The last human in the universe must battle unfathomable alien intelligences—and confront the truth about humanity—in the ambitious, galaxy-spanning debut from Zack Jordan. The Last Human is available March 24th from Random House. Read an excerpt below!
Most days, Sarya doesn’t feel like the most terrifying creature in the galaxy. Most days, she’s got other things on her mind. Like hiding her identity among the hundreds of alien species roaming the corridors of Watertower Station. Or making sure her adoptive mother doesn’t casually eviscerate one of their neighbors. Again.
And most days, she can almost accept that she’ll never know the truth—that she’ll never know why humanity was deemed too dangerous to exist. Or whether she really is—impossibly—the lone survivor of a species destroyed a millennium ago. That is, until an encounter with a bounty hunter and a miles-long kinetic projectile leaves her life and her perspective shattered.
Thrown into the universe at the helm of a stolen ship—with the dubious assistance of a rebellious spacesuit, an android death enthusiast on his sixtieth lifetime, and a ball of fluff with an IQ in the thousands—Sarya begins to uncover an impossible truth. What if humanity’s death and her own existence are simply two moves in a demented cosmic game, one played out by vast alien intellects? Stranger still, what if these mad gods are offering Sarya a seat at their table—and a second chance for humanity?
“This area is closed for maintenance of its surveillance systems,” says the voice of Dock A. “Please return in fourteen minutes.”
Sarya stands with her back against a closed hatch, blinking in the light. It’s been a while since she’s been here, but it’s familiar enough once her eyes adjust. It’s always obvious which parts of Watertower Station are the oldest. They don’t have the smooth curves, sound-absorbing coatings, or—judging by the way her feet stick to the floor here—properly motivated cleaning crews. They are usually more cramped than the newer areas. Dock A, for example, is barely a hundred meters across and not even half that up to the buttressed ceiling. The double hatch that takes up the entire far wall is probably the same size as the ones in all the other docks, but here it looks gigantic.
These older areas are also more cluttered, and not necessarily because they lack crews. Usually the clutter is the crew. This maze of machinery stacked on this side of the dock is made of the oldest, cheapest, and/or lowest-tier drones. This is the absolute bottom layer of Watertower society. They lie dormant, waking just long enough to scan her, emit a message or two, and go to sleep again.
[Hello again, Sarya the Daughter.]
[Would you like something loaded or unloaded?]
[If you are waiting for the next ship to arrive, that won’t be for a while.]
But as far as real intelligence goes… the dock is empty.
Sarya’s boots squeak on the sticky floor, and the jingle of her utility suit rings like an alarm across the deserted dock. She’s been here before—many times, on her exploratory missions through the station—but she’s never seen it without intelligences rushing about their various duties. There is nearly always a ship or two here, atmosphere-docked for a repair or waiting for cargo that can’t be transported through vacuum. But now the place is dead and hollow, the only sounds coming from her own slow steps.
It awes her to know that Observer arranged for this. That’s the only possibility. He’s pretty important here, obviously, as a major client. He had to have arranged for this meeting at the highest levels of Watertower, to clear out a space this size. Or—hell, it makes her smile—but a mind like Observer’s could have made this happen without anyone actually knowing. Maybe he arranged for everyone to have the day off at the same time. Maybe he caused a sudden arrival at Dock B that required all hands. Or—well, she can’t think of anything else off the top of her head, but she doesn’t have a couple billion minds to focus on the problem. If she did, dreaming up coincidences and accidents and schedule changes to clear out a little room like this would be hatchling’s play.
Now she’s out of the machinery, and she spins, arms out, across the dull landing surface. Her eyes search out every corner of the empty space. From the massive doors to the gaudy [Welcome to Watertower!] banner that glitters over the immigration booth at the main entrance, Dock A appears completely deserted.
“Helper?” she murmurs. In the silence, the sound is louder than she meant it.
“Right here, best buddy!” comes Helper’s deafening voice in her earbuds.
“Do you see anybody here?” she asks.
“Of course!” it says. “I see one hundred fifty intelligences. I even know a few, like Unit W-.11515 over there and those two broken loaders. I mean, those two totally functional loaders—oh, I guess it’s too late isn’t it? I shouldn’t have said anything. They don’t want anyone to know they’re broken, which I think is pretty ridiculous because they can just—”
“Helper,” she says. Sub-legals are not easy to stop, once they get going. “I mean do you see any people,” she says. “Legal.”
“Oh,” says Helper, more quietly. “People, right.” The small voice is silent for a moment. “Are you looking for the guy who likes Human stories?”
The guy who likes—oh, right. “Sure.”
“Searching! And… no. Wait—no. Hold on! I see—no. I don’t see anyone.”
“Thanks.” She knew better than to expect much from a low-tier intelligence, but she is still annoyed.
“No problem, best buddy. In fact—”
And then even Helper falls silent as a massive clank resounds through the dock. Sarya whirls, staring into the labyrinth of equipment she just left.
“Oh, wait,” says Helper. “Actually maybe there is somebody there. A person, I mean. Yes, definitely is. I see a tier two—”
But Sarya’s already switched the channel off, feeling foolish for trusting a tiny intelligence over a gigantic group mind. Observer told her to come here. Of course there’s someone here to meet her.
“Hello?” she says. The word returns to her from multiple directions, reflected by every cold surface in the dock.
[My most humble greetings to you], says a message.
The glowing symbols float over one of the many chunks of machinery. From twenty meters away the metal shape looks like any other drone, but her Network unit has now assigned it a legal identity. [Hood (he family), species: Red Merchant, Tier: 2.2], says the tag. [Additional information not available.]
Sarya walks forward, slowly, arms loose like her mother taught her. This may be an innocent meeting of minds, but she was raised a Widow, and she’ll be damned if she’s caught with her blades soft. “I’m—”
[Sarya the Daughter], says the pile of junk. With a clamor of clangs and whirrs that echoes across the empty dock, it—he, rather—unfolds to a height of at least three meters. He appears to be mainly sheet metal and pistons; she can see right through him in several places. Four glowing eyes stare at her through a dented faceplate, and Sarya stands motionless as they run up and down her body. Then, with a groan of metal, he crashes forward onto an arm as thick as her entire body. He’s wildly asymmetrical, a trash pile of an intelligence. He supports his weight on two short legs and that giant arm, while on his other side another whiplike limb extends outward for a moment and then coils at his smaller shoulder. Somewhere in there is a tier two mind, but its host appears to be constructed from spare parts.
Sarya meets his gaze as she was taught. “Observer sent me,” she says, attempting to force Widow strength into her voice. “He said—”
[I am aware], says Hood, taking another clanging step forward. [Observer, as you call Him, is my client.]
“Your… client?” says Sarya, keeping her distance with a quick step backward. “He said you were his friend.”
[Where I am from, the terms are interchangeable], says Hood. [Business before brotherhood, as the saying goes. But rather than discuss the doubtless fascinating array of idiomatic dissimilarities between our respective backgrounds, I rather think we should be going.] He leans forward on that thick arm, raising a foot off the ground for another step toward her.
“Stop!” says Sarya, the word echoing back and forth through the chamber. Her every muscle is tense, her body poised for flight. It’s not that she’s afraid—no, that would be ridiculous. The daughter of a Widow, afraid! No, she is cautious. Because, honestly, how often do you find yourself facing down a large alien being in a mysteriously empty space at the behest of a mind a million times as smart as—
“Did you say going?” she asks, suddenly frozen to the spot. “Going where?”
Pistons hiss, metal shifts, and Hood finishes his lurching step toward her. He moves slowly, even painfully—which is the only reason she’s not already running, because nothing about this feels right.
[Did my client not tell you?] says Hood. [I’m here to take you to your people.]
And with that statement, any plans of strategy or escape go out the airlock. Her people. Sarya stands there, rigid, with her mouth open and the phrase ringing in her head. She stares at Hood, at the four glowing eyes locked to hers, trying to make her brain think through what she’s just heard.
[Or], says Hood, [you may remain here for the rest of your life.]
And with a chorus of shrieks from a dozen ill-fitting parts, Hood turns his back on her and begins hitching his laborious way toward the far side of Dock A. Sarya stares after him, jaw still ajar, unable to process what has just happened. I’m here to take you to your people. The sentence echoes in her mind, focusing and distilling, dropping words each repeat until it has become a single phrase: your people.
She feels as though she could pass out. Goddess. Was she not just fantasizing about this in the laundry cart? A choice between mundanity and adventure, between her home and her people? And here it is. Of course, it’s not exactly like the fantasy. Hood is not an attractive Human, for one thing. The whole thing has been more businesslike than magical, for another. But still… oh goddess, here it is.
She stands, fists clenched, watching Hood’s form lurch away from her. This is ridiculous to even think about, says the more responsible part of her. This is Watertower. This is home. In fact, that’s a good point, shouldn’t you think about getting home soon? You need to prepare for your interview at the arboretum, after all. And if you pull that off, well, that’s steady employment, right? Low-tier, sure—the quiet, unassuming existence of a Spaal just doing its job. But really, what more can you ask for?
That’s right, says another part of her mind. Go to the interview. You’ll get the job; they practically have to give it to you, because what else can you do? As far as anyone else knows, you’re just a low-tier moron who can barely put her utility suit on right side out. Every day, you’ll go to that job. Every day, you’ll tell people, I’m sorry, my tier is low, I don’t understand. Your closest friends will be mulchers and courier drones. You’ll mature. You’ll age. And then you’ll die, alone, your last conscious thought a memory of this very decision: the moment when you let opportunity hiss and bang its way out of your life. Now you tell me,
says that second part of her mind: Is that really what a Human would do?
It is then that she realizes that she’s already made her decision. She’s already taken a step after Hood. Now another. And now she’s committed, because she’s three steps in and accelerating. The more responsible part of her is protesting, but she can’t hear a thing over the blood singing in her ears, the heart nearly thumping through her chest, the jumble of emotions and endorphins flooding her mind. Here it is, says the rest of her in chorus. Here it is here it is oh goddess here it is—
Hood doesn’t even look at her when she jogs up behind him.
[I assumed you would need a pressure suit], he says, uncoiling his long arm to gesture. [So. Meet Eleven.]
She slows and circles him, the Widow in her insisting she keep a healthy distance. Before his angular frame stands another tower of metal even larger than he is. But where Hood is all flat surfaces and obscenely exposed tubes and pistons, this figure is all gleaming curves. From the stubby tripod of its three heavy legs to the top of its dome, this thing is easily twice her height and nearly all shining torso. There is no head, just a continuous curved surface broken only by two pairs of arms. One set is as massive as the suit itself; they emerge nearly three meters up the massive body and run down its entire length to rest on the deck. The other pair is smaller; they fold across a giant number 11 on its gleaming front. This is not a budget suit, that’s for sure, and for some reason that makes her trust this Hood just a little more.
As she watches, a ring of transparent light flickers to life halfway up this leviathan. The words AIVVTECH QUALITY IS WORTH THE WAIT orbit it a few centimeters out from its gleaming surface. And then, with a bone-shaking clang, the machine falls forward onto its two largest arms. Two spotlights pin her to the floor while the small arms on the suit’s front unfold and wave cheerily. “Hello!” booms a cheerful yet enormous voice that rings across the empty dock. “Thank you for choosing an Aivvtech Universal Autonomous Environment! How can this unit improve your day?”
Sarya steps forward, shielding her eyes. “Um… hi,” she says when the echoes have died away. “Nice… to meet you?”
With a sparkling chime, a glowing SEE WHAT TIER 1.75 CAN DO FOR YOU begins orbiting the suit. “This suit contains a sub-legal auxiliary intelligence,” says the chipper voice, “but that doesn’t mean it can’t serve you well! For instance: are you tired of unexpected atmosphere evacuations and uncomfortable implosions? Does manually transporting your own body exhaust you? With the AivvTech UAE, these problems are relics of the past! Simply give this suit your orders and it will do the rest, and it can do so anywhere from perfect vacuum to crushing magma! And if you are looking for entertainment options then look no further, because—”
[Perhaps you could use this opportunity to open up rather than advertise], says Hood. [We must press ever onward.]
“It would be my pleasure!” says Eleven. Another bright tone echoes through the dock, and a dark horizontal groove interrupts the suit’s perfect surface. It widens, and then the front panel splits and folds open. The small utility arms become landing legs for the bottom panel, which lowers to the deck like a gangway. There is nothing inside the suit but smooth, red-lit walls. There are no seats, no handholds, nothing to get in the way of a potential passenger’s anatomy.
Sarya swallows, staring into that red cockpit, but the more ad-venturous part of her mind speaks up before she can change her mind. This is the actual moment, it says. This is when you reach out and seize your destiny. This is when you move from dream to action, from fourth shift at the arboretum to membership in a fierce and proud species. You will look back on this day and—
“Will we be placing the Human with the other prisoners?” says Eleven in its sunny voice.
Sarya takes a step backward. “The other— the other what?” she says.
Excerpted from The Last Human, copyright © 2020 by Zack Jordan.