- Foreword: Writing Rochester's Futures
- "Interesting Times"
- "Culinary Capital, 2034"
- "Night Bells"
- "Hollow Lives"
- "The Naked Girl"
- "Time Enough for Love"
- "Day of the Bicentennial"
- "One City at a Time"
- "Want Not"
- "The Costs of Survival"
- "Getting Wet"
- "Top 10 Headlines, Rochester, NY, 2034"
- "North Star Pipeline"
- "The 2034 Lilac Festival"
- "Scotch and Sizzlenuts on the Resolute Bay"
- "Fads (or Why Jerry Loathes the Aliens)" [FULL TEXT, AVAILABLE ONLINE ONLY]
"Fads (or Why Jerry Loathes the Aliens)" [FULL TEXT, AVAILABLE ONLINE ONLY]
“Going to make a move before the end of time, Mark?” I ask, glancing up from my pad’s WNN/Gannett vid on ice-free Antarctic summer cruises to the shimmering holographic chessboard. “I am getting seriously bored.” Mark is my best friend, and I know his expressions almost as well as I know my own. His furrowed brow belies an imminent move.
“Maybe, if aliens show up today,” Mark says, pressing his fists into tanned cheeks, his elbows resting on the translucent, blue glassteel cylinder serving as our game table.
“No such luck, buddy,” I say. “The aliens already conquered us and left.”
“They’ll be back.”
Can I have a day without aliens; just one day without them racing in my thoughts? They are everywhere. They are on news vids, commercials, billboards, soap operas, and cereal boxes. Dammit, they are on my nanowave dinner wrappers! At my age, happiness for me would be to play one chess game in the park without seeing or hearing anything about the damned aliens.
“Okay, former New York grand master of 2021, want to concede now?” I ask.
“I can’t believe it, Jerry. I can’t believe you used my own Mannheim Maneuver against me.”
Leaning back in my chair, I smile wryly and watch a pair of purple dye-jobs enter Manhattan Square Park through the Court Street security gate.
“So much for a day without aliens,” I whisper, closing and opening my eyes. I sigh. They are not a figment of my imagination.
The two kids resemble the purple-skinned Zlan -- one of the six aliens who addressed the United Nations General Assembly. To avoid glaring at them in disgust, I look at my pad, which -- no big surprise -- displays an ad for the Contact Day vid or what everyone calls “The News Story of All Time.” The ad vid shows the Zlan ambassador making its greeting gesture by touching a pair of thin, finger-like tentacles to its forehead.
I know this is living history. I know this is the single most important thing that has happened to humankind, but it plays every day and night like a brainwashing program. I wish they would give it a rest. Maybe there could be an international “No Aliens for a Day” holiday. Now that would be fantastic news.
Of course these two kids cannot be what they seem to be. The real aliens have been gone for the past five years.
Seeing the Contact Day vid brings on my migraines almost as often as humans who try to be like the aliens.
“Stupid humans,” I mumble as the two pass by.
The short boy, his hair cut in a big-hair-styled blonde mullet, sways to the beat of his jack-in player and the lanky girl with cropped black hair waves her hands and arms in frantic, youthful display. She might be commenting on the cool, autumn Rochester afternoon and the bright, azure sky streaked with multi-colored contrails, but more likely she is trying to tell mullet-boy his hair is fifty years out of style.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw a mullet,” I say. “I guess what’s old is new again.”
I run a wrinkled, liver spot-covered hand through my thinning white hair and watch a dozen modified pigeons peck at crumbs on the nearby path. The birds’ genetically altered feathers make them too much like glossy, rainbow-hued, miniature peacocks for my liking, but I prefer them to the pair who chose to be something they are not.
“Kids,” I say. “In my day ...”
“In our day,” Mark says, glancing at the kids, then back at the chessboard, “we had spiked hair and tattoos. Some of us had and still have studs and rings sticking through every inch.”
I wince, imagining where Mark is pierced this week. An odd sensation washes over me, like walking through a cold mist. Time weighs on my thoughts. Mark is my last living friend from our days at Greece Athena High. We are the last true Athena Trojans from the 1970s.
Unreal. Have we been friends for sixty years?
“Why can’t you act and look your age?” I ask, expecting the same response as always. I am rarely disappointed.
“Whatever do you mean?”
I shake my head, wondering once again why we have remained friends for so long. Even at a second glance, we share nothing in common except for time served. We are such opposites. I am aged to perfection and splendidly dressed, in my humble opinion, in a custom-tailored tweed jacket, gray cashmere vest, and black slacks. Mark is outwardly youthful looking, wearing his black leather duster and boots, black T-shirt, black jeans, and sporting a stunning Celtic knot tattoo across his forehead. But he is just as aged as me and maybe even a little crazy on the inside.
Still, I feel we are twin sons of different mothers: one demanding and controlling, the other a free-spirit.
At times I am envious of Mark’s unwrinkled skin, coal-black hair, and weekly transformations, but I do not have the cojones to do it myself or even get one, small tattoo.
Thanks a lot, mom! God rest your hard-ass soul.
“Don’t you ever think it’s amazing?” Mark asks as he massages his closed eyes.
“The University of Rochester and your old GenModCorp teams who found a cure for skin cancer and, by accident, discovered how to manipulate our skin and hair and muscle cells so you can get pierced. Then when you got tired of the look you take the ring or stud out and instantly close up the hole. Same for ink and skin dyes. ‘Hard on. Easy off!’ What a tag line.”
“Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s amazing people actually do it. I’m sorry to this day that I helped even in my small way in accounting.”
“Hey, zaps put us back on the map,” Mark says. “Remember when we were ‘The Flower City’ and ‘The World’s Image Centre’? Then Xerox faded, and Wegmans and Paychex became the ‘it’ companies. The Big Recession of ’15 was when most of the old companies left. It all slung around when the microbotics and biogen companies came and knocked out that old image for good. It got real when everyone starting buying our zaps by the hyperjet load. I was watching a vid the other day about Rochester two hundred years ago. It was a boomtown then and now it is again.”
“I remember,” I reply. “I also remember I like boring.”
“Never noticed before. Is that something new?”
“You are funny, dude.”
I put my pad inside my jacket, straighten my vest at the waist, then open the plastic bag I bring to the park every day. I toss a handful of sunflower seeds to the ground. Showing no fear, a dozen, multi-hued blobs of feathers quickly converge near my feet.
I smile. What will the new modded animal be this month?
“Why won’t you get zapped?” Mark asks. “At least get body sculpted and your hair modded so you look forty again. You can afford it. What are you? Eighty?”
“Nice. You know I’m a year younger than your ancient seventy-eight years.”
“What-ev-er,” Mark sneers.
I know Mark gets a wicked high from teasing me about not getting modded, but it is really annoying.
“You’re zapped on the outside, Mark, but nothing is really changed inside. You are on a fast track to leaving a great-looking corpse.”
Mark ignores me as he stares at the board.
Zaps. If it is not about the aliens, it is about zapping. Why does it seem everyone is getting zapped? Zaps are not the mystical Fountain of Youth, especially the super zap treatments, which can dissolve fat or redesign almost any part of the body.
Zaps are just little white lies to help make the passing years less painful to the eye. Done well and one can be a well-endowed Adonis or Aphrodite. Done poorly and one tries again. Maybe. DNA can only be pushed so far. Thankfully, super zaps cost so much few go through the painful steps to attain supposed perfection.
I know the red birthmark on my cheek is probably weirder than most facial ink, but at least it is real. I am real. It is not temporary and artificial. It is okay to fantasize about zapping, but I cannot do it. Changing a few odd or unsightly aspects, such as erasing wrinkles, gray hair, and warts, would erase who I am.
I shudder thinking about those who get zapped to look like someone else, famous or not. Another reason not to do it. Not only is it against world law, changing yourself to look like Ronald Reagan or Shania Twain or Daniel Radcliffe, or even Aunt Rosa in Santa Fe, at any age, is morally wrong. Ever since governments around the world allowed continuous persona trademarking, getting modded to look like another person, living or dead, was usually followed by mandatory jail time and forced remodding for everyone involved. And it was not always to what one looked like originally, especially if no prior photos existed.
No. I am not going to get zapped and I wish Mark would quit bugging me. As if on cue, Mark sits upright.
“Now, imagine being a high-powered Nixon Peabody lawyer during the day,” Mark says, winding up his sales pitch. “Then you get quick inked and hit the clubs looking like The Illustrated Man. The next morning, zap out the tattoos that show and put the studs back in a box in your sock drawer. Inhibitions be damned! And no consequences.”
“Why do you keep trying to sell me? Give it up.”
Mark chuckles. “Can’t stop being a PAETEC rep after all these years, I guess. It’s in my blood. I remember when I could sell anyone anything. Wish I could keep up with the young guns today, especially now.”
“Yeah, back in the good old days, before the aliens came and ruined everything,” I say, tossing another handful of seeds.
I stretch my arms and shift in my chair, enjoying the way the material conforms to my back and legs. No pressure pain; only soothing warmth and the sensation of sitting on a supportive cloud.
“I heard the chair foam comes from a planet a hundred light years away,” Mark says. “Sap oozes from the bark of 100-meter high, yellow ‘trees’ shaped like eggplants, and then it’s eaten by these weird, three-legged bugs that crap out foam balls by the millions.”
“Yuck. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” I ask.
“Why are we getting this alien tech?” I ask. “It’s coming down everyday in those silver sphere ships. The government opened another landing field for them outside Spencerport.”
“Saw that vid yesterday,” Mark says. “Well, Earth is the Galactic Commonwealth newbie. They’re raising us up to entry level.”
“That’s what they keep saying,” I reply. “But I don’t think so. Maybe we’re only getting their junk. Who can we ask to find out if they’re telling us the truth? Them? Dammit! They’re all aliens. Maybe Earth is their latest landfill.”
“When did you become a conspiracy nut, Jerry? Come on. It all seems like neat, cool stuff to me.”
“I wonder what a time-traveling Cro-Magnon man popping up inside the recycling facility would think: ‘Ooo! Piles of shiny god stuff!’ The poor guy would probably start praying to it.”
“Probably,” Mark concedes, smiling. “Hey, maybe this glassteel is really crap from large, blue space worms.”
“Freaking aliens,” I say, closing my eyes, wanting to go back in time to how things used to be, but all I see in my thoughts is the day the aliens arrived.
Five years ago, Easter Sunday, 2029, was a beautiful spring day and I was enjoying my retirement, happy to put twenty years of GenModCorp accounting experience to apparent good use: managing the annual Memorial Art Gallery Robot Easter Egg Hunt.
I remember being doubled-over, hands on my knees, winded after trying to catch two malfunctioning Easter eggs. The eggs gave the kids a good laugh and a good work out, too. When one was found, out popped three, thin, carbon fiber legs and off the egg ran, sing-song chirping, encouraging the kids to chase them.
As I watched the kids laughing and chasing the eggs, my world view -- in fact, pretty much everyone’s world view -- changed forever. Like an old, static-distorted MyFace vid, memories of my assistant running down the Gallery’s marble steps screaming “Aliens have landed! UFOs are real!” haunt my dreams.
“Cruat?” A gravelly-sounding voice brings me back to the present. “Humans, is what time?”
I open my eyes to stare at what sounded like a young man, but seems to be more akin to Cousin Itt of The Addams Family show. A black and white image of the short, shaggy creature wells up in my thoughts. It is amazing how much of my childhood I remember. Happier times, I suppose.
The thing in front of us is human, but modded to be like one of the alien races. I am relieved it is not a Timurine. Those insect-like creatures really freak me out. Why anyone would want to be like an insect is beyond me.
“Ten past five, my Kizin brother,” Mark replies.
“Suon,” the walking hair pile says, bowing slightly, then ambles away.
“Atune,” Mark answers.
“Why do you go along with that alien lingo crap?” I ask. Why can’t people say ‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re welcome’ in perfectly good English anymore?”
“I was being polite,” Mark replies, a hint of annoyance edging his tone. “Anyway, you know saying ‘You’re welcome’ is so last century. You say, ‘Thank you,’ and the other person means to say, ‘I thank you more.’”
“Saying ‘Thank you’ twice in Swahili is way better than Standard Galactic,” I grumble. “This alien fad is gonna blow over any day now. Mark my words, Mark.”
“Have I ever told you how much that annoys me?”
“Okay, what’s up? You’re a bit off today. Is it the game?”
Mark furrows his brow. “Guess Cousin Itt did weird me out. We’re not in Kansas anymore, are we? I mean one afternoon five years ago I’m having a pint at The Old Toad watching the news, then suddenly WNN is blaring ‘Aliens land at the U.N.!’”
“You still angry they didn’t land at Frontier Field?”
The mod-pigeons move closer, hopeful for another handout. I toss more seeds to the ground.
“Well, it certainly would’ve made Rochester the real Image Center of the world,” Mark says. “But that nightmare went on for months. Glad it didn’t happen here. Remember? Web news and the blogs covering every suicide and religious nut job. Reporters trying to interview anyone who’d even seen the alien motherships. It was always a kid or store clerk saying, ‘Gee, I always thought aliens were real.’ Over and over.”
“And when they come to stay, it’ll be worse,” I say. “Paparazzi chasing them around like they’re celebrities, which is what they’ll be. The biggest of all time. I think bigger than if The Beatles or Jesus himself came back. At least it’s quieter now. And none of them have come back since Contact Day. Instead, they send us holovids to that device they left at the U.N. And then there’s all the shipments coming in twenty-four-seven, everywhere around the world. Wait ’til the bill comes.”
“I think they keep a low profile because they have, you know, that ‘Prime Directive’ thing,” Mark says, nodding. “Maybe they don’t want to interfere too much.”
“Interfere too much?” I ask, my voice suddenly shrill. “They’ve already interfered too much by saying, ‘Hello.’ Now they’re dumping all this alien tech crap on us.”
I stand up, my pulse rising even faster. I am so agitated I want to rip my skin off and punch something.
“Everything we do pales in comparison,” I say. “My cousin’s concrete business, once one on the largest on the east coast, finally folded last year. Remember?”
I lean forward and pound my fist on the cylinder. The chessboard moves and the holographic pieces waver. “She couldn’t compete with this damn alien glassteel!”
Mark stares at me in alarm, probably more about the game than my rant.
“Our best biomods are like botched high school frog dissections compared to what the aliens can do,” I say, rubbing my forehead, my thoughts racing. “The aliens say they’ll give us cloning and organ rebuilding; nothing like the zapping we do. They’re practically offering us immortality if you think about it. Could it be any worse? It’s probably because of zapping that the aliens revealed themselves. We can now turn dirt into spaceships and manipulate the building blocks of life to modify ourselves and create new life. Guess how that makes me feel?
“Okay, it’s worse. Those hairy Kizin don’t like wind very much, so they’re going to build atmosphere machines off the west coast of Africa to knock out hurricanes before they form. They love hot, humid weather, so they’re going to build their colonies in the Caribbean. Who’s going to want to vacation there with hairy coats walking around the beaches?
“And what good are human construction companies when the Pfte’a can build a mile-high skyscraper in one day. Or maybe it’s the Syrin. Can’t keep them straight. I saw one of the ambassadors agreed with Spain and Morocco to build a bridge across the Straits of Gibraltar and it’ll take only a week. Apparently most of that time is to stage the public relation events.
“It’s everything, Mark. Everything. Textiles. Computers. Banking. Politics. Sports. Mining. Robotics. Medicine and surgery. Sculpting and painting. Farming. You name it they do it better and in bigger quantities. Their economies of scale always make them cheaper, almost for free it seems, and they don’t mess up their home worlds like we’ve done. They have hundreds of planets just for growing food. They mine dead worlds and asteroids for raw materials. They have fusion. Interstellar communication and hyperspace drives. Crystal-laser computers. How the hell can we compete with all that? I’ll tell you. We can’t!”
“Come on, Jerry, relax. You’re going have a heart attack.”
“I’m fine, but Earth isn’t. The aliens will return. Then they’ll be everywhere for real. And we’ll let them do everything for us. We won’t have to lift a finger. Is that any way to live, Mark? Are we just going to sit around all day playing games -- forever -- because the aliens can do everything better, faster, and cheaper than we can?”
“Maybe,” Mark says. “Maybe, we have to focus on just one or two things. Figure out what our niche is and do it better than the aliens. Who knows? I’m sure there are things we can do better. Some people say music. I haven’t found any alien music I like better than jazz and even some of the aliens seem to agree.”
Mark pauses and strokes his chin.
“Jerry, we’ll eventually fit into the Commonwealth. It’ll take time, that’s all. The aliens said as much.”
“I see those same vids all the time, too,” I retort. “I think you’re buying the mind-control advertising. When did you and everyone else give up fighting?”
We stare at each other. We know we are two old men sitting in a park at day’s end, playing chess -- one of the few remaining highlights of our lives -- but we have treaded this quicksand patch dozens, maybe hundreds, of times before and we are no closer to figuring out when we gave up fighting or what to do about it.
Today, however, I feel different. I want to fight. I am so fed up with this alien crap. I want to do something.
“You saw the explosions at the Indonesian landing site last month,” I say. “I’m just saying, maybe, the Earth Firsters have the right idea. There’s a lot more going on here than we know about. We’re sitting here and there are who knows how many aliens out there. Waiting. Getting ready to ... I don’t know. Can’t you see they’re softening us up? We’re rolling over and taking it up the ...”
“The Earth Firsters are terrorists,” Mark says in calm, measured tones, staring at me, concern etching his face.
I hear my heart beat pounding in my ears -- a rhythmic counterpoint to my racing, scattered thoughts.
“They’re stupid, mindless idiots, trying to hang on to the past,” Mark continues. “Every government voted to cooperate with the Commonwealth. Not fight. We couldn’t win anyway. They never showed any weapons, but they have humungous starships and a vast, ancient interstellar empire. What do we have? A bunch of aging Orion shuttles, a small moon base, and two decrepit space stations barely on life support.
“Come on. You know better, Jerry. There’ll always be those who fear change and espouse violence against ‘outsiders’ because they look different. Aren’t we supposed to be civilized now? The Commonwealth said as much or they wouldn’t have revealed themselves. We can’t give in to hatred and terrorism anymore. That’s the old way. That’s history. Anyway, you can’t be seriously thinking we could fight against them and win, can you?”
“Dammit, Mark,” I say, sitting down. “I’m so frustrated. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“Why do you have to do anything, old man?” Mark asks. “Hmm. You’re probably right. No, I’m sure you are. I’ve known you too long. You’ve thought out all the angles and done the number crunching. There’re probably weird machinations wrapped in secrets held tightly now in alien tentacles. But how is that really any different than what we used to have? What’s really changed? There’re just different people in charge now, but it’s the same old story. We buy stuff, watch vids, and keep ourselves happy. Isn’t that the way it’s always been? Do yourself -- and me -- a favor and stop tilting at windmills.”
I rub my temples with my fingertips, trying to release the tension. I search my pockets for pain meds. A migraine is doing its best to get a foothold in my brain. I press a small, white disk against the base of my neck. The headache fades quickly.
“‘Better living through chemistry,’” Mark quips.
“Yeah.” I know Mark is trying his best to calm me, but I cannot let it go like he can.
“Not only are we giving up, Mark, but the worst part is everyone’s trying to look like the aliens. They should pass a law against it. Maybe it’s body color or adding a stubby tentacle, but more and more seem to be going alien full tilt and they’re not zapping back. It’s getting too crazy for me.”
“I’ve always advocated zapping to be more human.”
“Well, I still won’t do it.”
“Okay, Jerry,” Mark says, pushing the power button on the chessboard, the taste of my sweet victory slipping away as the chess pieces and checkered surface fade out. “You had me in four moves.”
“I knew it!”
“I may have lost,” Mark says as he stands, “but guess who’s going to get some tonight?”
“You’re such a slut-boy,” I say, grinning, surprised that I feel jealous about Mark’s social life, which is so familiar after all these years, and yet it is also so, well, alien.
My eyes catch a glint on the table. I pick up a small, hollow metal cylinder.
“You lost this?”
“Thanks,” Mark says, pulling out a mini-zap from a pocket inside his duster. He puts the stud into the device and places it against his left earlobe. A moment after the characteristic electric crackle and the slight scent of ozone, the tube juts out perpendicularly like the barrel of a miniature, antique Saturday night special ready to shoot anyone foolish enough to walk along side.
The old gun reference fits. Mark, you are trying to recapture the glory days, but buddy those days are long gone.
“I know I’ve asked before,” Mark says, “Goth Night cranks up in a couple hours at The Arcade. You sure you don’t want to come with me this time? Get your mind off this radical, revolutionary stuff. I can get you pierced in a few minutes. Hey, I’ll get your cover, too.”
I stand up, methodically adjust my jacket, then pick up the chessboard, placing it under my arm. “No thanks. I’m quite comfortable with tradition. I’m just not into fads.”
“Fads? Come on, Jerry! Bell-bottom jeans were fads. Twenty-dollar espresso disks were fads. Modded, freak animals are fads,” Mark says, moving his hand in a wide arc, pointing at the bobbing feather balls. “Ink and piercing have been with us since the dawn of mankind. And they’re still here. We’re still here.”
“Okay, okay,” I say, still feeling more upset than I thought possible. “It’s the aliens. They’re the biggest fads. And every human aping them. I’m sick of everything alien. Why can’t we all be normal?”
“Soon or later,” I continue, pointing my right index finger at Mark, my tone growing more brusque, “the Commonwealth is going to figure out that we’re a bunch of backwater hicks with, jazz aside, nothing real to offer anyone out there amongst the stars. Then they’ll cut us off to drift through space like always. Then where will we be? I’ll tell you. Stuck with all these alien-aping humans. They’ll be like glassteel slivers in our eyes, reminding us just when find out we’re not alone in the universe that we’re not good enough to play ball with the big boys.”
Mark fixes the collar of his duster.
“I, too, pray for the day,” Mark says, “when people stop going alien and start being human again. But I think we’ll do fine. Come on. We’re not the first new world to join the Commonwealth. Change is hard, especially when we really can’t do anything about it. We’ll figure things out eventually, probably not before you and I are both dust in the wind, but eventually. I know we’ll still be human even there are those who want purple skin or to add a tentacle. We’re still human inside.”
“I guess,” I say. "I’m going to The Old Toad for a Guinness. At least it keeps me human.”
“Have one for me. Same time tomorrow? Want to play again?”
“Only if you want to lose,” I say, smiling widely. “Again.”
“You won’t trap me with my own endgame next time.”
“And maybe something else will come along for us to complain about, yes?” I ask.
“It’ll be a new day in Rochester, my friend. There’s always hope.”