The Knells of Agassiz

In  by February 28, 2020

The breeze is too gentle and too warm against Emma’s cheeks as she steps out of the quad tiltrotor onto the gravel shoreline. The journey from more than seven hundred kilometres to the south has taken four hours. She sets the self-driving copter into standby mode with a swipe of her arm controls.

“Emma, what’s wrong? Your GPS shows you’ve landed early. Over.” Roger’s worried voice crackles in her headset as the satellite signal travels all the way from Grise Fiord.

She toggles the switch with her tongue. “I decided to walk the last two kilometres.”

Roger sputters. “It’s dangerous to leave the copter’s cabin, Em! What if the explosions—” The rest of his sentence is lost in a burst of static.

She tongues the off switch then mutters, “Tell me something I don’t know.” This morning, she’d locked in the explosives programming herself before taking the copter.

Walking to the project site won’t be easy. Spring thaw has come early, of course, and metre-wide creeks braid themselves across the stone-sprinkled delta that’s splayed in front of her.  But, there’s no turning back.

Her sinuses are plugged again. She blows her nose over the creek, bush style, using two fingers of her mittened hand, and then begins this final journey, stepping over the narrowest of the creeks and feeling every one of her seventy years.

After a few minutes of walking, she begins to sweat. She spends a moment tying up her ponytail and lowering the heat in her parka. Today is “D-Day,” as she’s come to call it, the final phase of the project. The need to see Agassiz Ice Cap one more time, to witness what will be forever changed, has overridden the potential risks. Roger has always been too cautious.

However, she has perhaps overestimated her hiking abilities. She looks back at the copter, only a short distance behind her, where it waits patiently and silently until it’s needed again. It could still easily take her to her destination but the desire to say goodbye to the ice cap, up close and in person, is too strong. She continues across the stony plain, one slow step at a time, with only the nasty chuckle of meltwater keeping her company.

While she hikes, she uses her heads-up display to check in on the project’s progress. Roger has apparently given up trying to contact her. She accesses the daily calculations on the glacier’s melt rate. Over the past decade, the Canadian government’s under-budgeted recording methods have shown increasingly rapid ablation of all the Nunuvat glaciers and Agassiz is no exception. The Roger Ningiuk Foundation’s more accurate measurements have shown that temperatures here on Ellesmere Island are actually averaging a horrifying 1.5 degrees higher than the federal agency has documented. She views other updates—all of today’s figures are even worse than her modelling has predicted. She flicks the HUD off with an impatient hand.

After an hour’s hard travel up the outwash and over the moss-covered boulders that form the moraine, she reaches the rotting snow at the glacier’s edge. The SPF45 cream tastes of petroleum and civilization as she recoats her lips. She ignores her trembling leg muscles and turns to survey her footprints behind her. They’re already filling with meltwater.

She scrambles up the incline over hardened snow that’s been sculpted by the winter winds into the frozen waves of an insane ocean. Blurry tracks litter the snowy expanse beyond—a record of the many trips that she and Roger have made up here. Over the years, the arctic wind has lost its power to erase the signs of their presence.

Each step is a noisy shuffle over crystalline snow. She trudges onwards, remembering landmarks—here a stray boulder shaped like a wine barrel, there the place they camped for four days during a storm—the long stubborn history of surveying, measuring, and recording Agassiz’s death knells.

Just as she considers then discards the idea of a short rest, her foot punches through the icy crust into softer snow below. A familiar jolt of pain shoots through her knee and she wobbles, off balance, until she can extricate her folding walking stick from her jacket’s back pouch. She telescopes it out with a snap, braces herself, and pulls her leg back out. A quick stop, then, until the pulsating agony diminishes, her heart quiets, and a small degree of energy returns.

Once the quiet settles in, she hears a dull booming in the far distance, sounding like artillery in a distant war. The thought triggers a bitter smile. There is indeed a war, one she has fought for many years. And this trip is the final skirmish. She will not be returning.

Another boom, and then—in a minute—another, far above the dove-gray clouds overhead.

It won’t be long until the explosions are only seconds apart.

Presumably by now Roger has discovered that she has changed the coding of the trial and he can no longer halt the progress. He’ll also have figured out she’s overridden the copter controls. She pictures his increasingly frantic radio calls to her and a familiar wash of guilt passes through her. Poor, faithful Roger. A decent person—too decent for her. He’s better off without her and it will be so nice when she can rest, just rest.

She forces herself to walk again, but after a few more steps, she relents and reopens the connection. Roger’s age-roughened voice is clear but faint. “OB1, do you read, come in? Em? Over, dammit.” He’d given her the official title of Operations Manager, Biotech, calling himself Chief Engineer, despite there being only two of them on this project, not counting the hundred and twenty robots.

She tongues the switch. “Old Biddy One, over.” Her voice is tinny and small in the immensity of the sky that surrounds her. The humour is weak but it’s all she has to give him.

His voice is stern. “I can’t stop the automated run now. You’ll be right at ground zero soon. Please come back or else call the copter to come to you. Over.”

“Not yet, Roger. This is something I have to do.”

“Is it worth your life? Our life?” His voice is ragged. He’s so upset he forgets the “over.”

She plods along, berating herself for her slowness. The point of impact is still far ahead of her and, like all stages of this project, there’s no time to waste. There has never been. Nunavut’s glaciers are shrinking every second of every day. Roger could never see that, never understand what drove her to work on the project a hundred hours a week, to neglect her health and wellbeing.

“Goodbye, Roger.” She severs the connection. The intensity of her voice causes a ptarmigan to burst forth from a nearby cluster of boulders. She’s never seen one this far north nor one this skinny. It flies with ragged, dull feathers toward the glimmer of sun on the horizon. Inside one mitten, her fingers twitch but she stops before creating the wildlife diary entry.

There’s no point. Not anymore. D-Day will change all that.

The clock in her HUD shows that she’d better hurry. One more kilometre to the centre of the project zone. Her sore knee pulls at each step as the imperfectly healed injury is called upon to support her weight. Twenty years ago, at the start of the project, when the warehouse in Grise Fiord was still shiny new and the launching ramp only a sketch on her computer, a prototype glider had exploded prematurely, sending a small but deadly shard of wood into her knee cap.

She had fallen to the factory floor, her cry as much from exaltation as from pain: the force of impact of the wood scrap anecdotally serving to prove the success of the experiment. The blue-streaked sawdust, a by-product salvaged from a robot-run mill in a North West Territories forest wiped out by mountain pine beetles, would be a significant cost savings. Roger’s stress-induced breakdown later that day had not prevented Emma from soldiering on with their research and neither had his lengthy recovery in the hospital. And, indeed, the coarse sawdust and seawater mixture had later shown to be structurally sound enough to form a mixture as hard as concrete, yet soft enough to pulverize during explosion.

She pauses, remembering one more thing. In the years that followed, whenever she combated Ellesmere’s short hot summers by wearing khaki shorts to the factory, Roger would draw circles around the scar tissue on her knee with his thick fingers. She’d brush his hand away, berating him to get back to work. With a start, she realizes he doesn’t do that anymore.

More rumbling followed by a boom as another glider explodes high above the leaden clouds. Only half a kilometre now. Exhaustion tugs at her. There are several ways this day can turn out—a misfiring glider can obliterate her instantly, her own frailty can send her sliding into a gully to drown in meltwater, a dozen other tragedies. They’re all immaterial—the cardiologist has given her less than a month to live. But, at least, the trials can continue—Roger will see to that, even after she’s gone.

In the past two decades, she’d spent substantial amounts of Roger’s money in attempts to save the glaciers. Early projects included mimicking the Peruvian man who had painfully spread sawdust on an Andes glacier, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full. She’d even tried painting the terminus of the glacier in white paint to offer a more reflective surface.  Two trips to Sweden on Roger’s money to study a snow machine operation that was spraying a glacier above an Olso ski hill had eventually determined that it, also, was too small-scale for her needs.

Finally, water and wood had shown the way. Two of nature’s most common materials, frozen together to make a surprisingly resilient material.

The hardest part of mixing the seawater and sawdust then molding it aerodynamically had been convincing people that it wouldn’t be a repeat of the famous WWII failed experiments.  The substance, known as pykrete in the 1940s, was to be used as an aircraft carrier in the Arctic but had repeatedly melted at inopportune times. Emma’s concoction was chemically different, as was the application—gliders shaped like thick paper airplanes.

The only easy part had been obtaining the seawater. No one objects to the foundation sucking it up from the ocean, not after the Grise Fiord shoreline rose a dozen feet within recent memory. And the salt in the seawater is an added advantage, helping snow crystals form almost as well as silver iodide but without its degree of environmental damage.

She stops to examine a dark spot on the snow. Scat, at first glance—her tired heart thumps, although she has not seen a wolf or polar bear in two years. But, no, it’s just a stone covered with Polytrichum strictum, the moss that’s spreading northward in the new Arctic warmth, its spruce-green colour working to decrease the albedo and therefore accelerate the glaciers’ melt rate.  If she squints, she can pick out particulates in the nearby snow, too, sprinkled like black pepper.

Another rumble, this time almost straight overhead. She pictures the robots in the factory molding the gliders, the gliders speeding off the factory’s launch ramps, all in a continuous progression, over and over. The gliders are empty of payload, of course: the seawater-wood pulp mixture they’re made from is the payload. A GPS-triggered explosion and then icy wood pulp falling, falling into the cloud layer overhead, forming seeds—seeds of either destruction or cautious hope.

Her HUD beeps as the preset GPS coordinates are reached.

Ground zero.

She stops immediately, leaning on her stick, knee throbbing. Her neck pops as she angles her head back. High above, each cloud is gathering moisture, growing heavy, pregnant with snow. An idealistic concept, almost a concept of a concept, that such a procedure would result in an insulating blanket of snow protecting the dying glacier under her feet.

It’s amazing they’ve brought the project along this far. Even if it fails now, even if a glider were to strike her in the next few moments, Roger deserves a minute-by-minute report. He has never stopped asking her to marry him and she has never said yes. This project was too important to jeopardize with a relationship, too time-consuming to allow her to have a life. How can she rest, how can anyone rest, until the glaciers are saved? She activates the radio. “I’m here, Rog. Nothing yet.”

His reply is instantaneous. “How are you, Em? Really.”

“Good.” Her nose is a constant drip, her knee is on fire, and she’s so tired, she could lie down on the snow crust and sleep instantly. “How’s it look at your end?”

Roger speaks in a rush. “All prelims are favourable. Too soon to tell, though.”

“Your grandpa would be proud, Rog.” And he would have been.

“Doesn’t make things right.” His voice is quiet. Roger’s Inuit grandfather had spent his final years chastising Roger for the success of his luxury ecotourism company and the resulting degradation of Ellesmere Island’s many habitats. Roger’s investment in Emma’s project has done little to assuage his guilt but Emma has been desperate enough for funding over the years to continue to let him try. Her own guilt pulses hotly within her. She rubs her scarred knee through her thick snowpants. She’ll need to sit down soon, then lie down. The thought of resting consumes her.

More booms overhead. And then—she squints to make sure—a sheet of snow is ghosting toward her over the barren plain. It reaches her quickly and small, hard pellets of ice sting her cheeks. They’re a far cry from the moist fluffy flakes that fall in southern Canada, but it’s snow: beautiful, wonderful, insulating snow plinking against her hood like miniature silver bells.

“It works,” she whispers. “It goddamn works.” The grains of ice grow into tiny drifts at her feet. Small dots of sawdust settle like damp yellow powder. It’s as if land and ocean are reuniting with the ancient ice below.

Eventually, she can no longer feel her toes and she leans heavily on the stick. It sinks into the soft icepack, almost toppling her.

“I’ve hacked the copter. It’s on its way,” Roger says. Almost instantly, she can hear distant blades wicking the air.

Her heart rate is so rapid she can hardly distinguish beats. Suddenly, she knows what she wants to do.

Quickly, she removes her hood and puts her headset by her boots. She loosens her ponytail and shakes her head, spreading her hair over her collar.

With an impish smile, she tilts back her head.

And sticks out her tongue.

First one flake, and then two, three, ten, they land and melt. The taste is sour wood pulp and tangy seaweed and missed chances and unrealized dreams. The soft whupwhupwhup of the copter grows louder. Roger’s voice squawks plaintively from the discarded headset.

The flakes grow thicker. It’s indisputable: the project is a success and can now be replicated on other glaciers. She’ll need to get that heart surgery. And a knee replacement. The next decades will be busy ones.

Snow begins to twist around her in wild fury. Her doubt and guilt and exhaustion swirl away with it.

She bends and picks up the headset so that she’s ready when the copter arrives. There’s no time to waste.

Copyright © 2017 Holly Schofield. Originally published in the anthology Water by Reality Skimming Press. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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Holly Schofield

Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her short stories have appeared in Analog, Lightspeed, Escape Pod, and many other publications throughout the world. She hopes to save the world through science fiction and homegrown heritage tomatoes. Find her at

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