The Pupfish of Miracle Spring by J.G. Follansbee
The Pupfish of Miracle Spring
by J.G. Follansbee
Dr. Maxine Riçon, PhD, wept at the absence of water. The algae mat she’d observed for ten years, once the color of early spring leaves and bejeweled with bubbles of oxygen, had dried in the Nevada desert air to a dull black, like nori. The death shroud covered the flat boulder’s surface, and Maxine’s tears fell freely, disobeying her scientist’s will to detachment. She hadn’t cried since losing her father in 2061.
Her post-doc assistant, Petra Delgado, comforted her with an embrace. Petra breathed out. “Will the fish move over to the β site, Maxine?”
The aquatic biologist suppressed her sensation of viewing a loved one’s corpse. “The α was the dominant site. The only exchanges…”
Maxine stopped herself, choking again as she recounted the fish’s behavior. Under the narrow sandstone vault that protected Miracle Spring, the 20-millimeter male pupfish migrated from the β site on the smaller, still-submerged boulder to the α site to find and mate with the resident females. The males’ coloring turned a dense Caribbean blue for their round-trip of a single meter, the distance between the sites. She’d published a half-dozen papers on her studies. She’d presented at international conferences. The species had made her reputation.
The fish’s journeys were over now. Habitat α, on the larger boulder, was completely destroyed.
“They’ve been here 10,000 years, Maxine. They must’ve have had similar stresses in the past. Life finds a way—“ Petra halted, her grief and anger surfacing. “How did this happen? Who did this?”
Maxine had already asked herself the questions of how and who and why, but hadn’t yet voiced them. She and Petra agreed that the destruction was no accident, another case of mentor and student thinking so much alike that she wondered if the old legends of lifelong friends or mates knowing each other in past lives were true.
“What do we do now?” Petra said.
Did she mean as a scientist? The surprise discovery left Maxine shocked and numb, but the answer was straightforward: observe, gather data, report your findings.
On the other hand, she had never seen an environmental crime of this scale. It was not only a criminal act, it was an act of evil. She put her hand on her hip holster. She’d never fired the pistol issued by her employer, the Bureau of Environmental Security, or even pulled it, except at the training range.
What was it that the investigations instructor told her? Secure the scene. Fuck. What the hell does that mean when you’re 150 kilometers from an abandoned Las Vegas and 450 kilometers from the village of Los Angeles? Despite the regs, she never carried the demarcation beacons or even yellow crime scene tape in her ATV. She was a researcher, not a cop.
Whatever her role, the fish came first. “We try to save what we can, Petra.”
The assistant flipped open the top of her water bottle and glanced at the desiccated mating grounds of the world’s only population of Miracle Spring pupfish. She wet her lips with the water, rather than swallowing a mouthful. “I’ll get the survey gear.”
Maxine followed Petra to the big BES all-terrain vehicle. A line of sweat stained the shirt between the assistant’s shoulder blades, reminding Maxine of Jakub and their hikes while they dated. Teacher and student trudged back and forth from the vehicle to the spring, carrying the pieces of an aluminum platform, specially designed to hang over the spring from pitons hammered into the overhanging rock.
Hours later, Petra tightened the last of the bolts. “It’ll be dark soon.”
“I don’t want to wait until morning,” Maxine said. “Let’s try to get a count.”
The biologist and her geologist assistant, who was six months into a three-year research project on the region’s aquifers, rigged the battery-powered lights. The platform was designed to hang ten centimeters from the spring’s surface, which rose and fell half as much over a year’s seasons. On her last visit, Maxine could comfortably touch the water with a gloved hand.
As she reached down with a video camera, Petra held the belt of her boss’s trousers to keep her from falling in. “It’s unbelievable, Maxine. Look at the lighter band on the stone where the water level used to be.”
“Let’s focus on β for now.” Maxine adjusted a light to shine on the smaller habitat. Thin, dark shapes half a finger’s length darted over the algae mat. She let out a breath of relief. “Mother in Heaven, I see fish.”
“Thank God. How many?”
“I’ll need to do a proper survey. Thirty, maybe 40.”
A balance of males and females survived on β. It was like finding a pocket of refugees fleeing a war zone. Maxine scooted down the edge of the platform to α. A tiny fraction of the boulder, whose surface was pitched about five degrees, was still under water, and it had living algae clinging to it. She imagined microscopic diatoms swimming in and around their forest, but she saw no fish on the mat, nor around the edges of the boulder.
In her moleskin notebook, she wrote, Approx 40% of pop remains. Where will the beta site males go in the spring? Her fury rose, and she snapped the rubber band around the notebook and pencil.
“Is the population still viable?” Petra said. “Genetically, I mean?”
Answering Petra’s question would take time. Maxine performed the first detailed genetic studies of the pupfish for Dr. Michael Ngoro, her dissertation adviser. He was a legend in his field, though the outside world barely knew him. The senior biologist had kept watch on the Devils Hole pupfish, protected by an old U.S. law but not by the ravages of climate change. That fish, Cyprinodon diabolis, once the rarest fish on the planet, had died out as the deserts of western Nevada dried out even more.
Maxine remembered Ngoro as charismatic, brilliant, and a risk-taker. He was beside himself when his diving team returned from an exploration trip into the submerged caves below Devils Hole. She was on her first field work as a graduate student. He was dripping with water when he raced into camp. “It’s confirmed! It’s confirmed!”
Maxine was startled when he grabbed her and kissed her square on the lips. Ngoro’s instrumentation was fussy, but she was an intuitive mechanic, a talent picked up at her parents’ aquaculture farm near Modesto. “Max, did I tell you I love you! Your fix is what did it.”
“All I did was adjust—“
“There’s another surface spring, somewhere nearby,” Ngoro declared. “All the measurements say it’s out there.”
Nearly two decades later, as she lay on the platform over Miracle Spring with Petra like a guardian angel, Maxine’s faced flushed with the memory. She forced her mind back to the disaster beneath her platform. She needed to concentrate. What happened? Was there a fix?
Petra downloaded the surveillance logs from the monitoring equipment, including a camera mounted on an emergency potable water tank. She’d found the camera damaged beyond repair. “A coyote or a raptor didn’t do this,” Petra said. “It was smashed with a hammer or a rock.” The last data entry was two weeks prior.
The spring was under constant monitoring at BES regional headquarters. Why didn’t HQ tell her about the problem before she left San Jose? On the other hand, the BES’s need-to-know mentality was legendary. They were more about “security” than “environmental.” Some bureaucrat was culpable, probably knew it, and kept the failure to himself.
Maxine opened a sample vial and scooped up a thimble-full of the spring’s water to test for pH and toxins. After Dr. Ngoro’s breakthrough at Devils Hole, he found the predicted spring, and he whooped with joy when he saw the video of tiny fish swimming on a mat of algae. As it happened, the discovery occurred on the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, and Ngoro, a devout Catholic, argued for naming the site Miracle Spring.
“What shall we call the fish?” Ngoro said.
“It’s too soon, Michael.” Maxine knew the proper student’s answer. “We need to examine specimens and determine its—“
“Don’t be a killjoy, Max. Geologically speaking, the spring has been isolated for 100 centuries. That’s long enough for a population to diverge, like what happened at Devils Hole. Let’s give the new fish a name.”
“Well, if we assume it’s in the genus Cyprinodon, why not call it mirabilis?”
Ngoro smiled, his white teeth lighting up the cramped tent. “Latin for ‘miraculous.’ You’re a genius, Max.”
Sitting with Petra on a camp stool in front of the artificial fire, Maxine reflected on Ngoro’s excitement. For the natural world devastated by the Warming, the discovery of Miracle Spring was a sliver of hope. How had C. mirabilis survived when its cousin, C. diabolis, had not? Could the Miracle Spring pupfish’s hardiness show a way to adapt in a new world that was growing warmer by the year?
“How many people know about Miracle Spring?” Petra said.
Outside of a few worn petroglyphs indicating indigenous knowledge, no one had touched the spring before Ngoro. It wasn’t on any of the survey maps or historical maps, and no one found any historical records. Unlike Devils Hole, which vandals had occasionally desecrated, Miracle Spring was pristine. The Bureau of Environmental Security, formed to protect the environment after years of climate crises, classified the spring’s location secret while research continued.
“Ngoro, myself, and a couple of others are the only people who’ve been here up to now,” Maxine said. “Ngoro died in Mexico about a year after I got my PhD. He dived into a cave by himself and vanished.”
“It was a stupid mistake.”
Staring into the red-orange elements of the solar-powered heater, Petra beside her, Maxine took stock of her years since Ngoro’s death. She and Jakub had divorced. They had no children, but toward C. mirabilis, she felt like a mother who had lost half her brood. Someone was guilty of a terrible crime against life itself. Someone would pay for it.
A hypothesis formed in Maxine’s mind: Someone had learned about the spring, and had taken its water.
What should I do with the remaining fish?
She had only one answer, the same one humans had fallen back on when their world had disappeared, like the millions of climate refugees moving away from coasts ravaged by powerful storms and rising sea levels, or starved by decades of failed rains. Maxine rose from her camp seat and headed for the vehicle. Petra trailed after her, asking her questions, but Maxine was silent as she worked out the details of her gamble. She opened the rear hatch and rummaged in the disorganized collection of gear. “Petra, I told you to pack this stuff properly.”
“Hey, I didn’t know we were going to mount a rescue operation.”
“Where are the sample bags? The large ones?”
Petra and pulled out a box.
“Okay, now we need the cooler.”
“That’s got all our food in it.”
“We won’t need the food now.” She found the insulated box and unloaded the perishables.
“At least wait until morning to dump that.” Petra grabbed a package of lunch meat.
“I think it’ll work.” Maxine put her hands on her hips.
“Shouldn’t we tell HQ what we’re doing?”
“No time. They’ll demand everything in triplicate with signatures in ink before we take a piss.” Maxine had started with BES full of optimism and enthusiasm. Finally, the politicians were taking the earth’s troubles seriously. In front of the vehicle, its doors emblazoned with the golden BES tulip, she shook her head cynically, thinking of the climate refugees and her soon-to-be aquatic exiles, and walked on. Petra trotted to catch up to her.
The rescue operation took less time than Maxine expected. The fish were docile, perhaps even trusting. Maxine imagined they understood that survival was at stake, and that she was trying to help them. A couple of hours later, as darkness enveloped the mountains, she had captured 32 fish with a dip net, putting five or six at a time in the plastic bags filled with water from the spring. The bags looked like half-filled water balloons. She scraped off some of the algae and bagged it as well. Everything was packed in the cooler.
The two scientists trudged down the path from the spring to the vehicle and loaded the cooler in the back seat. “Petra, keep the air conditioning at 33 C. That’ll maintain the water temp for the trip. It should match the temp in the lab’s aquaria.”
“It won’t be a comfortable trip for us. We’ll be sweating all the way.” Petra closed the vehicle hatch. “I’ll help you pack up the campsite.”
“I can’t go.”
Petra was shocked. “Are you serious?”
“There’s still fish in the spring. I left a handful there just in case the ones in the vehicle don’t make it.”
“They’ll be fine, Maxine. I can’t leave you here.”
“If someone’s around here, he or she might hurt the fish,” Maxine said. “I can’t leave them defenseless.”
“What if I don’t make it? What if I break down and you’re out here alone?”
“The BES will come out here eventually looking for us.” Maxine was less certain about her assertion than she let on.
“This isn’t downtown Modesto, Maxine. It can get to 45 Celsius here during the day.”
“The emergency water tank is nearly full. I’ll be fine.”
“Stop arguing with me, Petra. I’m still your boss. Get in the vehicle and get those fish to the tanks in the lab. That might be the only way we’ll save mirabilis.”
Petra muttered shit under her breath. She stalked to her sleeping bag and tent and tore up her corner of the site, throwing her stuff onto the floor of the vehicle in front of the fish’s emergency home.
“And don’t drive too fast.” Maxine ignored Petra’s tantrum. “The fish aren’t used to jostling.”
“I’ll stop and let them throw up on the side of the road.” Petra sighed. “Are you sure you’re going to be alright?”
“Getting the fish to a safe place is the most important thing, Petra. Thanks for doing that.” Maxine softened her hard gaze and hugged her student, who reminded Maxine of herself at that age. Is this how all teachers feel about their favorite students?
Petra climbed in and ordered the AI to take her to the lab. It would be an eight-hour trip. After her tail lights disappeared behind a hill. Maxine took up a vigil on the platform, wrapping her sleeping bag around herself like a cocoon. An hour later, she was asleep.
& & &
Maxine dreamed of Petra, bleeding in an overturned vehicle piloted by a confused AI, the refugee pupfish bloated and floating in bags boiling like water in a kettle. She threw off the sleeping bag, letting the chilly morning air absorb the heat of her nightmare. Anxious for the fish she guarded, she dipped the underwater camera into the spring water over the β site. The bland shapes of the remaining pup fish hovered above the mat of algae, occasionally turning toward invisible prey. They were safe and sound, and Maxine wiped the sweat from her hairline.
After breakfast, she examined the enclosed area around the site. The metal box with the solar-powered communications gear next to the potable water tank was intact, but the antenna was missing, its cable cut. That explained why her personal communications network signal was spotty; the spring was at the bottom of a rock cleft in an arroyo, and she’d have to climb to the ridge to find a signal, if a com tower happened to be within her line of sight. She’d left the augmenter for a satellite connection in the vehicle.
Her camp site was inside a chain link fence surrounding the spring. Maxine frowned at a portion of the fabric that was cut, distorted, and bent, remembering the dispute that broke out in Ngoro’s team. One side thought science could only be served by announcing the discovery. Ngoro was among them.
The other faction, led by Maxine, argued for secrecy, citing the failure to preserve the Devils Hole species. What good was science if it resulted in extinction? Ngoro took her argument as a backstabbing personal attack on his failure to protect C. diabolis. After the BES sided with her, their relationship cooled, and they barely spoke until his death.
Continuing her walkabout, she snapped a picture of a footprint from a boot or heavy shoe that pointed toward a narrow saddle in the rocky ridge above her. When she edged her way through it into a neighboring canyon, she heard the noise. It was subtle, reciprocating, and unnatural. Confusing repetitions and pauses bounced around the steep-sided gullies like ball bearings in a pinball machine. The rising heat of the day forced her to halt in an outcrop’s shadow. As she munched on an energy bar, she thought of other aftermaths.
“It’s too bad about Jakub,” her mother said over tea a week after Maxine moved back in with her. The elder’s long gray hair was braided down her back.
“Please, Mom. Not now.” After Dr. Ngoro disappeared, she became more serious about her boyfriend, as if filling an empty space in her emotional life.
“I think it’s time we talked about this. I don’t mean to scold, but Jakub always wanted more than you were able to give.”
“And how do you know so much about him? You spoke to him how many times since the wedding?” Maxine looked at the ceiling with mock thoughtfulness. “Hmm. Zero?”
“I saw his posts on the com net. I saw him in the videos with you. I saw trouble from the beginning.”
“I’ve got a PhD in environmental science, Mom. I think I know a little about life.” Maxine looked away, ashamed of her weak argument.
“He wanted children, a house on a cul-de-sac, a retirement account. You’ve never wanted that stuff. You never even played with baby dolls when you were little. You cared more about the sick fish in the quarantine tanks than hanging out with the other girls in the neighborhood.”
Maxine wrapped her hands around the mug of tea as if hugging herself. She’d loved Jakub, at least she thought she did, but his constant questions about when she might get pregnant were an unpleasant and unwelcome surprise. The subject of children never came up when they were dating. She wanted to help heal the earth, not overpopulate it with squalling infants.
“Marrying him was a mistake that you’ve fixed,” Maxine’s mother said. “Good thing it only lasted a couple of years.”
Maxine agreed, but that didn’t lessen the pain. She soothed it with her hikes in the southern Sierra Nevada. She came to terms with first losing her teacher and then her lover. Within a year, she took the BES oath, and spent her days researching the pupfish.
These days, Jakub lived with a woman in Medford who coded software for a wind power utility. They had twin boys and a girl on the way.
I won’t lose my fish.
Maxine brushed her hands against her pants, leaving a few crumbs for the mice at Miracle Spring. Stalking the reciprocating sound, she came to ravine with a flat floor about 10 meters wide and 30 meters long. It was enclosed at both ends except for a narrow gap in the stone that allowed a single person to pass through. She touched her sidearm for reassurance.
The ravine was an oasis. While the land for 100 kilometers around was as dry and dusty as the moon, here was a cool, pleasant space. Like marching soldiers, rows of lime green shoots poked up from turned ground made dark by water dripping from irrigation lines. The rows led her eye to a shanty constructed of found lumber and fabric. Along one edge of the garden was a narrow, higher, drier mound, its earth freshly turned.
The echo filled the ravine, and Maxine found the source. A pump was drawing water from a well behind the shanty. Water spurted into a translucent holding tank. Lines interrupted by thumb-sized valves snaked to the garden drip lines. The well, battery, and pump assembly was the size of a portable toolbox, easily carried in pieces. Cabling connected a battery assembly to a solar panel mounted on a ledge above the shanty. Maxine touched the pump’s control pad, which woke up and offered a security prompt.
A pebble tumbled down the rock wall, underscoring the tingling on the back of her neck. Someone was living in the ravine and drawing water from a well, almost certainly without a permit, which was impossible to get. For the first time since joining the BES, she unholstered her weapon. She left the safety on, hoping the threat of a gun was enough to discourage bad intent.
“I’m an officer of the Bureau of Environmental Security.” Maxine didn’t quite believe she had said the echoing words. She rarely thought about her law enforcement role, but she was afraid, trying to remember the training if she was ever confronted with danger. “I have a weapon. I can hear you moving around. Come out with your hands visible and you won’t be harmed.”
The sounds of footsteps sliding on sandstone rebounded in the ravine. Maxine turned round and round, the sound bouncing like light in a hall of mirrors, her fear soaking up the saliva in her mouth until it tasted of dust. She flicked off the safety.
“Do not move. Please place your gun on the ground.”
The baritone voice was behind her at the entrance to the ravine. Maxine recognized it, but didn’t believe her memory.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Max. Please put your gun on the ground.”
Maxine obeyed, rejecting the logic of her conclusion about the man’s identity.
“Turn around slowly. Don’t touch the gun.”
A part of Maxine didn’t want to see the man behind her, because it meant accepting what her rational brain screamed. She had no choice. He could shoot her or stab her or club her at any moment.
“I’m sorry to sneak up on you, Max.”
Michael Ngoro had aged, as if the grave had excised 30 years from his life, though he’d only been dead for ten. Not dead. Alive! “Michael… How?”
Maxine’s doctoral adviser held a long knife toward her, ready to slash.
“I thought you died in Mexico.”
“Your observational skills are failing you, Max. Not something I’d expect from my favorite student.” Michael said it with a sad grin.
Maxine glanced at her weapon in the dust. How could she get it back?
“Promise you won’t run or try to hurt me, Max,” Michael said.
“You’re the one who looks like you’re ready to slice me in two.”
The corners of Michael’s full mouth lifted, and he picked up her weapon, stowing it in his belt. Maxine saw the old twinkle in his eyes. “Thirsty?”
Maxine didn’t answer.
“Of course you are. Hot as hell in the desert.”
Moving with the deliberateness of a stalking cat, Michael set a pair of camp chairs by the shanty door. Maxine’s heartbeat slowed as she sat opposite him. Relaxing, he slid his knife into a sheath on his calf. She could’ve rushed him then, but she didn’t, still stunned by his reappearance. His hair was mostly gray, his skin paler than it ought to be, but his strength was still imposing. She was caught between happiness at seeing a dear friend she once thought dead, and alarm at discovering him with an illegal water pump. He handed her a metal cup of water.
Maxine sipped and tasted raspberry. “Flavored water?”
Michael shrugged. “It covers the taste of the purification chemicals.”
“What are you doing here, Michael? What is all this?” She swept her hand around her, like a ballet dancer.
“This is what happens when disillusionment overcomes you.”
“The academic life?”
“That, but more the direction of things. The public mood.”
“Something had to be done, Michael. The old way of dealing with environmental disasters no longer worked. Mother Earth had to come first, no exceptions. The Bureau—“
“Remember our little argument about protecting Miracle Spring? You won. I lost and got a black mark for it. I was suspect.”
Maxine didn’t know, but she wasn’t surprised. The BES was unforgiving.
“After a couple of my grant applications were turned down due to, how did they put it? ‘Concerns about the applicant’s commitment to environmental justice,’ I got the message.” He huffed sarcastically. “My research did more to further the Bureau’s aims than any political conformity.”
“That’s not reason enough to stage your own death, Michael.”
Michael laughed. “Now that’s more like my old student. Cut through the bullshit to the truth.” He rubbed his hands. “I had divorced too. Don’t look surprised. I know your story. I followed you on the com nets.” His shoulders slumped. “In my case, she got everything. We never had children either. All I had was my job, but I was on the administration’s shit list. Our institution has no tenure, remember? I needed a new start. So I died in Mexico.”
Implying a shared emotional trauma didn’t work for Maxine. Her divorce was an amicable parting and she loved her work. Her view of Michael changed, however. She pictured a desperate professional unable to adapt to a new political reality, looking for a way out that preserved his dignity as a scientist and as a man. She wanted to reach out to her old teacher, but she maintained her police officer’s mien.
Michael’s shoulders slumped. “You were a huge disappointment to me, Max.”
“What did I do wrong?”
“Joined the BES. Became political. Science shouldn’t be political.”
“Political? You know I don’t care about politics. They offered me a job, doing science.”
“That’s the same excuse Wernher von Braun offered when he explained why he joined the Nazis. Remember your ethics of science readings? All he wanted to do was build rockets. It wasn’t his problem that the rockets carried explosives that landed on London and killed thousands, or that the rockets were built with slave labor.”
“Are you comparing me to a mass murderer?”
“No, of course not.” Michael shook his head. “But the BES is not exactly kind and gentle. I saw it when I got back to Las Vegas.”
Maxine could tell the story as well. BES was given power over all water supplies, wiping away half a millennium of tradition and law. Overnight, the city of Las Vegas, built of water from the Colorado River, was cut off from its lifeblood. Within months, the population of 1.5 million dwindled to a few thousand.
Michael’s eyes rested on the mound on the garden’s edge. “I met Imelda in one of the refugee camps in Bakersfield. We sold what we had, bought what we needed, and packed everything we could to make our way here.”
“Because you knew where you could find water from a hidden spring.”
Michael nodded. “A new start.” As if uncomfortable with the steel in his belt, Michael lay Maxine’s gun on a box just inside the shanty’s door. The BES officer saw the dull gray of its barrel. “It was a new start for both us, but it was too much for Imelda.”
“What about the fish, Michael?” Maxine kept her teacher talking as she worked on a way out of her predicament. Despondency crept up on her. He wouldn’t surrender to her, and she’d never attacked or hurt anyone in her life. She even avoided harvest days at her parents’ trout farm.
His behavior, however, infuriated her. “You not only knew about Miracle Spring, you knew about the water table that feeds the spring. And you knew how sensitive it is. We’re in a ten-thousand year drought. Every drop of water counts.”
Michael looked away, embarrassed.
“I’m betting you chose this spot because the water table is only a few meters down, and you could find the water pretty quickly.”
“It was me or the fish, Max.”
“You robbed the pupfish of their right to live!” Maxine’s body shook with anger. Michael had tapped the water table, and though he probably didn’t pump large volumes, the table was sensitive enough to cause the water level to fall at Miracle Spring. Petra would confirm her suspicions with the aquifer studies.
On top of that, Michael had betrayed her. A man she believed in had done the most despicable thing she could imagine. It was like space aliens in orbit stripping the earth of oxygen and not caring about the asphyxiating creatures below.
Michael straightened his back. “Do you know how many bodies we saw on the road to Bakersfield? Have you ever seen what vultures do to a corpse? That’s what the BES thinks of a human’s right to live.”
“What happened to you, Michael?”
“Same thing that happened to everyone. The Warming.”
It took starvation, disease, flooding, and hurricanes so powerful they blew down skyscrapers to bring people around to the value of protecting the planet, no matter the cost. Maxine believed in that value, and though she still loved her old teacher, he had violated that value, not to mention the law. “The pupfish are almost gone, Michael. You’ve committed a serious crime.”
“Not if you don’t report it, Max.”
“Of course I’ll report it. It’s my duty.” She thought of Petra and her mission. If all went well, she’d be on her way back.
Nervous at Maxine’s agitation, Michael retrieved the gun. She almost cried out. How could a man who had guided her with the same love as a parent threaten her life? “Michael, don’t.”
“I don’t want to, Max. It’s a matter of survival.”
Maxine had no idea what to do. Her BES training had included basic self-defense, but she wasn’t required to practice it, and her athleticism was limited to hiking and a little rock climbing. Michael’s gun hand was trembling. He was just as frightened as Maxine, and he gulped as if he hadn’t had water in days. The silence between them was like a canyon when the air is still. The automated pump started up. Michael’s attention switched to the pump and its precious water. Maxine saw her chance and she leaped onto Michael’s belly, below the gun, which fell to the sand. The pair tumbled down in a heap.
Maxine reached for the gun. She scrambled away from the shanty and lifted her weapon. She licked her lips, partly from thirst, and partly from triumph. “I’m sorry, Michael. I’m placing you under arrest.” She motioned for his knife, which he handed over.
Michael’s face white with fear. “Maxine, let me go. I only want to live in peace. I don’t wish anyone harm. As your teacher and mentor, I’m asking you to forgive me.”
The decision was easy for Maxine. “No, Michael. I have a job to do.” She instructed her mentor to face the wall of the arroyo. “Put your hands on the back of your head.”
“No, Max. Please—.”
“Face the wall!”
When she was sure Michael obeyed, she holstered the gun. Keeping one eye on her prisoner, she found a large stone, big enough to need two hands, and she smashed the pump assembly to scrap.
“Quiet.” The BES officer grabbed the cable to the solar panel and pulled with all her might. The panel tumbled down the canyon wall, shattering on a rock.
“You’re killing me, Maxine. Why?”
“Because what you’re doing is wrong. It’s why we humans have practically destroyed the place that gave us life, the whole fucking planet.”
“Shut up.” Maxine brought out her weapon. “You’re coming with me. We’re going back to the spring.”
“What about Imelda?”
“She’s dead!” She stole a look at the grave and regretted her callousness. “You’re coming with me. I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
Maxine made up for her cruelty by leaving Michael’s hands unbound. They had to scramble over rocks, and she didn’t carry handcuffs. She also didn’t trust Michael’s well water, and by the time they reached the spring, her canteen was bone dry. The water from the emergency tank was stale, but good.
Maxine’s anger over the well and the pump hadn’t abated, despite her exhaustion. She had no plan for getting Michael to a BES facility, but a desire for retribution overcame her. She’d worked long and hard to save C. mirabilis, and her teacher had threatened everything. She remembered her environmental history, when ranchers and farmers argued over saving other aquatic creatures. “It’s just a fish!” they’d cry, but when it was gone, it was gone for eternity, while ranchers and farmers could use the water more efficiently, or raise other, less water-intensive products. Michael had fallen in with a den of environmental terrorists, as far as Maxine was concerned.
“Michael, I want you to see something.” She pointed her weapon at his chest, wanting to press her point. “Get up and walk over to the spring, down to the platform.”
Wary, Michael obeyed, his eyes wide.
“You understood what you’d done, and you came back to cover up your crime by smashing the monitoring equipment, didn’t you?”
Michael said nothing as tears welled up in his eyes. Was he afraid she’d kill him? “I want you to look at your handiwork.”
“I already know.”
“Look again.” She pointed out the stain around the end of the cleft wall. “That’s where the water used to be, and—“ She halted when she saw the big boulder, site α. She lost her concentration and leaned over the rail. “Oh, god. The water level. It’s fallen again!” The entire boulder was exposed, threatening the few fish left on the nearby smaller rock. “You—“
Michael’s fist hit her in the temple, knocking her down. Her gun clattered on the platform. The teacher lunged for the weapon, but Maxine kicked his leg, and he yelped in pain. Then he flashed another knife—smaller, hidden, How?—and he stabbed Maxine in her torso. The act felt like a punch, rather than a slice. Maxine instantly knew the wound was deep, maybe mortal, but she was focused on Michael, who’d scrambled up the trail, limping, towards freedom.
“Stop, Michael. Stop!” Before she knew it, her gun was in her hand. Primed by adrenalin, she fired. Her old teacher dropped like a rag doll on the trail, rolling a meter until his body wedged itself next to the cleft wall. He didn’t move, but a stream of dark blood slid from underneath his body.
Maxine lay on the platform, uncertain whether to fear for her own life, or grieve over the death of a dear friend. Her own blood soaked her shirt, but it was leaking, rather than pumping. The wound might be survivable if help came in time. Soon, drops of her blood fell into the spring water, making tiny red explosions, drawing curious pupfish.
She lay there on the edge of consciousness, until she noticed something that frightened her. The water level in the spring had fallen again. It was only a millimeter or two, but she knew the spring like her own body. The α site was completely exposed, and her breathing quickened when she saw a tip of the β boulder emerge from the surface. How did this happen? She’d smashed the pump at Michael’s camp. Was it still working? Was the dropping water level really his fault? Did she kill him for nothing? Was someone else taking water from her pupfish? She called out for Petra or anyone to hear, the pain in her side excruciating. In her semi-lucid state, she knew no one heard. The fish would die if she didn’t act now.
Her eye flicked up to the equipment at the edge of the spring.
Every muscle in her back and stomach battered her consciousness with pain, but she dragged herself up the trail, leaving the gun behind on the platform, crawling past Michael’s body, flies already sopping up liquid around his mouth and open eyes.
She reached for the valve on the tank of emergency potable water and tried to turn it. She felt as if half her strength was gone, and she wanted to sleep. A trail of her blood rolled down the to the edge of the spring. She opened the valve, first a half-turn, followed by another half, and water flowed down the trail, past her nose, and thirst burst into her consciousness like another blow to her skull. The core of her being begged her rational mind to reach out and drink her fill and more. She did nothing of the kind. She kept still, her only movement the rise and fall of her shallow breath.
A corner of her mind laughed at the futility of her act, but she smiled at the thought of the water reaching the spring. Maybe it would keep the fish alive a while longer until Petra could come back and save the last remaining members of C. mirabilis, creatures of their own tiny world, deserving life like any other of nature’s creations, and not end their existence as a cost of capricious, thoughtless human desire for wealth or dominance.
The stream from the tank slowed and after three drips, stopped. After a moment, feeling a tiny spark of strength, Maxine lifted her head toward the spring, serene and placid as it had been for ten thousand years. Seized by a desire to see her fish, she slid down the trail, ignoring Michael’s corpse and her pain, and slipped onto the platform. Joy overwhelmed her when she saw that the β site was again completely covered by water. Tears of gratefulness streamed down her face. She had given the fish a little more time…
“Maxine! What happened?” Her student’s dark form loomed over her. “Christ in Heaven, you’re bleeding.”
“The fish?” Maxine’s lips barely moved. “What about the fish?”
“They’re fine. They all made it to the lab.” Petra fumbled with her water bottle, intent on giving a drink to her teacher. “I came back for you and the rest of them.”
“They’re safe. They’re safe, thank God.”
Maxine rested her eyes on the β site, as a mother might watch her sleeping child. If she died now, it would be worth it. She closed her eyes, but she didn’t dream.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright J.G. Follansbee 2018
Image Source: National Geographic “Starving Polar Bear, Canada, Climate Change”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: J.G. Follansbee has been previously published in Satirica: An Anthology of Satirical Speculative Fiction, and Bards and Sages Quarterly. His flash fiction, War of Water, will appear in the April 2018 edition of Children, Churches and Daddies.
The Pupfish of Miracle Spring was awarded a Silver Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future Contest for Q3 2017. J.G. Follansbee was also awarded Honorable Mention in Q2 2017 for his novelette, The Mother Earth Insurgency. MEI is the first story in his series, Tales From A Warming Planet, and it’s now available on Amazon. The first novel in the series, Carbon Run, was published on October 21, 2017. He also have numerous non-fiction writing credits.