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I can't remember whether this was a novel, a short story, or a series of two or three stories. It's been decades since I read it, or them, and I can remember only fragments.

There's a scene on a spaceship, in which an older man is finally dying of some awful disease. The symptoms are liver-spots on his hands, and a smell in the air, maybe of camphor. I can recall the line "a mutant bacteriophage, vicious beyond imagination", and details about how the disease had wiped out all human life on earth.

Later, or possibly in a subsequent story, a robot civilisation begins to explore the universe. It transpires that the seed of their civilisation was a robot aboard the ship in the first story, and that before the last human died, she left maps or star charts or some other information that led the robots to Earth.

When the robots arrive on earth, I remember on of them finding the rusted remains of a bulldozer, believes it to be their ancestor. Eventually they find a statue, or something similar, a monument to the death of humanity. On the statue is written text that contains the line "and now man dies".

No luck searching the internet for this story, so I came here.

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  • A mutant bacteriophage evolved to infect resistant bacteria gained a broader host range. The mutant phage gained the capacity to infect non-host Bacillus species that are not infected by the wild-type phage. The evolved phage lost its dependency on the species-specific glycosylation pattern of WTA polymers. Instead, the mutant phage gained the capacity to directly adhere to the WTA backbone, conserved among different species, thereby crossing the species barrier. Source: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30811056 – Maxim Masiutin Apr 11 '20 at 8:29
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This is a pair of short stories: "Robot's Return" by Robin Moore Williams and "Though Dreamers Die" by Lester Del Rey. The first one, "Robots Return", describes robots coming to see Earth after humanity is extinct; the second one, "Though Dreamers Die", was written as a prequel to describe the death of the last human.


Searching Google for the exact phrase "a mutant bacteriophage, vicious beyond imagination" led me to exactly one result, "Robot's Return" on Scribd, with the monument containing both quotes as you describe:

Now Man dies. A mutant bacteriophage, vicious beyond imagination, is attacking, eating, destroying all living cells, even to dead animal matter.

The prequel "Though Dreamers Die" is also available online, and includes the death of the last human, with symptoms as you describe:

Jorgen stared without comprehension, then jerked up his hands as the robot pointed, studying the skin on the backs. Tiny, almost undetectable blotches showed a faint brown against the whiter skin, little irregular patches that gave off a faint characteristic odor of musk as he put them to his nose. No, he wasn't immune.

"The same as Dr. Craig," Five said. "Slowed almost to complete immunity, so that you may live another thirty years, perhaps, but we believe now that complete cure is impossible. Dr. Craig lived twenty years, and his death was due to age and a stroke, not the Plague, but it worked on him during all that time."

"Immunity or delay, what difference now? What happens to all our dreams when the last dreamer dies, Five? Or maybe it's the other way around."

I found this second story by searching for more info about the first. From The Sociology of Science Fiction by Brian M. Stableford:

Another ultra-sentimental story is "Robots Return" (1938) by Robert Moore Williams, in which explorers from a robot civilization rediscover Earth and learn the secret of their origin. Though their faces are metal masks one "sighs softly," one has a flint in his eye which holds "a touch of awe," and the third gasps in surprise when he finds the statue which reveals to him the secret. [...] This so inspired del Rey, the author of "Helen O'Loy," that he wrote an accompanying piece, "Though Dreamers Die" (1944), explaining how the human race died out, leaving its heritage to the robots.

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    Good for you. I recognized the stories immediately from the description. You already posted the answer by the time I fetched my copy of The Robot and the Man, a Gnome Press anthology in which both stories appear. Thanks to Google, actually knowing stuff is now an obsolete skill. – user14111 Apr 10 '20 at 23:49
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    @user14111 Sorry for that. Had I known you were looking at this and knew the answer, I'd have stepped back and let actual knowledge beat Google-fu. On the bright side, Googling for answers to ID questions can help me to find new and interesting stories that I'd never have found otherwise. – Rand al'Thor Apr 10 '20 at 23:52
  • Fantastic, thanks so much. I was quite sure I'd searched for the text I'd described, and never found anything, but I see your google-fu is stronger than mine. – Dave Branton Apr 11 '20 at 1:10
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    @DaveBranton I don't think it counts as google-fu since you provided the exact search phrase. Maybe the link I found just doesn't show for searches from your location, or something like that. Also, please remember to accept this answer if it's correct :-) – Rand al'Thor Apr 11 '20 at 3:20

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