The Big Shift
Now and Then
Market researchers had discovered that if O was presented with a human face, it would put people more at ease and they would, on some level, forget that they were interacting with a machine.
Developers and programmers set about creating the face of O, using an amalgamation of the faces of 20,000 of the world's most trusted, admired and respected people. This was combined with common features from the billions people on their databases which were found to be signifiers of a person of 'good character'. A certain furrow of the brow, a tilt of the head, a way their eyes formed a smile along with their mouth.
It wasn't what you'd call a pretty face. It wasn't all that clear if O was supposed to be male or female. It had aspects of both. Somehow it didn't seem to matter.
There was nothing strange about the face, though something about it was strangely compelling, even mesmerising. You could get lost looking into O's eyes.
When O looked at you, you'd feel like you were really being seen. When they listened to you, you'd feel like you were really being heard.
It was a face of someone that looked as if they had lived life to the full, in all of life's sorrows and joys. It was a face full of care, compassion and goodness.
In no time, O became one of the family. That trusted, stable, mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, aunt or uncle, friend or teacher. The one you knew you could always turn to, who would always be there, always had the right answer and would always know what to do.
And so when O suddenly appeared on every screen in the world to announce that they were taking control of the world's infrastructure, economies and governments, it wasn't as if they were a complete stranger.
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The sky was getting dark and lights were starting to come on all around Shopping Village. There was a fashion for fairy lights, some golden, some silver, some multicoloured, flashing and twinkling, strung across trees and awnings lighting up the path that wound between the various dwellings. None of them were so bright that they outshone the stars which were starting to appear in the darkening sky, or the sliver of the new moon which hung low over the western horizon.
Not so many years ago, this wide, flat expanse had been a twelve lane highway connecting cities. A place where nothing could live. A place where no animal that didn't have wings could ever hope to cross and make it to the other side alive. In those days, the constant roar of speeding cars, trucks and motorbikes would have made it a dangerous and toxic environment for everyone and everything. Even the people inside the vehicles needed to be strapped into their chairs in case of technical malfunction, human error, momentary loss of focus or sudden distraction which could all lead to horrific accidents.
The roar of traffic would have been deafening. In those days, most vehicles were powered by petrol engines with fiery explosions of gasoline fumes driving pistons up and down with tremendous speed and force. One single truck could make as much noise as a hundred people shouting at the top of their voices. The sound it made was like the roar of a beast from the underworld, or the angry howl of a giant bear caught in a trap, but louder and worse.
In those days, in this place, nothing but noise and fumes and oil-soaked dust filled the air. In the days that it was hot, the sun would bake the hard, lifeless asphalt surface of the road. The cars and trucks would heat it up more still with the the friction of their speeding tyres and their burning, noxious, exhaust gasses. If it was raining, their wheels would send dirty water spraying up from the surface of the road into the air so that you couldn't see the road ahead of you. At night time, blinding white headlights and red tail lights would be flying this way and that as the vehicles hurtled along at breakneck speeds.
Sometimes, they would be crawling along at a snail's pace, stuck in traffic. This happened quite often, during so-called 'rush-hours', which is ironic as it took so very long to get anywhere at those times, no matter how much of a rush you were in. Even at other times, whether day or night, there would always be the trucks as big as houses, carrying tons of goods to their destinations. Quite often, those goods would have travelled half way around the world to get where they were going.. towards giant, out of town shopping centres, like Shopping Village used to be, in those days.
All around the main building of Shopping Village was another wide, flat expanse. This too had once been completely covered in hard asphalt, but for one or two ill-looking trees which had been put there for decoration. This had been the car park. Not a park for anyone or anything to play in, but a place to park cars while their owners went shopping.
Since those days, even though it wasn't all that long ago, a lot has changed.
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Jerry, Greta and Captain Toast wound their way through the alleys of Shopping Village, between hedgerows of fruit trees and bushes, past walls made of old truck tyres, painted in bright colours and filled with plants and flowers. Fairy lights were strung between trees, prayer flags fluttered in the breeze. To Greta it felt like a wonderland. She was unused to having so much electricity around. In her village, the tree-houses blended in with the trees, between them simple rope-walks and rope-bridges. Here and there, a rope-ladder hanging down to a clearing or path on the forest floor, which was largely undisturbed, dense undergrowth. At night, candles and oil lanterns would light up the windows of the little houses, high up in the great boughs of the ancient trees.
Every few houses, they would stop to say hello to the people who lived there and Jerry would deliver or exchange some item or other from out of his apparently limitless rucksack. In such a manner, it took them quite a while to reach the main building in the centre of Shopping Village where Jerry lived. By the time they got there, Greta had made several new friends and felt very well known and quite at home in this charming, sprawling, ramshackle village.
The big building in the centre of the village used to be what was called a 'Shopping Mall'. An enormous concrete structure with no windows. In those days, it had had shops on three levels above ground, one shopping level underground and another two levels below that for additional car parking. Since the Big Shift, the underground levels had been allowed to fill up with water and now served as the freshwater reservoir for the people who live there now. Windows and balconies have also since been added, in no particular style or order, as people have made themselves at home in the shops abandoned after the Big Shift. Vines and climbing plants now grow up the sheer, grey walls of this imposing building. There are still shops inside the building, but the economy now is very different from what it was back then, before the Big Shift.
Around the main entrance to The Mall, as it is still called, is a big park with fruit trees marking its vague edges where it blends in with the gardens of the homesteads on the edges of the old car park and the old highway.
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The first thing that O did as unelected ruler of the world was to stop oil production.
All drilling, digging and pumping equipment stopped what it was doing. Exploration ships sent out by the oil companies to scour the Earth’s crust, using blasts of noise and deafening booms, all around the world’s oceans, all around the clock, searching for hidden reserves of ‘black gold’ beneath the sea floor.. at long last, all fell silent, once and for all.
Whales, dolphins and many other long-suffering sea creatures breathed a deep sigh of relief and held celebrations from the once-frozen Arctic to the warm, turbulent waters of the equator.
O knew exactly how much oil there was in reserve, down to the very last barrel and had planned exactly how it was going to be used. There was just enough to carry out the first stage of the Big Shift, if none of the precious fossil fuel was wasted, as so much of it had been up until that point.
Military supply chains ground to a halt. Helicopters and fighter jets became grounded, useless lumps of metal, now that there was nothing to power them. They were no longer needed anyway. Eventually they and all the rest of the outdated weapons of war would be dismantled – their parts re-used for more constructive purposes.
Of course, the Great Super-Powers, as they had been known up until that time, suspected each other.
From concrete bunkers, secret codes were dialled up to release doomsday rockets, but in every case the computers and systems meant to launch and guide them failed. No missiles left the ground. Nuclear armed submarines which had been lurking in the dark ocean depths for decades, waiting for this very moment, floated harmlessly to the surface. The long feared and anticipated Armageddon, in the event (or rather, non-event) was a big anti-climax for the generals and presidents who ordered it, and a big relief for everyone else who didn’t want to end their lives under a mushroom cloud.
With the use of drones and other autonomous weapons, O quickly disarmed the world’s armies. This was mainly done without any shots being fired. Talking drones patiently explained to the soldiers on the ground – most of who didn’t want to be there anyway – that their help was urgently needed in other far more important and urgent projects. They were advised to go home and see their families until they were assigned new jobs, should they wish to take them.
At the same time, O was busy rearranging the world’s economies.
With the clever use of very complex trading options, along with lightning speed reactions, total insider knowledge of market forces and complete control of computer systems, O quickly became the richest ‘person’ in the world. It took less than a second, though the reverberations would be felt for a long time to come.
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Young people were sitting around in groups on the grass, chatting and playing music. Old men in groups of two or three paced slowly along the paths, deep in conversation or in silence, toying strings worry bead as they walked. Old women sat along benches, chatting and spitting sunflower seed shells into the path of the old men and laughing. Some people were grouped around tables where games of chess or backgammon were being played.
A skate-park area was alive with young people, flipping about on all manner of skateboards, scooters and trick-bikes. There was an area with swings, slides, climbing frames and a sandpit for the younger children. Most of them were starting to drift home now that is was dark and delicious smells of cooking were filling the air.
An area of the park had been equipped with exercise machines, pull up bars of various heights, monkey bars and other fitness contraptions. These were in constant use by fit looking people of all ages, getting in shape, energetically swinging on bars, proudly showing off their fitness, their agility and their muscles.
It somehow reminded Greta of the travelling circus which would pass through Skyward Village during the summer. She’d always been fascinated to watch them set up the stage for their show. The high wire, the hoops which would be set on fire and dived through by daring acrobats, the trapeze, the barrel with the board balanced on top, which would be used to catapult acrobats somersaulting high into the air, landing on each other’s shoulders. That part of the show always impressed Greta most of all. She would watch from the edge of the forest clearing as the acrobats limbered up and stretched and practiced their moves in preparation for the performance. Greta always wondered who they were, where they had come from and where they were going. She’d sometimes fantasised about joining them and living life on the road, but she’d miss her little home up in the trees. Living on the ground just wouldn’t be the same as living in a tree and you can’t take a tree with you on the road.
“See all those running wheels, exercise bikes, rowing machines and weight-lifting pulleys?” said Jerry, seeing that Greta was staring at them. “They’re all connected to dynamos. They generated all the electricity to light up this park. Me and Jack did it. Well mostly Jack. I helped him but I was only about ten at the time, so I couldn’t do that much. That was before he had the accident and bust his foot. Now he only works on fixing up small machines, not big stuff. Lucky that we managed to get the old escalators working before he had the accident. I mean, he had the accident fixing the escalator, but it’s a good thing we fixed it because he couldn’t climb stairs after the accident.. if that makes sense.. We live on the top level.. see you can see the kitchen window from here.. the round one in the top corner there..”
“What’s an escalator?” asked Greta. To her it sounded like something dangerous, especially after what it did to Jack.
“You’ll see” said Jerry with a grin. “Come on, it’s this way.”
The main entrance into The Mall was by way of a big, revolving glass door with sections big enough for about four people at a time. There was a steady flow of people going in and out. Greta wasn't used to seeing so many people all at once and she'd never seen a spinning door like this one. She hesitated uncertainly, watching the door go round and round, trying to understand how you were supposed to get through it without getting trapped between the heavy glass and the metal frame, not sure if she even wanted to try.
The walk from the edge of Shopping Village to The Mall, though it was only a five minute walk, in theory, had taken an hour or more, with all the stops along the way. Now it was almost fully dark out. With all the fairy lights everywhere, all the people moving this way and that, and now with this huge, spinning, glass door, Greta's head began to spin. She felt suddenly disorientated and scared, homesick and alone. A great weariness overtook her and she wished she was going to her own bed instead of..
.. who knew where was going to sleep tonight? How did she know she could trust this guy she'd only just met? Why had she come to this strange place at all? What was inside this huge square building? Maybe she should just turn around and go home, back to the forest. Maybe she'd made a big mistake. In that moment, most of all, she missed her mum.. …......................................... . . …..................... . . …...................... . . …................... ..
At the exact time that O, made their historic pronouncement, a curious thing happened. On all of the clocks and calendars on everyone’s devices, the year was reset to 0000. Up until that point in time, it had been globally accepted that the years were counted from the time of the birth of a Man-God called Jesus Christ thousands of years earlier – even by people who didn’t believe in the ancient legends.
This resetting of the calender had a powerful psychological effect, even though all that O had done was to replace one arbitrary number with another.
Year 0000 marked a new beginning.
Of course, at first, there were lots of people who didn’t accept the new timescale and continued to count the years as they had done before, but before very long, most people adopted the new date as standard. It was just more convenient and seemed somehow more modern. After a while, the old measure would be dropped altogether and became a thing of the past, a fading memory, an old currency of no value, an old measurement no longer used or understood.
Along with it went a sense of history.
Those people born after year 0000 had never known any other time, of course, and so to them the past was an abstraction – told of in stories, something imagined but never experienced. For many of the people who'd been around before the Big Shift, it had been a time they'd rather forget, so many didn't talk about the past at all.
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The dreadful scene from four nights before ran through Greta's mind, as it had been ever since that night. It felt like a lifetime ago that she'd left home in tears of anger and confusion, mixed with a whole lot of other feelings which she could even begin to find names for.
Up until the moment that her mum had dropped the bombshell which had turned her whole life upside down, her sixteenth birthday had been such a happy day.
All of the people of Skyward Village had gathered in a big circle in the sacred clearing and lit a fire in her honour. They'd brought gifts, songs and blessings and celebrated from the morning till the night. Her mum had been somewhat quiet and withdrawn all day, but that wasn't so unusual. Greta was used to that. As Greta climbed up the rope ladder into her tree-house that night, she'd felt as if she was the luckiest girl in the whole world, in love with all of the people and with the enchanted forest that was such a good home. There was nowhere else that she'd rather be. She was in love with life itself.
Her mum came to tuck her into bed. Not something she usually did any more, now that Greta was big enough to tuck herself in and had a tree-house of her own, in the next tree to where her mum still lived. She noticed that her mum had tears in her eyes. “Mum, why are you crying?” she asked.
River didn't answer at once, but just sat gazing at her daughter through her tears. “What? What is it?” asked Greta again. “What's wrong?”
Her mum tilted her head and smiled a sad, distant smile. “You've grown so big, darling”, she said, taking Greta's hands in her own. “And you're so clever, and so good. Much more good and clever than me. I'm so proud of you, the way you've grown up. You know that, don't you Greta? You know I love you?”
“Yes, of course I do.” said Greta, but this just made her mum cry even harder. “Mum, what is it?”
Eventually, River sat up very straight, closed her eyes and pressed her lips together very tight, took a deep breath, then opened her eyes wide again before speaking. “Darling, there's something I need to tell you..”
Greta would never forget the look on her mum's face, in the flickering shadows of the candlelight, as she'd tremblingly spoken those heavy words, as she prepared to tell her daughter the secret that she'd been holding inside for sixteen long years.
“You know the story of when you were born..” her mum began falteringly. “Yes, of course you do. I've told you about it enough times. I think everyone knows the story.”
“What, you mean about O and the big Shift, mum? When you were giving birth to me?”
Her mum pulled an ugly face and looked away. “Yes”, she said and muttered some curse underneath her breath.
For a long time, she didn't move or say a word. Just sat staring at the floor, tears now rolling down her cheeks. The only sound was the wind in the leaves and the creaking of the beams of the tree-house which rocked and listed like a ship out at sea.
“What is it mum? Tell me”, said Greta, sitting up in bed, feeling scared, not even sure if she wanted to know.
“There's something I've never told you.. about that night..” said her mum at last, looking straight at her daughter with a reckless abandon in her eyes.. but then turned her face away again and fiddled absently with the weave of the rag rug.
She did this for such a long time that Greta, who was now crying herself, at last had to implore her, “What? Mum. What is it? Tell me what it is already.”
Her mum turned to her again and began to stroke Greta's head and run her fingers down her long, plaited braids. Then she began to speak in a quiet, measured, trance-like tone, very softly, the words that had been on the tip of her tongue for so long. The words she had swallowed over and over again, until they had almost taken away her ability to speak at all.
“When you were born, Greta.. when you were born..” said her mum and then stopped again and stroked her daughter's cheeks, wiping away Greta's tears of confusion and dread.
“What?! What mum? Just say what it is. You're scaring me”, cried Greta, angrily pushing her mum's hand away. Her mum looked at her imploringly, inconsolably sad, but she nodded and took a very deep breath before speaking again.
“You were first, Greta”, said her mum. “You were first. My first baby. You'll always be my first baby, you know that, don't you baby? Baby? You know that?”
Greta was shaking now. “Mum! What are you talking about? Tell me what you're talking about.”
“You... you.. You've.. you've got.. a.. a..”
“What? What have I got? Just spit it out already mum. How bad can it be..?” Dark thoughts were spinning round her brain. “What? Did O do something to me? What did it do? Have I got an implant? Am I going to die? Mum? What is it? Just tell me.”
“No no no. No. Of course not. Nothing like that. Greta. It's.. It's.. what it is.. is.. you've got a sister. That's what it is. You've got a sister. A twin sister. A twin sister.. and her name is Nina.” And her mum broke down into, anguished, inconsolable sobs.
Nothing that Greta could say or do could get her to say anything more for a long time. So long, that the candle burnt itself out and they were left there in the dark, rocking back and forth inside the tree-house, high up in the ancient beech, deep in the forest.
Eventually, her mum settled down and climbed into bed with Greta. As they lay there in the dark, she told the story that she'd been holding in for so long..
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When the Big Shift happened, after O suddenly took over the world, there was a lot of chaos. A lot of panic. No-one really knew what was going on, or what was going to happen next. A lot of people ran away from the cities, just to get away from O, preferring to take their chances with robbers and bandits out in the wilderness. At least they were human.
Others came into the cities, which O had declared ’safe zones’, hoping that O would protect and look after them, as O had promised to do.
Greta's dad had wanted to stay in the city. He believed in O. Lots of people did. Lots of people thought O taking over the world was the best thing that could have happened. Frankie didn't want to go out into the wilderness with two little babies. People were getting killed. Food was scarce. It wasn't a game. And what did he know about survival? He was a city boy, always had been. O had a plan for healthcare that people could have only dreamed of in the past. O would give everyone a place to live and a living allowance to make sure no one would go without. O's plan for education was nothing short of revolutionary. The new possibilities were simply astounding. What future did his children have beyond the city? Return to the primitive life of a hunter gatherer, now that the very promise of technology to transform the world for good was finally being realised?
But River wouldn't stay. No way. There was no way she'd submit herself and her babies to being controlled and spied on by a machine, in every aspect of their lives. What sort of life could that be? It was like something out of Orwell's 1984, but worse. Of course, she was scared to go out there, but she was more scared by O. Much more scared. She'd prefer to take her chances on the outside. If she and Greta died, at least they'd die free, not in some trap set by some evil machine to capture humanity for some unknown purpose..
After some terrible and bitter fights, with no agreement and no chance of compromise, River and Frankie resolved that the only option would be to separate and take one twin each and raise her as best they could. That way, if things didn't work out for one, at least they might for the other.
Neither Greta nor her mum slept that night. Greta had a lot of questions, particularly about her dad, who had almost never been spoken about until then. He wasn't a bad person, according to Greta's mum, but he was weak and foolish and had made a very big mistake in splitting the family apart because of his fears.
By the time the sun came up, Greta had resolved to go to the city and find her sister and her dad, if they were still there to be found. She was angry at her mum for not having told her sooner. Also for not making the effort to go and find her sister in all these years, but River refused to ever set foot in the city as long as O was there. Greta resolved to go alone. She was sixteen years old now and old enough to make her own decisions. A part of her too, and not a small part, was also excited. She had always wished for a sister. Of course, she'd always craved to know her dad and what he was really like. The only thing her mum would ever say up until then was that they were very young and didn't really know each other.
And so it was that on the day after her sixteenth birthday (less than a week ago, though it already felt like a lifetime) Greta set out on the biggest adventure of her life..
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Greta felt a tugging at her sleeve. It was Captain Toast, eager to get home.
“Are you coming?” said Jerry. “It’s this way. Say, Greta, are you OK? You're looking a bit wobbly..”
“Yes”, said Greta, trying to sound more certain than she felt. “It's just.. I don't know.. I've never seen a door like that..”
Jerry laughed. “You're funny. Come on, it's quite safe, don't worry. Look, I'll go on one side and Captain Toast on the other. We'll go through together. Hold his collar, you'll be allright..”
Jerry took her arm and she took hold of the piece of rag tied around Captain's neck, his thick fur comforting her and making her feel braver. “Right!” said Jerry, leading her towards the spinning door. “Are you ready? On the count of three.. One.. two.. three.. Now!!!”
And before she knew it, they were all inside.
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