I had no plans, no idea what to do. I didn't know how the world worked anymore. Nowhere to go, no way to get there.
So when the pretty girl offered to let me stay at the café's back room for the night, I had no reason to refuse and every reason to accept. Apparently I looked proper, and sounded sincere enough to be trusted with a night in a locked building with locked cabinets. She did seem hesitant when she left, but I understand that. Not everyone would let a man who claims to have skipped the last forty years sleep in their workplace, even if the backroom had a bed and other amenities. But I'm glad she did. I mean, where would a person from the past go to look for a future? I really don't know.
In the morning I volunteered to help with the café. A little as a thank you, a little hoping to speak with the clients if I got the chance. She had been right, most of them were born around the same time I was. They could've been my mates, colleagues, but I didn't recognize a single one of them. In a way I was relieved. It'd be weird to see someone I might have talked to just yesterday, and see them having aged decades. If they even remembered me.
It was odd, hearing them reminisce about things that seemed all too familiar for me. Radio that wasn't algorithmically tuned to one's taste, software on non-rewritable media, long and thorough news articles, the taste of real chocolate, being able to go to WiFi-less countryside... the list goes on. When I asked why they preferred using the café's computers, I got a variety of answers. Some were expected, such as the natural feeling of having a physical keyboard or a sharp dedicated screen that was easier on the eyes than projections on walls or tables. Some expressed joy that books were still around. Not everyone can get used to carrying your personal computer with you everywhere you went, even if the less powerful ones would fit in your glasses or you wrist, with minuscule projectors embedded in them for flexible displays. New technology isn't always better. I was a little surprised to hear several clients mention privacy. Devices that are always on and carried with you can collect a lot of information about you, and upload it. Apparently they are against thingamajigs spying on them. Old devices had settings to respect a person's privacy, newer ones sacrifice it for more personalization with little choice for the user. Even with all the personal information the user interfaces looked alike. Thus their point: if the personalization data isn't collected for personalization purposes, what is it collected for? What partly disappointed me was that with all of the concerns each new system or service, the famed 'year of the Linux' never arrived.
Sure enough, the café was empty by five. I helped her clean up, she got a couple of buns and cups of coffee and sat down with me. She mentioned that some people came to the café because it was one of the few places that still had classic computers. That they'd gone out of production a long time ago, and were rarely found in shops.
'Just like phones with full keyboards,' I casually mentioned.
'How do you mean?'
'In my time it was difficult to find a phone with a physical keypad, pretty much impossible to find a phone with a full physical keyboard. Everything had a touchscreen so phone keyboards were being wiped out. Shame, really, I'd really have liked a phone with a full keyboard.'
'You mean you would have liked to lug around one of those giant things with an extra keyboard on them? Why?'
'I never liked the on-screen keyboard. It used too much room, too much resources, it didn't feel right.'
She looked at me with the fascination a little child would have for a Rube Goldberg machine. I felt like a lab rat, being observed, poked and prodded out of curiousity. Then again, when it comes to women, curiousity isn't the worst thing one could spark.
'So how come you're tending this place alone? Forgive me, but you don't strike me as a vintage café owner.'
'I'm not, it's a family business. I just work here from time to time, keep the place running. What do I strike you as?'
'I'm not sure... yet. I don't exactly know this world that well.'
'Ah, insufficient information for a meaningful answer?'
Her voice was confident, her eyes narrowed. She was poking me, trying to see my reaction. Lab rat.
'Asimov. Yes, I guess you could say that. How come you've read Asimov?'
'I like old books. I like reading. He's one of the greats, though his essays are hard to come by.'
'You're a geek as well then.'
She gave a little smile and a nod.
'But who are you?'
So I told her. My name, my home, my work as a network administrator at a local company that apparently went bust years ago, my education, mentioned a few of my friends, filled her in on the basics. Anything that she could've found on the 'net.
'Well, that explains your lingo.'
'Um, my what?'
'How you talk. What you talk about. You focus on tech, and you use technical words. I figured you were a geek of some sort.'
'A geek who would know about QuNet, that's why you believed me.'
'I didn't. I'm not sure I do. But I was curious. Not much happens here, you were... different. Thought it couldn't hurt talking to you.'
'You did more than talk. I gave me a place to sleep.'
'Locked up and under alarm. Figured I'd learn something whatever you'd do.'
'So you like studying people? Working out what makes them go?'
'I do. Human psychology is fascinating. It is predictable and wild at the same time. It is so limited, yet you cannot reproduce experiments with reliable results.'
'Is that what you're studying? Psychology?'
'God no, I'd be shunned. I'm a Biology major.'
'Shunned? How come?'
'Well, it's not a real, hard science. It's too inaccurate. Anything that could be accurate about it is classified as neurology. Anyone who deals with it are ridiculed. Was it not so in your time?'
'No. People actually wanted to become psychologists. It paid reasonably well, and people could always do with someone to talk to.'
'You mean, as therapists, not as scientists?'
The conversation continued for a while, I learned a great deal about the world I was now in. It wasn't all good or all bad, as it never is. In return I shared my knowledge of the world I'd left. Finally, she told me that I could stay at the café provided that I kept the place in order and running. She also asked about my plans.
'I don't really know. I mean, I'd like to go back to my life, my friends, my work... but I don't know how.'
'You said there was a sound that drew you to the machine, like someone else came through? Ever think of finding whoever it was, maybe get a way back?'
'I have. But how can I? How do I know they can help me? How do I know if they would? Whoever came through before me could be as stuck as me.'
'It isn't always necessary to know, but it is important to try.'
'Maybe. If I stayed, and someone found out about me, I fear I'd be a curiousity to be poked and prodded in a secret lab somewhere. Never to see daylight again.'
I wondered about it for a while. I also wondered if I could leave. There is so much to do here, to learn, to experience. I can see a world of knowledge right outside this building, ready to be conquered. How could I simply leave this opportunity and exchange it for familiarity? I feel conflicted, as I would like to go home, but I don't want to give up this amazing chance to learn about the future. I don't know, maybe my future is here. Maybe I cannot leave, for I have tasted the fruit of knowledge.