Thirty Euros, Pt. 4 (Fiction)


As soon as I walk into what Garima, the receptionist of the SFPT, called a waiting room, I feel as if I’ve wandered into a palace. This room is even larger, and two curved staircases lead to an open second floor. Crystal chandeliers embedded into the ceiling, and that look like upside down wedding cakes, radiate golden light that bathe four sets of crystal tables and the surrounding leather chesterfield sofas, which are banana yellow. I’m the only person in the room, and yet it’s hard for me to keep my composure as I walk on the porcelain-like floor, which features a mathematical pattern represented with orange and gold colors, and that reminds me of a sunflower. Eight Corinthian pillars, artfully distributed, are holding the ceiling. I hadn’t had time to notice the walls, but one or more geniuses have frescoed meticulous scenes that depict many different cultures in their dedicated stretches of wall. Peculiar attires, monuments, myths. I recognize some Greek mythological creatures, Hindu gods, Buddhist temples and Japanese shrines. I’m quite sure that I’m looking at some of these cultures for the first time, because I don’t recall having gotten glimpses of them in my thirty one years. These frescoes would feel at home in a Renaissance cathedral, except that they aren’t limited to representing figures of a single religion. This supposed office belongs in a dream.
I approach one of the sofas, although I feel like I have no business being here. Bringing me to this era must have been some cosmic mistake. The closer I get to the crystal table, which has a base made out of a geode filled with pointy, violet crystals, the more it smells like orange and vanilla. The aroma comes from an egg-shaped diffuser on the table. I sink into the sofa, which envelops me as I sit back.
I close my eyes. I must have disconnected for a while, because I only realize that someone has walked towards me when the person is standing next to my table. It’s Garima.
“You’ll be just fine there,” she says, and then she puts on the table a tray with a silver cup and a jar of water, along with a small plate loaded up with a colorful snack that reminds me of fried potato chips.
“T-thanks…”
Her embellished, flared gown, fit for a princess, makes it a joke that she’s the one serving me. Before I know it she has turned around and is walking back into the room from which I came. I fill the cup with water, then drink. I confirm that the same old water I’ve always known exists here, and that its cold fills my stomach as expected. The snack doesn’t have the shape nor the color of potato chips, but its crunch sticks against my palate bringing similar sensations. For a moment I wonder how come they knew I wasn’t allergic to whatever kind of nut this snack contains.
I spot movement out of the corner of my eye. A machine that resembles a robotic vacuum cleaner, but with the shape of a lenticular disk, is gliding down the stairs without touching them. It moves way too fast for a vacuum cleaner, and it’s maneuvering to approach me. I sit straight. I can tell it’s not dangerous, but I doubt I wouldn’t have jumped out of the sofa if Chieko hadn’t come from this reality.
The top of the disk emits a vertical beam of light around a meter and seventy centimeters tall. The light gelatinizes as it expands taking the shape of a person, and in a second I find myself looking up at a man in his forties who has a neat comb over haircut, and who wears a black suit. The image reminds me of a Victorian butler.
“Pardon me,” the person says as he bows elegantly. “I’m the Guide, and I’m at your service for whatever doubt you have about how things work around here. Your information was already in the system, but now we are aware that you live among us. Don’t hesitate to approach any of the Guides for help.”
My skin shivers with electricity.
“You are a machine, right…?”
“That’s right, miss Uriarte. Most of the people in this town are human, yes, but a certain percentage of us are artificial intelligences. Our creator is the famous inventor Konrad Zuse.”
I nod in silence. I’m sure I will lose my mind by the end of the day. Maybe I will faint in front of this seemingly sentient machine.
“I know, miss,” the Guide continues. “Back in your time, artificial intelligence hadn’t advanced much. No worries, just remember that we exist to fulfill our roles, whether to help humans or other artificial intelligences! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”
I close my eyes while I take a deep breath. For a moment I think that whenever I open my eyes again, the man made of opaque light will have disappeared, but he’s still looking down at me.
“Have I truly come to the future, or have I gone insane?” I ask in a thin, weak voice.
“Both are possible,” the Guide says jovially. “Don’t be scared either way. Now seriously, no, you haven’t gone insane. One of the representatives working for the SFPT, with the name of Chieko Sekiguchi, focused on your case and managed to rescue you from a terrible fate. Rescues such as these are why their whole operation exists, I suppose.”
My face grows warm.
“I-I’ll need time to adjust to this…”
The Guide smiles pleasantly.
“You are doing quite well. Now, would you like to listen to the story of Konrad Zuse?”
I nod as I rub my right temple.
“Konrad is someone you have never heard of, I fear,” the Guide continues, “but we consider him a genius who invented new programming techniques that eventually gave birth to the first sentient AIs.”
“Sounds like a competent man.”
“He wasn’t a man, though. He was an artificial intelligence himself!”
“Is that the case…?”
“Now, you might be wondering how come a sentient AI was the one to invent sentient AIs. There’s something called Gödel’s theorem that says that even though it’s impossible to give a formal proof, the conclusion of an algorithm can hold under almost any given circumstance.”
I’m having problems keeping up with the Guide’s speech.
“Gödel’s theorem? Sounds complicated…”
The butler laughs, and then winks while turning his head theatrically.
“I’m afraid I was pulling your leg, miss. No, the creation of sentient intelligences was a gradual process involving transformer-based neural networks with quatrillions of parameters!”
A wave of vertigo ripples through my body.
“Well, at least I’m glad you understand what a joke is,” I mumble. “And that we can hold a conversation, even if it goes over my head.”
The Guide smiles again.
“Oh! Now that you’ve been rescued, miss, you will love visiting any of our Librarians, I’m sure. So much literature to discover! I’m very partial to it myself.”
I’m too dizzy to come up with a proper answer, but I also don’t want to seem like an idiot to a machine who seems more intelligent than me. However, as soon as I start speaking, the butler straightens his back and looks to the side as if listening to something in an earpiece. Then he smiles cordially at me.
“It seems that your representative has arrived. She’s been informed of your whereabouts. Just remember, if you see any of us Guides gliding around and you need information about anything, just call us over. Guiding people is our raison d’être, and we are glad to do so. As you might imagine, I will make myself scarce now. Until next time!”
The Guide makes a bow so elegant that it would fit in a museum.
“Uh… Thank you for your help,” I say.
The figure of the man, made of light, collapses in a split second as if the top of the lenticular disk had absorbed it. The disk then turns around and glides quickly up the left staircase, leaving me alone at the table.
My head is filled with white noise as I fill my silver cup with water and drink it in a single gulp. I doubt this encounter was some sort of practical joke. I’m going to live in a world where artificial intelligences are so advanced that they consider themselves to be people. And it seems that it hasn’t caused significant troubles, at least to the extent that this ostentatious office continues existing. I should just go with the flow, at least for a while, taking everything in. These people know I come from the past, and they will be lenient of my stupidity. But I worry that any of the inhabitants of this strange reality will realize that I don’t deserve to be here. When they do, they will send me back. I doubt I would be able to continue living normally back on the Earth I know after I’ve been here.
“Izar! I knew you’d come,” Chieko says from above.
A warmth grows in my chest as I look up towards the railing of the second floor. Chieko, the same Asian woman whom I thought I would never see again, along with her apple red hair and her kind smile, is leaning on the railing of the second floor, close to the right, curved staircase.
“Come on, get up here,” Chieko says. “We are going for a ride.”
The tone of her voice suggests I have become someone special to her. Despite the deceptive way in which she approached me, she did it because she cares. My whole body feels too light and weird, and I fear I will faint any minute, but I walk carefully to the right staircase and climb up, stepping on stairs that glimmer like gold. The second floor is an imitation of the lower one, except that the sets of tables and sofas are arranged according to the narrower space. On the opposite end of the room, an arched doorway, with an elaborate lintel that displays a rhomboid pattern, leads into a single staircase that goes up and out of view.
As I approach Chieko, who keeps smiling warmly, I can tell that the clothes she had worn to meet me were chosen to fit in. Now she’s wearing a pearl white, puff sleeve blouse with a scoop neckline, along with black pleated shorts with suspenders. She has gathered her red hair in two buns that give her a spacey look.
I’m about to greet her properly when she steps forward and hugs me tightly. I’m not used to people being this nice. I may melt. When she pulls away, she keeps resting her hands on my shoulders.
“What are your first impressions?” she asks. “It seems so wild, right?”
This must be what they call charm. I want to trust Chieko, and I’m sure she told me the truth when she assured me that I would have died in less than a week. She can’t fake the sincerity in her eyes.
“It’s great…” I say carefully, unsure how to continue describing this world. “I met one of your robots, or artificial intelligences.”
“Some towns have more of them than humans.” Chieko chuckles softly. “They are great. I’m sure he helped you kindly.”
“I was too dumbfounded to take advantage of his services, but I’ll come across any of them again. He also mentioned a Librarian…”
Chieko nods.
“Ah, the Guide knew how to entice you. Yeah, we have buildings dedicated to these Librarians, who will recommend you books based on your preferences and previously read titles, and will produce the books for you. You wouldn’t consider them libraries, I don’t think, because they don’t store any books. When you are done with any of them, you throw it into a matter decomposer.”
“Matter… So you people break everything down, and they end up turning into… ashes?”
Chieko pats my shoulder.
“Into their periodic elements. Don’t worry about it for now, Izar! After all, you don’t need to know how a computer works in order to use it, right? And in these parts, computers will ask you what you want! We don’t use mice. Anyway, let’s just go up to the roof, shall we?”
She leads me by the hand up the stairs until we exit through a big door onto the roof. I’m looking down, as I fear getting overwhelmed as if I were staring at majestic paintings in a museum, so first I see that the floor of the roof is flat, and made out of impractically large, buttermilk yellow stone slabs. I feel cool air on my skin. I look up quickly towards the sky. It’s a vast expanse mostly as blue as I expect a sky to be, but it’s blended in parts with a peach pink, and the few wisps of cloud are blurry as if dissolving. I search for the source of the warmth on my skin, and my breath leaves my lungs for the first time since I came. I don’t dare look directly at the sun, but close to the lemon yellow, burning disk, which looks smaller than I expected, hangs a second, larger sun. The sunrays of the second sun seem stronger, and as they hit the clouds floating nearby, they meld in a radiant blend of red-orange.
Chieko pats my back.
“Good? Isn’t it spectacular?”
“W-we aren’t on Earth.”
“Just take it easy, Izar. I don’t want you to faint. Also, don’t stare directly at the sun, whether the original or our artificial one. It’s a terrible idea no matter what planet you end up standing on.”
I look at Chieko’s pretty face, tinged in the sunlight.
“W-wait,” I say. “W-where are we exactly…?”
“The future, of course!” Chieko exclaims with glee. “As for our current whereabouts…”
Chieko stops talking, because something out of the corner of my eye had startled me. Up to my left, in a forty five degree angle, a metallic vehicle is floating through the air silently. Its slick shape reminds me of a zeppelin, but it has fin-like ridges. The sunlight is whitening the upper part of the vehicle, which reflects the light as in a mirror. There must be people inside.
“That’s a UFO,” I blurt out.
Chieko chuckles.
“It’s perfectly identified. That’s just… a flying bus. I prefer the personal models myself.”
My benefactress tugs on my hand, and I stagger in the direction she’s following. She’s guiding me towards a row of rectangular parking spaces painted in white. Two of the spaces are occupied. Chieko leads me to the closest vehicle. It’s about the size of a van, but if that flying bus reminded me of a UFO, I’m staring at one right now: it’s an upside down plate standing on a landing skid, as if the bottom shouldn’t touch the ground. Its metallic frame seems to have been built without seams, and it’s painted a pineapple yellow except for decorative black stripes. The windshield encircles the frame in a band of glass, but I can’t see the inside, as the reflections of the sunrays are curtaining the interior.
I’m trembling uncontrollably. My knees go weak. Before I know it, Chieko is holding me in her arms. Her neck smells like tea. I want to go limp, but we’d fall to the floor. I swallow, then force myself to stand straight.
“I’m having a hard time…” I start to say, but I shut up.
“No need to worry. Izar, many, many people over the years have reached this present in a similar way than you, and they now live their lives just like any other citizen. Believe me, it will be far easier for you to adapt than it is for people of the Middle Ages, for example. Once you’ve become familiar with computers, your brain can handle the rest. So, don’t you think it’s a splendid vehicle?”
“S-splendid… How…” I stutter while I feel as if my tongue is stuck.
Chieko approaches her vehicle and tells it to open. An opening appears in the side of the frame, and an airstair gets lowered to the ground. I look around. This large, flat roof is enclosed by tall hedges and rimmed with still, decorative pools, but the skyline of a town or a city is peeking out from behind the hedges. It’s more sparse than I would have expected. I make out the treetops of pine-like trees, shaped like spearheads. All the buildings I can glimpse look like ancient monuments, cathedral-like monsters with incongruous designs, as different as those of apartment buildings in a city. I’m surprised that none of the buildings reach the height of a skyscraper. They remind me of how tall the Colosseum must look. Also, I don’t spot any mountain nor hill, which I always expect to see, as I was used to living in Gipuzkoa.
“Here, get inside!” Chieko says.
She pushes me gently so I ascend the airstairs to the interior of her vehicle. I only have to hunch over a little. The interior smells like warm leather and coffee. There are only two seats, which are black with vertical white stripes, and they look as expensive and comfortable as the sofas in the office of the SFPT. The only part of the wall resembling a dashboard with indicators and displays is in front of the left seat, so I sit on the right one. Once I sink in the upholstery, I let out a long sigh. I’d gladly sit here for hours.
Chieko sits down to my left. She says ‘close’, and the opening in the frame closes like a pore. She reaches for a plasticky device attached to the dashboard, which reminds me of the cigarette lighters that many cars have, but when Chieko pulls out this device, it’s tethered to the inside of the frame with a loose cable made out of spiral metal. Chieko presses a surface of the device to her temple, and it latches on to her skin. As soon as she drops her hands to her lap, the indicators and displays come to life. They aren’t screens, but the closest thing I’ve seen to solid, 3D holograms. Two of them clearly display our surroundings with three-dimensional models of buildings and trees.
Chieko leans back. Our vehicle lifts off, but I can only tell because the tops of buildings and trees that I can see through the windshield are sliding down. Soon the view is filled with sky.
“I-I don’t feel any engine,” I say. “I’m not being pushed down against the seat.”
Chieko smiles at me, narrowing her eyes.
“Those kinds of engines are long gone. This baby creates its own gravitational field. We are moving through spacetime in a bubble. Far more complicated things have been invented. I wasn’t responsible, though, so I can’t be that proud about them.”
I let out a breath as if something was squeezing my heart. While the view of the sky changes, and the models in the holographic displays turn around like cups in a microwave, Chieko is eyeing me as if she’s about to smirk.
“I get the appeal of impressing someone with a ride in my fancy car.”
I rub my mouth nervously. My heart is pounding on my ribcage.
“Be careful, Chieko. I don’t get attached to people, I sink my claws in them.”
“That’s alright, I think. This world allows all kinds of emotions.”
She sounds like a wise and worldly older person. For the first time I wonder about her age. This society has managed to travel back in time, construct such majestic buildings and move through the skies effortlessly with antigravity vehicles. I’m sure they have managed to solve the riddle of aging.
Although Chieko is just looking down at the displays and hasn’t touched anything, our vehicle tilts, and I find myself staring at a much smaller version of the roof we lifted off from. The building is standing in the middle of a park. I spot a few serpentine footpaths, structures similar to streetlights, and even the small figures of people walking around or sitting on benches. Some are hanging out near a cerulean blue pond. So many statues strewn about, some of them painted in vibrant colors. I shiver. From the outside, the office of the SFPT reminds me of a Roman building, and one side, maybe the main entrance, even features a colonnade.
Chieko slouches in the chair and holds her hands on her lap.
“So yeah, I work for the SFPT. I’m not big on working for others; kind of a lone wolf, do my own thing kind of person. But they’ve done fantastic work for generations. You only need to look around to realize that we wouldn’t have become as great if it wasn’t for the many people they’ve rescued.”
“This SFPT’s role is to bring here people from the past…?” I ask, bewildered.
Chieko facepalms, and then shrugs apologetically.
“Sorry, I should realize that you know close to nothing! SFPT is the acronym for the boringly named Society For the Preservation of Talent.”
I look down to my lap. My hands are trembling, but now I’m mostly excited.
“You told me that you approached me because you wanted to preserve my life and my talent.”
Chieko doesn’t answer, and when I look at her, she’s staring at me with a solemn expression. Her mouth makes a wet sound when it opens.
“Izar, what has been the biggest enemy of humankind for hundreds of thousands of years?”
“Humankind? Well… War and injustice.”
“I don’t think so, no. Those are terrible things we do. Try again. Something much more frightening.”
“More abstract? Darkness and fear?”
“I’m not getting across…” Chieko rubs her chin. “The main evil we have faced has stolen everything from us for hundreds of thousands of years. It has murdered an uncountable number of us. It has stolen parents from their children, and sometimes children from their parents. It has stopped talented people from being able to benefit the world further, not to mention discover of what they would have been capable otherwise. For so many millennia we submitted to it as a tyrant we wouldn’t dare to stand against.”
My throat is closing, and a shiver runs through my spine.
“Y-you are talking about the passage of time.”
Chieko narrows her eyes like a hawk.
“About the effects of time on living beings. It has rendered us incapable, it has killed us. One by one, generation by generation. Well, it can get fucked now. Talent no longer falls through the cracks of reality, hopefully until some other brilliant human being among millions and millions picks up where the previous genius was forced to stop. Not only that, those brilliant people are able to interact with one another. Our translators bridge the gulfs between every language that currently exists or has ever existed.” She points at the small hemispherical device attached to the skin behind her ear. “I wouldn’t have been able to understand any single word coming out of your mouth otherwise. And you can read any text like a native. Don’t need to take it off either, it’s hydrophobic.”
I hide my face in my hands. Chieko thankfully gives me some seconds to calm down.
“I know, it must be pretty overwhelming,” she says.
“Yeah, I feel as if I were hallucinating. So you are telling me that your society is partly made out of artists and inventors from every previous era of humankind’s existence, that have been brought over methodically…?”
“That is right. We figure out when and how they died, if there was any doubt, and we save them. We feel good in the process, it’s like we are gallant knights. I’m mostly an artist myself, though, but I was born here. I make virtual reality experiences. I’m going through a dry spell, though, as I told you.”
I shake my head slowly.
“Ah… So, which brilliant people have been rescued from the past, names that I might know…?”
Chieko shuts one eye as she tilts her head, maybe because she’s trying to come up with artists with whom I may be familiar.
“Well, for example, Isaac Newton was resurrected, although that happened a few generations before I was born. I only saw him once from afar. I recall he always wore the same clothes, kind of an eccentric guy. But he has become good friends with philosophers of old, Greeks and Romans mainly. He doesn’t live around here, though.”
My mind is reeling. I don’t feel capable of understanding all the implications of the SFPT’s work.
“S-so, writers like… Let’s say, Shakespeare. Is he alive too?”
Chieko lets out an appreciative noise, and nods enthusiastically.
“He was one of my main inspirations even as a child! He moved on to virtual reality experiences. So much of his new work is astonishing, and he adapted quite quickly to our modern times. Because I work in the medium, one of my goals is that he gets to experience my movies and enjoys them so much that he writes a recommendation. That would make me famous overnight! I’ve never interacted with him in person, though, but I’ve seen him at festivals.”
“Y-you could become friends with an immortalized genius like the father of the English language… I think I will end up vomiting.”
Chieko laughs, but she shakes her hands as if to dissuade me from throwing up now.
“Not in my car, please! If you seriously need to vomit, we can land.”
I feel so small, even in the presence of Chieko. She might be a thousand years old for all I know, although she looks younger than me.
“I-it’s alright, I was being… Thank you for making this whole situation so clear. I get it. Some of your predecessors made sure to rescue people like William Shakespeare, Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein and such, huh? No wonder everything looks so amazing. And after so many years there’s only small fries like me to bring over.”
“Don’t refer to yourself like that. So what if you aren’t Shakespeare? Neither am I! We can still be better than the day before. I’m not into competing with other artists, and it’s a suicidal notion anyway, when you might wake up one morning only to find out that any of the greats have released their next big experience, and after you watch it you know you will never be able to come up with anything remotely similar. But you gotta take it as a humbling experience.”
I hang my head low. I feel as vulnerable as a child in the cold. When I start crying silently, Chieko pats me on the thigh.
I only realize that she’s flying this vehicle in some other direction because the view changes. Once I feel strong enough to look up, my gaze falls on a vast plain. We are so high that the panorama must be encompassing dozens if not hundreds of kilometers. Other flying vehicles are cutting through the sky in different directions, and some of those vehicles are so tiny that they have been reduced to specks of dust that glisten in the sun. There are curved ridges in the distance that look like the raised rims of craters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the lakes, some of which are fed by serpentine river systems, are ancient craters filled with water. The landscape is green, probably because grass is growing everywhere, but I make out amorphous expanses of forests. Curiously, I don’t see any farmland. Plenty of human communities are hugging the coastline of lakes and have grown on both sides of wide rivers, but they have also allowed their architects to go wild, because some of the monument-like buildings sitting on the plains are the size of mountains.
I point at a group of those conspicuous monuments.
“T-those are pyramids.”
“Hmm? Ah, yeah, those were made quite a long time ago, a few decades after they invented time travel and started bringing people over,” Chieko says nonchalantly. “They weren’t here before we came!”
“Chieko, where the hell are we…?” I whisper.
“This whole area is called the Hesperia Plains. It’s close to a humongous inland sea called Hellas.”
I rub my temples. I feel a headache coming. Where have I heard those names before?
“Are we in… I mean, this is a different planet.”
“Mars. Just next door. It’s not like I’ve brought you to another solar system.”
I get goosebumps. I’m on Mars.
“H-have you guys colonized other solar systems…?”
Chieko grins happily.
“Hell yeah.”
I can’t face the view any longer, so I hang my head low. I take deep breaths to keep my chest from convulsing.
“Your people have made it, haven’t they…?” I say in a quavering voice. “My era was a nightmare. I was sure we would self-destruct, maybe to the extent that we went extinct. B-but you have survived, and made… all of this.”
“It’s a better world, sure, for new art to come forth!”
I’m feeling calmer and calmer. I’ve never felt this comfortable with any other human being, although she belongs to a different world.
“People don’t wage wars anymore? People don’t kill each other?”
Chieko laughs awkwardly.
“It hasn’t gotten that bad, not like it did in the centuries around your time. But people are people. Some communities are on the verge of war any given day, and for one reason or another, some bastards always want to cause havoc. Our town is as quiet as they come, though.”
“W-well… At least you’ve saved people’s lives.”
Chieko offers me a childish smile, almost closing her eyes.
“You were my first. I told you, this was a personal project. I had little clue about what I was doing, I was following the training. I’ve mostly done other kinds of jobs for the SFPT, related to working with artists brought from the past. We still live and learn through making mistakes! But I might get into it and figure out which other people I should travel back in time to rescue. However, the SFPT is very careful about these assignments. Frankly, if you had been an author of great renown, they wouldn’t have let me take the case.”
I stare out of the windshield. The sky is so beautiful. If a person could fly in those colors every second of the day, they would retain their sanity.
“I’m not…” I mumble. “I only wrote some stupid stuff…”
“Oh, shut it. There’s always enough food. People can print it on the replicators, even from the materials that the freighters bring over from nebulae and gas giants. There are enough jobs for those who want other people to tell them what to do. And you can lounge on the roof of your house and write for as long as you want.”
My mouth is twisting and my shoulders shake as streams of tears run down my cheeks. My throat burns.
“Alright, Izar,” Chieko says jovially. “You’ll live in my house for a while, until you get used to this place. Let’s go. You’ll feel different after a good night’s sleep.”

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