Jan 10 2012 4:00pm
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.”
“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.
“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