Haddon Brooks, a poet, stood in the last city of the Earth, waiting for the word impact to come from space. He was being recorded. What he saw, how he felt, all the sounds and smells and smallest touches of the death of his world went up and out to the ships as they began the final journey to new homes somewhere in the stars. His vital signs were being monitored, thalamic taps carried his thoughts and transmitted an the colors of what lay around him, to be stored in memory cassettes aboard the ships. Someone to report the death of the Earth, had been the short of it, and from that can for a volunteer he had been winnowed from the ten thousand applicants.
Ten thousand masochists, voyeurs, harbingers of destruction, possessors of the death-wish, psychotics, chill analytical thinkers, fanatics, true believers and those who thought they were cameras. From ten thousand he had been chosen, because he was a poet and on this occasion perhaps only the eyes of a certain dreamer could be depended upon to relay the event with enough magic for the generations of children who would be born in space or on distant worlds circling unknown suns. He had volunteered not because he was a man bereft of sense or survivors but because he was a man with too much to live for. He had a wife whom he loved, he had children who adored him, he had peace and genius and was content with his gifts. Such a man could feel the anguish of losing the racial home. So he had volunteered, knowing he was correct for the task, and they had chosen him from the ten thousand because it was clear that he could sum up final moments with order and beauty.
The city was still alive. It had been kept so for him. All the others had been melted down for their fissionable materials. The cities had become the great Orion ships, three million tons each, shaped like the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, with slightly conical pusher-plates under them.
The cities, taken to the stars by hydrogen bomb explosions under the pusher-plates, one per second for seven minutes to achieve Earth orbit… and then the Orions sent to all points of the astrolabe, to seed Man through the dark. The cities were gone, and their going had contaminated the Earth's atmosphere beyond purification. But it did not matter: the Earth would die within the hour.
He stood in the center of the arts rotunda, the last works of Konstantin Xenakis forming and re-forming across the dome, silver and gold threads patterning a hundred times a minute, and the small-but very clear, very distinct-voice of the Orion fleet flagship spoke in his head.
"It's on the way. An hour, perhaps."
Brooks found himself looking up when answering. "Have you been getting what I'm sending?"
"Yes, I'm sorry. That's what I meant. Copying."
The voice from space grew milder. "No, ]'m sorry. So used to techtalk… you just put it any way you want, Mr. Brooks.
"We're getting it all. Very clearly. It's fine, just fine. I didn't mean to interrupt you, just wanted you to know there was no change."
The voice, and any whisper of its presence, vanished from his head, and he knew he was alone once more. Alone-with the entire population of the Earth listening, watching.
He strolled out of the rotunda and stood on the speakers' shelf overlooking the pastel gardens.
"The sky is very blue," he said. "I've never seen it so blue. Water, all the way to Heaven. But there are no birds." His eyes recorded everything: the swaying trees that picked up the breeze and passed it on. Their colors, merging one into another with delicate softness.
"Here is a poem for you, whomever."
He composed swiftly, the lines falling into place in his mind an instant before he spoke them.
Vastator, the destroyer from the cold,
Eating time at fifty thousand kilometers per second,
I won't even see your approach.
Outer dark sent you, my Sun hides you,
And when your hunger takes you past
You will drop only eight minutes of leftovers
From your terrible table.
He shook his head. It was an inadequate piece of work. He tried to make amends : "The buildings are like metal grain in the sunlight. Pinpoints of light flickering like novae in crosstar filters. They are very lovely. But there are no sounds of people. The city seems to be waiting for your return. Poor dumb thing, a dog that doesn't know its master has died. It will wait until it dies, too. Did you ever understand that cities only live with people in them?"
He pressed the stud on his floater pack and rose slowly from the shelf. The central gardens of the city did not end abruptly, but diffused themselves into the main arterial passages leading away from the center. No street was empty of life, even now. He floated over the commercial center.
"The robots continue their work," he said. "Little persons of metal and plastic. I've always had a good feeling about them. Do you know why? They ask so little, and they do so much. They're so kind no one would think of being cruel to them, so they lead the best of lives. They are content in their work. Even with all of us gone, they keep the wheels of commerce turning. How fortunate we were to have had them working with us."
He floated lower, passing the news kiosk at the comer of Press Street Hologram Avenue. It was recapping the final statements of the astronomers. Brooks hovered and listened to the kiosk's pleasant voice: it was the voice of Tandra Mellowe, the holo personality.
"The planet-sized body moving in on our Sun from interstellar space is roughly three hundred and twenty-five times the mass of the Earth, making it somewhat greater than that of Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System. In diameter it is approximately 91,000 miles and, because of its collision course with the Sun, has been named Vastator, from the Latin meaning destroyer. Preliminary calculations indicated the asteroid would hit the Sun directly, boring in at a thirty degree angle. However, as the body nears, revised computations advise Vastator will only graze the Sun, tearing off a great piece of the corona. Unfortunately, this will not affect what will happen to the Earth. The spray of radiation-chiefly high-energy protons and helium nuclei-will strike the Earth as the Sun sprays the heavens. All life will be first sterilized and shortly thereafter vaporized by the solar storm. The soil will melt and fuse into a glaze, and the oceans will begin to boil. It will be approximately eight minutes before the sight of what has happened to our Sun reaches the Earth, but no one will be here to see it. No one except Haddon Brooks, the well-known poet…"
Brooks rose and went away from there.
He sailed over the hundred lakes, joined by their floater locks. Small boats and catamarans drifted across their surfaces idly. "Sunday strolling," he said, and went over unseen.
"I am above the ghettos now. They remind me of verses from Mother Goose. It must be fine to be a member of a minority, to know where you came from, and what certain words that cannot be translated completely mean. No one could have been happy here. Deathbeds of illusion. Invisible walls. These were the hollows where men and women gave themselves to yesterdays so their children might have tomorrows. But I cannot be sad about them. They knew a kind of love hidden from the rest of us. Where you go now, to whatever new places, make sure you leave room for those who need that specialness; we cannot all be the same, it isn't even right that we should be."
He soared to the highest levels of the residence shelves, passing through byways and underpassing flying bridges, skimming over slideways and casting his long shadow over the pebbled surfaces of walls and other walls. Sloping outer surfaces and sudden apertures. Concavities and tunnels fit for the needs of those who liked cool, dark places where the scent of gardenias still lingered. He stopped in a tiny forest of bonsai and tried to compose another poem, this one for his wife.
"This may not be right, Calla, but it's the best I can do right now… I find my thoughts split. I want to say something special to you and the children, but time is growing short and it serves me right if I've left any love or respect for you unsaid after all this time. You were the best moments for me, the brightest colors, the deepest sighs, the sweetest sugar of life. You were always what I was afraid I'd never be worthy of. But I'm content now; I held your love. Oh, hell, my love, my best, I can't compose a poem now. Forgive me, but all that come to mind are another man's words. He was called Randall Jarrell and he lived a hundred years ago and never saw the stars from Mars or looked into the burning heart of our poor Sun from the quicksilver domes of the Moon, but he knew my love for you and he said,
'But be, as you have been, my happiness;
Let me sleep beside you, each night, like a spoon;
When, starting from my dreams, I groan to you,
May your I love you send me back to sleep.
At morning bring me, grayer for its mirroring,
The heavens' sun perfected in your eyes.'"
Then he heard the voice in his head that
called the end.
"Mr. Brooks, impact."
His breath froze in his nostrils.
The voice again, caught in a sob. "Oh my
God, it's beautiful, so terrible…"
And he knew he had eight minutes.
A strange prickling assaulted his flesh and he cried out to Calla, far away aboard an Orion, "I'm done… there can be no other …" And he stopped himself; he knew there were less than four hundred and eighty seconds and he had to tell it all, tell it so well the children of Earth would always be able to draw on his cassette with his visions and words and dreams on them.
He settled within himself, leaped from the shelf and went down to stand in the silver street where he would spend his last moments.
Haddon Brooks spoke then, of the living space that had finally come to hold the dearest hopes of humankind. He spoke of the caverns beneath the pulsing city where energy was channeled into light and heat and rain that would fall when the women called for rain. He spoke of the racetracks where adventure could still be found in trying to beat sound waves as they raced to targets. Of the oceans that had been calmed so men could sail across without fear. He spoke of the best of people and the ways in which humans had come to know themselves well enough to laugh at the thought wars were inevitable.
This had been the city in which he had been born, in which he had found the words to make his songs, where he had met and joined with Calla, where the children had grown from their bodies; the city where he would become vapor at the final moment. Some of it was even poetry, but not much.
"I'm afraid, up there. I'm afraid of my vanity to be the last one here. It was foolish, oh how I want to go with you now. Please forgive me my fear, but I want so much to live!"
If there had only been time. He was chagrined for just a moment that he had let them down, had failed to do what he had been left behind to do. But that lasted only a moment and he knew he had said as much as anyone could say, and it would be right for the children of the dark places, even if it took them a thousand years to find another home.
Then he turned, as the seconds withered, knowing the solar storm had drenched him and any moment he would vaporize. He looked up into the water-blue sky, past the blinding sun that suddenly flared and consumed the heavens, and he shouted, "I'll always be with you-" but the last word was never completed; he was gone.
Soon after, the seas gently began to boil.
Los Angeles, California/1972