“Fifteen minutes to perm,” Chintan said mockingly. “See you tomorrow?”
I frowned at the ground, shuffling my feet awkwardly. “Yeah,” I muttered, rolling my eyes. “Tomorrow.”
Everyone else was headed back to the Academic Area for TechTatva work. Being part of MTTN, the largest media body in all of Manipal, I’d assumed I’d be able to stay out with them. But, of course, luck had it that I had no perm and all my other friends, who did have perm, had already disappeared in the dark.
Feeling dejected, I glanced at the biometric machine — the cause of all my problems.
Somewhere in my bag, I still had a screwdriver. Maybe, if I snapped a few wires I could damage the system enough that there wouldn’t be any punching in for the next couple of days. I smirked. That would be awfully convenient.
I set to work at once; The caretaker could come back at any minute, and I couldn’t risk being caught. I unscrewed the keypad, pulled out the bundle of wires and squinted at them. I grabbed a blue one and, using the screwdriver, tugged at it.
“There we go!” I whispered.
A spark flew out of the board. Then another. The device sputtered to life, sparks flying out of every nook and corner — it was like firecrackers during Diwali. I jumped away from the board.
Of course, extended perm was the dream but not at the cost of being electrocuted.
All of a sudden, everything went dark. I took another step back.
“What the — !”
When the lights came on, the world had stopped fizzling, but I wasn’t sure where I was.
A second ago the biometric device had been sparking and spluttering with electricity, but now I was looking at a perfectly functional machine.
I stepped back again. Turning around, I saw that I still seemed to be in a hostel, but the walls were no longer a pale yellow. Instead, they were a glossy white. The computer too was gone and had been replaced by a giant hovering screen.
“Wait, what is happening?”
This wasn’t my block. In fact, I don’t think it resembled any of the hostels I’d ever visited. And — holographic computers?! What was going on?
Disoriented, I spun around, trying to make sense out of my situation. I was met with a strange sight yet again. Sunlight was streaming in from outside. Somehow, in the last few moments, it had turned from night to day.
At that point, I was just scared. I made my way out of the building, hoping to catch a glimpse of something familiar.
Only, everything outside was even worse. Instead of being greeted by the familiar steps of Temple Run, I was shocked to see a moving walkway, just like the ones at international airports.
I pinched myself to check that I wasn’t dreaming. But, I was stuck here in this strange version of Manipal, and I did not know how to get out.
“The RoboWars is underway!” a loud voice boomed from the sky.
“Come and support your favourite robot. The round will begin at the arena in five minutes!”
I looked up, searching for the source of the voice and froze.
Displayed across the sky, was the RoboWars announcement. There was no board or blimp that I could make out. Just text hovering above me, as though on an invisible screen. It was insane.
Hoping to find someone who could tell me what was up, I got on the flat escalator.
On reaching, I was swamped by a crowd of people hooting and cheering. As the smoke clouds lifted off, they uncovered giant humanoid bots. I tried to get a hold of someone, but all eyes were glued to the arena. I couldn’t blame them, though. Who would not be invested in a duel between giant freaking robots?
On the corners of the arena, I spotted someone making weird gestures. Curious about what they were up to, I justled ahead to catch a peek.
It was then that I realised that they were controlling the robots. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I had a million questions in my head. “How did it all work? How did we manage to get these fancy human-looking giant bots to our college fest? Is RoboWars like this every year?”
The tall figure in front of me who, until then, had been partially blocking my view, turned around abruptly.
“Hello! How can I be of assistance?” it asked, eyes gleaming. Was this a robot?
“Uhm what?” I mumbled, taking a minute to comprehend what was happening,
“How can I be of assistance?” the robot repeated.
“What the hell?” I said, tugging my hands through my hair and taking a step back, “Did that robot just ask me something? Is it talking? A robot?”
What the hell was going on? Was I dreaming? It had to be a dream. Everything seemed to be getting more and more absurd. Was engineering finally getting to me? Was I going insane?
“What are you?” I asked, desperately.
“I’m a physical entity with manually created intelligence designed to be of assistance to those in need. You can call me Brijesh.”
“That is correct. Can I be of any assistance?”
“Where are we, Brijesh?”
“You are in Manipal Institute of Technology,” it answered. “The technical fest of our college, TechTatva, is taking place.”
Still taken aback from this encounter, I looked around. It was all so similar to the Manipal I knew and, yet, so different. None of this could have happened overnight.
“Hey Brijesh, what’s today’s date?”
“It’s 13th October, 2049.”
“2049?” I exclaimed.
That was — oh god! I was 30 years into the future! How was this even possible?
“I need air,” I said.
“Sir, there is air available throughout the campus, filtered by our state of the art, solar-powered, weather-controlling dome. It is not only pollution-free but is also maintained at 297.15 Kelvin.”
I pressed my palms to my head. Everything was beyond comprehension. I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into, or how I’d landed up here. All I knew was that I wanted to get back.
As I walked, a quiet clicking from behind told me that, for some godforsaken reason, Brijesh was following me. I walked to SP, glad to see that it was still the same old Colosseum-like structure I remembered; until it flickered.
The whole of SP glitched and disappeared for a second. It was like nothing I had ever seen.
Things made lesser and lesser sense with every step I took. Walking towards IC, I looked up. The sky was filled with what looked like a flock of birds, flying towards us.
“The drones must fly low,” Brijesh who had caught up with me said. “That is because of our state of the art, solar-powered, weather-controlling dome here at MIT, which also doubles up as a screen for announcements and messages. During TechTatva, we stream movies on the dome, and they can be seen from anywhere inside the campus.”
As if on queue, bright text, just like the one announcing RoboWars, flashed across the dome. Movie Nights, it read and, in bold underneath: Blade Runner 2079.
“What?! They made a new one?”
A huge fan of the franchise, I had started to develop a liking for this world.
A guy sort of pushed past me as I stared at the sky. When he turned to apologise, I was left stunned. He had tiny chips engraved in his skin, with wires connecting them. Woah! He had actual circuitry on his face!
Kneeling on the ground was a girl with a mechanical arm petting a stray dog, Its fur shimmered under her touch. Next to her was a boy glowing from head to toe!
Not only did I see other cyborgs, but there were robots all over the campus, cleaning up and working on construction sites.
Looking up, I was distracted yet again, when a transparent ball with a person in it sped over my head and crashed into another identical ball. Both balls bounced away from each other, soaring through the sky. Even though I didn’t know what was going on, I grinned at the sight.
“Excuse me,” a voice said from below me. An android was holding up a poster. “Would you like to sign up for the Historical Quiz at 4 PM today?”
“Not really,” I mumbled.
“There are cash prizes to be won, and you can take part under the general category of your delegate card.”
I shook my head at the bot. The dialogue sounded familiar. It was exactly like something I’d said while standing at an InfoDesk, waving a poster at all the passers-by.
“Would you still like to register? Just in case you change your mind later?” the android persisted.
“No thanks,” I said fiercely as I walked away. Be it robots or be it first years, InfoDesk was still annoying as hell. Though, I was absolutely certain that this technological advancement, in particular, must have been accepted with open arms by all the students.
For a place I visited every day, the area in front of NLH had never looked more different. Where the IC screen used to stand, flashing images in the air now said: TechTatva 2049.
“Wow,” I whispered.
“The Academic Area was upgraded fourteen years ago,” Brijesh told me, once again sensing my question before I could ask. “A year before I was purchased.”
“Back in 2019, we just have a screen that nobody really notices. This is so much cooler!”
“Our students don’t take note of the sign either,” Brijesh said. “The contrast to your time is why it is presently drawing your attention.”
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the glowing signs and the spectacle that TechTatva ’49 was proving to be.
“This way,” Brijesh said, leading me through the crowd. “I believe this was invented closer to your timeline than mine. Why don’t you try stepping on this platform and seeing what it does.”
The platform looked ordinary enough, so I thought, ‘Why not?’
I clambered onto the board and, for a moment, nothing happened. Back in 2019, we’d had a Bouncy Castle, and I wondered why they’d replaced something so fun with an ordinary platform. And that is when it all began:
Without any warning, I was tossed into the air; but I did not fall back on the ground. Somehow, I was just suspended in mid-air. The feeling of weightlessness churned my stomach and at first, and I struggled to stay upright. Gradually, I got used to it. And then, it was just the best thing I’d ever done. When my time was up, I was reluctant to come back down.
The world was different from above — even though I was just six feet above everyone else — and I wasn’t ready to go back.
All around me, everything was so happening. Each turn came with another sight that piqued my interest. TechTatva of 2019 had been different. It had been louder, more colourful and full of life. But the fest of 2049 — it had a charm of its own; one that I was suddenly desperate to make the best of.
Brijesh walked me around, right from the drone racing events, to the air Zorb-Fights. He showed me how students paid now — with tiny chips embedded in their skin, that required a simple scan to complete any transaction.
The Informals Booth now featured a constantly updating background from movies I’d never watched. The props, much-like the lightsabers in Star Wars, were partly holographic and could be reprogrammed and personalised within seconds.
Food, in this future, was moved around the campus on MagLev conveyor belts. When Brijesh and I settled down on the side of the footpath, I picked up a stickless melt-resistant ice gola from one of the conveyor belts. Even the gola was high-tech as it hovered over my cup while I ate it.
I hadn’t noticed how quickly the day had gone by. The sun had set, and the dome now displayed constellations against the night sky. I was exhausted. The adrenaline from exploring all the new tech had finally faded, and I wanted nothing more than to return to my hostel and fall into my bed.
Maybe, if I returned to my block, I’d wake up to realise that none of this had ever happened. Maybe that’s how I could go back home — to my own time.
At 9 PM on the dot, I walked into the block, stifling a yawn and, out of sheer instinct, pressed my thumb against the biometric scanner.
At once, everything went dark. I felt myself sway, as though being controlled by an outside force and, when I opened my eyes again, I was back.
The walls were yellowed. The scanner was fizzling, and the caretaker was standing behind me.
Ignoring the caretaker’s protests, I ran out of the entrance. It was dark outside, and everything was still.
I’d spent my day longing to return to 2019, but now that I was here, I suddenly wished I could have spent just a few more hours in the future: There was still so much I hadn’t done.
“I’ll go back,” I whispered.
Thirty years from now, I’d visit the fest again. I’d find Brijesh, sip an ice gola, try out the flying Zorb Balls and do everything else all over again.
For now, though, I was happy to stay in the present and watch the world transform into the one I had just witnessed. The future had a lot in store for us and, as much as I had enjoyed 2049, I wouldn’t give up my life in 2019 for it.
Everything was normal once more, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Written by Tanya Jain, Cynthia Maria Dsouza, Chintan Gandhi and Naintara Singh for MTTN
Graphics by Sayantan Karmakar
Images by Manu Jayadev