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The Future Is A Foreign Country

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“Look, look,” Hanson says, leaning companionably against Sergeant Benton, holding his Smart-Phone out in front of them. They’re both staring fixedly at its screen. There might be sound, but in the crowded bar and across the table, it’s too quiet to distinguish; there’s just the faint flicker of the screen to show that something is being displayed. And, of course, Hanson’s reactions. “This is the best part-- right there, look at his little feet! Lookit him go!”

He and Benton get matching stupid smiles for a moment, and then Hanson turns the screen down to the table, tucking the mobile phone close to him. “Three seconds-- pretty good start. Course, can’t keep him still now. Turn your back for three seconds and he’s in the kitchen with every pot we own on the floor with him.”

“Do you have your daughter’s videos on there too?” Benton asks, and Hanson breaks out into a proud smile again.

“Yeah, yeah, we put them all up on the channel for the family. Chris’s folks live out west, so they don’t get to see the kids that often. Here, check out this one, it’s from the summer.” He turns the phone back around and prods at it; it lights up, and they’re beaming at the thin, fragile glass screen again, some vague tinny sounds Henry can’t make out coming from the little speakers. It’s an utter mystery; it utterly mystifies him.

“Whisky,” Jo says, and slips in beside him, putting a fresh glass down near his discarded ones. “You’re looking almost empty there. I couldn’t spring for McCallan 25, but hopefully life’s not too short for this.”

“A drink with a friend is never wasted,” he says reassuringly, raising the glass to her. “Thank you.”

“What’s up?” she asks, tipping her chin at Hanson and Benton-- then, watching him formulate an answer, pats his shoulder and leans forward, speaking louder. “Anita, if he’s trying to show you that concert again--”

“No, no,” Benson says, looking up, all smiles and faintly drink-glassy eyes, “no, Jo, it’s so cute, have you seen these?”

They’ve all had a few drinks-- so has he, of course-- but somehow they’re speaking the same tongue and he’s baffled, a linguistic shift with far more to do with time than geography, but it feels as disorienting as arriving in a new place entirely. He turns away when Jo leans all the way over the table to see Hanson’s powerful little phone, sipping at his drink, and is met immediately with Lucas’s awkward, hopeful smile.

“Home videos, huh, Doctor Morgan,” he says. “I’ve got some of my old film school stuff if you want to see, and I’ve been starting a daily horror-narrative vine-- no, no, okay.” He pulls his Smart-Phone back towards him and tucks it into his pocket; Henry had barely had time to realise it was out and being offered. “Hey how about another drink? I need one, let me get you one too, okay, whisky, right, be right back.”

He’s inadvertently rebuffed another of Lucas’s overtures; he watches Lucas disappear toward the bar, and tells himself he must try to be more approachable. Detective Martinez-- now even Detective Hanson, even Lucas have become too much of his daily life for him to turn away every attempt.

Just. Not his horror films. Or his comic books. Or anything that involved needing to navigate video recordings on Lucas’s mobile phone.

“Good choice,” says Lieutenant Reece to him dryly, breaking away briefly from her conversation with Detective Huang to look down at her Smart-Phone. “Sorry, Charlie, my sister’s facetiming me. It’s probably my nephews. I’m going to step outside.”

The remarkable thing is that they all understand each other. He drains his whisky and instantly thinks better of it-- he’s out of whisky for one thing, and no closer to understanding his colleagues or friends, which he will be all-too-likely to tell them if he keeps drinking at this rate. Face-time. The concept seems apparent-- time spend somehow face-to-face over that slim little black box. The details escape him, but there really is no limit of the power of this future, is there?

“Here you go,” says Lucas, scrambling back into his seat and depositing Henry’s whisky. He has a pint glass, and sips nervously at the head, making a face. “Where’d Lieu go-- oh hey, you finished your glass. Way to go, Doctor Morgan. Doing shots tonight? How about that one?”

He glares, but Lucas has had years to build up tolerance-- although not to his alcohol intake, it seems, because his cheeks are a little flushed, and he’s emboldened enough to keep going. “Come on, Doctor Morgan. Do it for the vine! Or, no-- okay, no, no, don’t do it for the vine?”

“Lucas,” Henry sighs, and sips at the fresh glass to keep himself from speaking right away. It’s good-- better than Lucas should be spending on, and that reminds him to keep his tone soft, to unclench his jaw. Abraham had been enthusiastic about so many incomprehensible things as well, as a youth; this is not unfamiliar. “What are you talking about?”

“Uh,” Lucas says nervously. “Vines? No, huh. Okay, they’re like Twitter? But videos? They’re really short, six seconds, but they’re really started to pick up their own cinematographic style-- the serialised effect reminds me of graphic novels, so I’ve started to adapt some of my old storyboards, and--”

“Too much, Lucas,” Jo says, and Henry must not have kept his gratitude off his face, because she laughs, not unkindly. “You know Henry prefers the simple life.”

He’s feeling generous-- the whisky is feeling generous at any rate-- so he adds, “I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about, Lucas.”

“Right, sorry. ...Twitter?”

He shakes his head.

“Instagram?”

Iona had mentioned that, hadn’t she? He’d assumed it was some sort of text-messaging service like the other names she’d listed off, although why it would need to limit itself to perhaps the format of old telegrams, as incredible as those had been, he wasn’t certain, and therefore suspected he was mistaken. He could remember his first encounter with a telegraph; he’d been drinking then, too, come to think of it, although nothing resembling fine whisky. It had been so hot in-- Lucas clears this throat awkwardly. “No,” Henry says, blinking.

“Lucas,” Jo says, and pats Henry’s knee under the table to take the sting out of it. “Henry doesn’t actually own a cellphone. He borrows mine.”

“Yeah,” Hanson says, leaning over. “What is up with that, Doc? Not that I want you calling me,” he adds quickly. “Duck confit or whatever. But you are one hard guy to get ahold of.”

“Oh,” Henry says, the familiar irritation quick to his lips. “I find them useless.”

“Bull,” says Hanson cheerfully, with no cruelty to it; it catches him off-guard, regardless, drawing his gaze up quickly. “Come on, you’ve borrowed everyone’s here.”

“I just--” they’re all looking at him so expectantly, so patiently and curious, without malice. It warms the whisky in his stomach; he hasn’t had so many people he might call friends in a long time, and they’ve all been so kind to him. His heart clenches. He can be honest with them. Carefully.

He peers down at his drink as he weighs his words, which are becoming more liable to run together anyway, so some thoughtfulness to his delivery would not be unexpected. “I’ve never owned one. I know how they work-- functionally, at least. The ideas aren’t new, although certainly better harnessed. They can be quite convenient. But I don’t think I’m the right person to own one.”

“So it’s not like a morality thing?” Hanson asks. “You know. Destroying society, the kids can’t spell anymore, no attention spans?”

“I assure you, that’s not the case.” Henry lifts a hand and strokes sideways, as if dismissing the idea with his palm. “That sort of thing was said about… oh, mass literacy, the telephone; each generation assuming the next is doomed to be less cultured. I think it’s wonderful. But…”

But: a hundred and fifty-odd years ago, he had boggled with the rest of the world as Morse demonstrated that you could send information in a series of beeps and taps, nearly instantaneously. Human reaching human across an impossible divide. Then-- a generation later, a voice. A real human voice. He’d assumed it was a hoax for the best part of a year, when the news came out. And then when a decade later in 1886 he’d had the opportunity to speak across a wire and hear another person’s voice, scratching and distorted, answer him from miles away, his heart had caught up in his throat. How wonderful. How like magic.

He’d had time, then, to adapt. Oh, the industrial revolution had been astonishing, impossible to fathom, but by today’s standards the changes were positively stately. Computers had been for code breaking, wonderful things, but the domain of mathematicians and the space programme. Nothing for a doctor, nothing for a scholar. Oh, yes, in the 80s (the 1980s) they started introducing the idea of the ‘home computer’, had proudly shown that they could fit encyclopedias into plastic sleeves and discs, but he had been in the bottom of a bottle at the time and he had taken it for nonsense, for sheerest nonsense. What use would the average person have for a computer?

He had been regaining his feet at the beginning, too fragile and tired to follow along. And then-- and then in an instant, the future had rushed down on him before he could catch his breath and left him behind.

He looks around at his friends, his kind friends, and opens his mouth to lie to them, to be carefully honest.

“I studied medicine in Guam, as you know.” He stands on the firm ground of the truth, for now. It had been easier to pass his latest falsified records in the territory than it would have been to try them on the States, as he re-certified for the ...sixth, eighth? time. Lovely country. It doesn’t deserve what he makes of it-- a catch-all for the foreign parts of him, for any too-old mannerism or newly backward habits.

“When I went off, personal computing was still in its earliest stages. My school wasn’t so very far behind many others, I was… exposed to computing and even to cordless phones.” He pauses, quirks a smile, because he knows that the reminder that there was a pupae state between larval wired devices and the powerful little machines they carry everywhere will make them laugh. Especially as much as they’ve been drinking.

They laugh. They’ve all been drinking. So has he. He has to be careful. Not too many details. Not too embellished, he reminds himself. That’s the way.

“But the culture of pagers and then early wireless phones simply wasn’t as pervasive as it was in America. When I moved here-- it was too late.” He chuckles self-deprecatingly. “I’d missed it. It’s simply too late for me.”

“Bull, Henry,” Jo says fondly, an unconscious echo of Hanson. “Look, half the guys on the precinct are still on crappy flip-phones. I only got talked into trying a phone with a touchscreen three years ago. It’s easy. I thought the same thing and I was wrong.”

She can’t understand. It’s not easy. She’s been preparing for it most of her life, whether she recognises it or not, and it’s been the barest sliver of his. He can’t. If he follows now, how much faster must he run to catch up-?

“Meet the future, Henry,” Lucas says, made yet more courageous by his-- gracious, two entire pint glasses sit before him. His eyes twinkle, soft, and he still sounds deferential even two pints in. He’s a very sweet boy, for his flaws.

“Here,” Hanson agrees, and passes across his phone, tipped onto its longest edge. “Lesson number one. Youtube.”

The screen is lit up with a picture of Hanson’s son. Hanson has a photograph on his desk, his young daughter holding the boy as a nearly newborn, but this is more recent. The toddler’s chin shines with spittle and there is a worn, wet patch on his overall straps; he’s cutting his upper incisors late, but not alarmingly so. The photo is not the best quality-- has that blocky blurring around the edges that he associates with computers-- and is marred by a superimposed symbol, a translucent triangle in the middle of the screen. He knows it from Abe’s video players: how quickly symbols become nearly universal.

He tips the phone upright, and the picture resizes itself, now filling only half the screen and with text below it; “Steves got places to be!” Then, back on it side, and the picture fills the screen again.

He’s being watched expectantly by an audience of police officers, and Lucas.

“Hit play,” Hanson says, patiently.

Henry’s gaze flicks to the single button on the front face of the phone, the two on the side, back to Hanson.

“Just touch it. It won’t bite.” Some men are aggressive drunks. Hanson is… paternal. Patronising without meaning to be, as if talking to a child and not… well, he doesn’t know exactly how much older than him Henry is, but it still rankles. He knows it’s meant kindly.

Henry touches the triangle, and is rewarded with a burst of tinny sound and a sudden lurch into video. Hanson’s son is standing uncertainly in their living room; the camera wavers slightly and refocuses on him as the child looks around him. He takes a few careful steps, and then, surer of himself, begins a quick stagger across the living room, his gait almost a run but only because if he stops he will fall forward.

Henry remembers this. How proud he and Abigail had been, watching their son thump across their wooden floors, how every step had been a triumph and every fall a potential catastrophe until suddenly Abe found himself and seemed to go everywhere at a run.

Young Steve Hanson fetches up against the couch, turns boldly in another direction, and starts off again.

And then the video ends abruptly, replaced by a collage of smaller pictures.

“See? Didn’t hurt?”

“That was lovely, Detective,” Henry says, still staring. “Can I see it again?”

“You checking my son out as a perp?”

None of these people know he raised a wonderful young man. They can’t. Of all the lies he tells, he thinks ‘I have no children’ is the most painful. Hanson is teasing, of course, but Henry’s feeling short tempered and thrusts back the phone a little stiffly, to Hanson’s chagrin.

“Aw, Henry,” Lucas interjects, emboldened by his two pints, and presses his own phone into Henry’s empty hand. “He didn’t mean it. Here, watch this one.”

On the screen is a panda in an enclosure. Actually, no, two pandas, he realises, after carefully tapping the Play triangle. There’s an infant panda stretched out on the floor in front of what he assumes to be its mother. He has just enough time to consider the curious nature of what is considered ‘cute’ in infant animals and is about to remark on as much when the infant panda sneezes, startling both its mother and him into jumping.

Jo bursts out laughing; Lucas has a pleased smile, and Henry demands: “Can you do that again?”

Lucas taps the circling arrow that's appeared on the screen, and the recording begins again. This time Henry’s ready for it, but the sight of the adult panda jolting awake still makes him burst out into laughter.

“What’s he watching? What you watching, Doc?” Hanson asks.

“Sneezing panda,” Jo says. She turns to Henry. “I can’t believe you’ve never seen that before. Did you miss the Hamster Dance too?”

His face gives him away, and she smiles. “Aww, Henry, okay. This is going to be great. Lucas, Lucas, show him Buttermilk.”

The phone is passed around-- multiple phones are passed around, and in and out of his hands. Lieutenant Reece comes back, her phone like an ice block when she hands it to him because it’s really no night to be stood out in the cold, but she’s smiling and as pleased as anyone, and who knew she would know so many videos with misbehaving farm yard animals and cats making comical noises? The videos blur into a confused stream eventually; the whisky no doubt helps, and the bottle of surprisingly decent Zinfandel red that appears at some point.

He can’t stop laughing; he sees as many goat and lamb and dog and cat videos as he suspects he has ever seen goats and lambs and dogs and cats in his long, long lifetime. His face is aching, and at some point his eyes have started watering. ‘My name is Marshell and I’m a --oh, that’s, that’s not the first time that I’ve done that’ nearly knocks him over with his inability to breathe. It’s absurd, and even better is the round of attempted impersonations that follow around the table. He doesn’t trust himself with the infinitely breakable, infinitely powerful little phones after a while-- he has to grab at his stomach when the box of styrofoam packing peanuts explodes with overexcited ferrets, and luckily Hanson was already holding his own phone at that point and hadn't given it to Henry.

He tries, with a shaking voice, to mention that medical science and psychological science are still puzzling together the meaning and purpose of laughter, and can’t get all the way through the explanation without giggling, and the whole table laughs with him and at him for thinking of such a thing at such a time and yes, the theory that laughter fosters human bonds seems to be on firm ground because he feels so oddly, so unusually included within his friends’ lives as they pass around these ridiculous bits of nonsense and laugh and laugh.

“You do that dance when you’re leaving for the night sometimes,” he says happily to Lucas, Sergeant Benton’s little gold phone demanding ‘Where me keys? Where me phone?’ and Lucas turns bright red.

That too is hilarious, and so is Jo’s later, “Come on, Henry, get in me car,” when she pushes him into the cab after last call. He hums a medley he will never be able to separate into its component parts the whole ride home, tapping at his leg because he doesn’t have an oven door to slam, but the cabbie doesn’t seem to mind that as much as when he forgets himself and begins to laugh again at the memory of the pug’s stiff-legged hop up the stairs.

This is very much the wine and the whisky talking, but oh, the future is marvellous. How like magic.

There’s a light on above the shop as the cab pulls up, but Abe doesn’t appear in the window-- if he had been worried, he would have, experience tells Henry. He has a moment of too-late worry that he’s later than he said he’d be, but it rolls instantly into relief that Abe hasn’t been fretting.

He smiles a little foolishly and tips the driver twenty-five percent, the woman wishing him ‘a good night, now’ with more enthusiasm than she had conducted any other part of the drive, but he doesn’t mind.

The lock is a bit tricky, given his current state, and the stairs up to their rooms a bit precarious, but he makes it, steps onto solid ground and is wrapped in soft jazz and the smells of home. Abe is asleep on his recliner, a book face-down on his knee, and Henry’s heart melts just a bit.

He steals across the room as carefully as a very drunk man can-- it’s more evidence of Abe’s deep sleep than his own stealth that he manages to retrieve the book and mark it without waking his son.

He kisses Abe’s head, and pats him on the shoulder to wake him.

“Henry-?” Abe mutters, patting his knee for the absent book. “Jeeze, you smell like a distillery.”

“I realise that I provide a very bad example indeed, but you really ought to be in bed,” Henry says.

“Eh, you don’t have to tell me. Some of us actually have to worry about our knees.” Abe stretches out with a theatrical wince, and Henry watches (he hates to watch, but always watches) to see how much is theatrical and how much is actual pain and loss of flexibility.

How could it be so many decades since Abe was beaming, half toothless, and toddling across the bare wooden floors of a post-war flat? Wasn’t it only yesterday?

But the past is a foreign country. Guam, probably.

“Henry? You all right?” Abe says, and Henry realizes that he’s been staring, and probably looking very maudlin. Abe will know why. It’s not the first time. Oh, he had been in a badly-concealed state of misery when Abe started to go gray, and before that the crisis of emotion when he went off to university.

“I’m all right.” He shakes his head. “As I ever am.”

“Ray of sunshine, you are,” Abe grumbles, and takes Henry’s offered hand to get to his feet. “Did you have a good time with your cop friends?”

“Yes. It was wonderful, actually. Abe, do you know about something called You - Tube?”

He expects Abe to laugh at him or be exasperated, if anything, not to look at him fondly and with such tenderness. “Aww, Henry. Yes.”

“Have you seen the one with the sneezing panda? It’s remarkable, Abe, the poor thing wakes its--”

“Yes, Henry,” Abe laughs, his face glowing with happiness-- it is a hilarious video, after all-- and draws him into a hug. “You can see the videos bigger on the computer, c’mon. Did they show you the puppy with the hiccups?”

No,” he says, and Abe ends the embrace in order to guide him toward the desktop computer.

“Okay, I know I ask you not to touch this, but for tonight only-- go on, sit down, let me find it. Trust me, you are going to love this.”

For Henry the future, too, is a foreign country. Tonight, softened by alcohol and giddy with laughter, he feels perhaps that he has at least acquired a passport.