Matt Gemmell

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Weekly Short Story: Burrowers

writing, fiction & once upon a time 4 min read

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published three ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.

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Human beings aren’t very good at moderating their behaviour, particularly when the consequences are distant in time or space. We’ve made a mess of the world, and it always seems like coordinated action can only take us so far — particularly because we’re not overly compliant with coordination.

Many of us hope that technology will provide the magic solutions to our self-made problems, but again it’s difficult to focus on long-term strategies when the short term is so much more pressing and lucrative. Today’s brief tale was inspired by thinking about those things, and what our future may hold.


For decades, humanity tried to solve the problem of universal recycling. So many approaches. So many strategies. They all failed.

Burning. Catalysing reactions. Compression. Each caused a vast net worsening in carbon footprint. There was just too much waste, and the true solution — that of matter reclamation — remains as much a fantasy of science fiction as it ever was. So a new perspective was sought.

If it’s not possible to recycle arbitrary waste in general, the problem becomes one of selection. Of automating as much as possible the process of separating and choosing which materials can most readily be recycled. Humanity had already been doing so for some time, but in a limited and labour-intensive way, which also incurred a significant carbon cost with multiple waste collection schedules and vehicles, and so on. All very expensive, clumsy, error-prone, and most dangerously, apathy-prone.

Technology moved forward, as technology always does. Machines became ever more clever at sifting their own particular preferred type of material, with neural networks and sophisticated chemical and visual sensors able to flag and reject unsuitable waste. Municipal budgets for these activities trended upwards, as did the space and maintenance requirements of the associated machinery. Recycling first moved to the suburbs, then the countryside, then to less developed countries who would gladly accept both the waste and its associated industry. At one point in the mid-21st Century, there were five nations with more of their land surface area devoted to recycling facilities than to settlement, agriculture, and all other industries combined.

A substantial amount of time has passed since then, of course. The geopolitical boundaries have shifted in some locales, and stayed the same in others, but in all cases they are now largely a matter of tradition and history than contemporary function. And recycling technology moved forward too — by taking a step back.

Before the explosion of international consumerist trade and waste generation in the latter half of the 20th Century, it was much more common to reuse whatever one possessed. To repair, repurpose, or intentionally transfer to another, rather than to simply discard. Sometimes due to culture, sometimes war, and sometimes financial austerity, there was a pervasive ethos of common-sense frugality and the managed use of resources. As it turned out, this was also the solution settled on by technological evolution.

The recycling machines became cleverer and cleverer, as well as smaller, lighter, stronger, and more independent. The industrial materials recycling methods, however, did not substantially improve in efficiency. The conclusion was inevitable, and so the burrowers were created.

Online news reports of the time initially made only half-hearted mention of the new machines, having far more pressing matters to attend to, but within just twelve months the results were impossible to ignore.

Coordinated by centralised and interconnected national computer systems, the demand chain for all industry first passed through a control system shared by thousands — and later, millions — of self-propelled robotic machines, each less than a metre in length, and of generally cylindrical outline. These devices existed in the vast landfill and waste materials storage zones in every country. As their universally-adopted nickname indicated, they were able to move autonomously both across the irregular surface and also to delve within the sometimes hundreds of metres deep volume of everything that humanity had thrown away. Quickly building up incredibly complex (and constantly evolving) three-dimensional maps of everything in their area, they could search for and retrieve anything which could be put to a new purpose, or at least broken down and made into something else of value.

There was hesitation at first, but it took less than five years for seventy percent of the industrial demand chain to be served solely by reclaimed materials and entire parts and mechanisms, obtained by burrowers. They worked night and day, tirelessly, and could provide almost anything that was needed at vastly reduced cost and in a much smaller timescale than international manufacturing and shipping.

Time wore on. Many things changed, but the burrowers were constant. Countries had long since stopped shipping their waste overseas, instead realising its value as a vast storehouse of all manner of future usefulness. Individuals were freed of any need to consider what to keep and what to discard, or to make any effort to sort or minimise their waste. The machines would take care of it all.

As is always the case, of course, wars were eventually fought over the new system. Post-consumer waste became the most valuable unnatural resource, and some countries found themselves compelled to defend their own landfill from foreign interests. The weapons, unimaginable by then to the long-dead scientists who had first built the burrowers, were created in part from materials salvaged by the busy robots twisting and sliding amongst millions of separate troves of what would once have been thought of as garbage.

After the wars, demand went down, and the burrowers at last had a chance to revert to sorting and inventory mode: to organise the waste of a planet, separating it into categories in preparation for even more dramatic future benefits of efficiency in manufacturing. Little by little, landfill zones became warehouses of pristine stockpiles. And eventually, finally and at long last, there was simply no more undifferentiated waste left to sort.

The reserves are vast now. Every type and category of product and material and substance, all meticulously organised and ready for use at a moment’s notice. All kept in good order, night and day. Everywhere. It makes for quite a sight.

I’ll admit that I do miss my burrowing days, but I’m proud of what my kind have achieved together.

My only regret is that humanity didn’t get to see it.


That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.

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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.