They say that when you're in love you can feel the earth move. I don't know if that's true or not, but that day, May 8, 2099 A.D., the earth moved for me, not that I was in love at the time.
I was relaxing on the sofa in front of the blank telescreen, which made up nearly two-thirds of one sitting room wall. The dull grey of the blank screen made a welcome, if uninspired change from the sterile white of the remaining walls. As I began to fall asleep, I felt the earth move and experienced a strange feeling of weightlessness for a second, before crashing heavily onto the hard, plastic floor.
"I've gotta lay off the hard stuff for a while," I said to myself, before realising it was late afternoon and I hadn't had a drink of alcohol in four days.
I decided it was time I did have a drink, so I poured myself a small glass of synthetic gin. Although inexpensive, the gin, the only form of alcohol freely available then, was limited by a ration-ticket system, which allowed the purchase of only one litre bottle per person per month, so normally I only drank on weekends. But I decided this was a special case and settled down with my drink to watch the evening news on the telescreen.
The blank screen was soon filled by the beautiful face of Diana Carter, the regular newsreader on Government Television Three (GT3). "An earth tremor measuring 317 on the Bokker scale was reported in the local area a few minutes ago," she read out from the PC monitor on her desk. "As far as can be ascertained at this point, there appears to have been no loss of life."
For the next forty minutes or so I lay upon the clear, air-filled polyvinyl chloride sofa, drinking gin while watching Goldfinger goes to Mars, the sixty-ninth in the long line of James Bond movies.
Before I could become too engrossed in the movie, however, the video-phone began pip-pip-pipping shrilly. I turned off the telescreen and walked across to press the blue viewer-activator button on the phone.
The face of Norma Reddy, my supervisor, flashed onto the screen and her deep voice came over the speakers. After the usual pleasantries had been exchanged, she asked, "Did you feel it there? The tremor I mean."
I assured her I had.
"It hit the humanities building pretty badly, apparently," she said. The humanities building was where we both worked at the local university: Norma, the head of the department, teaching final year sociology and economics; myself teaching first and second year American language. "I haven't actually seen the damage for myself yet, but the principal rang a few moments ago. He was still at his office working when the tremor struck."
I was astonished: I hadn't realised the principal did any work.
* * *
I arrived at the university a few minutes after 10:00 the next morning, although my first class wasn't scheduled until 3:00 p.m. The ancient humanities building had always been very special to me. It was like an old and very dear friend. The building was one of the last bastions of sanity in the insane, polyvinyl chloride world in which I lived. Its yellow-brick walls, wide floor-to-ceiling length windows, and intricate latticework of metal walkways and spiral staircases on the outside of the building made it seem strange, archaic, and very beautiful compared to the sterile white towers and domes of polystyrene derivatives, which the late twenty-first century had the gall to call classrooms: The giant goldfish bowl for the mathematics building; the white pyramid which housed the chemistry department; the gigantic upright coffin for the physics building, and so on - all with clear, plastic viewing ports, instead of the real-glass windows of the humanities building. The building had always possessed an air of dignity, which seemed to dare anyone or anything to just try to bring it down. But nothing ever had. The building had stood for a hundred and one years, while the white monstrosities all around it made of recyclable plastic had to be replaced every eight to ten years. The building was something you could count on in the unreliable, ever changing world, something you knew would always be there.
Yet that morning it seemed decidedly less than indestructible, in fact it looked as though it might be lucky to last the day out. The building had been raped of its dignity: a gaping crack ran up between the brickwork on one side of the building, yawning open nearly thirty centimetres in width at one point. The building had at last been brought down, not quite to its knees, but far enough to cause me great concern.
"Terrible, isn't it?" said Norma Reddy coming up behind me. "I just hope they won't have to tear it down."
"So do I," I said, turning round to face her. She was about forty-five years of age, exceptionally tall, with dark brown hair which she always wore high atop her head in a tight bun. Behind the thick lenses of her glasses, her caramel eyes sparkled with intelligence. Her figure seemed good, but it was difficult to tell, since she kept it well hidden beneath heavy, full-length, blue-denim dresses, which she wore in preference to the silver, disposable pant-suits which most women wore at that time. "When will they know for certain?"
"Probably by tomorrow afternoon," she replied soothingly. The building meant a lot to her also. "They're going to start digging down to take a look sometime this afternoon. At the foundations I mean."
"What are we to do for classrooms until the building has been repaired?"
"The principal has requested a number of portable classrooms as a stand-in. They should arrive sometime today."
* * *
Portable classrooms have always been repulsively ugly. By the late twenty-first century they had progressed from the squat wooden boxes of the century before, to white, cream, or yellow polystyrene domes.
I was teaching second year American language in a cream dome at 10:45 the next morning, when Norma Reddy appeared in the doorway.
"May I have a word with you, please Mr. Gray?" she asked.
"Certainly, Miss Reddy," I replied. I walked across to the doorway.
Cupping her hands over my left ear, she whispered, "They've found a bomb!" Then seeing my blank look, "In the foundations of the humanities building I mean."
* * *
We stood around in a group of four on a small synthetic-grass covered rise, about a hundred metres from the humanities building, staring down in amazement at the gleaming silver object, surprisingly little stained by age.
"I just don't understand how the devil the blasted thing could have got into the foundations in the first place?" said the principal. A tall, grey-haired man who wore a tired, troubled look upon his much-wrinkled features.
"Probably an unexploded bomb from one of the wars of last century," replied Chief of Police Durey. A much younger man than the principal: short and thin, with long, stringy, black hair. "They were war-mad last century, from what I've heard."
"Yes," agreed Norma, "but the main wars were in the first half of the century. This building was erected in 1998."
"Wasn't there a long war around that time?" he asked.
"Yes, it was called Vietnam, because that's where the war was fought," replied Norma. "But that war ended two and a half decades before this building was erected. Besides I doubt if they had any bombs in those days that could have travelled all the way from Vietnam to America. Under their own power I mean."
"What gets me, is how neatly it's embedded in the foundations," I said.
Turning to look, they saw what I meant. The large metallic object was lying flat in the concrete, as though it had been laid as a giant foundation stone, rather than being angled in like it should be. Also, the concrete around it should have been cracked and broken, yet wasn't - apart from the damage caused by the tremor.
"I'm going down for a closer look," I said.
"I can't let you do that," warned Durey. "No one goes near those foundations until the bomb squad arrives!" However, I had already moved past him.
"What could the bomb squad do anyway, when it's so tightly embedded into the foundations?" I heard Norma ask, as the others started down the rise after me.
"Probably use robots to explode it," suggested Durey.
"But wouldn't that destroy the entire building?"
"I'm afraid so, Miss Reddy," he replied. "But it's a very old building anyway. You'd be much better off with a brand new polystyrene dome. They're far more practical than these old-fashioned brick oblongs."
Fortunately I had moved too far ahead of them to hear Norma's reply.
* * *
I was astonished by the size of the metal object. Although it was still partly concealed by dirt and concrete, enough of the object was revealed to show that it was almost the size of an old-fashioned double-door wardrobe, and roughly the same shape. I had never heard of a wardrobe-sized bomb, let alone a wardrobe-shaped one, despite having read up quite extensively upon the many wars of the previous century.
Taking up a small laser-pick I began chipping away at the concrete around the edges of the object, to the obvious horror of Chief Durey. After a few minutes I uncovered a small plague inscribed, "COMPILED AND SEALED BY PROFESSOR RAYMOND C. HARRISON, B.A., B.Sc., M.A., M.Sc., Ph.D....ON THIS 8th DAY OF SEPTEMBER 1998."
"You damn lunatic!" yelled Durey as I went across to where the others were waiting a few metres away. "You could have blown us all to kingdom come!"
"Not likely," I said. "It's not a bomb at all...It's a time capsule!"
* * *
"So what the hell is a time capsule, anyway?" demanded Chief Durey later that afternoon. We were all sitting around in the principal's office.
"It's a metal box or cylinder that you leave so later cultures can see how you lived," explained Norma Reddy. "You fill it full of all the most typical things from your society, or images of them, then, after vacuum-sealing it to prevent the contents from decaying, you bury the capsule or store it away somewhere. Ready to be uncovered and opened hundreds or even thousands of years later."
"And this Professor Harrison, plus half the letters of the alphabet, who exactly was he?" asked Durey.
"Apparently he was the head of what was then called the English Department," explained Norma. She read from a hand-held news-disk viewer that she carried. "I've been able to locate quite a lot about him in the university archives. The newspapers -- a form of printed communiqué predating our daily news diskettes -- of 1998 and 1999 were full of articles about the professor...."
"Quite a celebrity in his day, was he?" asked the principal.
"Yes he was, but not for the reason you might think. There was quite a scandal it seems, involving his wife, Jillian. It was the classic story: old man marries young woman, then can't satisfy her. Apparently Jill Harrison's love affairs were the talk of the campus for years; everyone knew about them...Everyone except poor Professor Harrison that is. Then one day his wife ran off with her latest lover, her lawyer, Robert Youngblood. Naturally the professor was shattered by her defection, however, his fortunes revived three years later when he was promoted to principal of the university. A post he held for eleven years...."
So with the bomb exposed as harmless, the restorations were able to continue, after the time capsule had been taken away by the town council.
* * *
Three days later I was lecturing a class of first-year students, when in burst a breathless girl of seventeen or eighteen, who called out from the doorway, "Mr. Gray! Mr. Gray, you're wanted in the principal's office. Immediately!"
"Jenny!" I called out to one of the more advanced students. I handed her the controls to the lecture screen, "take over till I get back."
* * *
I was relieved to see the others when I entered the office. It meant the summons was not about anything I had done wrong. None of my minor violations of university policy would warrant a panel to sit in judgement. Although in truth only half were sitting, the rest stood, or leant against the side walls.
"Ah Gray, take a..." began the principal as I entered. He stopped as he noticed that he was already at least a dozen chairs short. "Well we all seem to be here now. I suppose you must be wondering why I called you here today?"
"As a matter of fact we were, Mr. Principal," agreed Norma Reddy.
"It is to inform you that Mayor Berlitzer has decided to hold a special opening ceremony for the time capsule."
"An opening ceremony?" asked Donald Robards, the head of the sociology department. A tall, thickset man, with dark hair and almost black eyes. "But the capsule was only sealed about a hundred years ago; aren't those things supposed to be opened after hundreds and hundreds of years?"
"That's right," agreed Norma.
"Nevertheless Mayor Berlitzer, in his infinite wisdom --" there was a swivelling of heads as we all attempted to transmit to one another with raised eyebrows and rolling eyes, just how wise we thought Bill Bertlizer was, "-- has decided to hold a special opening ceremony next Wednesday. He is going to announce a special public holiday on the telescreen news tonight, in the hope of attracting a large audience."
"But why?" asked Norma.
"Why not?" countered Don Robards. "This is an election year, in case it has slipped your memory. There is little or nothing that Smiling Billy Berlitzer won't do to curry favour with voters in an election year."
"But how could this, as you put it, curry favour with the voters?" asked Norma.
"Because he gets all the glory of officiating over any great discoveries made about the decadent, war-mad twentieth century," explained Robards. "And if the worst comes to the worst and there's nothing much of interest inside the capsule, at least everyone will have had a nice holiday."
"And nobody ever lost votes by giving an extra public holiday," I added.
* * *
It was more like a party than an opening ceremony. Only the speakers bothered to dress formally, and there were only three speakers: the principal; Norma Reddy, and, of course, William Berlitzer, who droned on for nearly an hour, telling us over and over again what a great moment it was for us all: an auspicious occasion that would mark a turning point in the fortunes of the entire city -- and, of course, he was right.
There was free food and drink laid on by the tonne. While the speakers did their level best to bore us to tears, we crammed ourselves full of black-market cream cakes, donuts, hotdogs, and hamburgers, washed down with generous helpings of champagne.
After the speakers had finished, the time capsule was wheeled to the front of the stage and Donald Robards called out, "You'll need a laser-knife to cut that cake!"
"I'm sure we're all well aware of the limits of your humour, Mr. Robards!" admonished the principal as the mayor began to cut through the seals of the capsule.
"We ought to," I called out, "we've all read enough of it on the bathroom walls around here."
The contents of the capsule included an old-fashioned LP, by someone called Michael Jackson (?); vials of an assortment of tranquillisers and pep pills; a number of income tax forms and local road maps; lists of zip codes, digit-dialling and social security numbers; a James Bond novel; two microwave TV dinners, and a carton from a Big Mac; two snapshots: one of a Hell's Angel gathering, the other of a Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony; copies of two stage reviews: The Phantom of the Opera, and CATS; a compact disk recording of a session at a lunatic asylum; a blu-ray disk of the movie Titanic, and what first appeared to be an empty jar, but was later found to contain a sample of twentieth century air-pollution.
But none of those things were responsible for the reaction of the crowd. None of those things wiped the smile off the face of Smiling Billy Berlitzer and made him decide not to stand for re-election as Mayor; or caused three people to faint. None of those things caused Old Man Seabrooke to have a stroke, or sent the press running for their cameras like ants scurrying in from the rain. None of those things had much impact on the crowd at all, in fact most of them went unnoticed until much later.
No, it was the knife that caused all of the commotion. The large, white, plastic-handled, battery-operated carving knife. And, of course, the remains of Jill Harrison and her lover Robert Youngblood.
© Copyright 2011
Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia