By Brian Click
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 6th contest was Cliche.
It was four in the afternoon and getting dark. The gray men in their gray coats were turning into gray slush on the television, blending with each other’s bodies, with the concrete, and with the sky. You could tell the President’s media folks had never put on an event this far north. They hadn’t even thought about the polar night.
With some help from the news agencies, they finally got enough spotlights on Mondale to make him visible in the murk. Now a pale pink haze against the black plain of the reservoir, the President squinted and spoke:
“My fellow Americans. I’m speaking to you this evening from the Yukon River in central Alaska, where one of the boldest and most expansive projects ever undertaken by our nation is drawing to a close.”
“Boldest and most expensive, he means,” mumbled Pete, staring through the television set and the droning Minnesotan. “Get us another round, Sarah. We’re going to need it to get through Eric the Red here’s rousing battlefield speech.”
“I’m not your waitress, Pete,” she reminded him. Grumbling, the engineer dropped the can between his Carolinas with a clang. As he wandered over to the icebox, it rolled away to join the others in a pile on the basement floor. He was tying one on quick, alright, but Sarah supposed that was his right. Their jobs were over and tonight was the big show.
She closed her eyes. She’d prayed that morning that it would all go smoothly, but she supposed it couldn’t hurt to give the Lord a little reminder. But Mondale’s voice cut right through her thoughts.
“Behind me lies the greatest manmade lake in history: the Rampart Canyon Reservoir,” he was saying. “By the time it fills to the brim in the year 2000 it will stretch for over ten thousand square miles. That’s larger than Lake Erie, and about the size of the state of Massachusetts.”
Sarah stole a glance at the silent figure next to her. Bart Bear was leafing through a Harley catalogue, not even looking at the TV. Bart’s hometown was hundreds of feet under that reservoir. When the village of Rampart was drowned and the salmon that had supported his tribe beat themselves to a bloody pulp on the concrete, the only work he’d been able to find was as a laborer on the dam that had ruined his life. Now that was enough to make anybody mad.
Mondale was still talking statistics. Maximum outflow of six hundred and three thousand cubic feet per second. Five thousand eight hundred seventy-two megawatts of electric power, all for the people of Alaska. Well, so he said; she noticed he didn’t mention the carnival of electroplaters and aluminum smelters being built in Eureka by out-of-state companies, helped along by heavy doses of corporate welfare. Behind him, the indistinct figures of the governor and various state dignitaries nodded along.
“How about the one-point-five million dead birds, douchebag,” called Joel. The biologist’s goatee was bristling with rage. He cracked a can, raised it to his lips, and took a gulp, eyes fixed on the television and unaware of the High Life dribbling onto his Peruvian sweater.
Fifteen million cubic yards of concrete aggregate. Three-point-four million cubic yards of rock fill. They cut away to helicopter footage, showing the gray cliff of the dam curving away into the dusk.
“Come on,” said Pete. “Where’s the beef?”
Here we go. “It’s an honor to be here at the dedication of this masterpiece of American engineering and industry. But I’m not here today to take credit. That belongs to the scientists, engineers, and builders who dedicated the past fifteen years to this project. To the late Senator Gruening, who lobbied for it tirelessly in Washington. And above all, to one of my predecessors in this office, whose determined leadership made it possible. My fellow Americans, as President of the United States, I officially dedicate this dam and hydroelectric complex to the memory of my colleague – my friend – President Hubert Horatio Humphrey.”
Bart Bear snorted. The suits behind Mondale applauded. Pete spat. His first engineering gig had been building Strategic Hamlets; Humphrey was no American hero in his eyes.
“Hump Dam, that’s a real winner,” Sarah said sourly, but of course everyone had known the name in advance. The Hump was second only to FDR in the Democrats’ civic religion. He’d seen off the closest conservative challenge to their endless rule in 1968, brought in government health care, pumped up the welfare rolls, died a martyr in office – and, like every Democrat since, sent federal money up to Alaska to ruin their land and livelihoods.
When she was little, she’d thought it was great, of course. Everybody did. Federal bulldozers plowing new roads, Hawkins Act make-work crews putting in pipelines, all that cash flowing into the community. Her father’s schoolteacher salary didn’t change, of course, and the price of groceries kept creeping up, but as a kid all she saw was the bold sweep of the new highways. It wasn’t until high school that she realized that the highways went nowhere. They’d been built by a government in hock to the building trades. Meanwhile, Wasilla just kept getting busier and busier as people lined up for that federal dollar. The air force base outside Eagle River doubled in size when she was in ninth grade. Trees were being felled for miles around and replaced with ticky-tacky boxes that looked like something out of California. To a girl who’d been raised loving the wild frontier and knowing that the Lord had given man stewardship over it, something seemed very wrong.
Todd, whose family were fishermen, had fallen head over heels for the Democrats when President Jackson threatened to nuke the Russians over trawling rights in the Bering Sea. It was an argument about politics that had ended things between them, but it probably would have happened anyway. Sarah had always been too independent-minded for him. She’d headed off to college full of piss and vinegar, and there she’d been – well, radicalized was the word folks always used to talk about anybody who questioned the hegemonic discourse, but she preferred to think about it like a shot of hot coffee or a slap to the face. She’d woken up.
She’d shown up to protest when the people from the Interior Department visited to talk about the dam. The weirdo running the panel, one of those ex-commie hawks that Jackson had brought to the White House with him, had ignored every question about the impacts on Alaska’s people and wildlife, not even bothering to refudiate them, just moving on to the next point on the agenda. It was that arrogance that made her mad. That certainty that everything could be run perfectly from a million miles away in Washington, that certainty that ordinary people and their livelihoods and neighborhoods didn’t matter. This bureaucrat thought he could do God’s job. That’s what really got her goat.
And there he was on teevee now, just barely visible outside the spotlights. In the deep video slush behind Mondale’s shoulder, she could see the Secretary of the Interior, Lyndon Marcus, grinning in triumph.
“Can’t believe people want that creep to be President,” said Joel, noticing Marcus at the same time Sarah did. “I mean, even if you’re a Democrat, he’s just a total robot. Build, build, build.” Joel was a nervous talker. He’d barely closed his mouth since they’d descended into the safehouse basement six hours ago.
“Won’t be a problem for much longer,” said Bart, still engrossed in his catalogue.
“ – only the first stage in a continental hydrological engineering project which will nourish our nation for generations to come,” said the President, finally coming to a conclusion. “Now, I believe Secretary Marcus has a few words to say about the North American Water and Power Alliance.”
Mondale was probably a nice family man. His voice even sounded kind of homey to Sarah. The Mat-Su Valley was originally settled from Minnesota; when she’d traveled around the lower states with the Ron Paul campaign last year everyone’d thought she was from the Midwest. She’d gained some respect for the President during those months. At least he was upfront about being the face of overweening statism, y’know? While so many so-called conservatives were all falling over themselves to get behind Brooke or Baker, saying that you had to adapt to the times, that Paul was unelectable, that you had to be Democrat Lite. Look where that got them.
The machine could’ve picked a worse man than Mondale to front it. Well. She would pray for him.
Marcus nodded to his boss and stepped up to the podium. Now this guy was the real deal: bad suit, big ugly specs, thinning crew cut, straight from commie central casting. He looked just like one of the Russian Politburo guys you saw on the international news – but younger and livelier. He had an East Coast accent and a nasty glint in his eyes as he talked about power and control and taming the land.
“He always reminds me of Frankenstein,” she said.
“The doctor or the monster?” asked Joel.
She shrugged. “Both, I guess.” Joel had no sense of drama. The nerd had been her biology TA back in college, and after she’d sympathized with his rants about government-subsidized drilling trashing Alaska, he’d recruited her for the Alaska Liberation Front. The acronym was lucky. If anyone overheard them making plans, they’d think they were talking about the puppet on TV.
She was no bomb-builder or urban guerrilla, but her experience in politics with the Paul ‘84 campaign was handy for the cause – and, being honest, her congeniality and looks probably didn’t hurt her in the vetting process. ALF political education training had been eye-opening. And once she was ready, it had been easy as pie to get in good with the Alaska GOP, land an internship with the Governor, and start collecting information on the upcoming dedication ceremony. She didn’t need security clearance just to know roughly where Mondale and Marcus would be, and when. That was all the ALF’d needed.
On the teevee, Marcus had started to talk about using peaceful nuclear explosions to dig trenches through the Rockies. “Yeah, I’ve heard enough from this clown,” said Sarah. “Is it time yet?”
“Just about,” said Joel, checking his watch. “Less than five minutes.” Their cell had finished its work days ago and had been ordered to lie low, but there were still some crews hard at work, taking orders minute-by-minute directly from the ALF leadership. Sarah didn’t know anything about the people in charge, and she got the sense that Joel didn’t know a whole lot more than she did. She had a theory that Headquarters was outside the state, maybe even in Canada or the Soviet Union, but it was hard to say – there was a lot of untamed country out there.
Those last five minutes dragged on and on in the dank bunker. Marcus rambled about shunting rivers across the Continental Divide, filling the Grand Canyon, demolishing cities and raising new ones from their ashes, bending North America before the golden calf of industry. As he reached a crescendo, Joel began to count down the seconds.
“It’s Humpday,” said Pete, with not even a hint of irony.
Even with Pete and Bart and who knew how many other sympathetic engineers and construction workers on the job site, the ALF hadn’t managed to bury enough explosives in the dam to demolish the thing entirely. Besides, that’d’ve caused a flood and killed people downriver. They had managed, though, to rig enough to send the crest of the dam poofing out into the polar night in a cloud of concrete dust, Presidential press conference and all.
The news cut from panicked anchors to grainy helicopter footage and back. Pete and Joel howled and pounded each other on the back and spilled beer. Bart Bear laughed in triumph.
Sarah just laughed. Even through the awful signal, she could see the Yukon River cresting through the rubble, pouring down the wall of the Humphrey Dam, wild and free.