We could not take the polar bears. We tried, but we couldn’t do it. By then, they were mostly extinct anyway, and the specimen that survived weren’t worth the trouble. We couldn’t take the snowy egrets, but downloaded all of the poetry about them and scanned every major work of art featuring them, which we placed on the high capacity data towers. We did the same with the herons. We wanted to take the bears, but their habitat would have been too big and expensive to maintain.
We formed a committee to make these decisions, and thoroughly researched every genus and species on record as still being in existence. Nothing with large paws could go, nothing from the deepest parts of the ocean (and then the shallow parts), nothing with a sharp beak (not the egret, not the heron), and eventually the list was so short, there didn’t seem to be a point to any of it, so the Preservation Committee changed focus to the task of preserving the data. Physical scans, peer-reviewed studies, anatomical drawings, photographs, opinion pieces on the effects of urban zoo habitats on large primates, video clips of lions recognizing the faces of human caretakers, sound recordings of elephants calling low to one another across the desert in the middle of the night.
(One domesticated cat, a companion of one of our board members, was brought along for its emotional support benefits to its owner. It was thought that the cat, Minkus, would live in its owner’s cabin for the duration of the trip, but it unfortunately discovered the restaurant kitchens on the lower levels. Minkus escaped, and was last seen near the servant’s quarters on Stern Level 1. When the ship was cleaned upon arrival, the bones of a small cat were found behind duct work in the service level. A small funeral was held in Dome 8, however, the remains were jettisoned due to the unknown effects of organic material on synthetic plant life.)
We organized a sweepstakes for the ones who could not afford to buy passage on the ship. Winners would be offered indentured servitude positions on an open-ended basis, as needed. Billions applied for only a few thousand spots, all willing to bunk down in the bowels of the ship, to work in the kitchens and the health clubs. Only those who had been scanned and found to be free of disease and the least genetically likely to generate cancers, mental health issues, and other physical deteriorations were selected. That group was whittled down even further to those who had worked in kitchens, those who had experience in cleaning public spaces and those who had expressed finding personal fulfillment in manual labor and janitorial service.
In the months before departure, some of the winners had their passage revoked. We sent letters of apology for this unfortunate issue, and we really did mean it, but after the CEOs (and CFOs, COOs, CXOs, CIOs, CTOs, etc.), the politicians, the lobbyists, the former presidents, dignitaries, diplomats, luminaries, inventors, scientists, biologists, tycoons, public relations professionals, pundits, and others who could either afford or had rightly earned passage through their contributions to the human race and the project, there simply was not as much room for service staff as we had hoped. The apology letter, heartfelt and honest, was carefully crafted in one afternoon (we formed a committee). We were really very sorry for this oversight, we told them, we wanted to bring everyone, we tried, but we couldn’t do it.
They asked us, each of us on the Launch Panel, to say what we would miss the most about Earth: was it the memory of its former greatness? Its sparkling seas before the almost constant tropical storms, its gentle summer breezes before the polar blasts? Would we miss them, those we left behind to bear witness to the last breaths and gasps of this place? Oh yes, we said, we would miss all of those things, we would miss the warmth of sun touching skin without the interference of a HelioGlas™ filter, we would miss the world as it once was. We complained of the tight quarters on the ship (glassware had to be tightly stacked for storage, no way around that, we could not take the champagne coupes) and the annoyances of space travel (most were surprised to learn of gravity equalizer-induced stomach aches, eternally flat pillows, dry skin). They asked how much longer the sea ice would last, would it be five years? Ten? They compared the texture of the shattering ice shelves to a moonscape, and we politely chuckled because the surface of the moon isn’t anything like that, the surface of the moon is quite soft and forgiving.
We said all of these things and we waved for the cameras and uploaded the footage for posterity and we boarded the vessel, we left them standing there below the plinth (we asked those who could afford the admission to kindly share our words with those in the lawn seats and outside the gates and beyond, since the monitors had not been working reliably that day, but it was a very hot afternoon and nothing could be done about that–and anyway, everyone would have been able to hear better if there hadn’t been so much shouting). The historic final panel was cut short by only forty-five minutes due to an approaching dust storm swelling in the distance, but luckily we were more than prepared for an early lift off. Light shields were brought up and left up until we were out of orbit, and we could not see from the windows as we left the soil, we could not see their faces, the millions we left, but we did think about the question later: what would we miss? We thought about it and met in the conference rooms and made lists and recorded our conversations and saved copies and something that kept coming up was the polar bear. They floated away from one another on cracked chunks of ice when the world began to melt, they ended up stranded on melting barges without each other and without any food. They floated on into the sea and the ice under their feet diminished and they became too tired and thin and forgot how to swim. We asked the archivist to select several of the most touching photos of the animals in their suffering, and we had them framed and hung them in the vestibule of Dome 4, but some of the board members complained that they were too morbid. We really wanted to showcase those photos, but we couldn’t do it. They were replaced with images of sunflowers (which we also could not bring: too tall and seeds too difficult to clean up) and the committee sent a very nice apology letter to our executive and first-class guests.
Jona Whipple is a writer and archivist living in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work has appeared in The Hairpin, The Chicago Reader, Bluestem, and Catapult. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago in 2005. Find her at jonawhipple.com.