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Ark [Forward Collection], Page 2

Veronica Roth

  She gave a wave and went into the entryway to put her gloves back on.

  The “orchid hospital,” as Samantha’s mother had called it, was in her bedroom, along the back window. After the shriveled blooms dropped, her mother took the plant up to the windowsill and left it in the indirect light until it bloomed again. She put ice cubes in the pots once a week, so water would melt into the soil.

  Why, she had once asked her mother, do you bother to keep anything alive when it’ll all be wiped out by Finis?

  Her mother had shrugged. Why take a shower when you’re just going to get dirty? Why eat when you’re just going to get hungry? Every flower dies eventually, Sam. But not yet.

  Samantha had gone to the orchid hospital every day as a child, standing in the bathroom doorway as her mother did her makeup and leaving before the roar of the hair dryer could make her heart race. If she was lucky, Naomi would dust Samantha’s cheeks with blush or let her blink her eyelashes into the mascara wand after she was finished. Once she had even tied one of her scarves—the silky one with the violets on it—around Samantha’s head like a headband.

  When she grew older—old enough to put on Barbie-pink lip gloss and to smear glitter on her eyelids—she didn’t watch the morning ritual any longer, but she still went to the bedroom to feel the orchid soil to make sure it was moist, to open the scarf drawer and breathe in the scent of her mother’s perfume, to try on her shoes as her feet grew bigger, inch by inch, big enough to fill them. And later, when she was home from college, to run her hands over the oxygen tank, to try on the mask her mother wore to breathe as her body broke down.

  Her first dance was in eighth grade, when she was thirteen, and her mother took her shopping for a dress. She was self-conscious about the sharp points of her breasts without a bra to give them shape, so they moved away from the halters and toward something with thick straps. A black shift that fell to the middle of her calves was the most promising option, though she had clutched her hands tight around the rise of fat around her middle when she first put it on, only for her mother to smack them away and tell her not to be silly—it was no crime to have a body. And standing in the dressing room, looking at her reflection, she had thought that a body rippled like desert sand, swelling up into hills, dipping into valleys, the sand blowing around curves and over sharp edges.

  But better than the dress had been the earrings. They had, her mother said, belonged to her grandmother, who had passed away when her mother was only twenty, from an undiagnosed heart condition. The earrings were pearl posts set into small metal leaves, and her mother had cautioned her to take care of them before sending her off with her friend Kara’s mother to the school gymnasium.

  It took an hour for her terror of the dance floor to wear away, and even then she kept her movements small, hips shifting and feet shuffling. Mostly she and the other girls sang the lyrics they knew into the center of a circle, their heads bobbing, the little crystals they had pressed into their hair dropping unseen to the gymnasium floor. She had one slow dance, with Davud Shah from her choir class, who smelled like sweat but had a shy smile and a nice clear tenor.

  When she got home later, the dress scratchy against her shoulders, she felt her earlobes to take out the earrings and the right one was missing.

  She searched along the path she had taken down the upstairs hallway and up the stairs and into the kitchen and along the hall to the front door, but she knew that the earring was more likely lost on the gymnasium floor. She ran to her mother with tears in her eyes, holding out the single earring and confessing.

  Her mother was quiet for a few seconds, plucking the earring from her daughter’s hand. Finally she offered a smile, touching Samantha’s head, and told her not to worry.

  That night, Samantha got up for a glass of water, and saw her mother on her hands and knees in the hallway, wearing her white bathrobe, searching the carpet for what her daughter had lost.

  On her way back to the compound in Svalbard to begin her work again, Samantha walked across a rare shaft of sunlight. It made the snow glimmer like fallen hair crystals and glitter eye shadow and pearls cradled in metal leaves.

  Two Weeks Left

  When there was a flower in the lab, everyone gathered around.

  The sample had come across Samantha’s station. It was a whole plant: flower, stem, leaves, and roots, held suspended in the clear solution that preserved all the full plant samples. Most of them came to Svalbard already labeled by the scientists in the field who had collected them years before, but sometimes the labels were lost, or the higher-ups didn’t think they were correct. There were still thousands of samples in the basement beneath them, rows upon rows of plants they would soon forget when they were coasting through space. But Samantha and her coworkers were doing their best to log as many as possible.

  This particular flower was yellow and round, with dozens of frilly petals around a central point. The stem was fuzzy and light green, the leaves at the base of the plant oblong and smooth. No one said anything for a while as Samantha typed in the initial parameters of her search: yellow, height: 28.2cm, leaves: five, origin: United Kingdom.

  “It looks like a dandelion,” Dan said as Samantha leaned closer to the images the database had presented to her.

  “So?” Averill said. “Even dandelions need to be logged.”

  “Listen, we’re not going to get through all the samples before liftoff,” Dan said, “and personally, I’d rather preserve the genetic material of a rare African violet than a dandelion. Is that such a crime?”

  “You can’t go picking and choosing,” Averill argued. “One man’s dandelion is another man’s African violet.”

  “I don’t accept the argument that there are no objective standards of beauty or value.”

  “It’s not a dandelion,” Samantha said. She pointed at the leaves at the base of the plant. “Dandelion leaves are . . . poky. This one’s leaves are smooth. See?”

  “That an official horticultural term?” Josh asked from her right shoulder. “Poky?”

  “Shut up,” she said. “I think I’ve found the match.”

  She went through the checklist of terms associated with the species she thought she had identified. Wales, check. Shaggy stem, check. Whorl of leaves around stem, check. By the time she had reached the end, she was smiling.

  “It’s a Snowdonia hawkweed,” she said. “Categorized as ‘rare.’”

  “Ooh, I know about those,” Alice said from somewhere behind her, her Irish accent distinct. “Almost went extinct because of overgrazing, and then some foot-and-mouth disease killed off a bunch of sheep and wham—the flowers were back.”

  “See?” Averill sounded smug. “It’s more African violet than dandelion. Told you.”

  “That is not what you told me,” Dan retorted.

  Samantha carried the sample over to the cart for it to be stored, her fingerprints smudging the glass.

  Samantha could mark her childhood years by her favorite colors. When she was five, it had been purple; at seven, it had been green; and at ten years old, she had liked navy blue. The color of the night sky just after sunset, she had told her mother, and together they had painted Samantha’s bedroom again. Her mother had looked up a constellation chart to arrange glow-in-the-dark stars on the walls in the right positions, held in place by sticky tack.

  She had been wearing a navy-blue shirt when her father took her out to Warren Field one July night. Warren Field was in the middle of the preserve, so they parked in the lot at one end and hiked together down the winding paths, slapping at mosquitos. She still remembered the sweet, medicinal smell of the repellant he had sprayed all over her before they left, telling her to close her eyes and hold her breath first.

  They didn’t talk. Her father didn’t tell her why they were going into the preserve late at night, when there was no moon, to look at the stars. She had known since she was young that the more she spoke to her father, the more likely he was to take things away from her. Dessert, so
metimes, or if she wasn’t so lucky, special trips he had promised her—the ice-cream parlor, the zoo, her grandfather’s house. But silence often brought a reward.

  Her skin was sticky with sweat by the time they reached the field, and her father trudged through the tall grass to the middle of it, so just a fringe of trees was visible on either side of them. Then he started setting up the telescope, screwing the pieces together with his hands, stowing the cap for the lens in his back pocket. He took out his phone to get the right coordinates, and she saw his face lit up blue from beneath as he scowled at the screen. The deep lines in his forehead and the pale whiskers in his beard.

  “I want you to look through the eyepiece there, and pay attention, because this thing is only gonna pass for a second,” he said. “I’ll tell you when.”

  She leaned over the eyepiece and waited, careful not to lean forward and knock the telescope out of position or to lean back and miss the moment. Her back was stiff and her legs ached by the time her father said, “Five, four, three, two, one—now.”

  She saw it, a streak of light, a white glow between the stars.

  “See it?” he said.

  “Yes,” she said. “What was it?”

  “Finis,” he said. “That was the asteroid that’s going to collide with Earth one day. Asteroids always make a couple swoops in their orbits, like a criminal scoping out a jewelry store before he steals its diamonds. I thought you should see it, because hopefully the next time it comes that close, you’ll already be living someplace else.”

  Samantha felt a little pocket of warmth in her chest at the thought. This rare thing, Finis passing Earth, and he had given the moment to her instead of taking it himself.

  He crouched down next to her. It was too dark to see all the details of his face, but she could make out the rise of his cheekbones and the hollows beneath them.

  “I’m sorry,” he said to her.

  He looked down at her shoes. One of her shoelaces had come untied, so he started to tie it, his thick fingers fumbling a little with the short, muddy laces.

  “It’s okay,” she said, even though she wasn’t sure what he was sorry for. The dread of Finis was the only thing she knew. It was the first segment on the nightly news, the top category of every news website, and the easiest reach for every comedian.

  Now that she was older, she understood that there had been other possible lives to live before Finis. Lives without evacuation plans taped to the refrigerator or emergency go-bags stashed in the hall closet. Lives full of plans, for college and houses, children and golden retrievers, retirement and last rites. Those lives had not been lived in the shadow of Finis. And he had known when he made her that they wouldn’t be possible for her.

  So maybe he had been apologizing for giving her life in the first place, when he knew it would be full of dread.

  She wished she could have told him that life was already full of dread, no matter who you were. That there was nothing you could have that you couldn’t one day lose. That autumn always gave way to winter, but it was her favorite time of year—those fleeting bursts of beauty before the branches went bare.

  In the lab, the next time she was called up to draw straws, she swapped her long straw for Josh’s short one, and for the fourth time that month went to see Hagen’s orchids.

  “Which one is your favorite?”

  Hagen gave her a blank look.

  They were potting some of the tissue samples he had brought over from the laboratory, spare ones that wouldn’t be necessary for the Ark. Samantha spread the gravel evenly at the bottom of the pot, to keep the roots from rotting if the plant were overwatered. It wasn’t until she was already finished that she realized it was probably unnecessary. There were only four weeks until the launch of the Ark, and a few days after that for the asteroid to collide with Earth, and then, if he managed to survive the collision, Hagen wouldn’t have long before he ran out of food. The plant would die from lack of sunlight before its roots rotted.

  She frowned down at the pot.

  “I don’t have a favorite,” Hagen said.

  “You know,” she said, leaning in conspiratorially, “they can’t hear you.”

  Hagen laughed. “I’m serious! I see value in all of them, and therefore I am impartial.”

  Samantha rolled her eyes.

  Hagen’s eyes wrinkled at the corners as he laughed again. They were very bright, Samantha thought. They would have been cold, like a pale winter’s morning, if he hadn’t smiled so often.

  “You think I’m full of shit,” he said.

  “No, it’s not that.” She picked up the little plant in the tray between them, and held it by the sturdiest part of its stem as she scooped soil in around it, centering it in the pot. “Okay, yes, a little.” She grinned. “But also, I just don’t think impartiality is so great—that’s all.”

  Hagen returned to his own plant. “No?”

  “Well, you can’t love everything equally,” she said. “You just can’t—and if you did, then it’s the same as loving nothing at all. So you have to hold just a few things dear, because that’s what love is. Particular. Specific.” She paused, testing out her next thought on her tongue before she spoke it aloud. “The way you loved your wife.”

  It was a dangerous thing to say. They had spoken of his wife, once or twice, in the last visit. She had died of the same disease that had claimed Samantha’s mother’s life, cancer of the pancreas. There was a photograph of her on Hagen’s desk. She had her head turned to the side, and she was laughing at a joke someone else was telling, her crooked teeth showing. She had been plain, but her face held the eye nonetheless—the high arch of her nose, the permanent crease in her full lower lip, the deep creases in her forehead, the constellation of age spots on her cheek.

  “Ah.” Hagen’s smile was gentle—good, she hadn’t overstepped. “Yes, I suppose I see what you mean.”

  She finished piling the soil around the small plant, pressing lightly around the roots so they would settle into their new home. The thick green leaves at the base of the stem hung over the edge of the clay pot, stiff but still flexible. She had tied a stick to the stem to keep it straight. There were no buds for flowers yet, and maybe they would come before the plant died or maybe not.

  “My favorite,” Hagen said, “is her favorite, I suppose. Ophrys speculum. The mirror orchid. Would you like to see it?”

  He led her to the second row of flowers, to a plant on the waist-high table he had set up against the wall there. The one in question was in bloom. The flowers were almost alien in appearance, the lip three lobed and glazed, with a fringe of red hair around the edges. The center of the lip looked almost blue.

  “It is cunning,” Hagen said, touching his finger to the center of the lip. “It has evolved to look this way in order to lure in one particular pollinator, a wasp, Dasyscolia ciliata. The male wasp lands, hoping to mate, and picks up the flower’s pollen in the process. Even the scent is similar to the female wasp’s pheromones.” He smirked. “Alicia loved this, the improbability of such a specific, perfect cooperation between species. In evolution, she saw the mechanics of a god. Her faith was rarely at odds with her scientific mind—a point on which we disagreed, of course, as I have long been an atheist.”

  “You have to hold just a few things dear, because that’s what love is. Particular. Specific.”

  He touched the flower gently for another moment, smiling still.

  “An orchid is not self-reliant,” he said. “It doesn’t carry endosperm in its seeds, so it requires a symbiotic relationship with a fungus in order to survive. But it finds those relationships everywhere. On almost every continent, in almost every climate. On trees, on rocks, even underground. A temperamental plant, but somehow, in contradiction to that, a resilient one.” He shrugged. “I suppose when I say that I am impartial, what I really mean is that I am partial—but to all orchids. They were not high on the priority list for gene storage, of course. They don’t provide sustenance, after all, an
d thus were deemed unnecessary for the initial launch. Which is fair, I suppose. But still . . .”

  He looked at Samantha.

  “What is necessary?” he said. “I’m no longer sure. I think that she was necessary, for me.”

  “You feel like you’ve been dying all this time, too, then,” Samantha said. “It’s just that your body hasn’t caught on yet.”

  “Indeed.” He gave her a strange look.

  Samantha leaned close to the mirror orchid to see the line of hair that outlined the labellum. It was less like a flower and more like a beetle or a cockroach, she thought. Or it would be, if not for the swell of blue in its center, more reflection than pigment.

  “I’m not going to leave with the Ark,” she said, not looking at him. She had kept the secret of the Naomi all this time, from Dan and Averill and all the other lab orphans, from the director of the Ark Project every time she checked in about Samantha’s medication and feminine-product needs for the trip aboard the Ark Flora after its launch, from the application she had submitted to get this job in the first place, though she had known what she would do then too. She had known, perhaps, since she first saw Finis through the telescope in that field, next to her father, with the smell of insect repellant clinging to them both.

  “I’m going to steer a boat out,” she said. “I know how to drive one; I have since I was a kid. I’ll keep to calm waters, see as much of the peninsula as I can. And put down my anchor to watch the world end.”

  Hagen’s face was inscrutable.

  “I’ve spent my free days getting the boat ready. She’s capable enough for the task, I think. I call her Naomi—my mom’s name.”

  She made herself stop. If she went on, she would find herself talking about how she wasn’t suicidal, never had been, not even in the throes of grief. Instead, it was simply that her entire life had been lived in anticipation of loss, such that neither her mother’s death nor her father’s had surprised her in the least, but had rather seemed like the fulfillment of a promise.