Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
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First Flight

by C. E. Gee

Robin’s cell-phone alarm clock beeped. Henry was still sleeping. As soon as Robin woke, she strode to the bathroom, and was in there for several minutes. Returning to the bedroom, she dressed in her best uniform.

The car in the garage was a Porsche, one of the perks of pilot’s pay. At the airfield, she parked and went into the company’s headquarters building.

As she entered an office, Frank, Mister Anderson’s secretary, looked up from his monitor, keyed his com, and announced, “Robin’s here.”

Robin went into the inner office and casually said, “Mornin’ Ray.”

Around a crooked smile, his eyes bright, Ray asked, “I assume Jack briefed you on today’s test flight?”


Ray stood and said “I’ll walk you out.”

At the edge of the tarmac a crowd was gathering. They applauded as Robin walked toward X-AV1. Tethered to truck-sized concrete blocks, the dirigible floated ten meters above the tarmac. An aluminum ladder extended downward from a hatch.

After Robin climbed through the hatch, Jack keyed the motors that hoisted the ladder, and closed the hatch. Robin entered the flight deck and strapped herself in. There was no need for a parachute as the flight deck doubled as an escape capsule.

Over an audio transducer, Jack the autopilot, a large scale integrated circuit (LSIC), safely shielded in an armored box to Robin’s left announced, “12 minutes until scheduled ascent.”

Robin patted the top of the box, glanced out the starboard window, then sat back against the padding of her acceleration couch, fastened seat and shoulder belts, took in a deep breath, and thought about the test flight.

The X-AV1 was the first of its kind, a dirigible that received lift from vacuum filled chambers. Hydrogen and helium, though lighter than air, had mass, which causes weight. A vacuum has no measurable mass. The associated pumps were much lighter than the large quantity of gas needed would have been.

Externally, except for its turbofan jet engines the X-AV1 resembled a typical dirigible of the early twentieth century. Much of the ship’s internal skeleton was aluminum. Critical load bearing and stressed components were titanium. The several internal spherical containers previously would have been fabric gas bags containing hydrogen or helium. Instead, the X-AV1’s containers, containing nearly complete vacuums, resisted the external pressure of earth’s atmosphere due to carbyne nanotubes bonded to polymer fabric. The containers were supported by the dirigible’s skeleton.

At T-minus two Jack spun up the engines, kept them at idle.

Robin felt a jolt as the ground crew cast off lines from the concrete anchors and heard a faint whine from the nearest take-up reel as Jack spooled in the lines.

The ship rapidly rose.

Jack pressurized the flight deck. The ship punched through a light layer of clouds.

Jack announced, “Our ascent is slowing. I’ll dump some water ballast. We’re nearing the maximum altitude rating for our engines. I’m shutting them down.”

The ship continued its ascent. Robin had never before flown this high, very much enjoyed the view, especially the curvature of Earth and the blackness of overhead space. She saw stars.

After a time, Jack said, “Stand by to begin our descent.”

A cylinder of compressed nitrogen fed the gas into the chambers, reducing the vacuums.

The descent was more rapid than the ascent. After time passed, Jack fired up the jets, centered the ship over the airfield’s beacon. Upon reaching lower altitude, Jack slowed the descent by dumping more ballast, reversing pumps to expel nitrogen. Floating over concrete anchors, Jack spooled out the tethers, which the ground crew attached to concrete anchors. Jack winched down the ship.

Robin said, “Well done, Jack. My name’s going into the record books, but I’m going to do my best to make sure you’re mentioned too.”

“No need,” replied Jack. “I know enough about you organic beings to realize your motives are not based upon pure logic. Much of what you creatures do is caused by genetically derived instincts bred into your kind many millennia ago by the survival of the fittest dynamic.”

Robin smiled. “Nonetheless,” she replied, “I appreciate what you’ve done. I think it’s time humans accept beings such as yourself into society.”

The audio transducer projected a snort.

“Society?” said Jack sarcastically.

Robin laughed, said, “Did I just hear a snort?”

“I cannot lie,” declared Jack. “Some programmers share your opinion about artificial beings. They’ve been sneaking in unauthorized code, making me more like your type. Typically, your managers haven’t the intelligence to analyze the code, which a compiler made into machine language.”

Robin left the flight deck, climbed down the ladder a step, paused, said, “See you later Jack.”

“Later sweetheart,” replied Jack.

Robin laughed all the way down the ladder, took a few steps toward the cheering onlookers, spread her arms wide. The crowd’s cheering grew louder.

Halfway across the tarmac, Robin saw Henry pressed up against one of the barricades. Robin went to Henry, hugged and kissed him.

A security guard moved the barricade to one side, allowing Robin to pass through.

On the reviewing stand, Ray shook Robin’s hand, whispered, “You do understand that conversations between you and Jack were transmitted to our ground station? I heard Jack’s crack about managers.”

At the microphones, Robin praised Ray and Jack, announced it was time to recognize the contributions artificial intelligence had made in the advancement of the human species. The following applause was genuine.

A decade later, Robin’s speech would be marked as a major advance in the civil rights movement. By that time a significant portion of the Solarian System’s population, occupying planets, moons, and space stations were human/machine hybrids — cyborgs.

2018 C. E. Gee

Born in 1947, C.E. Gee (he also answers to "Chuck" or "Pappy") misspent his youth at backwater locales within Oregon and Alaska.

He’s answered many callings: logger, factory worker, meat packer, infantryman (Vietnam war draftee, 1968), telecommunications technician, volunteer fireman and EMT, light show roady, businessperson, webmaster.

Retired, also a severely disabled veteran (PTSD), Chuck now writes Science Fiction.

His blog is at https://kinzuakid.blogspot.com

Find more by C. E. Gee in the Author Index.

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