The boy detested bedtime. Late at night, when the boy said he couldn’t sleep, his mother had cradled him in her arms, swaying slowly as the wooden rocking chair beneath her creaked. From their position on the front porch, an explosion of stars twinkled across the indigo sky. To him, the stars were specks of glitter scattered over a piece of velvet. Pretty, but nothing special.
Out in the sprawling fields, little light pollution ruined the view. It’s why his mother had bought that small, quaint house in the first place. It wasn’t much, but the sky more than made up for it.
The boy often wondered why his mother sat on the porch every night, the stars her only company. When he asked, his mother had said that the stars reminded her of more exciting times.
That made the little boy frown. Wasn’t he exciting? His mother just laughed. Of course her precious angel was exciting. But some things were a different kind of exciting, the kind that seeps into the bones when it happens and crawls back into the blood long after it’s over.
He wanted to know more, so his mother carded her fingers through her son’s obsidian curls and tried to explain. When she was an astronaut floating far above the Earth, she’d experienced something called the overview effect, though the term, as well as her explanation, was vastly underwhelming compared to what she had felt.
Looking down on Earth, a mostly blue planet covered by thick clouds with masses of brown and green land peeking through, she’d realized a lot that she supposed she already knew, but never had it crystallized in her veins until that moment. Seven billion people were below her, all coexisting- more or less- on a rock in the abyss of space. The normal problems of everyday life, and even the bigger problems like squabbles between petulant nations, seemed irrelevant. What did any of that matter when Earth was merely a grain of sand in a desert, one planet of billions? How could who washed the dishes that night or what the price of gas was be anything of significance?
But eventually, she went back to Earth, and those small problems became her problems yet again. Even the slow rotation of the Earth around the Sun couldn’t stop the groceries from needing to be bought and the oil from needing to be changed.
The boy didn’t really understand, but he nodded along anway. Really, he just didn’t want to go back to bed, and listening to the yearning stories of his mother was one way to buy time.
Many years later, when the boy- now more of a man than a boy- looked down on Earth from his position in space, he remembered his mother’s words. The overview effect. She was right; it couldn’t be described so much as experienced first-hand.
For a moment, he wished his mother could be with him to see the view once again, to feel that euphoric rush of being far from it all. However, she had passed on not long before. She’d died watching the stars, and he still nursed the small hope that souls liberated from their physical bodies would become one with the stars from which they came. Then, she could be a part of what she loved so dearly.
Unfortunately, his wistful awe regarding both the complexity and insignificance of life didn’t last long. His palm was pressed to the cool window separating him from the void, and he kept his eyes wide-open when the inevitable happened. He didn’t blame the ones who shut them. What he saw he’d never be able to forget.
One blinding flash of pure white light, and the Earth erupted into a fiery blaze. It broke apart amidst flashes of scarlet and amber and gold, caving in on itself even as chunks hurtled into orbit.
He heard cries behind him, desperate, anguished wails. He might’ve made a sound too if he wasn’t clenching his teeth together so tightly.
He was glad now that his mother wasn’t with him.
So many lives, snuffed out in less than a second. Ancient, architectural feats like the Great Wall of China and testaments of modern technology like the Burj Khalifa obliterated. The recovering Great Barrier Reef and the lush rain forests, gone before they’d even had a chance to come back.
Thousands of years of human history and billions of years of Earth’s history, eradicated like it had never happened. Briefly, he wondered if perhaps another planet would one day form here and become what had been lost.
His mother’s bones were gone too. Her final request before she died had been that she’d be buried so she could be destroyed along with the Earth. He had chuckled, telling her that wasn’t going to happen. Her bones would disintegrate way before then. The Earth would outlive both of them by a long shot.
Instead, it had only outlived her. She’d seen what was coming when he hadn’t. Maybe staring at the stars for so long had given her a gift for seeing what others didn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t.
Now, as the remnants of a once-great planet smoldered, tears slid down his dark cheeks. It didn’t seem real. This was the stuff of fiction, and yet it had happened right before his eyes.
His mother had told him that the overview effect had made the world’s problems seem insignificant, small in the grand scheme of things. He felt the opposite. Every tiny detail of Earth was important. Every person that breathed, every rock in a river bed, every graffitied word on the side of a road, every decibel of Friday morning traffic. All of it had made Earth home. All of it mattered because now all of it was gone, and it would never be replicated no matter how hard the survivors tried.
Later, when hearts still ached but no longer were crushed by the pain of that day, what the boy had felt would be given a name. Like the overview effect, neither the term nor any description could match the true feelings. It simply had to be experienced, though he hoped no one would have to experience that ever again.
The last view effect.