Chen Qiufan is a science fiction writer. His first novel was “Waste Tide.” His latest book, from which this story is excerpted, is a collaboration with Kai-Fu Lee titled “AI 2041: Ten Visions For Our Future.”
Translated by Emily Jin.
“Those who lose dreaming are lost.”
—Australian Aboriginal proverb
Standing in the foyer, Keira looked her new surroundings up and down. The home’s entryway was spacious yet cozy, with precious staghorn coral specimens and Aboriginal art arranged atop a console table made from reclaimed wood.
She had been hovering next to her suitcases in the foyer for quite some time. As she waited for the home’s owner to appear, Keira tiptoed around the adjoining rooms, paying particular attention to the pictures lining the walls. Most were mementos of a life spent on the water, featuring a dark-haired woman with a lively smile, laughing as she posed with various marine animals aboard a research vessel floating in the Coral Sea.
The woman, Keira knew, was a younger Joanna Campbell. A famed marine ecologist, Campbell had spent her entire adult life researching the preservation of coral reefs. Now 71, with no children or other relatives, she had moved here, to the home Keira was now standing in — a unit within a smart retirement community located outside Brisbane.
Officially named Sunshine Village, the retirement facility was called AI Village by the locals. Each unit in the community had been designed by AI and assembled from prefabricated modules by robots. Every door, window, cabinet, appliance and toilet had been designed by AI based on data collected from Brisbane’s elderly population and intended to optimize residents’ use of the space. Sensors measured the habits and physiological indicators of those living in Sunshine Village, as the complex’s AI offered personalized suggestions for its residents on a daily basis.
As Keira surveyed the walls of Joanna Campbell’s unit, a piece of brightly colored Aboriginal art caught her eye: a classic Papunya painting teeming with dots of different colors in a psychedelic, dreamy swirl. She was mesmerized. The image reminded her of her home, Alice Springs, a small town located in central Australia, wedged in between the MacDonnell Ranges. Using her XR glasses, Keira scanned the painting for its information and saved it to a folder named “Home.”
“Everyone who’s visited loves this painting. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Keira nearly jumped at the sound of the hoarse voice behind her.
It was Joanna Campbell herself, in an electric wheelchair. With silver hair and a frame made diminutive from the passing of years, she certainly looked different from the robust, vibrant woman in the pictures. Still, Keira noted, the woman’s eyes were just as bright and sharp, scrutinizing her visitor.
“Yes, Ms. Campbell, I am Keira. I believe that the Sunshine Village Resident Services team informed you that I would be arriving today?”
“Well, no one told me that you would let yourself in, young lady. Or should I call you ‘young girl’? I can never figure out how old you people really are.”
Blushing, Keira scrambled to explain herself. “I’m so sorry! I rang your doorbell several times, but no one answered, so I entered with the password that the Resident Services team gave me.”
“I still don’t understand why they can’t just send a robot over,” muttered Joanna. “The last caregiver they sent couldn’t stop staring at my paintings. I saw greed in his eyes, so I made sure he didn’t last long. You wouldn’t consider doing something foolish with one of my belongings, would you, child? What’s your name again?”
“Keira,” responded the girl timidly. “And of course not. My job is to help take care of you, Ms. Campbell.”
“Ha! Guess this is what happens when you’re old — you’re left at the mercy of other people. How long will you be staying for?” Contempt laced the old woman’s voice.
“The wristband matched me to this job. I guess I’ll be staying …” Keira raised her left hand and showed Joanna her flexible smart wristband, glowing with colored lights. “Until Jukurrpa decides that my task is complete,” she answered carefully.
“Please speak in plain English,” Joanna huffed.
“Oh! Jukurrpa means ‘dreaming’ in the Warlpiri language. You know, the Aboriginal origin myth and all that. To be honest, it seems like the government is paying a bit of lip service by giving the program an Aboriginal name,” said Keira, her tone unimpressed. Then she brightened. “I heard so much about you before coming over. You are amazing!”
The reality was that when Keira had met with the community’s medical director at the Resident Services office, he’d warned Keira that Joanna Campbell would be tough to deal with. All of her previous caregivers had quit because they couldn’t stand her temper.
“Oh, yes, ‘the dreaming project.’ Now I remember. A funny name. They’ve told me about it many times but my memory isn’t what it used to be,” Joanna went on, ignoring Keira’s compliment. “How much are they paying you to babysit me again?”
“Well, Project Jukurrpa pays me in Moola, not cash.”
“More young-people things I don’t understand,” said Joanna, cutting her off. “I suppose you don’t celebrate Australia Day either?”
“Um …” Keira smiled awkwardly. “Due to the problematic history of January 26, we voted to reschedule the national holiday 10 years ago. Now Australia Day is May 8 — sounds like mate, doesn’t it?”
“Ludicrous,” Joanna said, waving a hand dismissively. She turned her wheelchair around and headed for the living room. Keira stood, dazed, until Joanna’s voice rang from the front of the house. “Kala! Come help me find my glasses. I can’t read anything without them.”
“Coming!” shouted Keira. She took a deep breath and followed Joanna into the room.
Over the past year, Joanna’s smart home had determined that she was exhibiting early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. First there was the frenzy with which she had taken to opening and closing the refrigerator door, and the growing delay in locating misplaced items, like her keys. Names and faces had begun to elude her. With wisdom gleaned from the accumulated health data of millions of Australians, the signs were unmistakable to the Sunshine Village AI.
However advanced, the smart home itself could not compensate for the rate at which her mind was deteriorating. Joanna’s doctor had advised that human companionship could help alleviate the symptoms. The Sunshine Village Resident Services team had requested a companion for Joanna from Jukurrpa — or, rather, a string of companions, of which Keira was the most recent iteration.
Keira was far from unique in taking on work as a caregiver. In 2041, Australians aged 65 and over made up 35% of the entire population. At the same time, the growth of AI and the corresponding job automation meant that the unemployment rate had also skyrocketed. Now, the country’s job reallocation program struggled to keep unemployment to its current 12% of the population.
The age group hit hardest by the employment upheaval were those under 25. Most vulnerable of all, thanks in part to their long history of entrenched disadvantage, were young people within the Aboriginal population, whose members had fallen well below Australian averages in terms of education, employment, social mobility and life expectancy.
Even as many of its residents struggled, Australia could hardly count itself as underdeveloped or lacking in innovation. Its abundance of natural resources and its “AI prioritization” national development strategy had turned it into a global leader in new energy, materials science and health technology. The government relentlessly advocated for renewable energies like solar and wind, which, together with low-cost, high-capacity lithium-ion battery arrays, had driven the cost of energy down close to zero. The country had also succeeded in eliminating greenhouse gas emissions altogether, making Australia one of the first countries in the world to achieve carbon-neutral status. Aided by advancements in genomics and precision medicine, Australia’s life expectancy was now 87.2 years.
These advances — combined with the country’s stable financial system, awe-inspiring natural environment and comprehensive welfare system — had attracted millions of immigrants, most of them wealthy people looking to retire in Australia.
Still, for all that the country’s leaders had done to address big problems and turn Australia into a magnet for the global elite, the nation’s persistent inequalities had incited the anger of its young people. In their eyes, Australia had become wealthy while failing them — and failing to bring about economic and social justice to marginalized groups. In the early 2030s, young people in Brisbane and other cities around the country — feeling overlooked and robbed of a prosperous future — had taken to the streets in mass outpourings of frustration. A wave of violence, crime and conflict rippled out from these initially peaceful protests, and the turmoil had spread throughout the country.
In 2036, in response to the social unrest, the Australian government had launched Project Jukurrpa and declared that “Australia would take good care of her people.” The project, spearheaded by ISA (Innovation and Science Australia), consisted of two parts. First was the introduction of the BLC, or Basic Life Card, which guaranteed that every citizen who opted in would receive a monthly allowance to cover the cost of food, shelter, utilities, transportation, health and even basic entertainment and clothing. All thanks to the abundance of wealth and nearly free clean energy generated by the technological revolution.
The second part of the Jukurrpa program was the establishment of a virtual credit and reward system called Moola. The system rewarded citizens for voluntary community work, such as caring for children and keeping public spaces pristine. Participants’ smart wristbands collected speech data from the volunteer work and quantified it with the help of AI. The score was predicated on variables including difficulty, contribution to community and culture, degree of innovation and self-improvement, as well as the most important factor: the satisfaction of the person or community served. The data enabled the wristband to calculate the Moola earned by a participant in real-time. Moola scores were reflected on participants’ wristbands, with high scorers’ bands beaming with an array of bright colors.
With Moola, the government had intended to establish honorable service, a sense of connection and belonging, rather than monetary wealth, as a true measure of an individual’s value. In reality, Moola had more practical benefits, too, operating as a kind of credit score that supplanted other forms of currency. For instance, when evaluating candidates for a job opening, employers could choose to prioritize applicants with a higher Moola score. Those who earned the country’s highest Moola scores were even entered into a competition for a chance to become a reserve member of the Mars base.
But the program didn’t always function as its designers — and the country’s leaders — intended. Despite the government’s lofty ambitions, many young people treated Moola as just one more indicator of social status, looking to the colors on the wristband as simply another label to boast about, a symbolic replacement of wealth. Some young people even tried to game the system by bribing service recipients and conducting fake conversations and phony interactions to improve their Moola scores in the shortest timespan possible.
The data also showed that among the groups enrolled in the program, the Moola growth rate for the Aboriginal population was significantly slower than the overall average. Project Jukurrpa, from its very first day, had come under public scrutiny regarding its potential to exacerbate racism. Because the Moola score depended on other community members affirming the successful completion of participants’ Moola-earning tasks, would Aboriginal and other non-white participants encounter bias and thus have a harder time building up credit? The government defended Project Jukurrpa in the face of these criticisms. Dr. William Swartz, Jr., a spokesperson for the ISA, gave a press conference calling the project a forward-thinking social investment. “A society without love, belonging, justice and respect will no doubt collapse. The core of Project Jukurrpa is about rebuilding trust in the younger generation. We believe that every person can achieve their dreams in this land of plenitude, regardless of their race and ethnicity.”
Project Jukurrpa’s first target: the unemployed population below the age of 25, where Aboriginals made up a whopping 35% of the demographic. This far exceeded their ratio to the entire Australian population, which was a meager 5%.
Keira Namatjira, aged 21, was one of the Aboriginals who signed up.
It didn’t take Keira long to grow accustomed to life at Sunshine Village. In Joanna, she may have been assigned a cranky charge, but other residents welcomed the Aboriginal girl with long, curly, dark hair into their community, and many came to adore her. In addition to caring for Joanna, Keira frequently performed small acts of service for others in the community who weren’t eligible for a full-time caregiver. When she assisted them by making deliveries, hanging laundry or walking dogs, residents showered Keira with positive feedback and never hesitated to click “Confirm service” on her wristband. It would then flash varicolored lights and hum a melody, notifying her that new Moola had arrived.
Keira’s day-to-day work at Joanna’s place involved less instant gratification. In addition to helping Joanna with her daily routine, Keira was also responsible for conducting a comprehensive checkup of the old woman’s cognitive functions according to the Resident Services medical guidelines. Joanna’s truculence ensured Keira had her work cut out for her.
“Ms. Campbell, can you tell me about the article you read just now?” asked Keira one day, as they sat together at Joanna’s kitchen table.
“It’s about endangered marine life. Why do you ask? Do your schools no longer offer reading comprehension?” Joanna glared at Keira from behind her reading glasses.
“Ms. Campbell, do you remember where you put your pillbox?”
“You think you can baffle me? I put it … wait.” Joanna fumbled through her pockets, then shouted with glee as she pulled the box out, like a child who had discovered a hidden treat. “Ha, I knew it! In my pocket!”
“Ms. Campbell, do you remember what we had for lunch yesterday?”
Joanna gave Keira a look and frowned. “Soup, egg custard, salad and fruit. Oh, right, there was also filet mignon. They told me that the meat was lab-grown and no animals were harmed in the process. That’s why I agreed to try. It tasted exactly like the beef I remember. So don’t take me for a fool, Ms. Koala.”
Keira grimaced; still, by now, she had grown accustomed to the older woman’s ways — and felt compassion for her declining cognitive abilities, even when they manifested in rude remarks. “Actually, yesterday you said you weren’t hungry, so we skipped lunch. Also, my name is Keira, K-E-I-R-A.”
Hearing this, Joanna didn’t fire back in her usual way. She fell silent, a stunned look on her face. After a few minutes, she let out a sigh.
“I don’t know what’s happening to me. The doctor said my symptoms were not so severe, and I only had to wait,” she murmured. All of a sudden, she raised her head again, and a glimmer of hope kindled in her eyes. “Do you know when I can get the procedure?”
Keira knew Joanna was referring to genomic precision therapy for the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. However, even with Australia’s comprehensive healthcare system, certain high-end medical therapies were hard to come by, given the sheer number of people demanding treatment. For genomic precision therapy, it would take months — maybe years — on the waiting list. Keira worried that when the time came for Joanna to receive treatment, the older woman’s symptoms would have advanced to the point that the therapy would no longer have any effect.
“Soon, in a few weeks,” reassured Keira, knowing Joanna wouldn’t remember this conversation. “I’ll be sure to remind you when the day comes.”
“It’s strange. I can’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but memories of my younger days are just as vivid as ever.”
“Tell me what you remember,” said Keira. Half-crouching and pressing her palms to Joanna’s knees, she looked into her eyes encouragingly.
“I remember …” Joanna’s gaze drifted over to the sunlit world outside her window and grew unfocused as her thoughts spread their wings, took off into the wind and embarked on a voyage to another space-time.
1992. Joanna was in the prime of her youth, her skin tanned from long hours in the scorching sun and her hair bleached a lighter shade from the ocean. She would spend months at a time at sea on a research ship, studying climate change and water pollution in the ailing Great Barrier Reef ecosystem. The Coral Sea, an aquatic kingdom of nearly 2 million square miles located in the Pacific Ocean northeast of Queensland, was home to hundreds of millions of marine creatures. However, it had been dying a slow death as a result of rising temperatures, unsustainable fishing and outbreaks of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish. To counteract the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, Joanna was ready to do anything.
2004. After ending her marriage, Joanna gave her full attention over to her beloved ocean — her constant companion and what had come between her and her spouse. In June that year, after the Australian government refused to recognize same-sex marriage, a group of activists planted rainbow flags on one of the uninhabited Coral Sea islands southeast of the Great Barrier Reef, declaring the place an independent haven in an act of protest. Joanna journeyed alone out to the group, hoping she could persuade them to vacate the islands on account of their vulnerable ecosystem. However, when she told the protesters that the third global bleaching event, a result of ocean warming, would destroy 40% of the Great Barrier Reef, she was rebuffed with cries of Don’t you care about diversity?
2023. Joanna was no longer fighting the battle alone. Leading a team of scientists, she was researching technology that might improve the Great Barrier Reef’s resilience to climate change. Joanna, now silver-haired, carefully studied the innovations that were being churned out by a new generation of marine science innovators. They were using underwater robots to plant coral larvae in designated areas pinpointed by AI algorithms, and relied on sensors to monitor growth; they covered the ocean surface of the Great Barrier Reef with an environmentally friendly film made from biomaterials in order to reduce the intensity of the sunlight hitting the reef. Joanna was also excited by a proposal to genetically engineer zooxanthellae, a microorganism that played a pivotal role in many symbiotic marine relationships. Ocean warming, along with acidification, was impacting the health of the zooxanthellae, in turn triggering coral bleaching and the death of anthozoan coral polyps. Invertebrates and fish that had built their lives on corals would either leave or perish. As a result, the ecosystem would collapse.
“If we could improve the resilience and adaptivity of the zooxanthellae,” said Joanna to Keira, who was listening with rapt attention, “the corals would return to their original state and regain their color, and the anthozoan coral polyps would get the nutrients they need. We really thought it could save the Great Barrier Reef.”
Joanna was a different person when she talked about her work. Her gaze was no longer dim; her memory was sharp and refreshed. As she spoke, she radiated vitality, as beautiful as a blooming coral bush.
“But you did it! Now everyone calls you ‘the savior of the Great Barrier Reef’!” exclaimed Keira. “I can’t even begin to imagine the difficulties you’ve been through …”
“Let me put it this way — the greatest difficulty doesn’t come from the outside, but rather from within yourself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It takes faith and courage, my child, to dedicate your entire life to a goal that appears impossible, especially when everyone else around you is busy making money, establishing a family and rearing children,” said Joanna with a smile. Her tone softened. “Now it’s my turn to ask questions. Is earning Moola your only motivation for coming here?”
Keira could feel her cheeks burning. For a woman who often seemed to forget her name, it felt like Joanna had seen straight through her. Keira had struggled to find a stable job in an XR company, and signing up for Project Jukurrpa and coming to Sunshine Village had been her best option.
“Yes and no,” said Keira. “It might have been my motivation at first, but now I’m beginning to feel that gaining the respect of others makes me happier than anything else.”
“Well said, K … child. I will confirm your service to your wristband thingy, as long as you promise to do one thing for me,” said Joanna, winking.
“I’ll promise you anything!” Keira said hastily.
“You don’t have to shout. My brain might be messed up, but my ears are not. I’ll tell you more tomorrow. Good night, now!”
The old lady wheeled herself toward the bedroom. Once again, Keira was left standing, stupefied, with her eyes fixed on the photos of tropical fish that lined Joanna’s kitchen.
Joanna’s wish was for Keira to take her to the ocean.
Before everything was wiped away from her memory, Joanna hoped to once again gaze at the Coral Sea that she had given so much to save — and which had given her life so much purpose.
Keira was torn. As much as she would have loved to take Joanna to a beach in Brisbane, arranging day trips was outside the guidelines of her service. And despite their lucid conversation the previous day, Joanna’s health was deteriorating. Keira was worried that Joanna’s body couldn’t handle the rigors of traveling, and she herself couldn’t afford the possible consequences.
In the hopes that Joanna would forget her wish, Keira came up with all kinds of excuses: bad weather, traffic jams, holidays. Joanna, though, was as stubborn as a child, and pestered Keira every single day. “I heard there’s a community party today, and they’re having food, drinks and a live band. Everyone’s going! Don’t you want to go?” suggested Keira, trying to distract Joanna.
“No,” she replied instantly.
“Come on, Joanna,” pleaded Keira. A week earlier, Joanna had asked Keira to stop addressing her as “Ms. Campbell,” because apparently that was how people addressed real estate agents.
“You promised you would take me to the ocean! You lied!”
“No, I didn’t promise that.”
“Don’t you want your confirmation anymore? The Moola score you care so much about?”
“Shhh … the AI system would deduct points from my score if it heard this conversation,” whispered Keira. She took off her XR glasses and rubbed her eyes, sore from staring at the glasses’ image projections. Recently, in addition to her duties with Joanna, Keira had begun volunteering on the side as a product developer of augmented reality experiences for an AR company named DingoTech. She hoped that, with the experience she gained, she could one day land a real AR job.
“Why are you always wearing glasses? As far as I understand, you’re far too young to need reading glasses,” grumbled Joanna, curious, as she reached for Keira’s XR glasses. The moment she put them on, she cried out in surprise. “Wow! Everything is glowing!”
“Wait, let me adjust them for you,” said Keira, fine-tuning the XR glasses’ focus parameters to accommodate Joanna’s sight. Now Joanna no longer saw fuzzy blobs of light, but varicolored dots with sharpened edges superimposed on her vision, a filter in the style of a Papunya dot painting. The AR algorithm would alter how the dots’ effects were rendered in real-time based on the surrounding environment and the user’s head posture, turning reality into a kind of dot painting that metamorphosed every second with new patterns and colors, undulating and rippling like the ocean surface on a windy day.
Incredulous, Joanna exclaimed, “It’s beautiful! Did you make this?”
“Yes,” Keira said bashfully. “I’ve always dreamed of becoming an artist, but it would be next to impossible for someone like me. This is the next best thing.”
“I don’t think so,” said Joanna, her face scrunched up in disdain. “Young people! Always looking for excuses —”
“No!” Keira blurted out, for the first time cutting the old woman off. She could feel a surge of emotions rising. “This isn’t an excuse. I’m talking about the difficulties of navigating life as an Arrernte.”
“I don’t believe I’ve heard of your people before,” said Joanna.
“My people have lived on this continent for 30,000 years, but look at what’s happening to us now!” Keira’s voice was loud, almost a shout. In that moment, she didn’t care what her smart wristband heard. Keira took a deep breath. “Our language has almost disappeared. We are driven to settlements and assimilated into big cities after our homes are snatched from us. And for us young people — yes, young people looking for excuses — ensuring our next meal can depend on either becoming a criminal or this goddamn Moola!”
“Hey, watch your language!”
“I used to hope that Project Jukurrpa would usher in a new age of equality,” Keira continued, “but I was wrong. Like everything else about our system, Project Jukurrpa favors certain people. People who already excel at earning Moola and waving their glowing wristbands — people who know how to please, deceive or intimidate other people — will only have more opportunities to win Moola and, duh, society’s respect. That’s how the world works. No matter how hardworking or talented I am, people like you will always look down on people like me.”
“I didn’t — I didn’t mean to —” stuttered Joanna, clearly taken aback by the response of her usually even-tempered caregiver.
“Ms. Campbell, please understand that not everyone in this world is as lucky as you are. Not everyone can pursue their dream. But you are right about one thing: Everyone should have the courage to try. So, you’ve inspired me. I’m telling you right now: I quit.”
With that, Keira left the living room and strode toward her bedroom, walking so fast that she completely forgot she had left her XR glasses behind.
That night, Keira had a nightmare.
A yowie, covered in long golden hair, emerged from under the bed and pounced on her. She wanted to run, but her feet were unmovable, her body utterly frozen; she wanted to scream, but no voice came out of her gaping mouth. She could do nothing but stare with horror as the ape-like monster’s jaws closed around her.
She woke with a start, drenched in sweat. Day had dawned; the sky was a light shade of blue. A little unsteady from the nightmare, she stepped into the kitchen for water, and her eyes landed immediately on the front door. It was wide open.
“Joanna?” Keira called. No response. She walked into Joanna’s bedroom and found the bed empty.
After searching the entire house, she found a scribbled note near the door, in the spot where Joanna usually put her keys:
K: I’m going to see the ocean. I’ll return your glasses when I get back. J.
Keira cursed under her breath as she threw on clothes and made a dash for the security desk in the Sunshine Village Resident Services center.
According to the surveillance footage, Joanna had left home about an hour ago on her electric wheelchair.
“Not to worry. The biosensor membrane on every elder person can help us track their whereabouts,” said Nguyen, a staff member at the Resident Services center. Still sleepy-eyed, he pulled up the real-time tracking system on the computer, then paused. The blinking GPS icon for Joanna indicated that she was, in fact, at home. Nguyen’s eyes widened, now alert and awake. “Wait, did she take the membrane off?”
“We need to get everyone to help track her down right now,” said Keira, now frantic with worry.
“How far can she possibly get on that wheelchair?” Nguyen tried to reason with Keira, who wasn’t having it.
Keira knew that for people with Alzheimer’s disease, the greatest threats came from behavioral disorders caused by the deterioration of various cognitive functions: becoming distracted while taking the stairs and missing a step, forgetting their destination and pausing in the middle of a busy road to remember, injuring themselves when using sharp objects. She was terrified that Joanna, out in public on her own, would end up in an accident. If I hadn’t been so hot-tempered yesterday, maybe Joanna wouldn’t have left, thought Keira bitterly.
Nguyen launched the emergency procedures, which sent human staff and drones alike out on a search. The alert also went to the Brisbane police, who could access surveillance footage of the surrounding area.
Amid the frantic scene, Keira had fallen silent. A shadowy half-thought hung in the back of her mind. She knew it was important — but she couldn’t remember what it was.
The note. I’ll return your glasses when I get back.
“Glasses!” Keira pulled out her smartstream. If Joanna was wearing her XR glasses, Keira could access the glasses’ live vision field remotely and deduce Joanna’s location.
A river of flashing multicolored dots appeared on the screen. Sure enough, Joanna was wearing Keira’s glasses, and she hadn’t switched off the AR experience demo that Keira had made. The frame was still. Slowly, dots of light flowed down the winding river, changing colors as they bobbed up and down.
“There are several rivers that look like that around here,” said Nguyen, craning his neck to look at Keira’s screen. “Can you connect to audio as well?”
The glasses’ auditory sensors picked up various sounds of nature: the rippling and bubbling of the river, the chirping of birds, the rustling of tree leaves, a gentle swish of the morning breeze. It was overlaid by a rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, which presumably came from Joanna. After a while, they heard a rumble coming from the right, lasting for about three seconds before disappearing again.
“She’s at Breakfast Creek!” Nguyen cried. “That’s the train. There’s a bridge there that crosses the creek!”
“Take me there now!” Excited, Keira grabbed Nguyen’s hand. “Quick, tell everyone to meet us at the creek to search for Joanna!”
Kiera trotted along the riverbank, peering through the lush vegetation for any sign of Joanna. The singing birds and buzzing bees annoyed her, and sweat beaded on her forehead and dripped off the tip of her nose. Keira kept comparing the feed from her smartstream to the scene in front of her eyes. Finally, she saw a flash of long silver hair under a pine tree.
When she approached with the rescue team, she found Joanna sitting in her wheelchair in silence. On her inner wrist was a square of lighter-colored skin, where the biosensor membrane used to be. The woman appeared to be lost in a trance. Tears streamed down her face, staining the lenses with a foggy veil. Keira stepped up and pulled her into a tight embrace.
“Keira, you’re here,” murmured Joanna. This is the first time she’s got my name right, thought Keira. “Your glasses brought me back. Now I remember. I am one of you.”
“Huh?” Keira, her anxious heartbeat still loud in her ears, was taken aback by the old woman’s words. She heard a camera flash.
“I am the stolen generation,” whispered Joanna as the staff carried her into the ambulance.
Keira pushed Joanna’s wheelchair along the pedestrian path by the sand. It was a beautiful day on Noosa Main Beach. Beachgoers laughed, children played in the sand and surfers paddled in the sunshine. Joanna set her gaze to the northeast, where azure water stretched infinitely into the horizon.
“Do you see the Great Barrier Reef?” asked Keira, even though she already knew the answer.
“Well, I know she’s there. I can feel her.” Joanna grinned. “Thanks to you. The government should give you more Moola than you’re getting. It’s funny to think that this time next week, I’ll be getting my precision treatment. I’d never imagined that I’d make it to the end of the waitlist.”
“I’m so happy for you. I’m sure you’ll recover in no time.” Keira laughed. “There’s one question I never got to ask you, though.”
“That day at Breakfast Creek, you said that you were ‘the stolen generation.’ I didn’t know what that meant, so I did some research. And I found that, starting in 1909, the Australian government separated up to a hundred thousand Aboriginal children from their parents, placing them in the care of either white families or in official shelters for assimilation. This policy ended in 1969, along with those shelters, which left many children homeless. You were born after 1969, though. How can you be one of them?”
A look of melancholy appeared on Joanna’s face. “My adoptive parents were very kind people. They registered me with a later birth date, thinking that would protect me from the ugly truth. I was taken from my biological parents immediately after birth, and then raised by the church for the next few years, before I was eventually adopted. I was lucky to be assigned to such loving stepparents.”
“So how did you find out? I mean, it’s been so many years since it happened, and I’m sure a lot of those records were destroyed,” asked Keira, unable to hide her curiosity.
“I always knew I didn’t look like my siblings. I could tell that I was different from the way people at school treated me. But I didn’t want to ask my parents the question. They gave me as much love as they gave the other children. So I buried the question and didn’t think of it again until the genome sequencing report.”
“Genome sequencing for the Alzheimer’s treatment?” asked Keira.
Joanna nodded and pointed north of the Pacific Ocean. “The report indicated an 85% probability that I was a descendent of Torres Strait Islanders. When I found out, my whole life seemed to collapse. I didn’t know who I was, or who my real parents were. What did it mean? I didn’t understand.”
“So you chose to forget?”
“I’m afraid that forgetfulness chose me, my child. My illness gave me the perfect excuse to deny the truth … until your artwork led me to it.”
“My what?” Keira couldn’t believe her ears.
“When I put on your glasses, I saw a magnificent world unfold before my eyes. Just like dreaming, my experience wasn’t static or linear, but rather crossing space-time, spanning from the past to the present, even seeping into the future. I could feel something ancient rising from my heart and rushing through my veins, reconnecting me to this piece of land. It told me that I shouldn’t run away from my pain, and I mustn’t forget who I am. Being honest with myself was the only way that I could heal myself.”
Keira, touched, stared speechlessly at Joanna.
“I need to thank you.” Joanna grabbed Keira’s hands and brought them to her chest. “There are not many of us left from the stolen generation. Many people have died carrying the weight of pain and confusion, just like what I had before. The government issued an official apology 33 years ago and began to declassify the history, but that’s not enough to make up for what they took from us.”
Keira could feel the sea breeze gently kissing her long curls. Never would she have dared dream that her creation could help another in such a way. The salty smell reminded her of the days and nights she had spent with Joanna.
“You know, I’m the one who needs to thank you,” said Keira, her tone solemn.
“Why? Because I always piss you off?” countered Joanna.
“Well, for that, too.” Keira brushed away a few strands of hair tickling her eyes and grinned. “You made me think about things that had never occurred to me. My hopes and dreams, Project Jukurrpa …”
“In my opinion, Project Jukurrpa has cheapened the bonds between people in our community and widened the inequality gap even more. Most people don’t use it the way it was intended. It no longer motivates people to live up to their potential. I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I started a discussion in the VRock community a few weeks ago. Since then, tens of thousands of people have joined in. What started as an internet debate has now become a movement called ‘dream4future’ and the media can’t stop talking about it. The conversation struck a chord with people — their dissatisfaction with how Project Jukurrpa was working. Now, parliament has proposed a law to revise Project Jukurrpa.”
“Wow! What would the new version of the project look like?”
“BLC gave people basic life necessities and security, and that’s not going to go away. But everyone, especially young people like me, should have the right to choose freely how they would like to live — and no one’s dreams should be snatched away. When someone strives for self-discovery and actualization, just like you, she should be granted the chance. Project Jukurrpa should be providing everyone with equal opportunities to explore who they want to become and help them fully realize their potential. Whether it’s developing leadership skills, uncovering the mysteries of Mars, restoring Aboriginal languages with AI, building environmentally friendly cities, you name it. Every step of an individual’s road to self-realization, every effort and achievement made should be seen, recognized and encouraged. That’s the only way we can bring back hope. Otherwise, we are facing a new kind of stolen generation.”
“Listen to you! Keira, you are amazing!” Joanna, enlivened by Keira’s speech, clapped excitedly. All of a sudden, her hands halted in midair. “Does this mean you’re going to leave me?”
“I’m sorry, Joanna, but yes. I’m here to say my goodbyes today,” said Keira, leaning down to hug Joanna. “The picture of us taken by Breakfast Creek was posted everywhere in VRock. After all the media attention, Dr. Swartz from ISA invited me to join their project team. Together, we’ll try to find a way to make these goals quantifiable and train a smarter AI to build a more equal, more inspiring Project Jukurrpa. I’ve always wanted a real job — I thought it was going to be in AR, but the chance to work to shape the possibilities of what young people can achieve is beyond my wildest dreams.”
“I’m truly happy for you,” said the older woman. Hesitating, she dropped her eyes, as if embarrassed. “But before you leave, there’s something that I need to tell you.”
“What is it?”
“I was so reluctant to confirm your service because I was afraid that you would leave me behind once you received the Moola,” whispered Joanna, her voice trembling. “I didn’t want you to leave.”
“Oh, Joanna …” Tears were welling up in Keira’s eyes.
“Don’t cry, child. Don’t cry.” Joanna wiped the corners of her eyes and smiled at Keira. “You brought me to the ocean, and now it’s my turn to make good on my promise to you.”
The crisp, melodious tones of Moola cash-in dispersed in the sea breeze. With Keira pushing Joanna’s wheelchair, the duo continued their long journey down the beach. Together they watched the waves ebb and flow, molding the shape of the shoreline, inch by inch. Just like they did a billion years ago. Just like they would in the future.