Science Fiction

Ark Ascension

By James Van Pelt
Dec 8, 2018 · 2,504 words · 10 minutes

Photo by Michael LaRosa via Unsplash.

From the author: An orbiting habitat fights to keep alive all that made Earth a wonderful place to live before a devastating mutagen darkened its hopes. But life is more than just surviving as this Christmas story shows. JVP


Ark Ascension orbited hundreds of miles above the mutagen infested Earth.  Rotation created a one grav interior in the seven mile long, seven mile diameter tube where genetically uncorrupted animals roamed forty-nine square miles of sculpted, planted and artificially lit landscape.

Martin tended the sun. 

During the day he plotted ionization graphs, watched for ultraviolet and infrared variances, checked thermal output against projected goals and wrote a report about the largely automated processes.  He checked the news one more time.  The wolf had not whelped.

At dusk he left his east end office where stars slowly revolved in one window and seven miles of bluffs, hills and trees stood in the other.  Pine smells and wet leaves met him.  Gravelly dirt crunched beneath his shoes.  The door’s seams vanished into the wall.  He took a deep breath and shivered.

The plasma sun dimmed in the west: an Ascension sunset.  The sun didn’t disappear below a horizon, but reached the end of its seven-mile trek, then faded as the gasses cooled.  A mile above Martin, a hazy moon flickered on to start its night long trip to the western end.  He rubbed his upper arms, wishing he’d worn a coat.

He checked his wrist monitor linked to the plasma track and nodded.  The moon produced no heat, but it lighted the interior which otherwise would be black as a cave, without a single star to break the inky tapestry. 

To the north, a wolf howled.  Martin tried to spot it.  He wondered if it was the pregnant wolf's mate.  The land sloped up both left and right, but the trees slanted with the slope until they appeared to be horizontal spikes poking from distant cliffs.  Then the cliffs continued in a great arc, completing the world’s roof above him.  Beyond the moon in the clear evening air, he thought he saw movement.  Deer, maybe, or elk; there was a small herd of each, but at this distance it was unlikely.  Probably shifting shadows.  Not the animals.  He seldom saw them, although nearly a thousand roamed the artificial environment.  A dozen biologists observed them, of course, and geneticists tested for mutagens, ever vigilant for contagion.  Martin didn't see the scientists much.  Their haunted faces and creepy depression bothered him.  They acted like the Earth had died. "Catastrophic species shift" they called it.  Nothing remained the same, except here in Ark Ascension and the four other arks just like it.

Martin avoided the crew, fifteen couples, twenty-three unmarried adults and thirteen children.  He spent his time at the zero-G axis, fine tuning the sun, tweaking magnetic containments, experimenting with plasma physics.

Sunset and moonrise brought him to the surface.  A zoologist, Dr. Kette, the only single parent on board, and her daughter, Robyn, used this observation area too.  The door’s mechanical whisper behind told him they were there. 

“It’s cold, Mom,” said Robyn, an eight-year-old whose rounded cheeks, dark eyes and a serious expression mirrored her mother.

“Winter time, dear.  The animals and plants need the seasons to stay healthy."

Robyn leaned against her mother’s leg.  “It makes me sad.  The trees are bare.”

“Not the evergreens.”

The sun’s dull remnant winked out.  Only the moon cast light, a cool, silvered sheen that shimmered the grass.  Martin took a few steps away from the wall.  If he didn’t look up, the illusion nearly fooled him, a full moon on foothills.  In the hollows, fog eddied and the temperature dropped.  Frost would soon coat rock and branch, bush and earth.

“Can’t you make the sun warmer, Martin?” said Robyn.  “Can’t we always have summer?”

Surprised that she’d spoken to him--generally their evening pilgrimages were silent--he said, “Most of the heat comes from the ground . . .”

“As I’ve explained,” said Dr. Kette.  She sounded sad too.  Martin knew that like the other women she wanted to have more children, but the mutagen hadn't been identified.  No one knew if her babies would be born human.  She didn't know if she'd been isolated in time. 

"There's no snow," said Robyn.  "How can we have winter without snow?"

"We’re in a space craft.  It can’t snow here.  We'll still have Christmas though.  We'll decorate the apartment."  Dr. Kette didn't sound convinced  "We don't need snow for Christmas."

Robyn stamped her foot.  It was half-hearted.  Martin knew she couldn't really throw a tantrum.  She was too nice a child for that.

"We can't even put up colored lights!  Four days until Christmas!  No snow and no lights."  Robyn's tears were real.

Dr. Kette sat on the ground beside her.  "I miss them too." 

Embarrassed, Martin moved further away.   He’d never had a family.  Too much lab time. But the image of Robyn leaning against her mother affected him.  He wanted to hold her too, to tell her it would be all right.  Dr. Kette cried also.   Mother and child displaced, no different from the animals wandering beyond.

After a bit, Martin approached, touched Dr. Kette on the shoulder.  "You guys will freeze if you stay out here."

The woman looked up at him.  "We really are a long, long way from home."

Martin couldn’t do anything about snow.   At 5,800 feet to the Ark’s center, there wasn’t air enough for clouds.  Winter ground fog was common though.  In the fall and spring, when the transition between the day’s heat, the night’s temperature drop and the humidity was just right, it drizzled for a few minutes in the morning, but no snow.  He thought about Robyn crying.

A crew meeting the next morning discussed the upcoming holiday.  A party was proposed.  Debate followed, a dispirited affair.  The head of research argued, "Even if we are in exiled, we can celebrate--we need a celebration."

"What is there to be joyful about?" countered Dr. Roam, the head of the medical unit, his lab coat meticulously pressed, his hair combed straight back and tight against his head, like a helmet.  "It's ghoulish for us to be merry while our families on Earth suffer."

Martin sat in the back of the conference room.  He thought about the deterioration of the news.  Before they’d left, the worst of the mutagen births clustered in pockets.  California suffered, as did Canada's western coast and Alaska.  Martin had heard stories of monstrous polar bear cubs, mewling in the snow, hairless, deformed, abandoned by their mothers.  The Midwest and the east were untouched.  So the pattern continued the world over: some areas hit hard, others were not.  The mutagen spread slowly; it had taken twenty years to get this far.  For twelve years the arks were built, and then, a year ago January, populated with animals from the untouched areas.  The crew came from areas with no unnatural births.

As if waiting for the occupation of the arks as a signal, the mutagen’s progress accelerated.  No place was free of it.  From the ark they watched the fear rise.  It built.  Cities burned, and there were no uncorrupted births.  Fish or fowl, beast or man, the babies were not right.  Most died, but more horribly, some lived.  The crew could hardly bear to look at the pictures.

Against the back wall, the children sat.  Maybe they are the last young ones we'll see, thought Martin.  Maybe they're the end.

Someone else said, "The animals are sterile.  Even the rabbits have had no litters.  Not even lab mice.  We haven't saved anything by coming here.  We should be in fully equipped laboratories searching for a cure.  Running away solved nothing."

People muttered to each other, while the Captain waited for someone to raise their hand.

Dr. Kette said, "We expected most animals would lose a breeding season.  That's a well documented effect of dislocation.  It's too soon to tell, and there is the wolf.  She should deliver soon."

Dr. Roam said, "Wolf pups would prove nothing.  Even if they're good, it's only a matter of time before the mutagen breaks out here too."

"We don't know that," offered Dr. Kette.

"Yes you do!" thundered Roam.  "The women know.  We have been here eleven months, and there are twenty-seven women among us.  Not one pregnancy.   The women know we have no reason to celebrate."

Martin glanced again at the children.  Robyn sat near the door.  She held a crumpled drawing.  A part of it showed through, a Christmas tree with ornaments and lights.  As the argument grew, she twisted the paper tight.  Her eyes were red, but she never cried.  She looked lost.

In the end, they voted for no official celebration.

Later, while in his zero-G work station, Martin adjusted the magnetic fields holding the ionized gasses in place.  The biologists suggested the animals might feel more at home if the moon waxed and waned distinctly.  He adjusted the monthly cycle according to their numbers.

When finished, he contemplated the length of the Ark.  In the middle, the sun glared, intolerably bright, nearly a third of its daily distance across the sky.  Around it, trees pointed toward the axis; cliffs, hills, bluffs, stretches of meadow, streams (water pumped from the lakes at their bottoms to springs at their tops) surrounded the light.  An unbroken landscape, a whole one--no horizon separating any one part from another.  He found this vision comforting, a perfect visual metaphor for life’s unity, and he couldn’t feel Dr. Roam’s despair, or any of the others.  Thinking of the children, Martin wrote invitations to a Christmas party at sunset, Christmas Eve.  He set the place, the central-Ark observation area, then sent them.  He turned back to his equipment.  There was work to be done; he had a party to prepare.

Martin arrived early, an hour before sunset.  He took a tube transport that traveled on the Ark’s outside.  An elevator carried him and the supplies to a flat, sandy clearing overlooking a small cirque.  At the hollow’s bottom a lake reflected darkly.  A startled mountain goat scrambled from the water’s edge, tumbling small rocks as it leaped to the top.  Most splashed through thin ice into the lake, and the goat disappeared into a boulder field.

He’d pressed the kitchen to make candy canes, and hung them from leafless bushes surrounding the clearing.  As he hung the last one, the early guests stepped out of the elevator.

Four-year-old Elise, the youngest child aboard, found the first candy.  She held the cane out for everyone to see, and soon the other children busied themselves finding more of the sweets, even the Nyuen twins who were thirteen.  Talk was muted.  Almost mournful.  Martin remembered Dr. Roam’s pronouncement, “We have no reason to celebrate.”  The adults clustered around the radiant heaters, warming their hands.  Robyn solemnly poked through brittle branches, looking for the last of the candy.

Martin crouched beside her.  “Where’s your mom?”

Robyn tucked a cane into her shirt pocket.  She looked down, scuffing dirt with the toe of her shoe.  “She went to see the wolves.  She’s been gone all day.  I told her it was Christmas Eve, but she had to work.”

“Ah, that’s too bad.”  Martin gave her another candy cane from the extras he kept in a pouch.  She added it to her collection.

“Thank you.  I’ll save them until later.”

“There’s hot chocolate in the thermoses,” he said.

Robyn sighed and headed for the crowd.  Now that the candy had been found, all stood near the heaters.

Hilliert, an older biologist called his son, Brad.  “We really have to go, Martin.  This was nice of you, but I don’t think we’re in the spirit.”  Other scientists nodded their heads.  “It’s cold, and we ought to get the kids home.”

Martin glanced at the sun.  It had reached the western wall and begun its dimming cycle.  Chill stung his cheeks.  “I have a surprise, but we have to wait a few minutes.  There’s a thermos with hot chocolate that’s mostly rum in my bag over there, if you want to break that out.”

Hilliert raised his eyebrows and put his hand on his son’s head.  “We’ll stay a bit longer, Brad.  Maybe we could sing a carol.”

Gradually the sun faded out.  Long shadows became less and less distinct, and soon the only light came from the heaters glowing orange in the clearing’s middle.  Martin stood behind the circle of parents and children, hands thrust deep into his pockets.  Robyn tucked her hands into her armpits and didn’t join the singing.  They finished two verses of “Good King Wencelas” before someone said, “It’s pretty darned dark out here, Martin.  Where’s the moon?”

He checked his wrist monitor.  A counter clicked to zero.  To the east, a point of red light appeared.  “What is that?” the same voice asked.

Martin turned.  At the west end, a green light flickered on.  The scientists and their children turned from the heaters and looked up.  The first two lights floated quickly to the center of the sky to stop a few degrees apart like a red and green star.  Then new lights appeared at each end, a blue one to the east, and an orange to the west.  Soon, a line of colored points reached from end to end, much smaller than the moon or sun, not nearly as bright.  Martin barely made out his own hands in the diffuse light, and then, following the program he designed, they began to pulse individually from bright to dark and back again.

The elevator door opened, its white light silhouetting Dr. Kette as she stepped out.  Robyn cried out, “Mom, look.  Christmas lights!”  The door closed, and only the colored lights illuminated the world.

A hand touched his leg.  “Is that you, Martin?” Robyn said.

“Yes.”

“Mommy came.  She came to your party.”

Vaguely Martin could make out Dr. Kette standing beside him; he mostly saw the colors in her eyes as she looked up.

“This is lovely, Martin”

They stood for a long time.  Behind them one of the kids said, “Let’s sing ‘Silent Night,” and they did; their voices filled the clearing.

“Did you see the wolves?” asked Martin.

“Yes,” said Dr. Kette.  She held her daughter’s hand.  Their breath steamed in the frigid air.  “The mother whelped,” she said.  “Four perfect pups.  They were mutagen free.”

Martin couldn’t tell if she were crying.

In the darkness, in the sky beyond he saw glitters like stars, and realized the icy ponds and streams on the roof of the world reflected the display.  It was an effect he’d never seen.  The moon didn’t reflect this way.  In the day the sun revealed land and vegetation, but in this light, there were sparkles, red ones and green, blue and orange.  Multicolored tinsel strings; long, glass blue lines shading into the orange of frozen creeks; red fog rising into green, rising into blue; green snowy meadows blushing red then yellow; orange mountain ridges transformed; star glisters blinking everywhere–a thousand stars over Bethlehem--shards of Christmas light, changing in the changing night.

The wolves were born whole. 

He’d never seen the ark so beautiful. 

This story originally appeared in Analog.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."