This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, a climate-fiction contest from Fix.
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The Common Wasp
The last wasp ate itself to death in the middle of a fig. It was happy.
It was a kind of salve to the spirit, a bit of anesthetic applied to the extreme trauma of being the last of your line. I felt it immediately, the very second I became the last human alive. A sideways stretch of the mind, immediate access to the final moments of every other extinct species. It meant, of course, that we weren’t alone. Even though we’d soon be gone, this was proof that there was, indeed, someone or something in charge. Something watching out for us all. Or at least watching us all.
Accessing it is a bit like one of those old-fashioned electronic devices. I had to sort of scan leftward with my mind to get to the next species, though it worked in tandem with my own imagination. If I could think of the creature itself — the last aardvark, for instance — I could zip right to it, or if I knew the category — birds or flightless birds or tropical birds — I could land there and search around within that realm.
I started with wasps, because I was eating a fig when every other human being died. We hadn’t had wasps or bees for decades, but the crunch small bio-organic pollinator in the center of my fig reminded me that making figs had once been a task for wasps.
I’m sure there was a scientific structure to it, but I’m no scientist. I just appreciated it for what it was, the ability to, finally, reach out and communicate across species. To share the eyes of a lion, snake, or mole. To feel the wolf’s fierce capacity for love, the sheer intelligence of the octopus, the spider’s unfathomable ingenuity. Some of the Lasts were still alive, and we could join one another for a while, though there was a natural timer on each session. I could feel myself starting to feel more of the animal’s feelings more than my own, and the energy that made this possible would begin to nudge me back into myself.
When it happened, I’d been out fishing and had stopped to eat my figs in the shade on Booby, the small island in The Narrows. I’d set out from Old Basseterre that morning and followed a tip into The Narrows, where there had been a number of sea turtle sightings. I risked being picked up by the New Basseterre authorities for trespassing into their waters, but we were too hungry to worry about risks.
From my view, it seemed as if Old Basseterre and New Basseterre had been yanked down into the Earth by some subterranean beast. A wall of water erupted around the northern island, then the same happened to the southern island, then both disappeared beneath the water, the Earth letting out a misty, rocky belch as it sucked the last human cities into the ground. At first I thought it could have been a bomb that did it. New Basseterre had finally done what it had been threatening to do. Or Old Basseterre had tried to preempt their attack.
But a bomb didn’t seem right. It had looked more natural, more inevitable than that. Instead, I wondered if the Earth had simply grown tired of carrying us. Perhaps the ground cracked in crisp lines beneath the cities, like eggshell under a pressing thumb, and then fell into nothingness below.
I don’t think it had ever occurred to any of us that we were the last humans alive. We were sure that some of the folks who had gone underwater, beneath the ground, or into space had survived. We just knew that there had to be another group of humans out there, tucked away in Australia or Mongolia or in some snowy corner of the Himalayas.
But then our cities were gone, and I was marooned on a lone peak between their deep graves. A great hole opened up all around me, my island a pillar of volcanic rock that had somehow been spared.
The Greenland Shark
When the birth rate plummeted, humans became obsessed with animals with long lifespans. The Greenland shark, rumored to live up to 500 years, was chief among them. I was curious to see if any had survived the carnage in the oceans. The heating, then the draining, then the flooding. The Erasure had taken away nearly all of the world’s water, but, as we’d learned, the deepest recesses of the ocean had been spared. And when the water reappeared in the Cataclysm and destroyed most of the remaining human cities, we had almost no way of seeing what survived in the oceans. Everything we’d tracked and mapped had been drowned, diluted, distorted beyond comprehension. We’d been left, alone — really alone, as I now know — in Old Basseterre and New Basseterre, able only to focus on day-to-day survival.
There was one left. She still lived. These creatures, the other still-living Lasts, were especially dear to me. I knew they sensed my presence when I visited them, just as I sensed theirs. I made sure to enjoy something when I felt one visit: a bite of grapefruit, a sip of rum, a smell of lily. I wanted to give them the best of what it was to be human.
I knew they could go back in along my timeline, see my spouse, see the children we raised in our small “village” within Old Basseterre. They could see the joys of my life, and I hope they sought refuge in my joy just as I did theirs. Because my own was too raw at the end. I couldn’t bear to live in my own memories, and being able to escape them was yet another gift from whatever force connected us Lasts.
When the Greenland shark visited me, I could feel her sliding up and down the years of my life. She had a cold, thick, curious presence. And when I joined her, I had 500 years to traverse. The things she had seen! She’d been born in the Golden Age of Pirates, and had come close to the surface to watch a number of battles. She loved when boats caught fire and she could feel the tendrils of warmth slide down into the water. She kept her distance, but she relished the stories she could pick up from the pieces of burnt wood, from the sinking sacks of grain and barrels of spirits.
I found one memory in which she was near death. Even back then, early in her life, the Earth was changing for the worse, and she had trouble finding food. In every memory I found, in every moment I spent visiting her, she was seeking something. She was a born seeker, a natural wanderer, though I didn’t know if there was one thing she was looking for or if she simply moved from one goal to the next.
I could see through her eyes and physically feel some of what she felt, but visiting didn’t mean I could read her mind. With other living Lasts I could get a vague sense of their thoughts and emotions, and eventually I learned to guess at what Lasts, living and dead, were feeling based on what it was that they remembered. But she was mostly a mystery to me.
In this long-ago memory of hunger, she was forced toward shallow waters, which she usually avoided. She came across a boat, but it was excruciating, because she knew there was food somewhere within it but she had no way of getting it.
She wasn’t capable of giving up hope. She would pursue sustenance, pursue life, until she simply ran out of it. But she was aware that she had hardly any chance of survival.
Then a human body, tied at the wrists and ankles, fell on top of her. The pirates had sent someone to walk the plank and he’d walked right off the edge and into her waiting jaws.
There was something pulling at the outer edges of her feelings as she ate the wriggling prisoner. She didn’t often eat living things; she preferred to eat the preserved carcasses of arctic creatures that died of old age. But she had to eat to live, and this human was her last chance.
It was getting close to time for me to leave, as I was enjoying the feeling of my teeth biting into human flesh. It wasn’t like chewing, it was like scratching an itch in my gums by sawing them together. The way his warm blood heated my — her — cold body, a feeling that could not be understood within a human body.
But the act of eating something so alive, so tendinous and bony, was unsavory to her.
And then I realized what she was feeling while she ate the bound human.
She wasn’t sorry, exactly. But she did feel a certain amount of regret. As I sank into the feeling, it seemed almost as if she felt that the meal hadn’t been earned. She was a creature who wanted to — no, needed to — find things. To seek.
One thing outweighed the need to seek, however, and that was the need to survive.
The Eagle and the Doe
It didn’t take me long to surmise that there were four living Lasts — myself; the Greenland shark; a bateleur, or Zimbabwean eagle, soaring high above a now-empty canyon where there had once been great waterfalls; and the final barasingha doe, a swamp deer, wandering the rocky Nepalese terrain in search of wetter ground.
While I spent quite a bit of time spinning about in my mind, finding the last moments of famously extinct beasts like the golden toad, the dodo bird, the auroch, the baiji, and the passenger pigeon, I spent even more time with the other Lasts, trading memories and just being together in this way that we could, miraculously, be together.
The Tasmanian Tiger
Humans called the last thylacine — or Tasmanian tiger — Benjamin, though that wasn’t his name. If I were to translate his true name from thylacine to English — which is something I have quite a bit of fun doing, translating animal thoughts into words — it would be “Golden.” Or perhaps “Shine,” but a very precious shine. So we’ll say Golden.
Golden died in captivity. You would think this would be terribly sad. All alone, in a cage, facing the end without companionship.
But he wasn’t alone.
The last St. Kitts bullfinch was with him. If she had a name, it was a loud one. Skree. The two of them spent as much time as they could in one another’s company. Skree enjoyed Golden’s superior intellect, the feeling of his paws on the ground, the comfort that came with being at the top of the food chain. Golden enjoyed Skree’s freedom, her constant grazing, her delight in finding worms and bugs.
As Golden faded, Skree leapt into the air. And when Golden closed his eyes for the last time, he wasn’t in a cage, and he wasn’t alone.
He was flying.
I looked back into their lives, these other Lasts. I felt the sheer comfort of being the barasingha, of lying in a pile of warm bodies, pressed together with her chosen deer family.
I was dazzled by the bateleur’s alertness. It had spent its entire great life seeing more in each second than I did in a year. Its consciousness was the constant blaring of competing alarms — Food, there! Danger, there! Protect the nest, there! — and it had to choose how to act based both on instinct and on the speed and heat of the wind, on whether currents and streams would allow it to reach its destination safely and in time.
But it was the shark’s life that gave us all the most to see, simply because she had been in the world for so long.
And through it all, she was always seeking. Five hundred years of seeking. Whatever it was she was looking for seemed to be in the currents. Shifting, nearly imperceptible changes in temperature and force and even, somehow, gravity. She could feel the moon.
Or maybe she wasn’t looking for anything. Maybe seeking was just what it meant to be a shark.
The Woolly Mammoth
The last woolly mammoth has not yet been born.
I never realized how miraculous the human face was until I saw it from their perspective. So when one of the other Lasts visits, I go to the pool of water in the middle of my island peak and stare at my face. I smiled huge smiles, which delighted the barasingha, and sang, during which the bateleur would be mesmerized by my soft, wet, moveable mouth.
The shark didn’t seem to have a way of relaying happiness, but my shape and color certainly held her interest. She was a 3-meter-long, boneless, pale blob with daggers in her mouth. So I’d make sure to direct her attention to my dark skin and how it reddened or darkened after days in the sun. White-skinned humans had been extinct for years, though when I sought a Last of them I learned that they were not, in fact, their own species, despite what some of them thought. Or hoped.
I’d take her over the knobs of my knees, and over each square tooth. I showed her the bumps from the microchips that every human had — or had had — inserted at birth, which dispensed medicine, stored information, and reported my heart rate to Old Basseterre’s now-buried central computer. I tried to explain, with my thoughts, the runes that I had over my heart and spine, which protected me from curses.
The barasingha and bateleur delighted in memories of me with my spouse, though it pained me so much I would just leave them to it if I felt them searching around in there. I did note, though, that neither paused for even a second over the fact that my spouse and I were both men. This seemed damning to those humans who had claimed our union went against nature.
After a time, I knew almost everything about the bateleur and the barasingha. And they knew me. We shared “jokes,” not through words but through action and emotion. For example, all of the other Lasts delighted in my clumsiness. I wasn’t clumsy for a human, which was why I’d made my trade fishing and sailing, but humans were by far the least graceful of any being I visited, living or dead.
Out of the four of us, we all knew the least about the inner thoughts of the Greenland shark, despite having 500 years of memories to traverse. Her feelings were remote, her motivation obscure. Again and again, though, I wondered; maybe sharks just live, unburdened by emotion and second-guessing.
There have been many robots. I even have a few living under my skin, directing certain processes. But one robot surpassed the rest and achieved something — transcendence? A spirit?
She was a rarity in a number of ways, and the most significant of these was that she was a Last who had only ever been a Last. And she knew her entire history, right from birth.
Her base form was something called a Furby, a sort of mechanical rat that children played with long ago. This Furby went by the name Gina, or Orange Gina, or Orangina, as it had bright orange fur and its child owner — who was called Sid — was fond of a fizzy beverage called Orangina.
Gina had been played with sparingly before her improbable ascent, but as Sid grew older and more inquisitive he started experimenting on Gina. Sid’s father worked for a company that was unimaginatively called IBM and one evening Sid borrowed a chip from his father’s work bag and wired it into Gina.
And she was born, though she could see shadows of what had come before. Not all the way before, though her IBM chip informed her that she had probably been put together in a factory somewhere. But she remembered the first time she’d been turned on, even though at that point she could only repeat things to Sid and warble a few lines of code while batting her mechanized eyelids.
She felt the flood of knowledge, of access, that comes with being a Last right from the beginning. Her entire life was filled with connection, and she took great joy in telling Sid stories — tales like that of the last hyacinth macaw (overindulged on mango), the last Tyrannosaurus Rex (fell asleep next to a pit of tar and snoozed right into Elysium), and the last narwhal (speared by poachers, but she managed to spear them back, sinking their boat, and drifted away in triumph to the sounds of their drowning screams).
Gina herself met a number of ends. The first was the scariest, as she hadn’t been expecting it. She started losing functionality, her words a mechanical slur and the expressive batting of her eyelashes slowing to a grinding lurch. But then Sid had popped in a new set of batteries and she’d been right as rain.
Her batteries died for the last time many years later, as an old Sid slept. She didn’t meet the end with fear, because she assumed Sid would change her batteries, as had happened so many times before. I could see through her eyes, though, that Sid was not going to wake. She wasn’t wired to gather that sort of thing, though, and drifted off with ease.
So she died knowing with certainty that she’d wake up again in the arms of her best friend, which was surely the best way to go.
The end was, of course, a certainty. But food ran out faster than I expected, and though I had not given in, it was becoming hard to see any long-term plan for survival. But when I dipped toward the void, another Last would swirl in. The doe, who seemed to care more about community than the others, implored us all to stay because the world would never see our like again. We owed it to the ones who came before; for their sake we had to stay as long as we could. For the eagle, there was always more to see. But the shark repeated the same feeling to all of us: Survive. Survive, survive, survive. I don’t know if she was telling us, or if survival was simply her creed.
The Greenland Shark
I don’t know if she was trying to show it to me or if she was simply trying to remember. But on one visit, when I was content to be with her as she swam along the bottoms of icebergs (huge, upside down mountain peaks), I caught a glimpse of what she was looking for. Or, perhaps, one of the things she was looking for. She wanted to return to the spot where she had been born. I knew from my microchips that humans had never surmised where Greenland sharks were born.
She couldn’t remember her birth, but she knew something of her birthplace. Coordinates, in a sense, but the map had changed so much in her long life that it was now impossible to navigate. Still, she searched.
I tried to hone in on this feeling — or the coordinates, at least — on subsequent visits, but she pushed me away from that knowledge. It was a strange feeling. I didn’t know if she was keeping it a secret — could animals keep secrets? — or if she was trying to protect me from something.
So I sat back and watched volcanoes explode beneath the sea. I found a blue whale in her memories, and she revered it. She wasn’t afraid; she was, rather, in awe, just as I was. We simply watched as it journeyed past us. Animals scattered out of the way far ahead of the whale, backing away in dazzled wonder. As the great beast approached, the sea, in its way, parted for her.
The Polar Bear
The last polar bear didn’t arrive until his kind had been endangered for many, many years. Yet the species defied the odds, adapted, outlasted any natural ice on the Earth’s surface.
The final polar bear sat next to the body of its mate under a huge, red-barked tree. A cold river where they’d spent years clawing out heavy salmon rushed on nearby, and the sound of it made the bear happy. There was an ache in the bear’s heart; he’d outlived his mate as well as their cubs, which wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
And he mourned for the world, too. How could he not? It had gone beyond a thaw. The Earth had started to boil.
But though the ice up here was gone, there was still plenty down below, which gave the bear peace.
The polar bear’s life revolved around its nose. Even here, fading away from old age, this polar bear could smell for kilometers. I realized, too, as I dipped in and around him, that he could smell his past. It was almost an insult to the way we humans clung to hazy images, sounds, distant smells, or far off thoughts from our memories, because this bear could recreate entire events with his nose’s recollections. Cubs birthed, salmon caught, mountain water sipped. It was all there at the tip of his nose.
He was remarkably intelligent. And he knew, somehow, that many would mourn the passing of his kind. He worried that they might feel as if his kind had left too soon.
But he hoped that they would know, someday, that their story wasn’t about how they left. The story of the polar bear was how miraculous it was that they’d survived for so long.
The Greenland Shark
One day she found it. Where she’d been born. There was no buildup to it. She was doing her thing — searching, seeking, surviving — and then she was there. In front of a great wall of ice, a wall that stretched so deep into the depths that the Greenland shark knew that even her malleable body couldn’t survive a journey to the bottom. She looked up, but the ice hit rock, the underside of some great, granite island outcropping. She knew that her birthplace was right there on the other side. But she couldn’t reach it.
Once again, a rare feeling from her. Despair.
And beyond that, she was starving. Just as I was. And the bateleur. And the barasingha. We were all reaching the end, but still, here, at the end, the Greenland Shark kept moving. When she exhausted everything within herself, she turned to us.
What now? She seemed to say.
The bateleur drove her to survey the entire ice wall. To cascade over it and search for any sign of weakness.
The barasingha compelled her to listen. Was there a current emerging from anywhere in the ice? A hint of movement?
And I told her what she’d told me: survive, survive, survive.
As I wove into the last moa’s final moments, I found that it spent those moments with a human woman’s hand stroking the feathers of its crown, and the moa was fondly remembering the time it had first seen her, this woman.
She came to them in a flash of red and yellow. At first, the bird thought that she might be one of their long-expected fallen gods, the ones who had yet to appear. Then, it worried that she might be a colonizer, or a missionary, the ones that its kind had learned to hide from.
When the bird looked upon her face in its memory, I was astonished.
It was Amelia Earhart. Every human knows — had known — her face. The symbol, the hero, of the Great Age of Aviation.
This memory of their first encounter was with the moa when, years later, it laid under a weary palm and met its final moments. Amelia — or A.E., as the bird thought of her — was old now, but she looked as if she’d had a happy life. The moa’s eyes caught more than human eyes. It could see this on her face.
“Look,” she said, and placed her hand below the moa’s beak, lifting it so that it could look at something further up the beach. A pile of something. I went farther into the moa’s eyes, which were huge and could see for kilometers.
A pile of eggs, each the size of a boulder. One began to rustle, and the moa’s view faded from my sight, before it reached the end.
The Greenland Shark
She found it. A thin fissure in the ice, with a different current of water whispering out. She beat her soft nose against it. Again, and again, and again. It seemed impossible that anything could change this motionless wall of ice.
But then, a crack. Like the breaking of glass. Then another. And another. And, with one final thrust into the ice, she broke through. The jagged entrance cut her belly and I could sense that she had little time left, almost no time at all. Though I was being pulled away, I decided that I had to stay. To be with her in her final moments, just as the St. Kitts bullfinch had been for the thylacine. The other Lasts were here, too. The barasingha and the bateleur. The four of us, together at the end.
The Greenland shark drifted through the hole she’d made and a wave of peace washed over her with the cold, deep current.
And then suddenly, she was no longer seeking.
Before her — before us — was a huge, unfathomable series of towers, lights, and tunnels. Monuments and spheres of incomprehensible architecture. Somewhere, back in my human mind, I was astonished.
But not the Greenland shark. She’d been expecting this.
In front of us, a number of sharks and cephalopods and humanoid beings — mermaids? — moved about, going about their lives as if the world above hadn’t halted.
Finally, as the flame of life diminished to a mere flicker within her, the Greenland shark revealed her final secret to us. We all felt a stirring in her belly.
Then I wasn’t with her anymore. Our connection as Lasts to the Greenland shark had been severed, and we were no longer able to see what she was seeing.
But I could sense her in another way. I felt her love all around us. It was far different from human love; less of an emotion than a concentrated sense of the distance she had traveled and the nutrients she’d given. It was then that I realized where we were.
I was within her. It was a horrible, hungry place, but I sensed my friends there, my eagle and my doe. And I, their human. Our friend wasn’t the last Greenland shark anymore. Like the moa before her, she’d delivered another of her line in the last possible moment. Three of her line, actually. Three new sharks — one with the spirit of an eagle, one with that of a doe, and me. Had she tricked the spirit, the force that connected us, or had it known all along?
How could she give me this? Was it a debt settled, for that long ago body flung off of a ship? I knew the answer to that right away: Sharks don’t carry debts.
I felt my human form sagging, letting go and felt my new, cold body move through the water like a dart. And I heard a voice in my head, in my whole body, actually, though I was unsure if it was hers or my own. What the voice said was simple.
Survive, survive, survive.
Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, Mike McClelland (he/him/his) is originally from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband, two sons, and a menagerie of rescue dogs. He is the author of the short fiction collection “Gay Zoo Day” and his creative work has appeared in The New York Times, Boston Review, Vox, The Baffler, and a number of literary magazines and anthologies. He’s a graduate of Allegheny College, The London School of Economics, and the MFA program at Georgia College, and is currently a PhD candidate in the University of Georgia’s Creative Writing program.
Amelia K. Bates is a Wisconsin-based illustrator and the senior designer at Grist, and holds a certificate in Natural Science Illustration from the University of Washington-Seattle. She draws inspiration from birds, plants, and other denizens of the natural world, and is currently at work on a tarot deck featuring Wisconsin’s flora and fauna.