1. Shore Leave
The sun was melting the tarmac on the pavement orsidewalk. The taxis growled through the traffic like parcheddogs. The omnipresent police cars were emblazoned withthe NYPD motto, “courtesy, professionalism, respect”, butinside them the officers looked sweaty and dangerous.
The upshot was that Richie suddenly loved shopping.
“Hey, 25% off all shoes. Let’s have a look,” he told his surprised wife, Clara. Then, in the next street, “Oh, yeah, thoseskirts are cool. Go in and try some on.” It was only when he developed an interest in furniture – a purchase unlikely to fit into their suitcases – that Clara twigged.
They were standing just inside the entrance of a swish sofa shop. It smelt of chilled leather. Richie turned his face up intothe jet of ice-cold air streaming down from an overheadventilator.
“It’s the air-conditioning, isn’t it?” Clara said.
“Course not,” he assured her, discreetly taking a step backward so that the draught hit his shirtfront and freeze-dried the sweat on his stomach. “We’re in the shoppingcapital of the world for a long weekend. You’ve got to makethe most of it.” “Liar. I wondered why you kept hanging round near the door. You’ve just been ventilator-hopping across the city!” By the time Richie’s laugh had faded she was gone, swallowed by the throng. He looked both ways along thestreet and finally caught sight of her, doing ten miles anhour and accelerating. He enjoyed one last second of ice-coolair and set off in pursuit. It defied the laws of physics, he thought. She was a foot shorter than him, but she could walk fast enough to make himjog just to keep up. He still wasn’t gaining on her. She wasswerving through the shopping crowds as if it was mid-December and she needed brisk exercise to stay warm. Half a minute outside the air-conditioning, Richie was getting up amean sweat. Richie was not a heat man. He lived in Bournemouth, England, where May had been cool and blustery, about twentydegrees cooler than here – centigrade, that is. He was too bigfor heat – a heavily built six foot five, an inch less than usualsince he’d shaved his hair off the day before. Clara had screamedwhen she’d seen him emerge from the bathroom, but this citywas just too hot for hair.
As he jogged along, he was heartened by a woman who looked as if both buttocks were pregnant, and who had aminiature Colorado River running down her rear canyon.
Then immediately demoralized by a bare-shouldered Blackkid whose bone-dry muscles hardly rippled as he walked. Talkabout a melting pot, Richie thought, I’m draining away. At last Clara slowed down. She was looking in the window of a shoe shop. He caught up and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hi, Clara, remember me?”“This is where I tried on those orange trainers. I’m going to “But they were over two hundred dollars!”“Yes well, the shop’s got to pay its air-conditioning bill, From his vantage point under yet another arctic hairdryer, Richie observed Clara. She was trying on the orange trainers.
They suited her, unfortunately. They went well with the slightreddish tint in her dark brown hair – a legacy of her mum’sScottish genes. They’d look good with a tan as well, dammit.
The salesgirl was chirpy. Clara must have already said she’dtake them.
How could she even think about getting more items of clothing in this heat? It was as if one of those force-fed foie-grasgeese had decided to nip out for a bag of chips. Clara came over with a large, bright plastic bag and an “Why don’t we take a rest from shopping now?” Richie pleaded. “Just go and chill out for an hour? Literally chill out,I mean.” A B R I E F H I S T O RY O F T H E F U T U R E “Fine,” Clara agreed, taking his arm and steering him towards a coffee bar. “I need to work out which other shops Iwant to go back to.” Richie’s groan was drowned out by the honking of five or six cars at once. A yellow taxi had stalled, and its overheated enginewas puffing out a slow cloud of steam into the shimmering,polluted air. The afternoon sun was reflecting off the stalled car’swindscreen or shield right into Richie’s eyes. They turned away from the hooting and walked past a multimedia store. In its window was a large poster of WilliamShatner, circa 1968, advertising a box set of Star Trek episodes.
Even Captain Kirk looked faintly worried by the atmospherein 21st-century New York.
2. The Origins of Man
The stranger seemed to arrive from nowhere. One minute it was a blue, empty morning, the next he was His car was a dark-grey Ford with an Iowa license plate.
But it didn’t look like a local car – not enough dents. Riverside, Iowa had seen strangers before. They came in carloads, campervanloads, in Star Trek fanclub minibusloads,for the annual Trekfest. Because Riverside (population 850)was, or is, or will be, the birthplace of James Tiberius Kirk,Captain of the USS Enterprise. Little Jimmy will be bornthere, so the future historians or historical futurists say, onMarch 22 in the year 2233, with light brown hair and hazeleyes. Mr Muller, the owner of the Kirk Birthplace (known locally as “the empty lot where the barber’s shop used to be”), lookedout of his window at the stranger, who stood almost as tall asthe large model of the USS Riverside on its pyramidal plinth.
This was a seven-foot-high plastic spacecraft, a not-quite-exactlikeness of the Starship Enterprise. Initially, Muller had wantedto mount a bronze statue of Kirk himself, but Paramount haddemanded $40,000 for the rights. Then he’d asked permissionto set up a model of the Enterprise. Permission refused. SoUSS Riverside it was, with just enough differences in thespaceship’s design to avoid a lawsuit.
Muller was curious. People often stopped off on their way somewhere to look the place over, even outside of Trekfesttimes. But this stranger was different. He wasn’t taking photos.
And he wasn’t wearing a Captain Kirk t-shirt, Mr Spock ears,a Klingon uniform or any of the other accoutrements that themore extreme Trekkies wore on their pilgrimages to Riverside.
This one was dressed in an open-neck safari shirt and chinos.
Casually military-looking. Short-cropped grey hair and tannedface. He was standing there staring at the spaceship, a faintsmile on his lips, as if he was dreaming.
But he must have been paying attention to his surroundings because he suddenly turned towards the house and caughtMuller’s eye. The stranger smiled at Muller and nodded.
“Good morning,” he said pleasantly when Muller went outside two minutes later. Educated accent, Muller thought.
Very white smile. Expensive smile.
“Morning,” Muller said, and shook the outstretched hand. “My name’s Max.”“Sam.”“Sam Muller, right, you own Kirk’s birthplace?” The stranger nodded beyond the spaceship to the empty lawn that wouldsupposedly be the exact site of the birthplace in 2233. “Yeah,” Muller admitted warily. It suddenly occurred to him that this might be a taxman. The car looked kind of federal ina dusty way. And Muller didn’t always declare every penny of thecash payments for the Kirk Dirt (soil dug up from under thelawn) he sold for $3 a vial. “I don’t charge people to visit, youknow,” he said.
“Well maybe you should. As things stand, I don’t see this town producing a starship captain.” The stranger jabbed a A B R I E F H I S T O RY O F T H E F U T U R E thumb over his shoulder at the sleepy rural backdrop. Well,more comatose than sleepy, he thought. “Validated by Mr Roddenberry himself,” Muller defended “So I heard. Smart move on your part – you convinced him, “Yeah. I read in his book that Kirk was born in ‘a small town in Iowa’ so I asked why not Riverside, and Mr Roddenberry saidfirst come, first served.” “A brilliant piece of entrepreneurship,” the stranger said.
He smiled with warm approval at Muller. This brilliantentrepreneur looked like most of the other people Max hadseen on his way into town – late middle age, stocky, with plentyof rural German blood in his veins. Only difference was, hewas wearing plain urban pants and shirt instead of the regionaluniform of overalls and an old baseball cap. The only blemishon this urban sophistication was that he seemed to have pyjamasfor underwear.
“But I can’t get over the paradox of Kirk being a fictional character,” the stranger went on, a teasing glint in his eyes.
Piercing eyes, kind of icy blue. “So how come anyone wants tovisit a real birthplace?” Muller had heard this one before. There were people, not many but they existed, who came just to mock this quasi-religious infatuation with a mere TV character. Star Wars fans,mostly. Or journalists.
“You a reporter?” “Oh no. An interested visitor.” Ultimately, Muller didn’t give a damn what the stranger thought about the Trekkies. The fact was that the Star Trek linkhad revitalized, or at least saved from immediate extinction, atown that had been dying of old age, its young people suckedaway to nearby Iowa City or beyond. “Well, anyway, Mr Roddenberry agreed that this is the place, and he’s the man who should know,” Muller said.
The stranger laughed. “True, true. And he’s dead now so there’s no going back. This is the place.” He looked aroundat the small wood-and-brick houses with their low picket fences and their little statues of the Virgin Mary in the front yard.
Above the trees on the skyline, he could see the steeple of theredbrick Church of the Assumption. A sleepy Catholic townthat called itself a city. “You tried to get someone to changetheir name to Kirk, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yeah.”“Did it work?”“Sure. You can go have a beer with James T Kirk’s future ancestors at the Bar Trek on Main Street.” Muller didn’t say thiswith his usual tourist-industry enthusiasm. There wassomething about the stranger that prevented him. Somethingcynical, mocking.
“OK, so you’ve got the name, but the whole genetic problem remains.” The stranger pointed almost accusingly at Muller.
“James T Kirk has to have ancestors that will produce a fearlessleader of men, an ambassador for the human race. Not, withall due respect, a barman.” Muller didn’t take kindly to this literalism. “I don’t get you.
You criticize people for talking about him like he was a realperson and then you start doing the same.” “Yeah, I see your point.” The stranger relaxed, smiled. “I guess you could say that Kirk is fictional now, but he has untilthe 23rd century to get real.” “Sorry?” “I mean, you have Kirks in Riverside now, so what’s to stop a boy called James being born into their family in the 23rdcentury?” Muller was beginning to wish he’d stayed indoors. All in all, he preferred the guys with the Mister Spock ears. “Listen,Mister,” he replied, “I was more worried about making it intothe 21st century. Can you imagine this place without theTrekkies? They’re going to be our only source of income untilthe 23rd century.” The stranger nodded. “Yes. You’re right. Your problems are right here, right now. Mine are more in the future,” he said.
“That’s why I’d like to buy it.” “The spaceship?” People had tried to steal it before but not buy it. This guy looked normal but he talked crazy. “We got A B R I E F H I S T O RY O F T H E F U T U R E postcards of it, or posters. Or you can get models of the realthing. The official licensed merchandising, I mean.” “No, no, the actual birthplace. This.” The stranger swept his arm around to embrace the whole lawn.
“Oh. No. Sorry but it’s not for sale. I make a good living from it. Enough to pay my taxes anyway,” he corrected himself.
The stranger examined Muller for a moment, and then he reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and brought out along, slim piece of paper. He held it towards Muller. It was acheque, already filled out.
Sam Muller leaned forward and squinted at the figures. “My only conditions are that the transaction remains a secret and you continue to run the place,” the stranger said. “Youcan keep the profits.” Muller took the cheque, turned it over, ran his finger along the stiff edges of the paper. He felt tempted to smell it, like amelon, to see if it contained everything its colour promised. He was used to living on the fringes of fact and science fiction. He found it hard to believe this cheque was fact.
3. Burger to Go
The trip to the café wasn’t as relaxing as Richie had hoped.
The iced latte was good, the seats comfortable, the airtemperature perfect. But no matter how much he complimentedClara on her new shoes, she was determined to check out moreshops.
“Look, I’m not trying to be awkward,” he explained. “It’s like Gulf War Syndrome. Shopping Fatigue is now a recognizedmedical condition. It’s all to do with testosterone levels.” “Ah, they’re what causes men to become balding, homophobic, macho slobs, aren’t they?” Clara asked.
“No, that’s excessive testosterone. I’m talking about normal male levels. Most women have very low levels. That’s why you’re so shopping-tolerant and we men suffer if exposed toprolonged high doses.” Clara leant across the table to kiss him. “Tell you what, we’ll split up. We’ll meet back here in, say, “You don’t mind?”“No. You’ve told me which skirts you liked. All I need to do is pay for everything. You’ve done all the hard work forme.” Clara left to do some spending. After buying a multi- storeyed veggieburger to go, Richie was surprised to find thathe was being drawn towards another shop, too. Perhaps it wassome addictive shopping drug that Americans had invented.
They’d put it in Manhattan’s coffee supply to give the economya boost. This was a gift shop. He stood in front of the window display (it was on the shady side of the street) and wondered aboutpresents to take home for the kids. George, his four-year-old,would love a model taxi or a police car. Ella (six) was moredifficult. She’d want something flashy. A “gift”. He went inside. Richie’s first impression was that everything was too expensive. The shelves were packed with highly tastefulAmericana. And there was a large sign – “Thank you for NOTeating” – by the door. He slipped himself and his burger behinda display and looked around in the vague hope of findingsomething fun like an Oprah Winfrey Barbie or an inflatableHillary Clinton. He could hear the shop assistant talking to a customer.
“For only five dollars extra, we can transport the gift instantly “By courier, you mean?”“No, I’ve never heard of an instant courier,” the salesgirl replied with a schoolma’am’s exaggerated patience.
“How, then?” The customer, a woman of about 45, had a classy, intelligent voice that the assistant seemed to be mistakingfor ditheriness. A B R I E F H I S T O RY O F T H E F U T U R E Richie caught sight of some model cars a few yards away.
A copmobile and some vintage-looking limousines. He wentto check them out. He half-listened to the assistant’s attemptsto explain her delivery service as he surreptitiously munchedhis burger. They seemed to be discussing a “biscotti machine”or something similarly Italian. What could Italian rusks haveto do with sending presents to England, he wondered idly.
A Mafia plot to assassinate the President with a rusk? Hestopped in mid-munch as it dawned on him what they’dactually said.
It was so improbable that he came out into the open, at risk “Yes, that’s it,” the assistant was saying with some relief.
She and the customer walked over to a small machine.
Richie moved closer, holding his burger behind his back andfeigning interest in what appeared to be a real bison-skinminiature bison. “Guaranteed farm-raised”, it said. Bonsaibison? “Gosh, I never knew they existed,” the customer said. “Yes, the system’s only just been put in place.”Richie was even more convinced that he had heard right.
Involuntarily he tightened his grip on the bison. It mooed; hewinced. The assistant shot him a disapproving glare but carriedon with her sales pitch.
“It’s exactly like Star Trek, Madam,” the assistant explained.
“You give us the address, we beam it there.” “Yes, but how does it work?”This was what Richie wanted to know. He held his breath, put down the bison without a moo, and edged closer. He wasstill stuck somewhere in the Great Plains, feeling thesmoothness of an Apache-made buckskin cellphone holder.
“I’m not exactly sure,” the assistant said. “We’ve only had it a week. I guess it breaks the object down into molecules, thenreassembles it.” The customer was frowning, trying to work out whether she wanted her expensive gift broken down into molecules. “It’s fully guaranteed, Madam. If your gift gets broken in transit or reassembles wrongly, you get a refund.” “But you don’t know how it works?” the customer asked, “No, Madam. But I don’t know how a TV works either, and “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Isn’t technology wonderful? To think that, in a few seconds, this could materialize in frontof my sister’s eyes a thousand miles away.” “So do you want to try it?”“Oh, no, thanks, I’ll take it with me on the plane. If you “Certainly.” The assistant hid her irritation well. “How will As the two women went off to discuss credit cards and wrapping paper, Richie homed in on the machine. He’d givenup all pretence of being interested in authentic American knick-knacks. Half a tepid burger clutched in his fist, he looked downon the transporter machine, much as stone-age man wouldhave gazed at the first chocolate eclair. It was nothing like the open-plan teleporter on the Enterprise. It had clearly been modelled on, or cannibalizedfrom, a microwave oven. A metal box with a door in the front,linked up to a normal-looking computer. You could onlytransport things of a certain size. A football just about. Abasketball was out of the question. The door was open, andall he could see inside was bare metal plating. “Please don’t touch that, Sir.”He looked up to see the assistant smiling nervously over at him. People often smiled nervously at him since he shaved hishead.
“No, sorry. I was just wondering .”“I’ll be with you in one moment, Sir.” He turned back to the machine. The metal box had an American makers’ name that he didn’t recognize, IOAInstruments. The computer was a standard make of PC. Itlooked as if you typed in the coordinates on the PC – must besome incredible software – then put your object in the box andhit return, and whoosh. Or maybe not whoosh. Maybe severalminutes of gradual disappearance as the molecules were A B R I E F H I S T O RY O F T H E F U T U R E dematerialized. Not that he knew anything about moleculesbeyond faint memories of school blackboards and floppy modelsmade out of drinking straws. But yuk, just imagine watchingyourself disintegrate. That was probably why he’d never heardof the machine. They couldn’t have tested the principle onpeople yet. Even so, it was amazing. A real teleporter. He worked with computers every day, but one touch of this keyboard, and – “Sir, please .” the assistant called out.
Richie started, and his finger hit return.
There was a faint whirring from the machine. Richie lifted his hands in the surrender position, but it was too late. Something was happening in there. The door wasshut. He must have shut it, but couldn’t remember doing so.
“Excuse me, Madam.” The assistant was on her way, looking anxious but determined, like some rookie cop who has to dealwith her first gang fight. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how .” Richie did his best to look inoffensive, but in his case it wasn’t easy. The whirring had stopped. The computer played a major chord to express its self-satisfaction at having achievedsomething. “Can I just get a look at the screen, please, Sir?” Richie stepped aside, his hands still held up. He shot an “oo- er” look across at the customer, who turned away, exactly asyou would if you were stuck on a train platform with a madman. The assistant had called up some figures on the screen.
“Did you put anything in the machine, Sir?”“No, of course not. Oh.” Richie looked around – at the counter where the machine was standing, at the floor behindhim – knowing it was hopeless. “My burger. I must have .” “A hamburger.” The girl twitched with forced calm. “Veggieburger. I’m a vegetarian.” He hoped it might make 4. Calvin Declines
In the American sense of the word, that is.
Max Blender had had few direct dealings with his leader before, but he suspected that the head of state would be farfrom happy. Far like Iowa is far from Saturn. It would not be a good time for Blender to request vast amounts of money and logistic support for his project. Whichwas a damn shame, because that’s exactly what he was scheduledto do in a few hours’ time.
When they weren’t outright dictators, world leaders were invariably puppets, of course. You could almost see theventriloquists’ hands stuffed up the back of their shirts,controlling their mouths. At any one time the President ofthe USA had dozens of hands up his back (or his moreintimate rear area). The military, the judiciary, tobacco, oil,guns and every other lobby, the farmers, the unions,Congress, the Senate, public opinion, and if he was lucky, ahot young intern or two, all trying to manipulate him totheir advantage. And now Blender wanted to get his own hand up there, preferably without getting it too dirty. A tricky manœuvre,even metaphorically.
So it was a shame that the President would be pissed, and therefore keeping his metaphorical buttocks tightly clenched.
It was all a journalist’s fault. Blender had read an article in that morning’s Washington Post saying that the President wasimpotent. In the non-sexual sense of the word, that is. Since theinvention of Viagra, erectile dysfunction was one less worryfor most middle-aged men.
Even so, it was a potent insult. And according to the article, the President wasn’t only impotent – he was also boring. Theheadline was “Grey Man in the White House”. Blender’s initial reaction was, so what? Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing for him to be boring compared to some of his A B R I E F H I S T O RY O F T H E F U T U R E predecessors, who’d been bare-faced liars, bare-cheekedadulterers, or shot. Or more than one of those.
The writer went on to say that it was a relief to have a bore in the White House. It proved, he suggested, that real executivepower was “in the hands of people who know how to use it”,and confirmed the fact that modern presidents were little morethan TV news anchormen, presenting other people’s decisionsto the world.
The President would almost certainly not see the article itself – rumour had it that he rarely read anything except golfmagazines, Patricia Cornwell novels and the instructions onpretzel packets. But it would be picked up on the morningnews, and apparently the President always watched that to seewhether his previous day’s soundbites had made the grade.
Getting laughed at on TV was bound to inflame the President’s ego. He’d try to resist the twists of the ventriloquists’fingers. His advisors wouldn’t let this situation last for verylong, but even if it lasted for just one meeting – Blender’smeeting – it could have dire consequences. Sitting on the morning flight from Des Moines to Washington, Blender let the newspaper fall into his lap andstared angrily out over the vast Iowan flatness. Why had thejournalist picked today to unleash his unhelpful opinions onthe world? Couldn’t he have chosen a weekend edition so thatthe President had time to forget the insults by Monday? The article ended with a crushing quote from ex-President Calvin Coolidge: “It is a great advantage to a president, and amajor source of safety to the country, for him to know that heis not a great man.” Not great? Shit, the President was going to be so pissed that



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