Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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The Unfriendly Skies

by Alvin G. Chua

The contract flight attendant heard the aisle-seat passenger's complaint for the umpteenth time that day. He watched the potential customer straighten the lapels of his blue Brooks Brothers suit and take a deep, emphatic breath.

Then the man gave Mario Sandoval an I'm-on-to-you leer that came with a smirk from the right side of his face. Passenger 31 said, "They serve hot coffee in any airline I've been before."

The Filipino CFA felt his teeth clench. He unlocked the torpedo-shaped Service Cart System's wheels from the aisle monorail and stepped on the driving platform. He checked his cash register perfunctorily. He mulled over his hesitation to respond in kind. CFAs are too easy to hire and too cheap to fire. He could have returned the favor -- but it wasn't worth his job. And besides, the coffee was cold.

Time, to the 52-year-old Angeleno, had also slowed to a crawl. It was seven days before Christmas of 2030 and the Los Angeles-to-New York passengers were in a feisty mood. Flight 172 had a full deck of seventy-five passengers strung along a fifty-foot traverse.

Passenger 31 grinned at the CFA while he made a karate-chop gesture signifying a request for a half dog. He said, winking, "Forget the hot coffee. I'd take any cold drink with the dog."

The CFA obliged, unable to crack a smile. He thought grimly, The hand sign for the Skin-Bun Footer? He has to be an old-timer impervious to the norms of Cerulean Airlines' super-economy cabins. The blue-eyed man with a crooked grin might even be a once moneyed has-been from the great recession of 2028.

Mario cruised the aisle as if on a Tundra sled, one hand on a control handle, the other holding an extendable pair of tongs that enabled him to dish out orders and exchange cash without the need to step off the platform.

He observed passenger 31 who twiddled with his hot dog and who literally paid lip service to his ginger ale. It then occurred to Mario, in a flash of cynicism, that his nemesis could be a factory defect: A bio-nanotechnology built humanoid on a bad social intercourse test run.

This wasn't the first time Mario believed he encountered a NaNoid-in-transit. Fully functional pseudo humans were rumored to have had infiltrated the American corporate workplace since 2020. He could never be sure because they were supposed to be indistinguishable from people. It was pure gut feel.

"That much air and he couldn't even travel I-class," said Hazeltine Trevor, the Intermediate-class stewardess, as she peeked through the parted curtains of the galley, stealing glimpses of passenger 31. The svelte African American CFA served business travelers at the adjacent forward half of the cabin, where customers have 18 percent more wiggle room. Cerulean Airlines allowed good longitudinal cabin visibility. Its two wing sections -- five passengers to a row -- had only one intermediate divider -- a crew galley that the CFA shared with his Intermediate-class counterpart.

While he scrambled to restock his cart parked at the cradle hold at the center of the galley, Mario consulted his partner on his suspect NaNoid. The sliding compartment doors banged open and shut; cold drinks tumbled into SCS coolers and foil-wrapped footers fell by the dozen into Mario's arms. "He keeps on yelping back like a broken record. He just doesn't get it. Six years working the deck, I've actually seen worse. It's just you get that treatment when everything seems to be off. I'm short on condiments, too much traffic on the aisles, and ah, I'm missing passenger number eighty-two. An hour into action; unbelievable."

Hazel said, while she rubbed Mario's back length hair affectionately, "Don't worry, you'll wing it Mar. In the end, you'd be the one barking ho ho by Christmas."

He did look forward to a big payday though he drew no salary from the airline. Subcontractors supplied Cerulean in bulk. The company took fifteen percent of the retail profit. The CFAs kept the rest. Then less than a year after the Skin-Bun Footer's introduction, it became the most popular airline comfort food in commercial aviation history. Many Cerulean habitués boarded planes on empty. Overnight, CFAs turned into the highest earning crew-level personnel in Cerulean.

Hazel had already completed her round of service at the midship section and she volunteered to walk Mario's aisle once. Soon as she left, Mario jumped back to work.

A few minutes later, Hazel returned. "I can't tell the man apart -- that's the bad news; but I have a good one for you on Anita Mabry -- your missing Passenger 82. She's back. She apologized and explained that she went down to third class to get her medicine from her daughter. She's a rambling talker and I didn't quite get her other alibi -- about being held up by some kind of trouble at the belly deck."

"What sort of trouble?"

"I didn't ask. There's always some kind of problem down there." She soon excused herself and slipped through the I-class curtain. Mario had cut his teeth at the belly deck and recalled that greenhorns save the help button for real emergencies. The new air transport colossus often considered service problems as a tradeoff for cheap airfares. They refurbished older airbuses and converted their freight holds to a third class cabin. Collapsible seat design allowed the belly deck to double for cargo during off travel seasons. Nonetheless, for insurance, he radioed the third class deck CFA. When no one responded on the fourth try, Mario hurtled out of the galley.

His counterpart at the Cerulean's mid-deck had as much information as he did. So he scurried down the spiral staircase for the belly deck. There, he noticed a clump of forward passengers on their feet, looking agitated. The unadulterated vanilla scent signified food service might have stalled. The deck holds no more than eighty at a time and yet it looked cramped, with the slightly sloping rows, the skinnier cushions, and the narrower aisles.

He saw many heads growing out of the seatbacks, like that of freeway rubberneckers. Then from among them a bear of a man, six foot at least and some three hundred pounds, ducking to avoid an exposed ceiling rib as he hunkered for the aisle. He said, "Sir, what happened to the lady attendant -- is she okay?"

An Indian woman at the front row joined in. "She's been behaving really strange since about half an hour ago. Then she had some sort of a seizure. A passenger waving an ID said he was her supervisor. He dragged her into the curtains. Is he really one of yours?"

Mario plunged into the galley. There he saw Bernice, the petite, novice belly deck attendant strapped on to a wall seat. She had her hands on her lap, her knees together and canted to one side. She alternately eyed Mario and a thick-browed, mustached man on a blue tweed suit. One of the stranger's hands rested on the SCS driving handle, his left foot on the wheel-lock mechanism that kept the system in place during periods of turbulence. Mario noticed Bernice's golden eyes looked glassy and oblique. "You okay, Bernice?"

"I'm fine now. It's my first day. I just got overwhelmed."

"Why didn't you tell me you had a problem?"

She looked at the stranger, her eyes solicitous and confused.

To the stranger, Mario turned confrontational: "Who are you? Why are you in here?"

The man reached inside his breast pocket. Mario kept an eye on him as he drew close to Bernice. He touched the side of her neck. She was warm and her complexion looked good. The stranger stepped forward and handed him a wad of documents. He said, "Before you continue, I suggest you go over those papers first."

The cover page had the imprint of U.S. Customs designating the man -- whose stamped and signed photograph appeared on the right corner of the document -- as official custodian of an experimental "flight attendant trainee" from Millennium Nanofabrication Corporation. He remembered now, the existence of such semi-secret companies that the mainstream media floated about for years, none ever confirmed nor denied.

Bernice and the stranger's transit permits were both endorsed by Cerulean. Mario could glean the ghost imprints of the company's controversial motto in the cover page: Fly the Unfriendly but Cheap Skies. He concluded the permit was authentic. The stranger said, "Read those papers well because they tell a lot about what might or might not have happened here. If you value your job, you'd exercise discretion."

Mario froze where he stood. His worst fears came down like a torrential backlash. Someone upstairs, finally, caught on and did the math.

The stranger drew the galley curtain a fist wide. Mario lingered. This was the closest he had come to anything he could call a real job in the seven years he had been in the country. He had immigrated to America two months shy of his 40th birthday. The job to him was a timely blessing: He had married a year ago, the day after Christmas, and he and his wife were recently scouting for a first home.

The man parted the curtain wider and said, "If you'll excuse me, sir, Bernice and I have hot dogs to sell."

Mario gave him a hard look before he turned to Bernice and said, "Tell me again that you are fine and that you vouch for this man."

She said, "I'm fine and I vouch for him." Then she gave Mario an I'm-on-to-you leer that came with a smirk from the right side of her face.


© 2010 Alvin G. Chua

Bio: Alvin G. Chua worked for ten years as a journalist in the Philippines before moving to the United States in 1993. Since then, he has been doing background work for film and TV in and around the Los Angeles basin area. He writes speculative fiction in his spare time; his work has appeared in Starblade and Next Phase, and he has been a finalist or honorable mention on multiple occasions in major competitions (Science Fiction Writers of Earth, Writers of the Future).

E-mail: Alvin G. Chua

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