Cold Falling White, page 1
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To all the strong girls: Audrey, Penelope, Monica, Kathy, Tess, Bronwen, and Lucy
PART ONE FIRE
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
—MARY SHELLEY, FRANKENSTEIN
I am as weightless as a thought, as a shadow underwater. The only thing that gives me substance is the sense of filling up with… something. Something thick and powerful and inhuman, unearthly. I want to squirm away from it but there is nothing to squirm with. All I am is a selection of verbs: to fill, to grow, to change, to perfect. It’s as though I’m being rebuilt from scratch.
Days pass like this. Lifetimes. A lonely wisp of nothing floating in a sea of… what’s left of my mind searches for the word.
Obedience? Duty? I’m being entwined in something, as though my nerves are unraveling and tangling into some idea of… I can’t see it. I can’t hear it or smell it or taste it. It’s nothing, a void, like the space left behind when something is lost. I can feel its emptiness, feel it trying to consume me, to ensnare me. But there’s something else resisting it, something stubborn and intractable, something human.
Regret. And the idea that not every broken thing is unfixable.
In the darkness, I sense someone with me, and though this someone is no more substantial than I am, they feel heavy, like tears of grief or remorse. Tiny yet galactic.
“Hello?” I’m not sure how I say it. I don’t seem to have a mouth.
The answer comes back to me as an impression of force on matter—the particles of air vibrating from sound, the light flickering on August’s hands moving as he signed.
Oh… August. Get me out of here. I’m afraid. August?
It’s not until ten days after August left Raven’s body in an abandoned hotel near Jasper that I feel her death, actually feel it, the way I felt Tucker’s death and Lochie’s and Felix’s and Mandy’s and… the rest. Like boulders dropped on me from great heights that I have to carry—first the pain of the impact, then the weight of them. Sometimes, plodding through the mountains, I look down at my feet and wonder why I’m not sinking into the earth like an overloaded mule in a muddy paddock.
August turns back to me, his hand raised palm up, a sign I’ve learned is a generic question.
“Nothing,” I lie. I’ve been staring at my feet, trying to wriggle some feeling back into them.
I’ve made a promise, to myself, to Raven and all the dead, and to Topher and everyone I left behind in the failing human sanctuary under the mountains. I just need to get out of the Nahx occupation zone, then I can lose my mind. Get word to the human authorities, tell them there are two hundred people starving, running out of fuel and resolve, two hundred people marked for death in a place where no humans are supposed to be breathing, as far as I can tell. Maybe no one will care. What’s another two hundred on top of millions? On top of Raven and Tucker, and Lochie, and Felix, Mandy, Sawyer…
And my family. Mom. Dad and Nai Nai. Chloe. She was only thirteen.
Was. Is. She’d be fourteen now. Maybe I’ll never know.
This is how I keep moving, by mentally scheduling a future freak-out, fighting not to tremble from cold, and following a seven-foot armored alien through a spring-soggy landscape that is utterly indifferent to the absence of my species. Geese fly north in neat Vs, squirrels scatter up gnarled tree trunks, big-horned sheep turn their ponderous heads to us as we pass. And the earth springs back to life, oblivious, even grateful to have this respite from human interference. The colors of spring keep me focused on my goal—the soft green of new pine needles, the silvery blue lichen on rocks, and dandelions, golden glowing dandelions everywhere.
August stops to pick them periodically, twisting their stems into his armor. I keep meaning to ask him about this but I probably wouldn’t understand his answer. We don’t have time to teach me his sign language.
Yes and no are obvious signs. And there’s one he repeats daily.
Promise, he says, before turning away from me. I learned this word the day Raven died. August means he will fulfill his promise to get me out of the Nahx-occupied territory. He promised Raven, and to him that means everything. I don’t know why. What’s one human boy out of millions?
A few minutes later he turns back again. Cold? That’s another obvious sign, as some of them are.
“No. Can we just keep moving?”
I’m wearing the coat, gloves, and sidearm of a dead RCMP officer we found on the empty highway two days ago. The Mountie’s rifle is slung over August’s back, along with a Nahx rifle he found discarded under a shrub.
Days and nights pass like this in silence, tramping through the mountains, picking up various treasures as we find them. I find a maple leaf scarf mashed in a puddle. August wrings it out and tucks it into his armor. An hour later when he gives it back to me, it is bone dry and toasty warm, as though it has just come out of the dryer. And we find food occasionally, in between days of living with my growling stomach. I now have pockets full of chocolate bars and nuts taken from a deserted gas station.
It’s been two weeks, by my count, since we left the plateau where Raven died. Now a week and a half since we laid her to rest in Jasper, wearing a silky green dress August found in a hotel room. I didn’t ask questions about that either. Her own clothes were stiff with dry blood and smelled of death. I suppose he only wanted to give her a little dignity in her final destination.
Ahead of me, in a patch of green, August bends to pick another dandelion, and I’m struck by the sudden weight of pure silence descending over us.
He spins, hissing.
The Nahx transport is careening over our heads before he even reaches me. I dive down into an embankment without thinking, rolling until I crash to a stop among a thatch of weeds.
There’s another low hiss.
“I’m here,” I whisper. “Did they see us?”
Before I get an answer, the transport hurtles overhead again. August lashes out and grabs me, pulling me up by the back of my coat.
Run FAST, he says. Two more obvious signs I learned early on.
I tear away from him, off in the other direction and down toward the shallows of a creek, straining my head back to try to spot the transport just as its engine suddenly roars and howls. The high-pitched screech makes the air seem to tremble and turn everything blurry.
“Where to?!” I yell back. August crashes through the trees behind me. “Which way?”
We have reached a split in the creek where the sparkling water tumbles and flows around a rocky island dotted with trees.
Up, he signs.
I plow through the shallow churning creek, over logs and stones, and pull myself onto the island, collapsing in the shrubs. Just as I roll over, August appears through the trees, his dark shape blotting out the sky behind him. He blurs as he swings the Nahx rifle and points it at me.
Dead. DEAD! His hand slices across his neck. DEAD!
He shoves the rifle into my chest, pushing me backward onto the gro
DEAD! You dead!
I close my eyes as his rifle starts to whine. There’s a loud hiss, and a dart thunks into the ground next to my head. I open my eyes a sliver to see August bend and retrieve the dart, breaking off its tip. He hesitates a moment before twisting my head to the side and jamming the blunt dart into my ear.
His hand smacks down over my mouth before I can complain.
I close my eyes again. Over the low rumble of the transport engine idling and the rushing of the creek, I can hear approaching footsteps, heavy footsteps splashing toward us. I hear August’s armor rattle and his familiar hiss.
Another hiss answers it. At the very last moment I think I can hold my breath August nudges me hard with his boot, rolling me over onto my face in the mud. It gives me a chance to take a careful breath.
There’s more hissing, and someone growls. They are angry, and I’m trying not to panic. An eternity goes past.
Finally a warm hand touches my head, resting there as I listen to the footsteps sloshing away and the engines of the transport taking off.
I take another careful breath. Then another.
“That’s you, August, right?”
He pats me on the back and pulls the dart out of my ear.
As I roll over slowly, August kneels there, watching me.
Sorry, he says.
“Were those the same ones as… whenever it was?” A few days ago we narrowly avoided a group of Nahx by hiding in an abandoned bus. Then there was the time we nearly got spotted crossing a rail bridge. And once we missed a transport flying right over us by seconds. Our luck clearly ran out today.
I sit up and wipe my face, trying to will my heart to stop punching the inside of my rib cage.
“I’m not broken… I mean hurt. No, I’m not hurt.”
August stands and looks down at me expectantly, but I’m not quite ready to get up yet. After a moment, he kneels again, resting back on his heels, and makes a bunch of signs.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand…”
Promise, he says with a sigh.
Three days later we catch sight of the border drones just as it’s getting dark. Back at the base, our commander, Kim, told us her gathered intel suggested that there was a “web of attack drones” along the border, and I guess I pictured that more metaphorically. This actually looks like a web, a hideous web some monstrous spider has spun across miles and miles of mountains, with tiny pinpoints of light floating above the western peaks, each one projecting an array of thin beams in every direction. It delineates the Nahx occupation zone. This is the border we need to cross to get me back among my own kind, among humans.
We creep through the trees until the web is looming above us only a hundred yards away. August puts one hand on his head and taps his helmet, as though he’s thinking.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s head north again, or south. It can’t go on forever.”
Forever, he says, shaking his head slowly.
“Through it somehow, then?” I suggest. “Isn’t it designed for vehicles and aircraft? Maybe we could just walk through it.”
I’m not sure how someone in a full suit of armor and mask can look doubtful, but August manages it. He bends, retrieving a heavy chunk of wood from a crumbling tree. Curling his arm back, he flings it precisely in an impressively high arc so it sails gracefully through the air. The web crackles as the wood flies right through it.
In a microsecond ten of the drones have converged on the spot the log breached. I stumble back as the night is shaken by a loud crack, and a bolt of electricity shoots out from the web, incinerating the log where it landed.
“Okay. Yeah. Maybe we should…” I’m tugging August away before the smoke even clears.
We backtrack to a crumbling one-room cabin by a stream we passed earlier in the day. August gives me one of his lights as I spread my map out on the dirt floor. Then he does this cool thing he can do, snapping his fingers to make sparks, and starts a small fire in the remnants of the fireplace. It warms me as I study the map.
At the base, after Kim died, her son, Liam, let me look at some of the topographical and military maps showing our location and the surrounding terrain. I combined that with a couple of other travel maps and stuff I could remember from geography class into what I thought might be an escape route. It became my project, pretty much the only thing that would calm my mind in the long nights when I was sure I was going to die up there, sure we all were.
The journey I mapped out was meant to be for everyone—some two hundred survivors were going to hug the low sides of the Yellowhead Pass, keeping to the trees where possible, switching over to the service roads by the railway tracks where the highway climbed too high in elevation. I suggested we plan for a month, given that such a large group, and one including children and the elderly, would be slow.
People came to believe in the map, to believe that we could just walk out of the occupied territory and be free of the Nahx. I don’t know what I was thinking. It has been hard enough for me and August to walk through the wilderness undetected. Two hundred of us would likely have been picked off by the Nahx on the second day. Maybe everyone knew this deep down, and that’s why we never quite worked up the momentum to actually leave.
It’s the same route that August and I took, more or less, not so much an escape route, I now realize. More of a long, pointless hike. I let my finger trail along the route, coming to a stop where I think the Nahx web comes down. We’re a few miles east of the web now, and the lingering paranoia incited by our last encounter with the Nahx makes me reluctant to stop moving.
I’m exhausted. When I slow, wanting nothing more than to lie down and sleep, he just nudges me again, and we tramp on like determined elks, migrating north. August never sleeps that I can tell. He doesn’t eat. Sometimes, in bright sunlight, he’ll slow his pace and hold his arms out to let the sun shine down on him. Is it possible he has some kind of solar generator? That would be useful.
I wish before Raven had died I’d had more time to ask her about him. We know so little about the Nahx, even after they have occupied our planet for nearly a year. But then, maybe it’s just us unfortunates who were surrendered, left behind in the occupied zones, who know nothing. Maybe in the free human territory people are already writing books and pithy think pieces about Nahx physiology.
Bulletproof. Practically immortal. Silent. Driven. Tireless. Brutally efficient. Callous.
Well, August isn’t very callous. He seems to care about me, anyway.
Hungry? he signs, touching my shoulder.
“I’m fine. I’m kind of sick of chocolate bars.”
I stare down at the map. If I’m not mistaken, this cabin is on the southern shore of a nameless lake about five miles west of a bridge over the Fraser River. So we’ll have to backtrack. My finger traces up to the thick line of river, then above it to…
There’s another thin line on the map. I remember drawing it on, thinking it might be handy to know it’s there, though not why. It’s a crazy idea and I know August won’t like it, but it might work.
“There’s a kind of tunnel, north of here.” “Tunnel” is a nice way of saying it. It’s an enormous pipe—an oil pipeline that the socially conscious kids used to think would hasten the end of the world. The only reason I know it is there is because I helped my sister draw a map for a school project about it. And like most maps I’ve drawn, I remembered it in enough detail to draw it again.
Now my sister’s voice is in my head, reciting her report. Glancing up, I wipe my eyes quickly so August won’t see.
The pipeline was supposed to go from Edmonton to the coast, but First Nations’ lawsuits stopped it. So now, if I’m right, it ends in a refinery in a small town about fifty miles north of Prince George and just west of the web, outside Nahx territory.
As I think it through it seems to have too many variables and ways i
But it could work. I mean, I think there’s a small chance.
“If we head north, we can look for the p—tunnel.”
“Probably be safer in the dark. You’re right.”
After we leave the cabin, the hours pass uneventfully, and that makes me uneasy. It’s cold as hell, though, even with the Mountie’s coat and gloves. Just before dawn, when we stop for a breather, August puts his hands over my ears to warm them up. He can control his temperature somehow, up to burning hot if he’s in danger or agitated. We learned that when Liam took him prisoner. Just two weeks ago, was it? It feels like centuries.
How things would have been different if Liam had listened to me. I could see August was trying to surrender peacefully. He had come to find Raven to get her safely away. But how do you reason with someone who has lost their reason? Liam and Topher and most of the rest of the ragtag militia we’d formed didn’t even want to talk about plans for hiking out of the mountains in the spring. They considered themselves the holdouts of the Canadian Rockies—no retreat, no surrender.
So Liam blew our only chance. It didn’t end up mattering to him. He’s dead on a mountainside. Along with everyone else.
I stopped thinking about what happened to my family months ago. I saw the remains of our apartment building in Calgary—unlike other ones closer to downtown, it was a burned-out pile of bent metal and ash. If anyone was inside when the Nahx bombed it, they’re dead. If they were outside, the Nahx would have darted them and left them somewhere. We didn’t have time to flip over every corpse to see if it was someone I knew or my parents. My little sister. Or Nai Nai.
I shrug off August’s hand.
Hours later, as my legs begin to wobble beneath me, we arrive at a small work camp. Abandoned, of course, but the detritus left behind makes me think it’s the right vintage to be related to the pipeline—maybe a year or two old. We follow a deeply rutted mud road into the forest, past a few discarded bulldozer blades, truck tires, and other careless signs of human disdain for nature.