Aphelion Issue 273, Volume 26
June 2022
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The More Things Stay the Same

by Roderick D. Turner

There's no accounting for people. Predict as we may, the best we can do is guess how humankind will react. And in spite of dire expectations, the citizen of 2028 is more balanced by far than his counterpart of forty years ago. Technology has flourished, reached into every aspect of life right down to our electronic bedroom props, but it has not taken over. The old adage holds true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For The Modern Globe on WorldNet 344, this is Addeas D at 157.225.8975.99130 logging off.

Thanks Addeas. Some of us are pretty cool about the new world, but you know those remarks wouldn't sit too well with my uncle H. His auto-intruder system malfunctioned last month, and locked him into his bedroom for three hours with the energy suppressor on full. Peacemakers finally broke in and got him out, but he's been on the couch with a silly grin on his face ever since he got home from the hospital.

Anyway, on to bigger and better things. Today in an isolated part of the Tasmanian Protectorate there was a crash--

I turned it off. Sometimes having a miniature net image superimposed on your vision makes it hard to concentrate on your surroundings. I slid the bifocal viewing monocle into its slot beside my left ear, and took a good look round. Almost at my interchange, and I hadn't set the proximity alarm. A few more seconds and I'd have cruised right past. So much for trying to keep up with world affairs.

There was a loud whirring noise and one of those crazy lane-hoppers whizzed across my nose and onto the exit ramp ahead of me. My car lurched as the emergency braking system took hold. I felt the crash webbing tighten across my chest and shoulders, and grunted with the pressure. By the time my car had corrected its course and resumed normal ramp speed, there was no sign of the maniac. I shook my fist after him.

"They'll catch you one of these days. See if they don't."

I thought for a moment. "Bloody great example of technology changing nothing," I muttered. "Automated highways, and we still have idiots that override the system and cause accidents."

The warning tone sounded and I took the wheel. The car dropped its speed to rural 50 and turned control over to me. I let the roadway brake for me as the light ahead turned red. Traffic lights. They were almost unchanged in the past forty years, so far as I knew. Slim line design, directional flat panel display, low power LED lamps; but still the same colours, and the same meanings.

That editorial had me thinking, all right. What had it been, twelve years? I couldn't remember now. Might even have been thirteen years since we moved to this neighbourhood, following my job with TechniCoke. Penny had been--let's see, twenty-four was it? OK, so that meant twelve...

"Pick up the pace, Reggie." I pushed my foot down and the car moved ahead through the green light. I had Penny do the voice-over for the car computer last year. I found it easier to take reprimands and reminders from her than that Spanish woman with the sickly sweet accent.

"Thanks, Penny," I said. "I'll pay attention from here on."

So I did. But it was hard not to let my mind wander a little. My day had become so routine, my activities so technology-assisted that there was precious little call for active participation any more.

"Time for a change," I muttered as I swung into my driveway. Then I opened the door and--well, it wasn't my driveway after all. My house was there, next door. I took a quick glance along the street. It looked the same. The three oak trees, one across from the postal pickup, the second shading the network distribution box three houses along, the third--wait, three houses down? But I could have sworn….

"Hi Reg. Dropping in for a visit?"

I turned to see Andrea, our neighbour, standing on her front doorstep. She'd dyed her hair blue-blond since I last saw her, and maybe she was using some of that new anti-aging cream. And her figure--she looked fantastic.

"Sorry Andy," I said. My throat had gone suddenly dry, and my voice came out husky. "Kind of missed my turn. I listened to--" I cleared my throat, but it didn't help "--to an editorial on the way home. I guess it got me distracted." I paused, a little uncertain. But I said it anyway. "You look great."

"Thanks." She gave me a wicked smile. "Come in for a drink. Penny won't be home for another hour, and Henry's on the prowl somewhere. You look like you need a boost."

Unless I'd lost all sense of sexual pursuit there was lust in her eyes. I was getting hot under the collar and I was still standing beside the car. I looked down at my watch in an effort to distract myself. Four thirty! What did she mean, Penny wouldn't be home for an hour? She could be here any minute. I reached for the car door just as Andrea put a hand on my arm. I wilted like a lettuce on a tropical beach.

"I've got everything ready," she whispered.

I could feel the warm moistness of her breath on my ear. My body was tingling from the inside out. "I just realized," I said, my voice breaking like an adolescent choirboy's, "Penny said she'd be back early today. I'd better go." I tugged weakly at my tie. It had turned stuffy out there on the street, and the sweat was beading on my forehead. For some reason the rest of me had the chills. Maybe it was only hot from my shoulders up.

"That's OK, Reg," she said. "Tomorrow's fine. I can wait." She didn't let it go at that, though. Her hand ran along my arm to my shoulder, and traced its way down my body, stopping just below my waist. Just below. Then she turned and walked back up to the house, her delicate feet leaving slight impressions in the sandy path. I watched every move like a hawk eyeing its prey. She gave a last flirting glance back over her shoulder, then went inside and closed the door.

A minute later I finally moved. I gulped noisily and shivered with pleasure. What had happened to the old neighbourhood? Never, never had Andrea behaved like this. I couldn't imagine what I would do tomorrow. She didn't seem likely to take no for an answer, and I couldn't honestly say that I....

I kicked my foot against the side of the car to shake myself out of it. That was a mistake. Someone had re-designed the thing to be of much tougher stuff than I remembered. It didn't even leave a dent. I let out a yowl of pain, then fell backwards into the driver's seat, drew my agonized limb in after me, and closed the door. Enough was enough. I needed to get into my own house and calm down. Something had to help clear these fiery thoughts of Andrea out of my head.

With a sigh I backed the car quickly onto the road and pulled it in beside my own house. Somehow I ended up parked at a rakish angle relative to the curve of the driveway. Maybe coming from the unfamiliar direction along the street had thrown off my aim.

I hobbled up the path and tripped over a jutting lock stone. With a graceless twisting lunge I managed to land on my side at the edge of the lawn, instead of flat on my face on the stone path. My impact was still jarring, and I grunted as I hit. I rolled over and studied the villainous chunk of rock. The only piece out of place, about a centimeter high at one end. All I could think was that some kid had dug it up and buried a toy car under it. And I'd just had the damned path re-levelled last week.

I glanced surreptitiously across the street, expecting to see old Mrs. Forbes peering out between her living room curtains as she usually did. Another precedent shattered. She was standing on her front steps, walking stick in hand, squinting at me. It was the first time I'd ever seen her outside.

"You all right, sonny?" she called.

I waved back. "Just fine, Mrs. Forbes." To demonstrate I heaved myself upright, more or less, and walked shakily up the steps to the front door. I turned to signal my thanks, but she wasn't there. I just caught sight of her disappearing round the corner, her feet flying, her walking stick tucked neatly under one arm. "Jogging?" I muttered. "Mrs. Forbes?"

Still shaking my head I pushed my key into the lock and pressed my palm against the security interface. The door beeped its acceptance, and I gave the key its customary twist with that little pull at the end to get past the sticky bit. Nothing happened. I pushed and turned, still nothing. With my foot against the base of the door, I twisted hard on the handle and tried every combination of tugs, shoves, and jerks that I could muster. Several painful minutes later, as I rammed my shoulder into the door for the tenth time, it sprang inwards. I tumbled through into the front hall, banging my head on the base of the gargoyle coat rack. Penny must have grown tired of the mermaid one. She should have warned me.

I plodded down to the kitchen and called up the fridge on the control screen, then touched the beer icon. The menu came up blank.

"How could we be out?" I said. "I just bought a case yesterday."

I called up the kitchen again and selected the liquor cabinet. Rum, scotch, and vodka. "Since when do we drink vodka?" Maybe left over from our last party. I hadn't gone into the liquor cabinet for a long while. I asked for rum, a double, with--no, there was no orange juice--apple juice. Sounded foul, but that was all we had. A few seconds later the brownish liquid appeared in a rather dirty glass in the dispensing window. I had knocked back half of it before I realized it was sickly warm. The apple juice must not have been chilled, and there was no ice. Maybe I was in the wrong house. This was not the way Penny kept the kitchen.

I downed the rest of the stuff anyway, just in case there was nothing else and this suddenly vanished on me too. The clock on the wall said five, but Penny wasn't home. Something was definitely not right. It was our movie night. She should have picked up the kids from school and dropped them off at the nanny's for the evening by now. I called up the com panel on the screen.

"Penny's car," I told it. There was a moment's pause, then "Unable to contact," it said. "Leaving message...."

"Don't bother," I said.

I stalked off along the hall and mounted the stairs two at a time. At the top I almost tripped. I didn't remember the steps being so far apart. In the bedroom I opened the closet icon and requested casual clothes. There were no clean golf shirts, and I had to settle for a worn-out t-shirt with a RedEye Vodka logo. Foul swill. I didn't recall ever wearing it before. To match, the computer selected a pair of grey sweat pants I hadn't seen in years. They hung off me like loose sacking.

"Must have lost some weight," I muttered.

I threw myself on the bed and propped myself against the wall using a couple of extra pillows. We had always been short pillows. "Good for you Penny. We needed these."

I settled back and stretched out my legs, closing my eyes for a few moments to try and calm myself. "OK. Let's just relax, and maybe everything will straighten itself out." I was not optimistic. Ever since my drive home I'd felt like a foreigner in my own surroundings, like I didn't belong there at all. "Worldnet," I said at last.

The wall screen came alive, showing a wild rocky coast with waves crashing in from the ocean. I was about to request a channel change when a smooth female voice broke in.

This is the site of the landing, the remote south-east corner of the Tasmanian Protectorate. You can see the capsule floating about a kilometre off shore, and we will have an overhead visual in a few moments. Our point reporter says it has markings of intelligent origin scrawled across one face, and that there is an obvious window on the upper side. Our scientific personnel believe it to be a space module, possibly of alien origin.

The screen said 'TAPED' on the bottom right corner: this was old news, maybe as much as a few hours. I strained my eyes to see the capsule she was talking about. All I could make out were waves and whitecaps. Then for a brief moment I thought I caught a glimpse....

The screen suddenly changed to show an unstable view from directly above the object. Whatever was down there had a sleek flat shape that resembled a squashed bullet, with an elongated section across the upper side that could have been a window panel. There were markings. They looked like hieroglyphic symbols, the ones that were on the walls of the pyramids and ancient Egyptian tombs. I remembered seeing similar ones when I'd gone to the King Tut exhibit a few months back. The figures were just the same. Stick people. How could this be alien? But then, how could it have come from ancient Egypt?

The capsule, or whatever it was, bobbed smoothly on the surface, riding the wave crests like a surfboard, as if it had been designed for just such a purpose. I opened my mouth to ask for the time stamp on the recording, then it dropped wide with amazement. The capsule had vanished. It had not sunk, floated away, been submerged, or flown off. It had simply disappeared.

The face of Worldnet 279 reporter Jack Binney appeared, against the familiar network news backdrop. They had returned to live broadcast.

This report had the world gripped with wild expectation when it came in this afternoon from Tasmania. Alien landings and UFO's have always been a big seller when it comes to hoaxes. We now believe that the reporters that made the recordings did so only to create worldwide sensation. Many major news networks bought the story, but most like ours have not paid yet. Our contacts have not been able to trace the source of the recording, or the reporters themselves. In spite of the mysterious circumstances, we are officially authorized to state our channel's opinion on this story. An impressive but unconfirmed hoax, with a most surprising ending.

Back here on this side of the globe, we have widespread reports of a new illness that began sweeping the country this afternoon. Thousands of people have swamped hospitals complaining of confusion, lapses of memory, and disorientation. The symptoms may be summed up by this statement from one sufferer....

A middle-aged man dressed in neat business garb stood blinking into the camera. The hospital emergency room behind him was crowded with people noisily demanding attention.

It's like the world changed, in subtle ways, but I didn't. Things are like they were, but not the same. Ever since I heard about that alien landing hoax, everything's different. I--can't explain it.

Jack Binney was back, a look of mild amusement on his face. Medical officials state that in almost all cases there appears to be no physical cause for the so-called 'hoax' syndrome. Although unable to explain such widespread mass-hallucination, they assure us that there is no cause for alarm. Time marches on. Some of us simply can't deal with progress.

In other news ...

The screen flashed blue briefly to indicate a caller at the door. Penny must be home. "Off," I said eagerly, and bounded from the bed. It would be so good to see a familiar face after all the strange happenings. I was down the stairs in moments, taking care to judge the depth of each step. With a bound I raced to the door and disengaged the latch mechanism. I threw it wide, then froze.

The face was thick with makeup, the hair sprayed and held in a squashed and hideous bun, speared with a hairpin. The body, short and dumpy, sagging with fat. Oh God! Not Penny. Never Penny.

"Hi Reg," Penny's voice said. "I'm home."


2013 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: In the author's words, "I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently 'Court Dresser' in July 2013. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com."

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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