Gripped by anxiety, Jackson settled into his seat. He did not want to fasten the seat belt yet. He thought he might want to go pee again. One never knew when the stewards would tell everyone that the restrooms were closed for take-off preparations. The rules inside these metal beasts seemed so arbitrary. Whether on the tarmac or not, once one was in the fuselage, one’s rights and choices seemed to evaporate.
The lack of choices and incipient claustrophobia would have been enough to cause significant anxiety in Jackson. He knew this from unpleasant experience. Now sitting on the tarmac awaiting take off, his claustrophobia barely registered emotionally. He could not remember a time he had been this oblivious to the outside world. Nonetheless, he still navigated the terminal and customs, but he was operating like some automaton.
With all the events that had led up to him to be in this seat at this moment, his claustrophobia could barely pierce his attention. His mind swirled with the possibilities of an uncertain future. He stared out into a maroon twilight. As Jackson stared out the tiny porthole window, he drifted back to home and why he was now leaving this godforsaken planet.
It was ironic with so much technological progress, this place felt like a dead end. There might be a spaceport and a spaceplane sitting on the runway, but there was no future here. Not for people like Jackson and his father. There were no possibilities here and no opportunities. It was no longer a meritocracy here…if it ever was. He had tried to explain this reality to his father.
“Dad, a college degree doesn't mean you get a job any longer,” Jackson told his father.
“I just don’t understand with your grades from THAT school, it seems like you should be eminently employable,” his father suggested.
“Sure, it used to be the ticket to a guaranteed job, a degree in computer engineering, but things have changed in the last year or two,” Jackson replied.
“It’s the chip dad. They want everyone to have the chip embedded directly connected to their cerebrum, so they can tie into their systems directly.”
“But a liquor store? That is the only place that will hire you?” his dad asked.
Jackson shook his head and looked down. He felt like such a failure after his father had put so much money into his tuition. He wondered if it really was the chip that was the hiring obstacle. Maybe just his personality sucked and nobody wanted to hire him because they didn’t like him? Jackson questioned everything now. It seemed like there was no opportunity any longer. There was no upward mobility here, at least not through a meritocracy.
“What about Jonnie?” His dad asked about his long-time friend from the neighborhood. “I heard he got a job at SpaceX?”
“Yep, he got the chip implanted last week and had a job by Friday!” I replied.
“How the hell did he do that? They are so expensive! I thought that the family was poor. “ His father opined.
“Jonnie found someone that would do it for ten thousand. It was a little shady, but the chip was implanted. He took the tests and he passed easily, they immediately hired him. “
Jackson knew that a chipped software engineer was a much faster coder than one who used his own gray matter to implement this design pattern or that one. Jackson understood WHY Jonnie was now so employable. Jackson understood WHY the corporations wanted their employees to have them. Explaining it to his father who had sacrificed so much to make sure he could get through school was a completely different matter.
Jackson could see the truth of it in his father’s eyes. He could not afford to pay for his son to get the chip implanted. Jackson’s dad understood education was no longer enough and felt the weight only a dad who has failed to properly provide can feel. As the tears welled up in his father’s eyes, Jackson could see the clock over his shoulder. He was due to be working at the liquor store in fifteen minutes.
“I have to go, dad” Jackson bolted out the front door at full gallop. He barely was able to get clocked in on time. He was so worn out emotionally and physically after sprinting that his face was contorted with sweat, grief, anxiety and exertion. The facial recognition time clock repeatedly rejected his stressed out visage.
He concentrated on indifference. “I am in the Matrix. I am in the Matrix. I am in the Matrix.” He chanted silently in his head until “Bing!”
“You have clocked into work Jackson. Thank you!” said the automated attendant.
Jackson thanked his lucky stars for the continued imperfections of AI. Who would have imagined the liquor store job would have survived this far in the future. One would have imagined these clerks would have been gone the way of gas station attendants by this time. Nonetheless, there Jackson sat checking ids and thinking about how long it would take to save enough money for the requisite chip to land the job to lift he and his father from poverty.
Artificial intelligence could never seem to keep ahead of the determined human addict. Jackson wondered how much human invention was wasted upon getting the next fix. It was a little surprising how popular alcohol continued to be in a future so full of exotic manufactured molecules engineered to make one feel good or feel better or feel nothing or feel whatever one wanted to feel.
Engineered molecules were expensive though, alcohol was a very popular soporific. It was a busy night and Jackson barely had a moment. Alcohol and opium addicts were very persistent. Jackson wondered how many more dead people there would be were opium not legal. The alcoholics were as persistent as the opium addicts at attempting to circumvent the many different biometric id systems extant. However, they were rarely as creative OR SUCCESSFUL. The damage alcohol addiction wrought on their minds and bodies was terrible.
Despite the fact the hours went by quickly on such a busy night, it left Jackson emotionally exhausted. The human suffering on display was not an easy thing to deal with. Even when the person was coherent and well-financed, there seemed to be some dark purpose for their trip to the liquor store.
“Hey boy! Give me your finest opium. A bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue as well. “ The man had a large smile. He was wearing a tuxedo. Jackson probed for some happy news.
“Whatcha celebrating, sir? How about Royal Salute? I am sure we have more 21-year-old Chivas, but not sure about Johnnie Walker Blue.” Jackson sifted through the bottle inventory in the large under counter safe.
“Ah-ha, there is a bottle of Royal Salute here,” Jackson announced. “It is 21 years old and my dad says it is a superior scotch.”
“Good good, I will take the Chivas,” said the well-dressed man. “Celebrating?” He paused and there was a faraway look in his eyes, “ahh well, my girlfriend left me.”
“I am sorry to hear that sir,” Jackson apologized
“No matter, it is better to know now. I had been saving up money for the two of us to book passage on the Blue Origin spaceplane. She really really wanted to get off this planet. I didn’t care cuz she was a beauty and I was blinded. It was going to take another six months to save up the ducats for TWO tickets. I had bought one but I was still a hundred days from the second.”
“I see,” Jackson had heard of Blue Origin’s booming off-planet service and he listened as the man continued.
“Yeah, well she did not want to wait for me and a better offer came along. Some guy with a lot more money than I swept her up. He is taking her off the planet tonight AND I AM CELEBRATING!” He shouted.
As the man paid for his drugs, he said “I just went around the corner and pawned my ticket. I got a good price for it. I am fine on this planet and I am lucky to have learned her affections were based upon what I could deliver. Women? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” The man sighed, turned abruptly, and walked briskly from the store.
When the shift finally ended, Jackson thought about escaping this godforsaken hellhole of a planet. Humans trash everything they touch, he thought. Jackson wondered a bit about the fate of the ticket. Was there really opportunity out there beyond this planet?
Jackson's revelry was broken by a wailing woman calling his name. “Jackson! Jackson!” He turned and saw Jonnie’s girlfriend running toward him.
“Did you hear? Did you hear?” She cried and fell into Jackson’s arms.
‘What?” Jackson was perplexed. He barely knew the girl. Jonnie went though girlfriends frequently and this one seemed to have been coincident with the SpaceX job.
“Jonnie’s dead! It was a brain aneurysm. I should have never made him get that shitty chip in his head.” She wailed in Jackson’s arms for what seemed like an hour, but probably was only five minutes or so when her mother came breathlessly running up.
Her mother related how Jonnie had collapsed while working, was rushed to the hospital but was dead on arrival. He had died suddenly due to the black market chip implantation.
Jackson rushed home to see his father. He knew now getting a job on this planet was going to be difficult. A black market implantation was most likely all he could afford. Such a backroom surgery was a deadly game of Russian Roulette which Jackson could not stomach.
Jackson’s dad had more news when Jackson walked through the door.
“I got the money for the chip. You can get a job!” Jackson’s dad had a smug grin on his face. His dad showed him his digital wallet. “Look at that number,” he pointed at the balance. “It’s more than enough!”
“It’s not enough,” Jackson whispered.
“It’s not enough,” Jackson said more firmly. “ I am sorry it is not enough”
What do you mean,” his father asked, “ You said this would be enough for a chip and a job at SpaceX like Jonnie.”
“Johnnie’s dead, dad,” Jackson mumbled, then clearly he stated,”Jonnie is dead. Black market chip implantation has a lot of risks apparently. Brain aneurysm after shitty job. Jonnie died today.”
Jackson’s dad broke down and began weeping uncontrollably. He bent over and held his head in his hands. Now Jackson could see the blood on his shirt.
“Dad! What did you do?” Jackson yelled
“Black market son, black market for everything and everyone. Everything is negotiable, except perhaps virginity, so I sold my kidney,” Jackson’s father confessed. “That is how I filled up that thing,” as he gestured to the digital wallet on the table. “Damn it. Don’t worry son. I had been thinking anyway. maybe it was time to get off this godforsaken planet. I think this is enough for us to get off-planet. I was researching fares on Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.”
Jackson’s dad stood up and put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry son. We’re getting out of here.” He then walked to his bedroom and laid down. Jackson sat and watched the drone races until the sun came up. He never actually fell asleep that night. He sat and stared at the digital wallet all night.
Jackson kept thinking about the fact his dad MUST know there was not enough there in that digital wallet to get TWO people off-planet. Sure there was a great BOGO deal at Virgin Galactic, but the digital wallet balance still only got them to about 75% of that.
His dad only had two kidneys so Jackson started thinking about giving up one of his. That would be enough he thought. He had screwed up his courage to get it done as soon as the sun was up.
When sunrise came, Jackson learned his dad surely did know what off-planet passage was going to cost. That was why he had drunk an entire bottle of laudanum along with half a bottle of Royal Salute.
Life was hard on this damn planet, but dying was EASY.
There was so much despair, the oligarchs dispatched robot coroners for suicides. There was no reason to spend too many resources on voluntary checkouts from their point of view. Before he had breakfast, he had his father’s cremains. Jackson used some of the digital wallet’s balance to have those cremains compressed into an industrial diamond.
“Prepare for the ‘long sleep’,” came the word over the speakers jarring Jackson from his painful recollections. He looked down at the ring he had his father diamond cremains set in. As the suspended animation drugs began to take hold, Jackson thought about how grateful he was the pawn shop proprietor was also a jeweler. He looked at the minuscule balance in the digital wallet his father had staked him. Buying the ticket of the jilted lover who preferred Johnnie Walker Blue from the pawn shop felt like the RIGHT thing as Jackson fell into sleep.
When Jackson awoke in orbit, he was a bit confused. “Where was he?” He thought. “That did not look like Earth beneath him. Had he really escaped the godforsaken planet of his birth?”
“Boy they sure have cleaned it up,” said someone sitting near him. “The air pollution used to be so bad, you could not even see the surface from orbit.”
“Yeah, my grandmother showed me pictures from when she left for Mars. It is amazing how much they have been able to clean up Earth in a few generations. “ said another passenger.
Jackson looked down at the blue green orb below. It did not look like the Earth his father described. It surely did not look like the globe his father had of their native planet, Earth.” The continents were all the wrong shapes and looked only vaguely like the old globe. He then realized global climate change had caused enormous sea level rise changing coastlines worldwide.
As the Blue Origin spaceplane’s orbit decayed, Jackson enjoyed several full rotations of the planet beneath him. He was able to take it all in before landing in California. He saw the nearly ice free continent of Antarctica in the south and the incredible blues of the Northwest Passage on the other pole. All the continents were now separate islands in a worldwide ocean, unless one insisted on referring to Eurasia as TWO separate continents…
Now as the spaceplane entered final descent, Jackson thought back to the godforsaken red hell hole called Mars. He thought about how precious water was on that planet with no liquid water on the surface. Here he was back on the mother planet, one literally covered in the precious liquid. This planet and California especially felt like home.
His family had fled the state for Mars generations ago, but California’s unique flora, fauna, and topology were always topics of conversation when the relatives got together. They always sounded like they had been ejected from the Garden of Eden when they described California. Now here he was back in the Bear Flag Republic as then had affectionately called their old home.
He looked down with wonder at the rebirth of the Great Tulare Lake. Once it had been the largest lake west of the Mississippi, but it was a dust bowl drained for irrigation by the time his family had left. He felt an unexpected sense of odd pride California was now the home of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi once again.
As the spaceplane landed in the Mojave, the remnants of the massive multi-billion dollar solar power generation plant was visible for miles. He was amazed by the vastness of the plant. The Mojave Desert had seemed like a great place to build a solar power plant and billions were invested. Its destruction after several large earthquakes by the northward movement of the Pacific typhoon track had prompted by ancestors flight from California all those years ago.
It was fortunate a group of radical environmentalists had been working hard to reboot the nuclear reactors throughout the world. It was the only way to stop IMMEDIATELY the large scale exhausting of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The planet had long moved past the tipping point so the hurricanes and typhoons were only going to increase as the ice caps melted and sea levels rose.
Once the pollution of the atmosphere stopped, the climate began to settle down. The ice caps were not reborn and sea-level rise continued for quite awhile. Fission and nuclear reactors had been vital as bridge power sources during the volatile climactic rebalancing. The global epiphany which saved Earth and her human inhabitants happened right here in this desert in California.
Jackson felt nothing but hope as the plane taxied into the spaceport. He looked down at the diamond ring on his hand. He held the finger with his other hand. His eyes began to well up again.
“Welcome home,” said the steward at the gate. He was so used to seeing the glistening eyes of those so happy to be back to Mother Earth.
“Thanks Dad, you got us home,” Jackson said softly as he nodded to the steward. Jackson gripped his finger a little tighter and walked out into the sunshine. He felt the optimism of a fresh start in a new world. Well, perhaps not a whole new world, but an old one reborn, but it still felt good.
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