In Search of an Oasis

It was a fine summer morning when the wall of a 42nd floor apartment turned red. Sitting in a hammock in front of the wall was Pax, a brown-haired 20-year-old youngster of New York City. As Pax flicked his palm to the right, the color of the wall changed to orange. One more flick and the wall turned yellow.

“Ah, this will do for now,” Pax muttered. He pressed his thumb and index finger together and moved it across as if to draw a line. The wall changed to a lighter hue and a palette of tools appeared on it.

Sitting in the hammock, with his legs casually swinging, Pax continued to gesture at the wall until it was full of charts and a map of the globe. A few more taps on the toolbox and the visualizations jumped out of the wall and spread all around the hammock. It was time for Pax to get up and take a walk into the immersive experience provided by the visualizations floating around him. It was time to find something. For these days, there was always something to find.

In the summer of year 2050, sitting in that cozy and colorful New York City studio apartment, Pax was simply doing his job. He was an analyst in the Global Climate and Health Research Institute. A tiny wafer-thin gadget attached to the back of his palm sensed his gestures and sent commands to the toolbox on the wall. It’s how he accessed the data sets, applied algorithms, drew visualizations and walked into them looking for trends and anomalies.

His current task was to map the drinking water supply chain against the recent epidemic of typhoid that had erupted in East Asia. As the number of epidemics had seen a steady growth in the previous decade, there were heated discussions around possible links between climate change and health. There were rallies around the world as people demanded answers and solutions.

Pax’s institute alone had rolled out total 30 projects under the code name Program Oasis. By 2050, the program had grown into a workforce of about thousand smart researchers who worked to address the health issues that cascaded throughout the globe.

Pax loved being part of Program Oasis. Its mission deeply resonated with him. A New Yorker by residence, he was a global citizen at heart. As he paced in his studio and over the map of East Asia, he flicked his wrist a couple times to make a call.

skyscraperThe call was answered by a brown-haired young man in a cozy and colorful studio on the 35th floor of a skyscraper in Hong Kong.

“Hey Pax, Zane here. How is it going?” came a response with an immaculately American accent. As the two of them continued to talk, what was not very noticeable was the Translator bot in the background that was translating speech back and forth between mandarin Chinese and American English, completely preserving the natural quality of voice and inflection. What was noticeable though was how similarly the two young men were dressed. Right from their carefully styled hair, their textured shorts and black T-shirts to their colorful apartment and their gadgets. In 2050, in a fully connected world, fashion cascaded at a pace faster than an epidemic.

“Zane, need your help, man. I am working on Oasis task 488. Let’s walk on Thailand together and maybe you can pull your compliance reports on the export of drinking water in East Asia.”

A couple of hours passed. Pax and Zane continued to work together. There was no scheduled lunch or dinner break anyway, no punching hours in a timecard and no status emails to send. Their work was automatically getting saved into the institute’s repository. It would get reviewed by Work Performance bots for completeness and eventually by their boss, Matt, who led bulk of Program Oasis.

Pax was about to grab a sandwich to eat when a buzzer went off. The top left side of his work wall was flashing a notification in bright blue color. That meant there was a high priority assignment available in the institute’s crowdsourcing platform.

He eagerly opened the assignment. It simply said ‘Expedition to the remote land: analyzing peculiar ecosystems’. At the bottom were listed five skills that were important for anyone to have if they wished to take up that assignment. One glance at the description and skills, and Pax had a wide grin on his face. He knew he would be perfect for this job.

“Remote land!” he whistled. “Now that’s something. The institute must be quite desperate then.”

Almost no expeditions explored the remote land, that tiny part of the globe that apparently had its original ecosystems intact and had somehow escaped getting integrated with the rest of the globe.

He punched a few buttons to submit his application and clicked on the listing of related job positions. It showed nine other positions that would be part of the team. His boss, Matt, was already listed as the lead.

“Very very interesting!” Pax exclaimed as he scrolled through the positions. He pressed his watch a couple times and waited.

A phone rang in a suburban house of the Washington DC Mega metro.

“Hi Pax, how are you dear?” A soft and gentle voice answered the phone.

“Grandma Jeannie, hi! I am doing good. I am glad I found you right now. Were you leaving for your walk? Listen to this, I am about to earn some serious referral money. Do you want to know how?” Pax had the habit of talking at a higher pitch and without any pause whenever he was excited.

“Okay, okay. I was going to step out but my aid is still charging. I think I need to upgrade the device. You know the doctor has told me to not go outside without my aid? It makes sense of course, what with the high pollution index we have here all the time. So this referral bonus you talk of. That is wonderful, dear!” It was obvious where Pax got his unlimited energy and habit of talking non-stop from.

“Grandma Jeannie, I will tell you how I am going to earn the referral bonus. But before that, remember the old art of Improv you used to tell me about? Something you said no one practices anymore? Remember how it taught you to say Yes more often? To embrace new experiences and work well within teams? Well, my next assignment is to explore the remote world for unusual pockets of ecosystems. Strangely enough, someone at the Academy thinks the team should have a speech and communications expert, just in case. They know that hardly anyone does this kind of work these days, so they are looking to hire externally. The position has a referral bonus of 100 bitcoins! Grandma Jeannie, say Yes to the position. Say Yes!”

For the first time in a long time, Jeannie did not have anything quick to say. After a short pause, which seemed quite long to Pax, she said, “Yes, and that means we are going to work together and have fun, Pax.”

“Alright, got to go!” Pax hung up and took a big bite of his sandwich.

Jeannie attached her optogenetic aid to her hat, carefully placed the hat on her head and stepped out. Her hat was cream white in color with a design of lavender flowers around the brim. Underneath the hat, there was a small pipe that attached the aid to her brain through a tiny hole in her skull. The aid was programmed to sense the level of air pollutants and send a flash of light to activate her neurons. This is what kept her pollution-induced chronic pain in check and allowed her to live a normal life.

As she walked through the streets of suburban DC, there were quite a few people on the street wearing similar hats. Some hats had lavender flowers like hers, some were with light blue flowers, and some with colored bands.

By year 2050, the globe had gone through three decades of struggle and survival to cope with the impact of climate change. Despite the initial international agreements to reduce carbon emissions, the exit of powerful countries like the United States from these agreements had proven expensive in the long term. The global warming had wiped out 25% of world’s major ecosystems and turned them into deserts. As the biodiversity reduced, so did genetic resilience. These imbalanced ecosystems were more fragile, more polluted and more disease-prone. In a connected world, that meant large epidemics that spread like disastrous wild fires.

oasisAdvances in the field of optogenetics were timely to help with the suppression of many of these growing ailments but the humanity was now forced to cooperate and find ways to turn the situation around. This was the core challenge for Program Oasis. The current expedition to the remote land was one of the crucial pieces of the puzzle the team was going to try to find. They were in search of that one ultimate oasis.

As Jeannie was walking back to her house, the buzzer on Pax’s wall went off. A message popped up with a single line ‘Congratulations! Here is your guide to prepare for Oasis expedition-Remote’. Pax jumped out of his hammock and scrolled through the message.

“Yes! Grandma Jeannie, we are on!” and he did a little dance and walk as he imagined the map of the remote land spread in front of him.

It was day 5 of the expedition. In those five days, the team had collected variety of samples from a few ecosystems around the world. These were going to form a baseline against which they would compare the remote world’s ecosystem. Jeannie had to do some convincing so that Matt would approve collecting what she called social and cultural samples. It included audio clips of people talking, videos and photos of lifestyle and fashion among other things. Nobody really understood why these had to be collected but it was hard to say no to the combined enthusiasm that Pax and Jeannie exuded.

There were several igloo like structures pitched in a large, open area. In one of the igloos, Pax was busy visualizing and analyzing the recent data they had collected. Jeannie sat near the door, looking at the distant mountains. She wore a gray dress with light pink border. Once in a while, she would adjust her hat and look at the gadget on the back of her palm to make sure her hat was fully charged.

“Check this out, grandma Jeannie,” said Pax while walking over the maps of the places from where they had collected samples.

“I analyzed the ecosystems and the patterns are quite consistent across them. Most are in fragile 5-8 category and the trends indicate that 30% of them will start collapsing within the next 10-20 years. ” Pax’s voice was now shaking a bit.

Jeannie turned around and blinked. Her voice was heavy when she spoke “Did you have time to look at the social samples I had collected, dear?”

“Yes, yes, I analyzed those first but I didn’t know how to interpret the results. Here they are. Come, we can walk together over these.” Pax extended his hand to support Jeannie.

They immersed themselves in the visualizations for the next hour. “The social samples also show uniform patterns, Pax. See, my generation was labeled as digital natives since we were born in a digital world. We are now much more connected, the Translator bots have made communication seamless, and media and entertainment are common around the globe. As the cultures have blended though, there is almost an underlying monotony that is increasing. The cultural diversity has reduced, just like the ecological diversity has. What we are looking at, Pax, right here, is the beginning of possibly a significant collapse of cultural pockets.”

“I see what you are saying.” Pax was now silent and sat in a deep thought. He was excellent at making obvious and non-obvious connections within data. He was one of the most creative thinkers the institute had. There was a reason why he was part of this expedition.

“I have a hypothesis for you, grandma. Even though we don’t say this very loudly, we know that when the ecosystems collapsed, the genetic diversity was affected. It is correlated with reduced resiliency and epidemics and what not. If this data shows that cultural pockets could be collapsing then there could be a similar, another danger looming on the horizon, right? What could that be?”

Jeannie didn’t say anything. The sun was now setting behind the mountains. The pale light of the dusk seeped through their igloo. The mountain peaks looked brighter but soon they would be engulfed into the darkness. The remote world awaited beyond those peaks.

“Are you going to show these results to Matt?” asked Jeannie after a while.

“Not yet. He is probably busy playing on his VR game console, walking all over the globe, eradicating a bunch of civilizations and feeling all powerful. There is something about him that is just weird.” said Pax.

“Well, did you notice the red band on his hat? That probably means his optogenetic aid helps him battle with some mental ailment like depression. I feel for him. It’s not easy to live with these aids. We didn’t have these when we were growing up.”

“Grandma Jeannie, you are too nice. Well, did you find an answer to the question I asked?” Pax was not going to let go of that one part of the puzzle that was nagging him.

Jeannie took a deep breath. “Yes, you see, when the cultural pockets collapse, what will be affected is the diversity of thought. Something that is very core to who we are as humans. What will reduce is the understanding and acceptance of that diversity. What we simply used to call empathy, back in the days. I hate to say this but that will be a bigger danger to humanity than all epidemics combined.”

The two of them didn’t say anything for some time. “Let’s catch some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be another day.” said Jeannie as she walked out of the igloo.

It was day 7 of the expedition. They had been traveling and exploring for more than a day in the remote land. The team was showing some signs of fatigue. They were probably at the far edge of the remote land but there was no sign of a sustained, thriving ecosystem. Surrounding them was nothing but deserts and huge sand dunes. Even though their transportation vehicles were equipped to handle the treacherous terrain, their minds were now strained. Was there an unknown that lay ahead?

Everyone stepped out of their transports. The next couple hours of the journey were going to be on foot. Jeannie was walking slowly at the end of the line with Pax just ahead of her. Matt was leading them along with one of the security guards. His eyes looked red and he was nervously touching the brim of his hat. Rest of the guides, scientists and guards were walking in a pack in between. The sun was shining bright and high in the sky. The wind was getting stronger now.

Suddenly from behind a huge sand dune, appeared a group of men and women. It was three men, one woman and a young girl, all with pale bluish skin and green eyes.  Their long hair almost floated in the wind. They wore white garments and held a wooden staff like structure in their hands. The team had never seen or heard of any community like this before. Pax’s heart skipped a beat. The remote land had just become real.

Matt pulled his translator out and said “Who are you people? Is there anything beyond these deserts?”

They raised their staff in unison and one of them uttered something. There was no response from the translator. Pax could see Matt’s eyes widen. Speech translation was one of the most sophisticated technologies of their time and had permeated every community around the globe. This was the first time they were faced with a language that was unknown to the translator. How could that be? How were they going to communicate?

Jeannie took a tentative step forward but hesitated as she saw Matt frowning at her. For the next five minutes, Matt and the guides tried different settings on the translator in an attempt to communicate.

The staffs were getting raised a little more, and Matt’s face was now twitching. Most people from both the sides were talking but there was no communication. Jeannie shook her head slightly and looked at Pax.

Matt suddenly turned to one of the security guards, Jonas, and told him to hand over the mini-laser gun he was carrying.

“No, no, wait Jonas! Matt, dude, this is not a game. This is real!” Pax shouted. “Grandma Jeannie, just go ahead!”

Jeannie stepped forward. She folded her hands together and bowed. Then she lifted her head and smiled. The voices went quiet although the men still clenched their fists around the staff and murmured something. After what seemed like an eternity to Pax, the young girl with green eyes stepped forward and made the sign of a flying bird. Matt had temporarily decided to back off but he still looked very uneasy.

For the next half hour, everyone watched in silence as Jeannie and the girl continued to  make signs. Jeannie had a very expressive yet gentle face. She continued to tell their story. A story of the world full of sadness, hope, friendships and laughter.

At one point, the girl burst out laughing and started singing. Jeannie matched her singing style and gestured Pax to join them.

The three men with bluish skin were watching intently with their eyes blinking. One of them had a semblance of a smile on his face. He pointed the staff behind him and said something to the girl. The girl continued to gesture with Jeannie.

Finally, Jeannie turned around and said “Team, we have finally found our oasis. Shall we go with these lovely people and see if we can learn from their ways of life?”

Matt was still fiddling with the laser gun and had a blank expression. Pax stepped forward and said “Matt, give the gun back to Jonas. These folks probably know how to live in harmony with their surroundings. They are our oasis, our hope. Maybe this is what we need to stop the ecological collapse. Maybe this is what we need so we can practice how to be empathetic again. Our translators don’t understand them but we do.”

The breeze was cooler now. A thin cover of clouds had softened the scorching heat. Matt sat down on a rock. He looked exhausted.

The young girl pointed behind her and made the sign of a closed bud. She opened her hands to show a blooming flower. The folks of the remote land had now gathered and they started walking away.

Pax put his arm around Jeannie’s shoulders and simply said “Let’s go.”

Jeannie nodded and looked around. Matt and the rest of the team did not move.

“Tomorrow is going to be another day, Pax. Let’s go.” said Jeannie. The two of them started walking behind the girl.

As they walked in one line, their feet dotted the soft yellow sand of the desert, their shadows slowly dancing behind them.

[Author’s note: this is an attempt at Science Fiction Prototyping. My hope is to explore near-futuristic technologies and their social impact via short SciFi stories. Hope it sparks a few questions, ideas and thoughts for you!] 

Author: Prachi Sukhatankar

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