“I don’t give a damn,” Ethan cried. He slapped the table with every word to emphasize his point. The whole of the vegan restaurant twisted in wicker chairs to watch the show. “Environmental degradation is environmental degradation, here or anywhere else!”
“I’m not saying it shouldn’t be taken seriously,” Mason said. He brought his voice low and grimaced at the attention. He retied the thin ponytail that dangled over his collar. “I’m just saying that Earth should be our first priority. Even the Catholic Church has said as much.”
“Right,” said Ethan. “Let’s listen to an old man at the head of a patriarchal organization that still believes in women’s subservience to men.”
“Uh, guys,” Alexa said, holding up her hand to make a point of order. “Can we leave the feminism to the women? It just sounds too strange to hear a guy bitch about patriarchal organizations.”
Mason nodded. Ethan crossed his arms defensively and leaned back in the wicker chair with a long frown.
“Men can hate inequal power structures, too, you know,” he said.
“Of course they can,” Alexa said. She smiled warmly and patted his shoulder. “I just don’t want to hear it.”
Alexa grinned as she glanced between the two men. In college, Ethan and Mason had almost been twins–one darker than the other perhaps. Both were tall, thin, and good looking. Both were well-built from regular hikes and rock climbing expeditions. But that was a while ago. They were now in their late thirties and were showing their differences. Anecdotal proof to Alexa’s mind that sometimes lifestyle trumped genetics.
Both men were balding. But Mason insisted upon keeping his few strands in a shoulder length ponytail while Ethan sported a shaved pate. Mason had also gone soft through the middle. Ethan, on the other hand, looked stronger than ever.
Alexa felt herself somewhere in the middle. She was still as skinny but knew that she was sagging in places she hadn’t been just a year or two before. She professed a hatred for women who bought checkout lane articles that described new ways to keep their bodies looking young. She, however, had more than a few on her reader that she kept well hidden in the file system.
“It comes down to this,” said Mason. “I’m not going to issue any kind of statement from RAGE on colonization. I think it’s outside our scope.”
“Tell that to Greenpeace, Earth First, and the Sierra Club,” Ethan said. “Every one of them has voiced concern for spreading humanity beyond Earth. Think of the life that Erlewine and his pet monkeys may have destroyed just by setting foot on that planet, much less the pollutants and other trash left behind.”
“Which is why,” Mason said, sighing. “We’ve already said that we think any kind of colonization should happen under strict government regulation.”
“Dude, that’s not enough, and you know it.”
“What do you want us to do, Ethan,” Mason cried. “There are worlds out there and people are going to go!”
“Fellas,” Alexa said, folding her napkin over her nearly empty plate of soy bacon. “Bring it down a bit. I agree with both of you. I’m concerned about us making the same mistakes out there as we did here. But I’m also concerned that with the discovery of those worlds, people will think it’s not as important to take care of this one.”
“Exactly,” Mason said. A smug grin of triumph curled his moist lips. “Thank you.”
“I get it. I get it,” Ethan said. “So it doesn’t matter what life is being killed or what we’re doing to those worlds.”
“No one’s saying that,” Alexa said. “Jesus, Ethan, listen for a minute.”
“I’m done listening,” Ethan said. He stood from the table and lingered for a moment so they would know the sheer level of his anger. He whipped his windbreaker from the back of his chair and began to walk away before thinking better of it and turning. “I’ve had a problem with how ineffectual RAGE has been for a while now. Maybe Mason’s forgotten that we’re supposed to be doing more than just fundraising, but I haven’t.”
“Ethan,” Alexa called after. “Ethan, come on.”
“Let him go,” Mason mumbled. “If he’s so unhappy, fuck’im.”
Alexa lay sprawled across her couch wearing a pair of sweat pants and a sleeveless undershirt, the television on but ignored. Her reader glowed on her lap with a fitness article about people who lost weight by stopping drinking. For once she was considering it. She had just opened a bottle from a case of organic wine that had been recommended to her and discovered that it wasn’t bad. It was foul. Enough so that she was reconsidering her friendship with the person as well as her nightly imbibitions. She swirled the wine around in its glass and frowned at the prospect of finishing that little bit before pouring the rest into the sink.
What to do with the rest of the case though? Part of her considered foisting it upon her friends as gifts. But she realized all it would do would sully her own reputation. She had just settled on donating it to the wino that loitered in front of the food co-op when knock rapped against the door.
Alexa pushed the power button on the reader to hide the article and pulled herself off the couch. Trudging to the front door she checked the time on the clock in the hall. Nearly eleven.
“Hey, Alex,” Ethan said. His voice was muffled as it passed through glass pane.
“Hey, Ethan,” she said. She unlocked so he could come in and swung it shut behind him. “I’m kind of surprised to see you.”
“Yeah, well,” he mumbled. “That’d been building up for a while. Fucking Mason just gets under my skin.”
“I think it goes both ways. Come on in, have a seat.”
Ethan followed Alexa into her living room and waited as she poured him wine from the nearly full bottle.
“What kind is it,” he asked, sniffing..
“Yeah, but what kind?”
“The crappy kind.”
“Is it local?”
“Christ,” Alexa sighed. “I hope not. It would seriously jeopardize my guilt about not doing more shopping at the farmer’s market.”
“Well then, cheers,” Ethan said. He clinked his glass against hers and took a swig. He choked then coughed as his throat burned. “Jesus, you weren’t kidding.”
“Yeah. Jones is going on my shit list. I bought a whole case that I think I’m going to give to Crazy Steve.”
“That’s one way to solve the homeless problem,” he said with a wry grin. He put his glass on a coaster and leaned back into the deep armchair, sighing.
“So,” Alexa asked. “What’s up?”
“I’m leaving RAGE. It’s just not doing it for me anymore.”
“Ethan. Come on now.”
“I’m serious, Alex. I’ve been saying for a while that we need to be more hands on, do more work on the street, but fucking Mason just won’t think outside the box.”
“How outside the box are we talking about here?”
Ethan shook his head and stared silently at Alexa’s toes, wriggling on the edge of the coffee table.
“You’re the director of organization,” she said. “I’m sure that whatever…”
“Believe me,” he said. “Mason won’t go for what I’ve got in mind.”
“And that is?”
“Stopping the ships that go out to the star cluster.”
“And how would you do that?”
Ethan cocked his head and looked away.
“Christ, Ethan, that’s terrorism.”
“That what the establishment always calls a fight before the idea gains mainstream acceptance,” he said. “Besides, if it gets the point across then it’s worth it, whatever the consequences.”
“This isn’t spiking a tree in the forest,” said Alex. She began shaking her head. “This isn’t lobbying against corporate farm subsidies. This is straight up killing people. You’d really do that?”
“Considering the potential slaughter of life and the destruction of environment on those other worlds, yes,” he said. “We can stop people from making the same mistakes we made here.”
“That’s crazy,” said Alexa. “Even I think we should colonize.”
“Don’t,” Alex said. She stood and took two steps into the kitchen and stopped. “After what you just said, don’t. If you’re really going to do these things then I want you out of my house.”
“Alex,” Ethan said. “There are some things that are worth fighting for. Literally, fighting. We’ve been doing marches for years and it doesn’t feel like we’ve done a damn thing. This is too important to organize another useless march on Washington. We need to really get people’s attention. I mean, really get it.”
Alex swiveled on her heel and shuddered, holding herself against the sudden cold in her bones.
“Stop saying we,” she said. “Because once you start, I don’t want anything to do with you. The last thing I want is for the FBI to put me on a watch list because of you. And if they come to me, I’m going to tell them everything I know.”
The excitement that had been lighting Ethan’s eyes died away and he thrust his hands into his jeans as he chewed a lip.
“Well then,” he said. “I guess you’re right. See’ya, Alexa.”
“Mason,” Alex said, popping her head into his office. “We’ve got a problem.”
Mason pushed papers across the desk and sighed, sinking a little into his chair. He folded his hands across his round belly and waited for her to continue.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Mason said. He tossed an opened envelope across onto a pile of more of the same. “If he wants to quit, I’m not going to stop him.
“It’s not about him quitting. It’s about why.”
“He’s just a whiny, spoiled, little…”
“Mason,” Alexa said sharply. “Stop. This is important.”
“Did he express his interest in any specific targets,” asked the younger of the two FBI agents in seated in Mason’s office. He paused from his note taking and looked up, waiting for the answer.
“Just ships headed for the star cluster,” Alexa said. “He didn’t say when or where.”
“Only the star cluster?”
“That’s all he said.”
“Has anyone else quit since that you think might have left to follow him?”
“No,” Mason said. “But we have a small staff. Most of our people are volunteers. We wouldn’t know anything about them until we called them to help out.”
“We’re going need a list of your volunteers then,” said Agent Coleman, the older one. He could have been his partner’s father.
“What,” Alexa asked. “Why?”
“I can’t give you that,” said Mason. “I want to help but I can’t surrender our organization’s membership roles.”
Coleman grinned and glanced from his partner to Alexa and Mason. He pulled his hands from his pocket and reached inside his jacket, flashing his service weapon, and paused before removing a single sheet of paper folded in thirds.
“You know what this is,” he asked. “This is what we call a skeleton key. Basically it gives us everything we could ever want. Sort of a law enforcement officer’s dream.” He put it onto Mason’s desk and slid it across.
Mason unfolded it and read it over.
“I’ll have to consult with our lawyers about this,” Mason said. He dropped it back to the desk with a sigh.
“What,” Alexa asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Coleman said. “This letter requires you to comply and keep your compliance strictly confidential.”
“Seriously,” Alexa asked. “What is it?”
“A National Security Letter,” answered the younger agent. He looked up from his screen and his fingers stopped the furious tapping of his note taking “It requires you to provide us with any and all information requested so we may prosecute a case of terrorism.”
“And that includes your membership rolls,” Coleman added.
“Can they do that,” Alexa asked.
“I don’t know,” said Mason.
“Of course we can,” Coleman said. His grin grew wider and made Alexa want to take a precautionary step backward. “Now, if you could just transmit that list of names, addresses, phone numbers, whatever, to junior’s pad here, we’ll be on our way.”
Alexa studied the agents, glanced at Mason then back again, feeling an indefinable sense of injustice rising in her throat but unable to put a voice to it.
“Oh,” Coleman added, almost as an after thought. “And we’re going to need the two of you to stay reachable. You know, just in case.”
The day two Sanctuary Model XI’s and a Nakimora SCV2000 exploded upon liftoff was a bad one for Alexa. It wasn’t just the realization that Ethan was responsible for killing more than two hundred people and causing the worst space disaster on record. It was the fact that she was now connected to the most wanted man in the country, his face appearing again and again on the feeds delivered to her television, reader, and phone.
She had never known anyone on the Most Wanted List before. She kept waiting for one of the feeds to deliver the “fooled you” punch line but it never came. Instead, she received dozens of calls from friends mutual to her and Ethan.
By the time her door burst open and men and women in blue windbreakers with large yellow block lettering on the back stormed through her house, Alexa was well on her way to working through the case of foul organic wine. She saw windbreakers reading FBI, ATF, DEA, IRS, and ICE. It was nice to see the government working together for once. It was just too bad that they were ransacking her house.
Alexa sank down into her couch and laid flat, the foot of her wine glass covering her belly button. At first, the windbreakers ignored her and began filling file boxes with her books, tchotchkes, and anything else they could lay their hands on. Then:
“Anyone see Alexa Kelly,” called a powerful, deep voice. “Anyone see her?”
A DEA windbreaker turned from her collecting and pointed at Alexa, trying to make herself small. Agent Coleman strolled from around the back of the couch with smirk of satisfaction stretched across his pencil thin lips.
“Well, hello there,” he said.
“Hello,” Alexa mumbled.
“Don’t worry,” Coleman said, sitting beside her on the coffee table. “We’re doing the same thing to your man Mason’s house too.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“Why, did you do something I should know about?”
The question hung between them for a minute.
“Why’s immigration here,” she asked.
“You know how these joint raids work. If you don’t have everyone involved, people get pissy. The guys I don’t understand are the IRS. We already checked you out. You pay your taxes.”
“Like that ever stopped them.”
“They’re pernicious, I’ll give you that,” Coleman said. “They put me through an audit one time because I forgot to send them a daily briefing. It was a mess like–”
“Why are you here,” Alexa said, cutting him short. “I cooperated with you.”
“We think you could be doing more.”
“Could you pass the wine?”
Coleman handed over the open bottle next to him and watched as she filled her glass so that it overflowed onto her stomach. She wiped it away and licked her fingers before sipping from the lip of the glass.
“We need you to get in contact with your little buddy,” Coleman said.
“I wouldn’t even know how to do that.”
“Well I don’t think that’s quite true.” From his pocket, he produced a folded sheet of paper and began to read. “Jamie Lin might know. So could, uh… Alvin Johnson… Alvin? Who names their kids Alvin anymore? Or what about Jenny Rice?”
“Yeah, yeah. I got it,” Alexa said. She struggled to sit up against the arm of the couch. “So you flagged all the people that I had a ten second conversation with today.”
“Are you kidding me? We flagged everyone who’s ever wished him well. I’ve got twenty names here!”
“So you were listening…”
“Listening, recording, filing, indexing. All to build a case against you in case you don’t cooperate. So? What do you say? Wanna be on the side of the good guys for once?”
Much to Alexa’s surprise and for all the cliché that Agent Coleman and his younger partner appeared to be, the two were quite the investigative team. They winnowed the list of calls Alexa had received down to five, placing the rest on the no-fly lists for their supportive sentiments. The five calls were then narrowed to one lead, Jenny Rice, who was acting as a go-between between a go-between and Ethan.
“You know how we catch fugitives,” Coleman asked Alexa. “They can’t resist contacting people they know. If they just went away and started new lives with new friends, the fact is, we’d never catch the bastards.”
“That’s good to know,” Alexa mumbled.
“Your buddy Ethan’s smart, he’s careful, but he just can’t let sleeping dogs lie.”
“He’s not my buddy. Jesus, Coleman.”
“Whatever,” Coleman said, waving her words away with a hand. “So when are you going to meet Miss Rice’s contact?”
“I don’t know. Jenny said she’d call me back with a time and a place.”
The time and place was twelve hundred miles away and a day and a half later.
“I hate Albuquerque,” Coleman said as he pushed a nearly microscopic microphone down into Alexa’s bra. “Why there?”
“I don’t know,” said Alexa. She readjusted her breasts when Coleman was finished. “I’ve never been there before, but that’s where Jenny said he’d be.”
“Fine,” said Coleman. “Fine. You going to be up for the drive?”
“Twelve hundred miles,” asked Alexa. “Yeah, sure. I do it all the time. I don’t know. I’ll probably have to stop for coffee a few times.”
“Don’t bother,” Coleman said. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a sandwich bag with a solid line of white powder across the bottom. “You ever done coke before?”
Alexa frowned and shook her head. “I’m more of a downer person myself.”
“Right,” said Coleman. His wolfish grin had returned. “Mary Jane, right? But only for medical purposes?”
“Actually, I was thinking more like Vicodin.”
“Opiates. Alexa, my dear, you’re like an onion. This is going to be a treat then. Whenever you get tired, just dip your gold card in there and suck in up through your nose. Easy-peasy, Japanesy.”
“Okay then. You’re all set to go,” Coleman said. “And remember, we have more tracking on you than NORAD, so don’t even think about running.”
Alexa kept Coleman’s words in the back of her head as the hundreds of turn-offs passed her like taunts. She steeled herself with a dip into the bag for every exit she didn’t take and continued on. She hadn’t made it half way before she realized that she had a real affinity for Coleman’s white powder.
Alexa arrived at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Wyoming Boulevard a little after one o’clock in the morning. It was a lonely building decorated sparingly with cement tables and benches on the outside and surrounded by a moat of empty parking lot. The only light emanated from the glowing orange and purple business sign and the indoor fluorescents spilling out through the long, wide windows. The lot was completely dark for want of any of the typical floods lamps that usually accompanied such a place.
Alexa parked as far away from the store as she could and walked in the shadows around to the left where a lone phone booth stood. The attached phonebook was long gone and its lights long since busted. Had Alexa not been told to wait there for a call, she would have guessed that it hadn’t worked in years. She guessed that it would be the first phone conversation she’d had in months that hadn’t been tapped. There seemed to be some debate among the agents as to whether it was under surveillance for that kind of thing.
An hour after the appointed time, the phone rang its antiquated bell and Alexa picked it up.
“Alexa,” the voice said. Something sounded off about it. It was too deep some times and too high others so that it was impossible to even tell the gender. There was also an extraordinary amount of static on the line that made deciphering what was said more than a little difficult.
“Do you still want to see Ethan?”
“Ethan wants to know,” the voice said. “Have you changed your mind about colonization?”
“Yes. I did.”
“I’ll see you at the Golden Nugget in Vegas tomorrow then. Play some craps wearing a red shirt and white skirt and I’ll find you.”
“Nugget, craps, red shirt, white skirt. Okay.”
“I know all the tricks of the trade. If there’s even the hint of any surveillance, you’ll never hear from Ethan again.”
“Kind of ironic, isn’t it,” Coleman said. “An environmentalist hanging out in Vegas?”
“Las Vegas is actually one of the greenest cities in America,” said Alexa. “They passed some of the first ordnances encouraging green buildings.”
“I thought liberals hated gambling.”
“I don’t know where you got that,” she mumbled, the pain of her last Vegas trip still sharp in her mind.
“So this guy might be ex-Bureau, huh,” Coleman said, rubbing his sandpaper chin.
“That was the feeling I got. He said he knew the tricks of the trade.”
“Well, we’ll see about that.”
“Coleman,” called the younger agent. Coleman looked up. He walked over to his partner and huddled in close for a private conversation. They talked for minutes, calling over first one technician and then another before he returned, sitting down next to Alexa.
“Junior there thinks we can forgo the surveillance,” he said. “What do you think?”
“What,” she asked. She had been up for more hours than she could remember and even the coke wasn’t working the way it had at first.
“He thinks we can take the leash off and you’ll stay in the yard. He thinks we can trust you.” Alexa felt Coleman’s eyes searching her. “What do you think? Can we?”
Alexa fished out what remained of her cocaine and dipped her car key into it. Her heart was racing with the idea of being free and hoped that the drug would, strangely enough, calm her nerves. She held it to her nose and inhaled deeply.
“What do you want me to say,” she asked, wiping away the powder from around her nostril and rubbing it into her gums for the pleasant numbing sensation. “I’ve done everything you’ve wanted. All I want is to end this thing.”
“I don’t suppose I have to tell you what would happen to you if you go off the reservation,” Coleman said. “Not to mention the intent to distribute charge for your new hobby there.”
“For Christ’s sake,” Alexa said, stuffing the bag back into her pocket. “You gave it to me.”
“You say potato…”
“I’ll do whatever you want, okay?”
“Okay,” Coleman said with a grin. He leaned back in his chair, having won another victory. “All right boys. Let’s exterminate the bugs.”
Alexa raced west on Interstate 40, exactly the way Coleman and the rest of the FBI planned. The only thing going faster than her car was her mind as it roiled with the possibilities of every turn off. Her hands acted of their own volition first.
As the Interstate passed through a town named Holbrook, she jerked the car onto an exit that let out to a road looking as much like a main drag could in a town of five thousand. There was a sign that directed travelers either right to the Buzzard Gulch Trailer Park or left to a town named Snowflake.
Alexa tapped her fingers on the steering wheel as she waited for the choice to percolate into a decision. Buzzard Gulch sounded romantic. Exactly the kind of place someone running from the law might hide out with a shotgun and a bottle of Jack. But her mind began to fixate on south. Mexico was that way and Mexico was where outlaws used to go in the old days. She floored the pedal and pulled the left, leaving Buzzard Gulch no more than dust in her rear view.
She drove less than fifteen minutes before stopping at t-section in the road, pulling over in front of a dusty old sign directing interested travelers to Phoenix if they took a right. It was five hundred miles away and, it suddenly occurred to her, so was the potential solution to all of her problems. Alexa laughed out loud and slapped the wheel before resting her head against it as the sublime irony descended.
She gunned the car, steering this way and that to keep the rear from fishtailing in the dirt shoulder. Once again in control, she careened toward Phoenix and sped down the two-lane blacktop.
“What do you mean I can only get thirty thousand? It’s a hydrogen-electric BMW!”
“Well,” said the salesman. “You don’t have the pink slip on you. For all I know, it’s stolen.”
“Believe me,” she said. “I own it. And I promise you, I’ll mail it when I get back.”
The salesman scratched his sideburns and cocked his head as he examined at the dirty metallic Montego Blue car in front of him. Alexa looked as well and wished that she’d spent the ten dollars to have it washed first.
“Stick or automatic?”
“Automatic,” she said. “It has less than fifty thousand miles. It’s practically brand new.”
“And you need the money now?”
“Cash or check?”
“What’s the difference?”
“I’ll give you thirty-five cash, tops, or forty-five if you’ll take a check.”
“You’re taking me for ten thousand if I opt for cash?”
He gave Alexa a once over and confirmed what he already suspected. A grin crept across his face at the sight of her bloodshot eyes, frazzled hair, and rumpled clothes. She hadn’t slept in days and wouldn’t be able to for at least a few more or he’d have eaten his hat.
“Look,” the salesman said. “You obviously need the cash, fast and clear, am I wrong? To make that happen, I’ll give you an even nine, no questions asked. Now if you want a background check, a credit check, and all the other things someone would have to do to give you more, I could do that, but I’m guessing you don’t want me to.”
Alexa sucked a lip between her teeth and ran her fingers through her hair. He foot tapped against the pavement and she glanced over both shoulders.
“So what’ll it be?”
“Fine,” she said. “Nine thousand.”
“Sorry, lady. The boat’s full.”
“Oh, come on,” Alexa begged. “I need this. Please. You have no idea.”
The skipper of the True Blue stood with his arms crossed on the loading ramp of his three year old Nakimora SCV1000 and watched the woman at the foot of the ramp with sullen eyes. She had three hiking packs, all of which still had their tags attached.
He shook his head.
“I’ve got a hold full of colonists who paid their way to Athena and would riot if I gave some crackhead a free ride,” he said. “You’re going to have to find some other chump.”
“Okay, look,” said Alexa, exasperated. “I know I don’t look like myself, I’ll admit, but I’ve got money. I’ll pay you four thousand dollars to take me there.”
The skipper squinted and frowned.
“Ten,” he said.
“Six-three,” Alexa responded. She produced her roll of bills and counted off twelve five-hundreds and two hundreds. She dug in her pocket for a couple of fifty-dollar coins and held out the money for him.
The skipper glanced from her roll to the money, back to the roll, then to her bloodshot eyes.
“Okay,” he said. “But you’re getting a hammock in the hold, got it? No cabin, no frills, and eating more than your share will cost you.”
“Fine,” Alexa sighed, passing over the money. She picked up her packs and followed the skipper inside.
“You realize,” he said. “You’re taking your life into your own hands, what with that mad man out there blowing ships up.”
“Yeah,” Alexa said quietly. She looked over her shoulder, down the loading ramp, into the harsh desert day. The waves of rippling heat made the horizon look like an ocean. “But hopefully he’s got his mind on other things today.”