Monday
Jan052015

Fram

By Steve Himmer


Ig Publishing
January 2015
978-1935439981



 

Rumor had it the lightbulb was already there when the Bureau of Ice Prognostication was founded at the height of the Cold War—the first one, the one that was actually cold, not the one with the bombs and Berlin Wall that came later. Oscar had held that line ready for years in case he was ever allowed to talk about what he did for a living.

That bulb had crackled and hissed through his years in BIP's office, hanging from the same few inches of cloth-wrapped cord it had in the early days long before Oscar's time. It persisted despite losing some luster, despite ancient filaments fraying and sizzling and threatening to snap. In winter it took longer to warm to a glow and on hot days in summer the bulb darkened so slowly it never quite dimmed overnight, their very own Arctic sun deep in the bureau's basement domain. Without any windows, that varying light was the only sign of seasons passing. But the bulb reported for work every morning and had outlasted decades of prognosticators and their supervising directors. Policy stated it could not be replaced until it actually failed and heaven help the traitor who tapped at the glass or jerked the lamp's chain or otherwise caused that noble, inspiring star to exhaust itself prematurely. Men above Oscar's pay grade had been fired for less, for cursing the bulb when its light was too weak to get on with their work.

"Efficiency," Director Lenz told Oscar and his partner Alexi in their weekly productivity lectures, first thing each Monday morning. "Efficiency and perseverance! That lightbulb can teach us all something about commitment and making do. You should spend a whole day—your own day, not ours, not for pay!—staring into that lightbulb to learn what it knows. Stare until you are blinded by its inspiration."

Director Lenz could make anything sound like a slogan.

In Oscar's first weeks at BIP, at his first productivity lectures, he'd nodded along vigorously. But after noticing the scant attention paid by Slotkin, his partner then, he realized how little it mattered to the director if his subordinates listened at all. So he aped Slotkin's slight motions, his minimal nods reminiscent of the bulb at sway on its cord and always in motion despite the absence of wind in the office. Stirred by warm air rising from humming computers and working bodies, perhaps, or the hot air of directors' lectures still circling the basement with no way out.

Sometimes supervisors from other departments brought their own charges down, to stand under the lightbulb and deliver their own inspirational talks. Such visits required careful concealments to make the Bureau of Ice Prognostication look more like the Bureau of Informational Policies it was known as to everyone not in the know. Files and paperwork had to be hidden and the big map of the Arctic turned around on the wall to instead show a colorful hierarchy of interdepartmental and interagency color code schemes—the work BIP was publicly responsible for.

Whenever it happened, the anxiety of being colonized even for a few minutes hung on Oscar for days, a lingering feeling of someone looking over his shoulder, even though one of the first things he'd done at BIP was to drag his desk—it had been Wend's desk until then, Slotkin's previous partner—away from the wall to sit facing the door. Slotkin had assured him no one would mind because not even Director Lenz made his way down the hall more than one or two times per year and they rarely heard from him at all between Monday lectures unless he leaned on his intercom's button by accident. Oscar had assured Alexi of the same thing, when his time came after Slotkin's was up.

Other than those rare visits, it was easy to forget the world existed apart from themselves and their work, apart from the Arctic they explored daily from the privacy of a cinderblock cellar. The world shrank to a pair of prognosticators, working in twos per tradition, and the lightbulb above with that long history of its own. They were a trio as cut off for a few hours each day as the men of Franklin's first expedition had been while crossing the Canadian wild, though without yet resorting to eating their shoes or each other. Oscar brought his lunch from home on most days and Alexi preferred to go out. Director Lenz' eating habits were a mystery to them.

The bulb wasn't bright but its wan glow was faithful and always enough by which to stare at the minimal map of the Arctic spread on their wall and to think about what should be there and what, perhaps, already was. Enough to make notations and to write reports and to file them for Director Lenz to inspect or not bother at the end of each day. Any more light risked reminding the prognosticators their basement room had no windows. Any more and they might look past the important task at their hands: the task of determining what had been found in the wild white spaces of the far north and, more importantly, of filing the paperwork and electronic records to prove it.

"Paperwork is destiny," as Slotkin had been fond of saying.

Oscar thought often of the men who had worked in that light before him, those men and the discoveries they'd made. The same lightbulb shone on Sarno when he speculated about mineral deposits deep under Kamchatka, and when Rudnik proposed Greenland as the ideal location for airfields and refueling stops. While an inspired Dimchas drew up plans for the first shopping center north of the Circle, the lightbulb watched over his shoulder and cast its fatherly glow on his pencil and page. That proud history—and his own modest link in its chain—spurred Oscar forward each morning onto the snowfields and into the storms, toward that vast sheet of paper with pencil in hand. The prognosticators who paved the way had been driven by the dignity of a day's work well done no less than Peary or Nansen or Franklin had been, navigating the unknown by compass or computer and not giving up until they arrived, and Oscar endeavored to do those men proud.

"A glorious tearoom in the name of the people," Alexi offered as the day's first proposal, as he had every morning since his arrival in BIP. The elaborate phrase, the old-fashioned ornament of it, was already a signal between the two men, an indication the junior partner wouldn't be ready to work until his first cup. He hadn't looked at the map yet to see where Oscar was working and Oscar didn't need to look to know that. Slotkin had always been first on the ice, as he'd liked to put it, and tall enough to reach the top of the map without rising onto his toes. He'd carried two extra pencils in his shirt pocket in case one broke while he worked those several steps away from his desk—no time to waste on backtracking, he'd say, you bring what you need to the north.

"Here," Oscar said, drawing his finger along a jagged coastal outcrop north of Mould Bay on Prince Patrick Island, one of his favorite haunts. "There's a settlement where an expedition arrived decades ago but their paperwork was never filed. They've been living there ever since, cut off and forgotten, generations of birth and of death."⁠

"But Oscar, last week we agreed that area was impenetrable wilderness. Are we changing our minds?" Alexi hardly peeked at the half-empty spaces, rummaging instead through a plastic bin on the table. His whole stringy body got into the search, hands and arms swimming through elastics and napkins and office detritus, legs dancing along. "But I'm sure there's a sugar factory in that region, producing packets of sweetener."

Alexi never stopped moving, keeping his body so lean you'd never imagine his prominent amateur standing as a competitive eater at the national level (a hobby Oscar, for his part, was happy enough to know little about). Alexi burned more calories in a couple of hours than most people do in a day, which had been common once in their line of work. Sedentary as prognosticators tended to be, in the old days Arctic explorers burned thousands of calories daily, honing their bodies into lean angles of muscle sharp as tiny slashes against the ice fields. Exploration had become a softer man's game.

But Alexi was right about the wilderness: they'd agreed upon it a few days before. Oscar tapped his pencil's nub of eraser against a faintly sketched line marking the boundaries of a dense forest full of wild beasts filling almost the entire upper region of the wall. It was a tall map and writing up high tired their arms quickly—he was no Slotkin, Oscar had to admit, and Alexi couldn't reach the top of the map unless he stood on a chair—so for the sake of their shoulders they had agreed on the forest, an unbroken, unchanging forest covering those inaccessible regions. Also to get more work done in a day; efficiency, after all. Efficiency and perseverance.

"We may have made up our minds," Oscar said, "but the world has remade itself around them. Last week was a long time ago and perhaps that wilderness has been cleared. At least enough for a small settlement. Or perhaps… yes, perhaps when we discovered the forest we weren't aware yet of the settlement being there because it has been so fully forgotten. It took time for us to find it, hacking our way through the forest." He swung his pencil like a machete, though a chainsaw might have been more effective as thick as they'd imagined those wilds.

"How's that?" Oscar continued. "Slotkin always said…," but Alexi's attention had wandered. Oscar reminded himself not to pressure his new partner to do things more like his old. He'd have to find his own course, his own manner of mushing, and constant comparisons weren't going to help.

He knew Alexi wouldn't be happy about venturing toward the top of the map and wouldn't appreciate the strain on his body, but Oscar had a feeling that morning, a spark he hadn't felt in some time—the promise of new land on the horizon. What the Inuit, or so Oscar had read, call iktsuarpok, the feeling that something is going to happen, that someone is about to arrive at your house and you're distracted by constantly checking for them.

"I'm thinking… yes, I've got it: this settlement was just stumbled onto by the settlers at Symmes' Hole, who made contact on a hunting trip over their mountains and it only now made it onto our maps. Symmes' Hole is so remote, they're in touch so rarely, it was their first chance to let someone know." He stood back for a moment, pencil poised at the angle of a rocket about to launch itself at the Arctic in its paper form. "Trust me on this one, Alexi. I'll work on it today to see where it goes."

"I don't know… it seems pretty far north for a forest. I think it said in my training binder…," Alexi broke off to push a pile of papers aside on his desk in search of the binder, lost in the year's worth of rubbish he'd somehow built up in two weeks on a desk Oscar was used to seeing kept clean. As he watched rubble spill to the floor Oscar's body tensed against the impulse to catch it, to return it to where it belonged. The urge rose to yell at Alexi or just to yell but he clenched his fists and curled his toes and pictured the clean, clear view of the icesheet he'd seen that morning when checking the North Pole web cam on his phone—an unremarkable device, like any other of today's gewgaws and gadgets, but to which he'd added a plastic case textured and printed to look like a shell of grained wood, to make it look like an object that mattered and was worthy of an Arctic explorer—and with deep breaths of that icy air Oscar came back to himself.

"You said that before," he told his still-rummaging partner, "but remember what we decided? The not quite dormant volcano, the geothermics… there's a warm microclimate at the top of the island where the settlements are. That's always been how Symmes' Hole succeeds, drawing power and heat from underground. Off the grid. And remember? The forests are different, practically boreal because of that underground heat."

"I guess it still seems a little unlikely."

"Oh it is, it is unlikely, Alexi. But even the unlikeliest things have to happen sometimes—that's the law of probability, right? Or is it the law of coincidence? Either way, a million monkeys and a million typewriters, that sort of thing."

"I wouldn't mind one monkey with a donut right now."

Oscar sighed and strained for the far northern tip of Prince Patrick Island, where he sketched in some building shapes and made a few notes.

The map on the wall, the pencil and paper, were little more than a nod to tradition by now. That's how they started each morning because prognosticators had always started that way, for as long as there had been a bureau, ever since the US government learned via some intercepted communication the better part of a century ago that the Soviets had a Bureau of Ice Prognostication to make the most of their Siberian exploits. What it did, exactly, no one could say, but rather than sit around waiting for answers they acted and created a BIP of their own, doing just what the words in the translated name of the department suggested and that's what they'd done ever since. They'd outlasted the era of real expeditions and they'd outlasted the Soviets, too, though Oscar liked to imagine there were still underground agencies like his own hard at work in modern day Russia, still charging across the tundra from their own basement offices toward their old Arctic. He took comfort in having those counterparts, in justifying his own work against theirs as prognosticators had always done. He'd read of a monastery secluded in Siberia, expanded over the centuries to make space for all the secrets and relics of the Tsarist then Soviet then post-Communist Arctic, a museum with no visitors, and what was a building full of important objects but a database made tangible, albeit it a bit less efficient than the lines of numbers and code in BIP's own digitized archive?

By Oscar and Alexi's time paper was only a means of brainstorming, of clearing their heads, and the real work happened once they sat down at their terminals and logged into BIP's database where they could populate the records to confirm a place they'd pinned on the map—that forest, the mountains between settlements, or whatever they'd found. There can be no place without records, no discoveries without files and forms, so someone had to draw up and fill out the paperwork to bring the Arctic into being and those someones were Alexi and Oscar, and Slotkin and Wend and Dimchas and the others who had come before.

None of them had been to the Arctic, of course, but who has? Who but the great men: the Pearys, the Franklins, even the Cooks, more or less. Greater men than worked in BIP's basement. But that, as Director Lenz often said, was their advantage, the edge that allowed generations of prognosticators to get on with it: a lack of actual knowledge made the job easier and their work more useful to their government and its people. The important thing was professionalism untainted by sentimental attachments to snowfields and icebergs and unvoting tribes who never pay taxes, as he reminded his underlings each Monday morning. He hadn't taken this promotion from the Office of Government Standards on Filing Systems downtown to have his new Bureau (it hadn't been "new" to Director Lenz for some years but he still said that as part of his speech, perhaps for its inspirational value) get bogged down in the truth. Prognosticators had focus unbroken by refracting light or the shifting appearance of ice and of sky so problematic in the Arctic itself: if blue turns to green and yellow to red, if a day or a night lasts for months, how can anyone know anything? How can you make sense of a place if it won't hold still to be counted and even its colors aren't fast? Their job was to imagine, never to know. The truth, as generations of directors had reminded their charges, would only get in the way.

But Oscar had always dreamed of the Pole, like all boys and all men who still have boy in them, men who can't quite get rid of that box of Arctic Greats trading cards at the back of a closet and who still have a carton of action figures—Amundsen and his real-fur collared jacket, Robert J. Flaherty and his tiny plastic movie camera—tucked away where their wives won't tease them about it. That's why he'd taken the job at BIP when it opened, despite the cut from his salary as a database developer in Weights and Measures, despite the loss of his windowed office upstairs with its view of the National Mall. Oscar had given up on the actual Arctic a long time ago, abandoned his childhood dreams of mushing across snowfields en route to the Pole and charging north into the wind on a mammoth icebreaker. He'd left those dreams behind like cairns stacked on the ice for fallen shipmates, but when the position downstairs in BIP appeared on the government jobs board it looked like a second chance at something he'd lost. A basement office with a map of the Arctic was closer than he ever expected to come by that point in his life and so much closer than most daydreaming boys ever got. All but those lucky few who somehow have what it takes, who have more than a John Franklin lunchbox and its plastic thermos with most of the Erebus faded away. Those lucky few who reach the blank spaces of which we all dream.

The lying had taken some getting used to. Not being able to tell his wife, Julia, where he really worked—especially when it was a lifelong dream fulfilled against all the odds—had been hard and still was. He'd had to practice, at first, testing funny stories about informational policies and color codes on Slotkin before bringing them home. But in time the lie grew familiar, part of his routine, and he found ways to talk about what he'd really been doing without talking about it at all. A code between husband and wife, even if only he knew.

Triumphant, Alexi raised a fistful of sugar packets out of the bin and said, "Yes, I can see the settlement now." But a concerned look crossed his face and he returned to rummaging. "And I propose a spoon works as part of that colony, providing much needed jobs and producing the finest utensils in all of the north."

It's hard to imagine Alexi dreamed of the Arctic when he was a boy. It's hard to imagine him wanting more than an easy day's work and swift subway ride home, to be greeted by a new issue of the magazines that awaited him in their subtle black wrappers and perhaps a coupon for free pizza from the parlor he favored—the one where he trained for competition, and had already invited his partner to watch him "work out," which was about as much of his outside life as he'd shared in the two weeks he and Oscar had worked together. With Alexi the map was the territory, for the most part. But maybe he, too, had once longed for a fast sledge and a strong team of dogs, or daydreamed of drifting over the Pole with Greely or Andrée and being the ace pilot who saved their doomed missions from failure and kept them on course.

Perhaps he shared Oscar's nostalgia, a nagging sense things were if not better in the cold war for the Pole that they were clearer, at least: black and white as the expanses of an incomplete map—what was known, what was not. North was north and south was south, either you reached the Pole or you didn't—never mind what those lying Cookies might say about Peary—and a journey from one place to another was an actual journey, not a phone call or a satellite broadcast or some entry double-confirmed in a database managed many rungs down the ladder of latitude and historical value. Explorers went somewhere and they came home or they didn't, they led real expeditions and never dreamed they would give that work over to bureaucrats digging through filing cabinets and databases of old ideas.

But one age cannot be another and you make due with what's available when you come along, as Oscar often reminded himself. He was lucky to be where he was, exploring the Arctic with a pension plus health insurance.

Before he could consider Alexi's proposal of a spoon works and before Alexi located a spoon, their desktop intercom buzzed so hard the whole cube of yellowed plastic—somehow discolored by sunlight despite never leaving the basement—rattled and shook as Director Lenz' voice crackled out of its tinny round speaker. "Oscar. Alexi. Into my office. Fast as a lightbulb in front of my desk!"

And with that command they were off.