“It’s not a date,” Tara told her mother. “It’s not a date,” she told her friends. But in the back of her mind, there blossomed a modifier: yet.
The grand opening of the Museum of Historical Attitudes was still a month or so away, but Richard had been randomly selected to tour the exhibits as part of a test group. She was his plus-one. It promised to be an interesting experience.
And it was.
The director explained everything to them in great detail. Face the displays. Put the helmets on. Your mind will experience what it is like to be someone else, to live at a specific moment in history. Of course, she hastened to add, they couldn’t guarantee the complete accuracy of, et cetera, but it was as close as, and so forth. And make sure, she grinned, that you don’t have anything metal in your hair that could come in contact with the neural plating…unless you wanted to be history.
Everyone laughed politely.
Tara was drawn to the Columbus display first. She had always been fascinated and repulsed by the man who opened America to conquest. Facing the video, a ship in the middle of the ocean at nighttime, she slipped the helmet on —
And immediately understood. Columbus was gazing at the sea, filled with loneliness, wracked with doubt to the point of physical anguish. I must press forward, he thought. I know I am right. I will win out, I will accomplish what I was meant to. But…but… The thoughts echoed through Tara’s head, feeling like her own even as she was detached enough to observe them clearly.
After a few minutes, she took the helmet off. Such boldness, such courage. And such small-mindedness, and a blazing focus that was destined to blind him to his deeds in the New World. Columbus was a man to be admired in some ways, condemned in others, pitied in still others.
But no longer was he to be feared, or despised. No longer a symbol, or a myth. Now something even more potent, heroic, tragic — a man.
Richard accompanied her wherever her fancy led. They sampled the minds of commoners from the Roman Empire, the Tang dynasty, the Mexican frontera. They lived inside Einstein’s sideways perception of reality, Marie Antoinette’s blinkered innocence, Suleiman’s tempered desire for empire. Each experience was still vivid even as it faded, and none melded into the others.
After several hours, they still had seen only a small portion of the museum’s offerings, yet Tara was too exhausted to continue. They walked up to the director. She smiled at Tara’s expression.
“This is amazing,” Richard said. “But then, you knew that.”
“Indeed I did,” the director replied. “But I’m always happy to hear my thoughts confirmed.”
“How is that possible?” Tara asked. “Everything so real and vivid. I’ve never had a VR state like those before.”
The director led them behind a locked door into a small room, the only contents of which were a bizarre-looking set of chairs with helmets attached. “This is the Sobject.”
“Sobject?” said Tara.
“Well, if we’re being clinical, the Simultaneous Subject/Object Perceptuator. But the MHA staff all prefer Sobject, myself included.”
“And this created everything we experienced out there?”
“Oh, no. We relied on the best historical research to build up the most accurate pictures we could of what people’s minds were like, both noted figures and commoners. Then we used the Sobject to record hundreds of thousands of thoughts and emotional states from real people, and blended them together via computer to create the ‘people’ you experienced. Meanwhile, your mind stays just apart enough from the action that you remember it from your own perspective as well.”
“Amazing,” Richard said.
“Want to give it a try?” the director asked. “See inside each other’s heads?”
They both looked at her.
“Oh, go on. It won’t hurt — nothing is taken or erased. Part of the reason we had this preview tour was to collect new patterns, new emotional variations so that we can continue to improve our experience. You’re not obliged, of course…”
“We’ll do it,” Tara said before she could stop herself. A few moments later, they were in the chairs.
As the director called in a staff member to power up the Sobject, Tara looked across at Richard. This had been a date, she reflected, and it had been perfect. From her perspective. But what did he think? He smiled at her, a little weakly —
Then she was looking back at herself. And then she found out…
“I never realized,” Richard said as they left, “just what an amazing person you are.”
Tara smiled wanly. She wished she could say the same. Sexist, somewhat venal, a bit cowardly, and a perfect memory insofar as the curves of her body were concerned. That was Richard.
“We should do something else, don’t you think?” His voice sounded eager.
But the date was over.
Let me know what you think of the story. If you like it, please feel free to forward the link to your friends! If it wasn’t to your taste, better luck tomorrow — a new piece of short fiction goes up every day.