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A Visit to the Twenty-First Century

by Joe Vadalma

Table of Contents
part 1 of 4

Obsidian gazed out the panoramic window at the vivid blue and white of Earth ten miles below. He turned to his friend Blato, who was propped up on one elbow on a floating sofa and being fed grapes by a lovely female android. “It’s certainly a splendid vista. Nonetheless, I prefer my apartment on Enceladus with its spectacular view of Saturn.”

“Ah, but is any scene worth being away from the civilized centers of the inner system. Besides, I could see the same view from here, only slightly delayed.”

Obsidian chuckled as he floated over to the second couch. “How true. These days most of us live identical lives regardless of what part of the system we live in. You speak of civilization, but my fully automated apartment provides whatever I wish. Tell me, Blato, how often do you actually leave your home?”

“Well. Now that you mention it, I’ve gone below once in the last two years — to attend my mother’s funeral.” He sighed.

“That’s the problem. We live like hermits.”

“Not really. I see my friends and acquaintances all the time.”

“Their holographic images, you mean. I’ll bet you haven’t touched anyone in the flesh for a while.”

Blato let out a nervous squeak, a suppressed giggle. His face became flushed. “To tell the truth, I don’t think I want to. Even having you here bodily gives me an odd feeling.”

“What about women? Sex?”

“You mean real women? I prefer androids. They’ll do anything you want them to and never complain about anything. You don’t have to worry about catching anything.”

“But android flesh is not the same as a real woman’s. It’s because of people like you that our population keeps decreasing.”

Blato made a sour face. “Let’s change the subject. All this talk about touching, feeling actual human flesh gives me the creeps. Have you heard about the newest fad? The time travel experience?”

“That’s why I’m in the inner system. I’ve signed up for the twenty-first century.”

“Really? The twenty-first century? Aren’t you frightened?”

Obsidian lay back on the floating couch and signaled the android to serve him a drink. “Frightened? What’s there to be frightened of? In fact, I’ve always considered myself a throwback. It’ll be a grand adventure experiencing life as people lived it a thousand years ago.”

Blato shuddered. “But, the danger. Didn’t they have wars and terrible diseases and other awful stuff back then?”

Obsidian chuckled. “Where we’re going, there was no war. It’s a city called New York around the year two thousand. We’ll wear filters against every known disease of the period. Besides, I’m bored. A little danger is what I need.”

Blato shook his head. “I wish you luck. Frankly, I don’t even like to be around sharp objects. I never go near the kitchen when the androids are preparing meals. You’re a brave man, Obsidian, to venture into the unknown.”

* * *

The first half day at Time Adventure Central, Obsidian spent in an interview room with an android, who checked his medical records and other data about his history. He had to swear to abide to the company rules, such as not revealing that he was from the future. There was a long list of these. “It’s to prevent creating a paradox,” the android said.

“I’ve read fiction about time travel. It seems that any contact with the past could create a paradox.”

“You’re correct, but we try to minimize the paradoxes. It’s not been completely determined what affect paradoxes have on the interdimensional multiverse.”

During the interview, he agreed not to sue TAC in case of accident or injury, including aberrant mental conditions brought on by severe shock.

That afternoon, Obsidian listened to several boring holos on the history, theory of, and technology of time travel. Afterwards, the large group was divided up according to the period they were visiting. The largest group were the ones headed for the future. Obsidian’s group of ten was the smallest, since the twenty-first century wasn’t popular.

This was followed by two weeks of intense training during which Obsidian learned about the culture, customs, dress and other relevant facts about the twenty-first century. During a lecture on how twenty-first century people interacted with each other, the android lecturer said, “In those days people touched each other fairly often. For example, when two men met, they performed what’s called a ‘handshake.’” It demonstrated on a man in the front row.

“What about when a man and woman meet?” asked Obsidian.

“The man would kiss the woman on either the lips or the cheek depending on the depth of their friendship.”

Several people giggled at the embarrassing thought of actually touching someone in that manner in public.

Obsidian and the others were required to wear twenty-first century dress, which he found uncomfortable; it was heavy and rough against the skin. Also, the concept of money was confusing. Obsidian had a hard time figuring out how bits of paper and metal could be used to obtain goods and services. Credit cards were easier to understand since their use was similar to the system in use in the thirty-first century known as thumbing.

Several of the classes were boring, and Obsidian’s mind wandered. Part of each afternoon was spent learning twenty-first century English, which was like a foreign language. Writing was even more difficult. One of the travelers asked the instructor, “Why did these primitive people put words down on paper? Why didn’t they just speak their thoughts into their imbedded computers?”

“In the olden days, computers were large clumsy things that people carried around in what were known as notebooks or briefs.”

The interactive sessions were fun when people would be paired up to pretend that they were twenty-first century natives and converse. The android instructor would point out their mistakes in wording, grammar, customs and so forth. At times it was hilarious.

At the end of the two weeks, they were given a final exam, which Obsidian barely passed. Two people flunked it and were refunded their credits. Finally, the big day came when the group of eight were deemed ready to travel back in time. They were introduced to their guide, a tall muscular android by the name of Backtrack. Backtrack gave a speech as they stood in front the complicated vehicle that would take them to the past.

“Travelers, in a few moments you’ll be boarding Reverse Entropy Rover Fifteen for the adventure of your lives. Before we leave, I must stress two things. First, we must be extremely careful not to disturb anything that could ripple through time and change our world in any drastic way or cause a paradox. The list of things you must never, never do is under ‘Things Never, Never to Do’ in your guide. Memorize everything on this screen.

“Deliberate breaking of the rules is a criminal offense and will be prosecuted. Which reminds me, the guide itself should never be shown to a twenty-first centurian. It’s constructed with a technology not available in that era. It’s programmed to self-destruct if anyone but yourself tries to use it.

“Secondly, there’ll be danger. The best way to avoid having an accidental injury is to keep with the group and do precisely what I tell you to and nothing else. I know you’re thinking, ‘Why should I take orders from an android’. But, if you’ll call up section fifty-five of the guide, you’ll see that you’ve agreed to follow — without question — the directions of your tour guide, whether human or android. From the moment we enter the ROR, I’m your master. You must obey me as though you were the android. If anyone has a problem with this, let me know now.” Backtrack paused for a minute in case anyone objected. Since no one spoke up, he continued. “Good. This is for your own protection.

“Also, hold up your wrists. Good. You’re all wearing locators. These gadgets allow me to find you should you get separated from the group. You may also contact me using the locator. Since the locators are designed to resemble twenty-first century timepieces called wristwatches, you can use them to determine local time.

“Now, the idea is to have fun without disturbing history or getting hurt. We’re about to see some amazing sights. Objects and events you will never forget. So, let’s see smiles and jollity. On the way, I’ll teach you a twenty-first century song. Okay everyone, follow me aboard ROR Fifteen. Next stop, twenty-first century New York.”

* * *

Obsidian settled back in the cushioned seat and buckled his seat belt. He was uncomfortable. Since he wore tight jeans, the wallet he used to carry money made a bulge in his back pocket and the time guide, a bulge in his left side pocket, both of which rubbed against his leg. Nonetheless, he didn’t complain. Discomfort was part of the adventure.

He gazed around. The ROR was designed to resemble a twenty-first century tour bus. It had large windows that gave a good view in every direction. Backtrack sat next to the low level android driver, whose designation was a long number, although Backtrack introduced him simply as Fifty-Five. Moments later the driver engaged the engine. Although it let out a roar that startled everyone, the bus remained stationary. Backtrack announced into an object which he referred to as a microphone, “Travelers, we’re slowly moving back in time. We’ll gain momentum gradually.”

At first, Obsidian chuckled to see people and vehicles outside the bus moving backwards, faster and faster. It was like watching a holovision in reverse. Darkness and light followed each other quickly. Soon, however, everything turned into a gray blur, although he was aware of buildings which rose and fell. But, after a while even this phenomenon occurred too swiftly to follow. After a couple of hours of this, during which Backtrack had them singing the chorus of a twenty-first century song called “New York, New York,” Backtrack announced, “In a few minutes, we’ll arrive in the twenty-first century. When we stop traveling in time, you’ll notice that we’ll be moving along what was called, back in those days, a superhighway.”

There was nothing super about it though. It was simply a wide pathway constructed of a black material with white lines painted on it. Many ground vehicles sped along at it, dodging around each other like a holovision Obsidian had seen about an ancient sport called NASCAR racing.

Backtrack said, “Just ahead are the towers of New York.”

Obsidian could hardly believe that it was one of the largest metropolises of its time. It seemed to be simply a small city. No buildings were more than hundred stories high, most were much less. The heavy traffic converged into a tunnel. Apparently none of the vehicles had the capability of flight. Once through the tunnel, the traffic congestion increased considerably, moving in fits and starts. Backtrack said, “This is what the twenty-first century people call ‘a traffic mashed fruit in a jar’.”

Obsidian was amazed at the beautiful drawings on the dirty concrete walls and buildings. He whispered to Janic, the woman next to him, “Look at the art. You’d see nothing like that in our time.”

“Yes, it’s amazing. the time guide says that this sort of art was created by street artists who received no compensation for their work. It’s called graffiti.”

* * *

Finally the ROR pulled into an underground building. Backtrack rose. “This is the Port Authority Bus Terminal in the center of Manhattan, the most populous of the New York City sections called boroughs. Since this building is crowded, stay together and keep me in sight at all times. Don’t speak to anyone. When we exit the terminal, we’ll split into two groups and board ground vehicles known as taxis. The taxis will take us to the Battery, where we’ll ride in an ancient over-the-water vehicle to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Statue of Liberty.”

After disembarking the ROR, Obsidian was assaulted by cacophonous noise, evil odors and dirt. Crowds of people rushed hither and thither in chaotic confusion. The atrocious stench caused him to gag. As they moved toward a moving stairway, people brushed up against him. Although he shuddered at their touch, he figured that being jostled by filthy natives was part of the adventure. He wanted exotic and that was what he was getting. To one side he noticed two doors, one marked Women, the other Men. “What in the world could those lead to?” he asked.

Janic said, “It’s in the time guide. They house facilities to evacuate oneself. In this time period, women and men used separate but equal latrines.”

“Really? That certainly was a sexist practice.”

“It was sexist era. Women were treated as chattel.” She giggled nervously as though she expected Obsidian to start ordering her around.

Obsidian strolled at his usual leisurely pace. Soon the other time travelers and Backtrack were out of sight. This worried him at first, until he saw a sign that read “Taxis.” He headed in that direction. When he arrived at the taxi stand, Backtrack chastised him. “When I say ‘stay together’ I mean stay together. From now on I want you close to me.”

Obsidian was disappointed when he, Backtrack and two other men entered the first of the two taxis. He was planning on flirting with Janic. With a jerk that caused him to bump his head, the taxi pulled into traffic. It was the most terrifying ride of his life. The cab swerved from side to side, weaving between similar vehicles at a high rate of speed. Obsidian clung to the back of the seat in front of him with a grip of iron. His teeth chattered. You wanted adventure, Obsidian. This is probably more than you bargained for. Maybe Blato was right about the dangers.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by Joe Vadalma

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