Last and Alone

I roll onto my back. The scrap of sharp shell falls from my hand.

Blue. So blue.

Earth’s sky wasn’t so blue since I was very young. Not since before the prolong treatments. Before the q-core processors, cognitive upload samplers and cloned bodies made us immortal. Before the superstorms. Before the blue-green algae mutations, and the poison clouds of acid rain. Before we killed ourselves and our world.

An insect chirps, somewhat like a cricket, but deeper and slower. A cross between a cricket and a bullfrog. Intermittent – like there’s only one of them, not a whole chorus. Odd. Save the rush of the wind, it’s very quiet. This body has so few senses, not like The Titan. I miss the tingle of cosmic rays across my skin, the coruscating shimmer of infrared and ultraviolet through the interstellar medium, the deep pulse of x-rays, the whispering songs of radio, the burnt charcoal smells of stars and the silent, rushing power of the drive.

These eyes see only one direction at a time.

For a few seconds, I let them see only blue. I want to feel that wind over my skin like I did when I was young. It’s strange to hear but not feel, like I’m playing a game.

Deep in the eye-blistering blue, faint points of light scratch white scars, radiating from somewhere south, and very far away. I turn my head, arching my neck inside the helmet to see. Frazzled strands of black hair partly block my vision.

The horizon in that direction rises to a line of mountains – jagged peaks tipped white with ice, such as has not decorated the peaks of earth mountains in my lifetime. Above those peaks fiery veins like comets rise into the sky, climbing the outside of a column of dark smoke a sixth the width of the horizon. Lightning and fire flash in that boiling haze.

“Cortex, load planetary impact analytics.”

“Planetary impact analytics ready.”

“Identify my distance from the impact I’m seeing.”

“Recording video. Analyzing. Current altitude not available. Use best guess?”

“Yes.”

I watched about a third of The Titan float way in the silence of void. It was shaped like a coffin, with the semiconductor material of its internal circuitry a near black, and its diamond armored skin trailing stars. It might have struck this planet. If it struck hard enough, the planet will die.

“Judging by the horizon line and rate of ejecta spread at best guess atmospheric densities, you are roughly 2320 kilometers from that impact. Seismic effects will arrive in 2 minutes 13 seconds. Ejecta will arrive in 8 minutes 26 seconds. Airblast will arrive in 116 minutes 38 seconds. Your implants are not responding, should I remind you audibly?”

“Yes. Is that impact from wreckage of The Titan? Could it have been accelerated so much?”

“Insufficient information.”

But I know the answer is yes. I saw the flash like a smaller, longer big bang as The Titan slipped between universes in a blaze of light, and in the afterglow, the shining storm of its wreckage launched at this planet like a shotgun blast of shooting stars. Other parts went other ways, but the big chunk went here.

I sit up. My body aches and the bones in my left arm slide against each-other. Tears and sweat stick to my face and my scalp itches. I don’t have to pee anymore. I must have, during the crash. Salt and dust fill my mouth and my gums ache in that distant way that says the painkillers are still working.

“Tell me about the seismic effects,” I say, watching the distant cloud spread in slow motion. Above it, a cascade of high-altitude ejecta re-enters the atmosphere to burn momentary lines of light. Despite the fear curling in the left side of my chest, my lips almost smile. Those brief fires seem familiar – the matchstick lives of missiles, meteors, and humans, spending themselves against the sky.

I’m surrounded by the faintly rolling hills of an alpine plateau. Mountains in every direction make a jagged toothed bowl. Alternating patches of different colored plant life collage the hillside, equal parts thin bladed grass the color of wild rose and darker blobs of something that grows in a matted tangle of fine fingers of a slightly darker hue. My pod cut a long scar in that turf. Tufts of sod peel away from that scar like skin, exposing a rocky, red dirt underneath. The pod plowed to a halt against the slope of an exposed dune of finer soil, almost sand. Similar mounds poke from beneath the blanket of grass here and there along the plateau. Up the hill a little way stands a wide spire of some more tough stone, sturdy and weathered. At its base I can see the mid-afternoon sun glinting off the face of a pool of liquid. Probably water, judging by this planet’s abundance of that substance.

The Cortex answers me: “Richter scale: 9.8. At current distance of 2317 km, will upset loose objects or simple structures, human observers will notice minor shaking, and will be woken if asleep.”

“Well that’s not too bad,” I frown, “I doubt there’s anyone to be too bothered. But the shake could still trigger volcanic activity and landslides.”

“Insufficient information.” The Cortex answers.

I catch myself waiting. “Tell me about the ejecta.”

“Mean Fragment Diameter: 155 microns. Average Ejecta Distributed Thickness: 7.13 mm.” Its answers are always prompt, like it knows more than me and wishes I’d asked sooner.

“A light snow. Enough to block out the sun for a while, but probably not enough to wipe out all life.”

“Insufficient information.”

“Yes I know. What about the air blast?” I want to do something, not just sit here watching the impact cloud spread, but it’s pointless to act until I’ve gathered information.

“Peak Overpressure: 21,900 Pa. Max wind velocity: 47.4 m/s. Sound Intensity: 87 dB.”

“A little bit breezy.”

Strong enough to knock me tumbling if I’m not braced or under cover. At those speeds, the air-blast will most certainly dislodge further debris in the mountains, and may overturn or bury my shelter, or myself.

My sigh is loud in my ears. Priorities: Water, shelter, food. In that order. Complication: major extra-planetary impact may endanger all local life.

I count breaths. No-one responds. No vote. My heart leaps in momentary panic. My fingers clench grass. The voice of the wind doesn’t form a consensus, or even words. The collective is gone. I will not hear their voices again. I know this. I breathe the knowledge into my body.

“Cortex, load program Caruso.”

“Caruso, for use when a crew member has been stranded on-“

“I said load, not describe.”

“Program Caruso activated. Unpacking. Caruso standing by.”

“Upload the Caruso schematics to this fabricator.” The thing lays like a bit of driftwood in the rose-colored grass. I wonder how sharp the blades are, how they’ll feel against my skin.

“Yes Ma’am. Connecting.” Somebody programmed Cortex to sound happy when attempting to make a wireless connection. It’s first emotion. “Connection failed.” It seems disappointed.

“Why?”

“My best guess? This fabricator’s wireless network access components are damaged. I’d recommend initiating manual repair diagnostics. I can narrate a checklist if you’d like?”

Cortex seems… perky.

“No.” I hoist the fabricator onto my shoulder. Its weight settles my feet deeper into the flora, but with the servos in my exosuit joints, the drag from those fingers doesn’t slow me. I wonder if this body has strength enhancements, or for that matter any genetic tailoring at all. I never had time to ask. Rapid gestation and maturation would be standard, as well is increased bio-immunity and better oxygen metabolism, giving longer life and improved aerobic fitness. Many things are possible beyond that, from digestive tuning to match alternate diets to zero-g fitness through nano laced tear and mucus ducts, bone strengthening and digestive facilitation. I hope that this body does not have those enhancements. Nano weaves designed to facilitate mucus evacuation in zero-g (a job normally done by gravity) would be tremendously annoying in gravity, it would lead to a very dry nose and very clogged throat.

“Cortex, this soil looks volcanic and these mountains look young. Can you verify?”

“I sure can. Recording video. Analyzing. Interesting. We don’t seem to have enough information. For example, the mountain ridges are sharp, suggesting they’re still growing, but we don’t know very much about the atmosphere or rates of rain-fall and seasonal temperature shifts which would be the main controls on how quickly they erode. We haven’t been here long enough yet to gather the data we’d need to run useful simulations. I’ve been working on that for less than a minute. What do you say, should I keep at it?”

My eyes sting and I want to lay down in this grass again, but this biology is full of adrenaline, and its survival still hangs in the balance.

“Cortex,” I ask, examining the geology around me, “Why do you suddenly sound like a chipper young male?”

I set out for the spire.

“Well, maintaining mental health requires emotional exchange.” He replies, thoughtfully. “Program Caruso includes a personality construct with an array of useful and affirming behaviors which will be deployed based on your psychological needs. That’s me! On another note, your current position seems to be reasonably secure from landslides.”

“I know, Cortex.” My boots crash through the thick grasses which, though tightly woven, give way before my shins. I’m either very strong, or the plants are very weak. “But I want to get into the lee of that spire before the shockwave hits.”

“Great idea! That seems like a perfect place to hunker down!”

Pillars of smoke slowly thicken over the mountains in every direction. The flash from that distant impact may have ignited fires in places where the foliage was more dry. Lucky for me this plateau doesn’t seem to be burning, or even smoking, though now I look, I can see a little haze here and there.

Add wildfire to the list of ways I might die.

“Cortex, are you using my optics?”

“Yes Ma’am. Would you rather I didn’t?”

“Yes. Deactivate the personality construct. I need to preserve power.” Even as I say that, I know the construct doesn’t use a meaningful amount of power. I just don’t feel like having a chipper sidekick at the moment. His babble sounds over the silence of too many voices.

Despite the assistance from the suit, my breath comes with more and more difficulty and the weight of the fabricator presses hard into my shoulder. My left arm starts to sting, and so does a strip of flesh from my left buttock to my right shoulder, where a bolt of electricity slid across my skin when I was still half-conscious on the floor of that shattered birthing chamber back on The Titan. That burn shears with phantom heat as the muscles under it heave with the effort of running.

“Are you sure?” Worry makes the Cortex voice rise a few notes. “I can’t make suggestions if you turn me off, and mental degradation is possible after only a few days in isolation.”

“I’m sure,” I grunt through gritted teeth as my foot sinks into a hole in the uneven terrain.

I stumble but don’t fall. Each step launches me further than it ought to in the 0.9 Gs of gravity.

“Okay, well turn me back on when you need me,” Cortex chirps, then falls silent.

I come into a shadow. For an instant my heart leaps with panic at the thought it must be the ejecta cloud arriving early, but it’s the shadow of the stone I was running to get behind.

I move past that shadow, putting the spire between me and the spreading apocalypse to the south. Though the stone stands fifty times my height, it still seems like holding up my thumb and imagining it might block the moon.

In the fabricator’s internal memory I find schematics for an earthquake resistant shelter. The Caruso codex would have more and better options; this one’s designed for generic, any-world and multi-purpose use. It looks like a long-legged spider with an ovoid body. Good. The legs will get me up out of the ejecta carpet and provide a wide, almost unflipable base. If I build it in the shadow of something stable, like this spire, it will provide as much security as one could hope for.

The fabricator exudes its silken strands and they weave themselves in a web, bulge, spread and pulse, and then harden. Air rushes past as the nanites leach carbon. I’ve run its reservoir to half empty. From now on I’ll have to find multiple uses for everything I make.

The spider shelter rises before me. Its carapace groans and cracks as it hardens, then the fabricator chirps.

A few late pops rush to catch up with the rest and then it’s silent. The ‘mouth’ is a hatch, with a ladder tongue. I climb up. The three meter ladder is higher in real life than it was in my imagination when I reviewed the schematic. My left arm should hurt. I stop, hanging from the third to last rung. Oh, yes, the exosuit is supporting the weight. I must be getting tired. Adrenaline wearing off? It hasn’t been long enough. My head feels light, almost sleepy.

It’s been a while since I dreamed.

A lever inside the doorway brings the ladder up behind me on easy gears. The shape of the door suggests if I pull it closed, it will seal and remain airtight. The design included passive CO2 scrubbers to keep the air inside breathable. It has two compartments, the first and larger of the two has a sink and a number of shelves and racks, all empty. I’ll need to find a way to pipe water to the sink before it functions. The second chamber is small, round, and padded with something that looks soft. A bedroom. Every surface is translucent the color of moonstone, striped with the black lines of the high carbon support struts. The floor is a maze of those, where the gears are housed for moving the spider’s legs. A reciprocating engine in the belly should run on vegetable or mineral oils to power the legs and pumps. The fabricator can handle such simple machines easily.

I’ve tracked red dust and weeds all over my beautiful new home. Nothing for it. I had to get inside. I’ll have to make a broom out of the flora to sweep it out. Shouldn’t be too hard.

“Seismic event in fifteen seconds.” I like how calm Cortex sounds.

I sit and touch the control to retract my helmet. Cool air washes over me, a marked contrast to the stinking inferno of the crashed pod. The carrot and beet smells seem intensely pleasant, like a welcome home meal I’ve longed for finally delivered.

My stomach growls. Traitor. It was trying to throw up just a minute ago.

Silence. Stillness. The walls are white like paper. The faint rumble of the quake comes and goes, perhaps anticlimactic, but a prelude to worse still on its way.

Six minutes until the ejecta arrives. Over an hour until the air-blast.

I wait for my heartbeat to slow. No sweat wets my body, all wicked away by the suit like a second skin, but I’m covered in red dirt. Red dirt cloys to my hair and my face, itching and heavy. My lip is split, and my scalp stings and trickles from several small cuts. I feel utterly wretched.

And yet, triumph sings a song in my aching bones.

Here I am.

And here I will remain. The note sours.

There’s the thing I’ve been trying not to think about. The Titan, that vessel of all our hopes and dreams, of every last living soul and the sum of earth’s history and memory has slipped away into space, wounded and pursued by a relentless enemy we can neither see nor fight. Leaving me.

My heartbeat seems a drum in a space that doesn’t echo.

It has been more than seven minutes since they jumped away. Seven was the minimum until enemy contact, eight and a half the max. It’s been more than ten.

We stood. We screamed our defiance with the most awesome of weapons. Our death throws might have torn apart the fabric of this universe if we had not shown restraint. Instead we were cut apart. We bled. We fled again and again until now, until one final escape for one last seven minute breath, a final seven minute chance.

Leaving me, by accident, alone.

The last.

It would be foolish not to assume I am the last. That enemy has been more remorseless even than death, which with long work and subtle engineering we had set to flight. It seems foolish, thinking back, to imagine we had conquered death. It wasn’t banished, but waiting in the form of that faceless enemy in the accretion disk of a black hole for opportunity to strike at us, to remind us in terms final and complete that this universe, these suns and planets, quazars and nebulae and yes we too, shall end.

But for a while at least, we breathed or works into the void.

“Cortex, is it possible for this body to be inseminated?”

“Insufficient information.”

“I need to know if this body is fertile.”

“Available sensors aren’t capable of comprehensive analysis, but macro-biological markers suggest yes.”

I knew that much.

The wind moans over the shell of my little shelter. My face itches and I scratch off some dried dirt with the red-caked fingers of my right hand.

In the collective, if I considered such a problem, subroutines would have suggested all necessary information directly to my consciousness. I’d have known instantly what the technological requirements would be to clone sperm from my own DNA or to induce parthenogenesis – the process of fertilizing one of this body’s eggs without sperm. In the collective, a moment’s focus would have brought me the progression of tools I’d have to build to get from where I am to there. The Caruso program has all that information, but the interface feels painfully slow. Biological memory supplies only that the technologies would be mostly chemical, for which the fabricator may be a tremendous help, if I spend its resources wisely.

“Query Caruso: Does a path of technological progression exist which will lead to sperm cloning or viable artificial parthenogenesis before this body becomes infertile?”

I wait for its answer. The air in the pod seems hot, close, high pressure, like some vast and unseen weight looms about me.

“No.” it answers, and my heart floats, strangely buoyant in a pressure bath of sudden sweat. “Probability of a single individual successfully achieving DNA cloning or stem cell technologies from available resources inside a forty year timespan is less than 0.002%”

“Query Caruso: what about an artificial womb? Can the fabricator create one?”

“Yes.”

“If I expend resources on an artificial womb, can I then develop the technology to impregnate that womb inside my lifetime?”

“No.”

A slow breath fills my chest and shifts my body. The burn down my back aches. For reasons I don’t really understand, I have a strong desire to remove the exo-suit. Maybe it’s the contrast between its comfort and the scratchy dirt on my face. Maybe it’s the sound of the wind, a sound I’ve not heard since the day we left earth. But the suit is the only thing holding my arm together.

“Okay,” I say.

The roof of the shelter hums under the touch of wind. My footprints on the white floor look like rust or blood. I will not be making new humans, either by impregnating this body, or with an artificial womb.

This body is the last.

The thought repeats. I speak the words, listening to them against the moonstone walls and the sounds of wind. The shelter threatens to collapse under the weight of human recollection.

My thoughts supply no consensus or even majority. Only myself. I had a room on old earth, gone now, left behind to the dust of thousands of years from the foreshortened time of relativistic travel. The room was in a sunken ship, visited once in exo-suit when I planted an all-senses camera, and then again over and over in immersive virtual reality. Steel walls textured by fractal colonies of rust, the dead bones of sea-weeds unable to live in a sea too hot and too toxic, and the brined detritus of humanity: cups, plates, tables painted with decay and paintings vanished into the sea to leave empty frames. A chandelier still hung from a gold-plated chain. Its crystal beads glittered in the camera’s light. I went there to be alone, to float in that shining trove of vanished history, weightless, cold, free of the burdens of choice and action which hounded my day to day life even before the upload.

I miss it.

My tongue rubs like sandpaper against the roof of my mouth and my throat feels like a deepening desert sink-hole. I’m thirsty.

On to smaller problems. The earthquake has past. The cloud of ejecta particulates from the impact will be arriving soon, and I’ll need water. Whatever else, I’d rather not die of thirst.

I rise and exit the structure. Some part of my mind starts to scream.

Outside, a black cloud paints the sky into a yin-yang of light and dark. Dust and stone accelerated into the upper atmosphere at hyper-sonic speeds have burnt up, and now drift down in a wide and spreading cloud of ash masquerading as snow. That psudo-weather front hasn’t arrived yet, but it will in a few moments. The pillar of falling ash, lit by the setting sun, reaches all the way to space, far beyond the ordinary heights of clouds.

It’s magnificent.

The bottom of the spider has a hatch that opens to a hose on a wheel. This unfurls as I walk it down to the edge of the little mountain pool. A hand-crank will pump water up into the cistern, until I can find a way to make oil for the engine.

The little pool of mountain water catches a handful of sky amid the red grasses. In an hour, its face will be choked with ash, but now it peers up, innocent and nearly empty, wearing the yellow of the setting sun like a gossamer veil. Tiny fish swim in the sapphire depth, the size of tadpoles. I see no insects at all, and in all the wide landscape nothing moves but me, the weather, and the gentle lap of the pond.

The wind breathes across my face. It smells of snow.

I walk into the water and feel nothing until it reaches my neck. Then shocking cold climbs my throat and slides across my chin. The suit, a second skin, doesn’t fill, so my body seems in a different space. Split lips sting, then smile. My barely contained hair wicks water, gets heavier. A sudden depth opens beneath my feet.

Cold closes around me.

I am unafraid. Peaceful. For no good reason. I shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t care.

I open my eyes to a world of red stone, crisscrossed by the dancing lines of light through liquid. Dust clouds away from my skin, and a few quick scrubs clean it away, but the suit smokes dust like a phosphorous fire. I want badly to shed it.

Tiny fish, startled by their new companion, swim close in a school. They have topaz eyes.

My breath makes no surge or worry. Holding it is effortless. The clips on my exosuit twist under my fingers. Cold water rushes in, pushes along clammy flesh unaccustomed to contact, wets tiny hairs and seeps long fingers down my thighs to cool my toes.

The weight of the water leaves me in equilibrium, floating in my cloud of dust.

I remain. Eventually, breath begins to beg. Water enters my mouth, sweet, clean, probably full of micro-organisms against which I have no protection. Easier to die by drowning. Cleaner. A little struggle, and then gone. A convulsion, floating in an empty world.

The first specs of ash touch the water’s face.

I’m crashing. The distant corner of my mind which has been screaming since I stepped outside calms to a clear voice: The painkillers, energy chems, adrenaline, shock and loss are all taking their toll. I’ve stepped outside without my visor. I’m now floating in a pond. I need to not be doing these things.

Cold and weightless, I watch the fish circle me, passing in and out of light beams made by my red cloud of dirt.

We sent two probes onto this planet. They’ll know more about the diseases. If Sheln had half an instant to spare before he jumped The Titan away, he may have sent them the commands to begin synthesizing treatment plans to adapt colonists for the local flora.

One of those probes landed on this continent, in the lowlands beyond the end of the mountain range.

I kick. My boots hit the bottom and I rise like a torpedo. Water splits against my face. Flecks of white ash tumble from the sky to speckle the water’s surface. The tiny fish investigate with probing mouths. They seem to be eating it.

I tread water and the touch of air makes my skin shiver and goosbump.

“Cortex,” I say into a growling wind, “add the payload and structure of a planetary exploration probe to the resource list for program Caruso, then re-run the last set of queries.”

Thunder rumbles through the mountains, long and groaning. Maybe thunder, maybe a landslide. I can see no disturbance.

“Yes. Several technology development paths exist which will result in one of artificial insemination by cloned sperm, induced parthenogenesis, or a functionally supplied artificial womb within the estimated lifespan of your body.”

“How long will the shortest path take, assuming a single worker who must also tend to their own basic needs?”

“Reliable parthenogenesis may be achieved with three thousand eight hundred work days of sixteen hours, including average rates of human error. This estimate has a margin of error of 30%, and assumes availability of certain, commonly abundant, chemical resources.”

I hardly hear the second half of the answer. Between seven and thirteen earth years. Printed bodies like this one are typically birthed at the end of the adolescent phase, and even if this one was born a little early or late, there should still be plenty of time, if I can stay alive.

I pivot to look out across the landscape, following the direction of the growing shadow past the teeth of the mountains to where, far beyond the horizon, the probe waits. Its data burst included photographic evidence of large land animals akin to rhinoceros. It will be a long, hard journey. I have yet to weather the air-blast, and I still don’t know if there’s anything on this planet I can eat.

But after that journey, after seven to thirteen years of work, there may come into being another human. A new mind. The opaque wall of the future opens a narrow gap. Genetic historians estimate the entire population of the Americas before European colonization, some 120 million people, were descended from no more than seventy individuals who crossed the Asian-American land bridge together. Those seventy individuals were enough. Perhaps with an artificial womb and genetic variance algorithms I can produce seventy. Perhaps they may be enough. My chest shakes and water gurgles into my open mouth. I paddle and splash with my teeth bared in a manic grin. Laughing. This is laughter.

As I laugh, light blooms in the sky. A second sun spreads shining petals above the ash cloud. I cover my eyes and grin up through the slit in my fingers as water and light drip against my face.

It’s been thirty-five minutes since The Titan’s weapons shredded a gas giant in the outer system. The light from that detonation coruscates through silver and gold in a brilliant, soundless pageant of futile might. The silhouettes of dying meteors make shadows across that blaze and the pillar of ash spreads above me like a starless night.

I’ll live on.