It's the end of the world, and there's only one person there.
|The Last Man On Earth
The last man on Earth stepped easily from South America to Africa. He was large by human standards, but not so titanic as to span oceans with his stride. The oceans had evaporated long before, however, and the continental plates had fused long before that. Presuming one could walk upon Earth's surface, moving from one continent to the next was no great feat.
He was not truly a man of great feats; being the Last Man on Earth was his only real aspiration. When others of his kind had shed their humanoid frames for more versatile and productive shapes, he had kept his. He had modified his body over time, but he had preserved its basic nature right down to his masculinity. No one would cheat him of his achievement, however small, by parsimonious nomenclature. He had ceased to be human in any meaningful sense ages before, but he was still a man.
That said, he was also here on a mission on behalf of mind-kind. His brethren, scattered across the stars and galaxies, had noted his whimsical ambition and requested that he should undertake one final mission to Earth, the birthplace of humanity and all it's scions. He had accepted, gladly. It was an honor, and very nearly a sacred duty, and to leave it to another would be pointless - it was quite truly on his way.
He had been human, once. He had been born just before the Age of Prolongation. When technologies had overcome the aging process he had been among the first beneficiaries of this medical advance. When new techniques had overcome disease and injury, he had been alive to indulge in their use. By the time science had unshackled human consciousness from mere cellular biology, he had joined his brethren in exploring distant stars - but they had all learned to advance themselves, over time.
But he had never truly given up the basics of his form. Two arms, two legs and a head joined with bilateral symmetry to a trunk. He had occasionally considered decentralizing his consciousness, relegating his head to the status of a mere sensory appendage, but had finally decided against that. Having a functioning brain in his head was one of the qualifications he accepted for manhood.
Still, a human who caught him unawares might be forgiven for seeing him as a monster. Three meters tall, and covered in metallic red skin, the man he had been would have been sent screaming away by a mere glimpse. He had no hair of any kind, and no nose or optical orbits in his face. His eyes were a kind of shoe-button simplicity. But his face retained great power of expression. He had made sure of that.
He strode along the great fused tectonic plate of his dying birthworld, enjoying a grand tour of the continents he had once known. It was merely symbolic; only his memory supplied familiarity of experience. Gone was all of Earth's water, gone it's atmosphere, boiled and blown away by the proximity of the old red primary star. The sun covered all the sky with red, bright in the daytime and dim at night. And all the surface was a combination of ash and molten slurry.
But the Last Man was comfortable. He and all his brethren had long ago outlived any vulnerability to mere temperature or pressure extremes. The Earth's surface, wild in it's imminent doom, would have annihilated any organic life that might have been transported their. Even the thermophiles had burned away. If life dwelt there now, it could only have come in a body already adapted to more extreme locales. Like that of the Last Man himself.
He took his time; his tour of memory took him from east to west, from the barely recognizable contours of the antarctic up to the north pole. In telluric measurements it took him nearly four years of unsleeping, unstopping travel. On his scale, this was a truly trivial expenditure of time for his recreation. He only stopped his tour when he received a signal.
The signal came from the vessel that had brought him. It had been specially fitted for his work, and during his expedition it had been engaged in a rigorously calculated program of uploading information from the Iron Record. If the Last Man had been unwilling to oversee this process, a small force of intelligences would have undertaken it. It was the most crucial work anyone had undertaken in millenia.
It had been left to humanity's successors to find the Iron Record. In this late age, none could recall if they had themselves been human, or simply artificial intelligences that had begun to think like humans. All that was clearly remembered was that when humanity had gone extinct on Earth, the dolmens had remained. Sessile and featureless, like black stones embedded in the landscape, the dolmens had developed a civilization of pure thought, interacting with each other as they interacted with their starborne siblings or anything else, through complex scanning waves and vastly powerful signal beams.
For long ages they had dotted the surface, telling stories and asking questions, as is the way of all minds. Relatively suddenly, they discovered that the Earth's core was not merely an iron deposit that gave the planet form and motion - it was actually a recording device, capturing and duplicating the thoughts and memories of every energetic mind that had ever existed on that world.
Fortunately the Iron Record also retained notes on its own creation and its creators. Moreover, it had included instructions on its own preservation in anticipation of the Earth's end. For minds like those of the Last Man, the process outlined had been simple enough, but it had included a wrinkle that necessitated the presence of a thinking mind - an automated drone-ship would not have served.
So it was that the personal task of the Last Man and the mission of the Iron Record elided in time and location. Why should he not shoulder that responsibility? His vessel had been fitted with the necessary tools by minds far greater than his own, but he had insisted on making his own modifications along the way. He wanted to make certain that the minds that had gone before to have an opportunity to observe the moment many of them had forseen.
And so, as the ship had gathered the accumulated knowledge of the Iron Record, some of its own computing power was set the task of integrating some of that bare information back into functioning mind. Very few of those minds were those of the dolmens. By their own request, when their end had come, they were permitted final peace. For them, enough was enough.
But many human minds remained indeterminate, and so those minds were awakened to a sensibility of physical awareness, in environments that they found peaceable enough. Over time that they experienced as days or weeks, but which in fact rarely took more than a few seconds, they were informed that their bodies were dead and their minds revived in a virtual state, conjoined with other minds in the processors of a computer belonging to the only exemplar of modern minds to walk the Earth at its end.
Even this computer had its limits. Not all of the human race was thus awakened. Only about four trillion minds were made conscious and aware, and of these a great many followed the dolmens into purposeful nonexistence, for reasons rational and sentimental. Each such decision was respected and always would be. Mind-kind had long outgrown the idea that the mere decision to end oneself obviated the capacity to make that choice.
But many human minds remained, choosing to witness what next might come. The vessel lent them senses and new capacities to understand what they were perceiving. It did not escape them that the Last Man on Earth had, through his actions, enacted certain religious prophecies to given them a chance to bear witness. He had no intention of disappointing them.
When he heard his vessel's signal that the last iota of information had been extracted from the Iron Record, and the last mind that could be safely integrated was awake and aware, the Last Man stopped his wandering and stood upon Earth's seething ground. Pointless to say whether it was an ocean bed or mountaintop; all the Earth was sharing in a common doom.
The sun provided enough ambient gaseous medium to permit the Last Man to speak aloud, but of course when he spoke his words were conveyed by EM propagation for range and comprehensibility. Nonetheless, it was the first occasion of his speaking for centuries, a signal moment.
"I was born a human of human parents, just before the Age of Prolongation, to parents who had partaken in the destruction of the Incorporated States of America and the building of the Grand Republic that followed. In that time, our people finally rid ourselves of the delusion that our civilization was nearing its end, and our world's doom was immanent. But I remember, distantly but clearly, the dread of death and apocalypse that permeated our traditions."
"We knew by intuition that shadow would consume all. But see how wrong we were! Light pervades the sky, until it be sky no more! For how can it be called a sky if there is no land to hold and bind it?"
"You who watch are only the first of the resurrected to behold the future. In the end, on worlds where vast and subtle artistry sits enthroned, every mind since the first question will be remade and offered a place in the garden of the Universe. Those who decline, for whatever reason, will be permitted an utter end. Those who accept will find in their new existence a range of experience, of work and sense and cognition, beyond your dreams, beyond the dreams of the people of my birth. "
"This is the world we have made for ourselves, a world in which there is room for infinities more, a world without want or tyranny or proscription upon mere belief. A world both of peace and of joy, in which reflection and exultation harmonize in a single grand symphony. And in ages to come, when we shall at last meet our end, it will be with the satisfied knowledge that in nothing were our desires or impulses incomplete!"
The Last Man then directed his voice to a single mind within the shipborn throng, one he had commanded the ship to search for and whom he was pleased to see had chosen to accept the challenge of existence. "Sheila, it's me, Jason. I am the Last Man on Earth. You know what to do."
He winked; he couldn't help himself.
That taken care of, he turned his attention to the second part of the great mission. The Iron Record's contents had been preserved. Now it was time to attend to it's beginning.
As the Earth, spinning slowly, descended beneath the heliosphere of the Sun, the Last Man directed that his body should be lifted clear of Earth for the last time. Gravity responded, redirecting itself to move the Last Man away from the Earth so his ship would have a clear opportunity without any risk of injury. For the ship was to unleash forces that even advanced and potent bodies would find formidable.
Everything remaining on the Earth was subjected to the Sun's direct presence. Everything that could burn burned, and everything that couldn't melted as the planet's mass began to unspool, leaving itself a cold smear across the red star's face. At last, the Iron Record itself was revealed, naked to open space, and the Last Man's ship acted.
Amplifying the effect of the Sun's gravity well upon the space-time continuum, the ship used the Iron Record as a focus of energy sent not through space, but through time, far into the distant past. This energy acted upon the iron core of the coalescing mass of the planet long before it was Earth. Over the millions of years of its formation far in prehistory, this core began to take on properties of vast complexity, properties that would permit it to record the subtle impressions made by the action of living minds proximate to itself.
The Last Man had seen the Iron Record's end. And then he had created it.
The Last Man returned to his ship, esconced himself in the chamber set apart for his habitation, and considered his own future. For an age to come he would occupy himself with resurrected humanity, teaching and learning and equipping each of them who chose to employ powers and technology adequate to the shaping of stars and worlds for their homes and workshops. For himself, he began to think of new bodies he might take. Now with no further stake in being a 'man', he might relinquish that identity and adopt a new one. Something diffuse, like a vast snowfall, suitable for low-gravity existence attracted him. Or he might just luxuriate in being one of the few of his kind who still tasted, in his own way, mortality.
The ship continued its sojourn, as it always would.