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School Years 11 to 13 Category Winner Closer Than You Think Written by Cameron Walker

Good morning Daniel"

Urgh, I turn over and cover my head with a pillow.

"GOOD MORNING DANIEL!"

"Shut up Nikita" I growl into the mattress, which has moulded itself around my head and is threatening to suffocate me if I don't move.

"I'm sorry, I didn't understand that!" Nikita chirrups with irritating perkiness.

"Nikita, alarm off, turn on the lights" I shout.

A warm green glow pulses from the LEDs surrounding my bed and slowly morphs into blue and then pink and then back to green. I swing my legs out of bed, and slam them straight into the Vacuum-Bot which has been silently circulating around my living space like a shark searching for a shoal of tuna.

"Great" I mutter as I rub my foot and hop over to grab the steaming mug waiting for me in the T-Bot.
At the flick of a switch, the blinds open to reveal the dark grey sky hanging heavy and oppressive. Angry clouds race past at seemingly terminal velocity whilst sheets of rain pelt relentlessly. Below, the water is chopping up and its oily black surface carries all sorts of debris into shore, I notice with surprise that this includes a couple of plastic bags. I thought they disappeared long ago; soon after the world realised it was killing itself.

I gulp my tea quickly and throw some veg and micro protein into the Chef-Bot for dinner tonight.
As I dump my mug in the Pot-Bot, the wind outside shrieks, a weird hybrid of a baby's cry and a dog mournfully howling at the moon. I swear the wind is getting stronger every day, the eGov weather warnings are coming through thick and fast on my Wrist-Bot which is never a good sign.

Grabbing my coveralls and protective mask I shout "Nikita, turn off the lights" and head out into the squall.

Work is the always the same routine, fingerprint scan access followed by 8 hours monitoring user activity data with a few obligatory screen breaks.

Since the first outbreak, most workers have accessed the system from home, so I am usually alone in my pod which suits me fine. I'm not a very sociable person, which has turned out to be a blessing, because a lot of people couldn't cope with the enforced isolation. I lost a couple of good friends that way.

Sometimes Sunrise drops in. She says it's to check the place isn't falling apart but I know she has Eye-Spy Bots and can see every inch of the place so I suspect she just likes to see another human being. Obviously I don't tell her that, she is the boss after all.

The day passes quite uneventfully. The Risk-Bots detect some Red Flags and I temporarily freeze some accounts to enforce our "Play Safe" policy, and later the IT Bots force a system reboot due to suspected Hack-Bot activity. Thankfully this is all over within 90 seconds so the complaints are limited to around 10,000 which is a good result, all things considered. When my Wrist-Bot vibrates to tell me that it is 1700hrs, I am pleasantly surprised. As an added bonus, the rain has slowed to a steady pour rather than a driving onslaught which means that I can actually see my surroundings.

Things appear the same as they always did, the buildings are still standing (although generally overdue some maintenance) and the trees and plants still thrive but the life in the place has gone. I glance at the park where kids used to kick footballs and mums picnicked with toddlers. It stands empty. In the play area, some swings hang broken and the wind pushes the roundabout, an invisible hand for the ghosts of children who once played there. Tears prick at my eyes. Occasionally I am blindsided by a sentimental streak which I need to keep under control if I want to stay sane.

I pass no one, unless you count the occupants of a couple of cars drifting along, their electric motors undetectable even without the incessant howling of the wind. Probably on their way to the drive-thru, one of the few things from The Before that survived relatively unscathed. Thank heaven for McBurgers - we're still loving it.

Back home, shedding my sodden coveralls into the Dry-Bot, I grab a cold can of beer and some mush supposed to resemble a meal from the Chef-Bot. "Nikita, play some Coldplay", I say as I sink into a huge leather armchair, which I still remember struggling to fit through the front door, Serenity laughing hysterically at my efforts. Serenity ........ I boot up the Face-Bot and select a white sandy beach as my background.

She answers after the first ring; "Hey, Danno! Nice beach again!". Her background is a snow­capped mountain scene today, like something out of the Sound of Music. She always was more imaginative than me. We chat for what feels like minutes but before we know it, it is 2200hrs, curfew time. We end as always - standing at our windows and waving to each other, sometimes she blows a kiss.

It never gets easier, not being able to hold her but at least she is here, and she is alive. We count our blessings; many others were much less fortunate.

I grab a shower and head to bed. "Nikita, turn off the light, set the alarm for 0700hrs and log off."

"Alarm set Daniel. Logging off, Queensway, Gibraltar, 22 January 2021."

The future ....... .it's closer than you think.

Judge Charles Durante’s comments:

“This story takes place in a futuristic world which is uncannily and disturbingly similar to the one we live in now. Cameron has enhanced the gadgetry and technology we are already familiar with to create a sterile, cold, and insipid world. Reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, the personal has been nearly expunged, surveillance is almost inescapable, the survivors of some ecological disaster live a lonely, cocooned existence where love, sex, emotion and relationships have almost disappeared. Daniel, our narrator, lives surrounded by bots which carry out all menial tasks; he follows a soul-destroying routine, and there are no children in the park, and he is upset when overcome by emotion. Cameron’s story is ingenious, convincing and betrays a deep awareness of how technology will develop, to the point when it will oust reality as we know it and install a virtual existence instead. The restrictions imposed during recent lockdowns are clear evidence that what might have seemed a sci-fi nightmare is, in the words of the title, closer than you think. Well done!”

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