Chapter no 34

Winter World

WERE two days away from Earth, and there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news is that we haven’t been shot out of the sky. By humans or by aliens trying to harvest our solar energy.

The bad news is there may be no home to return to. We’ve studied the images of Earth (we have telemetry from four full rotations now). Ice covers North America. Europe is buried. There are a few swaths of brown open land in northern Africa. Another in the Middle East. And slightly inland in Australia. We can only see the sunward-facing side of Earth, so we can’t see our world at night, can’t know if lights are still burning down there. Either way, this is a new dark age for humanity.

What are our chances of actually stopping it? I try not to let my pessimism show in front of Emma. She has taken the news hard. I know she’s worried about her sister and her sister’s family. I sense the bond is strong between the two of them. I’m worried about Emma. And my own family. And the rest of the world. I wonder how many are left. It must be agonizing down there, a world running out of habitable land, the ice closing in, the hordes of people fighting to survive. It’s unimaginable.

After we see the images, we try to keep to our routine. It’s important to maintain discipline, for me, and for Emma’s health.

I can’t help stewing over what to do. The situation on Earth definitely necessitates a change in our plans.

It’s ten a.m. (we’re keeping Eastern Standard Time hours), and I’m pulling on the exercise bands. Emma’s pedaling the bike, watching a class lecture from Caltech on adaptive robotics. Harry had the foresight to load

all these college lectures for her benefit. She’s used it as a kind of continuing education, and a distraction.

“I think we should contact Earth,” I say, panting from exertion. She stops pedaling. “Why?”

“We need to know where to land.” “Canaveral—”

“Might be a long shot now.”

This makeshift spacecraft can’t pull off a controlled landing. We’ll need to land in the ocean. Our plan has been to land off the coast of Cape Canaveral. We’ve assumed that NASA would be watching and come and retrieve us. Now I’m uncertain. The Kennedy Space Center is covered in ice. The entire US is. I have no idea where the NASA personnel evacuated to—or whether they’re watching for us to touch down. They’re not expecting us, and they may not have gotten the broadcast from the comm buoy we deployed.

Once we touch down, we’re definitely going to need some help. I can’t exactly row us to shore. And that’s only the beginning. Even if the tide somehow carries us in, I can’t drag Emma across a barren, frozen world looking for civilization. We need help or we’re as good as dead—whether we die up here or down there.

“Okay,” she says. “When?”

“As soon as the comm lockout lifts.” I glance at the time. “Today. Four hours from now.”



SHE AND I sit by the tablet, watching the timer count down until the comm systems come back online. Thirty seconds left.

“Hey,” she says. “If we can’t make contact, and we just have to land wherever… I want you to leave me.”


“Just listen. I’ll be safe in the module. It’ll float. I’ll have food, and it has enough power for heat for a while. You can get help and come back for me. I’ll slow you down. You know it.”

I don’t like that one bit. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” The tablet flashes a message.

Comm suite is now online.

Be advised, long distance charges apply.

We both laugh. Nice to see our old crewmates still kept their sense of humor while secretly planning this worst-case contingency.

We’ve already debated whom to call with our first broadcast. If the world is at war, announcing ourselves could put us at risk, make us a target, a pawn to be used or traded, held hostage maybe. There are so many unknowns down there.

We settled on broadcasting on an encrypted NASA channel. The reasons are simple: NASA and its network of private space contractors still have the largest space program. They and the US military are best equipped to rescue us. And Emma and I are both Americans—assuming America still exists.

I start to activate the transmission but hesitate. “You want to talk, or you want me to?”

“Doesn’t matter to me. You do it.” I tap the tablet.

“Goddard flight control, NASA, private space entities, and anyone listening: this is James Sinclair and Emma Matthews, two members of the Pax on approach to Earth. We could use some help.”



THERES NO RESPONSE INITIALLY. Or during the first hour. Or the second. Every minute that passes feels like slow motion. We try to stay busy.

I have a plan for when we arrive on Earth. I’ve been working on it, in some fashion, since I woke up in this capsule. It has one purpose: to save Emma’s life.

“What are you thinking?” Her voice is calm, but I know she’s nervous.

She’s in far more danger on the ground than I am. “I think we broaden the transmission.”

“Europeans?” “Yep.”

The great thing about the Pax is that we have access to every imaginable encryption suite, including those used by Roscosmos, ESA, JAXA, CNSA, and a handful of others.

I send a message to the ESA, but there’s no reply. Four hours later, there’s still no reply.

“What next?” Emma asks. “Wide broadcast?” “Not yet. Military could pick it up.”

“Or militias.”

She thinks the worst has happened. She might be right.

Emma’s voice is reflective and somber. “You think we did this?” “What?”

“You think our actions out there—the fly-by of the artifact and attacking it—you think it made the artifacts accelerate the Long Winter? Is this part of their counterstrike—freezing Earth?”

I’ve thought about that, but haven’t had the courage to voice it. I’m glad I don’t know if it’s true. If so, it would gut me. I made the calls out there. If my decisions caused this ice age, and the death of billions… I don’t know if I could ever recover from it.

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

She seems to read my mind.

“We had to do what we did out there, James.” That makes it a little better. But not much.

I’ve already been tried once for endangering the world. Tried and convicted. Unjustly. Then they sent me into space to save them. I did my best. And I just might have done what they locked me away for.



WE BED down in the middle of the module, shoulder-to-shoulder, staring up at the porthole and the stars beyond. I’m usually the one to pull the shade. Tonight, I peer out, then start taking stock of every last item in the module. My mind mentally assembles the pieces in 3D. I see a rough rendering of what I need, the device that will carry us home.

“What’re you thinking about?” Emma asks softly. “Nothing.”

“You’re a terrible liar.”

I smile. “I would think that’s a good quality.”

“It is.” She pauses. “You’re thinking about where we should land. And how to build a boat.”

“Yeah. I am.”


“It’s doable.” I turn to her. “We’ve got the pieces, right here in the capsule. I’ll get you to a hospital. I promise you.”

“I believe you. I believe if anyone can, you can.”

We both stare out the porthole then, holding hands, neither saying anything. I’m glad she’s here. Glad the crew sent her with me—for a lot of reasons. There’s one reason I never realized until now: I’ll fight harder to save her life than I ever would to save my own.



IN THE MORNING, we broadcast wide, unencrypted. It’s a gamble, a desperate, last roll of the dice.

A response comes immediately, a gruff male voice.

“Mr. Sinclair, this is Colonel Jeffords of the Atlantic Union. Stand by.

We’re routing your message to the appropriate parties.” “Atlantic Union?” Emma whispers.

“It would seem alliances have been made.”

I activate the radio again. “Copy that, Colonel. We’re standing by.”

The next message comes five minutes later. It isn’t from Jeffords. It’s another male voice with a European accent, the enunciation too perfect. Definitely someone who learned English as a second language.

“Dr. Sinclair. We’re glad to hear your voice. My name is Sora Nakamura. I represent the Pac Alliance. The Allies welcome you home. We’re eager to hear your story and to provide assistance. Please verify you’ve received our message.”


Emma turns the microphone off. “What do you want to do?” “We need to know more.”

“Such as?”

“Such as who the good guys are.”

“And what if there are no good guys?”

She’s cut to the heart of the issue. Desperate times make devils out of the best of us.

“Then we’ll pick whoever’s most likely to rescue us.”

I activate the microphone again. “We read you, Mr. Nakamura.”

“Excellent. I must say, we’re surprised to hear from you so soon. Our colleagues at JAXA and the CNSA are eager to talk to you. We’re currently making preparations for a landing site and recovery off the coast of Australia. There are resettlement camps nearby, and the Pac Alliance government is headquartered in Darwin.”

There’s a pause on the comm, as if he’s talking to someone offline. Emma turns off the mic once more. “The Pac Alliance. A group of

Pacific nations, obviously.”

She’s right. Nakamura’s reference to the Chinese and Japanese space programs as well as camps in Australia implies a geographic alliance.

“Yeah. I bet they crowded into the warm, arid land in Australia. Probably the last habitable zone in the region. Maybe the Japanese, Chinese, and Indians joined forces and moved their people there. Or at least, those they could save.”

“Interesting,” Emma says, lost in thought.

I can’t help but speculate about what’s happened and how the last survivors would organize. Geography and population are the drivers. The Pacific is vast. It covers over thirty percent of the planet. In fact, it covers more area than all of the Earth’s landmasses combined. The Atlantic is much smaller. It’s roughly half the size of the Pacific. It’s conceivable that America herded its citizens into its last habitable zones in the US and then transported the rest to northern Africa, where there will be much more survivable land as the world cools. Based on the telescope’s images, it looks like all of the US is under ice now.

Population is the other factor. Asia has about sixty percent of the world’s population. Twice as many people as North America, South America, and Africa combined. Asian populations, simply put, need more land to survive. Australia is the logical choice. It’s hot and dry. There are some hot areas in Southeast Asia, but they lie in the monsoon regions. They’ll be buried in snow.

If the planet has organized into two spheres, these would be roughly well-matched. And geographically isolated. The question is which we choose.

There’s also the region in Iran that isn’t covered in ice, but there’s been no message from them. Very interesting.

One thing’s certain: there is someone down there to retrieve us. I won’t have to turn the capsule into a boat, which, frankly, was probably a long shot.

Nakamura comes back on the line.

“In the interest of time, Dr. Sinclair, we request that you transmit any data you recovered during your mission.”

With the microphone still off, Emma says, “I don’t like it. They should have gotten the comm bricks already.”

“They may have. Maybe they’re asking about any new data. Or maybe the equipment to read the wireless transmission was lost in the exodus to these last habitable zones. But yeah. I don’t like it either.” I think for a minute. “Technically, the data doesn’t reveal much about the course of climate change on Earth. Just the magnitude of the threat.”

“A threat that is much greater than we imagined. The data confirms that the artifacts are hostile, which implies that the world is in a lot of trouble. The data could spark a war.”

“Or worsen the war already occurring.” “True.”

“There’s another reason not to send it.” She raises an eyebrow.


“Leverage for what?”

“Our safety. The data is what we have that they want. Once they have it, they could have no more use for us.”

Emma looks away. This is outside her comfort zone—the double-dealing and distrust. I like that about her. She’s a genuine person. Honest. Too good—too pure for the world I fear we’re returning to.

When we make eye contact again, I make my voice even. “There’s another reason for silence. The artifacts could be listening. Maybe that’s why we’re still alive. They want to know what we know. And it could be why neither the Atlantic Union nor Pac Alliance has shot us down.”

“You want to say no to the Pac Alliance request?”

“That might force their hand—or cause the artifacts to destroy us.” “So…”

“We buy time.”

I activate the radio. “Copy that, Pac Alliance. It’s going to take us some time to get our data suitable for broadcast. We’ll be in touch.”

Emma bunches her eyebrows. “You lie a lot better over the radio.” “Lying is easier when you don’t know the person.”



THERE ARE no further transmissions from Nakamura. I consider that telling. The next transmission comes two hours later, from a familiar voice, one

I’m relieved to hear.

“James? It’s Lawrence Fowler. Please respond if you read me.”

His voice is like a drink of water to a man who’s been walking through the desert for a year. I bolt toward it, like a beacon of hope, a sign of an oasis on the horizon.

I tap the transmit button quickly and speak with enthusiasm. “We read you, Fowler. It’s great to hear your voice.”

“Likewise, James. Listen, we need to make plans. It’s important that we recover you. There’ve been… changes here.”

“Copy that.”

“We’ve made preparations. Landing coordinates are as follows: the location where you and I first met. Take latitude and add to the degrees the fourth number found on page five of the mission briefing. To the longitude, add to the degrees the seventh number found on the fifteenth page of the mission briefing. Please verify receipt. Do not repeat actual coordinates.”

I open the digital version of the mission briefing, memorize the numbers, then open a map with GPS. Edgefield Federal Prison lies at 33.76 degrees latitude, -81.92 degrees longitude. I add the numbers from the mission briefing. The location surprises me. It’s nowhere near the US. It’s in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Tunisia. I really, really, hope I added that correctly.

“We copy, Fowler.”

“Please cease all communications. We’ll be waiting, James.” Nakamura responds immediately.

“James and Emma, we overheard the broadcast from the AU. We certainly appreciate their efforts in providing a safe landing, but be advised, we have already made preparations and feel your safety would be greatly

enhanced by a landing here at our site. We have far more resources and a safer environment here. Please respond and acknowledge that you’re proceeding to our site.”

Emma leans her head back and exhales. I’m starting to get stressed too. I activate the radio.

“We copy, Pac Alliance. As you can see, our vessel is a makeshift escape pod created from the Pax. Thrust capacity is severely degraded. We’ll know more about our landing approach soon and will be in touch. We’re also still porting the data for transmission. This is taking a lot of time.”

“Understood, James. If you give us alternative landing coordinates, I assure you that we can secure them and recover you. Your safety and the completion of your mission is our priority.”

Emma deactivates the radio. “Completion of our mission?” “The data. They want the data.”

“Fowler never asked.”

“He’s smarter than that. And he wants us back. If anyone on the ground cares about us, it’s him. He’s the one who asked me to rescue you. I trust him.”

“So do I.”

“Tunisia it is.” “What now?”

“Now, we rest. And try not to get shot out of the sky before we get home.”

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