Sunday Fiction: Terminus

Author’s Note: This fiction was written as part of the Sirius Writing Challenge. I accepted a challenge from Rational Humanist87 to write a short fiction about who or what might be around to witness the end of the Earth. It ended up being longer than I intended (about 3500 words). Writing it was a tremendous adventure for me, as I got to do some research on how scientists think the Sun will eventually destroy the Earth. Like all science fiction, it does involve a bit of conjecture and not more than a little hope. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

At the end, hovering a hundred kilometers above a crusted hunk of nickel and iron dwarfed by the nearby and hungry-looking red giant star, a lone spark of light dangled, immobile. Arriving at its destination on a twenty-thousand light year sojourn, the ten meter long artificial satellite pivoted with pre-programmed thrusters, pointing its forward bay at the planet below and catching another glint of light from a star once known as the Sun. The hull parted to reveal an array of instruments deploying on an artificial arm. Some of them were simple recording devices, others were complex atmospheric pods launching with a pop of charged plasma streams, spiraling outward into concentrically smaller orbits around the planet below. Each was curiously shaped, some star-patterned and some simple ovals in form.

Far underneath the automated preparations of the satellite, the planet once known as Earth burned from the inexorable approach of the system’s Sun. Looking from the vantage of the newly arrived automaton, one could see the planet no longer rotated like it used to, its spinning slowed by eons of gravitational pull and the loss of its Moon. The near side glowed red-hot from the heat of the Sun’s Corona while the far side sat black and cold. Where the two sides met, the rock of the Earth’s crust literally steamed and popped as frigid stone met super-heated lava.

In its current state, one could not tell it was the cradle of civilization and intelligent life. Once oceans and clouds swirled and danced across the surface of this lonely planet. Life teemed above and below the sea. It cradled the life that it spawned for ages, nurturing it with a habitable environment from amino acids to DNA to single-celled organisms and beyond. Tragedies befell the poor mass of iron, nickel, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen, but time and again life grew to reassert itself on its surface. Such a fragile thing, it seemed. And so long ago did the process of life begin.

Billions of years later, the satellite had received instructions to witness the last moments of this dying mass of elements. One might say its mission was sentimental, but the programmed object did not think or feel. It simply acted out its instructions, caring nothing about why or what it beheld in its electronic instruments. Hovering over an area once called the “North Pole,” the object sat and collected the telemetry from its instruments and probes.

Spouts of flame erupted from the nearby giant star, reaching out like the hand of an angry titan swatting away an insect. Such hazards were predicted by the artificers of this simple automaton since the planet now orbited the star only a mere ten million kilometers from the star’s surface. Calculating devices inside calculated where the solar flare would strike. Predicting the jettisoned hydrogen plasma would miss by several million kilometers, no position corrections would be necessary. So it remained still, the light from red-hot plasma reflecting off its perfectly mirrored surface.

One of the probes, designated LOD-V by its programming, was tasked with taking a closer survey of the planet’s surface. Using several different scanning devices, the thirty-centimeter device jetted above the heated surface of the planet at an altitude of five kilometers. Moving at speeds well above twenty-five thousand kilometers per hour, it performed a corkscrew maneuver around the surface and gathered as much data as it could.

The face of the Earth was almost unrecognizable. On the side that faced the Sun, heat and gravity softened and twisted the surface until it resembled the pounded clay after a child’s ministrations. Spouts of molten iron exploded dozens of kilometers upwards, some almost hitting the probe on many occasions.

Skirting through these hazards over to the cool side, the probe found rock there was left untouched after the planet stopped spinning. No longer subject to forces of erosion and atmosphere, the cold side was only slightly distorted and only changed by the impact of a few large meteors. Still, some familiarity persisted even after billions of years of tidal forces, tectonic shifts, and the merciless gravitational pummeling of the Sun.

Dispassionately recording the visible surface just north of the Equator, the instruments caught a raised ridge running from west to east for about four hundred kilometers. Near the eastern edge, a deep gouge ran south for about seven hundred kilometers. Surrounding the entire formation was a vast sea of glass, baked hard and polished when the Sun burned away the Earth’s atmosphere eons ago. Once a massive desert, now it was a remarkably preserved copy of northern Africa.

Of course, the probe did not know or even care about this. It recorded and moved on, making no formal note of what data it collected. Simply returning its telemetry back to the mother satellite, it moved on to record more features of what befell the planet. As it reached western Asia, several massive craters disfigured what was once the Persian Gulf. Scanning the bottom of the largest one, it found small pockets of ice tucked away at the deepest point seventeen kilometers below the surface. If the probe were emotional at all, it might have felt a rush of excitement or a glimmer of hope. Instead, it kept moving and scanning.

Reaching the end of its corkscrew path over the South Pole, the probe changed course and returned to the satellite to await further instructions. The satellite was programmed to perform some analysis of the data it collected, and it began an arduous process of organizing, storing, and reviewing the results from all the instruments and probes. It calculated what elements remained on the planet, when the surface stopped changing of its own tectonic forces, and postulated what had happened to it in the last half-billion years.

Nothing particularly remarkable, it concluded, until it finally arrived at LOD-V’s visual and chemical inspection of the surface.

Finding frozen water was an anomaly specifically searched for via its programming. The computerized brain calculated how much water must exist at the Persian craters, whether any more could exist elsewhere, and then assessed the likelihood that after all this time, some organic matter might still be active. Determining that the likelihood was one in a billion, nonetheless it still began preparations for a more thorough inspection of the craters and the dried bed of the Nile River.

Near the aft of the satellite, another bay opened, its twin doors pushing out to reveal a humanoid robot just under two meters in height. Stored in a fetal position, the satellite fed power to it and began other processes to activate it for duty. Wires programmed it with data from the probes, and inside a minute it reached out a carbon-metal hand to grab one of the bay doors. With its feet, it locked itself into a landing probe, a metallic disk approximately half a meter in diameter. Engines stirred to life, and soon the robot rode the landing probe on a streak of blue plasma flame down towards its first inspection site.

While the robot, designated CID-I by its artificers, made its slow descent, it began testing its own instruments. Flexing its hands, arms, and bending its knees, it determined that all its motor functions were operating within normal parameters. Carbon-steel skin flexed and bent around its metal frame as it moved, the dull almost plastic-like finish glowing red in the light of the dying Sun. The two cameras in its head focused on the giant star, changing filters until it received clear resolution of the roiling surface. Switching between visual spectrum, UV, and infra-red light, it reported back to the satellite that it was fully functional.

When the landing probe descended below the lip of the great Persian crater, CID-I activated a light on its forehead. It took five minutes to reach the bottom of the giant geological feature, and when the robot finished its descent it examined the ground to make sure it could support its weight. Seeing charred rock and heat fissures common to crater impact zones, it stepped off the probe and marched north to where LOD-V found the water.

Underneath the robot’s four hundred kilogram weight, the impressions from its feet left visible tracks on a planet for the first time in half a billion years. Crystallized rock cracked and shattered, leaving dust on CID-I’s carbon-steel skin. It did not notice; it merely continued on until it reached a cave approximately twenty meters wide and five meters tall. Having smooth sides, CID-I assessed the formation to be the remnant of an aquifer that was uncovered by the crater. The robot held up its hand, palm outward, and used a scanning device to sound out the features of the cave mouth.

There was water a hundred meters ahead. Going inside, CID-I marched until the sound of rock under its feet changed to the sound of metal scratching a smooth surface. Looking down, the light from its forehead illuminated the cave like it had snowed inside. Light refracted off the frozen water and sparkled everywhere, like the cave itself was covered in diamond dust. Kneeling down, CID-I extended its left finger to touch the frozen cave floor. Devices inside measured temperature, density, and chemical composition. Then, after these data were collected, the tip of the finger opened to reveal a scraping device that took a sample. Placing the sample in an opening on its right forearm, CID-I waited five seconds for the results.

The water did not support any organic life forms.

CID-I turned around and left the cave more quickly than it came. When outside it summoned the landing probe to him, hopping onto it as it sped by on its plasma thrusters. Locking its feet in place, it commanded the probe to take him to the Nile Fissure. The engines flared, kicking up dust and rock while it launched westward. When CID-I cleared the edge of the Persian crater, it turned its head right to watch the dim, red glow of the Sun illuminate the northern horizon. This close to the Earth’s surface, the direct view of the Sun was obstructed, but still a red haze made everything around it glow.

Picking up speed, it accelerated until it whizzed across a kilometers-wide canyon. Looking down, it examined the terrain for evidence of its destination. Not finding any, it continued its trek westward. A few more minutes passed, and CID-I arrived at a glass plateau, the veritable edge of the glass plains LOD-V inspected hours prior. Slowing down, it descended to one hundred meters altitude and began its search for the Nile Fissure. Scanning back and forth, left to right and right to left, it hesitated and halted at large cracks caused by meteors and the pummeling the other side of the planet endured. It needed to find the correct one…and after a half hour’s investigation it finally came across a kilometer wide chasm. Stretching north to south, it went beyond the horizon in either direction. This had to be it.

Comparing its location data to the satellite, CID-I edged slightly northwest and followed the western edge of what used to be the Nile riverbank. Speeding along now at a twenty meter altitude, the plasma jets heated the glass underneath it red-hot, leaving a glowing trail of where the robot had been. Five kilometers passed, then ten, and then twenty. Programming from the satellite instructed CID-I that there was a feature here it needed to inspect. Switching to a UV spectrum band, the robot scanned and finally located the feature it was looking for.

Barely half a meter out of the glass stood the melted tip of a pyramid’s capstone. It looked like someone poured melted chocolate and molten glass over it, making the shape slightly less angular than it should have been. Only the detailed maps and other instructions the artificers gave the satellite could have successfully discerned what truly existed below the ocean of glass.

As it examined the stone for a means of getting to the structure underneath, CID-I saw the glass around the stone shake violently from a tremor. A full minute later, the glass stopped undulating. CID-I inquired to the satellite for details, and the reply back was that the artificer’s calculations were correct: the Sun was an hour away from destroying the planet.

Hopping off the landing probe, CID-I took out a long, metallic rod from its left torso and held it at an angle to the capstone. Its instructions were clear; it needed to get inside to survey the pyramid was destroyed. Three heavy taps on the rod with its hand split the ancient stone wide open. Underneath was more stone, and the robot kept hacking away at the obstructions like a jackhammer. Ten minutes later, the robot finally pried open an entryway large enough for it to climb through. With no hesitation, it jumped into the Egyptian structure and turned its light back on.

Switching to visible spectrum, the inspection robot found the corridors remarkably well preserved. More importantly, there was atmosphere trapped in the structure, the melted glass acting as the perfect seal. Little dust settled on anything, and the stones were all a pale yellow color. No writing or hieroglyphics were visible to its cameras, but it hopped spectra anyways to provide a detailed set of data for the satellite. Marching forward, CID-I rounded corridor after corridor in search of something very specific. Ten more minutes passed, and the robot finally computed that it was moving around in circles. The prints of its feet kicked up the dust several times over, and it did not know how to continue; the satellite said the structure was more massive than what it had explored thus far. Through the walls it could hear the pyramid rattle as the planet heaved against the gravitational pull of its parent Sun.

Curiously, despite the earthquake it decided to sit down to compute what it should do next. When its posterior rested on the stone floor, its weight cracked open a weakness in the structure. Not built to bear a load as heavy as CID-I, the robot fell through the floor into another chamber about twenty meters cubed. Debris piled onto the robot’s head, burying it under a half ton of rubble. It tried shaking free, and through twenty minutes’ exertion, it extricated itself. Pivoting its head, the robot determined that it had lost functionality of its headlight. Unable to rely on other spectra, it popped open its right ring finger and lit a small flamethrower. Above some more tremors kicked dust off the roof and made the robot’s torch dance.

The red light eerily illuminated the chamber, which by now the robot realized was a burial site for a pharaoh’s family and pets. It must complete its inspection before the pyramid collapsed. Clay jars lined the far wall, some with human heads embossed on the lids, others with the heads of cats. CID-I approached each and began knocking off lids one by one, ten jars in total. It peered inside each one to inspect the various contents meticulously. Nothing.

When it got to the farthest jar, one with a small child’s face looking forward as if it were expecting the robot’s arrival, it smashed the lid off and looked inside.

What it found would have made it stagger if it could feel emotion. Underneath that lid were the wrappings of a mummified child, perhaps someone’s child that died young. Its remains were not intact, but the wrappings were covered in a thin film of black mildew and gray bacterial colonies. Temperatures inside the room were slightly above freezing, just enough for a colony of simple life-forms to survive. There was even some water in the bottom of that jar. This was what it had come for.

Hastily the robot withdrew some webbing from its torso and gently wrapped it around the jar, taking care to include as much local atmosphere that had been trapped with the pyramid as it could. By now the room was shaking more violently, rattling the rocks from the cave in like a rattle. Ignoring these distractions, CID-I inspected the seal for leaks and turned to aim its flame at the ceiling. Finding the opening, it launched its left hand up like a grappling hook while putting out its flamethrower. Grabbing the webbed container, CID-I’s hand found purchase and hauled it back up to the maze above.

Unfortunately the glass surrounding the pyramid became more brittle with each earthquake, shaking the structure loose from its silicate cocoon. Inside, CID-I could not make out a proper trail for it to follow back to its original point of entry. It knew it needed to get out, but it could not waste time searching for an opening. Desperate to complete its task, the robot turned to the wall next to it and began pounding with its left fist. Kicking up dust from broken stone, the robot mercilessly pummeled through the wall until it finally heard a crinkling of glass.

It was outside. Pulling itself through the hole it made and dragging the colony of fungus and bacteria with it, the robot sent a signal for the landing probe to come to it. A hundred meters away, blue flames kicked on and the disc jetted towards its passenger. Hopping on, CID-I signaled to the satellite that it had found what it was looking for. Time was short, as below rays of sunlight glowed ominously through the crumbling crust of the Earth. Climbing away from the Sun, CID-I homed in on the satellite that had broken its geosynchronous orbit. What the inspection robot carried was by far its primary mission, and now all other survey parameters took a secondary priority.

Ten kilometers above the Earth’s surface, CID-I grabbed hold of the satellite and deposited the clay jar inside. Wasting no more time, the robot followed in behind it, curling up so the bay doors could close over it. The satellite saw its trajectory get altered by the diminishing pull of Earth’s gravity, and it tracked a rear facing camera to record what happened next.

As the satellite accelerated away, the Earth began visibly crumbling around the edges. Hunks of iron-nickel crust fell off in pieces thousands of tons in weight. All of it fell upwards towards the angry red giant, like it was devouring the child planet it spawned one awful piece at a time. As each piece got close to the Corona, it glowed white hot and then exploded before impact, kicking up fireworks more luminous than the Sun itself.

A thousand kilometers away now, the satellite could see the planet Earth shudder violently once, then twice, and then crumble apart like it was a glass ball struck with a hammer. In a terrifying display of heat and light the planet dissipated into nothingness, consumed by the star. The last sight of that insignificant planet was of heavy pieces of crust being incinerated by the heat generated from the Sun’s fusion.

Kicking on its interstellar drive, the satellite began tearing away from the red giant in earnest, moving at relativistic speeds. It passed Mars, a globe once terraformed to look like Earth but now just as barren and lifeless as Earth. Maybe in a few million years it would be sent back to examine that planet’s dying moments, but for now it needed to get back to its artificers.

As it passed to the outer solar system, the satellite changed course slightly upwards and to the left, moving on a heading towards Galactic North. It verified its trajectory by communicating with a Galactic Positioning Satellite fifty thousand light years above the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, and from there it engaged its full speed to travel back from whence it came.

Inside it carried the most important legacy of the planet from which it was made. The entire universe was filled with lumps of basic metals and gaseous elements. Stars were born and lived and died, just as the Sun would do eventually. Eons would pass and objects spinning and moving would form and part and move in a cosmic dance that would never end. But here was a truly precious and uncommon thing: chemicals that could live and replicate and evolve. In their endless patterns and forms they took, from microscopic bacteria to gargantuan dinosaurs, they lived and died and became something more than just debris of different classifications strewn amidst the background radiation of the cosmos.

Whether it had meaning, or if nobody had seen and cared, it still had existed. Each life did what it must and was born and lived and was ended. Maybe the artificers sent its satellite to sentimentally spare the universe from snuffing out another form of life. Maybe their curiosity causes them to expand their knowledge of everything around them. Maybe it doesn’t matter why they spared the remaining life on Earth.

Life will do as it always does: persist in the face of hopeless odds. And that is cause enough to rejoice in ourselves.