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.
James locks up, and Thuli and he trudge through the sand towards the spaza shop At the entrance to the close a half dozen domino players sit on milk crates and reject chairs – one is perched stork-like on a leprous chrome bar-stool – and theatrically slap down tiles on a wooden cable drum pitched on its side. Some are wearing ordinary dark glasses but most are wearing eye-sets – distinguished by their extended temples curling round ears and up into integral ear-buds. They are ebullient – there are a few quarts of beer open – but when they see James and Thuli there is a lull. James hurries past them, head down, and conversation restarts behind them.
At the spaza shop – a shuttered hatch cut into the street-facing wall of the proprietor’s shack – James tersely orders a litre sachet of milk while Thuli observes: a blade-thin expatriate Somalian wearing a white skull cap and elaborately chased malachite-look eye-set serves them while on the sidewalk, almost under their feet, a three-legged mongrel drowses with foolhardy unconcern. In the roadway, children flurry, made beetle-eyed by their assortment of improvised eye-wear: cracked sun-glasses, or the frames of discarded reading glasses refurbished with scuffed cellulite eye-pieces, or twisted wire constructions bulked with black plastic sheeting. (Evidently, notes Thuli, net-gear is ‘the’ status symbol here.)
And across the road a wiry group of youths sculpted by scanty food and occasional manual labour lounge against the frontage. All wear eye-sets, some expensive, likely beyond their legitimate means: there are recent sports models – silky minimalist curves; and the Androman style knock-offs favoured by bouncers and bodyguards – chitinous, intimidations reeking of testosterone.
As Thuli and James turn to leave one of them purses his lips and sucks obscenely. James puts his head down again, and keeps going, but Thuli is startled into eye contact. The buck repeats his slurping kiss, accompanied by an insinuating hand gesture and Thuli gapes, so amazed at his crudity that she hardly registers affront at first.
“Mhwa sisi, you want to hlaba with me, hey?” He jiggles the forefinger of his left hand through the encircled fingers of his right.
“Hayi! Not if you were the only man,” she rallies.
“Don’t be cold sisi,” grimaces the youth’s mouth beneath mirror-armoured eyes. “You be with that white shit-piece, hey?”
“He is my friend.” Thuli is shocked by the youth’s racism but doesn’t feel confident of making a stand.
“Why you waste time with him? He is no one. When you can be with Robo-Killa?”
Thuli turns away without answering and moves to catch up with James.
Back in James’ living room Thuli asks: “I get the impression that you’re not exactly welcome in the community?”
“No, really. The way that boy said you were ‘no one…”
“It’s because I don’t wear, OK.” James hunches. “Everybody who is anybody here wears something, but I don’t.”
“We keep coming back to that,” says Thuli, her voice quiet but implacable. “Are you going to tell me?”
James busies himself with the mechanics of tea-making, but unclenches enough to spit out staccato phrases between operations. “You know I was an accountant?” He puts out cups and saucers, a little more forcefully than their delicacy warrants. “Well, I was. Working for a big parastatal.” He flings teabags into the cups. “Corrupt. Bloody corrupt!” he emphasises, lifting the kettle from the flame, shutting off the gas and pouring. “I blew the whistle. The public protector’s office said they would look after me.” Moodily he watches the tea draw. “They didn’t – they couldn’t.” James catches the teabags between thumb and teaspoon and squeezes: “Sorry, I know you don’t like it strong.”
Thuli grunts acquiescence.
James flicks the used bags into a scuffed plastic bucket: “My boss…one of my bosses – guilty little shit – got himself a lawyer (they all had lawyers, the cockroaches). And he and this lawyer got themselves a black hacker. And they hacked my cybernetic companion – yeah, I had a cybernan, and I kept it after twenty-one, had it expanded: advanced communications protocols, accounting apps, enhanced HR routines and interfaces, you name it. The thing could do my job. I relied on it, trusted it. Blindly.”
James spoons sugar into Thuli’s cup as well as his own. Thuli doesn’t take sugar. She catches her breath, but says nothing.
“They subverted it. That was the thin end of the wedge. They used it to destroy the evidence, destroy my credibility. Destroy my career. They took me down. I did time – eighteen months. Bono was in foster care. Messed him up.” James’ hand is trembling and the milk spills. “Damn,” he says, putting down the container and subsiding onto a stool. “Can you add the milk: my hand is shaking…” Thuli takes over, smoothly, solicitously.
“I had to fight to get him back. Fight hard!” James stares fixedly at the table top, seeing things Thuli can only guess at, things beyond her experience. “After that I never wore again.” He lifts her eyes and his gaze transfixes Thuli. “You can’t trust AI.”
Thuli keeps her expression blank and sips her tea. James looks away. Eventually he also begins to sip his tea.
After an endless pause Thuli ventures: “You must love Bono a lot.
James glances at her. The corners of his mouth tighten but he says nothing.
“Why do you…tolerate me?”
“I believe in forgiveness,” says James
Thuli’s internal dialogue sparks:
He forgives me – that’s wonderful!
Yeah. But he doesn’t fancy you girl.
Oh shut up! It’s still amazing.
“You know, there are more people like me,” says James.
“People who forgive?”
“That too.” He smiles wanly. “No, I mean people who don’t use anything that has on-board AI or the capacity to host it; we don’t access the internet in any way that gives artificial intelligence a foothold in our lives. There are communes of us.”
“Why don’t you join one?” Thuli blurts. Why live here, in isolation? In a community that distrusts and dislikes you, she thinks, but does not say aloud.
“Hah!” grunts James. “Thing is, communes and ghettos are not so different. I prefer to be part of the rest of the world, even if that world doesn’t have much time for me.”
Thuli’s thoughts crystalize. “Is…that…so?” she says, slowly. “Well, I don’t think it has to be that way.”
‘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.