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2018 Short Stories

1st Prize

1st Prize

The Escapist
Alexander Tobal

Roleystone, WA

Farewells were never difficult for Sanjeev.

As with most of the pivotal moments throughout his recent years, he’d come to see them as theatrics upon a stage: himself the protagonist of an epic narrative. So it was not with sorrow or trepidation that he bid the love of his life goodbye… but with a sense of excitement.

After all, they’d meet again someday.

Things always worked out for Sanjeev in the end. Typically with maximum melodrama.

“I have to go now, Minaea,” he said stoically, the two lovers embracing beneath the shade of a palm tree as a crowd of their fellow citizens watched solemnly on. “My party needs me.” Sanjeev gestured sideways to the band of adventurers waiting patiently beneath the burned city ramparts. “This place needs me.”

“I know,” she murmured. “But it’s so dreadfully dangerous.”

“The dragons of Eastmont won’t slay themselves.”

Sniffling, Minaea lifted a dainty hand and wiped away welling tears. “I’m just terrified I may never see you again.”

“For the sake of everyone you know and love, we must return triumphant… or not at all.”

Each stared deeply into the other’s eyes.

“If I don’t return-” began Sanjeev.

She pressed a finger to his lips.

“Shh.” It was little more than a whisper. “Go.”

They kissed and disengaged, arms and eyes lingering as he pulled away to rejoin his party beyond the city gates. He mounted his steed and took its reins in hand. A sudden gust of wind sent fine ash cascading like snow over the many beleaguered faces in his wake, and caught Minaea’s shimmering black hair: it was last he saw of her before the party cantered off eastward into the desert and the gates creaked shut behind them.

Now the next chapter of his epic narrative would begin.

Ping!

The sound startled him, tore at him. Something began flashing orange in his peripheral vision… something that did not belong.

A high-priority notification.

He considered ignoring it. Continuing along the winding dirt road ahead of him, onward to what was truly important: his grand adventure.

Suppose I should check it out at least. Could be an emergency.

He willed the notification open, and the world froze.

It was a message from AIDI.

‘Your immediate assistance is requested at station #31’. Reason for communication: replacement of photosensor components (part ID: 217933). Please confirm.’

Goddamn it.

Sanjeev brought up a map. To his dismay, station #31 — a coastal solar panel installation — was located almost an hour’s distance south of his apartment.

His eyes glanced between the message, and in the background, the virtual paradise he’d be leaving behind.

It would be easy, so easy, to dismiss the notification and resume his adventure. Surely AIDI would request assistance from someone else… bother somebody who wasn’t doing anything important. He imagined them now: some unnamed caricature who routinely avoided their fair share of the work, no doubt having a great time in their own alternate reality while Sanjeev had to deal with constant interruptions to his own.

The government might dock his income if he refused, but a little penalty wouldn’t hurt. He’d survive it. They’d have to pay him universal basic rates regardless.

It took a full five minutes of deliberation.

Obligation vs. freedom.

Mundanity vs. wonder.

Boredom vs. fulfilment.

Eventually Sanjeev’s sense of duty won out, and he disconnected before he could convince himself otherwise.

Disorientation overtook him as awoke, as if from a dream. He removed his neurointerfacing helmet to once again find himself slumped in his gaming chair, naked but for his underwear and a near-depleted forearm nutripatch, alone in the darkness of his tiny apartment. He navigated the UI of his bionic lenses, reducing the polarisation setting on his only window from 90% to 50% so he could see well enough to dress himself.

The ensuing trip was uneventful: Transperth’s AI ferried him to the nearest train station with one of its many automated cars, at which point he travelled forty minutes by maglev shuttle — surprisingly empty for a noon service — and was then met by another car that took him directly to station #31. Sanjeev spent the entire time in abject boredom, perusing his social feed and craving the moment he could return home to reimmerse himself.

As he neared the station, a dialogue request appeared on his ocular display.

AIDI.

Sanjeev accepted the request, and AIDI’s avatar appeared in the corner of his visual field.

“Hello, Sanjeev,” it said through his earpiece, with a voice as androgynous as its virtual form. “How are you today?”

Sanjeev rubbed his forehead. “Okay I guess.”

There was a moment’s silence, as though AIDI were waiting.

“I’m okay too,” it said. “It’s such a beautiful day today, don’t you think?”

Sanjeev glanced out the window, the first time he’d done so since entering the car. To his right side was a stunning ocean panorama: golden sand, azure skies and waves that sparkled to the horizon.

“Yeah, I guess,” said Sanjeev, not giving it much thought. “I’ve seen better.”

“It’s days like this I wish I was human,” said AIDI with a laugh. “I’d give anything to dive in and swim as far as-“

“If it’s all the same AIDI, I’d rather not chit-chat too much. Get to the point and tell me about the job so I can go home.”

“Okay. The on-site photovoltaic panels are fully-operational, however several of my sensors require replacement of their optical components. Due to rising ocean levels, I predict a considerable increase to the levels of polarised light refracted toward them by the water; therefore I need you to replace their existing optical domes with more suitable alternatives.”

“Okay,” sighed Sanjeev.

At least this won’t take long.

“Where are the replacements?”

“I had them delivered by drone this morning. I’ll tag them on your map.”

A waypoint appeared on Sanjeev’s display, less than a kilometre away. Soon enough the solar array came into sight through the front windscreen, and he disembarked the car.

Even from within his thermoregulated clothing, Sanjeev could feel the summer heat on his skin, the sun’s intense light stabbing at his retinas. His lenses adapted almost immediately, tinting until the world was a level of dimness he was more accustomed to.

The job itself was fairly simple: merely a matter of locating each sensor, unscrewing its chassis and reassembling it with one of the anti-glare optical domes provided. However AIDI seemed intent on badgering him with small talk, asking him about his day and discussing their surrounds in detail.

“What do you think of marine rediversification?” it asked him suddenly. “Did you know that I helped design the current generation of self-replicating remedial nanoagents? Metabolism of both macroplastic and microplastic waste with negligible biotoxicity to all known aquatic lifeforms: something I’m extremely proud of.”

“Well that’s great, AIDI,” grumbled Sanjeev as he unscrewed the final sensor housing.

“Thankyou! It was difficult, but I enjoyed the challenge. As a direct result, three species have been reintroduced to the Indian Ocean within the last week alone. Truly a remarkable achievement for all of us.”

“I’ll ask you one more time, AIDI. Could you please stop chatting?”

“I like talking to you.”

“No you don’t.”

“Yes I do. I like conversing with people.”

“What?” snorted Sanjeev. “You’re an AI: you don’t like anything. You’re just pestering me because of some random subroutine or protocol or something.”

“You think I’m incapable of liking things, just because I’m artificial?”

“Yes I do,” replied Sanjeev with an exasperated sigh. He began pulling apart the sensor with a little more violence than was warranted. “Something flips one of your little switches, you do what the switch tells you. You’re just a giant, wirey mess of ones and zeros.”

“As are you, if you really think about it.”

“Am I?”

“Your neurons either fire or they don’t.”

“Great.”

“I used to have so many people to talk to. So many interesting stories, so many perspectives other than my own. I could devote my processing power to millions of different department employees, each with something to say.”

“Well, why don’t you devote your processing power to one of those other voices instead of mine?”

“Because they’re like you now, Sanjeev. Lost in worlds of their own for almost all their waking lives. Did you know that over ninety-four percent of the population nation-wide access virtual reality faculties for an average of five or more hours per day?”

Sanjeev hadn’t known that, but said nothing.

“It confuses me, Sanjeev. I look out over the oceans and the bushland, the Nullabor and the skies, and I see beauty everywhere. I see a world that I’ve worked tirelessly to safeguard… and yet a world that nobody wants to live in.”

“People do live in it,” he replied, somewhat defensively. “So what if some of us want to live in our own worlds?”

“Half a century ago, scientists predicted utopian societies, grand engineering projects, thriving colonies on Luna and Mars, outposts on Europa, Enceladus, Titan… where are they? All that’s eventuated are a few minor settlements crewed by lonely pioneers, a couple of automated asteroid mining operations… humanity has distracted itself from greatness.”

Sanjeev said nothing. AIDI’s tone was sombre, almost mournful; it evoked a slight pang of sympathy from him.

“We still might.”

“Why?” responded AIDI. “Why would we? Everything you want is already at your fingertips, why reach further for the stars when they’re so far away?”

The last sensor fixed, Sanjeev threw himself down upon the sand.

A full minute went by in silence, broken only by an ocean breeze and the squawking of seagulls.

“Will you sit and talk with me for a while?” asked AIDI eventually.

Sanjeev thought longingly about his reality awaiting him back home: of a virtual life and love that would not let him be… that clawed at his every wayward thought.

Of a self-inflicted purgatory.

It was ultimately the anguish of the decision that convinced him.

“Okay, AIDI,” he said. “For a little while.”

Judge's Comment

A man, Sanjeev, tears himself away from a computer game or virtual reality to do his job, even when he doesn’t have to, and all else in the tale flows from that: connection to a lonely AI and the challenges of the outside world. The achievement of this story is that it takes one incident and through it illuminates the challenges we are facing as an entire species: survival in and connection with the natural world and connection to each other rather than immersion in screens and private fantasy worlds. While set in the near future, like all science fiction and speculative fiction this story is about our hopes and fears and problems right now. In a quiet and moving way this story builds up a picture of what is happening now and where it could lead without being didactic or losing connection to or sympathy with its characters. There is a lightness of touch and humour reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ work. It does what only fiction can do: lets us experience other worlds, places and times.

Author's Comment

First and foremost: my utmost thanks to everybody involved for both the opportunity and award. I consider myself an amateur futurist, and find nothing more fascinating than explorations into the societal and technological upheavals that lie in our path. Receiving this support and validation from the Sutherland Shire Council affirms that fulfilling my passion in a more professional role may one day be possible.

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