[Creative writing contest] [fiction] The Iron Woman of the Southern Ocean by DJ Cockburn

by DJ Cockburn45 min read25th Sep 20211 comment

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This story was first published in the Sunshine Superhighway anthology but as I still own the copyright and it's relevant to the contest, I thought I'd post it here.

Maybe I made the woman who saved the world.  Maybe I broke her.  That’s for you to decide.  You’ll say it’s up to your readers, but you and I both know you’ll make up their minds with the headline.

 

I first saw her when she climbed out of the launch and up on to the deck of my boat.  She was one of an expedition of three who all wore crimson snowsuits, so I don’t know which was her.  Not that I cared at the time.  I was wrapped up in my parka and snow pants, squinting against the glare of sun on the Southern Ocean. It’s the hardest blue I ever saw down there, studded with silver icebergs that loomed over us to glare even harder.  And even in my gear, it was cold.  Goddamn cold, which played hell with my rheumatism.

 

I wasn’t about to miss the rescue after two days weaving between those bergs to get to them, but I wished Captain Velayo would hustle so I could be back in the saloon, where it was warm and I could drink bourbon.  Velayo scrambled over the side after them.  He was forty-five and had a hip replaced after the car wreck that ended his Navy career, but he moved with an agility I couldn’t have managed at twenty.  I know how to pick my people.

 

“This is George Rush,” Velayo gestured at me.  “It’s his boat.”

 

They thanked me in muffled voices and we fumbled through disappointing gloved handshakes.  Who doesn’t want to be rescued by a billionaire on his own yacht? And I gotta say, my Sunseeker’s quite a yacht.  You see her docked in Monaco or Barbados, you’re gonna be so busy ogling her that you might not even notice if there’s a topless supermodel on the boat -- the smaller boat -- next to her.  Then again, we were surrounded by bergs that made her look like a water bug, which made me wish we were in Monaco or Barbados, and that I’d never had the dumb idea of seeing Antarctica.

 

The hostess -- I never got used to calling her a steward -- took them inside for a shower and a change of clothes. I followed, thinking I’d made a good decision when I took Velayo’s advice and installed extra insulation before this trip.  I shucked my gear and ordered up that bourbon, which I drank alone as Zara had gone to bed. My fourth wife had worked out her own sleep cycle, which had less to do with clock time than with when I wasn’t in our stateroom.

 

I looked at the edge of the floe we’d picked up the scientists from.  If something that big didn’t even count as a berg… I felt small.  Down here, I was no more than an ant stranded on a different continent from his anthill.  I belonged in the top end of the anthill named New York, and I felt an overwhelming urge to be back up there.  My anthill was designed to the needs, desires and whims of men like me.  This place didn’t give a damn.

 

Then I remembered that without all of us ants burning carbon to keep the lights on in places like New York, the ice I was looking at wouldn’t be the edge of a floe but the middle of the Larsen D ice shelf.  The thought was still at the front of my mind when I saw her face.

 

She was standing at the door to the saloon, her red hair loose and wet from the shower.  She wore a shapeless T-shirt and a pair of black leggings that showed she didn’t have a thigh gap.  I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a woman I wasn’t married to dressed so sloppily.

 

“Hi,” she said.

 

It took me a moment to pull my thoughts together.  Must have been the bourbon.  She spoke before I could return her greeting.

 

“I just wanted to stop by and say thank you for coming to get us.  We’d have been stuck on that floe for a week if you hadn’t happened to be around.” There was something alluring in the way her accent rounded her vowels, though I couldn’t quite place it.  “Nestor Velayo told us we’re headed for Punta Arenas.  We’ll keep out of your road till we get there, but we really appreciate it.”

 

She started to turn away, but I wanted to hear more of those vowels.

 

“Hey, no need to sneak around the place,” I said.  “Come in. I guess you could use a drink.  I was about to order another.”

 

I hadn’t been, but another bourbon sounded like a good idea as soon as the words were out of my mouth.

 

“Well… I could murder a decent coffee,” she said.

 

“Sure.  Della’s a fully qualified barista.  Take a seat.”

 

I gestured at the couches, which lined three sides of the saloon.

 

She smiled and sat on the couch at a right angle to the one I was sprawled across.  “I thought her name was Debbie?”

 

Damn, she was right.  I pressed the intercom button.  “Debbie, bring a couple of coffees into the saloon.”

 

Something about the blue eyes watching me made me add, “please.”

 

I stuck my hand out to her.  “George Rush.  Nice to meet you.”

 

Her frown lasted for the same fraction of a second as her hesitation.  Most people would have missed it, but it’s the sort of thing you recognize when your life is doing deals.  I’m no celebrity billionaire and I’ve no time for conscience-salving charities, so not many people outside the business world know my name, but it meant something to her.

 

“Lindsay.” Her handshake was as firm as a man who was comfortable with himself.  “Lindsay Savoy.”

 

A name to match her voice.

 

“So maybe you can tell me what’s going on around here,” I said.  “I know we’re a hundred fifty miles into what was solid ice last week.  How’d that happen?”

 

She looked out of the window where the wreckage of the shelf loomed around us.  From her expression, you’d think she was at a close friend’s funeral. “This was the Larsen D ice shelf. We thought it was stable until it just…” She snapped her fingers, conveying how fast it had fallen apart.  “We’d been in the middle of an ice shelf the size of Wales and suddenly we were sitting on the edge of an ice floe.”

 

She looked as though she was affected by something far more profound than the prospect of freezing to death in this godforsaken wilderness.  I was missing something.  “Wales?”

 

“Oh, sorry.  About the area of New Jersey.”

 

“I know.” All I knew about Wales was that it was kinda part of England and not part of England at the same time, but I didn’t want her thinking I only understood American comparisons.  “What were you doing out here?”

 

I wanted to know what was bugging her. I wanted to understand why she’d frowned at my name.  For me, that’s a lot of things to want to know about a woman that don’t involve lingerie.

 

“I was looking for tardigrades,” she said.  “I’m a marine biologist.”

 

It was my turn to frown.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “A few months down here and you forget how to talk to a normal person.”

 

No one ever called me a normal person. If a couple days of being surrounded by icebergs had made me feel small, I guess months of it must give you a weird perspective.

 

“What are tardi… what are they?” I asked.

 

“They’re a sort of wee animal.  Eight legs, about a millimeter long and they turn up everywhere from here to the tropics.  I think we found a new species the day before we were stranded.  Incredible beasties.  They can live through radiation that would fry us, cold that would freeze us, they can go dormant for years and then start up again like they were having a snooze.”

 

She glowed with enthusiasm now she was talking about bugs instead of thanking her billionaire rescuer.  She broke off to thank Debbie when the coffees arrived, but went straight back to her tardigrades.  “Forget what they say about cockroaches.  The last animal to survive the apocalypse will be a tardigrade.”

 

“I don’t see how it matters if we’re gone,” I said.

 

“Well...  that’s a point of view.” Her tone said it wasn’t a point of view she shared.  “Maybe we’ll get there soon enough.”

 

“You mean...” I waved at a berg, or maybe only a floe, passing down the side of the boat opposite me.

 

“Yup.  This is the apocalypse.  It’s happening slowly.  It might take a couple of hundred years.  Slow on a human timescale, but geologically, it’s a blink of an eye.”

 

She looked right at me.

 

Then I got her reaction to my name. Normally I’d let it go, but this woman intrigued me.  I’d never seen anyone get excited about bugs that weren’t biting them.  Usually, I don’t see anyone get excited about something they weren’t trying to sell me.

 

“And you’re thinking it’s on me, right?”

 

“What? No!” She looked away.

 

“Sure you are.  You’re too polite to say it because you’re a polite Englishwoman and because you’re on my boat.” I’d placed her accent in the north of England. “But you recognized my name.  You know three generations of turning oil and coal into dollars is what paid for the boat.  Am I right?”

 

She still didn’t look at me.  “I’m Scottish.”

 

I’d been close.

 

“Right.  Sorry.  Does it count for anything that I’ve been getting out of coal? I know fracking isn’t popular with everyone, but it pumps a lot less carbon into the atmosphere.”

 

It was a line I’d used on a few state governors.  It came out sounding a little too practiced.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but… here we are, watching the apocalypse….”

 

“And I’m telling you my contribution is a couple gigatons less than it could’ve been.  I get it.”

 

“I didn’t say that.”

 

“No, you didn’t.  Because you’re a polite Scottishwoman.  But you thought it, and you’re right.  But people want their cars to run, they want the lights to come on when they throw a switch, they want to Google funny cats.  All that takes energy and energy comes from burning stuff.”

 

The sound of my own voice shut me up. That doesn’t happen very often.

 

And never for long.  “Lindsay, it’s easy to criticize, but why don’t you tell me how to take carbon out of the atmosphere? Then we’ll have something to talk about.”

 

The green crowd are loud enough when they’re against something, but have a lot less to say when you ask them for solutions.  I expected her to tell me she didn’t know, and we’d drop it.

 

Her eyes were the same blue as the ocean beneath us.  She fixed them on me with an intensity that would have made it impossible to look away, even if I’d wanted to.  “Seriously?”

 

“Seriously.”

 

“All right.  Every spring, dump a few thousand tons of iron sulfide dust in the North Pacific, then dash across and do the same to the North Atlantic.  Six months later, when it’s spring down here, do the same in the Southern Ocean.”

 

I waited for her to say more.  She didn’t.  Two sentences were all she needed to tell me how to save the world.

 

“How does that help?” I asked.

 

“It causes algal blooms.” She paused, groping for a way to put it in layman’s terms.  Now she was making a pitch, she was a lot less comfortable than when she’d been talking about tardigrades.  “The algae spend the summer pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to make more algae.  At the end of the summer, when there’s less daylight, they die off and the carbon sinks to the bottom of the ocean.  At the same time, they’re releasing a chemical called DMS, which causes clouds to form.  The clouds reflect sunlight, so they make the Earth cooler.”

 

“That’s how you’d do it, huh?”

 

“Yes.” She nodded.  “That’s how I’d do it.  It’s hardly an original idea.  It’s been talked about for decades.”

 

“So why hasn’t anyone done it already?”

 

“Because we don’t know what else might be affected.  We’re talking about geoengineering… engineering the whole planet.  We don’t have a spare planet to test it on.  And no government’s going to put up the cash unless they know exactly what’s going to happen.”

 

“So how can you be sure it would work?”

 

“I’m not.  I can tell you it would probably work, based on what we know now. Being sure about something that hasn’t been tried is for priests, publicists and politicians.  I deal with the science, and I still got caught standing on an ice shelf when it broke up.” She shrugged.  “A week ago, I’d have been all about the precautionary principle.  I’d have said we don’t know enough to risk it. Now…”

 

She broke eye contact, looking at the maze of ice that Velayo was weaving us through.  It finished her sentence far more eloquently than anything she could have put into words.  If parts of the world were already falling to pieces, what exactly were the precautions supposed to be against?

 

“We’re already engineering the planet,” she said.  “It’s time we got good at it.  So if I had a few million to spare, that’s what I’d do with it.”

 

She spoke as if that was the end of the conversation.  As if we were kicking ideas around to pass the time.  The corner of her mouth turned downward.  It was so quick that I’m sure she didn’t know she’d done it, but that twitch spoke to me as clearly as if she’d shouted her thoughts loud enough to wake Zara at the other end of the boat.  She was thinking, you didn’t expect me to have an answer to that.  She was thinking, you rich guys are loud enough when you’re doing self-justification, but have a lot less to say when you’re faced with something you can actually do.

 

“Let’s do it.”

 

So we did it.  Because I was looking up at the same mountains that didn’t keep still that she was.

 

And because at the age of seventy-three, I’d fallen in love.

 

#

 

The week it took us to get to Punta Arenas was the most exhilarating of my life because I got to spend it in a coffee-fueled huddle with Lindsay.  I broke off to eat, sleep and to make my daily calls to my board, which I cut short to get back to Lindsay.

 

“Just how many laws are we going to break?” I asked her one time.

 

“That depends on where we register our ship.  There are agreements between governments not to do it, but we’ll be dumping the iron in international waters so the only jurisdiction will be the country whose flag the ship is flying.”

 

“Won’t be a problem then.  I wrote the book on how to get a government to play ball.  But we’d --” I braced against the table as we lurched over the crest of a wave.  We were out in the Southern Ocean now, plunging up and down the sides of waves the size of my house.  “But we’d better keep it to ourselves.  This is the kind of thing that gets laws made damn quick.  And there are other ways of making things tough. We don’t want our iron sulfide impounded somewhere before it gets to our ship.”

 

“Right.” Lindsay looked as relaxed as if she were sitting on a couch in her living room instead of on a roller coaster. I had to look closely to see her constant flexing and relaxing of the muscles that held her posture.  Whenever she was intent on her laptop, I took the opportunity to appreciate her practiced grace.  She might spend a lot of time looking at a screen, but she was at home at sea.

 

“I guess you’ve done this sort of thing before,” she said.

 

I didn’t answer.  Lindsay wouldn’t be impressed by reminiscences of stealth pipelines or drilling that pre-empted permission.

 

“We need to choose our people carefully,” I said.  “Right now, it’s only you and me.  If we keep everything compartmentalized, most of them won’t need to know what we’re doing. The guy responsible for shipping containers full of iron sulfide to wherever the ship is doesn’t need to know why he’s shipping containers full of iron sulfide.”

 

Zara hardly left our stateroom and the other two scientists politely stayed out of the way, so I wasn’t worried about anyone overhearing us in the saloon.

 

“But the ship will need a crew,” she said, “And the crew will know what we’re doing and why.”

 

I liked it when she talked about what we were doing.  I liked making plans for something more than making more money.  Lindsay made me feel like the idealistic teenager I’d never been. If I spent much more time with her, I’d find myself donating to Bernie Sanders.

 

“It comes down to finding the right captain.  We need someone competent and committed.  You find the right boss, he finds the right team.” I caught myself.  Lindsay was probably a feminist.  “Or she.”

 

She didn’t look like she’d noticed. “What about Nestor Velayo?”

 

“Velayo?” I was startled by the use of his first name, though I remembered she’d used it the first time she’d mentioned him.  “Why him?”

 

“I’ve sailed with him before.  He skippered the research vessel I was on when I was studying algae for my PhD.  That’s when I first started thinking about iron fertilization.  I thought he was still on research vessels, actually.  I was surprised to see him on a yacht.”

 

I shrugged.  “He was between contracts and I needed someone with his experience, so I offered him twice the pay.  I didn’t know you’d met.”

 

I hoped I didn’t sound too jealous. I’d thought I’d had her attention to myself while we’d been on this boat, but she probably didn’t need as much sleep as I did.

 

“Antarctic research is small enough that you keep running into the same people.  But the point is, with his navy record, Nestor could be captain of a cruise liner if he wanted to.  He’d get the sort of salary you’re paying him all the time.  If he works in research, it’s because he wants to.”

 

Velayo was the son of an African American sailor and a Filipina he’d met when the Subic Bay base was still running. Velayo junior followed senior into the navy but unlike his father, who retired a petty officer, junior worked his way up until he made commander.  He’d captained three frigates before the car wreck made him medically unfit for sea duty.  He could have stayed on behind a desk or gone into the private sector, but he chose to skipper research boats.

 

I don’t take on a secretary without checking her out, let alone a man I was trusting my life to.

 

“Have you ever spoken to him about it?” she asked.

 

“No.”

 

“Give him a couple of beers and ask him what he thinks sometime.  I promise you, he’ll be on board with this.”

 

“I’ll take your word on it.”

 

It wasn’t the sort of conversation I’d have with the help.

 

Which meant he got an insight into Lindsay that I didn’t, which wasn’t helping with the jealousy she’d stirred up. I’m a self-aware kind of guy; I know better than to base a decision on jealousy, and this wasn’t a job we’d be overwhelmed with candidates for.  “He’s certainly competent.  I’ll talk to him.”

 

She frowned.  “It might be better coming from me.  We’re asking him to join a conspiracy.  Coming from you, it’s a regular job offer.”

 

I laughed.  “Is that what we are? A conspiracy?”

 

She grinned back.  “Isn’t that what you’d call it? It feels weird to say it, but that’s what it is.  We’re conspiring to save the world.  You’re the billionaire superhero and I’m the geek sidekick.  I’ll have to get a pair of thick-framed glasses.”

 

We were laughing about that when Zara lurched in, holding herself upright on whatever she could get a hold of until she crash-landed on the couch next to me.  She slid close enough to touch, which she never did when we were alone.

 

“Nice to see you getting on with my husband,” she said to Lindsay in a tone that said exactly the opposite.  She sat up, jutting the breasts I’d paid for at Lindsay like they were fitted with high-capacity magazines.

 

“Sure,” said Lindsay.  “The iron man of the Southern Ocean.”

 

That set us both laughing again.

 

Zara scowled and leaned over to the intercom.  “Bring us a Laphroaig for me and a bourbon for my husband.”

 

She’d picked up her taste for Laphroaig in Aberdeen, while I was renegotiating my interest in North Sea oilfields.  She’d insisted on bringing several crates on this trip and by the look of her, she’d already been making use of them.

 

“I’ll have a lemonade,” I said.

 

Zara changed the order and gave me a look that said she got it now.

 

I wasn’t worried.  I know better than to go into a marriage without a prenuptial agreement.

 

#

 

Three years passed before I saw another iceberg.  The thrill surprised me as I looked down from the chartered helicopter, which was an angle I liked better than the one I’d had from my boat.  I lived in a penthouse and usually worked out of it, so I was used to looking down on the world.  Even from up here, several thousand tons of ice surrounded by the crystalline blue of the Northwest Passage took my breath away.

 

I watched it until the helicopter banked away, hiding it under the fuselage.  We were approaching a ship I hadn’t seen while I was focused on the berg. I felt another thrill at the name painted over her stern and the red and green Maldivian flag flying over it.  Terra Nova had been Lindsay’s suggestion, for reasons I couldn’t remember but seemed important to her.  The flag came from a country that would sink into the Indian Ocean if much more ice melted, which gave them a damn good reason to support us.

 

Lindsay met me on the helipad.

 

“Good to see you, George.” She shouted over the rotor, which was still spinning down, and held out her gloved hand.

 

I took it and pulled her into a hug. It was awkward because we were both wearing parkas, so I kissed her cheek.  I hadn’t seen her in six months.  A handshake didn’t cut it.

 

“Welcome aboard,” she said.  “I can’t believe you’ve never seen her before.”

 

“Me either.  I wasn’t going to miss the chance while she was so close to home.”

 

I was more interested in Lindsay than the boat.  Lindsay spent most of her time on board, and when the Terra Nova wasn’t in the middle of one ocean or another, she was docked in the Maldives which put Lindsay thousands of miles from me.  I flew her to New York as often as I could for meetings I told her were essential, in which she always told me I should take a look at the boat I’d bought her.  For once, Lindsay and the Terra Nova were both close to the North American continent at a time when business wasn’t demanding my full attention.

 

She pulled open a steel door that I had to fold myself through.

 

“How’s Zara?” she asked.

 

“Last I heard, she was doing OK.”

 

Last I heard, she was bouncing between rehab and a boyfriend ten years younger than her who was spending the divorce settlement faster than she was.  I didn’t tell Lindsay that.  She might think it was me who’d driven Zara to drink.

 

We came to a ladder, which I guess is what counts as a staircase on a working boat.  Lindsay floated up it as if she was strolling along level ground. “Sorry.  I’d forgotten you weren’t together anymore.”

 

She looked down at me.  I took a deep breath and started climbing.  There wasn’t much motion, but I was learning that it was a whole lot harder to get around a working ship than around my Sunseeker. Lindsay held out her hand to help me clamber into the corridor.  I didn’t take it.  I didn’t want to be old and fat.  And I wanted her to have remembered I was single.

 

Is there anything more ridiculous than a seventy-six-year-old man in love with a thirty-nine-year-old woman?

 

She slowed down and stopped speaking for the next couple of ladders, but I was still puffing for breath and sweating under the parka by the time we stepped on to the bridge.

 

I felt better when Velayo stood to attention like he was still in the navy and I was his admiral.  “Welcome aboard, sir.”

 

“As you were, Nestor, as you were.”

 

His nod looked like a salute.  “Thank you, sir.  Enjoy the view.  There’s still not many who have seen the Northwest Passage from the bridge of a ship. It was still blocked by ice until a few years ago.”

 

I knew that, goddamn it.  And the worst of it was that he hadn’t even meant to patronize me, which told me he knew I was out of my anthill here.  I looked around so I didn’t have to answer.  I could see a few white patches and the big iceberg I’d seen on the way in was behind us, but it looked a hell of a lot more open than the patch of ocean where I’d met Lindsay.

 

Well, I hadn’t expected to turn global warming around overnight.

 

“Excuse me, sir.” Velayo’s eyes were constantly flicking around the bridge, from the windows to the man at the wheel to the screens in front of his chair and, very occasionally, to me.  “Steer port ten.”

 

“Port ten, aye, Captain.” The man at the wheel began to turn it.

 

“Sorry, sir,” said Velayo.  “There’s a Chinese reefer ship ahead and if we don’t give her a wide berth, Dusty there will have some explaining to do.”

 

“No problem,” said the man at the wheel. “I’ll just blame it on the captain.”

 

Velayo laughed.

 

“Dusty?” I asked, conscious of attention drifting away from me.  “That’s your name?”

 

“William Rhodes, sir.” The man at the wheel sounded formal now he was talking to me.

 

“All roads are dusty to a sailor,” said Lindsay.

 

I didn’t belong in this world.  I could look out of the same window as these guys without seeing what they did; listen to the same words and hear a different meaning or none at all.  Even Velayo’s formality was less deferential than when he’d skippered my yacht.  This was his world of salt and steel, where people deferred to him and I could hardly get up the stairs.

 

“You don’t pay us for our poetry,” said Velayo.

 

He had a point.  I did pay them, and I paid for their boat.  They might live in this world, but I owned it.

 

Lindsay was looking to the right. I followed her gaze to where waves lapped against a chunk of ice passing down the side, hardly breaking the surface.

 

“It’s navigable here, but not easily navigable,” she said.  “That’s why we need Nestor.”

 

She and Velayo exchanged a smile. It took me a moment to understand that Velayo had factored that floe into his course correction.  Lindsay assumed I understood it as well as anyone else on the bridge.  Or perhaps she didn’t feel able to explain it to a guy who belonged in a penthouse.

 

“Perhaps Mr Rush could use a coffee,” said Velayo.

 

“Sure,” said Lindsay without asking me.

 

The meaning was clear.  We’d made the requisite visit to the bridge and now Velayo wanted me out of his way.

 

“I’ll have it up here,” I said.

 

“I can’t offer you a seat up here,” said Velayo.  He really wanted me out of his way.

 

I didn’t say anything.  I stood and waited for him to work out whose words carried more weight on my ship.

 

Lindsay got it first, which was a perfect result to that game.  She pressed a button and asked someone to bring me a coffee.  She even remembered the two sugars.

 

“Thank you,” I said to her, making sure I was turned away from Velayo.  “Now tell me about the gear back there.  That’s for spreading the iron, right?”

 

“Sort of.  You’d have to inspect it to find the fertilization gear.  Otherwise, we look like an oil survey ship.  The iron sulfide is stored…” That’s where I stopped understanding.  She spoke with the enthusiasm she had for tardigrades but in much more detail.

 

My attention wandered back to Velayo, who looked completely at ease navigating between chunks of ice the size of apartment blocks.  I’d chosen my man well.  I should feel happier about it.

 

It came to me that, once again, I’d left my anthill to surround myself with the wreckage of the crumbling ice caps. The cost the world was paying for my fortune.  I took my gaze off the sea around me and focused it on the gear Lindsay was talking about.  I may not have understood how it worked, but it meant I had an answer to the problem. 

 

Lindsay brimmed with enthusiasm as she spoke a language understood by everyone on the Terra Nova except me, and perhaps the chopper pilot.  I consoled myself with the thought that she wouldn’t understand my conversations with my accountant any better, but it didn’t change the fact that this trip had been a mistake.  I couldn’t show her my best side here.

 

“I need to get back to New York.” I cut her off.

 

She looked surprised.  “You only just got here.  Don’t you want to see the rest of the ship?”

 

“Come back with me,” I said.  “Listening to you, I’m seeing I need more briefing than I have time for.”

 

“I don’t know.” She looked at Velayo. “How long before we’re in the North Atlantic Fertilization Zone?”

 

“Hundred twelve hours.” He looked at me. “That’s a little over four and a half days.”

 

“That’s plenty.  Spend a couple days in New York, fly out to Iceland and I’ll charter a helicopter to take you from there.”

 

Did she have to look at Velayo like he had the final say?

 

“It’s workable,” he said.

 

He didn’t need to look at a chart or a weather report before delivering his judgments.  He had the entire operation in his head.

 

“Well…all right, then.”

 

I wished she’d sounded happier about spending the time with me, but I had two days to change her mind on that.

 

In my world.

 

Not Velayo’s.

 

#

 

I spent the next four years seeing Lindsay twice or three times every year.  I must’ve almost kissed her fifty times, but I’d never gone for it.  Being afraid of rejection was new for me, but the truth is I was more afraid she’d pucker up and let me do it.  I can tell when a woman really likes me and when she’s paying her dues, however hard she tries to hide it.  I’d never cared before -- I know the rules of the game as well as they do -- but if Lindsay played that game, it would be worse than rejection. It would show me she was the same as any other woman that a few billion in the bank conjures in front of you.  Women who are slim where a woman should be slim, curved where they should be curved and way too smart to have opinions.  Lindsay did not belong on that menu.

 

I guess I was finding out how ordinary guys like women.

 

The day it all changed saw me standing on a jetty with my stomach churning pleasurably, watching a floatplane slash white spray through the placid Caribbean blue.

 

Lindsay jumped down to the jetty before I could offer her my hand.  Shows of gallantry never went well with her.

 

She stared around, looking overwhelmed. Or perhaps it was the glare of the sun off the white sand.  “This is yours?”

 

“Yup.  Just finished building the houses.  I thought you could use a change from the Arctic.”

 

The truth is that after my disastrous visit to her on the Terra Nova, I needed somewhere to meet her that was closer to her world than a New York penthouse but well away from Velayo’s calm authority.  And away from icebergs.  I couldn’t think about bergs without remembering Larsen D, and Lindsay’s talk of a slow-motion apocalypse.  Global warming was a lot less scary in a place that was supposed to be warm and if I wasn’t scared, I could feel I was winning.

 

I slipped an arm through hers and walked her toward the house.  She looked back, showing I still hadn’t got her used to leaving the help to carry her luggage.  I was working up to telling her I’d bought an island for her.  It was the sort of thing that would thrill the kind of woman who acquiesced, but I wasn’t sure what Lindsay would think.

 

“I didn’t know JD Rockefeller had an island named after him,” she said.

 

“He didn’t until I bought it.  It had some Spanish name, but rather than staying on a place named for the patron saint of something no one cares about, why not name it for the patron saint of philanthropic capitalists?”

 

“And the patron saint of energy cartels.”

 

See what I mean about women with opinions?

 

“Would you like a cocktail? The bar here’s open twenty-four-seven.”

 

I know what you’re thinking, but I hadn’t gone back to my married drinking habits.  One cocktail a day was my rule.  Until that day.

 

“What I’d like is a shower,” she said.  “Then I’d like to show you the latest climate data.  I think you’ll be excited.”

 

It wasn’t data I was most excited about but if it worked for her, it worked for me.  I left her at the door of her room and half an hour later, she reappeared in a loose-fitting blouse and pants.

 

Any other woman I’d have brought here would have been wearing a bikini -- but I’d yet to bring any other woman here and I didn’t want to.  That other woman wouldn’t have brought a tablet with her either.

 

“You’ve seen the latest temperature measurements from NOAA?”

 

Her face had that glow of enthusiasm I so loved, so I didn’t object to getting straight into it.

 

“Why don’t you start from the beginning?” Of course I hadn’t looked at the NOAA measurements.  I had a business to run.

 

She stood up the tablet.  Scientists never think you’ll believe a word they say unless they show you a graph.  I didn’t want to look at Lindsay’s graphs. I wanted to look at Lindsay.

 

“Why don’t you just tell me?” I asked.  “We can do the visual aids later.”

 

“Well, OK.” She looked straight at me, bottom lip between her teeth.  “It’s working, George.  It’s only bloody working.”

 

I leaned forward, drawn in by her excitement.

 

“Working how? Atmospheric carbon is falling?”

 

“Not exactly.  We’ve made a dent, but I can’t tell how much is us and how much is simply renewables and fracking replacing coal and oil.  Remember we’ve talked about DMS causing cloud formation? We underestimated quite how much cloud would be formed.”

 

“So?”

 

“So global temperatures are point-one-two degrees Celsius lower than they were seven years ago.”

 

“Point-one-two degrees, huh?”

 

It didn’t sound like much to me, but I didn’t want to cool her jets.

 

She must have picked up on my tone.  “That’s massive, George.  That’s more than ten percent off the rise since the eighteenth century.  Look, I can’t promise it’s all down to us but part of it has to be.  That’s way more than the usual fluctuations.”

 

“Right.”

 

“Look at it this way, if your company’s share price rose or fell by ten percent, you’d see that as significant, right?”

 

“Damn straight.”

 

“Well, there you go. George, we’ve been working towards this for seven years.  You might look a bit happier about it.” 

 

I sipped my mango juice while I absorbed that.  If she was this excited, there must be something to get excited about.  Hell, her being this excited was something to get excited about.  She was grinning wide enough to reveal her uncapped teeth.  She’d said we’d been working toward this for the last seven years, which meant she wanted to share her excitement with me.

 

That was what I’d been working toward for the last seven years.

 

“Let’s have a proper drink,” I said.  “What’s your favorite cocktail?”

 

“I don’t know.  We’re in the Caribbean, aren’t we? It should be something with rum in it.”

 

I ordered two Blackbeard’s Cutlasses, earning a quizzical look from Lindsay.

 

“Remy’s own invention,” I said.  “Try it and you’ll see why I headhunted him.”

 

“I can’t wait.  But while he’s making them, there’s something else we should talk about.”

 

“Whatever you like.”

 

“We’re starting to get noticed.  Five years of record algal blooms? People are starting to ask what’s going on.  There was an editorial in January’s PLoS Biology actually suggesting that someone might be doing what we’re doing.”

 

I’d never heard of PLoS Biology but it sounded a long way from the Wall Street Journal, so it couldn’t be important.  “So what? As long as no one knows it’s us, there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do about it.”

 

“That’s true.  But…”

 

We locked eyes. The excitement was gone, replaced by something I couldn’t place.  Against all logic, I felt hope stirring somewhere in my psyche.  Would it be too much to hope that she was about to say to me what I’d never dared say to her?

 

So of course Remy chose that moment to arrive with the Blackbeard’s Cutlasses.  She looked away and I restrained the urge to chew him out.

 

I couldn’t look away from her as she lifted her cocktail from his tray.  Remy left mine on the table and left silently.

 

She put the straw to her lips.  “Wow, this is strong.”

 

“I thought you Scots were raised on whisky with your mother’s milk.”

 

“No, that’s Irn-Bru.” It sounded like a rejoinder she was tired of having to use.

 

“You were saying?” I wanted the mood back.

 

She looked at me again.  Good sign. “I’m not sure how to put this.”

 

I leaned toward her. “Take another sip and say what you feel.”

 

“Right.” She put the glass down without taking that sip.

 

“George, it’s…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“It’s the clouds.”

 

“I’m sorry?”

 

“We’d expected to generate DMS and we’d expected the DMS to cause more cloud formation.  We hadn’t expected so much of it.  It’s redistributing rainfall from the subtropics to the tropics.”

 

“What?”

 

“You’ve seen the news. In the last year, we’ve seen floods and landslides in Bolivia and India, and there was that wildfire that burned down part of Los Angeles because they hadn’t had any rain for years…I’m saying maybe it’s our fault.”

 

“That’s what you’re saying?”

 

Whatever she was saying, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for.

 

“I know what you’re going to say.”

 

“You do?” I didn’t.

 

I needed to shut up and catch up.  I drank some Blackbeard’s Cutlass to help.  Lindsay was right.  It was strong.  I drained it and buzzed Remy for another.

 

Lindsay was still talking.  “I know we had to expect something like this.  We’re geoengineering.  We couldn’t expect to change one thing without a knock-on effect to everything else. But all those deaths, all those people who lost their homes…George, is that our fault?”

 

It took me a moment to realize it wasn’t a rhetorical question, and another moment to work out how to answer.  She was looking for reassurance from me, which meant the conversation hadn’t gone as far off track as I’d feared.

 

“No, don’t be silly. There are always floods and fires. Always will be.  That’s not on you.  Anyway, if those people in LA had anything worth sweating over losing, they’ll have insurance.”

 

I’d been using the insurance line for years, every time someone said climate change might have something to do with the latest hurricane to hit the east coast.  It wasn’t hard to adapt it to a different sort of climate change.

 

“Right.” She didn’t sound reassured.  “But the people in Bolivia and Bangladesh won’t.  And I’m not saying we invented floods and fires and landslides.  I’m saying we might have made them worse in some places.  And by keeping what we’re doing secret, we’ve denied anyone the chance to prepare for the consequences.  There’ve been fires in California before, but they’ve never burned down a Los Angeles suburb.  And what’s coming in the next few years might be worse again.  Because of us.”

 

She’d thought about this.  I couldn’t see a gap in her argument.

 

Remy got his timing right this time and appeared when I needed time to think.  He handed a Blackbeard’s Cutlass to me and put the other one beside Lindsay’s, which was still nearly full.

 

The PR playbook on climate change has an answer for a solid argument:  if you don’t have an answer, ask an unanswerable question.

 

“If we hadn’t done what we’re doing, would the consequences be better or worse?”

 

“Worse.  Definitely worse.”

 

The question hadn’t been as unanswerable as I’d thought, but she was looking less unhappy. That was the important thing.

 

“Then that’s all that matters.”

 

“I…I guess.”

 

When a cost-benefit analysis tells you that the benefits outweigh the costs, you don’t lose sleep over the costs.  If I hadn’t learned that, I’d have pissed away granddad’s business years ago.  Lindsay didn’t look like she’d learned it.  I guess she saw costs and benefits in a different currency to me.

 

I drank my second Blackbeard’s Cutlass while I gave her time to think it through.  It was enough to get a buzz going.  It didn’t take as much as it used to since I met Lindsay and cut down my drinking.  Or perhaps I was getting old.

 

Lindsay smiled and took another sip of her own drink.  “You’re right of course.  Thanks, George.  I needed to hear that.”

 

“So finish your drink. We were celebrating a minute ago. Let’s get back to that part.”

 

She drank about half of what was left.  “I can’t remember last time I had anything stronger than a couple of beers.”

 

She giggled.

 

We were getting back on track.

 

“You haven’t reported that your plan is putting an end to global warming before.  It’s worth more than a couple of beers.”

 

Her face said she was more than a couple of beers away from losing her guilt over floods and fires, but she was talking like she’d accepted they weren’t key.

 

“True enough.” She raised her glass.  “To the iron man of the Southern Ocean.”

 

I touched my glass to hers.  “To the woman who made it happen.”

 

She drained her glass. I pretended to drink as if my glass wasn’t already empty.

 

Now would have been a good moment to go for a kiss -- if only the table hadn’t been between us. After all the years I’d been working up to a moment like this, I wasn’t going let it go because of a damn table.

 

“Lindsay, will you marry me?”

 

She landed her glass on the table so hard I’m surprised it didn’t break.

 

“Think about it, it makes sense.  We’re already partners in saving the world.  Let’s be partners in life as well.”

 

“George, I…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I don’t think of you that way.  I’m sorry, I just don’t.”

 

“Give yourself time. I know it probably sounds funny coming from a guy a few years older than you.” Thirty years and change, but it was no time for math.  “You don’t have to answer now, but promise me you’ll think about it.”

 

She looked down.

 

“I was going to tell you… I’m getting married to Nestor in a few weeks.  I was… I was about to ask you to give me away.”

 

“To Nestor? Velayo?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“To give you away?” Like I was her father?

 

“Yes.  I’m sorry… I should go.”

 

I think my mouth was moving, but I don’t remember any words coming out.  It was still doing that when she left the room.

 

Velayo?

 

I was finishing the Blackbeard’s Cutlass she’d left behind when I heard the floatplane’s engine fading away, carrying my beautiful, brilliant Lindsay away from me.

 

Back to the nautical greaseball.

 

She’d left some of her first Blackbeard’s Cutlass, so I drank that too.  Finishing her drink was as close as I’d ever get to lip contact with her.

 

Seven years she’d been leading me on.  Letting me hope so I’d keep funding her project and all the time, she’d been screwing around with him.

 

I pulled out my phone and only called two wrong numbers before I got the right one.

“This is George Rush,” I said to the woman who answered.  “I need to speak to Rupert.  Give him my name.  He’ll take the call.”

 

I could hear a hum in the background.  The entourage was either in a limousine or in a Gulfstream, so I knew he’d be within reach when she put me on hold.

 

Someone’s finger must have slipped because he was still speaking to her when the canned music cut out.  I heard the rasping Australian accent saying, “…that old coffin dodger want?”

 

Coffin dodger? He was ten years older than me and internet rumors notwithstanding, I’m fairly sure he is not in fact undead.

 

“How you doing?” I asked.  “I’ve got a story for you about the California wildfires.  Someone’s made a patsy out of me, and I know how much you’re going to love putting that on your news.”

 

#

 

You know what happened next better than most.  That’s why I’m giving this to you:  you were one of the first newshounds to get your teeth into it and you’ve never completely let go.  You howled to the world how I’d been duped into screwing with the climate by Lindsay Savoy, who combined mad scientist and femme fatale in one photogenic package.

 

By the time I’d sobered up, I couldn’t have stopped it if I’d wanted to.  Rupert was having way too much fun making me look like an ass. For Rupert’s editors, it was an unusually accurate portrayal.  They got the reason wrong; they went with the patsy story I made up when I was drunk.  But what’s a guy who spends seven years waiting for a kiss he never gets if not an ass?

 

Lindsay got her five minutes of infamy and that would’ve been the end of it if California had a less ambitious state attorney.  He managed to make the trial of the century out of the wildfires that got into Los Angeles. He timed it so he had a whole year to get the conviction before the primaries.  That made me witness number one, which I hadn’t anticipated but it gave me the leverage to get her to meet me one last time.

 

None of you newsguys found out about that.  She was on bail and I had my Sunseeker off the California coast.  Meeting her broke every rule in the book, which was why I had her brought out in a power boat.  No one who didn’t work for me knew about it, and they knew they’d get something worse than a contempt charge if they talked.

 

I waited in the saloon where we first met while she thanked the hostess who led her downstairs.  I’ll say this for Lindsay, she was never less than polite.

 

Or less than beautiful, even if she had a few more grey hairs and crow’s feet than last time we’d met.  Being famous didn’t suit her.

 

She stood straight, though the boat was rolling hard enough to keep me from trying to stand at all.

 

“Drink?” I asked.

 

“No, thank --” She bit off the ‘thank you’.  Even her manners have limits.  “Looks like you’ve had enough for both of us.”

 

I couldn’t argue. I’d reverted to my married drinking habits, which did mean I didn’t get drunk as quickly as I had last time I saw her. Then again, I’d been working on it all day.

 

“Sit down.” I made it a combination of invitation and command.

 

She sat down.  What else was she going to do? She sat as far away from me as she could, perched on the edge of the couch with her hands clasped between her knees.  We were in exactly the same places we’d been when we had that first conversation about tardigrades and saving the world.

 

“How’ve you been?” I asked.

 

She snorted, as though it was funny that I’d bothered asking.

 

“I know you brought me here to beg.” She was looking at her clasped hands, not at me.  “Well, I’m begging.  I had no idea you felt… like that… about me.  If that makes me a stupid cow, then I’m a stupid cow but it’s the simple truth.”

 

“So why did you think I was spending millions of dollars on you?” I asked.

 

“I thought maybe you cared about global warming as much as I did.  Crazy idea, I know, but what do you expect from a stupid cow?” She really wasn’t good at begging.  She took a deep breath and got back on message.  “I never meant to hurt you.  And if it makes you happy, this last year has been a nightmare for me.”

 

It did make me happy.  A better man than me would be ashamed of that but, hey, it made me happy.

 

“Without you, the case collapses, right?” she asked.  “That’s why I agreed to meet you out here.”

 

“Is that what your lawyer told you?”

 

“No, she’d have kittens if she knew I was on the same ocean as you.  But I don’t think you brought me here to gloat.” She did look at me then.  “You’re better than that, George.  And what we did together -- that was better too.”

 

I looked away.  I’d wanted begging.  Snarling and raging would work too:  it would have acknowledged who held the cards in there. I hadn’t expected to be told I was any good.

 

“What we did won’t go away,” I said “We -- you -- showed fertilizing with iron works.  Others have taken over.  You know there are home insurance companies putting money into it? Crazy times.”

 

“I know, and it’s still not illegal to put iron sulfide in the ocean.  It’s just illegal for there to be any consequences in the State of California.  Consequences of burning coal and oil, that’s fine, but God forbid anyone should… oh, you know the arguments.  You practically taught them to me.”

 

I’d been drawing it out, but now was time to say what I’d brought her here to say.  “This can end here.”

 

She raised her face to me, unaware that she was showing me the emotions chasing each other across it.  She wanted to seize the hope I’d was offering her, but was wondering what the catch was. I wasn’t in a hurry for this moment to end.  It was the last time she’d be in my power.

 

“What…” She swallowed and tried again.  “What do you mean?”

 

“The case might collapse without me as a witness.  It might not. They haven’t got any of the crew to testify yet, but their word would put you away as surely as mine.”

 

“They won’t testify.”

 

“Maybe, but that’s not something to bet the house on.  So when you get back on the boat that brought you here, the driver will ask you which direction you want to go in.  He can take you back to San Francisco, back to the courtroom and probably to jail.  Or he can take you the other way.  To the horizon.  Where there’s a beautiful boat with a skipper named Velayo.”

 

Damn, it hurt to speak that name.  But where’s the value in a gift that doesn’t cost you something?

 

“It’s got two masts, a well-stocked bar and a locker holding a passport with your photo and a new name, and a numbered bank account in the British Virgin Islands that holds your pension.

 

She didn’t say anything for long enough that I decided to tell her the rest of the plan.  I’d made it while I was sober enough that it was a good one.

 

“Our over-zealous prosecutor won’t be happy, but I think my legal team can persuade him there’s no percentage in starting an international manhunt.  He can make all the outraged statements he wants about how the FBI let you get away, but he’s made this trial into his crusade so he wants it to be over before the primaries or not happen at all.  If that doesn’t persuade him, my people have the number of his cocaine dealer.”

 

“How on earth do you know that?” If she’d picked up on the least important thing, it gave me a sense of how strung out she was. 

 

“I like to know the players before I play the game.” The one time I didn’t follow that rule was when I met Lindsay.  See where that had gotten us.

 

“Why are you doing this?” I didn’t take her long to return to the important point.  That was the Lindsay I knew.

 

“Because I screwed up,” I said.  “Calling Rupert was a dumb thing to do, but I never thought it would land you in jail. This is me taking responsibility for that.  Like I said, it’s your choice which way you go.”

 

“It’s no choice at all,” she said.

 

“That’s what I thought you’d say.  I guess this is goodbye then.”

 

“Goodbye.” Lindsay stood.  “And thank you.”

 

She leaned forward and kissed my cheek.

 

I was still thinking that meant I hadn’t completely wasted the last seven years as I watched the powerboat slice a white arrow out into the Pacific.

 

That was Lindsay’s world out there.  They say if you love something, you let it go.  They don’t tell you how much it hurts, but I guess you can’t be sure you’re the good guy if it doesn’t.

 

Before you ask, I don’t know where she is.  I don’t even know the name and nationality of her new identity.  I made those plans when I was sober enough not to trust myself with that information when I’m drunk.

 

She’s gone and she’ll stay gone, so it’s time to put the record straight while I still can.  I got a quadruple bypass operation next week, but I’m a realistic kinda guy who sees an obese drunk whenever he looks in a mirror.  Maybe it’ll delay the inevitable for a year or two.  Maybe it won’t.  So now’s the time to set the record straight.

 

There’s plenty who think what she did makes her a hero, and it wouldn’t be right to let her get all the credit.  Without me, it would never have been more than an idea that the scientists didn’t have the money or the balls to do.  It was me who made it happen.  Maybe we crossed a couple lines, but look at the results.  No more global warming, if I understand my climate guys right.

 

Oh, don’t be naïve. Who’s going to put me in court? I won’t have to depend on a public defender like Lindsay did.  I got the best legal team money can buy, and then there’s a certain presidential candidate’s coke dealer.  You get that for free, but here’s my guess:  it won’t hit your front page until next week.  The stuff about me and Lindsay is gonna come first and then, when everyone’s talking about her trial again, the guy leading the polls gets to have a real bad day.

 

There won’t exactly be a queue of prosecutors wanting to put me in court once they work out it came from me.  If there’s one attorney in America who doesn’t have a secret, I’ll take my chances that it won’t be any of the ones I’ll run into.  As a fallback, I must be due for a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s by now, right? Anyone who takes the wrong kind of interest will find me unfit to be questioned, let alone to stand trial.  That’s plenty to keep me out of court for a year or two.

 

So you write what you like but as you’re writing it, look up at the sky once in a while.  Think about all that carbon that isn’t in it.  Because of me.  And remind yourself that you’re writing about the iron man of the Southern Ocean.

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Nice contribution to the contest! Its plot is really on topic with a couple of individuals making a difference, improving the future for all. 
For the purpose of the contest it does not "get to the (EA) point quickly," with most of the focus being on the relationship between the main characters.  (I also personally think it's a bad idea to encourage individuals geoengineering, so I wouldn't endorse this entry)
But it was both a good story with a unique themes, plot, and protagonist. I enjoyed reading from George's perspective. I thought it was well-written and realistic. It is not inherently emotionally compelling to dump iron sulfide in the ocean, but you made it dramatic and daring to take actions which do the most good for the planet. Well done!

The scene at the end seems unreasonable. I initially brushed it off as "they spent 7 years together" but he betrayed her; sabotaged everything that is meaningful to her; and she opts to leave her entire life behind in order to escape. That is not some paradise boat ride into the sunset, that is losing her friends, family, income, home, life's-work, everything. I don't think she would kiss him in that moment, especially when he hasn't made any sacrifices or amends. Why does she like him now?  Lacking another explanation, I am parsing it as wish-fulfillment for the reader. I am also reading her actions as a message to the audience to forgive him. Both of which I dislike. I do not know if these interpretations are what you intended.

I especially like the part where Lindsay is worried about the secondary effects of what they are doing (fires, floods). I thought it was a great lifelike application of EA values in a non-theoretical setting:
"If we hadn’t done what we’re doing, would the consequences be better or worse?" 
"When a cost-benefit analysis tells you that the benefits outweigh the costs, you don’t lose sleep over the costs. [...]  I guess she saw costs and benefits in a different currency to me."

I'm new to the EA forums and not very familiar with the proper writing etiquette here, so apologies if I am responding improperly. I wanted to provide some feedback for this story since it obviously was written with care and has gotten a harsh reception thusfar without any explanation provided.