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A Visit to the Twenty-First Century

by Joe Vadalma

Table of Contents
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
part 2 of 4

Obsidian’s fear was entirely justified. At a wide intersection where several streets came together, the cabby went through a red light and was struck broadside by a delivery truck. Several vehicles became involved, and the cab was struck again, rolling over several times before coming to rest on its side. The driver was impaled by the steering wheel, and Backtrack, who’d been sitting next to him, was thrown through the windshield. The other two time travelers were unconscious and bleeding. Somehow Obsidian escaped with only a few cuts and bruises and crawled out.

The scene was horrendous, with screaming sirens, crashed vehicles and bodies lying in the street. The curious and the helpful crowded in around the dead and injured. Obsidian made his way to where Backtrack lay in a collapsed heap. The android’s head was cracked open and crankcase oil leaked out. Obsidian kneeled next to him. “What are we to do?”

Backtrack said, “I must self-destruct before the natives discover that I’m an android. Obsidian, report to Fifty-five what happened. I’m counting on you.”

“But how do I contact it?”

“Use the time guide or the locator. Move yourself at least four meters away from me. Danger. Danger.”

Obsidian backed away quickly. Moments later, Backtrack burst into flame. Fire trucks had arrived at the scene and sprayed him with foam from a canister. As Obsidian gazed in horror, before the fire was extinguished, Backtrack was reduced to a ash and grease. Somehow Obsidian made his way to the curb where he sat trembling with his head in his hands, tears running down his cheeks. After a while an EMT came up to him. “Are you all right fellow? I saw you crawl out of that cab. The driver was killed, and your buddies are seriously injured. It’s a miracle you’re not hurt.”

Obsidian stared at him. “Backtrack burned up. How could this possibly have happened? The autotraffic system must’ve failed.”

“Nah. The cabby jumped the light. Who’s this Backtrack who’s going to be so mad?”

“He was our guide, but he was perfectly sane for a...” Obsidian stopped on the verge of revealing that Backtrack was an android.

The EMT shook his head sadly. “Look, I’m taking you to the hospital. You need treatment for shock.”

“Hospital? But I need to go to Port Authority.”

“You can get another bus tomorrow. Call this Backtrack from the hospital.”

He had Obsidian lay down in the ambulance and gave him a sedative. Although the ambulance roared away siren blazing, the sedative did its work, and Obsidian lay calm, although the horrible events he’d witnessed churned around his mind.

After they arrived at the hospital, they wheeled Obsidian into a room and removed his clothing, even his locator. He protested, but the medics held him down, finally subduing him with another sedative. As he lay back, his head whirling dizzyingly, an intern came in and bandaged his cuts. After he left, a nurse took Obsidian’s pulse rate, blood pressure, a tube of blood and his temperature. Another woman brought papers for him to sign.

“What are these?”

“Just the usual waivers absolving the hospital of any fault should anything go wrong while you’re here. Do you have insurance?”

“Insurance? I’m not familiar with the word.”

“Oh, a foreigner. I thought you had an accent. Where’re you from?”

Obsidian said, “Enceladus.”

“Never heard of the place. Is it in Africa?”

The word Africa sounded familiar to Obsidian. He knew it was the designation of an area on Earth, but he wasn’t sure where. He decided to allow the nurse to believe that was where he lived. “Yes. May I leave now?”

“Oh no. Not until we finish checking you out. You might have a concussion.”

Since he felt too dizzy to move, Obsidian lay back and relaxed. After an hour, an aide brought him to the radiology department where a technician x-rayed his head. Again he waited in his room for a long time. A doctor came in. “You don’t have a concussion, but there’s foreign substance in your sinus cavity that we need to remove. I’m surprised that you can breath with that blockage.”

Obsidian wanted to tell him that what he was referring to was his disease filter, but worried that he might be revealing technology not yet invented. “I haven’t had any trouble.”

“Maybe not yet. Don’t worry son, it’s a simple operation.” He patted Obsidian’s shoulder.

* * *

Hours went by. Obsidian was served a bland meal, which he consumed hungrily. He hadn’t eaten since arriving in the twenty-first century. He asked the food server, “When can I leave? I must inform TAC about the disaster.”

“Sorry fellow, that’s up to your doctor. There’s a phone down the hall if you want to call somebody.”

Obsidian figured that a phone must be a communication device. “Show me.”

The phone consisted of several parts. He lifted the receiver and put it to his ear. All he heard was a buzzing. He read the directions: “Lift receiver. Deposit twenty-five cents. Dial your number or press 0 for the operator.” He scratched his head. He vaguely recalled that cents was a word that referred to coins. Since he had none, he tried pressing buttons. Nothing happened. Disappointed he returned to his room.

Medical personnel were waiting for him with a gurney. “Get on this please.”

After Obsidian hoped aboard, he was strapped down. “Where are we going?” he cried.

“Just relax, Mr. Obsidian. We’re taking you to the operating room.”

Operating room, Obsidian thought. I wonder what that is. Perhaps, they’ve discovered that I’m from the future and are going torture me to obtain my secrets. “Please. No. I...”

Before he could say more, they attached an IV to his arm and started wheeling him down the hall. A few moments later, everything went black.

* * *

He woke up groggy in another similar room. His nose was stuffed with cotton, and he had an awful headache. He groaned and pressed the buzzer that was in his hand. A nurse came in. “Good. You’re awake. How do you feel?” she said in a nasal tone as she took his pulse. Backtrack was right. These twenty-first centurians are always touching. Since the nurse was young and pretty, Obsidian decided that he didn’t mind having certain people place their hands on him. It was almost pleasant. When the nurse finished taking his vitals, she sneezed and wiped her nose with a tissue. She threw the tissue in the wastebasket and left.

A couple of hours later, she returned with his clothing and more papers to sign. He checked his pockets for the time guide. He asked the nurse if anyone had found a gadget in his jeans.

“Oh that. I’m sorry Mister Obsidian, but it fell out, and when the aide tried to pick it up, it crumbled into dust. Was it valuable?”

Valuable? It had all the information I need to survive in this century, he thought. “Uh, no. It was just something that the tour company gave us.”

“Strange how it turned to powder like that.”

She wheeled him to the hospital entrance in a wheelchair. After she left, he walked to a small park across the street and sat on a bench in an area hidden by trees from the street. After making sure that no one was around, he spoke into the locator. “Hello. Contacting android Fifty Five.”

The android driver’s stattico voice said, “Fifty Five here.”

“There’s been a terrible disaster. Backtrack has been destroyed.”

“Backtrack is out with a tour group.”

“I’m not asking to speak to Backtrack. You must notify TAC headquarters that something terrible has happened. We’re in awful trouble.”

“I cannot do that without specific orders from Backtrack.”

“But, I told you. Backtrack has been destroyed.”

Fifty Five didn’t reply. Obsidian realized that he wouldn’t be able to get through to the stupid low-level android. His only chance of contacting the time tour company was to return to where the ROR was parked. He walked out of the park and started across the heavily-trafficked street. Someone grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him back moments before a large truck would’ve smashed him flat.

“Hey, buddy,” his rescuer said. “You want to get killed, walking into the middle of traffic like that.”

“Oh. I thought the vehicle would stop automatically.”

“Are you kidding? This is New York. Maybe out in California drivers stop when a pedestrian steps off the curb; here they aim for him.”

Obsidian wondered whether the last part of his statement was true or an exaggeration. “Thank you for saving my life. Can you tell how to get to the Port Authority bus terminal?”

“It’s on the other side of town. Easiest way is by subway.”

“Subway? I’m a...” He almost slipped and said “time traveler,” but that was in the list of Never, Never Do’s. “... a tourist.”

“I’ll write out directions.” He scribbled a few sentence on the top sheet of a notepad and handed it to him.

“Thank you. Uh... where do I board the sub-way?”

The man pointed out a set of steps leading underground and walked away. Obsidian walked down with trepidation. The underground room was ill lighted and extremely dirty. There was a kind of a fence running down the middle of it. Obsidian watched as people dropped something in slots and pushed the little bars to enter. He walked over and pushed against the bar. It didn’t move. It wasn’t high, so he climbed over it. Immediately, a man in a blue uniform grabbed him by the collar. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Mac? Didn’t you think I’d see you?”

Obsidian recalled that people in such uniforms were referred to as lawmen and that they had the power to incarcerate people. He had forgotten, really had not listened to, the lecture on criminals, laws and lawmen. It hadn’t seemed pertinent at the time. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. I’m a tourist and don’t know what to do to board the subway.”

“What kind of bull are you giving me? Are you from outer space? Or just nuts? Do you have tokens or an Easypass?”

Obsidian showed lawman his money, mostly hundred dollar bills. The cop’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Where’d you get the heavy bread?”

“The tour company gave it to me.”

“Oh, you mean foreign exchange. Look, see that booth over there. Go up to it and give them one of the bills with Andrew Jackson’s picture on it.” He showed Obsidian which one he meant. “Ask for tokens. Then come back here and put a token in the slot.”

Obsidian nodded. It seemed a rather complicated scheme merely to board a transport. He did as the officer told him and passed through the turnstile. More stairs led to a filthy crowded cavern. People were lounging around expectantly. He said to a man leaning against a post, “I wish to board the B train.”

“It’ll be by any minute, Bro.”

Suddenly there was a horrible screeching and rumbling, and a train pulled into the station. The crowd pushed toward. Obsidian found himself inside the vehicle, squeezed within the center of a mob. The stench was atrocious. The train started up again with its earsplitting roar and began to rock from side to side. Obsidian had to grab one of the rods to keep from being thrown to the floor. He felt faint and nauseous. This was high adventure indeed.

Finally, the train screeched to a stop. Several people exited; others boarded. Obsidian tried to look at the directions on the scrap of paper, but his arms were pinned by the crowd. It seemed to him that the man had said to exit the train after ten stops. Although he was becoming faint, he stayed aboard. In his semiconscious state, he lost count of the stops. Soon the train emptied until there were only a few people aboard. He decided that he should disembark.

He staggered up the stairs of a station even filthier than the one he’d entered. Once outside, he took a deep breath and gazed around. The towers he’d seen when the ROR had entered the city and the Port Authority were nowhere in sight. The buildings around him were only three or four stories high and in disrepair.

Three young men in baggy trousers and kerchiefs on their head were headed in his direction. “Excuse me, gentlemen, I’m looking for the Port Authority. Is it near here?”

The young man laughed. “Man, you sure are lost. This is the Bronx.”

Another of the men, who had several rings in his ears, on his eyebrows, his lip and his nose, said, “Hey Dude, we’ll help you out. I know a shortcut.” His shirt was cutoff at the shoulder, and he had a large tattoo depicting a skull with a knife through its eye,

“Thank you.”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2005 by Joe Vadalma

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