Ahnah adjusted her snow goggles. She was not mistaken: there was a darker patch on the horizon, straight ahead. She restrained herself from summoning the last of her strength to run to it. It was still some distance, and she did not want to arrive, only to collapse. There was need for dignity.
It was probably nothing, she told herself. Just a bit of ice pushed up by wind.
Though the jagged shape, the brownish-grey color, matched what she had seen with her night eyes. Exactly.
But where was the man? the doubting voice in her head demanded.
What she had seen with her night eyes had always revealed a man. A Tlicho. Out here, in the middle of the land, where no Tlicho should be.
And apparently wasn’t.
She had come a long way. It had taken longer than she had thought. Longer, certainly, then her provisions.
Maybe the Tlicho had come and gone. Or wasn’t here yet.
Maybe there was no Tlicho, and she’d have to do this herself. Not that she had any illusions she retained the strength required.
She plodded on, one foot before the next, tired beyond bearing.
She blinked, and her night eyes showed her the Tlicho sitting with his back to the mound of stones. Hugging his knees. She peered through the slit in her antler googles, but there was no one. Just a jumble of stones.
But the stones were there. That much was now revealed as true sight. So, she was not a complete fool. Just mostly.
The storm had come up suddenly, rising wind and plummeting temperatures.
“Can’t you do that remotely?” Matt asked, nodding towards the equipment shack ten yards away.
“If I could do this remotely, I’d be doing it from my office in Huston.” Ray waved his gloved hand at the cable attached to the tower’s box. “It’s an anti-terrorist thing. You have to be plugged in directly. And the box has to be opened with the key fob physically present, or the cable cuts out.”
He felt sheepish explaining it out loud. As if some Russian hacker cared about this stupid tower in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but tiny snow dunes between them and the horizon. Bleak didn’t begin to describe it.
He remembered being surprised back in college that the deepest circle of Danté’s hell was ice, not fire. Made perfect sense to him now.
The woman, Uki, pointed her chin at the keyboard. “Hurry up, then.”
She was the structural engineer who had erected the two-hundred-and-twenty-foot G8 cell tower Ray was working on, out here in the middle of the arctic. Just her, with Matt piloting the Straightliner that hauled it up. The ancient Sikorsky Cyclone Ray had been assigned let him off in time to watch as the oversized blimp lowered the whole assemblage onto one of those inuksuk statue things.
That’s what he didn’t understand. Both of them had given him such a hard time when he innocently called it ‘Eskimo’, and here they were burying this Inuit statue under a couple of hundred tons of steel. Why not just set the tower a hundred yards in either direction if they were such champions of Inuit culture?
He supposed it would look good in the ad: the juxtaposition of the old and new; the arms of the inuksuk sticking out either side of the tower, like it was holding the whole thing up. The company must have paid a shitload of money for the natives to sign off on that.
When he’d asked McVey what possible point there was to a cell tower in the middle of nowhere, McVey had just said “marketing”. Like if the ad showed the company had coverage in the arctic, people would get they must have coverage everywhere. Symbolic. Ray got that. But then, why send him up here to make the tower active? There was no one going by here with a cell phone. No people at all, in any direction, for hundreds of miles. And while the new G8 system could reach to the horizon, at two-hundred-twenty-feet, the tower’s horizon was a little less than thirty miles.
Maybe the point. That there weren’t any natives around they needed to ask permission from, or to have to pay off, about the inuksuk.
But then, burying the inuksuk under the tower would symbolize something quite different to the Eskimo—sorry, Inuit—and terrorism was back on as a concern.
He finished meticulously copying the row of seemingly random numbers and letters from his notes into the appropriate box on the screen, waited for the program to verify the checksum to ensure he hadn’t made any typos, and then hit ‘submit’ to enter the command. It was all completely pointless, but Ray was a professional, and damn if any tower he worked on was going to have errors. Plus, no way he wanted to be sent back to this frozen hell to fix some stupid glitch.
A new screen popped up for him to enter the next sequence. Time to break.
“I gotta warm up,” he announced to the others and they all headed back to the equipment shack and its wholly inadequate propane heater.
Dekawi sat with his back to the pile of stones. Though he rested against them, he felt the heaviness of each separate block weighing him down, grinding him between them, till he was dust.
His parents had said to stop. This is not any shaman’s vision. Visions help the people. This is of help to no one. Stop.
His woman had said, I believe you, but we have children, and it isn’t right you wear yourself against stones. Wait until the children are grown. Grown children could help.
His friends had said, there is nothing in that direction. No trees, no moose, no caribou even. Nothing to the horizon, or the next horizon, or the horizon after that. Nothing.
Dekawi had shrugged and said: Now there will be stones.
Ray commandeered the only counter space as they crammed into the little wooden shelter, stomping across its plank floor to shake off the snow. He opened his binder to review what came next. He’d laid out all the settings in the office before ever leaving Huston, but that still left twenty-eight pages of notes to review. He frowned as he came across three lines of code blacked out and an arrow drawn to two pages of machine code: ones and zeros. What the…?
There was a yellow sticky from McVey: “Sorry, but the boys sent up these changes last minute. Use this instead for the ‘satellite connect’ screen.” That was more than odd, because Ray was the “boys” in the Huston office when it came to coding towers. And it had not escaped his notice that Uki had nudged Matt when Ray discovered the change. What was going on?
“Problem?” Matt asked.
“No, just need to make a minor change,” Ray said . . . because he knew better than to voice his suspicions. Ray had started with the company putting up towers in Afghanistan where rule one was: don’t trust local guides. Ray became acutely aware he was hundreds of miles from the nearest help, with two people he didn’t know, who controlled the airship that was currently his only way out of here. It didn’t take a genius to realize how easily he could have an accident.
Ray pulled his phone out of his pants pocket. There were guys who could read straight from ones and zeros, but Ray wasn’t one of them. He snapped a picture and the software he’d installed last year in Yemen gulped out the translations. KN43bk9887lrKWi. Ray recognized that as the downlink sequence; he’d typed it often enough. But XZi9887ryLL4u45 was new to him; and the XZ was an “all” command, so that had to be wrong. No way you wanted to download all messages . . . just the ones intended for the local tower. Who’d changed the code . . . and why?
“Looks like a problem,” Uki said.
“It’s nothing,” Ray lied. “Just a bit of work.”
“Remind me to invite you to poker sometime,” Uki said, deadpan.
Matt snorted. “Yeah.”
It suddenly felt a lot colder.
When the Tlicho jumped up from the far side of the mound, Ahnah felt herself falling face-first into the snow.
For a moment, she thought she had passed out from fatigue and lack of food, but here was an arm raising her to drink, a hand that cupped water. The Tlicho had indeed been on the far side of the mound. Her night eyes had seen true.
Well, better get to it.
She sat up; with his help, stood up. She pointed to herself, and said, “Ahnah”.
He introduced himself as Dekawi. Gestured to the stones and said something unintelligible. She guessed his meaning easily enough, though: “I have brought the stones.”
Ignoring them watching him, Ray took a picture of the next page of ones and zeros, and the software spit out the next strings. He worked through what the code did. He looked up.
“It’s stupid,” Ray told them.
“What?” Uki asked. She had to know already. They were clearly part of whatever this was.
“This has the tower beaming down all the satellite traffic—all of it, not just the calls that are directed here. And then . . . just beams them back up again.”
“No harm done, then,” Matt said.
“There’s no one monitoring the traffic here, right?” Uki asked. “No way anyone is listening in?” It sounded as if she were really asking. She paused as if in thought, and then offered a theory. “It’s just looped through the tower so they can claim the tower is, like—playing this vital role, right?”
That almost sounded credible to Ray. Somebody in marketing realizing there were no actual people or cell phones for the tower to service, so making up this bogus loop to say it was handling seventy-thousand calls per hour. Kind of brilliant.
Ray might have bought it, except for their body language. He could tell this mattered to them. More than it should. That they were holding their breath, waiting to see if he went for it.
He should take them up on that poker game.
Dekawi went round to the sled. The last stone had been the smallest, so he’d been able to double the supplies. When she hadn’t been there when he’d arrived this year, he’d been afraid the extra provisions were so he could wait for her—so much would have represented a long wait. Now he saw it was because she hadn’t eaten; the extra was for her. He grabbed some dried char, ran back round to her.
She smiled at him as she took the food. He smiled back.
And then they were hugging, like long-lost family, finally reunited; though they had never met, outside vision.
The relief was overwhelming. All that craziness, all those years. But he’d been right! There was a woman! He was the helper! He had brought the stones. It had to be true sight, or how else a woman here, in the middle of the empty land?
She pulled back, pointed at the sky. He looked but didn’t see anything.
She motioned with her hand, said words he didn’t recognize, but he understood her gestures: storm coming. She held up two fingers: two days from now. She indicated the stones: no time to waste.
Dekawi smiled more. Maybe that meant he would be done before two days. Then home again. Good. Good for all this to be over.
Ahnah pointed to the bottom stone in the mound, then pointed to a spot a sled-length distant.
He stopped smiling. Shift the whole pile off the bottom stone; move that stone—now five years frozen to the ground—onto the sled; have the dogs haul it the sled’s own length only; then take it off the sled again? He couldn’t stop himself from gesturing emphatically to where the stone was. There would do as well as one sled over.
But she let him see the tiredness that was in her, and he understood that long and hard as his own journeys had been, she had endured more. And his inner sight told him what he had known before he asked: that the positioning was important. It had to be just the way it had to be, or all would be for naught.
He was the helper. She was the woman.
It would be as she directed.
Matt was incredulous. “You brought a gun?”
“Old habit,” Ray explained, gesturing that they should move away from the door. “Needed one more than once, places I’ve worked.”
“You’re insane,” Uki said.
“Okay,” Ray conceded. “But I’m still the guy with the gun. So . . .” He waved them up against the steel shelving of the rear wall, held them there at gun point as he reached back into his toolkit, lifted off the top tray, and fished around for the handcuffs, never taking his eyes off them.
“Handcuffs!” Matt screeched when Ray pulled them out. “Seriously?”
“‘Be prepared’,” Ray quoted. “American Boy Scouts. Catch.”
Matt caught them without thinking. Uki hadn’t moved.
“To each other,” Ray directed, “but linked behind the shelving beam.”
“This is stupid,” Uki said, not moving. “You can’t shoot us.”
“Well, not shoot you dead, certainly. But it’s either the handcuffs or I’ll have to shoot you in the leg or something.”
Uki looked Ray in the eyes. Whatever she saw there must have convinced her, because she held her hand out behind her back toward Matt. The handcuffs snapped shut.
“Great,” Ray said. He stuffed the gun in his parka pocket. “I don’t expect that to hold you forever, you understand. Just long enough for me to get to the Straightliner and call the authorities, get someone up here to take you in hand.”
“It’s not us they’re going to arrest,” Matt said. “You’ve totally wigged out.”
“Well, if I’m wrong. . .” Ray shrugged. “I’ve acted in good faith. And nobody’s hurt. No harm, no foul.”
“Except guns are illegal in Canada,” Uki pointed out, “and you’re holding two people against their will.”
“Unlawful confinement,” Matt echoed.
Ray considered this. “Pretty sure they’ll overlook all that when I hand them a couple of terrorists.”
Ahnah stood back and looked at the inuksuk they’d built. She closed her eyes, opened her night eyes. She could see the inuksuk standing before her as she had always remembered it. She opened her eyes; closed them; opened them. The day/night inuksuk were superimposed, nearly matched, except the day inuksuk had storm clouds gathering behind it, and the night one had the aurora of the dream sky.
She should send Dekawi away now. He had brought the stones, but what came next was her work, her responsibility. He should leave now, before the storm came.
“We’re not terrorists!” Matt yowled.
Ray shook his head. “Yeah, well, the authorities can sort that out. But someone is messing with the code, and you two knew about it.”
“About the ad campaign,” Uki said tentatively. “Sure. That’s why we’re all here. Why wouldn’t we know?”
“The larger question is why nobody told me. It’s my code.”
“Is that what this is about? Your feelings are hurt?” Matt rubbed his free hand over his face. “Are you hearing what you’re saying? How that sounds?”
“It must have been a last-minute thing,” Uki said. “Look, your boss left you a note. Why is this making you crazy?”
“Did he, though?” Ray shook his head again. “Why write a note instead of just telling me? He’s never left me a note before, in all the years we’ve work together. I don’t even know what his handwriting looks like. Just because someone signed ‘McVey’ doesn’t mean it’s from McVey.”
“That’s paranoid,” Matt said.
“No, that’s observant. McVey doesn’t do memos. He doesn’t even email. He’s a phone-you kind of guy. He doesn’t like things in writing.
“And the machine code—who does that?” Ray shook his head at how ludicrous that was. “The only possible reason to give me two pages of machine code is in the hope I’d be too preoccupied—or too cold, maybe—to bother translating it. So I wouldn’t know what the hell it was I was inputting. As if.”
“So that all adds up to us being terrorists?”
Ray nodded. “Not very good ones, though.”
Dekawi stood passively as Ahnah gestured for him to leave before the storm came. The storm was going to be a bad one, but he had given five winters to bringing the stones, and now he was going to find out what it was all for. When she started shoving, Dekawi grabbed her wrists. He held them until she looked him in the eyes, and then he gave her a look to say, as clearly as he could, that he was not about to leave.
She stopped. She gave him a look that chilled him like no wind ever had, slowly rotated her wrists within his grasp until her hands could grasp his wrists, and clasped on.
Dekawi jerked as the twilight changed to winter-black, the clouds to aurora. Reds and greens shot past directly overhead, as impossible yellows reached down to give the stones a pulsing glow. Dekawi jumped back to avoid letting the tendrils touch him.
Then, the contact broken, it was twilight and storm clouds again.
Ahnah struck him on his shoulder, tried to turn him toward home. Her message was clear: leave now, or face whatever it was she was about to unleash.
“Wait!” Uki called as Ray had his hand on the door. “It’s not what you think. Not terrorism.”
Ray paused. “So—it’s something.”
“All right, yes. McVey didn’t write the note; we were the ones that switched the code.”
“What are you doing?” Matt managed to sound simultaneously terrified and deferential. Uki was the boss of the operation, then.
“He’s obviously figured it out,” she said to Matt. “He’ll bring others, and then it will be too late. If this has any chance of working, we have to bring him in on it.”
“He’s an American! He can’t help!”
“Aha!” Ray said. “You admit you’re not American?”
“I’m as American as you,” Matt said, annoyed. “Montana-born and raised. But one of my great-great-great-grandfathers built that inuksuk out there.”
“You’re part Eskimo?” Ray was skeptical: Matt didn’t look it.
“No! Jesus!” Matt made a face. “Not everyone is Inuit, okay? He was Tlicho. Dogrib tribe in English. And they didn’t get along with the Inuit all that well.”
“You’re saying that thing out there isn’t Eskimo?”
“Don’t say Eskimo,” Uki sighed. “It was a joint project. Tlicho brought the stone, and my great-great-great grandmother—we’re Inuvialuit—brought the magic.”
“Wait.” Ray held up his hand. “You’re saying the two of you are both descendants of the people who built that?” He pointed out the window.
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“You don’t really expect me to buy that, do you? Bit of a coincidence?”
“No coincidence,” Uki acknowledged. “Why we set up the whole tower project.”
Ahnah lay in the snow facing the inuksuk, the soles of her feet touching the base. The stones were already radiating, so the cold wasn’t an issue. Isapoinhkyaki always used her hands, but Ahnah felt more grounded through her feet. And legs were stronger than arms, so it was easier to keep the feet pressed against the stone when the inuksuk pushed back.
She had closed her day eyes to see through her night eyes, watching the aurora pulsing round and through the inuksuk. She awaited a sign from the ancestors who had called her to this place—assuming always, the vision a true vision.
It occurred to Ahnah to wonder how they had commanded the Tlicho. If the Tlicho had shaman who listened to ancestors, walked the dreamlands, and saw with night eyes, maybe the Tlicho were of the People, just as much as Ahnah. Certainly, they had common cause against the newcomers.
Ahnah’s feet told her the stones were now more than stone. She sensed distant voices, words indistinct, arguing. Rising voices calling to push back, to ambush. Those ones had sent a Tatsanottine, but he had not come. (Too busy plunging his yellow knife into Tlicho, no doubt.)
There were quiet voices also, counseling a different way. They had sent a Tlicho.
She did not know Tlicho people outside of the vision of the Tlicho man, and now Dekawi himself. Dekawi had come, in harmony with the gentle voices. So gentle voices would prevail.
She stood and faced the southeast, though she could still sense her feet against the smooth stone, and knew she had not stirred in the day world. And then, light shot from the stone into and through her, outwards, a strength of the People fanned across the empty lands, across the treeline, towards the southeast.
It went on for a long time. She sensed, rather than saw, a sea of individuals reflecting the pink, green, yellow, blue, violet, orange or white light, each according to their character. Ahnah willed them all to acceptance, willed their deeper connection to ancestors and neighbors, history and futures.
As the waves of light waned, Ahnah knew it had not been enough. Could never be enough to stop those who did not know the land, or love the land, or understand anything.
She became aware that Dekawi had come to stand beside her in the nightscape. New waves pulsed against both their backs, blew through them like a lens, and—more focused—washed against all of those who were not of the People.
[Almost all. At the edges of Ahnah’s perception were some who absorbed the light and reflected darkness. There was no touching them. Had the Tatsanottine come, they would have sensed threat in him, speared him with their darkness. In the day world, they would have come to end him, perhaps by ending all Tatsanottine. Those ones would not care for the difference between Tatsanottine or Tlicho or the People, so it was good the Tatsanottine had not come.]
Together, Ahnah and Dekawai spent all their strength, to establish that connection, to channel voices that did not judge, merely suggest. Respectfully, supportively.
But was it enough?
Ray massaged his forehead, because what he was hearing was actually making his head hurt. It was completely ludicrous, yet . . . somehow resonating.
“What you’re saying is, without ever having met, or even knowing the other actually existed, you both just spontaneously started doing whatever you needed to do to put a giant cell tower on top of an inuksuk in the middle of nowhere. Based on dreams you were having?”
“Visions,” Uki corrected.
Ray waved the interruption away. “You became a structural engineer, and Matt became a Straightliner pilot—which has to be the most specialized license in the world—because it felt right for the project.
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“Matt grew up in Montana thinking he was white, until he had a recurring dream telling him his great-great-great-grandfather built an inuksuk?”
“The visions don’t tell you anything.” Matt shrugged. “You have to work out what they mean.”
“But you both had dreams that you should build a cell tower over top an inuksuk?”
“Visions,” Uki said again. “And not just any inuksuk; this specific one.”
“Vision, psychosis, alien mind control . . . it doesn’t matter why you’re doing it. The point is you’re part of a conspiracy to take control of a G8 cell tower.”
“But not terrorism,” Matt said. “We’re on the side of the angels here.”
Great. Angels now. This situation was the definition of crazy, but he had to ask.
“Okay, I’ll bite. What’s it all in aid of? What happens when I input the revised codes?”
Dekawai opened his eyes, shifted so he could see Ahnah on the other side of the inuksuk, their bare feet still pressed up tight against the stone. She turned her head and looked back at him.
He could tell by her haunted expression that she wasn’t sure they had succeeded.
“It helps, at least a little,” he assured her.
She stared at him, not understanding his words. But maybe she could understand his tone. “Others will come,” he said. “They will try again. Later. With more than two. We were missing… something. Someone. They will have more strength. Much more. I have seen this.”
She sat up, worked at covering her feet.
He did likewise. Stood. Walked over to where she sat despondent, offered her his hand. “Even it if is not much, it is something.”
She allowed herself to be pulled up, turned to stare at the southeast.
He fetched her food, water. Ate a bit himself. Packed up most of the remainder for her, because she had longer to go. He kept only the minimum he’d need to get back to Tlicho lands.
She accepted the packaged food, tucked it inside her coat, reached out to take his hands. She squeezed them as she spoke a few intensely felt words, then turned and abruptly vanished into the swirling darkness of the storm just outside the circle of light provided by the stones. As if she had never been there.
“You forget,” Ray said, “I’ve worked with Canadians all over the world. The joke about them being more polite, nicer? It’s just that—a joke.” Ray shook his head. “You wanna know why Canadians are always saying, ‘excuse me’ and such? It’s because they’re always butting ahead of you in line. It’s passive aggressive bullshit.”
“Yeah,” Matt said, “but the reason people don’t butt in line in Montana is you never know who’s packing. When a Canadian says ‘excuse me’ in the act of butting in, it’s because he knows the other Canadians in line aren’t going to shoot him.”
“You don’t need to tell us,” Uki said, ignoring Matt, “that Canadians weren’t actually nicer. They tried to eliminate indigenous, same as Americans. Maybe their self-image as ‘nice’ and ‘proper’ restrained some of the worst excesses. We’ll never know how much worse it could have been. At least nice is a theoretical goal for some of them.
“But they’re just too many people these days for a little inuksuk to transmit to everyone, everywhere. The signal isn’t actually getting weaker, but the size of the population is becoming overwhelming. You must feel it too. There’s less civility; more hate speech, more anger, more violence, more polarization. We need to boost the signal.”
Ray said, “And I’m supposed to help you? Sabotage my own tower setup.”
“Yes,” said Uki. “I think so. I mean, the first time there was a Tlicho and an Inuit, representative of indigenous. But no colonizers. No one representing those on the receiving end. That might be what they were missing: someone who could authorize reception.”
Matt looked startled. “You mean we need an American?”
Uki said, “Yeah, it fits. The largest volume of message traffic through the satellite—and now through the inuksuk—is American, so Americans are going to be proportionately the most influenced by the inuksuk’s empathy spell. They’ll be on the receiving end now as much as Canadians.”
“I can’t speak for America,” Ray said. “I can’t even speak for Texas. You need the president or something.”
Matt’s face screwed up in scorn. “What? You’re telling me you think our current President accurately represents the best version of America?”
And with that, Ray admitted defeat and slumped against the door.
“What?” Uki asked.
“I’m in,” Ray said.
“You’ll recode the tower?” Matt said.
“Do you know,” Ray said, “my family have been Republican since Lincoln.”
Matt said, “This isn’t a partisan thing.”
“Not that. It’s . . .” Ray hesitated to tell it, still half suspecting he was being conned. “My dad had this photo up in the den, of him as a young man. He’s off to one side but in the same shot as George H. W. Bush. I became obsessed with that photo. Dreamt about it.”
“A photo of Bush?” Matt said, clearly not following.
“The first one, not the current generation. Taken at the 1988 Republican convention. It’s a recurring dream. I walk into my father’s den, I sort of float towards the photo like a disembodied head, and Bush comes alive, turns to me, and says, ‘Ray, we need a new harmony, a greater tolerance . . . a kinder, gentler nation.’”
“The 42nd President of the United States repeatedly tells you he wants a kinder, gentler nation,” Uki said, “and it took you this long to come around to our side? Jesus, could it be more blatant?”
“My whole life, I wondered why that one photo, why that one speech. Does seem kind of on point in the current context.”
“Well?” Uki demanded.
Ray opened his toolbox, fished around for the keys to the handcuffs.
This story first appeared in Polar Borealis Issue #15, Summer 2020.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Robert Runté is Senior Editor with EssentialEdits.ca specializing in SF&F. A retired professor, he has won three Aurora Awards for his literary criticism and currently reviews for The Ottawa Review of Books. His own fiction has been published in over forty venues and six of his short stories have been reprinted in ‘best of' collections, most recently, the Best of Metastellar Year One.