Aphelion: Chapters 1 + 2

I don’t know if this is a good or bad idea, but here are the first two chapters of the new adult, sci-fi novel that I am currently querying. I’ve sent out a disgustingly low amount of queries, so maybe this will help. Or hurt. I don’t know! Either way, I hope that you (the person reading this) enjoys the story.

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Alaska’s Arctic Refuge looking much like the landscape of Kolnidura. Photo: USFWS/Steve Chase

Chapter 1

No differences marked the transition between Marek being alive and him being dead. His skin had been void of color, his body of hair, and his eyes of movement for months already. No sound that signaled life passing, no cry of pain or a gasp of air. No movement, no clutching of the wool blanket, or reaching for their hands. Only a subtle change in the atmosphere of the bedroom Khalida had unwittingly learned to perceive after seeing so many others die in the same way.

Across the bed from her, Caedmon was stiff, staring at the corpse, not blinking, maybe not even breathing. His reaction would come later, when he could do it discreetly. It probably took all his energy to not let it gush out in front of Khalida.

“I really thought he’d make it,” she said, her words louder than intended.

Caedmon leaned over the body. He pulled the blanket over Marek’s face.

“He was never going to fight it off.”

“You know what I meant.”

Caedmon didn’t answer. He resettled himself on the edge of the bed, staring at Marek as if the blanket wasn’t there. Caedmon had had the longest time out of all of them to prepare for the passing of his parents, but Khalida knew he didn’t think he was ready. Not just for their deaths, but what came after. His new responsibility would last longer than the grieving.

“I’ll let the others know,” Khalida said.

Caedmon glanced up, his eyes twitching. “Okay.”

On her way out, he added, “Can you have someone get Raiko to help me move him?”

A sob broke on his last word, but Khalida pretended not to notice.

She crossed the pod living room, the space already feeling emptier. She saw flashes of both her and Caedmon’s parents sitting on the couch, Caedmon and Khalida on the floor with a blanket shared between them, listening to stories about Earth. Stories that were broken by laughter, and then laughter broken by fits of coughing, and coughing fits broken by gasps for air. Khalida and Caedmon running for a glass of water or a rag to wipe the blood from their parents’ lips and hands. Their parents saying that was enough for tonight. Stories unfinished. Lives unfinished.

Happy memories broken by death.

Khalida stopped at the door. She didn’t know how many were waiting in the corridor, but she knew that every single one would now be looking to her and Caedmon for answers, and the two of them would have no one else to look to for answers but themselves. She was ready, even if Caedmon wasn’t. She was ready because he wasn’t.

She straightened her posture and took a quick breath. She heard feet shuffling as she turned the handle — bodies scrambling up from the floor, crowding the door. She stepped into the corridor to find three-quarters of the remaining Colony.

“He’s gone,” she said. “Marek is dead.”

After the silence of the bedroom, the questions were deafening.

“When’s the burial?”

“Did he say anything?”

“What do we do now?”

“What’s he look like?”

“Can I see him?”

“How’s Caedmon?”

She responded with as many yeses, noes, and one-line answers as she could manage before she lost track which questions she was answering. Finally, she waved them away and asked, “Anyone seen Raiko?”

“He’s with Juna. Trying to keep her from falling to pieces.”

“Well, Caedmon needs his help now.”

She slipped back into the pod, her ears ringing.

The door cracked open behind her. Khalida turned around, ready to shoo them out, and found Laiken.

“Will you tell Eily?” Laiken asked, before Khalida could say anything to protect the silence.

“You should be the one to see her,” Khalida whispered, hoping Laiken would catch on.

She didn’t. “You don’t have to go all the way to the hangar. Call her on the radio.”

“We’re not calling her on the radio. She’ll want you there. She’ll need you there with her.”

“I haven’t talked to her in, like, five days. I don’t think telling her that Marek’s dead is going to be the thing that brings us back together. She’s going to push me away even harder.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll go,” she said and reached for the door. “Now, you should — ”

“Hi, Caedmon,” Laiken said. “Sorry for your loss.”

Even from across the pod, Khalida could see the droplets in his curly, black beard betraying his secret. She could also see the veins in his forehead straining to keep it together for only a moment.

“Raiko coming?” he asked without even a glance at Laiken.

“Yeah, someone’s getting him. And I’m going to visit Eily.”

“Don’t bother,” he said. “She won’t come.”

“She still should know.”

Caedmon appeared as if he wanted to say a million things. Khalida already knew every single one of them. He opted instead to retreat to the bedroom in silence.

“I really am sorry for his loss,” Laiken said. “I mean, how could I not be? Marek was — ”

Khalida took Laiken’s hand.

“I would never question your sincerity.” And it was true. Laiken cared more about all of them than Caedmon would give her credit for, but she still hadn’t found a way out from under the shadow of her family’s history.

“I’m glad we have you.” Laiken embraced her. “If it was only Caedmon, I think we’d be screwed.”

Khalida suppressed a laugh. “We all have each other, that’s what’s important.”

A moment later, she was back in the corridor dodging questions. But this time she had on her cold weather gear, and between her cap and balaclava, it was enough to muffle their words and make them easier to ignore. She jogged down the stairs, the questions becoming lost in the four stories of open space.

Outside, she filled her lungs with the chilled air. She focused on the crunch of the frosted tundra below her feet as she made her way across the yard to the garage. Someone had left a droska outside, its panels flipped up from the hood, trying to soak in what little sunlight was penetrating the cloud cover. Those clouds promised to dump winter’s first layer of snow, but had yet to release their bounty.

Khalida leaned inside the cab and checked the droska’s battery gauge. It displayed almost four and a half hours — enough time for a roundtrip to the hangar without a fuss. She folded back the panels and climbed inside. There was a faint click as she powered on the engine and accelerated out of the yard.

Soon she was far from the Colony, driving parallel to the beach. The waves tugged by the breeze were only delicate ripples on the ocean’s teal surface. She felt small sandwiched between the endless plane of the ocean, and the white, jagged mountains that rose out of the tundra in the distance.

She watched those mountains now, the monoliths standing still as the land closer to her moved progressively faster, until it only became a blur beneath her. Their size was a reminder of the powerful forces that created Kolnidura. Forces that pushed layers and layers of rock into the sky, followed by wind and rain barreling through and pounding down until each curve became a point. As if that wasn’t enough show of power, millions of layers of snow followed, compacting into slabs of ice, forcing the mountains to retreat back into the ground, waiting for the day that the alpine temperatures found their way to the other side of freezing.

Now a tiny organism had killed off the last Earthborn, shattering everything they had traveled so far to create, leaving Caedmon and Khalida to hold the together the pieces long enough for Earth to pluck them all away from Kolnidura’s grasp.

One day a spaceplane would break through the clouds, landing at the spaceport which she was now cruising towards. Khalida would be the one to run to Them, greet Them, tell Them how she and all the others had fulfilled their obligations, and how eager they were to return to the home of their parents. They would rescue Khalida from the frozen rock and give them a new home, a new purpose, and a new life.

And if they didn’t, those powerful forces would continue. Everyone would die. The buildings would crumble. In time, all signs that Kolnidura had once hosted an alien species would vanish and all of this would have been for nothing.

Khalida steered the droska over the series of bridges that crisscrossed the braided currents of River Leonov. Before long, the shadow of the Armstrong Spaceport hangar loomed over her.

Built to fit three spaceplanes, it only housed one inoperable vehicle that Eily had made it her life’s work to fix. The only light source came from the hangar’s roof windows, and it revealed on the floor hundreds of wires and panels and knobs and myriad other parts Khalida never learned to identify. Eily had them displayed in a grid pattern, which Khalida at least knew Eily had organized according to the area of the spaceplane they originated from. Eily believed the plane’s fault could be but a tiny detail, so she was meticulous in every aspect of her work.

“Eily?” Khalida called out with some restraint, embarrassed that she was afraid to say it any louder.

Her echoing voice in the massive structure offered the only response.

Khalida navigated through the grid towards the rear of the spaceplane where the cargo hatch was open. A scattering of lamps illuminated the fuselage and the exposed innards of the plane where Eily had removed wall panels. Several colors of cords wound their way through the plane’s supports.

“Eily?” She called again at the top of the ramp.

Still no response.

Khalida made her way inside, stepping around more parts that had yet to travel out to the floor, or perhaps on their return trip. Hard to tell for sure. It was in a constant cycle of disassembly and reassembly.

Near the cockpit was an open floor hatch. Khalida bent down and popped her head in. It was a tight space, made smaller by the bundles of cables and tubes waiting to tangle around your feet and trap you for days until you died of thirst or hunger or cardiac arrest.

She called again, and a moment later a sound emerged from what seemed like a much further distance than what the crawl space could provide.

“Lida?”

Relief. “Yeah, it’s me. Where are you?”

“Hold on.”

The sounds of grunts and scuffling floated Khalida’s way, and a moment later Eily’s petite frame emerged from the mess. Khalida was prepared to spit out her news and get it over with, but Eily beat her to it.

“He’s dead?” she asked, her tone impassive.

Khalida nodded, or at least tried to because it was hard to know which way to move her head when it was hanging upside down.

“Okay, thanks for telling me.” She maneuvered back into the wilderness of wires.

“Wait, are you to going the burial?”

“No,” Eily said without raising her eyes.

“Caedmon needs you.”

“He has you.”

Khalida tried again. “Laiken needs you.”

“Please leave me alone now. I have work to do.”

“Eily, please, I think it would — ”

“Lida, my obligation is to get this piece of junk into the sky.” Eily finally raised her eyes. “Everyone needs me. Especially now. Please leave me alone so I can finish my work.”

Khalida sat back from the hatch, the blood draining from her brain. There was no point in arguing with her. Eily hadn’t left the hangar in over a year. All the time Marek was bedridden, he only asked about her well-being and nothing about her coming to see him. He’d been the one to give her the task, and he had never expected her to leave her work for him. It was pointless to attempt convincing her he’d ask her to leave it now.

Following tradition, the burial took place at second sunset, when Amaterasu finished its second pass across the sky. Caedmon dug out Marek’s grave weeks ago, before the ground was frozen, knowing he wouldn’t last long into the winter. He could now finally join the 47 other Earthborns who lay beneath the tundra.

Khalida held Caedmon’s hand, and they stood together without speaking, waiting for the last few stragglers to arrive. As they came, they filled in the empty spaces around the grave, surrounding Marek with nearly everyone he had left behind.

Caedmon lifted his head and surveyed the group. “I think we can start now,” he said to Khalida.

She took a deep breath, relieved to be doing this for the last time. Giving the eulogy was a task inherited from her parents. Since Tulsi and Efram had been the Colony’s teachers, they were inherently the better spoken of all the colonists. This was still true in Khalida’s case, but even more so, since half of the planet-born colonists were barely literate. A fact for which Khalida struggled not to blame herself.

“Today, we lay to rest Marek,” she began. “He was partner to Zameer, and father to Caedmon and Eily. Marek and Zameer arrived on the First Wave and were tasked with overseeing the construction of the Colony and maintaining its infrastructure. Marek will be remembered for his leadership and imparting to all of us the knowledge and skills we will need to continue thriving here on Kolnidura.

“By virtue of his wisdom, and the wisdom of all of our parents, we are capable of continuing to fulfill their obligations and living the lives they dreamed of and traveled here for. Regardless of the events that prevented them from achieving those dreams, they are not to be forgotten. This is one concept that Marek repeatedly conveyed to me: pressing on, doing good work, collecting good data, and living a good life. Our work gives us purpose. And that’s important. But it also gives us hope. Hope that one day soon, They will descend from the clouds to take us to our new home.”

Caedmon’s fingers tightened around hers.

“Our parents came here for a reason,” she continued undaunted, “and if we cannot fulfill that reason, Earth may not have any motive to help us. We must display to Them that we can be productive citizens, sustain an efficiently operating society, and be an asset to all of humankind. We must earn our salvation. So we must not merely sit on our hands, waiting for rescue.

“Marek’s death, and the death of all Earthborns, does not permit the cessation of our obligations. On the contrary, it provides us a reason to fulfill our obligations evermore fervently. For now that we are done watching our parents suffer until death, it is time to overflow the immeasurable crevasses they left behind and continue the Mission for which they sacrificed their lives.”

She nodded to Caedmon. He stepped forward and pulled an orange flare-gun from the inside of his coat. With his gloved-hands, he struggled to insert the tiny red capsule, but eventually managed and raised it to the sky.

Only half the crowd covered their ears in time to muffle the sound of the capsule launching into the darkness. Khalida kept her hands by her side. The sharp ringing in her ears a reminder that she was still alive.

An orange light bathed the surrounding landscape as the flare burst 150 meters above them. It would have been high enough that Eily could see it from the hangar, and Khalida hoped that she was watching.

Her closing line was a simple standard: “Goodbye, Marek. You will be missed.”

Caedmon snatched the shovel from the dirt pile and removed it with a full blade. He tossed the dirt into the grave and passed the shovel to Raiko. Raiko dumped in another shovelful and transferred it to the next person.

As Marek’s form vanished under the soil, Khalida had the urge to smile, to laugh, to let out how happy she was that it was over. They didn’t have to watch anyone else suffer from such an unforgiving infection. No more checking to see if they had passed in the night, or cleaning up after they lost control of their bodily functions, or comforting those without the capacity to find it within themselves to move on.

Tomorrow would be a new day. They would be free of the past. Free of the deaths that had plagued her childhood.

The dying was over. Now they could focus on living.

Chapter 2

Rescue. Caedmon hated that word. Khalida seemed to be obsessed with it, as if the more she spoke it the more likely it would happen. But dwelling on rescue distracted from what was more important: survival. “Collecting good data” was good and all, it was part of everyone’s obligations, but growing enough food, ensuring the heat and electricity worked, and preserving social order is what would keep them alive. Caedmon didn’t care what Marek told her because Marek had only told people what he thought they needed to hear to get them out of bed in the morning.

Except with Caedmon. Marek always told him the truth.

“We were supposed to be human civilization’s first truly egalitarian society,” Marek had explained to him, followed by a clarification because he knew Caedmon wouldn’t have a clue what that enormous word meant. “We are supposed to be equal. We would all have our obligations to fulfill, but at the end of the day when we came together, nobody would have more say deciding matters than anyone else.”

“But then everyone became infected?” Caedmon asked.

Marek was already bedridden by that point. It took him a moment to recover the energy he used for his previous explanation, so it was a long moment before he finally said, “Yes. We all became infected, and people panicked, and no one could agree on anything. Everyone forgot everything we learned in training. And someone had to step up.”

“But shouldn’t we keep trying? If that was what we were supposed to be, shouldn’t we try?”

Marek coughed attempting to laugh.

“In a perfect world. But Kolnidura is far from a perfect world, as hard as we tried to make it one. And I can see that everyone is already looking up to you. You’re the oldest. And you’re unfortunately the offspring of the person who decided to step up.”

“Why can’t Eily do it?”

“She already has her purpose. Being the leader is yours.”

“But I don’t want to be in charge.”

“First, you are not in charge. You’re leading. There’s a difference. And second, you have Khalida. Both of you have your strengths, and together you’ll make sure that the Colony survives, no matter what. Whether Earth lifts the quarantine or not, no matter how long it does or doesn’t take, together you’ll keep the Colony alive.”

Caedmon was walking with Khalida now behind the others, returning to the Colony, leaving Marek to rest in his grave. Amaterasu had dropped far below the horizon, unveiling a sky speckled with stars and the faded orange and blue clouds of the Milky Way. A crimson aurora swirled above the silhouetted mountain tops.

Caedmon reached for Khalida’s hand, the friction of their gloves making the gesture clumsy. But they were used to it.

“Your speech was nice,” he said.

“I know you didn’t like it.”

“I liked it. Just thought you gave a little more than what was necessary.”

“Like what?”

“You know what.”

“Yes, I do, but I want to hear you say it. I want to know that you are fully conscious of that fact that you think what I believe is wrong.” Her words were harsh, but she said them with a smile.

“I don’t think all of it is wrong.”

“For example…”

“Well, for example, I appreciate that you use that belief to actually justify contributing to the Colony when there are others who do nothing but consume our resources while contributing nothing at all.”

He gasped for air, and Khalida laughed.

“I’m simply trying to give them hope. Won’t everyone be more willing to contribute if they have hope?”

“But how long will that hope last? If They don’t come, and years go by, won’t people give up waiting?”

Khalida raised her head to the sky and didn’t respond.

“We can’t survive if people give up,” Caedmon added.

“So, it’s better if they have no hope at all?”

“No, but maybe it’s better if they have hope in their own ability to survive. People should believe in themselves, not some wild idea of rescuers from the sky. We don’t need anyone or anything but ourselves. We are enough. Or at least we should be enough.”

“That’s rather poetic, coming from you.”

“Well, that’s about all I’ve got, so don’t get used to it.”

He released her hand and put it around her waist, pulling her towards him.

“Sorry,” he told her. “I’ve got so many emotions running through me right now.”

“That’s why I’m giving you a pass. But you’re running out.”

“Thank you,” he said and kissed her on the top of her cap.

He dropped his hand from her waist, but she caught it in hers. She tightened her grip on his fingers and glanced up at him with a smile, her hazel eyes catching every fragment of starlight.

“Are we ready for this?”

A fuzzy wave rushed through is body, from his head down to his toes. If Khalida hadn’t been holding onto him, he might of dissolved into the tundra.

He choked back his tears, grateful for what little darkness the twinkling night sky provided. “We’ve managed so far. Having him gone now won’t change anything. But still, I’m glad I have you with me.”

“And I’m glad you do too. Because you might be the oldest, but I’m the smartest.”

“I’m not even going to pretend I’m offended by that statement, because I know it’s true. Don’t tell that to Zale, though. Or Libra. Or the M’s. Hell, don’t say that to anybody. Everyone thinks they know everything.”

“Well, I know that I don’t know everything. And that’s what makes me the smartest.”

“That makes absolutely no sense to me.”

Khalida laughed and pulled on his arm to get him closer.

Outside their pod, Caedmon and Khalida gave their goodnights to the others and thanked those with their belated condolences. Khalida did most of the talking. Caedmon’s voice had retreated behind his body’s effort to keep from crying.

The warmth of the pod welcomed them inside. They were silent as they hung up their jackets and unlaced their boots. But when Caedmon stood up, the emptiness and silence of the pod swept through him. He caught the tears at the last second, but he couldn’t prevent the shuddering sob that emanated up from his throat.

He felt Khalida’s hand on his neck, her cold fingers releasing a tingle through his spine. She pressed herself into him.

“I’m here,” she whispered.

Caedmon broke. He surrendered his tears, and his legs abandoned their obligation. Khalida managed to hold him and guide him to the room. He was laid on the bed, his socks removed, a blanket pulled over him.

Her body was next to his. Her arms around his chest. Her face pressing against his back.

In a moment, he was a child again. He wrestled free from Marek’s grip and ran onto the runway. A spaceplane had just landed. It was the Third Wave, and they had brought a special cargo. It was the talk of the Colony for weeks. Caedmon couldn’t wait any longer.

He headed straight for the nearest kennel. He’d seen pictures and video of this animal before, but never in real life. In real life, he’d only seen humans. Well, and the insects they grew for food. This creature wasn’t like a human or an insect. It was nearly the size of Caedmon, but black and white hair covered it from head to tail. If it wasn’t for its long, red tongue, Caedmon might have thought the entire animal was void of any color at all.

“Be careful,” Marek called to him, trying to catch up.

“I will!”

The thing made strange sounds. It would whimper and yelp, hurting Caedmon’s ears. It was scary, but it looked so soft. There was only enough room between the wires for Caedmon to reach in his hand. He stretched his fingers out towards an ear. He’d felt nothing like it before. He pulled it towards him, trying to get a better hold on it. The animal made an even louder sound and yanked its ear out of Caedmon’s grip.

Marek shouted his name as the beast closed his mouth around Caedmon’s wrist. He shrieked in pain and was swept off his feet. He was in Marek’s arms, protected from the terrible animal.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you. I’m here. I’m here. I’m always here.”

“Good morning, Caedmon!”

Juna echoed Raiko’s words with a laugh as Caedmon entered the dining hall.

“And a good morning to both of you,” Caedmon replied as casually as he could.

Raiko beat the sun every morning to prepare breakfast. His parents had been the nutritionist and the physical trainer for the Colony. The obligations of the nutritionist were only to plan the meals, not cook them, but Raiko enjoyed it so much, and the others disliked it so much, that he slowly took over the kitchen. When Elam, Juna’s partner, was away on his mapping expeditions, you could always find Juna “helping” Raiko with meals. Caedmon never mentioned it because he didn’t want to start any unnecessary conflict, but there was an obvious positive correlation between the quality of the meals and the length of time Elam had been gone.

“We have a scramble today,” Juna exclaimed, “with red potatoes, green and red onions, tomatoes, yellow peppers, and your choice of sautéed mealworms or caterpillar.”

“Sorry, still no June bugs,” Raiko said, knowing Caedmon’s preference for the crunch of the beetle’s shell.

The Colony’s insect population had been bioengineered for faster breeding, higher protein and fat content, and quicker maturity, and enabling them to thrive in Kolnidura’s atmosphere. A flaw in the design for the June bugs meant that after dozen generations or so, a mutation in the organism’s DNA withheld the enhancements. These naturally functioning insects couldn’t survive the environment, and they had to start the line over using preserved embryos. That meant every few months they were out of June bugs. Kolnidura was definitely not a perfect world.

“That’s fine,” Caedmon said, “I’ll take the mealworms.” If he couldn’t have crunch, he’d settle for juiciness.

Raiko pounded the table and jumped to his feet. “Mealworm scramble it is.”

Juna waited until he had disappeared from the kitchen to say, “Sorry I wasn’t there with you yesterday in your pod. I wanted to be, but I….”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The tears still found a way down her cheeks.

“You don’t have to apologize, Juna. I appreciate how much you care.”

Juna wiped her eyes. “I shouldn’t be making this about though. How are you?”

Caedmon shrugged and took the seat across from her.

“I’m okay. I’m only trying to treat it like any other death and have a normal day like any other day.”

He wished that wasn’t lie. He’d wish anything for it to be a normal day. And even more for it to be a normal life. On Earth or on Kolnidura. Just one in which his parents didn’t leave him behind.

“We’re lucky to have you leading us, Caedmon.”

His empty stomach twisted, but he kept his face straight. “I’m no different from you or anyone else. We’re all pieces of a larger machine.”

“I like that. Or maybe we are all each one root supporting a big, beautiful tree.”

Juna’s obligation was the greenhouse. Her parents had been an agronomist and a horticulturist. They helped design the plants and the rooftop greenhouse, ensuring that the Colony had a year-round supply of fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts.

“Yeah, I guess that one works too,” Caedmon said, forcing a smile and a little laugh.

Raiko entered from the kitchen with a steaming plate. He set it in front of Caedmon. Juna wiped what tears were left and gleamed at him while he took his first bite.

“People are always happy when they eat, and I like to watch people be happy,” she had told him once.

Caedmon found it awkward because he never liked people watching him. Whether it be eating or anything else. If there was one thing he dreamed of what life could be like on Earth, it was that he could just be a face among three billion others. There was a word for that, he was sure. He’d have to ask Khalida about it. But if he was that word, he could go about his daily tasks, with no one bothering him about their petty concerns or frivolous emotions. Here on Kolnidura, he was like a magnet for attention. Nowhere to hide.

After getting his fill of bugs and potatoes, Caedmon took a droska out to his first daily stop at the solar field. Because a dusting of snow had fallen in the night, it was the priority. Only eight of 32 panels were still installed. The rest were stored in the hangar for future use. The original infrastructure had been designed to support a hundred people, and there was only a quarter of that, so they had kept that much up and running. If they survived long enough to need it, they could replace the weathered panels with the backups. They had more than enough to make it as long as they could ever hope to live.

One of Marek’s favorite aphorisms: “Use as little as possible for as long as possible.”

With most of the panels removed, 24 poles twice the height of him extended from the ground like boughless trees. The remaining panels, with areas equal to a single pod, shielded the rising sunlight, creating rhomboid shadows that could probably cover most of the colonists if they stood close enough to each other.

They were a reminder of how powerful humans could be. They could shape a landscape, seed a planet, and harness the energy of the sun. A sign that as long as they pressed forward and fulfilled their obligations, anything could be possible.

Caedmon hauled out the ladder from the droska’s trailer, extended it to its full length, and rested it up against the top side of the first tilted panel. He carried up a broom and proceeded to brush away the night’s snow. The task came with a conflicting pair of thoughts. It only snowed at the beginning of winter or the end. When it signaled the start of the warm months when Kolnidura was approaching its perihelion, cleaning the panels was almost a celebratory act. But today marked the onset of winter. With each sunset, the temperatures would drop further and further below freezing until Kolnidura reached its aphelion with Amaterasu and the night temperatures dropped past minus 70 degrees. That was cold enough for near-instant frostbite on any exposed skin.

That made Caedmon’s next task all the more important: servicing the Colony’s heating systems. Four graphene pipes carried an antifreeze mixture — which had been created especially for the Kolnidura International Peace Mission — 6,000 meters below the permafrost where the heat emanating from Kolnidura’s core was just warm enough. The mixture was cycled up into the podstacks to the greenhouse on the roof and around again ad infinitum. The Omnia, which housed the dining hall, fitness room, classroom, medical clinic, and scientific laboratories had an identical system, while the garage had a one pipe configuration. Caedmon examined each one every morning.

He prided himself on his maintenance of the Colony’s essential systems. It was the only thing that gave him confidence. When something malfunctioned, he had clear and concise steps to troubleshoot the problem. He never doubted his actions were the correct ones because the correct ones were all he knew. He had enough graphene and polyethylene stock to print much of what he needed to replace, and most of everything that could go wrong he had seen and fixed once already.

But leading was something he had no manual for. There were no replacement parts or troubleshooting trees. He couldn’t do experiments or trial runs. He had to decide a solution on the spot, and whatever happened, happened. The Colony was like a droska engine that was locked away behind an impenetrable barrier. If something broke, he could only fix what he could see, so he was replacing the headlights or the brakes or the panels. None of these solved the actual problem, but as long as it kept the droska puttering along, it would have to do.

Standing at the top of the ladder, he saw the Colony a kilometer down the hillside, the sun glistening off the rooftop greenhouse. The mealworms seemed to come alive and squirm back up his throat. He couldn’t see anyone, but he could sense them peering up at him. He could hear their questions, their worries, their fears. They thought he had all of their answers.

But he was more like them than he let on. He had questions, worries, and fears same as everyone else. And now that both of his parents were gone, he had no one to turn to but himself.

Written by

Spent the last 3 years writing a book. While I query that, I’m trying to knock out a few worthwhile short stories.

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