A flash-fiction challenge. I hit #13.
Christa followed the crumbling black path into town. That’s not entirely correct, for she guided her horse to the side of the path. The hard surface of the path itself was hard on the hooves of horses and the feet of other animals. The path she rode on was worn. Occasionally, the path crossed other had paths that were either black or grayish. Some of them were very wide. She saw a large herd of bison a thousand or so paces to her right. One rider wasn’t a threat to them. Both she and the bison ignored each other. Between her and the herd stood a large rusting machine. She didn’t know what it was.
Her grandfather had told her magnificent stories of flying machines and very high-speed conveyances and that men had even walked on the Moon. She had had many questions about where those people were that her mother told her to go to town and find the library. Christa had been to town years ago. She remembered that it was a mess of crumbling buildings and feral cats. There weren’t any people. But her mother told her that she could find the answers that she sought.
The library building was the only completely intact building in town. Christa tied her horse’s reins to an iron rack. She walked up to the entrance. The doors swung open. That struck her as being magical, for she had never seen an automatic door. But she didn’t let that deter her, she followed her mother’s instructions and approached a booth with a dark glass panel. Below the glass was set a green button. She pressed the button.
“Welcome to the Plains West Library. What do you want to know,” a vaguely female voice announced. Christa didn’t see anybody, but her mother had cautioned her about that.
“West of town, there is a large machine in the prairie. What is it?”
“The machine is a John Deere Model 8956 combine.”
“How long has it been sitting there?”
“It was last used 86 years, 7 months and 23 days ago.”
Christa took a deep breath. “How many people are alive?”
“The global population is approximately 235 million people.”
“How many were there?”
“Specify time period.”
She thought about that. “What was the maximum population of humans?”
“The maximum number was approximately nine billion, three hundred and fifty million.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Two hundred and forty seven years ago.”
“Do people live anywhere else but on this Earth?”
“Not at the present time.”
“Why is this building intact?”
“All libraries are maintained per Public Law 2274-452.”
Christa took a deep breath. “Why did human population decline so?”
The machine began to tell her. Hundreds of years ago, humans had several children per family. Then, as their lives became easier, they had distractions and something called “money”. They began having fewer children. Fewer people were needed to do things, machines did more and more. Work became less and less meaningful for people. There were no roads to be plowed, crops to grow, buildings to build. Machines did it all.
There were, as it turned out, only so many people who were capable of writing or painting or composing. Even if someone wrote a book that became a movie, machines made the movie at the direction of a few humans.
The day finally came when the vast majority of people had nothing to do. There was nothing for them to do. There was nothing that needed doing. Food, shelter, amusements, all were available to them. But there was no point in any of it.
The birth rate collapsed. People largely stopped reproducing.. They didn’t need children to help them in their old age, the machines did that. When individual machines were no longer needed, they were either dismantled or left to fall apart. Buildings became disused. Towns and cities were abandoned. All that was left in the land where Christa and her tribe lived, the land mass once known as North America, was maybe forty million people. The vast majority of people lived as either hunter-gatherers or in villages where they did farming themselves.
Machines maintained things that Christa didn’t understand. They were there, waiting to be called upon to help serve humanity. But humanity was largely gone.
Christa left the library, unhitched her horse, and began her ride home. It took her several hours, it was full dark when she returned. Her uncle met her and helped her care for the horse. Then Christa went into the tepee.
Her mother was there, she saw Christa’s face. “You learned, daughter?”
“Yes, many things. Why didn’t you tell me all of this?’
Her mother grasped Christa’s hands. “But I did,” she said gently. “I told you that many hundreds of years ago, people came to this land. They had guns and machines. They farmed the land, they made war on our ancestors, they killed the buffalo, they built many, many buildings.
“But they are gone. Their buildings are empty. The buffalo have returned.
“And we, the People, are still here.”