When Diane Ashberry wakes up, it's the 24th Century. She knows because as soon as she opens her eyes they light upon a date and time display being projected onto the opposite wall.
26 August 2313 05:58 am
"WTF?" Diane says to herself, and quickly sits up. She might assume a practical joke, except she knows no jokers. Also, she appears to be sitting in a large white egg that floats about three feet off the floor, rather than on the queen-sized futon where she started the night.
Diane tentatively stretches one foot toward the floor. Immediately the egg angles slightly, solicitously, downward, so she can disembark with ease. Once she's standing with both feet firmly on the ground, the egg whisks itself out of the room.
Diane walks over to the window and looks out. The swamp outside her bedroom is gone. In its place are geodesic domes, arches, towers shaped like Seattle's Space Needle, and flying cars. There are trees visible, too, and flowering shrubs, though no lawn.
"Huh," Diane says. "Will you look at that."
"Look at what?" a female voice asks. It sounds suspiciously like the voice of Majel Barrett.
"I was talking to myself, more than anything," Diane says. "Who are you?"
"I am the System," the voice says.
"Of course you are. Where am I?"
"Your present location is -87.0904 / 30.3823."
"And is it really 2313?"
"The current date is 26 August 2313. Local time is 06:04."
With the egg gone, there's nothing in the room. Diane wanders down the hallway until she finds a kitchen, all gleaming chrome surfaces and a breakfast nook with a window overlooking a koi pond and a moving sidewalk.
"Um, coffee and buttered toast?" Diane says.
"You have to make it yourself."
When she has her coffee and toast Diane sits in the breakfast nook and looks out the window. She thinks about how whenever this sort of thing happens in literature, the character's first impulse is always to get home. Alice Liddell. Dorothy Gale. Marty McFly. Dr. Rick Marshall. It's like a mania with those people, getting home, getting back. Even if home wasn't all that great to begin with.
Diane takes her emotional temperature and finds she's not gripped by any such mania. Waking up in 2313 is not the first weird thing that's happened to her recently. First there was the business with Peter, her husband.
They'd been married for five years. Things between them often seemed shaky, and on more than one occasion she'd envisioned the end of the marriage. But in the last six months she felt like things had finally started to sort themselves out. Finally she'd grasped the advantages of marriage, and how they might outweigh the disadvantages.
Then, two weeks ago, he announced he was leaving.
Since then, Diane has experienced the anxious, exposed feeling that comes with being suddenly alone. Mostly, though, she just feels puzzled. She's always thought of herself as someone who's very good at reading people, but it's become apparent that she isn't.
There were other things, too. She couldn't watch TV anymore. She couldn't abide small talk. She ate, but she couldn't work herself up into a lather about any food in particular.
"System?" she asks.
"Yes, Diane Ashberry?"
"Where would I go if I wanted to hang out and meet some people?"
Diane hopes she might just blend in at Starbucks while she gets her bearings, but when she arrives everyone else in the place is wearing a yellow jumpsuit with a silver stripe. Diane is wearing the blue t-shirt and black yoga pants that she fell asleep in last night.
They're nice about it, though. Diane doesn't recognize most of the things on the menu, but when she asks if she can get a double tall latte, the barista says sure. When the drink is ready, Diane realizes she has no money, but everyone just waves her off.
They seem to know about her, somehow.
She's looking around for a table when a voice at her shoulder says, "What year?"
Diane turns, startled. A woman about her own age is smiling at her. "Judging from the hair and clothes, I'd say maybe ... 2000?"
"2010," Diane says, noting that she's ten years out of date. "How did you know? I mean," she adds, glancing down at their clothes, "Why aren't you surprised?"
"It's been happening a lot lately," the woman explains. "Side effect of the work they're doing on warp power over at the physics plant. Little wormholes, they think. They haven't figured out how to stop them up yet. They can get you back, though."
"They can?" Diane feels a strange sense of anticlimax. It turns out getting home home home isn't going to be an epic quest after all.
"Oh yeah, not to worry. You're welcome to stay for a bit if you like, though. Some do, though most seem eager to get back."
"Isn't letting us stay violating some sort of Prime Directive, or something? You know, messing with the space-time continuum?"
The woman chuckles. "That's such a Phase I idea," she says. "No offense."
"None taken, since I have no idea what you mean."
"Phase I was what got us out of the caves. Made us walk upright, made us the dominant species on the planet. Fired the rapid development of technology. It got us somewhere, no doubt about it. But then it was almost our undoing. Our population grew so fast, and we consumed resources so quickly, it looked likely we would take ourselves out during the Sixth Great Extinction Event."
"And the planet with us."
"If you'll forgive me for saying it, that's Phase I thinking. We never posed a threat to the planet. It's true that we took out some of the lovelier species before we got to Phase II, but the planet was never in danger."
"What is Phase II, then?"
"Phase II is a move from competition to cooperation. It's the idea that sentient beings have an obligation to sustain life, to get off their home planet and see the universe, and that it's impossible to do so as long as everyone is busy hating the foreigner, or trying to squeeze every penny out of his neighbor."
"That's what I've always thought!"
"Phase II awareness had begun in your time, but Phase I thinking still dominated social structures. Business. Government. Religion. Even schools."
"Yes," Diane says, thinking, Maybe they'll let me stay forever.
Half an hour later, Diane and the woman, whose name is Melanie, are strolling along on the moving sidewalk. Ahead of them runs Stephen, Melanie's 8-year-old son. Melanie offered to accompany Diane to the physics lab, saying it was right next door to a clinic where Stephen has an appointment.
Diane spends some time grilling Melanie about the future. Melanie tells her about the colonies on Mars and the moon, the eradication of disease, poverty and war, the turn away from a hoarding culture.
"I can't believe it!" Diane exclaims. "We made it! It really looked like we might not, back in my day."
Melanie nods. "It was touch and go there for a while. But everything turned out great."
Diane can't help but notice, however, that Melanie's voice seems sad. Her eyes are on her son, watching as he plays with a toy rocket.
"I don't mean to pry, but is everything all right with Stephen? You mentioned a clinic."
A sigh escapes the depths of the yellow jumpsuit. "It will be okay," Melanie says. "I know everything's for the best. I'm taking him to the Euthio Clinic. He failed the Monopoly test."
"The Monopoly test?"
"It's a diagnostic for signs of Phase I behavior in preadolescents. Stephen scored off the charts. Before it was over he'd used up every one of those little red hotel pieces."
A kernel of uneasiness pops inside Diane.
"So, he won a game of Monopoly," she says. "So?" She looks at the boy, who is dive-bombing some pansies in a tub garden with his rocket. He has yellow hair and green eyes, just like Peter.
"I think I've always known," Melanie says. "When he was a toddler he used to freak out if another kid played with his toys. And once he bit a girl because she had a teddy bear he wanted."
"Melanie, what is the Euthio Clinic?"
Melanie smiles sadly. "It's for the best."
"What year?" the woman at the physics lab asks. When Diane tells her, she punches something into a computer, then hands over a small piece of equipment. It looks like the portable buzzers restaurants use to let you know when your table's ready. "Just press that button on the front when you're ready to go."
The woman smiles. "We try to keep things simple."
"So I hear." Diane turns away from the counter. Melanie and Stephen are looking at an exhibit. It features models of subatomic particles that coalesce into atoms, which gradually morph into solar systems and galaxies. As the two women watch, Stephen points his toy rocket straight at the heart of one of the galaxies and makes an exploding sound. Melanie shakes her head.
Diane strides across the lobby, grabs Stephen's hand, and presses her button.
When she wakes up the next morning, Diane feels tingly with fear. What if they came and took him in the night? But then she hears TV sounds coming from the living room.
She expected Stephen to treat her like a predator when they got back to 2010, but he seemed to take the new turn of events in stride.
"They were going to kill me, weren't they?" he asked, yawning, as she tucked a blanket around him on the couch.
When Diane enters the living room, Stephen is sitting at her desk with the computer turned on, as well as the TV. The volume on the TV is set 10 notches higher than usual. She doesn't recognize the program but it involves a lot of car chases and explosions. When she gets closer to Stephen she's surprised to see he's browsing the Wall Street Journal on the laptop. She expected to find him looking at something racier.
"Good morning," she says.
Stephen spins around toward her. "Do you realize how much real estate prices have dropped in the past year?" he asks. His green eyes are glittering. He doesn't wait for Diane to answer. "We're going to make a killing."
Dawn Corrigan works for the City of Pensacola's Housing Department. Her work has appeared in a number of print and online journals.
Well worth the read.