“Quarters”

Jay blinked, hand still reaching for the nonexistent vending machine. In front of him, glowing blue lights flashed on an unfamiliar street, with car-like vehicles floating through the air above it. He ducked reflexively as a sporty red one whirred by overhead. A leaf rolled past in the wind, only to be snagged by a tiny robot that zipped in and out of its hole in a flash.

That stupid machine ate my quarters. Probably not the most important thing to focus on, but it was the least panic-inducing thought running through his head. Jay gingerly waved a hand through the air where the vending machine, the Chinese restaurant behind the vending machine, and the normal, not-Star-Trek city behind the Chinese restaurant had been only thirty seconds ago. He took a step forward onto the strange street and opened his mouth – either to yell for attention or scream hysterically, he hadn’t made up his mind yet.

Alarms and flashing blue lights erupted all around him. “DANGER!” An electronic sign unfolded from a nearby lamppost, screeching the words that scrolled across its screen. “DO NOT WALK ON THE AERIAL VEHICLE TRANSPORTATION STRIP! YOU ARE IN DANGER!” Jay stumbled backwards and looked frantically left and right, not sure whether to run or just drop to the ground in surrender. Then a familiar “WOOP-WOOP” sounded overhead as one of the flying vehicles descended, flashing red and blue lights. He’d never been so happy to see the cops. Maybe they could explain disappearing vending machines and morphing cityscapes, or at least refund his coffee money.

A man exited the landed car thing, bushy mustache bristling over a scowl. His uniform was black and only vaguely reminiscent of what Jay knew of police uniforms. “Hey, buddy,” the officer called, one hand on a bizarre green rod at his belt. “What are you doing, walking on the hoverstrip? You wanna cause an accident—”

A younger guy on a hoverboard suddenly zigzagged off the sidewalk, sliding to a stop two feet from Jay and nearly giving him another heart attack. “Whoa! You popped up in a weird spot.” The new stranger stepped off his board, saluted Jay with a grin, and turned to the officer. “Sorry about this. He’s a hopper.”

That obviously meant something to the officer, because he instantly relaxed, his eyebrows rising with interest. He approached Jay and the hoverboarder slowly, as if he feared that any sudden movements would set Jay on fire. The terrible thought that this might be possible danced through Jay’s brain as he stared back and forth between the two oddly-dressed strangers. “This guy’s a hopper? I’ve never been on the scene when one popped up,” the cop said conversationally. He gave Jay a friendly nod. “Don’t worry, sir. This man’ll have you home in an inch.”

Before Jay could respond, the hoverboard guy stuck something reminiscent of a beeping chrome softball in Jay’s face and began waving it over the rest of him. Then Jay couldn’t get a word in over the guy’s chatter. “So here’s the sitch, buddy: little time experiment anomaly, been sucking people randomly from the past, we set beacons up all over to spot you guys coming in. No harm done, we just gotta pinpoint your origins, be like it never happened. Oo, 2010’s, eh? Now, where exactly were you standing?” Jay opened his mouth again, only to be shoved a few steps to the left, the device beeping more loudly until it gave a bell-like ping! “Riiiight here, yup, that should do it!” Then the guy ignored Jay, fiddling with his device and thumbing some lights on the equipment attached to his spacesuit.

Jay stared at him, then turned his lost gaze on the cop, who shrugged sympathetically. “So… I’m in the future?” Jay managed, eyes roving over the alien city as this idea tried to sink in.

The officer gave a good-natured chuckle, his hand leaving the green rod and settling comfortably in his pants pocket. “According to these muks. People have been showing up all over the city the past couple weeks.” A light came on in his eyes. “Say, are you before the invention of computers, or after the Holoplex?”

That broke Jay out of his stupor just a little bit. He scrunched his eyebrows, trying to think over the aggravating whine coming from Hoverboard Guy’s softball. “Uh… in the middle, I think? What’s a Holoplex?”

“Holographic television and communication.”

“Wow.” Jay took a moment to really absorb his surroundings. Shiny buildings of dazzling colors – not the chrome everyone was expecting. Hovercars, that one still boggled his mind. He noticed an elevated sidewalk up on the other side of the depressed hover strip, moving its patrons along at a fast clip. “Is that an alien?!” Jay yelped, pointing at a bluish-green person with, of all things, a beautiful pair of glistening bug wings.

“Hm? Oh, no, that’s a Genetico. The government tried to create advanced humans, got out of control, now they have rights like everyone else so long as they don’t turn evil and try to take over any cities.” The officer shrugged as if this were old hat. “So you’ve never seen a hovercar before?

Jay shook his head, watching the aforementioned vehicles with awe. “What else has happened?”

“Oh, a few more wars, first colony on the moon, diet pills that actually work—”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, it’s great.” The officer patted his stomach. “Lost thirty pounds in two weeks. They make you desperate to eat cheese, though. I’d get some stock in the company when I got back, if I were you. I think they’re called—”

“Hey, hey hey! No giving future tips to the old guy!” Hoverboard Guy scolded. Jay bristled despite himself; okay, the comment had probably been about his place in time rather than his age, but he wasn’t a day over 32, thanks very much.

“Anyway,” the officer resumed, “they say they’ll have the glitch fixed soon.” He tilted his head at Jay. “You’re taking this rather well, if you don’t mind my saying.”

It was gratifying to know that he was hiding his inner panic and confusion so well. Part of Jay was still plugging quarters into a coffee machine in 2017, half-asleep and worrying he’d miss the bus to work. And now, there were hovercars and genetically-modified humans. A peculiar chill worked up Jay’s spine. Had anything stayed the same? Or would everything he knew and loved eventually be lost to time?

Jay shook the thought out of his head and focused back on the officer. “Shock combined with lack of coffee,” he deadpanned. “Or I’m hallucinating.” He kind of hoped it was the second one. This sort of existential pondering shouldn’t come so early in the morning.

The cop grinned. “Hmmm… Maybe I can help with that. I’ve always wanted to do this.” Throwing a surreptitious glance at the hoverboarder, the mustached man pulled something out of his shirt pocket and flipped it to Jay. Jay snagged the flashing circle of silver out of the air and examined it. There was a face he didn’t recognize on the heads side, with the year 2080 embossed above it.

Jay blinked, then pocketed it. “Thanks. That’ll help.” The cop gave him a thumbs-up.

“Okay, all ready!” Hoverboard Guy spun back around, waving his device. “Time to say bye to the future, hope we didn’t traumatize you too much. Oh hey, what’s your name? We can have fun looking you up later.”

“Uh… Jay Jones.”

“Well that won’t get ten thousand search results,” the guy muttered.

“Sergeant Bird Graham,” the cop threw in. “Nice meeting you.” Hoverboard Guy didn’t bother to introduce himself. Jay had just enough time to wave at his new friend before the chrome softball flashed, and the world went back to normal.

A kid reaching into the vending machine to steal Jay’s bottled coffee let out a scream and bolted. Jay stood there blinking hazily for several minutes. He tentatively poked the vending machine. He took his coffee, popped the lid off the bottle, and took a long drink. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out Sergeant Bird Graham’s coin.

Still a face he didn’t recognize. Still 2080 on the side.

Jay stared at it for a long moment, took another drink, and then wandered away down the street, feeling oddly at peace. Cool. They still use quarters in the future.

(A/N: You can read all of my posted short stories by clicking “Writing Shorts” in the top Menu. If you have thoughts about what you liked or how I can improve this piece, please feel free to share in the comments below. Thanks for reading!)

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