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The First Snow of Winter

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Asimov's, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, is coming out with Fairwood Press in August 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

Morana bundled Leo up in two pairs of colony-issued pants and three shirts. She found a waterproof windbreaker that was a couple sizes too big for him, which was perfect for layering over all the extra clothes. Most of the winter supplies had been destroyed last year when the thrusters on the colony shuttle exploded, so she did her best with what they had.
"Can we go?" Leo fidgeted. "Most of my friends are already outside."
Morana looked him over. She wished there were gloves, but the work gloves were all sized for adult hands, and Leo was only five. She tucked some extra gloves in her pocket. After he'd been outside playing for a while, maybe he'd want them. She tied a shirt around his head as a makeshift hat.
With so many layers of pale blue clothes, her son reminded her of the tiny bird-like creatures that were native to the planet. Colony recruiters had promised an uninhabited tropical paradise, but they'd been wrong. Wrong about everything. The native species had mostly turned out to be harmless. Leo had loved watching the fluffy little birds build dirt-mound nests by blending the orange soil with their spit, but the fluff-puff birds never laid any eggs into the nests, at least not that Morana saw. It made sense. They looked like birds, but they were an alien life form. There was no reason for them to lay eggs.
Morana walked with Leo to the colony airlock at the south end of the dome, where a few other families waited to go out into the first snow of winter. The planet no longer boasted the tropical temperatures the recruiters had promised. It had been warm eight years ago when they arrived, but the planet's eccentric orbit meant they were in for a long, cold winter. The fluff-puff birds had disappeared when the overnight temperatures dipped below freezing.
"Niko! I'm going to build a snow rocket, you wanna help?" Leo asked, excited to see his friend. The boys ran ahead into the airlock, leaving their parents behind. Morana asked Niko's father in a quiet voice, "Are you sure this is the right thing?"
"Look how excited they are," he answered.
The atmosphere of the planet was breathable, but it had a faint sulfur smell and slightly less oxygen than inside the dome. Several inches of snow had fallen, and large flakes drifted down from the sky, delighting the children who had come out to play.
During the long summer, they'd plowed the flatlands and planted wheat. They'd started families, believing the promise that their new home would be a paradise. The colony recruiters had promised good soil and sunny summer days. The crops sprouted, but didn't grow. Wheat, corn, beans, tomatoes. It didn't matter what they planted, nothing worked.
Leo and Niko piled up a mound of snow and sculpted it into the shape of the colony shuttle. Leo's dad had died last year trying to get the shuttle working again. It was supposed to be their safety net. A shuttle full of stasis pods that would carry them back to civilization if the colony failed. Somehow, while working to prepare the shuttle for launch, they'd ignited the fuel for the thrusters. Fifty-seven people died in the blast.
Morana scooped up a handful of snow and formed it into a ball. She'd once dreamed of playing baseball in these fields. She threw her snowball and hit Leo in the leg.
"Hey!" he shouted.
"So hit me back," she said, grinning.
They lobbed snowballs back and forth until her hands were cold even through her gloves. Her son's hands were pale, almost white, but he was so happy playing. She didn't make him wear the oversized gloves. They'd hamper his fun, and it didn't matter anyway.
She'd been uncertain at the meeting last night, but seeing the colony children laughing and playing--Davor was right, this was the best way. They only had a couple weeks of food left, and no hope of growing more. Their nearest neighbors were too far away to mount a rescue, and without the colony shuttle, they had no way to escape.
Morana dusted the snow off a rock and sat down, lightheaded. The cold seeped in through her layers of clothes, and the thinner air was taking its toll. The children had slowed in their play, too. Leo stumbled over and sat on her lap.
"Will there be snow every day, Mama?" Leo asked. "It's really fun."
"Every day for the next hundred years." She held his tiny hands in hers, but made no attempt to warm them. They were probably numb, and warming them would only make them hurt.
"Will the blue fluff-puff birds come back in the spring?" he asked.
She didn't know. Did the alien birds hibernate for the long winter, or bear young that would survive a hundred-year freeze? "I hope so."
He leaned his head against her chest. "I'm tired."
"Lean on me and sleep." She held him close. She would never have had a child, knowing what was coming, but being his comfort eased her own fears.
She closed her eyes and let her mind drift away, like snowflakes in the wind.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

Author Comments

I sometimes use images as story prompts. For this story, I found an image of a woman standing in a field of snow. Her expression was sad and contemplative. She wasn't dressed appropriately for the snowy weather, which got me thinking about hypothermia. I decided to make the story about a failed colony, and I added some aliens because I love writing about aliens.

- Caroline M. Yoachim
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