Materials Girl: Part 1

This is the first part of the short story I wrote for the XPRIZE contest.

Materials Girl

The little animated plane on the seat-back entertainment screen circled San Francisco three times before we were allowed to land. On the ground, my tiny window allowed me a glimpse of an impossibly white main terminal before the plane turned towards a squat building tucked away by itself.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking,” said a calm, authoritative voice. “We ran into a little paperwork problem, but it’s all sorted out now. Sorry for the delay; we’ll get you out of here as quickly as possible.”

When the seatbelt sign went out, I pulled down my carry-on and followed the other passengers out of the plane. At the end of the jet bridge we were met with a double line of people holding placards with names on them.

“What’s going on?” the middle-aged woman in front of me asked the closest uniformed attendant.

“We’re testing a new customs procedure,” he replied. “Find the assistant with your name and he or she will take it from there.”

The people in front of me slowly peeled away as they met their assistants. I was almost to the end of the line before I saw a young woman with short blonde hair and a colorful dress holding a sign with my legal name on it, the one I only used when ID was required: Dorothea Makenzie.

“Hi, Dr. Makenzie?” she asked with a smile.

“Yes, but please call me Tia,” I said.

“Tia, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Samantha. Follow me and we’ll get you out of here in a jiffy,” she said. If perkiness had a scale, she’d be a solid eleven. She trotted off towards a corridor lined with offices while I struggled to keep up—at 5′2″ I wasn’t exactly long-limbed.

Samantha couldn’t be more than a year or two younger than my thirty-one, but after two weeks of short nights followed by an overnight flight, her boundless energy made me feel ancient. All I needed was a cane to shake at “those damn kids” and I’d be all set.

“Have a seat,” Samantha said. She held the door for me then closed it behind us. The office was smaller than I expected, maybe five feet across by six feet deep. Instead of a desk, two overstuffed chairs were wedged side-by-side, facing the blank right wall.

I sat in the far chair and Samantha sat next to me. Her smile disappeared and she became so serious I knew something terrible had happened. “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” she asked without preamble.

“Give me the good news,” I said.

She blinked and stared at me for long enough that I began to wonder if there was any good news. “Well,” she said slowly, “you’re still alive. And you’re rich! And with your technical background, you shouldn’t have any trouble adapting.” She took a deep breath. “Sorry, I’m botching this. Most people ask for the bad news first.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Two minutes before 5:00 AM, your plane entered a wrinkle in time,” Samantha said.

This had to be someone punking me. I decided to play along, even as a nervous flutter took flight in my belly. “Like the book?” I asked.

Samantha frowned. “Err… no?” It came out a question but I didn’t think she meant it as such. “Experts aren’t sure what causes them, how they work, or why they appear, but the effect is the same: an object, usually a plane, enters the time wrinkle and comes out in the future.”

I laughed, but she didn’t join me. My laugh died and my heart kicked. “You want me to believe that I’m a time traveler?”

“Yes, of a sort. Your plane jumped twenty years into the future. You’re now in 2037,” Samantha said.

Instinctive denial rushed forward but I squashed it. I was a scientist, dammit, and I shouldn’t rush to conclusions, no matter how high my adrenaline crept. I thought back to the impossibly white terminal.

“Do you have any proof?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said. She waved her hand and the wall in front of us came to life. It was like no screen I’d ever seen. “What news source do you prefer? Most of the big ones are still around.”

The New York Times,” I said.

“Show me the top headlines from today’s New York Times and a livestream of the San Francisco traffic cameras,” Samantha said. The display updated with the headlines on the left and video on the right.

I scanned the headlines first. “President McGrath to Host July 4 Picnic” was listed next to a picture of a smiling dark-haired woman wearing jeans and a blouse, waving at the camera with the White House in the background. Another headline, “Moon Tourism: One Year Later,” had a picture of what appeared to be a large lunar station. The date on both articles was June 28, 2037. If it was a fake, it was cleverly done.

I turned my attention to the traffic cam feed. I easily recognized the Bay Bridge, but I didn’t recognize the small, sleek vehicles. The feed changed, showing downtown. People crowded the sidewalks and more of the same vehicles moved along the street. The vehicles’ windows were darkly tinted, so I couldn’t see inside.

I hazarded a guess. “Autonomous?”

“Yes,” Samantha said. “San Francisco was one of the first cities to ban manual drive vehicles within city limits. As a result, rush hour commute times dropped by forty percent. Other cities soon followed suit. I think Dallas and Houston are the only major holdouts at this point.”

“Why?”

“They claim any number of things, but the truth is they’re clinging to the oil money,” she said with a shrug. “Even though the oil companies themselves have already pivoted into autonomous EV tech. After the strict CO2 regulations in 2027, they had to. Most of them saw the writing on the wall well before that, though.”

“Is this a hoax?” I asked. “Or some sort of prank?”

“No,” she said gently, “I’m afraid not.” She was either the world’s best actress or she was sincere.

“Okay,” I said slowly, breathing through the panic that clawed at the edge of my control. I closed my eyes and pressed my hands into my face. “Give me a second,” I murmured.

“I’m here if you need to talk,” Samantha said. “I’m a psychologist and certified counselor.”

I’d lost my parents five years ago to a car crash. I didn’t have kids or a husband—hell, I barely had a boyfriend. My work was my life, but even that was likely gone now. I don’t know how long I sat there, trying to breathe, before someone knocked on the door.

“Excuse me,” Samantha said. She stood and opened the door. A man pushing a wheeled cart scanned her arm with what looked like a thin cell phone. He checked the display, then handed her a small box and a thick, letter-sized padded envelope.

“If you’re ready, we can set up your ID so you can get out of here,” she said. “I’ll be your contact for the next year, so we can talk again once you’ve had a little time to process everything.”

“Okay,” I agreed. What else could I do?

Samantha handed me the box. “This is your ID bracelet and connected glasses. Once you get used to the bracelet, you’ll probably want to get chipped, but this works for now. It’s already loaded with your data. Put it on and I’ll show you how to authorize it.”

The plain white box was labeled with my name, birthdate, and an address in San Francisco I didn’t recognize. I opened the box to reveal a lightweight pair of rimless glasses that bore more than a passing resemblance to my own glasses and a white bracelet about an inch wide at the widest point.

The bracelet was less than an eighth of an inch thick, but when I picked it up, it felt heavy for its size. The material was cool and slick, like metal, but flexible like silicon. I’d never felt anything like it.

I slipped the bracelet onto my left wrist. There was no clasp, and the band was big enough to fit over my clenched fist. If I dropped my arm, the bracelet would slide right off. “Does it come in a smaller size?” I asked.

Samantha smiled. “The size will adjust during setup. Double tap the widest section of the bracelet to wake it up. You’ll only have to do this in the future if you haven’t worn it for a while.”

I did as she said and the bracelet vibrated and played a soft, happy-sounding chirp. “Welcome to your new REAL ID, Dorothea,” the bracelet said. It sounded completely natural, like a human was speaking to me through the device. “Place your thumb on the bracelet for identity verification.” A gently pulsing circle of light appeared on the wide part of the band that I hadn’t realized was a screen.

“Oh, you’re lucky your fingerprints were already in the system,” Samantha said. “The authorization process without prior prints is a lot more complicated.”

I knew I’d been fingerprinted—several times, in fact, for various background checks and security clearances related to my research and then again for Global Entry. And while I hadn’t thought much of it at the time, the fact that those prints still existed in a government database supposedly two decades later was a little disturbing.

I placed my thumb on the circle and less than a second later the bracelet spoke again. “Thank you, Dorothea, your identity is confirmed. The bracelet will now size to your wrist.”

The bracelet material flowed in a way I would’ve never believed if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. I had a doctorate in mechanical engineering with a focus in materials science. While I mainly researched new battery technologies, I’d been studying various materials down to the nano level for over ten years and I’d never encountered anything even close to this material.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It’s a self-organizing nanocomposite polymer,” Samantha said, which told me exactly nothing. “Self-organizing” was potentially interesting, but the rest could be applied to thousands of materials, none of which behaved like this.

The band snugged against my wrist, slightly wider and thicker than it had been, but otherwise unchanged. “Initial sizing complete,” it said. “Is the fit okay or would you prefer it tighter or looser?”

I flexed my wrist, feeling weirdly constrained. “Looser,” I said.

The band expanded, giving the bracelet enough room to slide a bit from side to side. “How about now?” it asked.

While I was tempted to keep playing with it just so I could watch the material flow, I figured Samantha would be less enthused. “It’s good,” I said.

“Initial setup complete. If you need anything else, just ask. My default name is Didi,” the bracelet—apparently named Didi—said. The bracelet screen displayed the current time and weather.

“You can change the name to whatever you like,” Samantha said. “Though a lot of people just stick with the default. It’s imprinted to your voice, so you won’t set off any other bracelets nearby. It’s also connected to the internet, so you can use it to request a ride or order food or whatever.”

“What about cell phones?”

“Obsolete,” she said. “If you put on the glasses, you’ll have a heads-up display of any data streaming from your bracelet. The frame conducts sound via bone-conduction, so no one else will hear Didi’s responses. And if you later opt for the implant, you can train yourself to make all requests mentally, so verbal requests aren’t necessary.”

“But I already have glasses,” I protested weakly.

She smiled at me and I wondered what it took for her to not make it appear condescending. “These have been made with your prescription,” she said.

“How could you possibly—”

“You were scanned on the way through the jet bridge. A 3D model of the frame and lenses as well as your prescription was sent to our on-site lab. The lab machines can crank out a new pair of glasses every few minutes.”

I shook my head caught between amazement and terror.

Samantha picked up on my tension. “With your ID set up, you can access your apartment and accounts. The apartment is prepaid for a year, to let you get back on your feet. Are you ready to go? Your luggage will be delivered.”

“Yes, please,” I said. “I need out of here.”

———————–
Materials Girl by Jessie Mihalik. All rights reserved.

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