Greenock Quay, Glasgow area, Scotland – 2033
Woolf Egger wiped his wet face with his left hand and looked up at the towering black hull of the ship. He was dressed in his favourite long coat which helped against the curtains of rain that gusted across the wide, glistening concrete quayside.
The converted container ship that had berthed earlier that afternoon had stood in ghostly silence up until then. A metallic clank echoed across to him as a heavy door opened in the hull, light streaming outwards. Woolf walked over to the long silver gangplank that protruded from midway up the Queen of Sheba. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he took a long draw on the cigarette he had been shielding in his right palm. The smoky warmth filled his lungs before he flicked the cigarette butt against the side of the hull, watching the red embers fall into the water and fizzle out. It was only five o’clock on a winter’s afternoon, and it was pitch dark.
Unbuttoning the front of his long beige raincoat from the bottom up, he swept the left coat flap to one side and reached around to retrieve the object attached to the back of his leather belt. It came loose with a pop, and he rubbed the straps between his fingers. Buttoning up his raincoat again, he looked up the gangplank to the open doorway in the hull. Looking down at him was the figure of a person in a bright red hazmat suit.
The person raised his hand and gave him a thumbs up. Woolf replied with a slow wave to come down. Waddling down the slippery rubber-covered ramp, the figure in the red suit glistened in the quayside lighting, with his bright yellow boots squeaking as they rubbed on the walkway.
Woolf lifted his rubber S10 respirator and looked at the weird skull-like features looking back at him. His jaws clenched as he stretched the double straps of the respirator mask over the back of his head, grimacing as it tugged at his short blond hair. Slipping his finger inside the face seal, he slid it around the entire mask, making sure the fit was snug. Reaching around to the back of his head, he pulled the two flailing rubber straps, and the mask sucked onto his face. He took a deep breath and rubbed both his arms roughly, subconsciously trying to remove any contagion.
Slipping his hand into a coat pocket, he brought out a waterproof flashlight and turned away from the ship towards the Styx Enterprises company trucks that were parked between two of the deserted warehouses that flanked the quay. Three quick flicks of the rubber power button sent eerie beams of light through the silvery rain. The lead truck flashed once, and after a belch of white steam from two vertical exhaust pipes behind the cab, started to trundle towards him.
The convoy of new nuclear fusion-powered trucks approached the ship, silent and menacing, crawling closer until the first one parked in front of the two men. The driver, his respirator already in place, gave them the thumbs up.
Woolf turned to the man next to him. ‘Are they all ready to go?’ he said with a thick German accent.
‘Yes, sir, they are all lined up,’ the American said, his voice muted behind the large Perspex square of the hazmat suit’s mask.
‘Make sure we have no bloody problems this time?’ Woolf said, and unbuttoned the front of his coat. He removed a 9mm Beretta from a holster on his left side and chambered a round. ‘Load them up,’ he shouted as he holstered the pistol, and stepped away from the trucks.
The vibration of the satellite phone in his pocket distracted him, and he looked down at the name on the caller ID. ‘Arrgh…!’ he shouted into the mask. ‘Let me just do my job.’
‘Move it along, people!’ he shouted again. ‘He will kill anyone who messes this up.’ With a tightening in his neck muscles, Woolf walked away from the hazardous environment and pulled the respirator up over his face, leaving it perched on the top of his head. Grabbing a crumpled box of cigarettes and Zippo lighter out of his inside pocket, he flicked the tip of a filter-less cigarette up and out of the box, then placed it to his lips. He loved the soothing metallic click of the Zippo as the top opened, and he rolled his left thumb across the flint wheel. His head arched back as he drew on the warmth and blew the smoke out with a sigh. The rattle of the metal gangplank disrupted his peace, and he looked across to see two men in red hazmat suits, leading a line of people out of the bowels of the ship.
With bowed heads to shield their faces from the rain, the row of people trudged down towards the waiting trucks. More and more kept stepping out of the small door, all dressed in tattered and mismatched clothing. Masked soldiers in green army fatigues jumped down from the back of the first truck and fanned out to create a human funnel for the approaching mass of people.
A girl in her early teens, long hair pasted across her face, reached the bottom of the gangplank and tripped as she stepped off, falling forward onto her hands and knees. A guard grabbed her under one of her arms, and roughly dragged the sobbing teen to her feet, yelling at her as he pushed her towards the back of the truck. She stumbled again and fell forward into a puddle. A bulky man with a shaven head who had been standing behind her stepped forward off the gangplank and shoved the young soldier in the back.
‘Why don’t you pick a fight with someone your own size, asshole?’
The soldier pushed back at the chest of the tall American, who towered over him with fists clenched. A second stocky man, in a tattered black raincoat, appeared on the shoulder of the American. Murmurs of support filtered through those behind them. Cold, huddled bodies pressed forward.
‘Get in the truck, scavengers,’ the young soldier shouted.
‘No! We won’t take any more of this shit. We‘re tired of being treated like animals,’ the tall American said.
A rubber truncheon swung across the tall man’s legs, and the young soldier raised it again, aiming it at the man’s neck. A guttural scream pierced the air as the American launched a tackle, picking the young soldier up off the floor and ramming him into the metal side of the truck. ‘Run everyone, save yourselves,’ he screamed as he dropped the soldier on his back and started swinging punches at him.
The second man in the black coat punched the nearest guard in the face before wrestling him to the ground. Soldiers stepped forward and piled into the drenched man with batons and rifle butts. Screams echoed up against the hull of the ship with terrified people trying to back up the gangplank. Three young men vaulted over the sides and landed on the quay, then started sprinting off along the wet concrete.
Woolf slipped the mask down over his face with one hand as he felt for the rubber grip of his Beretta in his other. If they made it off the lit-up docks and into the darkness beyond, he would never find them again. Three rapid shots blasted out into the rain. The first runner went down, his face thudding into the ground as the second slowed to avoid his fellow fugitive. A shudder rippled through him as the bullet passed through his back before the man following him clattered into him, spinning around with the force of the third bullet.
A hush swept across the quayside, as the fighting men stopped and froze. The scavengers slowly raised their hands into the air. The squawk of fleeing gulls finally broke the silence. Out the corner of his eye, Woolf detected movement. One of the young men had started limping across the quay again. A thrilling rush of adrenaline flooded through him. A smile crept across his masked face, and he raised his Beretta. The youngster’s body arched backwards as the bullet smashed into his spine. He slowed for a second, but the momentum took him forward as he fell to the ground, screaming in pain.
Woolf turned to a nearby young soldier, whose eyes were wide with shock behind the respirator. ‘Go and finish him off.’
The man turned back to Woolf, anguish etched on his face. He shook his head.
Woolf punched the man in the chest with a massive fist. ‘Go and end his suffering! Do you understand me?’
Trudging off, carrying his SA80 across his chest, the young soldier walked off glancing back to his colleagues.
Woolf looked at one of the men in the red hazmat suits who stood at the bottom of the gangplank. ‘We cannot allow any of them to get into the general public. Not until he tells us to.’
The man nodded. Woolf walked over to the two kneeling Americans. Raising the Beretta, he shot them both through the head. Both slumped forward onto the wet concrete as screams from the row of people behind him resonated outwards. He walked over to the sergeant who was staring down at the bodies. ‘Don’t let me have to do your job again. Keep loading them into the trucks. If they resist, shoot them.’
Woolf pulled the slide of the Beretta backwards and removed the chambered round and then tossed it into the darkness. The bullet following a kill had to be thrown away. It was a stupid superstition but one that had kept him alive. The partially full magazine was slipped out of the pistol and placed into the right-hand leg pocket of his black commando trousers. A well-practised hand reached for a fresh one from his left-hand pocket. He flicked the slide back as he holstered the pistol. Splashing sounds made him look across to a white van that was racing towards him through the large puddles on the concrete apron.
Readjusting his respirator, he walked towards the driver’s door of the silent fusion-powered van. A thin man in his twenties jumped out. ‘That bloody loading is taking forever, mate,’ the man said in a Scottish accent. ‘He has been calling me for updates every five minutes. You had better return his calls or he will go postal.’
Woolf nodded. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I have a special delivery for you. A few scavengers who will be joining you on your return trip to the US.’
‘He didn’t mention anything about this to me.’
‘Well, if you bothered to answer your phone, you might be better informed.’
Woolf took a step towards the young man, towering over him. ‘Have you tried to talk on a phone with a mask on?’
‘Easy, big fella. I am just the delivery man,’ said the young man, and walked to the back door of the van with a swagger. ‘Everyone out! And stop all that bloody crying, would you. Cover yourself up too. I don’t want to see your ugly faces.’
Woolf leant up against the side of the van. Three human forms exited from the back doors and were led towards the gangplank. One adult and two children. What was his employer up to now?
Arctic Sea Ice, South of Biddy Island, Nunavut – 2033
The black parka hood flicked across the young man’s face, and the thick grey fur trim showered more ice particles onto his ski goggles. With a half-turn of his head, the chasing sledge appeared to have gained on him. A knot formed in his stomach as he looked back down the length of his slim wooden sledge, the corner of a large plastic container packed with lichen and plants was visible beneath the brown caribou skin. He reached forward and pulled the skin over the valuable cargo then gazed at the winter sky of blue and purple hues. He could feel the presence of the sledge behind him.
It was gaining on him with every second he spent out on the ice. Excited yelps floated back to him on the wind from his dog team, the excitement brought on by the fast pace that he was letting them run at. The animals lived to run at that pace. The grating noise of the sledge’s wooden runners resonated outwards across the flat expanse of brittle sea ice and into the dead silence.
Twenty-year-old Daniel Shewchuk shifted his weight onto his other leg as he stood on the runners at the back of the sledge. Snow and ice particles that his dog team flicked up as they fanned out ahead of him stung his already frozen face. He looked ahead to Leyla, his favourite, as she yelped and snapped at a nearby dog, her white fur blending in with the endless environment.
‘Haw!’ Daniel screamed out to her.
Leyla yelped again and then started to veer left, pushing against the black-and-white dog on her left. The bigger male yielded and changed to match her direction.
Once again, Daniel flicked an anxious glance behind him to the small brooding figure who was driving the catching sledge. The rushing wind dampened the sound of his uncle’s dogs as they started to move up on his right-hand side. The sixty-year-old Inuit usually sat on the side of his sledge and called to his dogs from there, but now he was standing at the back looking impassively at his nephew. With a simple hand gesture, he signalled to Daniel to keep an eye on his dogs that were now selecting a new path across a section of melting ice, riddled with small azure blue puddles.
A small grey dog pulling on the far right of the ten-dog team yelped as the ice gave way beneath him, his hind legs falling through a patch of broken ice. Daniel gasped and thrust his foot down on the paddle-like footbrake that was suspended from the back of the sledge and positioned between the two runners. It had a metal bar with downward facing spikes bolted onto a large rectangular piece of rubber. Jumping on it with both feet, he slowed the sledge as he reached down to grab the metal anchor. With a well-practised, backwards throw he tossed the metal claw out behind the moving sledge and prayed for it to grab.
‘Come haw!’ he screamed at the lead dog as the sledge careered around towards the sinking dog. More ice cracked and a second animal slipped into the freezing water. The screech of wood on the ice as the sledge slid towards the hole made Daniel gasp. His eyes widened.
Snapping a look behind him, he caught a sight of the anchor that had grabbed a piece of jagged sea ice. The limp snaking rope had not snapped taut so it wouldn’t stop them sinking.
‘Come haw, Leyla,’ he shouted again. The command for a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn to the left was quickly obeyed, as Leyla and the large black-and-white furred Brutus pulled hard to the left, swivelling the sledge with their combined weight. A loud crack beneath the runner of the sledge made him grab the handle and lean over to the side opposite to the dogs, then he stepped off the brake. The yelping grew louder as the dogs all strained against the dead weight of the sledge.
The stricken dogs paddled at the breaking ice around them but failed to get a foothold, giving up the struggle just as the strain on their tuglines and harnesses snapped taut, and they were dragged from the dark blue water by the other dogs. The sledge swivelled around even more and then started to be dragged off again under the strain.
‘Whoa Leyla, whoa!’
The white dog stopped pulling and turned back to look at Daniel. She watched his every move as he flicked the long claw anchor line a few times then pulled it in. Winding it around his hand and elbow, he threw it down onto the fur that covered the sledge.
The bedraggled dogs shook themselves, sending a spray of freezing water over the other yelping dogs. With a few wag of their tails, they started barking, and then the crescendo of yelping resumed once again.
‘Hike!’ he shouted to Leyla, looking across ahead to his uncle who had brought his sledge to a halt a few hundred meters ahead of him.
The dogs strained at the tuglines, jumping up and down as they pulled forward to get the sledge going. Daniel eased his foot off the brake and jumped back behind the heavy sledge, pushing it as it started to creak forward, his fur boots slipping on the ice as his legs pumped. Five seconds later he climbed back on the sledge runners and scanned around for his uncle whose sledge was already on its way along the coastline. Daniel glanced back to the icy hole. The thought of his drowning father filtered through his mind. Anyone out on the ice could die that way. Tapping the sledge handle three times for luck, Daniel smiled.
‘Hike,’ he screamed.
The weather had been good to them on the sea ice as the two drivers urged their dogs down the east coast of Nunavut, from Bibby Island. Sixty-year-old Aaju Peter glanced up at the rugged mountains that were on their right-hand side then squinted up to the small clouds that were forming above them. A blizzard is coming. They were still forty kilometres from the safety of their target.
He grunted to himself and chewed the inside of his lip with his few remaining teeth. With a peripheral glance to the side, he caught the shape of his nephew’s sledge, and he smiled. The young man had done well.
‘Gee!’ he shouted to his faithful old lead dog that veered to the right, guiding them closer to the shoreline in a gentle arc. The blizzard would hit during the night so they would need some proper shelter. Aaju changed grip with his thick caribou gloves and raised his right hand to his eyes to shield them from the sun and glare from the sea-ice. He would buy new goggles from the money they would make with the cargo in the sledges.
The ragged coastline was still in its winter white, and he knew from experience that there was a nearby group of caves which they could shelter in. A few were even large enough to haul the dogs into, although they did prefer to stay out in the snow.
A few minutes later, the alcove came into view.
‘Come gee!’ The dog team turned sharply to the right and aimed towards the rocky coastline.
‘Whoa!’ he shouted as they passed the alcove that hid the entrance to the large cave. Aaju jumped on the foot brake, and the dogs came to a halt. Whining and yelping ensued as they rolled around in the loose snow to cool themselves down from the day’s heavy workload.
‘Daniel, come here,’ Aaju shouted to his nephew as he walked his claw anchor out from the sledge. The old man dropped it in the thick snow before stamping on it with his small frame. He looked across to his taller nephew who crunched through the snow towards him. The young man slid the black fur-lined hood off his head and slipped the ski goggles onto the top of his head.
‘We spending the night here, Uncle?’
‘Yes. The storm will be here in a few hours, and this cave will give us good cover. Bring my rifle and let’s make sure it’s empty.’
Daniel grabbed the black Ruger 6908 compact rifle out of its Caribou fur-lined rifle bag that was stuffed into the sledge. Walking over to his uncle, he slipped the bolt to chamber a round.
‘Look, Uncle,’ Daniel said, pointing to tracks in the snow at the entrance of the cave.
‘Wolf,’ Aaju said, rubbing the grey stubble on his face.
‘Two of them?’
‘I do not think they are inside,’ Aaju said, and took a step forward to have a listen. ‘Bring me Brutus.’
Daniel walked back to his dog team that were all lying down in the snow, some of the animals were already curled up and asleep. He uncoupled the black-and-white form of their biggest dog. Brutus walked, nose to the ground, as they made their way back to the cave. The big dog slowed as the hair on his neck and back started to rise. A low growl emanated from his broad chest, and his top lip curled back over his white canines. Daniel patted his head.
Aaju waved them on as he took the rifle from Daniel. ‘Make sure they are not there. I will watch the sledges.’
Daniel smiled and nodded. ‘Is this another test, Uncle?’
‘You and Brutus have bonded well on this trip. Now is the time to reinforce that connection. If there is a danger in there, you must face it together. Be aware that a polar bear could have chased the wolves off. Always be prepared for the worst.’
‘Yes, Uncle.’ Daniel nodded. ‘How long must I be tested before I can make these trips by myself?’
‘You will be tested until you are a very old man,’ Aaju said with a blank expression on his face and a wave of his hand.
Brutus strained on the tugline that was clipped to his blue harness, the smell of wolf exciting him. The long thin cave with glistening black walls was big enough to allow daylight to filter in, and Daniel could see all the way to the back. Apart from wolf scat, which had Brutus growling again, there were no other signs of predators. They would be safe for now.
Ghostlike shadow figures flickered up against the uneven interior of the black walls of the sea-cave as Daniel moved around the small blue gas lamp. It was placed on the floor between the two large fur skin blankets that covered their down sleeping bags.
‘Bring the containers in from the sledges. They are too valuable to leave out there,’ the old man said. ‘Have you fed the dogs?’
‘Yes, Uncle Aaju. They have eaten all the whale fat now, and we only have some caribou and seal meat left.’
The old man nodded as he stirred the caribou stew that was on a second gas stove, his black and grey fringe falling forward across his wrinkled face. ‘Finish up outside and make sure the bear flares are set. They will smell the meat cooking.’
‘Yes, Uncle,’ he said and walked out again.
The ageing man stirred the thick pieces of frozen meat in the silver tin pot and grabbed a small pouch that contained salt, pepper and spices. He lifted it to his nose and sniffed, before pinching some of everything into the bubbling stew. He stirred it again.
‘Uncle, what is so special about all this moss and tundra flowers that we have collected?’ Daniel asked, carrying in two more plastic containers. ‘Only caribou and musk ox eat them, so why do the American men want them so badly?’
‘I do not know, Daniel. I only know that they are prepared to pay a year’s wages for us to spend two months collecting them on Bibby Island. Who knows what drives men to want these crazy things. Now finish up so we can eat,’ he said, chuckling as he tasted a spoonful of stew.
Two loud pop-explosions went off in the darkness, echoing through the cave. Daniel sat up with a start, looking up at the jagged shadows of the cave roof.
‘Bear!’ shouted Aaju and slipped out of his sleeping bag as fast as his young nephew. ‘Bring the rifle!’
Brutus stood where he had been tethered at the mouth of the cave, head lowered, a loud growl rumbling through him. Daniel slipped the safety off and walked forward to his dog that hadn’t moved. A white beam from a LED torch pierced the darkness outside the cave as Daniel squinted to where the moving beam was directed. A female polar bear, with a small cub, was standing a hundred meters away from the snow-covered sledges. She raised her nose and sniffed at the air. Some of the dogs had stood up to the commotion and were blinking in the torchlight.
‘She will not come closer now,’ Aaju said. ‘She is too worried about her cub.’
‘HA!’ Daniel shouted. The bear rose up onto her back feet and turned away, the cub sticking close to her flank as she wandered off.
‘Go back to sleep, Uncle,’ Daniel said. ‘Brutus and I will take watch for a while. It will be light in a few hours.’
The old man nodded and walked off towards his sleeping bag. ‘Good. And set more flares.’
The wind gusted across Aaju’s sledge as the morning sun slipped above the horizon for the first time. ‘Haw!’ he called again, urging them left again.
It was easier sledging out on the sea ice than closer to the shore, but the dogs smelled home. The sledge launched into the air over a mound of ice and came down on the left runner, sending Aaju off balance. Using all his core strength, he twisted to his right and reached out with his arm to counterbalance the sledge that lingered on one runner for a few seconds before slowly self-righting. This type of ice was the most dangerous because it had repeatedly been broken up and re-frozen with jagged edges facing in all directions. A weak sledge could easily lose a runner.
Aaju touched on the foot brake to slow the eager dogs. He sniffed hard at the smell of coal fires which filled him with happiness. Five minutes later he saw black swirling plumes from several coal fires, rising against the blue morning sky. The small hamlet of Arviat came into view, the place of his birth.
Touching the brake again, he slowed the dogs’ run as they splashed through puddles of melted seawater. The season was changing, and soon the sea ice would melt and be impassable.
The two teams made their way through the iced streets of the flooded town. The three-metre sea-level rise, brought on by a major climate change event, had frozen all the way into the town with only the rusting old frames of houses and buildings visible above the ice. The villagers had all gone back to a nomadic way of life and had relocated to above the tidal zone to live in large communal homesteads made from local driftwood, scavenged materials, and animal skins.
‘Gee, gee!’ he shouted as they veered right up the old main road towards the large red Pilatus Porter seaplane that was parked at the end of the makeshift ice airstrip.
The specially converted plane, with large skis under its wheels, brought supplies to the village shop on a monthly basis. Aaju anchored his sledge next to the empty plane and peeked into the sparse interior through the frosted windows. He walked beneath the long, broad wing then looked back towards the lone structure that had been constructed near the strip. The shop was a temporary one and could be broken up and moved in a single day. Shadowy movement was visible through one of the small windows and out of the small door of the wood-panelled shop walked stooped two men. They stood upright and walked across to the sledges. One of them stopped walking to light up a cigarette.
Dressed in matching black Jack Wolfskin parkas, with their fur-lined hoods flicked back, the tall men had thick unkempt hair and long beards, as was traditional with northern frontiersmen.
‘One of you two, Aaju?’
‘I am Aaju,’ the old man said to the man who towered over him.
‘You are late. Where have you been? We have been waiting here for three days.’
Aaju shrugged his shoulders and turned to the sledge. He unhitched some bungee cords and flicked back the furs to reveal the large see-through plastic cases.
‘Twelve boxes. One thousand dollars each,’ the old man said, wiping away some loose snow from his head as he pushed back the caribou hood.
‘Can’t you get us more?’ the large man asked.
Aaju shrugged again and called over to Daniel who rushed over and stuck out his hand.
‘Hi, I am Daniel.’
The man shook his hand. ‘I just asked the old man if this was all you could get. My employer will pay double if you can get us more.’
Daniel looked across at the side panel of the red plane to see a black logo with the words Styx Enterprises on the door.
‘We can only get access to the island for two months each year, and that’s the only time we can reach the mosses, lichens and flowers you require. Next year we will take two more teams from the village and get you double the amount.’
‘I can’t believe they are not available somewhere else along the coast of Canada.’
‘They are not. The caribou or Arctic hare cannot reach the island in the summer to feed on the plants, so they grow more abundantly,’ Daniel said. ‘I believe that is twelve thousand dollars.’
The man reached into his jacket and pulled out a large white envelope with the same logo printed on it. ‘That is six thousand old dollars cash and six thousand New American Government vouchers. As agreed.’
Daniel opened the envelope and pulled out a NAG voucher.
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