Point of No Return
"How're you holding up?" Ogre said, and I realized I'd been standing still for several minutes, just staring at everything around me. "Handling it okay?"
I nodded and took a few more seconds to find my voice as we walked along the street with her boyfriend, Alvin.
"It's … a lot to take in, but I'm okay." I moved slowly forward, staring at the cars and trucks passing by. "The shapes of some of those are so odd." I faced forward to be sure I wasn't about to bump into anyone and noticed the traffic lights up ahead. "And those are so bright."
"They're LEDs." Alvin laughed softly and slipped his hand into Ogre's. I glanced at him and raised an eyebrow, and he clarified, "Light-emitting diodes. The first use in electronics was around ten years after you went into cryo, if I remember correctly."
"Ah." I chuckled and shook my head. "I guess I should've spent my first few weeks reading up on what I've missed, but I wanted my first look at the world to be untainted."
"Well, that's why the Institute asked us to tag along. We're here to answer any questions you have."
And to keep me out of trouble, I figured. A sensible precaution. I'd skipped sixty-seven years between the time I was frozen and the day they thawed me out, so I could imagine all sorts of ways I could blunder into awkward situations. But after spending a week in a hospital bed recovering, I'd been eager to see the new world I'd found myself in. It was why I'd volunteered for the project in the first place.
"So," Ogre said, "first impressions?"
"It's surprisingly similar to the world as I left it in 1952. I was expecting … I don't know … dirigibles, rocket ships, and flying cars."
She shrugged. "Things change, things stay the same."
"Yeah, I guess so." One thing I'd noticed immediately that was vastly different from before was the number of women in roles I wasn't used to seeing them in. Administration, medical -– doctors as well as nurses -– even security. I'd already spotted a few driving police cars as we walked from the Institute to one of the city's main streets. I'd had the presence of mind so far to hold my tongue until I knew more about the world.
Not that I found anything wrong with it. My tendency to always have my eyes on the future was one of the reasons my application to this program had been accepted. Other applicants had probably been more qualified, but as far as I knew, I was the only one with no family or friends to leave behind. The guys I grew up with had always been interested in little more than sports, but I never was. I always had my nose in a book or a pulp magazine or a comic book after school.
I was always the kid who got sand kicked into his face at the beach, so by the time I was thirty-five, I had no one left to miss and no one who would miss me. When I heard about the program, I signed up without hesitation in hopes of waking up to a better tomorrow.
Alvin and Ogre had been assigned as my guides into this new era. When we were introduced, I was told they had been high-school sweethearts and had gone to work at the Institute after graduating several years ago. And what an odd couple they made. Alvin was wiry and had long, dark hair, while Ogre was over six feet tall and had the body of a stevedore -– which, I assumed, was where her nickname had come from. I wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but she was kind of scary, though she seemed friendly enough.
The intimidation factor was another reason I hadn't commented on her being female … not to mention the color of her skin. Dating a white kid would've been incredibly dangerous for her where I was from, but if things were different now, that alone was enough cause for celebration.
I continued walking, keeping my eyes on the sky for a moment longer, disappointed that there were no dirigibles. I did spot a couple of airplanes, but aside from the size and shape, they didn't look too out of the ordinary. At least the blue sky with a few wispy clouds and the warm temperature made for a pleasant summer morning.
I returned my gaze to the ground and noticed a handful of people walking toward us. The pair of young women among them were dressed … rather immodestly, I couldn't help noticing. The three guys walking alongside them came straight at us and didn't try to move out of our path, so I stepped to the right to make room for them. One of them moved in the same direction and bumped into my shoulder hard enough to knock me off balance. I regained my footing and shook my head as they passed by.
"That was rude," I grumbled -– at the same time noticing Ogre was already turning around and taking a step toward the one who'd charged into me. "Uh, what are …?"
She grasped the back of his shirt, kicked his left leg out from under him, and yanked him straight down. His shoulder blades slammed into the pavement a split-second before the back of his skull thumped down and something slipped from his left hand. Ogre leaned over to pick it up.
I gaped at her and my heart pounded. She and Alvin were supposed to be keeping me out of trouble, not …
"He picked your pocket." Ogre held my wallet out and I stared at it for a few seconds before accepting it.
"What …?" I kept staring at the wallet in my hands as she faced the guy's cohorts. I hadn't even felt his hand pull it out of my pocket. "But … what?"
The thief pushed himself slowly back to his feet. He turned, took two steps toward us, stumbled to the right, and toppled over again. One of his friends started to lunge forward but froze when Ogre flexed her muscles. The already-tight sleeves of her T-shirt looked ready to split open.
The whole group took a step back. One of them held a hand up as the others helped the pickpocket to his feet and continued on their way.
"Sorry," the other guy said as he backed away. "We don't want any trouble."
Ogre merely stared at them until they reached the next corner, turned left, and disappeared behind a grocery store.
I caught Alvin grinning from ear to ear in the corner of my eye. He slipped his hands around Ogre's waist.
"All the blood's leaving my head."
She chuckled and gave him a peck on the lips before glancing at me and nodding over her shoulder.
"Let's get the hell outta here before somebody calls the cops."
"Anything in particular you're interested in taking a closer look at?" Alvin waved a hand over the storefronts lining both sides of the street.
"Technology," I blurted without a second thought. "I mean … uh, electronics. I've always been fascinated with new inventions and one of the reasons I volunteered was to see what kinds of things people come up with in the future. So … is there a Radio Shack around here?"
"No, but there's a fair number of similar stores." Ogre pointed off down the street and we resumed walking. A few minutes later we reached a large parking lot on the corner with a warehouse-sized building set at least a thousand feet back from the street. That in itself was a marvel. I grew up in a small town that had no buildings larger than a three-bedroom house aside from a few churches. A dozen of the grocery stores I grew up around could've fit into this lot and still leave room for the store.
The doors parted and a whole new world opened up in front of me once again.
Alvin pointed in one direction, then another and another. "We've got TVs on the left, stereos next to them, phones right over there, tablets in the next aisle, accessories for them in the section behind them, desktop computers over there, laptops there, software and video games on the end."
"And that's just for starters," Ogre added.
"Incredible." Some of the devices in the hospital room I woke up in had appeared quite advanced, but the people at the Institute had been careful to keep me from being overwhelmed while I was recovering. Once I was back on my feet, though, I was ready to start catching up.
Boy, was I ready.
"Where do you want to start?" Alvin grinned and clapped me on the shoulder.
"I have no idea." I shrugged. "I guess we can start on the left and just work our way over from there." I walked over to the wall, stared at the two dozen objects of varying sizes, each showing a different moving image, and glanced over at Alvin and Ogre. "You said these are televisions?"
"Yep," Ogre said.
"They're not big and boxy. They're so thin. And rectangular? TVs aren't square anymore?"
"Nope. The aspect ratio is closer to theatrical movies, these days."
I approached the nearest one and marveled at the bright, vibrant, sharp image. "They don't use cathode-ray tubes anymore."
"Exactly. These are LED screens. The TVs are thin and lightweight. They can be mounted on a wall if you want."
"How are the pictures so clear? And in color?"
"Those are ultra-high-definition screens." Ogre let out a quick chuckle at my confused expression. "We can go over all the details later. For now, just enjoy."
Grinning, I moved to the right and found the TVs getting larger. I couldn't believe how big the ones at the end of the aisle were. A label on the largest said seventy-five inches. I rubbed my hands together and thought of what I could do with the trust fund that had been set up before I was frozen. They'd planned for me to have enough money not to need to find a job immediately, giving me time to acclimate instead of sink or swim.
"Wow. I am absolutely getting one of these for my house."
I turned to look over the shelves behind me and found them lined with small, rectangular boxes.
"What are these?"
"Movies and TV series on DVD and Blu-ray." Ogre caught my raised eyebrow and elaborated. "They're stored on discs. DVDs are standard-definition and Blu-rays are high-definition. Each of those thick boxes holds a full season and the slim ones hold a movie and supplemental material like interviews, behind-the-scenes stuff, and commentary tracks."
"TV shows can be stored on discs?"
"Yep. Also digitally."
"Files on computers. No physical media at all."
"Oh. A house would have to be pretty big to fit one of those into it."
Ogre giggled and pulled a rectangular device from her pocket. "Nah, they don't take up whole rooms anymore. Some can fit on a desk and others … well, have a look."
"That's a computer?"
"It's a phone and a computer."
I stared as she tapped the screen and the numbers of a phone appeared on the surface. The phones I grew up with had dials, but I'd seen a few with buttons while walking through the Institute's corridors. I laughed. Who needed dirigibles when we had gadgets like these?
"So, when they set you up in a house and you pick out your furniture and TV and whatnot, you can start building a library and catch up on all the stuff you missed over the past sixty-some years." She waved a hand over the movies and shows.
"I wouldn't even know where to start. Any recommendations?"
"Well, since you've always liked science fiction books, I think you'd enjoy a few pop-cultural landmarks like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and Babylon 5." She grinned. "That last one is my all-time favorite. If I start talking about it, I'll go full-genki girl."
"Whatever that is."
"Like, hyperkinetically enthusiastic." She laughed and shrugged. "When we get back to the Institute this evening, we can show you an episode of each to give you a taste. Maybe we can introduce you to some anime, too, and similar shows produced over here in the states. One of my favorites is gen:LOCK."
"Hmm. Maybe we can make it a series of reaction videos," Alvin said. "Play it up as a guy who's never seen any of this stuff without bringing up the cryonics thing, and just document his introduction to sci-fi from the past few decades."
"I think I understand what you just said. Most of it, anyway." I laughed. "Sounds fun." I turned slowly to take another look around and recognized a few dozen other phones like Ogre's on a nearby table. "I think I'm going to like the future."
After spending a couple of hours in the electronics store, we continued our walk and eventually ended up at a Chinese restaurant that, according to Alvin, had the best crab puffs and pork-fried rice around. It had a small outdoor-dining area and we passed another hour and a half eating lunch and talking. They brought me up to speed on recent history, some of which was worth celebrating and some which … wasn't.
The moon landing, the Voyager and Venera probes, other missions to Mars and Jupiter and Saturn, shuttle launches, the International Space Station -– triumphs of exploration that brought tears to my eyes …
The Korean War, the Vietnam War, airplane hijackings, years of fighting in the Middle East, the Iran-Contra scandal, the attack on the World Trade Center, the invasion of Iraq, on and on and on. Dear God …
"There's been more bad than good," I finally muttered as we stopped in a park to watch the sunset.
"Well," Ogre said, "history has always been kind of cyclic. Good and bad seem to come in waves. We take steps forward, then we regress, but then we recover and progress a little more." She slipped her hand into Alvin's and their fingers intertwined. "We can be together and hardly anyone even makes a big deal about it. There's been a resurgence in racism over the past few years, but at least being together is a lot less likely to get us killed these days. We couldn't have even given each other a second glance before you went into the freezer."
"Yes." I managed to pull myself together and nod. "You're right. Some things are definitely better than they were." And many were worse.
"In a lot of ways, the world is more violent than it used to be. Or maybe we're just more aware of it thanks to the internet. Instant communication all over the world, almost everyone carrying cameras in their pockets, and all that." Alvin shrugged. "I guess you have to take the bad with the good."
"Not gonna lie," Ogre muttered, "things like the gap between the poor and the rich has only gotten wider over the years. Seems like the only thing our society gives a shit about is money. The less money you have, the less you matter. I know a guy who struggled his whole life just to make ends meet, then he lost his job and couldn't land another one and ended up homeless for almost a year. Every organization he went to for help refused to even talk to him and he didn't find one willing to help until after he'd lost everything."
"You're kidding." I stared at her, forgetting all about the sunset and suddenly realizing the house I had before going into cryo was long gone. If a trust fund and assistance with buying a new house hadn't been included in the contract, I might've found myself in that very same position.
"I wish. If you're poor, so many people who have more think it's your fault for being poor, like you just always squander your money. And if you lose your home, they jump to the conclusion that you're a drug addict or mentally unstable and try to sweep you under the rug instead of offering to help."
"It's kind of a raw nerve for Ogre," Alvin said. "She grew up dirt-poor. Probably still be in that situation if she hadn't landed a job at the Institute. I was a little better off, but the prospects weren't exactly stellar."
So … that was the kind of world I'd awakened in. And to think I had enough money and help from the Institute to provide a safety net while so many others were barely getting by. And many others weren't even that lucky.
While the other two watched the sun set, I pondered the situation and tried to think of ways to help. I'd need to learn a lot more about how the world worked before I could come up with anything solid, but if there was anything I could do about it, I felt like I should.
"What kind of country lets that happen to its own citizens?"
They turned back to me and shrugged.
"This one." Ogre shook her head and let out a long sigh. "The people who are in the best position to do something about it won't. They don't want to give up their wealth. In fact, they have more money than they could ever spend and it's never enough. They always want more and they take it from the rest of us, then they have the nerve to tell us to 'just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.'"
"And there aren't any bootstraps. At all. But that's another way they make it out to be our fault, like we're just not willing to put in the effort."
"I could rant all night about this." Ogre sighed again and took a quick look around. "Probably should head back to the Institute before we run into any muggers."
"You'd just kick their asses." Alvin laughed softly.
"Sure, but it'd be more trouble than it's worth. Last thing I need is to give the cops even more excuses to shoot me in the fucking back than my skin color already gives them."
"What?" I turned to gape at her and she shrugged.
"That's a whole other rant." She started walking and we caught up with her. "Maybe we can grab some burgers on the way back. Then we can show you how to use the computer in your room and show you a sample of the TV shows we were talking about while having dinner if you want. See if we can balance the negative with some positive. Then maybe tomorrow you can do some more exploring, learn where everything is so you can navigate it yourself when you're ready."
"I'd enjoy that." I doubted I could get my mind completely off the troubling things I'd just learned, but there wasn't much use in dwelling on it while I wasn't in a position to do anything about it. I couldn't help thinking that volunteering for this may have been a mistake, though.
I tried to shrug it off. There was no way to go back where I'd come from, so I had to just face whatever came next and learn to live with it. As someone at the Institute had said a few days ago …
Keep moving forward.