"A Spearfish Lake Story"
The night air felt almost cool. In spite of the lights, there were stars overhead. Brandy glanced up at them, and they seemed different than she remembered from when Mark Gravengood had stood out on the airstrip behind his house and pointed out the constellations with a big flashlight, before letting her look through his big telescope. But here she was way south of Spearfish Lake, south of the equator, even, and the sky was in fact a different sky.
Mark may have done her a favor, on that night and several other nights, when he aroused her interest in the sky and taught her a little bit about it. Not that she’d ever cared to be an astronomer, but it gave her a sense of the wider world around her, gave her an interest in science. But then again, it may not have been a favor, she thought. If she hadn’t gotten interested in science, then she wouldn’t be in this shithole.
She reached in her shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette and a lighter. Back when she’d been an athlete and a pretty damn good one, she’d never even thought of smoking, but out on the site, it seemed like a natural thing to do. Everybody wound up smoking when they got on a crew like this. It was something to do, something to help their concentration. Of course, a lot of people turned to serious drinking, too, but she’d always managed to avoid that. Even Phil had taken to smoking when he’d been on that first site with her, but he’d managed to shake it, and she never smoked around home, just to not wave it in his face. And besides, she didn’t need to there.
But, on the site, how good it felt to get the hell out of the Front Range Technical Services data trailer and have a good, rewarding cigarette. They never smoked in the data trailer, since there was always the fear that it would gum up some piece of equipment or skew some data, which would cause them to take longer to get the job done and get back to the world. The brand was Bolivian, or at least South American; she didn’t know, and didn’t particularly care. It was raw and rough and cheap compared to American cigarettes, and she wasn’t sure she cared for the taste, but any cigarette tasted good just then.
She started walking away from the trailer. She didn’t dare go too far; like any mine site, she didn’t trust the miners as far as she could throw a fit, and the ones here seemed scummier than most. She was fairly safe around the main camp area, but it wasn’t a good idea to go down to the village in the dark. Or, even in the light, not without going in a group of four or five people, and maybe with an armed guard or two. But, even in this pimple on the ass of the world, there weren’t many people around at three in the morning. The best part about it being this early was that she didn’t have to look at what a shithole this place really was. She knew that if she was out there in the daylight, it would be just bare ugly rock, torn to shit by all the mining. Nowhere would there be one speck of green; this might as well have been a moonscape, except that a moonscape would probably have been less man-touched and more interesting.
Her eyes flared as she struck the Bic lighter, drawing the smoke deep in her lungs. It almost helped. "God, am I tired of this miserable shitass place," she said out loud to the empty night. If she never saw another goddamn mine in her life, it would be too soon. She’d been in a few places that really weren’t too bad, but all too many sucked so bad that she couldn’t come up with swear words to describe them. This might not have been the worst one she’d ever worked at, but it had to be close, and she didn’t want to expend mental energy figuring out where she’d been that could have been even more disgusting.
And, the future didn’t look better. They weren’t even half done with this job yet, and they were running behind, and the time they’d lost would have to come out of their time off, so they could make the scheduled start date on the next job. In Pakistan. In the summer. This place was hot and dry and dusty and ugly enough, but Torvaldsen had been to the site in Pakistan, and he said it was a damn sight worse, if there could possibly be such a thing. It was hot enough here, but that was really an oven, he’d told the rest of the crew. And worse than that, she knew damn well the job after that one was going to have to start in November – in Siberia, in some place with an unpronounceable name that she was sure meant "Frozen Butt." The way things were going, she’d be lucky if she saw Phil six weeks in the next year.
God, it may have been cold up there in Alaska, but she hoped he was having fun. One of the few things that made this place barely tolerable was the satellite link to Denver, which was mostly used to transfer some parts of the data for processing that required more computers than they had here with them. But, the satellite link also gave them the Internet. She’d been checking the race standings on the Iditarod headquarters web page virtually every hour. Phil was going like a son of a gun. He’d blown through Yentna with only enough time to be checked in, and started for Skwentna, running only a couple spots behind Martin Buser and ahead of Doug Swingley and even farther ahead of Tiffany. The race was still shaking out, though. It’d take a couple days before there could be a real feel of how Phil was doing. She’d know more after he reached the next checkpoint, but it’d be at least three hours before he checked in there and the results would be uploaded. It was going to be a night run – it was still evening there, and Alaska was well behind the time in Bolivia.
Damn, it would have been nice to be there. Not that there was anything that she could have done but maybe ride the trailer on the ceremonial first leg, which didn’t count for times, and then cheer him on at the real start in Wasilla and be there to greet him at Nome, but still, it was important. This was his dream; he’d worked toward it for years, working with Josh and Tiffany every chance he got, helping them out in a lot of ways. And, they’d been nice to him about it. He was driving what was admittedly a junior varsity team compared to Tiffany’s, but it wasn’t that bad of a junior varsity, and it was good enough to give him a real shot at rookie of the year. If he managed to get that, or even close, or even just finish well in his rookie year, it’d be a personal victory for him.
One that she couldn’t share.
She’d sent him good luck by e-mail, and they’d even talked by satellite phone before the race had started, but it wasn’t the same as being there. And she knew damn well that the Anchorage Daily News reports on the web and the race updates from the Iditarod were about the only news she was going to hear about him until the race was over with. There wouldn’t be any e-mail or phone calls at least till then, and it would be months before she could congratulate him in person. Damn. "You sure are giving him a lot of support," she said to herself in a voice dripping with sorrow and sarcasm. And yes, on the verge of tears.
She’d been at shitty sites before, but this one took the prize for solid crap. Once, she’d enjoyed this job. It had been an adventure, even thrilling and exciting. She dragged deep on the cruddy weed and reflected that it just wasn’t an adventure anymore. Phil was having an adventure, something new and different and challenging. Oh, there were challenges here, there always were, but they were getting routine. There weren’t really challenges on this job anymore, just pains in the ass that slowed them down, kept them from getting out of this kind of crapass place so they could rush to some other crappierass place. Worst of all, they’d long since quit breaking new ground technically. Once they’d got the systems working near the peak of theoretical efficiency, it had just been a matter of learning how to use them. She’d reached the point where there wasn’t much to learn about them. Oh, there was still the odd tweak to make here and there, but usually the improvement in results weren’t worth the cost of the upgrades.
She used to enjoy working with the team members, but this time it was way past getting sour. The living quarters were made out of shipping containers, they were like ovens even with the air conditioning built into them, the individual compartments were about the size of a closet in her home in Spearfish Lake. And to make it worse, of the four compartments in the container she was in, one was Torvaldsen’s and another Dothan’s, and they were gay. No, the hell with being politically correct, they were downright goddamn queers, and the sounds of two men getting it on cornholing each other and grunting and groaning at any old hour of the day and night were starting to grate on her. Well, long past starting. Didn’t they ever give it a break?
Then, Torvaldsen and Dothan had had some sort of lover’s quarrel, and Torvaldsen started hitting on Kenner, who wasn’t queer. It had led to a fist fight in the data trailer, which fortunately got shoved outside before there was any equipment damaged. To top it off, Dothan had slugged Torvaldsen for hitting on Kenner. That wasn’t any prettier, but at least that wasn’t in the data trailer. That had been a couple of weeks ago, but nothing had been solved, there was no way of screwing the shifts around so the three wouldn’t be in contact with each other. No one dared say anything without fear of touching off a renewed round of warfare. "Pass the salt" in the mess trailer had been heavy conversation, and nobody talked in the data trailer unless it was strictly business, and then only if absolutely necessary. That asshole site manager Warwick didn’t have a clue of how to put the fire out, not that she did, either, but he’d been the one hired to deal with problems on the site so the team could work on getting the data out.
There just wasn’t any of the sense of camaraderie that there had been in the past at other sites, even with the same crew. Once, they had been a band of, well, brothers, all working together as a team in pursuit of truth and knowledge in the face of adversity. It had been fun. Not now.
She sucked on the cigarette again and realized it was getting short. She rolled it around her index finger to hold it with her thumb and gave it a flick with her ring finger without even thinking about it. The orange light of the tip spiraled as it flew away from her to land out in the rocks somewhere. At least there wasn’t any worry of anything that could catch on fire. There was nothing out there but rock, nothing that would burn. Once rock had been interesting, fascinating, a lot of her reason for being. Now, it was just goddamn ugly. It’d be nice to be out on a sailboat somewhere on the ocean where she didn’t have to see one miserable pebble.
Absentmindedly, she reached into her shirt pocket and pulled out another one of those foul Bolivian or whatever the hell they were cigarettes and lit it, only wondering afterward why she’d done it. But, the hell with it, it gave her a reason to keep from going back in the data trailer, and she didn’t give a damn if she ever went in there again. "Why the hell do I keep doing this to myself?" she asked out loud, and she wasn’t talking about the cigarette.
It wasn’t as if she needed the money. With this job she didn’t have to spend much money – hell, there was no way to spend it, most of the time. She’d just let Phil invest it for her, and she’d done some riding up of the market herself. And, she’d still have the royalties on the magres device. She’d still be a partner, too, and they’d never missed a dividend. That had gone into the market, too. If she cashed out, she’d be well into seven figures, maybe eight. Realistically, she’d never have to work a day in her life again if she didn’t want to. And, Phil had made a potload, too. Some people would think it would be great to retire at thirty-four, well, almost thirty-five now. But, what the hell would she do then?
She was not a person who could sit around. Back when Phil was on the road, too, she’d be home for a month or two, and he’d only be home for a few days, and she’d almost go nuts from boredom waiting for the time to head out again to the next site. This last year wasn’t too bad, but last time it had actually been hard to leave, knowing what Phil was going to be doing. She should have been there helping, not racing out to bumfuck South America. She didn’t really know a hell of a lot about the dogs, and probably wouldn’t have been any help, but she should have supported his efforts, the way he’s supported her when she dreamed up the magres concept.
Maybe Phil was right, back there after Christmas, when they’d spent the evening eating pizza and drinking the refrigerator dry of beer with John and Candy Archer. That was something that normal people did, not people who were crazy enough to spend their lives in places like this. Just being friends. God knew that seemed like heaven, right now. But Phil had said that she’d go nuts if she had to sit around with nothing challenging to do, and she’d drive him nuts in the process.
"But, goddamn," she said to the night air, "I’ll go nuts if I have to keep doing this, too."
It was a point. But, she couldn’t see how she could live what most people would consider a normal life. Say, a life like Candy’s. Candy was good people, a good mom, trying to do the right thing. Brandy knew she’d be a crappy mom, and couldn’t put up with that sort of nonsense, kids and PTA and like that. She never could, and even though she knew her biological clock was ticking, she’d never particularly been aware of the noise. There’d always been other things to do.
There had to be some sort of answer, and all of a sudden she realized she wasn’t going to find it here. Phil had stayed with Hadley-Monroe longer than he should have, and at least the Iditarod was helping him clean up some of the burnout. And, she was burned out, too – no question about that, worse than Phil had ever been. She had been for a while, just too damn hardheaded to admit it. She had no idea of what she was going to do, but one thing was clear – whatever it was, it wasn’t going to involve Front Range Technical Services. The hell with them.
She flicked the cigarette away. She didn’t need it anymore. Now that the decision had been made, there was no point in pissing around. She turned around and headed for the housing containers, not running, but walking fast, right up to the door of Warwick’s compartment and beat on the door, hard, yelling, "Get your fat ass out of that sack!"
A mumble came from within. "Brandy, what’s up?" came from behind the door.
"Get the hell up and get me scheduled on a flight to the world. I want to get out of here at first light."
"Brandy, it’s three in the morning," Warwick pleaded.
"I don’t give a reeking fart what time it is," she replied, a fire in her voice. "I’m a partner in this shitass outfit, and you’re just a goddamn employee. Now get your ass up and get me the hell out of here."
There were lots of people who found travel interesting and loved the opportunity to go to exotic places. Once upon a time, Brandy had been one of them. There’d once been a time that interesting geology in some godforsaken spot had been fascinating, and the travel involved was also exciting. But, that grows old after a while – Phil could have given seminars on the topic – and sitting on an airliner had long since become an experience that mostly numbed her butt. The only good thing about this flight was that its ass end was pointed toward Bolivia.
Once Warwick had gotten the message, he’d actually moved pretty well, she thought. He wasn’t much of a people man, and not a real self-starter, which was a lot of the problem they’d been having, but give him a job and he did pretty decently with it. It was most of a two-day trip by Jeep to make it to the airport, and she’d made it pretty clear to him that she was in a hurry. Neither of them trusted the local air charter outfit out of La Paz, if for no more reason than it had always struck them that you could pick up a pretty expensive habit if you breathed the air in the cabin too deeply. It was a good way to get to the states if you wanted to get there stealthily, but with a chance of doing twenty to life if you got caught.
But Warwick had gotten around that, which was definitely a feather in his cap. There was an American missionary outfit that flew out of a little town in the eastern part of the country, and he’d been in high school with a gal who had married one of the pilots. She was stuck up from the word go, always on the God box, and never would have dreamed of a kiss on a date, let alone going all the way. But, she’d been happy to see someone from home, and her husband didn’t mind some green under the table to do a favor for a friend of his wife once in a while. They weren’t supposed to fly actual charters at all, and Warwick suspected the donations actually went to the organization. They were that kind of people.
"Brandy, I don’t know what yanked your chain," Warwick had said. "But do me a favor and watch your damn mouth when you’re with Jeff, would you?" And, a little to her own surprise, she had kept her anger down. Jeff, the missionary pilot, without saying anything much, had made it clear that he actually liked Bolivia and its people, but then, he wasn’t dealing with a bunch of ignorant, drunken miners, either. Mostly she’d watched her mouth because the alternative was a two-day Jeep ride, rather than a couple hours in a Cessna 185.
Warwick had done a good job on short notice on the freedom bird, too. There were no direct flights, of course, but he’d been able to get her on a flight to Panama that afternoon, and another to Miami that evening, which she was on now. There’d be a couple hours layover in Miami, during which she needed to work on some other arrangements. Then, he had her on a redeye to Denver, which is where the home office was, but as luck had it the plane continued on to Seattle, which was better for her. It wasn’t any great trick to extend the flight, even if Warwick couldn’t figure what she wanted in Seattle.
Brandy was tired, now, and she had been up all night. Sheer exhaustion was beginning to bank her anger a little. It still burned within her, along with the uncertainty about what the future would bring, but she felt comfortable with her decision; she knew it had been the right one.
Jet lag wasn’t going to be much of a problem on this trip, mostly south to north, but her schedule was all out of whack, and that just dragged her down. She kicked the seat back and hoped she could get a little sleep, but she soon realized that the daylight and the adrenaline still pumping through her were going to just keep her groggy, at best.
Helpless to stop, and enjoying the memory anyway, she let her mind slide back to college.
She remembered how bored she’d been in the class, checking her watch every few minutes. "Teaching Reading in Secondary Schools" was about the least favorite class she’d taken in college, but it was required for a teaching certificate as a backup to what she really planned to do, and that was that. Even it being her last class on Friday had brought no joy to her. About all she’d had to look forward to for this winter weekend was to go back to her place and study. Even the weather had showed little promise of being able to get out on her cross-country skis and enjoy it. Being in her own place a mile from Michigan Tech had seemed like a good idea the previous fall; in her freshman year, she’d endured enough of dorm life and distractions, and the kid down the hall playing Jenny Easton tapes all the time just made it worse, but she was bored.
She had experienced the odd class with Phil ever since she had come to Michigan Tech. He was a tall, thin guy who planned to be a computer tech, and he’d managed to disrupt a lot of classes. He’d made a habit of entering a discussion with an opposing viewpoint and pushing it vehemently; the more outrageous his contention, the more he seemed to like it.
Brandy remembered sitting in that classroom, thinking about him for a moment, and all of a sudden an idea struck her. She’d doubted if he had a regular girlfriend, so she’d figured he’d be perfect. When the class let out. Brandy had gathered up her books and waited for Phil outside the classroom door. "I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a bad case of the winter blahs," she’d told him.
He nodded. "I know what you mean. My boredom is only overcome by my depression."
She still couldn’t believe that she’d been so forward. A hesitation had come over her, and her determination had faltered for a moment before she let caution fly to the wind. "Well, it just struck me," she’d said, "That the best cure I can think of besides going to Florida is to get drunk and get laid. If you want to bring enough booze over to my place to get us both blasted, I’ll make us some dinner, and you can spend the night."
She smiled at the memory of Phil’s mouth opening and closing a couple times before any words came out; he’d never had an invitation quite like that. "Where do you live?" he finally stammered.
"I’ve got a trailer down at Mistake on the Lake," she’d replied, referring to a campground that had more or less become filled with live-in students with their own travel trailers or miniature mobile homes. The trailer park that the Michigan Tech students called "Mistake on the Lake" had been pretty grubby – not unexpected, as it had been nestled on the shores of slimy Portage Lake, long polluted to death by mine tailings. The place had been gone the last time Brandy had been in Houghton. Good riddance, really, but there were memories lost with it, so she still mourned it a little. The best that could have been said for it on that February day long ago was that with snow burying everything, it hadn’t looked too bad, even though she’d known that when spring came, it would return to its normal condition of resembling the city dump. Mostly, the residents had been students like herself who resented living in dorms, or, also like her, were trying to save a buck. But, the people who had lived there tended to be friendly, which had helped make the place tolerable; they could all share their mutual complaints about the park, the weather, the school, and everything else they could bitch about.
Phil had shown up at her trailer not long after class, and they were a long time getting to the food. They didn’t even make much of a dent in the booze. He wound up staying the weekend, and before it was over, she’d found herself wondering how she’d ever done without him, and how she could ever do without him.
Phil officially stayed in the dorm the rest of the semester, and even occasionally spent a night there, but mostly he lived with her at Mistake on the Lake. When the semester ended, she could hardly tell him good-bye when he’d headed back down to his folks place at Arvada Center. He’d had a job lined up for the summer, driving a delivery truck for the farm center, while she was going to work on one of Uncle Rod’s archeological digs in Montana. But, despite the excitement of working with Uncle Rod, she’d been lonely for Phil. They’d been apart for all of three weeks, and she’d missed him terribly. Then Uncle Rod had said he wished he’d had someone who could run a loader and remove overburden. She knew that Phil had run farm equipment, and a quick phone call to Arvada Center had brought him as fast as his battered old Buick could carry him. He’d missed her, too.
They had been together a lot the next few years. Phil’s folks had been kind of straight, and he’d been a little leery of telling them that he was planning on shacking up with his girlfriend the next fall; for that matter, Brandy wasn’t real sure how her folks would take it, either. So, he’d officially stayed in the dorm, but had only used the dorm room when people were visiting, or for storage of stuff they didn’t have room for in the tiny trailer. It was just as well; his roomie had been a jerk, anyway. In their senior years, they didn’t even bother with the fiction of him living in the dorm.
As she sat there on the plane reminiscing, Brandy thought it might have been the happiest time of her life, playing two sports, basketball and softball, and going all-conference in both, while carrying a full load and studying till the brains ran out of her nose like snot. Phil had been doing the same thing, absent the sports but working a variety of junk jobs around Houghton.
They’d been just as close in grad school in Colorado. They’d had a tiny apartment near campus, but it was larger than the trailer, so it had seemed like they had all the room in the world. The course work was even tougher. Their specialties were enough different that they couldn’t really share shop talk. Phil didn’t know a strata from an intrusion and couldn’t have cared less, and she’d felt much the same about the computer esoterica that he spent many hours with. It was in the years of the early PCs, and while they were slow compared to the mainframes he’d started messing with at Tech, the power and portability of the PCs had obvious applications to him that were totally oblivious to Brandy.
It had been while she had just been getting started on her doctorate that she’d gotten immersed in a problem not making much sense to her. Phil had told her to talk it through to him, even though she knew he wouldn’t understand it; it was a trick they’d learned to use with each other to get over such tough spots. Midway through her description, Phil had made a comment that was totally ignorant of the problem – and wrong, to boot – but it set a train of thought going in her mind that eventually turned into with the initial idea for the magres. It was a totally unrelated approach that no one had ever tried before.
She’d tried it out on one of her professors. He’d thought it might have some merit, but that it would be expensive to implement. He’d helped her try for a grant, but it was a little too offbeat, so the professor had tipped off a former student that he had someone with a wild hair that might have some merit. That former student had become a partner in Front Range Technical Services, and they were always looking for wild hairs with merit. Suddenly Brandy’s doctoral program got shoved to the side for the thrill of developing a real-world application.
The next year was intense. Phil didn’t have any real idea of what the system did, or was supposed to do, but he could help make it work, and he could write the software to turn the raw data into usable information. The first versions were primitive, of course, and took forever to run on a 286, the best they’d had to work with back then, but the first iteration showed that the idea would work. At the end of that year, they were out in the field on a job in Mexico, where Brandy was making the magres burp up real results, and Phil was bored out of his wits.
I should have quit then and just taken the royalties, Brandy thought. But, the magres was her baby, and it wasn’t easy to give up. The first rig had mostly been a breadboard, and there were lots of obvious improvements to make. Brandy knew she wasn’t a lot of fun to be with when she was massaging data in the field, and it didn’t come easy the first few years, so she didn’t blame Phil for wanting to do something else. It would only be a year or two, they’d reasoned, and then they could be together again. In the meantime, they could get together now and then. But, a year or two had turned into over ten, and sometimes she wondered if it had only been inertia and lack of opportunity and the house in Spearfish Lake that kept them together at all. He’d have quit Hadley-Monroe in a minute years ago if she’d given up the field work, and he had only stayed with it because the money was great and there was nothing better to do. And finally, he’d stayed with it so long that he couldn’t take it any longer, whether she was doing field work or not.
She’d always done best when working on a new problem. Well, she had a new problem now, although this time not technical – she had to put a life back together again. It couldn’t be that impossible, after all. Her beautiful, talented, naïve sister Jennifer had pulled hers back together from a position that was quite literally driving her nuts, and had done it with only a few people realizing there was any problem at all. Most of them, like Brandy, had only found out about her nearly suicidal depression after the fact. Jennifer’s solution was a little out of the box, but it had worked for her, and Brandy didn’t mind solutions that were out of the box, so long as they worked.
Brandy was still enjoying happy memories on the plane somewhere over the Caribbean, when she finally fell asleep and dreamed of a dogsled and a team of dogs running through a frozen wilderness.