Short Stories - Ice Farming

Ice Farming - © 2006 By Steven Dufresne, all rights reserved.

Griswald grinned widely at the sight of the seventy year old CD-ROM drive buried in a layer of grey-brown dust, the taste of fresh fruits and vegetables one step closer to reality. He put the drive in his tattered, canvas knapsack. A few minutes more and he found the right cable to go with it.

The hairs on the back of his neck rose at a scraping sound from somewhere in the cold, dark, steel cabinet-filled storage room. A quick look found his favourite pet chipmunk on the opposite side of the aisle, scratching at something at the foot of a filing cabinet.

"Jeez Chip. Don't frighten me like that."

Having what he'd come for he put Chip in an inside pocket of his fur coat, grabbed his methane lantern, and left the room, lead by the vapour from his breath.

He reentered a larger room filled with ghosts from the past: Sioux Indians hunting bison, voyageur canoes forging a frothing river--paintings from the history of a country no longer existent. The bison still ran free (he'd even had bison steak once) but the river was iced over permanently most years, being so close to the glaciers.

After passing through a gloomy corridor lit by windows backed mostly by stratified, sun-baked, porous ice, he exited the side door to the former Library and Archives Canada building. The bright noon sun negated the need for the lantern so he extinguished it and closed the door as well as he could given the damage he'd done breaking it open. Powdery snow slipped down behind him as he climbed the hole he'd dug to reach the door.

He stood for a moment to look around him. Ottawa had once been the capital of Canada. Now it was a resource mine, a source of wood, brick, copper, plastic and all the other materials needed by the equatorial people. Rounded mounds of snow covered old buildings, their legacies now rubble. Where scavenging was in progress, the snow blanket was removed to expose tortured skeletons of metal beams and collapsed brick walls. But the skeletons stayed visible only a few days, until the next snowfall.

From an inner pocket he pulled out a small dust coloured sack of hard bread, took a few bites and gently lifted Chip from his warm pocket.

"Hope you found something to eat around the archives," he said feeding Chip a few crumbs, "because that's all there'll be till dinner."

The search for the CD-ROM drive had taken Griswald less time than expected. Combined with the walk back to the work site, he'd return in time for the afternoon shift. After strapping on his snow shoes and taking a last opportunity to scratch at his grizzled chin, he wound his scarf around the lower half of his face and began the journey.

* * *

The noon sun baked the large rectangular patio stones which then added their own heat to the already burning air. As it did twice a year at the equator, the sun crossed directly overhead, making sharp shadows directly under the ornate mahogany table, velvet-cushioned chairs and the surrounding ferns and palm trees.

Vincente and Katherine kept quiet as Katherine's servant finished pouring the tea. Vincente admired the elegance with which he poured, the spout never making contact with the translucent china cup, the flow of golden fluid strong and steady. Afterwards the servant bowed to Katherine and left.

Ah, thought Vincente, it must be nice to be a member of the royal family and have servants wait on you. He was tempted to nibble on the honey sweetened pastries but remembered that he was watching his weight. He settled for stroking his goatee instead.

"And what other options is the engineering guild exploring?" Katherine restarted the conversation.

"There is a new possibility. Tabletop fusion. A CD has been found that allegedly contains the details needed for making a useful amount of energy from it. Apparently it was one of the many things being worked on feverishly just before the freeze. According to the stories, the mechanics of it turned out to be not so hard, once you know them." Vincente made sure to pepper his statements with plenty of qualifiers. So many avenues in the quest for new energy sources turned into blind alleys.

"A CD?" Katherine watched Vincente carefully pick up his cup. "Can we read those?"

Vincente lowered his cup without taking a sip, regretting his inadvertent use of the old acronym. "The technology has been lost. But, among the scavengers there's someone who has a reputation for finding and making the old technology work. Our contacts say he can read it for us."

Her brow furrowed, and in a tone that indicated she didn't like what she was hearing said, "The scavengers?"

"Uh, yes."

"And what does this scavenger want in return?"

After a pause Vincente managed, "Seeds."

Katherine also paused, and then with obvious distaste for the idea repeated, "Seeds."

"Uh, yes."

Katherine carefully set her cup on the table and leaned closer to Vincente, her perfume choking him a little, though he held back from coughing.

"Vincente. Sometimes you engineers forget that you are working more than for your own pleasure. We trade food, along with fuel, with the scavengers. That's how we keep them in line. That's how we get what we want out of them. If they should start growing their own food again..."

Vincente decided to defend his actions. "Oh but how could they? Their land is either covered in snow or frozen rock-solid. They could never grow enough for more than the occasional treat."

A hint of anger in her voice, she replied, "Don't underestimate them Vincente. If one of them can get old computers and CD-ROM drives to work, ..." She left it hanging. "Will they take anything else in exchange?"

"Possibly." He dared not tell her that he'd never asked.

A raised eyebrow was her response.

Vincente thought fast. "But we'll send something else along, methane, and insist on that instead," and after a painful silence he blurted out, "I'll see to it personally."

"Do that," she said, her hard stare a warning.

But of course that meant he would have to leave the snug warmth of the equator for the freezing cold of the north. Despite the heat, he shivered as he exited the palace.

* * *

The blizzard had died down only a half hour before the plane radioed that it was almost there. Griswald put his back into helping the twenty other men push the snow from the runway, back breaking work that had taken them three hours altogether. He hoped it would be worth it. No sooner had the shovels been returned to the garage than the sound of the propellers could be heard. Shortly afterwards, an ancient, aluminum skinned, twin prop plane that seated only around forty-five landed.

He waited near the foot of the ladder while the plane's only door opened. One of the men checked each newly descended passenger against a list on his clipboard and directed them.

When one of the passengers said, "Vincente Marques," Griswald stepped forward. "He's with me."

He extended his hand. "Mr. Marques. I'm Eldon Griswald. People just call me Griswald."

He didn't bother asking how the journey had been, knowing that some of the hops would have been in planes stripped for carrying cargo, seats being strapped into place only as needed. He immediately lead the way to the warm buildings, keeping up a light conversation while walking. The southerners were kept happier by keeping them warm. He left Vincente at the guest quarters to rest, having arranged to come for him at three o'clock.

Griswald went to the building containing his rooms to make sure again that everything was set up. By five minutes to three, he was back in the guest quarters lobby. Vincente showed up a few minutes late carrying a large metal suitcase. Griswald thought the case was a little oversized for a CD and a dozen packets of seeds but said nothing. He lead the way to his rooms, making use of the covered walkways even though it meant going through a few extra buildings on the way.

"Here we are, Mr. Marques." Griswald showed him into his combined bedroom and work room, or junk room as some of his friends referred to it, owing to the loose piles and odd boxes of electrical devices and components in various states of repair.

Vincente stood and looked around for a few seconds. Griswald noticed but carefully ignored the scowl on his face.

Two mismatched once-varnished chairs faced a splintered wooden table on which sat a computer, its inner workings exposed, the cover long since lost. Beside that was a bulky cathode ray tube monitor and a keyboard. A laser printer sat on a box beside the table and near the door. It had taken Griswald two obsessive but blissful years to get the printer working. Luckily he'd found some toner cartridges still in their sealed packages.

The room behind the chairs was dominated by a bed which, in strong contrast to the clutter of the rest of the room, was well made, the light brown bedspread pulled taught, the pillow sealed underneath.

The wall at the opposite side of the room was bare of either adornment or window. Instead, the table and the bed ended there. A fallen stack of books filled the space where the wall met the floor in between.

"Please, have a seat." Griswald took the chair nearest the wall, leaving the one closest to the door for Vincente.

"Ah! Cristo!" Vincente jumped back out of his chair. "Look. Rats." He pointed to a small cluster of chipmunks at the base of the fallen stack of books by the bare wall.

Griswald hurried to calm him down. "They're my pets, Mr. Marques."

"You keep rats for pets?" his eyes wide as he asked this.

"Many of us do." Griswald tried to sound reassuring. "They're harmless." He neglected mentioning that they were not rats.

Vincente shook off his instinctual disgust, no doubt reminding himself not to expect much of scavengers and that there was a job to be done.

"Before we start on the CD, can I see the seeds?" Griswald asked.

After a final glance to see that the chipmunks were staying put, Vincente looked around for a place to put his suitcase. Griswald gestured to the bed. Once the suitcase was opened, he saw that it contained a dozen small brown paper envelopes, along with four cylinders containing compressed methane, or so the writing on them said. Griswald quickly grabbed the envelopes and started opening them.

Vincente panicked and reached for a methane cylinder. "But instead of seeds, we thought we'd offer something a little more valuable... given what you are doing for us."

Griswald looked at the cylinder in Vincente's hand and did his best to sound interested. "Methane! Really? How much?" But his real focus was on opening the seed envelopes and pouring two or three seeds from each onto the flat bedsheet.

"12 litres at 200 PSI," Vincente said and added with a touch of fear in his voice as he watched Griswald examining the seeds, "Enough to warm your rooms for a month, light lanterns, or trade for something else."

Griswald took the cylinder from Vincente and held it out in front of him, checking its weight. "Hmmm, I could make good use of these," he said briefly. He opened and closed the valve at the top, sniffing the gas that came out. After a few second's thought he concluded, "Alright. I'll take these instead of the seeds."

Vincente smiled broadly.

"Now let's get you what you came all this way for."

They both sat down again to face the computers.

Griswald held out his hand. "You have the CD?"

Vincente pulled a CD case from a large coat pocket.

Griswald removed the CD from the case and examined its shiny rainbow surface for scratches. "It's in good shape."

He put the CD in the drive and started working at the keyboard while Vincente watched his every move as if to learn how to do the work himself.

Soon Griswald had a list of the CD's contents in front of him. There were only three items.

"Oh, excellent! PDFs!" he said delightedly.

Vincente was none the wiser but it sounded like good news.

"I should be able to print their contents no problem."

"Excellent indeed!" said Vincente.

A minute later shuffling sounds began emanating from the laser printer.

"The pages are coming out over there. Check each one as it comes out to make sure there are no problems."

Vincente immediately moved to the source of the shuffling sound and began inspecting each page as it appeared holding the growing stack to his chest as if to prevent Griswald from seeing what they contained. Griswald remained seated in front of the screen, watching for any error messages. After about fifteen minutes all three documents were printed.

As Vincente bent and put them in his briefcase, his eyes opened wide in horror and he shouted, "Ah! The rats!"

Griswald turned to see six of his chipmunks nibbling at the seeds that he'd dumped onto the bed. Quickly he grabbed them, two at a time, and dropped them on the floor.

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Marques! At least there were only a few seeds out from each envelope."

Griswald carefully brushed any remaining seeds back into the corresponding envelopes, closed them, and handed each to Vincente who put them back in the suitcase. "I really am sorry," Griswald said.

"That's okay," Vincente replied as he hurriedly moved the cylinders from the suitcase to the bed and then closed the suitcase. "No harm was done. You have your methane and I have the contents of the CD. We both have what we want." He smiled generously.

Griswald sighed with relief and handed him the CD. "Thanks. It is nice how some things come out right once in a while."

The excitement over and the transaction concluded, Griswald put a friendly hand on his back. "I'll take you back to your quarters."

They left the rooms and ten minutes later arrived at the guest quarters for good-byes.

As soon as Griswald returned to his work room he checked that the rats were all there. Then, curiosity overcoming him, he sat at his keyboard and started examining the documents which he'd copied from the CD.

"Bonus," he whispered to himself when he realized what he had.

If they could get the tabletop fusion to work, they'd finally have enough energy to reduce their reliance on the southerners. Energy enough also to warm greenhouses all year round. With that thought he lay down on the floor to look under his bed to where the chipmunk's kept their cache of food. Sure enough, there were some seeds on the pile, already dumped there by the chipmunk's, having carried them there in their cheeks. Now things would start to change.

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