I swallowed the atrocity that Leonart had called "pizza," mustering everything I could recall about the art of deception into what I hoped was a convincing smile and thumbs up. He was never going to see me again — none of them were — and I didn't want their last memory of me to be a comment on how they had screwed up a common food from my time.
My flight was due to leave soon, and this was a farewell dinner by my new friends: Friends whom I had acquired since all of my earlier friends had died over the course of my previous flight. Not through any tragedy, mind you: I am using, or perhaps misusing, the word "flight" to refer to extrasolar planet tourism. You don't come back from that to find your acquaintances still alive, though there is a fad for planting a sequoia before you leave, and providing for its care and protection until you return.
The folks at my party were all wonderful people, but I had not grown too attached. Still, we had a superb time playing games and making music after dinner. I eventually played one of my own comedy songs, drawing out hearty guffaws. (I had already translated it to Newspeak.) The theme of infidelity was no longer quite as relevant, and hence funny, as when I first wrote it, but the "unreliable narrator" gimmick had gained enough appreciation to make up for that.
Upon my final turn to select a song, the circumstances overcame my usual inhibition against showing off, and I picked a fiendish arrangement by a classical guitarist I had once met, which I like to play just a bit too fast. It didn't matter that my friends couldn't parse English with a bad Irish accent: The lyrics to "Bedlam Boys" make about as much sense either way. I looked up from the final chorus to see slack jaws from those who had not heard me play for real, followed by enthusiastic cheering all around.
Leonart and I lingered after the others had left, and his fingers wove casually intricate patterns around the instrument he called a sholist, that looked like an electronic bagpipe and sounded like a ukelele fired at high speed from a crumhorn. The first time he had asked my opinion of it, I had bitten my tongue before the words "That doesn't sound like music" could come out. When I said instead, "I'm afraid I'm not sophisticated enough to appreciate this music," he graciously pretended to take the statement at face value. And I'll be damned if he didn't eventually get me to like hearing sholist performances. Well, really good ones, anyway.
He turned the volume down. "I've heard you sing that song of yours before. Have you written others?"
"Yes, but not many. And I haven't translated them." I almost said, "into Newspeak," but caught myself. It was my personal term, which I never used aloud. He was unlikely to catch the reference, but if he had, he would have been horrified.
"That's a shame. Did you write anything during your previous stay, or was it all before the accident?"
"Before the accident." The first era of my life: the late 20th century CE. It ended on the day that I realized I had accidentally given my favorite pizza place the address of the cryogenics lab next door, and you wouldn't believe me if I told you what happened when I went to find it. Suffice it to say that I woke to an age of interstellar travel, of which I availed myself after a few years. And that was the end of the second era of my life.
Leonart must have read something in my face, because he quickly changed the subject. Due to his contagious passion, I did a surprisingly good job of pretending to care about his sports team's chances of getting into the sport-finals, and maybe even having a shot at the Sport Cup, before I took my leave.
A satisfying conclusion to the third era of my life, I thought as I blinked the lights out.
The morning saw me staring with slight bewilderment at a bureacratic office complex the size of a small university. I had foolishly thought that arriving at the correct address would put me where I needed to be. Now, even looking at the map at the entrance, I wasn't sure whether I needed the office of "Travel Confirmation," "Interstellar Travel Finalization," or "Spaceflight Preparation". After five minutes of waffling, I addressed the map: "Assistance, please."
The response came from right behind me. "A conversational tone will do. You don't have to lean in and shout at it." Her smile was warm enough that I wished with all my heart that I hadn't just leapt, spinning, into the air like a trained dolphin.
"Um, sorry," I said, trying and failing to find somewhere to put my hands. "Fast food habit. Not that I ever ate lots of fast food, or that you even know what fast food is- You know what? Not important."
She wore the badge of a Welcoming Assistant: One who helps people from other places and times to understand and navigate, and sometimes even integrate into, the society and infrastructure of the here and now. Of course the map would have detected someone standing in front of it for several minutes, and already made the call.
"Okay, then. My name is Clara. How can I help you today?"
"Hi, Clara. I'm Wade. I need to confirm my processed application for a trip to Gliese 581 c. I guess they want me to show up in person to prove I'm not a spambot or something."
"Business or pleasure?"
"Then you need Exoplanetary Tourism Office. The route is indirect; I'll walk with you." She lowered her voice. "By the way, be discreet about mentioning spambots in public. You never know who may have lost someone in the war."
"Oh geez, I forgot."
We followed a transparent walkway that wove between the buildings. I was staring down at a small Japanese garden when she asked, "Why did you wait so long to ask for assistance?"
I had to think about it. "Where I come from — When I come from, we had an economy based on scarcity. Nobody had all that they wanted, so asking for help, from anyone who wasn't a friend, a relative, or a utilitarian, would take something from them. This would put you in their debt, by a social rule they called reciprocity." I suddenly looked over at her. "But you know this." A Welcoming Assistant would know about social changes over the last several centuries, if anyone would.
"Yes, but I want to hear it from you. What's changed?"
Strange request. "Well, people are free to do whatever they want now, without worrying about whether they'll be able to feed and clothe their families. They're not competing for the few scraps left over after the banks and oil companies are done feasting. So they can be productive members of society, but still have plenty of time and energy for leisure, and for helping other people. I have no idea how it happened, but-"
"What do you mean?" she asked with genuine surprise. "You really don't know how society changed?"
"I've avoided looking into it; I figure it had to be pretty horrific. My best guess is that someone killed all of the lobbyists. But anyone who could do that would have to be so sociopathic that they probably wouldn't have sided with the rest of us in the first place. My next guess is that the U.S. collapsed completely, like Soviet Union did, probably with the same sort of outside push that the U.S. gave them, or maybe just when the oil ran out. The transition from the ensuing chaos and starvation to this utopia probably means that the shattered pieces were picked up at a huge discount by Finland. But in case it was a bloodbath, I think I'm happier not asking."
"Suit yourself. And I'm sorry for interrupting. You were saying that people have plenty of time to help others..." she prompted.
"Right. And they're happy to do so. It's like they're all family now, or someone is actually teaching children to be decent people... Hmm. The education system must have been overhauled too."
"That was step one. But go on."
"So..." I saw where this was going. "I'm not costing anyone anything by asking for help, and I ought to do so whenever appropriate, instead of standing there, staring blankly at a map that's smarter than I am."
"At least you jump better than the map can." She opened a third-floor door at the end of a ramp from the walkway.
I'd love to tell you that the Exoplanetary Tourism Office was lined with real-time external views of interstellar spacecraft, each subtitled with a readout of velocity and ETA from both its relativistic standpoint and ours, and with a holo-projector in the middle, where a slickly suited whiz kid deftly flung data fields around with fingertip electrodes. But you'd have caught me in the lie when I said "whiz kid" if you know bureacrats, and when I said "real-time" if you know relativity.
There was a desk. There were papers and folders. (Offices were supposed to go paperless by 1995, so I'd had plenty of time to get used to disappointment on that front.) There were travel magazines. There were signs warning about the dangers of space travel. There was a poster advertising vacations on beautiful Tau Ceti f.
And there was a mustachioed, bored looking man in a business suit that, though clean and pressed, showed frayed and carelessly uneven cuffs. He lifted his eyes long enough to glance at Clara's badge, then to me, then back down to his desk display, which was situated to face only him.
And there was the form regarding the preliminary tests: Tests which I had undergone prior to my trip to Tau Ceti f, but whose results would continue to be valid until a major medical change or whatever passed for old age nowadays. Most of them were no big deal, but there was one that had left my skin with a burning sensation for three days, whose purpose they never satisfactorily explained. Also, the sustained high-G test had made me sick to my stomach. They don't even let you pass out. People used to imagine interstellar starships accelerating at a rate similar to, or even below, Earth's normal gravity. This is quite sensible, but it leaves you arriving much older, and probably very bored. The solution was to inure passengers as best they could against sustained, high-G acceleration at the start and end of the trip. This protection involves high air pressure, extra oxygen, cushioning, continual rotation, and lots of preparatory treatments. The extra acceleration doesn't make a huge difference from Earth's perspective, but the subjective experience involves only a small fraction of the time it would otherwise take. This is why interstellar tourism is even possible at all. Happily, this practice made Tau Ceti f's heinous gravity seem bearable in contrast.
The form was plainly visible from halfway across the room. And even before I sat down, my eye was drawn to the large, red scrawls across each test result box.
"Mr. Conner. Ordinarily, this step in the journey confirmation process happens after you have taken and passed your physiological readiness tests. I'm sorry if that hasn't been explained to you already." I honestly can't say whether he was being snotty: I thought so at the time, but I was predisposed to think so. I had been on edge and expecting trouble from the moment I spotted the form.
"Mr. Whitson," I said, my voice tightly under control. He hadn't introduced himself, but name plates were still in fashion. "If I had not already passed the tests, I would not have even been allowed aboard the starship Robinson, let alone traveled to Tau Ceti f. Which, I assure you, your company's poster has undersold. The views there were so majestic that it was worth freezing my ass off just to get a few more pictures, and it was worth the pressure headache I got watching the sunset from inside a mechanized exoskeleton."
He sounded unconvinced. "Be that as it may, I have no record of your tests, and you need them if you are to proceed."
Clara spoke up, interrupting the glare which I fully expected to be lethal to Mr. Whitson if I could concentrate hard enough. "Is it possible that the test results have been misfiled? Perhaps you should search for them before making him repeat the tests."
Mr. Whitson was a master of the cold stare that bureacrats reserve for occasions when someone who isn't their boss asks them to do their job. But Clara was a grandmaster of the "I can wait patiently forever" gaze, and after six eternities went by in as many seconds, he relented.
"The test results may have been misfiled — or lost — during a system upgrade. I will assign someone to assign a program to search for them. If that is unsuccessful, you may retake the tests. Contact me tomorrow."
We left. It felt colder already, and I wondered whether anyone used the transparent walkway in bad weather: It was very exposed. I fretted. A society in which everything that has ever been written is scanned and stored somewhere, and they still manage to lose my forms. We walked in silence for a few minutes, both of us seemingly lost in heavy thoughts.
Clara finally piped up. "Wade, before you set your departure in stone, have you considered your accomplishments here on Earth?"
This caught me off guard. "What accomplishments?"
"You tell me."
"Well, I helped a lot of people, individually, back in my original time. They're all long gone, so I don't know what that counts for. I can program a computer like I can play a guitar, which is saying a fair bit. And I've written a few awesome things here and there: Some games, some stories, some hilarious songs. But when they're good, it's luck and ability rather than... ability... Damn."
"Sorry, in English the words are 'talent' and 'skill'. I don't know the distinct words in Newsp- in your language."
"So tell me the difference."
"Skill is ability that you gain from learning and practice. Talent is ability that you have without working for it." She nodded, so I continued. "Any truly great achievement takes both talent and skill. Well, a tremendous amount of skill can possibly make up for a lack of talent. But you can only go so far on talent alone. When inspiration would hit, I could write a funny song, or an enjoyable game. Sometimes, it was really good! Sometimes it took some work. Often, it would take more work than I was willing to put in. And I'd be stuck with a half-formed game. Or an idea for a great song would wind up in a to-do list so that I could pretend that I'd eventually work on it, and then quietly forget about it with a clean conscience."
"That's very sad," she observed. "Also, surprisingly honest."
"It probably helps that I'm about to leave. I'm not all that attached to people here anyway, and since I'm leaving the planet in a few days, I really have no reason to care about what anyone thinks. So, while I'm being honest out loud, I'll say that the idea of putting in the work to become skilled is kind of scary. It sounds stupid considering that I can program and play guitar, but those are skills I could develop alone. I could sit in my room and practice guitar when I was young, and nobody would ever know if I screwed up a chord. And nobody had to know if my program didn't compile: I'd just hack away at it until it worked. But writing doesn't make sense without an audience. I know that you have to be willing to churn out a thousand pieces of crap before you can expect to get good at it. I don't want to put a story, or a song, or a game, into the world and have it not be perfect."
"Nobody is looking for perfection."
"I know that. And I know that 'the perfect is the enemy of the good'. But it's scary! I don't want to claim to be a writer or composer and then hand out trash. And I certainly don't want to put a huge amount of work into writing things that are going to suck! Whom does that help?"
"Maybe it helps you. Not your pride, but you." She paused, seeming to make a decision. "Do you know what I think is standing in your way? It's not fear. It's not work. It's your ego. Even when you feel so detached from people that you're not afraid to be honest because you don't care what they think, you can't bear the idea that they might think that you're a crappy writer. Or a crappy composer. Well, guess what? You could be a crappy writer! All you're doing is hiding behind the occasional fruit of your 'talent' so that you can pretend that you're not. But if you had to write a good song, every day, just to make your living, you'd starve."
"A good song every day?!?"
"There are people who do that. Don't you get it? Those people started out as crappy writers too!"
Just as we got to the gate, I stopped walking and faced her. "Wait, why are you pushing me so hard?"
"We're getting somewhere. Don't change the subject."
"We're going the wrong way. I have half a mind to march back to the Exoplanetary Tourism office and demand to be scheduled for my physiological readiness tests immediately."
Clara looked more scared than shocked, which clinched it for me. "Why? What's gotten into you?"
"I may be dumber than an electronic map, but at least I can learn!" I don't know what I would have done if the map had objected. Thankfully, it stayed silent. "The hyper-real bureaucrat. The good cop / bad cop routine. You two were playing me!"
She seemed confused about whether she should be offended. "I don't think I understood a thing you just said."
"Hyper-real. A film, for example, might show the audience something they know about, but not personally, like a Turkish village, or tundra. But maybe they don't show the thing as it actually is. Instead, they show the thing as the audience believes it is. To the audience, this film version looks more real than the real thing would. It's hyper-real. Like Mr. Whitson."
She didn't react, so I continued. "He was carefully made up to look and act like my idea of a classic, small-minded obstructionist. Anyone else in the city would have noticed something wrong immediately: In a society full of friendly, helpful people, why would the only asshole also be the only person in a position to stop me from going off-world?"
Clara was shaking her head sadly.
"And you gained my trust by standing up to him. That way, I'd be inclined to cooperate with you, all while you two are working toward exactly the same goal! It's a common police tactic from my time, minus the threat of bodily harm or lifetime imprisonment."
She looked shocked: Whether at the practice or the comparison to it, I couldn't tell. She opened her mouth, but I blew right over her protest.
"No, don't try to convince me of anything. Your credibility is shot. There is one saving grace, one reason, that I'm not turning around right now." She almost asked, but quickly changed her mind and waited for it. "As far as I can tell, your government isn't evil. Whatever official or computer decided to pull this stunt might have even calculated that it would be good for me. But it failed. I will not be manipulated. And your assistance is no longer required."
I walked away.
Storming away down the city streets on foot is far easier and safer than it ever was in my old life. Those who aren't walking or using pedal power usually stand on little electric skateboards or scooters, occasionally enclosed within clear, person-shaped bubbles that serve as windshield and climate control. The biggest thing I saw on the road was an electric shopping cart with seating for a driver and two children. There was nothing at all that would kill you if it ran into you.
Which was good, because I couldn't see where I was going.
I ignored bells, beeps and surprised interjections, lost in thought. Who do they think they are? Has the government taken on the role of yenta? I'll make up my own damn mind about what I do and where I go.
It took a few blocks for me to remember the things that used to anger me about government, and I suddenly started to feel pathetic for being outraged over this. This isn't mass murder; it's not stealing from the poor to give to the rich; it's not even pork barrel legislation. It's just annoying meddling: More annoying because it had almost worked on me. No one likes to realize that they've been had.
I was further annoyed at myself for still feeling like Clara had been looking out for me, even though I knew it was guile. And that lead to another problem: What if she, or whoever had put her up to it, was right? Their sneaky tactics had undermined the effectiveness of the argument, but did that say anything about the position itself? If I were to get on that ship purely out of spite, I would be throwing the biggest snit in the solar system. So I had to think it through.
What had she said to me at the start? "Before you set your departure in stone, have you considered your accomplishments here on Earth?" The conversation had continued almost entirely under my direction, at least until she started with that "ego" crap. But what if that wasn't where her original question was intended to lead?
What if I had underestimated the quality of my writing before the accident? Some of my works were damn good. Did one of them achieve lasting fame? Did several? To most minds, that would be incentive to stay on Earth. After all, who doesn't want to be famous? (Besides famous people?)
For lack of a better plan, curiosity overcame anger. I found a subway entrance, and the display gave me a sufficiently simple route to the library that I declined its offer of a printout. I wondered whether any of the strangers surrounding me had heard my songs.
At my destination, a small, silver-haired librarian nodded to me on her way from the Fabrication room. Despite the name, this isn't where the mainstream newspapers are kept. We are free to read anything we like on a terminal, but if anyone wants the feel of real paper in their hands, they simply request any book or article, then wait half a minute, or less if they don't mind that the binding hasn't cooled yet. There is no checkout: Just take it home, finish it, and drop it in the recycler.
Back behind her desk, the librarian handed some patron a magazine. Before I could even step forward, she took another look at me, sized me up in the time that it takes to blink, and glanced at an unoccupied private room. Clearly, she had seen more than her share of people in need. I flashed her a grateful smile and nod, then went straight in and closed the door.
I involuntarily relaxed in an ergonomic rocking seat, and pondered the query field on my terminal. If my search term were merely "Wade Conner," it would probably return my address and phone number. Current indexing algorithms are sophisticated, but the search engines expect some sort of context for optimal performance. How could I efficiently discover what I'm known for? I decided that "Who is Wade Conner?" would probably work, supplying me with any popularly known information. The question, "Who is John Galt?" popped uninvited into my head, but I swallowed my distaste and sent the query anyway.
The screen gave me the "Please wait" stopwatch symbol. No technology has yet managed to obviate the need for such prompts, but by the time it had been up for ten seconds, my brow was furrowed. Twenty seconds, and I was wondering if something had happened to the network interface, although I had no idea whether such things break down anymore. I was just starting to reach for the assistance button when simultaneously the screen went black and the door opened.
The librarian entered, smiling and cradling a large, thick envelope in her arms. She placed it on the desk with outstretched fingertips, in a posture of respect and humility, but also with a twinkle in her eyes, as if she were delivering a gift that she knew I would enjoy.
I took the envelope and looked up to thank her, but all I saw was a glimpse of her back, just before the door closed. I looked back down. Damn, that was a heavy envelope. There had to be half a ream of paper in there! I was starting to get excited. Who knows what I might be known for? All of it good, right?
Not allowing myself any more suspense, I opened the flap, slid out the stack of paper, and started leafing through it.
"Oh, shit." If you imagine a driver getting punched in the gut just as they realize that their car is spinning toward a ditch, you'll have a good idea of my tone of voice, and an even better idea of how I felt.
I kept thumbing my way down the stack. It was old-fashioned, lined, loose-leaf paper, just like I used to take notes on.
It was all blank.
I understood the message instantly. Nobody's motives or credibility mattered, because I knew, in that same instant, that it was right.
Mr. Whitson would understand if I didn't call tomorrow: I had an awful lot of work to do. Maybe I could create a better poster for Tau Ceti f, and send him that as a thank-you. No, not maybe. Definitely.
How could I thank the librarian, who had finally broken through my barriers and gotten me to see myself, without speaking a single word? Well, I'd start with an ice cream cone, and think of something better later. I hoped.
I didn't notice my fingers nearing the bottom of the stack until words appeared on the remaining pages. English words. It looked like ballpoint pen, but only if a ballpoint pen left no indentations. The handwriting was mine.
Every piece of paper, scanned and stored somewhere. These were my notes, from my old life: Ideas, outlines, project to-do lists, even some really wretched poetry. If I had to throw out most of it — and I probably would — I still had some good places to start.
But my very first work needed a blank page. It started thusly:
Clara, I am deeply sorry for the way I treated you. You almost got through to me, but the moment I couldn't counter your logic, I lashed out at you. I desperately hope that talent alone will allow me to write a sufficient apology. Perhaps the electronic map might have some tips for me in that regard: After all, it pays to listen to those who are wiser than one's self.
A funny thing happened on the way to Gliese 581 c: A Zen master told me that the only answer to the question, "Who is Wade Conner?" is the answer that I create by doing that which makes me who I am.
I have been avoiding doing that. For whatever reason: Fear, ego, inconvenience. It probably doesn't matter why. Diversion was easier and more immediately rewarding, and by losing myself in diversion, I had lost myself.
I will stay. I will make myself write, and keep writing. I will immerse myself in modern culture, to have things to write about. Perhaps I will learn to play sportball.
I will also ask for help when I need it, and try to receive it with gratitude and grace next time.
This did not start as a normal story. It was a dream: One whose premise, obstacle and revelation happened exactly as they appear here. I merely fleshed it out in the retelling, as I desperately scrambled to record it before it faded.
If you get something out of it that is anything like what I got out of it, I will be thrilled for you.
© 2013 by Joseph Levy.
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