Old DC

[Estimated reading time: 6 minutes]

Billy leaves his hotel after breakfast and walks the few dozen blocks to the museum.

The streets of DC look strange, uncluttered by the automobiles of Billy's youth, a ubiquitous sight that was already on its way out when Billy was born. Here in DC, much like most other US cities, the last of the Auto Century roads have been repurposed and transformed into wide and infinite-seeming parks that cut across each other in strange orientations.

Even a decade or two back, Billy would have needed to make a number of breather stops. Benches line the miles of park, but Billy walks past these. It's the best he's felt in a long time, and the sole reason he arranged a hotel so far away from his one and only destination here in DC. He wants to enjoy walking in the city of his birth, just this one last time.

The museum is a multi-block affair, a vast interconnected network of exhibits that range from small rooms to entire warehouses.

Billy taps at his wrist and a holo interface starts to pop up, but Billy dismisses it as he remembers that the point of today is exploration. Why beeline straight for the exhibit when there are so many wonderful things to see here first.

For a while Billy wanders around the museum and takes in the exhibits. Most of the exhibits are interactive and audience participation is encouraged, but today Billy mostly stands quietly and just watches as the younger kids "ooh" and "aah" at the actors, the costumes, and the realistic-looking set designs. The older kids are risk takers, so they ask the actors about life in ancient Rome or what the Civil War smelled like.

Billy gets lost in the exhibits and only notices the time when his stomach growls in hunger. It's already almost 1pm, so Billy finds a food court and gets lunch. The quick-stop restaurants make historically-accurate dishes, so Billy ends up with a unique combination of gelatin and fried chicken that perks up his nostalgia.

After lunch, Billy makes his way to the Montgomery exhibits. Billy crosses some former road that has become a green park and is surprised to see actual traffic.

There is a road in front of Billy, and on it are those gas-guzzling monstrosities that filled Billy's childhood and now act as a convenient story-telling mechanism: horses and cowboy hats mean that the story is set in the Wild West, drone transports and android attendants clearly imply a contemporary setting, while the automobile describes the Auto/Regretful Century.

There are half a dozen holographic cars on the road and a real bus.

Billy sees that the bus is approaching a stop some two blocks away, and decides to put his improved body through its paces, so he sets off at a jog that turns into a run. Billy arrives at the bus just as the doors begin to close.

The driver opens the doors and waves Billy in. Billy takes a deep breath and shakily steps onto the bus.

Inside, the bus is packed. There are people sitting at every available seat, and quite a few passengers are standing. Most passengers are holos, but a few are androids. The first ten seats of the bus are occupied by white holo and android passengers. Billy finds the row of four black passengers and his heart skips a beat as he sees Jean.

She changed her hairstyle, added wireframe glasses, and now wears era-appropriate clothing, but Billy recognizes her instantly. Jean notices Billy and a wide smile spreads across her face. She begins to stand-up, then remembers the setting and her role.

Billy makes a show of looking up and down the bus at every single passenger and the driver. He turns toward a white android in front of Rosa and does a small nod. "Would you mind terribly if I took your seat? I'm an old man, you see..."

The android smiles at the old timer, "Hey, my stop anyway." He tips his hat and leaves the bus. Billy sits in the now-vacant seat and turns to Jean. For a moment, they just look at each other and Billy can almost feel the decades drop off as he mentally travels back to his youth.

"You look great, Billy. Do you live in DC now?"

"Oh, no. We- I'm living in Osaka these days. Just here for a few days, playing tourist. You look great! How are you liking it here?"

Jean nods in appreciation. "Aww, thanks! I love the work, my colleagues, the tourists. Just last week I got to tell a Kuneetan group all about the Montgomery bus boycotts!" Jean is excited, practically jumping up and down in her seat. "My, how much you've grown, little Billy!"

Jean looks at his face and for a moment Billy wonders how many creases there are on his face. He considers asking her, and remembers the game they played in the past: he would ask how many blades of grass there were in the backyard, or how many grains of salt there were in the shaker, and Jean would answer instantly. It took him years to figure out that there was no way he could prove Jean wrong. Not unless he wanted to count the grains or the blades of grass on his own.

Jean talks about the various exhibits that she's worked in, including portraying Pocahontas, and Billy is sorry that he hasn't made it out to DC more often.

Two white tourists are waiting at the next stop, so Jean gets into character and Billy watches the performance from his amazing seat. Billy has been to a Heritage Museum in Chicago and saw this scene play out before, but that was almost two decades back, so he watches with fascination and no small amount of discomfort as "Rosa" is instructed to move to the back of the bus. While the bus driver calls the police, "Rosa" talks with the tourists about her life. They are strangely interested in Rosa's seamstress job, which gives Jean a chance to show off a hand-crafted dress she made for the role, a reproduction of Rosa's 1955 outfit.

Billy follows Jean and the cops out to the police cruiser. The bus with the tourists heads out, though, so Jean exchanges a few words with the cops and they un-cuff her.

"No audience any more, no need for the jewelry," Jean explains as she rubs her wrists where the handcuffs had dug into the skin. "I'm on break now! Want to get a coffee?"

"That would be lovely, young lady," Billy replies with a smile. He's always thought highly of Rosa Parks, so it was a pleasure to see Jean enjoying that role.

"I could try looking my age, too," Jean adds and her face sags with wrinkles of old age. Spots grow quickly, the skin gets a blue tinge to it. "We are almost the same age, now." They walk hand in hand across a few avenues to an outside cafe.

"What have you been up to this last year?" Billy asks.

"Just the usual, which around here is oddly depressing and patriotic. We're living the museum motto..." Jean waits for Billy, they both prepare for the punchline and say it at the same time: "If history doesn't make us uncomfortable, that's called propaganda." They laugh at the old joke.

"We've been making that same joke for close to eighty years now," Jean remarks.

"It'll always be true, so it's got out-of-this-world staying power," Billy replies, watches Jean expectantly as they walk across a green park that is planted in a former roundabout.

"I've done some court events, of course, mostly civil rights cases. The 1900s are a treasure-trove of material. I've also been a few women soldiers or, usually, civilian spies in various wars. That was nice: the roles spanned four thousand years and I got to learn and teach a woman's perspective from a variety of eras. And of course I've portrayed a few rockers having an epiphany slash a melt-down. I've been a bunch of different people over the past couple of years. But I find myself taking this bus fairly often. Something about Rosa has always felt fascinating to me."

Billy nods, recalls fondly his childhood lessons, when Jean would take on all the various faces and pretend to be the various trailblazers from history.

"You've lived, and lived countless other lives, too!" Billy nods, then his face sags.

"Where were you? After your wife died, where did you go?" Jean asks softly.

"I'm going on the NM Amagi."

"The star ship. In two days?"

Billy nods.

"I'm going to miss you, Billy."

"I'm going to miss you too, Jean. But, we don't have to miss each other. Do you want to come with me?"

"What would I do on a generation ship?" Jean asks. "I can watch a bunch of humans for a thousand years, but what's the point? I hear that there are no android on the Amagi."

"There are few androids to humans, that's true, but that's not to say that there are none. There are a few dozen. As to what you would do? What you are doing here. Teach people their heritage. That's, arguably, the most important work of all. A culture cannot maintain without a historian."

They get to the cafe and busy themselves getting coffees, then seasoning them as appropriate. Billy holds the door open for Jean as they exit.

Jean hums to herself as they walk from the coffee shop to the reflective pool. "You've put on some weight, haven't you, Billy?" Jean looks back at Billy suspiciously.

Billy's face lights up and pulls tight around his features, reversing his age to his twenties. He smiles at Jean and a moment later he is once again an old man.

"Good for you, Jean. I wondered. If anyone could spot me, it would be you. But you have to admit, this getup is pretty convincing." Billy turns around, as if admiring the craftsmanship behind his entire being. "I'm an android these days. They scanned me and put me in this body. Top of the line. Lynn's insurance policy bought it for me. Her last act." Billy tears up at the mention of his former wife.

Jean looks around, sifts through memories of events, recalls thousands of performances just in this area around the reflective pool. She looks at Billy and remembers him through the years, starting with that first meeting when he turned seven years old. Jean was two, but already taller than Billy.

"Let's go," she says to him, both now and then, ninety years ago.

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