Brian MacMillan

09 Spinning Wheels

BM Spinning Wheels

Spinning Wheels

The bodies were laid out on the tarpaulin in exactly the same way they had been found in the mine. The men, whose corpses had been struck by the shell that had exposed them, were in fragments. Two women, whose corpses were further away from the point of impact, were mostly intact, though ossified by tar. Tanya stooped to examine one of the females: the woman was roughly her own age, in her early thirties, but was shaped differently. Whereas Tanya was long and thin, the dead woman tapered from extremely broad shoulders to delicate wrists and ankles. Her jeans had mostly flaked away, but her top was made of a durable synthetic fiber, which, though stained black, was intact. She had two rusted metal buttons on her collar. On the first was written: “CO2 Kills Gaea”. A second, equally rusty button, featured a stylized dove footprint. The bullet that killed her had entered through the base of her skull.

Who murdered her and why?

Tanya heard a knock on the door of the lab. She looked up. General Brightbottom had already let himself in. He had a terrible habit of treating the entire base as his personal property.

“I have something for you.” The General handed Tanya a package of micro-fiche documents that had just arrived from the University of Red Deer. The package was wrapped in a letter from the sender. Tanya wondered why the General was here. There was no need for the Base’s senior officer to hand deliver anything; there were plenty of people who were trustworthy enough to act as courier. Tanya looked up at the General; he was staring at her.

“Any theories?” he asked.

“Its all in my last report.” Tanya was self-indulgently brusque. She found it difficult not to be at this time of year. The Athabasca Day celebrations always upset her.5 She realized that it was unfair to be rude to the General because of this. He didn’t know that her father had died in the Battle of Tar Island, fighting against Alberta.

In an effort to embrace the spirit of the holiday Tanya nodded toward the poppy on the General’s collar. She said as convivially as she could, “Did you fight in the Athabasca War?” She expected her question to elicit a rote, patriotic response. Instead the General’s face went grim. “I did. At Fort Vermilion …” he faltered. While the General collected himself Tanya decided to answer his original question. “You asked me about the bodies. My current theory is the obvious one: murder. I strongly suspect these people were killed because they opposed the tar mines, although my only evidence is a button. Unless there’s something useful in that package.”

The General said, “There is”. He appended nothing to this comment. He stood there, considering his next move, having forgotten to complete this one.

Tanya did not want to find out what the General’s next move would be. She said, “I’d better get back to work”. Her words brought the introspective General back to the present. “Of course. I’ll pick you up at five. I’m looking forward to your husband’s surprise.” He winked conspiratorially. Tanya had almost forgotten that her husband’s project was a secret, because the entire Base knew what the secret was.

“Thanks”, she replied. The General had already let himself out. Tanya watched him walk along the path toward the mess hall. She imagined him parading on a circular track, marching around and around in circles, with great dignity and pomp, never stopping because no one had ordered him to. The thought made her laugh because it seemed both absurd and possible.

A bus ticket Tanya had found on one of the dead women was dated May 15, 2027. Tanya’s plan was to look for references to the missing hikers starting from this date. She intended to begin with the Red Deer newspapers and move on to the Edmonton, Fort McMurray and Slave Lake ones if necessary. She put the microfiche into a reader.
She found her first lead on the front page of the June 21 Red Deer Gazette,
Alberta Police today called off the search for Red Deer woman Alison Schipka, daughter of former conservative MLA6 Utal Schipka. Ms. Schipka was reported missing one month ago. She was last seen camping at Lake Gregoire, south east of Fort McMurray, with at least three members of the eco-terrorist group Earth Now! Her parents insist that Alison and her friends have been kidnapped by one of the many private security contractors working in the Athabasca region.

Anyone with information relevant to the case should contact the Red Deer Police Department.

After another hour Tanya had found nothing else: the records were in poor shape, and were frustrating to deal with. She decided to take a walk. The base was defined by two pits that were created over two centuries ago, when the rocks in the area were first mined for oil. The South Pit was still being mined, although on a scale that was dwarfed by its history. Part of the North Pit was used by the artillery, but no soldiers were there now. Tanya preferred the solitude of the North Pit, so went that way.

When she reached the rim of the North Pit, she paused to take in the view. The foreground was full of ancient machinery: hauling trucks, backhoes, rope shovels and drills. Although they were gigantic, the machines were dwarfed by their backdrop: the North Pit was over 100 metres deep and twenty kilometers long. It had a dozen terraces partially covered by scrub. Where the ground was too harsh for even the toughest plants, she could see the layers of bitumen rock – the reason why the mine was here in the first place.

Tanya began the descent along the switchback road that the loaded trucks used to take when they exited the mine, two centuries previously. Her approach startled a flock of parrots nesting on the western face of the pit. They flew into the air in a riot of noise and colour. It took several minutes for them to settle down again.
At the point where the switchback road reached the bottom of the pit Tanya encountered a hauling truck. It had once been painted mustard yellow, although most of the paint had long since peeled away. She could see an imprint where the product number T282B had once been stenciled in metre high letters. When Tanya stood on her toes she could just reach above the middle point of the truck’s tires. The truck continued an additional 6 metres into the air. The machine’s size made her think not only about what it could do – that was obvious – but what it represented. Tremendous effort had gone into making this machine. Its task, to mine rock so that it could be processed into oil, was clearly a priority for the civilization that created it.
Perhaps 50 metres beyond the truck lay the ruins of a rope-shovel. The machine’s cabin, which was larger than the entire hauling truck, rested on a swiveling base to which was attached a pair of caterpillar tracks, which were used for locomotion. One of the treads on right track had been destroyed. Tanya inspected the damage: it was localized, but apparently fatal. Just above the broken tread was spray painted a globe in the centre of which was stenciled the words Earth Now!

Alison Schipka’s group had wrecked this vehicle. Perhaps that was why they were killed. It would certainly explain why they had been buried nearby. Tanya walked carefully forward. Although the terrain was level, it was very slippery, because the tarry rock inhibited the ground’s ability to absorb water. She continued north-west for another kilometre and then, before she reached the artillery range, exited via a path that had once been an access road for small vehicles. After two switchbacks she reached Highway 63, which was the direct way back to the base.

When Tanya got to the road she was surprised to see that it had been paved with asphalt as far as she could see in both directions. While her husband Keelut built cars, others were building roads for his cars to use.

Tanya’s return trip was quick. She reached the lab one hour before her date with the General, so she decided to re-examine the newspapers for stories about vandalism at the mines. Within minutes she found something. On May 17 the Slave Lake Gleaner announced that rope-shovel 28 in the North Pit had been destroyed by “environmental terrorists.” A day later the Fort McMurray Free Press published the following letter,
I used to work on shovel 28 until those eco-freaks destroyed it. Now I don’t have a job, because management isn’t fixing it. When we capture those punks we should kill them slow.

Although Alison Schlipka’s parents had thought she had been kidnapped – and presumably killed – by a private security team, perhaps she, and her activist friends, had been murdered by vigilantes.

Someone opened the door. It was Miriam, her assistant. She asked, “What did Professor Bryant send you?”

“I didn’t know he sent me anything”, Tanya replied.

“It’s that manila envelope, by the stuff the General brought.” Miriam said.
Tanya picked up the envelope. It had been sent to her from the Edmonton archives. In her rush to examine the newspapers, she had not noticed it. She broke the wax seal and removed a bundle of documents which had been bound together with string. There was a cover letter that had been hand written on vellum paper, which she read,

Mrs. Okpik,

I have great news! I’ve solved your mystery, and in a way you’ve solved one of mine. The murdered hiker – Alison Schlipka – was very famous for a brief moment 215 years ago. In fact, she was famous twice – first as a socialite who was allegedly kidnapped by eco-terrorists. Later, when her diary was found, she was identified as one of the most notorious environmental activists of the 21st century. Athabasca Insurance, which has records going back that far, estimates she personally caused over $2 billion of damage to mining equipment, including $1 billion the week she was murdered by a private police force. That’s a pre-hyperinflation number.
I’ve sent you a copy of her diary. I had my scrivener make it especially for you, so feel free to make margin notes.

Kind regards, JB

Tanya put down the letter and walked over to where the dig was reconstructed, at the back of the lab. Until this point she had thought of the corpses as artifacts, not people. She looked at Alison. Despite the tar, Tanya knew exactly how Alison had been dressed when she was murdered. It was a tomboy style that was still in fashion. She could easily imagine what Alison had looked like, with her broad shoulders, copper coloured hair and green, scared eyes.

Tanya looked away from Alison’s corpse and toward her assistant. Miriam was reading the letter from Bryant.

Tanya said, “I’m going to read the diary outside.” She picked it up from her desktop, walked past her assistant, and exited out of the western door of the laboratory. She took a seat in the middle of the egg-shell blue wooden swing that dominated the west-facing side of the porch, and opened the diary to May 15, 2027 – the date of the bus ticket they’d found.

We left Edmonton two hours ago.

The deciduous forest has given way to boreal, mostly pine and spruce, although you still see stands of maple and birch. There are blighted areas everywhere, which makes the landscape spooky. Sri said that this blight is caused by a different beetle than the one that has destroyed the coastal forests.

All things considered, its not a bad backdrop for man’s biggest crime against nature.

May 16
Today’s my birthday! To celebrate we’re going to do an action! Details to follow …
May 17

We took out a gigantic rope-shovel last night. Sri threw a molotov cocktail onto one of its treads. It was all so simple, though Sri nearly set himself on fire. When the broken machine slumped over I felt like a little English sail boat taking on a Spanish Galleon.

To tell the truth, the action was more of a fuck-up than a success. Disabling the rope-shovel took no effort. But we were nearly caught by a rent-a-cop a moment later. He started sweeping the pit with a powerful searchlight, and even though it was windy we could hear the barking of dogs. We were saved by freak weather. Just as the cop spotted us, the air pressure plummeted and the wind starting gusting really strong. While I watched the wind blow the cop’s car into the North Pit, I wondered if the earth ever needed me to save it.

Alison’s May 19 entry was simply “tonight we have some big fun.”

The next entry began in the middle of a paragraph.

… after the action we went into Fort McMurray, to a place called the Jackrabbit Grill, for some food. Writing about it now, in my tent, under the stars, far away from the town and everything, with the calming sound of the Lake nearby, I still think going there was a mistake. It may be the last mistake I ever make.
Going to the Grill was Sri’s idea. He thinks that if our movement is going to succeed we have to change the minds of the workers. His plan was to find someone in the community who was not dogmatic about the tar mines, and use them as an in. I thought the plan was foolish. The locals all knew about our action. They’d be looking for us. Police and rent-a-cops are bad enough without vigilantes. In the end, Sri won me over with these words. He said, “Sometimes crossing a barrier doesn’t involve stepping over a line drawn in the sand. Sometimes the barrier can only be crossed by looking at things differently.” Although I fear his idea will kill me, he’s right. If we don’t get people to see things differently, we’re going to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, until we become extinct.

We disguised ourselves by changing into what we call our “church” outfits. My outfit was a pressed blue dress in a sixties style. It fooled no one. The moment I entered the Grill someone asked me if I was“one of those climate bitches who thinks all these tornadoes are caused by the factory?”

I turned to go. Before I did a second man said, “Hey John. John. Chill out.” He was very good looking – tall, fit, neatly dressed in a denim jacket, jeans and expensive boots. He apologized for his friend. He said that there had been some vandalism at the mine and tempers were really high today. I said I didn’t know anything about that – we were just passing through on our way to the Athabasca Dunes.

His eyes lit up when I mentioned the Dunes. He asked me if I had been in touch with Lenny.

I gave him my stupidest look. I’m a terrible liar, and didn’t know what to say.
“Lenny Thiele”, he prompted. “He runs the camp up there.”

I said I didn’t really know because my friend made all the arrangements.

Sri jumped into the silence. He said, “I think I talked to someone named Margot.” The man began to say something, but stopped himself after a syllable. Sri is just as bad a liar as I am, but has this breezy knock-me-down-and-I’ll-pop-back-up-in-your-face manner people don’t challenge.

Sri whispered to me that he thought the tall good looking man was a “conciliator” and we should get to know him. I thought he was out of his fucking mind but just said, “I’m not hungry right now” and ran to the car. The other three joined me ten minutes later. They’d gotten coffee and sandwiches to go. Sri got a toasted cheese sandwich for me, bless his mixed-up soul.

I ate while I drove. I was anxious to get as far away from Fort McMurray as fast as I could. We were staying at a camp south of town, just off Highway 63. When we passed the industrial park at the intersection of Highway 69, someone started to follow us. I know we were followed because I stopped before I turned into the Park, and the car behind me stopped too.

But what could I do? All our gear was at the Park. It was already late and it was Sunday – we didn’t have enough gas to get anywhere. All the local stations were closed.

Sri got all caught up in the idea of tapping a pipeline for gas. There’s one within a couple of kilometres of here, he said. He thought we could vandalize it and get some fuel. I pointed out we didn’t have a refinery with us. That shut him up for a minute.
We decided to sneak out of the Park and drive to the next one down the road. It was about 50 kilometres away. We had more than enough gas to get us there. Our plan was to hide there overnight, and return our rental in Edmonton first thing Monday morning.

No one followed us out of the Park, but when we turned south onto Highway 63 I saw a car blink its lights. I don’t know if it followed us. We got to Crow Lake Park in no time, even though I was careful not to speed.

That’s where I am now.

Its really dark. And we’re all alone. I hope. I think I hope.

I’m going to go outside to see if we’re alone.

I just went for a walk along a beautiful natural path that follows the perimeter of the lake. I think deer made it. As I walked along the animals got excited, but they became really quiet when I pointed my head-lamp at them. I turned my head-lamp off, wondering if the darkness would make the night quieter or noisier. When I did the night went silent except for one weird sound, this gurgling growl. It was very menacing, but probably was just an angry rodent trying to sound like a bear. Big or small, the growl worked. I got more and more scared by the noise and the dark until I’d almost forgotten about the scary men who are chasing me.

When I stood still, right at the crest of the lake, even the angry rodents became quiet. It was like the night itself was expectant. That got me scared too – or kept me that way. Animals are silent when they’re afraid. What had scared them?

I know why I was afraid. I was afraid because I was alone and when you’re alone you’re vulnerable. I rushed back to our camp.

I wish some more of my team was here. Those millions in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh who now have to fight for their water. Or the tens of millions of people whose land has been reclaimed by the sea. I’m their advocate. Their shock troop. I wish they were here to add their voices to mine.

Do extra voices make a difference, if people aren’t listening?

The full moon is hovering on the horizon, just above the lake. Its beautiful. All of the tens of thousands of lakes up here are beautiful tonight. I know it.
I also know I’m not really fighting for those benighted people in Asia and Africa and what’s left of California, even though we are natural allies. They’ve already lost. I’m fighting for my people. Albertans. They don’t realize it, but this is all mankind has got left. We’ve destroyed the rest – or at least come so far along that that we can’t salvage the least of it. Yet the people here hate me. Many want to kill me.

Shouldn’t we be on the same team?

The next entry was dated one week later,

Consider the previous entry my last. What follows is a postscript.
I’m imprisoned in the Buxton Township police station. I haven’t been kidnapped by the police, or arrested. The station we’re in is abandoned. We’re being guarded by private security goons. Its certainly an inside job, though. The goons used official schematic maps to disable the security cameras.

I guess I should tell you – whoever you are – what happened. We were caught at Crow Lake. It was a community effort, coordinated by the rent-a-cops, but everyone was in on it. By everyone, I mean everyone we’d seen at the Grill, and everyone we’d met afterward, including a gas jockey, a convenience store cashier and two park rangers.

The good looking guy from the Jackrabbit Grill found our bomb kit in the false bottom of Sri’s suitcase. The rest had already made up their minds about our guilt. He wanted proof.


If only it had turned out differently.

Its dishonest to write that I thought it would. Personally, globally, it has all played out pretty much as expected.


Kirk tried to escape. I don’t know exactly what happened to him, but I know it didn’t go well. The shooting started the moment he slipped out the back window. It lasted for minutes. It sounded like he was hit 1,000 times. The rent-a-cops have a lot of different guns. I think they used them all.

There’s no longer any doubt about how this will end. So once again I ask the question, why did I take this path? I know I’m not suicidal, I don’t want to die. That’s why I ran out of the Grill, and why my idiot (God bless them) friends should have beat me to the door.

Of all the answers sloshing around in my brain the one that stands out now is one a rat might understand. I’m cornered – the people who hate seeing this planet destroyed – we’re all cornered. So of course I chose to fight like hell. I did fight like hell.
To the death.

These two questions are my last words:

Do my enemies know they’ve won?

Do they know what winning is?

Tanya closed the diary and placed it on her lap. Her assistant immediately appeared beside her, but said nothing.

A horn honked. Tanya didn’t look toward the source of the sound. She knew it was the General. She clandestinely handed the diary to her assistant with a curt “Don’t let Brightbottom see you reading this”, gathered her purse from the floor beside her chair, and briskly walked down the stairs to where the General was waiting in a jeep.
The jeep – the first totally new motorized wagon Tanya had ever seen – was certainly going to raise eyebrows at the Athabasca Day celebrations. The General knew it. That’s why he had a grin on his face.

Once she was seated and they were on their way Tanya said, “General, I have more information about the corpses.”

To her surprise, the General frowned. He brusquely said, “What do you mean?”
“I think the hikers were murdered because they vandalized some mining machines in the North Pit.”

“Which machines?”

“I’ve just identified one. The rope-shovel at the entrance to the North Pit.

“The one with Earth Now! stenciled above its broken tread?”

Tanya realized that the General knew most of her story already. She nodded.

“Is there anything else I should know?” The General’s manner was now distant and formal.

“That’s all. I doubt I’ll find much more.”

There was a very long pause. Finally, the General said, “Don’t talk about the corporate death squads. We like to forget that part of our history. In fact, don’t talk about any of this until I give you permission.”

Tanya nodded, but didn’t agree. She saw no reason why this story needed to be censored. It was hundreds of years old. No one would be personally hurt by it being told. And the story needed to be told, because it was about the world that created this one.

Rather than pursuing the conversation, Tanya changed it. She made a gesture that encompassed both the motorized wagon and the newly paved road. “Today is going to be a big day for automobiles, isn’t it, General?”

The General smiled.

Tanya looked east. In the distance she saw clouds of smoke and heard the sound of engines. She said, “The South Pit looks busy.”

The General’s reply was effusive, “How do you think we paved this road? Oil. Asphalt. Tanya, we’re turning back the clock.”

When they arrived in Fort McMurray it was after sunset, although not yet pitch dark. They took the highway straight to Liberty Square, in the centre of town. Dignitaries were seated on the east side of the Square, on a small, wooden podium that had been raised one metre above the ground. They were illuminated by panels of electric lights attached to metal trellises. The west side of the Square was illuminated in a traditional manner, by pitch torches.

The General slowed the jeep to a walking pace when they approached the Square so that passers by could admire it. As they parked in front of the stage, on the stretch of road between the dignitaries and the audience, they were suddenly illuminated by a powerful electric light. There was a moment of baffled silence while the audience figured out what it was witnessing, and then a cascade of applause.

A second spotlight focused on an announcer who was speaking into a monstrous megaphone. The announcer introduced “the handsome General and the beautiful scientist”.

Once they parked, both the spotlight and the audience’s attention, drifted elsewhere. Tanya rushed to her seat in the bleachers opposite the stage. The General trailed behind her, shaking every one of the hundreds of hands held out to him.

A few moments after Tanya reached her seat, all of the lights went out except for a handful of torches.

While the orchestra at the foot of the stage played an introduction, a machine projected an image of the Premier onto a gigantic silver screen. The audience gasped. A new movie. The Premier had made a new movie.

While the Premier spoke, an electric spotlight shone on each of the vehicles lined up in front of the stage, starting first with a motorcycle, followed by an auto-rickshaw, a passenger car, a light truck, the jeep Tanya had arrived in, and two racing cars. The racing cars, one with red stripes, the other blue, were the main event.

The climax to the evening’s festivities was a race to Tar Island and back. The two contenders in this race were the military secrets Tanya’s husband Keelut had been working on. Tanya looked for her husband on the stage, but didn’t see him. He was probably at his garage doing some last minute tinkering.

While the master of ceremonies announced the race, a gaunt man with a military haircut and civilian suit stepped out of the pack of dignitaries crowding the stage. The gaunt man’ progress was illuminated by the main spotlight. Tanya recognized him as General Brightbottom’s Patron – a former General who now worked at a munitions conglomerate. He lithely jumped off the stage and landed immediately beside the blue car. As he jumped, his tie was blown behind his head by a strong gust of wind. Some of the pitch torches went out.

The General shook the hand of the the driver of the blue car, who wore a denim jacket and navy blue jeans. The blue driver’s hair was cut in a military fashion. The driver of the red car wore a thick, red leather jacket and white chaps. Her kinky dark hair was too long for the military. The General kissed her on the cheek, and then raised the starting flag.

A gust of wind blew the starting flag down before anyone was ready.
The General raised the starting flag again. The drivers’ revved their engines.
There was a precipitous drop in air pressure. Without thinking, Tanya ducked under her chair. As she did so, the stage in front of her was flattened by a wall of wind. The silver screen crumbled as it blew away.

Tanya lay down longer than she needed to: the freak wind storm quickly passed. When she rose, she did so cautiously.

The stage was a dark hole, except for where the powerful hand torches of the rescue crews shone. The damage from the storm was localized. It ended just before the highway. The new cars were covered in dust, but otherwise unscathed. The bleachers across the street from the stage, where Tanya was, were not affected at all.
The sound of a revving engine pierced the air.

The driver of the blue car, the military man, had never left his post. He was ready to race. The wheels of his car were spinning and spinning while he revved his engine. He was impatient for an opponent.

A crowd of people began chanting, “Where is the red driver?”

A man removed the starting flag from the corpse of the retired General. He leaped onto the first row of seats in the bleachers. The applause was almost as loud as the blue car’s revving engine.

Tanya watched as the people around her turned away from the damage, like a past they wanted to forget. They drifted over to the starting line, or stood on the bleachers, trying to get a better view. Some were cheering, others looked on with slightly dazed expressions. Only a few people had died; the crowd was quite large.

There was a tremendous cheer when the driver of the red car appeared. Her white chaps were stained blood red. Word got around that a shard of wood had nearly pierced her femoral artery.

The crowd was now louder than the revving engine of the blue car.

An ambulance alarm pierced the air. The crowd roared louder still.

The red driver opened her car’s door, even though one young man passionately begged her to turn back. When the man’s hands touched the red driver, they became bloody. The red driver was indomitable. She entered her car and turned on its engine.
The crowd roared its loudest yet, but the sound of two car engines revving was louder still.

While the cars’ wheels spun, a last round of bets was made. It was all about the red driver: some people thought she was too injured, while others thought she had spirit. Some bettors argued that she had something to prove.

The cars’ wheels kept spinning.

The man with the starting flag lowered it.

The cars raced through the debris that cluttered the newly paved highway.



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