Future Tales, 2450
Poker Night 2450
by Dan Swanson
Part one Poker Night at the Magic Rock Cafe
Not many people got together for poker anymore. As a matter of fact, the number of people who did could be counted on two hands and most of them were here tonight. With zetabytes of absolutely free virtual reality (a.k.a. virtuality) available, when one could fly between the stars or explore the ocean depths or battle monsters or party, party, party, without ever leaving home, most people felt that playing poker was pretty passé. Assuming that they even knew what poker was. Of course, most people were too young to remember a time when virtuality didn’t even exist.
Not these 6! One had been born thousands of years ago (and yet, in some strange way, was the youngest one present), the other five had all come into existence in the first half of the 20th century. They had been playing poker together, meeting with reasonable regularity, for almost a hundred years. The location varied — tonight’s game was in the old Wizard’s chambers at the Rock of Eternity.
There was an air of sadness around the table, though — three of their number, Jim and Sue Barr and Tomas Thomas, were leaving Earth for a new career as interstellar explorers. When the three had realized that these poker games were the high point of their lives, they had decided it was time for a change. The group knew that it would probably be many years before they all got together again for poker, but their long lives allowed them to put this into perspective — they all had the potential to live at least another 500 years, and by then, who knew what medical technology would have achieved?
Jack Weston was now 530 years old, though his body looked twenty and he had never felt so healthy. He thought that without modern medical technology he would probably look and feel middle aged, but it was by now impossible to tell where his personal miracle ended and medical science began. In any case, after the Barrs left, he would be the oldest human remaining on Earth — if you didn’t consider the old Wizard as strictly human any longer. Jack wasn’t quite sure…
The last being at the table definitely wasn’t human. Almost eight foot tall, a bulky body made of silvery metal, with some black and gold highlights. His name was Mr. Atom, and from around 1948 when he was invented, until early in the 21st century, he had been one of the most fearsome super-powered menaces imaginable. Atomic powered, super strong, virtually invulnerable, able to fly at supersonic speeds and think with computer speed and precision, with an array of built-in weapons, he had often fought Captain Marvel himself to a standstill.
And yet, human computing technology had advanced, and Mr. Atom had not been able to adapt. His computer mind had been incredibly advanced, far beyond the level of publicly available technology, when he was invented, but eighty years later, high school kids with over-the-counter AI kits could build robots with more sophisticated machine intelligence than Mr. Atom. Still, his strength and invulnerability were virtually unmatched, even 500 years after his construction.
Mr. Atom did have a prodigious memory capacity, and he carried within himself a unique record of history. His memories were ‘recorded not reported’ and thus free of even the subconscious bias that affects almost all of humanity’s observations.
Not long ago (just over one-hundred years, but who counts?), some wet-behind-the-ears ‘historian’ had disputed Jack’s account of some past events — events Jack had lived through! At this point in his life, Jack just shrugged off idiots, but Tomas had taken it upon himself to teach this snotty baby a lesson.
Modern instructional technology, and his own perfect memory, allowed him to quickly bring his AI theory up to snuff, and he created a totally new computer brain for the Mr. Atom robot, while leaving the memories intact. Since then, Tomas and Jack had watched with amusement as Mr. Atom had developed a new, very Spock-like personality. Including Mr. Spock’s fascination with humans and emotions. Incidentally, Mr. Atom’s memories, and the corroboration of other sources, proved Jack right and the twink wrong.
Tomas was certain that he had completely eradicated the evil persona built into Mr. Atom by his inventor without touching his memory. They had all been uncomfortable around Mr. Atom immediately after he had been reactivated, but over the past hundred years, they had all but forgotten that he had once been one of their most deadly foes.
Mr. Atom was a formidable poker player, because he had no facial or vocal expressions of any kind, he was in complete control of his body language, and he knew the odds perfectly. And he had learned how to bluff!
None of these six needed their poker winnings to live on, but they all needed frequent contact with other elders. Not that they had been unable to adapt to the current times, but…things were so different now that sometimes they needed to escape.
This evening, the old Wizard was playing poorly. He seemed distracted. His friends could tell he was hiding a secret, waiting for the right moment to spring it on them, so, with the patience they had each learned over the years, they waited… while the Wizard tried subtly to guide the conversation. Mischievously, his friends kept changing the subject, but finally they took pity on him, and allowed his subtle hints to guide them to the topic of history.
“Jack, I have a surprise for you!” the Wizard announced pompously. There were some winks; the others had been trying to guess what might be up by the hints the Wizard had been dropping. five minds, still as agile as they had been 500 years ago, all leaped to the same conclusion! The Wizard saw the twinkles in each of their eyes, so he just kept on talking, making sure one of them didn’t interrupt. He wanted his time in the limelight.
“Yes, you bunch of snots, you’re right. I’ve learned something about Jack’s past. But it’s not what you think!”
For a long time, Jack’s retarded aging had been a mystery to this group. He had never used the anti-crime drug that kept Tomas and the Barrs young, and medical technology was unable to reveal any mutations in his makeup. There was a faint aura of magic around him, but the best mages of the last five centuries had attempted to penetrate or interpret that aura without results.
Strangely, what Jack wanted above all else was to discover that he was still mortal. He wasn’t ready to die yet, but he could tell that there would come a day when he just didn’t care to live any longer, and if he discovered that he was in fact immortal, he wanted to start looking for a ‘cure’ pretty soon. He thought not — he was pretty sure he could be killed by injury or disease, but he had recovered fully from any number of ‘fatal’ wounds and conditions — so he didn’t know for sure.
“I think I’ve discovered where your magic aura comes from. But I’m not sure the magic is what is extending your life.” Everyone started asking questions immediately, but the Wizard wouldn’t answer any of them. He was enjoying being center stage, and he was going to milk this announcement for everything he could!
“As you know, I’ve used the Historama to closely examine Jack’s early life, and I’ve never before found even a clue. Recently, however, I noticed what seemed to be a ‘skip’ in his life. There was one day I couldn’t see, back in 1938. That missing day was very well concealed. Jack was at boot camp, and every day was pretty much like every other day.” Jack nodded; even 500 years later he remembered boot camp!
“It was something I’d skimmed past hundreds of times. Jack was on special duty, and he had to report to a particular building every day, for the training that eventually lead to his career as Minute Man. There was a calendar on the orderly’s desk, and one day it showed Tuesday and the next day it showed Thursday — and who would notice a single missing day in a lifespan of over 185,000 days?”
Jack remembered that orderly, and how every morning he had given the boots a hard time about being on time, even when they were early. Now he realized it was just part of the job — just part of “the Army way” of breaking in the boots. It was amazing what over 500 years of perspective did for your point of view!
“This, of course, alerted me that some very powerful magic was at work, concealing some part of Jack’s life. For the past several years, I’ve worked tirelessly to develop my own spells to counter this spell of concealment.” He paused, now ready to answer the breathless questions from his audience.
They did not come.
Mr. Atom’s deep powerful voice rumbled into action. “Wizard, you would not be regaling us with this story on this occasion unless you had successfully discovered the necessary scrying spells. Please continue.”
Somewhat deflated by the bull’s eye accuracy of this verbal dart, the Wizard continued. “You’re right, of course. Still, it will be easier to show you. Please come with me” and he led the eager group to the chamber of the Historama.
Part 2: Historama Drama
The group was hushed as they viewed the scene on the Historama. There was no need to be silent. This event had taken place almost 700 years ago, and no amount of noise they made would change anything. But they were watching historical heroes, and learning things about their heroes, and their past, that they had never even considered before!
There were twenty men and women gathered in a candle-lit room much too small for them, especially as much of the room was filled with a wooden table, or perhaps it was more altar than table, considering the ritual that was taking place. The tabletop had been painted in one of the early designs being considered for the American flag — thirteen red and white stripes, a blue field in one corner with thirteen white stars arranged in a circle. In each star stood a lighted candle, the flames tall and strong and unflickering.
A large bowl was passed around the room, and each person placed in it a token of some kind. Speaking softly, the Wizard identified each man and woman, and the token each supplied. “Benjamin Franklin, a page from Poor Richard’s Almanac; Molly Pitcher, a wad of cannon primer; George Washington, an insignia from the Concord militia; Betsy Ross, a needle and some thread from the first flag she created; Paul Revere, a wick from one of the lanterns at the Old North Church; Abigail Adams, one of the many letters urging the Constitutional Convention to ‘remember the ladies’; the Marquis de Lafayette, a French gold coin; Deborah Sampson, her honorable discharge papers as the first woman in the Army; Benedict Arnold, a charred shingle from Fort Ticonderoga…” The list went on; all twenty were heroes and heroines of the American Revolution, at least at that time, and each offered as a token an item symbolic of some part of that historic struggle for Liberty.
Finally, the bowl was filled with mineral oil, collected and refined in New Hampshire, and set aflame. The gathered rebels joined together to offer a slow chant, and the power of that chant was evident even so many years later. The magic they were creating blurred the words of the chant, hiding them even from the power of the Historama and the old Wizard. What the observers could tell was that this ritual was not the summoning of some malignant supernatural entity, but instead was tapping into the strong, vital spirit of the people of the ‘New World’. *
*Yes, with our 200+ years of perspective, we now realize that the country the Founders envisioned was not nearly as perfect as we may have been taught in grammar school. Still, they brought something new and good into the world, and the spirit of that something new and good was tapped in the creation of the Talisman of Liberty.
The flames from the oil started to spin counterclockwise, and as they spun, they grew until a vague shape began to take form. Slowly the flames rose and coalesced to resemble a phoenix, then suddenly, the fire vanished, and standing on a perch in the center of the table was a magnificent bald eagle, the largest eagle any of the observers in either century had ever seen. In its beak the eagle held what seemed to be a very large coin, suspended from a silver chain.
The noble bird turned slowly and examined each of the men and women in that room. Each shivered when pierced by that magical gaze, as if the bird was reading each of them like a book. Only the phantoms from the future noticed that Benedict Arnold was saved for last, and his examination was only cursory. The others were still too stunned by the magical apparition they had summoned to observe this foreshadowing of the future.
Ben Franklin had devised this entire ceremony, and had warned the others what to expect, but they had never actually believed him. They were still in awe as Franklin reached out and took the chain from the mighty bird. The eagle then launched itself into the air and passed through the ceiling like a ghost.
The spell was broken, and the Founders all gathered eagerly around Franklin, anxious to see the object their ritual had wrought.
It was, oddly enough, Benedict Arnold who posed the question “Who shall be the keeper of this Talisman of Liberty?”
Part 3: The Talisman of Liberty Mystery
Back in 2450, the Wizard gave the others a brief tour of the history of the Talisman of Liberty.
As the Historama tracked the Talisman from its beginning into the future, the picture gradually became blurred and scratchy. By the time they had advanced to 1938, the humans were reminded of the television reception of that time, when the picture was often obscured by static and ‘snow’ (an experience virtually no other living humans had, as technology had long since passed the point of creating perfect images all the time). Yet their old TV watching skills quickly came back to them, and they were easily able to recognize Jack receiving the Talisman of Liberty from FDR.
To Jack it was eerie — before he began watching this replay of his own past, he had recalled nothing of the Talisman of Liberty. Yes, as each second passed, his memory of these events returned, etched in his mind as sharply as if they had happened only yesterday. He was not quite able to predict the events of the next seconds, be he somehow knew that the magic that had suppressed these memories had now been overcome, and he would never lose them again!
At the end of World War II, when Jack returned the Talisman of Liberty to Harry Truman, the picture was on the verge of undecipherable. They jumped to the beginning of the Korean War, and even with the strongest magic the old Wizard could bring to bear, they couldn’t tell who received the Talisman of Liberty from Truman. Whoever it was had been about the same size as Jack, and had dark hair. But they weren’t even sure of the gender. Watching the scene did not restore Jack’s memories, either, which he thought was a significant clue. They discussed this at length.
“I don’t remember getting it back from Harry for the Korean War. I’ll bet it was Commando Yank! I first met him at the beginning of World War II, and many times after that, we even worked on a couple of missions together.”
Bulletman, Bulletwoman and the old Wizard also remembered Commando Yank.
“He disappeared around 1947, and everyone thought he’d retired. Then he popped up again for Korea, and I have to admit, I was surprised at how much stronger and faster he’d gotten! Claimed he’d met some kind of patriotic ghost or spirit or something, who taught him some fantastic new exercises…”
He stopped, a puzzled expression on his face, and then he smiled, as a couple of centuries-old puzzle pieces suddenly matched up.
“Say, you guys remember Pep Pepper, Radar?” The all did, of course — they had all worked with him (or in Mr. Atom’s case, fought against him) back in the 20th century… “During the BattleWorld mission, when he must have been almost 60, he told me he stayed in shape so late in life because of some special exercises, too. He learned them from some guy named Captain Democracy, who claimed he learned them from the Spirit of America, or Uncle Sam, something like that!”
“Holy Moley!” Tomas winked at Jack. They liked teasing the old Wizard. “I knew Captain Democracy! He popped up after you guys got stuck in the Suspendium. My partner, Red Rocket, thought he could have been a real contender, except he got crippled on his first case.”
His thoughtful look was almost an identical rerun of Jack’s earlier expression.
“Say! I always wondered where Red Rocket’s wife, Lady Victory, got her powers from. She said there was some kind of magic in her shield. I wonder if she got the Talisman of Liberty after Commando Yank?”
“That line of reasoning may be emotionally satisfying, but there is no logic behind it.” Mr. Atom objected. The subsonic tones in his low, powerful voice gave it a gravitas that was hard to ignore, even when he spoke softly as he was doing now. “It appears to me that we are postulating that the magic of the Talisman of Liberty is what has kept Jack young?”
The others nodded.
“Consider, then: Our observations show that the magic of the Talisman of Liberty consistently brought the single candidate most suited for the role of the American Champion to the attention of the President, shortly before each war involving the United States was to begin. Jack was selected as the American Champion for the Second World War, even though Chase Yale, Commando Yank, was also among the candidates. It is illogical to believe that Jack’s many years of experience as Minute Man, his prior affinity to the Talisman of Liberty, and his extended youth, did not combine to make him a better choice than Chase Yale.”
This statement produced some nods from his comrades, but a couple of stubborn looks as well.
“Additionally, the Talisman of Liberty was always given to a warrior who joined with military personnel to face an enemy of the United States. Lady Victory was a super-heroine, but she was not a warrior participating in a war.”
This time, the stubborn ones voiced their objections.
“If the magic of the Talisman is so smart, perhaps it ‘realized’ that Jack was still benefiting from bearing it during World War II, so it chose Commando Yank instead. The US got two American champions for the price of 1” This from Jim Barr.
“Lady Victory was fighting the Cold War!” Sue added, emphatically. Bonnie Marlowe, Lady Victory, had been one of her best friends in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
“Both of those positions have merit, and I admit magic often does not admit to logical analysis. Still, the behavior of the Talisman was consistent for over one-hundred years before it was bestowed on Jack for World War II, and logic strongly suggests that Jack was the bearer during the Korean War as well.”
“Hold on!” this from Tomas. “You guys all missed the 50s and the 60s. If the Talisman of Liberty was still around, wouldn’t it have been given to someone for the War in Vietnam? There was no single American warrior in that war who was as noticeable as, for example, Jack, or Teddy Roosevelt, or Brother Joseph, or the original Minuteman. Somebody like that would have been noticed.”
“Yet, from the histories I’ve read of the Viet Nam war,” this was from Jack, who had several PhDs in history, although he had been trapped in Suspendium for most of that war, “it was really the first time in US History that there was significant domestic opposition to a war. Perhaps the Talisman could not manifest an American Champion in such an ambivalent situation?”
They finally turned to the old Wizard. “What’s your theory?”
“I’m not sure” he replied. “I suspect that the static will clear up in a few years, and we’ll be able to review this issue at our leisure.”
“That is indeed an excellent point.” Mr. Atom’s voice boomed and echoed through the many chambers of Shazam’s sanctum.
‘There are only two possibilities here — either Jack was bearing the hidden Talisman of Liberty when he was trapped, along with several of the rest of you, in the Suspendium, or he was not. The first possibility breaks down further — either Jack was still bearing the Talisman when he was rescued — or he was not. Almost 500 years have passed since then, during which time we didn’t even know that the Talisman of Liberty existed. There is no logical reason to expend energy in a search for an answer that will soon enough reveal itself.”
“That sums it up nicely, Mr. A!” Sue winked at him as she agreed. As different as the two of them were, he extremely logical and she extremely intuitive, they had one thing in common. Both were extremely practical. “We have plenty of time — let’s just table this discussion until we can watch the entire sequence of events without the static. If you find the answer while we’re off-planet, just give us a call.”
She turned to Jack.
“Speaking of going off-world, Jack, why don’t you come with us? You have to admit, with almost no serious crime and no wars, there isn’t much left for a super hero to do here on Earth. And Mr. Atom has shown he is more than capable of handling almost anything Mother Nature can hand out over the last fifty years.”
Mr. Atom worked with a WorldGov agency called WEMA, and about 25% of the Gross Planetary Product was devoted to improving the environment, mitigating natural disasters, and disaster recovery. While technology still had not reached the point where it was a match for the more powerful natural forces, it had reached the point where even a Category five hurricane could be weathered with relatively little discomfort. With WEMA and Mr. Atom on the job, there wasn’t much call for additional heroics.
“Sorry, Sue!” he replied, sadly. “I’m going to miss you guys a lot. The idea is intriguing, but you know how uncomfortable I feel when I’m off-planet. It’s almost like there is something magical pulling me back here. After a month or so away, I start to have trouble concentrating. It bothers me immensely…” they all knew how much Jack hated to admit to any weakness, and he considered this a weakness “…but I’m pretty much stuck here on Earth. Besides, how much fun would these two have without me here to liven up poker night?”
“I’ve always wanted to take up checkers,” Mr. Atom said, causing his friends to chuckle.
Jack ignored his friend’s jab and turned to the Wizard, hopefully. “Of course, if it really is magic, maybe you can find some cure for it!”
The Wizard waved a forefinger and a leather-bound book appeared, and magically opened, showing parchment pages covered with his distinctive writing. He picked a quill pen out of the air and made a note. Looking over his shoulder, Sue saw that the page he was writing on was labeled ‘To Do’ and the page was crammed with items. It looked like it might be a long time before Jack got his answer.
Of course, Sue and Mr. Atom were right — the answer to this Talisman of Liberty puzzle would indeed reveal itself. What neither predicted was that it would take almost fifty years before the Talisman’s concealment spell weakened enough for the Wizard to discover its whereabouts.