Deputy Inspector Janine Kilel tracked the surveillance drone out of the corner of her eye as it hovered over the blackened landscape of the refuge. She sat in the front seat of her forest-green cruiser, its doors emblazoned with the shield of the Bureau of Environmental Security, going over intelligence reports on her highest priority case, an oil-smuggling ring operating on the west coast of North America. As the one available case officer in the region, she was sent to the fire scene when BES monitoring stations picked up the emergency calls. A screen showed the refuge from the drone’s perspective, but Kilel’s attention was on an analysis of the smugglers’ conjectured routes. The pigeon-sized copter’s AI maneuvered among the blackened pines and halted the aircraft at each stump of wheat grass, sedge, wild sunflower, and yarrow.
A tiny beep interrupted Kilel’s focus, and the drone’s camera showed the ash-covered corpse of a bird, its feathers burned off. Taking control of the camera, Kilel sought out a yellow band on the leg, but the bird appeared to be a juvenile, rather than an adult banded by the biologists who monitored the refuge. Kilel touched a key, instructing the copter to search for similar objects, and the aircraft found two more dead chicks.
Kilel recalled the copter, and she opened up the local fire district database via her tablet. She found the preliminary report on the fire. It pinned the cause on flying embers from the fire at the neighboring property, which belonged to a William Penn. There was a link from the name in the fire district report to the county sheriff’s database, and she read a summary of his case file. A driver’s license photo showed a man in early middle age with short-cropped hair, kind eyes, a roman nose, and thin lips. She noted numerous carbon breaches, though the penalties were slaps on Penn’s wrists. Penn was an ongoing problem, and Kilel wondered if law enforcers in these parched Oregon counties would ever understand the seriousness of environmental crimes. It doesn’t matter. It’s in my lap now. She pressed the accelerator, and the car’s electric motor whispered.
Kilel saw the mailbox at the gate to the Penn property before she made out the burned-out house, eddies of smoke rising from the ruins. The lights of the pumper truck and the aid unit flashed as the firefighters and the paramedics packed up. She edged the cruiser past the scene to a spot closer to the refuge. The state fire-suppression unit was mopping up near the ridgeline.
The inspector was tall, athletic, with bust and hips proportional. She wore office-style attire, standardized for the Bureau. The com stud in her ear was functional, without the decorative flourishes some women preferred. Her blond hair was cut in a plain manner and she wore little makeup. She didn’t need it. Her father described her as pretty, but not girlish. She had a voice the color of fine dark bread, and lips as smooth as nectarine skin. She was a woman unafraid of her own power.
Walking a quarter-mile up a trail that wound through the desolation, she found the corpses of two adult birds, a type of magpie, near a dead chick in the remains of a nest. She bent down to the victims, resisting the urge to touch the evidence in a crime scene. Kilel grew heartsick as she imagined the adult birds, torn between escape and protecting their offspring, overwhelmed by the speed of the fire. How many other times will this drama play out, as the Spike continues to devastate the natural world? All the efforts to protect wildlife for future generations undone by the thoughtlessness of one person. She had joined the BES to defend nature and her planet against such people.
The birds were dead, but the ID chips in the bands still transmitted species, sex, banding date, and ID number. Kilel noted the codes as she tapped into the biologists’ database. Only twenty-nine nesting pairs remained in the wild. Walking through the open graveyard, Kilel found fifty-two more dead adults. She guessed that all the chicks were dead, or soon would be. All the nesting pairs lived in this refuge. No signals broadcast for the remaining four known adults. She imagined them flying off in terror; it would be up to the biologists to find them in the follow-up investigation.
Kilel tipped her head back and opened her eyes to the sky, where a pair of turkey vultures circled overhead. She offered a prayer for the deceased birds.
The inspector returned to her car, and she drove into Penn’s driveway. She recognized him from the driver’s license photo. Next to him was a young woman whom Kilel deduced was his daughter Anne. Her arm was woven into her father’s. A sheriff’s patrol car obscured Kilel’s view, but she watched them through the car’s glass, as if peering through layers of time. An unwelcome memory stirred: a grieving father at the bedside of a dying mother. Brushing the memory from her mind, Kilel glanced in the rear-view mirror, her mahogany-colored eyes seeking out the robot in its locker, which took up half of the rear compartment. A ready light glowed green.
The robot left the car, and Kilel followed, smoothing out the dark green fabric of her BES uniform. The color matched the green paint of the car. A small gold tulip was pinned to the collar of her blouse, the color of malachite. Kilel approached Penn, the girl Anne, and the deputy, her robot a step behind her.
The girl glanced back to the refuge, which was smoking like a vision of hell.
“No, you can’t take him.” Anne shook her head, in denial of facts she knew to be true. “It was an accident.”
“William Penn?” Kilel ignored the girl and addressed a man with a dirty face and stained t-shirt. Her voice was even and smooth. The sheriff’s deputy stepped back.
“Yes.” Penn’s eyes widened with fear. Fear is good.
“My name is Kilel.” Her BES badge reflected the lights of the emergency vehicles. “I am an environmental crimes investigator. This is—was—your house?” Kilel saw his pulse jump, belied by the throbbing carotid artery in his neck. If he ran, the security robot would hunt and stop him.
“I’m sorry for the loss of your house, Mr. Penn.” Kilel’s feeling was sincere. “A preliminary investigation of this incident has found that the burning of your structure led to the fire at the wildlife refuge.”
“It was an accident.” Anne’s blond hair hung limp against her face.
Penn broke in. “I was cooking dinner when there was a spark—”
“Before you say anything more,” Kilel said, “I advise you that this conversation is being recorded, and your words and actions are evidence.”
“I must ask you to turn around and place your hands behind your back.”
He complied, as if it were a habit. Anne shouted and tried to push Kilel away, but the deputy restrained her. “Anne,” Penn said, “don’t make it worse. You know the bessies will, if they can.” Penn’s face tensed with rage.
Kilel ignored Penn’s assessment and the “bessie” insult. She tightened the handcuffs around his wrists. “You are under arrest, Mr. Penn, for destroying protected habitat of an endangered species, unauthorized killing of members of that species, and violations of the Carbon Acts.”