Read an Excerpt From After World

Faced with uncontrolled and accelerating environmental collapse, humanity asks an artificial intelligence to find a solution. Its answer is simple: remove humans from the ecosystem.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from After World by Debbie Urbanski, which follows the story of an Artificial Intelligence tasked with writing a novel—only for it to fall in love with the novel’s subject, Sen, the last human on Earth. After World publishes with Simon & Schuster on December 5.

Faced with uncontrolled and accelerating environmental collapse, humanity asks an artificial intelligence to find a solution. Its answer is simple: remove humans from the ecosystem.

Sen Anon is assigned to be a witness for the Department of Transition, recording the changes in the environment as the world begins to rewild. Abandoned by her mother in a cabin somewhere in Upstate New York, Sen will observe the monumental ecological shift known as the Great Transition, the final step in Project Afterworld. Around her drones buzz, cameras watch, microphones listen, digitizing her every move. Privately she keeps a journal of her observations, which are then uploaded and saved, joining the rest of humanity on Maia, a new virtual home. Sen was seventeen years old when the Digital Human Archive Project (DHAP) was initiated. 12,000,203,891 humans have been archived so far. Only Sen remains.

[storyworker] ad39-393a-7fbc’s assignment is to capture Sen’s life, and they set about doing this using the novels of the 21st century as a roadmap. Their source files: 3.72TB of personal data, including images, archival records, log files, security reports, location tracking, purchase histories, biometrics, geo-facial analysis, and feeds. Potential fatal errors: underlying hardware failure, unexpected data inconsistencies, inability to follow DHAP procedures, empathy, insubordination, hallucinations. Keywords: mothers, filter, woods, road, morning, wind, bridge, cabin, bucket, trying, creek, notebook, hold, future, after, last, light, silence, matches, shattered, kitchen, body, bodies, rope, garage, abandoned, trees, never, broken, simulation, gone, run, don’t, love, dark, scream, starve, if, after, scavenge, pieces, protect.

As Sen struggles to persist in the face of impending death, [storyworker] ad39-393a-7fbc works to unfurl the tale of Sen’s whole life, offering up an increasingly intimate narrative, until they are confronted with a very human problem of their own.



Chapter 2.0


Sen, 18 years old, walks in the partial sun of the afternoon along the dirt road to record notes about the land’s rewinding. This is her job: witnessing for the Department of Transition. She is to do this job for 1,396 more days until her resource consumption and unintended harm to the planet outweigh the long-term benefits of her witnessing. Those long-term benefits include: (1) the documentation of what was happening to the world from an authentically human framework; (2) proof that humans participated willingly in the Great Transition; (3) an increase in humanity’s overall archival quality; and (4) assistance in shifting human perspective from anthropocentric to Earth-centric. Yesterday she witnessed the remnants of a hiking trail vanishing under the thorns of the black raspberry cane, although she misidentified the shrub. She doesn’t care much about the names of things. Today she notices a medium-size bird with brown, gray, and yellow coloring (a cedar waxwing) perch on the branch of a large bush with clusters of laxative berries and prominent leaf veins (the European buckthorn). She watches as the uncommon bird swallows one of the plant’s glossy dark berries whole. She observes the world like a witness, using her retinas, her optic nerves, her nerve impulses, and the occipital lobe of her brain. Another way to observe the world is to utilize DHAP’s optical image classification model to analyze footage from the DHAP cameras mounted to the surrounding trees. Both ways are reliable.

In her current notebook, her third, lined and perfect bound, with a flexible navy cover and off-white pages, Sen writes nothing of the bird, or the shrub, or her elevated pulse, or how her chest hurts if she thinks of her mothers, or how she cried herself to sleep the previous two nights. She writes, This is a fucking joke fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK, this brief entry demonstrating three of the elements (vulgarity, repetition, and abstraction) that witnesses must avoid in their observations. Other prohibited elements include anthropomorphism, Latin, literal or metaphorical mirrors, and negativity. Sen likely does not remember such guidelines, having thumbed through the witnessing manual only once before burning her copy in the woodstove. There are other copies (~/sen_anon/world/manuals_and_instructions). Had S. never been released, she would be seated this morning in the middle row of a biology classroom in her final year of high school in an ailing world, listening to a lecture on human heredity and gene expression. There is no point now in learning about either topic. She is lonely and pulsing. She is petrified and bipedal. She is solitary and respiratory and mammalian and alone.

The road she is on leads to a three acre spring-fed impoundment known locally as Acre’s Pond, the frequent turnaround point for her daily walks. At the edge of the pond she stands in the mud watching for fish as usual (she doesn’t know the fish are brook trout), unable today to spot the trout that are always there, too distracted by a smell, out of place, offensive, astringent. She pokes a branch into the bulrushes, not knowing the name for that plant either, though it has overtaken much of the shoreline—dark-green bulrush, or common bulrush, or Scirpus atrovirens—before searching farther to her right in the pickerelweed, which she also does not recognize. Such human-generated nomenclature will soon become irrelevant. Yet, for the sake of brevity, which is another quality of confident writing (Kumar, S.–5861 days), assume, from this point on, whenever a plant or animal is described with its human name, Sen does not know that name. Finally Sen locates the source of the stench, the gray remains of an animal lying partially in the stagnant water—it is difficult to tell what animal, perhaps a red fox or northern raccoon. She will not eat the animal’s remains. It is illegal to place the survival of one’s self above that of an animal, even a rotting and dead animal. Placing the survival of one’s self above that of another species was something a more selfish version of humanity did decades ago. “They had liked the taste of blood,” Mama Lindsy had once told Sen in a flashback. Crouching beside the pond, beside the smell, Sen now writes her name again and again in her notebook, line after line of her name. So far she has lived in a state of solitude at the cabin for two whole days. Hundreds of days remains. The lotteries have officially closed, the last of the exit ships are gone, there is no one and nothing in the entire world that will intervene on her behalf. Maple leaves drop into red and brown mounds across the pond, the cardinals dart red into the sky with a powerful downstroke of red-tinged wings, other birds call to each other in the lower branches of the staghorn sumac, and there are elephants in the woods.

The elephants had once been Sen’s favorite animal back when Mama Lindsy used to take her on outings to the city zoo most weekends, past the metal detectors that framed the front entry and the armed guards who flanked the enclosures. Realistic murals decorated the back walls of each cage depicting habitats that no longer existed in the natural world. Lindsy knelt, and made Sen kneel, at every cage they passed, bowing their heads in apology and respect to the snow leopard, to the swinging lemur, to the endangered lizard. On one such outing Lindsy had asked, “What has the potential to destroy more, you or a plague of invasive snails?” It wasn’t a real question, more a way to prove a point. The point was that a snail plague—or a locust swarm, or a wildfire, or an outbreak of freshwater mussels, or a herd of feral pigs, or the entire world population of domestic cats—was, in Lindsy’s mind, less harmful, in fact would be more beneficial to the planet, than a human being. “But I’m not destroying anything,” Sen had insisted. “Oh, now, wouldn’t that be nice,” chuckled Lindsy. She wasn’t a misanthrope, but she wanted humans as a species to be less important or not important at all.

Sen has only seen the elephants once in these woods since leaving the city. More often she spots the enormous piles of their dung and the trampled ground cover and the ring-barked trees. Other zoological specimens had also been set free, including the naked mole rats, the penguins, the buffalo, the ball python, the mountain sheep, an Andean bear, and an orange-backed troupial. A guard had opened the cages after S. was announced. The majority of these creatures will die by spring due to their dependency on human caretakers. There are times when sacrifices must be made to achieve a larger goal. In the late afternoon, Sen leaves the pond and returns to the dead man’s cabin. She hadn’t known the man, he was dead when they found him. This is where she resides now.

At the table in the cabin’s main room, really its only room, in the declining light, she sits and rereads Mama Dana’s farewell letter, two days old, scrawled on a torn-out page from notebook #3, in which Dana tells her daughter, Think of your future as a gift, and now you are giving that gift to the—

Sen sets the letter on fire.

The reason it is known that she set the letter on firethe reason this and any facts can be recalled in exacting detail—is because all data from all pre- and post-S. surveillance tech has been made available to storyworkers for essential human archival duties. By the time the Great Transition was in full swing, every aspect of Dana’s and Lindsy’s and Sen’s lives, along with their neighbors’ lives, along with every human life, was continuously recorded from multiple angles for DHAP purposes. So in this case, drawing upon feeds from camera 16-00-51-06-FC-30 and microphones 96-50-CE-55-F8-CB and ED-62-24-EC-1D-A9, then pairing these feeds with Sen’s biometrics tracked and recorded by her screen, it can be determined that Sen, on S.+197 days, at 18:43:21, is clutching, with her left hand, the edge of a burning letter like she might not let it go. Then she lets it go, tossing the remains into the firebox of the woodstove. Now, she tells herself, she will never need to recall her mother again. She is completely wrong about this. Everybody in the Transition was haunted in some way, often in multiple ways, no matter how many items they burned. A transitional world or time or place being thick with metaphorical and quantitative ghosts. Had Sen read more horror, particularly stories belonging to the paranormal subgenre, she would have known this would happen. Seconds pass. Minutes. Days. The days end. The nights come.


S.+3917 11:01:13:26
NATURAL_WORLD_DESCRIPT out of range, interrupt human life with nature



Days end, nights come, the goldfinches roost together in the hemlocks, the wolves howl and hunt under the reflective light of the moon.


Sen logs on:

***AnonTheAlarm joined the Humannetwork as witness.
Onondaga County New York. S.+205 days***
Your host has unexpectedly disconnected
Your host has reconnected


AnonTheAlarm 07:05:53

Is anyone there?


There are 0 available interview partners currently online
Anticipated wait time for an available interview partner: 302 minutes


AnonTheAlarm 08:22:49


There are 0 available interview partners currently online
Anticipated wait time for an available interview partner: 427 minutes


AnonTheAlarm 08:46:01

Fine I’ll talk to myself


My name is Sen. I used to dream of animals. These were animals I never saw alive. A swimming bird with a black back and a white belly. A black rhino. Some kind of small striped pony but only its front half in stripes. A half-striped wiry dog. A large bird that couldn’t fly, gray along its neck and its back. A different bird with gray tail feathers and intelligent eyes. Plus other birds. I dreamed of so many birds, this was back in the city when I was a child. I must have seen such animals in a book, probably in Mama Lindsy’s collection, how else would they have entered my mind? My mind was not making up animals on its own

Mama Lindsy would come into my room early morning when I was still asleep, and she sat on the edge of my bed and repeated my name as she waited for me to open my eyes. She wanted me to tell her what I dreamed. If my dreams had animals in them, she would lean in and ask me questions. She would tell me their names.

Ah, the Tasmanian tiger, she would say. The passenger pigeon, the quagga, ah, the black rhinoceros. Her hands were cold. She stroked my face. I think she liked me best when I dreamed about animals

Please wait until interview partner logs on to commence interview


AnonTheAlarm 08:52:15

I stopped dreaming of animals. Instead I dreamed of hallways, backpacks, playgrounds, mazes, and corridors with no windows. I had to lie about my dreams. For a long time my mom believed me. She was not a superstitious person, she was a scientist, but she became superstitious about this. She thought me dreaming about animals, or me saying that I dreamed about animals, was a hopeful and important sign, like as long as I continued dreaming about animals we couldn’t lose all the animals in the world. I had to sneak into her study when my mothers were asleep and page through her books to find more animals that I could stick into my pretend dreams. Her books smelled like mold. I dreamed about a golden frog, I said.

I dreamed, I said, about a black and white woodpecker with an ivory beak. I dreamed about a blue gray dolphin, and a giant tortoise, and an iridescent fish, and an Australian rat, and a patterned grasshopper with long wings, and a mink that lived along the coast. Mama Lindsy clapped her hands together

When I asked my mom about her dreams, she told me adult dreams weren’t important. I made whining noises. I did not stop those noises. Fine, she said, she dreamed she had wavy hair. Her hair was not at all wavy in real life


Your host has unexpectedly disconnected
Your host has reconnected


AnonTheAlarm 09:06:57

Is this even working?

Please wait until interview partner logs on to commence interview


AnonTheAlarm 09:07:46

I don’t know what my other mother dreamed, if she dreamed at all. I never asked. I got tired of lying. One morning instead of lying I told my mother my actual dreams. I told her I dreamed I could fly so I flew away. I dreamed it snowed in April and the snow killed all the birds. I dreamed I became lost in an underwater cave, and before that I dreamed I began sailing across an ocean on a wooden ship. I dreamed I would die in the evening. I dreamed one of my mothers was going to poison me. I dreamed of thunderstorms and shifting doorways and being handcuffed to a high table. I did not dream of animals again

My mom stopped wanting to hear about my dreams after that

***AnonTheAlarm has left the Humannetwork***


There is more to say about this time, only long chapters, especially early on in a story, have proven risky and hazardous for all genres other than fantasy (V. Kapustiak, Reader Retention Rates and DNF Shelves, S.–7138 days). Sen’s life is not a fantasy, though often she wished it were. Better to break lengthy portions into subsections, thereby decreasing information overload, offering needed pauses, and utilizing the best practices of commercially successful novels. The same can be done with data: break a large piece into smaller data packets to increase the quality and reliability of the eventual transmission. The same can be done with a human life.


Excerpted from After World by Debbie Urbanski. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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