By Shaun Polakow
The sky was a crime scene without clues, bereft of moon or sun. Casket black and unchanged by time or season it cast the icy tundra below in darkness. The only colors left on Earth were the black of sky and the white of ice – save for a grey block of concrete labeled ARK-2. Miles beneath – deep in the cold earth – lie cavernous rooms. Some rooms housed people but the largest was filled with the treasures of a people whose time had passed.
IMPACT WINTER. DAY 18,252.
In the hall of treasures lay great art and artifacts of our brief and failed conquest of Earth. Two Rembrandts and a Jackson Pollock shoved between the alabaster legs of Michelangelo’s David.
Don enjoyed sitting amongst them and imaging the magnificent fire they would create. All that oil and lacquer. He would start the blaze with an improvised torch made of a Stradivarius. He wore a loose-fitting olive-drab jumpsuit – like every other mole-rat in the ARK – but in his imagining he was a tuxedoed conductor overseeing a bonfire concerto five thousand years in the making.
Everything beautiful looks like kindling when all you have is a match.
He smelled her before she made a sound. Cass always had a thin residue of mint toothpaste at the corners of her lips. Too impatient to rinse and wipe.
“How many people were turned away for all this shit?” Don asked.
Cass’s sagged her shoulders as she stepped into the lamplight. She offered the same half-smile as the Mona Lisa on its side behind her.
“If I had a wiener, I’m pretty sure rhetorical questions would make it go limp,” She replied.
“It’s like the house was on fire and instead of saving the kids they saved the photo album,” Don said softly. “How does your wiener feel about similes?”
“Keep my wiener outta your mouth,” She said, chuckling at her own joke. Don as serious as ever demanded more so she continued, “It was freeze, not fire that killed the kids. And if you hate photo albums why do you spend so much time flipping through them?”
“So everyone in a graveyard should love death? By the way, no one calls it a wiener.”
Cass chuckled again and tucked her tangled hair behind an ear. His gaze turned sideways and drifted past her. Mona Lisa smiled mysterious back at him, undimmed by her glum surroundings.
“What’s she smirking about?” he asked.
“Everyone loves a girl who can keep a secret,” Cass replied.
Not Don. People were left to freeze in the endless winter so the lucky few – great leaders and thinkers – could entomb themselves with such riddles. Like everyone else Don was a descendant of those chosen few. He could only puzzle over why they thought a smile mattered more than a life.
Don stood and cracked his neck.
“Want to check out one of your favorites?” Cass asked. “Bill of Rights or Magna Carta?”
“Saturn Devouring his Son seems appropriate,” Don replied. “Actually, I need a break from the tomb.”
“That’s it?” Cass said sadly.
“What else is there to say? Today’s the big day. I’ll see you and your wiener in the silo.”
Don’s footsteps echoed through the cavernous hall. Despite the constant temperature and perfectly calibrated humidity Cass felt a shiver in watching him leave.
“It’s not a tomb,” her voice quivered and echoed. “It’s a life preserver.”
Elsewhere in the ARK, confined to a much smaller room, Dr. Annenberg’s sallow face was awash in the glow of aged computer screens. Like them, he still worked fiercely. They both were showing their age but their every usable hour was spent on calculations and simulations. Redundancies upon redundancies. The ARK’s meager resources meant they would only get one shot at their mission. Annenberg was ready for the big day but he was no poet and recording a mission log for prosperity proved challenging.
“I’m doctor Jerome Annenberg,” he began. “It’s been fifty years since we boarded this second ark. Rather than a flood, we fled the effects of the asteroid Ozymandias, which impacted Earth creating a debris cloud that led to the extinction of all creatures with a body mass greater than twenty-five kilograms. Except us. Now we’re running out of provisions and hope…” He stopped, considered better, and tapped the delete key.
Not hope. It was an unspoken rule in the ARK that to acknowledge hope as a finite resource was to admit defeat was possible. Surely some things cannot be rationed.
Annenberg’s attention shifted back to the monitor. Don was entering the silo along with a team of scientists. The young man, no more than twenty, paused to look up at the massive rocket. So much pressure on them both.
Annenberg took a moment to appreciate the machine as well. His life’s work. His father’s as well. Annenberg spared no time for a wife and children. In a way the machine was his next of kin.
Cass joined the small command station with Annenberg. The fresh smell of mint always proceeding her.
“You’re late,” Annenberg chided without looking up.
“Nasty weather today.”
“Cheeky. Suit up. Don is already inside.”
For a moment Cass didn’t stir, her attention fixed on the monitor. On Don.
“Everything ok?” Annenberg asked.
“Yeah,” she said sadly. “End of the journey. Light at the end of the tunnel. All that.”
In the silo Don climbed the ladder to the rocket’s avionics module. He was trained since birth for this day. Piloting the rocket into Earth’s inner atmosphere was the only thing Don was taught. ARK elders wouldn’t risk his mind to be filled with anything else. Each checklist item was like a song he had sung a million times. And yet it was the unknown – the hiccups – that itched at the back of his mind.
Don was strapped into his seat when Cass finally joined him in the module.
“You find the Goya?” He asked.
Cass ignored him as she closed the module door and spun the wheel lock shut.
“I think it’s Cronus eating his son. You know, the god of time?” Don added, waiting for a clever retort. But she offered no parry.
Strapped in Cass flipped the comms device and said, “Locked and loaded. Deck crew clear silo for blast radius.”
She hadn’t offered so much as a glance in his direction, instead carefully attending to her pre-flight checklist. Their conversation that morning – though grim – had been nothing out of the ordinary. Don worried for her mental state.
“Don’t let us down, you two!” Annenberg’s nervous voice squawked through the radio. “Silo is clear. Retracting silo doors.”
Cass’s steely eyes fixed on the creaking doors above.
“Don’t tell me you’re nervous?” He said hoping to provoke a response. “I know you better than anyone, Cassandra. You don’t get nervous.”
The widening blackness let in an icy howl. Had anyone not cleared the silo floor below they would die within minutes from exposure. But that cold had nothing on the icy stare Cass finally shot at Don.
“What?” Don exclaimed.
“Godspeed!” Annenberg’s voice chirped. “You’ll be the first souls to see the sun in decades. Don’t forget your shade goggles!”
A thin layer of ice crackled over the windows and a heavy silence set in. Don and Cass went about their well-choreographed duet of commands necessary to fire engines in sub-zero temperatures. The module shook as the booster fired up.
“Clear to launch!” Annenberg’s voice began and then was quickly lost to the roar of the massive Triton engines erupting beneath them.
Ice on the windows retreated slightly as the rocket thrust violently upwards with all the deadly purpose of a bullet.
Don’s fingers danced over the controls as if of their own free will. And in their practiced muscle memory he was allowed to drift off in thought. Despite being within arm’s reach Cass he had never felt further away. They spent their entire lives in training together and survived Annenberg’s cuts from the original group of children selected for the mission. In all that time Cass never shut up about their great purpose. How could she now – on the precipice of everything – be upset?
At fifty miles into the sky, the ice melted fully. As did Don’s armor of cynicism.
“You sure you’re ok?” He asked, ignoring the controls to steal a glance.
He wasn’t asking much. Just a clever retort. Or, at the very least, the sliver of a smile like in her favorite painting. Another – more irritating riddle lingered – why did Don even care? It had been her role to follow him around and guess at his strange inner workings. By what right did she suddenly claim to be the mysterious one?
Pulsing lights and an alarm jarred Don from self-pity. It was that hiccup that finally got a response from Cass.
“What the hell is the matter with you?!” She exclaimed.
Before Don could process what had happened, they broke through the veil of clouds. Blinding light filled the module. Cass was quick to pull on her goggles. Don was not.
Eyes raised in the soft glow of lamplight were unprepared for such intense light. Don fumbled blindly to secure his goggles. The radio blared to life and Annenberg’s voice, choked by static, demanded to know the cause of the multiple error messages he’d no doubt just received.
“Disengaging,” Cass said coolly.
The capsule parted from its booster rocket and hung weightless. The booster fell and was swallowed by the blanket of black clouds.
Cass unstrapped herself and floated through the brightly lit capsule to help Don secure his goggles.
“What’d I do?” He muttered.
“I’ll handle the payload release,” Cass said with an authority he’d never heard.
“No,” Don replied. “I can do it.”
They had both received redundant training in each other’s roles. But Don had his pride and releasing the payload was his job. He floated over to a wall of levers. He paused and blinked angrily for his vision to return.
“I can do it,” Cass offered again more gently.
“But you won’t!” He fired back.
Don could perform this sequence with his eyes closed and it seemed he would have to. His hands instinctually moved between levers in the precise order necessary. Then Don stopped cold.
The final lever should not be pulled until glowing red. Don’s hand shook. Sweat dripped over his goggles only further impairing his vision. He could not see in color yet.
“We’ll do it together,” Cass said softly.
Cass took Don’s hand and together they engaged the final lever.
He blinked and listened – no sound to indicate the five-ton warhead had released. It would soon drag them back into Earth’s atmosphere and their mission – humanity’s last hope – would be lost. Cass floated to a control panel and tapped the keyboard.
“Coolant systems didn’t engage and the remote trigger shorted,” Cass said.
By leaving out his rightful blame she only infuriated him more. Don fumbled for the screwdriver in his breast pocket. He smashed it into the edge of a flat panel. With blurry vision he struggled to unscrew the panel.
“What are you doing?!” Cass said, knowing full well.
He removed the panel to reveal a round door lock. Don spun it and opened the hatch to another – much smaller module. He meant to detonate the payload himself.
“There has to be another way,” Cass said, knowing there wasn’t.
“It’s my screw up. I’ll fix it.”
Silhouetted by the sun she pushed herself toward him. He caught her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length.
“Don’t try’n stop me, Cass!” Don admonished.
“I’m trying to say goodbye, stupid.”
Don let Cass push close to him. He smelled the mint on her breath and it reminded him of all the silly conversations shared in the dimly lit treasure room. Only then did he realize those moments were among his fondest.
Cass’s arms enveloped him and she pressed her lips gently against his. An odd snap sounded as their lips parted. How could he have been blind all along, Don wondered.
She pushed herself back and floated away. Through blinking eyes, he caught the hint of a smile on her face. She wormed her way through the open hatch and into the payload module.
“Hey!” Don exclaimed.
He tried to follow but something tugged at his waist and held him in place. His hands fumbled behind him to find his seat belt had been looped around his belt loop. It took both hands to release the knot she made while distracting him with a kiss. The payload module door slammed shut and locked in place.
“Cass!” Don screamed.
A loud siren announced the payload module disengaging. Momentum from their separation sent the avionics capsule collapsing back into darkness.
The capsule spun wildly and built up speed as it hurdled back to Earth. Don scrambled into his seat and fixed his seat belt. A piercing noise alerted him that the ground would soon be upon him. He tore the goggles from his face and reached for the lever Cass was meant to pull.
Two large chutes ballooned above the capsule and slowed its descent before impacting the snowy surface. Don unhooked his belt and scrambled to the window but ice covered his view.
Next he hurried to the hatch and furiously spun the wheel to open it. Icy air hit his face like a fist when the seal was breached.
Dark clouds blotted out the sky as always. He watched them intently as the cold ate at him. The feeling in his extremities faded but his focus was singular. Cass was up there, somewhere beyond the clouds, all alone. Had her chronic impatience finally led her into something she couldn’t see through?
Shards of ice settled over Don’s scraggly beard and eyebrows and the space between his eyelashes. Then suddenly – impossibly – he felt warmth radiate over him. A brilliant burst of light issued from above and the inky clouds parted by a great bloom of grey smoke. And when that passed all that remained were cerulean skies and a blazing sun.
He scrambled atop the module to feel closer to the sun’s warm embrace. The blinking homing beacon atop the capsule created a persistent ping and was soon joined by Annenberg’s voice over the radio.
Don stole away from the maddening sounds and down to the slick ice. Tears streaked his cheeks but didn’t freeze. He licked the ice from his lips and it melted and still tasted of mint.
He whispered her name but it was gone as quickly, lost to the wind whipping over a barren horizon.
Miles away lay a grey block of concrete labeled ARK-2. Miles beneath – deep in the cold earth – lie cavernous rooms. Some rooms housed people but the largest was filled with the treasures of a people whose time had not passed. Among them, laying slyly on her side, a girl who can keep a secret.
RECOVERY SPRING. DAY 1
Shaun Polakow is an Emmy award-winning Writer/Producer. His prose work has been featured in Alterna Comics, Jumbelbook, Pif Magazine, and Zimbell House’s After Effects Anthology. He is currently working on his debut novel.