This story was originally inspired by Walter Russel Mead’s article on Bill McKibben’s collection of science fiction short stories aimed at scaring the public (er, ‘shaping an emotional response’) over global warming. I was too busy to finish it when it was actually topical, unfortunately, so I am publishing it instead as a scary story suitable for Halloween.
NOVEMBER 7, 2500:
Seasons formed the rhythm of his work.
The passing seasons themselves formed years, but years were less important in marking the progress he had made. Seasons mattered more to nature, his focus and his purpose, yet sometimes the years intruded into his thoughts. Today, the calendar at the edge of his conscious mind told him it was the five hundredth anniversary of the most significant date in his life. A date more important even than his Uploading, a date which – unappreciated at the time – would change the face of the world itself. The sense memory of a smile colored his electronic thoughts. The seasons can take care of themselves for a few minutes.
Deep under what had once been called Cheyenne Mountain, the disembodied consciousness of Al Gore extended its senses across the world, and saw that it was good.
He had been studying rainforest canopy health in the Amazon basin when the significance of the date penetrated his awareness. The broad-spectrum image from the observation satellite was informative in ways his previous form could never have processed let alone comprehended at a glance, but nostalgia for his flesh-and-blood days moved him to limit his sensors to the human-visible range. A mottled sea of lush blue-green foliage filled his vision, and a swell of pride surged through his quantum synapses as ancient memories were awakened — had he still possessed lungs, the beauty would have taken his breath away. Herculean efforts had gone into conserving what little had remained of these rainforests at the midpoint of the 21st Century and protecting the rainforest’s endangered plants and animals from extinction. Genetic advances in mid-century had allowed the resurrection of many species which had in fact gone extinct in the face of human encroachment and exploitation. High in geosynchronous orbit, his remote eyes zoomed in to a break in the canopy where the Madeira river met the Amazon, and he was rewarded with the sight of Boto dolphins leaping playfully from the swift waters.
Success with the Amazon project had led to further recovery efforts. A polar-orbiting satellite constellation fed him real-time imagery of polar bears frolicking on arctic sea ice – ice which had all but disappeared by the time he was Uploaded to coordinate restoration efforts across the rest of the globe. This view was always his favorite, on those rare occasions when he could take time away from saving the world to actually admire it. Drastic reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide had been followed by a recovery of annual sea ice, and careful management of the new atmospheric composition kept the icepack within the targeted area and thickness limits.
He cycled his attention across his worldwide network of ground sensors and orbital observatories, taking stock of the fruits of his centuries-long labors. Bold light-blue swirls along the coast of Australia and throughout Micronesia attested to the renewed health of coral reefs, and by extension the oceans around them. Throughout the western Pacific, the green caps and sandy outlines of low-lying islands poked up from the sapphire-blue sea, no longer threatened by sea-level rise. Looking down at Fiji, he felt a nostalgic longing – how nice it would feel to once again enjoy those broad, sandy beaches, to feel the wind in his hair and the sun on his face and the sand beneath his feet. That was no longer possible, hadn’t been for over four and a half centuries, and never would be again. But it was okay, he thought – some sacrifices had to be made to save the planet, and his physical body was the least of the sacrifices that had been required of him.
His work was by no means done, but he saw no harm in a moment’s pride in what he had so far accomplished. All of this, he mused, was based on the foundation of what had saved the polar bears: nearly 500 years of reductions and strict management of atmospheric CO2 levels. With the eradication of carbon-based industries and the changeover to wind and solar, it was possible to bring the Earth back into balance, and keep it within the limits established so long ago by climatologists’ reconstruction of what the environment was like before human industrialization. Those limits had been enshrined in UN conventions and served as the guideposts for his work to this day. Work which might never have come about but for circumstances which had seemed so unfair and unjust at the time. None of the progress he had made in healing the globe would have been accomplished, but for that strange twist of fate in 2000.
Had I won, he thought, the world would surely have lost.
An indicator interrupted his reverie. His power reserves were running low again, something he was prone to more often this time of year – solar generation was already down because of the shortening days, but it had been especially low for several days due to a cloud system parked stubbornly over the region. Once again, he wondered if it had been such a smart idea to dismantle the last of the wind turbines on the nearby plains, but he only had to remind himself of the millions of birds whose lives that action had spared over the past seven decades to confirm the greater wisdom of that decision. He sighed and prepared his systems to hibernate for the evening, so as to conserve what energy remained in his battery networks and flywheel clusters.
His higher cognitive functions began their scheduled shutdown, a strange simulation of drifting off to sleep. As he reflected a few more milliseconds on the triumphs of the past millennium, a profound loneliness crept into his fading awareness, one that always came at those moments when he wished he had someone with whom he could celebrate. He was always certain of the greater wisdom of this decision, too, but it was a loneliness he never anticipated when he concluded saving the world meant exterminating all of humanity.