For the last four hours, I’ve been sitting on a train—one of those nice mag-lev trains they’d promised us a century ago, but still, a train. And I hate trains. I have nothing against all the fine people who invented these things or even the machines themselves; rather, it is the quiet. The quiet that is present when you are sitting by yourself, unable to connect to any network and with only the half-heard conversations of random passers-by and music blaring from ill-fitting headphones for company; you begin to think, and to dwell on things you shouldn’t.
Silence, or any type of unengaged quiet, has never my friend. From the day I was first enraptured by the network technology that allowed human beings to connect to one another at every moment of the day, I could never stand a moment’s quiet. It made me feel disconnected from and indifferent to the ever-moving world around me. It was not a good feeling either, and I would try to avoid it whenever possible. That was part of my reason for creating what I did, so that people would never be disconnected from one another, so that they’d always have someone to reach out to someone who could fill the accursed silence.
Or, at least, that was the plan that formed the foundation the dream I’d had fifty years ago when I’d fashioned a crude prototype out of old computer parts and wiring that could have burst into flames if you’d looked at it funny. I had a dream that I could change the world and bring people closer together than they had ever been in the past—and in the end, I did but just not in the way I had intended. No one could have prepared for a disaster the one in the spring of 2037 to occur and maybe that is why it hit me so hard. There was no real warning, no precautions we could taken, it just happended. And is why that day still haunts me. All of the death I’d seen on TV and over the inter, all of the finger-pointing and accusations that had led to many people online and off to treat my invention as if it were in the same league as biochemical warfare or a bomb of some kind!
And yet, here I was, on a train, fifty years after the fact, on my way to a conference to talk about the very things I’d like to forget. Life is funny that way, I guess. You can never really escape your past, except maybe when you’re dead. And I imagine that then you really can’t care too much about people dredging up the dirt of your past, because you’re already buried under six feet of it.
When the train pulled into the station, I collected my things and waited patiently for the sliding doors to pull apart and allow me to exit. Those around me were all of the new generation. The type who couldn’t remember what the world had been like during the brief period in which people had claimed that a true utopia had finally come. All they knew was a world where the human race had been subdivided a dozen times over. That may have been my fault too; of course, though none of us would likely ever know for sure.
The crowd around me, young and vibrant as they were and being collectively no older than perhaps twenty-five or so, was more diverse than any I had seen in my early life. Every race, creed, and species seemed to be represented. Maybe the world was becoming a better place, more tolerant and less divisive. Was that my doing? Maybe? Most likely not. Too many people had worked too hard, or at least literature on the subject seemed to portray it that way, for me to take credit for straightening out what had been the most chaotic social period in human history.
And as the doors swung open, and the diverse crowd around me poured out giggling amongst themselves about something I had no desire to understand, I had finally arrived at my destination.
The old station hadn’t been renovated since sometime in the 2020s, so the architecture still represented a period in American history when the retro futurism of the time demanded that everything be sleek, metallic, and shiny enough to blind a person on a hot summer day. I imagine it had looked neat when it was new, but six decades of time and weather had dulled the metal that had once gleamed in the sunlight, and it now more resembled a ruin of a long-gone civilization than an in-use train station.
It felt good to be off that train, good to be away from the silence. Unable to care about what anyone around me was saying, I set my phone to connect to the nearest uplink and let a stream of a newscaster reading the day’s events fill my ears. Word of a trade deficit with a nation in the far east was the talk of the hour, but what the man was saying didn’t matter. Only that he was saying something, anything really. I would have taken an hour-long talk on the history of bananas over painful reminiscence over the chattering of children many decades my junior.
It had been some time, about twenty years or so, I’d say, since I’d visited to the town of Rosemont. Close enough to Chicago to foster an industry based on conventions and other special events, yet far enough away as to avoid the logistical problems of holding those same events in the city itself, it was a fine choice to hold the year’s celebration of five decades having passed since the disaster of ’37. If you visit, however, don’t expect to be able to drive anywhere. The traffic, as evidenced by dozens of cars stuck bumper-to-bumper in an infernal gridlock on the street in front of the station, is terrible regardless of the time of year, the events taking place, or any other factor for that matter, really.
Walking out of the station with my luggage rolling behind me, I couldn’t help but notice the sheer amount of young people here, many of whom were in costume. They couldn’t be here for the anniversary conference, not unless the hard sciences had developed a rabid fandom in the last few decades, at least. What could they possibly be here for?
My question was soon answered by an enormous holographic billboard projected in the air just over the distant Hyatt at which I would be lodging for the weekend. “A. Project?” I read after adjusting my thick glasses. “Oh, right.” I had read on the internet that there was a convention of some sort going on at the same time as the conference. One devoted to cartoons or something. It was an interesting contrast to the deadly serious mood that would likely stalk the conference from the moment it began—I just hoped that we wouldn’t have any costumed people wander in by accident, as amusing as that would be.
The walk from the station to the hotel was a small one, one made all the more annoying by all of the traffic, stop lights, and throngs of people who blocked the sidewalk with little consideration for their fellow pedestrians. Dragging my suitcase along behind me, it took nearly fifteen minutes to traverse that short distance. By then, the network broadcast echoing in my ear had turned to talk of a retrospective for the weekend’s anniversary of the great disaster.
That was something I decidedly did not want to hear, yet at the same time it was something from which I could not tear myself away. The closer I got to the hotel, the harder it became to ignore the echoing sentiments about all of the deaths that occurred that day.
“All together, over one hundred deaths were counted on that fateful day, May 26th, 2037,” the male announcer spoke solemnly, “making the event the one of the biggest loss of life unrelated to war or disease in over a century and a half. Today, we mourn for the loss of those poor souls, and will take a look at the events that led up to the disaster, and the lessons we can learn now, fifty years hence.”
“Argh.” I groaned. That day would live on in my memory until the day I died. I would never forget it. Those who had died, the damning attacks online, the banning of my life’s work. It had been the worst day of my life, a position that had remained uncontested for five decades.
By the time the broadcast had turned to an interview with a fellow scientist involved in the incident, I had reached the hotel, my mind having had blocked out all other minor annoyances in favor of clinging to depressing memories.
The Hyatt Regency was a classy establishment that had been built to serve people visiting Chicago or traveling to and from O’Hare International Airport. Even with the surge of popularity that land-based travel had enjoyed in the last few decades with the widespread implementation of high-speed mag-lev trains throughout most of the United States, the hotel still enjoyed brisk business from the convention crowds and people who just wanted a place to stay that was near to, but not directly within, the city itself.
Past the automatic doors at the building’s front, within lay an aesthetic that would have been called “modern” many years ago but now bordered on retro. The crowds around me , which had the same incredible level of diversity that I had encountered on the train earlier, were made almost entirely of people in costume, making it easy to spot the bewildered academic types who were here for the conference.
I would interact with my fellow scientists later, however, as I had to check into my room and put away my things before I could focus on anything else.
The check-in counter lay on the second floor, up an escalator that sprang from the ground next to an oddly shaped statue, and off to the far left, just next to a hallway leading to the guest suites.
“How can I help you, sir?” a young girl with a sweet voice called to me from behind one line-free desk.
Exasperated from the trip over, and having been forced to recall painful memories by a poor choice of network station, the thought of someone actually wanting to help me was a good one that made me feel a lot better about things.
Wheeling my small cargo behind me once more, I made my way to the desk and looked upon the person who had been calling to me. A woman with blonde hair, green eyes, and wearing plenty of makeup alongside her standard issue blazer, she was the exact picture of what you’d imagine if someone said the word “hotel receptionist”—save for the enormous snake-like tail that made up the entirety of her lower body, at least.
“Yes, I’d like to check into my room for the night,” I answered with a sigh of relief.
“Very good. Can I just have your name?” the snake-woman said with a smile.
“It should be under E. Smith.” I replied.
It took a moment for her to bring up the reservation on the touch screen projected from the terminal in front of her. But, once she did, everything had been take care of in short order.
“Everything looks just fine, Mr. Smith! Your room is on the tenth floor, room 1009. Here’s your keycard, a memory card with a list of some of our fine local restaurants and attractions and... hm, are you here for the convention of the conference?” she said, with the occasional S accompanied by a characteristic snake-like hiss.
“The conference.” I laughed. As if an old man like me would be here for something like that.”
“Of course,” she giggled. “But you know... you seem awfully familiar. Are you a famous scientist, or an inventor, or something?”
“I guess you could say that... I was pretty popular a long time ago in some scientific circles. You ever hear of Thoughtcasting?” I asked.
The snake-woman smiled while her tail waved excitedly back and forth.
“I learned about you back in my university history class! You created Thoughtcasting and revolutionized the way the people communicated with each other. I think my professor said that it was supposed to have been the biggest communication revolution since the invention of the internet! But... a lot of bad stuff happened and the governmet restricted its use to the point where it became nearly useless.”
“Right.” It was all I could say, really. That was the whole story.
“That sucks... but hey, I hope you have fun this weekend! I really think you could use it, you look really tired.”
She wasn’t wrong. With all the notes I had been writing for my presentation at the conference, sleep had been something of a rare luxury for me as of late.
“Thanks,” I replied, so as to fill the air with something. “I’m giving the keynote speech on Saturday. I’m more than a bit nervous. But I should be fine if I can get a good night’s sleep.”
In my old age I often wore my exhaustion upon my brow to the point where I looked as if I had not slept in a week even when I was only slightly tired, often inviting comments such as those spouted by the snake-woman. I had become used to them, and I certainly would not complain when asked if I was feeling all right. At least in this circumstance I actually had been tired.
“Good luck then, Professor Smith!” the snake-woman spoke excitedly as she smiled. “Knock em’ dead!”
Her vertically-slitted eyes were closed and her face drawn into a jovial expression. It seemed she was the perpetually happy type, those who could be cheerful no matter what circumstance in which they may find themselves. I used to know someone like that, decades ago... but we’d since lost touch. I wondered if she was even still alive? Oh well... it didn’t matter now.
Nodding in response, I took the key card and information she had presented to me and scooted off for the rear of the hotel. In a bit of clever design, the stairs leading to the bulk of the structure’s guest rooms was actually tucked away into the far rear corner, allowing the main floor to be used exclusively for receiving guests and shuttling them to wherever they needed to be.
On the way there, I passed more of the costumed youths. It was honestly impressive how much work and dedication they had put into their outfits, which in construction and grandeur went far beyond the level of what you would see on Halloween or at a costume party. However, what impressed me most as I scuttled off, my wheeled luggage behind me squeaking all the way across carpeted floors, was the sheer amount of subspecies, like the snake-like woman at the reception desk, mingling among the crowds.
Even a decade ago, you would never have seen such a thing. Yes, perhaps there would have been a few particularly brave souls who could block out all of the stares and occasional less-than-kind word to have fun amongst their peers by interest rather than biology. Somehow, though, society had progressed enough to see dozens, if not hundreds, of them out in the open, interacting with every segment of the human family tree without incident.
After a day spent on an all-too-quiet train and walking amongst heavy traffic and overly rude pedestrians, it was a pleasant sight that somewhat salved not only the day’s events but also those that had happened fifty years ago. If any good had come of that disaster, any at all, it was situations like these.
The younger set seemed to be uninterested in the few academic types amongst the crowds, as I could spy a few of my fellow engineers—with all of them being well over 40, it was easy enough to spot them milling about, most likely on their way to their room to unload for the night or searching for a stiff drink to take the edge off of a day spent traveling or rehearsing an hour-long speech. I’d be getting to the former of the two things in a moment, when I finally reached my hotel room. But I personally would need no drink to get through the night. This was too important an occasion to risk a hangover in the morning, or to lose valuable time to practice my speech or alter my many pages of notes.
Up a set of stairs, which were rather annoying to climb owing to my weak frame and heavy luggage, down a hallway, and just to to the right, I finally found the room to which the snake-woman had pointed me. The room itself was locked with a sensor that would only respond to a particular pattern inscribed on a keycard given to each guest at the time they checked in. The codes were changed each time a guest checked out, rendering old keys nothing but mementos. It was an old system by now, nearly a century old at this point—but it worked, so why change it?
And while it did “work” in the sense that it was a perfectly sound system to prevent theft and break-ins, I was quickly reminded of the frustration found in an otherwise useful mechanical device as I slid my keycard into the door’s reader over and over to no avail. Nearly a dozen times I went through the motions, and just as many times it responded with a loud beeping noise and a flashing red light that alerted me to just how wrong I was in expecting to be able to access my room for the night.
“Infernal piece of trash...” I rolled my eyes and tried again, only to be greeted by another red light, and another, and another. Such was the frustration of hearing that accursed beep and seeing that light that I almost wished to be back on that train, surrounded by low frequency chatter that was nearly inaudible to the ears of standard humans, if only to escape this cycle of torment currently visited upon me by my hotel room door.
“Once more.” I calmed myself with a deep breath. “This machine will not break me.”
So I tried again, hoping with all my person that the device would somehow be influenced by the positive vibrations I was giving off. And the click came, and with it a green light. Success! I had won. Thank heaven for small victories.
I opened the door with great haste after putting the offending card back in my pocket, not allowing the key reader another chance to perpetuate its nefarious schemes.
The room itself contained the usual trappings of a hotel catering to business; a single bed, a desk, a lamp, a wall-mounted, network-enabled monitor, and one of those swiveling office chairs that ended up being more annoying than useful all populated the dwelling within mere feet of each other. It was a cramped place, with very little room to walk between all of the many objects scattered everywhere, but it was all of such a high level of quality that I really didn’t care. The bed was soft enough, as I quickly learned after sitting down, taking off my shoes, and placing my increasingly weighty luggage at my feet.
“Ahh.” I breathed a sigh of relief as I removed my shoes and socks in quick succession. “This is much better.”
In my state of momentary bliss, I reached for the remote sitting on the nightstand beside the bed and flipped on the monitor on the wall. After flickering to life, it seemed to be set to the standard crawl of stock prices and business news that so many traveling corporate types seemed to keep tabs on just in case. But really, it mattered not to me what it was that the talking heads were going back and forth about on the screen. At the moment, it seemed to be about something concerning the aquatic humanoids that had recently come to light on the east coast of the country, but I only desired noise to accompany reading of my notes for errors and practicing my speech.
Within my luggage, beside several changes of clothing and a tablet computer that was nearly a decade out of date, sat a folder filled with nearly thirty pages of printed notes chronicling my speech, annotated with asides, trivia, and other anecdotes I thought would break the tension of speaking about as dire a set of circumstances as I would be discussing this Saturday afternoon. The screen of my PC sometimes strained my old and weary eyes, so large print on a white page was still the best way to keep track of things like this—that, and very few people enjoy reading from a computer screen during a speech. It simply wasn’t classy.
“Welcome,” I rehearsed aloud. “Today, we will be speaking about an event that has become the one of the defining moments of the twenty-first century.” I began reading from the notes with a stately tone that I thought would fit the somber occasion. “It is a story about what we as human beings are capable of, for good or for ill. It is also one of great disaster and change, like a wildfire, that destroyed much on that day fifty years ago, yet that also lay the seedbed for what some would say is the greatest shift in human history since a time when our ancestors still lived in a state of nature.”
Yes, that sounded good... a bit grandiose though. I may drop the last bit. The last thing I needed was an evolutionary biologist calling me out for some glaring anthropological error or another.
“Though I will cover the technology that led to the disaster we are all commemorating with this conference, I must begin with the person who had created it in the first place.” I took a deep breath, this was the hardest part. No one ever enjoyed fessing up to their own mistakes, after all. “Some sixty years ago, I was just a young man with a dream working in his garage with spare parts and questionable wiring. I wished to connect everyone on a global scale, to break down the barriers between people, and possibly to get rich while I was at it. I had the noblest of intentions—save perhaps for that last part. And that is where I will begin my story.”
I took another deep breath; this was not easy to talk about. It had actually been nearly two decades since I had last agreed to speak in public about the incident. However, I felt that, for the 50th anniversary, the story must be told again, both as a warning and to eulogize all that had been lost on that day.
“It was in a garage somewhere in the suburbs southwest of here where I had rigged together some scrap metal, a crackpot theory, and copper wiring that may have been stolen...” I continued on, recalling from memory moments from long ago when I was really just a young man, after waiting for any muffled laughter, of course. “...that I unwittingly set into motion the events that would come to define the rest of my life.”