A gentle breeze caressed Laura’s face as she drove south on Pacific Coast Highway, the PCH, in her convertible, top down. She closed her eyes for a few seconds to enjoy the warm rays of a setting sun over the horizon of the Pacific Ocean. Her wavy brown hair fluttered as she sped towards her destination. She lowered her sunglasses a few centimeters with one hand—keeping the other on the steering—and checked herself in the rear-view mirror.
She was a looker. In her late thirties, she still turned heads when she passed. In her college days, she looked stunning with her lithe body, her long shapely legs, oval face with full lips, and light brown eyes to match her hair. Her body had withstood the married years, two deliveries, and a fracture.
She adjusted back her sunglasses and moved her hand to her flat belly. A gold chain around her long neck and a bracelet around her supple hand enhanced her dull blue work uniform. Laura was a nurse at a health spa in Southern California. The spa had a very exclusive list of clients; actors, models, producers, directors, studio executives, and so forth, frequented the spa. She had seen the stars up close and personal—without their makeup—and realized how fake the movie industry was. The word star was a perfect description for them: they twinkled from far but lost their shines when one approached them.
Laura was a health-nut, going five days a week to the gym. Getting up at five a.m. was a routine. She liked to play the beat-the-alarm game, making the alarm clock her opponent; if she woke before the alarm went off, she won. Most of the times she did. When the clock occasionally won, she’d curse. On the weekends, Laura still woke around five, even without the alarm set. Then, she’d jog around the park. Her work started at seven in the morning and ended at three in the afternoon, and she liked her timing as she was a morning person. Moreover, it gave her more time in the evening to run errands.
A short blare of siren caused her to glance in her rear-view mirror. A police car rose above her; she saw the undercarriage displaying a large police-sign with a stenciled number as it passed overhead. It returned to the pavement in front of her; a lower panel slid upwards and wheels emerged to gently hit the asphalt. The blue-and-red lights on top continued to flash as a side door slid open and a policeman stepped out. He wore a dark-blue uniform with dark sunglasses. Some things never change, she thought. In his left hand, he held a small, rectangular tablet.
“Everything okay, miss?” he asked.
“Yes, officer, why?”
“You’re driving on PCH. That’s unusual. People usually come down to the pavement only when they have car trouble.”
“Oh, no.” She gave a nervous laugh. “Nothing like that. I was just enjoying the road on my way back.”
“Okay,” he said, reluctantly. He swiveled the tablet he was holding to turn the surface upwards. “Look here,” he ordered as he jutted the tablet towards her face. A green beam emanated from a tiny hole and scanned her face. The officer looked down as the image formed.
“Laura Adams?” he asked.
“That’s me,” she replied, her initial apprehension evaporating.
“Go up, please, if you have no car trouble,” he said as he glanced at her address next to her photo. “You still have to cross the mountains.”
“Sure,” she nodded.
Apparently satisfied, the officer walked back to his vehicle. The door slid shut, the car lifted slowly, the tires slid back in, and panels slid down. The blue-and-red lights stopped flashing as the vehicle rose higher. It became a mere speck as it moved upwards and gathered speed.
Sighing, she pressed a button and the top of the car slid shut. As she switched to aero-mode, a panel opened, and the steering-wheel receded into its cavity. The vehicle lifted and started to move forward as a large panel lit in front of her. It was the dashboard, or the control center, as it was called these days. The car industry had coined a new marketing term to reflect the changing times and make it sound edgy, allowing the owners to feel like they were astronauts on a space mission.
She tapped the corner of the dashboard to change it from translucent to transparent as it moved to the windshield. The car lifted higher, merging with other cars zooming past on CH, Coastline Highway, an aerial highway that was three levels high with ten lanes in each direction. Bored, she swiveled her chair to face the interior, her back to the control center. Glancing down through her side-window, she saw the PCH snaking along, flanked by the mighty Pacific Ocean on one side and the rugged mountains on the other, and sighed. The beautiful coastline disappeared into the horizon as the car swerved left to join the other cars. The sun appeared fuller from her new angle now that she was no longer on PCH.
“Jazz,” she said, raising her voice slightly, and soft music engulfed her.
The car swung to the left as it exited CH and headed east over the mountains. No longer traveling on a regulated highway, she was alone in the air. The government only controlled the roads, but the other paths were free for anyone to travel…as long as it didn’t invade anyone’s private space.
“James,” announced a computerized voice of a woman.
“Yes,” Laura said aloud, and a screen materialized in front of her, filling it with James’s handsome face, smiling at the camera.
“Hey,” He smiled.
“Hi, babe,” she said warmly, still cherishing the gorgeous man with the deep blue eyes, even after twelve years of marriage and the addition of two children.
“Where are you?” he asked. She visualized him at his desk, with his feet up, his phone pressed to his ear, and a smile on his face. “On CH,” she replied. “You?”
“Still at work.”
“Are you going to be late?”
“Don’t know, er, probably.”
“Okay, I’ll go to Sandra’s to get the kids. Do you need anything from the stores?”
“No,” he shook his head and his blond hair became totally disarrayed—just the way she loved it.
“Oh, good. That’ll save me a trip. Bye, hon. See you soon. Love you.” She swiped her hand and his face shrank to a tiny dot before it disappeared altogether.
Laura was married for twelve years and still in love, the only difference being that her love now had expanded from her husband, James, to include her two children, Harry, 10, and Brittany, 7. She’d had met James at UCLA, while she was a student. He was a junior when she started as a freshman. Even when he graduated, they bumped into each other very often as both of them lived in Southern California, even in the same county and city, Laguna Beach in Orange County.
During her breaks, when she went home, she looked forward to bumping into him at the grocery store, the mall, the car wash, or any other place. She had always regretted that she didn’t date him during his time at UCLA and even wondered if she had let a good one slip by.
“Call Sandra,” she said aloud, and her sister's image appeared in front of her, with a green dot glowing to indicate they were connected. “Hey, where are you?” she asked.
“In the kitchen,” Sandra replied.
“Zoom out,” she said, and Sandra’s image grew smaller to reveal her surroundings. Unlike her husband’s still face due to restrictions by his company, this was a live feed.
Sandra stood in front of a chopping board covered with vegetables that lay on the center-island in her kitchen; she held a large knife in her hand. Behind her, Laura could see a pan on the gas sizzling with oil, waiting to receive the vegetables. Although Sandra was only three years older than Laura, she looked much older. Slightly plump, with a round face, she moved her empty hand to wipe away the strands of her graying hair that blocked her view.
“What are you cooking?” Laura asked.
“Pasta, will you be eating here?”
“No, just the kids.”
“Okay.” Sandra shrugged her shoulders as she went back to cutting her vegetables.
“Where are they?”
“In the living room.” She turned her head and shouted. “Harry…Brit, come say hi to your mom.”
“We’re in the middle of a game,” came a faint reply from the other room.
“They are busy,” Sandra said, rolling her eyes. “Do you still want to talk to them?”
“Nah, it’s okay.” Laura smiled. “I’ll be there soon.”
Laura swiped her hand to end her call and peered down. The car was passing over the Malibu mountains. She squinted to see exactly where she was but only saw different shades of green sparsely dotted by dull lights to denote a house. People liked their privacy, especially the celebrities who could afford the expensive land in densely wooded Malibu hills. The car proceeded, and the horizon brightened as it approached San Fernando Valley. The 101 Freeway snaked along the south side of the valley flanked by buildings peeking through some trees. A few ant-like vehicles crawled, heading in both directions.
What a waste of time, Laura smiled to herself. I wish they would get over their fear of flying. They could be at their destination in no time. Flying cars were ubiquitous these days, but some people preferred the roads. Although they attributed their preference to “love of the road,” everyone knew the real reason was their fear of flying, or their fear of heights, or both. She’d heard a few of them claim they genuinely preferred to drive than fly; mostly senior citizens who were in no hurry. They wanted to slow down the little time they had to live. “Don’t be in a hurry to reach the destination, enjoy the journey,” they would say.
Her car merged into a strip of flying cars headed to their destinations. Suddenly, a wail of blaring sirens made Laura jerk her head sharply. She looked over her shoulder just in time to catch the flashing red lights of an ambulance. Her car had not slowed. Her uncle had once explained that before the era of flying cars, when everyone shared the roadway, personal and commercial vehicles would move to the side to make way for ambulances, fire engines, and police vehicles. She knew she never would have remembered to move over. Fortunately, rules had changed; whenever one heard a siren, it meant they could not go higher or lower; they could continue their speed on their current path. Emergency vehicles always used a lane above the route used by ordinary traffic.
The car moved out of the main freeway and lowered to merge into another path where vehicles flew in both directions. Laura yawned and looked at the dashboard to see how much longer it would take. Three minutes. I hope they’ve finished their dinner. I don’t want to stay for long, she thought. She looked forward to a hot shower and a glass of merlot at home.
She swiped her hand to call her sister again. “Hey, I’m almost there,” she said as soon as she saw her sister’s image appear. “Are you done with dinner?”
“Almost,” Sandra replied, “How far are you?”
“Oh, good. We’ll be done soon.”
“Okay.” Laura swiped again to end the call. She glanced below as the car continued descending. She could see rooftops and treetops growing larger. Several houses had swimming pools shaped like amoebas glowing blue with the lights on. Sandra had one, too. Her home was a two-story, Spanish style with beige walls and large windows. There were two cars parked in the driveway. Jim’s home, she thought.
Sandra and Jim had been married for fifteen years. He was an engineer, like James, although, in a different industry. James worked in a computer networking company; Jim was an aeronautical engineer. Whenever the families got together, Jim and James would swap engineering stories. The sisters would get bored. So, they would leave the men alone, and talk about the kids and their schools, shopping, fashion, celebrity gossip, movies, latest popular single song, and other things of interest. I’m lucky they get along so well. If they didn’t like each other, I’d never spend time with my closest friend—my big sister, Laura thought, smiling softly to herself.
The car lowered, stopping a few inches above Jim’s car. The door swung upwards and a ramp slid out. As soon as it touched the ground, the ramp morphed into steps. A rod slid out, a few feet above the ramp, on both sides. Laura climbed out of the car and descended the steps holding the handrail. At the front door, she touched the doorbell; a panel slid open above her, a camera slid out and a thin blue laser scanned her face. Sandra had registered Laura and her family as authorized visitors.
The door unlatched and swung open. “Welcome, Laura,” a synthesized voice said.
“We’re in the kitchen,” shouted Sandra as soon as she heard the voice.
Laura walked through the passageway to the kitchen to be greeted by six familiar faces.
“Hi,” she said. Everyone nodded, busy with their meal.
“You hungry?” Sandra asked, looking up.
Jim pulled a chair without looking up. He was a stocky barrel-chested man with a slight paunch and a bald head. Still wearing his office-clothes, he’d loosened his tie and flipped one end over his shoulder to avoid the pasta sauce. He had rolled his sleeves and his coat was hanging behind him. Laura sat down and turned her attention to her son.
“Hey, kid.” Laura ruffled Harry’s hair. “How was your day?”
“Stop it,” he complained, moving away from her.
She smiled and looked at Brittany, who was bobbing her head rhythmically. Faint music came from earbuds.
“Brit,” Laura shouted. Brittany continued bobbing her head.
Sighing, Laura glanced at Sandra’s kids. They were wolfing down the remaining pasta, showing no interest in their aunt.
“When are you going to upgrade?” she asked Sandra.
“Huh?” Her sister looked up confused. “What do you mean?”
“The security scanner,” Laura explained. “It’s annoying. We got the new one. No need for scanners, just touch your hand to a plate. It does the fingerprints and the DNA. Very fast and convenient.”
“I know, I heard about it.” Sandra nodded before looking at her husband. “Jim?”
“What?” Jim looked up.
“The security scanner.”
“What about it?”
“When are we going to get the new one? Laura already has it, and she loves it.”
“Oh that,” Jim mumbled. “Soon.”
“How soon?” Sandra persisted.
“Soon.” Jim shot her an annoyed look, “We just got the new panels.”
“Panels?” Laura asked raising one eyebrow. “What panels?”
“The solar panels,” Jim replied.
“Oh, I see. Do you like them?”
“Yes,” Jim replied. “I love them. They are compact, and the output is much better than the old ones. Ours had to be installed on the roof, but with the newest designs, they can be installed anywhere: front-yard, backyard, side-yard, anywhere. Moreover, the power produced is excellent and stores for a longer period. With the old design, I couldn’t heat the pool, but with the new one, I can not only heat my pool but the neighbor’s pool, too, if I wanted to. Also, before, I had to charge the batteries every day. Now, just once a week. I’m saving a lot.”
“But you still have a pool,” Laura half-mockingly reprimanded him. “That’s a lot of water.”
“Okay, okay,” Jim raised his hands defensively, “I’m getting rid of it soon.”
“Good,” Laura smiled, satisfactorily.
“You should get them—the new solar panels,” he continued.
“We will,” Laura said. “I have to talk to James about it—actually, it’s better if you talk to him. You’ll be able to do a better job of convincing him.”
“Sure.” Jim shrugged his shoulders.
“I spoke to Mima,” Harry suddenly said.
“You did?” Laura asked, startled.
“Yes.” He sounded slightly defiant.
“When?” she asked, looking accusingly at Sandra.
Sandra grinned sheepishly. Jim stopped eating but continued staring at his plate. Silence hung in the room. Brittany continued to bob her head, oblivious to the conversation. Then, she evidently realized the room had gone quiet. She removed her earbuds and looked up.
“What?” she asked innocently. “What did I do?”
“Nothing,” Laura gazed fondly at her daughter. “No one did anything.”
Everyone remained silent for a while, digging at their food.
“Hey, check this out. I saw this on my way from work today,” Jim finally said, raising his hand, and swiping it. A screen materialized on one of the walls showing a sun setting on the far horizon and a silhouette of houses floating in the air.
“Want to get high?” a voice said. “Why not live high above the ground? Welcome to The Floating Gardens. Our properties are built high above the ground, with all the amenities you could want: a gym, a park, a swimming pool, several tennis courts, several basketball courts, and much more. We also have plans to build other buildings such as schools, colleges, malls, cinemas, restaurants. You’ll never have to come down, unless you want to. Everything, and we mean everything, will be available in the sky. Come join us in this new way of living where the sky is the limit.”
“Hmpf,” Jim scoffed. “Sky is the limit. Can you believe these guys?”
“You don’t agree?” Laura asked.
“Absolutely not,” Jim replied. “First of all, it can take years for it to develop. Secondly, they’ve not considered the atmosphere. What about the temperature? It will be freezing up there. And what about the air—the oxygen? Very thin, making it hard to breathe. One will end up living in the confines of four walls, where the atmosphere is regulated. I tell you, these idiots have not thought it through. It’s obvious that this is a hair-brained idea of some marketing guy.”
Jim’s contempt for “marketing guys” was well known. They would come up with an idea and then ask the engineers to make it happen. They would throw the buzzword, ‘reverse engineering’ to make the engineers think that they knew the lingo.
“This is insane, not reverse engineering but ass-backward,” he would complain.
However, many times, their imagination works. The crazy idea by the marketing department was not so crazy when engineers made it happen. And as usual, the engineers never got any credit. There was a constant friction between the engineering department and the marketing team. In fact, it had been the philosophical difference between many companies, most notably, between the world’s biggest search company and the world’s biggest social media company. The former was primarily considered by many as an engineering company that had a marketing department, whereas the social media giant was viewed as a marketing company that had an engineering department.
“Just because we have a flying car, doesn't mean that we can defy gravity,” Jim continued his rant. “There is something called the laws of physics. Everything is rooted to our Earth: buildings, trees, people, everything. Even those closed vertical buildings where they grow our vegetables need a solid ground to support their frames. A building, no matter how tall, always has its base on the ground. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can exist solely in the air.”
Laura tuned out Jim’s rant. “What did Mima want?” she asked Harry.
“To see us,” he replied.
“She can see you anytime she wants to.” Laura pointed at the screen.
“Not that way.” Harry shook his head vehemently. “In person.” Laura remained silent.
“Please, Mom,” he begged. “Please. I’ve never been to Arizona. She’s always come here.”
“We can’t,” Laura said with finality. “You have school.” From the corner of her eye, she saw Jim smirk at her excuse.
And it was an excuse. It would take a little under ten minutes to get there. They could go any day they wanted, even on a weekday, right after Harry and Brittany got out of school, and still be back by dinnertime.
“But I have a long weekend coming up,” Harry wheedled. “We could leave on Friday and be back on Monday.”
He has no idea how fast we could go. To him, his grandma lives very far away.
“We’ll see,” Laura said, trying to avoid a commitment.
“You always say that,” protested Harry, curling his face into a frown.
“Okay, I’ll think about it.” Laura gave in to the longing in his eyes.
“Promise?” His eyes shown with eagerness.
“Promise.” Laura nodded.
Harry smiled triumphantly.
“Really?” Sandra raised one eyebrow as she always did when she didn’t believe Laura’s words.
“I don’t know. What do you want me to do?” she glared with exasperation.
“Tell him,” Sandra replied.
“Not yet, he’s just a little boy.” Laura protested.
Jim sounding totally reasonable to her disgust, said, “He’s ten. It’s better that he learns from you rather than find out from his school.”
Laura didn’t reply and groped for her next move. “I’ll talk to James,” she finally said. “We’ll tell him together.”