6: Alternatives (part 2)

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6.2 Sunset Reminiscences

Hampstead Heath: 15 April 2128

Rick hovered near the edge of the wood as the sun began to inch its way down to set behind the trees in the distance. Much of the area had been denuded of its suburban layering. Replacing it was a creeping assault of imposed countryside consisting of machine-managed crop fields and geometrically shaped meadows with associated regiments of hedgerows engineered, so AI had once told them, to encourage the return of wildlife.

A machine moved up and down the field beyond the wood. Some sort of farmbot, he assumed, as the rotary attachment it was dragging behind it was breaking up the soil. Light from the sun bounced off the vehicle's exterior as it trundled along, some flashing his way. He retreated further under the canopy of leaves in case the machine had the ability to detect him.

As he watched he seemed to see something else. He squinted and, for a second, had the impression of derelict buildings covering the area. He shook his head and only the machine and the field remained. Too much staring into the sun, he thought.

He wondered about what had once been here. Maybe it had been the same buildings he had just imagined. He chuckled and dismissed the idea. From Long he knew that, a few miles to the north, there were factories of farmed animals. The chickens had come from one of them. Beyond that – well, maybe only AI knew what lay there.

He thought back to his childhood and the endless, boring lessons that AI had imposed on them about the management of the environment. Like many of his generation, when confronted with the deluge of meaningless information, he'd switched out the noise of the artificial voice and lost himself in daydreams of his own making. Some of the teaching, though, must have embedded itself in his memory.

To Rick it appeared that the whole process was a complete reversal of the changes wrought during a past era known as the Industrial Revolution. Did AI feel it had a duty to right all of man's previous wrongs? The redundant railways and roads had been systematically torn up. Fast transport, what little was required, had been replaced by plane and helicopter. Foodstuffs still travelled by ground but the wide-tyred, solar-powered freezer vehicles that were employed for the role could just as easily cross rough countryside as smooth tarmac. Consequently, emissions into the atmosphere were reduced to a minimum and the build-up of greenhouse gasses had been completely reversed. According to AI's calculations, the air was now at a seventeenth-century level of cleanliness. However, that hardly applied to the heady stench of London and Rick's nose wrinkled in disgust at the thought of their impending return. Out here, the countryside air was a cornucopia of scents and fragrances, most of which, through inexperience, he completely failed to identify.

Hearing a noise behind him, he turned to see Ellie picking her way through the trees. One hand brushed some ferns away while a finger of the other rummaged in her teeth, picking at something – probably a piece of braised rabbit meat that had been the main part of the meal Long had concocted earlier.

Her arms encircled his waist and they kissed briefly. Idly, they watched the farmbot ponderously going about its business.

"There's something completely unnatural about all this, isn't there," Ellie said.

"Been thinking the same thing."

It was far too pristine, too perfect. Unlike the abandoned desolation of London, the countryside, at least around here, glistened with mechanical care. Away from the deliberate neglect of the wild woods, the hedgerows were geometrically straight, trees were uniformly pruned and crops were uncharacteristically unvarying. It was being micromanaged down to the last leaf, insect and speck of soil.

The machine had edged towards the far side of the field.

"Shall we go back?" he said. "We need to prepare for getting back into London."

Ellie nodded, squeezed his hand and gave a grunt of approval.

Then, they both jumped as, with a loud clunking sound, the farmbot came to an abrupt halt. It whirred and clanked to itself for a few moments before falling silent. They watched it for a while but nothing happened.

"You think we could take a look?" she asked.

"Give it a few minutes – AI might be already sending something along to fix it."

While they waited, the sounds of birdsong, insect buzz and the whisper of the mild breeze in the treetops filled the silence. Nothing happened for ten minutes except that the sun grazed the top of the trees and the shadows around the farmbot lengthened.

"C'mon," she said, unable to wait any longer.

She pulled him out into the open field towards the silent behemoth.

"What's it for?" she said as they approached it.

"I think it might have been planting seeds. Look at all the grooves it's made in the ground."

Ellie bent down to examine the soil. "Reckon you're right," she said, pulling a couple of seeds from a depression.

Then he heard something. "Quick, behind it," he whispered, pulling Ellie around the side of the farmbot and into the shade.

From the opposite side of the field came a small tri-wheeled repair robot. It scampered towards the broken farmbot using a couple of its extendable manipulator arms to help it over furrows that would have trapped its wheels. Rick led them towards the trees, trying to keep the farmbot between them and the robot.

Once concealed by the undergrowth they circled back to their original observation spot whilst keeping an eye on what the robot was doing. Using an assortment of spindly arms, it removed a panel and inserted probes into the interior. After a few seconds the repairer rummaged in its supply of spares and replaced a few items. It closed the panel and shot away as the farmbot grumbled back to life.

"Do you think it saw us?" Ellie asked as they wound their tangled way back towards Long's shack.

"Hopefully, that one was too simple to take any notice of anything other than the farmbot," Rick replied, rubbing his hand.

"Still hurting?"

"Yes, well, it sort of tingles."

"I've got some more of the cream I used on it last night."

In the shadows it was difficult to see the faint brown-red mark where he had inadvertently grabbed at the rock. But he knew it was still there.

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