Nova 21

15 min read

It was raining. The forecast said nothing about the rain, but as soon as Connie stepped outside, a cloud formed above the undomed part of the old town, and it started pouring. Her palmband vibrated, warning her about the change in the forecast. Connie waved it away.

“I have eyes, you dimwit!”

She reached into her pocket to find an umbrella. She was sure she had one, but her fingers kept finding loose pegs of air conditioning, all too light to still have a charge. Finally, she singled out an unmistakable cone of a sonic umbrella clip. She fastened it on top of her head, and, as soon as the first drop of water hit her hair, an invisible ultrasound dome sprung out and enclosed her head and shoulders in a thin protective barrier.

The pavement under her feet slowly turned glossy. Each step brought Connie closer to the Grand Hall. Closer to Mike. She knew she had to have a decision ready before seeing him. It wasn’t rocket science: she was either leaving him or leaving with him. Both alternatives scared her.

The sonic dome above her flickered, coughed one last pulse and disappeared. It was out of juice. Connie put her hands above her head in a desperate attempt to shield herself, and her palmband interpreted her gesture as a request and projected a screen, collapsing it into her hair.

“Stupid thing,” she muttered, looking around for shelter.

On her right, there was a door with a card that said Open. Strings of painted light bulbs decorated the windows on each side. Through the murky glazing, Connie spotted piles of bright pillows and handmade toys stacked up on the sills. A sign above the door said Nova 21. Connie couldn’t tell if it was a souvenir shop or a café, but it had a roof, and the card sounded like an invitation. She shook the water off her hydrophobic tunic, pushed the squeaky flush door and snuck inside.

Shelves and shelves of knick-knacks covered every wall inside the small room. Some were electronics that belonged in the last century. Was this an antique store? At one side, a counter clung to a multi-tiered glass refrigerator that displayed various cakes and biscuits. On the other side, two tiny tables, each with its own set of chairs, stood by the window as if it were a snack bar.

An old woman appeared behind the counter. “Welcome. May I offer you a cup of tea?”

With a fuzz of white hair, wearing a leopard pattern scarf around her neck and a woollen pullover you could only find in thrift shops, she looked as dated as the stuff on the shelves around her.

“It’s complementary,” she added, “if you are here for the exhibition.”

Despite her age, the woman had a happy face: every fold of her skin smiled.

Connie gave the room another scanning look. “What is this place? A museum?”

The woman chuckled. “Just a family business.” She turned around and flipped a switch on an electric kettle. It had a wired stove underneath, not an induction pad. “I will make you a cup, and you can wait here with me for the raincloud to pass. It’s all right, I welcome any company. I’m Hannah. Please, take a seat.”

“What’s all this stuff?” Connie asked, making a tentative step towards the tables.

“This place has a story,” Hannah said, bringing out two ornamented cups. “It was named after a futuristic expo show, Nova 21. It was held here in the city, in 2020, and was meant to gather the best engineers and inventors. An entrepreneur wanted to encourage people to dream of a better world, to imagine what the future would look like in fifty years. The participants were sponsored to work on anything they wanted for a year, and in 2021, they had to present their futuristic prototypes.”

“2021?” Connie repeated. “None of this stuff looks like what we have now. I guess they failed in their dreams.”

“The project was a failure, yes,” the woman said, placing tiny tea bags in the cups.

“Did they take the money and produce nothing?”

“They produced”—Hannah waved at the shelves—“this.”

Connie’s eyes followed the gesture: it just seemed like junk.

“My late wife inherited it from her father,” Hannah explained. “He was the entrepreneur who sponsored the show. In fact,”—her face lost its cheer—“it was all she inherited. None of it was what he hoped it would be. He went broke. We opened this place together, Margaret and I. I was a baker. Margaret adored her father, and in a way, she believed that one day, these prototypes would change someone’s life.” She paused to fiddle with her scarf. “And now it’s just me. Fifty-four years, now just a memory.”

“Show me one of those prototypes,” Connie asked before the mood became awkward.

“All right,” Hannah agreed, her smile reappearing. “Margaret was the one who knew every item, but I can show you a thing or two.”

She walked to one of the shelves and picked up a bulky cylinder.

“This,” she said, presenting it to Connie, “is a… oh God, I forgot the name!”

Connie turned it in her hands. The size of a dinner knife, it had a rubbery surface and a pointy end. “What does it do?”

“It’s a pen. It makes anyone a calligraphy expert. Or so was the intention.”

Connie held it like a proper stylus and tried a few strokes in the air. It felt heavy, as if something inside it resisted her movements.

“Gyroscopes?” Connie guessed.

“Perhaps. I tried it once, and it did a decent job.” Hannah gestured at the poster above the counter where Connie only now noticed the menu for hot beverages. The letters were pleasing to the eye, but nothing too sophisticated: it could never compete with modern adaptive typography.

“Not bad for twenty twenty-one,” Connie agreed.

“There’s more.”

Hannah rummaged another shelf and brought out a baseball cap with a wired mesh on top. Tiny squares of electronics clung to it.

Connie touched the exposed circuitry. “What is this?”

“You wear it, and it glows green when you’re in the zone.”

“The zone?”

Hannah repossessed the cap and put it on top of Connie’s head. “When you concentrate hard on a task, your brain waves change, and this cap detects it, and the LEDs light up. Don’t worry, it won’t electrocute you.”

Back at the counter, the kettle clicked, announcing its readiness. Excusing herself, Hannah went to fill the teacups with hot water.

“Why would anyone want such a thing?” Connie asked. She tried to concentrate, watching her reflection in the window for the promised glow.

“Oh, it’s very useful in an open space office,” Hannah shouted over the clatter of china. “You should never disturb anyone who is in the zone.”

Connie took the cap off. “Is there anything truly futuristic here?”

Hannah returned with two steaming cups of tea. Her hands were surprisingly steady. “Well, there’s a time machine,” she said casually.

“A time machine?”

“Yes. It was somewhere here.” She placed the cups on the table and hurried to the other side to raid a cabinet there. When she came back, she had a bracelet in her hands.

“So tiny?” Connie asked.

“Yes. I think it still has a charge for one trip. Do you want to try it?”

Connie eyed the bracelet with suspicion. “Does it really work?”

“It does. Margaret used it on me once, and I assure you, it’s real. I truly jumped in time.”

“How far would I go?”

“Anywhere from thirty seconds to twenty minutes,” she said and then added, “into the future.”

Connie scoffed. “Who would want to travel twenty minutes into the future?”

“It’s still fun,” Hannah said with a shrug.

Connie craned her neck to look at the big mechanical clock above the door. It showed a quarter to five. Outside, it was still pouring. She outstretched her arm.

The old woman clasped the bracelet around Connie’s hand. She pushed a hidden button, and it tightened around the wrist and started glowing in a slow, pulsing rhythm. “It has to prepare,” she explained. “Give it some time.”

Connie watched the steady dance of animation on the screen surface. A plume of pale colours snaked on the dark curved facet, adjusting to her heart rate. Greenish pearl and eggshell white, barely noticeable pink and lavender at first, it slowly saturated with each pulse. It did nothing more than that, and after watching it for a while, Connie lost interest.

“Do you have anything practical here?” she said. “Something you’d actually use?”

“There are Margaret’s glasses,” Hannah said with a gasp of a forgotten memory returning. “She wore them every time she had a tough decision to make.”

She disappeared behind the counter, inside another room Connie wasn’t aware of before. When Hannah returned, she had a small leather box in her hands.

The old woman took her seat and slowly opened the box. Under a lace handkerchief, lay a pair of black rimmed glasses.

“It’s a pity Margaret got them after she finished her education,” Hannah said, handling the glasses with great care. “They would have helped her enormously during the exams.”

“How do they work?”

“They warn you when you’re about to make a mistake.”

Connie took the glasses. The frame was heavy.

“It has a camera,” Hannah explained, “and it monitors the size of your pupils. Your subconscious knows the right answer better than your conscious mind, and it can speak through an involuntary pupil reaction. In a simple experiment where participants had to solve mathematical problems, their pupils reacted before they gave a wrong answer. These glasses flash a sign when they detect it. This way, your conscious mind is informed of a mistake so you can correct it.”

“Can I try it?”


Connie put the glasses on, and the balance of her face shifted, the frame pressing on her nose. “What do I do?”

Hannah shrugged. “Do you want to solve maths problems?”

“Not really. What about those tough decisions, how do you consult this thing?”

“Think of a solution and phrase it as a statement. If your subconscious disagrees, you’ll see a red flash before your eyes. Impossible to miss.”

Connie eyed the refrigerator. “Do I want cake? I think I want cake.” The glasses did nothing. “Are they working?”

“They must be.”

Nothing happened, and Connie berated herself for wasting so much time on toys. Outside, the rain stopped drumming on the windowsill, ruining her last excuse for stalling. “I should be going.”

The world in front of her eyes flashed red just for a second.

She gasped.

Of course, she didn’t want to go. Hannah’s exhibition was entertaining, and the longer she stayed here, the further she could postpone her trip to the Grand Hall. She could postpone Mike. She glanced at the clock: it was almost five. Only half an hour until she had to announce her choice.

If there was one decision she could use all the help she could get, it was Mike.

“I should marry Mike,” Connie said under her breath, and the glasses flashed red.

A sigh of relief escaped her. Of course she didn’t want to marry Mike. They were great together once, but now… Just because he was leaving the country, it didn’t mean she had to throw her life away and follow him.

The bracelet she forgot she was wearing vibrated, reminding her of its presence. Connie looked at it in surprise. Clouds of red and violet pulsed rapidly on its surface. She felt how tightly it gripped her wrist. The bracelet shook in strained anticipation, building up to something. And then, without warning, it released a violent burst of hidden energy, bending her arm in an uncontrollable powerful spasm. A lightning bolt of painless shock ran through her body, rushing to her temples, painting everything electric white.

Connie was momentarily aware of her heart racing in her chest. Her neck was sore, and when she looked up, she saw Hannah’s frightened face before her, a glass of water in her hand.

“Are you all right?” Hannah said. Her voice shook with worry. “Did that thing hurt you?”

Connie looked around. A moment ago, she sat here watching pale colours dance on the surface of the bracelet Hannah had put on her wrist, claiming it to be a time machine. Connie pushed away Hannah’s offered water and examined her arms. The bracelet’s screen was now blank, her wrist sore and reddened. She unclasped the bracelet and threw it on the table. Her heart still rocked her whole body. The surroundings didn’t feel right. A moment ago, she looked at the clock above the door, noticing it was a quarter to five, leaving her forty-five minutes to reach the Grand Hall. Now, this same clock showed a few minutes after five. Outside, the rain had stopped. It was loud on the window glass just a heartbeat ago, and now the sky appeared clear.

Connie turned to the old woman. “Did it work? Did I just jump in time?”

“Don’t you remember?” Hannah asked with a catch in her voice. “What is the last thing you remember?”

“What does my memory have to do with it? You just gave me the bracelet.” Connie reached to touch the cup Hannah brought her a moment ago: the tea was lukewarm. “Did this thing propel me fifteen minutes into the future?”

“Oh dear.” Hannah’s face changed. If Connie had to name the expression, it was a disappointment. “It feels like a chunk of time is missing, doesn’t it?”

Connie produced her palmband to check the time, not trusting the old thing on the wall. As she opened her palm, the rubber band that ran across it did not react. No screen projection appeared above it. She jiggled her hand, rebooting it, but it was still just a dead accessory.

“It’s fried,” Hannah said with a sigh.

She reached for Connie’s face. Suddenly aware of something heavy on her nose framing her visual field, Connie winced. Was she wearing glasses? Hannah carefully manoeuvred them off her face. Connie could not explain how they got there even if her life depended on it.

“With a charge like that, the damn thing wiped out all memory.” Hannah tapped on the frame as if trying to shake some electronics into responding. “I’m sorry. Margaret had warned me to take off all the electronics, but I forgot.”

She fell silent for a moment, lovingly pressing the heavy-framed glasses to her chest. What was so important about those damn glasses?

“Last time the bracelet was out of its box,”—Hannah went on with the conversation Connie couldn’t really follow—“I was you, and Margaret was the magician. Margaret knew how the trick worked, but she never broke character. I had no idea how important it was to her, how strongly she clung to the illusion her father’s heritage was worth something. I believed her.” She turned the glasses to look into the lenses as if into someone’s eyes. “Oh, Margaret, why didn’t you tell me how that trick really worked?”

“Did I really travel in time?” Connie asked, demanding the old woman’s attention.

Hannah stretched her lips into a strained smile. “It feels like magic, doesn’t it? And the magicians never reveal their secrets.” Her face sagged. “Even the cheapest of tricks can become convincing in the hands of a talented illusionist. But the greatest trick is persuading yourself it’s real.”

Hannah’s words didn’t make sense. Connie wasn’t sure she even liked magic. She looked at the clock again: the hands kept creeping forward. From the table before her, the dormant time machine which robbed her of fifteen minutes of her life stared at her with its bulging eye.

“I need to go,” Connie said. “I need to be somewhere. And the rain has stopped.”

Hannah still fondled her glasses. “Sure. Good luck.”

“Thank you.” Connie stood up in a hurry, but then considered something and added, “You know, it’s actually my wedding day today. I’m getting married.”

For a moment, probably because she stood up too fast, Connie saw blood flash before her eyes, but it disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

Hannah smiled. “Oh really? Congratulations. May your married life be as happy as mine and Margaret’s was.”

“Thank you.” Connie managed an enthusiastic nod. “I’m sure it will be.”