Chagall rolls up his ski mask, listening to the guard’s Jeep recede down the logging road. A crisp autumn breeze dries the sweat from his face. The engine’s noise echoes faintly off an escarpment to the north and west.
He stands and stretches. Chagall scatters brush across his spy post, and turns to the equipment yard across a scraped and graveled clearing. Halogen lights illuminate feller bunchers, grapple skidders, brush cutters, and knuckle-boom loaders inside the locked compound. Mud-crusted instruments of pillage and blight. Facing the cold steel, what he sees is slaughter. These ponderous beasts have ripped forests whole from the living Earth. In the quiet, Chagall hears an echo of venerable trees screaming.
Donning a pair of thin gloves, he circles to the back corner of the yard. Chain-link fencing gives way to his wire cutters. He snips a vertical incision, two feet off the ground. Then another, parallel to the first. The tool bites into the woodland hush, sharp and steady as a metronome.
A six-cylinder thrum, rising. The saboteur freezes.
The Jeep’s engine is getting louder, straining back up the hill, close enough already that he should see headlights ripping across the trunks of mill-bound trees. There are no headlights. The guard is driving dark.
Chagall steps back from the fence, scanning to see how well its vertical tension hides the damage already done. He pockets the cutters, grabs his pack, and beats a retreat beyond the reach of the compound’s lights.
The security vehicle clatters over road ballast and lurches to a stop. Chagall breathes humidly through his ski mask, crouching behind a manzanita thicket. The rent-a-cop shines a spotlight on the gate and its intact lock, then sweeps the equipment inside. A grapple skidder stands between Chagall’s handiwork and the Jeep. It’s the same guard as last night and the night before that, a slope-shouldered hulk with a wrestler’s low center of gravity.
Chagall has been casing the site for three nights running, hiking in from a camouflaged campsite six miles south and east. Tonight is the first time the guard doubled back to the yard.
The uniformed man emerges from his vehicle, leaving the engine running. Swinging a flashlight as long as his forearm, he paces the length of fence. The beam skims a half-million in heavy machinery. Not a close inspection. His attention is slack, he’s following a boss’s orders. The poor bastard’s job is tedious until the moment it’s not.
The guard remounts his Jeep and guns away into the dark.
Chagall settles himself behind the manzanita. Best to wait a good long while before finishing his business.
* * *
Tonight he’s putting a different spin on routine that has played out hundreds of times, in a dozen variations, over decades. Chagall’s motive has little to do with gumming up the work of a local gang of forest slayers.
Like others before him, he has wrecked diesels up and down the coast to hinder insatiable lumbermen. He has broken mink and chinchilla out of factory-farm prisons, burned construction sites at the edge of city sprawl, toppled electrical towers that rip through remote wilderness. Popgun sabotage, all of it. He understands by now that industry hardly registers a solo saboteur’s attacks. It doesn’t matter where in the great chain of annihilation Chagall and those like him strike. The predators ignore their toothless nibbling.
Chagall has always acted alone, planning for as long as precision takes. Opportunities to partner up are easy to find online, but saboteurs in his mold have proven over decades of eluding law enforcement that their best protections are isolation and independence. Chagall shuns unknown quantities sniffing around his avatars on the net. Or he did, always, until several months before. At the tail end of summer, a digital phantom who signed off with the naked letter “R” approached with a bold proposal. Romulus, as Chagall calls him in the privacy of his own mind, has set his sights not only on a high-value target, but on a new paradigm. Information, Romulus writes, is more volatile than gasoline, and he can hack an online media blast at thermonuclear scale. A brick-and-mortar attack that means little in and of itself might loft a propaganda blitz to heights Chagall can never realize solo. Or so he claims.
Romulus offered proof of his skills. A series of artful database incursions yielded confidential medical records belonging to executives of a half-dozen corporations, demonstrating not only ability, but also willingness to step farther over the line than an undercover lawman would dare.
But even if Romulus isn’t card-carrying FBI, he could be an unmasked hacker run by a clever cop. Just as risky, he might be wet behind the ears. A postcollegiate misfit with little experience outside his electronic playground. Or a habitué of darkened rooms, surrounded by multiple screens and frustrated by the limits of his virtual reach.
Unwilling to trust any partner, Chagall has chosen their political focus himself: genetic engineering, for the scale of its threat and the readiness of an opposition movement to crystallize. Romulus initiated their conspiracy, but Chagall will pick their target too. He’ll demand further criminal proofs of the hacker, and he’ll draft the communication that will follow in the wake of their physical attack. It occurs to him, as he waits to be sure the rent-a-cop is done with feints and dodges, that he ought to recruit a third-party writer, neither Romulus nor himself. Their political justification should be drafted in someone else’s voice.
How much will he need to expose to the hacker? What will Romulus guess about him? That he’s a disaffected child of the cities, radicalized by liberal arts faculty at some obscure university? A forest-loving solitary, maddened by encounters with clear-cut? A farm boy disgusted by life indentured to poultry processors, trained as an Army sapper, embittered by officers blind to his talents?
Any of a hundred stories that lead to fury might be ascribed to Romulus or himself. Psychological profiling is useless to cops and saboteurs alike. Chagall could have come from anywhere, could have been almost anything, before he burrowed underground. The same is true of the anonymous bit jockey, who will get a taste tonight of what Chagall can do.
* * *
He listens from his manzanita blind, but registers only nocturnal scurrying through fog-dampened duff, only a breeze sliding through treetops across the land’s dips and curves. The valley is haunted by emptiness that persists long after men and equipment knock off for the day. The sound of wildlife ebbing. No trace remains of elk like those Chagall stalked as a boy, never mind the bears and wolves that flourished before his time.
A winged thud and a tiny, terrified scream roil the stillness. A long-eared owl on nightly rounds, he guesses, or perhaps a great gray. Another deer mouse plucked from nest and litter. He is brutally comforted. The web is not wholly wrecked.
Gathering his equipment, Chagall approaches the compound again. He completes the rectangular breach, bends back the wire fence, and hoists his pack through the opening. Rubber overshoes, same as the plunderers wear, ensure that even his footprints leave no clue.
Crude matériel has no place in his repertoire. He won’t haul jugs of gasoline, or shovel sand into crankcases. He’s beyond cutting brake lines and slashing tires. Garden-variety monkeywrenching is useful enough, and he is unashamed to have done his share. But Chagall now plays for higher stakes.
Selecting a brush cutter alongside the fence, Chagall jimmies open its gas cap, releasing a cloud of refined petrochemicals. A tool he has forged for the purpose catches on a filter set deep in the fill pipe. Twisting, Chagall reams open the tank’s throat.
He removes a handcrafted device from his pack, and inspects its timer and trigger. His hands are sure as he fastens wires to a soldered cradle, yet Chagall performs the rites of war attentively, as if this were his first time in the field. Exactness is all that stands between success and martyrdom. He slots a blasting cap into place, and slides a gauze sleeve over the cradle to guard against accidental sparks. Now he lowers the device into the brush cutter’s fill pipe, pulling back a centimeter when the detonator touches liquid.
He repeats his drill, rigging two knuckle-boom loaders farther down the row, then a clot of skidders at the center of the yard.
* * *
At just shy of three thirty Chagall circles the perimeter, checking for evidence he doesn’t mean to leave behind. The timers are counting down to four fifteen. Satisfied, he shoulders a lightened pack and exits the way he came in.
There’s no need to wait for the fireworks. He’ll see the glow as he crests the southern ridge, heading deeper into the wild than heavily equipped pursuers can follow.
San Francisco activist Christopher Kalman has little to show for years spent organizing non-violent marches, speak-outs, blockades, and shutdowns for social and environmental justice. When a shadowy eco-saboteur proposes an attack on genetically engineered agriculture, Christopher is ripe to be drawn into a more dangerous game. His certainty that humankind stands on the brink of ecological ruin drives Christopher to reckless acts and rash alliances, pitting grave personal risk against conscientious passion.