October 15, 2083 - Atlanta, Georgia
A sullen frown wrinkles the frustrated writer's brow as he tears up yet another draft of a research article and flings it towards the waste paper basket sitting in the corner of his posh Buckhead office. The renowned freelance journalist, Alexander Carlton Ellis, known to friend and fans alike as "Ace," sits at his desk, irritated at his inability to pull himself out of a slump, now in its third month. What he needs is a great story idea to put him on top again.
Ace has been in the game for over forty years, covering human-interest aspects of major international topics. He made a name for himself early in his career with hard-hitting stories relating to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab-Jewish conflict, the melting of the Greenland Ice Cap and the final clearing of what once was the great Amazon rain forest. He thought the catchy title for his rain forest article, "Amazon Green, vs. Chop-Sticks for China?" worthy of an award by itself. Yes, there were a million stories to be written, and Ace was proud of the fact he had always been out there on the edge covering them. Stories like the shift in diet of polar bears from seals to woodland animals, and the occasional poodle that strayed too far from home. And the amazing adaptation of other animals that had survived the accelerated climate change following the melting of the Greenland Ice Cap. It was still hard for people to get used to armadillos and parrots in city parks and suburbs of Chicago, and alligators in fishing ponds in Des Moines.
Naturally there were radicals in the last century warning against messing with Mother Nature, but who was going to listen when you could put those kinds of tough decisions off on the next administration?
Another result of climate change had been the major shift in where people lived in the USA. The well-to-do left Florida and the rest of the Atlantic Coast for Appalachia before the ocean covered their coastal mansions, but did not hit it off too well with their mountain neighbors. This culture conflict had offered Ace no end of opportunity for great human-interest stories. His editors loved his articles about the newly created problems local mountain bar owners had over how to split their house music time between Beethoven and his ilk vs. the golden oldies bluegrass legends of the last century, like Ricky Skaggs and Bill Monroe. An especially serious problem for the owners was how much Mountain Holler beer vs. Chardonnay to keep in stock.
And when the American Southwest dried up everyone had to abandon the once green golf courses developments of Phoenix, Tucson and other "artificial" living places and move north to Idaho and Canada. When the big exodus started, Montana was already full of retired movie stars and other celebrities from the end of the last century, so the state had to put out a "No Vacancy" sign. In fact, it was these kinds of hard-hitting stories that had earned Ace the coveted Pullet Surprise back in 2050!
But all this environmental and social change had wrecked havoc with the simple life Ace's grandparents experienced, and of which he had read about and longed for. Here he was, eighty years old, in the prime of life, and still three years to go before Social Security kicked in and he could retire. He couldn't knock the fact that a healthy lifestyle, modern drugs and readily available replacement parts had made a big difference in longevity, just in his lifetime. But with ever expanding technological improvements came greatly reduced natural environments, wall to wall people and houses in all but the most rural areas, and sixty year careers instead of thirty, like it was back at the turn of the century. And constantly being "connected" at all times with one kind of "next new thing" or the other began to cause physiological problems as early as the first decade of the century.
And just look at what we had to give up. The simple life! Ah, if we could just return to the simple life. Suddenly an idea for an article hits Ace like a two-ton hammer! Why haven't I thought of this before?
Ace scurries around the cluttered office, more excited over the story idea than he has been in months. If this story doesn't put me back on top of my game I don't know what will, he thought. Ace fumbles in his shirt pocket for his trusty Huckleberry, checks the address menu, and hurriedly repeats the numbers into the device.
"Hello, NASA, give me the Special Projects Undeveloped Department, please." On the third ring the voice receptionist answers.
"SPUD, this is Jennie Lou speaking, may I help you?"
"You sure can Honey, let me speak to Bill Patton, please." After a long wait a familiar voice came on the phone, one that went back to their hell-raising days at the University of Georgia. "Flash, old buddy. It's been a while. How you doing?"
"Mostly without. How ‘bout you, Ace?"
"What? Oh yea, ha, ha. I know what you mean. I'm doing okay. Listen, I've got a really big favor to ask."
"I'm listening. What is it?"
"Well, I presume NASA's not doing anything with that time machine you and your guys designed for the Mars trip a while back. The one you were going to use to see what Martians life forms looked like. By the way, tough luck on the probe budget being scrubbed."
"Yea, that was the pits. And you're right. The machine is stored here in the new facility we moved into before Florida flooded out. Our distinguished Senator is good at getting government facilities built in his home state of West Virginia. Must be something in the water up here. Still doesn't make sense to me to be a thousand miles away from the moon shuttle landing strip in Kansas. But hey . . . I'm only a rocket scientist, what do I know? Anyway, don't get me started on that. What's this all about, Ace? Why are you asking about the time machine?"
"Well Flash, I want to use it for about an hour."
"You want to do what? You know there's no way in hell I can arrange anything like that, Ace! You shouldn't even be asking. What do you need a time machine for anyway?"
"I'll tell you my plan when I get there. I'll leave Atlanta tonight and be there sometime tomorrow. And I'm sure you can figure out some way to let me use it. Oh, and one more thing, Flash, this will make us even. That incident with your boss's daughter I walked in on during my last visit, well, I want you to put it out of your mind. I've completely forgotten about it. See you tomorrow, old buddy."
The older folks are always talking about the good old days, and how things were so much better then . . . simpler, quieter, less confusing. Everyone knew who they were and what they were. Didn't have to pay a psychiatrist to tell them. Of course it seems every generation has been saying that for as long as I can remember. Well, what if I went back to those good old days and interviewed those people. What if I could find out firsthand what it was actually like? Talk about a great article! My editor and readers would lap it up like a cat on warm milk!
The NASA time machine that Flash was in charge of seemed just the ticket. The Chinese mathematician, Hong Lo, extracted the formula for time/space travel relationships two decades earlier in 2065. This showed the possibility of time travel was truly viable -- but only for negative time. He couldn't bring them back home again. Then in 2078 a French/English molecular scientist, the distinguished Dr. Jacques Lafayette Smith, actually proved that a molecular re-formation using these formulae could occur, thus allowing objects and people to be transported and returned. Flash was successful in obtaining the hardware and a complex set of software algorithms that allowed NASA to build the machine. Flash had told Ace earlier about continuing to work on the machine, after hours, after the project was put on hold. Flash thought he had all the kinks worked out and the machine was ready for field-testing, so Ace reasoned that this little trip would make a dandy field test.
October 16, 2083 - Charleston, West Virginia
The short trip was uneventful. Next morning Ace swings by a local Buckstar for a low-cal latte grandee to-go before meeting Flash at the SPUD building.
"Good to see you again, Flash. Let's put off shooting the breeze until after this project's over. I'm anxious to get started. Everything ready?"
"Ready as she'll ever be."
"Now if I remember right you told me you could not only make this thing go back to any year the operator specifies, but also to any part of the universe, since it was originally going to be used on a planet other than earth."
"Yeah, that's right, Ace."
"And that I can set the year and the location myself from where I sit in the contraption. Is that right?"
"You bet. It's also got a great little Two-Way Linguistic Element (TWLE) worked into the microphone/recording system that immediately translates any language into the vernacular the other speaks. We designed that little jewel ourselves, just in case there really were Martians. But remember Ace, since the project's been put on hold, I've only made preliminary tests. I haven't put this baby through any rigorous field testing yet."
"Understood Flash, and that's good enough for me. Give me a quick check-out on this honey, and let's get going."
An hour later Ace seats himself in the small cockpit of the oval shaped titanium time machine and closes the hatch. Through a small porthole he signals "thumbs up" to Flash, who responds with a similar gesture through the heavy glass windows of the transporter room. Looking at the conglomeration of digital displays, buttons and switches before him, Ace types the words, "Smallville, Kansas, USA," into the keyboard of the GPS unit. His target time is 1950.
If there's any place, or time, that epitomizes the good old days, this should do it. Mid-western morals and work ethic, small town setting, and a time frame before things got so damn complicated. Before the world went to hell in a hand basket, as my grandparents used to say, before Nixon lied to everyone on TV.
Ace slowly turns the control wheel to the left and everything around him begins to blur as he and the machine start back in time. Slowly at first, but gradually faster and faster. In just a few moments the digital year display is approaching 1950. Ace turns the control wheel back to neutral to bring the machine to a halt. But to his surprise instead of slowing down and stopping, the number display continues to decrease. To make matters worse, it seems the speed is increasing! Ace tries desperately to correct the situation, but no such luck. The year display continues to drop, faster and faster: 1930, 1850, then 1790. In a few more seconds he sees 1400 whiz by, then 900. Ace panics and begins frantically punching buttons and turning dials, but nothing helps slow his ever-increasing journey back in time. In a few more seconds the digital display is showing years in the thousands, B.P. (before present). To compound the problem, if that was possible, the GPS unit also goes haywire. Australia, Tibet, Greenland, and other parts of the world are flying by on the screen so fast Ace can hardly read them. Suddenly there is a small electrical explosion behind the motherboard. The machine shudders violently, and then everything stops. "Oh, hell! What do I do now?"
October 16, 40,128 B.P. -- French Pyrenees
Ace looks out the porthole and sees a beautiful, undisturbed wilderness of lush meadows rimed with majestic forest all around him, but he is too shaken to appreciate the view.
"Ace! Ace! Can you hear me?"
"Yea, Flash, what the hell happened? This thing didn't blow up did it? I'm not going to be stuck here forever am I?"
"Don't worry about that. I think we've had what we call a MEM ( minor electrical malfunction.) Can't tell for sure what happened, but I don't think it's too serious. It'll take me a while to figure out what went wrong, and probably a little longer to fix it. Where are you, Ace, and what year are you in? I'm not receiving your signal clearly, and can't tell from here."
"Shazam! I don't think your machine goes by town names, countries or individual years here, Flash. The digital time display shows 40,128 B.P., and the GPS location shows to be somewhere in the French Pyrenees!"
"Well don't get your shorts in a wad. Just stay relaxed and don't wander too far away from the machine while I'm trying to get this thing fixed. By the way, based on your location and the era you're in, you do realize where you've plopped down don't you?
"Haven't the foggiest. Picasso's home town?"
"Not quite. You're in the heartland of early man, Ace. Neanderthals lived there, and so did modern man too, Cro-Magnons. And, you're there at a time when they co-existed. You're smack in the middle of their classic homeland."
"Well that's just great! What am I going to do if I see one of those cave men before you get this contraption fixed?"
"You're the ace reporter, Ace. Do what reporters do. Report! I'll call you over the speaker when I get the repairs made. In the meantime take a couple of ARP's (anxiety reduction pills) and try to get yourself down to at least level three."
"But Flash, don't you remember from science class? They don't think Neanderthals could speak, at least not anything we'd call language. And even though I'm in France and can speak a little French, if I run across a Cro-Magnon Frenchman I don't believe he'll understand what I'm saying either."
"Not to worry, Ace. Don't you remember what I told you about your super linguistic translator/recorder device? This is a situation where that little baby can really shine. It's in the drawer marked "SLTRD". Just clip it to your shirt and turn it on. It can convert even simple Neanderthal sounds into the everyday English you speak, and your English into something he can understand. Same for the Cro-Magnon. So if you happen to run up on either of them, you're covered."
"Do you think they may be dangerous?"
"Can't say for sure. But you're a good bullshitter, and ought to be able to talk yourself out of any jam you get into."
"I hope you're right, Flash, because I just spotted somebody coming down the hillside. Probably to check out this strange looking thing that just dropped into his world. He looks kind of like us except his hair and beard is pretty shaggy, and all he has on is an animal skin wrapped around his waist. Oh, and he's carrying a spear about five feet long, with a mean looking flint tip!"
"Is he short and real muscular?"
"Not especially. Looks about my size and height."
"Has he got a heavy brow-ridge over his eyes?"
"No. Not that I can tell. Why?"
"Well, it sounds like you got yourself a Cro-Magnon instead of a Neanderthal. Should be able to converse with him a little better. Better get out of the machine before he gets there, and act real friendly. Meantime, I'll find out what went wrong and get back to you as quick as I can."
Flash is right. I'm a reporter, and a damn good one at that. What better opportunity to report to the world on the simple life than to interview one of the earliest modern human beings? What could be less complicated than the life of a hunter/gatherer? No domestic crops to work and no domestic animals to tend. And he lives in a virtual Garden of Eden, collecting fruits, nuts and plants, and killing whatever animals he needs for protein. What more does anyone need to lead a classic, fulfilling simple life?
The Cro-Magnon approaches within a few feet of Ace and the time machine before he speaks. "Who are you stranger, and what you doing here? What band do you belong to? And what's that thing behind you?"
"How do you do Mr. Magnon, my name is Ace. I'm here quite by accident, and I can assure you I mean you no harm. You can see I have no weapon, so you can lower that spear if you don't mind."
"No problem, Ace. I can see you're not one of those low-brow, no-chin neighbors that's always hanging around trying to pick up pointers on how to make a better spear point, or how to draw pictures on cave walls. So where do you come from? And your clothes, they're not wooly mammoth, ibex, buffalo or anything else I recognize. What are they made out of?"
"Actually my clothes are made from woven plant fibers, and I am from a very long way away. But can we talk about something else? I may have to leave rather suddenly, and I'd like to ask you a few questions about a variety of things if you don't mind."
"Yea, I guess that's okay. You don't look dangerous."
"Great! Let's get started Mr. Magnon, or can I just call you Cro?"
"Og's my name, but if you like Cro better, knock yourself out, Ace. Shoot."
And so began the interview to end all interviews. If this doesn't get me another Pullet Surprise, I don't know what will! Now what topic do I start with first? Family values, the environment, inter-family relationships, social organization? Maybe I should just dive in and let it flow where it will.
"Cro, tell me about the kids in your community. I'm curious, how are things with them?"
"Don't get me started on that subject! They're like a whole different culture. I can hardly communicate with them."
"Really? How do you mean?"
"Well, for example, they don't have any respect for their elders like we did in my day. And they're always trying to do something new and different, always starting a new fad. Like just this summer they started wearing their mammoth skin hanging almost below their butt . . . I don't know how they keep them from falling down. And a couple of the boys shaved their head instead of wearing their hair at a nice respectable shoulder length. And they tattoo themselves in places only their significant mate or one night hook-up friend will see. And the girls have gotten to where they wear a small curved fish bone down there on their, on their . . . well, you know where I mean. I don't know what this generation is coming to."
That's odd. Seems like I remember hearing my dad talk about their generation doing crazy things like that.
"And their music, that's another thing," Cro said.
"Their music, what do you mean? I wasn't sure you had music."
"What do you mean you didn't know if we had music? What do you think we are - savages? Certainly we have music. Good old rap music."
"Of course. We've been creating a good beat by rapping sticks and bones against rocks, logs and even stretched mammoth hides for . . . well forever. But is that good enough for our young people? Noooo! They have to invent their own music by using their voices. They especially like to make up sad songs about how their mate has left them and hooked up with another at the AFMM (annual fall mammoth migration). Or how their woman ran off with a Neanderthal. Or lamenting how the giant bison don't come around like they used to."
This is not working out quite like I expected. I've got to change the subject and get him talking about the simple life. "Let's move on to another topic, Cro. What about courtship and marriage? How do you handle that?"
"Same as you I expect. As you probably know our band is an extended family, and our populations are very scattered. So the best time to meet an eligible mate from another band is once a year during the AFMM, or the AFBS (annual fall buffalo stampede). Those are the only times you can always count on to meet others outside your band and get a chance to check out a first time, or replacement mate. We always bring along the fermented mulberry juice gathered earlier in the summer. That way if you don't find a mate you like early in the evening it doesn't matter so much, they all get better looking before the campfires go out. So you most always find something to take back to the cave."
Um, sounds like you could write a country song about that. Maybe I should skip over to another subject. Something on the environment might be enlightening. "Let me ask you something about the area you live in here, Cro. I guess with all these wonderful animals you have around here, you can just take your pick of what you want to hunt."
"Well, yes and no." I don't know whether you realize it or not, but the weather here is not very cold. In fact, it's downright moderate."
"Yes, I've noticed. The weather is very nice."
"I'd agree if I weren't a mammoth and buffalo hunter. I don't know what's happening, but the climate has started changing. It's not as cold as it used to be, and it's affecting the animals we hunt. We don't know where the mammoth and buffalo went, but they don't come around like they did back in the good old days. We have to go on longer and longer hunts to find anything. They're getting rarer each year. They're already what I'd call endangered, and if something doesn't change, first thing you know they'll be extinct."
Damn! This is Deja Vu 40,000 years earlier! This isn't anything like I expected. I better change subjects again. "Tell me, Cro, how is your relationship with your neighbors, the Neanderthals?"
"I'm glad you asked that, Ace, because it gives me a chance to clarify our foreign policy position, which is often misunderstood by the press."
"The press? How can you have a press with no written language?"
"Drum press. What did you think? Now I realize that some may say the Thals were here first, and we don't deny that. However, we need all this land for our yearly cycle of activities, and surely anyone can recognize that it's our manifest destiny to control this land. I personally have nothing against Neanderthals, as long as they know their place. And, they don't try to integrate with us. If that happened the first thing you know they'd move into the caves right next to us, and then there goes the neighborhood. And would you want your daughter to mate with one?
Now some advocate one method or another of keeping them out, such as some type of barrier along our border, like a thorn brush fence. But personally I don't favor such drastic action. Others favor a guest worker program, where we would allow them in to do menial jobs like, herding the buffalo into the narrow passes, cleaning up the remains after the kill, helping the little lady with the mammoth skinning and cooking, keeping the cave clean and other such jobs. But there are problems with that too. Once you start something like that, they'll get uppity and start thinking they are as good as us moderns."
Damn if this whole adventure isn't going straight to hell! I'm completely disillusioned. I've got to rethink this whole noble savage and Garden of Eden concept. Was there ever a time when societies didn't have major problems? Could life really have been as simple as depicted in those old television programs of American families back in the 1960's - families like Ricky Nelson's and Beaver Cleaver's? Think I'll be deleting most of those digitally preserved programs of theirs I've downloading into my high-definition Chinaberry.
Finally Ace hears Flash's voice calling him from the time machine. He tells Cro to wait while he runs over to his machine for a minute. "Yeah, Flash, what's the news? Have you got this thing fixed yet? I'm ready to get out of here."
"Just hold your horses, Ace. I think I've solved the problem. But how is the interview going? We can wait till you get finished if you need more time."
"No, I think I've learned about all I want to about the ultra-simple life and the good old days."
"What about your original plan for the Kansas destination? Want to give it a shot now that things are working again? I can almost guarantee there won't be any more problems."
"Hell no! I'm through with my search for the good old days. Guess I'm ready to head back to whatever problems we have to deal with back in our time. Just get me back to those mountains of West Virginia. That's probably as close to Heaven as I'm likely to get."