The Day The Ice Cap Died
Going by average global temperatures, this was only the second-hottest year on record—the previous year had been the hottest. It was warm enough, however, to complete a process which had begun many years earlier and which last year had nearly finished.
When spring came to the eastern United States, it brought with it the worst tornado outbreak since 2011. This was followed by a succession of polar vortexes that flowed out of the northwest, bringing cool weather as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina. The Rockies and the West Coast, on the other hand, were dominated by a searing heat wave that began in April and continued for most of the year. In Barrow, Alaska, temperatures in the summer went into the seventies.
In Europe, March was so warm it was described as “May come two months early.” Strong south winds in May and June brought Sahara-like conditions to the Mediterranean lowlands and flooding to the southern slopes of the Alps and Pyrenees, even as the pleasant weather that Spain, Italy, and Greece should have been enjoying held sway from Ireland to Karelia.
In Asia, heat waves and drought sent forest fires raging through Siberia from the end of March all through the summer. In August and September, typhoons hit the Philippines, Taiwan and southern Japan, even as the monsoon failed in India.
But the real story was what happened up north.
In a typical year, the polar ice cap in the Arctic Ocean spends the six months from April through September shrinking, then grows again from October to March. Last year was so terribly hot that the ice cap shrank to less than one million square miles in area—smaller than it had ever been in recorded history. That year the major news organizations issued a series of tongue-in-cheek stories for the benefit of small children, to the effect that Santa Claus was moving himself and his workshop to the South Pole, where the ice was still good and solid.
By April of this year, the ice cap had rebounded to 5.35 million square miles of sea ice, with a volume of 5100 cubic miles—more than anyone had hoped for, but it was still much smaller than it had been this time last year. An unfortunate combination of circumstances—bright, sunny weather in May and June, warm water from the North Atlantic flowing under the ice and warmer air from Eurasia flowing over it—combined to shrink it further. Arctic cyclones in July and August created waves that broke off tracts of ice the size of states, exposing the interior of the ice cap and speeding the melting process. Meanwhile, the prevailing winds blew warm air from northern Alaska eastward over the Canadian Archipelago, melting the ice in the labyrinth of channels between the islands.
The more the ice cap shrank, the thinner it became, raising its surface-area-to-volume ratio and exposing an even greater percentage of its mass to the air and water. By the beginning of September, there was nothing left but a tiny remnant clinging to the northern coasts of Greenland and Ellesmere Island. And then, in less than two weeks, it vanished entirely.
Nobody saw the precise moment it happened—clouds and low-lying mists had obscured that stretch of ocean for more than a week. Then, on September 11, the weather cleared, and a satellite overflying the poles recorded that the last traces of sea ice in the Nares Strait and the Lincoln Sea were gone. The Arctic Ocean was finally ice-free.
All on that day:
In a dorm room in College Park, Maryland, a new student was getting in her daily twenty minutes of exercise. She was heavily built and basically okay with it, but she didn’t want to get any heavier than necessary.
The room, lived in for three weeks, was half alarmingly neat and half messy to the point where it interfered with navigation. Isabel was in the neat half, where there was room on the floor for a yoga mat. Her face turned pink as she curled her fingers behind her head and pulled herself up into a sitting position. Her light-brown hair was pulled back and threaded through an O-ring to keep it out of her face.
As she exercised, Isabel cast an occasional guilty glance at her school reader, which had all her textbooks downloaded onto it. Her guidance counselor had made it very clear to her that in the field of STEM, the more options you had, the better. So, at age eighteen in a week or so, she was pursuing dual degrees in engineering and meteorology.
At least, that was what she was doing this semester. Right at this moment she was just doing sit-ups while listening to Rodomontade’s “The Two.” Later this afternoon she would be working at Celebrazione, an Italian restaurant just south of the Beltway.
While we’re waiting for something to happen, let’s get her backstory out of the way. Isabel Bradshaw grew up on Tilghman Island in the Chesapeake Bay, daughter of one of the few remaining full-time watermen. Her father worked very hard, earned a good living, and had done his best to impress upon all his children the importance of working hard and earning a good living doing something else entirely. Those children were, in birth order, Chelsey, Isabel, Kristen, and Scott. We’ll learn more about them as they appear. At the moment, Isabel was at College Park, Kristen was in high school, Scott was in middle school and Chelsey was… Chelsey. As a child, Isabel suffered from a potentially fatal allergy, but after a few years of treatment she got over it. This will come up later, but for now, just forget about it.
Isabel’s cell phone rang. “It’s Chelsey,” said the phone over the ringtone. She turned off the music.
“Hey, blondie,” said Isabel.
“Hey, chunkybutt,” said Chelsey. “Guess what?”
“Um…” Before she started congratulating Chelsey, she wanted to hear a few more details, but there wasn’t any good way to ask is this something you and Rod had intended, or did you just get careless? Chelsey sounded excited about it, but that was not necessarily a good sign—Pop-pop had always called Chelsey an “outdoor cat.” Exciting things happened to outdoor cats. Often these were bad things.
“Well… yeah,” said Isabel.
“I’m gonna give Rod the good news tonight.” Isabel mentally translated the phrase “the good news” to mean yes, we actually meant this to happen and we have a plan for what to do next, so you can stop worrying. At this point a little voice inside her head piped up and told her she was a horrible person for being so suspicious of her older sister. The rest of Isabel told herself it wasn’t like Chelsey had ever given her any great reason to be confident.
“That’s great! When’s the baby due?”
“The doctor said April.”
“I think Rod can get some time off by then,” said Chelsey. “He’s going to be really busy the next few months—the company’s buying up a huge load of property.”
“What about you?”
“I’m gonna hang on till the Christmas rush is over. Rod’s making pretty good money, so I think I can take some time off.” Isabel didn’t quite trust Rod, mostly because he was a thirty-two-year-old business school graduate and he was dating a twenty-year-old woman with a GED. Since Chelsey was that twenty-year-old woman with the GED, Isabel had a hard time finding a good way to express her suspicions.
Then Chelsey changed the subject. “Hey, how’s your girlfriend?”
“Jezi? Still kinda clingy. Told her yesterday she didn’t have to call me every day and she got that hurt look.”
“You should dump her.”
From there, the conversation moved into smaller matters. Mostly they talked about their friends. It will come as no surprise to learn that Chelsey’s friends got into much more interesting scrapes than Isabel’s.
Truth to tell, it kind of annoyed Isabel that she had been typecast in her family as the studious, diligent, responsible sister—the “indoor cat,” as Pop-pop put it—while Chelsey had been typecast as the wild child who went out and had fun. There was a good deal of truth in all this typecasting, of course, and it was kind of flattering that other people expected more of her, but sometimes it rankled a little. Isabel had read that introverts actually enjoyed themselves more during their non-partying hours, which after all were most of a normal person’s life, but Chelsey still managed to look like she was having more fun.
By the time they were done talking, it was almost time for Isabel to go to work. First, she checked the news to see if there was anything interesting. Every single news story seemed to be about the 9/11 commemorations. Isabel checked a sea-ice monitoring site she visited often.
What she found… You knew it was going to happen sooner or later, she told herself.
Yes, but not today, she replied.
She logged in and posted a link to the news on her blog. She added only three words:
This. Changes. Everything.
Then she logged out, strapped the phone to her arm and started changing into her waitress outfit. It wouldn’t do to show up late for work.
In a loft apartment in Denver, Walter Yuschak, age twenty-nine, stood in the bathroom and took a long last look at his reflection.
He was a big, heavyset man with a red face and dark, thinning hair. The key word there is “thinning.” His bald spot was getting harder to hide every day. As a teenager, his father’s combover had been the laughingstock of all his friends. At the time, he had sworn he’d never let that happen to him. But the spot had been so small at first—no bigger than a quarter. Surely, he’d thought, he could cover it up for a little while.
But the spot was now an inch and a half wide and two inches long, and it was only going to get bigger. And his hair was dark. And his scalp was pale. And his public profile was rising. His biweekly podcasts had been discovered by a wider audience. A cable news station was showing interest in him. Soon his face would be as famous as his voice… as would the hairline above it, if he didn’t act right now. Today.
Walt turned. Susie was standing in the doorway, holding up her phone.
“I just want one more picture of how you used to look,” said his girlfriend.
“In case it turns out I look awful?” He’d heard of a guy who’d shaved his scalp after a lifetime of long hair, and had immediately screamed, “Dear God, my head’s shaped like a gourd!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m sure you’ll look fine.” Judging by the expression on her face, she thought he was making a big deal about nothing. Sensitivity to women wasn’t Walt’s strong point, but it occurred to him that what she was thinking right now might be the same thing he thought when he saw her spending ten or fifteen minutes making infinitesimal adjustments to her hair and makeup—do you really think it makes that much difference?
One she’d taken the picture, he set to work. He started with the scissors, trimming his hair away in careless chunks until it was less than an inch long and looked like it had been chewed on by goats. Then he got out the electric razor and ran it over everywhere, enjoying the buzz against his head as it reduced his hair to stubble. Finally, he lathered up the stubble with shaving cream and scraped it away. He managed it without nicking himself. Then he ran a wet washcloth over his now-naked scalp, and that was all.
Walt’s head was surprisingly shiny. It gleamed with authority. He hoped people would think so, anyway. It was hard to tell right now—he was still in his pajamas, which kind of spoiled the effect.
“Missed a spot,” said Susie, tapping behind his left ear. It was a little hard for him to see properly in the mirror, so he handed her the razor. With a few strokes, she finished the job.
“You look… ageless,” she said, and kissed him.
Walt decided she was right. At first glance, he might have been twenty-five or forty-five. He looked just old enough that you couldn’t quite dismiss him as a kid, anyway.
While Susan was getting a couple of beers for them to toast his new look, Walt checked the job postings on his smartphone—just in case the cable news deal fell through. His source of income, in addition to his podcast which some people did actually pay to listen to, was voice acting for radio announcements and the occasional animated production. But there were no job openings listed today.
Then he checked the news feed for something he could talk about in his podcast. He scrolled past the blurbs about 9/11 commemorations—he’d already recorded his thoughts on the anniversary yesterday. And there was plenty of good material in the news today for the next few days.
Here was some prisoner’s advocate responding to the news that an audit of the New York State prison system had shown them spending over $21,000 apiece per year feeding the prisoners. The advocate was saying that from what he knew, the meals they were getting were somewhere near dog-food quality. A lot of Walt’s followers wouldn’t be inclined to believe it, but with the right words, maybe he could convince them: Either these goons in there are eating like kings, or—and here’s my theory—most of that money is going right into somebody’s pocket. This is what happens with the state! They wait until you’re scared half to death, then they ask for bigger prisons, bigger budgets, less oversight… and when you give it to them, you get this! If you’re lucky!
Also, the FBI was trying to gain more power to investigate online rape threats… or at least, that was what they said their motive was. That one practically wrote itself: Some sad little troll in his mom’s basement goes on the Internet and says to a man “ooh I’m a big scary tough guy and I got kicked out of the SEALs for unnecessary roughness and I’m gonna come over to your house and kick your ass” and everybody laughs at him. That same bag of hair goes online, tells a woman “ooh I’m a big scary rapist and I’m gonna come over there and rape you” and all hell breaks loose! Talk about your bad incentives!
There was another blurb—something about Arctic sea ice—but he ignored it. He’d made the transition from “global warming is a myth” to “it’s a natural phenomenon and has nothing to do with us” years ago, and he was not a man to look back.
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 aCAMBERG 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 forty-three 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 almost a full year younger than Carrie, and a few weeks under the hard white sun of the Himalayas three years ago had turned his red hair permanently blond, hiding the silver threads in it.
Roger had been quiet, but this wasn’t a bad sign. He was taciturn by nature—it had taken Carrie a long time to get used to it. And even after fourteen years of marriage, Carrie’s circle of friends didn’t have a lot of overlap with his, and it would be her friends at this commemoration ceremony. 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, sitting next to the suit jackets the three of them had draped neatly over the back seat. Eleven-year-old Thel was lucky enough to get most of her looks from Roger—freckled complexion, blue-gray eyes and a face that was trending toward 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. The only thing in disarray was her hair, which was coppery red and formed 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 phone.
“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 had 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, explaining 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 she could make some use of this time. 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.
“I’ve received an email from our software providers,” she said. “They say you verbally abused the people they sent. 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 piddling amount of money. But even for him, buying cheap half-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,” Carrie 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 does it crash if there’s an apostrophe in the text? 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 could 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 or passphrases 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 must 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 transcript, 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 big ugly dogs, expletive your godawful expletive little hotel Continental breakfast pastries that taste like frosted cardboard, expletive your depressing expletive 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 software and they’re gonna get blamed for everything and nobody gives a damn. They need to know that their issues are being taken seriously and somebody in authority is 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 expected there to be a delay of several seconds as Rome jumped to the monitor to find out what he should have been keeping track of already.
She was wrong—Rome replied instantly. “He’s parked himself as close to the Pentagon as they’ll let him get,” he said, “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?”
Rome laughed. “Yep.”
Carrie nodded. “Don’t issue a statement on it just yet. Let it play out a little.”
“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.
“Mom, you gotta check this out. The ice cap. It’s gone, Mom.”
“What!?” Carrie was pretty sure that neither of the world’s polar ice caps 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.
Dr. 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 ice cap 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 twenty-four 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 high winds around the continent, with its frequent cyclones. 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 before word had come that he was all right.
After that, Carrie had told him enough was enough. No more fieldwork. 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 House of Delegates, 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 called to him. It was a part of him that after all these years Carrie still couldn’t understand.
In a residential neighborhood west of Syracuse, New York, a fifteen-year-old Kia pulled into a driveway. It had no self-driving capacity, wasn’t a hybrid, was missing two hubcaps and had one side mirror held on with duct tape. Still, it had managed the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Boston, which was all its owner had asked of it.
A small, skinny young woman in jeans and a knobbly sweater stepped out of the car. Her face was pale and girlish, with thick glasses and no makeup. Her hair was a shade somewhere between ash-blond and mouse-brown, and was held in a glossy ponytail that flowed down to just past the small of her back.
She pulled two suitcases from the front passenger seat and gritted her teeth as she hauled them to the door, the loose heel on her right sneaker slapping against the bottom of her foot with every step. Between them, the suitcases weighed about half what she did.
Her name was Sandra Symcox. Nine years ago, she’d been accepted to college at the age of fourteen with great fanfare and a good deal of sponsorship. Her IQ test results, the tutoring she’d received, her calculus scores and her “intuitive grasp of chemistry” had been the stuff of local news posts. So off she had gone, visions of technological breakthroughs and Nobel Prizes dancing in her head.
She had just turned twenty-three. Her bank account was a four-digit number, and two of those digits were on the wrong side of the decimal point. She was here because she had nowhere else to go. Not that she was out of ideas — she had a few possible breakthroughs rattling around in her skull, but any one of them would have needed about research funding in the hundreds of millions to even find out if it was practical. And after her experience with Verdissimus, she was a little reluctant to take on another business partner.
A tall, black-haired woman of about thirty answered the door. Marty had said he’d be home by now, but it looked like he was as reliable as ever.
“Hi,” said Sandy.
“You must be Sandy,” the woman said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. Or her cheeks. Or her lips. Actually, it wasn’t so much a smile as an expression of undisguised loathing and hostility.
“Mm-hm,” said Sandy with a smile that was as authentic as she could force it to look. “You’re Nora, right?” She was tempted to say You’re Kendra, right? or You’re Michelle, right? those being the names of two of her father’s ex-wives. But she decided that this time she’d try the diplomatic approach before she got unpleasant.
“Marty said I should expect you.”
“He did say I could stay.” Sandy spent two and a half seconds on the doorstep waiting for Nora to suddenly sprout a hospitality, then gave up and pushed past her into the living room. She dropped the suitcases on the floor, collapsed on the couch, then took off her sweater and mopped her forehead with it.
Sandy took a moment to look at the sweater. She’d knitted it herself a few years ago, after completing a course in advanced topological mathematics. She’d done it more as an intellectual exercise than anything else, but it did keep her warm. It consisted of two layers—a charcoal-gray layer on top and a mauve layer underneath—the strands of which were intertwined together in hundreds of complex little knots. Like the one-hoss shay in the old poem, it might suddenly collapse into a cloud of dust one day a hundred years from now, but it would never, ever unravel. It was a good sweater, and she was proud to have made it… but Sandy doubted she could make a living from knitting.
She looked around the room. It was plain her father was getting by financially. The furniture might not match, but everything was clean and in good shape… unlike the apartment she’d had to vacate, which was furnished in Early Modern Curbside. There was a nice big screen, currently tuned to a news channel. The anchor was talking about the 9/11 anniversary and various commemorations of the attacks. A message scrolling across the bottom said that according to scientists, there was no more sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Yet another thing wrong with the world.
“How long do you plan on staying?” said Nora in what she probably thought was a diplomatic tone.
“I don’t really have plans right now.”
“I’m having a baby.”
“I heard. Congratulations.”
“It’s due in six months.”
“We’ll be turning the guest bedroom into the baby’s room.”
“Not a problem. I can sleep on the couch.”
Nora put her hands on her hips. “To be perfectly frank,” she said, sounding more and more irritated, “I would expect you to have found other living arrangements by then.”
To be equally frank, you’re Martin’s fifth wife. So far. I wouldn’t bet on YOU being here six months from now. “I hope so. We’ll just have to see.”
Nora glowered at her, then strode into the kitchen.
Several minutes later, Sandy heard a car pulling into the driveway. She considered greeting her father at the door and throwing her arms around him, then decided that would be too obviously fake.
The last time she’d seen Martin Clearwater had been at Mom’s funeral, six years ago. He hadn’t changed much since then—he was in his late forties and still looked about thirty-five. If there was more gray in his blond hair, it was hard to see. He was a short man, not quite as tall as Nora.
“Sandy,” he said.
 Runes are personalized images—usually watermarked photographs—that serve the same function as a password. They have the disadvantage that they can’t be input manually and need to be carried in an external keydrive, but the advantage that the amount of computing power that would be required to crack them does not yet exist on Earth.