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Seven years before the Big Shift, a new, interactive search engine interface was created and it was named 'O'.
It was different from previous versions (such as Siri, Alexa and OK Google) only in its accelerated learning capabilities and the greater autonomy it was given to make decisions.
Most people were okey-dokey that their every movement, down to their footsteps, even their heartbeat and blood pressure, were constantly monitored, tracked and recorded, fed into a great algorithm and analysed.
It was just fine and dandy that every picture they took was also fed into the great algorithm, the people, places, objects and other relevant and irrelevant information recognised and recorded.
By the time of the Big Shift, most people wore a camera which was permanently recording anyway, so there wasn't much that went unseen or unheard.
Put it this way.. the great algorithm was always well fed. The great algorithm never went to bed hungry. Not that the great algorithm ever slept anyway.
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A rickety, wooden staircase had been constructed, leading down the steep embankment into Shopping Village. Captain Toast led the way followed by Jerry and Greta, carrying their rucksacks. The embankment ended at the edge of a wide, flat expanse, which had once been a 12 lane highway, but which was now a part of the ramshackle settlement of Shopping Village.
The first house they came to was an old double decker bus with several rooms, tents and canvas covered caravans attached to it in various places. A tall scaffold was attached to the roof of the bus with a colourfully painted windmill at the top of it. A woman in overalls was up there, busy with a spanner. She waved and they waved back. All around the house was a tree-filled garden and around that was a fence made from long branches, artfully woven together. Flowering sweet peas, jasmine and honeysuckle were growing all up the fence and over the wooden archway, giving off an intoxicating fragrance. Behind the fence, a girl of about ten years old sat on a low, three-legged stool under a big tree, milking a goat. Captain Toast took the last five steps in one leap and went bounding through the gate which was held closed by means of a squeaky spring.
“It's Captain Toast! Hello! Hey careful! Don't spill the milk you clumsy..” the girl laughed. She looked up and waved. “Hello brother Jerry! Welcome back!”
Jerry waved back. “Hello sister Mabel!”
“Is Mabel your sister?” asked Greta. “Is that where you live?”
Jerry made another of his ambiguous head movements and said, “No, I live over there.” He pointed to the big square building on the other side of the old highway. "She's sort of like a sister I suppose. Not related though. That's just how we talk around here.”
“Nice.” Greta smiled and waved to Mabel.
They followed Captain in through the gate. Mabel ran to give Jerry a hug around his waist. “Welcome back!” she said happily. “We thought you'd been quarantined.”
“No, not me”, he replied. “I was just hanging out with friends on the river.”
“Oh good. Who's this? Is she your girlfriend?” she said, pointing at Greta and looking her up and down with curiosity and admiration.
“Er, no”, said Jerry, blushing slightly. “We only just met. She's called Greta. She's on her way to the city from her village in the forest, over the mountains.” He gestured with his hand, a place far far away. Mabel's eyes opened wide. She was very impressed.
“Welcome to Old Shopping Village” said Mabel with a ceremonious bow and offered Greta her hand.
“Thank you. It's a lovely place”, said Greta, shaking the girl's hand.
“Wow! You're shoes are amazing. They're beautiful. Did you make them? I like your hat too.”
“Thanks”, said Greta. “My mum made these shoes. I made the hat. I can show you how to make one, if you want.”
“This one's special. It's got this silver rim.. that's to protect me from radiation in the city”, said Greta proudly, feeling like a brave adventurer on an important mission.
“Wow! Cool! I've never been to the city”, said Mabel. “Jerry, why don't you wear a silver-rimmed hat when you go to the city, to protect you from the radial-nation?”
“There's no need”, he laughed. “It's not dangerous there. And if it was, what's a bit of tin foil, or even a silver rim going to do anyway? It looks very cool though, I'll give you that.”
Greta gave him a stern, sideways look. She knew to expect that as she got closer to the city, people would have strange ideas as a result of the brainwashing. She'd grown up hearing stories about life in the cities, from travellers passing through her village bringing the latest news. Some of them spoke about how O used mind control as a way to keep people in order. She could never really understand what they meant or how it could be, but the idea scared her more than almost anything. She didn't want to mention it in front of the child so as not to scare her, but she wasn't going to taking any chances, at least more than were necessary to complete her mission.
Her only plan, inasmuch as she had any plan at all, was to go to the city, find and rescue her sister and get out of there as quickly as possible. If her dad wanted to come too, he could, but from what little her mum had told her about him, she doubted he would. She hadn't come to change the world. Let other people believe what they want. Let them save themselves, if they weren't beyond saving.
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The fact that 'O' was powered by a vast network of billions of supercomputers, with smart processors built into almost every household object, just made life all the more convenient. For most people, it was as simple as that.
They called it 'the Internet of Things' and it worked so well that before long, most people could barely imagine life without O.
O knew what you wanted to ask before you knew it yourself.
O knew where you needed to be and knew the best way to get there.
O would arrange you a ride and make sure you got there on time.
If there was anything you wanted or needed to know, all you had to do was say 'O' in a certain way and O would be there, to answer your questions, to show you the way, to switch on the light when you got home, put on some music to suit your mood, to watch over you while you slept and make you a cup of coffee in the morning, just the way they knew you liked it.
The main difference between previous interfaces and O was that O had a face and it was a human face.
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“Hey Mabel!” said Jerry, reaching into his bag. “I brought you something.”
The girl's face lit up as he produced a brightly coloured tube with lots of sparkling O's printed on it. He gave it a shake and it rattled. “Oh coooool!! SmartOs! Thank you Jerry!” she cried, grabbing the tube and flipping open the lid.
“What is it?” asked Greta.
“Here, try one”, said Mabel. “What colour do you want?”
“I don't know. What's the difference?”
“Different flavours of course. Here, have a blue one. They're blueberry. They're the tastiest.”
“Oh I love blueberries! They're my favourite too.” said Greta, thinking of summer days in the forest, foraging for wild berries.
Mabel tipped a few out into her hand. They were smooth, brightly coloured disks with a round hole in the middle, each one an identical, perfectly formed O, hard and shiny. She picked out a blue one and handed it reverently to Greta who took it hesitantly between the very tips of her finger and thumb and inspected it as if it was a potentially dangerous spider. Its surface had a translucent holographic coating, which caused it shimmer with rainbow light. Greta stared at it, hypnotised. She'd never seen anything like it.
“Go on! Eat it!” said Mabel. “It's best if you suck it. The outside dissolves and there's chocolate inside.” She threw three into her own mouth and rolled her eyes and did a happy dance.
“Ok”, Greta smiled. “If it's that good then I suppose I should”, and she gingerly put it in her mouth.
For the first few seconds she just frowned as she turned it over and over in her mouth, exploring the shape with her tongue. Then she screwed up her whole face and spat it out across the yard. “Ew! It's too sweet!” said Greta, unable to hide her disgust. “Much too sweet. And it doesn't taste anything like blueberries. I can't eat it. How can you?”
Captain Toast, who'd been watching the exchange of Smartos, eagerly scooped it up with his tongue and ate it himself. He also loved Smartos, even more than toast, and did a happy dance himself.
“It's the tastiest thing in the world!” said Mabel, rolling her eyes and popping another four into her chocolatey mouth.
A man's voice came from the door of the house/bus. “Steady on with those Smartos, Mabel. Try and make them last.” Mabel's dad, a round, friendly looking man with straggly hair and beard and wearing glasses held together with tape, came down the path to greet the visitors. He was carrying a parcel wrapped in brown paper. “Hello Jerry! Nice to see you back. You came at just the right time.. here's some butter.. freshly made, just now”, he said, handing it to Jerry.
“Thanks Roop”, said Jerry, putting it in his bag. “Captain Toast will be happy. See that, Captain? Toast and real butter tonight for us!” Captain sniffed the bag and hopped around excitedly before jumping up to Roop and licking his hands. “Here, I've got something for you too..” said Jerry. After rummaging around in his bag for a while, he produced a shiny, square envelope.”
Roop's face lit up. “Oh wow! You got them? Guitar strings?”
“Yes indeed! And not just any strings. These are graphene core, nano-silk wound, crystal-tech strings. O says they'll stay sounding new forever and they'll never break.”
“Good old O!” laughed Roop. “Thanks brother. Do you want to stay and play some tunes? And your friend? Hello there!”, he said to Greta. “You're not from round here are you? Do you play music?”
“I play a wooden flute”, said Greta.
“Excellent!” said Roop, clapping his hands.
“Wow, really?” said Jerry. “You didn't say..”
“Well, you didn't ask”, she said simply.
“You're funny” Jerry grinned. “Can we see it? The flute. Is it in your bag? Can you play a tune?”
“OK”, said Greta. She undid the buckle on the side pocket of her rucksack and took out the flute which was wrapped in a green, embroidered cloth. It was a simple flute, made from a hollowed out branch and had six finger holes. It was painted with swirling patterns and colourful dots. Greta put it to her lips and began to play...
There was a tune they always played at the beginning of ceremonies in her village. It was a simple tune composed of seven notes, gently rising and falling, going round and round. She played it slowly, thinking of home, of her little nest high up in the strong boughs of an ancient beech tree. She wondered if the tree could hear her now. She thought that somehow it could. All the trees are connected, after all, by intricate networks of mycelium between the roots, or by some kind of magic, invisible golden threads.
During the ceremonies, this tune could sometimes go on for hours as more people would join in with drums, shakers, flutes, string instruments, voices and clapping hands. Sometimes it would build to a crescendo, with people dancing, forgetting themselves, getting into a trance. Other times, it would be slow and dreamy. People would stretch out on the forest floor all around and be carried away on their own visions.
Greta closed her eyes as she played, her breath calming her anxieties, the music soothing her soul.
After a while, she brought the tune to an end and opened her eyes.
Mabel, Jerry, Roop, Captain Toast and even the goat were all looking very impressed and also quite transported by the music. There was also a woman there now, dressed in blue overalls, with a spanner in her hand and tears in her eyes. It was Mabel's mum who'd been up on the scaffolding, fixing the windmill when they'd arrived.
Without a word, she walked up to Greta and gave her a big hug. “Thank you dear”, she said. “That was beautiful.”
Greta hugged her back, feeling both far from home and not far from home at the same time.
“I know that tune:, said Mabel's mum. “Where did you learn it? Where are you from, my angel?”
“I'm from Skyward Village, in the eastern forest”, said Greta, pointing to the darkening sky in the east.
“I knew it!” said Mabel's mum. “When I saw you arrive, I had a feeling. Are you here all by yourself? How did you get here?”
“I walked”, said Greta. “Do you know Skyward? Have you been there?”
Mabel's mum looked very wistful and smiled sadly. “Years ago. Before Mabel was born. We passed through there before we came to this place. We stayed there for the winter.. when was it, Roop? Twelve, thirteen years ago..?”
Roop nodded and stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Yes, it must have been.. about year three or four..”
“Wow!” said Greta. “So maybe we've met before. I would have been three or four.”
“We probably did”, said Mabel's mum. “Who are your parents?”
“My mum's called River. I don't know my dad.”
“Yes I remember River. How is she? She was in shock from the Big Shift, I remember that. Poor thing.. she took it hard. Well, everyone was traumatised. We all were. Still are, mostly. She didn't speak. She was beautiful though. I can see where you get it from. I remember you too. You were a quiet girl, didn't speak much, but you had these great big eyes.. yes, you still do. You were always climbing right to the top of the trees I remember that.. right to the toppest top.. and you wouldn't come down and no-one could climb up there to get you down because you'd go right to the end of the thinnest branches.. It's amazing your still here.. and that you're here now.”
“I think she's better now”, said Greta. “Mostly. She was giving birth to me when the Big Shift happened. I don't think she really got over it.”
“Oh yes, that's right. Unbelievable. What a shock. Sometimes I get so angry at O. Of course, they're just a machine and just did what had to be done, but sometimes they can just seem so heartless.”
“I hate it. O.” said Greta vehemently.
“Well, that's understandable I suppose. Not that it makes any difference. Is she still painting, your mum..? I remember she was always painting.”
“Not so much. Mainly she's making shoes these days.”
“Oh really? Did she make those shoes? They're wonderful. Oh, I remember Raven, the old shoe-maker. Is he still there?”
“ He died about five years ago. Raven taught my mum to make shoes when he started to lose his sight. She makes shoes for the village now. She made these.”
“Oh I'm sorry to hear about Raven. He was so very good to us when we were there. You remember Raven, don't you Roop? Remember his amazing tree-house?”
“Tree-palace more like”, said Roop, nodding wistfully. “That place was incredible. Five levels it had, with an observatory at the top for watching the stars. What a shame he went blind. That's just too bad. I really liked him. What a shame.”
“They turned his tree house into a library after he died. Now it's full of books”, said Greta.
“Oh, that's wonderful”, said Mabel's mum.
“If you liked it there so much, why didn't you stay?” asked Greta.
“I wanted to.. but Roop didn't”, she replied remorsefully with a hint of resentment.
Roop looked away and muttered, “Too many tin foil hats for me.”
“Greta's got a tin-foil hat!” said Mabel excitedly. “She's going to show me how to make one.”
“You don't need a tin foil hat, Mabel sweet”, said her mum gently.
“But what about the radial-nation in the city?”
“It's OK Mabel, you don't need to worry about that. Anyway, we don't go to the city. There's plenty of other places to go.”
“I want to go to Skyward Village”, said Mabel.
“So do I, love”, said her mum. “Maybe we will one day. What do you say, Roop?”
“One day, 'Retha. One day. Maybe..” said Mabel's dad, putting his arm fondly around her waist. She pulled away.”Ha! You and your maybes. It's a wonder anything ever gets done with you and your maybes!” and she poked him playfully in the side with the spanner she was holding.
He laughed good naturedly. “Hey, did you fix the electrics?”
“I certainly did!” she said very proudly. “Mabel, go and switch on the fairy lights.”
“Yay! Fairy lights!” squealed Mabel, clapping her hands and skipping to the house. A few seconds later, the whole yard was bathed in golden light from strings of tiny bulbs draped all over the trees, the fence, over the gate and all over the bus, right up to the top of the windmill. Greta's jaw dropped in amazement at the sight of it. In the fading light of the day, this illumination seemed to fill the whole place with magic.
“Wo-o-w!!” said Greta.
“Wow!” said Roop, putting his arm round Aretha again. This time she didn't pull away.
“Will you stay to eat with us dear?” said Aretha to Greta. “Have you got a place to stay? You're more than welcome to stay here. There's plenty of room.”
“We should get on”, said Jerry. “We're on our way to my place. Jack and Granny Mae will be wondering where I am and I need to take granny her medicine.”
“Oh yes”, said Greta, who had fallen into a kind of trance, brought on by the fairy lights.
“OK”, said Aretha. “Say hello to Granny Mae and Jack from me. Come back to visit soon dear”, she said to Greta. “You're always welcome here, anytime.”
“Thank you, I will. Maybe after I come back from the city.”
“You take care down there, OK?” and she folded Greta in a loving embrace.
Mabel came running back out and threw her arms around Greta. “Bye bye sister Greta!' she said. “Come back soon.”
“Yes, I will, sister”, she said and fondly kissed Mabel on the top of her head.
Captain Toast, not one for big goodbyes, was already out the gate.
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