When Yona saw the polar bear, up on the ridge, for a moment she thought perhaps it was a sign; some kind of symbol of rebirth, sent by a deity who was sorry for what He'd done to them. She'd seen pictures of polar bears in books as a child, before everything went wrong, back when the mid-carriages of the train seemed like heaven and her father still had hope in his eyes.
After a few seconds regarding the bear, she decided it was more likely that it had smelled the carnage in the air, and if it had survived then it was not going to be the last predator or scavenger who came looking. Yona had little experience of a world that didn't jolt and rattle along tracks, but she knew enough; she gathered up Timmy, leading him back towards the wreckage, and set about making herself shelter. It was almost ten minutes before she heard the crash and the groan.
"It's Curtis!" Timmy yelled, ducking under debris and clambering over it, dodging fires that hadn't yet gone out (good; they would need the heat). Yona followed more slowly, disbelieving, and found Curtis alive, hissing in pain and swearing, the stump of his left arm pressed into a snowbank to numb the pain. The hand had come off just above the wrist. He sounded almost feral, but when he looked at her, his eyes were clear, and there was triumph in them.
Well, she supposed, if they were going to die and be eaten by polar bears, they might as well enjoy their pyrrhic victory.
Curtis was not good for much more than sitting around and suffering, at the moment, but Yona was used to shifting for herself when her father was in the Kronol haze. She built them a passable little hut against the cold, out of scraps of metal and parquet flooring and one end of Wilfred's carriage. She built a fire -- clumsily, never having dealt with fire larger than the flame of a match -- and shifted a piece of paneling so that the wind blew the smoke the other way. She left Timmy and Curtis sleeping there while she picked her way along the train, wondering what they could salvage or if they should even bother.
She turned to study the ridge often, but the polar bear was gone. He might be on his way to eat them now.
And then, the last time she turned to look over her shoulder, she saw people on the ridge.
People on the ridge.
They couldn't be anything else, not with arms and legs like that and in thick fur coats, not the way they hurried down the side of the mountain and became hazy dots across the snow field as they came towards her.
But Yona had experience of the desperate. She had found a hatchet in the wreckage, and when she realized what they were and what they meant, she ran back to Timmy and Curtis. She stood outside their little hut, the axe in one hand, a warning scowl on her face.
The man who approached first looked harmless, at least. Some of them were white, like Curtis. Two were not -- they looked a little like her father, but not enough.
The man spoke in a language she didn't know, but his gestures were calming, and a woman following behind him offered food. When he realized she didn't understand, he waved for one of the others to try, but the language still wasn't anything she recognized.
There were perhaps ten of them in all -- men and women, two older children -- as well as animals she recognized as some kind of burden beast, maybe yaks. The children began to make a camp; some of the others began to pick through the wreckage as she had done. One, tugging at a bit of her hut curiously, yelped in surprise when Curtis surged out of it, a thick plank in his good hand, roaring a warning to Yona to get back.
They stood there for a split second, a terrible tableau. Curtis, half-crazed with pain and fear, plank upraised; the newcomers in a circle around him; Yona between them, with Timmy clinging to her leg.
Curtis heaved a deep breath, looked around wildly, and dropped the plank, cringing.
"It's okay," she said, as he shrunk away, staggering backwards, a large man trying to make himself small. "Curtis. It's okay."
"Am I hallucinating?" he asked her. She shook her head. "Who are they?"
"Ah! English!" one of them said in a thick accent, and stepped forward. "I speak some. We didn't know you did," he said to Yona, who rubbed her fingers together nervously. Curtis was kind but volatile, and these people, these strangers who had come out of the wilderness where nothing was supposed to live, were perhaps their only chance of survival.
"I'm sorry," Curtis said, and Yona breathed a sigh of relief. "I didn't know who you were."
"You came from the train," the man said. "We knew it would smash one day. Sooner than some thought. Lucky it was here. Lucky we were hunting. Very lucky, the three of you," he added thoughtfully. The others nodded. "Who else lived?"
Yona shook her head. "I don't know."
"Hopefully nobody," Curtis muttered bitterly. The man's smile was kind, the kindness reserved for wounded children.
"You must rest," he said, spreading his hands, pointing with one at the hut. "Rest. We'll gather anything of use, find any who lived. When we're finished, you'll come with us."
"Come where?" Yona asked warily.
"Home," the man said with a smile. "The town will be glad. I'm sorry, I don't know the words in English -- I think you would say fresh blood?"
"We will be happy for new people to come into our family," the man added.
"Oh," Curtis said. Yona glanced at him. "They want new gene donors," he explained.
Understanding washed over her, but it didn't make her less tense. There was a town full of survivors, and their first concern was genetic diversity. She knew enough to know that meant she would be bred.
"Please, please don't be so afraid," the man said. "We are happy here. We are peaceful people. There is a place for you, a safe place, just over the mountain."
"Thank you," Curtis said, though he looked wary too.
"And now, please, you are wounded, and you," he said, turning to her, "have suffered, you all have. Rest. We will watch over you, wake you when it's time to leave."
There was shouting then, from down the line of the wreck, and Yona knew what it meant.
The man who spoke English gave his name as Ivan; he had been a linguist before the ice and spoke many languages, so it had always been his job to make newcomers a part of the family. They hadn't had many, but there had been some over the years, enough that Ivan knew what to do.
In all, there were fifteen survivors of the wreck aside from her, Curtis, and Timmy. Most of them were children. There were two dazed-looking people in club gear who'd nearly frozen to death, and an elderly woman who looked like she was on death's door.
"She won't make the trip," Ivan said to Yona and Curtis in a low voice, as they prepared to leave. The children had been bundled up and put on yaks; they were all in shock, tractable and fearful, and Yona couldn't help the vicious spike of satisfaction in her that caused. Terrible little shit-heads, but they couldn't help that; they'd been indoctrinated since birth. She felt bad, feeling pleasure in their awakening to the truth of the world. But she still felt it.
"What do we do?" Curtis asked him, nodding to the old woman. Ivan looked at him, perplexed.
"We can't leave her here," he said. "We'll take her with us. Make her as comfortable as we can. As we will do for you," he added, pointing at Curtis's arm. Yona could see pain lines creasing Curtis's face, even though one of the people from the town had made a disinfecting poultice to press to it, and another had helped him pack snow around it to keep it numb. It would need more attention when they reached wherever they were going. "There are twelve of us, to get the children and you up the cliff, and we have things from the wreck to pack in as well. We'll have to send people back for the rest. Scavengers'll probably get it first," he added regretfully. "Still, not bad. More than a polar bear, it seems. Oh, how I yearn for farmland," he continued, as they began the long walk back to the cliff.
"You don't farm?" Yona asked.
"Once, we did. Even then it was hard. When the snows came, impossible. We lived as we could. Very hard at first. Soon, though, I think we will farm again."
Yona thought of her father, patiently checking the crashed airplane under the Yekaterina bridge. Year after year, waiting for signs of a thaw. Only seventeen years. She had enough education to know that the process was probably close to exponential, as the snow melted and stopped retaining the cold. In another seventeen years, the land might emerge from the permafrost.
In another seventeen years, she would be the age Curtis was now. Timmy would be a man. Curtis would be fifty-one, God willing he live so long. Imagining it pleased her. Seventeen years in this chill waste, as long as there was food and shelter, with the pure white snow fields slowly receding...yes. It would be good.
"You smile," Ivan said, looking pleased. "You will smile more soon, when we reach town."
"What town?" Curtis asked.
"A small suburb of Yekateringrad. The city itself is not a good place to go yet."
"You're Russian," Curtis said, then paused. "Or -- Ukrainian?"
"Russian, most of us. Some Ukrainian, Chinese. Kazakhstani, Finnish, Polish."
"People made it to Russia from China?" Curtis asked. "From Poland? After the ice?"
"Where did you come from? You are westerners, I think."
"Korean," Yona said, though the word meant little to her. The train barely skirted Korea; her father used to take her to the window and point south. "There is your father's home," he had said, but all she'd seen was snow.
"Westerner," Curtis agreed.
"Did you board the train where you lived?"
"No, we -- we made it from Chicago to New York before the cold got too bad," Curtis said. The man spread his hands.
"Our refugees made it as far as Yekaterinburg. I think maybe others were not so lucky. It was great chaos. But we survived." He grinned. "Russians. We know the cold. So you will be our first from Chicago, and you our first Korean," he added. "And the children, they must come from the train. No country; no past. Well, we will give them both. There are many empty houses. There are many women and men with no children of their own. I know you have no choice," he said, looking regretful, "but if you must be taken into a family, I think you'll find we are a good one."
"Are there any other survivors?" Curtis asked. "In other parts of the world? Ever made contact?"
"We knew of the train, but you never stopped. Have you never found any?"
Yona shook her head.
"Well, if we survive, I think others may. We were sheltered by the mountains, and we knew how to live in the cold. Surely -- Inuits, maybe? Tibetans? Siberians? And -- is it so cold everywhere? I learned as a boy that the equator is warm."
They crossed the equator four times in a year. In the mid-carriages, it had meant a special treat with dinner and a day off from school.
"Not anymore," Curtis said. Yona thought for him the crossing of the equator had probably meant nothing at all.
Ivan smiled. "Well, it was a warm winter. Perhaps in another year or two, we will send someone to see the world."
The journey to Yekaterinburg was hard. It took two days; normally they did it in one, apparently, but between the children and Curtis and the death of the old woman that night, they were delayed. Yona felt fearful over it; what if they were left behind, too much of a burden? But the thought never seemed to cross anyone else's mind. They didn't even leave the old woman; her body was bound in scraps of rag and thrown over the yak she'd been riding.
The morning of the second day, Curtis fell sick; infection, they said, and by the time they reached town he was still walking but he was delirious. He kept asking where the mall was. Whatever a mall was.
When they saw the town, dominated by a huge building at one end of a main road, Yona felt herself go into the shock she'd delayed for so long. It was enormous, to her eyes, a sprawling assortment of houses like the ones she'd seen in books, so wide and high, so open and seemingly vulnerable, and so still. There were people waiting for them; the hunting party had sent a man ahead to spread the news, and the children were lifted down from their mounts, the hunters welcomed home, the sacks of loot from the train shouldered by new men and women, all of them laughing and speaking an unfamiliar language.
A woman cupped Yona's face in her hands, seemingly delighted, and two men began to lead Curtis away, one of them carrying Timmy. Yona screamed, lunging for them, startled at the surge of fear she felt when she saw Curtis and Timmy being taken from her.
Everyone froze. Ivan said, very gently, "They must go to the school. Curtis for medicine, the boy to meet his teachers and the Lama."
"Why can't I go?" she demanded.
He looked surprised. "You can, of course. Wouldn't you rather have food? Somewhere to sleep?"
"No. I want to go with them."
Ivan said something in Russian, and the one who was carrying Timmy held out a hand to her. She took it and followed, carrying Timmy when the man tired of him. It seemed like more people than she'd ever seen in one place came with them in a procession down to the biggest building, this so-called school. They walked on bare ground, swept clean of snow; she remembered her father explaining dirt to her. Trees, like in the greenhouse, stood at points along the path.
A man wrapped in a faded red blanket met them on the steps of the school, smiling.
"Yona," Ivan said. "This is the Lama. He came from Tibet, once. Lama, this is Yona, from Korea by way of the train, Curtis, a Westerner from the train, and Timmy, a child of the train."
Curtis dropped to his knees. The Lama made a gesture and three people spilled past him out the door, helping Curtis up. Yona clung to him with one hand, Timmy a weight on her other arm, and the Lama said something quick and sharp.
Those who had been bending to take Curtis from her stepped away. Ivan, sighing, hoisted his shoulder under Curtis's arm and said to her, "Let them carry the boy, and I will carry the man; follow me."
They had tea in the sickroom, a long warm corridor full of beds, most of them empty. She had thought tea had gone extinct years ago. It was a treat her father took on equator-passing days until she was nine, when the tea ran out.
"It is very old, and not very good, but special occasions call for special things," Ivan said, pouring her a cup and offering her a bowl of something golden and syrupy. "It's honey," he said. "It's sweet."
She took a dollop in her tea, but with suspicion. The man in the red blanket -- a robe, he was a Lama, she remembered a photograph of one now -- adjusted himself in a chair, while an attendant took a sharp knife to the dead skin of Curtis's arm. Curtis was unconscious, sweating, but still. The Lama talked, and Ivan translated. Timmy slept against her side, breath warm against her ribs.
"We've seen the train come through every year," the Lama said, through Ivan. "We wondered who was on it, and why. The first year we merely saw you; the second year we recorded you; the third year you were late, and we tried to stop you, but there was no stopping, then or any other year we tried, and we had larger concerns. I am sorry for your loss."
"Thank you," Yona murmured.
"How many were on the train?"
"Nearly a thousand."
The Lama whistled. "Seventeen from a thousand."
"It was hell," Yona said. "It was a sentence to hell. We just didn't know it."
"Well, then your suffering has been rewarded. Here you are," the Lama told her with a smile.
"There is a woman in the town who wishes to be your mother, and Timmy's if you like," Ivan added.
"I have no mother."
"You have now," the Lama said.
"What if I don't want a mother?"
The Lama and Ivan exchanged looks. "Then you will be given a house, until you come of age," Ivan said.
"Age to do what?"
"Raise children. Or work. All must do one or the other. Some do both. How old are you?" the Lama inquired.
"Fifteen," Yona lied. To be younger seemed better, now.
"Then in six years you will be of age. Until then, you are a child to be cared for. You may go to school, if you like. Many of our young women like to explore the mountains," the Lama said. Yona relaxed a fraction. She could do a lot to protect herself in six years.
"Is she nice, this woman?" she asked. Ivan nodded. "Then, maybe. For Timmy." She looked to Curtis, who had cried out softly, though the doctor wasn't touching him. "What about Curtis?"
"He's old enough to work, once his arm heals. I'm sure there are women who would like a child by a strapping man like him. Is he violent?" the Lama asked. "Some of the men were violent when they came here."
"What happens if he is?" Yona asked.
"They were," the Lama said. "They no longer are."
"The penalty for rape is death," Ivan said. Yona stared at him, mouth open. "Is he?" Ivan pressed.
She looked back to Curtis. Yes, he was; violent, prone to fury, eager to lash out in fear. She couldn't say he wasn't violent. He had eaten the weak.
But he was also kind. And he suffered for his sins.
"He didn't lose his arm in the crash," she said, hearing her voice as if from far away. "He sacrificed his hand to save Timmy."
Ivan looked interested. "Is he the boy's father?"
For all she knew, he might have been, but she didn't think so; she shook her head. The Lama made a questioning noise, and Ivan explained her answer. The Lama smiled and rested a hand on Curtis's forehead, which seemed to ease him somewhat. Then he stood and took Yona's hands, squeezing them in rough palms.
"Stay with him as long as you like," he said. "Finish the tea. Beds will be brought. Ivan will make arrangements for your new mother."
She stayed with Curtis for three days, sleeping in a cot with Timmy clutched to her chest at night, washing in bowls of clean snowmelt they brought her, eating whatever was given her, starving if nobody came (but someone always came, sooner or later).
Curtis sweated and moaned, fighting the fever; he raved for his mother, and called for Edgar, though it was clear it was the little boy and not the man Yona had known -- Edgar, come here, it's not safe -- I'm sorry, kiddo, it's all we have to eat -- Edgar, sit down!
Sometimes he counted to eighteen, over and over again. Twice more, people came to treat his arm. Daily, they changed his sheets, bathed him, and fed him in his calmer, glassy-eyed moments. She saw the terrible scar on his arm; she saw the stripes on his back, and knew that he had been flogged, as it was rumored they sometimes did to keep the tail-enders in line. A man, seeing the whip marks, looked at Yona with such intense hate in his eyes that she protested it wasn't her who'd done it, even though he couldn't understand what she said.
The Lama came too, sometimes with Ivan and sometimes without. When he came without Ivan, he taught her little words, like me and you, bed and cup and bowl in Russian. Slowly, gently, he and Ivan teased out of her the story of the train, such as she knew it. They had assembled parts already from their scavenging of the wreckage.
On the third night, Curtis screamed, wailing his guilt and terror to the empty walls. Yona considered the screams, carefully, calmly, and took the last rock of Kronol out of her pocket. She scratched dust into her hand, and then pulled his head up, holding her palm under his nose. When he exhaled the dust scattered, and she scratched another small pile carefully into her palm. This time, raising his head, she cupped her hand over his nose and mouth, until he gasped in the Kronol and choked on it.
She let him lie back, and within minutes he was quiet. His breath came fast and hard, and his eyes, open, darted back and forth, seeing things she couldn't. His mouth curved eventually into a loose, stupid smile, and he tilted his head back.
"Peter," he said, in a voice thick with love and desire. His eyes closed, and for a brief second his body arched forward, sinuous, like the one boy she'd had in her life, back before she was put in a prison drawer to be forgotten and then brought out to be sacrificed. His hips rolled up and he cried out in ecstasy, just once.
Then he was quiet.
When she woke the next morning, Curtis was not in his bed, and the thick blanket atop it was gone as well.
She found him wrapped in the blanket, sitting outside, in a field that the children from the school wing had turned into a snow-sculpture garden. She sat down next to him, on a bench made from a board perched on two stones.
"We went from Chicago to New York after it happened," Curtis said, after a few minutes. "The real deep cold hadn't set in yet."
"I was born on the train," she replied.
"Well, it used to be warm in the summer in Chicago. New York, too. We made it to the train. My parents put me on it without them, y'know -- we didn't have enough money for one ticket, let alone three. Mom -- she did what she had to, to get me on board." He had a handful of snow in his remaining hand, and his thumb sifted it slowly. "They said the train was the best chance, but they were going to go to the emergency refugee station at the library in Manhattan."
She waited, silently, for him to come to his point.
"How ridiculous the train was," he murmured. "How absurd. That this stupid -- closed ecosystem would keep us alive forever. We lasted less than two decades. And it wasn't even necessary. These people live just fine here."
"Here is not New York."
"No. But now, see, I have hope," he said bitterly. "If they could survive here, maybe my parents got into the refugee station. Maybe they're alive, halfway across the world. I had this dream last night -- I thought I was walking along the train tracks, trying to get to New York. I just kept walking and walking, but it was okay, because I had -- I had someone with me, someone from before the ice, someone I was -- good friends with," he finished, and it sounded like a frail half-truth even to her ears. "I never got there. And I wouldn't anyway if I tried, now. But every year we passed through New York and I could have...somehow I could have left the train, tried to find them, it would have been worth the risk of dying to know -- but I was afraid -- "
His chest heaved.
"You have hope," Yona said. Curtis brought his hands to his face, and then realized he only had one, and let his left arm fall. "I have none. Everyone I knew in life died on the train."
"I'm sorry," he said.
"Which is better, do you think?" she asked, leaning against him, and he shifted so that he could lay his left arm across her shoulders. "Hope, or no hope?"
He was silent for a while, and then he asked, "Are the people here nice? It seems like they're nice."
"I don't trust nice."
He laughed, drily. "No. I don't either, anymore. I did once. But they seem nice?"
"Yes. They seem nice."