The Last Year
That July morning, it snowed. Naturally, we took the kids outside. At twelve and nine, they’d never seen snow. It was almost as magical for Alice and myself as it was for them; we’d begun to think we’d never see snow again, and snow in New York during high summer was about as likely as a cactus in Antarctica.
But of course, that was the old world. All the rules had changed.
For me, it was wonderful to watch Alexa and Josh delighting in the slush, throwing snowballs, and building snowmen (the snow was too watery to hold its shape, and the best effort they could manage was Alexa’s mound of dirty snow with a stick poking haphazardly out the top.) But Alice, in my peripheral vision, was a sour note. Her eyes were sad as she watched. Without turning to me, she said softly, “You can’t fix it, can you?”
With that, the joy was gone. “No,” I said. “I don’t think we can.”
My office in the Climate Engineering building of the Directorate was a knot of calm and silence amidst constant noise and motion. Around me people were packing up their desks, cardboard boxes proliferating like tribbles; the whole building must have deprived Central Park of a good half of its accommodation. The activity was constant and remorseless, but subdued; I didn’t see a single smile.
Craig caught me on the way in. “Did you hear? They’ve withdrawn funding. They’re shutting us down.”
“I know,” I said. It figured; we’d tried everything we could and few that we couldn’t and we hadn’t made a lick of difference. It didn’t help that there was a strong impression in Congress that we were directly responsible for the death of the climate. Hardly surprising. They weren’t wrong. The media had taken to calling it “Howell’s Ice Age” and even Howell’s suicide hadn’t done much to clear his tarnished image.
Jason Howell – JH as he had liked to be called – had been my boss, the head of the Climate Engineering department. His departure from the scene had left me as the most senior official and secured my immediate future; I was about the only employee not laid off, and that was only so they could ensure I would be around to face the inevitable Congress inquiry. If that ever happened. Effective head of the Climate Engineering department, without a department to manage.
“OK,” said Craig, “but do you know where the money’s going now? They’re fast-tracking Project Noah.”
My first reaction to this was to think that it was crazy, like aliens-in-Wyoming crazy, but these were not times for sanity. I nodded. “I should be surprised,” I said. “I haven’t seen that announced.”
“No announcements,” said Craig. “They’re keeping it on the quiet. I heard through someone my wife knows.” That also made sense. Project Noah, at its very most ambitious, wouldn’t be able to save more than a few thousand people. But if Craig knew about it, then you could bet that half of America would know by next week. That kind of news doesn’t stay secret for long.
Half of America did not know by the next week. Craig and his wife went on a long holiday to the Caribbean without so much as tweeting it first. Some other souls, more cynical than mine, might have suspected that their impromptu trip went a bit further than Jamaica, but that summer it seemed that a lot of people decided to head south. The conspiratorial underbelly of the internet caught on to the disappearances but in all the buzz the news of project Noah seemed to sink without a trace.
Jamaica was one of the few places left where there was still any kind of sun; an anaemic, watered-down sun, but enough to give a little warmth. The tourism authorities were having a field day: “The last resort of the sun”, “Summer’s last refuge”, that kind of thing. It says something either funny or sad about human nature that even whilst the world was ending, people were still trying to make money. Whilst the memory of warmth was a nice thought, I could think of better ways to spend my time than to try to squeeze into the tropical islands along with half of the rest of the human race. Nine billion people, all standing on a piece of ground slightly smaller than Connecticut.
Except that it wasn’t nine billion people by then. By mid-August, just about everything north of sixty degrees was frozen. Those who could escape went south, and escape they did, in their millions; but for many, they never had a chance. Residents of civilized countries like Sweden and Greenland, and half of Canada, holders of first-world privilege who never expected to be the ones to suffer, had either starved or frozen in their icy homes. Not that the rest of the world was faring much better. It was no more than eight months since Project Glass had been prematurely aborted, and a single lost season of growth was hardly going to plunge the globe into starvation, but two years, three, and we would be in real trouble. Hence the rationing, hence the death-spiral of food prices, hence the food riots.
In October I was finally called before an emergency sitting of Congress. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from it; I’d never sat at the rarefied heights before. JH had never been a scientist or an engineer, but he had been a born administrator, and he had always been the figurehead of the Directorate. I’d never even set foot in Washington; I once promised to take the kids to the White House but work got in the way and we never went. By October air travel was pretty much impossible, so I had to take the fast train down; what had previously been a three-hour trip took closer to six hours, with stops every few miles to clear snow and ice from the tracks.
Despite the almost-freezing conditions street-side, the Capitol building was kept warm, doubtless at huge cost; in view of the situation I guess peak oil had ceased being a consideration. I was nervous as hell while I stood outside the House Chamber waiting my turn. The diplomat guide-cum-guard who’d been assigned to me was unsympathetic.
We were met in the antechamber by Willard Harvey; secretary of the Department of Primary Industry, I’d met him several times. He and JH had gotten along famously; to me, he was like a kindly uncle. Now he greeted me warmly enough, then pulled me close. “They’ve pretty much agreed to pin everything on JH,” he said. “You’ll get through this OK, if you play it right.”
“Does it matter?” I asked.
“Think about your kids,” he said. “The human race will survive this. We always do. In the future, people will remember project Glass. You don’t want your kids to grow with that kind of shame to their name, do you?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t sure my kids were going to get the chance to grow up, but I certainly didn’t want that.
Then, sotto voce, he gave me the best advice I’ve ever received. “I suggest you tell them exactly what they expect to hear.”
So I did.
I didn’t sleep well the next few nights after that. It may have been JH’s signature on the orders, but it was my department that came up with the details and the implementation of Glass; it was on my say-so that we’d gone ahead. Even then I’d known there was only a fifty-fifty chance of complete success; we just miscalculated the direction of the error. I spent much of the next few nights sitting in the kids’ bedrooms watching them sleep, unable to exorcise the demons of guilt in my gut.
But a conscience is a resilient thing and life went on. Despite the conclusion of the emergency sitting, nobody got around to closing down the Climate Engineering department, so I kept getting paid. I’d stopped actually going to the office weeks ago, but nobody cared.
In November, they decommissioned two thirds of the army. For a couple of days it was the lead story on the news bulletins still operating, flickering long-range video of thousands of rifles being dumped into pits and topped with concrete. At the time, I didn’t see why they bothered. It wasn’t like the government needed to save money for the future.
In December the reasons became clear.
The human race was busy indeed during those last few months. China put a colony on Mars. Rumour had it that Japan had gotten there six weeks earlier; scuttlebutt insisted that there was a shooting war going on up there. I wasn’t sure if I believed it then, and I still don’t. The middle east was at war, exploding into a furious excoriation of violence late in the year, as if a dozen countries were desperate to get out their long-held enmities before the inevitable rapture.
It was in December that the government announced what some had already suspected. Congress had fast-tracked a half dozen different projects, spending like there was no tomorrow. Project Noah was one of those announced, but it was barely a footnote. Project Methuselah sounded hare-brained to me; I no more believed that people could be safely preserved in cryogenics than I believed that Walt Disney and Elvis Presley were alive and well and living in Michigan. Project Compound was much more likely; gigantic plastic-and-metal habitat domes built out in the middle of nowhere, stuffed with hydroponics and artificial lighting, powered by great nuclear furnaces to be built at long distances. Due for completion by the middle of the next year, at least it seemed to me to have potential. And yes, the US was going to put colonies on Mars and the moon as well.
Participation in these projects would be by a combination of selection on merit, and a lottery to end all lotteries. With the army reduced in advance to those who had already been selected for participation, the US went into the strictest martial law possible.
By then Alice’s parents were living with us. They’d moved south from Boston in mid-November, succumbing to punishing power and food costs. My own parents were still in Portland, and I’d lost touch with them in September. I’d heard that there had been a lot of brown-outs over there, with people freezing overnight when their heating failed. I had to assume that they were gone.
I’d never liked them much anyway.
In February two square young men turned up on our doorstep and escorted me to the government car awaiting me at the curb. Apparently they’d gone via my office and were none too pleased to find it cold and abandoned. “I’ll be home soon,” I told Alice and the kids, hoping to hell that I wasn’t going to be proved a liar.
I was eventually ushered into a small office in one of the government’s innumerable buildings downtown. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but when I saw Willard Harvey sitting behind the desk, that was certainly not it.
“We’re offering you a place in Project Noah,” he told me without preamble. “How much do you know about Noah?”
“They’re calling it a generation ship,” I replied. “Designed to be in flight for hundreds of years between star systems. I heard it’s going to go to Alpha Centauri for exploration and possible colonisation.”
“Potentially, thousands of years,” said Harvey. “Hundreds of years is best-case scenario. There’s really no guarantees at all, least of all that Alpha Centauri will be suitable.”
“The crew will live and die in space,” I continued. “Have babies, keep the ship going.” I was no evolutionary geneticist, but I knew a little about populations. “You’ll need thousands of people.”
“Close to ten thousand,” Harvey agreed. “We’d like you to be one of them.”
Harvey tapped the desk in front of him, a thick bound folder I hadn’t even noticed. “We’ve been doing our homework,” he said. “There’s a lot of considerations. Health. Expertise. We’ll be needing atmospheric engineers and climatologists when the ship arrives at any destination. You’re one of the best, and more importantly, you’ve written books and you’ve run lectures. It’s not just your knowledge we’re after, it’s your ability to teach.”
“You must have thousands of climatologists to choose from,” I said.
“True,” he replied, “but since Congress determined that JH was solely responsible for the mess of Glass, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be you. There’s more to it, of course. Your genetic make-up is disparate enough to be a positive contributor to the overall gene pool we’re trying to preserve.”
“My genes?” I asked, surprised.
He shrugged. “Every government employee has a blood sample taken as part of their standard medical. What are you, one quarter Chinese?”
“My grandparents were Chinese,” I admitted.
“We can’t promise you a comfortable life, nor a safe one. But you’ll be doing something worthwhile, and you’ll be valued.”
“I’ll need time to think about it,” I said. That was an understatement.
“You have twenty-four hours,” Harvey said. “But I have one more thing for you to consider. This offer’s for you personally. And I do mean you: just you. Not your family. Not your friends. Probably not anybody you’ve ever met.” He took off his glasses and polished them on his sleeve. “Hell of a thing to ask, I know, but you’re first on our list in our models.”
I didn’t go straight home. I had a lot to think about, so I turned my collar up against the cold and I walked the city streets, kicking my way through snow. In the end I made my way home, and stood across the street, just gazing at the glowing windows and the vague shapes that moved behind the drapes. And I made my decision.
It was the sixth of March when I left home for the last time. I lied to Alice, telling her I was heading for an unspecified appointment in the office. I’d barely been back there for months and I’m not sure she entirely believed me, but she didn’t say anything. Perhaps she had already suspected something; I’d done my best to act normally for the past few weeks, but it’s hard to keep secrets from someone you live with.
That morning I got up early and spent some time standing in the doorway to the kids’ room. Saying goodbye. But I couldn’t linger.
I had done my best for them. I’d negotiated a place for them all – Alice, Alexa, Josh, even Alice’s parents – in one of the biodomes. They would be OK. They’d probably have a more comfortable life than I was committed to.
The Ark had been built in orbit, and the crew were being shuttled up to it. Ten thousand people, on a spaceship half the size of Manhattan. The scope of it beggared belief. Powered by a combination of nuclear engines, ram scoops and solar sails, the engineers had pulled out all the stops. Frankly, most of that is well outside my area of expertise.
Ten thousand people. Drawn from all walks of life, as varied a racial background as could be arranged, and bonded together with a single purpose. Destined to live and die in the cold expanses of space, with only the most tenuous hope of survival, our only immediate priorities being to record and pass on our knowledge – and to breed.
Most of the massive craft was built without windows, and I had no chance to see the Earth as we left it behind. I wondered what Alice would think if she could see me.
Nature doesn’t approve of stillness. Humanity has survived where other species became extinct, time after time, eon after eon, because we kept moving. We move to keep ahead of the climate, of the predators, of the volcano and the tides and anger of a vengeful planet.
I’m sure the biodomes will survive for a good many years. I hope – I pray – that Alexa and Josh have long lives, productive lives, and that they’re as happy as might be reasonably expected. But nothing that mankind builds can last thousands of years. The sulfide aerosols we put into the atmosphere, that turned Earth into the inside of a silver-foil balloon, were designed to be non-reactive. It might be hundreds of years before the sky started to clear once more. I hope that the biodomes will still be standing by then, that my descendants will one day be able to emerge onto a planet as it wakes from the long winter. But I don’t think they will.
The main reason that I left them behind – my wife, my children, my life – the straightforward justification is simple.
We must never make these mistakes again.
Written in response to a writing prompt from Today’s Author: http://todaysauthor.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/write-now-prompt-for-july-30-2013/
The prompt was as follows:
That July morning, it snowed.
This one took a while!