“Nah. We are one hundred percent shit-outta-luck,” she said, voice high and brittle as she leaned back from the computer. She gave a tight little laugh as she gestured at different possible trajectories, the different deflections achievable with nukes or booster rockets or heroic space missions. The wall of screens in front of us showed projected death tolls and ecological changes, with a lot of graphs that dropped sharply right at the end. “Earth is, uh … not to be melodramatic about it, but, absolutely doomed.”
I glanced at the screen, then out the window. The comet wasn’t quite visible with the naked eye yet, but I’d be damned if that little spot in the night sky didn’t seem a little brighter than the others.
It would get brighter yet.
“Can we use fallout shelters?” asked the Minister of Defense, standing to my right. “To preserve a breeding population of the human race?”
“Full-on Strangelove?” Sara shook her head. “Nah. Just … nah. That was hiding from a cobalt nuke. This is trying to hide from a dinosaur-killer—it’s half the size of the moon. So unless you have enough canned beans for forty-thousand years, this planet is—”
“We heard you.” The Prime Minister’s voice was soft and clipped, and her eyes were locked onto the screen. “Thank you, Doctor Rajendu, I believe we understand the situation.”
The group of us stared at the monitors. When SkyEye had quietly notified us about the comet a week ago, this had been discussed as a possibility, but I think we’d all sort of tacitly assumed that something satisfyingly scientific would save us.
“There will be panic,” said the Minister of Education, who I hadn’t worked with enough to learn her name.
“How widespread is this knowledge?” I asked. “Have we contacted other governments? Can we coordinate what story we release, and keep people … calm?”
“You mean lie to them?” asked Sara, giving me a disappointed-but-not-surprised look. “We can’t hide this.”
“If you’re about to tell me that people have a right to know—” I began.
“They do,” she said immediately, frowning at me. “But the question is moot. I mean we literally can’t hide this—in two days, any hobbyist with a backyard telescope will be able to see the comet. It’ll have a melodramatic name and a death cult within a week. Good thing we won’t have to put up with it for much longer than that.”
“Jesus Christ,” muttered one of the techs.
“Do you have any solutions?” asked the Prime Minister, voice polite and patient and so cold that I blinked.
“Sort of,” said Sara, leaning back in her chair with an exhale. “But the odds are garbage. Really garbage. Our best shot is probably an escape rocket; the generational ark ship thing. America and Russia were both working on big rockets a few months ago—and also that Mars guy—and maybe if we feed every rocket scientist amphetamines for the next week we can figure out how to pool the global resources and get somebody to Alpha Centauri.”
“We have a secret missile program,” volunteered the Minister of Defense.
“Great, cool,” said Sara. “Throw that in the pot.”
There was a pause, until someone asked the question.
“What are our odds?”
At this, Sara gave a sad, wry smile. “With the entirety of the human race working as hard as it possibly can, unified in a single noble mission, all the people of Earth contributing their energy—”
“Would you take this seriously?” snapped the Prime Minister.
“Maybe one in a hundred.”
I let out my breath. Everyone let out their breath.
“That’s garbage,” said the Prime Minister.
“It is,” Sara agreed.
“Still, I guess there’s hope,” she mused. “A much better message to deliver than … what you said about the Earth.”
“Sure,” said Sara.
“Media Minister—you’ll need to write something,” said the Prime Minister, turning to me and meeting my eyes. “A damned good speech. Hope in the face of oblivion. Humanity rising from the ashes. A damned good speech.”
I nodded, and swallowed.
It’s an interesting job, being a communicator.
Usually your job is to tell the truth. Almost always. And that’s really hard, because everyone interprets your words slightly differently, and one person’s bemused note of curiosity is another’s eureka moment, and if you don’t have your audience in mind, you’ll whiff it.
Sometimes your audience is the intersection of the politicians and the public, where you need to tell a certain truth, and be very careful with the framing so as not prime people to think of other truths that the first truth implies. Like, you write “the protestors were shot” rather than “the police shot the protestors”, thereby implying that protestors being shot is the natural causal trend of the universe, and bullets just sort of arrive in protestors if you leave them out for a while, like grape juice fermenting into wine.
I’m doing a good thing, I think. I talk about it like it’s this dirty mercenary process, but consider: my words make millions of people happier. They’re used to reading between the lines, so when I say, “we need to liberate so and so country,” and that country happens to have a lot of oil … well, no one actually believes that our primary mission is charitable, but we all feel better about ourselves.
Very occasionally, as a communicator, your job is to make people happy with an outright lie.
That’s a lot easier than all the other stuff.
I knocked on her door. She opened it.
“Seriously?” she asked, exasperated and scornful. “End of the world—kind of cliché, don’t you think?”
“I’m here for work, Doctor Rajendu,” I snapped, a little hurt. “They want me to get you to budge those odds some for the announcement.”
“She sent you? Prime Minister couldn’t come herself, for the end of the world?”
“You must have known. Did you not think she’d put me on this?”
“Look,” she said, “to be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about you or our history, because I was thinking about the a-billion-times-more-important space hammer that kills us in nine days.”
“Fine, yes,” I said, as my stomach did a little lurch. “I hadn’t forgotten.”
(I had forgotten, or at least, wasn’t thinking about it. It’s very freeing, how the mind can lose unpleasant things.)
She opened the door with a sigh, and jerked her head for me to come in.
The apartment was mostly as I remembered it, but with a few different touches. Homey, domestic little flourishes—a hand-knitted tea cozy, a cute little cat-shaped egg timer—neither my tastes nor hers.
“So, how long have you two been living together?” I asked, as casually as I could.
She didn’t respond. I glanced at her, and she was giving me an unamused look.
“Right,” I said, “business.”
“I’m not going to ‘budge’ on the odds,” she said. She turned one of her dining chairs around and straddled it. “They’re math.”
“But they’ve got to be subjective math. Unless you’re telling me that, I don’t know, Newton actually came up with the perfect factual universal formula for determining how often we succeed when we try to build an escape ark.”
“One of the really irritating things about dealing with people who have social jobs instead of science jobs,” she said, “is that they perceive an unwillingness to compromise on your point as an insult. A strong one.”
“I’m not trying to—”
“So they argue. They wheedle and browbeat you in the hopes that somehow their posturing and compromises will convince physics to cut them a break.”
“My point still stands,” I said, a little heated. “I’m not dealing with physics, here, I’m dealing with you, and you plugged subjective numbers into an equation and gave us a one percent chance.”
She laughed. “Oh, I gave us a one percent chance? We have a one percent chance. I found that out. I estimated what this project needs and compared it to historically similar shit—the space race, the Manhattan project, our attempts to cure polio—and tracked how long it took, what we needed to fire into space ASAP, where the logistical snags were, who needed to be bribed to do what—”
“They probably won’t need to be bribed to not obstruct humanity’s only hope,” I said.
“Somebody will, humans are pretty goddamned dense,” She shook her head angrily. “I ran the numbers on that, thought about how often projects like this get screwed for completely unforeseen reasons, tracked all the likely shipping delays down to the weather—”
She let out a forceful sigh, and her face was hard, but I could see her knees bouncing nervously below the table.
“And it looks like our odds are one percent. A little less, I was rounding up.”
I could feel a creeping tightness on my scalp, a tingle of dread. “Can you run the numbers again? Now that you’ve seen how cooperative our government is being?”
“I modeled them as this cooperative,” she said immediately. “My model is actually pretty best-case. And I shouldn’t run it again right now, I think. If anything, I’m less objective now than I was a day ago, because I’ve had more time to think about how I’m going to be killed by a comet, and when I ran the numbers the first time I didn’t know what I was going to find, so I wasn’t flinching away from the conclusion. That we are conclusively—”
Her voice broke, and she turned away. I blinked in surprise, and hesitated, conflicting emotions fighting to be heard. I cautiously reached out a hand.
“No,” she said, firm, eyes closed, “I don’t want empathy right now. I need to be productive for another forty-eight hours, finish writing plans and delegating to logisticians, gracefully finish everything that needs me on it, and then I can do all the sex and drugs and crying and end of the world stuff.”
“Okay,” I said, backpedaling. “Uh.”
“You can tell the PM whatever you want,” she said, not looking at me. “Doesn’t actually change humanity’s odds. Tell her … tell her one in four.”
I blinked. “That was easy.”
She met my eyes, and there was pain there. “Yeah, well, you know how it is. Lots of things get easier if you just lie.”
“One in four?” The Prime Minister looked up from her reports and fixed me with a look of such profound relief that I winced. “That’s much, much better. Excellent work. I knew you could bring her around.”
It’s an interesting job.
One of the most disappointing things about it is that often, your best work never gets to come out.
Everyone knows about the William Safire speech, right? The White House speechwriter, who wrote a just-in-case speech, the “greatest speech never told”, to blunt the nationwide hurt if the Apollo astronauts were stranded on the moon. God, it was good. I can’t quite do it from memory, but I remember a couple lines:
“Today, fate has decided that the men who traveled to the moon, will remain on the moon. There is no hope for their recovery. But there is hope for humanity in their sacrifice.
May anyone who looks up at the moon in the nights to come, know from this time forth, that there is some corner of it made forever more … human.”
Oh, it gives me a tingle. And nowadays it’s only really known to space nerds, politics nerds, and speech nerds like myself.
The Prime Minister asked me to write a speech detailing the certain demise of the human race, the indomitability of the human spirit, and the triumphant visual of hope rising from the ashes.
I pretty much phoned it in and cribbed Safire.
“So far so good,” I murmured to Sara, after the daily staff briefing.
Our coworkers shuffled out, zombie-like. The Minister of Agriculture wasn’t wearing a suit today, and the Minister of Education had just stopped coming entirely. Of the men, only the Minister of Defense had shaved.
“What? What meeting did you attend?” muttered Sara, after we were out of earshot.
I glanced at her, confused. “We’ve gotten unanimous international cooperation!”
She shook her head, blowing out a frustrated breath. “We really haven’t. We’ve gotten every country to agree that something should be done. But China wants to assemble the whole thing on Earth, North Korea thinks this is a capitalist plot somehow, and a bunch of the Nordic countries are digging vaults, pretending geothermal won’t fail when this intergalactic donkey-punch hits Earth so hard we squirt planet-core into space.”
“Gross,” I said.
“I was holding it in for years,” she said, with a faint smile. “Anyway, we don’t have a plan. We have a sentiment.”
“Then how do we turn that into a functioning planetary escape vehicle and save the human race, Sara?” I asked, rather more pointed than I intended.
“We?” she asked. “We don’t. To the politicians, I’m a space weathervane and you’re an apology machine. You and I just have to hope that they sort their shit out. Anyway, time to drink.”
“Um,” I said, frowning. “I guess you finished your part?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “It was a really hard call, but I’m not an engineer, and despite the voice in my head screaming at me to fly to the launchpad and get involved, I think that me trying to micromanage every space program in the world will be net-negative. So instead, I’m going to do all the drugs I held off from trying for brain-damage reasons—hooray, end of the world!—and then go have a lot of sex with strangers.”
I blinked. My mind could have latched onto the human extinction in that sentence, but instead I said, “Wait, aren’t you two monogamous?”
She laughed bitterly. “Well, we were, but have you seen the state of air travel lately? Being in two different countries is now an insurmountable barrier to end-of-the-world sex.”
“Mm,” I said. And then, sincerely: “Sorry I can’t help.”
She patted my arm, and said with only a trace of condescension, “Me too.”
“One in four,” was the buzz of the country.
There were three days left. The comet had been named Cronos, after that one god who ate his children, and yes, Sara was right, there were cults.
I walked down the street, through the night market. A few particularly coy store owners were holding “going-out-of-business” sales, but most hadn’t bothered to remain open, just unlocking their doors and abandoning the shop. It would at least be fun for the looters.
Everywhere I went, I saw people huddling together, congregating in front of televisions. People were watching broadcasts anywhere the electricity still worked—and the functioning news channels were covering almost nothing but the construction of Arks.
I saw a family of five sitting in a bar, hungrily watching a video of an Ark being built. I heard the Prime Minister reciting my Safire speech as a voiceover.
Would this despair be greater if they knew the real odds? Would their fervor be even more desperate? Should we, perhaps, have tried harder to keep this secret?
“Hey, you! Friend!”
I looked up. Behind a repurposed market stall, a tall, rail-skinny man with a neck tattoo was waving me down.
“Yeah?” I said, wary.
“Want some heroin?” he asked, with a big smile.
I glanced at the fresh paint on the sign.
PEPPERS FREE HEROINE
“You’re just giving it away?” I asked skeptically.
“Yeah!” he said emphatically. “Why not?”
“This is one of the only goods that people still want even though we’ll be dead in three days. You could probably trade it, or something?”
“Nah, nah,” he waved a hand cheerfully. “I have enough. Take some, you should be happy!”
I looked at his smiling, peaceful face, the track marks on his arms, and his neck tattoo.
I felt … confused.
“No thank you,” I said, bemusedly.
“Ay, no hard feelings, then.” He clapped me on the shoulder, and turned to face another person strolling by. “Hey, you! Wanna die happy?”
I watched him hand out needles, feeling conflicted and queerly jealous.
I walked through the night. It wasn’t raining, which was wrong, and there was a comet coming to kill me, which was also wrong. The universe was really quite asinine about not compromising with humans’ sense of what was right.
What would the worldwide impact be, when billions of people, glued to the televisions, watched an Ark collapse? Rocket science was hard, and not amenable to rush jobs—some of the Arks would likely explode on live TV. What incomparable anguish would that be, to watch your last hope—humanity’s last hope—go up in flames?
What pain, multiplied by eight billion?
I had an … itch, a resentful part of me that envied the heroin dealer’s ability to just go do something, to take one look at the pain and start handing out painkiller. I wanted—I needed that?
But there was nothing I could do …
… well, hm.
For years, I’d existed to turn hurt into hope, to blunt the sting of tragedy, and to preserve silver linings. That’s … a unique and different kind of noble, isn’t it?
There was nothing I could do to help the project. There was nothing I could do to help humanity’s odds.
But that didn’t mean there was nothing I could do.
“Sara,” I said, banging on her door. “Sara, are you there?”
I saw the blinds flicker as she peered out.
“I’m not here for end-of-the-world sex!” I called out. “I need your help with something!”
“Christ, Avi,” she mumbled, fumbling with the door latches. “I really hope you’re not here to apologize about our relationship, because that was years ago and I’m over it.”
“No.” I said. I paused. “Unless you want to do that too, in which case, we should, because I’m not over it—”
“Yeah, me neither,” she admitted at once.
“—but that’s not what I need you for.”
I stepped inside. She was in a fluffy pink bathrobe, with her glasses on and her hair greasy and tangled from bed.
She was still so beautiful it made me ache.
“I’m sorry,” I said, instead of what I’d meant to say.
She blinked. “Christ, we’re actually doing this?” she asked wearily.
“We have seventy hours to live and I have a very important thing I’d like us to work on. Can we get this out of the way?”
Her eyes met mine, and she quirked her head in quiet curiosity.
“What’s your very important thing?” she asked, cautiously.
“It won’t save the world,” I said, to prevent the unkindness of false hope. “It’s not a happy ending, I can tell you that much. But it’ll let humanity go out with a moment of grace.”
“You’re, like, bouncing,” she noted. She gestured at me.
“I’m feeling pretty … purposeful, for the first time in a while. And that’s probably part of why I want to try to say all the things I couldn’t say to you, too. Can we do that first?”
“Someone had two full scoops of enthusiasm in his breakfast cereal this morning, huh?” she half-smiled, bemused. “Okay.” She took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
We spoke at the same time. “I should have—” “I didn’t—”
“You go,” she said, waving me on.
“Okay.” I paused. “We’re sorry. Um. Why are you sorry?”
She sighed. “I was waiting for years for you to get your shit together and stop thinking that you knew what was best for everyone.”
“Well, hey, I don’t think that,” I protested. “I just think that framing and word choice and presentation can make a really big difference for helping people make the right choices.”
“And you know the ‘right choices’, yeah,” she rebutted. “Avi, I care about you, but it’s … really hard to trust you, when you explicitly say that most people aren’t smart enough to hear the truth, and need your carefully-framed Truth Plus in order to do the right things with their lives.”
“Okay, right, people aren’t stupid,” I said, “but maybe you’re used to dealing with literal rocket scientists and you expect the average person to be rational. I have to write press releases for the lowest common denominator, and ‘people’, as a whole, are impulsive, panicky animals who couldn’t act in their own self-interest if—”
“We’ve had this argument,” she said, tired, “too many times already, I don’t want to do it again. Anyway, once I realized you weren’t going to change, I should have just broken up with you, instead of waiting the extra year and letting it turn into so much resentment.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oof.”
And then, “Sara, that wasn’t really much of an apology.”
She gave a sad little half-smile. “It’s complex. People are always so complex, aren’t they? I’m apologizing because I loved you, and I love you still, but I don’t trust you the same way anymore, and I think most of that is because I put up with your Truth Plus for a year too long. That’s what I’m sorry about—I’m sorry I didn’t do what I needed to help us be friends.”
“Oh,” I said.
“… Huh.” I said.
“Why are you sorry?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
For a brief, spiteful moment, I considered not telling her, but. “I think I knew you were gay before you did, and I was just lying to myself about it.”
“Classic Avi,” she said, with a faint smile. “Everyone gets Truth Plus, even you.”
“But I appreciate the sentiment,” she said, as an afterthought.
And quieter, “Wish I’d’ve known.”
“You do have a real reason for being here, right?” she asked, looking vulnerable. “Not that I’m not glad we didn’t just do that, and I know we still love each other, but I’m going to feel pretty tricked if you just—”
“Right!” I said, startled back into my manic momentum. “I need your help with rocket physics,”
She stared at me for a long second.
“Avi, I don’t think you’re going to contribute to humanity’s knowledge of comet diversion in the next three days,” she said, with insulting gentleness. “And I haven’t actually worked on rockets since the college internship.”
“Not that,” I shook my head impatiently. “I need you to help make everything look realistic.”
“Make what look realistic?”
“Come on, come on,” I fidgeted impatiently as I waited to see if I was one of the lucky few who would get to make a phone call this hour. This close to doomsday, phone lines were always at capacity.
“Hello?” came a voice on the other end.
“Yes!” I near-shouted, startling Sara on the bed. “Sorry, this is like my tenth try to call you. Hi!”
“Hi,” said my college buddy, the CGI guy. “Uh … Avi? What’s up?”
Sara and I worked on our footage like mad for the next two days. During that time we heard, through clandestine government channels, that the Arks had, for whatever unforeseeable reasons that Sara had easily foreseen, failed.
We weren’t surprised.
We were prepared.
“One in a hundred was too optimistic, if anything.”
She flopped back into bed, holding her laptop and comparing our video against the news-channel-loop of an Ark under construction. “I think our odds were more like one in a thousand.”
“I’ll keep that in mind for next time we do this.”
“You’ve gotten sassy,” she noted. “It’s nice.”
“You’ve rubbed off on me,” I said. “And you made a good point with your donkey-punch comment—why would I even hold back anymore?”
She had wound the little cat-shaped egg timer so that it would go off about a second before impact. Really, we’d have maybe a few minutes after that, as the atmosphere ignited and the pyroclastic pillars did … fire stuff, but having a ticking countdown felt right, even if it was tubby and cat shaped.
“So here we are,” she said. I was smoking. She was politely not reminding me that I might get lung cancer.
“Yep,” I said. “End of the world. Wish I’d grabbed some of that free heroin.”
“Eh, do you?” she asked. “Serious question. Wouldn’t you rather be awake and aware, for the last five minutes of your life?”
“Why?” I asked. “I’d just be biting my fingernails and crying.”
“Point of fact,” she said, glancing at the clock, “it, ah, is the last five minutes of your life, and you aren’t.”
“Fine, fine,” I said. My heart was racing, but if she couldn’t hear the terror in my voice, then I might as well look strong and support her. “I dunno, I think being sober through pain is overrated. Like, are you trying to impress someone?”
“Some people actually care about the truth, Avi,” she said, giving me a look. “You know, I did have some serious goddamn reservations about going along with Operation Truth Plus, here. If this were a meteor that even some of humanity was going to survive, I wouldn’t have done it.”
“Well, thank you,” I said, formally. “Glad you were willing to do the obviously correct thing, the literally final time it mattered.”
She sighed, and glanced at the clock, and buried her face in the pillow.
“And if it turns out that lying to people is a sin, or something,” I said, carefully, “I take full responsibility. Uh. But if it turns out that happiness is the only true morality, then I want credit for bringing joy to billions.” I considered. “You get partial credit.”
“Deal,” she said, voice muffled by the pillow.
We were both very painfully aware of the silence, and the seconds ticking by.
“Do you think we did the right thing?” I asked her, after a spell.
She laughed in shocked disbelief. “You’re asking me?”
“Sure,” I said. “I know the world deserved better, but we couldn’t give it better. So we gave it this.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“I think it’s noble,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“How’re you doing?” I asked, looking at her partially buried form.
“Avi,” she said, very softly. “We have two minutes to live.”
“That as may be,” I intoned. “But!—hope is not lost! Haven’t you heard? Through the secret labors of a multinational coalition, humanity yet endures! This is our triump—mmmph.”
She hit me with a pillow. I glanced down at her. She was crying.
“Ah,” I froze. “Ah. Uh, bad time to be cavalier.”
Her face was stricken with grief, and something else, some wide-eyed worry like she was actually questioning my sanity.
“Yeah,” she said, heavily. “Are you … just trying not to think about it?”
“Yeah,” I said at once. The cigarette in my hand was trembling. “But hey, I’ve always been pretty good at lying to myself.”
She looked up at me, face scrunched in pain and fear and … pity?
“Well, then,” she said. “No need to stop now.”
We’d sent our footage to the news, claiming to be representatives of a secret multinational group, independently working on an Ark. They’d grabbed it like a drowning man grabs a life preserver.
I included my speech.
“Fate has ordained that we must end. But the children of Earth refuse to die.”
The final product looked slick. Under the hood, the footage was stitched together from a dozen rocket launches. We’d used the profile of the Ark with the coolant steam from Apollo Six. We were launching it from an oceanic drone ship, in front of the Challenger’s sunset.
Instead of a flag on the prow, we’d just put a blue planet.
“These brave few are the pride of our species.”
We’d picked our ‘colonists’ as though we were making a workplace diversity poster.
“They will mourn us. They will mourn their families; they will mourn their friends; they will mourn their Mother Earth.”
The launch was the hardest thing. The jet of fire and flame, the rocket seeming to shudder, then rise, then soar …
Sara really pulled out all the stops on that one. She built up a lot of sleep debt that she’ll have to pay off never.
“If, in some distant time, in some impossibly distant land, the children of Earth learn what happened to their forebears … let them look upon our star in their sky, and know that there is some corner of another world that is yet … human.”
The rocket soaring bright, a distant, departing star, twin to the evil light in the sky. The two pass each other, and our Ark has escaped.
Cronos will not have them.
“Lives end. Nations end. We thought that hope might end.
But we endure.
In our last moments, humanity united. We set aside our differences. We stood together and reached for the heavens.
And this …
This is our triumph.”