Chapter no 37

Winter World

I’M GETTING STRONGER. Slowly. Every day it’s a little easier to breathe, a little easier to stand. And I can walk for longer. They say it will take years for me to regain my full strength. I may have to use a walker for the rest of my life.

It’s an adjustment. It’s humbling. But I feel so lucky to be alive and to be here and to have my family and James so close.

Every day, I ask him what he’s working on. He’s coy. I know he’s meeting with Fowler and that they’re planning a new mission. I want to be on it desperately, but my health prevents that.

“Has there been any communication from the Midway fleet?” I ask. “Nothing yet.”

Two of the larger drones in the fleet have small rail launchers capable of sending mini comm bricks directly to Earth. So why have we received no communications? Have the drones truly found nothing? Or were they destroyed as well?

“Any word from the Pax?” I dread the answer. “No,” he says softly.

“What’s the plan?”

“We’re not sure. Fowler and I have talked about launching more probes. But we’re pretty short on resources, and I think we need to wait until we know more.”

“Such as a target.”

“A target would be nice. Midway might give us that.” “What’s the alternate plan?”

“As of right now, we don’t have one.”



DAYS TURN TO WEEKS. My progress plateaus. The doctors and physical therapists continue encouraging me, but recovering muscle mass is hard, and recovering bone density is even harder.

I try not to think about the crew of the Pax, but it’s impossible. James and I talk about them, speculate about what they’re doing right now—if they’re alive. It seems like with each passing week, we both think about them less and talk about them less. They’re like a ship sailing into the sunset, growing farther away and out of sight, not suddenly, or noticeably, but gradually, the transition subtle and easy to miss until its gone.

For the most part, I’m going stir-crazy in this hospital room. There isn’t exactly TV anymore, and I’ve watched everything stored on the AtlanticNet (the government-controlled local internet, which is highly censored and generally limited).

I need to get out.

I need to work.

I need to feel like I’m contributing again.

I’ve had this conversation with James. Several times now. It always goes the same way: he says my recovery is the most important thing to him and that the best way to help him is to get better. As if I can press the “get better button” all day and everything will be fine. What if getting better requires that I work? I’ve asked. That always prompts a circular argument that ends in a standoff. Who knew that two people caring about each other could be so problematic?

James usually works with Fowler in the morning and comes to visit me for lunch. Today there’s someone with him. A young man in his early twenties with milky white skin and dazzling blue eyes. He reminds me a lot of James, even in his mannerisms—the placid expression, the carefully measured words. And he has the same kindness in his eyes.

He nods slowly when I make eye contact with him. “Emma,” says James, “this is Oscar.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

Ma’am. Do I look that old? Maybe it’s because I’m laid up in this hospital bed like an old maid, weak and feeble. I have got to get out of here.

Oscar looks anything but weak and feeble. He’s young and strong and quietly intense. There’s a serenity about him that’s strange and somehow magnetic.

“He’s the person I mentioned a few weeks ago,” James says. “The person I had to leave to get.”

“Oh. Right.”

And I wonder: What is Oscar to James? His son? That’s my first instinct. It implies James has a wife. Or had a wife. Or at a very minimum, a lover once. And maybe still. It would have been when he was very young, if I’ve guessed Oscar’s age correctly. I can’t resist the mystery.

“Is he your…”

I just let the sentence hang there, unfinished. It freezes both James and Oscar like the Long Winter gripping our planet.

“He’s my…” James begins, but falls silent.

“Assistant,” Oscar adds cheerfully. His voice is mild, almost whimsical.

It matches his boyish face, and even seems a little younger than he looks. “Yes,” James says slowly. “Oscar helps with my research.”

“Well, as someone who has also been a research assistant to James, let me just say, you have your work cut out for you—keeping up with him.”

Oscar merely turns his gaze to James, who says, “You’re my partner, Emma. Not my assistant.”

“Okay, partner, I’m ready to get out of here.” “We’ve been over this.”

“A great reason to stop talking about it.” I swing my legs over the side of the bed, grip the walking cane, and stand, legs trembling. “I’m leaving. I don’t need your permission. I could, however, use your help.”

He smiles and shakes his head ruefully. “You are a real piece of work, you know that?”

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s a begrudging, ‘Oh, all right.’” “I’ll take it.”



ITslow going outside the hospital. Every step is an act of will. Raising and planting my legs is like slogging through a mud pit. That’s what Earth

gravity feels like to me now: sticky and weighty and inescapable.

The ground is sandy with scattered snow flurries. It’s a mix of brown and white that I can’t help but think is beautiful. Through my hospital window, I’ve watched it snow almost every day, but the sun melts it away. I wonder when it will start sticking, when ice will take hold here and try to bury us.

My dream has always been to establish a new colony on a new world. Camp Seven is a lot like that. This world, this Earth, is almost alien, with all-new characteristics. But I’m too sick to participate. That pains me. I desperately want to find a way to contribute. It’s in my nature, and it makes me happy.

It’s chilly out, but it’s not Siberia frigid, more like New York City in winter. A cold wind cuts through me, and James pulls me close, his arm around my parka as I balance on the walking cane.

The roads aren’t paved, just hard-packed sand. Most of the buildings are domes of white material with black solar cells on top, almost like a colony of emperor penguins lying in the desert, sunning themselves as the snow flurries fall and blow around them. In the center of the camp there’s a cluster of more permanent buildings made from modular, hard plastic walls: the hospital, the CENTCOM military headquarters, the government administration building, and a large structure named Olympus that houses NASA, NOAA, and what’s left of several scientific organizations.

There are also massive factories dotting the perimeter of the camp and even larger warehouses and greenhouses farther out. The warehouses are full of food which will last for a while and the greenhouses will pick up some of the slack when those stores run out. But they won’t produce enough to feed the entire camp. If solar output doesn’t normalize soon, our fate will be to slowly starve.

Most of the factories process the crops from the greenhouses and churn out the items the camp needs. One of the factories is focused on building the next fleet of ships that will launch to space. That mission hasn’t been planned yet, but the construction on the ships has already begun. There’s a sense here of time running out, of wanting to be prepared when—or if—we go back out there.

Military vehicles zip by us, scattering snow by the side of the road, along with electric cars no bigger than golf carts. It’s quaint in a strange kind of way, like a post-apocalyptic frontier town.

James’s habitat is two blocks from the hospital. He asks if he can go get an electric car to ferry me there, but I decline. I want to walk—to prove to him that I can, but more than that, to feel the sun on my face. It’s a dull, hazy version of the star I remember, but it’s the only sun we have, and it’s what we’re fighting for.

I have to stop to catch my breath twice, and another time to let the throbbing in my hips subside. I lean on the cane and wait for it to pass. A part of me thinks this embarrasses James, but I know him better than that. He walks beside me, his hand gripping my bicep, Oscar on the other side ready to grab me if my legs fail.

I’m panting by the time I reach the white dome. There’s a small anteroom that keeps the heat in and blasts us with warm air as we enter.

The interior of the dome surprises me. It’s fresh and new and surprisingly well decorated, like a high-end condo. There are even imitation hardwood floors that click like plastic as I walk across them. The space is open concept, with a well-sized living area and an adjoining kitchen with a dining table in the middle and no island. Radiant heaters glow on three walls, and I can feel the warmth as I pass by one. The living area is dotted with thick area rugs and furnished with a couch and two club chairs. There are no windows but several large, thin video screens display the view outside. They’re high resolution, the images good enough to trick anyone just glancing at them.

There are five open doorways. Three lead to bedrooms, one to a full bathroom, and another to what looks like a small office nook that’s covered in papers.

I like it. Very much. It instantly feels like home, a place where I could be happy. A place where James and I could be happy.

James leads me over to the couch, and I plop down, happy to get the weight off my weary bones.

“Fowler arranged the accommodations. Made me take a three-bedroom.”

“It’s perfect. I love it.” “There’s more.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Your sister and her family live in one of the barracks close by. I’ve spoken with Fowler. He can get them moved to a habitat similar to this one. You could live with them if you want.”

He’s pushing me out. He doesn’t want me here. Why? Because I’d get in the way? I’m not exactly self-sufficient right now. I would definitely slow him down. But I want to be here. I want to help him.

“If that’s what you want,” I say quietly.

He hesitates. “I sort of thought… it’s what you would want.” “It’s not.”

“What do you want?”

I swallow hard. “I want to stay here. I want to help you. I want to finish what we started out there on the Pax.”



MY BEDROOM HAS an en suite bathroom, and I’m thankful for that. For the privacy. I missed that in the hospital.

The next morning, I’m washing my face when I hear the habitat’s outer door open. A gust of cold air flows in and keeps coming. I hear the sounds of banging like the house is being turned upside down. I walk out of my bedroom, towel in hand, and gawk.

The dining table and living room furniture have been pushed to the walls, and most of the floor space is now covered with exercise equipment. James has turned this place into a physical therapy facility.

For one.

He’s beaming at me, holding his hand out toward the equipment like a car salesman on a showroom floor motioning to the latest model.

“James, we don’t have room for all this.”

“Sure we do,” he says cheerfully as he plugs in a recumbent bike.

I know when it’s no use arguing with him. This is one of those occasions.

When he leaves for the day to meet up with Fowler, Oscar stays, which surprises me.

“You’re not helping with the mission planning?” I ask him.

“I have been. James wanted me to stay and help you. Just in case you need anything.”

“I really am fine on my own.”

“Of that I have no doubt. However, I’ve been studying various physical therapy techniques and am quite ready to help. Shall we begin?”



OSCAR PROVES to be quite adept at physical therapy. He’s significantly stronger than I would have suspected from his small frame. He’s encouraging when he needs to be, stern at times, which surprises me, and always there when I need help. He seems to never tire, or perhaps it’s simply because I’m always so winded. I don’t know what normal is anymore.

“What’s next?” I ask.

“Rowing. Then a break.” He holds his hand out, ushering me toward the rowing equipment. “You’re doing quite well, ma’am.”

“Oscar, you don’t have to call me ma’am.”

“It’s no trouble. Courtesy is costless and benefits all involved.” Ma’am it is.

Between rowing sessions, while I pant, desperately trying to catch my breath, I manage to ask, “How long have you known James?”

Oscar gets a faraway look in his eyes. “My whole life.”

That lends evidence to my theory that Oscar is his son. I have to know. “Is he your father?”

Oscar is silent for a long time. I’m about to ask another question when he finally responds.

“If I had to name anyone as my father, it would be him.”

What does that mean?

I meant what I told James on the way back to Earth: I intended to look up what happened to him. But the AtlanticNet has no details on him. And I’m not exactly spry enough to go bouncing around the camp asking anyone who might know. Oscar will have to do.

After the rowing session, I sit at the dining table and wipe the sweat from my face with a towel. Oscar is standing behind me, making a snack in the kitchen.


“Yes, ma’am?”

“When James got in trouble, were you there?” “I was.”

“Will you tell me what happened?” “You don’t know?”


“I believe James would want to tell you himself, ma’am.” “What can you tell me? Anything would be helpful.”

Oscar doesn’t respond. He simply motions to the stopwatch he’s holding, which indicates that it’s time for another session.

Once again, I row, my anger flowing into the strokes. Oscar’s just being a good friend. He’s probably doing the right thing. But I still feel shut out, the two of them with this secret they won’t let me in on.

When the interval is done, I pant, and as soon as I can I say, “Why did he get in trouble?

“The real reason?” “Yes.”

“He tried to save someone he loved.” “That’s not a crime.”

“I agree.”

“Then what happened?”

“The actions he took were extreme. They threatened to take power from the most powerful people in the world. He underestimated their reaction.”



FOR TWO WEEKS, our routine is the same: breakfast, James leaves to work with Fowler, Oscar and I do physical therapy, lunch together, I nap, then more physical therapy, then dinner together.

Tonight is a welcome change. The outer door opens and Madison, David, Owen, and Adeline rush in out of the cold, carrying preheated rations. Our own rations lie on our dining table, already steaming. It’s a humble assemblage of food, but here, now, it’s a feast. And we devour it like one. I haven’t seen my sister or her family since the hospital. I’m a bit stronger now, and I feel this strange sense of pride in showing that off. Despite my protests, my physical therapy sessions with Oscar have helped.

Our dinner conversation isn’t as free-flowing as I would like. I want to tell Madison and David everything, but the first contact mission and what happened aboard the Pax is still classified. James and I only say that the mission was a success and that there’s more work to do.

Madison, naturally, is protective and curious about James. She grills him. I admit, I’m listening closely. I have questions of my own, and a part

of me hopes she’ll make him answer some of them. “Where are you from, James?”

“I grew up near Asheville, North Carolina. Went to school at Stanford.”

Madison finishes another bite of mashed potatoes. “And what about you, Oscar?”

“The same,” he says softly.

“How did you two meet?” Madison asks, the question undirected, hanging between the two of them like a lunch bill placed on the table equidistant between two diners.

“Through my work,” James says quickly. “How do you all like the camp?”

He’s changing the subject. It buys them some time. David has some complaints about the accommodations, but he and Madison seem genuinely happy. And that makes me happy.

After dessert, we serve coffee. Only Madison partakes. It seems to give her more energy for her interrogation of James.

“Have you reconnected with your family, James?” “No. But I know they’re okay.”

In the escape module, he mentioned that he had a brother he didn’t talk to. This is the first time I’ve heard him talk about him since we returned.

“That’s good news.” Madison pauses, eying me over the coffee. “Are they here, at Camp Seven?”


“Your mother and father?”

I catch a glance from Oscar to James. What does that mean?

James begins picking up the plastic dessert plates from around the table. “Both of my parents have passed.”

“Brothers and sisters?” Madison asks.

I can tell James doesn’t want to talk about it. I kick her under the table. She tilts her head, silently asking, What?

“Only one brother,” James says, his back to us, running water over the dishes before placing them in the washer.

Thankfully, Madison lets it go at that.

When they’re gone, I stick my head in James’s office nook. It’s a pigsty. Drone schematics, maps of the solar system, the asteroid belt in particular, and on the wall is a handwritten note with six names: Harry, Grigory, Min,

Lina, Izumi, and Charlotte. Those we left behind. They’re why he’s working himself to the bone. For them. And for those still here.

“I’m sorry about Madison. She can be a bulldog.”

He doesn’t look up. “She’s just protecting you. As she should be.” “Can I help?”

“Not right now. Thank you though. Soon.” That’s something to look forward to.



THE NEXT MORNING, James is waiting for me in the living room. Or my rehab room. It’s both, really.

“Fancy a walk?” he asks. “Sure.”

That’s new. But a welcome change. Maybe he thinks the fresh air will do me good.

Outside our habitat, I lean on the cane and hold his bicep in my other hand. It’s morning and the camp is coming to life. The sun shines dimly in the sky, and a smattering of snow flurries blows around us like ash out of an extinguished fire.

“You’re getting stronger,” he says. “Not fast enough for my liking.”

“Nothing ever seems to go fast enough these days.”

He stops near Barracks 12A and stands and stares. The building’s shape reminds me of a long greenhouse with an arched roof—like a long, narrow white barrel sunken into the sand. Only its top is black, due to the solar cells. People are pouring out on their way to work. Breakfast is ending and the day is starting.

This isn’t Madison’s building. Or Fowler’s. He has a habitat where his wife and their adult children and their families live.

“Are you looking for somebody?” “Yeah.”

He keeps staring at the barracks, at the people venturing out. Finally he says, “There—in the green parka. Blue knit cap.”

The man is roughly as tall as James and resembles him vaguely. “Your brother?”


After a pause, James continues. “I come here every morning. To see him.”


“Because it’s as close as I’ll probably ever get.” “I don’t understand.”

“He hates me.” “Why?”

“Because of something I did.”

I have learned James’s boundaries. There are few of them, but the ones he has tower like million-foot walls. They only come down when he takes them down. This is one of those walls.

And I wonder: why has he shown me this? It’s something that bothers him. Something that he wants to talk about but doesn’t want to do anything about.

I realize then that I’m not the only one who’s trying to rehabilitate themselves here at Camp Seven. He has his own injuries. They are unseen, but just as limiting as mine.

I squeeze his arm tighter.



WEEK LATER, I’m pedaling the recumbent bike when the door flies open. James is home early from work. I stop, instantly aware that something has happened.

“We got a signal,” he says, panting.

“Signal? From whom? Where? The Pax?”

“Midway. The fleet found more artifacts. A lot more.”

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