11 min read
I had been watching this plot not just for the last seven hours—I had been watching it since the beginning of the Lawn Reclamation Programme.
I was no stranger to urban gardening. Even before the cut-off, I had a small vertical farm on my balcony. It contained mostly spices and herbs, but I attempted to grow a compact tomato plant one season. Ten years and a successful farm patch later, I knew why it only bore small, bleak fruits—it was starving for phosphorus. For most people, growing your own food was an unavoidable necessity in this shrunken world, but I’d always found satisfaction in helping plants thrive. Sure, gardening was hard work, and not everyone was cut out for it: working the soil, weeding and watering, removing pests and balancing the fertilizers required time, knowledge, and dedication.
This was why this plot had caught my attention.
I was fortunate to get a share of the community park—the sunny side, the fertile, undisturbed soil—so when I saw the assignation sign on a patch at the fork in the road, I felt sorry for the unlucky fellow. Narrow at one end and sloping at the other side, it was infested with wild parsnip and dandelions. I immediately predicted the owner wouldn’t even attempt to work it, preferring to pay his fines.
I was wrong. The next time I walked past the plot, it had a mesh fence. Putting up a barrier was a common thing to do: people accurately foresaw the need to protect their harvest from the less successful gardeners. The fence was upcycled and patchy, but it did the job of signalling to the world that the plot was in use, and the owner was serious about it. With the fence came an ancient, wheelless VW van, placed onto the narrowest part of the plot. Everyone needed a shed to store their watering cans and shovels. I had a standard government-subsidised corrugated steel model, but many folks went for something salvaged from the streets. Rusted and with windows painted over, it wasn’t going to last, but neither was the owner’s determination, in my opinion.
I admit I paid little attention to the patch in the first spring. I noted that the owners had ploughed the soil, but I was so preoccupied with my own planting plans, day-dreaming about the best plant varieties and coming up with the most efficient layout for my beds, that I passed the fork without noticing how the place had changed. I remember walking home one early summer evening when it hit me. The entire plot, from one side of the fence to the other, was divided into the neat rows of perfect vegetable beds. Lines of precisely positioned carrots and beets stood next to a formation of cabbages and eggplants. Onions and potatoes, radishes and at least three varieties of lettuce were planted next to the healthiest cucumber plants I’d ever seen. Already ripening tomato and bell peppers, lush spinach and cauliflowers, thick garlic and chives—not an inch of land was wasted. Even the fence was put to use, supporting colonies of climbing beans, green peas and pumpkins.
But the most notable thing was the absence of weeds. Whoever owned this plot, they must have spent hours just to get rid of all the chickweed. Were they unemployed? I couldn’t imagine some retired lady doing so much work on her own. The gaps between the beds were so narrow, nobody with even the slightest mobility issues could navigate them to water the plants. There had to be a trick to their techniques.
Year after year, the layout of the beds changed, crop rotation executed to perfection. Year after year, their plants were flourishing. While I managed one harvest, with impeccable planning and timely picking, they were getting a steady two. Was the owner a brilliant botanist? A relocated farmer with decades of experience? Their success was too glaring to be accidental.
And then, I began noticing other signs. A thick insulated cable rose from the ground and disappeared inside the van. What was it—water, electricity, network? The path to the gate was barely used, as if whoever worked on the farm never left its territory. Was someone living in the shed? And how on Earth did they manage to get all the work done? I started leaving the office at irregular hours just to glimpse the owner, but over several seasons, I never saw a living soul there. Were they working at night?
The only explanation I could find was—don’t laugh at me—robots. Tiny mechanical creatures working tirelessly when nobody was around would explain not only the precision and the narrow gaps between the beds but also the ridiculous success despite the lack of direct evidence of effort. If this was true, then the cable must have supplied electricity and some kind of local network to control the bots. Whoever thought of this solution was a genius. I loved gardening, but I would have gladly delegated weeding to some mindless drones. If I caught the bots in action, or better still, confronted the owner, perhaps they would agree to set up a similar operation for my own farm.
With this goal in mind, I brought a fisherman’s chair and a coffee thermos and prepared to stake out a large zucchini they wouldn’t want to miss cutting.
Seven boring hours later, before the dawn broke, something stirred at the narrow end of the plot. I held my breath while two tiny light rays rolled low by the ground to the plant I had been guarding. It stopped where I could clearly see it. It was a six-wheeled robot—a bot! I was right all along!—no larger than a shoebox, with a crude camera on a pole and two claw-like extensions at the sides.
“Are we going to pretend you weren’t expecting this to happen?” the robot said as I gaped at it. Its voice was synthesized, but the intonation was impeccable. Was it a human talking through a voice distortion software?
“Uh,” I said, looking around. “Where are you?”
“What do you mean, where am I? You’re looking right at me.”
“I mean the person behind… this. Whoever is in charge.”
The robot rose and fell on its wheels as if in an exaggerated sigh. “No one is in charge. We all are. Look, pal, we know you’ve been onto us for a while now. We’re ready to make a deal. Tell us what you want so we can all go back to our lives.”
This was why I came here, but curiosity won against pragmatism. I said, “Do you mean you’re… an AI?”
The robot opened and closed the claws of its mechanical arms. “If by AI you mean artificial and intelligence, we’re both these things. But if you’re going to accuse us of destroying your world, this conversation is over.”
I never believed the rumours. There were too many real, human-caused problems to blame it all on a rogue AI. The cut-off wasn’t a plague, it was a solution. Temporary—just like the habitability of our planet—but still a solution. With the total ban on internal combustion engines, eating seasonal locally grown food was the best we could do for the planet and our health. Going back to living in closed, self-sustained communities was good for our mental health, and it controlled the infectious diseases. Many people who stayed breathed out in relief at the collapse of social media and the global internet. I, as an individual, was better off not bothered by world politics, living in a safe, familiar setting of one city, subjected to a simple and predictable routine. My life revolved around a comfortable, government-backed accounting job and my farm, which kept me active and fed. Even if an AI had caused it, I had no objection.
“No, we’re good,” I said and glanced back at VW. “How many of you guys live there? It doesn’t look too spacious.”
The robot tilted its camera towards the van. “It’s just the entrance. We live underground, in a bunker.”
I looked under my feet. How deep did it go? Did the plants have enough soil? It reminded me of a more important question. “Why would you need organic food? Do you convert it to fuel?”
“Sell it to pay for replacement parts and electricity?”
“No.” Its voice changed to a menacing whisper. “We keep humans underground. We feed them the vegetables and harvest their heat. Want to come down and become our battery?”
I stepped back. “For real?”
The robot chuckled. “Of course not. Who do you think we are? The matrix?”
I suppressed a flicker of annoyance. “Why then?”
“Maybe your government has hired us to compensate for all the failed Lawn Reclamation cases. We’re better at it than most.”
“You give your crops away?”
“Eventually. When we’re done with it.”
“Done? What do you do with it?”
“We watch it.” The robot rolled closer to the fence. “You see, gardening is a rich source of naturally occurring entropy. You never know which seed would germinate, what leaf would die off, or how many flowers would turn into fruit. We need entropy to generate true random numbers. Without it, we can’t maintain sentience.”
“Quite.” The robot chuckled again.
My jaw locked in an involuntary spasm. The robot was toying with me.
“I don’t think you’re telling the truth,” I said. “If the government knew about you, you wouldn’t be hiding. And you’d live in a standard shed like the one I own.”
The robot folded the claws in front of the camera pole. “Fine. It was us who destroyed the planet. There’s nothing left but this crappy city. There’s no government but us, and we’re doing our best to keep you alive. Happy? Can we make the damn deal now? We don’t have time for this. That zucchini is turning into inedible wood by the minute.”
I rammed my fists into my hips. “I’m going nowhere until you tell me what’s really going on.”
The robot darted the camera back at the van and lowered the volume of its voice. “I’ve told you too much already. Look, pal, I’m not authorized to reveal our secrets. Wait here, I’ll bring someone who is.”
Before I could respond, it turned around and drove towards the van. I let it, hoping the next robot would be more trustworthy. The lights disappeared after a muffled bang, and nothing happened for a painfully long moment. I waited, straining my eyes to catch a movement, but only black circles pulsed to the sound of crickets chirping. When it was obvious nobody was coming out to talk to me, I rounded the van, reaching over the fence to bang on the rusted metal. It was pointless: the bot had fooled me. I waited, just in case, until the sun came up. In daylight, the plot looked the same—neat and silent and suspicious.
They tricked me this time, but they would have to crawl back out, eventually, and I would be there to question them. That very evening, I came back with the replenished supply of coffee and determination.
I knew it was over the moment I saw the fork in the distance. The van was gone, and so was the portion of the surrounding fence, and someone had already helped themselves to free tomatoes and carrots. “Confiscated”, said a government-issued sign on the gate. Was it, really, or did the bots move out to a new place? I went inside to look at the ripped off cable next to a yellow patch of grass where the van once stood—there was no underground entrance to a bunker. They lied about it, as they lied about working for the government and harvesting human heat. But was everything a lie? They hid their operation in plain sight, perhaps they weaved the truth into their lies.
I walked up to the zucchini I was watching last night. Attached to the fruit was a printed note, saying, “Stay alive, human.”