Winter's End
By Terry Bramlett







I see the clouds breaking apart. The earth hangs above the lunar landscape in three-quarter phase. North America faces me. A thunderstorm rages across much of the East Coast. Lightning blazes in the atmosphere. The storm extends deep into the Atlantic Ocean. It shows no signs of weakening. We have seen nothing below the clouds there. But I know. I know.

The Midwest shows the first signs of cloud dissipation. A black scar mars the landscape at the tip of Lake Michigan. Like the East, Chicago is not on our places for landing sites. Millions died in Chicago. The blackened earth holds their graves. Clouds cover the scar and I ignore the reality. I can't really, but I try. We all try.

It's a good thing the nuclear winter is breaking down. Challenger Base is running out of food. NASA supplied us six months at a time and a shipment arrived the day before the holocaust. Earth blew up before they could leave for home. Lucky for us or we would have died here. Now we have the option of starvation on the moon, or dying in a desperate attempt at flight back to Earth. Of course, if we make it home, home won't really be there. I sigh and watch the Earth.

I estimate five thousand megatons fell on the Northern Hemisphere. Russia, the US, and China tossed much of their nuclear arsenals at each other. For a while, they spared the Southern Hemisphere. Within days, another one thousand megatons wiped out civilization below the equator. Humans have always been equal opportunity murderers. Damn Americans. Damn Russians. Damn Chinese. Damn governments. I clench my fist into a ball, but I have nothing to hit since my violence is directed at people long dead. All of our families are dead too, though. Damn.

A major storm appears off the West Coast of California. I wonder if it is bearing down on what used to be Los Angeles. It does not matter. No one lives in the LA basin anymore. JPL was down there. I lost a lot of friends.

After the attack, the space station contacted us. Two shuttles would not evacuate the station's entire population. They have decided to stay. I hope they make it. If we have any chance of rebuilding a technological society, then the station's descendants are our best hope. Will their descendants become the gods or overlords of my descendants? I shake my head. Will I have descendants? I do not know if the eighty adults aboard the space station are a viable reproductive population. I don't want to know.

We have not heard from the scientists at Antarctica. I am afraid we will never hear from them, but if they survive, will the human population in Antarctica become an evolutionary offshoot? Again, I don't want to know.

The crew readies the last supply ship for flight, our only hope for survival. They bounce beneath the hull, preparing for the trip home. The captain checks the heat shields, pointing to ones that need replacing or repair. All she will get is repair. The ship is made for cargo, not passengers, but twenty scientists and technicians will pack into the cargo bay. I hope reentry will not kill us.

Fred Nance enters the observation deck. Fred is taller than I with a head covered in wiry hair. I envy his hair, my scalp becoming increasingly unfettered by mundane things like hair. I nod. He nods back. Neither of us smiles, nor do we speak. Everyone stationed at Challenger Base could be on the observation deck at the same time, and no one would break the silence. No one knows what to say. Words are superfluous here. Fred stares at the clouds. I hear an occasional sigh.

Since the night of the missiles, the observation deck became a shrine of the Earth we lost. We remember the dead; we fear for the living. I see the Earth as it is, but that terrible night superimposes itself on reality. Missiles arc from horizon to horizon; explosions light the Earth; fires burn out of control, until the smoke and dirt contain the destruction underneath the clouds. My heart sinks with despair, reliving the scene again and again. Fred whimpers. He sees the missiles too. We all see them and we always will see them.

At times, I wake, hoping it has been a gigantic recurring nightmare. The Cubs will play another doubleheader in Wrigley. Congress will irritate more constituents with their inane programs, but it is not a dream, as reality becomes the nightmare.

I come here and see the devastation. It boggles my mind that billions of lives have been lost. Billions. The intercom interrupts my thoughts. "Everyone report to the ship in five minutes," Al says. "Five minutes guys." I glance at my watch to record the time. I take one last look at Earth as it hangs over the lunar landscape. I hear Fred choking back tears. I know how he feels.

I turn away from the Earth and leave the observation deck. I do not know what we will find if we get back. Some humans have survived, we know. But where will be the best place to begin rebuilding? I shrug at the thought as I walk toward the supply ship. Will anything be left with which to rebuild? I hope so. Humanity has been unnecessarily resourceful in forms of mass suicide. I hope we can be as resourceful in our efforts to survive as a species. I look at Earth as I join the line formed at the ship's entrance. More clouds break above the Northern Hemisphere. Burnt out shadows mark where cities once stood. Can we survive? Do we have the right to survive after this? I have my doubts.

I board the ship and wait to go home. There is no excitement, no joy, no hope. Only sadness remains.
 

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