Stephen Baxter: Ark

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Stephen Baxter Ark
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Stephen Baxter





August 2041

Gordo Alonzo and Thandie Jones had rustled up a helicopter to take the Ark Three party back to the ragged Colorado shore. All of them but Grace Gray, who wasn’t going anywhere.

Grace, her arm held firmly by Gordo Alonzo, watched the bird come down over Cripple Creek, scattering some of the flimsier shanties that crowded the narrow streets. The town had once been a mining settlement, and then a tourist trap. Now, in the age of the flood, with the sea that had swept over the United States lapping at the Rockies, homeless were camped in the streets and parking lots and the forecourts of disused gas stations, and a shantytown of tents and shacks spread far beyond the core of the old settlement. The population didn’t seem scared by the descent of the bird. They just cleared out of the way, dragging their blankets and sheets of cardboard.

Thandie led the Ark Three people aboard the chopper: Lily Brooke, Nathan Lammockson, and Grace’s own husband, Hammond, Nathan’s son, thirty-five years old, flabby and resentful. But Grace was staying behind with Gordo Alonzo to be taken away into Project Nimrod, into Ark One, whatever that meant. Hammond didn’t even look back at her.

Gordo, though, spoke to her steadily. “You know, some parts of this drowning planet have gone back to the Stone Age. But this is the neighborhood of NORAD. One of the few places in the world where helicopters are still commonplace. That’s why the people aren’t spooked by them. And believe me we do a lot more exotic stuff than flying choppers. You’ll see…” Maybe in his way he was trying to reassure her.

Gordon James Alonzo was a former astronaut. He was in his seventies now, and all his hair was gone, but he was just as upright and fit-looking and intimidating, his blue eyes still as bright, as ten years ago when he had shown up with Thandie Jones at a Walker City campsite, when Grace was just sixteen. Well, Gordo had been in a US army uniform then and now he was in the blue of the air force, but none of that was important to Grace. He was a relic of an age she had never known, as alien as the rich folk on Nathan’s Ark-ship had always been to her.

Grace had spent most of her life on the road with Walker City, fifteen years walking with her home on her back, like a snail or a crab. The time before that, when she was younger than five years old and a pampered prisoner of her father’s family in Saudi, was a blur, unreal, as were the years she had most recently spent as another kind of prisoner on Nathan’s liner. Now here she was yet again passed from one stranger’s hands to another.

Only the walking was real, she sometimes thought. Past, future, the vast cataclysm humanity was suffering-none of it mattered if all you could actually do in the world was put one foot in front of another, day after day, kilometer after kilometer. She could just walk away now. Walk off with nothing but the clothes on her back, just as it had been with Walker City. But she had her baby growing inside her, a baby she hadn’t wanted by a “husband” she loathed, but hers nonetheless. She didn’t want to manage the pregnancy on her own.

Gordo said, “They’re lifting.”

The wind from the rotors battered Grace’s face. Lily Brooke leaned out of the chopper and stared down at Grace. She mouthed what looked like, “Forgive me.” Then Thandie pulled her back into the machine, and the bird lifted smoothly.

“Are you OK?”

Grace was angry with herself for showing weakness, angry at Lily for her manipulation and abandonment. She snapped, “What do you think?”

Gordo shrugged. “They left you behind to give you a shot at getting into Ark One. A chance of a better life than any of them face now, especially if they’re right that their boat has been sunk.”

“I don’t even know what Ark One is.”

“You’ll find out.”

“I’ll never see any of them again.”

“I guess not.”

“Once again I’m alone, with strangers.”

He sighed, pushed back his peaked cap, and scratched his scalp. “So are we all. The whole world is screwed up, kid. At least here we got something to do. ” He looked around. The last dust from the chopper was settling now, and the homeless were pushing back to recolonize the space they had cleared, like water pooling in a dip. In a few minutes there would be no sign that a chopper had landed here at all. “Well, that’s that. Come on, let’s get you out of here.” He released her arm and set off back through the town, toward the waiting cars.

She followed, having no choice.


They clambered aboard a jeep, and the convoy moved off with a soft whirr of electric engines. This small fleet of cars, emblazoned with Homeland Security and US military logos, had brought the Ark crew here from the coast. The convoy soon broke up, cars peeling off, leaving Gordo’s jeep and one other heading steadily north out of town, skirting the flanks of Pikes Peak.

Gordo sat with Grace behind the young uniformed woman who drove the jeep. He pointed ahead; the road was a good track through the mountains. “The drive will take a few hours. This is mountain country, the Rockies. We’re following the old state highway up to US 24 at Divide, where we’ll head west. We’ll turn north at Hartsel and make for Fairplay, and then you’re only a few miles from Alma, which is south of the Hoosier Pass.”

“Is that where we’re going? Alma?”

“It’s just a little town, an old mining place. Or was. I don’t know if any of these names mean anything to you.”

“We never walked this way.”

“Right, with your okie army.”

“Walker City. We had maps from the old days. But on Ark Three there were computer maps. Up to date.” The ship’s computers generated maps that showed the consequences of a flood that now approached eighteen hundred meters above the old sea level, maps of the archipelago that was the surviving remnant of the Rocky Mountain states. “The flooding started just about when I was born. I don’t remember the country the way it used to be.” You always had to explain that to older people, who clung in their heads to images of what had been.

Divide, when they reached it, was just another small town. Whatever it had once been before the flood it was now overwhelmed by eye-dees, IDPs, Internal Displaced Persons, as was everywhere else. The road was fenced off by rabbit wire. As the little convoy passed through people came out of their shacks and tents to watch. Grace saw how the troopers in the lead jeep cradled weapons.

The two jeeps drove steadily west, through Ute Pass that Gordo said was above nine thousand feet. Everything seemed to be feet, inches, miles with Gordo the astronaut. Gary Boyle, the scientist who had raised her, had taught Grace to measure her world in meters and kilometers.

The mountains had a bare, brown look. It hadn’t snowed here for years. As they passed through a tiny community called Florrisant, Gordo talked about a park of fossil beds nearby, full of petrified redwood thirty-five million years old. Now, he said, it held more people than fossils.

Then, at Wilkerson Pass, views of a high-elevation meadow called South Park opened up, and the road seemed to sail off into the air.

“God,” Gordo said suddenly, “ look at that view. You know, it’s just not reasonable that all this can be drowned beneath a mile of fucking seawater. I guess this is why I work so hard at Nimrod-trying to save something of it, the essence anyhow. Bobbing around on some crumbling raft just won’t be the same.”

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