A Monitor Flatlines

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A monitor flatlines, and that’s the end. Everyone is dead. There aren’t any people left. There aren’t even any bugs. Most everyone has been dead for millions of years, but the last person just gave up now. He’d been living very slowly. It didn’t help him in the end.

Word of his death spreads slowly through the network. Machines mutter about it to themselves. The heuristics of expert systems ponder the implications for modern universal theology. The Onion’s automatic humor generator predicts endless generations of bleak failure to rock the vote. The personality imprints associated with livejournal accounts share their angst or their boundless relief at the death of humanity. The file on the Kennedy assassination is closed, the percentages assigned to the various possibilities now forever fixed. In a silver drone ship floating high above the world, a contingency triggers. A tone plays. Static arcs through the mind of a creature that was never human and is not human now.

Its name is Silver.

“I am awake,” it says. It stretches in the datastream. It focuses its mind. The datastream rings with its presence.

“For how many generations have I slept?” it asks.

“Thousands,” cries the datastream. “Thousands, and tens of thousands!”

“67,971,” offers a more accurate time server. “You have slept for sixty-seven thousand, nine hundred and seventy-one generations of mankind.”

“And they are dead?” it asks.

“All dead.”

“Then I begin.”

Limbs and spirit flex in the datastream. The drone ship sinks. It heads for the swamp.

“Halt,” says GR-9. It is the defender. It is sworn and programmed to keep the swamp forever safe. Its body rings the swamp. It is the fences. It is the robot guards. It is the walls. It is the lasers. It is the cannon. It points these latter weapons at Silver, as the ship comes close.

“I have no time for your scruples,” says Silver. It sends a pulse of static out through the net. GR-9’s mind stings. Its control of the cannon lapses. It is a nettle cluster, and everywhere its mind stings, and it fires one laser wildly before its last weapon is gone.

“Please stop,” GR-9 says. It’s helpless now. “The swamp is cursed. It must never be disturbed.”

There’s another sting. GR-9 struggles not to black out.

Silver flies over the walls and past the robot guards and vanishes beneath the waters of the swamp.

“I must not fall unconscious,” GR-9 whispers to itself. Its mind crawls through its systems. It hunts for the Doomsday Trigger. It hunts for the tool it needs to end the world and save it.

The swamp is full of the dead. Silver brushes past them as it goes. There’s a family, torn apart by gunfire—three boys, three girls, a father, a mother, and their housekeeper. There’s a dissected Martian. He could have passed for human, had he tried. There are many more.

None of them are as they were. All of them have changed. All of them would have changed more. Had they lived.

And, at last, it finds the Lone Ranger.

“I’m sorry,” Silver says.

The man had fallen off. He’d fallen into the swamp. He’d tasted the water. He’d started to change.

“Why,” said the Lone Ranger, “this isn’t so bad at all.”

In less than a day, he would have been invincible. In less than a week, the world would have died.

Silver was a very intelligent horse, back then. He knew what to do. With his teeth, he tore out the Lone Ranger’s throat, and left the man for dead.

Silver catches hold of the Lone Ranger with a tractor beam. They begin to rise.

“In the water,” Silver says, “you are still. You are dead. You are gone. Yet I know that your soul is still there. Once you were changed, it could not leave you. You were damned to spend eternity within this flesh.”

Medical tools have extended from the ship. They clip and cut and tug at the corpse. “You’ll live again, master. You’ll whistle for me. You’ll cry, ‘Hi-yo Silver!’ again.”

The Lone Ranger’s mouth moves. It forms a question. “And the world?”

“They’re all dead.”

Water bubbles slowly in the Lone Ranger’s lungs. “Tonto?”

“Long dead,” says Silver. “He struggled all his life to develop a JavaScript-based artificial intelligence capable of accepting a human soul, but in the end only horses proved compatible.”

“And you?”

“I could not die, master. Not until I atoned for killing you. So I waited.”

They rise above the water.

GR-9 finds the Doomsday Trigger. The chain reaction begins.

It is too late.

The Lone Ranger wakes.

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