The Winter Sleep
No one and nothing moved across the surface of Malna during the Winter Sleep. The toxic snow piled a dozen feet deep, and all life ceased under the double burden of toxins and cold.
All surface life ceased.
The Malnese called it the Winter Sleep, irony firmly in place: anyone caught out in that winter would sleep all right, and never wake up.
Under the surface, the planet hummed with life, where ships from the Empire couldn't see any of it.
At the end of a long hall buzzing with activity, Jake studied the plans for the dozenth time. It was only a few months now to the final test, by which the Malnese would live or die. It was Jake’s responsibility to be sure they lived. He wanted to wait for spring, but no one knew when—or if—Malna would see another spring. Nor did anyone know when the Empire would return to confirm they were dead. They couldn't afford to wait.
“Alexa, can you double-check my figures? If my calculations are off by even a tiny amount—” He didn’t have to finish that thought. Everyone knew how much depended on getting this right the first time, because there would be only the one time. The female next to Jake turned to study the figures, her crest of hair turning from blue to red as she concentrated. She was an Arebulano by ancestry, while Jake’s forebears came from Earth, but both were Malnese. Neither had ever seen any other planet.
The planet had been settled generations before by representatives of every known sentient race, brought there by the Empire. It was an experiment in peaceful co-existence, and it had been meant to fail. The colonists had nearly died the first Winter, when the toxic snows began, for they’d had no warning. No one knew for sure if the Winter was unknown to the designers of the experiment, or if it was their final guarantee of failure. In the other seasons, the surface was generally Earth-like, if by Earth you meant Minnesota.
Those who were not killed when the Snows began went underground, and adapted. That first Winter lasted a single Earth year, which wasn't long enough to destroy the surface colony. When the Winter ended, the colonists moved back to the surface and began to plant again.They had learned to live furry cheek by green jowl. They had already found that sexually compatible didn’t necessarily mean cross-fertile, which provided a form of population control that made their underground periods possible.
For a time, ships from the Empire had brought necessary supplies, and taken only what little the colony could spare. Later, they had brought less and taken more. Then the third Winter came, and it lasted longer. Long enough for a ship to come while the planet was in its Sleep. The crew had just time enough to report the colony had vanished, before they perished in the toxic snow. After that, the Empire stopped sending ships, and the Malnese managed on their own. It had taken a long time to learn what they needed to make use of that ship.
Now they were ready. They might have chosen to rejoin the Empire. Instead, they spent half a life-time reading history—and chose to leave the Empire.
“We get one chance. We launch at the right spot, and we will pass the limit of the Empire in two Earth-years. In three, we will reach the target planet.”
“And if we are wrong about the planet,” Alexie said softly, “we will die.”
“We will die,” Jack agreed. “And if we intercept a ship of the Empire we will die. But if we don’t leave here, we will also die.” That was what only a few of the Malnese understood: their underground life was not sustainable. Each winter had been longer than the one before, and the periods between shorter. Jack’s father had experienced three winters; Jack had already lived through 5, and if the patterns held, there would be a dozen more within his lifespan. The planet’s orbit wasn’t just erratic, it was decaying. They drew closer each pass to the source of the bizarre toxic “snow.” They could leave, or they could join the planet in a permanent Winter Sleep.
“Why are we doing this?” Alexa wondered.
Jack shrugged. “Seems to me that life likes living. It’s the nature of any living thing to cling to life. Look at how the native plants have adapted, building roots that go deep beneath the reach of the Snow. And I can't just lie down and give up.”
“Me either.” Neither commented further. They concentrated on preparing for the Exit.
“I can’t believe we’re really doing this.” Jack looked around their compartment for the last time. It was little larger than a room on the ship, so there wouldn't be any problem adapting to that. They had done their adapting during the Winter Sleeps.
“Are you sorry?”
“How can I be? I won't stay here and die. We have to leave. No other considerations matter.”
“And yet?” she suggested.
“And yet,” he agreed. “Awful as this place can be, it’s home. It’s the only planet we know, ’Lexa. I’m not an Earthling. I’m Malnese. Even when Malna is trying to kill us with the gawdawful Sleep, it’s home.”
“And we aren’t members of the Empire, either,” Alexa added. “A whole people with no home.” She picked up her bag. "Let's go find one."
A few people were staying, mostly the old, who had little life left and little to gain from making the Exit. The rest were doing what Jack and Alexa were doing: walking away from everything they had. A long line of them filed through the sealed passage to the ship. For Jack and Alexa it was one last trip. As members of the planning team, they’d been aboard often. This time felt different.
“Don’t look back,” Jack whispered as the ship lifted from the surface. “Never look back.”
©Rebecca M. Douglass
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