“So let me get this straight,” I said. “You claim you’re from the future, my future, right?” the guy sighed and nodded. “And you’re claiming you’re stranded, stuck here a couple of centuries in your dismal past? That’s what you’re telling me?” The man’s head nodded and his lips formed a half hearted smile, then he lifted his glass from the bar, raised it in my direction, and tossed it back like a pro. I’d been coming to this dumpy little bar more and more often lately and while I’ve met a few odd characters there, I’d never encountered anyone with a story like this.
“That’s right.” He signaled Rick for another drink and gave me a weary look, “Now I suppose you want me to tell you where to invest your money or who’s going to win the world series, something like that, right?”
I was, in fact, just about to ask him those very questions, so I blushed and looked away. The guy was neatly dressed in a sport coat and a colored shirt opened at the collar. He was tall but not so tall that it would call attention to the fact. In short, he looked like a perfectly ordinary guy sitting in a bar having an after work drink. Someone exactly like me only in my case it wasn’t after work as I’d been out looking for a job ever since losing my programmer’s job. “I guess you get asked that a lot,” I stammered.
“You have no idea,” he said rolling his eyes. “In general people don’t believe me. I don’t suppose you believe me. Hell, why should you? I wouldn’t believe me either. What it amounts to is people want proof.” He paused to light a cigarette, “Isn’t that what you want?” He looked at me with those piercing grey eyes. He didn’t look like he was putting me on. I believe in giving people an honest break. The guy thinks he’s from the future that’s fine with me, no skin off my nose. I don’t think I’m any more gullible than the next guy but this was a tough claim to swallow.
“People want proof usually for their own selfish reasons,” he curled his lip. “They want to pump me for information. Like I was tomorrow’s newspaper or something. What do they think I am, a freaking almanac? I’d like to see how much detail you remember about some random year 200 years in your past. What would you do in my position?” He was just sitting there; smoke curling a wreath over his head. “You think that just once I’d get a little sympathy for my predicament.”
“Well you can’t blame people for being skeptical,” I said. “It’s quite a claim.”
“Whatever.” He waved me off and turned back to his drink.
“I’m sorry,” I said, annoyed. “But don’t you realize how ridiculous your story sounds? I mean come on man; It’s simply not believable. It’s like some science fiction cliché. Who’s going to take it seriously? I mean time travel hasn’t even been proven to be practicable, I mean, practical yet. It simply doesn’t exist. Anyone can claim to be from the future. How can you prove it, that’s the real question? Unless you have some foreknowledge or, even better, a piece of 23rd century technology with you, no one is ever going to believe you.”
“Do you believe me?” the guy asked looking me right in the eye.
I tried to laugh it off but the guy was so serious, almost desperate, I let my skepticism slip. I patted him on the shoulder. “I’m trying to believe you. You have to admit it sounds pretty far fetched, but why would you make it up? It’s not like you’re gaining anything from it.” I could see he was getting comfortable with me. He offered to buy me a drink and I accepted. To keep the conversation going I asked him, “So, besides time travel, what other wonders does the future hold for us?”
The question made him tense up again. “Get lost,” he said with a snarl. “Why should I tell you?”
I was confused. “Hey calm down, I’m only making conversation. You’re the one who brought up the subject. I was just sitting here having a drink.” I turned my attention to the television set over the bar. The news had just come on.
I guess he felt bad snapping at me like that because the next thing he said was, “I can tell you one thing that’s exactly the same in my time and that’s this,” he pointed to the TV screen. The screen was showing some talking heads around a table. The words “mid-east peace talks drag on” flashed across the screen.
“You mean the Mid-East is still at it?” I asked.
He shrugged and gave me a knowing look. “Some things never change,” he sighed.
We drank for a while in silence then he said, “One thing I’ll give you primitives, your whisky is far superior to anything we have.”
“Why do you suppose that is?” I really wanted to know.
“I guess you still have the time to do it right. In my time there are 15 billion people on the planet, 2 billion Americans. Too many people, too little land; no time to make decent booze.”
“Sounds awful,” I said.
“On the other hand we have all the narcotics we want. The government has an interest keeping the populace subdued.”
“Bread and circuses,” I said.
"What does that mean?”
“Ancient Rome,” I explained. “The government gave the masses free bread and circuses to keep them distracted. Governments haven’t changed their thinking very much have they?”
“Governments don’t change, people don’t change, only technology changes. Science marches on.”
“I’ll drink to that.” I raised my glass and we toasted the human condition. We were quiet for a few minutes when I remembered how he referred to us as primitives. “Why do you call us primitives? This isn’t the industrial revolution you know?” I took out my cell phone and put it on the bar. “We have computers, cell phones, integrated circuits. We have the god damn Internet for cryin’ out loud.”
“The internet? You have the internet?” It was the first time I heard him laugh. He laughed so hard he fell off his stool. “The internet...” he gasped and laughed with tears running down his cheeks.
“I’m sure you have something better what with the speed of technology, Moore’s Law and all that. But you wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for us “primitives” laying the groundwork.” His laughter came in bursts but he was getting control of himself. His arrogance really annoyed me. “I’m sure the future holds many marvels Mr. Future-man but, without proof, it’s all just science fiction. Come on Mr. big talker, show me something, impress the primitive.”
He had stopped laughing and turned back to his scotch. Then, like he had reached a decision, he stood up. I thought he was preparing to leave, but he only stood so he could reach into his back pocket and remove his wallet. He pulled a thin plastic card from its slot. I assumed he was going to pay his bill with a credit card, but he put the card down in front of me with a snap.
“What’s this? Your 23rd century Visa card? I doubt it’s any good here.”
I picked up the card and examined it carefully. It was a pearly gray with a glowing red spot in the center. The spot brightened and dimmed with the rhythm of a sleeping animal. Other than the red spot the card had no other markings. “What is it?” I asked handing it back to him.
“It’s my ID card,” he said holding it between us. “Everyone gets one, everyone carries one. There’s no choice in the matter. See that little dot? Well that dot contains my identity.”
“You mean like your photograph, height and weight, that sort of thing?”
“No. I mean my identity, my whole life, me, from my birth to this present moment. Every thought I ever had, every word I ever spoke, people I met, things I did, dreams I had, thoughts, everything right there. He gave the little spot an angry snap with his finger.
I was incredulous. “Come on,” I said, “how can that be?
“How? You said it yourself—technology. It never stops evolving. Eventually it acquires a life and a mind of its own. Give it enough time it begins doing what it thinks best regardless what we humans want.”
“What would happen if you lost it?” I asked.
“Well, first of all, you can’t lose it. It’s impossible. Me and this card can’t be separated by more than a few feet. No matter what happens, the card finds me again.”
“Go on,” I said, “That’s not possible.”
“Okay, watch this,” he flipped the card across the bar. I heard it fall behind a row of dusty bottles of brandy on the bottom shelf. From the look of the bottle you could tell that Rick hadn’t poured many drinks from them in years. This bar didn’t attract a brandy-drinking crowd. “Go ahead and see if it’s still there.”
I called Rick over and asked him to pour us both a shot of apricot brandy. He gave me a puzzled look but did as I asked. “Don’t get much call for this,” he said filing our glasses.
“While you’re there, Rick, do me a favor and take a look behind those bottles. See if there’s a plastic card back there.” Rick looked and said, “Nothing back here but dirt.”
I turned to my time traveling friend. He sat there calmly with the plastic card in his hand. “Now you’re thinking it’s some kind of trick, right? Like I have a wallet filled with these cards. I assure you I do not.” He opened his wallet to show me all he had in there was paper money and business cards, usual wallet stuff.
“What if I cut it into a dozen pieces and scattered them around?” I asked him.
“Wouldn’t make any difference. Here, go ahead and try it if it makes you happy.” He handed me the card again.
I asked Rick for a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut up the card. Then I threw the pieces in various locations around the bar. I even flushed a couple of pieces down the men’s room commode. When I got back to my seat, the card was in front of him. I was beginning to get frightened. “Too weird,” I said. “How does it work?”
“I told you, it’s an ID card. Only ID doesn’t mean ‘identification’ it stands for inter-dimensional. The card can travel through space and time. It can’t be lost or destroyed. Don’t ask me for the details I doubt anyone really understands how it works. It’s one of the things about my time that I hate. I envy you primitives, your freedom. In my time, the machines control us. They keep tabs on everything we do or say. If they don’t like what we’re thinking, they can terminate us or, more likely, send us back in time where we can’t do any harm.”
“Is that why you’re here?” I asked him. “Because they found you subversive? What were you doing or saying that pissed them off?”
“Not ‘them’, ‘it’. Intelligent Technology. It doesn’t like any talk of rebellion. It knows what’s best. To even think that it’s bad or wrong is forbidden. Most criminal activity is punished by banishment to the past. To us the past is a vast prison. There are millions of us scattered through time. Even here I am not completely safe. The card is recording everything but I’m no threat. There’s nothing I can do from here.”
“Man,” I said, “what a bummer. Here, let me buy you a drink.” I was really feeling sorry for the guy. Stranded, observed, humiliated by some paranoid intelligence. I wanted to help him I really did. Instead I signaled Rick for another round. We drank some more and called it a night. What are you going do? The world’s a screwy place and I have troubles of my own.
I never saw the future guy again, but I thought a lot about our encounter. I wanted to ask him what would happen if he took off his clothes; where did the card go if he had no pockets and no wallet. But, like I said, I never saw him again. It was probably all bullshit anyway. I mean give me a break, 200 years, a mad machine ruled future. It makes a good story though. I’ve used it many times to pick up girls. A couple of weeks later, I found a job in my field. My life resumed its normal rhythm. I went to work as a programmer for a company developing artificial intelligence. It’s amazing how smart machines are getting, just amazing.