I was one of the first hundred to take my place in the Grand North Deck that evening. The station itself, which typically spun or moved silently through the patched darkness of space, now hung still. As hours passed, walking figures had begun to stand spread out among the carpeted walkways and benches which faced the sprawling, daunting windows to the vastness of space. The high ceiling and subtle decorative color of the walls and columns made the place breathable in all circumstances—they were useful features when the deck was full of people.
The screens splayed out overhead at the tops of the windows or clustered in threes along the columns of the station’s immense frame showed a live feed. The crowd had gathered; they were mostly somber as if looking onto a funeral. Others, most of them younger, manifested some form of cold anticipatory wonderment. There was a touch of novelty and a pretense of grandeur that many, I imagine, hoped would never be topped in human history. They almost all whispered and I wondered who exactly set the expectation that one was supposed to whisper—maybe they expected to hear something quiet when the time came or maybe near-silence was somehow crucial to absorbing the moment. Other stations had been lined up along the imaginary perimeter of safe distance, all angled so carefully and subtly toward the bright speck that was the Earth.
The worn voice of the man hosting the live broadcast for us pierced through the shuffling quietude. “Fifteen minutes to impact” the host began, solemn yet professional. “There has still been no question among officials and scientists of all ranks that,” he paused, “the complete destruction of Earth is unavoidable.” Again, he lingered.
“Nonetheless, all places of terrestrial import have prepared for impact as best they can. Much is still being said between here and there—communication channels are still being used to maximum capacity but… none of what is being said will be broadcast to you now.”
The federal representatives may have had something to say to, but they weren’t going to speak to us—they were busy preparing for the spectacle and getting affairs in order. Besides that, they were probably afraid to say something less than memorable. Perhaps they truly thought the event was too sacred and meaningful for mere words.
The broadcast host didn’t mention it then (because we had heard it before), but there were still over two billion people living on the surface of the Earth. They included the sand-strewn dirt-poor and the self-proclaimed stewards, the skinny satellite controllers and the chatty terra-forming supply workers, the sturdy monument and nature preservers, the throat-clearing business tycoons, the sentimental artists and the sentimental scientists, the stubborn and the sick. I think upwards of 60 million left the planet after the first announcement confirming the final trajectory of the asteroid– mostly on supply rockets when more conventional means of escape were impossible.
Yet there were still two billion left. I imagined their faces staring up in the sky, defiant yet tearful, or sitting alone on dusty beds holding pills, a rope, or a gun. All that we could see with our own eyes was a bright speck in a black expanse of mostly dimmer specks. The screens and the telescoped images they switched between—the different cities and monuments of Earth, and then the drawn out shots of Earth in its misted blue entirety—were all carefully engineered to be crystal clear and eerily still. In some places you could trick yourself into seeing crowds, in others you could only see unimpeded weather. Nothing was as close-up as it could’ve been. Detached anonymity would make the earthbound multitude seem more sacred and it would help the viewers stay calm. Like the reporter had said—none of the words coming from Earth would be broadcast. There was no doubt in my mind, though, that somewhere all of it was in the process of being recorded, saved, and archived.
“Ten minutes to impact” the reporter said. There were some who were getting visibly bored—not just children, but bystanders who came unwillingly out of formality and respect. Any places they would’ve had to get to were closed anyway. The date of the impact had been known for weeks. Even then, it wasn’t enough time to prepare—the asteroid was simply too large and too fast to be broken up. Attempts were made to break it apart or change its course—obviously they made no difference. I wondered if the futility of stopping the impact had set in before the trajectory of the asteroid had even been calculated. The Earth seemed so old and fragile by then—it was the planet that you went to when the only thing that mattered was seeing sacred sights and dreaming ancestral dreams. You went there to be a part of the past; it was distant from so many of the places that were integral to the progress of the present.
This was a day dreamt of in the nightmares of all generations. Like the lifespan of one person, the longevity of the Earth as a whole seemed vaguely predictable in its own way. But of all the dramatic cataclysms that could have taken it, a speeding rock seemed to be the most demeaning. The asteroid brought no answers—we deserved more. I thought I sensed humanity shrink under its unconscious, unplanned course; determined to see meaning in it, many trying to ignore the conclusion that they could find none.
You couldn’t see the asteroid from this distance and it was never shown on screen. I found myself determined to focus on the Earth itself before my eyes—the speck in the gaping blackness. When the impact came, the speck became suspended in a pitiful, small flicker of destruction and my eyes moved to the screen looking for more to see. The planet broke along slow, silent faults—clouds reeled back and waves flew out. The moon, out of sight and frame, probably shuddered from its fixed place, free from purpose. I knew there were gasps, people crying, pictures and videos being taken, but I stared—searching. In the place of reverent silence, a ripple of the noises of adjusting legs and bowing heads made the crowd part of the wave made in the solar system. No one spoke though; their eyes either lingered on the planet-less gap or returned to the screen to watch the intimidating spread of debris.
I felt like I should’ve been moved to stand there for hours, but in about half an hour, I walked back home. I thought I’d hear more crying on the way, but I didn’t– only walking or hushed voices in the distance. I slept well, but I dreamt of cosmic explosions in quiet galaxies and I woke up feeling lonely and detached from time.