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AGVIQ. Copyright © 1990 by Michael A. Armstrong. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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A mass market edition of this book was published in 1990 by Warner Books.
First eBook edition: August 2001
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AT THE TOP
OF THE WORLD
"We've got a problem," Malgi said. "Those guys want to kill us."
Tuttu tapped his laptop PC. "We can last, half rations, six days. That's if we play the defensive."
"I know," the old man said. "But I think we should wait."
Tuttu looked, daring the angatkok. "We have to settle this. It's Mick's way or ours . . . we have to take care of him if we want to survive." Malgi smiled, then nodded.
Claudia caught the unspoken dialogue. Settle it: Mick's way of greed and tanik values— wait for rescue, every man for himself—versus Malgi's way of sharing and Inupiaq values— work together, survive together.
Malgi smiled again. "I did not mean wait forever, Grandson." He held up a finger. "One day, two days."
"Let them think they have the upper hand." Tuttu's voice got deeper, lower. "Grandfather's right. Let them come. Let them use up their bullets. And when they think they have us"—he rubbed his palms together—"we will kill them."
• • •
Also by Michael Armstrong
AFTER THE ZAP
To my mother,
Sylvia Jane Jander,
and to the memory of her mother,
Anne Hughes Jander
Through the Individual Artist's Fellowship Grant program, the Alaska State Council on the Arts provided generous financial assistance to me during the writing of Agviq. Conversations with numerous people helped me shape this book. In particular, I am indebted to the contributions made by Helen Armstrong, Charles Barnwell, Gregory Reinhardt, Jennifer Stroyeck (especially!), and my editor, Brian Thomsen. Chris Morris and Janet Morris, the godparents of this book, were immensely supportive from Agviq's early beginnings. I am especially grateful to them for enthusiastically praising Agviq's predecessor, "Going After Arviq" (first published in Janet Morris's collection Afterwar, Baen Books, 1985). Without them, this novel would not have gone beyond that short story that no one seemed to want to publish. Thanks to all.
"I learned to fight the pain of living."
—Quin Slwooko, 13,
Gambell, Alaska, walrus hunter,
after being lost for 21 days
with his father and brothers
on the ice near St. Lawrence Island.
For the sake of the narrative, Agviq assumes that sometime in the late twentieth century the Inupiaq, or Northern Alaskan Eskimos, have lost any sense of cultural identity. This is not now the case. Although their culture is threatened and in danger, at the time of the novel's writing the Inupiaq, or "real people," retain a language, traditions, stories, and ways of living that distinguish them from the dominant culture of the United States of America. Among the things that make the Inupiaq different from other cultures, including other Eskimo or Inuit cultures, is their reverence for and their hunting of agviq, the bowhead whale (balaena mysticetus).
However, the Inupiaq, like other Native American peoples struggling to preserve their cultural identity, must cope with many threats to their way of life, including attacks on subsistence hunting and fishing rights, the spreading influence of Western ideas, and abuse of alcohol and other addictive substances. It is not my belief that the Inupiaq should or will return to their ancient, pre-Western contact traditions. However, I hope that they continue to preserve traits that make them different from non-Inupiaq, and that non-Natives respect their right to become whatever kind of culture they choose to be. Agviq is written out of a deep respect for the Inupiaq people and as a warning against the things that threaten to destroy not only their culture, but all cultures.
CLAUDIA peered down into the thin muddy soil and saw agviq. With the tip of her trowel she gently scraped back the dirt from the fins and exposed the rest of the object. The soil slid away from the dull yellow artifact, ancient rootlets shrouding it and ripping away in one small clot. She brushed a blond hair off her forehead, leaned back and rocked on her knees, and let the joy of discovery wash over her.
"Agviq," she whispered.
Removing her light polypropylene gloves, Claudia reached out and touched the artifact. Time fell away from her, the two organic layers she'd dug through fading away, and her present merged with the past of the person who'd dropped or lost or hidden the carving of the whale. She had found the artifact in what she called "the pure level," below the layer of brass cartridges, pop can pull tabs, and plastic tampon inserters: the stuff of the ubiquitous Western culture, the junk the presence of which marked a culture as post-contact. The artifact had been below the floorboards of the old Inupiaq Eskimo house she had excavated a day earlier, frozen into permafrost, locked in the layer of soil between floor and supporting bottom logs. Someone—a whaler, an ancient Inupiaq man?—had dropped the object and now she picked it up, held it to the light, a baton passed between two generations, across two hundred years.
She felt his strength, his power, that long-gone whaler, felt him struggling to stay alive on that narrow spit between sea and bay. Claudia imagined the early Inupiaq, the Real People, living their lives before the whites, the Yankee whalers, had brought Western civilization: rum and oil, smallpox and steel. The whites had thought the Inupiaq a simple people.
No, she thought. Not a simple people, no, she knew they couldn't have been that. She had seen their artifacts, seen the innumerable gadgets and widgets no one could ever figure out: a tool for everything, complicated devices wondrous in their manufacture, deadly efficient for killing the sea mammals that made the Arctic a paradise, not a desert. Whales. With stone blades and skin boats and no steel or gunpowder these people had killed sixty-ton whales. Agviq. She felt the old culture, tried to imagine every detail, tried to think what it would be like to become them, become a coastal people who lived almost exclusively on the bounty of the sea.
The low Arctic light of the summer evening caught the whale, bathing it in diffuse orange-yellow rays, the incised lines of the lips, the eyes, the flukes clear. Claudia blew away bits of dirt, already drying in the sun, and clicked the carving against her front teeth. Yes, ivory, she confirmed, not antler, not bone; it had that decisive clink of ivory. She held the object up against the southern horizon, backlit by the sun, Peard Bay between her and the flat tundra turning red in the distance.
The ancient village of Pingasagruk, the site—her site—spread west and east of her, a cluster of mounds at the end Claudia worked on, a series of brackish ponds to the east. Beyond the ponds, toward Point Franklin and Barrow far beyond, two towers shimmered in the waning heat of the day. As she stared at the taller of the towers—a metal tower, near a point marked "Seahorse" on the U.S. Geological Survey map—it caught the light of the setting sun, and glowed bright silver. A red flaming dot, like a meteor, separated from the apex of the tower and fell over the horizon. Jet, she thought, hearing the boom follow seconds later. The jet to Barrow.
Behind her, ocean. Claudia turned, faced the Chukchi Sea. A line of ice loomed on the horizon: the threatening pack ice. Distantly, two derricks from a passing barge flickered through the haze, seeming to be a mirage; the diesels from the barge tugs thrummed. She'd watched its slow progress up the coast since early afternoon—fuel oil and four-wheel ATVs and snowmachines for Barrow and Kaktovik, one last run before freeze-up. She held the whale carving against the sun, blocking most of the light, nothing but a pinpoint shining through the hole drilled in the object's center.
"Claudia?" a man said from behind her. The weak signal of a distant station hissed from the radio in his hand.
Guiltily, she turned, laid the artifact back in its depression in the excavated pit, knowing she should have measured its provenance before she'd pulled it.
"Break time, Rob?"
She glanced at her watch, buckled on its strap around a loop in her daypack. Nine oh-four P.M. With the digging season coming to an end, they'd been putting in twelve-, fourteen-hour days since the weather had cleared two days earlier.
"Claudia, uh—" He held up the radio in explanation.
Right, she thought. KBRW's Tundra Drums. They had made a habit of listening to the messages sent out from the Barrow radio station every night at nine. "Let me write up this artifact," she said.
Claudia measured in from the sides of the meter-square pit, jotted down the numbers with pencil on the smooth plastic pages of her write-in-the-rain notebook. Artifact 534, she scribbled, ivory object of bowhead whale (?), four lines incised ventrally, radiating out from a central drilled hole. 218.34 m North, 134.23 m East—She extended a string attached to a stake at the high point of the excavation area, ran it out over the artifact until the bubble of the line level on the string wavered straight. With her tape, she calculated the depth of the artifact, wrote 2.56 m below datum next to the other figures.
And then she picked the artifact up again, feeling less guilty: its location had been accurately recorded in three dimensions, its pinpoint position plotted relative to the site datum—a convenient USGS bench monument. She had identified the artifact's position relative to all the points of the world, and its position in space, and hence in time. Claudia copied the same information out on a manila coin envelope, and put the carving of the whale into the brown bag, into her pocket.
She laid a scrap piece of clear plastic over her pack and her notebook, and walked across the site and down to the tidal beach on the inland side of Pingasagruk. Their orange tent nestled in an indentation against the dune, guy ropes taut in the wind and the tent's fly flapping softly. Rob knelt before a camp stove and a driftwood fire he'd kept going since supper. The smoke from the fire rose up and away from Rob, swirling away from a blue tarp stretched across a driftwood frame. Rob picked up an enameled tin pot from the campstove, and poured her a steaming mug of scalding, bitter camp coffee.
"Ahhh," she said, sipping the coffee; it cut through the slight chill from the waning arctic summer, hot coffee, black and straight.
The KBRW radio announcer read off the evening's messages. In a village where everyone had a phone and hardly anyone went out hunting or fishing, the Barrow people still sent out radio messages, mostly birthday greetings or stern admonitions from mothers to teenage daughters to come home. But Claudia and Rob had set up a system through their bush pilot to send them a message on Tundra Drums if she had to tell them anything, and they listened faithfully every morning and evening. The radio cut the monotony of fieldwork and reminded them that the world existed beyond the edge of the tundra, even beyond Barrow.
"Found some ivory," Claudia said as the messages ended and the radio deejay put on an old reggae tune, Bob Marley's "Stir it Up." She reached in her pocket, handed Rob the whale carving. "Under the floorboards of the house, maybe from some sort of cache. I've found sixteen ivory objects in the same level, in the same ten-by-ten centimeter area."
He turned it over, following the incised lines with his fingertips, then clicked the ivory against his teeth. "Yup, it's ivory," he said. "What do you think? What period?"
"Classic pre- or early-contact Inupiaq—late Thule," she said. "You can see the old Birnirk tradition reflected in the incised lines, the little hole in the middle, but it's not as busy as some of that Punuk or Old Bering Sea stuff to the south—no holes with dots, nothing like that."
"But it's a contact period house?" Rob asked. "We're sure of that now, aren't we?"
Claudia gazed across the fire, south and out to sea, to where the smoke drifted. She nodded. "Forgot to tell you—you were working on the northeast house. Yeah, the floorboards to the house aren't adze-cut; they're sawn." She picked up a plank of driftwood, a modern piece of two-by-six lumber that had been washed up on the tidal beach. "Like this: see the circular saw cuts? Same thing on the floorboards of my house; they've been milled. Oak, I think—from whaling ships. I haven't found any brass spikes, but there're some holes and stains that look suspicious."
"But you said you found this whale object under the floorboards?" Rob asked. "Maybe it's not related to the house—maybe it predates it." The radio droned on in the background, the deejay putting on another Marley song, "Buffalo Soldiers."
Claudia shook her head, sipped her coffee. She sighed. "I don't think so. I don't think anything left here predates those floorboards. There might have been some older stuff thirty years ago, but that's all eroded, all gone. These guys built their village from the wreck of whaling ships—most likely, from the disaster of 1871 when thirty-two ships got caught in early pack ice. Shit, this place isn't so ancient after all."
"But you haven't found much anything else modern, have you?" he asked.
She glanced at him, saw his eagerness, and smiled. "No. No, you're right. It's a pure site in that respect, maybe the last time the Inupiaq lived almost free from Western traditions, Western trade goods. After that . . . the Yankee whalers came, and guns, and whiskey, cholera, syphilis, TB—"
"Tee-Vee. Four-wheelers. Cigarettes. Cocaine, AIDS."
"Yeah. The world's shit." She snorted. "After that, it's one big happy family, one global cesspool, all the same kind of government—rich on top, poor on bottom, commissars and capitalists, proletariat and peons. Before that, decent human beings just struggling their damnedest to stay alive." Claudia stood, finished the rest of her coffee. "Oh, well, Rob. What's done, is done. Let's finish up, get in a few more hours of digging tonight." She reached to turn the radio off, but as she touched the volume knob, a piercing screech wailed from the radio, from KBRW, from the station in Barrow.
The noise stayed her hand, and she let her arm fall to her side. She knew that noise. Everyone knew that noise, knew it from radio tests: a long, drawn-out hum, a two-tone scream. "This is a test of the emergency broadcast system," the radio would say. "This is only a test." She waited for the words, waited for the reassuring voice of the announcer to come on. The screeching ended, and someone spoke.
"Initiating emergency broadcast system," said a different announcer—not one of the KBRW regulars, but some man with a slight Southern accent. "System on. Please stand by for an announcement from the Office of Emergency Management."
Claudia looked at Rob. He'd stood, staring up at her. "What? Not that Germany reunification thing?"
"Fuck no; they settled that before we left," she said. "I think."
"Please stand by for—" The announcer fell silent.
Claudia grabbed the radio, whacked its side, dialed the volume up higher. "Noooo!" someone screamed from the radio. "NO!" The announcer's voice had become hysterical, like a boy's voice cracking from puberty, but she recognized it as the announcer who had easily read the messages minutes before. "They fucking did it!" he yelled. "They did it goddamnit they did it they did it they did it." The man panted, his breathing a drumbeat in the microphone, and then he calmed down, and his voice shifted from hysteria to a dull, almost whispering monotone.
"They did it, brothers, they did it. This came over the wires, over the EBS." Dead air hung on for half a minute, and then he spoke again, slight Inupiaq accent clicking over the syllables of the words, over and over. "Anchorage: nuked; Fairbanks: nuked; Tok: nuked; Attu, Adak, Shemya, Kodiak: nuked; New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tampa, Atlanta, Denver: nuked, nuked, nuked, nuked. Omigod" —his voice broke again—"they fucking did it they fucking did it they—"
"My God," said Rob.
Claudia grabbed the radio and hurled it down. She snatched the whale carving from Rob—he still held it in his fist—and stormed away from the radio, away from the fire, across the dune. She stopped next to her pit, stared out to sea, running her fingers over the ivory carving.
"Agviq," she whispered.
"Claudia." Rob shouted after her. He came up behind her. The radio dangled from the strap, wrapped around his wrist. His arms hung against his body, hands balled into tight fists. "Claudia." He reached out to put an arm around her.
"It's over, Rob. Over. Tampa . . . shit." She thought of her hometown, of old friends. "Over." She pushed away from him, whirled around, and looked northwest to the setting sun. August second, she thought, the day the sun first sets after the endless summer. She ran across the dune, across the sod burying the old village of Pingasagruk, down the sedges creeping in on the ocean edge, over the sand speckled with coal, and to the shore of the Chukchi Sea. She waded in, cold water rising over the tops of her felt-lined shoe-pac boots, raised her hand to throw the whale back in the ocean, to the walrus from which it had come—then stopped.
She had imagined the world ending a million times, had seen the holocaust of unleashed nuclear weaponry play over and over in her mind. Nuclear war had been an article of faith for her, a certainty Claudia had endured from childhood: this is the way the world ends. Arm cocked back to throw the ivory artifact to the walruses, Claudia paused as she saw a mushroom cloud rise up like a mirage from the ocean, a ghost of a cloud flickering against the sun.
Against the horizon, against the line of white icebergs pushing their way to shore, against the harsh glow of the sun setting into the first summer night, the cloud rose up, a fountain of mist. The mist rose up from the water, droplets making a faint rainbow. A second mushroom cloud, a second fountain rose next to it. She grabbed for the binoculars in her parka pocket, pulled the Nikons over her head, turning the foggy lenses and focusing on the spray.
A dark shape materialized in the binoculars; two dark shapes. Clouds; spray. More spray. A nuclear submarine—a boomer?—she thought, blowing itself up? The mushroom clouds faded away, and the dark shapes slid under. Claudia counted to herself, one thousand one, one thousand two, on and on, up to thirty. The dark shape rose, booming again, blotting out the sun, breaching, huge bomber head taking up most of its body, long fins curving back, flukes spread out like wings. She focused the binoculars again, then smiled to herself. Not nukes, not submarines, not an explosion. As the dark shape hit the sea, a great spray rising up from under it, a flash of light rippled across the ocean, across the sky.
"Agviq," Claudia whispered. She let the binoculars dangle from the strop around her neck, felt the effigy still clutched in her left palm, opened her hand, traced the figure. "The whale." Running her tongue over her lips, she tasted the brine of tears around her mouth, remembered the taste of the old muktuk she'd catch in Barrow years ago, before they'd stopped whaling. Agviq, she thought, watching the two whales play in the ocean. Agviq lives, agviq will go on. She turned and walked back to shore.
Rob stood at the edge of the water, sea lapping the bottoms of his leather-and-rubber boots. "Claudia?" The radio crackled in his hand, the announcer screeching something about Prudhoe Bay.
She smiled, stroking the whale object. "It's not over, Rob. It's not over." She turned, looked back at the breaching whales. "It's just begun."
* * *
Claudia and Rob sat before the fire. Chunks of coal scavenged from the beach smoldered in the flames, her boots drying soles-up on sticks jabbed into the sand by the fire. Behind them the blue tarp on the driftwood frame flapped in the wind, and little eddies of smoke rose up at them. A piece of plywood with a map of Alaska pinned to it lay across her lap. A new emptiness burned within her, a hard coal of despair ready to be fanned into flames, and Claudia kept wanting to wade back into the ocean and let the chilling water wash over her and suck her under. She rubbed the carving of agviq—looped through a nylon cord now around her neck—and the old ivory gave her strength. There will be time, there will be time, Eliot's lines from Prufrock reminded her, and she slowly convinced herself that it was too soon to die.
"Anchorage," she said, drawing a teardrop shape looping northeast from a dot on the southern edge of the map. She winced at the name; she had friends there. "Fairbanks." Another loop in the center of the state. The university, the museum—Froelich Rainey had done his early work there, the Ipiutak stuff. And Larsen's and Giddings's stuff, a lot of it in the museum. Gone. All gone. "Galena." A loop west of Fairbanks.
"The radio didn't say anything about Galena," Rob said. "Why do you think the Russkies would hit Galena?"
Claudia looked up. Rob bit his lip, glared at her. "It has a forward fighter squadron out of Elemendorf in Anchorage," she said. "If the Soviets followed up with bombers . . ."
"My brother's in that squadron," Rob said softly.
Right, Claudia thought. "Okay; Galena's a question mark." She erased the teardrop. Give him hope? Sure, stupid as it was: Rob's squadron could have been rotated back to Anchorage. But give him that, anyway. Hope's all that's left. "Attu, Shemya, the sub base at Adak, the PAVEPAWS radar at Clear, the backscatter radar at Tok . . ." More teardrops. "Anyplace else?" She barked the questions at him.
"Right." Two more teardrops. The old oil fields at Prudhoe, the DEW line—North Warning System—station and the newer oil fields around Kaktovik in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that had never amounted to much. "What about . . . Barrow?" she asked, thinking of the DEW line site at Barrow—except that should have been hit first, before any of the lower-48 cities.
Rob shook his head. "We'd have seen it."
"Yeah," she said. Fifty air miles south of Barrow, they would have felt a nuke. "So Barrow made it. But if they got Prudhoe . . . What are the prevailing winds now?" she asked.
Rob tapped the two locations west of Barrow, the point at the top of the state. "Southwest—away from us." He traced a finger down the map, and she drew in two more teardrops.
Claudia held the map away from her, looked at the long ellipses, the worst edges of radiation. Damn, she thought, the state's huge. The nukes might not get everything right off. "Okay, southwest," she said. "What about stuff from Canada, Siberia?"
Rob shook his head. "Too far east, too far south. There's a sub base at Petropavlosk on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Soviet Union—we'd hit that for sure. Some stuff in Central Siberia, but nothing to worry about."
Rob nodded. "Right—yet. So what do we do?"
Claudia tried to smile. The edge in his voice prevailed. Rob sat close to the fire, shoulders shivering, his face pale. Not from the cold, she thought, not from the cold of the air.
Their relationship had flipped back. Over the last week he'd worked his way through his shyness, begun to overcome his insecurities. Rob had begun to forget about the rank academia subtly imposed: he, the undergraduate, helping the all-but-dissertation graduate student complete her thesis. She'd begun to let him get close, had even been tempted to violate her pact of not having sex on a remote site. But then . . . They were back to the old relationship: she was boss, she had to make the decisions. And why? Not because she was a woman—she had to laugh at that, the old stereotype of women being the secret rulers of the world—but because she had the knowledge, she was the one almost done with her Ph.D., because it was her site, damn it.
"Wait," she answered. "Wait at Pingasagruk."
"Maybe we should go to Wainwright," he said, "Walk down the coast." His voice began to rise. "It's only thirty miles. Those hunters we saw two days ago, maybe they'll be back from Point Franklin and can take us back to Wainwright. There'd be people there."
She shook her head. "No. We can't go there—not yet."
- On Sale
- May 15, 2001
- Page Count
- 221 pages
- Grand Central Publishing