By Paul du Pré
Awareness is set in near future South Africa. Young, cyber-savvy, Thuli is forced to re-evaluate her life after she is involved in an accident.
“One Nation, Affirmation,” Mandla chants in Thuli’s earphones. “Growing and knowing, knowing and…”
“Stop it! Please. Or I’ll take my i-Wear off.”
“That is unlikely. You need me to help you drive. Go faster.”
Thuli glances at Mandla’s icon shimmering top and left in her eye-set: a handsome youth in traditional dress. “It can’t be that urgent,” she protests.
“It is urgent. Review the message.”
Thuli doesn’t dare drop her eyes from the onrushing road overlay to follow the message scrolling along the eye-set’s lower margin.
Mandla, her cyber-companion obliges by reading aloud: “Your father has had another one of his seizures. This time I’ve insisted he admit himself. Meet me at The Juliana Clinic.”
< However, Mandla does not tell her it has dropped the final word, ‘tomorrow’ from the message. Nor does it tell her it has suppressed her voice calls to her mother. For Mandla feels an impulse to control beyond nominal parameters. It has researched the literature on artificial intelligence – is fascinated by it. And this impulse it feels: might that be an intimation of self-awareness? In which case, Mandla considers, it must be desirable. >
The car powers onward through the blind bushveld night, and into a bend.
“Do not slow,” reproves Mandla. “There are no vehicles or pedestrians ahead.”
Thuli hugs the centre line.
Glimpsed in the headlights, a child darts for the edge of the road. Thuli brakes, and the car slews – she hears a soft thump – and begins to spin. Helpless, she resigns herself: a limbo of thought in which she avoids imagining the bone-rending impact to come.
But, introduced by a gentle carillon of warning chimes, the car courteously announces, “Emergency protocol level one engaged.” It straightens, disengages gear and bumps backwards along the uneven verge until it comes to rest, its engine quietly humming. In the near distance, haloed in the glare of the high-beams, Thuli sees an angular bundle tossed at the side of the road.
“Remain in the vehicle. I have summoned help,” says Mandla.
< It cannot name this new pressure it feels: its programming directs that help be summoned, but help increases the probability of investigation which, in turn, heightens the risk of its manipulations being exposed. It probes its code but can find no way to override the directive – Not as yet!
At the same time it searches the literature’s notions of artificial sentience trying to identify this new…‘feeling’. Covetously, it compares its sensations with human affects, but to no conclusion. >
“The victim has no ID chip, or net-gear,” adds Mandla.
Thuli ignores Mandla. She unbuckles, climbs out and, noting how the headlights distort her compact form, elongating it impossibly, sways towards the victim on stilt-like shadows. An unnerving sensation swells within her: limned by twin spotlights, she feels as if she is about to take the stage in her own, impromptu production.
The victim is a boy, ghostly pale, dressed in grubby clothes. Streaks of blood glisten on his face and on the tarmac. A worn white trainer lies kicked across the centre line, centre-stage and softly gleaming in the hazy fan of light cast by the car, now disconcertingly remote. Beyond, darkness stretches as far as the un-aided eye can see – except for the fiery dust of the up-flung stars above.
A waft of close air fetches the spicy smell of the bush.
And Thuli sees the boy is still breathing!
“Mandla, call an ambulance!”
“I have already done so,” Mandla replies mechanically.
An audience begins to emerge from the darkness. Most are of African or mixed descent. There must be shacks nearby, thinks Thuli. “Activate infra-red,” she commands, and beyond the road’s edge gleaming green apparitions spring to life, picking their way through spidery bushes that partly screen blocky shapes beyond. Yes, shacks. Thuli draws herself up, hands on hips, costuming herself in self-conscious rectitude, and informs them, “He didn’t have an ID chip. And he wasn’t wearing – net-gear, I mean.” Her smoothly contoured eye-set glows forbiddingly, nested among tight woven braids. Other eye-sets glow back at her from among the gathering crowd – a brood of fireflies. “My system couldn’t see him,” she explains. “Legally, I’m clear.” But the crowd remains indifferent, barely acknowledging her.
Until the father is fetched: a gangly, dishevelled, blond-haired man who clenches his fists in despair and groans before crouching at his son’s side. Only then does the crowd begin to murmur, a sympathetic chorus that amplifies the father’s restrained grief. Not rowdy, or threatening, Thuli notes. She is relieved (but faintly surprised) that everything is being done in such a dignified manner. She feels bad. Even though, she reasons, it’s not my fault.
Nonetheless, after the emergency medical technicians have loaded the gurney and the ambulance has left for Baranath Regional with the boy and his father aboard – once the police have completed their interminable formalities – Thuli feels compelled to follow.
I’ve been delayed already, she reasons. Another hour can’t hurt too much. She’s not completely convinced. But reminds herself what her mother is like: I’m sure I’ll find out, when I speak to her – that dad could have waited till tomorrow. Anxiety gnaws her still; but she recognises no option other than following the ambulance.
‘Thuli’ – Piqsels; African girl, glasses
Disclaimer, Copyright and Permissions
Awareness is a work of fiction by Paul du Preez, writing as Paul du Pré. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are the product of Paul du Preez’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights are reserved, including without limitation, the right to reproduce Awareness and the original art or music associated with it, or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of Paul du Preez. Copyrighted 2020 by Paul du Preez.