The Long Winter

No light seeped in around the boards nailed over the window — they had stuffed the space with rags and blankets and nailed through the fabric into the studs. He walked around the rest of the empty top floor and glanced briefly at all the openings that had long ago admitted daylight and soft breezes. All had been sealed in the same way. Stirred by his movements, irregular flecks of sparkling rainbow brilliance drifted lazily through the bright beam of his wristlamp: water ice crystals glittered like diamonds at this temperature. The thin layer of dry snow — precipitated carbon dioxide — that dusted the floor squeaked under his feet.

He expected nothing much on the top floor. The inhabitants would have abandoned and sealed it off first. The entire floor became nothing more than a large attic.

A sheet of heavy plastic covered the stairwell opening, brittle in the cold. A blow from his ice axe shattered it, revealing another sheet. They had stapled plastic to the edge of each riser and run it to the ceiling, preventing the stairwell from becoming a chimney that funneled precious warm air into the abandoned upper floor. He slashed through layers of brittle plastic until he reached the ground floor, also abandoned.

He glanced at his wrist, where faint patterns of light danced on the fabric of the sleeve. The latest forecast said he still had two hours before sunset. That much they usually got right these days. If they were wrong and an early nightfall caught him out here, he would have to hole up and pray that the erratic sunrise was also early.

A faint line of worry creased his brow beneath the thin transparent mask. Perhaps he should leave now and return tomorrow, just to be safe. But this was the last house on today’s list, and he was just being paranoid. They hadn’t missed a sunset in a long time. He shrugged to himself and continued through another gauntlet of plastic sheets to the basement.

He counted ten bodies in the basement. Six children had huddled in a puppy-pile between two women. In their final hypothermia the women would have felt uncomfortably warm; they had thrown off the blankets, exposing all eight figures. A man sat in one corner on a pile of blankets, an ice-frosted bottle in one hand. A second man sat against the opposite wall, a bottle in one hand and papers clutched in the other. Their poses told clearly that the men had known death was upon them: they had made no attempt to fend it off with blankets. As always, he felt the cold hand of guilt around his heart at the sight of the frozen bodies, as though the ghosts of the dead had suddenly clutched at him for the help that had never come.

He smiled bitterly at the rush of emotion. He always expected to be inured to this work by now. Lord knew he had gone through the motions often enough. Yet it always surprised him that the emotions were so fresh and painful, every time. It was part of the price.

He spoke softly to activate his recording equipment and walked around the room, dictating notes. He approached each body and carefully scraped away frost and sometimes fabric until he exposed frozen tissue, then pressed his sampling tool against the rock-hard flesh. When the light turned green, he moved to the next body; when it turned yellow, he scraped in a different spot and tried again. None showed red today. This was a good find.

He glanced at his wrist as he worked, but the forecast held steady and the work was going smoothly. He should be able to finish and return to the compound long before nightfall.

He reached the man sitting against the wall last. As he scraped, he glanced idly at the papers in the man’s hand. He stopped scraping. Slowly, he brushed the dry snow from the top sheet. He could just make out a photograph of a face, with the word “Time” above it in large red letters. His own face.

He’d seen his picture too often over the years, usually pinned to a wall with curses scrawled over the smiling face, often slashed to tatters. But this was his little-known first cover of Time, not the second one that everyone had cursed. And this man had held it in his hand as he and his family died. Unusual.

Long ago he had stopped looking at the people he sampled. The momentary ghosts he felt were bad enough; if he looked at the faces, they haunted his dreams. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then forced himself to look into the face of the man before him. His eyes widened. His gloved hand rose hesitantly to brush frost from the frozen features.

Tears welled suddenly in his eyes and ran down his face; the transparent mask fogged over as his garment tried to compensate, leaving him weeping in a vague, pearly void. He wondered momentarily if his mind had finally snapped, hallucinating the face. He also knew that wasn’t possible. He could no more go mad than he could become inured to the work. It was part of the price.

His mask cleared, and the frost-rimed face was still there. He stared at it for a long time. His mask fogged and cleared and fogged again as tears flowed. At last he resumed his careful scraping. He drew a tremulous breath, and held it as he triggered the tool. When the light turned green, he released his breath in a long sigh. He again caressed the frozen cheek. Then he stood and checked his sleeve. Still more than an hour until sundown. He needed to get back to the compound with these recordings. These precious recordings.

He made his way back up the stairs and carefully climbed through the hole he had cut in the roof that protruded above the flat expanse of ice, stark white from the thin layer of dry snow that lay atop the water ice. The sun appeared as little more than a bright star at the moment, so faint that stars glimmered in the nearly black sky. Some days the sun was bright enough to give the sky a purplish-blue color that hid the stars. Not today; it would be a very cold night. He clambered into the gravity-sled and set the automatic controls to take him back to the compound, two thousand miles away. The thin atmosphere screamed faintly through the hull until the sled passed the speed of sound, still accelerating.

As the miles flew past in silence, he expanded and studied a holographic image of the man leaning against the wall. His eyes drank in the familiar features, and tears fell again.

I stopped looking for him. I stopped looking, but he died staring at a picture of my proudest moment.

Shame and grief pierced his heart; memories came in a swift tumble of emotions, fresh and clear and undimmed by age:

Uncontainable pride the day he received his copy of Time, the issue that explained in layman’s terms his seminal work on quantum gravity. Champagne corks had popped simultaneously that night on both ends of a giddy phone conversation across the width of the continent.

Smug satisfaction when Time lauded him a second time for his bold leadership in the Global War on Warming. That was the picture he usually saw nailed to walls, slashed and defaced.

Horror as he realized that the devices in orbit around the Earth, devices he had helped design, were not behaving according to theory. 

Desperation as the endless winter and the panicked migrations began; as he used all of his contacts, all of his influence, in a futile search for the man whose face hung in the air before him now.

Despair as weeks became months, and months became years, deep in the nuclear-warmed government bunker where he worked obsessively to understand what had happened — and where he finally realized he would never understand. His theory was simply wrong. Completely wrong.

He had destroyed the Earth.

And that was when the extraterrestrials had appeared and demanded to speak with the one responsible.

He sat with the mantis-like creature in a small room aboard one of their vessels. His chair was uncomfortable, made for a different anatomy. The creature rested its weight upon a stool of sorts, perfectly motionless. Its faceted eyes gazed everywhere and nowhere; he could not tell whether it even knew he was in the room. Then its voice buzzed inside his head.

“Why?” was all that it asked.

He slowly explained: the planet-wide warming trends, the famines, his theories of gravity and time, the devices they had built, how it had all gone wrong. When he finished, the mantis-creature remained silent.

“Please!” he spoke into the silence. “We need your help!”

“We have been helping your species for tens of thousands of years. You do not learn. Your species is not teachable.” 

He recoiled at the harsh judgment. “What do you mean, you have been helping us? Where? How? How are we not teachable?”

It paused, as though to consider its reply. “Our assembly consists of many thousands of species spread throughout this galaxy. Among all these civilizations, we do not make war. You no doubt find this hard to believe.”

“I find it impossible to believe! All living creatures make war.”

“Your species does not grasp the difference between conflict and war. All living creatures experience conflict. Few living creatures make war. Even your own species did not always make war. Now, you cannot stop. You view all of existence through the lens of warfare. We have come among you quietly, again and again, to instruct you in other ways of living. You have not listened. Now we have been forced to intervene because you threatened other star systems in your War on Warming.”

“But that’s not a war! It’s only a metaphor!”

“Why do you use such a metaphor?”

He had no ready answer.

“Your species has embraced the metaphor of warfare as a philosophy of existence. Instead of adapting yourselves to change, you attempt a war of conquest over nature. You have damaged your world, and now your star system. You have endangered other species. Your species is insane and dangerous.”

“That isn’t true! We can learn! “ he cried.

It made no reply.

“What will happen?” he whispered at last.

“You created self-amplifying wrinkles in the fabric of your local space-time. From the surface of your planet, your sun now appears more distant; time flows unevenly; the planet cools. We have contained the damage, damped the amplification, so that it will not spread to other star systems. In time your local distortion will fade. Within twenty or thirty thousand years it will be gone, and your Earth will gradually return to its normal conditions. Life may well return, as well, though not life as you know it.

“Thirty…thousand…years…” His words were barely audible, his lips dry. “Is there nothing we can do?”

“Nothing. Your species will die.”

“And you will do nothing to help us?”


“Then why…why am I here?”

“We wished to understand from your own minds the reason for your actions. You have answered our question, and we have answered yours. You may go now. We have nothing more to say to you.” With a sharp mental click, the mantis-creature ended the conversation.

“But we do,” said another voice, soft and musical in his head. He felt a movement of air, and turned. A creature of a different species had entered the room from behind him, humanoid with spindly limbs and enormous almond-shaped eyes of featureless black. “Most in the assembly believe your species is not worth saving. We feel otherwise. We will help you. But a burden will fall upon those of you left alive.”

“A burden…?” he whispered.

“We are fond of your Earth. It has been as … a pleasant garden to us. We intend to recreate it much as it was before — the plants and animals, many of the beautiful and clever structures you humans made. It is a small enough matter to bring back humans as well. But we will not bear the responsibility of reviving your species. You must choose your own successors.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It is simple enough. The humans who still live shall choose individuals from among the dead — we will restore whomever you choose when your Earth is once again habitable.”

“You can restore the dead to life?” Wonder filled his voice.

“Of course. It is much easier to replicate what has already existed than to create anew. We need only the proper measurements.”

“Can we choose to restore everyone?”

“There are certain physical requirements. However, much of your population has died by freezing, rather than starvation or violence. When the surface temperature becomes low enough, many of these will meet the necessary conditions. Perhaps even most of them.”

“So it will become even colder?”

“Yes. We predict that the average surface temperature will settle at eighty degrees below zero on your centigrade scale. In roughly one thousand years it will become cold enough to begin your selection.”

His already-pale face turned gray, and he choked slightly. “That’s…colder than dry ice. Carbon dioxide will precipitate out of the air.” His eyes grew wide. “We’re going to lose the atmosphere entirely, aren’t we?”

“Not entirely. But you will not be able to breathe what remains. Restoring the atmosphere will be part of our project.”

“We can’t survive those conditions, even underground. Not a single generation, much less a thousand years. We won’t live long enough to even begin.” He put his head in his hands.

“Of course not. But we can offer assistance. Food. Shelter. Power. And we can provide extended life that will allow you to live without aging for as long as you choose. Even thirty thousand years, if you can bear such a span of years. We cannot restore any who choose extended life, nor will they possess the ability to breed. But they can live long enough to choose their inheritors.”

He stared into the obsidian eyes as hope and terror fought within his heart. “A thousand years or more of darkness and cold and ice…or death now with a hope of resurrection. If we are chosen.”


“And if no one chooses immortality…”

“Then no one will be restored. Your species dies.”

“But those who choose immortality: how should they choose who will live again? How should they judge?”

“That is precisely the responsibility we will not bear. We have done enough in offering your species a second chance. You must make your own use of it.”

He brought the offer back to earth, and as news spread through the different nations’ survival bunkers, nearly all of the living chose immortality. Most of them squandered it within the first century, striving for power over each other. More succumbed to despair in the growing darkness and cold, and released their grip on eternal life.

When the dry snows at last began to fall, fewer than a thousand ageless humans remained. They had debated their choice for centuries: in the end, they chose to bring back everyone they could.

Like Valkyries, then, they began the long labor of picking over the bodies scattered about the Earth, searching not for fallen heroes, but for anyone the alien sampling machines said could be saved. House by house, shelter by shelter, they searched and sampled. Years became decades — decades, centuries — centuries, millennia.

And then, they were finished.

John shivered, once, violently, and tipped over the empty Tequila bottle in his hand. The papers in his other hand crinkled. Just a moment ago he had started to feel warm for the first time in weeks. A part of his mind had known he was experiencing terminal hypothermia, but he had not cared. He had instead reveled in the sensation of warmth. Now, he felt mildly chilled, and a little angry. He should not feel anything, dammit.

Emily and Chloe and the kids had thrown off the covers. He remembered seeing that, too, but he’d been too drowsy to care. He heard Emily and Chloe stir, and one of the girls whimpered in her sleep.

Bob stared at him from the corner, his brow knit in puzzlement. John suddenly wondered about the light in the room. He’d drifted into his final sleep with his flashlight turned on. The room was far too bright.

Moving air brushed the hairs of his hands, and he panicked when he saw the gap around the window seal, where both the air and the light now entered. He stood and rushed to close it, but then stopped. That scent… Sweet Jesus, he hadn’t smelled that in years! The smell of spring, of green things growing. He looked at Bob, who gazed back with frightened eyes.

“You smell that, too?” he asked. Bob nodded silently; his Adam’s Apple worked as he swallowed. Taking a deep breath, John pulled open the insulated window hatch.

The shaft of warm sunlight blinded him. He lost his balance and fell on his backside with a shout. Both women shrieked, waking the children, who began to cry.

When his eyes adjusted to the light, he looked out in wonder. Instead of the upward-sloping ice tunnel with its series of warmth-conserving doors, he looked up into the branches of the Chinese Elm that had once grown outside this window. He clearly remembered felling it for firewood when they’d first arrived and decided to make their last stand here.

He clambered out the window and stood in the midst of a spring garden. Daffodils — irises — tulips — buds on the tips of the tree branches — the smell of damp, fertile earth. He fell to his knees and sobbed in disbelief. Bob crawled out and fell, weeping, right beside him; he dug his hands into the soft soil and pressed the rich loam to his nostrils. Both wives wept and screamed with delight as they emerged, followed by the children; the women hugged each other, hugged the children, hugged their husbands. 

John stood and took another deep breath of the rich air. That’s when he noticed the man sitting quietly in the gazebo, staring directly at him with a smile on his face. He wore strange clothing covered with shifting patterns of light, and his face….

John swallowed hard and walked unsteadily toward the gazebo.

“John,” the man in the strange clothing said, still smiling, but tears ran down his cheeks. 

“Jacob,” John replied, sudden tears in his eyes, as well.

“A beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Jacob…” His voice caught. “What…what in God’s name happened? Are we dead? Is this Heaven?”

Weariness swept across Jacob’s face, though the smile held. “You have all been…asleep. We woke as many as we could. The world you knew is gone. But you are alive, and the Earth is alive. Your children have a future.”

“They said you killed the Earth,” John said. “I never believed it. You were always trying to save the Earth.”

“Oh, John,” Jacob said, and the smile fled. He shook his head slowly. “You always believed in me.”

“Hey, it’s okay, little brother. We’re together now.”

“No.” Jacob’s tone was sad. “No, John. My time is done. I’m…tired. So very tired. But I wanted to see…to see you…to see…” He stopped, his lips trembling.

John ran forward to embrace his younger brother. Jacob rose and clung to him as he sobbed like a child.

After a while, Jacob pushed himself away, gently. The weariness in his face was deeper. “I tried so hard to find you, John.”

John’s face was grim. “They tried to round us up and put us in the emergency camps. The Death Camps. You know about those?” Jacob nodded. Disease, starvation, and violence. They had never recovered a single green sample from any of them. “We got away, and ran. Met up with Bob’s family on the road. Figured we’d die anyway, but we wanted to die free, not penned up inside a fence. What about you? I imagine you went underground with that gang of fascists you got mixed up with?”

Jacob nodded with a weak smile. He picked up a thin book from the bench beside him, and handed it to John.

“What’s this?” John asked. He glanced curiously at the title — The Long Winter: A Brief Memoir of 27,000 Years of Ice.

“A gift. There is a copy in every household. People need to know what happened. But I…wanted to deliver this one in person.”

John’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “Twenty-seven…! Jacob, you can’t be… that isn’t possible!”

“I’m tired, John. No human should live this long. But I had to see you alive again. I had to…apologize–“

John cut him off by embracing him again. “Oh, just shut up, you little moron!” he growled through fresh tears. “You’re here. That’s all that matters.”

Jacob pushed himself away again, weakly this time, and sat heavily. His face was lined with fatigue, and his eyelids drooped. One eyelid fluttered.

“What’s wrong with you, Jacob? Are you sick? What can I do?”

“John, listen. All of you who are left — you were all left behind, abandoned. You were ‘non-essential’ people. The ‘essential’ people went to the bunkers: the leaders, the elite soldiers, the top scientists, the important people who kept the old ways going. They’re all gone. Everyone who died violently is gone. Everyone who clung to life and died of disease or starvation is gone. Everyone who jumped at the chance to live forever is gone. The old ways are gone. It’s a new start for the human race, a chance… to do things… differently…”

Jacob’s eyes closed as he slowly tipped sideways. John caught him as he fell, cradled his head and stroked his hair, tears falling unnoticed. A peaceful smile crept across Jacob’s face, and his eyes suddenly opened to look directly into John’s.

“Blessed are the meek,” he murmured, “for they have inherited the Earth.”

He closed his eyes, inhaled the fresh spring air deeply and, still smiling, exhaled for the last time.

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved
This entry was posted in Fiction.

One comment on “The Long Winter

  1. cathytea says:

    Need a little time to process your story before I can share a thoughtful comment, so for now, I’ll simply thank you for writing and sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

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