Winter was, at the time of publication, the longest short fiction story I had ever written at 14,500 words. It’s a fairly long Novellette that is written in four parts. I will be publishing them one segment at a time, so each segment should be between 4000 and 5000 words.
The story was published (along with another story, The Adjoa Gambit) as a stand-alone volume by the now defunct Sam’s Dot Publishing. Winter was my 31st published story.
Part 1 – Space
An alien sun, and so far from home. Yutiko gazed upon the yellow disk in awe. “Now I know how you humans must have felt as you arrived at Tau Ceti,” he said.
“Homesick?” asked Barney Hodges, first officer of the Explorer.
Yutiko broke his gaze, turning to face Hodges. “A little, but I’m a diplomat. It isn’t the first time I’ve been away from home.” Yutiko said it, but without conviction. He had never been away from home like this. He was approaching an alien world on an alien spacecraft, and there was no going back.
An historic trip, everyone said. He was the luckiest Vopret on Ganspag. Yutiko looked back to the alien sun, not feeling lucky in the least. He felt a warm hand on his shoulder.
“Cheer up, Yutiko,” Hodges said. “Earth is much like Ganspag.”
Yutiko turned his back on the view, no longer in the mood to look at the star. “In many ways, perhaps,” he said, “but will you even know your own planet? How much time has passed for Earth while you were away?”
“Twenty thousand of our years,” Hodges said, “give or take a few.”
The question really was rhetorical. Yutiko already knew the figure, as did everyone else aboard Explorer. “Relativity is cruel that way,” he said.
It was Hodges turn to brood now. Yutiko watched the human lower his head to a position that indicated regret. “You are fortunate,” Hodges said. “You know that you are going to an alien world. I don’t know what to expect. Twenty thousand years is a long time. It will be a different Earth than the one I left.”
Yutiko raised and lowered his head in to imitate the human gesture of nodding. Gesture was an important aspect of human interpersonal communication, and of their language. They used their arms for gesture in much the same way Voprets used their wings. “That much is certain, Hodges. Your own world will likely be alien to you.”
The science behind the strange time effects in relativistic travel had been explained to Yutiko many times, but he didn’t really understand the physics. Not that it much mattered. As a diplomat, the only important thing to recognize was that understanding the equations couldn’t change the results. Twenty thousand years is a long time on any world. The time change was what it was.
It was a topic the humans avoided. What would man be like, they asked. Engineer Morrison already thought of himself as a primitive. Commander Lin wore a facade, but he, too, worried about his obsolescence in the face of a changed world. Would the crew still respect him? Even Hodges confided that he would almost prefer to stay in space. The world they left no longer existed, but that was no problem for Yutiko. This was not his world, but the home of his friends.
Friendship between the humans and Voprets was a bold new step. Communication between Earth and Ganspag was not possible in any other way, at least, it wasn’t when they departed for Earth. Yutiko was a lucky Vopret to have this opportunity.
“I’ll be in my quarters. I don’t feel well.” Yutiko sauntered across the bridge to the corridor without looking back. Hodges said something, but Yutiko was done with communicating for now. Rest. Rest to soothe the mind, that’s what he needed. What was it the humans said? The calm before the storm?
Yutiko entered the bridge with great anticipation. Hodges had said that the Earth and moon were visible as thin crescents, and that was a sight Yutiko just had to see. A binary planet.
As Yutiko entered the bridge, he ignored the humans as his eyes were riveted to the window. There they were. At the extreme upper left of the window, a thin crescent of blue and white clung to the right side of the darkened nighttime Earth. At the lower right of the window, the moon appeared as a silver sliver. His wings buzzed in excitement as they vibrated against his back.
A warm arm fell across his shoulders above the wings. He broke his gaze and turned his head to see Hodges peering out at the spectacle. Yutiko interpreted the action as another friendly human gesture.
“That’s really something, isn’t it, Yutiko?”
He tried to calm his wings, but he couldn’t control that any more than the beagle Arfur, the pet that the humans brought on the voyage, could control wagging his tail. “Spectacular,” Yutiko said. “I never considered the possibility of a binary planet, but there it is, just as you described.”
Hodges moved his lips in the gesture known as a smile. It portrayed good spirits, and was normally an involuntary reaction. “My description didn’t do it justice,” Hodges said.
“Nevertheless, it is beautiful.” He turned to face Hodges, who removed his hand from Yutiko’s back. “Have you made contact with your people?”
“Not yet,” Hodges said. “We’re broadcasting on all bands, but the radio isn’t receiving any signals back.”
Yutiko rubbed his wings together. He had a bad feeling about lack of radio contact, but he didn’t want the humans to think he was alarmed. “Perhaps we are still too far away.”
Hodges shook his head in a gesture that was used to convey the negative. “No, with the gain of our receiver, we should have been contacted by now.”
“I wouldn’t know of such things,” Yutiko said. “I’m not much of an engineer, just a diplomat.”
“I understand,” Hodges said.
Yutiko lost his train of thought when with a loud voice, somebody said, “Captain on the bridge.”
“As you were,” Captain Lin said as he walked directly to Yutiko and stood at his left. “Beautiful sight, wouldn’t you say?”
“We were just discussing that,” Hodges said
“The double planet is intriguing.” Yutiko said, “I was just noticing the small point of light near the equator on the dark side of the moon. Was that colony built before your departure?”
Hodges and Lin both walked to stand as close to the window as they could get. Lin craned his neck to get a closer look, then the two men spoke with each other for a moment. Finally, Lin turned around and said, “No, there was no colony on the moon when we left.”
Hodges turned away from the window and said, “No moon colony, but we had plenty of major cities that didn’t sleep. Now, the night side of the Earth is dark.”
Lin snapped around to face the window again. “It is, isn’t it. Where are all the cities?”
Yutiko felt apprehension grow in the pit of his stomach. This was not the world these humans expected to find when they got home. For most of the trip, the crew extrapolated the rate of technological growth of their race, assuming they would come home to marvels that might seem magical. That extrapolation appeared to be quite wrong. Extrapolation can be dangerous.
Captain Lin made an abrupt turn away from the window and walked to his command chair. “No use jumping to conclusions. We’ll be in orbit soon.”
Yutiko wasn’t comforted by the thought of a decimated Earth. Anything could have happened in 20,000 years. Perhaps he should have stayed home on Ganspag. Sure, he’d have been dead by now, but would have lived a full life. What an enigma–a colony on their moon, yet almost no city lights.
He didn’t want to discuss the possibilities with his shipmates, at least not until they knew what was happening. Other than the obvious global catastrophes like a comet smashing into their planet, Yutiko couldn’t think of any possible ways to wipe out the population of an entire planet. Even if he could, it wasn’t the type of thing he enjoyed thinking about. He turned away from the window and walked toward his special chair, the custom-fit one the humans installed specifically for him, so he could observe during the long journey. He said nothing to the humans.
Hodges followed him for several steps. “What’s wrong, Yutiko?”
“I simply want to observe for the time being,” Yutiko said. He stroked his folded wings together, in and out, in and out. It was a nervous habit he picked up sometime during the journey. He didn’t think the humans had that tendency figured out yet, but it irritated Yutiko regardless.
He sat in silence for the next several hours, simply watching the human crew and the swelling crescent Earth. Their trajectory was somewhat curved, and the terminator moved farther into the visible face of the planet. As the day side of the Earth came more and more into view, it was clear the humans were disturbed by what they saw, yet to Yutiko, it seemed like a nice planet.
The sunlight revealed a major continent in the north, and Yutiko recognized it from his studies as North America. The details were slightly different, but it was unmistakable.
Captain Lin and Hodges stood at the window tracing the outline of the continent and speaking in a hushed tone. Yutiko wished they would stop the discussions. The whispers were making the crew uncomfortable. Even to an alien, that much was obvious.
He decided to find out. Yutiko got out of his chair and went up to Lin and Hodges. “Your whispers disturb the crew,” he said. “Something is wrong and you are not telling them.”
Hodges looked at Captain Lin.
“He’s your friend, Barney,” Lin said. “Go ahead and explain it to him.”
That was good. Captain Lin was a good commander, but not good with explanations. Hodges was good at both.
“Look at the continent, Yutiko,” Hodges said. “Do you recognize it from your studies?”
“I’ve been staring at that continent for the past few hours.” Yutiko paused to look at Hodges. His human friend wore an expression he had not seen on this trip to his home. It was an expression he remembered from first contact, but at that time, he didn’t know humans well enough to understand. After having lived with them for so many years, and in context, he finally understood. It was intense worry.
Yutiko continued his thought. “The continent looks like North America, but the shape has changed.”
Hodges responded with a quick retort. “How?”
“It seems larger.”
“Yes,” Hodges said. “That’s because the sea level has dropped.”
Humans knew their own planet, Yutiko decided, yet he couldn’t fathom how Hodges might deduce that from this distance. “How can you tell?”
Hodges produced a smile. “Sometimes I forget you are an alien.”
Alien? It still felt strange to be called the alien. Yutiko considered humanity the aliens.
Hodges continued with his patient explanation. “Did you notice any other differences?”
“Well,” Yutiko said, “you told me the polar icecaps on Ganspag and Earth were about the same size.” He pointed at the window toward the white area covering the northern portion of the continent. “This is considerably larger.”
Hodges sighed, in what seemed like a resignation of some sort. “That’s because we’ve returned to find the Earth gripped in an ice age.”
That was a new concept for Yutiko. “I don’t understand.”
“You see,” Hodges said, “our planet experiences some very long-term climate cycles. The ice age cycle is dependent on perturbations in orbit eccentricity and axial inclination.” Hodges gyrated his fist to demonstrate the concept. “Explorer’s measurements indicate Ganspag has a more stable orbit. That’s why your planet doesn’t experience ice ages.”
That was an awful lot of new ideas for Yutiko to swallow all at once. He pondered it for a moment, then said, “That’s how you know the sea level dropped. The water is in the ice sheet?”
“That’s right,” Hodges said.
“Where is your home, Chicago?” Yutiko asked.
Hodges pointed to a non-descript area near the terminator, and well inside the ice sheet. “Right about here.”
“This was something that nobody expected,” Lin said. Yutiko had forgotten that he was there. The captain continued. “Due to human-caused greenhouse gasses, our planet was exceptionally warm when we left. It seems the ice age cycle ultimately trumped greenhouse gasses.” Lin looked at Yutiko, and then at Hodges, but neither said anything. “There is no question we are returning to a different kind of home. Protocol states that without radio contact, we treat this the same way we would treat an alien world.”
“We need a water run,” Hodges said. “Our supply is almost exhausted.”
Lin nodded his head, a gesture Yutiko believed meant understanding. Apparently, Lin had already reached the same conclusion. “The water run can double as reconnaissance. I’d like you to lead that mission, Hodges.”
Yutiko straightened his shoulders. “I am also going.”
“Out of the question,” Lin said. “You are too valuable to risk on this type of mission.”
Yutiko rubbed his wings together in agitation. He had to get over that nasty habit. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, Captain,” he said, “but I disagree with that statement.” Yutiko shuffled a bit closer to the Captain. “My mission is to make contact with the inhabitants of Earth. I do not see any reason to delay that mission, and I lend a great deal of credibility to the statement that you’ve been away for twenty-thousand years.”
“You have a point.” Lin turned to Hodges. “It’s your mission. Do you want him along?”
Hodges shrugged. “According to our charter, Captain, I don’t think we can legally refuse.”
“All right, then,” the Captain said in a tone of voice that was obviously displeased. “Take him along, but don’t let anything happen to him.”
“You know, Yutiko, this brings back memories.” Hodges smiled. “The smooth ride in space, the turbulence of the atmosphere, and even the smell of oil in the airlock brings back memories of my three years at Ganspag.”
Yutiko didn’t answer immediately. These memories were not his. He attended the Explorer quite late in the mission. This was only his second trip in the launch. These sensations and the smell of oil were all alien to him. They brought back memories of fear. Ganspag was terrified of invasion, a terror that left only with the Explorer. Even though the humans turned out to be benevolent, Yutiko still did not care to relive those memories of uncertainty.
“Those were the days,” Hodges said. “Days of exploring the unknown, days of exploring the alien.” Hodges paused to look out the window before he continued. “And now, one look at that ice sheet below us is all it takes to remind me that we haven’t really come home at all. There is no coming home.”
Yutiko was at a loss for words. What do you say to a man 20,000 years out of his time? Men like Hodges might not even exist anymore, and who knew what they might have evolved into? Finally, Yutiko said, “You knew that there was no going home when you enlisted for the mission, just as I knew the same when I enlisted for mine.”
Hodges looked out of the tops of his eyes at Yutiko, then his face relaxed and he smiled. Facial expressions were still the most difficult to interpret. Finally, Hodges said, “Then we’re in this together, my Ganspagian friend. Let’s get some water for the ship and see who we meet down there.”
The launch was piloted by an officer named Lieutenant Angela Lumstrum. Yutiko did not know her very well as she was shy and reclusive, but her reputation as a pilot was honorable. She flew the launch for many of the away missions at Ganspag, so she was familiar with flying into the unknown.
“Commander,” she said to Hodges, “do you want to put down on the ice to collect water?”
Yutiko was interested in the answer. There were several compelling reasons to set down on the ice, not the least of which was the collection of water with little threat of interference.
That wasn’t the decision, however. “No,” Hodges said. “Part of our mission is to investigate the conditions down there, and get an idea if it’s safe to bring our people home.”
Yutiko looked out the window, but could see nothing through the darkness. Explorer had been parked in a polar orbit to maximize the visible surface of the earth. Lumstrum used the atmosphere to somewhat lessen the inclination of the launch’s orbit, but it was still quite steep. The choice of where to land would depend largely on what was beneath them. He could see the faint glow of the terminator near the horizon.
Hodges pulled up the world map on the computer. “Where are we, Lieutenant?”
Lumstrum rolled the trackball on the console and looked into a monitor that was hidden from Yutiko’s view. “We’re just leaving Finland and will be flying over the Arctic Ocean within three minutes.”
“Where will that put us when we reach the other side of the ocean?” Hodges asked.
Lumstrum rolled the trackball again. “Looks like we’ll fly over the Yukon, then down the west coast of North America.”
Hodges pinched his lower lip with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. It was a gesture Yutiko had never seen. Hodges was silent. Perhaps it represented deep thought.
After more than a minute, Hodges finally spoke. “Let’s head for Los Angeles.”
“Yes, sir.” Lumstrum went back to her trackball. Yutiko assumed she was plotting the course or something. As long as she knew what she was doing, that was all Yutiko cared about.
What worried him more was the selection of Los Angeles as the target. Twenty thousand years ago, it was a major city. There might be pockets of dangerous humans, or worse. The curiosity was overwhelming. “Hodges, I’m curious,” Yutiko said. “Why did you select Los Angeles?”
“Several reasons” Hodges said. “First, it is far enough south to be free of ice. Second, it’s on the coast, and we can easily desalinate seawater. Third, I spent a lot of time in L.A. before the mission, and that knowledge might be useful.”
Those reasons made sense, but Yutiko still wasn’t convinced. “I’m worried that we might run into dangerous groups of humans.”
“That’s a risk we have to take, Yutiko.” Hodges glanced out the window. The terminator was nearing, and the twilight glow from outside threw shadows across his face. “We have to know the condition of humanity in the here and now.”
“There are only three of us,” Yutiko said.
“You insisted upon coming.”
Yutiko was starting to regret that decision. What good would it do to throw his life away? He was a diplomat, not a soldier. If there were hostiles, he didn’t know how he might respond.
Mountains punctured the glacier across the land Hodges called the Yukon, and when they finally passed far enough south, the glacier did not end abruptly. A snow gradient segued the ice sheet to the tundra to the south. Once clear of the ice, the similarity between the west coast of North America and the south coast of the Kjillona continent on Ganspag struck Yutiko as uncanny, and left him awe-struck.
The launch was deep inside the atmosphere by now, and acted more like an aircraft than a spacecraft. Hodges leaned toward Yutiko and said, “We’ll fly low over San Francisco to get an idea what Los Angeles might look like.”
Yutiko nodded. He didn’t know Earth geography well enough to understand if it was a fair comparison.
Hodges issued the order to Lumstrum. “Drop to 10,000 feet and fly down what was the San Francisco peninsula.”
“Commander,” Lumstrum said, “look at the Golden Gate.”
“The what?” Yutiko asked.
“This pass between the mountains leads from the ocean to the low valley that once was San Francisco Bay.
Lumstrum said, “The bridge, sir.”
There was a pile of orange scrap metal at the bottom of the pass. Could that have once been the bridge?
“That’s unfortunate,” Hodges said. “It seemed as if the Golden Gate Bridge would last forever.”
“Where is the city?” Yutiko asked.
“It was just on the south side of the Golden Gate. There doesn’t seem to be much of it left.”
Outside, the city seemed to consist mostly of rubble, and what little was still standing was largely buried. If any roads once existed, Yutiko surmised they were also buried. The scene was the same all down the peninsula, including what Hodges said was once the major city of San Jose.
Hodges had been silent all along the peninsula, but now that the ruined cities were in the distance and the launch was flying over a forest, he finally spoke. “This is discouraging.”
Yutiko understood all too well. During the flyover, he saw no indication that anyone was alive in San Francisco. What hope could Hodges hold that the situation would be any different in Los Angeles? According to the human’s history, another species of humanoids called Neanderthals had lived twenty thousand years before Explorer’s departure. Perhaps humanity evolved into something new.
Hodges stopped looking out the window after leaving San Jose. He sat staring at his lap. These types of gestures and positions, Yutiko reasoned, could only be a reaction to the stress of coming home to discover it’s no longer home. Hodges was Yutiko’s favorite human, but even he had his limits.
“Barney,” Yutiko said, using the first name to communicate affection. “If San Francisco is any indication of the state of your planet, then the humans aboard Explorer may be all that is left of your species.”
Hodges slammed his fist against the bulkhead. “No! I can’t believe that.”
The reaction was the opposite of what Yutiko expected. He had never seen Hodges angry, and did not like what he saw. He witnessed some fights between other humans during the long trip, and the thought of his friend turning violent was disquieting.
“I’m not trying to make an assumption,” Yutiko said, now worried about his friend’s reaction. “I just think we should avoid danger this trip, and simply retrieve the water for Explorer.
It took two hours to set up all the equipment to pump ocean water into the tanks. Most of that time was absorbed by assembling the desalination machines.
Lumstrum had put the launch down near the shore at a place Hodges called Redondo Beach. The city of Los Angeles looked much like San Francico. It was nothing more than the ruins of a former great city, overgrown with trees and ferns. Hodges said that the climate in this area must have changed considerably since they started their voyage to allow this kind of vegetation.
From the beach looking inland, all Yutiko could see was a forest. Hodges called these pine trees. Near the launch was a path of broken and crumbled stone. It might have once been solid, but time had worn it away. Up an down the beach were occasional stone objects, perhaps made by human hands, perhaps a strange natural feature. The sand underfoot was littered with seaweed and shells. The only footprints came from the launch.
The sea sparkled in crystalline blue, clear of any type of watercraft. Some of the stone objects extended into the surf. Most were crumbled to gnarled versions of their land-based cousins. Waves broke at the shore with rhythmic regularity. It seemed a peaceful place, yet hollow, as if empty and abandoned.
Hodges appeared to be at the edge of a serious psychological breakdown. Lumstrum handled the situation a bit better, but she said she never spent any time in Los Angeles. Her angst was well hidden, Yutiko supposed. Her home town likely suffered the same fate. He sympathized with the humans, but he could never really empathize. Yutiko was not going home, so he would never see the changes on his own planet.
Yutiko sympathized, but his more practical side told him that it didn’t matter now. Earth was what it was, and there could be no going back to the past. Hodges, Lumstrum, and all the humans would have to adapt to the present and scrape out the best life they could.
Yutiko pulled the final hose into the surf, and dragged it to sea until he was standing waist-deep in the water, waves surging to his chest. The cold water invigorated him, slapping him awake from a decades-long slumber. “The last hose is in place,” he yelled to Hodges.
“Stand clear,” Hodges said, “I’m about to fire up the pumps.”
Yutiko trudged out of the ocean and up the beach to stand near Lumstrum and Hodges. The pumps jumped to life when Hodges pressed the switch, causing the hoses to swell with seawater. When the water first made its way into the tanks, it sounded like metallic snare drums. Later, as the water lever rose, the sound changed to the white noise of a waterfall.
The pumps continued for three hours, during which the rumble of the water was so intense that Yutiko and the humans could not talk without shouting to be heard. If anyone survived, the rumble of the pump would telegraph the presence of the launch long before her crew would notice.
Cruel as it seemed, Yutiko hoped there were no inhabitants in the immediate area. It would prove hard enough to explain the presence of the launch, but explaining himself might prove difficult.
The three-hour delay gave Yutiko, Hodges, and Lumstrum plenty of time to explore the immediate vicinity of the launch. They found nothing of interest, at least to Yutiko, just more seaweed and pine trees.
A cool wind gusted from the ocean as the tanks were nearly full.
“Looks like a storm coming in,” Hodges said. “Let’s get this gear stowed and the water back to Explorer.”
The sky darkened as the clouds blew in from the sea. Rain came as they stowed the gear. At first, it was a gentle rain, but it quickly became a deluge. Lightning flashed, and thunder roared from horizon to horizon. All the while, Yutiko, Hodges, and Lumstrum rolled hoses and stowed pumps and desalination equipment. By the time the Hodges secured the last hatch, all three were drenched.
Yutiko shivered from the cold wind blowing off the ocean. He savored the thought of the warmth inside the launch. Somehow, this beach conveyed a much more menacing aura than it had when they landed. Something was not right, not right at all.
He turned and gasped. Standing along the path of broken stones were perhaps twenty humans, dressed in some sort of fur clothing that Yutiko guessed was made from the pelts of local creatures. They were armed with rusted swords.
“Uh, Hodges,” Yutiko said. “We have a problem.”
Hodges and Lumstrum turned at the same time, and upon seeing the tribe, raised their arms over their heads. Wanting to adapt to local customs, Yutiko followed suit, raising his own arms over his head, and he spread his wings for good measure.