Cold Flame

Out of the single candidate they had lined up for this job, I was the one who got it. A shoo-in, Director Hafferty declared, but I’m thinking it was more like shoo-away: mothballed after the boondoggle I caused in Toronto. The Agency needed someplace convenient to stick my sorry posterior, and the seed vault on Devon Island was just far enough away that they could quickly begin the process of burying my name.

I guess I’m just lucky they didn’t decide to bury my carcass instead.

This morning I woke up with a hot flash. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking—you don’t want to be privy to the daily ramblings of a menopausal woman holed up with a bunch of seeds in an ice cave in the middle of the Arctic Circle. (Or maybe you do, in which case I had better get on with writing my memoirs). No, this was no ordinary hot flash. For one, I don’t suffer from them, and for another, this came in the form of fire. Actual leaping flames, which in a building made of ice is something both dangerous and spectacular.

I could see the flames from the open doorway to my bedroom, which was weird, because the chamber has a sliding panel and I always close it at night. It’s not for security; I just can’t stand the glow of the lights coming off the computer panels. I tried to swing my legs out of bed, but they didn’t seem to respond to my brain’s command. I paused, taking a necessarily slow assessment while the fire raged on in the other room. There was a taste on my tongue that I recognized from the Toronto job, when I had been drugged and captured by what the Agency refers to as an RN, or Really Nasty. That explained a few things, but it didn’t help my situation any.

One thing about being impervious to cold: it also makes you seriously intolerant of heat. I’m not good with temperatures above 40 degrees, which is why in the real world (ie: anywhere that is not Devon Island), I wear a special cooling suit. Otherwise, I get really peevish and throw around sharp objects and words. Just ask my three ex-husbands. Too much heat—say, in the mid-seventies or more—and my organs start to do funny things. I don’t like to go there often.

I ripped a fire extinguisher from the wall and blasted the contents onto the flames. It didn’t take long to snuff out the fire: a few seconds and I was coughing up a lung from the combination of smoke fumes and retardant. My skin was flaring from the heat. I chucked the canister into a corner and squinted through the haze. I’m no arson investigator, but I’d say by the look of the charred pile of paper on the floor, I had a positive ID on my accelerant. Apparently, I would be reading my Danielle Steel novels on the tablet from now on. “Systems report!” I rasped at the control panel, and was gratified—and deeply suspicious—when I was promptly informed that all was humming along as it should.

What was I dealing with here? A hacker who could hijack the vault’s security, and a firebug, to boot. I was muddling about with sedatives in my system, not a bullet in my brain, so whoever it was, he or she didn’t appear to want me dead. As well, the fire had been small and deliberately set in the middle of the room, away from any other combustibles. This wasn’t an attempt to burn down the building with me doped up inside my bed.

Right here I must stop and beg a question: you can keep a secret, can’t you? Promise you won’t tell my employers that I didn’t think of the seeds right away. Yes, those seeds—the ones I was sworn to protect and defend with my life, the seeds that would eventually save humanity.

I bolted for the inner chamber, waving my forearm, with its implanted chip, at the scanner on the west wall. The doors slid open with a slight sigh. I stepped inside, awestruck as always by the feat of hyper-organization these rows and rows of perfectly packaged and labelled specimens represented. I couldn’t be bothered to load the dishwasher properly (is there a proper way?), and here I was living under the same roof as this marvel of precision and planning. It was like having a roommate with a personality disorder.

At first glance, nothing seemed amiss. I was never a gardener, back in the day—being a spy with a superpower doesn’t leave you much time for hobbies—but even I could recognize some of the nomenclature: Prunus, Philodendron, Anemone, Phalaenopsis, Pisum, Geranium, Brassica. I started zigzagging the aisles, running a verbal dialogue with the computer as I did so. There had been no security breach, I was informed, and nothing was missing from the inventory.

Except that wasn’t the case. My slowpoke brain took a few seconds to bring my body up to speed. I knew which seed was gone before I got to it.

A couple of years ago, one of the Rangers had found a very interesting object while rooting around the dustbowls of the planet Mars. When the cute little robot had shipped the discovery back to Earth, astronomers and botanists alike had collectively crapped their pants. It was a seed—of what plant they could only dream—and although they all were itching to get their fingers on just a yoctometer of tissue, the United States government threw it in a cryogenic box and secretly shipped it Devon Island. Here in this icy land, the seed belongs to the entire world, even though most people don’t know it. Up until now, I had been its guardian.

It appeared I might well be out of a job soon.

I knew I didn’t have time to throw on a pair of pants, or lace up my boots. I hauled out of the vault clad only in my t-shirt, panties, and a pair of flip-flops I kept for padding around indoors. I sucked in the freezing air, thrilling in the way it cleared my head almost instantly. It was snowing hard, fine dry powder that cooled my heat-pinked skin. I tore through the calf-high snowdrifts to the domed metal shed on the north side of the vault, and nearly lost my left flip-flop en route. The overhead door was unlocked—no one ever came out here except to steal seeds, anyway, so my snowmobile was safe.

Visibility was only about 100 feet but that bioenhancement work I had done a few years ago means I’m not going to need bifocals anytime soon. Ahead of me, a dark figure struggled in the snow. The thief was headed towards a dark blur on the horizon. As I got closer, I saw that his destination was an Aviator, a gas-powered ultralight not usually rated for long distances or travel over large bodies of water.

Swathed as he was against the elements, I would still recognize that (literal and figurative) ass anywhere. He knew that the game was up, and turned to greet me as I pulled towards him on the sled. I didn’t hesitate, even though I noticed he wasn’t showing a weapon. I think he was too busy laughing behind his balaclava at the sight of me. I hauled out my gun, slowed the throttle just a fraction, and shot him in the right kneecap.

I have to get one thing straight here: I don’t always act this way with my ex-boyfriends. But Richard Deane is a hard man to take down without a show of force, and he had just stolen an interplanetary treasure. And, in case you’re inclined, don’t go feeling sorry for the guy—he’ll heal up completely within a few hours. I’m not going to lie, I’m more than a little envious of that particular superpower.

Richard was down on the ice by the time I closed the gap between us. He still didn’t appear to have a weapon, which made me uneasy.

He tugged off the balaclava. “Nice to see you, Cecelia,” he said. His voice was that rich buttercream I remembered.

“I can’t say I’m as pleased,” I said, bailing off the machine. I plunged bare feet onto the snow-crusted ice field; my flip-flops were AWOL. “Where’s the seed you stole?”

His eyes held a decidedly amused expression. “Look, CeeCee, you know I’m not giving it up. But how about this? My employers are paying me a bundle to jack it—what if I gave you a cut?”

I snorted. “Do you see where we are?” I said. “Money means nothing here. And I don’t shop online—the shipping and handling costs are brutal. Besides, what kind of money are we talking about? There is no value on that seed. What it means to the human race is far greater than a bunch of numbers in a Swiss bank account. Think of it. It represents life on Mars—that’s huge. Something to hold out hope for when we’re done messing with this planet. ”

Richard laughed, but of course he wasn’t maniacal or ruthless about it. I had always loved his laugh, so warm and husky and completely encompassing. I wanted to take him back to the vault and pour us a cocktail. “The Company I work for doesn’t believe the seed is doing much good in a museum,” he said.

“Seed vault,” I corrected, even though I knew he had deliberately chosen the word to irritate me. “So what—genetic engineering? Weaponization? This is precisely why the seed is here on the island,” I said. “To keep it away from monsters.”

It was his turn to qualify my speech. “Monsters with money,” he verified. “I’m not one to quibble about ethics.”

“Obviously. How long have you been at this game, Richard?” I asked. I had all the wisdom of training and experience, but I couldn’t keep the wobble out of my voice. “The Really Nasty in Toronto—were you responsible for what happened?”

Richard had the decency to look ashamed, and it may have been genuine. “Look, CeeCee, I was only trying to protect you,” he said lamely.

I felt an angry heat wave coming over me, even though I was standing half-naked in a snowstorm. “By drugging me so you and the RN could make off with the datachips, and then swooping in like some big damn hero when I was left in that pit of vipers?” That wasn’t a figure of speech—it really had been a hole filled with exotic snakes. It had taken me six months to get over the bite from the fer de lance.

“He would have killed you,” Richard said softly. I was touched by his reply, and let him know by shooting him in the left shin.

“Ow!” he bellowed, folding down like human origami on his temporarily useless legs.

“We were partners in every sense of the word!” I screeched. No point regaining my composure at this juncture. “I trusted you! I suffered a near-death experience, a demotion, and a broken heart—and here I find out I’ve been paying the price while you waltz around as a double agent.”

Richard was clearly delighted despite the blood puddling in the legs of his ski pants. “A broken heart?” he murmured seductively. There was a lot of weight plunked heavily down between us.

“And regret,” I snapped.

“For us?” he asked hopefully.

“No, for saying shit without thinking. I don’t get visitors very often.” I waved my arms into the white ether. “So where are you taking the Aviator?”

“There’s a jet waiting for me onboard a Company icebreaker a hundred miles away.” He rattled off the co-ordinates, but I didn’t have time to memorize them because he had suddenly decided to draw the weapon I stupidly hadn’t removed from his jacket. I had been alone for so long I guess I was getting rusty; I also hadn’t counted on how strong my feelings for Richard still were. “Sorry, darling,” he whispered, then all I felt was lightning in my heart.

Not a bullet, but a CEW-times-ten, an electroshock specialty weapon ordinary police services are not permitted to carry—and he gave me a decent wallop of juice, too. My tongue instantly flipped to the roof of my mouth and I fell backwards onto the ice, gasping and clutching my chest. Richard couldn’t run, so he did the next best thing: he yanked the cryobox out of his pocket and clumsily pried it open with his gloved fingers. My head felt like someone was whisking scrambled eggs in it. “For shit’s sake, Richard, don’t you dare!” I shouted fuzzily. I knew what he was up to—I would have done it myself.

He grinned at me, ever the charmer. “One Martian artefact, down the hatch,” he said cheerfully. I groaned with the effort and launched myself at him just as he raised his hand to his lips.

The seed went flying into the snow, and we both scrabbled after it. I managed to get in a few substantial punches while we were down, and Richard finally stopped rolling beneath me. The bullets to his legs had caught up with him. “Well, that was smart, CeeCee,” he panted accusingly. “Now we’re both in deep.”

“You more than me,” I said, and cracked him a good one, right between the eyes. He shuddered and blinked out.

I thought about removing his clothes, which would have given the Agency pilots a good chuckle when they arrived for pick-up. But shooting him had been pretty heavy-handed, although not completely uncalled for. I was a woman scorned, sure, but this was not the time for vengeful jokes. It was also cruel to let him lose so much blood. I stripped down to my cami and cobbled together tourniquets for his wounds out of my t-shirt. He’d be completely healed and pacing in an Agency holding cell in a few hours.

Then I turned my attention to salvaging my career. For anyone else without vision enhancements and clothes, finding a single seed in an endless snowbank during the middle of an Arctic storm would have been time-consuming, frost-bitingly chilly, and ultimately unproductive work. But I had really sharp eyes and no quibbles with the cold. It took me an hour, but I found the little Martian kernel, and snugged it back into the cryobox. Then I hopped back onto the snowmobile, leaving Richard snoozing among the snowflakes.

I tracked straight to the computer, plunking the seed on the desk. “Home,” I ordered, and my contact immediately popped up onscreen. “Hi, Derry,” I said sweetly. “I have a problem that needs dealing with right now. Can you send a unit?”

Derry’s face wore an expression that seemed to check every box of emotions. Horror, surprise, pain, embarrassment, amusement—it was all there. It was then that I realized I was still wearing only my undies. I sighed; my semi-never psych evaluation would be fast-tracked for sure. I looked straight at the kid on the other side of the world. “What?” I asked. “This the first time you’ve seen an old lady in her knickers?”