Alize slipped into a crevice between two boulders and shimmied to the top of the taller one. She sat cross-legged on her perch, raised her binoculars, and glassed the length of the pipeline, from north to south and back north again, then adjusted her viewing angle and scanned the western exposure beyond the pipeline into the dry, beige distance: washed-out rock and baked earth and sagebrush, long morning shadows cast by rock formations.
A road cut through her field of vision, US 426. She caught a glimpse of a vehicle, a blue van, traveling southbound. Looked like some kind of camper. She tracked its movement until the road curved west away from the pipeline and the van disappeared between the walls of a glen. Most days she saw a few vehicles heading north or south, but there were no intersecting roads in her sector and the vehicles never stopped because there was no reason to pause in this stretch of empty, unpopulated land.
If the Rainmaker truly existed and he was drawing crowds, even sparse crowds, it was hard to figure where those people were coming from. It was another reason she didn’t believe the Rainmaker was real.
Her phone pinged. Ferris.
“Anything?” Ferris asked.
“No. A van went past.”
“Blue? I saw it an hour ago.”
Ferris patrolled the sector north of hers. They’d been alerted by the Basin that the Rainmaker might be planning an event in one of their sectors. They were to immediately call in any activity. That meant the rumors were being taken seriously—rumors and intelligence reports being roughly the same thing.
“See you on Tuesday?” Ferris asked. It took Alize five days to patrol the length of her sector and back, and she and Ferris planned their movements so they could meet every fifth day where her sector ended and his began. They’d camp together for one night, share meals and conversation, then separate again. It was often the only human contact she had while on duty.
“Tuesday or before,” Alize said. “I mean if anything happens.”
“You believe the Rainmaker exists?”
“I don’t believe anything,” Alize said. Except that she had a job to do, and if she performed it well enough, she could keep her position, and Shay and Julian will remain safe with her parents in the Basin. Do your job, protect your family. That was her mantra. That was all she believed in.
This Rainmaker was likely a fantasy conjured up and promoted by extremists or tappers to sow doubt about the Basin’s policies. Allegedly he had performed in three, possibly four, locations all within sight of the pipeline, as if he’d strategically chosen the aqueduct as a visual backdrop, throwing it in the face of Basin authorities, and yet none of the agents patrolling the pipeline had reported any sightings. There was video circulating on the interverse of the Rainmaker, arms raised to the heavens, surrounded by a dozen onlookers while rain fell from the sky, but its authenticity hadn’t been verified. It could have been entirely AI-generated. You don’t trust anything published on the interverse—or rather, you trust what fits your own narrative, and reject what doesn’t.
Neither were any witnesses coming forward to claim they’d seen the Rainmaker. You can’t blame people for holding back. If they reported anything, they’d be questioned by Basin authorities, perhaps detained, just for being a witness to a . . . she won’t say a miracle. Let’s say an extraordinary event. Or even a magic trick. And yet there were documented signs of rain having fallen in three different locations. There was the rarely-seen mayfair flower, which sprouted and bloomed golden petals after a rain and lasted less than a day before wilting. One had been picked and left on top of the pipeline where Agent Ferris had discovered it in his sector. There were also faint rivulets discovered in the earth that could have been formed by rainwater flowing downhill. There was a depression in a rock that was said to have filled with water and left a ring of sediment during evaporation. That sediment was being studied in Basin labs for signs of silver iodide, which would indicate cloud seeding and likely prove the Rainmaker—if he existed—was a charlatan.
Alize raised her binoculars and scanned again. She caught another movement in the sky. At first she thought it was one of the drones that surveilled the pipeline, but it was beyond the programmed drone coordinates. It was a bird. Looked like a Cooper’s hawk: the reddish underside and long, banded tail. She followed its flight path—lazy circles, its wings barely beating.
Drone surveillance of the pipeline was not as reliable as promised. Many of the devices were shot down by extremists, or they were hacked into and reprogrammed to transmit false datasets, and there was room under the lower curve of the pipeline among the support struts that remained hidden from the drone’s cameras, which meant Aqueduct Protection Agents were required to conduct regular patrols, traveling by solar-powered ATV in some areas and by foot in the more rugged sections.
Alize’s sector was Duluth-40, an arid, broiled stretch of the land that ran north of Salt Lake through Nevada’s Duck Valley Reservation. The aqueducts originated in three locations: Duluth, on Lake Superior; Milwaukee, on Lake Michigan; and Sandusky, on Lake Erie. Each system of pipelines, tunnels, and open-air channels transferred water northeast to southwest. The Duluth pipeline fed the Sacramento River, the Milwaukee line emptied into the Colorado River, and the Sandusky sector ended at the Rio Grande. A half-dozen 1-gigawatt pumping stations pushed the water over the mountain ranges.
Unless you lived in the Great Lakes Basin—including the newly annexed regions in Ontario and Quebec—or unless you resided east of the Mississippi River in the continental U.S. where rainfall remained plentiful, your population preserve’s agricultural and potable water supply came through one of the three aqueducts or its many branchlets. The Imperial Valley in California was fertile again, the resorts and spas had reopened in Arizona, and drinking water plentiful throughout the West. The water costs were astronomical, but at least there was water.
The United States Aqueduct Initiative (USAI) was the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken in the United States, dwarfing the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hoover Dam, and other twentieth-century public water projects combined. It saved the American West while concentrating power in the Great Lakes Basin. No one would have thought that Niagara Falls, New York, that decrepit industrial-era city and home to a natural wonder, would become the nation’s new capital, but all the Great Lakes water that wasn’t diverted through the aqueduct system eventually found its way over Niagara Falls, and that compelling cataract was a sublime symbol of power for the new government.
Not everyone supported the aqueduct project. The naturalists, the environmentalists, the prophets of doom—they all advocated letting the west run dry and abandoning the region. The most challenging antagonists for the Basin were extremists who continued to sabotage the aqueduct by, according to official reports, “poking holes in the pipelines.”
If it were as simple as poking holes in remote spots, the pipeline’s skin constructed of carbon nanotubes and nano-silica structures would quickly heal itself, but extremists were setting off explosions that tore gaps ten meters in diameter, causing hundreds of millions of gallons of water to be lost before crews could repair the damage.
The other threat Alize had to monitor for were tappers, those bands of nomads who employed hoses with tap fittings that penetrated the pipeline’s nanoskin to provide water for their campsites. The very nature of the pipeline made this easy: as soon as the material was penetrated it began to heal itself, forming a tight seal over the hose fitting. Last month Alize had come across a tapper community. The rules of engagement were to call in, wait for reinforcements, and then storm the site and arrest the tappers. A year ago when Alize first began work as an agent she followed all protocols, but she discovered the tappers were often beaten as they were taken into custody and families permanently separated. She feared what became of these people after their arrest.
Most of the tappers were small groups—a couple of families traveling together, or a cohort of young adults who had dropped out of the mainstream. They wanted nothing but to be left alone, and Alize began doing exactly that. They usually moved on after a few days or a week, although there was one community in her sector that had extended double hoses more than a mile from the pipeline into a small glade where they grew food and had built crude shelters. She’d discovered them only by luck. They’d done an excellent job hiding the hoses and she’d only seen them because she happened to stop in the shade of the pipeline and sit on one of the concrete piers that held the struts supporting the pipeline. There under the center of the pipeline, a brown hose descended behind a strut and disappeared into the ground. She tugged on the hose and lifted it from its hiding place. It had the right fitting to forge a penetrating seal into the pipeline, so it was an older hose, very hard to come by, but there were always black ops manufacturers making new fittings and hoses. She pulled up a few feet of the buried hose and saw that it headed perpendicular to the pipeline in an eastern direction over a knoll she couldn’t see beyond. She walked toward the knoll and as she got close to its crest she crawled on her stomach. Down in the draw she spotted a stunted few junipers and underneath them a cluster of tents and lean-tos. She reached for her phone to report the find, but paused before placing the call when she heard a woman screaming.
The sounds were coming from one of the tents. The screams were intermittent, familiar, tugging at something inside her. They were screams of pain but not of torture. Then her instincts were verified when she heard the cries of the newborn. She thought of her own children, safe with her parents in Basin, and how they both had cried in what sounded like wild outrage at their first moments of consciousness, thrust without choice into such an imperiled world.
Alize backed away from the knoll. She noted her location and returned the following week when she passed this way again on patrol, and this time she saw the mother and her newborn sitting on the ground outside the tent, the baby nestled safely against mother’s breast.
She never called in the sighting. Another week passed and when she returned the camp had been dismantled, the hoses pulled from the pipeline, the group moved on.
She returned her attention to the hawk floating on the updrafts. She tracked the bird and then dropped her gaze to the ground below and that’s when she saw the two people and her heart beat a little faster. Where had they come from? She sharpened the focus of the lens and studied the shapes: a man and a woman. They were walking in a small circle, almost mirroring the hawk above them, as if they were marking off an area. She expanded her visual search and spotted three more people walking toward the circle. She pulled out her range finder and estimated the group was 1.3 miles away, about 500 yards from the road where there was a pulloff that tucked around an outcropping. The vehicles must be hidden there from view.
She wondered if she should call it in now, although there was nothing to call in yet. Just people. People were not illegal, yet, nor was a Rainmaker for that matter. Nor was lawful activity that took place outside the 500-foot protection zone on either side of the pipeline. But she was supposed to call in everything. That was the memo from the Basin.
She held back. She didn’t want to be one of those agents who were always seeing things and calling them in and then it turned out to be nothing. Those agents were labeled Chicken Littles by their colleagues, and because she was a woman she had to be especially careful about being too quick to report. Things still hadn’t changed in that regard. Women made up about a quarter of the agents protecting the pipeline. Another ten percent were transgender or non-gender conforming, which meant 65 percent were still men, many of them military or police veterans, some of them forest rangers, all of them testosterone-fueled. They’d solved the problem of sexual assault in the agency the way they always had: by sweeping it under the rug and placing the emphasis on individual accountability. If you didn’t want to be sexually assaulted you didn’t let it happen. Alize was well trained in hand combat and had studied martial arts since she was eight years old, and could best or at least surprise and escape men who outweighed her by 80 pounds. It also helped to carry the regulation Berretta sidearm and the non-regulation stiletto, which she’d taken out but never had to use, and to be faster than most men who might consider chasing her. She’d been a track star in school, all through college, and could still run a mile in less than five and a half minutes, while the minimum threshold to become an agent was seven minutes. She’d have a better chance of success assaulting some of the male agents than they would getting at her. Not that she would. Violence she abhorred, but physical intimacy—the mutual consent type, not the sexual assault type—she missed. It’s been more than two years since Jeremy had gone missing, more than two years of loneliness, of doubt, of believing in nothing except her children and her role in protecting them.
She should call it in. Protocol was clear. But then Basin would rush investigators to the scene and the rainmaking event would be canceled before anyone could see it. Not that there would be anything to see, in all likelihood. A Rainmaker. Come on. That’s fairy tale stuff. That’s indigenous legend. That’s not cloud seeding, it’s conspiracy seeding. But if it were true, if there really was a Rainmaker, everything was going to change.
She had to see for herself.
She studied the landscape again. There were six people gathered now and she noticed a vehicle coming from the south, leaving a plume of dust behind. It was the same blue van she’d seen earlier heading the opposite way. She watched it pull into the turnoff and disappear behind the outcropping. Something was definitely happening. Some kind of gathering.
Her phone again. Ferris again.
“What’s happening, Duluth-40? Is it raining where you are yet?”
“Ha! Are you that bored?” Alize said.
“Don’t you know you’re not supposed to answer a question with a question? See what I did there?” Static invaded the line and she missed a few words until it cleared. “. . . I’m having a staring contest with a woodrat. Eight more days until my leave.”
“Who’s your replacement?”
“They haven’t told me. But I’m sure it won’t be someone as fascinating as me.”
“I’ve heard some replacements are becoming permanent. You could end up reassigned.”
Ferris paused. She wondered if their connection had been cut or hacked. Then he said, “I hope not. Seeing you every week is the highlight of my life.”
It was kind of hers, too, at this point. But now she had something else to consider. She didn’t respond to his last comment, instead said, “Keep in touch if you see anything interesting.”
She signed off and climbed down to where she’d left her pack at the base of the pipeline. She assessed her water supply: less than a quarter. She screwed the tube fitting from her hydration bag through the skin of the pipeline and watched the water flow through the tube as if she’d tapped a vein and blood was filling a donation bag. When the bladder was full, she squeezed the end of the tube and pulled it out. Within a second the nanomaterial healed itself sealing over her puncture. It may be hot and dry and arid in her sector, but she’d never die of thirst. The pipeline was always there to nourish her.
She pulled a change of clothes from her pack and stripped out of her uniform, put on the civilian khakis and long sleeve t-shirt. She wouldn’t be able to carry the Berretta without being exposed as an agent, but she kept the stiletto in the ankle sheath, wore only her water pack with the first aid kit inside its zippered compartment, added a baseball hat and sunglasses to her getup, and stashed her other belongings behind the strut.
One last chance to do what she’d been ordered to do: call in anything that even remotely indicated the possible presence of rainmaking activity. No. If she was going to believe anything, she would have to do it with her own eyes. She took a bearing and began to walk.