Winner — Best General Fiction — 2017 Green Book Festival
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.
A thirty-something, underemployed layout artist, Christopher lives in a ramshackle activist collective–the Triangle–named for its Duboce Triangle neighborhood in the heart of San Francisco. Christopher and his chosen family are determined to carry on the good fight; yet the raging war in Iraq, begun in the face of peaceful protests by millions across the globe, has shaken the Triangle’s faith in the value of nonviolent dissent.
Chagall, an eco-saboteur practiced in the art of demolition, partners with an anonymous hacker who proposes an online media blitz he can detonate “at thermonuclear scale” to augment Chagall’s brick-and-mortar spectacle. Chagall invites Christopher into their developing plot to deal genetically-engineered Frankenfood a serious blow. Assured that no one will be hurt, and lured by the promise of a vast audience, Christopher contemplates writing the mother of all political manifestos.
Allison Rayle leads the Triangle’s preparations to blockade the Bay Bridge on the opening day of an international biotech meeting, to protest the environmental risks of releasing genetically modified organisms into the wild. Their aim: to hang a massive banner from the bridge’s westernmost tower at the peak of rush hour.
When the Triangle collides with Chagall’s plot to destroy a midwestern research lab, the fallout threatens everything and everyone Christopher has ever loved.
|Publisher:||Salted Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.77(d)|
Read an Excerpt
By Steve Masover
Salted Rose PressCopyright © 2015 Steve Masover
All rights reserved.
If he was going to play secret agent, Christopher Kalman needed to head for the bus. It would be simpler to log into online chat from where he sat in the Triangle's third-floor library, but he couldn't put his home and political collective at risk. The chat could be traced. Besides, he'd given Chagall his word.
It would cost an hour to take a circuitous, backtracking route to the Daily Grind, a café on the far side of San Francisco that sold internet access for cash. Chagall was fixated on that sort of paranoid rigor. Christopher didn't see the need, not if they were careful with security protocols. But he'd promised to take precautions against being tailed to their first real-time appointment.
The prospect of "meeting" the self-proclaimed saboteur made Christopher antsy. If his anonymous contact was a setup, or if Chagall were seriously dangerous, internet chat would place Christopher — and everyone he worked with — that much closer to an unknown threat.
He stared at the progress bar on his monitor. The Moscone Center's floor plans were nearly finished downloading, but he wouldn't have time to look them over until later. Not a problem. The coalition organizing to disrupt the International GeneSynth Convention wasn't meeting until Sunday. Still, the pressure was on. A month and a half remained before the conference opened, but the Triangle was planning a clandestine action in addition to their part in the public protest. The dual-track activism had been straining Christopher's limits even before Chagall came knocking.
Ninety percent complete.
Logistics research lacked the chaotic zing of an actual demonstration, but at least it satisfied his urge to put the world in order. The mantel clock showed 2:40. An hour and twenty minutes until their online rendezvous. He needed to hustle.
Christopher switched off the monitor when the download finished, and unkinked himself from a chair rescued years before from some forgotten curb, a sturdy, Mission-style piece that he could never quite adjust to fit his tall, barrel-chested frame. He descended the wooden stairs quietly, in case Marty was asleep. Christopher stopped to check on his housecomrade, leaning in through the half-closed door of the bedroom next to his own, at the front of the collective's century-old Edwardian.
"Who's that?" Marty grunted.
The curtains were drawn across the bedroom's bay windows. Christopher could just make out a ghostly arm raised against the light leaking in from the hallway. "It's Chris," he said. "I'm heading out. It'll be an hour or so before Jonah's back from school — can I get you anything?" Marty had taken a nasty fall off his bike the evening before, just a few blocks from home. He'd resisted a trip to the emergency room, but when Nora brought him home from the hospital the back of his shaved head was quilted with stitches and surgical tape.
"No, Chris. Nothin'," Marty said. "Just waitin' for the drugs to kick in."
Marty's Irish brogue, faint but discernible after a dozen years living in the States, sounded thicker than usual. Christopher figured it was the painkillers. "I'll leave the door open a crack," he said, "so Jonah remembers to look in."
"That's good. I'll be okay, just tryin' to sleep it off."
Christopher loaded up his messenger bag, crept another flight down to the front stoop, slipped quietly through the building's steel gate, and turned onto the tree-shaded street. Just short of the metro stop, he pivoted up Fillmore, then zigzagged around the hulking US Mint before heading north again.
Someone had postered the neighborhood's telephone poles with calls to march on the anniversary of the Iraq War. The flyers demoralized Christopher, one staple-studded wooden pole after another. He crossed the street to avoid them. Direct Action to Stop the War had mounted the Bay Area's share of the biggest protests in human history — eleven million people around the world, two hundred thousand in San Francisco alone — and five weeks later the US launched an airstrike on Baghdad. The Triangle, everyone they knew, every leftist group they'd ever organized with, had given everything they had. And they lost.
* * *
Three buses and two transfers later he set out on foot in the wrong direction, then circled an unnecessary block as he looped back toward the café. Christopher was drawing on techniques he'd picked up over years of evading police after rowdy demonstrations, or after wheat pasting agitprop on bus shelters and banks. He stopped in front of a jewelry store window to watch the street's reflection. The glass mirrored a face that was beginning to seem more his father's than Christopher's own: sharp, wide-set eyes planted amid blurrier features, dark hair receding as inexorably as the polar ice caps. He would turn thirty-five in May. A milestone, but was he on the right road? "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," he muttered to himself. The cliché did little to settle his nerves.
If anyone had been following, he'd shaken the tail. Retrieving a battered, gray fedora from his messenger bag, Christopher approached the Daily Grind. He never wore hats and felt sheepish playing dress up, but the café ran a webcam aimed out from the counter. He hoped to find an off-camera table. The hat was just in case.
In case of what remained fuzzy.
So far, all he really knew was that an anonymous persona had contacted him, insisted on taking elaborate measures against police surveillance, then asked him to draft a manifesto about Frankenfood. Chagall refused to supply even a nom de guerre; Christopher settled on naming him after a painter his mother had loved. From Chagall's guarded first contact through an intricate set of formalities involving encryption keys and single-use e-mail addresses, it took weeks for the saboteur to get to his point:
We're looking for a writer to produce a political manifesto on genetically engineered agriculture. Publicly posted material suggests your views are close to ours. In the wake of spectacular political theater, my partners and I offer a staggeringly large and broad audience. All actors to remain anonymous, including writer. Action's logistics stay secret until it happens. The audience for your manifesto is everybody who reads news and anybody with an e-mail address.
As Chagall kept reminding him, there was nothing illegal about writing political screeds. And the task was right up Christopher's alley. He was an activist. He wrote. Genetic engineering was already on his publicly discoverable docket because of organizing against GeneSynth. None of which explained the hypervigilance. Unless Chagall meant spectacularly destructive when he bragged about political theater, his caution around drafting piecework propaganda arced way over the top.
Any activist would covet a staggeringly large audience, but Christopher remained skeptical. Odds were good that his anonymous contact would turn out to be a blowhard, the type who imagined that being targeted by police proved revolutionary cred. He could be a reckless fool. He could even be a cop himself: Chagall's approach might ultimately boil down to an FBI phishing expedition. Christopher was the one who insisted they communicate over IRC, internet relay chat. In real time, he stood a better chance of taking Chagall's measure.
Leaving his bag at a vacant table, Christopher kept the fedora pulled low, shielding himself from the webcam above the register. He paid for a double cappuccino and an hour's wireless. Back at the table he booted his laptop into a secondary operating system. Linux loaded, and he verified the machine was spoofing a counterfeit network card.
At the tail end of the dot-com boom, Christopher had taken a secure activism workshop taught by an affinity group called Rebel Geeks. There hadn't been much call for expertise in network protection over the years since, not among his crowd. But without some kind of background, Chagall's instructions would have tied him in knots. He fired up chat software, engaged his encryption keys, and typed the URL Chagall had supplied.
Six minutes 'til the scheduled meet-up. His table was beyond the camera's field of view, so Christopher stuffed the fedora into his bag.
He looked around the café. The Marina was a far cry from the Castro or the Haight. Only the women wore makeup; none had their lips pierced. A melancholy track from Beck's Sea Change played on the sound system.
A woman in a flashy ski jacket and worn sweatpants sat by the window, staring as if frozen at a gruesome photo on the front page of the New York Times. He'd seen it online that morning. Four commuter trains had been bombed in Madrid the day before, their carriages ripped open, jagged with savagely torn steel. The news was a jumble of blame and speculation: Al Qaeda, Basque separatists, unknown fanatics. Even seeing the image from a distance, he felt suffocated by the horror. Nearly two hundred dead. He shifted his gaze to a burly Central American lugging a bus tub into the back room.
Chagall logged in exactly on time.
CHAGALL: All clear?
CHRIS: Present & accounted for.
CHAGALL: If you need to stop this session for any reason, don't wait to explain.
CHRIS: Understood. Everybody in my part of the world is looking at news of yesterday's incident in Spain.
CHAGALL: That type of incident has nothing to do with us. I don't want to know about your part of the world. Let's keep to necessities.
CHRIS: Okay. Strictly business then.
CHAGALL: Right. And it's your move, you requested this.
Nothing to do with us was the response Christopher wanted to hear. But Chagall was as gruff in real-time as in e-mail. Christopher would have to stay on point and hold his ground.
CHRIS: Let's say you screw up whatever it is you're planning to do. What protects me from taking your fall?
CHAGALL: Fair question. Begin with this. First contact through your public address was a needle in a large haystack. Now messages are anonymized, encrypted, deleted after reading.
CHRIS: What if e-mail is intercepted, or archived and hacked?
CHAGALL: Highly improbable. Even so, your part is just words. Theoretical. Justification for types of action taken for types of reasons. Worst is you'd be reviled for ideas. Admired too, by some.
CHRIS: Hope springs eternal. But I'm a conspirator via our contact.
CHAGALL: Conspiracy to express political speech. Delete communications as agreed, and even that much is speculative.
CHRIS: So my protection is to remain in the dark.
Christopher sipped at his coffee while waiting for Chagall to compose, encrypt, and send his response. Security slowed their pace. The pauses left him time to think. The saboteur's ideas about insulating Christopher from prosecution were naïve or disingenuous, overlooking how due process had been gutted in the few years since the Al Qaeda attacks. Chagall was ignoring John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban," who was railroaded into a twenty-year sentence after the attorney general publicly distorted a confession compelled by torture. And he seemed blind to José Padilla, a US citizen being held without charges in military prison, for an unproven role in a bomb plot that never got off the drawing board.
CHAGALL: That's a component of your protection, yes. But, again, your identity can't be linked to ours given attention to security.
CHRIS: Let's focus on message, complexity, style. Audience remains undefined. You keep saying "everyone." That's not helpful when trying to set tone and depth.
CHAGALL: Aim for reading level of nationally circulated newspapers or magazines. Must reach diverse sectors, speak across the usual divides. Christian Right to Sierra Club. City and farm. Address human basics, avoid partisan trigger words. Write about rules against identifying GMO food in grocery stores. Regular people have reason to be scared, for their own safety and for their children's. Don't write for professors.
CHRIS: I need to confirm again: no one gets hurt. No one.
CHAGALL: This is fundamental. Same commitment as Planetary Liberation Front and allied groups. Years of hard-core political sabotage and their hands are clean. We adhere to the same principles.
CHRIS: That's fundamental for me also. No compromise on this. But I need to press for at least the category of action. Are you going to burn genetically engineered crops? Destroy a grain silo?
CHAGALL: Will not say.
CHRIS: Bust up a lab, like the Plowshares Eight?
CHAGALL: Priests taking hammers to nuclear weapons is dramatic. Chaining ourselves to microscopes in a soybean research lab would look ridiculous, like a high school science fair. The Plowshares Eight were setting up a courtroom drama. We're not seeking jail time, we intend to be free to act repeatedly. Look, it doesn't serve anyone to describe the plan. Would only increase danger to each of us.
The Feds classified destruction of property as terrorism, whether anyone was injured or not. In the opposite corner, Chagall had compared his own group to the Planetary Liberation Front, which held that attacks on grain silos and fields of genetically modified crops were defensive so long as no one got hurt, defensive because gene splicers were pumping poison into the food supply and the greater biosphere. Because the damage might never be undone, and biotech had to be stopped.
Christopher agreed with the PLF, in principle and from the sidelines. He had never committed hard-core exploits himself. For better or worse, the Triangle's direct action tactics rarely edged past symbolic effect. It wore him down that for all their years of commitment, to their household and to their work, there was so little to show.
But he still had no idea what Chagall meant to do. Or whether he was a cop. Or, if he wasn't, whether he could be trusted to plan and act conscientiously.
Christopher steered their online chat into questions of political philosophy: Subcomandante Marcos and the armed Zapatistas' deference to civil society, Václav Havel's critique of capitalism and communism as two faces of the same technocratic coin. From there he began to tease out the spin Chagall wanted to put on biotech agribusiness. There were any number of approaches possible — contamination of the planet, corporate "ownership" of life, health dangers, hubris. It was a matter of which angle to emphasize.
The politics rolling off his correspondent's keyboard looked genuine. No cop who'd gotten that fluent in progressive arcana would waste his time on the Triangle's brand of nonviolence. He'd be looking for a bigger bust to justify the investment.
Flexing his shoulders, Christopher looked up from the laptop.
It took a second to register her attention.
A dark-eyed, oval-faced woman was gazing right at him. She sat two tables over, and she didn't look away. Instead of lowering her eyes, she offered a dazzling smile. "That looks engrossing," she said.
British accent, he thought. Her voice filled the space between their tables like velvety caramel. "Old college buddy," he improvised. Her teeth glowed, polished ivory against walnut skin. "A lot of instant message bluster for very low stakes."
"And here I thought I was witnessing the birth of café-based day trading."
Christopher grinned. "Honestly, I wouldn't know a bull market from a short sale." Could she possibly be hitting on him? He had to disengage, whether or not. He'd made promises to Chagall. Their elaborate security rites would amount to nothing if someone ID'd him at the Daily Grind, geeking like a madman at such-and-such a time and date. His screen flashed the arrival of a message. "I, um ..." He gestured toward the computer.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have intruded."
"No, no — it's — Paul and I haven't managed to connect in forever." Paul? Who the hell was Paul?
She gave a kind of sideways nod, and returned to her pint glass of milky tea.
Christopher dragged his attention back to the laptop.
CHAGALL: Multiple angles best for inviting all readers to see they have a stake. Your task to balance these as aspects of a single argument.
CHRIS: You can express yourself. Why add me to the mix?
If the saboteur was leveling with him, this was the biggest piece missing from his puzzle. Yet Christopher could barely force himself to keep looking at the screen. Why had a complete stranger struck up a conversation? Could she be a cop?
Don't go there, he told himself. No tinfoil hats. But he couldn't remember the last time a beautiful woman chatted him up. If romance was like weather, his life was a drought. Longing for rain, occasionally taunted by anemic drizzle.
Excerpted from Consequence by Steve Masover. Copyright © 2015 Steve Masover. Excerpted by permission of Salted Rose Press.
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