Engines of Survival

By Larissa Kelly

 

20 Years Ago

It's always the little things in the future that are the hardest to adjust to. You'll be walking in the park after making your delivery, taking amused note of the robot nannies and the teenagers racing in their jet harnesses, soaking in the expected novelty of the scene. And then all at once, you realize that the young man on the path ahead isn't walking a small dog, as you had originally thought, but a raccoon.

You stare for a moment, look away, stare again. You work through the possibilities. Is the man's pet actually a cat, genetically modified to possess a sharp snout and a bushy ringed tail? Have new methods of animal domestication been developed in the last twenty years, so that many people share their homes with formerly wild creatures? Or is the man just some self-consciously alternative type, preening with an unusual pet? You try to glance around casually, to see if your surprise is echoed on any other faces. Then two children run up delightedly to the animal and begin to pet it, while their metallic guardian looks on with what seems like an expression of indulgence. So. Not so unusual after all.

The Present

When I tell Danny about this, he laughs.

"Oh yeah," he says. "Christ, I had almost forgotten about those damned raccoons. Really popular for a while. Cute, but destructive little pests when you come right down to it. Now people who want wildpets mostly get koalas, they're much more mint."

The translation bud in my ear pauses for a moment after Danny's last word, contacting the worldnet to define the unfamiliar slang, then offers, "Mint: Quiescent/Sweet-smelling/Low maintenance." I resisted using the bud for my first several trips, fearing that wearing technology designed for travelers would mark me too concretely as an outsider. The farther I went into the future, though, the more necessary the extra help became. It took practice to be able to sustain a conversation while listening to the soft murmur of the bud, but now I can understand almost all of what is said to me. The Ramírez family laughs over my archaisms, but they mostly understand me as well.

Danny looks up. "Hey," he says. "You didn't get a picture, did you? Some people might be nostalgic for old Bandit, now that he's not around clawing up the furniture."

I dig through my pack. I know to record the everyday things. Make one trip and the holos will become mementos. Four or five will make them curiosities. And if you go far enough ahead, recordings of once-ordinary activities become documents of the unutterably strange. I hand Danny an album with holos of the young man and raccoon strolling in the sun-dappled park, and of the children giggling as they rubbed the animal's furry belly.

Danny clicks through the shots and smiles. I can tell he'll buy some. He is the ninth Daniel Ramírez I've known, the name passed along on an ever-branching tree of fathers, sons, grandsons, nephews, and clones. He turns, gazing at me out of the large, kind, brown eyes that all the men of his family have shared.

"Will you be staying long?" he asks.

"I don't know yet," I tell him. "I haven't had a chance to look around much."

"It's not a bad time," Danny says.

"I'm sure it's not," I reply.


It takes several hours for the two of us to sort through the contents of my pack. Besides the holos from the park, I sell Danny several other items that are only twenty or forty years old. Most such things I keep in reserve, though, in order to sell one day to Danny's distant descendants. The bulk of my transactions involve objects that have traveled over a century and a half, and that were unremarkable in their own time. The sorts of things that are so banal or perishable that no one thinks to collect them, cherish them, shepherd them safely into the future.

I show Danny primitive holos and digital photographs; seeds, bulbs, and livestock DNA samples; recordings of live theater, music, and dance; fabrics; children's drawings; various processed foods sealed in exuberantly wasteful packaging, and cookies purchased fresh from long-gone bakeries and grandmothers. "That reminds me," I say, reaching for a carefully wrapped package. "Your father asked me to give this to you."

Danny takes it, and his face lights up as he realizes what it is. "Dad sent tamales!" he says. "I haven't had these for so long. . . ." His smile fades a little. "I guess you probably realized when you saw that he wasn't here. We lost Dad eight years ago. You know he was never too careful about exposure to debris from the Crow's War. They didn't know how bad it was when he was a kid, he never got all the warnings in school. . . ." He stops, and we sit for a moment in silence.

"I'm so sorry," I say. "He was a very good man." Daniel had been fifty-three years old when I said goodbye to him a few hours ago at the depot, a solid and energetic businessman. I had known him better, though, as the young teenager from two trips before that. I had stayed with the family almost eight months that time.

"I still miss him," Danny says. He sighs. "We've probably done enough for today. Can I show you up to your room?"

"Please," I say. "Is it still the same one?"

"No, we've done some rearranging since the baby came. We kept all the furniture from the last time you were here, though."

"Thank you," I say. "That's very kind."


Later on I sit in my room, calling up articles and holovids describing the events of the last twenty years, reviewing the names of popular products, celebrities, and the latest crop of politicians. I check on my investments, which have been carefully managed as always by the Ramírez family. Travelers like me are heavily taxed, but even so I have grown quite wealthy over the centuries. If I wanted to, I could take an early retirement. I could surround myself with the most ingenious amusements and exquisite luxuries that this time can produce. I could grow old in the company of others growing old at the same rate.

I could do all of those things, but will not.

280 Years Ago

"Come on," Dan said, grinning at me. "You have to admit that this is a great idea."

"So why don't you do it?" I asked. "Why are you trying to shove me into the future?"

"You haven't done anything with the first twenty-five years of your life, why should the next twenty be any different? You don't have anything to lose here."

I shoved him. "Jerk. I gotta say, your powers of persuasion are truly overwhelming."

"Okay, look." Dan gave me his most earnest expression, the one that transformed his face into a mask of cherubic sweetness. "The technology's been around for years, but after the first wave of people left, not many others have taken advantage of it. The two-decade minimum discourages people. And the ones who actually left didn't make any business plans, just stuck some money in the bank. There's an opportunity here for an ambitious young go-getter such as yourself, unencumbered by family ties, looking to make a mark in the world—"

I shoved him again. "Jerk. Weren't you just saying what a loser I am?"

"But only in the present! In the future, who knows?" His smile was free of malice, and we both laughed. "Look, in ten years I'll be all set to take over my dad's store. I have a lot of plans. I'll make contacts, develop markets. And then when you come, we'll both make a fortune, except you'll still be young and won't have done any work for it."

"So why do you even need me? Why not just send the merchandise without a chaperone?"

"Do you ever even look at the newsfeeds? That's illegal. They decided it would cause way too much trouble if people could just send whatever objects they wanted. Only human beings can go through—but they can take up to fifty kilos of luggage with them."

I thought about it. The next twenty years seemed to stretch before me, a grey and empty wasteland.

"What the hell," I said. "Why not?"

260 Years Ago

The skin around Dan's eyes was no longer tight. At forty-five, anxiety and responsibility had scoured most of the humor from his face, making him seem more like his father than himself. Still, he was glad to see me, and hugged me as I stepped out of the portal.

"You're here!" he said. "How was the trip?"

"Instantaneous?"

"Oh, of course." He stepped back. "I remembered you as taller. And with darker hair."

"I remember you as scruffier. And smellier." Then I noticed the boy standing beside him. "Hello," I said.

"This is Dan Junior," Dan said, smiling slightly. "He's eleven. And quite a handful."

"No!" I said. "Indeed, this strange and wondrous future contains marvels far, far beyond any mortal man's power to predict."

"Shut up," Dan said.


"So what are your plans now?" Dan asked, several months after my arrival. I had stayed with his family after making the delivery, living off the proceeds of the sale. Dan had done a good job of guessing which items would appreciate in value over two decades, and we had both profited handsomely. Still, I was restless. This time was too much like that past I had left.

"Well," I said, "I was thinking about making another sales trip."

Dan's face furrowed. "Are you sure? You know, things worked out well for us, but I still feel guilty about convincing you to make the delivery. Giving up twenty years isn't a fair thing to ask of someone."

"Don't worry about it," I told him. "I'm glad you talked me into going. The future is beautiful. That's why I want to see more of it."

Dan gave me a half-hearted smile. "You know you'll always have a place here," he said.

The Present

Danny introduces me to his baby with exaggerated formality, lifting up the infant's hand so that I can solemnly shake it. "It's an honor," I say. I hold the baby for a while, making faces at him and bouncing him up and down. He tolerates this with the spaced-out stare of the newly born, casting an occasional questioning look towards his father.

"Just think," Danny says, "you'll know him when he's an old man." His tone is a combination of wistful and amused.

I've had this conversation before. "Ramírez men never really grow old," I say. "He'll just have more candles on his birthday cake, is all."

Danny looks confused. "What's a candle?" he asks.

180 Years Ago

The last time I saw Dan Junior, he was sitting in a wheelchair and wheezing for breath. Medical technology had kept him alive for longer than even the doctors of the time had thought possible, but at ninety-one his body was spent. We sat together for a long time that night, not saying much. Finally, Dan Junior fixed me in his rheumy eyes.

"How long will you keep going?" he asked.

"As long as I can," I answered. "There's still much more to see." What I did not say to the dying man was, So much is lost over time, so many people simply erased from the memory of the world. I'm not ready for that to happen to me.

"Hmm," Dan Junior said. We were silent for a few more minutes. Then he said abruptly, "This isn't a bad time."

"I know," I told him.

The Present

The city has changed less over the past twenty years than I had expected. The ratio of skimmers to ground vehicles is higher, and more decorative walls and fences have been raised, to block access to the poisonous relics of the Crow's War. The occasional green faces on the street puzzle me, until I stroll by a café advertising a gourmet selection of light wavelengths available to photosynthesizing customers. Still, the city feels essentially familiar, almost disappointingly so. I walk for miles, soon leaving the commercial center where the Ramírez family store is located. I pass through wealthy neighborhoods, where crouched, fortresslike houses are set far back from the street, and into the gardens of New Eden, filled with lush vegetation and harmless, jewel-colored snakes. I hike beyond the industrial belt of geothermal power stations and algae ponds to the edge of the city, where farms and woodlands begin to roll across the hills. It is a beautiful day.

As I turn away from the countryside, my foot brushes something that rolls away with a clinking sound. I spot the object on the ground, bend down, and examine it. At first it appears to be a translucent glass marble, a child's toy. As I look more closely, though, I see that the interior of the sphere is filled with a twisty mass of minute green capillaries. On the surface, faintly inscribed, is a line drawing of a bird in flight.

Alarmed, I stand up, and move back a few steps. Then I reach into my jacket pocket, and take out the tongs and biohazard bag that Danny gave me that morning. Slowly, carefully, I use the tongs to pick up the thing that is not a marble, and place it gently inside the bag. During my walk I passed dozens of toxin reduction centers, where objects such as these might be left.

The day no longer seems as pleasant. I shiver, and start back.

100 Years Ago

D.R. grabbed me as soon as I came through the portal, and flung me to the ground. I heard the explosion a second later.

"D.R.?" I asked from the floor. "What's going on?" I looked around. "Wait, why is the portal in your basement? Why didn't I come through at the government depot?"

D.R. opened his mouth, then closed it as the shock from another explosion rattled the building. He motioned me to crawl towards a door set almost invisibly against the far wall, leading to the family's vault.

Once we were inside, I realized that the vault had been recently reinforced, the metal on the walls and locks still new and bright. Dehydrated foodstuffs were piled on the shelves, as well as blankets, medkits, and machines for synthesizing water. The array of items around us made little sense, unless D.R. planned to turn the space into a high-end camping store. Or unless the valuables meant to be safeguarded in the vault were people.

"What's going on?" I asked again, my voice shaking a little.

"It's being called the Crow's War," D.R. answered. "Steven Crow and his followers rose up two years ago, captured cities, labs—well, you know a lot of scientists would have supported him anyway, after all the cloning bans and research restrictions—no one thought the fighting would last this long, but the weapons that are being used now, they're just—they're not like anything that's been . . ." D.R. trailed off, and shook his head. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. You can read all about it in the history books. The important thing is that you need to go, now."

"Wait—but the merchandise—" I stopped, realizing how unimportant that was. "If your family is in trouble, I want to help."

"You can help by going." D.R.'s smile was grim. "We had to bribe half the Travel Ministry to get a portal installed here and to erase the official records of your trip. The government has decided that travelers are disruptive influences. A lot of people like you have disappeared. And you wouldn't have much better luck with Crow's troops—they put the words 'Breaking the Chains of History' on their battle flag, for God's sake."

He handed me a second pack. "Here," he said. "War souvenirs that should eventually be worth something. Give them to my son when you see him. He's ten now."

"The seventh Daniel Ramírez," I said. "That's a lucky number." I hefted the pack, and looked at D.R.

"You have a portal here," I said. "Why don't you and the family come with me? To a time when you'll be safe?"

"Everyone else is scattered in safe houses in the country. Besides, it was hellish enough scraping together the power cells needed for one arrival and one departure. I couldn't manage that again. I don't think there are even that many power cells left in the city now."

"Then you should be the one to go," I said, feeling helplessly small in the face of all that D.R. had sacrificed. "Leave, while it's still possible."

D.R. shook his head. "Our family's been doing business here a long time, we have connections. Some of us are working together to see if a deal can be brokered. Besides, there's too much now that I can't leave. Even after everything that's been destroyed, there's so much that still remains. And you know"—his grin was wry and sad—"we all send ourselves into the future, one way or another."

He threw an arm over my shoulder. "Come on," he said. "Let's get you out of here."

60 Years Ago

"Hey, look at this!"

"Daniel, I don't think—"

"Come on, this is so cool!"

I scrambled over the rubble, trying to keep my balance. Daniel, thirteen and agile, was already far ahead of me. He had brought an automatic shovel with him, and was digging around some large buried object.

"What did you find?" I asked him.

"I think this place used to be a restaurant! Look, it's an oven!"

"Huh," I said, squatting down to look. The dials were still visible, but the rest of the oven had been torsioned into sinuous, unrecognizable shapes. I also noticed, with some unease, that an oily iridescent substance was oozing from the ground where Daniel was excavating.

"Did you ever go here?" Daniel asked, his eyes shining. "What was this place like before the Crow's War? Is it true that back then people weren't even allowed to eat chemfood?"

"I don't think I ever came here." Noticing Daniel's disappointment, I added, "But it's true about the chemfood. What you had for breakfast today could have sent you to jail for a long time."

"Wow!" Daniel said. He looked proud of having been bold enough to eat breakfast.

"Daniel," I asked, "do you know what's seeping out of the ground?"

"No."

"I don't either. So let's move away from here, okay?"

Daniel looked as if he wanted to argue, but then pressed a button to collapse the shovel into a small cylinder. He put the shovel in his pocket.

"You come here a lot, don't you?" I asked, looking at him. "Do your parents know?"

"Papa hardly ever talks about the war. He won't even buy me games like Storm Crow or Soldiers of Truth. But I need to know. I read all the books and do the VR immersions, but I don't think they really tell the whole story. And besides, it's different being able to touch things that were actually there. You know."

"I do." Cautiously, I asked, "Have you been told much about your grandfather D.R.?"

Excitement welled up in Daniel's face. "Not really, just that he was executed during Crow's Glorious Awakening. Papa said once that he wasn't really an Enemy of Truth, that the revolution made lots of mistakes, but then Mama said not to confuse me. But if you tell me I promise I won't be confused."

"Don't promise that," I said. "There are lots of things about that time I don't understand either. There was too much I didn't see. But there are other things I know for sure, about your family, that you should know too."

The Present

It's time for me to leave. Danny pilots a skimmer to the depot, the city stretching below us like an old cat in the late afternoon sun. Craters and ruins from the Crow's War still speckle the landscape, as do soaring bronze spires from the postwar building boom.

In Danny's smiling eyes I see flashes of his father, and of Dan, Dan Junior, D.R., and others. A sudden pang of longing stabs at me, an aching wish to see all of the departed once more. But of course that is impossible. Time travel only works one way.

One day I will arrive and find no member of the Ramírez family to greet me. One day the business that purchases my wares will close its doors forever. The city will die, be reborn, die again. The language and the people will develop into unrecognizable forms. The portals will cease to be maintained, and my last trip will not be to the future, but to oblivion. And yet D.R.'s words remain inside me, warming my soul like an ember. Much is lost, but more will remain.

The skimmer lands, and I step out with my pack.

"See you soon," I tell Danny. I look back frequently as I walk away.


Larissa Kelly is a graduate student at UC Berkeley, studying nineteenth-century Mexican history. She shamelessly stole this story's title from Leonard Cohen's song "The Future." To contact her, send her email at larissa.kelly@gmail.com.