09. Aloft

The inside of the copter looks like it was designed by a crypto edgelord: it’s black and angular, with lots of neon-looking callout lights that probably don’t do very much. I take note of a King’s Soldiers flag on the rear wall of the cabin: my first indication that there’s a real link between the Corporation and the KS. Maybe the Corporation hires soldiers from the KS; maybe it’s something more.

I’d expected to see some kind of yoke or pilot controls, but there aren’t any at all: no instrumentation, no control panel, nothing to even indicate that the copter can be flown. Sal is managing it, though, so I assume it’s connected to their lens somehow. Quite the security system: the vehicle can only be flown by people who have been modified to use it. Presumably that means its use will also be monitored, so there’s only so far we can take it.

There are six padded chairs arranged in a circle, positioned to face a red symbol in the middle of the floor. It looks a bit like thumb print, but writ large; it could be the same symbol I saw on the node earlier, although that one had been so small that it’s not possible to tell for sure. Sal gestures for me to take a seat, so I pick the one closest to me and swivel it around to face front.

We rise through the air. Immediately I feel the power of the storm: sidewinds tear at us with force, causing the copter to half-lurch to the side before the gyros kick in and stabilize the ride. From then on, it’s smooth: the exterior of the cabin shakes with wind and turbulence, but we’re kept perfectly still inside. I’ve never been inside any kind of airship, as far as I know, and it’s mesmerizing.

People used to fly all the time. They tell stories about it and make jokes about the food. It’s how a lot of the rise happened, all that air travel burning carbon into the atmosphere, but it still seems like magic to me. I can see Sal’s house from a perspective I’d never imagined, before we sweep away across open water. Rain batters the outward screen but we move smoothly, like a ghost.

“Are the others following us?” I ask.

“Not as far as I can tell,” Sal says. “They seem to have dispersed. My hope was that they’d think I’d taken you in. That’s still my hope, actually - I’m not completely sure what’s going on. Fingers crossed, I guess?”

“Where are we going?”

Sal shrugs. “I’m not flying it. It has a bunch of pre-set destinations - I guess they’re places the soldiers go frequently, or maybe just the last few places they went. There was nothing as descriptive as a headquarters or a base listed, but I picked something that could be close to that.”

“But where is that?”

“Edinburgh, Scotland.” Sal didn’t need to say “what’s left of it”.

One of the most important throwbacks to the before times is culture. We still have TV shows and movies from back then; it’s easy to play albums and listen to concerts. There isn’t much new culture being made, or at least not as much, and definitely not with those kinds of budgets and resources, but we have those.

Me? I love Friends.

It’s what they used to call a sitcom: a situation comedy. There are six characters who all have their own broadly-drawn quirks and foibles. They fall in love, they deal with trivial problems, they make jokes, they drink coffee. For me, it’s an incredible snapshot into what the world must have been like. These people have nothing to worry about at all. The universe painted in any episode of Friends might as well be Heaven: every bit as fictional and as pleasant as that implies.

I watched my first episode the month after I lost Let. I needed something, and some girl at one of the squats I was traveling through suggested it as an escape. That’s exactly what I did: I binge-watched every season as a way to avoid dealing with my reality. There were other shows I checked out from that era, but Friends was the one that stuck. Through the prism of the unstoppable rise and the loss of my family, it was about as funny as a brick to the face, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t about the jokes, and maybe it never had been. It was about the clothes, the impossible apartments, the carelessness with which these people approached the world, the absolute unexamined recklessness of their society. If anything, Friends was a meta-joke that its creators couldn’t possibly have understood: the last days of obliviousness to a world in peril.

I’ve seen it all, but that’s still what I do when I need to escape: flick on my lens and watch Friends. Except I can’t, because Sal has told me to keep my lens off. So I just replay it in my head, remembering what I can, and letting my sleepless brain warp and twist it. I didn’t sleep much on my way to Sal’s, and it’s been non-stop since I arrived there. Now we’re in the still confines of the copter cabin, I feel safer, and my fatigue catches up with me. I feel like I’m delirious; the light dances and I hear things that aren’t there.

Like clips from Friends. Could I be losing my mind any harder?

Edinburgh was a beautiful city, once. Its stone turrets and winding, cobblestone streets might as well have been drawn from a picture book. In its center, a castle sits on a dormant volcano; in the old days, they used to sound a cannon every day at one ‘o’ clock. Arthur’s Seat, another ancient volcano, sat among houses to the south of the city.

There’s an old story that when plague befell the city, they simply sealed the inhabitants in and built on top. It’s not quite true: in reality, they took streets inhabited by poorer residents of the city and built a stock exchange directly on top of them. It wasn’t plague that sealed them in: it was money. Edinburgh became a city built upon a city built upon a city; tall buildings that twisted upwards, built on a bedrock of what came before.

As the copter closes in on the city, I see those same spires jutting from the water. Above them, there are new buildings: domes of silver and black, incongruous with their gothic predecessors. We’ve made it away from the storm, and the water is calmer here. Patches of blue sky are reflected in the domes. Arthur’s Seat and the Castle remain, but it’s like they’re hosting parasitic growths; monuments to the rise built upon before times foundations.

Auld Reekie, they used to call it, because of the smell. The center of the city was where they used to dump bodies; it was also where all the waste and effluent would flow. For a time, that was no longer true, and the space was a beautiful garden. But now, Auld Reekie has risen again. Even from up here, I can see the bodies floating in the water. Death pervades.

Fifty times a day, I want to ask my parents for advice or tell them about something that happened. I think they’d be scared for me now, which makes sense, because I’m scared for myself. They would have been devastated by Let’s loss, as we were for theirs, but overjoyed at the prospect of it all having been a lie, and of seeing him again. I have complicated feelings about all this. I think I’m supposed to lean into the loss and really feel it, but the world around me can’t possibly let me. Everything has broken down, myself included.

I don’t know what to do. I’ve spent my time going through messages on my lens, watching old shows, listening to music. I haven’t spent my time interrogating who I am, how I feel, what I need to be doing next. It all seems like too much to be present for; I want to hide away from it and wake up with everything corrected and the world better. I want to hug my mother and father; I want to laugh with my brother; I want to feel safe and like there’s a kind world out there.

I don’t feel any of those things. I feel like I just need to get through it somehow, as if there’s a through and someday I’ll be on the other side. There is no other side; there is no state where all of this is over. This is the world now. It’s how we are; it’s how everyone is. We’re all damaged and more brutal than we ever were, whether we’re hiding in damp shacks surrounded by the water or we’re King’s Soldiers themselves. The world isn’t getting better. How can it possibly?

We’re all trapped here, in this world. None of us want to be. What does the future of humanity look like, and why is it worth preserving, if we all hate being alive?

These are the things I think when we come in for a landing on the St James Center, when Sal gestures for me to rise out of my chair, and when we step outside into foul-smelling air.