Vertical Immobility
Vertical Immobility

A fictional glimpse at society transformed by transportation

My Sweet, Unborn Sophi:

I can’t say what I hope this note will accomplish. I guess I hope it will keep you from hating me for what I’m about to do.

There are so many conflicting thoughts racing around in my head right now. I’m not sure where to start. Well, why not at the beginning?

The place where we live is called Exxon. Historically, it was called Tulsa, before most major cities’ naming rights were purchased. But that’s another story. It was around that same time, about 40 years ago, that the great “Vertical Exodus” began. It started with big airline companies as well as a few that transported people around in cars. Basically, they figured out how to combine the two. They created small flying cars – what we call Helis – that could transport people from place to place. Very, very quickly.

But there were problems. It was sometimes dangerous. The Helis relied on artificial intelligence that – to us, at least – seems archaic. Some crashed. When they did, it was almost always into a home, business or crowded street. My dad used to talk about the time one crashed into his elementary school. He lost a lot of friends, and never looked up in quite the same way again.

The technology did improve. Quickly. But the overall comfort level didn’t. In most cities, plexiglass ceilings were put up under all the flyways to keep the people below “safe.” Virtually every street, park and sidewalk was covered by a translucent ceiling about 25 feet up.

Heli travel was also incredibly expensive. The only people who could afford it were the very wealthiest, and their newfound ability to cross hundreds of miles in minutes at any whim gave them ample opportunities to make even more money. As Helis became more and more available – and eventually more affordable – more people were able to use them. But it was still very exclusive.

So what? The rich became richer. And the nearly-rich became richer, too. With constant Heli availability, they soon found they preferred to stay aloft. Entire residence towers, rooftop parks, high-rise boutiques and hospitals were built hundreds of feet in the air – with one important difference from those that preceded them. There were no stairs. No elevators. The only way into and out of them was via Heli.

This had the (arguably) unintended consequence of further separating those on top from those below – those above the plexiglass ceiling from that underneath it. The income you can scrape together under the glass in a lifetime might be able to hail you a single Heli ride. If you want to be part of the world above, you’d better be born into it.

 

 

That brings me to the point of this letter.

Five years ago, your mother gave birth to our first child, your older sister Jane. With the nearest hospital an unaffordable Heli ride away, we had no choice but to invite the midwife into our tiny apartment and hope for the best. But hope only goes so far. Jane was breech. She got stuck in the birth canal and was deprived of oxygen. Not long enough to kill her, but long enough for her to have lasting problems.

I still can’t forgive myself. My most important job as a father is to keep my children safe.

I failed.

But what a life I could give you, your mother and your sister if only we could find a way up above. Above the smog. Above the desolation.

Up there, people have tans. They can Heli anywhere they want at a moment’s notice. They can spend the morning on the beach and the afternoon snow skiing. If they don’t like the weather, they can go somewhere the sun happens to be shining. And the schools. Oh, Sophi, you could actually learn something in the schools. Something more than submission and dangerous, dirty labor expected of you down here. Up there, you could go to the best school for every single subject that interests you – even if they’re hundreds of miles apart.

My God … Your kids would never have to face the kinds of heart-knotting decisions I’m facing.

The advantages afforded to those living above do happen to trickle down to us – in a way. Less like a trickle, really. More like a plummet. When they tire of things – whether it’s a small appliance, a piece of tech, general garbage or even a malfunctioning Heli – there’s just one thing to do with it. They dump it down below. I grew up accustomed to the thuds and booms sprinkling the plexiglass ceiling. I fell asleep to those noises. To tell you the truth, I actually find them somewhat soothing. And among those thuds and booms, I might have found the future I want for you.

Since my early teens, I’ve regularly ventured out on top of the ceiling, sorting through the “junk” dropped from above. Yes, it’s illegal, but law enforcement doesn’t seem to care. Yes, it’s very dangerous. I’ve been whacked by hair straighteners, thumped by empty tubs of tanning oil and nearly crushed by washing machines. But it’s not as frightening as the alternative. Because it turns out I have a knack for fixing the unwanted refuse of the “upper” class. I’ve found, fixed and sold everything from toasters and old computer phones to Helis.

Yes. Helis. Believe it or not, that’s become something of a specialty of mine. I’ve repaired virtually every part. I know the operating systems inside and out. What’s more, I know how to improve them. And here’s the big news, Sophi: I landed an interview with Heli corporate. They’re interested in my designs. The job would pay more in a year than I’ve seen down here in my life. We could all live up there. Happy. Healthy. Hopeful with good reason to be hopeful.

But there’s a catch. I only have enough money for a single Heli ride. It’ll either be my first – to Heli Headquarters 14 miles away and 41 stories up. Or it’ll be your mother’s first – to the Medical Center that is 98 miles away, so we can be sure you’re born healthy and safe. And that your mother is safe, too.

The interview is next Friday. The midwife expects you within the next two days. And she’s optimistic … but after nearly losing your sister, I just don’t know.

Now I have to make a choice. Either way, I hope you’ll forgive me.

Love Forever and Always,
Your Father

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

Obviously, I’m a touch cynical about the future of flight. It promises to bring previously unreachable destinations within our grasp, to deliver our whims in minutes, to forever kill the cliché “the sky’s the limit.” And I adore the possibility. Really, I do.

But I’m jaded by the promises of other technological movements and the unforeseen consequences that came about instead. Social media promised to bring us closer together. In reality, it put up more walls between all of us, engendered more misunderstanding and blew countless self-imposed ideological bubbles. Smartphones promised to put the world at our fingertips, but they really just put our noses in our smartphones – and led to a professional world in which the phone is a requirement – one that makes it virtually impossible to ever truly leave work.

So I admit, the possibilities of flyable ridesharing services and delivery and unlimited travel do sound incredibly seductive. But I have to wonder … at what cost?

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