Arctic Rising (Excerpt)

We have a special two chapter excerpt for you! Here is Artic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell, out on February 28:

Global warming has transformed the Earth, and it’s about to get even hotter. The Arctic Ice Cap has all but melted, and the international community is racing desperately to claim the massive amounts of oil beneath the newly accessible ocean.

Enter the Gaia Corporation. Its two founders have come up with a plan to roll back global warming. Thousands of tiny mirrors floating in the air can create a giant sunshade, capable of redirecting heat and cooling the earth’s surface. They plan to terraform Earth to save it from itself—but in doing so, they have created a superweapon the likes of which the world has never seen.

Anika Duncan is an airship pilot for the underfunded United Nations Polar Guard. She’s intent on capturing a smuggled nuclear weapon that has made it into the Polar Circle and bringing the smugglers to justice.

1

Centuries ago, the fifty-mile-wide mouth of the Lancaster Sound imprisoned ships in its icy bite. But today, the choppy polar waters between Baffin Island to the south of the sound, and Devon Island on the north, twinkled in the perpetual sunlight of the Arctic’s summer months, and tons of merchant traffic constantly sailed through the once impossible-to-pass Northwest Passage over the top of Canada.

A thousand feet over the frigid, but no longer freezing and icechoked waters, the seventy-five-meter-long United Nations Polar Guard airship Plover hung in a slow-moving air current. The turboprop engines growled to life as the fat, cigar-shaped vehicle adjusted course, then fell silent.

Inside the cabin of the airship, Anika Duncan checked her readings, then leaned over the matte-screened displays in the cockpit to look out the front windows.

The airship’s cabin had once held twelve passengers, but was now retrofitted with a bunk, a small kitchen area, supply closets, and a cramped navigation station. Tourists had once sat in the cabin underneath the giant gasbag as the airship glided over New York’s tallest buildings. After that tour of duty, the United Nations Polar Guard purchased it well used and very cheap.

Airships didn’t use much fuel. They could put observers into the air to monitor ship traffic for days at a time, wafting from position to position with air currents.

It saved money. And Anika knew the UNPG was always struggling with a lean budget. It showed on her paycheck, too.

“Which ship should we take a closer look at, Tom?” Anika asked.

She’d unzipped her bright red cold-sea survival suit and rolled it down to her waist, as it was too hot for her to wear fully zipped up as regulations required. She had her frizzy hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail: a week without relaxant meant it had a mind of its own right now. She’d consider letting it turn to dreads if she could, but the UNPG didn’t approve. And yet, she thought to herself, they expected her to sit up in the air for a week without a real shower.

Someone once told her to just shave it. But she liked her hair. Why hide it? As long as it was tied up, regs said she could have longer hair.

Now Thomas Hutton, her copilot, was all about the regs and then some. He had his blond hair millimeter short. Shorter than required. But even he wore his survival suit halfsies.

It was one of those balancing acts: if they kept it cold enough in the airship’s cabin to wear the suits zipped up, using the tiny, cramped toilet was torture.

Particularly, Tom said, for the guys.

“Tom?” she prompted.

“Yeah, I’m looking, I’m looking.” He walked back from the nav

station, the top half of his suit floppily smacking along behind him as he peered down through the windows along the way.

Four ships were funneling their way into the Lancaster Sound from the east, where Greenland lurked beneath the curve of the horizon. The ships looked like bath toys from up at this height. Three of the ships had large wing-shaped parafoils hanging in the sky overhead. The parafoils, connected to the ships by cables, reached up to where the strong winds were blowing to drag the ships through the water.

“I want to take a closer look at that oil burner,” Tom finally announced.

“You are getting predictable,” Anika said as he slid into the copilot’s seat. Though one of the things she liked about Tom was his easy predictability. Her own life had been chaotic enough before coming so far north. It was a different pace up here. A different chapter of her life. And she liked it. “It is supposed to be a random check?”

He pointed at the black plume of smoke trailing from the stacks of the fourth ship in the distance. “That one sticks out like a sore thumb. Hard to say no to.”

Anika tapped the scratched and well-worn touch screens around her. She pulled up video from one of the telephoto-lens cameras mounted on the prow of the cabin and zoomed in on the fourth ship.

Thirty meters long with a bulbous-prowed hull, flaking rust, and colored industrial gray, the ship was pushing fifteen knots in its rush to pass through the sound.

“They seem to be in a hurry.”

Tom glanced over. “Fifteen knots? She hits a berg at that speed she’ll Titanic herself quickly enough.”

The Arctic still had an island of ice floating around the actual Pole. It was kept alive by a fusion of conservationists, tourism, and the creation of a semi-country and series of ports that sprang up called Thule. They’d used refrigerator cables down off platforms to keep the ice congealed around themselves despite the warmed-up modern Arctic, a trick learned from old polar oil riggers who’d done that to create temporary ice islands back at the turn of the century.

It was an old trick that didn’t really work anywhere else but near the Pole now. But even the carefully artificial polar ice island that was Thule still calved chunks, some of which would get as far south as Lancaster.

Hit one at the speed this ship was going, they’d sink easily enough.

“Shall we get closer to him and sniff him over?” Anika asked. “Remind him to slow down.”

Tom grinned. “Yeah, their credentials should come through shortly. The scatter camera’s up. Let’s see if this ship’s radioactive.”

 

The neutron scatter camera, mounted on a gimbaled platform right next to the telephoto cameras, hunted for radioactive signatures. Port authorities had been using them to hunt for potential terrorist bombs for decades. But what they found, over time, was a secondary use for the scatter cameras: catching nuclear waste dumpers.

At the turn of the century, after the tsunami that washed over East Asia, UN monitors found themselves contacted by East African countries about industrial pollutants washing up on the beaches. People had been falling sick after approaching large, well-insulated drums washed up from deep in the ocean. People had also been showing statistically high rates of cancer near coastlines throughout countries where standing navies and coast guards just didn’t exist.

Toxic waste, including spent nuclear fuel, was clearly getting dumped off non-monitored coasts by commercial shipping.

The gig started when a shady company got the lowest bid for safely storing fuel or industrial waste. Ostensibly, they were transporting it out of country to another location.

In reality, once offshore of some struggling African country with no navy, they’d dump it.

Even so-called “first world” countries weren’t immune. A statistical study of waste-transporting merchant ships thirty years ago showed a higher number of merchant ships “sinking” in the deeper Mediterranean.

Charter an old leaker, stuff it with barrels full of whatever the host country and its businesses didn’t want. Take the big payout, head out to sea, and then experience difficulties. Instant massive profit.

The African and Mediterranean dumping had faded with the EU and East African naval buildups and public outrage. More dumping was going on off Arabic coasts these days. The post oilboom nations were too busy trying to destroy each other for what little black gold was left to have the capability to worry about what was going on off their coastlines.

But now the Arctic was also seeing dumping. With the whole Northwest Passage open and free of ice, merchant ships could cross from Russia to Greenland, on through Canadian polar ports, and then to Alaska. Which also meant they crossed over some very deep Arctic water.

As nuclear power boomed across Eurasia and the Americas, with smaller corporations offering small pebble-bed nuclear reactors to energy-hungry towns and small cities demanding an alternative to oils needed in the plastics industries, the waste had to go somewhere.

Somewhere was more often than not . . . out here where Anika patrolled.

Hence the old, repurposed UNPG spotter airships with scatter cameras. Anika and her fellow pilots hung above the Northwest Passage helping monitor ship traffic that came from the world over. But mainly, they were hunting for ships with radioactive signatures.

The program had proven effective enough. Word had gotten out, thanks in part to a major UNPG advertising campaign online. For the past seven months Anika’s job had become rather routine.

Maybe even a little boring.

Which is why, for a moment, she didn’t notice the sound of the scatter camera alarm going off.


2

Anika gunned the turboprop engines to shove the airship down toward the choppy ocean.

“Do you have an ID on the ship?” she asked. The ship could be nuclear powered, she guessed. There were plenty of bulk carriers that were. But this one felt way too small for that.

Tom had a tablet in his lap and was paging through documentation.

“The transponder onboard claims it’s the Kosatka, registered out of Liberia. Papers are in order. She cleared herself in Nord Harbor.” He looked across at her. “She’s already been cleared by Greenland Polar Guard. We shouldn’t even be paying attention to her. If we hadn’t left the camera on, we would have just pinged the transponder and let them through.”

They’d dropped a couple hundred feet, and the Plover picked up speed in the still air as the four engines strained away.

“Is there anything about radioactive cargo when she cleared Greenland?”

Tom shook his head. “She’s clean on here. Do you still want to get in closer?”

That was Tom, following the letter of the law. The rules said the ship was cleared, that someone had checked it over in Greenland. They didn’t need to run a second check.

“Someone in Greenland could have slipped up,” Anika said. Or, she thought silently, been bribed. She picked up the VHF radio transmitter and held it to the side of her mouth. This was weird enough to warrant a closer look, either way. “Kosatka, Kosatka, Kosatka, this is UNPG 4975, Plover, over.”

Nothing but a faint crackle came from the channel.

Tom waved his tablet. “Says here it’s a private research vessel operating out of Arkhangel’sk.”

“So they are registered in Liberia for convenience,” Anika said. “But operating out of Russia. And they’re studying what?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Search around online, see if you can find anything.”

“Already on it.”

Anika piloted them down through the black plume of smoke in the air behind the Russian vessel. They were catching up to it.

Once abreast, she would run the scatter camera again. This would get them better data for Baffin Island. This way whoever was doing this couldn’t then claim the camera flagged a false reading. Even if the ship dumped its waste, Anika could prove it had been carrying something obviously radioactive.

Then the gunships would get involved. And boarding parties.

But that wouldn’t be her problem. Which was why Anika liked flying. Back in the Sahara, after she’d put Lagos well behind her, she’d flown as a spotter for the miles of DESERTEC solar stations out in the middle of nowhere. High over the baking sand, she’d run patrols looking for trouble.

Like a god looking down from the clouds, she’d directed guards out to the perimeter to make sure Berber tribesmen weren’t really disguised terrorists looking to blow up the solar mirrors that ran most of North Africa and Europe.

Anika throttled back as she matched speed with the Kosatka and glanced portside, down at the ship. It was a few hundred feet away. She could see the silhouettes of figures behind the glass panes of the cockpit windows looking over the ship’s decks. The gasbag of the Plover had blocked the sun out for Kosatka. Surely the bridge crew had noticed her by now.

They had. Two men opened a rusty door on the side of the bridge and looked at her, shading their eyes as they did so.

They ran back inside.

“Well, they’re paying attention now,” she laughed.

Kosatka was a beater. Rust showed everywhere, and where it didn’t, it had been sanded away and covered in gray primer. Patches of the stuff blotched the entire ship.

Kosatka, Kosatka, Kosatka, this is UNPG Plover off your starboard side, over.”

“Case of beer says they’re dumping,” Tom said, standing up and looking over her to the ship.

“What kind of beer are we talking about?” Anika asked as she fired up the scatter camera again. She backed the readings up to a chip and slipped them into a pocket on her shoulder. Old habits. Hard copy trumped all. Half the equipment on the airship broke down, and she didn’t want to lose the data. Dumpers deserved nothing more than to rot in jail, she figured. And she’d be really annoyed if some slipup of hers let one of them slip through. “If it is that cheap ‘lite’ beer you had at your barbecue last month, I don’t want to win a bet with you.”

Tom looked wounded. “Jenny picked that out, not me. I was stuck in the air with you all that week, remember?”

“I remember.” Anika looked over at the radio. Still static.

“What kind of good Nigerian beer should I bet, then?” Tom asked, sitting back down and looking up his results for the search on the ship.

“Guinness will do.”

“Guinness?”

“Number one in the mother country,” Anika said. “Someone told me they sell more of it back home than in Ireland.” She tapped the picture of her and her father sitting on a blanket on Lekki Beach just outside Lagos. Each was wearing a crisp white shirt, holding a pint. Big smiles. Hot sun. Cool ocean.

“No shit?”

“None at all.” Anika grabbed the mic. “Let’s see if we can raise them and get them to heave to, okay? Next step: we call in the nearest cutter and get this over with. The camera still thinks they are hot.”

Before she could call again, a heavy Russian voice crackled over the radio. “Yes, yes, hello. You are United Nations Polar Guard. Correct?”

Anika sighed. “The crew doesn’t know how to respond to us on the radio properly.” She keyed the mic. “Kosatka, switch to channel forty-five, repeat, four-five. Over.”

She waited for confirmation, but none came. She was considering switching to channel forty-five when Tom tapped her shoulder. “What’s that?” He sounded as if knew, though, but just couldn’t believe what he was seeing and wanted confirmation.

Anika glanced over. The two men had pulled a small crate out onto the metal deck around the bridge. Anika squinted at the contents, but spotted the distinctive and familiar long tube of a shoulderheld rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

No time to react, no time to think. She yanked on the joystick and gunned the turboprop engines to maximum. The massive, lighter-than-air machine banked hard to the left as she flew just fifty feet over the old ship’s superstructure.

Crossing to the other side of the ship would force those men to move the RPG over, Anika thought. That’d give her a minute. And it would get them further away as the airship struggled to accelerate toward its top speed of seventy miles an hour.

This was bad, Anika thought. Probably worse than Nairobi.

Definitely worse than Nairobi.

“Is that what I think it is?” Tom shouted at her over the roar of the engines.

“RPG.” Anika yanked her survival suit up over her shoulders and zipped it up.

“Jesus Christ,” Tom said. “Jesus Christ.”

Anika snapped her fingers to get him to look at her instead of back at the ship. “Hey. Stay calm. Zip up your survival suit. And grab the controls.”

He fumbled at his suit with one hand and held the joystick loosely with the other. She left him to hold their course and raced back down the cabin.

She kicked a large plastic chest open with one booted foot and pulled out an old Diemaco C11 assault rifle packed inside. She slapped a clip in it, shouldered it, and stood up in front of the rear window.

Some small part of her wanted to join Tom’s mantra of “Jesus Christ,” over and over again, but she knew that was the sort of useless shit that got you killed. You needed to take action.

She flicked the safety off.

They’d pulled clear of the ship by several hundred feet. The two men had moved to this side of the bridge, and one of them got the RPG launcher up onto his shoulder and was aiming at the Plover.

Anika’s heart raced as she yanked the rear window down. She could hardly focus as she aimed and fired a burst from the Diemaco, hoping she was in time. The ear-bursting chatter shocked her. It drowned out the engines.

A flare of light burst on the Kosatka’s bridge as the RPG launched and flew right at her. Anika scrunched low and winced. This was it.

The entire airbag over the cabin shivered, but didn’t explode.

“Did they hit us?” Tom shouted back at her.

“I think it punched through the bag but didn’t explode. It just kept going. Check the bag’s pressure.”

“We’re losing gas and lift,” Tom yelled.

Anika propped the Diemaco up on the windowsill and tried to get a better shot at the men on the ship, forcing them to take cover in the bridge with their launcher. Waste-dumping bastards. An RPG? This was the Northwest Passage. They were just north of Canada, not in some war zone.

The Plover slipped slowly out of the sky as the Kosatka churned on past.

Up front, Tom got on the radio. Over her quick bursts of fire, Anika could hear him calling for assistance, his voice suddenly sounding pilot-calm as he followed a routine. “Nanisivik Base, Nanisivik Base, Base this is Plover, we’ve been hit by an RPG. We’re under fire. Repeat, under fire. We need assistance by anything in the area.”

Anika kept the men pinned inside the bridge with her rifle. But now another man with a launcher appeared down on a lower deck. Anika swiveled to shoot at him, but he fired first.

She kept firing just ahead of that flash of fire, trying to intercept the insanely fast blur of the rocket leaping at her airship.

The rocket struck the bag and this one exploded as it hit a structural spar inside. Melting fabric rained down around the cabin. Alarms whooped from up front in the cockpit. “We’re going down!” Tom screamed.

Anika could feel it: her stomach lifted toward her chest. The Plover dropped out of the last fifty feet of air in a dignified, fluttering spiral that gave Anika enough time to make sure her survival suit was zipped and to make sure that she had braced herself against the corner of the cabin.

Outside, the waves became choppier and more defined with each split second as they rose to meet the airship.

The Plover smacked into the Arctic Ocean with an explosion of spray and flaming debris as the burning gasbag overhead collapsed and draped itself over them with a fluttering sigh.

Arctic Rising © Tobias S. Buckell 2012

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