Last Flight to 2037
It was to be our last flight back to Cleveland together. My wife was fast asleep in her seat next to the window as the plane’s wing lights winked in the inky darkness. She kept her cane propped next to her for when her arthritis flared up and made it hard to walk. She was too young to need a cane. I was reclined in my seat reading Proust trying to keep my mind off how nervous flying made me. It was ridiculous. Being afraid to fly, a man in my condition. We had had a good time in Tokyo, considering. A friend took us to some Buddhist temples and nice Zen gardens. We visited the best doctors in Japan and tried everything—medicine, meditation, herbal remedies, even contemplated surgery. But then the cancer became aggressive and I had to face facts. And it was time to go home—for the last time.
About half an hour before our scheduled arrival time, the plane shuddered and I felt a dull pop within my ears. The overhead light flickered like a firefly. I assumed we were beginning our descent.
“Are we there yet?” Jennifer asked, her eyelids drooped in drowsiness.
“Not quite,” I said. “Did the pills kick in?”
“It doesn’t hurt too much now. I’ll be okay,” she lied. Her lips formed a tight smile. “I’m sorry I fell asleep.”
“What do you have to be sorry for? The medicine makes you sleepy. Flights make us both sleepy,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. I just don’t want to miss a moment with you. Time is so fleeting these days.”
“We have time,” I said, patting her hand. “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
“I know,” she lied again.
Jennifer leaned gingerly over the armrest and gently kissed me on the forehead as the steward passed by. The steward didn’t seem to notice the little display of affection as his eyes were glancing from the overhead bins to the seatbelts on our laps. He noticed Jennifer’s cane propped beside her.
“Ma’am, we’ll be landing soon. Would you mind securing that under the seat?” he asked. “Or I could stow it in the overhead if you like.”
I was about to protest but my wife cut me off.
“No problem,” she said and she handed me the cane to lay down on the floor across our already minimal leg room.
“Thank you,” the steward said and resumed his rounds.
The plane touched down without incident about twenty minutes later, and my nerves began to calm as I spied the terminal lights through the window. The plane taxied quietly towards one of the terminals and came to rest on the tarmac. Everyone unbuckled and got up expectantly, stretching their legs and fumbling with the overhead compartments as the stewards readied themselves at the exits. I preferred to wait in my seat with Jennifer until the crowd cleared out of the aisles some.
“How are you feeling, honey?” my wife asked me.
“Better since I went off the meds, if you can believe that,” I said. In fact, I did feel better, even though I knew the feeling wouldn’t last. The intruder inside my body was doing its deadly work whether I was aware of it or not. Still, it was the calm moments like these that might make the storm to come bearable. “Although it’s hard now to imagine feeling worse than I did going through chemo. You know, after all the aggressive treatments I’ve been through, it still blows me away that doctors are so eager to kill half of me to get at a disease, to cut pieces off me to remove a foreign object that never belonged in the first place. It’s like there’s a race on to see who can kill me first, the doctors or the cancer.”
“Oh dear,” Jennifer’s eyes grew luminous. “We’ll beat this yet. You’ve been so strong. We’ll beat them all.”
“Yeah, I know,” I lied.
I scanned about the cabin at the restless parents and fidgeting kids standing in the aisles and realized we’d been sitting with doors closed for the past fifteen minutes. I looked for the stewards. Two were partly hidden by a partition near the cockpit. They appeared to be conferring about something. The blonde stewardess who’d served us drinks earlier scowled and the steward’s face bore an expression of bewilderment.
After a few more minutes, the voice of the pilot came over the intercom. He spoke first in Japanese, then in clipped English: “This is your captain speaking. We apologize for the delay. There was some slight confusion as to whether we were cleared to dock with the gate, but that appears to have been cleared up.”
“That’s a relief,” I heard a man in a 49ers jersey growl.
“The local weather is 75 degrees, light breeze and scattered clouds,” the pilot continued. He paused another moment before saying: “Our arrival was a bit late. Local time is 9:45 on August 21, 2037. Thank you for your patience and, on behalf of the flight crew, we hope you’ve had a… pleasant journey.”
There was a slight murmur amongst the congregated passengers. The steward and stewardesses appeared to be apologetic as the doors opened and the crowd began to shuffle towards the exit.
“Did I hear him right? Did he say 2037?”
“Is 2037 some sort of military time?”
“No military that I’m familiar with,” I said. “You don’t think he meant the year 2037? Also, shouldn’t it be morning now?”
“It had to be a mistake—or some sort of joke, telling us the flight was late by 20 years.”
I shrugged. After the cabin had almost emptied except for the crew and a few elderly passengers, I grabbed my backpack from the overhead and Jennifer’s carryon. She struggled to retrieve her cane from under the seat and, with a cursory farewell to the steward, we departed the plane.
The tarmac still seemed slick from a recent rainfall, reflecting the liquid pools of light from the terminals. Perhaps it was the cloak of darkness that made distances hard to judge but it seemed like the terminal was far vaster than I had remembered it. But all that didn’t seem to matter; I was just glad we were home. Well, mostly glad, except for a vague gnawing of dread as to what was to come next. I looked at Jennifer briefly and a sense of longing came over me. I didn’t want to leave her alone in the world. It just wasn’t my choice. I was already starting to let go.
When we reached customs, I looked about for the other passengers from our plane but was surprised when I couldn’t recognize any of the faces. I saw a few men and women in official-looking uniforms scanning the crowd.
“I told them not to release the passengers so quickly,” a small man in what appeared to be blue and grey medical scrubs crossed with a business suit. “They’ll be disoriented. They need to be processed and acclimated.”
“We’ll get them all. They aren’t hard to spot,” a blonde woman in similar looking scrubs. Her hair was done up in a ponytail and she wore a heavy-looking glove on her right arm that covered her arm nearly to the elbow. Both of them looked fresh out of school. The blonde woman noticed Jennifer and I and nodded. “There’s some more now.”
I placed my hand protectively on wife’s shoulder as the two approached us. I knew Jennifer’s attentions were elsewhere and the reference to being “some more” made me suspicious of these strangers’ intentions. But as they approached, the blonde woman smiled broadly at me.
“Hello, sir,” she said. “Are you from the 2017 flight?”
I blinked. “No, I think our flight number 008… sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. That was awkwardly phrased,” the woman smiled. There was a strange momentary glint in her eye. “Let me rephrase that. You’re from flight 008 from Tokyo, the one that was lost in the year 2017. I’m afraid this might be hard to digest, but you’re in the year 2037.”
“Then it wasn’t a mistake,” my wife gasped. “The pilot did say 2037.”
There was another glimmer in the woman’s eyes as though tiny black threads were swimming across the surfaces of her irises and disappearing into her strangely broad pupils. “Ah yes, you must be Mr. and Mrs. Samuels, in seats 14C and 14D. My name is Sarah Yu. Welcome home.”
“I don’t understand. How did we end up in the year 2037?” I asked.
“Uh… we’re not entirely sure,” the young man beside Sarah Yu said. “But this has happened before—recently—and at this airport. We’re guessing some sort of temporary or sporadic rift in space-time. Physics is not really my field, sir, but that’s what I understood from our briefings.”
“Rift?” Jennifer said, scrunching her face.
“What my assistant meant to say is that we are medical technicians. We’re sorry we weren’t able to greet you at the plane, but we were wondering if you would allow us a few moments to conduct a brief medical exam,” Sarah Yu said.
“An exam?” I asked, eyeing the medical technicians with a sharp eye. Suddenly, I felt a little threatened. I poked an accusing finger at the them. “Like we’re lab rats—or quaint artifacts from another time? What’s this all about?”
“It’s okay, honey,” Jennifer said, taking hold of my arm to calm me. “I’m sure it’s nothing invasive. Are you just checking us for radiation or toxins, something like that?”
Sarah Yu nodded. “That’s exactly it, Mrs. Samuels. You have been out of time for a few decades. It’s just a precautionary measure for your own safety.”
I grunted involuntarily. “I can tell you already that you won’t find much good in my exam. Do we have to go far for this… exam?”
“Not at all,” Sarah Yu said. “We can do it right here, with your consent.”
“Right here?” I asked incredulous.
“Obviously, for your privacy and comfort, we would do the exam at a proper facility if we discovered anything concerning in our initial scans. But the initial scans can be done right here,” Sarah Yu said. She raised her gloved hand in front her chest. Suspended above the glove, a hollow image of a beating heart flickered in three dimensions. With her bare hand she grasped at the phantom organ and spun it round. Then she pinched the aorta and like playdough it stretched between her fingers as they parted. The heart dissolved until nothing was left but the enlarged aorta, with blood vessels speeding through its tunnel and disappearing into thin air. The trick nearly made me gasp. “The glove I wear contains miniaturized imaging equipment and software to render internal organs in three dimensions. This little device can do most of what it probably took several rooms full of X-ray, PET scanners and other equipment to manage. And it does it in real time.”
“That’s… extraordinary,” my wife said.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” the male assistant said. “What do you use the walking stick for, Mrs. Samuels?”
“Since I turned 30 a few years ago, I’ve suffered from severe joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis. I can’t walk long distances without a cane or wheelchair because legs seize up terribly,” Jennifer said.
“My goodness, I haven’t seen a case of arthritis since medical school,” the assistant’s eyes widened eagerly as if he’d discovered a new species of human.
“Curb your enthusiasm, Walter. I’m sure Mrs. Samuels does not want to be treated like a lab specimen,” Sarah Yu scolded. She held her glove momentarily over my chest. “Do you mind, Mr. Samuels?”
I nodded consent. She slowly waved her glove across my face, torso and legs. This time no holograms appeared near the glove but I couldn’t help notice the return of that strange glimmer return to the woman’s eyes along with the black threads. Furrows began to mar her impossibly smooth forehead.
“I told you, you wouldn’t like what you found,” I said. The words almost stuck in my throat. “I don’t suppose cancer is any less the predator in this decade as it was in 2017 or the previous 50 years before that. The doctors when I’m from told me it was too late for a medical solution.”
Sarah Yu’s face brightened. “On the contrary,” she said. “Your flight may have been 20 years late in arriving, but I would say that you found us just in the nick of time.”
I glanced at my wife whose shocked expression was reflected in my own.
“I’ve called up a cart,” Sarah Yu. “It should be here momentarily and then we can get you both sorted out.”
A small driverless cart arrived on the concourse. We all hopped on and sped through the terminal. It was at once familiar and exotic. There were little shops and kiosks, restaurants and bistros, but many of the names had changed. And even the familiar ones like Starbucks had gone through at least several facelifts. Many of the people we passed were strolling and talking to themselves, which I found odd, until I realized they were carrying on conversations with others unseen. No cell phones or Bluetooth devices, just a glimmer in the eyes like the one I noticed in Sarah Yu.
The cart sped through the terminal and then out one of the exits. As it did so, a canopy extended over the open cabin and then it whisked them onto a ramp and down the I-480 to the Cleveland Clinic. Sarah Yu escorted us directly to what appeared to be an examination room, though it was far less sterile than any hospital than I’d even been in.
“First, let’s tackle Mrs. Samuel’s problem,” Sarah Yu said. “You say that the arthritis is so severe that you can’t walk without pain, perhaps at all? Even with medication?”
Jennifer nodded. “That’s right.”
From her purse, she withdrew the cocktail of drugs she took every day and showed it to the medical technician. Sarah Yu examined the bottles and then handed them back. Then she waved her glove over Jennifer’s body.
“Most of these drugs treat the symptoms but not the underlying causes. And some of them don’t look like they would work on your disease anyways,” she said. “It’s not surprising really. Treatments which may work well for some people may not be effective for others. In 2017, your doctors may not have been able to tailor a drug to address your specific condition. Fortunately, we are.”
Sarah Yu went to a kiosk next to the sink. She returned with a glass of water and cup with just two little pills and handed them to my wife.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Not an immediate cure, if that’s what you are wondering, but we should have your wife running in marathons by the end of the year, if that’s what she wants to do,” Sarah Yu said. “The pills will block two particular proteins which have been accumulating in your wife’s joints from damaging the blood vessels in her arms and legs. With further treatments, we can repair any damage to the tendons and joints.”
“How often will I have to take these,” Jennifer asked. “What are the side effects?”
“These are tailored to your biochemistry, Mrs. Samuels,” Sarah Yu said. “You should feel no appreciable side effects. Before you leave, I’ll have enough pills for you to take with you until the other treatments kick in. I’ll think you’ll appreciate not having to walk with a cane anymore, which you should at least be able to by the time you leave here.”
Jennifer looked at me. I shrugged. “Better take your medicine then. I’d love to see you run a mile.”
Sarah Yu turned to me. “You’re the more difficult one, Mr. Samuels.”
“I know. I always am,” I said with a thin smile.
“Had you been born today, we could have identified with nearly perfect accuracy your likelihood of developing even the rare cancer you have and editing your genes to prevent the disease from manifesting,” Sarah Yu said, returning to the kiosk and working the console in ways that seemed almost mystical to me. “But now the cancer has manifested and taken root throughout your body. The treatments of 2017 and earlier would have been insufficient in doing more than delaying the spread of the malignant cells throughout your tissue. I’m guessing they told you that you had not long to live?”
“Yeah, they told me a month or so.”
“That must have been hard to take. I can hardly imagine what it would have felt like to go through all the treatments only to learn there was nothing to be done,” She turned back and then brought up a 3D image from your glove. “Here’s a healthy cell from your body. Notice the small perfectly round holes that encircle it.”
“It almost looks like a golf ball,” I said.
“Right, now here’s one of your cancer cells,” she said. “It’s all misshapen and the holes are bigger, raggedy.”
Sarah Yu held a needle in her bare hand. “In this syringe, I have the cure, a little miracle of nanotechnology your doctors would have only dreamed about decades ago. The molecules I can inject you with contain poison which will kill the cancer cells.”
“I have been poisoned before,” I said sourly. “It was called chemo.”
“This is not chemo, Mr. Samuels. The nanos are microscopically small, but not small enough to penetrate the walls of your healthy cell. They will only attack the cancer and leave the healthy cells alone. One injection and the nanos will do their job. The cancer will be overwhelmed. If it tries to adapt and return, we’ll know about it because you’ll have chips in your bathroom toilet that will collect DNA from your stool which will warn you of the cancer long before you develop symptoms. Then we’ll adapt the nanos to respond with different weapons.”
I heard Jennifer let out a tiny sob. There were tears forming in her beautiful eyes. “Do you know what this means?” she asked.
“I do,” I said. Without thinking, I fell into her arms and clutched her tightly, my eyes closed to shut in my own tears. Suddenly, I realized how comfortable I had become with the finality of my terminal illness. I had embraced my death and kept the living at a distance. Now my last flight home on 008 would be my first step in a journey into the future.