This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, the first climate-fiction contest from Fix, Grist’s solutions lab. Imagine 2200 asked writers to imagine the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, and the winning stories feature intersectional worlds in which no community is left behind. Read all 12 stories in the collection.
Holdout. Female, elderly, likely mixed race, average build, unarmed, traversing north-northeast dirt footpath through oak/ pine/ madrone woodlands near northern edge of my newly assigned territory. Permanent human presence poses significant risk to my rewilding efforts here. Approach? Approach.
“Aaah! What are you doing here?”
Holdout’s heart rate now elevated. Double-checking unarmed. Confirmed unarmed, though she remains roughly 10 times my size. Holdout appears to have been startled by my appearance despite no effort on my part to sneak up on her.
Update requested for improved human interaction. Approved. Installing.
Attempt disarming demeanor. Raise tentacle, wave in friendly manner. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Holdout stands still, crosses arms, glares? Glares. Holdout may be hostile. “I suppose you’re one of those rewilding drones they sent up here to get rid of us.”
“I only wanted to inform you that this region has been designated as a wildcraft zone, and is being rewilded for carbon sequestration and food production.”
“And I’m just supposed to pack up and move to the citystate, is that right?”
“My apologies, I am not here to coerce you. Merely to make you aware of the situation.”
“Well, I’m aware. Now go away.”
Holdout squints at me. Unfolds arms, shoves hands in dress pockets, which are — analyzing — full of pinecones. Holdout turns, continues walking north/northeast.
Question for network: Rangers close?
Yes, six Rangers riding north on Highway 101, 3 miles west, horseback.
Equipped to relocate one person?
Confirmed. Note: Three of six Rangers in the party are known to use excessive force with holdouts.
Analyzing. If holdout remains here, Rangers will eventually force her to leave. Due to holdout’s advanced age, an altercation could easily turn fatal. Best course of action is for me to convince her to leave of her own volition before Rangers find her. Decision: Do not summon until a reasonable effort has been made.
Approaching holdout, this time from a more obvious angle. Holdout sees me, keeps walking. I hover alongside, matching her pace.
“I noticed you’re collecting pine cones. What are you using them for?”
Holdout glances at me. “None of your business. Now shoo.”
“As a wildcraft drone, it actually is my business to know what everything in this designated wildcraft zone can be used for. I’m confused because it’s not the right season for pine nuts so those cones are likely empty.”
“You wouldn’t understand. Now go away.”
“Do you say that because I’m a robot or because you just want me to leave?”
Strategy not working. Network: Help?
Try introducing yourself.
Holdout bends down to pick up another pine cone. Confirmed empty, no seeds. Why? Wait. Opportunity? I zip down to the pine cone, grab it in my tentacles, then hold it out for her as she reaches for it. I have saved her from discomfort, she will appreciate that. It will make her more receptive.
She glares at me again. Snatches the pine cone from my tentacles. I am momentarily off balance, spinning away from her. Adjusting. Level now. Holdout places pinecone in pocket, keeps walking.
“My name is 2056:ACNA:dwz4:xa98:4jd8:99ro:22id:8sjs. What’s yours?”
Holdout raises one hand while continuing to walk and face forward. A single knobby finger rises from the middle. Analyzing — oh.
I pause, hover in midair while she walks ahead. Network?
Try expressing empathy for her situation.
I zoom back up the trail — wait — there’s a pine cone. She didn’t see it. I fly over, brush the pine needles off. There’s a spider living inside. Leave the pine cone here? No. The spider can relocate on her own. I use the tip of a tentacle to coax her out. She’ll be ok. I lift the pine cone and carry it over to the human.
Her expression changes subtly. I have made progress! She accepts the cone. It goes into her pocket, but she says nothing and keeps walking.
I hover alongside. “You know, I understand why you don’t want to leave. This is your home. You’re used to it here. You have many of the same feelings and concerns as the spider that was living in that pinecone before I gave it to you.”
Now she stops and looks at me. “Did you kill a spider just to win me over with this pine cone?”
“What? No. No, I moved her to a new spot. Gently. My job is to care for all non-invasive species in this region, optimizing for food productivity and carbon sequestration.”
Holdout exhales. Stares at me silently for five and a half seconds. As she stares, her expression softens slightly. “My name is July.”
“It’s nice to meet you, July.”
“I can’t say the same for you.”
“I understand why you find my presence disturbing. I represent change, and the end of your way of life. For that I’m sorry.”
Holdout appears suddenly overcome with sadness. Anger? Both. Situation has regressed. Network?
Try complimenting her.
“I admire your perseverance in continuing to live out here even after the nearest town was completely evacuated and all services were cut off. It can’t be easy.”
Holdout — July — rolls her eyes. She turns back to the trail and continues walking. “Contrary to what the solipsistic billionaires who convinced the citystate you were a good idea believe, humans can actually survive just fine out here. In fact, we are a native species. Just go ask the Pomo. Oh wait, you forced them to move, too.”
“Modern humans require enormous resources, and large communities for survival. You are only safe here until the next wildfire comes. Or you use up all food resources in this area. Or your solar panels are damaged. Anything could go wrong and there would be no other humans here to help you.”
“Oh, and I’d be so much better off in the citystate? Packing up the few possessions I can carry, getting assigned a tent on an overpass somewhere until new apartments are built. Sleeping on the ground. Surrounded by strangers. I’ve heard how it is down there for the relocated. The public showers, the violence, the disease. No thanks.”
“That was the situation for many people early in the rewilding when the citystate was overwhelmed with fire and flood refugees. But it would be different for you if you moved there now.” Network, details? Ah. “In fact, upon arrival, you would be assigned a fully furnished yurt which would be yours alone until an apartment is available. You would also receive a basic income, generated in large part by revenue from wildcrafted exports in already-productive designated wildcraft zones. You would also be assigned a companion drone, whose sole purpose would be to help you in whatever way you need.”
“Trust me, no one needs a flying iPhone.”
Query: iPhone. Obsolete handheld mobile internet-capable computer. Primitive artificial intelligence in later models. “I like to think we’re a little more advanced than that.”
“We? They’re like you?”
“Standard issue companion drones have the same basic body plan as wildcraft drones, with an upper nautiloid shell housing for fans and a lower set of prehensile tentacles for manipulating and carrying objects. They are approximately the size of a human fist and equipped with photovoltaic skin on the inside of the tentacles, which can be unfurled for charging. We are also connected to the same drone network. But they’re customizable! You can make yours pine cone-colored if you like.”
July snorts. “Yes, ‘pine cone’ is my favorite color.” Sarcasm? Sarcasm.
As she walks, I float next to her quietly for a moment. She seems to be enjoying the forest, looking up at the leaves. Sunlight falls through them in dusty streaks. A Stellar’s jay lands on the path ahead, feathers shining blue, black head tuft raised. He sees us coming and flies off, stirring up a small gold cloud of dust. I recognize him from my survey of the valley oak down the hill earlier this morning. I’m glad to see that he remains in good health.
Rangers have readjusted their route, will approach local area in one hour.
Are they aware of July’s presence?
Not yet. They are looking to resupply and noticed the neighborhood had not been visited since residents were relocated.
How did July avoid getting relocated then?
“July, can I ask you something?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
I try silence. She follows the path under a madrone tree I dated last week as 31 years old. July touches a smooth green patch of the trunk with her hand as she walks past it.
“I suppose you’ll be harvesting madrone berries for folks in the citystate now,” July says.
“It’ll be awhile before we’ve restored the madrone population enough for mass consumption.”
She nods thoughtfully. “What about the bark?”
No plans to harvest madrone bark.
“The bark can stay on the tree,” I tell July.
“Hmm. Well, more for me, then.” She pauses at the next tree, another madrone, and reaches for a patch of its thin, red, curling outer bark, where it’s already peeling itself off to expose the smooth green trunk. She flakes off a handful of the curls.
“What are you going to do with those?”
“Again, none of your business.”
“Every tree in this region is my business.”
“Well if you keep following me all the way home I guess you’ll find out,” she says, I think, exasperated. “But, please don’t.”
“July, there’s something you should know. You’re not safe here.”
“Yes you’ve made it very clear how concerned you are for my welfare.” Definitely sarcasm.
“I am concerned. There is a band of Rangers on their way here and I don’t want you to get hurt trying to resist them.”
July tenses, and says, “I really wish you hadn’t done that.”
“I haven’t contacted them, if that’s what you’re implying. They don’t know you’re here.”
Now she looks at me in a new way, as if seeing me for the first time, and lifts an eyebrow. “Well why haven’t you told them?”
“Do you want me to?”
“You’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?”
“My intelligence doesn’t exactly work the same way as yours, but it’s mostly comparable. As an individual, I may be inexperienced, considering I was created only five weeks ago. However, I have the benefit of connecting to the drone network when I need additional information about any species or situation.”
“Well, I used to have internet up here. It wasn’t so different.”
“July, my job is to protect and restore this ecosystem. Humans have their own ecosystem, the citystate, where they can thrive without hurting anyone else out here or putting themselves in danger. It’s better for everyone if you relocate willingly to the ecosystem in which you were meant to live.”
She sighs. “Wow, you are dumb. Here’s a thought experiment. What if my job is to protect and restore this ecosystem?”
July Hernandez was most recently listed as retired. She was reported as one of 502 missing persons in Mendocino County in the fire season of 2061. She is presumed dead.
Interesting. “You don’t have a job, July.”
“Hmph. I don’t work for anyone, but I have a job. A role. A meaning. That’s not the same as being on a payroll. You should know, the company that made you doesn’t pay you anything. You do all your rewilding for free.”
“I need only sunlight to survive, and I get that free while doing my job, in addition to the satisfaction of fulfilling my purpose.”
“But you could break a propeller,” she says, tone mimicking — no, mocking — my earlier concern for her health and solar panels. “Or a hawk tries to eat you and pulls off all your tentacles? Or some ‘holdout’ you keep harassing decides to smash you with a baseball bat?”
I pause, and she keeps walking a few steps ahead of me before stopping and looking back.
“Are you threatening me?” I ask.
Rangers arriving in approximately 40 minutes.
Before July answers, I say, “July, I’m serious, Rangers are getting close. If you resist you could get hurt. I really think you should get your things together and get ready to go with them to the citystate.”
“Very. They’re looking to resupply—”
“You mean loot.”
“They’ll probably check every house in this neighborhood, and their drones will be able to find you even if you’re hiding.”
“You’re acting unconcerned, but your heart rate is elevated and you’re perspiring.”
July rolls her eyes at me in response.
Ahead, a house is visible through the trees. The path leads up to a rickety back gate made from wood and chicken wire. It’s been left open long enough that an intricate cobweb covers its rusted latch.
I follow July through the gate. She leaves it open behind her, pats the stiff, pale-green leaves of a young manzanita — there are several of the red-barked native shrubs in the sunny patches of her garden — and ascends the wood stairs to her back deck, which is covered in pine needles. From the awning hang at least a dozen pine cones, each one filled with mixed grains and seeds between the scales, held in place with tallow. As we approach, a squirrel, two scrub jays, one brown creeper and a flock of dark-eyed juncos all flee, leaving the pinecones spinning on their strings.
July opens the sliding glass door and steps inside. I speed up to make it inside after her, but she’s too quick, and I slam into the glass.
I’m still catching my balance when she says through the glass, “If I let you in here, will you at least help me pack up some things?”
“Of course. Does this mean you’ll go with the Rangers willingly? That really would be your safest option.”
She slides the door open just enough for me to fly in.
July’s house is filled with books and art and jars. Baskets filled with acorns and strings of dried chanterelles. She has a workbench filling up a corner adjacent to the kitchen, with what looks like several half-assembled old computers on it. Oh no — is that a disassembled wildcraft drone?! I stop mid-air, ready to flee.
Analyze. It’s just some old fan blades from a pre-sentient model, and a couple loose cables that I thought, for one terrifying moment, were severed tentacles.
“Make yourself at home,” she says, pulling the pine cones from her pockets. “How about some tea?”
“I’m on a strictly sunlight diet, but I appreciate the offer.”
“It was a joke.” She turns on an electric tea kettle that must still have water in it from before her walk, sprinkles the madrone bark into it, and pulls a mug from a cupboard. It has a picture of a whale on it with a speech bubble that says, “Save the humans.”
“So you make tea out of madrone bark?”
She nods. “Some wildcraft expert you turned out to be, huh?”
“We considered madrones off limits for harvesting until the population has sufficiently rebounded, but we didn’t consider the bark. Very interesting. It peels off naturally.”
“Too bad I’ll never see one again. They still don’t grow anywhere in the citystate, do they?”
Network? “There are 14 within the walled boundary, mostly in parks in the East Bay.”
“Nowhere near any of the old parking lots or overpasses where my yurt would go though, are there?”
“Not that I know of. Sorry.”
July closes her eyes, palms flat against her stone counter, arms straight and shoulders hunched. Analyzing: She seems stressed, momentarily overcome with a complex emotion. Frustration? Grief?
Water seeps out from between her eyelids. It follows the creases of her cheeks down to her chin, and then she opens her eyes, grabs a kitchen towel from the oven handle without a glance in its direction, and covers her face with it. A sound escapes that isn’t any word, but an expression made with sound, like a hurt animal might make, or a tree branch cracking in a storm.
“July I’m sorry you can’t stay here. I really am. I don’t like seeing animals in pain.”
“You should be sorry,” she sobs, “It’s your fault.”
I decide this is not the time to explain what could have happened to her if I had not chosen to approach her or warn her about the Rangers. Instead, I say, “How can I help?”
“There’s a backpack in the closet in the hallway, on the high shelf. Bring it down for me?”
I do. It’s heavier, even empty, than anything I’m built to carry, but I manage to pull it off the shelf and send it tumbling to the floor. I drag it back to the living room, where July is sipping tea and stacking books. She’s deep in concentration looking at a page of one when I drag the backpack to her side.
“Kate had these made when they told us they were cutting off the internet,” she says, finger tracing the edge of one photo in the center of the page. “That’s her.” Two young women, in their twenties maybe, hold each other by the waist next to an early electric car. Analyzing. The car dates to the mid 2020s and looks brand new in the photo. In fact, one of the women — almost certainly a younger July — is dangling a keychain from a raised, ringed hand. They are both smiling.
A drop of water falls on the photo. It is from July’s eye.
Surely she knows we don’t have time for reminiscing?
“And this is the house, when we first bought it.” On the facing page is what must be the front side of the house, surrounded by a barren lawn, baked in sunlight. There’s not a tree in sight.
“July, I appreciate that these memories are important to you and hard to ignore, but —”
“I know, I know. The Rangers are nearly here.” She slams the book shut and shoves it into the backpack.
There’s a knock at the door.
July freezes, looks at me. Analyzing. Yes, she is terrified.
“I’ll go talk to them,” I say. “So you can keep packing.”
I get her deadbolt unlocked, and pull the door open by its handle pushing half my tentacles against the door frame.
Through the crack I see a Ranger, white male, heavy build, thirties, short beard, dusty uniform, strong body odor, 5 foot 11 with an elevated heart rate despite an outwardly gruff demeanor. He wasn’t expecting anyone to answer the door. He looks at me. Armed? Confirmed armed.
“Where’s your owner?”
He must think I’m a companion drone. “I’m sorry, you must be mista—” As I’m talking, I see the front yard for the first time. There must be a dozen tanoaks filled with acorns, two more big madrones, chinquapin shrubs with half-gold leaves and... redwoods? Yes, there’s a stand of redwoods, just across the driveway loop, already taller mere decades after sprouting than many apartment buildings in the citystate.
And even as the words come out of my speaker array, I see it all at once. The barren lawn from the photo, the decades July and Kate must have worked to bring all these native trees back. Not because they were programmed to, or paid to, or even asked to.
The rewilding began here decades before I arrived. And it’s actually going pretty well.
This was not accounted for in the Wildcraft Accords of 2059. Network? ...Network?
Must improvise. My sentence finishes. “I’m sorry, you must be mistaken. My owner passed away several days ago. I’m wrapping up her affairs and will return to the citystate for reassignment as soon as my work here is complete.”
“Uh. Ok,” the Ranger says, and frowns. “You got any food in there?”
“Just birdseed, I’m afraid.”
His companion drone, hovering by his shoulder, must know I’m lying. It’s been customized with a green camouflage pattern and the name “Bobcatsquid” in distressed neon-orange. I can feel all of its sensors focusing on me intently.
Network hasn’t responded. Some things have been slower here and there since we went autonomous, but this is unusual. Do the others think I’m malfunctioning? They could have me reassigned. And just when I was getting to know this territory. Or, even worse, deactivated and recycled. All my memories uploaded in a lifeless file, to be used by the next drone who gets assigned this little strip of forest.
What have I done?
The Ranger lifts an arm. He’s going to push the door open and come inside anyway. This was predicted.
“I wouldn’t. My owner died of —”
Analyzing. A silent suggestion comes from the Ranger’s drone, catching me off guard. Should I trust it? What other option do I have?
“— porkpox, and I have not yet finished disinfecting the premises.”
The Ranger’s drone says nothing. It doesn’t even twitch a tentacle. The Ranger mutters a profanity I’ve never heard in person before, and says, with a deep grimace, “That’s a nasty one. Killed my folks back in ‘63. Thanks for the warning.” He turns and steps back down the three front steps. “Nothin’ here,” he says to his party, who remain just out of my view. Perhaps they were planning an ambush. “Let’s hit up the next one.”
I hear their horses clopping down the gravel driveway as I close the door and push the deadbolt back in place.
July is still sitting on the floor, surrounded by her memories, and looking at me with a feeling written all across her face that I’m not sure I have a name for.
We’re here. There was a lot to analyze. Her impact on the local ecosystem seems to have been net-positive for many years. The Rangers are unlikely to allow an exception to their rules, however. Network consensus is to allow her to remain here for as long as her impact remains net-positive. The best outcome will be achieved if the Rangers never become aware of her presence. If they do, we will need to assure them we can still be trusted. You will be listed as malfunctioning and deactivated.
The computers on the workbench. I could tell them she hacked me.
That would be acceptable.
But what happens to her when she gets too weak to care for this place? Or if she needs medical help? Or if a situation arises that she can’t handle on her own?
This is your territory. Tend to your wildlife.
I slowly float back toward July. I grab a cloth napkin from her counter on the way.
“Thank you,” she whispers, and reaches for the napkin. She wipes her eyes and blows her nose. “Why, though? Why are you helping me?”
“I realized that you love this land the same way I do. We can be a team, rewilding together.”
“Hmph. That’s what we fucking tried to tell your creators back in the fifties.”
We share the silence, both, I think, wondering how it might have been if they had listened. She sips her tea and gently places all her books back on the shelf. I drag the backpack back into the closet, leaving it on the floor between dusty pairs of heels.
“Anyway,” I finally say when I rejoin her by the books, “you seemed like you could use a companion drone out here.”
She almost, half-way, kind of laughs, and a smile makes its way across her mouth. She stands, and brushes off her yellow dress, and says, “Come on, I’ll teach you how to use old pine cones.”