Excerpt for 2036 (Part One) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Part One

Copyright © 2018 Martin Chu Shui

Smashwords Edition


A guy is inside an enclosed room, and there are two slits on the wall; one opens to the inside, and the other to the outside. When a piece of paper is pushed through the in-slit, the guy’s instructions are to find a shape-matching piece of paper from a pile of paper inside the room and then push it out through the out-slit. Despite the seemingly random squiggles on the paper that don’t mean anything to him, by following the instructions, he performs his duty perfectly.

The squiggles on the paper are in fact questions and answers written in Chinese, so from an outsider’s viewpoint, this guy is proficient in the Chinese language and capable of understanding and answering questions in Chinese. It’s called “Chinese Room” in artificial consciousness terms.

Part One

1. Underground Car Park

Olivia walked hurriedly along the street among high-rise buildings in Sydney’s Central Business District. She had just finished a psychological appraisal session with a corporate client. She typed impatiently on the Ixis sticking to her wrist, still not seeing any taxis coming her way. Looking up and staring at the mid-air traffic, Olivia sighed; Friday after-work rush hour.

It was May, supposedly the cooler season for Sydney, but the last time Olivia felt cool outside of permanently air-conditioned buildings was over fifteen years ago when she was still in high school. Sydney’s winter season seemed all but completely disappeared; the temperature hovered around forty degrees Celsius during the day and merely dropped to around thirty after sunset. However, it was not too bad at the moment. Thanks to the unseasonal stormy weather during the last few days, the city had cooled down quite significantly. As a result, city dwellers had flocked out to enjoy the rare cooler outdoor experience. Olivia found it fascinating to watch their facial expressions. They took such pure enjoyment from such a basic and simple activity. It was so contagious that she decided to forget about trying to get a taxi and just walk home.

The dirty streets, lit by pale streetlights and the illumination from advertising signs, felt deserted, despite crowds of people everywhere. Her best friend and roommate, Zoe, would be back this weekend from her months-long business trip in Africa. Olivia had promised Zoe that she would pick her up from the airport. She would also like to organize a gathering with their friends from their university era, Ava and Sophie, a sort of welcome home party for Zoe, but the question was where. None of their apartments were ideal, not only because they were too small, but also because of Ava and Sophie’s “boyfriends.” They could try their usual venue, Rose café, on the ground floor of the tallest building in Sydney, a trendy place one must be seen at. They could also listen to popular band Glass Box’s live performance there, but to be honest, she was getting a bit tired of it recently. They needed to find somewhere new, something exciting. Olivia couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a face-to-face meeting with either Ava or Sophie; based on their regular phone conversations, they were quite involved with their so-called “boyfriends” and always “extremely busy” during after-work hours. Although she would never get involved with the kind of “boyfriends” her friends had, Olivia did envy them from time to time. She felt lonely, particularly during the past couple of months while Zoe was not here…

Olivia was completely immersed in her own thoughts. Lifting up her gaze, she suddenly realized that she was almost home. Just then, she noticed a young homeless man who sat under a closed shop-front doorway. He stared at her with an intensity that worried her, particularly when the young man suddenly stood up and moved toward her very fast, in a manner that was really worrisome. Olivia couldn’t help but break into a run, quickly leaving the scene.

Olivia was quite fit due to her regular exercise regimen, and this was her territory; she knew every corner of the streets like the back of her own hands. Her apartment was only a few blocks away, so while running through the crowd, Olivia was not panicked at all, even after seeing the young man was running after her.

After turning around a street corner, Olivia stopped, looking back; the homeless man was nowhere to be seen. She breathed out in relief and turned, walking at a more leisurely pace toward home.

Olivia bumped into someone. It was like running into a brick wall. Olivia felt pain in her shoulder. Before she was able to see whom she had bumped into and well before she had opened her mouth to apologize, a large hand covered her mouth; a bag was hurriedly pulled over her head.

The man’s grip was so strong that Olivia was unable to struggle at all; all she could manage to do was tremble continuously. Olivia’s mind went completely blank. She’d never had such an experience in her whole life, and she couldn’t think at all. She felt like she was being dragged off the street into a nearby building, then she sensed that they were inside an elevator and moving downward for a while. Finally, she was dragged out of the elevator and the bag over her head was removed.

Olivia blinked her eyes a few times, focused on her surroundings, and found she was in an empty parking lot. There were five thugs around her, all tall and big. They looked like military guys with short haircuts, but they were wearing casual civilian clothes. She felt like her limbs were frozen, unable to move at all.

“Look what we got here: a human girl. I haven’t touched a human female for a while,” the shortest thug said.

Although the initial shockwaves were still humming through Olivia’s body, she was surprised that she had actually calmed down a bit; at least her body had stopped trembling. She examined the thugs more closely; the other four thugs were taller and bigger than the one who had just spoken, and their faces remained emotionless. Olivia was sure she had bumped into one of these guys.

There was nobody in sight, just a couple of cars parked in the far corner. She needed help, to alert someone to her situation, so without one moment’s delay, Olivia started screaming at the top of her voice with all of her strength. After a while longer, Olivia stopped, feeling exhausted.

None of the thugs tried to stop her. The shorter thug spoke with a grin on his face while the others remained expressionless. “I like your screaming; it turns me on, but you’d better save some energy so we can have a good time together.”

Watching the evil grin on the thug’s ugly face, Olivia felt scared and desperate. Please, someone, hear me and come to my aid, she thought. Then she screamed again, but at a much lower volume and with less energy. Finally, she collapsed on the ground and sobbed helplessly.

“You can scream the whole night, but nobody will come to help you,” the shorter thug said. He seemed in no hurry to do anything except stand there and enjoy himself, as if watching a show.

“Please don’t hurt me…I don’t want to die…” Olivia begged as she sobbed.

“Keep begging; it turns me on even more than your screaming. I won’t hurt you, and I guarantee we’ll have a good time together,” said the shorter thug.

By now, Olivia found that she was able to think again. There were reports about a series of murders of young women in the past few months, but they had all happened in the suburbs on the outskirts of the city. She would never have imagined that this could happen to her with so many people on the streets. Looking at the large knives on their belts visible through their open jackets, Olivia knew the truth: she would not survive tonight.

It felt strange even to herself after realizing her fate, but Olivia actually calmed down completely and felt relief. She was no longer scared. Closing her eyes, she could see Leo’s face in her mind: his kind eyes, his witty jokes, his lovely grin. Olivia could even sense a trace of sadness on his handsome face, as if he didn’t want to see her so soon.

“Leo, I miss you so much. I’ll see you soon,” Olivia murmured. Then she heard a calm voice.

“Let her go!”

Olivia was shocked. It was Leo’s voice, but that was impossible. Was she imagining things because she was facing her own death? Olivia was afraid to open her eyes to find out the truth. Even if it was only her imagination, she wanted it to last as long as possible. It gave her some comfort in her desperate situation, even if it was only a delusion. A few short moments passed, but nothing happened. With great reluctance, Olivia forced herself to open her eyes. She saw the young homeless man who had chased her earlier standing in front of these thugs.

Feeling disappointed and sorry for this young man, she cried, “Please go away and leave me alone. I don’t want you getting hurt too.”

“Let her go!” the young man repeated calmly while staring at the thugs.

“You should listen to her and leave, but I wouldn’t let you go anyway,” the short thug said.

The young man didn’t move. “I’ll let you live if you leave now.”

“I am so scared,” laughed the shorter thug. He then signalled the other thugs. “Kill him!”

Olivia stared at what was happening in front of her in total horror: the four thugs launched themselves at the young man. They were fast, and they looked like they were well trained; soon they surrounded the young man.

The young man seemed very calm. He fought with the four thugs furiously. The struggle was fast and violent; blood splashed out as punches tore wounds on their bodies.

“Don’t kill him. I want to capture him alive,” ordered the shorter thug.

Although the young man fought strongly, his opponents were too many and too strong for him to deal with. He knelt down after a heavy blow to his stomach. Olivia couldn’t help but scream out loud as a thug used his large knife’s blunt handle to knock the back of the young man’s head.

The young man fell to the ground. Just as Olivia thought it would be the end of him—and her—she was astonished to see him bounce up immediately. Like an enraged lion, inhuman roars came out of his mouth; blood from his head injury soaked the back of his shirt. His fighting style suddenly changed, so unfamiliar to Olivia that she assumed it was some kind of Kung Fu.

The young man moved rapidly in circles, so fast and agile that his opponents’ attacks always missed him at the last moment. Rather than using his fists, he used the edges of his palms, chopping at the thugs.

The situation changed immediately. The young man used his palm to chop one thug on the back of his neck and struck another in his throat; both fell on the ground, still.

“What the hell is this? Kill him.” Withdrawing his large military knife, the shorter thug joined the battle.

Three large blades shone under the pale lights of the parking lot, slashing at the young man. Olivia screamed after a few cuts found the young man’s arms and legs. He ran away from the crowd, and the thugs pursued closely.

The young man suddenly turned sideways, twisting his body and gripping the first thug’s wrist; with a slick manoeuvre, the large knife was in his hand. It seemed like a smooth and continuous movement: gripping the wrist, taking over the knife, and slicing it through the thug’s throat.

Before Olivia could make any sound or the remaining two thugs were able to react, the young man stretched his arm, making a large curve. As blood spilled into mid-air, the other two thugs fell to the ground with heavy thudding sounds.

It suddenly became silent, deadly silent, literally. Olivia stared at the bodies of the dead thugs scattered over the parking lot, lying still in their own blood. It felt so unreal, as if she was in a nightmare. Turning, she saw the young man had fallen to the ground. He struggled to a sitting position and tore strips from his own clothes to cover his wounds. Only then was Olivia jolted back to her senses; she quickly walked over and helped him to bandage his wounds to stop the bleeding.

“Are they all dead?” he asked. The wild expression on his face made her scared; he looked like a wounded wild animal.

Olivia nodded.

The expression on his face changed to relief; he breathed out deeply.

“I’m calling the police and an ambulance now…” Olivia tapped her wrist while speaking but he said urgently, “No police, no ambulance, no authority. Please.” He paused and asked curiously, “Why are you tapping your wrist?”

“I am making the phone call…never mind,” said Olivia. “Okay, I won’t make the call. Are you able to walk?” She wouldn’t be able to carry his large body.

He nodded.

“My apartment is very close to here. Would you like to come to my place so we can get you fixed up?” asked Olivia. She felt uneasy inviting a stranger to her apartment, but under the circumstances she knew she had no choice.

He nodded again.

“I am Olivia. What’s your name?”

“Nice to meet you, Olivia. I am…” A shocked expression suddenly appeared on his face. “I can’t remember my name.”

2. Stay

Olivia looked at him very worriedly; the heavy blow to the back of his head might have damaged his memory. They’d need to leave here and get to her apartment first. She went over and stripped the long overcoat from one of the dead thugs. Thankfully it was clear of blood. She helped the nameless young man to put the coat on to cover his blood-covered body. Olivia put his arm around her shoulder and then helped him to slowly walk out of the parking lot.

Olivia helped inside her apartment and laid him on the couch in the living area. As if he had used up his last drop of energy, he fell asleep as soon as his head touched the couch. Olivia hoped nobody saw him on their way up.

“Dinner for two tonight, miss?” her oven asked.

“Shut up! I don’t need dinner,” said Olivia.

“No need to be so rude. I would also like to remind you to get his food ration coupons, because men can eat a lot,” said the oven.

“Sorry, but I am busy right now. First aid, come here,” Olivia ordered.

Soon a box walked over to her on its four legs. “What can I do for you, my lady?”

“Not me, him.” Olivia pointed at the nameless young man lying on her couch, fast sleep.

A beam of blue light issued from the box and scanned the young man’s body a few times. “Despite quite a lot of blood covering his body, the wounds on his arms and legs are quite superficial, but the injury on the back of his head is most worrying. It could have potentially damaged his brain or caused memory loss.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Olivia wasn’t in a good mood. She paused and then said, “Tell me what I should do first.”

Olivia used wet towels to wipe the blood from his face and then stared at the blood-soaked bandages. She had no idea where to start.

“Miss, you’ll need to take the bandages off and redress the wound,” said the first aid box.

“I know bloody well I have to do that, it’s just I haven’t done such a thing before.” Olivia contemplated how to handle the tasks ahead of her.

“I’d suggest using a pair of sterilized scissors to cut the old bandages off. Here are the scissors, miss.” A pair of medical scissors was handed over by the first aid box.

“I haven’t done such a thing before. What happens if I cut his skin by mistake? What should I do if I cause the wound to start bleeding again?” Olivia stared at the scissors, very afraid to pick them up.

Maybe Olivia and the medical box’s conversation woke him up, but the young man opened his eyes, looking at Olivia and then the box with the scissors held in its outstretched mechanical arm. “Please don’t worry about redressing my wound. Just let me sleep and I’ll be all right tomorrow morning.” After that, he went back to sleep again.

“Miss, I’d strongly suggest you redress the wound before it gets infected…” Olivia interrupted the box by putting her index finger on her lips.

“Shush. Go back where you came from, now!” she said quietly but firmly. “And be quiet!” she added.

The medical box shook its arm as if shaking its head and slowly and quietly re-packed itself, then walked soundlessly out of the living area.

In the dark, Olivia sat against the couch, watching him sleep soundly. She thought about her life as a single woman for the last five years and how weird it felt to have a man sleeping on her couch.

Olivia first met Leo ten years ago when she was still an eighteen-year-old university student. She could still remember clearly the first moment she lay eyes on him. She went to a free evening lecture about artificial consciousness. Olivia wasn’t keen on the topic and was dragged there by her then-roommate. She told her roommate that she’d stay there a maximum of fifteen minutes and would walk straight out. Of course, after seeing the speaker—Leo, then a PhD student—Olivia not only stayed for the whole two-hour lecture but also attended every single one of his public speeches in the six months after that. Later, after they were involved, Leo told her that he noticed her on her first appearance during his speech. Olivia would never forget how sweet and lovely Leo was; memories of the time they spent together flooded back, making her smile. They both believed they had finally found their true soul mate. But. There’s always a but. Olivia shook her head bitterly. Her boyfriend, her true love, was killed in an accident five years ago, almost exactly five years after they first met each other.

After Leo’s death, she had been through regular psychological therapy up until recently. Almost everyone around her, including her psychologist, told her that she was still in the denial stage of her grieving process and needed to move on, but she had no interest in any male. Her family members and friends had tried to get her to meet with other guys, and she politely declined them all. Later, her friends suggested she should get a Taibot boyfriend like most of them, and she thought that was an even more stupid idea.

A few months after Leo’s death, Zoe suggested sharing an apartment with her in Sydney CBD. Olivia knew that Zoe did this purely for her benefit, because Zoe had no need to spend money renting such an expensive apartment in central Sydney; she travelled overseas most of the time and only spent a few days in Sydney occasionally, so she could easily stay with her family. Olivia did appreciate Zoe’s generous help and real friendship. In fact, all of her friends from her university years, like Sophie, Ava, and many others, were very helpful.

Despite what everyone else told her consistently, despite the fact she knew it sounded ridiculous, somehow, deep down in her heart, Olivia felt that Leo was still alive somewhere. Leo worked as a researcher in an artificial intelligent laboratory when the fatal accident happened, but she hadn’t been told what happened to his body. It might have been cremated or buried; she had no idea. More strangely, she was unable to find out, since the accident was a highly classified national security matter. She shook her head and sighed; everyone else might be right and she might still be in denial about Leo’s death.

Listening to his even breathing, Olivia couldn’t believe that she could be attracted to this stranger, a nameless young man she knew nothing about. Maybe it was because when she first heard his voice, it sounded like Leo’s, or more likely it was because he had saved her life.

Olivia swore that his voice sounded exactly like Leo’s when she heard it with her eyes closed the very first time, but later, after seeing the voice owner’s face, she had difficulty associating Leo with this stranger. It could well be that when she was facing death, her brain played a trick on her. Working as a corporate psychological consultant, Olivia knew about these kinds of mind tricks very well.

Olivia stared at the young man in the darkness; how could he fight like that and kill the five big, strong, and armed thugs? How did he know that strange Kung Fu style? Why didn’t he want to contact the police or authorities? When this thought burst into her mind, Olivia shuddered: could he be a criminal? Or was he on the most wanted list of some government?

No, there was no way he could be a criminal, not with the way he fought in order to save her life. So the alternative would be that he could be a secret agent, like Zoe. Maybe he was on a secret mission for the UK government. That made sense, since he had a British accent. That would explain how he was able to fight like that and kill the thugs. Yes, that was more likely the case.

It was a big relief to solve the mystery. Olivia felt much better. With that thought fixed in her mind, she fell asleep sitting against the couch.

Olivia opened her eyes and smiled at the wonderful smell of coffee. He was already up, looking showered and shaved, and had also helped himself to Leo’s clothes, which were still hanging in her wardrobe. For a brief moment, she thought it was Leo standing in front of her.

He put a tray of breakfast and a mug of coffee on the coffee table beside her. She was confused and unable to speak for a while. Finally, she said, “How do you feel?”

“I am fine,” he said casually.

Olivia looked at him in great disbelief; the wound on the back of his head was gone. The hair over the wound was washed and looked shiny. She wondered if the wounds on his arms and legs were healed as well. Just then, her phone rang, and her mother appeared on her whole-wall TV screen. It was fortunate her mother was unable to see her apartment because she rarely enabled the image function on her phone. She didn’t have time to deal with her mother right now, so Olivia typed on her wrist to turn her phone off.

“Is the thin film sticking to your wrist a phone?” asked the nameless young man.

“You don’t know that?” Olivia asked, surprised. “Yes, it’s a phone. I remember you asking the same question last night. So you don’t know it because you lost your memories?”

“I don’t know.”

Olivia thought about it for a while and then said, “The wound on the back of your head has gone. How could you recover so quickly?”

“I don’t know. This morning when I woke up, I had a shower, and everything seems fine,” he said.

Olivia nodded. The answer could be part of his lost memory. Then she felt a pang of fear as a thought came into her mind, but she kept telling herself that it was not possible. “Can you remember anything before the fight last night?”

He shook his head. “I can only remember from the moment I found you in the underground parking lot. I have no memories before that.”

“I suppose you have no idea how you were able to fight like that and kill the five thugs.” She continued after he nodded. “I gave this a lot of thoughts last night: you could be a secret agent working for the UK government, and that’d explain your excellent fighting abilities.”

“On the other hand, I could be a wanted criminal,” he said.

Olivia liked his sense of humour, which reminded her of Leo somehow. She told herself that she had to try to forget about Leo, at least in front of this young man. She shook her head. “No, you are not a criminal, not after the way you risked your life to save mine.”

“I don’t know.” The expression on his face showed his frustration.

“Please don’t push yourself too hard. Just relax, and your memories might come back soon.” Olivia picked up the coffee mug, took a sip and smiled. She hadn’t tasted such perfectly made coffee since Leo passed away; Leo was the only one able to make it. No, she had to switch her mind away from Leo, Olivia reminded herself again. “Did you or the machine make this coffee?”

“I don’t like coffee from machines. It lacks character.” He sat on the couch beside her.

Yes, that was Leo’s usual line. What was wrong with her? Why did she associate everything he said and did with Leo? Olivia decided to go back to the most important issue. “Let’s assume you are not a wanted criminal; do you have any idea why you don’t want to contact the police or authorities?”

“There could be many possibilities, but it’s almost meaningless to talk about them,” he said.

Olivia carefully chose her words. “My roommate, Zoe, is a secret field agent working for the Australian government. She may be able to help you out.”

“Your roommate? Where is she now?”

“She is in Africa at the moment but will be back tomorrow night.”

He seemed to think about her proposal for a while and then shook his head. “No, I don’t want to get involved with any kind of authorities. I don’t know why.”

Olivia thought about it for a long time and then made up her mind. “Last night, if you hadn’t fought the thugs, I would have died for sure, and you lost your memories as a result. I don’t care if you are a wanted criminal. I want to help you and protect you.” She paused, staring into his eyes for a second, and then continued. “Stay here with me until you recover your memories; otherwise, it could be very dangerous for you to go out. Someone could be out there looking for you and trying to hurt you.”

Olivia smiled after seeing him nod.

“Sorry for taking them without asking.” He indicated the clothes he wore.

Olivia shook her head. “No problem. They fit you perfectly.”

“Are they your boyfriend’s?”

Olivia nodded.

“Did he leave you?”

“No,” Olivia said quietly. “He died in an accident.”

“I am sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Olivia sipped some of her coffee. She could see the genuine apologetic and sympathetic expression on his face; it made her feel reassured. “What should I call you, since you can’t remember your own name?”

“Hang on.” He seemed to suddenly remember something.

Olivia thought his memory had somehow recovered, but her hope faded as he disappeared into the bathroom. She didn’t have to wait long before he returned. Olivia looked at him expectantly.

He put his hand forward; a piece of thin film was lying on his palm. “I found this stuck on my wrist this morning when I had a shower. It must be my phone. You may be able to find out something about me from it.”

Olivia cursed herself internally. How could she miss such a basic thing last night? Well, it was a very traumatic event. How could she be expected to pay attention to what was on his wrist with so much blood on his body? Anyway, that didn’t matter now.

Olivia put her wrist over the thin film and typed on her wrist a few times; the contents of the film were displayed on her whole-wall TV screen.

3. Africa

“What time is our flight?” Zoe stared at the endless stream of refugees walking along the dusty road. It was supposedly the rainy season in North Africa, but there hadn’t been a drop of rain in this part of the world for the last five years.

“Ten tonight,” Nick answered.

Zoe glanced at her wrist. “That’s almost eight hours away. Why did we leave so early?”

“Because of these people, my lady.” The captain, who sat in the passenger seat, turned to Zoe, gesturing at the endless crowd outside of their military jeep.

“I am sorry…” Zoe mumbled.

“You should be! Thanks to the pollution you westerners created, global warming destroyed our homeland. Do you know how many people died just last year?”

“Approximately fifty million died from starvation and malnutrition in Africa last year, but nobody knows the exact number because…”

“It’s a rhetorical question; he doesn’t need an answer,” Zoe said to Nick.

“Yes, I do, my lady.” The captain gazed into Zoe’s eyes. “You westerners pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for hundreds of years to gain your wealth, but it is the innocent people, my people, who have to pay the price. Do you know that the famine is so bad that people have started eating the dead? Do you know how many of them have never used electricity in their whole life?”

“I don’t have exact data for that question…”

“Shut up, Nick,” Zoe said. “We are all very sorry for what is happening here. It was the biggest mistake human civilization ever made. But we have gotten rid of most fossil fuels in our society…”

“That’s not good enough,” the captain interrupted. “Rich countries like yours need to help our people to survive at least, to redeem your mistakes.”

“We have tried our best to help, but we hardly even produce enough food for ourselves,” Zoe said quietly.

“Of course you can’t. You have not only killed my people but your own people as well. Very soon we will all be doomed; the human race will be terminated.” The captain kept his gaze on Zoe’s face.

Zoe turned her head away, avoiding the captain’s eyes, staring at the people walking under the scorching sunlight. Her eyes met a young mother’s, who was holding a baby and walking just outside of her window. The jeep was moving at the same speed as the crowd. Zoe smiled at the young mother, who smiled back, then suddenly collapsed.

“Stop the car!” Zoe shouted.

“What’s the matter, my lady?” said the captain.

“She just collapsed, and she had a baby in her arms.” Zoe pointed outside the window.

“People are dying everywhere.” The captain didn’t even look out of the car. “You can’t help everyone…”

Zoe opened the door and jumped out of the slow-moving vehicle. She tried to squeeze through the refugee crowd, trying to reach the young women. She didn’t get very far before the captain and Nick caught up with her. The dozen soldiers who sat in the back of the military truck leading her jeep also quickly surrounded Zoe to form a protective circle.

“Do you have a death wish?” shouted the captain.

“I can’t let her die in front of my eyes. She can have my food and water,” Zoe shouted back.

“If you westerners had thought about others a bit earlier, these people wouldn’t be suffering now.” The captain paused and then said, “Please get back to the car. You will be torn to pieces if you stay in the crowd alone.”

“Do they really hate us that much?” asked Zoe.

“Millions of people have already died and millions more are dying. Would you blame them for hating westerners like you who caused all of this in the first place? I would have killed you myself if I had not been ordered to protect you. Nick, get your master into the jeep, now!” shouted the captain again.

“Please let me just give her some food and water,” said Zoe.

The captain nodded reluctantly.

Under the escort of dozens of soldiers, Zoe walked to the young woman. She held the woman’s head against her chest and fed her some water. Slowly the young woman opened her eyes and said something to Zoe. Nick translated.

“Thank you so much… I always dreamed that I could experience life like you… I have never drunk Coca-Cola…”

Zoe turned around. “Nick, do you have some Coke with you?”

Zoe put the can of Coke against the young woman’s mouth, feeding her a tiny bit of the liquid.

“It’s so sweet… I finally drank Coke…”

Zoe felt the woman’s head falling on her chest. Her malnourished body was so thin it felt like no weight at all. Zoe turned to Nick. “What happened?”

Nick took the woman off Zoe and laid her body on the ground gently. “Zoe, she just passed away.”

“Passed away?” It took Zoe a few seconds to understand Nick’s words. She suddenly remembered something. “The baby. We need to help her baby.”

Nick lifted Zoe to her feet. “The baby passed away a while ago. Let’s go back to the car.”

As their jeep drove on, Zoe observed the bodies scattered along the roadside in silence. Despite scientists warning the governments around the world for decades, no real actions had been taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so it was no surprise that the global average temperature rose two degrees Celsius by 2026 compared with pre-industrial revolution temperatures. It was supposedly going to happen by the end of the twenty-first century. During the following decade, due to the soaring temperatures, weather patterns changed worldwide; crop harvests reduced dramatically, particularly in developing countries, and as a result, food shortages caused global famine. The mid-west of the US once again turned into a dust bowl. Food-exporting countries like the US and Australia only just produced enough food for their own people, so while the rich countries could still manage to feed their own people, the poor countries suffered great loss of life… While Zoe was lost in her own thoughts, she heard Nick suddenly say, “Why are we changing direction?”

Zoe then realized that their vehicle had peeled off from the main road. “Captain, that’s not the direction to the airport.”

“It’s not, but we would never get to the airport in time if you insist on stopping to help collapsed mothers and crying babies,” said the captain. “This way we’ll have to drive a longer distance, but there will be far fewer people on the road, so we can drive much faster, and you will be able to catch your flight tonight.”

The image that appeared on the wall was a UK passport. The 3D photo matched the young man standing in front of her. Olivia felt a great sense of relief. “Toby, your name is Toby.”

“Toby. I suppose it’s my name.” There was no sign of any recognition from him.

“Nice to meet you, Toby.” Olivia hugged him warmly. She was over the moon; after seeing his subdued reception, she calmed down a bit. An awkward silence fell between them briefly. She typed on her wrist, and the TV news appeared on her wall, on the northernmost tip of Australia, in front of the lined-up Australian warships, thousands of refugees’ fishing boats covered the narrow sea between Australia and its neighbouring countries. A male voice reported, “After last night’s storm, many boats sank, and an estimate of over a thousand people drowned. You are watching a report by Jonathan Media…”

“Why weren’t these refugees allowed to get into Australia?” asked Toby.

Olivia found it very hard to answer Toby’s very basic question. For decades, refugees had been an extremely sensitive topic in the Australian political landscape. In order to demonstrate their toughness toward people smugglers, politicians made some inhumane decisions to gain political points. As a result, those poor and vulnerable people were placed in indefinite detention, subject to unbearable living conditions. And that was well before the global warming-caused famine started… Just as she was struggling to find something to say, another breaking news story burst onto the screen. It took Olivia’s breath away, literally.

It said that last night a group of religious extremists blew up the Australian AI laboratory. The explosion collapsed large parts of the building. Fortunately, there were very few employees inside the building at the time, but it had been confirmed that the chief scientist, Professor Smith, together with a couple of security guards, had been killed in the blast…

Olivia couldn’t believe her ears. Tears flowed down her cheeks. She didn’t hear the rest of the report. She just sat there and stared at the wall, eyes unfocused… Finally, Olivia was able to focus again, and she saw Toby was watching the news intently. How long had she lost focus? It couldn’t have been too long, since the same piece of news was still being reported on the screen. Toby was completely immersed in the news, seemingly unaware of Olivia’s reaction.

Then Toby turned to Olivia. “You seem quite upset by the news.”

“Of course I am upset. People were killed.”

“Who was Professor Smith? The name sounds very familiar,” asked Toby.

“Didn’t you hear? The news mentioned he was the chief scientist at the lab.”

“Yes, I heard that, but the name means something to me; something far more than that. I wish I could remember what it is,” Toby said.

Me too, Olivia thought to herself.

“What’s your relationship with this man Professor Smith?” asked Toby.

“What makes you think there is a relationship between us?”

“I can tell from your body language,” Toby said with confidence.

Olivia wiped her tears with the back of her hand and then said, “Professor Smith was Leo’s father.”

“Who’s Leo?”

“Oh, I forgot to mention that Leo was my ex-boyfriend.”

“I am so sorry.”

Toby’s voice and facial expression showed his genuine sorrow, and that made Olivia feel better. “John was a very good man, and one of the smartest scientists I’ve ever met.”

“In my lost memories, I may know him very well.” Toby shook his head. “Please tell me something about him. I mean Professor Smith.”

“Professor Smith was one of the few scientists who truly believed that it is possible to create artificial consciousness. He has been working in the field for the last three decades…”

“Artificial consciousness?” Toby interrupted. “Do you mean artificial intelligent?”

“No, I mean artificial consciousness,” said Olivia firmly.

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, let me tell you a story first,” said Olivia. “A guy is inside an enclosed room, and there are two slits in the wall; one opens to the inside, and the other to the outside. When a piece of paper is pushed through the in-slit, the guy’s instructions are to find a shape-matching piece of paper from a pile of paper inside the room and then push it out through the out-slit. Despite the seemingly random squiggles on the paper that don’t mean anything to him, by following the instructions, he performs his duty perfectly. The squiggles on the paper are in fact questions and answers written in Chinese, so from an outsider’s viewpoint, this guy is proficient in the Chinese language and capable of understanding and answering questions in Chinese. It’s called ‘Chinese Room’ in artificial consciousness terms.”

“You mean artificial consciousness is about self-awareness?” asked Toby.

“You are getting there,” nodded Olivia.

“Had he managed to create artificial consciousness?” Toby asked.

“Not that I know of.” Olivia shook her head.

“You don’t believe it’s possible, do you?”

“What makes you say that?” asked Olivia curiously.

“I concluded it from your body language,” Toby said simply.

“Well, I’ll need to be more careful about my body language next time, especially in front of you.” Olivia gazed at Toby, but there was no expression in his blue eyes.

“Body language can reveal one’s most secret thoughts, and few people are able to hide it from skilful observers,” said Toby in a matter-of-fact manner.

“It seems that you are such an expert in reading others’ body language.” Olivia paused. “And secret thoughts. What am I thinking now?”

“I don’t need to decipher your body language this time; I can just read it from your face. You are wondering how and where I got such an ability. It could be a gift or I could be trained. All the answers are here but lost for the moment.” Toby patted his own head. “Could I ask you a couple more questions?” Toby said carefully, and continued after Olivia nodded. “Why would someone want to blow up the lab?”

Olivia used a tissue to wipe her face, feeling a bit calmer. “Because these fanatics believe creating artificial consciousness is against God.”

“Was there such an attack on the lab before?”

“A few report about threats and warnings but no real actions.” Olivia got herself a glass of water, sipped a bit and then sat down on the sofa again.

“So the question is why they took action now. Could it be that Professor Smith had some kind of breakthrough recently?” asked Toby.

“Possibly,” said Olivia thoughtfully. The news in the background became quite loud, so Olivia was about to turn it off but stopped. It was being reported that the police had found five people dead in an underground parking lot in central Sydney. The reporter said that, based on the initial investigation, the bodies belonged to the infamous international crime organization God’s Wishes, so it could be an internal turf war.

“Definitely,” Toby said, and his voice imitated the reporter’s. It made Olivia laugh. She liked his sense of humour; it was so much like Leo’s. However, what the reporter said next wiped out any light feeling from both of them.

“A confirmed source stated that the killing happened just after the explosion in the AI laboratory, so there is some speculation that there may be some connection between the two incidents…”

Toby exchanged a look with Olivia. “Are you thinking what I am thinking?”

“Maybe, but it’s impossible…”

“I know exactly what’s in your mind. Let’s face it: I appeared in the underground parking lot just after the lab explosion. I had the skill to carry out the attack. I also seemingly have some connections to and knowledge about Professor Smith in my lost memories…”

“Yes, I did think along those lines.” Olivia interrupted him. “But you risked your own life to save mine, so I don’t believe you could be the one who carried out the attack.”

“I could still be a fanatic,” said Toby.

“You don’t sound like one to me.”

“How do you know that? That could be because I lost my memories.”

“Hang on,” Olivia said. “When you appeared in the parking lot to save my life, you hadn’t lost your memories then. What you said and did didn’t sound like a fanatic terrorist to me, and it definitely didn’t sound like one who just blew up a whole lab.”

“Thank you for trusting me, and I hope you are right.”

“I know I am right; it’s intuition. My intuition has been proved correct in the past.” Olivia gazed into Toby’s eyes. “You know I am telling the truth, don’t you?”

Toby nodded and suddenly frowned. “You have a visitor, right outside of your door.”

“Impossible.” Olivia hadn’t managed to complete a sentence when they heard a knock on the door.

4. Global Warming

“How can we go back to headquarters without finding the Taibot bodyguard in question?” Nick asked quietly.

They were driving along a deserted road through the dry land. There was no grass, trees or any living plant in sight. The jeep stayed a reasonable distance away from the escorting military truck ahead in order to avoid its long, dusty tail. The captain was leaning his head against the headrest and had completely ignored Zoe during the last couple of hours of driving.

“Come on, Nick. We have been searching for the damn Taibot for over a month and can’t carry on indefinitely,” Zoe said in a low voice.

“Have we confirmed that it’s not the Taibot who killed the tribe chief?”

“Of course we have.” Zoe stared at Nick. “How could you ask such a question? You are a Taibot yourself. You know well that all Taibots manufactured in Australia have ethical codes imbedded in the chips in their heads. In this case, it’s obvious the chief’s brother killed him and blamed the Taibot.”

“But without the Taibot, we can’t prove the case.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever find the Taibot. They could have completely destroyed it and made it disappear from the surface of the earth. I wish that every Taibot had a black box that could be located remotely; it’d make my job a lot easier. Why don’t they have a bloody black box?”

“It’s because of the privacy law…”

“Nick, that was a rhetorical question,” Zoe said.

“Eh.” Nick shook his head.

Olivia tapped her wrist once, and the visitor’s image came up on her TV screen. It was her mother. Her mother must think she was sick since she hadn’t answered her phone call. Why did she always visit her at the most inconvenient moments?

“It’s my mother. Toby, just tell her that we met yesterday on the street, and you need to stay with me for a few days.”

Toby nodded.

While cursing internally, Olivia reluctantly opened the door and let her mother in.

As soon as she saw Toby, Olivia’s mother’s eyes brightened. “Oh, I didn’t know you had a visitor. Hi, I am Liv’s mother, Mia.”

“Hi, Mia, nice to meet you. I am Toby.”

“Nice to meet you too, Toby.” Mia stared at Toby for a few seconds longer and then turned to Olivia. “Why haven’t you mentioned Toby to me before?”

“It’s because we only met yesterday,” said Olivia. She tried very hard to think of an excuse to get rid of her mother.

“Oh, how lovely.” Mia turned to Toby. “Toby, how did you two meet?”

Olivia spoke before Toby had a chance. “Mum, Toby and I have a few urgent things that need to be dealt with.”

“All right.” Mia laughed. “I am on my way to do some shopping in the city, so I will leave you alone.” Mia walked toward the door but stopped. She turned to Toby. “Toby, we’re having a family barbecue tomorrow afternoon. Would you be able to join us?”

How could she forget about the family gathering completely? Olivia was about to say that they had something already scheduled, but Toby said, “Thanks for your invitation, Mia. I am more than happy to attend as long as it’s okay with Liv.”

“Of course. Liv would like to introduce you to our family, so see you tomorrow then, Toby.” Mia smiled broadly, walking out of the apartment.

“Why did you agree to attend my family’s barbecue?” asked Olivia.

“I thought it’d be rude to decline such a lovely invitation.”

“But I thought you didn’t want to have anything to do with authorities.” Olivia sat back on the sofa.

“It’s hardly getting involved with authorities to attend your family gathering; besides, it’d cause more unnecessary attention if I didn’t go.”

Olivia thought about it and agreed that Toby’s reasoning had some weight behind it. “If that’s the case, you will need some clothes.”

“There are quite a few in your wardrobe, and they seem to fit me perfectly.”

“No, you can’t wear them; they belonged to Leo,” Olivia said firmly.

Toby nodded but didn’t say anything.

Olivia tapped her wrist a few times. Racks and racks of clothes appeared on her TV screen. She flicked her fingers to zoom in on some racks. “What kind of clothes do you like?”

“Tomorrow is forecasted to be thirty-nine degrees, so a T-shirt and shorts would be suitable.”

Olivia waved her hands, zooming and flapping through dozens more racks of clothes, but she failed to find anything that satisfied her. “Completely useless,” she mumbled to herself, and then selected the customer design option. It didn’t take long for Olivia to finish her own design.

“Take your clothes off.” Olivia turned to Toby.

“What for?”

“You wear underwear, don’t you? I just want to see if my design looks okay on you.” Olivia felt amused at seeing Toby’s reaction to her request.

Toby took off his clothes awkwardly and finally stood in front of Olivia in only his underwear.

Olivia observed Toby closely. Although not surprised, she was still amazed to see the perfect skin on his arms and legs; the gash wounds inflicted merely fifteen hours ago were completely gone. While admiring his perfect body, Olivia felt a heavy blanket of doubt falling onto her mind. She shook her head to get her focus back on what she was doing. She tapped a few more times on her wrist, and then her newly designed T-shirt and shorts appeared on Toby’s body in a hologram form.

“What do you think?” Olivia gestured at the TV screen behind Toby.

Toby turned around, observing his own image on the wall for a while. “I like it; you should be a fashion designer.”

That’s exactly what Leo would say. Even the tone was exactly like Leo’s as she remembered it. Why did she associate everything about Toby with Leo? She had to stop doing it. “The drone will be delivering the clothes to you shortly. You can put your clothes back on now.”

Olivia then had an idea. “Toby, based on the delicious breakfast you made for me, it seems that you are quite good at cooking. I just wondered if you are also good at making dessert. Of course, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

“I am more than happy to contribute to your family’s gathering, and yes, I can make pavlova.”

Olivia felt her heart skip a beat; this was just too much to be a coincidence. She tried to speak as normally as she could. “That’d be great. Everyone loves Pavlova. You would be the best guest ever in my family’s history.”

“You seem very excited about the idea of me making Pavlova, but the reason is not what you said.”

Olivia smiled. “So you confess that you can’t work out what I am thinking.”

Toby shook his head. “Women’s minds are the hardest thing to understand in the whole universe.”

Olivia dreamed about Toby, and suddenly Leo walked into the apartment. Toby and Leo started having an argument; Leo pointed a gun at Toby and was about to shoot him. “Oh, no,” Olivia cried out loud.

“Are you all right?” Toby asked from outside of her bedroom door.

It took a second for Olivia to work out what had happened. “I am okay; just a nightmare.”

“I have nightmares, too. Good night.”

“Thanks, Toby. Good night.” Olivia smiled to herself.

“What time are we supposed to be there?” asked Toby. It was late morning the next day, Sunday.

Olivia looked at her wrist. “Two-ish, I guess.”

“In that case, we need to get the ball rolling.” Toby opened the fridge. “We don’t have any eggs.”

“Of course you don’t have eggs,” said the fridge. “It’s because eggs are rationed and every person is only allowed an egg every fortnight.”

“Really?” Toby turned to Olivia.

“Toby, don’t you know about the food ration?”

Toby shook his head. “It might be part of my lost memories. Please explain it to me.”

“There’s not much to explain. Due to global warming, harvests dropped significantly around the world, and Australia is struggling to produce enough grain for its own people, so there is no extra to feed domestic animals. As a result, meat, milk, eggs, and any other animal-related food products are strictly rationed.”

“What about agricultural technologies? Can’t we produce some kind of new crops that are able to grow in hotter climates? Or in controlled environments indoors?”

Olivia shook her head. “I don’t fully understand the science, but it seems there is no such crop being produced. There are many large parking lot-like buildings used to grow vegetables. They are called vertical farms, but they are insufficient to supply the whole population.”

“Close my door to save energy; don’t you know about global warming?” shouted the fridge.

“Oh, sorry.” Toby closed the fridge’s door. “I thought it was called climate change back in 2018,” said Toby.

So he was able to remember things back then; that was eighteen years ago. Based on Toby’s passport, he was only eighteen in 2018. Olivia wondered if Toby could remember anything else from that period. Well, that was eight years before she met Leo for the first time, and she was only ten years old then. “It’s still called climate change now; I just used to call it global warming. Climate change would be more accurate because weather becomes much colder in some regions.”

Toby nodded. “I remember reading about that; although most people believed in climate change, not many believed it would happen so soon. Everyone thought it’d get a bit warmer and the sea level would rise a few inches by the end of the century. That’s even what it said in the IPCC’s report, so how could it change so dramatically in such a short time?”

“You don’t remember anything about what happened in the last eighteen years, do you?” Olivia continued after Toby shook his head. “IPCC underestimated climate change completely. The climate change models used in the study assumed linear progress of global weather and ecosystems, but in reality, the situation has been deteriorating exponentially due to many self-reinforcement loops near the Arctic Circle.”

“Self-reinforcement loops?” asked Toby.

“After the ice in the Arctic Circle shrank due to the higher temperatures caused by climate change, the darker ocean water absorbed more sunlight, rather than the white ice surface reflecting it. That resulted in even bigger temperature rises, which caused more ice to melt, and so on. It’s a downward death-spiral…”

“I see…” Toby stared at her in disbelief.

Olivia laughed bitterly. “Just recently the average global temperature has reached three degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. Bushfires destroyed most of the Amazon rainforest last year, and global food production plummeted.”

“Oh dear, there must be a global famine now,” Toby murmured.

“You can say that again.” Olivia sighed. “Over two hundred million people died last year due to food shortage, disease, and civil wars around the world. Scientists estimate that if the crop harvest conditions are not improved next year, millions, even billions, will perish…”

“My God, I would never have imagined that it could become so bad,” said Toby. He thought about it and then said, “I assume most of those deaths occurred in poor countries?”

“Yes, of course; Africa, South America, Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East. Poor people have paid with their lives for westerners’ accumulation of wealth.” Olivia wiped away her tears.

“What happened to the rich countries? I mean Europe and the US,” asked Toby.

Before Olivia spoke again, the fridge said, “Well, southern Europeans migrated to Scandinavian regions, and the US merged with Canada, becoming United Canada, or UC. Apparently all Canadians voted ‘overwhelmingly and willingly to merge with the US.’”

Toby turned to the fridge. “Very impressive. You are such a politically savvy fridge, aren’t you?”

“Well, this is all on the Internet; all you need to do is look. I have a lot of free time, so I read quite a bit,” said the fridge. “Here are just a few such examples.”

Toby stared at the fast-rolling articles and images on the TV screen on the fridge’s front door and then shouted, “Stop! Back a bit. Yes, that article about the methane threat in the Arctic region.”

He read the article with rapt interest.

The release of the potent greenhouse gas from the Arctic Ocean floor does not only increase the global temperature; unlike CO2, methane is flammable. Even in air-methane concentrations as low as five percent, the mixture could ignite from lightning or some other spark and send fireballs tearing across the sky. The effect would be much like the “vacuum bombs” used by the US and Russian armies, igniting fuel droplets above a target: those near the ignition point are obliterated instantly, and those at the fringes are likely to suffer many internal injuries, including burst eardrums, severe concussion, ruptured lungs and internal organs, and possibly blindness…

“I am glad that you noticed it too,” said the fridge. “Methane released from the permanently frozen soil and seabed in the Arctic could terminate all complex forms of life on Earth instantly…”

“Really?” Toby turned to Olivia. “Do you know much about the methane threat?”

Olivia shook her head. “Not much, and I don’t want to know about it either. I suggest that we should keep the ball rolling.”

Toby nodded.

“Fridge, order a dozen eggs, and use express delivery,” Olivia said.

“My lady, that’d be half your yearly allowance,” said the fridge.

“Shut up and follow the order,” Olivia said.

“I was just politely reminding you about your food supply situation; it’s my duty as your food keeper… All right, I’ll carry out your command right now,” said the fridge.

Olivia watched Toby preparing to make Pavlova with great interest. His every move, gesture and expression was just too much like Leo’s to be coincidence.

“To cook the perfect Pavlova, I would suggest setting the temperature and timer as displayed. That is my recommendation, by the way,” said the oven.

Olivia tapped her wrist a few times to disable the oven’s speech function, and then turned to Toby. “They are really annoying sometimes.”

“Whoever programmed it must have a sense of humour.” Toby put the Pavlova into the oven.

“I don’t think any human programmed them. I believe that all programs are made by other programs now.” Olivia watched Toby closely, but there was no sign of anything in his expression.

“Oh, I probably would have known that if I hadn’t lost my memories.” Toby paused, thinking for a few seconds. “While I was making the Pavlova, I had this strange feeling, like I could suddenly remember something, but because it was only a piece or a hint, I was unable to link it to any memories. It’s so frustrating.”

“Just relax; you’ll recover your memories soon.” Olivia patted his arm.

“I hope so. Thanks,” said Toby, smiling.

She liked his smile. Of course, it was just like Leo’s. Olivia was completely confused; had she lost her mind?

Olivia opened the door and walked onto her balcony. Toby, who held the Pavlova, followed. A flying car zoomed in, hovering next to the balcony. Olivia pushed open the gate that was part of the balcony handrail and stepped into the car.

“Oceanside picnic site 27,” Olivia said after Toby had climbed in beside her. “Please stay with me and let me do all the talking.”

Toby nodded.

Apart from the narrow strip between Sydney and Melbourne that was still inhabitable, much of the Australian continent had become desert. Large chunks of the Australian population had squeezed into Tasmania Island. They were flying to one of the few special designated picnic spots that were not suitable for growing crops. Olivia watched the landscape underneath their flying car. “I can’t believe Australia was once a food exporting country.”

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