fiction

The Time Traveler, Part 7

Wherein Brown boards a familiar means of conveyance.

[Last time: Brown reunited with old friend and lab mate Ray Carpenter, who nudged him toward safety.]

Ray piloted the Chrysler down Interstate 5 at exactly 65 miles per hours courtesy of a fantastic device he called cruise control. “What a remarkable new innovation,” I said.

“It’s hardly new,” Ray replied. “Chrysler introduced it on the ’58 Imperial, so it’s been around almost as long as you’ve been gone. Yeah, if we popped the hood on this little beauty the only think you’d recognize is the Hemi badge. Cars these days are more complicated than that time capsule of yours.”

“Silicon transistors, huh?”

“Computers. You can’t fix a damned thing on these new cars without a special reader that interprets the onboard computer’s error codes.”

“Son of a gun. Are you telling me that this thing has a miniature UNIVAC under the hood?”

“No, that’s an old-fashioned internal combustion engine up there. The computer is under the dashboard. Tiny little thing, too,” Ray said. I didn’t know which was more fantastic: That old Ike actually pulled off the interstate system, or that each day millions of mobile computers traverse the network of highways that he envisioned.

Or maybe the most fantastic thing was how humdrum it all was. None of the drivers speeding past us seemed in the least gobsmacked by the amazing feats of technology, engineering, and government that they were riding in and driving upon. While this was all new to me, the rest of my fellow citizens of 2017 took for granted the miracles surrounding them.

“So what’s it like?” Ray asked.

“Time travel?”

“Yeah.”

“Like scalding a frog,” I said.

“How’s that?”

“You know that old deal about putting a frog in a pan of water and heating it slowly. The poor thing acclimates right along with the temperature change and boils to death without even noticing.”

“So we’re all slow-cooked frogs, but you’ve been thrown right into a boiling pot,” Ray laughed.

“Roger that,” I said.

“Well, I’m afraid it’s going to get much hotter, sport,” he said, and the car’s computer told him to exit the interstate. It was a gal’s voice. I wondered if all computers were ladies, like ships. We pulled into what looked like the skid row portion of town. Bums in filthy rages staggered along filthier sidewalks, their gazes fixed miles ahead of them. We called that shell shock when I was overseas.

“Are these bums war casualties?”

“We don’t call them bums anymore. They’re ‘homeless’ now,” Ray said. “And yes, in a sense they’re veterans of a war, but an ideological one.”

“How’s that?”

“Long story, but the gist of it is that we closed all the mental institutions and turned the patients out onto the street.”

“Why the heck did we do that?”

“Depends on who you ask. Some say funding, others say it was an attempt to treat mental patients in a more natural setting. Me, I blame Reagan.”

“The actor?” I asked.

“The president.”

“The actor’s son–he’s that game show host turned president I saw on the television?”

“No, the actor was the president during the ’80s,” Ray said. I sat quietly while he steered the Chrysler into the train station parking lot.

“A train? Isn’t this the jet age?”

“Oh, no. We’d never get you through airport security. Besides, since 9/11 air travel is more trouble than it’s worth.”

“What is 9-11?”

“We’ll get to that eventually. You have enough boiling water to deal with right now,” Ray said.

Trains hadn’t changed much in sixty years; well, maybe they have robots and computers in the engine cars, I don’t know, but back in our compartment Ray and I settled into a pair of familiar enough seats. I slid our door closed and pulled a pack of Raleighs from my pocket. I extended the pack toward Ray, and he shrugged them off. “You sure?” I asked. “These are the healthy ones with the filter tips.”

“Gave them up years ago when Melba got breast cancer,” Ray said. “Can’t smoke them on the train anyway. Can’t smoke them anywhere, really.”

“Son of a gun,” I muttered, and I tucked the pack of smokes back into my pocket. This boiling business was for the frogs.

 

Categories: fiction

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