Last Night on Earth by Steve Haywood
It was a warm, muggy evening in the city, only a week past mid-summer, so the sun hadn’t set just yet. More than anything right then, I wanted to see one last sunset. I wanted to be sitting on a beach somewhere watching the scintillating oranges and reds rippling across the water as the sun disappeared beneath the waves. There was no chance of that here, surrounded by concrete office blocks and high-rise apartments. I’d probably have to walk for miles to get enough open ground to see even the most mundane of sunsets.
Instead, I went to find a bar. I needed alcohol to dull the pain and loss. I walked past several cheap, tacky dive joints, rejecting each in turn. If this was my last drink, I wanted it to be just right. Eventually, I came across a Latin American bar, traditional Brazilian samba music pumping out from invisible speakers. Wrong continent, but it felt as close to home as I was going to get. It was almost empty, with just a couple of guys sat huddled over their drinks.
“What can I get yer?” the barman said.
“I’ll have a pint of beer. Something good.”
“That’d be the Rocky Mountain IPA. Coming right up.”
“It’s my last night on Earth,” I said, trying to make conversation while he was pouring my pint.
He just grunted in such a way that implied he’d heard that a lot lately. “Yer goin’ on the Earthlight are yer?”
“That’s right. Taking the shuttle up tomorrow.”
“How’s it feel?”
“How’s what feel?”
“Yer know, last night on earth. Never seein’ this place again?”
“Kinda hard, you know? I thought I was ready for it. There isn’t a lot for me here. Harder than it looks though.”
“Where yer from anyway?” the man asked as he placed a frothy pint in front of me.
“Mali originally. Left there when I was eight, though. Part of the big migration. Too damn hot to grow anything, precious little water. Then moved to Canada with my ma and pa and two sisters.”
“You remember much of it?”
“Some. Impressions mainly. The hot sun, unrelenting. The cracked, dry earth. Great sandstone cliffs. People used to make their homes in those cliffs, strangest thing you ever saw, now I come to think of it.”
“Yer don’t look African, if yer don’t mind me sayin’.”
I glanced down at my navy slacks and salmon-coloured shirt. “I’m not really, I suppose. More Canadian now. The elders, they tried to keep the customs going, wore the traditional dress, that kind of thing. It was difficult though, fitting in. I just wanted to be like everyone else in the neighbourhood.”
I took my leave of the barman and went to sit outside, facing the street. I liked to people watch, to try to guess what their lives were like. Tonight though, all I could think about was my own life. It was a common enough story: lots of migrants moving in, not enough jobs to go around. My father worked for a while before that dried up, then he just collected the UN handouts. By the time I was leaving school, I knew there wasn’t a lot for me to do. So, I drank a lot, spent as much time as I could in VR game worlds, and that was about it. Until a random lottery gave me the chance of a lifetime.
“Hey.” I looked up to see one of the other drinkers coming over to me. “Did I hear you say you were going up to that ship?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Damn waste of money, you ask me. They’re just doing it to absolve their consciences, those selfish rich bastards. What they doing about all of us left behind? Not a damn thing, that’s what. What’s ten thousand against ten billion?”
Not a lot, I agreed.
“What they need is to ship all you folk up in your millions. Mars, the moon, it don’t matter. Then there’d be ’nuff food and jobs for the rest of us. This is our land, has been for hundreds of years. Not our fault yours is all getting burned up. No offence intended of course.”
“No offence taken,” I lied. I didn’t want to start a fight, not on my last night. I quickly downed the last of my drink. “Gotta be going, spaceship to catch.”
As I walked off down the street, I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of it all. This great, grand gesture, this modern-day Noah’s ark, was supposed to bring the peoples of the world together. People from every country and culture on Earth would be represented on the Earthlight; a melting pot showing off the harmony of the human race. Back on Earth though, people were dying in the millions of hunger, thirst, and disease. Tempers were reaching the boiling point. While we were helping start a new beginning, what were we leaving behind?
I wandered aimlessly along identikit streets, still lost in thought, when I came suddenly to the entrance to a park. Glad to get away from all the buildings, I walked across the threshold. It’s amazing how you can be in the middle of a big city and yet when you go into one of those urban parks the city falls away and you feel you are a world away. That’s how it felt now. By this point, the sun had set without me, infusing the sky with an orange glow. There was a gentle warm breeze that caused a rustling in the trees all around. It was like they were whispering a mournful farewell. As I looked up, I could see the dark shapes of hundreds of small birds moving to and fro, settling on their perch for the night.
I found myself sitting on a bench in the middle of the park. All was silent apart from the whistling of the wind in the trees. I inhaled the gentle scent of orange blossom mixed with freshly mown grass. Not so very long ago, the air would have been polluted with petrol fumes and other odious gases from industrial chimneys, but today the air was clear. It was ironic really, the great environmental calamities of the last century had brought the earth to the brink of destruction: the warming temperatures, the droughts, the rising sea levels, the shattering of the planet’s fragile ecosystem. The city, though, benefited from the switch to green energy and the banning of polluting cars and factories. Too late to save my home, but not too late to give me one last night of clean, pure air.
It was funny, though; in this city of all places, I suddenly felt a deep connection to the earth, to the natural world. It had never bothered me before, but on my very last night, the sensation was almost overpowering. Why now, just mere hours before my connection to Mother Earth would be severed forever? Why is it that you never appreciate anything until the end, until it is far too late? Growing up, I’d felt rootless, never knowing who I was supposed to be. Was I supposed to be Malian or Canadian? It had always bothered me, but now I realised who I was; I was a child of Earth. If only it hadn’t taken me until my very last day here to figure that out.
I wandered some more in that quiet park while the dusky twilight turned into the inky blackness of true night. There was no moon but there were a thousand stars twinkling in the firmament. I’m coming, I said softly. I might have to say goodbye to Earth, but the stars were coming to claim me as their own.
I slowly made my way out of the park, stopping only to touch a great oak tree near the entrance, my hand flat out, palm resting on the gnarled bark, rooting myself in the world for the last time. I gave one final look around before leaving the park, serene in the darkness, and made my way through the still busy streets to my hotel room. I thought I’d lie awake a while, but I was tired and barely had my head hit the pillow before the silky blanket of sleep claimed me.
The alarm woke me with a high-pitched wailing like a dozen angry hyenas. “Shut up, alarm off,” I moaned in sleepy irritation. The alarm ceased, only to be replaced by the ceiling screen turning on and filling my vision with bright pictures and a cheerful man telling me about the breakfast options in the hotel. With a wave of my arm I turned that off too, and, for a time, there was quiet. I briefly wondered what would happen if I just lay there and didn’t get up. Would it all go away, and I could stay here, or would they send someone for me? It was a futile thought, because I knew the answer even before I’d finished formulating the question. I’d sealed my fate long ago. Reluctantly, I swung my legs out of the bed and got up.
Four hours later, I was strapping myself into my seat on the near-earth Orion Mark V transport ship and not long after, we were off. I’d been on rather a lot of trips into orbit over the last few years as part of my training, but it never seemed to get any easier. Gravity was a monster at anything above three Gs, and with the acceleration of this thing, it felt like some mythological giant was first stamping on you and then squeezing the life out of you with meaty hands the size of dustbin lids. Not fun. I squeezed open heavy-lidded eyes to peer round the rest of the cabin, and the passengers I could see looked at least as uncomfortable as me. A woman across the aisle looked like she was going to be sick, her almost black hair spilled out of her head wrap and clung to her face, damp with sweat. Our gazes met and I gave her a weak smile of encouragement before I shut my eyes again and clung tightly to the seat.
I might have been prepared for the Earth orbit transfer, but nothing could have prepared me for the view out of my portside window a few hours later. The vessel U.N.S. Earthlight was huge, the largest manmade structure I’d ever set eyes on. I’d seen photos of course and knew the specs—over two kilometres long, seventy-five decks, the largest ocean-going cruise liner ever built would have fit into one corner—but the scale of it was unbelievable when seeing it for real. Soon, it would be home to over ten thousand people, and I would be one of them.
The transport ship finally docked and once all the safety checks were completed, we disembarked. The First Officer was waiting for us along with several other crew members.
“Welcome aboard your new home. My colleagues here will show you to your cabins. Make yourself comfortable: this is going to be your home for a very long time.”
As we followed the crew member who’d been assigned to my group, we walked down a long corridor away from the docking bay. There were a couple of large windows, or at least they looked like windows; they might have been ultra-high-res viewscreens for all I knew. Outside, a giant blue-green orb filled my vision, and I felt an immediate surge of homesickness. Before now it hadn’t felt real. When I signed up, it had all felt like one big adventure, now not so much. Even last night, it hadn’t felt like it was really happening. Mentally I knew, but emotionally I had not grasped the immensity of it all. I suddenly felt sick and wanted to claw at the walls to escape, never mind the vacuum outside. I would never set foot on Earth again, and if all went to plan, I would never set foot on any planet for the rest of my life. I was a voyager between the stars now.
Slowly, I calmed myself and tried to remember why I’d started down this path in the first place. I couldn’t quite remember, but it had something to do with the human race. That was it: I’d done it so that one day the descendants of the passengers here—maybe even my grandchildren if I found anyone who could stand me long enough to have children with me—would walk on another Earth, orbiting another star. Though my dead-before-it-started career and the series of emotional fucks-up that was my love life (or lack of it) probably had something to do with my reasons for leaving. Whatever my subconscious motives were, they all dissolved into insignificance compared to the sheer immensity of what I’d done to my life.
“Hi, you look about as happy as I do right now,” a soft, quiet voice said. I looked up to see the woman from the journey here now less green and a lot prettier. “I’m Amina,” she said with a shy smile.
“Hi, I’m Jabari,” I said. “Sorry, was in a world of my own, just then.”
“Let me guess, you were thinking, ‘what the hell have I done?’”
I laughed. “Yeah, that’s about the size of it. How’d you know, was it that obvious?”
“Not at all, it’s what I was thinking too.”
I fell into step beside her and we carried on talking. Normally I go all shy at that point, but this felt different somehow. Suddenly, it didn’t seem to matter where I was, nor what had happened on Earth. The past was the past, but I had my whole future ahead of me.
Steve Haywood lives in a small historic city in England. He has a distinctly uncreative day job, so likes to write to exercise his creativity. As well as writing short fiction, he blogs about short stories, novels and assorted topics at his blog. He can also be found on Twitter, where he regularly tweets to share stories he likes with anyone who will listen.