“Welcome to the People’s Republic of Alaska, Ms. Bud … Budz … Bud ….” The clerk scowled down at the ipass laid flat on the desk.
“Budziszewski,” Melania supplied helpfully. She pulled up the corners of her mouth in a vague smile and widened her eyes, hoping for innocent and guileless.
“Hhmm.” The clerk turned his scowl on her, finger tapping the page icon in the corner of the ipass. He glanced back down as the screen flipped from one port of entry stamp to another. “Republic of Ukraine, the Baltic Commonwealth, Armenia, Moldova, and hunh — ” one eyebrow shot up “ — the Restored Christian Kingdom of Finland. You have visited some very … interesting places since departing from Poland, Ms. Bud … Budzi … ma’am.”
“Yes, my work does require quite a bit of travel.” She tilted her head, eyes still wide. “Honestly, though, I am sure none of those places are nearly as interesting or beautiful as your Republic. I was hoping to see the ruins of Juneau once I concluded my business. Are tours still being offered?”
Melania felt the man behind her shift restlessly. The line of tourists, immigrants, and refugees continued to grow. Luggage rattled. Sighing and grumbling and shushing of children. Overhead, voices in a dozen different languages called out flight information and repeatedly reminded travelers of food restrictions, inoculation requirements, curfews, and quarantines.
The clerk pursed his lips. “That’s south — ”
“I was afraid it might be too late in the season, that the city might be totally underwater,” she prattled on. “If not Juneau, perhaps an indigenous experience. A bear hunt or elk — ”
The clerk’s eyes bounced back and forth between Melania and the shifting, restless line. “Um, yes.”
“How messy do those get, though?” Melania knit her eyebrows together, going for a perplexed look. “I mean, yucky? I don’t — ”
“Yes, thank you.” The clerk pressed his thumb to the screen and there was a soft bleep. Then he pressed down the digistamp; for a moment, the symbol of the People’s Republic of Alaska glowed on the screen. The clerk flipped the cover closed and the ipass went into sleep mode with a pook-pook. He held out the small tablet. “Enjoy your stay, and please come again. Next!”
The man behind Melania impatiently shoved around her, pushing her to the side. She kept the vague smile on her face, murmuring a “thank you” of her own. Ipass clutched tightly in one hand, rolling suitcase in the other, she headed for the next gauntlet.
One more security gate, she reminded herself. Just one more.
Her luggage bumped over a crack in the tile. She tightened her grip on the handle and pulled into line behind a pale, thin woman with four thin, unruly children. The woman’s shoulders drooped with exhaustion. Head bound in a white turban, floor-length white dress, no jewelry, no make-up. Neo-Islamist. Likely a refugee from the Pure Land of the Faithful. No husband, either. Dead, or perhaps she had managed to flee without him. Or from him.
Inch by inch, she drew closer to the gate. Guards in black and yellow swarmed, and bright red warning signs covered every flat surface and hung from the ceiling. No undocumented fauna beyond this point. No unlicensed agricultural products beyond this point. No print information beyond this point. Illegal electronics will be confiscated and destroyed.
She tried not to stare at the exit. Through the plexiglass, the day glowed a hard, cold white.
One of the children twisted his head around and glanced at her, eyes dull. Her lips tilted up in a sincere smile. He blinked at her. Digging into her coat pocket, Melania pulled out a protein bar. It was still sealed; her stomach had been too knotted with tension for her to eat. She held out the bar. The boy’s eyes widened for a moment before narrowing in suspicion. She opened her hand, palm flat. Small fingers darted out, snatching the bar away. The boy twisted around, and she heard the wrapper being torn open. The other children huddled close, munching and mmming. Her eyes stung as she realized that he was sharing the protein bar with his brother and sisters.
Steps sluggish, the children’s mother took no notice.
Another inch. Another inch. Another. Melania waved her ipass, fanning her face as sweat beaded along the top of her forehead.
The exhausted mother and her brood reached the gate. Melania waited at the bright white line while the security guards patted the woman, hands rough and thorough. The children cringed and twisted at the strangers touching them; the youngest whined. Their few pieces of luggage were opened, the contents spread out on tables and examined. Handheld x-ray scanners were brought over, and thermal scanners, and a pair of toothy, hulking german shepherds.
Throat tight, face aching from holding her vague smile in place, Melania exhaled slowly as the family was finally waved through the gate. One of the security guards — tall, blonde, face etched with deep lines — lifted a hand. Melania surrendered her ipass, tamping down the urge to start babbling.
“Name?” The blonde’s voice was toneless, distant.
“Melania Katzienska Budziszewski.”
A female guard, dark hair pulled back into a tight bun, pistols strapped to either hip, stepped over. She started at Melania’s head and worked her way down, pinching, patting, squeezing, poking. Melania forced herself not to flinch, not to twist away.
“Jewelry. Design and distribution for Saada-Favret International.”
Pistols wrinkled her nose, leaning in close. She lifted the chain around Melania’s neck, pulling the pendant free from where she had tucked it beneath her blouse. The guard flipped it over in her hand, front, back, front, back, front, back, and Melania lost control of her tongue.
“An old coin I picked up in a bazaar in Macedonia. That’s Demeter holding a sheaf of wheat — ” she pointed “ — and Victory on the other side. The vendor said it was a good luck piece, and it certainly has brought me luck. See how the green frame complements the gold of the coin, and the variegated shading of the green beads woven into the chain — ”
“Yeah, yeah, nice.” Pistols dropped the pendant.
“Allotted duration of stay?” Blonde continued.
He flipped the ipass shut. “Be aware that residency beyond the legally allowed six days is a felony and that conviction will result in a mandatory five year sentence, to be served on the Kodiak Penal Colony. You must keep your ipass on your person at all times, and be prepared to present it to any law enforcement officer upon request. Failure to do so ….”
Melania’s attention drifted, her eyes sliding over to the examination tables. Blue-gloved guards dug through her single suitcase, poking and prodding. Fabric ripped. Dogs sniffed.
A tablet appeared in front of her.
“Sign here that you have been advised of and understand your alien visitant rights.” Blonde’s voice was still flat and disinterested.
Melania ran her finger across the screen, her signature a series of a barely-legible loops and arcs.
“Thank you and enjoy your stay.”
Her suitcase was dumped back at her feet; one red blouse, caught and mangled by the zipper, poked out of a corner. The left front wheel wobbled.
Blonde pointed at the exit.
Lips in a tight smile, eyes wide, Melania walked slowly towards the door.
Melania pressed her nose to the cab’s window, squinting against the bright light. Slush sprayed the side of the car. Pedestrians scurried, heads down. Armed police stood on corners and zipped around in striped black and yellow cruisers.
At least there were fewer police here than there had been in Finland ….
Melania shivered, pulling the collar of her coat up higher around her neck. She leaned back a bit, studying the city, comparing what she saw to what she had been told in encrypted emails. As the oceans rose, Juneau and other coastal cities were largely abandoned, and the capital was relocated to Fairbanks. The city’s population swelled as native Alaskans, and refugees from the former Lower Forty-Eight and farther afield sought relief from storms, rising temperatures, rising waters, and erratic food supplies. Permanent, semi-permanent, and temporary shelters spread across the Tanana Valley, right up to the very fence of the airport and all the way around. The Tanana River was a sluggish dark blue, just beginning to ice over; anyone who did not escape the temporary shelters within the next month would freeze to death. Shallow hills and valleys rolled off to the east and west, while treacherous marsh and bog spread almost two hundred kilometers to the south, right into the foothills of the Alaska Range.
The cab slowed and pulled beneath the archway of the Midnight Sun Hotel and 24-Hour Eatery. The doors swooshed open and shut as guests came and went, hefting backpacks and babies and bags of leftovers. Melania caught a whiff of soy burgers and stale bread.
Swiping her credit card through the taxi’s built-in reader, she thanked the driver and headed inside. The lobby was small, a neat-looking clerk behind the counter along the left wall. The restaurant lay straight ahead through a pair of french doors, while stuffed chairs and a coffee stand were to the right. Melania slowed, pretending to dig through her pockets, and allowed her gaze to drift over the seating area. Three people: a Caucasian man in a battered red baseball cap, sound asleep; a middle-aged Hispanic woman with her face pressed too close to a tablet; and a white-haired, heavily bearded dark-skinned man yammering into his cell phone in … Yoruba? Igbo? Something from north-central Africa.
The sleeping man peeked at her through slitted eyes.
Melania pulled off her coat and slung it over her left arm.
The sleeping man shifted, crossing his left leg over his right.
Her belly still in knots, she spent the night half-watching bad Alaskan state television: sanitized news, nature documentary, sanitized news, oil drilling reality show, sanitized news, sanitized comedy, sanitized news. Not one word about the famines in Asia, the locusts swarming through the Middle East, or the fields of hyper-aggressive wheat consuming the rain forests of Brazil. Sometime around three in the morning, she finally fell asleep, arm bent awkwardly beneath her head, the television flickering.
The phone squealed at seven in the a.m., the clerk informing her — in clipped, efficient tones — that curfew had been lifted and that she was free to enjoy Fairbanks’ many delights. Followed by a reminder that failure to return before curfew was reinstated at five in the evening would result in mandatory incarceration and confiscation of her ipass.
Melania slammed down the receiver, pulled the pillow over her head, and went back to sleep.
Anxiety and hunger soon drove her into the bathroom. She stood in the freezing shower, teeth chattering, stomach cramping. A screen built into the wall flashed ads for local museums, massage parlors, historical tours, and hunting expeditions; reminded her that possession of illegal pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, electronic devices, and books was a felony; and promised a hot shower in exchange for a (not insignificant) surcharge. As soon as her hair was clean and her body scrubbed, Melania hopped out, dried off, wrapped herself in her robe, and crawled back under the covers to warm up.
Purse banging against her hip, ipass tucked carefully inside her jacket, she made it downstairs just as the free continental breakfast was closing. She snatched away the remaining three soy sausages, two reconstituted powdered eggs, and a carton of hazelnut milk before the kitchen staff could dump them in tubs for recycling; her scarf dragged through the margarine. Mouth full of sausage, she balanced the remaining food on a napkin and headed out the door. She ignored the desk clerk, who peered over her glasses at Melania, lips pulled into a moue of disapproval.
The encrypted emails had been brief. Sleep beneath the midnight sun. Watch for the left-legged man. Treasures in the ice. Uncle William is a dirty man. Tucking her scarf inside her jacket, she pulled up her hood and ducked into one of the waiting cabs. She reminded herself to smile at the driver. “Museum of the North, U of A campus, please.”
First established in 1911, the museum had outgrown two buildings over the decades, before a recent purge reduced it to a fraction of its former glory. Students huddled on benches here and there, some with books open, some sleeping. Police patrolled the corridors, narrow-eyed. A docent, voice filled with forced cheerfulness, led a gaggle of tourists from one room to the next, describing the wonders of the People’s oil-fueled Republic.
Melania attached herself to the back of one such group, a mixture of Russians, Canadians, and Brits to judge by their accents and clothing. A bored teenage boy stepped on her foot; he mumbled an apology. She ignored him, pretending to listen to the docent while her eyes darted back and forth, around, around, searching each room as they entered it.
Then, finally, finally, in the totem room — there. The African man from the Midnight Sun. He stood near one wall, scowling at a totem. He turned as the tour group entered, dark eyes briefly brushing across her own. He grimaced and scratched his left thigh.
Melania moved her purse to her left shoulder.
Steps casual, he walked towards the front doors, pausing occasionally to flip through his brochure and study an exhibit. Melania followed, dawdling when necessary to keep some distance between them. The doors whooshed behind him and, by the time she stepped out onto the sidewalk, he was most of the way across the quad.
The wind kicked up. She tightened her scarf, shoved her hands in her pockets, and tried not to run.
They walked for nearly an hour. He led her in a roundabout circuit, up one block and back down the next. When a police cruiser wailed and pulled up beside her, she tightened her stomach, smiled, flirted, and handed over her ipass for inspection. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the African man pause in front of a restaurant to study the menu posted in the window. The police wished her well, waved her on her way, and drove off.
Teeth chattering, she shoved her hands back in her pockets. He let her get within half a block before he started walking again. A hard right, two more blocks, then a left into a mixed residential/commercial district. A few buildings down, he stepped beneath an awning and through a plexiglass door. She slowed her steps, casting quick glances up and down the street. Only a couple of pedestrians. She tilted her head back, studying the building as she passed in front of it. Florescent green letters in the front windows identified it as Bill’s Recycling Services (We Take The Trash Other Guys Won’t!).
She stepped beneath the awning. One more quick look around and she shoved through the door.
The smell hit her and she almost backpedaled right out again. Eyes watering, nose twitching, she headed across the grimy floor, around piles of rubber and scrap steel and copper wires, towards the counter. It was cracked and yellowed. A short, thin brown-skinned man — indigenous Alaskan to judge by his features — sat hunched over the counter, sorting through piles of aluminum cans and lids. A barely-legible name tag sewn on the front of his shirt read “Bill.”
Melania pulled a shallow breath in through her mouth, tasting oil and metal and rotten food. “Morning. Quite a coincidence. My uncle is named Bill, too … except we usually call him William.”
Bill stopped sorting. He tossed one last lid onto the pile on his right and looked up at her. He studied her for a long moment, before a slow smile spread across his face, warming his skin and eyes. Melania found herself smiling back. He thrust out a dirty hand and she found his grip firm and dry. “Welcome to Fairbanks. Have any trouble?”
“No more than usual. Would the People’s Republic of Alaska be offended if I said your security was less intimidating than Finland’s?”
Bill snorted a laugh. “Probably.” He stood, walking around the counter towards a curtained doorway. “Come on back.” He pushed aside the curtain, revealing a solid metal door and keypad. Melania kept her eyes carefully averted as he entered the code. “You done this often enough to know the rules?” The lock pinged and metal scrapped as the heavy bolts released.
Melania nodded. “Given names only. No locations. No names of secondary contacts. Absolutely no discussion of the vaults. But, good tricks for getting passed security are always appreciated.”
Bill threw a grin at her over his shoulder as he shoved the door open. He waved her in and she found herself face to face with the white-bearded African man. He dipped his head in greeting as Bill introduced them. “Achebe, Melania. Melania, Achebe.”
Melania bowed her head in turn. “Nice to meet you.”
“Come,” Achebe intoned. “The others are waiting.”
The Fairbanks cell was careful. Achebe led her down a short corridor to another locked metal door, through an empty storage room, through a half-rotten wooden door and up a steep set of stairs, down another corridor lined with numbered doors and back down a flight of carpeted steps. They were in a completely different building, she realized, but which one she wasn’t sure. Around a couple of corners to another wooden door. Achebe knocked twice, then again.
The door opened. The man from the Midnight Sun, red cap stuffed into his jacket pocket, waved them inside. He stuck his head out into the corridor, looked around quickly, then closed the door, sliding two chains and three bolts into place. “Folks, say hello to Melania.”
She loosened her scarf, smiling and nodding at the chorus of greetings. The apartment was small, just a living area with a stone fireplace, kitchen along one wall, bedroom through one door, bathroom through another. Cast-off, mismatched chairs and a love seat and a low table filled the space, but there were fuzzy blankets and area rugs and over-stuffed pillows in a dozen different colors, and the fireplace was warm, and the faint scent of strawberries and rhubarb hung in the air.
Baseball cap waved his hand at the half dozen people perched and sprawled across that mismatched furniture. “Melania, please meet Marguerite, Keshi, Flor, Alexander, and Aabheer. You know Achebe, and I’m Thom.”
Melania unzipped her jacket and flexed her cold fingers. “Hello.” Middle-aged white woman of unknown nationality; a very young woman of Japanese origin; a thin Hispanic woman with a decorative comb in her white hair and bruised, spotted skin; a mustachioed man, possibly Greek; and a Hindi man with golden-brown skin and liquid brown eyes. Melania tried not to sniffle as her nose and face warmed.
“We should get started,” Achebe suggested, gingerly lowering himself beside Alexander. “We need to get back before curfew.”
“Right.” Thom grabbed a handful of small metal trays and a green candle. After setting a tray down in front of each of them, he placed the candle in the middle of the low table, lit it, then plopped down onto the floor near Marguerite. “Flor, as the eldest, you have the place of honor.”
Flor nodded, holding out her hands to Keshi and Alexander on either side. Melania took the chair (wood badly scratched, seat soft blue cotton) beside Achebe. His hand was dry and calloused and much larger than her own; she felt a scar running across the bottom of his palm.
“Pachamama,” Flor intoned, voice soft, “who gifted us with seeds and taught us to plant and to harvest and to keep the earth, in your name I share your gifts.”
“For the Savior born in poverty,” whispered Alexander, “who walked the world, breathing the air that I breathe, drinking the water that I drink. In your name, I hold these secret things safe.”
“For Okko,” Achebe began, “orisha of all good growing things, and Ozain, keeper of the herbs which sweeten life. In your name, I keep your gifts safe, and share them with those who understand.”
“Demeter, mother of all good grains and the poppy.” Melania felt her throat catch. Her nose was starting to run. “In your name, I protect these precious gifts, sharing them only with a trusted few, until the time is right.”
She squeezed Aabheer’s hand and he smiled at her. “For Bhūmi, aspect of Lakshmi, who holds in her hands the pomegranate and the lotus. In your name, I share these precious gifts, trusting your chosen to keep them safe.”
Thom wrinkled his nose, apparently trying to hold in a sneeze. They all giggled. Flushing slightly, Thom continued the invocation. “For the mighty spirits of frost and earth and air: Akna the mother, Pinga the huntress and healer, Qailertetang of the dancing skies, Sedna of the deep seas. In honor and fear of you, I hold these secrets close.”
Marguerite sighed, eyes closed. “Abellio, who gifted us with the apple tree so that we might make wonderful pies — ” chuckling and giggling from the group “ — and Erecura who bears the cornucopia, and sun-warmed Nantosuelta: in honor of you, I share your gifts.”
Finally, Keshi spoke, eyes downcast. “For Inari Okami and Uke Mochi, whose gifts must be hidden from those who do not understand.”
Silence, for a long moment.
Thom released Aabheer and Marguerite’s hands, inviting Flor to lead them again. “What did you bring?”
Flor pulled the comb loose and her long white hair tumbled across her shoulders and down her back. Leaning forward over the table, she unscrewed one tooth of the comb, and tipped it over the tray. Brilliant pink seeds rained onto the metal. “Huautli, from high in the Andes.”
Achebe, then, who ripped open the sole of his left shoe. Grinning widely, he set three small plastic sleeves on the tray in front of him. “I made a few stops on my way here. Ebony acorn squash and pink banana jumbo squash and painted serpent cucumber.” Marguerite applauded, practically bouncing in her seat, and Thom was nodding.
Melania swallowed, sliding her ipass from her pocket. “Does anyone have a knife I can borrow?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” Thom clambered to his feet, dug around in a kitchen drawer for a moment, then handed her a jackknife. “Need a permit to own that. Otherwise, three years on Kodiak.”
Flicking open the knife, Melania held the ipass close to her chest. Carefully powering it down, she pulled the cover off, the magnetic clasps releasing with a shnikt. Tucking the ipass back inside her jacket, she set the cover on the table and carefully slipped the tip of the blade into the seam. Running it around the edge, slowly, she peeled back the top of the cover. Inside lay four nearly-flat plastic bags with tiny seeds. She named the seeds as she picked up each bag and set it in the tray. “White albino beet. Giant nobel spinach. Velvet queen sunflower. Roman chamomile.”
And around they went, until the trays were filled with precious treasures. Cinnamon basil. Danish ballhead cabbage. Hearts of gold melon. Tiger tomato. Cherry vanilla quinoa. Painted daisy. California bluebell. Crimson clover. Red clover. Early purple sprouting broccoli.
Eyes wide, Marguerite stared at the table. “I don’t think I’ve ever — I mean, there’s just so much. So much variety. I don’t think I’ve seen this much outside a seed vault. Oops!” She slapped a hand over her mouth as Keshi shot her a glare. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s all right,” Melania assured her, studying the table. The seeds were deep red and pale white and yellow and deep black, round and oblong and tear-shaped. Some were so tiny that dozens fit into a single plastic sleeve, while others were only two or three to a bag. “It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful.”
“Makes me angry, to think what we have lost,” Keshi scowled.
“Yes,” Flor nodded. “Which is why we are here. To save what we can, because we are angry, and because we have hope. Ancient treasures, saved for the future.”
Another long silence. The fire snapped.
Finally, Melania sighed. “Very well, then. I can take some of the cherry vanilla quinoa and huautli, the bluebell and daisy, too.” She looked around the circle, at these, her comrades in conscience and faith. “What can everyone else take?”
“ … And, oh my gosh, the museums are amazing! Have you been? Simply amazing! You totally need to go — ”
“Yes, ma’am.” The clerk sighed, hair pulled back so tightly into a bun that her face stretched. Overhead, the speakers blared, calling out flight information, and quarantine and embargo reminders.
“ — so much amazing history. I do really wish that I could have gone on a tour of Juneau, but — ”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” The clerk shoved the ipass at Melania. “All stamped, hope you enjoyed your stay in the People’s Republic of Alaska, please come again, next!”
“Oh, thank you.” Melania smiled, slipping the ipass carefully into her inside jacket pocket. Her fingers brushed across the pendant, carefully tucked beneath her blouse. “Perhaps I will, some day.”
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published work can be found there. “Seeds” also appears in her collection, The Serpent in the Throat, and Other Pagan Tales (Asphodel Press).]