The other obligatory time travel story

A little while back, there was a competition for a short story with the writing prompt noted below. I’ll try to dig out the original contest for reference. Meanwhile, here’s my totally-didn’t-win-anything story. It fits my theme of crossroads and future thinking. Enjoy. And thank you to here for the image.

The prompt:

“At 4:58am on June 28th, 2017, the passengers on board ANA Flight 008, en route from Tokyo to San Francisco, are cruising at an altitude of 37,000 feet, approximately 1,500 nautical miles off the West Coast of the United States. A small bump, otherwise noted as a barely perceptible bout of turbulence, passes Flight 008 through a temporary wrinkle in the local region of space-time. What these passengers will soon find out as they descend into SFO is that the wrinkle has transported them 20 years in the future, and the year is now 2037.”

My story:

ANA flight 008. A space-time transit. Here’s the odd thing about space-time and paradox and the confusing nature of reality. There is only one. Reality, that is. In spite of advances in theory and discussions of co-located particles and waves and strings and esoteric what-have-you that Paul never did grasp in school, it turns out that the math was just that – math.

It didn’t correspond to reality in a meaningful way. Meaningful… a word which here refers to the mental state of a whole planet. If it doesn’t help feed us, or help us manage water, or shield us from the sun and heat, there’s less and less interest in it. A couple of decades back, one of Paul’s favourite comedians talked about the promise of science fiction and asked what we have to show for it. Sliding doors from Star Trek, he quipped, that’s about it.

It is 2037, Paul is 71. He does not find himself a traveller in time. The only people making this leap are you and I as we jump ahead in an instant with Flight 008. Paul got here the usual way that all of us time travellers do, one day at a time. Paul is simply Paul as he sits in seat 14C, feeling more than cramped and stiff from the long flight, with still more flights to come. That an electric plane could make it across the Pacific still amazes him. He remembered a time when the first mass production electric cars came out. None of them with range enough to get him from one city to another. Still, range is an issue, and the cramped seats with little padding are a curse to his body, but a blessing to the unforgiving gods of weight versus thrust versus distance versus battery capacity.

He still works occasionally. In fact, this trip was paid for by work, otherwise seeing Japan would have only remained a dream. We might not be burning dead dinosaurs for fuel anymore, but the costs of travel have grown, mainly as a deterrent to generating pollution. The planet is a wreck. Paul has learned to compensate. With instant world-wide communications and virtual presence the norm for business, travel for face to face meetings was extremely rare. However, Paul has some skill in a now rare profession that values face-to-face, and this occasionally buys him some travel time.

 

Work. We did mention that Paul is 71. In spite of a well-planned retirement fund (thanks to his forward-thinking wife), he finds that ends don’t always meet, especially after the China thing. Investments changed, earnings dropped, governments carried fewer and fewer institutions like higher ed, where Paul spent his years. Between the Boomers demanding their just due, and China calling in the cards, the financial world of 2037 wasn’t what he expected, what any of us expected.

The China thing… China was always a threat. Economically they were shrewd. They bought much of the debt 20 to 30 years ago – the big debt, America, Germany, Brazil. Even Australia and a goodly portion of India. And with no real warning, one day, a decade ago, they called it all in. On the one hand, this was hailed as a financial disaster for the world markets. On the other hand, once the dust settled, the only difference Paul really noticed was that Chinese mega-corporations owned everything, and the old joke of “made in China” became a reality for just about everything.

I know I’m making it sound like a smooth transition. It wasn’t. As many people jumped from Wall Street towers as fell from the Twins in 9/11. Protests in traditional financial capitals – New York, London, Tokyo were violent. Markets and countries responded with the usual tools of the trade – inflation, devaluation, savings caps, forced spending. The result? Well, walking down a street in a big city left visions of boarded up shops and empty office buildings offering square footage rates that were obscenely low. Individual fortunes were changed, not always badly, but Paul’s dream of being done with formal work at age 61 grew a decade overnight.

The good news is that some of Paul’s work is still in demand. Even with AI running many things now, people still needed to be managed and motivated and the grand irony of the university was that the humans that remained were the administrators and managers, while the experts and professors and technicians were replaced by smart AI-driven virtual “personalities” that coached students in their learning. It was a sort of Stephenson’s Diamond Age but without the human back-up.

Paul also found himself in some demand because of his original training as a psychotherapist. People still need people. Talking. Listening. Caring. And sometimes, the simple human touch and a kind word filtered out the efficient cold dry technological reality we all live in. He remains one of the few who still doesn’t subscribe to the neurobiological reductionism he accuses his field of embracing. A drug for every mood. Brain stimulation. Nootropics to enhance your mental performance. Twenty years ago Paul experimented with some of the emerging stacks but never felt much different on or off of them. Today, things are different. The chemicals work but Paul remains a skeptic. And a minority. And his many students seem to have a boundless energy to learn that Paul has trouble keeping up with. And his few clients just want to talk, and want to be heard. This, at least, will keep the wolf at bay, and pay for the occasional vacation.

Seriously, he was tired in 2027 when he wanted to retire. The advances in medicine were just starting to catch up. Right now, his biometric implant is bugging him with a reminder that his blood sugar is low and that he hasn’t gotten up to walk in several hours. The advances in health care made him wistful. He could live another 50, maybe 60 years now, but his current health would stay the same. If only he took better care of himself 20 years ago. They could slow aging pretty well now, but they couldn’t fix the damage done by years of living. No point in breaking the skin open for the latest implant of the day, he thought. I’ll stick with my basic health and tracking monitor and leave it at that.

Kids these days, all implants and brain waves filtering through sensors and screens and giving them direct access to nearly everything. Paul pulls out a slab of black glass – a dead giveaway for his age. It always seems that the older generation balked at too-intrusive implants and still prefer the long-developed habit of pulling out a device (Paul still called it a “phone” even though that short-changed its identity by a long shot). A shimmering virtual screen rose from the glass and Paul could see that they were on approach to SFO, and he could soon stand and walk and work out the kinks. He had a couple of hours before the next flight.

Paul is from Canada and SFO is only a transit point. Thank god really. Can we do that anymore, he wonders? Thank something that may or may not exist? Certainly that’s a debate that has never ended. The last 20 years have seen an endless rise in group identity politics aligned mainly on religious or cultural lines. The large demographic bubble of Boomers and their free thinking and sense of entitlement have largely disappeared.

Meanwhile, Paul hopes to spend as little time in the USA as he passes through. Eight years of Mr Trump decimated the ideal of America. Eight years of the return of Mrs. Clinton following him made it worse. Only if because running countries on a bipartisan tug of war, back and forth, term after term, is never good to the majority who sit in the middle and just want to earn a living and enjoy their lives. The new guy in charge seems okay. Paul doesn’t really recall much of the last few years except that he was young, had ideals and didn’t seem to deliver. Not unlike his own country, Canada, 20 years ago. Young guy, popular with the media, but never quite came through and was quickly replaced. But nations endure, sometimes in spite of their leaders. Surprisingly to everyone concerned, those historical countries, China, USA, Canada, UK and it’s faded commonwealth, Japan, all endure out of an inertia of history and declining population with little more will than to live a good life.

Back home, Paul lives in a hybrid province that emerged after the Indigenous Riots of 2026. Not unlike China calling in the debts overnight, Canada’s Indigenous population, along with similar groups worldwide, all stood up one day in late 2025 and said “enough.” Protesting murder and third-world conditions, they stood as a single voice and launched legal challenges, appeals to the slowly dying UN, and they also blocked roads and cut power lines and occupied homes across the globe. Countries with the worst records of displacement – Canada, Australia, South Africa, the USA, found themselves at a stand-still. Some places responded with force. In fact, South Dakota remains off-limits to travel because the US response was to build a wall and try to starve them out. Of course they didn’t. Something about centuries of living off the land. But it is a mess and living memory contained death and suffering on both sides. Thankfully, most countries engaged in negotiations, and the result was a re-division and re-naming of land spaces. What was once southern Alberta and Paul’s home, became Piikani-Alberta (PA for short), and happily, was still his home. He just payed more tax, but so did his Native neighbours, and governments slyly found a way to restore some of the tax base lost to the demise of the Boomers.

And that tax base came none too soon. Paul is married going on 47 years, a fact in and of itself a rarity, given the seemingly endless range of genders and relationship forms available to people these days. He has two kids but not a grandkid in sight. Which isn’t unusual. His wife is saddened by this. She had hoped to spend time with her grandkids, teaching them to bake and swim and do little jumps on their skis in the winter. (Also a rarity. A hotter globe meant a very short ski season in PA.) But Paul’s children, now in their mid-40s, were that generation that decided not to reproduce. Now don’t get me wrong. There seemed to be enough crying children on this flight, but his hearing implants were up to the task of blocking out that noise. But Paul knew when he finally walked through his front door, there would be silence.

Migration was supposed to take care of the decline in the Western birth rate. It kind of did for a while, but the world seems to be on a slow slide to solitude. Some things haven’t been solved in 20 years. Racism. Fear of the unknown. Narrow visions of what is acceptable. Sadly, these remain but some are being dragged into the mid-21st century, while the rest are growing old and dying. Paul speculated that an historian looking back on 2037 from 2067 will note the decline of racism was mainly due to attrition.

The flight finally lands and the gate opens. Sometime back in 2017, a Great Mind was asked “what will the future look like?” That Great Mind’s answer was interesting. He said “it’s not going to look very different from today.” Think about it. Buildings last. The New York skyline, for those who can remember it, was once forever changed. And yet it remains familiar. The time traveller from the 1930s would still recognize it. That’s almost 100 years. As long as many a life span nowadays. Airplanes might fly on electrons now but the shape and form seems archetypal. Paul stands into the aisle, blocking someone trying to rush to the front before everyone gets up. He reaches for his SmartBag (only labelled such because he can track it with his “phone”, not a huge leap in luggage technology in 20 years he muses), and people still file out, one by one, row by row, lugging their personal necessities. Walking the jetway, Paul barely notices the brightness of the sun because the glass is insulated against the heat. Somewhere in the background, one of his devices notes the time and temperature for him. It’s morning but already 44 degrees outside. And a short chuckle. The USA was finally on the metric system.

The terminal was busy but his virtual ticket popped up on his “phone” and his ear implant began giving him whispered directions to his next gate. Virtual ads began to flare in his vision until he opened his phone and turned them off. His health implant didn’t clam up though. After directing him to the nearest bathroom, it began a nagging petition for him to find at least an energy drink to hold him over until he could properly eat. Giving in, more to the nagging than to any felt need for sustenance, Paul paused at a vending machine and self-consciously held his phone up to it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a few other glow screens. At least he wasn’t the only old-fashioned guy here. In his moment of distraction, the phone, his health implant, and the vending machine all agreed that he was down certain vitamins and electrolytes and this particular drink would be an ideal choice. Poking at his virtual wallet icon, the gadgets did their thing and Paul continued to his gate, drinking the slightly sweet beverage. As he finished, the can glowed slightly as he approached a recycling bin, and once deposited, his screen registered the tiny refund – his reward for saving the world from one more can. Not that he had a choice. Had he tried to pitch the can into a regular bin, a small alarm would go off, embarrassing him as the bin handed back the can.

Without even knowing, Paul passed through Customs. Somewhere along the route his ticket was guiding him on, he went through a sensor field. It scanned for dangerous goods, opened his virtual wallet to a pre-prepared file that included his travel documents, his purchases, and his passport. He was travelling light and the USA decided that no transit tax was required although they did siphon off $20 for “airport improvement”.

At the gate, his ticket interacted with the kiosk, confirmed his seat and set an alarm in his phone for when to be ready to board. Paul was still a bit old school. He missed the human contact of a flight attendant (and to be honest, he missed the terribly sexist notion of beautiful women in uniforms.) Sadly, if he voiced that sentiment out loud, someone would very likely correct him. Or write him off as one of those old guys who resisted change in social attitudes, but be sure, they would still correct him.

Looking around, Paul was reminded once again that time was not his friend. The androgyny that seemed to be in style this year was a bit disconcerting. Gender wars were alive and well, but there were few short skirts anymore, and it was hard to tell sometimes, the guys from the gals. And, looking down at himself, it was clear from the round bulge of his gut, that he was one of those old guys who ignored the unspoken dictum to look slim and trim. Improved health care made it possible with programs for your implant to help with diet and exercise. Paul kept the diet one on, but long ago turned off the constant nagging of the exercise program.

Boarding was smooth but impersonal. The seat number lit up as he approached, and he settled in. SFO was soon a memory and on silent electric wings, he eventually found himself close to home. Once again, Customs was smooth and invisible, and his luggage lit up when he came into range, and began to roll towards him, avoiding other fliers as it stopped at his feet. A short walk to the parkade brought him to his vehicle. It opened the trunk as he neared and he placed his belongings inside. The car had been sitting on a charging pad all week, and the range indicator showed more than enough to get home. He had no choice in this high traffic zone, the car drove itself. Too much human error in close spaces. Once out of the airport and onto the highway, the car gave Paul the option to drive manually. Normally he did this out of principle but today he was feeling the jet lag. Speaking aloud, he requested the car to call home. It was a smooth trip but he missed his wife, even the more when her virtual face projected on the screen.

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