A Well Timed Layover

XPrize Entry

A Well Timed Layover

“If I could just have everyone’s attention, please. Settle down, just for a moment. Shh now.” John, the public relations officer, tried a variety of shush sounds, while making large calming gestures with an outstretched hand. “We’ll be taking questions soon, but for now, please just give me a minute to explain,” he added, before resuming the shush.

“Well then, quit your stalling and tell us.” In the middle of the crowd stood Devin Holhart, a business executive with limited patience. He stood tall and carried an air of confidence few of us could match, given the circumstances. “What on Earth is going on? I’m already late for a meeting. Haven’t got all day,” he added with a demanding tone, one capable of calming a wild stadium.

Silence consumed all, and I noticed a small team of airport attendants moving calmly through our large group. Systematically, each of us received a thin strip of white sticky tape on the forearm. Rather than wait until the team finished their assigned task, John continued his speech.

“It would appear you’ve all arrived at your final destination, with a slight delay of 20 years.” If John had paperwork, he’d have shuffled things about; perhaps expecting a barrage of complaints. We all waited for him to continue. “ANA wishes to extend our sincerest apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused. By now you will have each received an Ai-BioTat translator. These are complementary units much like, um, who here remembers mobile phones? Anyway, they’ll take about five minutes to warm up, then just pull off the tape.”

Had there not been a row of empty chairs, many people may have collapsed.

The room spun all about me. “What nonsense,” I said without thought, before seeking the support of a nearby seat. Normally, when taking international flights, my tendency is to ignore the other passengers. No point trying to chat with someone who probably doesn’t speak your language. But now, something odd began to happen. The background rambling evolved into English.

“A joke. It’s got to be a joke.” In the seat to my left, a young Frenchman expressed his disbelief.

“Sorry but what did you say?” I asked. “It’s like you spoke English with a French echo.”

“So did you!” He announced in excitement, “I mean, French but I still hear the English.” He clarified the initial reply.

“I’m Harold.” Given the circumstances, introductions seemed appropriate. I offered an open hand. He took it without hesitation, shaking my arm until the wrist threatened to break. “Pierre,” he said with an air of gratitude.

Still standing, our self-appointed leader, Mr. Holhart, tried to argue against reality. “Can’t be true, I was here not two days ago. We’re in the right place, but none of it looks right. Time travel just isn’t possible!”

“Attention.” Once again, the company’s spokesperson called across the room. “Obviously we’re doing everything we can to clear up the confusion. If you’ll all come with me, we’d like to make your layover as comfortable as possible, in our food court. Thank you.”

Beneath my feet an arrow appeared. “Didn’t see that before,” I commented.

Pointing to a wall Pierre said, “Yeah, and those weren’t there either.” When we first entered the receiving bay, colorful paintings covered every surface. Each with a subtle advertisement. Now, the walls were white with long green arrows.

“Well how’d that happen?” A man edged slightly closer to Pierre and myself. Until now he’d been yet another silent member of the crowd. “Had my hand on that wall, I’m telling you, it’s paint.” He said in disbelief.

“I remember you from Tokyo. I’m Pierre, this is Harold and Carol. He pointed first toward me, then to a disheveled looking woman who’d been taking her time trying to stand. “She’s my wife,” Pierre added.

Our newest friend introduced himself. “I’m Steven,” he began and ended every sentence with a muffled cough; probably how Pierre remembered him. “Come, let’s keep up with the crowd.

“This is nuts,” I said while trying to hold back a laugh, “You know I won this trip, part of a contest. They promised me a good time, instead I’m stuck in this madness.”

“Well, we’re all in the same boat by friend.” Steven patted me on the shoulder while talking, “At least they welcomed us with a smile.”

In an obvious attempt to lighten everyone’s mood, Carol said, “Forget the smile, I’ll be happy if the future has donuts.”

As a group, we began to follow the bright green arrows. Meanwhile, Steven explored the technology on his arm. “Have a look at this,” he said. “I’ve been playing with the features of our new phones.” As he said phone, my auto-translator converted the word into, “Ai-BioTat”.

Along the short walk from receiving bay to food court, Steven demonstrated a variety of features he’d discovered. Games, apps, and the most literal touch screen imaginable. The fun little display even had a virtual assistant, like the old Microsoft paperclip. Through trial and error we found a GPS and Steven began pointing at random items.

In an instant, our new friend took on the mantle of tour guide, telling us random facts and historical quirks behind everything from chairs to doorways. “And for those looking to the left of the crowd, you’ll see Asimov Twenty-Four. The latest in service droids,” he said in an overly dramatic yet comical tone.

We all had a good laugh, until Steven’s laughter became a fit of uncontrolled coughing. His knees folded and the poor man struggled to contain himself.

“Help, we need help over here!” Pierre called out, while Carol tried to support our falling friend.

“Front of the cue, quickly now. Asimov Twenty-Four, fetch a medipack.” John cleared a path to the nearest service counter while providing short, sharp, instructions. “Come on, bring him to the checkout."

“No, it’s okay,” Steven waved a hand, mid cough, toward John. Struggling to his feet he added, “I’m not really hungry. But thank you.”

“Hungry?” John paused to think, “Oh! No. The food counters have a built in scanner, it’ll check your health while we wait for the doctor.” He nodded with a smile, enticing Steven as if he were an injured animal.

“Open palm, down on the detector. Just there,” John instructed.

With another muffled cough, Steven first went to place his hand on the scanner, then pulled back.

“What’s this, six fingers?” He asked while examining the machine’s thin hand-shaped outline.

“Oh yes! Sorry.” John snickered, “About ten years ago, it became trendy to have two thumbs. Robotic at first but these days most people have the cyber enhancement. It’s useful if you work in an office, or you’re a musician. I’ve never bothered. Guess I’m a bit old fashioned that way.”

Timidly and with several small coughs, Steven placed his hand on the scanner.

“Isn’t it against the law, to travel when you’re sick?” A fellow passenger asked, though I doubt she expected an answer.

“What if it’s some type of future bug?” Another suggested.

“No, he was coughing before the flight, I remember.” Pierre stepped forward, “He’s getting worse though, could it be a cold?”

“Hey, look at the glass partition, it’s a display,” Steven marveled, as a simplified breakdown of his medical status glowed into view.

“You may all love this future stuff, but I’ve got a meeting to get back to.” Mr. Holhart placed himself between John and Steven, in an obvious effort to secure attention. “I want to know, how you’re going to fix it?” He demanded.

“Calm down Mr. Holhart, we’re doing everything in our power to resolve the situation.” John took a step back from the large man. “You’ll just have to be patient.”

“Oh. Really? And what exactly is, everything in your power? Nothing, that’s what. You people have no clue how to deal with this. I’m going to sue you for everything you’ve got. By the end of today, I’ll own this airport.” Devin Holhart increased his volume with each word.

Struggling to maintain a cool exterior, John spoke slowly and clearly. “I’ve no doubt of that. But as luck would have it, you’ve landed at one of the few airports able to solve the problem. We’ve recently installed a Quantum Heart Computer you see. It monitors and regulates everything from Flex Tech Solar Energy to Geothermal Heating. Right now it’s extracting critical data from the airplane’s black box.”

“Well that’s just perfect! So we’ll get a post-mortem on exactly how ruined our lives are.” Devin flung his arms in the air. “Just admit it, we’re stuck.” He huffed, then walked away.

“Did you say, quantum computer?” Carol yawned. How is it I keep overlooking her? With scruffy hair, torn jacket and no makeup, you’d think she’d stand out a mile. “I’ve been learning how to program cubits online. Wouldn’t mind checking it out, if possible.” I leaned away as she spoke. Who knows, maybe coffee breath is contagious.

“We have a specialist.” John began to turn the offer down, then scratched his nose before continuing, “Maybe you can help. We have a white hat programmer in Tokyo. The computer room is fitted with holographic projectors allowing the programmer to virtually enter our airport. So you could help manually enter code, if needed. Only if you think you’re up to it?”

The introverted Carol stood frozen with fear. “But what about Pierre? I can’t go without him.” She wrapped an arm around her husband.

“Bring him, the three of you can come.” John pointed toward several doors labeled for official use only.

“Not going anywhere without me!” Mr. Holhart began heading toward a security exit. “I won’t leave my future in the hands of strangers,” he added.

“I’d be happy for you to join us sir, though you’ll want to take the door near the vending machines.” John smiled while pointing toward the furthest exit.

“Someone say vending machines?” Carol switched focus from quantum computing to her other true love, “Can’t do code without junk food.”

“We can grab food and drinks here if you like,” John replied. Then pointing to the vending machines added, “Those machines don’t print food. They recycle plastics and print toys or other useful things. You know, how about I have some treats sent to the computer room, it’ll be quicker.” He began to walk while talking.

Heading down a maze of back passages, toward an unknown destination, I began examining the walls. Watching them change from bright paintings to solid green arrows as we passed, and then back to paintings. “Floor to roof monitors?” I asked. It stands to reason, except the surface isn’t entirely smooth.

“I forget how many things must seem different to you all.” John and Devin Holhart walked at the front of our group. Normally while speaking, a person turns backward or looks over their shoulder. John simply spoke toward his arm allowing Ai-BioTat to do the rest. “It’s paint. It sets and resets depending on the need. So yeah, like a monitor I guess.”

Only the ever professional Mr. Holhart continued walking. The rest of us stopped to marvel at yet another modern miracle.

“Programmable paint.” The statement echoed between each member of our group. Hands gently caressing lines that resemble brush strokes. A rainbow of color followed our fingers as we ran them across the wall.

John slowed down but never stopped walking, “Ha! It’s gone into a children's entertainment mode. The AI must think you're kids,” he said, still keeping pace with Mr. Holhart. “You can draw while walking if you like, the computer can keep up.” He placed emphasis on, keep up.

Already exhausted from a long flight, I was happy to reach the computer room. After all, our trip did qualify for several world records, the longest flight being one of them. Just as John predicted, a table filled with finger foods and soda-pop sat patiently in the corner. It had my eye, it had all our eyes, except for Carol. She transformed from a sleepy mess to an excited girl.

“OMG!” She bellowed while approaching the computer. “It’s no bigger than a fridge! Where’s the terminal?” The boom of landing aircraft could be easily drowned out by her excitement.

“Heart, this is Carol. Have you been able to connect with our white hat coder in Tokyo yet?” John looked up while speaking.

There is no way to describe the experience of meeting a holographic artificially intelligent quantum computer. None of us expected a person to materialize in the middle of the room.

“Hello Carol. It’s good to see you.” It spoke with an almost musical hum. “Sorry John, I am unable to connect with Tokyo at this time. I believe Carol can resolve any gaps in my data file.”

“She can?” Mr. Holhart scoffed before examining the scruffy looking girl. “Am I to accept, my future is in the hands of a, a, a child?” He turned away from her sharply and headed toward a large pot of coffee.

The hologram floated with the appearance of walking toward Carol. “Passenger number 824 024, seat 26A, Name Carol Joana Heart. I am a Model X Quantum Heart Computer. I’m certain my designer can help resolve any problems.”

“I’m what now?” Carol tripped while stepping backward. Her feet twisting and turning with no clear direction. “This is.” Was the last thing she said before passing out in a heap on the ground.

“They say you should never meet your hero.” The Heart Computer stood over its fallen maker, examining her young form. “Oh well, it’s an inevitable fact that she’ll be fine. Or I wouldn’t be here as proof.” The hologram looked toward the rest of our group, “So that’s good news, you’ll all make it home.”

“Isn’t this breaking some kind of rule or something?” Pierre said while bending down to comfort his wife. “I mean, cause and effect. Did she make the computer because of today? That kind of thing.”

“If it wasn’t possible, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Perfectly synchronized audio matched sound to the holograms moving lips. “That said, I’ve never understood human behavior. Was it wrong for me to state the obvious? Or should I keep secrets from you like John does?”

Now the Quantum Computer turned its focus toward Devin Holhart, “What’s better, knowing an awkward truth, not knowing it, or knowing that there’s something you don’t know?”

“What in the heavens?” Mr. Holhart looked first at the Hologram, then to the fallen Carol, and finally back to the Hologram. “Well if you’ve got news for me, I demand to know!”

“Careful.” I didn’t much like Mr. Holhart, just his attitude I found rough, still it seemed he may not like what he heard. “Personally, I’d rather not know. The future’s what you make it, nothing’s set in stone.” I advised, while nibbling on a rather large cookie.

“Oh don’t be a child. Forewarned is forearmed. Now what’s this big secret?” Mr. Holhart insisted.

“What my digital friend is eluding to is,” John walked around the room and took several deep breaths, clearly gathering his thoughts. “As vice president of ANA Airways, I felt it important that you all received the very best assistance during this-”

“Oh get on with it.” Our large business minded friend wasn’t the only one bothered by the young man’s obvious ramblings.

The room fell silent, even the hologram appeared to be in sleep mode while waiting for John to finish his statement. “My name, is Mr. John Holhart. So you see, I’m certain you’ll eventually own the airline.”

“Ha! Well then. Isn’t that something.” The hard exterior of Devin Holhart melted away, revealing an uncertain center. “So then. You’d be my boy? But I’m not. Is my wife? Maudrid isn’t pregnant, is she? I’ve got to get home!”

“Mom’s fine. You never told me about this little adventure though. So I guess we’ll be having a long chat later.” John first reached to shake his father’s hand, then wrapped both arms around him.

“So you’re doing alright then. Hope I wasn’t too hard a dad?” Mr. Holhart choked back tears while talking. “Should I be asking all these questions? You did well at school I hope?”

“Oh yeah. For most people, school's a global thing these days. I’ve got a dual degree, Masters in Business and a Bachelor of Longevity.”

“Longevity?” Mr. Holhart asked but wasn’t the only person wondering what the boy meant.

“People study antiaging at school. Mostly it’s self assesment, common logic really.” John tried to summarize his three year degree in a single sentence.

“I believe we have a solution.” The Quantum Heart Computer saw no issue with a sudden change in topic. “Of the eighty two satellites capable of mapping and recording gravitation distortions, two were in range during the incident. Combining that data with the black box information and a few other reference points, I can solve for a return trajectory.”

Fortunately, Carol chose that moment to wake up. Her glassy eyes rolled about seeking familiarity. Pierre stroked and brushed hair from her face, “Thought I’d lost you for a minute.” He said.

“What did that computer say?” Rapid blinking helped Carol process the situation.

“He said you made him, he’s a Heart computer.” Pierre stood and offered her a hand up.

“No, I get that. I mean, what did it say about points of reference?” Carol smiled at her husband but refused his hand. Choosing instead to scramble about on the floor finding her own way up.

“Technical data about the flight.” John replied.

“Does that mean we need specifics, like solar flares or lightning?” I asked. I’ve never liked flying, and a dozen old movies flashed before my fear filled eyes. “We don’t need to fly into a storm or something do we?”

“No no.” Carol was quick to reply, “The computer can use abstract information. It already knows the flight manifest but other details help simulate solutions. Heart, add that I was sleeping. Seat 26A sleeping against window.”

“Thank you Carol Heart.” The hologram bowed while inputting the fresh data. “I am now down to ten thousand possible events. Do we have any more details, specific to the critical moment?”

“It flickered.” Devin Holhart hadn’t taken his eyes off John, but spared a moment to add his recollection.

“Flickered? What do you mean, what flickered?” The Heart computer found his comment far more interesting than I did.

“The show, the show flickered. Alright. I was watching Westworld, it’s a good show! Anyway, I remember the screen flickered. It was in the middle of that scene. He says, you don't have kids at home, do you Bernard? You know I’m not all business.” Mr. Holhart felt compelled to expose his more human side.

“Seat 4C Devin Holhart. Data input reduces our outcomes to one thousand. Anyone else have specific memories?” Is it possible, did I hear the Heart computer express excitement? Just how far had these machines come in twenty years?

“What about the guy coughing? You’ve probably already got that info, yeah?” I added to the conversation, unsure as to what information would be useful.

“Coughing? You mean Steven. Turns out he’s got the flu. Our staff are treating him now.” John said with several enthusiastic nods.

“I have two Steven’s on the flight manifest.” The Heart hologram smiled, “I believe you’re referring to Steven Grawer, seat 19B. Current simulations have plotted a return path to your original time. However I must inform you, according to our records Harold Amaris seat 14C vanishes during the flight; under unknown circumstances.”

“Isn’t that me? Wait, I’m Harold Amaris.” My body began to tremble while possible reasons bouncing around my mind. Had I fallen from the plane? Did everyone jump back to the past but somehow my body was lost in time? “I’m not going!” Words, driven from my mouth by fear, offered an ideal solution.

“What do you mean, not going?” The question came from both Carol and Pierre.

While my hands still shook, a smile grew from ear to ear, “Just that. You can’t force me to go back, and according to Mr. Heart here, I never return. So it’s simple you see, I’m staying in the future.”

“But you can’t!” John’s eyes widened as he spoke.

“He can and he does.” The hologram replied. “It’s not going to be easy Harold, you know that right? The world will need to adapt and change far more than you realize. But with the data I’ve gathered, Time Travel will soon become a very real aspect of the modern world.”

My heart thumped hard, I’m sure everyone in the room felt it. Before leaving Tokyo, I’d received the promise of a good time. From what I can see, the future is a very good time.

science fiction
Leon Gower
Leon Gower
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Leon Gower

Born, February 1972 in Whyalla, Australia

His writing incorporates a life time of personal experience in dealing with a world of poorly explained phenomenon. Short artistic work or full length novels, Leon's well weaved stories are engaging.

See all posts by Leon Gower