By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. Everything you could see was bathed in the red light of a dying Sun. It clawed its way through my skin and began to burn, just from a moment of standing outside. I shielded myself with my carry-on suitcase from God's own anger, but it only did so much good. The heat was blistering.
The scientists had been screaming to anyone who would listen that mining the Sun for its plasma would be destructive. But the corporations made so much money selling it to the outer planets that they spent millions on campaigns to make people doubt the science while they kept building new stations within Mercury orbit. They were determined to squeeze the Sun for every penny it was worth. Now, the Earth has been growing steadily hotter since the Sun's outer layer started expanding. Soon, it will expand so much that it will engulf Earth as well as Mars.
When the scientists came out with the news that it's reached the end of its life and the timeline of expansion, no one wanted to believe it. It wasn't supposed to happen for billions of years. The religious zealots were the first to say that God would not allow their planet to be destroyed. The politicians downplayed the threat while they readied their personal spacecraft, as luxurious as any yacht on the ocean, to escape the Solar System.
No matter what anyone said, the problem was irreversible and inevitable. Once the people put enough pressure on Earth's government, they started building ARC's.
“Get in! All of you! Get your butts in here or we'll leave you!” Shouted the man on the inside of the main doors of the ARC. It already had scorch marks along its hull from where it was assaulted by burning debris, flying on the wind. I tried looking up at the top of the ship, but it was so hot that anything more than a few feet over my head just looked like a rippling pond.
They tell you what you'll be thinking about when you die but no one ever tells you what you'll be thinking about when the world is ending. It's not your life that flashes before your eyes. It's who you wish you were spending it with. For me, it was Julie, my ex-wife. She was inhumanly beautiful. She looked like one of those Roman sculptures of goddesses in white marble that you see in museums. I can't even remember why we split up. One day, we were counting each other's freckles as we lay naked in bed on a Saturday morning. The next day, we were filing papers and couldn't stand the sound of the other's voice. But no matter how bad it was, as I walk up the gangplank of a spaceship to escape the terrible Sun, it's her that I wish I were walking with.
“I can't believe they waited this long to do this. I don't think the Earth will last until the end of the day” Said the man, beside me on the way up the gangplank. They made it especially wide to bring in the animals, or so they say. At a time like this, livestock doesn't sound like a priority but since we'll be colonizing another solar system, it certainly is.
“It'll make it till the end of the day.” I told the man. “But any life left on it, doesn't have a chance. Tomorrow, though...”
“Are you scarred?”
I turned to look at him, while I kept walking. From the muscles and tight skin on his face, I doubt if he were more than twenty years old. His eyes looked wet but I couldn't tell if the tears were from leaving home or the unbearable heat.
“I'm terrified” I told him. That was partly true. I told him that to make him feel better, but most of me was angry that Earth Government waited so long to do what needed done. The rest of me was afraid that the ship they're herding us into will fall apart at the first space pothole we hit. Or maybe it just won't get off the ground and end our problems for good. I wasn't new to space travel. My parents used to take me to see the ice caverns on Europa, back when I was a kid. It's just these ARC's thrown together at the last minute that scares me.
“Are you meeting anyone on the ship?” We were getting so close to it that he had to raise his voice so I could hear him.
“No” That's what I told him, but I wished I was.
When I first saw her in person, she was already sitting at the booth. She didn't see me when I came in, so she kept reading a news article on her tablet. Her hair was the color of burnt wood and curled softly around her ears and under her chin. The Spilled Bean Coffeehouse was a favorite of both of ours, so we decided to meet up there.
“You must be Julie” I said as I walked up to her. Since then, I've been trying to think of something more suave that I could've said. But that's all it was.
She stood up and wasn't sure if she wanted to shake my hand or give me a hug, so she kept trying to do both. I couldn't help grinning at the indecision, because I didn't know what to do, either. We'd been talking online for weeks and no one ever wrote any rules about that.
“You must be Matt” she said as she thankfully settled on a hug. The sun touched her face softly, lighting up her eyes. They were big and brown and I just wanted to go to sleep in them. I tried not to stare.
“So what're you reading?” I didn't really care. The question was just to break the awkwardness.
She spun around her tablet while it was on the table and slid it across to me. The screen was on the headline “Scientists determine plasma mining will destroy Sun”
“I know. That's all we need, right now.”
“Well, let's not let that ruin a first date” I turned the tablet screen off and slid it back to her.
The smell of wood smoke filled the air as the unwashed masses marched up the gangplank to the ARC. “Get in now!” The man called. These doors are closing in five minutes, whether you're all aboard or not! If it gets any hotter, the ship won't be able to take off!” When the crowd heard that, they quickened their pace. The last thing anyone wants is to be left on this cursed planet.
“So what do you do?” The man beside me asked. “I'm a programmer, myself. I don't know if that'll be any use where we're going. At least, not for a while.” His voice got a little higher and started to shake.
I gave him a strong pat on his back, by his shoulder. “Hey. You'll be alright. Alright?”
“Alright” Said Julie as I stabbed her with her EpiPen. She was sitting down on the dirt path with her back against a tree so I could stab her leg. She even told me she was allergic to bee stings when I invited her out for a walk. I didn't think she would find the only bee in the park and somehow offend the thing enough to sting her. I've been there a hundred times and I've never seen a bee. She goes there once and finds a bee that tries to kill her.
“Stupid gangster bee. I swear the park is going downhill. I'm sorry. Next time we'll go somewhere with no bees. I promise.” I wiped the little beads of sweat from her forehead, though they seemed just as happy to stay where they were.
She took my hand, looked up at me and smiled. The skin on her hand felt soft and smooth. “Don't be sorry. You didn't hold a gun to my head. I loved being with you, today. Every minute.”
“Even the almost dying part?”
“Hey, I still didn't die. I almost died. Two completely different things.” The dappled sunlight of the forest seemed to highlight the tiny freckles on the bridge of her nose.
A distant explosion rolled over an Earth that may as well have been inside an oven set on broil. “That's it!” Shouted the man at the ARC's doors. “I'm shutting them. If you're not inside by the time they close, you're getting left behind.” He leaned to his right and hit something hard with his fist and stood back. The giant door started closing from the top and rolled down. It must've made a huge noise as it moved, but the sound of the engines roared over them. The crowd screamed and started stampeding for the ship. The fiery wrath of an abused sun covered the sky.
Once the people were inside, the door finished shutting with a low boom and a hiss that pressurized the interior. A deep rumble sent my heart knocking around in my chest like a billiard ball, lifting us off the ground while people were still trying to get strapped in. Little portal windows ran beside the rows of seats along the hull, like an airplane, that let people see outside. The fire that swept across the landscape became more visible the higher we ascended, sending waves of gasps through the crowd.
I stood in the doorway of the house that Julie and I bought after we were married with plans to start a family and watched the movers finish loading up the van. Julie opened the driver side door to her sedan and was about to sit down, but turned to look back at me. It was just for a moment. Then she turned and drove away.
Later that evening, whatever that means in space, the crew of the ARC were assisting people into their cryo-pods. We were all lined up like cattle, ready to sleep through the long ride through empty space, until we finally made it to our new home. Wherever that was. From where I stood, I could see people getting into these long capsules with glass tops that opened like clams. Once the tops shut, the attendant pressed a few buttons on the attached console and the glass top frosted over, just like a window in January.
Overhead were several monitors, playing a recorded briefing about where we were going. It was only a couple minutes long and kept playing over and over. Among other things, the overly friendly blonde lady told us, “Earth Citizens. Welcome to your home away from home as we journey to Cerberus, a world encircling Proxima Centauri, our nearest neighbor in the galaxy. Though we're close in galactic terms, Cerberus is still 4.3 light years away. The ARC is capable of speeds up to one third light speed, making the interstellar trip take as little as twenty years. For your comfort, we have provided these convenient cryo-pods...” The rest was the obligatory propaganda about customers being the backbone of the corporation and how they do everything for their customers and all that.
As I was mindlessly listening to the recording, just for a second, I heard her voice. It was so quick that I almost blew it off as a passing memory. But then it happened again. It was clear. It was her. I heard her. She said, “We still didn't die. We almost died. Two completely different things.”
I leaned out of line and saw her. She was wearing an olive green sundress with her curly dark hair cascading down the back. She looked up at me and her big brown eyes smiled, just like they always did.