Honestly, I wanted to save them all. I wanted them all to be able to bring their entire families and for everyone to board with their friends. But there weren’t enough resources left to sustain everyone on Earth whilst we built extra ships.
There wasn’t enough time.
I can feel their eyes on me as I walk along the steel scaffolding that surrounds the ship. They are standing in absolute silence, but I know they are down there. There are no children crying for their families; there are no husbands yelling out for their wives. The weight of their silence hangs on my chest and claws at my insides. I am cowardly and I am afraid to look down. I’m afraid to look into the faces of those we are leaving behind.
On my first day in office, a balding, pot-bellied man dropped a file onto my desk. He sighed heavily and squeezed into the chair opposite my desk. ‘Gareth-‘
‘Mr President, if you don’t mind, Peter.’
Peter smiled ruefully. ‘Mr President, in this file you will find a dossier of all the work that we, your government, and President Turner, your predecessor, have already completed regarding Operation X.’
He sighed again and ran a hand through his thinning hair. ‘Gareth, there are things going on that you were never made privy too before you agreed to the job.’
I sat up straight in my chair. ‘What kind of things?’
‘There are ships, Gareth, huge ships that can carry thousands of people into space and keep them alive for years, until it reaches its destination.’
‘I knew about those,’ I said, waving a dismissive hand.
‘You did,’ Peter agreed, now avoiding my eyes, ‘but what you didn’t know was that it’s the President’s job to decide who is granted passage on them.’
‘You mean, I decide the order in which they leave?’
‘No. What I mean is you have to decide who gets to leave.’
On the first night of my first day in presidential office, as I lay in bed beside my sleeping wife, I made my first decision. It was as easy as I knew it would be. I got up and sneaked over to my desk. Without turning on the lamp, I wrote her name down on the lined paper tucked away inside the file.
The first passenger would be Amy.
They stopped teaching History in school when I was only a young boy. So I spent my afternoons interrogating my Grandmother about our planet and it’s past.
‘Why is our planet dying?’ I would ask her, creeping up to her knee and gazing up at her with innocent eyes. But she would simply shrug and grunt, ‘the war done us in’.
She never spoke of her time on Earth nor did she ever impart any wisdom on me. The lines of her face stored stories that would have most likely frightened me senseless, but I wish she had taken the time to explain so that I could use that knowledge to try fix our world. I wish that they had taught us our History. I wish that they had let us learn from their mistakes. Or perhaps the reason they kept us in the dark was so that we would never discover for ourselves the true horror of what they had done and the world they had left us with.
I never wanted this responsibility.
As President I had wanted to rebuild our great country. Instead, I had spent my days hunched over a desk, pouring over endless lists of the citizens of England. I spent my evenings cataloguing those I had chosen to save and my nights dreaming of those who would stay, and perish.
My nightmares were always of those who would die. Never of those who would survive.
I closed the file and looked up at Peter. ‘Are there any rules?’
‘On whom you can save? No. You can put whoever you want on those ships. The exceptions are that you can only choose a third of the civilians alive in the country at this moment.’
‘What about newborns?’
‘The parents can chose to save their child instead-‘
‘Gareth, you have to understand. There aren’t enough seats to save everyone; we don’t have enough time to save everyone. If we allow everyone who reproduces to come on board we’ll have no room left to reproduce whilst on the ship.’
‘Then I’m changing the rules.’
‘I’m allowing people who have children between the time of their selection and the day they board the ship, to take their newly born offspring with them. Okay? That’s a new rule. Get a pen or something and write that down.’
‘I’m afraid you can’t do that. You have no real powers here, Gareth. You are President in name only, a symbol to the people, if you will. This decision has already been made and it cannot be overturned.’
I stared down at the file. ‘Now I know why President Turner shot himself.'
‘I guess you do,’ said Peter quietly. He cleared his throat after a moments silence and continued, ‘All passengers will have to go in pairs.’
I looked up, surprised. ‘Like Noah’s Ark?’
Peter nodded. ‘Like Noah’s Ark.’
‘I’m pregnant,’ Amy told me. Her voice was strained, her jaw was tight. I dropped heavily on to our threadbare sofa and we sat in tense silence until I could no longer stand the weight of the question between us. ‘You know what this means, don’t you?’
Amy turned her head to gaze out of the window. ‘One of us has to forfeit our seat.’
‘Yes.’ My tone was expressionless. Amy continued to watch the ghostly street. I didn’t need to consider my next sentence. ‘I’ll forfeit my seat.’
‘You’re the President.’
Amy turned to look at me. Her eyes were void of emotion, her face blank. ‘Your people need you.’ She leaned forward stiffly and touched my knee. ‘It’ll have to be me.’
‘Our child needs its mother. I will give up my seat and stay here.’
‘I can’t let you do that,’ she replied, her eyes softening a little around the edges. ‘I won’t.’
I leapt to my feet. ‘You are my wife, I love you and I want to keep you safe,’ I snapped. ‘You’re getting on that bloody ship with our child.’
There was no reaction; no ripple of annoyance across her face, no shying away from me when I raised my voice. I will take to my grave the memory of blank her expression, the lifeless gaze in her eyes. Amy simply sat there, on our horrid sofa, staring up at me, until I stormed away.
I should’ve known what was to come. I think I did. I think that’s why I left.
I look down over the balcony into the sea of anxious faces and red eyes full of tears, confusion and fear. A guard to my left hands me a microphone. It feels abnormally heavy in my already full hands.
‘This ship will depart in exactly one hour,’ I announce. ‘You are to return to your cabins immediately. A hostess will be around shortly to check that everyone is strapped in correctly and securely.’ I hesitate. I should say something inspiring, something memorable. I should deliver a speech worthy of the occasion. I should reassure the people staring up at me and let them drown me in their gratitude because I chose to save them. Instead, I simply mumble: ‘That is all. Thank you.’ and pass the microphone back.
I walk back to my cabin and gaze down at the bundle I left on the bed. I cringe at myself for considering such an awful cliché; an abandoned child swaddled in blankets, left with only a name and a letter. But this is the only way to do it, the only way to leave answers to her questions and to explain to her what we did.
Someone will come by soon and realise that she is alone. They will take her and look after her and she will grow up to know of a mysterious planet surrounded by space. Somewhere we once called home but is now nothing more than a derelict wasteland.
I run a gentle finger down the envelope beside her and recite the beginning to myself, ‘My name is Gareth. I was the youngest, and last, President of England. I was born into a dying world and all I ever wanted to do, was save it.’ It’s informal, yes, but it will give her answers.
I bend down and lightly kiss the forehead of the squirming child. She has Amy’s inquisitive grey eyes. I am sure that the day Amy told me she was pregnant was the day she decided she would end her life. After Rose was born, she left. There was no note, no ‘I love you’, no last goodbye kiss.
She was simply gone.
I leave the room without a glance back and take off purposefully down one, two, three corridors, ignoring all greetings from bystanders. I will not let them deter me from my destination. I leap up three flights of stairs, skipping most of the steps, and now the exit is within sight. A pot-bellied guard beside the door rolls back and forth on the balls of his feet, eyeing me wearily. I stop a mere foot away from him and gesture toward the door. ‘If you’d be so kind.’
‘If you get off, I can’t let you back on,’ he warns.
‘Good thing I’m not getting back on then, isn’t it?'
'Mr President, I-‘
‘There are too many people aboard and they’re not enough seats,’ I tell him shortly. ‘Someone has to get off.’
‘They’ll make an exception for you.’
‘I don’t want them too.’
‘Just open the fucking door, Peter.’
I amble through the bright-eyed, still mute crowd and they part to let me pass. Not one of them is trying to stop me. Not one of them is trying to grab for me. I don’t understand it. They should hate me. They should want to tear me apart, rip me limb from limb. They should want me to feel the pain and hurt and anger that they felt when their boarding pass didn’t arrive in the mail, and when they realised that it was too late. That it wasn’t ever going to arrive.
I am tired, both mentally and physically. I stop and the crowd encircle me, watching and waiting. Perhaps they are waiting for an explanation. Maybe they want me to make a speech.
But before I can begin to think of the words to explain myself, an old woman pushes forward. She considers me from the safety of the edge of the circle.
‘Why are you here?’ she demands.
‘I don’t deserve to be on the ship.’
‘Where’s your daughter?’
I swallow the lump in my throat; my eyes sting and my vision is blurred. ‘On the ship’
‘Why aren’t you with her?’
‘I don’t know,’ I admit. I step towards her. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t save you, any of you. I wanted too. Honestly, I really wanted too.’
The old woman smiles at my words. ‘Well, I don’t know why you wanted to save an old crone like me. I wouldn’t have bothered.’
‘We needed your experience. We needed you to tell us where it went wrong so that I could fix it.’
‘There’s been nothing to save for years,’ said the woman. ‘You’ve done the best you could under the circumstances. You have nothing to feel guilty about.’
I crumble and collapse on the floor. The old woman rushes forward and catches me, her arms surround me.
‘You made the right choice,’ she tells me, stroking my hair soothingly. ‘It’s okay, you can rest now.’
So I continued to kneel there, sheltered from the storm in a stranger’s sympathetic arms, surrounded by a silent watchful audience.
And together, we wait for it to end.