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Authors: Patrick Lee

The Breach

BOOK: The Breach
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THE BREACH

Patrick Lee

For my mother

Part I

BLACKBIRD

CHAPTER ONE

On the first anniversary of his release from prison, Travis Chase woke at four in the morning to bright sunlight framing his window blinds. He put his backpack in his Explorer, left Fairbanks on State Route 2, and an hour later was on the hard-packed gravel of the Dalton Highway, running north toward the Arctic Circle and the Brooks Range beyond. From the crests of the highest hills, he could see the road and the pipeline snaking ahead for miles, over lesser ridges and through valleys blazing with pink fireweed.

The trip was not a celebration. Far from it. It was a deliberation on everything that mattered: where he stood, and where he would go from here.

The console showed an outside temperature of fifty-nine degrees. Travis lowered the windows and let the moist air rush through the vehicle. The height of summer here smelled like springtime back in Minneapolis, the scent of damp grass just freed from snow cover.

He reached Coldfoot at ten o’clock and stopped for lunch. The town, with a few buildings and a population of less than twenty, survived entirely on commerce from travelers on the Dalton. Mostly truckers bound for the oil field at Prudhoe Bay, 250 miles north. Coldfoot was the last glimpse of humanity along the highway, before the elevation divide and the long, downslope run to the sea.

Travis wouldn’t be going that far. The mountains he’d come for were right here. To the west of town, Gates of the Arctic National Park followed the range in a two-hundred-mile arc to the southwest. There were no roads leading in—no foot trails, even. All hiking in the Brooks Range was back-country, though various websites and published guides detailed the most trusted and trafficked routes. Travis had studied them all, then plotted his own course to avoid them.

He left the Explorer at the depot, filled his water pouches, strapped on his pack and was on his way before eleven. By the time he stopped for dinner—a freeze-dried packet of brown rice he cooked over his tiny propane burner—he’d reached the top of the first ridge, two thousand feet above town. To the south, the last seventy miles of the morning’s journey receded toward infinity—back toward the world, and the places between which he had to choose.

Alaska or Minnesota?

There was pressure to go back home, of course. Pressure from everyone he knew there. He’d only been out of prison a month when he’d bought his one-way ticket to Fairbanks; some of his relatives hadn’t even gotten the chance to see him. What future did he see for himself up north, two thousand miles from his family?

What future did he see among them? Even to the few who could understand and forgive what he’d done, he would always be the brother who’d spent half of his twenties and all of his thirties in prison. Twenty years from now, in the eyes of the next generation, he would still be that guy. That uncle. You could only get so free.

He pushed on to the next ridge before making camp for the night. What passed for night, anyway: a few hours of cooling twilight as the sun dipped through the haze toward, but not quite to, the northern horizon. He staked his tent into the soft earth beside a snowfield that planed away for miles across the upper face of the ridge, and sat outside for an hour waiting for sleep to settle over him.

Maybe five miles to the west—distance was tricky up here—a stony ridge rose higher than the foothills he’d crossed so far. In the long light he thought he saw shadows flitting on the face of the rock. He took out his binoculars, steadied them on his knees, and scanned the ridge for over a minute before he saw them: Dall sheep, twenty or more, moving with spooky ease across a nearly vertical granite face. Lambs no more than two months old followed their mothers with sure-footed skill. Travis watched until they vanished behind a fold of the cliff wall.

At last feeling a calming heaviness in his limbs, he climbed into his tent and sleeping bag, and faded away to the rustle of wind over the short grass.

He woke with a quickened pulse, aware that something had startled him, but unable to tell what, exactly.

The sunlight through the tent fabric was stronger. His watch showed that it was just past three in the morning. He blinked, trying to fully wake up, and then the treble range of a thunderclap crashed across the ridgeline. Seconds later the bass wave shook the ground, seeming to radiate directly from the mountain beneath him.

Relaxing, he sank into his bag again, and rubbed his eyes. Silent lightning flashed, brighter on the west face of the tent than elsewhere. He measured the seconds on his watch and counted thirty-five before the accompanying thunder reached him; the storm was seven miles away.

Sleep began to draw him down again, even as the storm intensified. He found a strange comfort in the sound of it, a lullaby suited to this hard and unforgiving place. Within minutes the lightning and thunder were much closer, and almost continuous.

Just before he slipped over the edge of consciousness, he heard something in the storm that made him open his eyes again. He turned an ear to the west. What had it been? It really hadn’t sounded like thunder at all. It’d been more like a scream, though not human or even animal. More than anything, it’d reminded him of the rending of sheet metal in the prison drill shop. Well, that was it, then. Just his own ghosts troubling him at the brink of sleep. They were persistent, but he’d learned to ignore them.

He closed his eyes again and drifted off.

Three nights later, Travis set up camp thirty-six miles from Coldfoot, though the wandering route he’d taken, displayed on his GPS unit, added up to just over forty-nine. He ate his heated pouch of enchilada soup—all these freeze-dried meals tasted more like the pouches they came in than what was written on them—on the rim of a steep-walled valley some six hundred feet deep. Its floor, broad and flat, extended relatively straight toward the northwest for what had to be three miles.

A cloud bank churned through the valley like a smoky river, swirling around outcroppings of rock and pooling in the deepest places. Directly beneath Travis, the valley floor was completely obscured, though for a few moments when the sun’s lateral rays shone straight along its length, he saw the sparkle of something underneath the fog. Water, or maybe ice.

He slept easily, waking only twice, not to thunder but to the howling of wolves. He had no idea how far away they might be, though at times they seemed no more distant than a quarter of a mile. He’d read that wolf packs randomized the volume of their howling in order to confuse prey—and other wolves—as to their distance. It worked on humans, too.

At six in the morning he woke, opened the tent flap and sat up into crisp air, colder than it’d been the night before. The visible horizon extended farther than it had at any time during the trip.

Alaska or Minnesota?

He’d come here to answer that question. He’d failed, so far.

The pros and cons of each place cycled through his mind of their own accord. Home was family, friends. For all the judgment they could never hide, they would always be more accepting of his past than strangers would. Home was his brother, Jeff, offering to let him in on the software business he was starting out of his house, and show him the ropes from the beginning.

Home was also a place full of ghosts, every street in the old neighborhood sagging under the weight of troubled memories.

Alaska was this. This perfect emptiness that made no claim to understand his character one way or the other, and no effort to push him back into old grooves. In his move to Fairbanks he’d brought along nothing. Not even himself, it sometimes seemed. He wouldn’t have believed it even a year before, in his first days of freedom, but up here he sometimes went a whole day without thinking about prison, or what he’d done to put himself there. Up here, sometimes, he just wasn’t that guy anymore. And damned if that sensation wasn’t getting stronger by the month.

All of that would end, the hour he set foot in his old world again.

For that reason, if for no other, he thought he knew which way he was leaning.

He unzipped his bag, pulled on his pants and boots, and swung his feet out onto the ground. The grass, soft the night before, now crunched beneath his treads. He stood and stretched, then knelt and took from his backpack his propane burner and metal cup. A moment later the blue flame was hissing beneath the water for his coffee. Waiting for it, he wandered to the drop-off overlooking the valley, its depths now revealed in the crystal air.

He stopped.

For a moment he could only stare, too disoriented even to blink.

On the valley floor lay the wreck of a Boeing 747.

BOOK: The Breach
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