“What?” I am having a hard time opening my eyes. I always take a sleeping pill before getting on a plane. I’m a light sleeper, and Tokyo to San Francisco is an impossible flight for me without a little pharmaceutical assist. My throat hurts too — dehydration.
“Miss,” I try to wave off the insistent flight attendant. “Do you mind bringing me a glass of water please? I’m feeling a bit off.”
“Sir?” she tries again. I make myself pay attention to her.
“Water?” I make my face and voice communicate the urgency of my request.
“Unfortunately, sir, I can’t do that right now.”
“Oh.” I rub my eyes clean of the sleeping gunk and look at the woman. She doesn’t look familiar. I usually make it a point when I fly to get to know the flight attendants in my area of the plane. It’s just a polite thing to do. And then I take my pill, and off to the lullaby land for me.
“Sir? Unfortunately, I can’t give you water right now. But I do need to do a few basic neurological tests–”
“What?!” Well, I’m up now. I fly all the time on business; my company develops the next generation computer chips for do-it-yourselfers and educational markets. At home, I always tinker and have been teaching my son to make his own digital stuff. Sutaffu, as they say in Japan. And never in my forty odd years of flying have any airline official or airport security asked me to undergo a neurological anything. Not anything. If I was drowsy before, I’m up and pumping adrenaline now. I feel the tingly sensation under my armpits. My flight or fight response fully kicks in.
I look closer. A woman? Man? What is this thing? She — I decide on a she — has a flawless skin and features of a traditional Japanese beauty. But when I say perfect, I mean perfect. Not a hair out of place. Not a wrinkle. Even her uniform, a complicated mix of traditional Japanese kimono and high-tech spandex number, is flawless. Her eyes sparkle just so. And it’s the eyes that give it…her away — those are perfect, but perfectly inhuman. There’s this idea from the turn of the century — the uncanny valley — it captures the artificial intelligence’s inability to simulate humans on their surface characteristics. Make a digital doll into an action figure or anything cartoony, and we are good about interacting with it. But if you try to get it too human looking, then most people just get freaked out by it. It’s why so many people are scared of life-like dolls. This thing…no, this woman is the best robot I’ve ever seen. But still, it has this uncanny valley thing just all over it. I like robots that look like robots. This thing makes me uncomfortable.
I have all of these thoughts and impressions in just a fraction of a second, but I can feel my blood pressure going up. I can hear the hum of my heart in my head, there’s perspiration on my face and palms of my hands.
“Sir? There’s no need to worry. It’s just a precautionary measure,” she assures me in a perfect version of female Japanese tone of voice — subservient and yet totally controlling.
“Miss? Uhh…I don’t feel comfortable doing any medical procedures on this plane…on any plane.” It’s nothing personal. If Miss were a person, I would still refuse. I harbor no prejudices against robots or other artificial life forms. They are the future… I refocus on Miss. “But I would be happy to talk to your supervisor and explain my position further,” I say. I smile my most winning smile. Miss smiles back.
I turn my head to look around the plane. My seat is 15C — I try to book the same seat every time. I like routine. I like to know where the kitchen and flight attendants’ station are, where the toilets are located, where the emergency exits… Wait a second. Where’s everyone? This was a totally booked flight. I realize that my fellow seatmates have already disembarked…or at least are not here anymore. I don’t want to make any assumptions — I’m that unnerved by my situation. I look around. The plane is now mostly empty. There are still a few passengers here and there. Each has their own version of Miss. Each seems uncomfortable, flustered. I try to stand up a bit in my chair.
“Sir. Sir? Please remain seated,” Miss insists.
I look over to the nearest fellow passenger. It’s a woman in her late sixties, I think. I remember seeing her taking her seat. She had a pacemaker and was worried about the flight. She was visiting her new grandson, I think. My mind is good at absorbing these kinds of details. She is smiling and talking with her Miss calmly. Well, that’s a good sign.
“Miss?” I decide to take control of this conversation. “I must have slept through the landing. I’m sure you’ve noticed.” I smile widely. She smiles back. It gives me chills. “As I’ve explained, I took a sleeping pill. I do so every time I fly. You can ask the regular crew — they know me and my habits. I’ve taken this flight many times.” I’m proud of how reasonable I sound.
“I know, sir,” she says. “We’ve interviewed everyone on board once you’ve landed.”
Hmm. That’s not how things usually work. And since when does San Francisco International employ robots?
“If you just allow me to examine–” She leans in close.
“No, no.” I wave my hands in protest. They can ask me nicely, and I will still say no to a robot-administered neurological exam performed in situ of my plane seat. “I want to talk with my attorney,” I say firmly. There. This seems like the right plan of action. I try to remember a friend’s number, the one that went to law school with my wife. I can ask him to intervene and then get a proper lawyer, if need be.
“There’s no need for that, sir,” Miss says in her patient yet insistent voice.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” I say indignantly. I mean really. I hear soft crying noises coming from a few rows behind me. I jump and turn. Miss, just as fast, puts her hand on my shoulder and pushes me back down into my seat. Well, now I know how it is — I’m a prisoner. But I have rights. They can’t keep me here. They can’t give me neurological exams without my consent. I’m an American!
“Sir?” Miss’ voice is so soothing; it actually works to slow down my heart rate. That just pisses me off. “Sir?” she says again. “I’m really trying to help you.” Sure. “Your flight had an unusual temporal event. We are here to make sure all of the passengers can get off ready.”
“Ready for what?” Did the plane suffer some technical difficulties? Are they worried I will sue? “I’m really fine, Miss,” I say. “I didn’t get hurt or anything. I’ve slept through the whole incident. I won’t even be able to testify to anything that happened on this plane an hour after takeoff. Really. I just want to get off, get my luggage, and go home. I have a wife and a kid. I’m sure they are freaked out by all of this.” Whatever this is.
“We’ve contacted your family, sir,” Miss says. “They will be waiting for you at the terminal gate.”
“Well, thank you.” I smile the this conversation is over now smile and try to get up. As I stand up partially again, the view from my window opens up. It was blocked by the wing and the engine before — since I sleep on this flight, I choose my seat to be left alone; I don’t need the view. The slight change in perspective reveals the terminal outside. I know SFO very well. It’s my home terminal. I can recognize it from half a glance. This is not SFO. I feel sick to my stomach. They diverted the flight due to some emergency, and now they sent robots to calm the passengers. Pretty robots.
The young woman’s wailing behind me gets louder. “Dead? How can he be dead when we are getting married?” I hear her cry out. There are little murmuring sounds from her own robot Miss, trying to get the situation under control.
“Can you tell me what’s going on, please?” I ask my Miss. Her hand is back on my shoulder and I’m firmly pressed into my chair. I’m afraid now.
“You were one of the last passengers we woke up,” she says. “Your son insisted that we wait and let him explain everything himself.”
“My son is ten,” I say.
“He was ten.”
I don’t say anything, just look at her strangely perfect but somehow inhuman eyes. How can my son not be ten? He was ten before I got on this plane.
“Your son is a very important man. He wanted to meet you at the airport.”
“Uh-huh.” I’m playing along now. I bet there are secret cameras filming this interaction. Japanese have this thing for strange game shows. I can almost make myself believe this, except for the soft cries of the woman behind me. If this is a joke, it is really in poor taste.
“Your son is a scientist now. Cyber-geneticist. As you have probably noticed, I’m not human.”
“Yes. I did notice.”
“Your son is my father, you can say.” She smiles and gives me a little bow. I just stare back. “A father of all of us.” Miss inclines her head ever so slightly to indicate other Misses on the plane talking…or I should say freaking out other passengers? “I guess that makes you my grandfather,” she adds with just a hint of another smile — just an upturn of the lips, no teeth. I’m not buying it and she goes on. “Before I can assist you off this plane, I just need to make sure you are ready.”
“Oh, I’m ready.”
“Great.” She smiles again. She has perfect teeth. I’m done smiling. She lifts her other hand, the one not pinning me to the passenger seat, and I can see that her middle finger is missing its artificial skin, exposing what looks like a medical instrument, but not one I’ve ever seen before. I try to pull away from her, but a puff of air in my face delivers some drug.
The cabin seems to spin and then stabilize again.
“Thank you very much for agreeing to the neurological test,” Miss tells me. What? “We’ve noticed a few abnormalities and will follow up with your family once you get situated.”
“I’m free to go?” I ask. Surprisingly, I feel pretty good. I no longer feel thirsty and all of my drowsiness is gone. My heart rate is back to normal. My mood is light. In fact, I feel great.
I stand up. Miss helps me. There’s no longer anyone left on the plane. Even the crying girl from a few rows behind me is gone. I’m the last one to get off. I look out the window again. It’s not SFO. But I let it go. I will see my family shortly and figure it all out at the terminal. I’m sure I’ll find a way to get back home to San Francisco, if not today, then tomorrow. I feel good.
“One more thing, sir,” Miss says.
“Yes?” It’s amazing how good I feel.
“The temporal anomaly that I’ve mentioned before–”
“Yes?” I still feel good.
“The current year is 2037. Welcome the future, sir.” She beams at me. I beam back. “Your family is delighted that you came back to us.”
“I’m too,” I say, a bit of uncertainty is seeping back in. But almost instantly, my mood bounces back up to happy.
“The technology your son has helped usher into this world has changed everything.”
“2037?” I do the mental math — twenty years. My son is thirty now. It doesn’t make sense. But even that doesn’t get me down. Not anymore.
“Human happiness is our prime directive,” Miss tells me enthusiastically.
I feel happy. Very happy.
This story belongs in a universe of Passenger Manifest of Flight #008. For more stories, please check out the Xprize ANA Flight #008 Passenger Manifest. The winning story, Seat 14C, is particularly good.