The first time he meets her, he’s lost on campus, which is ridiculous because it’s not even that big and he managed Seoul just fine, for God’s sake. But he’s definitely lost, because he can’t get a damn signal on his phone and the campus map he was given during orientation seems to have no relationship to reality, even aside from being available only in English.
At some point finishing his master’s degree in engineering at an American university will probably seem like a good idea again, but right now he’s pretty sure he looks like a bewildered first-year, and that wasn’t fun even when he was a bewildered first-year.
He sees her from the side, stretched out barefoot on the grass with three different books and a notebook in front of her, and for about a second the black hair and olive skin make him think he’s stumbled across someone else who speaks his language. But she looks up as he approaches and he realizes no, those aren’t Korean features after all. Native American, maybe. Her face is broad and a bit round, and behind her glasses her eyes are sharp.
“Hi,” she says, and if it’s not actually a friendly tone, at least it’s not outright unfriendly either. “Need something?”
He sighs and holds out the map. Fumbling with English it is. “Where is…Adelaide Gallagher Hall?”
Her eyebrows go up, which probably means he bungled the pronunciation even worse than he expected. She takes the map from him and circles one of the buildings with her pen, which would help more if he had any idea where he is now. He studies the map again and points to the building behind them, on the off chance it’s the right one.
“No, that’s—hang on.” She digs through her bag and comes out with a circular device he’s never seen before and frowns at him. “What language do you speak?”
Okay, he knows those words just fine. “Korean. Very…very little English.”
“Mmhm.” She fiddles with the device and speaks into it too rapidly for him to catch even if he knew more English, and a robotic voice says in perfectly decent Korean, “Let’s see if this works.”
“Yeah, it works,” he says in his own language, and when the device translates that into English, she grins.
“Okay,” she says, “now maybe we can talk about your map.”
She gets him oriented and tells him to keep the translator device for now but take it to Kevin in the languages department to tell him how the prototype is working. It turns out he’s on the opposite side of campus from where he needs to be, so he hurries away before realizing he doesn’t know her name.
It’s a couple weeks before he finds the time to visit the languages department, partly because the translator prototype isn’t perfect but it’s a lot better than nothing, which is mostly what he’s got otherwise. Better than trying to convince the international student office to assign him a full-time interpreter while he works on learning enough English to get by, anyway. It’s after normal hours by the time he gets there and the door’s locked, but through the windows he can see a few people in the department’s computer lab. It takes a few knocks to get their attention, but the woman from earlier recognizes him and unlocks the door, waving him inside. Her name is Irene Nageak (three syllables, emphasis on the first); Kevin is tall and dark-skinned, Marissa is short and blonde, and they’re leading the project for the translator device.
Kevin is full of questions about the prototype, and for the first time Minsu finds himself glad for the translation delay. Otherwise he’s pretty sure Kevin wouldn’t be remembering to pause for answers. Marissa eventually drags him over to one of the computers to run diagnostics on the translator device’s records, and Minsu leans on the table, wondering if he can get one of those to keep.
Irene, sitting at another computer, doesn’t turn around but hands him what looks like an older model, so he takes it and asks, “How long have you all been working on this?”
She leans back in her chair. “What’s it been, two years now?”
“Two and a half, but only one with actual funding,” Marissa says.
“Right. That. I’m only half part of the project—it’s an interdisciplinary thing, for me. More or less.”
“You’re not a language student?”
“Me? Nope. Climatology.”
“Languages and…climatology,” he repeats, wondering if the older translator device is working right.
Irene nods. “That’s my field. Well, climate change. Languages are…sort of a hobby.”
“Because she’s sort of a genius,” Kevin interjects.
“Well, I try,” Irene says, and her dark eyes nearly disappear as she grins again.
They let him keep the prototype as long as he promises to keep reporting back, which he does, and sometimes Irene is there when he visits. More often, though, he sees her outside the sciences building on his way to and from engineering, even when the weather’s not great and no one else is studying outside.
“I think better outside,” she says when he eventually asks. “Always have.”
“You’re not cold?”
She shrugs. “I’m Iñupiaq. You know, Eskimo? From Alaska? This is nothing.”
It’s overcast and about 50° Fahrenheit. “I suppose this is nice summer weather in Alaska.”
“In parts of Alaska,” she corrects him, “this is pretty average summer weather, yeah. Or it was, which is kind of why I’m here.”
She grew up mostly in Barrow, she tells him; it’s the northernmost municipality in the US and at about 4,300 people the biggest town in the entire 95,000 square mile North Slope Borough. Minsu, frankly, has a hard time imagining such an enormous area filled with so few people, but then he can’t imagine living there himself, when anything above 0° F is nice winter weather and a -20° wind chill is normal winter weather. Except it’s getting warmer, and that’s a problem.
“When I was a kid,” she tells him, “the sea ice would freeze to shore every winter, and you could walk out on it for miles. People did, sometimes, for whaling. And then it started coming later and later, until we had floods every year when the winter storms came in and we didn’t have any shorefast ice to keep the ocean where it was supposed to be. Just this year, flooding wrecked a couple houses close to the beach and a whole bunch of old buildings in NARL that weren’t on pilings. Washed out two of the main roads, too, and a whole apartment building went down when the bluff collapsed. Plus the sushi place; a lot of people are pissed about that one.”
“You had a sushi place?” he says, a little blankly.
She gives him a rather severe look. “Yeah. Also two pizza places, a Chinese buffet, and a Mexican restaurant, last time I was there. Did you think we literally lived in igloos and were completely untouched by Westernization?”
“…no,” he says.
She rolls her eyes at him. “Uh-huh.”
Barrow’s pretty modern, she says (which he still finds hard to imagine but keeps that to himself), and although a lot of people there rely on subsistence hunting, fishing, and whaling, it’s not really possible to get by on that alone. There’s an airport that gets daily 737 flights, three hotels, a library, and a hospital, among other things. The schools are modern too, and she grew up with the internet the same as anyone else her age, if a little more slowly because for a long time, only dial-up was available. Her grandparents remembered the older ways, though, and with them she learned how to speak to the tundra and the ocean and listen when it spoke back, how to hunt caribou, how to turn hides into practically anything, how to fish, how to carve up the bowhead whales harvested during whaling season, how to build herself a shelter if she ended up on the nearly featureless tundra in the middle of a blizzard, how to tell at a glance if the ice was safe to walk on or not. Like many others of their generation, her grandparents far preferred their own language to English, so Irene learned Inupiat from childhood in her home instead of taking language classes later like many of her friends did.
“I was a kid,” she says, “so it seemed normal then, but I was lucky—to grow up bilingual, and to learn some of what’s already being forgotten. We do better than a lot of other Alaska Native groups, but losing your heritage is still too easy. And that’s a tragedy I want to help prevent, if I can. So—” She gestures to the translator device. “Inupiat isn’t a priority for anyone else here, but it is for me, so this is my side project. Plus I just like languages.” (That’s another understatement, according to Kevin; Irene is passably fluent in at least two other Alaska Native dialects that he knows of, plus French and German.)
“Okay, so,” he says, “what does Inupiat sound like?”
“Paglagivsi,” she says, and the unhurried, slightly singsong inflection that’s always present in her voice gets more pronounced as she says the word. “‘Welcome.’ Or, say…quyanaq is ‘thank you,’ and quyanaqpak is ‘thank you very much.’ You hear those a lot even if you don’t really speak the language. Sometimes we get really long words, like aviktuaqatigiigñiq, ‘sharing.’”
Many of her classmates wanted to leave as soon as they finished high school; Irene got a two-year degree at Iḷisaġvik College there in town, for an academic perspective on her own culture and a foundation in the core subjects she’d need elsewhere, and then she transferred to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“And now I’m here for grad school,” she finishes, “because there’s more science to do.”
He looks at her sideways. “Did you just—”
“Did I just what.”
“Uh, quote a video game.”
“Minsu,” she says patiently, “I have played games. I grew up with the entire internet, and that’s an old meme. You should be concerned if I didn’t know the cake was a lie or something.”
“…fair enough,” he says, and that’s when he starts working harder at learning English so he can talk to her without the translator device as a go-between.
So he learns some English, and she learns a lot of Korean, and the term goes by in something of a blur of Rockstar-fueled late nights and almost nonexistent weekends. The second term is even busier, and he sees her less; Irene spends months studying the possible effects of CW-7, and Minsu’s work in security systems lands him a part-time job with Wilford Industries. The old guy’s probably a crackpot, but he’s a crackpot with money and interesting ideas, and he pays well enough for full-time systems architecture work during the summer that Minsu starts thinking seriously about staying there instead of finishing his degree.
And then the CW-7 is deployed and the world falls to chaos, and Wilford’s crackpot idea becomes humanity’s last hope, and Minsu is one of the first given a place aboard the Snowpiercer. He designed its security systems, after all; he might as well be part of the train itself, for as much as anyone thinks to ask what he wants. He has time to call his family in Korea, barely, and tell them where to go on the train’s route so they’ll be waiting when the train comes around, and he promises that by then he’ll figure out a way to get the train to stop and let a few more people on board, and then they all lose contact with the outside world except for what they can see through the windows. (A number of the rich people who spent their fortunes for a place onboard take bets on who will make it through the bloodbath outside.)
It’s only a little later, when the eternal journey is on its way and everything outside is dead, that he has time to recognize the translator devices he sees some of the guards using. He doesn’t actually see Irene again until the second week, though, when the passengers who weren’t quite wealthy enough for first class or unlucky enough for the tail section start getting sorted out.
More accurately, he hears her, because she’s not exactly yelling but her voice carries impressively across the long car where many of the in-between passengers are being processed.
“I’m a goddamn scientist,” she’s snarling at an impassive-looking guard, “I’m here because I actually know something about how the world got this fucked up, and now you don’t want to let me do my job?”
“Your job,” the guard says, “is to accept the place you’ve been given. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the only world that matters now is the one inside this train, and that world needs custodians. Not climatologists whose entire fields have just been rendered obsolete.”
“You want to make me a cleaning lady,” she says.
“I don’t care. But if you want to stay onboard, then you want to do what you’re told.”
She glares at him for a moment before taking the uniform offered and stalking away without another word. Minsu remembers her awards, her published papers, her passion, her ease with languages, and for the first time he thinks he isn’t going to like the world Wilford’s creating.
He’s busy enough with maintenance and testing that he doesn’t have a chance to talk to her until a few days later. It’s morning, so the rave car is basically empty when he’s called up to check the connections for its cameras, and Irene is there, scrubbing at something on the floor. It takes him a second to recognize it as dried vomit. She sees him and her spine stiffens, expression daring him to comment.
“Sorry,” he says after a moment. “This is bullshit.”
“Tell me about it,” she mutters, but the tight set of her shoulders relaxes a little.
She has the same plan he does (if it can really be called a plan), she tells him as they work. The train’s route will take it near Barrow, months from now, and her family will be waiting where she told them to be, and somehow she will get them aboard. She doesn’t say that maybe no one will be alive by then, or that she’d had the idea that her position onboard might actually get someone to listen to her request to stop the train, but Minsu’s thinking that about his own situation, so it’s a safe bet she is too.
The train rushes onward, and the weeks pass, and it becomes increasingly obvious that no one is waiting because everyone is already dead. Every city they pass through is frozen and utterly still; sometimes people are visible, huddled on the train platforms, and none of them are alive.
“They’re all dead, aren’t they,” Irene says finally, as they speed through South America in the middle of summer and the frozen remnants of a rainforest flash by the windows.
Minsu doesn’t reply, because he doesn’t want to make the truth more real by agreeing aloud, but he knows. He thinks he’s known for a long time.
That night, she comes to his compartment for the first time, and for a little while they drive away the cold together.
When she tells him she’s pregnant, he thinks (but doesn’t say) that this can’t possibly make up for the families they’ve already lost, but at least it’s something.
“If it’s a boy,” she tells him, “I was thinking maybe Jonah. Because someday our child’s going to escape the belly of this beast and survive.”
The baby is a girl, born somewhere in Russia under an aurora. Minsu remembers a singer his sister liked and suggests Yona for their child’s name, and for the first time in months, a little of the fierce light comes back into Irene’s eyes.
Yona is a year old when Irene starts talking again about leaving the Snowpiercer.
“Not now,” she says, “not yet, but I think it’s possible.”
“I thought you meant maybe years from now,” he says.
“Yeah, maybe,” she says.
“But you’re already thinking about it.”
“Yeah,” she says after a moment.
“Why now?” he says. “Yes, let’s get out, but now, when you don’t even know if you can do it?”
“I have to, okay?” she says. “Because I don’t want to die cleaning some asshole’s toilet, that’s why.” He snorts, despite his concern, and she shoves his shoulder. “I mean figurative assholes.”
The year Yona turns two, Irene stops waiting.
She tells him the world’s changing again, that the snow’s starting to melt and it’s possible again to survive outside, but he sees nothing outside the train windows except ice and snow and long-frozen remnants of cities.
“Look,” she says, practically vibrating with the subtle tension that’s been growing since the beginning, “I’m not asking you to come on a suicide mission and of course I’m not planning to drag Yona out there until I know it’s safe but I have to do this.”
“You could die,” Minsu snaps. “You realize that, right?”
“Of fucking course I realize that, asshole,” she nearly shouts at him. She breathes deeply and lowers her voice with an obvious effort. The dimness of their enclosed bunk feels private, but there’s no such thing as real solitude onboard. “Yes. I know. And I have to get out anyway because if I don’t, I am going to lose my fucking mind.”
“You’d rather freeze to death, alone, than stay on the ark and live with me and your child,” he says flatly.
She twists away, staring upward into nothing. “Yes. I’m sorry. But yes. I need—you grew up in a city so maybe it doesn’t matter to you but I haven’t felt the land under my feet in two years and I feel like I’m dying by inches every day. Like this goddamn train is suffocating me. And if I don’t get out, anything else that happens won’t matter, because there won’t be anything left of me to see it.”
He wants to argue, still, but he has no words against the rawness in her voice, and he thinks at some level he probably always knew this would happen eventually.
“If I am going to die,” she says quietly, “I want to do it in the embrace of the land that raised me. Not in here.” After another moment when he says nothing, she adds, “And I do know what I’m doing, out there. If there’s a way to survive outside, you damn well better believe I’ll find it.”
“I do,” he says, because how can he do anything else?
She turns her head to face him, eyes glinting in the dark. “When the train comes around in a year, you’ll know. If I made it, I’ll be waiting, and the two of you can join me then.”
“Right,” he says. “A year. Okay.”
He’s not there when it happens; in fact, he doesn’t even know it’s happening until Irene has already made her move, because he’s several cars back from the front, fixing a door that keeps trying to stick open. He doesn’t hear the shouting at the front, or the gunfire; all he hears is the sudden quiet beep on the nearest alarm panel, warning that one of the doors has been compromised, one of the doors to the outside. And then he realizes: she’s done it, and she’s protected him and Yona by making sure he has an alibi and telling him next to nothing, and he really doesn’t know how to feel about that.
The train jerks and shudders around him—and then, impossibly, it begins to slow. Minsu abandons the door and runs into the next car, swearing under his breath. It only has one window, and everyone in the car seems to have abandoned their meals and crowded around it. He shoves his way forward, squints as his eyes adjust to the sudden brightness, strains to see—and yes, up where the track curves he sees a small cluster of figures, dark against the snow. He gets one good look as the train whips past—Irene in front, of course she is, and all of them bent into the wind, and then the train rounds another curve and they are lost to sight.
Minsu steps away from the window (some asshole immediately pushes into the empty spot, even though there’s nothing to see anymore) and realizes, a little belatedly, that he won’t know anything more for an entire year.
Later, he learns about the six passengers who joined her—he even knew a couple of them, and he had no idea they were planning this. There was a guard, a gardener, a butcher, all practical occupations, not a kronol-addled first class passenger among them. When he looks out the windows over the next few weeks, at the glittering lifeless whiteness, part of him wonders how Irene could have possibly found others willing to trade warmth and relative safety despite menial jobs for that kind of freedom. And part of him remembers her intensity and how he’d seen it withering and didn’t even realize, and he imagines spending the rest of his life in this rattling metal tube, and he thinks he understands then why the open air might be worth such a risk.
The door damaged in the revolt is repaired; he’s kept mostly away from the process, which no one actually says is because of his relationship with Irene, although it’s clear enough. He’s kept busy elsewhere, strengthening security for the doors between the cars, but it doesn’t take long to learn why the train’s security expert isn’t involved in any of the modifications to the outside doors.
Simply put, they don’t need him for this, because they’re doing nothing more sophisticated than welding the doors shut.
Fair enough. Almost no one actually wants to go outside, and if anyone argues with the decision to seal the train up for good, Minsu doesn’t hear about it. But the first time he sees one of those doors, melted into its frame and utterly immovable, for just a second his breath comes a little harder and he wonders how he ever could have thought he could be content like this forever. They’ve all been trapped here from the beginning, and Irene was one of the few able to see that.
It’s at this point that he starts stockpiling kronol.
He doesn’t use much of it, not like the partiers at the front—one good sniff can wake him up and clear his head, so of course he does that when he needs to, but the important thing is the drug’s other characteristics. The doors can’t be opened the normal way, now, and there’s nothing else onboard the train that’s so ubiquitous and overlooked, or so easy to make into a crude explosive. A single chunk of the really good stuff can last most addicts for at least a week, though, so he can’t take too much at once without causing suspicion.
(Yona mouths one of the cubes, once, before he notices she’s grabbed it, and when he tries to take it away, she evades him with a deftness he’s never seen in a toddler before. He’s not sure what to think of that either.)
The year passes. When the time is right, he is there with Yona, watching, carefully guarding a nondescript duffel bag of provisions and kronol, because of course he was always going to be ready, whatever his reservations.
He isn’t ready, as it happens.
The little group comes into view, and for a long moment relief drowns out anticipation and the nagging apprehension that this is a terrible idea. So he prepares the charge and counts down the seconds, how long it will take to place the bomb, light the fuse, and get back to a safe distance, and—
Something is wrong.
The train rushes forward, the figures get closer, and he abruptly realizes they aren’t moving. In fact, compared to the last time he saw them—his mind maps it out even as he tries not to understand what he’s seeing, and it’s inescapably clear that the rebels are arranged in the same order as when they first set out. That during an entire year, they have moved at most a few dozen meters further away, and now they are not moving, still leaning into the wind.
That they are, in fact, no more than newly frozen parts of the landscape, frosted over and just as lifeless as the snow stretching endlessly around them.
He looks for a moment longer, cold to his marrow despite the fact that he knows no hint of the outside temperature can reach him in here, and then his breath fogs up the glass and he turns away before he can clearly make out the statue Irene has become. He takes Yona and his bag back to their compartment, dismantles the crude bomb, and puts some of his kronol to its intended use for the first time.
The partiers have one thing right, it turns out. When you’re high, things like grief and fear and even panic don’t bite as hard as they do when you’re sober.
The Revolt of the Seven, people call it. Nobody remembers the rebels’ names. Nobody remembers that they were people, not just a new part of the train’s history and an example to anyone else foolish enough to think there is such a thing as life outside the train, outside the places preordained for them. And now, more than ever, he wants out. He wants a world for Yona that isn’t as tightly circumscribed as the inside of the train, beautiful as some of the cars are (but he never sees them except when he has to fix something, and Yona doesn’t see them at all).
Yona is seven by the time he realizes he’s addicted to kronol. Not long after, they’re both arrested, and no one ever explains why. Yona believes him when he says they’re just moving to a different compartment. He doesn’t tell her that he’s not surprised, not really; on the Snowpiercer, order has become sacred, and his place is to be a tool, brought out when needed and stored away the rest of the time where its skills can’t be used in a way that might upset that balance.
He doesn’t tell her, either, that she’s been a hostage to his good behavior for years now. By himself, he might have tried to get out, at least fought the guards who came for him, but they were very clear: they had no use for Yona. Only Minsu needed her alive. So he trades their own private compartment for the prison car, crowded and comfortless, and everything after that is something of a decade-long blur. They’re kept in a kind of drug-induced stasis much of the time, locked into metal drawers like corpses in a morgue, and at least that’s better than the panicked claustrophobia of lying awake in the tiny space. There’s kronol, sometimes, to take the edge off, and withdrawal symptoms the rest of the time that make stasis an even more appealing alternative, and the occasional clear moment with Yona or with other prisoners, often on the New Year when they have a rare chance to look outside.
There is never enough time to tell Yona everything he needs to. She doesn’t remember her mother, but that’s probably for the best; for his part, his grasp of English is slipping, mostly thanks to the drugs, so before long Yona has outpaced him there, and he isn’t quite sure when that happened. But he remembers what Irene told him before the revolt, about ice and snow and survival, and he tries to teach that to his daughter as much as he can.
He refuses to believe she’s fated to die on this train in a drugged haze.
Yona is ten when Minsu realizes conclusively that she’s special—not like the other train babies he met before, who seem to have sharper hearing than anyone born on the ground, but something stronger and less easy to define. She knows things. It isn’t the kronol, or at least not only the kronol. Sometimes she seems to know what he’s going to say just before he says it; sometimes she even translates something to one of the other prisoners before he’s actually said the words. Sometimes she remembers things he’s certain he hasn’t told her. And always, she knows before anyone else does when the guards are coming.
He doesn’t talk about it to anyone. If the guards know, Mason will probably come and take his daughter away for Wilford to shape into a new kind of tool; he doesn’t talk about it to Yona much, because at first she doesn’t know she’s special, and he doesn’t know why it happened.
The aurora, maybe, combined with a thinner atmosphere, assuming CW-7 even had that effect. Irene would at least be able to make an educated guess. Minsu makes do with the thought—both unsettling and wryly amusing—that his daughter might be a mutant like the X-Men, with no Professor X to train her.
Yona is almost 18 when Curtis and his motley band of rebels arrives; almost 18 the first time she sees corpses, fish, plants, dirt; almost 18 the first time she shoots someone; almost 18 when the train is ripped apart.
“Remember,” he says against her ear in the last instant before the explosion, and all he can do as the light and the noise and the darkness take him is to hope it’s enough.
1. I'm a white girl, but when I was 11 years old I moved to Barrow and spent five years there, so I figured that in expanding on the backstory of "the Inuit woman," I might as well start with something I was at least a little familiar with. Pretty much everything described here comes from my own experiences and observations, along with some internet research and the first chunk of the game Never Alone, which is not to say that I got it all right but at least it's based mostly on real life. (For instance, I pretty much never hear the word "Inuit" used here in Alaska; typically people refer to Alaska Natives/Native Alaskans or to specific groups, like Iñupiat. "Eskimo" really isn't an authentic term, to my knowledge, but oddly enough it's used in Barrow more than I'd expected.) If I screwed something up, though, please let me know! Particularly if someone can definitively correct my usage of Iñupiat vs. Iñupiaq, because that's something I still don't really understand.
2. As I mentioned earlier, Snowpiercer presents an alternate future (obviously) whose divergence point starts at least in 2007, when CW-7 started being developed. I figure that means any real-world events from 2007 onward are fair game, so I've taken some creative liberties with a few things. The problems on the North Slope caused by climate change--erosion, shrinking sea ice, flooding, decreasing permafrost, etc.--are all real, but the specific events Irene describes haven't happened yet, at least. To my knowledge, the sushi place is still there, for instance (although sadly the Mexican restaurant is not, because here in the real world, that particular local landmark burned down last year).
3. Similarly, Nageak is a real family name that I picked because it was one I remember hearing often when I lived in Barrow; in fact, the current representative to the state House for that district is Benjamin Nageak. Thing is, family surnames weren't really a thing until white people showed up not that long ago, so there aren't common surnames as much as there are a lot of people who are related to each other. In this story, Irene is not related to any real-life members of the Nageak family for the same reason that I played a little with the restaurants.
4. The title comes from the supposed Eskimo proverb "You never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks." I have serious doubts about whether that's an authentic saying, because I couldn't find a source beyond this site and a lot of the other "Eskimo proverbs" listed also sound like things white people figure Inuit people might say rather than anything authentic (I'm pretty sure "igloo" is not a word in Inupiat, and obviously "it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good" is an old English proverb). But for title inspiration, I figured it was good enough.
5. My understanding of a lot of the movie's events comes from posts at this Tumblr, although a lot of it is entirely my own invention.
6. If you're interested in learning more about the North Slope and the people who live there, the visitor section of the North Slope Borough website is a good place to start. So is Never Alone, which is super cute.
7. I'm probably going to add a post-movie coda from Yona's POV, so if that sounds interesting, you might want to subscribe. (Edit: finally done!)
When the first shock of the explosion and crash have passed, nothing is left but deafening silence of a kind Yona has never known. The sun glinting off the snow is blinding, brighter than any light she’s ever seen, and the cold, when the snow spills over the tops of her boots and brushes her bare skin—
She has never felt cold like this before.
She imagined it, or tried, when her dad told her about ice and snow, but not even the most vivid kronol dream can compare to reality, to the world suddenly expanding beyond the narrow confines of the train.
Yona pushes back the heavy fur hood and lets the breeze tug at her hair, lets the sunlight touch her. And in the stillness, the clarity, there is…something else, something like the jolt to her brain that comes with the first good sniff of kronol but sharper and somehow purer.
She inhales, deep and deliberate. The sharpness of the cold sinks into her body, the purity of the stillness sinks into her mind, and she knows—remembers—
“You won’t understand this now, Yona, maybe not for a long time, but I’m going to tell you anyway: the world outside this train is alive. We froze it, yeah. We hurt it. We screwed up. But we didn’t kill it. We didn’t kill it. That spirit—it’s not just in the land, it’s in everything, the water, the snow, the air...the atmosphere we poisoned, siḷa—it’s alive, it’s still there, and when you get outside, if you listen, it will speak to you. And so will I, even if I never see you again.”
“Okay, Minsu, I don’t know how much snow you’re used to but the thing you have to understand is, it’s not all just snow. You get the wrong kind at the wrong temperature, you can’t do anything with it. You have to know what you’re looking for. Hell of a good insulator, though.”
And further back:
“I’m Iñupiaq. You know, Eskimo? From Alaska? This is nothing.”
And further back:
“Sit down, Irene. Listen. Let your aana tell you a story. It’s about a little girl like you who walked a long, long way and saved her family...”
In the stillness, Yona remembers everything. And gradually, she becomes aware of presences, like tiny points of light in her mind—even the scattered, indistinct ones, now that the world is so much quieter and the train is silent. Survivors from the wreck, not very many but more than she would have expected from the look of things, back across the length of the shattered train, and beyond them, even more faintly—
She looks up, and a white bear (nanuq, polar bear, Ursus maritimus) crests the rise ahead of them, one bright spot of life in the snow. And where predators exist, prey must exist too, small things that flicker at the edges of her senses.
This world isn’t dead.
She crouches in front of the boy, who’s staring around in open-mouthed wonder, blinking like he only just woke up. “Hey. My name’s Yona. What’s yours?”
For a second he stares at her, like he has to think about it, and then he says in a very small voice, “Timmy.” Pauses, and repeats more confidently, “Timmy.”
“Timmy, okay.” She should probably smile at him reassuringly here, but she doesn’t really feel like smiling right now and she has no idea if she’s capable of being reassuring, especially since her dad’s dead and she’s pretty sure Timmy’s mom is dead too.
But this world isn’t dead. All of this is not, somehow, the literal end of the world, and all the pinpricks of light are settling in her mind like they’ve always belonged here, and she has work to do.
Yona straightens and holds out one hand to Timmy. “Let’s go see who we can find, huh?”
He looks up at her for a moment, nods, and latches on to her hand with surprising strength, his fingers in hers a shock of warmth and life in the cold.
The reference to siḷa comes straight from one of the videos included with Never Alone, the game I mentioned in my previous end notes. I'm pretty sure I'm using the word more or less correctly. I am pretty sure that aana means "grandma"; I think it's something I would've heard when I actually lived in Barrow but never had a reason to write down, and you would not believe how ridiculously hard it was to find a site now that would tell me. I ended up using an abridged Iñupiaq/English dictionary I eventually found, which is actually a really fascinating resource for anyone who wants to know a little more about the language.