Virtual reality is the only way I’m free to escape the tundra and explore different worlds. In the worlds of my creation, I command the weather, control day and night, the seasons, the animals, the rivers, the mountains, the meadows. I can be away from the Arctic, the wind, the water, and this barren, boring, treeless place. Wales, Alaska—the westernmost place on the North American mainland is where I call home. It’s frozen most of the year, almost always smells like snow, and the two months that everything thaws, it’s nothing but a massive wet sponge. Okay, a lichen, berry-filled sponge, but a sponge!
On the edge of my bed in my underwear and long sleeve t-shirt, I’m pushing my bionic foot through the leg of my haptic jumpsuit. With it, I can feel everything in the virtual game I co-create with my best friend, Korave, who lives in Russia. In the SOS Island adventure we started last weekend, we created a huge wild dog and released it on the savanna with miniature animals. Korave said I should be the one to talk to the elephant matriarch because I talk to animals with my mindsight in the real world. I can see what they’re thinking in images they send me and feel what they’re feeling and I let them know what I’m thinking by sending my pictures. Anyway, I’ve got to tell the elephant queen something that will let us progress to the next level, to a new ecosystem.
Migalik, Mig for short, is curled asleep on my bed. He’s my pet arctic fox. His name means slush ice and his gray summer fur is coming in already, super early. I wouldn’t have a single friend if it weren’t for Mig. There’s no one here my age. All the villagers are old, and if I didn’t have Korave and VR, I might as well live on an exoplanet.
My parents crack the door open—Mom’s petite and Dad’s over six feet tall so his head sticks up above hers. They’re peering at me in their uniforms. On a Saturday? Dad’s lab day? Weird.
“Sweetie, we looked at drone video this morning, and the scant ice in the Strait melted earlier than ever.” Dad frowns, shaking his head.
“Climate change.” Mom nods.
Dad adds, “The big boil.”
As if I didn’t know. You’d think by 2155 we would have done everything possible to control climate change, what Dad calls the big boil, but we haven’t because basically, humans are so stupid. And greedy.
“That means spring migration is earlier too.” Mom’s southern drawl comes through on ‘migration.’
They’re both scientist-detectives—agents for World Endangered Animal Police Protection—WEAPP for short. They patrol the Bering Sea and the Strait to monitor the thousands of belugas, bowheads and gray whales that swim north in the spring to feed in Arctic waters. They’re all endangered, along with pinnipeds, and what’s left of the birds that migrate here too.
“Red Dragons?” I ask, knowing the answer and my skin crawls with goosebumps, even though it’s warm inside.
They nod, watching as I squeeze my real foot through the other pant leg, stand, shove my arms through the sleeves, and pull the zipper to my neck. The stretchy, skintight black suit almost makes me feel like a superhero. Almost.
“Hunting bow heads and belugas, no doubt.” Mom sighs, her mouth drooping.
“And walrus,” Dad adds.
“Hunting the endangereds that migrate through the Strait to the Arctic Ocean.” Mom squints, her mouth pursed.
Flattening my braid for the helmet, I blurt, “I hate Red Dragons!”
“We hate the worst international trafficking gang, too,” Dad sighs.
Red Dragons specialize in endangereds. They come in their monstrous boats as soon as the ice melts. There’s nothing more dangerous than hunting them, especially during migrations, and it’s why we live in the most desolate village, a hundred miles below the Arctic Circle, with just forty-eight Inupiaq neighbors.
“We’ll meet our Russian WEAPP friends off Little Diomede and head north as a team into the Chukchi,” Dad explains, then changes the subject to make me feel better. “Hey, thanks for helping load the android’s mindfile yesterday. Let’s fully activate him tomorrow to experience his humanness, huh?” He grins hard with a nod.