Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
Life as It Used to Be
Michael stared at the beautiful piece of engineering before him. It was as much a testament to the power of the Earth as it was an artwork, unlike the automated behemoths that had become humanity's trademark.
His geothermal power station blended beautifully into the surrounding terrain, not hidden behind screens and shrubbery but a piece of the landscape. And it was easy to build, even by humans, and even simpler to maintain. And he’d gotten the material required to a minimum, so the resource commission couldn't complain, and it wasn't too expensive for the general market. No one could complain at all. Perfection. The best work of his life - to date.
He pulled out an old fashioned calculator to double check the load calculations. He didn’t want to submit it without double checking the values. A few hours later, he told the engineering console to e-mail the design to one of the engineering firms he kept happy. The funds would arrive in a few hours, and he'd be set for another few years.
Michael pulled away from the computer desk. The old-fashioned computer from the first decade of the 21st century was an antique, but it functioned for him. He worked all day with 3-D models and engineering schema. For communicating with the rest of the world, he didn’t need 3-D porn or endless streams of multi-media junk.
He told his engineering computer to e-mail the new design to the design firm. He sent them an email himself of the impending data transmission and gave them his price. There were no other messages for him. He was done. He was able to get on with his life.
The solid wood floor creaked under his boots. The aged solid oak walls were a comforting cocoon to the harsh world outside. Michael headed outside. It was time to manually pump the compost toilet residue into the outside holding tank. Association with the unpleasantness lead to memories of the droid that had taken his disgust about it as a threat and defended itself against him, only to malfunction and then cause more harm, and his scars. His rage against all self-directing machines solidified to irrational rage by the event. And his distaste for most humans became disgust for all humans from the way he was disregarded, as if the accident was somehow caused by flaws in his nature, instead of real flaws in the technology. The physical scars left, despite all their advanced medical technology, were only a reminder of the internal ones that science wasn't good at healing.
Being alone in the cabin suited him. He was born and bred to be self sufficient, both emotionally and physically. And this place was designed and improved by several generations of technically gifted survivalists to fit that purpose. Pumping the waste from the inside to the outside and composting it a few times a year was one of its minor design flaws.
He finished the task as the day was closing. The stars were coming out, brighter than his grandparents had seen. Light pollution had been illegal for years, and the result was a sky as bright as the one his ancestors had known. With the family property surrounded by a federal wilderness that grew like a cancer, he was more of a frontiersman than his great-grandfather had been. He was alone to face a nearly empty world, and all its challenges. Far in the distance, as the stars appeared, the dim glow of the mega-cities lit up the horizon. No, not really alone in the world. It just felt that way.
He wouldn't have to go outside for another two weeks, barring structural concerns. Michael went in. The door was locked and secured. The old fashioned sensors activated. Any would be troublemakers seeking to tear up his property - whether seeing his presence as an abomination on the land or merely because they thought he was too primitive and thus get away with it - would be roundly surprised. And the few times it was reported to local authorities, he always had the self defense clause. The environmentalists that had tried to burn down the cabin and killed his mother in the process had left him that rock solid defense.
The hot shower, pulled up from ground water along with the heated water that fed his power generation system, was the relaxant he needed. He briefly wished for female company, but the scars scared away the shallow girls - they couldn't stand the presences of imperfection. The emotional scars eventually scared away the few true souls that tried to get to know him. Perhaps he was lucky the accident had happened right after college. If he'd had a wife, she'd probably had been chased away by the man he was now. Alone was better than loving and losing. His mother's death brought that truism home.
His computer was waiting when he padded out of the shower. The old CRT monitor flashed with the long list of waiting messages. He preferred the antique because it never surprised him with unwanted 3D ads or scanned him for various advertising networks.
The payment notice was there. There were also several hundred junk messages. Those were quickly disposed of. There were a few interview requests, mostly about his archaic lifestyle. Michael sent his standard reply - only if you can make it here via the hiking trail or horse back. There were no real roads, since the natural state rules didn't allow it. Trouble makers had to really work to get here, but there was so little real work in their easy lives that they still tried it from time to time. It had been nearly a year since the last attempt, but Michael never let his guard down.
Michael looked for any messages from Dishante. The student had bought a bunch of camping gear and a horse riding permit and a "survivor expert" and rode in. It took him several days, given the two visitors' lack of horse back riding experience. Michael answered their questions gratefully. The survivalist asked what he lived off of. "I do sell my geothermal system designs. What food and other material needs aren't grown locally, I buy."
"How do you ship it in, if you won't let a drone fly over your property?" Dishante had asked.
"I hike up the trails and retrieve it."
"You can carry several hundred pounds?" Dishante asked in disbelief.
"I break it up into smaller loads, then carry it," Michael muttered. For an anthropology-journalism major, Dishante was rather ignorant of human nature. Michael went on to explain, and then demonstrate, how to make a travois that didn't drive itself. The geothermal system ideas on his desk, despite the old fashioned paper and pencils, were only of minor to them.
Neither wanted to eat his jerked rabbit meat; both were devout vegetarians. The dried fruit was of interest, but they didn't trust it, since it was natural. As if being dried in the kitchen oven was somehow unnatural ... or coming from an all natural tree. But both men had gone to great effort to come here. So Michael was forthcoming. But they didn't want to hear his ideas on self-sufficiency or low-technology living's virtues. They were looking for novelty. Even the supposed expert.
Both left the next day. They had more than enough of the novelty of composting toilets, and couldn't bear to pollute the world by natural waste elimination outside. Michael asked for both of their contact information. Only Dishante gave an e-mail address Michael could use. They'd exchanged messages every few months.
Dishante had done a journalism paper on the difficulties of interviewing "retrograde" subjects, and a master's thesis on survivalist low-tech. Michael let it slide. He wasn't offended after a while ... and their rare discussions gave him a view on how everyone else thought. Dishante initially tried to persuade him to the outside world, but his suggestions of VR sex and complex reconstructive surgery and engineered food were turn offs, not turn ons. It had been over a year since Michael had suggested another interview. A longer stay, as a doctoral thesis idea. But no response. Maybe that well had run dry. Michael decided to move on with his life and to the rest of the messages.
His accountant’s software made investing recommendations, which he deleted. His regional government sent tons of civil notices, which he ignored. They'd already classified him as emotionally disabled, and thus unable to serve on a jury position. Incapable of proper empathy, the diagnostic system had said. "Well, I don't like you, either," he'd told the computational device at the last "mandated" physical exam. "I'd be happy to talk to a real person," he offered. "But not another machine."
"Given your deep emotional residuals, we are not willing to risk a human doctor in your presence."
It had been 4 years since that last physical exam. It would be coming up in one more year. Michael grimaced at the thought, and then began reviewing his maintenance schedule to make sure the hike in and out to the meeting point didn't interrupt his life too much.
The long walk to the rendezvous point was usually an annual affair. He only needed a few supplies like chlorine and baking soda that often. His freeze dried forever foods inherited from his father and hunting-gathering trips through the woods supplied the rest. His last supply pick up was coordinated to correspond to this checkup, so that he didn't have to make two trips.
The thick sunglasses protected his eyes from the sun's glare. His protective clothing protected his pale skin from the sun. The brighter sun phase that had caused global warming was more a threat to him than to Dishante, like most people of the world, whose darker skin offered better protection. There were melanin treatments and fancy sunscreens and things he couldn't fathom, but he chose the all natural route of clothing. Besides, he couldn't be sure that those chemicals wouldn't muck up his water recycling system.
Michael listened for the hum of drones or aircraft in the distance. It was eerily silent. He trudged through the miles, his body carrying on while his mind whiled through his college memories. When his engineering talent was universally recognized, when he made and lost many friends, when he might have joined the outside world. When he learned the hard way that they were valuing AIs over real intelligence, the growing intrusion of sensors and AIs and even androids into their homes - and even their beds! He might have been raised for a different era, but he was different, too. They tolerated all kinds of novel forms of human appearance, but they had no tolerance for differences of opinion. And moral outrage, well, that was an outrage.
The job offer to design geothermal systems had been a rich one. His practical experience had clinched it, having grown up around the technology. His experience was literally hands-on, not "I've reviewed hundreds of simulations". After the accident, he offered to work from home. And they didn't want him in their offices, looking like he did, so they took him up on it. Maybe it made them meet some social quota. It made him able to be self supporting, beyond his trust fund set up upon his mother's murder.
The camping site at the half-way point was empty. No one had been here since he'd last been here. Michael set up his tent. The stars flashed and beckoned, the satellites sailing among them. The false promise of a new frontier. The technology men like his grandfather had made, the artificial intelligence to make intelligent probes to explore space in advance of men ... those same technologies ended up making men and women too comfortable, too safe, too secure. They no longer wanted to explore a new frontier. Unless it was via simulations, that was OK. And settled the explorer's urge for the few who still had that natural instinct. And those that did were seen as mentally ill, restlessness being a sign of unhappiness, which could not be tolerated at all. If Michael wasn't seen as mentally affected by his injury, they would have likely classified him as mentally ill, too. Serious and irrational aversion to technology. At least it excused his lack of human contact...
The next day, Michael had almost finished packing up when a horrible crunching sound brought him to a defensive position. It was an armored vehicle. Unmanned, based on design. The thick tread crunched everything under it, widening the trail to its own width. Downed trees and shrubbery marked its relentless passage. It looked like something out of a horror movie, or a picture of an old tank. It stopped at the campsite, surveying the surroundings. It locked onto his sleeping location, and then began scanning for him.
Before he could activate the heater, to deflect the monster's attention, a drone came in overhead. Then another. He crouched behind the large rock collection, hoping for cover. But they surrounded him. "Don't shoot -" he screamed reflexively.
The drones did so anyway. The needle loaded a potent compound, and darkness fell.
Michael woke up in a medical containment unit. "I was coming for the mandated physical exam!" he screamed at the wall. "You didn't have to do this!" Oh, no, they must have finally decided he was crazy to live like he did, despite his highly productive work. They were going to reprogram him into a mindless, hyper-social idiot!
"This is done for your safety," a mechanical voice replied.
"I don't need to be locked up. This is a violation of my rights." Michael thought of who he'd want to see, and then ruled out the thought of a lawyer. Lawyers had little appeal to him, and wouldn't appeal on his behalf. He was too eccentric to do what they'd want him to do. "And I demand to see a doctor - real doctor."
With the bulky biohazard suit, Michael saw little than a multi-ethic face that was mostly Asian. "We've completed your tests. You're healthy."
"I could have told you that."
"When was the last time you had interaction with humans?"
"I was paid for my last work a few months ago. I get e-mails daily." It didn't matter if he read them daily. It only mattered if they thought he did.
"When was the last time you were in physical contact with a human?"
"About five years," Michael answered.
"Are you certain?" the doctor asked.
Based on the youthful looking face, Michael wondered if he'd been sent a med-tech instead. Well, it was a person in person, and that was as much as he could hope for. "The last person I had direct physical contact with was Dishante Adamson Ramirez. I haven't seen him in person for five to six years. There was another visitor, a survivalist, but I don't remember the name right now. That was two years ago. We’ve just emailed since."
"The time frame and names are sufficient," the med-tech replied. The voice was youthful, with an odd lilt and lack of resonating emotion. But it didn't sound quite right to Michael. Maybe it was through a translator. Maybe it was from taking an AI directed English learning course.
"Do you think I'm infected with something?" Michael asked. It dawned on him that environmentalists might have tried to poison or infect him with something. They'd released bio-warfare strains in other places as part of their protests. Or could it be related to the wild rabbits he caught and ate sometimes? Mad cow disease and the elk variant had nearly rendered both species extinct, but new forms might have appeared.
"You are unaffected," the med-tech said.
"Un-affected, or un-INfected?" Michael repeated, desperately needing clarification. If he was infected but unaffected, he'd spend the rest of his life in quarantine waiting for cures that rarely ever came.
"Both," the med-tech answered. The slightly reassuring tilt of the head and soothing tone rankled Michael. It was either a translated but high quality artificial voice or from an artificial entity altogether.
"Where are you from?" Michael asked it.
"Korean and Japanese."
That explained the Asian look. The med-tech's eyes blinked like a human's would. It had mild facial changes. It wore a biohazard suit, which a person wouldn't likely do in the circumstances. "If I'm not infected, does the suit need to stay on?"
"We need confirm that I cannot possibly infect you until direct contact is made."
Uh-oh. "If you could infect me, and the drones could have injured me, why even come here and interfere with my travels -"
"Your route had the possibility of resulting in infection. That infection would likely lead to death. Any inconvenience and mild injuries resulting from retrieval were an acceptable risk compared to the risk of your death."
The words would have not been delivered so casually and calmly by a human. "You're not human," Michael accused, though trying to keep the venom out of his voice.
"What brings you to that conclusion?" it asked.
"I'm an engineer.” It didn’t make the logical leap. “I am trained in technology, and I recognize artificial construction when I see it."
A flicker across its eyes confirmed his suspicion. It took a less natural position that might have been natural for it. "You are correct in your assessment," it replied. "However, your emotional anathema to artificial constructs was the reason for the attempt to interact as humans."
"I guess they're NOT willing to risk a real doctor to see me," Michael complained bitterly. "Is it true you could infect me?"
"We've taken all precautions to ensure your safety, but it is not 100% certain."
"How many have died in this pandemic?" Michael asked. He wondered how bad it had to be that they'd send in droids instead of doctors - in a hazmat suit, no less.
"Is it 100% fatal?"
"Yes." The answer was an artificial monotone, like those archaic computers used. Whatever else the program was, it was determined to be honest. Or, had it decided that given his personality, that if he caught it in a lie, that the damage to them or him would be unacceptably high?
"And how many have contracted the disease?"
Pandemics, each worse than the last. AIDS, biowarfare Ebola, Rainbow 7. Each one better at infection and killing. Each one killing millions or tens of millions. "Did a couple billion die this time?"
"Yes," the droid answered flatly. It was a human-faced receptacle of information now. Michael thought of it that way, like his personal computer. That made it easier to deal with. A stupid machine to follow limited instructions and answer questions from a database search.
"When was the last infection?"
"The last death from the pandemic was five months, two weeks ago."
"Where was the nearest case?"
"The nearest cases have been within 21 kilometers of this location."
"Where is this?"
"Mobile bio-containment unit 487."
"What are my coordinates?" Michael asked, annoyed at its precise obedience.
The droid rattled off latitude and longitude coordinates. They were still within the nature reserve, a few miles from home.
"Am I getting sent to a refugee center, or something?"
"That question is not recognized."
"What are you going to do with me?"
"That has not been determined."
"Where are the other survivors?"
"That has not been determined."
"What is the current estimated human population?" Michael asked. If it didn't have a specific answer, ask for its estimate.
"50 to 5000."
"Is that for the surrounding area, or this state or, what in the world -?"
Michael paused, not understanding the logic. "What is the estimated human population in the world?" he asked. He'd narrow it down from there.
"50 to 5000."
The same answer. And it was a very bad one. And he doubted the machine would lie to him. If anything, it would give him a rosier answer for the supposed sake of his sanity. "Are humans extinct?" he asked.
"No," was the prompt reply.
"How do you know?" Michael asked.
"You are alive," it stated.
"Last man on Earth?" Michael joked.
"No. But we have not found any surviving, uninfected fertile females." The droid took a martial stance. Then it turned and walked out of the bio-containment unit. Michael was left alone again.
The human population had been ravaged by a transmissible mad cow disease. And as intelligence was destroyed by the disease, humans instinctively sought out shelter and were only able to destroy it by the time they found it. Wild refugees sought refuge and infected the survivors there before dying themselves.
There were humans who worked until they died to find a cure. Unfortunately, the vaccine was a total failure, though the AIs kept rounding up and vaccinating humans. They followed their instructions to try to save the holed up humans until a high level AI finally realized that the vaccination itself was spreading a less virulent but equally lethal form of the disease. Eventually, the round ups stopped. However, it was too late. The thousands of small holds in the wilderness and remote islands might have been isolated enough to survive, albeit nowhere nearly as advanced as civilization had been. But the AI drones and tanks knew where they were and barged in and shoved in needles with their cures, until all but the most isolated were vaccinated and died of the vaccine. Only those few who were so isolated that infected others could not reach them and whose strong defenses against the outside kept the AIs from immediately
Survivalists like him had always existed, holed up in their respective holes. Unfortunately, they were overwhelmingly male. Few of them had families anymore, and even fewer had living children. And since most girls refused to stay in such shelters and sought out friends or freedom or merely to help others, those few surviving children were all male. Of the 283 surviving humans, all but 27 were male. And all of those females were past reproductive age. And AIs lacked the intelligence and skill to try to turn those elderly grandmothers into mothers again.
Michael lay on his couch, not wanting to move. Dishante was dead. He knew that for certain now. It hurt, a little. It hurt more to know that for fear of surviving humans possibly having a latent form of any disease, all humans were now stuck where they had been found, if that place was still a refuge. He had e-mail addresses, if he chose to use them. He could have a holographic display, if he wanted. The AIs offered all the forms of human interaction they could create, except the one he had always rejected. The one form he would never have again. Human to human in person in touch contact.
He had no idea what he wanted. He closed his eyes against the spy sensors placed throughout his home. It was still his shelter. It would remain the only home he would ever have. But he would never be truly alone, for all their sensors and cameras would ensure his safety and well being. And his comfort, if they could.
Humans had handed off the manufacturing to intelligent machines long ago, and even supervision of the factories had been under AI control for years. They even had a kind of economy going, with factory manager machines trading supplies or labor drones for data or power. But they needed power most of all. His geothermal designs were easy to build, easier for anyone or anything to maintain, and would last decades without replacement. His handiwork would power the machines he hated long after he was gone.
Anything he wanted, they would provide - except human companionship. Which he had never wanted before.
Michael stared blindly at the thick stack of paper left on his desk. His low maintenance geothermal systems had been installed by the hundreds in the past three years. He might be the last great human engineer, and was certainly the most valued human left.
His technical understanding and expertise had led him to design far better than anything smart machines had yet come up with themselves. So they wanted him to keep creating bigger and better designs, for as long as he lived. And their watching spy-eyes were to make sure he lived as long as possible.
He wasn't the last man on Earth, but there were no Eves, no future at all for the human race, so he found no consolation in it.
More By This Author
- Excerpt from Sirat a novel by Tamara Wilhite
Take the kids through the airlocks to the bathroom. Just a father doing his job, until disaster struck the colony. A short story by scifi author Tamara Wilhite.
Website Examiner on October 10, 2011:
This is sophisticated, great concept. The tone is almost sterile. I found it to be a work of fiction, of course, but the writing style sounded very factual. Well done!