Arctic Fire: Chapter One

 

Nunavutmut tunngasugitsi!”

Gravel and a thin layer of snow crunched under Jack’s boots, and he cursed himself as he stepped onto the runway at the Arctic Bay Airport. He’d completely blanked on learning the basics of Inuktitut. He’d been told most people in Nunavut spoke English as well, but he’d always found a few phrases in the native tongue could go a long way.

He hurried away from the turbo prop plane so he wasn’t blocking the handful of passengers behind him. “Thank you,” he said with a smile, guessing that the older Inuit man had surely offered some kind of greeting.

Head high, the stout man saluted. “Welcome, Captain Turner. I’m Master Corporal Donald Onartok.”

“Good to meet you.” He saluted and then shook the man’s callused hand, shivering as the wind whipped across the airfield. His nostrils already tingled from the dry, cold air. “No coat?” Jack wore his dark camo parka, which came to mid-thigh over his matching pants.

Onartok waved a hand. “It’s only minus seven. Still balmy in October.” He wore the Canadian Ranger uniform: black combat boots, camo pants in the same dark pattern as Jack’s, red hooded sweatshirt, and red baseball cap—both with insignia. He yanked on a pair of gloves and hitched his thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll give you the tour. Won’t take long.”

The terminal was a small one-story rectangle raised off the ground and painted in gray and light blues. Satellite dishes and antennas pointed to the cloudless sky, and as Jack fell into step, he had to shield his eyes with his hand. The sun reflecting off the snow made it as bright as the desert outside Kabul. “Shouldn’t have packed my sunglasses.”

“Sun’ll be down in an hour or so, but you can get them from your bag before we head off.”

Jack checked his multipurpose watch. It was only fifteen hundred, but the sun was indeed sinking toward the horizon. The temperature gauge was in Fahrenheit and read nineteen degrees. “Where’s Sergeant Carsen?” He hoped he’d remembered the name correctly from glancing at the briefing package.

“Still at school. He teaches.”

“Thanks for coming to get me. What do you do?”

“Hunt and fish.” When Onartok smiled, his teeth gleamed and his narrow-set eyes almost disappeared. “You gave me an excuse to take the afternoon off. My wife couldn’t argue with going to pick up an army VIP.”

Jack resisted the urge to snort. VIP. More like a fuck-up the brass didn’t know what to do with. Maybe he should have taken early retirement after all. At least he would have avoided ridiculous assignments like this one.

Inside the terminal there were more handshakes and greetings from the handful of people there. Before climbing into Onartok’s pickup truck, Jack fished out his sunglasses and gloves from his duffel and double checked that his weapons case was secure.

“This is the only highway in Nunavut,” Onartok noted as they turned out of the airport.

Jack blinked at the snow-dusted dirt road, which had no right to be called a highway. “This goes to Nanisivik?”

“That’s right. It’s the only road in Nunavut connecting two communities. I guess Nanisivik isn’t a community no more since no one lives there. It was a company town. That means all the houses and buildings were built by the mine. Dismantled it all when they left.”

Jack knew what a company town was, but didn’t say so. “They mined lead there, right?”

“And zinc and silver. It was the first mine north of the Arctic Circle. They closed it in 2002 when the metal prices fell too far. Now it’s just the port. The navy was supposed to turn it into a base, but then they changed their minds. Cutbacks, you know. They’re still supposed to make it a refueling station for the navy ships in summer, but nothing’s happened yet.” He laughed nervously. “Sorry. I reckon you already know all this.”

“No, no. I want to hear your perspective. From what I understand, the navy plans call for a glorified gas station.” The army was hatching plans of its own, of course—plans that would very likely come to nothing, just as the navy’s had.

As the curving road came around a cliff, the sparkling bay appeared to the left, and a signpost to the right. It was in English with Inuktitut symbols beneath.

No liquor beyond this point without a permit

Jack sighed internally. He’d been traveling for ten hours, and he’d really been looking forward to a cold beer. He thought of the folder of information on Arctic Bay and Nanisivik that Colonel Fournier had given him, which surely mentioned it was a dry town.

He’d procrastinated all week and promised himself he’d read the briefing on the plane, but he’d slept instead. Considering he’d had a four-hour layover in Iqaluit after the early flight from Ottawa, he had no excuse. Particularly since he’d spent the time playing a stupidly addictive fishing game on his tablet.

But it was fine—he’d get up to speed tonight in his hotel room. It wasn’t as though there would be anything else to do. “How many people live here?” he asked, since he should try to make conversation.

“Eight hundred and twenty-three last they counted. But I reckon the number’s gone up a bit. I know it has by at least one since my third son was born.”

Jack smiled on cue. “Congratulations. What’s his name?”

“Ipiktok. It means sharp. Smart, I mean. Brainy.”

“That’s a good name.”

“My wife wanted to go traditional. A lot of babies have old names these days. And Arctic Bay is Ikpiarjuk. It means the pocket. You’ll see there are cliffs on three sides.”

Beneath the windswept patches of snow, the barren red-rock landscape was hilly and dominated by flat-topped cliffs. Jack couldn’t see any vegetation or even topsoil. Might as well be the fucking moon.

As the town itself appeared, things didn’t improve much. Arctic Bay was a collection of mostly single-story prefabricated houses, many painted light blue or dark red. He guessed there were about a hundred small buildings clustered together by the shore. Walking from one end of town to the other couldn’t take more than ten minutes.

“So this is it,” Onartok said as they drove down toward the water. He glanced over expectantly.

“Looks great,” Jack lied.

“I’ll take you to the hotel, and Sergeant Carsen will be along soon.”

Jack smiled and nodded as he took in his home for the next five days. This whole trip was a waste of time, but at least it got him out from behind a desk pushing pointless paper. He’d told himself it would be a welcome break, although it wasn’t as if Colonel Fournier had given him a choice.

He could still hear Etienne’s disappointed sigh, his mouth turned down as he clasped his hands together on his desk.

“Something needs to give, Jack. I know it’s hard to transition. But you seem distracted here. I think it’ll do you good to get back in the field.”

“Going on a tour with Arctic reservists isn’t getting back in the field. They aren’t even real army.”

“They’re all we’ve got up there, and they know that land. You just might learn something. We’re getting out of the Middle East—time to focus closer to home.”

But what was the point? If the Russians wanted to invade the Arctic, a few weekend warriors couldn’t stop them. Even with the waning sunlight glittering prettily on the partly frozen bay, this place was a wasteland, and a fucking freezing one at that. Ottawa was bad enough, and Jack could only shudder to think what it would be like here on the north end of Baffin Island in the winter.

On the upside, at least there was no goddamned sand.

The Siqiniq Hotel was a wide brown prefab rectangle that couldn’t house more than ten tiny rooms. He’d seen fancier mud huts in Afghanistan, but as long as it was clean he didn’t care. As Jack climbed out of the truck, he peered at the small posts that lifted the structure a few feet off the ground. He noticed all the buildings were similarly hoisted. “Why is everything lifted?” It was so dry in the high Arctic it couldn’t be to prevent flooding.

“Permafrost,” Onartok answered as he scooped up Jack’s duffel from the back of the pickup. “If buildings sit right on the ground, the heat from inside will melt the top layer. They’ll sink.”

“Ah. No basements in Nunavut, I guess.” Jack reached for his bag and extended his hand. “Thanks again.”

“My pleasure, Captain.” Onartok shook his hand and nodded. “There’s Susan. She’ll take good care of you.”

A middle-aged woman appeared from the door of the hotel. “This must be Captain Turner. Tunngasugitsi. Welcome.”

Her dark hair was pulled into a ponytail, and she had the tan skin of most Inuit Jack had met. He followed her inside. She grabbed a key from behind a little front desk area and pointed to a room that opened up off to the right.

“This is the dining room. Dinner will be served starting at six. Breakfast is at seven, and lunch at noon.”

Inside there were six square tables with four chairs each and a TV up in the corner. No-smoking signs sat on the shiny metal napkin dispensers. A group of teenagers clustered around a table drinking coffee. They peered at him curiously but said nothing.

Susan led the way down a brightly lit corridor. Jack counted six rooms all together on either side of the hall, and his was at the end. There were two beds across from the door, both narrow doubles with a small bedside table and lamp between them. Susan went to the gold lamp and turned the switch, sending a warm glow over the brown carpet through the lampshade. On the pale oak dresser beside the door to the left sat a flat-screen TV. A bathroom was also to the left.

“Thank you, Susan. This is great.” The room was neat and clean, and although a hint of must remained, he suspected it had been aired out earlier in the day. He’d certainly laid his head in far worse places. A memory of a scorpion scuttling across his blanket in a dusty tent in the desert flashed through his mind.

“Would you like coffee?” she asked.

“No, just some water. Can I drink from the tap?”

“Yes, it’s safe. There are glasses in the bathroom.”

A thought occurred to Jack. “If there’s permafrost, where does the water come from?”

Susan went to the window and drew back one side of the heavy burgundy drapes, which were half open. She pointed. “Water tank and sewage tank. The town fills the water and collects the other. The water comes from a lake nearby. Don’t worry, it’s chlorinated before they put it in the tank.”

“No problem.”

“We do ask that you try to conserve water and not take long showers. If the water truck breaks down or the driver gets sick, we can run out.”

“Of course.”

She smiled and backed toward the door. “The wifi password is on the card on the dresser. I hope you enjoy your stay.”

He thanked her and dropped his parka on one bed before sitting on the other nearest the bathroom. The mattress felt thick enough, and the bedsprings only creaked a little. The stiff bedspread was mottled pinks and burgundy in a square pattern, and the walls were painted in a pink-toned beige.

Jack went to the window and peered out at what he could see of Arctic Bay, which at this point in the day was shadowed low buildings and lights flickering on. He could only glimpse the bay itself, which was shrouded in darkness now.

The compact bathroom had a toilet, sink and bathtub with shower. Jack rolled up the sleeves of his green combat sweater and splashed his face with water, careful to turn the taps off quickly. He winced at the dark smudges under his eyes.

Any hint of the tan he’d had in Afghanistan was long gone from his pale skin. He dried his face on a thin towel and drank a small glass of water. His short blond hair was sticking up, and he patted it down before giving up. Who the hell was he going to be impressing in this place? Fuck his hair.

On the bed, he pulled the briefing folder from his duffel and sat back against the headboard.

Time to focus.

The problem was that after two paragraphs of a report on the viability of the deep-water port at Nanisivik, his mind returned with the faithfulness of a dog to the bomb-cratered stretch of tarmac slicing through the desert, just beyond a mountain pass. He rubbed his eyes and started the next paragraph, but the words on the page faded away.

He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, wishing he could spit out the constant grit on his tongue. Even in the G-Wagon with the windows rolled up and AC blasting, sweat dampened his hair under his helmet. In the driver’s seat beside him, Corporal Gagnon nattered on about his girlfriend back in Montreal.

“So then she says we’ve grown apart. Va chier! I thought she was the one. Said she’d wait while I was over here.” He snorted. “Didn’t even make it a year. You know—”

In the sudden silence, Jack asked, “Know what?” He glanced at Gagnon, who sat up straighter, peering intently through the windshield.

Jack tensed. “What is it?”

From the backseat, Grant said, “Is that a kid?”

He jumped at the knock on the door and shoved the scattered papers back into the folder. The door was so light it felt hollow as he opened it. A man waited on the other side wearing a Ranger uniform. He was young and what Jack’s mother would call “strapping.” Jack cleared his throat.

“Sergeant Carsen?”

The man nodded and saluted.

Jack returned the salute and shook Carsen’s hand. “Come in.” Jack stepped aside and closed the door. “So…”

Carsen shifted from foot to foot. “Yes, sir?” His voice was low.

“You’re the leader of the Arctic Bay Ranger…group?” That much he knew, but he had nothing else to say. He felt like a kid who hadn’t done his homework. He supposed that’s exactly what he was, which was pathetic given he was thirty-six.

“Yes. The Arctic Bay Patrol.”

“Right, patrol.” Jack waved a hand. “That’s what I meant. Well, excellent. Uh…” Jack’s mind was still blank. Carsen waited, his red baseball cap shadowing his stubbled face. He was just about the same height as Jack, around six feet, yet his quiet presence seemed to fill the room. “And how many people are in your patrol?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“Excellent,” Jack repeated. Jesus, I should know this. “Should we eat? Oh, speaking of which, I brought some chocolate bars if you want any.” He opened his duffel and rooted around. “I heard how expensive everything is up here. There are a few Twix, and Crispy Crunch, and let’s see…” He glanced back to find Carsen watching impassively. “Do you have a favorite?”

After a few moments, Carsen asked, “Have a Coffee Crisp?”

Jack fished for a yellow wrapper and handed it over. “Here you go.”

Carsen didn’t meet his gaze. “Thank you.” He slipped the bar into the front pocket of his hoodie and cleared his throat. “Uh, dinner should be on now, sir.”

The teenagers in the dining room were gone, replaced by two tables of turtlenecked people having a spirited conversation in German. Jack nodded to them, relieved that Carsen chose the table farthest away from the tourists, although the small dining room didn’t offer much escape. A teenaged girl appeared, smiling widely.

“Hi, Mr. Carsen. Can I get you a drink?”

Carsen smiled back. “A ginger ale. Thanks, Sedna.”

“I’ll have a ginger ale too,” Jack said.

Sedna nodded. “Tonight there are fish and chips, or caribou meatballs.”

Jack didn’t have to think about it. “I’ll try the caribou.”

“Fish and chips,” Carsen said.

She hurried back with their ginger ales, placing the cans on the table along with glasses half full of ice and straws in paper wrappers.

When she was gone, Jack asked, “Is she one of your students?”

“Yes.” Carsen removed his cap and ran a hand through his short, glossy brownish-black hair.

Jack peeled the paper off his straw and studied Carsen surreptitiously. His nose was thin and lips full. Most strikingly his eyes were a pale steel gray. Carsen dropped his straw into his glass and poured in part of his can. The pop bubbled up to the rim of the glass before evaporating.

“Did you grow up here?”

Carsen blinked. “Don’t you have a file on me?”

“Yes, but…I’d still like to hear it from you.” Aside from the fact that he hadn’t done his prep, Jack realized he also hadn’t made small talk in a long time.

Carsen spoke with measured tones. “I was born and raised here. I went to university in Edmonton.”

“And you actually came back?” Jack joked lamely. “You must really love the cold.”

For a long moment, Carsen stared before dropping his gaze to the Formica tabletop. “I suppose I do.” He traced the line of a faint crack with his fingertip.

Jack cleared his throat. “What do you teach?”

“English, history and geography. I arranged to have the rest of the week off for your visit, but there was a test today I couldn’t reschedule.”

“No problem. It was great to meet Ronald. I look forward to meeting the rest of your patrol as well.”

“Donald.”

“Right. Of course.” Christ, he couldn’t remember shit these days. He hadn’t even brought his dog tags although he was technically in the field. Well, at least with so few people around if he bought it on the tundra he’d be easy to identify.

The silence drew out, and Jack played with his straw. He wished he was back in Ottawa eating a frozen dinner in front of the TV where he couldn’t disappoint anyone but himself. He was relieved to spot Sedna approaching with plates. “Here’s the food.”

Jack’s meatballs came with fries and coleslaw, and he dug in with gusto. If he was eating, he couldn’t squeeze his foot into his mouth as well. After a minute he said, “This caribou is delicious.” He took another bite of the lean, finely textured meat. “It reminds me of venison.”

“Yes. There’s a similarity.”

“What kind of fish is that?” Jack asked. The Germans had gotten their meals as well, and the dining room was silent but for the scrape of cutlery on plates and muffled chewing.

“Turbot. It’s also known as Greenland halibut.”

“I guess you catch it around here?” What an incisive observation. He scooped up some coleslaw.

“Yes.”

“So what’s up with the booze restriction? You can’t drink at all here?”

“Only for special events.”

“Oh.” Jack waited for Carsen to say more. When he didn’t, Jack prompted, “So how does it work?”

“You can apply for a permit, and it has to be approved by the alcohol education committee. It doesn’t happen often. Of course there are bootleggers, though. If you’d brought Jack Daniels instead of chocolate you could have turned a nice profit.”

Jack smirked. “I bet. Isn’t it punishment enough to live up here without having to be sober the entire time?”

Sitting up straighter, Carsen didn’t smile. “Most of us don’t consider it a punishment.”

“No, no, of course not. I just meant…” What? “I was just kidding,” he finished lamely. Jesus, it almost felt like he was on a bad date. Not that he’d been on a date of any variety in God knew how long. Silence stretched out, and Jack wracked his so-called brain for something to say that wasn’t insulting. “Are you married?”

Carsen’s expression remained flat as he studied his plate. “No. You?”

“No.” Jack dragged a fry through a splotch of ketchup. “Must be hard dating here with so few people. If you don’t find the right person…” Not that I’ve had better luck with a bigger population pool. Grant’s face flickered in his mind, and Jack shoved it away. He tried to think of some other questions to ask. “Do your parents live here too?”

“My mother. She was born and raised here. My father’s a miner from Alberta. Moved there from Scotland to work in the oil sands. He came up here to Nanisivik for a few seasons.”

Jack waited for him to say more, but Carsen cut off another piece of breaded fish and chewed slowly. Jack finished his meatballs and grabbed a paper napkin from the dispenser on the table. The Germans were chattering again.

“Do you get many tourists here?”

“Some. More in summer.” Carsen finished his last fry. “What time do you want to start in the morning?”

Great question. It would help if I knew what the hell we’re doing. “Whatever time you think is best. Breakfast’s at zero-seven-hundred. Unless you want to start earlier?”

“No. Have breakfast first.”

“Refresh my memory—where are we going tomorrow?”

Carsen regarded Jack evenly. “Why are you here?”

Another fine question. “They didn’t tell you?”

“No. They told me to take you out on patrol and to the mine. Show you around the area, and show you what Rangers do.” He wiped his mouth with his napkin and folded it with a neat crease. “Did they tell you?”

Jack smiled tightly, fidgeting at the way Carsen seemed to see right through him. “Of course.” He glanced at the Germans and lowered his voice. “They’re considering a permanent training base in the area.” That much he did know at least. “Our soldiers are trained for the desert, but not the Arctic. We have to plan for the future.”

Carsen’s smooth brow furrowed. “Permanent? But the government backed out of the naval base. We were glad of it.”

“Why’s that?”

“It wasn’t going to do anything for our community. They wouldn’t allow cruise ships to use the port. No money coming into Arctic Bay, and probably a negative impact on hunting and the environment. We were relieved when they backed off.”

“Look, honestly? This whole trip is a waste of time. As much is going to come from this as it did from the grand plans for a naval base at the old mine. I’ll make a report, and a bunch of committees in Ottawa will examine it, and in the end they won’t have the budget for it anyway. So it doesn’t really matter.”

After a long moment, Carsen said, “Fair enough.” He finished his ginger ale with a loud slurp through his straw. “I’ll meet you outside at seven-thirty tomorrow. We’re going on patrol. Unless you want to just skip it.”

He was sorely tempted. “No, of course not. We have to go through the motions.” He grimaced. “It’s a pain.”

“Do you know how to dress for patrol?”

“Warmly, I imagine.”

Carsen’s smile was sharp. “Indeed. We’ll be out for two nights. I have all the equipment. Wear layers.”

“Arctic camping trip, huh?” Terrific. “Layers it is.”

Carsen stood up and pushed in his chair. “I assume Ottawa’s paying for dinner.” He raised his hand to his forehead in a salute.

“Yes, of course.” Jack moved to stand, but Carsen was already striding from the dining room. Jack watched him go with a sigh. This would be a fun few days of awkward silences and stilted conversation.

Sedna returned, and Jack gave her a twenty dollar tip and told her to charge the meal to his hotel bill. She beamed, and he felt a little better as he returned to his room. Still, he cringed as he replayed dinner with Sergeant Carsen over and over in his mind as he sat on his bed and tried to finally read the briefing package. Way to make a great first impression.

“What do I care what this guy thinks of me?” He sighed, realizing Neville wasn’t there to listen to him with head cocked, as if everything Jack said was endlessly fascinating. He supposed it was in a pug’s mind. “Okay. Time to focus. And stop talking to myself.”

He scanned the file on Carsen. Kinguyakkii Carsen. Thirty-three years old. Unmarried. One of the youngest Ranger sergeants in the service. Teacher. There wasn’t much there. Jack flipped through the papers, but that was all the info he had on Carsen. He went back to the report on the navy’s aborted plans for a base at Nanisivik, yet every few minutes he eyed Carsen’s file as if he expected new words to have appeared.

When he switched off the light to rack out, he found himself staring at the ceiling, listening to the rumble of German vibrating through the thin walls. He replayed his entire encounter with Carsen once again through his mind, thinking of everything he should have said and done differently. He was a captain for fuck’s sake. This assignment might be a waste of time, but it was no excuse to show up unprepared.

He’d been phoning it in for months at his desk in Ottawa, and it was time to get his shit together. He may not want to be here on this Godforsaken hunk of rock and ice, but he would do his job, and do it well. He owed Etienne that much. Hell, he owed himself that much, not to mention the people of Arctic Bay.

Tomorrow he’d make nice with Carsen and try to un-fuck the lousy impression he’d undoubtedly made. He just needed to get through the next few days with a minimum of stress and bullshit.

And then what? Back to Ottawa and pushing paper?

Sergeant Carsen’s unflinching gray gaze filled his mind again, refusing to leave. But as Jack drifted off, memories of a sun-soaked desert road and too-quiet morning stayed away, and that was something.

Copyright © Keira Andrews

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