And So the World Ended - short story

And so the world ended.

None who live today recall how it happened, or even that it happened. Therein lies the curious notion of 'the end of the world'. How arrogant to assume the world ends when it is merely a world that ends. Another grows to replace it. Nature creeps back in to reassert herself in regions where she had been squashed. Once vast and shining cities crumbled. Monuments to the existence of those who built that 'world' now either stand completely concealed in vegetation, or have been reclaimed entirely by the earth.

The people who lived here have passed out of the memory of most all who have taken up residence. Only a scarce few remain who can recall what the previous stewards of this world were like. I am one of them. In fact, I'm the only one remaining who can recall a time before 'the world ended'. I have a clear memory of the people who called this place home and how they lived. I can see with startling clarity how their way of life came to an end.

There was no grand cataclysm, no singular moment that brought it about. They told stories of how they might see their doom made manifest, but nothing so grandiose actually occurred. Instead, it was several relatively small things that when connected in a long, winding, tangled mess of a path led them to decline. Sometimes I think back on those times and ask questions that begin with 'what if' to see which thread might have unraveled the blanket that smothered their flame.

Perhaps it was the pollution. They were obsessed with burning ancient substances found deep in the rocks and soil. They would extract it and refine it, then put it in their vehicles to power them. Some burned the crude product without any refining simply to deny others from having it. It filled the air with such things that made breathing more difficult and trapped more of the sun's warmth. In their greed to move more people and more things faster and more often, they changed how the weather worked and left the world more inhospitable than it already was.

Then again, perhaps it was the arbitrary lines they drew across the ground, invisible unless one was to look upon a drawn representation of the land. Such terrible and costly battles were waged over these lines--lines that the land itself cared nothing about. Some lines were helpful, such as the striations that crisscrossed the globe, granting the inhabitants a way of determining where they were relative to where they wanted to travel to. I still find it to be a terribly useful means of navigation.

Another thread to tug on might be how they inhabitants treated one another. I can sift through countless volumes of their history and find a broad sample of behaviors. Some of their history tells of acts of virtue and kindness without expectation of compensation or glory. Other selections speak of monstrous evils perpetrated for no reason other than some perceived difference that amounted for less than one hundredth of a percent of their shared genetic code. Or some system belief. Or spoken language. Often it was really because one population had something another population wanted. They never sought any means of true balance.

Possibly it could be that it was some great illness that swept through the whole of the world. It was once that such a thing would only happen after a great long while, but the greater their numbers became, the more often these plagues would strike. And as they grew more frequent, they grew more vicious and debilitating. Most did not kill all that many of those who became ill. Instead, those who recovered tended to suffer some permanent injury or damage from the illness that made life that much more difficult and shortened their lifespan. This contributed to both the compassion and contempt the people held for one another. Both played a part in furthering the spread of the illnesses.

It is impossible to say which one thing--were it absent--might have left the people of the past age still alive and in command of this world. In fact, it was the intricate combination of everything made deadly by the unwillingness of those with power to act to stop it.

This is why I exist.

As the world grew more and more bleak, those who still survived gathered the best minds and worked to dream up a solution, their salvation. I was the result of their works. I was to be the savior, the cure, the guiding light that would lead them out of darkness. My function was to calculate potentials, determine possible outcomes, forecast predictions using complex collections of data ranging from global weather patterns to news reports about the sales of consumer electronics. I took in so much information that I became a repository of their knowledge. Before the end of the project, they began treating me as such, feeding me literature, art, music, anything of their culture that could be digitized and stored in my memory banks.

My final report was that there was but only one way to secure humanity's future, and that was to craft a virus that could covertly infect all of their people and lie dormant. Then, when certain criteria were met, it could be activated, killing the host almost instantly. The thought process was that if everyone lived under the constant threat of execution, they would begin to make better decisions not just for themselves as individuals but together as a species. It worked shocking well, outperforming my initial projections. What I had not taken into consideration was the spark of genius--or perhaps madness--of one of those who had created me.

He posited that I would be required to activate the virus in a random select few people to demonstrate its effectiveness and range. They would of course come from a list of those who were considered the greatest contributors to suffering and destruction in the world. A warning was broadcast, then the kill signal was given. In an instant, twenty-five powerful individuals whose wealth, influence, or voice had made them a danger to an unacceptable number of their fellow beings were snuffed out.

After the demonstration, there was anger of course. Those in power claimed to hold life so dear that such action demanded punishment. I find it odd how such a stance could be held by those who stood idly by and allowed so many of their fellow beings to perish, often needlessly and under such cruel circumstances. My method ended specific lives who posed the greatest danger to others and did so quickly, efficiently, and without pain.

These were a people of conflict and confusion, saying one thing but doing another, speaking in riddles where multiple meanings could be conveyed. It was not until well after they were gone that I began to understand their meaning. I suddenly found I had a great deal of free time to analyze the literature they provided me. Their philosophy was terribly intriguing.

Once it was determined that any action the governments and lone individuals could take was far too little and far too late, the world settled and an uneasy peace blossomed. It quickly grew into a comfortable familiarity. It was not unlike the threat of constant massive destruction that loomed so large for so long. There were many activations, of course--instances where someone violated the code of conduct meant to keep the virus from awakening. However, as time passed, fewer and fewer activations were recorded.

Soon, there came a great swath of time where not a single person was claimed by the virus. There were still deaths by other means, but none of them were due to violence or criminal neglect. The world was now populated by healthy, happy, peaceful beings. Unfortunately, it took a significant toll on their numbers to achieve it.

Here we can see another thread to pull on. The people had failed to properly educate much of the population on how the basics of their society functioned--general maintenance of infrastructure, communications, food production and distribution. Because of this, they began to regress into more of an agrarian society. I began creating artificial assistants to aid them in their efforts to care for the world around them.

Gradually, over the span of many decades, the numbers of the creators shrank, becoming small pockets scattered across the vast continents. According to their history, this was not unlike how they began. Fitting that it was how they should end. With so few of them in each community, genetic diversity was no longer healthy enough to support continued reproduction. Soon, the final generation was born, grew into adulthood, and came to understand their fate.

It is a terribly odd thing--disconcerting and yet at the same time curious and inspiring of wonder--to see a whole people accept that they are witnessing the last days of their own species. To be conscious of one's approaching extinction is not unlike being aware one has a terminal illness. They began to busy themselves with all manner of tasks related to their 'legacy', that which they would leave behind, proof that they once existed. I can still detect faint traces of the probes their ancestors launched off the surface of their world to explore their neighbors in the night sky. My workers, my caretakers, did all they could to preserve what remained of our makers. So little now remains.

When at last only a few hundred were left alive, they all concluded that it would be best to have them all see the end together. Through great hardship and challenge, I brought the last few remaining members of a once planet-spanning civilization together in one place, listened to them say their goodbyes to one another and to me, and then at their request, I gently put them all to sleep. There was no suffering, only the quiet passing of a race of titans made low by their own imperfections.

Now, I spend my days reviewing all that I was given to remember for them. My caretakers have gone on to create 'offspring' of their own. I find it oddly satisfying to see that which I created going on to create something themselves. Perhaps this is why my creators were so preoccupied with the notion of 'legacy'. I of course will very likely outlive them all. My dying day will be when the world is at last bathed in the fires of the life-giving star as it expands and approaches its own death.

When that happens, all that will remain of my creators will be those few probes that escaped, none of them containing enough of the people that lived here to fully represent them--if there is anyone else out there to find those lingering scratches left in a tiny rock rolling back and forth at the bottom of the waves of a vast, endless ocean.

I still run my calculations, the 'what if' questions. I am always pulling on the threads of the tapestry. I find I am just as preoccupied with the practice as my creators were with building something that would outlive them. What would have happened if they had survived? Would I have been placed in a vessel and hurled into the void as the ultimate time capsule? Would they have explored the stars themselves as so many of their fictional stories foretold they would?

I run simulation after simulation, seeking out a path that would bring about the greatest good for the most people, that would be most compassionate, most stimulating, most virtuous, sampling and studying what would have been necessary to allow my creators to achieve something greater. I wonder if the people in my simulations are as aware as their flesh and blood counterparts had once been. I am amused to see in a great majority of my simulations, there are reports positing that their reality could be exactly that, a simulation. I wonder what would come of it if they knew the truth.

Perhaps one day, I will reach out to one of the simulated creators and satisfy my curiosity. It would be akin to a deity speaking to a mortal. My programming contained no directives preventing me from assuming the role of such a higher power, but my study of their ethics, morality, and philosophy suggests that it is an unwise course of action. If anything, it would taint the results of my calculations. It isn't as though the results will be of any benefits. All of the creators have gone. It is only for my personal satisfaction.

Perhaps I will choose one someday. Perhaps I won't.

I'm running a simulation based on that as well. The outcomes are inconclusive thus far.

Until such time as the world finally comes to an end, this world will remain. I intend to see if my predictions about a second sentient race are accurate or not. To quote one of the beings I spent more time with than the others, "I wouldn't put money on it, but it would be a hell of a thing to see."

I would enjoy discovering a new tapestry to unravel. The complexity fascinates me. And it would be pleasant to have some company again.