The Last Human by Deborah Landers
Krzvin Jnnsk pulled the soft brush out of his kit. Sol-3 was a strange world, a world of lost sentients which imploded before they had the chance to walk the star ways. The only things they knew about humanity were from the satellites and probes they had sent out, messages cast into the ether for someone, anyone, to hear.
Now their planet was a storm-torn ball of dust orbiting a dying star.
He found the box in the dust, a rusted husk of something meant to last a long time.
Krzvin glanced up, looking for one of the others in the Archaeology team. Vsska, an Aeranean, was across the field, her twelve spindly forelimbs entirely occupied with her find. As the team lead, it was likely far more important and valuable than his box. The Laonan recorder, a furry being named Elosarr, held the data capture device tightly, his wide amber eyes fixed on the object Vsska was rescuing from the dirt.
It was definitely more important than his rusted box.
Still, Krzvin wondered what the box might hold. Slowly, carefully, he edged the blunted blade between the lid and box. It rattled quietly before part of it broke away. The box was almost empty. There were stems of some long dead vegetation, as well as something pale and yellowed. He had been with the team visiting one of the libraries still standing, so he recognized old paper when he saw it.
Immediately, he began applying preservation techniques. The box had not been airtight, but he was not willing to risk the integrity of this find by letting it crumble to dust. He felt the preservation field snap into place around him.
In his periphery, he noted Elosarr looking his way before returning to Vsska's find.
The vegetation stems must have been flowers at some point, the delicate petals turned to dust. The paper, however, was perfectly fine. Now he held it in his hand, it was some sort of paper case. It was sealed, and something was written across one of the flat sides of it. Consulting his Lexicographic Lens, the words became a name. He paused. This was personal. He didn't know if he dared open it.
He examined the name again: Cameron Werner. He wondered who had taken the time to write the letter by forelimb and digits when humans had advanced communication technologies. The great metal skeletons of their messaging towers stood like monuments against the skyline. Why would someone commit something like this to a transitive medium given to damage and decay?
An excited shout drew his attention back to Vsska's find and he slipped the paper case into a protective folder in his satchel before deactivating the preservation field. He ventured over to the excited huddle of archaeologists standing to his true height to see over them. Though sometimes difficult, there were times that being four furnacs tall was an asset.
Vsska shifted back, clicking her satisfaction, giving Krzvin a chance to see what had caused all the stir.
It was a human.
Or, rather, the body of a human. Preserved in some kind of medical pod, it was distinctly female from the fatty glands protruding from its torso. It was the first human they had found intact. It—she—was sure to cause a stir amidst the xeno-biologists. Though they had the humans' books on anatomy and biology, it was another thing to find an actual human.
Vsska had carefully cleaned the pod off, while Elosarr documented everything.
"Krzvin," Vsska clicked suddenly, drawing his attention. "I will need your help."
"Of course." The crowd parted, allowing his lithe reptilian form through. Aeraneans like Vsska were evolved to lift object far heavier than them, and the Kovar, his own people, lived on an unstable planet where physical weakness often led to death.
He glanced down at the human, wondering how their evolution had brought them to this form. She was small, no more than one furnac tall, and she had no natural armor. Nor did she have much fur except on the top of her head. She wore some kind of uniform that covered her torso, legs, and forelimbs. He wondered if she had written the message.
They carried the pod to their sled, then Vsska turned to the rest of the team.
"We should get back to base," she said, gesturing for them to clean up and load onto the skimmer sled. "We won't get anything more done at this site today."
As Krzvin gathered his kit, he realized he had neglected to mention the message he had found. This realization brought with it another—he didn't want to share the message with them. They would inevitably find out about it after he opened the paper case and read it, but he wanted to be the one to do that. There would be time enough to read it back at base with the attention on the human in the medical pod.
* * *
Krzvin managed to slip away once they returned to base. Despite his size, he had found places to hide in the gutted human building they had converted for their purposes. Whatever had caused their destruction, the humans were excellent builders. Krzvin had to wonder if the storms were part of their world before, as the edifices they had built weathered years of it well. His sanctuary in particular was intact, in spite of a whole wall of windows. It was also one of the few places he could stand up straight.
He sat on a stone seat and activated his preservation field as he took the message out of his satchel with his more dexterous set of limbs. The narrow digits slipped easily beneath the sealed flap on the paper case. He reached for his Lexicographic Lens with another forelimb as he carefully removed the papers from their case.
Dear Cameron, I bet you're wondering why I've sent you a letter. The end of the world is coming and it's not like there is a mailman willing to track you down and give it to you. So much for their "through sleet and snow" spiel, right? I suppose it doesn't make a lot of sense to go out when everyone is dying.
We thought we had forever. I'd like to think it was because we were young and stupid, but I don't think that's all of it. No one expected this. Well, I didn't. You might have known it was a possibility, considering how many contingencies you had, how we never actually made good on all the plans we made. Seems we made separate plans again. Neither of us were stupid, no matter how young we were. If anything, we were the pragmatists of the world, talking about what would happen if the world ended.
Turns out it did, and it has your fingerprints all over it.
I never did tell you what I did for a living. I was an inventor. Some of this collapse has my fingerprints too. We worked at cross purposes again—you for the decay of life and me for its preservation. We knew from the beginning that our values would eventually break us apart. I just didn’t think it would be so soon.
Cameron, I fell for your passion, for the way the fire ignited behind your eyes when you got involved in your newest obsession. But you always found a place in your laser-focused mind for me. Even when you thought I wasn't, I was paying attention to you. We both knew what was coming, and I did the only thing I could to stop it. I created a path back.
Unfortunately, the world I must save will have no place for you in it. I love you and I want you with me more than anything, but it’s not possible. I can’t ask you to join me on a journey with an unknown destination.
I suppose you're wondering what I've done, how I think I've saved humanity. I haven't, not really. I saved a small portion of it, a segment so small it will take a millennium to repopulate. I created cryogenics pods. You wouldn't be surprised to know how many people fear death so much they would risk their life by freezing their body. I've tested it, refined it, put everything I have into it because we both knew where the world was going when you gave them your best weapon. Already, I’ve seen the reports about the cloud of decay slowly circulating the globe and, after I finish this letter, I'm going into my pod. Someone needs to be there to explain to the people I saved what happened to our planet.
I promise to tell them the truth without blaming you, but I won't lie to them. I dread to see what the world looks like when I emerge. Someone needs to prepare the others for what they will find and I resigned myself to this when you didn't come back two weeks ago.
You were right when we first started going out. Do you remember that? You said that I was the mistake you wanted to make, too different to stay together but desperate enough to try. We tried so hard, staying together through sheer force of will.
To be honest, this letter isn't meant for you; it's meant for me. I need to remember what I gave up. I need to remember why we fell in love, why I let myself be pulled in when I knew it couldn't last. Knowing what I do, it's too easy to paint you as the villain, and I don't want to remember the vicious side of you when I remember us. I want to remember how you would always let me pick the movie in the evening. I want to remember the truckload of flowers you had delivered after our last fight, even though it was the beginning of the end.
I want to believe that somewhere, somehow, we can start over.
With all my love, Azra Quinn
Krzvin stared at the paper—the letter. He had read through it several times, stumbling over the odd words and phrases that did not translate to his language. His first impression of the message had been correct, however; it was personal. But it had the answers they were searching for. It told him what had happened to the humans. They had destroyed themselves.
It didn't surprise him. Conflict was the fastest form of progress in the universe, even if it was destructive as it built. Many sentient races had destroyed themselves before they made it to the stars, but humanity had taken the level of chaos and carnage to another extreme. To have utterly destroyed their ecosystems as well as themselves took a degree of warfare no member of the Interstellar Alliance could quite imagine.
There were more papers with the letter, instructions for opening the pod and ending the forced hibernation state, a list of locations where supplies or more pods could be found. The woman—this Azra Quinn—wanted to ensure the survival of the human race if something went wrong with her pod.
Suddenly, Krzvin realized that the humans were alive. The woman who wrote the letter ensured it. And she was down in the science bay in her pod.
Krzvin put the letter away first. It was important, and he didn't want to lose it through some carelessness. The Interstellar Archaeology Corps hadn't encountered this before, a living member of a civilization thought to be destroyed.
Despite his size, Krzvin was well adapted to skulking around. He made his way quietly through the empty halls, careful not to alert the night walkers to his presence. He entered the labs without incident and saw the pod in the center of the main room.
The scientists had cleaned off the accumulated soil and grime. The pod was all glass and metal, worn by time. Beneath another pane of glass, there was a control pad with buttons rather than a screen. Krzvin looked at the woman's face and the halo of dark fur beneath her head. He consulted her instructions again and activated the correct sequence.
The pod suddenly flooded with white gas and began to whirr. He stumbled back a few paces, watching as it unfolded, pushing the bed up and out. Then, with an explosive intake of air, the woman breathed.
Krzvin stood frozen, unsure if he should run forward to assist her or wait for her to move. The decision was taken out of his forelimbs when she began to push herself up, slipped, and uttered something he didn't quite understand. The humans' spoken language was not adopted into their translators. The tone of her exclamation, however, was cursing. She attempted to move again, sliding her lower limbs off the bed to hang over the side of the pod as she pushed herself into a seated position. Once she had more motor control, she looked up and saw him standing nearby.
She jolted and shouted another string of curses. Krzvin realized the error of his rash decision in that moment. They had no way to effectively communicate, and all those likely to make the best first steps were in the middle of their rest cycles.
Cursing his own lack of forethought, he did the only thing that made any sense. He held out the letter to her.
She looked like she wanted to flee, but her extended period of hibernation was inhibiting her ability to do so. Instead, with a great expulsion of air, she took the letter, looked at it, then up at him. She said something. It either meant "You read this?" or "You understand this?", and so he nodded in reply.
She tilted her head first to one side, then to the other. After another expulsion of air, she laid a hand on her torso and said, "Azra."
A thrill of excitement and pride flooded through him as he lay his forelimb on his own torso and replied, "Krzvin."
"Krzvin," she repeated back to him, though the sounds were foreign to her vocal organs. They continued their conversation in one and two-word bursts, making their best attempt to understand one another despite the yawning gap between languages. In that time, Azra recovered from her hibernation and stood up, walking around the lab as they talked.
She stopped abruptly and looked at the letter he had returned to her. She pointed to it, pointed to him and said one of her question words.
At first, he wasn't sure what she was trying to say. Then she trailed one of her digits along the letter under the writing. With that gesture, he understood she was asking how he had managed to read and understand the letter if he couldn't speak the language. He pulled out the Lexicographic lens and gestured for her to hold out the letter. A translation of the letter appeared on the lens in the Kovarin language, hovering over the written text.
Immediately, Azra became far more animated, shaking the paper sheets of the letter. "Do you have paper I can write on?"
He shook his head and handed her one of the notation tablets from a lab station. He pulled out his own tablet and showed her how to use it, setting the human's written language as the default system language and showing her how to send a message to his own tablet. Within moments, she had sent her first message.
"Am I still on Earth?"
He sent her his first reply. "Yes."
The first of the lab scientists found them like that at the beginning of the day cycle, having a conversation through notation tablets. Krzvin explained the situation before they alerted the linguists that there was a live human they could talk to.
* * *
The next lunar cycle passed quickly for the Archaeology Corps. Krzvin had been removed from Vsska's search team because of the bond he had formed with Azra Quinn. Vsska would get the credit for finding her, but the letter and Krzvin’s rash decision to open the pod were overtaking the excitement of the initial find. Bringing a sentient race back to life was something no archaeologist had ever done before.
Azra was sitting on one of the dust dunes outside the main base. No one was looking for her at the moment while teams retrieved the other pods hidden around the planet. She would be busy soon, but there was peace for now. Peace, Krzvin had come to know, was something Azra desperately craved. It was a desire he understood as the Kovar held meditation and quiet as one of the highest virtues of their race. He sat down beside her, looking out over the ruins stretching out into the distance.
"It's going to change, isn't it?" Azra said without looking at him. "Everything between us, everything we've set up these past few weeks. It's not going to be the same. That's what happens when humans get involved. They mess everything up."
Krzvin frowned. "I do not believe so," he assured her. "Some things may change, but I do not believe humans will destroy everything."
Azra snorted. "Then you have more faith in humanity than we have in ourselves. We invented concepts that sum up the chaos we can wreak: anything that can go wrong will go wrong." She glanced at him and smiled. "We called it Murphy's Law."
"You truly believe in your ability to inadvertently cause harm?"
"Look around you, Krzvin. The man I loved destroyed our planet under us and ourselves with it. What's more, he knew the risks and he didn't bother to listen to his own doubts." She gestured at the barren landscape around them. "It will take decades to fix this. For all I know, our planet is permanently damaged. We've been set back to the Stone Age, and the only thing standing between humanity and extinction is a handful of people from different corners of the globe. I don't know what I was thinking." She sighed, slumping over. "Maybe I should have just let us die. It's not like we did much to deserve anything good."
Krzvin thought for a moment. This was not a problem the Kovar would have. The Kovar lived with the chaos as a part of their everyday lives and they didn't bother to pretend they could control matters beyond them.
"Perhaps," he began slowly, "it is not a matter of merit, but of achievement. Your race has achieved much, both good and bad. This second chance for your race was something you gave to yourselves. No sentient race in the galaxy would have moved to save you. You built this chance. You set it in motion. For everything they say I have done, you are the architect, the planner. I will not let you hide away when the others return. You may not feel you deserve anything, but it will not stop you from making things happen anyway."
"You're hopeless," Azra muttered, though Krzvin could see the hint of a smile.
"As long as you are not," he replied, offering her a smile of his own.
One of the transport vessels flew by over their heads and Azra looked up, squinting in the harsh light. "That'll be the first bunch. We better get back. We're about to be very busy."
"We have a civilization to rebuild," Krzvin said, offering her a forelimb to help her stand. He wasn't sure how she managed to balance on only two limbs, but it seemed to grant her better agility. "If it was a simple matter, someone would have already achieved it."
Azra laughed, patting the dust from her clothes. "That's another thing about humanity. We live to make things difficult."
Again, he envied her mobility when she took off at a run towards the base. But, she was not suffering from acute emotional distress anymore. If Azra was baseline for her race, humans were emotionally driven beings who actively sought selective companionship.
She reminded him of myths about the children of chaos. They were not Kovar, but they were intelligent and strong like the Kovar. They had the capacity for creation and destruction within them, and the gods feared what they could do. The children of chaos were not violent, merely curious about everything, unwilling to let a secret remain secret. In the stories, their desire to know more often led them into trouble. Before, it was just a story, but everything he had learned about humans was slowly matching up with those stories.
Krzvin huffed and continued after Azra. It did not matter if humans were the children of chaos from Kovarin myths; he would stand beside them no matter what happened. He wanted to see humans as they were meant to be, even if it meant he would never see home again. He cast one more glance out over the dust dunes and ruined buildings and made a promise. He would make the Earth a home again. He would see the true children of chaos at their work and he would join them.
He too would make Earth his home.