In a Lawless Desert, a Fight Over Water

In his science fiction book, author Paolo Bacigalupi describes a hellish American Southwest that yearns for water.

The following is an excerpt from The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Angel flew south, a falcon hunting.

The Mojave lay sere and open, a burned, wind-abraded scape of oxidized gravels and pale clays, scabbed with creosote bushes and twisted Joshua trees. One hundred twenty degrees in the shade, and heat rippling off the pavement, mirage shimmer. The sun raged across the sky, and the only movement on the interstate was Angel’s Tesla, blazing.

It had been a desperate land before, and it was a desperate land still. Angel had always liked the desert for its lack of illusions. Here, plants spread their roots wide and shallow, starved for every drop. Their saps crystalized to hard shellac, fighting to keep every molecule of moisture from evaporating. Leaves strained up into the unforgiving sky, shaped to catch and channel any rare drop that might happen to fall upon them.

Thanks to the centrifugal pump, places like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas had thrown on the garments of fertility for a century, pretending to greenery and growth as they mined glacial water from ten-thousand-year-old aquifers. They’d played dress-up-in-green and pretended it could last forever. They’d pumped up the Ice Age and spread it across the land, and for a while they’d turned their dry lands lush. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans—vast green acreages, all because someone could get a pump going. Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.

The desert was different. It had always been a gaunt and feral thing. Always hunting for its next sip. The desert never forgot itself. A thin fall of winter rain was all that kept yucca and creosote blooming. If there was other life, it cowered alongside the banks of the few capillary rivers that braved the blazing lands and never strayed far.

The desert never took water for granted.

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Angel opened up the Tesla. His car sank low on the pavement and accelerated, burning across the truest place Angel had ever known.

He slashed through checkpoints, radioing credentials ahead. Nevada guardies stood by in flak jackets, waving him on. Drones circled overhead, invisible in the smoke-and-blue sky.

Occasionally, Angel caught glimpses of militias: the sun-flash of high-power scopes tracking as the Tesla shot down the empty highway, Mormons and northern Nevada ranchers doing volunteer rotations: South Border Marauders, Desert Dogs, a half-dozen others recruited from across the state—Catherine Case’s second army, all of them doing their bit to keep refugees from swamping their fragile promised land.

The Water Knife


Angel suspected that he knew some of those hunkered behind the stony ridges. He remembered their hatred-hardened faces and murder-flicker eyes. At the time he’d sympathized with their hopeless hate. He was their worst nightmare: a Vegas water knife, sitting in their living rooms, making offers they couldn’t refuse. The Devil in black, offering a bloody deal for their salvation. He’d perched on frayed couches and sagging La-Z- Boy recliners. He’d leaned against peeling-paint porch rails and stood in the hot close air of horse barns, always making the same offer. He’d spoken low, conspiratorially, laying out the deal that would save them from the hell that Catherine Case was busy creating for them as her pipeline projects pumped away their water.

The offer was simple: work, money, water—life. Stop shooting at Vegas and start shooting Zoners. If they yoked themselves to the purposes of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, all things were possible. They might even grow a little, with a friendly tap into the East Basin Pipeline. She’d let them drink. Maybe even let them smear a bit of water across the land. Angel went from house to house and town to town, offering one last chance to haul themselves out of the abyss.

And, as Case had predicted, they’d seized it with both hands.

Militias sprang up on the border, perched along the shoulder of the Colorado River, looking across the waters toward Arizona and Utah. Scalps appeared as warnings along interstates. Chain gangs of Zoners and Merry Perrys were marched back down into the river and told to swim for the other side. Some people even made it.

Senators back east demanded that Nevada end its militia lawlessness, and Governor Andrews dutifully sent out the guardies to hunt down the bandits. He paraded theatrical arrests in front of news cameras and lined up defiant citizen defenders in court. And as soon as the cameras went dark, the cuffs came off, and Catherine Case’s militias returned to their posts along the river.

Angel crossed the border at Lake Mead. The bathtub rings of the reservoir stood stark against the pale desert stones. At one time, long before Angel’s tenure, Lake Mead had held waters that nearly topped the Hoover Dam. It had been full. Now marinas lay like toy ruins on the mud flats of the lake, and guardies and drones buzzed above the dam, keeping watch over Vegas’s shrunken reservoir.

Every car that sought to cross the bridge that spanned the canyon of the Colorado River was searched. These days nothing came close to the dam without being inspected multiple times.

Rather than go through the hassle, Angel dropped his car at the border, handing it off to an SNWA employee, and walked across the bridge with the rest of the foot traffic. Peering over the embankment with all the other tourists at the gleaming blue waters of Lake Mead. The lifeline of Las Vegas. A portion of the lake was covered with a half-finished gossamer structure, a carbon fiber roof that would eventually enclose the entire lake. SNWA’s latest megaproject, trying to reduce evaporation.

On the far side of the river, Angel processed through Arizona border security, submitting to the state’s arbitrary searches. He ignored the angry faces of the Arizona Border Patrol and let them do their searches and paw through his fake credentials.

They had their dogs sniff him, and they searched him again, but eventually they let him pass. Border guards were border guards, and at the end of the day Zoners still wanted people to come visit their beat-to-hell state. To spend money there, to give them a little bit of what they’d lost.

Angel came through the last checkpoint and legally stood on Arizona soil. Up on the embankments, refugees had set up their tents. People intent on attempting a midnight run across the river, right into the teeth of the people Angel had recruited to stop them.

From The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. Copyright © 2015 by Paolo Bacigalupi. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved.

Meet the Writer

About Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is a writer, and is author of The Water Knife, (Knopf, 2015) and The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, 2009). He’s based in Paonia, Colorado.

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