His mother told him about winter when he was four years old. He was the first child born aboard the ship, a new generation searching for a new planet. Now he was the oldest human on the ship.
She scraped a spoon against a cube of ice until fluffy white shavings fluttered onto the table. He leaned in, enraptured by her voice. “It fell from the sky, millions of tiny flakes, until they piled up and covered the ground like a fluffy blanket.”
“Sky?” He asked in a whisper, worried if he spoke too loudly he might somehow break the memory.
“Like the dome, only bigger. Huge!” She stretched out her arms.
He was ninety-four years old now, and the only resident in the ship’s detention cell. It wasn’t that much different from the dormitories, but all social activities occurred in the common areas, under the dome.
He sat on the bunk, his bony frame wrapped in a thick blanket and picked at a cold plate of corn. His mother had said the synthetic corn wasn’t as good as Earth’s. But no one was left who could tell the difference.
The cell door buzzed and Captain Reynolds stepped through wearing a bulky synthetic wool coat. His breath came out in labored, visible puffs. The Captain wasn’t young either, nearly seventy. He spoke in brisk sentences. “This has gone on long enough, Roger. You must tell us.”
“Only I can fix it.”
“Roger, you’re old. You’ll die soon. And without the password we’ll all die with you. Just tell us how to fix it.”
“I’ll fix it. Me alone.”
“Roger, it’s been three weeks. If the temperature drops anymore, people will die.”
“After I’m done, I’ll explain it to you. But I alone must fix it.”
“You’re the one who intentionally locked us out of the system. You know what people are saying? That you’re a crazy old kook. But I know better. You know exactly what you’re doing. How can I trust you to not sabotage the entire system and kill us all?”
“You don’t really have a choice, Captain.”
Roger asked for two hours alone in the workshop before being escorted to the dome’s maintenance door. He carried a small satchel of tools and supplies.
People stared as he was led through the common area, scowling and cursing him under their breath. The commons were the largest area of the ship accessible to all the passengers. Only the crew and select personnel had access to the maintenance and operations areas.
When Roger was a teenager, his father had explained that terminal space missions were very hard on people emotionally. They’ll never see Earth again. “In fact,” his father said, “I’ll never set foot on any planet again. It’ll be centuries before we reach our new home.”
Teenage Roger pitied his father for this. But adult Roger realized the truth. His father and mother had lived on Earth. He’d never set foot on a planet at all. All he had was the dome.
The synthetic grass was so cold that it crunched beneath his feet. Roger looked up at the frost-covered interior of the dome. Hidden under the white fluff was a painted veneer of a bright orange sun surrounded by blue sky and wispy clouds. It was just nice to see the dome look different.
The guards and Captain made one last effort to escort him through the door, but Roger refused. Behind the dome was his place. It had been since choosing a career training under his father. His father was an engineer on Earth building bridges and skyscrapers, things Roger would never see.
The dome was nearly four hundred yards in diameter, and Roger knew every square inch of the exterior by heart. On the south end, near ladder fourteen, a tiny hole looked down on the gardens. Seventy years earlier he had drilled it so he could see his mother while she worked. Near the peak on ladder eighty-six was his wife’s name, Rachel, scratched in black. At that exact spot, on the inside of the dome, was the painted sun. He had written it on their tenth wedding anniversary. She died two weeks before their fiftieth.
He shook off the memories. He wasn’t strong, and this wouldn’t be easy. At the west end, he removed the computer’s password. He started the systems necessary to bring the environment back online but stopped short of activating it. He left a five page letter explaining the system in case he didn’t make it back. It really wasn’t complicated, but they didn’t need to know that yet.
Taking a deep breath and shouldering his satchel, Roger started the long climb up ladder fourteen.
Captain Reynolds sighed in relief as the ventilation system whirred back to life. Ten minutes later the service door opened and an exhausted old man fell into the arms of a guard.
They carried him to a nearby bench, wrapped him in a blanket, and gave him water. They sat with him while he tried to catch his breath. When it became clear Roger would likely never catch his breath again, the captain called for a medic. They tried to load him into the ambulance, but he asked quietly to let him wait a few more minutes.
“Roger,” said the captain.
“Just two more minutes, please.”
A minute and a half later a deep, bone-shaking thud erupted from the top of the dome. The captain panicked; he knew an explosion when he heard one. He cursed himself for not searching Roger’s satchel.
“It’s okay,” said Roger taking his arm. “Look.” He pointed upward toward the dome.
The frost fluttered down in delicate flakes dancing in the renewed breeze of the ventilation system. It was not as his mother would have remembered, but Roger thought it was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. He smiled as the snow fell around him. He could faintly see the painted sun peeking through.