, he focused his eyes on the rock in front of him and swung it down. The axe spun from his grip and slipped dropped four meters to the Rangeet’s channel floor.

If the Rangeet still flowed, it would have gushed over this fall, making it impassible. Even dry it was more than Sabal could handle. He clutched at the blue line that Nirav had laid, the only thing keeping him from following his axe.

Air rasped through his mask. It wasn’t enough. His eyes swam free from his control and his arms swung like he was a puppet instead of a man.

By the time he realized that Nirav had grabbed his coat, he had already been dragged up to a flat stone. Gagan stood behind him, stacking their equipment.

“Sabal, listen to my voice.” It was like he whispered in a wind tunnel.

“You must focus, Sabal. If you quit now your body will quit, too. You will die in these tunnels. You must sit up.”

Sabal dragged one arm up along his body and thrust the elbow down. Next he hauled the other. Grunting, he flexed his back. It was like lifting the mountain itself. His whole body constricted, choking out what meager air there was. He began to sag back to the rock.

“Listen to me, Sabal. The mountain wants you. Can you hear it?”

He could. It screamed in the gusts of wind that tore at the tunnel walls. It echoed in the thrum in his ears. The mountain reached up for his heart, to squeeze it dead.

Sabal’s arms shook and the muscles in his back spasmed painfully.

“Yes! Raise up!”

It was harder than the first climb. It was tougher than reaching the monitoring station. Sabal dug into his heart for strength and rose up on his elbows.

Nirav swam into view, lighted by an LED lantern. Sabal swung his legs underneath himself.

“Slow down, Sabal!”

He found a well of strength he hadn’t known. With a surge Sabal rose up.

“No!” shouted Nirav.

Sabal’s knee gave way and he lurched forward. He flung out his hands. Gagan was there, lifting the recycler. He saw Sabal and tried to turn away as Sabal bowled into him.

They both crashed into the ground. The recycler bounced off the stone and slipped from Gagan’s hands. Sabal heard it tumble down falls with a crash.

Air rasped through his mask. Thoughts slipped from his mind like butter from a hot dish.

Forward and up. There were no thoughts left. Those had evaporated with the water from his mouth. All that was left was a dehydrated body and the urge to move. He could barely remember why. He had totally forgotten where, except to take another crawled pace along the blue rope on the gray rock.

A boot lay across the rope. Sabal traced it to a leg, then to Gagan, who sprawled along the tunnel floor, poking a collection of rocks with his gloved hand.

Shining his light, Sabal didn’t see an opening. The tunnel ended. The face diffused into his mind like milk spreading through tea.

“Dead end,” he said, voice croaking. Gagan looked back at him, frowning. Somewhere behind there was a shuffling sound as Nirav crawled along. He was a big man, and was having the hardest time without water.

Sabal looked up. Between him and Gagan, a metal panel in the ceiling of the tunnel flashed in the beam. Sabal pointed at it.

Gagan closed his eyes for a moment, then nodded. He had to crawl backward to reach it, then he slid it open.

Blinding light poured in. They slipped on thick shaded goggles before Gagan scrambled up the rocky slope of the tunnel and out.

“Water!” Sabal heard. From deep inside the urge to move redoubled, and Sabal climbed out. Gagan dragged the rope ahead and sank it into the concrete top of the aqueduct. Sabal followed the rope to the top, where it met a shoulder at a sharp angle.

He slumped over the top of the ridge. Gagan squatted three meters in front of him, slurping water from a puddle with his bare hands. Sabal kicked his legs, trying to haul them over the crest to crawl the last of the distance.

With a shout, he made it at last. He rose up on his hands and knees and crept like dog until a tug around his waist pulled him short. He fiddled with the carabineer that tied him to the blue safety line and then, finally free, half tumbled to the water’s edge.

It was ice cold, he found after he clawed off his breather and he pressed his lips to the water. Heedless of the cold he slurped it up like soup until he gagged and sputtered. Gagan slapped him on the back. Sabal noticed that the man’s hands must be freezing, truly at risk of frostbite, though he didn’t show it.

Nirav finally crested the rise. He sprawled at the edge of the ridge.

“Finally,” he heard in an unfamiliar voice.

Sabal spun around on his knees and slipped in the mud by the water’s edge.

A man sat on the edge of a natural rock step with a rifle across his knees. He gave a shout and three others rose up from behind and around other rocks. They were armed and well equipped, and wore tinted goggles across their eyes to prevent the UV light from burning their retinas, but they wore their breathers around their necks as though acclimated to the extreme altitude. From their faces and clothing, they were Nepalese, probably Sherpas from the quality of their equipment, salvaged from the days when rich men still came to climb these mountains.

Behind them a gray Hulk clambered over the edge, nearly silently. The servos didn’t whine like his Hulk’s had. Only the slight scratching of its fingers on the rock gave it away. It was thinner than his Hulk, too. A smug-looking man piloted it.

“Please, all of you over there,” said the man with the rifle, clearly the leader. He pointed to the ridge.

“Our friend, can we give him water?” Sabal asked. Nirav hadn’t moved since climbing over the ridge.

“Dorji!” the leader called.

The man from the Hulk stepped forward. His breather hung around his neck, leaving his sneer plainly visible. But he walked toward Nirav and tossed a canteen near his hand. Then he kneeled on Nirav’s back to unhook the strap of his rifle. He took the rifle and checked it before stringing it over his own shoulder.

The leader stood. “Stay put. We don’t want to hurt you.”

More men came around glacier. The Rathong was much smaller than it should be. The tarpaulin his mother had designed lay crumpled along its side. The tarp was brilliant white, except for a segment along one edge that had shifted to black using a chemical timer. It allowed a more controlled melting of the glacier, and minimized sublimation. Only now it was wadded and trampled along the side of the Talung’s shoulder.

Three men hauled an iron tube the size of a man’s leg around the wall of ice. It was mounted on wheels and dragged behind it a cart with a big black box.

As the three men labored, other stuck plugs into their ears.

Dorji knelt in front of Sabal and the others as the men positioned the device in front of the wall that was the glacier. He smiled.

“Phurba does not want to hurt you. He is a good man. A good Buddhist. He has never killed. But me?” He stroked the neck of the rifle over his shoulder. “You wouldn’t be the first body that I’ve left on the mountain.”

Dorji stuck plugs into his own ears. Sabal and Gagan did the best they could to cover their ears with their hands.

A big man pressed a button on the iron cannon and began to turn a dial. The other men gathered behind him.

It was less a sound than a pain in Sabal’s ears and a pressure in his head. White clouds burst from the edge of the ice wall of the glacier, billowing up until the wind caught them and drove them west, into Nepal. In moments the corner of the glacier was gone, shredded into slivers.

The men began to adjust the cannon for another shot. At this rate, the remainder of the glacier would be gone in a few more hours. Sabal pictured the western slope covered in mounds that would look like snow. The whole process moved the ice only dozens of meters, but it was enough to shift it from the Rangeet’s basin. Enough to steal it from Dubdi.

Gagan began edging toward Nirav’s prone form. Dorji glared at him.

“My friend needs help,” he said. Dorji nodded.

Gagan grabbed the flask and held it up to Nirav, who gulped the water, barely stopping even when he choked on it. Gagan helped Nirav sit up.

It must have been the altitude that slowed him. Gagan seemed to move through water as he stood, drawing Nirav’s pistol from under his down coat. Dorji smiled as Gagan’s arm wheeled around. His rifle slid from his shoulder and into his hand before Gagan could come around. He fired it one-handed into Gagan’s stomach.

Gagan screamed. Sabal screamed. Dorji laughed as he kicked Nirav’s pistol off the mountain’s edge.

Reach. Shift. Hold. Reach.

Sabal fought through the fog that enveloped his mind. Every thought took the whole of Sabal’s concentration. Each foot of space conquered was a monumental effort.

He reached for a spur as his mobile beeped in his pocket. He jerked in surprise, pulling the toe-spikes of the Hulk’s right foot from their perch. The left hand grasped at the spur, splintering it. He teetered in the air as a massive gust of wind tried to tear him from the cliff. He kicked his toes into the rock face. They bit and held while he grasped at a spike of stone from the face.

He gasped, but it was like breathing through a blanket. Without the breather he would already be dead. Even with it his brain was a shadow. He fought to remember why his phone would be beeping.

He slipped his hand from the Hulk’s control claw and slapped for the mobile in his jacket. He hit something bigger than he expected.

Explosives. This was the eighth location. He pulled his other hand from the control claw, praying that the Hulk will cling on its own. Despite numb and gloved fingers he placed the explosive.

One more to go.

By that night the glacier was gone, powdered and swept to the far side of the ridge. The men had already packed. Phurba approached Dorji, who guarded them still. “Six hours. That will be enough time. Then let them go.”

Dorji nodded, but Phurba held his gaze for a moment. Then the Sherpas started toward the summit.

“Bring the rest of the gear when you come,” Phurba shouted over his shoulder as he marshaled his men along. They left, hauling the cannon by a cable. A pile of boxes remained stacked by the man’s Hulk.

Soon they were alone with Dorji. Nirav lay still much of the time. Gagan clutched a bandage to his side.

“He needs water,” Sabal said.

“There is plenty over there,” Dorji said, pointing to a shallow pool left by the glacier. “But he must reach it on his own.”

“Go, Nirav,” Sabal said. “You must crawl to the water.”

To call it a crawl as Nirav approached the stream’s edge would have been generous. By fits and starts he squirmed along the ground a few centimeters at a time. Sabal could hear the fabric of his suit tearing as he went.

Sabal tried to stand as Nirav slumped to the ground a meter short of the water. Dorji slammed the butt of his rifle into his gut and he toppled to the ground, breath ripped from his lungs.

Without his breather his lungs struggled to pull oxygen from the thin air. His lungs felt at once empty and clogged. With a gasp Sabal finally pulled in a lungful of anemic air that soothed the burning in his chest but not the buzzing in his brain.

When he finally climbed to his knees he saw that Nirav was on the move again, crawling on his belly. Dorji shouted encouragement.

Finally Nirav brought his head to the water’s edge. He pursed his lips and slurped a mouthful at a time. Dorji clapped slowly.

Nirav launched a burbling cough, offset by splashes as his head flopped in the water. Dorji laughed. In moments the flopping slowed, though Nirav’s face still laid in the water. His arms strained to move, but failed. He lacked the strength to pull himself from the puddle.

Sabal tried to stand again but was brought down by a dismissive backhand by Dorji, who laughed even harder.

Sabal got to his knees and peeked around Dorji’s leg. Nirav lay face down in the puddle. Bubbles rose in the water.

“Very good!” the guard shouted, clapping. “Less work for me!”

Sabal scrambled to his feet as rapidly as he could, but Dorji was already waiting for him. He whipped the butt of his rifle hard across Sabal’s face. It felt like being punched by the mountain itself. He went to the ground.

“It is hard for a man to kill at first,” Dorji said. “I wonder if your friends understand this. A man’s heart must learn murder. Mine had a good teacher.”

Sabal built an image in his mind, of his mother and father sitting on a slope like this one, beneath the rifle of a man like Dorji. “Did you ever kill a man and woman together?”

Dorji pursed his lips. “You must mean the builders. Were they your family? Your parents? Yes, I see it in your eyes. That was not me, but I wish it had been. The people of my village still praise him daily, the man who killed the builders.”

Sabal’s closed his eyes.

“Your people taught murder to my heart. My son was sick with dysentery. Every day I struggled to put more water into him than came out. I gave him my entire ration, and my wife gave hers. But he died anyway, for lack of water.”

He pointed at the concrete buttresses that had guided the Rangeet’s flows. Sabal noticed a cut into it that had allowed the Rathong’s melt waters to drain on the Eastern side, towards Dubdi. “Because your people took it.”

Sabal’s arms abandoned him, ignoring all commands to move as the rifle barrel drew his gaze up. He was fixated by the eyes he couldn’t even see behind the goggles, eyes he imagined beading down into pinpoints of hatred. Sabal wanted to shut his own eyes, but couldn’t bear to.

“Your family died, but did not pay for their crime. It is fitting that they pay with their son, as I did with mine.”

Dorji’s finger squeezed down onto the trigger. Sabal closed his eyes at last and waited for the shot.

It came at last, a deafening blast that sent his head spinning. Fire branded the left side of his face, but to his surprise his head was intact. Sabal pried open his eyes.

Dorji lay on his back in the puddle, rifle still across his chest. A fist size stone clattered across the face of the mountain. Gagan grunted behind him.

Dorji, arms shaking, struggled to raise the rifle.

Sabal grabbed a rock and sprung to his feet. Dorji found strength, then, and started to swing the barrel toward him, but Sabal crossed the meters between them too fast. He swung his arm out to knock the rifle aside and then brought the rock down hard on Dorji’s face.

The goggles shattered. Sabal could see the man’s eyes now. They were clear blue. The pupils shrank to dots under the glare of the sun. They focused on Sabal’s face. Sabal heard the rifle clatter to the side. In the corner of his eye he saw Dorji’s hands moving, searching for some weapon.

Sabal swung again, pulling back just as the stone struck the thoughts from Dorji’s head. The rifle dropped.

Sabal’s heart rose in his throat, but a wispy cloud escaped Dorji’s mouth, and then another. He hadn’t killed him.

Sabal vomited beside the pool.

Gagan had crawled up to sit against a spur of rock. He was still gasping from the exertion of throwing the stone that had knocked down Dorji.

Sabal pulled Nirav out of the water and turned him over. His eyes were dim. There was no pulse.

Sabal took the breather off Dorji’s neck and grabbed the rifle. He stumbled to Gagan, who nodded in gratitude when Sabal strapped the breather to him and pressed the rifle into his hands. It took another five minutes to re-bandage Gagan’s wound, which had bled black into the snow-like slivers of ice dusting the mountaintop. Sabal thought he would die soon unless they could get him down the mountain.

But it would take weeks to descend in their state, and there would be nothing at the bottom when they got there. The water was gone. Little Bina’s family would be packing up. Would they take Giri to safety? They wouldn’t leave him alone, no parents and no brother.

On the rise above them the men appeared like ants crawling on a hill. Soon they would unload their cannon and steal another glacier, the Talung, named for the mountain it capped. At least that one no longer fed a village. Sabal had petitioned for an expedition to divert water into Dubdi’s own aqueduct, though it was smaller than the Rathong. Why hadn’t the Sherpas stolen just that one? They had been greedy. Their greed would kill Dubdi.

“We should stop them,” Gagan said. It took Sabal a moment to understand him. His speech was slowing. “Steal it first.” He spiked his fingers together and then flared them out. “Boom.”

He pointed at the boxes, which he must have recognized from working with his father. Sabal opened them, and saw a thick waxy substance with wires emerging.

Sabal dug out his phone, not quite useless despite the lack of towers. His thick gloves kept him from pressing its buttons. The frigid wind howled through over the ridge, wind that would burn flesh with its cold. He pulled off his left glove. Pain shocked through his arm clear to his elbow. He tapped at the phone to bring up the topo map.

Below the crest of the Talung glacier, a long ridge cut down toward the Rangeet’s former channel. It wouldn’t make it into the aqueduct, but it would flow toward Dubdi along the Rangeet’s path.

“Gagan,” Sabal said, speaking firmly. “I need to divert the path.” He traced the channel he saw in the rock that need only be freed. It glowed pink, and he showed the work to Gagan. “Point to where I should place the charges.”

A black-gloved finger pointed at the screen in nine places. Sabal tapped those places with a thumb too numb to be sure of the touch.

As Gagan slumped, Sabal shoved his glove back over his fingers. Sabal collected his gear on the back of the Hulk that Dorji had left behind. It was smaller than the others and more mobile—the plastiglass carapace was minimal, only for protection from falling rocks. It wasn’t heated or airtight. Gagan needed the better breather, so Sabal took Nirav’s from the stream and shook it dry.

He had to beat the Sherpas to the top. He tucked the explosives, small and powerful, into storage pockets in the Hulk and, when those were full, his own coat pockets. Then he strapped himself in.

Through blackness and the warmth of sleep, Sabal’s mind followed a trail back to himself. It was a scent that didn’t belong among the hollow odors of the mountain, of dust and ozone, or among the thick smells of his body.

Dhoop wood, here above the world where anything could grow. It didn’t belong on the mountain, and he didn’t belong in the pit of unconsciousness.

The green LEDs of the explosives blinked before him. He stared at them like landing lights bringing his mind back home.

The numbness of his hands, the sleepiness, the sudden warmth all came into focus. Kilometers into the sky, hypothermia was setting in, and perhaps dehydration, too.

Sabal wouldn’t make it back to Giri. If he had water left for it, he might have cried for his brother. Talung was a black hole for the family, swallowing any that tipped into its horizon.

Sabal’s head swam. His arms and legs suddenly felt flush with heat. He was baking inside his Hulk, and he fought the urge to peel off his down suit. The end was coming.

He pulled the detonator from his pocket and laid his thumb on the button.

A splash of water interrupted him, followed by a thin stream. High above him, white light blossomed and illuminated the profile of a man standing at the precipice, urinating. It was far too cold to smell anything, and Sabal’s nose wrinkled in disgust not at the stream splattering on the rocks just above, but on the waste. With greater care, perhaps the Sherpas wouldn’t need to steal the water.

The button weighed in his hand. They were up there, now. His stolen march was squandered; he was too late. To go on now would be to murder a dozen men.

He had no tears. Fatigued overwhelmed even his frustration. He let the button slip from his fingers.

Back at the Rathong, Gagan was probably lying dead. He had probably shot Dorji first, as soon as he felt the drowsiness set in, if not the first moment Sabal was away.

Dorji, the man who learned murder. Sabal thought about the man’s dead son. He thought about what he would do if Giri’s life water was spewing out of him. He would give up his water, he would gather all he could. Giri would live or die depending how much he could collect.

Through all his foggy thoughts, one cut through. Giri still would. His water wasn’t spewing out of him, but it was leaking out at drop at a time. The sky stole it. The ground stole it. The bricks and mortar of their houses drank it in if left untreated.

These Sherpas were stealing it just now.

He could see Giri on the coast. Where would they put a lone child? Would he end up in a ditch, stabbed for a child’s water supply? Would he end up with dysentery, like Dorji’s son?

Sabal’s heart broke as murder entered it.

He kicked away from the face of Talung as he pressed the button. Along the ridge, at the nine locations, the detonators went off simultaneously.

With the air rushing in his ears and the explosion shaking the ridge, he couldn’t hear the screams.

 [ Teacup, © 2013 Fluffgar ] He whispered his father’s prayer. “Oh, moon-hued and four-shouldered One, upon You we meditate for removing all obstacles.”

Sabal’s Hulk skidded down the pitched face of the Talung, and he stared at the tip of glacier as it toppled toward him in the air, and at the rush of the Talung melt-water lake as it poured free, glistening in the first beam of dawn’s light.

It crashed over him and seeped into his Hulk, tasting of earth and life, and it carried him down its rocky path to his village, to his brother.

© 2013 Jack Waddell

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