Read an extract from The Last Human by Zack Jordan
By Zack Jordan
Posted on February 19, 2020 in Books, Extract, Science Fiction with tags Extract, The Last Human, Zack Jordan
The Last Human is the rip-roaring, unapologetic space opera debut by Zack Jordan coming in March 2020. It follows Sarya, the last human in the galaxy, who has been hidden away and raised by a giant alien spider. As the lone survivors of a species destroyed a millennium ago, Sarya can almost accept that she’ll never know the truth about why humanity was deemed too dangerous to exist, but she must keep her identity hidden from the hundreds of alien species roaming the corridors of Watertower Station, if she wants to survive.
Read a sneak-peek extract here:
Not so many years ago, Shenya the Widow was a void-cold killer. And as hobbies— no, passions— go, it was extraordinarily fulﬁlling. Hunt all night, feast at dawn, take one’s pick of the choicest males before the long day’s sleep . . . oh yes. She still fantasizes about it— though, sadly, fantasy is all she has left. This is because Shenya the Widow has been conquered, mind and body, by an ancient and terrible force.
And so she crouches like death’s own shadow outside a closed bedroom door and ﬂexes a variety of bladed appendages in quiet reﬂection. Her own mother warned her about this. She could be hunting right now. She could be streaking through a moonlit forest with the rest of her covenant, the bloodlust boiling in her breast, her hunting cry joining those of her sisters in a chorus of beautiful death . . . but no.
She composes a Network message in her mind. [Sarya the Daughter], says the message. [My love and greatest treasure. My child, for whom I would gladly die. Open this door before I cut it out of the station wall.] She attaches a few choice emotions— though she knows her daughter’s unit is too basic to read them— and ﬁres the message through the Network implant in the back of her head.
[Error, unit not receiving], says the return message. [Have a nice day.]
Shenya releases a slow and wrathful hiss. [Very clever], she sends, tapping a black and gleaming blade against the door. [I know you’re receiving, my love. And if you sabotage your unit one more time, well.] She dispatches the message as violently as possible, leans against the hatch, and begins a shrill danger-rattle with every available blade.
And then with a hiss and the screech of metal on chitin, the hatch slides aside to bathe Shenya the Widow in the blinding glow of her daughter’s quarters. She ignores the pain from her eyes— must her daughter always keep her room so bright?— and waits the moment it takes for her to distinguish the ﬁgure that is more collapsed than seated against the far wall. Its utility suit is rumpled, its boots undone, its sleeves and collar pulled as low and as high as they go. Only the head and the ends of the upper limbs are bare, but even that much exposed ﬂesh would have sickened her not long ago.
Back before Shenya the Widow ever dreamed of calling this one daughter, it took her some time to stomach the sight of an intelligence without an exoskeleton. Imagine, a being with only four limbs! And worse, each of these limbs splits into ﬁve more at its end— well, that is the stuff of nightmares, is it not? As if that were not horriﬁc enough, this being is wrapped top to bottom not in clean and beautiful chitin but in an oily blood- ﬁlled organ— which is called skin, her research has told her. There is a sporadic dusting of hair over this skin, with a few concentrations in seemingly random spots. Up top there is a great knot of it, long and thick and nearly Widow-dark, wild and falling down in tangles over the strangest eyes one could imagine. Those eyes! Two multi-colored orbs that ﬂash like killing strokes, that express emotion nearly as well as a pair of mandibles. One wouldn’t think it possible but here it is in action. That gaze that is nearly scorching the ﬂoor, that somehow radiates from such odd concentric circles— is that a sullen rage?
“Sorry about the hatch,” says her adopted daughter without looking up. Her upper limbs, Shenya the Widow cannot help but notice, are held dangerously close to an obscene Widow sign. “I was getting ready for my ﬁeld trip.”
And now her mother understands: this is a mighty anger, a fury worthy of a Widow, and it is directed somewhere outside this room.
Shenya the Widow ﬂows into her daughter’s room with the gentle clicks of exoskeleton on metal. She may be an apex predator, a murderous soul wrapped in lightning and darkness, but underneath that she is all mother. There are wrongs to be righted and hurts to be savagely avenged— but before any of that can happen there is a room to be tidied. Shenya the Widow’s many limbs are up to the task.
The spare utility suit, yes, that can go straight to laundry— two limbs fold it and place it by the door. The nest, or bunk, as her daughter now calls it, needs straightening— two more blades begin that noble work. A single blade begins scouting the ﬂoor for food bar wrappers, stabbing their silver forms as it ﬁnds them. The laundry limbs, mission accomplished, now rescue a soft black shape from the ﬂoor. The doll is black and silky and a horrifying caricature of Widow physiology, but Shenya the Widow made it many years ago with her own eight blades, and her hearts still ache to see it banished from the bunk. She places it, carefully, back where it belongs.
“Where is your Network unit, my love?” asks Shenya the Widow in that soft and dangerous voice that comes with motherhood. Her nearly spherical vision examines all corners of the room at once.
Her daughter glares at the ﬂoor without answering.
Shenya the Widow narrowly restrains a click of approval. On the one blade, this is a Widow rage— a towering and explosive wrath— and it is beautiful. One spends so much energy attempting to install traditional values in a young and coalescing mind, and it is always rewarding to see effort yield results. But on an-other blade, well . . . insolence is insolence, is it not?
Happily, she is saved by circumstance. A questing limb reports that it has found the object in question under the bunk. Shenya the Widow drags it out, feeling a twinge of guilt at the strength required. This heavy prosthetic, this poor substitute for a common Network implant, is what her daughter has been forced to wear strapped around her torso for most of her life. It is an ancient device, a budget so-called universal, only distantly related to the elegant implant somewhere in Shenya the Widow’s head. Both perform the same function, in theory: each connects its user to a galaxy-spanning Network brimming with beauty and meaning and effortless communication. One does it seamlessly, as smooth as the bond between one neuron and a billion billion others. The other does it through a shaky hologram, some static- infused audio, and numerous error messages.
[. . . before I cut it out of the station wall], says the Network unit to itself, its trembling hologram ﬂickering in the air above it.
One might assume that a certain physiology is required to hold oneself like a Widow, but her daughter proves this untrue. She sits up, wrapping upper limbs around lower with movements as Widowlike as they are— well . . . what she is. It is these familiar motions that unlock the deepest chambers of Shenya the Widow’s hearts. The untidy room, the insolence, the disrespect for property— all that is forgotten. Her many limbs abandon their myriad tasks and regroup on the ﬁgure of her daughter, stroking skin- covered cheeks without the slightest hint of revulsion. They straighten the utility suit and slide through the hair and caress those ten tiny appendages. “Tell me, Daughter,” whispers Shenya the Widow with a sigh through mandibles as dangerous as her blades. “Tell me everything.”
Her daughter takes a deep breath, lifting her shoulders with that dramatic motion that people with lungs often use. “We’re going to one of the observation decks today,” she says quietly.
“They have six openings for trainees.”
Shenya the Widow chooses her words carefully, missing the effortless precision of mental Network communication. “I did not know you were interested in— ”
And now, ﬁnally, that ﬁery gaze rises from the ﬂoor. “You know what the prerequisites are?” asks her daughter, glaring at her mother through a tangle of dark hair.
They are ferocious, those eyes, and Shenya the Widow ﬁnds herself wondering how another of her daughter’s species would feel caught in this three-color gaze. White outside brown- gold outside black outside . . . fury.
“I do not,” she answers cautiously.
“I bet you can guess.”
“I . . . choose not to,” says Shenya the Widow, still more cautiously.
“Tier two-point-zero intelligence,” says her daughter in a tight voice. “Not, say, one-point- eight.” The beloved ﬁgure slumps in a way that would be impossible with an exoskeleton. “No, we wouldn’t want a moron at the controls, would we?” she murmurs to the ﬂoor.
“My child!” says Shenya the Widow, shocked. “Who dares call the daughter of Shenya the Widow such a thing?”
“Everybody calls me such a thing,” says her daughter, again straying perilously close to disrespect, “because I am registered as such a thing.”
Shenya the Widow chooses to ignore the accusatory tone. This conversation again. She searches through her implant for the re-cord of its last instance. “Daughter,” she begins. “I understand that you are frustrated by— ”
“Actually, it doesn’t matter, because also you have to be Networked,” interrupts her daughter, tapping her head where her implant would be if she had one. “A prosthetic doesn’t cut it, apparently. Something about instant responses and clear communication and— ” The rest of the requirements are cut off by a grunt as she extends a wild kick toward the device on the ﬂoor.
Shenya the Widow catches the unit before it touches the wall, as her daughter surely knew she would. She employs two more limbs to raise that gaze back to her own, resting the ﬂat of a blade on each side of that beloved face. She can feel her daughter ﬁght, but Shenya the Widow is a hunter and a mother— two things as unstoppable as destiny. “Daughter,” she says quietly. “You know our reasons.”
Her daughter meets that gaze. “You know what?” she says. “I’m tired of pretending. I’m tired of having no one to— ” She stops, and her voice drops. “Sometimes I just want to tell everyone the truth and just see what happens.”
Now Shenya the Widow rattles, low and soft. This is far more serious than a job and a Network implant. “You must never, my love,” she whispers, ﬁlling her words with the force of a mother Widow.
“I must never?” asks her daughter, eyes still locked on her mother’s. “I must never tell the truth? I must never say hey, guess what, I’m not a moron, I’m a— ”
“Do not say it,” hisses Shenya the Widow, trembling. With effort, she withdraws the blade that has just slit the synthetic ﬂooring near her daughter’s foot. All over her body she feels the pleasure of blades lengthening and edges hardening, and ﬁghts to keep any of them from coming in contact with that beloved skin—
“I’m a Human,” says her daughter in a steady voice.
Shenya the Widow raises herself off the ﬂoor, her many blades extending in every direction. “Sarya the Daughter,” she says, in a voice that would terrify anyone on the station. “Hold out your appendage.”
Anyone but her daughter, apparently. The gaze doesn’t break as the hand is offered, palm up. The rest of her body shows the traditional posture of respect for an elder, with the worst sarcasm Shenya the Widow has seen in a long time. All the more reason for discipline.
“It does not matter what you were, my daughter,” says Shenya the Widow, placing the edge of a blade on a hand already criss-crossed with faint white lines. “It matters what you are, and what you are is Widow.”
Her daughter’s hand does not move. The posture becomes even more sarcastic, if anything. Those eyes gaze into her mother’s, waiting and judging. Expecting pain without ﬂinching. Like a Widow.
Shenya the Widow’s hearts overﬂow. Pain without fear— this, in her opinion, is the central proverb of Widowhood. She has spent so much time instilling this principle that it is almost poetic to have it used against her in this way.
“I raised you thus,” she continues, struggling to keep her prideful pheromones in check, “because I could not raise you as— as what you are.”
Her daughter does not look away. Her hand curls around the razor edge in its palm, as if in challenge. “Say it,” she says. “Say what I am.”
“I— ” Shenya the Widow stops, then is shocked that she is the one who looks away. “I choose not to,” she says.
For the ﬁrst time she feels the hand under her blade tremble, and Shenya the Widow returns her gaze to that precious face in time to see moisture welling up around those strange eyes. This is a thing Humans do: their emotions can often be derived from their excretions. The literature calls these drops of liquid tears; they express intense emotion, whether it be joy or distress. In this instance, she is almost certain that it is—
“Do you know what that feels like?” whispers her daughter.
Immediately, all desire to discipline evaporates. “Daughter,” says Shenya the Widow, withdrawing the blade without piercing that precious skin. “My centre and my purpose.” She encircles her daughter in a gleaming, clicking embrace, rests the ﬂat of a blade against that fragile face, and ﬂicks her mandibles twice in an ex-pression of love. She draws closer, her gleaming, faceted eyes nearly touching skin. “If anyone ever ﬁnds out what you are— ”
“I know,” says her daughter with a sigh. “You don’t want to lose me.”
“Well,” says Shenya the Widow, spotting opportunity, “there are other considerations.”
“For instance,” says Shenya the Widow, twirling a blade as if in thought. “I would prefer not to, say, murder those who would come for you.” She shrugs, a long chain reaction that begins at her carapace and clatters to the ends of her blades. “You know how it is once you get started . . .”
That does it. Her daughter battles valiantly, but the tiniest of smiles manages to ﬁght its way to the surface of her face. That’s what this expression is, this concerted mouth-and-eyes movement. A smile.
“Good point,” says her daughter, the corners of her mouth twitching in both Widow and Human emotion. “We wouldn’t want you to murder unnecessarily.”
“No, Daughter,” says Shenya the Widow. “We would not.”
“I mean, you might murder the wrong people, or too many people— ”
“Almost certainly. You know what it’s like when the righteous fury is upon you. Once you begin— ”
“It’s hard to stop,” Sarya the Daughter says quietly. She takes her mother’s blade in her hands and caresses it, watching her own eyes in her reﬂection. “At least, that’s how I imagine it.”
Shenya the Widow allows her daughter a moment of reﬂection. She herself has always found fantasies of mayhem soothing; she assumes the same is true for Humans. “It would comfort your mother,” she says after a moment, “if, before you left for your ﬁeld trip, you would correct your earlier statement.”
Her daughter sighs and rises to her feet as her mother’s blades retract from around her with eight distinct rattles. “I am Sarya the Daughter,” she says softly. “Adopted, of Shenya the Widow. My species is— ” She sighs. “My species is Spaal.” With one hand, she signs the Standard symbols that she has used her entire life: I’m sorry, my tier is low. I don’t understand. She looks disgusted with herself, standing in the centre of her quarters with her shoulders bowed. “Happy?” she asks.
And that is that: another trans-species child-rearing triumph. A marginal success, perhaps, but a parent must take what a parent can get. And now that the crisis has passed, Shenya the Widow may turn to a happier subject. “Now, my daughter— ” she begins.
“I don’t even look like one,” her daughter mutters, turning away. “Anyone who thinks so is the moron.”
“Daughter,” says Shenya the Widow. “I would like to— ”
“Did I tell you I have an interview at the arboretum?” her daughter interrupts, lifting the prosthetic off the ﬂoor with dis-taste. “Yeah. Even a damn Spaal is overqualiﬁed for that one, believe it or not. I think most everybody down there is actually sub-legal, so I could actually be a manager or— ”
“Daughter!” hisses Shenya the Widow.
Her daughter turns, expectant, blinking against Shenya the Widow’s exasperated pheromones. The Network prosthetic dangles from one hand, already displaying a new error message.
“Perhaps you should leave that here,” says Shenya the Widow, gesturing toward the unit with a gleaming blade.
Her daughter laughs a short Widow laugh with the corners of her mouth. “I’d rather go naked,” she says, holding down a control to reset the device. “You think this is bad, trying going with-out any unit at all. I tried that once and— ”
“Take this one instead,” says Shenya the Widow. With a smooth movement, she reveals— ﬁnally— the tiny device she has been holding behind her thorax this entire time.
Her daughter stares, jaw dropping downward with that peculiar verticality that once so disgusted Shenya the Widow.
“I was going to wait for your adoption anniversary,” says her mother, almost afraid to judge this reaction. “The waiting, however, proved to be— ”
The prosthetic hits the ﬂoor with a weighty thump as Sarya the Daughter leaps forward to seize the gift. “Mother!” she breathes, ﬁngering the tiny locket and earbuds. “How can we afford this? This is— I don’t even— this is amazing. It’s perfect!”
“I had it customized,” says Shenya the Widow, allowing her own pride to seep into the words. “I even installed your little friend on it to help you get accustomed. They say if you cannot have the surgery— ” She hesitates, now feeling her way forward. Because someone might discover your species is the exact type of phrase that could ruin all her hard-won progress. “Then this is the next best thing,” she ﬁnishes.
Her daughter says nothing in words, but her disregard for her own safety says it all. With a wild Human laugh, she ﬂings herself into razor-sharp limbs, arms outstretched. With skill developed from long practice, mother catches daughter in a net of softened blades and ﬂat chitin.
“These are the good kind of tears, correct?” asks Shenya the Widow, stroking the warm face with the ﬂat of a blade.
“Yes,” whispers Sarya the Human. “Thank you.”