The Last Human on Earth
By Kyra Worrell and Theresa Barker
The Grafton machine woke her up. Lifted her eyelids off her eyes. Opened them. Focused them. Turned her face towards the screen so she could see videos, still images from the feed, and finally the text-based experience. Everything she was supposed to do. It was right there.
Sharah was not pretty and she was not plain. What she watched suited her, made her pretty and plain and all sorts of things, made her more than she was. And sometimes, this was too much.
She stretched a finger out of its gentle constraints and hit a button.
Her companion robot rolled forward, a steaming cup in hand. “Tea?” The robot’s voice had a pleasant accent that mirrored the dialect from Sharah’s youth.
“No.” She spoke into the headset, momentarily stopping her feed. Though Sharah couldn’t fault the machine for jumping to conclusions. Tea was what she usually wanted. Tea requests abounded in the robot’s databanks.
“No, today I think want something different.” This was more words than she had said in any number of days.
The unit rolled sideways in a show of shock. Then it then rolled back into place, ready to serve.
“I think today, I think today I want to walk.” Sharah was suddenly tired. She couldn’t think today, too tired. She let her hand and finger drop. “Never mind,” she said, “The tea is fine.”
And tea would be fine. Fully restored by the Grafton machine’s deft manipulations, the tea would be as if it were the original in all its leafy glory. And she, Sharah, the last human being on Earth, she deserved every bit of it. The robot would hand it to her, and she would sip. Just as she had every day, day after endless day, for countless days gone by. Just a taste, sitting up, unclamped from safety restraints that otherwise contained her, and then she would fall back onto her bed, the bed responding, as it always did, by re-clamping her fingers, hands, limbs, and torso into the holding cocoon.
As she lay in the restraints, unable to move – it was, of course, for her safety – she felt as comfortable as an inert person might be. There was no need for comfort, really, when you were the last living human being on Earth, was there?
The feed began again. All the uploaded minds, thoughts, memories and reflections, of all the dwellers of this desiccated planet flowed into, over, and through her mind. It was a burden, but she had the repository space, vast auxiliary memory stores that were fostered, maintained and kept in order by the Grafton machine. This was her purpose. If only one person on Earth was to survive, it was the duty of that person to hold the entire recollection set for all of humankind, and hadn’t they worked fast and furiously in the final days to make an enormous deposition entity, one that would live indefinitely, tended by the Grafton machine, one that could retain the uploaded memories of millions, of billions, from infant and child all the way to old age and senility. And hadn’t she been the most fortunate being on Earth, the human that had won the most desired role on the planet, the opportunity to be tethered – for life – to that deposition entity that contained the planet’s entire consciousness.
The intelligence of a world. What that meant was even beyond Sharah. At first. But now, now after days upon days, days upon more days, and more days, she felt nothing like the human she had been. She was, perhaps, a Gaia, the ancestral mother of all life.
No. She was only Sharah. Human joined to machine, machine joined to human. What had it been like to be human, to walk upon the Earth, to eat and drink normally? To be with family.
The feed flowed over her.
“Tea?” The robot had returned.
Shara considered. “No.” She was tired, yes. But today she felt so, so utterly non-human, that she could not just lie here inside the cocoon’s restraints. She had the right. She had the right to get up, to walk. To behave as more than a tethered-machine’s extension.
“Today I will walk.” It had been a long time. Would she remember how?
The restraints relaxed, after a pause, she noted. Was it her imagination, or did the Grafton machine hesitate to obey her wishes? It had been so long since she had done this, she could not remember if it was customary for a pause before relaxing the restraints. No matter. She had enough to simply remember how to walk.
The bed tilted, gently, ever so gently, gradually bringing her to a standing position. Her companion robot appeared with a mechanical device, a rolling sort of cage that she could enter, her hands on the bars, her form protected from hazards above and below, side to side. She must be protected. That was primary. Last human on Earth. They were not about to let her die accidentally.
She shook her head. “No.” The robot, again startled, did its little sideways roll of shock. Then it rolled back, again ready to serve.
“You will guide me,” she instructed the robot. Another hesitation, another pause, this one a bit longer than the previous one. The Grafton machine’s intelligence. Was it testing her? She had just made up her mind to restate the command when the companion robot rolled into place at her side. She put a hand on the smooth round surface of the unit, and gently stepped out of the cocoon. Well, not stepping, exactly. More like shuffling. But it would do.
The light cotton shift she wore brushed the sides of her legs, draped comfortingly around her calves, moving as she moved. It was piercingly obvious to her that she had waited too long. When had she last walked? What had kept her motionless for so long?
The feed. The everlasting, ever-present feed, the flow of a million billion thoughts in the Grafton machine’s repository. Sitting there, or lying there – no difference to her – was her job, wasn’t it? She had the responsibility to have the consciousness maintain its presence even in the absence of every other single human being on Earth.
The feed. Early morning breakfasts of rice cereal and edemame . . . cold cut deli sandwiches eaten in a cafeteria . . . sunset walks on a distant beach . . . the birth of a first child . . . the radiance of ice crystals on bare winter branches.
The frailty of illness . . . a parent’s loss of sanity . . . the killing of an innocent . . . the death of a beloved child.
“Stop.” The robot, all obedience, halted. Sharah looked up. It was only a short distance further to the observatory viewer. She had been here before, she remembered. Perhaps the robot had led her here.
But the viewer held no interest for her. What was there to see but the brown-gray husk of an abandoned planet, a planet that had killed its inhabitants after being stripped of its protective shell of forest, trees, rivers, lakes, stone, sand, ice, oceans. She could not watch it again.
A tear began to form behind Shara’s eyes. What was this? She did not have time to cry. Her need was to filter, to relive, to experience, to stand in the place of every human on Earth and to preserve their right to be remembered. She could not waste time with small emotions like sadness, like sorrow. No. No time for that.
She turned, shuffling carefully so as not to lose her balance even with the robot’s guiding bulk beneath her hand. She would go back to the cocoon. It was only what she deserved. Living was for those who had already perished, perhaps.
The Grafton machine grunted as she arrived back at the starting point. Well, grunted is not, perhaps, the right word. There was a noise, a sound, that came from the device. She had been right. It was glad to see her back within its controlling, surrounding, cushion.
Her muscles, unused to movement, had begun to tremble. She reached out her free hand to grasp the side of the cocoon. Then –
Sharah lay in a heap, micro-inches from the safety of the restraint-cocoon. Whiteness, whiteness all around her.
The robot stood waiting. What was her command?
The Grafton machine grumbled again.
This had happened before. Eventually the robot, guided by Grafton machine programming loops, managed to negotiate Sharah’s form into a position near enough to the pod that she could be drawn into the restraints, gently, ever so gently, then the bed rotating, slowly, ever so slowly, from its vertical standing position to the reclining position she was accustomed to. The finger rested inside its restraints again, ready to lift itself and press a button if the need arose.
The feed began again. This time there were no tears.