Visiting his grandfather always made Tad uncomfortable.
He was a strange old man; well, let’s be honest, he was downright weird. It seemed as though Granddad had gotten stuck in an earlier time, and his weirdness was that he preferred to stay there.
For one thing, Granddad refused to have a food synthesizer, although he certainly could afford one. His living space always had a slightly nauseating air, from the organic food Granddad insisted on eating, and of course, from his open garbage can. He often would make little jokes that Tad could not understand.
“To really know a man, take a look at his garbage!”
He liked to horde stacks of old paper — magazines, newspaper, and most off all, books. All of this seemed so cumbersome to Tad and such a waste of precious living space. Anything anyone ever would want or need to know was so easily available at the touch of a button. Scan-Screens would instantly appear at a comfortable angle, in beautiful, shimmering holographic images.
They were available everywhere, could operate anywhere, and Granddad, of course, refused to have one of those, too.
Tad skimmed along the LA-Trac and neared his grandfather’s Habitat Center #2641. At sixteen, he had just received his first transportation certification, good for five years and giving him the joyous privilege of independent travel.
It was exhilarating!
Tad adjusted two small dials — speed and destination — and cruised along at an invigorating 250 miles per hour.
A pale blue-white line of pure light energy carried him on a flawless journey. The ridiculous and grotesque accidents in gasoline-powered vehicles had been eliminated early in Granddad’s lifetime, but thoughts of history films shown in school still made Tad shudder.
People killed themselves in automobiles.
Tad felt a peculiar chill, and was comforted to sense the LA-Trac mini-car slow gently and make the gradual curve up the Habitat’s entryway. Stretching in sterile grandeur beyond the clouds, the building loomed 500 ominous stories about him. Tad programmed the little car to return in one hour, and it sped away like a comet on a gleaming white tail.
Granddad looked especially well today, even though he never used any contemporary methods to slow his aging. His hazel eyes were full of warmth, sadness and love. Granddad was a handsome man, or had been; his hair once a rich brown was now streaked and grayish. His eyes had begun to droop and crack at the corners.
Tad’s eyes filled with tears.
“Tad! It’s always so good to see you!”
“Yeah, Granddad! Good to see you, too,” Tad said quietly.
“Here! Sit! Sit! Let me move some of this old rubbish out of your way!”
Granddad scrambled to clear a small couch and coffee table.
Tad noticed the worn natural fabric that composed the cover of the couch. It was too warm to the touch and felt itchy. The only thing Tad liked about it was the beautiful navy blue color, the color of midnight skies in his ancient biology Scan-Text, the color in the glorious Scan-Screen images of space around the planet Earth. Granddad would never part with his old furniture, even though new ceramic frames and synthetic textiles offered luxury, beauty, and durability that would last a lifetime or two.
“Tad, could I offer you anything? Breakfast?”
“Granddad, you know that bread you bake makes me vomit and that orange juice makes me fart!”
They both laughed until their sides ached.
“That’s because, dear Tad, you have a body full of synthetics! You are synthetic!”
“Yeah, but I’ll never be overweight, or have high cholesterol or high blood pressure or heart disease or cancer…”
“Or the satisfaction of having a beer belly,” Granddad sighed, patting an excess of ten pounds on his abdomen.
“Ugh! How could you drink fermented grain-food?”
“Enough, young one. I want to show you something very important.”
“Please, Granddad, not another gross experiment.”
“No. Just look at this.”
He left the room for a moment and returned with a dusty old container that appeared damaged by insects years and years ago. Granddad lifted the lid with something that resembled reverence, although he abandoned all religions long ago. His old hands trembled and he held in them a fragile rectangle the consistency of a long-extinct butterfly’s wing.
“Look, Tad. Look at this.”
Tad stepped around his grandfather and peered over his shoulder. He recognized the object as a very old color photograph.
Over acres and acres of evergreen forest, there lay a delicate lavender mist. The early morning sun bounced a golden halo over the landscape.
Tad’s throat tightened and his heart pounded in his chest, despite his perfectly regulated body chemistry. The muscles in his jaw tightened with contempt and his voice spit through his teeth.
“This isn’t real, you old pervert!” Tears stung his eyes and clouded his vision.
Tad fought his emotions.
The forests on Earth had disappeared a century ago. Oxygen-supplementing machines pumped breathable gases into bubbled living zones where a few citrus plants grew; most food was synthesized in neat, clean wall units called Nutri-Pacs; all energy was solar or nuclear. Lasers managed transportation.
There was virtually no waste.
Trips near coastal areas were forbidden. Grass no longer existed, no houseplants; nothing grew naturally outside. No birds. No fish.
Everything needed was synthesized. Created by the genius of long-dead scientists, the raw materials — the basic chemicals necessary for life — were made and stored and remade again in huge sprawling facilities forced upon the land ages ago.
“This is a fake! You made this picture somehow!” His rage suffocated Tad; his heart banged against his ribs in some agonized, furious attempt to escape the hideous implications of what his grandfather had done. Part of him wanted to slam the old man unconscious, maybe even kill him; the other part, the little boy, wanted to fall in his lap crying.
Granddad’s voice calmed Tad. He expected such a reaction.
“These are the Rocky Mountains, Tad. The Rocky Mountains before…”
Tad stared at the photograph cradled like some sacred relic in his grandfather’s hands. An evergreen forest stretched to the horizon under the clear, clean light. The deep richness of color shocked Tad’s eyes. Such pictures were not permitted on any Scan.
“The Rocky Mountains.” Tad was numb.
“But come, you know I didn’t want to upset you.” Granddad nested the photo again in its box.
“In my back room…Please, it’s very important. Just for a few moments.”
Tad returned to the small living quarters, the shabby furniture, the clutter of paper, and the slight taint of organic food. He followed Granddad, expecting some horror of medicinal plants or a slimy squirming blob under an antique microscope.
When Granddad opened the door, Tad’s body jerked back in a shock reflex. His lungs began to tingle and seemed to expand, pressing within his chest. The room was more like a vault, an obsolete area for storing equally obsolete money. But it was flooded with sunlight.
Tad thought he might faint. Or lose control of his bodily functions right there in Granddad’s funny little room.
But the steady, strong arm of his grandfather kept him in touch with his senses. Tad stepped into the room and heard the door’s heavy closing.
He breathed real air for the first time in his life. The atmosphere of Earth: Lusty, green, wet, alive, at first made him dizzy and then filled Tad with tantalizing energy. He squinted into the room.
“What are you doing in here? Brewing up a new drug, a new youth bomb, some reproductive aid?”
Granddad was quiet, with that happy-sad look on his face again.
“When your eyes adjust, look around. Look what’s here!”
Aluminum trays lined the floor. In them, at various heights, stretching tiny needles to the sun, were sapling pine trees.
Baby pine trees!
Tad caught his breath and fought the tightening in his throat once again.
“Trees? There haven’t been trees on this planet for…” His voice trailed away in the silence of disbelief.
Crazy old Granddad. Pine trees and real air. Crazy old man, squandering his life, his space.
With sad eyes betraying the pride and hope in his voice, Granddad whispered, “And Tad, I’ve got pine cones!”
The little LA-Trac cruised silently, perfectly to Habitat Center #2641 and hovered on its blue-white beam. After a patient wait of fifteen minutes, the car sped on to its next passenger.