Old people are like forward-moving time travelers. They are the only ones with strong memories of those old things, which they think of as modern.
Modernico, the car mall, spanned the entire sea board. Hundreds of miles of open air terminals and split steel archways covered Modernico, which was mostly there to sell cars, but other things too. The floors went from tile to linoleum to concrete to asphalt, in a patchwork, and shops, hallways, streets all lost their coherency. The place was grotesque, a palace for the curio, an abattoir for the directionless. It has been said that someone could get away with anything in Modernico, and that everything worth getting away with had been done. Fleecers were as common as customers. The sun filtered through nests of girders, shadows forming patterns at once solid and fragmentary. For many people, Modernico was home.
A porter lived in the headlamp district, on the second floor of a shop at the bottom of a hill. His job was to cart bags from people’s trunks to the rooms in which they would be staying, which gave him a great deal of satisfaction. He could name thirty different species of local bird, and emulate all of their calls. He was the kind of person who had weird sex dreams in the night, and told nobody. He was not a nervous person, but people assumed him to be, because he rarely spoke (as a matter of circumstance, not as one of choice). The typical resident of Modernico would have seen him as a brother of theirs.
As a teenager, the porter had once entered an abandoned house in the nut/bolt district. He had been among friends. They had told him it was haunted. It was a disappointing experience. The house had not been haunted (to the best of his knowledge).
“I hear cars passing by my window, just outside my room, every day,” he once complained to a friend. “I don’t know how long I can stand it.”
In his spare time, the porter sometimes drove around the district. He had always been advised by parents, friends to do what he loved. The problem was, the porter didn’t know whether or not what he loved was actually a terrible thing. A thing that could damage the world, instead of improve it. Nonetheless, he took drives when he could. It wasn’t as if there were much else to do, anyways. At least, not in Modernico. Unless you knew where to look.
But driving got old, even in Modernico.
The porter remembered taking acting classes one September. During one of many phases, he had considered becoming an actor. The instructor had been insistent on the fundamentals, the framing, the expressions. All of the technicalities. The porter wouldn’t have minded it, except that the instructor had been extremely critical of the porter’s angry face. He had said it never looked angry enough. The porter had tried contorting his face, twisting it every little way, but had had no success. When he finally did conjure anger, it was anger at the instructor for expecting so much. The instructor had been pleased, but then the porter quit. Eventually the instructor got him to come back, but only only the stage crew, putting together sets, pyrotechnics, and curtains.
Like every Modernican, the porter had learned how to work on cars. Cars littered Modernico. When somebody’s car needed replacement, they would swing it by Modernico’s outer perimeter to buy a new model. When somebody’s car only needed repair, they brought it into one of the specialized districts in the center of the city. Sometimes a car in need of repair was unsalvageable, and remained in the center. Most worn down jalopies were simply placed at the perimeter, traded out for their updated model. That was how Modernico grew- the ring of broken cars was the city’s border. Old cars were broken down for scrap, and reforged into the buildings, streets, and other trappings of the city.
The porter had specialized in headlamps, but had never been much good at it. That was why he had turned to carting bags. He was no more skillful at carting bags than he was positioning filaments, but it was a lot harder to break a bag than a new lamp. That was the way of things- the path of least resistance was the easiest, but never changed anything. The porter had given up on change.
It was a lazy Tuesday at the shop. Three hotels nearby required the porter’s services, yet the man hadn’t received a single call that day. He was sitting back in a wicker chair, watching cars go by, left and right, across the road like fish in a stream. It was relaxing.
It was then that an older man, maybe in his fifties, walked into the shop.
“Hello. I’m with the Cortex.” The Cortex was an organization that acted as Modernico’s government. The governing bodies outside the metropolis had a hard time inserting themselves into the city- a better labyrinth one could never devise- so the citizenry of Modernico had a some point put together the Cortex. Nobody really knew what they did these days, except put up a facade of sovereignty to keep other legal bodies from porting their own brand of justice to Modernico. Sometimes, in the rare cases where a murder was reported or a theft filed, the Cortex would come in and sort things out. So this was unusual, to see a Cortex agent on the doorstep of Fred’s Filaments. As a rule, nothing happened at Fred’s Filaments.
“Hello, sir. What can I help you with?” the owner (Fred) said, leaning on the counter of an extremely wide front desk.
“I’ve been working on a case that perhaps you could help me with. Could I ask you a few questions?”
“We have reason to believe that one of your customers is a terrorist.”
“A terrorist. Somebody who has come to town under the alibi of buying new headlamps has purportedly been stocking on on filaments. Specifically, ones that may be useful not only for headlamp illumination, but in building a bomb.”
“I’m not sure what to think,” Fred said. “It’s all a little much. Are you sure they didn’t just want filaments for peaceful purposes?”
“Seriously though, a terrorist, here?”
“Don’t worry, we’ve got things under control. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. I will have to request that we access your customer records and security footage.”
“Certainly.” Fred took the agent into his back office.
A few minutes later they walked back out. The porter glanced over from the wicker chair.
“If you don’t mind me asking, may I see your filaments?” the agent asked.
“Sure. I have a sample tray in a drawer. Here,” Fred said. He lifted a tray from a wide desk drawer, carefully not to disturb it much.
“That’s the kind,” the agent said. He picked up one of the filaments, examining it under a microscope. “It seems we have a 32B tungsten filament, typically sealed in quartz, according to this label. Meant to be used with a halogen. Do you know why it’s usually enclosed in quartz?”
“Of course I do,” Fred said, puffing up his chest. “It’s my business.”
“That was a rhetorical question. Quartz, you see, allows the gas to be at a higher pressure, which in turn allows filament to work at a higher temperature, and a hotter filament is brighter. That’s what you know. The terrorist just wanted the tungsten though.”
“To make a bomb,” the porter spoke.
“That’s right.” The Cortex agent stared at the porter. “Wolfram is fairly hard, and fairly dense. Wolfram is another name for tungsten- interesting, huh? The terrorist could be using it for an electrode, or shrapnel. Can I take this for the lab?”
“Why don’t I get you one from the regular stock. I like to keep my sample tray full,” Fred said.
Fred went to grab another spiraling filament.
“Tungsten would be a bad choice for a bomb,” the porter said.
“What?” the agent said turning in surprise.
“There are just better electrodes, is all. And you couldn’t make a whole lot of shrapnel with a filament’s worth of tungsten. It’s almost nothing.”
“How…” the agent stammered. “I mean, you’re right.” Then after a moment: “To tell the truth, we don’t quite know why the enemy combatant in question wanted a tungsten filament, but we know he’s building a weapon of some kind. And we’d like to stop him.”
“I see,” the porter said, without another word. Fred came back, a handful of filaments in hand.
“Here you are, sir. Should be enough to run all the tests you need.”
“Thank you. The Cortex will be in touch if we need anything else. I must be going.”
“Do you need me to take your bags?” the porter asked.
“No, thank you.”
The agent took his leave.
Perhaps a week later, the agent returned.
“We now have proof positive that the tungsten filaments sold by this shop are, indeed, a complete match with the filaments found on a raid. Not only that, but these filaments continue to turn up. Which means that the terrorist buying filaments at this shop is a current customer.”
“That’s some progress, alright,” Fred said.
“What we have on this individual as it stands is a set of biological markers. We’ve got immunology and DNA, but not much else. Hair color is brown. What we’d like to have is this guy’s appearance.”
“How do you know it’s a guy if you don’t even have appearance?” Fred asked
“We can tell that from DNA,” the agent said, frowning. “Constructing appearance from that is considerably more difficult, and DNA analysis is costly enough as is.”
“So, what can we do to help?”
“I’ll need one of you to wear this,” the agent said. He fished a small watch out of his pocket. “A modern device for a modern age. It can do quick and dirty DNA scans and immunology of anybody nearby.” The agent proudly pressed a button. “It will transmit customer information back to HQ. When we find a match, we’ll try to correspond it to your security footage, and we’ll have our man.”
“So does the watch go on the wrist of every customer?” Fred said.
“No, it works remotely. Most of what it picks up will likely be the wearer, but it will find everyone else nearby too. We made sure that we can use the device in unexpected circumstances, no matter where we are are what we are doing.”
“You say ‘we’ a lot,” the porter mumbled. Neither of the others really seemed to hear him.
“My porter spends the most time with any customers, so I’ll have him wear it,” Fred said. The porter didn’t know if that was strictly true, but did not refute his boss.
“That’ll do,” the agent said, handing the porter the watch. It looked like a normal watch. The porter slid it on. “So, porter, er- what did you say your name was?”
“Wallace,” Wallace the porter said.
“Ok, Wallace. Keep this on you day and night. We’ll be in communication with you with these earbuds.” The agent pinched Wallace’s ears with two small capsules, placed as so to be hidden.
“When we find this terrorist,” the agent said with disgust, “Modenico will owe you a debt of gratitude.”
The day passed by with a few customers eager to see things while night driving again. That was the whole thing, wasn’t it? To illuminate people’s darkness? Acting had been like that, sometimes. It was just the porter’s luck that he would do something that required getting to the bottom of things.
A few hours past lunch, Wallace heard a noise from the earbuds.
Testing, testing. I didn’t mention before, but we can speak to each other across it, using the button on the bottom. Just press it and talk.
“Like this?” Wallace said, after pressing the button.
Just like that.
Wallace went to a bar after work. Not really a healthy thing to do, at his age, but there wasn’t much else to do in the car mall. And besides, Liz was working tonight.
He sat on a barstool by the wall, on the far left of the building. It took about a minute for Liz to appear.
“Hey, Wally,” Liz said. Wallace the porter used to hate being called Wally. He didn’t mind Liz calling him that though.
“Hey Liz,” he said. “What’s on the menu tonight?”
“Same as always. Beer and chicken legs. What’s your poison tonight?” Liz never seemed to remember that Wally hated beer, or at least, pretended not to.
“I’ll just have a scotch, thanks.”
“Coming right up.” She went to fill the order.
Wallace’s earbuds rang.
Ah, unrequited love. When your best isn’t enough.
Wallace pressed the button on the watch. “Who is this?”
Just the Cortex, speaking words only you can hear.
“I’m relaxing. We can chat sometime else,” Wallace whispered. He made sure nobody in the room was listening, but it was loud enough and crowded enough that nobody noticed.
Actually, no. We got a 94% match between the DNA we have and that of somebody in this room, or who has been here in the last thirty minutes.
“So your perp is somewhere here?”
Exactly. Where are you?
“A dive bar down in the tire district. Name of Bar None. Wait, you overheard my conversation?”
Well, yes. An appearance alone is nice, but a voice is incredibly useful for identification purposes. So we never stop recording.
“Then why have me push this button?”
Just a little joke.
“I see why people don’t like cops.”
Hey, hey, don’t get all wrung out. Do you see anybody suspicious?
“It’s a dive bar. Everyone looks suspicious. Everyone tries to look suspicious.”
Fine, fine. We’ll send some people to follow exciting exiting patrons. In the meantime, don’t do anything that would make you stand out in a crowd.
“Sure,” Wallace said. Liz was coming back.
“Here’s your scotch. Hey, is that a new watch?”
“Oh, this? Yeah.”
“Cool. Guess carting bags for people pays pretty well.”
“I do alright.” The truth was, he usually didn’t, but that was the way of things.
Liz nodded and walked back the the storefront, new customers filing in.
When Wallace went back to the shop that night, not much really seemed different. Maybe the Cortex folk had ferreted out their “terrorist” or whatever. Though he hope they’d tell him so he could remove the surveillance equipment. He stepped through the door next to shop, walking up stairs to his second floor room. It was small, but livable. He turned on the monitor of his computer, and sat down to type more of a screenplay he had been writing. Figured if he couldn’t act, he’d at least help others to from behind the scenes. No internet, though. It sometimes bugged out for no reason. He sighed, went over to his bed, and picked a book off the shelf. He was always reading five or six at a time, and rarely finished one. It was much easier to start a book than to finish one. Much easier to start running than to do it consistently. Much easier to get a simple district job than to create a niche for one’s self.
The book got read, up until Wallace’s tired eyes gave out. Time to sleep. He turned off the light, slipped back into a state of repose, and closed his eyes. Sleep. The best part of the day.
Hey, porter guy. Wallace, right?
Wallace sat up, before remembering he had the ear buds in still.
Do you know anybody who both goes to the bar and shows up at your store? Because we’ve been looking at your customer records, and the names of everyone in that bar tonight and everyone who works at your store have no common names.
“That’s not surprising, I mean, it’s in the tire district,” Wallace said quietly.
But, any common customers you know of?
“Including staff on both sides, no, I don’t think so.”
If we weren’t getting so much of your DNA, which happens to not be made of the same stuff we’re looking at on this tungsten, I’d think that would incriminate you pretty badly. But it’s not you.
“I was going to sleep.”
We know. Oh, I probably forgot to mention. This thing can read your thoughts too.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. It gets your pulse, very inaccurate brain waves, and any endocrine response, so it puts together a pretty solid idea of your emotional state, at the very least. Usually that’s all we need.
“I’m seriously considering taking these things off.”
We wouldn’t. They’re easy to lose.
“The watch or the ear buds?”
Like you would know. We read your file. You failed at headlamp design.
“Is there anything you don’t know?”
“Okay then… tell me, what is the point of it all?”
You are one neuron of a gigantic brain. You file papers for the brain, but out of laziness file only the ones you think are absolutely essential. You don’t think very much is essential, as a classical ascetic, a minimalist, an efficiency driven idealist, so the brain has trouble remembering much of anything. But one day it forgets about you. And then you are powerless, as electricity crackles around you and feeds your brethren and the world moves, and yet it moves so oddly without you. Outside the brain. And you are removed, separate. That is the future of things.
Wallace just sat quietly. The Cortex agent (was it even the same one who had come to the store twice? Was it really the same one each time?) rambled on.
I once found myself in a city of gold. Xibalba, El Dorado, Xanadu. It had gone by many names. I was a traveler then. But the people of the city, having lived with gold paving their streets, gold in their food, gold adorning every object, saw it as a common metal. None attempted to stop me as a gathered it up in countless bags. But when I tried to cart the bags out of the city, they were too heavy to move. I could not take the golden city with me. Eventually, as I was still a traveler, I was swept away by my own wanderlust.
Wallace sat silent still.
Now we are Modernicans, and our traveling days are over. We are not one traveler, but many. We simply want security, safety for ourselves and our families. Is that so much to ask? But the terror man is building wolfram bombs, and nobody can stop him except for the divorced neuron. Yet you are not dependable. You cannot stop the terror man, though the hopes of all rest on you. You can’t make the right face for it.
Wallace lay back.
You have never lived as we have. You have yet to be told by the world that something you want more than anything can never be yours. You will be lost, then, as I was. You will ask what you want yourself to do, but we will answer with a somber tone- ‘want something else’. But you won’t, and you can’t. We wish so fervently that you will never live as we have. We wish you will never be faced with the curse of immutability, with the certitude that your own world is so terribly wrong. We wish for you to never feel such pain. But the wolfram bomb is ticking. Will you even be alive when it goes off? Yet this is the fate of all, to live in the world with a wolfram bomb. You may even be the one who built it. The bomb is terrible, truly. But is the world? No, the world is wonderful. For all wonderful things belong within.
Wallace tore out the ear buds and threw them across the room.
Good night, porter.
And Wallace went to sleep.