Strange Loops: a dystopian travel fantasy driven by weird tech
Eclipse chasers circumvent the globe in the not-too-distant future
5pm. April 1 2026
It begins tonight. A 20,000km trek over the top of the world, rocketing north from Cape Town, first to Milan and then up and over the scattered ice cubes of what remains of the northern ice cap and ending, all going well, eight days hence on a beach on the Texas Gulf coast where I and 20,000 others will watch the moon blot out the sun.
A long way to travel to see an eclipse but with the perpetual twilight of wildfire haze smothering much of the Earth, we eclipse chasers find what rare clear skies we can. Even if the getting there just makes more haze.
That’s if I can get out of the house first. For as much I have come to admire, even love my new carry-on bag who likes to be called “Away”, this smartcase, with its voice like poured honey and ability to check me in for my flight, store my boarding pass and send my biometrics to immigration (who no matter the age still maintain a genuine 20th century grump and snarl), all the while charging my gossamer-thin pHonepad, is fighting with the taxicab.
The taxi is a driverless S-Cab. You’d think a company that cared about reputation would have named its union-busting, job-destroying taxi app anything but “Scab” but then Onepercentland is short of nothing but a sense of irony.
S-cab may have kicked tired old Uber into history but it’s far from perfect. S-Cab’s app is built on a string of cheap and dirty machine code and the taxi has become lost as it meanders around a suburban street grid laid down two centuries ago by opium addicts with pencils and draft paper. The cab, whom I heard saying to Away identifies as male, cannot stop and ask for directions.
Away is running its own mapapp and pulling traffic updates from the Cloud and not actually helping. It’s hardly the age of seamless interactivity that Silicon Valley keeps promising us and more like an ongoing slugfest with badly engineered bots.
In frustration and panic I cancel the S-Cab, drag Away out into the street and hasten on foot to the Avenue where, joy of joys, I find an old guy in a battered Lexus and persuade him with a fistful of real cash notes to drop his NowChow order on the pavement and run me to the airport. In a real petrol-burner. Driven by an actual human being. Away is shocked into silence.
Midnight. 48,000 feet high
Is it midnight? Who knows? pHonepad says it is 12.05am. The cabin is bathed in pastel light. We’re over the Sahara desert, apparently, though the plane’s roof panels are showing pictures of wide, cold rivers curling through a mountain landscape, a 360° view of a world that has nothing to do with the wasteland 12km down.
The temperature is a perfect 20.8°C. Always.
Away is still sulking. I can feel the bad vibes from the overhead bin. Also, the pHonepad’s battery icon is blinking which means either its connection with Away is down (unlikely) or that Away has the hump (more likely).
Away is lucky. No being tossed around by a bitter baggage handler (remember them?) Ever since some smart checked baggage in the hold of a LuftKazakh Airbus went rogue and, via the on-board Wi-Fi, overrode the aircraft’s computers and steered it to a smoking hole in the steppe in a former Soviet vassal state, all the world’s airlines have banned checked baggage. Baggage handling as a career has ceased to exist, as have dozens of occupations from refuelling to air traffic control. That’s all just software now and you better hope the code comes from a developer whose sole purpose in business is to not be the lowest bidder.
Now aircraft holds are stuffed with high-value perishables like cut proteas and tilapia fish for the one-percenters who can afford such frivolity. For the rest of us, it’s simply carry-on and if it doesn’t fit in the overhead, it doesn’t fly.
My memory-foam seat has moulded to my body. The foam is supposed to ensure good blood flow to my legs but the ache in my back is most real life. Some things never change.
Afternoon, somewhere in Milan. April 2 2026
Milan is great. It feels so very old. Also real now that vehicles have been banned from its streets and the buildings have shaken off the carbon monoxide grime.
Layover travel was one of the old airlines’ best ideas. Break the journey. Go slow. Travel. See something. All of them tried to copyright Ralph Waldo Emerson. “It’s not the journey, it’s the destination.” The court battles continue while lawyers keep calling it a “copywriter dispute”. If ever there was a job for robots and the fair application of justice, it would be in law.
Thanks to deliberate signal jamming, there are parts of the city where Wi-Fi doesn’t work. Phones are useless, map-apps about as valuable as a blue buffalo banknote It feels uneasy to be unplugged. Liberating. Heady. That night I dream in vivid colour of another life, travelling with my parents. An orange Kombi, saved forever on Kodak film. Light shining through celluloid. No ones, no zeroes.
6.32am, April 4. San Francisco
We slide down the glideslope across the bay into San Francisco. Our approach is gentle, like a ship entering port, lights flickering under the wings. Expury would recognise the feeling. But not the plane, a supersonic Xinjiang Quessst, this slim, shiny pressurised tube. No panoramic roof. This beauty is purely functional, 300 of us crammed in, stuffed in and powered to the heavens by the thrust of three biofuel rocket engines.
From the overhead bin, Away has already cleared me with the TSA. All I have to do is walk through security, but not too fast, now because these are dangerous days in America as it turns its back on the world. They still use real flesh-and-tooth dogs to sniff passengers’ bags, dammit. Real dogs, with fur and barking and rest periods. Rest periods?
So I stroll slowly through the airport. Proud Boys with assault rifles and flinty eyes watch us. The dogs watch, except for the one exploring its crotch. The cameras stare too. Somewhere in the nerve centre my whole life is up on a screen, my history, my family, my world. No-one stops me. My whole past must be good.
8.15am. San Francisco Hyperloop Terminus
Away and I are squeezed into a pod on the Hyperloop. It is, I imagine, like being forced into a suppository, albeit one that will travel 1,000km/h. Amazingly Hyperloop, funded by the breakaway Independent Republic of California, is 10 years ahead of schedule and about a squillion dollars over budget.
“South African genius ... ,” I begin to say.
“South African-born occasional genius,” Away corrects me. My snarky reply dies on my lips as the capsule surges forward and hurtles into the darkness of the tunnel. A picture of a meadow with a stream running though it appears on the windows to hide the tunnel walls now flashing by at the speed of sound.
Away offers a podcast to distract me. “I have Freakanomics season 1,038.” I decline and watch the stream trickle over the meadow, feeling the slight vibration and buffet of the capsule as it speeds along on a magnetic cushion. I try to not think of what will happen if we hit anything. Will they just seal the pod and feed the mushy contents to genetically engineered bison in the Sacramento Valley?
I think of the Californian sun shining down on the tube instead.
“Musk had a pipe dream and it came true,” I laugh. Away doesn’t get the joke.
Thirty-five minutes later we glide to a stop in Los Angeles Hyperloop Terminal Two. “Thank you for flying Hyperloop,” says a sweet electric voice. “And remember: you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Have a nice day, now.”
Noon, April 5. Somewhere east of Barstow, CA
Away is sulking again. I have not heard the poured-honey voice for hours. From my beat-up vinyl seat I stare through yellowed glass, pitted by sandstorms and fragments of stone flung up from the track.
The vehicle lurches and rolls like a drunken sailor. Under the percussion of bangs and squeaks and rattles comes the steady thrum of steel wheels.
The air is flecked with dust. The temperature is an uneven 30°C because the aircon has a note taped to it and the words written in marker pen: “Not working.”
We are on a train, one of the last of its kind: 1,000 feet of battered, sun-blasted aluminium and steel, pulled by an EcoDiesel that was modern 50 years ago but is now a work-worn, oil-stained, fume-belching throwback.
Ever since California seceded from the union, there has been no other way to get from there to the outpost of Fort Dallas. The road crossings and airways are closed. All that’s left is this stinking train carrying roughnecks and prospectors, a few dreamy, ageing millennials heading east to find some fortune or redemption, a handful of eclipse chasers.
Boarding at LA’s Union Station, the conductor gazed at my pHonepad and wheezed. “Ain't no use for that where you goin’”, he said.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s no dubya-dubya-dubya out there, boy, no cellphones, no compooters, no why-fye. They’s back to pen an’ paper an’ leanin’ on the neighbour’s fence to get the news. Hell, they prolly even use birds with messages tied to ’em.”
I look around the coach. There is not a device in sight. Some people are looking down at their laps ... wait, is that a book? An actual paper book?
Most of the passengers are staring out the wide, scratched windows, looking at the land sliding past, at the distant smudge of blue mountains. Juniper, sagebrush and sunburned earth, and then a cowboy on a horse, both watching us roll by.
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