Chapter no 42

Winter World

THE RUNUP to the meeting with Caspia—that’s what we’re now calling the Caspian Treaty nations, as well as the land that now holds them—is a rushed, frantic affair. I had expected more time to prepare. Upon contacting the Caspians and requesting a meeting three weeks from now, they replied and said we had to come now or not at all. Maybe the Caspians think that forcing us to come on their schedule will throw us off balance.

One thing is certain: they’re extremely paranoid. They’re permitting only Fowler, me, and a team of six experts and scientists to make the trip— only the people we need to make our presentation. No military. No diplomats. No security detail. Their message is clear: they want the facts, and they’re very suspicious of us. The Atlantic Union’s ramped-up military activities don’t exactly inspire trust.

They probably also suspect we’re about to have the same conversation with the Pac Alliance, and they want to get the information first.

We leave at night and fly east in a convoy of two helicopters. They’re the stealth variety, and I’m amazed at how quiet they are.

I was confident in my abilities on the Pax, directing our strategy in space. I’m out of my element here. Political intrigue is just not something I understand. And I know very little about the people we’re going to meet.

Caspia, like the Atlantic Union, comprises dozens of nations. In the AU, there are perhaps half a dozen with any real power (their leaders sit on the AU’s Executive Council). In Caspia, two nations hold a plurality of the power: Russia and India. But that’s about all I know about their internal structure. Perhaps that’s because the Atlantic Union doesn’t know much

more; or perhaps it’s because they didn’t think that information was pertinent to share with me.

The rest of what I know about Caspia is strictly geographic. The state lies in what used to be southeastern Iran. The capital, Caspiagrad, is located in the Lut Desert. It’s one of the hottest, driest deserts in the world. The surface temperature has been measured at 159 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, that was before the Long Winter. The desert lies in a basin, with mountains around it, like a bowl carved into the Earth.

Once we enter the Lut, the ground below is only rock, sand, and salt. The dunes are beautiful. They seem endless, like waves of sand, a brown sea reaching to the horizon. Here and there, punctuating the ripples, a few dunes rise high in the sky, almost a thousand feet.

Some of the geography reminds me of the American Southwest, and some of what I see, I don’t understand. I point to a scattering of what looks like the hulls of shipwrecks, and I ask Fowler over the radio, “What are those?”


“What did you call me?”

He laughs. “The wind carves them out of bedrock over very long periods of time.”

“How do you know that?” “Lifetime of geekhood.”

I smile. I like Fowler more and more. I really hope the Caspians don’t kill us.

The Persian name for the Lut region translates to “Emptiness Plain,” but it’s anything but empty now. A city glitters ahead.

Where the Atlantic Union’s Camp Seven looks like a nomadic settlement, Caspiagrad looks as if it’s here to stay. Skyscrapers rise out of the desert, with high walls ringing them. Helicopters circle in the air, a patrol likely launched as a show of strength for our arrival; they would’ve picked us up on radar a long time ago, and they probably have hidden base stations throughout this expansive desert.

But there’s no formal welcome ceremony, only a handful of mid-level diplomats who introduce themselves before escorting us into a building near the helo pad. Security checks us out thoroughly, then remands us to the diplomats, who offer us water or coffee and ask if we need to use the restroom (we do).

Finally, they lead us into an auditorium. The room is packed. There are far more people than in the gymnasium where Fowler and I gave our presentation to the Atlantic Union.

There are no introductions, no preamble. We are simply instructed to “Say what you came here to say.”

When we finish, the questions are much the same as those we received from the Atlantic Union. The Caspians have brought in experts, and those experts question us at length. Fowler knows some of them. They’re his counterparts from Roscosmos and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). That helps our cause. We share all our information on tablets— none of it could be transmitted ahead of time—and they’re reviewing it on the fly.

Through a translator, a Russian scientist asks the question I would ask in his position. “Dr. Sinclair, what do you think is out there? On the mission you’re proposing, what do you expect to find?”

“Our working theory,” I say carefully, “is that there’s an entity or device here in our solar system that is creating the solar cells.”


“From the locations of the cells we’ve found and their vector, there really is only one place that it could be. The asteroid belt.”

“Because it would need raw materials to build the cells.”

“That’s our thinking. The asteroid belt is the most easily accessible source of raw materials in the system. It’s in a good location, just beyond Mars. The harvester, as we have named this potential device, could conceivably come to our solar system, attach to asteroids, manufacture the solar cells it needs, and dispatch them to the Sun to form a solar array that would harvest the Sun’s output.”

The room falls silent.

The Russian president is the first to speak—in fluent English.

“As I understand it, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of objects in the asteroid belt. Even if you know the general location of this harvester, will it not be a ‘needle in a haystack,’ as you Americans say?”

“That’s a fair question. And one of the risks to the mission. But we have enough data to develop a working profile of our enemy’s behavioral patterns.

“We believe the solar cells are actually very simple machines. The way they reacted to us was no more complex than what you might see from a

one-purpose drone. We’re assuming that they have limited defensive and communication capabilities. They seem to be tailor-made to travel to the Sun and capture energy. As such, it would make sense for the harvester to prioritize its actions based on economy of energy. Harvesting energy and conserving energy—those are likely its only mission parameters. And, of course, it seems to be monitoring us—its principal enemy or impediment to its mission—and taking action accordingly. We think those actions include destroying the ISS and trying to disrupt the launch of the Pax and Fornax.

“At any rate, that hypothesis allows us to make an assumption about where the harvester might be. Over half of the mass in the asteroid belt is contained in four asteroids and dwarf planets: Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea. The largest, by a wide margin, is Ceres. It contains almost one third of all the mass in the asteroid belt. And it’s directly on the path from which the solar cells are originating. We think the harvester is on Ceres.”

“Impossible,” a Russian scientist mutters. He’s a pudgy man with bushy eyebrows and thick glasses. “We can see Ceres with ground telescopes. And it rotates completely every nine hours. There is nothing there, Doctor Sinclair.”

“Nothing we can see. Our working assumption is that any entity sufficiently advanced to shroud our sun could easily camouflage itself on Ceres. It’s there. We’re betting on it.”



AFTER THE PRESENTATION, they make us wait in a conference room. After the first hour, I start to wonder if we have indeed been taken hostage. It would be quite a play.

To Fowler, I say, “How easy was it to make this meeting happen?” “Not easy. They rejected the initial approach.”

“How did you pull it off?” “I had some help.”

He opens his laptop and starts a video.

“This was in a hidden, encrypted file on the Pax escape capsule— something your crew sent home to help your efforts,” Fowler says.

The video was definitely recorded on the Pax. I recognize the padded walls of the modules. I also know the voice muttering in the background:

Grigory. He floats into view and stares directly at the camera like he can see right through it and into me. He speaks in Russian, but there are subtitles at the bottom.

To my countrymen and my colleagues at Roscosmos, our mission aboard the Pax has been a success. But we are entering a dangerous phase of the mission from which I likely will not return.

I, along with the members of this crew, have elected to send James Sinclair home. The reason is very simple: he is a genius. If anyone can solve what’s going on out here and stop it, he can. I’m storing this message using a NASA encryption method that the crew of the Pax has access to. The file will unlock after he arrives home. I have one request—that you give him any assistance he requires. He is trustworthy, and I have placed the lives of my family and everyone I know in his hands.

I’m once again thankful for my crewmates. Even millions of miles away, they’ve managed to be there when I needed them.



MY GENERAL EXPECTATION was to get a yes or no answer to the mission we’ve proposed. Instead, one of the diplomats returns to the conference room and tells us we’re free to leave.

When we touch down in the Atlantic Union, I don’t even get a chance to shower or see Emma and Oscar, or to sleep in my own bed. A military detachment escorts me directly from the helicopter to a plane. The Pac Alliance wants to meet immediately. No doubt our meeting with Caspia influenced that decision; they don’t want to be in the dark.

I wish we had a yes from the Caspians. I sense that humanity’s future will be decided soon. These three nations either band together and go out there and fight together—or they descend into a global civil war over what’s left of this withering planet.



MANAGE to get to sleep on the flight to Australia. When I wake, I find Fowler hunched over his laptop.

I rub my face, trying to wipe away the weariness.

“What’re you working on?”

He yawns. “Our presentation. Looking for anything we can improve from our last outing.”

I take the laptop from him.

“Here, let me take over. Get some sleep.”



THE CASPIANS BROUGHT us in the front door—flew us directly to their capital, which was glittering in all its glory, and escorted us to their seat of power. They wanted us to see their shining city in the desert, probably to intimidate us with their technological prowess.

But whatever the Pac Alliance has built, they want to hide it from us. They direct us to land on a Chinese aircraft carrier off the western coast of Australia. On the deck, they herd us into three of their own helicopters, the windows blacked out.

When we land a second time, we’re forced to remain in our seats for thirty minutes. And when they finally open the door, there’s a massive canopy above us, formed into a tunnel that leads to the outer doors of a building.

They really don’t want us to know where we are.

An Asian man in a tailored suit is waiting inside the building, a wry smile on his face.

“Dr. Sinclair, I’m Soro Nakamura. We spoke during your approach to Earth.”

“Yes. I remember. Nice to meet you in person.”

He squints. “Let us hope, for your sake, that this meeting is filled with less deception.”



THE PAC ALLIANCE is a tough audience. Even tougher than the Caspians. They ask more questions, are more suspicious, and demand data to support every one of our claims. There’s a lot of supposition in what we’re presenting. We simply don’t have the answers. The meeting is long. Seven hours in total. And grueling.

When it finally breaks, they lead us through an underground tunnel to what passes for a hotel. It’s more like a dormitory with shared bathrooms and small bedrooms. But it’s clean and warm.

“When will we be allowed to go home?” Fowler asks Nakamura. He flashes a smile. “When it’s appropriate.”



FOR THREE DAYS, the Pac Alliance confines us. I’m worried. So is Fowler, I can tell—though we don’t talk about it. We know we’re probably being watched, that every word we say is being recorded and analyzed and played back for the people making this decision. So we play our part. We talk about the mission and our presentation and the importance of it.

I don’t say what I’m thinking: Has a war already started out there? Did we fail?

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