I’ve chosen sugar cookies for Jackson’s scent reminder. Most people chose something from nature. Pine trees. Roses. The petrichor aroma after rain. But Jackson told me the smell of baking sugar cookies meant home.
Lying there in his stasis pod, sandy lashes shading his cheeks, he looks younger than his ten years. Finally old enough to join the baseball league with his cousin Benji. I pull the worn glove that had been my grandfather’s out of my handbag and lift his limp hand, tucking the leather underneath.
“Take care of this,” I say, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice. “I’m sorry you didn’t get more time to use it.”
My chest constricts. There should be better words at a time like this. I’ve built a life out of giving speeches, but without the writers, faced with my most important audience, I have nothing.
The technician hovering behind me clears her throat. “Madam President, it’s time.”
I squeeze Jackson’s fingers one last time, then release his hand and gesture for the technician to close the pod. There’s a hiss and, just before the metal and plasticene edges meet, a strong whiff of vanilla and cinnamon.
I look away. I don’t want my last memory of Jackson—my late-life miracle—to be of him trapped behind the frosted viewscreen. This way I can pretend he’s just fallen asleep, clinging to his beloved glove, waiting to play with his cousin when he wakes.
But Benji won’t be there.
Blinking away tears, I turn to the technician and shake her hand. “Good luck to you,” I say. “Thank you for your service.”
“I’ll take care of them, Ma’am.” There’s pride in the subtle lift of her chin. “Don’t you worry.”
I nod, unable to find any other words, and leave my son behind, barely aware of the rows upon rows of silver-white pods stretching away until they become clouds floating in a sea of institutional gray.
My bodyguard shepherds me from the Arkadia and into the waiting car. We drive past the security fences and military vehicles guarding the perimeter. If not for the black hole of fear and guilt eating me inside out, I’d enjoy the bright Florida morning. Blue sky so serene I should be able to skip rocks on it.
But the rocks that are coming aren’t going to skip.
The nuclear option failed. Ours broke a chunk off the massive asteroid’s side, but either piece alone is still enough to devastate the Earth. India and the ESA hit, but failed to do anything more than irradiate the target. China missed entirely.
We enter the command center over Bunker-1. “Status, General?”
“Western seaboard escape ships have launched. All the rest are prepped for launch. Every bunker is sealed, save ours. There’ve been riots, Ma’am. Casualties.”
“There’ll be more.” My nails dig into my palms. “I should’ve pushed the ark initiative harder. The Earth shouldn’t be the damn Titanic.”
When my sister Sharon’s family hadn’t been called in the lottery, not for an ark or even a bunker, she’d shown up at the White House in hysterics. Not for herself or Nathaniel. For Benji. I was the president. I had to have strings I could pull.
Maybe I did, but if I manipulated the lottery and word got out, my credibility would shred faster than a flag in a hurricane. The majority of the populace stood behind the ark program—better a chance to save some than to lose everyone—but fear and anger roiled just below the surface. Saving Benji could be the spark that lit the inferno. The arks were well-guarded, but if enough people stormed them—if the soldiers couldn’t bring themselves to fire on their fellow countrymen—
Sharon cursed me until no tears were left, only bloodshot eyes I’ll never unsee. That night, I downed the vodka the Russian president had given me six years before to celebrate my first inauguration. It wasn’t enough. Nothing will ever be enough.
“Madam President, you need to get below,” the General says.
“Not until those ships launch. And get me on the vids.”
The Presidential Seal hangs on a bare concrete wall, a stalwart bastion of color in a world gone gray. I stand in front of the seal and try to match its strength, though I feel as threadbare as a sheet of gauze.
“My fellow Americans,” I say, “we stand today at the edge of apocalypse. Some call this God’s will. Others call it His vengeance, or the cold hand of chance. All I know is this—our true selves are revealed when we are tested.”
The launch countdown flashes on the wall. 7-6-5-
“Humanity has a chance to survive if we stand together. A plan is in place.” The vids are broadcasting both inside the bunkers and surface-side. Maybe Sharon can see it. I hope she doesn’t. My face shouldn’t be one of the last things she sees.
The Arkadia lifts skyward, rockets trailing flame.
I blink away the tears that threaten to spill. The ark ships, in their carefully plotted orbits, will be safe, but those of us remaining may not survive the impacts—not even those of us in the bunkers. If we do, it will be centuries before humanity’s remnants, both above and below, can safely return to the Earth’s surface.
I must show no weakness. This will be my legacy, for good or ill.
“My fellow Americans, your courage is an example to humanity now and in the uncertain years ahead. I’m honored to have lived among you.”
Sharon’s and Benji’s faces swim across my vision. My voice trembles. “The sacrifices made today will never be forgotten.”
The general beckons with a curt gesture.
For a moment, I think I catch the scent of sugar cookies and the residual tang of old leather. I pull back my shoulders and draw in a deep breath. It’s time.
“I’ll see you on the other side.”
Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington, where she lives with her husband and teenage son. She doesn’t love coffee, but does spend time writing at Starbucks. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, and Flash Fiction Online. She has also been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest.