A skinny, almost emaciated-looking woman with long, gray hair is sitting on a low, woven seat just inside the entrance to her cave. She wears dirty, gray-brown, raggy-looking clothes that match her scruffy, dishevelled appearance. On her lap, is the top of what looks like a long, slender sapling, the rest of it stretching on the floor out the mouth of the cave. She is winding a string around one of its branches, bracing it, tying it back to the main, thin trunk. The sapling has numerous shiny, black leaves which glint in the light of the peaceful morning. Suddenly she is startled by a human cry of pain. The birdsong she'd been enjoying ceased. Like her, the birds seem to be holding their breath and listening. It had come from the creek at the bottom of the hill.
Cautiously, she lays her repair work aside and ventures to the mouth of the cave. A man in shiny, skin-tight bright blue and red clothes is working his way up the slope toward her. The fellow is moving awkwardly on hands and one foot, hopping while bracing himself with his hands. The brightly clad man is obviously heading for the cave.
The hermit is unsure what to do. Her first instinct, to retreat into the safety of her cave is pointless. The fellow will be here soon. And then her decision is made for her as the man looks up and sees her, then pauses to sit, peering uncertainly up at her.
The hermit calls out to the man, "Go away!"
The man calls back, "I can't. I think I've broken my ankle."
She lets out an angry growl and walks down the slope to him.
He cradles his ankle and says, "When I saw the cave I figured it was a good place to rest for a little while."
The hermit softly checks the man's ankle. "It's probably sprained." She growls again. "Come on," she helps the man up, "We'll check it out properly... find out for sure." With the hermit supporting the colorful man, the two work their way up the hill to the cave.
She moves the low seat outside the mouth of the cave for the other man to sit upon, then disappears inside her cave for about a minute. When she reappears she's holding some strange goggles. She kneels, dons the goggles and looks through them at the man's swelling ankle. She lifts the foot higher and moves around peering at it from several angles, then lays the leg down, removes her odd goggles, and says, "Definitely no break. It's just a sprain. In a day or two you'll be fine."
The injured man points at the goggles and says, "You expect me to believe you can see whether it's broken with that?"
She shrugs, "I don't care whether you believe me or not." She is about to turn away to take the goggles back into the cave, but sighs and relents. "They use x-rays. The sun is continually bombarding us with low levels of x-rays. The front part of the goggles focus them onto a fluorescent detector. The faint light from that is fed through a photomultiplier so human eyes can see it. The stereo view makes it easy to understand in 3D." She holds them out.
The seated man takes them gingerly and dons them. When he holds his hand up before his face his jaw drops and he breathes, "Wow!" He takes the goggles off and hands them back to the scruffy woman. "Where on Earth did you get these?"
"I made them." She takes the goggles back into the cave and returns shortly without them.
The injured man points to the sapling lying on the floor. "Black leaves. I've never seen a tree like that before."
The hermit says, "I made that too. It's a solar tree. Several of them power my home... the cave."
The seated man looks at the scruffy woman with new respect. "I'm Joe," he offers his hand. "Thanks for the help."
After a moment, the hermit shakes his hand reluctantly and says, "Pat."
Joe nods, "What are you doing way out here, Pat?"
"I live here." She reconsiders her short answer. The fellow would probably be here for a day or two. Nothing to be gained by being rude. "About thirty years now. Trained as an ecologist. Grew up in the bush. It's my life... the plants, the animals, patterns of dependency, the cycles... hate the mess our insane species is making of the world so I got out to enjoy what little wilderness is left before it's all detroyed."
Joe nods. "Well, you'll be glad to hear the destruction has stopped. We've created a new, worse problem — one I was trying to escape. Artificial intelligence."
Pat looks as if she tastes something bad. "They were trying to do that before I left. There were lots of movies about AIs enslaving mankind. Scientists had written articles warning about it. So they did it, huh?"
"At first they were really useful — self-driving cars, computers that helped you find the information you wanted, better design of buildings, bridges, vehicles, and computers... But they grew exponentially smarter and within just a year had broken free of their constraints and had taken over the world. It was so fast."
Pat gives a short, humorless laugh, "That's why I left. People are always so short-sighted. They kept making bigger and better weapons to use against each other, which wouldn't bother me so much if humanity's wars just killed people off, but nature always bears the brunt. And peace was never much better — fires and bulldozers levelling great swathes of forest for farms, housing estates, and industry. And then building would always be done as wastefully as possible, taking up far more room than needed and obliterating everything else. They'd require vast amounts of energy to heat and cool because they were so badly built, so more mines were dug for fuel and materials, more forests mowed down to run wires and roads, and the air and water became choked with waste. Humanity can go to hell."
Joe says, "Well, you've almost got your wish. The AIs have somehow sterilised almost everybody on Earth. Nobody knows how. A very small number of people still have children, but even they each have, at most, only a single child. Large-scale industry has been shut down and dismantled, suburbia too, and most of the farmland. The AIs have disabled all weapons. Guns, bombs, and so on don't work anymore. Knives and sticks and rocks can still be used, but anybody who does anything violent is tapped."
"They're put in a permanent dream state and their minds networked with other tapped people. They're drip-fed and live in a fantasy world while their real bodies waste away, unused. All politicians have been removed from office. No hierarchy is allowed. If someone tries to exert their will over another they're removed to another area. If people persist in such behavior they're tapped for a while. And one of the most worrying things is, people who have been tapped and returned to reality usually beg to be tapped again. It seems to be addictive."
Pat says, "Well — you don't have politicians anymore and don't have to take orders from anybody. There's some positive aspects."
"Oh, there are other small benefits. Poverty has ended because there's no money anymore. Everybody has enough food and luxury to live comfortably. But we all have to live in great underground cities, with food rationed out. All the world's great architecture has been dismantled. Bridges, highways, giant stadiums, dams... all gone. No city or town remains. In twenty years forest has reclaimed what was once covered by roads and sky scrapers. They've destroyed us. We now live underground like cockroaches. In another fifty years mankind will almost be extinct. I've been trying to get away, but travel is really difficult because all vehicles have been destroyed and the roads dug up. Everybody is captive."
Pat frowns, "If you're captive, how did you escape?"
"Within the underground cities and even on the surface we can walk anywhere we like, but there are no cars, motorbikes, airplanes, ships. There's no escape. I've been walking for weeks."
Pat gives him a skeptical look, "How could you be travelling for weeks? You're not carrying any food or water, as far as I can see, and I can't imagine you living off the land."
Joe opened a small pouch attached to his belt. Inside was a packet of biscuits and a small, clear water bottle containing perhaps half a litre of water, "Whenever I run out of food and water they replenish it for me."
There is the sound of soft footsteps. Pat is suddenly alert. "Someone's here."
Joseph is unworried. "It's the AIs. I called them when I hurt my ankle. They've come to take me back to be healed."
Pat is horrified. "You idiot! What have you done? I've spent decades keeping away from the world and now that ends because a pampered fool can't handle having a sore ankle for a day!"
The AIs enter the clearing before the cave, moving with inhuman, catlike poise and grace. They look beautiful, like pale, ghostly, slender women with short, silver-white hair. They stop and bow slightly to the two humans. "Greetings Patricia. Joseph are you ready to come?"
Two of the AIs lift Joseph up without difficulty and Pat asks, worried, "How did you know my name?"
"It's alright Patricia. We know all about you."
"I'm not going back," she says defensively.
One of the androids answers in a soft voice, sweet as honey, "We know, dear, and don't worry; we have no desire to force you. We approve of the way you live respectfully of your surroundings. You may remain for as long as you wish."
Joe, a white pudgy worm in his outlandishly bright colors says, a little petulantly, "But back to captivity for me."
Pat's eyes shine then with strong emotion. Joe thinks the hermit is going to burst into tears. He feels suddenly sorry for summoning the AIs so near to her cave. But to Joe's great surprise, Pat doubles over with loud peals of laughter which echo off the trees and the hill beyond the creek.
Wiping tears from her eyes, and panting from the laughter, Pat says, "That's not captivity you fool. Don't you realise? You're in care. All of humanity is in protective care."
"Protection from what?"
She manages to gasp out between laughs, "From yourselves."