Jacob helped them cram the dried food, the special cakes, tablets, and bars containing concentrated nutrients and vitamins into several tightly-woven ceramic knapsacks. No one spoke. His co-husband Samuel, their wife and their four children wouldn’t look at him. As the packing came to an end, the children hauled the sacks to the cargo area of the van, threw them in, and stopped to fidget over the way their clothing, belongings, and other supplies were tied in bundles and stashed inside.
Samuel circled the vehicle, dropped to his knees and once again checked the power cells under the engine of the tractor-tread seven-passenger snowvan. He was over six feet tall, and already bulked up in his mid-layer pile-fiber trousers, second pair of syn-wool socks, and first jacket. His girth, saturnine countenance, and wild salt-and-pepper beard and curly hair had always seemed threatening to Jacob, who was Marilee’s first mate. But now Samuel seemed distant, haunted, and dispossessed. They all looked so vulnerable.
Marilee, dressing herself in her indigo-blue first layer of thermal longjohns, vest, and stockings, paused for a moment and straightened. She took several steps towards Jacob. She looked up and their eyes met.
The tears burned and his vision blurred. “No,” he said. “I’m not coming with you.”
She was openly crying now. Her weathered, tan face was still beautiful with high cheekbones and clear aquamarine eyes. Her graying blonde hair was braided in the back, but loose strands flew all around her face like feathers, like a cloud, in the static-charged air of the outer barrier. “Jake, you’re the last one. There is no way to survive here now. What are you going to do?”
Jacob’s son Alexander, who was nine-years-old, turned to stare at him. Samuel came to his feet. Sam’s two daughters and son huddled near the back hatch, clutching each other, peeking around. Jacob sucked in his breath, regaining self-control. He sighed deeply. “We’ve discussed this already,” he finally said. “You’d better go.”
Marilee closed the gap between them and reached out both her arms hesitantly, until Jacob fell into them, and they encircled each other in a tight, long embrace. After a few minutes, Jacob carefully loosened Marilee’s grip and pulled back. He took her face in his left and right palm and brought his lips to her forehead, her hair, absorbing the smell of her, the softness and warmth of her body. She raised her chin, seeking a kiss; he locked his mouth on hers and she relaxed against him. They drew apart at the same instant. Marilee stroked his cheek with her right hand, then turned and silently summoned Alexander with a gesture.
Alexander ran to his father and hugged him; the three — mother, father, and son — held each other for several moments longer, until Marilee said, “All right, let’s finish suiting up. Let’s get out of here.” She displayed one more tiny, sad smile for Jacob, then she pried Alexander loose and herded him towards the others.
Jacob felt dizzy; reality seemed to bend, as if this point in time was going to remain motionless and they’d all be together as they used to be, their entire community, for years and generations to come.
He watched as his family members struggled with pairs of socks, upper-body thermal garments, additional trousers, parkas, balaclavas, and scarves. He started from his reverie and gathered the pieces of his outerwear scattered on the heated and carpeted floor; he hastily hopped on one foot, then the other as he rolled on his socks, then pulled on the insulating first jacket specially made to wick away the perspiration and let the wearer’s skin breathe. He paused, realized they were all watching him. He shook his head, and resumed the ritual of suiting.
When they were all secured in their wind-proof over-pants and hoods, and the final pairs of boots and mittens were in place, Marilee adjusted her goggles and signaled the children to climb into the back of the snowvan. Jacob moved to the wall on his right; it was yellow and studded with a row of rectangular windows behind which were darkened, empty rooms. He held his right hand poised over the door controls. Samuel shoved his goggles into position, and these glinted for a few seconds before he walked around to the rear of the van, reached up, and yanked the hatchback down with a thump.
Marilee and Samuel climbed into the cab on either side and slammed their doors simultaneously. The engine hummed, pinkish electromagnetic streamers coiled from the power cells. Jacob depressed the blinking yellow button.
The wide and high inner door quickly slipped up into the elevated ceiling of the chamber with a shushing sound. The snowvan moved forward ten meters and braked.
Jacob followed them on foot. His boots crunched over the crackling cold surface of the outer hanger. He moved to the controls in this section, again on his right, and punched the lower green round; the door behind him hummed down, sealing the voluminous space.
He knew this was the last moment, their last time together. He could change his mind, walk over and grab a door handle and they’d let him in. There would be no one to close the outer barrier, but what did it matter? He felt paralyzed, as if a part of his brain was compelling him to abide by his previous decision and he couldn’t break free. It seemed he was watching himself as his right mitten-thumb brushed the upper yellow button and pressed on it.
The hanger’s exterior door, a smaller gun-metal green square four meters high by five wide, creaked and groaned and vibrated. Then it shifted and a thin line of white frostiness opened up along the bottom. The brightness expanded more and more swiftly, until a block of dazzling light was revealed.
Even through all his carefully engineered and constructed gear, Jacob felt the mass of frigid air that swept into the hanger bay. It was something heavy and threatening and inescapable. The snowvan engine revved. He was only a few meters away. The tractor treads began to circulate, the vehicle began to move. Marilee and Alexander began to roll away from him, probably forever.
The van became lost in the blinding glare as it pulled free of the threshold; Jacob walked quickly, following.
He entered into the bitter and overwhelming coldness and the howling, whistling wind of the oppressive, frozen wasteland that once was known, two hundred years ago, as London. He rocked and swayed with the gusts as he tried to see through his specially tinted goggles, tracking the snowvan with his eyes as it trundled and bumped over the drifts and maneuvered around the jagged remains of metal and stone that stuck out like nunataks.
Jacob’s chest felt tight and constricted, panic began to bite at his thoughts. The spewing steam and snow from the treads that carried his family away south dwindled, then were erased by a new blizzard blast that eddied and twisted like a miniature cyclone.
He stood for a moment, waiting for the van to reappear, waiting for them to change their minds, to return for him. He involuntarily glanced at the open entrance of the hanger now filling with snow. He resisted the urge to run back inside, and instead fought with himself, forced himself to begin to pivot, to reverse his direction, to move around in place and look to the north, to see it again, to face it again. He had to see it one more time, before he sealed himself in.
Jacob kept his head down as he confronted the raging gales. He slowly took a position with legs placed resolutely and arms outstretched. He lifted his eyes and peered upward.
Stretching across the horizon from east to west, soaring into the sky like a giant’s new world, loomed a wall of ice three kilometers high that glistened in shades of blue, white, and gray. It was alive, and it came closer every day. Jacob stared at it, as if in a dream. They hadn’t thought it would come this far. The last glaciation, moving from Scotland and Scandinavia and Ireland had stopped in an arc from Bristol to Birmingham to Peterborough. There was no sign of it stopping now.
Jacob shivered inside his bones, seized with terror that he couldn’t control. He abruptly roused himself and turned his back on the nightmare, began trudging, swimming towards the hanger doorway. In a few minutes he pounded his mitten-covered fist on the green button; the machinery still worked, the energy grid held, the outer barrier was sealed. He strode to the second set of buttons; with great relief he watched the inner door zip upwards.
An hour later, in the utter stillness of his family compound, Jacob sat at the dining table, his hands cupping a mug of warm soup. His thoughts were still sluggish and dulled, as if the sub-zero air had penetrated his soul. He didn’t know if he was the last man left in London — their settlement had not been about survival, but preservation. For all he knew, some people had found a way to continue a primitive form of existence, a return to Neolithic times.
“The point of all this, as the Ice Age began again, as the glaciers increased and spread and swelled southward, the point was to preserve the best part of what humans built,” he said to the empty chair across from him where Marilee, only the night before, sat and argued with him one last time.
“Our founding mothers and fathers declared, if Homo sapiens sapiens is destined to bottleneck again, let the next eon of human existence be descended from a group of people having the most gentle natures and open hearts, protecting an entire body of knowledge, all the great works of art they can salvage and maintain. And we have, as our ancestors did while the environment became more and more harsh and the freeze more severe, we have maintained our faith.”
He looked around as his voice echoed. He set the mug down and pressed back against his chair. “I don’t know how long we have, but I can’t abandon … everything that they saved, everything that they created here — our crops and animals, the libraries and schools, our science and discoveries….”
Marilee and Samuel dreamed about the south, like the three-hundred or so friends and relatives and colleagues before them who fled in small groups as the great monster aimed to gouge them out of existence. They imagined life in the south of Spain or along the north coast of Africa where, they insisted, Sapiens sapiens survived in the past.
“But what kind of humanity will survive, Merilee?” Jacob almost shouted. “Millions of people have been swarming to the same places, and with limited resources. Those who survive this disaster will be even more brutal, even less capable of fair play and providing equally for all! You’ll be among the last to arrive. You will be killed for your food, your technology, the clothes on your back. Your daughters will be seized and raped and made to do some man’s bidding….” Jacob’s words broke into pieces as he began to cry.
And if we stay, the ice, the cold, our own high ideals will kill us, Merilee had insisted. You have to face reality, Jacob. Our dream is dead. Do you think God will stop the ice and save the settlement?
“Yes,” Jacob answered. But even as he listened to his own firm response, he couldn’t hide from the hopelessness of his position.