Archaeologist Trom Thunbuld lightly tapped the pause button on the viewscreen, freezing playback of the audio file. He sat back, feeling wearily shocked, and looked out the window to the dark rocky beach far below. It was lit only by white thrashing surf as waves crashed into the shore in an endless barrage. High tide tonight, he thought, looking at the relentless waves. The moon dropped from behind a cloud bank as if on cue, its bright green blue hue shining across the sea. The panorama that usually calmed him had no such effect today; what he had just heard ricocheted around his mind:
My name is Hamadziripi, the last human. As I speak, the Delphini are coming. They have my trail, and it won’t be long now. Perhaps, while postponing the inevitable, I should broadcast this record of the final days of humankind.
Whoever hears this, I congratulate you. You have succeeded in life where we failed. Perhaps you understand that the whole survives because of each part. Life has long-term plans. Too late did we learn the lessons that lay all around and within us. Too late did we realise how complex and fragile the conditions were that enabled our existence…
Trom, thought about the receivers, roughly just over 47317 light years away, each one a nearly nebula-wide net of fine nano-wires suspended in open space, like some unimaginably huge fishnet that trawled for planet-sized fish. Except each of the five thousand nets was cast in just the right place, to painstakingly collect very old, very faint, very specific radio waves. The receivers took fifty years of meticulous construction and another thirty-two gruelling years of impatient silence. Finally, they arrived, and were superbly netted, the first radio wave transmissions with enough energy to break through the Earth’s atmosphere. And in the vacuum of space, forever to travel at the speed of light, away from planet Earth.
How they had celebrated as the data began to flow. What started as a trickle in over just a decade turned into an exponential flood. For two hundred years, Trom and his team had sifted, strained, and pieced the data into individual streams. It had been his life’s work, and now it seemed he had just heard the beginning of the end. Trom sighed and, still looking out the window, tapped the viewscreen to continue.
“Before our somewhat brisk downfall, we were foolish and arrogant. We squandered our resources and raped our lands, oceans, and ourselves. We were born whore children, enslaved by an economic system that was controlled by a sociopathic one percent of our global population. By the time the first consequences of our human actions emerged, the fine green line of ecological balance was already well frayed and past any possible human repair–”
Here, the smooth toneless voice of Trom’s automata interjected. “Data flow break in stream approximately 10, 25, 08, 0951. Next section main stream cued.”
The moon and the ocean conspired to cast him and his dark office into green, aged sculptures of oxidised copper. Trom pushed his chair back whilst eyeing the next jagged line of audio, cued on the viewscreen. He turned his chair to face the window, and gazed out.
He could see, below the swirling clouds that peppered the moon’s atmosphere, broad swathes of green and blue, cut only by high, snow-covered mountain ranges. Trom had been to those massive lush green fields and tall forests. He had dug his hands deep into its rich black soils. He had swum just off the shores of its deep and immense fresh-water lakes. The moon slowly turned as he watched, revealing a steadily moving topographical face. Trom recognised the jagged slash, white and round, piercing above the dark green. The high rim-range of Artobus, created in a pre-ancient meteor strike, was just coming into view.
From its conception to those first bizarre and exciting radio broadcast streams, this project had been his sole focus for over four hundred years now. Trom was bone-tired, and felt poisoned by all he knew about humans and their strange, short existence. It seemed as if they had evolved only to release trapped hydrocarbon energy from beneath the ground! For once this was achieved their age had quickly drawn to a close. He was overcome by a deep, melancholic sadness and empathy for these humans. They had come so close, and yet had remained so far, an evolutionary dead end.
He was gripped by an urgent need to see the face of this last human. Trom turned toward the viewscreen and intoned, “Initiate facial approximation image of the speaker from all available transmission data, please.”
“Approximation calculations commenced. Should I notify you when the image is attained?”
“Yes,” Trom whispered, resigned to waiting for the image but not yet ready to continue listening.
It was still hard to believe that the initial project was coming to an end. The receivers, now silent, slowly dissolved into atomic dust, their purpose spent. Like humans and their oil reserves, he had mined the wealth of those broadcasts from the ancient earth, and this was the very last drop.
That wealth of archaeological information would ensure that Trom’s name lived on forever, in the annals of his species history. Undoubtedly, there were still mountains of information to be deeply analysed, but that first wondrous walk on virgin snow would soon be over. He sat back in his chair and gazed outward, probing the ever-changing landscape of waves, wind, and wet, black rocks, as though they were the source of work his eyes needed to be doing.
“Approximation calculations completed.”
Trom turned and focused intently on the viewscreen. He touched open the image file. A three-dimensional facial construct, unmistakably human in appearance, stared out from the viewscreen. There he was, Hamadziripi, with large, dark brown eyes topped by heavy eyelids. Thick, black, bushy eyebrows and hawkish nose. A wild mane of dreadlocks bordered his wide, angular, weathered, and honey-brown face.
“What is the percentage degree accuracy for this reconstruction, please?” Trom asked.
“Ninety four point five percent.”
Trom gazed at the simulacrum of Hamadziripi looking blankly back.
“Sync image to audio, please.”
Hamadziripi’s face shifted as the computations were rendered. He was caught in the beginnings of a slight, tired smile whose edges deeply creased diagonally across each rugged cheek, towards his nose. His eyelids were lowered to cap a wary expression, tempered by a deeper glint of hard-won wisdom. Trom tapped the viewscreen.
Hamadziripi scratched his chin with a well-calloused hand. His eyes creased with fine laugh lines as he looked down in amusement. A moment later, he looked up again.
“Someone once told me that the meek shall inherit the earth. I agreed with them, all six feet of it if they were lucky enough to be buried. I have heard the tales of the meek, the sheep, and the coastal city flocks. They were the human canaries in the coal mine, and they died in their millions. But perhaps it was because the environmental meltdown was just so damn fast, everything went sideways exponentially.”
Hamadziripi took on a glazed look that stared one thousand yards down time’s barrel. But he shook it off continued.
“Non-human life on Earth is anything but meek. It is a ruthless organism of efficient opportunity. It stretches boldly from the volcanic heat of underwater fumaroles, to below freezing at the polar cap, and brushes the very limits of the upper atmosphere. In terms of life, that ancient and yet always adaptable organic machine, I see now that humans were merely a temporary dust mote in god’s eye, and we were just blinked away like the vaguely irritating mote we really were.”
Hamadziripi was suddenly overcome with emotion. His face flushed darkly and moisture welled in the corners of his eyes. A distinct click was heard.
“Data flow break in stream approximately 20, 45, 15, 0951. Next section main stream cued, should I sync the image?”
Hamadziripi was frozen on screen leaning forward, caught in that expression of raw emotion.
“Yes,” Trom said, eager to clear away the haunted look.
Hamadziripi’s face assumed a default blank lifelessness. A moment later it sprang back into life with a faint smile and hooded wary eyes. Trom flicked play.
“To give you an idea of how rapid our ruination was, let me lay it down for you. By 2015 the Arctic was clear of ice all summer long, and the sea level had risen by another thirty centimetres since 2008. Just ten years later, not only was the Arctic ice-free all year, but so was most of Greenland. The continental ice shelf of Greenland was composed of nearly three million cubic kilometres of ice in 2008. In only ten years, seven-eighths of its entire mass was melted. By the end of the European summer of 2018, sea levels had risen by twenty meters. Global storm systems of unprecedented fury and longevity soon developed from the new ocean currents and temperatures. They wreaked utter havoc when raging over land masses.
“In 2018, it was empirically proven that four point one degrees above pre-industrial Earth temperatures was all it took for a catastrophic global climate tipping point. By 2025, the entire Western Antarctic Ice Sheet slid and calved into the Ross and Amundsen seas, and melted. Combined with the full Arctic and Greenland melts, this created an approximate ninety-meter rise in global sea levels. Now as tragic as that sounds—and it was—rising sea levels were only part of the problem that the surviving humans were faced with.
“The severely stressed ecological systems collapsed, leaving behind only the roughest, toughest, and mainly primeval. These were then bombarded with unfettered solar radiation that slipped through the thin whisper left of the protective ozone layer due to vast quantities of methane released from warm tundra and ocean beds.
“In this crucible maelstrom, among many new genetic horrors, the Delphini were born. Or should I say that they mutated, or perhaps, really, that they just evolved? It took them just seven generations to flee in desperation from the poisoned, dying oceans. They mutated, evolved and adapted into nature’s new champions–”
“Pause,” snapped Trom. He thought furiously. Could it be? Delphini, Delphinidae, Dolphins? The answers would have immense repercussions for Dolphins, or specifically the Tursiops truncatus. Were they to his kind what Kenyanthropus platyops had been to humans? Had his ancient ancestors dispatched what had been left of the human species? Up until then, Trom had presumed that Hamadziripi’s Delphini was some obscure nickname for one of the many mutated species that had desperately been trying to survive at that time.
Trom gazed at his reflection in the window, perplexed. His dolphin heritage was clear to the eye. He scrutinised his smooth double bulge skull, wide black round eyes with their horseshoe irises, and slender snout that relaxed into a smile above a thick lower jawbone. Trom raised a muscular arm. With his three fingers and thumb, he lightly touched the hairy, pulsing blowhole at the back of his skull. He looked distantly similar to a humanoid: basic bipedal body, legs and feet with four digits apiece, and a thick, slick grey skin.
A realisation came upon him like sheet lightning. If it weren’t for humans, his kind might never have evolved at all. Without being pushed by catastrophe and survival instincts, they would never have crawled onto land five million years ago. No matter how one looked at it, these humans birthed them. His ancestors had then hunted them into extinction!
However, he was sure that humans would have done exactly the same thing had they survived the environment they created. In their brief evolutionary history, they had done similar things to other offshoots of the evolving Hominid family. There was no evidence to suggest that they would have allowed the emergence of any intelligent species rival to their own—they barely managed living together with different genetic varieties within their own species.
Theirs had been a short history that faded away, compressed under the weight of eons to barely a lean seam of sediment amongst so many others. For Trom and his species, this had only been the beginning. A start towards what would seem to them a fat golden seam of time. Here he was, some five million years later, looking back at those brutal beginnings where two species collided, and only one survived.
Trom looked past his reflection. The moon was high in a clear, star-wreathed sky. In a vertiginous moment there again crept into view Artobus, or Montes Caucasus as they had called it. The humans had been remarkable in so many ways. It had taken them just under eight thousand years to go from their first major civilisation to a landing on the moon. For his own species, this feat had taken forty thousand years. However, the humans had been blind to what mattered most: survival was always based on some kind of symbiosis.
“Play,” he intoned softly, still gazing seaward.
“It’s hard to think that this broadcast might possibly be the last proof that humans existed at all. But then again, I never imagined that I would be the last human alive—and believe me, I’ve scoured the Earth for another. Such a tenuous call into the vastness of space this is. Well, at least it’s out there, going somewhere to be heard by who knows… this tail end of a glorious era. Forgive me, I am becoming rather melancholic tonight, spurred on by my last bottle of vintage single malt whiskey…
“You see this will be the last broadcast. This is humankind’s—and my—final farewell. At the only working satellite station that I know of, the power levels have been dropping for days now. I have been relaying and boosting this broadcast from a solar powered portable HAM Radio. The satellite station is powered by a small emergency nuclear reactor built in the pre-apocalypse. It was never intended to endure this long, and I am amazed that it actually has…
“I am also tired, so tired. Soul-worn, if there is such a thing. Every day since my birth, I have fought with no respite to stay alive. Since my birth, I have watched my species slide into extinction, watched all those I loved die around me. My parents named me too aptly. In Shona, my mother tongue, Hamadziripi means, ‘Where is everyone?’ Perhaps they knew that the end was nigh, that we had to pay for the sins of our corpulent forefathers.
“The final reckoning is upon me. The Delphini have my scent. I saw scout tracks today. They never stop, not once they have your scent, not until they are crunching on your bones.
“So, the burden of humankind’s last words rests, with me… What can I tell you? That you should look for the beauty in all things? That you should live in harmony with your ecosphere? No, how about, above all, that you should remember that–.”
“Data flow end. Attached file ATT034, partial reconstruction. Should I access the attached file?”
“Yes” Trom said.
There was a mash of digital screeching and fragmented signals that dwindled into what seemed like silence. Trom turned away from the window, cocked his head and leaned closer. There was low, barely audible breathing. Loud explosions cracked out, and Trom recoiled in surprise. Even though his ears were ringing from the blast, he still clearly heard the next shout.
“COME ON YOU BASTARDS!”
“File ATT034 end. End of Transmission, no more data.”
Trom slowly unlocked from a position of motionless fright. He sat back in his chair, facing the window, heart still racing to the beat of that terrible drumming. Trom saw Hamadziripi’s reflection, caught like a fly in amber for all eternity, forever roaring humanity’s final defiance.
Ivor W. Hartmann is a Zimbabwean writer, editor, publisher, visual artist, and author of Mr. Goop (Vivlia, 2010). He was nominated for the UMA Award (‘Earth Rise’, 2009), awarded The Golden Baobab Prize (‘Mr. Goop’, 2009), finalist for the Yvonne Vera Award (‘A Mouse Amongst Men’, 2011), and selected for The 20 in Twenty: The Best Short Stories of South Africa’s Democracy (A Mouse Amongst Men, July 2014). His writing has appeared in African Writing Magazine, Wordsetc, Munyori Literary Journal, Something Wicked, The Apex Book of World SF V2, Litro, and other publications. He runs the StoryTime micro-press, publisher of the African Roar annual anthologies and AfroSF, and is on the advisory board of Writers International Network Zimbabwe.