Chapter 1 : A Goodbye
The Station Manager was a gold and silver robot who spent most of his time, monitoring the vast expanse of maglev lines passing through his domain. There were 3 sets of train lines, only one of which was connected to his station. But the large number of sensors laid along all the 3 lines for 25 km in either direction was his responsibility. If anything went wrong, the sensors would tell him and if he missed it, the result would be the first train disaster in the province in 50 years.
His only other work was to supervise unloading of the freight trains whenever residents of the village ordered some goods, or when the large agro freighters came to pick up dates, cactus juice and other desert specialities.
Human traffic was rare. Mostly the residents of Longburn went to the nearby city of Tharq, for which requisitioning a human-booth maglev carriage was too cumbersome and expensive. The last time that was done was when the Mayor’s Son got married and he took almost the entire village to the city for the ceremony and the feast.
But today, a carriage was scheduled to come in, that too, for just one person …
A young girl, daughter of the owner of the only eatery in the village, the local watering-hole, had won a scholarship to the famous University in city of Ci’gazze in the Malliv Province, across half the country. The $150,000 digital education centre that the village council had invested in, half a decade earlier, had borne fruit.
Dusk Hale stood in the twilight, her gaze lingering across the desert landscape that was her home for 20 years, which she knew she would rarely see once she goes to the University. After all, any job she got after her studies was unlikely return her to the desert she started from …
Her sister, Dawn, stood with tears brimming in her gold-flecked brown eyes, her hands on her sister’s shoulders, her chin resting on one of them. She was torn between wanting to keep her sister with her and being proud and supportive of her achievement. She herself, had no hopes of following her sister’s footsteps…
Their parents sat quietly on the only chairs in the station. The mother was traditionally quiet and did not say much in public. She was in any case, overwhelmed by the events currently unfolding. Their father on the other hand was out of place in the railway station, where everything was delicate and he felt if he touched one of the devices, it may break, and he would be asked to pay for it.
No one else from the village had come to see her off. All that was to be said and done happened at the boisterous party the previous evening at The Tavern.
The robotic voice of the Station Manager sounded from the left.
“Ms. Hale, the carriage will be alongside the embarkation zone in 20 seconds. Please be ready and get into it without delay. It needs to merge into the main Maglev Express Train at Tharq Outer Station at the given time. If you miss it, you will have to wait till the computers can find another train going to Ci’gazze. And it will charge you the cost of holding the carriage for the entire period…”
Dusk hurried to the designated area, just as the rapidly de-accelerating ‘Pod’ kicked up a mini-dust storm that the anti-static repellers struggled to contain so that the station would not be coated in sand. The pod stopped and the doors slid open. The 8-seater carriage was empty. As soon as she sat inside, the doors close and the pod sped away, leaving her family to watch in melancholy and pride.
The trip from Longburn to Tharq took 15 minutes as the pod sped over the maglev lines travelling at 600 kmph. There it joined the main express train, just as it had left the station. That way, the pod did not need to decelerate significantly, saving a lot of time. Dusk had exactly 120 seconds to move from the pod to the express train, after which the pod would disconnect, catch the loop line and return to Tarq station, awaiting its next assignment.
She walked through the sealed vestibule to the compartment of the express train. The pod had already ejected her bags into the correct slots of the train to take to the luggage storage. The vestibule closed and the pod disappeared. Dusk went on to find her seat that she would use for the next 7½ hours as the glorified metal tube covered the 4,200 km distance to the coast city of Ci’gazze and her home for the next 4 years – Uni Viva.
She watched as the scenery changed slowly from the dry desert to shrubby grassland. She guessed that sometime during the night, it would morph into the famous forest of her country and then into the gentler environ of the coastal belt. She slept after eating a meagre meal that she bought from the vending machine. After all, she had to conserve the money her father gave her, till she reached the university and probably for some time in there too before her scholarship money started coming to her account.
Everyone else on the train seem to be either on a business trip or rich folks returning from a pleasure trip. She knew she had nothing in common with any of them and kept to herself for the entire trip.
Early the next morning, the robotic voice reminded her that she needed to be ready to get off. When she queried the system, it informed her that there are no pods because the express train would end its trip at Ci’gazze. She looked around and found that the number of people had increased during the night and everyone looked impatient to end the trip.
“I guess, even such luxurious modes of transport are routine and boring for those who regularly use it.” She thought to herself as she compared it with the road trips she had made with her family to Tharq and the nearby areas during off-season study breaks. Being from a family that ran the only bar and eatery in the village and that too, one through which the main provincial highway passed, chances of a vacation in festival time did not even cross the mind of her parents. Nor could the sisters dare to suggest it.
She always felt it was a pity that in spite of being “strategically” place as the only tavern in the village, and being on the highway, they did not get rich. After all, the rural economy was very price sensitive and premium pricing would not work. May be, her dad should have set up a second restaurant for those travelling by the highway, who could pay more. But he kept saying that he can’t split himself to run two separate places. He was patriarchal in his approach and considered women unfit to run a business, so giving one of them to his wife or daughter was out of the question.
This attitude was probably one of the reasons Dusk decided, shortly into her adolescence, that she had to get out, do something different because her father would never give her charge of the business or let her build her own. If she didn’t find a way to leave, whoever she was forced to marry would be the one lording over her and the tavern, even though she knew that she was good in business and had learned the ropes … It did not appeal to her as a vision of the future!
Therefore, she worked hard for a chance to study at the university and learn things related to modern professions. She just HAD to get out of there …
Sometimes she thanked all the heavens for the push the Emperor gave to rural basic education. And even more to him for putting an old governor for their province who blindly followed the Emperor’s dictate. Every time the Emperor made a policy change, he doubled the impact in their province. In this case, it resulted in a mandated expenditure on digital classroom infrastructure in every village in the province. Though the village council cried a lot as they felt they could make better use of the money for other purpose, the notice from the Provincial Education Office admonition them and threating action after the second audit visit, had its expected impact.
The result was 25 learning rooms, high speed data lines to the closest hub, Immersive VR technology connected to the new VR teaching modules from some of the best public schools in the country and freedom to learn. Dusk was the only one in her peers who used it to explore, first the interesting field of technology and computers, and then by chance, Economics and finally Business Basics. Through the digital class system, she connected to a late-night class from Regis Province with an amazing professor who encouraged her students to go beyond the books, question the basis and expand their knowledge.
The digital classroom was quite in demand during the day, mostly with local students trying to learn agriculture (difficult in the desert), animal husbandry and mining. At night, she had no restriction in using the class, no load on the data lines and no one asking her why she was wasting time on useless topics that had no relevance to their society.
The efforts paid off, as she learned more and more, leaving her peers behind in most subjects. She applied to join a team doing a VR project on Agro-Education as a student intern (unpaid). Her professor put in a recommendation and she was selected. Her contribution to “Heppative Reactive-Touch” concept being explored as a part of the project, helped create a new reaction engine, which added a new dimension to VR Learning. When a VR Program uses that engine, it allows the user to feel a reaction / feedback from their hands when they touched an object in the VR Modules. This improved learning efficiency. Initial estimate was an increase of 127%. The students using the new module were able to pass their physical exams with higher scores.
The university converted the Agro-Ed Module to a product and put it on the edu-tech marketplaces, where it became an overnight hit, earning the university a good amount, while, at the same time, propelling the professor into limelight. The professor gave credit to Dusk Hale stating that while the concept was his, the actual work was done by her, and that this was the 6th project on the subject, the previous 5 had been unsuccessful. The project was so popular that it was even mentioned in the National Council’s Summary Report to the Council Of Ministers as an example of success of investments in distributed rural education.
Dusk only had a vague idea of what she had done, that too, only because her Project Head, called to praise and thank her for her contribution that lead to a national success. She assumed that he had sent the same message to all team members and did not give it much further thought. It never occurred to her to evaluate her own contribution and demand her share of the glory and the money.
Luckily, the story did not end there.
After the phenomenal success of Agro-Ed VR, the Education Minister asked his Secretary to find how to duplicate such innovations. The Secretary found that more than the methodology, it was the analytical thinking of Dusk Hale that resulted in the success. He felt that such a mind should not be allowed to wither in some low paid job after college. With the approval of the Minister, he called the President of Uni-Viva and ordered him to recruit her with full scholarship. The President did not dare to refuse the Education Secretary. However, after reviewing the files and talking to her professor, he was glad she would come to his university instead of going to Regis Prime.
That set into motion a series of events, starting with a call to the Mayor of Longburn asking him to ensure that a student called Dusk Hale appeared for the National University Joint Entrance Exam, by any means, without disclosing the link to a certain Secretary in the Imperial Government. The mayor’s sudden personal interest in the wellbeing and future of the student may seem strange, except that he did most of his ‘urging’ over beer in the Tavern. His worry was not that Dusk Hale would fail, but how to force the Tavern-keeper, Tom Hale, to let her appear for a University Entrance Exam, accept his daughter was capable of doing something other than cleaning the tables of his eatery. Finally, at the back of his mind was what the Secretary sitting far away in the national capital would do to him (the mayor) if the pig-headed man refused to allow his daughter to go and study in the National Capital…
After much persuasion, with a call from Dusk’s professor, support from some well-meaning regulars at the Tavern who ballooned with pride thinking that someone from their small little town in the back of nowhere would compete with the egoistic and condescending large towners, Dusk appeared for the exam.
She scored in the 60th percentile in the general exam, 75th percentile in the tech exam, but points for her contribution to the Agro-Edu VR project pushed her to the 90th Percentile. That resulted in an offer from University Viva in faraway Ci’gazze, Full University Scholarship for the Tuition Fees including Books and Consumables, Government Support Scholarship for the cost of Board and Lodging in the university campus and an unexpected sponsorship of living costs of $1,000 a month from a tech company which had introduced a special program from outstanding rural students showing real life contributions.
Her father was still reluctant. He considered all of that a complete waste.
“After all, what is she going to do after the University? Is someone going to hire her and give her a job in Longburn or Tharq based on that degree? She has to come back here in the end, marry a good boy and start a family, perhaps someone who will take over this place someday. She will only come back with airs of the city making life of everyone else difficult.” He told the Mayor as they sat over late Beer and Beef Steak lunch one afternoon alone in the Tavern.
The Mayor lost his cool. He stood up and shouted “Tom! She has got a wonderful opportunity! How dare you stand in her way now!! Either she files the acceptance forms by tomorrow …”
“Or, if you remember, your application renewal for the Tavern License is sitting on my table. It will be rejected”
“What!! How dare you threaten me like that?”
“There are 16 violations in the building, 10 hygiene failures in the last year, and 22 complaints by out-of-town visitors. I have all the reason to exercise my power as Mayor to deny the License.” Said the Mayor, face now red with anger and agitation.
On the Mayor’s Universal Communicator at office, there was an untraceable time-limited message that had warned him of dire consequences if Dusk Hale refused the university’s offer. The Education Secretary would not allow such a resource to wither away in the desert … He wanted her future contributions to strengthen the country in the rapidly escalating technological competition with other countries.
Dusk did not know what changed her father’s mind, but she was happy to leave behind her old life and try for a new one, even though she had knots in her stomach thinking about how she would manage in a new city with no friends, no acquaintances and a culture so very different from what she knew.
Her only possession were two bags of clothes that she could already see was inadequate for city life, a bag she slung over her shoulder in which she carried essentials and one ’Sixth Sense Wearable Computer” that was a parting gift from the Mayor. The Mayor was probably very happy to see her go …
For Dusk, it was a goodbye to a lot of things …