“In conclusion, I believe that visiting and learning from iconic leaders from the past, like Wangari Maathai and Dr. Vandana Shiva, would be the best use of an opportunity to time travel. Thank you."
Millie made fists to hide her trembling fingers as she crossed the stage self-consciously and made her way back to her seat. She hated being the center of attention, and had nearly skipped the event. She could feel the mocking eyes of the other finalists, doubtless both top tenth-graders who, unlike her, had not scribbled their essays down the night before they were due.
She had seen the nation-wide essay contest, “What would you do if you could time travel?”, as just another school assignment not worth breaking her habit of procrastination. Despite her teacher’s daily encouragement that seemed to be directed at her in particular, Millie’s entire essay, including the concept, was a one-evening creation that she didn’t even believe in. What could leaders from ages ago possibly have to say about today’s problems? Not enough people listened to them in their time anyway, as evidenced by the disaster-level pollution highs and biodiversity lows she was currently living with.
Millie had been the last to present, and so began a long silence in the auditorium while the judges made their decision. She imagined that given the prize on the line, she should be dying with anticipation, but she was just bored. Her essay had been the obvious third place between her and the other two finalists.
"...and the winner of the grand prize, a voyage in time to a year of her choosing, is Millicent Arbutus!” The minister of time travel himself made the announcement.
Millie sprung to her feet in shock and was taking the stage stairs at an improper jog before she could stop herself. The applause was polite but unenthusiastic and the other finalists were whispering to each other furiously, but the minister's handshake was firm and his eyes were sincere as he said, "Congratulations, Millicent. I know we made the right choice."
Millie beamed back at him, suddenly convinced that the insincerities she had hastily cobbled together into an essay actually constituted a work of staggering genius.
Three weeks later, she was once again the center of attention, but now instead of hundreds of eyes on her there were hundreds of thousands, staring at her through the cold lenses of TV cameras. Important people filled the stage to shake her hand and pose for a photo. She hoped that her smile was coming across as confident, but knew there was a good chance that her anxious excitement was pushing it towards maniacal.
The time travel technology, normally housed deep inside the nation's top tech university, had been relocated to the auditorium stage for the media event, but hidden behind a temporary partition.
"Millie and her chaperone, who is part of the team responsible for this wonderful new technology, will be visiting our national museum sixty years in the future," Millie heard a reporter telling his viewers. "The first civilian and minor to travel in time, here she goes! Millicent Arbutus — you’re going to want to remember that name."
Millie had been severely let down to be informed that not only was the location of her visit limited to a museum, her choice of year was restricted to a short list of approved years only a few decades wide. This turned what she had thought would be an adventure of a lifetime into more of an elevated school trip, but the grandeur of the event and the extraordinariness of time travel had pushed the disappointment aside.
Having shaken all the hands that needed to be shaken, Millie waved at the cameras and stepped behind the partition. She had been prepped as much as possible for this moment, but this was her first time seeing the time travel tech itself: two metal cot-like platforms with covers that folded over the occupant like the lid of a treasure chest. They looked a bit like open-ended silver caskets, if Millie was honest.
Katya, a serious, dark-haired scientist in her thirties, was Millie's chaperone. She was sitting on the edge of one of the cots when Millie came in, and three other scientists were occupied with a panel of screens and dials behind the beds.
"We’re ready for you, Millie. Hop on and we’ll get you set up." Katya pointed at the other bed, whose open side was facing her.
Millie lay down on the metal platform and one of the scientists began attaching wires to her head, face, and neck with sticky patches. Millie couldn't keep her fingers from fidgeting at her sides.
"You seem nervous," Katya observed from where she was undergoing the same procedure. She had traveled through time on many occasions in the year since the technology had been approved, and seemed unfazed by the increasing number of patches on her face.
"Kinda," Millie said, moving her mouth as little as possible. She felt as though talking would mess up the placement of the stickers, so she decided not to say any more.
"There's nothing to worry about," said Katya with the air of someone who finds nerves silly and therefore must help to abolish them, "Both the year and location have been thoroughly vetted."
Millie tried to smile at Katya, but by this time her face was so thoroughly covered with patches that she wasn't sure it had any effect. She gave a thumbs-up instead, which Katya, whose face was by this time also plastered into immobility, acknowledged with a nod.
Both travelers turned their faces toward the ceiling, and the last thing Millie was aware of was the dimming light as the lid of the time travel device closed on top of her.
An almost unbearable brightness burned through Millie's eyelids. It took her a second to remember where she was — she felt as if she had just woken up from a night’s sleep, not been in a different year just seconds prior.
It was impossible to open her eyes, so she focused on her other senses. A bed of something soft, organic, and slightly damp — moss?— was underneath her. The air was early-autumn crisp and had a fresh lightness that Millie had never experienced before.
"The first thing you'll notice is the reduced air pollution," came Katya's voice to the right.
Millie forced her eyelids open and squinted at her chaperone, who was already seated upright. As her eyes adjusted, Millie pushed herself up onto her elbows to have a look around. They had arrived on a wide lawn of curly, light-green moss. It stretched up a slight hill and ended at the foot of a gray stone staircase leading to a stately building that Millie recognized as the national museum.
"It looks so much nicer!" said Millie. She remembered the museum as being surrounded by nothing but concrete in all directions and backed by a smoggy sky.
"Yes, apparently we make great environmental strides," Katya said drily as she got to her feet.
There was a path of flat gray stones running down the center of the lawn to the stairs, and Katya headed towards it. Millie hopped up to follow, still looking around. The museum's grounds were made up of several acres of moss lawn surrounded by rows of elm trees, whose dense foliage had begun to change to a vibrant yellow. Behind the trees was a high stone wall, and beyond that she could see the tops of buildings. She remembered that they were still in the city, despite the grounds feeling more natural than any nature park she had ever visited.
As they walked, Millie registered a din like a lot of people talking at once. Separate from the muted hum of the city, it sounded like there was a crowd gathered on the other side of the wall, but she had no way of seeing over.
The pair climbed the stairs and went through the heavy double doors. The foyer of the museum was high-ceilinged and dim, with wide, marble-floored passages leading off in three directions.
"We've got two hours until we get pulled back," Katya informed Millie. "Where would you like to start?"
"Skip anything that happened before our time," said Millie, "Why would I go to the future to see the past?"
Katya gave a short laugh, although Millie didn't think she had said anything particularly funny. "This way, then."
Millie followed Katya into the center hallway, their footsteps echoing in the empty museum. It was curiously empty, Millie realized. Shouldn't there be at least a few people or employees around? Did no one go to the museum anymore?
The museum hallway looked totally different than what Millie remembered from her school visits. Instead of artifacts, it was lined with arched doorways filled with shimmering light. Each one had the name of an exhibit beside it.
"They're immersion chambers," Katya explained.
Millie nodded, recognizing the name of a much-hyped technology being developed in her time.
They passed a door labeled "Species Regeneration" and Millie was tempted to step in, but decided that she should find out what the other exhibits were before choosing where to spend her two hours. She read the names aloud as they passed by: "A New Age of Architecture, The Great Coral Reef, Millicent Arbutus."
Millie froze. She closed her eyes and opened them again, then reached out to touch the plaque on the wall. The whole experience suddenly seemed surreal, as if she were in an immersion already.
"Is this real?" she asked without taking her eyes off her name.
"Of course. This isn't a simulation." Katya’s lack of surprise made it obvious that she had known this would be here.
"But why? What’s in there?" Millie’s voice came out flat, frightened.
"You should go into the exhibit. Then you'll understand better."
Millie nodded, brow furrowed. But she stood hesitating in front of the shimmering doorway. She didn't know what she would find, and if she didn't go in, then she would never feel as though she would have been better off not knowing.
"Go in, Millie," Katya said with a stern intensity.
Suddenly feeling as though she had no choice, Millie stepped through the arch and the immersion began.
"Millicent Arbutus was born in the year 2052 in our nation's great capital," the narrator began as Millie found herself standing in her dad's office back when it had been her nursery. Her parents came in holding Millie as a newborn and smiling at each other in a cheesy recreation of Millie’s early home life.
What followed was a short highlight reel of her life so far, interspersed with updates on the state of the environment. She saw herself sitting on the roof of her house in the flood of 2063 and the moment she learned of the death of the last dolphin. She watched the skies turn permanently gray from smog and re-lived her triumph at the essay contest.
With a growing fear akin to watching a pursuer creep ever closer, Millie saw herself getting into the time machine, walking up the steps to the museum, and finally, stepping through the shimmering door.
"At this very museum, in the year 2127, Millie will arrive from the past and learn what she must do to kickstart the environmental revolution, which gave us the cleaner planet that sustains us today."
Millie watched in rising horror as her future self snuck into a disposable water bottle factory to plant and then detonate several bombs. She saw the outrage and the thousands of copycats and her own repeated offenses. She witnessed the surge of the people rising up against the polluters.
Then, her mugshot hovered in front of her. She looked to be in her early twenties, with hair cropped short and an annoyed expression on her face.
Figures that I get arrested, Millie thought, as long as I don't go to…
A small, concrete room appeared around her before she could complete the thought, and she knew that the lump on the cot was herself.
"Millie was sentenced to seven years in prison. Following the revolution, she was pardoned and released early. She went on to live a normal life, though her whereabouts are currently unknown. Every one of our citizens has this courageous woman to thank for the recovering planet we enjoy today."
The room went mercifully dark. Millie could have spent ages processing, but a sudden surge of anger pushed her back through the doorway.
"An eco-terrorist? That's what you want me to become?”
Katya, leaning against the opposite wall, seemed to have been expecting the outburst. "You save the planet," she said calmly.
"With bombs? That hurt or kill people? People get hurt, right?" Millie was shouting, filled with fear and disbelief and the overwhelming feeling that no, no, no, she could absolutely not do that.
“I know as much as you do," Katya replied. “If there was another way that was guaranteed to work, we would take it. This is no one’s first choice. But we can’t take any more time trips to learn more because each one is accounted for by people that would stop you. That’s why you had to win the contest.”
"And why do I have to do it? Anyone could." Millie could taste her desperation.
"Because we know it works when you do it."
Somewhere at the back of Millie's brain, this clicked. It had to be her because that's the way it happened, as simple as that.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a clatter of footsteps at the end of the hall. Katya sprung away from the wall and grabbed Millie's arm to drag her into the exhibition room, but they had been seen.
"Millie!" An out-of-breath voice rang through the hall, frantic and joyful.
Millie whirled around. A teenage girl with long black braids flying and a billowing yellow dress was racing down the hallway, pursued at a distance by a security guard.
"Code red, the security breach is nearing our guest," the guard was shouting, though how it would reach the ears of his colleagues Millie could not tell.
The girl was laughing, exuberant as she approached, crashing into Millie with a breathless hug. Katya, apparently deciding that the intruder posed no threat, released Millie’s arm but hovered nearby.
"Can I have a pic?" The girl let go and tossed a small black sphere into the air, which deployed miniature rotor blades to prevent its fall.
Thoroughly overwhelmed, Millie allowed an arm to be thrown around her and even managed a slight smile as the hovering camera took their picture. The girl snatched the sphere out of the air, stuffing it into her pocket just as the security guard arrived.
"Thank you so much, Millie. We learned all about you in school and my friends and I think you're so brave. Good luck with it all," the girl gushed, despite the fact that the guard had grabbed her wrist and was beginning to pull her away. She twisted her arm out of his grasp. “I’ll go on my own, thanks.” She marched triumphantly back the way she had come, trailed by the enfeebled guard.
Millie watched her disappear around the corner. "They know I'm here?"
"Of course. I imagine the museum was closed just for you."
“And how many people know in our time? About what you want me to do, I mean.”
“Not many. My colleagues on the time travel committee, and a few other people key in getting you here.”
“And what if I don’t want to?” Millie almost didn’t want to know the answer.
Katya tilted her head to the side. “I don’t know, Millie. We’re still learning the rules of time travel, about what happens if we make changes. No one is going to force you, but you should know that the future you’re seeing now probably wouldn’t exist.”
The yellow dress, the beaming face. The clean air and greenery, even in the middle of the capital. Millie contrasted these with her peers who felt there was no future waiting for them, and with the shades of gray that saturated her world. What would happen to that joyful girl if the bombs are never planted? Would she even be born?
"I guess I should watch the immersion again, to make sure I know what to do."
The stench of rotting food was nearly suffocating and something wet was soaking through her canvas shoe, but Millie dared not leave the dumpster. She had a clear view of the factory through the garbage slit, so she saw as the last of the late shift pulled out of the lot. She waited five minutes more.
The bombs, which she had placed for maximum destruction of key machinery, were ready. She was hidden at a safe distance, at the edge of the detonator’s range. As best as she could tell, the factory was empty.
The weeks since Millie’s time trip had been awash with dread. She had bargained ceaselessly with herself, cursed having written that essay, and discovered a deep, cold fear within. But now, in the crucial moment, she was at peace.
Millie took a deep breath and filled her mind with the memory of clean air and the living embodiment of joy and hope in a yellow dress. Her hand, when she pressed the button on the detonator, was steady.