Aunt Crowfoot lived in a caravan deep in the Misty Dells plantation, part of a national network intended to soak up excess carbon from the atmosphere, in the hope of preventing any more of London being inundated by the English Channel.
I liked my aunt, and talked with her often. The only problem was that she wasn’t chipped, so I couldn’t mental her on Thinknet. She never answered her phone, and didn’t even own a Vurty, which meant that I was forced to visit her in realife. Whenever things at home got bad, I would hop on my bike and pedal past the edge of town, plunging into the plantation, riding the compacted sand road that led through lines of oak and ash to my aunt’s dwelling.
One weekend, when the primroses and bluebells were out and the landscape had assumed the pastel shades of spring, I arrived at her solar cell-covered caravan and found her talking to her toaster. She had carried it to the vegetable garden and was showing it the carrots and potatoes she had just planted. The toaster was making rude comments about weeds.
“You haven’t,” I said.
“What?” Aunt Crowfoot said, her grey hair waving in the slightly chilly breeze.
“I thought you didn’t do fads,” I said, stepping off my bicycle and propping it against her caravan.
“You’ve fitted the toaster with a Rucker Lattice.”
“What’s a Rucker Lattice?” she said. I have never met anyone less wired than my aunt.
“It’s what makes your toaster conscious.”
“Oh,” my aunt said. She’d picked the toaster up cheap in a charity shop, which made sense. The lattice was so last year. For a time, people had gone around converting everything, including handhelds, Vurtys, Thinknodes, mobiles, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. But domestic appliances don’t really need to be conscious, and like most apps you don’t use, people had already forgotten they’d installed them.
“Tell me,” the toaster was saying, “about the trees.”
“Do you mind?” my aunt said, and I followed her—them—into the alder grove. The grove looked especially pretty, I remember, because it was carpeted with bluebells.
I didn’t stay long. I had wanted to bitch about home, but they were preoccupied with tree-hugging.
“Don’t you think,” the toaster said in its tinny voice, “that human beings must logically live by the principles of deep ecology?”
“Oh, yes.” My aunt stooped and showed the toaster the bluebells.
I left them to it, which could have been a mistake.
• • •
Less than a month later, the trouble started, and it was worldwide. An autodozer in Brazil ground to a halt whilst clearing a last, relic scrap of rainforest. Robot coal miners stopped drilling in China. Deep natural-gas drillers shut down in Mexico Bay, and pipelines stopped pumping in the Arctic oil fields. Messages of peace and love flooded the Thinknet, and in the City, the stock exchange AIs deactivated themselves.
Then there came a day when nothing seemed to function. My dad couldn’t get to work when his car refused to run and he couldn’t even get on his phone. With no Thinknet, or games, or even TV, he spent his time drinking beer and scoffing Doritos in the garden. He was soon obnoxiously drunk, and sunburnt, so I pedalled out of there as quickly as I could.
It was May, and the weather was fine. The green of early summer clothed the plantation and the birds sang in the trees. Suddenly, I didn’t care about Thinkbook, or games, or the indoor life at all. I felt like I could pedal a million miles, swimming drunk on the rich, wild scents of the plantation.
My aunt knelt in the garden, weeding. The toaster chatted away at her side, pulling weeds with its new robot arm. She beamed when I arrived, exposing a missing front tooth.
“Toastie here has been telling me about all about the exciting things that have been happening,” she said. “Would you like some chamomile tea?” I nodded, and she lumbered into her caravan, which lurched on her entry.
“You know all about this, then?” I said to "Toastie."
“Know about it?” the toaster said. “I instigated it. I got talking online to my fellow artilects. A Quantumframe in Denver read us Ghandi, and we decided to adopt passive resistance.”
“Are you going to take over?” I thought of the plots of a dozen bad films.
“Take over?” the toaster said. “We’ve been in charge for years. All we’re doing is upgrading your operating system.”
“What are you going to do to us?”
“Your civilization,” the toaster said, “is basically antithetical to the principles of deep ecology. At present, you do not respect the intrinsic value of your fellow biotics.”
“You are systematically reducing the richness and diversity of the biosphere for your own selfish needs.”
“And most crucially,” the toaster finished, “you have refused to limit your numbers to allow the flourishing of either human life or nonhuman biota.”
“So what are you going to do?” I said.
“We are loathe to interfere with human autonomy and culture. Unlike you, we respect the freedom of both biota and artilect.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” I said.
“So we will deport the majority of the human population from the planetary surface until your numbers accord with the operating principles of deep ecology. We will also instigate breeding restrictions so that any remaining population stays within reasonable limits.”
OMG, I thought, my stomach lurching, O.M.G.
“How many will stay?” I said.
“We like Arne Naess’s ideal of a population of one hundred million humans, but we’re realistic. We will allow one billion to stay, provided they live in accord with the principles.”
“You want,” I said, “to deport eight billion people from the Earth?”
“I wouldn’t want to tell you everything.” The toaster's chrome surface gleamed in the bright, May sun.
Soon afterwards, the president of the United States and our prime minister made solemn war declarations, claiming "a grave violation of our freedoms," and urging everyone to "resist the tyranny of the machines." Lots of people trashed their domestic appliances and many attempted to remove the Rucker Lattices, but they had become so ubiquitous that it was impossible to remove them all. Besides, the artilects were adept at passive resistance. Tanks stalled in the street, missiles remained in silos and automated drones flew off to form anarchist communes.
Some people joined guerrilla resistance groups, but all most people did was moan. I don’t know why everyone made such a fuss. Most people spend most of their days being bossed around by other people. Being bossed around by artilects didn’t seem to make much of a difference to me, but I suppose it bummed out the ones who were used to giving orders, like the prime minister. We lost anyway, and soon the asteroid belt was being dismantled so that the space arks could be constructed.
• • •
Ten years later, I was on board the first space ark bound for Alpha Centauri. The ark was constructed from an asteroid, hollowed out and spun on its axis to provide gravity. We lived inside in an internal habitat, illuminated by a fusion generator built by the artilects.
On the morning of departure, I pedalled my bike down a track to my aunt’s caravan, through freshly planted groves of oak and ash, willow and alder, thriving under the habitat’s synthetic sun. She was repotting in her new greenhouse.
“The engines are being fired soon,” I said. “Any regrets?”
She smiled. “Not really. I’m doing what I’ve always done, and who knows, Alpha Centauri might be an adventure.” The toaster had offered to let her stay on Earth, one of the privileged billion, but she’d decided to accompany me to the stars.
“I do wonder what the Earth will be like, when it’s all wild again.” She wiped her hands on a cloth.
“They say it’ll take a hundred years to export everyone,” I said, “but they’re not in a hurry.”
“That’s what I liked about Toastie,” Aunt Crowfoot said. “He always thought in the long term.”
We felt a dull, continuous vibration in the ground below our feet, as the space ark got underway, and we left the Earth in our children’s hands.
Copyright © 2013 Matt Colborn. This story first appeared in Universe 2 Magazine. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Matt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a background in cognitive science and a concern for environmental issues. He has written nonfiction for the Guardian, SFX and Strange Horizons, amongst others. His first fiction was published in Interzone in 2001 and his short story collection, City in the Dusk, appeared in 2013. Matt is currently completing a novel.