The long, fat freighter glided into the harbor at late morning—not the best time for a woman who had to keep out of sight.
The sun slowly slid up the sky as tugboats drew them into Anchorage. The tank ship, a big sectioned VLCC, was like an elephant ballerina on the stage of a slate-blue sea, attended by tiny dancing tugs.
Now off duty, Elinor watched the pilot bring them in past the Nikiski Narrows and slip into a long pier with gantries like skeletal arms snaking down, the big pump pipes attached. They were ready for the hydrogen sulfide to flow. The ground crew looked anxious, scurrying around, hooting and shouting. They were behind schedule.
Inside, she felt steady, ready to destroy all this evil stupidity.
She picked up her duffel bag, banged a hatch shut, and walked down to the shore desk. Pier teams in gasworkers’ masks were hooking up pumps to offload and even the faint rotten egg stink of the hydrogen sulfide made her hold her breath. The Bursar checked her out, reminding her to be back within 28 hours. She nodded respectfully, and her maritime ID worked at the gangplank checkpoint without a second glance. The burly guy there said something about hitting the bars and she wrinkled her nose. “For breakfast?”
“I seen it, ma’am,” he said, and winked.
She ignored the other crew, solid merchant marine types. She had only used her old engineer’s rating to get on this freighter, not to strike up the chords of the Seamen’s Association song.
She hit the pier and boarded the shuttle to town, jostling onto the bus, anonymous among boat crews eager to use every second of shore time. Just as she’d thought, this was proving the best way to get in under the security perimeter. No airline manifest, no Homeland Security ID checks. In the unloading, nobody noticed her, with her watch cap pulled down and baggy jeans. No easy way to even tell she was a woman.
Now to find a suitably dingy hotel. She avoided central Anchorage and kept to the shoreline, where small hotels from the TwenCen still did business. At a likely one on Sixth Avenue, the desk clerk told her there were no rooms left.
“With all the commotion at Elmendorf, ever’ damn billet in town’s packed,” the grizzled guy behind the counter said.
She looked out the dirty window, pointed. “What’s that?”
“Aw, that bus? Well, we’re gettin’ that ready to rent, but—”
“How about half price?”
“You don’t want to be sleeping in that—”
“Let me have it,” she said, slapping down a $50 bill.
“Uh, well.” He peered at her. “The owner said—”
“Show it to me.”
She got him down to $25 when she saw that it really was a “retired bus.” Something about it she liked, and no cops would think of looking in the faded yellow wreck. It had obviously fallen on hard times after it had served the school system.
It held a jumble of furniture, apparently to give it a vaguely homelike air. The driver’s seat and all else were gone, leaving holes in the floor. The rest was an odd mix of haste and taste. A walnut Victorian love seat with a medallion backrest held the center, along with a lumpy bed. Sagging upholstery and frayed cloth, cracked leather, worn wood, chipped veneer, a radio with the knobs askew, a patched-in shower closet, and an enamel basin toilet illuminated with a warped lamp completed the sad tableau. A generator chugged outside as a clunky gas heater wheezed. Authentic, in its way.
Restful, too. She pulled on latex gloves the moment the clerk left, and took a nap, knowing she would not soon sleep again. No tension, no doubts. She was asleep in minutes.
Time for the recon. At the rental place she’d booked, she picked up the wastefully big Ford SUV. A hybrid, though. No problem with the credit card, which looked fine at first use, then erased its traces with a virus that would propagate in the rental system, snipping away all records.
The drive north took her past the air base but she didn’t slow down, just blended in with late afternoon traffic. Signs along the highway now had to warn about polar bears, recent migrants to the land and even more dangerous than the massive local browns. The terrain was just as she had memorized it on Google Earth, the likely shooting spots isolated, thickly wooded. The Internet maps got the seacoast wrong, though. Two Inuit villages had recently sprung up along the shore within Elmendorf, as one of their people, posing as a fisherman, had observed and photographed. Studying the pictures, she’d thought they looked slightly ramshackle, temporary, hastily thrown up in the exodus from the tundra regions. No need to last, as the Inuit planned to return north as soon as the Arctic cooled. The makeshift living arrangements had been part of the deal with the Arctic Council for the experiments to make that possible. But access to post schools, hospitals, and the PX couldn’t make this home to the Inuit, couldn’t replace their “beautiful land,” as the word used by the Labrador peoples named it.
So, too many potential witnesses there. The easy shoot from the coast was out. She drove on. The enterprising Inuit had a brand new diner set up along Glenn Highway, offering breakfast anytime to draw odd-houred Elmendorf workers, and she stopped for coffee. Dark men in jackets and jeans ate solemnly in the booths, not saying much. A young family sat across from her, the father trying to eat while bouncing his small wiggly daughter on one knee, the mother spooning eggs into a gleefully uncooperative toddler while fielding endless questions from her bespectacled school-age son. The little girl said something to make her father laugh, and he dropped a quick kiss on her shining hair. She cuddled in, pleased with herself, clinging tight as a limpet.
They looked harried but happy, close-knit and complete. Elinor flashed her smile, tried striking up conversations with the tired, taciturn workers, but learned nothing useful from any of them.
Going back into town, she studied the crews working on planes lined up at Elmendorf. Security was heavy on roads leading into the base so she stayed on Glenn. She parked the Ford as near the railroad as she could and left it. Nobody seemed to notice.
At seven, the sun still high overhead, she came down the school bus steps, a new creature. She swayed away in a long-skirted yellow dress with orange Mondrian lines, her shoes casual flats, carrying a small orange handbag. Brushed auburn hair, artful makeup, even long artificial eyelashes. Bait.
She walked through the scruffy district off K Street, observing as carefully as on her morning reconnaissance. The second bar was the right one. She looked over her competition, reflecting that for some women, there should be a weight limit for the purchase of spandex. Three guys with gray hair were trading lies in a booth and checking her out. The noisiest of them, Ted, got up to ask her if she wanted a drink. Of course she did, though she was thrown off by his genial warning, “Lady, you don’t look like you’re carryin’.”
Rattled—had her mask of harmless approachability slipped?—she made herself smile, and ask, “Should I be?”
“Last week a brown bear got shot not two blocks from here, goin’ through trash. The polars are bigger, meat-eaters, chase the young males out of their usual areas, so they’re gettin’ hungry, and mean. Came at a cop, so the guy had to shoot it. It sent him to the ICU, even after he put four rounds in it.” Not the usual pickup line, but she had them talking about themselves. Soon, she had most of what she needed to know about SkyShield.
“We were all retired refuel jockeys,” Ted said. “Spent most of 30 years flyin’ up big tankers full of jet fuel, so fighters and B-52s could keep flyin’, not have to touch down.”
Elinor probed, “So now you fly—”
“Same aircraft, most of ’em 40 years old—KC Stratotankers, or Extenders—they extend flight times, y’see.”
His buddy added, “The latest replacements were delivered just last year, so the crates we’ll take up are obsolete. Still plenty good enough to spray this new stuff, though.”
“I heard it was poison,” she said.
“So’s jet fuel,” the quietest one said. “But it’s cheap, and they needed something ready to go now, not that dust-scatter idea that’s still on the drawing board.”
Ted snorted. “I wish they’d gone with dustin’—even the traces you smell when they tank up stink like rottin’ eggs. More than a whiff, though, and you’re already dead. God, I’m sure glad I’m not a tank tech.”
“It all starts tomorrow?” Elinor asked brightly.
“Right, 10 KCs takin’ off per day, returnin’ the next from Russia. Lots of big-ticket work for retired duffers like us.”
“Who’re they?” she asked, gesturing to the next table. She had overheard people discussing nozzles and spray rates. “Expert crew,” Ted said. “They’ll ride along to do the measurements of cloud formation behind us, check local conditions like humidity and such.”
She eyed them. All very earnest, some a tad professorial. They were about to go out on an exciting experiment, ready to save the planet, and the talk was fast, eyes shining, drinks all around.
“Got to freshen up, boys.” She got up and walked by the tables, taking three quick shots in passing of the whole lot of them, under cover of rummaging through her purse. Then she walked around a corner toward the rest rooms, and her dress snagged on a nail in the wooden wall. She tried to tug it loose, but if she turned to reach the snag, it would rip the dress further. As she fished back for it with her right hand, a voice said, “Let me get that for you.”
Not a guy, but one of the women from the tech table. She wore a flattering blouse with comfortable, well-fitted jeans, and knelt to unhook the dress from the nail head.
“Thanks,” Elinor said, and the woman just shrugged, with a lopsided grin.
“Girls should stick together here,” the woman said. “The guys can be a little rough.”
“Been here long? You could join our group—always room for another woman, up here! I can give you some tips, introduce you to some sweet, if geeky, guys.”
“No, I… I don’t need your help.” Elinor ducked into the women’s room.
She thought about this unexpected, unwanted friendliness while sitting in the stall, and put it behind her. Then she went back into the game, fishing for information in a way she hoped wasn’t too obvious. Everybody likes to talk about their work, and when she got back to the pilots’ table, the booze worked in her favor. She found out some incidental information, probably not vital, but it was always good to know as much as you could. They already called the redesigned planes “Scatter Ships” and their affection for the lumbering, ungainly aircraft was reflected in banter about unimportant engineering details and tales of long-ago combat support missions.
One of the big guys with a wide grin sliding toward a leer was buying her a second martini when her cell rang.
“Albatross okay. Our party starts in 30 minutes,” said a rough voice. “You bring the beer.”
She didn’t answer, just muttered, “Damned salesbots…,” and disconnected.
She told the guy she had to “tinkle,” which made him laugh. He was a pilot just out of the Air Force, and she would have gone for him in some other world than this one. She found the back exit—bars like this always had one—and was blocks away before he would even begin to wonder.
Anchorage slid past unnoticed as she hurried through the broad deserted streets, planning. Back to the bus, out of costume, into all-weather gear, boots, grab some trail mix and an already-filled backpack. Her thermos of coffee she wore on her hip.
She cut across Elderberry Park, hurrying to the spot where her briefing said the trains paused before running into the depot. The port and rail lines snugged up against Elmendorf Air Force Base, convenient for them, and for her.
The freight train was a long clanking string and she stood in the chill gathering darkness, wondering how she would know where they were. The passing autorack cars had heavy shutters, like big steel Venetian blinds, and she could not see how anybody got into them.
But as the line clanked and squealed and slowed, a quick laser flash caught her, winked three times. She ran toward it, hauling up onto a slim platform at the foot of a steel sheet.
It tilted outward as she scrambled aboard, thudding into her thigh, nearly knocking her off. She ducked in and saw by the distant streetlights the vague outlines of luxury cars. A Lincoln sedan door swung open. Its interior light came on and she saw two men in the front seats. She got in the back and closed the door. Utter dark.
“It clear out there?” the cell phone voice asked from the driver’s seat.
“Let’s unload. You got the SUV?”
“Waiting on the nearest street.”
The man jigged his door open, glanced back at her. “We can make it in one trip if you can carry 20 kilos.”
“Sure,” though she had to pause to quickly do the arithmetic, 44 pounds. She had backpacked about that much for weeks in the Sierras. “Yeah, sure.”
The missile gear was in the trunks of three other sedans, at the far end of the autorack. As she climbed out of the car the men had inhabited, she saw the debris of their trip—food containers in the back seats, assorted junk, the waste from days spent coming up from Seattle. With a few gallons of gas in each car, so they could be driven on and off, these two had kept warm running the heater. If that ran dry, they could switch to another.
As she understood it, this degree of mess was acceptable to the railroads and car dealers. If the railroad tried to wrap up the autoracked cars to keep them out, the bums who rode the rails would smash windshields to get in, then shit in the cars, knife the upholstery. So they had struck an equilibrium. That compromise inadvertently produced a good way to ship weapons right by Homeland Security. She wondered what Homeland types would make of a Dart, anyway. Could they even tell what it was?
The rough-voiced man turned and clicked on a helmet lamp. “I’m Bruckner. This is Gene.”
Nods. “I’m Elinor.” Nods, smiles. Cut to the chase. “I know their flight schedule.”
Bruckner smiled thinly. “Let’s get this done.”
Transporting the parts in via autoracked cars was her idea. Bringing them in by small plane was the original plan, but Homeland might nab them at the airport. She was proud of this slick workaround.
“Did railroad inspectors get any of you?” Elinor asked.
Gene said, “Nope. Our two extras dropped off south of here. They’ll fly back out.”
With the auto freights, the railroad police looked for tramps sleeping in the seats. No one searched the trunks. So they had put a man on each autorack, and if some got caught, they could distract from the gear. The men would get a fine, be hauled off for a night in jail, and the shipment would go on.
“Luck is with us,” Elinor said. Bruckner looked at her, looked more closely, opened his mouth, but said nothing.
They both seemed jumpy by the helmet light. “How’d you guys live this way?” she asked, to get them relaxed.
“Pretty poorly,” Gene said. “We had to shit in bags.”
She could faintly smell the stench. “More than I need to know.”
Using Bruckner’s helmet light they hauled the assemblies out, neatly secured in backpacks. Bruckner moved with strong, graceless efficiency. Gene too. She hoisted hers on, grunting.
The freight started up, lurching forward. “Damn!” Gene said.
They hurried. When they opened the steel flap, she hesitated, jumped, stumbled on the gravel, but caught herself. Nobody within view in the velvet cloaking dusk.
They walked quietly, keeping steady through the shadows. It got cold fast, even in late May. At the Ford they put the gear in the back and got in. She drove them to the old school bus. Nobody talked.
She stopped them at the steps to the bus. “Here, put these gloves on.”
They grumbled but they did it. Inside, heater turned to high, Bruckner asked if she had anything to drink. She offered bottles of vitamin water but he waved it away. “Any booze?”
Gene said, “Cut that out.”
The two men eyed each other and Elinor thought about how they’d been days in those cars and decided to let it go. Not that she had any liquor, anyway.
Bruckner was lean, rawboned, and self-contained, with minimal movements and a constant, steady gaze in his expressionless face. “I called the pickup boat. They’ll be waiting offshore near Eagle Bay by eight.”
Elinor nodded. “First flight is 9:00 a.m.. It’ll head due north so we’ll see it from the hills above Eagle Bay.”
Gene said, “So we get into position… when?”
“Tonight, just after dawn.”
Bruckner said, “I do the shoot.”
“And we handle perimeter and setup, yes.”
“How much trouble will we have with the Indians?”
Elinor blinked. “The Inuit settlement is down by the seashore. They shouldn’t know what’s up.”
Bruckner frowned. “You sure?”
“That’s what it looks like. Can’t exactly go there and ask, can we?”
Bruckner sniffed, scowled, looked around the bus. “That’s the trouble with this nickel-and-dime operation. No real security.”
Elinor said, “You want security, buy a bond.”
Bruckner’s head jerked around. “Whassat mean?”
She sat back, took her time. “We can’t be sure the DARPA people haven’t done some serious public relations work with the Natives. Besides, they’re probably all in favor of SkyShield anyway—their entire way of life is melting away with the sea ice. And by the way, they’re not “Indians,” they’re “Inuit.”
“You seem pretty damn sure of yourself.”
“People say it’s one of my best features.”
Bruckner squinted and said, “You’re—”
“A maritime engineering officer. That’s how I got here and that’s how I’m going out.”
“You’re not going with us?”
“Nope, I go back out on my ship. I have first engineering watch tomorrow, 0100 hours.” She gave him a hard, flat look. “We go up the inlet, past Birchwood Airport. I get dropped off, steal a car, head south to Anchorage, while you get on the fishing boat, they work you out to the headlands. The bigger ship comes in, picks you up. You’re clear and away.”
Bruckner shook his head. “I thought we’d—”
“Look, there’s a budget and—”
“We’ve been holed up in those damn cars for—”
“A week, I know. Plans change.”
“I don’t like changes.”
“Things change,” Elinor said, trying to make it mild.
But Bruckner bristled. “I don’t like you cutting out, leaving us—”
“I’m in charge, remember.” She thought, He travels the fastest who travels alone.
“I thought we were all in this together.”
She nodded. “We are. But Command made me responsible, since this was my idea.”
His mouth twisted. “I’m the shooter, I—”
“Because I got you into the Ecuador training. Me and Gene, we depend on you.” Calm, level voice. No need to provoke guys like this; they did it enough on their own.
Silence. She could see him take out his pride, look at it, and decide to wait a while to even the score.
Bruckner said, “I gotta stretch my legs,” and clumped down the steps and out of the bus.
Elinor didn’t like the team splitting and thought of going after him. But she knew why Bruckner was antsy—too much energy with no outlet. She decided just to let him go.
To Gene she said, “You’ve known him longer. He’s been in charge of operations like this before?”
Gene thought. “There’ve been no operations like this.”
“Smaller jobs than this?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Surprising.”
“He walks around using that mouth, while he’s working?”
Gene chuckled. “ ’Fraid so. He gets the job done though.”
That he’s the shooter, or—”
“That he still has all his teeth.
While Gene showered, she considered. Elinor figured Bruckner for an injustice collector, the passive-aggressive loser type. But he had risen quickly in The LifeWorkers, as they called themselves, brought into the inner cadre that had formulated this plan. Probably because he was willing to cross the line, use violence in the cause of justice. Logically, she should sympathize with him, because he was a lot like her.
But sympathy and liking didn’t work that way.
There were people who soon would surely yearn to read her obituary, and Bruckner’s too, no doubt. He and she were the cutting edge of environmental activism, and these were desperate times indeed. Sometimes you had to cross the line, and be sure about it.
Elinor had made a lot of hard choices. She knew she wouldn’t last long on the scalpel’s edge of active environmental justice, and that was fine by her. Her role would soon be to speak for the true cause. Her looks, her brains, her charm—she knew she’d been chosen for this mission, and the public one afterward, for these attributes, as much as for the plan she had devised. People listen, even to ugly messages, when the face of the messenger is pretty. And once they finished here, she would have to be heard.
She and Gene carefully unpacked the gear and started to assemble the Dart. The parts connected with a minimum of wiring and socket clasps, as foolproof as possible. They worked steadily, assembling the tube, the small recoil-less charge, snapping and clicking the connections.
Gene said, “The targeting antenna has a rechargeable battery, they tend to drain. I’ll top it up.”
She nodded, distracted by the intricacies of a process she had trained for a month ago. She set the guidance system. Tracking would first be infrared only, zeroing in on the target’s exhaust, but once in the air and nearing its goal, it would use multiple targeting modes—laser, IR, advanced visual recognition—to get maximal impact on the main body of the aircraft.
They got it assembled and stood back to regard the linear elegance of the Dart. It had a deadly, snakelike beauty, its shiny white skin tapered to a snub point.
“Pretty, yeah,” Gene said. “And way better than any Stinger. Next generation, smarter, near four times the range.”
She knew guys liked anything that could shoot, but to her it was just a tool. She nodded.
Gene caressed the lean body of the Dart, and smiled.
Bruckner came clumping up the bus stairs with a fixed smile on his face that looked like it had been delivered to the wrong address. He waved a lit cigarette. Elinor got up, forced herself to smile. “Glad you’re back, we—”
“Got some ’freshments,” he said, dangling some beers in their six-pack plastic cradle, and she realized he was drunk.
The smile fell from her face like a picture off a wall.
She had to get along with these two, but this was too much. She stepped forward, snatched the beer bottles and tossed them onto the Victorian love seat. “No more.”
Bruckner tensed and Gene sucked in a breath. Bruckner made a move to grab the beers and Elinor snatched his hand, twisted the thumb back, turned hard to ward off a blow from his other hand—and they froze, looking into each other’s eyes from a few centimeters away.
Gene said, “She’s right, y’know.”
Bruckner sniffed, backed away. “You don’t have to be rough.”
They looked at each other, let it go.
She figured each of them harbored a dim fantasy of coming to her in the brief hours of darkness. She slept in the lumpy bed and they made do with the furniture. Bruckner got the love seat—ironic victory—and Gene sprawled on a threadbare comforter.
Bruckner talked some but dozed off fast under booze, so she didn’t have to endure his testosterone-fueled patter. But he snored, which was worse.
The men napped and tossed and worried. No one bothered her, just as she wanted it. But she kept a small knife in her hand, in case. For her, sleep came easily.
After eating a cold breakfast, they set out before dawn, 2:30 a.m., Elinor driving. She had decided to wait till then because they could mingle with early morning Air Force workers driving toward the base. This far north, it started brightening by 3:30, and they’d be in full light before 5:00. Best not to stand out as they did their last reconnaissance. It was so cold she had to run the heater for five minutes to clear the windshield of ice. Scraping with her gloved hands did nothing.
The men had grumbled about leaving absolutely nothing behind. “No traces,” she said. She wiped down every surface, even though they’d worn medical gloves the whole time in the bus.
Gene didn’t ask why she stopped and got a gas can filled with gasoline, and she didn’t say. She noticed the wind was fairly strong and from the north, and smiled. “Good weather. Prediction’s holding up.”
Bruckner said sullenly, “Goddamn cold.”
“The KC Extenders will take off into the wind, head north.” Elinor judged the nearly cloud-free sky. “Just where we want them to be.”
They drove up a side street in Mountain View and parked overlooking the fish hatchery and golf course, so she could observe the big tank refuelers lined up at the loading site. She counted five KC-10 Extenders, freshly surplussed by the Air Force. Their big bellies reminded her of pregnant whales.
From their vantage point, they could see down to the temporarily expanded checkpoint, set up just outside the base. As foreseen, security was stringently tight this near the airfield—all drivers and passengers had to get out, be scanned, IDs checked against global records, briefcases and purses searched. K-9 units inspected car interiors and trunks. Explosives-detecting robots rolled under the vehicles.
She fished out binoculars and focused on the people waiting to be cleared. Some carried laptops and backpacks and she guessed they were the scientists flying with the dispersal teams. Their body language was clear. Even this early, they were jazzed, eager to go, excited as kids on a field trip. One of the pilots had mentioned there would be some sort of preflight ceremony, honoring the teams that had put all this together. The flight crews were studiedly nonchalant—this was an important, high-profile job, sure, but they couldn’t let their cool down in front of so many science nerds. She couldn’t see well enough to pick out Ted, or the friendly woman from the bar.
In a special treaty deal with the Arctic Council, they would fly from Elmendorf and arc over the North Pole, spreading hydrogen sulfide in their wakes. The tiny molecules of it would mate with water vapor in the stratospheric air, making sulfurics. Those larger, wobbly molecules reflected sunlight well—a fact learned from studying volcano eruptions back in the TwenCen. Spray megatons of hydrogen sulfide into the stratosphere, let water turn it into a sunlight-bouncing sheet—SkyShield—and they could cool the entire Arctic.
Or so the theory went. The Arctic Council had agreed to this series of large-scale experiments, run by the USA since they had the in-flight refuelers that could spread the tiny molecules to form the SkyShield. Small-scale experiments—opposed, of course, by many enviros—had seemed to work. Now came the big push, trying to reverse the retreat of sea ice and warming of the tundra.
Anchorage lay slightly farther north than Oslo, Helsinki, and Stockholm, but not as far north as Reykjavik or Murmansk. Flights from Anchorage to Murmansk would let them refuel and reload hydrogen sulfide at each end, then follow their paths back over the pole. Deploying hydrogen sulfide along their flight paths at 45,000 feet, they would spread a protective layer to reflect summer sunlight. In a few months, the sulfuric droplets would ease down into the lower atmosphere, mix with moist clouds, and come down as rain or snow, a minute, undetectable addition to the acidity already added by industrial pollutants. Experiment over.
The total mass delivered was far less than that from volcanoes like Pinatubo, which had cooled the whole planet in 1991–92. But volcanoes do messy work, belching most of their vomit into the lower atmosphere. This was to be a designer volcano, a thin skin of aerosols skating high across the stratosphere.
It might stop the loss of the remaining sea ice, the habitat of the polar bear. Only 10% of the vast original cooling sheets remained. Equally disruptive changes were beginning to occur in other parts of the world.
But geoengineered tinkerings would also be a further excuse to delay cutbacks in carbon dioxide emissions. People loved convenience, their air conditioning and winter heating and big lumbering SUVs. Humanity had already driven the air’s CO2 content to twice what it was before 1800, and with every developing country burning oil and coal as fast as they could extract them, only dire emergency could drive them to abstain. To do what was right.
The greatest threat to humanity arose not from terror, but error. Time to take the gloves off.
She put the binocs away and headed north. The city’s seacoast was mostly rimmed by treacherous mudflats, even after the sea kept rising. Still, there were coves and sandbars of great beauty. Elinor drove off Glenn Highway to the west, onto progressively smaller, rougher roads, working their way backcountry by Bureau of Land Management roads to a sagging, long-unused access gate for loggers. Bolt cutters made quick work of the lock securing its rusty chain closure. After she pulled through, Gene carefully replaced the chain and linked it with an equally rusty padlock, brought for this purpose. Not even a thorough check would show it had been opened, till the next time BLM tried to unlock it. They were now on Elmendorf, miles north of the airfield, far from the main base’s bustle and security precautions. Thousands of acres of mudflats, woods, lakes, and inlet shoreline lay almost untouched, used for military exercises and not much else. Nobody came here except for infrequent hardy bands of off-duty soldiers or pilots, hiking with maps red-marked UXO for “Unexploded Ordnance.” Lost live explosives, remnants of past field maneuvers, tended to discourage casual sightseers and trespassers, and the Inuit villagers wouldn’t be berry-picking till July and August. She consulted her satellite map, then took them on a side road, running up the coast. They passed above a cove of dark blue waters.
Beauty. Pure and serene.
The sea-level rise had inundated many of the mudflats and islands, but a small rocky platform lay near shore, thick with trees. Driving by, she spotted a bald eagle perched at the top of a towering spruce tree. She had started birdwatching as a Girl Scout and they had time; she stopped.
She left the men in the Ford and took out her long-range binocs. The eagle was grooming its feathers and eyeing the fish rippling the waters offshore. Gulls wheeled and squawked, and she could see sea lions knifing through fleeing shoals of herring, transient dark islands breaking the sheen of waves. Crows joined in onshore, hopping on the rocks and pecking at the predators’ leftovers.
She inhaled the vibrant scent of ripe wet salty air, alive with what she had always loved more than any mere human. This might be the last time she would see such abundant, glowing life, and she sucked it in, trying to lodge it in her heart for times to come.
She was something of an eagle herself, she saw now, as she stood looking at the elegant predator. She kept to herself, loved the vibrant natural world around her, and lived by making others pay the price of their own foolishness. An eagle caught hapless fish. She struck down those who would do evil to the real world, the natural one.
Beyond politics and ideals, this was her reality.
Then she remembered what else she had stopped for. She took out her cell phone and pinged the alert number.
A buzz, then a blurred woman’s voice. “Able Baker.”
“Confirmed. Get a GPS fix on us now. We’ll be here, same spot, for pickup in two to three hours. Assume two hours.”
Buzz buzz. “Got you fixed. Timing’s okay. Need a Zodiac?”
“Yes, definite, and we’ll be moving fast.”
“You bet. Out.”
Back in the cab, Bruckner said, “What was that for?”
“Making the pickup contact. It’s solid.”
“Good. But I meant, what took so long.”
She eyed him levelly. “A moment spent with what we’re fighting for.”
Bruckner snorted. “Let’s get on with it.”
Elinor looked at Bruckner and wondered if he wanted to turn this into a spitting contest just before the shoot.
“Great place,” Gene said diplomatically.
That broke the tension and she started the Ford.
They rose further up the hills northeast of Anchorage, and at a small clearing, she pulled off to look over the landscape. To the east, mountains towered in lofty gray majesty, flanks thick with snow. They all got out and surveyed the terrain and sight angles toward Anchorage. The lowlands were already thick with summer grasses, and the winds sighed southward through the tall evergreens.
Gene said, “Boy, the warming’s brought a lot of growth.”
Elinor glanced at her watch and pointed. “The KCs will come from that direction, into the wind. Let’s set up on that hillside.”
They worked around to a heavily wooded hillside with a commanding view toward Elmendorf Air Force Base. “This looks good,” Bruckner said, and Elinor agreed.
“Damn—a bear!” Gene cried.
They looked down into a narrow canyon with tall spruce. A large brown bear was wandering along a stream about a hundred meters away.
Elinor saw Bruckner haul out a .45 automatic. He cocked it.
When she glanced back the bear was looking toward them. It turned and started up the hill with lumbering energy.
“Back to the car,” she said.
The bear broke into a lope.
Bruckner said, “Hell, I could just shoot it. This is a good place to see the takeoff and—”
“No. We move to the next hill.”
Bruckner said, “I want—”
One hill farther south, Elinor braced herself against a tree for stability and scanned the Elmendorf landing strips. The image wobbled as the air warmed across hills and marshes.
Lots of activity. Three KC-10 Extenders ready to go. One tanker was lined up on the center lane and the other two were moving into position.
“Hurry!” she called to Gene, who was checking the final setup menu and settings on the Dart launcher.
He carefully inserted the missile itself in the launcher. He checked, nodded and lifted it to Bruckner. They fitted the shoulder straps to Bruckner, secured it, and Gene turned on the full arming function. “Set!” he called.
Elinor saw a slight stirring of the center Extender and it began to accelerate. She checked: right on time, 0900 hours. Hard-core military like Bruckner, who had been a Marine in the Middle East, called Air Force the “saluting Civil Service,” but they did hit their markers. The Extenders were not military now, just surplus, but flying giant tanks of sloshing liquid around the stratosphere demands tight standards.
“I make the range maybe 20 kilometers,” she said. “Let it pass over us, hit it close as it goes away.”
Bruckner grunted, hefted the launcher. Gene helped him hold it steady, taking some of the weight. Loaded, it weighed nearly 50 pounds. The Extender lifted off, with a hollow, distant roar that reached them a few seconds later, and Elinor could see that media coverage was high. Two choppers paralleled the takeoff for footage, then got left behind.
The Extender was a full-extension DC-10 airframe and it came nearly straight toward them, growling through the chilly air. She wondered if the chatty guy from the bar, Ted, was one of the pilots. Certainly, on a maiden flight the scientists who ran this experiment would be on board, monitoring performance. Very well.
“Let it get past us,” she called to Bruckner.
He took his head from the eyepiece to look at her. “Huh? Why—”
“Do it. I’ll call the shot.”
The airplane was rising slowly and flew by them a few kilometers away.
“Hold, hold…” she called. “Fire.”
Bruckner squeezed the trigger and the missile popped out—whuff!—seemed to pause, then lit. It roared away, startling in its speed—straight for the exhausts of the engines, then correcting its vectors, turning, and rushing for the main body. Darting.
It hit with a flash and the blast came rolling over them. A plume erupted from the airplane, dirty black.
“Bruckner! Resight—the second plane is taking off.”
She pointed. Gene chunked the second missile into the Dart tube. Bruckner swiveled with Gene’s help. The second Extender was moving much too fast, and far too heavy, to abort takeoff.
The first airplane was coming apart, rupturing. A dark cloud belched across the sky.
Elinor said clearly, calmly, “The Dart’s got a max range about right so… shoot.”
Bruckner let fly and the Dart rushed off into the sky, turned slightly as it sighted, accelerated like an angry hornet. They could hardly follow it. The sky was full of noise.
“Drop the launcher!” she cried.
“What?” Bruckner said, eyes on the sky.
She yanked it off him. He backed away and she opened the gas can as the men watched the Dart zooming toward the airplane. She did not watch the sky as she doused the launcher and splashed gas on the surrounding brush.
“Got that lighter?” she asked Bruckner.
He could not take his eyes off the sky. She reached into his right pocket and took out the lighter. Shooters had to watch, she knew.
She lit the gasoline and it went up with a whump.
“Hey! Let’s go!” She dragged the men toward the car.
They saw the second hit as they ran for the Ford. The sound got buried in the thunder that rolled over them as the first Extender hit the ground kilometers away, across the inlet. The hard clap shook the air, made Gene trip, then stagger forward.
She started the Ford and turned away from the thick column of smoke rising from the launcher. It might erase any fingerprints or DNA they’d left, but it had another purpose too.
She took the run back toward the coast at top speed. The men were excited, already reliving the experience, full of words. She said nothing, focused on the road that led them down to the shore. To the north, a spreading dark pall showed where the first plane went down.
One glance back at the hill told her the gasoline had served as a lure. A chopper was hammering toward the column of oily smoke, buying them some time.
The men were hooting with joy, telling each other how great it had been. She said nothing.
She was happy in a jangling way. Glad she’d gotten through without the friction with Bruckner coming to a point, too. Once she’d been dropped off, well up the inlet, she would hike around a bit, spend some time birdwatching, exchange horrified words with anyone she met about that awful plane crash—No, I didn’t actually see it, did you?—and work her way back to the freighter, slipping by Elmendorf in the chaos that would be at crescendo by then. Get some sleep, if she could.
They stopped above the inlet, leaving the Ford parked under the thickest cover they could find. She looked for the eagle, but didn’t see it. Frightened skyward by the bewildering explosions and noises, no doubt. They ran down the incline. She thumbed on her comm, got a crackle of talk, handed it to Bruckner. He barked their code phrase, got confirmation.
A Zodiac was cutting a V of white, homing in on the shore. The air rumbled with the distant beat of choppers and jets, the search still concentrated around the airfield. She sniffed the rotten egg smell, already here from the first Extender. It would kill everything near the crash, but this far off should be safe, she thought, unless the wind shifted. The second Extender had gone down closer to Anchorage, so it would be worse there. She put that out of her mind.
Elinor and the men hurried down toward the shore to meet the Zodiac. Bruckner and Gene emerged ahead of her as they pushed through a stand of evergreens, running hard. If they got out to the pickup craft, then suitably disguised among the fishing boats, they might well get away.
But on the path down, a stocky Inuit man stood. Elinor stopped, dodged behind a tree.
Ahead of her, Bruckner shouted, “Out of the way!”
The man stepped forward, raised a shotgun. She saw something compressed and dark in his face.
“You shot down the planes?” he demanded.
A tall Inuit racing in from the side shouted, “I saw their car comin’ from up there!”
Bruckner slammed to a stop, reached down for his .45 automatic—and froze. The double-barreled shotgun could not miss at that range.
It had happened so fast. She shook her head, stepped quietly away. Her pulse hammered as she started working her way back to the Ford, slipping among the trees. The soft loam kept her footsteps silent.
A third man came out of the trees ahead of her. She recognized him as the young Inuit father from the diner, and he cradled a black hunting rifle. “Stop!”
She stood still, lifted her binocs. “I’m bird watching, what—”
“I saw you drive up with them.”
A deep, brooding voice behind her said, “Those planes were going to stop the warming, save our land, save our people.”
She turned to see another man pointing a large caliber rifle. “I, I, the only true way to do that is by stopping the oil companies, the corporations, the burning of fossil—”
The shotgun man, eyes burning beneath heavy brows, barked, “What’ll we do with ‘em?”
She talked fast, hands up, open palms toward him. “All that SkyShield nonsense won’t stop the oceans from turning acid. Only fossil—”
“Do what you can, when you can. We learn that up here.” This came from the tall man. The Inuit all had their guns trained on them now. The tall man gestured with his and they started herding the three of them into a bunch. The men’s faces twitched, fingers trembled.
The man with the shotgun and the man with the rifle exchanged nods, quick words in a complex, guttural language she could not understand. The rifleman seemed to dissolve into the brush, steps fast and flowing, as he headed at a crouching dead run down to the shoreline and the waiting Zodiac.
She sucked in the clean sea air and could not think at all. These men wanted to shoot all three of them and so she looked up into the sky to not see it coming. High up in a pine tree with a snapped top an eagle flapped down to perch. She wondered if this was the one she had seen before.
The oldest of the men said, “We can’t kill them. Let ‘em rot in prison.”
The eagle settled in. Its sharp eyes gazed down at her and she knew this was the last time she would ever see one. No eagle would ever live in a gray box. But she would. And never see the sky.