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On I-64 about thirty miles east of Richmond, a new Lexus hybrid followed the highway as it turned southeast. It was royal blue, with a 'CAMBERG for Governor' bumper sticker on the back, because if you didn’t support yourself, who would?

The big woman in the front passenger seat had a broad, pleasant face, a streak of gray in her dark hair and a default expression of cheerfulness that didn’t quite go with her somber black pantsuit. She would be 42 in another month. Her husband sat in the driver’s seat, his head nearly touching the ceiling. Small, neat spectacles perched on what Carrie thought of as a ruggedly handsome face. He was a year younger than Carrie, and while a few weeks under the hard white sunlight of the Himalayas three years ago had turned his red hair permanently blond, the gray threads in it weren’t quite noticeable yet.

Roger hadn’t said much, but this wasn’t a bad sign. He was a naturally quiet man — it had taken Carrie a long time to get used to it. Not that she expected him to enjoy himself today. A 9/11 commemoration ceremony with people you didn’t know was no one’s idea of a good time, and even after fourteen years of marriage, his circle of friends and Carrie’s didn’t have a lot of overlap. Also, he took to suit and tie like a duck to… suit and tie.

“I think I’m getting used to this car,” said Roger.

“Sort of like riding a good horse, isn’t it?”

“Not really. You don’t have to worry about falling off.”

“I meant the way it’s under your control up to a point, but it sort of filters your actions. You can’t make it do anything dangerous.”

“I’m just glad I can finally parallel park without scraping the hubcaps.”

Carolyn Camberg turned to look at her daughter in the rear driver’s seat. Eleven-year-old Thel got most of her looks from Roger —freckled complexion, blue-gray eyes and a face that was trending towards beautiful, not just “good-natured” or “handsome” as people kept calling Carrie. She was wearing a smaller version of her mother’s pantsuit, and had managed to avoid crumpling or mussing it so far. (All three of them had taken off their jackets and draped them neatly over the seat next to Thel.) The only thing in disarray was her hair, which was coppery red and in such tangled curls that no mere human strength could get a comb all the way through it in one sweep. Thel occasionally glanced out the window before returning her attention to her smartphone.

“Remember, this is not a campaign stop,” said Carrie.

“I know, Mom. You said that already.”

Carrie nodded. Her daughter was already making the smooth transition from the stage where if you told her anything less than three times she’d forget it instantly to the stage where if you told her anything more than once she’d lose all patience.

“Don’t ask people to vote for you, don’t mention that you’re running for governor… I got all that,” said Thel. “What do I do if somebody else brings it up?”

“Probably won’t happen. If it does, you can talk about what it’s like going back and forth between school and campaign appearances.” She smiled at her daughter. “You’ve been doing so well. I want you to know I really appreciate it.”

Thel blushed. “Thanks, Mom.”

Even when I’m not campaigning, I’m still using you as a campaign prop, she thought. You’re not even mad at me yet, and already I’m hoping you’ll forgive me one day. All Thel wanted was to help her family. Carrie had been the same way at that age. And then, at a slightly later age, she had been completely different.

But for today at least, Thel and Roger were all right with putting in a required appearance. The big 9/11 ceremonies, of course, were around the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, but the Navy was quietly holding its own commemoration down in Norfolk, and a lot of Carrie’s old friends would be there. She’d spent four years in the Navy and run a company that provided the naval base with a lot of its supplies. If she belonged anywhere today, it was there. Even with the election less than two months away, she wasn’t going to push for her political advantage on a day like this.

(Also, she was a good seven to ten points over McAllister in last week’s polls. And while her opponent was doing his best to cultivate a conservative-but-not-one-of-the-crazy-ones image, a tape had surfaced this week of him speaking to a church group, in which he had explained to them that the problems with U.S. education policy stemmed from it being unduly influenced at the federal level by a demon named “Baphomet.” In an odd way, Carrie was disappointed. There was something unsatisfying about beating an opponent who sabotaged himself like this. But it assured her that even if staying off the campaign trail today was a mistake, it was a mistake she would survive.)

And this time didn’t have to be completely wasted. Carrie dialed Jerome Ross, her campaign coordinator in Fairfax County. The good news was, he was young, brilliant and loaded with energy. The bad news was, he was, well, Jerome Ross.

“Hello, Rome,” she said.

“Hi, boss.”

“I’ve received an email from our software providers,” she said. “They’re complaining that you verbally abused their representatives when they came to consult with you about difficulties your office has been having had with their software. You do know they had the meeting recorded?”

“I knew that when I spoke up. I wanted to make sure my complaints were on the record.”

Carrie mentally translated this as I couldn’t yell at you and I couldn’t yell at Horner, but I really needed to get in some quality yelling.

And Rome had a point. Horner was a good campaign manager when it came to organizing volunteers and raising money, but he was one of those people for whom the phrase “penny wise and pound foolish” had been invented. Nothing made him happier than finding some small way to save a not-really-significant amount of money. But even for him, buying cheap not-yet-fully-tested software to run the campaign database had been a little extreme. That said, the way Rome Ross had treated the company reps from Copenhagen had also been… a little extreme.
“Yes, apparently you had a number of complaints. You asked” — Carried checked the notes on her smartphone — “‘Why is it every expletive time you hit a tab key, a file closes? Why does the whole thing slow to a crawl if the file has photos in it? Why are all the error messages in Danish?’ Did they have any answers?”

“They said it was still in beta test and there were bugs to be worked out. They kept promising it was gonna be awesome if we would just wait six months. I had to explain to them we’re in the middle of an election here.”

“And then you interjected by saying ‘Even when this expletive works, it doesn’t work. Why can’t we use runes  instead of expletive passwords? What is this, 20-expletive-10?’ You also complained that everyone had to log out and log back in again to use internal messaging, which I have to admit is a pretty serious flaw. I gather the answers didn’t satisfy you?”

“No. They just said they were going to review our complaints back in the home office in Denmark.”

Carrie nodded. “As I understand it, it was at this point that you stood up and shouted at the representatives…” As she read the transcipt, she carefully did not raise her voice, but kept it soft and pleasant. “‘Expletive Denmark, I hope your country gets nuked, I hope an asteroid falls on it, I hope it gets hit by all the plagues of Egypt including the stupid one with the frogs, expletive everything Danish, expletive your language, expletive your culture, expletive your history, expletive your godawful expletive little hotel breakfast pastries that taste like frosted cardboard, expletive your expletive depressing movies that make people want to slit their expletive wrists, expletive Hans Christian Andersen, expletive the Little Mermaid, I’m not even sure she has an expletive but expletive her anyway,’ and, then, very loud, ‘Expletive… Denmark.’ Do I have that right?”

“Pretty much, yeah.” At this point, Roger had his jaws clamped shut, straining to keep from laughing out loud. Thel wasn’t even trying not to laugh.

“Some might consider that hate speech, young man.”

“You gotta understand, everybody in tech — Leo and Daphne and Raúl, everybody who’s been trying to work with this new system — they’re angry. Really, really angry. As they see it, they’ve been working their asses off trying to do a job they can’t do because management got sold a bill of goods with this crap software and they’re gonna get blamed for everything and nobody gives a damn. They needed to know that their issues were being taken seriously and somebody in authority was on their side.”

“Spoken like a man with a future in politics. Although if you ever become president, I hope you’ll refrain from declaring war on Denmark. Just to change the subject, what’s McAllister up to right now?” Carrie anticipated a delay of several seconds as Ross jumped to the monitor to find out what he should have been keeping track of already.

She was wrong. “He’s parked himself as close to the Pentagon as they’ll let him get,” Ross replied instantly, “and he’s got a bunch of cameras in front of him. He’s telling everybody as governor he’ll use all the resources at his command to combat terrorism. Oh, and some people are coming forward and saying they’ve heard him say some racist stuff.”

“Worse than the stuff you said about Denmark?”

“Not worse, but about as bad.”

“Oh, dear. Is there a tape?”

“No, we just have their word for it.”

“Baphomet declined to comment?”

Ross laughed. “Yep.”

Carrie nodded. “Don’t issue a statement on it just yet. Let it play out a little.”

“Anything else?”

“That’s about it. I’ll let you go. Behave yourself, Rome.”

“Thanks for calling, boss.”

Carrie ended the call and put the phone down. Then she had a good, long laugh.

“Really, Mom,” said Thel. “‘Expletive expletive expletive’? Are you sure you used to be in the Navy? You know you can cuss in front of me, right?”

“Call me old-fashioned.”

Thel turned back to her own smartphone and started looking things up. Carrie turned back to the road. Seeing that their lane had been blocked off up ahead by an accident, Roger hit the turn signal. Two seconds later, the car changed lanes of its own accord.

“Holy shit!” her daughter suddenly blurted out.

“Thel!”

“Mom, you gotta check this out. The icecap. It’s gone, Mom.”

“What!?” Carrie was pretty sure that neither of the world’s polar icecaps could have just disappeared.

“Not the whole thing. Just the sea ice. And only at the North Pole, not, you know…”

Antarctica. If you made a list of all the things a husband and wife could have a painful, long-standing argument about, Antarctica probably wouldn’t show up on it anywhere.

Roger Camberg was a glaciologist. Until two years ago, he would leave just after Christmas to spend January through March in Antarctica, monitoring the ice flow around the edge of the continent. Thel (God only knew why) had always wanted to go with him on one of those trips when she was old enough. Carrie had hated being separated from her husband, but Antarctica had a prominent place on her private list of Places You Didn’t Go Unless You Were Personally Needed There, right underneath the world’s war zones.

It was dangerous work. Much of it was in unexplored territory — territory that had been flown over or mapped by satellites, but that wasn’t the same thing as exploring it. There were places where thin crusts of snow concealed deep crevasses in the ice that no one knew about. Blinding snowstorms could appear in a moment and last for hours. And of course the parts of the icecap Roger was visiting were the parts where all the melting was, the parts that were least stable and most treacherous… and were usually a minimum of 24 hours away from anyone who could help if he got in trouble out there.

But it wasn’t the ice that had almost killed him. It was the “shrieking sixties” — the notorious ring of storms around the continent. He had been returning from a survey of East Antarctica through a stretch of what had been relatively clear weather… until, very suddenly, it wasn’t. His plane’s radio had failed, and Carrie and Thel had spent one long, horrible night waiting for word.

After that, Carrie had told him enough was enough. No more field work. Take a desk job. I can’t lose you. I can’t raise our daughter alone.

Roger had argued every step of the way, but Carrie had learned how to press an issue in the Virginia state legislature, and she had been relentless. And, after weeks of shouting and tears and long silences at the dinner table, she’d had her way.

These days, Roger was a teacher. He’d shaved his wiry beard — Carrie missed the feel of that beard against her cheeks — lost his tan and gained a little weight. But even now, those great shining sheets of ice (what was left of them) called to him. It was a part of him that after all these years Carrie still couldn’t understand.


    *          *          *          *          *


On I-64 about thirty miles east of Richmond, a new Lexus hybrid followed the highway as it turned southeast. The big woman behind the wheel had a broad, pleasant face, a streak of gray in her dark hair and a default expression of cheerfulness that didn’t quite go with her somber black pantsuit.

Carolyn Camberg, who would be 42 in another month, turned to look at her daughter in the front passenger seat. Eleven-year-old Thel got most of her looks from Roger — her freckled complexion, blue-gray eyes and a face that was trending towards beautiful, not just “good-natured” or “handsome” as people kept calling Carrie. She was wearing a smaller version of her mother’s pantsuit, and had managed to avoid crumpling or mussing it so far. (As she was already taller than many grown women, fitting her hadn’t been as much of a problem as you might think.) The only thing in disarray was her hair, which was coppery red and in such tangled curls that no mere human strength could get a comb all the way through it in one sweep.

“Remember, this is not a campaign stop.”

“I know, Mom. You said that already.”

Carrie nodded. Her daughter was already making the smooth transition from the stage where if you told her anything less than three times she’d forget it instantly to the stage where if you told her anything more than once she’d lose all patience.

“Don’t ask people to vote for you, don’t mention that you’re running for governor… I got all that,” said Thel. “What do I do if somebody else brings it up?”

“Probably won’t happen. If it does, you can talk about what it’s like going back and forth between school and campaign appearances.” She reached over and stroked Thel’s cheek. “You’ve been doing so well. I want you to know I really appreciate it.”

Thel blushed. “Thanks, Mom.”

Even when I’m not campaigning, I’m still using you as a campaign prop, she thought. You’re not even mad at me yet, and already I’m hoping you’ll forgive me one day. All her daughter wanted was to be helpful. Carrie had been the same way at that age. And then, at a slightly later age, she had been completely different.

At no point in this exchange did Carrie even bother looking at the road. She was finally getting used to this new car. Driving it was a lot like riding a good horse, but without the danger of falling off. The vehicle was still under her control, up to a point. She could accelerate, brake, steer and choose her own path, although the GPS was happy to offer its own advice. But the car would automatically filter her actions through the algorithms of its self-driving software. When she parallel parked, the car subtly altered her angle of approach to let her slide into place perfectly — no more embarrassing scrape of hubcaps against the curb. Two months ago, when she was visiting her brother and a deer burst out from the foliage to launch a kamikaze attack on her fender, the car was already stopping by the time the command to slam on the brake had made it all the way from her motor cortex to the nerves and muscles of her foot.

You could get away with a lot behind the wheel of a car like this. It still wasn’t legal to talk on the phone, text while driving, or drive drunk, but it was a lot safer if you were so inclined. On the other hand, the car wouldn’t let you speed or tailgate. This drove a lot of people absolutely crazy. Carrie had had to get into the habit of getting started ten minutes earlier.

Today, for example, she was driving from Richmond to Norfolk. The big 9/11 ceremonies, of course, were around the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, but the Navy was quietly holding its own commemoration down in Norfolk, and a lot of Carrie’s old friends would be there. She’d spent four years in the Navy and run a company that provided the naval base with a lot of its supplies. If she belonged anywhere today, it was there. Even with Election Day less than two months away, it still seemed wrong to be pushing for her own political advantage on a day like this.

(Also, she was a good seven to ten points over McAllister in last week’s polls. And while her opponent was doing his best to cultivate a conservative-but-not-one-of-the-crazy-ones image, a tape had surfaced this week of him speaking to a church group, in which he had explained to them that the problems with U.S. education policy stemmed from it being unduly influenced at the federal level by a demon named “Baphomet.” In an odd way, Carrie was disappointed. There was something unsatisfying about beating an opponent who sabotaged himself like this. But it assured her that even if staying off the campaign trail today was a mistake, it was a mistake she would survive.)

And it wasn’t as though this time was completely wasted. Right now, for instance, Carrie was dialing Jerome Ross, her campaign coordinator in Fairfax County. The good news was, he was young, brilliant and loaded with energy. The bad news was, he was, well, Jerome Ross.

“Hello, Rome,” she said.

“Hi, boss.”

“I’ve received an email from our software providers,” she said. “They’re complaining that you verbally abused their representatives when they came to consult with you about difficulties your office has been having had with their software. You do know they had the meeting recorded?”

“I knew that when I spoke up. I wanted to make sure my complaints were on the record.” Carrie mentally translated this as I couldn’t yell at you and I couldn’t yell at Horner, but I really needed to get in some quality yelling.

And Rome had a point. Horner was a good campaign manager when it came to organizing volunteers and raising money, but he was one of those people for whom the phrase “penny wise and pound foolish” had been invented. Nothing made him happier than finding some small way to save a not-really-significant amount of money. But even for him, buying cheap not-yet-fully-tested software to run the campaign database had been a little extreme. That said, the way Rome Ross had treated the company reps from Copenhagen had also been… a little extreme.

“Yes, apparently you had a number of complaints. You asked, ‘Why is it every expletive time you hit a tab key, a file closes? Why does the whole thing slow to a crawl if the file has photos in it? Why are all the error messages in Danish?’ Did they have any answers?”

“They said it was still in beta test and there were bugs to be worked out. They kept promising it was gonna be awesome if we would just wait six months. I had to explain to them we’re in the middle of an election here.”

“And then you interjected by saying ‘Even when this expletive works, it doesn’t work. Why can’t we use runes  instead of expletive passwords? What is this, 2010?’ You also complained that everyone had to log out and log back in again to use internal messaging, which I have to admit is a pretty serious flaw. I gather the answers didn’t satisfy you?”

“No. They just said they were going to review our complaints back in the home office in Denmark.”

Carrie nodded. “As I understand it, it was at this point that you stood up and shouted at the representatives…” As she read the transcipt, she carefully did not raise her voice, but kept it soft and pleasant. “‘Expletive Denmark, I hope your country gets nuked, I hope an asteroid falls on it, I hope it gets hit by all the plagues of Egypt including the stupid one with the frogs, expletive everything Danish, expletive your language, expletive your culture, expletive your history, expletive your godawful expletive little hotel breakfast pastries that taste like frosted cardboard, expletive your expletive depressing movies that make people want to slit their expletive wrists, expletive Hans Christian Andersen, expletive the Little Mermaid, I’m not even sure she has an expletive but expletive her anyway,’ and, then, very loud, ‘Expletive… Denmark.’ Do I have that right?”

“Pretty much, yeah.” At this point, Thel was doubled over with her jaws clamped shut, straining to keep from laughing out loud.

“Some might consider that hate speech, young man.”

“You gotta understand, everybody in tech — Leo and Daphne and Raúl, everybody who’s been trying to work with this new system — they’re angry. Really, really angry. As they see it, they’ve been working their asses off trying to do a job they can’t do because management got sold a bill of goods with this crap software and they’re gonna get blamed for everything and nobody gives a damn. They needed to know that their issues were being taken seriously and somebody in authority was on their side.”

“Spoken like a man with a future in politics. Although if you ever become president, I hope you’ll refrain from declaring war on Denmark. Just to change the subject, what’s McAllister up to right now?” Carrie anticipated a delay of several seconds as Ross jumped to the monitor to find out what he should have been keeping track of already.

She was wrong. “He’s parked himself as close to the Pentagon as they’ll let him get,” Ross replied instantly, “and he’s got a bunch of cameras in front of him. He’s telling everybody as governor he’ll use all the resources at his command to combat terrorism. Oh, and some people are coming forward and saying they’ve heard him say some racist stuff.”

“Worse than the stuff you said about Denmark?”

“Not worse, but about as bad.”

“Oh, dear. Is there a tape?”

“No, we just have their word for it.”

“Baphomet declined to comment?”

Ross laughed. “Yep.”

Carrie nodded. “Don’t issue a statement on it just yet. Let it play out a little.”

“Anything else?”

“That’s about it. I’ll let you go. Behave yourself, Rome.”

“Thanks for calling, boss.”

Carrie ended the call and put the phone down. Then she and Thel both had a good, long laugh.

“Really, Mom,” said Thel as soon as they could talk. “‘Expletive expletive expletive’? Are you sure you used to be in the Navy? You know you can cuss in front of me, right?”

“Call me old-fashioned.”

Thel turned to her own smartphone and started looking things up. Carrie turned back to the road. Her lane had been blocked off up ahead by an accident, so she hit the turn signal. Two seconds later, her car changed lanes of its own accord.

“Holy shit!” her daughter suddenly blurted out.

“Thel!”

“Mom, you gotta check this out. The icecap. It’s gone, Mom.”

“What!?” Carrie was pretty sure that neither of the world’s polar icecaps could have just disappeared.

“Not the whole thing. Just the sea ice. And only at the North Pole, not, you know…”

The Antarctic. Somehow, leaving it unspoken made it worse.

Roger Camberg had been a glaciologist. He would usually leave just after Christmas to spend January through March in Antarctica, monitoring the ice flow around the edge of the continent. Thel (God only knew why) had always wanted to go with him on one of those trips when she was old enough. Carrie had hated being separated from her husband, but Antarctica had a prominent place on her private list of Places You Didn’t Go Unless You Were Personally Needed There, right underneath the world’s war zones.

It was dangerous work. Much of it was in unexplored territory — territory that had been flown over or mapped by satellites, but that wasn’t the same thing as exploring it. There were places where thin crusts of snow concealed deep crevasses in the ice that no one knew about. Blinding snowstorms could appear in a moment and last for hours. And of course the parts of the icecap Roger was visiting were the parts where all the melting was, the parts that were least stable and most treacherous… and were usually a minimum of 24 hours away from anyone who could help if he got in trouble out there.

But it wasn’t the ice that had killed him. It was the “shrieking sixties” — the notorious ring of storms around the continent. He had been returning from a survey of East Antarctica through a stretch of what had been relatively clear weather… until, very suddenly, it wasn’t. His plane had gone down in the general vicinity of 61°S, 138°E. There had been no hope of finding anything to bury. They had been lucky even to recover the black box.

That was two — no, two and a half years ago now. Most days, she just did her work, pursued her ambitions and took care of her daughter. Most days, the cheerful light in his eyes or the brush of his wiry beard against her cheeks didn’t suddenly come back to her. Most days, she didn’t waste any time wishing the universe had a complaints department.

But right at the moment, Carrie wished she were driving an old-fashioned car — one that would force her to concentrate on the road ahead and think of nothing else.
Two different versions of a snippet of "Altered Seasons."
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July 12, 2015
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