I like to imagine Earth, that ancient blue gem where humanity was born. If I could I would lay myself down in a shallow pool of clean water so that it covered every part of my body except my nose and eyes, and stay there forever. Much better than laying on top of rough magnite with moldy, gray synth-cloth covering me. There is so much water on Earth that even the sky was blue. Reedie says that’s roach spit but I’ve read stuff. Typically I only get pieces of magazines like International Geographic or the occasional download of data from the official Wikipedia Americana, but I’ve learned some interesting facts in those.
My Uncle always said, “Suz, always read just enough so you can convince someone you know something, even if you don’t.” And yes his lifestyle as a con-artist is heavily spread on top of that quote like whipped soy-cheese on Space Force issued crackers, but I’ve tried to live by it all the same. I once paid a whole gallon just to get net access for four hours. Best four hours of my life. I read “The Most Dangerous Game,” “Paper Menagerie,” and even half of a Harry Potter book. If I had had any moisture left in my body I would have cried when they pried me away. Reedie chided me for the next week of dehydration aches I suffered, but a girl wants what she wants.
Which is probably why I’m down here, close to the dank, muddy surface of the planet P-9, hiding as an anti-grav bike passes overhead. Common sense will tell you that the human brain needs water to survive. I guess mine must have caught a few defects in the assembly line because I could care less about how much water I have. Ironic, considering what I risk just to collect it.
As soon as the bike passes overhead, I look around for Reedie. I hear his forlorned moaning before I spot the top of his synth cloth hat poking above a wide crack in the magnite.
“Reedie, get up,” I commanded, “The bike is gone so we can get going again. The moisture farm must be close.”
He moaned louder.
“Reedie,” I chided as I strolled over to his hiding spot. Reedie wasn’t so much hiding in the crack in the magnite as he was wedged into it. The excess of his body was bulging out over the top of the convenient rock split like a hog in a mini skirt. Honestly it was an unusually ideal place to find cover. I probably could have hid in there comfortably for days if I had found it.
“Reedie, are you stuck, again?” I asked.
“Why…” he gasped back.
“Well,” I hesitated, because as impatient as I was to get moving again, I wanted to spare my friend’s feelings. No one, not a single permanent resident of P-9 was overweight. It was unheard of. If climbing and jumping from the suspended chucks of magnite that floated in the air throughout the planet did not keep you fit, the dehydration sure did. But to every rule there is an exception. And to this one there was Reedie.
“Well it’s an extremely narrow ravine,” I started explaining, “I doubt I could fit in it, so…”
“No,” Reedie cut me off abruptly, “I’m stuck because I’m fat, Suz. What I want to know is why we keep doing this.”
“You didn’t have to come with me,” I reminded him as I helped him up.
“Yeah I did,” Reedie grunted, “when you finally die, someone is going to need to see it so they can tell Uncle. Give him his chance to grieve, ya know?”
“Roach spit,” I shot back with a smile. “The data chip we bought from Socket says the next moisture farm is just below us.”
“If that grease-head didn’t sell us fake intel,” Reedie muttered. “I paid two liters for that data chip, Suz, and I’ve probably already sweat twice that.”
I ignored him. Reedie was usually pessimistic. Living on P-9 it was hard not to be. P-9 was one giant mudhole that for some reason that was never explained to me had millions of chunks of magnite floating through its atmosphere. The magnetic poles of the magnite were repelled enough by the pole at the planet’s core that they remained suspended in the air.
This probably sounds like a fantastical playground that everyone would want to live on. The problem with P-9 as a planet was that it was too flat and too muddy. The shade from the magnite islands really restricted plant growth and with a whopping three suns the whole place was as hot as well…a godforsaken planet with three suns. I don’t really think there is anything hotter to compare it to. Fortunately for life there were plenty of water deposits on the planet. Unfortunately for humans those water deposits got covered in so much debris it turned this whole place into a mudhole.
That’s how the Aqua Barons got started. P-9 had regular galactic credits, a long time ago. But the managers of the moisture farms that contained the Atmospheric Water Generators realized, “What good are these credits to us, if we can just withhold water and the wealthy Governors all die of thirst in three days?” And that’s what happened. You want a protein chew? Three ounces of water. A new shirt? Probably costs you a quarter gallon or a liter. A bath? Forget it. And all this water the managers turned Aqua Barons just snatch right out of the air with the AWG’s to spend on whatever it is they please. The rest of us are just pleased to be alive.
I peek over the edge of the magnite island we are on and see our target: a brand new moisture farm. The building was three stories tall and had two floors. Socket said there were at least 6 AWG’s inside. I began pulling gear out of the pack.
Reedie peeked over the edge again.
“Yeah so what’s supposed to get us down there?” he asked.
I held up a hundred feet of nylon cord.
“That’s not going to hold me,” he replied.
“Reedie, if we both went down, who would haul us back up?” I asked.
“Fair point,” he remarked. “So I get to sit up here with Sunshine,” he gestured to the kinetic rifle tied to his pack, “and watch you do something stupid?”
“Exactly,” I said with a wink, “the usual.”
Reedie tied the rope to himself with a bowline knot while I sprayed some quick-plaz on the edge of the magnite island forming a groove for the rope to slide along. Then Reedie reached around me and tied me in. He always insists on doing this himself because I’m lousy at knots.
I gave Reedie a big smile and a salute before repelling backwards off the island which prompted a visible groan in response. He lowered me slowly, the dusky sky and shadows from the field of magnite islands above making it hard to see anything but the occasional red lights by the door handles of the facility.
This certainly was a top of the line moisture farm. Sleek plaz roofing and siding showed barely a spec of wear from the elements. Twin industrial sized windmills on one side powered the whole thing. The hum of the condenser and evaporator coils was music to my ears. I could just taste the pay day that was coming.
I saw a small out building near the front door of the facility. There appeared to be a guard inside and I double checked that my taz-gun was in its holster. A thief can never be too careful. I was nearly six feet from the second floor balcony. I was going to miss it a bit so I swung my body back and forth. Reedie kept lowering me. I swung away from the balcony and then back toward it in perfect timing to ram both of my shins into the railing. I winced and quickly grabbed the railing with both hands and hauled myself over.
I sat for a second, listening in case someone noticed the small thud of a teenage girl being clumsy. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Reedie must have felt the rope slacken because he stopped lowering. I untied myself and tugged on the rope once to signal “all clear” and then approached the door.
I checked the notes Socket had given us for the place. Under security protocols it noted that the locks were fail secure. What a cinch that was. I pulled a small power drill out of my back pack, then I drilled into the top of the plaz cover of the electric code pad and looked in. After I located the power supply I removed the synth-plaz covering of the wires. One shot from the taze-gun into the exposed code pad and the surge of power instantly unlocked the door. With a grin, I eased it open.
The second floor had a simple layout. Two Automatic Water Generator’s stood on the far end from me to either side and to my right sat a box shaped room that I assumed was some sort of an office. It did not seem smart to “poke the snake” so I headed straight for the AWG on the left. The left is always lucky, you know.
Despite being brand new, the AWG had some recycled parts, which was typical for P-9. There are some materials that are necessary but hard to find on this planet: like metal or wood. In this instance they had reused a reinforced steel frame, steel door, and steel padlock. Much harder to simply drill into. It’s a safety precaution that would thwart most thieves. But I was trained by Uncle.
I took out the lock pick set Uncle had given me. A real, genuine metal lock pick. I eased the pick into the keyhole and gently coaxed the tumbler into place. With a soft click the padlock opened and I set it on the ground by the door. I was in.
The heat inside hit me in the face like a suffocating hand.Two pipes funneled the exhaust up and out of the whole facility but I could still feel the heat. The condenser coils created a lot of heat as a byproduct of cooling the air down so much. I remembered another piece of advice from Uncle: “Be like water, Suz, you can’t be destroyed, just changed by the heat and pressure around you.”
There was an insulated plaz tank that the harvested water was funneled into. Again it had a recycled steel padlock that I quickly dispatched. I set the lock on the ground and opened the tank to behold the bounty inside. It smelled cool with a tinge of chemical treatment to make it clean. There was probably over forty gallons of water in this tank alone. So much wealth made me giddy. I took out my empty one gallon pouches strapped to my chest and back and filled them as quickly as I could.
I had filled maybe eight pouches when I heard the creak of the door down the hall opening. Panicked, I stepped inside, shut the door to the AWG, probably a little too hard, and reattached the padlock to the plaz water tank. It was utterly dark now and I groped my way to where I remembered the exhaust pipes being and softly wedged myself behind the warm plaz.
No sooner had I done so when a shout of alarm was raised. I heard someone urgently open the door as light flooded in. The person rattled the padlock on the water tank to make sure it was secure. I heard a sigh of relief and then, “They didn’t get into the tank! Check the perimeter to see if we can catch them before they escape,” said a woman’s voice. Then they closed the door, I heard the click of another padlock, and they hurried away.
I did not immediately recognize my predicament. I had been so panicked at being caught that the relief chased away my analytical thinking. I listened to people running around searching for me. After some time everything quieted down again.
I gave it another ten minutes before I tried to make my escape. Still hearing nothing I went to the door of the AWG and gave a soft push. The stubborn metal did not budge and my stubborn brain realized my situation. I was locked in.
The staff of the facility would be coming to empty the water tank soon but if I did not stay hidden I would be caught and unceremoniously tossed off of the magnite island to my death. I could try fighting my way through with the taze-gun, but I do not put a lot of stock into my fighting skills. If I did stay hidden I would never have a chance to escape. As I processed my predicament I realized how much I was sweating, and how warm it was inside the AWG.
If you have not figured it out yet, I do not make logical, rational choices. Why else would I risk robbing a moisture farm in the first place. But given the chance between immediate death or a slow agonizing death with a chance to read more books, I will always choose the latter. So I wedged myself back in behind the hot exhaust pipes and waited for…something.
I had never noticed before but time seems to slow down when you’re hot. My skin felt like the sizzle of soy oil on a grease pan when it starts popping and the burning oil hits you in the face, except all over my body. The first time the workers came to empty the tank filled me with the hope that I could wait however long was necessary. The second time they came took much longer of course, and I nearly gave myself up right there.
Instead I opened one of my water pouches and begrudgingly took a sip, hating my body for needing water as much as it did. It tasted so good. Almost as good as the two figs it would have bought me. By the time the tank had to get emptied again my vision was tossing from side to side when I didn’t sit still and close my eyes. I took two sips. Then out of weakness I took another. I groaned softly. I almost chuckled at the thought that I was pouring money down the drain.
I couldn’t track time while I was hidden there. They must have emptied the tank a dozen times. I didn’t know how long the interval between visits was but I assumed I’d been in that suffocating space for two or three days. Of the eight original gallons I had stolen only four and a half remained. I hated myself so much. I had drunk an entire book of Harry Potter by this time.
I felt dread and desperation like Rainsford from The Most Dangerous Game, when General Zarof stood beneath his tree.
The shout startled me. I immediately shrunk deeper into my hiding spot.
“Suzanne!” the voice shouted once more. It sounded like a man’s voice.
It bewildered me that my pursuers knew my name. I wondered how they could have gotten it. Had they seen me? It didn’t seem likely. Moreover, no one knew that my name was pronounced “Suzanne.” Everyone just assumed I was a “Susan.”
“Suz! Damn it, where are you?” The man shouted in frustration. “It’s Reedie!”
Reedie! Without even considering whether or not it was a ruse I rushed to the steel door and started banging on it.
“Reedie!” I cried out, “I’m here! I’m in here!”
“Suz!” Reedie shouted. I heard his heavy foot falls rush up to the door. “Back up,” he commanded me.
I did and I heard the sound of a kinetic bullet blasting through the padlock. The door swung open and there stood my friend Reedie, holding his kinetic rifle, Sunshine. I threw myself into his arms and he caught me gracefully. His body felt so cool. His clothes, slightly damp though they were, felt like ice cubes to me. My hand felt something sticky on his left arm and I opened my eyes to see a bloody piece of cloth tied tightly around his left arm.
“Are you hurt?” Reedie asked urgently.
“How,” I started, “... you’re hurt.” I finished incoherently.
“Suz, are you hurt?” Reedie asked again, more firmly this time.
I shook my head no.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
I nodded, then shook my head no, then nodded again. Reedie just picked me up and hurried down a flight of stairs. Out in the courtyard he headed straight for a small garage with the front bay door open. As we passed through I saw a large, limp object sprawled near the entrance. I realized it was a body.
“Reedie,” I asked as I tapped his shoulder, “what’s that?”
He looked to where I was pointing, then turned me away from the body and sat me on an anti-grav bike. I tried to ask again but he mounted the bike behind me and started up the engine. We zoomed out heading back up through the magnite islands, away from the moisture farm. Everything was silent for a minute or two save the whining of the anti-grav bike.
“Are you ok?” Reedie asked me, his breath hot on my ear.
“Yep, never better,” I replied wearily. “I got four gallons. I’m going to get to finish the Sorcerer's Stone.”
Reedie let out a snort of laughter, and I could feel him shaking his head in disbelief with his entire body.
“You’re crazy,” he muttered to me.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I most certainly am.”