I lobbed my backpack over the heads of the other workers to claim the top bunk in the far corner, away from the door to the dubious washroom. Embarkation centres were not known for luxury: like airport hotels, they were functional, if not Spartan, in concept and delivery.
My room-mates were a fine-looking bunch and more intelligent than the usual grunts. They seemed blasé about it all as if they had already completed many off-world jobs building habitats for colonists, though this was the first of its kind, apart from the lunar bases. Mars, however, was five long months away, and the Fly In Fly Out job description was a bit stretched. We would be on Mars for a year, constructing habitats, dining halls and kitchens, communal areas, and indoor farms for the colonists who would also be travelling with us. We would use the ships as dormitories while the building was underway, and once it was finished, almost all the construction workers would return to Earth, leaving Mars to the farmers and the egg-heads. For many of us, it was our first time off-world.
The selection criteria for this job were stringent, far too stringent for my liking. We had all undergone extensive physical and mental testing, and also very personal and invasive inquiries into our social and genetic history. Many of the people I had hoped would join me were rejected with no explanation, but the team finally assembled was going to be a pleasure to work with.
We gathered with the colonists worldwide at one of the world’s three Space Elevators to be taken to the terminal hubs and then ferried to the many Space Stations that circled 400 km above the globe. The bottleneck caused by the Elevators meant that we would have several weeks before all cargo and passengers had arrived, and the transfer to the ships to Mars was completed.
We were welcomed at the Space Station by team leaders, a haunted and harried group of older men and women who seemed to be working to another agenda. There were groups of different nationalities gathered, self-sorted by language and fashion into clusters representing every race on Earth, and no doubt sorted by class as well. Everyone looked young and fit, very few appeared to be over 35, some of the women seemed hardly out of their teens, but then, who can accurately tell age at a glance?
The artificial gravity took a bit of getting used to. After a tour of the facilities, and a mediocre meal in the mess hall, it was strongly suggested that sleep was required before an early start. All the cabins appeared to be the same, bunk beds, six to a room. There were neat piles of clothing and shoes laid out for us on our allotted bunks. Uniformity was apparently the thing. I stowed my earth-side clothes in my backpack. I always travelled light, but the storage facility I used back home was bulging with possessions gathered from all corners of the world. One day I would have a home to display them in, but not for now.
The next morning, I worked out a pecking order for ablutions with my cabinmates, and we donned the uniforms we had been given the day before. The dark, dusty blue one-piece overall fitted my 6’4” frame well, and the canvas, silicone soled shoes were the same. Kudos to the purchasing officer. The uniform was better quality than I’d have expected to be issued to a grunt like me. Construction workers were not rated highly by the bureaucracy, even if they were Engineers.
It was late in the afternoon by my wristwatch, if not by the sun, before I was able to take my turn in one of the viewing lounges. That great leveller of mankind, the uniform, had worked its magic on the passengers, and only accents and haircuts differentiated between the ranks and nationalities. Everyone, no matter what their station in life or rank in the services, was now clad in the relative anonymity of a dusty blue overall.
There was standing room only at the windows and the expanse of glass was not really expansive at all, so there were huddles of people gathered to peer out of the windows. There was an excited babble of voices, interspersed with cries of delight and surprise. I chose a window with a group of women much shorter than myself and leaned in to peer over their heads, one arm propped on the wall above the window.
At first, I saw only blackness, then a spangle of sparkling gold dots appeared and traversed the window. My mind adjusted to what it had seen and suddenly focussed on the realisation that I was seeing the Earth at night. The planet swept majestically past. Against the black velvet of the night-side clusters of lights clotted together in a familiar pattern and there was Europe. Capital cities beamed their concentrated brightness upwards, and my mind reached for half-remembered maps to identify the cities and the countries. Next to me a fraulein and a mademoiselle argued in their common language of English as to whose capital was the brightest. The stamp of man was everywhere in the night, electricity blazing out the signs of man’s achievement. Even on the vast reaches of the sea, faint glows showed the passage of massive cruise ships as 4,000 or more people turned their backs on the mysteries of the midnight sea to dance under the floodlights on deck.
Moonlight shone on the Mediterranean Sea – a pewter coloured gleam in the blackness of the night – then was lost to a bank of clouds which pulsed occasionally with a scattering of lightning exploding within the clouds like firey popcorn.
I bent my knees a bit to alter the view and caught the edge of the Aurora Borealis as it undulated lazily over the top of the world, eerily shining with green and white, towering gauzy curtains of neon light seemingly hanging from the sky.
Then came the dawn.
The room fell silent as the rim of the world was silhouetted in an incandescent fire. The raw sun lit up the paper-thin envelope of atmosphere that edged our planet in a ribbon of blue and white. That giver of life shimmered like a bubble around the globe and I caught my breath at how fragile and delicate the world seemed.
The globe below us now spun into daylight. The cities retreated back into the landscape, showing faintly as a greyish scratching of geometric lines. Astoundingly, the man-made islands on the coast of Dubai showed up clearly – a line of fanciful palm tree shapes in the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf. The Himalayas lay like a crumpled paper napkin on the weathered rock of India. The Yangtze River disgorged a yellow fan of silt and pollution into the East China Sea. The Mariana Trench deepened a swathe of the blue Pacific Ocean to indigo as that huge flaw in the earth’s crust plunged to 11,000 metres. We looked directly down the radiant red crater of a volcano: a small but intense dot, perhaps in Indonesia, but who could tell from that distance. The passage of the wind was sketched by the clouds riding it, and weather fronts swept the sea below. A tropical cyclone spiralled towards Fiji, the weather system an innocent white confection from above, hiding the dark devastation within it. The thin skin of atmosphere diluted the colour of the land – the red centre of Australia seemed a faded pink and lush Amazon forests were a deep grey-green.
It was as if Man had never existed, and yet here we were, a tin can full of people, looking down at the cradle of our humanity with awe in our eyes.
From that first glimpse of our genesis, a change came over the passengers. We spent every waking moment, when not attending courses designed to better the Martian experience, gazing at the Earth. There were 16 sunrises and sunsets in 24 of our hours. Although the spangled beauty of the night attracted a fair number of viewers, it was the days, the sunlit days, that drew us back. Our eyes caressed the coastlines, stroked the wide sweeps of the oceans, lovingly traced the silver rivers from the mountains to the seas. We sought out the traces of the seasons, fancying we saw the golden leaves of autumn on the hills, and the first snows on the mountains. There was no more talk of nations or rivalries. We talked of the sound of wind in the tall grass on the prairies, the age of the sequoias. We talked of the animals of the plains and mountains, thar and oryx, passenger pigeons and dodos, sparrows and hawks. We talked of rare animals in zoos, and herds of elephants roaming free. One spoke of quad biking on the gigantic sand dunes of Namibia, passing below us like a wrinkled yellow fingerprint, another told of searching for Nemo amongst a kaleidoscope of fish in the bleached remains of the Great Barrier Reef, and how small he was when found. We talked of the impact we had on the world, how a species so insignificant that its presence could hardly be seen from space had still poisoned its only home, and asked if it was too late to save it, to revive the spirit of the glorious creation below us, and how delicate the balance was, how easily destroyed. We talked of what we could do when we returned, and those who would not return looked wistfully at what they were leaving.
Brown hands lay on yellow shoulders, and blonde hair mixed with black as we crowded to the windows to see and rejoice in our planet, our Earth, our home. We were many, but for once we were as one.
Soon the full complement of passengers had been assembled, inducted, and transferred by shuttle-craft from the Space Stations to the huge ships that were to take us to Mars.
There was a very moving ceremony on Earth that was televised on large screens on the ships. Heads of State bade us God Speed, choirs sang, whole ranks of interpreters for the deaf signed in unison, flags waved, and from all around the globe the Fleet moved off from the Space Stations. A dozen large liners carrying 24,000 passengers and crew, and stores for our arrival. We would still need regular shipments of stores from Earth, but we would be mostly self-sufficient once the domes were up and running.
Accommodation on the ship was cramped and tight, and there were no viewing windows: instead, several enormous screens in public spaces showed the whole Earth in crystal clear detail, as we slowly drew away.
We passed the Moon’s orbit but didn’t pick up speed. Instead, the ships stopped in formation: a string of silver beads across the face of space. A General Muster was called and we crowded into our muster stations. A deep and solemn voice began speaking.
“5 years ago, a small rogue planet was detected, inward bound in our solar system and it became clear that it is on a collision course with Earth. Nothing could be done until it was inside the orbit of Mars – we do not have the technical capabilities to have reached it before that. For the last five months, mammoth efforts have been made, and are still continuing, to deflect it from its course. At this moment a nuclear bomb is being been planted on the rogue planet, which has been named Nemesis, by NASA’s Re-Direct Mission and is about to be detonated, in a last-ditch attempt to deflect it from its path. If this fails, it is calculated that the rogue planet will strike a glancing blow, and may be deflected by the atmosphere and Earth’s magnetic field.
Nemesis is due to impact with Earth in about one hour’s time. We do not know if it will be an Extinction Level Event.
There is no escaping this.
The World Leaders decided not to announce this event to the world’s population, to avoid widespread panic and chaos in the face of such an inevitable and inescapable catastrophe.
You, the colonists for Mars, and your associated construction and administration teams, have been selected for qualifications and experience and also to provide a diverse genetic stock for humanity. If disaster befalls Earth, humanity will continue on Mars.”
Shouting erupted and screams added to the cacophony, as those assembled clamoured for answers to questions they could not frame in coherent sentences.
The camera angle on the huge screen drew back to show the blackness of space surrounding Earth, and then focussed tightly on a dim irregular shape, almost as black as the depths of space behind it.
“This is Nemesis. The countdown has commenced for the detonation.”
Numbers flashed in a box at a corner of the screen, and the voice ceased. A plume of debris rose from the side of the small planet and was left behind in a trail of dust and rubble as the rock hurtled on, though the explosion did have some effect.
After a hushed silence that seemed to last forever, the voice continued on in sombre, measured tones.
“Our best efforts to avert tragedy have failed, in fact, they appear to have worsened the situation. Direct impact is now inevitable. It will take place in the Pacific Ocean, near the Mariana Islands, in 14 minutes.”
There was total silence as the assembled colonists and crew gazed up fixedly at the huge screens. The focus was again on the Earth in all its glory, with the lights of Europe and Africa below us in the night. The thin envelope of atmosphere gleamed in a tight halo around the globe. Earth hung in the void, alone and waiting.
The solemn voice continued: “We who remain on Earth wish you well with your endeavours. Remember that you came from Earth, even with the passing of generations. Remember us. Remem …” There was a crackle of static and the broadcast ceased.
A tremor ran across the globe, and it wobbled slightly. Across the face of Europe, the lights went out. A chain of volcanic eruptions lit up the coast of Italy and ripped the heart out of Iceland. Vast cracks snaked bright and deadly across the land and sea. At opposite edges of the globe, where the sun’s rays skimmed the atmosphere, a rim of blue topped with white swept inexorably across land and sea in two opposing tsunamis to mix the Pacific and Indian with the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans, overwhelming the continents in between but failing to extinguish the fiery chasms that had opened under the feet of humanity
In our ships, we wailed and ranted against the catastrophe we saw unfolding on the giant screens. People ran, to collapse as their tear-blinded eyes led them headlong into walls, and blessed unconsciousness claimed their minds. People clung to each other in terror, mute in the face of the unimaginable horror. I fell to my knees, clutching my head, writhing with the unutterable anguish of what I was seeing, and lifted my voice in a primal scream, a roar that eviscerated me, tore my throat, tore my heart. The soundtrack to a dying world played out, no different from the sounds uttered by billions perishing under the weight of oceans ripped from the depths, or endlessly falling into the pits of Hell, their cries unheard amongst the cacophony of the end of the world.
Earth died in slow motion, and it died hard. When we could raise our eyes to the screens again, the world was falling apart. The globe had turned, its stately daily revolution still struggling but slowing. The heart’s fire of the Earth raged out of a chasm in the North Pacific. The Rim of Fire around the Pacific made a hellish frame for the emptied ocean. What remained of New Zealand and Hawaii, totally consumed in columns of fire, blazed like blast furnaces.
As we watched, great chunks of the planet fell away and tumbled into the dark reaches of the heavens. It disintegrated before our eyes: unrecognisable shards of molten rock cooled and the last vestiges of our homeworld dispersed in a shower of debris, destined to circle forever as a ring of detritus marking the passing of the third planet from the Sun.
Planet Earth, with all its unutterable beauty, was gone.
The building contract is completed, and I should be on my way home, but there is no home. Not there, not here.
Here people stay indoors at night. No one lifts their eyes to the night skies, to the relentless icy stars. They are afraid to seek out the patch of darkness where there was once a small blue planet shining like a beacon, to guide the traveller home.
But each habitat shows a light in the window, a small but eternal flame, a small blue globe glowing with a tiny perpetual light, in memory of what we have lost.
“We will remember.”
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This is lovely. Good job!
Thanks Roshna. I felt the story needed a boxed set rather than 3,000 word short story, but it was an excellent exercise. It was the first story I've actually researched information for, and that took a lot of time. After I had submitted it I read The Forge of God by Greg Bear, which has a similar end of the world ending, and I was humbled by his work.
It’s quite a tricky to write a story matching a set of requirements. You have done a great job here. I am not usually a fan of science fiction. But I really liked this. Fanstastic use of vocabulary too.
Aw shucks, Roshna - thanks so much! It's my second sci fi, see RIFT from last week, which is my hubby's favourite so far. I rewrote it after submitting. Now I wait until the last day, rereading and polishing, especially vocabulary. It helps that it is my native language, and that I have been an avid reader for almost 70 years. It sinks in. I am from well before TV (I was 30 before we got our first TV), so reading was my escape, and the great literature that was in the home library helped to shape my language.
70 years of reading experience? Wow! That’s almost the double of my age! Ha ha. But kudos to you. I used to write when I was a kid. Then life got in the way. But when I saw my father publishing his first book at the age of 73, it really inspired me to write again. I wrote this week’s story with a different perspective where ‘ star’ is used symbolically. If you have time, please read it also. Thanks for following me!