A flight of fancy begins because everyone wants to, and yes, because you know this much is true.
He felt someone attaching a line to the port in his chest, then he felt a needle in his arm as someone started drawing blood, yet he couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or not. He thought they were, at least it kind of felt like they might be, but he saw nothing but pure, blinding whiteness…and even that was tenuous…like looking through a veil of thin mist…until even that began to disappear.
It had been an Army Air Force base during the war, and not much since. Located about halfway between Seattle and Spokane, the facility had never been a particularly important one – used by primary flight cadets working out of Spokane on basic navigation exercises and doing touch-n-goes. There were the usual three runways in an equilateral triangular shape, one small tower and a couple of hangars for in-transit aircraft that broke down in flight – in short, it was just like any one of a hundred such airports around the country that had popped up overnight in the middle of nowhere right after Pearl Harbor.
And so after the war this airfield had sort of almost kinda maybe disappeared, except that Boeing liked to use it when a new aircraft popped off the assembly line and began pre-delivery flight testing. So in time Boeing built a couple of more hangars, the tower was enlarged and two of the three runways lengthened, and the airport never faded away, and when the DoD put the property up for sale Boeing snapped it up and, now a private airfield, it became ‘off-limits’ to the general aviation community.
Then, in the mid-1980s, the airfield’s status changed again.
The area around the airport was designated ‘restricted – military’ on aeronautical charts, so even innocent looking Cessnas and Pipers that intruded were run off by Air Force interceptors, yet because everything going on out there was in some way, shape, or form related to goings-on at Boeing no one gave it much thought. After all, a non-stop parade of 747 freighters was using the facility day and night these days.
And this parade really moved into high speed after Bechtel was engaged to build one of the largest aircraft hangars ever conceived, a building with three times the area of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, and at this old, barely used airfield, too. Construction proved time consuming and huge cost overruns plagued the entire project…if only because ninety-nine percent of the building was located underground. Still, five years after the project began the last construction vehicles left the area…tearing out all the local roads that led to the airfield as they withdrew…
Henry felt her fingers running through his hair and smiled, then he opened his eyes.
Yes, just so. Doris again. He could tell simply by the way air moved with her.
“You’re back with us, I see,” she said, wrinkling her nose, her eyes squinting just a little when she did. Then before he could say a word she looked up and it was like they could both see what was going on with him ‘back there’ – in that other place – and she took his hand and squeezed a little before she let go of him once again…
Rupert picked him up at the office on Lake Union and they drove over to an ancient chowder shack on the north side of the lake and hunted for a parking place before making their way in to wait for a table.
“Why don’t you buy a place around here?” the General asked. “Seems like it would be a good fit for you, and I wouldn’t need to spend a half hour looking for a parking place every time we come here.”
Taggart shrugged. “Don’t want to waste the money.”
“Seems like you got plenty of money, Henry.”
“I doubt I’ll stick around here much longer, Rupert. Maybe a year or two…then…”
But the General had scowled when he heard those words, then had kind of growled. “I’ve got plans for you, Hank, so don’t get all worked up about moving down to Hollywood just yet.”
Henry looked over the menu – doing his best to ignore the General – but they both already knew the damn thing by heart so that proved an unsuccessful dodge.
“Crab bisque and a seafood Louie, right Hank?”
“Yessir. And an iced tea.”
“Uh-huh. Look, we’re ready for you out in the desert. It’s time. I know you don’t want to be involved, but it looks like we’re stuck without you.”
But Taggart simply shrugged.
Collins took out a piece of paper and wrote a number on it and slid it across the table to Henry. “You get that just for showing up. You succeed…you get that fucker off the ground and you can multiply that figure by ten.”
And Henry had looked up at the General and nodded. “Okay. Then what?”
“We’ll need you to train a couple of NASA types…”
“And then I’m done, right? You just let me go?”
“Yup. That’s the plan,” General Collins said, looking right at Taggart while lying through his teeth. Because that wasn’t the plan…not at all and not even close.
No…once Henry had a small group of Air Force pilots trained and fully up to speed, he’d have an accident somewhere out in the desert. Driving too fast probably, but it would be something like that. Collins had disagreed, of course, but people higher up the food chain had already made the decision, and that decision was final, someone in DC told him in no uncertain terms.
And so a few days later Henry waited on a bench not far from the software company’s office. He was going over some code while he worked on a bottle of Pellegrino, enjoying the midday sun when Rupert pulled up curbside and called out to him.
Henry had ignored the question as he got in Ruperts old yellow Buick. “The money still isn’t in my account.”
“It will be, by closing,” Collins said as he pulled out into traffic.
“You know, General, when I was in that tank hooked up to the orca my memories were transferred to him…”
“Yeah, I think you told me that already.”
“Yeah? Well, the funny thing is, he still feels exactly what I feel.”
“You mean, like right now?”
“I think so, at least on some level I think he does.”
“That’s gotta be kinda weird.”
“Weird? Yeah, I guess so. But the weirdest part is really kind of out there, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t told you about this before.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“Yeah, I know. Now, I don’t really understand how all this shit works but now I can see things really far away. Maybe like orcas see things through echo location…that kind of far away…but on a practical level it feels more like I’m playing chess. Like I can see a couple of moves ahead, that kinda thing. And as a result, well, I can see when somebody lies to me…because lies aren’t logical moves.”
“Yeah. And really, think about it. When you make a move on the board, say like when you tell me you’re going to cut me loose when I’m done with all this, I can see the next couple of moves you’re going to make. The logical moves, General.”
“An accident on a desert road? Isn’t that how they put it to you?”
Collins gripped the steering wheel so hard his knuckles turned white.
“You see, that’s not really a logical move, because it doesn’t lead to you winning the game…”
“Because the game just stops, General. There’s no next move, but you haven’t won, either.”
“So, who told you?”
“Who? No one told me anything.”
“Okay…so you can see ahead. Where are we headed right now?”
Taggart closed his eyes and his mind roamed for a moment. “Boeing Field, the general aviation ramp on the east side. There’s a red and white Cessna 150 waiting for us, registration is triple two-five-niner.”
Collins slammed on the brakes and pulled off the road, then turned and stared at Taggart. “You can see that? Now? Sitting here, right here, right now?”
Henry just nodded. “It’s…logical, General. And because it is I can see the way ahead, and if it’s not logical then there’s no way ahead, no next move, and I can see that too. And it’s getting like crazy weird as time goes by – because I can see other stuff, but only if it affects me in some way.”
“Henry, this is crazy.”
“Yeah, so tell me something, General. When they told you to get rid of me, why’d you go along with them?”
“Because, Henry…I have a plan.”
He almost ran down the curved stairway and out into New Orleans Square, and he walked as fast as he could as soon as he got into the milling crowd until he just melted away and was carried along with the rest of them, like a piece of debris floating away on a stream. He walked in a daze after that, through the castle to the merry-go-round, then past mad tea cups and toad rides until he found a bench in some shade. He grabbed a Coke and took a seat, and with his back to the passing throngs he leaned over and put his face in his hands, not believing he could have been so trusting of someone he knew he’d loved. She had all her life, too; he was sure of it, yet she’d dumped him when he went away to college only to turn around and spend Christmas with him. And the things they’d talked about? A life together? And she was hanging with Charles at the same time she was carrying our baby?
And then, apparently, the two of them had decided to end the baby’s life. ‘Not me. Not the father. The guy she was with while she was cheating on me…’
He spread his fingers and saw a green loden cape hanging before his eyes, then the silver filigree within the varnished cane.
Taggart looked up at the Old Man, surprised to see him here –
“You look like you’ve seen better days,” the Old Man said. “Mind of I sit with you?”
Henry nodded. “Feel free.”
The Old Man sat and then sighed. “I’ve heard about this place. Very crowded, and it smells funny.”
Henry nodded. “It is that, and I agree.”
“Having a bad day?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“Women can be unpredictable. Some more so than others.”
Henry didn’t say a word, he just stared at the Old Man.
“What would you have done?” the Old Man asked.
“About what?” Henry replied.
“If she’d told you she was pregnant, and that she was seeing your friend.”
“He’s not my friend.”
“Oh, surely not now, but once upon a time he was your best friend, wasn’t he?”
“So…no one was quite who you thought they were. A pity, I suppose, but life can be like that. Even the people who love you can be…deceptive.”
“What are you doing here?”
The Old Man tapped his cane on the pavement and thunder rolled over Anaheim. “The weather is about to change, Mr. Taggart. Dangerous weather, you might say, is fast approaching, and I’d be remiss if I failed to tell you that there are many people around you who are not quite what you think they are. Or even who they say they are, you might say.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Ah yes, sorry, but I must leave you now. Your companion has found you and she does not look at all happy…so…I will say goodbye for now…and auf weidersehen.”
Seconds later Edith walked up and stood in front of him. “Did you really think I wouldn’t find you, Hank?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, “and I’m not sure I care anymore.”
She laughed a little then sat beside him, exactly where the Old Man had been moments before.
“You probably don’t remember, but one day you and Claire brought me out here and we had lunch at the club and I got mad at her and ran away…”
He looked up and nodded. “Yeah, I remember. We looked and looked for you, even had Disney people helping us…”
“Yup, and I came right here, right to this bench. I remember hearing all those stupid cars over there; they were so loud I couldn’t even think.”
“Claire was so mad at you…”
“But you weren’t, Hank. You sat beside me and held me. Do you know what I remember most about that day?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head a little, “not really.”
“You were running your fingers through my hair and the sun was shining on my face, and I loved you both so much it hurt.”
“And now your father is gone, and your mother is all that’s left. So, tell me, how do you feel now?”
“I’ll love you for the rest of my life, Hank. Marry me, move in with us, let Tracy be your daughter…”
He winced as those words bit into his flesh. “She has a father, Edith, and you have a husband. You made those choices a long time ago, remember? And you still have time to fix things with Charles – so do it. For her sake.”
“No, Hank, I won’t fix things by trying to make this right. Unfortunately you’re the only person who can make this right.”
“Could you take me to the island, please. I think I’m done for the day.”
It might have been the very next day, so bitter was the memory.
Standing over an open coffin at the very same funeral home, only this time he was staring at his mother, not Edith’s father. And it was just one more cancer in a world full of such things, wasn’t it, one more body prepped and ready to slip away deep into the deep freeze of memory. And another room full of shocked friends and dismayed business associates, everyone sorry to see her go but still more or less happy to still be there among the living and breathing. Edith was there that day, too, and with her little girl Tracy – who wasn’t so little anymore – and they all sat next to his father, Edith holding his hand and his father looking very much the fading paterfamilias.
Henry sat there, too, trying to remember his mother, but all that came to mind were pancakes and the smell of fresh laundry. ‘And that’s just not right,’ he sighed. ‘She was so much more than that, but I never took the time to get to know her…’
Then it hit him. His father would be gone soon enough and then there’d be no one. No one to tell him about all the little things his mother did around the house, or at the clinic where she’d worked for more than thirty years. He looked around the gathered crowd and saw all the shell-shocked faces of patients she’d cared for and it wasn’t a stretch to think that any one of them knew his mother better than he did. He looked down and stared at his hands like they were the hands of a murderer, and that he’d strangled her with his very own brand of neglect.
He heard a rustle run through the crowd and turned to see Doris walking up to the casket, then she just stood there for what seemed like hours. Everyone was looking at her standing there, wondering what the connection was, but Henry knew, and so did his father. They’d both loved gardening and they’d talked and talked about the virtues of one potting soil over another and which flowers tolerated the afternoon sun better, and they’d done so for decades. Simple things and a simple friendship, and here she was paying her respects out of simple friendship.
Then she came and sat beside Henry and squeezed his hand once…
I’m not ready to leave yet. The nurse above him looked frantic, and overworked…
Something important left to do. Too many things left unsaid…
Push through the fear. Open your eyes and breathe, stay with the living a while longer.
“You ever flown before?”
“What? You mean…actually flown a plane? Hell no, and I don’t want to, either.”
Rupert laughed at Henry’s gnawing fear, but he respected where it came from, too. He’d shot down a few Migs, first over Korea then in Vietnam, but he’d trained pilots, and those who thought they wanted to fly until they learned what it was actually like, so he knew the score. The little Cessna 150 was built reasonably well but anyone inside wouldn’t survive any kind of crash in one, either. They were just too small, and too light, but there was always one good way to tell if a student pilot was going to freak out – and wash out…
They were over Leavenworth, Washington and already starting their descent for Phantom Field, as the place was known these days, and the General was apparently in a good mood. He reached over and made sure the right door was latched securely – and locked – then he looked at Taggart’s seat belt. Secure, looked tight enough so let’s see what kind of stones this kid has…
Collins started a gentle turn to the right, but then he kept turning and turning until the right wingtip was pointing straight down – and Henry Taggart was leaning against the door while looking down at the rolling hills just 1500 feet below.
But his hands, Collins saw, were relaxed, and he hadn’t tensed up, either…so he kept the turn going, rolling through 360 degrees using just the ailerons, and still Taggart seemed completely unperturbed – almost too calm, really.
“So, did you see that coming or did I catch you off-guard?”
But Taggart had simply shrugged, then resumed looking ahead.
“Man, you’re no fun, Taggart…you know that?”
“What…you’d be happier if I blew beets all over your lap?”
Collins laughed. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“I was kind of surprised you picked a little plane like this. What gives?”
“Good price. Picked it up cheap…thought it might be fun instead of making that drive over and over. After they tore out the roads I didn’t have a choice, so…”
“Oh, I hear Leavenworth is pretty fun. Ever stop there?”
“Oh, if you like beer and sauerbraten and all that it’s just about heaven. At least the first ten times it is. Now I just want to get out there and get to work.” He reached over and tuned in an NDB, a non-directional beacon, and then set up his VOR for the intercept. “Damn clouds,” he snarled. “We don’t have any kind of ILS up and running yet, so I’m gonna have to shoot an NDB approach.”
Henry shrugged. “As long as you don’t need me to do anything.”
Collins made a couple of turns in the clouds and a few minutes later the runway appeared right where it was supposed to, and the General slipped the wheels onto the ground so gently a sleeping baby wouldn’t have noticed.
“I hate to say it, but you made that look easy.”
Collins nodded. “It is easy, once you know what to do.”
“Students? Do they panic when they get into clouds the first few times?”
“Some do, sure. You wash ‘em out as fast as you can, too. No room for panic in an aircraft, Henry, ever.”
“Well, it was a treat to watch you fly. You look like someone in his element, doing what he loves best.”
Collins taxied to the spot indicated by the tech on the ground, then he killed the engine and set the brakes before he started in on his log book, noting times from his wristwatch and jotting down engine hours on the page. Henry saw the General had almost ten thousand hours and shook his head… ‘No wonder he made it look so easy…’
“They got a line shack here, gal in there makes a pretty mean burger. You buyin’, or is it my turn?”
They took an elevator deep into the earth after lunch, and that spit them out into a little room full of biometric scanners and one way mirrors. After those formalities were out of the way the General walked Henry down a series of long hallways until they came to another set of scanners. The men in this room, however, were not behind mirrors.
Then, one last hallway and another secure door flanked by heavily armed men in uniform.
“I have no idea what you’re expecting to find in here, but everyone who’s made it this far, well, some of them get kind of weird…”
“Yeah. One old fart I know, an old timer with a cast-iron stomach, mind you, fell to the ground and start crying when he realized what he was looking at. Some have just run away. A couple have barfed, and there are buckets in there hanging from the wall, I think, so if the urge to purge hits try and do it in one of those.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“As I’ll ever be.”
The door opened and about all Taggart could tell was that the lights were turned down low, but Collins headed in so he followed – at a distance – and the closer they got to “it” the brighter the light became…until Henry could just make out the barest outlines of the craft…
And his first impression was that he was looking at some kind of colossal jellyfish. Like maybe the thing was covered with some kind of semi-translucent gel, something that seemed to glow faintly blue, and that this goop surrounded something inside, but then, as they walked deeper into the hangar, the true scale of the craft inside began to dawn on him.
“Holy shit,” he muttered. “This thing looks bigger than the Nimitz!”
“It is, by about three hundred feet. The reactor plant takes up more than fifty percent of the interior volume, too, and eighty-five percent of the vehicle’s mass.”
“The original was this big?”
“I hate to ask, but where did it crash?”
“It was on the arctic icepack, and it didn’t crash.”
“It was sort of a gift, or maybe think of it as a loaner, if you get my drift.”
“You have any idea where it is now?”
“The original? Gone, I think Beyond that, no, I don’t…”
“What about the reactor?”
Collins shook his head. “That’s why you’re here, Henry.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, a lot of us have been having a kind of odd feeling recently, like the distinct impression that most of Them think we aren’t up to the challenge of, you know, building this thing,” Collins said, groaning at the thought. “There’ve been a couple of times when I thought they were right, too, so when one of them turns up and starts implanting technical data in your head…”
“And the enhancements to the toroids? Are those complete?”
“Yes, we’ve redone both the containment toroids and inductive containment sleeves. Nothing happened, no change, so right now the damn thing is still hooked up to the external grid; even the avionics and all our test instruments are dead.”
“Basic flight data, envelope parameters, general telemetry…”
“None of that is in the original. You need to remove it.”
It wasn’t just that Taggart said something so uncharacteristically direct, it was his tone of voice that troubled Collins; if nothing else it let him know that Taggart was in direct contact with Them – probably even right now – and they wanted all Boeing’s instrumentation out. He’d argued as much before construction began, but like everything else on this project he had been overridden at every turn.
“Okay, but it’ll take a week or so to remove.”
“Fine by me. Let’s head back to the city.”
“That might not be such a good idea, Henry. There are a bunch of people looking at our operation right now…”
“How many billions have you…”
“Enough. And Henry, we have full facilities here. Like a decent hotel, really…”
Henry ignored the General and resumed walking out to the craft, not even paying attention to what he was saying now…just trying to stay focused on the one he’d started calling Pinky. It took almost ten minutes but he approached the craft’s entryway and walked up the ramp, Collins now too stunned to speak.
Henry walked through a maze of corridors designed for beings three to four meters tall, trying to let his eyes adjust to the low ambient light, but Pinky was, by and large, guiding him now.
And she led him to the reactor spaces, guiding him to the critical spots she needed to see, then, when she was satisfied, she led him up three levels to the cockpit, and then directly to the one thing onboard specifically designed for humans: the chair. Taggart sat where she indicated and it felt like the entire mechanism began shifting to accommodate his build…
“Open the roof now, would you?” he said to the General.
“Open her up.”
“Who told you about the aperture, Mr. Taggart?”
Henry reached out and placed his hand on a curved glass panel and while the fusion reactor began its complicated startup cycle instruments started to come alive all around the cockpit.
“Rupert? The overhead aperture? Open it now, please.”
Collins got on his hand unit and called in the request…
Sirens blared and men cleared out of the small hangars that lined the ramps beside the old line shack, and moments later the hangars, and the foundations they’d been rebuilt on, began to slide away on concealed tracks, revealing a mammoth circular opening that extended hundreds of meters beyond the old buildings. Two F-16s spooled up, ready to take off in pursuit if the general gave the order.
“You’d better leave now, Rupert.”
“I’d rather not.”
Henry reached out and activated a 3D holographic display revealing just about everything in orbit around the Earth, from satellites waiting to burn up on reentry to the Space Shuttle on its way to the ISS to install a new docking module. He closed his eyes and commanded the display to plot a course through the junk, then the display shifted and flickered before the inner solar system resolved on the plot.
“Where are you taking us?” Collins asked.
“Just a point in space.”
“A LaGrange Point, General.”
“That’s on the goddam far side of the sun!”
“As this is a test run, are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay behind?”
Collins shook his head. “Not on your life, Henry. And the aperture is 103 percent open now.”
Taggart looked at the Space Shuttle’s track and grinned… ‘This could be fun,’ he said to no one in particular…
© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple; the next element will drop as soon as the muse cooperates.