Element

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NINETEEN

Somewhere, a sprinkler chattered. Meandering across the lawn of the Boles residence, Scott halted at the foot of his driveway. Pulling open the door to the metal mailbox, he smelled fresh grass clippings and with hypersensitive eyes, gazed up at the sunny sky. Revolting. Annoyed and sleepy, he threw a postcard in and slapped the mailbox shut, pushing up the flag and lumbering back across the lawn in his robe, cutting a path beneath the Japanese maple. His screen door snapped shut behind him. He was beginning to hate John Marshall.

Twenty-four minutes later, three hundred miles due south, at the White House, the head of Homeland Security repeated what he’d just heard.

“Beetles.”

Tomicus piniperda to be precise,” said the Director of the National Park Service through the speaker phone on the desk. “Otherwise known as the large or common pine shoot beetle. It’s a completely new infestation and it’s absolutely spectacular.” The head of Homeland Security had wanted to bring her into the Nebraska Avenue Complex but the woman had insisted that she was simply too busy. FEMA Region Six was sending a representative but he wouldn’t be arriving until later in the day.

“How do you know it’s a new infestation?”

“Up until this point, the pine shoot beetle has been seen in eleven states across the northern United States. However, it has never advanced significantly west of the Mississippi River.”

“And you said it’s invasive?”

“Correct, it’s originally European and North African. It was introduced in contaminated, imported bark and first appeared on our radar in Ohio, in 1992.”

“Does it attack any other trees besides pines?”

“No.” She sounded tired. “No, it only attacks pines. It attacks the shoots and gets under the bark, weakening the trees and sometimes killing them, either directly or by making them vulnerable to opportunistic pathogens. But whether it kills the tree or not, weakened trees are more likely to burn, and the defoliation that results raises litter concentration. Both these things amplify the danger from wildfires.” The Secretary of Homeland Security phrased his next question very carefully. No dummy, he had a rather robust background in biological warfare.

“Genetically, are the beetles the same as the ones we see in the other infestations in the United States?” This caused the phone line to grow silent for a moment.

“No. They’re not. They are, however, identical to a variety found in Europe. Which is unsettling, since the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Department of Agriculture both have protocols in place to defend against such an infestation. This beetle is a recognized threat and the sheer volume of insects we’re seeing is unreal.”

The head of Homeland Security wanted to ask about Los Alamos, but now that he had this new information, he needed to ask something else first. Something that had not remotely occurred to him until now. Something very disturbing. “Miss Director, in your opinion, what is the likelihood that these beetles were carelessly introduced?” Long, thoughtful pause. This told him it hadn’t occurred to her either. He heard the woman start, then stop. She wanted to get her facts straight.

“Not huge. This infestation is enormous. Absolutely enormous. And it happened overnight, so to speak. I would say… not terribly likely. But it’s possible, obviously.”

“In your estimation, could this be described as suspicious?”

“…Yes.” The head of Homeland Security turned to look at the round clock that was ticking away on the wall. The man from FEMA would land in precisely one hour eleven minutes, in a Gulfstream jet. “You’re suggesting this is an act of terrorism…” the woman from the Park Service said at last. “Environmental terrorism.” The head of Homeland Security nodded, even though he knew the woman on the other end of the line couldn’t see him.

“I’m just going on what you tell me, Miss Director,” he said. “I haven’t seen enough data yet. But yes, I am.”

In the end, he’d gone with the one with the high performance skegs. He just hoped he could handle it. The shortboard was white, with a big skull displayed under its waxy surface, the colorful, airbrushed artwork giving the fiberglass and foam core board a subversive appearance. The skegs, or fins, kept it grounded in the high-tech contemporary. They were intensely blue, with round scales textured in deeper blue about a centimeter away from the perimeter. In the light filtering in from the street, they seemed to glow from within. From a speaker in the corner of the surf shop, Cruel Summer played softly in French. To his right were racks of erect, finished surfboards, some with fins, most without. The fins were on separate racks at eye level. To the left there were racks of apparel. Some things were American brands. Many were not.

He took one flashy shirt that read Gulfe de Gascogne and found a shot glass that would rock in his future apartment, when he was able to display the spoils of his travels in all their glory. The rental cost him a hundred whole euros. Ridiculous. But he paid it. The O’Neil skin suit cost about forty euros, but he really liked it and could wear it at home. The skinsuit was black along the belly but blue and white on the sides. It was a paradigm shift from his ordinary aesthetic but these weren’t ordinary circumstances. At all. He was in Europe, driving around with people he’d just met, would probably get caught and grounded for the rest of his life, and wanted to take this chance to step out of his comfort zone. He’d also dyed his hair, which he was now fonder of. Before it had been dark brown. Now it was bleached white, like Race Bannon’s. It was shorter too. So many changes, so little time. Poor Scott’s head would explode. With each change, he felt more transformed, and he found the sensation completely, utterly liberating.

Laying down the bills for the skinsuit on the glass counter and looking at his wallet, he did a quick count of the money he had left. A little over a thousand, eight hundred. His lower jaw shifted sideways. Twenty days to go. He had to start conserving. Had to start conserving. And then Erika asked him if he was hungry and he knew sooner or later he was just going to be fucked. It was just the way it was. He couldn’t say no. Didn’t want to. This experience would never come again. He knew that, more intuitively than logically. Laying the board against the side of a bench, he got cheese fries with Erika and ate them as seagulls cawed overhead.

The Atlantic Ocean ebbed and flowed a hundred meters away and he could smell it. A cool breeze blew inland and he was delighted to know why. The land was heating up and the air over it was rising, creating a low pressure system that was sucking in air from the more thermally invariable water. Intermittently, ships sparkled on the horizon as tiny points of brilliance. Big puffy clouds extended beyond the horizon, drifting along like giant vapor macrophages. And with Erika there talking to him and the sand drifting over his feet, he really couldn’t imagine a more perfect time or place in the world.

When they had finished eating, they walked along the boardwalk for a little while, offering little insights as they came to them. Of the gang, as he’d dubbed them, she was the one he confided in most readily. She meanwhile threw in little bits of history about her experiences at school. And she laughed goofily at his corny jokes. Returning to the beach, they strolled along the hot sand, his mind miles away from estimates of Young’s Moduli or compactability or permeability or specific storage. He just saw the sand and thought it was pretty.

Eventually, they came upon the gang lying on the sand in various states of undress, Viktor wearing swim trunks and sunglasses, the usual look that seemed to say, ‘you know I don’t take you seriously, right?’ gone, replaced by an amused smile that he locked on Josh as the latter talked to him about something. Katie was relaxed too, if that was possible. She was sipping from a cup carved out of a pineapple. Who knew. Maybe she was human. John waited just long enough for his digestive system to work through its newest addition and then took off for the water with the surfboard, before someone -probably Viktor- had a chance to suggest he was stalling. As he jogged, the sand got wetter until it mushed between his toes. And then the waves were breaking around him and his ankles were cold, very cold. Then he felt the water closing around his upper legs and his belly and he lunged forward and it was all around him. Years ago, he’d picked up a trick he still did today. He wore contacts. They were an older prescription but they wouldn’t fall off as long as the water didn’t hit him too hard in the eyes. He was sure it wasn’t good for his corneas but he took his chances.

Okay, showtime. John’s heart raced. He needed to impress his new friends. If he’d been inexperienced, the feeling would have overwhelmed him, he knew. Then he realized it had overwhelmed him anyway. Okay. He climbed on top of the board and paddled out, a leash tied to his ankle on one end, to the board on the other. He hoped he wasn’t too rusty at this. The last time he had ridden a surfboard was two summers ago. Licking his lips and tasting salt, he looked at his digital watch, exacting quick reassurance from its presence. Its LCD screen, meanwhile, blinked away apathetically. A wave approached and he duck-dived under it, the wave drawing him down and behind it, the raw energy of it exhilarating. Popping up to the surface, he continued paddling. Further away was another wave. When they met, he duck-dived under this one as well. Some more paddling and another duck dive later, he reached a point behind where the waves were breaking.

Floating on the surface, John watched the oncoming waves as he caught his breath. He then waited for two of them to pass so he could time their interval. Once he had a feel for the timing, he scrambled to turn himself around so he was facing the beach. When he was perpendicular with the shore, he quickly rubbed his eyes and then glanced over his shoulder just a moment before another wave rolled under him. After coming down the other side of it, he looked back again. All right, he told himself, eyeing the next wave. This is the one. No more delays.

John began to paddle hard. He had precious few seconds to get into position. All too quickly, he felt the water lift up beneath him. Now! He pulled himself up on both knees, testing the board. Steady so far. Behind him, the wave began to break. He hopped up so his feet were on the board. Placing one foot forward, he let go of the front. Immediately this sent him wobbling.

Gritting his teeth, John shifted his center of mass lower, using his arms for balance. Lo and behold, after a moment of uncertainty, that did the trick. He rode the wave several seconds and then made a bottom turn, which took him away from the trough, back towards the curl. At this point, as an avid surfing fan, he naturally wanted to surf up into the pocket, the highest and most energetic area of the wave, and do some fancy move like a backside snap; but he knew that that was above his skill level and so he made a top turn instead which sent him back down to the trough. Regardless, he heard female cheers from the shore as he made a second bottom turn followed by another top turn. Gratified by this, he nevertheless continued to stay focused, managing a third bottom turn/top turn combination before losing his balance and tumbling into the water. Yeah, motherfucker.

Swimming to grab his board, John smiled. He thought he had sufficiently proved his point. In truth, he knew, these were pretty basic moves; but they still looked and felt cool. Climbing back on top of the surfboard, he reflected on the fact that the hard part was now over. He had demonstrated to himself and the others that he could do this. Now, with that out of his mind, he began to entertain more interesting challenges. He decided the first thing he would attempt would be to do five bottom turn/top turn combinations in a row. It seemed possible. He just needed to spend less time in the trough. Taking a few moments to get back in the zone, he turned back to face the breakers. Paddling out, he began the slightly tiring task of getting into position to snag a second wave.

Over the next half hour, John managed to surf a bunch more waves before wiping out spectacularly. After this happened, he acknowledged to himself that he was growing tired and opted to take a break behind the point where the waves were breaking. During the pause, he paddled around, passing within a few dozen yards of other surfers. One big bull gave him a wave, which John returned, their governments now tentative allies. When the next big wave came, he took it, the bull joining him from twenty or so yards away. He imagined it was quite a sight for the people on shore. They seemed to like it by the sounds of their voices.

He stayed out for about an hour. And then finally paddled back to the beach and came ashore, legs and arms surprisingly tired, collapsing into the sand. The others stood over him and helped him to his feet. It had worked. He’d shown off something he was good at. They’d given him this chance to prove himself and he’d delivered. In a million parallel universes that might not have happened. But at least in this one, John Marshall was a success. And, as an added bonus, his cutbacks were improving nicely. Unfortunately, he never did manage to do five bottom turn/top turn combinations in a row, but at this point, he barely cared.

Sitting on the beach for the rest of the day, they played some Frisbee, until the sun started getting really yellow. John looked at his arms. He was getting tanned. He’d peeled off the top of the suit so he wouldn’t get bizarre tan lines. Lying on the sand, he watched Erika make a rather intricate sand castle, which he let her know he admired. She took the compliment appreciatively. It was at that moment that he realized he was starting to get a crush on her. He’d have to write in the journal about it.

Josh asked him if he was going to go out again and he said yes. Working his upper body back into his skinsuit, he carried the surfboard back out. The ocean had turned a vibrant blue by then, the sand an impossible gold. Board in hand, he sloshed back into the water and did it all over again, as energetically as his fatigued muscles would allow him.

The nice thing about a thriving tourist city was that there were a lot of places to pick up free informational booklets. Les Sables-d’Olonne was no different. A person could stop anywhere. Such as the lobby of a certain hotel near the Port Olona Marina. All the green booklets looked the same, Katie observed, taking one from the back. She offered it to her boyfriend who took it lovingly and then took one for her own. He had to adjust his Märkische Allgemeine newspaper to support it but did so without argument. They were definitely a cute couple, the man behind the counter observed, and he couldn’t help but be a little envious as he returned his attention to his crossword puzzle.

Twenty minutes later, they were back on the beach, dropping down onto the sand where the others were getting restless. John had returned the surfboard and so they were no longer bound to this beautiful place.

They walked in twos to the hostel, separated by a few yards. Everyone was dreamy. The beach was like that. The ocean could just draw the tension out of you, as if by osmosis. It was unearthly. They would miss it. Walking upstairs to their triples, they all had naps before convening a few hours later, without an organized dinner. No one felt much like making the effort tonight. By this time, Katie had had time to read over the pamphlet and as she sat there on the cot, the rest of them looking up at her from the floor, they sensed that this one was a little different. She appeared more thoughtful than usual. And Katie normally didn’t seem to need to think hard. In the back of the room, Viktor was still reading the news. Two other papers were at his side, untouched.

“What does it say?” Brian asked.

“There’s going to be a summit in two weeks on climate change, in England. The U.S. president is expected to come, as well as leaders of ten E.U. nations and China, to discuss capping carbon emissions. The U.S. and China are the world’s biggest generators of carbon dioxide so a series of rallies are being planned.”

“By whom?” Josh asked.

“Greenpeace Germany.” There was a rustling that went around the room. “Our source has leaked to them some information pertaining to Kurt Stover, a German politician who will be attending the summit. They say he’s due to meet with a Russian businessman named Yan Rodenko at a retreat in the French Alps, in three days. The businessman is a major natural gas man and the chairman of Novell Energy. There’s a suspicion that a deal is about to go down whereby Germany will benefit from lower gas prices, in exchange for restrained rhetoric by the Germans at the summit regarding Russia’s role in the poor enforcement of emissions from refineries in its outlying areas, a topic of discussion that has been on the German agenda for some time now. Officially, as a parliament member and head of the Energy Commission, the German, Stover, is a centrist supporter of enforcing emission standards.”

“And unofficially?” André asked.

“He was elected to parliament because of his fiscal conservativism. He’s also the former head of a conservative think tank. Since taking office, he hasn’t proposed a single bill to support alternative energy or incentives to entice automakers to produce cleaner cars. And while he supports better auto efficiency officially, he hasn’t endorsed a single bill to mandate it that wasn’t heavily modified first to serve the automakers. He has a track record of shying away from toughness when it is politically unfavorable and since he’s up for reelection, softened rhetoric from a Russian energy producer might make Germans less wary of his conservativism. In return, in addition to softened rhetoric, Novell might also look forward to superior trade opportunities. In theory.”

“So what do they want us to do?” Brian asked, “videotape their conversation and show that he’s a hypocrite?”

“Essentially, yes. They propose that we pass what we find onto Greenpeace who will then publicize it.” The first one to speak after that was Josh.

“I don’t like it. At all. I don’t like the proposal and I want to know why this jerk is talking to Greenpeace about what we may or may not do.” He lit a cigarette.

“I don’t know,” Katie said.

“Let me lay down the facts then. If this guy really is as important as they say he is, he has a lot of money and he’s connected to the Russian government. He may even be ex-KGB. Back me up, Viktor.”

Viktor simply said, “he’s right,” not looking up from his newspaper.

Josh continued, “which means he’s powerful and he has tough friends. It also means he probably has connections to the Russian mafia. And those people are serious sons of bitches.” He paused for emphasis. John looked at him. “You don’t want to mess around with people like that. And besides, I thought we agreed we weren’t going to work with fucking Greenpeace.”

“What’s wrong with Greenpeace?” John asked.

“What’s wrong with them? They’re fucking crazy hippies, that’s what’s wrong with them,” Josh said. “They’re naïve people who are completely unrealistic, have no concept for subtlety, and think that by hanging up banners and sailing around the world on their big pretty boat, they can get governments to change their policies. You know the world doesn’t work that way. We all know that. And that’s why we’ve been doing what we do, keeping a low profile. Attacking small problems. Maintaining at least a semblance of respectability. And I reiterate my previous question. Why is our source talking to them about our plans?”

“I don’t know,” Katie said.

“Well obviously it’s completely unacceptable. No. You know what I say? Cut him loose. Ignore it. It serves him right for breaking the protocol. Or, if you prefer, suggesting that we break it.” Exhausted, he leaned back and took a long drag of his cigarette.

Cory leaned forward. “Josh has a point. Greenpeace is a large organization and we have no idea how many people are aware of this now. All it takes is one mole from an intelligence agency to seriously jeopardize our cover. Have we worked with this source before?”

“Yeah, he’s the one who tipped us off to that fracking report.”

The thin stack of the International Herald Tribune landed at their feet with a thwap. It was so loud that it stunned them and the gust of wind it generated rustled their shirts.

“Not to change the subject, but I think you’ll want to see this,” Viktor said. They gazed down. On the front page of the international section was a picture of a truck, shot from a video camera. There was a time index in the lower left. It was in black and white, having been filmed at night. And the contrast was just so-so. But the resolution was good, John observed. Quite good. Good enough to make out Deutsch Mechatronix on the side.

The most reasonable human reaction to seeing something like that was to say oh shit. As it so happened, John had been saying that a lot lately, so instead he just smiled. This was the first they’d heard of it. They’d been told it would come out tomorrow sometime. Someone higher up must have wanted it sooner. The story had been broken by the BBC and this article was a reprint of the BBC article. As they read it, the thing that stood out the most was the extent to which their sophistication clearly impressed the author. She noted the lengths they had gone to to produce a single coherent video from multiple perspectives and to remain anonymous, blurring their faces when they came into frame and removing the sound track. And fingering a shift leader with a close-up by a cameraman was a fine piece of work. She was careful, however, not to reveal whether she supported the group. The fact that she had sought out their help, of course, went unmentioned.

The author was someone named Ashley Argile. John had double-taked at the sheer ugliness of the name when he’d first read it and wondered what she looked like. It’d be a bit of a tragedy if she turned out to have been the prettiest girl in her high school class he’d thought. When they were finished reading the article, they did a Google News search. Seven news organizations had picked it up so far including Reuters. They were off to a good start, Cory remarked. Brian said he expected there would be many more to come. After taking a look at all of these, they looked up Argile. A little effort revealed how left of base John had been. She was actually a he. His main focus right now seemed to be industrial corruption.

John thought the situation was interesting. Crusaders for the truth working together. Cloak and dagger. He had to wonder what it was like from his end, seeking out contacts through word of mouth. Making contact with them in random locations through drops and pickups. It suddenly occurred to him that Argile’s job was only slightly safer than his own.

As would be expected, the attention from the press and the compliments they had received from Argile were a thrill for everyone, especially John, who had never done this before. However, this aside, there was one thing that gave John pause. The author had made a number of connections between other, similar incidents throughout Europe and the trapping of Kation. Up until now, no relationship between the group’s various missions had been publicly hypothesized. But now they’d reached a turning point. Why did this matter? Because they were getting people in trouble. People who were far apart and didn’t know each other. But what would happen if they ever decided to swap voicemails?

He began to regret their inclusion of a calling card, a business card with the stylized symbol of carbon on it, a C with four blue dots arranged in a diamond around it. A new innovation, its purpose had obviously been to provide a vehicle for ongoing publicity as they undertook more missions. But upon further reflection, he now viewed it as an unsafe luxury. He hoped they wouldn’t use it again. All of a sudden, the Alps seemed like an even worse idea. Of course, there was no wanting for enthusiasm. Viktor and Brian were all for the Alps now, despite the difficulty and risks. They were looking for the fame, or possibly, the notoriety. John knew he was too. It was fun to be subversive. But he still had reservations, as did Josh, obviously, as any rational person would. That being said, he had to consider the fact that they had been doing this for months now. Assuming there wasn’t something they’d just not bothered to share with him, if no one had tried to kill or arrest them by now, it kind of seemed unlikely they’d start now. Right...?

As he considered this, his head went back and forth across the room to follow the conversation, until he suddenly found himself talking to André about logistics. André was quickly impressed by John’s mechanical intuition. He hadn’t anticipated it. As simply as that their relationship began to become more robust. They had a nice, lively chat on one side of the room, while the others debated amongst themselves on the other side.

They had always relied on more traditional techniques, André kept saying. No one fully appreciated the benefits of unorthodoxy. You couldn’t anticipate it. John responded that with greater unorthodoxy also came greater complexity, to which André responded, not necessarily. Suddenly they were talking about air pressure at alpine elevations, the heat retention abilities of their sleeping bags, and lodge costs. They also agreed that using a calling card ever again was a terrible idea. They’d done it. But now that they’d gotten more attention than they’d bargained for, it was time to be logical again.

Their conversation was very involved and eventually caught the other’s attention. The two quietest people in the room had grand ideas after all, good ones too, and they couldn’t help but be drawn into their enthusiasm. But while this was an enjoyable mental exercise, John participated with a degree of trepidation. He still didn’t think it was smart. Doable, perhaps. Thrilling certainly. But not smart.

He expressed this to André. But it was Erika who surprised him the most by asking him why not. He hadn’t been ready for that. She always seemed so rational. So wise. So well grounded. The stable one. He realized he had merely misjudged her.

There was fire in her eyes. She was Katie’s lieutenant after all, despite the best efforts of Viktor, and she was smiling at him directly. She wanted him to come. All of a sudden, John wasn’t sure of anything. He suddenly comprehended that she was as much a chameleon as he was and it threw his small grasp on his new world out of whack. Now he had to reevaluate the same old questions all over again. What was rational, really? What was a smart risk? What was worth it? He saw his entire life in relief and concluded that his earlier, rational, safe decision-making had not actually guaranteed him much of anything. Aside from certain financial security.

So what? He’d always had that. It suddenly occurred to him he’d always just followed the plan. Worked hard, gotten top honors, had no fun. Now what? Get advanced degrees with top honors, still have no fun. Or get a job, work up the chain of command, and get progressively higher responsibilities through sheer force of will. More responsibility, even less fun. Stay one step ahead of his peers who always judged his progress, who went to medical school and became attorneys and wore nice sexy suits and sold their souls. And why? Ultimately, to feed the pockets of someone who really didn’t care about the world or anyone else. Would those pockets soon be his own? Was this the extent of his significance to the human race?

Always full intensity… Never holding anything back for his real dreams. For something worthy of his diligence. No. It was obvious to him now. More so than it had ever been before. It was the irrational part of him that allowed him to truly have fun. The part that had told him to empty his savings account and fly to Europe. To lie to his overbearing parents who pushed him to work hard but had forgotten what success even meant. To blow that money driving around the continent on mad capers while he was still young. Capers that had caused people all around Europe to start talking. That had brought him to the most amazing group of people he had ever met in his life… That ever allowed him to reach his full potential.

That differentiated him from Scott.

At that instant, John Marshall reached the limit of his card playing abilities and simply took a leap of faith. He trusted Erika’s direct stare. As his parents couldn’t. If they decided to do this stupid escapade, he would go. God help him, he would go.

She saw his decision and beamed that much more for it. The peace of finally making a choice washed over him and for an instant his mind was still. It felt good. During that same instant, he briefly thought of Margaret. He hoped this time would be different.

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