From high above, they looked like rivers slowly meandering towards the sea, rivers chased and harried by smaller tributeries intent on joining the main stream. But they seemed to be flowing backwards, inland and towards the mountains, gathering momentum as they approached the higher ground, larger streams shrinking as they came ever closer to an as-yet invisible source.
Noel stood on the side of the mountain and surveyed the plains below, his left hand shielding his eyes from the relentless desert sun. They didn’t look like rivers to him, and he knew exactly where the source of these dark streams was situated. It was directly behind him. It was perhaps this realisation that made them so terrifying. And then there was the noise. Oh god, the noise. It flowed up the mountainside to lap at his ears like evening ripples caressing the shores of a lake in autumn, but as it leaked out of the plains below the volume seemed to grow rather than subside as it ought. Noel didn’t dare imagine what sort of chaos could produce such an effect, but then again, imagination seemed less and less necessary with every passing minute. He stared at the darkness that had been gathering on the horizon like a stain for what seemed like an age, and then at the scroll that he held in his right hand.
‘You sure we’ve read this right?’ he said.
‘Sorry dad, what did you say?’ The voice was slightly muffled by the scarf that was wrapped around its owner’s face. There was a thud as two heavily booted feet hit the dry, stony earth. The young man connected to them walked over to where Noel stood.
‘I said, are you sure we’ve read this right, Shiv?’ He looked at his son, his sunburnt face, hands rough from hard manual labour, the folds of his clothes clogged up with sawdust and fine, red sand. ‘I mean, I look at this, look at that, and then ... that, and it seems to me there’s been some sort of error.’ Noel waved the scroll in his son’s face, then gestured at the huge construction project that was taking shape behind him, and then at the darkness that appeared to be spreading over the land beneath them. ‘I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.’
‘What do you ...’ Shiv’s voice tailed off and was swallowed up by the tidal flow of ambient noise that was now up to their ankles. He coughed as a sudden whip-tail of gritty wind reached into his open mouth. ‘Jeez ... dad, that’s one hell of a storm that’s brewing ...’
‘That’s not ...’ said Noel, as he saw his son grab a can of beer from the eski. Shiv cracked it open and took a long draught. He exhaled a sigh of highly localised contentment and then took the scroll from his father’s hand. ‘Well,’ he said, scanning the length of papyrus. ‘These are the only instructions we have.’
‘Yes,’ said his father. ‘That’s all we have. I’m just wondering whether we’ve read them right.’
‘Followed them to the letter,’ said Shiv. ‘There isn’t another translation, is there?’
‘Translation?’ Noel looked at his son.
‘You know, dad, like with those flatpack projects. The ‘build your shed with just a hammer and adze’ boxes. They usually come with lots of versions in different languages. Maybe the translator was having a bad day – if there was another one we could compare the two for accuracy’.
‘Shiv. It’s in the one, universal language,’ said Noel. ‘An early version, to be sure, but universal nonetheless.’
‘Ok,’ said Shiv. ‘But look. We followed the instructions to the letter, dad. While you were,’ at this Shev looked a little sheepish. ‘Resting.’ Noel looked at his son disapprovingly. ‘We have built this boat to plan, as accurately as we know how. If it’s not a translation issue it must be something else. We’ve followed the plan. You’re not going to tell me that the plan is wrong, are you? I mean, that really isn’t an avenue we ought to be going down right now, if you get my meaning.’
‘But Shiv. Does that look like 300 cubits to you, son?’ said Noel, shaking his head in exasperation. ‘What do I always say? Measure ...’
‘Once, cut twice,’ said Shiv.
‘No, idiot,’ said Noel, approaching apoplexy. ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ He stared at his son once more.
‘But dad,’ said Shiv. ‘Zacc measured everything very carefully.’
At this, Noel’s arms dropped to his sides and the scroll fell from his hand. ‘Shiv,’ he said, his voice taking on the quiet, low tones his son had known since he was young as indicating the onset of a suitably patriarchal rage. ‘Shiv. Zacc is a dwarf.’ Noel turned around, and surveyed the ark in all its rather truncated glory, shaking his head.
Shiv looked sheepish. ‘I did wonder why we had so much gopherwood left over. I thought you’d maybe ordered after a beer too many ...’
‘For the love of ...’ started Noel, though thought better of it. Now was definitely not the time to be alerting HIM to any last-minute hitches.
‘We’ve got the wood, let’s build another!’ said Shiv, triumphant.
Noel just stared at him. ‘This one took us forty days.’
‘So we can work nights and build another in twenty,’ said Shiv. ‘Rationalising the superstructure will save another day or two, and most of the wood has already been cut to size.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well,’ said Shiv. ‘When we measured up most of the timbers were double the length we ... oh.’
‘Oh, indeed,’ said Noel. At this he raised his arm and directed Shiv’s gaze to the ever-darkening horizon, before looking to the heavens as the first drops of rain fell indolently onto the desert floor, kicking up little clouds of dust that were immediately slapped back down to earth by a second wave of drops. Shiv looked in the direction indicated.
‘Dad,’ he said. ‘Are you trying to tell me that the dark clouds on the horizon aren’t actually from a storm brewing?’
‘Well, of a sort, yes,’ said Noel. ‘But in truth, they’re coming for us.’
‘That ... they ... us? Fuck,’ said Shiv. ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat.’
The two men fell silent for a few moments as the true scale of the task ahead began to sink in. Shiv rarely listened to his father. Perhaps it was an inherited characteristic. When Noel had accepted this contract he had been warned that HE was especially poor at giving estimates. Right from ‘The Beginning’, when there was meant just to be The Word, HE had insisted on changing the specifications at the last minute. First there was The Word, then it was God, then it was with God ... and it’s all very well saying ‘let there be Light’, but it’s really important to explain exactly what this ‘Light’ was. HE expected it simply to ‘Be.’ No matter how hard the contracters explained that yes, the idea of uncovering the face of the deep was a great narrative, but you do actually need a face of the deep to uncover with all your ‘light’. And then there was the schedule. Let’s just say that the overtime stretched a fair way beyond the seventh day, and they were still fiddling about with some of the mechanisms now. The unions were not happy, and HE had complained that his pets hadn’t come out quite as he’d hoped so now he was going to drown them all and start again. Which had the liberals up in arms, and anyway, it wasn’t as if it could all be done with a snap of his fingers. Noel knew all this, but still took the job. It would be a way of cementing his reputation, ensuring the firm’s viability over the coming millennia. He really couldn’t say no, though now he was rather wishing he had.
‘Dad,’ said Shiv. ‘Dad!’
‘Sorry, son,’ said Noel. ‘I was just ...’
‘Having a senior moment, I know.’
‘Cheeky sod,’ said Noel. ‘You wait ‘til you’re six hundred, then you can laugh about it.’ He shook his head, muttering.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ said Shiv.
Noel stared at his son, expectantly. Silence. ‘Well come on, don’t keep it to yourself,’ he said, flicking the brim of his hat to release some of the water that was gathering to make a grand entrance between the collar of his shirt and his neck. ‘We haven’t got all day!’
‘We control what we can control,’ said Shiv.
‘What does that mean?’ asked Noel.
‘Exactly,’ said Shiv, smiling. ‘We know HE can be a bit of a micro manager but so long as we have the paperwork we can be more, judicious in our passenger selection criteria.’
‘Uh-huh,’ said Noel, not having a clue what his son was talking about but happy to consider any way out of this mess.
‘We look at who’s expecting a ride? Do they have tickets? Do they have legal representation?’
‘We cut down the numbers through judicious application of obtuse bureaucracy. What does the book say, anyway?’
‘Oh,’ said Noel. ‘Something about the animals.’
‘How many of them?’
‘All of them,’ said Noel.
‘All of ... them?’ said Shiv, looking at the massed ranks of fauna assembling below their vantage point. ‘There are enough there to fill a hundred of these arks, even if we had made them full size.’
‘HE never was much for careful calculation,’ said Noel. ‘The bloody scroll’s already full of stuff that doesn’t add up, and from what I hear the sequel’s even more confusing, and as for the season finale ...’
‘Oh,’ said Shiv. ‘That the one full of trumpets and vials and seven thises and seven thats and not even HE knows what else?’
‘That’s the one,’ said Noel. ‘But the contract specifically states two pairs of unclean animals, seven pairs of clean ones.’
‘And we know which is which, how?’
‘Oh, it’s all explained later on in the scroll,’ said Noel. ‘Or, at least, it will be when HE has got round to writing it. I think it’s this nunc stans business. When you live in the eternal present, I suppose there’s no such thing as late, or early, come to that matter, so deadlines don’t really make any sense.’
‘Great,’ said Shiv. ‘I knew there’d be a neat get-out clause.’
‘Well, we decide which animals are clean and which unclean,’ said Shiv. ‘If we go vegan, all animals are unclean, so we can just take them in two-by-two.’
‘I doubt we’ll need to worry about that,’ said Noel. ‘After a few hours on the ark there won’t be a clean beast on the boat.’
‘There you go,’ said Shiv.’ And just take two of every type.’
‘It says two pairs,’ said Noel. ‘HE won’t be happy.’
‘Oh do grow yourself a pair ... hang on,’ said Shiv. ‘There you go. Each animal is going to have a pair of something. That’ll do.’ He paused. ‘Right, where have we got to?’
‘By my maths, we’ve reduced the number of passengers by a factor of eighteen.’
‘Perfect,’ said Shiv.
‘We’ll get complaints.’
‘Troublemakers don’t get to come in,’ said Shiv. ‘They’ll not argue with the Scroll.’
‘It’d be easier if Adam were still around,’ said Noel. ‘He used to be quite the guy to deal with animals.’
‘And we need to think of the affect of this all on generations to come, make the facts fit into a nursery rhyme nice and easy,’ Shiv was smiling now. ‘It’ll be great for the firm.’
‘This is all a big PR exercise, right? So we concentrate on stuff that’s soundbite-friendly. You know, big picture stuff.’
‘That’s all well and good,’ said Noel, ‘but even so, there are enough animals out there to fill a hundred arks.’
‘So, we pick the good-looking ones. The useful ones. We have to be pragmatic.’ With that, Noel’s son finished his can and threw it onto the ground.
‘Pick that up and put it in the recycling, oaf,’ said Noel.
‘Why bother?’ replied his son. ‘It’s not like they’ll be collecting next Monday, is it?’
‘It’s the principle,’ said Noel. He stared at his son until he picked up the offending item, flattened it, and placed it in the appropriate receptacle.
‘That’s given me another idea!’ said Shiv. ‘We make a list of ones that look likely to get eaten and say they never survived the trip.’
‘That’s better,’ said Noel. ‘Now, let’s look at these criteria.’
As they spoke, the darkness on the horizon continued to spread. And the tidal surge of noise grew ever more insistent. A cacophony of calls, roars, neighs, squeaks, gurgles, trumpets, bellows, brays, cackles, panthoots, buzzes and clicks flowed up towards Noel.
‘Ok. So. Who do we leave behind?’
‘It’s pretty simple, dad,’ said Shiv. ‘We think of volume first. We can manage four cubic cubitts of insect life. That’s a few million pairs. We can fit perches on the outside for all the birds, nets for all the crustacea, we ignore the fish, the whales and dolphins and all that lot. We take some marquee mammals, and a few of the wierdos to keep our descendants guessing, and most of all, refuse entry to any of the really big ones and we’re there. No-one’s going to count. So long as we deliver ‘one ark, full of animals’ we’re sorted.’
‘Oh, it’s that simple, is it? Remind me when this is all over and HE’s having a fit that this was all your fault.’
‘Oh, come on dad, think about it,’ said Shiv. ‘No-one’s going to miss the dinosaurs ... they won’t even notice they’re gone.’