A work of fiction. Standard disclaimers.
Felix hated flying. He always felt so much like an … an … object when he had to put himself at the mercy of airports and airplanes. And with electronic communications advancing so rapidly – and viewed, for the most part, as far more environmentally friendly than travel, so long as you knew nothing about the true impact of the lithium mines, without which there would have been no electronic communications on the planet at all, never mind any advances – the need for anyone to actually be anywhere other than home was becoming far less frequent.
But Felix’s boss had been insistent. “The AI networks aren’t yet established in the southwest Pacific, and we need you to inspect our organophosphate operations there. The world’s food crops need every gram of that phosphate, and we can’t afford any disruptions.” Felix had clicked his heels and said “Yes, sir, of course, sir.”, knowing full well the consequences, in these fevered days, of being declared a ‘surplus employee’. And he had entered the necessary arrangements into his calendar.
Two hours before his flight to Port Moresby was scheduled to depart from Boston, the assistant dispatched from Logan Airport arrived at his housing cubicle. The assistant looked exactly like his current leggy, long-straight-blonde-haired, blue-eyed girlfriend Rachel – except that her calves were just a bit more finely tuned, her upper thighs lacked any trace of cellulite, her breasts were just that much perkier, and her skin had the bloom of her 17-year-old self. All of which was plainly visible, because she wore next to nothing, and what little she had on matched her body color and contours. The AI had learned, long ago, how best to ensure that an individual human would comply with its directives, and it was increasingly, and increasingly disturbingly, uncanny how quickly, and how well, the nets had come to learn about, and exploit, his latest fantasies. Rachel had told him that, on her last trip, the assistant looked just like himself. Except, the assistant had had pecs and abs, and a far more conspicuous package.
“Good morning, Felix Sylvester”, the assistant cooed in Rachel’s richest come-on voice. “Packed?”
“On the bed.”
“Where I expected it to be. I’ll have a look.” She strode to the bed, inspected the bag. Then, with superhuman speed, she opened the bag, removed all the contents, repacked them in a little less than half the space, and pulled fourteen critical items from his closet and storage squares, which she added to the case. Finally, she held up a jackknife and tsk-tsked him about it.
“C’mon, Felix, you know by now that these can’t go on the plane.”
Felix shrugged sheepishly. He usually planted at least one such piece of contraband to assert his independence …
“And you can stop playing that stupid game.” The real Rachel’s voice never wielded that much iron. “We’re tired of it. You will pack according to regulations. If this happens again, we report you to the Surplus Humanity Service.”
Felix forced a neutral expression, hoped he got away with it, had a sinking feeling that he didn’t. Clearly, his fantasies were not the only aspect of his thoughts that the AI was learning about, and exploiting.
“Your kit is now in compliance, and should now hold everything you need, including the fourteen things you forgot.” The come-on voice had returned. And your pod is waiting for you outside.” Her left hand slid down her side, slipped under her bikini bottom.
“Thanks. Want to come with …?”
The question died in the same thin air that the assistant had vanished into.
Felix, deflated, picked up the bag and left his residential cubicle. The front door, programmed to know both his departure and his return time, closed behind him. It did not lock; it would not do so unless an unauthorized entity approached – something that entity would not likely do again, to anyone or anything, anywhere. Parked on the street in front of his residence was a white half-bubble on four wheels, humming faintly but impatiently. As he approached, a door opened. Felix stepped inside, sat in the single bucket seat. The door closed, and with a buzz that replaced the hum, the bubble left the curb and entered traffic.
Felix saw nothing through the white plastic of the bubble, and heard little. The pods traveled at higher speeds and closer packing than most humans could experience without stress, and too many humans had died or suffered debilitating physical or mental illness as a result, including many whose loss was regretted by humans and the AI alike. Felix’s pod powered through a swirling, apparently chaotic, blur of bubbles, and all Felix knew about it was that it took under three minutes to get from his front door to the international terminal at Logan, fifteen klicks away.
At the terminal, the pod stopped, and a door opened. Felix stepped out, grabbed his bag, and took two steps to a pair of white illuminated disks that appeared in front of him. He placed his bag on the smaller one, stepped on the larger. A white cylinder shimmered up from the edge of the disk, enclosing him and, as in the transit pod, completely shutting off his view. The cylinder then lifted off the floor of the terminal entryway, and the pressure of acceleration told him that it was moving – and quickly. Felix had seen an instructional holo of the people mover process. He understood the algorithms that allowed the cylinders to deliver their charges with maximum speed and efficiency, but he also understood that even persons who grasped all that were still at risk of mental breakdown if they witnessed the near-miss brinkmanship that the superhuman AI network calculations permitted – demanded, in fact, to ensure that the volumes of planes and people would get where they were going on time.
Seconds after the cylinder had started moving, it stopped. The cylinder wall shimmered back into its disk, and Felix found himself standing in line at his departure gate. His bag was nowhere to be seen; it had been taken to the plane’s baggage compartment. No hand luggage was allowed, or needed; the AI nets knew all the needs that passengers were likely to have, and either supplied them or told the passengers that they could not be had, and if they didn’t wish to be reported to the SHS, they would acquiesce to their absence. The trend had been to fewer needs granted, more acquiescence demanded, but Felix knew better than even to think very much about that. He filled his mind instead with questions about organophosphate.
After a few moments, the line began moving. There was no announcement, no priority boarding, no jostling for position at the gate, no boarding pass to scan, no pilot to barricade into the cockpit, no flight attendant to greet. The person at the front of the line had the window seat at the furthest back of the aircraft, the next had the adjacent aisle seat, and so on until all the seats had been occupied; the flight was full. The process went off without a hitch, as the AI net had made very clear was expected of all passengers long before they got to the gate. Felix recalled the jackknife episode, shuddered slightly.
Felix had a window seat in aisle 22, starboard side. He went to his seat when his turn came, sat down. His seat belt secured itself. Within fifteen seconds, his two fellow travelers had also taken their seats. Or perhaps it was better said that their seats had claimed them. Rachel’s head appeared in front of him, ran through a spot check on the safety procedures, vanished. His middle-seat mate, a twenty-something male, spent far longer with his assistant, a pert brunette. “New guy”, Felix thought. He turned away, looked out the window.
A cargo plane roared by, still taxiing, still on the ground, but at a high speed nonetheless. Freed of any need to coddle human manipulators and passengers, limited only by the g-forces that the cargo could withstand, the craft was large but sleek and looked like it lived for speed. The speed was quickly demonstrated, as it reached the end of the taxiway, pulled onto the runway, then lit the afterburners, streaked down the runway until liftoff and then, passing overhead, almost instantly disappeared. A boom penetrated into the airliner, marking the acceleration of the cargo carrier past Mach 1.
Then, his own plane jolted as it left the jetway and started its journey to the far East. Port Moresby was six hours away. Felix settled in for the long ride.