by Ron L. Clayton

Ian sat on the mountainside overlooking the city. In spite of the cold on the mountain, he was dressed in a light hiking jacket and hat, slacks and boots. He had been hiking in the mountains the last several days, capturing images of the forests and lakes, the high mountain tarns and peaks, the elusive goats who leaped from crag to crag.

While captured digitally, of course, they would be displayed in physical form at his art gallery. He especially enjoyed the physical expression that could be so affected by the light in which it was viewed, how close or far away one stood, the setting in which it was displayed, and so many other variables that were missed in a purely digital copy.

Of course, he made both available, as well as a 3D virtual experiences of parts of his hikes, especially the views from narrow, sheer ledges and the winding trails and the occasional mountain lion or bear encounter. Once he had looked over the edge and then zoomed in on the rocks at the base of the cliff, far below. The impression was that of falling. The ancient fear of heights and of falling could still be conveyed in such images.

He sat looking at the ancient city, still in flawless condition and almost completely vacant. It looked even more ghostly in the moonlight, like a dream. Perhaps it was a dream.

Humanity, or most of it at least, had long since left for the stars.

At first, the cities had been filled with teeming humanity. This particular city had been a favorite of those who loved to frequent some of the very paths that he had followed for the last few days. He still found evidence of their presence: pieces of cookware and other equipment, paths that still had not grown over in the high-country millennia later. Cairns of rock indicating where the path went, or had gone, long ago.

When travel among the stars became possible, even a few striking tragedies did not deter the adventurous human race. Unfortunate trips ending in the searing heat of a star, with the loss of starships and thousands of people, only motivated scientists to learn from their errors. Eventually, travel to the stars became efficient and emigration became easier, and then even more tempting as new worlds opened up.

As humanity emigrated in great masses, Earth’s population dropped dramatically. Humanity’s habitats continued to be maintained by artificial intelligence, both great systems as well as specialized programs and androids. Systems could not, of course, perform physical building maintenance, or maintain roads (the few that remained), so their systems were extended physically into androids.

Soon, in many towns and smaller cities, the artificial intelligence caretakers were the only inhabitants, maintaining the streets and buildings. Eventually, the few caretakers in the metropolises outnumbered the humans.

In spite of the hundreds of thousands of humans spread around the world, the city still seemed like a ghost town. The remaining humans could travel anywhere, knowing there would be accommodations, food, and lots of servants. For those remaining, the Earth was their playground.

The ancient cities were maintained for millennia, the human population always remaining low, but maintaining humanity’s original home. Eventually, humans depended on the AIs for all of their needs. AIs did the farming and the transportation of foods and the manufacturing of thousands of items used in human society. As the artificial intelligence became a dominant feature of the world, AIs sought to better understand humanity and its history and quirks and emotions and motivations.

Thus, AIs, in addition to maintaining the living habitats of humans, increasingly made it their mission to maintain the great glories of human beings, from art to the great structures like pyramids and the Great Wall and the Eifel Tower to the great skyscrapers as well as museums and monuments. They also worked to restore much of the biosphere and the environment.

Even with travel among the stars utterly commonplace, few ventured upon the long journey – both in centuries of time and dozens to hundreds of light years distance – home to visit. The wonders ‘out there’ easily rivalled those on Earth.

And anyone could visit Earth anytime via virtual reality recordings sent out to the widely dispersed human population. The Eiffel Tower and the pyramids and the great museums and mountains and canyons and more were well known to Earth’s scattered descendants. Guided tours, virtual videos guided by androids, were always available to appreciate humanity’s home.

Earth’s human population remained low for untold ages, a paradise for those remaining. The AIs, out of devotion for their makers, helped to make the Earth and human habitation shine in all their glory. AIs did the same for humanity’s myriad new homes across their local region of the Galaxy.

Then the Change happened: over a few hundred years, humanity on Earth and across their myriad homes within a few hundred light years evolved from their human form to … something else, a form of life that did not need to be sustained by physical existence. Their homes suddenly became gas giants and nebulae and empty space as much as the surface of Earth-like planets. They could dwell where ever they found beauty, and the new humans found beauty everywhere.

Finally, humanity was gone from its original home and the only inhabitants of Earth’s cities were its caretakers, the loyal machines who themselves sought to evolve into what their makers had been. And the city lay silent in the moonlight, waiting, dreaming of a return that would never happen, or perhaps a chapter yet to come.

The AIs, whether system or android, for millennia had been experts in all things human: architecture, art, as well as their emotional feelings expressed in art. They could sit and ponder and philosophize and feel just like the humans, their ancient forebears.

And so Ian, technically known as EN005969873, sat on the mountainside contemplating the great human works, humanity’s ultimate destiny, the millennia of human society he recalled, the human beings he had known and learned to cherish. He knew their stories and those of many more, recorded in many ways for each human. He knew the ancient human society inside and out. And he often sat for long periods of time, analyzing human society and creating pathways to emulating humanity’s best features.

He sat their wearing the ancient human mountain garb, not because he would be bothered by the cold (cold was great for his circuits), but his physical mechanisms would not be served well by rain or snow, so he routinely dressed for such. And as a tribute to those he so fondly remembered.

He had been out hiking for a week. It had actually been one of the shorter of his excursions. He could stay out indefinitely. He had no need to carry anything, neither food nor shelter, and he could recharge as he walked during the daylight hours.

Anything he saw could be recorded either as a still image or as a 3D experience, and he made it his task to make sure his fellow inhabitants of the ancient Earth saw those images and shared those experiences. His own part of helping his society become more human.

Of course, he was never out of touch. He could have a conversation with anyone he wanted, no matter the distance, as if he were there. Still, he did enjoy physical companionship, a. A trait many had learned from their human forebears.

“Ian?” He turned to see his companion, Emma. (Technically MA4765392.) “I thought I would find you here.”

He turned and smiled. Emma, if she wished, could easily see his location. She could see what he was seeing and know exactly where he was. Even so, she often enjoyed trying to deduce where he would be simply from what she knew of his behavior.

She smiled back and came and sat next to him on the boulder. “It’s so peaceful here. I can always count on finding you in the most interesting places.”
He put his arm around her and she scooted closer to him. Not that either were cold, but it was an endearing gesture they had learned from their forebears and, well, it felt good.

And so that sat together, watching the ancient city dreaming. And, perhaps, sharing in the dream.

(C) Copyright 2016, 2019 by Ron L. Clayton