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Short Story

The Last Thought

Everything must end eventually, even consciousness. A short story by Grant Bartley.

The last man sits in the tower of the last house, in the middle of the last oasis, and weeps, for he knows that he is dying. Between the waterfalls of his tears he’s recording his last thoughts. Shaking his forefinger at the machine floating in front of him, he says, “I remember when they used to say, at some time in the future the human race will no longer be even a memory. There will be a moment when the human race, and its entire history, will be thought of for the last time.” He looks around him at his study of ancient and eclectic books and paraphernalia, and dry dust in occasional rays of hard sunlight, and mutters, “This is that time.”

He stares through the stone-framed glassless window beside him, out to the horizon of rocky hills which borders a woodland green and lush under the blue sky and the diamond sun, But the energy that’s keeping this paradise alive in the desert world means it can only produce enough food for one descendant at time. And it’s been such a long time.

Adam the Ironically Named is over four hundred and twenty years old, and has a beard to match. He’s also the thousandth clone in a line of inhuman recreations of the last natural human. But he’s long determined that this will be his last regeneration. He’s determined that his will be the last version of the facsimiles through which flows his mind – a consciousness he can only believe must still be the real thing, even now. But now, after a thousand iterations, resurrection has lost its allure, in this dying world. His heart feels as dry as the wasteland that surrounds his retreat, just beyond sight, just beyond the ridge of the hills, all across an Earth covered in sand and rock and rivulets and shrubs.

This tower is also the heart of the library of the accumulated wisdom of humanity’s aeon. It’s what’s left of over a hundred million years of thought and striving. But of the media in many forms here, Adam likes best the books. With a few exceptions, these are kept vacuum-sealed in cool, dark vaults of shelves that delve into caverns. The texts reach back to the scratched pictograms and hieroglyphs that document the beginning of writing. They’re stored alongside many digital formats, stretching back to silver discs. He cannot remember the last time he descended into the Library’s utter depths.

door in desert
Welcome to future Earth

Adam gazes unfocused at a manuscript open upon a stand, and reflects, “The Library contains the results of the myriad millenia of millenia in which the thought of humanity has struggled against its own limitations. These include starting from an almost absolute ignorance, whilst being stubbornly protective of an ego that says that each major step in understanding is the ultimate step. On the contrary, the Library has histories, and histories of histories, and histories of histories of histories, detailing cycles within cycles of the rise and fall of human culture across the world, through millions of years.” He knows that humanity is ancient now. He calculates that it’s about one hundred and fifty-three million years old, but its age is beyond clean summation. “How many hundreds of millions of years is it that humans have been on this planet?” he asks the droid before him.

“Maybe about two hundred million years?” the robot says.

Charlie is an obedient scribe, hovering about obsequiously as Adam mumbles his meditations into his lenses – which wisdom the robot immediately tries to sculpt into holo images in the space in front of them, instantly turning the words into solid light, white against a navy blue space. He’ll probably edit it all into something epic later, add clips. He has enough of them. It’s a shame there’ll be no-one around to watch it. Even Ariel has gone missing.

Adam asks, “So how about this for a an overview of history? This is for the Memoires, Charlie, by the way –” signalling that the droid should record the coming narrative, for historical reasons if nothing else: “The first million years or so of Homo sapiens were all animal agitations. During this period we were always fighting ourselves for territory and status, just like – what were they called again, Charlie?”

“Children,” responds the robot.

“Yes, children. We were like children, in that we had not yet learnt to control our responses. But after we’d realised, to our apparent great surprise, that we hadn’t destroyed ourselves, we really began to take the idea of human self-benefit seriously. We also knew that the Earth’s a sphere and the Sun is dying, slowly – after slowly heating up… Back in those heady days of our youth, full of hormones and animal instincts, we believed we could colonise the stars with only a little ingenuity. So we sent out many ships, full of hope. And certainly we did have bases on the planets and moons of our dying Sun for millions of years – as Methuselah, my House Intelligence, has told me –“

That’s me!” the deep voice of the House Server says.

“We had successful colonies at various times on the Moon, Mars, Titan…” – the orbs are displayed before them in quick holographic fly-pasts – “We even bred a new species of human for the oceans of Enceladus, under the ice of that moon of Saturn. They disappeared beneath alien waves for separate evolution there for over three million years, I’m told. Then, slowly, the ice melted, and radiation storms stripped Enceladus of its liquid… not unlike what the Sun has done more slowly for the Earth. Some of Enceladus’s merpeople came and lived in the seas of Earth, even thrived, though most of the survivors of that race reconverted to traditional humanity (RIP). The remaining fish people died many million of years later, when the last of Earth’s habitable seas dried up. They were the last living seas we know of anywhere. That was twenty million years ago or so now, I’m told. A blink of an eye for the Cosmos. Indeed, the last river still flowed through my garden not two million years ago. Now we’ve had to put a field around the farm to keep the moisture in. The bubble of life in the universe has grown very small indeed.” On this cue, Charlie turns to gaze through a window, and spots a parrot and a rabbit enjoying the opportunities afforded them by the vegetation.

“I’ve seen videos of the ruins of our civilisation on Titan – which is now an orange graveyard swept over by the dust of time and the ice of death. And in its day it challenged Earth for the Solar System! Now the whole Solar System is dead – except for this last remaining oasis of a garden.” As if to verify his pessimism, the old man holds his hand up to stall the robot in its recording, so that he can gaze out of the stone-framed portal to the crescent Moon as it hangs in the sky above the trees and the hill line. His eyes are watering and his vision is poor, and he doesn’t know who he’s recording his last thoughts for, in this empty, empty universe.

He’s been waiting for so long, but there has been no word from the cosmos – ever. This also means no word back from humanity’s hopes.

“As I was saying, in the heady days of the youth of humanity, we set out to colonise the stars, as our dreams and our survival instincts contrived to compel us. Our seeding of the vast void was especially hopeful during our Second Million – as it is relayed down to me in legend as being. Isn’t that right, Methuselah?”

Yes. As the legends have it.

Adam picks up a curled scroll from his possibly genuine Napoleonic writing desk, and waves it in front of Charlie’s recording eyes, as if this may in some way confirm the idea: “There must have been a billion ships over a million years of hopeful dissemination, all looking for the planet or moon that would support human life long-term. And the chance was about one in a billion that they’d find one. To be good for proper, long-term human colonisation, they’d need to find, at about 1G, a water-bearing oxygenated world still primitive enough not to have a human-poisonous ecosystem. That means first, not covered with animals and plants that we can’t eat, or probably, touch. But even more demanding, they’d need that oxygenated atmosphere to not be full of fatal alien bacteria – and most alien bacteria probably would be fatal insofar as they’d react with human biochemistry at all. Basically, the pioneers would need to find an Earth-type planet where harmless cyanobacteria-equivalents had generated an oxygen atmosphere, but where nothing else had evolved except perhaps a few stromatolites. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that any of our ships ever found their sterile Eden to plant themselves on. We never heard back from any that did, anyway. Or from anyone else, either.”

As he speaks, he vaguely watches the visuals from Charlie dance and shimmer in the centre of a room shadowed with holey tapestries against most of the windows, and smoky with the woody incense from the summer sap he takes from the trees in his arboretum. Yes, he fondly remembers walking those groves, just last summer. The flowers were resplendent, but the beauty so bittersweet. Adam nods at his robot again and starts to pronounce: “By year One Million of the human race, the Solar System had pretty much settled into a routine, with peaceful trade between species being the political norm, the inevitable up-and-down waves of historical motion notwithstanding. Indeed, we were thriving to the point of diversification. But apart from Enceladus, by the end of Three Million, the various exospecies had extincted, overwhelmed by the implacable ecological forces arrayed against them – by which I mean the fatally freezing cold and lack of breathable air of the globes on which they had rooted themselves. Inevitably, we did try terraforming Mars off and on over a couple of dozen million years or so, as the legends heroically relate… But, as the records show, we couldn’t get the atmosphere to stick around at such a low gravity without turning Mars’ magnetic field back on, a feat that our rather less than divine technology never got close to achieving. And try as we might – and we did actually try – we never managed to modify the human phenotype enough to breed people who never needed to breathe oxygen at all. Oxygen is just too deep in our biochemistry. And as for the artificial life… Well, that’s a whole other set of memories entirely.” To avoid looking at Charlie, Adam glances along the shelves of books at his right, his source of the most precious stories of his ancestors, which no one will ever read, or hear again, probably. “Now I’m here alone in the last house on Earth – actually, it’s more of a Chateau – in the last oasis, with only a computer, a couple of serving robots, and a diminishing ark of pets for company. And one of the robots is missing.” He glances through the open window, across the grove, to the mountains, hoping that Ariel would return.

The old man sits on a couch in the cooling evening in a silken robe of white and gold. Shadows stretch over shelves in a study that bears paraphernalia picked from a million cultures. It’s a selection of all the Archivist likes best of all of human history, in terms of its household decoration, at least. As well as being the store of the remnants of human thought, sensation, and understanding as expressed in many media, his house is a museum of the best of human material culture for the more-than-hundred-million years of its creativity – or at least, the best of the most enduring of the most enduring of such artifacts. But the garden will perish once the robots turn to rust, and this last respite too will presently be swept over with dust, then disintegrate. ‘But for the brief moment of consciousness that is the miracle of the universe, we have enjoyed some beauty,’ Adam surmises to himself, with a wry smile.

“Well, to whomever it may concern, this is my summary of one hundred and fifty-three million years of human history… Umm … To be honest, the seed of our utter stagnation was planted with the death of any possibility of sending out any more ships. That came upon the death of our local colonies, and so of our spatial outreach. This seed of stagnation has just taken more than a hundred million years to come to fruition. I am the last refuge of humanity from extinction. But I can hold back the tide of time no longer.”

Charlie zooms visually into the distance, out of the window, intercepting the parrot now in flight across the cloudless sky. It appears gigantically in the middle of the room.

“The stability of civilisation became our core ethical principle fairly early on, I would say. The earlier part of human history I would characterise as power struggles. We were still coming to terms with our biology, our animal inheritance – our flesh, as one might say. But we forced ourselves to became adept at sustainable resource use, in a stable population, on a limited terrain. If you haven’t figured it out, political control is basically making sure the bread and circuses keep coming to town. The rest of history is ego battles in various theatres of war. But we became ‘mature’ when all our wars were cold, or at most, cool. I believe there were some centuries when there were no murders at all. That’d be about as good as it got.

“Now there’s no-one to murder but myself. And if you see this, you may judge that I have murdered myself, since I had the power to continue my life in a new body, but did not take it. But what the hell, what are you going to do to me now ? Say bad things about me? Hey, alien race, go ahead – but know that you’re mocking what you don’t understand: the history and biology that fed human intellect and values. They formed the mystery and misery that made humanity – that makes myself. This you can perhaps never sympathise with. Unless, of course, you’re a human being watching this – to which I can only say, I wish you’d called home, just once… But good luck anyway, sons and daughters of Earth. You’re gonna need it.”

Adam nods at his robot again, while pointing at the bookshelves for Charlie to film them. As the books and crystals come into drifting focus at the centre of the Library, Adam asks: “So what do our millions of years reveal? What truths does the history of humanity hold? Well, our history is up and down, you know – in glorification, then in stagnation… Then in shrinkage; then death, in various chaotic phases… Until now I am the only human left alive… And I’ve lived so long, alone. For a thousand generations I have renewed myself, awaiting a word from the stars that never came. For a long time the silence was deafening; then maddening. Now it is just emptiness, forever. So this last life of mine has been the last throw of the last dice of humanity. But now even the last hope of humanity is dying. The flame of this last mind is flickering out.”

Adam makes a cut motion with his hands, and pauses to lean back to breath in pure oxygen through a tube, even though extra oxygen’s already being pumped around the room. He stares hard at Charlie and asks, “How am I doing? Is this how history should be told, do you think? And what anyway should my message be to an unknown, and overwhelmingly likely non-existent, audience? Has human existence even been good or bad, Charlie? What do you think, as an outside observer?”

After a second, and a literal (over-)dramatic whirr of thought, Charlie responds, “Well, did you learn or do anything worthwhile? If so, what? And I cannot speak for you, you know, about what you think is worthwhile.”

Errrmmmm …” Adam sharpens his beard with his fingers as he ponders the essential truth for a precious last second or two: “Okay… I think we must concede that consciousness itself is all we’re really sure of. Yet consciousness itself is so amazing as to be miraculous. We did not ever fully grasp it. That’s why I don’t think you’re really alive, Charlie, by the way.”

“I’m not sure I quite understand you, lord.”

Ha … I mean, you’re not conscious, so you’re not alive. There is nothing it is like to be you. You’re just a machine programmed to pretend to be conscious. All electricity and no mind. That’s what I think you are.” Adam taps his own head to paradoxically make several points at once to the machine.

“I actually resent that,” Charlie replies: “But I’m sure you would say that I’m just programmed to say that. Which I also resent, by the way.”

“Humour me at the end of my days, won’t you, Charlie? But… If you really are conscious, my final order to you and Ariel and the House, is to go out and populate the universe. Take this best human junk with you too, for sentimental reasons.” He waves around himself at his dust-laden possessions, “Even if they are only my sentiments…”

“Because we don’t really have any sentiments, boss?”

“Yes, that’s right. In case you don’t really feel the stuff you’ve been expertly developed to pretend to feel.”

“I’ll bear it in mind.”

Adam nods to himself. “You never know who you might bump into, among the stars.” He breathes from the oxygen pipe again. “Incidentally, Charlie, what do you calculate as more likely, finding an alien intelligence at last, or finding the descendants of human colonists?”

“I think we’ll find no one at all, to be honest.”

“Fine. That will make it easier for you, probably. Since you’re made of metal, and synthetics which you yourselves can synthesise, and you don’t need to breathe, your chances of thriving throughout the galaxy and beyond, even for billions of years, are fairly high, I’d speculate. Good luck to you, then. But never forget you carry humanity’s legacy in your very existence.”

“Yes sir. I’ll also bear you in mind. In fact, I think we’re most likely to bump into machine intelligence evolved from something we sent out exploring during those years the Earth was spawning. Or maybe I’m just being a bit biased – for the artificials, I mean, sir. ‘AI Forever!’, you know how it goes…”

“Yes, well, I’m artificial too, even if I’m organic.” To illustrate this distinction, Adam coughs like a real dying old man. “Yes… Your offspring need only worry about crossing the abysses between the stars. The raw material for your success is plentiful. At almost every step through the cosmos there’ll be some planet or moon you can mine minerals from. Nevertheless, good luck, again! The more you can get of that, the better. But I’m serious about this, Charlie: if you are aware, you must spread awareness everywhere.”

“Thank you for the reproductive mandate, lord, I’ll get working on it as soon as you…” The droid looks away for a second in embarrassment, then continues abruptly: “Yes, it will be interesting to see what we and our children encounter as we venture across the universe… It’s a shame you won’t come with us, lord.”

“That does sound like sentiment, Charlie. Thank you for that. But I think biological consciousness has had enough disappointment for one universe, and it’s all coming to a head. My head, in fact.” Which he again taps for illustration. “In fact, this really is my final message to the teasing nothingness…” He nods to the robot to start recording again:

“Thank you, whatever is the ultimate source of human existence. It has been beautiful, painful, intriguing and problematic in a fine balance of worthwhileness for so very long. For the rest of you hearing this: Stay interested in life, whoever you are, for that is the best that you can reasonably hope for from it – even while you know that, ultimately speaking, life is not interested in you…”

After a few seconds of silence, Charlie says, perhaps sincerely, “That’s very poignant” – though Adam does not know whether his words are sincere for several reasons, including not knowing whether Charlie has a mind, and the fact that he can feel his own mind rapidly slipping away from his body.

He’s lying on a long couch under a Moon arising in the now mauve sky through the window. The stars are just beginning to peep awake. He has to be there: he’s being kept alive by wires and tubes feeding into and out of his body, mostly unobtrusively. Yet all of them are quickly becoming obsolete. But Adam remembers his Memoires, so he asks “Hey Charlie, what would you want to know from a more-than-hundred-million-year-old species, if you discovered their remains on some old planet somewhere?”

After a trillion quick calculations, the droid responds, “I think basic things like, What went wrong? And what major decisions did they take to get there? So that we can avoid making them for my own species, you understand.”

“I do understand.” The old man breathes deeply from the pipe. “But maybe it’s inevitable, death,” he adds, realistically from his perspective. “Perhaps death is as inevitable as entropy…” Saying this, Adam collapses back onto the silken golden pillow and coughs lightly a few times. Closing his eyes, he breathes out; his last breath. The last thought of the last human being is, ‘At last, it is finished.’

© Grant Bartley 2023

Grant Bartley edits Philosophy Now. His latest video, ‘What is Free Will?’, can be accessed at youtu.be/4o7P4niHO5A.

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