Chapter no 35

Winter World

WEVE PREPARED the ship for landing. Every single item has been stowed. We’ve calculated the vector to reach the target landing zone. Fuel isn’t a problem. The real problem is whether the ship will be in one piece when we land.

And whether we’ll survive.

James betrays no emotion. But I know he must be worried. I am.

The Pac Alliance has continued to contact us. James has refused to respond. He feels that’s better.

We are hours away from landing, and we decide to spend those hours together. We don’t play cards. We don’t watch a movie. We turn on some old music, classic rock hits from the 1960s and 70s, and lie together in the middle the ship, looking up at the stars. It’s a perfect moment. I fear it may be the last perfect moment I ever experience.

Gently, without acknowledging it, he puts his arm around me, wraps his fingers around my shoulder, and presses me to him. We lie this way, in zero gee, until a ship alarm goes off. The computerized voice echoes in the small space.

“Landing sequence activated.”

We put on our helmets and do one last check of our suits. He smiles at me. “See you on Earth.”

“Yeah. See you there.”

The ship rumbles. Even through the cool space suit, I can feel the heat increasing as we enter the planet’s atmosphere. The module has a heat shield, and it should hold, but I can’t help but think back to the capsule I was aboard in orbit a few months ago.

With each passing second, the heat increases. The module shakes more violently. I glance over at James, and he’s looking at me. Not worried. Not even a shred of concern in his eyes. That steels me.

In the roar of the turbulence and the soaring heat, I lose all sense of time. Suddenly there’s a lull in the roar. Complete silence. Then a kick, the retro rockets firing, trying to slow our descent. We hurtle toward Earth in silence, me staring at James and him staring at me.

The rockets fire again, course-correcting, the autopilot hopefully doing its job. There’s another wild jerk, and I can feel the g-forces fade away. The parachutes have deployed. I check the straps one last time. I know what’s coming. A landing from space has been described as a train wreck, followed by a car accident, followed by falling off your bike. This feels worse.

Through the porthole, I see only blue, with the occasional swath of white. Then suddenly, without warning, there’s a crash and a boom the likes of which I’ve never heard before, never felt before.

And everything goes dark.



CONSCIOUSNESS COMES in flickers as if I’m watching the world from behind a slow-moving fan, the blades blotting out the world, the area in between revealing it in flashes. James is there, leaning over me, his helmet off, speaking. I can’t hear the words. My ears ring. My body is numb.

I try to sit up, but I can’t. Looking down, I realize he has unfastened my straps. His fingers touch my neck, checking my pulse. He must like what he sees. His face relaxes.

Slowly, hearing returns. He’s on the radio, talking with someone from the Atlantic Union. I’m suddenly aware of the sensation of movement, the capsule bobbing in the water. I try to sit up again, and this time I succeed, but I’m still weak. James looks over at me.

“It’s going to be all right.”

I nod. My head feels wobbly, like I’m trying to balance a bowling ball on a toothpick. What’s happening to me?

It’s like the Pax all over again.

I let myself fall back to the padded wall. The world feels so heavy. As if I’m wearing a lead suit. After almost a year in space, and weightlessness, I feel like an alien on this planet. Like my body wasn’t made for it. Like the gravity here will drag me into the ground and never let me up.

I close my eyes, and darkness comes again.



AWAKE IN A HOSPITAL. The bed is soft. Machines surround me. Through a window, I see a vast expanse of desert dotted by white tents. They glow like lanterns floating on a sea of sand.

James is here, sitting in a reclining chair in the corner, head laid to the side, asleep. I wouldn’t dare wake him.

My body still feels heavy, as if I’m sinking into the soft bed.

I jump at a knock on the door. It swings open, and a nurse comes in, a cheery smile on his face.

“You’re awake!”

James stirs, cracks his eyes open. He looks so tired. I push myself up on the bed.

“I am.”

“I’m just gonna have a look at you,” the nurse says.

He does a cursory exam, speaking softly as he works. “You spent some time in quarantine. You probably don’t remember. They cleared you, and we’re just going to keep you long enough to make sure you’re all right. Sound good?”

“Sounds great.”

“I’m going to tell the doctor you’re awake. He’ll be very relieved.”

The nurse nods at James as he exits, closing the door behind him, leaving us alone.

“How was it?” I ask. “The retrieval?” “Piece of cake,” James says.

He’s becoming a better liar. I’m concerned. “Right. What now?”

“Now, we’re going to get you back in shape.”



FOR THE FIRST day in the hospital, all I do is eat and sleep and talk with James. He sits in the chair in the corner, and we even play a few games of cards on the tray table beside my bed.

As strange as it sounds, I miss that module in space. It was cramped and dangerous, but when I remember it, all I think about is how cozy it was and the fact that for two months, James and I sort of forgot about everything else. Back here on Earth, I’m acutely aware of what we’re facing.

I get a rude awakening when I try to go to the bathroom. I swing my legs over the bed, and James takes my hand. When I try to stand, my legs fail me. James is there to catch me, his hands under my armpits holding me until the nurse comes in. I manage to make it to the door and into the bathroom and to do my business alone—for that, I’m thankful. But the exercise is a humbling preview of the road ahead.



LAWRENCE FOWLER COMES by on the second day. I haven’t seen him since I launched to the ISS. I swear he’s aged twenty years since then. He smiles, and in that moment, I see the same kind man I used to know.

“It’s good to see you, Emma.”

“You too, Larry. What did I miss?”

He shrugs. “Nothing much. Some inclement weather.”

James smiles. I laugh and cough and when we fall silent, I ask the question I’ve wanted to ask since we first made contact with Earth: “My sister?”

“She’s okay. We got your message.” “Where is she?”

Fowler glances to the door. “I’m not sure. Let me check on that.” To my surprise, he slips out of the room.

A minute later he re-enters, and my heart bursts. Madison is behind him. Owen and Adeline are following close on her heels, with David bringing up the rear.

Madison hugs me gently as if I’m a china doll she’s afraid to break. The kids do the same, and David nods at me without a word. He hasn’t changed much.

“What’s with the super-hesitant hug? It’s not like I have the plague.”

Madison smiles sympathetically. “The doctor says you’re still weak from all your time in space. That your bones need time to heal and that you could fracture easily.”

Owen and Adeline look concerned. I think it scares them seeing me here in the hospital like this, wounded and fragile. I’ve always been the super-aunt to them. It turns out a lack of gravity is my kryptonite.

I’m not sure how to respond to Madison. I’m thankful when James speaks. “She’ll be out of here in no time. Just routine physical therapy and rehab after time in space.”

He makes for the door, and Fowler follows him. “We’ll give you all a little time together.”

Madison begins peppering me with questions about what happened, where I went, and what I saw. Through the window that looks out into the hall, I see James and Fowler talking excitedly. Is James planning his next step? I know I need to rest and to heal, but I desperately want to be out there with them.

“Did you hear me?” Madison asks. “Of course,” I lie.


“So what?”

“So are you two together?”

I chew my lip. “Who do you mean?” I know exactly who she means. I feel like a seventh grader right now.

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe that guy who won’t leave your bedside, who they say is the sole reason you got home.”

“It’s complicated.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that it’s sort of hard to date in space. Can we change the subject?”

Madison crosses her arms. Translation: No, I don’t want to change the subject. But I will. Because you’re in the hospital. And you’re my older sister.

“Actually, let’s stay on that subject. Do you know who he is?” Madison seems confused. “Who? James?”

“Yes. He’s a roboticist. Dr. James Sinclair. He was in the news several years ago… he went to prison—”

“Wait, he was in prison!? For what?”

“That’s what I was going to ask you.” “You don’t know? He didn’t tell you?”

“No, he didn’t tell me. So, you don’t recognize his name?”

Madison shrugs. “It sounds vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t tell you anything about him. Before the evacuations, I was doing well to keep up with what the kids were doing after school every day. Some scientist going to jail? It’s not really the type of thing I would have committed to memory.” “Okay. Fine. You said there were evacuations. What happened? Where

are we? Where do you all live?”

Madison glances at David, who holds out an arm, corrals the kids, and leaves the room.

“Things happened so quickly, Em. The whole world went crazy. At first, the US created a few settlement camps. One in Death Valley. Another in Arizona. They were just taking people from Alaska and Michigan, then Maine and Minnesota, and then the camps were overrun by people flocking there. There was the sense that if you didn’t get a place, you would be buried by the snow. Things got worse when China and Japan announced an alliance.”

“The Pac Alliance?”

“Yeah. They sent what they called a trade envoy to Australia. In reality it was composed of the largest naval fleet ever assembled. They blockaded the island and began resettling their people there. Australia joined the alliance, but they had little choice. I’m sure they reached out to the US and Europe, but we had problems of our own.

“The Europeans moved south across the Mediterranean. The war here in North Africa began on a Monday and was over by Thursday. America and Canada joined the European allies.”

“The Atlantic Union?” “Correct.”

“Are those the only two powers left in the world?”

“No. The Russians and Indians joined forces and moved their people into Iran. They call the alliance the Caspian Treaty. It’s been hard to get information—when the satellites went down, the internet went down—but they say the fighting in the Middle East was intense.”

“How many Americans survived?”

“I don’t know. I’m not even sure the government knows.” “Where do you live now?”

“Here. In Tunisia, in Camp Seven, outside Kebili. A team from Homeland Security came to our house in the middle of the night and woke me up and showed me your message. I wrote you back—”

“I saw it.”

“You did? Good, I didn’t know. I was so scared, but I knew if you said I had to do it, I had to do it. David didn’t want to leave at first. The kids were frightened. But we left that night. We were among the first settlers here. I’ve heard stories from the people who arrived after. Horrible stories. Heartbreaking stories.”

Madison’s eyes well up with tears. “You saved us, Emma. Me, Owen, Adeline, David—we might be dead without you. I love you so much, big sister.”



SEEING Madison is the best medicine I’ve received while being in the hospital. And I’m getting no shortage of medications.

The physical therapist comes three times a day. I exercise in the bed and then get up and walk. Those excursions around the unit give me a glimpse into what’s going on. The hospital was recently built, with prefabricated panels, but despite that, it’s worn and dirty in places. The other patients seem to be critically ill, most with physical trauma injuries. My guess is they were injured during their journey here to Tunisia or in the war to secure the area.

I’m almost constantly exhausted. But when James comes to visit I feel a surge of energy. We play cards and talk, he reads a book until I fall asleep, and I’m sad when I wake up in the middle of the night and he’s gone.

One morning, I wake to find him there, waiting for me, and I can tell something is wrong.

He stands and smiles awkwardly. “Listen, I need to take a trip. I won’t be gone long. Maybe a few days.”

“Oh?” I suddenly feel nervous about him leaving. I shouldn’t be. I don’t want to be. I try to make my voice casual. “Okay.”

“There’s someone I need to check on.” James turns his back to me. “Someone I made a promise to.”

I’m not sure what to say to that. Could there be someone else in his life?

I realize then that there’s so much I still don’t know about him. “Can I help?”

“No,” he says quickly. “It’s something I have to do alone.”

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