Buchanan King stood atop the hill, its limbs crinkling away
below him and covered with the green-tan of prairie grass in the
late Summer. Small clumps of trees and brush dotted the rolling
ground, down this hill and up its shorter neighbor, and off like
fading waves out to the horizon. He sighed, wiping his
handkerchief across the perspiration already forming on his
There was no city here.
The grass rustled with animal life, unseen, but thriving. A
hawk wheeled in the blue overhead, circling for prey, suddenly
diving for a kill. But no signs here or over the horizon hinted
at the presence of humankind—no wisps of fires burning, no roads
etched across the verdant fields, no towers trampling the dirt
He already knew this, of course, before he'd taken the
tender down from his ship moored in high Earth orbit. There had
been no artificial satellites, no chatter on the spectrum, no
lights on the night side. Some fires had caught his eye: But
only dry forests kindled from lightning sparks. The shorelines
were free of boats—he'd looked as he went past. The air, free
of human dander. No pheromones wafted on the breeze.
Buchanan King was alone.
Twice—once long ago, once longer ago before that—this had
been his home. On this very spot, some eight million years
before, had stood a modest house, filled with the laughter of
small children, cries of sibling fights, the kind and reproaching
words of parents. A million years or so after that, he'd made
his home again on this hill, for twenty years, living first out
of the tender then in a cabin he and his new children had built
out of pine.
At least he'd called them his children, and they had called
him father, the donors of their sperm and eggs lying under a
million years of dust beneath their feet, alongside his real
children and their mother. "Father," they would say, "show us
again how to hunt the deer!"
"Show me your bows," he would say, "and your arrows. Good!
Good!" And they would silently stalk their dinners though the
Now they too were dust underfoot, seven million years in the
He'd visited many times since, and knew someday he might
make this his home a third time, and watch his children sprout
again, but that by doing so he would grow too old to make the
journey and return another million years hence to see if they had
flourished. Always he was driven to know; always he left; and on
each return he asked himself, "Is this time the last? Do I
It had become almost a ritual now. His labor accomplished
one more time today, he took out a portable chair, setting it to
face the way he'd faced in his office back when he had walked
among the living, the ten billion who had likewise called Earth
home. There had been a window then, and he cupped his hands at
his face to recall the view as he looked out over what had then
been a sea of humankind.
Like each visit in the past, he again let his nose run and
eyes weep as he recalled his hubris that had killed them. No, he
hadn't killed anyone directly—he'd killed humanity. Nobody had
suffered pain from his act, at least not of the physical kind;
nor had anyone died before their time, unless it were from grief.
He inspected his hands; they were clean of the blood of the
billions of the living. They were stained with far worse: The
blood of the tens and hundreds of billions who could never be
He would never know if they had tracked the virus back to
him; he'd been gone by then. Stealing the ship had been out of
fear. Had he committed the ultimate act of genocide? The only
way to know would be to come back later to see. The deep-space
mining and manufacturing barge was ideal. Fully automated,
rarely manned, thus easily stolen, with the necessary sub-light
drive he would need; the manufacturing facilities ensured he
would neither starve nor face a shortage of mechs for labor. Two
long years he waited: A year to reach the asteroids, to take on
mass; half a year accelerating toward the darkest point in space
at a comfortable one gee, nestled safely inside a ship careening
at a leisurely pace sixteen times that, almost to the speed of
light; then braking back—relativity's time dilation leaving him
two years older in a world a century in the future.
A world almost empty of humanity, save for the centenarians.
They patiently awaited the end of time.
Others had gone out and come back too, they said, noting his
youthful appearance of twenty-eight, or was he from one of the
colonies? Hadn't those failed, they asked, cut off from Earth
and all? Not to worry; the nannymechs would make him
comfortable. But none had guessed it had been Buchanan King's
mistake that caused their pain. He couldn't bring himself to
visit his own children, if they were even alive, or their graves
if not. It wouldn't help to tell them that he'd done this for
them and their children: A virus to block Down's syndrome's
extra group G chromosome, 100% infectious, the work of a student
pursuing a graduate degree and tinkering with life. Buchanan
locked away the shame, the absolute stupidity he felt at
presuming to release a virus untested. He'd been so positive it
would work—and that he would step forward to acclaims of
brilliance—and if not, that it would be harmless, and he,
anonymous. The capriciousness of youth.
Within a year it was inescapable: The media labeled it
INVIR, the "Infertility Virus." Many were angry, but few
panicked. A cure would surely be found.
And almost was, by eighty years after. Yet the remaining
virologists were dying off, and the anti-virus, almost completed,
had languished and been forgotten. The nannymechs made sure
everyone was comfortable.
They had been so close, Buchanan saw. He was able to
complete their anti-virus within months. But he couldn't bear to
look into their wrinkled eyes to explain it would take years for
the anti-virus to mutate INVIR into a harmless form. The thought
that his own children might still be alive sealed his decision.
He left behind a supply of the anti-virus with a note, in
exchange for stealing batches of frozen sperm, eggs, and
blueprints for the incubators and nannymechs civilization had
long ago ceased trying, resigned to their fate. He encouraged
them in the note to try again, that maybe he was wrong in his
estimate, that eggs might fertilize again sooner. If they could
simply keep trying, until...
He stole away to his ship in the night.
Three years later, this time pinching the barrier of light
speed far closer, to within a trillionth of a percent, a year out
to nowhere and back—a million years had passed on Earth.
The hill on which his house stood a thousand millennia ago
was more barren of human signs than it had been twice as long
before, when primitive hominids had hunted there. Pristine,
INVIR-free. In his atonement he had brought life. Sperm and
eggs awoke from their frozen sleep, and he seeded the lands with
a thousand incubator grown babes and a nanny-mech per tribe of
thirty. He hoped the recordings he'd left with each would steer
them to adulthood, and that at least some would survive.
Twenty years he stayed with one tribe, "ensuring the nannies
could handle the tasks," he told himself. But more, so he could
watch his mistake be reversed, to see children grow. He acted
only in accord with what the nannies taught, so as not to bias
their development. Hunting, fishing, planting; basic survival
skills. He told them nothing of Earth's past, of their great
technologies, nor of his own failings. Those they would have to
For years he found peace in the pastoral life. His children
grew to adulthood. Yet his heart grew restless, and he had to
know if he had succeeded, just as he had had to know of his
Without goodbyes he slipped away, some two decades later,
and swooped past the sun, kidnaping an asteroidal mass for fuel
and manufacturing, then dived out and back, a year apiece. The
world was theirs now, not his. But Earth never roamed far
despite his speed, relativity playing on him the cruel trick of
shortening length behind him, so that the red-shifted image of
the fragile blue planet never appeared in the telescope more than
a light-month behind. He could have veered away to end the
illusion, but forced himself to stay the course and maintain a
vigil on his home.
A million years more in the future, only four years past his
fiftieth birthday, Buchanan King had returned.
And wept to find another empty world.
Again he seeded the humanless plains, left some thousand
infants in the care of the ship's newly crafted nannies, and sped
out to pass a million years.
Near the end of the outbound leg, when more than a year was
passing on Earth for each hour his clock ticked off, he was sure
the telescope had detected a burst of Doppler-shifted noise from
directly behind. It lasted until he could no longer compensate
for the shift, and was silent when he could compensate again as
he slowed; it was perhaps as likely to come from some natural
phenomenon as from civilization, but it gave him both hope and
despair. Hope that humanity had taken hold. Despair that the
signal had grown silent. He anxiously waited out the year—to
find the world as he'd found it each time before. Alive with
life; devoid of humankind.
Perhaps some natural disaster overtook them, he reasoned.
And seeded the globe a third time.
Then a fourth. A fifth. A sixth.
Buchanan King had stood in this same spot, eight million
years before, and tried to help humanity, and each time at
million year ticks thereafter. He studied his hands, creased
like the hills with his sixty-nine years, and felt his age. He
was tired. It would be so easy to retire, he thought, leaning
heavily on the incubators holding the next brood of humanity.
His own mortality loomed before him as he contemplated how it
should have been, eight lifetimes ago. The only real peace he
felt his entire life, he mused, was the twenty years with the
first repopulation. He had almost reached peace with himself for
what he had done as he pranced about as a primitive, nurturing
humanity back from the brink.
And twenty years from now he most likely would be dust, a
sure limit on the number of trips he could yet make. If he
stayed, he wouldn't have to know whether he had succeeded or
failed. Let humanity fend for itself, a voice cried out within
him. You've done enough.
The incubators chimed, one after another. A nanny-mech
hummed by, attending each one, popping the seal and plucking out
one crying child after another.
Maybe one nanny to thirty children wasn't enough, he thought
with horror. Maybe all the prior generations had been doomed
because of his lack of foresight.
No. He knew it wasn't that easy. The nannies were designed
for exactly this role, and the manufacturing ship replicated them
flawlessly. The blame wasn't so simple to affix. The only
fault, he knew, lay in human nature. The same nature that drove
him to create and release the virus led his children to their
end, each time. Perhaps if he tried harder. If he stayed this
time. Taught them better.
The temptation to stay was a crushing in his chest.
He eased himself down upon the damp ground, grasping
handfuls of moist earth. It felt good to touch, teeming with
life. He struggled with his conscience, until he realized that
the hole was no longer there. The pain of causing the end of his
civilization, the pain he would only allow to surface at three
year intervals here on Earth, the pain that once was a bonfire
withering his every hope—that pain had faded, and was only a
dull ache he could now bear. He had paid his debt, seven times
over. If man's flower was not meant to blossom, who was he to
raise his fist in defiance?
And he knew: He was free from his burden. Mankind was no
longer his concern, and had never been. He was at peace with his
error. Released from his bond.
Yet as he watched a nanny hover over a wriggling baby,
he stood up, brushing the soil from his hands. With a final
survey of the undulating, city-less hills, Buchanan King stepped
back into the tender, sealed the door, and arced into the sky.
Would they be here in a million years? He had to know.
A Note from the Author
Hi — I hope you enjoyed "A Sailor on the Sea of Humanity." I've released this for reading on a "pay what you feel it was worth" model. Think of it like tipping in a restaurant. If you loved your service you might tip 20-25%, right? Maybe 15-20% for average service and 10-15% for poor service. But you wouldn't stiff the server, would you? Authors need to pay the bills too, and our income from writing is how that happens. (If we're going to write more stories and books for people to read, anyway!)
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