by Scott Coon
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Nate had connected to a weather satellite hooked into the rest of the Orbitors’ station by a makeshift data spine. The spine granted access to the greater arc of machines. Nate cataloged everything he could find up there: every computer, every rocket, every tank of rocket fuel, including the only tank with unspoiled fuel in it. He even catalogued all the carbon scrubbers. The next morning, Nate presented the catalogue to Mr. Torres.
Mr. Torres’s jabbed a finger at the screen. “That’s it!”
“That server says Skunk Works.” Nate glared at Mr. Torres. “I know what Skunk Works was, and it ain’t farming.”
Mr. Torres spread another warm smile. “It’s a Skunk Works computer, but the data is farming.”
Nate narrowed his eyes at Mr. Torres. “Caribou crap!”
Mr. Torres took a dramatic breath. “Okay, it’s weapons. But we’re only defending ourselves. The African Union found ICBMs and tested one on Siberia. With this, we can shoot their missiles down.”
Nate turned away. Dad was right. The SAS were liars. Was anything Mr. Torres said true? Was taking his clan south really true? Nate put on his coat.
“I’m rescuing your entire settlement,” Mr. Torres said. “When they get south, don’t you want them to be safe from the AU?”
Nate paused at the door. Mr. Torres was a liar, but if there was any chance at all of escaping this endless winter, how could he walk away from that?
“I can’t get into a Skunk Works server without help. I’m going to search the other rooms for invasive software. I expect there is some, since this is actually a military base that we drilled into for you.” Nate snorted, mimicking his father. “Or are you going to tell me I won’t find any because this is a weather facility, like you said?”
Mr. Torres didn’t answer.
Nate snorted again. “I thought so.” He left.
After hours of breaking into cabinets, Nate found firewall breaching software sent there for testing. Nate shook his head at the test schedule, now centuries behind. “Better late than never.”
He took the software and manuals back to the control room. When he opened the door, there was Dad, his wide eyes roaring like diesel engines. “How could you?”
“Dad, I... I was—”
“Do you never listen to me?” His father’s hands curled, resisting the desire to be fists. “Everything I do is for you boys, and this is how you repay me?”
Nate couldn’t speak. He could barely think. Everything Nate was doing was for everyone. But how could he explain it to Dad?
“Does tradition mean nothing to you? Does he mean nothing to you?”
Nate blinked. “Wait... what?”
Dad brought his fist down on the console, rattling the electronics within. “How could you let your brother dig his own pig?”
Nate emptied his hands into a pile on the floor. “I... I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t know? You didn’t know! You’re down here with all... all this!” His father kicked the rolling chair into the wall. “That’s why you didn’t know!”
“But this is important.” Nate’s face contorted as he searched for a place between telling and not telling. “It’s more than greenhouse glass. It’s important.”
“You wouldn’t know important if it bit you on the ass.”
“But what I’m doing here—”
“Is a distraction!” Dad grabbed a dusty keyboard and cracked it across a desk. Black keys ricocheted from every wall. “That’s all you are, an endless distraction from what’s important. I can’t get you married soon enough.”
Nate clenched his teeth. Tears flooded his cheeks. He was not a son. He was a thing to be traded. “What if I don’t wanna marry a girl I never met?”
“Do you want our bloodline to end? Did I suffer this life so you could throw yours away on toys?”
“I am trying to help everyone!”
“By refusing Ortiz? You only help yourself.” Every part of Nate’s father shook through his heavy layers of hide. “If you don’t marry that girl and dig your own pig, you can follow the nomads.”
Nate screamed, “You don’t understand anything!”
Then he ran out of the facility and across the tundra. Sideways sleet ripped at his face. Winds leached all feeling from his fingers. Still Nate ran into the gathering gloom until his failing lungs brought him to his knees. Behind him, fresh snow filled his tracks. If he didn’t get up and go back, he could die out here. Nate gave himself another minute.
While he trudged back, nightfall closed like an iron maiden. Nate tightened his hood and buried his bare hands in the layers of hide. His tracks were gone. With nothing to guide him, Nate had to keep his path straight. If he missed the facility, he’d be dead by morning. He imagined himself kneeling in the snow, an ice statue for his father and bother to weep over. That would show Dad.
* * *
The smell of porridge dragged Nate out of his dream. He pulled his face off the console.
Robby poured warm lumps into a cold cup. “You haven’t been home. Thought you should eat.”
Nate wiped his eyes. “Thanks, but Juan brings food.”
“Juan?” Robby’s lips tightened. “Well, I brought you not-food too.” He started to open the door but stopped. “You know, Nate, Dad hasn’t had a lot of good in his life. And since we lost Mom, all he has is us.”
Nate hunched into his computer. “But he would throw me out on the ice with the nomads for not letting him sell me to the Ortiz clan.”
Robby melted. “That’s not how it is.”
“That’s how it feels.”
“Well, maybe this will change how it feels.” Robby opened the door.
On the other side, swaddled in caribou fur, was an angelic face. Nate gathered his jaw from the floor and managed to speak two words. “Is that—?”
Robby simply guided Clara Ortiz into the room and left. The two sixteen-year-olds locked eyes in silence until Nate broke away, checking the progress of his incursion software. There was none. He checked it some more.
Clara drifted around the small room behind him. “Do you know how to work all these machines?”
Nate glanced up but only for a moment. “Some. I could learn the rest. I guess.”
“My brothers like you already. They say you will bring entertainment.” She moved from desk to desk as if taking inventory, her hands never leaving her pockets. “They like tech, too, but they only know radios. They are putting up a big antenna. They say they will talk to Russia. They say I should learn Russian, but Russian is hard.”
Nate typed something. He didn’t know what. “Your English is good. Better than my Spanish. Sorry.” He gave her a wincing smile. “I’m trying.”
Clara smiled back then looked away. “I’ll help you, if you need it still... after.”
“Yeah. That would be... nice.”
The door opened and Robby stuck his head in. “Sorry, kids, gotta get her back before the dads find out. If I can, I’ll sneak her over again the morning. So, say goodbye and be quick about it.” Robby went back out.
Looking down, Clara nodded. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
Nate tried to say something nice, maybe a compliment, but all that came out was, “Yeah.”
Clara opened the door. She paused, her eyes still on the floor. “Your brother told me you were upset... about the arrangement. I didn’t want to, either. But I am glad that you are nice... and handsome... and...” And Clara ran out of words.
Nate stared at the closing door. A warm feeling rose through him. Did that really happen? Was she really so nice? Or was that just what puberty does to your brain the first time you meet a woman that you’re not related to? Still staring at the door, Nate definitely felt warm — differently warm — but not eighty degrees on a beach warm.
He put his fingers back on the keys. “I’ve got to do this.”
The rest of his day was filled with failure. One error message after another told Nate that this firewall breaching software hadn’t been worth its test schedule. Nate worked into the night but, no matter what tack he took, the Skunk Works server refused to yield. He ended up sleeping face down on the terminal once more.
He woke to a slamming door and a red-faced Mr. Torres standing over him.
“Your father just woke me screaming about a pig! Why is he kicking me off your land over a pig?”
“Pig, uh... tradition,” Nate said, not really awake. “Best man digs up the wedding pig, and I’m first brother, so I’m best man, so I’m supposed to do it, but Robby did it because we needed a shaft to 1A, and I don’t drill so good.”
Mr. Torres scraped both hands through his hair. “Whatever! He’s making me leave tomorrow!”
Nate looked to the screen. It reported more failure. “I can... uh—”
“What? What can you do in one day? Can you access that server?”
“I thought so.” Mr. Torres stomped back and forth. “A pig. A pig! And nothing we can do. Wait!” Mr. Torres loomed over Nate. “Can you bring it down?”
“If you can bring it down, that server should survive reentry and my people can recover it.” Mr. Torres leaned in harder. “Can you bring the station down?”
There was another lie in there. Nate could feel it. He stared Mr. Torres hard in the eyes. “I want Clara Ortiz to go, too, and her clan.”
“Done. But can you do it?”
Nate started typing. “It was in that catalogue I made, one good rocket with fuel.” A few key clacks later, Nate folded his arms. “Done.”
Mr. Torres got on his laptop and tracked the decent. “Perfect. It will come down in the ocean near Argentina. You are a hero to the South American States! I will contact my people.”
Nate closed his eyes and dreamed of his future in the warm, warm south.
Nate opened his eyes. Someone had initiated a video connection with his console. It was a man in an ill-fitting, dark blue suit, its collar softened by too many prior owners. The man looked past Nate as he continued. “I thought you died at Area 51.”
Nate’s whole body quaked. This couldn’t be real. He refused to believe it until Mr. Torres tried to cut the video feed. Nate quickly blocked the keyboard.
The man on screen said, “I see you got another chump to do your dead partner’s job, Torres. What did you do to us this time?”
Another man appeared in the video. He wore a uniform stripped of everything except the five stars on each shoulder. It too was older than the man inside it. “Mr. President, that rocket they fired, it’s bringing us down. We’re falling out of orbit.”
“Can we fix it?”
The soldier shook his head. “And that explosion last month that damaged the shuttles, it’ll take another week of repairs before they can survive re-entry. I...” His mouth kept moving but no more words came out.
Nate had never felt so cold. “What have I done?”
The president stuffed is face into the screen. “What you’ve done is help this monster kill us all just like he always wanted. There are over a hundred children up here. Is it worth it, Major Torres, to have that on your soul just so you can build a Stealth Bomber?”
Mr. Torres said, “Don’t feel bad, kid. It’s their forefathers who destroyed the planet.”
Nate jumped up and seized Mr. Torres by his collar. “You think I’m an idiot! Everyone drove cars! Everyone did this!” Nate shoved him away and went back to the console. “Maybe I can undo it.”
Mr. Torres kicked Nate’s chair away from the terminal. From under his coat came a handgun. “Stay out of this, kid.”
Nate gripped the arms of his chair. “Shoot me and my family will never let you leave our land alive.”
Nate edged his chair toward the keyboard. Mr. Torres aimed for his head. The unexpected smell of caribou stew entered the room. They looked to the opening door. Seeing who it was, Mr. Torres kicked Nate’s chair out from under him and seized Clara Ortiz. Caribou stew splattered everywhere.
“Maybe you care if she dies!”
Nate jumped to his feet. Mr. Torres shoved the gun into Clara’s throat. Nate stopped.
“I thought so. Now, just let this happen, kid.”
Nate’s eyes darted around the room, searching for something, he didn’t know what. But when he found it, he was going to hit Mr. Torres with it: hard!
The door opened again. Mr. Torres dragged Clara to the blind side of the doorframe.
Robby entered, his eyes on his brother. “Hey, Nate. Where’s Clara?”
Mr. Torres struck Robby from behind, sending him to the floor. Robby got back up, his fists ready. Mr. Torres fired. Robby flopped to his back, unmoving.
“You monster!” Nate lunged.
Mr. Torres hurled Clara into him. The two teens crashed to the floor. Mr. Torres aimed. Nate covered Clara with his body. Clara’s small hand gripped Nate’s shoulder. Mr. Torres sneered as he centered his pistol on Nate’s forehead. Then Mr. Torres crumbled to the floor, unconscious.
Standing over him with a bloodstained chunk of ice in his hand was Nate’s dad.
Nate said, “Dad? What... why?”
“Brian told me he saw your brother driving with that Ortiz girl so I...” Dad stopped and threw the bloodied ice aside. “What in the name of holy freakin’ hell is going on down here?”
Nate could breathe again but it didn’t last. He scrambled to his brother’s side. The wound, he had to find the wound before his bother lost too much blood. But there was no blood. Nate tore open Robby’s layers. He found the bullet. It had drilled through the caribou hide and into the leather-bound history of the Goodman clan, where it stuck in the pages.
Robby grabbed his chest. “Holy crap, what hit me?”
A siren bellowed across the video feed, pulling all eyes to it.
Dad squinted at the man on the screen. “What’s that, one of your TV things?”
Over a hundred children... Everyone down here was safe but over a hundred children... Nate got back on the keyboard. “I can fix this, Mr. President, but you have to give me full access now.” Nate positioned his shaking hands over the keys.
The President looked to his general but all he got was upturned palms. The President typed, then grimaced through the screen. “There, access.”
Nate steadied his hands as best he could and started.
Dad blinked at them. “He’s real?”
The President glared at Dad. “I’m real, and all the people your son helped that madman kill are real, too.”
“You are not going to die.” Nate’s fingers danced over the keys. “I’m venting all your bad fuel. You’re lucky those relief valves are pointing down.”
“Sir” — the soldier grabbed the president’s shoulder — “we’re stabilizing.”
“At a lower orbit.” Nate sat back, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “It won’t last, but I’ve bought you time. And I’ve fixed your other problem, too.”
The President squinted. “What other problem?”
“I used that access to delete your weapons data. The SAS won’t come looking for it anymore. And like I said, your new orbit won’t last, so you might wanna fix those shuttles and come down here with the rest of us. Enjoy the weather.” Nate cut the video feed.
Dad stood over him, his jaw hung low. “Nate, I don’t know what all that was but...” At a loss, his dad simply smiled.
Clutching the family history in one hand and his chest in the other, Robby came to his feet. Clara hurried to help him. “Don’t worry, Dad, he’ll explain it to us later. But we better get this young lady back before she’s missed.”
Robby took Clara up and put her in his truck. Nate and his dad dragged the unconscious Mr. Torres up the tunnel by his ankles. Reaching the small ring of vehicles above, they let his legs drop into the snow.
Nate turned to his father. “So, what do we do with him?”
Dad shrugged. “Healthy male his age, nomads will give a whole caribou for him, I expect.”
Nate straightened up. “Won’t his people come looking for him?”
“We’ll point his rig south, set it crawling.” Dad nodded. “Nomads will find it, take it. His people will go after the rig, never trace it to here. No one will come here.”
Nate looked to his feet. “I’m sorry I lied and yelled... and everything with Ortiz... and stuff.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sorry I didn’t listen till you started yelling.” He put a hand on Nate’s shoulder. “I’ve been so busy telling everyone what to do, maybe I forgot how to listen.”
Nate kept staring at his feet, unsure if he really heard those words come from his dad.
The rising sun warmed the day despite the relentless clouds. A few yards away, the evergreen sprig struggled to become a tree again. The small satellite dish blocked what little light was to be had. His dad walked over and kicked the dish out of the way.
“Maybe we can leave that, see if it attracts caribou. Then maybe we can pen ’em, raise ’em for meat and all. Have more food, a better life for everyone, like what you’re doing with your TV thing. Maybe it’s time to do more than just survive. Maybe give everyone more time for your TV stuff... maybe.”
Nate’s breath got stuck in his throat. Did his dad just say that? Was this moment real or was Nate still in the facility, still sleeping on the console? A cold wind whipping across his face told him this was very real, but he wanted to be sure. He remained still, a white rabbit in snow.
Copyright © 2020 by Scott Coon