Chapter no 41

Winter World

PERHAPS THE STRANGEST thing about living here in Camp Seven, and Tunisia, is that there are no seasons. I realize that many parts of the world don’t have well-defined seasons, but this is something else altogether. Here almost every day feels like the last—overcast, with snow flurries. Each week it gets a little colder and the sun fades a little more, as if we’re living under a light being gradually turned off. People hunker down in their cramped barracks or cozy habitats and stay warm at night and march to work in the dim morning light, snow flurries surrounding them like fireflies swarming. The days start to feel the same: work, sleep, repeat. There’s a sense of urgency here, a shared feeling that we’re running out of time.

No one here is working harder than James Sinclair. In the past month, he has thrown himself into work on the new ship design. After some debate, James and the team have named the fleet Sparta. I’m told that the rejected names were Alamo and Verdun. Why they spend so much time on these names is a mystery to me, but it seems important to them. Of course I’d heard the name Sparta, but I never knew the history, which involves a small band of Greek warriors holding off a Persian invasion a long, long time ago. James thinks it will be symbolic for everyone. If the symbolism ups the mission success, I’m for it—we need all the help we can get.

The sites where the ships are being constructed are heavily guarded. I haven’t been to one, so I was very excited when James asked if I wanted a tour.

We ride in the electric, self-driving car to the site, James and I in the front, Oscar in the back, like a bizarre post-apocalyptic family outing.

The camp has changed so much so quickly. More and more people join the military every day. Their time is mostly dedicated to training and exercises. Maybe the government has intelligence that another war is imminent. Maybe they’re planning to start it. Or perhaps the AU leadership thinks we’ll be fighting the solar cells and their creator here on Earth soon. Seeing so many in uniform, marching every day, brings a sense of doom. The fading sunlight only accentuates it.

Up ahead, a tall chain-link fence surrounds the factory.

A security guard clears us and motions us forward to the main building. It’s absolutely massive. It reminds me of a giant warehouse, a thousand feet wide and seemingly with no end. Workers bustle about, focused on building the new ship’s modules.

I look up at the high ceiling above us. “The building provides cover?”

“Yeah. There are several decoys nearby. Basically, empty buildings, but identical. We even send people to each one every day to complete the charade, just in case they attack. And the shelter allows us to work for longer periods as the temperature continues to drop.”

He motions deeper into the building. “We’re working on something else.” He raises his eyebrows. “Top secret.”

“You have my attention.”

As we walk, James holds up a tablet. The image looks like an ant colony. There are endless passages snaking back and forth, corkscrewing deeper in the ground, ending at a large cavernous space.

“A bunker?”

“We’re calling it the Citadel,” James says. “This location is ideal for it.

The water table is deep here, and there’s a large aquifer close by.”

The scale of the bunker isn’t apparent from the diagram, but a glimmer of hope runs through me. Could this be the key to our survival if the Long Winter never ends?

“How large is it?”

He sees the hope in my expression. His tone turns cautious, the answer already apparent. “It can only house about two hundred people—short term. We’re planning to move the most vulnerable down here when the weather gets really bad. Sick. Young.” He pauses. “If the weather gets bad,” He adds. But we both know it will.

“It’ll have water?” “Yep. And energy.”

I knit my eyebrows, surprised.

“Geothermal. The big challenge has been getting our wells to a depth where we can harvest enough of the geothermal energy. But I think we’ve pretty much solved that. I say ‘we,’ but it’s actually a team of German and Scandinavian scientists. They’re brilliant.”

James is getting animated now.

“At a depth of two hundred meters it’s about 8 degrees Celsius. If you go down to five thousand meters, temperatures can get up to 170 degrees Celsius.”

“You can drill that far down?”

He raises his eyebrows. “Farther.” He taps on the tablet, bringing up a wider image of the bunker complex. In the zoomed-out schematic, the tunnels, bunker, and aquifer seem so close to the surface. Lines descend from some of the smaller open spaces directly toward the center of the earth, like fishing lines hanging from a boat.

“Our plan is to get to a depth of ten thousand meters. The temperature there will be 374 degrees Celsius. Water pressure will be 220 bars. The amount of energy we can generate is enormous. Easily enough to sustain the bunker.”

“Incredible,” I whisper.

We’re almost to the center of the building, and the opening to the tunnels looms ahead. It has a gentle downward slope, like a highway tunnel that runs under a river. As we walk into it, I feel as though we’re wandering into the mouth of some massive beast buried in the Earth.

James goes slowly to keep pace with me. I still can’t walk nearly as fast as I once could, or as fast as I want. The doctor was right: I’ll never regain my full strength, but I have adjusted to my new reality. That’s life.

There’s a rail system at the mouth of the tunnel, and we board a small electric car, James driving. The temperature drops as we descend, and the light from the warehouse fades away, leaving us in darkness except for the LED lights above.

Up ahead a cavern looms. As we approach I realize its scale: at least a hundred feet wide and two hundred feet deep, with a twenty foot ceiling above us.

James is grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Welcome to the Citadel, Commander Matthews.”

“It’s amazing.”

He stares ruefully at the cavern. “I worked on a plan to grow food down here. I had hoped to create a self-sustaining colony. But we don’t have the time or resources. Or the space. Every inch will be dedicated to housing.”

As I look around, I can’t help but wonder what life will be like down here. Never seeing the sun. Never walking on the surface, breathing fresh air. Away from nature. It’s sort of like the ISS—a whole new world, separated from the earth.

Back at the surface, we pass by the white modules of the ship.

“These will be part of Sparta One, the largest space ship humanity has ever built. She’ll be loaded to the hilt with ordinance: nukes, attack drones, rail guns, you name it.” He studies it a moment. “I just hope it will be enough to bring the crew and me home.”

I stop walking and stare at him. He actually thinks I’m going to stay here while he goes out there and risks his life on the mission? Never. I’m going with him. I know we’re going to fight about this. And it will be a fight to the end, because it’s not something I’m going to give up on. No matter what.



THAT NIGHT, Abby and her children come over. Jack and Sarah seem to be adapting well to life here in Camp Seven. Madison, David, and their two children come over too. And Oscar’s here, of course. It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to an extended family reunion.

We have dinner, and afterward James has a surprise for everyone: a robotic dog. It barks and does tricks and everyone is floored when it actually talks. The kids are obsessed with it. Half the fun is figuring out what it’s capable of doing and how it will react. There are no pets here in the camp. In the race to get here, they were deemed a luxury. Extra mouths to feed at a time when the government wasn’t sure they could even feed all the humans.

As the world has gotten colder, Abby has thawed. She and I have actually become friends. She’s gone from being standoffish to cordial to actually nice to James. I’m glad to see it.

Noticeably absent is James’s brother. I’ve begun to wonder if Alex will ever come around. James has never let on that it bothers him, but I know it

must. Alex is the only family he has left.

When everyone is gone, we straighten our humble abode. It’s sort of nice having a messy house for once. James, Oscar, and I generally keep it in order—with the exception of James’s office, which is easily remedied by closing the door. You can tell kids have been playing here. I almost don’t want to destroy the evidence.

When we’re done, James sits at the dining table and studies his tablet while I do the same. Oscar watches an educational video on the AtlanticNet, a series about mining. When he first began watching the series, I wasn’t sure why. Now I know: he’s studying up to help support the construction of the Citadel. Or perhaps in case there’s an accident down there. Educational videos seem to be all he watches. I haven’t been able to identify any hobbies or affinities he has outside of helping me with rehabilitation and assisting James with his research.

There are a couple of things I have to talk to James about. I’ve been putting them off, dreading them, but I can’t wait anymore. After seeing the ship today, and what he said, it needs to happen.

I motion to the living area, where my exercise equipment dominates almost half of the floor space.

“We could get a lot of this out of here.” He looks confused.

“It would open up more space for the kids to play. As cold as it is, they won’t be able to play outside much longer.”

“There’s the gym.”

“Which is constantly crowded.”

He glances at the exercise equipment again. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Your recovery is the most important thing going on in this house.”

I chew my lip for a second.

“What if I told you my recovery is finished?” I say. He sets down the tablet. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, that I’ve probably made all the progress I’m ever going to make. This is my life. From here on out. Walking with a cane, the fatigue, the brittle bones.”

“Doesn’t mean you should stop exercising.”

“True. But I can get all the exercise I need at the rec center at one of the barracks. I’m sure some folks would like to use this equipment. I appreciate

you bringing it here. When it was harder for me to walk, it was really nice to have it close by.”

He just nods.

I can feel my palms getting sweaty now, anticipating our next conversation.

“How do you feel about the fact that I’m not going to get much better?” He studies me curiously, as if he doesn’t understand the question.

“Well,” he says, “how do you feel about it?” I smile nervously. “I asked you first.”

“All right. I knew your rehabilitation would be an uphill battle, and that you would plateau somewhere. I know you led a very active life before. I knew it would be an adjustment. But frankly, life is an adjustment for all of us right now. Everything’s changing. We’re having to reassess our own capabilities and whether we can cope with this new reality. In some sense, we’re all going through what you’re going through. The whole human race is learning to walk again.”

“How does it change the way you feel about me?”

He gets that same confused look. A flicker of fear runs through me.

Have I completely misjudged what’s happening between us?

There’s a knock at the door, and James rises and rushes over to it, perhaps happy to be off the hook. I desperately want him to answer that question. I need an answer to it.

I hear Fowler’s voice. From his tone, I know it’s important. I walk over, making the best speed I can without my cane, but Fowler is already gone by the time I get there.

James’s face is a mix of excitement and apprehension.

“The meeting is set. Fowler and I are going to Caspia to make our presentation.”

“What presentation?”

“We’re going to ask for their help.” “You think they’ll agree?”

“I don’t know. I just hope they don’t declare war. And keep us as hostages.”

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