Ascending Earth by Sarah Jane Justice
“You talk about yourself like you’re a genius.” Sam laughed over her drink. “You’re full of shit.”
“I’m not.” Bria sat up straighter to argue, “I mean, I’m not a genius, I get that. But be honest with yourself, Sam. Do you really think you could be hired by a company like Caelus? Really?”
“You’re a glorified mechanic.”
“Except instead of servicing rusted Kombi vans, I’m building spaceships”—Bria slapped a hand on the table between them—“Spaceships, Sam.”
“And they’re ready to go, are they?” Sam smirked. “How have all those flights been going? Soaring through the heavens with ease?”
“This is the future of humanity,” Bria changed the subject over Sam’s immediate laughter. “New colonies, new destinations. You’ve heard Lincoln Jerome’s talks on this, I know you have.”
“Mr. Caelus himself,” Sam scoffed, “He’s full of shit too, Bria.”
Bria shook her head, adding an exaggerated sigh for emphasis. After draining the last few drops from her glass, she slammed it down onto the table with a dramatic thud.
“Go on then.” she stared at Sam with raised eyebrows. “Your round.”
Sam laughed again, keeping her sarcastic amusement firmly in place as she reached for her wallet. “Hope the new kid at the bar has finished his shift,” she muttered. “Thought I was never going to get served last time.”
“You’ll die waiting in line for a rum and coke.” Bria smirked, fiddling with the rusty watch that hung loose around her wrist. “We’ve still got an hour or so, at least.”
“Did you finally fix that thing?” Sam scoffed, gesturing to Bria’s watch.
“Doesn’t need fixing,” Bria muttered.
“Right twice a day is good enough for you, I guess.” Sam shrugged. “That checks out.”
After little more than a step toward the bar, Sam stopped in place as a rare hush fell over the room. Following the path of wide eyes and open jaws, she turned toward the TV hanging above the pool table.
On the screen, drone footage panned across a patch of unidentified desert. Bria heard herself gasp as the bare plateau rumbled into an earth-shattering split, rising in the shape of a wave. Sand-covered rocks rolled as a terrestrial tsunami, debris spitting out from every angle.
“…what appears to be a kind of earthquake, like none we’ve ever seen before. The storm has ascended from the shift of tectonic plates to…”
Barely able to take in the reporter’s words, Bria stared as the rolling earth crushed a patch of trees, grinding them into dust with a speed that sent chills down her spine.
“Where is that?” Sam gasped.
“Looks like the desert.”
“The one desert,” Sam muttered. “Thanks, Bria. That clears it up.”
If Bria heard the response, she didn’t acknowledge it, her focus trapped in place by the grinding earth storm pulsing toward a small village.
“Damn,” she winced. “What do you suppose it is?”
“It’s bad news, that’s what.” Sam shuddered. “Be glad it’s there and not here.”
“Yeah.” Bria forced herself to look away from the screen. “Yeah, OK.”
“Hey”—Sam tapped her on the shoulder—“do you think your pal Mr. Jerome would give you a day off work for that? If it happened here?”
Bria bit her lip, pausing for a moment before looking back to Sam. She could hear the slight tremor of fear that her friend was attempting to hide under her jokes, a deep anxiety that reflected in the eyes she kept stubbornly averted.
“Let’s skip that last round.” Bria cleared her throat. “I have laundry and leftovers waiting for me at home.”
“The real double feature,” Sam chuckled, her voice cracking awkwardly through the words.
Bria nodded, picking up her bag without saying another word. Even though the news had already shifted to another topic, the images of rolling earth continued to play back in her head as she left the premises.
The rolling wave of earth hadn’t stopped, rising from the ground on all continents to tear through entire cities. It was hard to watch but much harder to look away. The death toll had risen beyond the possibility of being counted, as houses, cars, and innocent lives were churned up like blades of grass under a mower. Bria had muted the footage, but the screams still played on a loop inside her head.
Every gory replay was accompanied by a different theory, from heat-cracked tectonic plates to supernatural influences. Bria had listened to as many explanations as she could, but her mind kept being pulled into the idea that the Earth was finally rising up against its inhabitants. With no solution in sight, she sat in her living room, watching civilizations being crunched into dust that would never be found.
When she received the call from Caelus, she answered solely out of a need for distraction. Gripping her watch in one hand, she heard words fly into her ears without any inclination to process them. Lost in the lack of anything else to do, she agreed to head into the Caelus building without trying to understand what was being asked of her. In empty, mechanical steps, she marched outside to follow a path she could have walked blindfolded.
After her ID was checked and her name scratched off a list, Bria pushed her way into the crowded Caelus lecture theater. She felt lost in a throng of anonymous faces, slowly rising into the awareness that she didn’t know why she had been summoned.
Her head jolted up toward the podium at the distinctive clunk and tap of a microphone switching on. When Lincoln Jerome stepped onto the stage, the room fell into a sudden, jarring silence. It was a rare occasion that Jerome appeared on the premises in person, and his unannounced appearance was an indication of something more significant than Bria had anticipated.
“I’ll be keeping this address brief,” Jerome’s voice boomed across the theater. “We all know enough about the situation that has brought us here today. Our planet has turned against us. We can see it with our own eyes, not just on our screens or in reports we always thought we could ignore. This is happening in our communities, in our streets. In the world we always knew as home.”
He paused to take a breath, fighting the waver of emotion that crept into the edges of his voice. With the lecture theater still stunned to silence, the sound of that one breath echoed over the walls.
“As you know, the Caelus fleet isn’t finished to the point of commercial viability,” Jerome cleared his throat to continue, “but we have enough ships that can fly. We can’t save our planet, but we can save some of our finest people. We can save a few of us, enough to make the effort worthwhile. Enough to start again.”
The announcement was enough to break through the quiet, causing a sudden flutter of voices to burst around the room. With one raised hand from Jerome, the crowd dropped back into silence.
“You are the people who have made Caelus fly,” he declared, “and you are all being offered a space on one of these aircrafts, along with as many of your loved ones as we can accommodate. Boarding will commence within the hour and the doors will close exactly twenty-four hours from now. Your invitations should arrive in your inbox before this address is concluded, and I will ask you to either accept or decline as soon as possible. Godspeed.”
With a curt nod, he turned the microphone off and walked away from the podium. The words lingered in a heavy silence for a brief moment before the crowd exploded with noise and movement. Seeing the offer appear on the phone in her hand, Bria accepted her place with shaking fingers.
In the rush to pack a bag, the only thing more ominous than the ticking countdown was the knowledge that there was a chance of being struck down before it finished. Bria checked her watch out of habit, despite knowing that its hands hadn’t moved in years. After a deep breath, she secured the clasp on her bag and left her house for the last time.
Striding down the street at a pace that fell only slightly short of running, she struggled to stop her legs when she saw Sam wave her down from their usual table at the pub.
“Apocalypse happy hour?” Sam held a drink out toward her. “Can’t get a hangover if you don’t wake up.”
“Sorry, no.” Bria caught her breath. “No time, sorry.”
Sam frowned, putting her glass down and looking at the bag her friend was gripping with tightened fists. As she stared, her face asked more questions than she was able to put into words.
“Jerome’s sending the ships up,” Bria explained in a rush, “the ones that are ready, at least. I’ve been offered a spot.”
Sam nodded, attempting to smile through the sinking expression on her face. Feeling an unexpected hit of survivor’s guilt, Bria looked down toward her phone. Her eyes widened as she saw a bold message that had splashed across the screen without her noticing it.
“Hey.” She snapped her head back up. “Pack a bag. Quick as you can.”
“I’ve been offered a second space. Someone must have declined.” Bria barked with the force of a military order, “Do it. I’ll meet you at Caelus. Don’t be more than an hour.”
Without another word, Sam nodded and leaped out of her seat, leaving Bria to continue pulling herself away from everything she had ever called home.
Bria had walked through the hangar almost every day for years, and it felt strange and uncomfortable to see it filled with grim-faced refugees. She could feel the strain of a heavy bag on her back, but she couldn’t remember a single item she’d zipped inside it. Sam stood in line next to her, but the two of them followed their boarding instructions in complete silence.
When they felt their feet hit the solid metal of the ship’s floor, it came with an overwhelming flood of relief. Sam took a moment to breathe it in, brushing a cautious hand against the glistening new surfaces. Following the instructions being broadcast in every direction, she stowed her bag and began to settle.
While her friend was beginning to allow herself to feel the relief of unexpected safety, Bria’s eyes began darting across the cabin. In a sudden panic, she rushed around the confined space, assessing every corner of the craft that would take them away from Earth. Identifying the ship’s captain, she ran toward him, hearing the doors shut and lock behind her.
“Hey,” Bria demanded, “Where’s the extra storage? I can see a month’s worth of supplies at most!”
The captain pushed her away, moving carefully enough to avoid drawing attention to the exchange.
“The directive I’ve been given is to fly,” he hissed. “Our planning has been limited by urgency.”
“So the plan is just to get off the ground,” Bria choked on the realization. “That’s as far as it goes.”
“There’s still time for you to leave,” the captain snarled.
Watching the captain rush toward the navigation center, Bria felt herself start to hyperventilate. She stared back at the ship’s entrance, struggling to consider her choices as her mind spun into a haze. She could stay on Earth with the looming inevitability of being crushed or rise above the stratosphere and face the likelihood of a death that would come more slowly.
“What’s going on?” Sam jumped up. “Everything all right?”
Bria closed her eyes for a moment in an attempt to slow her breathing. With rigid stillness keeping her body in place, she watched the lights above the door begin to flash.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “All good.”
Following strictly laid out commands, she readied herself for take-off, looking away from any window that held a view of the ground below. With a deep breath, she pulled out her watch and focused her eyes on the engraving inside the band.
The smallest hope
Is worth the highest price
Repeating her father’s words over and over, Bria closed her eyes and let the ship take her away from Earth.
Sarah Jane Justice writes lyrical poetry, whimsical character pieces, and thrilling genre fiction. Her poetry has been featured in releases from The Blue Nib, Capsule Stories, and Pure Slush, and her short fiction has been published by Hawk and Cleaver, Caustic Frolic, and The Bombay Review. In addition to the written word, Sarah is also an award-winning spoken word artist, whose credits include performing at the Sydney Opera House as a national finalist in the 2018 Australian Poetry Slam. More information about her work can be found on her website, and she encourages all readers to follow her Facebook and Instagram.