In the Cold

By Kelly Jennings

As usual, I can't sleep. Reaching to see if maybe some of the other kids are in the same fix, I raise nothing but Bek, playing Darkover as usual. I shoot a spike in case she might want to do something. She slaps it back, which is also usual.

So I leave the dorm. Against rules, only since everyone's bunked except Sergi, working Nursery with the colicky new ones, and Lia, just across Dome minding goats, no risk getting tagged. Hugo would claim, I can hear his dry tones running as I scout the corridors, it's not the getting caught, it's the doing right, are we a community or are we not, do you work to build or do you tear down, a community can only tolerate so much dissent. This is how they defeat us, those ropes of language. Not the arguments themselves, just the sheer endlessness battering us into bored exhaustion, we give up just to shut them up, they're so jamming slow.

I go out through the kitchens, scarp biscuits from yesterday's lot, cut through the garden.

According to the colony timetable, we ought to have been outdome long since. But when we had been downhill ten thousand watch, our weather went out. Never did find the bug. Happened just after warranty ended, though, so you do the math. Suda-Lutz won't negotiate repairs, not for what we can afford, which, given we've lost our weather, that's not much. After trying (uselessly) for an intervention (Core Courts found for the Combine, what a shock), we renamed the planet Winter and retro'd the colony to live indome.

That's why the gap between the adults, and us, the Seconds; and then another long gap between us and the new ones. That's also why it's only a dozen of us Seconds, and twenty of the new ones, instead of the thirty standard, and I don't know why thirty would be standard. Twenty are enough trouble.

I consider, as I climb up pasture, why, given how Sergi would love to use my insomnia, I don't go to the nursery and offer. Earn a bit of good will. Probably it's because I excel at soothing cranky babies, which I would just as soon no one come to count on. Rather shovel dung than get slotted into nursery.

Which Hugo would say is my main issue. A tiny colony barely hanging on does not have range to indulge adolescent moods. Put your hand to what needs doing and no whining. I tip my head back to watch snow whirl against the dome field. I do know Hugo is right. I've worked with Sid on budget, balancing heat against food against power for the tanks; I know how tight our numbers are. I know another bad mold or one more wicked flu could break us. Plus, without anyone ever exactly saying so, I know I'm top of the stack for Chair of Executive when the time comes for Second to take charge: the obvious choice, the only one of us with the math and the mouth and the will to step up.

Which does not mean I like the idea. Oh, I like the parts where I noodle around asking Sid and Ati and Hugo questions, the parts where I get to find out what I otherwise wouldn't. I like seeing how decisions get made. I especially like the moments—there haven't been many, but it's happened—where I make a suggestion that nudges the colony in some direction it might not have gone had I not been there, a better direction.

What I don't like is how Hugo and I keep banging heads.

Hugo's Chair of Executive now.

Above the pasture, I cross the orchard, rich with the scent of pears and figs. Most fruit has been harvested, but I find a missed pear among the grass and eat it as I walk. The blizzard rages outside. When I get close enough to the field wall, I see snow piled high against the dome. Inside, as always, late summer. The peaches and other crops over in the aux-dome need winter, so we hold one there, a hundred and fifty watch out of every fifteen hundred; here in the main dome, it's summer except at Harvest Fest, when the Firsts like a chill.

The main aim of dome placement was flat fertile land, but at the north point of the dome some steep interesting rocks slipped in. I climb up through them, taking the most difficult route on purpose, enjoying the hard use the climb gives my muscles, and at the top stretch out under the blasting snow, at this point only meters overhead, watching the fractal swirl of white flakes. After a time, I link up.

I could, like Bek, game; I could study; I could catch up on an animate or research why cold might be necessary for holidays in the worldview of my elders. Any of those. Instead, I send a nudge, the standard halloo—I'm here, anyone else?

I am expecting Bek to answer, if anyone does, given I'm on our section of the band. Of course, theoretically, some First might tap our bit, but living packed in how we do, we hold our boundaries tight. In any case, the reply I get is strong, and strange, in a language I don't know. French, says the Pop-in. It adds that this is a Republic language, and asks if I want the translator. Automatically, I hit Yes.

That clears the message: I'm here, I'm here, where are you?

I sit up, my blood suddenly running faster. Realtime vocals, in a Republic language? I send back: Hello?

I'm here!

Where? Who are you?

A pause, and then: I'm Banter. I'm not sure where this is. I can't get position, but it's snowing, my mom's hurt bad, where are you?

My heart bangs. I stand up on the rock, as if that would make my head work better. I send our position, standard L&L from the pole, which does no good, since he has no idea where he is. Plus I don't think he's very old.

It's snowing, he sends. And we've got mountains around us. Can you look for somewhere like that?

I don't want to tell him that describes pretty much the entire planet.

Please, he says, I don't know what to do. My mom won't wake up. Please.

I tell him to wait, I'll get help, I promise we'll be there soon. I jam open a link through the whole band, an emergency wail. I get dozens yelling back, which I should have anticipated, only I'm not thinking clearly. I shout a bullet, outlining what I know, not much. Meanwhile I am running down-dome, past the pastures, past the oat fields, past the barns from which Lia has emerged to watch me pass, through the garden, into the house.

Hugo is in hall, as are many other Firsts, pulling on shirts or buttoning coveralls, faces knotted with annoyance or interest or concern. Oda and Bek and the other Seconds emerge from our corridor. Bek spikes me. I ship a bullet back. I hear her copying it to the others.

Hugo is barking: "Nicola! What's the emergency?"

I don't have much more to say in hard than I did over the band, but I say it anyway. Firsts always need hard words, I suppose because they grew up in the Republic, where uplinks are prohibited. I also copy them Banter's post, and link to his bit of band. Hugo reaches for the link; Banter does not answer. Nothing but the dull burr of standby.

In the common room, gazing straight at me, Hugo sends again.

"I'm not lying," I say unsteadily. "Shit's sake, Hugo."

Hugo lowers his brows, doing his bristly dominant male glower. He hates it when girls swear. I straighten my spine and do not back down, though in truth I am a bit afraid. Hugo has been Chair of Executive from the first. The only time he came close to being voted out was the year we lost the weather, and that was only because of what happened with Dee and Iyabo.

"Sid," he says.

Sid is my elder, and I know for a fact that what Hugo means is Sid, deal with this brat.

But Sid, and this is why I'm glad she's my elder and not Hugo, Sid steps forward to stand behind me. Maybe she is linking him, talking to him on their band; but I don't hear the hiss I would hear, if someone that close to me were sending. I think she's just staring at him. Communicating with nothing but her eyes. Firsts do that. I never have understood how exactly.

After a brittle moment, Hugo says, "Search and Rescue. Executive. Medical. Nicola may sit in. Rest of you might as well bunk up."

Murmurs of protest from some of the Firsts. Not from the Seconds—they know I'll keep an open link.

I follow the adults into the study, which is where meetings get held. The three committees Hugo has mentioned are made up of about half the adults in the colony—there's overlap between the three—so chairs are hauled in from other rooms. Noah goes to fetch tea from the kitchen. Ati goes with him. I watch them leave.

It was Ati told me about Dee and Iyabo, finally. Ati tells me most of what I need to know. Easy questions, like how to multiply fractions and who should get put on kitchen duty next, adults are delighted to answer; but why anyone would colonize a planet without sufficient backup capital, or why Core Combine Law doesn't protect citizens from crap products, or what exactly did happen back when the weather failed, well.

I learned to go to Ati, especially when she was at work in the machine shed, doing maintenance or anything not too finicky. She was changing out fluids on one of the whistles the watch I asked her about Dee and Iyabo. All of us Seconds been hearing mutters for years, but never the whole story. Ati just shot me a glance past the popped lid of the whistle, and laid it out:

The weather crashed. When that happens on a managed planet, systems descend into chaos. Dee and Iyabo had taken a whistle out hunting on the plains. Comsat went down when the weather did. Unlike with the weather, Comsat backup worked; but even so, it was nearly twenty watch before we got it fully loaded, and all through that time no one could call out or in.

And Hugo not only refused to send anyone out to search for Dee or Iyabo, he refused to hold the hangar open. He sealed the dome.

"He was probably right," Ati told me. "Iyabo was a good enough pilot, on a clear day. Not the sort of pilot to make it back through the mountain passes in a storm like that. And leaving the dome open—" She shut up. She didn't have to finish—I knew as well as she did how even on a calm day cold sucked heat from any openings in the dome seal. During a storm, when the force of the winds was enormous, we could lose not just all our heat, but everything—trees, goats, the gardens, people.

"Couldn't someone have stayed at station?" I asked. "Watched for their approach?" Though I knew how limited visibility could be in gale-force winds.

"We did. Volunteers. All that watch and every watch, all through that storm." Ati stood staring at nothing: staring into the storm of the past. Then she met my eyes, her own eyes sharp. "Don't you have work to do somewhere?"

In the study, Hugo opens a wallboard, puts up a map, opens another for Banter's message. No Firsts can see anything unless it's on a screen. "Noah?"

Noah chairs Search and Rescue. He and Tiago have been huddled at their end of the table, working with a handheld. "Can't get triangulation," he says. "Which does mean line of sight, at least." He glances up at the map. The possible area of the crash blooms blue against the white of snow and the black of elevation markers.

Hugo opens a third map, a view of the storm, which is immense, as we all knew. It's been coming across the northern ocean for thirty watch, we've been doing nothing but prep for it. I hear it howling at the dome even now.

"Here," Tiago says suddenly. He's been tracking back through the Comsat pile, and has found a blip crossing the atmosphere, what must be the lifepod landing. He links to the wall, and we watch while he works with tracking, finding the probable area of the landing.

Crash.

Whatever.

This allows us to send a more directed signal. Hugo does, right away. (I do, also, though I don't tell anyone.) But no matter how long he sends, or I do, nothing but the buzz of standby.

I am watching Hugo while we send. His eyes are vague. As certain as if he has linked me the spreadsheets I know how his thoughts spin: this much for S&R, that much for medical for survivors, cost for transport, for damage, along with the slim possibility of recovering any costs from a Combine ship, which this is almost certain to be.

Desperate not to admit what I know, I snap, "It's not his fault, where he comes from. What his crap parents did."

Beside me, Sid twitches. Via the dorm link, Bek drives a spike—though I already know what a mistake I've made.

"Noah?" Hugo asks, without so much as glance at me. "Problems with getting to the crash site?"

Noah hesitates, and then widens the map area. He puts up the storm winds, now and projected over the next ten hours. He shakes his head, and looks at Ati. She's wearing an expression—or rather an absence of expression—I absolutely recognize.

But she says, "I can do it."

Hugo's mouth flattens. His eyes squint. Though he is studying the wall feeds, I hear a hiss. He's linked something. "Noah?" he says again.

Noah's been expecting this. He answers at once, and firmly: "She can do it."

Hugo's mouth flattens further. I know what he's going to say. I feel ice settling in my chest. I start to stand, ignoring Sid's grip on my wrist.

Hugo looks straight at me. "You have something to say, Cole?"

Hugo never uses pet names.

Sid's fist tightens. I stare at Hugo. Beyond the dome, I hear the wind's roar. I hear Ati, just behind me, breathing so easily. I can't see her, but I can see how she looks, in my mind, in my memory, her narrow face so still. It's nearly the first thing I do remember, Ati, still like that, the night the post came in from our Combine lawyer, telling us the Courts had decided for Suda-Lutz.

She's a great pilot. Everyone knows it. She got us down from the ship even though the landing craft was faulty. She's kept the whistles running twenty years now. She can land them anywhere, on the head of a pin, everyone says.

In crosswinds. In updrafts. In a storm like this.

"Cole?" Hugo says.

I promised him we would come, I start to say, and bite on my lip. I glance up at Hugo, who is watching me. Waiting. I feel heat behind my eyes, coppery heat in the back of my throat. A stupid promise. A bad promise.

Hugo's already flattened mouth goes just a little flatter.

I sit back in the chair, closing my fist around its arm.

The night drags on. Some people go to bed, but most stay up. Ati and Reilly go out to the sheds to run maintenance on the whistles, even though our vehicles are always kept in prime condition. Noah and Tiago do scans, and more scans. Sid calls out every few minutes on the band. No one ever answers. Finally, as morning appears across the mountains, the storm moves down into the plains, leaving skies clear enough. Snow drifts deep in the valleys. Eventually, Tiago spots something that might be a crash site. They take a whistle out to investigate.

I want to go with them. I think I have a right to go with them. No one will listen. In the end Sid gives me a patch which makes me dopey and compliant and I fall asleep.

So I miss them bringing the bodies in, and no one will give me details about what they find. Sid enters the autopsy records, though, and any of us can slide past anything any First can code, so I get as much information as anyone might want after that.

More.

Ati says it is not my fault. Even if I had spoken, Hugo would not have made any other decision. The storm was too bad, the risk too great. She says even if we had tried flying through the storm Banter and his family and crew would have died before we could have reached them. What she never says is that Hugo's decision is the same one I made. Hugo didn't let me into the meeting that night to shut me up. He let me in to teach me that.

I know this: I told Banter I would come for him. I told him to wait. He died in the cold and dark, a child alone, believing I would bring him help.

Nowadays, when I can't sleep, which is often, I head over to the nursery. The new ones have outgrown their colic, so Sergi doesn't need me the way he used to. He's glad for the help anyway. I comfort the restless, change the wet. Mainly, though, and I don't tell Sergi this, I am scouting their small faces, their bright eyes. I am thinking whether one of them might grow up to be Chair of Executive. I am thinking that is something that might happen.

Spit in one hand, Sid tells me sometimes, wish with the other. See which fills up first.


Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings currently lives in northwest Arkansas, where she is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was released in 2011 by Crossed Genres. To contact her, send her email at drdelagar@gmail.com. For more about her and her work, see her website.

Comments

I liked it. :) The ending caught me a bit by surprise. Great use of story specific vocabulary, you really pulled me in.

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