PROJECT CAULDRON (excerpt) by Darryl Whetter

Collage by Marisabel Lavastida @marlava88

Collage by Marisabel Lavastida @marlava88

They weren’t up in the Mac half a day before Ocean finally, truly understood Canada’s national industry (the family industry). Rory was right: thugs in trucks. Paid barbarians. Mad Max: Fury Strip Mine. Fort McMurray wasn’t so much a city as a giant probation office.

“The Nazis had their Brownshirts, the US have their Marines. We’ve got drunk rednecks in trucks,” Rory said. “Meet our exulted bullies.”

Fort Mac itself was bad, an oil city of pollution, drugs, bar fights and the sex trade. The gender ratio was easily three men for every one woman. Even with her boyishly short hair, Ocean was cat-called constantly. You there, with the tits and the pulse. The local cops earned less than any kind of oil-sands pipe-fitter, truck driver or smash-smasher, and they were thin on the ground. Another pair of drunk Sanders pounding themselves senseless at the Spigot, The Pipeline or The Patch? Let that sort itself out. Overworked officers might think Sluggy MacSlug should just go ahead and fight himself out of the gene pool, but of course Ocean could tell at a glance that all these amorous Maritimers had wives and 2.4 kids back home. All the excuse they needed to work at smelting planetary death. My wedding ring? Nah, don’t want to lose it on shift.

The fights barely got policed. The drugs and the hookers just slightly more so. Back when some camps briefly tried drug testing, half of workers tested positive for cocaine and residual THC. “And that,” Rory qualified, “was with a booming trade in clean piss samples.” The few times they went out to bars—with her hit on and him invited to fight every five minutes—they overheard cocaine referred to as “the white fuel for the black.” Weed was “green gas” and “CAT fuel.” No one was going to stay in the city driving a taxi for $10 an hour when they could head out to the strip mines of Encrude, Synthcrude and ReachCor to drive a CAT haul truck for at least seventy. Without taxis, Fort Mac was awash in drunk drivers, a fact these urban cyclists could feel in just seconds.

Collage by Marisabel Lavastida @marlava88

Probation office, frontier trading post for vice, one large bordello and a glorified airport, Fort Mac was bad. The isolated, fence-enclosed, on-site work camps patrolled by private security outside the city were far worse. Military compounds, walled cities, prisons with six-figure bars.


Not that they were pure anymore, not with their mission car and their undercover paycheques. Strange to see how differently Rory used the Green money from his own (and, she just started to admit, hers). “The fucking insurance oligarchy,” he had seethed back in Calgary when they were, however reluctantly, car shopping. “As soon as they see that I haven’t been insured, up goes the rate by three-hundred percent. If we do all the car through you, we can max the op funds.” He was proud to not have a diver’s licence. “Car equals identity?! This is how we validate ourselves, with our burning kill machines? No thanks.”

Maximize the operational funds. Neither eco-justice nor crime nor irony eased her discomfort at her vigilante lover sounding more like her dad than her dad usually did. A father who regards eight hours at the office as a half-day can easily leave work at work (especially when Andrea had kept the home and family running). Away from him geographically and emotionally, Ocean started to see that Blake clocked the hours but then had other people, always had other people, actually operationalize his plans. Don Petroleone. Not true for her and Rory, autonomous cell in the Green Army. Well, autonomous until the Fort Mac stage of Project Cauldron II.

So strange to suddenly see Rory the former bike courier stretching every dollar for green vengeance when he didn’t in life. Back in Calgary she’d once teased, “Do you get paid in cash or just bike parts?” By the time he made Calgary’s gouging rent and stocked up on vegan staples (brown rice vinegar: the champagne of vinegar) he wasn’t stuffing any mattresses with surplus cash. What little remained was either turned into a new bike accessory this week or saved for one the next. Anything to perfect the ride, to better chase that flashing silver fix. Rory was profligate but his alias Ryan was parsimonious. Ocean had a unique name, even if she did now regard it as more of her dad’s greenwashing. Undercover, she went by Sarah. Just another ponytail with large hoop earrings.

One standard ecoteur practice was to buy used clothing for a job then, depending on whether your crime left chemical residue, donate them in another city or simply burn them. Even with giant socks worn over them, shoes were always the liability. “The fingerprints of the sole,” Ocean tried to joke. In used boots, any partial prints would have somebody else’s wear pattern, not theirs. Do a search, and eBay could easily look like it was designed to sell used shoes, especially when both Calgary and Fort Mac rent denied them any sort of charity clothing shops selling the pale, thin dress shirts of dead grandfathers. No threshold of entrepreneurial hipsterdom could turn fifteen-dollar used shirts into a store’s thirty-six-hundred-dollar monthly Alberta rent. Rory told her that back in his ancestral Nova Scotia even the tiniest villages had multiple used clothing dealers. “You’ve got your Guy’s Frenchy’s, your non-Guy’s Frenchy’s, your up-start Louie’s, your Jackie-come-latelys. If one Maritimer turned a bale of second-hand clothes into a million bucks, he’s never going to lack imitators.” They began ordering clothes and boots online.

To make herself less noticeable, she’d dyed her hair “mouse brown.” When he first saw the wet brown dry into a dull mare’s coat she saw the shock in his eyes and used her best country drawl to sing that truck-fixin’ anthem, “Jack and Diane.” For them it was “a little ditty / ‘bout Sare and Ry-an.” Criminal love was still love.

Of course her father could have procured them any number of jobs up in the Mac. Ocean and Rory didn’t want jobs; Sarah and Ryan did. Not a challenge, though, to get hired into the planet’s foremost look-the-other-way industry. While friends and acquaintances a few years older were getting criminal record checks before flying to Korea to teach ESL—those Rory dubbed “missionaries of capitalism”—she and Rory made paperless, in-person job queries in the one industry that would grind to a halt the second criminals were excluded. You’re here applying for the job, so you’re obviously not currently incarcerated. Don’t worry, we all chip in to have probation officers drive out to the camps. Time is money.

Back East in the ancestral Roreland, drug tests would have been a problem. When Ocean had wondered why offshore Newfoundland rigs imposed drug testing on all workers while half the Alberta workforce was high, he gave her two quick answers. “We’re talking about Newfoundland: a salary’s still a rare thing, let alone a salary higher than what Gran’da ever earned on the cod. Here, they get high while they earn the truck-and-TV money then again while they use them. On the Rock, ‘three weeks on, three weeks off’ is true for the rigs and the THC. Also, never forget: these are rigs out in the frigid North Atlantic. It’s true—” he glanced at her “—oceans kill.” At the start of their Fort Mac infiltration, they both thought he was joking.

The Wild West. And north. The wild commodity, really. Succours green, white or liquid to make all the black endurable (or even whoop-ass fun). Take a little energy to mine all that energy. One chemical or another, one chemical for another. With Dickensian levels of particulate ash falling around Fort McMurray, they were constantly in a conversation they couldn’t get enough of (and one nobody else wanted).

“Oil is twentieth-century capitalism.”

“The twentieth-century was the century of oil. Modernity is oil.”

After her year at U.Cal she knew the petro timeline better than he did, was even more adept at fingering the carbon rosary. The First World War: Nobel-Prize winning German chemist Fritz Haber invents both mustard gas and the industrial synthesis of ammonia that would see farm fertilizer petro-cooked, not shovelled out of the barn. The pentaerythritol tetranitrate explosives they were about to risk their futures for, and their lives with, was invented (and patented) by the German government during that same war. And the car companies: Henry Ford not inventing the assembly line so much as transposing it from the slaughterhouse. The symbol of twentieth-century modernity wasn’t a book (go, universal literacy) or the condom (go, recreational sex) or women at the polls, but the car, explosions anyone could steer on rubber tires ripped out of Africa.

“The symbol of the twenty-first century,” he said in homage to their half-secret Green training, “is invisible. The Web. The ‘Net. All that hidden, pulsing flow.” Setting Fires with Electrical Timers was still the ecoteurs free and downloadable (yet “copylefted”) arson manual.

“‘From the century of the molecule,’” she quoted from class, “‘to the century of the system.’”

“Exactly,” Rory said.

After, Blake would have pointed out, the century of the rock.

Graphic designers periodically try to render the Internet’s swirling bits and bytes in swaths of synthetic magentas, cool blues and poltergeist greens, possibly letting clumps of binary numbers gather like so much windswept litter. That data flow was even more invisible up in Mordor. No one in a boom town lacks toys. Smartphones and tablets everywhere. Male workers Skyped bi-nightly with their baby mommas back East. Gaming. Movies. Looking for hookers. All that Web traffic remained just a tiny whirr compared to the rumble ‘n smash, the grind, all that slopped money and oil. No sound better than squealing down Suicide 63 on your next break. When fast food restaurants close for lack of anyone willing to settle for fast-food wages, you know you’re in a boomtown. By the time they arrived, the Fort McMurray Burger King was no longer anyone’s king, the playground building for sale but too industrial, too weird, to be carved into apartments.

Posts, message boards, articles, the comments of petro strangers willing to friend these unknown Sarahs and Ryans on Facebook—they’d read everything they could to build their covers.

How do you write a resignation letter in Fort Mac?

Burn rubber when you leave one parking lot before showing up to work at another.

No background checks. No calls to references. Everyone a graduate of Wink-Wink, Nudge-Nudge High. Grade Twelve grad? Sure am. When your foreman gets paid off by your coke dealer and last week you were both blown by the same hooker (a hooker younger than your eldest daughter), you’re definitely not working anywhere near a forensic accountant.

If they could have just attacked Mordor and its thug employees, that would have been an easy sell, ethically. Trouble was, they also had to hurt the innocent up there in the black land of the blind. Their first attack was latent, indirect, not yet the full frontal, and that bothered her more.

“I’m gonna hurt somebody, shouldn’t I have to look into his face? Or hers?”

Spiking trees had definitely been latent violence, but that at least was latent violence against assholes, chainsaw marauders. It wasn’t the indirectness of the attack that made her lose interest in leaving behind those little ceramic hurt parcels. They did what they did because the clock was ticking, because this was the turnaround decade. Unlike some e-pundits but like her father, she never doubted that the human species would survive the planet’s sixth mass extinction (the one it caused). The daughter of an Alberta geologist turned petro-executive, Ocean had grown up hearing about the five preceding mass extinctions like some kids grow up hearing their dad’s expertise in football or Star Wars. The Ordovician-Silurian and Late Devonian die-offs showed the clear-eyed what even natural climate change could do. Oh, the planetary ass-whoopings of nuclear winter, whether from volcanic activity like the Triassic-Jurassic or asteroid strikes like Blake’s KT or the Permian-Triassic (aka the Great Dying). With the latter, she knew all too well, all of today’s life on land and sea evolved from just the 1-4% of the species that survived what was probably a combined asteroid strike and volcanic event. Even evolution, they were all starting to admit, prefers the 1%.

With the racheting Anthropocene, their extinction, the attack was as self-inflicted as lung cancer, not death from above or below. And the smokers sickened everyone around them, dumped their ash trays everywhere, flicked their butts out windows to start a forest fire in the glowing rearview. However quick the accelerating collapse would be, she was certain the super-rich would survive the Anthropocene, with their robot soldiers and isolated air fields, their Elon Musk batteries and Chinese solar arrays. This was not, she disagreed with Rory, the end of the human species. Hundreds of millions would die quickly then a few billion in the lean years of crop failure, salinated water tables and humidity-cooked disease pandemics (for the humans and their animal food). Still, the bunkered rich would survive, would sit out even some raging brown government sending up the first nuke in what their Green cell called “the Bangladeshi Hypothetical.” A million Indians and Pakistanis killed each other with their bare hands—what the eco-bloggers chillingly call ‘artisanal violence’—during Partition in 1947, long before both sides developed nukes. Acceleration accelerates, Ocean and Blake mutually, silently agreed. Less than a century after Partition, hunger and thirst would soon take out hundreds of millions the old-fashioned way. For the billions, weather would be the Reaper’s scythe. Even Blake had to admit that NASA’s chief climate scientist hit it with the title of his latest doomsday book: The Storms of My Grandchildren. More like The Lethal Storms of My Grandchildren. There is one way and one way only to survive the massive tsunami getting cooked up in the Pacific: don’t be anywhere near its coast. That coast, like all coasts, loses a bit more land each year. “Half a century afraid of the mushroom cloud,” Rory liked to say, “and now the tiny mosquito is going to level most of us.” Make the world a hot swamp, pile the human carrion, go Air Force Whine.

Though they didn’t know it, Blake, Rory, Ocean, and Andrea all agreed that, once the mercury rose high enough, Canada would become America’s fifty-first state with little more than a phone call.

“The US will divert, build and drone-guard one set of pipelines for our oil,” Rory opined, “and another for our water without firing a single shot. Invasion by telephone.”

“Canada,” she knew, “America’s climate bitch.”

“China and the US each have a resource-rich neighbour with a low population density. At least the Russians will fight against their thirsty, hungry neighbours.”

“Arsenals, rage, vodka and history,” Ocean agreed.

“Like us, they’ll be releasing all that methane trapped beneath the ice but will be just as affected by it as every other country. Emit locally; destroy globally.”

“Methane,” she acknowledged, “the gas jets of the global oven. Time, Canada, to get our head out of the oven.”

All that she could understand, yet still her purchased (/stolen) social insurance number got to her. Speed Bump 1. The Sands employees may have been assholes and criminal dads, but they were at least real. Even when an ex-con has to provide piss samples and can’t leave the province, he can still use the same state’s social insurance number to fill a bank account care-of Synthcrude. For Sarah and Ryan to have randomly invented social insurance numbers would have had them yanked in about 21 days. The Sands would employ anyone, but, legally at least, they still had to be real people. “Wouldn’t want to threaten those million-dollar-a-day tax breaks,” Rory knew. On the SIN black market, the cheapest option were simple rips. Anyone careless enough to have transmitted their SIN by email could have unknowingly had it scooped by Russian or Chinese hackers then sold back into Canada, with clients ranging from the Hell’s Angels to Vancouver triads to the good ol’ mafia. The best fit for Project Cauldron II cost much more, financially and ethically. Lose a father, husband or brother in May, and Mr. Deceased still owes five months of tax. Using his SIN wouldn’t trip any wires at the Canada Revenue Agency for another eleven. These “ghost numbers” get sold by low-level bank employees and/or legal secretaries with big travel plans to brokers in acrylic sweaters who walk around with at least three cheap cellphones in their pockets. The bad men in bad sweaters sell the numbers on to whatever scheming asshole needs to earn below the federal radar. Jihadis, deadbeat dads, drug launderers, illegals and at least two members of Alberta’s Green Army.

Kiln-hardened ceramic shrapnel shooting into a logger’s arm (or face) had excited her. Taxing the dead, though. Or, more accurately, stiffing the grieving with a higher tax bill—she’d backed herself into a moral corner.

“All activists,” Rory had told her early on, “have to situate themselves on The Grid. Two times two options: violent or non-violent; okay or not-okay. The Elves freeing medical test animals—”

“Non-violent,” she saw, “and I’m perfectly OK with that.”

“The Elves torching that SUV lot?”

“Violent. Pollution is latent violence. That’s why we’re here. Violent, definitely.”

“And are you okay with that?”

“Torching the guzzlers? More okay than not. Big release of pollution, yeah, but waving a placard isn’t going to make anyone stop buying and driving Hummers.”

Rory took this as another moment to catalogue his idols. “Ghandi was non-violent and okay with it. Satyagraha sucking up all those billy-club blows during the salt march. Today, everyone looks at Madiba’s grey hair—”

Despite now being criminally militant, she still secretly hated that he insisted on calling Mandela by his clan name. You’re Calgarian, not Thembu.

“—and listens to his YouTube speeches with his kinda British accent and thinks he was non-violent. Unn-uhh. Before he got pinched, Madiba, surrounded by armed cops, led a protest crowd in singing, ‘There are the enemies, let us take their weapons and attack them.’ Never forget that Madiba moved himself over to non-violent, not-okay. Two negatives—”

“Make a positive. Mandela was pro-violence.”

“Pro-violence to end the violence of the oppressors. History doesn’t change without non-violent, not-okay.”

“If you’re gonna fight,” she’d agreed, then and always, “fight to win.”

They began looking for Fort Mac work under two false identities because, in the violence of planeticide, non-violent was far from okay. To be non-violent against oppressive violence was to be violent. Sayonara satyagraha. Complicity with violence is the coward’s violence. Planet getting murdered, shit’s all violent.

In the Mac, shit was all sexist, too. The only time she’d felt this much like a she was racing out of prom in that dress (racing into Rory). Jobs hung everywhere up north for him, and at thirty to seventy percent higher than any wage she could find. Waitress or bartender, dispatcher or HR flunky, she could either clean up after men, get men (more) drunk or move them from money-making spot to money-making spot. A few women worked on site at the upgraders, loading the world’s largest washing machines, dialling up the heat or the rinse, and a very few even drove haul. Despite what every member of Team Stubble and Baseball Cap declared loudly to anyone who would listen, women were physically just as capable of driving a seven-million-dollar CAT. Engineering, not muscle, allowed 50-100 kilograms of human to move more than half-a-million kilograms of rock-laden truck. A few women drove CAT, but Ocean could see in a second that she’d have to wait years to haul, all while blowing far too many foreskinless foremen to get the job. Viva the Wild West.

Where others have irony, Rory and now, largely, Ocean, had political rage. His regular (cloaked) reading of sites like The 99% and The Commons were his intravenous drips of social rage. The hourly updates of these sites (Powered by the people!) trafficked in enough highly juxtapositional adbusts, photo collages and videos to provide him some scattershot political history. Assign him a history textbook chapter that mentioned Emma Lazarus’s poem chiselled into the base of the Statue of Liberty, he’d never read it. That was the System’s learning, not his. Scroll the same words—words he previously hadn’t known existed—over some video footage of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the guy clicked his way into Lazarus scholarship.


Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to break free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!


So they both guffawed, not just her, at the sight of two Statue of Liberty photos above the bar at The Nozzle, yet another Fort Mac boozeporium. A master shot and a detail of the statue were framed beside a small Stars and Stripes screwed into a stained Canadian wall. Ocean snorted, and the eight closest heads in the bar save Rory’s, each of them in a grubby baseball cap, turned towards her spoiling for a fight. The whiskered glowers dropped a little, shifted from stomp to rape, when they saw that Ocean, not Rory, was the openly derisive one. She lowered her voice to sum up the Sands, that inky Canadian fingerprint.


Give me your fired, your bores,

Your boy-toy masses yearning to smash well,

The wretched refuse here for young whores,

Send these, the brainless, alimony-tossed to Hell,

I light a fuse beneath these black doors.


When their private silence ceased crackling, Rory said, “Sarah, we gotta use that.”

“We will,” she said, leading them out of the bar. Light in the face of an activist doesn’t come from a smile, but from the anger in their eyes. Ocean’s were glowing. “And most of the time, for you, it’s Sare.” With him, she’d never once been Oash. Undercover, she was definitely Sare.

Later that week, Ocean read more about the Elves torching that SUV lot in Santa Cruz. Jeff Luers, the original three-truck arsonist the Elves claimed was their incentive to sympathy-torch a whole dealership, got sentenced to a rare twenty-tree years, nearly eight years per truck, for an arson with zero casualties on a fully insured car lot. No rapist gets sentenced to twenty-three years.




The problem, in every way, was water. Once they blew open the retaining wall of a ninety-square-kilometre oil-sands tailings pond and flooded the entire area with 250-million litres of fantastically toxic liquid sludge, a cache of drinking water in their apartment was going to look like a whole lot of pre-meditation. When 100,000 Fort Mac residents suddenly had their drinking water flooded with 100,000 Olympic swimming pools worth of toxins, every water table that liquid could reach would be poisoned for decades. Open the spigots on rivers of arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and napthenics, float the tonnes of cyclopentyl and cyclohexyl carboxylic acids—they’d shut Mordor down forever. Release a fraction of the life-destroying liquid by-products of Sands oil, Alberta bitumen would once again have to remain a solid, would never again go into another cauldron to become a liquid. Poison the scorched earth to stop the scorching once and for all. Sundon’s Tar Island dike has been leaking steadily for forty years. Sarah and Ryan were just going to press fast-forward on that toxic leaching. Her dad knew, but never disclosed, that every tailings pond dike they’d ever built leaked. To Blake, that was simply a cost of doing business. The Sands couldn’t have been so bad when they kept the same provincial political party in office for forty-plus years and changed who got to become Prime Minister. Parlez à mon cul, cher Québec.

They’d needed no shortlist to come up with the title Project Cauldron II. If Blake had been an Alberta geologist a few decades earlier in the 1950s, he might even have been part of the home team for America’s Project Cauldron, the patented late Fifties proposal of American oil companies to detonate the nuclear bombs of its government in triply-north Alberta. North of America, north even in Canada and racially north. Back then, only governments could afford and source nuclear weapons, and only oil companies thought to use them to turn black rock into liquid fuel. America’s northern-glancing (not northern-living) American oil consortium knew that their combined Alberta lease lands were bigger than a quarter of the countries on the planet. From boardroom to patent office to White House then—Just give your President a minute on the phone—a few calls to Ottawa. Free nukes and foreign investment, eh, Mr. President? Our natives? No, no problem there. Pleasure doing business with you.

Project Cauldron II: blow one wall of a tailings pond to let out the small lake of toxins and shut down the entire area/industry. A mass evacuation would, finally, swing the political sympathy their way while also hitting black shareholders with massive clean-up costs. Poison the drinking well, not even Maritimers would work there anymore (if the industry ever got running again). Suddenly every worker, not just a handful, would be like the new African temporary workers: thirsty, unemployed and forced to leave for work yet again. Bye-bye boomtown. Oh, Canada: time for a new national industry.

In the early 90s, when the Corvus Consortium decided that the highest corporate profits in Canadian history weren’t quite high enough, they’d met for a round of golf at Canada’s most expensive course, the Fairmont Springs in Banff. The nuclear-liquefying Project Cauldron hadn’t worked, but Corvus could, financially at least, always liquefy bitumen. The Corvus goal was simple: triple Alberta oil sands production within a decade. How to convince three levels of government to do this for them? Hand them short-term bribes and remind them how well they’re playing into the IMF’s key development index: will this massive investment of state and foreign capital allow uneducated men to buy more trucks more regularly? Time to talk brass tacks here, Corvus: how many Sea Doos and ATVs is this economic development going to buy on credit? Okay then, where do we fill up your haul trucks with public money? The Fairmont’s most difficult hole is the fourth, and its name is never forgotten by the grinning petro executives who keep the course going: the Devil’s Cauldron.

Variety being the spice of erotic life, high-end sextrade workers and dancers tour incessantly. None involved—not worker, promoter or customer—can resist saying Fresh meat about this perpetual rotation. Trouble was, many of the escorts at Fort Mac’s High Octane Playmates refused to work any other Canadian city. Toronto’s corporate lawyers and banking oligarchs just won’t shell out the $800/hr. that their Manhattan counterparts will. In New York, the clientele are hedge-fund managers and angel investors. In the Mac, they’re anyone who can lift a two-foot wrench or drive a dump truck the size of a house. “No hooker,” Ocean predicted, “is going to stick around post-Cauldron when bathing means emptying an entire case of now-expensive bottled water into a cold tub. Not a one.” Pulling down the Mac’s notorious sex trade would be a nice perk to their smash. Provided Sarah and Ryan could get from the blown dam back into the Mac, they’d be just another pair of rats fleeing the sinking ship. Like all mammals, even rats need water to live.

Before the attack, simple possession of the PETN explosives meant immediate arrest and several federal charges. Most weapons, any child porn, drugs unattached to multinational profit—their use is so unwelcome that mere possession is a serious crime. After the attack, drinking water would be nearly as indicting. Post-explosion, when everyone was thirsty, violated and suspicious, all would become witnesses, cooperative informants, some even vigilantes. Ocean and Rory worked every day on a plan that could have left Sarah and Ryan as hunted as the Boston Marathon bombers. Even anti-TV Rory had seen footage of the Boston manhunt. On TVs at Derailleur or his dispatcher’s computer he’d caught glimpses of that most novel of broadcasted emotions: civil cooperation. Worse, police adoration had been displayed on cardboard signs in houses and car windows or held proudly aloft in crowds. Catch them! and Keep us safe read half the Boston signs then, almost instantly following the brightly illuminated arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Thank you! and even Loooovvveee You! All that, and none of those Bostonians had been thirsty or filthy or hungry for lack of water.

For this eco Bonny and Clyde, Spike Lee’s heist film Inside Man was their aquatic playbook. The movie’s bank thieves used a false wall in the vault to hide one of their crew, while these actual eco-warriors built a false wall in their bedroom closet to hide something that should be more valuable than money: jug after jug of potable water.

Shopping for groceries once Rory had noticed that rectangular ten-litre jugs of water were nearly twelve inches wide. The oblong jugs would fit neatly between wall studs. Wordlessly he added a jug to their Fort Mac cart. Ocean/Sarah didn’t so much as nod at the sight of this previously verboten drain on public water thumping into their cart. At the checkout, each was keen to heft it onto the rolling black belt. Spies like us.

Only in the car did Ocean finally speak. “Bottled water. We’re truly evil now.”

In a boomtown, even lumber is four or five times the usual price. Especially lumber. Everyone there thought to build was to grow, to improve. More must surely, always, equal better. No one cared that most of the lumber for sale in Fort Mac hadn’t been imported up Suicide 63 and needn’t be as over-priced as it was. In order to dig up the slab-like bitumen entombed in air-filtering peat, lung-scrubbing forests had first to be felled, harvested and, unlike anywhere else, have their stumps torn out. With deforestation rates now exceeding Brazil, the Canadian tar sands sold race-horse land knowing full well the prized specimens were only going to be used for their bones down at the glue factory. That some of the levelled forest was milled on site into usable lumber, well, we at ReachCor will sell our lumber at local rates, not national ones, provided you will too at Syn, Sun and En. A two-by-six in a boomtown sits on expensive real estate and is rung up by someone who could quit today and walk into any number of menial jobs out in the fields for a salary much higher than most of the country’s professors. Out in the fields, stumps, saplings and branches not sold as lumber—what the industry calls overburden—were doused in gasoline and burned in situ. “The funeral pyres of the species,” Rory called them.

Sati, Ocean thought but didn’t bother saying. The religiously dutiful wife throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Their aged and faded Corolla was already conspicuous in the boy-toy realm of eight- and ten-cylinder trucks that were never more than three years old. Those young, unlikely renovators looked even more unusual when they drove home with a load of two-by-sixes lashed onto a blanket on top of their car. Conspicuous, but not unwelcome. That flagrant sign of intended renovation was a familiar rite of passage in a city where many porches had been converted into bedrooms. That’s it, Buddy: build out the back of your house. Half of us have done it. The city had palpable, visible ash. Everyone hacked and coughed. Still, some saw the young couple hauling home lumber and thought, nursery time. At an intersection, a guy driving between job-site, bar and massage parlour leaned out the window of his truckosaur to say, “Won’t be in that l’il Toy-Toy for long.” His whiskered smile was nearly as wide as the bill of his baseball cap. Just as the light turned green, Rory shot Dude-ee-oh a thumbs up entirely designed, Ocean knew, to crack her up. Undercover, the emotions were hidden, not eradicated.

From summer visits and countless family stories, Rory knew that to drive anywhere in Cape Breton with anything conspicuously new—car, wading pool strapped to roof, four-by-eight utility trailer—was to move curtains, eyebrows and tongues. In the Mac, everyone else was usually too tired, too flush or too hacked with pollution or substance abuse to care what you bought, this week or the next. No one looked beyond the pluses and minuses of his own competing bank statements, savings versus credit, in versus out. At the heart of the energy economy in a city with the motto We have the energy, most of those workers would tell Rory/Ryan and Ocean/Sarah that they just do what everyone else does: work to own without being owned. That new young couple over on Diefenbaker got their one sheet of drywall and a disproportionate number of 2X6s into the apartment without, they thought, so much as a turned head.

Building the false wall of their water case emphasized the false wall of their fake identities. Where normal, civilian walls sometimes have a little horizontal blocking between the vertical studs, the new wall they built out from the back of their closet had far more blocking than studs. Really it was a very strong bookcase with a drywall cover. Or, more accurately, a watercase. Every thirteen inches up they knocked in a shelf for another rectangular ten-litre jug of water. Six up. Five across. Three hundred litres of life juice. “Time, Canada,” he said, stroking and patting the plangent, translucent jugs, “to remember that this is our proper fuel.”

Back in Calgary they’d started practicing what Rory called “water discipline.”

Water discipline?”.

“You know: hot islands in World War Two. Rommel and the desert tanks.”

To reduce themselves down to just drinking and—heaven forbid—days without exercise, they could, given their growing stockpile of non-suspicious baby wipes, survive on four litres of water a day. Naphthenic water could still flush a toilet, so their hidden three-hundred litres had to hydrate them, wash and cook their food and rinse whatever they couldn’t clean with a handi-wipe. If they had to, he calculated, they could survive a month trapped in the Mac behind their own moat of poison. “Glimpse of the future,” he said, as they slid their final jug into the case. “When water is wealth.”

After they’d tipped over their cauldron, their country’s cauldron, they could retrieve water in at least two ways. Sarah and Ryan could pass the days tapping a line into one hidden jug after another then filling bottle, pot or bathing bucket with an inserted stopcock and a length of Home Depot plastic tubing. Hopefully, though, none of that Plan B would be necessary. Project Cauldron would contaminate Fort Mac’s already over-burdened municipal water system (along with everything else). Their attack was also their escape route (was everyone’s). They too would nose a hastily packed car into the honking chrome line of a forced evacuation down Suicide 63, the only highway available. If they first had to hole up in the apartment to survive their own siege, they could dump any leftover water down the drain before they were finally allowed to leave. In the extreme-case Plan C—Ocean and Rory running as quickly as possible—they could always just tear down the drywall with the pry bar they kept under the bed to haul out as many jugs as time and trunk space would allow.

In their suddenly shallower closet they avoided papering, mudding, sanding and painting the corner joints and screw holes of the new (temporary) rear wall by aping the very consumerism they loathed. They hung “decorative” turquoise acrylic rope from a fabric store in the far corners and attached a ridiculous number of women’s scarves with clothespins. They ordered the scarves wholesale off eBay for peanuts. “Thank you, five-year-old Bangladeshi garment girls,” she tried to joke. Actual, visual shelves were quick-mounted over what would be their line of siphon holes. The shelves were steadily lined with shoes quickly acquired from yard sales and eBay. She’d never felt more undercover than when buying floral-print heels. “After we get the planet killers, we go for the tasteless.” Shoes and—perfect camouflage—baseball caps they would never wear quickly filled the whole back wall of Sarah and Ryan’s closet. Nothing to see here, Officers. We, too, shop ‘til we drop.

“Look for a couple pairs of runners for the job. We can burn them after.”

“Can’t we burn them all?” She made gaging noises while holding up some sort of heeled sandal erupting in plastic flowers. “These look like a funeral arrangement puked on my feet.”

Stealth, labour and fake acquisitions distracted them for a while, but even mounting the shoe shelves made them thirsty. Thirsty and something else. Thirsty and. Every gleefully laughing child they heard, every dog wagging a tail like crazy in park, car or backyard. Time to hurt them all. Inoculation, a homeopathy of hate. A temporary pinprick, given the global suicide pact.

Climate refugees is a contingency term of the Pentagon’s, not Rory’s conspiracy theorists. If their strike on a tailings pond dam worked—maybe Blake’s ReachCor, maybe not—more than 100,000 people in and around Fort Mac were about to become water refugees. Worst hit, they knew, would be the isolated, northern First Nations they claimed to be serving. One way to keep that guilt at bay was to let the fear flood in. Get caught with a trunk or a closet full of water, they’d become the first suspects for the tailings pond blow.

“Remember,” Rory counselled yet again, “the cops and the prosecutors will start lying as soon as they separate us in custody. The pigs are allowed to tell you I’ve ratted you out even if I haven’t. Which I never, ever would. Rory won’t talk,” he added, all too accurately. “Say it with me one more time.”

“I said it with you last time and the time before that. Rore, I get it. ‘Nobody talks; everybody walks.’”

“That’s what the Elves all said. Look at them now. State jumpsuits for all.”

She reached under his mop of dreads to cup the back of his neck. “We’re not them. Remember?”

Would the Elves, she still hadn’t asked, hurt the very First Peoples they claimed they were protecting/avenging? Drinking water was already challenge enough for far too many Canadian First Nations. Latent genocide was part of their anti-sands cri de coeur. “There’s no such thing as by-product genocide,” she argued back when all they’d done was talk and seethe.

Central to the geographic conditions that made the Sands was the northern flow of the Athabasca River. However northerly in Alberta the Mac was, the Athabasca carried its sludge much more north. North meant native, and the Sands existed in part because they poisoned disparate northern aboriginals, not urban whites. From coast to coast to coast, Canada’s First Nations were already sick from ghetto-reserve drinking water with mediaeval sanitation, yet none of them swallowed cancer by the mouthful like the Chipewyan, Dene and Cree north of Fort Mac. To try to stop that, Ocean and Rory were becoming like the very cancer they beheld. Attack at the source. Poison the intake. Posters and protests wouldn’t make Canadians stop poisoning the Cree. Only poison would. Fight hard to end the fight.

Living the hate wasn’t the problem. Their entire purpose in being in the Mac was to do damage. He repeated the mantras of Setting Fires with Electrical Timers: Guarantee destruction of the target through careful planning and execution. She sang Massive Attack: She’s doing so much harm / doing so much damage. Until the Mac, poisoning the well had only been a rhetorical phrase. Call someone defensive, Blake had taught her, and they sound defensive refuting you. Produce two-hundred litres of poison a day, and the Canadian government will give you a million dollars in tax breaks. Same thing tomorrow, ad nauseam. Albertans, Canadians and their American customers/bosses wouldn’t do anything about the shockingly toxic tailings that were the by-product of the national by-product. Ghandi couldn’t beat the Sands. Shining a light was not enough. Mandela was their man, not Ghandi. They (too) would overcome.

What changes history? Technology. Chance (just ask the ash-shrouded dinosaurs below Blake’s KT line down at Drumheller). And the will of the people. Trouble was, democracy is not an arrow, let alone an arrow of goodness. Raise public consciousness and, this was the tricky part, direct it. “Amazing Grace” (written by an opium addict). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one they’d half-met in the Green Army had sifted the Harriet Beecher Stowe scholarship to definitively determine whether or not President Lincoln had really greeted her with the words, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that made this big war?” A chauffeur’s wrong turn in Sarajevo didn’t cause the First World War, but, they knew, it allowed someone to light the pre-built, heavily doused fire.

Project Cauldron II, the vaccination. Hurt a little, heal a lot. Every fake smile in a checkout line was hard to endure. Make no jokes, make no friends. Trade no beer or bar recommendations. They were up north to hurt. Yes, hurting Fort McMurray would hurt Fort Chipewyan even more. If you want to scrub a cauldron clean, first you have to tip it over, empty it all out.

Collage by Marisabel Lavastida @marlava88