Earth Abides, but Snow Comes and Gets You
Author’s Note: I’ve traveled twice a year to Resolute Bay for the past twenty or so years and 2019 marks the fiftieth year since I made my first trip as a young RCAF Leading Aircraftman to service the TACAN Beacons at Res and the non-existent site at Alert. I wrote this short story in 2018 largely during a single five day visit. It got polished and filled out in the ‘south’ over the next two or three months. I was contemplating expanding it into full length novel wherein the two main characters attempt to get themselves ‘south’ to find out what has happened to their families.
Last trip in Feb 2019 I talked to some ‘local’ experts about how long power, fuel, food and civilization would last should such a drastic cut-off happen as it does in the story. Sad to say, not long. Some things, like ‘southern’ food, will be gone in a month or so. Power, if the tanker doesn’t get in, can’t make it to the next year without drastic conservation methods being imposed. Those who can get out (pilots, etc) will get out; the others, like me, not.
I went down to the Res Bay beach at dusk and stood there looking across a well-frozen Lancaster Sound to Somerset Island and into a darkening sky and pondered the whole thing.
I gave it up. It can’t be done. Oh, somebody has done it, I’m sure, but they probably weren’t pampered 70 year-old southerners with bad knees and no survival skills. I don’t like to write things in which the ‘stars’ of the piece do the impossible; I am no fan of superheros. One day I’m going to ‘serious’ it up by removing some of the humour and try to capture what I felt in the moment on that winter’s day on the beach.
I still need to realise/process what ‘hopeless’ means.
Chapter 1 – 17 Feb - WTF
Common Name – Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada
As I recall it was just before the end of the second period and the Leafs were up. It was a promising year for them which should tell you something about when this all takes place; certainly not in 2021, but when, I cannot precisely recall. I lost track long ago.
I was lying on my bed. It was about seven-thirty (eight-thirty in Ontario). The Sat went off, something not unheard of in Resolute Bay, especially in winter. It usually came back on within a few minutes. Remember? ‘Satellite Signal Momentarily Lost, Please Standby’ or something like that, anyway. As I recall something happened coincident with the satellite feed going off. I could have sworn that there was a brief flash of the room lights. Not that that too was an uncommon occurrence there. Surges and sags were a several times a day phenomenon in places like Resolute Bay where power was generated by diesel. Along with momentary outages and outages that sometimes lasted several hours, as modern philosopher K Perry would have said - ‘This is no big deal’. Regardless, knowing the probable outcome of the game I turned off the TV and went to sleep.
As I dozed off, there was suddenly a lot of noise from outside my room: Voices shouting, guns going off, screaming. Some people, nice people I’m sure, were dying. Obviously and loudly.
I got up and went into the hallway expecting the worst. It was coming from the TV room. A gang of males, some bearded, some in coveralls and some bearded and wearing coveralls were watching Deadpool with the volume at a deafening level. I complained. So much for the outage and the momentary peace it had brought me.
Nope. I had assumed too much. It was on Blu-ray. Damn. The outage had forced these, these people, out of their rooms and into the very streets. To associate. Very funny.
“You gotta do it, man. To feel their pain you gotta hear it at full volume.”
Pain. Yes. That was it. That’s what was missing. I resisted the urge and went back to bed.
How did we come to be in Resolute Bay, a place variously described as a ‘little more than a heap of flattened gravel’ and ‘a place where nothing of any size was able to find purchase or protect itself from the parched bluster from the North’ of all places, you ask? The Thule people had left it over four hundred years before. Next the Joint US-Canada Weather Station was built in 1947, followed by RCAF Station Resolute Bay which was built in 1949 and transferred in 1964 to another federal government department, the Department of Transport. It had been for a good many years ‘the communications hub of the Canadian Arctic’.
Well for all that positive press we were there because it had made good sense to some fool back in Ottawa to put a BLOS radio site there. No, BLOS does not stand for Big Lump of Shit! Really. It doesn’t. It stands for Beyond Line-of-Sight. Really. OK. Have it your way.
So for the past twenty-plus years we’d been going to Resolute Bay and several other Arctic communities plus some southern ones to service HF datalink sites for the RCAF. HF stands for High Frequency, which by the way when it was invented was a high frequency. So, why didn’t they (the military) do it themselves you ask? Too easy. There were too few sites, unmanned and with specialized equipment to warrant training (and keeping trained) their own personnel.
I loved it. Ross? I’m not so sure. He and I had been at this for a long time. I had made my first trip to Resolute Bay at the ripe age of twenty. No one wants to hear those stories, though. No one.
There are a lot more high rises and four lane highways now. Not funny? Seriously?
The TACAN building I worked in is still there; the TACAN DF beacon is not. My handwritten notes are still on the wall (Help! Get me out of here!). Whenever I go in there I can smell the stench of boiled-over-onto-the-hotplate canned ready-to-eat mushroom soup. That’s something that never leaves you. Never. Creepy? Yes creepy.
So twice a year (early February – UGH! and late August - ugh), Ross and I would travel up to Iqaluit through Ottawa, service the site there and head on up to Resolute Bay. It could be real nice. Cold, but beautiful. And that was August. In February, it was colder than we humans were ever meant to know about. Most of us don’t and if we’re lucky, never will. Beautiful, still.
Resolute Bay is (was? I don’t know today) a community at 74N 94W. Total occupancy 198 persons. 70% Inuit? The balance non-Inuit. Average age – 35, or so it seemed. The demographic detail required to sound credible at this point is not in my memory. Sorry. I’m just a tourist. Resolute Bay was a jumping off point for exploration for oil and gas, minerals and as you are probably aware, is on the Northwest Passage – Lancaster Sound, in fact. Unlike much of the Canadian Arctic this place had close to 100% employment. So lots of tourism. But not in the winter.
Next morning I got up when my cell phone (Yes! Cellular coverage in Resolute Bay) woke me, dressed, tapped on Ross’ door and we proceeded down to the kitchen.
No guests were there, just us and the usual gang running South Camp Inn – Kendra, the manager, a cleaner, the cook - Annie, some admin staff, some mechanics and heavy equipment operators and Aziz. Aziz, former owner of SCI, jack of all trades and master of all he surveyed. Few people knew he was a surveyor, too. An old friend.
They were talking about two things – one, the brilliant auroras underway and about it being all over the sky – something most southerners believe happens every night up there but actually takes place very infrequently and usually well to the south of Resolute Bay. I was sorry I’d missed it. Southern Ontario gets the short end of that shtick, too. And two - the Satcom being off and still off. No Sat meant no outside access, no telephone, cell or Internet. Cell and Wi-Fi are common and pervasive in Resolute Bay, but just teasers without access to the south. There being no local NorthWesTel guy to call we had to assume the worst – failure of their ground station up at the Airport. Relax, they said. Happens all the time.
Ross and I had work to do so we drove our clapped-out rental up to the Receive Shelter near the VOR, up that gorram hill. Everything looked OK on the way. The NorthWesTel site looked normal - to us. At least no one had driven their vehicle into the dish! Lights were on everywhere in the airport area – nothing out of place. And of course, the rumble of the Power Plant could be heard even over the rumble of our Ford’s frozen tires.
But even with the sun coming up in the south the sky was covered in a soft red and green, with an almost yellowish glow. Very pretty. Very unusual, too. Never seen anything like it, before or since.,
Checking the site radios was easy. We’d tune the receivers to WWV at 10 megs and listen. There’s not a place in Canada you can’t hear WWV on 10 megs. Propagation permitting that is. So when I heard nothing I was disappointed, but not surprised. I tuned down to some 5 meg NORAD freqs that were particularly noisy here – never readable, but at least you heard enough to know your receivers and antennas were OK and I got nothing but a very active, swooping, swooshing background noise with funny sort of garbled hum. Odd, that.
Oh well. Today’s aurora could explain that. We replaced the shelter’s fluorescent lighting tubes (again!), ran a few BIT tests and transmitted Link ‘Net Test’ to confirm our data transmitter and the receivers were OK (they were). I compared it to the Heifer data on my laptop. We tried the phone to call our guy Carlos the Jackal in North Bay and with nothing heard other than local dial-tone gave it up and headed back to SCI. It was bloody cold. And windy. And blowing snow. Again.
Still, as lousy as the weather was, as we often did we drove out of our site and over and down to the Incoherent Scatter Radar site about half a klic away. They were a pair of monsters; one facing north, the other south. Sort of. I could never be sure where north and south actually were here. It’s complicated!
They had always interested me. They were, to coin a phrase: Huge! We had ventured over one day way back during their construction and I had counted the rows in the array and came up with over a thousand elements, in each. I took pictures to check out the T-R modules. Four hundred meg range. Coupla hundred watts each, I’d guessed then, giving about two megs of peak power. Each array had its own diesel generator. All to check out the upper air weather. Seemed like a lot of trouble just to replace a couple of balloon launchers.
Wow. The conspiracist part of my brain (Ross said that was all I had) believed it was part of an anti-ICBM missile system. Maybe not. Now the truth is all there on the Internet for anyone to see. Maybe. Look it up and judge for yourself. Oh yeah. Sorry.
We had seen some workers pulling and pushing those generator sets up the hill one ‘summer’. Ross thought it looked uncannily like that scene in Star Wars IV of the Jawa’s land vehicle seen from a distance. After that he could never resist calling out at every opportunity, at the top of his lungs, in his best C3PO imitation, while waving his arms – ‘Over here!’ ‘Over here!’ Usually we were standing on ‘Nipple Hill’ about a klick away from the site when he did it. Yes really, he did.
The system sent its data out over Satcom, I supposed, though it did have a landline connection across the ground to the Telco pole next to our Receive Shelter. Landline modems and lots of data were not good friends, especially up here. Reliable 9600 baud was a dream come true. SCADA. Now where the hell had that come from?
“What’s SCADA Ross?”
“Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. Why?”
“I don’t know. It just came to me. RCMS? Is that SCADA?”
“Not unless it was written to a standard. Been in the news, a while ago though. Iran? Remember? I guess it’s real easy to hack. Or was. It grew up in a kinder, gentler world. I mean, they’d fix that overnight, for free. Right? You can look it up when we get back to the hotel.”
“Yeah. I’ll do that.”
“I wonder how much fuel that burns in a day.” Ross said, pondering the suddenly obvious.
“That fuel truck makes a daily visit. Enough to heat a few houses, I bet.” I replied. “You think?”
I had a sense of where this was coming from and where it was going to. To and from fun.
“If this is the end, then it has got to go. Take care of that, will ya.”
“Hey. In what world? Not my job.”
“Hah. Anyway, it probably has an emergency shutdown switch on the outside of the gen building just to make it easy.”
“Well of course. Don’t all top secret military weapons systems have them. Just in case. Maybe that’s a “We’ll see’.”
“You conspiracy theorists. You’re all the same.”
“Don’t lump me in with you and your friends.”
The NAVCAN techs, who we knew sort of well (although they kept changing) were there at the SCI dining room table drinking the free coffee, eating cookies and harassing (politely!) Kendra, the lone female in the room. Everyone else was gone. Being the clerk/receptionist/driver/dispatcher for HATS at SCI she could not escape.
The NAVCAN guys occasionally lent us a hand when things broke up there, saving Ross and I a long trip up to reset a breaker, flip a switch, swap out a black box - that sort of stuff. They’d had nothing coming up from the south since the second period last night. No dial-in, no dial-out and no IP. The ILS Localizer was going in and out of limits. And nothing heard on HF except that swooshing sound.
I remembered from long ago two things about HF up here. One, Sudden Ionospheric Disturbance, aka SID – that could last for several hours and two, Sid’s friend PCA, aka Polar Cap Absorption, which could go for two or three days, both with a nearly full HF-band wipeout. PCA could last for days I said as authoritatively as circumstances permitted to the assembled multitude, but they countered that this was on the downside of Solar Max, so it was less likely. Anyway, we talked tekky stuff like that for a while but none of us had the inside scoop. I wondered if that old guy John what’s-his-name was still running those ionosounder experiments for someone else over at South Camp. He’d know, for sure, I thought and said so. Except it turned out that he was dead and all that stuff he did was now run from the south. Over Satcom they said and we all laughed, ironically. Yes, it figured. Besides, none of us knew if they even still did that kind of stuff there, anymore. After all, someone said, what was there left in this place, day and age to know about HF?
Besides, Ross said, PCA and SID couldn’t/shouldn’t explain the Satcom outage. The NAVCAN guys agreed. And they’d seen and continued to see no signal of any kind on any of their channels. Not even a corrupted signal. Strange that. Yeah. Good word. Strange.
So we drank coffee, tea, the incredibly sugary juice of something citrus, ate brownies and cookies and talked about the Leafs, the Oilers and to a lesser extent, les canadiens.
Someone used that new-old phrase – that ‘time would tell’. These days stuff ‘fixed’ itself. As mysteriously as it had went away the Satcom would return, usually when someone at our level fixed an ‘oops’. So we ate and drank until it got late, then they left for their home up at the Airport and we trundled off to bed. I tried to call home, but the call never went through. Sooner or later things would pop up and life would go on as per the usual. Time would tell.
Chapter 2 - 18 Feb - WTF
Well, it didn’t.
The next am things were still down. I called south from my room and other than local dial tone got nothing. Ross and I went down to breakfast.
The staff projected an odd combination of enthusiasm, hopefulness and concern. One guy said that in 2010 the Satcom had been down for three days and when it came back it was a full eight hours before anyone even noticed. “Yeah,” I said. “But Trump wasn’t in his second term then and the Leafs weren’t almost, nearly, contenders.” Both of these were attempts at humour, poorly received for some reason.
The NAVCAN guys came in but not for coffee. The two previous nights, they said, the sky had been bright enough to read a book outside at midnight. We jumped on that with mukluk-shod feet, “At -65C wind chill you read outside? What was it, ‘Fifty Shades of Frost-bite’?”
Again, the humour was unappreciated. They had tried talking to their counterparts in Cam Bay on HF and were seeing (or not seeing if you like) the same stuff as us. They’d had no working freqs to Cam Bay and it was really quiet, with an odd hum and swoosh. There was still no HF from the south and on top of that the Localizer was still unusable.
Then one of the two RCMP constables came in looking for coffee and, I guess, a degree of insight. She had tried talking to her counterpart in Grise Fiord on HF. They had nothing from there either. Hmmm.
Then someone, I forget who, mentioned the ‘Carrington thingy’. The solar storm of 1859—known as the Carrington Event—was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm. A solar flare hit Earth in 1859 and caused one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record. The stories came out – tech style - from the simplest to the most ridiculous and extreme. The flare lit up the skies for days as far south as Australia someone said. Someone else said telegraph machines exploded in flames, killing their operators. Someone said it was so powerful that some telegraph operators disconnected their batteries and still were able to send Morse. No one knew anything real, verifiable or even certain, though. After all, who the hell did? Where was Jeeves when you needed him? We couldn’t even Google him.
I mean no one knew for sure what would be the effect today. A similar magnitude flare had brushed us in 1989. It missed us by a few days, yet it took out the NE US power grid for hours to days and places in Quebec for a lot longer than that. Lucky us! Characteristically I just sat and listened.
Satcom would surely go, some said. Power grids would probably blow up, some said. Cars could stop working, it was nervously proposed. Pickup trucks, too. Cell phones would fry your ears, the nut cases said. “Well, then at least half the world is dead!” someone yelled to a chorus of ‘yups’, some ‘fer sures’ and some half suppressed laughs. It got better from a humour stand-point and worse from a we-must-save-humanity viewpoint. I’m sure the assembled multitude covered every cognitive distortion known to academia. Like I said – simple to ridiculous. A case study. Fer sure.
But one thing we all knew was that the modern world was ripe and vulnerable. “Shit,” Ross said. “We installed those 240VAC UPS here to protect those expensive and obscenely delicate transmitters from the vagaries of the local power plant.” Such was the state of modern day electronic equipment, evidently. Maybe. Maybe not. Some of it. Fer sure.
We needed an engineer someone said and all we had was a bunch of us techs. That led to an interesting minute or two or five in which we collectively ran down every engineer we had ever known who might have helped. If they’d been within a couple of miles and were dressed to walk over. Pardon me, if we went over and picked them up.
It’s funny, but I think we all got it about at the same time.
Just minutes before we all worked for someone in the south who told us what to do (within limits), when to do it (within limits) and how much we were actually to do (within limits), someone we reported to (within limits), and were responsible to. And we all sort of, in our own ways turned towards the RCMP constable, thinking the same thought - Who was in charge here? I mean that, if we were isolated and, as someone had put it – living in survival mode, like it or not, who was in charge?
The RCMP constable’s hand-held went off. It was a domestic call, at the other end of town (three hundred meters away). “Gotta run”, she said and left us sitting, staring at her departing backside.
The NAVCAN guys left soon after.
Ross and I sat in an empty room looking into to our near empty cups, me munching chocolate chip cookies, him eating yogurt. Plain yogurt. Here, at the end of the world, he was eating good ol’ healthy yogurt.
“What do you think we should do?” I asked.
“So suddenly this is my problem?” Ross replied. A good question? An old joke? Maybe. Maybe not. No. I guessed not.
Our next step was to get Carlos to check out the site as a precursor to us leaving and that wasn’t going to happen until things got back to normal. Regardless, we went up to the Receive Shelter to get our tool boxes. We always did that after that visit when we’d had to stay three extra days cause a storm had kept us cooped up in the hotel with our toolboxes safe and sound and inaccessible in the Receive Shelter, too many nasty klics away to chance a trip.
A quick on-air check showed nothing had changed, as far as we could tell. Then it was back to the hotel past the PCS building and the Army buildings at the airport; nothing stirring there.
“Shouldn’t they be doing something?” Ross asked. We had met an Army Logistics WO on the trip in. She would be there for a month, as acting CO, seeing to preparations for a major exercise scheduled to start in April. We’d seen the C117 bringing the major players in before. Often. But not yet this trip.
“Probably they are wondering when the goddam TV is going to come back on.”
We went back to our rooms.
Tomorrow, weather gods permitting, we were on our way home. That was if the plane came in tonight.
Chapter 3 - 19 Feb - WTF
Well it didn’t, but it wasn’t the weather that did us in.
Nobody showed up. The First Air flight from Iqaluit via Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay never showed up. Evidently neither had any of the charters due in overnight. Nor the other 7F flights or Kenn Borek due in this morning. Or the military. Although no one knew too much about that last one.
Explanations didn’t exactly gush forth. Turned out that just like the rest of us HATS had been relying on faith that things would just fall back into place.
Another day of sitting around the dining room table was fine, unless you were done your work and ready and willing to leave. Like Ross and me. But it was one thing for us to be in this situation; quite another for us to lose contact with our families.
“What if it’s just us? I mean what if she has been calling the hotel? What must she be thinking?”
“Well, a constant ring or busy is all they’ll get.”
“Gee. Thanks. That says everything. What is going on. You’re the Field Supervisor. Isn’t it your job to find out these things? Aren’t you supposed to know everything?” An old joke.
“So suddenly this is my problem?” I replied, resisting the obvious. “Good question. Maybe. Maybe not.” No. Ross guessed not.
“Well. If this was that book you made me read, that Earth Abides, we’d drive down from the mountains, look around and draw some conclusions.”
“Like everybody is dead but us.”
“Not likely. Besides, Ross. Everybody here is alive.”
“So the global pandemic of Earth Abides doesn’t apply here.”
“Still, maybe we should go back to the site.”
Kendra, who had been sitting at the next table with a couple of her coworkers perked up, using her hopeful, helpful voice, “So you’ll be wanting your rental for another day? Sweet.”
Decisions, decisions. What to do. What to do.
“Well yes. And if we’re the last ones on Earth alive, just try and collect. Ha. Ha. Gotcha there. And don’t give away our rooms yet, either.”
“I wish I could.” A despondent voice, that time.
So we dressed and went outside. Of course the clapped-out blue Ford PU was gone but that wasn’t the end of the world; maybe we’d live another day after all. I went back in and got the keys from Kendra for her personal vehicle, the white clapped-out GMC van.
We headed off towards the Airport, a couple of long miles to the north, after a long swing to the west along the bay proper.
The sun was just below the horizon off to our left. The sky glowed red; blue was apparently not an option. End of the world stuff. You know what I mean?
“Wow,” I said, looking south. “Man. That is really weird.”
“Well take off those goddam sunglasses!” Ross yelled, grabbing them off my face.
I always wear sunglasses. Amber sunglasses. Helps me see details. What the hell, you say? Well just wait ‘til you’re old too, buddy!
He was right though; it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Still a lot of hazy redness, though. Everywhere. Still odd.
“Maybe we can try the radios again?”
“Good idea. Any other ideas?”
“Well. Maybe the NAVCAN guys know something. And the military. They’ve got a shit-load of HF and other stuff in there.” We’d seen it. Some of it; not the secret stuff. As if!
“OK. And I’d like to know how much fuel the power plant has.”
“I’d bet they have at least two years’ worth.”
“Cause if the ship doesn’t get in in September you’re screwed. Everybody dies!”
“Really? Everybody? Think again, friend. Just another day in paradise for some of the people living here. Besides, these days? Leaving last year’s fuel lying around depreciating? If the ship doesn’t get in you fly it in. Think of the money to be made. All part of the plan, man.”
“That was my first thought.”
NAVCAN guys had nothing to add. We sat around their workshop drinking coffee, eating BBQ chips and speculating. It was still early in the event, they said. Last night the sky was still glowing, a bit less but still way out of specs. Too early to panic, they said. We told them of our plan to go up and listen to our freqs. A pair of a pair of shrugged shoulders was all we got. “Too soon. Too soon. Chill, dudes,” they said. Kids!
It was too soon. The HF band was a quiet as it can get and still exist. Still, the swoops and swirls of some kind of weird noise were reassuring to us, at least confirming that the receivers still worked. But we got bored quickly, especially in the cold of the Receive Shelter and headed back down the hill.
We stopped at the military camp at PCS. The paper (Google, I mean) had said it was an ‘Army Training Center’. Wasn’t everything new a training center these days?
Since a major expansion a few years back there was now (it seemed to us) a constant military presence in Res. Before that Ross and I used to joke that BLOS (with us in there twice a year for a week) was it. BLOS was Canada’s permanent military presence in the High Arctic - if you excluded ‘Fort’ Eureka and CFS Alert. Shush, now. But you don’t have to be right for it to seem funny. Not us.
“Please Mr Prime Minister; come into the DND Resolute Bay facility. Mind your head, sir. No selfies please. You do understand? Security rules, you know?” Somewhere a door slams followed by a muffled scream. Some problems solved.
A good laugh considering BLOS was two fibreglass garden sheds with insufficient room for anyone over 5ft 5 to stand upright. No touching rules applied, but God! Just try it, man! No toilet seats. No toilet, in fact.
Anyway, the DND facility was still expanding, adding buildings, equipment and vehicles each year and was increasingly, being used to support major exercises in the far north.
They’d know something, surely.
Chapter 4 – 20 Feb - WTF
Well they didn’t; they were as in the dark as us.
We shed our gloves, hung up our parkas, shed our toques and balaclavas and scarves, our wind pants and boots and strolled casually into the common area across a mushy wet carpet. A couple of Corporals looked up and when asked about the Warrant nodded in the direction of the hallway.
Halfway down she was there, in a room with a sign – Log O. She was sitting at a desk covered with papers, looking at a computer screen. Yep, that’s how I remembered Log Os. Any Os in fact.
She recognised us immediately and coming around the desk grabbed my hand, then Ross’.
“What the hell is happening? Where is the Satcom? Where is the telephone? Who has the answers?”
“We thought you might.” A head shake told it all. “So you’ve got nothing coming up from the south either?”
“No. Nothing has come in for a couple of days. No one knows anything. My techs are useless. IT. No one knows anything but how to do IT. What were those people thinking? I need radios, people!”
“Have you spoken to anyone? NAVCAN? RCMP?”
“Yes. NAVCAN says it will pass. A couple of days, they said. Do they really know anything? RCMP? She came by for coffee and a doughnut yesterday, but that’s it; that’s all. You guys are radio techs. For North Bay, I recall. Aren’t you?”
“So unless I pay you, you won’t help?”
“Normally, but this is different. We want to get out of here. We’re worried about our families. Same as everyone else.”
“Well what can you tell me I don’t already know?”
“Well.” I looked at Ross. He was admiring a photo of the former PM on the wall and ignored me. “We think a big solar flare has damaged the satellites that feed stuff up here. It has to have been a big solar flare because HF has been knocked out too and is still out and so is the Localizer. Airfield stuff? Usually that passes in a few days, but I mean for HF it’s usually just a few days. Satcom being out is a bad sign. Really bad. You can’t just turn around a launch schedule in a couple of days. Plus, think of the numbers you’d need.”
“What are you talking about?” she said.
“SpaceX can,” Ross tossed in. She looked at him quizzically, then scoffed. “Replacement satellites,” he said with his most sincere face. I looked at him with my best pout.
She grinned and continued, “So another couple of days before we should panic and start killing each other over the last doughnut?”
This lady was smart.
“Yes. NAVCAN is probably right. It could clear up just as quickly as it came.”
“Well. We’ll see, I guess.” Now where had I heard that before? Oh yeah.
We told her we’d check back in tomorrow, sooner if we heard anything new and left her to her papers.
The Corporals were still at the table. I went over. From his belt buckle I knew at least one was CELE – CF ground electronics. From his Tee shirt I knew he was Army. Oh well.
“So. You guys radio techs?” I asked.
“Yes. But I know dick about HF if that’s what you’re here about. You from Ottawa? No I guess not. Nobody uses HF if they have a choice, these days.” Now where had I heard all that before? Oh yeah. Ottawa.
“Well, you don’t have to drive too far north of here to run out of choices.”
They laughed. We chuckled. Ross used the diversion to grab a coffee and a couple of donuts. We headed out to the van.
“I was going to make a helpful statement about how nobody knows anything useful anymore, but I don’t think it would have been helpful.”
“So. You going to share?”
“So this is how the world ends. Not with a whimper. Not with a bang. But with a hoarded stolen doughnut?”
“So what?” He held out a crushed doughnut in a soiled napkin to me. I accepted his apology.
“I hope she knows her Aid to the Civil Power stuff, although I don’t suppose she would. Loggie Warrant and all that. I mean why would she? Why would anyone? Up here, I mean.”
“Meaning that if this goes south, she has to support the civil authorities. I don’t remember much about that stuff. I think the Lieutenant Governor of the province has to request it of the Feds. Something like that. Maybe after that snow shit-storm in TO they changed it to the Mayor. I don’t know.”
“Well, as soon as the phones are working she can give her boss in Ottawa or wherever a call.”
“Besides, it may all be over by tomorrow.”
Chapter 5 – 21 Feb - WTF
Except it wasn’t.
The usual gang plus a few new faces met in the usual place at the usual hour to eat and drink the usual stuff to discuss the most unimaginable possibilities. Quiet person to person conversations took place; a sure sign something was wrong.
We were equals; no one was in charge of anyone. Not anymore. Voices started to rise. It was time to begin. We went around the tables, informally, politely, quietly, taking turns not even knowing we were taking turns, being polite, etc. How Canadian of us.
The NAVCAN Techs went first. It was, they said, increasingly likely that a Carrington Event had occurred. What had happened could only be guessed from up here and herein.
Was this a world-wide event? A good question, I thought, asked by someone I didn’t see. No way to tell, they said. Probably. Anyone got any articles, books, manuals on this stuff? No one did. We all knew where it was and where it wasn’t and today if it wasn’t in your head….
Corporal Vigneault, the guy we had spoken to the day before was next. He had nothing to add. Someone asked if there were any electrical engineers at PCS, any experts on stuff like this. “There’s no one. They’re shut down for the winter. There are just us.” Someone else asked (they had to), if the military had some secret means of communication – quantum principle stuff. The Corporal laughed. Then we all laughed. As if.
The RCMP were next. The male constable, referring to his lack of communications with others of his ilk in Cam Bay and Grise wondered out loud if they would be experiencing the same things as here.
Someone asked if there was an SOP for this?
“For what, for fuck’s sake. The end of the world as we know it?” He turned away, obviously pissed at some one, place or thing.
“Great song,” someone said, “but I feel like shit. Sorry. Too soon?” No one laughed. The fun was rapidly going out of the room.
I asked, “Is there a plan in place in case Resolute Bay is cut off from ships and airplanes for an extended period?”
He looked my way and said no, without laughing. The other constable picked up on it.
“The local government here remains responsible for infrastructure – water, sewage, clearing the roads. The Territorial Government remains responsible for education, medical, housing, power generation. Stuff like that. Businesses will still be businesses, the military will do their jobs and we’ll still arrest people if they break the law. Nothing has happened yet.”
Someone at the back spoke up, I couldn’t say who, “Until the lights go off.” “Or the food runs out.” “Or the booze runs out.” A chorus of ayes fed off that one.
She repeated, “We will arrest people if they break the law. Besides, it’s still too early to draw any conclusions. From what I’ve heard from you guys and the fact that there really are no experts here to explain anything, it could all come back tomorrow. Patience people. Patience. We will get through this. ‘Resolute’. A good word. Use it.” She turned and walked out. The other Constable followed. “Gotta run,” he said and left us all sitting, staring at his departing backside. Yay team!
The room was quiet.
Who the hell were we, this seemingly randomly assembled multitude to feel so what - put upon? Entitled? Set upon? To be treated as special by the RCMP? We were the technical experts and God had summoned us here to this room? Maybe. Maybe not.
None of us wore coveralls inside. That was it. That explained it. The Chosen wore no coveralls. No. Coffee.
That was it. Just coffee. Tekky people were drawn to it. Especially free coffee. And donuts. We, the special people were allowed in while for the most part the rest of the world stayed outside looking in through frosty glass windows. Or rather, outsiders looked in and assumed we were special.
People quickly began to disperse, beginning with the coverall wearing ones who obviously had other and possibly better things to do and had to do them outside.
From the anteroom I heard a low growl back in the kitchen, “Well that was a fine speech, but I ain’t fucking taking no fuckin’ orders….” Then an outside door slammed and it was quiet. Too quiet.
Ross and I went back in and sat down in the now empty room; empty except for the cook, Annie, laboring behind the divider preparing lunch, still some hours away.
It was nice and warm. The room was filled with the smell of fresh coffee. Cookies and bags of chips were piled high by the soup tureen. Against the far wall a glass-windowed fridge thingy held a bounty of carbs: slices of pie, of cake, butter tarts, yogurt, condiments too. Juice boxes. Lots of juice boxes. I felt thirsty. I got up and selected one.
Ross looked about, selected a cookie and started in, “I thought you might jump in at some point.”
“What? I know nothing more than anyone else. You didn’t either.”
“Yeah. No need, no use. They covered it off. Still, it was a nice speech she gave. You think they should read your precious Earth Abides at a time like this?”
“It could come in handy. Later.”
“How many times have you read Earth Abides?”
“I don’t know. Ten?”
“Telling. Very telling. Why do you read it so often?”
“God. I don’t know! Wishful thinking?”
“I knew it!”
“It’s a good story. It was published the year I was born. It tells a story about what happens next. It’s a global pandemic though, not a solar storm. A solar storm wasn’t going to work, plot-wise I mean, since the satellite hadn’t even been invented yet. Story starts in always sunny warm Southern California, too. There are a few differences from what’s happening here.”
“Aaah. So here we are. Same shit, same problem, different part of the world. Are we headed for the same results?”
“Well, we don’t know the first thing about what is going on down south. But I know from something I read in this scientific magazine I subscribe to that a Carrington Event kills only a few people immediately. Planes, buses, trains, window cleaners, tight-rope walkers, maybe. In Earth Abides the sickness kills nearly everyone. Quickly too. Like in weeks.”
“National Enquirer is not a scientific magazine.”
“Been a while since I read that book, but as I recall, the survivors are a pretty motley crew…..”
Ross interrupted, “I didn’t think they were that old. Good tunes, though! Heavy stuff.”
“Uh, yeah, sure. No doctors, no soldiers, no politicians, no madmen. Just a few lucky survivors. Musicians, I’m sure. They always survive. You know. Sitting around the ol’ campfire, eating legs and fingers? Just their enemies’ tho, I’m sure.”
“Now thanks a lot. You’ve ruined more than just one thing for me in that simple statement.”
“Well, the writer let those survive who he needed to survive to make his story work – to make his point. They all do. It’s hardly science. I mean, he kills off the bright hope of humanity just to make the point about how tenuous our knowledge of what civilization is and the consequences if we don’t take the time to study it and preserve it ourselves.”
“Then we slide back into barbarism. Soon we’re killing innocent animals to eat; well, never mind that one but we’re soon fighting over the spoils. Worshiping sticks and rocks and goop that falls from the sky.”
“Earth Abides stops short of that. Everyone is nice to each other, at least to the ones they let in.”
“Yes. The ones they let in, by common consent. Not quite how this tawdry ensemble was cast.”
“Ouch. True. Well, we may be the lucky ones.”
“Because losing the satellites knocks out only a small portion of global comms immediately. Most stuff is fibre now; even intercontinental communications, but there are amplifiers and such. I guess they could be pooched. So assume no international markets, news and TV for a while. Actually years, I suppose, but that’s no big deal. From what I recall, the power grid is the most likely point of failure. And that’s the heart of the problem. Batteries run down. And fast. Solar panels though and self-contained systems? They might survive. For a few years, a decade, maybe. But the big stuff is vulnerable. And if you were connected into the grid, I’d say bye-bye to your TV, computers and the like. Most consumer electronics – poof. Gone.”
“Wide-spread outage. Not just North America. Everywhere. I read somewhere that the high voltage transformers blow up dramatically and if don’t have spares you will find it pretty damn hard to make new ones. Especially if thousands brew up at once. And the article said that there was lots of talk so far, but little real action. By that I mean, money spent.”
“Talk but no walk? So no power means no TV and…?”
“Yes. That’s all. No TV. Of course, if the power never comes back on, lots of people are going to find this a long and cold winter. The first of many.”
It occurred to us about the same time that ‘lots of people’ included our families, our friends. Despite the heat in the room a chill ran through me. Ross saw it. He hesitated,
“What do you think is happening back home? I mean, I don’t for one minute think your event has happened, but…”
“So it’s my event now? OK. Well, make sure you buy a Tee shirt on your way out.”
“Well, didn’t we do this once at Peggy’s Cove while driving up to Debert from Dartmouth?”
“Yes. It was just that short story you wanted to write. It started with the truck not starting and went from there to a global catastrophe. In about thirty minutes. As I recall you said you’d steal a bike and ride home to Ontario.”
“Yeah. And you’d find a nice warm empty house and move in. God, Ross. Do we need to do this?”
“What it is, it is. Guelph isn’t some backwoods country. People will turn to each other and help each other out. They’ll be some idiots, some lunatics, but we’ve always lived with them.”
“What part of England did you come from?”
“Well, if they don’t get power back within a few days or so I suspect people will start moving in with each other. Families first, then they go get the helpless, the elderly. It happened during the big ice storm in ‘98. People helped total strangers. It went on for weeks, months even in some places. The military relocated and fed thousands and thousands of people. But that was small stuff compared to this.”
“I remember. It seemed like a lark to us.”
“God, Ross. Toronto. Montreal. Vancouver. Everywhere. The shelves will be empty in hours. They may already be empty as we sit here munching on cookies and drinking juice boxes. Water. Where the hell do you get drinking water except from the taps? How do you do surgery without power. ”
“Hospitals have their own backup power. As for water, they truck it in. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. People line up for it.”
“Two point five million in Toronto. I can’t see it. God, they needed the Army to help clear the streets of a little snow. This is beyond anything anyone has ever prepared for. Ever imagined, in fact, I’ll bet. Everything you need to survive today comes with a Hydro bill.” This sort of talk was not improving the silence. “Let’s go up to the site. I don’t want to sit here and do nothing.”
We dressed and went out. The blue peril was back. The keys were in it. We got in and started up and around the ring road that allowed you to bypass the Hamlet for the most part. The streets were as full of people as Resolute Bay ever got, all heading the same direction. I slowed and pulled up beside a parka-clothed youngster and rolled down the window. “Good morning. Where is everyone going?”
“There is a meeting in the school gym to talk about this thing that’s happening.”
“Who is invited?”
“Everyone can go. Who is to stop anyone from going?”
“Good point. Thanks.” I rolled up the window. “What do you think?”
“What could possibly go wrong?”
Chapter 6 – 21 Feb - What Could Possibly Go Wrong
Nothing. It was great.
Except that only half the Hamlet attended, apparently. Also absent was the military. The two RCMP Constables were there, front and center to the side. HATS was there. NAVCAN was there. The Territorial Government people, aka the Public Servants were there, but none of them spoke.
The Mayor of the Hamlet took the lead role. He explained that the loss of satellite signals meant something serious had happened down south where everything came from. How long it would take to restore things he did not know. It was clear he didn’t know much about the tech side of it at all, but you know, it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference. He was dealing with the impact; not the cause. No one, no matter how tech savvy could bring it back from here. He was brief and to the point. Good, in fact.
He closed with the suggestion that families move in together to conserve fuel oil, cooking fuel and electricity until things, the future he called it, became clearer. His last words were in Inuktitut and I didn’t get them, of course.
I saw my friend Aziz and sauntered over.
“Now what do we do?”
“We survive, my friend. We always do. I hope you like seal meat. Oh yeah. I remember. You don’t.” He laughed and we joined in. I hated seal meat. I hated whale meat. I hated beluga blubber. I loved char in all of the degrees of ‘cooked’ from raw to overdone and crispy. That about covered it for me. Ross had no idea where we were headed, food wise.
I asked Aziz what the Mayor’s last words were.
He laughed, “Well they weren’t ‘Live Long and Prosper’ I can tell you.” We laughed again.
“No. He said we should put the past aside and live together another day.” I had no answer. We shook hands and left the hall.
The blue peril was gone. We walked back to the hotel. It was parked out front. We were met at the door by Kendra, keys in hand, scorn on face.
“I don’t know whether to take your VISA card or ask for a fresh char.”
“And I don’t know what to pay you with, either. But for now here is my VISA.”
“Keep it in your pants.” She tossed the keys to me. “By the way, did you know the ass is ripped out of your pants?”
What can a man say at a time like that?
Chapter 7 – 22 Feb - Boredom is a Terrible Thing
So I did. Change my pants, I mean. It was true. They were ripped. Probably from sitting on my tool box. My favorite pair. I’d bought them in an Orlando Wal-Mart for $4.99.
What were you thinking?
We were beginning to wonder how we were going to live and die in this place far, far, far from home. After all, HATS had no obligation to feed us, house us, or let us use their vehicles. After all, we had no way of paying them. And as Ross pointed out, after all, they had no way of accepting our offered payment.
We sat down with Paul the HATS site manager at the dining room table where I supposed much of this sort of business was conducted. It was too easy.
“Pay me when things get back to normal. If they don’t it won’t much matter.” I shook his hand, probably committing to more in that simple act than I realised. Ross did the same.
That was that. For now.
In the truck on the way to the Airport to visit the military Ross suggested that things might change if it came down to the old campfire scenario. We had discussed that one before. Often.
The ‘Campfire Scenario’ was something I had proposed to Ross during a trip up to Inuvik years ago, after the dreaded “Peggy’s Cove Weird Mass Extinction Event” had taken place.
It was in part based on what we (Ross could opt out at any time and often did) believed was the, I hate to use the word ‘philosophy’, we had invented to account for how generations of First Nations people managed to survive in the often inhospitable conditions we saw out the window of our comfy hotel rooms during our touristy visits to these places.
It was simple: my belly is full, I got laid last night, a child was born yesterday and no one has died today. That means I am OK with the world. There were other things too, but that was the gist of it. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? No?
Well the problem was that often things were not that great. Still our philosophy for them had a sub-clause to cover those times: here comes someone I don’t know; I better be wary; better him than me.
And as few as a couple of thousand years ago the First Nations people had no exclusive claim on this brand of human behaviour. In fact, as Ross had often argued, it was still being practiced by a lot of people, today. Not me, Bert. Must be you!
So Paul, nice guy that he was, could change his mind when it came down to me and Ross or him and his spouse. And he was under no obligation to advise us that the game had changed. You had to imagine it; to sense it.
Those who survived must have had either luck or that sense working in their favour. Was ‘luckiness’ a survival skill? A survival skill? Maybe. Do serial lottery winners exist? Maybe not.
“We’ll see,” Ross said. “We’ll see.”
I hoped he could smell the smoke, cause I sure as hell couldn’t.
We drove to the Airport.
“So, if this is the end, what are we going to do?” Ross. A pensive, concerned, Ross.
“You mean if there is no recovery, no planes or ships come in, what are we going to do?”
“What did you think I meant?”
“I thought you meant with today. We still have jobs. Here. Now.”
“Funny. Yes funny is what we need at this particular moment. Well, we can’t stay here. We don’t fit in. Maybe you can but I can’t. Things will run out. Things like power plants break. Vehicles, furnaces, quads, snow mobiles, air-conditioners, too. Not sure why you’d need one of those up here but someone might, I guess. Dogs are good though. Suddenly, yes, dogs are good. How many do you own?”
“Yes, I agree and I don’t just mean about dogs. Things will run out. Uncle John says that the average American family has only six spare rolls of toilet paper. Consider that!”
“Consider that filed away under ‘so ‘effing what’.”
“And I want to get back. I want to know about my family.”
“Me too. Otherwise why wake up?”
“Wow. So. No one way trip to Mars for you!”
“That’s a big fer sure. Really. How do you do it? It’s a long walk and you’ve already ruined your knees playing hockey. You can’t walk it.”
“Don’t be so sure. I could do 20 klics a day if I was sufficiently motivated. Can you? You got issues too.”
“I see your point.” Ross looked towards a frozen Resolute Bay obscured by blowing snow in a faint light. “If you are going to walk, now is the time.”
“Well, I don’t think there is any point in leaving just now. We could never walk it in winter. Never. And I don’t care where you bought your long johns, mitts and toque. Besides there’s no point.”
“If it has gone shit-show in the south, it will be over long before you get close to the treeline, never mind back home. It would be hard to sit still and do nothing here but seems to me it would make more sense to wait until the ice went out then pay someone to motor you over to Somerset. That’s about 80 klics. That’s the easy part. Then you start walking.”
“And then you start walking. And shooting things to eat. And eating sticks and grass just to survive. Just like this morning, only no Annie to cook it for you. About how far?”
“Thousands of klics if you don’t know when to stop. Certainly fifteen hundred klics until you get to somewhere civilised. ”
“And if no one will take you over in their boat?”
“Easy. You steal the boat. But you won’t have to steal it. They’ll be others who want to go too. I’d bet.”
“Hmmm. I need to process that.”
“Besides, it could all be over tomorrow. It’s just a mental exercise. A rehearsal. The imaginations of a depraved and wicked mind.”
“Could be, I guess.”
“You know, about the dog thing? I read this story once about a post-apocalyptic Earth in which mankind has brought itself to the end by war – things like germ warfare - plagues and anthrax bombs and…”
“Is this another one of those atomic bombs bring the end of all the humans story? Tell me, why doesn’t anyone ever write about all the good they’ve brought to humanity?”
“Yes. I see. Actually, the story was written before the A-bomb was invented, but you make it up as you go along, I guess. What happened was that the almost-immortal humans enhanced canine intelligence and altered them physically and genetically so they could speak.”
“Erm. Why would you do that? Hmmm. Wait. I must admit that I’ve always wondered what all that barking was about.”
“Probably, initially, just for the fun of it but also so that they could tell us how they felt and maybe be better companions and eventually, I suspect, to provide a cheap labour force. They did it to the apes, too. In the story.”
“I can relate. We call it ‘trade school’. And so?”
“So a couple of thousand years later after a global war with the standard nukes and pandemics has been set loose the last human alive, who, just by chance, was a researcher still working on the enhancements is near death and stumbles upon a town of the Dog-people in Washington State. He is cared for by his friend, the Dog-people Leader, and ends up in Chicago, one of the last intact cities.”
“The Dog-people Leader and his buddies fly their airplanes over to Africa to see the leader of the Ape-people and after a lot of barking and throwing of poop they decide to cooperate to build a new world with the apes as the next iteration of humans. We’re related, so it makes sense.”
“The next iteration, you say. Aaah sci-fi. Yes. That will go well. Dogs helping apes emulate human behaviour. It seems logical to me. What could possibly go wrong?”
“They agree to avoid the mistakes that the humans made. The dogs will be to the apes what they were to humans. Faithful companions.”
“I repeat. What could possibly go wrong?”
“Whatever the author wants.”
“Why would anyone write such tripe?”
“It was the nineteen thirties. Eugenics, racial superiority. Stuff like that? It was an excuse to ignore and even kill people who were in the way. It was on everyone’s mind. Everyone’s.
“Well we know how that turned out.” Ross paused, “Well, I was just going to use the dogs to pull my sled.”
“Yes. Good idea.”
“And maybe eat them. One or two. Maybe.”
We arrived at the military site.
The Warrant was in the dining area drinking coffee, alone. We looked around. There were no donuts. The coffee urn was empty. The end of the world had come.
She got up.
“Here. Let me make you some coffee.” Opening a drawer chock full of bags marked ‘Coffee, ground, fine, organic, Arabica, caffeinated, 454 grams, for the use of’ or something like that, she ripped the top off a bag, dumped it into the machine and with military precision, flipped a switch. Then she walked over to a refrigerator and took out a tray of donuts.
“If you leave them out up here they dry out in just a few minutes.” Saved.
I asked before Ross could steal one on me, “Is your name Grace?”
“MB. Just MB. I told you at the Airport. Just call me MB.”
“Sorry. It’s the dryness. It causes his body to shrink and it takes his brain with it.”
Thanks Ross, ol’ buddy. Thanks a lot.
“So. Nothing new?”
“Nothing. HF is improving, they say but so what? I need my IP back they tell me. Otherwise it’s just locals I can talk to and I can see them anytime I want.”
“HF can get all the way around the world. Southern Canada is a snap. But not today; not yet. Who do you want to talk to?”
“Which freqs do they monitor?”
She resisted the not-so-obvious potential jab. “They don’t. At least according to my IP expert radio techs.”
A married man of very long duration, I sensed something, perhaps frustration in her voice.
“They say that the SG in Edmonton might but they don’t know who or how or when. Whatever, they don’t know. The files are incomplete. There are no books; no manuals here. You ex-military?”
“Yeah. Comms and radar. Long time ago. New world out there now.”
“Still, North Bay is using HF? Why?”
“Cause the best solution is expensive. Really expensive. And by the way, the best solution may have just failed. HF is the backup. What is it you say Ross?”
“Satellites come and go, but HF is forever propagating, conditions permitting.”
“He worked in advertising before this job.”
“So, you weren’t at the meeting yesterday?”
“Yeah. By design. I sent Corporal Vigneault to SCI to listen in. How did he do?”
“Adequate. He was adequate. As a listener, he did a good job.” I held back on the rest.
“You’re thinking Aid to the Civil Power, aren’t you? I can see it on your face. Well, these things don’t always go well. I got called out to help in the southern Alberta floods. Some of the locals didn’t like us sniffing around. We called it helping.”
I remembered something I’d read. I thought it was just the RCMP who’d been publicly shamed. It was after all, Alberta. The home of GunsRUs.
“If they need us they’ll call us. Besides, how many of us do you think are here right now?”
“No idea. Twenty?”
“Five. Me, a Supply Warrant. Two radio techs of dubious and unproven value. An Admin Clerk and a Supply Tech.”
“When do the others arrive?”
“Yesterday there was supposed to be a Herc in with twenty more and a lot of stores. Did it come in while I was sleeping?” She smiled, but I’d seen that smile before. On Ross. It didn’t mean happy.
“And after that?”
“Nothing for two weeks. Then it goes crazy. Hundreds of bodies, less supplies.”
“So. None of my business, but is there a plan for this type of thing?”
“There is a plan for everything but this. But I can tell you that as soon as it is over, there will be a plan and I’m damned well going to write it.” She smiled. I’d seen that smile before. On her. It didn’t mean happy.
Ross jumped in, “Probably setting on someone’s desk right now, being marked up and reviewed and as soon as that’s done they’ll send it up to you. Oops. Too soon?”
We laughed. It was funny and sad at the same time.
Out of some sense that we were preserving the world by not driving we walked over to the Power Plant. It was across the street. OK. Not funny.
The door was open. Well, it was as open as a door can get when it’s -29C outside and the wind is blowing. The generators were pounding away. There was no one about. We looked about and headed out, to be met by the operator coming in. I didn’t recognise her. We had met a few in our trips, usually while looking for a NorthWesTel Lineman to complain to about the poor condition of our lines. She was a new hire and just up from Arctic Bay. She had no coffee and knew nothing about the fuel storage tanks at SC. She was filling in for the regular operator who was out on holiday. “Good timing,” she said. We laughed. Did I say she had no coffee? We left and walked over to the Airport Hotel, also owned and managed by HATS.
The door was open. Well, it was as open as a door can get when it’s -30C outside and the wind is blowing. The baseboard heaters in the ‘mud room’ were pounding away. There was no one about. We looked about and headed out, to be met by the cook (or rather, ‘chef’) coming in. I didn’t recognise her. We had met a few in our trips, usually while looking for a free meal and to complain to about the poor meals at SCI (a complete lie). She was a new hire and just up from Winterpeg. She knew nothing about the fuel storage tanks at SC. She was filling in for the regular cook who was out on holiday. “Good timing,” she said. We laughed. Did I say she had coffee? We filled our mugs, ate some delicious banana bread and walked over to the First Air Cargo office.
The door was open. Well, it was as open as a door can get when it’s -33C outside and the wind is blowing. The heaters in the entrance were pounding away. There was no one about. We looked about and headed out, to be met by the Agent (or rather, ‘Station Chief’) coming in. I didn’t recognise her. We had met a few in our trips, usually while looking for our stuff and to complain to about the FA poor service (a complete lie). She was a new hire and just up from Ottawa. She knew nothing about the fuel storage tanks at SC. She was filling in for the regular agent, Mark who was out on holiday. “Good timing,” she said. We laughed. She didn’t know our long-time friend Brian. Brian, who cared about your stuff and showed it. Did I say if she had coffee? Instant! These poor people. How do they survive! We filled our mugs, ate some stale shortbreads and drove over to the NAVCAN office.
The door was open. Well, it was as open as a door can get when it’s -35C outside and the wind is blowing. The heaters in the entrance were pounding away. There was no one about. We looked about in the tech area, then the living quarters and headed out, to be met by one of them (or rather, the ‘Senior Tech’, I think), Anthony, who had been there almost six months and was due to leave soon, coming in. I didn’t recognise him with his balaclava on. We had met a few in our trips, usually while looking to pick up our keys and to complain to about the poor service they gave us (a complete lie). We had already met the new tech, Jonathan, just up from Edmonton. “Good timing,” he said. We laughed. They knew nothing about the fuel storage tanks at SC. Did I say if they had coffee? Instant! These poor people. How do they survive! We filled our mugs anyway and ate some stale shortbreads. It’s what tekky types do. Then we drove over to the Airport Office.
There was nobody there. The door was locked. Bad sign. We didn’t laugh. We went back to the hotel for coffee.
There was nobody there, but at least we had a card key to get in. That was new. Normally the place was open during work hours. We let ourselves in and sat in the dining area. Coffee’d and cookied out we sat for twenty minutes or so, then headed up to our rooms for naptime. What else could we do? Work?
Nice room. Carpeted. Your own heat controls. Private bath with shower. Sometimes a Jacuzzi tub (not this time!). A proper dresser. Proper blinds on the windows. A large space over the bathroom in which to store your bags. Big screen TV with too many channels. Phone in your room. A clock radio that was only losing a couple of minutes a day. What more could a man want?
There was a small drift of snow on the window ledge. Some fool had left the window open just a crack. That was all it took up here. The snow was so fine it snuck into everything. Came looking for you in fact. Like that time the power went off for some unknown quantity of days at the Receive Site here and our hire-a-techs had to vacuum ten centimeters off of and out of the equipment before they could turn it back on. I have photos! And I’d seen two meter drifts by the big doors in an FOL Hangar, in Rankin. Inside the hangar. I have no photos! Digital was invented yesterday, people!
The AM radio played static. On FM at the high end you could hear something I was pretty sure was the ILS Localizer or maybe the VOR. I could look it up. Oh yeah.
And where the heck was the CBC Northern Service when you needed it?
For lack of a great chair to sprawl in I laid on my bed. It was quiet. Too quiet.
I wondered if it was quiet down south. I hadn’t gotten this far in my thinking yet for after all, things could come back any instant and although the probability of that was diminishing with each passing day I hadn’t felt the need. Still…
I had read enough sci-fi to know it was quite possible this didn’t end well. Too much sci-fi. Earth Abides killed off the entire population of the Earth except for a handful of randomly selected mutants who possessed some form of natural immunity to whatever it was that killed everyone else. It was written in 1948 for chrissake. Arthur Clarke (Sir Arthur Clarke!) was writing at the same time about putting huge manned satellites in geosynchronous orbit to provide global communications. What was wrong with telephone and teletype over undersea cables? Tell me. C’mon. And that was twenty years before it even happened. Echo 1. Telstar. Globalstar. Edwin Starr. Satellites! Huh. What are they good for? Details were hazy. Where was the Internet when you needed it? Oh yeah. I never get tired of saying that, but others do. Quickly.
The author had spared us the gory details, but Hollywood, in dozens of similarly themed stories ranging from A to B and D-grade films had not: people with suddenly blotchy skin waking up next to dead loved ones; over-crowded hospital emergency rooms giving way to over-run emergency rooms giving way to over-whelmed hospitals; people running through the broken glass of grocery and shop store windows; people running down the street with looted TV sets; troops running down the streets to preserve order, to protect businesses and their owners; looters being shot on sight; single burials giving way to mass burials giving way to no burials and no troops in the street; to corpses rotting in the street; to no one in the street except fat rats being followed by fat dogs giving way to starving dogs.
Thank you, George R Stewart for sparing us from an endless supply of whining Zombies lurching down the street, entrails dragging messily behind them. I wondered. Would Chinese, Russian, and British Zombies call out for ‘brains’, too?
OK. Zombies are a bit much. This was not a global pandemic. This was not an all-out nuclear war followed by something that turned summer into a dark, dusty and seemingly endless winter. This was not the end of civilization.
This was Canada. The authorities would step in promptly to ensure a supply of the necessities of life. Troops would dispense food and water and blankets and sleeping bags to orderly lines of citizens who would in turn help those who could not help themselves. And this was Canada. Hell. Some parts of the world would hardly notice the difference.
But you had to believe you were safe. Otherwise things could fall apart fast.
The US and Canada? Europe? Wales? Russia? China? All advanced countries, all highly dependent upon technology. Certainly they would know they were safe. Niagara? Yes, Niagara.
Still. All we had to do was be patient. All we had to do was help each other. Would they?
Better yet, were they?
Incredibly I fell asleep and missed supper. Strange days indeed.
Chapter 8 – 23 Feb - What to do, what to do
Breakfast was interesting. Instead of the serve-yourself-buffet-of-a-great-variety-of-temptations Annie and her helper passed over plates of the usual, filled on request.
“Orders from Paul. Conserve. Reduit. No wasting. You’d better eat it all, too. Criss Colis de tabernak!”
The soup tureen, cookies and treats were gone from the sidebar. Likewise the fridge thingy was mostly empty. Yogurt. Plain yogurt. Bad sign when you’re reduced to plain yogurt. Lots of coffee though. That’s good.
It got worse.
There had been, evidently, a shooting overnight. Being total outsiders it was hard for us to tell if this was every-day-in-America or an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it event in Resolute Bay. These days, it seemed that the longer you had been in Resolute Bay and the whiter your skin, the more towards the latter you leaned.
A small group of us ‘regulars’ sat in the dining room. Details were sketchy. I guess they often are. The truth was out there. Maybe.
Knowledge of almost all of the violent acts that occurred in the north that we outsiders had any awareness of came of course from the media. A southern based media that before anything else weighed the potential interest of northern happenings against happenings throughout the rest of Canada and by extension, the rest of the world. Or so those of us at the table believed.
And it seemed to me to be true of northern media, too. If you picked up one of northern papers you weren’t going to get too far before you came upon a tale of violence and its resolution. I had seen this just yesterday in the News/North papers in the foyer.
However, there is a big difference between a death in say, Edmonton, population eight hundred thousand and any community of three hundred or so souls. How could you not know those involved? How could you ignore it.
Anyway, the details were sketchy and the RCMP did not come around to share. I went back to my room and stayed holed up until dinner. Ross? I don’t know.
It seemed that dining room was full of people I didn’t know and a spattering of people I did. How and why would I? We lined up and took calmly what was offered us. Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes and gravy. Hard rations for hard times.
Someone I didn’t recognize came in the dining room, fully dressed and tracking snow – a sure sign something was wrong – and to make matters worse, still wearing a balaclava. “There is a big gathering of all of the people to settle some things. The Hunters and Trappers want a meeting and they are angry. Everyone should come.” He (I think) looked around the room searching for someone or ones. “Everyone.”
Angry knives and forks hit the table. Coffee mugs were placed down, loudly. “Not too fucking likely!” There was some grumbling, too.
The balaclava-clad talker turned and left, not even stopping to take a coffee. Obviously some serious shit was up.
I looked at Ross. He shrugged his shoulders, “Bad timing, that’s all. You go with the flow, man. I have a couple of things I need to see to.” He got up, dropped off his dishes, bid Annie thanks and adieu and left the room.
We, the restless, finished eating, dressed and headed out. I knew none of them, but they spoke to each other in hushed tones, heads down, hands in parka pockets.
It was dark. The sky had finally, except in a few reddish and green patches to the south returned to its normal black.
SCI is on the ‘out skirts’ of town. A crowd was gathering a few houses over, although one had to recalibrate the definition of ‘outskirts’ and ‘crowd’ for the present circumstances.
We, the collective assembly of hotel guests, off duty HATS workers and passers-by and hangers-on shuffled down the road towards a small crowd comprised of adults with small children who were also shuffling along towards mid-town. I assumed someone knew where we were going, because I couldn’t have found the Hunters and Trappers building if my life depended upon it.
Along the way one of the RCMP constables joined us. I asked if he knew what was up. “You never know what is up in this place.” Not good.
We dropped back to the rear of the group. Ross must have been at the front of the group, because I’d not seen him at the hotel or since.
It was cold, very windy and cold but fortunately we were dressed for it. But you really only have so much time before the cold begins to seep in and your mind starts to undergo a subtle change about what ‘warm’ and ‘dressed for’ means. Good clothing, when it’s worn, just buys you time.
We met another group coming from the opposite direction and the two groups converged in front of a small building with a sign - Resolute Bay Hunters and Trappers Association. The place was dark; the door firmly shut. Did I say it was cold out?
Some kids were pushing and shoving like kids do, except they caused several elderly folk to fall down. On another occasion it might have been funny, but not tonight. People start shouting at each other and pushing and shoving, began to separate into two factions.
The RCMP constable, looking for the perps, I guess, waded into the fray and started pulling people back by their parka hoods, tossing them aside. Thank the gods for thick winter clothing. Alarmed, I moved to the edge. Not my quarrel.
What the hell was happening?
Several hooded figures appeared from the dark. They yelled for attention, something in Inuktitut and got it. Depending upon their current level of agitation, people heard them and reacted at various times, but all in the same way; they stopped, stood and faced them.
Those engaged in the main scuffle were the last to recognise it for what it was, but soon everyone had stopped whatever they were doing. They stopped and stood like Zombies. Zombies can be good. At the right place and time. Again the strangers spoke. It was enough. In small groups the party broke up, people shuffled away, heads down. Us too.
No sign of Ross.
A cold wind blew snow down an empty street. I walked back to the hotel alone.
Or, as I like to say when I’m undecided about a story - ”In another Universe”:
What the hell was happening?
Considering how many critical calls I’ve missed because I didn’t hear my phone ring, it’s a wonder how I heard it this time. But over the noise of the crowd one could clearly hear the unmistakable pings, boings, bongs, ba-da bonks and ta-das of email and text notifications of a variety of devices: iPhones, Samsungs, HTCs, iPhones. Even maybe one or two Nokias.
Depending upon their current level of agitation, people heard them and reacted slowly, at various times, but all in the same way; fumbling to dispose of heavy winter gloves, reaching into coat and pant pockets.
Those engaged in the main scuffle were the last to recognise it for what it was, but soon everyone had stopped whatever they were doing. They stopped and stood like Zombies. Zombies can be good. At the right place and time.
Then, I swear this is true, they slowly turned away from each other and with heads down, some giggling, some laughing outright, shuffled away in all directions. Even back to our hotel.
No sign of Ross.
A cold wind blew snow down an empty street. I walked back to the hotel alone.
The dining room was empty; the kitchen area chained off and dark. Coffee was there. And pie, and cookies and butter tarts. Clear signs that the crisis was over. Oh, and yogurt. Just plain yogurt. Not over completely, I guess.
Ross came in from outside.
“Where were you? I didn’t see you at the big brush-up.”
“I went up to the site.” That was unusual in itself. We never did stuff like that alone. No need and possibly unsafe.
“To call home.”
“Did you check the radios?”
“No. Your job.”
“But there was some garbled stuff in Chinese or Japanese. Something coming in. On the freq you left it on.”
“So what happened in the street?”
“It was the damnedest thing. People were getting upset over nothing and suddenly a couple of people appeared, Elders, I guess and it calmed down. Everyone got caught up in that and just disappeared. And I mean everyone.”
Next day, after a normal breakfast served as usual to the normal crowd, we went up to the site. HF was back; about as good as HF gets.
As we often did we went over to the radar site. There had been a couple of trucks drive by this morning, plus the fuel truck and that had added to our curiosity. They were still there. HATS people. Something was up.
“Whatup?” which is tekky for ‘whatup’.
“Somebody pulled the emergency shutdown switches. Both units.”
“Kids steal yer boots and mitts, but nobody ever did this before. Tracks show a truck.”
“Last night, just after supper, looks to me.”
“You setting her right?”
“Yup. But all we do is power it back up. Somebody from south will have to go in and reboot the thing – whatever the hell it is. I dunno much about this stuff.”
“Hey. See you guys at supper.”
“Well. Kids, I bet.”
We headed back to SCI.
“You know, this sort of reminds me of sci-fi story I read again a couple of weeks ago, a really old one. From the golden age of science fiction.”
“You want to hear about it?”
“Too cold to walk.”
“Well it was written about a politician who is the leader of the upstart quote Union Party unquote of fascists hell-bent on establishing a US dictatorship who teams up with a disgruntled radio engineer who believes himself to be quote the greatest scientist of the age unquote to develop a mind control device using quote long waves and a complicated combination of harmonics unquote that will trigger the quote ancestral memory switch unquote the author needs us to believe we all have. This turns people into groups of angry, like-speaking, like-minded, roving gangs, the quote National Patriots unquote evidently, who go about the US disorganizing the whole country.”
“Two things. Could you stop with the quote-unquote crap and two, I hate to ask cause I’m sure you’re going to tell me, but how do they avoid being affected?”
“As I recall, they wear football helmets lined with a lead-bismuth-antimony alloy with traces of platinum and traces of two of the rare earth metals.”
“Tin foil hats! I thought so. So, except in football stadiums and on Sunday afternoons in the living rooms of America you’d stand out pretty well. I see a flaw in that approach.”
“Well it is just a sci-fi story. You need to violate the laws of physics, the tenets of economics, philosophy, psychiatry and common sense occasionally. If….if you want to have a good story.”
“Apparently. So is the end of this tale in sight?”
“Getting there. By the way, TV wasn’t in common use when the story was published.”
“So the plan is that when he gets elected he turns it off and everyone wakes up to a new and unexpected president and a dictatorship supported by the fascist National Patriots who are now running things.”
“As if. So…”
“So some New York City scientists see the guys with the helmets, figure it out, send telegrams to their scientist friends in Albany and Washington to tell them of their discovery, make their own helmets, outfit the local National Guard with them and put down the insurrection. All in about six days.”
“What happens to all the people who had their switch turned on?”
“They go back to being ordinary people.”
“As if. And the bad guy?”
“He makes a speech. A huge one. The best ever.”
“Well. They’re famous. They take the credit due their minions for all that has happened. One becomes a department head. Another becomes a full professor. And the hero guy says he needs to take a vacation from all scientific thought.”
“And how many times have you read this story.”
“Ten. Why do you ask?”
We rode on in silence.
“Good story, though I can’t see how it relates to this place. Besides,” Ross paused a moment, looked out the side window at the passing terrain of rock and blowing snow, then continued, “the truth is, the Iranians hacked that radar system to provide a screen for a North Korean missile attack on Washington DC but a minor Carrington-like event took out the HF comms they were using to guide the missile and it landed instead on a Tim Horton's in Yellowknife, only no one knows cause the Internet is still down and Fox News hasn't heard about it yet. Trump that!”
“Hmmm. We’ll see. I guess. Maybe.”
We rode on in silence.
Chapter 9 – 24 Feb - What to do, what to do, Part II
Well, he was wrong.
‘The Faithful’ by Lester del Rey, aka Leonard Knapp (1915-1993)
First published in ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ in April 1938
‘The Isolinguals’ by L. Sprague de Camp (1907-2000)
First published in ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ in September 1937