Flight Check

At five o’clock Jessica swivelled her black leather chair away from her screen and poured herself the last of the Glenlivet. The client would just have to wait a bit longer for final approval on their advertising campaign.

John Brocklesby, Illustrated Common School Astronomy (1857). Remixed by Paul Jarvey.

Being the boss drained her like a faulty connection drained a battery. The many certificates of thanks covering her wall helped her recharge. So did booze. She took a long sip and kicked off her shoes.

When the alien creature appeared beside her, she nearly knocked over the empty bottle. The skinny grey figure, draped in a gold cloth, stared at her with intelligent oval eyes. It looked like a character from a thousand cartoons. The inverted pear of a head, bald and shiny, was exactly like those bumper sticker aliens.

“Wha’ the hell?” Jessica sat up, heart thumping. Drinking had never given her hallucinations before.

“Greetings, Earthling,” it said solemnly, then broke into a toothless grin. “I have been waiting to say that for many days. Did it amuse you?”

illustration by Jeremy Vickery

She couldn’t be having the DT’s. She couldn’t. She’d managed to make this bottle last a whole week. Maybe her staff was pranking her?

There didn’t seem to be any costume zippers and the arms and legs were like toothpicks. She’d never seen any CGI that crisp and clear, and the thing had spoken with an accent different from any country Jessica had ever visited.

If it was a trick of the brain, she might as well play along.

She forced herself to lean back and gave a mock-frown. “No one gets in ’thout an appointment, pal. Not even clients.”

“I would like to be,” the creature answered, now with a serious look. “A client, I mean.”

“Sure.” Jessica ran a hand across her short, gel-stiffened hair. Never let it be said she couldn’t handle a business situation. She carefully moved her tumbler to her left hand and held out her right, not attempting to stand. “I’m Jessica Liu-Simonson. And you are?”

The alien’s face changed again, gaining a human-like look of self-reproach. “The one question I forgot to prepare for.” It narrowed its eyes at a motivational poster on the far wall. “Call me Candoo. Female pronouns are acceptable.”

Its hand — her hand — felt dry and bony. Jessica’s pulse pounded. “Can you ’splain why you need my services?”

“We are prepared to give humankind some advanced technology. We have chosen to start with this city. Using the best local advertising firm to ease the transition makes sense.”

Jessica indicated the guest chair then made a sitting-down motion with her hand when the alien didn’t react. “Technology? Like cheap energy? A star drive? Time travel?” Ideas — wild, crazy ideas — tumbled through her scotch-fogged mind.

Candoo perched on the edge of the seat and put her hands in her lap. “Very quick responses. I commend you. However, time travel isn’t possible, even for us. And inexpensive worldwide energy” — Candoo shuddered — “Let’s just say we tried that somewhere else without complete success.”

Jessica nodded. You don’t hand a loaded gun to a baby.

Candoo nodded back, several times too many. Body language must be one of the hardest things to learn. To her surprise, Jessica realized she believed the alien was real, as real as the tumbler still clutched in her fingers. She tried to focus better on Candoo’s words.

“This is why I need your innovative approach. Tell me — what can I give you folks that would not be disruptive, something you all want and have conceived of already?”

Jessica suddenly felt completely sober. She propped her feet against the sleek metal frame of the floor-to-ceiling window. In the parking lot ten stories below, her fifty employees scattered to their cars. Beyond, the lights of a thousand cars stretched like daisy chains along the freeway.

Her thoughts spun in all directions. Was this for real? What if it wasn’t? What would she be doing if she wasn’t sitting here talking to this alien? Cracking open another bottle? Fighting the Friday rush hour to get home to her empty apartment? She’d have to call a cab — her Porsche was still at the impound lot after last week’s incident.

She had tried to explain to the policeman that her drinking was a stress reliever — she spent her whole life working hard, helping others, building a better world, couldn’t he see that? The cop had written her up anyway. Nobody believed in altruism.

Not even her.

“Why would you do that for us? For them?” She pointed at the distant city skyscrapers. “As a world, we’ve tried to pull up our socks and, granted, we haven’t been doing too badly lately, but what’s in it for you?”

“Your socks are pulled higher than some planets,” Candoo said gravely. “And our study of your cultures tells us you have potential.”

Jessica nodded. This decade had fewer wars than any in the past, lower infant mortality rates, higher literacy rates, higher happiness quotients no matter what measurement was used. The world was steadily improving thanks to many people doing their part, including her. Her pulse raced — she should really find time for a checkup. She swallowed the last of the scotch and tried to focus.

Her PR instincts told her Candoo was still holding back. A single word came to mind, one that had yielded results in many negotiations. “And …?”

Candoo stroked across her scalp with both hands, looking wistful. “I have convinced my government you could become valued trading partners. I believe you people have the right combination of spunk and goodheartedness. However, the deeper reason is … my people need a challenge.”

Jessica pursed her lips. This could be awesome. She found herself really hoping Candoo would still be around when she sobered up. She glanced back out the window. “Hmm, an advanced technology that wouldn’t be too disruptive. Let’s see … well, how about flying cars? They’re a real symbol of the future. And of hope. We’ve already got loads of cultural referents for ‘em.”

Candoo stood, put her hands behind her back and began to pace. “Give me a moment.”

Jessica leaned back in her chair. She’d dreamed about flying cars since she was a pajama-clad kid watching Saturday morning cartoons of flying saucers whirling around tall towers. She’d soon realized those big-girl toys wouldn’t happen if we destroyed our playground first. After her MBA, she’d commenced on a twenty-year plan, offering her advertising services to as many start-ups as she could handle, everything from water reclamation systems to ultra-efficient building insulation manufacturers, in exchange for almost-valueless company shares. Several had taken off and Jessica had now grown wealthy enough to do all the pro bono fund-raising work she could manage: disaster relief, microloans, literacy programs.

Candoo stopped pacing. Her shiny black eyes looked right into Jessica’s. “Yes, flying cars, okay. They are appropriate. I commend your cleverness. You’re hired. An exclusive world-wide contract in perpetuity.”

Jessica kept her face still as she thought it through. She could reel off a list of the reasons flying cars never had become common. It wasn’t just the safety concerns, difficulty of intersecting flight paths, and poor fuel efficiency versus ground transport. There were also the issues of higher noise levels, high degree of training, and so on.

But the thought of swooping through the skies in her own little winged sportster was irresistible. She slapped a hand on the desk. “All right then. One way or another, we’ll get these flying cars off the ground.” She paused, unsure if the alien would understand the pun.

Candoo grinned broadly and picked up a pen with her six-fingered hand. “Where do I sign?”

Two months later, Candoo pushed through Jessica’s inner office doors. Jessica was pleased to see the alien had followed her image advice — she now wore size-zero jeans, a black turtleneck, and a jaunty plumed hat.

Candoo’s head bobbed in excitement, sending the feathers nodding. “I have to thank you, Jessica. You’ve pushed our people’s engineers to our envelope’s edge. Please come.”

She continued to speak rapidly as the executive elevator descended. “We designed the two models of the Alpha One you recommended — transport truck and personal-use vehicle. You folks can assemble them almost entirely yourselves, using locally sourced materials.”

Jessica’s heart thudded. She knew her face must be giving her away.

Candoo paused, studying her. “Sorry, no, we can’t give you the schematics for the cheap power source nor the engine. And we can’t tell you how to make the materials. But, we can give everyone on Earth a flying car. The prototype is ready.”

The alien’s eyes twinkled. There was something more.

“And …?”

A slow grin spread across Candoo’s face. “We’re starting with you.”

Jessica matched the grin. “It’s here? Downstairs?”

Candoo held out her hand. A wire and glass unit of some kind lay coiled on her palm. “One of the main reasons you folks have not developed flying cars is because the ability threshold to drive a helicopter or an airplane is much higher than a ground vehicle, correct? This headset allows you to use your brainwaves to control the craft, with overrides for safety.”

Jessica settled the gadget over her forehead and made a mental note to request more padding. They exited the elevator and Candoo swung open the exterior door. “Voilà!”

The flying car glistened in the sun. Sleek as a racing car with symmetrical bulges fore and aft. Jessica almost broke into a little dance step.

She stroked the closest fender. The sheen of the material — what could it be? — more than made up for the shade of mauve and the irregular spatters of brown.

“It’s gorgeous! Can it come in, say, solid red? Or black?”

“Of course, that’s simple.”

“Can I see under the hood?”

Candoo obligingly opened the rear hatch, revealing a featureless green box. “You can’t open it. All tests you folks are capable of doing will give zero results. It cannot explode nor will it burn. It will not connect to anything else.” It should be possible to tease the secrets out of Candoo, given time. Surely, it would just be a matter of showing her that humans were capable of handling such technology.

The pilot’s seat and the passenger seats melded into the framework as if from a single mold. There didn’t appear to be a door handle or a sensor.

“Think the word ‘open’ at it,” Candoo said.

Jessica obliged; her headset tingled; and the door — a sort of three-part DeLorean gull-wing — swung up and out. She settled into the driver’s seat which seemed to fit around her. The dashboard was a single screen displaying a map of the city.

“Where’s the fuel gauge?” She craned her head up at Candoo.

“Think the word ‘reserve.’”

Her head tingled again and the screen displayed a message: Hours left: 799.8.

She looked at Candoo again.

“You just swap out the green box every 800 hours.”

The math was easy. “More than a month of continuous flying time? Wow!”

Candoo climbed gracefully into the passenger seat. “Go on. Take it home.”

Jessica thought: Take off, vertical. Her heart hammered as the craft rose smoothly and silently into the air, leveling off just above the power lines. No flight checks, no take-off procedures. Sweet!

West to my apartment. Sure enough, the car glided west. She soared over the freeway, enjoying the smooth ride and new-car smell.

A large crow rose into view suddenly, all feathers and claws. Jessica scrabbled uselessly at the smooth dashboard. The car veered around the bird then effortlessly straightened out.

Candoo, reclined calmly in her seat, barely blinked.

There was barely time to register the traffic jam on the highway below when Jessica’s penthouse came into view. Down, parking stall 47. The car circled around the back of the apartment block and dropped to the tarmac, centring itself neatly in her stall. There had been no sensation of dropping, no “elevator” feeling. So smooth, so easy.

Jessica sat there a moment.

Candoo smiled, making crinkles appear around her large eyes. “Did that fulfil your childhood dream?”

Jessica took off the headset and toyed with it in her lap. “Yeah, it was great,” she managed. No joystick, no sharp turns, no thrills.

She hadn’t felt like a young child swooping through the air.

She had felt like a baby in a booster seat with Mom at the wheel.

A month later, Jessica toasted the wall screen in her living room with her 50-year-old Glenfarclas. It had been another long work day; she’d had to cancel the appointment with her cardiologist for the second time. But her sacrifices were worth it. Curled on the sofa in an old T-shirt and her rocket-ship pajama pants, she raised her glass again as the newscast cut from the interview of a young man bursting with pride at being hired at an Alpha One plant to a graph showing how the coveted assembly jobs would reduce local unemployment rates.

A sound bite of one of the first hundred satisfied owners, a pie chart of a single colour to inform the viewers the Alpha One accident rate was still zero despite some deliberate attempts to crash, and then the picture changed to yet another interview with Senator Buckworth. The white-haired politician spoke while he leaned out his flying car’s window, hovering six feet above the freeway, silk scarf flapping. As Jessica had surmised, the main hurdle had been regulatory. A word in Buckworth’s ear, a discount price on a sleek black Alpha One, and a senate session had soon run all night, pushing the Vehicular Aviation Act through.

Sixteen states had passed similar laws within a week and the FAA delightedly published a succinct one-page report recommending Alpha Ones without reservation.

It was all good stuff, yet Jessica was restless. She flicked the screen off. A drive in the moonlight along the coast might calm her down. She never had retrieved her Porsche after the DUI, but the Alpha One might allow her to skim over the ocean waves if she asked it the right way. Her pulse thudding in her chest, she fumbled at her jacket, succeeding in getting her arm in her sleeve on the third try.

Downstairs, the rain had ended. Puddles gleamed. Her red Alpha One seemed to throb under the lights, as if it was anticipating her arrival.

She groped for the headset in her pocket and jammed it on. Open.

The interior stayed dark; the door stayed shut. She tried again, swaying in the damp air. Open, damn you.

A message scrolled across the driver’s window: “Interfacing cannot be completed. Please try in five hours.” That sucked. In five hours, she’d be sober.

Stupid car.

She stumbled back to the elevator.

The world reacted to the Alpha Ones with alacrity. Soon, the one millionth Alpha soared off the assembly line. With the realization that the green box was a proven power source, governments poured money into energy research, which pleased Jessica to no end.

No one cracked the green box, and attempts to connect an Alpha One to generators, storage batteries, or other devices all failed.

But, spurred by a general air of infinite possibility, a graduate student created a type of solar panel twice as efficient as anything seen before. Jessica was one of the first to offer venture capital to the girl’s new company.

There were spin-off effects of the flying car industry itself. Jessica had started a list then abandoned it as the number of items grew exponentially. With no speeding, no drunk driving, no traffic violations at all, police were able to focus on other crimes with greater success. The efficiency of transport meant food distribution costs were halved. A wave of optimism swept the world, reflected in everything from social media to music to sports records.

Jessica passed all her other advertising clients on to trusted staffers, putting her efforts solely into world-wide flying car promotion. After several warnings from her cardiologist, she cut back her weekly work hours to fifty, joined AA, and had a fitness trainer come to her office three times a week.

A year later, Jessica sat at her desk watching a cloud of dust in the distance — a crew jackhammered up asphalt, turning the freeway back into arable land. Above, cars flew in complex patterns, interwoven paths like schools of fish. On her work screen, a news report scrolled — municipal road maintenance budgets had been redirected to fixing homelessness.

Did it matter if she never got the excitement of a truly thrilling ride in a flying car? If she never fulfilled that little pajama-clad girl’s fondest dream? She looked over at the traffic light that stood propped in one corner — already a collector’s item on eBay. Life was just fine.

She was still gazing out the window and playing with a corkscrew some grateful charity had given her when the door burst open and Candoo rushed in.

“We did it, Jessica! We exceeded our own expectations! We perfected the neurology!” She held her floppy sunhat against her narrow chest.

“Slow down, Candoo. Have a seat.”

Candoo danced from foot to foot, words tumbling together. “Enhanced reflexes! Precision control! Just a small gene tweak!” She laid a simple joystick on Jessica’s desk. “No more interface! No more headsets! Thrills and chills!”

Jessica quirked up the side of her mouth. “Thanks, Candoo.”

“We can have the pill form in production by Friday!” Candoo bounced on her toes.

Jessica took a moment to answer. The far-off jackhammers thudded in a steady rhythm. “I’m sure you can. And I appreciate all your hard work. But we won’t be using it for quite a while.” She stood and picked up the joystick.

Candoo looked surprised. “And …?”

“And I’m glad it helped you guys push your limits.” Jessica carefully laid the joystick on her bookshelf next to her Fitbit and her 90-day sobriety medallion. “We’re still finding ours.”

Holly Schofield writes from the extreme western edge of Canada. In fact, any farther west and she might fall off. Two of her stories have previously appeared in AE: “Tough Crowd” in Issue #9, and “Off-Campus Housing” in Issue #12. She has also been featured twice in AE Micro.

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