Sufficiently Un-Advanced

Sufficiently Un-Advanced

by Mark Rich

“How do we get out?” said Effie.

“Not sure,” said Ned.

He pulled a tuft of his red hair, straightened his white, dirt-repellent shirt-sleeves, and stepped forward to try the door again. No dice. He shot a glance at Effie, hoping to look as handsome as she looked entrancing in her Swerve-Fit skirt-suit, the seams of which adjusted with her every movement. Her hairdo—a lively chocolate affair—changed with her moods. It looked a bit shy, before. Now it had an unnerved quiver to it.

And here they stood, locked in.

The museum had emptied. The others would be down the street. They planned to meet for coffee before leaving first for the shopping mall nearby, then for the hotel. It gnawed at him, that the guide might usher everyone else into the bus, leaving the two of them behind.

“That docent must be here somewhere,” he said.

His hard soles clicked across the floor; her soft ones murmured alongside. It gave him a quiet thrill to take decisive action. The two of them, true enough, faced no greater peril than being locked in: yet missing the bus—! Who knew where the others might eat tonight?

And any moment now the lights might blink off, leaving them here among the cast-offs of the past—alone. In the dark.

Ned spotted the docent—Carlton—just in time to quell in-the-dark-with-Effie imaginings.

“Carlton! Carlton!”

Carlton saw their alarm and took alarm himself. “What’s the matter! Something wrong?”

“We’re locked in. We’ll miss our group!”

“Locked in? Can’t be. Closing’s not for—”

“We tried the door,” said Effie.

“Two, three times,” Ned said.

“Could you—?” said Effie.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Carlton led with long strides. Ned caught Effie’s eye and nodded. Out of this jam in a jiffy, and hadn’t he acted the tough sport through it all? She flashed a smile.

That afternoon the whole party of them, fifty-strong, had jammed through the open doors of the museum intent on finding revelation—which they found in abundance. Jostling shoulders at displays, Ned found himself bumping into, acutely noticing, and paying increasing attention to this Effie. They took in the museum at a more relaxed pace after that.

With this result.

Hurrying back to the door, Carlton led past dioramas that had fascinated Ned: the technology of fire.

“Long ago,” Carlton had said earlier, “fire technology took the form of two wooden sticks—remember wood? Ha! Anyway, take two sticks, joined with string. One twirls the other against yet another piece of wood, spinning it so fast the friction heats it to burning. If you claim your fire comes from two sticks, most people think you mean magic wands! People forget about friction, especially with so much maglev transportation around.

“Here,” he had continued, “we have flint. Who knows about flint? Anyone? No? Not surprising. It’s a stone that sparks, when struck with steel. Magic, to the uninitiated. A few decades ago, maybe more, people used cigarette lighters, or similar devices for lighting gas flames, with flint in them—actually a sort of artificial substitute: another advance! But nowadays, only antiquarians and geologists know flint, seems like.

“In fact it’s getting so that few remember that ‘match’ means anything else than—well, as in the phrase, ‘match made in heaven.’ People don’t light fires much, which means matches have pretty much fallen out of use, at least in this country.

“But then,” Carlton had said, “fire has fallen from use. There are people—I’ve met a few—who don’t think there is such a thing as fire any more. We don’t light cigarettes. Don’t have fireplaces, as we did when wood was so cheap you could burn it. Buildings and everything else—they’re fireproof, so you’ll never see one in flames. Some people go through life without seeing actual fire!”

How long since he had, Ned had wondered.

“To these people,” Carlton had added, “even fire itself—the oldest technology of all! Even fire seems magical—because it’s outside their experience!”

The trio reached the door. Ned felt breathlessly athletic after walking there so quickly.

“Oh, it must open,” said Carlton. “Try again.”

“OK,” said Ned. He stepped onto the mat.

Nothing happened.

“Go ahead,” said Carlton. “Give it a try.”

“I am.”

“No. Turn the knob!”

“Knob?”

Carlton demonstrated.

“Really!” said Effie.

Ned gaped at the contraption inside the door: a cunning device that locked into or withdrew from a corresponding socket in the door frame, depending on how the “knob” was turned. Who could have thought such an obviously non-electronic thing would work?

“You mean with just one hand you can open a door—without needing to step on the mat?” said Effie. “No electronic eyes? No voice commands? That’s impossible, isn’t it?”

“All doors open by themselves,” said Ned. “That’s what doors are!”

“But a touch on the knob—and presto!” said Effie, twisting it again, as if for good luck. “I don’t believe it.”

Ned stepped out after her. Flustered at finding Effie’s hand briefly in his, he barely heard Carlton:

“It’s like I keep saying,” he said, a bit sadly. “Any sufficiently un-advanced technology seems like magic.”

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