“Doomsday? No, no, no. That’s a gross exaggeration, a scary catchword cooked up by another disaster salesman like yourself. You journalists just can’t help yourselves.”
Senator Colt Sheridan, R-Montana, fat-cat wheat farmer and presidential hopeful, remained annoyingly fresh and full of himself after the nearly nine hour flight from Washington,
D.C to Longyearbyen, Norway. Dinah Pelerin shifted uncomfortably in her front-row seat and tried not to groan out loud. Three speakers had delivered their remarks and sat down, but the gentleman from Montana gave no sign that he was ready to cede the podium. He had spoken for over twenty minutes and now he was fielding questions from the media while Dinah shivered from the cold.
The disaster salesman was undaunted. “So this trip isn’t because you’re worried about an agricultural Armageddon?”
“It’s about international cooperation.” Senator Sheridan spared the man a pitying shake of his head, as if resigned to the deliberate stupidity of the media, and his eyes returned to the cluster of TV cameras and the home audience that mattered. His practiced smile radiated reasonableness and sincerity. “It’s about insuring the continuation of the finest wheat crop on the face of God’s earth, Montana red. It’s about American leadership and making sure that American moms never have to send their kids off to school without their favorite cereal.”
A large assemblage of Norwegian government officials, members of the Alliance to Rescue Civilization, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, concerned scientists, and interested citizens crowded into the harshly lit, inhumanly cold arrival lounge of the Svalbard-Longyearbyen Airport to welcome the U.S. dignitaries who had brought with them an assortment of seeds for storage in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It was popularly known as the “Doomsday Vault” whether Senator Sheridan liked it or not. He had brought a box of Montana winter red wheat berries to be added to the nearly twenty million seed varieties already on deposit inside the fortress-like facility on the frozen Arctic island of Spitsbergen. He had also brought his Norwegian-born wife Erika and his fellow Republican and best buddy in the Congress, Senator Whitney Keyes of Massachusetts.
Senator Keyes lounged in a chair behind Sheridan and projected a genial but dignified reserve. With his elegantly tailored suit, his mane of luxuriant dark hair, and his just-off-the-yacht élan, he reeked of privilege and Ivy League prestige. Keyes was a fiscal conservative and a vocal proponent of tax cuts, industry deregulation, and small government. But the normally liberal voters of Massachusetts had been won over by his Kennedyesque appearance, his moderate views on social issues, and his record of generosity to the poor and underprivileged. Following his marriage to the widow and heiress of a billionaire British oil magnate, the senator had founded a charitable organization dedicated to building nutrition and health centers in third world countries. It was he who had arranged this event in Longyearbyen, presumably to showcase Senator Sheridan’s commitment to safeguarding the world’s food supply and to soften his somewhat jingoistic image. Senator Keyes had brought with him a box of New England pumpkin seeds and a dewy-eyed intern from Boston named Tipton Teilhard III who looked like he was twelve years old.
The third member of the delegation, Senator Norris Frye, D-Hawaii, had not volunteered for the mission. He had been deep sea fishing off the coast of Maui when President Obama, eager to show that the Democrats also care about international cooperation and insuring the variety of children’s cereal products, called him to service. Nursing a painful flareup of gout and an all-too-apparent sense of imposition, Senator Frye had brought offshoots of the rare Hawaiian hapai banana and, in the absence of a qualified botanist willing to leave sunny Hawaii and pop off to the North Pole in late December, he’d brought Dinah. She had been tapped as his “technical consultant”—in case anyone had the bad manners to ask him a question about bananas. At least, that was the story Senator Frye believed and it was Dinah’s job to make sure he kept on believing it.
For the past six months, Dinah had been studying ethnobotany at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, focused on the complex relationships between ancient Polynesian cultures and the plants they cultivated and on a complex romantic relationship with the nephew of her department head, Eleanor Kalolo. A full-blooded Hawaiian with a passion for preserving endangered native plant species, Eleanor harbored a deep suspicion of the Seed Savers Exchange managers who had been pestering her to send her prized collection of heirloom seeds to Svalbard for safekeeping. She didn’t relish the idea of storing her agricultural heritage on foreign soil inside of a frozen mountain and under the control of people she didn’t know and couldn’t keep tabs on. But as founder and chairwoman of the Native Peoples’ Horticultural Cooperative, she felt it was her duty to learn what this Doomsday Vault was all about, which was where Dinah came in. Eleanor didn’t travel. The mountain—or else a first-hand report on the mountain by someone she trusted—would have to come to her. “You find out if these Seed Saver know-it-alls who want my samples will keep their promise to protect them,” she’d said in a voice of rumbling command. “Senator Frye has asked me to give him a special cultivar from my collection to donate on behalf of the Hawaiian Seed Savers Exchange and he wants to take along somebody who knows something about it. I’m gonna give him you. You’ll be my plant. You can tell me if this crazy ice cave in Norway is on the up-and-up.”
A visit to the North Pole in the middle of winter had sounded slightly mad to Dinah, but mad at just the right moment. She needed a jolt of something different. Island living had lately made her feel lazy and hemmed in and her entanglement with Eleanor’s marriage-minded nephew had begun to feel…well, entangling. She’d turned thirty-two in October. Time was scorching past and she hadn’t done half the things she wanted to do. She wanted to return to her first loves—archaeology and mythology and world travel. She wanted to discover the ruins of a lost city, or rescue some storied relic from a careless farmer’s plow, or record the last speaker of a dying language. This trip would give her time to think and decide whether to unmoor herself from Hawaii and sail on, or trim her sails and her dreams and settle down. She’d bought a book of ancient Norse myths and legends to re-inspire her and she was looking forward to learning about the famous Svalbard Seed Vault.
She didn’t expect to uncover any defect in the vault or misconduct in its management. The local people who’d been soliciting Eleanor’s seeds may have rubbed her the wrong way, but Norway was renowned for its cleanliness, efficiency, high ethical standards, and commitment to world peace. Moreover, it stood to reason that a U.S. presidential candidate wouldn’t make a highly publicized trip to declare his support for the project if it hadn’t been carefully vetted. She would play her part as Senator Frye’s assistant and, when the opportunity arose, ask a few questions about the reliability of the vault’s new cryopreservation chamber, which was supposed to maintain unorthodox seeds like bananas at ultra-low temperatures to prevent them from drying out and losing viability, and she would inquire discreetly about the bona fides of the vault’s managers. Other than that, there would be little for her to do except read and think.
It crossed her mind that Eleanor wasn’t concerned about her seeds at all. Not the plant variety, anyway. She wanted Dinah to marry her nephew, Jon, and have babies. She’d probably sensed Dinah’s restlessness and packed her off on this boondoggle to give her time to reconsider Jon’s proposal of marriage. But Dinah had been reflecting on the dubious blessings of marriage since she was ten years old. She came from a family where the marriages tended to be ill-starred, contentious, and short. If she had inherited any of her mother’s characteristics—and it was already pretty clear she’d inherited the restless gene—Jon would be well advised to retract his offer and give her a pass.
Having grown up in the sultry heat of southeast Georgia and stuck to places with a mild climate, Dinah had no serious cold weather experience. Eleanor had given her a few hundred dollars to outfit herself for the Arctic, and during her layover in Washington she’d gone shopping for cold weather gear. She’d bought a navy wool pea jacket with chichi red buttons, a pair of fur-lined winter boots, wool gloves, wool socks, and a raffish ski cap with earflaps and two long, braided tassels. She’d felt cheerful and ready for her adventure at the top of the world. And then she stepped off the airplane in Svalbard into the thirteen-degrees-below-zero Polar Night and her enthusiasm shriveled. The cold hadn’t quelled Senator Sheridan’s enthusiasm. He gestured behind him to the American and Norwegian flags mounted side by side. “It’s not just my hope, it’s my promise to forge better working relationships and broader cooperation among the nations of the world. We can learn a lot from each other. I’d like the folks watching back home in America to know why it is that little Norway can afford to build this extraordinary vault for the benefit of future generations. Norway isn’t the richest country in Europe for nothing. Its trillion dollar surplus comes from offshore drilling and it’s time we in the United States stop dragging our feet and start drilling more wells off our shores.” A reporter in full-length fur coat raised his hand.
Senator Sheridan recognized him with a confident wave. “Yes, sir. In the second row.”
The man stood. “There is currently a trade gap between the U.S. and Norway. You import more from us than you export. Do you advocate stiffer trade restrictions?”
“No way. I’m a strong advocate for free trade, always have been. I’ve helped to enact some of the least restrictive agreements between the U.S. and its trading partners, including Norway. If elected president—”
Dinah tuned out the oratory. She had an inherent distrust of politicians. There were those who would say she had an inherent distrust of everyone, but politicians had proven themselves to be particularly untrustworthy. Even so, Senator Sheridan was an undeniably handsome man with a boyish energy and a disarming, down-to-earth manner when he wasn’t politicking. On the flight over, he had told a funny anecdote about doing jumping jacks to keep warm while waiting for the school bus during the bitter cold Montana winters. Dinah wished he’d lighten up and lead the people freezing their behinds off here today in a few jumping jacks.
“Do you advocate gene modification?” The reporter who’d needled him about an agricultural Armageddon cut in without being recognized. He was a scruffy character with an accent that rose at the end of every sentence, which made him sound angry, and a press badge that read “Dagbladet,” which looked like a swear word. He had a long, lupine face with pock-marked cheeks and wild, Einstein hair. “American companies have applications pending to sell their patented genetically modified grains to Norway. Are you here to promote those applications?”
Sheridan’s eyes narrowed. “I’m here to donate unmodified Montana wheat seeds to the Svalbard repository. But global population is outpacing food production. With seven billion mouths to feed already, genetically modified foods may be one way to achieve food security.”
“That sounds like an advertisement for Tillcorp Industries,” goaded the reporter. “Tillcorp is one of the biggest contributors to your campaign and they’ve made selling their genetically engineered products a major goal in Europe and the rest of the world. Are you here to spread international cooperation and good will or mainly to advocate for Tillcorp?”
A disapproving murmur rippled through the ranks of the government officials seated on a makeshift stage behind the podium. The minister of agriculture thrust out his lips and glowered. Whitney Keyes darted a sharp look over the tops of his half-moon glasses. Norris Frye, whose gout-inflamed toes had kept him in bedroom slippers and off the stage, sat up smartly on Dinah’s left, all ears.
Senator Sheridan glared at the reporter. “What’s your name, fella?”
“Aagaard. Brander Aagaard.”
“Well, you can put this in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Brander Aagaard. Colt Sheridan advocates for the hard-working farmers of this world. He advocates for responsible research and development that’ll make our staple crops resistant to disease and pests and for policies that’ll keep global markets stable and predictable.” The agriculture minister stood up and applauded as if that concluded the program. Looking ill at ease, the other officials followed his lead and so did the senators. Dinah joined in. Her fingers felt like icicles, at risk of breaking off with each clap, and she was increasingly desperate for a visit to the ladies’ room. She noticed that Erika Sheridan, who sat primly on her right, was also showing signs of impatience. Her curtain of blond hair hid her face as she stared into her lap and worried her wedding ring. Twenty-five years ago, Erika had been the lead singer for Fata Morgana, the hottest rock group in Europe in the ‘80s. On the long flight over the North Atlantic, she and Dinah had played numerous games of gin and Crazy Eights and Erika had talked about her life before and after Colt Sheridan. They had met while he was a Rhodes scholar living in Oxford and, after a whirlwind romance, she left Fata to follow him to Montana. The way she hid her face and fidgeted with her rings made Dinah wonder if she was completely on board with her husband’s presidential ambitions.
When the applause died, the agriculture minister, a big, beefy man with lips like sausage links, cleared his throat significantly. “Well said, Senator Sheridan. We are all in agreement on these matters. Stable markets. Research. Yes, and now I’m sure that Senator Sheridan and his party are weary from their long journey and anxious to be shown to their hotel.”
Senator Keyes extended his hand to the agriculture minister. “Thank you, Herr Dybdahl. We appreciate this warm reception here in the Kingdom of Norway and look forward to more substantive discussions with you and your cabinet at the dinner tonight.” He nodded deferentially to Sheridan. “Do you have anything you’d like to add, Senator Sheridan?”
Sheridan waved an arm across the audience. “If there are no more questions…”
“I’ve got one,” said Aagaard. “Tillcorp can buy genetic deregulation in the U.S. simply by donating to you Congress people. Is the fix in for them to have free access to experiment with American seeds stored here in Norway?”
“What do you mean, ‘the fix’? There’s no fix here. Not anywhere.” Sheridan appealed to the sensible people watching him on TV back in America. “My vote’s not for sale. Never has been, never will be.”
“If you’re not lobbying for Tillcorp, why did you bring the president of Tillcorp and his lawyer with you on your plane?”
“How the…?” Sheridan scowled and a note of uncertainty crept into his voice “You’re way out of line, fella. I’m here at the invitation of the Norwegian Government. To do my part, to do my country’s part to guarantee the planet’s food security.” He turned angry eyes to the row of ministers behind him, as if to demand that somebody give this rabblerouser the heave-ho. The senator obviously wasn’t accustomed to the aggressive style of European journalists.
Dinah wasn’t accustomed to associating with politicians or the reporters who egged them on. The antagonism seemed mutually calculated to stir up their particular constituencies. The Norwegian ministers exchanged looks of embarrassment, but seemed unsure how to handle the situation.
Aagaard pressed his advantage. “Is Tillcorp’s presence a secret?”
“Let me through. Move. Move aside.”
There was a commotion at the rear of the room.
“Out of my way. Move, move!” A small, pudding-faced man with a few tufts of grayish-red hair tried to shove his way past the guards at the door. His English had the same singsong pitch as Aagaard’s. “They have to be stopped. They’re destroying God’s creations. They rob the earth of its precious fruits!”
A shout went up from somewhere in the crowd. “Look out!
He has a gun!”
“Let me through. It’s the Americans who are dangerous.
Atrazine! Alachlor! They’ve brought the death gene.”
There was a scuffle. Norris Frye turned sideways in his chair and half-stood to see what was happening behind him. Dinah craned her neck, but Norris blocked her view. She glanced back toward the stage as a dot of red light flashed against the window to the left of Senator Sheridan. The dot jittered across the wall behind the stage, herky-jerky as a moth. She stood up and looked around for the source, but all she could see was a knot of men in coats and suits flailing their arms and trying to subdue the protester. Everyone was focused on the altercation at the back of the room. She turned back to the stage as the red dot bobbled across a corner of the Norwegian flag, lit momentarily on the microphone in front of Sheridan, flitted across Senator Keyes’ lapels, and landed onto Herr Dybdahl’s face.
“Kristus!” Dybdahl’s hands flew to his face and he staggered backward into the arms of the other officials. “My eyes!”
Senator Sheridan shrank away from the podium and gaped at the fallen agriculture minister. “What the…What…?”
Erika jumped up and ran toward her husband. Norris Frye slid to the floor at Dinah’s feet and covered his head.
She bent over him. “Senator, are you hurt?” “Get down,” he hissed. “It’s a terrorist attack!” A frightened mob stampeded toward the exit.
“I can’t see,” cried Herr Dybdahl as his fellow ministers eased him to the floor.
Dinah watched open-mouthed as Brander Aagaard snatched up his camera and began to snap pictures. Several other reporters did the same.
Senator Keyes took Erika by the arm and tried to drag the Sheridans out of the line of fire. “Let’s get out of here, Colt. This way.”
“What was it?”
“A laser, I think. Come on now.”
Looking dazed, the Sheridans followed Keyes to the far side of the room.
Norwegian police blocked the exits.
Even as he was pinned against the wall by a large policeman, the little pudding-faced man continued to cry out his warnings. “Like the Romans who sowed the fields of the conquered with salt, they’ll starve us, I tell you.”
A loud male voice shouted, “Go back to your seats everyone.
Nobody leaves.” He shouted again in Norwegian.
The two Secret Service agents who’d accompanied the senators on the flight from Washington jogged down the aisle toward the stage, guns drawn and pointing every which way. They spotted Norris Frye huddled on the floor in the fetal position and pulled him up and away toward the other senators. They appeared not to notice Dinah.
A Norwegian policeman gesticulated with some kind of telescopic baton. “Back, back to your seats. Everything is under control.”
Brander Aagaard put down his camera, pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket, and slouched into the chair left empty by Senator Frye. “Your American Secret Service is crap.” He lit a cigarette and blew a pungent stream of smoke toward the stage. “Or maybe they asked the angriper who he was aiming for and when he said it was the herring eater, they moved aside to give him a clear shot.”
Dinah needed a bathroom too urgently to argue about either the epithet or the target, but the way the protester seemed to feel about Americans, she would’ve sworn he was aiming at Senator Sheridan.