This is what he knew:
His name was Fisher.
The world was dangerous.
He was alone.
And that was all.
Fisher became born in a pod filled with bubbling gel. A plastic umbilical cord snaked from his belly. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw through the clear lid of the pod was destruction. Slabs of concrete and twisted steel fell to the floor amid clouds of dust. Severed wires spit sparks into the air. The world was coming apart.
Something told Fisher to get up, get out, run away while he still could.
The word instinct came to mind.
He pushed against the pod lid and it came open with a hiss. The gel stopped bubbling and drained away through holes at the bottom of the pod. Cold air struck Fisher’s wet skin when he sat up. It was the first time he’d ever been cold, and he hated it.
He’d made a mistake. He never should have opened the lid. He never should have made himself become born. Maybe if he just lay back down and closed the lid the gel would return and he could go back to sleep and he’d be warm and everything would be all right.
A huge, explosive thud hammered Fisher’s ears. The ground shook and the dim lights in the ceiling wavered and died. It was some kind of disaster. Or an attack. Fisher didn’t know anything about attacks, except that they were dangerous and should be avoided.
Pipes clanged against the floor and more debris rained down. More sparks, more dust. Bitter air stung his nostrils. Fisher had never smelled this smell before. In fact, it was pretty much the first thing he’d ever smelled. He was only a few moments old, after all, and hadn’t had time to smell much. Somehow, though, he knew the smell meant things were burning around him.
There was no choice now. He had to make himself all the way born and get out of whatever this place was before everything burned and crashed around him. He swung his legs over the side of the pod and set his bare feet down on the cold floor. He took a step, and then another, and that was as far as he got. The umbilical tugged him back. It was still attached to his belly. He would have to yank it out if he was going to become all the way born. But there was just no way he could do that. He knew this wasn’t how things were supposed to be. His birth was supposed to be soft. He was supposed to be soothed and bathed in light. He wasn’t supposed to be alone.
Another shuddering whomp, and Fisher’s ears popped. It felt like something massive had struck the building. Debris clattered down. A big chunk of ceiling fell right in front of him, and Fisher discovered another thing he knew: profanity. Profanity was a collection of words that helped express strong feelings.
Fisher uttered a word from his profanity collection now.
It was the first word he ever spoke.
If the ceiling chunk had struck his head, Fisher would have been dead. Over and done with. He couldn’t accept the idea of dying before he’d even become fully born, so he wrapped his fingers around his plastic umbilical and gave it a mighty yank. The cord came out, spraying milky fluid and a little bit of blood, and Fisher bawled because now he was completely born and he knew there’d be no going back.
But he didn’t bawl standing still.
He bawled while running and shouting profanity.
Fisher found more pods lining the walls of vast, caved-in rooms. The pods contained all kinds of animals.
In one room, the pods held dogs. In another, pigs. In yet another, goats.
One room was full of pods the size of his hand, thousands of them, and inside were bees and worms and butterflies.
Another room held only four pods, each many times the size of Fisher’s own. Inside were elephants, their eyes shut, their curving tusks tinted blue through the gel.
All the pods were broken. The lights were out. The gel didn’t bubble. Many were cracked, their gel oozing to the ground. And many more were completely crushed by fallen debris.
Fisher knew what death was. He had become born knowing. Death was failure. All the creatures in these pods had failed to survive.
He came to one last chamber, stretching into the smoky distance, where the pods were smashed and buried. From a mound of rubble emerged a slender brown arm. A human arm.
Fisher silently approached it. He brushed pebbles and dust from the damp fingers and touched the wrist.
Cold and still.
A noise drew Fisher’s attention away from the dead human. Down the corridor, through a haze of powdery light, a creature was bent over another pod. The creature was a little larger than Fisher and roughly shaped like him: two arms and two legs, a torso, an oval head. It was shaped like a human, but clearly not a human. A machine of some kind. The word robot came to Fisher’s mind.
The pod had been knocked partway off its support platform, and the dead human inside dangled out of it. The robot was doing something with the dead human’s umbilical cord.
Fisher’s breath quickened with fear. He pressed his lips together to keep from making a noise and took a slow step back, then another. His heel struck a fallen pipe, and, losing his balance, he went down hard.
The human-but-not-human creature’s head snapped around, turning its human-but-not-human face to Fisher.
It moved toward him.
“Fisher,” it said. “I have found you.”
Fisher ran. He scrambled over shattered puzzle pieces of concrete, through lung-choking smoke, through rooms where flames licked at pods of dead fish. He found a shaft of chalky light from above and began climbing up a steep slope of debris. Loose bits of concrete slid away beneath his hands and feet, and he struggled not to go sliding down with them.
Behind him, he could hear the screechy movements of the robot creature that knew his name, but the sounds grew fainter the higher up he climbed. He kept going until, at last, he stumbled out into moonlight.
He took a moment to understand his surroundings. Robot creatures could kill him, but so could his environment. He knew this in the same way he knew his name and knew profanity and knew what kinds of animals lay dead in their pods.
He was on the summit of a mountain formed from colossal slabs of granite. There were no buildings in sight. Scant patches of trees smoldered and smoked. Soil and rocks tumbled from collapsing ledges. He couldn’t tell exactly what had just happened here, but he had a strong sense that the place of his birth had just been attacked from above. How, or by what, he couldn’t say.
And, actually, he didn’t care.
Later, he might.
But now? He just wanted to get away.
He took off at a jog down the mountain, his eyes never straying for long from the star-freckled night sky. As he descended, the way grew thicker with trees and ferns. Things rustled in the dark. Tiny eyes glinted with pinprick light from the high tree boughs.
Hints of old structures in the woods revealed themselves. There were small piles of concrete bricks and crumbling sections of walls. Anything could be hiding among them.
The word predator came to Fisher’s mind. Predators were animals that used weaker animals as food. The eyes in the dark might belong to predators. The robot down in the ruined birthing structure might be a predator. To deal with predators, Fisher would have to make sure he was always the strongest animal. He needed a weapon.
Keeping watch for approaching predators, he crept up to the remains of a building. There was just a mostly fallen wall, overgrown with ferns and vines. From a jagged concrete slab protruded a thin steel rod, sticking straight up. It flaked with rust.
Fisher planted his foot against the concrete and grasped the rod with both hands. He bent it back, and then forward, and then back again, and continued like that until the rod snapped. The end was a jagged point of sharp nastiness.
Fisher knew what a spear was. Now he had one.
How had he known what a spear was? How had he known how to fashion one? His hands appeared to know things he didn’t quite know himself. For instance, they knew how to build a fire. Fisher could almost feel his fingers clutching tinder. Dry grass made good tinder. Or bark. Or leaves. Or tree resin. If he had tinder, then he’d need a way to ignite a fire. He could use flint sparks, or sunlight focused through a lens, or wood sticks and a small bow. Once the tinder was lit, he would need kindling to keep the fire going. There were plenty of branches around to use as kindling.
Fisher wished he could build a fire now. Sticky gel and clammy sweat coated his skin. It was bad to sweat in the cold. He discovered he knew the word hypothermia. But now was not the time or place for a fire. A fire might keep predators away, but it might also signal his presence to things. Things like the robot. Better to get more distance from his birthing place.
A twig snapped behind him. Fisher spun around.
“Fisher,” the robot said. “I have been looking for you.”
It reached for him with a soot-stained hand.
Fisher used profanity and thrust his spear into the robot’s chest.
The mechanical creature’s face was a hideous mask. Two yellow globes bulged where eyes should have been. In place of a nose was a pair of vertical slits. Its mouth was an ear-to-ear chasm covered by fine wire mesh. Red wires poked from a small crack in its head. Maybe a rock had fallen on it during the attack. Fisher wished it had been a larger rock.
The mechanical man grabbed the spear with both hands and slowly withdrew it from his chest. The shaft was smeared with oil.
“Please be careful,” said the machine, handing Fisher back his spear. His voice buzzed and hissed. “You nearly punctured my hydraulic pump.”
“What do you want?” Fisher said, ready to make another spear thrust. This time he’d aim for the machine’s cracked skull.
“I want to help you.”
Not what Fisher expected. He figured the machine wanted to kill him. Tear his head off. Eat his brains and guts as mechanical-man fuel.
“Help me do what?”
“My directives are to help Ark-preserved species survive so that they may reproduce and repopulate the Earth.”
Fisher didn’t know what most of those words meant, and definitely not in that order. He decided the safest thing to do was kill the mechanical man. Just as he prepared to spring, the machine’s head swiveled around.
“We are in imminent danger,” he said.
“Imminent …? From what?”
“Accessing database of fauna hunting behavior and calls. Please stand by. Database failure. Attempting access again. Please stand by. Failure. Hmm. Attempting access again. Please stand—”
“Hey! What’s hunting me?”
“I do not know,” said the mechanical man. “That’s what database failure means. My brain is malfunctioning. How is your brain?”
More profanity almost shot from Fisher’s mouth, but words froze on his tongue. Creeping up behind the mechanical man, at least two dozen pairs of little glowing eyes approached. They belonged to creatures about four feet long, sleek and brown-furred with pink paws and slender, naked tails.
“Ah,” the mechanical man said. “I believe these are rats. But different from the specimens preserved in the Ark. It appears that untold thousands of years of evolution have changed them.”
Fisher knew about rats. There were rats in some of the destroyed pods back in his birthing place—the Ark the mechanical man was talking about. The rats that encroached now were much larger, and their paws more like his own hands. A few of them rose up and walked on two legs.
Don’t get bitten, Fisher thought. Infection and disease were very dangerous. They could lead to his death. Fisher was only a few hours old and could not afford to die.
These thoughts kicked his heart into a rapid throb. His limbs coursed with blood and energy. He welcomed the sensation. It would help him fight.
One of the rats darted around the mechanical man’s legs and leaped at Fisher. With a swing of his spear, Fisher sent it squealing through the air. But more rats were upon him. He hissed in pain as rat claws raked his shins. He thrust his spear down toward his attackers, but they were agile and managed to twist and squirm away from his jab.
“Run, Fisher,” said the mechanical man.
Fisher didn’t need to be told twice. He turned and took off in a mad sprint, slipping on mud, scrambling over ruined spans of walls. But the rats were faster. He could hear their squeaks and the splash of paws in the wet earth. He had no choice but to turn and fight. Facing them, he bared his teeth and raised his spear. The rats bared their teeth in return. Theirs were as long as his fingers.
I have stupid little teeth, thought Fisher.
But he had something the rats didn’t: a tool.
He rushed forward with his spear and jabbed at the rodents. They weren’t very impressed at first. The biggest of them squeaked, and in response the other rats surged.
So, the big one was their pack leader. That was the one Fisher needed to kill first.
He hurtled over a charging rat and drove his spear between the leader’s shoulders. The rat thrashed and convulsed on the point, its tail madly whipping around.
With the rat impaled on the end of his spear, Fisher slammed it down, right into the middle of the pack. Now the rat was still, and Fisher felt like throwing up. He clenched his jaw and tried to ignore the sensation. There wasn’t room for anything but fighting and surviving. No distractions. No feelings.
He braced himself, ready for the next wave of attacks. Instead, the rats fled, scurrying away into the surrounding ruins.
Fisher thought of giving chase, because he was angry at them for attacking him and the fight was still in his blood. But his head prevailed. This was a time to be cautious, or even fearful. Fear was another kind of survival tool. Fear reminded Fisher how soft his flesh was, how easily he could fail to survive.
Like blood from a wound, the urge to fight drained from his limbs and left behind exhaustion. His empty muscles burned. In all the hours since his birth he’d had nothing to eat. He needed food, or at least water. He remembered passing some ashy puddles. Maybe he could risk a few sips.
With nervous glances he turned and trudged toward a cement pylon jutting from the ground like a snapped bone. A pool of rainwater gathered around its base. It didn’t look at all drinkable. But maybe he could find a way to clean it. If he let it drip through rocks and gravel and then sand, and then boiled what was left …
A rat leaped off the pylon, reaching straight for Fisher’s face with its grasping claws. But something knocked it out of the way: the mechanical man.
Instead of clawing Fisher’s eyes, the rat tore at the mechanical man’s. The machine said nothing, silent except for the smack of its plastic hands as it swatted at the rat while the rat tore apart its eye socket.
Fisher swung his spear with a grunt and batted the rat off the mechanical man’s face. It arced through the air and landed in the mud, then scampered off with an angry squeal.
Fisher gaped at the mechanical man. One of his eyes hung loose on wires.
“Why did you …? You just stood there while … You saved me.”
“Yes, I did,” the machine said. “As I told you, my directive is to help Ark-preserved species survive so that they may repopulate the Earth.”
He stared at Fisher with his expressionless plastic face. Fisher got the feeling he was supposed to respond in some way, but he didn’t know how.
“Let’s get out of here before the rats come back,” Fisher said.
They walked together in the shadows, the machine creaking with every step.
They came to a clearing of brown grass. Huddling behind a fallen log, Fisher could see around for a hundred yards while remaining concealed from view. But even if predators couldn’t see him, they could still find him. He produced odors. And the mechanical man was noisy. His loose eye whirred loudly, and a crackly hiss came from his mouth.
“I have something for you,” he said.
“Quiet. There could be things out there. They’ll hear you.”
“Ah, yes, dangers. Very dangerous. I will adjust my volume. How is this?”
“Still loud enough to get me killed,” Fisher said.
He stood and began pacing the clearing. A lacy drizzle chilled his skin. He needed dry fuel to make a fire, but the forest floor was a damp mess, and the trees were dark with moisture. Was the outside world always wet? Fisher had no way of knowing, but he hoped not. Cold and wet weren’t good conditions for survival, and Fisher didn’t merely want to survive, he had to. It was important, and not just to himself. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, but he knew this as surely as he knew his own name.
He licked drizzle from his own hand. At least he wouldn’t die of thirst.
But hunger? Maybe.
Something rustled in the brush. Fisher tensed. He fingered the tip of his spear.
There, at the foot of a shrub, a little brown snake slithered in the underbrush. Its forked tongue tested the air.
Snakes were edible. Their meat contained protein.
Fisher held his breath and pulled his spear back for a throw.
“Fisher, I have something for you,” the mechanical man said, walking up behind him.
The snake whipped away, into the deeper brush, as if it had never been there.
Fisher whirled around to face the machine and almost shouted with anger, but he silenced himself. No sense scaring off everything in the clearing.
“I was hunting,” Fisher said.
“Hunting, yes. Using other living things as nutritional resources. Hunting is necessary if you are to survive.”
“You said you want me to survive, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” the machine said.
“Then why did you scare my prey away?”
“Fisher, your voice is getting loud.”
“I was right all along,” Fisher said. “You really do want to kill me. You just have a strange way of going about it.”
“I can be quiet. I am being quiet now. Yes. Now, as I said, I have something for you. Please access my dorsal compartment.” The robot’s back popped off with a sproing, and a panel landed on the damp earth. “Ah. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I appear to be damaged. The rats and collapse of the Ark have left me operating below specifications. Do not be alarmed, Fisher. I am still able to help you survive and repopulate the planet. You will find useful items inside my compartment.”
The machine turned around to present an open space in its back. Inside was a folded square of dark green cloth. At the machine’s urging, Fisher removed it and unfolded it. It was shaped roughly like he was, with legs and arms.
Yes, it seemed right to Fisher that he should wear clothing. It took him only a moment to figure out how to fit the clothing over his body. It covered him from the neck down, and the parts that went over his feet were lined with a nubby surface. He could feel how it helped him get a better grip on slippery ground. His skin began to warm, and for the first time, he was a little bit glad the mechanical man had found him.
“Your skin is darkly pigmented to give you some protection from sun exposure,” the machine said as Fisher replaced his hatch. “But clothing will help you against weather and insects. Such protections are important. The world has changed since you were grown inside your birthing chamber. The world has evolved. But you have not evolved with it.”
The machine seemed to know a lot about Fisher. But Fisher didn’t know anything about the machine. And there were a lot of things he didn’t know about himself, or his world, or how he’d come to exist in this world.
It was time to find out.
“What’s your name?” Fisher asked. Things that could speak should have names.
“I am a custodial unit designated … designated … failure to access.” The mechanical man cocked his head to the side. “Ah, yes, several of my memory modules are missing or not functional. I am damaged. This may be a problem.”
“You don’t know your own name? Even I know my own name, and I just became born.”
“Yes, you are Fisher. That is the module you were imprinted with.”
“Imprinted? What does that mean?”
“I will explain myself,” said the mechanical man. A small panel of some dark gray material in the machine’s chest flickered and glowed white. Noises came from the robot that reminded Fisher of birds. The word music took shape in his head. Images appeared on the robot’s chest panel. Buildings. Towers, all far grander than the ruins.
“Many thousands of years ago, the planet teemed with people,” blared the mechanical man. “Humans occupied every climate and environment imaginable, from the deepest shadowed valleys to the highest mountain perches. They became the most dominant species to ever reside on Earth. Their numbers reached into the billions, and they believed they were eternal. But look now upon their ruins. See what became of their lofty achievements. Their legacy is rubble, inhabited by rats and humble creatures. Humans are no more, Fisher. Except for you.”
“You’re talking too loud again,” Fisher whispered. “And really weird.”
The mechanical man made a little click in his throat. “It’s not my fault. I’m running History Orientation Program 3–A. Would you like me to continue?”
“Can you do it quietly? And less weird?”
“I will attempt to do so. This is me attempting to do so. Yes. Well. The world was broken. Human activity changed the climate. It poisoned the waters. It stripped the soil of nutrients. It introduced new diseases. Many animals went extinct. Survival became harder. Resources became scarce. Humans fought wars constantly. They damaged themselves, and they damaged the environment they depended on for survival.”
Fisher had a hard time imagining how humans could have done so much to change their world. He was a human, after all, and he was just a hungry animal.
The robot continued: “Humans made many attempts to fix things. They tried to change animals so they could evolve more quickly in the changed world. They tried to change the seas and the earth itself. But each change brought unexpected consequences. Nature is a very complicated system, and you cannot change one part of the system without making other changes you did not intend. Many thousands of years ago, before the world collapsed into ruins, scientists made one last effort to save living things, to preserve what was left. Out of raw genetic material—genes, DNA, the substance of life—they crafted healthy specimens of as many useful life forms as they could. They made fish. Dogs. Sheep. Swine. Humans. And they stored them for safekeeping in the Life Ark, the location of your birth. The specimens were placed in birthing chambers and preserved in gel. I was one of several custodial robots programmed to maintain the Ark. The plan was to awaken the specimens once enough time had passed for the world to heal. Humans could then repopulate the planet. Civilization would survive. But something went wrong.”
Something went wrong. Those words seemed like the truest thing Fisher had ever heard. He’d known that from the moment he became born, cold and alone with his birthing structure falling down around him, and everything and everyone, dead.
“What about the people who built the Ark? The people who … built me?”
“It is more accurate to say that they grew you. But to answer your question, they, like all of humanity, were sick and could no longer reproduce. They died eventually in the Ark. Their tombs were on the bottom level, buried now beneath tons of rubble when the Ark was attacked.”
“What attacked it?”
The machine whirred. “I do not know.”
“But I’m the only one who survived?”
“Yes, but only by chance. Your birthing chamber was located below two steel crossbeams and so withstood the impact of the attack better than other places in the Ark. When I realized your body had not been destroyed, I decided to imprint you with a personality and awaken you in hopes that you might escape the Ark before you were killed. And now, here we are.”
The machine’s musical background noise stopped. His chest panel went dark.
Fisher didn’t say anything. He walked around. Then he sat down with his head between his knees. He felt disconnected, like a dead leaf spinning from a tree, drifting on updrafts but sure to fall to earth.
“You said there were once people, and then there weren’t, except for some of us in the Ark. And now everyone in the Ark is dead. Except for me.”
“Yes. That is accurate.”
“So, I’m it, then. The only one. The last.”
“And you’re going to help me survive. To repopulate the Earth.”
“How?” Fisher said, too loudly. Small creatures scurried in the gathering dark. “If I’m the last human, then civilization is over. As soon as I die, there won’t be any humans at all.”
“I agree that this presents challenges,” the robot said. “Our purpose is uncertain. As I said, I am a custodial unit. I was not designed for the tasks I must perform now to maintain your survival. Also, a rock fell on my head and a rat tried to eat my face, so it is possible that I am not seeing all the available options.”
Fisher stood again and peered into the gloom.
Without any other humans alive, what meaning did his own life have?
He was humanity’s dying breath.
But at least he was still breathing.
He decided he would keep breathing as long as he could.
He sat beside a rock and began sharpening his spear.