One For Charlie
By Helen Hanson
Charlie skipped down the aisle ahead of the plane lady. She wasn’t fast like him.
But a hand caught his shoulder, stopping him before he found the right chair.
She stepped toward him. “Remember to use your inside voice, Kichirou. Like Cap—like your father said.”
Papa did say that. Charlie whispered this time, “Papa calls me Charlie, and he said this seat was just for me. Even the seat number says so.” He spun in the aisle. “It’s one for Charlie.”
The edges of her mouth turned upward, and she took his hand. “Then let’s find it.” As they walked, he leaned into her and sniffed.
“You smell like flowers. I like flowers.” He touched her arm. “What’s your name again?”
She pointed a finger at her face. “I am Hanako.”
“Hanko.” He nodded. “That’s a pretty name.”
“How old are you, Charlie?”
He held up a thumb and three fingers. “Thirteen.”
“Here’s your seat. Number 14C. One for Charlie.” She patted the rucksack on his back. “Shall we get this off you?”
He wiggled his shoulder under the strap. “Thanks, Hanko.”
Once he was free, he dropped into seat 14C and looked at the big engine out his window. He could even see the wing.
“This plane is a Bow Wing 777. My papa flies the Bow Wing 777 plane for ANA.” He held up three fingers. “That’s three sevens, so it’s the luckiest plane in the sky.”
Hanko grinned big this time. He liked when the happy grew on faces.
“That is a very lucky number, Charlie.” She tucked his rucksack under the seat in front of him. “Now that you have a seat, what are you supposed to do first?”
So many things Papa told him. What was first? He looked around and saw the seatbelt. He raised his hand. “Seatbelt. Papa said put it on and don’t get up unless I call you.”
“That’s right. Can you put it on by yourself?”
“I can.” He found both ends and clipped them together. “See?”
With a tug, she tightened the belt around him. “Do you need anything?”
“No, Hanko. I want the plane to fly.”
“I’ll bring apple juice for you later. Your father said it’s your favorite.”
“Yes. My favorite.”
“I’m going to help the other passengers. If you need me, press this button.” She pointed again, but Charlie didn’t see where. He only wanted to sit in his seat and watch the plane.
Lots of other people got on the plane, but they seemed grumpy. Maybe if they knew his papa was flying them home to San Francisco they might be happier.
He reached out to a lady walking down the aisle. “My papa flies this plane.”
“Don’t touch me!”
Charlie spun toward the window. “Sorry.”
He forgot. He wasn’t supposed to touch strangers. Most of them didn’t like it.
Then he heard those words.
Whatever it was, he had it, and somehow it made him different. Strangers always said those words when he did something bad. Sometimes he didn’t have to do anything at all. Sometimes they used the word retarded.
No one ever said that word with a smile.
People said things to him and the lady, but Charlie quit listening. When strangers said those words, it made him feel the darkness. He kept his head pressed against the side of the plane until the voices went quiet.
He looked out the window and saw the train carrying the suitcases. By the time it went back empty, he heard his Papa’s voice overhead. He sounded like he did when tucking Charlie into bed at night. Everyone listened when Papa talked on the plane phone.
Papa said something about nine hours. That sounded like a long time, but Charlie wasn’t sure.
The plane started to move before Papa stopped talking, and soon, they were in the air. Charlie watched as everything on the ground got smaller. Hanko gave him a hot, wet towel, and he put it on his face. Then she gave him dinner—fish, rice, noodles. He ate most of it while he watched the clouds pass by his window. The sky was so blue, Charlie had to squint. He watched the cloudy blue until the world went dark.
When he woke, Papa’s voice boomed overhead. Charlie didn’t like it when Papa spoke like that. People looked scared, like his sister Mirai did after she broke Mama’s favorite glass crane.
“—some unusual activity to report. Flight attendants will meet with you and give you all the information we have at this point. No matter what happens during our approach to the airport, you must stay seated with your seatbelt fastened. I’ll be back to talk to you myself, once this—this is underway. Captain Hisamoto out.”
A lady near Charlie began to cry.
It made him sad, too, until he saw a drone through the window.
Drones! Or were they planes? They were different than the ones Papa played with and were much bigger. Whatever they were, the flying things filled the sky around them. They flew underneath the plane and below the wing. When they bumped against the plane, someone screamed.
There were more bumps. Most people tried to look out the windows, but others covered their heads with their hands.
This ride was the best! Way better than the rides at that mouse’s castle. After riding a coaster, Charlie threw up on a princess, and she got kinda mad.
This Bow Wing 777 was the luckiest plane in the sky.
But when the plane stopped moving, everyone got quiet. So quiet, he heard Hanko talking near him. Charlie listened to find out if she was talking about the drones.
“—is San Francisco. Just not the same San Francisco. We don’t know how it happened, but the year isn’t 2017.” She wiped an eye. “It’s 2037.”
All the grownups sucked in the air the way Charlie did when he saw something scary. Hanko said, “It’s unbelievable, but it’s true.” He thought she might fall over, but she dropped into one of the chairs. “The runways are gone because they don’t fly the same kind of aircraft anymore. They don’t even burn gasoline. They use—” Hanko looked at a piece of paper. “—carbon nanotube supercapacitors.” She dropped her hands to her sides. “No, I don’t know what they are. I’m just telling you what we were told. Aircraft takeoff and land vertically at SFO now. Airport staff sent tug drones to lower us onto the landing pad.” The skin between her eyes wrinkled. “Apparently, they knew we were coming.”
Mama and Mirai knew, too, and would be at the airport to meet them. Mirai stayed with Aunt Fay while Mama taught fizzes at the Stan Ford school. Mirai was really smart like Mama. Charlie turned back to the window.
He liked landings, but this one was different. The plane flew straight down to the ground, but the wheels didn’t chirp like a bird, and they didn’t have to drive around. They landed right next to the termal building and turned off the engine.
Lots of people came out to the plane. He looked for Mama and Mirai but didn’t see them. With a loud hissing noise, something moved on the front of the plane. It unfolded from the door and landed on the ground.
Oooh. A slide! Slides were always more fun than stairs. But Papa told Charlie to wait for him when the plane landed, so Charlie sat in his seat while everyone else rode down on the slide.
It was fun watching the grownups. Some took off their shoes. Some held hands. The women kept their purses in their laps.
As people landed at the bottom, others from the big group helped them up, and they walked into the termal building together. His class did that when they went to the zoo. Everyone had to have a buddy, so no one got lost.
When Charlie looked again, the seats around him were empty, and Hanko was walking up the aisle behind him. Then Papa appeared in the other aisle.
“Papa, did you see it? Did you see the slide?”
“I did, son.”
“Can we go on the slide?”
“Absolutely.” He pressed his fingers into his eyes and turned away. “Hanako, is the cabin clear?”
“Go ahead and deplane.” He cut across the row of seats. “Thank you for everything. I’ve got Charlie from here.”
“I almost want to stay on the plane.” She squeezed Papa’s arm. “Maybe if I stay, then none of this is real.”
“I understand.” He nodded, biting a lip. “But the only way forward is down the slide. Your husband and son are waiting for you. They have someone to greet each of us.”
Charlie wasn’t sure why she was sad. A slide and family to catch them at the other end. Mama and Mirai would be there, so he was excited.
Papa helped him put on his rucksack, and they walked to the front of the plane. The sunlight was even brighter through the open door. He wanted to jump onto the slide, but Papa held his hand while they sat on it together.
It was still a fun ride to the bottom.
“Can we do it again?”
“No, son. Like everything about today, it’s a one-way trip.”
Two women ran up to them. Papa reached out to one of them, so Charlie reached for the other.
The woman who helped him had light hair and was crying. She hugged Charlie, which was nice. He liked hugs. But the hug got too tight, and he pushed her away.
“Where’s Mama?” He looked around for her. “Where’s Mirai?” He wanted hugs from them and not these strangers.
Papa rubbed his eyes again. “Let’s go inside, Charlie.”
As they walked to the termal, Papa and one of the women spoke in Japese. Charlie knew it was a different way of talking, but Papa was talking so fast, Charlie couldn’t hear any of the words.
When they went inside the building, he saw white tents everywhere. He hoped to see Mama or Mirai, but they weren’t there. Papa and Charlie followed the women through the termal and went into one of the tents. It had a table and some chairs, but it didn’t have a roof.
The woman who hugged him too hard said, “Is apple juice still your favorite?” Her eyes were red, but she seemed happy.
“Service. Apple juice.”
He wasn’t sure who she was talking to because no one answered. But then a drone flew in from above their tent, carrying a tray with several cups.
“Here you go, Charlie.” She held her hand out toward the hovering drone.
He looked at Papa. “I’m not ‘posed to take things from strangers.”
Tears spilled onto her cheek.
“Go ahead, son.” Papa dropped his head. “You can have the juice.”
The woman covered her face with her hands and ran out of the tent.
“Alice,” he called after her.
Alice was Mama’s name. Where was she?
Charlie sat on the floor against the tent with his cup of juice and noticed the box of toys. He found an airplane and flew it in the air.
The dark-haired woman sat at the table with Papa.
“What happened?” He rubbed his chin. “How can we be in 2037, Miri?”
Papa called Mirai that name too. “That’s my little sister’s name.” Charlie stuck his tongue into the cup. “Where’s Mama? Where’s my Mirai?”
“They’ll be here later, son.”
The other Miri reached across the table and touched Papa’s hand. “I was twelve when the plane disappeared. Mom didn’t cope well.” She blew air through her lips. “So she buried herself in work.”
“That’s what Alice does.” He stretched his legs along the floor. “As bizarre as this is for me, I can’t imagine what it was like for you two. I mean—twenty years.”
“It was horrific.” The Miri hugged herself. “Oceanic flight control lost all contact with you. Your plane disappeared as if it crashed into the ocean.”
“Who crashed?” Charlie watched one of the crashes on TV. He dropped the plane and found a helicopter in the box.
“No one crashed, son.”
Charlie wanted to hear more about the crash, but Papa was busy talking to the Miri, and he smiled big this time. “I can’t get over how you’ve grown.”
“You and I are almost the same age, but Mom—she’s twenty years older.”
Papa ran his fingers through Charlie’s hair. “What about you? Are you married?”
“Married. Kids. Ph.D. We’ll get to all of it. I promise.”
“It’s a lot to take in.”
She closed her eyes. “Anyway, they checked satellite imagery. Ships and planes went out from Japan, Canada, Russia, the U.S.”
“Scanning for survivors. Wreckage.” He shifted in his seat. “I know the drill.”
“Of course, they never found anything.”
“But how did it happen? How did we get here?”
Charlie buzzed the helicopter around the tent room. “You flew us here.”
The Miri pointed at him. “You’re right. He did.” She turned back to Papa. “Are you familiar with the duality of light?”
Papa snorted like a piggy. “When I talked to you, what—” He checked his watch. “—eleven hours ago, you were re-reading The Hunger Games.”
Charlie looked at his belly. “I’m hungry.”
“Oatmeal cookies?” The Miri said, “I heard that you like them.”
His tummy rumbled. “Yeah.”
“You want anything, Da—Captain Hisamoto?”
“A beer. Desperately.”
“Service. Six oatmeal cookies and two pints of Alaskan Amber.”
“My favorite.” Papa leaned on the table.
The Miri scooted her chair nearer to Charlie. “I graduated in 2026. The Ph.D in physics came a few years later.”
“Apparently, we have twenty to cover.”
“We will.” She patted his hand.
A drone swooped down with a tray. The grownups took the cups, but Charlie got all the cookies.
“So the duality of light.” She sipped her beer. “Most matter is either a particle or a wave. On a quantum level, light can act like a wave or a particle, even at the same time.”
“Come on, Miri. I need some dots to connect.” He licked the white mustache off his lip. “What does this have to do with my aircraft?”
“During the search, they found a boat with highly unusual equipment. The people on it weren’t fishing for tuna. When Mom found out who was on board, she assembled a team to investigate.”
“So, who was on the boat?”
“Drs. Burt Selden and Nora Glen, theoretical physicists on the outer fringe of academic respectability. Most considered them crackpots even with doctorates from MIT.”
“Who’s mighty?” Charlie wondered if that was the superhero mouse with a cape.
“They were conducting experiments with electromagnets that generated superstreams, combining the particle and wave nature of photons to propel other objects to near-lightspeeds.” The Miri took a cookie from Charlie. “Big objects, which required an enormous power source. So they built their own nuclear reactor.”
“Broke untold laws, including the theft of uranium-233, plutonium, and thorium as breeding stock for more U-233. They jacked it from a lab in Hyderabad. Nobel laureates now, but back then, the dumbasses had half the Indian intelligence community looking for them.”
Charlie pulled on his father’s pant leg. “She said a bad word.”
Papa tickled the back of Charlie’s neck. “Did they need the water for the reactor?”
“Yes, but mainly, they wanted to keep their experiments a secret. And then, son of a bitch.” She hit the table with her fist. “They did it.”
“Bad words, the Miri.” Charlie licked the last cookie so she wouldn’t take it.
“What did they do?” Papa said, “Exactly?”
“They created a near-lightspeed travel stream.”
“Travel?” He wiped his mouth. “As in time travel?”
“Yep. Selden and Glen got caught in their own experiment and disappeared when you did. They returned twenty-four hours later, but to them, it seemed like seconds.”
Charlie threw the helicopter on the floor. “Can I play outside?”
“Not now.” Papa drank his beer. “Go on.”
“At near-lightspeeds, time dilates, meaning, for the traveler, the actual elapsed time is much shorter than for those left behind, where time passes at the normal rate. Dog years versus people years, if that helps. So when the two physicists returned, they essentially jumped a day into the future.”
“And my aircraft?”
“Your plane was directly over the boat when they conducted their successful trial and got caught in the speedwave. By then it was moving even closer to lightspeed, knocking you further into the future.”
“Twenty years.” Papa rocked his chair onto two legs. “Everything seemed normal during my flight until they said it wasn’t.”
“Fifteen years ago, Selden and Glen calculated the effects of the beam on your airplane. They pegged your arrival within two weeks. We were prepared for today. United States Flight Authority located someone who understood the old approach protocols to communicate with you when you made radio contact. We knew the transition would be difficult.” She shook her head. “All we could do was lessen the shock.”
“You were not successful.”
“By the way.” She covered Papa’s hands with her own. “Everyone on the plane is famous.”
Papa scowled. “I’m sure I don’t want that.”
“Too late. The world can’t wait to meet you.” The Miri put up a fist for Charlie to bump. He whacked it. “Seeing the city on approach must’ve been a freakout. There’s enough left of the old San Francisco that you’d recognize it, but the changes are dramatic.”
“I could say the same about you.”
“For me, you’re exactly as I remember. Charlie, too.”
“Charlie will be fine, but I will have to adjust.” Papa gripped his beer glass with both hands. “So now what? Any planes around here that I can fly?”
“Flight industries have changed, but we’ll go over that later. There’s a more pressing matter that Mom wants to discuss with you. She’s on her way now.”
“How do you know?”
“She sent a message via my ocular overlay.”
“I need another beer. Glad that’s still around in 2037.”
“You must have so many questions.” The Miri said, “Service. Two pints of Alaskan Amber.”
Charlie watched for the drink drone to bring the beer. Several passed overhead but didn’t enter their tent. The beer arrived at the same time as the Alice with the red eyes.
“Alice.” Papa stood, holding out a hand, but she didn’t take it. He sat back down.
“That’s my Mama’s name too.” Charlie wondered and said. “Where is she?”
The Miri moved to the floor with Charlie. “Do you want to go for a walk?”
“No.” The Alice seemed mad. “This concerns the whole family.”
She sat at the table, but Charlie didn’t like the way she stared at Papa.
“Hiroto, obviously we have a lot to discuss.”
“Don’t we, though? It’s been a long day.” He laughed. “Twenty years long.” He wiped his hands on his knees. “I am simply dumbfounded.”
“It will take time.” She crossed her arms. “But everything else can wait.”
“What do you mean by that? What can’t wait?”
Only strangers used Charlie’s long name. Or Mama if she was mad.
“What about him?”
The Alice tapped her fingers on the table. “Cytogeneticists have made remarkable progress in genome editing therapy. He doesn’t have to live like that anymore.”
“Genome editing?” Papa squinted. “He’s our son, Alice. Not a damn document.”
All the grownups used bad words today.
“In the past two decades, Down syndrome—”
Charlie felt the dark coming over him.
“—eliminated at birth. The effects of the trisomy on his intellect can be corrected on the molecular level.”
“He’s fine the way he is.” Papa raised his voice louder than usual.
“Just hear me out.” She got louder, too. “As you know, women are born with two X chromosomes. In female physiology, the XIST gene naturally masks the second X chromosome by producing a piece of RNA that coats it, making it unreadable. Without that masking, the redundant information on the second X chromosome would cause numerous abnormalities in women.” The Alice put her hands together. “Before you left, cytogeneticists had successfully masked third chromosomes in mouse models.”
“Speak plainly, Alice.” Papa’s voice was much weaker this time. “What are you saying?”
“They can silence the third chromosome 21 in humans.” She bit her lower lip. “We have a cure for his condition.”
Papa’s face turned white like Mama’s. Charlie got a bean bag out of the box.
“We just got back. He doesn’t even know you. How can you think about pushing this matter now?”
“Because he doesn’t know me.” Her head bent to the floor. “And he could.”
“Oh, Alice.” He went to her side. “I’m in shock, but you—you’ve been suffering for twenty years.”
“Dr. Strauss is in town specifically for Char—for Kichirou. He’s due in Haifa for a symposium later this week.”
Papa pushed the Alice away. Charlie threw the bean bag at her, but it only hit her foot.
“You expect me to decide this now?” Papa blinked. “Then, no. I don’t want to change him. He’s kind and gentle, and I won’t have that taken from him.”
“Papa.” The Miri’s voice was soft. “Kichirou has been fortunate that his medical complications haven’t been severe. But you know the risks for him. Heart defects, hearing loss, vision problems, spinal and thyroid abnormalities. And if that weren’t enough, he faces a higher risk of Alzheimer’s at a younger than normal age.” She stood and walked toward the door. “Which life do you think he’d choose if it were up to him?” The Miri held out a hand. “C’mon Charlie. Let’s go find some pizza.”
“Ha!” Charlie safely landed the hovercraft for the tenth time on the flight simulator. “I think I’m ready for my first lesson.” He spun around on the chair. “When can we take out a real one?”
“Ten superb landings in a row. I guess I owe you.” Dad looked more relaxed than before the time shift. “We’ll go when your mother gets back from her lecture at NYU.”
“Mom’s been working a lot since my procedure. I’m reading a physics book, so I can understand what she teaches at Stanford.” Charlie laughed. “Not that I do yet.”
“I sure don’t.” Dad eased onto the couch near Charlie. “She loves you, but our new age difference makes her feel out of sorts. When your mother is out of sorts, she works. The whole experience has been a shock for all of us.”
“Not for me.” Charlie scrubbed his scalp with his fingers. “Everything finally makes sense.” “Now I know why you guys got so frustrated. I was hard to raise.”
“No.” Dad shook his head. “Not hard. We love you no matter what.”
That was true. Their love was the single constant in Charlie’s life. But he knew it wasn’t easy on them. Raising any kid was work. “I was lucky to have you for parents. But it’s weird to see my whole life in such a different way.”
Dad’s shoulders dropped. “That’s why you couldn’t play with certain kids.”
“Some of them were real losers. I get it. But I’m glad you let me take the red pill.”
“The red pill. You know? From The Matrix.”
His palms turned toward the ceiling. “I don’t know that one.”
“All those flights, and you never saw any of the movies.”
“Someone had to fly the plane.”
“I watched them and didn’t understand them.” Charlie tagged his father’s shoulder with a fist. “Let’s fix that right now. Entertainment, play movie, The Matrix.” Charlie jumped onto the couch with his father as the holoscreen appeared in the room. “After what we’ve been through, we know all about rabbit holes.”
Note from Helen Hanson:
This story was written as an entry into an XPRIZE contest. I hope you enjoyed it. The basic rules from the contest are here:
On June 28, 2017, ANA Flight 008, from Tokyo to San Francisco, passes through a temporary wrinkle in the local region of space-time, transporting passengers 20 years into the future. They arrive at SFO on June 28, 2037. The story is told from the perspective of the passenger seated in Seat 14C.
The story should show how exponential technology can positively impact the future.
If you’re so inclined, drop me a line: Helen@HelenHanson.com. I love to hear from readers.
All the best,