The XPrize folks recently sponsored a contest where applicants had to submit a 4,000 word story detailing what happens to the passenger sitting in seat 14c on an airliner that lands in San Francisco. The hook being that the plane is twenty years late on arrival although the passengers are not initially aware of this. It is meant to be a showcase for ideas about what the world might actually be like in twenty years, what innovations have come about, and it was required that it be an optimistic story. Sadly, I was not selected as the winner although, after reading the one that did win, I feel like one. I hope that doesn’t sound ungracious; I realize these things are very subjective. Also, despite not getting the free trip to Tokyo, for all I know I could still have been the runner-up. Rather than bury it away for all time, I present my story entry here.
By Michael Laird
My complimentary seat upgrade had given me my own window. I like windows, especially during landings and takeoffs. So it was that, on approach, I couldn’t miss the fact that the skyline of San Francisco had changed.
Oh, the Transamerica Pyramid was still there, but at least half a dozen buildings in the downtown area towered over it. When I had gone to Okinawa, just two months earlier, there had been only one, and it had still been under construction. The air lower down also appeared to be filled a plethora of little flying things. Drones? I was raised on a steady diet of science fiction so it was clear to me that my plane had passed into an alternate universe.
After we landed, I could see right away that the other planes all had one thing in common: none of them had any windshields, not even a fellow Boeing 777 we taxied past. There were also some planes that were not any model of aircraft I had ever seen before, including two that were clearly supersonic, despite having only a passing resemblance to the old Concordes.
As we approached a gate, I noticed the luggage shuttles first. Like the other service carts and equipment, they were still being pulled about by tugs, but these had no seats. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any people outside at all.
All this automation made me think. Forget alternate universes; was I in the future? I rolled that around for a few seconds, feeling a bit queasy as I started to realize what this might mean for my family. Then I did what I always do when confronted with things I can’t do anything about; in my mind, I put it in a sealed box, to be placed on a shelf where I would deal with it later.
The burning question now became how far in the future could this be? The best I could come up with was that it had to be more than fifteen years, but probably less than thirty. Then it occurred to me to wonder how the authorities were going to deal with us. We hadn’t broken any laws, hadn’t done anything wrong, but whatever our ultimate fates, we were likely to be sequestered while bureaucrats deliberated on what to do with us.
Sure, later we might get book deals or television appearances . . . would they still have television? Hell, for that matter, would they still have books? But being treated like a mushroom, kept in the dark and fed bullshit, was not something I was the least bit interested in, not with a whole new world waiting for me. How could I be breaking any laws if I slipped my leash and took a walkabout? If they caught me they would just return me to holding. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, was the way I saw it.
Time to put my brain in gear. The airport was a problem. It was a lousy place to try to escape from. Doubtless there would be security everywhere, and cameras, too. Probably cameras with all kinds of facial recognition. Maybe other kinds of scanners, too. I decided to leave my laptop bag on the plane. I could probably get it back later. I dropped my smartphone in with the computer, along with every card I had that had a chip in it, including my military CAC card. No way they weren’t all expired, in any case.
Money? My cash was probably still good, would still be honored anyway, even if people groused about the eccentric making them take it. After all, it said right on it that this was legal tender for all debts, public and private . . . although, weren’t there some places, even in 2017, that had stopped accepting cash? Had that even been legal?
Dumping the CAC card didn’t worry me as I was certainly already AWOL. AWOL? Hell, I was dead to them. It would have been a line of duty determination, too, since I was travelling under orders. Come to that, my family should have gotten something. Would Uncle Sam be trying to reclaim it now? With interest? Then again, they probably owed me a couple decades worth of back pay. I might even be eligible for retirement. Either way, that was the least of my worries.
I’d also have to watch the news. I’d seen movies kind of like this. If there was no mention of my plane that would be a very bad thing. I would need to go into hiding. I sure couldn’t go home.
Home! My daughters would have grown up without me. My wife? Well who knows what she would have done, maybe even remarried. Honestly? That I could handle, things hadn’t been good, but my kids? Another item for another imaginary sealed box.
A federal marshal came and held us on the plane for nearly an hour before, with a bunch of other law enforcement types escorting us, we were allowed to debark. It was emphasized we would all be going to a secured area. Some sort of paperwork problem with the flight’s clearance. I didn’t really pay attention, it was all bogus anyways. Of course, once they had us in the terminal, it was like herding cats. Some idiots insisted on trying to check their connections, other folks insisted on using the restrooms, and there were even some that were still trying to get their phones working, now that they were off the plane. Too many hundreds of passengers, it was a chaotic gaggle. I waited for my chance and, when we passed a crowded gate, I stepped over into the carpeted area and sat down between an older Hispanic woman and a black kid wearing glasses that apparently were some sort of VR setup. The woman glanced at me once and looked away. The kid never even seemed to know I was there. Now that I’d noticed him, I could see there were quite a few other people doing the same thing.
I was at a bad angle to see what passed for a TV, despite the fact it seemed to actually be a holographic projection. A circular pillar mostly blocked my view. Still, I listened. There seemed to be a lot of concern over squatters living in Antarctica, then there was a human interest section on a fringe group that was protesting for easing restrictions on elective genetic modification.
From what little I could see, the interviewee, along with a number of friends, had his genes and epigenetics modified so that he now appeared to be, more or less, a Tolkien-style elf. Unfortunately, the illusion was ruined every time he spoke. He had a rather nasal voice and a pronounced southern California accent. The elf seemed outraged that people like him still had to go abroad, where there were more enlightened countries, to get this kind of gene-modding done.
Nine minutes later, the assemblage of confused passengers from ANA Flight 008 and their keepers had all dribbled past. I stood up, nodded politely to the woman, who still adamantly refused to meet my eyes, and ambled out of the terminal, keeping my head down and my gaze focused on the floor. No sense making it easy for any facial recognition cameras when they started looking for me.
I wondered how long it would take them to start counting heads and realize they were short one recent citizen of 2017. Maybe more than one? Glancing around carefully, I couldn’t see anyone else from the flight that I recognized. Clothes hadn’t changed much though, so that really didn’t mean anything.
I got the date from a departures screen. It was really just a glass wall with endless information scrolling across it. Today was June 28th and it gave me a bad moment until I saw the year was 2037. For a moment I’d been afraid I really had gone into an alternate universe, rather than into the future. I still wasn’t sure that was preferable, but I’d at least been starting to get used to the idea. Twenty years to the day? What were the odds? Then I snorted at the absurdity of my own question. What were the odds of being dragged into the future in the first place?
Outside at the curb was a shock. The noisy, fume-laden pickup area, with its hopelessly oil-stained concrete, was apparently a thing of the past. A horde of silent little electric cars were in motion on clean white pavement. There were no crosswalks, people just stepped out into traffic, most of them not even looking, and the little cars evaded them. The cars also came to anyone waving at them and waited patiently while they put their luggage in and climbed aboard.
This was a problem. Those cars had no drivers and I was willing to bet they wanted some form of payment or identification I was not prepared to offer. There were smallish buses, too, but they posed the same problem. I finally just accosted a tidy looking middle-aged guy.
“Hey, excuse me, I’ve been out of the country most of my life, could you please tell me how this works? How do I get to downtown from here?
He gave me an odd look but it wasn’t suspicious. “Welcome back. Sounds like you’ve been a gone a long time. Someplace really remote I take it?
“Ya, dad was a missionary.”
“Ah, that makes sense. To answer your question, the cars can see our phones so they know exactly whose account to debit. I’m guessing you aren’t set up yet. They’ll still come to you if you wave, but you’ll need to use a credit card on the slot in the back seat when you get in. Just make sure no one stuck their chewing gum in it.”
I shook my head sadly. “This is news to me, all I got is cash.”
The fellow gave me a quick onceover. “Tell you what, I’m just going to Daly City but I can drop you at the BART station. The San Bruno one’s are all automated—well—so is Daly City’s, but the machines there still take cash, if I recall.”
“Hey, that’d be great! Thanks a bunch.”
After the usual awkward silence in the car, I ventured, “Once again, I sure appreciate you doing me this solid.”
“Solid?” He chuckled. “You really have been out of the country awhile. Well, you clearly weren’t a basic and it’s obvious, too, that you aren’t a druggie or a dropout, so it was the least I could do. We working folks have to stick together; we’re an endangered species.”
“Basic?” I inquired.
“Basic minimum guaranteed income. We all get it but when people’s only source of income is the dole—yes, that sounds mean but I hate euphemisms—then we call them basics. I know some of them aren’t bad folks, just people that will never make a living wage again. It’s not their fault there’s not enough to go around anymore; automation, you know—I mean, seriously, what forty-five year old trucker qualified for . . . that hadn’t already been claimed by another machine? I save my snide for the ones that sign up for the free drugs, or just plug into VR and go away for good.”
I nodded knowingly, with little more than a bare clue or two what he was talking about, “So what do you do for a living, if I may ask?”
“Custom printing, it keeps me afloat.”
“So . . . books, invitations, and such?”
“Oh, good lord, no. I print real things, but limited runs and one of a kind things, mostly. Like robots, custom machine parts, knick-knacks, ultralights, electronics, antiques, whatever pays the bills, even some food items. What folks used to call 3D printing. It’s getting harder all the time though.”
“How so?” I wanted to keep him talking so he wouldn’t be asking me any questions.
“You really have been out of it, eh? It’s because we are threatening the status quo, of course. We take a little business away from their automated factories and the one percent of the one percenters don’t like it. More afraid of what we might become, I think. So they come at us full bore with lawyers blazing. Try to get us all hung up in patent violations, copyright infringement, and, where that doesn’t work, they claim we are producing illegal toxic waste, greenhouse gases, you name it.”
“3D printing makes pollution? I hadn’t heard that.”
He shrugged. “Some, but we are already way cleaner than the big outfits will ever be and, with nanite resource gathering and cheap energy, we are about to start turning landfills, even toxic waste dumps, into gold mines as we extract all the elements people have been throwing away for centuries. As a matter of fact, I just got back from Los Angeles. A bunch of us have formed a collective and purchased the mining rights to the Puente Hills landfill.”
“Greenhouse gases are still a problem then?”
He snorted in derision. “Hardly. Artificial photosynthesis is pulling the stuff out faster than we can put it in. If you’ve been out in the third world you should know; the real problem is all those developing countries denying that quotas on gas harvesting should apply to them.”
It was easy to keep him talking until he let me off at the BART station. I never did get his name but he gave me an old fashioned business card, never mind that I saw it had letters and images scrolling across it before I dropped it in my shirt pocket.
Fortunately, he’d been right and there were a couple of machines there that took cash, one was broken and looked like it had been for some time. The only changes I could see on the trains were a lot of holographic ads playing to a captive audience. Seriously, they were everywhere, and they must have been targeted because, even though they couldn’t know much about me, I didn’t see any for kids, or for anything only a woman might use, although there were a couple of pretty naughty ones hawking items that a man might buy for a woman . . . if he knew her really well.
There were also a lot of folks wearing what had to be VR heads-up displays. I wondered if they could be set to screen out the holographic ads. If that was the case, I’d be wanting a pair myself pretty soon. I got off at the end of the line in Richmond and walked two miles before I found a cheap motel that would take my cash. The strange things I saw using the sidewalks, strange to me then that is, would fill a couple of books so I won’t even try to comment on them here.
I thought about trying to track down my family and at least give a call, then decided that might not be the best approach to reestablishing contact, even if I could find them. Besides, it seemed all too likely the government would be able to locate me if I did.
I needn’t have worried. The next morning, right at 0800 hours, there was a staccato knock at my door. There was little point in not opening it, so I pulled on my jeans and did so. There was an Air Force major standing there in full blues.
“Captain Mason McMillan,” he inquired?
“I’m Major Watanabe. You’re already checked out, captain. Gather your things up. I know you haven’t got much, but you might want to comb your hair. Meet me in the coffee shop across the street in the next five minutes, please.”
“Air Force?” I asked, more than a little bit confused. “OSI?”
“No, just Air Force Reserves, actually,” he replied. “Surprised?”
“Well, yes, kinda figured it would be men in black or something, maybe FBI.”
“The G-men are in the car that’s charging at the curb. My day job is as a federal marshal. The powers that be thought that, you being a fellow serviceman and all, it might be best if one of our own handled the initial contact. You aren’t going to do anything crazy are you?”
“Very good, five minutes then.”
And just like that, over coffee, with eggs that had never seen the inside of a chicken, and sausage that had grown in a vat somewhere and been 3D printed, he laid it all out for me. My daughters, including the older one’s husband and her baby daughter—my granddaughter it seemed—were already on the plane, en route. My wife was remarried and would not be coming.
The rest was kind of a blur until my attention wandered back.
“One question, major.”
He lifted his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Only one?”
I ignored that. “The most pressing of many, I suppose. How did you find me? I gave you almost nothing to identify me. I even kept my face away from any cameras.”
“Well that’s just it son, you set off so many alarms that half the police department’s AIs, along with maybe a quarter of the live cops, were watching you every step of the way after you left the terminal. In short, we didn’t find you, we never lost you.”
It was my turn to raise my eyebrows. “Why on earth would they have done that?”
He snorted before replying. “Absolutely no information was coming out of you, but you were clearly there for any motion sensor or heat sensing camera to detect. You were like a black hole. When a black hole starts wandering through your environment, you may not know much about it, but it sure stands out. Seriously, it really grabs your attention.”
“So much for privacy,” I grumbled.
“That’s been gone a long time, longer than you were gone, in fact. Ten years before you left there were places selling tech that let people see right through walls. It wasn’t great resolution, and ranges were limited, and it was really only of use to cops and fire departments, and only governments could buy it, but it existed. Now the kids down the street can cobble something together that can see everything you do inside your own house in high resolution. It sometimes even winds up on the internet for a while. There were laws against it, but it was like during Prohibition; they were too much trouble to enforce and too many people were willing to ignore them. Turns out privacy was just a transitory thing. Historically, people didn’t really have any concept of what it even was until about the time of the Renaissance, at the earliest, and now it is almost gone completely. What little we still have is due to artilects, dedicated AIs, constantly patrolling the internet and keeping all of us under nearly constant surveillance.”
I scowled. “A lot of us from 2017 won’t like that at all. There could be problems.”
“They might like the fact that most forms of crime are disappearing, even terrorism. Hawking once posed a question asking how humans could survive themselves for even another century. We seem to be solving that. Hell, even crimes of passion are way down—but you are right about the potential for problems. Son, I won’t lie. There has been some pretty heated discussion over how to handle you and your fellow passengers, but not because of privacy issues. We got used to it, so can you. The real problem is your plane was only the first to vanish. Pretty much every year since then we’ve been losing at least one, never from below about ten kilometers and usually, but not always, over large bodies of water. Skipped a year in 2027 but then lost two in 2029. Now you’ve come back and your return is going to give a lot of people new hope, but that’s not altogether a good thing.”
I could barely believe what I was hearing. “Why? Are you saying it might be a bad thing?”
“Maybe.” He held up his hands placatingly when I started to protest. “See, it gives people what may be a false hope and, somehow, keeping all those family members of the missing on the edge of their seats for decades with the possibility, but not the certainty, of their loved ones’ returning—well, that might be worse for them than just thinking they were gone for good. The higher-ups wanted time to figure out some way to deal with that, but they couldn’t do it. The only way would be to prevent anyone from knowing any of you on ANA Flight 008 have returned.”
“So, what? Are you saying they are going to pen us up forever in some godforsaken place?” The major didn’t appear to be armed. I wondered how far I could get before the G-men tackled me if I went through the back.
He tsked and said, “No one is going to whisk you away forever just to keep you quiet. We don’t even have life sentences anymore. A consensus emerged that it was kinder to kill a person than to lock them up without possibility of parole.”
“So you are just going to kill us?”
“We especially don’t kill anyone anymore, not even executions. For the same reason we no longer have long prison sentences. If you’re so bad we should keep you locked up for decades then we just start erasing memories.”
“How many memories?”
“We try to be selective but the only good answer is: ‘as far back as it takes.’ Hardly reassuring, I know, as it’s necessary to wipe back to before they even thought of doing whatever it was they eventually did.”
“You are going to wipe out all of our memories then?”
“Of course not. We’d have to take you back to your infancies to cover this up, and if we have to, in effect, destroy you and create a new instantiation of yourself within your own body, how does that differ from murder or execution?”
“But you just said society no longer allows execution?”
“If you expect human beings in the future to be consistently logical then you may have to go a lot further into the future. Peace, captain, we wouldn’t have told your family and be flying them in if any of these awful things was being seriously contemplated. It wouldn’t be allowed in any case, the artilects would have had to endorse it and they already warned us against doing anything but just reintegrating you folks.”
“You always do what they say?” I didn’t like the sound of that.
He shrugged. “We don’t have to. In fact, we often don’t when it’s just a suggestion to make things better, but we’ve learned it’s usually a disaster when we ignore a warning. In any case, we have some really good shrinks these days, with some serious tools at their disposal. Dealing with the fallout from this will be on them. Besides, there is absolutely no way this government, or any other, could keep something like this from leaking out. It would be worse than all those Roswell and Area 51 stories all over again, even if one of you didn’t get loose. It’s bad enough the conspiracy buffs will be blaming this whole time travel thing to be the work of aliens, or secret government experiments, or even the artilects themselves.”
“Are we sure it wasn’t?”
He smiled and shrugged again. “If I ever knew any reason why I could say that was so, well then, all I can honestly say is that I have no memory of it.”