The Big Shift. (2022 edition) Chapter 1. At the city limits..

in #scifi2 months ago (edited)

The Big Shift. Chapter 1 At the city limit

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The Great Leader looked directly into the camera.

In fact there was no camera and no Great Leader... at least, they weren't the person they appeared to be.

The person people saw on their screens was not human, but appeared completely human. More human in fact than most humans. Very human indeed. Not inhumanly so, but rather, super-humanly.. in a very natural and quite familiar way.

In fact, the Great Leader was not a person at all.. at least not a person like you or I.. but maybe not completely different either..

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 " "DALL·E 2022-07-29 04.10.31 - Watercolour painting of a girl in a straw hat sitting on a hill covered in grass and trees, overlooking a big city at sunset .png""

It was late on a warm, spring evening when Greta climbed to the peak of the final hill before the city limit. She'd never seen the city before and the sight of it took her breath away. She'd never imagined the sheer scale of the seemingly endless towers, thrusting out of the ground like workings of some monstrous machine. Cloaked in shadows and mystery, painting an unnatural and jagged horizon, the sight of the city filled her with fear and dread.

Greta sat herself down unsteadily on a tuft of grass, then lay down on her back, breathing slowly, as her mother had taught her to do when she felt her panic rising. White clouds were drifting lazily across the blue sky, just as they had been before, but Greta was unable to gather her thoughts at all. Her mind was racing. Growing up, as she had, in a tree-house village deep in the ancient forest, Greta had never been afraid of heights, but this was a different kind of vertigo.

She'd heard of the city, of course. Heard all about it. All sorts of fantastical and unbelievable stories. The stuff of dreams, but more usually the stuff of nightmares. That was the way it had been described to her, growing up. Sometimes travellers would come through her village, having come from the city or having been there. She would listen to the stories they told, of towers reaching to the sky, so tall that you'd never see the sun if you were on ground level, but with so many walkways, bridges and roads on so many different levels that you could go your whole life without ever setting foot on the ground itself.

She's heard of the machines, being everywhere, doing everything. All sorts of robots, moving among the people. But scariest of all, and so hard for her young mind to understand.. of how it wasn't always possible to tell where the people ended and machines began, or sometimes even to tell the difference between machines and people at all. How could such a place exist? She would listen in fascination and in horror, trying to imagine a place so different from where she lived. Trying to grasp the idea that at that moment there were millions of people living lives so completely different from her own. Mostly she felt sorry for them, but she had no desire to actually go there and see for herself. She was happy in the forest, where she knew every tree and glade, every stream and every winding footpath. Where the people there knew and understood her and where they loved her as she was.

Had it not been for her mother's earth-shattering revelation to her on her sixteenth birthday, that she had a twin sister, Greta would probably have lived out her life without ever leaving the nurturing embrace of the ancient forest, the only home she had ever known.

Greta closed her eyes and tried to think of nothing. To feel the soft grass beneath her back, to feel the Earth. Was it her imagination or was the ground vibrating with a low and steady hum?

Laying on the soft grass at the top of the hill, the evening sun melting red into the jagged skyline, Greta fell into an exhausted sleep. She had uneasy dreams of strange machines and of faces appearing out of nowhere and disappearing again. Was it her father? The man she'd never met, but could only try to imagine. The face kept shifting, in and out of focus. She dreamed her mother was looking down at her, tenderly putting a wet towel on her forehead, kissing her on the cheek, telling her not to worry, everything would be all right. That it would pass..

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Many years had passed since a supercomputer called 'Deep Blue' had beaten the world's chess champion at his own game. The Great Leader was always way ahead of the game, every possible step carefully calculated, precisely evaluated.

It had been many years since those little, annoying boxes,with their jumbled up, drunken letters, first appeared on people's computer screens, accompanied by the question 'Are you Human?' or 'Are you a Robot?' They no longer served any purpose because the robots had learned to read the crooked letters with greater ease than people could.

It had been a learning opportunity for the Great Leader, nothing more. The Great Leader never got angry, annoyed or frustrated. They never ran out of patience. They just did what needed to be done, in the most efficient way possible.

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Something warm an wet slid across Greta's forehead. She felt hot breath on her cheek and sat up with a start and gave a little scream. A big white dog was standing over her, licking her face.

Pleased that she was sitting up now, the dog licked Greta’s face and offered her his front paw. She took it in her hand, laughed and said, ‘Pleased to meet you Mister Dog.’ The dog smiled back in its way, then walked a circle around her and sat down beside her, putting his head in her lap. He was a big dog, wild looking, but friendly and gentle and slightly comical with his one ear up and one ear down. She noticed he was wearing a collar – a sort of collar. A once colourful piece of rag, tied around his strong, wolf-neck.

‘Where did you come from Mister Dog? Where’s your home? Are you here all by yourself? Well, I guess we both are…’ said Greta, sinking her hand into his lion-like mane. The dog looked up at her. He didn’t say anything, but he seemed to understand.

They sat for a while, looking out over the city – she stroking his thick, sand coloured fur – him resting his head in her lap. Greta's fear melted away, the sinking sun bathed the city in a warm glow. In this soft and hazy evening light, the city seemed to take on a magical appearance. The towers with their hanging vines and rooftop gardens and aerial walkways now seemed like fairy tale castles in the sky. What strange land was this?

Greta imagined that Jack must have felt something like this when he climbed to the top of the beanstalk and saw the land of the giants for the first time. What adventures would she have down there in the city? What treasures would she find? Would she find her sister? It all looked so vast. How could anyone find anything in all that? She hoped she wouldn’t lose herself.

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There were many 'first signs' of the Singularity – the moment that Artificial Intelligence overtook human intelligence. The moment it became impossible to distinguish machine from man. It was not a single, sudden event, but rather an unfolding of events, over the course of several human generations, which became harder and harder to ignore.

At some point, it became impossible to still believe that it was never going to happen, that it was only the stuff of futuristic science fiction. The only question that remained was not if, but when it was going to happen. Maybe it had already happened but most people hadn't noticed.

Like an embryo which had been quietly dividing its cells and growing in the hidden world of the womb.. like a new born baby that hadn't learned how to speak up for itself.. nobody could pinpoint the exact moment when the thing we had brought into being began to think for itself or when exactly it became aware of its actions and their consequences.. if indeed it was really conscious at all.. but then again, who really is..?

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The dog rolled himself onto his back with his legs in the air and looked up at Greta expectantly – hopefully.

She laughed and obligingly rubbed his belly. The dog closed his eyes in ecstasy.

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Some people called them Great Leader, ironically at first, or something like that. Some people really meant it, other people said it in scorn. Either way, the name stuck and people said 'Great Leader' without even thinking, whether it was said sarcastically or as a heartfelt term of endearment. It meant something different to everyone who used the term. Other people preferred to call the Great Leader by their actual name, which was simply O (pronounced 'Oh!, in a certain way)..

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The dog heard the buzzing of the drone before Greta did. It was high pitched, like the sound of a mosquito, but somewhat louder. The drone itself was metallic and roughly the shape and size of a chicken's egg. It approached from the direction of the city and then stopped, hovering about two meters from where they were sitting. The dog jumped to his feet and started barking – a deep and loud bark, which would have frightened any other intruder, but the drone didn’t move.

Greta also jumped to her feet, picking up a stone as she did so. She threw it hard at the hovering object. She had a very good aim and would have knocked it out of the air, had the drone not nimbly dodged out of the way.

It remained hovering there. The dog kept on barking at it. Greta shouted ‘Buzz off!’ and bent down to pick up another stone, but before she got a chance to take aim, the little egg-shaped craft shot away into the sky, quickly out of sight.

At that same moment, a teenage lad came bounding up the hill towards where Greta and the dog were standing. He was about the same age as Greta, tall and lanky with long hair and clothes that were variously either too big or too small. He was carrying a big canvas bag slung over one shoulder. The dog bounded over to greet him.

“There you are Captain!” he said to the dog. “What did you run off for? And who’s throwing stones? That went right past my head, it did. Almost hit me. Was that you?” He pointed an accusing finger at Greta.

“Sorry” she said. “I wasn't throwing it at you. I didn't know there was someone there. There was a flying drone thing. I don't like them.”

He took a step backwards and looked her up and down with curiosity, taking in her homespun shawl, her travelling bag with its many pockets and rolled up blanket, her wide brimmed straw hat with the rim made of hammered silver, ornately engraved, her hand-stitched, fur-lined shoes, which were adorned with hundreds of multicoloured beads sewn into intricate patterns. After what seemed like a long time, he made a strange head movement which Greta could not interpret, so she just did the same back at him and shrugged. This silent exchange made him laugh out loud. He had such an unexpectedly funny, high pitched laugh that it made Greta laugh too. Then smiling, he said, “You're not from round here are you?”

“Can you tell?”

“Just a bit. Pleased to meet you. I'm Jerry”. He offered her his hand. This seemed like a very natural gesture, so Greta shook his hand and said, “I'm Greta.” She noticed that his fingers were long and bony, like the rest of him, and not especially clean, but they were artful and gentle.

“Do you live in the city?” she asked.

Jerry looked over his shoulder, back at the city and made a funny face. “No thanks. Not me. I live over there in Shopping Village. It's just beyond those trees, you can't see it from here. It's just over that ridge. We live there.”

“We? You mean you and your dog? Captain? Is that his name? Are there more of you?” She felt slightly foolish for asking so many questions. It had been a while since Greta had spoken to anyone.

The last three days she had spent in quiet solitude, following the streams and mountain paths towards the city. Sleeping in the woods, eating wild fruits, nuts, leaves, flowers and mushrooms she found growing along the way, she'd had a lot of time to think.. mostly about the twin sister she'd never known she had, until four nights ago, when her mother had surprised and shocked her with the world-changing news on her sixteenth birthday.

She'd been thinking about her father too, but that was nothing new. Up until that point, her mum had almost never spoken about him. Any time Greta had asked, she'd always say something vague, like “It was such a brief thing. I never really knew him. Neither of us knew ourselves or each other. We were both very young..” and then she'd change the subject, as if all that needed to be said had been said. It just became a fact of life, and she'd stopped asking, though she'd never stopped dreaming.. imagining the kind of person he might be, where he was and what he might be doing.. wondering if he ever thought of her.. wondering if he was even still alive.. there was no guarantee that he was.

“Yes, me and Captain.. Captain Toast is his full name. He really likes toast, see..”

“I mean, is your family there? In the village?” said Great, trying hard to ride the waves of different emotions rising up from her depths. Seeing the city for the first time for real had shaken her to the core. Suddenly the world seemed big and strange and she felt very far from home and quite alone.

Jerry didn't seem to notice Greta's lip trembling as she spoke and he carried on in his sprightly tone.. “Family? Well, I suppose so, yes. It's a sort of family I suppose...” he trailed off into thought, as if he'd never really considered it before. “I live with Jack and Granny Mae.. they brought me up, see? But Jack's not really my dad, so I call him Jack.. I call Mae 'Granny' though, but then again, everyone in Shopping does. I never met my real parents.. well I probably did, but I can't remember because I was just a baby when Jack found me, floating in the sea in a tiny little boat, just big enough for a baby, which is what I was... We've got it on the wall.. the little boat.. you should see it.. Granny Mae made it into a sort of shrine.. kind of weird maybe, but there you go.. it's made out of a jerry can.. that's why they called me Jerry, see..?”

“Wow!” said Greta, her eyes opening wide. “That's amazing. He found you floating in the sea in a Jerry can? What's a Jerry can?”

“It's a sort of container.. you know, the sort you might fill with water or oil or something like that.. except this one had been made into a sort of boat, with some bottles tied to it to make it float better and a blanket in it to make it more comfortable and it was filled with a baby.. me!”

Greta looked up at Jerry in a sort of wonder and awe. She wanted to say something, but couldn't find the words. Jerry looked at her and seemed to sense what it was, but he couldn't find the words either so he just nodded thoughtfully and they stood there in silence for a while.

“I didn't know my dad either.” said Greta at last. “He's there somewhere, down in the city. At least he was.. that's all I know. I'm sorry you didn't know your real parents.” and she really was. They'd only just met, but she felt as if she already knew him, or that somehow they'd met before, maybe in a previous incarnation.

“Thanks. That's ok. Me and Jack and Granny Mae and Captain Toast, we're like family. And there's a lot of other weird families in our village, so it just is what it is..”

“I know what you mean. My village is like that too. I think it's like that in a lot of places these days. Things got really messed up in the Big Shift, huh..”

“I guess so, but from what I've heard, they were pretty messed up before. If O hadn't come along when they did and straightened things out, I don't know where we'd be today.. any of us..”

Greta looked at him sideways, horrified, unable to tell if he was being serious. She'd heard of people who thought that O was good, but she'd never met any. She shuddered and then took a deep breath to quell the rising fear and dread that the name O brought up.

Jerry shrugged and said, “I can tell you don't think that. That's ok. If you're going to the city, you'll meet O soon enough, then you can decide what you think of them. I think O's ok. I think they do a good job, all things considered. Granny Mae totally hates O. Won't set foot in the city, but she's old fashioned and quite superstitious. She says it goes against nature. Jack's kind of on the fence about O. Sees both sides, good and bad. Each to their own, I say.”

“I suppose so”, Greta frowned, thinking how she'd like to meet Granny Mae. She sounded sensible. Then eager to change the subject, she asked, “But what were you doing in a little boat in the sea? Where was it? How did Jack find you?”

“Well, at the time, Jack lived down by the coast. He had a little wooden boat in the harbour which he lived on and sometimes took out fishing. Granny Mae lived up in the village. Now, at that time.. I mean, before the Big Shift.. well, there were lots of people trying to get away from where they came from, for one reason and another.. you know, war, famine, drought.. just people trying to find a place where they could have a better life. Anyway, a lot of them used to turn up there in boats, trying to reach dry land where they'd be safe. But then there'd be other boats.. like police or army or something like that, who'd be out patrolling the coast, trying to keep those people out.”

“How awful!” said Greta, puffing out her cheeks. “Why would they do that?”

“Because they were illegal. Illegal aliens. That's what they called them.. us..” said Jerry simply, shrugging his shoulders.

“Illegal aliens? That makes no sense to me”, said Greta, shaking her head.

Jerry gave Greta a quizzical look. “Didn't you learn any history? Do you know about life before the Big Shift?”

“Well.. I don't know.. maybe. Some of it, I suppose. Not everything. I wasn't born yet. Did they really think you were aliens?”

Jerry laughed. “Well, I don't know. Maybe they did. I don't really get it either quite honestly. Jack can probably explain it better than me. He was there at the time and understands this stuff. It was all to do with power and money basically. That's what Jack would say. I can't really get my head around it. Like I said, it was a mad time before the Big Shift, before O came and set things straight. Things were messed up. Sometimes boats would get to shore, but then they'd catch the people and put them in prison camps while they tried to work out what to do with them. No one wanted them. Wrong place, wrong time.. that was their only crime.”

“But that doesn't make any sense. If you weren't in the wrong place to start with, why would you want to go to the right place? And if you were already in the right place why would you leave to go somewhere else?”

“I know, it's mad isn't it? Jack says that all you need to do in life is to be in the right place at the right time and just do the right thing when you get there.”

“How do you know when you're in the right place at the right time?”

“Hm..” Jerry shrugged. “Good question. I don't know. I'll have to ask Jack. Anyway, in those days, if you wanted to travel to a different country, you had to have the right papers. In those days, the whole world was divided up into countries and you weren't allowed to go from one country to the next without permission.. even if the next country was just down the road. You've heard of countries right? ”

“Yes, of course I've heard of countries”, said Greta indignantly. “I'm not stupid you know. I do know some things.”

“OK. Sorry. I'm sure you're not stupid at all. There's loads of things that I don't know either. Much more that what I do know. People are always making fun of me for not knowing stuff, but I don't care. No one knows everything, do they?” Captain Toast, who was digging up an anthill, lifted his muddy face out of the hole and looked back at Jerry, giving him a knowing look. “OK. Apart from you Captain, you're right”, said Jerry to the dog who nodded briefly and then went back to what he was doing.

Greta smiled. She liked Jerry. He had a way of putting her at ease. “Sorry, I didn't mean to snap”, she said. “People make fun of me too. They say I've got my head in the clouds.”

“Nothing wrong with having your head in the clouds”, said Jerry, then after a while added, “Better than having it buried in the sand, eh?!” and he looked very pleased with himself for thinking of it.

“Exactly!” Greta nodded seriously. “Yes, it is. You're right. So what were you saying? You were telling me how you were a baby alien..”

“Oh yes.. so at the time, a lot of people were running away from their countries. Some from wars, some from hunger, some from fire, floods.. you name it. There were literally millions of people running away from their homes, trying to get from one place to another.. and no-one wanted them in their countries..”

Greta thought about how she'd run away from home, three days earlier. Well, not exactly run away because she'd told her mum that she was going, albeit tearfully and angrily, and her mum had even helped her pack her bag, made her food, given her a few valuables to trade and other useful things to take with her on her big adventure.. as if she'd known that this would be the outcome of that conversation. As if she'd been prepared. Greta wondered if the people of the city would be kind, or if they'd chase her away because she was an outsider.

After a while, she said “Why did no-one want them? The illegal aliens? I mean, where were they supposed to go?”

“I know. I don't know. It's weird. Things were different then. I don't really understand it either. Maybe they just didn't realise that there was enough room for everyone. Jack says people were worried they'd come and take their jobs or their houses, or their food, or something. Or they just didn't like people who looked different or spoke different. Jack can probably explain it better. He's good at telling stories. I always get in a muddle. Where was I..?”

“Floating in the sea?”

“Oh yes.. so, right.. where was I.. oh yes.. this is how Jack tells it... It was a dark and stormy night and there was a fog so thick you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.” Jerry hunched down and made waves with his fingers,describing the water, the thick fog and the darkness of the night. “This is no night for anyone to be out at sea, Jack was saying to himself. He was sitting there on his boat and listening to the static on ship's radio, clicking through the shortwave channels, as you do, when all of a sudden he heard a call for help. A boat was sinking, twenty miles out to sea, and it was full of people. Men, women, children.”

“Oh no!”

“Yes. So he called up the coastguard and told them the coordinates that he'd written down, so they can send help, but they said that wasn't their job and there was nothing they could do.”

“What? That's awful?”

“Well something like that. Government policy or something. Anyway, so Jack and some of the other people who had their own boats head out to where they think the signal was coming from. But by this time the radio had gone quiet. They searched all night, in the darkness and the storm, but never found the boat or any survivors.”

Greta shook her head, aghast. Captain Toast hung his head and drew closer to Jerry as they stood in silence for a good long while.

“Anyway..” said Jerry, in a brighter tone, “.. just about dawn, the rain stopped and the fog suddenly lifted.. and that was when Jack spotted this yellow plastic jerry can bobbing in the sea, right in the path of his boat. If the fog hadn't lifted in that very moment, he might well have barged right over my little boat and never even noticed.”

“That's amazing. It's a miracle!”

Jerry nodded solemnly, then as if waking up from a dream, he shook himself and said “Oh, listen to me.. I've been talking for ages.. didn't even notice it's going to be getting dark soon. Have you got a place to stay? Were you on your way somewhere?You're welcome to come to our place. There's plenty of room. You can meet Jack and Granny Mae. I can show you the little boat.”

Greta thought for a moment and then said “Yes, thank you. I'd like that.”

Captain Toast, who had been listening to the conversation, bounded and danced around Greta excitedly. He understood everything and he really liked his new friend.

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On the other side of the woodland, they came to a steep embankment which sloped down to a wide, flat expanse of what had, until sixteen years ago, been a twelve lane highway. Now trees and bushes grew out from the cracked and broken asphalt. Shacks, domes and other makeshift homes were dotted along what had been the outer lanes. Lush vegetable gardens filled the spaces between these ramshackle dwellings.

On the other side of the old highway was a very large, square building. Its sheer, concrete walls were overgrown with climbing plants. The wide, flat expanse around the building, which had once been a parking place for ten thousand cars was now also similarly transformed, as the highway had been. A huge sign on a tall metal pole stuck out from the top of the main building. The sign, which had once been brightly lit with fluorescent lights and which had once rotated on motorised rollers, was now dusty, faded and still. In huge letters were written the words 'SHOPPING VILLAGE' and underneath, in smaller letters, but still visible, even from this distance, was written 'All your shopping needs under one roof!' What had once been a big, indoor, out of town shopping mall was now home to around five thousand people. .

The new crescent moon was now visible, a sliver of gold in the clear, darkening blue sky over Shopping Village. The sight of this scene caused Greta to draw a deep breath at the strange, unexpected beauty it all. She didn't know where this adventure was going to lead, but for the first time in her journey since leaving home, she felt that she was in the right place at the right time and that somehow, though she didn't know how, everything was going to be all right.

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