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6/8/2010 1:51:57 AM

Countdown [unchaptered story] ***Long Read

"ATTENTION. ALL PASSENGERS DESIRING TO VIEW THE FINAL CHAPTER ARE ADVISED TO GO TO THE VIEWING AREA AT THIS TIME. PLEASE PROCEED TO THE VIEWING AREA IN A CALM, ORDERLY FASHION. MIND THOSE AROUND YOU AS YOU LEAVE YOUR CABINS AND ENTER THE VIEWING AREA. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION." Jack numbly sat up in his bed. He groggily wiped at his tired eyes and looked around. It took him a few slow moments to realize he was in a cabin of the gigantic ship that was taking him and hundreds of other people into space. As his vision cleared, the figures of his wife and daughter gradually came into focus. They were sitting in chairs at the dining table. "Hey," he called to them. "I'm up." "Daddy!" Jack's daughter said excitedly as she jumped down from her chair. The seven-year-old ran over to her father and gave him a small hug. Pulling away, she grinned as he pet the top of her head with his hand. "Morning, Annie, sweetheart," Jack said to her. He looked over at his wife, who was still sitting at the table. She was smiling at the sight of her husband and daughter, but Jack could see an overtone of pain in her expression. "Morning, Liz," he said. He knew it probably wasn't morning, but he said it out of habit anyway. "Hey, babe," Liz said with a resigned sigh. She rose from her chair and walked over to Jack and Annie. "Are we going to go?" "What?" Jack asked, but a second later he remembered the announcement that had awoken him. "Uh, sure. I guess." He got out of the bed and walked toward the door. Through the small glass window he could see the stream of people moving through the hallway just outside. He looked down at his daughter, who had appeared by his side. Calmly, he took her hand. Annie looked up at her father inquisitively. "Where are we going now?" she asked. Jack didn't have the heart to tell his daughter what was really going on, so he tried to stay as vague as possible. "We're going where all those other people are going," he said. "We're going to see a movie. Keep hold of my hand and Mommy's hand, and call for help if we get separated. All right, sweetie?" Annie smiled, reassured. "Okay, Daddy." Liz took Annie's other hand and opened the door with her free hand. The family walked out into the hallway, where the rest of the passengers were still moving. Jack closed the door behind them as they left. Then the three of them walked down the hallway, following the crowd. Jack tried to see where they were all going, but to no avail. There were too many people in the way. He felt an accidental nudge against his shoulder, but he was too preoccupied to care. He was concentrated only on walking through the hallway. His right hand was grasping his daughter's small, warm fingers. His other hand was cold and empty. His feet moved rhythmically as he walked down the long hallway. In the background, he could hear the faint hum of the spaceship. Voices around him were talking. They were saying things that he couldn't be bothered to understand. After a minute or so, Jack and his family finally reached the end of the hallway and entered the viewing area -- a large room filled with chairs arranged in rows for the people to sit in. An enormous blank screen took up most of the opposite wall of the room. Above it, there was a much smaller screen that showed the numbers of a digital clock counting down. Already, most of the rows of chairs were filled with anxious audience members. The room buzzed with the conversation of people who seemed like they were about to watch a regular movie at a regular theater. Moving carefully, Jack guided his family to a group of three seats near the back of the theater-like room. As he sat down with them, he noticed the lights on the ceiling that would be dimmed once it was time to begin the viewing. Ordinarily, he would have felt fine about watching an in-flight movie. But this was no ordinary film. It made Jack sick to think that something like this was going to be made into a spectacle for people to watch. But deep in his mind, he had to admit that if people wanted to see, they should have the right to. Annie fidgeted in her seat. "When's it gonna start?" she asked rather loudly. "Shh," Liz quieted her daughter. "It'll start when it starts." "But why do we have to wait so long?" Jack clutched Annie's hand, and she looked at him for an explanation. He made an effort to comfort her. "Just be patient, honey. The big clock up there will tell us when it's time." "Oh." Annie seemed to notice the countdown screen for the first time. Jack looked up at it, too. There were two minutes and thirty-nine seconds left on the timer. Thirty-eight. Thirty-seven. Jack couldn't think of much to say or do, except to sigh and wait. After a short while, he heard his wife speak in his direction. "Jack..." Liz began uneasily. "I... I really wish..." she broke off and began weeping, leaving her unfinished sentence echoing around inside Jack's head. "I know. So do all of us," Jack heard himself say. Somehow he could still speak reassuringly, even though he needed some reassuring of his own. He would've chuckled at the irony but for the tears in his dear wife's eyes. All he could do was watch as she dabbed at them with a tissue she produced from her pocket. He felt more words coming out of his mouth. "Don't worry, Liz. No matter what happens, Annie and I still love you." Which was true, but Jack still had his mind on everything else at the moment. "I love you too," said Liz. At that moment, the lights began to dim. The room grew deathly quiet. The countdown timer reached two minutes and zero seconds just as the lights completely turned off. Everything was dark and silent for a few tense seconds. Then, the large screen flickered to life, showing a middle-aged man in a white uniform. His head and shoulders were visible, and he was sitting in a chair facing the camera. "And now, a message from your captain," said someone offscreen. The man on the screen spoke calmly, but a twinge of sadness came through in his voice as he made his speech. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to thank all of you for joining together on this day. God knows we can't go on without you." He paused and looked down, feeling the gravity of the situation. He breathed and looked back at the camera. "This journey is the first of its kind. You were all chosen to be the new beginning. But first, we must finish the final chapter of our old, tired story." Another pause. "I'm sure you know what it is that you're about to see. I can't imagine how hard it is for any of you to go through this, but I speak for myself when I say that this is the saddest day of my life. May God rest the souls of those who remain on Earth and cannot be with us as we begin anew. "Now, take one last minute to say your goodbyes. Remember everything about the world you once knew. This is the end, my friends." The screen awkwardly cut to black before lighting back up with a view of Earth from space. Many people in the audience burst into tears; this was not the beautiful world that they had known in the past. The textbook Earth was green and blue, with swirling white clouds. The planet on the screen looked immensely different. The oceans, or what appeared to be oceans, were a horrifying mixture of diseased brown and sickly black. The landmasses were concrete gray in the vast urban areas and yellow-brown in the rest. A few tiny patches of green could be seen here and there, but they were insignificant next to the wide expanses of desertified or urbanized land. The clouds were an ugly blend of pale green and dark gray. Jack winced at the sight of the unfamiliar Earth. He looked over at Annie and Liz. The little girl was staring in wonder at the big screen, but Liz had her face in her hands. Jack couldn't help but sympathize. Even he had a tough time accepting the fact that Mother Earth was on her deathbed. Seeing his home in shambles was one thing for Jack, but the timer was still ticking. The missiles would be launched in sixty seconds. If only it didn't have to end like this.

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