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The Winter Gardener

Sean Williams is an award-winning, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of over forty novels and one hundred stories. As well as his original fiction for adults, young adults and children, he has worked in universes created by other people, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who. He also enjoys collaborating, most recently with Garth Nix. He has a PhD in the literary use and misuse of teleporters, which feature in his Twinmaker series--a gripping scifi story of friendship, identity + accidentally destroying the universe (Amie Kaufman)--available from Allen & Unwin in Australia, Balzer + Bray in the US, and Egmont in the UK.

He lives up the road from Australia's finest chocolate factory with his family and a pet plastic fish.

A fine day down here means sky like a baby-blue bowl blurring into the horizon in all directions and no wind to speak of. Six degrees below freezing.
Cass heads inside to tend her garden.
Six months ago, the hydroponics shed was entirely covered in white. That thought is never far from her mind. Cold doesn't frighten her, and neither does the dark. But she loves plants like some people love cats, indiscriminately and with great fervor.
There are no trees native to Antarctica. No bushes. No grass, even. Just rocks and snow and the odd patch of hardy moss.
She pulls open the external door and slams it shut behind her, tugging off her boots and gloves with the same determination that she attempts to cast aside her misgivings. It seems petty to focus on the fate of two guys hauled out of a ruined American base at the beginning of summer. But she does.
Frozen to death, she heard. Maybe still alive, she also heard. The lack of a clear answer troubles her. In Antarctica, everyone's in it together. There is no room for ambiguity on that point. So what was the big secret?
Through the internal door, she reaches for a paintbrush with one hand, spray bottle with the other and begins her usual, calming ritual. Fertilizing with the brush, watering with the other. She's the proud farmer of numerous tomatoes, chilies, and zucchinis, a veritable forest of herbs and salad greens, and many dozens of seedlings just beginning to sprout.
Nothing bothers her in here, behind two closed doors.
Until she hears the rail-gun fire down by the wharf, the powerful whine-crack, whine-crack of two quick shots.
She freezes in mid brush, then jumps as someone bangs on the shed wall.
"Come see, Cass. It's the biggest yet!"
She doesn't want to see, but she has to. They're all in it together. With shaking hands, she puts down her gardening tools, tugs boots and gloves back on, and braces herself for the outside.
Where it's still sunny and still cold, but the still air is now broken by shouting down near the water. There's a roaring, hissing sound too, and the whine of the jerry-rigged rail gun charging again. She hurries towards the source of the sounds, careful not to slip on patches of ice. She can't afford a broken limb now there's nowhere left to be airlifted to.
A dozen of her fellow expeditioners are gathered at the wharf, half of them ready at the chemical tubs containing potent mixtures from the Dangerous Goods Store. If anything gets too close, the tubs will be tipped into the water and their contents set ablaze. This has worked before.
She's nervous because she can't see what Ronnie, the guy who banged on her door, is pointing at. He's a long-limbed, hipster tradie in boots, shorts, and cold-weather jacket. Cass is too short, the angle not quite right, as it wasn't the one night they'd hooked up after she asked him to show her how to use the oxy-acetylene welder.
Then the roaring hiss recurs. Something vast rolls onto its back in the black water and flails its many-colored tentacles. Those she can see. Or are they many-hinged legs? Perhaps antennae? At this distance, it's hard to tell.
Flesh. Alien, deadly.
Whine-crack. Tissue bursts in the creature's side. Whine-crack. Again.
The thing howls and goes under.
Cass hugs herself, waiting, but it doesn't reappear a second time.
"You see it?" asks Ronnie, practically dancing with adrenaline. "You see that?"
"I saw enough." She turns and heads back up the hill.
"They're getting bigger!"
"I know."
Small comfort, this understanding that things are getting worse.
Up north, when the outbreaks took hold, "flesh flooding" some dark wit called it. Everything living rolled up into a monstrous tide of tentacles and teeth, devouring every other living thing in its path. Plants and animals alike.
Not here, where there's little biomass outside the ocean. The cold too, seems to slow the alien growth, maybe even stop it. Some have suggested that the ice is where it came from--something defrosted as tundra turned to slush or dug out of the permafrost. And now the creatures boiling out of the Southern Ocean are getting bigger, and the change in season can't come soon enough....
It's ironic. In Cass's former life, she wondered if she'd live to see the day when summer overtook winter as the most feared season--blasting hot, plants dying in waterless deserts, melanoma rampant....
Those two American guys are the lucky ones, she sometimes thinks. They didn't live to see this summer.
She retreats to her garden and wills her hands to stop shaking. It's safe here, she tells herself. Safe as houses. Last week, three plant operators plus a cadre of plumbers and electricians joined two containers up to the original hydroponics shed, thus tripling its capacity. One of the boffins is coaxing dried beans back to life. Her plants could one day support the entire station, or at least take the pressure off the tinned stores now that there'll be no resupplies. That's the plan, although it could change next time the creatures in the ocean come too close. Or the time after that.
We're all in it together, she whispers to her charges.
Cass has the will, and the welder, to protect the last garden on Earth.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 8th, 2017

Author Comments

I dreamed of going to Antarctica ever since I read Alan Dean Foster's novelization of The Thing in 1982. Thirty-five years later that dream came true thanks to the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship, which took me south this summer to research an alternate history novel combining the Heroic Age of Exploration with the Martians of The World of the Worlds.

I'm still working on that book, but my time there inspired a number of other pieces. "The Winter Gardner" is the first to see print, featuring parts of Casey research station I visited in February. The characters are my own invention. Writing this story took me back to those magical days in the most beautiful and fragile environment on Earth, reminding me once again how fortunate I am to have seen it with my own eyes. This story also stands as an implied sequel to The Thing, bringing me back to where it all started.

My trip south was assisted by the Australian Government. For further information, please visit the Australian Antarctic Division's website: antartica.gov.au.

- Sean Williams
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