The world felt changed. The fare on TV looked the same, but wasn’t. Grocery shelves were as well-stocked and colorful as ever, but, with what exactly, wasn’t as clear. Reports from Greenland foretold the future, as usual. Before, I had ignored them. Today, I was unmoored. A friend, a former D-1 scholarship athlete, confided he had stopped exercising, while my mother, who is sixty-three, enrolled in not one, but three Pilates classes. The elevator opened and I stepped from this liminal haze into face-to-face confrontation with the chairman of the board.
He nodded when he saw me, gazing at some point below my forehead to avoid considering my breasts. Now, it seemed, there were other reasons not to face me eye to eye. “Implant working well, I see.”
It was less a question than a statement, but I wanted the chance to prove myself without being a Special Needs Virtual Reality Designer. I tried to recapture my excitement: first steps at thirty-two! As exciting as they were contrived. “You bet, sir.”
“Glad to hear it,” he said, his nod making him look more like a macaw than the owl-at-rest he usually resembled. I wasn’t sure he’d want to hear if things weren’t going great. I would have to make a success of the conference and justify his faith in my “living experiment”. There was a lot more riding on it than my own enhanced mobility-the physical freedom of millions- but I tried to take everything a day at a time.
Still. I couldn’t screw this up.
I couldn’t tell anyone about the headaches, the tremors or the times when I stepped down to find only air. Much like a baby learning to walk, I’d been sticking to soft surfaces when out of my chair. But this was the first big test. Even trying it out at home meant I had all the little bumps and bruises that a lifetime of missing sports and bike rides had denied me.
I worried that the twinge above my eye meant that I was failing, but my partner wanted to hear my questions. “Get back to me, Sangit.”
It had been my partner’s idea to forgo the old-school removable helmet for a chip that connected more directly to my brain. We both thought it would help me fit in. But since my headache got worse if I walked at an average, rather than snail’s pace, that seemed like a fantasy. As I inched across the lobby, I had time to wonder how, through war and pandemic, the only thing that didn’t change were the brightly-ugly patterns of hotel lobby carpet. I would have to persist like that if I wanted to live up to my vision.
“Hey…What’s up? I’m guessing the update I put in yesterday isn’t going well?”
I made a face, grateful I’d shut off video to save the battery. “You could say that,” I said. The water in my bottle helped me feel better but tasted like plastic, despite the bottle being made of bamboo and recycled running shoes.
“…We’ve come such a long way.” Sangit soothed. “Remember when we tried that prototype on your mother and she thought she was in Downton Abbey?”
“Watching her curtsy to a mop was pretty funny.” I couldn’t help but smile.
The hotel lobby was filling up. Thanks to my obsessive punctuality, I had extra time to navigate without considering other conventioneers. I saw a few people I knew, but the moment I finished speaking to them, I couldn’t remember what we’d talked about. “Good to see you again!” It felt hollow.
Maybe everyone was faking it, except for some recent grad who was high off the per diem and getting away from some small town. I wished I could be her again.
“I’m hanging up now,” Sangit said, like the cool babysitter forced to finally lay down the law. “Remember, you’ve got this.” He paused, and I heard him swallow. Was he having lunch? “Worst comes to worst, we can uninstall it and try again…I could do it remotely if I had to.”
“No!” I squealed, my voice in ninth grade again.
“No, I mean, I think we won’t have to face that.”
“Good.” My partner sounded relieved. “Let me hear how much you’ve got this, then.”
I stuck out my chin and took a deep-enough breath to flirt with a wardrobe malfunction. “I’ve got this!” I pulled down the sleeves of my black blazer so my scrapes and scabs wouldn’t show. They were another reason why it made sense to learn to walk while your age was in the single digits. But here I was, breaking barriers. Didn’t quite feel as great as I’d hoped.
“Excuse me?” A bearded guy I didn’t know but recognized from an article about gaming looked at me quizzically. “Were you talking to me?”
“Not really,” I wished I’d put on headphones. “Excellent motivational tape.”
“Send me the title,” my new friend replied. “It’s been along time since I was fired up.”
“I understand,” I lied, “But this is a review copy…I’m not sure I can share right now.” I brushed a piece of hair out of my face. Ian Something looked at me in a way I understood from pretty brunettes in streaming movies. It was new and I wasn’t sure if I liked it.
“Keep in touch,” Ian said, as he showed me a dizzying array of blurry images of himself from his Hologram Wallet.
I pretended that someone I knew wanted me to cross the lobby. “My niece loves Greyhound Group.”
“I could send her an autographed copy.” Ian said. Pitching or flirting? Hustling to keep my own business afloat, I realized that it could be hard to tell the difference.
“That would be great, if it’s not a lot of trouble.” I wandered about, collecting my swag bag, making shallow shop-talk as if tech innovations were the only things on my mind.
The manager handed me a bill for$5993.27, the cost of a new battery for my ancient Tesla. I looked it over, casually held my card over the scanner, then turned to leave. That’s when the woman coughed and I hesitated. Without turning and businesslike, I took a few more steps and asked if she thought she had a cold. When she didn’t immediately reply, I stopped and looked from the corners of my eyes. Spinning around, I was surprised to discover I was alone. Inspection of the premises, at first slow, but then frantic, revealed nothing and no one.
And my car was gone, too.
A cold dread slowly replaced the frustration I felt that they hadn’t corrected the FutureFest double-billing error after I’d phoned and messaged about it four times. “Guess that wasn’t worth it,” a sarcastic voice in my head said.
I cursed under my breath, not about the car (it had been a beater when I got it, and still smelled like French fries no matter how much I cleaned it) but I discovered I loved driving. I was also almost grief-stricken by the loss of the wheelchair in the back- finally really custom. ? I got a head rush and had to grab a chair to stand straight. Feeling helpless, I dialed the office. While it rang, the convention seemed to disappear. In its place, was my rose-colored teenaged bedroom, favorite video clips still mounted on the wall as if I’d just left to take a shower down the hall.
“Shouldn’t you be in a panel right now?” Sangit asked. “Especially the Women Tech Entrepreneurs one?”
Thinking about those panels felt as distant as my letter to Santa Claus at age six, but my partner reminded me of my earlier goals to meet a few women that I could talk with.
“I’m not even sure it’s there right now…. I think I’m in a wormhole.”
“You’re not in a wormhole,” my business partners soothed. I gripped the phone so hard my knuckles turned white. I could smell French fries and my heart perked up. Maybe my car had a new dent or two, but was waiting faithfully for me to get in it and blow this popsicle stand. I started cautiously toward the exit, but before I got halfway there, it felt as though I was walking on the sticky tiles of a fast-food restaurant. A robot that looked like a woman tried to swab it, but the stickiness was winning. “What does a wormhole look like? This one looks like a Burger Barn. I think instead my memories are playing in a slideshow…” In a flash, the anonymous fast-food joint was replaced with my grandmother’s kitchen, smelling like cinnamon and effort, even though Grandma’s been gone for three years.
“I love you,” I said into my moribund phone, as I crashed into the Chair of FutureFest.
Ian Whatsits raised his shaggy eyebrows and his cheeks were pink. “Look, Anita, I loved what you said about the game, but I’m engaged. Sorry if I gave you the wrong impression.”
“Congratulations…could you get me a chair and some water please?” Then and there, I made a vow that this setback, though undeniable, still wouldn’t stop me. I’d take the weekend, rest, and then we’d start retooling. Even if I never saw the world on two feet again, other people should, and would, if I had anything to do with it. Thinking that made it easier to sink into the ancient office chair Ian fetched me, as well as the refreshment of an old-fashioned paper cone of water.
The barrier would stay in place for now, but not forever.
Erika Jahneke is a writer and activist whose next upcoming work will appear in an Covid-arts anthology, which you can pre-order here.
She is a mistress of social-media, if not always her own emotions. “Future-fest” is her first attempt at science fiction since some Star Wars cantina fanfiction at the age of twelve.