Chapter no 39

Winter World

AT MY ROUTINE appointment at the hospital, they run a battery of tests.

I sit in the consult room, waiting, Oscar by my side. He refused to stay home. Truth be told, I’m glad he’s here.

I’m nervous about the news the doctor is going to give me. A part of me wishes James was here. And a part of me is glad he’s not. He has seen me at my most vulnerable. He saved me when I was most vulnerable. And for better or worse, no matter what the reality of my health is… I want him to know it. Because if things between us grow into something more, I want him to know what he’s getting into. But I need time to process it for myself. Then I’ll tell him in my own words, when I’m ready.

The door swings open, and a redheaded British physician with a kind smile strides in. Her name is Natasha Richards, and she followed my treatment at the hospital. I like her. I trust her.

“Hello again, Emma.” “Hi.”

She pulls the rolling stool from the wall and sits down across from me, eyes on the same level as mine, hands folded in her lap.

“So, I reviewed your chart, and I must say, I’m really impressed with your progress.”

“Great. What do the tests show?”

She taps her tablet and pulls up the lab results. Her voice is less enthusiastic when she speaks.

“Well… your muscle mass looks better. Some of the markers we were following have drastically improved.”

I sense a but coming on. I decide to spare her the awkwardness of delivering the blow.

“And the bad news?” I ask.

“The bad news,” she says carefully, “is that your bone density hasn’t recovered as much as we were hoping.”

“I see.”

“Osteoporosis is extraordinarily hard to reverse. Once the bones lose density, it’s just not that easy to make them grow back.”

“What are you telling me?”

“My goal today is to manage your expectations, Emma. You’ve been through an extraordinary experience. One very, very few would have survived at all. And I know you and Oscar have worked very hard to rehabilitate your body.”

“What should my expectations be?”

“Frankly, I suspect you’ll need to use a walker for the rest of your life. Your energy levels may never really recover. The fatigue that you experience, the aches and pains, the cramps, I don’t think these things will go away. Perhaps in time they’ll improve marginally.”

The words are like hammer blows to my chest, like a judge’s sentence handed down to an innocent person, summarily, unfairly. I want to walk again and be free. I’ve worked so hard. This can’t be my reality for the rest of my life.

Dr. Richards seems to sense my disappointment. She leans in and grabs my hand. “It sounds worse than it is, Emma, I assure you. It may seem awful now, but you will adapt to the limits of your body. We all have to. But I know it must be tough for you. I reviewed your charts from before you left for the ISS. You were the picture of health. And I know you worked very hard to get there. I suspect you will work just as hard to regain your health. Just keep in mind that there is only so far that road can take you. You mustn’t push yourself too hard, and more importantly, you mustn’t be too hard on yourself when your performance falls short of your own expectations. Indeed, managing your own expectations is perhaps the most important job you have now.”



OSCAR and I walk home in silence. For some reason, my mind drifts to Harry, Grigory, Min, Lina, Charlotte, and Izumi. They’re the only reason I even got back to Earth. Their sacrifice is why I’m alive. I miss them. I can’t help thinking of them from time to time. I should be thankful I’m alive, thankful my situation isn’t worse than it is. I owe them. I wish I could repay them somehow. And I owe James. Probably more than I can ever repay.

We pass the barracks he took me to, where his brother and his family live. That gives me an idea. I need something good to happen. And I’m going to make it happen.



WHEN JAMES ARRIVES HOME, he is exhausted. More exhausted than I’ve ever seen him. More exhausted than he ever was on the Pax, during the mission, during the height of the stress and the endless hours.

“What happened?”

He plops down on the couch and shakes his head.

“Endless questions. Endless debate. Me standing up there, talking, trying to explain a lifetime of science and a situation that’s more complex than I can even grasp. It was agony.”

“I’m sure they’re just trying to understand so they can make the best decision they can for the people they care about.”

“Or for themselves.” “And for themselves.”

“I honestly don’t know how this is going to go.” “How do you think it will go?”

“I see two possibilities. First, they could authorize the mission, and we have a real chance of survival—with more than a few thousand humans left. Or, they could decide that it’s hopeless. And they could turn inward.”

“Which means?”

“As of right now, the Atlantic Union is the only one of the three superpowers that knows the full truth of what we’re facing. There are only so many resources and so much habitable land left. They could act first.”

“Act first to do what?”

“Finish the war that’s really just on pause. My guess is they would attack the Caspian Treaty first. Make peace with the Pac Alliance until they

consolidate the Caspian territories, then move on. That’s assuming the Pac Alliance doesn’t see the writing on the wall and declare war.”

I exhale. As usual, James has grasped the intricacies of the situation sooner than I have, probably sooner than everyone.

“What can we do about it?”

“Now? Nothing. We have to wait.” There may be nothing else we can do. But there’s still something need to do.



AFTER DINNER, I retreat to my room and don a thick coat, pull on tall boots, and slip into my leather gloves. I’m at the door, putting on my earflap hat and scarf when James catches me.

“Where are you going?”

“To visit Madison,” I lie, trying to sound nonchalant. He squints. “Now?”


“It’s freezing out there.” “It’s always freezing.” He studies me.

I shrug. “I just need some fresh air. I need to get out for a little while.” “What did the doctor say today?

“That I’m progressing well.” That much is actually true. Not technically a lie.

I can tell he’s conflicted, and I can see the moment he gives in.

“Okay.” He turns to the kitchen where Oscar is washing dishes in the sink. “Oscar, go with her.”

“Yes, sir,” Oscar says mildly. “No. I’m okay.”

“No, you’re not.” “James—”

“No. Emma, your bones are still brittle, and thin, and weak. If a gust of wind catches you and throws you over, you could break half a dozen bones and be out there in the dark, all night. It’s not worth the risk.”

I can’t argue with that. And I don’t.



OSCAR DOESNT ASK where we’re going. He also doesn’t seem to mind the cold. Or my lumbering pace.

The camp is pretty at night. The domed white habitats glow white in the dark expanse, like luminescent caterpillars buried in the sand. Along the walking path, LED streetlights glow, illuminating the snow flurries that seem to come and go every few hours, without warning, never enough to pile up, just a constant reminder that the Long Winter is still here, unending, waiting to engulf us.

At Fowler’s habitat, I brush the last snow flurries off my coat and knock. He answers quickly. He looks as haggard as James.

“Emma,” he says, surprised. “Come in, come in.”

Oscar follows me inside. He silently takes my coat and scarf and hangs them up while Fowler escorts me deeper into the habitat, which is only slightly larger than ours. A woman about his age rises from the dinner table where she’s sitting with two boys, both of whom look to be about college age.

“Lawrence, you didn’t tell me we were having company.” Fowler opens his mouth, but I save him.

“No, ma’am, this is sort of a surprise visit.”

“A good surprise,” Fowler says. “Emma, this is my wife, Marianne.” “Nice to meet you, Marianne.”

“Have you eaten?”

“We have. Actually, I’ve just come to ask Lawrence something. It will only take a moment.”

He looks at me curiously and holds a hand toward an office off the shared living area. It’s as crowded as James’s office but much more neat. Oscar joins us, and I can’t think of a reason to have him wait outside. I’ll just have to swear him to secrecy along with Fowler.

“What’s on your mind, Emma?” Fowler says as he sits in the chair beside me.

“James. His family. They’re here, living in one of the barracks.” “I know.”

“You do?”

“Their safety was James’s only request when he was recruited for the first contact mission. Similar to you, he asked that his only sibling be

transported to any safe haven that was established.”

“What do you know of their relationship? James and his brother.”

“Not much. James went to visit him before he left on the Pax. His brother wasn’t home. And I got the impression that his sister-in-law didn’t want to see him. She wouldn’t let him in the house.”


“I don’t know.”

“I’d like to ask you a favor.”

“Anything. If I can do it I will.”

“I know that James wants to have contact with his brother. I’m going to try to make that happen. I’ve noticed that movers toured the habitat next to us today.”

Fowler studies me a moment. “Yes, the general who was living there was reassigned after our presentation, just in case… a certain decision was made. Anyway, the habitat will come available soon.”

“Can you arrange for James’s brother and his family to move there?” Fowler thinks for a moment. “Yes. I believe so.”

“How long would it take?”

“To get an answer? Not long. I’ll know first thing in the morning.”



I’M HALFWAY FINISHED with my morning exercises when the messenger arrives. The note from Fowler is to the point, and I’m relieved when I read it.

Housing transfer approved.



ON THE WAY home from Fowler’s habitat, I made Oscar swear not to disclose what he heard. He agreed and asked no questions. I feel on some level that I’m betraying James by not telling him what I’m doing. But I also believe that I have to—for his own good. My rehabilitation here in Camp Seven has been physical. His great injury is the relationship with his brother. James saved my life. And brought me back to health—or probably

as close as I’m going to get. I have to do this for him. And I need it to be a secret.

There’s one last piece I need to put in place.

When I first logged on to the AtlanticNet in the hospital, I assumed it was simply the start of a growing web of information, that the government would expand the breadth of data available as they had time. I was wrong. It remains a very rudimentary tool used mostly to direct life in the camp. It contains work schedules, job responsibilities, and news the government deems important. And of course mandatory notices. Thankfully, it also includes a resident directory, which is essential for helping relocated families find each other.

There are four men with the last name Sinclair, and only one living in the barracks James showed me: Alex Sinclair. Wife, Abigail. Son, Jack. Daughter, Sarah. They live in Room 54.

I shower quickly and dress, and when I emerge into the living room, Oscar is sitting on the couch, reading a tablet.

“Oscar, I need to run another errand.” “Of course.”

“And I need you to keep it secret. Just like the meeting with Fowler.” “Very well.”



I’VE NEVER BEEN inside one of the barracks. It’s not what I expected.

The overall vibe is similar to a nursing home. There’s a long corridor down the middle, with people sitting outside their rooms, mostly those too young or too old to work. The children play, talk, or stare at tablets, watching the few videos freely available on AtlanticNet.

There has been talk of setting up schools, but I suspect it isn’t high on the priority list. Survival is the order of the day. Every able-bodied person is working on sustaining the camp and supporting NASA’s next mission. That’s what I would be doing if I were physically able.

The door to Room 54 is closed. It’s white, made of a synthetic, thick material that echoes like fiberglass when I knock.

The door cracks open, revealing a woman with blond hair and dark bruises under her eyes, as though she hasn’t had a good night of sleep in a

long time. I’m leaning on the cane, Oscar beside me, not sure exactly how to begin.

“Can I help you?” she asks, suspiciously. “Hi. My name is Emma Matthews.”

“I’m Abby Sinclair. What’s this about?” “I’m a friend of your brother-in-law.”

Her expression turns hard. “James?” “Yes.”

“What do you want?”

Okay, didn’t see that coming. “I’d like to talk.” “About James?”

The words are like a bear trap she’s tossed on the floor. She stares at me, expecting me to step forward. I decide to step around it.

“I’d like to talk about moving you and your family out of here and into a habitat.”

She squints, studying my face. Finally she lets the door swing open, silently inviting me in.

It’s clear to me why they call them rooms and not suites. The Sinclair family is living in what amounts to a twenty-by-thirty-foot space with two beds along the wall, a small table, one enclosed bathroom, and a sitting area. Their son, Jack, looks to be early elementary school age, maybe seven or eight. The daughter is a toddler, maybe two years old, maybe a little less. They’re both sitting at the table tapping away on tablets, the older child helping the younger with something. It’s adorable. And a sad sight that this is how these kids, and so many others, are spending their days now.

“Jack,” Abby calls out, “take your sister to the living room and continue your lessons. No games or video.”

The kids move to chairs ten feet away. That’s the living room, I guess.

Abby motions me to the table and we sit, Oscar standing placidly by the door, clearly out of place. Abby scowls at him, as if she knows him and hates him.

I try to make my tone friendly. “The AtlanticNet has school lessons?” Abby nods curtly. “There’s a shared curriculum.”

“Is it any good?” “It’s all we have.”

So much for small talk.

“We’re all getting by with what we have,” I say quietly. “Which is why family is more important than ever.”

“That sort of depends on how family treats you, doesn’t it?” This isn’t going well.

“It does,” I say. “And it’s important when you do something for family, for them to know about it. So they can know how much you care.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying the only reason you and your family are here is James.” She falls silent.

“Let me guess,” I say. “Some men from the government came to your house and told you that you were to be resettled into one of the last habitable zones on this planet. Saved from the war, taken to safety. Did you ask why?”

She shakes her head. “No. I didn’t.” “Do you want to know why?”

“That’s what you came here to tell me, isn’t it?”

“That’s only part of why I’m here. The rest, I need you to keep a secret

—for your own safety. What I’m going to share with you is classified government information. I’m not supposed to be telling you.”

That gets her attention. She glances over at the children. “Kids, put your headphones on, right now.”

I put my hands on the table and interlace my fingers. “James means a great deal to me. I don’t know what happened between you and him or his brother and him, or even why he was sent to prison. But I’ve gotten to know him very well, and I know he’s a very good person.”

Abby simply stares at me, making no reaction.

“This is what hasn’t been released to the public: the Long Winter is not a natural phenomenon. The Earth is getting colder because there are alien objects out there that are deliberately blocking the solar output that should be making its way to Earth. James was recruited for a mission to go investigate these objects. His expertise in robotics was essential to building drones that discovered exactly what they are and why they’re here. I was on that mission with him.” I pause. “Yesterday the mission director told me that in return for joining that mission, James only asked for one thing: that you all be taken to safety.”

Abby places her hands on the table and gazes at them as if the answer is somewhere in the wrinkles.

“If Alex had known that,” she says, shaking her head, “he might not have even come here. We’d probably be buried under ten feet of snow.”

“James can be equally stubborn.” I lean closer to her. “That’s all the more reason why it’s important for families to stick together right now. So the voices of reason can cut through the old grudges and hatred. We need each other. And I know he cares so much about you all.”

Abby takes a look around the cramped room where the four of them live. “You mentioned a new habitat?”

“Yes. Next to the one I share with James and Oscar.”

The mention of Oscar’s name draws a sneer, and she glances in his direction. Yes, she knows him.

“I’m sensing there’s a catch,” she says.

“There’s not. I know that James wants the best for you all. And I know that if he asked for the habitat for you, you might learn that he had done it

—and refuse to accept it. So I did it instead. It’s yours. No strings attached. You can move whenever you’re ready. The transfer has already been approved.”

“Thank you,” she says quietly.

“I ask only one thing, and it’s not a requirement. Only a request.” “Which is?”

“That you come and visit James. If Alex doesn’t want to come, then simply drop off the kids, or you and the kids can come by. That’s all.”

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