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art by Justine McGreevy

Hoist With an Ark to the Stars

After studying film and philosophy at the University of Southern California, David spent several years writing movies and television before rediscovering his love of speculative prose and poetry. To learn more, go to davidglenlarson.com.
The world may have been ending, but that was no reason to throw trash on the floor. The bin was only three feet away. That's thirty-six inches. Simon Sacks could have landed a rocket the size of a flea on a Martian dog's ass, but the chief engineer of the Ark project couldn't be bothered to land a Styrofoam cup in a metal can.
Milo propped his arms on the broom handle and stared at the short man in the sweater vest.
"What are you looking at?" said Sacks, tearing open a bag of pretzels.
"Not a thing," said Milo. "But I hope your aim up there is better than it is down here."
The chief engineer's face reddened. Milo wasn't one to mouth off, but what did he have to lose--his job? If he survived, there'd be plenty of sweeping to do.
"Your job may not be rocket science," said Sacks, "but you're paid to do it. Or is picking up trash too menial a task for a custodial engineer like yourself?"
"No, Sir," said Milo.
"Then how about you let me save humanity, and you keep pushing your little broom around." Sacks dumped the pretzels onto the carpet and mashed them with his shoe, making sure each crumb was embedded in the pile before storming back to his station.
"Two minutes till launch. Ten minutes till object impact." The public information officer's voice sounded tighter than Milo's belt after Thanksgiving supper. Everybody on the planet was huddled around the radio, either buried in a bomb shelter or packed into the local bar for last call. She'd be the last human voice most people would ever hear.
None of the geniuses dashing around the room knew what to do about the comet. Most of the missiles missed, and the ones that did hit only picked off a few cocktail-sized ice cubes.
Earth's last hope sat out on the launch pad venting steam.
The Ark should have gone up weeks ago, long before the comet arrived, but with construction and weather delays, the survival of the species was coming down to minutes.
Milo didn't know all the ins and outs of the project, but he'd picked up scraps of information. Nobody noticed a man with a broom. The Ark was the most expensive thing ever made, and from all the accents buzzing around, almost every country chipped in to build it; every country that still had a government. Not all of them survived the initial panic.
"One minute till launch."
Folks settled down after a while, and started acting more human than Milo had ever seen in his sixty-four years, pulling together for one last heroic effort.
There'd be no Noah on this Ark, nor two of each of God's creatures. Nobody would survive a roundtrip journey expected to take thousands or millions of years. That's how long the geniuses figured it would take for our little corner of the universe to repair itself after the impact.
Instead, the big bullet--that's what they called it on account of its shape--would carry the hopes and dreams of seven-and-a-half billion souls.
Not all got their genes aboard, but there was a good sampling. Then there were the animals' genes, music and artwork, books, movies, blueprints for the greatest architectural wonders of the world, even a few billion family recipes. Milo's DNA was rejected, but his beloved wife's sweet potato pie made the cut. That was good enough for him.
"Ten seconds."
He didn't know how it worked, but the bullet was supposed to cruise around the galaxy for a spell, and slingshot back around when things looked more hospitable back home.
"Three, two, one. We have launch."
The billowing trail of smoke and fire lifted into the sky. The room erupted with cheers and tears of joy, but one person wasn't celebrating. A mission controller, just a kid, stared at his screen with widening eyes.
"Flight, you need to see this," said the kid with a trembling voice. "I'm getting some sort of signal."
"I should hope so," said the flight director, smiling.
"Not from the Ark. From the comet."
"Seven minutes till impact," came the woman's voice. There was less stress in it now. The hard part was over.
The flight director shook his head, but his smile didn't waver.
"Comets don't send signals," said Flight. "Recheck your equipment."
"I already did. Half a dozen times."
"Background noise," said Sacks with assurance, almost bravado.
Others gathered around the kid's screen, trying to make sense of it.
"Not background noise," said another engineer, junior to Sacks. "It's artificial."
"Impossible," said the chief engineer, pushing the others out of the way. "Unless you're saying that's an alien craft heading toward us."
With headphones pressed to his ears, the junior engineer listened, eyes closed. "I think there's a time distortion!" He rushed to another station. "The frequency's spread out, but I can recompress it." He made the adjustments and froze. "My God."
"What is it?" asked Flight.
"The Ark."
"You said it wasn't coming from the Ark," said Sacks.
"It's It's the return signal," said the junior engineer. "According to this, the bullet's been gone half a million years."
A suffocating hush descended over the room.
"That can't be," said Sacks. "It can't be."
The junior engineer fed the signal through the loudspeakers so they could all hear the familiar clicks and chirps.
"Maybe it fell through a wormhole," somebody shouted.
"Or a black hole," cried another.
"It doesn't matter," Flight said, loosening his tie. It was the first time Milo had ever seen him do that.
"He's right," said Sacks, his face white. "With all that ice adding extra mass, it won't stop in time."
Turned out the chief engineer's aim was pretty good after all. Milo dropped the Styrofoam cup in the bin and continued sweeping as all eyes rose to the screen tracking the prodigal comet's progress home.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 17th, 2012

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