The worst thing about death, Soli figures, is that you can never get better at it. You can practice anything else, no matter how unpleasant: exercise, taxes, divorce, surgery (performing), surgery (receiving)…
Just do it repeatedly, and it gets easier, and you get better at it. Simple. Easy. Respectable.
You only get to die once, though. That’s it. Even if one believes in reincarnation, there are no mothers left on the Earth to give birth to her again. You don’t get to examine how you could do it better, or what there was to improve. How in the world is Soli supposed to be the best at dying if you only get one lousy, uninformed shot at it? She trembles with indignation at the thought.
Soli is not arrogant. She does not need to be the best at everything; she merely is. It’s a simple, objective fact.
For one, she’s the only human being left alive. Thermonuclear war broke out between the world’s superpowers: someone called someone else’s bluff, big red buttons were pushed, the skies alighted with hellfire and fallout, and every living being on Earth died, humans and animals and plants and otherwise. All except for one teenager who escaped the initial blasts and won a bizarre genetic lottery. The lack of competition makes perfection easy.
For two, she’s immortal now, forever frozen at fourteen. Which, for the first twenty years, is pretty rad. Unlike her, it gets old.
Having nothing else to do, Soli practices. Everything. Anything. For 143,262 days, she has perfected every activity she can imagine.
Archery. Nailed it.
Public relations—part of the list of a few hundred things she could only read about, but she reads everything her local library has on the matter, and feels she’d be pretty good at it if humanity went and unvaporized themselves. Maybe if aliens ever find her, alone on Earth.
Performing and receiving surgery (it’s both at once when you’re the one doing it). She removes her appendix, because it seems the most removable of all her inside parts, checking a textbook occasionally for guidance. The scar is gnarly, but she doesn’t have the (figurative) stomach to do it again. She chalks this one up to ‘expert by default’ and stops there.
Cooking. This one was first, somewhat by necessity.
She throws engineering on the list by the time she repairs what remains of her city’s water processing plant. Then she writes an essay about it, and adds creative nonfiction to the list when it turns out immaculate. Then she draws an abstracted version of the plant; it does not turn out immaculate, and she takes another few decades of practice to feel comfortable in adding art to the list. She likes to believe she’s an honest and self-assessing person.
Now, though, as she finishes scrawling ‘quantum physicist’ onto the list, she pauses and looks down at the two hundred and thirty-seven books that compose The List in their entirety, and she realizes with some degree of horror that she cannot think of anything else. She cannot think of one other activity: she has practiced, refined, and perfected everything. Every last activity she’s ever heard of or been able to find in a book.
None, except dying. Which she is biologically incapable of doing naturally.
Of course, she isn’t invulnerable. She could just snap her own neck or something. She’s thought about it hundreds of times, if she’s being honest with herself—it gets lonely sometimes, with only the skeletons to keep you company—but always froze right before drafting a plan, bothered, more than anything else, by the possibility of imperfection.
It takes 10,000 hours to perfect something. How on Earth’s remnants could you excel at something you only get to do once? It’s absurd! It’s one massive, glaring flaw with biology, and an irrational swell of resentment towards a hypothetical god overtakes her. It is not the first time, of course, but she was rather out of the habit before this.
What now? She is certain she cannot accept the possibility of a mediocre death; neither does she have any desire to prolong her time alive further. Perhaps pantomime? But no amount of pantomime could ever control how her body falls after her spinal cord is severed, out of control of itself. What if she lands in an inelegant manner? What if aliens show up the day after she dies, and she hadn’t yet been able to decompose into an elegant skeleton? She would be nothing but rotting meat! Unthinkable. Completely, utterly, absolutely unthinkable.
And then it hits her: the one subject she chose to avoid forever. The one skillset, and its one outcome, that she had previously decided never needed to exist in the world a second time.
She is going to build a nuclear reactor. She is going to build a nuclear reactor, and then she is going to overheat it, capturing her form in an eternal shadow superimposed on the planet.
It’s genius. She adds ‘planning own death’ to The List, and then skips off to find the one that had her notes about mining. She’s going to need them.