Chapter no 10

Winter World

THAT NIGHT, they celebrated. It was Edgefield Federal Prison as I’ve never seen it. Music blaring. Inmates drinking, singing, all armed. Some fighting, some gambling over cards and dice. The commissary was cleaned out. Trash covered the floor. These men, some of whom had been incarcerated most of their adult lives, were carefree at last.

By morning, they were all dead.

I knew because it was too quiet. The silence started sometime around twilight. I stayed up, because frankly, I expected it to be my last night on Earth. I wanted to die on my feet. But no one came for me. I guess they figured there would be time enough for that. Luckily for me, they were wrong.

The sun is up now, and from my bunk I can see bodies strewn across the common area below. They weren’t shot, or assaulted. They just keeled over. Whatever killed them hasn’t affected me. At least not yet.

Footsteps echo in the prison, a pitter-patter in the distance that grows into a rumble, and a chorus of harsh voices yelling, “Clear!”

Troops arrive at my cell, wearing rubber gloves and full-body disposable contact gowns. My mind flashes back to when the National Guardsman demonstrated the rifle for Carl and his rioters. He was wearing gloves.

That confirms it: they doused the guns with poison. I’m impressed.

The guard troops step aside for a tall man with close-cropped hair and a navy suit. Federal agent. That’s the first thing that pops into my mind.

“Dr. Sinclair, we’d like to speak with you.”

I stand and shrug. “You’re in luck. I’m just starting my office hours for the day.”

He mutters to the guardsmen, “Bring him.”

They throw a contact gown and rubber gloves into the cell.

Yeah, definitely poison on the guns. They’re scared that some might have been spread across the prison and that I could come into contact with it.

So they want me alive. At least there’s that.



THE MORNING after being the last prisoner in Edgefield, I am the only prisoner to walk out alive.

I look for Pedro, but he’s nowhere in sight.

They lead me to a parcel van, where the federal agent is waiting, along with a man with a beard, short gray hair, and kind eyes. He’s a man I recognize and respect but have never met. I can’t imagine why he would be here, and my imagination is vast.

“Lose the gloves and gown,” Agent-Man says.

When they’re off, a guardsman calls out to the van, “Want us to cuff him?”

Agent-Man gives a wry grin. “Nah, he’s not that kind of criminal. Are you, Doc?”

“Many don’t consider me a criminal at all. Just a man ahead of his time.”

“Well, I’m a man without much time, so get up here.”

Inside the van, Agent-Man dismisses everyone but me and the other man. Then he introduces himself. “Dr. Sinclair, I’m Raymond Larson, Deputy AG.”

In my mind, I upgrade him to Agent-Boss-Man.

He points to the other man. “This is Dr. Lawrence Fowler—”

“Director of NASA. I know.” I look Fowler in the eyes. “It’s nice to meet you… despite the circumstances. I’ve followed your work for a long time, since you were at Caltech.”

His eyes brighten. “You have?”

His voice is more subdued than in the last video I saw of him at a conference giving a presentation. That was four years ago, and the years have apparently taken a toll. Stress and time have worked on Dr. Lawrence Fowler.

“Yes. Your research on alternative jet propulsion fuel sources is of particular—”

Larson holds up a hand. “Okay, that’s enough. Let’s get to it.” He smirks at me. “If you’re as smart as they say you are, why don’t you tell me why we’re here?”

I shrug. “Because you need something from me. Specifically, you’re going to offer me a pardon or work release—contingent on my cooperation

—and you’re going to threaten me with the alternatives, most likely a transfer to another prison where the other inmates will know that I’m the sole survivor of the Edgefield Prison riot. The implication will be that I’m a snitch, one who got all of his fellow inmates killed. To avoid a lawsuit, the warden will put me in the hole for protection, until I can’t take it anymore. Then I’ll demand to be released, and when that happens, I’ll be dead within a few days.”

Larson looks genuinely impressed. He draws a folded paper from inside his suit jacket and glances at Fowler, who nods curtly. He unfolds the page and lays it in front of me.

I expected it to be longer. Phrases jump out at me:

Full Presidential Pardon

Contingent upon approval by the Justice Department, NASA, and any government agencies and private entities they designate.

Work period has an indeterminate end date.

No compensation or benefits whatsoever are conferred.

He hands me a pen, and I sign it. Then he folds the page up and slips it back into his jacket.

“Do I get a receipt or a copy or something?” “You do not.”

“So… when do I start?”

As I suspected, it’s Fowler’s show now. He speaks as he opens his laptop. “I’m afraid you’ll need to start right away. Time is of the essence, Dr. Sinclair.”

“Call me James.”

“All right, James. What I’m about to show you is the most closely guarded secret in the world.”

I have the urge to make a wisecrack. Ever since I was a kid, sarcasm has been my defense against a world that didn’t seem to understand me—or like me. And somewhere along the way, sarcasm became how I communicated all the time. It kept me from getting close to anyone and from getting hurt. But I hold my tongue here. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I sense, despite the overdramatic opener, that what I’m about to hear is actually that important. Or maybe it’s because I know Lawrence Fowler doesn’t deserve it. I’ve been in his presence all of five minutes, and I already feel as though I know him—and what he’s about. It isn’t games or politics. He’s here for a reason, and I bet it’s a good one. And he reminds me of my grandfather.

“As you know,” Fowler says, typing away, “the Long Winter is the greatest threat to humanity’s survival in our history. All the climate models have been wrong. NOAA is collectively pulling its hair out trying to figure out why it’s even happening. In short, it doesn’t add up. Do you know why?”

“Because there’s a variable that hasn’t been factored.”

He nods. “Precisely. NASA was tasked with finding that variable. A year ago, we launched a series of probes into space. Our aim was to measure solar output outside of Earth. What we found shocked us.”

His screen shows an interactive 3D simulation of Earth surrounded by a series of probes in space, a number beside each one. My guess is that these numbers are measures of solar radiation. What strikes me is the variation in the numbers. Solar output isn’t absolutely uniform, like, say, a light bulb’s output, but it’s a lot more consistent than what I’m seeing here. Earth is getting far less solar radiation than the regions of space surrounding it.

The implication is clear.

My mouth runs dry. It’s impossible—but I’m looking at the data. I could throw up. This is too odd to be a natural phenomenon. The source is probably an extraterrestrial entity. If I’m right, this is truly the end of the human race. No two ways about it. Any species or force sufficiently advanced to cause this could wipe us out a trillion different ways—ways we aren’t even advanced enough to imagine.

Fowler reads my expression. “No doubt you’ve discerned what these readings mean.” He pauses, as if adjusting his presentation to my reaction. “Before we got these readings, a coalition of governments was evaluating

possible… solutions to the Long Winter. The most viable, or perhaps ‘popular’ is a better term, was accelerating the greenhouse effect. That would heat the planet to compensate for the reduced solar output. Many options were presented, some more feasible than others. Underground colonies dependent on geothermal energy. Altering the Earth’s orbit.”

He sees my surprise.

“As I said, some proposals were more feasible than others.” He motions toward the image. “However, the probe data changed everything. We kept it a secret and launched a second round of probes four months ago. This group was much larger and had more precise instruments meant to verify the data. They traveled farther and wider into the inner solar system.” Fowler glances at Larson and me, as if mentally estimating whether we’re prepared, then hits a key. “This is what they found.”

The screen switches to a video of a black dot against the burning sun. It comes into focus, an oblong object that shimmers for a second before the video ends.

Larson’s mouth falls open. Apparently, he’s learning all this at the same time as I am. He didn’t need to know before.

I wasn’t sure what form it would take, but after seeing the probes’ solar radiation readings, I expected something like this. My mind swirls with questions. I need data. Fowler is prepared. I shoot questions at him rapid-fire.

“How many artifacts have you located?” “One.”

“Did it detect the probe NASA sent?” “Yes.”

“Reaction?” “Destroyed.”

My body goes numb at the word. My mind reels with the implications. Larson finally gets a word out, seven of them, all a waste of time. “Hey,

what the heck is that thing?”

Fowler doesn’t break eye contact with me. “Please be quiet, Mr.


“Did it take any further action after destroying the probe?” I ask. “Possibly. We’re not certain.”


“The probe relayed data to the ISS. Minutes later, the station experienced… a solar event that destroyed it. Along with every satellite in orbit.”

“You think it was trying to stop the data.” “That’s the working theory.”

“What happened to the crew on the ISS?”

Fowler glances away. I’ve hit a sore subject. “They were killed in the attack. Except for one. She’s still up there. We’re trying to bring her home, but we’re not sure we can.”

I nod, sensing he wants to move on. “What else do you know?” “That’s about it at the moment.”

In my mind, I begin running scenarios, Hail Marys in which some part of our species survives this. They all end the same: insufficient data. We need to know what we’re dealing with.

Larson shakes his head, frustrated. “Hey, will somebody tell me what’s going on?”

With my eyes, I ask Fowler, You want to tell him?

He glances away. Translation: You tell him, your way. He deserves it.

“Mr. Larson, we are not alone in the universe. Here’s the scary part: whoever is out there either doesn’t care enough to contact us, or is trying to kill us.”

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