This is the second half of the short story I wrote for the XPRIZE contest. Read the first half.
Samantha took the box from me and led me out of the building. I focused on her colorful dress and intentionally tried to block out everything else. She headed towards a waiting line of the same sleek vehicles I’d seen on the traffic camera.
Up close, the vehicles looked even more alien that they had in the video. The wheels were made out of a complex webbed matrix that had to have been 3D printed. They didn’t have any visible lug nuts, and there were no inflated rubber tires, just a solid strip of darker material around the circumference of each wheel.
As we approached, the vehicle’s single door slid open, like the door on the side of a minivan. Inside, three bucket seats faced forward and three faced backward. There was no steering wheel, nor any visible controls at all.
Samantha climbed in and sat in one of the seats facing backward. I sat across from her, my carry-on beside me. I clutched my purse like it was the life raft that would save me from this sea of strange.
The car silently glided into motion, and a route map appeared on the window to my left. According to the ETA, the trip would take twenty minutes. The car navigated the confusing airport roads and seamlessly merged into highway traffic.
We headed deeper into the city. Yesterday, I’d been a researcher and professor at Stanford on a business trip to talk batteries with the Japanese tech giants. Today, I was a time traveler headed to an apartment in a part of the city I could never afford.
The car navigated perfectly. It waited on lights and pedestrians, gave cyclists appropriate room, and generally behaved better than a majority of human drivers. “How long did it take them to get the autonomous tech right?” I asked.
“Oh, they’re still tweaking it,” Samantha said. “They’re constantly trying to improve the efficiency. But it was probably in, oh, twenty-seven or twenty-eight that it really took off. Before that there were a few accidents that got a lot of press but were really a minute fraction of the human-caused accidents.”
The car parallel parked itself in a loading zone outside of a tall building. Samantha touched the door and it slid open. “Home sweet home,” she said. She stepped out of the car and consulted the padded envelope she still carried. “Wow, someone likes you,” she said. “You’re on floor forty-two. You’re only a couple floors from the top, so you’ll have a fantastic view of the bay.”
I followed her inside and into the elevator. “Your ID bracelet activates the elevator, so if you forget it or it fails, you’ll have to put your thumb here,” she pointed to a small black square, “to authenticate who you are. Otherwise the building won’t let you in.”
I nodded my understanding as the elevator whisked us upward. At the door to apartment 4205, Samantha went through the same spiel again—bracelet to unlock, thumbprint as a backup. She assured me that modern print readers were impossible to trick. I’d believe it when I saw it, but I just nodded again and let her continue.
The apartment had polished concrete floors and pale walls that fell somewhere between cream and white. The furniture was simple and elegant. The sofa and chair in the living room were black leather, but the throw pillows were brightly colored. The dining table had a bamboo top on a black metal frame. Overall, it looked very similar to high-end furniture from 2017.
“What do you think?” Samantha asked.
“It’s nice,” I said. I crossed to the wall of glass that looked out over a balcony that ran the length of the room, but I didn’t see a door. “Does this open?”
“Yes. Like pretty much everything in here, it’s voice activated. Just ask Didi to open the balcony door. There’s also a manual control panel on the wall in the corner,” Samantha said.
“Didi, open the balcony door,” I said. It felt weird to talk to my bracelet to open the door.
A subtle chime sounded throughout the room, and I realized that Didi was integrated into the building, too. The glass panels slid apart and disappeared into the adjacent walls, leaving the living room entirely open to the balcony. “That’s a neat trick,” I murmured.
“People are a lot more connected to nature and the natural world these days, even in the heart of the city. There’s a park on the roof and the balconies are structurally engineered to hold container gardens.”
She shrugged. “Most of us lived through the wildfires and floods and storms. We saw just how close we came to true disaster before the politicians bothered to stir themselves. If scientists hadn’t figured out how to efficiently convert CO2 into alternative fuel, we’d still be screwed.”
She shook her head, as if distancing herself from bad memories. “Anyway, this is your apartment. There’s food in the fridge and your grocery delivery day is Wednesday. You can change the day or contents, just ask Didi.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Here is a bunch of documentation,” she handed me the padded envelope, “that you can read to get a jump-start on the technology in the apartment. And if you have any questions, I’m just downstairs on twenty-seven. My contact info is in your bracelet. Don’t hesitate to call me, day or night, if you need anything, okay?”
“Okay,” I said again.
“I’ll give you a day or two to get settled and we’ll meet again later in the week. Sound good?”
“Sure,” I said, but she was already heading for the door. I followed her and stopped in the entryway. “Thanks for the assistance.”
“You’re welcome. See you soon!”
I waved goodbye and waited until the door had closed before I slumped against the wall. The silence pressed on me.
“Didi, play some classical music,” I said. The soft sounds of an orchestra drifted through the apartment. That was better.
I returned to the living room and sat on the surprisingly comfy sofa. I opened the padded envelope to reveal a thin stack of paper and a tablet about the same size and shape as the tablet in my carry-on.
A breeze drifted through the open window and brought the smell of the ocean. I turned on the tablet and blinked in amazement at the screen. The text was crisp and clear, exactly like reading on paper, while the picture in the middle of the page looked better than a printed photograph. I couldn’t tell if it was e-ink or LCD or something completely new, but whatever it was, it was incredible.
I closed the default documentation, opened a browser, and started digging.
News of our arrival barely warranted a mention on the local news sites. It turns out we weren’t the first plane to go missing—that honor went to some flight I barely remembered hearing about, now more than twenty years ago. We also weren’t the first to come back—one flight had only hopped three months into the future.
Other flights were still lost and would presumably reappear at some later date.
The flights that arrived before us were why the process was so streamlined: the airlines had done this all before. Nearly every major airport had a contingency plan in place for just such an occasion. The number of timeslipped flights was tiny, far less than one percent, but the trauma to both passengers and those left behind was significant.
It did not console me to know that timeslip passengers fell into the same bucket as disaster planning. It did, however, slightly console me to know that those other passengers had turned out fine. And because of them, all of my stuff was in storage and my investment accounts were ten times bigger than they had been in 2017, thanks to the help of a non-profit asset management company.
My growling stomach pulled me back to reality. I stood and stretched then decided to go out for dinner. After staring down at a screen for hours, I needed the movement. And I needed some time away from this empty box, pretty as it was.
The connected glasses activated the moment I put them on. And the prescription was perfect. I tried not to dwell on exactly how creepy that was. “Good evening, Dorothea,” Didi said. “How can I help you?” It sounded like it came from inside my own head, so the bone conduction must be working.
“Call me Tia,” I said.
“Is there a good hamburger restaurant nearby?” I asked.
A list appeared before my eyes, with menus, ratings, and distance. I picked a highly rated restaurant that was nearby and a pathfinding trail appeared on the bottom of the left lens. I slowly spun in a circle and the directional arrow changed as I turned. Fancy.
I closed the balcony door then exited the apartment. The door automatically locked behind me. I was three blocks away before I realized that I was blindly following directions and not paying attention to the turns.
“Didi, do you know where I live?”
“Of course. Would you like directions home?”
“No, thanks,” I said. But I paid more attention to my surroundings.
Mothers and fathers pushed strollers, people walked dogs, and nicely dressed men and women hurried past, in a rush to get to happy hour or that last-minute meeting. If it wasn’t for the impossibly clean streets, the weird vehicles, and the info streaming in from my connected glasses about every business I passed, I could’ve just as easily been in 2017.
I ordered a burger and fries to go. I paid with my bracelet and no one seemed to notice that I was a time traveler who had no idea what she was doing. I picked up my food and asked Didi to take me to the nearest park.
As I ate, I watched a group of little girls in princess dresses and superhero capes celebrate a friend’s birthday with cake, ice cream, and lots of excited squeals. Further away, a pack of twenty-somethings were playing a version of ultimate frisbee that seemed to involve a flying drone of some sort.
I took a deep breath and some of my tension bled away. People were still people—they still loved and laughed and cried and celebrated. The trees and grass and sky were still the same. And with this new reliance on electric vehicles and tinier and tinier electronics, there would always be a place for a mechanical engineer with a penchant for battery research. I’d have to brush up on twenty years of research, but I’d faced tougher challenges before and prevailed.
I greeted the growing twilight with a calm heart and a fierce resolution. I’d been given the one-in-billion chance to see the future, and I’d do my damnedest to make sure that I left it better than I found it.
Materials Girl by Jessie Mihalik. All rights reserved.