(This story references depression and suicide)
By the time we returned from the beach, the Earth was gone. In its place, an expanding ring of debris like a rusting sickle. We knew, of course. We’d known for months. But we hadn’t been prepared to see it. To really see it.
The AI, after trying to find an orbital insertion point around a missing planet, had fallen into a hopeless loop, so the captain took the Euripides into a manual solar orbit. In time, the rotation engines fired up, preparing to bring us back into spin-gravity, and we floated with our backs to the outer wall, our helmet monitors displaying the scene outside. I gripped Skaii’s hand, probably too tightly, but she didn’t complain. Didn’t seem to notice. Our eyes were fixed on the impossible wasteland, and we didn’t speak of what we’d lost. Didn’t speak of our daughter, Natia. In time, the wall became the floor, and then we were flat on our backs, our stomachs sinking, our bodies crushed by the approximation of gravity. Skaii’s hand squeezed back.
Our mission to the Beach — some wag’s nickname for Enceladus — had departed six years ago. The Euripides had had a crew of two-hundred and fourteen, and we’d lost two lives during the survey work — a tragedy, we’d thought. A disastrous run. Two ice-engineers flung by a malfunctioning digger arm, their bodies broken against an outcrop. But now, there were only two-hundred-and-twelve human lives in existence, the lost lives of those engineers diminished in the face of the Earth’s destruction. And yet, they loomed larger, too. Every remaining life now worth so much more.
We tried not to say her name. Our daughter. She had stayed on Earth, and so was not with us. She should have been. We should have demanded it. We, as parents, should have demanded it.
— I need to see it, said Skaii.
There was a chime that indicated we were free to walk again, so the two of us rose together as though waking from a dream — the Coriolis making our heads reel, brains fighting against the sensation of walking in a perpetual valley. We met the captain and she nodded, falling in beside us without a word. It felt as though time had stopped. Even anchored in pseudo-gravity, we were all tumbling emotionally. Rudderless. Unmoored. Everyone on the bridge seemed drawn to the same place, somnambulistic, taking lifts inward to the central mast. As we travelled to the core of the ship, the spin-gravity diminished to near-zero, and we pulled our weightless bodies through the ladder-lined structure toward the crow’s nest — a circular room at the apex of the ship with three airlocks around it. The outer doors held the only real windows on the ship. There were seven of us from the bridge. Alexei, Peri, Kaeja and Rye, the captain, Skaii and I, all suited and helmeted — following safety procedures out of sheer routine. We opened all three doors, two people per airlock, and the captain stepped into one with Skaii and me. As the inner door closed, the window-blind mechanism opened, and we saw the ruin with our own eyes.
We’d all seen from our monitors, and yet here it was so much worse. No blue-green world floating in the dark. Just a crescent of rotating detritus, spinning and colliding. Chaotic. Writhing in a mimicry of life. There was no way to see a difference between the rubble of the Earth and that of the extrasolar planet that had struck it. The collision had been direct, and released enough energy to pulverise both planets. Enough to recombine their molten remains into new asteroids, now cooling. Some debris had flown out of the ecliptic into newly eccentric orbits. The oceans had flash-boiled to vapour, and now circled in clouds of frozen dust waiting to coalesce into comets millennia from now.
The early warning for Earth had not been early enough. The albedo of the rogue planet had been so dark that it hadn’t appeared in long-range studies. Its speed had been unprecedented as well. Earth had the technology to nudge asteroids away from collision, but not planets. Nor could we launch eight billion people to safety. What would safety even mean? Where would billions of untrained, space-bound refugees go? Facilities on the moon would support a few hundred perhaps. Mars, two dozen at most. All of these sites still required supplies from home. Our mission had been to look into the unlikely viability of Enceladus for far-future colonisation — to measure the sheering forces of its ice plates, evaluate the use of its water for raising fish and feeding greenhouse crops. And, of course, there was the search for microbes — that endless, fruitless hunt for alien life that still turned up nothing. As far as the crew of the Euripides could tell, Enceladus was as dead as the rest of the solar system.
All of it so much more dead now.
—Is someone opening an outer door? said Skaii.
And I saw it, too: the red beacon flashing against the metal of the mast. Not our door, but one of the others. The captain recognised what was happening before us, shouting No, no, no! Don’t you do it!
He hammered at the controls to open our inner lock. Across the hall, Alexei and Peri did the same, all of us clumsy in the lack of gravity. The captain got there first, banging at the door. Looking past her helmet, I could see Kaeja and Rye floating hand in hand, feet braced against the lip of the open hatch. Kaeja turned, her look lingering, her eyes catching mine. A look of utter sorrow. An empty despair.
—Get it open! I shouted, but it was already too late.
They pushed. They pushed off together — without a tether, without jets, without any means of return. Their hands remained clasped even as they began to spin and tumble toward the distant spray of rubble that was once a planet.
And just for a moment, I wanted to follow. They were going home.
We watched until they grew too small to see.
By the third day, there had been eleven more suicides, five of them from the crow’s nest. The captain posted guards at the lifts to the mast, but people found other ways. Some sealed themselves in their suits and drained the air. One worker in the infirmary overdosed on painkillers. Some simply used a sharp edge. Before the mission to the beach, we’d all been counselled on mental health, on physical health, on gut health and hormonal health, and all the links between them. We were the most stable crew you could hope to build — inured, as much as any psych-eval could manage, against depression. There were multiple protocols in place for those who were struggling. But this? No one had anticipated what the loss of everything-that-ever-was might do to the psyche. We had been cut loose from the shores of the rational, and there was, quite literally, no land in sight.
We tried to do our jobs, but our actions were empty. Our routines robotic. Skaii and I would sit in our quarters as the ship dimmed down for night-cycle, and stare at each other. Then we would stare at the walls. Natia was there between us. A ghost. A dusty form in the air. The Euripides mission had been designed with families in mind. It was another way of keeping things stable. And Natia had been old enough to be a full crew-member. She had the training. She had been to space. But she’d chosen to work with a non-profit committee on improving the working environment for lunar transportation workers. Always trying to save someone, our Natia. We joked that she was “space-adjacent.” Close, but no quasar.
She'd roll her eyes.
Still, we asked her to join. We did. I want to say that we begged her. But neither of us believed in that — in demanding children follow in their parents’ footsteps. And wasn’t it the duty of parents to drive children to pursue their own lives?
Wasn’t it also the duty of parents to protect?
The captain asked Skaii to produce what she called a “comprehensive reconstruction” of the collision. As detailed as possible.
—For what possible purpose?
—Yes, said Skaii. I’ll get on it.
This was Skaii’s specialty — modelling with the AI. Telemetry. Viability. Projections. She was so good at it that Kaeja had nicknamed her Spooky Skaii, for the frightening accuracy she had in predicting ice-sheer events on the Beach, or locating objects beneath its surface.
We already had computer models sent from Earth of course. We had received all the distress messages, the panicked government missives, the international accusations and pleas, the animations of what the collision would look like, the news reports that amplified the slimmest of hopes, even in the face of data to the contrary. For a full year, as we roared back from Enceladus, the AI had hoovered in every signal it could find and stored the recordings and their metadata. There were too many for us to study. It was a deluge of final words. As we accelerated toward the disaster knowing we wouldn’t make it in time — not even knowing why we were trying — the entire planet had struggled and panicked and planned and mourned and cried and hoped and searched for answers and solutions, until there was no more time for solutions. Then the signals crescendoed, and fell silent.
I left Skaii to her work. I knew it was giving her something to focus on. Giving her meaning. Nor was she the only one looking for distraction. I worked with the captain on rosters, on reports, on make-work projects to keep others busy, on arranging a series of interviews between the captain and remaining crew-members.
—To touch base, she said. Just to know who is left.
I began to suspect that the work she gave me was busy-work, too.
More than once, I pulled rank on the lift-guards and told them I needed to go up the mast. Once at the crow’s nest, I would open an inner door and stare out, watching the tumbling debris. I wondered if there were at least eight billion discrete pieces. If we could search our databases for the names of the dead, and spend the remainder of our lives carving each newly formed asteroid into a gravestone for each. Something to mark humanity's passing.
More than once, I found myself whispering Natia’s name into the darkness. More than once, I broke down there, curled up and floated, sobbing in heaving gasps as a child might. More than once, I took off my helmet and held my forehead to the glass. More than once, my hand lingered over the release for the outside door. And every time it did, I stopped, retreated through the inner door, and pulled my body, numb as a carcass, through the microgravity and back down to Skaii.
Skaii’s collision model took three days to compile and was the most ambitious thing she’d ever built. It used all the information we had — from news broadcasts, to radio communications, to telemetry from tens of thousands of resources and everything the ship could see in front of it now. The model allowed us to watch the event from all angles, as the soot-like planet plunged into the solar system from its angle below the ecliptic. The flash of the explosion was dimmed by the AI. The speed infinitely adjustable to microseconds. The earth so utterly complete that you could zoom down to a single shoreline or street and watch, millisecond by millisecond, as the ocean vaporised and houses flew into splinters. All of it in a few instants. And after that, the great release of energy, which not even the AI could model with complete accuracy. But moments later, it could accurately track the debris field, right up to the present moment.
She had not filled her simulated Earth with people.
The bridge crew watched the model in silence. None of us had any recommendations.
It was the end of our second week back. Skaii had gone to sleep — a place I hadn't been able join her for days. So I slipped out of our room, walked slowly to the empty bridge, and ran the reconstruction. I knew where I was going. I adjusted the granularity, and within minutes, found myself staring at the street outside Natia’s apartment. I couldn’t enter, so I stared at the balcony. Her balcony. And I watched as the sky went white, as the building rose on a ripple of asphalt and was flung upward, only to disintegrate in the blast of heat. I watched it again from another angle. I watched it over and over. I watched until it was all I could see, and then I zoomed the scene out to watch it again — this time from the exact point of view of the Euripides crow's nest.
I left the scene paused there when I walked away.
My trip to the mast was unhindered. I had done it so many times now that the guard only nodded and let me pass. I had nothing in my head, no plan. All I could see was Natia’s building torn apart again and again and again. In the window, I imagined her face. Terrified. Accusing. Why hadn’t I insisted? Why hadn’t we taken her with us? I could feel her arms around me at the space-centre before we boarded the bus for launch. The tears in her eyes. I should have held on tighter.
Then I was in the mast, pulling myself hand over hand along its length. Then I was in the nest. Then I was in the airlock, my helmet in my hand. Then the helmet was floating next to me, and my hand rested on the cool handle of the outer hatch. I watched the asteroids slither over and under each other. In my head, Natia's building rose and shattered, and its pieces combined with the shifting debris outside. My hand shook. Shifted.
There was a sharp sound of metal against metal, and I jumped. I looked at the lever. I had not pulled it. Again, the noise. A solid clang, behind me. I turned, and there was Skaii, pounding at the door with her helmet in her hand, a look of desperation on her face.
I opened it, my head swimming.
—I just…I came here to see her, I said.
—I know, she said.
—How did you find me?
—You left the sim running, and I rewound it. I saw what you were watching.
—Then you tracked my suit?
She smiled in the saddest possible way.
—Didn't need to. But you need to come with me. I want to show you something. It's important.
She took my hand, and in that moment I would have let her lead me anywhere — into an embrace, into the debris, into the sun. But first, she drifted forward and gently kissed me. My eyes blurred with tears that wouldn’t drain in the microgravity. Then she pulled at my wrist, dragged me like a doll back along the mast and nudged me into the lift. As it travelled outward, we grew heavy against each other, my eyes clearing finally as I held her. And as we walked blinking into the bridge, the reconstruction was still running.
I balked. Pulled back. I couldn’t watch it again.
—We missed something, she said. I wanted to tell you when I was sure, but I should have told you last night.
And so I stood there at a distance as she ran it. She backed up the time to before the collision. Days before. I hadn’t looked back so far. No one had. She adjusted the zoom to an empty area of space.
—There, she said, pointing. It was a dot. A star, probably. She zoomed and rotated again. The dot became a smear. The smear became a plume of thrust. A ship. A lunar transport. From there she let the AI follow it. It left Earth’s orbit, curved out, circled the moon and landed. Then Skaii moved the view down to the lunar regolith, playing the collision again from the point-of-view of the moon’s surface. The moon had been untouched, but the gravitational forces of the rogue planet had launched it away from of the ecliptic, sending it spiralling into space.
—That’s not possible, I said. How did we miss the ship? The launch communications?
—I don’t know.
I was already at the coms. There were so many thousands of signals at the same timestamp that it would take weeks to go through them all myself. I instructed the AI to start scanning for broadcasts mentioning lunar vehicles, then I switched to the day of the collision and followed the signals to the great tumult that marked Earth’s final moment — that point at which I had always stopped. But this time, I went further. And there was something there. It was garbled. It was faint.
—…two-hun … live … elf-sufficient for a few years … receiving this, we are …
The voice was tinny, twisted and warped, cut by the moon’s tumbling. Possibly male, but impossible to tell. Then another:
—… here if you c— … miss you …
Then another. Higher in tone:
—… are you there? … find coordinates … mom, dad, I hope …
I looked at Skaii. That was the sum-total of the recording. Only those words. But the voice. That voice. Skaii’s face was wide with disbelief.
—It’s her, said Skaii.
—No, I said. It could be anyone. The signal is distorted.
But we saw each other then. Saw what we wanted to believe. What we needed to believe. Natia. On that tumbling moon. Natia on that dusty sister of the Earth. And even if it wasn’t Natia, there were others alive. Alive, in these final hours of our species, these final hours of all life. And that minuscule hope lit us like a newly born sun. We ran. We ran to the captain’s quarters to wake her, whispering our daughter’s name. Whispering Natia.
Thanks for reading. This story was originally shortlisted in a Reedsy.com writing competition. The prompt was: "Write a story that starts with someone returning from a trip." I'm re-publishing it here, because I'm still very fond of it.
As always, sharing on socials is super-appreciated, as are follows, likes, tips and comments written by humans.
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