Chapter no 47

Winter World

FOR A WHILE NOW, it has felt like my world is shrinking. I live and work in this habitat, spending every spare minute on the mission. I feel guilty when I’m not working. Personal time feels like an indulgence or worse: a betrayal to the people who are counting on me.

We haven’t had one of our Sunday dinners with family and friends for months. Everyone is consumed with one thing: the mission. Survival.

It’s affecting James too. He’s stressed, worn out all the time. He eats, sleeps, and works. He only takes about an hour off each week, and he spends that hour with his brother, on Saturdays, after work, playing cards or talking. I still haven’t learned what happened between them, but I know James treasures his time with his brother. We all sense that time is now a precious commodity, one that’s quickly running out.

Time isn’t the only thing slipping through our fingers. The last regions of habitable land will be gone soon. Our world is disappearing before our eyes, the ice eating away at it each day. It’s like we’re on an island, watching the sea rise, the ground beneath our feet disappearing, knowing we’ll drown if we aren’t rescued.

Before the Long Winter, this region of Tunisia was a desert. It’s now a desert once again, of a different kind: a barren land of ice and snow as far as the eye can see, rolling snowdrifts like dunes, wind flowing over them, scattering the snow like sand.

Every morning I walk outside at first light and hope that I’ll see the sun blazing bright on the horizon, that the solar array has moved on, or malfunctioned, or that fate has somehow spared us.

What greets me is a dim glow through the clouds, seen in glimpses through the falling snow, a lighthouse we’re drifting away from, into dark and uncertain waters. Perhaps never to return. That is the feeling here in Camp Seven. It’s not just the lack of sun. Or the lack of Vitamin D or the fact that the kids can’t play outside or that we can’t walk to work. It’s a shared sense that the sun is setting on our time on Earth.

A snow plow rumbles by, its blade channeling fresh snow into white piles that settle in mounds like an icy hedge along the road. The bucket trucks are already out, parked in the middle of clusters of habitats, scissor arms extending over the domes, workers in parkas, heavy caps, and goggles holding the snow blowers over the solar cells, sending waves of white powder off, freeing the cells to soak up the scraps of sun that no longer fill the habitats’ batteries. Every week there’s less energy to heat the habitats and charge our tablets and cook with.

Last night, James added another blanket to our bed, and we snuggled close together, the way we do every night, but no matter how close we get or how many blankets we add, I still feel the cold on my face, pressing into me, aching in my lungs as I breathe. I’ve learned to sleep when I’m cold. I’ve adapted. But I wonder how much more we can adapt. It’s not just the cold, it’s what the cold is taking from us. Our freedom. Our food supply. Our future.

It’s easy to think it’s the government taking these things from us–that’s what we see: the curfews that keep us inside after dark and the rationing that shrinks the food on our table every week. Some do blame the government. There’s talk of riots, of an uprising against the government, but I think deep down people know that won’t change anything. It won’t make more food, or more sunlight, and without the government, we might just lose our last chance of surviving. If we haven’t already.

I’ve wondered: even if we are successful–if we can vanquish the solar array strangling our sun–will it matter? What’s under the ice that covers the Earth? The plants and animals are probably long dead. If the sun this world has always known returned, could it reignite life here? Or have we already burned down too far? Every time my mind brushes across the thought, I dismiss it. In those moments, I realize the true nature of hope. Hope doesn’t have to be rational. Hope is an end unto itself, a renewable source of energy inside of each of us, a fragile thing that can be damaged with our darkest

thoughts, dimmed almost to darkness, but never completely extinguished. And like our sun, when it returns, it brings life and energy to us.



I’VE PUT off telling Madison that I’m going on the mission. I’ve waited as long as I can, but I can’t wait any more. The launch is in a few days.

Most of the families have moved to the barracks now. There’s more heating capacity per square foot there, plus the combined body heat of everyone around you. Residents also get a slight bump in rations–an incentive for folks to abandon the free-standing domed habitats, which now funnel their paltry energy collections to the barracks. James, Oscar, and I would have moved here if not for the drone lab in our third bedroom.

The first time I entered one of these buildings to visit Abby, I was reminded of a rest home. The barracks now feel like a prison. The doors to the rooms stand open, allowing a modicum of fresh air to circulate. The residents inside stare out with hollow, hopeless eyes. They play chess and checkers as I pass by, their tablets lying in piles, dead with no chance of resurrection (the charging ports are off and being caught with a charged tablet outside of work carries a ration cut).

Despite the density of people, it’s quiet. The smell I can’t quite place. It’s a bit musky, like old air, confined and recycled and used up. Trapped, like the people here, with nowhere to go except outside, into a cold world where nothing can survive anymore.

Some of the adults are filing out, trudging down the central corridor in thick coats, ready to work another day in semi-darkness. They march like prisoners, people working to survive, knowing only a full day’s work earns a full day’s rations.

The door to Madison’s room stands open. I stop just shy of it and peer in. Adeline is reading a book. Owen is lining up a string of miniature soldiers, preparing for battle. They’re rail thin, two bean poles lying on the couch, looking tired.

I inch closer and spot Madison standing at the table, scrubbing clothes across a washboard and dunking them in the basin. I was alarmed at the sight of my niece and nephew. But my heart breaks when I see Madison. The skin is tight on her face, her jaw line sharp, eyes sunken unnaturally,

hair stringy, arms like two broomsticks pushing the clothes across the ridges of the washboard.

She sees me before I can wipe the sadness from my face. We lock eyes for a long moment, and I think she’s going to break and cry, but she forces a smile as she drops the thermal underwear into the basin with a plop and comes around the table, arms held out like limbs of a dying tree reaching out to me. I wrap my arms around her and my fingers touch her back, feeling the ribs protruding like the ridges on the washbasin on the table. She feels fragile in my arms, a precious thing on the verge of breaking.

She releases me and calls to Owen and Adeline and they both wave and come over and hug me. I feel more meat on their bones, and I’m thankful for that. I don’t think I could bear seeing them in the same state Madison’s in.

She closes the door and motions to the couch, shooing the kids over to the bed they share.

“I didn’t know you were coming.”

“Just thought I’d stop by before work.”

She nods absently, a far off look in her eyes, like someone who has been up for two days straight. She motions to the small kitchenette. “Do you want some…”

I figure she was going to say coffee, but there is none anymore–except in the government buildings, where it’s guarded and rationed like the precious fuel that it is. Or maybe she was going to say, “something to eat.” But she clearly doesn’t have any of that either–and isn’t getting enough. I pretend as if she had completed the offer.

“No, I’m fine. Thanks.”

Her gaze drifts to the floor.

“Madison, are you getting your rations?”

“We are. But they’re not enough.” She glances around, as if she had heard something. “They’re based on age, you know?” She pauses. “Why would they do that?”


“It should be height, don’t you think?” “Yes. That makes sense.”

She nods quickly. “I mean you could have two ten-year-olds–both the same age–and one is a foot taller than the other. Obviously the taller child

needs more calories. It’s obvious. Isn’t it?” She stares at me, waiting for confirmation.


“We had a meeting about it.” She checks the door, seeming to have forgotten that it was closed. “The AU says they can’t go around and measure everyone’s height. They know their age. They think we’d lie about how tall our children are. And they’re saying—as if we don’t know–that kids grow.” She throws her hands up. “Of course they do. Of course. But no one is growing right now. That’s for sure. But some are–” She lowers her voice and says more carefully, “some need more food than others.”

“I’ll talk to James.”

“No,” she says quickly. “That could cause problems… Preferential treatment… The gossip mill around here. It’s all anyone does.”

A long moment passes, Madison staring at the floor again, the kids playing quietly, the shuffle of footsteps beyond the door.

“I just came to tell you that I’m going on the mission. With James.”

She looks at me as if she’s just realized I was here. For a split second, I see a flash of fire return to her eyes, the sister I know and love staring back at me. Her grin isn’t happy or sad–it’s one of determination. Of pride.

“Good. I’m glad it’s you. And James. We’ve got to do something. We need our best out there.” Her bony, cold hand grips mine. “Just make sure you come back.”



I’M PACING across the living room, limping, ignoring my own pain, when James returns home from work. He instantly recognizes my distress.

“What happened?”

“I went to see Madison today.” “Is she…”

“Starving is what she is.”

James inhales heavily and throws his bag on the couch. Oscar quietly slips by, into his room, and closes the door.

“We can try to get her more rations.”

“She won’t take them. She says it could cause problems for them.” His eyebrows knit together. “What?”

“I don’t know what she means, but I do know that everyone in those barracks is in the same boat. Have you been to one recently?”

“No. I’ve been buried at work.” “They’re like prisons.”

He comes over and hugs me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

I hook my chin over his shoulder. “Can we move them to the Citadel?” “Only if they’re sick.”

“They’re sick,” I say automatically.

He pushes me back and stares at me, sympathy and love in his eyes, melting me. “Let’s go for a drive.”

He grabs his bag and yells for Oscar to join us. James has an exclusion from curfew–his work warrants it. But being out after dark is dangerous. The wind is worse, blowing snow and generally hampering visibility. Even a minor traffic accident could be deadly. There’s safety in numbers.

In the autocar, I ask James, “How bad is it? The food situation?” “Bad.”

“Are we going to starve to death before we freeze to death?”

He shakes his head absently. “I don’t know. The two are linked. Without sunlight we can’t grow crops or collect energy to power grow lights–”

“What about geothermal–that well you drilled for the Citadel?”

“We never reached the depth we had hoped. It’s providing enough to power the bunker, but not on the scale we need for the greenhouses. If we drilled more of them, maybe. Or had windmills or even water power, but that would take time and effort. We don’t have either. No one thought it would get this bad so quickly.”

“And how has it, James? Honestly, think about the scale of the sun–the sheer number of those solar cells it would take to blot it out this much.”

“You’re assuming they’re all in close proximity to the sun. We don’t know that.”

“The images from the Helios fleet—”

“Showed the solar cells around the sun, I know. But what if they’ve moved closer to us? We don’t know that they’re still at the sun. We only know that the cells are between us and the sun. The closer they get to us, the fewer they’d need to blot out the sun. After all, even the moon can blot out a large portion of the sun, and it’s only two thousand miles across.”

“Like an eclipse.” “Right.”

We ride in silence for a long moment, watching the car’s white headlamps carve beams into the darkness, snow drifts passing by.

“But James, what if you’re right, and the mission is a success, and we stop the production of solar cells? The others will still be out there. The Long Winter won’t end.”

“We might have a solution to that too. That’s the other thing I want to show you.”

The factory where James first showed me the Citadel and Sparta One is teeming with military vehicles, even at this hour. There’s an extra security checkpoint now, and beyond, the large warehouse is closed to the elements. Inside, the overhead lights are off, the workers toiling under task lights. Even in the dim light, I recognize what they’re working on: nuclear missiles.

“I thought all the nukes were going out with the Sparta fleet.”

“Not all of them. We have a finite amount of helicopter fuel left–and no way to refine more–but we’re using it, going out to try to salvage food from stockpiles and extract the nukes from the US and Russia.”

“What’s the plan? Use the nukes for heat or energy?”

“They’re being retrofitted to operate long-range in space.”

It dawns on me then. “You’re going to fire them at the solar cells.”

“Right after we launch, probes will go out and try to locate the solar cells. They have to be somewhere between Earth and the sun. Once we locate them, the nukes will go up.”

I shake my head. “There’s still too many solar cells.”

“True. But if our theory about how the array operates is right, we might scare them into moving off or leaving us alone for a while.”

“That still just buys us time.” “But it’s better than nothing.”

James marches deeper into the factory, to the mouth of the tunnel, where we board a small electric car and silently snake our way toward the bunker, the air growing colder by the second.

The rocky cavern I saw before has been closed off by a towering metal wall with a set of double doors bearing large block letters that spell CITADEL.

The airlock beyond the double doors floods us with warm air, and we’re ushered into a small foyer with marked doors leading to a small mess hall, bathrooms, and the common room. James nods to a Marine sitting behind a

desk and breaks for the common room. The sounds, smell, and sight of the people in the barracks shocked me this morning. What I see in the Citadel guts me. I’d estimate that there are a hundred narrow hospital beds in the large room, each separated by a white sheet hanging from a string. On the bed nearest me lays a young boy about Owen’s age. He’s skinnier than Madison, eyes closed, legs barely making a ridge in the white sheet over him. An IV line connects to his tiny arm. I don’t know his diagnosis, but I would guess malnutrition.

A man lays in the next cubicle, moaning, a bandage covering his face, blood seeping through. He’s still wearing his work coveralls. I recognize him–he’s one of the people that used to collect our trash–when they picked up trash. I bet they moved him to one of the factories or a warehouse, where he was injured. A nurse or doctor stops and leans over and peels one of his eyes open.

There’s a woman in the next bed, sitting up, reading a paperback under the glow of a table light. She doesn’t look sick. But her belly is swollen and her free hand rests gently upon it, perhaps hoping to feel a kick. When she looks up at me, she looks scared, even when she forces a smile.

James turns and whispers, “I can probably get Madison and her family moved here… but these beds, they’re going to fill up pretty fast–”

“No. These people need to be here more.”

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