Element

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THIRTY-FOUR

Eight hours later, the clouds over them disappeared, retreating in gentle waves, like floating pink castles. They were in an immense plain. Up ahead was a village. Not much to see here. Farmland. Iron rich dirt. Their air conditioners were on, and they did their best as they sipped water. Overhead, broad-winged birds glided. Before them, the road wound slowly back and forth. And to the west, the sun began its slow decline towards the far side of the Earth. They rode on.

As they came over a hill, a while later, John didn’t notice them at first because his eyes were down, but when he saw a tall form in his peripheral vision, he looked up. And there, towering above him, were three rows of gigantic… white… windmills. More accurately, wind turbines. He craned his neck to see them. Three blades each, turning counter-clockwise. Dozens of them. Whoosh whoosh whoosh. His voice caught in his throat and he couldn’t say anything. It was an awesome sight.

The sun set and they pulled over at a rest stop to get a quick dinner. Huddled together around two tables, they ate and talked about nothing in particular. Little things. The weather. Sports. The Novell article was coming, they’d learned. Coming soon. They just had to be patient. Because a whole world of hurt was about to come down on Yan Rudenko. They were unsettled, however, to learn that their contact was only an intermediary between them and the journalist writing the article. To John this validated his earlier concerns. If their source wasn’t in the press, then who the hell were they? Katie had no answers. Sighing, John let it go.

In due course, they were done. Using the bathroom one more time, they got back into the cars and continued on. They could be at Alvaro in three hours if they hurried.

Sitting by the dock in Lisboa, Portugal, Rainbow Warrior wasn’t that imposing, the twenty-year-old thought. Two rows of portholes ran down its side and its hull was painted green, with an image of a bird, presumably a seagull, trailing a rainbow, at the bow. This wasn’t the original Rainbow Warrior, or even the second. The first had been sunk by the French government in the 1980’s, in New Zealand, while sitting at a dock in preparation for a campaign to protest and monitor French nuclear tests in French Polynesia, accidentally killing a photographer. Six people had been implicated. Two had been arrested in New Zealand, only to be handed over to France following a threat to embargo the Pacific country. Three more had been fetched from the sea by a submarine, after sinking their own yacht. She didn’t remember what happened to the last one. It was all pretty ridiculous. And now here she was, peering at the green hull of that ill-fated ship’s descendent, and seriously speculating on how it was possible that she was so lucky as to be serving on a part of history.

Sam Kalmbach was going back to school in the fall for a half year, and then she would be finished with her degree in marine biology. She’d worked hard for it and in her spare time, she’d devoted considerable effort to doing activist work. She had volunteered with a number of organizations, including Habitat for Humanity and Greenpeace, and had designs for the Peace Corps when she was done. Admittedly, it wasn’t all altruistic. Meeting people from all over the world was a thrill that you really couldn’t describe or find by other means. It was an experience that rocked your senses and changed you forever. A serenity that came from tangible personal growth. She also loved the environment and thought that it was worth fighting for. She had headed the environmental science club at her university and had organized any number of rallies and meetings in the neighborhood around her campus. A lot of work for a young person. And now she was here. She was proud of her short life.

“What do you think?” Bob McGovern asked with a smile. Sam shifted her weight to one leg.

“It’s nice.” He beamed.

“She’s a lot better than her immediate predecessor. They had to change out a whole bunch of equipment when they first found that one. She was actually originally a fishing boat.”

“How appropriate,” Sam said.

“Right? This one, on the other hand, is totally custom made and state of the art.” Bob was twenty-nine and slightly balding, but it wasn’t so bad you noticed yet. He was muscular and friendly and she felt comfortable around him. They started towards the gang plank. Several other new replacements were coming on board as well for a fresh round of advocating, which would consist of traveling to different ports in Europe over the next couple weeks. In the distance, a yacht drove by and as they walked up the metal gangplank, it rocked up and down, waves lapping against the pier beneath them.

Sam had sailed boats competitively in high school so she remembered a lot of sailing terminology, but it had been years since she’d been aboard one. Up above was the fore mast. Aft of that was the main mast. The forecastle was to her left and the pilothouse was a deck above her, towards the bow. The sails were secured for now. As they came aboard, footsteps clambered behind them up the gangplank and when she turned around, she saw a pair of muscular men, slightly older than Bob, hauling a metal crate aboard.

Those would be the cameras and video equipment. The two men set it down on the deck and walked back down the gangplank, before hefting up a second crate, this one plastic. Sam watched them. One of them wore a bandana and had a focused look on his face. She had seen the look many times, when she’d raced. When they had set it down on the deck, she walked over to the plastic crate and peered inside, through the clear lid. There were a bunch of black cases in there, all neatly packed. At first Bob had been skeptical when she had asked for a role doing inventory. No one wanted to do inventory. But once he saw that she was earnest and not trying to kiss his butt, he was more than happy to relinquish that monotonous responsibility to someone else. She’d done something similar to it at her various internships in the past so he trusted her not to mess it up.

Sam unlatched the plastic cover and set it down on the deck, reaching inside and pulling out a black case, which she cracked open matter-of-factly. There, nestled in gray foam, was a multi-variable water quality meter, a hefty rectangle with a round, watertight cover overlaying a dot matrix LCD screen. From the bottom, a cord extended, terminating at a probe. This gear was no joke. The boat’s skipper, Natalya, who was Bob’s age, walked by, carrying a length of rope and disappeared into the forecastle. She came back out several minutes later, just as Sam finished checking the water meters and was proceeding to the camera equipment. She removed each component, examined it thoroughly, and replaced it, finally locking the lid of the case and turning to look for Bob, who had disappeared. Sam pushed the boxes to a place where they would be less in the way and then carrying her duffel bag, headed below to the cabin deck, to find a bunk.

She had been told to just find an empty bunk and when she found one, she saw that the room was already half occupied. There was a bag on the floor and one of the bunks was made. On the desk, there was a spiral notebook with a navy blue pen that read Hughes Glomar Explorer. She had no idea what that was. She looked through the porthole, into the harbor, where gulls cawed and flapped a short distance above the water. The porthole was open and she could hear the gurgle of a boat motor. She made her bunk and exhumed a little Nintendo DS from her bag. Her parents thought of everything. She then went into the corridor and wandered upward to see if they’d brought any more crates aboard. No. Okay. She went aft, then down, into the engine space. It wasn’t too high tech. On the contrary, it reminded her more of a factory. It smelled of hydrocarbons. There was also limited light. But it was where people worked so she imagined she might manage to find it charming, given sufficient time. She went back up and outside. There were now more crates for her to check. Bob announced they would be departing in half an hour. She had to hurry.

They had one more hour to cover. John took a turn driving the Peugeot and Josh stole a nap. Emerging from the sprawl of Madrid, for a while, all John could see were their headlights and taillights. Left and right, it was black. A darkness known only to the blind. They were very much alone out here. John jerked his head to the side to view the night sky. He wondered how long this would go on for them. The others. When they would go back to their homes. Some of them didn’t seem to have one. Others lived alone. All of them had each other now. But what after? Staring out into the blackest of all black, he feared for them. And for himself… but mostly for them. The darkness gave no answers.

As divined, they got to their destination at exactly twelve midnight. They first discerned it by the orange light that emanated from behind the hills. To reach it from this direction, they had to drive over a sandy ridge, which, as they reached its peak, gave them a good view of the entire facility. There were bright green lights, serving an unknown purpose. Big cylindrical structures. Fences. And many orange lights. Even from above, it looked vast. And those were only the buildings. The fields were even larger.

Coming down into the fields, they slowed to a crawl, putting out their headlamps, and used the newly risen moon to guide them through the half mile long rows of plants. The tires crunched and rumbled as they kicked pebbles out of their way. They pulled in close to the buildings, the cars separated by a few dozen yards as Josh got a camera ready. John checked his brown jacket pocket. Three memory cards. He smiled.

John slowed to a stop next to the only really open area and got out of the car. Josh climbed out after him, and going in the back, took out a tripod. When the tripod was up, John set the camera on top. Far away, Erika and Katie were doing the same. John and Josh were parked between tall rows of plants. Erika and Katie had pulled close to the water tower on the side of the complex. And Cory and Viktor were parked a ways down in the other direction.

Way out, across the rows of bushes, sticking up diagonally, was a motionless sprinkler. John centered the camera on it. They were at a good vantage point. The moon had disappeared behind some clouds so there was very little light now in the fields. But the cameras had night vision.

Twenty minutes passed. No activity. They sat and waited. Deep inside the bowels of the farm, a single motor hummed, incessantly. Otherwise, there was no sound. The only exception was an occasional rustling that came from the bushes. A rabbit or a fox, perhaps.

They heard a rumble. Something electric, mechanical. Whirrrrrr… Clink clink clink clink. Lo and behold, the sprinkler chattered on. John pressed record. Concealed from view by the darkness, all the way in the distance to his left, another one chattered on as well. He smiled. He turned the camera on its base and probed the darkness, resolving a second diagonal tube and the flapping metal component at its end. Gravity pulled it down and then collision with a stream of water sent it back up again in an endless cycle. For that instant of contact, water went in every direction. Even farther out, water issued out from long horizontal arrays, one end attached to a pivot about which they gradually rotated. As the water emerged, it hissed and fizzed.

John’s walkie-talkie clicked. “Hey John,” it was Erika. Could you come here a sec? I have a problem with my camera.”

“Sure.” He left the camera where it was and ran the seventy yards to her. When he got to her, he huffed and puffed to a stop.

“What’s up?” She grabbed him and kissed him. The hottest, warmest kiss he’d ever had. Tugged his shirt. He felt her inhale the air from his lungs. He closed his eyes and pulled her to him. André coughed. Brian rolled his eyes.

“All righty then.” André said. John leaned back.

“I better go.”

“Okay.” He ran the seventy yards back to the Peugeot and stooped to catch his breath. The very instant he saw the flash.

A fraction of a second later, the shockwave traveled the distance it took to reach him and knocked him over, sending him into the camera and it tumbling over as well. The noise was louder than a thousand movie thunderclaps. Louder than the cannons the American Legion blasted at their Memorial Day service. He pushed himself up with his arms and rose to a crouch, looking behind him at a dense cloud of smoke coming from the side of the building. It was accompanied by a haze of airborne dust grains. He closed his eyes. They clicked against his glasses. He heard the sound of metal rending. He looked for the source of the sound. More rending. It was so loud. So impossibly loud. He saw André and Brian. They were helping Erika to her feet. She was stumbling. John ran towards them but then stopped. More ripping metal. Louder. It sounded like nothing he had ever heard before, like the mass of a million tons of… oh God.

He looked up into the darkness. At a towering hulk of steel. A hulk that was slowly bending over. Towards the ground. As if to kiss it.

He gasped. And with an effortlessness like that of a man who had stumbled aimlessly upon a hill of ants, the water tower came down between him and the Volkswagen. He had never seen anything like what came next. The only respectable approximates he could conjure were the images from 9/11. The people fleeing the towers of rolling ash. John’s eyes grew wide, until his entire view, all he could see, was consumed by an enormous, frothing, advancing wall of water. It engulfed them. Tossed them through the bushes and across the sand like sediment, rolled them as the dirt became mud, rocks biting into their hands and backs. He turned to face the tsunami. The tower had been a hundred feet wide, hundreds of feet tall.

And it was all coming out at once. Sliding into the farm building, it pulverized its nearest point of contact. Blinding showers of sparks exploded with electric crackles and there was an ominous buzz. John was screaming. Josh pulled him to the ground an instant before an enormous piece of metal landed beside them, blasting up a cone of dirt like a land mine.

“Come on!”

“WE CAN’T LEAVE THEM!”

“They can take care of themselves! JOHN!” He shook him. Hard. John punched him and ran back. But he didn’t get far. Josh gripped his shoulder and punched him in the head. John went down, arms landing in the muck, water whipping across his face. Suddenly, he was on his feet again. And then he was someplace dry and there was the rumble of a motor. Cabin lights came on and he was thrown back into a seat. He felt his body accelerate to the side. More pressure on his back. The angry cluck of a motorcycle filled his hearing and a bright light whizzed by the windows. The Peugeot bounced over a bump, another bright light coming up from behind. The Baja. And farther out... Yes. Two other sets of lights on the other side of the wide field. John looked out the back window at the receding farm. Smoke rising from its right side, one half of the lights no longer lit. No idea what the hell had just happened.

Faced with circumstances that had rapidly gone entirely out of control, attempting to digest information it was simply unable to process, and in a pitiful gasp to achieve control, his mind directed him to do the only thing it could think of. The best it could come up with. He reached over his shoulder, and buckled his safety belt.

The sails were fully deployed. Next stop, Le Havre. ETA, twenty-hours. Sam was looking forward to going there. It would be amazing. It would also be nice to see the sunrise. She had never seen one at sea before. She was sitting on her bunk, soaked in the humid air, listening to Holst on her headphones. Her eyes were nearly closed. Below her, her bunkmate was talking to a friend in the light from the hallway. Most everyone else was in their sleeping quarters so the light in the corridor was dim. There was a knock on the doorframe and Christopher, a physically fit college kid, poked his head inside.

“Hello, ladies.”

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

Sam turned down the volume on her headphones. “Hey.”

“So was it worth the price?” He was referring to the movie they had gone to see before they cast off.

“It was good,” the other girl, Penny, said. He seemed satisfied with that and segweyed into another topic. They started talking about the captain. Commenting on how she was doing a good job, and reassuring Sam that she would come to admire her by the time this was all over. Sam hoped so. They were trumping her up a lot. At last, one of the young women asked Chris if he wanted to sit down. He declined. He wanted to get some sleep before they got up early. The girls agreed that was probably smart. He waved goodnight and started up the hall.

There was a distant thump and the boat heaved. Chris was thrown head first into the bulkhead. The lower two girls were slammed into the bulkhead as well, while Sam was shoved out of bed, landing at Penny’s feet with a thud. From the corridor, there were loud shouts. Picking herself up, Sam limped over to the door frame and saw Chris crouched over, moaning. She went to him and squeezed her hands under his armpits, trying to heave him up. He was heavy.

“Guys, help me!” The other two girls came to her aid, grabbing him and raising him so he was leaning on their shoulders. He shook his head.

“What the hell…?” The deck shook again, knocking them over. The floor pitched and instantly they were sliding backwards. From somewhere aft, a male voice screamed. Up above, another male voice cried out, accompanied by higher-pitched female yells. Sam caught a door frame with her hand, halting her and Chris’s slide, while Penny pressed the soles of her bare feet into the wall, squeaking. The third girl slid down the corridor, screaming. Something slid towards them and bounced off Sam’s right shoulder, her arm still curled under Chris’ armpit. She looked at it. A life preserver.

She looked down. “Chris…” she groaned. “Grab the wall.” He moaned. “Chris, I can’t hold us much longer. Chris, do you hear me?” More raised voices. Something metal snapped in two. She tried to free her arm, but he was on top of her. “Chris!” she yelled. “We have to get up!” He didn’t say anything. “Help!” She cried.

The corridor began to roll sideways.

Elle stayed up late by the laptop, waiting for the tone that would tell her that her brother was back online, in the comforting but shallow light of the hotel nightstand lamp. The lamp shade depicted an antique European map of the world, the continents distorted, but roughly accurate. It was the sort of distraction that filled an otherwise aesthetically deprived room with enough life to keep the mind from completely collapsing into boredom.

By two o’clock, the French analog of the late late show was over and she was exhausted. She knew the feeling well. It was the same feeling she got when she got home from the hospital, at two or three in the morning. Changing into her night clothes, she fiddled with the alarm clock on the nightstand, setting it for eight in the morning. Then she climbed into bed. To her left, her clothes were bundled in her open duffel bag on the floor, a long sleeve shirt arm sticking out from beneath the fabric cover. She looked at the pattern on the wallpaper for the last time and turned off the light.

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