“What was it like in the twentieth century?”
Robert groaned as he punched in his order for fried chicken and corn. Of course, it wasn’t real chicken or corn, but some biological fungus grown on the Venetian Culture farms. As the only living human who actually knew what fried chicken tasted like, Robert disliked it immensely. It tasted too flat. Sure, it tasted like chicken, but it didn’t feel like chicken. No matter what you ordered, all foods had that pasty feel on the tongue. Real fried chicken didn’t stick to the palate.
Dani must have asked him about the twentieth century over a thousand times. No matter how much he told her, she was always eager to hear more. Robert always supplied her with the information, but it hurt to talk about home. If Dani knew how much it bothered him to talk about home, she would surely desist in her questions, but Robert never told her. As much as it hurt, that very pain served as a reminder to Robert that he wasn’t retarded as Dr. Motich had insisted he be officially.
Robert had to admit that it was a smart move to announce that he was mentally handicapped. Even after seven months, Robert was constantly stumbling across technology that he couldn’t operate without help. That’s why Dani was here. She was his teacher in all things twenty-second century and his friend when he felt like the only minnow in a sea of salmon.
“The food is great back home,” Robert said as he walked his tray of fungus to an empty seat. The diners near him, seeing the red band on his wrist, gave Dani a sympathetic look and smiled at Robert with that infuriating “look at the retard” smile.
The PLN made it standard policy to mark any people who were considered handicapped or deformed with red titanium wristbands. The logic was that decent citizens would help in any way possible if it was needed. The reality was that it was a way to ostracize the person from regular society. If a banded person was seen walking alone, the authorities were instantly notified and they promptly arrived to help “the poor idiot” home or back to his nurse.
Robert had learned to ignore the looks of people. Usually he was able to smile back through clenched teeth and play the part of idiot without incident.
Today was not one of those days. Assuming a casual grace, Robert placed his tray next to the lady’s and looked down at her. A small pang of guilt ran across the edge of Robert’s mind as he saw sudden fear light up in the lady’s eyes.
He pushed it aside and spoke, “You know, lady, Buck Rogers never had it half so bad as I do here in your century.” He pulled one of his cigars out of his pocket and waved it menacingly at the lady, “I’ve seen the future, and it stinks.”
The lady looked imploringly at Dani, who was just beginning to realize that something was happening. Seeing no immediate help from her, the lady looked back at Robert, words dying in her mouth as Robert suddenly stood and grabbed his tray. She furtively glanced from the band on his wrist to his angry face.
Robert rattled his band, almost causing the contents of his tray to spill, “You want to touch it?” he asked through clenched teeth. “This shackle on my arm scares you doesn’t it? Because I wear this, I’m not quite human am I?”
The lady sputtered something, looking embarrassed as others nearby started to take notice of the retard harassing the normal person. Robert didn’t fail to notice, either. His anger doubled as he realized they assumed he was to blame. In a loud voice for all to see, he spat down at the lady, “For all your technological wonders and all your science, mankind is still just a pack of wild animals, shunning those who don’t fit inside a comfortable mold.”
Dani caught Robert by the arm and whispered fiercely in his ear, “What are you doing?”
His anger spent, Robert grinned and pushed his tray into Dani’s, making her look down, “Eating fungus, Dani. It’s what I do every day.”
As Robert worked his way through the maze of tables, Dani talked to his back, “I mean with that lady, Robert. What did you say?”
Robert sat down, stirring his drink with a finger, “I was telling her about Buck Rogers.”
An excited shudder ran across Dani’s body as she leaned forward, “Buck Rogers! Tell me another one of his adventures. People were so imaginative in your time. We haven’t had anything even remotely similar to Buck Rogers in over a hundred years.”
Robert nodded his head, rolling a lump of chicken around in his mouth, not really listening to what Dani was saying. It had become ritual to order the fried chicken at least twice a week. Although he knew better, Robert felt that if he ordered it enough times, it had to taste like real chicken at least once.
Dani impatiently tapped Robert’s arm, “Robert, tell me about Buck Rogers.”
Opening his mouth to answer, Robert was suddenly cut short by a sharp chiming sound from his belt. Oddly enough, beepers hadn’t changed all that much since his time. People still wore them on their hips and they were still as annoying as hell. Some people had the modern equivalent of cellular telephones, but it was still more cost-effective to simply have a beeper.
Taking a long drink from his cup, Robert looked down at the message on the beeper. “It’s our dear Dr. Motich. He says it’s very important that we meet in his office in two hours.”
Dani frowned slightly, “Does it say why?”
Robert shook his head, “No. But he did stress the importance of making this meeting.”
“It must be pretty important if he wants to talk this late. Maybe he finally found a way to send you back.”
Robert laughed mirthlessly, “Ha! Not hardly. Just the opposite, probably.” He gestured to his meal, changing the subject, “Have I ever told you how good the food is back home?”
Dani sighed, “A million times, Robert. Tell me more about Buck Rogers.”
“You’re worse than a dog gnawing on a bone, Dani. Once you get your teeth into something, you never let go.” Robert pushed his tray away from him, mostly uneaten. He pulled one of his cigars from his breast pocket and lit it up.
“OK,” he leaned back in the chair as Dani leaned forward in hers, “This episode is where Wilma falls in love with the Ambassador who is from an alien species with detachable heads.”
“Detachable heads!” Dani laughed loudly, “Where did your people come up with these ideas?”
Robert grinned, waving his cigar, “That’s not the half of it. Whenever the Searcher, that’s the mothership, met an alien species, the aliens were always humans or close equivalents.”
“You mean they never met real aliens?”
“No,” Robert shook his head, “They made all the aliens with human characteristics. They had the same feelings, desires, and drives. They all had two legs, two arms, two eyes, and were male or female. The producers were too afraid to offend the viewing public by making it more realistic.”
Dani smiled, “Is that true, Robert?”
Robert leaned forward, “Absolutely. Realism came a distant third to budget and popular opinion. Humans were, still are actually, too arrogant to conceive that the “human” shape wasn’t the only acceptable form. On one episode of Battlestar Galactica, they actually met an insectoid race. The only way you could tell, though, was the eyes. They still had two arms and two legs.” Robert puffed on his cigar, “Now tell me, Dani, do you know of an insect with only two legs?”
Dani couldn’t think of one, “That’s fascinating. What did you mean that we’re still arrogant like that? It’s obvious that if we ever meet another intelligent species, we’ll probably have almost nothing in common.”
“That’s not exactly what I mean, Dani.” Robert blew smoke into the air, “I meant that, aside from certain changes in technology which made changes in behavior, mankind is almost exactly the same as he was two hundred years ago. You still have the same fears, hatreds, and jealousies.”
Dani took the defensive, “Why should man have changed that much in two hundred years.”
Robert sighed, “I’m just making a point, Dani. Even though you’ve made some incredible advances, we’re still basically flying by the seat of our pants. Humans are still humans.”
Dani shook her head, “I don’t understand, Robert. Why are you trying to make that point? I mean, we already know that.”
Robert stood up, his frustration boiling to the surface again and yelled, “I’m trying to make that goddamn point because I’m trying to convince myself of that, Dani! You know as well as I do that there’s no way I’m ever going to make it home. I’m stuck here and the sooner I accept it, the sooner I can get on with my life!” Robert looked away from Dani, his anger subsiding to a hoarse whisper, “I’m never going home, Dani. I’m stuck here.”
A couple at the next table were staring at Robert, eyes flicking to his banded wrist. “What the hell are you looking at?” Robert yelled, glad to find a new outlet for his anger. “Come on, Dani, let’s leave this place. The food stinks anyway.”
Mystified, Dani trailed behind Robert as he walked out of the doors, shrugging in apology to the couple.