A HISTORY, IN REVERSE • by Miranda Suri

I wake in darkness, adrift in space. Circuits fire with animal instinct. I reach for the others, but where a vast Consciousness once clamored I find only an echoing void.

I am the last, alone. My only memories are those hardwired in sinew, shell, and source code.

A shiver of fear ripples over my bioplastic skin. I rotate, seeking information and finding devastation. A star field filled with corpses. A planet’s dead carcass.

I strain to remember. The civil war. A last, desperate assault on the Consciousness.

But these memories are fragments. Like my history and all I knew of my species, the rest perished with the Collective.

I shut my eyes and my soul keens despair to my DNA. The song is processed with machine-like efficiency. Ones and zeroes slither under my skin, quantify a solution, and translate it through the most ancient, human part of me.

The biggest among us, I was built to destroy. Now the sole survivor, what is my purpose?

Algorithmic output guides action. I open my maw and close it around some debris, a coiled filament of wire. The shards pass through my gullet. I feel the hands that shaped the wire. I sense its history.

In consuming, I discover.

My world lies shattered; beyond is the unknown, a vast universe harboring secrets from my species’ past.

A choice: stay or go?

A decision: sail-like arms lift on solar winds. I journey across empty light years of space and, opening my jaws, consume a history in reverse.

I discover the dead. Other star systems. Orbitals. Stations gone dark and quiescent. All ghostly rubble. All grist for my mill.

Without the Consciousness, isolation crushes me, but I struggle on. I eat and learn. Knowledge triggers memories encoded deep in DNA: a world of living metal and soulful machines, the graft of vestigial flesh to the tireless click and whir of mechanical parts. Among us, the Consciousness arose, creating wonders. But with it always, dissent. Disharmony. And finally, me — a machine of war.

I turn from this memory. Seeking what came before, I find corpses littering the path of human exploration like ancient breadcrumbs.

I encounter a derelict generation ship, a cold tomb adrift among rocks that once were stars. Marveling at this tiny mechanical shell with no soul, I realize we were not always giants.

The ship drifts. Its mechanical arms no longer spin. Its drive spines lie dead as its occupants. I devour it whole. I taste rusted metal and my ancestors’ sour loneliness. Long years separate us, but I feel communion.

Memories blossom: a search through the stars, passed from parent to child to grandchild, but yielding nothing.

They found no other life in the black, no habitable moons, no green planets. Staggered by the improbability, they despaired but did not turn back.

I digest a comlog and voices echo from the past.

“We are lost. Fourteen of us remain in this arm of the ship. We haven’t heard from the others in nineteen days. The computer automations no longer respond to our commands. Captain Liang believes the machines are communicating with each other, that they’ve transcended. I am afraid.”

They did transcend, I think. But you fragile creatures endured. We merged. Became one. Became me.

These are clues, but not answers. Not a purpose.

I don’t know how else to proceed, so I sail on, consuming dimming suns and dying planets, curving inward toward the dark heart of the universe.

The bones of ancient solar systems fracture as I pass, and I sense I am closer now to where we started.

When I reach it at last, the sun is no more than an ember. Beyond lies a cold, waiting rock — both birthplace and graveyard.

My teeth nibble mantle and crust. Home. Earth.

Knowledge spreads through me like fungus.

Our origins unspool, an ancient slide reel: creatures stutter into existence, claw for survival. Each shudder forward births wars averted at the brink by improbable blips of peace. Imaginations limited and limitless, they debate futures fantastic and horrifying. Science advances, but no dark, laser-lit confrontations erupt between man and machine — their technological monsters are but a shadow of me.

Finally, a warming Earth yields a few drowned cities, a couple million dead. Against time’s slow unfolding, the dreaded cataclysm becomes a tired slump toward the finish.

Then a new beginning. An exodus to the stars.

With a smooth snick of metal, I swallow another mouthful. A dusty fossil lodges against my processor.

My heart catches in my throat.

The last gazes on the first. I contemplate her across a vast gulf.

She’s nothing like me, the original member of my line. Where I am metal, living plastic, and interlocking mechanisms, she is hunkering muscle, bone, and hairy flesh.

But the eyes.

Hers lodge under a jutting brow, brown and curious. Mine reflect eons of human striving, flat like mirrors, deep as the oceans her descendants will one day cross.

Somehow our eyes are the same.

Humanity’s history leaves an ache in my gut. I’ve learned everything and nothing. So what remains?

Tenacity, I think. Ceaseless human striving. The quest my oldest ancestor began, long ago, when she walked north out of Africa.

She took a leap of faith. And so must I.

Out of instinct, I reach for the Consciousness, seeking guidance. But, of course, they are gone. I alone must find a path forward.

I am the last, the end of humanity’s story.

She, the first, has long since returned to dust.

There is DNA in her tiny fossil, though, and there is DNA in me.

In my gut stews a solar system’s worth of planets and stars, and — encoded in ones and zeroes — I carry the power for another Big Bang.

I know my purpose.

This destroyer will turn creator, my death sparking a new beginning. A reboot.

I program the self-destruct sequence and gaze my last on Earth’s twilight. Peace fills the yawning emptiness.

Never have I felt more human.

Miranda Suri writes Speculative Fiction, lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches archaeology at Queens College. Her short fiction has appeared in Electric Spec.

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