Looking back now, there isn’t a good reason why. Everyone warned me about the big city companies and their advertising methods. For a year I had avoided the easy way out. If you didn’t have money or didn’t want to spend money, you could pay with your brainwaves. Every time you swipe your transit card or pay for anything there’s the question: Would you like to pay with soma?
Soma was the term for the new currency of advertising.
Superficially, soma seemed a gambler’s wet dream, a system of value based on electronic coinage that didn’t have to be earned through physical toil or mental expenditure. The cost of soma was only and simply and truly the stimulation of the visual cortex with advertisements through electrical impulses for a set value of time, t. T was the real indicator of value, this was the hidden cost of soma: time.
A hotel stay, obviously, costs more of your time than a cup of coffee. Still, even with a payment option that exceeds days, paying with time, especially your time, seems like a joke. You didn’t earn your time and you have plenty of it.
That day was a mundane Thursday. Well, it was the centennial of Lunar independence. Even though I worked on the moon, I was still a Terran. I didn’t feel particularly celebratory for another planet’s pride in the day they achieved self-autonomy. The holiday wasn’t celebrated on Earth, but there was no tension about it. Advances in technology had seen to it that residents of both the Moon and Earth felt like next-door neighbors. The commute was two hours and the number of people making that commute was growing daily.
When I first moved to the city, I always had a whole aisle to myself and could lay out and sleep. Now I was lucky to find a seat and sometimes I had to get on the third train because the first and second were at capacity. Trains came every thirty minutes, standing for an hour, an hour and a half only to stand for another two hours is what purgatory looks like. Still, you get used to it.
That Thursday, I decided I wanted to get on the first train and that I also wanted to sit down. When I swiped my transit card and it asked me: would you like to pay with soma? I said yes. My cost was forty-five minutes. Then it asked me: would you like to upgrade to first class with priority boarding? I said yes. That added another four hours.
The train that takes you from the moon to Earth has no tracks. It looks like a train but functions like a space ship and is made out of glass. You can’t see the trains in front of or behind you but you can see the stars and Earth or the moon, depending on which direction you’re going in. From first class, the experience is particularly magical. I had a booth to myself. After taking tea from the complementary AI butler I fell asleep easily.
I dreamt of various advertisements.
In one, I was in my kitchen. The gap between the sink and backsplash was gone, the stove was functional, my little table was set. Instead of microwaving frozen dinner, my helpful AI unit Faena served fresh fish and vegetables from the market that I could never go to because its closing time was ten minutes before I got off the train. In another, an exploratory work visa had me set up on Venus where I lived like a queen after years spent physically building Venus’s new terraformed infrastructure. In yet another, I went on a time-traveling vacation where I made love to an Ancient Greek while marooned on an uninhabited island in times of war.
Inevitably a week passed and when the manager asked for my upcoming month, I requested time off. To take a time-traveling vacation I had to go to Mars and that was still in this day and age a day’s journey.
At the Martian facility, I was lead to a bamboo room where I was instructed to change and place all of my personal belongings in a safe programmed to open with the molecular structure of my DNA, extracted from a thumb prick and a little bit of blood. I changed into a plush robe. After a while, there was a knock.
“Are you ready?”
I said that I was and the door opened.
“No shoes,” He said, shaking his head and pointing at his bare feet.
I followed the attendant through a steamy labyrinth of hallways, literally steamy with moisture clinging to floors. I assumed we were in a hallway even though in truth I had no sense of any dimensions, I couldn’t see much further than three, four feet in front of me.
Finally there was a room. The walls, the ceiling, the floors had all been painted black and in the center there was a single light. Underneath it was a desk and, seated, a woman typing onto a holographic display. There were two strangers, also barefoot in bathrobes, and we were all silent. So silent, in fact, that the only two things I could hear were the woman’s soft tapping and the buzzing of the electricity in that light bulb.
One of us, I can’t remember if it was me, started walking towards the desk and the rest followed. The woman swiped up from her display, duplicating three holographic User Terms Agreements into the air. She slid one to each of us and resumed her business.
This was why the time-traveling alternative to the conventional vacation was billed as cheaper. There were caveats. First, the agency chose the time and place you traveled back to; second, you were grouped with strangers; third, you would be monitored for research. The fourth, and final, was the most troubling and least defined: consequences to the space-time continuum were not fully understood but generally it was thought that if the future did change, it did so by creating an alternate timeline.
There was also a tantalizing apple: the promise of luxury redefined by fantasy and manufactured by technology. I was guaranteed a vacation in whatever era I found myself in. Excellent accommodations, pre-arranged connections to persons living in that era and an ungodly, nearly infinite, sum of money to do with, well, to do with what? That was the question.
We all did.
The seated woman stopped typing, coughed, and pointed behind her. I squinted and noticed a second light, far off, in the distance. It was a long walk. There was a door.
We stepped through and into the 1800s. The butler of the house, Augustus, promptly introduced himself. He was followed by the housekeeper Adelaide and the lady’s maid Alice. “Lord Adam is superstitious and believes the letter A to be connected to the angelic,” Alice explained.
We were two women and one man, which worked out perfectly. Augustus led our companion to a male bath while Adelaide and Alice took us to a female bath. We were stripped in a slow and sensuous way before being submerged in petal-ladden water steaming with the smell of eucalyptus and lavender. We were massaged, lathered with suds, our hair made up in “the fashion of the day” and our bodies adorned with dresses in cuts and colors that were “all the rage this season”.
We met our companion in the hallway outside. Everything was paneled with rich wood, gilded with gold and voracious ornament. The walls as far as the eye could see were lined with a progression of severe portraits of men and women that were heavily bejeweled, painted shoulders weighed down by fur. Their outstretched hands gripped ridiculous mythical sentiments of history: in one, a woman with her chin lifted and a godly glint to her eye held a sword aloft. She towered over a hefty stone from which the sword had been withdrawn, ignoring the crowned man whose hands were wildly gesticulating beneath her.
“I suppose we should introduce ourselves,” my male companion said. “I’m Cobalt.”
“Like the color?” My female companion asked.
“Yes,” he grinned. “My parents were artists. Most nights I fell asleep to maman reading from a book about color theory.”
“Well, I’m Colette. My parents weren’t around long enough to explain their naming strategy, probably they liked the sound of it,” she said.
“Colette was a famous French writer in the centuries before the era of space travel,” Cobalt offered.
“Was she? And what about you?” Colette looked at me.
“Mars. Like the planet.”
I was thankful when Augustus stopped short of a double-breasted door. He said:
“These doors were crafted from Spanish gold gifted to Lord Adam’s grandfather by a pirate. Some experience strange things after passing through them.”
There were engravings of complicated geometric formulae; I recognized them as alchemy. I knew enough after spending months in that mammoth library swallowing books on God, and mysticism, and answers to questions that had plagued humanity since the first human looked to the stars: who are we? Where did we come from? And, perhaps most importantly: why are we here? It didn’t matter; a thousand years had passed since Einstein. I felt that thousands more would pass before we finally gave up the pursuit and realized the who, where, why didn’t have a rhyme or reason. Purpose, if there was any, had been invented by our linear minds. There was no great Plan. We all lived and died and civilizations rose and species went extinct and the Universe didn’t do anything about it, because the Universe didn’t care, there was no right or wrong, just opportunity and what you did with it.
Anyways, that was how I thought at the time.
The doors opened and revealed a spacious room that was half parlor half botanical conservatory. The seamless transition from wood and chandelier to glass was barely discernible; it was the light streaming through one end of the room and the various flora growing in that direction that forced you to study the play between the two architectural styles. The sharp diagonal lines of the glass panels acted as prisms and here and there was the flicker of the rainbow, of white light forced to separate into its parts.
Presently we were introduced to Lord Adam, his wife Lady Aurora and their daughter Lady Avalon. The lord’s face fell once he heard our names; thereafter any interest in engaging us in discourse dissipated. It was only the daughter Avalon that seemed to sense our displacement; she said nothing, only observed us without reaction as we met the rest of the guest list.
At some point a bell chimed delicately and continued to do so until everyone in the room noticed, stopped talking and found a seat. There was a Persian rug, patterned floor pillows, a trio of lion pawed divans and several armchairs. The magician entered.
He was cleverly frank and safeguarded each trick from his own tampering. At the start of it, no one believed him. We were instructed to write our favorite drink on a piece of paper. After, there was mind-reading and sleight of hand and by the time the papers were brought up again, even Colette and Cobalt reacted in unison with the rest, in turns awed, perplexed, and terrified. He was good. I was a skeptic.
Alice collected the cards from us. The magician told her to choose five; then, to read the first.
“Absinthe,” Alice said.
The magician removed a silver kettle from his liquor cart. He poured this first drink of absinthe and asked:
“Which devil here wrote absinthe?”
A rake by the name of Henry raised his hand. Henry’s hair was disheveled in that disasterly manner that always looks good and the fresh calamity of his general aura of youthful disobedience caused a pang in my heart. There was a time when I, too, crawled the vents at thirteen to kiss the mechanic with oil-stained hands and cracked lips.
“Would you like to taste it and tell us, truly, if this magician is real?” Avalon teased.
“Please, be my guest,” The magician implored. Henry stood from his velveteen armchair, righted the lapels of his tuxedo, approached the magician and in a rather cavalier manner downed the whole glass. This was a mistake, as absinthe is clearly quite strong stuff and the answer to the magician’s veracity was confirmed when Henry’s face turned purple and his lips receded. The magician handed Henry a silver bucket and Henry, that good sport, sighed with relief and retched violently.
The following three drinks were likewise confirmed by the tastebuds of incredulous spectators. Then the magician took the fifth card and said:
“Martian Screwdriver?” Admittedly, he added, he wasn’t quite sure what this was. Still, the magic kettle could produce it and then it was my turn to raise my hand. Colette giggled.
Approaching the magician, I felt with utmost certainty that what would come next would upset the people gathered and wondered if it was best to pretend the drink was what it wasn’t, since there was no rational sense in expecting a 19th century kettle to produce an alcoholic beverage invented a thousand years later by miners on Mars.
I was wrong. Colette also took a sip, to be sure of it, and the three of us made a big show of passing the glass between us in disbelief as we quickly finished the contents of what was, we agreed, really and truly the taste of fermented Martian herbs and suffi honey. I think we all had a minute of concern until the night wore on and it was understood that however the kettle had done it, neither the magician nor the audience were aware of what it meant to us.
By the end of it, we were all roaring drunk and near debauchery. Then someone’s wig flew off and Lord Adam yelled something incomprehensible and we were all ushered out to our quarters. It seemed I was to see these people in the morning. It was wise to behave.
I had trouble falling asleep. If you could believe it, the bed was too soft. The curtains around the bed were the stuff of opulence, sure, but not being able to see the rest of the room is unnerving. The window had been left open to let in the sounds of the night. You wouldn’t know if a man with a knife had entered the room until he was on top of you.
I looked at myself in the mirror before I went. I didn’t know why I was doing this. This was supposed to be a conscience-free vacation. Well, if I had to write this again, I would begin: honestly, I am really upset because all I really wanted was an Ancient Greek man to have glorious sex with me on an uninhabited island during times of war. Anyways, I said to my reflection in the mirror: I feel like this is dressed enough, even though I do remember Alice saying something about the impropriety of being caught in your negligee.
I found the magician’s room, knocked, waited. The door swung open:
The charming magician was gone. In his place was a thirty-something man with a run of Avalon’s peach lipstick still smudged across his chin. “You want to see the tea kettle?” He guessed. I nodded and he let me in. I saw one sweet, pink foot dangling from his bed covers, of silk brocade and scalloped lace edging. Ignoring this, I followed the magician into the adjoining room, a study. He gestured to the kettle and sank back into an armchair.
I lifted the lid, ran the pads of my fingers against every atom of the kettle to discover nothing. As if reading my thoughts, the magician put the lid back on, removed two glasses from a cabinet and did the trick again. I sipped at my glass, annoyance festering.
“This Martian screwdriver, I quite enjoy it,” The magician said.
“You mean to say you have never tasted one of these before?”
He shook his head.
“Does this happen a lot? Audience members knocking on your door to see this kettle?”
“I see. Is that why you weren’t surprised to see me at the door?”
“Partly. Well, it is hard to lie; for the first couple of years, I expected every person at my door in the middle of the night after the performance to be you. After ten years, one grows ambivalent and thanks being left with a kettle at all. I suppose you have come to take it back, haven’t you?”
“If I was here to take it back, that would imply that I gave it to you in the first place and I have no memory of that.”
“Yes, now I am older and you, how old are you? You were older ten years ago, at least by five years, now you are somehow impossibly younger. Well, if you want the damned thing back, take it! But I demand an equally magical artifact. To boost business and help me forget about you.”
“You’re talking nonsense,” I breathed, feeling hot. I ran back to my room and locked the door. I knotted the curtains of the bed frame to their wooden posts and fell asleep with my knees drawn up against my chest.
In the morning I was relieved to learn that the magician had departed. I don’t know why, I didn’t tell the others about the magician or the kettle. When I almost did, I remembered that Colette and Cobalt both started with the letter c.
I didn’t see the magician again. Then it was the end of the month and the three of us were crying and hugging Augustus, Alice, and Adelaide good-bye.
Cobalt went first. Colette followed. I was last. Everything was black. There was no light yet, but I was sure that there would be one soon, and then we would hear the buzzing and the tapping. The door closed behind us.