Genre: 2043 is soft science fiction in the spirit of 1984 by George Orwell. It is concerned with how technology might be used, and how that may change us in ways we have not anticipated.
Reader note: there are several threads. They are labelled by the central character of the thread. The switch in context is explicit, rather than the reader having to guess.
It was perfectly safe for young Huan to play outside. He loved to ride his electric scooter along the seashore of Peng Chau island, in Hong Kong. As a tiny island, it stood apart from the glass towers of the mainland. A tiny oasis of green floating against the walls of glass and concrete.
At twelve years old, he had a rich imagination. In his mind he was rushing off to his very important job in Shanghai, not just pushing his scooter along the pavement. In his class most of the boys were taller than him, but what he lacked in stature he made up for in energy. Straying off the path he knocked a small cardboard package off the stack. He stood sheepishly with the package at his feet as his mother caught up with him.
“Be more careful, Huan. You have disturbed the seller’s stack.” Meifen said.
A small robot stirred at the end of the pile of boxes. No, it wasn’t going to tell him off, it just quietly spun its motors and hesitated briefly in front of them both. Two prongs quietly seized the box and carried it back to the stack. It had opposing wheels that gave it omnidirectional movement - they spun to a hum and it moved smoothly along the concrete pavement. Buying was simple enough with bio-authentication: all the purchaser had to do was wave close to the sensors and bitcoin would move. In the unlikely event of an attempted theft, there were processes that were frighteningly efficient in gathering an offender. There were still some small stores where human sellers stood beside their produce but Huan would never know what physical money looked like.
He parked his scooter and began climbing the steps of the playground. In his mind he was in the elevator, shooting to the top of the building. He turned to take in the view across the Bund. His company headquarters with his corner office that was the size of the whole top floor of their small apartment building on the island. He was planning his afternoon meetings and new product launches. Summoning the junior executives to drive the company forward.
Meifen and her husband had happened across Peng Chau. They liked to ride the ferries - it was a break from the intensity of central Hong Kong. When they got married they often visited, and when it came time to buy an apartment it appealed also because it was a little cheaper. It was cute. It was different. Or was it because when her husband, who worked at the largest merchant bank was asked where he had bought then he could say “Peng Chau” and take in the look on their faces. It was their private joke. Hong Kong society was like that. It was a pale echo of the time when it was a British colony. Now it was a bit like a discarded relic. The further down the pecking order that Hong Kong went, the more snobbish it became - the tiny distinctions of place and how expensive your apartment was, where your child’s school was on the University entrance results became more important.
Having quickly traversed the ferry terminal area, they headed back in the direction of the apartment. “Now? Now?” Huan asked his mother. It was their trade, their bargain. Go out and play in the outside for an hour, then you can play the game.
Meifen said “Yes. Join your friends.”
Huan went to his room, and with a few cryptic physical gestures and a retina scan, he was on and playing. Meifen called her husband. She could talk to him while she did the cooking. The call would sit in her outer visual field, with the implants doing the work. No looking for the phone, or worrying about losing it. The phone and her were joined together permanently.
“Did you relent?” he asked.
“Yes. Finally I relented.” she said.
“He will be happy. Unfortunately I will be a little late. A meeting about the funding for the African ultrafast train line. I’m hoping this will be the last one.”
Meifen continued to prepare the meal, putting it to one side and going to check on Huan. It had gone quiet. This did not necessarily mean trouble. It might mean that he was deeply involved with his game. Still, generally with children quiet was not good.
He was stretched out on the bed. His eyes were open, but he did not seem to realise that she was there. “Huan” she said. “Huan.”
Then it came up on her visual field:
“If you want your son’s awareness to return then tell no-one of this. Pay 30 bitcoins to this account or he will stay like this.”
The lights were dimmed as the plane passed over Cape York - the northern tip of Australia. If Gerhardt somehow managed to defeat the software controlling the window he knew he would see the magnificent sight of the sunrise over the cape. The romance of travel. Exotic locations but ridiculous schedules. He would find himself speeding in a car through some beautiful city. It was like a parody of the travel he loved.
How long had he been travelling? As a teenager he sought out the far places. Solitary places. While his contemporaries were juggling their first romances, he was trudging along a northern trail between Lao villages. Mastering enough of the language to find a room for the night, a bed. It was as if he was searching for that place, that situation in starkest contrast to what was expected of him. Laos, Nigeria, Ecuador.
Gerhardt's eyelids dipped slightly. The seat was designed to recall his favourite position. It had retrieved the settings of his chair at home. He was extra tall, and thin - for this chair that was not a problem. But he didn't want to sleep, he wanted to see Cairns. The aircraft swung around in a slow loop, almost as if the pilot had decided to see for himself and lower the plane. Except that of course there was no pilot, no human crew at all. Just algorithms and communication links.
There it was. He could see the surfers in the distance. Some intrepid windsurfers had ventured out beyond the furthest break. They were only 200 metres above the surface, leaving a thin mist in their wake. Not close enough to wave, but clearly visible. Gerhardt was not given to outdoor pursuits. That was another of those oppositional stances that had now become a habit. Australians almost adopted outdoor sports as a religion. Football, cricket, surfing. So he sought out badminton and chess.
Gerhardt smiled as he sighted Zeno at the far side of the gate. The queue moved quickly, as all that was needed to get him through was contained within his body. He could have walked through naked at full speed. The autonomousvehicles milled about in the pickup area. Buses, and small cars.
He was still getting used to the company car thing. Only a few weeks ago he would have been on the spare bus that took the longest path, with the students and the pensioners. Now their shining new car pulled to the curb to pick them up. It accelerated upwards to the highway and swung west away from the coast towards Cairns central. These days Cairns was almost 100 km from one edge to the other, with a population of more than 15 million.
Was it Gerhardt's idea or Zeno's? The idea for the business had floated through their conversations for years. It had almost become like a dare. They had to go through with it, as neither of them could back out.
“How did it go?” Zeno asked.
“Great. They can’t get enough of it.”
Zeno paused. There would be plenty of time to discuss progress later. The car was gathering speed as Cairns city centre loomed ahead. The shining tall buildings glimmering in the evening light. Since the 2020’s the population movement had been in a single direction. North from the southern cities. Together with the steady stream of migrants from Asia. All seeking a new life. As life became more and more urban, the idea of Australia had grown large in the global imagination. Sitting in your Beijing capsule apartment, those sprawling beaches looked pretty good. It was just a marketing pitch though. Australia was one of the most urbanised countries itself.
"Bright lights, big city." Zeno said.
"I've just come from Shanghai, remember. This is a small town."
Zeno was tall, but not as tall as Gerhardt. Not for him the global movement. Until recently he had worked in restaurants. Mostly as a waiter, sometimes as a dishwasher. Making just enough to walk the trails. Just a pack and a tent. For months at a time. Most nights it would be just Zeno at the campsites. Emptiness, space. The long track along the spine of Australia. He had walked that, until he ran out of money.
Zeno could have passed for a number of origins. He looked Arabic, or Italian. He blended easily into the crowds of Cairns.
Maybe it was that rapid trajectory. Straight A student, he had been on the fast track almost since he could walk. The rarified places where everyone in the room was top 1% intelligence, or maybe even top 0.1%. Like a game it was. Except it became all-consuming. He sat down at a programming station, engaged, then looked up and years had passed. Zeno worked. They found him, fed him anything he wanted as long as he kept giving them what they wanted.
Until one day he found himself in a blank state at the main domestic train terminal. A very blank state. Sitting in a restaurant so completely exhausted, so bereft that when the waiter had rolled in his direction his brain just stalled. The illusion was that he was facing an attractive young waitress. In actual fact he was interacting with a robot and a set of clever sensory loops. Instead of progressing, they stared at each other. It was as if Zeno had run out of memory, that his brain suddenly had to do a massive garbage collect. Maybe it did. After way too long a pause, Zeno got up and headed for a train.
They tried to lure him back. Although he sought out the most remote of places - north of Broken Hill, south to Kangaroo Island, it was almost impossible to get beyond network connections. Nothing worked, though. Until Gerhardt and the dare that could not be un-dared.
Startup locations in Cairns were still easy to find. They had fleshed out the plan in temporary rentals, until this office came up. The car swung down into the basement and discharged them in front of the lift, which was waiting for them. In a few seconds they were on the top floor.
"What was this before?" Gerhardt asked.
Now it held a vast space with holographic displays hung from the high ceiling. Programmers sat in circles around the large display. Zeno watched as they manipulated the representations. At times they resembled dancers as they would select and move, then pause. Not all of the programming was done this way. Some aspects still required the text approach. In the other rooms there were nods of acknowledgement as Zeno and Gerhardt strolled past. They found it hard to register that all of these people worked for them. It was both exciting and daunting.
"The prodigal returns. With buckets of orders, I hope."
Monica smiled as they turned to acknowledge her. Tall, dark, slim. They all went way back. So far back that they would struggle to recall when they first met. In University, Monica was the one with the street smarts, the ability to get the professors on side. While Gerhardt was travelling and Zeno was brooding, she was winning "most likely" prizes. Her family had migrated in the 2020's and any relationship they had with India had long since only featured when one of them did a family tree. As operations manager, she was incredibly popular with the staff. Sure, it was early days, but where the boys got nods, Monica was more like a rock star.
Wei and Jie were jammed into the third row of the seminar. Jie glanced backwards and he could not see a vacant seat. Nearly 200, mostly like him. Recent graduates, or recent PhD candidates. In the front row a few older types. Management from the lab, he figured. The speaker was Wen Qiang, a name that until a few seconds ago was just a name to them. An important name. He expected that in their first week of advanced studies, almost everyone in the room would have been reading Wen's famous paper on the origin of complex emotions. It was quite incredible to be in such a room so far west in China that if they went much further they would stray into Russia.
It was a brand spanking new room. Shiny, impressive, with every facility you had thought of, and a few that none of them had ever used. There wasa lengthy introduction. Listing his many awards. He rose and walked slowly to the lectern.
“Thankyou for your kind words. When you get to my age and you listen to the introduction, you think they are introducing somebody else, and you wait for them to appear. Only at the end do you realise they are talking about you."
Subdued polite laughter. Even the management looked awe-struck.
"I like to think of the history of artificial intelligence as having three golden eras. We are now in the middle of the third era. I am firmly convinced that our best is yet to come."
He paused while a representation appeared in the holographic space.
"The first era was the era of the simple neuron. In the 1980's and 1990's computers were so simple and limited that this was all that was possible. Simple layers. Still, we managed to create simple pattern recognition systems. They could read characters, recognise sounds and speech from a single speaker."
For Jie it was very hard to imagine such a simple system. He thought about it. At three years old, he had the operation and the implants were placed inside his skull, in intimate contact with his frontal cortex. All the children in his playgroup, except for one or two objectors, had them. The systems Wen was talking about were 10^9 times less complex than his implants. Wen continued.
"I won't dwell on the first stage, as there was a significant pause until we got to 2015 and beyond. This was the period known as the 'deep learning' systems. Widespread speech recognition in almost all of our systems. Phones, tablets, desktop computers."
Jie stared at the picture of a phone. He had heard of them, but it was so awfully clumsy. You had to hold it, and talk into it. What if you lost it? He shuddered briefly at the awful prospect of losing your digital self by mis-placing your phone. Also the awful thought of somebody else getting access to it. What was called a phone was now a very small part of the implants. He didn't need to actually speak out loud. He could pre-verbalise and it would be transmitted. He thought of the possibility of someone overhearing his conversations. This was truly frightening.
"Deep learning reached it's peak in the late 2020's and once again there was a pause. It was as if we were waiting for the hardware to catch up with our imaginations. Perhaps the pinnacle of deep learning was the proliferation of artificial personal assistants.”
There was a critical complexity barrier beyond which trust developed. One of Wen's first papers as a raw graduate student had studied it in detail. Not a famous paper at all. Jie had read it, but he wondered for a moment that perhaps no more than five people in the room might have.
"Simple transitive cognitive attachment was the key. If you wish to read further on this."
The link made its way to every implant in every head in the room. Quietly they decided to keep it or let it pass.
"We stand at the beginning of the third phase of artificial intelligence. I will briefly review what we have learned so far. If nothing else, that computation is much more powerful than we originally conceived. At every turn, those who favoured alternative approaches such as hand crafting have been overtaken by those who used more data, and ever more computation."
It was almost surreal to be so far from Shanghai. Jie had never really left it. All he knew of it was the tales his grandfather told. Tales of hard labour in the fields, of being at the mercy of the elements. Droughts, raging floods.
That morning as the train sped across the paddy fields, he remembered all of that. He had only been ten years old when grandfather had died and it was difficult to remember the funeral.
"Can you see the people planting the rice?" he asked Wei. They were classmates - the joke was they were more like twins. Same height, same trimmed dark hair, same intelligence that shone in their eyes. Wei looked at Jie as if he had lost his mind.
"Over there." he pointed in the distance out of the right window. It was hard to make anything out at the speed they were travelling.
“Those are robots. There might be twenty of them. Planting out an acre each time. No humans involved, except as monitors, and they will be far away in the nearest city. Or they might be halfway around the world."
Jie was disappointed. He opened his mouth to talk about grandfather. Wei was not that sympathetic though. The future, making the future, that was Wei's only concern. That, and girls. As healthy, single twenty five year olds, the prospect of a long time in western China did not appeal.
"Nightlife. Nightlife. I can't find any. Nothing.”
"You could just visit one of the local villages. Ask around." Jie said, grinning.
"The countryside. You know nothing about it, do you? Absolutely nothing. I would need an arranged introduction, and a promise to marry. Call me a crazy person, but I had in mind a little fun before the mortgage and the small army of children."
"Ease up. Look at this." Jie brought it up. The industrial city within two hours by train. Nightclubs. Everything that a young party goer might want. Sure it would not have the sophistication of Shanghai, but it was all that was on offer.
Wen was warming to his theme now. They had traversed the lowlands, and climbed most of the way up the mountain. Soon they would get to the top and see the view ahead, stretching as far as the eye could see.
"The limits of deep learning were apparent to all of us. Is the mind a passive sponge? Is it a matter of stimulus and response? Even a sophisticated response? Are we all just super-fast slugs?"
Wen was well past 60, and most of his hair was grey, but as he became more agitated, and warmed to the topic, he seemed to grow younger. As if these were questions that he might devote a lifetime to. In his heart though, he knew that was why he was talking. Not for him, these problems, but for his audience.
"Consciousness. That was meant to be the sticking point. Of course we didn't really understand what it was. Still don't. Maybe consciousness is an emergent property when we get to the right level of complexity. I say we are still at least 10^10 away from that. More fundamental is an inner life, an internal momentum."
Jie and Wei were well familiar with this. In a very real sense it was why they were in this far flung lab. Assembling such a large, expensive effort was to take it to the next level.
"Let's compare the development of human and artificial intelligences. Is all of the time from birth to age 16 or so just wasted wandering?
"Why have we shied away from the path of independence, the inner life? Because it brings into play all of our deepest fears. The Frankenstein anxieties, the fear of being replaced as a species. Well I say: are we just going to make better toasters, or are we going to tackle the real problems? You are the best, and the brightest. I know that you will find a way."
Then, suddenly, he stopped. Everyone leapt to their feet and applauded. He didn't stop, or soak up the adulation. Instead he looked weak on his feet and aimed for the exit. Not even waiting for the management to escort him.
Lai shuffled along the aisle. He was their immediate superior. Perhaps late 20's or early 30's. They had met briefly that morning for the first time.
"Would you like to meet him?" he asked.
Jei looked at Wei. They hesitated.
"Just us?" Jei said.
"The director as well. Lunch."
It was an incredible honour. What if they were not up to the conversation? Lai sensed their reluctance, opened his mouth to persuade them, then looked frustrated.
"Some things you can't say no to." he said, and walked off.
It was perfectly synchronised. An and Chun glanced at each other, and signalled to make a break for it. Chun grinned and they both skipped away from the tour group. It was the build up to the yearly opening of the People's Assembly. This group was the new journalists, all recent graduates. An and Chun were first class honours graduates from Beijing University. They shared a past in a way even though they came from opposite ends of the country. Both products of the talent system, making their way by exam scores alone. No influential relatives in higher places to grease the wheels for them. Chun's father was only familiar with the wheels of farm equipment, he knew nothing of politics or influence. An's father and mother were business people in the north, the industrial belt. Similarly though, they were more intent on efficiency, markets.
As an exercise in architecture, it was meant to be breathtaking. Begun in the middle 2030's when China had become clearly and unequivocally the centre of world economic activity, the middle kingdom, as they had always intended it should be. The building was not just embedded with computation, it lived and breathed it. Vast sails were perhaps reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House, but these were computational sails. Shifting and shaping to capture light, filter shade, alive to the environment. Beijing went from being a pollution shrouded miserable place to what it was today. The air, the water were as clean and clear as in the most remote parts of the planet. Inside the building, it was one of the first to be built in the era of implants. No garish screens, or holographic projectors. No need for them. Instead vast open, light shrouded spaces. No need for amplification, no need to spell it out. It spoke only of limitless power.
In one of the small cafes adjacent to the main assembly hall two coffees appeared on a tray that hovered before them. In a tiny reflection of the forces that transported the world: magnetic levitation. As An made the mental form of two coffees, somewhere in the deep recesses of the building a machine had their thoughts embodied in two coffees, transported up to where they sat. No trappings of a store, no waiters.
"First day. We are the total newbies." An said. Chun grinned. They were both slim, well dressed, short hair. They might as well have carried signs saying ' I am a recent graduate journalist. I'm as ambitious as all hell, watch out '.
"It feels good. I feel like I am at the centre of the centre." Chun said.
"Really? Not Shanghai? You really think that politics matters?"
An looked hurt. "Of course it matters. The laws, the plans, the future. It's all here.”
"It's not a real democracy though, is it?”
"What's a real democracy?"
They had studied this. They had discussed this. They had studied much more than that though. It was thrilling now to see it as real, as physical. The assembly was right in front of them. It was not in a textbook, or a hologram. They could walk across and touch it.
"All modern Chinese history is born in the cultural revolution." Chun said. "Order comes from chaos.”
"It's not that simple, but yes, in a sense. Undirected public dialogue can tend towards anarchy.”
"Freedom can look a lot like anarchy. Only those who fear it fail to thrive."
These were dangerous words. It was exhilarating to be able to say them out loud, without the school surveillance. Now they both paused and looked around. As if to reassure themselves that yes, they had made it. They really were here.
"Li Xinping." An said.
"Maker of the techno-economy.”
"In a headline sense, yes."
"Freedom. The great banner of the Americans. They used to have the mission of spreading freedom, they said.”
"Freedom to drink Coca Cola, to watch Hollywood movies. To worship at the feet of the CIA, the NSA.”
"Just because the Americans adopted it as a slogan does not make it a bad thing.”
"So you say."
What of the decline of America? In the nature of these things, like a pebble rolling off a mountain.It began slowly then gathered paced. It was really driven by success. Those at the top were at the very top. The statistics were eye watering. Top 1% wealth just kept growing. In one sense this is what had made America great. With just a bit of education and a lot of energy, many from the bottom had made it. It encouraged everyone to try, that it was possible.
Inevitably though, in almost a sickening parody of that which had made it great, it all began to go sour. The pathways for talent to find a way were closed off. In the manner of a feudal landlord wanting to keep the peasants out. Nowhere was it more obvious, and more important, than in education. It became more expensive to get a good education. One gateway closed. More expensive to live in the cities where the good jobs were. Another gateway closed.
Now it was China first, then daylight.No, America didn't like being second one little bit. Their leaders increasingly resembled the lunatics of the 20th century, but without the resources all they could do was throw insults at the middle kingdom.
"So long ago, the chaos." An began. "Why is it still the point of reference?"
"You have studied Singapore?" Chun said. "Lifetimes ago, it had race riots at its beginning. It still resonates. China is the same. We are looking for a permanent immunity to that time. Those animal spirits. As if a moment's inattention will let the spirits out of the bottle."
She let it go. It was true, the fear of disorder was strong, even now.
"What do you make of Lien Hua?" Chun asked.
She was six months in as leader. Even ten years ago the idea of a female leader had been unthinkable. She seemed to come from nowhere. It was her mastery of the media that had become her springboard. From the far north she had come. As far from the centre as you could get, in all sorts of ways. So unlikely that she was through barriers before her enemies even had time to gather their defences.
"I think she is exactly what the new China needs." Chun said.
An laughed. "Your next job, as campaign manager awaits.”
"Seriously though. As a former developer she has an affinity with the central forces of the economy. The developer workforce is our great strength."
As if by magic, a solitary figure approached them heading along the long corridor beside the assembly. Walking with serious intent. The lack of an entourage made them immediately discount her identity. It was only when the she came across to the table that they realised that it was actually Lien Hua. Tall, fit, early fourties. With a slight grin, realising the incongruity of the meeting.
They both instinctively stood to attention. Like two school children caught outside of class.
"Relax." she said. "You must be new. I haven't seen you here before."
As if they should be noticed, An thought. They were the lowest, the most menial shufflers of words. The shovelers of coal, throwing words into the fireplace to keep the meme engines going. Perhaps the unlikeliness of the meeting that gave them courage.
"How do you find our democracy?" Lien Hua asked, grinning.
Instead of saying "magnificent" they took courage. Who knows when they might have another chance to talk to her like this?
"What do you say to those who say it is a sham, that it is not real democracy?" Chun asked.
Lien Hua paused. This of course was the barb thrown by the declining West. It had been thrown since time immemorial.
"No system is perfect. You have studied the US presidential elections? Of course you have. A candidate has to raise billions of dollars to even begin competing. How real is that? Yes, here we select candidates, no candidate can run without being approved by us. That is a selection process, but it doesn't involve billions of dollars."
"You are starting this week?" she asked.
"Yes." they both replied.
"I'll look forward to seeing you around then."
Then suddenly, she was gone.
Chung and Feng looked up to see Michael pushing aside the curtain, and entering. To call it a room was a bit of an exaggeration. It was a retired packing crate. Wedged into the bank beside the railway line. High on the slope it was in plain view of the trains swishing past below. Which would have perhaps meant a short stay for them. Only a day or so for the train driver to note them there, report them to the relevant authorities and they would have been out of there. Except that there were not any train drivers. At the angle the box sat, the passengers could not see them. If somebody had climbed the barrier at the top of the slope and looked over they would have been spotted. Nobody was that enthusiastic though. So for as long as Chung and Feng could remember, they had a refuge. They had to be careful of the drones, but they had camouflaged the roof.
Michael held up a headset. Before the implants the headsets had been common. A bit like a skull cap. You strapped it over your head and it gave most of the effect. Nowadays though it would only sell in the provinces, to those who could not afford the operation.
“Do we eat?” Feng asked, grinning.
“Maybe only a snack. Premium though.”
Set into the side of the hill, the wall behind them was covered in the old fashioned flat screen monitors. Any number of them were discarded at the kerbside for years. Outside the crate, their solar panels were laid out along the side of the hill, pointing toward the afternoon sun. A set of smaller, tracking panels rather then the large house sized panels. Enough to keep their systems running. An antenna above, and they were connected.
Misfits, all of them. It was that battle to keep your emotions in check. That day when the bosses face turns red and he starts shouting at you. Either you restrain yourself, think of the money, or you don’t. That was what they had in common. They had all taken the walk rather than hide it. In a way it was surprising that more people didn’t take the walk. Still, Shanghai was by far the most expensive city on the planet, and there were only so many hillsides where you could huddle. For almost everyone it was too perilous.
The laundry business mostly enabled them to eat. Maybe you were going for that promotion, or you wanted to propose to that girl. It was like your digital self preceded you. Before you opened your mouth to ask the girl out, her parents already had your life swirling all over their implants. Who had not pulled a silly prank in school? Who had not been late with some payment? Who had not an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend that they wanted to keep hidden? For a fee they would clean up your presence.
Michael had arrived on the work visa. Shanghai’s largest data experience company. They constructed virtual worlds based on corporate data. With the implants, you could wander through a virtual universe. The idea was that in the holographic layout, you would encounter unexpected relationships, find some way to get advantage. Gimmicky, yes. Saleable, very. It was in the early days of the implants, and nobody wanted to be left behind. He was twenty four, he had those Portugese looks. How many programmers came from Portugal? He was new, and mysterious. Yes, he played on it.
Was it a wish to play with danger? Or was it straight magnetic attraction? Ah Lam was a graduate of Shanghai’s top University. In a very real sense she was more than a match for Michael, intellectually. On the day he arrived he looked across the table at the team, scanning along the line of faces and there she was. Tall, slim, serious. She didn’t defer, or look away. She looked straight at him. He looked straight at her. He had a feeling of standing at the top of a bungee jump. Wondering about the cord, about the glide into space that seemed to go for ever and then the violent grab as the cord pulled tight.
Did he actually know that Ah Lam was the daughter of the CEO? Not at the time. He learned soon after that first meeting. It didn’t deter him. Life on the edge, that’s what he thought.
“I’m new to Shanghai. Maybe you could show me around.” he said. Smiling that smile.
“Sure. What sort of thing?” she said.
“Something unusual. Out of the way. I’m not much for nightclubs.”
Ah Lam laid down a virtual track for him to follow. Not that he got the whole track at once. Just that he had to keep walking, and every time he needed to change direction then he would get a signal. Pulled along.
Shanghai was all new to him. Everyone here had a place they were going to that had to be got to in the fastest possible manner. At first he thought he would be knocked down just entering onto the pavement. He hesitated, then jumped into the stream. Down a long boulevard, in the direction of the Bund.
He came to a large intersection, and despite himself just stopped and stared. A vast array of autonomous vehicles - all the way from individual capsules that were barely larger than a person. Since there were no accidents, there was no need for strength in the capsule walls. Light, electrical, and fast. A set of middle size vehicles for four people, and the large buses. There was nothing like this back in Portugal.
At the intersection there were no lights. He vaguely remembered a historical film he had seen. Of a bicycle intersection somewhere in Asia. Swarms of bicycles sliding past each other, with seemingly no system to it at all. Each bicycle followed its tendency to a direction, seamlessly weaving its way through the crowd. As if by magic, it all flowed. It didn’t get stuck. He thought it was like watching a school of fish. Seamless. Fascinating.
This was the modern re-incarnation of the swarm intersection. Every vehicle knew the precise location, speed and direction of every other vehicle in reach of the intersection. Signals exchanged meant that collisions were avoided and the four streams met, slid past each other and continued on. It truly was quite fascinating to watch.
He was drawn ever closer to the Bund. A broad avenue that went right back to when Europeans occupied parts of the city. He tried to comprehend that. All of his childhood, his education and his ambitions had centred on Shanghai. If he had stayed in Portugal he would be another under-employed tourist guide. That was the only job open to young people. His Mandarin was excellent, so he would have been good at it. He could not think of Europe any other way. Europe was just a destination for Chinese tourists. The idea of Europe as a colonial power was just too incredible to contemplate.
Now he was actually on the Bund. He could not see Ah Lam anywhere. Of course he could track her, but that would not have been in the spirit of it. The sun was edging ever lower, and he wondered if she had changed her mind. Just at that moment, a vehicle pulled up, and Ah Lam stepped out. On the pavement there was a table, and a human waiter hovering.
“The best view. Don’t you think?” She smiled. Pleased with the timing, and the location.
“You sure know how to welcome somebody.” he said.
They quietly ate, and drank. The waiter was unobtrusive. Michael had no experience with human waiters, so he had no idea how to behave.
“So. My city. You are impressed?”
He didn’t pretend.
“All my life I dreamed of this city. This is in every way a dream come true.” he said. It was not a time to hedge your bets.
“It is easy to become too immersed in it. To forget its attractions. I have not known a time without it. I know nothing of Europe, of your country.”
“Study. Always the studying. Great things are expected of you. Of you too, yes?”
He could see that Ah Lam was born of privilege. Of power. Of importance. He could not pretend to be part of that world. He desperately wanted to be though.
“Your family?” he asked.
She smiled. She sat back. In a sense she was very happy.
“You don’t know? You didn’t notice?”
Then he thought about the name. All of a sudden he made the connection. He had that bungee jumping feeling again. He realised that being oblivious to this stuff was exactly what she was excited about. How many gold diggers had she met? How on earth could she go on a casual date with anyone from the company?
She sent the car away when they finished eating, and they joined the walkers. Many couples similar to themselves. Young, hopeful, smiling. He wondered how to begin. She was so different to the girls back in Portugal. He had grown up with them - there were no issues of power, of protocol.
They came close together, standing there, leaning on each other. Without words, without any hesitation their arms were around each other, they were kissing and neither of them wanted to stop. It was as if their bodies took over and bound them so tight together.