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The crowd was bigger this afternoon. It grew every day, spreading like a dark cancer across Michigan’s dry lakeshore. Waiting. For them. In the lead transport truck, Major Carter Voltaire clutched the side for balance, eyeing the crowd through the view-slit cut into the protective siding. They hated him, that mob. They hated the tired men and women riding with him. Because they were Corps, because they wore uniforms. Cold anger twisted into a knot in Carter’s guts. Every day they gathered on the strip of dusty ground between Lakeshore Drive and the sudden drop-off that had been the shore of Lake Michigan once but wasn’t anymore — not by five miles or so. When the troop trucks got closer, they’d start throwing stones.

“Heads up.” Carter’s dust mask blurred the order. “Get ready for rocks.” Gray lakebed mud caked their suncloth coveralls, cracking off in ugly scales as they moved. The salt in the dust burned the eyes, burned the lungs. Breathe enough dust out here and your lungs would never be the same, mask or no mask.

Just so those stone throwing assholes on the lakeshore could drink. Rumor blamed the latest ration reduction on the Corps. Carter’s lips tightened. What did it take to get it through their thick skulls that there wasn’t any more water? Sure it wasn’t enough, but “enough” water didn’t exist anywhere anymore. At least there was something in the pipes. After the bastards got done throwing the day’s quota of rocks and insults, they could slip back into the refugee camp, or hit the welfare taps, and get a nice drink of water. Courtesy of us, Carter thought sullenly. Courtesy of the Corps. Because the Corps had built most of the Rocky Mountain Trench Reservoir and the Great Lakes Canal system. Without the water it brought down from the blessed wetness of the arctic tundra, Michigan would be a lot farther from its old lakeshore than it was.

He could hear them now, not chanting, just growling. Like animals. Carter’s teeth snapped together as the truck dropped into a rutted, dried-out sinkhole. “Get ready to hit the deck,” he yelled. High sides had been added to the flatbed trucks the Corps used as crew transport. It protected them from the worst of the rocks. But it was only medium-weight plastic board and it wouldn’t stop a bullet. Carter touched the Beretta at his hip, reassured by its weight. All officers went armed. An armed guard went out with every crew, carrying a laser-sighted M20. Carter shaded his eyes, stomach churning.

You were always nervous, coming in. Running the damn gauntlet. His crew braced themselves against the lurch and sway of the truck, watching through the slits or staring at each other, waiting for the rocks. They joked about it in the barracks — toss a little black humor around. No one was joking today. It was getting to all of them. Working conditions were bad enough on the lakebed, and this shift had been hell. They’d slid around in sticky mud, had mired a dozer to the seat in a sinkhole trying to get that purification intake in on schedule. The CO was going to be pissed.

In the five years he’d been posted here, he’d built how many new intakes? Lake Michigan’s sullen, scummy beach receded farther out every year. Too late, he thought bitterly. We stopped doubting the global warming thing. Just too damn late. On the lakeshore, a young, black man danced out from the edge of the crowd, waving his arms, yelling something. Gave them the finger.

Yeah, we get the drift. Carter shifted his stance, touched the Beretta.

The level beams of the setting sun turned the dust haze to gold. Carter shaded his eyes, but the dust had blurred individuals into a faceless mass. It got into your soul, the dust. Ate it away, the way it ate your lungs. The setting sun reflected back from the glass of the Chicago towers, blinding him, making the black panels of the solar arrays stand out like the wings of crouching demons.

“Shit. Look at ’em.” Lieutenant Garr spat over the side of the truck. He had been the one who mired the dozer, and he was still touchy. “I kinda wish one of ’em would try something big.” He jerked his head at Suarez, who had the M20 today. “Blow a couple away.”

“Cool it, Lieutenant.” Carter rubbed a hand over his face, knowing exactly how Garr felt. The Beretta hung like a lead weight on his belt. “We could lose.”

“Me, I’d go for the grenades.” Garr grunted, made as if to spit again and didn’t. “Even with bone grafts, Abado’s never gonna be happy with what he sees in the mirror.”

Corporal Abado had driven the dozer — until he stopped a brick. The protective sides didn’t deflect everything, and brick did a lot of damage if it hit in the right place. Like your face.

“If I was doin’ it, I’d just shut off all the welfare taps.” Garr jerked a stiff finger across his throat. “They can’t pay for it, let ’em die. Who the hell do they think keeps the water running? Shit, turn it off.”

“Ease off,” Carter snapped. Yeah, he felt the same way sometimes, but this kind of talk didn’t help morale at all. And it was bad enough. They hated you — the civilians — and you ended up hating them back. Every time a new water cut came down, the Corps took the blame. Keepers of the water? Yeah, sure, Carter thought bitterly. Maybe you just had to hate something, just to stay sane.

He’d lost three men this past year. Shot dead by snipers, two of ’em. Simons died when they blew a pipe. Shrapnel had gutted him and he bled to death before they could get him in.

The truck slowed. Willy, their driver, had a lot of practice running brick alley. He took it in slow enough so the troublemakers had time to get out from under the wheels if they hustled, but fast enough that not too many rocks got over the sides. They could see the faces now; black, Latino, and white. The cheap masks hid gender and the lakebed dust turned them all into the same gray color. It was as if the drought had done what laws had never quite achieved. It had blurred color and gender lines, turning everyone into one gray, sexless race of thirst and rage.

Carter took a deep breath, a hot bubble of anger pressing against his ribs. He was tired of living in a damn cage, tired of getting screamed at, tired of rocks and snipers. We didn’t make it stop raining, he wanted to scream at them.

The first chunk of concrete clanged against the truck’s fender and Willy sped up slightly. “Incoming!” Clutching the bed wall, Carter squinted through the view-slit. The other two trucks were right behind, practically on their bumper. More rocks. He ducked as something whammed into the plastic armor. Almost home. A few dozen meters and they’d be through the gate, safe once more inside the chain-link and razor-wire fence around the base. Safe inside their cage.

The cheap dust masks muffled the shouts, turning them into the ugly, unintelligible barking of animals. A bottle arched over the side of the truck and smashed against the wall. Glass fragments and wetness stung the exposed skin of Carter’s face and his heart skipped a beat. No smell of gasoline or organics. No feel of a chemical burn. The puddle on the warped floorboards was yellow. Piss? A security details rolled the big gates open. “Everybody clear the area immediately,” a burly captain bellowed through a loudspeaker. “This area is off-limits to civilians. Clear it immediately. I repeat . . .”

Now the crowd would back off, closing in behind the trucks to chase them through the gates, hooting and howling, throwing the last barrage of stones and garbage. It had become a warped ritual.

The crowd stirred suddenly, bunching into thick knots. The wall of faces and bodies parted and a battered little VW charged through, raising a plume of dust behind it.

Heading straight for them.

“What the hell?” someone yelled behind Carter. “Watch it, Willy!’

He was trying. The truck veered, but it was like an elephant trying to dodge. The right front wheel slammed into a sinkhole with a crash. Bodies went flying, slamming into the armor walls, bouncing around like so many dolls. Carter clutched his view-slit, muscles screaming as the truck tried to shake him loose. The van was almost on them . . . Murphy was down and God knew where his rifle was. The van was aiming for the rear of the cab. Trying to blow the fuel tank? It could be loaded with plastic. Carter yanked his Beretta out. Had to aim one-handed, cowboy shot. The truck swerved again, slamming him against the side, nearly tearing his grip loose. He had seconds. Sun on the windshield . . . he squinted. Couldn’t see the driver. Now! He squeezed the trigger, emptying it at the oncoming car, firing as the windshield dissolved in a glittering shower of glass. Got you, Carter thought, and the anger in his chest blossomed hot and sweet in his throat. Got you, you bastard.

The VW swerved wildly, sideswiping the truck with a groan of rending metal. For a moment the two vehicles locked and Carter looked down through the smashed windshield, into wide, surprised eyes in a small face, a dusty blue tee shirt splotched dark with blood. Then the big truck seemed to shake itself free and they were past, roaring for the gate and safety. Behind them, the car rolled slowly over. One wheel spun briefly and then it exploded with a whump of burning fuel. With a howl, the dusty mob surged forward, screaming, hands reaching to tear them apart . . .

“Carter? Hey, Carter, wake up.”

Carter bolted upright, gasping.

“Hey, it’s okay. It’s just me.”

“Johnny?” The room came suddenly into focus — walls, bed, his room on the base. Johnny stood in the doorway, looking worried. “I-I’m awake.” Carter ran a shaking hand through his hair. “It’s all right.”

“Like hell.” The mattress dipped as Johnny sat down on the end of the bed, his freckled face still worried. “You can get some pills from the doc, you know. Hell, I take ’em.” He laughed, coughed. “You sleep good.”

“Yeah, maybe I’ll do that.” Carter glanced at the bedside clock. Six AM and just getting light. The Chicago Riot was weeks ago. The burned-out rubble of the camps and the looted distribution centers had been bulldozed into trucks and dumped out on the lakebed. The unclaimed bodies —so damn many bodies — had been buried.

A kid. Carter tossed the tangled and sweaty sheet aside, rolled to his feet. He’d shot a kid. He’d looked ten. Maybe twelve.

And it had felt so good. To pull that trigger.

“What’s buggin’ you, man?” Johnny lit a cigarette. “The inquiry? They cleared you. You got a commendation.”

“It’s just the heat.” He leaned on his dresser, staring out through the dusty glass at the blare of heat and light.

“Don’t shit me.” Johnny blew smoke at him. “Spill it.”

“I don’t know.” Carter shrugged. “It just seemed so . . . pointless you know? So many people died. And I . . . started it. You know?”

Johnny was shaking his head. “You are a case, you know? You’re responsible for the drought, aren’t you? I forgot. You stopped the rain, didn’t you? You dried up all the farmland and the forests and cost all those poor people their jobs, didn’t you? Damn, you are some kind of bastard.”

“Ah, cut it out.” Carter shrugged, laughed. “Okay, I’ll stop.”

“Hey, I know it was bad, man.” Johnny’s face had gone serious. “It looked like all of Chi was burning to the ground in the news. I figured you guys were all dead. You didn’t start it and you can’t end it, and you know it.” Johnny crushed the end of his cigarette out on the heel of his boot. “The refugee camps are getting bigger, the experts say it’s not gonna rain, and those people in the camps, the ones who’ve lost everything, they’re gonna take it out on you. They want all the water they can drink and they’re gonna kill to get it. They’re enemies now,” he said softly. “They’re not on our side any more.”

“Dammit, we’re all on the same side.” It had taken two brigades of the 82nd Airborne and the 75th Rangers to deal with Chicago. And they had dealt with it, in spades. The South Side and the camps looked like the aftermath of a war; burned-out buildings, scorched piles of rubble. He looked beyond the vicious thorns of the wire perimeter fence, out to where water shimmered in the lakebed. Scummy, salty, precious water — the dying lake seemed to exert some kind of strange magnetic power. The Chicago refugee camps had been the biggest in the country, as if the lake had attracted all the rootless people for a hundred miles in any direction, had drawn them into the shadow of Chicago’s soaring towers and self-contained arcologies. It had attracted darkness with them — pulled in the frustration, the despair, and the rage that made people want to lash out, to break something, anything.

“Funny, how we both ended up serving water.” Carter kept his eyes on that distant shimmer. “Priests of the new religion, Johnny?”

“Speak for yourself.” Johnny laughed. “I’m divorced, not celibate. Just ask Amber. I think my ex is keeping count.”

“You know what I mean.” But Carter smiled in spite of his mood. Johnny could do that.

“If you mean water is power, you’re a tad slow figuring that one out.” Johnny levered himself to his feet. “You know, you’re not much fun, Lieutenant Colonel Voltaire. I came here to celebrate your promotion and transfer, and you’re not doing a very good job of celebrating. You’ve got a hangover is all. Get a shower and let’s get some breakfast. That’s an order.” Johnny grabbed Carter’s robe from the end of the bed, threw it at him. “As a member of the Water Policy Committee, I’m your boss, remember? Hell, I’m a god. Hop to it.”

“Yes, sir.” Carter gave him a mock salute and headed for the bath room.

Johnny was almost right — about his being a god. This had been a fancy hotel once, and now the officers had their own showers. Carter shivered as he stepped under the feeble spray of tepid water. Too early for the solar panels to have warmed up the tanks. Yeah, Water Policy decided who got the water, and how much. But it was up to the Corps to get it there, keep it running, and defend it. In the old days, the Corps had been a bunch of engineers. They had built levees and designed dams and were mostly civilian employees. Carter wondered if any of them had ever gone armed. Maybe after the hurricanes flattened New Orleans back at the start of the century. Not otherwise. He banged the soap into its tray and turned the spray back on to rinse off the lather.

It had taken presidential emergency powers to condemn private water rights in the first place, and that had nearly triggered a revolution right there. Afterward, no one could agree on who should administer the water, so . . . they had redefined the Corps. Water Policy might not be a bunch of gods, but they answered only to God, and the Corps answered only to Water Policy. Which made Johnny a member of the most powerful body politic in the US. No, that was no surprise at all — not if you knew Johnny. A few people made the mistake of not taking him seriously, writing him off as nothing more than a rich man’s spoiled son. That was a serious mistake. When Johnny wanted something, he didn’t kid around. It was no accident that he was the youngest member of Water Policy. When they were kids, Johnny had said he was going to be president. When he got older, he’d realized that Water Policy had more power. Ever since the Middle East fiasco, the presidency hadn’t been worth much.

He’d done it. Water Policy. As young as he was.

Shaking his head, Carter hit the dryer and raised his arms to let the stream of warm air evaporate the moisture from his skin. Beneath his feet, the last of the water gurgled into the recycle filter for tomorrow’s shower. You tried not to think about that too much. “So you make the decisions and everyone gets pissed at us.” He raised his voice as he pulled on his uniform. “Want to explain that to me?”

“You turn off the taps, not us.” Johnny stuck his head through the doorway and grinned. “We keep our hands clean. What’s the beef? Somebody tell you life was fair or something?”

“I’m just griping.” Carter sighed, haunted by that damn dream. The Corps could call in whatever force was deemed necessary to maintain and protect waterflow; regular Army, Marines, the Air Force if they wanted it. “We could probably nuke Washington,” Carter said. “If we really needed to.”

“Only if we told you to do it.”

Johnny sounded like he thought he was kidding. Carter sealed the front of his coverall. “We’ve walked all over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” he said bitterly. “You know, it bothers me sometimes. It bothers me a lot, but the numbers work, Johnny. We make them work.” If he had said this to the mob on the lakeshore, would any of them have listened? He shook his head, still damp with recycled, reused water. “Hell, all I want is to get the job done and to keep my people from getting hurt while we do it.”

“Which you will, of course, do with flying colors.” Johnny grinned. “You’re just the type of officer the Army loves, Carter.”

A hint of needling in Johnny’s tone? Carter looked up, but Johnny was smiling, his expression casual. “I don’t know about that,” Carter said slowly. “But I’ll do my best. This transfer was a surprise. It’s not the normal rotation.” He shrugged. “I’ve heard that the Columbia Riverbed has its own share of troubles.”

“Hey, it’s not bad out there.” Johnny slapped him lightly on the back. “That’s my district, remember? The locals around The Dalles are mostly soaker-hose farmers. You get tough with them and they’ll fall into line.” He winked. “Of course, I’ll have to keep a close eye on you.”

“It’s a long way from San Francisco.”

“Hey, we’re supposed to be mobile. Besides, I can do what I damn well please.” Johnny squinted into the mirror, running a hand over his carefully cut, sandy hair. “How can anyone with your black hair burn and peel like you do?”

“Wrong genes, I guess.” Carter shrugged. “All the melanin ended up in the hair and not the skin. Let’s go get breakfast.” He ushered Johnny out into the hall.

The original carpeting had been left in place when the building had been renovated into a Corps base. Its rich magenta pile was worn in the middle, faded to a dull red. Along the edges, however, the rich color glowed, clashing with the drab pastel yellow that had been used on the walls. Some Army shrink had probably decided pale yellow was an uplifting color. Carter thumbed the elevator button. It was working this morning. The elevator was a privilege of rank — when it worked. Even with the solar arrays, you didn’t waste power. The car dropped fast enough to leave Carter’s stomach somewhere behind.

He had drunk a little too much beer last night. It had been awhile since he and Johnny had hung out together. Oh, they’d talked on the phone or exchanged emails. But they hadn’t really spent any time together, not for a lot of years now. Then, all of a sudden, Johnny had showed up — stranded by some canceled meeting and the iffy airline schedules — and they’d had a long weekend to catch up.

It hadn’t been the same.

Which wasn’t too unexpected, considering that they’d been pursuing their own lives for the past several years. But somehow . . . it had been unexpected. And uncomfortable. Something had changed between them and Carter wasn’t sure what it was, or when it had happened. So he had drunk more beer than he should have. He felt bad about that change. “You were pissed at me,” he said as they stepped out into the old hotel lobby. “When I wouldn’t quit the Corps and come work for you and Water Policy. How come?”

“Do you really need to ask?” Johnny paused in the middle of the lobby, ignoring a trio of privates who saluted Carter and hurried past. “I was a compromise appointee and I know it. I was Trevor Seldon’s bright young son, the hotshot rising-star economist, picked to satisfy the young Republicans with money. I’m not too popular with the Committee, even now. If I fuck up, I’m screwed. I wanted you to watch my back.”

“I didn’t exactly back you up when we were kids,” Carter said, a bit surprised by Johnny’s intensity. “You mostly dragged me along kicking and screaming. I was always scared shitless we’d get busted.”

“Hey, maybe that’s why I needed you,” Johnny said lightly. “You kept be from getting in too deep, you and your conscience.”

Only it had been Carter who had gotten in too deep, and it had been Johnny’s money and his dad who had saved Carter’s ass. “I’m sorry,” he said awkwardly. “I just don’t think I’d be much help working for you. I’m not the political type.”

“Hell, let’s drop it. It’s water under the bridge.” Johnny shrugged and gave him a crooked smile. “I’m where I want to be and you’re happy with your Corps.”

Yeah, maybe. Carter looked up as a captain with an MP insignia walked toward them across the lobby. Security. Carter returned his salute irritably. “What’s up, Captain?”

“Were you planning on going outside, sir?” The captain nodded at the gasketed, revolving door that led into the main compound.

“No. We’re on our way to breakfast.”

“Fine, sir.” The man nodded. “Just stay inside, please, until we give the all-clear. We got a possible sniper up in the old tower across the drive.”

Not another one. “I thought the city was going to let us drop that thing,” Carter growled.

“There’s some sort of hang-up on the demolition permit.” The captain’s thick blond brows drew into a single line above his scowl.

“What’s up?” Johnny was looking from the captain to Carter.

“Snipers.” Carter jerked his head. “You get a clear shot into the compound from that old office building across Lakeshore. We’ve been trying to get permission to tear it down, but the city’s dragging their feet. I think the mayor’s son-in-law owns it. Anyone hurt?” He turned back to the captain.

“Negative, sir.” He shook his head. “No shots, just a report of movement. We’ve got a sweep team over there now.”

It hadn’t ended, the rage that had erupted into the riot. It had simply gone underground, smoldering like a fire beneath the surface. No mob along Lakeshore anymore. Now they were dealing with snipers and homemade bombs. You checked with the sentries before you walked out into the compound, and you didn’t stand too close to your window after dark. Every piece of equipment on the lakebed required an armed guard at night. He would be glad to get out of here.

A small commotion erupted behind them. Carter turned. Medics were pushing a gurney fast down the hallway that led from the underground parking. A uniformed figure lay on it, and IV bag swinging from the pole. Carter hurried over, recognizing the major who trailed the medics. It was Renkin, his replacement.

“Someone planted a bomb.” The major’s lips were pale and a smear of blood marked his cheek. “They got in past the guard last night. It was wired to the number-two dozer.”

Lieutenant Garr lay on the gurney, his face white beneath his dark tan, the front of his uniform dark with blood. “What about Rogers?” Carter asked softly. She drove number two. His jaw tightened at Renkin’s headshake. “Didn’t you check out the equipment?” He watched Renkin flinch. “Didn’t you have them look?”

“The equipment is under guard.” Renkin’s face darkened. “Sir.” He glared past Carter. “That guard is posted twenty-four hours a day. He’s up for court-martial, as far as I’m concerned.” Renkin slapped salty lakebed dust from his coverall. “He must have been asleep. He let that bastard walk right past him.”

Renkin was too worried about maintaining his unit efficiency record. Carter stared at the man. Extra equipment checks took time.

“It wasn’t my fault. Sir.” Renkin was breathing hard. “You wouldn’t have done any better. You think that promotion means something, don’t you? You’re a little display for the media, because the media thought we came down to heavy on those animals. So the Corps promotes a few extra people — just to show that we’re pleased with ourselves, that we didn’t do anything we’re ashamed of. And you get tapped, Lieutenant Colonel Voltaire. But I’m no floor show. I’m still out there in the dust, so don’t give me shit, you got it?” He stomped on after the gurney.

“Whoa.” Johnny came up behind Carter. “What’s eating him?”

“He got two people killed.” Carter looked down the hall, but the gurney had disappeared into the med unit. Garr had looked bad.

Wheels creaked and another gurney followed the first. The team pushing it wasn’t hurrying. Carter looked away from the sheeted form, throat tightening. Rogers. He smelled burned flesh and his stomach twisted. She talked to that damn dozer as if it were alive, and she could make it dance. She never mired it, no matter what kind of shit she got sent into.

If he had been out there this morning, she would be alive. He flinched as Johnny’s hand landed on his shoulder.

“Knock it off, Carter. That jerk was in charge, not you.”

“He was right, you know. About the promotion.” Carter watched the second stretcher follow the first down the hall. “It was a media message.”

“Christ.” Johnny snorted explosively. “That still doesn’t make it your fault. Cut yourself some slack, Carter. You aren’t responsible for the entire world. I hate to break the news to you.”

“Excuse me, sir.” The MP was back. “It’s all clear. You can go out any time.”

“Good.” Johnny nodded. “You got the guy?”

“We got him.” The captain saluted Carter, pivoted, and marched back to his post at the lobby desk.

We got him. He was dead, whoever he had been. No questions about that. Carter turned away as the gurney bearing Roger’s body disappeared down the hall that led to the morgue. He had heard the grim tone of satisfaction in the captain’s voice and he felt it, too. Revenge. Who cared whether the guy in the tower had a rifle or if he just some dried out drifter with the poor sense to camp out there?

An eye for an eye.

It was in all of them, that cold, deep rage. You saw it in every pair of eyes around you. The world was drying up and they were all scared of dying, all hating the planet that was killing them.

You couldn’t make the planet bleed.

“I’ve got to go check on Garr,” he said to Johnny. “You go ahead and get breakfast. I’ll catch up with you.”

“Want me to come along?”

“No. Thanks.” Carter shrugged off Johnny’s hand. “I’m going to be the CO at The Dalles.” He stared down the empty hallway. “I’m not going to let this happen there.”

“You won’t.” Johnny’s eyes glittered. “I have faith in you. You’ll do exactly what you need to do.”

For a moment, Carter hesitated, a little taken aback by Johnny’s intensity. But that was Johnny’s turf. Maybe, finally, he was starting to care about the people he was in charge of. That would be a good thing. Carter hurried down the hall to find out how badly Garr was hurt.

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