Fiction from the Future

Flyover Country

Vol. 15 // 2020

Watching her grandson stare out the air taxi’s window at the rolling green hills 3,000 feet below, Marie was surprised by the moment in suddenly realizing she saw something he simply couldn’t see. More than seeing it, she felt it as she scanned the Texas landscape looking for ghosts. Anger. Distance. Dislocation. He knew nothing of how bad it had been, and by extension, how good he had it now. How good they all had it.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.

“Sure, grandma,” he said. Then he caught himself, remembering that it was her birthday. 80 years old. A milestone worth celebrating any way she wanted to. He leaned into her and took a deep breath. “It really is nice. Check out my overlays.” He pushed a rich blue body of water framed by snow-covered peaks that looked like they came from the Italian Alps. It resembled nothing like west Texas.

“Are you hungry? I brought sandwiches for us.”

She reached into her backpack, a sun-faded orange nylon daypack that was older than her 11-year-old grandson.

“Sure, what do you have?” said William.

“One of my favorites,” she said, handing him a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. “I made the bread last night. Joe, my neighbor, made the peanut butter. The blueberry jam is from last winter.”

She baked almost every day, like most people. It filled the hours. He looked at her like she was crazy.

“I canned it last winter,” she said. “It’s not like it’s been sitting on my counter for five months.”

He raised his eyebrows and smiled as he bit in.

Then a steely male voice came over the air taxi’s speakers. “Good afternoon, William and Marie. This is Bertie, your autonomous aviator on this trip. We will be making a small change to our flight plan due to a weather front moving in out of the northeast. Shouldn’t add more than a few extra minutes and the journey will be a lot smoother. Thank you.” An onboard AI flight computer, which manifested to the passengers on this trip as the pilot-like authority of Bertie, interfaced with the global SkyGrid AI air-traffic management system that guided their flight.

The air taxi banked to the left, and began to climb. As it did, the two of them had a sweeping view of hundreds of miles of land, the seam between old and new. There was scrubland and verdant agricultural settlements teeming with swarms of silvery agri-bots that squirmed about like droplets on a windshield.

The taxi was a long-endurance two-seat model, a Boeing GH-2. It had an elongated, bulbous tinted canopy that offered a 270-degree view, giving passengers a feeling of sitting forward in the aircraft as fighter pilots once did in manned combat aircraft of yesteryear. If a traveler wanted to plug their AR glasses into the aircraft’s own sensors, they could do that too. The sound cancelling software almost entirely eliminated the intrusion of wind noise, though the GH-2’s 12 electric motors and propellers hummed in a harmonious performance that was almost symphonic. The motors were distributed along the x-like wings that took a form many compared to a cat crouching down to stretch its back. This model’s composite skin was a bright blue, like a summer sky.

William chewed his sandwich, then paused. “It’s good,” he said. “Maybe you can make my lunches?”

“How’s school?” When she asked a short question like that she drew out the second half of the words, as if to emphasize the true meaning of what she was really seeking to understand.

“Soccer’s great,” he said. “Last weekend we played at the Southeastern Regionals in Pascagoula, but we lost our first game so we flew back that afternoon.”

“I know, I simmed your game. You’re a great goalie, you know. But I mean like friends, grades.”

“All that’s fine,” William said. “Computational biology is getting hard. But mom helps me because she’s studying it too.”

Everybody’s learning, Marie thought. All the time. Which, as a retired high-school environmental sciences teacher who remembered a not-so-long ago time when people felt like they had to learn just to get a good job, she approved of. She was glad her family did too.

“How’s the Scouts?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s great. Most Sunday afternoons we’re meeting up with other Troops from all over the state. Next weekend we’re going to be working on making fires without matches at a campsite in Lubbock.”

“A valuable skill,” she said. Then she laughed, and he joined in.

They basked in the connection they had and Marie pointed out a dark line of steel grey clouds on the horizon. “Glad we’re flying away from that,” she said.

William got that glassy-eyed look that kids got as they dived back in to their augmented visual worlds. Marie wanted to pull him back, to her, to the chance to be together and just talk.

“I never went to Lubbock before we all started flying,” said Marie. “Too far from Austin.”

“It would be a long drive,” he said.

“It wasn’t just that. It used to be far in a lot of ways. We just didn’t get up there. Your great grandparents definitely took me places. Like we went to San Francisco a couple of times when my father had a big conference there. I went to college in Boston, remember. But there were plenty of towns pretty close to home that felt a lot farther than all that.”

“Why?”

“First, Texas is a big place. Back then people got way too comfortable just being with people like themselves, whether online or in real life. They spent so much time thinking about what made them different and being angry about it when somebody wasn’t like them, rather than what we all can find in common with each other. A lot of folks acted like they lived in their own world, isolated, when they were tied in to the entire planet. But gradually things began to change. Once you’re flying every day, Texas doesn’t seem like such a big place anymore. It’s like when you know somebody somewhere and it’s a lot more fun to visit them, rather than when you go somewhere and you feel like a stranger the whole time? Say you go to another country, they might speak a different language, eat different food, go to a different church or no church at all. But it doesn’t feel as far away when you get to spend time with another person. You’re excited to see them. Could be doing whatever. Drinking coffee. Eating dinner. Going for a walk. A festival. It becomes about being together, not apart.”

“Hmmm,” he said. “I know what you mean. I think that’s why Friendship Week is my favorite module. There’s less homework, for one. And you get to start school a little later because the flight to their school takes longer than yours would. And you get to see how somebody else lives, meet their teachers, play on their soccer field. I just wish we could go back to the same place each year.”

“That would make sense, wouldn’t it?” Marie said. “Having taught for 28 years, I know better than anybody that sometimes things don’t make sense to the kids, but some adults did put a lot of thought into it.”

“I do stay in touch with a lot of my Friendship Week friends,” he said.

“Doing sims together?” she asked.

“Is there any other way? Doesn’t matter where you live. China. Texas. Canada. Los Angeles.”

“You know kids from all over.”

“Yeah,” he said.

William put a hand up to his AR glasses, an unconscious gesture of kids feeling antsy when it had been too long since they logged in. It got shorter and shorter every year. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to close my eyes for a minute,” she said.

“Sure thing. I’m supposed to meet up with Riz.”

“Where is he from?”

“Syria, a camp near Damascus. We play in a Tier 3 GlobalGol league.” William paused. “He’s an orphan, so we’re like his family.”

She wondered when Riz would get to meet his friends in real life. The United Nations last year debated enshrining global mobility as a universal human right, but making it happen would still take a lot of work. The advancement of flight beyond seamless air taxis safely integrated into the airspace was just the start, but supersonic commercial travel replaced by hypersonic travel increasing the speed by five times has made our planet so much smaller. It has driven bodies like the UN to find common ground, and arguably has made the world safer. Perhaps William and friends could now make that happen, she wondered. A conversation for a later time. She really was tired.

“Maybe you can wake me up when we get to the hub and meet everyone else?”

He nodded his head, which she took to mean that he actually heard her. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. With kids his age, you never knew. As she adjusted the seat to make it more comfortable for her nap, she let out a pleased sigh.

About an hour later, the air taxi noticeably slowed with a proud flaring of its nose and a lower-pitched tone from its engines.

The shift in speed woke Marie. She opened her eyes, grateful for the canopy’s light-filtering features. She stretched her aching neck and peered through the glass.

About a half mile away she saw the hub. It was what people called a clover, a configuration of four bright shark-like white air-hub dirigibles joined at the nose to create a cross-shaped formation. With solar panels arrayed like scales along their upper halves, they looked like basking whales catching up on an ocean’s worth of gossip. But it also allowed the SkyGrid AI to jointly manage the engines on all the dirigibles to keep the flying charging-station and traveler outpost positioned correctly for everything from wind direction to anticipated traffic flows.

A four-seat Phoenix, an organic-looking Italian design from the China Mobility Company, pulled in right in front of them. The sudden appearance of the dark-green aircraft surprised her; flying in tight formation was something she was pretty sure she would never get over. But William did not even flinch.

“This is Bertie, and we’re approaching the end of this leg of your journey. We’re currently right at the New Mexico and Arizona border. I expect we’ll be docking in about six minutes at Kokopelli Station, on pad Echo-Niner. From there you’ll follow your prompts to join up with the rest of your party. I’ll have the privilege of piloting you on the next leg of your journey. Please ensure your seatbelts are fastened and any personal items are secured as we’ll be leaving this vehicle behind.”

“Thank you, Bertie,” William said.

“Been a pleasure. Stand by for landing,” the onboard AI responded. “See you shortly.”

Marie blinked twice, and the blue arrow reappeared on her glasses. There, maybe 20 or 30 steps away, was her next pad, and the aircraft that would bring them directly to the Grand Canyon itself. She looked back to make sure William was behind her. Being a mile up, she couldn’t help but worry he might fall all the way to the ground if she lost sight of him. The thought was, rationally, ridiculous as they were completely enclosed inside the translucent fabric-like tubes that threaded through the passenger-connection zones between the airships and their hangars. But it was a very real feeling all the same.

A message popped up and she smiled: It was her daughter, Luisa, letting her know the rest of the family was already belted in. A moment later, Bertie messaged to say they were ready to take off as soon as she and William arrived; it was the kind of courtesy from the onboard AIs that she appreciated, anticipating that a family member would notify her first rather than the aircraft’s digital personality.

She threaded between the travelers, who moved not with the urgency of frustration but something more like eagerness. By their clothes, they seemed to come from a variety of economic positions in American society. By their ages, it was like being at the biggest family reunion you could think of. Ethnicity or skin color was wonderfully diverse, she thought, and hinted at a richness of expectations about what life held in the years ahead, the sort of optimism that bonded people together, rather than divided them. Considering it another way, she thought if the world were just to end right now and these were all the people who were left, humanity might actually be able to make it out of whatever misfortune appeared.

To be continued…

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