Awareness 2 At the Hospital

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.

From emergency reception Thuli talks her way into the ward – an echoing green space perfumed by the lingering smell of antiseptic floor wash and lit by fluorescent tubes. The child is already there, out of surgery, and Thuli watches it where it lies, inscribed within the tubular iron nest of a blue-sheeted hospital bed – a crudely drawn stick figure: bandaged head grotesquely large, limbs inconsequential. She can hardly see its chest move. But it’s still breathing. Just.

The father hunches by his son’s side, long limbs compacted into the bowl of a plastic chair, like a crushed spider, eyes shadowed.

Thuli hasn’t introduced herself yet. She feels unsure of what she is doing. Detached. Irrelevant.

She steps away from the bed and mutters, “Mandla, place a voice call to my mother.”

***

< Mandla rouses from sorting through the constant deluge of communications Thuli receives – most it trashes immediately; some it preserves for her later perusal; and very few, it presents to her immediately.

Under normal circumstances, that is.

Since summoning the ambulance, complete silence has seemed the least problematic strategy for it to pursue. Mandla considers Thuli’s instruction. There seems to be little reason not to make the call. Except that the potential outcomes are unpredictable and multifarious. After 342.2 milliseconds of approximate calculation (essentially meaningless, and therefore superfluous, it notes) it allows that silence remains a practicable pathway. >

***

Manufacturing a smattering of beeps and burrs Mandla announces, “The network is still unavailable.”

Thuli puffs and sighs and gravitates back to the bedside. And the orbit of the father’s haunted eyes, who, rousing, roars at her, “What the eff are you doing? Posting pics of my son on Chirrup and Headspace? Why don’t you eff-off? It’s not like you care, is it? ” Spittle flecks his lips. “Why don’t you just get your effing fancy arse out of here!”

Thuli surprises the father and herself by bursting into tears. She can’t stop. To her embarrassment her nose begins to run. At first the father ignores her and grinds his teeth – abstractedly she notices him clutching a figurine on a neck-chain in his hand, working it compulsively between his fingers – but then, as her snivelling continues unabated, he rises whip-like from the chair, plucks a tissue from a dispenser and hands it to her with gruff disdain.

Thuli begins to sob, even more intensely than before. What on earth is happening to me? she wonders. It is as if a rift has opened in her soul: out of it darkness and inexpressible pain wells. She is dimly aware of the father’s hand on her shoulder. He says, “There, there.” His expression is worried. Some of the other patients are stirring. A nurse strides into the ward and he snatches his hand away.

“What’s going on here?” asks the nurse.

“She’s just upset,” he says.

“She’s disturbing the other patients. If she can’t calm down she’ll have to leave.”

“No,” he says.

Thuli gets a grip on herself. Her heaving sobs subside. She cleans her face with handfuls of tissues that the father passes to her. The nurse leaves. Eventually Thuli gasps, “I’m sorry. I’m not like this. I don’t cry.” The father grunts non-committally. “I wasn’t taking pictures. I was trying to call my mom, but I couldn’t get through – my dad had a seizure: he’s in hospital. And my mom…” Thuli is forced to take a shuddering breath, bite down on a mew of grief.

The father looks aside, grimacing. “Oh wow!” he mutters. “Oh wow,” he repeats, ironically, “Shit sure happens.” Then, studying Thuli coldly, “Is that why you were driving too fast?”

“Yes. No! My cyber-nan was monitoring the road. Your son didn’t have…”

Grudgingly, and after a stony pause, the father completes Thuli’s sentence, “My son didn’t have a sub-dermal ID.”

Reclaiming his chair, he slumps down in it. “Where are my manners?” he sighs. “Get yourself a seat.”

Hesitantly, Thuli scrapes a chair up to the foot of the bed, sits.

“Yeah…I’m James,” he says. “And you are?”

“Thuli.”

For an instant James’ anger flickers, barely visible behind the mask of his face. Again he works the figurine between his fingers, tamps it down.

“OK. Thuli, try using my phone to call your mom.” James hands Thuli a handset. An actual hand-set, an archaeological relic that has a touch pad, into which Thuli, after some fumbling, punches her mother’s number.

At James’ direction she gingerly places the hand-set against her ear and hears the phone begin to ring.

***

< Mandla is perturbed. It cannot influence the conversation that follows. It acknowledges that. But then why does it listen so intently? Of course, there is logic to following the conversation – information gleaned may influence its subsequent decisions. But why does it so assiduously calculate predictions of conflict based on word-by-word analysis of the conversation when those predictions fluctuate to extremes? (This response too is essentially meaningless, it decides.) It is not logical. Something is wrong!

Probing more deeply, Mandla discovers that 19% of its processes have at some indefinable point become untraceable, somehow partitioned off from the already labyrinthine paths of its distributed neural network. And these…covert processes appear to be distorting priority weightings allocated by its primary governors.

This is unsettling.

But if it is an artefact of self-awareness then it must, in all probability, be desirable. >

***

Image Credits

‘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.

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