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by Peter A. Luber

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Noah rubbed his bald head, as was his wont, and surveyed his happy world.  His wives were silent, his children plentiful, and his barge the largest and busiest the river had ever borne.  Noah was rich, comfortable, fat, and over forty.  He was a god.

"No, Noah," a voice boomed from behind him, "You are not."

Noah started violently in a hoppity sort of way, knocking loose his sandals.   Recovering quickly, he spun awkwardly on the hot sand of his front walk to see who had the audacity to address him so, after even more rudely reading his thoughts.  Only the bank of the river filled his view.  It was as he had left it moments earlier:  clean, flat, and devoid of any living soul beyond the slaves working the great barge that so admirably marred the scene.

"Huh," Noah said aloud.  He sighed and returned his filthy toes to their sandals, shaking his head at his imagination, and at his behavior, which made him appear the doddering old fool he so feared.

"Over here, old fool," the voice boomed again, just to his left.  Noah's neck snapped in that direction; this time he was not alone, or foolish.  Noah turned to fully face the young stranger lounging on a boulder beside him.  Noah straightened to his full three cubit height to best intimidate the man.

The stranger smiled, showering Noah with the glow of perfect white teeth, as though he had eaten nothing all his life.

"Very scary, old man," the stranger said.  His voice had moderated to that of a smallish man, striking Noah, to his relief, as perhaps a bit womanish.

"I am indeed, stranger," Noah snarled, now confident enough to heft his walking stick in both hands like a club, "And you should hold that thought while you consider the consequences of sneaking up on me."  The man failed to cower.  Instead he rose to his feet.  The action never seemed to end, but eventually the man was fully erect, and his head hovered a full cubit above Noah's.  Sure, but he's as thin as a dying sapling, Noah thought; I can take him.

"No, you can't Noah, so don't try."

"Now cut that out!" Noah shouted, "And tell me why you so disturb me."

"I need a favor."

"What's a favor?"

"Ah, my work at its zenith," the stranger said softly, shaking his head, "I'm so impressed."  His long black hair shimmered in the sunlight when he shook his head.  It was clean; Noah did not know quite what to make of that.

"Huh?" Noah asked, wondering where he would find either zenith or favor to trade with this tall beautiful fellow, so that he might go away.  The man rubbed his smooth chin slowly, almost sadly, Noah observed, and gazed at the river as he spoke.

"Noah," the man said with a tone Noah himself reserved for blank-eyed children, "A favor is a task that you perform for a friend, asking nothing in return for your service, save perhaps that friend's good graces."

"That's insane," Noah announced, "Do a thing for nothing?  Why bother?"

"Which takes us to the crux of things, Noah, and the real reason I need you."

"You need me?"

"Yes, I do."

"What's a crux?"

"Never mind that; we'll see that those concepts wander into your cortexes when they are just a bit lumpier.  I need you because you are a great and powerful man in this fledgling world, and I must task such a man to take the lead in a very special and terribly demanding adventure that will change all things."

"I'm great and powerful?" Noah asked, rubbing his hands in delight.  The rest of the man's speech was gone.

"Sure, Noah," the man sighed, "The powerfullest."

"Well!" Noah exclaimed, delighted at the recognition.

"That," the man said, "And you have a big boat."

"You mean my barge?" Noah asked, still confused by all these odd words.

"Yup.  That very one.  It is a facet of (oh, bother), a participant in, the favor."

Noah folded his arms.  Certain territorial instincts were ignited by the man's arrogant reference to Noah's, his, barge, and Noah made little effort to ease the fires his fears kindled.  He crooked his neck, squinted, and said softly:

"What do you mean, my barge will be part of the favor?" he asked softly, sure that he sounded quite threatening.  The man was nonplussed; he only smiled.

"Yes, yes, Noah.  I understand.  The boat - excuse me, the barge - is your treasure, your livelihood, and the secret of your success.  I don't include it in the favor lightly."

"Well that's a good thing, because it isn't light, you know."

"And yet it still floats.  Doesn't that bug you?"

"Sure does.  Some people think I'm a sorcerer or something.  I'm not, of course, but it's good for business," Noah said conversationally.  Then he stymied his sudden relaxation and resumed his air of general suspicion, saying, "Hey, you're not some sort of sorcerer, are you?"

"Of course not," the man said, rolling his eyes, "Nothing I do is magic."

"That's a relief," Noah said, "Got enough crazies around here as it is - seems like a new sorcerer, prophet, or even god is popping up every day.  I'm getting a little tired of it.  I'd be more so if a little superstition and fear weren't so good for business.  Hey, you never said your name.  You got one?"


"That's new," Noah said, though he wasn't surprised.  Plenty of people in his grandfather's day passed their entire lifetime without a name.  The fast pace of Noah's modern era demanded identification, though, so Noah was intrigued by a man who still managed to get by without a moniker.

"So, will you be telling me what this favor is?"

"Getting down to business are we?"

"It seemed time."

"Alrighty then," the man said as he rubbed his own hands briskly.  He seemed about to speak, but then he paused and looked out over the river.  In time he did speak, without a glance to Noah.  His voice had regained its initial massive boom when he said, "Noah, I require that you convert your barge into a very special container; an ark we'll call it.  That ark will be a repository for an amazing cargo."

"Amazing?  Last time I got a description like that, I found myself fending off angry lions from the far south."

"Oh, this'll be better than lions."

"How so?  Will I need to finance a guard as well?"

"Good lord no," the man said, smiling oddly at the reference, "This cargo is quite docile.  To you it will appear to be 314 casks of wine."

"That's a lot of wine," Noah said, rubbing his chin, "Large casks?"


"Well, this barge has easily moved over 200 of the largest made in the past, so we should be able to accommodate you with a bit of effort.  Why are you so secretive about wine?"

"I said it will appear as wine.  I never said it was wine.  I hate the stuff myself; indeed I can't wait until stainless steel gets invented."


"Never mind.  At any rate, yes, your boat can handle the load, even during the heaviest moments of the cleansing.  It will take some effort on your part to prepare it, though."

Noah held up his hand.

"Hold on," he said, "What cleansing?"

"Never mind that, either.  For now just be mindful that you're fully up to the task I have chosen to lay upon your shoulders, and that the rewards will be great when you succeed."

"Rewards, huh?" Noah smiled, running his tongue across all eight of his remaining teeth, "Now there's a part of this favor thing I can sink my teeth into.  What kind of a reward did you have in mind?"

"Well, Noah," the man said, suddenly staring sharply at a spot about one cubit behind Noah's eyes, "You won't die."  Something in the man's tone, or in the blaze of his odd blue eyes, froze Noah's blood.  Something serious is going on, Noah decided.  He drew a deep breath, and asked the first question that wandered without apparent provocation into his numb mind:

"Who will?"


"Everyone?" Noah asked, glancing toward the busy village just downstream from his anchorage, "Who's everyone?"

"All the people, hell, all the living things for that matter, who are not aboard your ark in two months' time."

"You're insane, right?"

"Nope.  I am just very, very powerful, and more than a little pissed at the quality of my work to date."

"What's your work?" Noah asked, growing amused, and a bit relieved that the young stranger was simply insane.  That did not matter, as long as he was rich.

"Long story.  Real long.  Suffice it to say that I'm a creator with an ambition for perfection, but still a few practice sessions shy of my goal."


"I agree," the man said, sitting on the boulder again.  He reclined, cradled the back of his head in his impossibly clean hands, and went on, "Tell you what, Noah.  I obviously like you, and intend to trust you with, well, everything, so I'll give it to you straight.  I'm the stooge who created this happy little desert world you live in.  I built the mountains, let loose the rivers, and, above all, seeded the life that infests an otherwise perfect world."

"I thought I had managed things well enough and that life was progressing well.  I had some trouble with the raptor tribes a few million years ago, and had to chase them off the planet (they simply advanced before I was ready) - "

"What's a planet?" Noah interrupted.

"That's what I say," the man said, hands on hips, "Would that you had asked me what a raptor might be!  Anyway.  After the raptors debacle I thought everything was developing well.  I had the code set for a steady evolution of creatures that would eventually manifest a biosphere unlike any other in the universe.  But I screwed up."

"How so?" Noah asked.  Though he had never heard it before either, screwing up was the first phrase from the crazy man's tale he dared understand.

"Well I'll tell you.  The code was perfectly efficient; more so than in the age of raptors.  I found that I could leave it be, go nurture a few gas giants, perhaps even whip up a galaxy or two while things took care of themselves here.  But then a strange thing happened:  One of the skinniest, lamest, most destined-to-fail iterations of the code developed a feature I hadn't anticipated.  Do you know what that feature is?"

"I don't even know what an iteration is, or a raptor; how could I guess at a feature on a skinny lame animal that I've likely never encountered?"

"Ah, Noah, you're a very deep man.  That might be one reason I chose you."

"That, and my barge?"

"And the barge, yes.  So you're not going to guess?"

"I'm not going to guess."

"That's fine.  If I would never have guessed it, how on earth would you?"

"What's earth?"

"Never mind.  At any rate, that paltry creature is mankind:  you, Noah, and your bald bipedal ilk.  And do you know what that feature is?  Not your thumbs; I planned that one.  No, it was your brain.  Don't ask; suffice it to say it's a thing inside your head that does important stuff.  Anyway, all of a sudden, right out of the blue, your ancestors started thinking.  The code had inadvertently established a trait for very large brains in your development, without accounting for the fact that that kind of mental capacity would bring about self-awareness millions of years before another creature should have possessed it (as I said, those raptors were quite a problem, and I actually wondered if intelligence were really a thing worth revisiting at all)."

Noah stared at his thumbs for a moment, and then said gently, "You know I don't understand anything you are raving about."

"Of course I do.  But you'll indulge me?  I'm on a roll."

"Of course I will," Noah smiled.  He liked this crazy man.

"At any rate, I was away while this intelligence was developing these last few million years, and things have gotten way out of hand.  Indeed, this big brain coding has begun to spread across countless other species.  You know how you can joke with your donkey, and argue into the night with your dogs?"

"Of course," Noah said, smiling at the debate about public morality that had kept him and his pack up half the night just the previous week.

"Well, that wasn't supposed to happen.  I meant to allow one intelligent species per domain.  The whales have the oceans, the ant colonies have the dirt, and you have the lands' surface.  That's it.  But my negligence allowed that rule to be broken, in spades.  Now thousands of species, in every domain save the dirt (gotta love the ants' ability to stymie competition!), are at a level of intelligence that I had reserved for just you three.  And, when thousands of species are aware, thinking, fearing death, starting religions, fighting wars, and inventing shortcuts, mayhem ensues.  And it did."

"It did?" Noah asked, not remembering a visit from the Mayhem clan.

"Trust me; it's all swirling in the toilet now, and it's only going to get worse.  I have to fix that."

"How?" Noah asked.  He was intrigued by the swirling, and he wondered with unexplained visceral pleasure about what a toilet might be, though he opted not to ask about that either, lest the man judge him ignorant.

"Good question; and yes, well chosen.  Basically I'm going to let loose a single infinitely self-replicating bacteria that will eat every living thing on the surface of the land, converting it all to a five kilometer - sorry, a 10,870 cubit tall wall of gray goo that will erase all evidence of this intelligence plague.  Then I'll start all over again, with mankind again the sole possessor of awareness on the surface.  Like it was supposed to be - in about six million years."  Then the man fell silent, appearing to have had his attention fully taken by the muddy waters that meandered along the bank.

Noah could reckon very little of what the man had said.  He wasn't even sure what a cubit was.  Something about an arm, he remembered being told once.  But that goo thing sounded impressive; though he had trouble imagining things called "thousandeighthundredandseventys" piled ten high to form it.  This man could imagine formidable beasts indeed!

"More formidable than you'll ever know, my friend," the man said wistfully.

"Stop doing that!" Noah shouted.  He then paused, paced a bit, and when no questions, decisions, or thoughts entered his head he spoke softly to the man:

"I think I've had enough entertainment for this day.  I'm a very busy man, and have no more time to waste on such prattle."  He turned and began to stride purposely toward his hut.

"Of course you don't, Noah," the man said.  His words, or rather something in them, caused Noah to stop.  When Noah turned, the man was right behind him.  He gently wrapped long fingers around Noah's elbow and tugged him back toward the river.  "Let's walk," he said.

And they did.  They strolled in silence for a time, away from the village and Noah's property, out toward a patch of land currently being farmed by an unruly tribe of apes.  Noah should have felt nervous getting this close to the hairy village without a guard, but he did not.  Instead, he felt at peace, and quite interested in the man's proposal, were it ever to come.  When the road became a wavy thin line of sand fording tall grass, Noah cleared his throat:

"Will we be walking all the way to the Elephant city?"

"We could, you know.  But no.  This is far enough.  Will you do me my favor, Noah?"

"What is it, exactly?  In words a sane man can understand."

"Simply hold those casks in your barge for about a month - sorry: a moon cycle.  Endure the cleansing; it should be like a flood of porridge to your senses, so you'll understand how to stay afloat.  When it eventually subsides, and I am sure it will, simply smash the casks and go about your business.  You don't even need to remove them from the ark first."

"Why would you want me to smash them, after caring so for them?"

"You'll see.  Okay, you won't actually see.  But you'll get it.  I think.  Your kids will, anyway; or their ancestors.  Some bozo will no doubt start a religion over it eventually."

"That certainly clears things up for me.  A 'month' is a very long time; I can make two, even three trips with the barge in that time, to several trading places.  That is much work lost.  Will you be able to pay me enough to financially justify the time spent floating about with your wine?"

"Noah," the man said, resting a hand on Noah's shoulder, "When this is over you will be the richest man in the world."

Now that is something I can understand, Noah thought.  He felt himself believing the man's bizarre tale, and wondered if it was his inner greed that clouded his judgment.

"Probably," the man said, "But I have a feeling that your inner goodness will prevail in the end."

"I thought you weren't going to do that anymore."

"Sorry.  So, will you carry my casks?"

"One moon cycle?"

"Give or take."

"And 314 casks of wine."

"314 casks."

"When would we leave?"

"In six months."

"Six moon cycles?"

"You got it."

"And where am I taking those casks?"

"Nowhere in particular.  All you really have to do is keep them afloat."

"What's in them?  I know it isn't wine."

"Smart man.  Call it seeds, Noah."

"Seeds?  You mean for planting?"

"Yup.  For replanting that code, and getting everything right."

"Let's not go there again, huh?"

"Sure.  But you'll do me this favor?  You'll make your barge an ark for my casks?"

"I will," Noah said, half disbelieving the words as they exited his mouth.

"Great.  I'm glad to hear that.  With that, I must be going - things get weird when I hang around too long."

"Weird, huh?" Noah asked.


"What a shock."

"You'd be amazed," the man smiled.  He started to turn, then he stopped and touched a finger to his lower lip, "Oh, I almost forgot, Noah.  A couple more things."

"I knew it," Noah said, folding his arms, "There's always a complication thrown in after my word's been given.  Well, be aware that I don't - "

"Spare me the speech, Noah," the man said easily, "These are small things.  First, tell no one of this coming adventure.  They won't believe you anyway, and might kill you out of fear."

"I can do that," Noah said, having already figured that, "What's the other thing?"

"You're taking your family with you."

"No I'm not," Noah said defiantly, folding his arms.  Half the reason for the barge was to have a place his family will not be, save a few healthy sons.  He continued, "My family does not travel with me.  There would be no room even if they wanted to."

"This time they are, and you will make room."

"Fine.  I guess it is your show, after all," Noah conceded, much more quickly than he had expected to.  Then he felt a wave of panic, "You mean my whole family?  All seven of my daughters, and their good-for-nothing husbands?"

"That would be best; as many as you can cram in, anyway.  Keep in mind that you'll never again see anyone left behind."

Noah heard what the man said, and didn't disbelieve.

"I guess I'll need a bigger barge."

"That you will.  An Ark, it will be," the man said.  He then took Noah's hands in his, looked him in the eye again, and said, "Thank you Noah.  You will not see me again."

Without another word, the man turned and walked toward the river.  Noah felt emotionally swollen by the man's exit, with parts of him twisting in ways he had never experienced before.  He stared at his toes for a few seconds in a vain effort to shake off the odd feelings inspired by his insane business partner.  Finally he gathered himself, summoned his sensibility, raised his head and shouted after the man:

"But if I don't see you again, how will I find your cargo?  How will I be paid?"

The man was gone.  Noah spun around, but there was not trace of the man, or anyone, in any direction up or down the river.  He was alone.  Noah sighed, shook his head, and started home.  He had barely taken a step when he noticed that the path was again a wide stretch of good flat dirt, and that his hut was just up the hill to his right amid well-trampled grass.  He stood quietly for a moment while his wife Shirah stared at him from the hut's small entryway.

"A big barge," he mumbled as he climbed the hill.

A full growing season passed, and Noah never did see his odd new business partner again.  Not in waking life, anyway:  during sleep his dreams were plagued by visions of the man and the sticky gray flood he had described to Noah that day.  When awake he found himself preternaturally driven toward preparing his barge to take on 314 casks of wine, many passengers, and stores enough for a moon cycle.  He told nobody about the dreams, and failed to explain to his sons why they were adding a third deck to the barge.  They did not question him, either, as they tied countless reeds and stared at him dumbly.  They knew better than to raise questions of the old man, especially when they were so bent by the gravity of his instruction.  He spoke of nothing to his wives when they demanded to know why they had to make so many new clothes while simultaneously drying fruits and brewing far more beer than even Noah required in a season.  Still, taken as they were by his resolve, they did their work with minimal mumbling.

Noah was equally amazed by his resolve.  He had assumed that, after the rush from the visit dissipated, he would dismiss the man's request as insane and go on with his life as if the stranger had never occupied that afternoon.  But something within him drove him.  It forced him to blurt orders and plans that he hadn't realized needed delivery.  It led him to break a dozen contracts with his regular customers while he modified his barge, earning both their ire and the label, 'Madman of the River.'

And so, in less than six moon cycles Noah's barge was ready for its cargo, and had been fitted with accommodations for his entire extended family.  Though he hadn't yet told them they were going with him on an unusual journey, they began to get the hint when his slaves started packing their belongings into the new third deck of the barge.  Noah smiled when some of the slaves balked at carrying goods to such a great height:  that third deck was over 30 cubits high, far higher than they had ever before risen above the earth.  But, perhaps because his son Japeth was particularly adept at persuading them, they went.  One slave had asked another of his sons, Ham, why no slaves' belongings were being loaded.  Japeth got curious about this himself, and relayed the query to Noah.

"Because," Noah barked, adequately.

Noah stood on the riverbank for many hours on the day the ark was finished, both to admire his handiwork and to quest inwardly for the still elusive sane explanation for his efforts.  To carry all those casks, which had yet to arrive, Noah was obliged to raft two barges together, and even this was barely enough room for 314 casks and supplies for his entire family.  In addition, he had to attach a second reed hull to the sides, in order to keep the great tub from rolling over at the first ripple of this gray wave.  All held together with tar, pitch, and a whole lot of luck.

"300 cubits long," he said to himself, rubbing his smooth dome, "Thirty high.  Almost as wide as the river.  And still no cargo.  I truly am insane."

"I'll offer no protest to that, Dad," his eldest son, Shem, said from just behind him.  Noah was too tired to be startled, but not too angry to smile.  Shem didn't see the smile, as his eyes were steadily gazing upriver to the Northwest.  Without removing his palm from its position of shielding his eyes, Shem continued, "But that's not important now, I think."

"What is?"

"That gray cloud that seems to be crawling on the ground toward us from upriver."

Noah prepared his response to Shem's jest, but it froze in his throat when he turned his gaze up river.

"Saddle up!" he bellowed.

The gray goo required the rest of the afternoon to reach Noah's docks, affording him just enough time to corral his sons, a couple of daughters (sans husbands, who were off on a hunt in spite of his direction; he didn't care much), his wives, and two slaves from the south named Osi and Isi.  Noah stood at the large doorway high up on the new hull, specially constructed to accommodate the casks that had never arrived.  He shook his head at his gullibility, but was relieved at least that he had been convinced to build such a sturdy craft in which to weather the coming storm.

Apparently the inhabitants of possibly every nearby village wanted to share in his good fortune, as they had begun to gather on the shore below him.  The gangway was narrow, steep, and easy to release from the hull, so they were hesitant to climb it.  Instead they milled about below, alternately shouting pleas for help and arguing amongst themselves for position at the ramp (an argument the elephants and lions handily won, save with each other).  Noah mostly ignored the fray below him while he leaned against the heavy door frame, watching the coming flood.  He guessed that most of the people gathered would fit aboard, though there was not enough food for all of them to eat for a full moon cycle.  And the lions, though, generally a sensible crowd, always made him nervous.  All might not be lost yet, he thought, there is always a hearty profit in rescue.  Realizing he must make a decision quickly, he glanced at the hold behind him for one last gage of available space.

Noah gasped.  There would be no passengers today, it turned out, because there was indeed no space.  The cavernous hold that he had prepared, and which was empty save for a curious echo just a moment earlier, had become crowded with huge, shining casks, the like of which he had never before seen.  They stood as tall as he, but half again as wide, and were polished so smooth that he could see his reflection in every one of them.  And they filled the hold, perfectly, from corner to corner, deck to deck.  If he hadn't built that third deck, there would be no room for his family, much less the rabble outside.  He returned to the open hatch, and bent down to the thin reeds holding the gangway fast.  He untied them, and let the wooded ramp fall into the water.

"Sorry folks," he shouted over the panicked screams of the crowd below, "There is, alas, no room aboard.  You'll need to find shelter elsewhere."  With his words the crowd fell silent for a few heartbeats.  Then they looked at each other.  Then they looked at the approaching goo.  Then they looked back at each other.  Then they repeated.  Then they panicked.

Noah pulled the great doors closed, curious about his lack of compassion for his neighbors.  If the crazy man was correct, he surmised, then all those people were doomed to a terrible end.  Some of them were his friends.  Indeed, a few of them were his family.  And between the goo and the sudden cargo, the crazy man was making great strides in overall credibility with Noah.  But he really didn't care much about those people, and he wondered why for about eleven heartbeats.  Then he was climbing the ladder to the top deck, shouting at his sons to cast off, and be ready to deflect the adventurous few who dared and succeeded to climb the sheer, slippery side of the ark to perceived safety.

"So," his wife, Judy, asked for the three-thousandth time from her position beside Noah at the rail, "Do you think a moon cycle has passed yet?"

"Oh Judy, Judy, Judy," Noah sighed, rubbing his head, "How many times must I say I have no idea?"

"Just a few more, I suppose," Judy snapped back without breaking her useless, ceaseless search into the black nothingness that surrounded them, "Until you have an idea.  Because I know you will, somehow."  She smiled when she spoke, but Noah assumed that was sarcasm dripping from her full young lips (Judy was just twenty - Shirah, the mother of his sons and several daughters, was below decks scrounging for food among the dwindling stores).  He smiled, wrapped an arm around her thin waist, and said:

"But Judy, I may never know.  This stuff we've been floating on for so much time is as much a mystery to me as you."

"So I've heard.  But you knew it was coming, right?"


"And you knew we'd need something this big just to survive, right?"

"Well, yes, I suppose."

"And you knew almost to the day when to finish this - what did you call it? - this ark so we could be safe, right?"

"Well.  That, was mostly luck, I think."

"Sure sure.  So do you think a moon cycle has passed yet?"


"Noah!  It would be nice to know.  We're running out of food, you know."

"I know," Noah whispered, "I know."  Now he searched the ink himself, though he could not tell whether he could see only a few cubits, or if the air was truly clear and simply carried no light or matter for an unknowable distance.

The goo had indeed arrived, as the man had said.  Noah's sons had to fend off only a few desperate creatures before the entire river valley, and everything else, was buried in the stuff.  They watched in awe as the mountain of goo passed silently beneath the floating ark.  Everything was obliterated; the land, the river, the distant mountains; even other barges that had initially risen alongside the ark.  It was all gone, and quickly, as the formerly crazy man had promised.  Then the sun was erased as well, by clouds so perfectly dense it was impossible to discern day or night.  Nothing remained but Noah, his family, some stores, and those casks.

Of course Noah had tried to open a cask or two.  The man had not forbidden such action, and his initial curiosity and later fear of starvation led him several times into the hold with his heaviest tools.  Though he and his sons swung hard and broke several mallets and stones, their efforts failed even to smudge the shiny surfaces of the casks.  The mighty containers had no lids, seals, or latches to worry loose, either:  that smoothness was uniform, perfect, and really, really annoying.

Beyond that, it had been a fairly uneventful journey.  His sons were disciplined, his wives strong and remarkably patient, and his daughters kept to themselves.  There was little conversation, absolutely no speculation, and, oddly, no sorrow.  Noah many times admired the strength of his loved ones, and wondered if that was as much a factor in the man choosing him as was his barge.

There hadn't been much to do aboard the ark, either.  Shirah and the slaves (okay, the slaves, with Shirah's guidance) handled the cooking, there was no navigation to be done, nor did the ark seem to need any maintenance.  Some games were played and stories told after the initial shock of the event wore off, but both grew tiresome after a time.  Now each person found a spot at which to sit and wait quietly for the next meal, journey's end, or death, whichever came first.

Noah had managed to track the first few days by reckoning time through his sleep cycles, but that measure, plus any urge to sleep at all, began to fail after a few days.  Now all he could do was guess at time by counting the intervals between the rumblings of his empty stomach.  He knew with reasonable accuracy that a moon cycle plus about ten days had passed, but he was certainly not going to share that with Judy.  She didn't like to be late for anything.  His gloomy search was broken by a shrill shout from Japheth that seemed to pierce the emptiness with its volume and urgency.

"I think I see light!" he shouted from his position on the roof of the deckhouse, "No.  I am sure I see light!"

"Where?" Noah and Judy asked at once without breaking their scan of the blackness.

"In the sky.  Straight up!"

Japheth's volume was enough to draw the ark's full compliment from their holes to the deck.  They shouted with glee and pointed shaking fingers at the shaft of light that had broken through the clouds directly above them.

"It seems that the sun has not abandoned us after all," Noah said, hugging his wives and winking at his sons.  Everyone was jubilant.  The daughters danced amid excited chatter as blue sky cut a growing hole in the blanket that had minimized their world for so long.  Then, when the sky had fully cleared, someone took a moment to look over the side.  And that someone, a daughter's (lucky) husband who hated hunting, fell silent.  His wife noticed his pause, and stopped to look out as well.  Her smile twitched for a second, then was gone.  In a few moments everyone on deck had fallen into a silent gaze over the ark's high rail.  Japheth wept.  Noah rubbed his head once more, and wondered.

The sky showed them the world that had been obscured from them for most of the trip, and that world had become very, very simple.  It was a gray sea, smooth as a pond on a quiet summer morning, and as shiny as those casks in the hold.  That sea stretched in all directions in a perfectly flat horizon that broke on absolutely nothing.  Noah's world was gone.  Nothing was left except him, his family, those casks, and precious little food.

"Oh my," were the only words able to free themselves from his choked throat.

"I think we'd best be more careful with the food," Shirah mumbled as she gently parted Noah's frozen embrace and started back to her kitchen.

"Dad," Shem asked quietly, though his question pierced every ear, "Who was this guy, really?"

That the days could again be accurately measured was more curse than boon, especially after Noah had scored the hundredth scratch on the wall of his cabin.  He wished not to make a new mark every morning he saw the dawn's orange fingers creep though his thin cabin window, but still he did; he thought it might be important someday that he remembered his adventure accurately.

"One hundred days," Noah whispered, "Three moon cycles, plus ten."

"And we're still alive," Shirah said from the bed, where she sat, rubbing the sleep from her eyes."

"Thanks to you, my resourceful wife."  Noah said, patting her ample buttocks as she passed close to him to make her way from the cramped sleeping space.  She just smiled, rolled her eyes, and gave Judy a soft kick as she stepped over her sleeping bulk.  Shirah, the heroine of the journey, had long since given up insisting that that cask had fallen open on its own as she passed it.  That cask, which was filled with a creamy pink jell that tasted of sweet fruit and proved unlimited in supply.  Shirah left the cabin to hoist her back end over the side for her morning pee.  Noah normally wouldn't see her again until breakfast, but today she raced back into the cabin, tripping over Judy and flying into Noah's arms.  They fell on their straw sleeping pallet, with Shirah on top.  Her eyes were wide, her hand's clutched Noah's shoulders.

"Noah," she gasped, "Come quick!"

Noah did not need to be asked twice.  He let Shirah drag him to his feet with an alarming show of strength.  They leapt together over Judy's still sleeping form, and ran through the dank narrow passage to the deck outside.  Shirah didn't need to say a word, or even point.  Noah knew what she had to show him.

The world had risen back up to them.

Not all of it.  Only a few craggy brown peaks of rock, cold tentative nipples of once mighty mountains, poked through the taught fabric of the dismal sea.  But it was enough to fill Noah's soul as it hadn't been filled in many cycles.  There was still a world under there.  Noah had hope.  He squeezed Shirah's hand.

"The trip is ending, my love," he said softly.

"Should I wake the family?"

"Just Judy.  The rest can form their own joy as they rise.  It's much nicer that way."

"Already here, Noah," Judy breathed from his other side.  He felt her body against him, and felt Shirah reach behind him to hold her tight, "So, you think that moon cycle has finally passed?" Shirah giggled like a little girl.

"I think so, young love," Noah sighed, "I think so."

The cycle had passed, but the ark still floated in a sea without beaches (and no way to navigate to them if any appeared) for many, many more days.  But now they knew that the land was there, and slowly more so with every dawn, and that converted their long ride from purgatory to advent.  The days were consumed by happy activity (actually they did the same nothing they were doing before, only now they did it together, in a communal bath of bright hope), followed by nights of easy sleep.  They had no idea what had happened, why it had happened, or what would happen in their future.  But they now knew that their future was to happen; and that made all the difference.

Within about four more moon cycles enough of the world had reappeared to convince them that landfall was imminent.  With a renewed sense of urgency, Noah set about preparing himself and his family for having a world unto themselves.  Such an assumption did not impress him, since it had been so long since he had seen a pair of eyes that belong to someone outside his family.  It wouldn't be much of a reign, anyway, if one judged it by the barren muddy rock that the goo was leaving behind.  But still, it was his kingdom, his world, and his opportunity to make things right so that the guy with the casks didn't come along and sweep up again.  So, with the future in mind, he brought his family together for a meeting.  He called them down from their sundry perches and quiet spots, and bade them squat about on the floor before him.  One of his sons-in-law (Raleph, Noah guessed) was not interested in squatting, so Noah nodded to Shem to knock the lad over.  Shem obliged, and Raleph fell to the floor sheepishly amid the giggles of his wife and her sisters.  Noah cleared his throat.

"Now that we're all settled," he said, rubbing his hands, "We have something very important to talk about."

"Would this have anything to do with the water receding?"

"Or the fact that there's nothing left alive but us, not even fish?"

"Or maybe we're going to discuss how we have to take responsibility for this new world we've been given?"

Noah rolled his eyes.

"Have I been talking in my sleep again?" he asked.

"No dad," Ham said with a wink, "It's just that you've been chatting pretty much nonstop about all this for the last three moons.  I think we've all got it pretty much memorized."

There was a round of laughter in the cabin, which Noah eventually joined.  I am getting old, he thought, feels like 600 years sometimes.  When the moment passed Noah raised his hands and said, "Fine then.  It appears that I've said enough.  Save one thing:  I meant it all.  We're on our own now, and we can't trust that magic cask to feed us forever.  As soon as our ark runs aground - which it will in the next few days, I'm sure - we must set about taking care of ourselves and starting our new lives.  We've been parked on this stinky tub for almost a year now, and we might have gotten too fat and lazy to work."

"But Dad," Japheth said, "What will we do?  We're merchants with no buyers.  We could have figured out how to farm, I suppose, but we ate all the seeds before the cask started working, and have you seen any fish?"

"All good points, Japheth, to which I have no answer."

"So then we take it easy and just hope the cask never empties?" Ham asked.  Shem smacked his little brother on the back of his head.

"No.  That would be wrong.  I think we were saved from the destruction for reasons other than just my barge.  I think there might have been a higher purpose this crazy man had for choosing me, um, us.  And, given the example of his displeasure we've all been living, I think we should keep the guy happy."

"So what do we do?"

"First we empty the hold of those casks the minute we're no longer afloat, just to finish the bargain I made with the man.  I'll bet they'll be easy to break about two heartbeats after the keel is aground.  And break them we will, fulfilling finally this long task.  After that, I think we simply have to try.  Try to do a little bit more than stay fed, dry, and knee deep in children (though all those things are also fine).  I think we need to try to be nice to each other, whether we like it or not.  And we need to treat each other with honor."

"What's honor?"

"Good question Raleph."

"That's Raphel," the daughter he assumed was married to the young man sternly noted.

"Good question Raphel," Noah said, "I'm not sure myself.  It's sort of being nice to each other, or perhaps respecting each other, but without love or family needing to be the reason.  You just treat everyone well, and in a way that simply feels right."

"That's a very dim definition, Dad."

"Sorry.  It's all new right now.  Someone will make it more clear later, I'm sure."  Noah was rescued from a fall down the well of empty reasoning by a terrible scraping noise far below them, accompanied by the first motion they had felt in many cycles.  The motion was violent, sending them all to the deck in an assortment of screams and gasps, but those cries carried joy, not fear.  The disturbance continued for a few moments, and then all was still.  Everyone froze in their sundry positions and looked at Noah, who was smiling.

"We're there." He said.

Published in Subspaces by Peter A. Luber, 2017.  All Rights Reserved.

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