Livre once offered Planetary Alliance miners and workers a small fortune if they helped terraform the mineral rich planet. People flocked to the world, but then a civil war cut the desert planet off from all resources. Half-terraformed and clinging to the edge of existence, Livre devolved into a world where death was accepted as part of life, water resources were scarce and constantly dwindling, and neighbors tried to help each other hold off the inevitable as the desert fought to take back the few terraformed spaces.
Temar Gazer claims to be the victim of water theft. His claims could be a simple misdirection intended to help him escape a term of labor after his criminal prank caused irreparable damage to a watering system. However as the only member of the council arguing against a short-term slavery sentence for Temar, Shan Polli can’t escape the fear that something darker is happening. The more he investigates Temar’s story, the more he finds that his world is not as free of politics or danger as he had assumed. Together, Shan and Temar must get to the bottom of the conspiracy before time runs out for the entire planet.
“MAYBE WE shouldn’t be doing this,” Temar suggested again. If nothing else, they should not be doing this when both moons threw pale light over the fields. Both he and Cyla were fair and blond, and Temar felt like a white flag raised in the middle of a fire-blackened field. The field wasn’t black, and the tiny green plants stood out in line against the dry ground, but he still felt exposed.
“Maybe George Young shouldn’t steal water from us,” Cyla answered sharply. She stopped, and Temar flattened himself to the ground and wished his sister would listen to him, just this once. “He’ll be sorry when we get proof.” The bitterness in Cyla’s voice made Temar’s heart ache. Since their father’s death, she had grown harder. It scared him.
“We have proof. Sort of. We just need to wait for the council meeting at season-end.”
“I’m not waiting. Not anymore.” Cyla’s voice was fierce, and Temar was caught between wanting to go home and wanting to keep his sister from doing anything unforgivably stupid. Maybe she saw his indecision because she leaned closer, resting her hand on his arm. “He will be sorry.”
“Or we’ll be sorry when we’re caught,” Temar warned. He wished he had the right words to convince her that they were making a mistake.
“Then we don’t get caught.” Cyla looked over her shoulder at him and smiled. He hated it when she got that expression, the one that never failed to get them in trouble. She winked, and then she was dashing across the field. For the length of several breaths, Temar lay on the warm ground, eye level with long rows of tiny plants that swayed gently in the breeze. Their verdant leaves unfurled from stems firm with water. Even before their father died, their own farm had turned into a ragged collection of pipe trap weeds and chokeweed. If Cyla was right and George Young had their water quota, that would explain why his fields produced so much more than their own. If Cyla was wrong…. Temar cringed at the thought of working restitution days on Young’s farm.
“Wait,” Temar hissed, and then he ran after Cyla. They were close to the Young farmhouse now. Like all farms on Livre, the buildings were tall and narrow, pushed into the rock cliff wall to avoid taking up any more land than required. Most of the planet was a desert, ruled by shifting dunes and sandrats, and every inch of the sheltered valleys was needed to create life.
“See anything?” Temar asked. He flattened himself on the dusty path, next to Cyla.
“Nothing.” Her eyes swept the buildings where Young and his workers lived. “We find the evidence and then we go to the council.”
“Or we go to the council, show them my water readings, and ask them to investigate and find real evidence for themselves.” Temar’s stomach ached. He was no terraformer or soldier who could live on adrenaline. No, give him a glassblowing shop, or at this point, even a farm with a clear water allotment, and he’d happily live his life being remarkably, blissfully boring.
“They already refused, and this is not the place for a debate.”
“No, Naite Polli didn’t refuse. He only said we had to wait until season-end, for the regular session.” Temar bit his tongue before he started shouting in frustration. Even though they hadn’t damaged anything, a landowner could demand at least one labor day from any trespasser, so he really didn’t want to get caught. He doubted Cyla had considered that, however. Sometimes she was a little less than logical in how she approached life, and it drove him insane. Maybe if she were younger or less stubborn it wouldn’t have annoyed him so much, but she had these ideas, and then he couldn’t get her to see reason. She’d tell him he was too young to understand that adults had to do whatever it took to get the job done, but since she was only three years older than he was, the argument didn’t seem exactly fair. Twenty-one was old enough to know they were both going to be in serious trouble if they were caught on George Young’s land. And twenty-four was too old for her to sneak around someone else’s property.
It was like her request for a special council meeting. If Cyla had listened to him before she stormed off to talk to Naite Polli, Temar would have told her she was making a mistake. Naite represented the unskilled workers of Livre, and he was a hard man who had very little patience for bending the rules. Of course Naite refused to hear them during season, but not all the council members were that inflexible.
Temar would have gone to Dee’eta Sun. The woman represented the artisans, and Temar had watched her work glass with a skill and patience that he envied, catching the molten sands on the end of her pole and then twirling them into incredible shapes. Dee’eta would understand that sometimes circumstances required you to move faster than you expected. After all, with glass, one second too fast or too slow and the entire piece could warp hopelessly out of shape or shatter into a million pieces. Cyla had thought Naite Polli would side with them because he worked the land, but Temar would have sought out Dee’eta Sun and explained how one more season without water, without hope, and without credit to hire workers, and their land would be as gone as a piece of glass that shattered when the blower moved it to the punty rod.
Cyla studied him, the light of the blood moon making her hair look pink. “We need evidence so significant that they can’t wait for season-end.” With that, she took off running. The water tanks squatted on tall stilts, the angle of their tilt making them look like giant, white beasts, leaning down to touch the ground. Maybe they were leaning down to eat Cyla. He knew it was a silly child’s nightmare, but the tanks still waited to swallow her up as she threw herself to the ground under the closest one. That one was positioned a good six feet lower than the second one, so the valves and meters should be easier to read.
“Luck of the stars,” Temar whispered before he went running after her. She was an idiot, but she was his only family. If she was going to be stupid and get sentenced to work days for George Young, at least he could go down with her.
“So, let’s do the test.” Excitement colored her voice while she screwed a drip meter onto the bottom of the release valve.
“We’re going to be sentenced to a week of workdays if the council hears we tampered with someone’s equipment,” Temar muttered, but he took out his flashlight and put it in his mouth while he adjusted the tiny gears used to measure the water. If they pulled a cup of water, and the measure on Young’s tank didn’t match their draw, that should be enough to prove to the council that he was stealing water from the common line that ran between their farms.
“Young is going to be sentenced to slavery for a decade when we have our proof.”
Temar tightened the connector nut and pulled the flashlight out of his mouth. “No one gets sentenced to that much slavery,” he pointed out.
“Yeah, but no one has ever stolen this much water before. Twenty years of water theft should mean at least a decade. I’ll have him out digging up pipe traps in the midday sun.”
Temar looked at Cyla with some concern. There were days that anger settled under her skin, making her seem ugly. If Young was stealing water, and Temar agreed with his sister on that one, then the man deserved slavery, but Cyla’s joy at the thought made him a little uneasy. Instead of watching her start the test, he wandered back toward the second tank. He’d expected a second set of pipes, leading to the ground watering system, but instead the taller tank led into the first one.
“Cyla, these are run in series,” Temar said.
She made an incoherent noise in response.
“Cyla,” Temar said, a little louder.
“Then listen. These are set up different than Dad’s.”
This time she stopped and looked at him. “Dad’s tanks were set up back when ships were still landing. Literally. I’d be surprised if Young didn’t upgrade. After all, with all the water he stole from us, he can afford the best.” She gestured toward the tall house with the dark windows. Unlike their own house, it wasn’t lopsided from age and gravity. “I need to get a one-cup measure, and we can go home.”
“Then get it.” Temar looked around nervously. Under the bright moonlight, the white tanks looked pink, the newly sprouted wheat took on a purplish hue, and the dusty ground between the rows was striped with shadows from the leaves. A breeze pushed all the seedlings to the west, their leaves dipping down to touch the ground. Cyla was taking her time, and the sour fear in Temar’s stomach was solidifying into something hard that made his gut ache. He knelt next to her on the hard-packed dirt.
“What’s wrong?” he whispered.
“The valve is stuck.” Cyla grunted as her fingers slipped off the tank, and her knuckles hit one of the struts with a dull thud that reverberated softly through the entire tank.
“Unlucky stars,” she hissed before sticking her knuckle into her mouth.
“Let me.” Temar got his fingers around the valve and tried to turn it. Even if it was stuck, years of pulling weeds had given his fingers an advantage. He twisted the piece, feeling the metal groan under his fingers as it slowly yielded. Then the unthinkable happened. Something snapped with a crack that echoed through the tank, and water gushed over his hands. Warm water, in quantities he’d never seen, poured over his skin, like a smooth fabric sliding over him.
For a second, Temar was too shocked to react. He knelt as water—actual running water—spilled over the ground and tumbled over him in unfamiliar patterns. Even when he finally got his hands moving again, he couldn’t find any way to reverse the direction of the valve. Something had snapped, and now the nut spun loosely around the end of the pipe. “It’s broken!” The water pushed against Temar’s fingers as he felt for any mechanical cutoff or valve or emergency switch, but there was only the tank and the pipe and water pouring over him in horrifying quantities.
“Shut off. Where’s the shut off?” Cyla shouted in her desperation, and a siren ripped through the air with its high-pitched wail. She ran to the other side, her feet actually kicking up water that had dirt suspended in it. Mud. The unfamiliar word floated to the top of his memory from school. They had it on Earth, where water ran over the face of the planet, but on Livre, where nearly every molecule of water had been harvested from the larger of the two moons, melted, purified, and then carried to the planet, mud didn’t exist. Or it hadn’t. Temar found his knees slowly sinking into the softening field.
Footsteps pounded the ground, followed by the sound of men and women slipping and cursing and the strange slap of hands and bodies against water. “Where’s the cutoff?” Cyla’s scream carried above the siren, above the chaos of the night. Now Temar had his hand flat against the pipe, the water spraying out like the tail of a peacock from a child’s book.
Hands caught his arm, pulled him, and Temar slid in the wet earth, falling on his face into mud that pressed itself to his mouth and nose until he pushed back, choking on it. More hands caught him, pulled him, and Temar didn’t fight.
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Lynsey “Lyn” Gala is a voracious reader. Westerns starring men with shady pasts gave way to science fiction with questionable protagonists, which eventually became any story with a morally ambiguous character. Even the purest heroes have pain and loss and darkness in their hearts, and that’s where she likes to find her stories. Her characters seek to better themselves and find the happy (or happier) ending.
When she isn’t writing, Lyn Gala teaches history in a small town in New Mexico. Her favorite spot to write is a flat rock under a wide tree on the edge of the open desert where her dog can terrorize local wildlife. Writing in a wide range of genres, she often gravitates back to adventure and BDSM, stories about men in search of true love and a way to bring some criminal to justice… unless they happen to be the criminal.