The world ended while I slept.
My co-pilot Jeff and I were in orbit tracking solar anomalies that had been cropping up over the past few weeks. Most recently we had been monitoring a massive flare that hit two days ago. We’d been in space a bit over two weeks at this point.
We had a two man craft that was stocked with enough fuel, rations, water and sundries to keep us aloft for a month. There was also a two bed crew compartment in the back of the cockpit.
I was enjoying a nap, not even dreaming; just drifting between states of consciousness. I felt a hand shaking my shoulder and heard my name being called. I reluctantly opened my eyes and sat up. Jeff had a worried look on his face. “What’s up?” I asked.
“I’ve lost contact, Chris.”
I was still a little groggy. “Lost contact with whom?” I thought for a second; looked at the clock. “We’re in the Earth’s shadow. We lose direct contact with Houston all the time. There must be a delay in one of the relay satellites.”
He was getting upset. “You don’t understand. I’ve lost contact with everyone! All I get is static on both voice and telemetry. I can’t raise either of the space stations or any other ships in orbit.”
“Did you check our equipment?”
“Three times; our equipment is fine. No transmissions are coming in.”
I pushed past him and sat in the pilots’ seat. He knows I’m a bit on the anal side, so he floated quietly behind me while I ran equipment checks twice myself. “Damn,” I said, getting a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach “everything checks out; nothing but static being received.”
“Maybe the flare activity is getting worse.”
I shuddered, thinking about the amount of radiation we might be exposed to. The ship had good shielding, but some flares where just too powerful. We would have to rely on the agility of our ship to stay in the shadow of the Earth for protection if that were the case. “What are the radiation levels outside?”
“Elevated, over 300 MeV. The shields are blocking almost everything coming in and we’re deep in the shadow cone of the Earth. We’re protected from anything short of a nova.”
I said, “Don’t even go there!”
He looked hurt. “I wasn’t trying to be funny. Something’s going on and I don’t mind telling you its scaring me.”
That comment matched my own state of mind. Somebody should have responded. “Have you looked at Earth yet?”
“No, I thought I’d get you up before we moved the ship.”
“Let’s get to it, then.” I said.
Jeff strapped himself into the co-pilot’s chair. When he was set I programmed the ship to rotate the ship toward Earth. What we saw didn’t thrill us. We were currently in an orbit over the northern Afghanistan border; part of our schedule involved visiting a couple of Russian satellites in about ten hours. The ship was keeping us stable with small bursts of the engines and thrusters, since we weren’t high enough for a geostationary orbit.
From our altitude of a bit over thirty-six hundred kilometers, we should have been able to see the lights of the cities on the Persian Gulf and other cities likeNew Delhi and Islamabad. But all we saw was darkness.
I looked to Jeff and said “Whatever happened, it was bad enough to knock out power all over the world.”
“It might be another flare, even bigger than the last one. Maybe…” But before he could finish his sentence the dark globe below us lit up with a dazzling array of colored lights, and the horizon lit up like God’s own flashbulb.
He asked “What the hell is going on?”
“It has to be a coronal mass ejection!” I said, “That’s the only thing I can think of that could produce an aurora that bright. It must be huge!” The readings were off the charts, and our equipment could measure up to 10 GeV. My mind raced around the fact that something this massive would cause untold amounts of damage. The Earth was being hammered with a rain of death; the ecosystem might not recover for a thousand years. We both looked at the monitors showing images of one of the space stations and several of the satellites. As we watched, the light from the Sun grew brighter and brighter. The ship’s filtering system compensated as best it could, but the light was almost unbearable.
“It can’t just be a CME, no matter how powerful it was. It has to be a nova!” He was hoarse, barely able to speak.
But we watched. We watched as everything we saw in orbit melted and blew away like a snowball hit with the exhaust from a jet engine. We kept watching as our world ended.
“Chris…” He started, but his voice caught in his throat.
“I know. It’s over, all over.” I felt my eyes water with tears. We looked at the Earth. It was clouded over completely. There was no way anyone was alive down there.
“How long do you think we have? Hours, minutes? When the shockwave hits it’ll obliterate the planet and us with it.”
“What can we do? We can’t just sit here and wait for the end!”
“There’s no other option! No alien race swooping in at the last second to save some of us. Nothing short of Divine Intervention can change what just happened. Face it, we die in a little bit.”
“But we can last until then right?”
“What’s the point?” I lost it, yelling at him. “Everybody is gone! We’re just two men in a tin can. Maybe if one of us was a woman, we could go out with a bang. But that’s not going to happen.” I found myself getting hysterical. “We just die, end of story. End of all the stories! Now just shut up and leave me alone for a while! I want to face my end in peace.”
We sat quietly in our respective seats. Jeff was staring out the windshield at Earth, sobbing. I was thinking about what I had just lost. My wife and I had a strained relationship the past couple of years; we stayed together because of the kids. We had twin boys whose tenth birthday was next month. But their birthday would never come. And my marriage was over. These things seemed more important to me than my own impending death and the loss of the entire world. I sat for a few minutes going over my life; it wasn’t a remarkable one. The usual childhood, wild times as a teenager, military service, then becoming an astronaut. All of this interspersed with women and drinking; thinking about this just made me tired. I sighed and turned to Jeff.
“I don’t want to wait any longer. I’m taking us around sun-side. Anything you want to talk about before I do?”
He just shook his head and kept crying. I felt a strange calm over take me as I fired up the engines and flew the ship to meet our final dawn.