Fleeing Longbranch

He wanted wind. He needed freedom.

Below him, almost miniscule in the distance, an emerald valley called; silver mists moved left to right in his vision. Clusters of beige and brown hamlets dotted the green countryside, cobblestone streets twisted through villages; square fields of corn, wheat, sunflower and rice quilted the countryside as the sun announced the evening. His mind drifted. Thoughts of his Mary. Thoughts of Robert, the boy, and Angela, his darling. Thoughts of old friends. Thoughts of a quiet pint in a rowdy pub on a stool, wearing scratchy wool, hunched over like some local and not curled into something irregular, clawing and screaming to ensure his heart still beat in his chest.

His mind snapped back.

None of that without wind.

He turned and stared at the flying contraption, a collection of stolen scraps of aluminum, steel, plastic, gauze, tissue and tin. Three years of smuggling, stealing and conniving. Four weeks to find the right time to prepare for its launch. Five hours to sneak to this field outside robotic sentry range. Mere minutes before opportunity became tragedy.

Unless the wind came.

If Abe tried to launch now, there would be no lift under the delicate wings of the sailplane. He would slide down the precarious slope along the rusty guidance rails made from bits and pieces of holding cell beds, climb for a moment, and then fall like a duck filled with shot. Security forces would then capture him.

Still, with one gust of wind …

Abe yawned three times, his body’s way of combating the nervous energy building as he stood alongside the airplane. To come all this way and be so close gave him near euphoria. A glance at his own gnarled fingers, the black-and-blue track marks across his arms and legs, the scars from the burns and the atrophy of his muscles from time spent in the coarse leather bindings justified these actions, this danger.

For these brief moments, staring into the valley, wondering how he would guide the sailplane through its descent, Abe put the horror of the experiments; the constant shrieking of his so-called “lab buddies,” and the 971 days, 15 hours, and 20 minutes spent inside that place aside. He focused on his objective.

There wasn’t much time. He defeated his implanted DNA-level sensors, but he knew they would be coming for him soon. Automated corporate security systems stood a keen vigilance. Abe knew he wouldn’t be the first to fool them.

Another yawn and in that moment closing his eyes to draw in oxygen, it brought the visage of the charcoal-booted colonel who used to police the village. A barrel-chested titan of a man who, as ordered, had every single Jew, gypsy and homosexual pulled from their village homes and murdered in the town square. Of Robert’s murder, a single lead bullet through his 8-year-old skull, spattering dreams of university, a mother’s love and everything else against the chipped rock of the square’s broken fountain. There were some who chose to hide some of them; some who would not have been killed. And they were slaughtered like the rest, drenched in lye and left to rot past the soy fields in the west.

They spared Abe, a physicist of some prominence who solved the energy-drain issue with the first interstellar fusion drive, the one outfitted on every military space frigate, galleon and destroyer. The one that allowed military forces to go past the solar system and discover evidence of other human life on planets like this one. They spared him only after Robert’s demise Angela’s life sentence in the women’s prison in the north (A lie, Abe knew, to keep in good graces with whatever the three large media companies needed to shill; she was long since dead). They spared him to experiment and discover what made his grey matter different from the ditch digger and isolate its genetics. He was one of hundreds. He should have died with Robert. Angela. Died.

He opened his teared eyes and talked himself through the launch sequence again.

“First, tighten the belts. Then, full flaps. Pull the release handle on the clamps and then rock her forward and backward a few times like you’re putting a petulant child to sleep. The momentum of the airplane will carry you down the one-hundred feet of steel railing. The wind will get under the wings. She may bump the ground once or twice. But as long as you have wind, she’ll eventually get up in the air and go.”

Negotiating the military compound’s protective tachyon field was something entirely separate. There were holes in the tachyon dome seen during periods of thick fog and haze. Some were recurring. The hole Abe planned to fly through existed for almost two weeks now. If the location was reliable, if he could manage to squeeze his way through, and if this flying hunk of hope held up long enough for him to land.

If not, the energy would consume him, moth engulfed by flame; and he would most likely have a magazine full of bullets emptied into his torso for good measure

If he did nothing, the time bomb inside his recoded DNA would detonate. Scientists ensured it. If he escaped, he escaped the reach of technology that controlled his cellular clock. The clock within the institutions walls counted it down for him.

He needed wind.

“Put the big church on your nose, the Lake St. Christopher off your left wing and make sure both of the big twin peaks are level and in front of you,” Abe repeated, “or this will be a short ride.”

The hole in the tachyon stood about ten meters off the ground. Abe toyed with building a sort of stanchion, climbing up and flinging himself through the hole. The fall thirty feet would have all but killed him. The guards would reach him. He needed speed. He needed an advantage. In turn, that made subject DA-7207, someone who used to be called Stanley Lyncop, valuable. That he was also Abe’s former cell mate and an aeronautical engineer, gave him that advantage.

Besides, a glider was poetic. Symbolic. An Icarus-like statement to his captors. Something to say, “You may have had a field day on my body, but you did very little to the strength of my mind. “Three years of terror, loneliness and fear ending here.

A gust.

The first real gust of wind sent Abe’s spirit soaring! At the same time, he heard heavy footfall and the sound of motorized vehicles. They were close. A smile curled across his lips.

Abe started his “preflight” checklist. He fastened the belts across his chest. He yanked the handle for full flaps, the wire once used for hanging clothes pulling the wooden flight surfaces into position. Then, he gripped the handle on the release lever and waited.

The footfall became louder. And then, the first particle beam blasts of warning from his captors. They wouldn’t kill him here. His body still stored too much valuable information.

“Stay where you are. We are coming for your safety!” said a voice over a public-address system.

A stronger gust whistled in Abe’s ear.

Time to go.

Abe yanked the lever. The shabby glider rumbled down the rails picking up speed. More particle beam blasts crossed Abe’s vision. About halfway. No altitude yet.

“Come on, you pig! Come on!” Abe yelled. Only a few feet of rail remained. If Stanley didn’t rise up now, momentum would carry Abe and the ramshackle aircraft down the hill and smash them into the tachyon field.

“Come on!” he said as more rounds whistled past him.

Abe lost sight of any more railing when gravity gave way. A gentle hand of angel raised the nose of the glider. Abe pulled the flight control stick back and moved it toward the hole in the tachyon field, approaching quickly.

Church? Check. The lake? He applied a bit of rudder and brought it closer to where he thought it should be.  Check. Twin peaks?

Too low.

Seconds remained. He pushed the rudimentary stick forward, taking aim.  It winced under his pressure. Stanley’s nose dipped. Abe heard the electric growl of the transparent field amidst the continued particle beam shots. Abe pulled the stick back to center and leveled off. The growling grew into a storm of noise.

The glider’s right wing clipped the tachyon field, sending blue-and-orange sparks dancing across the wing.  Momentum whipped Stanley sideways and jerked Abe in his seat. Abe negotiated with the flight controls to move the plane back to the left, knowing he could easily flip around and smash into the energy field.

The airplane stalled. Abe’s stomach leapt into his throat. Inertia lifted him up. As it did, the seat belts squeezed him back into his seat. He was out of control.

Unsure of how to fix the stall, Abe did the only thing that made sense and pushed the nose of the airplane toward the valley, thinking it would pick up speed as it fell. The retarded airplane squirmed for a few moments as it fell. Then, its nose started caught air. With the flaps still fully engaged, Abe realized he was about to crash. There couldn’t have been more than about 30 feet between he and the ground.

Abe yanked the stick back as far as it could go. All the parts of Stanley strained as Abe did in that hellish laboratory. If I could take it, so can you, Abe thought.  Stanley’s nose rose again. The fuselage bumped the grass and Abe started upward again, the wind in his face and back toward the valley.

He looked back, seeing the mass of guards and vehicles near the edge of the tachyon field. There would be some time before they could disarm the field and chase him. By now, however, they were well out of range.

Abe soared quietly over the spacious valley, the first real peace he had felt in almost three years, the sun sinking into a tangerine colored bath giving way to the starry canvas. Despite the cold, Abe wished he could soar like this forever.

Only then did he smell the smoke. Abe looked around in what little light remained. The tail section was ripped up, but functional.

Left wing? Fine.

Right Wing? Engulfed in flames.

When that linen on the wing burned off, he and the whole contraption would spiral down about 1,000 meters and crash.

Abe wasn’t sure he could put it out with anything he could do and realized he couldn’t put the airplane on the ground in time for a safe landing. Abe might have prayed just then, but he’d forgotten how. So, he did the only thing he could rationalize, smiling and laughing at the big church in front of him, he jerked the flight controls to the left and plunged toward the ground, thinking of Robert’s notion of an internship with the State University and Angela’s knitting basket just so beside her chair with the piping hot tea and the fire. As the ground drew closer, it meant freedom, and he needed freedom, one way or another.

 

***

 

Flat-paneled television screens positioned around the cozy village pub blinked on with the last news of the day. A quite inebriated Jerry Smyth sat hunched over his bitters and listened, dreading taking the walk home and having it out with his wife.

“No new news about the commotion from the government’s Longbranch Military Research Facility on the hill near Essex,” said the newscaster. “The top-secret compound is one of the government’s least-talked about human services facilities, though it has been linked to a number of controversial projects in the past.”

“It’s nothing but a goddamn medical laboratory,” Jerry said as someone plopped onto the stool next to him. Jerry pointed a finger and wagged it at the screen. “These damn media people are nothin’ but paid stooges.”

“They do experiments on people, I’ve heard,” the man next to Jerry said. “Very bad things.”

“Well, whatever they do, no one in this village, this county or this country likes it,” Jerry said. “I don’t care what they say about my speech being controlled and regulated now. It’s wrong and it’s always been wrong.”

“I would … agree with you,” the man said.

Jerry finally looked over to the man and his eyes widened. “Here now!”

Naked on the stool, shivering and wet, sat something Jerry had ever seen. Bruises and burns spotted his body. His hair looked burnt, his skin red and cooked. He couldn’t have weighed more than Jerry’s garden rake. The man looked like he had lost a gang fight.

“Where are your clothes?” Jerry said. He yanked his heavy wool coat off the back of his seat and wrapped it around the man. “What happened to you?”

“I … lost control of my transport and crashed it into the lake about an hour from here,” the man said. “Damndest thing.”

“We should get you to a doctor for that!” Jerry said.

“We should,” the man said. “But first, I … I’d like a pint.”

Jerry smiled. “Well, if you say so. I suppose it can’t hurt. You got a name mister?”

The stranger paused a moment. “Stan. Stanley Woodstock.”

“Well, Stan, let’s raise this pint up and celebrate Stan Woodstock’s health.”

“And let’s celebrate the wind,” Abe said, almost to himself, and drank without care.

###

(Note: this is a story I contributed to the revised 2017 edition of Battlespace: Volume 1)