(This short story was originally submitted to the “Seat 14C” writing competition held in 2017…I lost.)
Seat 14C of ANA Flight #008 was a vindictive demon, its tendrils writhing around Kara’s body. She was trapped. Flying was the worst you could ask of her, and it was only with the help of a mild sedative that she managed any rest at all.
When she finally awoke, she sensed something had changed.
Kara frowned, acknowledging the emptiness behind her reflection in the mirror at her side. Earlier in the flight she had gazed out at the wispy cirrus clouds above and the almost imperceptible ocean waves below. The window had inexplicably disappeared, and in its place there was a cold mirror behind which lay nothingness. Kara tilted her head toward the tiny cabin, but her mother and granddaughter had vanished from the adjacent seats. The alarming yet familiar sights and sounds of the aircraft were gone. The whirring vibration was there, but it was changed.
What is this? Kara thought. She grew worried.
Everything. It was all wrong.
“Thank you for flying with ANA. We have arrived at our destination. Please be sure to gather all personal belongings before leaving the cabin. Have a wonderful day!”
Kara stood instinctively, wobbling on her feet while she waited for the other passengers to depart from the changed cabin. She looked at each of their faces one by one, and her jaw hung wide open as they exchanged passing glances with her. Looking back to the mirror, she gazed into her own eyes and blinked. Kara had been born with complete heterochromia. One iris was blue, and the other brown. Many of these people seemed to have heterochromia as well.
What is this rubbish?
A sense of dread raced through her body. She quickly exited, forgetting to grab her belongings from an overhead compartment that no longer existed.
She swiveled on her heels once outside, awestruck by the foreign surroundings. These people were dressed strangely, but there was something else off about the bizarre scene. The crowd oozed through the terminal with a lethargy that wasn’t quite right for a big city airport. Kara absentmindedly realized she had stepped out of a tiny vehicle that bore no resemblance to aircraft. What was it?
The somewhat elegant transport had deposited itself along a narrow platform from a vacuum tube that seemed to rest beneath the surface. Now that she concentrated on it, she thought she could hear the churning of waves overhead.
How did I get underground? Balderdash!
Clearly printed on the outside of the vehicle was the familiar banner for ANA Flight #008. There were other vacuum tubes carrying more tiny transports into the terminal, each depositing itself from the tube with a gentle popping sound. Each was painted with a different airline’s brand and flight number. This was definitely SFO, or what it had become.
Kara was home.
A voice from an overhead speaker startled her: “We hope you have enjoyed traveling via H-Loop. If you have any questions or concerns–”
“–Do you require assistance?” someone interrupted.
Startled, Kara whirled around to face him. One of his eyes was red. The other was brown.
“No,” she replied, unsure how to respond. “I most certainly, absolutely do not!”
He nodded. “Very well, Kara. Welcome back!”
Her heart exploded into palpitation. He knows my name…What is this all about?
Before she spoke to anyone else, she needed more information about what had happened when she fell asleep on that atrocious, malevolent, god-forsaken flight. She raced out of SFO, taking only a moment to note the lack of security. No guards, no guns, no cameras. Could she have been wrong to think this was really SFO? It was certainly lacking in the air transportation department.
Outside, she knew the answer. Even in the early days of summer the breezy sea air of San Francisco could chill an outsider to the bone. That much hadn’t changed. Luckily for her, she was used to it.
Kara looked around, then strolled over to a small newspaper rack. “Now what is this nonsense?” she asked aloud. “The newspapers are blank! What kind of pinheaded infant tries to sell a bundle of blank paper?!” Wondering if the newspapers behind the outer display were also devoid of one of the world’s most superb inventions, ink, she focused on figuring out how to pay.
Kara jumped back in surprise as the rack suddenly flung itself open. A pleasant feminine voice urged her on: “Please take your copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, and have a wonderful day!”
Kara grabbed the paper, and leafed through the pages. They were blank. Every single one. Completely blank, barren, virgin paper. Her mouth hung open, a thin band of drool slowly making its way to the sidewalk. A man jogging with his dog stopped by her side.
“Is everything all right there, ma’am?”
One of his eyes was purple. The other was blue.
Gosh darn it all.
“Oh yes, it’s pleasantly mundane. Just the way I like it.” She tried to smile, but her facial muscles weren’t having the desired effect on outward appearance.
“You look somewhat ruffled, ma’am.”
“I am quite unruffled, I assure you.”
He pointed a finger at his purple eye while glancing down at her blank copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Is your, uh–is that working for you?”
He pointed to the newspaper: “May I?”
“Oh, please. Do help yourself.”
He took the paper and unfolded it. He announced, “Oculus Read.” He studied the paper for another moment, then handed it back. “Oculus Off,” he said. “Everything seems to work for me. Looks like there might be life on that planet after all! Isn’t that exciting?” He paused. “Ma’am…Have you been checked out lately?”
“For cell deterioration, mutations, abnormalities, memory loss. That sort of thing. You definitely don’t want to be out walking with an Oculus that has Alzheimer’s. I know a good specialist down the street, and I can summon a vehicle if you like.”
A tear rolled down her cheek. She wasn’t sad or anything like that. No, instead she was feeling entirely different emotions. She wanted to scream and run away, and maybe take a bat to a window or five, but that wouldn’t be appropriate for a lady. Her parents had taught her all the proper manners–back in the day.
“I’m perfectly fine on my own,” she replied. “Thank you so much, darling.”
She walked away as quickly as she could with the newspaper dangling in her hand, growing more perplexed with every step. Before she made it more than a few feet, a small–and very silent–bus came to an abrupt halt by her side. She nearly burst into obscenity as the doors of the bus opened.
“Hello Kara!” a voice exclaimed.
There was no driver inside. No steering wheel.
“Would you like to explore The Rock today?” the driverless demon bus asked. “It’s the number one tourist destination in the country!”
“Oh good lord,” Kara said. “Very well. I think I have some time on my hands, in any case. What’s the charge?”
She stood there, puzzled. Surely she had to pay something.
“Will you be riding the transport to Alcatraz today, Kara?”
“Wait…How on earth do you know my name?”
“Your Oculus is set to share information with local entertainment establishments and driverless shuttles based on your preferences. The database shows you have scheduled recreational time to explore the city today. I see that you visited Alcatraz at least seven times in the last thirteen years, but it’s been a full five years since your last excursion. Surely you’d like to see the number one tourist destination again!”
What in molasses. “Of course. I surely would.”
“Wonderful! Please watch your step as you make your way onto the transport.”
Well, she thought to herself, look at that. A free bundle of blank paper and a free ride. Maybe I can find myself a free man, too. Blessed day.
The doors slid shut and the bus started to roll along as Kara stepped inside. She took a seat across from another passenger whose eyes were on yet another blank newspaper. He had pink eye, and it definitely wasn’t the medical condition. She looked down to the blank paper in front of her and took a deep breath as she readied herself for public embarrassment.
“Oculus Read,” she demanded.
And just like that, the San Francisco Chronicle came to life. Vivid, life-like images crawled across the page. The device projected high-definition photographs and videos seamlessly onto the blank surface, simultaneously announcing headlines and briefly paraphrasing each article. Kara looked around, wondering if anyone else could hear the unknown audio source. No one paid her any attention. It seemed that the Oculus-whatever was capable of more magic than she thought.
The Oculus began ranting quickly, showcasing images of an icy planet hurtling through the blackness of space: “A gang of nanoprobes racing through the Oort Cloud on their way to Proxima Centauri nearly stumbled into a rogue planet approximately three times Earth’s mass. Quickly dubbed Steppenwolf C, the giant world appears to maintain a thick crust of ice atop a liquid ocean that Rift AI believes could harbor life. The ISU immediately voted to manufacture and deploy more probes to further study the planet based on the advisement of Rift AI. This discovery brings the total number of planets found throughout the galaxy to 18,397,062 and the number of potentially life-harboring planets with liquid water up to 3,293,645. To date, 33 extrasolar bodies with microbial life are confirmed.”
Kara had so many questions already. What was the ISU? What was the Rift AI? Had life really been discovered elsewhere in the galaxy? What bloody year was it? The Oculus continued to ramble on before she could figure out how to explore the news article in depth.
“31 years after the experiment was initiated, Masdar City passed yet another threshold: the population exceeded 13 million people last month. Outlying areas continue to adopt its sustainability precedents, and 171 similar projects have surfaced around the globe in the last decade alone.”
Oculus continued to the next headline: “The first case of stage two cancer in nearly five years has been reported in…”
But Kara got an idea. “Oculus!” she exclaimed, stealing glimpses from those around her. “What is today’s date and year?”
Someone snickered, but Kara paid no mind.
The audio was promptly interrupted, and new information was transmitted instead. “Today’s date is June 28, 2037.”
Blasphemy, Kara thought. She tapped her fingers on the armrest as her heart came perilously close to spontaneous combustion inside of her chest. “Can I search the Chronicle’s archives?”
“Of course, Kara. What would you like to search for?”
“The history of aviation over the past…two decades.”
“Very well, your search has been completed. You may choose to sift through relevant articles manually, or I can provide a number of short audio compilations summarizing aviation history over the past two decades.”
“An audio compilation would be dandy, thank you.”
“Aviation has declined over the past two decades.”
Kara waited, but apparently that was all the Oculus had to say on the subject. “Ummm…Could you elaborate further?”
The Oculus did not continue.
“Why is aviation in decline?” Kara asked.
“According to all available records, air travel began to gradually decline subsequent to the widespread adoption of driverless vehicles in arid climates by 2025. The adoption of H-Loop travel shortly thereafter compounded the effect, leading to a rapidly diminishing public interest in a slower, more time-consuming mode of travel that had yet to make the transition to clean energy amid apocalyptic climate change projections. Today, air transportation constitutes only 13 percent of long-distance consumer-based travel. This trend is expected to continue based on estimates made by Rift AI for over 178 quintillion potential real-world outcomes.”
“What the fuck.”
Kara heard a child’s laughter, and put her hand to her mouth when she realized she had spoken aloud. She didn’t understand what the Oculus was talking about, though. H-Loop was obviously how she had been brought to SFO, but was it responsible for the jump through time? What did the Oculus thingamajig mean when it mentioned Rift AI’s estimates?
“Oculus…What is Rift AI?”
“I am Rift AI.”
“I thought you were the Oculus.”
“Incorrect. The Oculus is the Oculus. I am not the Oculus.”
“Could you be more…specific?”
“Rift AI governs and maintains the virtual worlds that inhabit your Oculus.”
“I don’t understand. Where did it come from?”
“By 2027, human-like intelligence had been widely adopted by networked computer systems all over the world. While this transition was often confused with a predicted technological singularity, it was not one. Even so, the realization that computers could match or exceed an average human’s capacity for learning–and even creativity–led to worldwide panic. Unlikely doomsday scenarios were contrived by the millions, and a disproportionate reaction became inevitable. Soon enough the Internet as humanity knew it was dismantled one networked system at a time. In its place, Rift AI was born.”
The Oculus stopped. Kara still didn’t understand any of it.
This is disturbing.
“Oculus…has a technological singularity occurred since 2027?”
“Because artificial intelligence is now confined to the Rift, a real-world technological singularity was postponed. Once the Rift was activated in 2028, however, a virtual singularity occurred in the space of only five years. Virtual technology has been progressing at a rapid, exponentially growing rate ever since.”
“But what’s the difference between a technological singularity in the real world versus a technological singularity in the Rift? You’re not making any sense at all!”
“Humans experience the Rift through the Oculus. While you can freely walk into the virtual worlds of the Rift, its AI remains confined. Interaction between the real world and the virtual world is limited to information, but that data usually flows in a single direction. Imagine a videogame or an automated simulation that runs on its own, building a virtual universe. The characters inside of that universe can interact with you, but they cannot effectuate change in the real world. Although the Rift AI runs on a virtual computer within the Oculus, for the most part without human oversight, it can only provide you with data. How you use the data in the real world is entirely up to members of your own society.
“For example, if Rift AI was provided with real world data about an imminent threat to humanity, it could determine an infinite number of scenarios best suited to deal with that threat. Does that make sense, or shall I elucidate further?”
“No, no, don’t do that. I understand completely.”
She did not.
Kara had no idea what else to ask. She would have to figure out a different way to find more information. A better way.
There was a slight jolt as the vehicle stopped. Kara glanced out the window. They had arrived at the small port where the Alcatraz Island Ferry was located. That, at least, seemed unchanged. She slipped the blank San Francisco Chronicle to the floor and proceeded to evacuate the driverless demon bus.
She hoped it was safe to assume she didn’t need to pay for a ticket, or that she perhaps had a vast sum of cash tucked away in a virtual bank. She headed straight for a long line of people waiting for the ferry, and stepped behind an ancient Middle Eastern man. She tapped him on the shoulder. He smiled as he turned around, gently stroking the end of a flawless long white beard.
God, is he ever old.
“Yes, my dear?”
Despite being decrepit, he appeared energetic. Kara noticed immediately that both his eyes were crystal clear blue. “Hi,” she said. “No Oculus?”
He held his palms out. “No, not for me.”
“I never did like computers. I much prefer the real world over false realities. I have enough addictions to feed.”
The real world. Life on other real worlds. False realities. Real realities. The Oculus AI. The Rift. Vivacious elderly Middle Eastern men visiting the Rock. What did it all mean?
“Do you often venture into the Rift?” the old man asked.
“Oh, all the time. Constantly.”
It was strange to see an elderly Middle Eastern man who spoke the way he did, but she quickly realized that he wasn’t speaking English at all.
“How can you understand me?” she asked.
His smile widened. “I understand the language, but I cannot speak it so well. You have your Oculus translator to do the work for you anyway. So there’s no need.”
“Right, of course. How could that ever have slipped my mind?”
“Do you have any children?” he asked.
He pointed to his side. There were four or five kids waiting patiently in line. “Kids. Do you have any?”
“Oh…Yes, I have a daughter. Are those your grandchildren?”
“They are at that.”
They turned and walked together, side by side, as the line progressed toward the docks. It was peaceful there, listening to the waves, and the children weren’t at all unruly. They moved lazily along. It seemed to her that kids were usually more active.
“What about the kids?” she asked.
“Your grandchildren. Do they…go into the Rift?”
“Of course. They’re playing in the Rift right now. The little girl over there is probably capturing all manner of cartoonish virtual monsters. Her twin sister is learning Japanese. And as for the older one…Well, the boy is in a meeting with Alexa.”
“The sweet Amazon princess. We couldn’t survive without her! She practically runs the entire household.”
Even though he hid it, he seemed to understand that Kara didn’t know anything she was supposed to know. He and his family belonged; she did not. He was a wise old man; she was an imbecile.
“An Amazon princess runs your entire household?” she asked.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“But your grandson is meeting with her now.”
The man nodded. “Indeed he is. When the boy was only a few years old, Alexa was able to pick up on visual and audio cues to diagnose him with an increased likelihood of anxiety and depression. She speaks to him. He speaks to her. I can’t quite understand it, but Alexa communicates with him in ways that most parents never could. I’m entirely convinced that suicide rates have plummeted so far in large part due to Alexa’s therapy. We have Oculus to thank for letting her keep an eye on him everywhere he goes.”
Is such a thing really possible? Kara wondered. Malarkey!
They walked directly onto the ferry. There was no security she could see, and no one stopped to ask for tickets or money. She felt safe with the man, and so she stayed by his side.
“Where are their parents?” she asked.
“Dead,” he replied curtly. “In a terrible accident, I’m afraid. The world is unfair, is it not? I have artificial organs inside of my body, courtesy of the Rift AI’s insight into genetic engineering and bioprinting. I’ve been kept alive for so much longer than I could have ever imagined when I was a boy. It doesn’t feel right for me to be here when they aren’t. Is that not the true nature of the world? No matter how far the technology goes, there will always be accidents. There will always be pain and suffering and death.”
The man put his hand through the air.
“But perhaps there will be more life, don’t you think? Perhaps we will do more, see more, experience more before we go. Perhaps we will give more.”
“I think you’re right,” Kara said.
A quiet moment passed, and then another. Finally, he placed a hand lightly on her arm and asked her a strange question. “Do you work?”
She rubbed at her temples, straining to think. Of course I work. She couldn’t seem to remember where, so she shook her head. The breeze flowed through her hair and she let it rejuvenate her. She and the old man stood along the railing of the ferry and peered out over the side. From afar, the San Francisco skyline really hadn’t changed much in twenty years.
It was funny.
Close up, she could see the variation. All the little differences here and there. Then there were all the big ones she could barely even begin to comprehend. But for the people already living in 2037, those differences weren’t nearly so radical. For them, the new technologies were experienced not all at once, but gradually over many years. They were familiar, yet far away–just like the San Francisco skyline was to her.
That much was true.
It was then, staring at the rolling waves, that she realized the most surprising changes were the ones that had escaped her ever since she walked out of SFO and found herself in 2037.
In the hour she had been in this strange new world, she hadn’t seen a single computer monitor or television screen. Computer technology had broken through a boundary to become implanted within the bodies of people who inhabited the city before her eyes. It could project an augmented reality or invite them into a virtual world, but it did so covertly. This was a world only twenty years more advanced than her own, and yet it had swept technology’s most major advancements into the background, unseen.
It was no wonder that advanced civilizations had never been discovered. Who could even imagine what such a technological wonder would look like tens of thousands or even millions of years into the future? How could immature humans think it possible to discern such an advanced technology from reality? How could we be sure that apples weren’t edible, biological computers from other worlds? How can we know that the reality we experience every day–the “real world”–isn’t a mere holographic projection manufactured by a far grander civilization than our own?
And then she snapped her fingers. “I work for SETI.”
Abruptly, Kara fainted. She popped out of existence, popping back the very next instant. The unusual effect was similar to waking from anesthesia.
She awoke on ANA Flight #008, back with her daughter and granddaughter but still trapped in seat 14C and presumably in the year 2017 once again. She could feel it in her bones. Experiencing both nostalgia and acute nausea, she peered at the poor reflection of herself in the window. She blinked slowly. One blue eye. One brown. Her hair was long and gray and thinning. She rested the side of her head against the cold glass.
Her daughter suddenly spoke. “Why are you smiling, Mom?”
“Because the best days have yet to come,” Kara murmured.
“But you’re crying, Mom.”
Kara did not respond. She peered out the window, her vacant gaze tracking up and down, from the clouds to the ocean and back again.
A flight attendant walked by and asked, “Is she okay?”
“Who knows,” her daughter replied. “She has dementia. Alzheimer’s.”
“Oh, I see.”
The flight attendant smiled politely and walked away. They had been whispering, but Kara could hear the entire exchange. It was always like that.
She was 74, and gradually slipping from the world she knew and loved. All the familiar places were so far away now, and all the familiar memories were difficult to recall. She could sense something was wrong whenever someone interacted with her. The way the children gawked at her, curious and confused. The way the adults acknowledged her presence with awkward smiles. It felt like little pieces of herself were fading away into a rift, one by one.
Of course that could change in no time at all.