End of the World
It was one of the cheap trips.
Plasmaform expeditions could not by definition be ‘crowded’, not literally, because no physical body was actually present — but although space was vast and empty and all around them, Ter felt surrounded by others, asphyxiated by them, overwhelmed by the weight of their presence. If they had been corporeal it might have translated into an overpowering odor of morning breath and unwashed bodies or the sickening smell of sweet snacks from the school group on the far end of the Plasmaform cloud. Instead, it was the suffocating sense of the presence of uncomfortable numbers of people sharing what should have been an intimate personal space.
In theory there were anywhere between three to seven levels of communication within the cloud, and it should have been possible to filter out all but the innermost one, the one most directly related to one’s own concerns, and the emergency channel. But it was a cheap trip. Second and even third communication tiers kept on intruding into Ter’s consciousness. The babble of other people’s voices inside her head made her feel giddy and confused and irrationally angry — particularly as one of the intrusive presences was the painstakingly pedantic teacher of the school group, whose constant input of facts and figures about the spectacle unfolding before the group implied that there was to be a test on the subject matter afterwards (and dire consequences threatened if the facts and figures were not regurgitated properly). Another irritation came from a chatty, chirpy tour guide of a large group of gawking tourists, the kind who conceived it his bounden duty to fill every moment of silence with a mindless patter designed to keep his charges’ limited attention span focused on the matter at hand and preventing anyone from falling asleep and then suing the company for having missed the main event.
:::So — when this star was still supporting life, who can tell me how it was classified?:::
That was the schoolteacher. Thankfully the field was too weak to transmit the individual answers from every student, but then the teacher was given to repeating every answer anyway, just to make sure everyone got it.
:::That’s right. Very good. It was a G2 star. Who can tell me more about it? Yes, that’s correct. We are about 26,000 light years from the center of the galaxy. Yes, the star is currently believed to be about 10 billion years old. Very good, it originally fused hydrogen into helium in its core, nicely done, about 4 million tonnes a second of matter would have been converted into energy at its core about halfway through its life. And what is happening in its core right now?:::
<<Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, this star lacks sufficient mass to provide us with some real fireworks. We will not be witnessing a supernova — it would, of course, be much more spectacular — it looks something like this…>>
The tour guide, apparently had had access to some sort of visual crutch because every so often he would pause dramatically to allow his group to gaze upon something that Ter could not see.
<<Instead, we are here to witness the expansion of what is really a perfectly ordinary run-of-the-mill average star, on the small side mass-wise, into its red giant phase. This is not an uncommon event around the galaxy, of course. You might well ask why our particular company, with our reputation for taking you to be witness to far more unique and exciting events in the cosmos, chose to lay on this particular tour — the answer, ladies and gentlemen, is the third planet away from the star in this particular solar system. Many years ago, this planet was called Terra. Earth.>>
Ter — whose own name was drawn from the name of that legendary planet, the cradle of humanity, from whose doomed surface people had fled four and a half billion years before — tried to shut her mind to the intrusions, and stared out at the spectacle before her. They hung just a little way beyond Terra itself, a darkened orb showing as just a dramatic crescent from their position. Ter had had the digital memory implants — she called them to mind now, images of Earth as it once was, the luminous blue and white globe hanging in the dark of interstellar space — the glitter of lights that had once been human cities, limning the edges of continents on the shores of oceans. The water oceans were long gone by now, of course, and the cities were not even a memory of ruins, the continents themselves just melted outlines on a lifeless globe from which the last life had fled almost too long ago for the world to remember it had ever existed.
Ter recalled her own school days, and the lessons that had been passed down by her great-grandfather, long before she had entered school. He had learned the stories he told her from his own great-grandfather in his turn, stories passed down through the generations, to go with the memory implants of long-vanished history from a distant planet, of the Earth that had once been. Ter’s own world, the planet on which she had been born, on which generations of her ancestors had been born, had a certain kind of savage beauty of its own — but it was a harsh place, and it had molded Ter’s people into its own image. In her physical form, she did not resemble much the gracile humans who had once walked Terra, the planet on which the human race had been born. A different gravity and a different sun had made her short, stocky, long-armed, her powerful shoulder muscles fusing with the neck to support a large head with a strong, robust jawline and eyes that saw deeper into the infra-red than her ancestors’ eyes had done. But she had been a child with a vivid imagination, born with a gift to internalize and assimilate the memories that had been implanted in her, memories that were not her own — things seen with eyes different from hers but still human, more human than hers, the original human vision. She ‘remembered’ palm trees. It had been billions of years since the last palm tree had withered on the Earth as it slowly turned into a global desert, its atmosphere changing and eventually leaching away into space, the carbon dioxide levels in the air dropping until finally there was not enough to support photosynthesis and most of the green plants had died — and had taken the biosphere with them.
And the Sun was no longer the pleasantly warm yellow orb from which it was possible to shelter in the shadow of a friendly tree. Because there were no more trees, and the Sun was a hot orange disk in the sky. And growing bigger.
As though triggered by that memory, the schoolteacher was back in her mind.
:::And is there an atmosphere there now? Very good. No. Can someone tell me what the Sun would look like from the surface of the planet a billion years ago? A hundred years ago? In the immediate aftermath of what we are about to witness…? Oh very good question. Of course, there would not necessarily be a planet in the aftermath…:::
And the guide had the pictures.
<<You can see what the star would have looked like from the surface of the Earth — if anyone had been left to look — over the last couple of billion years. We started off with the yellow G-type star under which our ancestors evolved on the planet — but watch what happens as the star gets hotter, and redder — the planet’s atmosphere eventually changes, and then gradually boils away into space — and the friendly star, look, now about 100 times larger than it had been during the phase during which it supported life on the surface of the Earth, and from the surface of the planet, now molten and with lava lakes instead of the liquid water oceans of its antiquity, the star our ancestors once called the Sun now takes up almost half the sky…>>
“Oh, just do it,” Ter whispered to herself, tears in her eyes, watching the cinder that had once been a planet called Earth drifting helplessly just outside the huge red ball of fire which took up most of her field of vision. “Just do it…”
That was what they had come here to see, this motley group of the descendants of the human race which had scattered into the far reaches of the Milky Way when it had become obvious that they had to leave, or die with their world. They had come to see the end of the Earth. They had come to the funeral of the mother world.
And the teacher would not stop talking. And the tour guide would not stop yapping.
If she could have afforded it, she would have paid the exorbitant sum that the Vixhor, the alien race who had sold them the Plasmaform technology, usually demanded for specialized solo trips — but Vixhor prices were steep, and this was the best she could do, this package deal with the school (maybe twenty schools, for all she knew, thankfully she was only picking up the mental chatter of the one group) and the thrill-seekers who cruised around the galaxy to observe the birth and death of stars and skirt the rims of black holes while giggling mindlessly at their own daring. It was in the company of gawky, ignorant schoolchildren and inane tourists that she had to come and witness this, and gather it up in her memory banks for her own folks to see, and know, and remember. The great-grandfather who had told her the stories of Earth was long dead — but her grandfather was still alive, and he remembered hearing his stories too. It was for him that Ter was here. For him, and for all the ones that had gone before him who could not be here to see this, and for those who would come after, who would also need to know, to remember.
She was here to mourn — to cast a metaphorical flower into a grave of fire, as a world died.
She had believed those private thoughts to be her own, but apparently there were more levels to Plasmaform than even she knew, because the response that bloomed in her mind was not her own words — a presence foreign, alien… Vixhor.
It is good. It is good that you are here. That you are one who is here who mourns.
“Get out of my head!” Ter said, rubbing the metaphorical hands of her Plasmaform body against her metaphorical Plasmaform temples.
Apologies. Private thought exchange. No need to involve others. We are grateful you are here. Watch. Remember.
Ter did remember. As the disk of the red star grew infinitesimally, and then a little more, her great-grandfather’s words swam back into her mind — “The Earth will be incinerated, one day,” he had told her. “Cremated. Just like we do with our own dead. And then? Can you tell me what will happen, after?”
:::And what will happen afterwards? Yes, that’s right. At some point, when the red giant phase is over, the remnants of the Sun will lose the shell of its outer gases to space, leaving behind the dead core, a white dwarf, sitting in the middle of a planetary nebula…:::
Ter opened her mind to the schoolteacher and let a blistering response return along the pathway.
:::Oh, show some respect! The Earth is being incinerated. Cremated. And in those clouds of solar gas that will escape into the planetary nebula, the ashes of the Earth will be, sent out into space…:::
:::Who is that? Vixhor Main, we have an intrusion…:::
She left the teacher to a panicked exchange with the control matrix of the expedition, in time to catch the tour guide finally stop talking as the Sun reached out with fiery tentacles and the crescent of the Earth vanished into the maw of the red star.
<<Ladies and gentlemen, I give you … the end of the world.>>
Watch, said the Vixhor in Ter’s head.
And then there was silence as everything turned to fire and ashes, and then nothing was there except the huge red star hanging in empty space, as though nothing had ever been there at all.
But something had been.
Something that had, in its turn, given birth to Ter herself — the human DNA that had taken itself to another star, itself and its memories of the world that had once turned blue and white and perfect around its perfect yellow star.
“Farewell, Terra,” whispered the girl who bore the vanished world’s name. The end of the world. The first world. For a long time, the only world that the human race had ever known — the only place in the whole wondrous universe filled with amazing things which they could call home.
And now, in the place where it had been, there was nothing but fire.
Ter did not speak her next words out loud, but somehow she wound up saying them in her mind almost together with the Vixhor presence that still lingered within her.
We will remember. We will remember you.
Alma’s story “End of the World” was inspired by the death of our Sun and the eventual fate of the planet which was the birthplace of the human race — more about the events that will transpire at that time can be found here:
Copyright Alma Alexander