Nora soars, her body cutting through the air. Eddies of wind pull her into a comfortable position relative to the others and they all twist up toward the darkening blue. They form a loose V like a flock of misshapen birds with no wings, a band of Supermen with no capes. No one speaks.
They turn in synch, and the hard curve of Earth's horizon rises up to meet them. Planets and stars glint overhead like slivers of mica in a black pool.
Everyone could fly.
It happened almost overnight, nearly as fast as people could talk about it. The person who had first demonstrated unassisted human flight (UHF), a child psychologist, had posted a video clip. The clip quickly went viral and drew thousands of hateful comments, making fun of everything from her Southern drawl to her frizzy hair. Nora had scrolled through the comments before finally watching the video.
"I have something to show you," she had said, placing her phone angled up, throwing back her shoulders and lifting her arms. And, just like that, she floated a foot off the sidewalk. CGI'ed, Nora figured.
But then clips and photos of others levitating began to flood the networks, and within forty-eight hours almost everyone was posting that they had done it:
"just did UHF omg it was AMAZING!!!!"
"meet me for flying @12 if you know how! ;)"
"no reception in the clouds lol ttyl"
"sick of this stupid worldwide joke don't peeps have better things to do"
"not #April1 but every1 actin like it!!! #UHFhoax"
The child psychologist proposed an explanation in a second video clip-this one more solemnly received-stating that the ubiquity of electronic devices and perpetual access to the Internet substituted for most of the mental activities the brain had traditionally been tasked with. The excess mental energy had reached a tipping point, transforming into tangible willpower, a type of telekinesis that manifested as UHF.
It was the same source of harnessed mental energy, she claimed, that gave mothers superhuman strength when their children were in danger, or that gave you a small surge of premonition that couldn't really be explained. And because ideas could be transmitted so quickly via social media, she postulated, a sort of collective consciousness of expectation combined with excess mental energy had allowed humans to achieve the previously impossible.
Others had a more scientific explanation: a shift in the Earth's magnetism made electromagnetic fields susceptible to manipulation through neuronal energy. When a brain thought about flying, one geologist from a prominent university suggested, its electrical signals aligned a series of minor magnetic fields to cushion and lift the body. "We're unsure as to why our electronics are unaffected, but we're testing that now," the geologist admitted in one newscast.
Nora's social networks voiced a range of their own theories:
"we must be inhaling some magic shroom dust"
"alien abduction! This is some crazy xfiles shite"
"i don't care how it works its f-ing awesome #UHF #SoarHigh"
"maybe we're enchanted by witches heh"
"UHF for the #win! <3 <3 <3"
There were a few people who couldn't fly at all and those were ushered into tests. Paraplegics had no trouble flying when they imagined phantom arms moving. Reports of babies floating before learning how to walk made the rounds. No one could figure it out.
Nora remembers learning how to fly.
She had just gotten off the train to visit her parents. She hadn't tried to fly for the first three days since the video had surfaced and everyone was abuzz about it. Of course it was an epic hoax.
As she walked toward her parents' house, something caught her eye overhead. A man, bobbing by a tree, before diving to the left.
"I don't believe it," she muttered. It was the first time she had seen UHF in person. Nora turned the corner to see people floating above a baseball field, tossing a volleyball back and forth. "Can you show me how to do it?" she asked the bobbing man.
"Sure." His eyebrows rested far apart, a perpetually startled expression.
She watched him for a full minute until he urged her to try. Feeling slightly silly, she puffed out her chest like he had, lifted her arms to the side and felt a little tickle in her stomach, like she was on a Ferris wheel. She shot up with a shriek, kicking her feet against the green far below. The air smelled fresher and a calm settled over her, as all her muscles unclenched and began to tingle.
She hung suspended in the sky with no barriers, no resistance. She let out a half-shout, half-laugh and blinked away the tears of--wonder? joy?--that blurred her eyes.
"And this is how you go forward." Her teacher brought his arms forward like he was about to clap, and accelerated off, superhero-style.
An hour later, Nora flew to her parents' house and showed them, hovering a foot off of the kitchen tiles as her dad snapped a picture on his phone. Her parents, marveling, tugged at her arm to make sure it wasn't an elaborate trick. Nora encouraged them to try, but they shook their heads.
"We're too old," her mom said.
But the next day, her mom phoned to rave about how wonderful it was. Days later, Nora swung by the house to find both cell phones, batteries dead, on the counter. Their cat meowed hungrily at her and she scooped it up to take it home with her.
She wondered if her parents had gone to Spain or France like they had always wanted. She wasn't too worried. Flying every day had deeply relaxed her, stripped away her stress in a way that wine or a yoga class never had.
Nora's life--everyone's--had changed drastically in the mere two weeks since UHF had begun. The roads and subways became less congested with each passing day. A host of new activities sprang up: soaring games and races, "air-dancing" concerts, plans to make a floating restaurant. She saw ads for aerodynamic clothing, sleek hairstyles inspired by bird plumes, drinks to give you more flight endurance.
There was a certain natural limit no one had been able to pass. People could only soar as high as 3,000 feet from their point of launch, and no faster than 15 miles per hour, according to the news. But there didn't seem to be a limit on time. People flew and flew, with no apparent strain or stress.
At home, she kept the news on, waiting for an explanation. For a while TV channels and social media sites worked themselves into a frenzy claiming terrorism, radiation, mass delusion, the Earth collapsing into the Sun, Satanism, some horrific disease. Some countries had tried to impose rigid no-UHF zones but they were impossible to enforce. A new religious group called Nu sprang up, claiming that the world was in a state of evolution and humankind was moving toward a higher spiritual level. She watched clips of Nu members in blue robes shouting that they were pre-angels, literally moving closer to heaven.
All of the comments she saw online and in her networks seemed to take on more spiritual tones.
"it's the apolocylpse for sur! #MaybeNuIsRight?"
"ummm how cool is this that we're the chosen ones? :D"
"so ready for the alien overlords #abductionrocks"
"the end is nigh as they say but at least its freakin sweet"
In the evenings, she lay in bed and watched silhouettes flit across the moon from her window. Flying gave even the clumsiest person grace. She thought about her parents, and about friends who hadn't responded to her emails or texts as more and more people spent their time in the sky. A sudden, devastating loneliness hit her, like the kind she used to feel all the time. But it was only for a second--until she popped herself through the window and began to fly out in the night air.
Bits of cold clouds raced over her skin as she propelled forward. The sky was a warm black sea, the depths of which she could never begin to conceive. She imagined invisible swatches of ribbons crisscrossing the Earth and she was a tiny fly, along for the ride.
The next day she decided to go to her office out of habit or boredom. She walked through deserted streets even though it was laughably inefficient compared to flying. She liked the sturdy footfalls of her feet meeting the pavement, the feel of the Earth rising up below her. Her boss appeared around lunchtime, walking rapidly through the enormous cubicle space, throwing up his hands and saying, "get out of here" to no one in particular.
Reports of disease and accidents plummeted. A paper came out showing that amount of time flown per day corresponded with fewer incidents of every ailment, from cardiovascular disease to diabetes. Aside from acting as a natural mood stabilizer, flying also appeared to slow digestion. Nora herself hadn't eaten anything in the last day and felt perfectly fine.
Nora sat on her favorite bench, watching a couple drift, a dog trotting on the ground below them and gazing up adoringly. Animals didn't appear capable of unassisted flight, not even primates, according to one TV program she had watched. It had been seventeen days since the first UHF video emerged.
A sudden rattle made her turn. A girl approached, wheeling a grocery cart full of bulging garbage bags. The girl walked quickly and hunched over the cart.
"What are you doing?" Nora asked. She hardly saw anyone walking anymore.
"Going to the underground, where this," she gestured upwards, "can't reach us." She didn't slow her pace, so Nora got up to follow her.
"Where what can't get you?" Nora asked.
"Whatever it is," the girl said grimly. "You should join us."
The "underground" was down one of the nearby subway platforms. Flaps of worn cardboard hung taped across the entrance. They pushed past the sheet and Nora helped the girl lift the cart down the stairs.
Candles and electronic lanterns rested on dozens of cinderblocks scattered near the pay machines. The air was dank. Two dozen or so people crawled on the floor between the blocks.
"Get down," the girl hissed at Nora, and Nora obligingly got onto her hands and knees, and then lower onto her stomach at the girl's frantic gestures. She tugged herself next to the girl, the rough asphalt pulling at her cotton shirt. It was a slow business, squirming along on her stomach.
"Something to drink?" the girl offered, and started crawling to a mountain of carefully stacked Capri Suns and waters against the far wall. It would take her a while to get there. The other people crawling looked mostly young, and some murmured to each other as they neared the grocery cart.
Nora's back started to hurt and she missed the sunlight already, so she shook her head and crawled back to the stairs before standing and hurrying out.
Two days later, Nora stopped by the underground again, but found only crumpled drink boxes and some water bottle caps. She picked up a journal someone had scribbled in and read the last entry, the only entry, dated for yesterday.
"Something's happening, we are being cast up and out and everyone's brainwashed but how can we fight it it's like I'm a drop in the sea and I can't DO anything about it and I'm just so tired of arguing and fighting so tomorrow we're all going to go and if you read this know that there was a whole society on earth once but something cast us away, a doorway to the next level and we as a species are transcending or we're being transported or we're all insane I'm so sick of not knowing and we can't stay here anyway, this earth is poisoned we all know it it was our fault and now we're going to pay penance for it."
Nora closed the journal but held onto it. As she came up from the subway steps someone called down to her from a hundred feet at least. He shouted, a long green robe flapping against the glint of the sun.
"Are you Nu?" Nora called back after clearing her throat. It had been a while since she had spoken to anyone.
He gestured wildly for her to join him, she guessed, but she shook her head, clutching the journal to her chest.
"New, old, what does it matter? Time to go!" he finally shouted and paused a moment before soaring off.
"Go where?" Nora yelled after him, but he had shrunk to a smudge against the indigo sky.
The web was stagnant, except for a post once in a while, mainly from strangers. These were fragments from books or ramblings, many with the inexplicable hashtag #pieinthesky. Some posted lines from poems--Dickinson, Whitman, and others she had never heard of but found lovely all the same. She kept her eyes glued to the screen, eager for each new post that sluggishly popped up.
"#pieinthesky yum yum yum love pi"
"light like a feather unbearable lightness"
"in the end there was #PIEinthesky"
"Stairway to heaven sing it"
"can anyone see #pieintehsky"
Her fingers poised over the computer screen and her parents' cat in her lap, she started to write. "Still on the ground. Anyone here? #PieInTheSky" Before she could post it, the computer gave out suddenly, along with the TV.
"I can't be the only one," she said to her room, the quiet framed portraits and granite kitchen counters. She picked up the journal and read the entry again as she opened the door. The cat ran out and over the fence.
Outside, she bent down to stroke the damp grass and a single dandelion head next to the sidewalk. She wondered what was wrong with her, why she clung to the ground while everyone had embraced the sky.
The gray clouds moved like a thin film behind the edge of a fir tree, the rooftops in the distance. The sky shifted overhead like an enormous curtain and she felt like she was looking into a pool of water and that any minute the reflection of the landscape would ripple and break, revealing a grand facade.
Beyond, she could feel the pull of everyone else, faint specks flitting through the clouds. The last man's words came back to her. Time to go. They didn't belong here anymore.
She dropped the journal and stood, raising her arms.
The air cradled her upward, opening every cell, and she and the sky reeled together. Her bones felt like hollow plastic tubes, her muscles puffs of cotton. Raindrops tickled her face and arms as she flew high, as high as she could, the wind whipping her hair. She didn't need the tether of Earth anymore.
That was when she decided not to come back down again.
She remembers her parents, her friends, her teachers. She remembers edges of grass scratching at her ankles and the sparkle of water running from lumps of gray snow. She remembers a slanted shadow matching her steps as she marched across pavement studded with blackened orbits of old gum. She remembers looking up at skyscrapers, feeling microscopic against horizons of bricks and blocks scattered like a giant's playthings.
She never found out why, but why no longer matters. She doesn't know how long she's been soaring, how many times she's passed over green and white and blue, sometimes slower when she was half-asleep, faster when she was feeling adventurous. The cold and heat don't bother her. She nods to other people she passes, sometimes floats with them for a while. No one talks. They are going somewhere, Nora thinks. Looking for somewhere new. Her thoughts are few and far between the complacency of flying.
She raises her hands, trailing evaporating clouds into the velvet black. The mica slices of light have widened, winking, some reddish, some blue. A hard orange glow hits her and she turns in mid-air, squinting.
The Sun, enormous, bubbles gold, beckoning. She's not sure, but she thinks they're all getting higher.