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Updated: 10/06/2013
 
Home > Meltwater Chapters One & Two > Meltwater Chapters One & Two
Meltwater   1

Saturday 10 April 2010
Death came frame by frame, in grainy black and white.
            Erika stared at the screen of her laptop.  It showed the tatty rectangular roofs of a poor Middle Eastern city.  In the centre of the screen a white box hovered over a truck upon which the letters “UN” could clearly be seen as it manoeuvred down a narrow side street.  A burst of rapid speech in a language Erika didn’t understand zipped through her earphones.  The truck came to a halt and half a dozen people dropped out of the back.  Another burst of chatter, more urgent this time.  And then one word.
            Esh!    
            There was silence for a second and then little spurts of dust erupted around the feet of the group and the figures crumpled.
            Esh!
            More spurts.  The bodies were still on the ground now as bullets slammed into them.
            Chatter.  A laugh.  Erika wanted to close her eyes, look away, look anywhere but at the screen, but she couldn’t.  She had to watch.  Someone had taken enormous risks so that she could see this.
The perspective changed as the helicopter circled for a better look.  The shaky rectangle grew wider as the camera zoomed.
            One of the bodies began to move.  Miraculously a figure climbed to his feet, and stooping, shuffled towards the shelter of a building, a leg dragging in the dust.  Climbed to her feet.  The figure had long fair hair, light grey in the image.
            A curse.  Chatter.
            Esh!
             The spurts of dust danced around the flailing body for several seconds, a period as long as the first two bursts combined.  Then the body was still.  The white frame lingered over it as radio reports were passed back and forth in the impenetrable language.  The helicopter must be hovering, waiting, explaining.  After a minute Erika could bear it no longer.
            She clicked “Pause” and turned away from the screen.  Outside, the last of the daffodils nodded through the railings of the London square in front of the hotel, dingy yellow in the light of the streetlamps.  It was five am and still dark.  She turned to check the bed where the renowned Greek-American professor of strategic studies she had met the night before was lying.  Asleep.  Definitely asleep.
The previous evening she had taken part in a public debate on the subject “Information Has a Right to Freedom” at the Royal Geographic Society.  There were three speakers on each side: she, of course had been in favour of the motion.  It was one of her best performances.  The Greek-American strategic studies professor had put up a good fight, but the audience had overwhelmingly agreed with her.  So had he in the end.  After dinner and a few drinks back at his hotel.
She had still been feeling the glow of victory four hours later when she crept out of bed to open up her laptop and check her e-mails.
            The glow was gone.  It was replaced with horror and disgust.
            And anger.
            These were supposed to be her people.
            She turned back to her laptop and pulled up Jabber, the encrypted instant messaging service.  They were all online, waiting for her response.
            Erika:  hi guys.
            Nico: hi erika.
Apex:  hi.
            Dieter:  hi.
            If she had to guess Dieter was up late and Nico up early.  As for Apex, who knew?  He never seemed to sleep.  A bit like Erika herself. 
            Erika:  have you seen it?
            `yes’ came the response, from all three.
            Erika:  is that woman who i think it is?
            Dieter:  it’s tamara wilton.  for sure.
            Apex:  it’s her.  the date on the video tallies with the day she was killed.  jan 14 2009.
            Erika:  i know it’s war but i can’t believe people do that kind of thing. it makes me sick to my stomach.
Nico:  wait till you hear what they are saying.  do you understand hebrew?
Erika: i’m not that kind of jew.  As she wrote those words, Erika wondered exactly what kind of Jew she was.  That was something she would have to figure out pretty soon.  did you get a translation?
Nico:  i sent it to an israeli volunteer.  she is sending me back a full transcript.  i’ll pass it on as soon as i get it.
Dieter: please tell me you didn’t send it to israel!
Nico:  yeah, but through tor.
Apex:  nico, you have to leave that kind of thing to us!  anything going into israel is vulnerable.
Erika:  cut it out guys.  nico, did the volunteer give you any idea what the israelis are saying?
Nico:  yeah.  the controller tells the helicopter that some hamas fighters have just fired an anti-tank missile and jumped into a un truck.  the helicopter finds the truck and asks for permission to engage.  it’s given.  then you see the shooting.
Erika:  what about tamara wilton?  can’t they see she’s a woman?
Nico:  just as they are firing, the controller tells the helicopter they’ve found the truck with the anti-tank unit.  it’s a different truck.  the pilot sees the woman moving and tells the gunner to shoot her.  they can tell she is a woman.  the gunner questions this, but the pilot says they don’t want witnesses, and besides, the united nations are a bunch of interfering bastards.  then in the chatter afterwards the helicopter tells the controller that the people getting out of the truck were armed and one of them escaped with an anti-tank missile launcher.
Erika:  but no one escaped!
Nico:  precisely.
Erika:  i remember this.  it was supposed to have been investigated by the israeli authorities.  i’m pretty sure they cleared the soldiers of any blame.
Dieter: how can they have done that!  these guys are murderers.  it’s that simple.
Erika:  and that’s what we will tell the world.  we’ll ream them with this.
The screen was still as the four of them digested what Nico had said.  Behind Erika the professor of strategic studies grunted and rolled over in the hotel bed.  Disturbed by her furious tapping on the keyboard perhaps.
Nico:  what do we do?
Erika:  we publish, of course!  but we do it carefully.  this is one of those situations where the cover-up is as important as the crime itself.  the israelis will want to squash this, and if they can’t squash it they will discredit it.  we’ll need full transcription, analysis, verification.  release the video online and the transcript through selected newspapers.  the washington post.  the guardian, maybe der spiegel.  are we sure it’s genuine?
Apex:  not yet.
Erika:  ok, we’ll have to check that out.  we need to be one hundred percent.
Dieter:  it’s going to be difficult to do this remotely.
Erika:  yes.  we should meet somewhere.  just for a few days.  get a team together.  just like we did last year in stockholm for the zimbabwe arms leak.
Nico:  this is bigger.
Dieter:  so where do we go?
Apex:  i’m not coming.
Erika:  ok, apex.  Apex never came anywhere.  He stayed in his room somewhere in a time zone a long way away.  None of them had even seen him apart from Dieter, and that was almost twenty years before, and no one even knew his real name.  Erika had spoken to him on a voice link over the Internet frequently; he had a rapid Australian accent.  So, no, Apex wouldn’t be coming.
They were waiting for her to suggest somewhere.  Technically she was nothing more than the Spokesperson for Freeflow.  The organization had no hierarchy, at least in theory.  Most decisions were taken by the four of them: Apex and Dieter were the technical guys, Nico did finance and general organization.
In practice Erika was the leader.  They all followed Erika.  Anywhere.
Erika:  what about iceland?
Dieter:  but that’s the middle of nowhere.
Erika:  when I went with nico in november they were really friendly.  they treated us like stars. and they seem dead serious about protecting the press.
Nico:  iceland might work.  we have some good guys there we can trust.
Dieter:  yeah duddi is good.  i rate him.
Nico:  i’ll organize it.  hey you know there’s a volcano erupting at the moment?
Dieter:  cool.  i’ve never seen a live volcano.
Nico:  i did my masters in geology.  i’ll give you a guided tour.
Erika:  guys we won’t have time for any sightseeing.
Nico:  you’re no fun erika.  so when do we go?
Erika thought a moment. It was Saturday morning.  She could work on the transcript and do some background research in London over the weekend.  There were people she could stay with whom she trusted in London, the man in the bed behind her not being one of them.  There were people she could stay with in lots of cities.
Erika didn’t really live anywhere.  Her few possessions were strewn all over the globe, in her parents’ place just outside New York, with Dieter in Cologne, some with Nico in Milan, some of her most personal stuff with her grandmother in Queens.  But most of what she needed she kept in her small suitcase.  And in her computer backed up and encrypted remotely in several servers dotted around the world. 
She would need to borrow a warmer coat for Reykjavík.
She resumed typing:  when can you get things ready nico?
Nico:  tuesday?
Erika: monday.
Nico:   monday.
Erika:  great.  see you all in reykjavik on monday.  and we need a name for this project.  see what you can come up with.

 

Monday 12 April 2010
Erika wheeled her battered bag through the double doors of the arrivals hall and scanned the dozen or so people waiting.  She knew Nico would have arranged for someone to pick her up, but she had no idea who it would be.
            There were a couple of signs in the hall, and one of them had her name scrawled on it, with a smiley face.  She approached the young woman holding the scrap of cardboard.  `Hi, I’m Erika.’
            The woman smiled and held out her hand.  She was thin with short dark hair, pale skin and big blue eyes.  She was wearing jeans and a thick tan coat.  And a clerical collar around her throat.
            `Ásta,’ she said.  `Welcome to Iceland.’
            The woman led Erika out of the terminal to a beaten-up old Peugeot that needed a wash.  Erika wasn’t entirely surprised by her host – Freeflow’s volunteers came in all shapes and sizes – but this was the first pastor she had come across.  Certainly the first female one.  Erika checked to see whether anyone was following them; she didn’t think so, but it was hard to tell. 
            `I’ll take you to the house,’ Ásta said in flawless English.  `It’s right downtown.  A great location.’
            `I doubt we’ll be going outside much,’ said Erika.  `Who does it belong to?’
            `The owners live abroad.  We’ve rented it for a couple of weeks.’
            `We won’t need it that long.  A week at most.’  Ásta eased the Peugeot out of the car park and on to the road to Reykjavík.  Forty-six kilometres, according to the yellow road sign.
            `You speak very good English,’ Erika said.
            `Thank you.  You’ll find most Icelanders speak English, especially the younger ones.’
`Yeah, I remember that from last time I was here,’ said Erika.  `Do you always wear that thing?’
            `What thing?’
            `The dog-collar thing.’
            `Oh, no.  But I want to while I’m helping you out.  I think what you are doing is good.  There should be more openness in Iceland, and more in the Icelandic church.  I guess I’m making a point.  Christians believe in telling the truth.’
            `So do Muslims and Jews,’ said Erika.  `And atheists.  Or the majority of them do anyway: their governments are a different matter.’
Erika was wary.  All kinds of people tried to win Freeflow over to their cause.  But independence was everything.  Independence from any one country, any political ideology and any religion.
            Ásta smiled.  `Oh, don’t worry, I won’t try to influence what you are doing.  I saw you on Silfur Egils when you were here last year, by the way.  I was impressed.  A lot of people here were.’
Silfur Egils was the biggest TV chat show in Iceland.  Erika had used her appearance to encourage the Icelanders to set up a haven for free information.  The idea seemed to have gone down well.  `I’m glad you remember it,’ Erika said.
`I might have something for you,’ Ásta said.
            `About the banks?’  Freeflow received information from all over the world, some of it big some of it small.  They had published the details of loans of one of the Icelandic banks several months before, but had also received several pieces of unsubstantiated gossip that they had left unpublished.
            `No.  About the church here in Iceland.  Certain things that happened here in the past.’
            `OK,’ Erika said.  `But, Ásta, if you do decide to leak something to us, you should do it anonymously.  Upload it to our website or mail it to us on a CD.  We go to great lengths to protect our sources, and the best protection is if we don’t know their identity ourselves.’
            `But if you don’t know who they are, how can you tell if they are reliable?’
            It was a common criticism of Freeflow, but one Erika had answered many times.  `We are very careful to check and double check the information we are given.  That works much better than a subjective judgement on whether a source is reliable or not.’
            `I see,’ said Ásta.
            They were out on the highway now, a long straight strip of black through the barren lava field that separated the airport at Keflavík from the capital.  Checking behind her, the only vehicles Erika could see were two large trucks: not the vehicles of choice for surveillance teams.  No trees anywhere, no grass.  Grey sea on one side, black mountains beyond the lava on the other.  A small mountain rose up ahead in a perfect cone.  Bleak.  A sign to the right pointed to the Blue Lagoon and Erika saw steam leaking out from behind a fold in the lavascape a few miles in that direction.  Erika had seen the posters at the airport: she could use a long soak in the geothermally heated pool. 
            The middle of nowhere, as Dieter had said.  A long way from Israel.
            `Nico showed us the video,’ Ásta said.  `It’s going to make quite a splash when it gets out.  There was a lot of coverage here when Tamara Wilton was shot.  It was a big deal.’
            `Yes, it will make a splash.’  Tamara Wilton was an ordinary British student who had decided to spend six months after graduating from university with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Gaza doing her bit for the Palestinians.  Except she wasn’t ordinary – she was a pink-cheeked, fair-haired English rose type in the mould of Princess Diana.  The world knew that because she had an identical twin sister Samantha, who looked just like her and who turned out to be not just cute, but articulate and angry as well.  Samantha Wilton had been all over the papers and TV, not just in Britain, but also in the rest of Europe and even the States.  The story of her sister had touched all kinds of people, even Erika, who saw something of herself in the idealistic young woman willing to go to dangerous places for what she believed in.  It had been a public relations nightmare for the Israelis, which they had fought hard to contain.
But until now no one outside the Israeli Defence Force had actually seen it happen.  More importantly, no one had heard it happen.
            Erika had spent Saturday and Sunday holed up in an activist’s flat in East London going through everything she could find on the death of Tamara Wilton.  The Israeli Defence Force investigation had been a whitewash.  The recent Goldstone Report, instigated by the United Nations to examine human rights abuses by both sides in the Gaza war of the winter of 2008-2009, had found no evidence to question the IDF’s version of events: that the helicopter crew’s assumption that the UN truck contained a Palestinian anti-tank unit was reasonable, as was their action to destroy it.
            There were doubts, accusations, but no proof.
            Until now.
            As she looked out over the broad expanse of brown and grey rubble that had been spewed out of a volcano several thousand years before, Erika felt the excitement build inside her.  The Icelandic priest was right, this was big.  This was very big.
            In the three years of its existence Freeflow had published many important leaks: it had started by exposing international inaction in Darfur, then corrupt arms deals in Africa, cover-ups in Belgium, political shenanigans in Italy and dodgy loans in Iceland.  This video would cause the biggest stir.  Which is why they had to make it objective, hard hitting and above all unimpeachable.
This time their target was Israel.
Erika had always known that at some point Freeflow would have to publish a leak concerning Israel, and she had no doubt that this particular leak deserved to be published.  But she also knew what her family would think of it.  What Erika was doing would be a step too far for them.
She took a deep breath.  Too bad.           


2

They passed through the newly built suburbs of Reykjavík into the city centre, a warren of small, brightly coloured houses with corrugated iron roofs.  Ásta drove up a hill towards the tall smooth swooping church spire that Erika remembered from her previous visit to the city.  From the summit by the church she could see over the roofs towards a broad mountain ridge dusted with snow to the north and sea to the west.
            `That’s Mount Esja over there,’ Ásta said.  `It looks different every time you see it.’   
            As they descended a narrow residential road with cars parked on either side, she caught sight of the street sign: Thórsgata.  Ásta parked outside a white concrete house with a green metal roof.  Lights glimmered behind drawn curtains.  `Here we are.’    
            Inside, the house was buzzing.  The ground floor was open-plan, essentially a large living area full of computer equipment, wires, folding tables and chairs, and people.
            `Hey, Erika, great to see you!’  Nico, tall, with shaven cranium and unshaven jaw, kissed her on both cheeks.  Dieter looked up from a laptop and waved absent-mindedly.
            Dúddi, a young Icelandic computer science student, came over holding out his hand.  Erika ignored it and kissed him on the cheek.  `Hey, Dúddi.  Great to see you again.  How’s it been?’
            Dúddi grinned.  `It’s been good.  It’s great to have Freeflow here.’
            `Let me introduce you to the other two,’ said Nico.  He was wearing black designer T-shirt and jeans, and the familiar diamond earring in his left ear.
            The two volunteers in question were Zivah, an Israeli student who would act as translator, and Franz, a Swiss video and sound guy.  They were both in their early twenties and, like Ásta and Dúddi, full of enthusiasm.
            Freeflow claimed that it had an army of volunteers all around the world.  This wasn’t strictly true.  People certainly put themselves forward to help, but most of them soon faded away when given the simplest tasks.  Erika hoped that these two would prove more reliable.
            `Thanks, everyone, for giving up your time,’ she said.  `You’ve all seen the video.  You’ve all seen Tamara Wilton and the four other aid workers in that truck die.  You might think that that is what happens in war: that’s certainly what the Israeli Defence Force will say.  But it shouldn’t be like that; it doesn’t have to be like that.  International treaties have been signed in the Hague, in Geneva, in Rome to prevent actions like these.’
            She lowered her voice.  The little gathering strained to hear her.  She knew the importance of converting her allies to the cause before she tried to convert anyone else.
            `What we saw on that video was a war crime, pure and simple.  And governments all over the world will suppress evidence of war crimes if they can and if the people let them.  Not just bad governments, but good governments too.  Freeflow cannot prevent these war crimes from happening.  But we can ensure that when they do happen the world knows about them.  We can shine a bright light into those dark corners they don’t want us to see.  It’s something we have done in the past and something we will do in the future until governments around the world finally realise they can no longer cover up these obscenities against all that our civilization stands for.’
            She fell silent for a few moments, letting her words sink in.  She scanned her listeners.  She’d got them.
            `Freeflow is in a unique position in history.  The Internet has given ordinary citizens such as us enormous power.  It is not the power to oppress or censor, but the power to set information free.  Someone has risked a lot to get this video to us; possibly committed treason in their own country.  We owe it to that person, and to humanity as a whole, to make sure that this work will have the maximum impact.
`This is possibly the most exciting leak Freeflow has been involved with.  We’re going to have to work hard over the next few days, but it will be worth it, I promise you.  What you do this week will be noticed throughout the world.’
            `Way to go!’ said Franz, the Swiss guy, with a cheer.
            The Icelanders Dúddi and Ásta looked impressed; the Israeli student a little anxious.  Erika didn’t blame her.
            `So let’s get to it!’  She turned towards the big man standing in the middle of a tangle of cables, his matted fair hair and scrappy beard streaked with grey.  `Hey, Dieter, don’t I get a hug?’
            Dieter grinned as he extricated himself from the wires.  He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed.  A German computer security consultant, he and Erika had been through a lot over the last three years. They had first come across each other on the Save Darfur website.  It was Dieter who had suggested setting up a separate secure site to publish leaked UN documents exposing the diplomatic dithering over the massacres of refugees in Darfur a few years earlier, and so Freeflow was born.  His technical expertise and Erika’s crusading drive were at the heart of the organization.
            `How close are we to getting started?’ Erika asked.
            `We’ll have all the machines hooked up in another hour or so,’ said Dieter.  `But Apex has a security issue.’
            `Not again?’ said Erika.  Apex always had security issues.  Erika was never sure whether they were real, or whether Apex was just paranoid.  `Does he know who it is this time?’
            `He’s pretty sure it’s the Chinese.’  Ever since 2008, when Freeflow had published a list of websites blocked by the Chinese government, their network had come under attack from China.  `He doesn’t want us to transfer the video across until he is sure everything is secure.’
            `Do you think he’s overreacting?’ Erika asked.
            Dieter shook his head.  `No.  It’s a real intrusion.’
            `OK.  How long?’
            `Tomorrow morning at the earliest.’
            `Damn.’  Erika glanced around the room.  `Where’s Gareth?’
            Gareth was a British security analyst, a former employee of GCHQ, the British government department responsible for collating and analysing electronic intelligence.  His expertise would be vital for interpreting the video and for assessing its authenticity.
            `He can’t come until Wednesday,’ Nico said.
            `Wednesday!  You’re kidding?’
            `He’s doing some freelance work that he can’t get out of.  But he will be able to analyse information we send him.’
            `Can we do that securely?’ Erika asked Dieter.
            `Yes.’  Dieter said.  `We can use Tor once Apex has given the all-clear.’  The Tor network allowed encrypted data to travel through a “virtual tunnel” between two computers that was extremely private.  It was Dieter and Apex’s favourite system and at the heart of Freeflow’s operations.  When layered with PGP or `Pretty Good Privacy’ data encryption, information was just about as safe as it could be.  `It’ll be better than nothing for a couple of days.  It’s not ideal, though,’ Dieter added.
            `No, it’s not,’ said Erika.
            `Erika?’ Nico was giving her his most charming smile.  It put her on her guard but she couldn’t help warming to it.  He was an Italian in his late thirties who used to run a hedge fund in London and had made himself several million before quitting.  He had approached Freeflow the year before, offering them help, both financial and organizational, and after proving himself over a three-month trial period, he soon became a vital member of the team.  He claimed he didn’t think like a finance guy, and he didn’t dress like one, but it was thanks to him that Freeflow hadn’t run out of cash months ago. 
            `Yes?’ Erika couldn’t help returning his smile.
            `Given this security hiccup, we could go and see the volcano.  This afternoon.’
            `We’re not here to sightsee,’ Erika said.
            `Of course not,’ said Nico.  `But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  It would only be a few hours.  I told the people we rented the house from we were Internet journalists here to report on the volcano.  It would be good for our cover if we actually went to see it.  And it would be an excellent way for the team to get to know each other.’
            Erika glanced at Dieter.  `Are there not things we can be doing in the mean time?’
`Some things, maybe.  But it would be safer to wait until Apex is sure the system is secure.  And the volcano would be cool.’
It would be.  Erika had arrived at the house desperate to get going, but she knew that waiting for Apex to give the all clear would be painfully frustrating.  A few hours wouldn’t make much difference.  And Erika never underestimated the importance of the team’s morale.  She would have preferred a trip to the Blue Lagoon, but …
She nodded.  Nico’s smile broadened, almost like a little boy’s.  It was kind of cute.  `How do we get there?’
`Dúddi’s father has a superjeep.  Dúddi can drive us.’
`OK,’ said Erika.  `We’ll leave in an hour.’
`I’ll arrange it,’ said Nico.
`I have a feeling, Nico, that you have already have.’ 
`Is that it?’
            Erika pointed to a dome-shaped mountain whose snowy cap was glimmering in the sunshine.  They were driving through a flat flood plain covered in brown grass.  The “superjeep” was basically a Ford Super Duty on giant wheels, and it held the seven of them comfortably: Erika, Ásta, Zivah, Franz, Dieter, Nico and Dúddi who was doing the driving.
            `No, that’s Mount Hekla,’ said Ásta.  `It’s one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, but it’s quiet at the moment.’
            `So where is it, then?’ asked Erika.  `Can we see it yet?’
            `Straight ahead,’ said Dúddi.
            Ahead the brown plain met the foot of a long mountain ridge.  The ridge itself was hidden in clouds.
            `Oh,’ said Erika.
            `Yeah, there are two glaciers up there, Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull.  The volcano is on a ridge called Fimmvörduháls just between them.’
            `In the clouds.’
            `Yes, in the clouds,’ said Dúddi.  `For the moment.  But this is Iceland.  Clouds come and clouds go.’
            `Are we going up on the glacier?’ asked Franz, the Swiss guy.
            `We sure are.  That’s why we need the jeep.’
            `Is it safe up there?’ Zivah asked.
            `Of course it’s safe,’ said Dúddi.  `I went up there in this with my dad last week.  It’s an awesome sight, believe me.’
            They drove on: to their right lay the Westman Islands, volcanic cubes of rock scattered like dice across the sea.  They crossed a broad river and skirted the southern edge of the mountain range.  Farms nestled in the shelter of the ridge, and horses dotted the meadows that lined the road.  They passed a waterfall, a broad curtain of white slipping off a cliff edge, before turning off the main road and heading upwards on a track.  Soon they were on ice.  The glacier.
            It was cool, Erika thought.  It was also cloudy.  In a moment they were in something close to a whiteout, snow beneath them and white water vapour all around them.  Dúddi slowed down.  He appeared to be following the dozens of tyre tracks spreading across the ice.
            `Do you know where you are going?’ Erika asked.
            `Sure,’ said Dúddi.  `I just follow the tracks.  But I’ve got my GPS here.’  He tapped the instrument mounted on the dashboard.
            Every now and then headlights would appear out of the mist, as a jeep made its way past them down the glacier.
            `Do they know something we don’t?’ Erika asked.
            `I guess the visibility’s not too good up there,’ Dúddi said.
            `Did you check the forecast?’ Ásta asked.
            `Er, no,’ said Dúddi.  His confidence was crumbling.
            `Shouldn’t you check the forecast before you drive up a glacier?’ Erika asked.
Dúddi slowed and turned to his passengers.  Erika liked him; he was one of a small group of students who had taken it upon themselves to invite her to the University of Iceland the previous year to speak at a conference on Internet censorship.  He was a good-looking kid with an open, honest face which combined innocence with intelligence.  And doubt.  `Look, it’s not guaranteed we’ll get good visibility,’ he said.  `There’s a chance we might be wasting our time.  But the clouds do come and go in the mountains.  And believe me, it’s worth it.  Do you want me to turn around?’
`Let’s go for it,’ said Nico.  `We’ve come this far.’
`Yeah, let’s go for it,’ said Franz.  `This rocks.’
Erika was beginning to wish she had never agreed to the jaunt.  And Franz’s grasp of American college-kid slang was beginning to irritate her.  But if they turned back now, it would be disastrous as a morale-building exercise.  Better to get up there and see nothing than not to try and never know what they had missed.  `No, keep going, Dúddi,’ she said.
They drove on.  The wind was picking up: loose snow skipped across the tracks in front of them.  They almost hit two snowmobiles which shot out of the mist towards them.
`Hear that?’ said Nico.
Over the roar of the jeep’s engine and the swish of snow, they could hear a distant crashing, which grew steadily louder.
The volcano.
`Blue sky!’ said Franz, craning his neck against the side window of the vehicle to look upwards.  It was true, above them rips in the cloud revealed patches of blue, darkening now that afternoon was slipping into evening.
`We might still get lucky, ‘said Dúddi.  `We’re nearly there.  Look at the snow.’  Patches of brown rock were emerging from beneath the snow and ice.  `It’s the heat from the volcano.’
The cloud thinned ahead of them to reveal a flat section of ice and rock on which a lone four-by-four and a couple of snowmobiles were parked.  Dúddi eased his superjeep next to the other vehicle.  A man and a woman were sitting inside staring upwards into the mist.
The team got out of the jeep.  It sounded as if an angry monster was thrashing about just out of sight in the clouds.  It was cold, the wind was biting.  Everyone zipped themselves up in their snow jackets and they walked as a group towards the bottom of a pile of rubble: Erika was very grateful for the coat Dúddi had borrowed for her from his sister.  Despite the wind, she could smell sulphur in the air.
Then the curtain lifted.
Erika looked up and saw the most astounding sight of her life.  About three hundred yards ahead the monster was revealed, a churning mass of orange and red fire, spitting, exploding, pouring up into the air, with a steady rhythmic crash.  It had eaten out the top of a small dome, creating a bubbling bowl of magma, over the rim of which a dribble of super-hot lava spilled, an orange river burning its way through the ice of the glacier down to the side.  Steam spewed out of the cauldron, and from fissures in the ridge all around them where smaller fires of stone burned.
`Wow!’ said Erika.
`This is so cool!’ said Franz.
Dúddi smiled.
`Amazing,’ said Nico, his eyes alight with excitement and the orange reflection of the volcano.  `Can we get closer?’
`Of course.  We can climb up there.’  Dúddi pointed to the pile of rubble ahead of them.
`Are you sure?’ asked Erika.  `Isn’t that lava?’
`It is, but it has cooled.  Last time I was here it was crowded with people.  Look!  There are a couple of guys up there now.’
It was true: there were two people silhouetted against the orange of the volcano.
They all followed Dúddi up the slope.  Erika could feel the warmth beneath her feet.   She picked up some of the stone in her gloved hand.  It was warm and it crumbled.  She was a little nervous that the whole slope would slip away underneath her, but it seemed to hold.  The wind was still blowing, but Erika didn’t notice the cold.
`I told you it would be worth coming,’ said Nico, grabbing her hand.
They reached the top and the view was even better.  The volcano itself was only a hundred yards away.  They couldn’t get any closer: the lava was too soft.
`It looks powerful from here, but this is actually a small eruption,’ Nico said.  `It’s what’s called an effusive eruption.  They’re the pretty ones.  Basalt lava gets thrown up into the air and then flows down the side of mountain.’
`What’s the other type?’ Erika asked.
`Explosive eruption.  That’s when the magma explodes into ash and is flung way up into the atmosphere.  They are nasty: you don’t want to be anywhere near one of those.’
`My, aren’t we the expert?’
`Told you,’ said Nico with a smile.  `They say there’s a chance that Katla will blow, that’s a big volcano under the Mýrdal Glacier back there.  If it does there could be a real mess – massive floods.’
`Floods?’
`Yeah – the eruption melts the ice in the glacier, and the meltwater surges down the mountain in a series of powerful flash floods.  Jökulhlaup I think the Icelanders call it – “Glacier Leap”.  You really don’t want to be in the way of that.’
They stared at the convulsions of the volcano in awe.
`You know what?  I’ve thought of a codename for this Gaza video project,’ said Nico.  `Meltwater.’
`Not bad,’ said Erika.
They stared a bit longer.  `It’s amazing finally to see an eruption for real,’ Nico said.  `Come on!  Let’s take a closer look at the lava flow.’  He led Erika along the rim.

 

Ásta was impressed.  She had seen Hekla erupting before from a great distance, but she had never seen a volcano this close.  She had meant to join the thousands of inhabitants of Reykjavík who had flocked up to Fimmvörduháls over the previous three weeks, but had just never got around to it.  Although she thought Dúddi was an idiot to drive up on to the glacier without checking the weather, she was very glad she had come.
            As she watched the volcano thrashing and writhing in front of her, she thought of the line in Genesis: `In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’  Well, that was what she was witnessing, God creating the earth.  You could do that here in Iceland.  And it was a magnificent sight.
            It was beginning to get dark.  The setting sun slipped behind the volcano, blushing pink across the whiteness of the Mýrdalsjökull behind them and stroking the underside of the cloud just above it.  A few flakes of snow bit into her cheek.
            She was excited to be working with Freeflow.  She liked the look of Erika.  It was good to meet another woman who believed in something and had the energy and drive to make a difference.  To Ásta’s disappointment, there weren’t many people like that in the Icelandic church.
            She could learn from Erika.  She would need all the inspiration she could muster if she was to go ahead with her own plans to shine light into dark corners.
            The snow thickened ahead of her, horizontal flakes obscuring the volcano.   The sun had disappeared.  She turned to Dúddi.  `Do you think we had better get back?’
            A blizzard on a glacier was a really bad idea.  Especially at night.
            Dúddi nodded.  `Time to go, guys.  Where are the others?’  The visibility was deteriorating rapidly.  Dieter, Dúddi, Zivah and Ásta were all in a group together, but the other three were out of sight.
            `I think Nico and Erika are just along there,’ said Dieter, pointing along the rim.  `Don’t know about Franz.’
            `Can you get Nico and Erika and tell them to come down?’ said Dúddi.  `The rest of you, follow me.  We’ll keep an eye out for Franz.’
            They could no longer see their jeep below them.  Scrambling down the pile of cooled lava was unpleasant: the wind seemed to be blowing harder and colder and the stones slipped underfoot.  It was a relief to get back to their vehicle, and to find Franz waiting inside.  The jeep they had parked next to was gone, only the two snowmobiles remained, as far as Ásta could see.
            They piled into the car and waited for Dieter and the others.  Dúddi switched the engine on: the warmth and the shelter from the wind was a relief.  Ásta saw two figures climb on to the snowmobiles and zoom off.  The mess of tyre tracks were still visible, but it wouldn’t be long before they would be covered in snow.  She hoped Dúddi knew how to operate his GPS.
            They could no longer see the volcano, save for a fuzzy orange glow through the whiteness.  But they could hear it.
            `Come on,’ muttered Dúddi to himself as he sat in the driver’s seat.  `We can’t hang around much longer.  I’m going back to get them.  You wait here.’
            He climbed out of the jeep and Ásta watched him bend into the wind towards the slope of lava.
            `I hope they are OK,’ said Zivah, nervously.
            `Of course they’re OK,’ said Ásta.
            `You don’t think they could have fallen into the volcano or anything, do you?’
            `No,’ said Ásta, peering into the bitter white gloom.  `Don’t worry.  They’ll be fine.