Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
The Pipe in the Lake
When the fountains dried up, the Verashni lost their minds. Ellana was barely a small girl back then. She listened to their wails from her bedroom: old men and women with cracked lips screaming about the barren earth while whipping each other in repentance. It felt as though the world were ending.
Ellana missed playing in the water with the other children. The city became so quiet: the once-green streets turned brown as the plants shriveled up and died. New wells were dug as teams of workers pillaged the earth, tearing down deep, heaping dirt in towering piles. Those wells saved Verash, but the fountains remained silent, and the masses of flowers never bloomed again.
Years passed. Ellana grew up. Folks never stopped talking about the fountains and what they’d lost, like a ghost of something better overlaid across the city.
There were, of course, rumors.
“I hear the mountains collapsed,” Ellana’s aunt Teeshi said one evening over dinner. “They dropped right down and—boom!—all gone. No more water.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” Ellana’s mother said. “I think we’d have heard about that.”
“I’m telling you, I did hear it,” Teeshi said, insistent.
“Could be those Muyer raiders,” Ellana’s uncle Bunah said. “Could be they stole the water.”
“You fool, stole the water? How the hells would raiders steal water?” Teeshi said.
“Well, I don’t know,” Bunah said, throwing up his hands. “Just an idea.”
Ellana listened to her family chatter in their little room. Her baby sister nestled close up against her mother’s breast, her father smiled and laughed, and her mother groaned as Bunah and Teeshi argued conspiracy. Ellana wondered if the baby would ever see green in her life. Without running water, the city stank—there was nothing to wash away the filth. No more beautifully tiled bath houses, no more ease and luxury.
There were other rumors: curses, magicians, evil dragons, lich kings, zombie hordes, other sundry creatures both good and evil, but Ellana didn’t believe any of it.
Each afternoon, after fetching water, she’d climb to the top of the outer walls, ignoring annoyed militiamen and their funny metal hats, and find the place where the aqueduct reached the horizon. She could see it, in the distance, the great stone arches, angled toward the city’s wells, fountains, and sewers.
She kept thinking: there had to be a reason.
“How come nobody fixes the aqueduct?” Ellana asked her mother one afternoon as they walked to the market.
“Nobody knows how,” she said.
“That’s strange. Didn’t we build it? Someone has to know how.”
Her mother made a vague gesture. “The city’s old, misha. There used to be men who created those big stone slopes, and more men who maintained them, but there haven’t been any in—“ She shook her head. “Who knows how long. I think they’re all dead.”
“But why?” Ellana couldn’t understand. There were so many people in Verash, and so many of them were smart, hardworking, resourceful, talented. She was supposed to believe not a single one could fix the aqueduct and make the water flow again?
“I don’t know, my little misha,” her mother said, again using the childish nickname Ellana hated.
But she wouldn’t be embarrassed. “What if we sent people out to where the aqueduct ends? Couldn’t we fix it?”
“You won’t get that far. It’s so hot, and who knows what’s out there. No, we’ll keep going, dig more wells. Life will be fine.” Her mother nudged her with the heel of her hand. “Now come, we need bread, and you’ve got water to haul.”
Always more water to haul. Ellana watched the people walk past in brightly colored wrap-shirts and long flowing pants, the sun overhead baking the light-colored flagon stones, and she couldn’t understand how all these people let the city slide into decay. And nobody did a thing about it.
She packed a bag with what she could: dry bread, horse jerky, a few potatoes, a knob of butter. She took extra clothes, extra shoes, flint and tinder for a fire. The sun had barely risen when she stood in the entrance of her small family home.
Uncle Bunah sat out front smoking a long cigarillo that smelled like ash and vanilla. He looked at her from beneath lidded eyes, his faced glowing from the cherry. “Where are you going, girl?”
“I’m making a trip.” She watched him carefully. Ever since the fountains went dry, Uncle Bunah hadn’t done much—he’d lost the will, according to her mother.
He took a long drag. “A trip to where?”
“I want to see where the aqueduct ends. I want to fix it.”
Another plume of smoke. “Good luck,” he said. “You’ve got more courage than me.”
“Thank you, Uncle.”
Ellana left her family behind. It would break their hearts, she knew—but the city was dying, drying out in the blasting summer sun, and Ellana couldn’t imagine a life without the riot of green and flower color she grew up with and loved so much.
She walked to the main gates and left through the pilgrim’s door. She traveled the road all day, passing merchants, refugees, beggars, priests, bards, always keeping the aqueduct to her left, always following its slope.
She walked for a long time.
She shared fires with other travelers. They told stories about ghosts and djinn and monsters stealing goats. She told stories about fountains and creeping vines and fat yellow flower blooms.
When it rained, she got soaked. When the wind blew, she staggered against its strength. She ran out of food: she begged for more.
Days and days and miles. She traded for a wax-hide tent. She learned how to forage, how to fish, and how to hide from the people that might hurt her.
The road turned west one afternoon, but the aqueduct continued east. She stepped into the wilderness.
The land grew rough. Her hair grew long. She patched the tent with what she could. Each night, a fire. Each day, walking, trapping, living.
Sometimes, the aqueduct was little more than pipe buried in the ground. Other times, it soared above canyons.
Always, in the distance, the mountains grew, not flattened after all.
Her clothes were ragged and baggy. Her feet were callused, her arms and legs were bruised.
She kept going.
One morning, she reached a large hill. The aqueduct disappeared into the earth at its base. At the top, she stared down at a crystal blue lake.
It was the most water she’d ever seen.
She sat on the beach for a long time. She thought of her mother, her baby sister, her uncle smoking in the darkness, and the wailing mourners.
She stood and took off her clothes.
The water was icy cold and clear. She let out a gasp, but pushed forward. She could see the rocky, silty bottom, slick beneath her toes.
Goosebumps dotted her skin. She paddled awkwardly, sputtering. She didn’t know how to swim, but inch by inch, she reached the center. She floated there, staring up at the sky, then turned and looked downward, into the depths.
Below, a wide, black maw yawned up.
She stared at it, afraid of some ancient monster. But the maw didn’t move.
She took a deep breath and dove.
Down she swam. The maw resolved into the mouth of a pipe. It wasn’t too deep, and she reached it with ease. She felt around, looking for some problem—and had to swim back up for another deep breath.
Down again, over and over, until she reached both arms into the entrance, tipping herself forward as if to swim inside—
And felt something.
Up again and down. She grabbed whatever was inside the pipe, wrapped wet, silky, rope-like gunk around her hands, and yanked hard. She pulled, and pulled, until some came out.
Up again and down, pulling, tugging, clearing. Up and down, breath and no breath, until on her last dive, a chunk as big as a man slid free from the pipe—
And it gave a huge gulp.
She struggled against the current. Air bubbles rose wildly all around her and wanted to suck her deep inside.
The pipe was drinking again.
She barely reached the surface, gasping for breath, light-headed from lack of air. The weed-like stuff floated all around her, probably from years and years of neglect.
She dove one more time just to be sure, but she felt it, the tug of moving water.
On the beach again, she lay with her back on sun-warmed ground and let the wind dry her off. She shivered, freezing, but it was no worse than anything else.
The lake bubbled and groaned, and she knew—
When the water reached the city, the fountains would flow again.
She closed her eyes and laughed, and hoped she’d make it back one day to see.
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