Chapter 1 - Crescendo
Fat flakes of snow drifted down to mingle with the dull gray ash that covered the empty city for the last few months. It was one week before the Fourth of July, one week before the shuttles launched for New Earth. The Trials were over. Just a few hours ago, she’d missed the last slot that would have guaranteed her a place on that shuttle by one point during the Trials. Sandra found herself drifting like the snow, bone-numb, and weary. She knew she hadn’t had a prayer with the Track and Field trials, but she’d hoped her ability with spelling and grammar would have saved her. To be fair, it almost had, but Sandra wasn’t feeling particularly fair just then. By all rights, Sandra should’ve been with the others, in the Airport, at that very moment, congratulating the winners. It was childish, she knew, but she just couldn’t face her sister and the other winners right now, and she definitely didn’t want to be comforted, either. She just wanted to be alone; needed time for it all to sink in. So she simply drifted, like the snow and ash, destinationless and trying not to think.
Signs flashed everywhere-sales ads, ads for the latest carbon reduction campaign, the ozone protective wear not to be caught without, the strongest in-home air filters. The signs were hopeful and bright, and still entirely wasteful-a sign of humanity’s refusal to acknowledge the truth to the last.
The truth was, it was too late.
The last word that had come from anyone via radio to the small group of survivors taking refuge in an airport had been weeks ago now, Sandra realized. It hadn’t been good. Humanity had been all but demolished; pockets of survivors like theirs now all that was left. In the south it was plagues and storms, to the east, tsunamis; while in the west, fires and earthquakes had done their work upon the populace.
But here in the north-it was ice. The survivors agreed on one point at least: The ice was worse. Ice was slow. Ice left room for hope-until the crops failed and winter came, and your house was destroyed inch by inch. Then it simply left the work to other beasts. If you didn’t freeze to death you starved by inches, cruelly and without mercy, or you succumbed more quickly to disease.
Sandra thought the ice beautiful. It was crystalline and purposeful; elemental. No judgment-or perhaps it was that the ice itself came as the perfect embodiment of humanity’s judgment. The ice was not at fault. People were-something people tended to forget. But it was loud, Sandra acknowledged. This close to the glacier’s leading edge, there was no escaping the grinding and creaking. It was also colder.
Sandra’s breath fogged in front of her as the streets of Hearthwood carried her onward, until finally Sandra rounded a corner. Abruptly her destination became clear. She was heading home. Much of her family’s home still stood, though it verged on being swallowed by the ice. The little home hadn’t given in yet, despite being given every reason to do so. What little light the sun had remaining to impart to the afternoon faded into the dimmer light of oncoming evening, a light so thin the towering ice barely reflected it. The ice, appearing the same ash gray as the sky and streets, dominated the broken neighborhood as Sandra crossed the bridge over the river which marked the final few blocks to home.
It would be even darker inside and as cold, but Sandra pushed the door away from the splintered frame anyway. She ignored the dark and the cold, pushing through the hallway until she reached the old couch and the tumble of dirty ice that had prompted the family’s move. Unlike many, their home hadn’t succumbed in inches as the ice moved in. Despite evacuation orders, Sandra’s family had waited, stubbornly daring the ice to do its worst as the glacier moved steadily closer and closer, until finally, it did do its worst- a mountain of ice had fallen on the home.
Sandra wasn’t sure why the home hadn’t been entirely destroyed, but whatever the reason, a feeling of safety washed over Sandra.
She was home.
That feeling was all she was looking for. That helped, providing a comfort she never could have found amongst the crowd….so long as she disregarded the risk of further ice fall. The ice itself seemed to catch Sandra’s mood and obliged for once, falling silent. The silence and the cold settled around her, still and heavy, in some way the restorative she needed after the noise and heat of the generators and crowds of people at the Trials. Finally, though, she was shivering despite the heavy coat and hood and she decided it was time to head back, if only to get moving to warm up. It was time to face the question she knew must be on almost everyone’s mind: What are we supposed to do now?
Sandra’s only answer was a resounding creak and crash as the ice gave way again somewhere behind her.
Back in the relative warmth and light of the little airport-turned-refuge, Sandra could only assume that her mother’s incessant worrying over her would eventually stop. Right now she could see no signs of that happening anytime soon, however, as her mother began expressing her displeasure in her daughter’s disappearance the moment she’d seen Sandra push open the curtains to their little square of New Jersey International Airport, Terminal A. Her sister was only making matters worse, taking her mother’s side and escalating things, as always. Her mother was just worried about her, but Sandra could only wonder about Katrina’s motives. They’d not been on the best terms before they’d evacuated and the added stress hadn’t improved matters.
Kat’s motives, however, became clear with her sister’s next words. “Didn’t you want to congratulate me, Sis?”
Sandra nodded to herself-the attention. She was at a loss for words, though, since the truth was that she most assuredly had not wanted to congratulate Katrina when she left, and was growing less and less inclined to do so with each passing moment. Unleashing those words just then would cause more devastation to her sister than she was prepared to just now though. As a safer alternative, she finally replied to her mother. “Mom, I know you’re just worried about me, but see- I’m fine. As I have been for the last ten times I’ve gone out!”
Before her mother could reply, Kat cut back in, with all the certainty of her eighteen years. “If you keep going back home, one day you won’t be, you know.” Kat paused, then continued, her words and pause carefully calculated. “At least we won’t have to worry about the ice going crazy on New Earth.”
“I still can’t believe you called it that. I thought you all were supposed to be the best and brightest…Well, I guess you’ll have all the time you want to think of something better.” Rather than bridling, as Sandra expected, Sandra watched in surprise as a frightened look crossed her sister’s face-and disappeared before Sandra could react. Dissolving then into the anger Sandra had expected, Kat opened her mouth to retort-but before she could give voice to that anger, Sandra’s mother Jean finally put her foot down. “I’m putting a stop to this little jealousy spat right now, Sandra! Don’t pick fights with your sister-and with her leaving us in a week!”
Sandra’s eyebrows arched higher with every word, and she started to reply heatedly, but the torrent continued. “I can’t believe you’re five years older than your sister, Sandra-I swear, you’re acting like you’re five years younger!” The hot word still on the tip of her tongue, Sandra started again to let them fly as the torrent abated. Before she could, however, Sandra froze in horror as her mother’s face crumpled. Sandra watched in shock as her mother sank to the sleeping mat and buried her face in her pillow.
Kat recovered first, snarling, “Now see what you did!”
Almost never had Sandra wished Kat would shut up as she did right then, knowing that there was no way everyone in the airport wasn’t privy to this little family feud at this point. Sandra’s face crimsoned, and she snapped, “This is exactly why I go home-at least there, not everything is my fault!” She whirled, and nearly tore the sheets off the makeshift frame in her haste to get back out the family’s camp.
As much as she wanted to leave the building again, she knew the risks were too great as late as it was, with no light. She was sorely tempted to risk it with a torch anyway. Instead, compromising, she stalked up several flights of stairs to the access on the roof of the airport. This refuge was, by recent unspoken agreement, reserved for those desiring something resembling privacy. Mercifully, she actually had the entire space to herself, so far as she could see.
After a time, the icy air soothed her rattled nerves once again, but once anger faded, she found herself blinking back tears. Fight or not, Kat was still her sister, and the truth of it was, she’d be lost without her. Sandra reflected that she and her sister were night and day-they didn’t even look alike. Sandra took after her mother, ash blonde hair and gray eyes, and since her sister took after their dad, Sandra’d reconciled herself to the fact that she’d never have the height her sister would, though she envied her sister that red hair and blue green eyes. She remembered how that hair had given Kat away, though, when they were children playing hide and seek, and Sandra nearly smiled. Now Sandra almost wished for the anger back. It was better than tears any day, but it was too late. Snow continued to filter down, slowly, melting on Sandra’s cheeks and mingling with the tears there. She let them run down her face, unsure of how long she stood there as the moon rose weakly, visible only as a washed out patch of brighter sky through the obscuring clouds.
The silence shattered in an instant as the night split asunder with a huge crack and a labored groan. The sound filled the air and then cut through it, transcending sound. A resounding, larger than life crash followed hard on its heels, a noise so immense it filled the city and, reaching into its muffled crevices and hurling through the snow filled alleys, merely suffered itself to be suppressed into a boom on reaching human ears. Nothing remained in the city anymore to startle except Sandra-all residents either hiding, dead or fled-who jumped to her feet, staring. To her horror, the sound of something huge billowing and rushing began to build in the distance, and rapidly got closer. Wind and small pellets of ice began to flow around her, eddying and pushing impatiently like water eddying in a river. Solitude was over-it was time to get inside. Sandra reached the door and jerked it open, dashing inside just as the wind screamed in earnest, slamming the door shut for her behind her. Sandra stood, awed, as chunks of ice slammed against the building and the wind dashed itself against the sheet and mortar of the airport as if possessed with a personal desire to reach the residents huddling safely, if fearfully, within. Farther down, icy fists crashed against the reinforced windows. Heart thudding, Sandra realized they somehow still held. Wind rattled the building one final time and then, as if by a switch, the gale died to nothing. Shaken, Sandra stood another moment against the door, then finally turned and locked it. There would be no more going outside for a while, it seemed-the ice was on the move again.
Before they lost communications, the scientists with Sandra’s father had relayed their shock and surprise. The ice they studied now moved swifter, more suddenly, than it had ever been known ice could. It moved fully half a mile in a month rather than in a year or decades. Sometimes it seemed to get stuck on something-and then, when it released, it could jump miles with a crack like the earth itself breaking open. The scientists had theorized, when the unusual speed had been noticed, that it was because the ice formed so fast the weather remained warmer than the weather would normally during an ice age, not having had time for the ice to chill the air around it yet. Consequently, the ice mass was frozen less solidly than they’d ever seen before and it moved with a fluidity more like water. The hemispheric glacier sheet calved even more frequently, and massively, in chunks large enough to throw gale-force winds and boulders of ice for miles.
The sheets began, naturally enough, at the polar ice caps and simply continued in one unbroken field across most of the northern hemisphere. In fact, some of the refugees sheltering with Sandra and her family were former Canadians and Alaskans; Sandra didn’t want to guess what their journey had been like. Thankfully, the ice had been relatively stationary last winter, stuck on something or perhaps just waiting somehow. The refugees were never sure anymore, when it came to the ice. Regardless, it was clear the reprieve was over now.
Sandra, who was beginning to become aware of herself again, realized she was quite chilled. Turning her steps in search of something hot to drink and a warm fire, she realized that after that blast, everyone who knew the signs of the ice moving would be seeking direction. Meetings were held in the food court; logically they would head to the food courts to find their direction. Sandra sighed, certain this meant they’d have to move again soon. She frowned. The thing was that the ice, like any other ice in this at least, normally expanded in the winter. They should’ve been safe for months yet. Her frown deepened, a sudden thought stilling her steps. How far had it moved? Was the house still there?
A sudden push from behind her got her moving again, and she turned to see her sister-who uncharacteristically and abruptly caught her in a hug. “I thought for sure you’d been caught on the roof!”
Sandra felt every one of those five years older in a heartbeat. Caught off guard, she replied awkwardly. “Yeah-I only just made it back inside in time!”
Kat pulled away and turned red, recalling herself as their mother approached, and not saying another word.
Sandra mentally shook her head in momentary amusement at her sister before continuing. “So I’m right then-we’re all heading to the food court for an emergency meeting?”
Both her mother and her sister nodded. “Word just came around, Sandra.” Her mother Jean was grinning. It was Sandra’s turn to crimson as Sandra realized her mother must’ve witnessed the entire exchange between her daughters.
As they moved on, the buzz and hum of a crowd of people began to fill the hallways of Terminal A. Here and there, people began to join them. Jean urged the two faster so they could find a decent spot until they passed into the food court. Spying a free table, Sandra pointed it out and dropped into a chair, and the others followed suit. In short order it seemed as if all 500-some refugees sheltering in the airport had fit themselves into the food court, seeming to fill it despite the expanse. The press of people and the odors and noise of so many people added weight to the air until it began to feel to Sandra as thick as jelly. She was almost surprised to find she could still breathe it.
Finally, one figure stood upon the counters of a Jamba Juice stand and raised his hand for silence. Slowly, quiet spread around the food court, the noise dying away almost imperceptibly at first, but eventually silence reigned. The slight man standing on the counter smiled at the crowd, appearing to attempt reassurance, then began in a strong Minnesotan drawl, “I’m sure you all don’t need me to tell you the ice is moving again. We knew the ice had gotten really close now, last season-if it jumps again, it could be sitting in the parking lot in an eyeblink. So we have to decide, you know, do we move south, with the Shuttles taking off so soon, or do we stay?”
Immediately, shouts rang out, echoing through the terminal and blending into an incomprehensible clamor. Flushing, the soft-spoken man raised his hand again. “One at a time, please!-raise your hands now!”
Hands shot in the air, and someone cried, “Dave! Dave!” in a bid to get the man’s attention. Instead, Dave picked a redheaded girl in the center of the court. “Yes, please ma’am. Go ahead, then.”
The redhead stood. “Frankly, I don’t care about the shuttles, I’m out of here.” She perfunctorily sat again and ignored the renewed uproar her words caused.
One voice carried above the rest, raised in adamant support. Finally, a big man stood up and bellowed, “EVERYONE, SHUT UP!” loudly enough to rattle windows, and then sat down, red-faced when everyone stared. The small girl next to him however was grinning broadly and in fact looked to be on the verge of laughter.
Quickly, Dave stepped into the silence. “Thank you. I believe I said, raise your hands, no? Okay, then, who’s next? ---yes, you in the blue coat.”
Various opinions flew, most in favor of leaving but the more adamant in favor of staying, reminding everyone that the buses were supposed to be coming to get the winners of the trials from the airport. The debate went on for hours, but what finally decided everyone had nothing to do with the shuttles-it was simple logistics. So many people was simply too hard to feed, and the air filters in most public buildings simply weren’t equipped for so many people. It would be better if the group split-those in favor of it staying here but most moving on, heading for the last known location of refugees to the south.
Those in favor of leaving decided eventually to wait a few days, primarily to try to convince everyone to leave, from what Sandra could gather. Personally, Sandra thought leaving a dumb idea-who knew if the other refugee group was even still there? Even if they were, they probably hadn’t any more food than this group did. Only the hazards they would face would change-and Sandra didn’t know plague or fire. This time, she was just as happy with her family’s decision to stay. After all-it didn’t matter what happened to them after the shuttles came, anyway-it was obvious it was just a matter of time before the air was completely bad. Though they were told they didn’t need air filtration masks outdoors yet, the birds were gone, the skies silent; the humans obviously didn’t have long now. With those disturbing thoughts settling in for the night with her, Sandra fell asleep wondering just how long it would be before they all suffocated on their own poison-but she knew at least Kat had a chance, and she clung to that thought like driftwood.
As the hush of night deepened, Sandra started awake, jerked from a dream in which she’d been talking to her father. She had the sense he’d been trying to tell her something important, something about the ice, but just what he’d said had already faded beyond reach. A deep rumble filled the air, and Sandra jumped again.
Her mother, sitting up, noticed Sandra’s start and murmured, “Just the ice again. Go back to sleep.” Slowly, sounds resolved themselves around her again; snores from other camps, then, the brutal bash of the ice against the windows and the wounded-animal scream of the winds-and then, the earth shook beneath them with a bass rumble more felt than heard.
It was over in seconds, but it left them both shaking. “Wow. It must really have jumped this time….” Sandra looked over at Katrina. “How can she sleep through that?”
Her mother laughed softly. “I’ve never been sure how she can sleep through anything-she didn’t get it from me.”
Sandra hesitated. “Mom…Are you sure we shouldn’t go? It’s really moving fast…” After a silence so long Sandra thought her mom didn’t mean to reply, and she was even drifting back to sleep, “No….we have to stay…for her. She has to be on that shuttle…” drifted to her so softly Sandra wasn’t even sure she was meant to hear. “So we’ll just hope that it doesn’t reach this far before she is? Look what happened last time we decided to stay….” Sandra rolled on her side to face her mother. “You know the house is probably entirely buried now.”
“Honey-that house has been gone to me since your father died.”
“I...Mom…have you ever wondered if Dad’s still alive somehow? I mean…we just never heard anything.”
There was another long pause, and the rustle of blankets. Then, “I used to. But now-I don’t know-what if he is? I almost think- if he isn’t, he’s in a better place than we are now.”
There didn’t seem to be anything Sandra could say after that. Listening to the snores and occasional mutters or stirring from the others in the terminal arm, the skylights turned gray before she finally drifted back to dreamless sleep.
The next day was spent taking their turns on the forage crews, but barely anything was left by now. The crews were having to go farther and farther before finding a haul they knew would be worth the effort of bringing back. Those on the forage team in favor of leaving persistently pointed this fact out loudly, though the facts were obvious to everyone already.
Today, the foraging group had a different air. They all knew, leaving or staying, they simply didn’t have to worry about finding as much. Curiously, this did nothing to alleviate the worry or tension whatsoever; Sandra could almost feel the pressure of so many people weighing the decisions they made and turning them over and over. The sensation began to feel like heat on already burned skin, irritating to Sandra. The time, today, instead of being filled with diligent searching was filled with chatter among groups that broke off, idling.
Sandra cautiously watched from the corner of her eyes as some of the conversations grew animated. She scanned the streets for clues to an area they hadn’t been before as a tension clung in the air and grew rapidly thicker. Conversation grew more and more animated. Voices began to carry to where Sandra was, loud enough for her to note that those staying were getting tired of those leaving telling them they were wrong.
Disdain began to replace Sandra’s amusement at the scene; people looked so silly when they’re angry, waving arms and red faces. She shook her head. It was all one and the same unless you were one of the ten percent going off world. Then a shout carried over on the wind, and Sandra watched as one figure’s fist lashed out to catch another squarely on the chin. The figure crumpled to the street, not moving. Sandra couldn’t tell who it had been, if it were someone destined offworld, or even if they were in favor of leaving or staying. There was no way of telling at this distance. Searchers and talkers alike stopped what they were doing and defended themselves, or attacked, and the simmering aggression simply boiled over.
For once, Sandra’s propensity for watching at a distance stood in her favor-until she noticed someone taking a swing at her mother. Dodging brawlers until she reached her mother’s side, she came around behind the aggressor and planted a boot hard into his backside, causing him to stumble. Her mother took the chance to bring her knee up into his nose, breaking it. He was out. Something hard and sharp whistled past her ear, causing her to duck instinctively. Straightening, she took her mother’s hand and began heading back to her earlier sheltered spot. Sandra cast around for the gleam of her sister’s copper hair, and not spotting it, grew frantic. “Where’s Kat?”
Fortunately, Jean quickly alleviated her fears. “I sent her back – she said she had a headache!”
Relieved, Sandra noted incongruously that it was a common complaint-but one that stood them in good stead this time.
A spark of motion from the corner of her eye caught Sandra’s attention. She turned instinctively, but something solid impacted her temple. Her head rang and lightning flashed behind her eyes. Blood streamed down her face. Dropping her mother’s hand, she staggered, her vision swimming and narrowing dangerously, gray eyes filming over. She turned slowly around to face another man. She looked up…and up…He loomed over her. He was huge! His fist lashed out….and connected with a man just off to her right, holding a rock. The rock dropped to the ground with a thud, but before she had time to see anything else she grabbed onto her mother’s hand and quickly began pulling her out of the way again. Had the giant just helped them out? Reaching the spot at last, Sandra slumped against a door, head throbbing, the sounds of chaos and fury surrounding them.
Sandra was gulping for air while her head steadied, but her mind whirled. Was this what humans really were, when all else failed? Beasts? And yet, she wondered, briefly, at the tall man. Had he in fact helped them?
“Maybe we should go join Kat,” her mom said weakly. Sandra just gingerly nodded and pushed herself up again slowly. “Are you up for it?”
Nodding again in reply, Sandra shoved away from the wall – then her mother screamed, and the flash of metal caught the air. Agony stabbed through Sandra’s side, and the blackness that had threatened her before crashed her to the street.