The following story is an excerpt from Brian Evenson’s contribution to Conjunctions:73, Earth Elegies.
There were clear indications the cloud was moving again, headed their way. Where it passed it stripped the remaining leaves from the already crippled trees, left soil and water poisoned, stripped the flesh off any creature, living or dead, and then whittled away at the bones. It was no ordinary cloud, having been made by humans, and it did not disperse. There were some who believed the cloud had become sentient, but if this were really the case, so the archivist speculated, wouldn’t it have come for them sooner? It had finished off the rest of humanity long ago: why stop before it was done with the last few?
“No chance it will shift direction?” the archivist asked.
“There’s always a chance,” said Gradus. “But no, I don’t believe so. We’ll wait as long as we dare.”
“And then retreat?” she asked.
“There’s nowhere left to retreat to here,” said Gradus. “The cloud has destroyed everything else. No, we’ll have to depart for good.”
“You’ll have to.”
He bowed slightly, acknowledging this. “We’ll leave, archivist,” he said, “but you’ll stay.”
As Gradus and the others prepared for departure, the archivist set about her own tasks, sorting and sifting through all she was charged with. Gradus and the others would go in search of a viable alternative to this world, a new place to live, just as those ships that had departed before were now doing. The archivist would stay behind to watch the last bit of still untouched ground be touched and die and to make sure the hatch was well sealed, the archive arranged. In a few weeks, a few months at most, she would be dead too. She was as good as dead already.
As for Gradus, there was very little chance he would find what he was looking for. But what else was he to do? He and his crew, like the archivist, were as good as dead. The only difference was they would take a little longer to go about dying.
Once the preparations had been made, Gradus sought the archivist out. He took her by the shoulders, kissed both her cheeks. His lips were warm and soft.
“Nearly here,” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
“Yours is a holy calling,” he told her.
“Or a useless one.”
“Perhaps,” he said, ever the optimist. “Perhaps.” Then he embraced her again and departed. It was, the archivist suddenly realized, the last human contact she was likely to ever have.
A few minutes later the archivist was safely embunkered below ground. A dull rumbling began. A great gust of smoke and fire filled the screens of the monitors and the vessel rose. And then she was alone, with just her holy or perhaps useless calling to keep her company.
Once the ground had had time to cool, the archivist donned the black hazard suit and went above. The cloud was close enough now that she could make it out with her naked eye, a great roiling mass gathered on every horizon, converging on her.
She went back below and into the shelter. She would have to finish quickly.
Her task was to preserve a record of humanity in the face of its imminent extinction, so that whoever or whatever discovered the records might, through careful study, come to understand what humanity had been. She was not the only one involved in this task: each ship that had departed had taken a sub-archivist and a similar set of records with it. Each ship had multiple highly abbreviated sets of data etched microscopically on nickel discs and encased in thick sheets of resin. At careful intervals, a satellite or probe carrying one of them was released into space where it would float until it was either found or destroyed.
But she had remained on earth, the place humanity had originated, which made hers the most important task: each set of data to be released into space, whatever else it included, gave coordinates for where this planet was, and where on the planet her archive was to be found.
But earth was, so the archivist increasingly felt, the place where humans had done their best to destroy themselves. And then, once they had succeeded in nearly destroying themselves and had completely devastated the earth, they had, simply, fled to the stars, hoping to find new worlds to destroy.
Here is how monstrous humans are, she felt the record should say. Humans are what they did to this world, their home. Here is why, once humans are extinct, they should never be brought back to life.
Part of the record was more than a record: millions of preserved strands of DNA with instructions for how they could be reconstituted, inserted into artificial cells (the composition for several varieties of which were provided in the data), wound together into double helixes, and used—once this world was safe to inhabit again, once the cloud had done its worst and finally dissipated, its poisons neutralized, the earth slowly grown green again—to bring the human race back from extinction. Her archive contained pictorial instructions that could, in theory, be universally understood, so that whoever or whatever rediscovered the archive in a few thousand or a few million or a few hundred million years would be able to regrow humanity in a vat.
Would it be humans, returned from the stars? If so, there was no need for them to grow more of themselves, unless they needed to occupy the earth fully. Perhaps, if other things had managed to come back to life as microorganisms and then evolved into threats there might be an advantage in this. Or perhaps because of the small groups aboard each ship they would now need to diversify their genetic pool. Or perhaps the humans who returned, so long among the stars, would have evolved, becoming something else entirely, and would believe they were discovering not their own but another species.
Or perhaps it would be another sort of creature entirely, something with no relation to human beings at all, with a vastly different perceptual matrix. The pictographs had been designed for creatures with eyes, though the scientists had taken into account the different visions of humans and animals, even the fragmenting and multiplying vision of insects. But suppose that whatever came did not have eyes?
Even if they did have eyes, who was to say that they would have limbs? Perhaps they would be sluglike or radially oriented or cephalopodic, and they would not interpret the two-legged, two-armed stick figures as meant to represent sentient beings. What sort of tree is that? they might think, if they knew what a tree was, if they were able, in the way we understand it, to think.
No, she thought. Even if anyone or anything found the archive it was hopeless.
Or at least almost hopeless. There was the barest, most minute chance that everything would go just right, that there was other life in the universe, that that life would discover a probe, that the probe would contain a still functional nickel disc microscopically engraved with data, that they (whoever “they” were) would figure out how to interpret the data, that they would take the trip to earth and, once there, would manage to take the steps necessary to resurrect humanity. There was a chance.
Which was why she set about meticulously destroying all the millions of strands of DNA and defacing the pictograms. Millions of other species dead, all because of humans—plants, animals, bacteria. Some killed unknowingly, others willfully hunted down, a whole world ruined. No, the best thing, no matter who or what arrived here, no matter what life arose in millions of years from the sea, was to make sure it was impossible for humans to come back.
When she had incinerated the preserved DNA, she put on her hazard suit again and climbed back to the surface. The cloud was much closer now; she could hear it howling. But it had not arrived yet.
How shall I spend my remaining hours? she wondered, and went back down below.
She went rapidly through the photographic images etched into metal that were part of the archive, carefully removing and feeding to the incinerator any benign images, any smiling images or images of peace, leaving behind only images of war: mutilated Civil War dead fallen on the field of battle, a mushroom cloud, the firebombing of Dresden. Smoke billowing from factory chimneys. A huge pile of dead passenger pigeons, tens of thousands of them, a man standing atop the heap. A man standing before the trunk of a huge redwood, and then the same man standing on the stump of the same tree, smiling. The dark face of a boy ravaged by hunger, a dying gaunt polar bear on a rapidly melting chunk of ice, children in cages, a wall of skulls, a white man grinning with another darker man swinging from a rope behind him, emaciated victims in camps on every inhabited continent, the slaughtered carcasses of animals presided over by their smiling killers. An island mostly underwater, abandoned houses still visible beneath the waves. Miles of devastated ex-forest, miles of sick and dying land. Death, famine, war, and conquest: the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
She was no longer an archivist, she realized, but rather a curator, making careful decisions about what would or would not be put on display and exiling everything else. She was far from done sorting through the images, had barely reached the twenty-first century, when she began to reconsider. Was it enough? What, if anything, would be enough?
For a long time she stayed there, absently holding the image etched into metal in her hand, as if hypnotized, and then she put it down. No, she had to destroy everything. She had to do her best to make sure that if anyone were to come, they would find nothing at all.
And so she began to carry the archive, every bit and piece of it that had been amassed over the years and meticulously reduced and put into a format that would have a chance of surviving for an unimaginable length of time, to the incinerator. And did not rest until it was all gone.
Once she was done, she stretched. She sat on the floor of the now empty room and considered. The probes in space she could do nothing about. She had done all she could. Here, there was little data left, nothing significant waiting beyond the room itself and whatever would be left of her own body.
But from the traces of her body they could, potentially, extract DNA. Who knew what procedures they would have developed in the intervening millennia?
She put her hazard suit on again, climbed the ladder, and opened the hatch. Leaving it deliberately ajar, she climbed back down.
The toxic cloud poured through the hatch slowly, and began filling the space. It would scour the shelter. For a time the suit would protect her against it, but only for a time.
When the cloud was billowing as high as her waist and pouring more quickly now down through the hatch, she stood and climbed up the ladder again.
Outside, everything was covered by the cloud. She could see nothing but a gray indifferent light. If she held her hand a few inches from her faceplate, she could see it; if she moved it any farther, it became a vague shape. A few inches more and it was lost.
She began to walk. After a while, the hazard suit began to feel stuffy, and she realized that her air circulator was no longer working. She banged on it and it started to whir again momentarily, then stopped for good.
Maybe, she thought, I will die of lack of oxygen before the cloud consumes me. She brought her hand near her face and saw how the rubberized fabric had already begun to pit and crack, and then thought, Maybe not.
She imagined her desiccated corpse being found in the suit, stretched shadowy forms standing over it and cautiously prodding it, thinking the suit a carapace, a hardened parcel of skin. Would even that misunderstanding tell them too much?
But, she knew, this was impossible: after the cloud was done with her, there would be almost nothing left of the suit, and very little of her.
She walked on, hoping to get as far away as she could from the shelter, far enough so that her remains would never be found. A warning began to sound in her suit, the words Breach Imminent flashing on her faceplate. And then, perhaps a hundred steps later, the first crack opened in the hazard suit’s fabric near her knee, and she began to experience an itching sensation that spread slowly up her leg, gradually transforming into a searing pain that soon had her screaming, and then left her dead, and all the earth along with her.