When she stays silent, I go on. “My family lived simply. I was born in a very small village on the outer reaches of the kingdom. It was cold then, but still many years before the Final Winter that would destroy our world. Crops still grew and our planet bubbled with life.”
I even remember a single, short summer when my sisters and I flew and raced through the high grasses and chased glow-bugs. I can’t smile though because the memory is shrouded beneath far too much pain.
“My father was of the military caste so he was rarely home. It was only me and my four sisters and my mother. Some sounded the alarm about the coming doom but most did not want to hear it. My mother shielded us and our village was so remote that if you didn’t spend time on the Global Connect, it was easier to ignore what was happening.”
“Oh Ezo,” Ana says, rubbing her thumbs over my palms.
“But I quickly grew and started spending all my time on the Global Connect. I thought my mother was foolish for hiding her face from the truth. So even before it was required, I joined the military, thinking that I could help be part of the solution. Back then we thought that maybe if we burrowed deep enough underground towards the core of the planet we might be able to find a way to sustain life on Draci.”
I swallow hard. A young man’s foolishness, so confident I could save the world. “My last words to my mother face to face were spoken in anger. She tried to hug me goodbye but I did not embrace her back.”
My eyes sting with an unfamiliar sensation. Dust or some other irritant. I blink rapidly as I continue. “I spent eighty-five years working on grueling infrastructure projects as the planet continued to grow colder and colder. There was only winter then. But I did not truly understand that our planet would not survive until The Long Blizzard.”
“The storm began and we all hunkered down in our deep underground tunnels. We worked in nonstop shifts to keep the entrances and exits clear so that we would not be snowed in and entombed forever, but we could only just barely keep up against snow and ice. Communications broke down everywhere. We were isolated down there, for months upon months, not knowing if the storm would ever stop or if anyone else besides us was even surviving. When the rations grew thin and we no longer had the energy to warm one another with our fires, I thought for sure, it was my end. Many died around me.”
I look up at Ana and her face is devastated. I think she can guess what comes next but still I force myself to say the words.
“When the snow finally, finally stopped, we emerged from the tunnels.” My hands shake and I close my eyes, thrown back into that moment even though it’s the last place I ever want to revisit.
When we came out of the tunnels, the world was white. Snow covered everything. Buildings and trees. What wasn’t covered in snow was coated in ice.
“Our commander didn’t fight us when we asked for leave to go check on loved ones.” The trek home was long and arduous. Travel systems had broken down during the storm. Usually going home meant little more than a quick shuttle ride, though I had never gone because they’d grown increasingly expensive and I saved every cent I earned to purchase passage and supplies for my family for when the Long Winter came.
“But when I got home,” my voice breaks as I continue, “it was as if the village was never there.”
Ana makes a noise of grief but I cannot look at her as I say the rest. “I used a snow digger for days and found them all buried beneath the snow fifty hezeks down. About half a mile in Earth terms. I still held out some hope that they’d escaped, that my sisters had finally convinced my mother to go to the city where it was warmer.”
My jaw locks. “But when I dug deep enough, I found them. Frozen in place. Huddled around the hearth, clutching one another as they died—”
I cannot go on. Seeing my mother’s and sisters’ frozen faces, so perfectly preserved in their last hours of life—it will be with me until my dying breath, when I finally join them among the ancients.
Before today, I had not thought to ever be truly reunited with them even in the afterlife…but now… Perhaps I can beg their forgiveness, if only so I can look upon their faces once again. I do not expect their forgiveness to be granted because I failed them so utterly.
“I was too late. I had not seen that the Long Winter had already begun. If I had, if I had gone to them— If only I had gone to them sooner—”