Maji looked down from his perch. He watched as the large box trucks sped into the warehouse district. They were clearly trying to make a quick entrance, intent on catching the Townspeople by surprise. He heard whispers among the water runners that the raids might come more frequently, and this time the Groundskeepers arrived several days earlier than usual.
With an inductive hum of electromag brakes, one of the trucks glided to a stop, its back end swooping around. The rear bay door slid open in front of the warehouse. A dozen or so Groundskeepers poured out, electro-lances in hand, bodies clad in military grade tactical gear with faces hidden behind one-way reflective shields. The cries of grieving parents and frightened children muffled in the dust of boots and battery of swarming, vacant black masks, echoing distorted faces and panic on their gleaming hulls. Electrodes crackled and whipped through the air as the Groundskeepers ran towards the warehouse entrance. Maji snorted in disgust as a wince flash across his face; the Groundskeepers sadistically enjoyed this.
He waited for a few minutes as the raid swept throughout the district, closing his eyes, feeling the collective stillness of his people, imagining them gripped with fear and not wanting to give any invitation to the painful kiss of an electro-lance.
“They want us to have nothing,” he thought, shaking his head as he began to climb down from the relay tower.
Each day the Townspeople, after a long shift of confined labor within the Planetation’s dome, go to the Ministry of Health to receive their water portions in exchange for their day’s work. The math is simple: however many apples picked without bruising, however many dandelions weeded and disposed, the end total equates to hydration credits. Each worker proceeds to the uncaring sensor arm, flashes their wrist chip, registers their day’s production statistics, and proceeds to the caged window to pick up a corresponding number of 10 liter water canisters.
During some seasons, the exchange rates are higher than others, supposedly according to rain or filtration efficiency. In actuality, the Groundskeepers arbitrarily set the rates based on how they’re feeling at any given time. The Townspeople are unable to store much water in their warehouse living quarters, not only due to limited space, but because of routine “inspections” for excess rations. The Groundskeeper patrol force’s logic: if laborers are holding onto excess rations of what they receive each day, then what incentive do they have to work? The penalties for stockpiling could be severe, ranging from confiscation of all reserves to beatings or worse, the separation of families.
This presented Maji, ever the hustler, with an opportunity. One of the Hub’s premiere water runners, he had established agreements with many of his Townspeople clientele: in exchange for a percentage of water rations, Maji stored and protected the rest, like a bank of sorts. Then at times when people ran out or when the efficiency slowed down at the orchards, he would borrow and loan between clients. Water runners kept the rations safe, and they extracted some extra value in the process.
Maji sat at the end of the bar, carefully sipping at his drink, trying to savor every drop of agave and dandelion root, the syncopated rhythms of the Sound Vandals swirling around him in an impressively restrained spectacle of sound and light.
“GG’s favorite drink,” he thought to himself as he eyed his glass, low frequency vibrations undulating through the liquid’s surface. He allowed himself to smile for a moment as he remembered GG, their powerfully loving soul, their seemingly infinite wisdom.
The Event Horizons, illegal underground gatherings held deep within the subterranean networks underneath the warehouse district, took on many purposes. Pulsing parties in which the Townspeople could experience some semblance of release from their daily turmoil. Clandestine safe havens in which to share political ideologies and organize against the Domespeople’s oppressive control. Blind tiger refuges for drinking away pain and soothing nerves. For Maji, at least tonight, it was the latter.
Maji learned earlier in the evening that Eshu, his arch nemesis in the water running business, had been violently murdered that morning. The water runners often ventured out into the region’s more abandoned parts to hide their water caches, and Eshu had been recently expanding into the old North End, building new tunnel networks within the ancient factory grounds. A Groundskeeper had spotted Eshu from a surveillance pod late in the night, tracked him to the factory site, and ambushed Eshu as he was digging a new water cache. Angered that he was not profiting from the trade, the Groundskeeper cooked Eshu with his electro-lance until he was barely recognizable, dragging Eshu’s body through the warehouse district streets and across the Planetation fields, tossing the disfigured body atop a compost pile of corpses. It was one type of torture to toil endlessly for something as essential as water. It was another to have to grow crops you’d never enjoy, fertilized with the dust of your loved ones. Maji had been able to avoid that confined life, although his profession carried with it its own risks.
Water running wasn’t really a team endeavor and in fact could be quite cutthroat, with water runners often competing for clientele. Eshu had several times come across some of Maji’s caches, destroying them. Maji had returned the favor when given the chance, but not before syphoning any precious reserves into his spare water canisters. The two of them hadn’t gotten along since they were children playing in GG’s garden, and they grew further apart when GG joined the ancestors, but he would never wish ill upon Eshu.
Maji stared into his empty glass, briefly overcome by a dull daze of grief as the surrounding soundscape feathered off into numbness. He had lost almost everyone he ever loved, and yet somehow he felt a will to persist. When the Groundskeepers came for his parents, GG ensured he was safe. When they took GG, he figured out how to look out for himself. He was a survivor.
And yet sometimes he questioned if survival was the sole purpose of his existence, his future. He peered to his left down the length of the bar, brushed metal stools lightly peppered with clusters of closely guarded conversationalists. He recognized a few familiar faces, Revoltists probably concocting some half baked plan to shut down a section of the Hub, probably for all an hour at best. And for what? To “make a statement’? He didn’t hold the Reformists in much higher regard. How could they find solace in contributing to this facade of society, this mess of bureaucracy, exploitation, and oppression? Did they think this system would ever work for them?
No, those lives were not for him. He had the hustle. He built his own paths; he followed his own code. His way kept his people with water. It kept him alive.
The two children ran by, giggling as their ball bounded unpredictably across the floor, ricocheting to and fro with an energy seemingly rivaled only by their youthfully naive exuberance. Cristal smiled warmly at their joy, peeking her head out the doorway.
“Olu, Iyanda, please be careful. We must keep this area safe. Why don’t you find your parents upstairs and share with them the story you told me earlier?”
“OK, auntie Cristal. Thank you for the berries,” Iyanda replied. Olu, only four years old, smiled and waved his tiny hand, his fingers and face dotted with smudges of crimson.
“You’re welcome, my loves. Here Olu, make sure to wipe your face,” Cristal said as she handed him a small towel. She turned to Maji, motioning him to enter. Maji never ceased to be impressed by Cristal’s workspace, a vibrant collection of her many projects on full display, hybrid fusions of art, historical and scientific study, political ideology, and spiritual practice. To his left he spotted a holographic component from one of the Domespeople’s surveillance pod. It had been modified to project a detailed rendering of a dandelion root, suspended waist high in the air, rotating slowly to reveal various parts of the plant structure. The image flickered ever so slightly, but he knew Cristal would have it in perfectly operable order by the time of his next visit.
She glanced once more out the doorway before punching in a keycode on a nearby pad. A reinforced door slid into place, almost imperceptibly hiding the passage within the wall. Maji had helped her source materials for the entrance during his runs. Cristal and her team had managed to take those materials, engineering them into an impressively secure barrier. The door hissed shut as the room re-pressurized.
She gave Maji a solemn look and asked, “Did you hear about Zakera?”
“I did,” he replied flatly. News of the town traveled quickly through the water runner network; they often were the first to know of any happenings, a preemptive mechanism of defense against Groundskeeper raids and other threats to the water reserves. Maji often came upon details that would help Cristal and the other Sound Vandals. The attention they generated meant less focus on him and his kind, a networked symbiosis of distractions for their overlords.
Maji continued, “The Groundskeepers kicked down her door and broke into her home. They confiscated the water, burned all her plants, stole her valuables, destroyed everything else, and arrested her under charges of assault on a Groundskeeper. Doesn’t sound like her at all.” He paused, and then continued. “Also, you may not have heard this, but Eshu’s life was taken. A Groundskeeper found him digging a cache and punished him brutally.”
Cristal sat down with measured breath, frozen, staring at the wall. As Maji gave her a moment to process, his eye caught an assortment of papers on the desk behind her, what looked like data and graphs pertaining to the Hub population alongside some beautiful symbols which he did not recognize. Cristal had always been an incredibly inquisitive polymath whose work flowed with ease between research, music, and visual art. She was responsible for helping organize the Event Horizons. Maji knew how hard this must be for her. Zakera, Cristal, Eshu, and Maji had all spent countless hours of their youth together at GG’s place, playing in the garden, telling stories, and learning to grow various plants and herbs.
“I’m so sorry to hear about Eshu,” Cristal said. She knew Eshu and him were once like brothers.
“It’s OK. We haven’t been close for a while, and he got on my nerves more than once with his antics, but still, he was a good person. What they did was terrible.” He paused for a second. “Have you or your people heard any word from Zakera?”
“No, they won’t let anyone contact her,” she said, frustrated. “We were silently protesting the Groundskeepers’ rejection of our petition to meet regarding illness and water access, sitting outside the Ministry of Health, when they started shoving some of the protestors. Things got hectic and Zakera was trying to calm everyone. She of course didn’t do anything, but they used it as an opportunity to target her anyways. She got caught with one of those shock sticks and fell into a Groundskeeper, and they dragged her away into one of those hover trucks.”
Maji took a seat across from Cristal. Zakera had in many ways been pushed into becoming a figurehead for the Reformists, much against her own wishes. It’s not hard to see why. She was a brilliant speaker and strategist, both fearless and unflinching in her commitment to what she felt was just and right. She was an incredibly compassionate listener, and it seemed she knew exactly what to say in most situations. She had in many ways taken up GG’s role as a beacon of wisdom for the Townspeople, and she often spoke about the need to tune into and learn from our ancestral memories. It came as little surprise that the Groundskeepers would find a way to get to her. Her brilliance was a threat.
“Maji, we need to get her out of there.” Cristal stared at him, her eyes burning with intensity.
Maji breathed heavily. “I know.” Preferring to operate in the shadows, he had long strived to avoid becoming directly involved in any of the town’s commotion, especially amidst the mounting political unrest and subsequent protests. “We’ll find a way to get her out.”