I’d been searching for that “way in” to my latest chapter that revolves around the “good guys and the bad guys”–in a sense, one of the pivotal chapters in the novel so far… I came across this 4/24/16 photo of a Syrian man trying to keep his children alive in the Aegean Sea.
It struck a chord within and became my go-to inspiration. (No made-up piece of fiction can be as heartrendingly visceral as this photograph), but I went for it nonetheless.
For my fans and beta readers who have been following my progress on the manuscript “Sea of a Thousand Words”, I will post the latest chapter–it is a long one, so grab a cuppa’. And keep in mind two things: #1). It’s raw story, you’ll likely find a punctuation faux pas somewhere in there… #2). It’s like, chapter 25, so you aren’t going to understand the who’s, the why’s and the wherefores… but just roll with it.
Enjoy. I do hope you like it–(Boo and hiss at the bad guys).
Montreal Quebec. Jul 26. 2033
45°30’16’ N, 73°33’36″W
The week-long “Global Climate Migration Summit” in Montreal was well underway. It was a much-anticipated and highly attended event, with government dignitary’s, multimillionaires and private organizations from all across the world in attendance. Symposiums ranged from “Addressing International Food Shortages”; “Ways to Mitigate World-wide Coastal Absorption”; “Civil Unrest and Refugee Terrorism” to “Defense Strategies” and “Border Protection.”
At first sight, the Palais des congrès de Montréal might have seemed like an inappropriate location to host such an event; it’s opulent façade of multicolored glass panels and priceless art installations were in stark contrast to the conference’s subject matter of refugees and displaced peoples. However, the facility and the city’s commitment to sustainable, green alternatives gave a nod to credibility as far as being part of the solution rather than the cause.
Due to the over-capacity attendance and the star-power of the summit’s presenters, security at the convention center was rigid. Admittance was impossible without credentials and scan-able identification. The top billed seminar on this day’s schedule was the billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Raj Kaleka, president of the global non-profit ATHENS Foundation “Applied Technologies in Healthcare, Energy and Natural Sciences.” A populist figure, with an amassed net worth of over eighty-five-billion dollars, Raj possessed the financial and political clout to pursue any number of his pet humanitarian and environmental agendas. His countenance was recognizable everywhere—from villages in remote Tanzania to digital billboards in Tokyo railways. He had his hand in a multitude of ventures, not the least of which was his initial investment project, the ITER light-water fusion reactor. Raj served for over two decades as the dynamic leader of the consortium known only as “The Elders”, an independently funded alliance of wealthy donors, who pooled their collective skills to resolve global conflicts and find new approaches to end human suffering. The combination of Raj’s charismatic personality, humanitarian work and innate gift for showmanship, resulted in consistently large crowds wherever he spoke.
President Kaleka’s sold-out presentation, “Removing the Migrant Stigma” was scheduled to be held at one-o’clock in the Hall Riopelle—and ironically coincided with the HighTower seminar “Strengthening Borders—Preventing the Next Societal Breakdown” in the adjacent Hall Espace. HSA’s West Coast Director Richard Cross, was the featured speaker and registrations for that event were at capacity as well.
It was a universally known fact that the HighTower and ATHENS organizations were long-time nemeses. They held opposing positions on most global matters—none more so than the issue of migrants and climate refugees. Perhaps it was an intentional gambit on the summit organizers part—scheduling the two titans simultaneously—an attempt to avoid accidental run-ins between the adversaries. Regardless, the summit coordinators were on tenterhooks all morning as they prepared for the dual showcase sessions.
Thirty minutes before the presentations were to begin, each hall was humming with activity. The sound and audio-visual technicians worked furiously to complete their final installations and checks before the doors opened. Security personnel from the convention center organized check-points at all entrances while private agents for ATHENS and HighTower conducted their own safety inspections in the respective halls. Eager registrants began to cue along both ends of les Galeries du Palais for admission.
Inside the Hall Riopelle, Raj Kaleka held court with a handful of the international press. He positioned himself in the center of a comfortable settee in one of the antechambers surrounded by aides and journalists. The reporters sat patiently, awaiting their turn as Raj’s personal assistant briefed him on the revisions for his upcoming speech. After approving the changes, he looked up and smiled widely—pointing at a journalist from The Guardian. “You had a question for me earlier—please, fire away.”
The woman nodded and glanced at her tablet briefly before responding. “Yes—thank you, Mr. Kaleka. Concerning the rising tide of refugees that have engulfed the UK and are spreading elsewhere—how do you purpose balancing aide and asylum without sacrificing economies and overpopulation?”
Raj crossed one leg over the other and leaned back into the leather sofa, his flawless Brioni suit revealed nary a wrinkle. He let out an audible sigh before answering. “OK, first off everybody—I’d like to get rid of this term ‘rising tide,’ for good. We need to erase that phrase from our collective lexicon right now. A ‘tide’ refers to movement of the ocean—as a matter of fact, I’m hearing ‘waves of immigrants’ used too often by the media as well.” He gestured toward a middle aged reporter from CNN. “Your company is particularly guilty of this, Mitchell.”
The CNN journalist nodded and grinned, “I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Kaleka. But I’ll be sure to pass on the word.”
Raj gave Mitchell an affable wink and continued. “The thing is, we’re referring to actual human beings that are caught up in the true crisis of our epoch. Real people: Mothers; fathers; children; babies… Many of them are doctors and artists, engineers and students and some are truly from impoverished, rural villages—all trying to survive. They aren’t ‘tides’ or ‘waves’, and they’re especially not ‘epidemics’—these words only serve to remove the humanity quotient from this situation and make it easier for our governments and certain corporations to push the problem underneath the table. Are we all clear on this?”
A young French journalist shot his hand into the air, interrupted. “Mr. Kaleka, when you say ‘certain corporations’… are you referring specifically to the HighTower Security Authority?”
Raj glanced at a note his personal assistant placed in front of him, nodded briefly and waved her away. He looked up, refocusing and responded to the reporter’s question with a wry smile. “I’m going to resist naming any individual organizations at this time. On the other hand, if any of you would like to wander down the concourse and catch HSA’s presentation—I think it’s called something like, ‘repelling the epidemic of refugees’… I imagine you could draw your own conclusions.”
The press corps bent over their devices, scribbling furiously.
A voice from the middle of the media pack called out, “Sir, you’ve been a rather vocal critic of HighTower’s CEO, Nelson Bank’s practices regarding North America’s border security. Can you please speak to your recent accusations against HSA’s human rights violations?”
At that moment a young woman attired completely in black, leaned into the doorway and caught Raj’s attention. She held up five fingers and waited for acknowledgement. Raj nodded, slapped his hands on his thighs and said, “OK—I apologize that we didn’t get to everyone’s questions. I suppose that means you’ll just have to sit through my presentation in the hope that I’ll address your issues during the next hour or so.” The audience of journalists chuckled and collectively closed their recorders and tablets. Raj stood and stretched his neck and shoulders as his assistant helped him on with his suit jacket. The press corps clapped as he headed toward the stage door, waving a casual salute. Raj paused and, almost as an afterthought, issued a final farewell remark. “Kudos to all of you folks—it’s up to those of you ‘responsible journalists’ in the mainstream media to hold the governments’ feet to the fire regarding our basic human rights. Who knows, it could be any one of us next… So, keep it up.”
The respective auditoriums were filling up quickly as the dual lines of attendees filed through security check points. A young man dressed in an ill-fitting suit raced down the causeway, dodging convention goers and hawkers as he ran toward the Hall Espace. A burly security guard stepped into his path and said, “Whoa there—let’s see some credentials from you buddy… Otherwise you’re going nowhere.”
Gasping for breath, the young man bent over and placed his hands on his knees. “I have an urgent message for Director Cross—I have to reach him before he goes on stage.” Handing the guard his identification badge, he straightened up and panted, “Please—may I get in to see him?”
The guard scanned the HighTower badge and nodded, stepping out of the lad’s way. The young man sprinted away from the check-point and into the convention hall. He skirted the rows of chairs and ran along the wall, bumping into technicians and staff as he dashed toward backstage.
Richard Cross stood in the wings offstage, skimming through notes on his tablet while a young woman brushed powder onto his forehead. A somewhat fleshy man in his mid-fifties with an unfortunate comb-over, Director Cross appeared ill-suited for his title—bearing more of a resemblance to an appliance salesman than that of a regional director for the world’s largest private security firm. This unfortunate circumstance may have been partially to blame for his infamous short temper and chronic scowl. He was, in short, an unpopular and thoroughly resistible corporate officer. Although one who came in handy when Nelson Banks required a company figurehead at soirées and events that he did not relish attending himself.
The young gentleman ran up the stairs and stopped abruptly in front of the director. Richard stepped back, appalled at the state of the youth. “Who the hell are you—who let you back here?”
“Sir… my apologies Director Cross. I have a message from Deputy Director Terrance.” He stopped momentarily to catch his breath.
“Well then, spit it out you imbecile—and then get the hell away from me.”
“Sir… a moment.” The youth reached into his suit jacket and retrieved a mobile. He unlocked the device and handed it over to the director. “Deputy Terrance left a rather detailed message—for your eyes only, sir.”
The director read the message and looked at the boy. “Have you seen this?”
“No sir. It came through as urgent and encrypted. This is a company mobile.”
Richard Cross frowned and waved the boy away. “Wait for me over there—somewhere where I can’t hear you breathing.” He turned his back toward the curtains and placed a call to Amanda.
Amanda’s voice came on the line. “Hello, this is Deputy Director Terrance.”
“This is Cross. Look I’m less than two minutes from going on stage. What’s the meaning of dragging me into this?”
“I apologize Richard—I wouldn’t have bothered you, if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re in some nebulous territory here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’ve technically exceeded our limits—the Galapagos still belong to Ecuador. We aren’t officially even supposed to have a bird this far south.”
“Fuck technicalities, Amanda. Do we or do we not have evidence of boat-loads full of illegals inbound?”
“Yessir- our eye in the sky has pinpointed two vessels… Twenty-five miles seaward of Isla Fernandina. Each carrying about one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred refugees. It’s hard to get an accurate figure because they are so heavily overcrowded.”
A nervous stagehand ducked his head from the in front of the curtained proscenium, waved frantically and gestured toward the podium. Director Cross held up his finger and nodded. “I still am not getting your conundrum here, Amanda. Did or did not CEO Banks recently state that we are getting overrun with South Pacific Islanders coming up the coastline and refueling or transferring coyote vessels in the Galapagos?”
“Yes he definitely said that, Richard.”
“And did he or did he fucking not direct us to solve the South Pacific coyote problem?”
“Then just fucking do it! I’ve got to get on stage right now.”
“I appreciate that Richard—but we run the risk of violating at least one international treaty if we are caught eliminating these targets, sir.”
“Well, are there any other gawddammed boats in the vicinity?”
The overhead PA system buzzed as the microphone was switched on. An announcer’s voice could be heard from backstage warming up the audience. As the applause died down, Richard overheard the speaker recite his introduction. He placed his free hand over his ear, straining to hear as Amanda said, “Sir, our drone hasn’t pinged any other vessels and its sensors are not showing any…”
Richard spoke with a clenched jaw, trying to keep a lid on his rising temper. “Deputy Director Terrance. I am giving you a direct order to prosecute those illegal vessels. Are you clear on this matter?”
“I am, Director Cross. Completely clear, sir.”
“Jesus F. Christ. Show some initiative, Terrance. Now if there is nothing else—you don’t need my permission to change a tampon or anything do you?”
“No, fine. That’s everything I needed, Director Cross. Be assured that we will take care of the matter right away.”
Cross threw the mobile across the stage floor at the young man. The boy picked it up and placed it back in his suit pocket, looking expectantly at the director. Cross shot him a sour look and shouted, “Get off the stage, shithead. I don’t want to see your sweaty face for the rest of this conference.” He strode past the stagehand, pushing through the curtains toward the podium and with his right arm held aloft, gave a dramatic wave to the crowd and launched into his speech.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Jul 26 2033
The Persephone sat at anchor in Elizabeth Bay, nearly one-hundred yards off the shore of Isla Isabela, tucked in behind the cover of Fernandina’s peaks. The ATHENS research vessel had been stationed in the archipelago for the past three weeks as scientists monitored the bay’s coral reefs and dwindling populations of the Galapagos penguins and native requiem sharks.
The islands were quiet—almost eerily so—and the ATHENS team of marine biologists, botanist and geologists had the entire bay exclusively to themselves. Since 2027, when Ecuador bowed to pressure from the international scientific community and restricted tourism, the Galapagos chain had fallen into a state of abandonment. Bereft of the lucrative dollars generated by visitors, coupled with the depletion of its marine ecosystems due to a warming ocean, the islands had become an unaffordable drain on Ecuador’s tenuous economy. The Galapagos remained Ecuadorian territory as a formality, however with the mainland’s rising sea levels, glacial melt-off and subsequent flooding, the country’s resources and attention had shifted elsewhere over a decade ago.
A bank of oxygen tanks and several bins of dive gear lined the starboard rail of Persephone’s aft deck. On her port rail, the heavy ROV—ATHENS’ remote unmanned submarine was secured next to its launching crane. Lengths of fiber-optic control cable sprawled across the railings in gigantic coils. In the center of the deck, a lopsided “X” was taped across the planking—serving as a landing pad for the vessel’s quadcopter drone—currently hovering seventeen miles to the east over a pod of transiting humpback whales. Persephone’s rigid-inflatable tender was tethered to the transom while several scientists dove in the coral beds six fathoms below. A handful of large sea turtles paddled lazily around the tender, following the bubbles that escaped from the divers’ apparatus.
Minutes before the lunch bell was due to ring, the senior drone pilot summoned the ship’s mate into the operations cabin. The first mate entered the tight quarters, shutting the door behind him. “What’s up? See anything unusual?” he asked.
The drone pilot removed his headset and pointed toward the display. “Not as far as the whales are concerned… there’s three mothers and calves in the midst of the pod—see… Right over there.” He brushed his fingers against the screen, enlarging the area where the whales moved. “It’s a sizable pod of humpbacks.”
“Nice—it’s good to know they’re still hanging in there… But what’s the deal? You didn’t really call me in here to show me baby whales, right?”
“True enough—actually, I wanted to get some advice on what to do about this…” The pilot flicked the screen until the camera image showed two dilapidated boats, one in front of the other. As the camera zoomed in, both men could make out hundreds of people crammed onto the decks of both vessels. “It looks as if they’re headed right into our lagoon. What do you think?”
The officer leaned both hands on the desk and winced as he looked closely at the image. “Jesus—why does this have to happen on my shift? Just my luck….” He moved closer to the display and said, “Huh, is it just me, or does it look like that one boat is towing the other?” The pilot squinted at the screen, he placed his finger on the second boat and the image instantly became a still shot. He slid the picture to the top of the display and expanded the photo. A thin line—probably a wire cable—stretched over two-hundred-feet between the boats. “Well shit,” the mate mumbled. “I can’t see any way around having to call this one in. They’ve got to be coyotes—just look at the conditions on those boats, man. Shit, shit, shit… The amount of paperwork for all of this is going to ruin my whole week.”
The pilot flicked the still photo off his display and returned to the live image. “Yeah, I figured as much. I’ll let you handle it from here on out. I can archive all the footage in case they require you to transmit this as evidence.”
“Thanks. I’ll go wake Cap’. He’s going to be overjoyed about this, I can tell you.” The mate walked out of the cabin and before closing the door, called behind him, “Cook’s going to be ringing that bell any second—you want me to get somebody to bring a plate in?”
“Nah, I’m off in fifteen min… Holy fuck—look at that!” The pilot slid his chair back and gaped at the display screen. He shook his head in disbelief, reaching forward with shaky hands to enlarge the image in front of him. “Christ almighty—are we really seeing this?”
The mate stared at the screen, then darted out the doorway, running past the galley and above deck. The ship’s cook followed him up the companionway, full of questions. “Did you hear something? Was that us, man? Sounded like a far off canon or an explosion.”
The mate swore under his breath. “Son of a bitch.” He glanced over at the panicked cook and nodded. “It was a missile—right out of nowhere. I’ve got to wake up the captain.” With that, he ran back below deck. The cook stood alone, spoon in hand, watching the mushroom cloud of smoke rise from the other side of Isla Fernandina.
Within the next hour, all the divers were back onboard and the solo botanist had been retrieved from shore. The deckhands set about lashing the quadcopter to its deck mounts. The engineer stood outside the deckhouse, listening attentively as Persephone’s generator and main diesel warmed up. At the captain’s command, the crew weighed anchor and the ship motored out of Elizabeth Bay, en route to the explosion site. The drone pilot transferred the footage onto a backup drive and delivered the device to the Captain. “Here you go Cap’, sir.” I’ve made a couple more copies and uploaded them to ATHENS server. Is there anything else you need?”
The captain scratched at the patchy stubble on his chin, pondering what might be in store once Persephone rounded the point of Isla Fernandina. He frowned and then tapped the first mate on his shoulder. “Take the con, will ya? I need to have a talk with someone higher up on the food chain than myself.”
“Right, I’ve got the con.” The mate stepped behind the wheel and reached for the GPS unit, plotting a course forty yards from the island’s headland.
As the captain strode toward his cabin, he motioned for the drone pilot to follow him. They turned into the passageway and the captain asked, “Tell me, how quickly can you get your ‘copter back in the air if we need it?”
The drone pilot replied, “She’s recharged and ready to fly when you say so, sir. She could be airborne within five minutes. Should I locate my copilot?”
The captain reached his cabin door and paused. “I’ll let you know when I get off the horn with the home office. But listen here, once your bird’s in the air, I want you to record whatever we find—and I want it fed directly to the clouds—just in case…” The captain’s voice trailed off as he arched one of his brows. Turning the door handle, he inhaled briefly and continued, “…In case whoever fired that missile decides to erase potential witnesses. Do you follow me?
The pilot swallowed and nodded. “Yessir.”
By the time Persephone had rounded the southern tip of Fernandina island, the smoking wreckage had almost completely vanished. Scientists and deckhands stood alongside the rails with binoculars held to their eyes—searching for any sign of survivors. The captain throttled back as the ship approached the debris field. Wave heights were four-to-six feet high and managed to conceal many of the objects floating within the targeted area. Persephone slowed to idle and the crew immediately launched the rigid-inflatable from the ship’s leeward side. The drone pilots maneuvered the quadcopter to fly overhead in a grid pattern, recording everything via live feed to ATHENS servers.
The first mate and a crew member manned the small boat through the flotsam. Careful not to run over any human remains, both sailors leaned well over the sides of the tender to keep a look-out as they moved in and around the wreckage. A body floated face-down in the water—the mate swung the tiller to come alongside and they turned it over. They identified a young male, approximately thirty-years of age. His hair and skin color resembled a Pacific Islander’s—however, as his corpse had rapidly cooled in the frigid water, it was difficult for them to gage the man’s original pigmentation. The crewmember looked imploringly at the first officer for direction. The mate sighed and said, “We can’t do anything for the dead ones… there are just too many. Let it go.”
“Shit, are there any live ones left? It’s been over an hour since they were hit,” the deckhand mumbled.
“I’m going to shut down for a few minutes—maybe we can hear something without the motor running.” With that, the mate pulled the kill-switch on the tender’s outboard and they drifted in relative quiet. The deckhand scanned the debris for any movement and pointed toward a patch of floating objects several hundred yards to the north. They used the paddles in place of the engine and made their way to the swath of wreckage.
From somewhere in the mass of floating objects, the mate heard a man’s voice. “Hello!” he stood up in the tender and held the binoculars to his eyes. “Hello—Anybody out there? We’re from a research ship—we’ve come to help!”
A faint voice called out, “Kwo maron ke jiban!”
“Do we know where these people were from, sir? Should we try speaking in French…Spanish?”
“Shhh! Did you hear that?” The mate held up his hand to silence the deckhand. The tender bobbed up and down on the ocean’s swells. Suddenly a splashing sound and voices could be heard nearby. The mate switched the engine back on and motored toward the debris. As they spun the tender to port, they spied twenty or thirty people huddled around a large ragged chunk of Styrofoam—remnants of a makeshift fish-hold. “Holy Christ—survivors!” He throttled down as they approached the desperate refugees—taking care not to throw a wake from the tender as they came alongside. As soon as they’d come to a stop, their rigid-inflatable was assaulted by the shipwrecked souls—people flung their arms and legs onto the port side chamber, attempting to throw themselves into the boat. Before the deckhand and mate could shout orders, the tender began to heel precariously to its left side. “Stop! Please—you must wait!” the mate screamed. Finally, to keep from capsizing with the weight of the survivors, the mate shifted the throttle into reverse and moved the vessel away from the panicked crowd.
Men and women began to scream and flail—several let go of the foam raft and swam toward the tender. “Kwo maron ke jiban!”
“What are they saying?” the deckhand shouted.
“How in the fuck would I know—but I bet it’s something like ‘get us the hell out of here!’ Come on—let’s try and regain some control of this fubar situation!” The mate faced the group and waved his hands back and forth in front of his chest. He shouted loudly, using simple words and distinctive pronunciation. “Everybody stop—arrêtez—detener! We must all go slowly—one at a time—Claro? …Comprendre?”
The two men helped pull the frightened victims out of the water. The eighteen-foot tender began to ride dangerously low in the water as more and more survivors were brought onboard. Eventually, the mate shook his head and called up to the crewmember. “We can’t take any more—we’ll sink before we get back to the ship with this much weight!”
“I know, I know—and these waves are getting higher,” replied the deckhand. “How the hell are we going to make all the ones in the water understand that we’ll come back for them?”
The mate blew out a huge sigh and tapped one of the women lying near his feet. “You—do you speak any English?”
“Aet… a little” she whispered, her teeth chattering from the exposure.
“Tell them…” The mate pointed toward the thirteen other victims that were still clinging to the cobbled-together life-raft.
“Tell ‘em we will be back to pick them up—that we can’t hold any more people right now. Can you do that?”
The woman nodded, and pulled herself up to face the others still floating in the ocean. As she began to translate, her voice was soon drowned out by screams and protests from the remaining victims. The mate shook his head and yelled, “Shit—this is no good. Just hold on, we’ve got to get back to Persephone before we capsize.”
The rigid-inflatable motored back toward the mothership. The Pacific’s waves had increased in size and intervals and their ride grew hazardous as they plowed through the swells. Several times the boat became awash and a number of the refugees were nearly swept overboard. As they arrived alongside the Persephone, the crew had dropped her boarding ladder and waited to help off-load the exhausted survivors. As the last passenger limped aboard, the mate called up, “Cap’, we’re heading back out—there’s another full boat-load in that same wreckage!”
“Hang on! The captain called down, “The drone pilot says they’ve spotted a couple of live ones over on the starboard side—just a few hundred yards toward the island. They don’t have anything to cling to… It’s best to rescue them first.”
“Aye, Cap’—on our way.” The tender peeled away from the ship’s hull and hit the oncoming swells one after another, sending plumes of sea spray flying in all directions. The deckhand signaled to where the refugees waited and they slowed to meet up with them. An exhausted father clung to his two toddlers as the waves tossed them up and down. The oldest child, perhaps three-years old, waved and shouted as the younger sibling—an eighteen-month-old baby—grasped at his father’s neck. The deckhand reached overboard to grab the baby first, but a giant wave threw the boat eight-feet into the mounting sea. The mate and deckhand paddled over to the castaways and attempted to reach for the child once again. “Can you throw one of them to us?” The mate yelled to the father. The man shook his head, not daring to let go of one son to save the other. Another mammoth swell separated the boat from the stranded family. “Swim!” yelled the mate. “You’ll have to swim!”
The man tried to paddle toward the tender, but with both hands grasping hold of his children, his attempts were unsuccessful. “You are going to have to throw the boy—that’s the only way we can get to him—do you understand? Throw your boy!” The mate pantomimed his orders. “Ready? One… Two… Three—Now!”
The man kissed his son, touching the boy’s forehead to his own. He treaded water as he pitched the boy toward the inflatable with both hands as the baby grasped around his neck. The deckhand leaned out—his arms extended fully and caught the little boy, dragging him into the boat seconds before a nine-foot swell carried them upward. As the boat crashed back into the trough, the mate looked all around for the father and baby. “Where are they?” he shouted.
“I don’t know!”
The mate spun the tender in a full circle, then reversed and repeated the maneuver. Another swell picked them up, carrying the boat some ways. “There—over there!” the deckhand shouted. Holding onto the boy with one hand, he pointed toward the crest of an adjacent wave. The mate swung the tiller and accelerated toward the father. As they came upon him, they saw that he swam alone. His face was a wretched mask of pain and sorrow. He screamed and cried in a language that neither sailor could comprehend, thrashing in the waves as he frantically searched for his infant son.
The young boy in the tender sat up and clutched the sides of the inflatable. “Papa—Papa!”
The father looked achingly at his son, then dove below the oncoming wave and was not seen again.
By the end of the day, only forty-five survivors—out of what had initially been over four-hundred refugees—had been rescued. Spent and defeated, they stretched out on Persephone’s deck, sharing blankets and bottles of fresh water. The scientists did what they could to provide medical care—triaging the most severe and leaving the deckhands to bandage and splint the less urgent cases. The precious quadcopter and ROV had been returned to their stations, secured and ready for transport. Both of the unmanned vessels had retrieved numerous items that might be analyzed in the ship’s onboard lab for traces explosive residue—clues as to who committed the murderous act. The captain had placed his call to ATHENS on the ship’s satellite phone, confirming that the video feed was uploaded and on the web. Persephone’s crew resumed their regular shifts and set course for San Diego Bay. The orphaned three-year old boy sat on a tall stool near the helm, holding tightly to the first mate’s hand while the officer completed his watch.
Montreal Quebec. Jul 26. 2033
45°30’16’ N, 73°33’36″W
The standing ovation permeated throughout the Hall Riopelle after Raj Kaleka’s final comments and the applause could be heard at the opposite end of the concourse. Raj stepped from behind the podium and waved with both hands at his enthusiastic audience. The giant screen on the back wall displayed a close-up of the captivating tycoon smiling and bowing in appreciation. After several minutes of applause, the event facilitator stepped up to the microphone. As Raj moved stage right, she thanked him for his speech and invited those interested to stick around for a short Q and A session. “Mr. Kaleka has generously agreed to take a handful of questions—but please—keep them brief as we have limited time in the hall.”
As the woman continued to speak, one of Raj’s aides approached him and tapped his elbow. She handed him his tablet and stood nearby waiting for a response. Raj stared down at the screen with a look of concern that quickly turned into an angry scowl. He shook his head as he scanned the device, the fingertips of his free hand involuntarily touched his lips as he watched with mounting revulsion. Raj turned toward the aide and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and took the tablet with her backstage, handing it to the audiovisual technician.
The woman at the podium concluded her announcements and stepped aside, gesturing toward Raj. The disturbing images, still fresh in Raj’s mind, consumed his awareness and for a few uncomfortable seconds, he stared distractedly at the floor while the entire auditorium waited. The facilitator cleared her throat and leaned into the microphone, “Mr. Kaleka, would you like to call on your first question?”
Startled out of his contemplation, Raj blinked and brought his full attention back to the audience in front of him. He walked back to the podium and cleared his throat. Placing his hand on the microphone, he unscrewed it from its stand and walked around the front of the lectern. The large screen behind him flickered back on and then went to blue—the words “input—live stream video” appeared in a plain white font on the bottom corner.
Raj held the microphone close to his face and opened his mouth to speak, but instead, shook his head, lowered the mic and covered his mouth to cough. “I’m sorry—I apologize for this, but I am not going to take any questions right now. And for those who are strong enough of constitution to watch what is about to appear on the screen behind me,” he gestured over his shoulder. “Well, you’ll soon understand why.” Raj looked toward the curtained edge of the stage and nodded at his assistant. The blue screen disappeared and a video of the Pacific Ocean and Galapagos Islands came into focus. Raj looked back at the screen as he spoke into the mic. “Many of the images on this live feed are going to be very graphic—to say the least. I would caution anyone who is not up to witnessing death at close range to leave the room now. I regret that it is unedited—you are all seeing this exactly as I am—for the very first time.”
Only a handful of the two-hundred participants left the room as the lights dimmed. Raj moved toward the side of the screen and sat on the dais steps, watching the Persephone drone’s lens reveal the grisly aftermath of the missile strike. Stillness engulfed the room as image after image appeared in front of them. Occasional cries and gasps from audience members broke the surreal quietude as footage of burned body parts, floating corpses and helpless victims were broadcast for all to see. Raj viewed the horrific pictures in grim silence, the microphone laid limply across his knee, completely ignored for the present. Toward the video’s end, the camera displayed the attempted rescue of the father and his two boys. From its vantage point overhead, the drone captured what both of the sailors in Persephone’s tender had been unable to see—the infant son slipping from his father’s shoulders as his brother was thrown to safety. Men and women in the audience wept openly as they watched the silent drama of a father’s nightmare play out before their eyes.
The screen went dark and the house lights returned to full intensity. Seasoned journalists, politicians and people of all occupations and ideologies wiped tears from their cheeks at the conclusion of the video stream. Raj stood up and once again, held the mic to his face. His voice was audibly strained as he spoke. “I received this from one of our research vessels stationed in the Galapagos Islands. The time difference is two hours—so at approximately one-o’clock their time, they witnessed this unprovoked attack on unarmed refugees.” He shook his head and drew a long sigh. “I don’t know what to tell you—other than the crew has retrieved numerous samples from the wreckage and are currently analyzing them.”
A man in the second row stood up and asked, “Who could do this? Is it a terrorist group—an act of war?”
Raj shook his head. “We shouldn’t start throwing around any assumptions—nor would it be prudent to make any accusations… Yet. Our ATHENS team of scientists can determine very accurately what kind of weapon was used, and then… at that juncture, it will be time to start pointing some fingers. But not now—not when we know so little.”
The CNN journalist raised his hand and Raj pointed at him. “Mitchell?”
“Once it has been determined where the explosive device came from—from whatever country or organization—are you going to hand this evidence over to appropriate authorities?”
Raj curled his top lip, chuckling bitterly. “Mitch—for heaven’s sake, it’s been streaming live. Every Tom, Dick and Harry with access to the internet is free to download and scrutinize each pixilated portion as far as I’m concerned. And yes, sure—ATHENS will turn over any and all evidence to whatever authority or jurisdiction requires it without hesitation. But I’ll also tell you that I am very angry right now—I am beyond angry!” Raj paced across the front of the hall, his voice regaining its characteristic potency. “And know this—that once we have irrefutably identified who committed this barbaric, inhuman crime—well, I’m announcing right here, that I intend to bring the full weight and capital of my extensive resources against them—whomever they are, however big they might be. If the governments cannot or will not do something to put an end to this—then by God, I intend to.”
The energy in the Hall Riopelle became electric as reporters, bloggers and journalists of every medium recorded Kaleka’s words. Government officials searched each other out to discuss the repercussions of Raj’s pronouncement. Ordinary citizens conversed about what they had just witnessed and many individuals were already on their mobiles; spreading news about the bombing and the potential clash of the billionaire against who-knew-what organization or government. Attendees filed into the concourse chattering about the recent events. Before long, the entire Palais des congrès center was obsessed with the topic.
At the far end of the building, in the Hall Espace, Richard Cross fielded questions from the audience after his lengthy presentation. Several attendees were gathering their belongings and preparing to exit when, from the far end of the hall, a journalist raised his hand. The director pointed toward him and one of the technicians handed a mic to the reporter. “Yes, thank you—I’m from Reuters News Agency. My question is: Do you have an official response to the missile strike off the Galapagos island of Fernandina in Ecuadorian waters? Rumors are circulating that the chemical schematics have been traced to an enhanced explosive formulation that is currently only used by HighTower Security Authority. Would you care to comment on these findings, Director Cross?”
The audience turned to face the reporter, several other journalists frantically flipped through their devices, searching for the big scoop that had just landed like a figurative rocket into their midst. Richard Cross grabbed the edges of his lectern. He felt the icy lance of panic jabbing at his spine as he scrambled for an appropriate response. “What? That is not… I—I certainly have no knowledge of such an incident. I’m afraid I cannot comment until I am fully briefed… Next question, please?” He desperately searched the room for any journalist known to be friendly to HSA. He spotted a blonde reporter who was on the HighTower payroll. “Heather—do you have a question for me?”
The leggy blonde stood up and held her tablet in the air. “I’m seeing a recorded stream here that was uploaded thirty minutes ago from a research vessel that was on scene. Their drone has recorded some rather disturbing images, Director Cross. And it’s true—lab results are citing traces of some very expensive, high-explosive components utilized only in HSA Hellfire missiles. Can HighTower go on the record to deny any involvement in this international incident?”
“I have no comment. No further questions. Thank you.” The director turned and strode off the stage, fumbling his way between the proscenium curtains. The stunned audience fairly buzzed with chatter and questions as members of the media rushed toward the exit doors—eager to call in and upload their stories.
A flustered event organizer climbed the stairs to the podium and leaned into the microphone. “Excuse me—uh, we’d like to thank you for attending our session today. I am certain that the HighTower representatives will have an official response very soon. Until then, I’ll ask everyone to please leave in an orderly…”
Someone from the audience shouted, “Hey—Raj Kaleka is holding a press conference—it’s starting in five minutes out at the main entrance!”
Chairs were overturned as conference attendees rushed toward the exits. The security personnel tried to subdue the chaos as crowds pushed through the doors, but were soon overrun. “People! Please, exit in a safe and orderly fashion! Excuse me—we need to consider safety… Oh, screw it.” The overwhelmed announcer walked off the platform and threw his badge on the floor.
Residence of Nelson Banks. Denver CO. Jul 26. 2033
Nelson Banks stretched out lengthwise across the leather divan in the center of his living room. The late afternoon sun shone through the floor-to-ceiling windows of his penthouse apartment, creating a glare that reflected harshly off of the glass-surfaced coffee table near his head. He harrumphed as he rolled onto his side and buried his face into the cushions. “West-facing window shades to sixty-percent,” he mumbled into the pillow.
“I am very sorry; I could not interpret your command,” replied a suave female voice from a wall-mounted speaker.
Nelson flopped onto his back once more and with his hand shielding his eyes from the offending sun, he repeated the command—adding a few expletives to his sentences. The plate glass windows automatically transitioned to a subtle amber tone. Nelson kicked off his Ferragamo loafers and blindly reached for the half-empty bottle of Dalmore ‘43 Single Malt. As his hand fumbled around for the bottle, his mobile fell onto the plush carpet, followed immediately by his glass of melted ice. “Well, shit.”
Nelson rolled himself into a sitting position and picked up the glass and mobile. He shook the liquid from the device and tapped the screen to check for damage. “Play last message received,” he said.
The mobile responded and the constricted, somewhat nasal pitch of Amanda Terrance’s voice could be heard through the transmitter. “…and you’ll find that I’ve sent over not only the recording, but the transcript of my entire conversation with Director Cross regarding the… er, ‘incident’ that we’ve discussed at length. I trust you will find that there was no ambiguity in his orders. I am available at any time to speak with you further about the matter. Please give me a call at your convenience. Thank you, sir. Good bye.”
Nelson heaved a dramatic sigh and tossed the phone onto the cushions. He reached into the insulated pewter ice bucket and grabbed a handful of cubes. Holding his hand some distance above the glass, he dropped them one by one, listening to the clink they made as they landed. He grabbed the bottle by its neck and sloshed a healthy pour into the glass, sloshing the ice and Scotch around in small circles before taking his drink. Sighing, he leaned back into the comfort of his overstuffed divan. His mobile buzzed, vibrating against the leather cushion. Nelson grabbed it. “Banks. Make it short.”
“This is Maureen, Nelson. Be assured, I plan on adhering to brevity.”
Nelson rubbed his forehead and silently mouthed the word Fuck before responding to the Secretary of State. “Good evening Madame Secretary. I assumed I might be hearing from you today.”
“Fuck you, Nelson. We were very clear about what would happen should anything wind up in the press. And here we are—this is unprecedented—I am not even going to try and describe the bloodbath we’re having with the media right now…. I mean, shit, Nelson!”
“Madame Secretary… Maureen—this is solvable. We can ride this out.”
“Really Nelson. Because you’ll never guess who is sitting in the Oval Office right now—I guarantee you—you’ll never guess.”
“Raj-Fucking-Kaleka—that’s who. Jesus Christ, Nelson, he’s got the President by the short and curlys!” The Secretary’s rage was unmistakable, causing her voice to crack the more she spoke. “Here is the thing—listen very carefully to me. When last we talked, I made it clear that should any heads be required to swing, they would be coming from HighTower, not our administration. And I want a head, a significant head—and I want it served to me on a silver, fucking platter by dinnertime tonight. Do you understand me?”
“I do—believe me I definitely do. I have your sacrificial lamb already picked out, ready for the slaughter. The details will be sent within the next ten minutes. Satisfied?”
“Raj-Fucking-Kaleka, Nelson. Dear God!”
“Look, we’ll bury our West Coast Director and then this will all blow over. Be assured Madame Secretary, Raj Kaleka is just acting the part of an overblown peacock… Once his stocks go up from all this, he’ll back down.”
“Nelson. HighTower is on very thin ice—and not just with us… I hear that the Prime Minister is seeing red. You’d better get your house in order. And that other thing—the one we will never speak of—should it ever surface, I’ll feed you and yours to the sharks so fast they’ll swallow your unborn great-grandchildren before you know what happened.”
“Thank you Madame Secretary. I get the picture.”
“Send me that fucking name, Nelson.”
Nelson Banks slammed the phone onto the glass surface, causing adjacent contents to rattle across the tabletop. He poured another glassful of Scotch—omitting the ice, and gulped it down. He rose unsteadily from the divan and walked into the bathroom. Bracing himself with his outstretched arm, he grasped hold of the gold-plated towel rack. He stood in front of the urinal and belched loudly. As he flushed the commode, he muttered to the wall, “Dial HighTower West Coast—Amanda Terrance’s private line.”